The final months of 2018 provided us with sports history, as local fans were able to see the Wisconsin Sports Equinox on Sunday, Oct. 7 and watch all three major professional teams – the Milwaukee Brewers, Milwaukee Bucks and Green Bay Packers – play on the same day for the first time ever. (The teams went 2-1.)
Well, Wednesday’s affairs weren’t quite as noticeable in the standings, but the fireworks could be far more impactful on the 2019 campaigns. Four area squads – the Brewers, Bucks, Packers and the Marquette men's basketball team – all posted headline worthy news yesterday.
Green Bay introduces new head coach Matt LaFleur
On its face, the LaFleur presser was relatively uninteresting. He ran through all the same platitudes that every new coach asserts when they are hired, and he did not reveal any groundbreaking changes to the organization. Nor should he have. After all, he had only been on the job for a day.
Still, this is the Packers’ first head coaching hire since 2006 and maybe their most important in franchise history as they look to tap into the final years of Aaron Rodgers’ prime. And in attempt to do so, Green Bay turned to a 39-year-old with one year of mediocre play-calling experience. It’s impossible to grade coaching hires one week into their tenure, but it’s already clear that this LaFleur-Rodgers pairing has massive boom-or-bust potential.
Here are three priorities for LaFleur now that he has landed the job.
Marquette staves off defeat with buzzer beater, historic Howard performance
In quite possibly the best college basketball game of the year, Marquette defeated Creighton, 106-104, in overtime to pick up its first road win of the year. And while 210 combined points and an extra period are already sure signs of a great game, there was still so much more to unravel in this one.
The Golden Eagles quickly fell behind by 13 points in the first half, pushing them dangerously close to their third blowout loss in as many road games this season. They managed to hang around with some gutty long-range shooting, but every time MU worked the score back within one possession, the rival Bluejays would nail a three or draw a foul to stem the tide. All hope looked lost when Marquette was down five in the final seconds, but a Joseph Chartouny put-back with 0.8 seconds and a killer Creighton turnover on a deep in-bounds pass set up this play for junior Sam Hauser.
From there, Marquette grabbed their first lead of the game on its first possession of overtime and kept Creighton at bay for the rest of the night. MU captured its 10th straight OT win in the last four years, which is tied for the most OT victories in college basketball in that span (Radford), and knocked off Creighton for the sixth straight time. (The past nine games between the two Midwest Jesuit schools have all been decided by eight points or less.)
Of course, the elder Hauser was not even the hero of the night despite raining in that miracle heave. That honor goes to Markus Howard, who dropped 53 points on 10-14 shooting from beyond the arc. There are not enough superlatives to describe the diminutive scoring dynamo, so here are a few stats illuminating his greatness.
Howard now holds the Big East single-game scoring record, breaking the mark that he hit last January at Providence (52 points).
He is the only player in the last 20 years to score 50-plus points in a game twice.
Howard now holds the four highest-scoring games in MU history (53, 52, and 45 twice this year)
Read our case for Howard’s potential jersey retirement here.
Giannis leads Bucks to crucial road victory in Houston
Of course, Howard’s heroics were not the only show-stopping road performance across the Milwaukee hoops scene last night. Giannis Antetokounmpo dropped 27 points and grabbed 21 rebounds on Wednesday night to guide the Bucks to a win over the streaking Rockets. Houston entered the night having won 12 of their last 14 with James Harden averaging 39.4 points per game over the stretch. Harden still dropped 42 points against Milwaukee, but he did so on just 13-30 shooting with nine turnovers to six assists.
The game flipped on its head in the third quarter, when the Bucks outscored the Rockets, 38-23. Milwaukee totaled 22 points at the rim during the period, shot 7-8 at the free throw line and drilled a trio of three-pointers to take command of the game.
Antetokounmpo and Harden have separated themselves as the top two candidates in the MVP race. Giannis is averaging 26.6 points, 12.8 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game; the only other player to ever tally a 26-12-6 stat line over a full season was Oscar Robertson for the Cincinnati Royals in 1961-62. Harden is in similarly rare company. He topped 30 points for the 14th consecutive game on Wednesday, and he is on pace to become the first player in history to average at least 33 points, eight assists and six rebounds a night.
There is still a lot of season to play, but if both superstars are making history every game, the tiebreaker could come down to team performance. The Rockets have surged into Western Conference contention with their recent hot streak, yet the Bucks’ consistent play all this year has propelled them to the best record in the NBA.
Houston makes its return trip to Milwaukee on March 26. Mark your calendars for this must-watch MVP duel.
Brewers sign catcher Yasmani Grandal to one-year, $18.25 million deal
Everyone knew the Brewers would make a splash this winter, and after waiting in the weeds for months, general manager David Stearns has pounced on one of the best free agents remaining.
Grandal turned down the one-year qualifying offer (worth $17.9 million) from the Los Angeles Dodgers earlier this offseason, as well as a rumored four-year, $60 million contract with the Mets, so this prove-it deal was seemingly a product of poor advice from Grandal’s inner circle. However, Grandal’s poor fortune is the Brewers’ gain, and this signing further indicates Milwaukee’s all-in approach to 2019.
The 30-year-old posted a career season in 2018, hitting .241/.349/.466 with 24 homers in 140 games. He also finished second among all qualified catchers with 3.6 wins above replacement (WAR), a major upgrade over the 1.1 WAR the Brewers’ backstops collectively provided last year. Grandal’s presence also shifts former starter Manny Pina down the depth chart into a new role as an overqualified backup.
Grandal was remarkably steady for the Dodgers, as he has topped 2.3 WAR in each of his past four seasons. (Grandal’s 11.2 WAR since 2015 ranks third among all catchers, behind only Buster Posey and JT Realmuto.)
Early in the offseason, renowned transaction site MLB Trade Rumors projected Grandal would land a four-year, $64 million deal this winter (which he should have signed with the Mets). The Brewers were able to get him on the cheap because Grandal absolutely imploded in the postseason. He seemingly forgot how to catch the ball (which Milwaukee saw first-hand in Game 1 of the NLCS) and completely cratered at the plate. (He now has a .107 batting average in 32 playoff games.)
Still, the Brewers are counting on his fall yips as a mere blip on the radar. Grandal has always rated out well among defensive advanced metrics and is regarded as one of the best pitch framers in the sport. His impressive offense-defense combination – in the regular season, at least – will lengthen Milwaukee’s lineup and improve the Brewers’ defensive backbone.
The Brewers will need Regular Season Yasmani to show up in order to push them back into October in the increasingly competitive NL Central. Hopefully a change of scenery turns his previous playoff struggles into playoff heroics at Miller Park. Either way, this signing was a worthwhile gamble for Stearns and the Brewers.