The Wisconsin Badgers take on the Syracuse Orange in the NCAA Sweet 16 Thursday night. The match-up immediately floods my journalism-trained mind with questions:
- An orange?
- That’s your mascot?
Most Badger fans have probably gone to the TD Garden to watch the game, but not me. I’m going elsewhere. Somewhere with better beer for half the price and a far less-defined concept of “limit.” Somewhere with food that actually tastes freshly made. Somewhere that doesn’t cost my recently graduated ass upwards of $200 to watch the game: the Baseball Tavern, Boston’s official Badger bar, on Boylston Street near Fenway.
The game gets underway as more and more Badger fans spill into the bar. Everyone’s got a red shirt on, cheering on the Badgers, the Badgahs (like anyone in Boston actually talks that way), Bucky (who apparently can teach us things) or Wisconsin (or “Sconnies,” which I really thought was a kind of pastry). Some even wear badger hats, which is closer than I would ever let that animal get to my head.
For those who don’t know, real badgers are vicious, angry little bastards. Kind of the UFC fighter of the animal kingdom.
The animals received some brief positive press from this video, but really Weird Al’s UHF told the world (or the ten people who saw the film) all they needed to know about these psychos back in 1989:
Anyway, the fourth-ranked Badgers hang with the top-ranked Orange (citric acid powers, go!) for awhile, but eventually they start to stall against the Orange’s 2-3 zone defense. The Orange go into halftime up 33-27.
For those unfamiliar, the 2-3 zone is exactly what it sounds like: a line of two dudes playing ahead of a line of three dudes. The two dudes in this trapezoid closest to the ball-handler close in on him and try to create a turnover.
That’s it, really. Not that complicated, right? Well…. it completely stagnates Wisconsin’s offense. Unable to get anything done from the post, they fall back on the endless perimeter passes and last-second shots that have unfortunately become iconic of Wisconsin basketball of the last few years.
“I think they’re afraid to get into the paint and really mix it up when they should,” says Paul Axel, a 2010 Wisconsin alumni now studying for his doctorate in history at Brandeis.
Someone please tell Bo Ryan: Your offense is boring and stupid. Time to change things up, or teams will just keep using this simple defense to grind your teams into dust.
I’m not sure if Ryan (who makes some of the funniest faces in organized sport) needs to change his recruiting philosophy to target bigger, stronger players (who could exploit the 1-on-1 matchups underneath the basket in a 2-3) or bring in some new coaches to design new plays, but as it stands his offense shows less creativity than the Dartmouth Big Green. And that’s saying something.
Luckily for the Badgers, they make it rain from three-point range. And I mean rain. They could solve water crises in the Middle East with the shower they pour over the TD Garden parquet. And the Baseball Tavern crowd explodes with every subsequent, somehow-more-difficult shot that swishes perfectly through the basket.
“When you’re that open, you better make it,” Boston Alumni Association co-president Bruce Guenther says happily following an early Wisconsin trey.
The Badgers convert 14 three-point attempts, shooting over 50 percent from beyond the arch. At one point in the second half they drain six attempts in a row. Led by Jordan Taylor (tied for game-high with 17 points, including 5-for-9 from deep), the Badgers complete a 10-point comeback and go up 59-56 with seven minutes to go.
The crowd shouts and cheers, their confidence that the Badgers may be on their way back to the Elite Eight for the first time since 2005 rising with every subsequent shot.
“Red is the color of fire,” Axel says. “Orange is the color of spray-tan. And Oompa-Loompah.”
Shooting isn’t what dooms the Badgers. Points in the paint are. The Orange annihilate the Badgers inside, draining layups and mid-range jumpers like the defenders aren’t even there. Wherever they want to shoot from, they get to that spot. And whatever they shoot goes in.
“Man, those guys can handle the ball,” a less-enthusiastic Guenther says much later in the game.
The Orange are true paint masters, shooting 60 percent and out-scoring the Badgers 30-10. If they were a famous artist, they’d be Van Gogh. The Badgers would be … me.
The Badgers skate through the first 39+ minutes of the game without ever establishing a post presence, then with about 15 seconds left grab a defensive rebound. They’re down 64-63, meaning they don’t need to shoot a trey to win. But because they have no idea how to attack the Orange from two-point range, they don’t even try on the last possession.
Instead, Wisconsin runs the sloppiest, ugliest, least confidence-inspiring play of the night. Taylor tries once more from deep, but his body mechanics are so wrong he’s lucky to hit the backboard:
I mean really, what the hell is that thing? It’s like a somehow-less-creative version of Mr. Met. It ought to be giving away samples outside the Tropicana factory, not riling up a Division I fanbase. How can a school as big as Syracuse continue using a mascot that looks like this?
Following the loss, I don’t witness the normal mass-exodus from the bar. Wisconsin has always been and will probably always be a football school first, and whatever the school accomplishes in basketball is kinda icing on the cake. And this is still way better than the school’s athletic identity 30 years ago, when both the football and basketball teams played more or less like middle schoolers.
“My reputation as a Wisconsin alumni has improved because of the athletic department the last two decades,” says Mike Mosbrooker, a Wisconsin ’87 alum. “It’s unbelievable. Wisconsin, all of a sudden, it’s like holy shit, it’s on people’s radar.”
Besides, there’s still more basketball to watch. And Badger fans are going to grieve the way most denizens of Madison do:
They’re just gonna drink more beer.
Matt Goisman couldn’t let the NCAA go after Harvard and UConn lost, so he headed to the Baseball Tavern on Boylston Street to watch Wisconsin play Syracuse. The results, unfortunately, were exactly the same. For a bit more local color, check out next Monday’s 52 Games column on the BC Eagles softball team! Keep up with Goisman here.