Home / Sports / Every Day Is Christmas With College Hoops
Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011

Every Day Is Christmas With College Hoops

Google+ Pinterest Print
The NBA apparently will return on Christmas Day, and the Observers think one big reason is that the millionaires on both sides of the lockout realized they wouldn't be missed until April—if then. Yes, college basketball is that good—always available on the tube and more compelling in its rivalries and personal connections to fans.

That last component will be on vivid display Saturday in Madison when the state's top two programs have their annual showdown. Marquette vs. Wisconsin always stirs the passions, and both teams have well-earned national stature. When they move on to their conference battles, fans of good basketball will see all they can handle.

Frank
: As we've said before, MU and UW have different styles, but they're exactly alike in the most important quality a team can have.

Artie
: They always play hard, which is a tribute to the coaches, ain'a?

Frank
: When you watch Bo Ryan's Badgers, it's easy to see a system at work. There's a rhythm to it—multiple passes before a shot, movement off the ball, the big men shifting from the paint to the three-point arc, the discipline and positioning on defense.

Artie
: And those things don't change no matter what the score is.

Frank
: When you see Buzz Williams' Golden Eagles, the choreography isn't so obvious. But it's a system too; let's call it constant energy—swirling movement on offense that can look chaotic at times, more gambling and double-teaming on defense.

Artie
: And always looking to break down the other team with their intensity.

Frank
: A system that's mostly “play your guts out” rather than “five passes before a shot, watch your spacing." When the Eagles look bad on offense, they can look really bad, with guys going one-on-one or flinging threes. When the Badgers look bad on offense, it's more likely that their shots just aren't dropping.

Artie
: But each team is gonna leave everything it has on the court, especially on defense, because the coach won't accept anything less.

Frank
: Ryan and Williams also are good at keeping the good times rolling despite the turnover in players. After his first year, Williams lost the Big Three of Jerel McNeal, Wesley Matthews and Dominic James, but he got 20-plus wins again with Lazar Hayward and Jimmy Butler leading the way. Last season Ryan lost two starters, Jason Bohannon and Trevon Hughes, but the Badgers didn't lose a beat. Now Ryan has lost two important big men, Jon Leuer and Keaton Nankivil.

Artie:
But this year I think UW may be even better. Leuer was such a go-to guy that if he had an off night, they had a hard time scoring. Now they figure to have more balanced scoring.

Frank
: Led by Jordan Taylor, their preseason All-American point guard?

Artie
: Not necessarily. Other holdovers are Josh Gasser, who played great as a freshman guard, and Mike Bruesewitz. Jared Berggren at 6-10 has a nice outside shot like Leuer, and Ben Brust, a sophomore who didn't play much last season, can really shoot the lights out.

Frank:
Just ask Brigham Young, which he torched with seven 3s Saturday night as UW won the Chicago Invitational.

Artie:
So far Taylor doesn't have to score much and can be more of a “pure” point guard. The ball is really moving around, and it's fun to watch!

Frank
: There's a big test Wednesday when the Badgers play at North Carolina, which will be, um, motivated after losing at UNLV. As for the Golden Eagles, they did a Jekyll-and-Hyde with Norfolk State—beating them by 31 at home but almost losing to them in the final of the Virgin Islands tournament.

Artie
: That second half showed the Eagles looking pretty wild. But at times they also showed some pretty good inside play with Chris Otule and Davante Gardner.

Frank
: Wow, that Gardner looks like he could be a real “aircraft carrier,” in Al McGuire's language, the kind they haven't had since maybe Jerome Whitehead in the '70s.

Artie
: At 6-8 he's more wide than tall. And as a sophomore, he's still a work in progress.

Frank
: So the Eagles will rely on Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder for a lot of offense.

Artie
: Plus they have Jamil Wilson, a transfer from Oregon, who was a terrific high-school player at Racine Horlick. At a quick 6-7, he could be the next Butler. Plus they need production in the backcourt from Vander Blue, who didn't show much as a freshman.

Frank
: The preseason rankings project a rougher season for MU in the Big East than for UW in the Big Ten. Sports Illustrated had the Badgers at No. 13 nationally and Ohio State the only conference rival ahead of them at No. 3. The Eagles weren't in SI's top 20, but five Big East teams were—UConn, Pitt, Syracuse, Louisville and Cincinnati.

Artie
: But Williams always has them ready to compete with anyone. Same as Bo.

Frank
: Barring disaster, we know both teams will reach the NCAA tournament; after all, the field is 68 teams. To me, that greatly dilutes the value of finishing high in the conference. The "Big Dance" is all that really matters.

Artie
: Which makes college hoops no different from the NBA, really—except that with only 30 or so regular-season games, each is more important.

Frank: Even with “only” 66 games for this NBA season instead of 82, there'll be plenty of snoozers.

Artie:
If the NBA thinks the Christmas Day return is some big gift, I'd like to exchange it for something smaller—like a 50-game season. For me, college games are just more enjoyable to watch.

Frank
: So we're looking at MU being anywhere from mid-level in the Big East to a surprising second or third. And if they get to the semifinals in the conference tournament, it'll be a first for Williams.

Artie
: And UW should be a solid challenger to Ohio State and its superstar, Jared Sullinger.

Frank
: Then both teams try to repeat their twin Sweet 16 appearances from last March.

Artie
: And let's not forget the other program in town. UWM is projected to be fourth in the Horizon League, but last season Rob Jeter and his guys won the regular-season conference title, beating Butler twice.

Frank
: And all Butler did was reach the NCAA title game for the second straight year. This season the Panthers started 4-0 and played Michigan State tough for a half in East Lansing. So don't underestimate them.

Artie
: I think we can expect all three of these teams to be successful.

Our Brains Say Braun

Frank: I was surprised to hear a couple of the TV talking heads object to Ryan Braun's winning the MVP award over the Dodgers' Matt Kemp. One dissenter was Bill Plaschke, who's an L.A. guy, but there were others who backed Kemp, noting that he led the league in homers and RBIs.

Artie
: Yeah, he almost won the Triple Crown, but the fact is that he didn't. Braun was second in hitting and first in both slugging percentage and that fashionable OPS stat—on-base percentage plus slugging.

Frank
: Someone else noted that Kemp is a Gold Glove center fielder.

Artie
: But since when is defense a major factor in the MVP?

Frank
: ESPN's Tim Kurkjian made a good point—Braun got his numbers playing in games that really mattered in the standings. Kemp's team was never in the running.

Artie
: Performance under pressure! Braun had so many clutch hits, especially in the last month of the season. To take Kemp over Braun is just absurd.