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Wednesday, Feb. 4, 2009

Eagles Fly, Badgers Burrow

The Fairly Detached Observers

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Six hours of Super Bowl pregame coverage. SIX HOURS! And that was just on NBC; four hours on ESPN put the TV gasbagging into double digits. The Observers pride themselves on never watching one second of such “maybe this, maybe that” silliness. As kickoff approached, the only blather they listened to was each other’s.

Frank: Let’s talk hoops, since the big sports news in Wisconsin right now doesn’t involve football.

Artie: Except for this: Since when did Mike McCarthy become the basketball coach at Wisconsin?

Frank: Wow, it’s deja vu all over! Last week another friend said the Badgers’ six-game losing streak is a replay of the five-game collapse that ruined the Packers’ season.

Artie: Close games, two in overtime, with the defense caving in at the end. Only the colors have changed from green and gold to red and white.

Frank: Meanwhile, though, one of the best stories in college hoops is unfolding in our own town.

Artie: Those Marquette Golden Eagles are playing like a team that can go very, very far in the NCAA tournament. They looked terrific at Notre Dame and then dismantled a good Georgetown team.

Frank: That gave them 11 straight wins and an 8-0 start in the Big East, the best conference in the country. Not bad for a team that’s essentially four guys—senior guards Dominic James, Wesley Matthews and Jerel McNeal and junior forward Lazar Hayward.

Artie: All three guards are amazingly quick. Steal after steal on defense, and the way they can jack-rabbit to the rim makes up for the absence of a strong post player.

Frank: Hayward is their big rebounding guy, but he’s also a good three-point shooter. And James has finally realized that he doesn’t need to do everything.

Artie: In the past he’d race around, out of control and shooting too much. Now he’s complementing McNeal and Matthews, who are way better shooters.

Frank: That’s especially true at the free-throw line, where James was at only 48% through the Georgetown game. And that’s a potential problem at tournament time.

Artie: Yeah, when your chief ball-handler is also your chief liability at the foul line, how can you put the ball in his hands at crunch time? James should be taking 300 extra free throws a day!

Frank: Early in the season coach Buzz Williams said he doesn’t make the team practice free throws because they’ve been shooting them all their lives. “Do you practice riding your bike?” he asked.

Artie: Geez, if James ever gets on a bike I hope I’m not nearby—or the other MU stars. They all have to stay healthy because the Eagles only go about seven deep.

Frank: Simple fatigue might become a factor. In the Georgetown game each of the “Big Four” played at least 36 minutes. And the schedule just gets tougher.

Artie: Starting on Feb. 21, they wrap up the regular season with games against Georgetown, Connecticut, Louisville, Pittsburgh and Syracuse.

Frank: Then comes the Big East tournament, where they’ll have to play three or four straight days, depending on their conference record. If they wear down, it could really hurt their NCAA seeding.

Artie: Still, those last five regular-season games will be good preparation for the NCAA. For true blue MU fans, there’s reason to dream. The defensive intensity alone will keep them in every game, ain’a?

Frank: The three guards are showing that it just might be a good idea to stay in school and improve your game instead of jumping to the NBA and anchoring a bench. James pulled back from the draft two years ago and McNeal did it last year.

Artie: I’ll bet all three were tempted to go when the guy who recruited them, Tom Crean, slinked out of town for Indiana last spring. But I’ll further bet they’re glad they stayed now.

Frank: Crean did the recruiting, but Williams must be doing something right.

Artie: Hey, who wouldn’t want to run around like crazy for a guy who looks like Curly Howard?

Frank: Speaking of which, Bo Ryan doesn’t look like Moe but he must feel like knocking some heads together.

Artie: Somehow there’s a vacuum in this UW team. They don’t have enough height, especially in defending. Last year they had twin-towers Brian Butch and Greg Stiemsma; maybe Bo thought they were juniors.

Frank: Against Northwestern, at times it seemed the offense was four guys around the three-point arc and one in the paint just to have someone there.

Artie: Their top big guy, 6-10 Jon Leuer, is definitely an arc guy, kind of a poor man’s Steve Novak. Marcus Landry is the only guy who qualifies as a real inside force, but he isn’t all that big. I think they expected him to be this year’s version of Alando Tucker, but he isn’t.

Frank: The Northwestern loss dropped UW to ninth in the conference. Barring a surge in the Big Ten tournament, the NCAA is out.

Artie: But I’m sure the NIT would be happy to stage a UW-UWM matchup.

Frank: The Panthers are doing pretty well at 14-8, and 9-3 in the Horizon League, after two straight losing seasons.

Artie: They beat UIC on a last-second shot Saturday night, but man, those guys can’t shoot! They made only 32% against UIC and they’re under 40% for the season.

Frank: They do have our favorite local player.

Artie: That’s James Eayrs, listed as 6-7 and 340 pounds but a very mobile “round mound,” and with a nice outside shot, too. He’s averaging 9 points and 5 rebounds off the bench, and it’s fun to watch him surprise people.

Frank: If we didn’t already have a Curly on the local hoops scene, he’d qualify.

Artie: Instead, let’s dub him “The Candyman,” after John Candy.

Beyond the Redd Zone

Frank: Maybe Michael Redd’s seasonending knee injury hasn’t doomed the Bucks after all.

Artie: Two nice wins over Toronto and Atlanta made them 2-2 after the injury, 9-9 for January and still holding the eighth and final playoff spot in the conference. Charlie Bell is back from an ankle problem and picking up some of Redd’s scoring. Ramon Sessions is playing well, and with Andrew Bogut back on the court they have some size inside again.

Frank: Just in blocking or altering shots and taking charges, he makes a big difference.

Artie: Also, Charlie Villanueva has really stepped up in the last 10 games, really committing himself to play defense. And he’s a natural scorer.

Frank: The schedule eases up this month. They can still have a pretty nice season.

A Few Superlatives

At long last, they actually began the Super Bowl. At long, long last, they got past the Bruce Springsteen halftime concert. And at long, long, long last, the Observers could discuss Pittsburgh’s thrilling 27-23 victory.

Artie: Wow, I’m gassed! That was one amazing game. That winning catch by Santonio Holmes is right up there among the greatest in NFL history.

Frank: Which version of the Steelers’ 3-4 defense will the Packers adopt? The one that produced James Harrison’s 100-yard interception return or the one that let Larry Fitzgerald run right up the middle to put the Cardinals ahead?

Artie: Excellent question. I do know the Cardinals took a page out of the Packers’ playbook with all their costly penalties. It was like Mike McCarthy went from coaching the Badger hoopsters one day to coaching the Cardinals the next.

Frank: NBC took a while to get the camera on Kurt Warner’s wife. When he was on the Rams during Brenda’s spiky-haired days, Fox Sports showed her reaction to practically every play.

Artie: I’m just glad the Cardinals didn’t win because there would have been endless stories about Warner and the triumph of a man of faith. And that would have driven me to Satanism.

Frank: We’re all grateful; you’re scary enough as it is.

Photo: Marquette coach Buzz Williams is no stooge