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Marquette University men's basketball, A-.
Why not talk about the most successful sports team right now in the state of Wisconsin first? Marquette is on top of the Big East standings at 17-2, 6-0 in conference play with wins over teams like Wisconsin, Villanova, West Virginia, and Providence (ranked teams when they played them). Expectations about this year's team were up in the air over the summer with Tom Crean leaving for Indiana and the introduction of former assistant Buzz Williams as head coach. Not too mention losing a good portion of their already soft frontcourt with Ousmane Barro, Lawrence Blackledge and Dan Fitzgerald graduating and Trevor Mbakwe deciding to transfer. But Jereal McNeal decided not to enter the draft after a strong showing late last season, particularly in the tournament, so the Big Three of McNeal, Dominic James and Wes Matthews are back to doing their thing. For a really good breakdown of how the (sigh) Golden Eagles are doing it this season you should reference the seminal blog Cracked Sidewalks, but in a nutshell they are refusing to let their weaknesses (i.e. inside game, rebounding) beat them and are using their strengths, quickness and defense, to strangle other teams. And Marquette has a pretty favorable Big East schedule playing UConn and Georgetown only once. I would venture to say that the opinion of a lot of sports fans in Wisconsin regarding Marquette could be classified as mildly indifferent but if you still want to be rooting for a home team come March Madness time these guys are probably our best bet. Could a Big East regular season championship be in the future?
Milwaukee Bucks, C+.
Bucks are hanging in there Eastern Conference style at 21-24, 5-5 in their last ten games as of this writing. Good for 3rd in the Central. Wednesday night the put the mash on Dallas (a team that seems a shadow of it's former self in just what 3 years removed from the Finals?). That record is also considered pretty good news for the Bucks (who were expected to basically be doormats this year) because the rough part of their season is over. They've had a pretty tough schedule so far with a significant majority of their games played on the road, and don't forget they played the preseason games over in China. But there is playoff talk in the air in Milwaukee. Charlie Villanueva has been of fire the last few games. Michael Redd is showing he's still got some heat from the outside and even making defensive plays (though he's down again with a knee injury after Saturday's win over the Kings). Luke Ridnour is surprising the hell out of me with his game from the way he's running the offense to the last second game winning shots. Bogut has been in and out of the lineup this season, lately out with back spasms but is supposedly getting better, but the Bucks seemingly are ok without him for now (not saying they won't need him eventually, especially if they are talking playoffs). Ramon Sessions looks markedly more confidant this season with several games of offensive explosions. The Bucks have definitely clamped down their defense and turned up the effort compared to last season but have reverted to some lethargy in the last couple of weeks, needless to say Skiles is all over that (although Lionel Hollins will not be in on the effort). Of course there is 'the good draft pick' Prince Luc and heck even draft pick Joe Alexander is starting to show signs that he can at least be a solid contributor on an NBA team. We should all drink a round at Major Goolsby's.
University of Wisconsin men's basketball, C-.
And that grade is falling fast. Wisconsin is 8th in the Big 10 at 12-7, 3-4 in conference with 4 straight losses after starting off 3-0. So at this point I think we can safely say the nails are in the coffin for this year's team when it comes to tournament hopes. They have lost to every ranked team they played so far this year except for an over ranked Michigan squad (and I don't think Virginia Tech was ranked when the Badgers beat them). The signs were in the loss to Marquette earlier this season in their yearly matchup. Usually the Badgers beat MU in this game with a combination of being able to match their quickness with stronger inside play, but this year UW's general lack of athleticism in their lineup was exposed. And their inside play is a little weaker than in past years. Jon Leuer (6'-10")has shown some welcome improvement this season but his game is more mid-range based, not in the post. Starting guards Trevon Hughes and Jason Bohannon are high caliber players, but they are at a disadvantage against quicker guards. In past seasons UW's guards have been instrumental in facilitating the Badgers ability to control games with their offense. Lots of props have been given to the Badgers for their defensive acumen but that methodical approach also carried over to the offense where proper execution was emphasized. Opponents have regulary been able to stifle the Badgers' offense this season, forcing them into an uncharachteristically high number of turnovers. And we don't have a top shelf go to guy who can take over games like Alondo Tucker or Mike Wilkinson used to (if Wilkinson were on this year's squad they would be in the top 10 easy). Coming into the season I was doubtful about Marcus Landry's ability to be that guy even though you can tell he's worked hard on his game, there have been too many games this season where he has been a non factor. Badger's defense is nothing special this year either. The loss of guard Michael Flowers marked the end of a string of Badger teams that always seemed to have at least one lockdown guy on defense who they could sic on the other teams hottest player going back to Mike Kelley. Sadly I think UW has passed the point of being able to become tournament worthy this season. With 11 games left they'll get a shot at some more ranked opponents at Michigan State and the Illini and Minnesota again, but can they raise their level of play? A shakeup in the lineup by Bo might help, but barring a late run into the Big 10 tournament I just don't see it.
In other UW news P.J. Hill is entering the draft, some people think it's a good move some don't. This probably is the best move for P.J. though right now. His stock is not going any higher and he would probably have lost a lot of touches to John Clay next season. On the other hand he'll probably be a late second day pick and struggle to stick on a NFL roster as an injury prone RB with no breakaway speed (but he has that quickness in tight spaces). And AD Barry Alvarez has pretty much told Bielema haters where they can go by extending the coach's contract.
So the big signing that everyone was waiting for finally arrived, Trevor Hoffman. 5 years ago that would have been just as big as the CC signing. Now? Ehhh. Hoffman is like 41 but is still potent, though some would dispute that, and I guess his signing answers the 'who's the closer' question. The bullpen is still in need of a true ace or barring that at least some more good starting talent. But with next season's projected payroll already hovering around 85 million don't expect any major signings anytime soon. Brewers have reached agreements with JJ Hardy and Prince Fielder, two players who were in arbitration which leaves 5 still unsigned I believe. Among them Rickie Weeks who was ballsy enough to ask for a raise. One player that most fans thought was gone for good has returned, the Crew came to terms with Craig Counsell the other day. Seems this came about because both parties remained open to the possibility, good news as any locker room can always use players of Craig's caliber and while his numbers will not wow you he is a solid contributor. As the pool of free agents dwindles I've heard rumors of Ben Sheets and the Rangers so that probably lessens the little chance there was that he would come back.
Green Bay Packers.
Everyone was waiting to see who the choice would be as the new defensive coordinator and we have our answer in Dom Capers. Capers is generally regarded as one of the better defensive coaches out there and I always thought he never got enough props in his tenure as the Panthers first head coach taking them to the NFC championship with a young Kerry Collins at QB. I think he'll be alright here and I'm happy with the indications that he is going to take a sensible approach to the defensive philosophy he want to pursue initially, being that he's known for his work with the 3-4 but has also worked with the 4-3 base and believes that you need to play a scheme that fits your personnel. So I don't know if this opens the flood gates for trade scenarios in TT's mind but we can always hope. By the way the hot rumor about a Julius Peppers free agent signing is tempting to get enthusiastic about (and maybe compare to the Reggie White signing), but no one close to the situation seems to believe that Peppers will really leave Carolina especially given that the Packers have just hired the defensive coach he was supposedly so unhappy with. Mike Trgovac, the aforementioned coach, is reprising the role he played in Green Bay before on Ray Rhodes staff where he was defensive line coach. The line as I recall was pretty good that year, we still had Gilbert and Santana Dotson and Vaughn Booker as well (although in the tail end of their careers). Not as much talent to work with now so we'll see if Trgovac can work any wonders.
Some more random thoughts:
- Ted Thompson's tenure has been noted for a lack of blockbuster trades, but with the combination of implementing a new defensive scheme that is an ill fit for the current roster and the perceived pressure of needing to produce some results on the field now isn't this pratically pushing TT's hand into the trade market?
- Haven't heard much about assistant coach Winston Moss's status lately, just wondering.
- I hear DT Colin Cole had the nerve to turn down a contract extension earlier in the season. Big head in for big disappointment in free agency.
- When you are rebuilding a defense from scratch Aaron Kampman is the kind of player you keep, not trade . . . unless you have an opportunity to get a guaranteed game changing high impact player in return.