Well, I blew it on Sunday.
Every week when I cast my ballot for the AP basketball poll I use the 25th spot to try to give a tiny bit of recognition to a smaller school, one that isn’t likely to compete for the national championship in April but is playing good basketball without getting much notice for it.
I know—because coaches have told me—that showing up in “also receiving votes,” is a big deal to the schools I vote for and I have the luxury of being able to do it because the poll has absolutely nothing to do with deciding the national champion. It exists to give people something to talk about and to allow players to talk about being a ranked team or, perhaps more important, beating a ranked team.
I’m not exactly sure how many years I’ve been an AP voter but I remember when I started casting the 25th place vote for the little guys: it was during the ’99-2000 season when I was working on “The Last Amateurs.” Lafayette had won something like 14 straight games and had a good basketball team. The Leopards had won in overtime at Princeton—when Princeton was still very good—and had lost in the last minute on the road to a ranked Villanova team. So, one week in February, I ranked them 25th in my poll.
I didn’t think much of it until a few days later when I was in Easton for a game and the sports information people told me that someone had voted for the Leopards in the poll. (This was before AP made each pollster’s vote available on a weekly basis). I’m pretty sure they didn’t even know I had a vote. So, I told them I had been the voter. That pretty much made me a hero to everyone but Coach Fran O’Hanlon. “Now the kids may get big heads about it,” he moaned, half-joking. Pat Brogan, his assistant coach, who had a sign on his desk that said, “recruit every day,” had already blown up the “also receiving votes,” into giant type and was sending it to recruits.
It never occurred to me that something like that mattered even a little bit. Apparently, it did.
So, I began making it a habit to the point where the guys on the AP desk in New York would actually speculate before I told them who was No. 25 on who I might be voting for that week. I made a general rule—sometimes broken—that if the No. 25 team kept winning it kept its vote.
The whole thing actually got some attention in 2006 when I began voting for George Mason in the poll in early January. I’d seen the Patriots play and thought they were really good. In fact, after they beat Wichita State in February I moved them up to—I think—No. 21. By then others had noticed and they actually cracked the poll at No. 25. After that happened, Joseph White, the AP sports editor here in Washington did a little story on me and my quirky No. 25 vote.
I like to think I’ve always had an appreciation for the little guy in college hoops. I grew up going to games in Columbia’s University Gym and was insane enough to actually LISTEN to games on the student radio stations of Columbia (WKCR); Fordham (WFUV) and Seton Hall (WSHU). I had a math tutor when I was in seventh grade named Steve Handel who was a Columbia grad. He frequently took me to Columbia games during the golden era of Jim McMillan, Heyward Dotson, Dave Newmark and Roger Walaszek. The fifth starter, if you’re scoring at home, was Billy Ames. That group actually reached the Sweet Sixteen in 1968 before losing to a Davidson team coached by—you guessed it—Lefty Driesell.
Anyway, back to Sunday.
Two weeks ago I cast my No. 25 ballot for Army. The Cadets are off to a great start and were 7-2, including a win over a Harvard team (who I almost voted for) that has beaten Boston College and lost a close game at Connecticut. This Sunday I was torn: Army had beaten Division III Mt St. Vincent’s in less-than-convincing fashion. Harvard was still 7-2 and Cornell was 8-2.
The Big Red is one of college basketball’s more fun stories right now. Steve Donahue left a fairly cushy job as Fran Dunphy’s No. 1 assistant at Penn nine years ago to take over a woebegone program that had dropped to the bottom of The Ivy League. He methodically rebuilt—I suspect that’s the only way to rebuild in Ithaca, New York—and after five losing seasons during which Cornell was 51-85, he began to get it turned around in 2007—going 16-13 and finishing third in The Ivy League. The breakthrough came the next year: a 14-0 Ivy record, the school’s first NCAA bid since 1988 and a 22-6 record. Last year produced another Ivy title and this year with a core of senior starters, including Ryan Wittman, the son of former Indiana sharpshooter Randy Wittman, the Big Red is the real deal.
It has two losses to date: to Seton Hall and at Syracuse. It has wins at Alabama, at Massachusetts and at St. Joseph’s. So, I sat there on Sunday thinking I should give Cornell the 25th place vote after it survived in overtime against Davidson in the opening round of The Holiday Festival in New York. I’d already voted for the Big Red once earlier in the season before the loss to Seton Hall.
But I chickened out and stuck with Army. Here’s why: I knew Cornell had to play St. John’s in The Garden in the Holiday Festival final on Monday night. St. John’s is better this year. Its only loss had been at Duke in a good game and I really didn’t think the Red Storm was going to lose on a home court to Cornell. I figured the game would be competitive but St. John’s would win and people would be saying I jinxed Cornell.
Don’t think it doesn’t happen. When Ralph Willard was coaching at Holy Cross he pleaded with me to NOT vote his team No. 25 because the Crusaders always seemed to lose when I gave them a vote. What’s more, now that our votes are made public—which I think is a good idea—I’ve had people ridicule my 25th place votes so I really try to be sure there’s SOME logic behind them.
I gave the vote to Army. Cornell beat St. John’s, 71-66, coming from behind in the second half, outscoring the Red Storm 11-6 down the stretch to break a 60-60 tie. Oh Me Of Little Faith.
Listen, Cornell’s good and a great story too. I definitely want to make it to one of their games with Harvard once Ivy League play begins. In the meantime, their win over St. John’s is worthy of note—serious note. The last Ivy League team I remember beating St. John’s in the Holiday Festival was that Columbia team 42 years ago. I believe the final was something like 61-55. I know I was there—that was when the Festival was an eight team tournament and the last night was tripleheader.
I wish I’d been there last night but at least I had excuses—kids, the weather—for not being in New York. There’s NO excuse for my vote on Sunday night. Maybe I’ll vote the Big Red No. 24 this Sunday.
Several people asked yesterday where I stood on Bob Knight’s comments on John Calipari. I actually wrote my Sporting News column for next week on the topic and don’t like to copy myself too often but here’s my synopsis: Is Knight right that Kentucky would sell its soul to the devil to win and that Calipari’s track record—two vacated Final Fours—makes him tainted? Yes. Are those who respond that Knight never broke any NCAA rules but has broken just about every rule of etiquette, courtesy and how to treat other people right too? Yes.
But all of them miss the larger point: Kentucky isn’t the exception, it is the rule. There isn’t a big time program in this country that doesn’t put winning ahead of all the alleged values the presidents espouse. Heck, forget big time—Penn just fired a coach in December.
The other day I asked Mike Krzyzewski this question: “You were 38-47 after three seasons at Duke and you had a perfect graduation record. If you had kept winning at that rate and graduating players at that rate where would you be today?”
His answer: “Not coaching at Duke.”
Which is, of course, true everywhere. When Kentucky looks at Calipari it doesn’t look at a coach with two vacated Final Fours. It looks at a coach who took one program that was way down (Massachusetts) and another that had slipped (Memphis) and went to The Final Four. The rest is just detail.
So, bottom line: Knight’s right (although his acting as if this is something new in college basketball is kind of silly) but the problem isn’t Calipari or Kentucky, the problem is the value system we’ve built in big-time college athletics. And that isn’t likely to change anytime in the near future—if ever.