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When the Badgers and UNLV open the college football season next Thursday, there will be joy across the land. In Badger Nation, there is great anticipation and a high preseason ranking. For many, next week cannot get here soon enough.
National media members also cannot wait for Sept. 1. Why? Because they get to report on an actual game, not the many off season problems that have made for a brutal last several months.
Last week's news of an NCAA investigation into the University of Miami's football program is the latest in a string of high-profile schools under the microscope. This one is worse for a couple of reasons. A rogue booster who claims to have given players extra benefits ranging from boat trips to cash tends to make some of the other violations pale in comparison.
But what really makes this one sting is that some of those who must deal with it are folks I know, and more importantly, are folks who had nothing to do with whatever might have happened.
Athletics Director Shawn Eichorst and his right-hand man Steve Waterfield made the move to Coral Gables just four months ago. Football coach Al Golden and basketball coach Jim Larranaga are preparing for their first seasons at Miami. I don't know the coaches personally, but I do know the administrators. Try to imagine what they have walked into at "The U."
Both Golden and Larranaga have excellent reputations. So too do Eichorst and Waterfield. UM President and former UW Chancellor Donna Shalala is very lucky to have them on board. While Eichorst admits there are difficult times ahead, he strikes me as someone who operates on logic far more than on emotion, a trait that will come in handy for the next several months. Shawn Eichorst did not sign up for this mess, but the University of Miami is in good hands with its first year AD.
So how do we fix the on-going problems in college athletics? Earlier this month, NCAA President Mark Emmert had a summit with 50 university presidents. If there are going to be more meetings, it might be a good idea to include some coaches. It also might be a good idea to include those who have broken the rules -- from former coaches, players, boosters, agents and runners -- anyone who is actually part of the problem and is willing to talk about it and be part of the solution.
No offense to those in academia, but I tend to doubt that many have a working knowledge of what really goes on in the high pressure, win big and win now world of major college athletics. I don't say this to insult school presidents. I just believe their world is a bit different from the average coach.
UW Director of Athletics Barry Alvarez is one of many who says the NCAA rule book is way too thick. Focus on what is most important and enforce those rules accordingly. It is encouraging to note that Emmert agrees with those sentiments.
As for enforcing those rules, it is best to zero in on the party or parties directly responsible, such as coaches who allow such behavior, or any other person of authority who turns a blind eye. Emmert himself has talked about being sensitive to what he calls "collateral damage," in other words, penalizing those who had nothing to do with the violations. People have talked about Miami possibly facing the death penalty, but I tend to doubt that will happen. To be honest, I hope it does not happen.
My hope in all of this is that the NCAA can somehow beef up its enforcement staff, and make it clear that the risk of breaking the rules will far exceed the reward of not getting caught.
In the meantime, is it Game Day yet?
Once again, there are a handful of rules changes in college football, and at least a couple of those changes could create some very interesting scenarios that could go a long way into deciding the outcome of games.
Perhaps the most complex change involves low blocks (see a recent Lucas at Large blog on the subject from Mike Lucas
). In a nutshell, the following players can legally block below the waist:
• Backs completely inside the tackle box who are stationary at the snap
• Linemen completely inside the seven-yard limit at the snap (that means seven yards from the middle lineman of a formation)
• Generally speaking, defensive players may block below the waist until the ball has gone more than five yards beyond the line of scrimmage (they cannot block low against an opponent in position to catch a backward pass)
Again, those are the low block rules in a nutshell. It goes deeper than that, but let's avoid turning this into a low block clinic -- I am not smart enough to be an instructor. The key is for the players to get a handle on what they can and cannot do, which has added to the importance of having officials at practice when the Badgers scrimmage.
"In all of my years as a head coach," said Bret Bielema, "we have had more meetings with the officials this year than at any other point."
He adds that the low block rule "will significantly affect the game."
A couple of other changes will be easier for fans to notice, and perhaps result in more drama.
The first big change involves unsportsmanlike conduct. For years, rules makers have been trying to put a lid on showboating, and this year, a display of "Hey, look at me!" can take points off the scoreboard.
For example, the offense has a third-and-one from the opponent's 30-yard line. The running back breaks free and is on his way to the end zone. With no defensive player in the vicinity, the running back decides he wants to dive into the end zone from the 2 yard line. If that happens, the offense will be smacked with a 15-yard penalty from the spot of the foul, turning a touchdown into a first-and-10 from the 17-yard line.
Imagine a close game in the final minute or two, and an official has to make that call against the home team.
Another major change is a 10-second runoff after a penalty in the final minute of either half. Bielema says this rule has been "my main summer project -- when to use it. We have a number of tapes. Paul (offensive coordinator Paul Chryst) has met individually, not only with Bill (Big Ten Supervisor of Officials Bill Carollo), but also with a couple of officials who have come here on campus, so there is a lot of dedication to the rule."
An example of how this rule works -- Team A, down by two points, is at Team B's 35-yard line. Trying to get a little closer to kick a field goal, Team A runs a play. The runner is tackled in-bounds at Team B's 28-yard line. With the clock running and just: 08 remaining, Team A races to the line of scrimmage, but is guilty of a false start. The officials throw the flag and stop the clock with: 05 remaining. Team B accepts the penalty and wants the runoff. Game over.
What a way to lose.
There are a few other rules tweaks, some specifically in the name of player safety. One such adjustment is intentional grounding. A passer needs to have an eligible receiver in the area, but the receiver does not need an opportunity to catch the pass. By rule, mere presence is enough to avoid an intentional grounding call.
Those are some of the changes. While everyone tries to figure out the low block rule, I really am interested in how the unsportsmanlike conduct and the 10-second runoff rule will change the course of some close games this season.
As entertaining as college football is already, I have the feeling fans across the country could be in for even more late-game fireworks this fall.
Imagine you are in the third year of your job. You know you still have plenty to learn, but you have gone about your business the right way. You have earned the respect of your bosses and your peers. You seem to have put yourself in position to earn a promotion.
Suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, along comes someone with a very impressive skill set and more experience. He joins your "team," and now your promotion may or may not be put on hold.
Welcome to Jon Budmayr's world.
Last spring, most of us probably assumed the redshirt sophomore was in line to be the Badgers' starting quarterback. That was before the UW's biggest off-season story unfolded, with Russell Wilson transferring from NC State to UW.
Now, most observers assume when the season begins on Sept. 1, it will be Wilson at the controls.
Maybe that is how it will be, but there is an old saying about the word "assume"--it can make an (blank) out of you and me. Get it?
Maybe Wilson is the key ingredient to the Badger's offense. Training camp practices will settle that competition, but I get the impression neither Wilson nor Budmayr is assuming anything. At Sunday's media day session, both young men handled wave after wave of questions with nothing but class.
Wilson repeatedly stated that he "is blessed" to be a part of the UW program, and wants to learn as much as he can as quickly as he can.
If this storyline has ticked off Budmayr, he is hiding his anger very well.
"It's good," he says. "Everything, since I've been here, is a learning experience. This is just another one that I am going through. It will help me the rest of my career, and down the road in life."
No doubt a big assist goes to offensive coordinator Paul Chryst, who kept Budmayr up to speed on what was happening as "Russell-mania" was gaining steam.
"You can kind of control it," Budmayr explained. "If you don't let it become overwhelming, and you just embrace it and go with it, then it can be OK."
Last spring, Budmayr had his ups and downs. Those who watched the spring game walked away wondering about the offense. Keep in mind that many programs keep the defense very vanilla in spring games, with little if any blitzing. The Badgers used a different approach, putting the offense in uncomfortable situations that you might not see in other spring games across the country.
During the March and April practices, Budmayr had a chance to learn some valuable lessons about on-field decision making. At the conclusion of spring drills, he looked back at practice video. Now, he believes he has a better idea of what he can and cannot do in certain situations.
Scott Tolzien went through a similar process, and he turned out to be pretty good, right? Budmayr might lack game experience, but he paid close attention to Tolzien's work ethic and preparation.
"Not a day goes by that he (Tolzien) is not focusing on something to get better. Keep working, keep pushing on. Keep trying to get better and improve your skills."
If you are in Jon Budmayr's shoes, it might be easy to pout. He seems to be taking the opposite approach, which is just what any coach would want to see. It makes me wonder how many of us in the "working world" would react the same way in a similar situation.
Not that I am assuming anything, but do you really believe all of us would have Budmayr's attitude? We can only hope so.
It is true that sports can present life lessons to the participants. Perhaps in this case, it also can teach a life lesson to the rest of us.
To say the least, this has been a wild college football off season. There has been trouble at a variety of schools, including Ohio State. It seemed every week we would hear something unsettling about a well-known program.
Coaches and administrators at the trouble-free schools breathe a sigh of relief, while at the same time they want to make sure everyone is following the rules.
It reminds me of the incident several years ago when coach George O'Leary had to step down from a dream gig at Notre Dame because of false information on his resume. Just about every other coach in America felt the need to double check his own resume.
Naturally, all the trouble in college football has many critics claiming the game is little more than a cesspool, where nobody cares about anything other than making money. Sure, money matters in college athletics. I think most folks accept that as a fact of life. The mistake occurs when everyone is labeled by the actions of a few.
Badgers fans should feel pretty good about their team. The biggest news story out of Madison this summer is the addition of transfer quarterback Russell Wilson. While the hype surrounding Wilson's arrival has bordered on the extreme, his resume suggests he should be an excellent fit at Wisconsin.
I do not simply mean his on-field stats. Wilson has earned his undergraduate degree, and by all accounts he is a very good teammate.
There is no guarantee that Wilson will be a star with his new team, but his addition is a good, positive story. One national writer said it was refreshing to report something that did not involve the NCAA Committee on Infractions. It is hard to argue with those sentiments.
As another training camp opens, the only thing that concerns me is the hype. Even some national pundits, such as ESPN's Rod Gilmore, have mentioned Wisconsin as a team to watch in the BCS title hunt. Maybe he is right, but I always feel a little better when the Badgers are under the radar.
History supports the argument. In Wisconsin's four Big Ten championship runs of 1993, '98, '99 and 2010, it never was the preseason favorite.
Fans in these parts can't wait for the historic Big Ten opener against Nebraska, but before the Cornhuskers come to town, the Badgers have at least a couple of tricky non-conference games -- specifically a home tilt with Oregon State, and a Soldier Field date with Northern Illinois, under the direction of former UW defensive coordinator Dave Doeren.
Those back-to-back road night games at Michigan State and Ohio State figure to be extremely difficult. The Spartans, with veteran quarterback Kirk Cousins, should to be a strong contender in the Legends Division.
Meanwhile, the Buckeyes might be in a difficult period, but if they get through the first five games unscathed, they too could be more than a handful.
While it is easy for the rest of us to wonder whether Ohio State's saga creates a window of opportunity for Wisconsin and everyone else in the Big Ten, Coach Bret Bielema is smart enough to know that thinking about any program other than his own is a waste of time.
Don't get me wrong -- it is hard to blame you for being excited about Wisconsin football. The Badgers have been winning, and by all indications, they have been winning the right way. They have done well in the classroom. They have done wonderful work in the community.
As another season approaches, the hope from this observer is that the Badgers stick to the principals that worked so well a year ago. They won big in 2010. The way they won in 2010 was proof that there are good things going on in college football, and they gave fans plenty of reasons to be very proud.
There always seem to be a handful of plays that make or break a season. Last fall most of those plays went the Badgers' way, but as long as the Badgers stick to their principals, they have a very good chance of having another successful season.
By Linda Lepay
Mrs. Voice of the Badgers
Mrs. Voice is here again to close out another Badger sports season. The Voice has already begun his post-season antics, which include watching his beloved Cincinnati Reds, the NBA playoffs and The Weather Channel.
I'm often asked how Matt became a sports announcer because, let's face it, this is not your typical cubicle-dwelling career path. There's a certain combination of education, experience, luck and plain stubbornness that plays a role in having what many would consider a "dream" job.
I've devised a quiz to help determine if you have the interest and instinct to perhaps be a play-by-play announcer.1. In college you study:
c) study?!2. You analyze and imitate the voice of:
a) Al Michaels
b) Gus Johnson
c) The Situation3. The most inspiring sports movie is:
a) Field of Dreams
b) The Blind Side
4. To prepare for a football game you:
a) attend practice
b) study game tape
c) play EA Sports NCAA Football5. The rule of thumb on game day is:
a) be uber-prepared
b) decorum in the press box
c) saunter into the booth about five minutes before kickoff/tipoff
6. In the off-season you typically
a) emcee a number of events
b) take part in charity outings
c) watch Spike TV
If you answered mostly C you won't have a career as a sports announcer but you will be the life of any party.
If you answered A or B you may have the aptitude to make a go of it. Keep in mind there is no money in the early years and you work long hours, which averages out to an income of, oh, fifty cents per hour. Actors make better money and average more gigs than aspiring PBP guys.
Or you can live vicariously by following your favorite sportscasters. This is often more lucrative, allowing you free time to be a fan.
Summer allows Matt to keep a more reasonable schedule, watch the endless NBA playoffs and do things besides sports. I am happy to spend extra time with him. Okay, I'm happy to spend all that time with him until late July when he needs to get back to his in-season schedule.
Ask any sports media wife and she'll agree that all the together time is great -- for awhile. We wives are an independent bunch and not accustomed to having them home. All the time. Wanting dinner. Watching sports on TV (did I mention the NBA playoffs?).
We hope you have a terrific summer full of warm weather (there will be warm weather, right?) and fun activities. Keep your dreams alive.
----Note: Matt Lepay's regular "The Voice" blog will return this fall.
Fans thinking about attending this Saturday's spring football game probably have a few questions, not the least of which is the weather. Hopefully it will be a decent spring day, but given we can't control Mother Nature, here are some other things you might want to watch at Camp Randall Stadium:
The tailback position appears to be in very good shape. Montee Ball and James White provide a very good one-two punch, but Jeff Lewis and fifth-year senior Zach Brown also are battling to get in the mix.
Whoever runs the ball should have a good offensive line, which is saying something given it lost All-Americans Gabe Carimi and John Moffitt, not to mention the valuable contributions of Bill Nagy.
Coach Bret Bielema has been pleased with Ryan Groy stepping in for Peter Konz, who has missed time with a sprained ankle. Ricky Wagner has moved to left tackle, and Rob Havenstein has been getting plenty of reps with the ones at right tackle. Travis Frederick, who redshirted last fall, is back in the mix at left guard, while Bielema has been impressed with the work of right guard Kevin Zeitler.
After two terrific years from Scott Tolzien, Jon Budmayr is getting his shot at quarterback. Making spring camp more challenging is the collection of inexperienced receivers.
Offensive coordinator Paul Chryst likes to remind anyone who asks that it is still April. "Jon has an understanding of what we are doing," says Chryst. "He's going to make mistakes. He's needs to learn from those mistakes and keep pushing forward."
While Budmayr's skill set might be a bit different from his predecessor, there are important similarities that Chryst appreciates, starting with how Budmayr took note of how Tolzien carried himself. "It is not what was said as much as it was just how Scotty went about his business," Chryst said. "He (Budmayr) did a great job of truly taking it all in.
"A lot of those things were the things Scott controlled. The things he did going into each practice and each season. They are the same type of guys, so I think it fits Jon like it did Scotty."
The receivers are young, so maybe on Saturday you will enjoy seeing players such as Isaiah Williams, Kenzel Doe, Chase Hammond and Marquis Mason.
While Nick Toon works his way back from foot surgery, the veteran of the group is Jared Abbrederis. Receivers coach DelVaughn Alexander says the sophomore has developed as a leader, but admits there is bit of a problem.
"He's got a little farmer in him," Alexander says with a smile. "He likes to get the guys up at 6 a.m. Some of these guys are city guys. They don't get up that early."
The Badgers likely will have good depth at tight end. Special mention to Brian Wozniak, who earlier in camp suffered a knee injury that figured to keep him out four to six weeks, but he returned a week later.
In fall camp last August, Wozniak hurt his shoulder and missed half the season. He has had enough bad luck.
On defense, gone is Lott IMPACT Trophy winner and likely first-round NFL draft pick J.J. Watt. Co-Defensive Coordinator Charlie Partridge isn't worried about any returning players being the next Watt.
"Pat Butrym needs to be the best Pat Butrym he can be, and on down the line. To replace the amount of production J.J. gave us, everybody has to step up."
As was written in this space last week, there could be some nice depth at linebacker. No doubt LB coach Dave Huxtable is eager to see how Marcus Trotter, Josh Harrison and Cameron Ontko, among others, perform in more of a game-like setting.
Co-Defensive Coordinator Chris Ash is quick to say that while he likes much of the what the defensive backs have done this spring, there is still is plenty of work to do. An encouraging sign for Ash is the development of senior cornerback Devin Smith.
"I've told him this--I am not saying anything that is a secret," says Ash "Last spring he (Smith) just didn't compete. He's a totally different person now."
And this is a different team. Yes, the Badgers won the Big Ten title and made a trip to the Rose Bowl, but for fans, Saturday marks the beginning of the 2011 season.
Don't make too much of what you see this Saturday, but consider it a little preview of some of the newer faces you could be seeing much more of beginning Thursday night, Sept. 1, when the UNLV Rebels come to town.
Some random thoughts while my wife Linda keeps asking me "What are you doing here? Isn't there a road game coming up? Get out of the house already!"
Not a bad time to be a Badgers fan, eh? The football team returns to the Rose Bowl, the men's basketball team surprises again with a strong season, which included a run to the Sweet 16, while the women's hockey team under the direction of Mark Johnson wins yet another national championship.
Of course, there have been other exceptional performances on campus, but those three come to mind right away.
All of this happens while it appears an already understaffed NCAA infractions committee has work that keeps piling up. High-profile headaches at Tennessee and Ohio State and the ongoing questions at Auburn have some wondering what is next.
My personal philosophy on these matters is simple -- when it happens to your school, it's a witch hunt. When it happens to another school, especially a rival, the defendant usually is considered guilty until proven innocent.
Easy as it can be to do otherwise, I try to refrain from laughing too hard when the other guy gets the NCAA inquiry. Over the years, Wisconsin has had a few of those unpleasant experiences. Fortunately, it has been awhile.
The stories coming out these days should make Badger fans feel grateful that success is coming while the teams follow the rules. I'm not claiming Wisconsin is perfect, but I do believe there is a commitment to doing things the right way around here, and that commitment is much more than lip service.
Will the Badgers win a national title in football or basketball? Who knows? But I will take what they are doing right now, and how they are going about their business. To me, that beats winning even bigger, only to have it all questioned by NCAA violations.
Onto football, and while spring drills roll on, a few younger players appear to be taking advantage of increased repetitions. As linebackers Chris Borland and Ethan Armstrong work their way back from injuries, redshirt freshman Marcus Trotter's play at mike backer has been encouraging. Maybe in a perfect world, Borland and Armstrong are out there as well, but Trotter could very well be improving the depth of the linebacking corps.
Keeping in mind the old saying that you never can have too many tailbacks, keep the name Jeff Lewis in mind. Since last fall, coach Bret Bielema has been intrigued with the redshirt freshman from Brookfield. So far this spring Lewis, while still learning the position, is showing why.
Meanwhile, fifth-year senior Zach Brown also is battling for playing time behind regulars Montee Ball and James White. This fall, the highly-touted back Melvin Gordon joins the party.
Like I said, you never can have enough tailbacks.
Finally, next Tuesday, Bo Ryan's basketball team has its annual postseason reception at the Kohl Center. There is much to celebrate, including a good NCAA tournament run, a 25-win season and a perfect home record.
There are many other notable statistics, but one of the better assists I have seen lately came from Mike Bruesewitz, who last week had teammate Jon Leuer shave the Bruiser's long red hair to raise money to fight multiple sclerosis. So far, Mike's buzz cut has helped generate more than $5,000 for the Wisconsin Chapter of the National MS Society.
And you thought that 3-pointer he hit in the Kansas State game was big. It is just another reason why this team is easy to like.
With the conclusion of perhaps the craziest NCAA basketball tournament in history, this might be a good time to step back and look at the state of the game. Is it really watered down, as many observers believe? Are there too many teams? Could we expand again soon?
If Bo Ryan had his way, there would be at least 96 teams in the field. Agree or disagree, at least the opinion comes from a coach whose team has made the tournament each of his 10 years as the Badgers' head man, and 13 straight seasons overall.
It turns out the 68-team field worked pretty well, despite the gripes of some in the basketball world. VCU, which had to play an extra game to reach Houston, entertained fans across the country, and it helped make Rams Coach Shaka Smart, a Fitchburg, Wis., native, a household name.
I tend to doubt whether Bo will get his wish anytime soon, but if and when it happens, my guess is the tournament will continue to thrive.
Maybe college basketball isn't quite as good as it was before the "one and done" player became so prevalent, but for my money the theater was hard to beat, and I say that after watching UConn's 53-41 slugfest against Butler.
Since that was the title game, no doubt many will cry about how bad the college game has become, but keep in mind the millionaires in the NBA also have struggled on the biggest stage.
In Game 7 of last summer's NBA Finals between the Lakers and the Celtics, Kobe Bryant missed 18 of his 24 shots, including every one of his six three-point attempts. The Lakers won the game despite shooting 32 percent from the floor. And that game was not played in a dome.
When I think of this year's NCAA tournament, a number of moments come to mind, including the runs of VCU and Butler.
Morehead State knocking out Louisville on a dramatic late-game shot is what the song One Shining Moment is all about. San Diego State, led by former Michigan coach Steve Fisher, became a player with a run to the Sweet 16. It got there after a grueling double-overtime victory against Temple.
While he did not have his best game in New Orleans, it was fun seeing BYU's Jimmer Fredette try to work his magic one more time against Florida. It was not to be, but his offensive game was a treat to watch.
Seeing the Badgers advance to the Big Easy was gratifying, especially considering they were a popular pick to be knocked out in the first round. The third round match with Kansas State was one of the better Wisconsin games I have seen in a long time (not counting the win against Ohio State in February).
Of course we can say the college game is not quite as strong as the good old days, when players hung around campus a little longer. That will happen when stars such as Derek Rose of the Chicago Bulls, who may very well be the NBA's MVP, would have been a senior at Memphis.
I still say the college game remains pretty healthy, and if nothing else, the early entries to the NBA have given many more teams a fighting chance. That includes Wisconsin. Yes, the Badgers have been a very strong program, but it remains an uphill battle to reach the level of Duke, North Carolina, UConn, Kansas, etc.
That does not mean that the Badgers can't win big. On the contrary, the state of today's game gives them, not to mention the Butlers and the VCUs of the world, a legitimate shot. Again this year, Wisconsin demonstrated that when it plays well, it can play with the very best.
Is that so bad? Certainly there are those who enjoy always having a Goliath, a New York Yankees type of program if you will. In college basketball, some schools have more resources and much bigger budgets than others, but as we have seen in the tournament, the competition appears to be more wide open than ever.
If the powers that be come up with a way to keep college basketball players in school for at least two years, so be it. If not, the game will survive.
This year's NCAA tournament is just further proof positive. To me, even with the final act being less than scintillating, the tourney itself remains the best three weeks in sports.
As another very good Wisconsin basketball season was rolling along, many observers feared there would come a time in the postseason when the Badgers' would play an ugly game where the jump shots would be off the mark all night long.
The old saying, "Live by the three, die by the three" was a popular line when talking about the Badgers.
Turns out there is some truth in that, but this past weekend the Badgers were not alone in firing blanks while bowing out of the NCAA tournament. Meanwhile another squad, perhaps the surprise team of the ages, VCU, is living large by the 3-point shot.
At the risk of turning into a stat-freak, let us take a look at how the regional finals unfolded. Out west, UConn's amazing post season run continued as the Huskies held off Arizona, 65-63. For the season, the Wildcats shot nearly 40 percent from 3-point range, but on Saturday hit just 4-of-21 (.190).
Florida, a solid, but not great 3-point shooting team at 35 percent, missed 11 of 14 from downtown while losing to Butler. The Bulldogs also struggled from behind the line, but eventually dropped in nine shots in 33 tries. I'll take nine makes over three anytime.
Deep shooting is not a strength for North Carolina, and on Sunday it was no better as Roy Williams' Tar Heels connected on just 3 of 16 shots (.188) while Kentucky, an excellent team from beyond the arc, nailed 12 of 22 (.545).
Finally, there was the Kansas-VCU game. The Jayhawks, a good team from distance for the season, connected on just 2 of 21 attempts (.095). Die by the three.
On the other hand, VCU -- under the direction of former Oregon High School standout Shaka Smart -- splashed 12 of 25 (.480). Live by the three.
That's how the Rams roll. They take 23 long shots a game, one more per game than Wisconsin. The Rams live very large by the three.
In a perfect world, Bo Ryan would have loved to have seen his team develop a more consistent inside scoring presence. The key word is consistent.
At times, Jon Leuer was getting a lot done in or near the paint. Early in last Thursday's game, the Badgers tried to get some down-low scoring, but the shots simply would not fall. And credit Butler's defense, which was very good as well.
Of course the ending was disappointing for the Badgers and their fans. I felt sick for Leuer, who had an outstanding season, one very deserving of his first-team All-Big Ten recognition. He should know he has company in being a star player who struggled in his final college game. He is not the first, nor will he be the last.
When the sting of last Thursday fades, I would hope this group will appreciate the numerous accomplishments -- an unbeaten home season, which included the glorious rally to defeat No. 1 Ohio State. This team led the nation in free throw shooting, and had fewer turnovers than anyone in college basketball. It also won 25 games.
Of all those numbers I have thrown out, I would think the 25 victories is a good six or seven more than most thought possible.
I will give you one more number, 13. That is the number of consecutive NCAA trips the Badgers have earned. In today's college basketball, all a team wants is a chance to get in the Dance. The Badgers danced again, and as long as that continues, there is always a chance to accomplish something special.
Just ask Butler and VCU.
For the returning players and the incoming freshmen, that might be a thought to take with them during the spring and summer workouts.
By Saturday night in Tucson, the Badgers' 33-point showing in the Big Ten Tournament loss to Penn State officially became irrelevant. Advancing to the Sweet 16 has a way of blotting out the bad games.
After holding Belmont to a season-low 58 points, it was on to a true basketball slugfest on Saturday night. To this courtside observer, the game with Kansas State was one of the most intense, physical games I have ever witnessed. It also featured one of the best, if not the best performance by a Badger opponent I have ever seen.
Let me just get this out of the way--Jacob Pullen is a stud. He is a special player in every sense. He can shoot. He can drive. He can defend. His 38 points matched his total against Kansas when the Jayhawks were ranked No. 1. The only negative from Wisconsin's 70-65 victory is that Pullen's college career ended. Opponent or not, even a Badger fan should appreciate this young man's talents.Read "The Voice" in this week's issue of 'Varsity'
Of course, a storyline leading into the game was the matchup between Pullen and Jordan Taylor. While even Taylor admits that Pullen won the individual matchup, the Badgers' point guard continued to prove why he too is one of the nation's best players. On a night when he missed 14 of his 16 shots, the junior came through with two of the season's biggest defensive plays.
First, with the score tied at 61-61, Taylor gets a steal that leads to a Mike Bruesewitz three. Then, with the Badgers up 68-65 in the closing seconds, Taylor blocks a three-point shot from Pullen to help seal the victory. Those plays, plus his six assists and no turnovers, is simply further evidence of a young player understanding there is more to helping a team than scoring. Just seeing the smile on Taylor's face long after the game, you would never know he was 2-for-16 from the field. You just knew he was happy that his team won and gets to play again.
Of course, the Badgers do not advance to New Orleans without the help of Josh Gasser, Tim Jarmusz and Bruesewitz, who combined for 30 points and 14 rebounds. It had to have been especially gratifying for Bruesewitz. After suffering a sprained knee in the Big Ten Tournament, no one really knew how much the big red-head could play, but after a good practice the day before the Belmont game, his confidence grew, and so did his production.
There will be some pretty good star power in the Big Easy this week. Wisconsin's Taylor and Jon Leuer, as well as Butler's Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack, two players who know what it takes to get to the Final Four. Florida's 5'8" guard Ervin Walker played a lot bigger in helping the Gators advance by beating UCLA. Then there's Jimmer Fredette of BYU. All he did was drop 34 on Gonzaga to send his program to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1981.
Yes, the stars will be out in New Orleans, but don't forget about their teammates. For the Badgers last Saturday, it was a team effort in every sense. If they are to keep playing after this weekend, it is likely they will need more of the same.