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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Big Ten Opener: Wisconsin @ Michigan LIVE

To commemorate Wisconsin's Big Ten opener on the road against Michigan (10-2), live blogging will make it's debut at Hoops Marinara on Wednesday afternoon. The game tips off at 1 p.m. CST.

Pregame notes courtesy of

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Rewinding Wisconsin-Texas

The first thing that came to mind as I left the Kohl Center a week ago was something my friend Mike said during the game -- that Texas got its points so much easier than Wisconsin did.

While the Badgers strained to get more of their baskets, the Longhorns made things look easy. Pulling down 38 rebounds (15 offensive) to UW's 22 rebounds was the primary culprit. Of course, the silky smooth jumpers that A.J. Abrams dropped over, around and through tight Badger coverage seemed like a dream too. But the combination was a nightmare for Bo Ryan's club.

The game's flow was stilted by too many whistles from Ed Hightower. On the Wisconsin side, both Marcus Landry and Jon Leuer were saddled with foul trouble. However, Texas was just as affected, if not more. Enormous center Dexter Pittman and skilled big man Connor Atchley both sat the majority of the second half after picking up their third and fourth personal fouls, respectively. What a shame too -- I thought watching Atchley and Leuer go at each other would have been a great comparison.

Damion James picked up the slack, notching his second straight double-double (18 pts/15 rebs) against the Badgers. Gary Johnson added 16 & 8 in 33 minutes to Abrams' game-high 21 points as Texas dominated Wisconsin in the front court matchup. [box score]

No one other than Abrams impressed me from the Texas back court. Trevon Hughes was superb for the Badgers, but his 18 points, 4 rebs, 3 assts and 1 steal were not enough by itself. That stat line will always be overshadowed by Hughes' ill-fated drive for two points when Wisconsin trailed by three points on its final possession. The whole state is still shaking its collective head on that one ...

The remarkable thing really is that Wisconsin was still in the game at the end. The Badgers shot the lights out in the first half, finishing 9-of-19 behind the three-point line (compared to Texas' 3-of-16). Yet the team still trailed at the break thanks to an"alley-oop" by Texas that could have easily been offensive goaltending. Add that to Johnson's banked jumper late in the shot clock after a great defensive stand by UW and you have a game where the luck was simply on the side of Texas. The Badgers only turned the ball over once after halftime, but the game came down to free throws. Texas was unconscious, missing only one freebie the entire game (15-of-16); Wisconsin was only average (14-of-21). The result, a five-point loss as predicted, could have been reversed with a swing of a few free throws on each side.

Looking back, UW got nice games from Jason Bohannon and Hughes, but nothing from the bench, the seniors and little in the paint. Landry was a non-factor and Joe Krabbenhoft had a terrible night. His bad pass at midcourt right out of a timeout in the latter stages of the game was a huge shift in momentum at a crucial spot and was one of four Krabby turonvers in the game. Bo's Badgers can only go as far as those two seniors take them.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Anticipation: The Wisconsin-Texas Rematch

Forgive my posting absence of late. The day job and the approaching holidays have taken up most of my time. Since my last appearance, Wisconsin has posted one of it's better performances of the year against an allegedly frisky UW-Green Bay team and followed up with a ho-hum dispatching of Coppin State last Saturday.

While the win over the in-state Phoenix was a decent "pick-me-up" I did not see anything at Saturday's game that indicates the Badgers are prepared to knock off an elite team. The question is this: Is Texas elite?

Despite losing D.J. Augustin from last year's squad, Texas (9-2) still has the uber-quick A.J. Abrams and Damion James. James, if you'll recall, dominated UW last year to the tune of 21 points and 15 rebounds. If your memory is really good, you will also remember that the Longhorns played without Gary Johnson in last year's tilt because of the heart condition he was dealing with. Well, Johnson is now healthy and playing well.

Texas looks elite, by virtue of its depth and wins over UCLA and Villanova. It's two losses are pretty good ones too -- to Notre Dame, 81-80, and just a few days ago to Michigan State, 67-63.

Incidentally, the Longhorns lost to the Spartans last season just prior to hosting Wisconsin. Hopefully the Badgers can make tonight's game déjà vu ... all over again. This is one of two or three games that Wisconsin fans have had their eyes on all year. However, the trip to Madison has probably been circled on the Longhorns' calendars since last year. I think we learn as much about Texas tonight as we learn about Wisconsin.

From the Red and White's perspective, will Jon Leuer still be able to thrive as UW's lone dynamic offensive player when the lane is populated by redwoods from Texas? I'm not sold on that. Can Trevon Hughes rise to the occasion and show the Longhorns what they missed when he was injured last season? Perhaps, but I think what it will take is solid -- not necessarily great -- efforts from every other player.

Just for fun, keep in mind that the two players I predicted to be Wisconsin's most consistent scorers this season were Landry and Jason Bohannon. Just like everyone on the team not named Joe Krabbenhoft, consistency has not been either player's calling card yet this year. That is why we have no idea what will happen against Texas. But over the last three games, both Landry and J-Bo have averaged around 13 points on decent shooting (51.6% by Landry; 44% by J-Bo). Add a nice game from Leuer or Hughes to mistake-free basketball from the bench and you have the recipe for a great game.

Wisconsin always has a chance to win when at the Kohl Center, but I think the Longhorns have to much for this year's Badgers. Texas by five.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Lethargic Badgers Need To Fight Fire With Fire

Imagine you are in a college town at the tail end of a snowstorm in the middle of the holiday season. The local basketball team is playing host to a virtual unknown from somewhere, who knows where, out west that you would normally deem a cupcake. Before the game tickets are being given away outside the arena.

How would you expect the atmosphere to be indoors?

Yes, terrible. I knew that ahead of time, of course, so I had nice 100-level seats for last night's Idaho State game at the Kohl Center. The place seemed about 65-75% full and the only excitement in the air came on the game's final play after Trevon Hughes' lane violation on a missed free throw. As inconceivable as it would have sounded an hour earlier, the Bengals (2-6) had a chance to beat the Badgers (7-2) with one simple 3-pointer in the final seconds.

So the crowd stood and cheered. Finally.

Forget about Saturday's loss to Marquette. A three-point loss to a senior-laden, bonafide Top 25 team on its home court I can live with. But letting a Big Sky team from the land of Napoleon Dynamite hang around for the entire 40 minutes? That gets on my nerves.

Yes, Idaho State beat Utah and lost narrowly in overtime sessions to three other teams. But those teams stink. Is Wisconsin no better than Long Beach State, Boise State and Hawaii? The Badgers were ice cold from the field and needed a last-second trey from Jason Bohannon to sneak into the locker room up 29-27 at the half. When the team came out flat yet again to start the second half, Bo Ryan called a timeout to rip into his players a bit.

The Badgers seemed to heed the guidance, as they immediately started hitting the post and forcing action inside. It's unfortunate that it came to that, though. And even then, I noticed several times down the stretch where either Marcus Landry or Joe Krabbenhoft had their defenders sealed as big targets, but did not get more than a glance from their perimeter teammates.

What I was looking for during the game was some energy and aggressiveness from Wisconsin. Were they "playing down" to their home crowd's level? That's no excuse. Maybe the team misses the leadership of Michael Flowers and Brian Butch more than we would like to admit.

I began to wonder if any aggressiveness would show up without Bo's prodding. The team took too many 3-pointers (22) and let Idaho State's zone defense dictate what the Badgers wanted to do, instead of taking back their house. Fortunately, Wisconsin's typical advantages -- rebounding and free throw shooting -- bailed out the Badgers.

Stats by

Yet, Wisconsin looked pretty silly closing out the game against the full court press, just like it did the entire game against Marquette's pressure defense. I think the argument that Wisconsin struggles on inbounds plays is valid, however, it is simply an extension of the team's struggles against any type of pressure.

You have to attack aggressiveness with aggressive action yourself. On one particular inbounds play, Bohannon simply expected to be fouled and did not even try to dribble out of the pressure. Well, sure enough, he found himself in a nice little Bengal trap and Krabbenhoft had to burn a timeout. It was pathetic. Wisconsin's ballhandlers must improve against pressure in the half-court offense too if that is what is causing trouble getting the ball inside regularly.

None of this would be the difference between winning and losing if it were not for the growing pains on defense, where this year's team is not up to snuff. Wisconsin allowed Idaho State to shoot over 53%. [box score] While perhaps more inspired against the Golden Eagles, Wisconsin held Marquette closer to 40% shooting, yet fouled too often and lost the offensive rebounding battle, swinging normal advantages into disadvantages that resulted in a tough loss.

Stats by

On the bright side it's still early. On the downside, there is a lot to work on, because Texas and A.J. Abrams are just around the corner.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Wisconsin Attempts to Cap Big Ten's Big Day

Perhaps building on its decent showing against the ACC last week, the Big Ten posted a number of impressive victories on Saturday, highlighted by two humongous upsets.

Michigan's shocking win over Duke at Crisler Arena took the cake, but was followed minutes later by Ohio State hanging on to topple Notre Dame (in Indianapolis with Luke Harangody). [box score]

Now the stage is set for Wisconsin to complete a nearly flawless day for the conference. Minnesota stayed undefeated in a blowout, Illinois crushed Georgia and Northwestern nearly doubled-up DePaul. Those three teams won by a total of 78 points! Just ignore woeful Indiana's unsurprising loss to Gonzaga. In fact, just ignore the Hoosiers until next year.

I had to chuckle the other day reading on Inside The Hall about an obscure ACC rule that brought the Wake Forest-Indiana blogging to a halt during the Big Ten/ACC Challenge. Wisconsin's trip to Marquette would be the perfect time for a live blogging event, but alas, I do not get ESPNU and will have to find a stool at a local establishment. Rather than rehash a "cable or satellite" vent, I started thinking about the these two teams that are usually polar opposites in terms of style.

However, there are eerie similarities as well. Both Wisconsin and Marquette like to go small (one by preference, one out of necessity). Both teams have four entrenched upperclassmen in the starting lineup, with one big man starting almost by default. And when looking at individual matchups--for entertainment purposes only--you see four of the important players really mirror each other.

The Tale of the Tape:
Trevon Hughes vs. Dominic James
... even down to the lowly centers:

There are eerie similarities between Pop and James, both in stature and production. James is a better distributor statistically, especially this year, and also registers more steals. Hughes shoots a far greater percentage for the Badgers and is less turnover-prone, exemplifying the different coaching philosophies.

Landry and Hayward is a fun comparison because their career progressions have gone in opposite directions. Landry began as strictly a post player who moved his game out to the perimeter (with moderate success) to try to fill Alando Tucker's shoes. Marquette, on the other hand, has been forced to use their athletic swingman down low more and more because the Gold lack any size.

Regardless, Hayward scores more in fewer minutes than Landry, probably due to his prolific rebounding ability and Marquette's faster pace. While Landry needs to improve his free throw shooting, he vastly outpaces Hayward when it comes to blocked shots and 3-point percentage. Hopefully the two will guard each other during the game.

Cracked Sidewalks has compiled a nice list of game previews in its pregame coverage post. Check it out for the Marquette perspective of Buzz Williams' first game against Bo Ryan.

: : :

If Friday night is any indication, UW recruit Vander Blue could be a huge beneficiary of high school defenses geared to stop Marquette recruit Jeronne Maymon this year. Blue torched Madison West for 27 points on six 3-pointers in Memorial's season opener.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Another Brick In The Wall

My dream will have to wait another year. Not only did the ACC display its superiority again, but Duke emerged unscathed. The Big Ten improved overall to five wins this year, but eight of the 12 ACC teams still have a .500 or better record in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge.

Now, sure most of the games were close and there were positive moments. Unfortunately, the marquee teams from the ACC lambasted the "best" teams from the Big Ten. Purdue laid an absolute egg. That performance will have people drooling over Duke for weeks, fair or not. Kyle Singler is very good though and he shut down Robbie Hummel.

Top-ranked North Carolina sealed the deal by running away from Michigan State. Will a home team win at Ford Field at all this year?! The game was entertaining at the start, however, the Spartans simply do not stack up inside -- especially without Goran Suton. I am still waiting to be impressed by Raymar Morgan with my own two eyes.

Other thoughts, with the help of the Big Ten blogosphere:
Minnesota looked very aggressive Tuesday and could definitely be a player in the Big Ten. The Gophers have been trained to hound the perimeter and try to swat every shot attempt. This enabled them to control the tempo. Two players stood out. Damian Johnson is long and athletic. Freshman Colton Iverson is not a looker but looks real good in the post. Iverson is a player I imagine most Badger fans can respect. If you were looking for the next big man in the conference to worry about, see this kid in two years. Minnesota should be scary at that point with Royce White and Rodney Williams also on the roster.

Obviously, Ohio State benefited from the ejection of Jack McClinton and thus, turned the tables on Miami in the second half. McClinton made his first four 3-pointers before he got the boot with about 10 minutes left int he first half. Ho hum, another road win, one of six in the challenge.

After seeing the pathetic finishes by Illinois and Iowa, all you could do was vomit. For the Illini to not get a shot off is unforgivable and the Hawkeye freshman missing (badly) on the front end of a bonus situation is pure heartbreak. If either of those finishes flipped, the Big Ten would have a big smile on its face right now. Penn State added another very weak finish on Wednesday but still managed to escape Atlanta with a nice win over Georgia Tech. The Nittany Lions made some minor mistakes in press break mode, like passing up an easy basket that would have put them up six points, and looked terrible form the charity stripe. Part of the problem was failing to get the ball to their best free throw shooters each time.

The fans back in State College probably chewed their nails off, but they have a reason to be optimistic about their backcourt. I really like is PSU's sophomore point guard Talor Battle, who teams with senior Stanley Pringle to form a quick, offensive-minded pair. Former Badger recruiting target Iman Shumpert posted a nice line as well.

In other Wednesday action, Indiana lost big to Wake Forest as expected, and Michigan proved me wrong by getting shell shocked to the tune of 46 points in the second half. Luckily, Northwestern picked up the slack with a convincing romp over Florida State. Could that be a spark towards something more for the Wildcats?

That put me at a paltry 5-5 on my predictions. There's always next year ... for me and for the Big Ten.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

A Big Night Ahead for the Big Ten

Just one more thought on last night's game before I make some picks for the remaining ACC/Big Ten Challenge games:

When an opposing player simply goes "en fuego" like A.D. Vassallo did, you can play all the great defense you want after he gets the ball and it just won't matter. In those rare times, the defense must shift to denying him the ball. I understand why Wisconsin did not, considering Vassallo was merely keeping the Hokies in the game for most of that time. It wasn't until the lead shrank in the final minute that he could actually win it for Virginia Tech.

What scares me is a combination of two things. One, I don't Wisconsin has a smart shutdown guy on the roster right now that could chase a taller shooter around if the Badgers really needed to cool a guy off. Secondly, Bo Ryan is far too stubborn in his straight-up, pack it in man-to-man defense to ever try something like that, even if it is completely logical.

On to the picks ...

With the Big Ten leading 1-0, Tuesday's games feature a few toss ups that the conference must win heading into the final five games on Wednesday if it hopes to topple the ACC. Enjoy the great college hoops feast, with all games being broadcast on ESPN's family of networks.

: : : Tuesday (Predicted winners in orange)
7:00 ET - Ohio State @ Miami. I think if this game was later in the year, I would pick the Buckeyes and the upset, but the youngsters at OSU have only played three real games together and a road win in the Challenge is too much to ask.
7:00 ET - Iowa @ Boston College. The Hawkeyes are bad -- I cannot believe freshman Anthony Tucker is Iowa's best player. Home team takes it.
7:30 ET - Clemson @ Illinois. A must win for the Big Ten. Clemson (7-0) started out hot last year too and of course it did not mean squat. In a clash of styles, I'd like to give Bruce Weber the benefit of the doubt, but the history of this series causes me to reconsider.
9:00 ET - Duke @ Purdue. Can Purdue out-Duke the Blue Devils with perimeter feistiness and outside shooting? I like the Boiler defenders better (Kramer, Jackson, Moore and Johnson inside) and there is no way Duke is the fourth-best team in the country.
9:30 ET - Virginia @ Minnesota. This is the only game I truly expect the Big Ten to win.

: : : Wednesday (Predicted winners in orange)
7:00 ET - Indiana @ Wake Forest. Blowout city. Sorry Crean!
7:00 ET - Michigan @ Maryland. Great matchup between two teams who are hanging their hats on big upsets in the early season. The Terps are reeling after two straight losses and John Beilein's funhouse offense and zone defense might be the ticket to a huge Big Ten win on the road (against my better judgment).
7:30 ET - Penn State @ Georgia Tech. I had this game earmarked for an upset alert until I realized that GT's "bad wins" (Mercer, Jacksonville) weren't all that bad. I think the Nittany Lions will give the Yellow Jackets tough run in a battle of two-word mascots.
9:00 ET - North Carolina vs. Michigan State @ Ford Field (Detroit). Every one is handing this game to UNC and I feel like a lemming today.
9:30 ET - Florida State @ Northwestern. Home court doesn't mean much in Evanston.

My count is another 7-4 win for the ACC, but there are few that can go either way for sure. Counting Wisconsin's victory, I am forecasting five wins by road teams. As long as Purdue can give Duke their first-ever loss, I will be happy.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Meeting the Challenge

The current joy of being a Wisconsin basketball fan is being able to see your team silence a turbulent home crowd with a game-winning shot in a big road game for the second year in a row. In a scene vaguely reminiscent of Michael Flowers' game-changing final sequence against Texas last year, Trevon Hughes calmly glided down the floor in a tie game and nailed a tough floater in traffic with less than a second left to beat Virginia Tech. The basket struck an opening blow for the Big Ten in its annual quest for national respect against the big, bad Atlantic Coast Conference.

The Badgers had been unable to corral VT's A.D. Vassallo during the second half as he single-handedly dismantled a fairly comfortable Wisconsin lead down the stretch. Vassallo's 3-pointer with seven seconds left sent the home crowd into pandemonium, yet distracted the team from organizing its full-court pressure and anything else other than token defense. That same pressure had given Badgers like Hughes, Joe Krabbenhoft and Jason Bohannon fits for the previous minute, allowing the Hokies to chip away.

Virginia Tech's momentary lapse (or more likely, a deliberate strategy) proved to be serendipitous, as Hughes was unimpeded in his progress down court. He even appeared to get fouled prior to his release. Following a brief celebratory reaction themselves, Krabby gathered the team quick enough to ensure VT got no easy looks at a half-court heave.

First and foremost, this was a great college basketball game. At last, I think even non-Wisconsin fans could agree that it was truly enjoyable to watch. All the elements were there: star power heating up at the right time (Vassallo), a valiant comeback by an underdog, a slighted team with a possible chip on its shoulder (UW), and both teams shooting the lights out.

It is time to embrace the Badgers as a team of shooters; last year was no fluke. Virginia Tech hit 11-of-15 from behind the arc and 26-of-51 (51%) overall from the field. Yet Wisconsin one-upped the Hokies by connecting on 12-of-18 3-pointers en route to 51.1% overall shooting. [box score]

Vassallo was the great Hokie hope in the end, striking from 30-feet out on a few occasions as he posted 24 of his game-high 30 points after halftime, thanks to six treys. I kept yelling at the TV that #40 was the only guy the Badgers needed to guard, yet he kept getting great looks. Oddly, he was best guarded on his final shot that tied the game.

UW really needs to tighten up its perimeter defense before league play starts, but the problem seems to be that guys like Bohannon and Tim Jarmusz have to allow quicker players a cushion so they do not get blown by off the dribble. This is where the development of Rob Wilson comes into play. Wilson, by the way, provided a great early spark for the team in this game.

Jon Leuer gets my nod for UW's player of the game. He sank both of his shots from long distance and showed the offensive versatility and aggressiveness that has had fans (and coaches) salivating for about a year now. Even his attempted put-back dunk that rimmed out had me out of my seat. Leuer finished with 17 points on 11 attempts to go along with six rebounds and two blocks.

Landry missed only one shot and finished with another studly line: a team-high 18 points & 4 assists, plus two more blocks. Lo and behold, J-Bo knocked down three treys after missing his first couple of open looks. A great night all around.

The elephant in the room of course is the "Big Donut" put up by VT's Jeff Allen. Hampered by a few ticky-tack fouls (and some even dumber, obvious fouls), Allen played only 15 minutes and had two points.

Had Allen not fouled out, I think the dynamic of the game changes and as crazy as it sounds, it may not have been as close. With Allen in the game, maybe Vassallo wouldn't have gotten a chance to catch fire. Marcus Landry was holding his own -- and more -- offensively with Allen doing all he could to slow the goggled one. Landry went wild from outside, hitting all four of his 3-point attempts. He did not have to worry about guarding Allen himself, though, as Keaton Nankivil picked up the assignment to begin the game. But no doubt, Allen's absence allowed guys like Leuer a reprieve on defense.

Savor the flavor: replay of the last 12 seconds [video]

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