Wednesday, December 31, 2008

The Big Ten Season Begins: Meeeechigan

"In watching us on tape [after the Texas game], there is a lot of room for improvement, so that is the encouraging sign. I don't think we're anywhere close to where we can be. The question is whether we'll get there or not." --Wisconsin men's basketball team assistant coach Gary Close

In a word, yes. A few more minutes of solid effort (to invoke the Rudyard Kipling poem cited by the soon-to-be-indicted governor of Illinois, Rod Blagojevich, a few more seconds worth "of distance run") and the Badgers would be 11-1 and solidly ranked in the top twenty. But thems the breaks. Crappy free throw shooting and poor defensive rebounding against Texas, and a failure to get the rolls in the last few minutes = loss. Going cold down the stretch and not locking down defensively on Jerel McNeal at Marquette = loss. The question is whether the Badgers have learned from that, whether they're taking those lessons and running with them and improving. Whether they'll get there or not, to quote Coach Close.

This afternoon, well, we'll see whether the Badgers are anywhere closer to getting there. Wisconsin plays at Michigan in a 1 pm Central game on ESPN2. Michigan is vastly improved over last season (as should have been thought, given their coach's consistently outstanding record of turnarounds). They lost to Duke on a neutral floor, and at a decent Maryland team in a close game in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. But they beat Duke at home a few weeks later in a rousing performance, beat UCLA at the start of the season, are undefeated at home this year, and have yet to lose since the Maryland game four weeks ago. They're currently ranked 24th. They have the best pure two-guard in the conference in Manny Harris, a sure fire All-Big Ten pick if there is one (Harris turned down a schollie offer from the Badgers, choosing to stay in Michigan), a big talented forward in DeShawn Sims (he lit up Duke), and the just-cleared-waivers transfer from Arizona Laval Lucas-Perry. Jim Beilein has surrounded these legitimate talents with some decently skilled holdovers, like guard Kelvin Grady, and heady role players, like newly acquired three-point sniper Zack Novak.

The play a wacky 1-3-1 zone defense that gives up offensive boards, but is designed to force lots turnovers. They work the ball around the perimeter a fair amount and shoot a lot of threes, but Sims is an excellent interior player and will challenge Landry/Leuer/Nankivil. Harris is excellent at hitting mid-range jumpers off the dribble, and will be a tremendous defensive challenge for Hughes/Krabbenhoft/Wilson. The main key to watch out for, I think, is whether Wisconsin can take care of the basketball. In Michigan's biggest wins this year, they've forced a fair number of turnovers. This is a difficult task, as I don't know if UW's seen a 1-3-1 this season, and even if they have, it's not likely they've seen one as effective as Michigan's. Anyhow, fun stuff and it should be a revealing challenge for the Badgers. If you have to work today (like me, sigh...) set your tivos.

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