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We begin today's blog with a tip of the cap to the Wisconsin women's basketball team, which begins the week tied for first place in the Big Ten. Among the highlights so far this season is coming back from a 16-point deficit to win at Minnesota.
It is a big week of hoops at the Kohl Center. On Thursday night, the women host third-place Michigan State. Beyond the obvious importance of the game in the league race, head coach Lisa Stone is on the brink of 500 career wins. She picked up number 499 on Sunday when the Badgers beat Northwestern in Evanston.
If you have not seen the women's team in action, Thursday would be a good time to start. Tip time is 7 p.m. at the Kohl Center.
If you are a student, why wouldn't you go? It is "UW Student Night," when simply showing a valid student ID gets you in for free. Plus, you will get a voucher for a free hot dog and a soda, while supplies last.
Free is good. It is one of my favorite words. Hopefully many will take advantage of the opportunity.
After last weekend, Wisconsin has clear-cut bragging rights on the state of Illinois. The women's basketball team beat the Illini and the men's squad dismantled Northwestern, with Josh Gasser becoming the first Badger to record a triple-double. Then there was the NFC title game at Soldier Field, where the Packers held off the Bears, 21-14.
Wisconsin sports fans are in a state of euphoria, while in the Land of Lincoln, there is despair and disgust. And with it comes the predictable overreaction from fans, some media and even some current and former players.
To some, quarterback Jay Cutler has become the poster child for punching out when the going gets tough. Some "fans" were photographed burning a Cutler jersey, all because he missed most of the second half with a knee injury. It is obvious some in Bears Nation want a new quarterback right now.
In the course of a year, or maybe even a few weeks, coach Lovie Smith (a former UW assistant) went from a lousy coach to a pretty good coach to a lousy coach again. Isn't Bill Cowher available?
It will be interesting to see how the Bears move forward. Earlier in the week a longtime NFL employee who knows the landscape of the Packers-Bears rivalry suggested to me that it could be very difficult for the loser of that game to recover anytime soon.
It might be worthwhile for those folks to take a look at their neighbors to the north, and note the value of not overreacting.
Rather quietly, the Wisconsin men's basketball team has done something that is very hard to do. While it might not be the sexiest statistic in sports, it might go a long way in explaining why this team has enjoyed a great deal of success under Bo Ryan.
What stat might that be? Losing streaks, and how the Badgers tend to avoid them.
This is Ryan's 10th year on the job, and only nine times has he seen his teams lose two or more games in a row. Three seasons they went the distance without dropping consecutive games.
As for this season, so far so good. In fact, it has been almost two calendar years since Wisconsin has had a losing streak. It has won its last 18 games following a loss.
So how do the Badgers do it? I can't tell you how many times I get that question from fellow media members and representatives from other schools.
A couple of reasons come to mind. First, Ryan's teams follow a time-honored coaching philosophy -- it is more important to minimize mistakes than it is to make spectacular plays (Bob Knight talks about that a lot ... for those who do not remember, he was a pretty good coach).
Second, Ryan stresses "next," as in the next game. He stresses keeping on an even keel, which can be easier said than done. What goes on in a team meeting is the team's business, but in observing hundreds of practices, one would have a hard time knowing whether the Badgers are coming off a win or a loss.
NBA TV has been running a roundtable show featuring Hall of Famers Bob Lanier, Bill Russell, Bill Walton and Julius Irving. When talking about his approach to the game, "Dr. J" said he wanted to "win without boasting, and lose without crying." "If you chew on that one," said Irving "it's going to keep you in a good place that helps you maintain your sanity, while all the madness is going on around you."
To be fair, the Doctor was talking about the grind of an NBA season, but much the same can apply to a college season.
After last Tuesday's overtime loss at Michigan State, fans wondered how the Badgers would respond against a very talented Illinois squad.
When the home team missed its first 11 shots from 3-point range, the wonder may have turned into doubt. Yet, here comes Tim Jarmusz, hitting a 3 at the end of the half, then Keaton Nankivil drops three more from distance, Jon Leuer scores 26 points and the Badgers win by 10.
When the horn sounded, the players smiled, shook hands with the opponent, did their media interviews, then left the building, knowing the head coach would soon turn everyone's attention to "next."
Of course last Tuesday's loss to the Spartans hurt. Since the Badgers rarely allow a late lead to slip away, it hurts even more. But guess what? It happens. Last Saturday, six teams in the AP Top 25 had to rally from double-digit deficits. The most notable was Louisville's comeback from being down by 18 to stun Marquette.
In sports, maybe especially in sports such as basketball, hockey and baseball, there is not enough time for players and coaches to sulk after a tough loss. The next game usually comes up quickly.
Eventually, the Badgers will lose consecutive games again, but the fact they have gone this long without that happening says a ton about their makeup.
Maybe without even knowing it, they have done a great job of following Dr. J's rule of "win without boasting, and lose without crying."
Win or lose, they just keep preparing for "next."
One aspect of my profession I have grown to appreciate is those who do their jobs extremely well without the "hey, look at me" mentality that can be too common in the media industry.
With that in mind, I say congratulations to the Wisconsin Sportswriter and Sportscaster of the Year winners for 2010, Tom Mulhern of the Wisconsin State Journal
and Dennis Krause of Time Warner Cable, the Milwaukee Bucks and Green Bay Packers radio networks.
Having known both "Mully" and Dennis for awhile, it is great to see these two true professionals recognized by their peers. Both have won the award before, and with good reason. They do their work with class, and fellow state media types have recognized their efforts.
It is one thing to be noticed. It is another to earn and sustain respect. They are two examples of what is good about the sports media.
While I am at it, add one more honor for legendary Brewers announcer Bob Uecker, who finally was elected into the National Sportscasters and Sportswriters Association Hall of Fame. Uecker will join Brent Musberger as the latest inductees. And you thought Bob already was in every hall of fame. I think this should about do it, but you never know for sure.
I transition from state winners and hall of famers to last week's hot media story--Ted Williams, aka, The Golden Voice. In a matter of a few days, Williams went from the streets of Columbus, Ohio, seemingly down and out, to a nationwide sensation.
As you probably know, a reporter for the Columbus Dispatch "discovered" Williams by putting him on a video that went viral. All of a sudden, Williams was on my old radio station, WNCI, where he found he had received a voiceover contract. He also got a national advertising gig. The morning network TV shows fought over him. Oprah wants him on her new network. NFL Films has been in contact, and maybe Williams will have a future in Hollywood.
I have to admit, the man has a stunningly good voice, but Williams also has quite a rap sheet. He admits to having his life derailed by drugs and alcohol. There have been reports of some other legal issues as well, but thanks to last week's newspaper story, Williams has won the lottery.
As we have often heard, maybe especially this season, a game and even a season can come down to a handful of plays. For 11 of the first 12 games of this just-concluded football season, those few plays broke Wisconsin's way. On New Year's Day at the Rose Bowl, they did not.
After Saturday's gut wrenching 21-19 loss to TCU, it is easy to wonder "what if" or play "coulda shoulda." A key penalty here, a missed connection on a pass play there. Settling for a field goal after a promising drive stalled. While it is only natural to wonder about that and more, it also can drive you nuts.
Let's remember the Badgers won two games in part because of blocked extra points. Think the folks at Arizona State and Iowa wonder about that? What if Scott Tolzien doesn't hit Nick Toon on a key third-down pass against Ohio State, allowing the Badgers to keep a drive alive while protecting a three-point lead? The momentum was about to completely shift the Buckeyes' way, but that pass helped lead to a critical fourth quarter score. Suppose they wonder about that in Columbus?
For the Badgers, the script almost played out perfectly. For TCU, it did. What fans witnessed on Saturday was a tightly contested game between two superb programs. It was not about David vs. Goliath.
It was not the big bad Badgers against the little old Horned Frogs. It simply was two very good, very well-coached teams playing a down-to-the-wire game that makes Rose Bowls special.
Bowls are great, but the media build-up can get a little old, right? Fans making the trip to Southern California should, and I am sure, will, enjoy everything they can, but no doubt everyone is eager to see the game begin.
After awhile, what else can we say or write? I guess that will not stop some of us from trying.
For weeks, some national observers have labeled this as the bowl season's second most intriguing game, just behind the BCS title matchup. You have the nation's number one defense facing an offense that steamrolled through the last three weeks of the regular season, averaging 67 points in trouncing Indiana, Michigan and Northwestern.
Then again, you have a TCU offense that, like the Badgers in the regular season, averaged 43 points a game, facing a defense that forced 16 turnovers in the final four games.
Both teams have dangerous return men. Wisconsin's David Gilreath turned in the play of the year with his opening kick return for a score against Ohio State, while the Horned Frogs Jeremy Kerley is the two-time Mountain West Conference special teams player of the year.
So many storylines. Some answers to key questions might seem clear. Other questions are more difficult to answer. Some are always in play during bowl games, while others are specific to this game:
So it appears the early returns on the new Big Ten football division names are not exactly favorable. Leaders and Legends seem about as popular an idea around here as a Brett Favre tribute at Lambeau, or a Brad Childress Appreciation Day in Minneapolis.
Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said on WGN Radio last week that league is measuring the sustainability and taking feedback. Who knew this would be so involved?
One thing about my business that can be annoying (actually there are many, but it's the holiday season, so I won't go there today) is we are quick to pounce on something we don't like -- but how many serious suggestions do we make to solve the problem?
I have to admit, some of the smart aleck ideas are good for a chuckle. One of my favorites came from a caller to our local radio show last week (Lucas and Lepay on 1070 WTSO in Madison--shameless self-promotion).
The caller suggested we call the divisions "Six of One" and "Half Dozen of the Other." (I'll leave his name out ... but you hear him a lot at football and basketball home games!)
Other "helpful" suggestions include "Great Taste" and "Less Filling," "Dumb" and "Dumber" and other such ideas with varying degrees of humor.
Today, maybe we can put our heads together, and rather than make fun of the problem, we can be part of the solution. I'll throw out some ideas, but we at UWBadgers.com would love to hear yours. It would be great if they were legit thoughts, but if they are truly funny (and clean), go ahead and send 'em our way
And now, a slight break in the action, at least in much of the world of Wisconsin athletics. Not a bad time to pause and reflect on some of what has happened so far, and what may lie ahead.
Early in the football season, I thought the Badgers were pretty good, but not an elite team. As they prepare for the Rose Bowl, they certainly have a chance to become part of the elite. Being a Big Ten champion is a REALLY good step, and if they can take the next step and beat third-ranked TCU in Pasadena, the Badgers certainly would be considered among the elite for the 2010 season.
It is at this time when it might be fun to be a bug on the wall in a team or position group meeting. No doubt for the past couple of weeks the players have been getting numerous pats on the back, with fans telling them how great they are. Given the long layoff between games, it can be an easy trap. This is where coaches play the role of humblers. Actually, they probably have been doing that throughout the season, especially since the Ohio State game, but I would guess at least some of the assistants have been ready to turn it up a notch.
At least one concern a coach generally has is that a team will get a little too full of itself, forgetting there is still a job to be done. I seriously doubt that this will become an issue. This team is as likeable and is as grounded a group as I have ever been around, led by coaches who are ready and willing to make sure they stay that way.
It never hurts to know you are the underdog, which is the case in this game.
Last Saturday at Camp Randall Stadium, the script played out pretty well. The Badgers won big, and in the process earned piece of the Big Ten championship. Yep, that plan worked to perfection.
Another plan did not work out quite so well, but hey, stuff happens, and I believe everyone survived the blow.
Very quietly, UW officials had planned a postgame on-field ceremony to honor the team. A Big Ten Conference representative was on hand preparing to present the team with the championship trophy. Tournament of Roses President Jeff Throop was going to deliver a message on behalf of the good folks in Pasadena. Chancellor Biddy Martin, athletics director Barry Alvarez, head coach Bret Bielema and a couple of players were going to have a chance to say a few words to the joyous crowd.
I was going to be the talking head who introduced everyone. When the clock hit zero, event staffers held the press box elevator for me to get downstairs, where another staffer driving a golf cart would take me to the field. It was then when we learned that stadium officials had a slight problem. Too many folks on the field. Way too many folks on the field, making it rather difficult to set up a stage for the ceremony.
By the time we jumped out of the cart and got down on the field, I felt like a running back (in my case, a very bad running back) following a pulling guard (my driver who did a very nice job leading me to midfield). By the time we reached the 30-yard line or so, we heard they called off the public presentation. Oh well, at least I had the chance to run into a few thousand people, including some old friends I had not seen in awhile. Trust me, it wasn't just students rushing the field.
Easiest emcee job I have ever had. And you know what? It turned out just fine. The team had its presentation in the locker room, and the fans were able to do their thing. Sometimes spontaneity works out too. Sure, it would have been nice for everyone to hear from all the scheduled speakers, but hey, sometimes plans just blow up. As I made my way off the field and back to the press box, I did not notice anyone who seemed to be in anything but a great mood.
I would guess those who planned the event were disappointed, but in the grand scheme of things, I would hope they can look back and at least have a little laugh. Laugh and learn. As coaches say, it is better to learn after a win than after a loss.
For Badger fans everywhere, Saturday was a great day. Dare I say it was just rosy? Postgame ceremony or not, it was quite a day to be a Badger.
Senior Day at Camp Randall Stadium is usually pretty good theatre. It is even better when a Big Ten trophy is on the line. Such is the case this Saturday when the Badgers host Northwestern.
Of course, the script calls for Penn State to beat Michigan State, and while we are at it, Michigan can go ahead and stun Ohio State. Then Wisconsin can take care of business against the Wildcats and earn the undisputed title, right?
Or, if the Spartans knock off the Nittany Lions, and Ohio State defeats Michigan, that would set the stage for a three-way tie, in which case everyone gets to wait another week to find out who is going to BCS bowls. Confused yet? Have a headache thinking of the possibilities?
Let it go, and understand the Wildcats can be party crashers.