By OnMilwaukee Staff Writers   Published Mar 12, 2006 at 5:12 AM

For sports fans, there is no better time of the year then March. Especially in Wisconsin, where three of the state's four Division I college basketball teams have their tickets punched for the upcoming NCAA Tournament.

We'll find out today where Wisconsin, UW-Milwaukee, and Marquette will head to for their first round games, but the debate has already begun as to which of the three teams had the best year.

So, on this Selection Sunday, let's take a moment to hand out some accolades and point out some disappointment. Remember, all awards are solely the opinion of the author, and have little, if any, reflection of the good folks at

Best Team: It's a close tie between UWM and Marquette, and while the Golden Eagles more than exceeded expectations during their first year in the Big East Conference, the nod goes to the Panthers. A team that went to the Sweet 16 a year ago based on an up-tempo, running style inspired by their passionate and fiery head coach loses that coach within days of the season's end. The seven seniors on the UWM roster had to adapt to a new coach in Rob Jeter, as well as a slower-paced game built around cutting to the basket and posting up. With the pressure to repeat as Horizon League champions on them, the Panthers survived a couple of hiccups to claim their second trip to the Big Dance, and third in four seasons.

Again, no knock on Marquette. Nobody can take away what the Golden Eagles accomplished with three freshman in the starting lineup, but the odds were pretty well stacked against Milwaukee, while little was expected of the Panthers' Big East neighbors. Marquette had a terrific year, and will probably have an even better one in the near future.

Most Disappointing: Wisconsin. The Badgers brought back a majority of their roster from a year ago, including talented junior Alando Tucker. Suspensions to Greg Stietsma and freshman Marcus Landry decimated the Badgers' depth, and the stunning loss to North Dakota State still defies logic. Nonetheless, Bo Ryan kept his team together and will take Wisconsin dancing for an unprecedented eighth consecutive season.

Player of the Year: Steve Novak, Marquette. No doubt about it. The senior forward from Brown Deer carried the Golden Eagles on his back many times this season, but nothing stands out more than the 41-point, 16-rebound effort Novak put in during Marquette's upset of No. 2 Connecticut in the team's Big East opener. A lot of people think Novak will play in the NBA next season, and while he may not be a lottery pick, Novak will make money playing basketball very soon.

Freshman of the Year: Dominic James, Marquette. The Big East Rookie of the Year made head coach Tom Crean look like a genius. Many pundits said Crean was bringing in a highly-regarded recruiting class, but nobody expected the Indiana native to post a 16-point, five-assist average this season. His development through the season was probably the biggest factor in Marquette's 10-6 Big East record.

Coach of the Year: Rob Jeter, Milwaukee. The Marquette fans will be sure to fill the "Talkback" mailbox with hateful messages, but Jeter had to win over seven seniors used to running for 40 minutes, and had also gone through two coaches previous in their careers. Jeter, in his first year as a head coach, also had to deal with the expectations of winning another conference championship and following in the shadow of a coach that put the program on the map. Again, Tom Crean had a great year, but little was expected of his team.

Performance of the Year: Novak vs. Uconn. Novak set conference records for points and rebounds in that contest and ushered in the Big East era at the Bradley Center in a memorable fashion. His performance let league foes know that Marquette, as well as its Conference USA brethren, weren't just a bunch of patsies (although, the Golden Eagles fared best of the five teams that went east).

So there you have it. One guy's opinion on the best in college basketball during the past season. One side note, congratulations have to be given to Sandy Botham and her Milwaukee Panthers who won the Horizon League women's regular season and tournament titles, earning their first trip to the NCAA Tournament since 2001. The Panthers landed a pair of players on the All-Horizon League team, and Traci Edwards was named the Freshman of the Year.

Let the madness begin.