Fan interference: A "wild and crazy" season

Badgers look to keep surprising season going in conference tournament

Published On: Mar 13 2013 01:57:48 PM CDT   Updated On: Mar 17 2013 01:09:47 AM CDT

It was with mixed emotions that I saw Steve Martin and Dan Aykroyd reprise their “wild and crazy guys” Festrunk Brothers on last weekend’s star-studded (I guess Aykroyd and Chevy Chase still qualify as stars?) “Saturday Night Live.”

As a huge fan of the original “SNL,” I ate it up. But there’s no doubt the reboot came off a bit clunky: Aykroyd used to be the thin contrast to his late partner John Belushi, but now looks heavier than Belushi ever did, the 67-year-old Martin struggled to read the cue cards, and both performances came off as stiff imitations of their 1970s creations, as if they were doing a parody of themselves.

And it didn’t help any that in the face of the reunited pairing of Andy Samberg and host Justin Timberlake, Martin and Aykroyd were badly upstaged.

(However, It was nice that the studio audience gave the old-timers a very robust reaction, but you have to imagine that many of those cheering had no idea who or what they raising the roof for.)

I had a similarly mixed reaction to the weekend that the Badger men’s basketball team enjoyed: Yes, I was thrilled that Bo Ryan was deservedly named the Big Ten Coach of the Year, and I was also relieved that Michigan (25-6) lost to Indiana (26-5) in the conference’s regular-season finale, a loss that secured Wisconsin a first-round bye in this week’s Big Ten men’s basketball tournament.

But I can’t help but feel that the Badgers (21-10) are themselves due to be upstaged, perhaps as early as Friday’s game against either Michigan (likelier) or Penn State (hey, has happened and could again).  

Before getting into the Big Ten tournament – which should be terrifically entertaining – let’s take a quick look back on the Badgers’ regular season:

Most valuable player: I’d like to give this to coach Ryan, without whom the Badgers might have flamed out this year after losing guard Josh Gasser to an offseason injury. But taking Bo out of the mix leaves only two real candidates: Senior forward Jared Berggren and junior Ben Brust. Though Berggren led the team in scoring, rebounding, and blocks, I would still give the nod to Brust. With the loss of Gasser, Ryan relied on the junior like CBS relies on the crime procedural: Brust led the team in playing time with 34 minutes a game. He also proved to be a fine defender, and – crucial for a team that shoots from beyond the arc as much as the Badgers – was the team’s best three-point shooter. Brust’s clutch shooting can be summed up in one word: Michigan.

Biggest surprise (positive): The buzz was fairly significant for Sheboygan’s Sam Dekker, with many calling him the greatest home state player to commit to Wisconsin in many years. And, unlike pretty much any program on NBC’s schedule, Dekker delivered the goods, leading the team in both field goal and three-point percentage. When your team’s best shooter is a freshman, the future is bright.

Biggest surprise (negative): I hate to be a hater, but the unsolved mystery of what happened to Ryan Evans would have kept Robert Stack guessing for weeks on end. If Wisconsin was the Big Ten team that was prone to the season’s longest and most painful scoring droughts, then Ryan Evans was the Badgers’ poster child. The best thing about the senior’s shooting woes (under 40 percent for the season with just two made 3-pointers all year) was that his struggles from the floor weren’t as noticeably ugly as his struggles from the free-throw line. Evans’s late-season decision to “jump shoot” his free throws became one of most laughable sights on a basketball court since the days of the Vlade Divac flop. His defense kept him (mostly) out of coach Ryan’s doghouse, but if any Badger needs redemption this postseason, it’s Evans.

Best game: The February 17 showdown between No. 13 Ohio State and No. 20 Wisconsin surprisingly turned into a laugher as the Badgers turned in their best all-around performance of the season, shooting 53 percent while holding the Buckeyes to their lowest point total of the year. At one point in the game’s first half, the Badgers went on an 18-0 run to take a 24-6 lead, in the process looking like the best team in the nation’s best basketball conference. Honorable mention: The January 15 upset at Indiana that legitimized the Badgers as true 2013 contenders.

Best moment: This is the biggest no-brainer since Daniel Day-Lewis won the Best Actor award for “Lincoln”: Ben Brust’s half-court shot against Michigan to force overtime in a February 9 game that the Badgers would eventually win 65-62. Even Bo Ryan was excited by the shot and, as Mike Bruesewitz said at the time, “When he shows some emotion, you’ve done something pretty special.”

Worst game: Any Badger fan who sat through the entire March 7 58-43 loss to Michigan State deserves a personal apology from Bo Ryan and a personal visit from Bucky Badger to the birthday party, bar mitzvah, or debutante ball of his or her choice. Anyone who played a drinking game that night requiring them to take a shot every time the ESPN announcers said “the Badgers haven’t scored since . . .” is still sleeping it off.

Worst moment: Several low points occurred in the Badgers’ 58-53 loss at Minnesota on what was a not-so-sweet Valentine’s Day matchup: Many of them, including Ryan Evans missing five free throws, occurred during an 8:48 second-half/overtime stretch where the Badgers didn’t score a single point. But the worst was Mike Bruesewitz’s baseline violation with 22.6 seconds left, a crucial turnover that allowed the Gophers to tie up the game, which they would win in overtime.

So, with a surprisingly close victory against Big Ten doormat Penn State to close out a surprisingly good season on an alarmingly alarming note that saw the Badgers lose two of their last three games in ugly fashion, what can we expect from Wisconsin in this week’s Big Ten tournament?

First off, it has to be pointed out that the Big Ten tournament has historically had about as many jaw-dropping surprises in it as an episode of “The Wonder Pets.” In its fifteen years of existence, the No. 1 or No. 2 seed has won the conference tournament twelve times. When Iowa won in 2001 as a No. 6 seed, it marked the only year in which a team without an opening-round bye emerged victorious.  

So, if history can be counted on, the fact that Wisconsin is off on Thursday is significant.

Or is it?

This year, the Big Ten has not lacked for surprises, a fact that could very well continue into the tournament.

But I doubt it.

A March 2 blowout loss to the Gophers notwithstanding, Penn State is a different team now than it was when it was dropping fourteen straight conference games. Unfortunately for them, they open against Michigan, about the only team in the conference looking for revenge on the Nittany Lions.

Once Michigan has had a taste of revenge by easily toppling Penn State, they will be looking for more, namely against the Badgers, who beat the Wolverines in that thriller in Madison on February 9.

That stunner against Penn State notwithstanding, Michigan has been playing excellent basketball as of late, including March wins against Purdue and Michigan State, two teams that just toppled Wisconsin. Michigan also has Trey Burke, one of the top players in the country, and I’m predicting he does better from the floor than the 8-of-21 he chalked up in Madison. I’m also predicting there will be no miracle shot this time around for Wisconsin and that Michigan will advance.

Looking ahead to the semifinals, I like Indiana to again defeat Michigan, and I see Ohio State squeaking out a win against Michigan State. Finally, despite playing in their home state, I predict Indiana will fall to Ohio State in Sunday’s tournament final. Why? That loss to Wisconsin on February 17 has obviously re-energized the Buckeyes, who have not lost since that game, dispensing of Michigan State and Indiana in the process.

That would give Ohio State its fifth Big Ten tournament title and its third in the last four years.

Sounds predictable? Hey, that’s the Big Ten tournament for you.

Just goes to show that some things, like the inability of the Festrunk brothers to score with the “foxes,” never change.