Since Wisconsin bowed out in the regional finals of the NCAA Tournament to eventual champion North Carolina in March, a lot has changed on the local college hardwood. Bruce Pearl is gone from UW-Milwaukee, as is Mike Wilkinson from Madison. Travis Diener is no longer on the scene for Marquette fans, who will get a full slate of Big East action this winter. And for the first time in several years, none of the three local teams is a strong favorite to win its conference, though the Panthers are considered a good bet.
Each team faces some key questions while boasting talented new personnel, so let's take a closer look.
New Faces at the Bradley Center: Let's face it -- it doesn't get much worse than getting beaten at home in the first round of the NIT by Western Michigan after opening the season at 14-2 -- at least not for a team that went to the Final Four two years prior. But that's what Tom Crean's team did last season, and that was with Travis Diener (for most of the season). This year, a youth movement arrives in full force just in time for the Golden Eagles' introduction to the Big East. The results could be somewhat ugly record-wise, but it should be an interesting and even an exciting year for Marquette.
The three main attractions are freshmen guards Dominic James (5-10), Jerel McNeal (6-3) and Wesley Matthews (6-5). The explosive James takes over the point for Diener and brings a scoring mentality; he averaged better than 31 a game in his senior year at Richmond HS in Indiana. McNeal and Matthews are both blue-chip recruits in their own right, but James should have the biggest impact.
In the first two games, senior Steve Novak has teamed with JUCO transfer Jamil Lott (6-6) on the front line. Lott isn't especially tall but has great length, and Crean likes him for his defensive presence and rebounding. And early indications are that MU will need all the help they can get on the glass. In the loss to Winthrop on Saturday, MU was out-rebounded, 39-21.
MU has one other notable new face in 6-9 swingman Dan Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald transferred from Tulane after scoring 4.2 ppg for the Green Wave in 2003-'04 (he put up a career-high 16 against MU that year). He worked out with the team last year, and Crean said he and Novak were the team's best players in practice. Fitzgerald is a versatile offensive player, but he could have some trouble adjusting to the big bodies in the Big East.
Stylistically Speaking: The big question on the east side of town is simple: What brand of basketball will the Panthers play now that Bruce Pearl is coaching in Tennessee?
UWM is now led by former Badgers assistant and UW-Platteville star Rob Jeter. Jeter also worked with Mike Deane at Marquette and his father Bob was a Packers star in the 1960s, so he's no stranger to Milwaukee. But he's got huge shoes to fill after the Panthers' Cinderella run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tourney last year, not to mention a dominating 14-2 mark in Horizon League play.
Jeter still plans to use Pearl's stifling 1-2-1-1 full-court press, but the offense will not rely quite as much on the 3-pointer. That's partially because Ed McCants and his long-distance shooting are gone, but it's also because Jeter prefers to work the ball inside, a la Bo Ryan's swing offense and its reliance on rotating post players. Plus, post man Joah Tucker is easily the team's best player.
Jeter gets to work with much of the squad that dominated the Horizon League last year, but JUCO transfer Tyrone Young (6-4) is also worth watching for UWM fans. Young has similar athletic ability to McCants, if not his deadly shooting range. If Young impresses early, he could elbow his way into prominent playing time off the bench.
Drop-off in Madison?: Each year, it seems like Bo Ryan's Badgers have to overcome a key personnel defection. Going into 2003-2004, it was the loss of Kirk Penney; prior to last season, it was the early NBA jump of Devin Harris; this year, it's decorated senior Mike Wilkinson who will be missing at the Kohl Center.
But a funny thing seems to happen each year: the Badgers seem to cope just fine. After Penney left, Harris led the Badgers to a Top 10 ranking and a Big 10 postseason title. Last year, Wilkinson helped the Badgers reach the NCAA Tourney's Elite Eight. Things are slightly different this time around, though. In addition to Wilkinson, the Badgers also lost starters Clayton Hanson, Sharif Chambliss and Zach Morley to graduation.
Similar to the previous seasons, however, Ryan has a go-to player to rely upon. This year that guy is 6-5 junior forward Alando Tucker, who exploded for 38 points in the team's nail biting, double-overtime win over Eastern Kentucky on Saturday. Tucker should represent the Badgers on the Big 10's all-conference team, as Penney, Harris and Wilkinson did before him.
As for Tucker's help, Ryan and Badgers fans will be interested to see who establishes themselves prior to conference play. Kammron Taylor is a quality scorer at the point, but he was too turnover-prone as a sophomore (69 vs. 56 assists). Big man Brian Butch should continue to develop, and 6-10 Jason Chappell had a nice preseason. There is also considerable excitement surrounding freshmen forwards Joe Krabbenhoft and Marcus Landry, who should each see significant minutes.
This year's Badgers team skews much larger than previous groups under Ryan, but it has a chance to be just as successful come March.
Sports shots columnist Tim Gutowski was born in a hospital in West Allis and his sporting heart never really left. He grew up in a tiny town 30 miles west of the city named Genesee and was in attendance at County Stadium the day the Brewers clinched the 1981 second-half AL East crown. I bet you can't say that.
Though Tim moved away from Wisconsin (to Iowa and eventually the suburbs of Chicago) as a 10-year-old, he eventually found his way back to Milwaukee. He remembers fondly the pre-Web days of listenting to static-filled Brewers games on AM 620 and crying after repeated Bears' victories over the Packers.