Tag Archives: NCAA Basketball Tournament

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

Watching Cornell ease their pain…

For so many colleges and universities, March Madness is a time of excitement where conference tournaments can lead to dancing and high hopes can lead to a date with cinderella.  For the Cornell Big Red, it was an oppportunity to think about something else besides the six suicides on the school’s campus this school year.

The Ivy League’s champion and the NCAA tournament’s cinderella saw their historic run come to an end on Thursday night in a 62-45 loss to Kentucky, after having advanced to the sweet sixteen for the first time in the school’s history.  They won their first two games of the tournament over Temple and Wisconsin, the first two tourney victories for the prestigious university.  But perhaps the biggest victory for this proud team was their ability to take the student body’s mind off of the sad reality that the term “suicide school” has resurfaced, returning from the dark part of the university’s legacy.

Six students have taken their own lives at the Ithaca, New York campus in the last six months.  The rash of suicides came to a head in mid-March when police recovered the body of engineering major William Sinclair, a sophomore who plunged off of a bridge that goes over one of the many gorges near campus.  The very next day, Matthew Zika jumped from a different bridge near campus.  Zika was a junior who was also studying engineering.

In February, another student jumped from a bridge.  In the fall semester, three other Cornell scholars did the same.  Combining that with five other members of the Big Red family who lost their lives due to illness or accident, and the Ithaca campus has been sent reeling, leading to officials stationing police officers at all bridges around campus and extending counseling hours for those students who need the support.

Beyond that, campus personnel has taken upon themselves to knock on every door of students living in Cornell residence halls and instructing the faculty at the school to “put the academic rigor that [they] know is part of Cornell in proper perspective,” according to Susan Murphy, vice president of student and academic services.

The rash of suicides are the first on Cornell’s campus since 2005, but the school has a dark history that led to its being tagged as a “suicide school.”  Between 2002 and the spring of 2009, there were five suicides at Cornell.  In the six years prior, there were 11 students who took their lives.  

The university has taken their reputation as a rigorous school and learned from what those drastic consequences can be.  Their student services and mental health programs are models for colleges across the country.  The administration changed their interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to enable them to contact parents and family without a student’s consent when a pupil’s grades slip or indicators of mental health problems arise.  Students quickly learn to ask for help and are encouraged to constantly take a mental inventory as they head into difficult academic periods.

For the Big Red basketball team, those rigors are compounded by playing a sport and competing within the Ivy League’s weekend-dominated schedule.  The league competes only on Fridays and Saturdays, allowing for student-athletes to focus on schoolwork during the week.  This makes for weekend-long road trips that saw the Big Red play at Penn and Princeton in successive days in February and at Brown and Yale on a Friday and Saturday in March.

But the team became a rallying point for the Cornell campus this season.  After defeating schools like Massachusetts, Alabama, St. Joseph’s and St. John’s, the Big Red traveled to Lawrence, Kansas and gave the Jayhawks everything they could handle before falling, 71-66.  The strength of that performance eventually led to the team being ranked in the top 25 for a brief stretch.

The calendar turned, the out-of-conference season transitioned into the Ivy League schedule and the spring semester began in Ithaca.  Then the suicides came, culminating in the March deaths of Sinclair and Zika in consecutive days.

On Selection Sunday, the Big Red drew Temple in the first round, a team from a conference they knew well, led by a coach that Cornell’s Steve Donahue knew very well.  Many (including me) picked Fran Dunphy’s Temple Owls to take out his former assistant and the Big Red, but Cornell fans knew better.  This team was good, not just Ivy League good, but NCAA tourney good.  It wasn’t even close: Cornell 78, Temple 65. 

In the second round, the team would face another slow-down team, this one from the Big Ten in Wisconsin.  The pundits talked about how this was another team Cornell could handle, and they did: Cornell 87, Wisconsin 69.  This meant a Sweet Sixteen trip to Syracuse, New York of all places.  The Carrier Dome sits just 55 miles from the Ithaca campus.  The opponent: Kentucky.  Could it be?  Could the Big Red take down Calipari’s freshmen sensations?

Cornell took an early 10-2 lead, getting the red-wearing crowd at the dome excited.  Then the Wildcats finished the half on a 30-6 run to take control at halftime, 32-16.  The Big Red had their moments in the second half, cutting the lead to six with 5:42 left after a Louis Dale three-pointer, but Kentucky pulled a way in the end, winning by 17.

The run was over.  But the impact this team had on the university is immeasurable.  They went 2-1 against three top 25 teams that all the experts deemed to be superior.  They took the focus of the school off of homework, exams and suicide and let them dive into three amazing college basketball games in a seven-day span.  They were the darlings of the sports world for a week and received media attention for something that wasn’t the half-dozen tragedies from this school year. 

No matter what the score against Kentucky was, this tournament was a win for Cornell’s Big Red.  We can only hope that the future of the Ithaca school holds more celebrations than funerals.

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Filed under Basketball, College Basketball, Cornell Big Red, Ivy League, NCAA Tournament

Watching a national columnist slam UNLV…

I don’t usually play the role of a “homer” in my columns.  I try to write about what I know and what I’m passionate about.  Often times that ends up being the Mountain West Conference.  For the record, I live in Las Vegas, went to UNLV, have a wife who went to BYU and have a rooting interest in those two teams and the MWC.  Even in columns like ones where I stick up for the MWC getting squeezed by ESPN (see HERE), observe the Pac-10’s decline at the hands of the Mountain West (see HERE) or make predictions on the outcome of the NCAA tournament (see HERE), I keep the Rebels and UNLV out of it.  But one thing I will not do, is stand by and watch the Rebel basketball program and coach Lon Kruger get criticized by a national columnist at CBS, especially when the Mountain West and UNLV are two of the best stories of the year in NCAA basketball.  So, please allow me this one opportunity to act as a “homer” and defend the program I know best.

Last night, CBS Sportsline posted a column by Gregg Doyel, one of the network’s national columnists working NCAA basketball.  The article titled “UNLV’s choice not to call timeout ends its season” can be read HERE and I encourage all to do so.

In the column, Doyel rehashes the final minute of the UNLV-Northern Iowa game.  In a nutshell, here is what happened in that first round matchup’s final moments:

  • UNLV’s Oscar Bellfield hit a three-pointer to tie the game at 66 with 37 seconds left.
  • Northern Iowa brings the ball up and runs clock with tight pressure and trapping defense from UNLV.
  • With about five seconds left, the ball makes it to Ali Farokhmanesh who hits a three to put UNI up 69-66.
  • Bellfield runs the ball up court and has it knocked out-of-bounds with about two seconds left.
  • UNLV’s Tre’von Willis misses a three-pointer at the buzzer that wasn’t even that close and UNI wins it to advance to round two against Kansas.

Doyel identifies the fatal flaw of the Rebels to be Kruger’s ignorance in not calling at timeout following Bellfield’s converted three-point field goal.  He proposes that had this been done, the Rebels would have been in better shape to win the game by setting up their defense.  The Rebels played frantic defense in those final seconds, sending double teams at point guard Kwadzo Ahelegbe, trying to force him to give up the ball (Ahelegbe had scored UNI’s last eight points).  Several passes went around the court, some good, some bad and some nearly forced into a turnover.  Eventually the ball swung to Farokhmanesh who made the improbable three with nary a defender in sight.

Was the ball rotation poor on UNLV’s part?  Yes.  Did the kid make an amazing shot.  Absolutely.  If you told Kruger that the shot to put UNI ahead would be from 35-feet away as opposed to a drive to the hoop where a foul could be called or a mid-range jumper, I’m sure the coach would have taken those odds.  And that’s what UNLV got.  A frantic scramble, that Doyel infers Northern Iowa intended to have happen, followed by a crazy deep shot that went in.

Doyel postulates that had a timeout been called where Kruger and staff could set up the team’s defense, they would have undoubtedly known to get a hand in Farokhmanesh’s face.  I contend that the team may have played a similar defense with or without a timeout.  If pressure wasn’t thrown in the face of Ahelegbe, he would have held his dribble at midcourt until the shot clock was exhausted to five or ten seconds and then drove the basket.  The Rebels’ defense got the ball moving, gave them a couple of opportunities at a turnover and forced Northern Iowa to take a shot from just inside the parking lot.  I don’t see what’s wrong with that.

Furthermore, UNI had no timeouts.  Had Kruger taken his final timeout it would have given him an opportunity to set up a defense but would also have given UNI the chance to design a play and get their offense ready for the final 37 seconds. 

Would Doyel have criticized Kruger and the Rebs if they called a timeout and that led to a great set of back picks and an open shot?  Would he declare that UNLV handed Northern Iowa the win because Kruger put the time in their hands to design a play?

Would Doyel praise UNLV for letting the flow of the game come to them had the shot from Farokhmanesh clanged off iron and been rebounded by the Rebels, leading to a game-winning shot from Willis or Bellfield? 

Basketball is a game of inches and the Rebels poured their heart into a game where the last few inches belonged to the other team.

Perhaps the worst part about Doyel’s attack on the Rebels yesterday were the words he had about the UNLV program in general. He wrote:

“[UNLV] does silly stuff like let Tre’Von Willis and Chace Stanback jack 3-pointers when they can’t make them. It has defensive lapses. It loses focus, and boom! Trouble. I don’t know who to blame for it. Maybe nobody. Maybe Kruger’s choice of personnel.

Kruger has made UNLV relevant again, but he has done it by turning UNLV into Transfer U. The best three or four players on roster are from somewhere else, including leading scorer Willis (from Memphis) and No. 2 scorer Stanback (UCLA) and versatile, but injured, wing Derrick Jasper (Kentucky). Kansas transfer Quintrell Thomas will become eligible next season. Terrific. More people from elsewhere. It’s not the most stable way to run a program, and when games come down to a final play, a final second, building on such an unstable foundation might be a problem.”

Wow. An “unstable” program with unstable players. Does this guy not know Lon Kruger and his track record? Kruger has won Big 10 (with Illinois), SEC (Florida) and MWC (UNLV) conference championships and finished second in the Big 12 at Kansas State in a year where he took the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. Kruger took Florida to the Final Four in 1994 and has revitalized a UNLV program where they were left for dead after Jerry Tarkanian left town, being coached by cast-offs like Rollie Massimino and Charlie Spoonhour. Kruger’s overall record at the collegiate level is 455-295.

The fact that UNLV takes transfers from other schools is both common in NCAA schools and a testimony to the type of program Kruger runs. Willis came from John Calipari’s Memphis program where he averaged 2.6 points a game as a freshman and wanted a fresh start where he could play more. He red-shirted one year and has started for the Rebels for the past two, putting him in the UNLV program for a total of three years. Stanback has a similar story. He was a freshman on the 2007-2008 UCLA Final Four team that lost to Memphis in the national semifinals. After his freshman year he too opted for a fresh start and landed in Vegas, red-shirting the 2008-09 season and playing his first year with UNLV this season. Jasper came from Kentucky the same year Stanback did, though he hadn’t played since a mid-season knee injury.

What did all these players have in common? They wanted to play basketball in a system they could excel in for a coach that has had success everywhere he’s been. The fact that they left top programs shows that the common denominator here is playing time. They wanted to be at a school where they got some run. How horrible is that?

As Doyel puts it, UNLV is now “Transfer U.” That connotation makes it a negative thing, but one could also see it as a positive since so many good players gravitate to a program where their talents can be used and they feel at home. Do we cheapen the draw of a New England Patriots squad because they get players through free agency that want to play for Bill Belichick? Do we downgrade a San Antonio Spurs team that attracts free agents for the chance to be on a contender where the players put team first? So why knock UNLV for accepting transfers that want to play ball?

An even more asinine comment is that the Rebels’ perceived erratic and “unstable” play at the end of the UNI game was a by-product of there being so many (two) transfers on the floor. Does Doyel really believe that the reason this miracle shot connected was because Chace Stanback and Tre’von Willis are transfers? Come on. Kruger runs a well-prepared team in which where you come from matters very little. Any team that makes the tournament plays smart enough and is well-coached enough to maintain a defensive set in a close game.  Can we really blame this on transfer players at this point in a season?  Besides, Stanback was on the bench in defensive sets because of foul trouble against UNI late in the game.  So the one transfer, Willis, cost his team the game because -wait for it- he’s a transfer?

What Doyel overlooks is that UNLV also recruits players out of high school. The other three starters in the first round game against Northern Iowa (Bellfield, Anthony Marshall and Brice Massamba) were all Kruger recruits. Bench players Justin Hawkins, Kendall Wallace and Matt Shaw were also recruits brought in by the UNLV program.

I challenge Doyel to find successful programs in NCAA basketball that don’t accept top transfers from other programs. Is it better to have players that come to your school for one year prior to jolting the NBA?

Ask UCLA, USC and North Carolina how they feel about that strategy.

Doyel surely knows that NCAA tournament time is tough and that games are decided in an instant and often by plays of supernatural legend.  UNLV was beaten by uch a play.  They didn’t lose because of a timeout that wasn’t called or for having too many transfer players on their roster.  The Rebels and the MWC are two of the biggest stories in the NCAA this year and Doyel would know that had he covered them for more than just a single game.

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Filed under Basketball, College Basketball, Mountain West Conference, NCAA Tournament, UNLV

Watching the first round of the NCAA tournament…

High seeds, low seeds, upsets, cinderellas and erasers are spinning sports fans’ heads this week, but everyone’s bracket will have to be in ink by Thursday morning when the madness begins in earnest. 

Looking at this year’s field, I am widely uninspired by most of the high seeds beyond those on the top line, making it an interesting year to pick a posh team lower down on the list of seedings.  The first round is rife with high seeds that have  tough matchups, top teams limping into the tourney, low seeds on fire and underdogs that could sneak into round two or beyond.

Here are the games I’m watching closely this Thursday and Friday:

MIDWEST REGION

The Midwest has largely been analyzed as the region loaded with strong teams on the top five lines, with critics saying #1 seed Kansas got jobbed when they were named the tournament’s number one overall but were placed in the toughest region.  The next three seeds after KU are killers with Ohio State, Georgetown and Maryland waiting in the wings.  Each of those schools are popular sleeper picks to make a deep run.  But what I like in this region are some of the middle seeds and how they match up.

#5 Michigan State versus #12 New Mexico State seems like a cut-and-dry matchup with Tom Izzo and his tournament success, but MSU has not looked right all year and I get the feeling that they are ripe for an early exit.   The Spartans better not sleep on the Aggies’ guard combination of Jahmar Young and Jonathan Gibson as both can fill it up, averaging nearly 40 combined points a game.  MSU seems like they aren’t on the ball and haven’t really dominated any team in the second half of the season.  I see NMSU as a nice 12 vs. 5 upset pick with low risk as I feel Maryland and Greivis Vasquez take out the Spartans if they sneak by the Aggies.

#6 Tennessee against #11 San Diego State is deceiving if one looks just at the seeding of these two squads.  After starting 16-1, the Vols finished 10-6 including some blowout losses that weren’t even close.  In contrast, the Aztecs come in on fire, winning the Mountain West Conference and nine of ten games going into the dance.  The Vols will have trouble with Kawhi Mitchell, the MWC’s freshman of the year, who will give Wayne Chism all he can handle. Additionally, D.J. Gay and Billy White will be formidable matchups defensively for UT.  I like SDSU in this game and to make it to the Sweet Sixteen.

#7 Oklahoma State and #10 Georgia Tech present maybe the best matchup of any first round game in the field of 64.  If you haven’t seen OSU’s James Anderson yet, he is a scoring machine and the kind of player who can lead a team deep into the tourney on his own.  Anderson averages over 22 points a game and nearly six boards a contest.  He’s been on a tear down the stretch, scoring 25 or more in six of the Cowboys’ last eight games.  GT is one of the more disappointing teams in the country, sneaking into the tourney on the heels of an ACC championship appearance.  But Tech is one of the most talented teams in the field and it wouldn’t be a shocker if they put it together and made a deep run behind coach Paul Hewitt and studs like Derrick Favors and Gani Lawal.  No matter who wins this game, Ohio State is going to have its hands full in the second round and may not make it to the second weekend.

WEST REGION

This region is the one with the most question marks.  Many are hesitant to move Syracuse all the way to the Final Four until the team shows they can play at full strength with the return of Arinze Onuaku.  The rest of the region is tenuous at best.  Kansas State (#2) is a nice pick to go far, but aren’t overwhelmingly impressive as a two-seed.  Pittsburgh has gotten by on great coaching from Jamie Dixon and overachievement up and down their roster, but how will they fair in the dance?  Fourth-ranked Vanderbilt stumbled down the stretch and isn’t steeped with tourney history.  The fifth (Butler), sixth (Xavier) and seventh (BYU) seeded teams are all from mid-majors, though the Musketeers from Xavier and BYU’s Cougars are nice picks to make deep runs…

#5 Butler takes on #12 UTEP in an intriguing 5-12 matchup from mid-major conferences.  I see Butler as a Gonzaga-type program that is now a perennial participant but the mystique of cinderella has faded away.  UTEP is a tough squad that earned their at-large bid and I think they will keep this game very close.  The Miners’ loss to Houston ended a 16-game winning streak and I see them as looking to prove their worth in this matchup.  UTEP’s Derrick Caracter is going to give Butler all it can handle and the Bulldogs may not have an answer for the Miners’ Randy Culpepper.  This will be a tough game for Butler and I see them getting knocked off in this first round.

#7 Brigham Young faces #10 Florida, who has a twelve-game tournament winning streak dating back to their consecutive championships in 2006 and 2007.  Florida was awarded a controversial at-large bid and draws a team in BYU who is under-seeded. The committee seems to seed the Cougars a couple of slots lower every year because they have to play in a bracket that competes on Thursday and Saturday, since the religious school will not play on Sundays.  This is bad news for Florida as BYU is my favorite pick for a team seeded below a four to get to their regional final and I would not be surprised to see them in the Final Four, especially since the West plays their games next weekend in Salt Lake City, Utah, an hour’s drive from Provo.  BYU’s Jimmer Fredette is similar to OSU’s Anderson as a player who can carry his team through a tournament.  Fredette shoots lights out and needs to be guarded once he crosses the half court line.  The Cougars don’t make mistakes, run up-and-down the court and play incredibly cerebral basketball.  I’ve watched them all year as they are in the Mountain West Conference and I see them taking out the Gators, moving past K-State and into the Sweet Sixteen.

EAST REGION

This region sets up to have the best potential showdown between one and two seeds, as Kentucky and West Virginia may be on a collision course.  Those two may be playing the best ball of anyone in the country right now and if they were in different regions they may have been a popular pick to meet in the Final Four or the national championship game.  The rest of the region bores me for the most part with some struggling teams (Missouri, Wake Forest, Texas) and some “blah” teams from the middle pack of their conferences (Marquette, Wisconsin, Clemson).  There are two games, however, that I really look forward to watching.

#5 Temple faces #12 Cornell in a matchup of coaches that have more history than any other two in the first round.  Temple coach Fran Dunphy was head coach at the Ivy League’s Pennsylvania University from 1989-2006 before moving to another Philly college, Temple.  Cornell’s coach, Steve Donahue, was an assistant for Dunphy for over a decade at Penn.  Needless to say, the two know each other well.  Dunphy has never lost to a team coached by a protegé.  The unfortunate thing for both of these teams is that they are both under-seeded.  Temple could easily have earned a spot as a three or four seed and Cornell, who was ranked in the top 25 at one point this year and gave overall number one Kansas a run for their money, would have made sense as a nine or ten seed.  In a perfect world, these teams would meet in the second round instead of the first.  Because of their history, I see the Owls running over Cornell’s Big Red.  Temple has won ten in a row and 12 of 13.  They won a tough Atlantic-10 conference this year and I believe the backcourt of Juan Fernandez and Ryan Brooks will be too much for Cornell and whomever the Owls play in round two.

#6 Marquette and #11 Washington play in San Jose, California this week and at a glance, the Golden Eagles are the clear favorite after navigating through a wicked hard Big East conference.  But which team will show up?  The Marquette that beat Villanova in the Big East quarterfinals or the team that got boat-raced by Georgetown in the conference’s semis?  The Eagles are a tough team with a great lead player in Lazar Haywood, but beyond him there isn’t much left in the cupboard.  I see UW keying on him, especially with the time they’ve had this week to break down film.  The Huskies won the Pac-10 tournament after getting hot down the stretch.  They haven’t lost in a month, riding a seven-game winning streak to the dance.  Quincy Pondexter and Isaiah Thomas are the real deal and may be one of the best one-two punch combinations in all of college basketball.  But the real question is this: despite the noted struggles by the Pac-10 this year (see HERE), is their tournament champion and second best regular season team really that much worse than the Big East’s fifth or sixth best team?  They are still a major conference and I’ll take the hotter team with the better stars in this one.  Give me the Huskies.

SOUTH REGION

Every time I fill out a bracket, this region looks different  for me.  Duke appears to be the weakest one seed, but something tells me that Coach K has a fighting chance with Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith who are all averaging over 17 points a game.  #2 Villanova seems like they just aren’t right, but a senior point guard like Scottie Reynolds can change anything.  Baylor is an intriguing three seed, but something tells me the Bears won’t be in the Final Four.  Perhaps my favorite story is that of #16 Arkansas-Pine Bluff (see HERE), winners of the play-in game last night over Winthrop, who will surely exit the tourney when Duke takes care of them later this week.  Beyond that, here’s what I’ll be watching in the South Region on Thursday and Friday:

#4 Purdue faces #13 Siena in a matchup focused on the Boilermakers’ loss of Robbie Hummel late in the season.  Siena has won their first round game in two consecutive NCAA tournaments, beating Vanderbilt by 21 as a #13 seed in 2008 and taking down Ohio State as a nine seed in 2009.  The Saints have tournament experience and will not be surprised by the atmosphere against Purdue.  The Boilermakers haven’t been the same without Hummel and seem ripe for an upset in this game.  Take Siena.

#5 Texas A&M is a popular pick to be upset against #12 Utah State as everyone tries to find the magical 12 seed that will ride their way into the Sweet Sixteen.  However, I don’t see it that way.  A&M is better than their seeding indicates and even though they’ve had stumbles in past tourneys, I see them handling USU.  Donald Sloan is one of the best point guards in the country, B.J. Holmes is a sharpshooter and Dash Harris (who should be back from injury for the first game) is a shutdown defender.  Utah State didn’t look like anything special against New Mexico State in the WAC final and I think they will be over-matched in this one.  I see A&M moving on, then defeating Siena or Purdue on their way to a Sweet Sixteen game in Houston, just under 100 miles away from A&M’s campus.

Enjoy the first round games.  May all your 12 seeds win and may your Final Four be intact come Saturday.

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Filed under Basketball, College Basketball, NCAA Tournament