Monday, April 6, 2015

(1) Wisconsin 63, (1) Duke 68: Swing, Stagger, Survive

(1) Duke 68, (1) Wisconsin 63 

The shots weren't falling early, as the Big Ten's best, the Wisconsin Badgers, and fellow 1-seed, the Duke Blue Devils, hit the hardwood in Indianapolis tonight.

Near the third-to-last TV timeout of the game, the Badgers led by nine: a title within reach. The crowd roared like a game at the Kohl Center with the Hawkeyes or Illini or Wolverines in town. A December defeat against Duke seemed ready to be avenged.

But first, the prologue.

There's an arrhythmic rhythm to it all. The shots weren't falling early: Duke and Wisconsin got out of the gates to a combined 3-for-9 start from the field.

With every game, there's a feeling out period: what are you trying to do, how will you react to me, should we slow down, should we speed up, is that set working, should we play this lineup against that lineup.

But that could be set aside, a product of nerves, the stage, the fantastic zipping of electrons back and forth, up and down the court.

Once the nerves settled, and the initial roar dulled only slightly into a microwave background of waiting-to-be-released hysteria, the Badgers started to struggle. Despite a 3-for-6 start from three, the Badgers were 3-for-12 from inside the arc.

Early returns indicated that the Badgers would have to shoot their way into a more comfortable offensive setting, one in which Duke's defensive presences would have to extend up closer to the arc.

Despite that, UW trailed just 23-17 with 6:45 to play in the first half. But they needed something, having gone on a four-plus minute field goal drought.

Then, a Sam Dekker putback gave them life. Frank Kaminsky swiped a ball in the low post at the other end, allowing Traevon Jackson to go coast-to-coast for two.

Kaminsky converted an and-1 that made the arena boom like the Kohl Center. Justise Winslow then converted a big two for Duke, ending what had been a 7-0 run for Bo Ryan's squad, but perhaps the biggest development in this stretch was Okafor picking up a second foul with just under five minutes left in the half (Winslow also had two fouls at this point).

The Blue Devils thus went to the 2-3, which the Badgers summarily beat with ease, a Dekker layup good for his seventh and eighth points of the half.

Oddly, the Badgers, perhaps unjustifiably not known for their offensive rebounding prowess -- instead known as a "get back and play defense" team -- dominated on the boards, snagging eight offensive boards to Duke two at one point late in the first half.

Duke gambled late, sitting both Okafor and Winslow -- Wisconsin couldn't make them pay, and the two heavyweights headed to the locker rooms, tied at 31.

This time, the Badgers didn't start slow. Instead, they hit their first three field goal attempts, jumping out to an early 5-point lead. For Duke, it didn't help that Okafor had some trouble finishing around the basket. Despite a couple thunderous dunks early, the freshman from Chicago missed a few bunnies in traffic, key misses for a Duke team looking to stay with the hyperefficient Badgers.

Making matters worse for Okafor, he picked up his third foul at the 16:50 mark on a strong Kaminsky take to the basket, spinning and spinning like a top that won't stop.

The Badgers didn't stop there, and the mostly UW-partisan crowd joined them.

Bronson Koenig awoke in the second half, scoring nine points in the first six minutes, helping the Badgers up their lead to nine.

Duke looked punch drunk -- discombobulated, unsteady, not to mention without Winslow or Okafor on the floor.

That didn't last for long. Grayson Allen buried a triple, then scored on a traditional three-point play on a fearless drive to the rim, cutting UW's lead to three. Forget Okafor, Winslow, Jones and Cook: how about the freshman from Jacksonville?

Fortunately for the Badgers, they have the luxury of a big man in Nigel Hayes, who began his Wisconsin career without a three-point shot, and this year become not just an okay three-point shooter, but a very good one (38 percent). He buried one, his third of three attempts, to push the lead back to six with 11:43 to play.

 On the not so bright side for the Badgers, Duke entered the bonus with over 11 minutes to play, after hardly fouling at all in the first half. Duke attempted four free throws in the first half -- by the under-8 TV timeout, they'd attempted 11 in the second half.

Duke cut the deficit to one, 51-50, finally bringing Okafor back into the fold.

But, just like that, back to the bench he went. Less than a minute into his return, he picked up his fourth, once again trying to check and spinning Kaminsky.

A theme all night, the Badgers had trouble taking advantage of mismatches. With Duke's Tyus Jones on Duje Dukan, Jones was able to draw a charge call (whether it was the right call is another discussion).

The two teams slogged their way through an ugly couple of minutes of basketball. Foul, missed jumper, foul. Foul foul foul.

Two fighters, tired, grabbing, clutching for respite.

Then they started swinging.

The Badgers went to the Player of the Year, Kaminsky, who finished for two. At the other end, Jones buried a cold-blooded trey to give the lead back to Duke, 59-58, the 16th lead change of the contest.

The TV timeout was welcomed like the end-of-round bell. Clang. Assistants buzzing, offering bits of wisdom that were almost as much emotional in their content as they were practical.

With 3:22 to play, what else can you say? Hit them, don't get hit. Survive, play by play. There are no loping knockouts now, just survival.

Quiet for so long, Okafor went to work against Kaminsky in the post, giving him a spin move of his own. Despite Kaminsky's best bear hug, the Lisle, Ill., native couldn't stop his fellow Illinoisan from scoring his first bucket in four score and seven years.

After a big Duke stop, Okafor collected an offensive rebound and scored to put Duke up five. Koenig's acrobatic layup attempt fell off the mark at the other end. Despite a video review, and the ball appearing to go off a Blue Devil, Duke got the ball.

The Badgers were reeling, needing a stop. They didn't get it.

Tyus Jones, again, buried a three from the top. Wisconsin fell, a thud, followed by eight fast seconds.

They got up, and Kaminsky buried a three to keep them alive. Duke missed an ill-advised run-out attempt at the rim, and Koenig made them pay, delivering a no-look pass to Hayes, who slammed one home, cutting the deficit to three with 50 seconds to play.

The Badgers fouled, and Jones, the best free throw shooter in the ACC, buried two. Koenig couldn't convert a tough jumper attempt, all but ending things for the Badgers.

The confetti rained down: Duke 68, Wisconsin 63.

Bo Ryan's squad led by nine with 13:23 to play, but a combination of Tyus Jones, some late-game heroics from Okafor -- a game that was far from his best -- and the Badgers oddly playing a little too much one-on-one basketball instead of the team ball the program has been built on, all conspired to down the Badgers on a night when their first national title since 1941 seemed within their grasp.

Much will be said about the foul disparity from the first half to the second, or the decision to give Duke the ball late despite it appearing to go off the Blue Devils out of bounds.

But those points, while possibly valid, detract from what was a great game and a fitting cap to an exciting tournament and season.

With the victory, the first-seeded Blue Devils secured their fifth NCAA title, while the Badgers fell for the second year in the Final Four, this time on the doorstep of a title.

When things looked bleak for Duke, Grayson Allen -- not Okafor or Jones or Cook -- brought them from the brink. If you're looking for a Spike Albrecht, he's it, albeit a great deal more heralded out of high school than Albrecht was when he went off against Louisville two years ago.

As for Wisconsin, the loss caps another tremendous season for the Badgers, the second year in a fascinating reinvention experiment in Wisconsin basketball. The Badgers of last year and this year have been almost unrecognizable from the UW teams of previous years -- these teams combined the same old elements of turnover-averse, efficient basketball, this time doing it with multiple NBA talents and a strong supporting cast that could run when necessary and slow you down whenever things were going well, which was most of the time for the Badgers. Wisconsin finishes the season with 31 wins to just four losses, two of those against Duke, one that will be remembered and felt far more than the other.

And so the old season comes to a close. Time heals all wounds, they say -- but it doesn't heal all of them. For the players coming back, whether in Madison or East Lansing or Tuscon or Spokane or South Bend or Lexington, in Louisville or Ames or Charlottesville or Washington D.C. or Philadelphia, time will do nothing but allow it all to boil quietly, bubbling over intermittently and subsiding, a continual unbelief of the reality of defeat.

With that feeling, those players enter the offseason.

But there is no offseason. The season begins now.

Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Season

The character of a season is a funny thing.

It's a feedback loop; you feel good, then better, then better. You feel bad, then worse, and worse. The season in February, May and July is exactly what you want it to be. The season changes by the day as it rocks in the calm and violent waters of the offseason, with all of us on the same vessel, hoping for a future that is bright.

In January, following the post-bowl malaise or excitement, the next season is an unrecognizable blip, a constellation of stars in the shape of something that you can't recognize until someone points it out to assure you that that is the Big Dipper, yes, yes it is.

In February and March, the squeaking of shoes and pounding of the rock drowns out the urge to stargaze for a time. The urge persists, a residual cosmic microwave background of subtle feeling -- it's an ice cream cone you had once on a hot summer day as a kid or the first time you felt something that wasn't a direct product of adult supervision. You know it's out there, was out there, and for a second, you wonder if those facts are even true. Was the ice cream that cold and that good? Did Denard Robinson burn rubber on fields across the Midwest?

In April come the rains -- or, in Chicago, the snow persist, falling lightly upon all the living and all the college football fans. But spring games pop up all over the landscape like so many rogue flowers burying stakes in the unforgiving terrain of sidewalk cracks, yearning for light and water, as is their biological imperative.

And then it all goes away, melting against the return of the sun, which, in these parts, is a nomad of sorts, coming and going as it pleases. The leaves bask in the glow as the thwack of bats symphonizes the song of summer.

In July, the air takes on the smell of bratwurst and flags fly high on the beaches and front porches of America, whistling against the breeze. It is like entering a hall of mirrors, where everything feels familiar yet unrecognizable. Amid the noise, something incubates.

Then August, and boom. The puzzle is missing pieces, but it begins to take shape. Is it too late to go back? Can we go back, to January, April, July? Is it too late to reject the imposition of reality, instead of enjoying a vague, limitless future?

Pads pop and helmets metamorphize, first pristine and gleaming then scratched and weathered. Somewhere in between, football has begun to happen, in Ann Arbor and Columbus and Tuscaloosa, in South Bend and Norman and Los Angeles and Lincoln, in Tallahassee and Knoxville and Austin and Eugene.

On the doorstep of the future, depth charts are no longer things to be hopeful or despondent about; they just are. What you've done is what you've done, and what you are is what you are.

Banners unfurl and bands boom as teams run onto the field for the first time during August's last hours. Things then fall apart, or they don't. There's no in between.

Then it's over.

---

The air slips out of the whole thing, slowly, then suddenly. Purgatorial January introduces itself, a new subletter you won't take the time to get to know. The snow packs the ground, layer upon layer, blanketing the past in forgetful white. For a time, we slip into amnesia, forgetting what just happened or, a different sort of amnesia, remembering it in some other light, something other than what it was.

The college football fans sees his breath, then it goes away. His shirt is drenched with the rains, then not. Sweat trickles in summer, then not. Then it is time again, to do it all over.

He doesn't find the character of the season then -- no. That comes much later, if at all.

January through August moves with the same rhythm each year. But from August through the first week of January, college football builds its identity for that year, like a child stepping into the world. You don't know what it means to be 18 when you're 19 -- you certainly don't know it when you're 18.

But, years down the road, when you look back and try to push away the fog, try to remember what made one season different than another, you just may know. I don't know what 2013 meant, or the year before it, or the year before.

And when this old season comes to a close, I don't know what it will mean, either. With time, maybe the meaning of the season will become clear, as our lives speed along and memories stick to seasons like barnacles clinging to a boat in a storm.

Then again, maybe each season is just a season, a collection of games dependent upon luck and weather and physiological frailties. Maybe each batch of results is just an agnostic exclamation of uncertainty; maybe Michigan is back, maybe Michigan is doomed, based on so much carefully curated evidence.

More likely, the character of a season is not a statement, but a feeling, a departure from the rhythmic norm of the offseason months. Disappointed in 2005, surprised in 2011, elated in 1997. It's really very simple, when you think about it.

The season is a feeling, years down the road -- I say that with a certainty I admit I might not have. But, it is my choice to make it, so I do.

And, years down the road into the future -- a horizon with all dimensions and none -- the character of the 2014 season emerge, when that feeling becomes clear.

The season itself is an introduction. You say hello and know its name; its character comes later.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion: An Early Look at 2014-15 Purdue basketball

Hello there, it's been a while. If there's anybody out there, I took a few weeks or so off from the blog world after Michigan's loss to Kentucky, partially from spring malaise but mostly because discerning spring football tea leaves or worse, talking about recruiting, isn't really my thing.

In any case, I've started a little preview/retrospective basketball series over at Maize n Brew, which will run each Wednesday from today until there are no more teams to preview (yes, I will even do Rutgers and Maryland).

I started with the struggling Purdue Boilermakers today, who didn't make the tournament for the second straight season and appear to be in for another rough season, barring several guys really blowing up. Could it be Painter's last season in West Lafayette? The best early guess is yes, but when a team like Nebraska can jump up into the top four of the conference, anything is possible.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Michigan's comeback falls short, Badgers knock off Wolverines in Ann Arbor

No. 15 Michigan 62, No. 21 Wisconsin 75

The Wolverines have taken care of business on the road this season, notching wins in Madison, East Lansing and Columbus; on Sunday, Michigan's season became about defending its home court. 

The No. 21 Wisconsin Badgers rolled into Ann Arbor this afternoon with a three-game winning streak, on the heels of a 1-5 stretch. Wisconsin's defense tightened up after that brutal stretch and, lo and behold, the Badgers got back on the winning track. 

However, winning at home (or on the road against a team like Illinois) is a different animal from winning in Ann Arbor against the team tied for the top spot in the conference standings. 

The Badgers clearly came ready to play, as they jumped out to an early 12-2 lead, paced by a pair of threes from Josh Gasser. The script was a little different this time around; this time, the Badgers were the ones shooting the lights out early in the game. 

Meanwhile, Michigan struggled on the offensive end, with just seven points by the second media timeout. Also, as is Wisconsin's defensive style, the Wolverines didn't have a single three-point attempt to their name by that point in the game. 

Michigan had no answer for Frank Kaminsky on the block and the slashing Sam Dekker, either. The Badgers are by no means a great offensive rebounding team --in fact, Bo Ryan de-emphasizes it in favor of getting back on defense-- but UW had six offensive boards through 11 minutes or so of play. If the Wolverines couldn't find a way to clean up on the glass and toughen up on the block, it appeared as if the Badgers were poised to upset them in Ann Arbor. 

Michigan continued to take the long twos Wisconsin routinely offers, but, unlike the matchup in Madison, the Wolverines couldn't connect. More importantly, the Badgers consistently held Michigan to one-and-done. 

With UW dominating every aspect of the game in the first half, the Wolverines might have been lucky to be down "just" 34-19 at the break. 

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Badgers cruise in West Lafayette, snap 3-game losing streak

No. 9 Wisconsin 72, Purdue 58

When the Badgers and Boilermakers took the floor at Mackey Arena today, both looked to rebound: literally and figuratively. 

The Badgers, after a program record 16-0 start, dropped their last three games (at Indiana, Michigan and at Minnesota). Meanwhile, Purdue rolled into Evanston with a three-game winning streak Tuesday night only to leave with a loss, an ugly 63-60 double overtime defeat. 

While the Boilermakers were not considered to be Big Ten title contenders, a win against a top 10 Wisconsin team would do wonders for its tournament seed (Big Ten and Big Dance). 

As for Bo Ryan's Badgers, a fourth straight loss would not only certainly knock them out of the top 10, it would, in all likelihood , knock them out of the Big Ten regular season title race. 

Unlike UW's trip to Minneapolis, the Bagders had a good deal more pep in their collective step today in West Lafayette. The Badgers jumped out to a 17-6 lead five minutes into the first half. However, the biggest early development was A.J. Hammons going to the bench with two fouls just a minute and a half into the game. 

A few minutes later, UW's Frank Kaminsky picked up his second as well; the Badgers struggled mightily without Kaminsky on the floor in The Barn, so the Badgers' balance would once again be tested. 

The Badgers led 20-13 halfway through the half, and while it was still early, the Badgers' defense was several shades better than it had been against Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota. Thirteen minutes into the half, Purdue was shooting just 35 percent (7-for-20) from the field. 

To make matters worse for the Boilers, Matt Painter rolled the dice by playing Hammons in spite of his foul situation. It backfired, as Hammons picked up his third foul with 9:51 left in the half. Without Hammons on the floor, Purdue would have to make shots from the outside. Coming into today's game, Purdue ranked just 7th in the Big Ten in three-point percentage during conference play (32.7 percent). 

Defensively, Purdue was up to the challenge, particularly after the Badgers' hot start from the field. The Boilermakers went into the half down 32-29, despite not having Hammons on the floor very much at all (zero first half points). 

No. 10 Iowa rolls in Evanston, handles upset-minded Wildcats

Fouad Egbaria

Northwestern 50, No. 10 Iowa 76

When the Northwestern Wildcats and Iowa Hawkeyes in their current forms meet, the difference in philosophy is stark. The Wildcats, like pre-2013-14 Wisconsin, play tough defense and slow the game down. The Hawkeyes want to run, run, run. 

Don't look now, but after a brutal home loss against DePaul and three straight thumpings at the hands of Wisconsin, Michigan and Iowa, Chris Collins's Wildcats have won three of their last four, including a competitive 54-40 loss against Michigan State. Size, skill and depth isn't quite there yet for Northwestern, but their identity is very clear, a crucial development for a program under a first-year head coach. 

When the Wildcats went to Iowa City on Jan. 9, they lost 93-67, allowing the Hawkeyes to score a whopping 1.29 points per possession. They'd have to do a little better than that this afternoon in Welsh-Ryan if they planned on coming away with their fourth win in five games, a win that would, amazingly, move them to 4-4 in the Big Ten. 

Paced by a couple of early threes from Drew Crawford, the Wildcats did just enough to muck things up so that Iowa couldn't run away with things from the start. By the 12-minute media timeout the Hawkeyes led 14-10; however, in typical Iowa fashion, seven different Hawkeyes had scored to get those 14. 

The Hawkeyes eventually surged to a 23-15 lead--it seemed as if Northwestern's hopes of staying in the game were evaporating fast. 

The Wildcats weren't done yet. A Drew Crawford and-1 with just over a minute left cut the Iowa lead to 28-24. After a Melsahn Basabe jumper in the paint with a few seconds left in the half, the Wildcats went into the halftime break down 30-24. All things considered, that is a win for an offensively challenged Northwestern squad against an Iowa team with scoring options all over the floor. 

Of course, the Wildcats would have to turn up the defensive intensity even further in the second half if they were going to pull off their biggest upset yet. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Shameless Self-Promotion Time: Iowa

Michigan left Madison on Saturday with its first win at the Kohl Center since 1999; naturally, it wasn't hard to picture the Wolverines throwing out a letdown game their next time on the court.

Luckily for John Beilein and Co., that was most definitely not the case against Iowa on Wednesday night in the Crisler Center, where the Wolverines defeated No. 10 Iowa, 75-67. As usual, I recapped it over at Maize n Brew.

Michigan is perfect a third of the way through the Big Ten schedule, one of only two remaining squads without a Big Ten loss. The other? Of course, the Michigan State Spartans, Michigan's opponent this Saturday.

Like many will express throughout the rest of this week, after wins at Wisconsin and against Iowa, Michigan is basically playing with house money this Saturday. With that said, a win in the Breslin Center would push Michigan's post-McGary-injury run from "unexpectedly great" to "transcendent." Hopefully the Wolverines learned a thing or two from the thumping they took there last season.