Watching the NFL bail the Steelers out…

The Steelers and Ben Roethlisberger have accepted Big Ben’s suspension and will move forward.  Luckily for them, the NFL has set them up to still be very successful next year and they aren’t afraid to capitalize on Big Ben’s transgressions for which they were so quick to punish him.

By reminded that Roethlisberger’s ban is six games long with the option of being reduced to four with good behavior.  Now let the following just sink in for a second:

The Steelers’ first six games: one 2009 playoff  team (Baltimore), zero games in primetime

The Steelers’ final ten games: six 2009 playoff teams (Cincinnati twice, Baltimore, New Orleans, New England, New York Jets), five games in primetime

Did the NFL expect the sports world to read the above with anything but a puzzled look?

Two things are clear:

1) The league wants to protect the Steelers to allow them to have a fighting chance at making the playoffs.

2) The league wants to capitalize on Big Ben’s return by putting him in primetime.  (By the way, if Roethlisberger’s suspension does go the full six games, the first three games he plays in upon returning are all in primetime).

Unfortunately for the league, the schedule was released a day before the suspension was handed down to Pittsburgh’s quarterback.  That meant that when Roethlisberger’s ban was unveiled, fans immediately looked to see what games he’d miss, when and where he’d return and how the schedule would shake out for the pride of western Pennsylvania.

What they found when looking down the schedule was six winnable games while Ben is on the sidelines.  If he misses all six, his first game back then comes in Week 8 at New Orleans on Sunday Night Football.  Ironically, the game is on Halloween Night.  Hopefully, fans in the Crescent City will come to the Superdome dressed as everyone’s favorite sexual assaulting quarterback.

The more realistic option is that Ben misses four games, meaning his return comes in Week 6 at home when the Browns come to town.  That means Roethlisberger would have two “tune-up” games against Cleveland and Miami before getting into the real teeth of the Steelers’ schedule starting with that big game in New Orleans against the Super Bowl champs.

If one looks deeper, the NFL continued to have the Steelers’ best interests in mind when make the 2010 schedule, seeing as they conveniently gave Pittsburgh their bye in Week 5.  If Big Ben is reinstated after the four games, head coach Mike Tomlin and the Pittsburgh offense would have two weeks to reacclimate and get themselves straight in practice before they take the field with their starting quarterback in the lineup again.

Surely, these situations can’t all be coincidental, right?  The NFL wouldn’t be trying to protect one of the league’s most prominent franchises?  They aren’t looking out for the Rooney family?  Ask a Bengals fan those questions and see what they say.  Can we honestly say that if this happened to a team with an owner who has been a thorn in the side of the league (say, Jerry Jones), that things would be fair and equal?

(I bet that if Tony Romo were suspended for the first four games of the year that the Cowboys schedule would go Eagles, Giants, Saints, Vikings.)

The most nauseating part of all of this is the way the NFL is capitalizing on something that they have professed as being abhorrent and irresponsible.  To put the Steelers on national television for what could potentially be Roethlisberger’s first three games back and to have  them in primetime for five of the final ten weeks of the year reeks of foul play.

After sitting him down for his discretions, the league is not afraid to capitalize on the publicity and viewership that can be had with Pittsburgh’s high-profile position in the NFL’s primetime lineup.  Surely, Roger Goodell cannot think that Big Ben is the right face to have on the NFL’s product moving forward, at least not until Big Ben stops exposing himself to college students in bathrooms.

But Goodell’s advisers must not have been moved by the commissioner’s suspension and stand against sexual assault.  Or maybe they were just too focused on the financial windfall that could come from Big Ben’s return to the league in primetime, in the home of the Super Bowl champs, on Halloween no less.  Cash is king.

Anyway you look at it, the NFL dropped the ball with this one.  They effectively served their fans a cow pie sandwich, with the Big Ben suspension sandwiched between the schedule release and the NFL Draft.  Now that we have it digested (yummy), the real aftertaste of what the NFL did for the Rooney family and the Pittsburgh Steelers is far more sour than sweet.

Most teams need to pay millions of dollars to get offensive lineman to provide that kind of protection.  The Steelers got a little for free for the 2010-11 NFL season.

2 Comments

Filed under Athletes' Behavior, Ben Roethlisberger, Football, NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers

Watching Tiger’s new best friend…

“Did you hear the one about Tiger Woods and the cocktail wait-“

“Yes, we’ve heard it.”

“Oh…how about the one where Tiger walks into this bar and-“

“Heard that one, too.”

“Well did you hear the one where Ben Roethlisberger hired a bodyguard and…”

As his friends around the table leaned in and soaked up Randy’s every last word, he made sure to pour extra gusto into the punchline…

“…and then Clarice said, ‘That’s why they don’t sell pants!'”

The crowd went wild and Randy basked in the glow of a joke told right and a fan base inspired.  That night Randy took solace in the fact that Ben Roethlisberger helped prove to himself that he indeed “still had it.”

And somewhere Tiger Woods is smiling, practicing golf and smiling some more.  Why?  Becuase now that Ben Roethlisberger elevated the game of athletes committing sexual misconduct to level five, Tiger is just a golfer again.

Sure, he’ll play in a  tournament next month that will bring some of the talk back, but it won’t be as bad as The Masters, right?  It can’t be.  And then another major will roll around and he’ll face some scrutiny about pressure at a major, but it will be calmer than Augusta.  Before you know it, most people will forget about what he did (besides he only cheated on his wife…a lot).

And who does Tiger have to thank for some of this alleviated pressure?  None other than Big Ben.

Roethlisberger went ahead and trumped good old Tiger by doing everything he could to disgust America’s sports fans by having one single incident in a club bathroom go awry.

Most Americans don’t care that Tiger Woods may have been beaten with his own golf club by his wife, Elin, in front of his house.  Especially when you consider that Big Ben exposed himself to a 20-year-old college student in a club hallway.

Sports fans can ignore the fact that over a dozen women claimed to have “been with” Tiger when they consider that Roethlisberger hired Pennsylvania policemen to guard his tryst with the Georgia college student (one of those police officers has since resigned).

Amateur golfers can find solace in the fact that Woods only had naked pictures taken of him by one of his mistresses to use as  blackmail, while Roethlisberger’s escapades have left Steeler fans with an appetite for dried meat snacks, wondering how they will be able to live without Big Ben’s Beef Jerky, Roethlisberger’s signature line of meaty snacks.

ESPN’s coverage of Tiger Woods has gone from DEFCON 5 to a flatline in the wake of the Roethlisberger scandal.  Surely, Ben should keep checking his mail for a thank you card from Tiger, maybe he will even refer him to his sex rehab facility.

When it comes to sex scandals and athletes, the way out used to be to win a championship (think Kobe Bryant) and make everyone forget.  Now that they are so common, offenders need to just wait for the next one to come up and their own scandal will eventually blow over.  There is only one lesson to be learned from this astute analysis:

When it comes to sexual misconduct, there are no winners…unless you’re Tiger Woods.

Leave a comment

Filed under Athletes' Behavior, Ben Roethlisberger, Football, Golf, NFL, Pittsburgh Steelers, Tiger Woods

Watching women’s basketball blow it…

For years I’ve wondered why the men’s NCAA basketball championship is played on Monday and the women’s championship is decided the day after.  In most other sporting events where males and females compete in separate championships, the women precede their male counterparts (think Olympic sports). 

But then this year’s tournaments played out.  The  top men’s teams kept bowing out while the Connecticut women kept winning by 40; men’s teams from small schools in small markets advanced and Brittney Griner blocked shot after shot.  When the Final Four shook out in each tournament, the men’s version was devoid of the top teams (saved by Duke) and the top players (not one first team All-American) and the women’s edition had the top two teams in the final AP women’s poll (UConn and Stanford) and Baylor’s freshman sensation (Griner).

Beyond that, the UConn 76-game winning streak was in tact and the Lady Huskies had a semifinal matchup against Griner and Baylor with the possibility of a rematch with  Stanford.  The Cardinal were the last team to defeat UConn (in the 2008 national semifinals) and were the only team to lead the Huskies at the half this season when they played on Dec. 23.

The opportunity was there for the women to upstage the men.  I wrote about Griner being the star of both tournaments and touted the match-up with UConn as a monumental one.  The two teams delivered a hard-fought game, won by the Huskies.  That set up the rematch with Stanford, and everything seemed to be falling into place.

It was on Monday night, after the Duke-Butler game, that I thought to myself, “This is why the women play after the men.”  Think about it: the men just had an amazing game that many were hoping would eke its way into overtime.  Then you have the women’s final with the fantastic story of UConn’s 77-game winning streak against Stanford, eager for payback.  For basketball fans salivating for more and with UConn being advertised by some as the greatest team in the history of college ball at any level, die-hard hoops fans (like me) would naturally gravitate to this game.  The thought of a team as dominating as John Wooden’s UCLA squads could draw viewers.  People would surely watch.  What an opportunity for the sport of women’s basketball and the NCAA!

But then the teams took the court…and stunk it up.

ESPN sent a text out at the end of the half with a news alert telling subscribers that UConn was losing to Stanford, 20-12.  This probably caught the attention of casual fans who knew about the Huskies’ 77-game winning streak.  The telecast probably gained viewers within minutes of this text going out.  Unfortunately, at the same time viewers who were watching since the opening tip were changing the channel to Dancing with the Stars, American Idol or The Biggest Loser.

Why?  Because it was the lowest scoring game in NCAA championship game history and may have been the worst half of college basketball at any level.

Stanford’s defense was superb and their game plan to slow things down and keep the score low almost had them pulling the upset, but for a fan who was giving the women’s game a shot for the first time, what they witnessed would have had them running for the remote to watch Chad Ochocinco dance the Paso Doble on DWTS

The first half saw 32 total points scored and the team combined to shoot just over 21 percent from the field (13-for-60).  UConn shot 17 percent on their own, making just five of 29 shots.  Even the teams shot poorly when defense wasn’t an issue, making just one of six free throw attempts in the half.  Connecticut missed all four of their free throws in the half.  Fans attempting to buy in to the women’s game must have been thinking they had the wrong channel.

From a gameplay standpoint, the Huskies were completely lost in the first half.  Geno Auriemma so much as admitted that, saying that they really needed a halftime to talk things over.  UConn was so out of sorts that several shots were just throw up there, including air balls, shots that went astray off just the backboard and attempts that clanged off the rim.  Stanford didn’t do much better, but they seemed to be more in the flow of their offense and they had the lead throughout the half, so keeping the status quo wasn’t much of an issue for coach Tara VanDerveer and the Cardinal.

But for a basketball fan who just watched the Duke-Butler game the night before and was still itching for some fundamental hoops, watching this game must have been a travesty.  The women’s game got what it wanted: interest.  People were finally focussing on the UConn story and on the female tournament.  ESPN had the broadcast rights, so the mothership was pouring it on pretty thick.  The stars were aligning.  How many new fans could have been had if the game was played at a high level, with good shooting and a better performance from UConn?

I tuned into the game for the first half and was floored by the bad shots, the lack of scoring and the sloppy play.  What a way to showcase your sport and then see it all go up in flames. 

Hopefully, those who tuned in after the text sent from ESPN stuck around.  They would have seen a much better second half where UConn opened up with a 17-2 run that put them in front for the long haul.  The Huskies eventually won the lowest scoring NCAA championship in history, 53-47.  I’m willing to bet, however, that the broadcast lost more viewers after the first half’s abysmal play than they gained when people found out UConn was actually losing.  I know they lost me.

The sad thing is that this was a magical tournament for the female brand of basketball.  Despite the fact that parity isn’t part of the women’s game at the moment, Griner gave the effort a boost with her stellar play and UConn is a spectacular story as they now aim for Wooden’s UCLA record when the 2010-2011 season gets started in November.  But what could have been will be what organizers and supporters of women’s basketball will now wonder.  What fans saw on Tuesday was brick after brick when they should have seen two rivals and the best teams in America fighting for a trophy. 

Defense wins championships, but in the case of Tuesday night’s women’s final, it lost potential fans.

Leave a comment

Filed under Basketball, Baylor University, College Basketball, Final Four, NCAA Tournament, Stanford University, University of Connecticut, Women's Basketball, Women's College Basketball

Watching the NCAA Championship…

With all due respect to Butler, the NCAA championship was played in the late game on Saturday night when Duke defeated West Virginia, 78-57.  The Blue Devils will dispatch of Butler’s Bulldogs quickly and without mercy when the two teams meet on Monday night.

However, the game will be a great showcase of the kind of underdog everyone seems to love against everyone’s favorite college basketball team to hate.  Coach K and Duke will face a difficult crowd in Indianapolis against the real-world Hoosiers story of Butler.

But, looking back at this Final Four, the thing I will remember will be the match-ups on Saturday night.  There were so many things in those games that reminded of what I love about college basketball and what I hate about what’s become of it.

In the Butler-Michigan State match-up, we had pure basketball played by two well-coached teams.  For the first 30 minutes, the game was full of beautiful offensive plays with defensive brilliance from both teams.  Butler held a slim lead going into the final ten minutes.  But for a game that ended with such a small margin of victory, most viewers would have loved to see clutch shots from both sides down the stretch.  Instead, we saw Butler go dead cold and Michigan State continued to be unable to crack the Bulldog defense.

In the same game, we got the Cinderella/Hoosiers story of Butler, but it is becoming a tired one and I have to say it: the shoe doesn’t fit.  This is not a George Mason.  Butler was ranked in the top 25 throughout the year and ranked in the top 15 for a good chunk of the season.  They earned a five seed, which many thought could have been higher.  Their coming out of the Horizon League probably hurt them in that regard.  Going in to the tournament, the committee decided that they were in the top 20 teams in the nation and were in the top five of candidates to come out of their region and advance to the Final Four.  Not bad in the expectations department. 

On the contrary, George Mason was an 11 seed.  During their run to the 2006 Final Four, the Patriots defeated Michigan State (seeded 6th), North Carolina (3), Wichita State (7) and Connecticut (1).  In contrast, Butler faced teams seeded 12th, 13th, 1st, 2nd and 5th.

If one looks a little deeper, the Bulldogs had a lot of things fall their way on their way to Indianapolis.  They dispatched of UTEP in convincing fashion in Round One.  Then they caught a break by playing 13th seeded Murray State who pulled the upset on Vanderbilt.  In the Sweet Sixteen, the Bulldogs played a Syracuse squad without Arinze Onuaku.  Then they got Michigan State with no Kalin Lucas, the Big Ten’s player of the year.

That brings me to one of the things I hate about this year’s Final Four: too few of these teams played quality opponents in the tournament to get here.  We already broke down Butler’s path.  Duke had the easiest bracket by the estimation of most analysts.  The highest seeded team Michigan State played in the tourney was Maryland, a four seed.  At least West Virginia beat a number one seed (Kentucky) and lost to another when they fell to Duke on Saturday.

While the WVU-Duke game wasn’t as competitive of a match-up as Butler-MSU, several things caught my eye.  First and foremost was the focus and determination of the Duke team.  The three S’s: Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and John Scheyer showed what upperclassmen leading your squad from the outside can do for a team in the tournament.  The three combined for 63 of the 78 points scored by the Blue Devils.  Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas were an inside presence with determination and heart, playing defense and rebounding like their careers depended on it.  As I wrote about earlier in the tournament (see HERE), Coach K has taken Duke away from the one-and-done philosophy of many college programs and gone back to what worked: developing talent for the long haul, regardless of how the players are rated while being recruited.

Going back to Singler, Scheyer and Smith, it was a pleasure watching three players work together and play unselfish basketball.  The three also combined to dish out 17 assists, more than the entire West Virginia team (11).  They knew how to play the game, were prepared by a brilliant coach and executed the game plan they knew would bring them a win.  They played smart and handled the ball well.  Smith and Scheyer, the team’s two primary ball-handlers had zero turnovers and Singler committed just three miscues (Duke only had a total of five).

But perhaps the most touching moment of this game came from the West Virginia side of things.  With nine minutes remaining in the game and West Virginia fighting for their championship lives, the Mountaineers senior and second team All-American, Da’Sean Butler went down with a gruesome knee injury.  Writhing in pain on the floor, it was clear Butler would not return to the game.  After being tended to by trainers, Butler was clearly injured physically but even more so mentally and emotionally. 

Enter Mountaineer head coach Bob Huggins. 

Huggy Bear came onto the court during the break in action as the trainer tried to adjust Butler’s knee.  Suddenly, the senior was in more agony, all but confirming that his game, season and college career may be ending in that moment.  Tears began to flow freely from Butler’s eyes and Huggins reacted by laying on top of Butler, consoling him.  Words were shared between the two and at one point viewers could clearly see Butler say “I’m sorry” to the Huggy Bear.  In post game press conferences, the two relayed part of what was said.  Huggins told Butler, “Not to worry about it.  You’ll be fine.”  Butler replied, “It hurts right now, but if I can get back out there, then I’ll get back out there.”

The scene ended with both faces showing depths emotion not normally on display in professional or collegiate athletics.  It was touching to see Huggins in that light, his gruff exterior usually the dominant trait that shines through.  Butler meant a lot to this program since Huggins arrived at West Virginia and the two share a special bond that the general public does not usually see on display between player and coach.  I wish more moments like this happened and were captured on live television.  After watching it several times on highlight packages the day after, tears came to my eyes.  Let’s hope this isn’t the end of the road for Butler and that his basketball skills are on display in the NBA next year.

Duke went on to win the game going away, with WVU not able to recover from the deep deficit they found themselves in without their star, which leads to the game on Monday between Duke and Butler. 

On Saturday night, CNBC reported that the Duke basketball program spent more money in their program per player, on average, than the Butler program spent all year on the program as a whole.  Duke comes from Dick Vitale’s beloved ACC, while Butler hails from a conference most have never heard of: the Horizon League.  But for all the things that are different about these two programs, it’s the things that are the same that make me want to watch it.

Both teams are dominated by players that, as I stated earlier, want to win a title.  For Duke, Scheyer, Zoubek and Thomas are seniors; Smith and Singler are juniors.  For Butler, their two best players are sophomores (Hayward and Shelvin Mack), Matt Howard is a junior; and Willie Veasley is a senior.  The Dukies seem like they are committed to the championship path because most of their stars will not have success at the next level and a title would mean the most to them in their basketball careers.  Butler has the aura of a team on the outside that has been banging on the walls to be let in and finally has that opportunity.  A title for them would kick the door in for the Gonzagas, George Masons and Valparaisos of the world, doing what those schools could not.

However, as stated earlier, I feel Butler is overmatched and that Duke is hitting their stride at the perfect time.  They looked so sharp on Saturday that I think the title is inevitable.  The drama on Monday will be thick with depth, however, as the Hoosiers story comes full circle against widely disliked Duke.  But I think this story ends with Coach K cutting down the nets and Butler driving the six miles back to campus from Lucas Oil Stadium.

PREDICTION: Duke 75, Butler 53

Leave a comment

Filed under ACC, Basketball, Butler University, College Basketball, Duke University, Final Four, Horizon League, NCAA Tournament

Watching the NCAA tourney’s move to 96 teams…

As the Final Four tips off this weekend with nary a big name playing on the court, the needed distraction to steal some headlines has been created by the NCAA themselves as the confirmation of a move to 96 teams in the NCAA tournament has brought much controversy to Indianapolis.

So what are we to make of the 96-team field?  Is it a money grab as most analysts postulate?  Is it a move to get the tourney in the hands of ESPN?  None of that part of the equation really matters to the average fan.  What does matter is what this beloved tournament will look like in the future, next year by some estimates, 2014 by others.

The 96-team tournament would take the top 32 seeds and give them a bye in what would now be called the “Opening Round.”  If you’re thinking about how that term sounds familiar, you’re right!  That’s what the game played between the two lowest seeded teams is called now.  Only in this year’s tournament, it gave Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Winthrop the opportunity to lose to Duke in Round One.

Under this new configuration, the tournament would start on the same day, a Thursday, with Selection Sunday preceding the opening round games on Thursday and Friday. 

(TANGENT: Is anybody else  just a little stunned by how many proper nouns the NCAA tournament throws at us these days?  Selection Sunday, Final Four, March Madness, Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight, Dick Vitale.  It’s a veritable nightmare to write about.  Then you have to think about whether you capitalize and how to format things like seeds.  Is it 1st seeded Kansas, first seeded Kansas, first-seeded Kansas, First-Seeded Kansas or Ninth-Seeded Norhtern Iowa?  Clearly, the last one is correct.  But really, after writing a half-dozen or so articles on the tourney this spring, I am dumbfounded by the grammatical issues I encounter weekly.  The NCAA needs to publish a style guide.)

The Opening Round would whittle 64 teams down to 32 and they would then play the teams with byes on Saturday and Sunday to see who advances to Round Two.  Here’s where the tourney gets those days back that most analysts were sure would turn into an extra weekend.  The games for Round Two would be played the next Tuesday and Wednesday, deciding what schools will make up the Sweet Sixteen.

The tournament then plays out the rest of the way as usual.  The second Thursday and Friday would whittle squads down to the Elite Eight, with Final Four teams earning berths on Saturday Sunday.  Then the national semifinals and championship game would be played on Saturday and Monday as they are in the days to come.

In theory, this sounds like it would work.  We’d get teams in that would normally be on the bubble.  The committee would be able to make sure that perennial invitees likes North Carolina and Connecticut would most always be included (they would surely make this year’s field were it 96 teams strong).  Perhaps more mid-major conferences would have multiple teams in the Big Dance (there’s another proper noun…I think).  It gives the network who bids the highest for broadcast rights more games and adds two more nights of primetime sports programming.

But for every positive I can see, there are two negatives that pop up immediately.  The Opening Round would feature 64 teams that are outside of the top 25 at the end of the year.  Those lucky 32 would presumably be the biggest stories of the year in the NCAA and the 64 leftovers would be the way the tourney would kick off.  Those would be the days people call in sick to work or lower productivity if they absolutely have to be at their jobs.  The marquee players from the best teams would have the Opening Round off and that would hurt the tournament as it would lead to match-ups that –while they may be competitive and entertaining– would feature middle of the road teams from big conferences and the second or third entries from mid-majors, without a spotlight game in sight.

Put it this way: if the 96-team tourney were instituted, the ten best teams in action on the first two days of the tournament would be the 9 and 10 seeds.  This year that would have been Northern Iowa, Wake Forest, Florida State, Louisville, Georgia Tech, Missouri, St. Mary’s and Florida.  It’s hard to imagine CBS riding those big name schools to stellar ratings in the first two days of the tourney.

What of the teams with the byes?  For those schools, they would be inactive for at least five days, and in most cases more.  They would have exactly five days off if their conference played its championship game on Selection Sunday, which only a handful still do, assuming the school got to the final game in their respective tourney.  Most schools would be on their butts for a week or more, leaving them vulnerable.  In the Big East Tournament this year, three of the four schools that had byes fell in the first game they played.  It’s feasible to think that the teams with byes in a 96-school NCAA tournament field would fall to the same misfortune.  If that’s the case, we could see more instances of top-ranked schools (i.e. Kansas) doing nothing to boost ratings and interest deep into the tournament.

Additionally, Championship Week (proper noun alert!) would lose a lot of its meaning.  Teams like Minnesota who made a deep run in the Big Ten Tournament, would probably enter Championship Week as a lock to be included in the 96-team guest list.  Teams that enter the week with a chance to make a run in big conferences would probably be close to .500, which is just pathetic and nauseating.  I really don’t want to end up talking about a bad Michigan team being on the bubble as the Big Ten tourney begins because they are 14-16.  A few wins puts them over .500 and maybe gets the committee’s attention.  Do we want that?

In terms of actual gameplay, a team that started from the bottom 64 teams without an Opening Round bye, would end up playing three games in six days in order to advance to the Sweet Sixteen.  That means a Northern Iowa’s path would be that much harder, effectively stacking the deck against Cinderella.  Those darling teams are what makes this tournament great.  If UNI ended up playing Kansas with an extra game of fatigue on their legs, it’d make the task that much more difficult on them to pull the upset.  If it had happened this year, KU might have had just enough to hold off Ali Farokhmanesh and company.

Finally, let’s look at what college athletics is at its heart.  Student athletes are pupils first and those who matriculate are there to attend an academic institution over a basketball game.  While the tournament itself is a great cultural event and a rallying point on many campuses across the United States, adding games to two-thirds of the tourney field and playing games on Tuesday and Wednesdays in addition to Thursday through Sunday would send the wrong message.  Many of these schools are steeped in academic tradition and may have reservations about allowing their student athletes to participate in the tournament.  Several schools do not hold spring break or have it at varying times, so that fix is not viable. 

On those same lines, imagine the mass exodus of college students who would leave campus to attend the games and the push the schools’ administrations and athletic departments would provide to get butts in seats and have support be thrown toward the pride of their schools.

Furthermore, it would be very shady of the NCAA to add games on those days of play while they are also sticking to their argument that the Bowl Championship Series in college football should not be abandoned for a playoff because of the academic consequences therein.  Pretty hypocritical if you ask me.

TANGENT: Here’s a bonus reason why this move is insane.  Do you really want to see seeds in the twenties?  Do we want to hear Jay Bilas say, “Arizona State was really hoping for a seed in the teens, but instead they will have to settle for a 21 seed and an Opening Round matchup against Notre Dame” or Clark Kellogg break down the upset picks in the 13-20 matchup as opposted to the 5-12.  Ughh.  Kill me now.

I think that ultimately this is a bad thing, but the Big Dance will still be the Big Dance.  It will still have mystique, but it just won’t look the same, kind of like Cindy Crawford.  We will all still love it and we will all run to watch.

When it’s all said and done, college basketball fans need to realize that 96 is coming, whether we like it or not.  It’s a good thing there was something to talk about besides Hoosiers in Indianapolis this week, though.  It may have saved the Final Four.  At least we’re talking about something besides the lack of a first team All-American, the three number one seeds that didn’t make it or the cakewalk most of these schools had in getting to the Final Four.

Leave a comment

Filed under Basketball, Championship Week, College Basketball, ESPN, Final Four, Journalism, NCAA Tournament

Watching Brittney Griner…

In a college basketball season where the Final Four is a disaster and ratings nightmare for CBS, there is only one thing that has kept me watching the NCAA tournament this year.  She is a 6’8″ freshman center from Houston, Texas who wears a men’s shoe size of 18.  Brittney Griner of Baylor University is the only show in town this weekend and she’s not in Indianapolis where’s the men’s games are being held.

Unfortunately, the men’s Final Four features a who’s who of walking boredom with no first-team All-Americans, the only number one seed (Duke) is one that is widely hated and nobody wanted (or picked to be) here, Michigan State is without its best player, Butler has the tired Hoosiers schtick down and West Virginia is missing  point guard again but has the best player left in the tourney in DaSean Butler, who only made the second team in the All-American honors.

On the women’s side there are two primary storylines that will collide on Sunday night in San Antonio.  The University of Connecticut Huskies have won 76 straight games and have defeated their opponents in the tournament by an average of 47 points.  Geno Auriemma’s squad is the most dominant force in college basketball and the term dynasty just can’t apply to a team that has not lost a game in three seasons, wins games by nearly seven touchdowns and makes news when they trail at the half, as they did to Stanford earlier this season.  We need a new term to describe this kind of success.

Then there is Griner, who is the biggest story in both NCAA tournaments this year, bigger than Butler, bigger than the Kansas upset by Northern Iowa and bigger than CBS’s floundering ratings.  Griner is a 6’8″ monster.  In the regular season, she averaged 18.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and just under 6.5 blocks a game for a Baylor squad that won 27 games on their to a four seed in the tournament. 

The freshman was a veritable Wilt Chamberlain at times this year, clearly a bigger physical presence than most others on the floor, shooting over defenders, dunking when others cannot, blocking shots all over the place and dominating every aspect of the inside game.

In the postseason, Griner has averaged 17 points, 8 rebounds and an astonishing 9 blocks a game.  Griner has already set a record for blocks in a single NCAA tournament with 35 total swats and Baylor is still playing.  The Bears have defeated perennial powers Duke and Tennessee on their run.  Griner was the story in both games, putting up 27 points and blocking 10 shots in the win over Pat Summit’s Lady Vols and finishing one block short of a triple-double against the Blue Devils, tallying 15 points, 11 rebounds and 9 blocked shots.

Images of Wilt Chamberlain conjure comparisons to Griner because of the physical difference on the court.  But like Wilt, Griner has not led her teams to championships. Before enrolling at Baylor, she led Houston’s Nimitz High School to the Texas 5A State Championship game where they fell short to Mansfield Summit, 52-43.

While Griner’s physical prowess reminds most of Wilt, her on-the-court abilities conjure more of a Bill Russell vibe for me.  I’ve had the opportunity to watch some of her tournament games in the last two weeks and her ability to defend the basket and keep balls in play on blocked shots is uncanny, just like Russell’s was.  The number of shots she blocks or changes in a given game has to exceed 20.  If a team takes 55 shots in a game, that means that Griner has affected nearly half of the attempts.  Against Duke (a 51-48 win to put the Bears into the Final Four), the Blue Devils shot just 23 percent from the field.  What would they have shot if Griner hadn’t made her presence known with her 9 blocks?  How many other shots did she alter?  Had the Devils made just ten more buckets, they would have shot 39 percent and won the game by double figures.

More than any other basketball player still playing (regardless of gender), Griner has that “wow” factor that fans so lust after.  Her 6’8″ frame allows her to do things on the basketball court that others can’t.  In January of 2007, a YouTube video of her dunking in a high school game circulated the Web.  Her first dunk in a collegiate game came in just the fifth game of her career.  She dunked twice in a 99-18 blowout of Texas State University.  On December 16, Griner set the Big 12 Conference record for blocked shots in a game with 11 against Oral Roberts.  In a side note, she had a triple-double in that contest, scoring a career-high 34 points and grabbing 11 boards.  It was the first triple-double in Baylor history.

In addition to holding the record for most blocks in an NCAA tournament, Griner also holds the record for the most rejections in one NCAA tournament game, tallying 14 in Baylor’s win over Georgetown.  Be reminded that Ms. Griner is just a freshman.

On Sunday night, the Bears look to continue their run in the tournament by taking on UConn.  While no one expects a win, the attention on this game is paramount for women’s basketball.  The dominance of the Huskies combined with the spectacle that Brittney Griner has become will make this one of the most watched women’s basketball games in television history.  Perhaps the only thing better would have been if Baylor and UConn were on different sides of the bracket and could meet in a championship game on Tuesday night.

For Griner, her freshman year has been an amazing ride and she may have come along at a time when women’s college basketball needed her the most.  She plays the game above the rim like most fans of the men’s game expect to see it.  She runs the court like Amar’e Stoudemire and protects the rim like Dwight Howard. Video of her dunking has become so common it can longer be referred to as viral.  I know I will be watching when she takes the court against the Huskies on Sunday and I’m sure many other male sports fans who never cared for the women’s game are planning to do the same. 

Most importantly, we must always be reminded that she is a freshman.  Imagine when (if?) she plays as a senior and has a more polished offensive game and an even better sense of what she can do physically.  Maybe she will even grow a couple more inches as college freshmen tend to do.

No matter what happens against UConn on Easter Sunday, Brittney Griner has done something UConn’s 76-game winning streak has not been able to do: capture a national audience.

3 Comments

Filed under Basketball, Baylor University, Final Four, NCAA Tournament, University of Connecticut, Women's Basketball, Women's College Basketball

Watching Duke Survive…

Once upon a time, there was a commercial where an imposter thirsty for Bud Light tries to impersonate everyone’s favorite basketball coach with the funny name.  His  response of “Yes.  I’m Coach Crih-jah-new-ski” is infamous in beer commercial lore.  But for the last half decade, Coach Mike Krzyzewski has been holding the empties of coaches like Roy Williams, Tom Izzo, Thad Matta, Ben Howland and other final four competitors.

Coach K and Duke University haven’t appeared in a NCAA Final Four since 2004.  In fact, they hadn’t advanced past the Elite Eight since then.  This season, Duke was the team that least deserved a number one seed.  They were at the top of a weak Atlantic Coast Conference that saw Maryland, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech struggle while North Carolina and NC State fell off the college basketball map.  Many thought West Virginia, their opponent on Saturday, deserved the last number one seed over the Blue Devils from Durham, North Carolina.

Before the tournament began, ESPN’s conglomerate of 12 college basketball experts picked their Final Fours.  In the South Region, just three analysts picked Duke to advance into the Final Four.  Four experts took Baylor and the remainder jumped on the Villanova bandwagon.  So much for being a number one seed and a favorite.  It’s too bad Hubert Davis didn’t follow his Carolina blue blood and pick against the Devils, then it would have been even more stacked against Duke.  Although, Duke grad Jay Bilas did pick Nova, so it would  have all balanced out had allegiances been followed.  That was what viewers were expecting from Duke entering the first weekend of the tourney.

But then Kansas fell to Northern Iowa in the 2nd round, Syracuse stumbled against Butler in the Sweet Sixteen, Kentucky was outshot by West Virginia in the Elite Eight and Duke became the highest seeded team remaining.  They survived while the other “ones” fell.  They outlasted all but one number two seed, every number three seed and every number four seed to round out an improbable Final Four.  They survived.

The mainstream media wrote the Devils off, citing recent tournament struggles, the weak ACC and the lack of a standout player like the J.J. Redicks, Christian Laettners and Elton Brands of the past.  Analysts talked about the stumbling blocks ahead of Duke with strong teams like Villanova and Baylor waiting to take them and punch their own ticket to Indianapolis.  But Duke survived.

And why should we have doubted them?  They are coached by one of the best in the country.  Coach K is the chosen leader for USA Basketball, the man who turned down the Lakers and the emperor of a basketball institution.  After all the talk about Izzo and Williams, he was shuffled into the background of coaches that have had more success in recent years.  But Coach K survived.

This Blue Devil team doesn’t have Bobby Hurley or Grant Hill.  They don’t have Jay Williams or Shane Battier.  What they do have is a trio of stars that play unselfish basketball.  Three players that are upperclassmen in the age of one-and-done.  They have a senior point guard, the trademark teams want when tournament time rolls around.  While other player jumped ship, Duke players stuck around and survived.

Senior Jon Scheyer runs the show from the point, flanked by junior Nolan Smith, who poured in 29 points in the regional final against Baylor.  Duke’s third “S” is junior Kyle Singler, a lanky small forward with a high basketball IQ and a great all-around game.  All three averaged better than 17 points a game during the regular season.  Mix in role players like senior big men Brian Zoubek and Lance Thomas and the young Plumlee brothers and the recipe that Coach K used for years suddenly turned out another successful dish, right under our noses.  The taste may not have been there for the last half decade, but the recipe survived.

Kudos to Duke for doing it again when no one thought they would.  The darling story of the tournament may be Butler, the top coach in the world may be Izzo and the hottest team may be West Virginia, but the team no one thought should be a number one seed may just have the right formula to win the whole thing and survive.  This isn’t Coach K’s first rodeo and while pre-Final Four press conferences will focus on the amazing story of newcomer Brad Stevens of Butler, the enigmatic Bob Huggins and the all-everything Izzo, Krzyzewski will wait, surviving the press conferences before putting his product on the floor.

The predecessor to the famous Bud Light commercial with Coach K featured the same freeloader trying to pass himself off as Dr. Galakiewicz, only it comes out as “Gally-week-its”.  When asked if he’d ever been in a limo before, he replies, “In a limo this small.”  Certainly, Coach K and Duke have been in the Final Four limo before, but maybe not one with such a small amount of hype.

I get the feeling they like it that way.

3 Comments

Filed under ACC, Basketball, College Basketball, Duke University, Final Four, NCAA Tournament