Mad in March edition

Sometimes we all go a little mad. It’s March after all.

It would have been the height of madness if the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament committee put Wisconsin in the same regional as No. 1 ranked and undefeated Kentucky. Instead of madness, UW got deja vu all over again being shipped out to the West Region and potentially facing Oregon, Baylor and Arizona on their way to the Final Four. Oh, then there’s the matter of having North Carolina in the region as well, a potential Sweet Sixteen  match-up. That’s why it was so important for the Badgers to win the Big Ten title outright and win the Big Ten Tournament title to fall back on if the NCAA tournament match-ups aren’t as favorable as a year ago. Sometimes that’s the way it works. You just don’t know what kind of madness the committee can present when they draw up the brackets so you better you have something tangible, like a conference title trophy for example, to celebrate a successful season if you don’t quite make it all the way.

Definitely maddening for Rick Pitino Jr. was the consistency of the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team or lack of it. What does it say when the Gophers had a better record against the top-half of the league than the bottom half? It’s says the Gophers were a team talented enough to beat Michigan State on the road and yet not so motivated enough to lose to Penn State at home on Senior Day. Bottom line is much of the team regressed from last year’s NIT championship squad and the depth wasn’t adequate enough to offset this. The rebuilding process pretty much begins now for the Gophers as the last of Tubby Smith’s recruits play their way through Williams Arena. It’s Little Ricky’s show to watch.

It’s a draw, that’s pretty much all Kevin Garnett’s return to Minnesota is at this point but at least it something to draw fan interest for a miserable, injury-riddled and inexperienced Timberwolves squad, a lot better than Canned Corn Night I suppose. A decade after he left he can at least look back on a championship while T-Wolves can only cover their eyes at all the bad draft picks and trades and free agent signings and nothing much else particular. But as with Kevin Love, the T-Wolves went as a far as they could with said franchise player until they had to give him up or lose them to free agency for nothing. Unfortunately nothing is all the T-Wolves ultimately got out of the Garnett deal with Boston. Can they do better with what they obtained for Love? They’d better or we could be talking another lost decade.

One can understand the Bucks not wanting to give another Larry Sanders-like contract to Brandon Knight before free agency, which is why they shipped him out for Michael Carter-Williams. But while the Bucks didn’t lose much in scoring, there were several intangibles Knight brought to the team for much of the season that Carter-Williams hasn’t quite delivered yet, thus the team has struggled since the trading deadline to the point where missing the playoffs is now a real possibility. While no one expected a playoff berth for Bucks at the beginning of the season, and injuries are taking a toll on a team with not a lot of depth to begin with, it would be a very disappointing result given how far Milwaukee has come up from the NBA dregs and in the weak Eastern Conference to boot.

Gee, what a difference one goalie can make, even on the NHL level. The Minnesota Wild were left for regular season dead a month ago. Then they sign Devan Dubnyk almost in desperation to find someone, anyone who can stop a puck from going into the goalie’s net and walah! the Wild are now in playoffs as of right now with 83 points and a solid 38-24-7 overall record. It means they actually have a solid chance to advance deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs.  Granted the schedule lightened up some by February but the Wild have their fair share of wins over some top-tier teams in the NHL like Chicago, St. Louis and Calgary. And all it took was finding a competent goalie, just like they did last season with Ilya Bryzgalov. It also says what they had on their roster when it came to net-minders wasn’t very good to begin with. One doesn’t see a Niklas Backstrom or Josh Hardy in their plans after this season and Kuemper is more or less a back-up (otherwise the Wild wouldn’t be desperately searching for goalies at this time every season). Stocking up at goalie again will occupy the Wild’s major off-season activities while their window of opportunity with Koivu, Parise and Suter is still open.

Hockey people have a tendency sometimes to make observing the game a little more complicated than it needs to be. I may well have a layman’s perspective when it comes to the sport, but I don’t think needs to look to closely to know the University of Wisconsin men’s hockey team was terrible this season. I mean a 4-24-5 record is pretty bad, especially from a program that’s won six national titles and won back-to-back conference tournament titles only recently. For UW assistant coach Gary Shuchuk to call Badger fans who had to witness this travesty of a team “idiots” for not getting some deeper logic about them which makes better than their record, all one can say is look at the season ending All-Big Ten teams: Not a single Wisconsin player made even one spot on any of them. One doesn’t need to be brilliant man to figure out 4-24-5 plus no one on the postseason teams equals one bad hockey team. Period. And if the current coaching staff keeps their jobs, then many such “idiots” will not be so idiotic to waste their money and time on them again next season.

For all the doomsday talk about the Big Ten conference ruining college hockey, wake me when it does happen. Minnesota may have won the regular season title for the second year in a row but the Gophers are barely above the No. 16 mark in the Pairwise rankings, meaning they would be only the at-large team in the league to get into the NCAA Tournament if they didn’t win the Big Ten Tournament. And if they don’t win the tournament it there’s a good chance they’ll drop right below the line anyways. A mediocre Michigan State squad at 17-15-2 finishing second is also a damning indictment of weakness. Look around college hockey and all you see are these little schools winning everything or taking most of the spaces in the Top 20. Maybe someday the Big Ten will be the maximum force everyone said it would be when it finally started up its men’s hockey league again. Right now though, it’s anything but. 

 

 

 

 

Deflation edition

So much in deflation these days…gas prices, the European economy, and footballs.

There once was a fellow named Anderson, who became a head coach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In fact he had a thought it a dream job. Then, after a short while, he changed his mind and decided it wasn’t such a dream job after all. In fact, the job was downright nightmare. So he left Madison rather hurriedly and was never heard from again. The only difference as far as the University of Wisconsin was concerned for Ken Anderson and Gary Andersen is how they spelled their last names. Ken Anderson, the former UW-Eau Claire Hall of Fame basketball coach wanted the UW-Madison men’s hoops job for years, had been passed over for it, but finally got it 1982. And before he even had his first press conference (which UW officials had to beg him to do), he wanted out. Anderson’s tenure as UW head coach lasted less than 24 hours because, as one observer put it: “he has pathological fear of losing”. Well I guess so, considering the UW program he inherited was coming off a 6-21 season and was a complete mess at the time.  But other coaches, men like Dick Bennett and Bo Ryan who, like Anderson, also coached in the old WSUC, did not let their fear of losing keep them from taking a job they both coveted and turned into professional successes. Both went to the Final Four and both became legends and Anderson has largely been forgotten statewide because some men dared and others were afraid. Let this be lesson to Gary Andersen that while you may feel Oregon State is a better “fit” for you for whatever reason, it’s still a program that plays second fiddle in its home state and will never have the resources to have the kind of consistent success Oregon has or have the opportunities for such success as Wisconsin does. And if that’s all Andersen wants from coaching, then that’s all he’ll get out of it. He’s small potatoes and UW is far better off without him.

One good example of Anderson’s perfidy is his complaining UW’s tough academic requirements were a barrier to recruiting, especially junior college athletes which Andersen seems to want to recruit a whole batch to Oregon State. It’s these same requirements which kept UW from the national title game in volleyball, two tournament championships in hockey, the Final Four in basketball and three Rose Bowls and five straight New Year’s Day bowls in football. Wait a minute….

What’s more is Andersen was telling recruits he would be able to work the admissions process to get them into school, only to make UW look bad when the admission’s letter came back negative. It’s a wonder UW hasn’t lost even more recruits considering Andersen’s dishonesty. As a head coach he needed to know UW’s parameters for recruiting long before he took the job back 2012 to prevent these kind of recruiting messes from taking place, not whine after the fact. As I said, Wisconsin is better off without him.

In fact, call Andersen a seat-warmer if you like because Paul Chryst was the man UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez wanted to hire two years ago but couldn’t since had just finished his first season at Pittsburgh. While Chryst and assistant coach Joe Rudolph only went 19-19 in three season, the Panther football programs has at least been stabilized, vicitimized as it was by an idiot athletic director and the hiring and firing four coaches in three seasons. Hopefully Chryst learned quite a bit in first few seasons as a head coach. Given the resources he has to work with at UW compared to Pitt and leadership of Barry Alvarez at the helm (as he demonstrated in the Outback Bowl), the Badgers should be in good and finally, stable hands.

Losing in the Capitol One Bowl was a disappointing end to a successful 2014 season for the University of Minnesota football program. The question which now faces the Gophers is can this success be sustained? The schedule next season will be a tough one, highlighted by the season opener against TCU and a match-up against a tough Colorado State squad. The Gophers lose a lot of good players like like Maxx Williams and David Cobb from an offense that struggled often times during the season. It’s in these situations where recruiting shows itself. We’ll see if Jerry Kill’s coaching staff can replenish the Gophers’ ranks quickly to keep them at the level they are at, or perhaps do better.

It’s been said victory has a thousand fathers and defeat a single orphan. But it’s usually not true and certainly not true in the case of the Packers’ NFC Championship game loss to the Seahawks. It would be easy to put all the blame on Brandon Bostik fumbling the onside kick but it would be grossly unfair. The conservative play calling (no doubt done to protect an injured Aaron Rodgers) on offense, Morgan Burnett’s playground slide on an interception return, Ha-Ha Clinton Dix misplay of the Seahawks’ two-point conversion pass, the Pack’s inability to score two short-yardage plays, not having Clay Matthews in the ballgame on the Seahawks game-tying scoring drive, the defense giving up 14 points in :44 seconds, shall we go on? What ‘s disheartening for Packers fans is this was a Super Bowl team and winning one at that. You can’t just say “we’ll pick up this fellow in the draft and we’ll get there next year.” Next year is about holding the team together as much as possible, having to start over and hoping to get back with players like Julius Peppers (and everyone else) a year older.

The Minnesota Vikings need to resist the temptation of think the 2014 Vikings were just a few plays away from the playoffs even without Adrian Peterson. Yes there were a lot of close losses but also a lot of close wins, which tend to cancel each other out. The Vikings are exactly what their record says they are and they can only get better through continued building through the draft, especially around Teddy Bridgewater, not around AP. They need to avoid the free agent market unless it’s a can’t miss/no harm situation. No more quick-fixes.

The fact the Bucks are 21-20 even without Jabari Parker says that head coach Jason Kidd is a strong candidate for NBA Coach of the Year.  However, more injuries and Larry Sanders marijuana suspension are threats to send the Bucks into losing stretch before the All-Star break. Luckily for them, being a part of the Eastern Conference with all the awful teams in it does has some advantages. A playoff berth is more than feasible and as a No. 5 seed to boot. 

As terrible as the Minnesota Timberwolves have been this season, it appears that rookie Andrew Wiggins is starting to play at the level he was expected to be at coming out of college and if nothing else provides some hope that given enough time and actual health the T-Wolves will be a decent franchise once again. Without that, there’s really no reason to pay attention to them. The NBA is one of the few sports where one player can at least make a difference in terms of interest if nothing else if they’re playing at an all-star level.

For once I actually agree with Jim Souhan, the Minnesota Wild should write off the season and hope that its a one-year aberration. Because if, as Wild GM Chuck Fletcher believes, this is the most talent the club Minnesota has ever had in its history, then would be the point of blowing it up during the offeseason? Everyone knew goaltending could be a potential problem for this club going into the 2014-15 campaign and a problem it has been. But getting better goaltending is an offseason process, not one which can just take care of itself during the regular season (and the Wild got lucky with Ilya Bryzgalov last season). And if coaching was a problem, would we not have hints from the players that a change at the top would make things better?  We really haven’t. The schedule reportedly gets easier starting next month and maybe the Wild could get hot and sneak into a wild card spot. But given how tough the Western Conference is, it’s doubtful. And maybe they would better off from a draft perspective not making the playoffs instead of being first-round fodder. 

I predicted a year ago Bronson Koenig would eventually become the starting point guard for the University of Wisconsin basketball team. Well he is now, but not the way I had envisioned, off an injury to starter Trae Jackson. Jackson’s play has been very good this season and his injury against Rutgers is really the only reason why the Badgers lost 67-62 (they led by 12 before he went down and that’s without Frank Kaminsky in  the line-up either.) So far the Koenig-led Badgers are 2-0, including an 80-52 whipping of Iowa which had won five-straight on the road before Tuesday’s game. And as Koenig’s experience and confidence grows while Jackson is out until late February, the Badgers’ depth will become even stronger than it already is.

Having a hunch, I looked at the box score of the Minnesota-Nebraska men’s college basketball game from Tuesday and sure enough, whenever the Golden Gophers lose it’s usually because Mo Walker doesn’t score a lot of points and in this case he was held to just four. Andre Hollins has gotten a lot of heat for the Gophers disappointing season so far, but why? The key to the team’s performance is Walker. If he’s involved in the game they balance their squad on offense and play tough defense. If he’s not, the opposite happens. Granted depth is an issue with this team and judging from the substitution patterns the past two ballgames, Coach Rick Pitino Jr. understands getting Walker a breather now and then increases his team’s odds of winning. For Minnesota’s sake, Walker better be able to last a whole season or they won’t be able to make the postseason, let alone the NIT.

 

 

The Decembrist Edition

There will certainly be those University of Wisconsin football fans who will wonder “what-might-have-been?” had the Badgers had started Joel Stave  at quarterback from the beginning of the season. Obviously visions of being a part of the first-ever college football playoffs dance in their heads. Actually, had Warren Herring, Konrad Zagzebski and Marcus Trotter not been injured on defense, Wisconsin would have beaten LSU and Northwestern regardless who was behind center. That being said, the whole quarterback controversy and the coaching staff’s bungled staff reaction to it, certainly didn’t get the season off to a roaring start. However, now that UW’s ship has been righted (which the coaching staff and head coach Gary Andersen deserve some credit for this) thanks to Melvin Gordon,the nation’s top defense and quarterback rotation which is serviceable, one hopes that since Stave and Tanner McEvoy are both redshirt juniors, there will be no attempt to monkey with the quarterback situation during the offseason (unless McEvoy is convinced he can be a pro as a wideout or safety, not as a QB). The Badgers do not need another drama-filled offseason getting ready to open against No. 1 ranked Alabama in 2015.

It would be easy to say the University of Minnesota football team needs more talent to stay near or at the top of the Big Ten and actually win a game against Wisconsin once and a while. Easy to say, not so easy to do. Minnesota is never going to be an easy recruiting location and given how its facilities outside of TCF Stadium are behind those in rest of the league, they’re lucky to get the good players they have. Actually what they need is more depth, especially up front when the injuries come about at this time of the season (which didn’t help their cause last Saturday).  What Jerry Kill and staff need to do is draw a ring around the Twin Cities metro, perhaps 100-200 -mile radius, identify the consistently best high school programs along with the players in that radius and see if the convince them to come to the U, especially as walk-ons where they can save in money on room and board if they live close to campus.  Minnesota would do itself a lot of good if it could pick-off two good players from programs like an Eden Prairie, Minn or a St. Paul Cretin-Derham Hall every recruiting class. Even Somerset would fall in that radius. Spartan fullback Max Praschak would certainly look good in Gopher Gold as a fullback or linebacker to join with former teammate Gailen Elmore. Minnesota found a dependable walk-on long-snapper in Jake Filkins from Prescott within that radius. The talent is there to build up the Gopher program if they exploit it.

Are the Packers the best team in pro football right now? Well, at least for the regular season anyways they’re the best, certainly after taking down the Patriots last weekend. The playoffs? That’s still remains to be seen. Even having home field advantage is no guarantee for the Pack like it once was. And success in the post season will be there if the Pack’s top playmakers on defense stay healthy. Not just Clay Matthews but also Julius Peppers, Sam Shields and the like. After all, Green Bay is still in a fight for the NFC North title with Detroit. The Super Bowl is a long way off.

All one can say about the Vikings is a .500 season should make Minnesota fans dance in the streets considering what the team has been through. It would also mean the team has enough young talent that, if added to, can make them a better club in future years if handled properly. The Vikes’ have had the reputation of being a quick-fix team, especially at quarterback. Maybe Minnesota is finally starting to see the wisdom of a long-range plan.

Speaking of “long range” or “long, long range” the Timberwolves are in that stage not just because they have a young team, but because they have a young team and their best, more experienced player is on the bench with an injury. The T-Wolves young line-up has had to endure beatdown after beatdown without Ricky Rubio on the floor. Hopefully the confidence of a Andrew Wiggin or Zach LaVine isn’t shot yet because they’re going to have to endure a lot more beatings for as long as Rubio is sidelined, and some perhaps even when he plays.

The 10-8 Milwaukee Bucks. May not seem like much, but considering how mediocre to bad this team has been for a decade,it is cause for joy that the Bucks are actually a playoff contender. Jabari Parker has shown so far to be a sound draft choice and paired with Gianni Antetkounmpo makes for potent 1-2 scoring punch. With Larry Sanders and O.J. Mayo playing better than they have in years, the Bucks are actually a solid playoff contending team.  If they ever develop a solid backcourt, they could do a lot more than just be first-round fodder. But aside from postseason play, just giving fans in SE Wisconsin something entertaining and interesting to watch in the winter will make them more likely to support getting a new arena when the time comes and if public dollars are involved.

When you can play less-than-stellar basketball and still come away as a tournament champion you can see how good the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team is and can be. The Badgers No. 2 ranking is richly deserved. But, what the Battle for Atlantis also exposed is how UW will lose games this season: if an opposing guard gets hot from outside and scores 30 points and if Wisconsin has a hard time dealing with the physical play from its opposition (which is why UW nearly bought it against Georgetown). There are only a few college basketball teams like this in the country, even in the Big Ten, but they are out there and they can knock off Wisconsin. The question is whether the Badgers can avoid such traps, especially when tournament time comes around. Obviously good bench help from players like Bronson Koenig and Duje Dukan, even Vitto Brown will make a big difference in keeping UW on track for a championship.

The starting line-up for the University of Minnesota men’s basketball team is good one on it’s own, enough to push the Golden Gophers to the top-half of the Big Ten. But it’s not the starting five that’s the concern for the U, but the guys on the bench if those fellows get hurt or get in foul trouble. It’s pretty slim pickings after Hollis-Mathieu-King-Elliason-Walker five. The Louisville game exposed this and the Gophs’ depth situation took a big hit just as Daequin McNeil allegedly hit his girlfriend. If Minnesota reaches the NCAA Tournament it will be because they give up the fewest fouls in the Big Ten.

One would think with all the talent the Minnesota Wild have they should be at neat the top of their division and conference, not scraping by once again to stay in the playoff field. But, once again, injuries and underperforming talent like a Thomas Vanek and like a Jason Pominville are holding the team back in the early going of an NHL season, which seems to be like a broken record for the past several years. Last season around this time the Wild strung together win enough wins to cushion them through to the playoffs before the spring swoon set in. Is now the time for another such run or perhaps will the Wild slide backwards into a losing streak? It’s up to the “talent” to decide because it hasn’t been the goaltending that’s been the problem, ironically enough.

This is very good article explains why, if you still care, the University of Wisconsin’s men’s hockey team is off to one of its worst starts to a season in program history. Bottom line is too many youngsters whose hockey skills don’t compensate for their lack of experience. That program like UW’s would go through a season like this would be the equivalent of an University of Oklahoma football team starting a bunch of freshmen and going 0-7 before getting a win or two. Yeah, when was the last time you ever saw that from a major power in college athletics? As far as UW hockey is concerned , it’s becoming the norm. Still, at least the Badgers’ have an excuse. What’s Minnesota’s excuse after starting off the season 7-1-0 and losing three out its last four, including being swept by UMD? If you look closely, the big powers of college hockey aren’t on top anymore when a program like Michigan Tech goes undefeated and is ranked No. 1.

Finally, a musical number in keeping with the season:

 


You think you know somebody(thing)

The first person qualifying for the sarcastic phrase “You think you know somebody..” would of course be Adrian Peterson. This article from the Star-Tribune pretty much tells, or better yet re-tells the story of a star athletes who lives a different life that what projects to the public. And when you ask yourself why this happens? Then refer to this piece about how PR people create the phoniness fans and even journalists often buy into if they didn’t know better.

It’s hard to tell an NFL fan to R-E-L-A-X because so much is tied up into the game from week-to-week (especially when it comes to fantasy football). But Aaron Rodgers can get away with it because he provides a reason to become laid back if you’re a Packers fan. That and Eddie Lacy running the ball better and Clay Matthews staying healthy also provides said fans some calm as well. And if you want even more downtime, watch the Packers’ potential rivals such as the Seahawks, 49ers, Bears and Vikings implode with their own problems. At least for now, Packer fans can act like they’re on prozac.

The Future Is Now is the theme for the 2014 Minnesota Vikings, and that was true even if Adrian Peterson was actually playing. Because of a contract structured in similar fashion to that of former Timberwolves’ star Kevin Love, this season, more than likely, was Peterson’s last in Minnesota. He would have been too expensive for the Vikes’ to keep at his age and given the depreciation of running backs in the NFL after 30 (that’s where rumors of Peterson talking with the Cowboys sprung from). So Vikings fans can enjoy watching their young defense perform or watch Teddy Bridgewater try to create miracles from behind center and content themselves with the fact it’s got to get better eventually, at least in time for the new stadium one hopes.

Amazing isn’t it how the University of Wisconsin has kept itself a Top 25 program despite its problems with the quarterback position over the past few seasons. That’s what having running backs like Monte Ball, James White and Melvin Gordon can do your program. And if the University of Minnesota can be 3-0 in the Big Ten with a less-than-stellar passing game (although the Gophers have better wide receivers than the Badgers do) there’s no reason UW can’t run the table either and win the West Division title if said QBs don’t make the stupid mistakes they did which cost Wisconsin games against LSU and Northwestern and Gordon continues to have Heisman-like numbers. Defense is helping the U win games (for once) and so long as its stays healthy and solid defense can do the same for Wisconsin. Can you imagine the season finale in Camp Randall on Nov. 29 with more than just the Axe on the line? It’s possible.

Ron Roenicke didn’t get fired as Brewers’ manager despite fact Milwaukee had one of the biggest collapses in major league baseball history this past season. But they did fire the pitching coach and the first base coach. Given this logic, if the Brewers screw up again next season, they keep Roenicke around and probably fire Hank the Dog as team mascot and send him to the pound.

Don’t expect much in changes to the Twins next season besides a new manager. Regardless if its Paul Molitor or Ron Gardenhire, the Twins won’t be able to do anything with nearly half of the team’s salary structure tied into the contracts of three players (Joe Mauer, Ricky Nolasco and Mike Pelfrey) neither of whom have had good seasons in a while. Unless Minnesota’s up-and-coming prospects are the best-ever in baseball, the new manager will be saddled with a losing ballclub before he even manages a game.

Unless things drastically change, University of Wisconsin men’s hockey coach Mike Eaves will own two of the worst starts to a season in UW history (Badger men went 1-8-2 to start the 2012-13 season) and in a short period of time. Yes Wisconsin is playing 11 freshmen in its lines but it begs the questions why Minnesota, which always seems to have a lot of youngsters playing too, can still maintain a level of success in spite of this while Wisconsin can’t?

 

Tumble into Fall

So is Roger Goodell going to be fired as NFL commissioner because of the Ray Rice fiasco? Put it this way: If none of the transgressions of the rouges gallery of NFL owners (Wilf, Irsay, Haslem, Snyder, Richardson, Davis, Jones et. al) were worthy of Goodell’s sanction, it was probably because he knew he would need their support when the time came that one day he would come under fire. And Goodell has plenty of chits to call upon considering the behavior of the aforementioned. As much as some may want him to go, he’s staying put.

Speaking of the NFL, every Friday during the season teams put out a report saying who’s injured, who can play and who can’t. The reason for this is to prevent the kind of childish, bush league games that University of Wisconsin head football coach Gary Andersen engaged in immediately after and at least 72 hours after the Badgers blew a 24-7 second-half lead and lost to LSU 28-24. It may well be Andersen was trying to “protect” players from various questions about their health statuses but it was done in such a ham-handed and duplicitous manner that it only invited more questions and allowed rumors to spread about player revolts and halftime lockerroom arguments to bubble above the surface because of the lack of straight answers coming from the top. In fact, the situation got so bad that Andersen had to take back the very press release he helped author about quarterback Joel Stave which in truth, wasn’t technically inaccurrate at all (He’s injured –  mentally or physically it doesn’t matter – and not he’s not playing, period.) College coaches make media mistakes and even Barry Alvarez had his fair share of them, especially when he first started. Andersen, however, is not a new coach and should have realized he’s not in Utah anymore when comes to media coverage at Wisconsin. I’m sure there are many continued learning and post-graduate courses that deal public relations and the media at the UW over the winter and summer semesters. It would be a good idea Andersen enroll in one so he doesn’t subject his program to another unecessary, stupid and Mortonesque media fiasco. “I don’t know” is not a good way for a coach, or anyone in charge of anything for that matter, to answer a question.

And yet despite such a fiasco, the Badgers may still be the best team in the Big Ten. That doesn’t say much for the league (as one witnessed last weekend) but it does say if UW quarterback Tanner McEvoy continues to improves, as does the Badger wide outs, and if the defense stays healthy, Wisconsin has a good schedule to run the table with until the Big Ten Championship game. If LSU, perhaps the fifth-best team in the SEC, does just as well, then Wisconsin is still in the conversation for the new national championship playoff believe it or not. After all, UW led 24-7 and lost by four despite injuries to its best running back, two starting defensive linemen and former starting quarterback. Had it not been for Andersen’s media incompetence, that could have been and should have been the narrative for Wisconsin’s play in the national press. Instead it was “I don’t know why my Heisman trophy candidate didn’t have the ball much in the second half.”

Same old, same old with the Packers? It sure had to feel this way the last few weeks first starting with the season-ending injury to defensive lineman B.J. Raji and then a beatdown by a better team in a nationally televised game, in this case the Seattle Seahawks. Players get hurt and Green Bay can’t get past good teams. Well, the Packers still have a full season still ahead to change perceptions about them. At least they have enough back-up QBs on the team this season. They’ve got that going for them if nothing else.

Will the Vikings be better than people think? Minnesota sure showed they looked vastly improved, albeit against the Rams. Much is going to depend on whether the young defense learns quickly and stays healthy. If the Vikes’ offense can just maintain a level of competency compared to years past then Minnesota will certainly be better than last season. Pre-season games may well be meaningless but they’re a great way to building a winning mentality for a team desperately needing one and that summed the Vikings in a nutshell going into this season. Going 8-8 isn’t much but’s a nice floor for expectations to start at.

Will the University of Minnesota football team be better than people expect? From a personnel standpoint they’re one of the top teams in the Big Ten, or at least the Western Division, especially on defense and special teams. They have an established running game and good potential at receiver. But the fact the Gophers are struggling to throw the football, even with a veteran quarterback like Mitch Leidner (both of the U’s first two opponents outgained them in total offense), has to give the U cause for concern. That cause becomes even greater when Leidner went down with a knee injury and nothing but freshmen to back him up. A great deal of responsiblity for the U’s fortune this season was placed on his shoulders. If he’s hurt and or not effective, then what potential on paper the Gophers have may not matter. Depth with this ballclub, especially when opponents find it easy to score on the Gophs’ back-ups in the fourth quarter, is also a major concern. Any rash of injuries and this team would be devestated.

It’s rebuilding round three for the Minnesota Timberwolves as the post-Kevin Love Era begins this season. The question is whether the new young talent coming in can mesh together well into a cohesive unit, not jsut among themselves but also with their remaining teammates. Young and exciting is nice but losses are losses and they will mount for the T-Wolves this season considering the conference they play in and the youth on their roster. With Minnesota this season, one must not pay attention until late February and early March of 2015 to see if the team is starting to jell and if past mistakes have been learned. If so, then the future is bright. If not, well, more parts may need to be ordered.

Forget about the playoffs, the Brewers are in danger of not having even a winning season unless they dramatically turn around their fortunes after such fortunes were turned around 180 degrees these past two and half weeks. If even a seasoned writer like Charlie Pierce can’t figure out what’s wrong with the team after watching them play recently, it’s hard to fashion the players or manager Ron Roenicke putting their finger on it either no matter how many team meetings they have. Injuries to Carlos Gomez and Ryan Braun could be explanations for struggles on offense, but to watch the pitching staff impode to at the same time is truly baffling. One baseball writer said at the beginning of the season (which I quoted back in the spring) this was a team with fourth-place talent. Maybe that talent is finally starting to catch up after months of playing over-their-heads. Thus,  Brewers fans are going through the cruelest part of the sport: successful logevity means nothing when the time comes to produce results. If indeed Milwaukee misses the playoffs (and Roenicke will be fired if that happens) and stumbles to the .500 mark or below, it will be one of the worst collapses in the sport’s history. Not even the infamous 1969 Chicago Cubs team fell so far, so fast.

Since Sept. 1, major league baseball teams can expand their rosters and most teams, especially the bad ones, have been calling up their best prospects to see if they can play in the majors. The Twins’ record since then is 3-6.  At 62-84, Minnesota is heading to its fourth straight 90-loss season. But if there’s but one reason to watch this team in the remaining weeks of the season, it’s to see if these prospects can prevent that from happening. If they can, then there’s reason to hope in 2015.

Requiem im Pacem Bob Suter. Olympian, gold medalist, national champion, UW star, pro, you were all those things and more. No one better personified East-Side hockey in Madison than you did. 

 

 

 

Mid-summer edition

-          Whenever there is a change in regime of any kind of organization, the new leader is given both the authority and the benefit of putting in his own personnel in key positions.  The Milwaukee Bucks hiring of Jason Kidd as it new coach might have made a modicum of sense if Kidd was given complete and total control of all basketball operations, which is what he wanted at Brooklyn, was refused and thus he left.  Instead, Kidd was hired as head coach by the Bucks new owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens and GM John Hammond had to read all about it in the news.  Hammond hasn’t been replaced, yet. But if he stays on for any period of time one wonders what possible good he can do for the Bucks other than sort the office mail since now he has about much authority as team team’s postal clerk. It is usually the GMs who hire the coaches but in this case the owners added GM to their title and purview as well, something the often-accused-of-meddling Herb Kohl never did.  Some will say at this point any publicity for the Bucks is a good thing but I don’t think it a good sign if the new owners are going to start hiring coaches they would waste their money keeping on board GM who has nothing to do.

-          Speaking of nothing to do, former Bucks’ head coach Larry Drew will not only have nothing to do for the upcoming NBA season, he also get paid for doing nothing, millions of dollars of nothing. One shouldn’t feel sorry for Drew, given all the poverty in the world, that he will be well-paid for his unemployment for the next two seasons. But still you have to feel he was unfairly made a pasty for the Bucks’ failures last season.   Drew may not be the most brilliant coach on the planet but even Dean Smith couldn’t take a garbage line-up designed to get a draft lottery pick and make something out of it. And even if he did, it would have screwed up the whole long-range plan. At least give Drew credit for making the team bad enough to draft Jabari Parker. Of that, at least, he should be remembered for.

–          And speaking of NBA franchise dysfunction, it makes a statement when a promising young coach decides to stay with the dysfunctional situation he’s well versed in rather than take a gamble on the dysfunctional situation he doesn’t know.  Thus, Memphis coach David Joerger will stay with the Memphis Grizzlies and continue to battle with owner Robert Pera instead taking over the uncertain situation surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves. That Flip Saunders had to make himself head coach along with being GM shows how unattractive the T-Wolves job is right now with Kevin Love all but out the door after next season due to free agency and all the questions that abound as to what comes next. Saunders’s tenure will be a temporary deal as soon as the team rebuilds itself (again) after the departure of its best player. Saunders smartly didn’t trade Love away during the draft and will wait until the T-Wolves can exercise its maximum leverage, which will be at next season’s trade deadline, to get players and draft picks for the new Timberwolves. However, the new Timberwolves may not be much of an improvement if they continue to draft players with “good upside” like Zach LaVine who averaged exactly nine points per game while a freshman at UCLA last winter. There are a lot undrafted players who did better than that and Minnesota passed over Michigan State’s Adrien Payne to get the kind of player who has burned them in the past.

 –          Unbelievable the difference winning close baseball games and not having bullpen pitchers blow saves isn’t it? Thus the Milwaukee Brewers have one of the best records in the Majors because of this and they lead the NL Central as well. It also helps to have a healthy team, which the Brewers weren’t last season, and have all your players eligible to play, as Ryan Braun is currently showing. If he keeps it up, Brewer fans will be asking “what steroids?” when it comes to Braun.  Mad as they may have been about his lying, he’s also the club’s franchise player and has demonstrated his value enough not to be kicked to the curb.

–          After hovering around the .500 mark for much of the season, the Twins are showing signs of being unable to sustain it. A recent losing streak has pushed them to the bottom of the weak AL Central and with Joe Mauer on the DL until the All-Star break; the situation may get even worse. The Twins have shown themselves to be modestly improved over what they’ve offered fans for the past three seasons. The pitching is better but once again the Twins simply don’t have the sluggers to take advantage of it. And wasn’t Mauer’s move to first base designed so he could avoid long stretches on the DL?  The Twin Cities sports media can talk about front office moves or lack of them for the past few seasons Terry Ryan wasn’t around all they want. The bottom line is the Twins set aside a lot of money on Joe Mauer to be their franchise player and franchise mainstay and, unlike Ryan Braun in a similar situation; he hasn’t produced up to those kinds of expectations.

-            The Minnesota Wild picked up free agent Thomas Vanek to help improve their offense for the upcoming. The Wild are going to need a lot more goals this season given how unsettled they are with their goaltenders. Given the Vanek signing and their recent draft selections, the Wild are going to settle for either hoping young Darcy Kuempfer can handle the job for a full season or hoping Josh Harding is healthy enough to be between the pipes for a full season. If that’s the case, at least the fans will be entertained by more 5-4 and 6-5 contests at the Xcel Energy Center. 

–           If not for Tim Howard, the U.S. national men’s soccer team could have been smoked by Belgium in the World Cup. An average goalie could not have made the saves Howard did. Belgium was the better team by far. Yet many soccer experts not only appreciated the USNMT’s heart and grit, but also the fact they played more like quality World Cup team than they had in the past or at least making progress towards doing so. The difference still is having the quality forwards and strikers to play strong game on offense and until some of the U.S’s best athletes start playing soccer, as is true in the rest of the world, that difference will remain.  Soccer has established a solid sports niche in the U.S. but to me more than just that requires such a change.

Middle of spring edition

 – May 8, 2014 will be either be a day of infamy for the Minnesota Vikings or it will not be. When presented the golden opportunity to draft Johnny Manziel as their quarterback of future heading into a future new stadium, the Vikings passed and drafted a linebacker from UCLA who was a converted running back and who had only played the position for two seasons. Now, maybe Manziel will be a bust like a lot of other Heisman Trophy winners and Anthony Barr will be a steal, one of the best linebackers in the league. And yes, Minnesota did at least draft a QB in the first round and one thought to be Manziel’s equal at one time in Teddy Bridgewater. We’ll see what happens but at least we’ll know where we were the day and perhaps the hour and the minute when the Vikings had a chance to finally find a long-term quarterback, the main thing which has been holding this franchise back for years, and passed him by. 

– When you’re the Packers and aren’t forced to take chances in the drafts, you can have balanced selections like they did this season by going defense first with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix but then drafting a number of receivers to restock the team at that position. They certainly made a young boy from Wautoma’s dream come true by drafting Jared Abberderis in the fifth round.

- Before Abbrederis was drafted, there was some criticism of  Packers GM Ted Thompson for not drafting players from the University of Wisconsin. The last time the Pack took a Badger football player in the  NFL draft was lineman Bill Ferrario back in 2001 and in passing up UW players they cheated themselves out of some great ones like Tim Krumrie, Troy Vincent and Chris Chambers. But sentimentality cannot have part in Ted Thompson’s job. He has to do what’s best for the Packers and on draft taking the best players available when they’re on the board. The Packers could have had Monte Ball last year, but they liked Eddie Lacy better and he was one of the best rookies in the league (although Ball didn’t have a bad first season either). This year the pieces finally fell into place for the Packers’ need at wide receiver to match Abbrederis’s availability and the match was made.

– There was an article on Deadspin critical of the Minnesota Wild for paying tons of money to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to try and “buy” a Stanley Cup. This came about before the Wild were eliminated from the NHL Playoffs by defending champion Chicago. Did the Miami Heat “buy” a NBA title by pairing LeBron James with Dewayne Wade and Ray Allen? It might be true, if say the Wild were like the Yankees and stockpiled overpaid free agent acquisitions year after year with nothing coming up from their farm system to build around them. But This is not true in the Wild’s case. Mikael Grandlund, Matt Cook, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Jason Pominville are good young players. And at the time both Parise and Suter were available on the free agent market, the Wild hadn’t been to playoffs in four seasons, didn’t have much in terms of marketable stars or high-end talent and had good prospects who weren’t ready to play with the pros yet. What should have new and deep-pocketed owner Craig Leiphold had done, keep his checkbook closed? Watch Parise and Suter go other teams because you can’t “buy” a Stanley Cup?  The Wild’s previous ownership let Marian Gaborik go to the Rangers because they couldn’t afford him and put the franchise into a four-season funk. You’ve got to make the playoffs first to even have a chance at the Stanley Cup. And while the Wild lost to the Blackhawks they were hardly outclassed by them like they were a season ago. Minnesota knocked off Central Conference winner Colorado and made playoffs with room to spare this time (Gee wasn’t it just a few months ago I thought Mike Yeo was going to be fired and be replaced by John Tortorella? Sheesh!). If the Wild can stabilize their goalie situation and hopefully come up with a season-long starter (either Josh Harding is healthy enough to play or Darcy Kuemper continues to improve) then we have a team which had a good chance to competing for the Cup next season, not a flash in the pan.

– The Brewers have survived stints without Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez. Milwaukee is still in first place in the NL Central and still has one of the best records in baseball at 25-14. Not bad for what one writer thought was a team with “fourth place talent”. While Braun’s hitting has been important to Milwaukee’s rise from fourth place, the real difference from the past couple of seasons has been the play of the bullpen. It really makes a difference in the win-loss column when saves aren’t being tossed away in the eighth and ninth innings like scraps of paper. If they can keep this up and if (knock on wood) no more starters are out for extended periods of time on the DL, the Brew Crew could be in a nice spot come summer with a big lead in what’s been a surprisingly mediocre NL Central and the ability to rest starters every three games until the fall.

– The Twins aren’t in a bad spot, considering what they have and what they don’t have (an injured Joe Mauer for example), to start the season but the problem is the Tigers are pulling away from the pack (at the Twins’ expense last weekend) and unless the Twins go on a tear or Detroit goes in the tank, Minnesota is pretty much doomed to a no better than runner-up finish. Playing .500 ball is certainly better than really sub.500 ball as the Twins have done the last three seasons. But it isn’t any more exciting. Unless some young players catch people’s imagination and give fans hope for the future, it’s going to be four straight years of nothingness at Target Field.

 – If you’re wondering how in God’s name the Milwaukee Bucks are worth $550 million on the open market, keep in mind the value of the franchise is based on getting a new arena, as all such franchises are based on the rise in their net worth by new facilities. No new arena by 2017 and the Bucks new owners, the  New York hedge fund investors Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, will be paid $575 million for their time and trouble by the NBA and then the league owns the franchise which they will move to a city which does have an arena ready to play in. Herb Kohl may want the Bucks to stay in Milwaukee so long as he’s alive (and the league does too as a second “Chicago” franchise like Los Angeles and New York have) but by then the Bradley Center will be 30 years old and totally irrelevant to the NBA of the 21st Century.

– I didn’t think I would ever see the day the two national champions of NCAA Division I college hockey (men’s and women’s) would both come out ECAC (East Coast Athletic Conference) and would both be little private schools in little upstate New York towns that don’t give out scholarships. And yet here we are, men’s champion Union and women’s champion Clarkson, both coming at Minnesota’s expense. Now, the Gophers’ loss in the D-I women’s national title game may have been a fluke more so than a long-term trend, but Union’s win over Minnesota in the D-I men’s final (and by a 7-4 score no less) is not considering Yale won it the year before. It just goes to show the value of keeping players for four seasons instead of one or two and the value of speed negating height and size. Right now the East dominates college hockey because they have faster players who go at the net relentlessly. If teams in the West like Minnesota or Wisconsin wish to redress this situation, they’ve got to change who they’re recruiting.

– The Wisconsin-Duke game in Madison this December may well be the toughest ticket to get in college basketball next season. That’s because you’ll have two of the top five teams in the country on display, both teams having excellent chances of winning the national title along with Kentucky and Arizona and North Carolina. That Big Red finds itself among such college basketball bluebloods is due to an excellent performance in the national semifinal game against Kentucky and came within inches of winning on a last-second Trae Jackson shot. That’s what playing well on the big stage can do for your program and doesn’t get any bigger when you have an NCAA record 80,000 fans watching. Losing only Ben Brust from this past season’s team, Wisconsin can win a national championship in men’s basketball. They have the team to do so. Now they just need the good fortune to go with it.

– You may not believe this but before Donald Sterling became a caricature and a punch line, he was once an accident and divorce attorney in southern California. The big WASP law firms in Los Angeles didn’t hire Jews like one Donald Tolkowitz back in 1960, especially ones who put themselves through working class Southwestern Law School at night while spending their days working for their immigrant parents in the grocery store. They had to change their names and go work for themselves.  Yes, once upon a time Donald Sterling actually helped people instead of viewing them like a property or cattle or through racial stereotypes. That he became to resemble an aging, warped, decrepit old Hollywood movie moghul is really something when you consider the arc of his career, where it started as an idealistic young lawyer and where he’ll end up as Citizen Kane. There are any number of Bible verses one could cite about the corrupting influences of money, but in the case Donald Sterling, you could say that God has provided us with a vivid example.

- There’s nothing worse for sports fans than a bad owner. LA Clipper fans must have felt the same joy of liberation at Sterling’s departure as Parisians did back in 1944 when the Germans finally fled the city.  Not only do the Clippers have a good team but they are also a valuable property instead of neglected one, and should fetch one would think to be a good owner or owners now that they have some value. This person or they certainly can’t be any worse than Sterling was for over 30 years. It also gives hope to Washington Redskins fans that someday, Daniel Snyder will be gone too.

Finally Four

Winning a national championship might actually be second on the benefits scale of making the Final Four for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team. The first will be breaking the stereotype of Badger hoops teams being unathletic and thus playing unathletic basketball. Having already beaten such athletics teams like Arizona, Oregon, Flordia, Michigan State and Michigan this season, this stereotype should have been shattered already. But there’s nothing like the massive, world-wide stage of the Final Four with its dome football stadium crowd and millions watching on the planet to create an identity for one’s team, which UW can do if they beat Kentucky and all their NBA-ready players. After all, the stereotype for Wisconsin basketball was largely created at the last Final Four they were at in 2000.

By the way, I ought to take my crow raw for suggesting Bronson Koenig would eventually replace Trae Jackson as Wisconsin’s point guard this season. That will happen of course, but not until after Jackson graduates. His play has deserved him that much.

Minnesota is playing for the NIT championship and, like, Wisconsin, there’s a benefit too for the Golden Gophers that transcends winning and losing. For a team that wasn’t expected to do much, getting to the finals of even a secondary tournament in Rick Pitino Jr.’s very first season as head coach will be a boost for the image of the program which really hasn’t much to celebrate since their last Final Four appearance was erased from history thanks to scandal. Of course the Gophers can do this just so long as Pitino isn’t haunted by the demon of Tim Brewster and starts to whine about Wisconsin “running up the score” with walk-ons and third stringers.  There’s no need to step on what should be a good story of a first-year head coach, just 31 years old, winning a tournament.  It’s not like Jordan Hill’s three-pointer kept the U out of the Big Dance.

Wisconsin will be playing Kentucky in the Final Four, led by head coach John Calipari who has made building a team of “one-and-doners” from college to the NBA an art form. But don’t you think Don Lucia may well be the same kind of coach considering he’s taking a University of Minnesota Golden Gopher men’s hockey team made up of largely freshmen and sophomores to the Frozen Four? It will be interesting to see how many of them return to the U if the Golden Gophers win the national title. If a lot of them leave, then Lucia will once again have to put a young team on the ice season to compete. But that was true a year ago as well and the Gophers being the Gophers, they have the means to replenish their talent quite quickly as they have shown.

I think University of Wisconsin Mike Eaves is a good hockey coach. However, having said this, I recommend strongly that if Eaves gets any kind of offer to coach in the NHL, even as an assistant, he take it. Because if it’s going to be a struggle for the next two seasons to rebuild UW when the seniors from the senior laden 2014 squad (along with Nic Kerdelis) depart, then it’s better he leave now than get hounded out of town like former head coach Jeff Sauer did two seasons after the NCAA regional final debacle of 2000. He doesn’t deserve that. He’s still pretty young, unlike Sauer, and shouldn’t have his career stalled trying to rebuild UW in a completely different college hockey landscape than it was when he took over UW in 2002. I have to believe he’d a jump at a chance at coaching in the pros.
I also agree with those who are puzzled as I am as to why this team and program cannot play consistent hockey with the talent they have and when it matters to do so. And that’s been the biggest complaint against Eaves’ coaching. Joel Rumpel is a good goalie, a Hobey Baker Award candidate, but he cannot be expected to make up for every screw-up his back-line makes. This team’s defense was not good this past season and even in some of their wins, their mistakes made the scores closer than it should have been. I’m glad this group won some hardware over the past two seasons (WCHA Tournament Champion, Big Ten Tournament Champion) but it makes all the more frustrating that they couldn’t do more. And if the onus isn’t on coaching, as it usually is in this situation, then where does it go to?

A lot people think Michigan State men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo may give coaching in the pros a shot next fall and it may well be with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Almost nobody, and that includes Sid Hartman, believes current T-Wolves head coach Rick Adelman will be back next season and the team is playing right now like he’s lame duck, both literally and figuratively. Izzo is good friends with T-Wolves GM Flip Saunders and they have far more in good personnel to work with than the Detroit Pistons do, which another possible destination for Izzo. Having Izzo on the bench in his first pro season will make things interesting for a team which really doesn’t draw a lot of interest.

After the Wild got smacked by the St. Louis Blues 5-1 last Saturday, it looked like they may not even make the playoffs they way were fading down the stretch. But two key road wins at Phoenix and Los Angeles has the seventh spot in the West secure for now. Still though, for the money owner Craig Leipold has spent (and he does put in the money, whether his or his in-laws with the SC Johnson fortune in Racine, on the bottom line to help the team) on offense, the Wild still struggle with scoring and the goalie situation is still very shakey. Head coach Mike Yeo cannot feel safe for another season, especially if the Wild have another first round playoff flame-out. If Yeo is let go, look for a veteran NHL coach to take over. Perhaps a John Tortorella if the planned Vancouver Canucks extreme make-over edition goes through. Wouldn’t that be a hoot to have Torts in the Twin Cities?

Despite snow on the ground and snow in the forecast, baseball waits for no winter to finally end in the Upper Midwest. And forecast for the Upper Midwest’s two major leagues teams is cloudy with peaks of sun. If the Brewers’ bullpen doesn’t fall apart like last season, then Milwaukee will be better than fourth place team in the NL Central, perhaps evena wild card contender. The Twins have made at least the attempt to improve their pitching, and in a wide-open AL Central, this will help them. They can do even better if they figure out who will do the hitting in their line-up which is all that apparent right now. 

In the world of women’s college hockey, Clarkson’s win over the University of Minnesota in the NCAA Division I Frozen would be on par with US beating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Clarkson defeated a program which went 79-1-1 in its past 81 games and became the first team east of Appalachain Mountains to win a national championship in women’s hockey.

 

Winter’s grip edition

Why would the NHL pull the plug on letting its best players take part in the Winter Olympics every four years? You can cite injuries to players with guaranteed contracts and seeing a ton of money the NHL could earn with its own World Cup version of hockey instead of giving it to the IOC. But those reasons where were just the same in 1998 when the NHL agreed to let its stars play in the winter games? So what’s changed to the point 2014 will probably be the last Olympics the NHL participates in? Nothing. Olympic hockey just makes the NHL look bad. Olympic hockey is the way the game is supposed to be played, not the clutch and grab and goon version of the sport on smaller ice surfaces. So yeah, they’re going to pull the plug lest they get shown up every four years.

Without the NHL players the U.S., and perhaps Canada too are back in the same boat as they were pre-1998, using amateurs against nations like Russia and Finland who will continue to send pros on the ice for their national teams. To offset this, perhaps the response is for the U.S. (and even Canada) to fund and train a national team of either college players or pros languishing in the minors and put it together every two years to compete in World Championships and the Olympic A team which might still show some effort even it is the bronze medal game.

Continuing with hockey, both the University of Wisconsin and Minnesota squads each have something to prove as their respective seasons wind down to the playoffs. The Badgers have to prove they can win consistently away from the Kohl Center and Minnesota has to prove it’s talented but youthful line-up isn’t going to hit a wall and see its play trail off when it’s needed most.

If the Minnesota Wild are going to remain in the playoff portion of the Western Conference standings, then goaltending going to absolutely critical. Hopefully the time off helped Josh Harding get back to the form he was in which lifted the Wild from a slow start into a playoff contender back in December and early January.

Could Shabazz Muhammad be the catalyst for Timberwolves run at a playoff berth? It sounds like a certain NBA GM who drafted Muhammad is insisting the coach who let him languish for half the season, either on the bench or in the minors, make it so. We’ll see if works but what do the T-Wolves have to lose? At this point it’s all hands on deck, especially if Kevin Love’s career season isn’t going to go to waste.

The only thing predictable about Big Ten basketball this winter is when does losing streak stop and the winning streak start and vise-versa. Wasn’t just a month ago the Minnesota Golden Gophers were riding high after an 81-68 win over Wisconsin, which was mired in a five-game slide at the time? Yes, and then things changed. Now it’s the Badgers on their way to another NCAA Tournament bid and top four finish in the league after winning six straight while the U is playing for its NCAA tournament life once again after losing four of five before beating Iowa on Tuesday. It seems like each team in the conference has gone on an extended streak of good and play and no doubt the worm will turn again for someone. One thing about UW, if either Ben Brust or Frank Kaminsky scored in double figures per game,Wisconsin is very difficult to beat. That wasn’t true during UW’s losing streak. One thing about Minnesota, if their big men aren’t playing a constructive role in a ballgame, especially on offense, the Gophers are pretty much certain to lose.

I think this video pretty much sums up the Milwaukee Bucks right now. What more can you say?

The Brewers should be a decent team this season but they’ve already won the World Series of cutness thanks to the team’s newest acquisition.

 

Looks can be deceiving edition

It seems that with Big Ten men’s basketball teams in recent seasons, a good start is just that, a good start. It doesn’t  necessarily mean there will be a good middle or even a good ending for that matter.

Take the University of Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team for example. The Badgers were once 16-0, ranked third in the country, head coach Bo Ryan won a mid-season coaching award (Talk about a jinx, who the hell gives out a coaching award in the middle of the season?) and a team many were touting as a Final Four contender. Now they’re in the middle of a three-game losing streak not because their offense is bad (the Badgers’ traditional problem) but their defense has become so lousy. Actually, interior defense was a concern for this team was a concern at the start of the season and perhaps Ryan deserves credit for either solving or masking the problem. Not any more. Teams scout each other so well nowadays that such weaknesses will not stay hidden forever. And until they’re solves, UW will continue to struggle.

Minnesota can commiserate with UW because the Golden Gophers men’s basketball team too, has been the victim of good starts gone bad in the recent past. Right now the U is playing its best ball because they’re winning at home and because new coach Rick Pitino Jr. is not treating his big men,  Mo Walker for example, like they’re wastes of space. He’s actually figured out  how to used them to pair  with what’s turned out to be solid backcourt so far. Just remember, Minnesota beat Wisconsin 81-68 without Andre Hollins playing at all. But also just remember this time next month it could be the Gopher on a three-game losing streak and the Badgers riding high once again. That’s how topsy-turvey this league is.

It’s hard to try to manage “bad” into something positive, which is what the Bucks have been trying to do all season to pretty dismal results. The team has the worst record in the league and that’s saying something when the Eastern Conference has so many bad teams. But the Bucks might have gotten the steal of the recent NBA draft if you believe this article on the website Deadspin. Giannis Antetokounmpo is not only playing well for Milwaukee but has athletic abilities and a body one cannot coach. Obviously no one (myself included) was going to believe that a raw 18-year old with limited basketball experience playing in the Greek version of the D-League was going to make an immediate impact. But he has and one of the few things worth watching about this Bucks team. If Caron Butler and O.J. Mayo don’t like it because it cuts into their playing time, tough. Does anyone think the Bucks would be marginally better if such journeymen players had more playing time? Neither do I. Give it to the rookie with the great potential who needs it.

Oh, if only to play in Eastern Conference of the NBA. That’s what the Timberwolves are saying to themselves. The Wolves would be fine if they played an Eastern Conference schedule and certainly would make the playoffs. Instead they neither have the bench strength nor the consistent guard play to even sniff the playoffs in the Western Conference (and if they did make it they would be first round cannon fodder). And if they do fall short of making the playoffs, don’t be surprised if Rick Adelman decides to call it a career and Flip Saunders decides wants to do more with the team than just sit behind a desk.

Just when it looked like the Minnesota Wild were dead in the water and head coach Mike Yeo would be run out of town, the Wild come up with a winning streak which has them back in the playoffs, albeit only barely. What’s impressive is the team has been winning despite injuries, especially to goalie Josh Harding, and forwards Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise. The talented youngsters and the prospects are finally stepping up, especially goalie Darcy Kuemper and forward Erik Haula. If the Wild continue to get good goaltending they should make it into the playoffs.

Does it really matter who the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings is? Mike Zimmer might make the team a little better but no head coach by his lonesome is going to take a team with little or aging talent go farther than 8-8 or a Wild Card berth. Even the great coaches need good players in their prime to work with. And yet NFL owners and GM continue to insist coaches turn goatmilk into gasoline, and make up for their lousy personnel decisions. Zimmer may be a brilliant man (although being passed up so many times for open NFL jobs makes one suspicious) but unless he can somehow make Christian Ponder a better quarterback, he won’t fare any better than Leslie Frazier.

The absence that hurt the Packers the most wasn’t really Aaron Rodgers, it was Clay Matthews. He’s one of the few playmakers Green Bay has on defense and without him they had no chance of stopping the 49ers (let alone the Seahawks). Much will be made about the back up QB situation during the offseason but once again, until the Packers shore up their defense they will continue to be stuck behind San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC.

Sad thing about the University of Wisconsin senior class (especially Chris Borland, Beau Allen, Jared Abbrederis and James White), they won three Big Ten titles and won the first-ever Big Ten playoff game, were good students and generally good people and yet lost three straight bowl games (and really couldn’t get the big win during the regular season either). They were every single one of those games and could have won them all, yet for some reason could not do so. UW’s loss in the Capitol One Bowl was sort of fitting in that way. Hopefully, they can at least leave a legacy of providing a a solid foundation for new head coach Gary Anderson to build from, especially when their schedule gives the Badgers the possibility of Western Division dominance for the next two seasons.