Archive for March, 2013

Breaking down the Big Ten tourney teams
March 21, 2013

Mr. Belding gives the Big Ten two thumbs up!

Mr. Belding gives the Big Ten two thumbs up!

If you believe the hype, the biggest story of the NBA’s 2012-2013 season – outside of the Milwaukee Bucks still being over .500 in late March – is the Miami Heat’s colossal win streak.

While undoubtedly impressive, the win streak – which stands at 24 as of this writing, second only to the Lakers’ 33-game streak back in 1971-1972 – to me completely strips away whatever little drama there was to be had in this NBA season.

Barring a series of unfortunate injuries, who is going to beat the Heat in the playoffs?

I’ll tell you who: Nobody. We’ll be lucky if either the Eastern Conference Finals or NBA Finals aren’t four-game sweeps.

Even after downing a couple Mountain Dew Kickstarts, I’m getting drowsy just thinking about the rest of the NBA season.

But I don’t need a delicious combination of Mountain Dew, real fruit juice, and the just right amount of kick to be engrossed in the 2013 men’s NCAA basketball tournament.

The way I see it, you could make a not-entirely-ridiculous argument for about 20 teams’ chances to cut down the nets on Monday, April 8, in Atlanta.

And that includes a handful of Big Ten teams.

In fact, the most interesting topic to be explored during this year’s tournament – particularly in the rounds of 64 and 32 – is how dominant the invited Big Ten teams will be.

All season long, college basketball fans have been inundated with the opinion that the Big Ten is far and away the country’s best basketball conference.

Analysts have indicated that Bo Ryan, Thad Matta, Tom Izzo, et al – not to mention their players – will be ecstatic to play teams from other, less talented, less athletic – less good – conferences.

It’s as if playing the likes of South Dakota State and Mississippi is akin to hooping it up with the Flint Tropics or Washington Generals.

I expect the Big Ten teams to rise to the challenge of these heightened expectations.

Sort of.

Let’s look at each of the tourney’s seven Big Ten teams and how far they are each likely to take their dreams of a national championship.

Minnesota (No. 11 seed, South Region). No Big Ten team has been as unpredictable as the Golden Rodents. After starting the season at 15-1 with an who-can-blame-them loss to Duke being its only setback, Goldy went into a vicious tailspin, losing eleven of its final sixteen games. But two of the late-season wins came against then-No. 1 Indiana and the nasty Wisconsin Badgers, showing that Minnesota is capable of beating just about anyone. Well, anyone at home. The Gophers haven’t won away from the friendly confines since January 9. Since they won’t be playing any tournament games at Williams Arena, their championship prospects look bleak at best. But their initial opponent, Pac-12 regular season champ UCLA, is young and injury-riddled. The Gophers will upset the Bruins before being sent back to the still-frigid Twin Cities by the Florida Gators.

Illinois (No. 7 seed, East Region). Unlike the Gophers, the Fighting Illini have largely righted their season since a putrid 1-6 stretch early in conference play. But John Groce’s team did finish the season in a 2-4 slump, and only one of their players, guard Brandon Paul, has been a consistently reliable offensive threat throughout the year. If any Big Ten team is going to go down in the first – sorry, second; can’t forget about those thrilling “first four” games – it looks to be Illinois going up against the deeper Buffaloes of Colorado.

Wisconsin (No. 5 seed, West Region). Of all the Big Ten teams invited to the tournament, the Badgers have the most to complain about. They go to the championship game of supposedly the nation’s toughest conference and end up with a lower seed than either of the teams they vanquished along the way? And they’re rewarded with playing a real tough No. 12 seed – the Rebels of Mississippi – who just won the SEC tournament? Look, we all know that the Badgers can go colder than the ratings for NBC’s Smash, and when that happens, they can lose to anybody. But the play of Ryan Evans in the Big Ten tournament was revelatory, Jared Berggren and Ben Brust continue to hit timely shots, and their defense is as tenacious as my daughter refusing to settle for anything less than the entire bag of neon sour gummy worms. I like Bo Ryan’s team to reach their third-straight Sweet Sixteen before succumbing – barely – to the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs.

Michigan (No. 4 seed, South Region). The Wolverines have been nothing short of awesome most of the year, but their shocking loss to Penn State on February 27 is a cold reminder of the anyone-can-beat-anyone-at-any-time one-and-done finality of the NCAA tournament. Still, Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr., are one of the best guard combos in the country, and the rest of their starting rotation is young but solid. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re starting tournament play at the Palace in Auburn Hills, Mich. The Wolverines will join Wisconsin in the Sweet Sixteen before losing to Kansas.

Michigan State (No. 3 seed, Midwest Region). Like the Wolverines, the Michigan State Spartans get to start tournament play close to home in Auburn Hills. But unlike the favorable seeding given to the Wolverines, the selection committee placed Tom Izzo’s team in the tournament’s toughest bracket. But if any team is up to the challenge, it’s Sparty, who seem to play their best basketball in March as routinely as the post-Weekend Update sketches on Saturday Night Live stink. Look for Michigan State to be one of the Elite Eight teams, a prediction I’d feel better about if not for that surprising three-game dive the Spartans took about a month ago.

Ohio State (No. 2 seed, West Region). There’s not a team in college basketball I’ve been more impressed with lately than the Buckeyes. They’re able to play any style of ball their opponents try to throw at them – I was particularly struck by how they beat the Badgers in the Big Ten conference tourney final by being more physical, more suffocating on defense, and more deliberate on offense than Bucky. But they’ll have to be just the opposite against Iona, a team that puts up the second-most points in the nation. If they get past the running Gaels of Iona – and are you willing to bet they won’t? – I love Ohio State’s chances of landing in their second straight Final Four.

Indiana (No. 1 seed, East Region). What is it about Indiana that leaves me not as impressed as everybody else? Their fans include President Obama, who has picked the Hoosiers to win this year’s championship. I guess it’s because I look at them through Badger red-colored glasses, which – given that Bucky has beaten them 12 straight times – means they are extremely fallible. But no one can deny that Cody Zeller and Victor Oladipo are awesome ballers or that Tom Crean has done a tremendous job rebuilding this historic program in a breathtakingly short time. I just don’t see this Hoosier story ending on the same upbeat note as the classic Gene Hackman film. Besides, “Bracket” Obama hasn’t picked the correct national champion since 2009. I say Indiana falls to Miami (FL) in the Elite Eight.

My Final Four: Duke, Ohio State, Kansas, Miami (FL)

My Championship Game: Duke vs. Kansas.

My Champion: Kansas. It surprises me too.

Wisconsin Badgers: A “wild and crazy” season
March 13, 2013

They brought back Aykroyd and Chase but not Piscopo? What are they thinking?

They brought back Aykroyd and Chase but not Piscopo? What are they thinking?

It was with mixed emotions that I saw Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd reprise their “wild and crazy guys” Festrunk Brothers on last weekend’s star-studded (I guess Aykroyd and Chevy Chase still qualify as stars?) “Saturday Night Live.”

As a huge fan of the original “SNL,” I ate it up. But there’s no doubt the reboot came off a bit clunky: Aykroyd used to be the thin contrast to his late partner John Belushi, but now looks heavier than Belushi ever did, the 67-year-old Martin struggled to read the cue cards, and both performances came off as stiff imitations of their 1970s creations, as if they were doing a parody of themselves.

And it didn’t help any that in the face of the reunited pairing of Andy Samberg and host Justin Timberlake, Martin and Aykroyd were badly upstaged.

(However, It was nice that the studio audience gave the old-timers a very robust reaction, but you have to imagine that many of those cheering had no idea who or what they raising the roof for.)

I had a similarly mixed reaction to the weekend that the Badger men’s basketball team enjoyed: Yes, I was thrilled that Bo Ryan was deservedly named the Big Ten Coach of the Year, and I was also relieved that Michigan (25-6) lost to Indiana (26-5) in the conference’s regular-season finale, a loss that secured Wisconsin a first-round bye in this week’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament.

But I can’t help but feel that the Badgers (21-10) are themselves due to be upstaged, perhaps as early as Friday’s game against either Michigan (likelier) or Penn State (hey, has happened and could again).

Before getting into the Big Ten tournament – which should be terrifically entertaining – let’s take a quick look back on the Badgers’ regular season:

Most valuable player: I’d like to give this to coach Ryan, without whom the Badgers might have flamed out this year after losing guard Josh Gasser to an offseason injury. But taking Bo out of the mix leaves only two real candidates: Senior forward Jared Berggren and junior Ben Brust. Though Berggren led the team in scoring, rebounding, and blocks, I would still give the nod to Brust. With the loss of Gasser, Ryan relied on the junior like CBS relies on the crime procedural: Brust led the team in playing time with 34 minutes a game. He also proved to be a fine defender, and – crucial for a team that shoots from beyond the arc as much as the Badgers – was the team’s best three-point shooter. Brust’s clutch shooting can be summed up in one word: Michigan.

Biggest surprise (positive): The buzz was fairly significant for Sheboygan’s Sam Dekker, with many calling him the greatest home state player to commit to Wisconsin in many years. And, unlike pretty much any program on NBC’s schedule, Dekker delivered the goods, leading the team in both field goal and three-point percentage. When your team’s best shooter is a freshman, the future is bright.

Biggest surprise (negative): I hate to be a hater, but the unsolved mystery of what happened to Ryan Evans would have kept Robert Stack guessing for weeks on end. If Wisconsin was the Big Ten team that was prone to the season’s longest and most painful scoring droughts, then Ryan Evans was the Badgers’ poster child. The best thing about the senior’s shooting woes (under 40 percent for the season with just two made 3-pointers all year) was that his struggles from the floor weren’t as noticeably ugly as his struggles from the free-throw line. Evans’s late-season decision to “jump shoot” his free throws became one of most laughable sights on a basketball court since the days of the Vlade Divac flop. His defense kept him (mostly) out of coach Ryan’s doghouse, but if any Badger needs redemption this postseason, it’s Evans.

Best game: The February 17 showdown between No. 13 Ohio State and No. 20 Wisconsin surprisingly turned into a laugher as the Badgers turned in their best all-around performance of the season, shooting 53 percent while holding the Buckeyes to their lowest point total of the year. At one point in the game’s first half, the Badgers went on an 18-0 run to take a 24-6 lead, in the process looking like the best team in the nation’s best basketball conference. Honorable mention: The January 15 upset at Indiana that legitimized the Badgers as true 2013 contenders.

Best moment: This is the biggest no-brainer since Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor award for “Lincoln”: Ben Brust’s half-court shot against Michigan to force overtime in a February 9 game that the Badgers would eventually win 65-62. Even Bo Ryan was excited by the shot and, as Mike Bruesewitz said at the time, “When he shows some emotion, you’ve done something pretty special.”

Worst game: Any Badger fan who sat through the entire March 7 58-43 loss to Michigan State deserves a personal apology from Bo Ryan and a personal visit from Bucky Badger to the birthday party, bar mitzvah, or debutante ball of his or her choice. Anyone who played a drinking game that night requiring them to take a shot every time the ESPN announcers said “the Badgers haven’t scored since . . .” is still sleeping it off.

Worst moment: Several low points occurred in the Badgers’ 58-53 loss at Minnesota on what was a not-so-sweet Valentine’s Day matchup: Many of them, including Ryan Evans missing five free throws, occurred during an 8:48 second-half/overtime stretch where the Badgers didn’t score a single point. But the worst was Mike Bruesewitz’s baseline violation with 22.6 seconds left, a crucial turnover that allowed the Gophers to tie up the game, which they would win in overtime.

So, with a surprisingly close victory against Big Ten doormat Penn State to close out a surprisingly good season on an alarmingly alarming note that saw the Badgers lose two of their last three games in ugly fashion, what can we expect from Wisconsin in this week’s Big Ten tournament?

First off, it has to be pointed out that the Big Ten tournament has historically had about as many jaw-dropping surprises in it as an episode of “The Wonder Pets.” In its fifteen years of existence, the No. 1 or No. 2 seed has won the conference tournament twelve times. When Iowa won in 2001 as a No. 6 seed, it marked the only year in which a team without an opening-round bye emerged victorious.

So, if history can be counted on, the fact that Wisconsin is off on Thursday is significant.

Or is it?

This year, the Big Ten has not lacked for surprises, a fact that could very well continue into the tournament.

But I doubt it.

A March 2 blowout loss to the Gophers notwithstanding, Penn State is a different team now than it was when it was dropping fourteen straight conference games. Unfortunately for them, they open against Michigan, about the only team in the conference looking for revenge on the Nittany Lions.

Once Michigan has had a taste of revenge by easily toppling Penn State, they will be looking for more, namely against the Badgers, who beat the Wolverines in that thriller in Madison on February 9.

That stunner against Penn State notwithstanding, Michigan has been playing excellent basketball as of late, including March wins against Purdue and Michigan State, two teams that just toppled Wisconsin. Michigan also has Trey Burke, one of the top players in the country, and I’m predicting he does better from the floor than the 8-of-21 he chalked up in Madison. I’m also predicting there will be no miracle shot this time around for Wisconsin and that Michigan will advance.

Looking ahead to the semifinals, I like Indiana to again defeat Michigan, and I see Ohio State squeaking out a win against Michigan State. Finally, despite playing in their home state, I predict Indiana will fall to Ohio State in Sunday’s tournament final. Why? That loss to Wisconsin on February 17 has obviously re-energized the Buckeyes, who have not lost since that game, dispensing of Michigan State and Indiana in the process.

That would give Ohio State its fifth Big Ten tournament title and its third in the last four years.

Sounds predictable? Hey, that’s the Big Ten tournament for you.

Just goes to show that some things, like the inability of the Festrunk brothers to score with the “foxes,” never change.