The Wisconsin Badgers basketball team split a pair of games this week, winning on the road at Penn State before coming home to the Kohl Center yesterday only to lose to the Ohio State Buckeyes.  Ironically, or perhaps maybe not, both games brought the critics of the Badgers program out of the woodwork.  Now it’s understandable when the complaints come from the national media; after all, they don’t have a vested interest in Wisconsin basketball.  They’re only there to cover the story and style points matter to them.  It’s a little more disappointing when the dissatisfaction emanates from fans or those closer to home.

The Penn State game was typical of the Badgers this season.  The Nittany Lions have traditionally been underwhelming when it comes to basketball and this year is no exception, yet the Badgers struggled with their shooting against them before ultimately prevailing in a 52-46 game.  This, of course, brought out all the tired condemnations about Wisconsin’s stodgy style of play.  Mind you, this was on the same night that Michigan State and Illinois battled to a 42-41 decision.  Yet those two programs are usually highly regarded and rarely impugned for their level of play.

I’m not saying I’m immune to the frustrations of watching Wisconsin basketball.  I have often called out the team for its lack of movement and penetration of the lane while being dismayed on those nights when it seems as though they couldn’t throw the ball in the ocean if they were standing on the shore.  Things like that become focal points in the games that they end up losing.  It’s difficult to watch the Badgers continually jacking up ’3′s when they’re not hitting them.  On the other hand, they’re taught to look for the open shot and, as head coach, there’s little Bo Ryan can do if they’re getting good looks and simply missing them.

I believe that we, as Badgers’ fans, sometimes become beguiled with the process while ignoring the big picture.  There are two things to remember when approaching Wisconsin basketball.

First, whatever happens on offense is secondary to what the Badgers do on defense.  One of the Badgers biggest problems in yesterday’s game was that they let OSU sophomore center Jared Sullinger go off early and often on his way to a 24 point game.  Granted, Sullinger is one of, if not the, best players in the country but Ryan was so unhappy with the defense of his own center Jared Berggren that he sat him on the bench for the final seven minutes of the game.  While tempo wasn’t much of an issue in Saturday’s loss, the Badgers usually rely on their defense and turnover margin to dictate that portion of the game.

The second thing to remember about the Badgers is that they are never a finished product.  Due to circumstances at least partially beyond his control like geography and academics, Ryan can’t simply recruit a bunch of blue-chip players and throw them out on the floor a la John Calipari or Roy Williams.  Ryan demands that his players focus on defense first which also doesn’t lend itself easily to recruiting.  That’s not to say that the Badgers are without talent but the players who have become stars for Wisconsin generally are lesser regarded ones who, through hard work and discipline, have developed within the program.  While they may not always do everything the right way, they’ve done so often enough to make Ryan one of the winningest coaches in the history of the Big(12)Ten.

Ryan’s predecessor Dick Bennett arrived on the Madison campus in 1995.  In the 25 years prior to that, the University of Wisconsin basketball team had exactly four winning seasons, only one of which featured a conference record above .500.  In the 16 years hence, the Badgers have had only one losing season.  Ryan has continued Bennett’s tradition of defense and efficiency to take the program to even a higher level, never finishing a season with a losing record in conference play while making the NCAA tournament every year.  Despite having a team that looked like it was destined for a second division finish at the beginning of this season, Ryan has once again worked his magic to keep his team near the top of the standings.  Badgers’ fans would do well to keep that perspective in mind as the season moves forward.

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As you may already have heard, there’s a little football game scheduled to be played this evening called the Super Bowl (screw you, NFL).

In my contemplation of this ‘national holiday’, I’ve become aware of a change in my view of this game.  Judging from comments I’ve seen across the “inter-webs”, it’s one that doesn’t appear exclusive to me as a Packers’ fan.

I came of age as a football fan following the Packers of the ’70s and ’80s.  Unfortunately, for most of that period the Packers generally, for lack of a better word, sucked.  Sure, there a couple of bright spots along the way like the early years of running back John Brockington and the aerial circus led by quarterback Lynn Dickey, but I knew from the beginning of most seasons that there was a pretty good chance that the Packers wouldn’t make the postseason.  Nonetheless, I looked forward to the playoffs and focused on the Super Bowl with great anticipation, regardless of its participants.

Since the 1992 arrival in Green Bay of (then) general manager Ron Wolf closely followed by coach Mike Holmgren, the Packers have continued a run in which they have been playoff, if not championship, contenders nearly every year to this day.  A curious side effect of that circumstance, however, is that my interest level in the game itself has waned from the time when my Packers had virtually no chance of playing in it.  It was bad enough in 1999 after the Packers had made consecutive appearances, but it seems especially anti-climactic this year after a season in which we assumed Green Bay to defend its title only to come up unexpectedly short.  While the Super Bowl has become a more realistic destination for my team, it has consequently become less special in those years in which Green Bay is not a participant.

Yes, I will watch with casual interest as the New York Giants and the New England Patriots play tonight’s NFL Championship game at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis.  But my real anticipation will be reserved for next season, when the Packers should once again have an opportunity to ascend to the game’s highest level.

ONE FINAL THOUGHT:  With last night’s naming of Green Bay quarterback Aaron Rodgers as the Most Valuable Player in the NFL this season, the Packers’ now have had consecutive QBs that have won that award.  As you sit down to watch tonight’s game, take a moment to reflect on just how special that is and how lucky we are as fans to have witnessed it.

Thanks for reading.  Enjoy the ‘Big Game’.

 

 

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  • Colleen

    Still learning about this defensive style of play – so different from the way Nevada plays, but more the way I learned to play “back in the day”. Thanks for the instruction in “Badger BBall 101.”

    As far as the Bowl that is not Super this year, I hadn’t realized why I don’t care about them anymore until I read this. Too used to us having a chance to be in it (or winning it), now I don’t care if the Packers aren’t playing. I’m okay with that though, it means I’m expecting a high level of success from the team every year.

  • Joy

    Your final thought is something we all need to remember, but is easy to take for granted – great stuff!