Archive for March, 2008

Badgers Over And Out / Baseball
March 30, 2008

It’s faulty logic. And even though I knew it was faulty logic, I still allowed myself to think it. A lot of us did.

When Davidson upset Georgetown on Easter Sunday in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a lot of Badger fans were very happy. The 10-seeded Wildcats victory over the 2-seeded Hoyas meant that the 3-seeded Badgers wouldn’t have to face Georgetown, thought by many to be primed for a second straight Final Four appearance.

But wait, I thought, doesn’t the fact that Davidson beat Georgetown hint that Davidson — despite the selection committee’s seedings — might actually be better than Georgetown?

I thought it and articulated it out loud to anybody who cared to listen, but secretly I believed the same thing: Whew. The Badgers get to play Davidson. Bring on Kansas.

Well, that was some seriously stupid thinking. What made the thought process more annoying to me personally was that I did the same thing back in January during the NFC playoffs. All along I thought the Packers season would end in Dallas at the NFC Championship Game. So when the Giants beat Dallas in the divisional round — despite proving with the victory that they were the better team than the Cowboys — I thought the Packers had all but punched their ticket to the Super Bowl. But I wasn’t alone. Brett Favre thought the same thing and the resulting disappointment gnawed at him so much he chose to retire rather than suffer through another similar letdown in 2009.

But back to the basketball Badgers. Any excitement that Badger fans must have felt over “getting” to play Davidson was quickly erased on Friday night. Oh, I know that the game was tied 36-36 at the half, but come on. It was clear from the beginning that Davidson, and not the heavily-favored Badgers, were in control of the tempo of the game. There was no way that Wisconsin was going to beat Davidson in an up-and-down-the-court, high-scoring affair. Add to that the knowledge that Davidson — and most specifically, Stephen Curry — were a second-half team, and the Badgers were doomed.

What was most impressive about the Wildcats’ performance in the second half wasn’t the shooting clinic they put on — although they did put one on, with Curry outscoring the Badgers 22-20 by himself in the final twenty minutes of play. No, it was the suffocating defense that Davidson put on Bo Ryan’s team, which made Wisconsin have to work hard enough for shots that they eventually tired of trying for good looks at the basket and instead threw up prayer after prayer, almost none of which went in. Yep, Davidson out defended the best defense in the country. Add to that the hot shooting Curry (11-for-22 including 6-for-12 from downtown), and you have Wisconsin’s ugliest loss since November.

This — the second straight year that the Badgers lost in the tournament to a lower-seeded team — “stings,” as Bo Ryan said, and the fact that the Badgers overachieved all season doesn’t (like the end to the Packers’ surprising season) make the sting any less painful.

But hey, we’ve still got the Badgers men’s hockey team to cheer for, right? Actually, as I write this, we are only a few hours away from the Badgers/North Dakota regional final game in the NCAA men’s hockey tournament, so by the time most read this, the Badgers’ hockey team could be over and out as well. But who’d have thought Mike Eaves’s team would outlast Bo Ryan’s on the local sports calendar?

I don’t claim to know how the Badgers are even in the tournament, much less how Shane Connelly managed to play one of his best games against the WCHA champion Denver Pioneers, or how the Badgers managed to score six (OK, one was an empty-netter) goals against the mightier Pioneers. And if I hadn’t been there to see it for myself, I might not even believe it still. But they did it, and now they’re one game away from the Frozen Four. Pretty cool.

Speaking of frozen, the turfs at several baseball stadiums around the country might still be thawing out, but no matter . . . it’s time to play ball. Actually, we started playing some meaningful baseball last week in Tokyo, but if you paid any attention to those two Red Sox/Athletics games, you were one of few. To me, taking what should be one of the greatest days for American sports — opening day — and diluting it by sending it to the other side of the planet is stupidity at its finest. Bud Selig, you don’t need to globalize baseball by sending it to Japan. The Japanese people get baseball. It’s freakin‘ huge over there! Americans don’t need to sell baseball to Japan anymore than we need to sell David Hasselhoff to Germany or beer to Canadians. They get it, they understand it, they like it, end of story. Keep the games at home. And that’s not even considering the wear and tear you put on two of your franchises. If I was a Red Sox or Athletics player, fan, manager, coach, or beat reporter, I would be looking for some serious compensation from the MLB. How about making those two teams exempt from steroid testing for the season? Why not — for 2008, if you play for Boston or Oakland, anything goes! I can see the campaign now at Fenway Park: We’re ‘roided up in 2008! It’s 2002 all over again! Or 2003. Or 2004. Or 2005 . . .

Before I go, I need to make my always-spot-on baseball predictions for 2008. Keep in mind that I thought the Brewers hype in 2007 was a year too early. So even though I don’t like some of what’s happened with Milwaukee in the off-season, such as the release of Claudio Vargas, the 25-game suspension of newcomer Mike Cameron, the questions surrounding Chris Capuano’s health, the shaky spring training play of Rickie Weeks and J.J. Hardy, the salary complaints of Prince Fielder, I feel I must stick to my guns and predict the Brewers will win the NL Central in 2008. If Ben Sheets stays healthy. (Kidding — but isn’t that the caveat every year? I think we should apply that reasoning to all walks of life: The economy will improve, but only if Ben Sheets stays healthy. Barack and Hilary will make up and run on the same ticket, but only if Ben Sheets stays healthy.)

2008 division winners in the American League. In the East I’ll go with the Red Sox, if only because the Yankees won’t be as good without Joe Torre managing them and with their starting pitching being as suspect as the ingredients in all those Marshmellow Peeps I got for Easter. I’d love to say the Blue Jays will finish ahead of the Yankees, but I’m not ready to go there yet.

In the Central I have to go with the Indians. Their overall depth is better — especially in pitching — is better than Detroit’s. I also don’t think the Twins, despite the loss of Johan Santana and Torii Hunter, will be as bad as predicted. Just throwing that out there.

In the West? Let’s say the Angels. Their closest competition is the Mariners, but they’re touting the signing of former Twins pitcher Carlos Silva as one reason they’ll compete. I’m saying the fact that Silva won’t pitch anymore for Minnesota is one reason the Twins won’t be as bad as predicted (see above).

Wild card? I’ll go with the Yankees. Is it impossible to see a postseason without the pinstripes? No. Does it seem likely they’ll find a way to get there? Yes.

Over in the National League, I’ll take the Braves in the East. The Mets‘ collapse last year was a sign that not all is right with the team, and I don’t believe Johan Santana will be able to put the team over the top by himself.

I’ve already claimed the Central for Milwaukee, so that leaves the West. I like the Dodgers with Joe Torre re-energized and looking to prove himself.

For the Wild card, I’ll go out on a small limb and take the Rockies, who many are predicting to be a one-hit wonder.

World Series? Let’s say the Red Sox over the Braves. Yeah, it’d be more fun to say the Brewers over the Blue Jays, but I can’t go there.

Enjoy the season.

Badgers Face Third Double-Digit Seed In A Row Friday Night
March 26, 2008

No doubt about it, after one week and 49 NCAA tournament games, the Davidson Wildcats are the nation’s feel-good men’s basketball story, the proverbial Cinderella that shows up in nearly every tournament and busts brackets from coast-to-coast with improbable and exciting upset victories.

Sorry, Davidson, but the clock is about to strike midnight on your Cinderella season. The Wisconsin Badgers are about to make sure of that.

Davidson obviously isn’t the only double-seeded team to survive to this year’s Sweet Sixteen. And as a No. 10 seed, they aren’t even the biggest long shot to get this far, as both Villanova and Western Kentucky had to win two games as a No. 12 seed.

Sorry, Davidson, but you’re about to join the Hilltoppers and the Villanova Wildcats (is every other Division I school nicknamed Wildcats?) as Elite Eight spectators.

Davidson is the toast of college basketball. And why not? They’ve got all the ingredients for a great story. They haven’t been in the Sweet Sixteen since before The Beatles broke up, whereas Villanova has been in 29 NCAA tournaments and was in the Elite Eight just two years ago. Davidson College has an enrollment of about 1,700 students, whereas Western Kentucky University boasts a student body of over 19,000.

Not to mention that in order to keep playing, Davidson has had to beat a seven seed and a two seed. Both Villanova and Western Kentucky were able to take advantage of other upsets, each playing a 13 seed to reach the Sweet Sixteen.

Sorry, Davidson, but you were able to sneak up on Georgetown in a second round game. Bo Ryan will have had five full days to figure you out. His team will be ready.

Davidson features an electrifying player in sophomore guard Stephen Curry, who has proven himself a tremendous clutch player by posting 30 points in the second half in Davidson’s first-round come-from-behind victory against Gonzaga and 25 points in the second half in Davidson’s second-round come-from-behind victory against the Hoyas. Curry also has the built-in appeal of being the son of former NBA star Dell Curry, currently ranked 17th all time in career 3-point field goals made. Curry currently coaches the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets, whose roster includes Adam Morrison, a former Gonzaga forward most famous for breaking down in tears two years ago as the Zags lost a close game to UCLA in the 2006 Sweet Sixteen.

Sorry, Stephen, but come Friday night, you’ll be the one crying after a Sweet Sixteen defeat. And they won’t be tears of joy.

Not that Davidson will be an easy out for Wisconsin. If you buy that the Badgers got off easy by drawing the Wildcats, you haven’t been paying enough attention. It’s no accident that Davidson is still playing — they’re riding a 24-game win streak, and their non-conference schedule included close losses to North Carolina, Duke, and UCLA. Friday’s game will be tough for Wisconsin, particularly if they look past Davidson to likely Elite Eight opponent Kansas.

But the Badgers won’t look past the Davidson Wildcats any more than they looked past the Kansas State Wildcats, who they dismantled on Saturday by holding them to their lowest point-total of the season, just as they held first-round opponent Cal State Fullerton to their lowest-point total of the season. Wisconsin’s defense held Kansas State star Michael Beasley to just six points in the second half and kept the Wildcats scoreless from 3-point range, where they shot 0-for-13. It had been 349 games since Kansas State hadn’t nailed at least one three-point shot.

Simply put, there aren’t a whole lot of teams playing better basketball right now than the Badgers, as they are one of only a handful of elite teams (along with North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, and Washington State) to win their first two tournament games by 15 points. While Davidson’s come-from-behind tournament victories have been impressive, the Badgers have been putting teams away in the second half, outscoring their opponents by a total of 169-126 in the postseason. It would be a shocker if Davidson could repeat their second-half heroics against the Badgers’ No. 1 scoring defense.

Defensively, the Wildcats are average, meaning that the Badgers should be able to run their style of swing offense, taking advantage of whoever has a clear shot: Keep in mind that Wisconsin had three players in double figures against Cal State Fullerton and three players in double figures against Kansas State and not only were none of them the same player but none of them were Marcus Landry, the team’s No. 2 scorer. Wisconsin will spread the ball around, run the shot clock, and take high-percentage shots. Oh, and they can shoot the long ball. Kansas State can attest to that.

On top of all of their on-court advantages, the Badgers and Wildcats will be playing in Big Ten country at Ford Field in Detroit, which promises to be much less of a friendly environment for Davidson than they enjoyed in their first two tournament games which were held just 160 miles from their campus.

So sorry, Davidson. Your team may be Sweet, but it’s simply not Elite. The Wisconsin Badgers will see to that.

Badgers Move On To Sweet Sixteen
March 23, 2008

What a difference a couple of days can make for the NCAA tournament and for the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team.

Just as the first day of March Madness was ho-hum, with only two upsets and just one game that came down to the final seconds, so was Wisconsin’s first round victory hard to get too excited about. Sure Bucky prevailed against Cal State Fullerton, but it wasn’t what you’d call impressive, especially considering the Titans were eleven seeds below them and they hadn’t been in a tournament game since the days when The Blues Brothers were opening for Steve Martin.

Though it was Saturday that the Badgers posted a much more resounding victory against presumably a tougher opponent in Kansas State, the Madness truly started on Friday:

Six upsets, including all four games played in Tampa in which no team seeded higher than 12 won, the first time that had ever happened in NCAA tournament history. Two overtime thrillers. Impressive come-from-behind victories for Davidson (their 23rd straight victory), Villanova, and Mississippi State. The 100-point total, rare in college, reached by two teams. The tournament’s first 40-point performance in Davidson’s Stephen Curry. Friday restored March Madness to its place as sports’ greatest spectacle.

Saturday, the first day of the second round, saw fewer games but hardly fewer thrills. CBS lucked out by having its early national game be a exhilarating battle that wound up as a bracket buster and another early tournament exit for (former?) powerhouse — and second-seeded — Duke. Then the Stanford/Marquette contest not only came down to the last second of overtime, but featured a bizarre turn of events in the first half which resulted in Stanford coach Trent Johnson being ejected for arguing with an official. That was followed up by two of the best games of the tournament: First Michigan State out-muscled Pittsburgh 65-54 in a very physical game not unlike the Spartans’ Big Ten tournament scrum with the Badgers, then UCLA — a number-one seed that many pegged to win this year’s championship — needed a late rally to survive Texas A&M 53-49 in what would have been undoubtedly the upset of the tournament so far.

Wait, 53-49? Sure that low score wasn’t from a Wisconsin game?

Speaking of Wisconsin and Duke, the Blue Devils’ early exit was evidence for some that Wisconsin deserved the two seed that went to Mike Krzyzewski’s over-ranked team. That’s still debatable, but what can’t be debated is how well the Badgers played in their second round 72-55 victory over Kansas State on Saturday.

Though the first half was close, Wisconsin was physical and aggressive for pretty much the entire forty minutes, never looking as lackadaisical as they had at times during Thursday’s game. Sure, freshman superstar Michael Beasley played well and got his numbers — 23 points and 13 rebounds — but Wisconsin’s defense limited Beasley to six points after halftime, clearly frustrating him and his teammates as the Wildcats made futile attempts to keep the game from getting away from them. Heck, Beasley wasn’t even the game’s leading scorer — that honor belonged to Wisconsin’s Trevon Hughes who matched his career high with 25 points in the biggest game he’s ever played in (well, until the next one). And most amazingly of all, Wisconsin made nine three-point shots, holding Kansas State to zero threes for the first time in 349 games, all the while while keeping the Wildcats to their lowest point total of the season.

It was the second straight tournament game that Wisconsin’s defense held their opponent to their lowest point total of the season. That could be the most impressive stat anywhere so far in this year’s tournament.

So what’s next for the Badgers? A Friday Sweet Sixteen date in Detroit with either Davidson or Georgetown. The tenth-seeded Wildcats (yes, another Wildcats) take on the two-seed Georgetown Hoyas on Sunday. It’s an interesting match-up that pits the Hoyas’ stingy defense against a fine offense led by the aforementioned Stephen Curry. I’d assume that the Hoyas will prevail, but after Friday’s and Saturday’s surprises, I’m not so sure that Wisconsin won’t be dancing with Davidson come next weekend.

The Madness is back.

First Day Of Tournament Good/Bad For Wisconsin — But Mostly Good
March 21, 2008

The good news for Badger fans is that Wisconsin is moving on in the NCAA tournament, beating Cal State Fullerton Thursday night 71-56. The other good news is Wisconsin won how they are going to have to win in the NCAA tournament, with defense: The Badgers held the sixth-ranked offensive team in the nation to just 56 points; the Titans’ lowest point total of the season. The other good news? The Badgers won with a balanced attack, with six players scoring at least eight points, highlighted by Joe Krabbenhoft matching his season high with 13 points. You want more good news? Thanks to Kansas State’s upset of USC Thursday, the Badgers now take on the 11th-seeded Wildcats instead of the 6th-seeded Trojans on Saturday.

The bad news for Badger fans is that the win was by no means decisive, with the Badgers up only two at halftime and only eight with about 3:30 to play. Not as scary as last year’s game against the Islanders of Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, but the competitiveness of the game should stop the talk that the Badgers were robbed by not being granted a 2 seed. The other bad news is that the Badgers let Cal State Fullerton’s Josh Akognon go off, allowing the guard to rack up 31 points on 11-for-23 shooting, including going 5-for-12 from beyond (sometimes way beyond) the three-point line. You’d have thought that Bo Ryan’s scheme would have tended more toward the “let the other guys beat us” line of thinking, but the Badgers continually let Akognon get open and he continually made them pay.

The other bad news is that drawing Kansas State instead of USC might not be such a great thing. At least if you go by yesterday’s game between the two. The showdown between freshman phenoms Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo was supposed to come down to which one had the better supporting cast — and USC was thought to be heavily favored in that department. But not only did Beasley far outplay Mayo (outscoring him, 23-20, and out rebounding him, 11-2, despite playing significantly less minutes due to early foul trouble), but Beasley’s teammates stepped up far more than Mayo’s did, with three others scoring in double digits, including forward Bill Walker with 22. So Ryan’s squad has to be prepared to guard more than just Beasley. Add to that the fact that Kansas State should have the home court advantage — Omaha is just a three-hour drive from Manhattan, Kansas — and suddenly the Wildcats look like a very scary draw for the Badgers.

But I still say the Badgers defense finds a way to shut down the Wildcats — Kansas State is prone to turnovers — enough to win. Call it a 65-60 win for Bucky and a trip to the Sweet Sixteen.

Thursday Notes:
Best Game of the Day — Marquette 74, Kentucky 66. Two basketball powerhouses in what would in other years be a quality late-round game. (In fact it was back in 2003, when the Dwyane Wade-led Golden Eagles beat the Wildcats in the regional finals).
Worst Game of the Day — UCLA 70, Mississippi Valley St 29. Thanks to the Delta Devils for erasing the previous NCAA tournament mark of futility for scoring, set in 1999 by the Wisconsin Badgers (they scored 32 against Southwest Missouri State). Does this mean that UCLA is that good (hope not, I picked them to lose in the final game), or were the Delta Devils just simply the worst team ever to score a tournament bid?
Best Ending — Has to be Gerald Henderson’s coast-to-coast drive to the bucket that saved Duke’s butt in their one-point victory against 15-seeded Belmont. But given how close the Bruins came, suddenly everyone whose bracket has Duke advancing past Saturday’s game against West Virginia is very nervous.
The Game Doesn’t End After Twenty Minutes Award Goes To — Winthrop for scoring 11 second-half points against Tony Bennett’s Washington State Cougars.
The Game Does Actually Begin With The Tip Award Goes To — Kent State for scoring 10 points in the first half against UNLV. Remarkably, they scored 48 points in the second half. Too bad for them that they weren’t matched up with Missississpi Valley State.
Day One MVP — CSU Fullerton’s Akognon. Single-handedly put fear into the hearts of Badger Nation.
Day One Least Valuable Player — People picking Temple over Michigan State pointed to Dionte Christmas, the Owls’ leading scorer, as the reason. Christmas was a little low on merry, though, only scoring three points as Michigan State rolled.
Respect This — The Big Ten went 3-0 on the day, albeit with three teams having the advantage of owning the higher seed. If Indiana can beat Arkansas Friday, the Big Ten will be perfect — at least until Indiana has to play UNC and the Spartans have to play Big East tourney champ Pittsburgh.
Best Saturday Game — Besides the Badger game, gotta be the nightcap between Pittsburgh and Michigan State. Pittsburgh’s playing great, but look for MSU’s Drew Neitzel to come back strong from his disappointing first-round game.

It’s Manic Monday. Wait, That’s The Bangles. I Mean, It’s Bracket Monday!
March 17, 2008

They know baseball. But do they know basketball? Badger fans hope not.

The Cal State Fullerton Titans baseball team has won four NCAA Men’s Baseball College World Series championships, the most recent coming in 2004. But their men’s basketball program has been decidedly less successful, having not made it to the NCAA tournament since 1978.

That thirty-year run of futility has come to an end this year, as the Titans won the Big West conference to earn an automatic bid to the field of 65. For their 24-8 overall record and 79th RPI ranking, the Titans earned a 14 seed and an opening round game against Bo Ryan’s third-seeded Wisconsin Badgers.

Upon learning of the matchup, most Badger fans likely gave it little thought, choosing instead to see who Wisconsin will play in the second round (it’ll be either USC or Kansas State). Some though, probably remember last year’s near-disaster, when the second-seeded Badgers fell behind 25-7 to the Texas A&M-Corpus Christi Islanders, a fifteen seed that had never been to the NCAA tournament. Wisconsin came back to escape by a score of 76-63 before then being upset in the second round by UNLV.

We’ll know within a week whether a similar fate will befall this year’s Badgers team or whether Bo Ryan’s Big Ten champions will survive past the tournament’s opening weekend for the first time since 2005, when Wisconsin advanced all the way to the Elite Eight.

What we do know already is that the NCAA selection committee predictably did not show much respect to the Big Ten, limiting the power conference to four bids: Wisconsin, fifth-seeded (in the South regional) Michigan State, sixth-seeded Purdue (West region), and eighth-seeded (East region) Indiana. 2007 Big Ten champion and NCAA tournament runner-up Ohio State, thought by many to have played themselves into the field with late-season wins over Purdue and Michigan State, apparently lost whatever chance they had by failing to win a game in this year’s Big Ten tournament. (Make no mistake, these tournaments matter: Purdue and Indiana looked to be no lower than five seeds before dropping their first games in Indianapolis.)

But any complaints fans of the Big Ten may have are likely to be drowned out by fans of the Atlantic Coast Conference, which also sent only four teams — North Carolina, Duke, Clemson, and Miami (FL) — to the NCAA tournament. This despite boasting the number one conference RPI ranking. Think 19-13 Ohio State got robbed? Certainly no more so than Virginia Tech, who finished their own 19-13 season by losing on a last-second shot to tournament overall number one seed North Carolina in the ACC tournament semifinals.

In the end, it was the Big East who stole the selection committee’s hearts: Their eight bids tied a tournament record for heaviest representation from any single conference. Certainly 12th seed (Midwest region) Villanova, widely considered one of the last teams into the tournament (and who might have been bounced had Illinois been able to upset Wisconsin in the Big Ten tournament final), is as questionable a selection as any, finishing only 9-9 in conference play and ending its regular season by losing a 19-point game to Georgetown in the Big East tournament’s second round.

No such controversy seems to accompany the committee’s selection of number one seeds: North Carolina, Memphis, UCLA, and Kansas. All four programs were dominant all season long. Of course, that dominance doesn’t translate to the tournament, as no Final Four has ever consisted of the quartet of number one seeds. Is this the year that trend is reversed, or is this the year a 16 seed upends a number one seed? Just a couple of the possibilities that makes March Madness such a fascinating event. (Just think if they did something like this with college football . . . ah, let’s not go there now.)

Here’s a quick look at the four regions, from toughest to easiest:

East Region
The East bracket boasts not only the overall number one seed in North Carolina, but several scary teams that could easily put a stop to the Tar Heels’ ride to the Final Four. First and foremost is number two seed Tennessee, which appeared destined to be a number one seed before losing the SEC tournament final to Arkansas. Other potential Final Four teams include Louisville and Notre Dame, which both boasted a 14-4 conference record in the tough Big East, Number 21-ranked Washington State out of the PAC-10, and perennial Cinderella team Butler. Speaking of Cinderella, 2006 Final Four bracketbuster George Mason is here as well and has hopes of repeating its magic run of just two years ago. The most overrated team in this region is probably eighth-seeded Indiana, which is struggling mightily since the departure of head coach Kelvin Sampson; the Hoosiers look to have some early trouble as they take on SEC tournament runner-up Arkansas in the first round.

South Region
Say what you want about overall number two seed Memphis being from the weaker Conference USA; the Tigers played a tough non-conference schedule and ended the season with a staggering 33-1 record with their only loss coming in a close and wildly entertaining game to Tennessee. Perhaps even more impressive is the fact that the Tigers didn’t lose a single road game all season. Looking to upend John Calipari’s team will be Big 12 runner-up Texas, PAC-10 runner-up Stanford, Big East tourament champion Pittsburgh, and perennial tournament teams Michigan State, Marquette, and Kentucky. The Wildcats stand as the most overrated team in this region, though, as their pedigree more than their average 18-12 record this season seemed to be what got them into the tournament as an 11 seed.

West Region
The number-one seeded UCLA Bruins seem to have as much momentum as any team heading into the NCAA tournament; they’ve won ten consecutive games, boast an overall 30-3 record, and won the PAC-10 regular season and tournament titles. But UCLA has survived several close calls recently, including a questionable foul call on March 6 that may have stole the PAC-10 title away from Stanford. So to reach their third Final Four in three consecutive years, UCLA will have to overcome challenges from teams including Duke (whose resume speaks for itself), Atlantic 10 regular-season champion Xavier, and powerhouses from non-power conferences Drake and Western Kentucky. Not to mention buried in this region as a fourteen seed is Georgia, a team no one wants to face after their remarkable run through the SEC tournament.

Midwest Region
To make it to their first Final Four since 2000, the Wisconsin Badgers will have to come out of a region that boasts not only Big 12 champion Kansas but perhaps the strongest number two seed in the entire bracket in Big East regular-season champion Georgetown. Beyond those two teams and the Badgers in the third-seed, teams to look out for include number five seed Clemson, which upended Duke in the ACC semifinals, tenth-seeded Davidson, which boasts the nation’s longest winning streak at 22 games, and eleventh-seeded Kansas State, which could win a couple of games simply on the abilities of Freshman of the Year Michael Beasley. Not to mention the Midwest bracket includes UNLV, which ended Wisconsin’s season in last year’s tournament. At least Texas A&M-Corpus Christi didn’t make the cut this year.

The Fella Who Couldn’t Wait For Selection Sunday
March 14, 2008

Maybe you’re like me. Maybe you have to buy DVDs on the day they come out even though you know you won’t watch them for months (who has time with sports and Big Brother After Dark eating up at least ten hours a day). Maybe you need to eat that can of Pringles you brought to work as a mid-afternoon snack at 8:20 AM. In short, you don’t like to wait.

Well, apparently neither does my editor, because he’s demanding a March Madness preview story even before the brackets are announced. So here it is: Can you believe that East regional? That’s a killer! And Belmont as a seven seed? Are they kidding with that?

Seriously, though, you don’t have to wait until 5 PM CST Sunday afternoon when Greg Gumbel, Clark Kellogg, Jay Bilas, and anybody else CBS can scare up announce the field of 65 teams for the 2008 Men’s Basketball Tournament. You can start thinking about your bracket right now. Here’s some pointers for you to get started:

1. Go big. You see all of those cute little schools trying so hard to be like the big boys? Schools like Belmont, Siena, Morgan State, and Austin Peay? Yes, they’re fun to root for, but so is your son’s teeball team and you wouldn’t advance them in a one-and-done tournament. (Well, unless they were playing the Kansas City Royals . . .) Stick with the big schools and you’ll do fine. Sure, some will let you down, but many more won’t. (If you have to ride one small school, ride Drake from the Missouri Valley Conference. They could be interesting, but as a potential five seed, not exactly a Cinderella.)

2. Bet with your head, not with your heart. My wife picks Wisconsin to win the tournament every year. Keeping in mind that we’re lucky to have a team that actually goes to the tournament every year, it’s probably not a surprise to you that she doesn’t win too many office pools. Wisconsin will probably play a softie in the first round (like we all thought Texas A&M-Corpus Christi was a softie last year), but in the second round could see a solid team from a better conference like the PAC 10’s Washington State. Not many Badger fans could feel comfortable with that potential second-round matchup.

3. Defense wins. As painful as Friday’s lowest-score-ever-in-the-Big-Ten-Tournament game between Wisconsin and Michigan might have been for some (and bear in mind that the Big Ten tournament is only in its eleventh year), it’s a simple fact that solid half-court defense wins games. Particularly in a one-and-done tournament in which teams will inevitably suffer occasional scoring droughts, teams with good defenses will always have a chance to advance. So Wisconsin, Georgetown, UCLA — all teams playing great defense, especially of late — could go deep.

4. Who wins big? One school of thought is that teams that win close games are tougher than teams that cruise to easy victories. While there may be some truth to that, we’re talking about your bracket here — do you want to sweat it out while your Final Four teams win at the buzzer, or do you want the comfort of a team that can simply blow the competition away? If you like teams that can win big, pencil in Kansas, Memphis, North Carolina, Davidson (Davidson?), UCLA, Duke, and — there they are again — Wisconsin as advancing in your bracket.

5. The Big East and the Pac-10 are scary good conferences. Were it not for all of the automatic bids the NCAA selection committee hands out, these conferences — especially the PAC-10 — could each get into double figure bids. As it is, the two will likely combine to send a whopping 14 teams to the dance. These schools didn’t have patsies like Northwestern to beat up on, making them battle-tested and good picks in the tournament. Don’t be surprised to see lower-seeded teams from these conferences (like Pittsburgh or Arizona State) still around in the tourney’s second weekend.

Favorites Reign Supreme At Big Ten Tourney
March 12, 2008

Using this weekend’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament as warm-up to next weekend’s NCAA tournament is a bit like using a listen to Bruce Willis’s The Return of Bruno CD as a warm-up before heading out to a Bruce Springsteen concert. There’s simply no comparison between the warm-up and the main event.

The bad news is that upsets in the Big Ten tournament are rarer than funny episodes of According to Jim: In the ten years that the Big Ten has held its tournament, only twice has a team seeded lower than second won: Michigan won the first tournament in 1998 as a four seed, and in 2001 Iowa won as a sixth seed.

The good news of course is this lack of surprise is good for Wisconsin, which enters the tournament as the undisputed number one seed. Unless you consider that the last time the Badgers entered the Big Ten tournament as a number one seed (in 2003), they lost in the quarterfinals to eighth-seeded Ohio State. But I don’t see that happening this year.

The most interesting storyline going in to Thursday’s first-round games is the fate of last year’s Big Ten champ Ohio State. While the Buckeyes likely played their way into the field of 64 thanks to last week’s wins over Purdue and Michigan State, another victory certainly wouldn’t hurt the tournament resume of a team that a week ago was squarely on the bubble. Unfortunately for Ohio State, they have to play Michigan State on Friday, and I don’t see Tom Izzo’s team losing two games within the same week to the Buckeyes.

For the four Big Ten teams who are unquestionably in the NCAA tournament: Wisconsin, Purdue, Indiana, and Michigan State, I don’t see too much that would drastically alter their tournament seedings. Wisconsin shouldn’t drop to lower than a three seed even if they lose on Friday, and can’t climb higher than a second seed even if they win the Big Ten tournament. Likewise, I see Purdue as a 4-5 seed and Indiana and Michigan State as a 5-6 seed regardless what happens this weekend.

If I had to pick a dark horse (a team outside of the top five), I’d have to go with sixth-seeded Minnesota, which should win easy on Thursday over Northwestern and then would get Indiana, which has slowed its pace a bit following the resignation of Kelvin Sampson. Then they would need some sort of Twin Cities miracle to get any further. But in a sports market that has had little going for it lately (Tavaris Jackson stays while Torii Hunter, Johan Santana and Kevin Garnett leave), maybe they’re due for a break. But I doubt it.

So, here’s the game-by-game breakdown:

Thursday:
(8) Iowa beats (9) Michigan. The Wolverines have the worst defense in the conference.
(10) Illinois beats (7) Penn State. Bruce Weber will have his guys ready for at least one game.
(6) Minnesota beats (11) Northwestern. I think even the Milwaukee Bucks could beat Northwestern.

Friday:
(1) Wisconsin beats (8) Iowa. No quarterfinal loss this year for the class of the conference.
(4) Michigan State beats (5) Ohio State. Leave work early for this one (1:30 PM), which could be the best game of the tournament.
(2) Purdue beats (10) Illinois. Matt Painter and Robbie Hummel take the fight out of the Illini.
(3) Indiana beats (6) Minnesota. Could go the other way. But I doubt it.

Saturday:
(1) Wisconsin beats (4) Michigan State. Badgers held Michigan State to 42 points late last month. Was Dick Bennett giving Tom Izzo pointers on running an offense?
(2) Purdue beats (3) Indiana. E’Twaun Moore and Chris Kramer are pretty good too.

Sunday:
(1) Wisconsin beats (2) Purdue. Badgers aren’t going down for a third time this year against the Boilermakers. If they do, then Matt Painter REALLY deserved that Big Ten Coach of the Year award.

Favre and Favre and Favre Some More
March 9, 2008

More Favre fallout:

Rankings of movies, TV shows, and albums are fine with me. Not only can they serve as good reminders to check out some things that might have passed you by, but it seems to me that it’s overall fair to compare films, shows, or music created decades apart. Good movies or TV should be timeless, even if older works look technically cheap compared to modern productions. And the best music always sounds fresh no matter when it was created.

But I have a problem with ranking athletes. Mainly because we don’t live long enough to be able to judge fairly athletes from the past and we probably place too much emphasis on the heroes of our youth. So I completely dismiss all of this quarterback ranking that has occurred since Brett Favre retired. Favre is the best quarterback I’ve seen in my adult life. But I remember being more impressed by Terry Bradshaw and Joe Montana in their day. But, hey, when I was watching them — especially Bradshaw — I was a wide-eyed kid that viewed the game nowhere near as critically as I do now. Those different perspectives based on our age cloud all of our judgments. Add to that the insanity of commentators comparing Favre to Otto Graham or other quarterbacks who they never watched week in and week out (not to mention the changes in the game in the intervening decades) and you have a completely arbitrary and overall asinine collection of rankings. I have no doubt that when my son marvels at some rookie quarterback sensation five years from now, the first thing I’ll say is, “Son, this guy couldn’t carry Brett Favre’s jock.” (That is, I’m hoping my son is watching football when he’s ten and not reruns of Trading Spaces.)

Anybody else feel uncomfortable watching Favre’s press conference? I love the show of emotion, but you have to draw the line somewhere. I haven’t seen anyone bawl like that since Amber of Big Brother 8. (OK, maybe a slightly esoteric reference, but BB fans know where I’m coming from.)

Any Packer fans still stinging out there from not signing Randy Moss again? Well, don’t be too hard on yourselves, Moss wasn’t going anywhere. But what about Moss’s friend and former teammate Daunte Culpepper? Don’t get me wrong, Culpepper wouldn’t earn a starting position on most high school teams. But the Packers are now alarmingly thin at quarterback and the indication is that Thompson and McCarthy are wisely looking at a veteran QB to back up Aaron Rodgers, who certainly hasn’t shown himself to be quite the iron man that Favre was. Rumors are that the Packers are looking at Mark Brunell and Trent Green, two 37-year quarterbacks with no recent success. Brunell didn’t play at all in 2007 and Green suffered his second severe concussion in thirteen months in October 2007 and should be all indications be staying as far away from a football field as humanly possible if he wants to be have any long-term success in reciting the alphabet or tying his shoes.

Culpepper, while certainly a shell of his former Pro Bowl self, had six starts in 2007 with the Oakland Raiders and posted a so-so 78.0 QB rating on a team with basically no talent. He’s six years younger than Brunell and Green and, since his injuries have rendered him fairly immobile, could fit in well with the Packers’ schemes of short drops and quick slants. I’m not saying that he would resurrect his career like Moss did when he left Oakland for New England; I’m not even saying that you want to have to play him at all. But as insurance, and as someone hungry to prove he still has something in the tank, the Packers could do far worse than Culpepper.

Bad news: The men’s hockey Badgers proved me wrong and have to go on the road to start the WCHA playoffs.

Good news: The men’s basketball Badgers proved me wrong and don’t have to share the Big Ten title with no one.

Old news: I’m wrong a lot. But at least I have spunk.

Making Sense Of The Nonsensical
March 5, 2008

“I’m just tired.” That’s how both my wife and I felt this week as we struggled to care for two sick young children. Before you send in your cards and letters, don’t worry: Neither of them are about to shuffle off this mortal coil. No, they’re just ill enough to be sent home from daycare, thereby throwing major complications into our oh-so-intricate weekly schedule. And enough to make their parental units tired. But as much as my wife and I might want to be done with these days of constant fevers, ear infections, and bedtime routines that are routinely longer and more excruciating than this year’s Oscars broadcast, we know that when we are, we’ll miss them. No matter how tired we may be feeling now.

That’s what I bet will happen to Brett Favre this coming September, as the first Sunday of the NFL regular season finds him doing something other than taking snaps under center. No matter how “tired” he feels this March, he’ll miss it this fall. But unlike my wife and I, who can’t keep our kids small (no matter how much coffee or cigarettes we force on them), Favre had a choice to keep playing or not. I can’t help but think — barring some untold situation that he hasn’t yet confided to ESPN’s newly-goateed Chris Mortensen — that he made the wrong one.

Now I’m not one to tell people what to do. You want to get a tattoo of a snake on your face, go right ahead. You want to spend hours every month watching a washed-up comedian and 26 tarts on the slowest-moving game show in television history, go right ahead. And surely Brett Favre has earned the right, after 17 seasons of duty as the toughest quarterback to ever play pro football, to retire whenever he wants to.

But why now? Why would a guy who obviously loves to play the game, whose unabashed displays of on-field giddiness and joy are as much a part of his legend than any of the numerous records that he holds (and he holds ’em all, at least for now), retire now? Why would a guy with one of the top receiving corps in the league, an emerging star at running back, a solid offensive line, and a top-flight defense to bail him out of trouble, leave now? Why would a guy one offensive series away from a Super Bowl berth just a few weeks ago quit now?

Notice I said “quit.” Because that’s what it feels like, doesn’t it? Had Favre retired two years ago, when the Packers stunk, it would have made sense. In fact, it didn’t make sense for a guy who had been through so much for fifteen years to want to come back to lead a losing team under a new coaching regime. Even last year, when the Packers were better but had no offense and did little in the offseason to improve offensively, you wouldn’t have been surprised if Favre had stepped down. In fact, it didn’t make sense for a guy who had been through so much for sixteen years to want to come back to lead a team that opted for drafting James Jones over signing Randy Moss all while losing their leading rusher in free agency.

But, despite what morons like me said and wrote, it worked. The Packers were dominant in 2007. Favre, confident in his better-than-advertised receivers and confident in his defense, played his smartest football ever. He seemed refreshed, revitalized, invigorated. Up to just a few days ago, idiots like me thought he’d be playing into the next decade. But then everything changed when news of Favre’s conversation with ESPN’s Mortensen got out. (I bet John Clayton is pissed off.)

Again, we have to ask ourselves, why? Well, in a situation as head-scratching as this one, we have to go with the information we’re presented with. And Favre gave a plausible but ludricous explanation. Apparently he feels anything less than a Super Bowl win would not be worth the time and effort it would take to play another year. Fine, but certainly Favre knew that the Packers team he headed up the previous two seasons was not bound for a Super Bowl berth. Now that he has a team with a good shot, it turns out a good shot is not enough and apparently not as desirable as knowing there is no shot. I guess Favre, who spent much of last season in denial that the Packers were as good as their record or play indicated, must have finally bought in to their chances when the Giants upset the Cowboys and the road to the Super Bowl changed from going through Dallas to going through Green Bay. Obviously the outcome of the NFC Championship Game was a disappointment, but who’d have guessed that the disappointment would be so crushing that Favre would sooner quit than live through it or even a second Super Bowl loss again?

I feel like I’m rambling here, but you almost can’t help but ramble trying to make sense of a decision that seems so nonsensical. The bottom line for cynics is that since he can obviously still perform at a very high level, he quit on his team (like how some felt and still feel about Barry Sanders’s retirement). The bottom line for romantics is that he left on his own terms — instead of leaving after a subpar year fronting a subpar team when most thought he should leave, he left after a great year fronting a great team when next to no one thought he should leave. Or maybe you can’t call the 2007 Packers a great team, maybe that group was evolving into becoming truly great. Now we’ll never know. Because the Packers won’t be great without Favre.

[Two other things. I don’t buy that Dan Marino’s records were that important to Favre that he stayed playing to break them. Peyton Manning or Tom Brady will likely break them one day anyway and Favre has to know that. I also don’t buy the Randy Moss situation. At least not as it applied to this year. The Packers nor any team outside of New England had no chance to sign Moss this season. And I simply don’t agree that Moss joining the Packers last season would have been enough to win them the Super Bowl. Hey, it didn’t work for New England.]

So wither the Favre-less Packers? Not exactly. This team is too talented to simply fade away next season. And with Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay still has the best quarterback in the NFC North, a division with laughable starters Tavaris Jackson, Rex Grossman, and Jon Kitna (awful to simply bad). But I would be stunned if Rodgers can lead the Packers past Wild Card weekend next year. He simply needs more experience. [And can he stay healthy? And if not, who will the Packers have at backup? Maybe a rookie with even less experience.]

Come January 2009, it’ll be clear that an old and tired Brett Favre has more game than a young and fresh Aaron Rodgers.

The Sports Matchmaker
March 2, 2008

In honor of the seventies “classic” The Love Boat coming out on DVD this week (and don’t get me started on how annoyed I am that The Love Boat will be available on DVD before there is any DVD representation of any David Letterman broadcasts or the Showtime classic It’s Garry Shandling’s Show), I thought I’d “set a course for adventure” today and play a little sports matchmaker.

1. The Big Ten championship and the Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team. Are they a match? Count me as someone who has long since shut up about his skepticism about the Badger basketball program this season after losing Alando Tucker and Kammron “Bring the Pain” Taylor last year. After a tremendous regular season last year in which Bucky earned the school’s first number one ranking (albeit short-lived) and set a school record for wins with 30, this year they’ve been at least as impressive, winning more Big Ten road games (seven) and overall conference games (14) than ever. Coming off one of their best games of the season (one turnover!) against Michigan State, Wisconsin looks to mop up against Penn State and on the road against Northwestern. Call me crazy, but I’m putting both in the win column.

The problem for the Badgers isn’t themselves, it’s Indiana and Purdue. Should Indiana beat Michigan State Sunday (and they whipped ’em by 19 just a couple of weeks ago), both the Hoosiers and the Boilermakers would be tied with Wisconsin for the Big Ten lead. And both have fairly easy games to finish the season — although not as easy as Wisconsin has it. To further complicate matters, Purdue beat Wisconsin twice this season, so even though the same record would equal a “share” of the Big Ten title for the three schools, I believe Purdue would be seeded higher than Wisconsin in the upcoming Big Ten tournament. But that wasn’t the match I was talking about, was it?

Result: Match. But the Badgers won’t win it outright. They’ll have to share. But hey, sharing is caring.

2. The Big Ten and the NCAA tournament. A couple of weeks ago, I thought that the Big Ten was a shoo-in to get five teams in: The aforementioned three that will likely wind up sharing the title, plus Michigan State and Ohio State. Unfortunately for the conference, reigning Big Ten champs Ohio State have played themselves out of the tournament with four straight conference losses, including Saturday’s surprising 14-point loss at Minnesota. So look for the Big Ten to send only four teams to the dance, putting them under the Big East, the ACC, the Big 12, the Pac-10, and the SEC in terms of representation.

Result: Not a lot of quantitative love here. But qualitatively, the four suitors could be in for a long-term relationship in the tourney.

3. The Packers and free agency. Let’s face it: the Packers have made few and far-between splashes in free agency. But let’s face it: The team, coming off a season that nearly resulted in a Super Bowl berth, seems to have few weaknesses and seems to know what it’s doing. Don’t be surprised if the biggest free agency news out of Titletown has already happened: The loss of defensive tackle Corey Williams to the Browns, which given the Packers’ depth, is really no big loss. The Packers are looking to add a linebacker and help their pass rush, but history states that if they can’t make a good (re: frugal) deal in free agency, they’ll address those needs in the draft. And as much as fans may want more excitement (anyone for Randy Moss, round two?), why change a pattern that has clearly worked more often than not?

Result: No match. Though not as clear-cut as that Moment of Truth woman and her wimpy husband.

4. The Milwaukee Bucks and the NBA playoffs. I’ll admit to being intrigued by this potential love connection a few days ago after the Bucks won back-to-back games against Denver and Cleveland, two of the NBA’s best. But after consecutive losses, I don’t think this match will stick. Sure, in the weak Eastern conference, it’s possible, but it would mean that four teams ahead of them would have to fall apart while the Bucks would have to play significantly better than their 22-37 record indicates they can. Besides, should any team 15 wins under .500 at this point in the season have a sniff at the postseason?

Result: No match. The NBA playoffs are easy, but even they have their standards.

5. CBS and Mixed Martial Arts. This is a bit of a cheat, as this match has already been made public with the announcement that the network will devote four Saturday nights to the bloody competitions possibly as early as April. But will it work?

Well, the networks have long since abandoned Saturday nights, programming reruns and second-run movies for years on a night that they feel the TV audience is too small to care about. But is primetime network ready for something as violent as MMA? Hey, CBS long ago stopped caring about being the “Tiffany” network and settled for being known as the “blood and guts” network with grisly fare such as the three CSIs, Without A Trace, Criminal Minds, and now the repurposing of the Showtime hit Dexter. So what’s at stake here is not a network’s reputation or even a huge potential audience. CBS clearly hopes to attract younger viewers with the move and along with it advertisers looking to reach a young audience and a platform by which to promote its other series to said audience. On those grounds, the match should work. But if CBS expects more than that, look for the return of crime repeats.

Result: A tenuous match. One side — here it’s MMA — has more to gain than the other (CBS). Those relationships are always tricky, like when Bobby Brown married Whitney Houston or Kevin Federline married Britney Spears. And we all know how well those worked out.