Archive for December, 2008

Big Ten Basketball Preview
December 29, 2008

Don’t look now, but Big Ten college basketball is finally getting some respect. Thanks to some big wins (Michigan alone took out powerhouses Duke and UCLA earlier this season) and overall gaudy standings (Indiana is the only team in the conference with a losing record), the much-maligned Big Ten is back in the good graces of the basketball intelligentsia, earning a number two RPI conference ranking at the end of non-conference play.

Heading into Tuesday night’s Big Ten opener between Illinois and host Purdue (most teams in the conference start Big Ten play Wednesday, when the Badgers will visit Michigan at 1 p.m. CST), the conference appears to be as competitive as its been in years, with as many as six teams realistically vying for the conference title. And that’s not including Northwestern, who currently sit the highest among Big Ten teams in the RPI rankings at nine.

Here’s a brief look at each team’s season so far and where I like them to finish in the conference:

  1. Michigan State. With center Goran Suton back from a knee injury, this is the best all-around team in the Big Ten, leading the conference in offense, rebounds, and field goal shooting. Their win at Texas on December 20 could be the best Big Ten non-conference win of the season.
  2. Purdue. A close second to conference champ Wisconsin last year, the Boilermakers returned every starter this season. There are concerns about injured Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Chris Kramer’s availability for the start of the conference season, but this team is loaded with talent. Their 18-point beatdown of Davidson on December 20 was highly impressive.
  3. Wisconsin. Despite losing Brian Butch and Michael Flowers, last year’s conference champ hasn’t lost the scoring, it’s the defense that has suffered. But Jon Leuer has been a real find coming off the bench, and no one would be surprised to see Bo Ryan take this group to their second straight conference championship.
  4. Michigan. The most surprising team in the Big Ten; they finished 10-22 last season but have already beaten UCLA and Duke this year. They would love to topple Wisconsin at home in their conference opener.
  5. Ohio State. Impressive early wins against Miami (FL) and Notre Dame now pale in comparison to the 76-48 beatdown they suffered at the hands of West Virginia to close out their non-conference schedule. With David Lighty sidelined for upwards of two months, suddenly Ohio State looks vulnerable.
  6. Minnesota. What does a 12-0 team have to do to get respect? Perhaps not play the 228th toughest schedule in the nation. Actually, the Gophers do have one quality win against Louisville, but they’ll have to beat some conference teams to prove that their best start in 60 years is more than a mirage.
  7. Illinois. The most improved team in the Big Ten already has 12 wins on the season after earning 16 all last year. But can they sustain the remarkable turnaround in conference play? Their big win against Missouri on December 23 hinted that perhaps they can.
  8. Northwestern. Close losses against Butler and Stanford and a stunning victory against Florida State highlight the non-conference schedule of another vastly improved Big Ten squad. It’s tough to pick a team that hasn’t won a postseason game since 1999 and won only one Big Ten game last year as a conference contender, but the Wildcats have done nothing but impress so far.
  9. Iowa. The Hawkeyes have struggled to stay with some lesser opponents, and rebounding has proven to be a problem. But they lead the conference in three-point baskets per game and that will help them keep games close.
  10. Penn State. The only Big Ten team to play an easier schedule than Minnesota. Single-digit wins over Mount St. Mary’s and Sacred Heart aren’t impressive, and this is a team that won just 15 games last year.
  11. Indiana. Tom Crean knew he would be rebuilding this year. But surely he didn’t foresee a home loss to the Lipscomb Bisons. It will be a very long season for Hoosier fans.
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A Bad Loss To A Bad Season
December 28, 2008

Have you ever gone to a movie that starts off promising but falters somewhere along the line and you end up absolutely hating it?

That’s how I felt about Tropic Thunder, a movie that I know a lot of people really enjoyed but one that annoyed the heck out of me. When it was over and I was cursing the fact that my wife and I had spent a rare night out on it, I tried to replay the film — one I had very much wanted to see — back in my mind to try and figure out where it had gone wrong for me. I decided that it was Tom Cruise’s “performance” as the producer that turned me against it; what some saw as hilarity I saw as a pompous actor thinking that a bald cap and a fat suit equalled comedic genius. By the time the credits rolled and Cruise was hamming it up in an extended dance routine, I wanted to claw my eyes out.

So after sitting through Wisconsin’s humilating 42-13 Champs Sports Bowl defeat at the hands of the Florida State Seminoles, I tried the exercise again: Where did this game, a game that had been somewhat competitive for quite some time, go completely off the tracks?

Was it in the first quarter, when eventual game MVP Graham Ganopinned the Badgers offense at their own 3, their own 1, and their own 1 again with a succession of phenomenal punts? Well, it couldn’t have been, because at the end of the quarter the game was scoreless and Wisconsin had outgained the Seminoles, twice getting out of their nightmarish field position with decent, albeit not scoring, drives.

Was it two minutes into the second quarter, when Badger quarterback Dustin Sherer tried to throw a lateral pass to P.J. Hill, only to have it deflected and run back 75 yards by FSU linebacker Derek Nicholson for the game’s first score? Well, that clearly was a huge momentum shift and spoiled what had been a nice 74-yard drive by Wisconsin, but being down by one score doesn’t put a game out of reach.

Was it later in the second quarter when ESPN inexplicably brought out “sideline pitchman” and all-around most obnoxious man on the planet Billy Mays for the biggest waste of television air time since Saved By The Bell: The College Years? Well, that was when the telecast went wrong, but clearly not the game itself.

Was it still later in the second quarter when Wisconsin had first-and-10 on the FSU 19-yard-line but had to settle for a field goal? Well, it was frustrating, but again, a 7-3 deficit is hardly impossible to overcome.

Was it forty seconds before the half, when Wisconsin’s defense, which had been stout up to this point, allowed FSU quarterback Christian Ponder to go 47 yards in only four plays and 33 seconds for a touchdown-scoring drive that made it 14-3 at the half? Well, since Ponder had only hit on six of his first 15 passes before going three-for-four on that drive, and the confidence he gained from that drive carried over to his sterling nine-for-12 second half performance, then maybe. But still, with a ground game that was gaining nearly five yards a carry and with a defense that had held FSU to 28 yards on 15 carries, overcoming a 14-3 halftime deficit seemed more than doable.

Perhaps it was in the third quarter, when Florida State went on a massive, 85-yard, 7:46 touchdown scoring drive that included: A debatable, overturned call on what was originally ruled a Wisconsin interception that would have given the Badgers the ball on the Seminole 28-yard-line and a 20-yard Ponder-to-Greg Carr (he finished with 8 catches for 78 yards) pass completion on a 3rd-and-19. Surely that drive, that made the game 21-6, was the killer for the Badgers?

Nope. It was the fumble by P.J. Hill three plays later that sealed it for me. From then on, everything that went wrong for Wisconsin, and there were a lot of things, seemed to be pre-scripted events in a pre-determined game of presaged futility for the predictably overmatched Badgers.

A ridiculous phantom call against Wisconsin for roughing Graham Gano? Maddening, but didn’t seem to matter. A sack and forced fumble that led to Florida State’s second defensive touchdown of the game? It was long over by that fourth-quarter debacle. A four-play, 41-yard, blink-and-you-missed-it touchdown-scoring drive that made the game 42-6? Only made me almost — almost — wish that ESPN would cut back to Billy Mays for an OxiClean demonstration. A Dustin Sherer touchdown pass to seldom-used Elijah Theus that made the final score 42-13? I think even the Detroit Lions could have scored against the disinterested FSU defense by that point.

At the end of the day, what led to Florida State’s largest-ever margin of victory in a bowl game (and they’ve won 20 of them) was simply the fact that Bret Bielema’s team was simply not good enough. After all, Florida State was a team that finished near the top of a very difficult Atlantic Coast Conference, whereas Wisconsin placed in the middle of the pack in a weak Big Ten.  While Florida State finished the season with one bad loss, Wisconsin finished the season with two nail-biting wins against bad teams at home. Florida State’s defense was sound nearly all year, Wisconsin’s suspect nearly all season. And most importantly — most importantly — Florida State could count on its quarterback to make plays when he had to. Wisconsin couldn’t do that, not Saturday, and not all year.

Bret Bielema and offensive coordinator Paul Chryst have made it clear that the quarterback play has to be better next season. While there are other areas the Badgers need to improve at to compete for a Big Ten title, no one could argue that the quarterback position is the most obvious and the most crucial. Sherer is quickly becoming one of the most forgettable signal-callers in recent Badger memory, and considering that that list also includes the likes of Darrell Bevell and Brooks Bollinger, that is far from good enough for a football program of Wisconsin’s stature.

The Badgers did improve somewhat this season when Sherer replaced Allan Evridge. But it’s not enough. As I walk away from the Champs Sports Bowl and the 2008 Wisconsin football Badgers, the bad taste in my mouth is largely a result of the quarterback play. And unlike when I walked away hating Tropic Thunderbecause of Tom Cruise, Sherer hasn’t built up any  Born On The Fourth Of July or Rain Man-size goodwill to save him.

But hey, at least the Packers beat the Lions! Now that would have been embarrassing . . .

Surprisingly Similar Seasons Lead To First-Ever Meeting
December 21, 2008

For two men of such different pasts and such seemingly different futures, both Florida State head football coach Bobby Bowden and Wisconsin head football coach Bret Bielema have had a remarkably similar year, which is due to come to a close on Saturday, December 27, when the Seminoles and Badgers will meet in the Champs Sports Bowl in Orlando.

 

Bret Bielema was just six years old when Bobby Bowden was named the head football coach at Florida State. Since his debut in 1976, Bowden has had a legendary run at FSU, leading his team to 306 wins, twenty bowl victories, two national championships, and twelve Atlantic Coast Conference championships. He is one of four active coaches in the College Football Hall of Fame. The 2008 Champs Sports Bowl is his 27th bowl game in 27 years, a streak (thanks to Michigan’s woes this season) now unrivaled in the nation.

 

But for all of his storied history, it’s been a rough season for Bowden and his Seminoles. An academic cheating scandal resulted in several players being ineligible for the first three games of 2008 (they went 2-1 in this stretch, winning two easy games against FBS teams). One of his most promising offensive players, wide receiver Preston Parker, missed the first two games of the season after pleading guilty to off-season charges of carrying a concealed weapon and possession of marijuana. An on-campus fight in November led to Bowden suspending five players for a game against Boston College, which the Seminoles lost 27-17.

 

On the field, it was a disappointing year for Florida State, as the team lost three of its last five games, including a season-ending 45-15 beat down by in-state rival Florida, to finish 8-4 (5-3 in conference play). And the end seems to be near for the 79-year-old coaching legend: This year his offensive coordinator, Jimbo Fisher, signed a contract that stipulated that if he is not the head coach of the Seminoles by 2010, Florida State University will owe him a cool $2.5 million.

 

In contrast, Bret Bielema had almost a quiet season, but it was certainly the stormiest of his brief career. A streak of five Big Ten losses out of six was marked by undisciplined play and critical late-game meltdowns, and an embarrassing altercation with an official during the Michigan State loss had the press speculating if Bielema had completely lost his way. However, a mid-season quarterback switch from underperforming Allan Evridge to junior Dustin Sherer improved the team’s fortunes, and the Badgers became eligible for their seventh consecutive bowl game by winning their last three games to finish 7-5. But Wisconsin finished only 3-5 in Big Ten play, and their final three victories came against two conference opponents in complete free fall (Indiana and Minnesota) and one FBS team (Cal Poly) that they needed overtime to beat.

 

As Florida State and Wisconsin get set to meet for the first time ever on December 27, both teams mirror each other not only in that they failed to meet preseason expectations, but in precisely how they disappointed: The passing game was a letdown for both, as Wisconsin finished 84th in the country in passing yardage, with the Seminoles just behind at 87th. But Wisconsin appears to have a clearer advantage here, as Sherer showed noticeable improvement as the season progressed, particularly in his ability to elude the pass rush and throw accurately on the run. Although offensive coordinator Paul Chryst has been openly critical of Sherer, it’s hard to imagine Sherer being seriously challenged for the starting job next season. On the other hand, Florida State’s quarterback Christian Ponder has been wildly inconsistent all season and was pulled in the season finale against Florida after starting 5-of-14 with zero touchdowns and two interceptions. Ponder will most likely face Wisconsin believing that his starting job next year is on the line.

 

On the other hand, both teams have stellar running games. Yet here too, Wisconsin has the edge. P.J. Hill and John Clay led the Badgers to the 14th best rushing attack in the country, while Antone Smith and Jermaine Thomas carried Florida State to the 31st best ground game in the nation, although the ground game suffered late in the season as teams, unthreatened by FSU’s air attack, put added resources into stopping the run.

 

It’s on the defensive side of the ball that Florida State appears to have the edge over the Badgers. The Seminoles finished the season with 36 sacks, while only allowing 3.7 yards per game and a measly one rushing touchdown a game. Compared to the Badgers, FSU gave up nearly five points less per game (20.8 to 25.3) and about thirty yards less per game (291.8 to 322.3). Florida State boasts one of the best defensive players in the country in defensive end Everette Brown, who finished third in the nation with 12.5 sacks and second in the nation with 20.5 tackles for loss. Brown is most likely leaving this year for an NFL career and will surely be attempting to put on a show for scouts. Fortunately for Wisconsin, its offensive line is overall bigger and more talented than FSU’s defensive unit and they should be able to get help on Brown.

 

As close as Wisconsin and Florida State seem to be coming into this first-ever matchup, there is one measuring stick that gives a clear advantage to FSU: the dreaded Sagarin computer rankings, which claim that the Seminoles are the 14th best team in the nation while ranking Wisconsin at a comparatively lowly 51st, just two spots ahead of Duke, which finished their season an unspectacular 4-8. While the Badgers and Seminoles are clearly closer in talent than those rankings indicate, it’s not hard to argue that the Atlantic Coast was a tougher conference in 2008 than the Big Ten was. And it’s also not hard to argue that since the game is in Orlando, Florida State has a huge home-field advantage that will likely be made more one-sided due to Badger fans being less likely to travel in these tough economic times.

 

As of this writing, Florida State is favored to win by five. Sounds about right. Prediction: Florida State 32, Wisconsin 27.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Tis The Season . . . For Regrets
December 12, 2008

If you’re like me, the end of the year is a time for reflection. Of thinking of the things that you did and didn’t do, of the ups and the downs. Basically, if you’re a “glass half-empty” kind of person like I am, it’s a time for regrets. Here are some of mine:

1. I regret that I allowed myself to fall in love with C.C. Sabathia.  Especially since I knew from the outset that the relationship between Sabathia and the Brewers was destined to be short-lived. But despite knowing better, I became seduced by how deep he went into games, by how he could “help his cause” at the plate, by how he could pitch on short rest time and time again. I fooled myself into thinking that he was having such a good time in Milwaukee playing for a good team with a lot of young talent that he could be persuaded to stay, even if, in comparison to other offers he was receiving, the Brewers’ contract could barely pay him enough for his family to survive.

But now he’s gone and I feel like a fool. And he didn’t even make good on his word to stay in the National League because he enjoyed hitting. He went for the money and only the money. He went to the Yankees. Disgusting. It’s all so seedy. I feel so used.  

And what are Brewer fans left with? Besides fond memories of the Brewers’ first postseason trip since 1982, just Gallardo, Bush, Suppan, McClung, and Parra. Ugh.

2. I regret that I had such high expectations for the Packers this year. Though I thought they should have brought back Favre, I believed that Rodgers could step in and be OK. And really, he has been fine, if frustratingly inconsistent. What I didn’t anticipate was the complete lack of discipline that this club has, which has resulted (through 13 games) in a league-leading 844 penalty yards and one of the sloppiest defenses in the NFC. (I believe they must have gotten tackling pointers from watching Bielema’s Badgers.)

Sunday’s game against Houston was simply atrocious, as the Packers lost a game — at home — that the Texans, through four turnovers, were trying desperately to give away. The 549 yards of total offense the Packers surrendered to the Texans — the Texans — was the most they had given up since 1983. (That was beforeHuey Lewis and the News were big.) And it could easily have been more had Houston not kept shooting themselves in the foot (insert Plaxico Burress joke here).

OK, there have been injuries, particularly on the defensive side of the ball. And yes, most of the losses have been close. But those arguments only thinly veil the truth that this is not a good football team.

This weekend’s game at Jacksonville should have been a marquee match-up. Instead both teams are mired in lousy seasons, leaving little reason to watch. But if you must, you must. But you’ll regret it. Jacksonville 20, Green Bay 14.

3. I regret being a little late to the Badgers’ basketball party this year. Distracted by Badger football, I didn’t really start watching until the Virginia Tech game. And there have been three thrilling games since then. The good news: The Badgers look to have a plethora of solid scorers, led by Hughes, Landry, Bohannon, and Leuer, all clocking in at double digit points per game (OK, Leuer is 9.8, but I round up). The bad news: The picture will become clearer once conference play begins on December 31, but even with four starters in double digits, the Badgers are still ninth in the Big Ten in scoring. And their once-smothering defense is looking a little average this year, only sixth in the Big Ten and a surprising tenth in field goal percentage defense.

4. I regret that I said the Bucks would make the playoffs. Of course, it’s too early to give up, but they are 9-15 and in twelfth place in the Eastern Conference. Let’s face it: It’s never too early to regret something about the Bucks.

5. I regret that I drafted LaDainian Tomlinson and Ryan Grant as my first two picks in my fantasy football league. Both have been wildly impressive — in their pursuit of unwavering mediocrity. Kind of like my wife’s Ford Focus.

6. I regret dating so many ex-girlfriends of former Dallas Stars forward Sean Avery. Sorry, dude, I really didn’t think it would bother you.

Basketball Trumps Football For Weekend Viewing
December 5, 2008

Although I believe for the most part that I am a fairly easy-going person, I am blindly anal retentive about certain things. If I’m watching a DVD, for instance, I need to go through every single extra on it. I’ve actually declined to buy movies because the DVDs had too much stuff on them.

Also, If I’m viewing a program on my TiVo, I have to adjust my scanning to catch every second of it, even the “this portion of 90210brought to you by Lunchables” sponsor tags, as I rationalize that such announcements are part of the program and not commercials. 

Finally, I’m fiercely protective of the seasons. In Wisconsin, people tend to elongate winter and summer and abbreviate spring and fall. Not me. No matter how much snow is on the ground and no matter how cold it is, if it’s December 5, it’s not winter, it’s autumn.

Why do I bring this up? Because this morning, as my friendly AM TV weather people informed me that Madison was waking up to a balmy two degrees, I decided to wise up. If it’s two degrees, it’s winter. You can only hold on to autumn for so long.

Just like Packer fans can only hold out hope for their team for so long. Last week’s crippling home loss to Carolina all but ensured that Green Bay will miss the postseason, sealing their fate as one of the most underachieving teams of the year. What’s worse is even rational people who can plainly see that the big dropoff from last year’s 13-3 team isn’t the fault of Aaron Rodgers can’t help but wonder if you-know-who wouldn’t have been able to squeeze victories out of some of these close losses (four of seven defeats by four points or less) that have doomed the Packers’ season. I guarantee McCarthy and Thompson have thought the same thing.

In that context, then, here’s what you should watch this weekend, in order of importance:

1. Wisconsin @ Marquette. 8:30 PM Saturday. ESPNU. I can respect someone who tells me that it’s too early for basketball. But for anyone looking for an antidote to the football Badgers’ or Packers’ struggles, I strongly suggest you start paying attention to Bo Ryan’s team, who are playing some very strong basketball. Tuesday’s 74-72 victory at Virginia Tech — where the Hokies rarely lose — was a supremely entertaining affair and one that led me to think that yes, Trevon Hughes, Marcus Landry, and sophomore  Jon Leuer (whose 6-of-11, 17-point, 6-rebound performance was the eye-opener for me) can take this team as far or perhaps farther than Alando Tucker and Kammron Taylor could.

2. Alaska-Anchorage @ Wisconsin. 7 PM Friday (FSN) and Saturday (WISC). After a brutal schedule led to a miserable 0-6-1 start, their worst since I believe hockey was invented, the Badgers have only lost one  game in their last nine and find themselves tied for fourth place in the WCHA, only three points behind first-place Minnesota. Hopefully they’ll have Saturday’s game in hand by 8:30 so you can switch over to the Badger basketball game. That is, if you have ESPNU.

3.   Alabama @ Florida. 3 PM Saturday. WISC.You know what bugs me? Those Sprint commercials with that pompous CEO strolling around imploring everyone to donate $100 a month to join Sprint’s revolutionary new landline free world. To my parents, a revolution meant political or social upheaval. We’re expected to believe that a revolution means the power to change our Facebook status from “bored” to “tired” while waiting on line to see Four Christmases. Depressing. Oh, yeah, this game. It’s a #1 versus a #2 with two powerhouse programs.  Nick Saban. Tim Tebow. Florida’s finesse offense versus Alabama’s crushing defense. Until Obama can get college football to wake up and give us a playoff system, this is as good as it gets. Watch it.

4. Houston @ Green Bay. 12 noon Saturday. WISC.(Hey, WISC is your sports home this weekend, isn’t it?) You’d think the Packers,  favored by seven at home, would win this one walking away. But hey, I thought that with LT, Ryan Grant, and Terrell Owens on my team that I’d win my fantasy football league walking away. Things don’t always work out as predicted, and neither will this game for those anticipating a Packer beatdown. Houston has quarterback Matt Schaub, who won his last three complete games before being injured against Minnesota, back under center, and also boasts a trio of dangerous offensive weapons in receivers Andre Johnson, Kevin Walter, and running back Steve Slaton. Both teams are 5-7, but Houston, playing in the same division as Tennessee and Indianapolis, don’t even have a whiff of the playoffs that the Packers still cling to. Houston’s also coming off a short week, having beaten Jacksonville in their first Monday Night Football appearance in their history, which would mean more if MNF was what it used to be. Although I’ve been wrong about them a lot lately, I like the Packers to win a close one. And if it’s not close (either way), turn over to WMSN to see if the Vikings have the services of Kevin and Pat Williams. If they don’t, maybe Detroit can salvage their first win of the season. I give the putrid Lions — with extra rest — a 20 percent chance if the Vikings are shorthanded.  

5. Dallas @ Pittsburgh. 3:15 PM Sunday. WMSN.Man, that Steelers defense is good. Makes me wonder about starting TO in my aforementioned fantasy league. Also makes me wonder if I’m spending too much time thinking about said fantasy league. Perhaps I should venture outside more often. Wait, it’s freezing out there. Forget it. Definitely not freezing are the tandem of Tony Romo and Terrell Owens, who have been lighting it up since Romo’s return. But I like Pittsburgh to shut them down.

6. Washington @ Baltimore. 7:30 PM Sunday. WMTV.No, this battle of the beltway (is that what they call it?) isn’t as bad as a Nationals/Orioles game, but it could be lower-scoring. I put the over-under on the number of times that Al Michaels has to pinch a sleepy (lots of cold turducken sandwiches for JM) John Madden awake at five.

Have a great weekend.