By Jeff Robbins Special To Channel 3000
Excuse me, I hate to bother you while you?re watching ESPN?s non-stop coverage of the Tim Tebow trade, the Peyton Manning signing, and the massive penalties bestowed on the New Orleans Saints, their coaches, and their front-office for their asinine "bounty program."
(And admit it: You sort of like seeing that footage again of then-Viking Brett Favre knocked around in the 2010 NFC Championship Game by Saints players looking for a little extra straight cash homey, right?)
But do you remember me? Many people call me the single greatest sporting event of the year.
I?ll give you a clue: Check your garbage. In it there?s a bracket with the words ?Missouri,? ?Georgetown,? and ?Duke? under the heading ?Final Four.?
Yes, I?m March Madness. And yes, I?m back.
Of course the NCAA men?s basketball tournament hasn?t been forgotten in Ohio, the state with an unprecedented and unparalleled four teams remaining: No. 10 Xavier (South), No. 6 Cincinnati and No. 2 Ohio State (facing each other Thursday night out of the East bracket), and No. 13 Ohio, who, as the No. 13 seed in the Midwest, is right now the unofficial Cinderella of the 2012 tournament.
Fans haven?t forgotten about hoops in North Carolina (two teams remaining) either, or, of course, here in Wisconsin, where two teams can advance on Thursday night: By upending No. 7 Florida, Marquette can advance to its first Elite Eight since 2003, while the Wisconsin Badgers can advance to its first Elite Eight since 2005 by beating top-seeded Syracuse.
Along with Friday?s Kentucky-Indiana rematch, the Badgers-Orangemen tilt is one of the two most anticipated of the eight regional semifinal games. And it?s not hard to understand why.
Bracketologists everywhere immediately tore up their brackets and started fresh after learning last Tuesday that Syracuse would be without its starting center, Fab Melo, for the tournament due to academic ineligibility. The Orange then immediately went out and confirmed everyone?s suspicions by nearly becoming the first No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed.
But then something odd happened: Syracuse completely dominated No. 8 Kansas State on Saturday, causing doubt in everyone who had written them off ? which was pretty much everyone.
The Badgers? story in the tournament has been the exact opposite: Wisconsin crushed No. 13 Montana on Thursday by 24 points, then won by just three points on Saturday against No. 5 -- and perennial tournament underachiever -- Vanderbilt.
But the Commodores? history in the tournament is somewhat irrelevant: The SEC conference tournament champs played a fine game Saturday and were a much tougher out than the overmatched Grizzlies of the Big Sky conference.
What is relevant is the consistency with which the Badgers have been playing basketball as of late: Even with the ugly loss to Michigan State in the conference tournament, Bucky has been shooting the ball well, connecting on nearly 44 percent of its shots. And on the other end of the floor, the team has been predictably stellar on defense, holding both Montana and Vanderbilt to their second-lowest point total of the season and getting key offensive contributions from players other than Jordan Taylor.
But the argument could be made that Wisconsin got a huge break from playing its first two games at the University of New Mexico: Its style of play combined with the Albuquerque altitude was a lethal combination for their opponents.
So can the Badgers keep the Madness going Thursday evening in Boston against a team talented enough to be seeded No. 1 but doubted enough to be playing with an underdog?s mentality?
Let?s look at the Channel 3000 3 Storylines (plus a couple of bonus ones) of the Game:
1. Hitting The Boards. The Orangemen have many strengths, but rebounding isn?t one of them: Syracuse is the worst defensive rebounding team left in the tournament, and despite dominating the Wildcats in the tournament?s third round, Syracuse allowed Kansas State a whopping 25 offensive rebounds. Given the Badgers? grinding, burn-down-the-shot-clock style of offense, Syracuse will find its offensive opportunities severely limited if it consistently allows the Badgers second chance possessions.
2. Make No Mistake. Both Syracuse and Wisconsin are two of the best teams in the country at protecting the rock: Through last weekend?s games, Wisconsin is second overall this season with 9 turnovers per game, while Syracuse is tenth at just 10.6 turnovers per game. With turnovers not much of a factor ? making the opportunity for fast-break points rare ? the game could come down to which team makes that one or two glaring mistakes. If so, that player making the critical gaffe could be Syracuse guard Scoop Jardine, who has totaled nine turnovers in the tournament?s first two games.
3. Christmas In March. Looking for that elusive X-Factor? How about Syracuse freshman forward Rakeem Christmas, who has averaged 29.5 minutes per game this tournament after being counted on for just 11 minutes per game throughout the season? He?s making the most of the added playing time, with 14 points, 18 rebounds, and 5 blocked shots so far in the tournament. It?ll be interesting to see if he continues to contribute or if he wilts under Wisconsin?s defense and his overall inexperience.
4. Defensive Struggle or Offensive Shootout? OK, nobody is going to start accusing Bo Ryan of being an offensive-minded coach, but, as previously stated, the Badgers have shot well this tournament. If they can keep it going, they?ll be fine. But perhaps Syracuse has found its offensive groove as well: They piled 50 points on 67 percent shooting on Kansas State in just the second half of their game Saturday. But chances are defense will rule the day: The Badgers ? stop me if you?ve heard it before ? are the best defensive team in the nation, while Syracuse is a none-too-shabby tenth overall and third in steals.
5. Road Killed? The Badgers may be concerned about trading in the "The Pit" of Albuquerque (where they?re 4-0 all time in the NCAA tournament) for Boston?s TD Garden, which is, after all, only about a five-hour drive from Syracuse. But the Badgers played just fine in hostile territory this year, beating Ohio State, BYU, Illinois, and Purdue on the road and losing by just three at North Carolina.
Earlier this month, most people would have said that this game would go down to the wire with Syracuse squeaking out a victory. Now momentum seems to be on Wisconsin?s side. Will still be close, though, and has every chance to be the best game of the round of sixteen.