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In Praise of Wisconsin Badger Basketball + No-Baseball Blues, Part II

Saturday April 4th would have been the start of the Final Four.  It is also the 27th birthday of the great Wisconsin Badger center Frank Kaminsky who five years ago on that night led my team to a stirring semi-final victory over previously undefeated Kentucky.  

 
It was sweet revenge for a loss to the Wildcats in the 2014 Final Four semi-final. 

It is too bad that Wisconsin couldn't hold a lead in the final against Duke - cunning Coach Mike Kryzewski successfully worked the refs in the second half and the Badgers didn't respond well enough. 

 

Yet the 2014-15 Badgers remain close to most of us alums' hearts. Frank Kaminsky was the poster boy for the Badger way of patient player development.

 

After needing the first two seasons to get used to the relentless toughness of Big Ten competition, Kaminsky exploded on the scene as a junior and in his senior year was named National Player of the Year, a first-of-its-kind honor for a Badger.

 

Kaminsky is currently recovering from knee surgery and hopes to resume his journeyman's pro career with the Phoenix Suns next season (whenever next season starts).  He's been the most successful pro from a team that included forwards Sam Dekker and Nigel Hayes and point guard Bronson Koenig - all have played more in Europe than in either the NBA or its developmental league.

 

The line from Kaminsky went first to Ethan Happ who gave Kaminsky fits in practice when red-shirting. If only Happ, whose first cousin BTW is Yankees southpaw J. Happ, could shoot fouls and anything outside the paint.  (Last I heard Happ was playing in Europe before the pandemic ended his season.) 

 

It's a shame that this year's Badgers never got a chance to play in the post-season tournament.  The surprise #1 seed in the never-played Big Ten Tournament roared down the stretch with a eight-game winning streak.  

 

Big men Nate Reuvers and Micah Potter showed they were worthy successors to Kaminsky, Dekker, and Happ; gritty guards Brad Davison and D'Mitrik Trice brought back memories of the Ben Brust-Josh Gasser-Traevon Jackson trio; and swing men Aleem Ford and Brevin Pritzl, the only senior on the team, had great moments as well.   

 
The pain of losing basketball at a crucial time was bad enough even if an ESPN simulation predicted the Badgers would have gone all the way. Since coach Greg Gard, a worthy successor to his former boss Bo Ryan, gave crucial minutes to only six men makes me wonder if these Badgers would have gone all the way. Alas, they never had a chance so we'll never know.

 
No March Madness, and now we are dealing with the ongoing no-baseball blues. There are so many movies one can watch on TCM before one lusts for outdoor activity and seeing live sports again.  

 

I did catch a lot of TCM's late March baseball films.  Never had seen "Pride of the Yankees" straight through and Gary Cooper and Teresa Wright as Lou and Eleanor Gehrig made for a very endearing couple.  

 

I hadn't realized that Yankee catcher Bill Dickey plays a role in the 1942 film as a defender of Gehrig, slugging a teammate who criticizes the Iron Horse as his career tragically declines.  Babe Ruth also plays himself in the film and brings a lot of Ruthian energy to the role. 

 

Alex Mankiewicz, the daughter of co-screenwriter Joe Mankiewicz, made the pertinent observation in pre-film commentary that her father did love baseball and had been a pretty decent player.

 

MLBTV, of course, is another baseball outlet for me these days. I caught on April Fool's Day the replay of Game 7 of the 1991 World Series with the Twins beating the Braves in a 1-0 10 inning thriller.   

 
I remembered it as the Jack Morris Show with the Series-winning pinch hit delivered by Columbia's Gene Larkin.  I had forgotten that it was Dan Gladden's hustle leading off the bottom of the 10th inning that set up the winning run. 

 

Gladden never stopped running on a bloop single to left center and just got into second in the nick of time. Then Chuck Knoblauch did when the analytic geniuses of today pooh-pooh, gave himself up with a 4-3 grounder that sent Gladden to third base with the winning run. 

 

After intentional walks to Kirby Puckett and Kent Hrbek, pinch-hitter Gene Larkin ended the drama with a first pitch single over the head of left fielder Lonnie Smith

for the World Series-winning RBI. I felt bad for reliever Alejandro Pena who had pitched two innings in Game 6 and had worked this game since the 8th. 

 

I had forgotten that the Twins had great chances to score in the 6th, 8th, and 9th innings before Gladden and Larkin delivered in the 10th.  Of course, Game 7 is most remembered for Lonnie Smith's inexplicable stopping at second base on Terry Pendleton's drive over Gladden's head in left field.

 

On a play in front of him, Smith somehow got deked by the Twins' adroit DP combo of future Yankee Knoblauch and former Yankee farmhand Greg Gagne.

Of course, Jack Morris deserves full credit for pitching out of the second and third and no out situation on his way to a stirring complete game victory.

 

I had forgotten that Sid Bream, whose slide into home on Francisco Cabrera's single beat the Pirates in the NLCS to get Braves into the Series, hit into a 3-2-3 DP that got Morris out of the 8th inning jam.  How like capricious baseball to turn a hero into a goat in a matter of days.  

 
Announcer Jack Buck annoyingly wouldn't let Smith forget the booboo for the rest of the broadcast. But to Buck's credit, he did realize that the scoreless battle was a classic in the making.  After one half-inning, he invited viewers to return after a commercial break for more "torture and pleasure". 

 
I'm sure MLB will fill the void with more great games from the past.   It is a pale substitute for the real thing, but I do believe that patience is a virtue.  It looks like we'll have a chance to be very virtuous in the weeks ahead because I cannot see a baseball season starting before summer if then. 

 
Nonetheless, as always take it easy but take it!

 

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Pitchers and Catchers Have Reported, but I Must Admit College Basketball Still Grabs My Attention

The Northeast has been experiencing a record-breaking heat wave. Well, "heat" is a bit of an exaggeration - temps in lower 60s - but I've been parading around my Upper West Side NYC neighborhood in my Cape Cod Summer Baseball League sweatshirt without need for an overcoat.

(The CCBL, by the way, should be on any baseball fan's bucket list: Games at no cost from early June to early August with some of the best amateur players in competition - many of them are on the cusp of pro careers. More info: check out www.ccbl.org)

The main thing about spring training is to get and keep everyone healthy before the season begins. In the days of the reserve system when players had to work in the off-season, spring training was a time for getting into shape and losing weight.

Today, the six weeks or more in Florida or Arizona might seem excessive because smart players stay in shape all year round. But who wants to give up the relaxed environment of warm weather climates?

Just don't believe any spring training stats esp. during the first few weeks of exhibition games. Yes, exhibition games were what they used to be called and should still be called. "Pre-season" sounds more serious and it allows ticket prices to reach the ridiculous $40 and $50 range and even higher.

Turning to the hardwood game, the Wisconsin Badgers broke their two-game losing streak with a much-needed home win on Sunday Feb 19 over the Maryland Terps.
The two big Badger frontcourtmen sophomore Ethan Happ and senior Nigel Hayes led the way in scoring.

But it was the second half return to form of senior leader Bronson Koenig that triggered the Badger victory. A calf injury caused Koenig to miss the loss at Michigan earlier in the week, but after not scoring in limited first half action Sunday, Koenig hit a couple of jump shots that really triggered the comeback win.

As Koenig goes so goes the Badgers is the short story of the 2016-2017 squad. He has much on his plate as he is also an activist in the native American movement against the Dakota pipeline.

I noticed today huge tattoos on his chest honoring his Ho-Chunk heritage. The team has been supportive of his commitment because there is no doubt that he remains a court leader in the Badgers' quest to go deep into the post-season.

Yet winning the Big Ten title and hoisting another banner at the Kohl Center home court means a lot to the team and to me as a semi-fanatical alum. Wisconsin is tied with Purdue in the Big Ten title race with Maryland a game behind with four games to play.

The Big Ten may be down this year according to the pollsters and the tournament seeding mavens, but the competition level remains high. I only wish the refs would use more restraint in their dishing out technicals to benches.

Maryland coach Mark Turgeon got one in the Wisconsin game, and it was nice to see his assistants calming him down to keep him from being ejected. The T did not affect the final outcome because Wisconsin controlled the game from the middle of the second half.

The T on the Michigan bench in the tough struggle against Minnesota at Minneapolis Sunday night basically determined the outcome. Though Michigan gallantly fought back to force overtime, the Wolverines would have won except for the technical.

In the Ivy League, home of my other alma mater Columbia, the Lions have lost excruciatingly close games the last two weekends. After an 0-5 start Penn has roared back into playoff contention.

The Quakers jumped ahead of the Lions for the fourth and last spot in the first-ever Ivy League tournament. It is coming up the second weekend of March at Penn's legendary home court the Palestra.

Columbia meets the Killer P's, Princeton and Penn, at home this coming weekend.
Odds are long now against the Lions but they will compete and compete hard. Of that I am sure. How well and how smart is another question that will decided on the court.

On the women's side, Columbia broke a three-game losing streak Saturday night by thumping Dartmouth 69-48. Picked for last in the Ivy League, the Lions under new coach Megan Griffith has won 3 games in the league and lost some very close ones.
They need one more win in their last four games to be assured of an overall winning record for the season.

Junior Camille Zimmerman is a legitimate Player of the Year candidate as a consistent 20-point scorer who tries her hardest to work within the team framework.

Perhaps the most optimistic event of the weekend was the play of first year guards Janiya Clemmons and Maya Sampleton. Rushed into action because of injuries to upperclassmen, they both performed with poise.

Clemmons has a chance to be an electrifying player because she always keeps her head up and is eager and willing to drive to the hoop, not afraid of making mistakes.
As long as the Lions keep playing outstanding defense, they have a real chance in future seasons to crash the Ivy League women's cage elite.

That's all for now - until the next time, always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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