WISCONSIN BADGERS, MARQUETTE GOLDEN EAGLES: A FIRST-CLASS SHOWDOWN
Frank: The Badgers entered this week with the Cancun Challenge title and an 8-0 record against some pretty good competition...
Artie: Very good competition! Saint Louis and West Virginia in the tourney, and before that St. John's Florida, UW-Green Bay...
F: I'm perceiving that this season the Badgers have something more than their usual efficient, control-the-tempo offense...
A: Right you are. It's not like they're suddenly run-and-gun, but with sophomore Sam Dekker starting to come into his own and guard Josh Gasser healthy again, they can push it upcourt when they get a chance. They haven't often had that under Bo, and coupled with the way they've been shooting from the outside, it makes them extra-dangerous.
F: Marquette, meanwhile, sputtered at first with a disastrous 35-point showing at home against Ohio State and a near-disaster against New Hampshire.
A: But Buzz apparently lit into the Golden Eagles but good, and they've flipped the switch to get back to their usual mode of tough, all-court energy. They had two excellent games in the Wooden Legacy tournament against Cal-Fullerton and George Washington before a tough-luck loss to San Diego State in the final.
F: After the 4-for-40 deep freeze on three-pointers in those last two home games, their shooting has started to come around. Jake Thomas began showing an outside spark, which they really lacked last season.
A: If Thomas can be a consistent threat it would really help open things up in the paint for their “aircraft carrier,” Davante Gardner, and their usual slashing attackers on the wings.
F: There's pressure on point guard Derrick Wilson, who didn't play much last season behind Junior Cadougan. I was impressed with Wilson against George Washington; he controlled the offense well and made a couple of nice off-the-ball cuts for layups.
A: MU also has a couple of freshmen who could make a quick impact—especially Deonte Burton from Milwaukee Vincent, a Charles Barkley-type who plays bigger than his 6-4 listing. He was terrific against San Diego State!
F: I'd say UW and MU have legitimate shots to win their conferences, though it won't be easy.
A: The Big Ten is pretty loaded and the smaller Big East still has established powers like Villanova, Georgetown, Creighton and Xavier. It'll be a very interesting season!
F: Whatever happens, Ryan and Williams will never let their guys be uncompetitive. A team might beat the Badgers or Eagles, but no one will outwork 'em.
THAT'S A STRIKE, RYAN
F: So Ryan Braun came to town last week, hoisted a few bags of food donations and rattled off some comments about being “extremely remorseful” and wanting to “move forward.” I thought the performance left a lot to be desired.
A: Did you expect anything else? I sure didn't. He basically said nothing, except that he had dinner with Dino Laurenzi, the guy he'd trashed to cover up his lying about taking banned drugs. How heartwarming.
F: Braun said he “made amends” with Laurenzi, but I want to hear it from Dino. Anything Braun says or does comes under the heading of “performance”—and not the kind that's enhanced by steroids.
A: I wonder how Braun reacted when Mrs. Laurenzi said, “We're having crow; would you like white meat or dark?”
F: Braun hasn't earned the right to be taken at face value. He says the statement he issued when he was suspended in July was “pretty lengthy and specific”—Bull! There are still lots of questions, such as exactly what products he used; how he got them; why and when he got involved with a low-life like Tony Bosch; whether he “used” before the playoff game on the day of his flunked test; and why he kept lying for a year and a half...
A: Last week all we got was slick PR stuff. After baseball he'll have a good career as a corporate shill.
F: His comments sounded rehearsed; he spoke quickly and glibly, like he was running through a check-list from his handlers. He didn't exactly smile, but he sure didn't look like he'd been chastened by all this.
A: Time to "move forward"—that's what all celebrity screw-ups say when they decide they've had enough. It's like a guy on the 100th floor of the Empire State Building, on the window ledge, and all he wants to do is move forward. Sometimes it's not the best idea.
F: You mentioned expectations? I've got to think Mark Attanasio expects a lot more from Braun in terms of honesty and the courage to face the media's questions. At one point Braun said, “Obviously I've been through a lot...” Well, so have the fans who supported him, and they deserve a lot more candor.
THEY'RE FINDING THE RANGE
F: I've done some number crunching, and this year's Badgers are shooting MUCH better than in 2012-'13. Through eight games the overall field-goal percentage was .480; last season the Badgers shot .420. And on three-pointers the mark was .436, a huge improvement over last season's .330.
A: There are a couple of factors. First, the now-graduated Mike Bruesewitz and Jared Berggren both shot under 30% on threes last season. And second, the loss of Gasser was huge; it rushed point guard Traevon Jackson into all those minutes of on-the-job training and he struggled with his shot. Now his three-point shooting has greatly improved.
F: And Gasser is back, which makes the team so much better.
A: He means so much to them. He's not only a good shooter but he gets to the rim so well...
F: Which can open things up for kick-outs to the other shooters. As one result, UW's scoring has been nicely balanced; with every starter averaging at least 10 points a game.
A: Ben Brust is shooting more consistently and Frank Kaminsky has emerged big-time, and not just because of that 43-point game against North Dakota. Plus the bench is pretty good with Duje Dukan, Nigel Hayes and the point guard from La Crosse, Bronson Koenig.
F: And voila, they jumped to No. 10 in last week's AP poll.
A: The Badgers also rate highly with Ken Pomeroy, who does incredibly complex and well-respected analysis of teams on his website, kenpom.com. He's the Bob McGinn of college hoops, using all sorts of metrics and new-wave stats. Through Sunday he had UW ranked 17th, which was 11 spots ahead of almighty Duke. Pomeroy's top five, by the way, are Louisville, Ohio State, Pittsburgh, Michigan State and Oklahoma State.
F: How does Pomeroy rank Marquette, which was No. 25 in AP's poll last week?
A: Through Sunday they were No. 47, but on the rise.
TRYING TO CHECK THE CHECKS
F: We entered this college basketball season with officials instructed to cut down on “hand-checking” and other defensive contact, in order to improve the game's flow and increase scoring. In response, some coaches worried that there'd be too many whistles and games would become free-throw contests. You watch a lot more games than I do; have you noticed any trends so far?
A: Not really; it's too soon to tell. I know MU took a ridiculous 53 foul shots in its opener against Southern, but I don't think that's become a national pattern.
F: It'll be a matter of adjustment for everyone.
A: Some teams will have more trouble than others. I don't think the Badgers will be one of them because Ryan has always taught that you play defense by moving your feet, not your hands. Bo's boys aren't grabbers.
F: Not to say that Buzz's boys are, but I think MU might be affected somewhat because they've usually been more aggressive on defense, in terms of going for steals and challenging over more of the court. But in their first two games in the California tournament the Golden Eagles were called for 36 fouls, not a crazy total.
A: Before the season there was some speculation that a lot of teams would play zones more often to cut down on the hand checking. It's hard to tell whether that's happening.
F: The three-point shot has changed the game so much that I'd guess zones are a lot more common for teams, at least during some parts of a game. My beef is that it seems like so many of the games wind up becoming three-point contests.
A: Well, the rewards for the long ball are higher. But so are the risks, especially in one-and-done tournament times, that one or two cold stretches will ruin a season.
F: I know Williams was one of the coaches who expressed concern about parades to the free-throw line this season. But lots of coaches also were complaining last season that the game was being hurt by too many block-or-charge calls, too much “flopping” on defense and too much impeding of players off the ball.
A: And average scoring had been going down steadily.
F: I heard Jay Bilas say on one ESPN show, “We had evolved into a clutching, grabbing game of hockey.” And coaches must have had something to do with that. So they can't have it both ways, worrying about low scoring but then complaining about measures to improve it.
A: These aren't new rules, after all. They've always been there. Maybe it will require more teams to change the way they play defense, but at the same time it should help them operate better on the offensive end.
A PAIR OF FOOTBALL FLOPS
F: I'm guessing that you feel the less said about the Packers' 40-10 mauling by Detroit, the better. And then the Badgers compounded things by inexplicably coming up flat against Penn State—and at Camp Randall.
A: I could tell at halftime Thursday that there was no chance, absolutely no chance.
F: And that was when it was only 17-10—and the Lions had missed a chip-shot field goal.
A: But the Pack couldn't do a thing on offense; I think we may be seeing why Matt Flynn didn't stick with Seattle and Oakland, although he wasn't getting any help from his offensive line.
F: And the Lions were running the ball at will, the same thing that's been happening for the last three or four weeks. It's easy to say that a return by Aaron Rodgers would make a big difference, but Rodgers ain't playing on defense.
A: It's odd because going into the Bears game I think the Pack was ranked No. 3 in terms of rushing defense. Now it's more like No. 33, except that there are only 32 teams.
F: The Bears did the Packers a favor by choking up another game in overtime at Minnesota. So the Packers are only a half-game behind Chicago, but they trail Detroit by a game and a half with only four to play.
A: With six losses already I'd say a wild card looks pretty doubtful. And they'll need help in the division.
F: As for UW, I didn't see any of the game. Did you?
A: Yeah. It was odd, very odd. Penn State had Melvin Gordon and James White kind of boxed up, but still, they can break a big one any time. When you're relying on Joel Stave throwing it 53 times, that won’t cut the mustard. They just came up kind of flat.
F: And they had something to play for, a possible BCS bid like the Orange Bowl. Now it looks like one of those other Florida bowls, the Capital one or the Outback.
A: Still, if they win that bowl they'll finish 10-3—really 11-2 if you disregard that injustice at Arizona State—and a lot of teams would sure like to finish that way.
F: I forgot about the UW game because I was watching Alabama-Auburn. Talk about the unlikeliest of endings!
A: Couldn't happen to a better bunch than Nick Saban and the Tide, although I have no great love for Auburn either. How weird—Bama gets that last second back on a clock review, then Saban brings out a backup kicker instead of trying a Hail Mary. And then the Tiger takes the short kick all the way back!
F: I loved Verne Lundquist's handling of the crazy finish. After several minutes of letting the crowd supply all the audio, he said simply, “Might be worth another view.”
A: And then Gary Danielson delivered a great zinger toward Saban. He said the Tide couldn't stop the returner because on the field-goal try “there's no athletes on the field for Alabama, all fat guys.”
F: Nick's smart, but I guess not smart enough to have a “missed field-goal coverage team.”
Frank Clines covered sports for The Milwaukee Journal and the Journal Sentinel. Art Kumbalek no longer runs the floor.