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The Voice: Yet again, Badgers in the midst of Madness

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgWhile some fans in Badgerville are fretting after last Friday night's brick fest in Indianapolis, keep in mind that Wisconsin will be making its 13th straight trip to the NCAA tournament. Only five other programs have a streak that matches or exceeds the Badgers' current run--Kansas, Duke, Michigan State, Gonzaga and Texas.

That is pretty good company, don't you think?  

It also speaks well that the Big Ten has seven teams in the field. Before the season, many spoke about the depth of the conference. We wondered whether there is a great team. Ohio State sure looks the part, and the other six NCAA tourney qualifiers have proven to be capable of playing with anyone in the nation. Wisconsin and Purdue have shown they can beat the best. On the other hand, the Badgers, the Boilers and all the rest also can be vulnerable against almost anyone.

We probably can say that about every team in the field, which is what should make for a very interesting, nerve wracking, throw something at the TV type of month.

For the first time in more than two years, the Badgers will try to snap a two-game losing skid. While it is amazing they have gone this long without dropping consecutive games, the Badgers are testing a long held theory--in order to make a strong run, you need to be on an uptick. They are not.

Friday evening's game bordered on the surreal. The winning team went more than 12 minutes without a field goal. The leading scorer had nine points. The losing team needed seven-and-a-half minutes to get on the board.

Guess what? All that stuff becomes very old news by late Sunday afternoon. This applies even when your team wins the Big Ten Tournament, which the Badgers have done on two occasions, most recently in 2008. Less than an hour after the team cuts down the nets, attention shifts to the first round opponent.  

Thursday's matchup in Tucson figures to be fascinating. A Belmont team that averages more than 80 points a game, with terrific scoring balance, and 11 players who play double-digit minutes. The Bruins can also play some 'D', as they force 19 turnovers a game. Forget the seeding; this game should be a good watch.

Maybe more than ever, games that are labeled as upsets may not be so shocking. Some believe fourth-seeded Texas will have its hands full with No. 13 Indiana State.  Another third-seed, BYU, just is not the same team without the suspended Brandon Davies. It plays Wofford, a team that gave the Badgers all they wanted last March, and the Terriers return just about everyone who matters.

In a sporting public that lives for the NFL and college football, these next three weeks are still about as good as it gets. We fret about the teams that are snubbed, such as Virginia Tech and Colorado. We try to become instant experts on programs such as Northern Colorado and Long Island.

Most of all, we get caught up in games we never thought we would care about. It is what makes March so special. It also makes it special to see that the Badgers are part of it for the 13th straight year.

The Voice: Badgers can deal with budding OSU rivalry

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The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIt is official. Folks in Buckeye Nation really dislike the Badgers.

Maybe not any more than they dislike anything associated with the University of Michigan, but from all appearances last Sunday in Columbus, there is very little difference these days.

As our radio crew arrived at Value City Arena, all was quiet for about 10 minutes. Then the doors opened, the students came streaming into the facility, and the catcalls were underway.  
"Hey Bruesewitz, you (bleep)! Hey Jordan Taylor, you (bleep) too!"

One of the OSU students came up to us and said "I just want to apologize for what we are going to be saying today. It's not about you guys--it's about THEM!!" as he pointed to the Badger players taking their warm up shots.  

Great. Thanks for the heads up. With our broadcast location right by the Wisconsin bench, we figured we were going to be in for a long day, with FCC violations just waiting to happen.

Thankfully, to the best of our knowledge, there were no such issues. The students were wound up, firing verbal volleys at Bo Ryan and his team all day long, but it seemed to be PG-rated stuff. In the end, the Buckeyes had their way with a lopsided victory and a Big Ten title party.

Congrats, but that win for the Badgers in Madison still counts. The season series is 1-1.

The Voice: Young Gasser's greatest still yet to come

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIt has been quite a freshman year for Josh Gasser, at least so far. In January, he recorded the first triple-double in Wisconsin men's basketball history. Last week, he banked home a 3-point shot at the buzzer as the Badgers stunned Michigan, 53-52.  

While not the first true buzzer-beater, it has been awhile since a Badger has hit a shot at the horn that turned defeat into victory. How long? Try 20 years.

That's right. The last time a Badger made a shot as time expired -- make it and you win or miss it and you lose -- was on Feb. 16, 1991. On that night at Carver-Hawkeye Arena in Iowa City, Brian Good nailed a long one to give Steve Yoder's Badgers a 56-55 win against Iowa.

UW assistant coach Gary Close was on the Iowa staff under then-head coach Dr. Tom Davis. Similar to last Wednesday's tussle in Ann Arbor, that '91 game was not exactly a thing of beauty, but the last few seconds turned out to be very pretty.

Three months earlier, the Badgers had a road game at Oregon's old McArthur Court. Late in overtime, the Badgers trailed Terrell Brandon and the Ducks, 70-69. As the final seconds were ticking away, Brandon was checking the Badgers' Jay Peters, who drained a 3-pointer at the horn to give Wisconsin a thrilling 72-70 win.

This is the same Terrell Brandon who ended up as that season's Pac-10 player of the year and then went on to a very good NBA career.  In fact, in 1997, Sports Illustrated called him the NBA's best point guard.  

For some reason, one of the memories I have of that night was when I saw Jay on the team bus after the game. He was reading the Wall Street Journal. It was at that moment when I figured Jay would be just fine in his post-basketball life. When I introduce him to people, I enjoy mentioning that game and how Jay Peters won it on a game-ending shot.

Yes, there have been some game-winners at the horn beyond those three examples, but in those cases either the game was tied or there was time still left on the clock. Shots that broke ties include Kam Taylor's winner vs. UNC-Wilmington in 2005, and Alando Tucker's put-back to beat Indiana in March of 2005 was followed 11 days later with a banked-in 3 at the horn to knock out Iowa in the Big Ten tournament.  

Made shots with time remaining include the 2003 NCAA Tournament, when Freddie Owens splashed a triple with one second left to give Wisconsin a 61-60 victory against Tulsa.

All of those are terrific endings for the Badgers and their fans, but what Gasser did last Wednesday is rare air for Wisconsin basketball. The Badgers were behind and, with the ball in the air, the outcome was in doubt.

Then again, fans might be getting used to seeing the freshman guard doing either the unusual or the unprecedented. The program's first ever triple-double, and the first come-from-behind shot at the horn in 20 years. Not a bad start to someone's college career.

Who knows? For Gasser and his teammates, maybe the best is yet to come.

The Voice: Despite departures, terrific tournament is on tap

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgAn ongoing topic in the college basketball world centers on how players who leave school after one or two years have hurt the game. Critics will say the game is watered down, that many of today's first-team All-Americans would be hard pressed to make the second or third team in the old days.

Sure, it would be terrific for college basketball if the Kevin Durants and Blake Griffins of the world played a full four years, but that is not reality, and it is unlikely to change.

A critic will complain that the NCAA tournament will be lacking a great team, that it merely will be a collection of mediocre to good squads. I am not so sure about that, but even if there is some truth to the claim, it should make for an exciting March. 

The Voice: Win has Badgers in the mix, yet again

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgIt was one of those games --with an atmosphere to go with it -- that any Badger fan would love to put in a bottle. The home team trailed top-ranked Ohio State by 15 points in the second half, only to stage a dramatic rally, led by a junior point guard who used to be one of the nation's most underrated players.

I would guess Jordan Taylor's status among national college basketball observers has changed.

While Taylor earned everyone's star of the game honors, I would suggest we award an assist to the good folks at UW Sports Medicine. Following a hard-fought overtime victory at Iowa last Wednesday, a game where Taylor played 44 of a possible 45 minutes, he sat out last Thursday afternoon's practice--doctor's orders.

No doubt if Taylor had his way, he would have been on the floor with his teammates, but the sports med folks knew he needed a blow. Clearly, Taylor does a ton of heavy lifting, in and out of the weight room.

Assistant Coach Lamont Paris has suggested that the percentage of possession time that Taylor has the ball in his hands might be more than anyone in college basketball. In addition to owning a four-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio, not to mention the fact he spends many games guarding the other team's top player, Taylor may very well end up as the league's leading scorer in Big Ten play.

On Saturday afternoon, he put on a show for the ages.

It is a good thing he had a little bit of time to get some more fuel in the tank.  

Sunday was an off day for everyone on the team, which also is good and much needed. Think about this stretch. We know Iowa is in the rebuilding mode, but at times it has been a very competitive team. Certainly that was the case last Wednesday.

The Badgers play a weeknight game that tips at 7:30. It goes to overtime. The team takes a three-hour bus ride back to Madison.  The players probably get to bed by 1:30 or 2 a.m. A few hours later, it is off to class (they try to do that here), and then later in the afternoon they hit the practice floor to get ready for Ohio State.

They beat the Buckeyes, setting off a wild celebration. They have a chance on Sunday to catch their breath, and then on Monday they get ready for a road trip to Purdue. Talk about a reality check. Congrats on beating the number one team, now you get to play the Boilermakers in their house.

That is life in the Big Ten, where every team is dangerous, and every team is vulnerable. That appears to be the case all across the country, which should make for a very interesting next six weeks.

With four of the final six regular season games on the road, the Badgers' upcoming schedule is a major challenge. Yet once again, as the conference hits the stretch drive, Bo Ryan has his team in the mix. Who knows how it will end, but Badgers fans have every reason to keep a close watch on this group.  

Kind of nice to say that year after year, isn't it? Now, get some rest and get ready for these next several weeks.   

The Voice: To repeat feat vs. No. 1, Badgers need it loud

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgHere we go again. On Saturday afternoon the Badgers will host top-ranked and unbeaten Ohio State. Sound familiar? Could the basketball team work the same magic that occurred in Camp Randall Stadium on October 16?

Yeah, I know, first things first, such as a very challenging road assignment Wednesday night against an improving Iowa squad.

That is hardly coach speak. First-year coach Fran McCaffery has his team playing well, winning three of its last five games. Included in that stretch is a 20-point whipping of Michigan State, a beatdown very similar to what the Badgers accomplished on Sunday afternoon.

Junior Matt Gatens has been very solid, averaging 14 points a game in conference play, while a couple of newcomers have been instant contributors. Freshman Melsahn Basabe has given the Hawks a good inside presence, while junior college transfer Bryce Cartwright dishes out 5.5 assists a game. At Indiana on Saturday, he knocked down the game winning shot, and against Michigan State Cartwright scored 12 points and added 10 assists.

So, yes, the Badgers will have their work cut out for them on Wednesday. I also know fans who have tickets for Saturday's game against OSU can't wait for tipoff. Can you blame them?

The Voice: Storylines abound as march to March begins

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgWe 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.

The Voice: Overreacting? Don't over-do it

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The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgAfter 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.

The Voice: Win or lose, Badgers know how to move on

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The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgRather 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."

The Voice: Breaking into the biz

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgOne 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.