February. Why This Year Is Different. Maybe.

Most Februaries, I’m depressed. Since February is the worst month of the sports calendar, there’s not a lot — outside of the new editions of Survivor and The Amazing Race — to look forward to. (And last year, we didn’t even get a new TAR, but we did get a new Big Brother, which as always was simultaneously horrifying and marvelous.)

But February 2009 looks like it’ll be different. I’m not saying that sports-wise it’s going to compete with this year’s March or October, but there are definitely some intriguing things going on. Here’s what’s what:

1. Badger men’s basketball. I’ll admit that on January 31, when the Badgers lost their sixth straight to Northwestern, I had pretty much given up hope. But their back-to-back impressive wins against Illinois and Penn State have given Badger fans a little glimmer of hope.

The Illinois win was  impressive because the Badgers offense finally came to life (well, except for TrevonHughes, and even he was great defensively in that game), avoiding those long droughts that plagued them for the month of January. The Penn State game was if anything more impressive because of their defense, as they held a high-scoring team to only 37 percent field goal shooting — heck, Joe Krabbenhoft scored as many points as Talor Battle, the Big Ten’s leading scorer.

If the Big Ten keeps eating each other alive — and there is no indication that it won’t, as Illinois beat Purdue Sunday, and Iowa and Ohio State beat higher-ranked opponents Northwestern and Minnesota Saturday — there is no reason why the Badgers, with at least five very winnable games in its final seven, can’t sneak in to the field of 64. Especially if Marcus Landy, Jason Bohannon, and Jon Leuer can continue their dominance on the boards and keep making a high percentage of their shots. (All three shot 50 percent or better the last two games.)

And that’s what on some level makes this February more interesting: Can the Badgers, whose participation in March Madness most of us had started to take for granted, make a run at their 11th straight tourney bid now that they are suddenly one of the underdogs of the conference? Stay tuned, starting Wednesday night at home against Iowa.

2. Badger hockey. Going into its bye week, the men’s team is tied for the WCHA lead with 28 points. And this after getting off to a 0-4-1 start. Next on the Badgers’ schedule? Co-WCHA leader Denver at home with the conference lead on the line. So the Kohl Center should be rocking come February 20 (a game you can see live on My Madison TV! Got to get the plugs in!).  And don’t forget about the women’s team, which is only one point out of first place with two seemingly easy series left to play. Could another championship be looming?

3. The Michael Phelps saga. While it’s true that Phelps is only 23 and maybe should be cut some slack being caught indulging in the sort of behavior that many 23-year-olds indulge in, it’s also true that he long ago traded in his right to live as a “normal” kid or young man. That’s what you lose for that $5 million (a conservative estimate) in annual endorsement money.

But people get upset about Michael Phelps because of his supposed standing as a “role model.” Well, who’s a bigger role model to most kids, Michael Phelps or Lil Wayne? My guess would be that most kids would rather live the life of a Grammy Award-winning music superstar over a Olympic-champion swimmer, and the music superstar is allowed to pontificate on his love of marijuana on a CBS primetime network special without seemingly anyone coming down too hard on him.

The photographic evidence that Michael Phelps enjoys weed (at least on one occasion) is hardly going to rock American youth to its core. (Now if it was revealed that the feud between T.I. and Lil’ Flip was all staged, then you’d have rioting in the streets.)

4. The A-Rod saga. The most memorable thing for me in all of this will likely turn out to be that great New York Post headline (“A-Hole”). If that headline doesn’t single-handedly save the struggling newspaper industry, then what will? But really, another day, another baseball superstar admits to steroid use. Ho hum. The real criminals in all of this are the leaders of Major League Baseball, who did nothing about the steroid problem until they were forced to. You can’t wipe away the records from the “steroid era,” but there’s not much that’s been accomplished over the last several years that’s not in question. I personally don’t think less of A-Rod today than I did last week. And the fact that there was no reported evidence of him using anything last week says all you need to know about how much I trust any baseball player of the modern era.

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