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Monday, Dec. 9, 2013

Green Bay Packers: A Green And Gold Glimmer

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Now, doesn't everyone feel a lot better? Sure, the Packers still don't have a winning record, but their razor-thin victory over Atlanta and the delightful inconsistency of the Lions put Green Bay just a half-game off the NFC North lead with three to play. And if they reach the playoffs with six losses, well... Seems like a 10-6 team wound up winning the Lombardi Trophy three years ago.

Of course, not every Packer fan is quite that chipper...

 

Frank: Feeling pretty good again?

Artie: Better, but not especially good. Let's see, the Pack beat a 3-9 team from a dome in the South by one point on their own frozen tundra. I'm not gonna make Super Bowl party plans just yet.

F: But playoff party plans?

A: Well, if they'd lost I would have declared the season over, and that didn't happen. So that's something. But it looks like the only way to the playoffs is by winning the division, and I think they still need to “win out” and get some help.

F: The Lions and Bears can deliver that help! Detroit sure did its part by freezing up in Philadelphia.

A: The Lions are such a puzzling team. They seem to have all the talent they need, but maybe all those talented individuals are also knuckleheads. Or the coach is. Or both.

F: Here are the remaining schedules: The Packers play this weekend in Dallas, then host Pittsburgh and finish at Chicago. Detroit hosts Baltimore and the Giants, then finishes at Minnesota. The Bears play at Cleveland and Philly before they host the Packers.

A: Detroit and Chicago are fully capable of losing all their remaining games. And the Pack is capable of winning all theirs.

F: Especially if Aaron Rodgers is able to finish the season on the field. I think it's plausible to believe he'll face the Cowboys.

A: I'd say less than plausible. He darn well thought he could play against Atlanta but whatever scan he had on his collarbone didn't seem so good. I'm not convinced he'll be cleared.

F: If not, well, Matt Flynn rebounded from the Thanksgiving Day fiasco with a QB rating of 95.6 against the Falcons.

A: But to me, it looks like when he's on the field he thinks he's wearing a cloak of invisibility. He doesn't seem to have a clue when a guy's breathing down his neck.

F: But as they say, a win is a win.

A: Yeah, and the defense played much better. But I wonder whether we'll find out this week that they lost more guys to injury. First Brad Jones went out, then on one play both Johnny Jolly and Jamari Lattimore, Jones' replacement, had to come off. That wasn't very encouraging. And Eddie Lacy played the second half on a bad ankle...

F: As usual, your default setting is worry. But at least there's some light on the horizon.

A: There are still big steps to take. But without this first step there would have been no horizon.

 

WELL DONE, YOUNG MEN

F: I thought the Marquette-Wisconsin game was mighty entertaining, and UW's six-point margin was a pretty accurate gauge of how the teams played.

A: As you know, when those teams play I pull for the Badgers but otherwise I'm all for the Golden Eagles too. Overall, I'd say it was good timing for the Badgers that they don't rely on three-pointers as much as the last couple of years. They only made 7 of 26 but now they have enough variety to their offense to win anyway.

F: Plus they're hitting their free throws again after inexplicably having trouble from the line last season. Making 10 of 11 in the last couple of minutes held off MU, which as usual battled to the end.

A: Foul concerns in the first half made both teams juggle their rotations, but what I noticed in the second half was that when UW had their starters back in, man, those guys space the floor really well on offense. And I've really been impressed by how Traevon Jackson has developed as the point guard, the court vision and control he has.

F: Both teams had double figures in offensive rebounds, and Buzz Williams clearly decided to concentrate MU's attack inside. I'm not sure how much that was influenced by Todd Mayo's one-game suspension for some kind of team rule-breaking, but it worked pretty well.

A: Mayo might have made some difference, but on the other hand the Badgers would have adjusted their defense if he'd been out there.

F: MU fans shouldn't be crestfallen about this loss or the Eagles' 5-4 record. Yeah, they could use more consistent outside shooting, but there was nothing we saw in Madison that suggests they won't be highly competitive in the Big East.

A: And as for the Badgers, their 10-0 start is totally deserved.

 

SMART TO SAY “SAYONARA”?

F: I'm not wild about the Brewers' decision to part ways with Norichika Aoki. How about you?

A: I understand all of Doug Melvin's reasons, one of which was to open up right field for Ryan Braun so Khris Davis could become the full-time leftfielder. As we know so well, chicks and Mr. Melvin dig the long ball! It's been his style ever since he was the GM at Texas.

F: But to me, Aoki was darn valuable as a player who gave the Brewers something other than power. He's a classic “small ball” asset—a nice on-base percentage (.356 last season), 20 stolen bases, the ability to bunt, hit the other way, move a runner to third...

A: Agreed on all that. And maybe because of that, I guess Melvin doubted he could re-sign Aoki next winter, so he might as well get something for him now.

F: I guess age was also a factor; Aoki will be 32 in January, so he's no spring chicken.

A: Although Japanese guys tend to be durable; some of those soldiers held out on Pacific islands for, like, decades after World War II, ain'a?

F: As far as getting something for Aoki, I don't think Melvin got enough in a single left-handed pitcher, Will Smith.

A: Well, the fact that he's a lefty is big since the Brew Crew has only one lefty remaining from last season—namely Tom Gorzelanny, who really flamed out in the late going. And Smith is young; he turns 24 in July.

F: But so far he's fairly undistinguished as a major-leaguer over the last two years with Kansas City.

A: Yes and no. He didn't do much in 16 starts in 2012 (8-10, 5.19 ERA), but this year he only started one time in 19 appearances and was 2-1 and 3.24, and with a WHIP of 0.930. The Brewers say he could be a contender for the rotation, but I'll bet he winds up in the bullpen.

F: Speaking of lefties, Aoki's departure leaves the Brewers with only one lefty hitter in the projected starting lineup, Scooter Gennett. And it leaves them with an opening to fill at the leadoff spot.

A: The obvious candidates are Gennett, Jean Segura and Carlos Gomez, although Tom Haudricourt wrote in the Journal Sentinel that none of them seems ideal in terms of on-base percentage.

F: Segura's OBP this year was .329, reflecting his late season wear-down. Gomez had a .338 mark, and for all his speed I think the Brewers are content with him as a free-swinger. I was surprised to see that Gennett finished with an OBP of .356, exactly the same as Aoki. So maybe he's not all that unsuited to lead off.

A: Another possibility would be Corey Hart, assuming he's finally over all his knee trouble AND the Brewers can re-sign him. Hart has led off at times.

F: But his career OBP is just .334, and how much speed can he have left after surgery on both knees?

A: Of course there's always Rickie Weeks, but after the last two seasons he's more of an $11 million albatross.

F: None of the leadoff candidates comes close to being the “master batsman” Aoki is. At his best he's a 21st-century Wee Willie Keeler, terrific at hittin' 'em “where they ain't.” And he was a solid rightfielder with a surprisingly good arm last season. Even if Braun is OK in right, that shift is an admission of Davis' defensive weakness.

A: And teams are still gonna hit the ball to left, I reckon.

F: Of course any move in baseball will be judged on results. If Davis hits 30 homers and Smith proves reliable in the bullpen, Mr. Melvin will be a genius. If not, and if Aoki has a solid year with the Royals, well...

A: For now, and with the GMs' winter meetings happening this week, Melvin has to look to the biggest question mark in the lineup—first base. The parade of fill-ins for Hart last season was a complete bust. Come on, Doug, just re-sign Hart!

F: I'm guessing that Hart's agent thinks he can get another team to bid against the Brewers. But maybe Melvin's comment to the Journal Sentinel about not wanting to lose financial “flexibility” was a message to Hart that his patience isn't limitless.

 

A CAPITAL IDEA INDEED

F: How do you like the Badgers' bowl assignment, against South Carolina in the Capital One?

A: It's the best of all worlds for a team that played great until the finale against Penn State. They deserve a New Year's Day game, although the noon start might catch more than a few fans bleary-eyed. They deserve a shot at a team from the supposedly almighty SEC. And they have a great opportunity to wipe the smirk off the face of the always-arrogant Steve Spurrier.

F: Seeing Spurrier grimace in annoyance is one of my favorite things in college football. I hope the Badgers let us all enjoy that many times.

 

CHECKS AND BALANCES

A: I've seen a fair amount of college hoops this season, and the MU-UW game was one of the best examples of the referees' new emphasis on “cleaning up” defensive play. Especially in the first half there were some pretty quick whistles.

F: The message was clear: No hand-checking! That seemed to affect the Golden Eagles more, although the final disparity in fouls (25 to UW's 16) was skewed by MU's six deliberate fouls in the last 90 seconds or so.

A: As I said last week, the Badgers are less likely to be bothered by this new emphasis because of the way Bo Ryan has always taught defense: Move your feet and keep your hands straight up against shots in the paint.

F: Yeah, they got whistled at times when Davante Gardner or Chris Otule muscled their way to the hoop, but they also contested enough shots without fouling to keep them from going wild.

A: And Gardner got in foul trouble too, because he didn't control his hands a couple of times.

F: I thought one really good ref's decision—one I'd like to see more of—was the double foul call in the first half on Gardner and Evan Anderson during one of Gardner's backdowns toward the basket.

A: That was something you seldom see, that's for sure.

F: I liked it because it sent a message to both teams. There shouldn't be all that bumping in either direction.

A: It's a good point, because as a ref how are you supposed to assess the percentage of responsibility. The defender is trying to stand his ground, and sometimes it's the offensive player who's making more contact with his backside.

F: The basketball version of twerking, assuming I have a clear idea of what twerking is. If they ever called that in the pros, Shaquille O'Neal would have had no career, at least in his later years. Getting back to UW's defense, I didn't see any of the Virginia game, so what did that 48-38 final score reflect—great defense, lousy shooting, a plodding tempo?

A: I probably would have assumed it was a snoozer if I hadn't watched the game. Yeah, the shooting percentages were low, but at no time did I think the game was ugly or just a bunch of clanged shots. It was defense on both sides played to an A-plus level! Tony Bennett is the Cavaliers' coach, and you know a son of Dick Bennett will have his guys thinking D.

F: So it was like a 2-1 game in baseball, which can be a thing of beauty.

A: Absolutely. There was no running the floor because both defenses were hustling back. There were very few shots that weren't contested, and the shot clock kept running down because guys just couldn't get open. All that defensive energy was something to behold!

F: Fans might not want that kind of game all the time, but hey, if the team you're rooting for wins with defense, the results are as satisfying as 90 points a night.

 

IN PRAISE OF THE PANTHERS

A: Before we leave college hoops I think we should give a nod to the UWM Panthers, who beat Bradley on Saturday night to get their ninth win.

F: Which is one more than they had all last season.

A: And they've been playing some pretty good programs. They beat San Jose State, James Madison and Northern Illinois on successive nights to win the NIU Invitational, and they beat Davidson on the road. I'm really bummed that their game against the Badgers this week isn't being shown on TV!

F: I'm pretty sure I'll catch one of their Horizon League games at the place we'll always know as just “The Arena”—if only to enjoy another night at the place where I saw so many Marquette, Bucks and Admirals games way back when.

A: In the pre-season the Panthers were picked to finish at or near the bottom of the league. The Horizon better be ready for them now!

 

WORLD-CLASS NEWS

F: One last major news item from last week that I'm sure you noticed.

A: Uh-oh, this usually means something about a sport I couldn't care less about...

F: The U.S. has drawn a “Group of Death” in the World Cup!

A: I have no idea what that means, so it can only be about soccer.

F: Not just soccer, but World Cup soccer. Our team will have to get through a round-robin against Germany, Portugal and Ghana to advance to the second round of the world's biggest sporting event.

A: Not to show off my vast soccer expertise, but if this is the World Cup doesn't every group have some good teams?

F: But Germany is always a powerhouse...

A: Well, when you're talking domination of the world, you always look for Germany, at least in terms of aspirations.

F: And Portugal has soccer's matinee idol, Cristiano Ronaldo, although they had a struggle to qualify for the tournament. And Ghana bounced the U.S. out of the last two World Cups.

A: And when does all this start?

F: In June, in Brazil.

A: I won't tune in if they have those Volvo-somethings, like the last World Cup...

F: That would be vuvuzelas, the plastic horns that everyone seemed to be blowing in South Africa...

A: This time, how about playing to a nice soundtrack of Sergio Mendes and Brazil 2014? And some of those dancing ladies they have at Carnival in Rio. Now that I'd watch!

F: I'd say it's unlikely during the games.

A: In that case, I'm sure you'll keep me informed.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek's quarterback rating is a model of consistency.

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