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Wednesday, Aug. 28, 2013

WISCONSIN BADGERS: RED-LETTER SATURDAYS

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The Wisconsin Badgers rode a roller-coaster last football season. Despite four conference losses UW reached the Big Ten title game because of sanctions to Ohio State and Penn State. The Badgers routed Nebraska for the conference crown but suffered a third straight Rose Bowl heartbreak.

Now there's a new coach, Gary Andersen, and Ohio State is once again formidable and playoff-eligible. So the season that begins Saturday against Massachusetts poses plenty of questions...

 

Frank: The long quarterback competition ended with Joel Stave the winner.

Artie: I think he had a leg up on Curt Phillips because Stave can throw a fairly accurate deep ball and college secondaries often are vulnerable. But Phillips has been doing well too.

F: But the heart of the offense will still be the running game.

A: James White and Melvin Gordon are both top-notch, but the offensive line has gone through changes and doesn't have a lot of depth. That could put a crimp in things.

F: I've seen some commentary about how UW will remain a “pound it out” team, but at a slightly faster pace.

A: I know Andersen ran a more wide-open offense at Utah State.

F: But I'll bet Barry Alvarez hired him with a clear message that UW wants to keep its rugged identity.

A: There won't be any switch to some “spread” system. At least not for a while, because one concern is who the hell is gonna catch a pass besides Jared Abbrederis? There sure seems to be a lack of depth on the outside.

F: Witness the fact that quarterback Tanner McEvoy recently began working at wide receiver. How about on defense, where the big name is linebacker Chris Borland?

A: Things are solid on the D-line and with the linebackers, but the secondary looks questionable because they graduated a lot of guys.

F: So how does the Big Ten season look?

A: It's the Leaders and Legends setup one last time before they go East-West. So UW and Ohio State are in the same division...

F: Which one is that?

A: I don't remember, or rather I never bothered to learn. Anyway, the division also includes Penn State, Purdue, Illinois and Indiana.

F: With the Buckeyes, undefeated last year, as the heavy favorite.

A: They're No. 2 in the AP and USA Today pre-season polls, with the Badgers at No. 23. But neither ESPN nor Sports Illustrated has the Badgers in their Top 25. SI's Stewart Mandel has OSU taking the division and the Badgers second, but only a game behind at 6-2 in conference.

F: I guess he figures one loss will be Sept. 28 at Columbus.

A: I suppose. But UW has a pretty decent schedule otherwise, with no Michigan, Michigan State or Nebraska. They do play Northwestern, which is a pre-season No. 22, but at Camp Randall.

F: On the other hand, the Badgers play at Iowa and Illinois, and strange things can happen on the road.

A: Like that trip to Oregon State last year.

F: This year the big non-conference test is at Arizona State in two weeks.

A: The Sun Devils aren't ranked but got 53 votes in the AP poll. That's 52 more than BYU, which pops up at Camp Randall in November. Maybe the Cougars got their one vote from a distant descendant of Joseph Smith.

F: It's not ridiculous to think UW could pull off a big surprise in Columbus. But it also would be a big surprise if they ran the table in the conference.

A: It's hard to know what to expect with an almost entirely new coaching staff.

 

BRAUN FOULS ONE OFF

F: So Ryan Braun finally issued a written statement apologizing for his use of performance-enhancing drugs and his lies about it.

A: It was somebody's statement but I doubt Braun had much to do with it. It's got “handlers” written all over it.

F: It's full of euphemisms: “products” instead of PEDs; “mistakes” and “poor decisions” instead of cheating; “clouded vision of reality” instead of arrogance; “did not share details of what happened” instead of lied.

A: Anything the guy says now will be rejected by a lot of people.

F: At least until he comes out in the open and answers direct questions.

A: Hell, he looked and sounded sincere in February 2012 and it was all bogus. The most you can say about this statement is that it's barely acceptable—but only as a first step.

F: He didn't strike out completely, but he sure didn't hit one out of the park. He's still at the plate...

A: Or rather, he's stepped back in his usual time-wasting routine, stretching, adjusting those batting gloves...

F: But he's got to get back in the box sometime. And the media and public will expect a better swing.

 

WHAT SHOULD HAPPEN NEXT?

A: To me, one odd thing about Braun's statement is where he said, “I was never presented with Baseball's evidence against me,” and later, “I requested a second meeting with Baseball to acknowledge my violation,” and later still, “By coming forward when I did... I knew I was making the correct decision...”

F: That almost makes it sound as though he was the one who brought everything to light instead of his dealer, Tony Bosch.

A: Exactly. “Coming forward” would have meant something if his name had not come up already when MLB and Bosch struck their bargain for information. But in fact Braun was nailed and he knew it.

F: “I knew I was making the right decision” also would sound better if the circumstances for Braun and the Brewers were different. As it was, Braun knew the team was going nowhere this year, and he knew his lingering hand injury might keep him out of a lot of those 65 games anyway. So why not take the suspension now and return for what might be a better season in February?

A: The context made it a mighty self-serving decision, even if his motives were good.

F: His explanation that he was worried about a lingering leg injury fits into the “speed the recovery” theory we gave about why he “juiced” during the Brewers' division-winning season two years ago.

A: But that's assuming it was the first time used PEDs. And how many people buy that now?

F: The Brewers also sent out a short letter from Braun to fans—I guess anyone on their e-mail list received it—in which he gave pretty much the same apology and vowed to make amends. But still, there's got to be....

A: A morning after?

F: A “face-to-face” meeting, so to speak, between Braun and the Wisconsin public. And one in which he answers questions without a script, even though the last time he did that we got bamboozled. It's the only way for anyone to make any sort of judgment about whether he can be believed again.

A: When people were speculating that some kind of gesture was on the way, I wondered whether he might come out on the field before a game at Miller Park and say something. It would be a masterstroke, in a way, but there'd be other reasons not to do it.

F: For one thing, it would be seen by some as just a stunt, another acting performance.

A: Plus it would be drawing attention away from the team. And then if the team did not allow media access to him, he still wouldn't be forced to answer questions. But his teammates would sure be asked about it!

F: I remember one time when a local athlete gave a public apology—sort of. In December of 1975 Marquette's Bo Ellis got into some trouble involving possession of marijuana. He wasn't charged but essentially was put on probation for six months. The Warriors played the next night, and right after the national anthem Ellis grabbed the arena microphone and said, “I just want to say that I'm sorry for everything that's happened.” He got a big cheer and that was that.

A: Braun could never get off that easily. He'll have to say and do a lot more for fans to take him back.

F: He needs to have a full-blown press conference, at the stadium and televised. Either while the team is on the road or a few hours before a home game, say 2 or 3 p.m. And then maybe he could make a good impression by appearing on the field after batting practice and addressing the fans directly.

 

THREE AND OUT FOR HARRELL

F: We learned two things from the Packers' third exhibition game. One, Mike McCarthy believes Aaron Rodgers is ready for the season because he played Rodgers for only one possession. And two, Vince Young is now the backup quarterback.

A: Graham Harrrell reverted to his form in the first exhibition and played so poorly—weak throws, batted-down throws— that he was released the next day. The man with a name like a British politician was informed by Prime Minister McCarthy that he'd just lost the election.

F: And Young played well, from what I read.

A: He did. This time I stayed awake through the Vince Young Experience, and he was impressive. He was 6 for 7 in throwing, rushed for 39 yards and just looked like a quarterback. It might have been different, though; his first pass was right into the mid-section of a linebacker or D-back who couldn't hang on. Otherwise it would have been an easy “pick six.” But that didn't happen, so all's well with Vince.

F: But the game produced more injuries of prominent guys.

A: Casey Hayward, who was just back from a hamstring problem, re-tweaked it. Morgan Burnett had another “hammy” injury, DuJuan Harris reinjured his knee and Brad Jones also did something to a hamstring.

F: What's with all these hamstrings? Sounds like the Packers have the same training regimen as the Brewers' pitching staff.

A: You'd think it would indicate something to the training staff, ain'a? I don't remember Dave Robinson ever having a hamstring problem.

F: Or Ray Nitschke. And if he ever did he'd probably have just torn the muscle out and played on.

A: Hell, if you told Nitschke about these hamstring troubles he'd probably say, “Hamstrings? That's what I had for breakfast. A bowl of eggs and a plate of hamstrings.” The only way No. 66 would be stopped by a hamstring is if he got a bad plate of it.

F: Anyway, what's your view of the team's readiness after Exhibition 3?

A: I just don't know. It was a pretty unmemorable game. They rushed for 75 yards, big deal, and 39 of 'em came from Young. Rodgers led them right down the field, but again he had to settle for a field goal. Are they saving all their super-duper stuff for the opener?

F: Which is less than two weeks away now.

A: The skeptic in me suggests that this could be a rocky start to the season. Not just the opener in San Francisco, but the next two games against Washington and Cincinnati, both playoff teams last season. They sure can't afford to stumble coming out of the blocks!

 

THE DREAM WAS SWEET INDEED

F: Just sad, sad news about the death of Dean Meminger, who'd had some troubled times since his playing days at Marquette and in the NBA.

A: “The Dream” was just that. Boy, could that guy play!

F: The first time I saw him was in 1966, when my school, St. John's Prep, was playing in the New York City Catholic schools' semifinals. We lost to Power Memorial—this was the year after Lew Alcindor graduated—and Meminger's Rice team beat Archbishop Molloy. Rice then won the title and Meminger was the tournament MVP.

A: As the news stories said, he matched Alcindor, the future Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as a three-time all-city choice.

F: Then in 1968, after Marquette played St. John's on the Redmen's campus, I was coat-checking at an MU alumni reception when Al McGuire told the crowd how excited he was that Dean the Dream would be on the Warriors varsity the next year, joining George Thompson.

A: And you saw them justify McGuire's confidence.

F: The one year they were together included the big revenge victory over Kentucky in the NCAA regionals. And, alas, the heartbreaking loss to Purdue one step from the Final Four. But Meminger took MU to the NIT championship the next year, and I'll always picture him in that “bumblebee” uniform with the horizontal stripes.

A: And with that Cheshire Cat smile!

F: The Dream was hardly an imposing physical sight—listed at an even 6 feet but not seeming that big, and pretty thin to boot. But such long arms, which helped him make so many steals. He was super-quick but somehow it just looked like he was gliding, a little like his future teammate on the Knicks, Walt Frazier.

A: And he could control a game just like “Clyde.”

F: The thing was, the Dream never was much of an outside shooter—or a free-throw shooter for that matter. My best MU buddy and I still joke about a blurb that appeared in the MU program one season, something like, “Dean has developed an amazingly accurate outside shot over the summer...” Well, he hadn't, and he never did.

A: That assertion was, in fact, a dream.

F: But he could get to the hoop seemingly whenever he wanted! His MU numbers were .464 for field-goal shooting—which reflected a lot of layups—and just .647 from the foul line. But he averaged about 19 points over three years, and he just got things done overall.

A: I know I watched all those games back then, and not just because the Badgers were so bad at the time. Even when I was going to school at UW, I lived and died with McGuire's guys.

F: In Meminger's senior year the Warriors went into the NCAAs at 26-0, and I went down to Notre Dame to see them win the first-round game against Miami of Ohio. But five nights later came the agony of defeat at the hands of Ohio State—60-59, with Meminger fouling out down the stretch.

A: I remember watching that game somewhere in the UW student union.

F: I was at the MU union, where they set up a huge movie screen and somehow showed a grainy black-and-white TV feed. The place was packed, but when it was over everyone just sat there in silence, wondering, “How could this happen?” And afterward McGuire ranted about how Meminger had never fouled out before, and this time two or three were charging calls, and that was “A MORTAL SIN” by the referees.

A: And a nightmare for the Dream.

F: I don't think many people expected him to star in the NBA, and he didn't. But he helped the Knicks win a title in 1973, and I remember he played some terrific defense on Jo Jo White when the Knicks beat the Celtics in Game 7—in Boston!—to take the Eastern Conference.

A: He had some rough times in the last couple of decades, but man, he gave us lots to smile about.

F: That's why I always say that if anyone wants to name an all-time starting five for Marquette, two spots are permanently filled—one by Thompson and one by the Dream.

A: No matter who comes along, they are definitely on MU's version of Mount Rushmore.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek apologizes constantly.