In honor of this weekend’s Elite Eight, here are the eight things on my Nintendo DS-saturated mind (my six-year-old son has been on spring break and in the process has been trying to set a record for most hours of video games played consecutively without breaks for sleeping, eating, going to the bathroom, or blinking) right now:
1. The Wisconsin Badgers basketball team:Now that the season is over, I have to say that as disappointed as most fans were this year, if anything this team actually overachieved. Consider the facts: They lost crucial pieces last year; they were prone to horrific offensive droughts that were a result of not having a consistent big-time scorer (I cringed whenever the announcers on the Big Ten Network claimed that Jason Bohannon was the best shooter in the conference); and perhaps most significantly, the Big Ten was overall vastly improved from recent seasons. Given all that, the fact that the Badgers not only sneaked into the NCAA tournament but gave their fans one thrilling upset victory and one very close loss, I view as mightily impressive.
It’s a credit to Bo Ryan and his program that we in Wisconsin take Badger basketball success for granted. And it’s a bit of a shame that we grumble about a disappointing year when Penn Stateand Northwestern fans are much happier about less successful seasons put up by their not-ready-for-prime-time teams. It’s like critics who quibble about the new Springsteen album but give a pass to the Jonas Brothers’s latest. It’s all about expectations.
2. The favorites reigning supreme in the NCAA basketball tournament. I like it. I don’t need the tournament to be a real-life Bad News Bearswhere the scrappy team from the wrong side of the tracks rises up and beats the meanies from the big schools to be interested. Because when you have a double-digit seed surpassing expectations, chances are you’re eventually going to be subjected to a laugher like Friday night’s romp by No. 1 Louisville over No. 12 Arizona. I don’t object to Cleveland State beating Wake Forest in the first round (despite the havoc it wrecked on my bracket), but once we get into the Sweet Sixteen, I want the best teams playing each other. And that’s what we got Friday night with Michigan State/Kansas and Saturday night with Villanova/Pittsburgh. The best basketball of the season and not the Cinderella stories – that’s what
March is all about.
3. The Big Ten’s performance in the tournament. As I write this, only Michigan State is alive (in the Elite Eight) from the original group of seven from the Big Ten. The conference fared OK in the tournament – I’d give them a solid B. Sure, Illinois and Ohio Statewere upset in the first round, but they both had very tough matchups against teams arguably seeded too low. And to counter those two upset losses, three other conference teams — Wisconsin, Michigan, and Purdue – scored impressive upset victories. Only Minnesota followed its given seeding (No. 10) and exited when it was “supposed” to. (Michigan State could add to the Big Ten’s record by beating Louisville on Sunday, which would clearly be the conference’s biggest upset of the tournament.) However, anyone silly enough to claim that this year’s Big Ten crop is as good as this year’s Big East teams would probably also claim that Jim is the more talented of the Belushi brothers.
4. The Badgers football team opening up spring practice.As long as the Badgers remain the Minnesota Vikings of the Big Ten – which translated nicely means they are unsettled at the quarterback position – it is difficult to muster much enthusiasm at this point. Perhaps Curt Phillips or Jon Budmayr will impress enough before September to break from the pack. Or perhaps the Badgers will fulfill most admittedly ridiculously early offseason predictions and finish ninth in the conference.
5. The NFL debating whether to go to 17 or 18 regular-season games by 2010.I am all for expanding the regular NFL schedule – especially if it means continuing the season deeper into the sports-light month of February. But I disagree with limiting the number of preseason games to two. Not only do I believe that coaches need the four preseason games to properly evaluate talent, I think you’d see crappier games the first couple of weeks of the season – not to mention increased numbers of injuries – as players won’t have had the time to properly gel as units. Of all the professional sports, only football seems to have constant debate swirling around it in regards to its amount of preseason games. No one seems worried about the weeks and weeks of baseball spring training (oh, it’s a traditional rite of spring! Yeah, so’s clearing my yard of dog waste, but I don’t need to do it for six weeks) or basketball or hockey preseason. I think that’s because by the time August finally comes around, fans are so hungry for football that they don’t have the patience for glorified scrimmages. Well, as my father said when I wanted a ColecoVision months after he had bought me an Atari 2600, too bad.
6. Dick Enberg.Watching the NCAA basketball tournament reminds me of how much I like to hear the wonderful Dick Enberg call games. I might even watch soccer if Mr. Enberg was in the booth. In fact, if my father wasn’t named Dick, Dick Enberg would be my favorite Dick of all time. (I wonder if Dick Enberg was my dad if he would have bought me that ColecoVision . . .)
7. The Milwaukee Brewers season opener is just days away. Unfortunately, unlike Julia Louis-Dreyfus, the Brewers’ scheduled starting rotation for the 2009 season does not look any better with the passage of time.
8. The Wisconsin Badgers women’s hockey team. Local sportswriters and sportsbroadcasters — myself duly included — do not pay enough attention to them. Congratulations on another spectacular season.