This piece originally posted on Nov. 29, 2018, but 'tis the season!
The rush of the holiday season is now upon us, and while anyone can dream for a new jacket or concert tickets or a sparkling set of knives, only a select few are so committed to their sports fandom to use such wishes on their favorite teams. For those true holiday sports degenerates, here is what you should truly covet for your favorite Wisconsin squads this month.
Brewers: Another winter splash
Rarely does an offseason victory translate into regular season success, but that’s exactly what happened for the Brewers last year. Milwaukee’s two massive offensive pick-ups, Lorenzo Cain and Christian Yelich, both finished in the top seven in the National League MVP voting and propelled the Brewers to the NLCS.
Well, general manager David Stearns should strike again while the iron is hot and go all-in on this core. Reigning MVP Yelich and staff ace Jhoulys Chacin will make a combined $15.75 million in 2019. Josh Hader, Corey Knebel, Orlando Arcia, Jesus Aguilar, Travis Shaw, Jeremy Jeffress, Jimmy Nelson, Domingo Santana, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta will all be on bargain deals through their arbitration or pre-arbitration status.
Ryan Braun and Cain, the teams two highest-salaried players, should still be valuable this season, yet at 35 and 33 years old respectively, Milwaukee can’t count on useful production for much longer. The Brewers are probably not in the upper echelon of teams with Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Houston yet, but one more high-profile addition could lift Milwaukee to true contender status.
And there are plenty of season-altering stars on the market right now. Free agents Bryce Harper and Manny Machado will almost certainly prove too rich for Stearns, but if he shifts his eye one rung below at starters Patrick Corbin, Dallas Keuchel, JA Happ and Nate Eovaldi, or flips some of Milwaukee’s pitching and prospect depth for Noah Syndergaard, JT Realmuto or Madison Bumgarner, he could find the extra high-end talent that Milwaukee was missing in Game 7 against the Dodgers in the NLCS.
Milwaukee’s window won’t shut after 2019, but this may be the Brewers best shot. After hitting home runs across the board in free agency last winter, Stearns should double down and reel in one more big fish.
Bucks: A playoff series victory
Milwaukee may have fallen off the torrid pace it set to begin the season, but the revamped Bucks still appear to be one of the top four teams in the Eastern Conference with an outside shot at the no. 1 seed. Now they just need to find some April success.
The Bucks have not won a playoff series since the 2000-01 team – led by Ray Allen and Glenn Robinson – fell short in the conference finals. That was two jerseys and nearly 18 years ago! Milwaukee battled through two tough first-round losses in each of the previous two campaigns, but it’s not too much to ask for a team with Giannis Antetokounmpo to advance to the second round in the East. And this isn’t an indictment of Giannis, who has averaged 25.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists in his last two postseason runs. If anything, it is just another strike against the previous coaching regime for failing to turn Antetokounmpo’s stellar performances into wins.
But regardless of who is to blame, the simple fact is that the Bucks need to win sooner rather later in the playoffs. Antetokounmpo still has two more years on his contract, but as the rest of the NBA has proven with Anthony Davis in New Orleans, it’s never too early for the league’s vultures to begin circling a transcendent star in a mid-market city.
Marquette Basketball: A statement win
I originally wished for another ball handler to allow star guard Markus Howard to shift off the ball and add another perimeter weapon to the Triple Hs (Howard, Sam Hauser and Joey Hauser, who are shooting 38.2 percent on 136 combined three-point attempts). Conveniently, that wish is actually slated to come true as sophomore guard Greg Elliott should be ready to play sometime around the holidays after an Oct. 10 thumb surgery put him on an 8-12 week recovery timeline.
Last season, Elliott was one of 15 freshmen guards to post a sub-20 percent turnover rate with at least a 12 percent assist rate and a 2.7 percent steal rate across 600-plus minutes, numbers that should all improve now that he is no longer battling through the thumb injury. He was also one of the team’s premier finishers at the rim last year (62.9 percent), so his return should crack open a few more crevices in opposing defenses.
So since the wish for a third guard will likely come to fruition barring a setback, Marquette fans should simply ask for a marquee win – and similarly to the Bucks, it needs to come sooner rather than later. The Golden Eagles will host no. 12 Kansas State, no. 22 Wisconsin and no. 21 Buffalo in December during MU’s current seven-game homestand. After disappointing losses at Indiana and on a neutral floor to Kansas (plus a decent win over Louisville), Marquette really needs to grab at least two wins over those three ranked teams to feel good before Big East play.
(UPDATE: This one came true. Thanks Santa!)
Packers: An offensive rejuvenation
Let’s flashback to 2011, when Aaron Rodgers captured his first MVP award, the Packers led the league in scoring with 35 points per game and Green Bay won 15 games coming off its Super Bowl victory. Zoom back to 2018 – when mediocre teams stumble into 30 points every Sunday and quarterbacks seem to be playing longer than ever – and the Packers are getting left in the dust. They are merely 17th in points per game (24), the once infallible Rodgers ranks a startling 20th in QBR (55.6) and Green Bay is dangerously close to missing the postseason for the second straight year.
Mike McCarthy’s previously innovative offense has grown stale in recent years, and even with a competent offensive line, a dynamic running back and a stud wideout surrounding Rodgers, Green Bay is still struggling to keep up with the rest of the NFL. Now with McCarthy already gone, it will be imperative for the organization to bring in someone who can fully weaponize the pieces around Rodgers. There is no reason the Mitchell Trubisky-Allen Robinson-Tarik Cohen trio should be outpacing Rodgers, Davante Adams and Aaron Jones in an offense-centric league.
Wisconsin Basketball: More three-pointers
The Badgers are off to a roaring start and have already chalked up wins against Xavier, Oklahoma and North Carolina State. Wisconsin has been as strong as ever on defense, and they have returned to their typical sturdy selves on offense, led by Ethan Happ and D’Mitik Trice (35 points and 8.2 assists per game combined). Still, the Badgers can go up another level if they find a few more opportunities from beyond the arc each game.
Wisconsin has only attempted 128 treys this season, which is 60 fewer than the rival Golden Eagles and 239th in the nation. There is more than one way to skin a cat, so the Badgers don’t need to turn into Golden State 2.0, but when so many other teams are jacking 30-plus triples a night, it simply becomes a math problem if your offense is focused inside the arc.
Things get particularly sticky when starters Happ and Khalil Iverson share the floor, as the two seniors are a combined 0-4 this season and 7-64 for their careers. Greg Gard obviously wants to stick with what has been working thus far, but the Badgers have nailed 43.8 percent of their threes this year. A slight uptick in long-range attempts could be worth a few more misses if it open up the half-court offense even more.
Wisconsin Football: A Doak Walker award
Things did not go well in Madison this year. The Badgers’ loss total (five) is higher than their preseason ranking (four). Instead of competing for a New Year’s Six matchup, Wisconsin is now destined for a mediocre bowl game. A Badgers quarterback has not thrown for more than 200 yards in a game since September. Alex Hornibrook and Jack Hoan combined to finish 101st in the nation in yards per attempt. UW turned the ball over 23 times, recorded just 18 sacks and averaged over six penalties per game. So many statistics, each one more mediocre than the last.
Yet, there was one shining light in an otherwise disappointing campaign: running back Jonathan Taylor. After rushing for 1,977 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2017, the sophomore star actually topped those stats with 1,989 yards and 15 touchdowns – and he still has the bowl game to play. Taylor is one of the three finalists, along with Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Memphis’ Darrell Henderson, for the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the best running back in the nation. Taylor is not a receiving threat like Henderson or a high-profile piece on a title contender like Etienne, but his dominance on the ground is absolutely unparalleled. Even though Wisconsin can only play out the string through the rest of the season, its star tailback deserves to be recognized on the national stage.