In the Kohl Center media room after most games, players and coaches pore over freshly printed stat sheets as they address reporters from the dais. Sunday night, after the Badgers dispensed with opening-game rival Mercer, 72-48, senior forward Alando Tucker was asked what numbers caught his eye.
'I was looking at rebounding, to see who won that battle,' he said, noting Wisconsin's 45-38 domination on the boards. 'Then I looked at our free-throw shooting.'
Tucker, a preseason favorite for Big Ten player of the year, shot poorly from the line last season, converting on less than 55% of his chances; the team as a whole managed a mediocre 66%. Against Mercer, the Badgers were a groan-worthy 12-27 (44%), and Tucker sank just one of four.
'It was a mental thing,' he explained. 'I think once a couple of guys started missing, it was one of those plagues that went down the line throughout the team. We know we can hit them, but once you start missing a couple, you hear some of the crowd going 'awww,' and you start feeling sorry for yourself.'
Head coach Bo Ryan had a simpler take: 'They didn't go in. Darn it.'
Missed free throws didn't spell a loss against Mercer, but that's not always going to be the case. If the Badgers are going to compete for the Big Ten title and make a run at the Final Four, as many analysts predict, they must win some tough games. And many of those shake out at the free-throw line.
'You've gotta be able to go up there and hit 'em,' said Ryan at his press conference on Monday. 'Hopefully, [Tucker] will improve the free-throw shooting because he can get to the line as well as anyone in the country.'
If his team is to fulfill this year's great expectations, Tucker must top an already remarkable career. He's one of just eight players in the country with over 1,500 career points; last year, he averaged 20 points per game to become the first Badger since 1950 to lead the Big Ten in scoring. His greatest strength is in taking the ball hard to the basket, which translates into a lot of free throws. In fact, Tucker broke a Wisconsin record last year with 233 free-throw attempts.
Many observers, Ryan included, think a protective mask Tucker had to wear while nursing a nasal injury for 13 games adversely affected his shot. This year, the mask is gone and Tucker must get better from the line, lest opponents employ a 'hack-a-Tuck' strategy to stop him. If they know he can't beat them from the line, they won't let him beat them from the floor.
100.5 FM rolls with the punches
News that Clear Channel-owned 92.1 FM is switching formats from 'progressive talk' to Fox Sports Radio raises questions about the fate of WTLX-FM (100.5), Fox's current home in the market.
Craig Karmazin of Madison-based Good Karma Broadcasting, WTLX's parent company, says the deal means the station will drop all Fox shows and focus completely on local programming.
'What we have done and what we'll continue to do is Wisconsin-based sports-talk programming,' he says. 'It was 11 of our 13 hours, and now it will be 13 of 13 hours.'
Karmazin plans to continue Friday night's 'High School Hysteria' in Madison and the daily 'World's Greatest Sports Talk Show' with Steve 'The Homer' True, based in Milwaukee.
'We've seen the most success with the local stuff and the stuff that's Wisconsin-based,' he says. 'If someone turns on our station, they know our guys are people who live in Wisconsin who will be talking about the teams they care about.'
But the deal has another consequence: WTLX will no longer be broadcasting Madison Mallards games. The amateur league baseball team, says Karmazin, has agreed to switch to 92.1 FM. This after WTLX helped the Mallards achieve success by airing play-by-plays of its games for the last three years.
Clear Channel, which syndicates Fox Sports Radio through its Premiere Radio Networks subsidiary, owns six local stations including WIBA-AM (1310), which broadcasts Badgers, Packers and Brewers games, and WTSO-AM (1070), which carries ESPN Radio programming and Premiere's Jim Rome show. The addition of a third sports outlet, on the FM dial, mirrors the growth of sports-talk nationally.
'When we started our company in 1998, there were 150 sports-radio stations in the country, and today there are 520,' notes Karmazin. 'Not only in Madison, but around the country, it has been the fastest-growing format.'