Archive for March, 2009

The Elite Eight Edition
March 29, 2009

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.

 

March Madness As Seen On TV
March 19, 2009

Some notes about coverage of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament that starts Thursday:

1. The Big Ten not only got hosed as far as getting a disproportionate number of lower (or is it higher?) seeds, but Big Ten fans wanting to watch conference teams are also getting the shaft.

On Thursday, Minnesota and Michigan play at the same time. On Friday, it’s even worse — Ohio State, Michigan State, and Wisconsin all play in the late window. Should they advance, Ohio State and Michigan State will both play at the same time on Sunday, while Michigan and Purdue would both play in the third window on Saturday should they survive Thursday.

So, Madison viewers, unless you subscribe to DirecTV’s Mega March Madness package or are OK with watching games on-line at ncaa.com, you won’t see Ohio State and Michigan State’s first round games, and the only way you’ll see any of the Michigan/Clemson game is if the Minnesota/Texas game is a blowout — which it could be.

2. Every year a west coast game is scheduled on late Thursday afternoon that is only broadcast to home markets. This year that game is the intriguing game between PAC-10 regular season champ Washington and SEC tournament champ Mississippi State.

This year that game will be available to cable and satellite viewers on the CBS College Sports Network. It’s at 3:45 PM and its available on DirecTV on channel 613 or on Charter channel 306. Typically Charter customers need to pay extra for the network as part of its Digital Sports Tier, but it is available via a free preview through April 9.

Whether the Mississippi State/Washington game is going to make or break your bracket is doubtful, but it will be nice to be able to actually see that elusive late afternoon Thursday game for a change.

3. This will be the first Road to the Final Four since 1974 that will not include curmudgeonly analyst Billy Packer. Yes, our long national nightmare is over. 

4. While I looked at President Obama’s filled-in bracket with much interest (he took chalk — boring), I couldn’t help but wonder if it’s really a good thing that he had time to do so. At the very least, shouldn’t the guy prioritize a nap over trying to breakdown the BYU/Texas A&M rematch? While I was annoyed on many levels that President Bush launched his Iraqi invasion at the same time as March Madness in 2003, part of me was sort of OK with the fact that he seemed oblivious of the tournament. Of course, I wasn’t OK with the fact that he seemed oblivious of so many other things — sorry, that was too easy to pass up.

5. Survivor fans take note: There is no Survivor episode March 19 or March 26. Now on Wednesday, March 25, there will be a Survivorat 7 PM, but it will be one of those completely unnecessary and completely missable “first half of season wrap-up” shows. And since this current season has so far been a stiff — although it seems it’s always a stiff until about merge time — fans should feel free to skip it. But I might tune in with the hopes that there will be lots of previously unaired footage of ousted hotties Carolina and Candace.

Best Thursday game: Butler/LSU.

Worst Thursday game: Connecticut/Chattanooga.

Best Friday game:  West Virginia/Dayton.

Worst Friday game: Louisville/Morehead State.

Enjoy the games.

March Madness Preview
March 16, 2009

So much for the Big Ten getting loads of respect from the NCAA selection committee. 

While it’s true that the seven Big Ten teams picked for the NCAA tournament ties a conference record while also tying the ACC and Big East conferences for most teams in the field of 64, one quick look at the seedings tells you that the three conferences are in no way equal in the eyes of the selection committee.

The Big East got three of the tournament’s four number one seeds — a record. None of its seven participants seeded lower than six (Marquette and West Virginia). Only one ACC team — Maryland — got a double-digit seed, earning the 10th spot out West.

In contrast, three of the Big Ten’s seven teams — Minnesota, Michigan, and Wisconsin — were seeded tenth or lower. Given that the lowest seeds are reserved for the champs of smaller conferences, you can bet that the three just barely made the cut. More precisely, while the selection commitee won’t comment, it seems a given that the Badgers and Arizona — both at-large 12 seeds — were the last two teams locked in.

After supposedly earning it all year long with strong non-conference wins (except for Penn State, which is why they’re headed to the NIT) and competitive league play, respect seems to still be in short supply for the Big Ten. That could change with some wins Thursday and Friday.

But with the lower seedings some of the conference’s teams are saddled with, that could prove tough. While I like Michigan’s chances to upset Clemson, you’d certainly have to give Texas the nod over Tubby Smith’s inexperienced and inconsistent Gophers. Even two of the higher-seeded Big Ten teams got tough matchups: In the Midwest, No. 9-seed Siena has a higher RPI rating than No. 8 Ohio State, and in the South,  No. 5 Illinois could be a victim of the dangerous 5-12 matchup against the Sun Belt champ Hilltoppers of Western Kentucky, who are just a year removed from a Sweet Sixteen run and this season beat No. 1 overall seed Louisville by 14 points. To my eye, Michigan State and Purdue are the only Big Ten locks to move on to the second round.

But what about Wisconsin? Could they beat No. 5-seeded Florida State out of the ACC? Well, could Sandy, the obnoxious 53-year-old bus driver from Kentucky, have won Survivor: Tocantins? The correct answer to both questions is: Yes, it’s in the realm of possibility. But you wouldn’t want your governor to bet your state’s stimulus money on it.

I’d be lying if I said I saw a lot of Florida State basketball this season. But as a Badger fan, many things scare me about this matchup: One, the Seminoles led the ACC in defense. If they can contain the more high-flying teams of the ACC, I shudder to think what they’ll be able to do to Wisconsin — a couple of those infamous Badger scoring droughts seem almost a certainty come Friday night. Two, the Seminoles boast the second-most dangerous offensive player in the ACC in guard Toney Douglas, who averages 21 points a game. Douglas clearly has the potential to take this game over offensively in a way that no Badger player does. Three, the Seminoles are playing well as of late, making it all the way to the ACC championship game, where they lost to Duke. The Badgers have lost three of their last five.

Those hoping for a Wisconsin upset can point to the Badgers’ tournament history, which includes 10 wins in the last seven straight tournaments under Bo Ryan. Florida State hasn’t even been in the field of 64 since 1998, the middle of the Dick Bennett era. Tournament experience, depth, and their defense should help Wisconsin keep the game close, but in the end the outcome should reflect the selection committee’s obvious ambivalence about inviting the Badgers to play. FSU 66, Wisconsin 55.

Here’s a capsule look at the four brackets:

Midwest: A stacked bracket that features not only the tournament’s number one seed in Louisville, but the best team in the Big Ten — Michigan State — the defending national champion — Kansas — and Pac-10 champion USC. Other teams that could go deep include Wake Forest, who finished tied for second in the ACC with Duke, West Virginia from the Big East, and Boston College, who’ve beaten North Carolina, Duke, and Florida State this year.

Final Four Pick: No. 1 Louisville. Big East champs. Enough said.

Could Surprise: No. 9 Siena. Great balance, experienced team that last year beat No. 4 Vanderbilt in opening round. 

Overrated: No. 3 Kansas. Yes, they’re the national champs. But the team is almost completely different from last year.

Don’t bother: No. 12 Arizona. Is it NCAA law that the Wildcats have to get in every year?

West: Perhaps the weakest overall region — except at the top, where top-seeded Connecticut and Memphis, which has won 25 in a row, reside. But even here, there are questions about Connecticut’s depth and postseason history (they lost in the first round last year) and Memphis’s soft Conference USA schedule. But Memphis shut up its doubters (including me) last year when it went all the way to the title game. Elsewhere, watch out for either Big 12 champ Missouri or Big Ten tourney champ Purdue.

Final four pick: No. 2 Memphis. I won’t doubt them again.

Could surprise: No. 13 Mississippi State. The SEC tournament champs have won six in a row.

Overrated: No. 6 Marquette. Have looked very ordinary since losing Dominic James.

Don’t bother: No. 12 Northern Iowa. Played one ranked team all season (Marquette). Lost by 30.

East:  Like the West, very strong at the top, but with a little more depth. Pittsburgh could win it all, while Duke, Villanova, Xavier, Florida State, and UCLA all seem to be capable of pulling some upsets. Villanova particularly looks dangerous, winning 12 of its last 15 in the Big East and boasting conference Coach of the Year Jay Wright. UCLA is only a year removed from going to the national semifinals and, despite losing several players off that team, still boasts the great Darren Collison. And can powerhouse Duke improve on its 1-2 mark in the last two tournaments?

Final four pick: Pittsburgh. Added scary offense to tough defense.

Could surprise: No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth. They beat Duke two years ago and boast at least one great player in senior Eric Maynor.

Overrated: No. 9 Tennessee. Bruce Pearl’s team ranks 224th in the nation in defense. Isn’t defense sort of important?

Don’t bother: No. 10 Minnesota. No seniors, inconsistent play down stretch.

South: A bracket loaded with great talent but also one loaded with questions. Will North Carolina guard Ty Lawson be healthy? Can Oklahoma bounce back from a pedestrian end to their season? Will Illinois’s Chester Frazier be able to return following a hand injury? And who is or are Stephen F. Austin? Outside of the obvious contenders, this bracket is full of programs with tournament experience: Gonzaga, LSU, Butler, and Western Kentucky. Should be a fun ride.

Final four pick: Syracuse. Am I drinking the orange Kool-Aid after their dramatic run through the Big East tournament? Probably.

Could surprise: No. 10 Michigan. Am I being a homer for the Big Ten here? Probably.

Overrated: No. 2 Oklahoma. Am I reading too much into their late-season slide? Probably.

Don’t bother: No. 13 Akron. Like you were going to pick them.

Final four picks: Louisville over Memphis. Pittsburgh over Syracuse.

National champion pick: Louisville. Congrats to Rick Pitino. You’ve got great hair and you’re going to win your second national title. Me, I’m still trying to figure out how Sandy passed Survivor‘s battery of psych tests.

Badgers: Should They Or Shouldn’t They?
March 15, 2009

Despite the Badgers early ouster in the Big Ten Tournament and a disappointing season overall, the smart money is that Wisconsin will be in the NCAA tournament for a remarkable eleventh straight season.

But is another invitation a lock? You could argue either way. Let’s look at five reasons why and five reasons why not.

If Wisconsin is invited to the tournament, it will be because:

1. Strength of schedule. Wisconsin played the 14th toughest schedule in the nation and still came out of it with a winning record. That’s huge.

2. Momentum. The Badgers went 7-2 following their six-game skid. They are playing winning basketball at the right time.

3. History. Wisconsin has proven that it can not only get invited to the tourney, but it can do some damage once in: They have a 19-13 all-time record in the big dance, and made a Sweet Sixteen run just last year.

4. Pedigree. Did I mention they’ve made gone to ten straight tournaments? Wisconsin has become an elite basketball program over the last several years, and elite programs often get the benefit of the doubt.

5. Close losses. Viewers of Badger games were reminded ad nauseum about how close the majority of Wisconsin’s losses were this season. But just because the message got beaten to death doesn’t make it any less true: The Badgers rarely get embarrassed. The committee wants close, entertaining games, which Wisconsin provides.

If Wisconsin is NOT invited to the tournament, it will be because:

1. Where are the quality wins? OK, this is a year in which almost any win in the Big Ten should be considered a quality win. But the Badgers lack that immediately recognizable impressive victory; the closest they came was a road win at Michigan in their first Big Ten game and a 13-point home victory over Illinois in February. Neither win exactly leaps off the page.

2. Too close for comfort. The Badgers’ tendency to play good teams close? Sometimes that bleeds over to how they play bad teams as well. Anyone remember a two-point victory over Iona? Or a two-point victory over Idaho State? Wisconsin has to hope that the selection committee doesn’t.

3. Long droughts. When broadcasting a Wisconsin game, producers have to make sure they have the “No Field Goals In The Last ___” graphic ready. Their six-minute drought against Ohio State on Friday was only the latest in a long line of scoring droughts this season. That kind of scoring inepitude can’t be too attractive to the committee.

4. No stars. Eight of the eleven Big Ten teams have a player or even two players that score more points than Wisconsin’s leading scorer, Marcus Landry. Yes, college basketball is more of a team game than the NBA. But individual players are still easier to market and promote than entire rotations.

5. What have you done for me lately? The selection committee may be tired of pundits complaining that the conference tournaments don’t mean anything. They could decide to send a message to some teams that were hoping for an at-large bid that blew it over the final weekend.

Again, I believe Wisconsin is in. (I also believe five other Big Ten teams will join them, although it appears that Minnesota and Michigan seem to have crawled onto the right side of the bubble, so I may be underestimating that number.) But there are enough rational reasons to keep them out that should stop anyone from thinking Wisconsin’s selection to the tournament is a slam dunk.

As I write this, it’s about fifteen hours to the selection show on CBS. Those hours can’t pass quickly enough.

Big Ten Tournament Preview
March 9, 2009

The Big Ten Tournament, held since 1998, is a bit like debating the merits of the classic, “old school,” Sesame Street characters (Ernie, Bert, Grover) compared to the newer, much more annoying, ones (Rosita, Abby Cadabby, Baby Bear) with your kindergartner.  It’s ultimately meaningless, but nevertheless an enjoyable way to spend several hours.

Do you like exciting, fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants unpredictability? Well, then spend a weekend with Charles Barkley, because you won’t find it at the Big Ten Tournament.  In the eleven years of the tourney, the champion has been either the #1 seed or #2 seed nine times. Four of the last five years has seen the #1 seed play the #2 seed in the championship game. If the NCAA tournament is “March Madness,” the Big Ten tournament is strictly “March Common Sense.”

The draw of a Big Ten team being able to play its way into the field of 64 with a strong showing in the Big Ten tournament has proven to be a false one: Only in 2001, when #6 seed Iowa won the whole thing and thereby received an automatic bid into the tournament could you realistically say that a team that was headed to the NIT played its way into the Big Dance. Even last year’s Illinois team, which made it all the way to the tournament championship game as a #10 seed, had to settle for the NIT.

(Side note: How long will we have to suffer with the NIT? Now that the NCAA owns the NIT, just expand the NCAA tournament and let the NIT die a horrible death already. Purists may complain, but it would increase interest in the tournament while alleviating the sting from those teams that would otherwise be subjected to the stigma of playing in the NIT “tournament of losers.”)

With the Big Ten having such a strong season, there is even less incentive than usual for teams to excel in the tournament: At least six teams should be in regardless of what happens this weekend, and the two teams that I believe are on the wrong side of the bubble — Minnesota and Michigan — will have to go deep into the tournament to make the trip to Indianapolis count. Of the two, Michigan certainly has the better chance. 

The team that has the most to lose is Penn State, who by losing at Iowa on Saturday drew the misfortune of playing home favorite Indiana in Thursday’s first round. A loss to the Hoosiers and the selection committee would almost certainly re-think inviting the Nittany Lions to the dance for the first time since 2001. Fortunately for Penn State and much to John Cougar Mellencamp’s chagrin, the Hoosiers flat-out stink.

Despite its history of predictability, despite its real lack of impact on the NCAA tournament, this year’s Big Ten tournament — due to the strength of the conference — should nevertheless produce some exciting basketball games. And no matter what, it beats watching “Korea vs. Pool B runner-up” in the World Baseball Classic.

Here’s a closer look at the tournament games:

Thursday’s First Round:

#8 Minnesota vs. #9 Northwestern. On paper it’s an upset, but will anyone be surprised if the Wildcats topple the Gophers? Northwestern has won five of its last seven, while the Gophers have lost six of its last nine. Oh, but the Gophers did whip the Cats by 27 just two weeks ago. That’s about as likely to happen again as The Love Guru 2. I’ll take Northwestern.

#7 Michigan vs. #10 Iowa. I like the Hawkeyes’ Jake Kelly. But I like Michigan’s combo of Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims more. Despite the fact that Iowa prevailed in their last meeting, give me Michigan.

#6 Penn State vs. #11 Indiana. Tom Crean will have this team winning at some point. But not now. Penn State will win, but the Hoosier-heavy home crowd might keep it close.

Friday’s Second Round:

#1 Michigan State vs. #9 Northwestern (projected). Despite some lapses, including a loss to the Wildcats in January, Tom Izzo’s team is clearly the best in the Big Ten and the only team I trust to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament. Give me the Spartans.

#4 Wisconsin vs. #5 Ohio State. The best game of the tournament’s first two rounds should come down to play makers. Unfortunately for Wisconsin, Ohio State will have the best player on the court in Evan Turner. If the Badgers can force the Buckeyes into turning the ball over like they were able to the last time the teams met (OSU coughed it up 19 times on Valentine’s Day), they’ll likely win. But I doubt it. In a close one, I’ll regrettably take the Buckeyes.

#2 Illinois vs. #7 Michigan (projected). Illinois is entering the season on a bit of a down note, having lost its last two games. But their defense (first in the conference) should be enough to get them past the Wolverines.

#3 Purdue vs. #6 Penn State (projected). Purdue is really sputtering offensively, shooting 34 percent in its last two games (both losses).  But they’ll get a boost from the Indianapolis crowd and they’re ultimately too talented to go winless in the tournament. I’ll take the Boilermakers.

Saturday’s Semi-Finals:

#1 Michigan State vs. #5 Ohio State (projected). The only drama to this game will be wondering when Tom Izzo is going to shave his head. Give me MSU.

#2 Illinois vs. #3 Purdue (projected). In a matchup of struggling teams, I’ll take the team struggling less. That’s Illinois.

Sunday’s Final:

#1 Michigan State vs. #2 Illinois (projected). Remember what I said about the frequency with which the #1 seed plays the #2 seed in the final of this tournament? Here it is again. As to which team will prevail, the Spartans won the Big Ten title outright by four games. No team has won the conference by such a large margin since 1985. The Spartans are good. The conference tournament — and maybe, maybe a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, but I doubt it — will be theirs.

Enjoy the games.

Crunch Time Ahead
March 4, 2009

When you write a sports blog, especially one named “Best Sports Blog of the Year” by the tiny republic of Togo (I tried to no avail to get the prime minister to post the ceremony on YouTube) you have to step up your game in the month of March. No more of these weekly postings. You have to spit out blogs like the Octo-Mom spits out kids. So here goes.

You’ll have to DVR Lost Wednesday night as there’s a big game taking place at  Williams Arena. While the Badgers would love to win for many reasons (revenge that gut-wrenching home loss back on January 15, secure first-round bye in Big Ten tournament, ruin the night for Prince, who is rumored to be attending), the truth is the game is much more important for the Gophers.

After starting the season 16-1, the Gophers have dropped seven of their last eleven and at this point are likely out of the NCAA picture. But the Gophers finish with two at home (Badgers, Wolverines); wins in both would give them 22 wins on the season and could reverse their tournament fortunes. The good news for Bucky is that the Badgers are playing much better defense as of late and aren’t likely to let the Gophers shoot 48 percent like they did in January. The bad news for Bucky is that the Gophers have only lost two games at home this season —  to Michigan State and Purdue — and their last four victories at home have been by an average of 20 points.

Bottom line is that Wisconsin, like my father on rib night at Old Country Buffet, will have their hands full on Wednesday. But a loss, unless it’s an unlikely blowout, won’t affect their tourney resume.

While the men’s Big Ten tournament is a week away, the Badger women’s basketball team starts their postseason play Thursday at 11 AM against Northwestern in the first round of the women’s tournament. While it won’t take a miracle to beat No. 10-seeded Northwestern — although the Wildcats can count the Badgers as one of their three Big Ten victories — it will take a miracle for the No. 7-seeded Badgers to survive much longer than that. Lisa Stone may need such a miracle for her to survive as the Badgers’ head coach.

The Badger men’s hockey team has a huge series against North Dakota this weekend. With a lead on Denver (one point) slimmer than Chris Berman after a year on the NutriSystem diet, North Dakota is trying to retain first place in the conference while the Badgers are hoping to bounce back from two straight disappointing series in order to secure home-ice advantage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. But with the Badgers lousy record at the Kohl Center lately, home-ice may not be in the best interest of Mike Eaves’s team.

Oh, and don’t forget about the women’s hockey this weekend. They’re playing in the WCHA semifinals against Minnesota Duluth on Saturday.

There is a lot going on, and I didn’t even get to the great seasons that Lost and 24 are having. March Madness is definitely not just for basketball any more.

It’s Award Season
March 1, 2009

Well, we’ve had the Grammys and the Oscars, and the Tony Awards are probably coming up or maybe have already happened or maybe are happening right now (really, they’re the Tonys, who cares), so we must be in award season. In light of this and to simultaneously honor and usher out the month of February — the worst sports month of the year — I present my own awards honoring the best and worst of the past 28 days.

The “Kevin James Is Paul Blart Mall Cop ‘What Recession?’ Award goes to: Fans of the Milwaukee Brewers, who helped the club set a franchise record for one-day sales by moving 104,000 single-game tickets in six hours on February 28. As pleased as I am about the Brewers’ awesome support, I can’t help but wonder if the fans who had lined up for days at Miller Park for the so-called “Arctic Tailgate” know something I don’t about the Brewers’ questionable starting rotation. I hope so.

The “Kevin James Is Paul Blart Mall Cop ‘What Recession?’ Award Part Two goes to:Manny Ramirez, who just last week rejected the Los Angeles Dodgers’ fourth contract offer this offseason. The clueless outfielder apparently feels that $45 million for two years’ work is somehow insulting. Defenders of Ramirez argue that much of the money in the Dodgers’ offer is deferred, and that he wouldn’t completely collect on the tens of millions of dollars until as late as 2013. No doubt fans in California, where unemployment has soared into the double digits, wholeheartedly understand Boras’s and Ramirez’s argument. About as much as I understand everything happening this season on Lost.

The Mickey Rourke Comeback Award goes to: The Wisconsin Badgers men’s basketball team. Despite a miserable second half in the February 22 loss at Michigan State, February was a very good month for Bo Ryan’s team. Five straight wins, highlighted by a return to dominating defense and rebounding, put the team right back into the NCAA men’s basketball tournament picture. Three very winnable games in March to close out the regular season should give the Badgers no worse than an eight seed in the Big Dance.

“The Joaquin Phoenix/Gov. Bobby Jindal Worst Performance Award” goes to: Alex Rodriquez. Really? A-Rod’s not telling us the whole  truth? Not since fast food restaurants were exposed for being unhealthy has investigative journalism been so easy. The long pauses, lack of eye contact, and overall incomprehensibility of A-Rod’s February 17 “tell-all” press conference added up to the year’s most painful acting performance not given by Paris Hilton. Jon “Yeah, that’s the ticket” Lovitz should sue A-Rod for copyright infringement.

The “Fading Faster Than Melanie Griffith’s Career” Award goes to: The Wisconsin men’s hockey team. After a spectacular close to 2008, Mike Eaves’s team has gone 6-7-1 in 2009. What’s worse is the team has gone 2-6 at home since January. The team can still score a home playoff series in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, but there’s no doubt this team has cooled.

“The Matt Kenseth Hometown Hero Award” goes to: Matt Kenseth. By the time you read this, the Cambridge native may have made NASCAR history by winning the first three races of 2009. Even if his March 1 attempt in Las Vegas falls short, Kenseth had a remarkable February, winning the Daytona 500 and then a week later emerging victorious at the Auto Club 500. I don’t claim to be the world’s leading authority on auto racing, but it’s clear that Kenseth is in rarefied air right now.

The “Sarah Palin Fighting For Relevance in 2009 Award” goes to: The Milwaukee Bucks. Despite losing Michael Redd in late January for the season, despite losing Andrew Bogut days later until at least the end of March, and despite, well, being the Milwaukee Bucks, the Bucks are still treading water in the improved East. They are four games under .500 but still hold onto the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. The bad news is only 3.5 games separate them and the five teams below them. And it’s only March 1. But hey, if the Bucks fail, they can always blame Tina Fey.