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It is safe to say the Wisconsin Badgers opened some eyes at last weekend's Big Ten tournament in Chicago. When you beat two teams ranked in the top 10 and take a third to the final minute, it only makes sense that people will notice. Even the skeptics had to admit this team might not be so bad. After all, who else went 4-0 against Indiana and Michigan?
While the Badgers might have surprised many, one gets the impression they did not exactly shock themselves. Quite the contrary. The players walked out of the United Center in less than a great mood. Sure, there is excitement about the program's 15th-straight trip to the NCAA tournament, but the Badgers departed Chicago knowing how close they were to winning a trophy.
"We know we can play with anyone," said freshman Sam Dekker. "It is not a surprise to us when we have big wins like that. We expected to come down here and win the tournament. That is plainly stated. I feel like most of the guys probably said the same thing."
"We let one slip away. That is a bitter taste, but we have to correct that and use that energy Friday down in Kansas City, and hopefully take care of business."
The business at hand is facing an Ole Miss team that is fresh off an SEC tournament championship. The Rebels will come to town with a five-game winning streak, which includes a come-from-behind victory against Florida in the conference title game.
Sunday's victory secured the first NCAA trip for Ole Miss since 2002. That little nugget brings up the question about how much, if at all, does experience matter in the Big Dance?
I figure it does not hurt to have it, but experience alone certainly offers no guarantees of success.
"The seniors have been through it and all that," said coach Bo Ryan. Then, ever the coach, he offered the following advice: "But what the seniors need to be doing is talking to themselves about playing better.
"We need to have the young and the old if we expect to get something done in the tournament. Especially with the way they set it up in our bracket. There are a lot of challenges out there."
With Ole Miss, the challenges begin with trying to contain junior guard Marshall Henderson, who will shoot from anywhere and say almost anything. Flamboyant? To say the least. More importantly, Henderson can put a team on his back.
His teammates aren't too bad either. Reggie Buckner has rejected 91 shots this season, while 6-foot-7 senior Murphy Holloway averages 9.6 rebounds. He has 38 double-doubles in his career.
Similar to Wisconsin, Ole Miss has dealt with injuries. The latest for the Rebels occurred to starting point guard Jarvis Summers, who suffered a concussion in the Rebels' opening SEC tourney game against Missouri. Summers missed the last two games, but Ole Miss moved on, defeating Vanderbilt and the Gators in route to earning the automatic bid to the NCAAs.
All week we will read and hear about how these programs are polar opposites, but both the Badgers and the Rebels appear to be pretty good at proving people wrong, and I believe it is a safe guess to say both teams enjoy doing just that.
It never hurts to have a little fun, and Badgers guard Ben Brust is hoping his group can have an extended experience in college basketball's showcase event.
"It's a special thing," he said. "Everyone dreams of it growing up. You want to play in the NCAA tournament. So, enjoy every moment, but at the same time stay focused on the task at hand because we are capable of making a run."
That run begins Friday morning, and hopefully the Badgers will be running for the next few weeks.
Last fall, Bo Ryan and his fellow Big Ten basketball coaches told anyone willing to listen how good the league would be this season. Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard said there are no "feel-good" games. In other words, no team on the schedule would serve as a breather.
Ryan and Gard were right. So was everyone else.
The Big Ten tournament can be an excellent showcase for the league. In his perfect world, Ryan would simply play more regular season games, but even he believes this could be a wild weekend at the United Center. If you have a ticket to this sold-out show, consider yourself lucky.
As good as the tournament might be, it will be hard pressed to top the regular season. Give Indiana credit for winning the championship. In a sports sense, it truly was a game of survival.
Look at it this way. In the closing seconds of last Sunday's Michigan-Indiana game, the Wolverines' Jordan Morgan was trying to tip in a missed shot from teammate Trey Burke. The ball hung on the right side of the rim, then fell off. That was the difference between Michigan winning a piece of the title and being the fifth seed this week.
From the Badgers' perspective, that miss, preceded by Traevon Jackson's buzzer-beater at Penn State, allowed Wisconsin to earn a first-round bye for the 13th-straight year.
To some, if not many, this seemed to be shaping up as a season when the Badgers finally finished in the lower half of the Big Ten. It is the nation's best conference, and the Badgers were going to be without Josh Gasser. Mike Bruesewitz sliced his leg, then a few weeks later suffered a concussion. Young players had to grow up in a hurry.
Maybe it hasn't always been pretty, but they are growing up. Put it all together, and once again the Badgers exceeded expectations in the conference race.
For those efforts, Bo Ryan is the 2013 Big Ten Coach of the Year. Deservedly so.
As was the case the previous two times he was so honored, Ryan made it about the team. His name will be on the plaque, but it is the school he represents that makes him smile.
"It is nice because it always has the 'University of Wisconsin' coach. That is what matters the most. They get our brand in there."
It can be easy to wonder what might have been. What if Wisconsin had held on at Minnesota? Or what if they could have played better against Purdue on Senior Day.
Ryan knows that works both ways, and points out that more of those either/or games went the Badgers' way. Games such as the overtime thrillers with Michigan and Iowa, not to mention last Sunday's game with Penn State.
Through the injuries and the other challenges of the regular season, the Badgers finished in the top four -- again. That is a remarkable 12 straight years of a fourth-place or better showing. In the Big Ten, only Purdue has a longer streak, and that happened between 1920 and 1932.
"Take a look at the players from 2001 to now," Ryan said on his weekly radio show Monday. "You just say, boy, they were very consistent in their competitive values, in their style, in how they tried to get things done."
"You know, our teams haven't changed that much. Some years maybe you have a little more of this, a little less of that. But to be as consistent as they have been, I am extremely proud of the way they have played.
"(I am proud of) the assistant coaches, our philosophy -- we have made some tweaks, but we still try to do it on fundamentals, working hard, and good things will happen."
Despite the obstacles, the Badgers have made plenty of good things happen.
Now they get a chance to make a good thing even better.
Bo Ryan was named Big Ten Coach of the Year Monday. That evening he appeared on the Big Ten Network to accept the prestigious honor.
Wow. Give my wife a blog for one week, and she crushes me for my lack of pop culture knowledge. OK, until the last month or so, I knew little, if anything, about Ke$ha. I had no clue about the Harlem Shake. Guilty.
But completely unhip? I object.
For comfort, I turned to Ryan Evans. After practice last Sunday, the Badgers had a brief session in the weight room. Word has it the D.J. is strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach. (FYI, hey kids, D.J. means "disc jockey." The person who plays the songs. Back in the day, we called those songs "records").
Whatever the case, the music blaring included some selections that Evans loves. Current tunes you think? Nope. Try "Love Rollercoaster" by the Ohio Players. Or Heatwave's "Groove Line."
Some 1970s funk. What your friendly blogger was hearing in high school. And Ryan Evans likes it.
"It definitely favors me," says Evans. That's the stuff I was raised on. I definitely like that when it comes on."
Thank you Mr. Evans. Maybe I am not unhip after all. Maybe, just maybe, I am "sneaky hip." Seemingly out of touch, yet still fairly cool.
Let me dream, OK?
* * * *
Onto the much more important matters of the day, such as the final week of home games for the Wisconsin basketball team. Time sure flies when you are having fun, and Badger fans have had a blast watching this team, from the double overtime thriller with Iowa, to the dominating performance against Ohio State. In the middle was the dramatic OT tilt with Michigan.
Even Bo Ryan jokes that he wonders how many people will claim to have been in attendance for "The Shot," starring Ben Brust. We guess about 150,000 -- at least.
Senior Day always has plenty of emotion. The good news is there will be more games to play. Two more regular-season games, on the road at Michigan State as well as Penn State. Then there is the Big Ten tournament, followed by postseason play.
Still, these seniors know the clock is ticking.
"It feels like yesterday we were preparing for Southeastern Louisiana," said Dan Fahey. "All the older guys have said that things fly by, especially your last year. Brett (Valentyn) always told me that. It really has sunk in. It really has flown by."
It is much the same for J. D. Wise, who admits he will be "Tryin' to fight back the tears."
Each year following the final home game, there is a video presentation featuring each of the seniors.
With a smile, Wise offered up a bittersweet moment. "I was looking at the senior questions for the video. It's like sitting in my room listening to Closing Time," referring to the song released by Semisonic in 1998. (Yes, I have heard of it).
The season is far from done, but on Sunday afternoon five players will conclude a heck of a chapter in their lives. With it comes the challenge of balancing any tears with the task at hand.
"The idea is we want them to play as long as they can," says coach Bo Ryan. "That is what they keep in the forefront, that there is still a lot more (games) to play. As emotional as Senior Day can get, and it is emotional, you know our guys still understand that we've gotta play."
Hopefully, they will be playing quite a bit in the next few weeks, even if it won't be at the Kohl Center.
BY LINDA LEPAY
Mrs. Voice of the Badgers
I am here this week to share with you a big problem. In fact this issue is so pervasive that it affects almost all aspects of my life. It's sad; it's pathetic, and it's totally preventable. It may not be a problem for you (yet), but could you help a person out during these trying times?
My husband is utterly unhip.
This became apparent to me during the past couple weeks as pop culture and Badger sports merged together to give us high entertainment. In fact people everywhere are dancing, having fun and being silly.
Here's what I'm talking about:
1. Ke$ha inspires the men's basketball team. You've probably seen the YouTube video of the Badgers in the locker room jumping around to "Die Young" after they beat Michigan. Even Ke$ha got a kick out of it, tweeting that this was the 'hottest/cutest thing' she's ever seen.
2. The Grateful Red embraces the Harlem Shake. Heck, everyone is doing it, including Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert.
In addition to the dancing frenzy, the Grammy Awards were recently given out. This is music's big night where millionaire musicians mingle with billionaires such as Jay-Z and Beyonce.
These three events have meant that there's a lot of tutoring is going on at the Lepay house. For a guy who has made a career watching young people play sports, Matt is not tuned in to "what the kids are listening to." During the Grammys I felt like a Tanzanian native tour guide, pointing out singers and bands and explaining their significance.
Here's who Matt recognized:
• Justin Timberlake
Here's who he didn't know:
• Everyone else
At one point I started talking about the The Black Keys and The White Stripes, which left Matt baffled. I even pulled up a YouTube video of The White Stripes' "Seven Nation Army" so he could listen to the bass line that is, gasp, being played in stadiums and arenas all over the country. (Note from Linda's husband: I AM aware of The White Stripes. Wow. Tough crowd!)
Matt is perhaps the oldest 50-year-old I know. I don't mean he's an old soul; I mean he still talks about the 1980s like it was last week. It dawned on me that his exposure to popular music ended the day he was fired downsized from a Top 40 station in Columbus, Ohio. The date was April of 1986. This explains why he knew who Prince was. (And didn't Prince look smashing at the Grammys with his fancy walking stick and sunglasses?) It also explains why he waxes nostalgic when Wang Chung is mentioned.
Look, if Tubby Smith can bust a move to Ke$ha, I'm pretty certain that Matt can learn about the ways of 21st century music. He just has to be a willing student. All work and no play makes play-by-play guys dull. (Another note from Linda's husband: Hey, Gophers, get your own song, OK?)
Here's where I need your help. If you see Matt in person, my advice is to smile at him warmly and talk about popular music the way you would to a 3-month old beagle. Talk slowly and smile a lot. I think the he'll learn best that way.
In the meantime, keep dancing and rocking, Badger Nation. I'll do my best to keep Matt in this decade. (Final note from Linda's husband: Next, she'll tell me it is no longer cool to listen to Earth, Wind & Fire. And by the way, do NOT undersell the greatness of Wang Chung. Kids today would love it.)
With five regular season games left, the No. 19 Badgers still have a lot of business to take care of before March Madness. But with the calendar turning to late February its fair to start projecting how the 2013 NCAA Tournament field will shake out.
Wisconsin currently boasts a resume that includes an 18-8 record, and a third-place 9-4 mark during Big Ten play. Here is where the Badgers rank on other lists:
- No. 9 Strength of Schedule
- No. 9 in the Ken Pomeroy Ratings
- No. 12 in the Sagarin Ratings
- No. 26 in the RPI
Here is a look at where some of the national pundits are placing Wisconsin in the 2013 NCAA Tournament:
- ESPN Bracketology - Joe Lunardi:
5 seed in San Jose, Calif. playing Belmont (Duke is the No. 1 seed in that regional)
- CBS Sports Jerry Palm:
5 seed in San Jose, Calif. playing Middle Tennessee State (Miami is the No. 1 seed in the regional)
- NBC Sports:
5 seed in Austin, Texas playing Iowa State (Florida is the No. 1 seed in the regional)
- USA Today:
No. 5 seed in San Jose, Calif. playing Louisiana Tech (Duke is the No. 1 seed in that regional)
- Yahoo Sports:
Ranked as top No. 5 seed
To foul or not to foul in late-game situations might be a hot topic for some college basketball fans, but we have arrived at the time of the season when another matter can be worth observing. Specifically, which teams appear fresh, and which ones appear to be running low on fuel.
Coming off a pair of thrilling, extra-session games last week, a fairly hidden nugget that might have helped the Badgers is the conditioning of those on the floor. Credit the players for their work ethic, and it might not hurt to tip your cap to veteran strength and conditioning coach Scott Hettenbach as well as athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra.
Yes, Ben Brust needed to sink his Hail Mary 40-plus footer, but the energy to make that moment possible, while still having the gas to play five more minutes, says something about how this program goes about its business in the weight room and beyond.
In the double-overtime victory against Iowa, five Badgers played 40 minutes or more. Last Saturday against Michigan, Brust played 40. In the two games, he was on the floor 85 minutes. It was at minute No. 80 when Brust ran his curl route and took a perfect pass from Mike Bruesewitz, which led to the buzzer-beating heave.
That was the highlight, but Brust was able to make a little magic after spending the late morning and early afternoon digging in on defense, which included chasing some very good shooters. That does not happen without a ton of hard work away from the fans and TV cameras.
For a younger player, it is only natural to hit a wall. Hettenbach admits that can happen, especially with freshmen. Yet his objective during the season is to help players gain strength.
"You are either getting stronger or you are getting weaker," says Hettenbach, now in his 18th year with the men's basketball program. "Our goal is to get stronger. It is too early just to maintain. We will start to try to maintain when we get into the Big Ten tournament and the NCAAs.
"Those last few weeks we will really start to taper back, and just make sure guys have their legs and are fresh."
Let us take a look at a veteran whose hard work and smarts came in handy last week -- Jared Berggren. Against Iowa, the big man logged 43 minutes. As the game wore on, he became better, and ended up with 16 points, 14 rebounds and 7 blocks. The man was flirting with a triple-double.
Berggren followed that performance with a 13-point, 8-rebound outing against Michigan. In the final minute of regulation -- which would have been about his 75th minute of playing time last week--Berggren rammed his way down the lane for a nasty dunk, which he turned into a crucial three-point play.
Hard to do that if you are low on energy.
Hettenbach says a key for anyone is to be intelligent in your recovery. Berggren is very intelligent.
"When it is time to rest, rest hard. When it is time to train, train hard," Hettenbach said. "He (Berggren) has been around long enough, so he knows his body, and he knows what he needs to do. He is probably one of the more diligent kids we have ever had as far as doing post-workout, post-practice, post-lift recovery.
"Doing all the rehab he needs for his shoulder (an injury he dealt with early in his career) and any other thing that pops up."
Hettenbach says as the season has moved along, Berggren actually has added muscle and lost body fat.
"He is stronger now than he was from the first day of practice. In fact, most of our guys are that way."
Yes, there are seven regular-season games remaining, but given the Badgers' run of three games in six days, with two of those games going to overtime, it only makes sense to believe that conditioning has played an important role in keeping the Badgers in the race.
You still have to make the shots and get the stops, but in the midst of a grueling Big Ten schedule, the Badgers continue to do what is necessary both on and off the court to have a fighting chance.
With the high school basketball season winding down, five of Wisconsin's incoming freshmen are closing in on their final days as prep standouts. Two signees who have become close friends since making their commitment to UW are Ohio natives Vitto Brown and Nigel Hayes, who were recently featured in an article by the Toledo Blade
(Photo Courtesy of The Blade/Andy Morrison).
Vitto Brown: 6-8, 240, F, Bowling Green (Ohio), HS
An honorable mention all-state pick as a junior, Vitto Brown is averaging 21.5 points, 13.0 rebounds, 3.0 blocks and shooting 61.7% from the field this season at Bowling Green High School. Last weekend, Brown went head-to-head with Michigan signee Mark Donnal (Whitehouse, Ohio) and came away with a win, tallying 25 points, 16 rebounds and six blocks. The 6-foot-8 forward surpassed the 1,000-point career scoring mark on Feb. 2, recording a 39-point, 16-rebound effort in a 77-61 win against Medina. Brown averaged 20 points and 12 rebounds per game last season. (VIDEO: Vitto Brown Highlights
Riley Dearring: 6-5, 180, G, Minnetonka, Minn. (HS)
Riley Dearring is averaging 18.8 points, 6.2 assists and 3.0 rebounds per game this season for Minnetonka High School. Dearring, who recently eclipsed the 1,000-point career scoring plateau, returned from breaking his wrist a couple of weeks ago to score 17 points in a 73-61 win over rival Hopkins. A four-year varsity player for the Skippers, Dearring earned All-Lake Conference honors last season as a junior after averaging 15 points, 4.0 rebounds and 2.0 assists per game. (VIDEO: Riley Dearring Highlights
Nigel Hayes: 6-7, 230, F, Toledo, Ohio (Whitmer HS)
A three-time MVP for Whitmer High School in Toledo, Nigel Hayes
scored his 1,000th career point in December and is averaging 16.0 points and 10.0 rebounds per game for Whitmer during his senior campaign. Hayes averaged nearly a double-double last season (14.0 points, 9.0 rebounds), while becoming the school's all-time leader in blocked shots. He earned first-team Northwest District selection and second-team all-state honoree and was named to the 2012 OHSSA Division I State Tournament Team. (VIDEO: Nigel Hayes Highlights
Jordan Hill: 6-3, 175, G, Pasadena, Calif. (Exeter Academy, N.H.)
A post-grad from Pasadena, Calif., Jordan Hill is tallying 7.5 points, 8.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds per game for Exeter Academy in Exeter, N.H. Hill graduated from LaSalle High School in Pasadena, Calif. in May earning first-team all-Del Rey League honors as a senior. He posted per game averages of 15.5 points, 7.0 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.0 blocks and 2.0 steals and was a second-team All-California Interscholastic Federation honoree.
Bronson Koenig: 6-3, 170, G, La Crosse, Wis. (Aquinas)
La Crosse, Wis., native Bronson Koenig is a nominee for the 2013 McDonald's All-American game and is averaging 16.1 points during his senior campaign after missing the majority of his junior year with an injury. Koenig tallied a game-high 25 points this past week as Aquinas defeated Madison Edgewood, 75-49. Despite missing several games, Koenig averaged 18 points, 4.0 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game last season. Koenig's breakout season came as a sophomore when he earned first-team All-State accolades after leading La Crosse Aquinas to the 2010 Division III State Championship. The co-conference Player of the Year that season, Koenig racked up 17.0 points and 3.0 assists per game while shooting over 50 percent from the field. (VIDEO: Bronson Koenig Highlights
In the years I have written this blog, I have used the words "fine" and "line" rather frequently.
Here I go again.
For the third straight game, and for the fourth time in conference play, the Badgers have failed to get out of the 40s. Yet they have won two of those four games, and they remain in the mix for a high finish in the league race.
After Tuesday's loss at Ohio State, that might seem odd, but it is very much the case.
What might also seem odd is that, offensively challenged as the Badgers can be, their shooting numbers are very similar to a year ago.
In conference games, Wisconsin's field goal and 3-point percentages are nearly identical to last season. In fact, the Badgers are averaging one more bucket per game than last winter. The difference is at the free throw line.
The league-low free throw percentage is well documented. After not even getting to the foul line in Columbus, the Badgers are averaging 13 attempts per game and making 6.7. Last year, UW attempted 16.7 free throws and knocked down 13 a game (77 percent).
That is more than a half-dozen points off the board. Still, Bo Ryan's team is 5-3 in the Big Ten, which is exactly where they stood at this time last year.
Second-half defensive struggles against Ohio State aside, this group continues to grind away on that end of the floor, and more often than not, it continues to hold its own on the glass.
However, as the Buckeyes demonstrated earlier this week, a defensive breakdown here, or a turnover that leads to easy points there, can mean the difference between victory and defeat. Even if it happens on just a handful of possessions, as was the case at Value City Arena.
It is worth noting that Tuesday's game was the fifth in the last six outings against a top 25 team. While college basketball rankings have a much different meaning than college football polls, the point here is that the Badgers have had quite a stretch of tests against opponents many consider to be the big boys of the sport.
For the season, Wisconsin has faced seven nationally-ranked programs, more than anyone else in the nation.
That is not to suggest that UW is about to enter Easy Street. Far from it.
Up next is Illinois. In the first meeting in Madison, the Badgers put together a brilliant performance in a convincing win. Yet this is the same Illini squad that drilled Ohio State by 19 points and also won at Gonzaga.
Ranked or unranked, when Illinois is playing at its best, it can play with anyone.
So can the Badgers.
As we approach the halfway point of conference play, it is becoming clear that, in the Big Ten, the grueling schedule has a way of keeping every team in the league humble.
Let's face it, so far there appears to be very little separating first place from the middle of the pack. Some teams might look the part more than others, but the results suggest that looks can be deceiving.
Once again, the Badgers walk a fine line. However, in the nation's top conference, there is reason to believe they are not the only team fitting that description.
Yes, they need to somehow find a way to shoot straight. They need to find a way to get to the foul line, and then finish the deal when they get there.
While far from perfect, on most occasions the Badgers are doing enough things well to at least give themselves a chance. I still believe that if they keep guarding -- and grinding away -- they can make the second half of the Big Ten season very interesting.
This weekend, Bo Ryan and the Wisconsin coaches are participating in the annual Suits and Sneakers awareness weekend
By wearing sneakers with their suits, the coaching staffs from both teams are trying to raise awareness of the many ways people can reduce their risk of cancer, like eating right, exercising, making healthy lifestyle choices, and following the American Cancer Society's recommended cancer screening guidelines.
'Dress up' the Kohl Center Saturday
- Fans are encouraged to help up 'dress up' the Kohl Center by wearing today's 'Bo Tie' t-shirts provided by Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin as part of the Suits and Sneakers weekend.
- People not attending Saturday's game can purchase the Bo-Tie t-shirt at the UW Bookstore online, or at Bucky's Locker room with all proceeds going to Coaches vs. Cancer.
This year's gala will take place on Saturday, May 4, 2013 at the Kohl Center.
In 2013, Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin will hold its 6th Annual Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin Gala, an evening filled with dinner, a silent auction and impressive keynote speakers. Past galas have featured special guests like Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim and ESPN's Jay Bilas.
Since its inception, Coaches vs. Cancer Wisconsin has raised over $1 million for the fight against cancer. The funds raised go directly towards the American Cancer Society's mission of celebrating more Birthdays.
Contact CvC Wisconsin at 608-662-7555 or CVCWI@cancer.org for additional information.
Charity Stripe Challenge
Earlier this year, Bo and his wife, Kelly Ryan, witnessed over 1,600 UW-Madison students brave undesirable weather conditions to participate in the Charity Stripe Challenge, raising a grand total of $41,279.
"My wife and I did this event because we firmly believe that with enough funding, a cure for cancer will be found. We took this as another opportunity to have our team interact with the students and involve our campus in this event. What a fun time and for a great cause. I figure one of these half-court shots might be the difference in curing cancer."
Nearly all UW athletic teams were represented as well as numerous campus organizations, including the Homecoming Committee and Colleges Against Cancer. In total, 36 UW students made half-court shots, which were worth a $1,000 donation each and countless students made the $10 free throw.