Saturday, May 31, 2008

UW coaches must improve Madison marketing skills

The recipe is in place, but for some reason the final product is missing an ingredient.

In college football, schools like USC, Florida, Texas, and Miami set the tone in terms of recruiting. The same can be said about Kansas, North Carolina, Duke, and UCLA in college basketball; and for good reason. The history is there, the coaches are there, the fans are there, and the weather is there.

Travel north into Big Ten territory and Ohio State dominates recruiting in both sports. Michigan is a distant second in football. And then there’s miles separating the rest of the pack.

It’s about time Wisconsin picks up the pace in both sports.

It would be na├»ve to think that UW would be able to immediately compete with the above-mentioned non-conference powerhouses in the world of recruiting. It’s simply out of the question. But in the close-knit neighborhood known as the Big Ten Conference, there’s no reason Madison shouldn’t be the high on the priority list of any big time recruit.

But right now, it’s not.

According to Lindy’s magazine, Bret Bielema’s staff was unable to land any of the Big Ten’s Top 20 2008 recruits.

The Buckeyes and Wolverines landed the first 10. Fine; I can live with that. But tell me how Ron Zook was able to land No. 11, defensive tackle Corey Liuget from the state of Florida. I’ll give Zook the benefit of the doubt and say it wasn’t by cheating – which may be more benefit than he deserves – but he’s doing something right, that’s for sure.

Even Minnesota cracked the list at No. 15, landing quarterback MarQueis Gray from Indianapolis.

In basketball, Bo Ryan hasn’t been able to do much better. The 2007-08 Badger roster featured one kid from Queens, N.Y. (Trevon Hughes) and the rest from either Wisconsin, Minnesota, Iowa, or South Dakota.

Talk about home cooking.

To his credit, Ryan did branch out this past season and by landing 6-foot-6 forward Ryan Evans from the state of Arizona and 7-footer Ian Markoff from San Antonio. But neither were in Rivals.com’s Top 150 recruits.

Don’t get me wrong; numbers don’t mean everything, by any means. These lists mean virtually nothing at this point. Alando Tucker wasn’t highly recruited and look what he did. There’s something to be said for selecting players that fit the UW systems.

It’s hard to criticize when both Ryan and Bielema’s programs have been so successful over the past few years. They’re obviously doing something right. But I can’t help but wonder what would have happened had Ryan had a couple of athletes from outside the Midwest bubble to compliment Joe Krabbenhoft, Brian Butch, and Michael Flowers or had Coach B had a drop-back, pocket-passing quarterback who could start for three years not named John Stocco.

In their respective sports, Ryan and Bielema have teams that can perennially compete. But for some reason, both have trouble marketing a school that shouldn’t be tough to market at all.

Madison has it all: Great academics, social life, girls, fans, and atmosphere; everything a Division I male athlete could ever dream of.

So what’s the problem? Don’t blame the weather; Columbus isn't exactly L.A.

I have no solution; that’s why I’m typing and not on the sidelines.

But the foundations are in place; both programs are now consistent national contenders. It’s time to put in the effort to bring some national recruits to Madison.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sunshine State squads great for baseball integrity

Living in the Midwest being a Boston sports fan, as you can imagine, is like a dream come true. I poke fun at the Milwaukee and Minnesota fans while all of my teams are contending for championships. And for them, a comeback is simply nonexistent.

Unless it’s baseball. Then of course you get the “Wow, you guys buy your team every year; good for you, you’ve become the Yankees.” Although Kevin Youlilis, Jon Lester, Dustin Pedroia, Clay Buchholz, Manny Delcarmen, Jonathan Papelbon, and Jacoby Ellsbury are all products of the Boston farm system, it’s still a tough claim to argue against when the salaries of Manny Ramirez, Daisuke Matsuzaka, and J.D. Drew are staring you in the face.

The accomplishments of the Celtics and Patriots especially are that much more impressive because of the salary caps that exist in each sport (of course the NBA has a soft cap and the NFL has a hard cap). Baseball has revenue sharing, but let’s be honest, it isn’t exactly making the rich any less rich.

This is why the first-place Rays and the No. 1 Marlins are so important to the integrity of Major League Baseball. After the Red Sox swept the beloved Brewers two weekends ago in Fenway, I – as any fan would – started to boast to the Miller Park lovers with whom I live. But the reaction I got from my friend Drew (yes, the same Drew that thinks LeBron James is bad for the NBA) was, “I don’t care about baseball, man; baseball is a joke.”

With all the steroid-related nonsense and lack of a decent salary cap, Drew’s claim is not all that ridiculous; baseball is somewhat of a joke (although I believe it’s getting cleaned up and there is light at the end of the tunnel). But now I can point to Tampa and Miami, because on May 28, both small-market teams are playing great baseball, and this is after a notorious Marlins fire sale.

Neither the Rays nor the Fish can come close to filling their stadiums on a regular basis. And we all know that ticket revenue is essential for creating the ability to sign big name free agents down the road. Each Sunshine State team is defying all odds by contending in divisions containing the bullying Red Sox, Yankees, Mets, and Braves: The perennial powerhouses.

And to tell you the truth, neither Florida team is a fluke, either. Tampa’s Scott Kazmir (boy, Omar Minaya must be kicking himself these days; forget the whole Willie Randolph situation) and James Shields are a 1,2 combination to be reckoned with, and is a nice compliment to superstar (at least in my mind) Carl Crawford, last year’s home run king Carlos Pena and future All-Star B.J. Upton.

The Marlins’ Hanley Ramirez is already on his way to becoming the most complete player in baseball – if he isn’t there already – and second baseman Dan Uggla won’t stop slugging home runs.

By the time August rolls around, the Rays won’t be able to keep up with the Red Sox – barring any serious injuries – and the Marlins’ lack of depth in their rotation will keep them from making the playoffs. But the longer they contend in their respective divisions, the better Bug Selig sleeps each night and the better for the game of baseball.

They may not have deep pockets, but the more small-market teams create parody in baseball, the more people – like my friend Drew – become interested on a national level, which is exactly what baseball needs right now.

Each night I watch mlb.com and cheer for Manny and Papi and hope that I can see the Papelbon Stare in the ninth. Don’t tell Red Sox Nation, but the baseball fan in me is secretly rooting for an all-Florida November showdown.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Zach Brown should entertain idea of transfering

Depth at any position can be a coach’s biggest asset. For players trying to see field time, however, depth is a whole different ball game.

Based on the current running back situation at Wisconsin, if I’m Badgers coach Bret Bielema, I’m a pretty happy man. But if my name is Zach Brown, I wouldn’t exactly be having the best night sleeps these days, even after impressing the UW coaches in P.J. Hill and Lance Smith’s absences a season ago.

And quite frankly, I’m not sure why Brown is sticking around for his final three seasons for the Cardinal and White. If I’m Brown, I’m out of here. In a heartbeat.

This spring Brown told me that he is not discouraged in the least and just enjoys being part of a deep backfield that includes Hill, Smith and newcomer John Clay. But if he’s looking to get the touches that he deserves – because he is a talented back – I feel like Wisconsin is the wrong place for him, even if it means losing a year of eligibility to play elsewhere.

Don’t get me wrong; I would love to see Brown in a Badger uniform for three more seasons. He proved last season that he can be productive off the bench and be an every-down back, especially after exploding for 250 yards against Minnesota in the regular season finale. But with Hill and Smith each having two seasons left and Clay being the up-and-coming hometown favorite, Brown’s future as a Badger seems grim.

To me, the kid from Royal Palm, Fla. seems like a fish out of water. He’s like the middle child that nobody pays attention to. Badger Nation is excited about Clay after his 90-yard performance in last month’s spring game; it’s excited about the thought of Smith playing a full season, and Hill, he was the 2006 Freshman Player of the Year; he needs no explanation.

Brown was impressive last season no doubt, but assuming Hill stays healthy and Smith stays out of trouble (which are both big ifs), Brown won’t be the feature back at UW until his senior season. And with Clay on the horizon, I don’t see that happening either.

Brown should merely treat last season as pros treat their contract years; ultimately, it could have been a national tryout for the freshman. I’m sure Brown will have no trouble finding suitors after his 2007 accomplishments.

If Brown was a run-of-the-mill back without a bright future, this topic wouldn’t be worth discussing. But the kid has potential if given the opportunity to be a No. 1 back. Unfortunately, that opportunity doesn’t exist in Madison. So for his sake, I almost hope he goes.

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Stern should eliminate lottery from repertoire

In football, the team that finishes the regular season with the worst record gets the first overall pick in the upcoming draft.

Same with hockey. Same with baseball.

Why does the NBA think it’s special?

David Stern finds it necessary to continue the tradition of the NBA Draft lottery – one of the worst traditions in professional sports – which was proven again tonight, as the Chicago Bulls (33-49, which isn’t even that bad in the East) defied less than 50:1 odds to win next month’s draft’s No. 1 selection, a pick with which the Miami Heat – who finished an abysmal 15-67 – should have been “rewarded,” just like their city-mates, the Dolphins, were last month.

Instead, Dwyane Wade and Co. had a 25 percent chance at landing numero uno – who should be Memphis point guard Derrick Rose, in my opinion.

I understand why the lottery exists. It’s not a moneymaking scheme, because no one watches it on TV. It’s in place to keep teams from throwing games at the end of the season. Fair enough, however I don’t think that that’s a problem in the NFL, so I don’t see why the NBA thinks anything will be different for itself.

A bigger problem that has lingered in the NBA over the past decade has been the East-West talent gap, as the West has been the far superior conference for quite some time now.

What makes the NFL so great is the parody, much of which is generated by giving the worst teams the earliest draft picks in the subsequent draft. The NBA Draft lottery is only disallowing the worst teams from bettering themselves and ultimately competing with the elites in the future.

The team with the worst record has only won the lottery three times in its 19-year existence. Now, the Bulls have a chance to add to an already deep, talented roster that merely underachieved this season.

That shouldn’t be.

If the NBA were smart, it would get rid of the lottery in order to create more parody, something it’s been lacking in the recent past.

Whistle-blowers needed in NBA

Maybe it’s because the Memphis-Kansas matchup seems like ages ago. Or perhaps I’ve become so enthralled with the CP3 vs. Kobe debates and the reemergence of the Celtics that I simply forgot.

Well, last weekend I was reminded why college basketball is vastly superior to the product of the NBA.

It’s not because the guys that get paid play isolation basketball or play defense only every once in a while. It’s simply because every time Lebron James, Chris Paul, or Paul Pierce drove to the lane in Round 2, the sequence went something like this: Hop. Skip. Contact. Whistle. Jump. Extra step. Bucket. And-one.

Last time I checked, anything over two steps is a travel. Oh, and the continuation rule is a downright joke.

I was watching Game 7 of the Celtics-Cavs series Sunday with my friend Drew, who had the same opinion as me.

“LeBron is ruining the game,” he said to me after The King converted a four-step three-point play.

Close, but not exactly. I blame the referees. And David Stern for not being, well, stern.

It’s the refs’ fault for allowing James and friends to get away with basketball murder night-in and night-out. Baseball is a mess, but you can’t blame George Steinbrenner for taking advantage of the system and spending the money that Bud Selig allows him to. Just like you can’t blame James.

I understand that today’s NBA athletes can do things that people couldn’t even dream of 30, even 20 years ago. That’s what makes the league so entertaining to watch.

Maybe I’m too old school, but I’m sick of the rules being broken for no apparent reason. The refs need to stop being pansies and blow their whistles when more than two steps are taken.

Also, I’m not sure when this happened, but since when did the NBA become the Italian national soccer team? This whole flopping phenomenon – that perhaps Manu Ginobili brought from Argentina – makes me sick. I hate it in soccer and I hate it even more in the NBA.

Man up, stand your ground, and withstand the contact. Basketball is a physical sport. Deal with it.

Flopping should result in a technical foul. Period.

Not your average no-no

He looks like a kid, but he’s got the strength of men.

And I’m not talking about bench press, either.

In a sports world inundated with Spygate, steroids, and O.J. Mayo scandals, last night 24 year-old Jon Lester reminded us why we should still invest our time and emotions into what are ultimately backyard children’s games.

Following the 2006 season, Lester was diagnosed with lymphoma.

Battling a bases loaded jam in a tie game is one thing. Battling cancer is another.

Less than two years ago, Lester was staring life or death issues in the face; 96-mile per hour fastballs were off his radar.

Not last night.

Soon after winning the fight against cancer, Lester found himself on the mound in Denver last November. Why? Oh, just to start in Game 4 – the clinching game – of the World Series, – which just so happened to be his first career postseason start as well. That’s all.

So last night, after his 129th pitch, Lester was one strike away from tossing a no-hitter in front of Red Sox Nation and finishing the first complete game of his career. And after No. 130 found the webbing of Captain Varitek’s mitt, Boston manager Terry Francona – the man who became a father figure to Lester after his ’06 diagnosis – was among the first to embrace the youngster.

And if you knew the story, you couldn’t help but get a little choked up.

Society has yet to find a cure for cancer. But some – like Lester – are strong enough to simply beat it. It’s easy for cynics to say that sports don’t matter and that they’re merely games. But if last night Lester inspired just one person to hang in there and keep on fighting, you can chalk up another “W” in the column against the disease that’s touched the lives of so many innocent people.

And you can credit baseball with the save.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Badgers should tap into fountain of QB youth

The quarterback position is arguably the most difficult position to learn in all of sports. There’s a reason why rookie quarterbacks struggle throughout the learning process. Pre-snap audibles, reading defenses, and simply managing an 11-man unit are no walks in the park; nor are they one-year projects by any means.

For Wisconsin’s sake, I hope that head coach Bret Bielema understands this; but I’m not completely sure that he does.

Last season, Bielema gave senior quarterback Tyler Donovan the starting nod over junior Kansas State transfer Allan Evridge, who made six starts for the Wildcats during his freshman season.

Donovan struggled last season against Illinois and Penn State on the road, throwing two picks in each contest, both of which ended in UW losses.

Am I blaming Donovan for these sub-par performances away from Madison in the Big Ten? Absolutely not. Like I said, quarterback is a near-impossible trade to master and good decision-making is a critical part of the long-term learning curve.

That’s why Evridge should have been under center for the Badgers’ 13 games last season.

Well, maybe.

I’ll give Bielema the benefit of the doubt. Evridge was nagged by injuries during the spring of 2007. Perhaps Donovan was that much more game-ready last August when Bielema made the ultimate decision to go with the Hartland, Wis. native. If that were the case, then the second-year head coach made the correct decision.

But if Evridge was anywhere near Donovan in terms of readiness to compete, the kid from Papillon, Neb. should have been thrown under the gun, because in turn, the 2008 Badgers would be that much better, even if the 2007 squad lost, say, one more game than it did with Donovan.

I hate crying over spilt milk and I realize that hindsight is 20/20. It’s easy for me to sit here and point fingers at the Wisconsin coaching staff after a disappointing 2007 campaign. I’m only bringing this up for one reason: The future.

The UW quarterback depth chart is full of eager learners chomping at the bit for a chance to lead the beloved Badgers in the shrine that is Camp Randall Stadium. Evridge is the favorite to be the UW signal caller in ’08, followed by junior Dustin Sherer, sophomore Scott Tolzien, and freshmen James Stallons and Curt Phillips. All have talent and potential, but none – including Donovan a year ago – have really stood out enough to demand the starting role.

To me, that’s a problem.

Ohio State, Illinois, and Michigan finished 1,2,3 in Big Ten play ahead of Wisconsin in 2007. Chad Henne was a four-year starter for the Wolverines, Juice Williams was a second-year starter for the Illini and will be a four-year starter by his senior season, and Todd Boeckman will be under center again this season after leading the Buckeyes to a National Championship Game appearance in January.

Get the point?

If Bielema goes with Evridge in 2008, it will be one-and-done for No. 4. Then comes Sherer for a year, then Tolzien, then probably Phillips. In terms of talent and readiness to play come their respective senior seasons, that may in fact be the correct order. But if Bielema keeps throwing inexperienced seniors under the gun, the Badgers will never be able to compete with the nation’s (or Big Ten’s) elite.

It takes more than a year to become an upper-echelon quarterback in Division I football. It’s nice to reward seniors who have worked hard and paid their dues on the sidelines with the starting spot. But as the coach of a Top 25 football team, you have to put emotions aside and do what’s best for the program. If that means going with the younger guy who isn’t quite ready, in order to rebuild for the following season, then so be it, because if that doesn’t happen, Wisconsin will never get over the hump.

Sorry Allan, Dustin, and Scott, but if UW wants to take the next step, one of you is going to get screwed.