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Monday, March 10, 2014

Madness, Sadness

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As the frenzy of college basketball's post-season arrives, the state's top two teams have utterly different outlooks. Wisconsin, despite Sunday's loss at Nebraska, enters the Big Ten tournament with a very good seeding in the NCAA tourney assured. Marquette, after too many hard-fought losses, need a near-miraculous title in the Big East showdown to land a spot in the Big Dance.

And two other state teams played a game illustrating a major injustice: That faltering in a conference tournament can negate a team's success in the endurance test of the regular season.

 

Artie: I knew the Badgers would have their hands full at Nebraska. The win made the Huskers 8-1 in the conference at home, and they had to feel this game might stamp their ticket to March Madness.

Frank: While UW already had clinched the No. 2 seeding in the Big Ten tournament—which didn't mean a lot because they were going to be bracketed with Michigan State anyway. Now, if form holds, they get to wear white against the Spartans in the semifinals.

A: But a No. 2 seed in the NCAA—there's something of significance. Even after Nebraska the Badgers have a great shot at that, and also playing their first two rounds at the Bradley Center.

F: UW fought its way back in the national rankings with eight straight wins before Sunday, including big performances at Michigan and Iowa. That surge made the preceding 1-5 slump seem all the more puzzling.

A: Well, it happens to lots of teams. The important thing is when it happens. Look at Syracuse; they've staggered late after being unbeaten and No. 1 in mid-February.

F: I guess the Badgers picked the right time to struggle.

A: And especially the right time to recover!

F: Good thing that last-second shot by Michigan State didn't fall on Feb. 9 at the Kohl Center. And speaking of near-misses, I was at Marquette's double-overtime loss to St. John's...

A: You sure got your money's worth!

F: Everyone in the building was completely drained. Each team had too much heart to collapse when it fell behind. But neither team had the poise to grab control for good.

A: The one-point margin typified MU's whole season.

F: They tied it at the buzzer in regulation but couldn't win it with the final possession in both overtimes. That's agonizing enough, but it came four days after the same experience at Providence—two OTs, one point short.

A: Buzz Williams' guys had six overtime game in the Big East, going 2-4, and that left them 9-9 for the conference schedule.

F: That's just not good enough for an NCAA bid out of a conference that lost a fair amount of its clout in last year's realignment. We'll say more about the quality of the Big East and Big Ten on the website...

A: Unfortunately, MU's non-conference games didn't produce quality wins. They fell to Ohio State, San Diego State and Wisconsin. But the Badgers boosted their resume by beating teams like Florida, Virginia and Saint Louis.

F: So UW is positioned to make a nice NCAA run, while MU can get in only by winning three straight and the Big East title this weekend. Which raises an issue that went on display Saturday up north...

 

NO 'W' FOR FAIRNESS

A: It was a fine achievement for UWM to knock off UWGB in the Horizon League semifinals, but it also was a shame because it quite likely will keep the Phoenix out of the NCAA shindig.

F: Because, for some reason that has nothing to do with fairness, automatic NCAA bids go to the winners of conference tournaments, not the teams that establish their superiority over the grueling regular season.

A: I guess that's the NCAA's transparent effort to pretend that league tourneys are something more than what they truly are—grabs for even more money out of fans and TV networks.

F: The automatic bids should go to the teams that prevailed over three months, not three or four days.

A: Have the tourneys if you want, but if the winners are different from the full-season champs, let those teams join the pool "on the bubble."

F: But it's the Phoenix, 14-2 in the Horizon regular season, who have to hope they get an at-large bid. And UWM, 7-9 in the regular season, plays Wright State for the title and automatic bid.

A: The Panthers had split two close games with UWGB during the season, so Saturday's game would have been close anyway. But I think the Phoenix would have won if their star guard, Keifer Sykes, hadn't hurt an ankle during the first half. He toughed it out but wasn't himself.

F: ESPN's Jay Bilas was asked last week if he saw an overlooked but “dangerous” team, and he named Green Bay, saying, “Could they win a game or two and get to the second weekend? Darn right they can.”

A: Now they probably won't get the chance.

 

SEASONAL REVIEWS

A: The thing about UW's mid-season slump was that a lot of it involved weak defense, something we almost never see with Bo Ryan's teams.

F: Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota shot over 50% in beating UW, and so did Nebraska. But for the season the Badgers have held opponents to 43.1%.

A: So they've definitely been doing lots of things right since the slump.

F: On offense, meanwhile, the Badgers have terrific balance. The five starters are essentially averaging between 10 and 13 points per game, and four of them are hitting 36% or better on three-pointers.

A: There's always a good chance that if one or two guys have an off game, the others will step up.

F: The center, Frank Kaminsky, is hitting 40% on treys and Josh Gasser is over 45%.

A: Gasser has hit some really big shots, and his knee has held up after he missed last season. That's enabled Bo to stick with going “eight deep”— Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig and, to a much lesser extent, Duje Dukan, are basically the only subs who play.

F: One concern might be that they had trouble with free throws at Nebraska, making only 11 of 21, after a similar showing against Purdue. As you've pointed out, free-throw percentage is huge in the win-or-go-home atmosphere of March.

A: Even so, they're just a tick below 75% for the season.

F: Hayes has had some particularly tough games from the line, including 2 for 7 Sunday night.

A: He runs hot and cold. Some games he's hitting almost every one, and other games...

F: He's just under 60% for the season, and he needs to raise that because he's the one Badger who's exclusively a close-range scorer, and therefore more likely to be drawing fouls.

A: Point taken.

F: As for Marquette, they just haven't been very consistent offensively. They're shooting only 31.8% on threes and 69.2% from the foul line.

A: Their point guard, Derrick Wilson, just has not had a good year. It couldn't have pleased MU fans to see him taking the final shot against St, John's. It was an open look from the baseline, and it clanged away.

F: For the season he's shooting under 40% overall, under 50% on free throws and seven-point-one percent on three-pointers, which means he's routinely ignored by defenses. And in conference play he actually was worse from the foul line (37%) than from the floor (39.6%).

A: In defense of Buzz, a year ago he didn't know that Vander Blue was going to leave early and try for the NBA. That left a big scoring hole to fill, and Jake Thomas has continued to be very inconsistent for a three-point specialist.

F: Buzz also didn't know that highly touted freshman Duane Wilson from Dominican High School would suffer a leg injury that forced his red-shirting. My old MU roommate contends that he eventually would have claimed the starting spot from Derrick Wilson.

A: Oh, what might have been...

F: MU also lost a 6-foot-8 junior college transfer, Jameel McKay, when he chose to leave the program just a few days after practice began. But a huge factor in MU's season was, as we've said before, the inconsistency of seniors Jamil Wilson and Davante Gardner. Both had some excellent games, but also quite a few where one or both disappeared.

A: I don't know if Jamil was playing out of position or what, but he should be playing a lot better. Buzz has called him the most talented guy on the team.

F: And for Gardner, I think stamina has continued to be a big issue.

A: And defense. I read somewhere that Williams told reporters that his teammates jokingly call Gardner “Avanti”— as in, roughly, “go ahead” in Italian—because of the defense he plays, or doesn't.

F: It's quite noticeable that in tight situations Williams tries to sub Gardner in and out at every whistle—in for offense, out for defense.

A: Now the Eagles' hopes rest on three wins in three nights. “Avanti” better start that Red Bull diet now!

 

CONFERENCE CALLS

F: Back to our discussion about the relative strengths of the Big Ten and Big East. I've been doing some number-crunching...

A: I love it when you say that!

F: Um, anyway, I looked at last week's two national polls for college hoops—this week's was released after our deadline—and only two teams in the slimmed-down Big East were in the top 25—Villanova at No. 6 and Creighton at No. 13. The Big Ten had four: the Badgers (9 in the AP poll, 11 in the coaches'), plus Michigan (12) Michigan State (22) and Iowa (25).

A: But the polls are the least-scientific ways of ranking teams.

F: True enough. So I looked at two systems that incorporate all sorts of data, the constantly cited RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) and the Pomeroy rankings, posted by Ken Pomeroy at kenpom.com.

A: They use formulas—don't ask me for details—that include things like strength of schedule, road wins and wins against top-25 teams.

F: And however they do it, these rankings apparently mean a whole lot to the NCAA selection folks.

A: So give me some of those crunchy numbers.

F: In general, the new Big East seems a little “bottom heavy,” or more like “mediocre heavy.” Pomeroy's final regular-season rankings showed two Big East teams in the top 10—Villanova at No. 6 and Creighton at No. 9—but after that came quite a gap to St. John's (37), Xavier (44), Georgetown (50), Providence (55) and Marquette (57).

A: How about the RPI?

F: Pretty much the same: 'Nova at 4 and Creighton at 9, then a drop to Xavier at 47 and three in the 50s. And MU was way down at 79.

A: Part of what that shows is that the conference lost some heavyweights in all the realigning after last season.

F: True enough. Several teams that left the Big East, or vice versa, showed lots of strength. Louisville was at No. 2 for Pomeroy, Syracuse 11, Cincinnati 18, Pittsburgh 20 and UConn 30. And RPI-wise, all but Pitt were in the top 30.

A: Now let's hear it for the Big Ten.

F: It definitely has more balanced strength for Pomeroy, with five teams in the top 20: Michigan (10), Wisconsin (12), Ohio State (14), Michigan State (16) and Iowa (17). The RPI has UW up at 6, followed by Michigan (12), Michigan State (21), Ohio State (23), Nebraska (35) and Iowa (39). 

A: And the Buckeyes and Hawkeyes had mediocre conference records, 10-8 and 9-9, respectively.

F: So it would seem true that a so-so record in the Big Ten is worth more than the same mark in the Big East—Marquette's 9-9, for instance.

 

THE DEAL WITH SHIELDS

F: Any strong feelings about the new four-year contract the Packers gave cornerback Sam Shields?

A: Well, it's not my money. They can do with it what they will.

F: I reckon at least a microscopic amount of his payday will come from you, in the form of cable TV fees.

A: From you and me both, I guess.

F: As usual, the announced total for the contract—$39 million over the four years—isn't likely to be the actual amount Shields will wind up with.

A: The ways of NFL accounting are incomprehensible, at least to us civilians. Who knows how much is actually guaranteed, how much will be spread over how many years for purposes of staying under the salary cap...

F: And it seems that most of the big-money deals eventually get renegotiated.

A: Russ Ball, the Packers' vice president for player finance—in other words, their cap-ologist—is known as a very astute guy. He'll make sure the team gets the most flexibility out of Shields' payout. And all the teams are helped by the fact that the salary cap is rising about 6% this year to about $130 million. I heard the Packers had about $36 million in available “space” before the Shields announcement.

F: Aside from all the arcane finances, how do you feel about Shields staying in green and gold?

A: I'm glad. He's established himself as an above-average cornerback and he's only 26, so he still has a “ceiling.” And if he left in free agency they'd just have to find someone to fill the spot. Some fans don't seem to realize that contracts do expire, and sooner or later you have to give a guy a raise.

F: Which was a point Bill Polian, the former NFL general manager, made last week in praising GM Ted Thompson to the Journal Sentinel's Bob Wolfley. He applauded Thompson's conservative approach toward adding players from the free-agent market.

A: Seems to have worked pretty good so far.

F: Yup. Here's part of what Polian said:

 

“Free agency in and of itself is an overpayment situation… if your own players are quality players and you believe they can help you win, then it's better off to pay them... You are paying a premium, but you are putting it into a person you know, that you believe in and has no adjustment coming into your system.”

 

A: You've gotta pay somebody to play that spot. Or start over with a first- or second-round draft choice to fill it.

F: Still, it seemed until the weekend that Shields was going to enter the market.

A: With all the TV money pouring into the NFL, a lot of teams have plenty of dough to spend. Thompson may have heard on the grapevine that the D-back market would be very costly, which may have lit a fire to get this done.

F: However, there apparently was no fire to sign another big name, B.J. Raji, to anything but a one-year deal for a reported $4 million.

A: After he apparently turned down a long-term deal for tons more money during last season.

F: And then had a poor season, by all accounts I read.

A: That seems to be true, but he was being used in a different way. People remember the Super Bowl season, 2010-'11, when he had 6 1/2 sacks and made that TD interception in the NFC title game. Back then he was playing the nose tackle and had definite pass-rushing expectations.

F: And last year?

A: He was moved sideways to one of those “gap” responsibility spots—two-technique, three-technique, whatever the hell they call it—and was basically there to take up space and clog things up.

F: Which is kind of automatic, given his size.

A: But he had trouble even doing that effectively against rushing attacks. This talk of a one-year deal might mean that his agent sniffed around and didn't find many takers for B.J. right now.

F: As we speak he hasn't re-upped for 2014. But if he does stay here, he's facing a pretty important season for his future worth.

 

Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek is available for an at-large bid to anything.