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The Voice: Finish doesn't tell the story of a Sweet season

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The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgAs 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.

The Voice: Taylor, teammates lead UW to Sweet 16

The_Voice_Matt_Lepay_200.jpgBy 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.

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.

ON WISCONSIN