Thursday, January 31, 2008

A Tough One Tonight

That's what the Wisconsin men's basketball team will have on their hands when they play Indiana tonight in Madison. Not only does Indiana feature a sure lottery pick in Eric Gordon, and a probably first round draft pick in DJ White, and boast the highest scoring offense in the league, but they also measure up well statistically, according to Basketball Prospectus.

The Badgers have been the darlings of BP's ratings all season, consistently in the top ten. Indiana is currently rated 11th, while les Badgers are 7th. While that sounds positive, the last two teams Wisconsin played that are currently rated in the top fifteen are Marquette and Duke, and we know what happened in those two games. Looking a little deeper, the hype about Eric Gordon and DJ White is deserved. They are both pretty efficient offensive players who have the ball a lot. Gordon is great at drawing fouls and is shooting 40% from outside and White is a beast on the glass and a fine shot blocker. Expect him to block Landry or Butch at least once tonight. They're complimented well by Indiana's version of Joe Krabbenhoft, Jamarcus Ellis, who plays a ton, rebounds, assists and grabs steals, by Lance Stemler, who doesn't shoot much but makes it count when he does and doesn't turn the ball over, and by Armon Bassett, who has attempted 67 threes this season, and only missed 30.

Plus, Indiana's D is ranked in the top 10 by BP. Again, looking a little deeper, they're kind of like UW. They make opposing teams take tough shots, and they don't give up offensive rebounds.

Indiana's main visible weakness is that they're not that big. White is their tallest guy at 6'9". UW has Butch, Stiemer and Leuer, all of whom are 6'10" or taller. Of course, that was basically the same situation UW had with Duke, and that didn't pan out so well. But still, that seemed to be behind Indiana's recent home loss to UConn-- UConn's two big starting forwards (both 6'9") dominated the glass, and apparently forced a fair amount of tough shots. In fact, the Hoosiers only made 12 of 42 two point attempts. The game was kept close by torrid outside shooting-- IU made 55% of their threes. Still, the Badgers are better at defending twos than threes, and UW's big men are likely not as mobile as the tall trees UConn trots out.

As far as match-ups, I don't know if I like anyone UW has on Gordon or White, individually. Maybe Stiemsma on White, but he may foul too much. Butch plays better position-wise, but he's not as strong or athletic. Gordon is too big and strong for Flowers, but will probably be able to go around Krabby or over Hughes. Defending the Hoosier stars will probably be a team affair. And that scares me, because several other guys (notably Stemler and Bassett) are excellent long-range shooters.

So while I think I'd pick Indiana on a neutral floor, with the homecourt, I think this will be a close one. UW's upperclassmen may recall their tough loss at Indiana last season. Maybe they'll be thinking about the pro scouts that are undoubtedly following White and Gordon around. Younger guys will be wanting to make their mark. ESPN is showing this one, so there'll be a fair amount of eyes watching. Both teams will be looking to rebound from tough, close losses. Contested down to the final minute, I say.

Mind-boggling stat

Here's a little note from Badger Men's Basketball Insider (a free service through uwbadgers.com, if you don't have it, get it):

Wisconsin has lost just four conference games over the last two seasons. The four losses have come by a combined total of 19 points and have each come on the road. The opposing team's home crowd has rushed the floor after each game.

Are we so good that fans need to rush the floor whenever we lose on the road? Awesome.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

A Little Copyright Infringement

This is a funny portion of Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle (an absolutely brillant book) that seems appropriate to share given tomorrow night's UW-IU men's basketball game:

Crosby asked me what my name was and what my business was. I told him, and his wife Hazel recognized my name as an Indiana name. She was from Indiana, too.
"My God," she said, "are you a Hoosier? "
I admitted I was.
"I'm a Hoosier, too," she crowed. "Nobody has to be ashamed of being a Hoosier."
"I'm not," I said. "I never knew anyone who was."
"Hoosiers do all right. Lowe and I've been around the world twice, and everywhere we went we found Hoosiers in charge of everything."
"That's reassuring."
"You know the manager of that new hotel in Istanbul?"
"No."
"He's a Hoosier. And the military-whatever-he-is in Tokyo..."
"Attache," said her husband.
"He's a Hoosier," said Hazel. "And the new Ambassador to Yugoslavia..."
"A Hoosier?" I asked.
"Not only him but the Hollywood Editor of Life magazine, too. And that man in Chile..."
"A Hoosier, too?"
"You can't go anywhere a Hoosier hasn't made his mark," she said.
"The man who wrote Ben Hur was a Hoosier."
"And James Whitcomb Riley."
"Are you a Hoosier, too?" I asked her husband.
"Nope. I'm a Prairie Stater. `Land of Lincoln,' as they say."
"As far as that goes," said Hazel triumphantly, "Lincoln was a Hoosier, too. He grew up in Spencer County."
"Sure, I said.
"I don't know what it is about Hoosiers," said Hazel, "but they've sure got something. If somebody was to make a list, they'd be amazed."
"That's true," I said.
She grasped me firmly by the arm. "We Hoosiers got to stick together."
"Right."
"You call me 'Mom.'"

Friday, January 25, 2008

NICE TEETH



by, Nicholas Jon Wood

Having put Magnessgate (see post script) firmly behind them—and by most in-dressing room accounts properly harnessed it as a motivating force (they are 2-0-1 since the scandal broke)—the No. 16 Badgers host the 17th ranked Goofs in Madison this weekend. Always an ├╝ber-intense series, the first edition of the so-called Border Battle this year has heightened implications—both on a league and national scale.

Both teams are tied for fifth (with St. Cloud) in the WCHA with identical 6-8-2 records, good for 14 points, two behind Duluth but with two games in hand. Nationally, these two bitter rivals are also tied for 16th in the PairWise (PWR) which mimics the selection criteria for the NCAA tournament. Short of winning the Final Five, their conference tournament, to qualify for the Big Dance having a PWR of 13 or higher is required. For nearly every reason, big and small, this series is huge.

As far as the players on the ice, the ground squirrels haven't been the same team since sophomore Kyle Okposo abruptly left school to sign with the NHL's New York Islanders. Besides missing stud freshman defenseman Brendan Smith (back), Bucky will hit the ice at full strength.

Here are their projected lines:

Michael Davies-Ben Street-Matthew Ford
Blake Geoffrion-Kyle Turris-Patrick Johnson
Josh Engel-Aaron Bendickson-Podge Turnbull
John Mitchell-Sean Dolan-Ben Grotting

Davis Drewiske-Kyle Klubertanz
Craig Johnson-Cody Goloubef
Ryan McDonagh-Jamie McBain

Shane Connelly, Scott Gudmandson

The Wisconsin State Journal's Andy Baggot reports that between 75 and 100 UW alums and their guests are expected this weekend at the KC. Rumored to be among them? The Heater himself, Dany Heatley. Here's hoping #15 can provide a little magic for our boys.

Drop the puck!

Post Script: A couple Friday's ago at the University of Denver’s “Magness Arena”, University of Wisconsin winger Matt Ford scored the tying goal with 0.9 seconds left in the game. The play, which started with an offensive face-off with 3.7 seconds left in regulation, was originally called a goal on the ice by referee Randy Schmidt. However, per rule, all goals in WCHA buildings are reviewed.

But when Schmidt went to look at the tape, he only requested to look at an overview of the crease with 0.00 on the clock. In that shot, the puck is in the crease. He waved the goal off. Denver wins, 3-2. Yet if he would have taken the time to watch the entire 3.7 seconds of game film, he would have noticed that the puck he saw in the crease with no time remaining was actually on its way out of the net. If he needed further proof (besides the fact that he himself called it a goal on the ice) the goal light is linked to the play clock so it cannot go on after the buzzer has sounded—it did, meaning the goal happened before time ran out.

The WCHA subsequently issued an apology to the Badgers saying that the goal should have counted. Yet they refused to do anything about it. More bizarre, over both coaches’ protests, Schmidt was allowed to ref Saturday night's game. Wisconsin filed a protest. It was denied. Schmidt has been subsequently suspended indefinitely.

Even though Bucky trounced third-ranked DU, 7-2, in the second game, the playoff implications for this no-goal-goal are huge. Certainly it's possible Wisconsin could have lost in overtime, but more likely they get one point for a tie or perhaps even two for a win. This comes into play for many things, including:

1. Tiebreaker with DU
2. Home ice in WCHA playoffs
3. Seeding at Final Five
4. Individual PairWise

With the regionals at the Kohl Center, no matter where Wisconsin is placed in the 16-team tournament bracket, they have a legit shot of making the Frozen Four. As they sit now, this point (or two) could be the difference whether they get in or not.

My solution, while extraordinary and probably never been done before, was to give Wisconsin a point and let Denver keep their two. That way DU is not unfairly punished and Wisconsin gets what should have been rightly theirs. Yes, you could argue that DU might have won in OT, thereby giving Wisconsin a point they did not deserve, however you are also giving DU two points, which they didn't really earn either. The one point for Wisconsin and two for DU seems to make the best out of an embarrassing situation.

To protect the integrity of the game (and overall competitive balance), the easiest thing was just to play the OT before Saturday evening's game. This would have solved everything. Why they didn't do that (understandable if said incident happened on a Saturday) is beyond me. They had a chance to let them settle on the ice and they passed it up. It's really a shame.

Makers of "Boilers" v. Badgers

So the Badgers play their first legitimately tough Big Ten road game tomorrow afternoon, facing Purdon't in beautiful, sunny West Lafayette. Mike Lucas has a nice little article about the game.

Really, this is going to be a toughie. Purdue is a young but talented team, Painter is a good coach, the Boilermakers are on on a bit of a roll (having won 7 out of 8 games), and Mackey Arena is a difficult place to play. In fact, the Badgers' record there has been nothing short of terrible, historically. That said, Purdue does have some odd losses, though those came during the pre-Big Ten Season (to Iowa State and Wofford (?) both at home (??)). For those looking for more reasons for optimism, Purdue is rated 39th by basketball statistics guru Ken Pomeroy, while the Badgers, thanks in largest part to their usually excellent defense, are rated 5th. (Those stats are subject to constant revision, by the by.)

The stats reveal that Purdue, like Wisconsin, is significantly better on D than on O. Also, Purdue is great at negating one of Wisco's usual strengths-- crashing the offensive boards. Purdue excels at cleaning the defensive glass. And I'm not sure what type of D they play, but Purdue has been fantastic at forcing turnovers this season- Pomeroy's ratings have them as 17th best in the country, and remember, there are hundreds of D-I basketball teams out there. They also are prolific at shot-blocking and, like UW, do a good job of not fouling.

This looks like a tough match-up, especially given the home court advantage. I think the key to the game will be Wisconsin's turnovers. That's because even after grabbing a great number of steals and forcing lots of turnovers, Purdue's offense is still mediocre. That means without a steady infusion of fast-break opportunities (which steals normally provide) Purdue's offense is likely downright sluggish. So if the Badgers can take care of the ball, especially when Flowers or Hughes is being pestered by Purdue guard Chris Kramer, who is a great defensive player and their leader in steals, that could really help matters. In fact, Purdue's defense on two and three point shots is only pretty good. That means if opposing teams can hold onto the ball, they often get off a pretty good shot. That's what the Badgers will need to do. And, of course, they'll need to continue doing all those good things that got them where they are-- playing excellent team defense, hunting for good looks on offense, rebounding (something that's been lacking in at least two Big Ten games), and avoiding unnecessary fouls.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Too Sad

Jackie I. looks like he's down for the count. It's hard for a defensive back to effectively come back from a torn ACL, let alone all that other stuff. And what's the deal with Bob McGinn getting quotes from the meanest scout ever? I hope Jack had an insurance policy.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Don't Get Cocky

That was the lesson of last night's frighteningly close game against the University of Michigan Wolverines men's basketball team. Les Badgers had leads of eight and ten, and let the skunk-bears (which is essentially what a wolverine is) claw their way back into the game, slicing the lead down to three, then one, and then tying the game. Unfortunately, the tie came with less than four minutes left. And this is a Michigan team that is currently 10th in the Big Ten and has a losing non-conference record. Uh oh. Thankfully, Bucky made some clutch plays to pull out a win-- Flowers' jarring a loose ball, the Hoft grabbing said loose ball and calling a TO, Hughes making a nice pass to Landry for a three with 30 or so seconds left. The four-point lead that shot created pretty much sealed it up, though Michigan missing a three on their next possession and Sconnie getting the rebound and getting fouled certainly helped matters. So, phew, a nervously close win over an apparently overmatched but tenacious foe. Still, there are more takeaways from this game than just that.

- First, Michigan is an improving team. That have some solid talent (Manny Harris was Michigan's Mr. Basketball last year and turned down a schollie from UW), and probably have more athletic size (Udoh) than Wisconsin does. They seem to be picking up the 1-3-1 defense decently. And Tommy Amaker is no longer in Ann Arbor. John Beilein is a proven coach, successful at every college stop he's made. Michigan's going to be pretty good next year and could be pretty good toward the end of this season. I'm glad UW played them twice early in the year, and I hope they avoid them in the Big Ten tournament.

- Second, if Wisconsin wants to win, it has got to rebound better. Wisco gave up twenty (20!) offensive rebounds last night. Wisco's entire defensive philosophy is based on not fouling, forcing tough shots, and then getting the rebound. If you don't get the rebound, the whole chain breaks down-- team's get an additional possession, or are often in great position to get an easy shot and draw a foul. That happened a lot last night, to the tune of Michigan scoring 22 second chance points. And watching the game, it wasn't just luck (like long rebounds) or getting out jumped by more athletic Michigan players, it was positioning. Guys just weren't getting positioning like they normally do. It was bizarre and disturbing. As Landry said, it was "ridiculous on our part. As a team we know we're better than that. We just can't let that happen again." That is correct, big guy. Thankfully, identifying the problem is usually a big part of solving the problem.

- Third, the 1-3-1 zone defense is annoying. Michigan ran it last night. Northwestern ran an even more annoying version of it on Saturday. That defense makes Wisconsin look ugly. It forces a lot of dithering in the back court as the guards try to get through traps, which I guess is the point, because that gives your team less time to get the ball into the post. I think this D was part of the reason both the Northwestern and Michigan games were too close for comfort. It's not a common style of D, and it's frustrating. Wisconsin definitely handled it better against Michigan (only 11 turnovers and over 50% shooting) than against Northwestern, but still, it takes a lot of effort to get through, and makes the game ugly.

- Fourth, I caution UW fans not to look at the teams gaudy record (16-2) and rankings (11th in both polls) and get overexcited. The team has generally beaten who it was supposed to beat, and, with the exception of Texas, lost to teams it was supposed to lose to. The Badgers are currently 6-0 in conference, but that's only a third of the conference season and all of the games have come against squads in the bottom half of the league's standings. Things get a lot harder directly, going to Purdon't on Saturday, and then hosting Indiana next Wednesday. Then a game at much improved Minnesota. I'd be delighted and surprised if UW wins all three of those games. Personally, I think UW is overrated right now. I'd say they should be ranked around 20th or so, and should be a four or a five seed in the tournament. They're balanced, pretty disciplined, play great team defense, and have some good talent. But I do not think they're the 11th best college basketball team in the country. At least, not yet.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Nice story

Here's a nice story to make you feel better after yesterday's debacle:

Spot on UW's bench thrill a minute for Smith

I can just imagine the repeated conversation:
"Wuhquinton?"
"Uh, no just Quinton. The "W" is silent."

Sunday, January 20, 2008

Crap Sandwich

All you can say is the Packers didn't deserve to win. The offense looked like it was asleep, and the entire team looked like they didn't want to be there. That final Favre intercpetion sort of summed it up-- iffy protection, terrible throw, basically Favre looking for any way to make the game end, just like Philly in overtime four years ago. Al Harris needs a psychiatrist, since he clearly cannot handle the spotlight (see his performance against TO in Dallas). And if the other team has TWICE your time of possession, then you should lose. That's all there is to it.

And the only reason they were in the game was because of the gifts. The broken coverage and a great individual effort by Driver. Tauscher recovering the strip after effing R-dub picked off a terrible Favre pass that he should have thrown away. The personal foul on Madison that kept a drive alive. Ridiculous and complete gifts. The game wasn't close. The Packers were clearly the inferior team on the field. Grant averaged 1 something yard per rush. Favre was winging the ball around like an idiot. He clearly didn't want to be there, just like the last Bear game. The wideouts couldn't get open against a crap secondary. Maybe if it was 30 degrees warmer, they would have played better. I don't know. But they looked and played like hell. Geez, even Eli pansy-boy Manning looked tougher than Favre, who kept rubbing heat packets on his face like a sissy. Maybe he's just getting old, and his inner monologue asks "what the hell am I doing here?" a little more often. It just looked like the Giants wanted it more the whole game. A sad and pathetic end to a crazy rollercoaster of a season.

The only positives I can see in all of this are:
(A) the rest of the country gets to laugh at the New York vs. Boston media crapstorm that is going to take over the sporting world for the next two weeks;
(B) we won't have to see the Packers get depantsed by the Patriots in front of the entire world; and
(C) Ted Thompson can get a jump start on hunting for Al Harris' replacement.

Stupid Siberians

The weather report in my paper a few days ago showed some huge wind formation, gusting from the North Pole, due South over Canada into the Upper Midwest. It was symbolized by a big, arrow, stretching several hundred miles wide, and labeled "Siberian Express." That is, the ridiculously frigid and unpleasant tempatures we Midwesterners are now experiencing is the result of air coming all the way from Siberia, over the Pole, and into the North American continent. Since I lack a degree in meteorology, I can't explain why this is happening. But I can bemoan it.

And I will, because it, combined with the genius NFL scheduling that determined the NFC Championship game will start at 5:30 pm Central time, may very well cancel out the Packers' most glaring advantage over los Gigantes this evening. That is-- the Packer's quintet of solid wideouts (DD, Jennings, Jones, Koren Robinson and Ruvell Martin) vs. the Giants creaky and injury-riddled secondary. The cold makes the ball hard, and makes fingers numb-- worsening one's ability to throw and catch the football. Now, it's good that the Packers' passing game is premised on short to medium range passes, but still, the weather is going to make passing the ball harder. This makes me nervous. Ah, hell. I'm just generally antsy about this game.

I definitely feel the Packers are the more complete team. But the cold equalizes things. The result may be totally fluky. The Pack has had more rest, fewer travel days, and an extra day of rest in the past week. Maybe that will kick in. But I'm uncertain about this game. I really don't know how the weather will affect it. Anything could happen. Why can't the Russians keep their air to themselves?

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Lions to Lambs

You have to feel bad for Penn State basketball fans. Going into last night's game, it had been a very good season so far. Their stars, Geary Claxton and Jamelle Cornley have been playing great. They have a winning record both in and out of conference. They've been rebounded very well, especially on the offensive end. They may have just lost their first home game of the season (last Saturday to Minnesota), but they also beat Illinois in Champaign already. Cornley seems to have fought off a knee injury. They have a bunch of upperclassmen (10 in all) who seem to be gelling, and some pretty talented freshman who are contributing. Everything is primed to make a tournament run and make some noise in the Big Ten.

You're down early at home against Wisco, but showing a little life. And then your best player, your senior leader, the Big Ten's second leading scorer and a likely NBA draft pick, lands a little stiffly after taking a jump shot in the lane. Almost inexplicably, he crumples to the floor in agony. He's helped off the court, unable to put any weight on his left leg. You then proceed to show some pluck, but generally play awful defense in allowing the visiting team run the lead up to 31 in the second half. You end up losing by 25 at home. Ouch. Poor Penn State basketball. It's the equivalent of Wisconsin losing Alando in the middle of last season. Those guys are in serious trouble now.

Oddly, the injury (apparently season ending) to Claxton shouldn't have had that much of a dent on the Nittany Lions' team defensive effort since he's known as more of an offensive player. But their D was just plain bad-- Wisco shot 59% from the floor, and grabbed almost half of the available offensive rebounds. PSU's apparent strategy was not to let Bucky beat them inside, so they collapsed into the paint and didn't come out to the three point line against any Wisconsin frontcourt players, essentially daring them to shoot. And shoot they did, hitting 10 of 18 three-bombs, led by Michael Flowers' five treys. But even their interior D was iffy, as demonstrated by Butch, Landry, the Hoft and Stiemsma all having multiple buckets in the paint.
And the Badgers continued to play excellent D (eased by the Claxton's absence), holding the lamblike Lions to 37% shooting overall, despite Cornley going through a hot stretch in the second half. The excellent shooting and fine field goal defense, and pretty solid defensive rebounding (pulling down about 30 of PSU's 40 or so misses) led to the blowout, despite the Badgers doing a couple of uncharacteristic things-- fouling more than the other team and committing 14 turnovers. I'm not sure about the turnovers and the team's own fouls, but the number of fouls drawn was probably a little muted because of the extremely saggy PSU D. That is, zones tend to produce fewer fouls than man to man D, and PSU played a lot of zone.

So, in summation, a sad day for PSU and an encouragingly good shooting performance for UW. Michael Flowers now looks like a legit offensive threat. Next game-- Northwestern in Madison on Saturday night on the BTN.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Can the Packers salvage their season?

Mr. Man texted me after "the game which shall not be mentioned" and asked if the Packers season was now a failure. I wittily replied, "It is unless we win the Super Bowl." Now, said redemption is staring us squarely in the face.
I am not looking past the Giants, nor are the Packers (we hope). I am, in fact, scared shitless of Los Gigantes. This is because we look better than them on paper, we are at home, and we are expected to win. Sound familiar? Granted, Green Bay is not Dallas, and Mike McCarthy is not Wade Phillips, but the situation still scares me.

In a conversation with my friend last week I boldly stated that if the Pack could run the ball they would dominate the Turkeys. With an assist from the weather, this clearly happened. I don't know how to predict this week because Eli "I'm-Sorry-I'm-Not-Peyton" Manning is completely unpredictable. Do we get game-manager, in-control Eli or do we get what I like to call the "Eli face":


I vote "Eli face".
Anyway, I think the Pack should win the game. As a start, we should definitely avoid spotting the other team 14 points, and I don't think we will. If we continue to run the ball well, we can prevent the D-line from bum-rushing Favre, which will allow him to possibly take a couple of shots deep. On D, I'm a bit scared of Brandon Jacobs, but overall I think we match up well. While we lack names on the D-line, we may have the most consistent unit in the NFL and should be able to contain Jacobs to some extent. I especially think that our coverage schemes favor us against their gimpy receiving corps. The linebacker and safety play is key: If they can run support well, we should have good chance at generating Eli-face opportunities. What I like the most is having McCarthy on the sideline. He has been out-coached for one half of one game this year (2nd half of Bears-Packers Debacle Part I) and had an unprepared team (read: punter) once this season. I think the coaching edge may be our biggest advantage.

So here's hoping for lots of this:
and even more of this:





Monday, January 14, 2008

High Times in Packerland

So my old, almost unbelievably obnoxious, Patriot fan friend sent me a text after the Cowboys self-destructed against the Giants, saying "See you in the Super Bowl." As Packer fans, we shouldn't get ahead of ourselves, but man, you have to be optimistic about Green Bay's chances after this past weekend. The Packers spot the Ospreys a fourteen point lead, then outscore them 42 (!) to 6, setting franchise records for rushing yards and points in a playoff game. This coming against a team that had the 5th best rushing defense in the league, according to Football Outsiders. And then the Cowboys, the NFLs biggest showoffs, choke against the otherwise overmatched Giants, meaning Lambeau hosts the NFC championship game again. It'll be the first time the game's been in Green Bay since Dorsey Levens romped over the Carolina Panthers, ten years and two days ago. Hollaaa!

First, the Seahawk game. Was I alone in thinking "well, there goes the season" after the refs ruled that Bobby Engram was forced out of the endzone, following Grant's second fumble? I mean, the vast majority of teams in the league aren't 14 points better than each other. And turnovers, especially in important areas of the field almost always decide games, especially playoffs. (Consider the Colts' three red zone TOs against the 'Bolts yesterday.) And the woman kept worrying about the weather, and how it was going to mess up the Packers' offense. But the shook off that deficit and just kept rolling and rolling.

The much hyped Seattle LB duo of Peterson and Tatupu played well on several predictable runs, but when Grant cut back, hoo boy, were there running lanes. He looked like he had something to prove, and he definitely made his case -- juking guys, making hard, fast cuts, powering for yards after contact, and, when it was all said and done, setting team records for playoff rushing yards and touchdowns. As former nemesis Jimmy Johnson said, you think about all the former Packer greats like Donny Anderson, Ahman Green, Jim Taylor, Paul Hornung, Dorsey Levens, Tony Canadeo, none of them have had a better day than Grant did on Saturday. Wow. And there were so many other impressive performances. Greg Jennings could only stop himself (one drop). The Packers didn't complete a pass longer than 20 yards, and it didn't matter. Bigby did a favorable Ronnie Lott impersonation. Pickett showed why he's so valuable, eating up double teams. Corey Williams looked he'll be a hot commodity on in free agency again. Cullen Jenkins rushed the passer like he did in the preseason. Tauscher blanked Patrick Kerney, though the slick conditions and the strong running game greatly helped matters. Colledge blew it a couple times (his blown block led to Favre's stumbling underhand toss to Lee), but the blocking was otherwise solid in both facets, especially in the run game. The team looked primed, unbothered by the snow, and committed. And though the victory was helped by Deion Branch gimping off the field early, wild weather (favoring the team with the stronger running game), and an awful performance from old pro Marcus Pollard (a fumble and two huge drops), mostly the Packers won this one.

And the poor, poor Cowboys. They should change their name to the Golden Geese, because they collectively laid a huge, shiny egg yesterday. The Giants have several good running backs, two very good defensive ends, a solid offensive line, a decent qb, and a great wideout who's running around with torn ligaments in his ankle. But their other guys (especially in the secondary and in the linebacking corps) are totally average, if not below average. So with Burress gimpy and no Jeremy Shockey, they have nowhere near the talent that the 'Boys have assembled-- Demarcus Ware, Terrence Newman, TO, a great o-line, Romo, Barber and Witten. Even with TO not completely himself, playing in Dallas, the Cowboys win that match-up 8 out of 10 times. The only was they lose it was aptly demonstrated yesterday-- a ton of unclutch penalties, dropped passes, going away from what was working (the run), poor tackling. But even with all that, I'm still totally confused as to how Dallas lost that game, and how they didn't score more than 17 points. They had the ball for 37 minutes, and all they got was 17 points? When the Giants failed to go for it on 4th and two feet on the Dallas 42, when the Giants were up 7 and had the 'Boys reeling, I figured they blew it. That was a pathetic coaching decision, and the Cowboys scored on their next drive, tying the game. And then when the Giants failed to get a first down twice in their last two possessions, again, I figured they blew it. But the New York d-line sort of stepped up in the last few minutes, and the Cowboys just shot themselves in the foot.

Consider the last real play-- the Cowboys have 4th and 11 at the Giants' 23 with 20 seconds left. They need 11 yards or the season's over. It's time to put it all on the line. So they call . . . a three man pattern? That's right, both Marion Barber and Jason Witten, the team's clutchest receiver, stayed in the backfield to block. A terrible playcall, the Giants have seven guys covering three targets, no one's open, interception to the completely marginal mortgage defaulter R.W. McQuarters, season over. Throwing a bad pick to a bad player (who's got bad credit) on a bad playcall-- that last play aptly encapsulated the Cowboys self-inflicted, and well-deserved, collapse. Hopefully we won't have to worry about those jerks for a while because it may be goodbye to this version of the Cowboys-- TO is only getting older, and offensive coaches Jason Garrett and Tony Sparano appear likely to head to bigger jobs. Plus, Jerry Jones, whom the woman began referring to as "Aaron Spelling" last night, can't be too confident in Wade Phillips' winless playoff record. Good riddance to bad rubbish.

Now how do folks think los Gigantes match-up with the Pack? I know we beat them solidly in Week 2, but it was close into the fourth quarter (a one score game), their 260 pound RB didn't play, Eli was gimpy, and Strahan was out of shape. And did you see the weather forecast for next Sunday? Predicted highs in the high single digits. How will that effect things?

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Friday, January 11, 2008

Overly Close?

Wisco's ten point victory over the Fightin' Fibs was fraught with a little too much drama for me. Illinois has been in a bit of a swoon, which is attributable to a temporary (unfortunately) dearth of talent and some injury problems. As a brief aside, their recent struggles are not due to coaching or some other problem. I may dislike (intensely) the University of Illinois, but Weber is a native son of Wisconsin and a fine, fine coach.

Anyhoo, since the Illini had been struggling (losing to Penn State and Miami of Ohio at home) the hope was for the Badgers to deliver a semi-serious beatdown. But it was not to be, at least not until about four minutes were left in the game. Though Wisconsin had several leads of 8 or more points, Illinois played a plucky game, with guys like Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock hitting bit shots. Plus, Wisconsin had two serious issues that kept Illinois in the game: the Hoft and Flowers got into foul trouble; and Bucky got beat, badly, on the boards.

Flowers and Krabby are the teams' two best defenders and its secondary and tertiary ballhandlers. They're probably the two headiest players on the team, and two huge leaders. So understandably, if you go back and watch, Illinois made their runs toward leveling the score when Michael and Joe were out of the game. Neither guy fouled out, but both got two whistles quite quickly and sat a large chunk of both halves; Michael got four pretty early as well.

Krabby's absence exacerbated the second issue-- a poor rebounding performance. Joe is one of the best rebounding guards (if you can call him a guard) in the nation, and probably the second best rebounder on the team, after Butch. But even when he was in the game, Bucky just got straight out beat on the boards, in embarrassing fashion, something that hasn't happened in quite a while. The stats bear this out-- Illinois missed 34 field goals, and the Badgers only garnered 20 boards. That means Illinois got 40% of its own misses. Conversely, the Badgers missed 23 field goals, but pulled down only 4 offensive boards, getting less than 20% of its missed shots. Those are terrible percentage to give up. And what's odd about this, is that the Badgers have been one of the best rebounding teams in the nation. Their calling cards have been playing good defense and holding teams to one shot, and following their own misses to get second chance points. Maybe they missed the physicality that Gullickson could have provided, had he not been benched for underage drinking (only six more weeks to 21, Kev).

I guess it was good that the Badgers could fail to do something that they've been doing well all season and still come out with a win. That seemed to be due to three things-- they shot very well, over 50% for the game, Hughes especially nailing jumper after jumper; they continued to play solid defense, though they didn't rebound well; and they didn't turn the ball over-- only 9 times on the game. The shooting percentage and the turnovers are impressive stats considering that Illinois is a solid defensive team. Butch's performance (16 points) was impressive as well, coming against Illinois center Shaun Pruitt in large part, who was the best returning low post threat in the league.

Also, as the media has made clear, this was definitely Hughes' best game of the year. He had six steals, shot lights out, made several great passes and played under control,
giving up only two TOs, one of which was Butch's fault. Plus, he played a ton of minutes with Flowers in foul trouble. It was interesting to hear Weber, after the game, differentiate between Hughes and the rest of the Badger team, talent-wise. He said something like "Hughes has what we're missing, and the rest of the guys are just good, solid college players."

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Well Deserved

Joe Thomas, who is already the best Badger alum playing in the NFL, made the Pro Bowl after a guy ahead of him dropped out due to injury.

Peter King had this to say about Thomas earlier this week:

"All I Can Say Is Wow Dept.: Left tackle Joe Thomas started every snap in 2007 for the Browns at the most important line position. He allowed one sack all season (of Charlie Frye in the first half of the first game; some say Frye held the ball too long). Len Pasquarelli reported the other day that Thomas allowed two. My Browns guy said one. Whatever, it was miniscule for a team whose quarterbacks had 564 pass-drops.

Thomas was the keystone to the NFL's third-highest team in sacks allowed last year becoming the third-lowest this year. For having one of the best years in the league among all offensive linemen, Thomas received 3.5 of 50 votes for the Associated Press' Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Nothing against Adrian Peterson, who's one of the best backs to come along in years. I just think Thomas getting 7 percent of the vote was pretty light."

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Turmoil in Buckyland

It's only been a week since the Outback Bowl, but the UW football program is already undergoing some serious changes. Those are--
(A) Jackie I's apparent declaration to go pro, if he's not found guilty of residential burglary;
(B) Purdue courting Badger offensive coordinator Paul Chryst to be its successor to head coach Joe Tiller, though Tiller hasn't even retired yet and may not this season;
(C) Badger offensive line coach Bob Palcic leaving the program to go back to UCLA and coach with Rick New-weasel, ahem, Neuheisel;
(D) Badger defensive coordinator and sexagenarian Mike Hankiwitz getting laid off, allegedly for "performance reasons;" and
(E) one of the Badgers' top recruits, a St. Louis wideout, changing his mind and going to Mizzou.

Here are the takes--
- If Jack runs a 4.4, he'll likely be a pick somewhere in the top two rounds, so sure, he should probably go. He also redshirted his first season, so he's been at UW for four years. What's worrying is that his residential burglary case is going to trial on January 14, in less than a week. If he's convicted, and if he signs with an agent before then, he's in serious trouble, and may be totally screwed career-wise. If I was him, I might wait on signing with an agent until after the trial. That would leave him at least one year of eligibility, in case he, I don't know, goes to prison for two years. Then, after prison, he could go to a JC for a year or something to try to make a case for getting back to the NFL. Grim, I know.

- Chryst's leaving would be unfortunate, although I wasn't impressed with his play-calling against Tennessee, or the offense's preparation for that game (four timeouts wasted, several illegal procedure penalties). He's usually been a good playcaller, someone who does a solid job of playing to his team's strengths, and he looks like a good developer of quarterbacks. He was definitely a huge step up over Brian White. What makes his pursuit of a college head coaching job a little odd is that he doesn't seem like a guy who's a particularly enthusiastic or effective recruiter. In this day and age, unless you're at some huge traditional power, I really feel that you need to have that trait to be a successful head coach. With his head for strategy and development, Chryst is probably better suited to be a pro assistant.

- Palcic was a solid coach, but with UW's traditional plethora of excellent linemen, Bielema should be able to find a capable replacement. Remember, only two years ago Palcic replaced Coach Hueber, who left to be the Vikings O-line coach.

- As a fan, it's hard to judge Hankwitz's performance. Last year's defense was excellent, and, as everyone knows, this year's was far worse. How much of that is due to player turnover, and how much can be pinned on coaching, we can't really know. That said, last season the defense nearly always made good halftime adjustments. This year, the bleeding often got worse in the second half. (The bowl game being a notable exception.) Also, Hankwitz doesn't appear to have been a particularly effective recruiter. (He was responsible for Colorado and the surrounding area, and UW didn't pull in anyone of note from that region during his tenure.) This also may be viewed as a move to keep linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator Dave Doeren around. He seems to have done a good job with his players, and is noted as a top-notch recruiter. He should get the promotion to full d-coordinator now.

- Finally, the defection of the St. Louis wideout, Wes Kemp, is unfortunate. Scout.com had him rated as one of UW's top recruits of the 20 or so "verbal commitments" the school has lined up for national signing day. If anything, this "defection" highlights the absence of Henry Mason, who coaches and recruits wide receivers. Coach Mason's been on leave since late summer, recuperating from a terrifying spinal injury. He's a fine coach, an outstanding recruiter, and, by every account I've read, a great person. UW needs him back pronto.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Meeeechigan in Disarray

UW men's basketball had their first win of the Big Ten season, 70-54 over the struggling Michigan Wolverines last night, in Ann Arbor, though the stadium was half empty, probably due to three factors-- (A) Michigan got over a foot of snow yesterday, (B) it was still winter break for UM students, and (C) Michigan was 4-8 (now 4-9).

For those of you who didn't see the game, UW won because of their solid defense, particularly in the first half, Wolvie's own bumbles and defensive lapses, and John Leuer playing lights out offense from everywhere except the free throw line. (The most accurate game synopsis is written up here, I think, since it accurately focuses on Michigan's own shortcomings.) "Loo-er" finished with 25 points and nailed 5 threes, including four in the first half. He was unconscious, though nearly all of this threes weren't contested, which was odd, even after he made his first couple. And they all came off of passes, finding him standing alone and open just behind the arc. Not great defense there, Michigan.

So really, the Badgers didn't play that well, it's just that Michigan struggled even more, and Leuer was on fire. Sadly, the funky Beilein zone that Wolvie threw at UW, mixed in with some other defenses, caused some problems, to the tune of an ugly 17 turnovers (though they did manage a decent 1.06 points per possession). In addition, Butch, Landry and Flowers played limited minutes due to foul trouble. So not a pretty win, but again, one that came on the back of generally great team defense.

What was encouraging was how even with three starters in foul trouble, the team played excellent defense, letting Meechigan manage only .83 PPP. Bohannon seems to be growing up on the defensive end, and is far removed from the individual liability he seemed to be at times last season. The Hoft was his warrior-like self on D and on the boards (though his offensive game, except for a nice nearly behind the backboard floater to end the first half, was U-G-L-Y). The Stiemer had a nice double shot block possession. And Leuer played pretty solid team D and rebounded decently. That's excellent news, since he certainly has the offensive skills to merit a lot of playing time.

Anyhow, this generally excellent team D will probably be enough against questionable teams like Michigan (at least this season's Michigan). But if UW wants to compete with the big guys, and make a run at the Big Ten, they need to play better offense and be more careful with the ball. Random guys aren't going to go 5 for 5 from beyond the arc for you every night.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Illinois Fans-- Still Racist

Jay Mariotti (the best "kick 'em while they're down" sportswriter in the business) accurately relates the moronic redneck hysteria of Illinois fans:

"Hey, at least Illini Nation had a chance to chant 'CHIEEEEEEEEF!' If all else fails on your biggest football stage in a quarter-century, why not show your rubeness by paying homage to a banished mascot? The band launched into its familiar routine at halftime, prompting fans to see an imaginary Chief Illiniwek and repeatedly chant 'CHIEEEEEEEEF!' Look, people, Chief is gone, buried by the NCAA. And nobody in California seemed especially impressed by your post-death embrace, including Los Angeles Times columnist Bill Plaschke, who noted, 'You can buy his memorabilia in school-sanctioned bookstores, see his resemblance on oddly painted fans outside home games, cheer his supporters as they march in the school's homecoming parade and feel his presence at the university's highest reaches.' Way to stand there, in your full-throated fury, and use New Year's Day in Pasadena to perpetuate mass Illiniwek denial."

This is the Plaschke column, also hilarious, that Mariotti mentions. In it, the 2nd Chief of the Peoria Tribe says, "I don't know why a university has to keep alive something that speaks of racism. It just fascinates me that people have to hold onto something that is so hurtful to others." The real Chief also says, "I love it when they say they are honoring us, yet they never ask us how we want to be honored." Ah what typical Fib behavior, nonchalantly offending everyone.

Tuesday, January 01, 2008

Two Initial Reactions to the Bowl Loss

That bowl game was encouraging (fighting back from a two touchdown deficit) but ultimately disappointing. There's a ton of stuff to talk about, and we'll get to it eventually I'm sure, but I have two things I want to get out there.

One, thank goodness that the defensive coaches finally wised up, benched Aubrey Pleasant and put Jay Valai in at strong safety. By all accounts, Pleasant tries hard, is a good teammate, and a nice guy. But the only thing he's exceled at this season is the safety blitz. Otherwise, his game is adequate to poor. Valai is a smaller guy, but in that one half, he made more instinctual plays than I've seen out of Pleasant all season. In short, Valai for Pleasant replaced an almost total liability with a solid player. Notice that UT scored zero points after Valai came in. What took the coaches so long?

Second, I'm relieved that the Tyler Donovan era is over. Tyler is a tough, tough kid. But he's no more than an adequate quarterback, especially when, like in the second half, he's hobbled and/or afraid to run. I think an un-shell shocked Donovan would have taken off early on that fourth and two and gotten it. That last interception, thrown almost directly to a defender, seems symptomatic of his issues. He has problems going through progressions, he's not particularly accurate, and his timing with receivers (particularly anyone not named Swan) is poor. UW needs better quarterbacking if it wants to beat OSU and the top tier SEC teams.