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Tristan’s Travels: A Voyage to the Land of Madison

A stranger from a strange land views college basketball...Wisconsin style.

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Wisconsin Mary Langenfeld-USA TODAY Sports

The author of these Travels, Mr. Tristan Jung, is my ancient and intimate friend. He has traveled to see many forms of NCAA basketball in his days. Sources have told me he has even visited the unknown lands of Piscataway near Newark, New Jersey to see the Rutgers Scarlet Knights. Last night, he sent me a dispatch from his latest voyage to the land of Madison, a strange and terrible place.

I was shipwrecked in Madison, Wisconsin on the night of February 1st after my college basketball-powered vessel was caught in an ice storm. They told me you couldn’t sail to Madison, and they were right. After successfully moving through the great expanses of the Horizon, Atlantic Coast, and the Sun Belt, I was surprised to find myself in the uncharted lands of the “Big Ten.” Luckily, there was a college basketball game being played at the local “Kohl Center,” so I had a place to lodge for the night.

They tell me the Big Ten was once a mighty basketball empire, perhaps the best in the land, but all I’ve seen so far is vast swathes of mediocre versions of the game. I did not intend to visit the land of Madison, preferring to harbor at the port of Wisconsin-Green Bay. But I was intrigued. Such is the life of the adventurer.

The Kohl Center looks like a beautiful palace of basketball. It seats over 17,000 people and has modern amenities. But don’t let the bells and whistles fool you. I have never seen a land with such strange and unsettling basketball played. Trust me, I have seen the depths of college basketball before. I have watched streams of Savannah State, which shoots more threes than any other team in the country yet never makes them. I have seen The Citadel try to have 100 possessions per game. I have even watched the anaconda of UVA strangle its opponents with defense.

But here in Madison, this is not basketball as I know it. I have heard rumors of the basketball played in the lower rungs of the “Big Ten,” and they have always terrified me. But with my ship trapped in ice, there was no other venue to attend. At the start of the game, the visiting “Northwestern Wildcats” (some strange pastiche of a Northwestern team that made the NCAA Tournament last season) look like a real basketball team. Wisconsin does not. Northwestern runs simple offensive schemes, and every shot goes in. Wisconsin goes down 7-0. Then it’s 14-1. Soon enough, it’s 18-1 Northwestern after five and a half minutes. A cheer goes up after Wisconsin makes a commonplace defensive rebound. The sportswriter next to me has been watching the Bucks/Wolves game for the last half hour.

Wisconsin’s offense does not look prepared to play. In fact, they look like they are intentionally missing shots to lure their opponent into a false sense of security. After five minutes, their points per possession stands at 0.111. Each possession is a monotonous bore. I am used to a style of basketball that involves motion and cuts, but Wisconsin seems to heave the ball around the three-point line for 15 seconds before making one drive-and-kick. That’s it. That’s the only thing they do.

Eventually, Wisconsin starts to make headway with their strange form of basketball. Northwestern takes its foot off the gas and allows Wisconsin to go on an unlikely 10-1 run. The remainder of the first half is played with some semblance of normalcy. Teams are scoring with gusto. Little do I know Wisconsin coach Greg Gard is luring me into a false sense of security.

After 15 minutes of game time, the basketball turns sour. It’s clear that even Northwestern is being sucked into a vortex it cannot escape. After a nice sequence with back-to-back threes Wisconsin broken up by a Pardon layup, it’s 35-26 after 17 minutes. I’m optimistic that the initial 18-1 run was merely a mirage and that real basketball will proceed.

I am sorely mistaken. There will be just two baskets scored between the 2:47 mark in the first half and the 16:33 mark in the second. Those baskets are life-sustaining moments in a sea of doom. The basketball becomes some absurd joke. Every single possession is a Gard-inspired nightmare. The tempo is at a snail’s pace, and no one is making anything. It’s like watching two Tony Bennett clones sledgehammer at each other, but all the players are blindfolded.

There was a magic show at halftime. Somehow, that was the only thing that has made sense all night. A large effigy of Mike D’Antoni is burned at center court. Someone who looks suspiciously like NBA star Jason Kidd walks into the crowd and is tied to a chair and forced to watch.

This Brevin Pritzl guy from Wisconsin ended the night 0-for-11 from the field and 0-for-8 from three. Sources tell me that Ethan Happ was a Preseason “All-Big Ten” player. He missed more layups than I can count. A kicked ball flies 20 rows back into the seats. There are so many bad turnovers, so many empty trips down the floor. Wisconsin seems intent on just shooting threes even though it cannot make them with any regularity. Whenever Northwestern gets the ball, it turns it over or Scottie Lindsey takes a ridiculous shot from beyond the arc. I do not recognize this form of basketball.

The crowd was completely silent for large stretches of the game. Why did they pay money for this spectacle? Is there a religious motive? Is Madison run by a dictatorship in which attendance at this is mandatory? Northwestern wins 60-52. Wisconsin attempts 26 threes and only makes 7. Bryant McIntosh ends the game with 7 turnovers. It’s clear that Northwestern is a far superior basketball team, but it has fallen victim of the moral fibre of the Madisoners.

I am told that the ice will not be breaking. My hosts in Madison tell me I will be here for a long time to come. They want to know if I’m interested in writing about their basketball team. I fear my only remaining move might be to abandon ship and flee on foot to Milwaukee...

Tristan Jung
The 2nd of February in the year 2018.