Monday, March 10, 2008

Easier than It Looked

That's what Wisconsin's victory Saturday afternoon over Northwestern was. Close and frustrating (because, predictably, of too many turnovers from Northwestern's zone press), until the last few minutes of the second half. Then, NU stopped scoring, and Wisconsin calmed down, stopped turning the ball over, and worked their way inside for decent looks, or crashed the boards hard for rebounds and tip-ins. Northwestern's biggest guy is 6'8" and none of their guys are very stout. Their most muscley player is probably their freshman point guard. That's why they play a 1-3-1 zone-- they're trying to keep the ball out of the perimeter, because they know if you get decent post position on them, you have an excellent chance of scoring. That's what happened from the 15 minute to the 30 minute mark.

Combine smart offense with what happened on defense, where Wisconsin stopped overplaying Northwestern's cuts, and you have a serious Wisconsin style "run"-- no scoring from the other side, consistent, but not spurting offense, and after a while, a big fat lead. It was 19 points with 10 minutes left, basically insurmountable given Northwestern's O and the Badgers' D. Wisconsin relaxed a little bit, and let NU trim the lead to 11, but the game was essentially over with 10 minutes left. All in all, that was a fine accomplishment given Wisconsin's history of frustrated, lackluster play in Evanston, both on the basketball court and on the football field.

Random game notes--

- Trevon took a bit of a beating in this game. He had a few turnovers, got shoulder checked in the face on a moving pick, Coble backhanded him in the gnards on an obvious uncalled foul, and the game ended with one of the Northwestern seniors, Tonjua Jones, a back up guard cursing him out, and getting called for a technical foul. (On senior day, no less!) Nice job, jackass. You would have hoped your $200,000 education had sunk in a little more. Thank goodness Trevon totally ignored the guy. Way to keep your cool, Pop. You're the big winner.

- The excellent statistical games of Landry in the first Northwestern game (21 points), and Butch in this one (20), demonstrate Northwestern's problem. They have no bigs, and their zone scheme is only effective when it forces turnovers or keeps the other team out of the post. And the secondary flaw with their zone is that it takes their 100-pound weakling of a team and puts it in poor rebounding position. You get a strong, reasonable-sized competent post player, and they're going to go to town on NU. First time around, it was Landry with the lay-ups and the tipped misses. This time around it was Butch. I think that's actually quite encouraging, and shows that Butch has improved his quickness, because on the defensive end, whoever your frontcourt guy is, he has to run guard what are essentially a bunch of small forwards. Butch got all the points because Bo was comfortable leaving him in defensively. That was not as much the case in the first game, where Brian played fewer minutes.

- If they want to get better, which they apparently don't, Northwestern has got to do some serious things. I've got three steps.
Step one-- lower the admission requirements for basketball players. As Duke has shown, a school can benefit tremendously from having a good men's basketball team. And hell, the number of students you have to make exceptions for is tiny. It's three or four kids a year. Northwestern has a pretty campus, is an excellent school in a big league, and sits atop of one of the nation's hotbeds of basketball talent. They shouldn't have to rely on Eastern Europeans and French-Canadians to fill up their roster.
Step two-- play more attractive basketball. This step may require the school to fire Carmody, who only seems to know irritating zone defenses and the intensely boring Princeton offense. That offense lets smaller, less athletic teams make up their physical deficits with smarts and skill (passing and shooting). Unfortunately, in the Big Ten, you get teams, like Wisconsin, that are bigger, more athletic, and just as smart and skilled. Or teams (like Sparty and Indiana), that are so much bigger and more athletic, that it doesn't matter. After this year's one-win team, it's time to go back to the drawing board. I suggest playing a more attractive style of basketball to attract the less academically qualified recruits they'll now be admitting.
Step three-- fix that awful "arena." Welsh-rarebit is an embarrassment. Even though it's tiny, it's always half empty, except when visiting fans overwhelm it. Then there's the weird lighting, terrible concessions service, and awful layout (concession lines blocking bathroom access). It's easily the worst basketball stadium in the Big Ten. Hell, UIC's and UW-Milwaukee's stadiums are far nicer. It might be the worst basketball stadium in the Horizon League.
Of course, hopefully, from Wisconsin's perspective, Northwestern will do none of these things and remain a doormat. The less competition the better, I guess.

- Jason Bohannon is now one of the best free throw shooters in Wisconsin history, having made more consecutive free throws than any other Badger player ever. I love that this had happened-- that he's become the ice-man at the line. It's great to have one of those guys on your team. Plus, he's confident about it. Check this out, from Rob Schultz in the Cap Times-- "Bohannon's knees weren't exactly knocking after he stepped to the line with 3:44 to go to attempt the free throw that would break [Wes Matthews Sr.'s] record. He stunned junior swingman Joe Krabbenhoft by turning around to face him while doing a little play-by-play before he took the shot. 'He looked back at me and said, "This is for the record,"' Krabbenhoft recalled. 'I said, "Turn around and shoot it. Don't even think about it." Of course, he goes up and knocks it down.'"
Awesome. Confidence is a good thing.

The Big Ten tournament awaits, starting Thursday. The Badgers' first game is Friday morning at 11. Since the tourney has relocated to Indianapolis for the foreseeable future, you'd think that gives a homefield advantage to IU and Purdidn't, but thankfully, with the Badgers winning the Big Ten outright, those two teams are on the same side of the bracket, so will likely knock each other out. Bucky will face the winner of Iowa and Michigan, two transitioning teams that have made some improvements as the year progressed. Wisconsin swept both of them in the regular season, but had to work hard for the wins the second time around. The third round could get interesting. If Wisconsin manages to beat the winner of Iowa/Michigan, then it would play the winner of OSU/Sparty in the semis in another likely very tough game. Should be a fun week of basketball ahead.

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