The Triple Threat Position Mailbag 2.0
JJ: What's the deal with the Badgers? They're good. They're bad. They're good. They're bad. Which is it? And what are your expectations for the rest of the season?
CW: The Badgers are very good. They tested everyone’s patience when they lost five of six games in late January, but aside from that one rough patch, Wisconsin has been arguably the hottest team in the nation. But you probably want to know why Wisconsin is uniquely good this year, so I’m going to give you a crazy-long explanation about why the Badgers are so good.
Before I get to specifics, though, a quick diversion is necessary:
Back in high school when I was a mediocre backup junior varsity center (don’t stop reading–I swear there’s a point here), I had a surprisingly outstanding coach who went to great lengths to impart upon me and my teammates that defense is the one thing in basketball that will never let you down. If you understand how to play defense and you put in the requisite effort, your results will be consistent and predictable, whereas something like shooting will never be predictable. Everyone has a night when their shot just won’t fall. But defense can sometimes allow you to overcome that.
While my coach was just trying to get a bunch of weak-minded 15-year-olds to buy into playing his defensive system, it’s an important observation and shapes how I watch basketball today. There’s obviously a lot more to the game than defense and shot making, but you distill a lot of things that happen on a basketball court down to those two things.
I know that was a weird aside, but I bring it up because so much of what has led to success and failure for Wisconsin this season has had to do with a). defense or b). shot making.
We all know that Bo Ryan teams are built around consistency. And as my childhood coach correctly pointed out, playing good defense is one of the most consistency-inducing things that a team can do. So it’s no surprise that Ryan’s teams have always been lauded for their defense. This has been sort of an oddball year for Ryan, though, as despite being more offensively gifted than any other Badger squad he has coached (more on that later), it is not as strong defensively as Badger teams of the past few years.
When Wisconsin hit that worrisome stretch of the season where they lost five of six games, much of it had to do with poor defense. Those first three games that the Badgers lost against Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota? Those were mostly about Wisconsin’s inability to prevent their opponents from getting into the lane. If you look at the Indiana and Michigan games in particular, Wisconsin shot the ball fine. But none of that tends to matter when your opponent is constantly getting off easier shots than you are.
Of course, defense was not Wisconsin’s only problem during their losing streak. Shooting was also a problem some evenings. Bo Ryan, the consistency junkie that he is, originally designed his swing offense to put players in positions to shoot high-percentage shots, and thus avoid wild swings in shooting percentage. But over the years, Ryan’s offense has morphed into one that relies somewhat more on three-point shots. And obviously, there are going to be more ups and downs when you’re primarily shooting the ball 20 feet away from the hoop instead of two feet.
Most people viewed Wisconsin’s loss at home to hapless old Northwestern as the low point in the season. I actually saw it as the first step that Wisconsin took toward righting their ship. If you looked at the defense in that game, the Wildcats were not able to penetrate into the lane as Indiana, Michigan and Minnesota (not to mention an Illinois team that missed a mind-boggling number of layups in a losing effort) before them had. The Badgers finally closed that option off. Yeah, Drew Crawford scored 30 points for Northwestern, but he worked his ass off for those points. Wisconsin forced him to shoot challenged jumpers rather than barely contested layups, exactly as they were supposed to. No one was getting into the lane (to be fair, Northwestern’s lack of athleticism may have helped a bit with this), but most people didn’t notice, as they just happened to run up against a guy that was completely in the zone.
The real flaw for Wisconsin against Northwestern, was that they shot 26.3% from the field, and just 20.8% from three-point range. You’re not going to win many games when your offense goes that cold. Same story with Ohio State, where Wisconsin was okay defensively, but dropped to 17.6% behind the arc. I can live with losses like that, though, since a). shooting is an inherently inconsistent endeavor and b). Wisconsin has enough players who shoot the ball well that it takes quite a bit of bad luck for all of them to combine for a poor shooting night.
That last part is what makes Wisconsin so impressive this year. Wisconsin has always had a couple of guys who could score, but every player in the regular eight-man rotation this year is a solid offensive threat. That’s a bigger deal when a team is hoisting as many three-pointers as the Badgers do, as it takes more than one or two guys going cold to sink the ship. While the defense still isn’t quite at the level of prior years, the Badgers are playing solidly above average defense after shoring up their mid-season issue with allowing too much penetration (Editor's note: that's what she said). And we saw against Indiana earlier this week what happens when a team playing good defense gets on a hot shooting run.
As to expectations for the remainder of the season, I wouldn’t be shocked to see a slip-up against Nebraska in the final game of the season, since the Huskers have been outstanding at home this year. But come NCAA tournament time, I see a deeper run than usual for Wisconsin. I’m thinking Elite Eight. That might be overly optimistic, and it’s fully possible that another rare, poor shooting night could derail things. But I think that’s the most logical prediction.
JJ: Ok. So now what's the deal with the Marquette? They're good. They're bad. They're good. They're bad. Which is it? And what are your expectations for the rest of the season?
CW: I’m a remarkably positive guy most of the time, but quite simply, this has not been a great season to be a Marquette fan. The Golden Eagles failed to notch a quality win during the non-conference portion of their season. And while they have some wins over reasonably decent Big East foes, they've not beaten any teams in the top-25. The bottom has never completely fallen out, yet nothing that Marquette does inspires you to believe they’re going to accomplish anything of importance.
The Golden Eagles problems boil down to three things: poor shooting ability, lack of back-court talent, and poor chemistry. The first issue is the most glaring. Marquette is shooting a paltry 30.5% from three-point range this season. Take Jake Thomas, the only competent outside shooter on the team out of the equation and that percentage dips to 26.5%. Marquette has some athletic talent, but no one aside from Thomas can truly stretch the defense so that this talent can flourish near the hoop.
The second issue, the lack of back-court talent, is similarly frustrating. Marquette was somewhat hamstrung here coming into the year. Vander Blue and Duane Wilson would have been starting at guard had they not been derailed by the NBA draft and a nagging leg injury, respectively. Don’t get me wrong – I don’t mean to argue that Derrick Wilson and Jake Thomas have done poorly as the starting guards. Each has played to the best of his ability. The problem is that their abilities dictate that they’re guys you’d rather having coming off the bench as third or fourth guards to give the starters a breather. Nice a guy as he may be, Derrick Wilson simply is not a guy who should be playing 30 minutes for a major program.
As to the final problem, I typically hate to place blame on weird intangible things like team chemistry, but I honestly think this has been Marquette’s biggest issue this season. There’s just something that seems off about this collection of players. To start with, there’s a lack of leadership. Marquette has typically had obvious leaders and go-to guys. Jae Crowder, Jimmy Butler, Lazar Hayward – these were all guys who could take control of games at key times, and who the team could depend on. If you had to pick a go-to guy on this year’s squad, it would most likely be Jamil Wilson. And it’s a remarkably bad sign for a team when its go-to guy is an inconsistent player who only fully unleashes his talent every third or fourth game.
It’s tough to blame Jamil Wilson, though, when you look at the other potential Upperclass-go-to guys on the team. While I once loved Davante Gardner, over the last two years he’s spent nearly as much time whining for calls and dishing out cheap shots as he has banking in amazing shots around the hoop. Todd Mayo’s stream of suspensions for various violations of team rules leave everyone wondering if he’ll be playing on any given night. And Thomas, Derrick Wilson, Chris Otule and Juan Anderson all have the talents of role players. There’s simply no one among those seven guys with the intangibles to lead his team into battle. I was excited earlier this year to see if the freshmen would simply assert themselves and give this team a personality. But that never really happened.
The rest of the year?
Marquette has been neither good nor terrible all year, so that will continue. Their remaining schedule is challenging, and you’d have to consider the Golden Eagles for the NCAA tournament if they ran the table and stayed hot in the Big East Tournament, but they will not do that. There will probably be three losses before that point, which will lead them to the NIT. They’ll lose in the second round there, and they won’t even get to host a game, due to conflicts with the Bradley Center hosting the first rounds of the NCAA Tournament. It’s going to be thoroughly unfulfilling for Marquette supporters.
But here’s the upshot – Marquette’s going to be significantly better next year. Chemistry, not talent, is what held them back this season. So while it seems devastating on the surface to have to replace four seniors who all played key roles, the change in the culture of the program should make up for some of the loss of talent. And, of course, let’s not forget that the talent MU has waiting to play next year is, as always, significant.
Think that’s crazy? Try going back to the pre-season predictions for a Wisconsin team that this year had to replace three senior forwards who spent their entire careers entrenched in the regular rotation. The new wave has vastly outperformed expectations in Madison this year, and I see something very similar happening in Milwaukee next year.
JJ: If UWGB makes the Dance this year, do you think they have the ability to make any noise against potentially higher seeds?
CW: Green Bay definitely has a chance to make some noise in the tournament. The Phoenix have only five losses on the season, and two of those are to teams that should make the tournament. Green Bay’s 69-66 loss to Wisconsin marked the stiffest challenge that the Badgers faced during their challenging non-conference schedule. If you want a signature win, back in December the Phoenix beat Virginia, who as of this writing sits in sole possession of first place in the ACC (yes, ahead of Syracuse and Duke).* Barring some sort of bizarre collapse, Green Bay might even be the rare Horizon League team that doesn't need to win the conference tournament in order to secure an invitation to the Big Dance.
So what makes Green Bay good? Pure and simple, it’s talent. Most of the guys in Green Bay’s rotation are above-average, but where the Phoenix really stand out is their top three guys. There aren’t a lot of mid-majors starting a trio as good as Alec Brown, Kiefer Sykes and Jordan Fouse. Brown is the centerpiece. A 7'1" center with decent ability to shoot the ball from three-point range, he stands a chance of getting a late look from an NBA team during this summer’s draft. And while Brown is the biggest name, junior Kiefer Sykes is the team’s top player. Sometimes overlooked because of his 5'11" stature, Sykes is one of the top scorers I’ve seen anywhere this year. He’s averaging just over 20 points per game for the Phoenix, and every time I’ve watched him play in person or on TV this year I’ve heard someone nearby say, “Wow, the big schools really missed out when they let Green Bay have that guy.” Rounding out the trio is Jordan Fouse, a sophomore forward who seems content to let Brown and Sykes handle the glory plays this year, while he patiently waits his turn and does all of the little things to make the team go.
The only hesitation I would have about Green Bay in the tournament is that head coach Brian Wardle, while not bad, is certainly not what I’d call a special coach. He’s been great at assembling talent during his time at Green Bay, but his teams have typically underwhelmed once they hit the floor. It just so happens that this year there really is enough of that talent to elevate the team to new heights.
JJ: What school, in your opinion, has the inside track at the D-1 WIAA Championsip this year? Any notable mentions in the smaller divisions?
CW: I must sheepishly admit to you that my high school hoops viewing was down a bit this year because a). I don’t subscribe to Time Warner cable, which is the only way to view local televised high school games, b). the team that I usually follow had a down year, and c). I’ve got a bit more of a life than I had five years ago.
But if I must, I must. The D-1 race? Here are your three favorites:
Germantown: Looking to three-peat as state champs, the Warhawks have shaken off the mid-season suspension of four players for marijuana possession and put together a one-loss season. They start three seniors who’ve earned Division One scholarships and a fourth who’ll be playing Division Two next year. Don’t bet against talent like that, particularly when they and their excellent coach are well acclimated to the Kohl Center.
Brookfield Central: The Lancers are nationally ranked by USA Today and ended Germantown’s state record winning streak earlier this year. Led by senior guard Riley LaChance, a Vanderbilt recruit, and heady senior forward Elijah Goodman, Brookfield Central can play with anyone. I’d label them the favorite, if not for the fact that they’ve got the most difficult sectional in the state. If they make it out alive, look for an epic re-match of their January 14th game against Germantown in the state semi-finals.
Milwaukee Hamilton: After going undefeated in the City Conference, Hamilton is somehow a three-seed in their regional. They’ve got some work to do in order to get out of that bracket, and then they’re going to have to beat either Brookfield Central or a Milwaukee King team that is very highly regarded. But it would be fun to see Hamilton make it to Madison, if only so that the state could see their McDonald’s All-American forward Kevon Looney before he heads off to UCLA next year.
I’ve heard less than usual about non-Milwaukee area schools this year, so my guess is that your champ will come from one of those three (or four, if you count King). But you never quite know until tournament time how good some schools are, given limited competition in certain parts of the state.
As for small schools, the only one I’ve really seen play is Division 4 - Whitefish Bay Dominican, which features 6'10" center Diamond Stone, one of the top-ranked juniors in the country. Dominican has lost three games this season, all of which came at the hands of significantly larger schools. There’s nothing all that special about them as a team, but they’ll undoubtedly out-talent a bunch of small schools and win another Division 4 State title. And if you think the outrage over a Milwaukee-area private Catholic school beating up on a bunch of schools from small communities is big this year, just wait until next year when the younger brother of Milwaukee Bucks' forward Giannis Antetokounmpo joins Stone at Dominican. Yeah, that sound you hear is heads exploding in small rural communities.
JJ: How much merit do you put in Conference Tournament Week for major conference teams? Do you think going deep/winning a major conference is an important predictor of success in the NCAA's? Or is it just as effective to go out early and get some extra rest? Finally, how much do you think either of these outcomes actually influence the Selection Committee?
CW: Conference tournaments are interesting in that they’re both underrated and overrated. For fans, conference tournament week is vastly underrated. The first weekend of the NCAA tournament is awesome, but that’s mostly because of the “loser’s season ends” element of it. Conference tournament week (at least for the major conferences) has more compelling games to watch though. Think about it – if on a random night, ESPN2 was showing Kansas vs. the champ of the MEAC and ESPN was showing Duke-Syracuse III, is anyone even considering turning on the deuce? No.
As an indicator of how a team will succeed in the tournament, though, I think conference tournaments are completely overrated. Either of the scenarios that you’ve presented are fine by me. When a team that I root for is already a lock to make the NCAA tournament, I want that team to either bow out in the first game of its conference tournament or win the whole damn thing. The first result gets you rest, and the second one gets you confidence and momentum. But losing in the semis or the finals? That just gives you dead legs AND kills your momentum. That’s no good.
Bear in mind, if asked to defend this theory, I could offer you nothing more than cherry-picked anecdotal instances to support its validity. But I nonetheless wholeheartedly believe that if you’re not winning the conference tourney, you want to lose as quickly as possible.
And of course, all of this is out the window if you’re a bubble team. The tournament is obviously a lot more important when you desperately need a win to avoid playing a sparsely-attended NIT game on your home floor two days before the real tournament starts. But you knew that already.
As far as the influence on the selection committee goes, I’ve never felt like the NCAA Selection Committee puts a ton of stock in what happens in conference tournaments, mostly because it’s tough for them to do so. I don’t think the average fan understands what goes into making up the NCAA tournament bracket, or how much of a challenge it is.
It would be easy if the Selection Committee just ranked the tourney teams 1-68 and handed out seeds based on those rankings, but the process is a tad more complex than that. The Committee has to take several factors into account in putting together brackets.
- High seeds earn the right to be kept in the regional and regional final closest to their home.
- The top three teams from each conference have to be assigned to different regionals.
- Teams from the same conference ideally should not have any potential to play one another until the regional final, but absolutely cannot play each other until the second round.
- Non-conference opponents that have played during the regular season are also discouraged from being placed in a position to potentially meet in the first two rounds.
The last time I tried to solve a problem that convoluted, I was working through logic games on the LSAT. It’s a big puzzle with lots of rules. And that’s not the sort of thing most people stop to consider when the NCAA selection show is on and they’re yelling at their TV: “We’re two seeds too low! The Selection Committee totally boned us!”
It’s also one of the reasons that I can’t get too upset that conference tournament results tend to have a minimal impact on seeding. Sure, Iowa State picking up two good wins in the Big 12 tournament might merit bumping them up by one seed. But that one small move will upset the delicate balance created when putting things together, as it will probably necessitate 9-10 other changes to the bracket. At some point the madness has to end and you just have to play the games.
The other limiting factor is time. Every year the Big Ten tournament ends something like a half hour before the selection show. Now, I’m sure that the Selection Committee has a contingency plan if a crappy non-tournament team like Purdue goes on a run and threatens to receive an automatic tournament bid by winning the Big Ten tournament. But if two tournament locks like Iowa and Michigan are playing a final game, it hardly makes sense to scramble madly at the last minute because one of them picked up an additional quality win. CBS has low-level gambling parameters that they need to get to the public, you know!
*We needn't get into the fact that Virginia has taken its play to an entirely different level after an embarrassing December 30th loss at Tennessee. A win over the Hoos even when they were still in the midst of finding themselves is nonetheless a good win.