I-94 Blues

posted by Dan Pfeifer -

Whataboutism” is a popular subject right now, and I’ll outright confess that this week’s edition of Marquette Courtside is going to blatantly employ the otherwise-questionable tactic.

Last night, Marquette’s nickname was not the Golden Eagles. This was not because they acquiesced to the wishes of fans wanting to revive the Warriors moniker, but because spelling ‘Golden’ requires the letter ‘d’, and there was no ‘d’ of any kind for Marquette in a 89-70 loss to No. 8 Xavier. It was too easy, it wasn’t pretty, and Steve Wojciechowski might focus on nothing but defense at the Al McGuire Center before MU takes on No. 1 Villanova Sunday.

So Marquette did not play well. However … what about Wisconsin?

I’m guessing few of you who read a blog hosted on the website of the radio home for the Badger Sports Network are unaware how Wisconsin’s been playing. Just in case a few of you clicked the link from an #mubb-tagged tweet, though, here’s an update: The Badgers are currently 10-11 overall and 3-5, tied for ninth, in a Big Ten Conference that still hasn’t figured out how to count to 14.

Even before D’Mitrik Trice and Kobe King suffered significant injuries prior to the renewal of the Marquette/Wisconsin rivalry, most assumed this was going to be a rough season for the Badgers. Still, defeats in four of Wisconsin’s last five games have been varying levels of depressing for cardinal-clad faithful. Falling to No. 3 Purdue at Mackey Arena didn’t ruffle anyone’s combover, but Wisconsin’s inability to defend in the 28-point blowout was uncharacteristic. A closer loss, 64-60 to Rutgers in lovely Piscataway, N.J., gave the Scarlet Knights one of just two Big Ten wins in nine tries this season.

Rutgers would sit alone in the Big Ten’s somehow-existent 12th place had not the Badgers got trounced, 85-67, by Iowa Tuesday, allowing the Hawkeyes to join the Knights in the conference’s unenviable two-win club. Iowa has 2017-18 losses to South Dakota State, Louisiana — not LSU, just “Louisiana” — and a Virginia Tech team coached by Buzz Williams. More on him later.

Wisconsin fans are beginning to realize they can make March plans that don’t include basketball for the first time in two decades. The hopeful want to believe this is just a one-off bad year that can be chalked up to injuries and a disappointing junior class. Nonetheless, nervousness is present. This was clearly shown yesterday — not by a fan, but by one of The Big 920’s signature voices.

I listen rather religiously to “The Mike Heller Show.” I don’t say that just because I’m a company man. Heller brings more intelligence, reason and thought to takes than other hosts who begin to sound just loud and whiny after a few listens. It was clear, though, that Doug Gottlieb got under Heller’s skin before yesterday’s show. Heller is a big Badger cheerleader, as he should be, given he’s part of that Badger Sports Network described above. But listening to Wednesday’s Heller podcast might put a smile on faces within the Marquette fanbase that don’t worry how Wisconsin losses impact MU’s strength of schedule. Schadenfreude is a thing, and there might be some for Marquette fans to glean from hearing Heller anxiously, perturbedly trying to defend the Badgers in the shadow of an undeniably bad loss.

Despite how much I like his style, Mikey Baseball and I don’t always see eye to eye. It should be noted Heller was defending Dom Capers in this sequence of tweets, and I’m pretty sure most fans and even the Green Bay Packers have taken my side since. Heller’s right, though, when it comes to the argument he made yesterday. We devoted a Courtside blog to calling out Andy Katz a couple years ago for naming Henry Ellenson his national player of the week after Ellenson scored 32 against Butler, but also went 1-for-8 against Stetson. National guys don’t always see the whole picture, and if you asked Gottlieb to discuss the impact of King’s absence, Doug might not remember the kid’s first name is Kobe.

However, Gottlieb hits on a good point. The question is not what this year’s Wisconsin team will do, or what past teams have done. It’s the future. Here’s a more-direct phrasing: How much faith do Wisconsin fans have in Greg Gard? Heller obviously has lots of it, as he must. But cases can be made both ways.

To Heller’s defense, Gard was a part of Bo Ryan’s staff and follows many of his philosophies. Ryan consistently got his players to overachieve and work their tails off, both in fear of Bo’s wrath and from faith in a proven system. On the one hand, you may believe Gard can do the same. You might credit Gard for recruiting much of the talent that turned the Badgers into a longtime powerhouse, or simply point to back-to-back Sweet 16 trips under Gard’s direction.

On the other hand, you may wonder about that “lost” junior class and question whether Gard can develop players to the same extent Ryan did. You can point to how Gard really only succeeded in his first season when he essentially re-implemented Ryan’s system, or how he was able to lean upon Nigel Hays and Bronson Koenig, players who saw significant time under Ryan, the last two years.

Marquette fans have an interesting prior-history case study: Williams. While Buzz took Marquette to the NCAA tournament in five of six seasons, major cracks started to show in Williams’ final year at Marquette. From a Feb. 19, 2014 loss to No. 11 Creighton onward, Marquette played iffy basketball, needing overtime to beat lowly DePaul, barely getting past an average Georgetown team, then losing its final four games, knowing each would have gone a long way toward a postseason bid that didn’t happen. Without Vander Blue, the team looked rudderless. Players like Jake Thomas and Chris Otule didn’t show suitable improvement. Jameel McKay’s departure before 2013-14 left Marquette without enough size to adequately replace the graduating Otule and Davante Gardner.

While the trials of Buzz’s final MU year were different than Wisconsin’s current issues, they were signs of a program with sustained success starting to lose its grip. It took a new coach and system, a clean cupboard and a still-ongoing rebuild for Marquette to get back on its current right track. There’s a lot of things Wisconsin’s merely hoping go right next year: King returns to play at a high level, Brad Davison’s shoulder heals, Ethan Happ returns, you don’t get another version of this year’s junior class and you fill the hole left by Tyler Herro decomitting, among others. Possible? Sure. But it’s a lot to wish for.

The magic doesn’t always last forever, particularly with a different coach. The sorcerer’s apprentice doesn’t always possess the same powers. Fact is, we just don’t know. Marquette has been on a consistently upward path since Wojciechowski took the helm, even with bumpy nights like last night. For Wisconsin, this year has been enough of a disruption that it’s hard to tell. We’ve seen them succeed too many times to just count them out. But things are different now, too. Heller, Gottlieb, nor I know for sure, and neither will anyone else until we see “whatabout” Wisconsin next year.  

COURTSIDE SPLINTERS

RUNNING THE WILDCAT: No. 1 Villanova comes to Milwaukee at noon Sunday. With Brewers On Deck at the Wisconsin Center, expect parking to be a mess. Marquette then rounds out January Wedensday against Butler at 8 p.m.

Photo: Getty Images

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