Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Updated - This week's radio segments (The Sports Reporters, The Gas Man, Tony Kornheiser Show)

On Wednesday I joined The Sports Reporters' Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin in the normal timeslot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's). Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment that takes a look at Tiger Woods' upcoming press conference, this weekends Final Four, and the REAL meaning of Cinderella.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters


I also joined The Gas Man in my normal Wednesday evening slot (8:25 pm PT).  This week our segment took a long look at the great NCAA Tournament along with some great stories of the state of Indiana and its great basketball fans.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Gas Man


And once again on Thursday, I joined Tony Kornheiser's newest The Tony Kornheiser Show in my normal slot at 11:05 am ET.  This week it was the normal Tony, and we spent much of the time discussing this weekend's Final Four.

Click here to listen to the segment (starts within the 1st minute): Tony Kornheiser Show

Returning to Indiana always puts a smile on my face; A look back at 'A Season on the Brink'

ON THE ROAD TO INDIANA—Okay, about to be on the road. I’m not so crazy that I’d try to write while driving. I have enough trouble with it while sitting in a chair.

I always enjoy going back (home again) to Indiana. It brings back lots of fond memories. You see, regardless of what Bob Knight thought about ‘Season on the Brink,’—we have a civil, ‘hi, how’s it going,’ relationship these days for those who wonder—I made a lot of good friends while doing the book and still enjoy visiting there because most people I encounter could not be nicer. The reaction I have gotten through the years from most Indiana fans is, “gee, why was Coach Knight so upset, it isn’t as if it was a surprise to anyone that he uses profanity.”

You have to understand Knight—and I’m not claiming I do even though I was with him for 14 to 16 hours a day for most of six months—to figure out the answer to that question. I knew when I left Bloomington that Bob was going to find something not to like in the book. That’s the way he is. I never for a second expected him to call me when I sent him an advance copy and say, “Wow John, this is great, you really captured what it’s like to be inside the program.”

That’s just not who he is. On the night Indiana won the national championship in 1976, finishing the season undefeated (the last team to do that) Knight walked out of The Philadelphia Spectrum with a friend who was practically jumping up and down with excitement.

“You did it,” he said. “You won the national championship!”

This was Knight’s response: “Shoulda been two.”

He was still pouting because his 1975 team, which was probably better than the 1976 team had lost to Kentucky in the regional final after Scott May broke his arm and came back to play at far less than 100 percent.

All that said, when Royce Waltman, then an Indiana assistant called me and said, “Coach is angry because you left his profanity in the book,” my first reaction was, “Okay, now tell me what he’s really angry about.”

I honestly thought Royce was kidding or that Knight had said something like, “Do I really say f---- that often?”

Knight is great at denial. In fact, during the season I was there, he got into a big argument one night with a pal named Bob Murrey because he asked Bob to assess how he was doing at controlling his temper. When Murrey said he was doing okay, but not great, Knight got angry and insisted that Murrey was wrong that he was doing a GREAT job of controlling his temper.

Royce said he was completely serious that Knight thought I had agreed to leave his profanity out of the book. In fact, I vividly remember discussing the issue one night with Bob while we ate dinner at Chili’s, one of his favorite restaurants. He’d been especially uptight in practice that day and had called one player a word that women find especially offensive 14 times during one sequence. That’s an exact number. I counted when I listened to the tape.

I jokingly commented that night that the book might be the first sports book that had to be wrapped in brown paper with a warning for parents. Bob laughed and said something like, “Yeah I know, but you aren’t going to leave all my profanity in are you?”

My exact answer was this: “No Bob I’m not. I want the book to be shorter than War and Peace. But you understand that writing a book about you without the word f--- would be like writing a book about you without the word basketball.”

He said, “I understand that.”

But he didn’t understand nine months later. Looking back, I believe he honestly thought I had said I’d leave out his profanity. That’s another thing about Knight: as good as his memory is on some things (it isn’t nearly as good as he would have you believe it is) he often skews the past in his mind.

I remember early that season when Waltman and another assistant, Julio Salazar, had driven to South Bend to tape the local telecast of Notre Dame’s game on a Saturday afternoon—yup, in those days you had to dostuff like that—and Knight wanted it broken down (offense, defense, certain plays and players) that night. Waltman told Knight that Salazar was working on it but it would be the next morning before it was ready.

A few hours later (after Indiana had played that night) Knight demanded to know where the tape was that Waltman had promised he would have right after the game.

Knight THOUGHT Waltman had said he’d have it after the game because that’s what he wanted. There are lots of other examples that anyone who has spent time with Knight can recite for you.

But enough on Knight. As I’ve often said, I will always be grateful to him for giving me the access that allowed me to write ‘Season.’ The book changed my life and allowed me to pick and choose my book topics from that day forward.

Plus, I did make a lot of friends that year, including the players and the coaches and a lot of people I met at IU and around the state. I’m still friends with Bob’s son Pat (who was 15 that year and still jokingly refers to me as his, ‘former babysitter,’ since I picked him up at school quite a bit) and the school, the town and the whole state will always have a warm spot in my heart.

I have one memory that stays with me—among many—perhaps above all the others. After Indiana lost in the NCAA Tournament that year to Cleveland State in Syracuse I walked from the locker room to the interview room with Knight who was, to say the least, mad at the world. After he finished with the media, he headed straight to the bus having left orders that his players were to clear out of the locker room immediately to fly home.

I wasn’t going back to Bloomington that night because I had to stay to cover Navy that evening (David Robinson) for The Washington Post. I walked back to the locker room where I was accosted by a security guard who told me not only could I not go in the locker room I couldn’t be in the hallway. The guy saw my media credentials and started literally shoving me from the door.

As luck would have it, Brian Sloan, who was a redshirt that year but would go on to be very solid player, was coming out of the locker room at that moment. Seeing what was happening, he came over, put his hand on the guy’s shoulder and said, “leave him alone, he’s with us.”

The guard—stunned—backed off instantly. I shook hands with Brian, thanked him and went into the locker room to see everyone who was still there—I didn’t know if I’d see a lot of them when I got back to Bloomington since the season was over—and, in some cases, say goodbye.

I’ve never forgotten Brian Sloan for doing that. Even now, 24 years later, it puts a smile on my face. Just as returning to Indiana always puts a smile on my face.


Two quick notes: To those of you who wrote in to ‘correct,’ my Post column in which I said that, according to the NCAA, John Calipari has never coached in a Final Four game: I was making a point. Of course I know about U-Mass in ’96 and Memphis in ’08—I WAS THERE. But when your appearance is ‘vacated,’ by the NCAA it never happened as far as they are concerned…

And: There was a question yesterday from a poster and we’ve had quite a few e-mails about the publication of my next book: It will officially be published on May 12th and the title is: “Moment of Glory—The Year Unknowns Ruled The Majors.” It focuses on 2003 when among the major champions (and runners-up) only Jim Furyk (U.S. Open) had ever come close to contending in a major—and he had never won one. It is about how one’s life changes radically after achieving sudden fame or just missing that moment. I really enjoyed doing it because I found the guys involved had great stories to tell. I believe it can be pre-ordered at Amazon right now. Thanks to all those who asked.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Final Four weekend is still a special time; My favorite memories of past weekends – Wooden, Valvano, Manning and more

Late tomorrow night I will arrive in Indianapolis for The Final Four. This will be sixth time The Final Four has been played in Indy and the third different venue it has been played in there. In 1980, which was my second Final Four but my first as the lead writer for The Washington Post—in 1978 I was the newspaper’s night police reporter and George Solomon sent me to St. Louis to write sidebars because I’d covered college hoops in my free time during the season—the games were played in Market Square Arena, which is now long gone.

By the time The Final Four returned in 1991, the games were being played in The Hoosier Dome. Now THAT building is gone and they will play in Lukas Oil Stadium, which I haven’t seen yet but looks absolutely huge on television.

Market Square seated maybe 16,000 people. It was a really nice basketball arena and your sense was that everyone who came to The Final Four was there because they loved basketball. That changed years ago, sort of like The Super Bowl. Now a lot of people are there just to be there and the NCAA is insistent on getting 70,000 people into the dome even though it means playing on a raised court in the middle of the football field.

Look closely at your TV set on Saturday night and you will see Jim Nantz, Clark Kellogg and their statistician sitting on raised chairs so that they have a normal view of the court. The two head coaches will be sitting on little stools up on the court—or standing—while everyone on their benches sits below court level looking straight at the feet of those who are playing.

The worst seats in the building belong to the CBS PR people who get to sit directly behind Nantz and Kellogg and can’t see a thing. Everyone else just comes out of there with a strained neck.

The NCAA went to this set-up last year in Detroit and it isn’t going away because it means about 20,000 more tickets it can sell even if most of the seats are in the next county. The REALLY rich fans will be fine. Everyone else will have a better view by watching the message boards—or whatever they call them these days. Of course the NCAA will try to spin this to tell the world they’re doing this for, ‘the student-athletes.’

Here’s an idea for you to pass the time if you’re at home watching on TV this weekend: If you watch the press conferences count how many times the moderator says, ‘student-athletes.’ Last week in Syracuse at one point the moderator said it three times in one sentence. That, I believe, is a new record. I’ve said to different guys, “why not just call them players—what’s WRONG with being a player?” They all shake their heads, look around and say, “I’d get in trouble for that.”

I believe them. Big brother NCAA is always watching.

As with all old people, I find it hard to believe that my first Final Four was 32 years ago. It was a thrill to go then and, you know what, it is still a thrill. I’m jaded and cynical and I hate how late the games start—in the good old days they actually played on Saturday AFTERNOON—and how long they take once they start.

But I still get a kick out of seeing the entire basketball community in the same place for a few days. That’s not to say there aren’t members of the community who shouldn’t be in jail or something close to it. I have a basic theory: If you see a guy standing in the lobby of the coach’s hotel on a cell phone, he’s probably up to no good. If a guy comes up and acts like he’s your best friend and gives you a 70s soul shake run for your life. And if a coach you haven’t heard from for years who is out of work wants to buy you a beer, buy HIM the beer and get out of Dodge because he’s going to ask you to help him get a job.

For the most part though, it’s fun. People stand around the lobby and tell old stories. Old enemies sometimes hang out together laughing and joking. I remember one year bumping into John Chaney and John Calipari who were absolutely cracking one another up. This was not that many years after Chaney burst into a Calipari press conference at U-Mass wanting to fight him on the spot. (I would have bet on Chaney in an instant in that one).

Star coaches don’t like coming to The Final Four without their teams these days. Bob Knight only comes now because ESPN pays him. Prior to that he only came on occasion. Same with Mike Krzyzewski, although he’ll be there this weekend since he gets to bring his team along.

In the old days, they all went. I still remember seeing Dean Smith on the rent-a-car line in Seattle in 1984. “You need a car for the week?” I asked.

Dean shrugged. “I didn’t think I did,” he said. “I thought I’d be coming with my team.”

That was the year Indiana upset North Carolina when the Tar Heels had Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Kenny Smith, Brad Daugherty and Joe Wolf on the team.

Dean always went. John Wooden always went, even after he retired. I know I’ve told this story often but it bears repeating. At that same Seattle Final Four in 1984, Coach Wooden was there with his wife Nell, who was very sick and in a wheelchair. One night, after they’d spent time in the coach’s lobby, they said their goodnights and Coach Wooden began wheeling his wife across the lobby to the elevators. It was late and relatively quiet though the place was still crowded. Someone spotted them and just began to clap. Others picked up on it. By the time they reached the elevator bank everyone in the lobby was clapping for the Woodens.

That’s probably my favorite Final Four memory, right up there in a different way with N.C. State beating Houston; Villanova beating Georgetown; Kansas beating Oklahoma; Duke beating Vegas and George Mason just being there.

Actually the games are only part of The Final Four for me. Seeing lots of old friends, hanging out in the media hospitality room late at night with the other old guys like Hoops Weiss and Bob Ryan and Malcolm Moran is still great fun. A lot of the stories begin with, “remember back in …”

I guess I should consider myself lucky that I can still remember most of the stories. I DO remember Jim Valvano running in circles looking for someone to hug and the look on Danny Manning’s face when he pulled down the last rebound—among other things.

The Final Four isn’t the same by any stretch of the imagination. But it’s still The Final Four and I’m lucky I still get the chance to go.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Today's Washington Post column on the Final Four

There may not be such a thing as a perfect Final Four, but the one that will begin on Saturday in Indianapolis comes pretty close.

It has a Cinderella practically playing on its home court.

It has a team that hasn't been to the Final Four in 51 years but is going back after a prodigal son came home.

It has a team whose coach always seems to find a way this time of year, playing in its sixth Final Four in 12 seasons.

And it has a villain, the team people love to hate, whether because it wins so often or because people have to have someone to root against once their team has gone home.

Those four teams, in case you spent the weekend wondering who the Redskins are going to draft, are Butler (Cinderella), West Virginia (prodigal son); Michigan State (coach who finds a way) and Duke (villain). Butler and Michigan State, both No. 5 seeds going into the tournament, will play the first game and Duke and West Virginia, a No. 1 and a No. 2, will play in the second game.

Before looking at those games, let's not forget who isn't going to be playing in the Lucas Oil Stadium. To begin with, three of the four No. 1 seeds -- Kansas, Syracuse and Kentucky. Each went out a round apart: Kansas losing to Northern Iowa in the second round, Syracuse in the round of 16 to Butler and Kentucky to West Virginia in the Elite Eight.

Anyone who has seen West Virginia play could not have been surprised by the outcome in Syracuse on Saturday night. The Mountaineers play exactly as they are coached to play by Bob Huggins -- always intense, always angry, never satisfied. Whether they are playing the 1-3-1 zone that completely baffled Kentucky or man-to-man, they are in the opponent's face on every defensive possession. They have an absolutely fearless shooter in Da'Sean Butler. They are mature -- juniors and seniors are the core of this team -- and they aren't likely to be shaken by a close game or the need for a big basket or a big stop. 

Click here for the rest of the column: This Final Four has it all

Semifinal Saturday should be back to its old form this year; Look back at the weekend

This SHOULD be a fun Final Four for the simple reason that the games should be close to the finish, regardless of who wins on Saturday. There’s no one nearly as good as North Carolina was a year ago and our long Saturday drought should come to an end.

Think about it. Semifinal Saturday is always billed as one of the best days in sports. Not so much the last five seasons. In 2004, both semis were decided in the final seconds: Georgia Tech’s Will Bynum hitting a buzzer-beater to beat Oklahoma State and Connecticut coming from behind the last three minutes to catch Duke.

Since then, there have been ten Saturday games played and not one of them was decided in the final seconds. Last year’s Connecticut-Michigan State game had the emotional element of the Spartans playing ‘for,’ Detroit but the game itself wasn’t that dramatic. Carolina-Villanova was over at halftime as was the title game two nights later. In 2008 the championship game between Kansas and Memphis was great but the Saturday games were both over before the last two minutes.

I just can’t see any of these four teams either collapsing or running away. For one thing, none of them play that style of basketball. Duke-West Virginia should be a donnybrook inside. Both teams play very good half-court defense, rebound like crazy and are inconsistent on offense. Butler and Michigan State have both played superbly to get this far and believe—correctly—that they are as capable of winning the title as anyone.

There are also great story lines, the most obvious being Butler, The Little School That Did, coming home to Indy to play The Final Four. For the record, Butler’s campus—I’m told—is the third closest to a Final Four site. Apparently Louisville in 1958 was a two-mile drive from Freedom Hall and UCLA traveled about three miles cross-town in 1967 and 1972 to the L.A. Sports Arena. (For some reason I had it in my mind that they played in Pauley Pavilion in ’67 but Matt Bonesteel at The Post says not so and since my memory isn’t what it used to be, I’m taking his word).

Butler’s not George Mason. For one thing, the Bulldogs had a tournament pedigree coming in—two recent Sweet 16s—and were a No. 5 seed. Mason was a No. 11 seed and had never won an NCAA Tournament game. But Butler didn’t back in by any means. It beat the top two seeds in the West, Syracuse and Kansas State and made big plays at the end in both games after falling behind. Frequently when an underdog loses the lead after having it for a while it spits the bit. That didn’t happen.

Michigan State’s two victories this weekend are a tribute to just how tough-minded the kids Tom Izzo recruits are year in and year out. Losing your point guard is hard enough but when he’s your best player—as Kalin Lucas was—no one would blame you if you mailed in the rest of the tournament. The Spartans not only won twice but if you watched them there’s no reason to believe they can’t win twice more. Izzo is just flat out good—which isn’t exactly going out on a limb since he’s now been to six Final Fours in 12 years and is going for a second national championship. He’s also a good guy, universally respected by his peers. You will never hear any whispers about Izzo or his program.

Bob Huggins has heard more than whispers through the years. He became kind of a national whipping boy because of his graduation rate at Cincinnati and because his players found off-court trouble often, including most famously a player pulling a ‘Blazing Saddles,’ move and taking a swing at a police horse. There were health issues too—drinking problems, a serious heart attack—and finally a battle with the school president he couldn’t win.

No one—NO ONE—ever said Huggins couldn’t coach and if they did they were flat out wrong. That’s why there wasn’t any doubt that West Virginia would be good when he came home to his alma mater three years ago. This is a classic Huggins team: it plays, “ugly,”—to quote assistant coach Billy Hahn—but it will guard you getting off the bus and rebound all day and all night. It is also mentally tough, a lot like its coach. Huggins was unhappy with the 23 turnovers the Mountaineers committed against Washington. I haven’t double-checked but I think the number was THREE in the Kentucky game? And that’s against a team that can really attack on defense. Joe Mazzulla’s performance, coming in for Truck Bryant at point guard, was phenomenal. Plus, he’s a smart, funny kid, the kind you want to root for to do well.

I think West Virginia’s the best team left. Its game with Duke, as I said, will probably be a 65-61 type of game. Let me pause here though to give some credit to Mike Krzyzewski for getting this group to The Final Four. I’ve said all year—and still believe—this isn’t even close to one of his best teams. The so-called Big Three—Jon Scheyer, Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith—are all nice players but wildly inconsistent shooters. Singler was zero-for-10 from the field yesterday. Scheyer had been in a slump until the second half of the Purdue game. Smith was excellent yesterday but has bouts when he can turn the ball over three times in four possessions.

But Duke’s good. It plays great defense and the four big guys it plays can’t throw the ball in the ocean but they get rebounds and make it tough to get inside.

Of course there will be the ritual whining about Duke’s draw and the charge that Brian Zoubek took with Duke down two late in the game. Yup, the Krzyzewski-haters (and they are a legion) will say he’s now won 793 games thanks to the officials. (I think they concede the 73 wins at Army may have been legit). Fine. If that makes you feel better, go ahead and think it. And if saying Krzyzewski’s one hell of a coach makes me a ‘Duke guy,’ that’s fine too. Somehow thinking Izzo is great doesn’t make me a ‘Michigan State guy,’ but that’s life.

Krzyzewski has NOT recruited as well the last few years as in past years. But he’s in his 11th Final Four—as many now as Dean Smith; one less than John Wooden. It’s tough to shoot that number down.

One other note on Baylor Coach Scott Drew who has done amazing work rebuilding that program after the Patrick Dennehy tragedy and the Dave Bliss debacle seven years ago. I’m sorry, I know this will upset some people but I have to say something about his comment yesterday that a postgame prayer is, “the right way to do things.”

Look, if Drew and his team want to pray before, during or after games, that is absolutely their right. But praying is neither right nor wrong on a universal level. For some people it is the right thing to do; for others it isn’t. I remember when I was working on ‘A Civil War,’ and Charlie Weatherbie was Navy’s coach. Weatherbie believed in praying as a team all day every day. On game day he led a prayer before pre-game breakfast; before the coach’s morning meeting; before the team met at the hotel; in the locker room before the game; on the field after the game; in the locker room right after that.

Once I got to know some of the players I asked them how they felt about all the prayers. Some thought it was great. Some shrugged it off. Some didn’t like it at all. “God has better things to do,” was a frequent comment. And some said this: “If coach thinks it will help us win, I’m all for it.”

Like I said, if Scott Drew and his players choose to pray on the court after a game, that is absolutely their choice. But it isn’t the right way or the wrong way to do things. It is just their way—period


Last thing: I see where Norman Chad is taking shots at me again in his stale Washington Post column. Apparently I can’t write and he can. Let me just say this: If I ever end up commenting on poker on TV for a living, don’t ask any questions, just shoot me.

Friday, March 26, 2010

As Jim Valvano famously said, this is the time to “survive and advance”

That was a long night.

It wasn’t just that the best games were in Salt Lake City and the two games in Syracuse had little suspense down the stretch. I have no complaint at all with the Kentucky-Cornell game or, for that matter, West Virginia-Washington which was best summed up by WVU assistant coach Billy Hahn: “We play ugly don’t we?” he said when it was over.

Maybe. But as I pointed out to Billy, they’re still playing and right now that’s all that matters.

The Cornell kids, after jumping to an adrenaline-rush 10-2 lead looked overwhelmed by Kentucky for the rest of the first half, outscored 30-6 the last 14 minutes. At halftime there was a lot of, “men against boys,” talk which, to be honest, I couldn’t really rebut at the time. But somehow, Cornell didn’t go away. The Big Red got Kentucky to settle for jump shots against their zone—which was their only chance—and they stopped turning the ball over which had led to a Kentucky dunk/layup fest in the first half.

When Louis Dale, who was Cornell’s best player on the night with 17 points and only two turnovers against Kentucky’s pressure, buried a three to make it 40-34 with 5:42, The Carrier Dome was rocking and everyone was looking at one another as if to say, “could it be possible…”

I was sitting between Bob Huggins—who may be the last big time coach who actually scouts opponents himself; I can’t think of another off the top of my head—and Hahn and they both glanced at each other for a moment as if this thought had crossed their minds: Play Cornell to go to The Final Four?”

No. Kentucky wouldn’t let it happen. The Wildcats scored the next six points to make it 46-34 and even though Cornell hung around, still trailing 54-45 with 1:11 to go, Kentucky was going to win the game. The Wildcats, who can miss free throws, made them all in the last minute and the margin (with apologies to my friend Hoops Weiss) was a deceiving 62-45.

I apologize to Hoops because he’s a long time friend of John Calipari and gets a bit defensive when people rip Calipari or don’t give him his due as a coach. As I’ve said before, I like Calipari too and I’ve known him since I met him at Five-Star in 1984 when he was an assistant to Larry Brown at Kansas. But he does come with some baggage when he pulls into town.

After the game, while we were waiting ENDLESSLY for the NCAA to bring coaches and players in for a game that ended at 12:15 a.m. Hoops and I had the following conversation.

Me: “You know they (Cornell) hung in there, gave everyone a little bit of a thrill at 40-34.”

Hoops: “They were never winning the game.”

Me: “I didn’t say that, but it was closer than a lot of people thought it was going to be.”

Hoops: “The story of this game was 32-16 at halftime.”

Me: “Hoops, the game is 40 minutes long. You can’t say the second half didn’t count.”

Hoops: “Okay then, what was the margin after 40 minutes—17, right?”

He had me there because Kentucky did bloat the margin a little by making its late free throws. Still, it was clear he was sensitive to the fact that people were going to somehow question Kentucky and Calipari because the margin had melted to six and was still only nine with 71 seconds to play. Actually what really matters is simple: Kentucky, like West Virginia, is still playing. And, if there is one area where I think the Cornell kids and Hoops are in 100 percent agreement it is this: The Sweet 16, at least right afterwards, isn’t about moral victories or getting the margin to six.

“We didn’t come in here just to play a good game or keep it close,” Cornell center Jeff Foote said. “There was no doubt in our minds we could play with them or anyone in the country. They were better than us and that’s all that matters.”

Or, as Jim Valvano famously said all those years ago, “survive and advance.”

West Virginia and Kentucky both did that and their game Saturday should be wildly competitive. Perhaps not pretty but very competitive.

Obviously I did not get to see the games at Salt Lake City but Brad Greenberg, the coach at Radford sent me a post-midnight e-mail during the second overtime of Kansas State-Xavier that simply said: “I’m not sure I can remember the last time I saw clutch shooting like this.”

Clearly that was a great game. I wish Xavier had won because that would have guaranteed at least one team from a non-major conference making The Final Four. What’s more, Xavier and Butler played one of the best and most controversial games of the season early on, Butler winning on a Gordon Hayward bucket after a 10 minute delay for the officials to figure out what had happened because of a clock malfunction. I’m not sure they’ve figured it out yet.

Syracuse losing, as you might expect, took a lot of life out of The Carrier Dome. The upper deck was surprisingly full at the start of Washington-West Virginia. There had been some fear the game would be played with almost no one in the building because Syracuse was on TV at the same time but the real fans—not the rich guys downstairs—showed up for the tipoff. That made me feel good about Syracuse as a basketball town. I know how big The Orange are up here—walking around yesterday I was convinced there was a city ordinance requiring that everyone wear a Syracuse sweatshirt and/or cap—but these are clearly BASKETBALL fans not just bandwagon fans like so many fans of so many teams are. For example, there was almost no one in Kentucky blue in the place when game 1 started.

One other little bit of inside baseball: For about the one-thousandth time the NCAA’s wireless system didn’t work. The NCAA Tournament is about the only sports event that I cover—and I’m told by colleagues this is a universal—where you have to pay for wireless ($16.50 per day) and then it almost never works. There’s always a different excuse, including last year at The Final Four in Detroit when it went down allegedly because of the placement of some CBS camera. Last night it was supposed to be three computers on press row sending out some kind of wrong signal plus overload on capacity.

What, they didn’t know there would be a lot of media there? It wasn’t until almost the end of game one with people frantic because it was 10 o’clock and everyone was on deadline or past deadline, that they got press row hard-wired so people could file.

Last year in Detroit when I asked during a meeting with the basketball committee why in the world we were still getting charged for a system that DIDN’T work the answer was, “well we have this contract…”

Fine. You guys are about to re-open your TV contract so you can make a couple billion more dollars. How about re-opening your wireless contract and find a company that’s competent enough to figure out how to make the system work. I’d say this isn’t rocket science but apparently it is.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

This week's radio segments (The Sports Reporters, Tony Kornheiser Show)

On Wednesday I joined The Sports Reporters' Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin in the normal timeslot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's). Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment that focused on the NCAA Tournament, Maryland basketball as well as college basketball in general.

Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters


I also made my regular appearance on the newest The Tony Kornheiser Show on Thursday morning. We talked about a topic on Tony's mind -- the Kentucky vs. Cornell matchup -- and the coverage around it,

Click here to listen to the segment (starts at 26:15 mark): Tony Kornheiser Show

As good a Sweet Sixteen as we’ve had in years; Mechanism of writing for the regionals

If last weekend is my favorite part of the NCAA basketball Tournament this weekend is my least favorite.

I’m looking at it, mind you, from a purely selfish standpoint. It has nothing to do with the potential quality of the basketball to be played; in fact, this is as good a Sweet Sixteen as we’ve had in years because so many non-power schools have made the second week. Here’s my dream Final Four: Cornell, St. Mary’s, Northern Iowa and Butler—which gets the nod out west over Xavier because it is located IN Indianapolis and because it plays in Hinkle Field House, still one of the most historic places in basketball. (Think ‘Hoosiers,’ if you don’t know what I’m talking about).

For me though—and for my writing brethren—this weekend is a nightmare. On Thursday and Friday the first games don’t start until almost 7:30 which means at the pace tournament games are played these days it is close to 10 o’clock before that game ends. With all the NCAA rules about cooling off periods and the clunkiness of taking players to interview rooms it can take 45 minutes to an hour to get enough in your notebook to think about writing. That means even someone who is fast like me isn’t going to finish writing anything off the first game before 11:30, which is fighting deadline for the home edition of the newspaper (we still care about stuff like that believe it or not) and means that you pretty much miss the first half of the second game because you’re writing.

There’s no chance to write anything that’s going to make any editions off the second game since it won’t tip until at least 10:15—why the NCAA lists “9:57,” I have no clue because there’s no way the game is starting then—and will end about 12:30. So you go to the locker rooms hoping to get a column to write for the next day while the guy writing the game story—here in Syracuse it is Zach Berman for The Post—tries to write a running story (written during the game with a quick lead that goes on top at game’s end) that makes some semblance of sense.

There is nothing worse than trying to write during a game. For one thing you MISS a lot. For another, something that seems critical and worth three paragraphs at one point can be meaningless 10 minutes later. My worst experience with a running column—which is different than a game story because it doesn’t need to contain that much play-by-play--was the national title game in 2008. With a 9:22 tipoff and the game ending after 11:30 I needed to hit the send button within two minutes of the buzzer or the column would miss more than half the newspapers printed that night.

I had written my entire column on Memphis winning the national championship, on how it had proved that its record coming out of Conference-USA was not the result of a weak schedule and that it had beaten two of the great traditional programs of all time in The Final Four: UCLA and Kansas, to finally exorcise the ghosts from its Final Four losses in 1973 and 1985.

Then Memphis’s Achilles heel—free throw shooting—kicked in, Mario Chalmers hit the three just before the buzzer when John Calipari decided not to foul and the game went into overtime. Every word I had written was worthless. I instantly began rewriting on the premise that Kansas was going to win the game. I kept the ‘Memphis-wins,’ column as backup, figuring I’d go back to it if Memphis won, but I was pretty convinced Kansas was going to win at that point.

Of course it did and the paper pushed the deadline for all of us writing to midnight and we just got in under the wire. The screaming and cursing directed at Chalmers and Calipari from press row that night wasn’t personal on any level. We were all just followed the first rule of journalism as explained by the great Dave Anderson, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his columns in The New York Times: “You are always allowed to root for yourself.”

So tonight, here in Syracuse, I will be rooting for Cornell—how can you NOT root for Cornell if you aren’t a Kentucky fan?—and I will be hoping that something happens in the West Virginia-Washington game that will give me a column of some kind I can write QUICKLY so that I can watch most of the Cornell-Kentucky game.

The other thing about covering the regionals is there’s too much time to kill. I got up here yesterday afternoon in time for the practices and press conferences so I could write a column for today (Column: In NCAA Tournament, Cornell's Big Red and Kentucky's 'Blue Mist' are miles apart on the spectrum). It’s nice that the NCAA opens the locker rooms during the press conference period but it didn’t help anyone that during the time that Steve Donahue was on the podium, the NCAA pulled Ryan Wittman, Jeff Foote and Louis Dale—Cornell’s three best players—out of the locker room and had them sit and twiddle their thumbs in a holding area next to the interview room.

As it was, people were falling over one another in the Cornell locker room, which is about as big as my hotel room, even with Wittman, Foote and Dale not in there. In a dome like this they can’t find four reasonably-sized locker rooms?

Anyway, as soon as I finish this I’ll go swim. That will take me to noon and then….we wait. The first weekend you have afternoon games so you get up, swim (I hope) grab something to eat and go to the arena. That’s fine. Some guys don’t mind down time in a hotel. I go nuts. I like to be doing SOMETHING.

Those who are going to stay for the regional final—not me, I’m out of here tomorrow after I write my column for Saturday’s paper—have TWO days to sit around and do nothing. They can go to the dreary off-day press conferences—no access to practice or the locker rooms—and find something to write and then they SIT until tipoff on Saturday at either 4:30 or 7. Brutal. One year at the Meadowlands I drove home on Thursday night and then drove back for the final on Saturday at 7. Life’s too short to sit around. If we were in Florida or a big city it might be different. But we’re not.

So, I’ll hope for the best tonight, knowing I’ll be lucky if I write something mildly passable. It’s like Bob Woodward said to me years ago when I was wrestling with a lead: “Johnny (he’s one of three people on earth, my mother and David Maraniss being the other two, who ever called me Johnny on a regular basis) some days you just have to fill the space.”

Tonight, unfortunately, is probably about filling the space—and filling it fast.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Will be back on track tomorrow from Syracuse....

John was caught with a more than busy schedule this morning, including a car trip up to Syracuse to get in place for tomorrow night's NCAA Tournament games between Cornell-Kentucky and UW-West Virginia. As such, he will be back with your regularly scheduled blog - with what we assume is a look at the matchups and teams playing the weekend - late this evening or first thing in the morning. It's always a guess on what's coming next, but anyone else think we'll get information on Cornell?

FOTB Staff

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Opening day is right around the corner – amidst busy week, baseball is on my mind

So here we are in the midst of Sweet Sixteen week surrounded by everyone (including me) trying to psychoanalyze Tiger Woods and I find myself thinking about baseball this morning.

The weather finally turning warm is definitely a factor as is Dave Sheinin’s piece in today’s Washington Post about the Orioles trying to at last turn a corner after 12 straight losing seasons. Brigid, my 12-year-old daughter, is a huge Orioles fan in large part because she fell in love with The Bird mascot when she was about three-years-old and it occurs to me that the last time the Orioles had a winning season was in the year she was born.

Brigid is very optimistic about this season not so much because of the young pitching as because Miguel Tejada, long her favorite Oriole, has returned to Baltimore.

I’m not especially optimistic or pessimistic about any team at the moment although I do think the Nationals will be better and the Mets will be, um, the Mets. As one long-time Mets follower pointed out to me last week, the thing they needed to improve the most this off-season was their starting pitching and they did nothing. Their two best players, Carlos Beltran and Jose Reyes, are going to start the season on the Disabled List. David Wright hit 10 home runs last season in Citi Field. Other than that…

There’s just something about baseball that makes me feel good. I can honestly say that there are few things in life I enjoy more than sitting in a ballpark on an afternoon or evening, watching a game and keeping score. I have to keep score. If I don’t I feel like something is wrong.

There’s more to it than that. Some has to do with boyhood memories—more connected to my mother than my father. My dad was never a big sports fan and what little interest he had in sports pretty much died when the Dodgers left Brooklyn. So, when I was little, it was often my mom who took me to games. She wasn’t a big fan either but she MADE herself a fan because I was a fan.

I’ve probably told this story before, so forgive me if you’ve read it already. One afternoon the Mets were doing something they rarely did—coming from behind. Down 2-0 to the Phillies in the bottom of the eighth, they shockingly pieced together a four run rally. When Cleon Jones singled in the tying and go-ahead runs (yes, I distinctly remember it was Cleon) my mom was right there next to me, jumping up and down, completely into it.

We were in good seats that day—back then you could walk up on game day, put down $3.50 for a box seat and sit between home plate and first or third base—and an usher walked by as the Mets took the lead, 3-2. He paused, look at my mom and said, “so which one is your husband?”

My mom thought it was cool that someone thought she was young enough to be married to a ballplayer.

The kid stuff is only part of it though, there’s more. As I’ve mentioned before, I love long car rides during spring and summer, especially at night, when I can flip the radio around from game-to-game. I’m so sick I enjoy PRE-game shows, even though they’re rife with commercials and managers saying, “we just have to come back ready to go tonight.”

My favorite pre-game interviews are between John Sterling and whomever is managing the Yankees. I like Sterling, he’s always been very nice to me, but I LOVE listening to him explain what happened the night before to the manager. In fact, whether it’s Joe Torre or Joe Girardi, their response to just about every “question,” is, “you’re right John…”

I was talking to Gary Cohen, who has done play-by-play for the Mets on radio and now on TV since 1989 (and is, as far as I’m concerned as good as there is in the business) about why people connect to guys doing radio play-by-play in baseball more than other announcers. “It might be because there’s so little to talk about compared to the other sports,” he said. “I love doing baseball on radio. It just lends itself to story-telling and bringing the listener along. TV’s not the same. There are 100 things you have to get done in-between pitches. Or at least it feels that way.”

The Mets wanted Gary to be their TV voice when they started their own TV network four years back and he’s been great at it along with Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. But he still misses radio. Having done some of both myself, I completely get it. Radio’s more fun to do and to listen to if truth be told.

There’s one other thing about baseball: it IS ubiquitous, from April to October. Every day there are games; every day there are box scores. Nowadays, with the baseball package, if you don’t go to a game on a given night, you can sit down and watch games all night and see how different perspectives are on the game in Boston as opposed to Chicago or Seattle. I just wish the people who run the package would make a deal with the Phillies so we could watch games from Citizens Bank Ballpark.

Last summer, after my heart surgery, I wasn’t house-bound but I didn’t have that much energy for the first four-to-six weeks. I also couldn’t drive for three weeks, which just about put me back in the hospital. When it comes to being a control-freak where driving is concerned Tiger Woods has nothing on me.

Most of my nights were spent in front of the TV watching baseball games. Truth be told, that was one of the good things about the surgery. Because I didn’t have to be up first thing the next morning to work or take a kid to school or someplace else, I could stay up as late as I wanted and watch as much baseball as I wanted. I have friends who say they can’t watch more than couple of innings without getting bored. Not me. There were nights when I watched doubleheaders—a game at 7 o’clock—flipping around in-between innings—and a game at 10 o’clock.

It was comforting and it made me feel like a kid again—knowing everyone’s batting average and ERA, understanding why someone was out of the lineup. Of course watching the Mets, even with Gary, Ron and Keith, wasn’t too much fun.

So now we’re on the doorstep of another spring and another baseball season. I can’t wait to go to the ballpark again or to watch games that matter on TV. I can’t wait to keep score. One thing I do when I keep score is write down the inning-by-inning score at the bottom of my scorecard. It’s just an old habit. But I always like writing down the score after the top of the first inning, whether the visiting team has put up an ‘0,’ or an ‘8’ or something in-between. It just makes me smile to see it, knowing the game has just begun.

April’s a great month. The Final Four; the Masters and early season baseball—which is full of hope for everyone. I can’t wait.

Monday, March 22, 2010

This week's columns from The Washington Post - March Madness, and the Division III basketball championship

Let us begin today, after one of the great weekends in the history of college basketball with this question: Why would anyone want to change this tournament? It is about as close to perfect as a sporting event can get -- if you forget the endless timeouts, the 20-minute halftimes and the absolutely ridiculous late night tip-offs. And still the NCAA and the WCA (Whining Coaches of America) want to change it?

To quote the great basketball maven John Patrick McEnroe Junior: You can not be serious!

If the tournament were expanded, teams such as Northern Iowa, St. Mary's and and Cornell would have fewer opportunities to create memories against Nos. 1, 2, 4 and 5 seeds. Please, for the love of basketball, let someone with a grain of sanity intervene before it's too late.

Then again, it may already be too late. For college presidents, conference commissioners and NCAA administrators, nothing starts the morning like the smell of money. Ask the ACC power brokers, who thought conference expansion was such a swell idea. That's worked out so well that over the past five seasons, the ACC has sent one fewer school to the round of 16 (Duke, North Carolina and Boston College) than the Missouri Valley (Wichita State, Bradley, Southern Illinois and now Northern Iowa.)

Read the rest of the column: A level of march madness that can't be expanded


SALEM, VA. The ball was in Alex Rubin's hands but there was nothing more he could do with it. The buzzer had just sounded, the confetti was already falling from the rafters of Salem Civic Center on Saturday afternoon and the players from Wisconsin-Stevens Point were charging the floor.

Rubin and his teammates from Williams had come into the Division III national championship game with a record of 30-1. With 11 minutes to go they led, 54-44, and appeared to be on their way to the national championship. But the Ephs went cold and the Pointers got hot. A 22-5 run gave Stevens Point a 66-59 lead with five minutes to go, and with about 1,000 fans who had made the trip from the Midwest going crazy, the Pointers held on for a 78-73 victory.

And so, a split second after classmate Blake Schultz's futile final shot had rimmed out, Rubin found himself standing helplessly with the ball in his hands. He looked at the ball for a moment and then flung it as far as he possibly could. Then, like his teammates, he collapsed in tears.

"It occurred to me that was the last buzzer I'd ever hear as a player," he said about 30 minutes later. "I knew it was the last time all seven of us [seniors] would be together as teammates." He forced a smile. "Tough moment."

If you think there is any difference at all in the emotions that run through basketball at the Division III level and the big-time level, you're right: For the players on the 404 Division III men's basketball teams, the final buzzer is almost always the final buzzer. Rubin, a Landon graduate, is majoring in psychology and Spanish. If he ever shakes hands with David Stern he will be wearing a suit, but not a baseball cap.

Click here for the rest of the column: At the Division III basketball championships, emotions run just as strong

Tiger Woods decided to pull an A-Rod, but great NCAA Tourney puts in on the back burner for me

It was a spectacular weekend of basketball, sullied only by Tiger Woods deciding to pull an A-Rod by showing up un-announced and un-invited in the middle of the NCAA basketball tournament to give his first two, ‘interviews,’ since the morning of November 27th.

Let’s dispense with Tiger first because it won’t take long. He said absolutely nothing new. This was nothing more than another staged step in the ‘Tiger Over America Image-Rehab Tour.’ Although Golf Channel reported Sunday night that Ari Fleischer was leaving ‘Team Tiger,’ (maybe because people are catching on to his act) this had his fingerprints all over it.

Hand-pick two interviewers: in this case Golf Channel’s Kelly Tilghman and ESPN’s Tom Rinaldi and tell them they have exactly SIX minutes on camera. That makes follow-up virtually impossible, allowing Woods to duck and weave whenever specific questions were asked. He’s always been good at talking in generalities and now he’s added, “that’s private,” to his arsenal.

So, he essentially said nothing. He repeated that his behavior was ‘disgusting,’; said it all happened because he quit meditating and got away from Buddhism (seriously) and said he loved his wife very much.

Specifics? Forget it. What are you in rehab for?—a legitimate question since he brings it up every 30 seconds—that’s private. What happened on the morning of November 27th?—legit again because he insists that Elin never did anything to him and those who said she did are lying—it’s all in the police report. No, not exactly. What’s your schedule like the rest of the year after Augusta?—don’t know. Of course he knows, he knows EXACTLY what he’s going to be doing on July 18th at 10:48 a.m. That’s who he is.

You know what—it’s fine. At this point I think 99 percent of us simply don’t care anymore. Just tee it up and go play Tiger. Except one thing: don’t tell us you’ve changed. You’re still an absolute control freak; you still got yourself logo’ed up for your 12 minutes on camera; you still are the king of dodge-ball on almost any subject and you’re still dictating terms to anyone and everyone who is willing to let you dictate.

Yes, you are still Tiger Woods. Go win The Masters and a bunch more majors; go sell yourself to a public that no doubt will be willing to be sold. But don’t tell us you’ve changed. Maybe—MAYBE—you can change your on-course behavior. That would be a step in the right direction. Maybe you can sign more than 12 autographs a year. That would be progress.

Okay, now for the important stuff that happened this weekend. Let’s start with the three teams I’d most like to see at The Final Four: Cornell, Northern Iowa and St. Mary’s. Each is a great story in a different way.

The Northern Iowa-Kansas game was one of the wildest and most entertaining games—not to mention stunning—I’ve seen in years. The Panthers were rock solid for about 36 minutes and then, when they had the upset in their sights, they woke up and realized where they were. Suddenly, they couldn’t get the ball inbounds. I actually found myself thinking, ‘this is going to be the game Kansas looks back on as the key moment of the year when it cuts down the nets in Indy.’

Wrong again. Ali Farokhmanesh hit one of the all-time gutsy shots with the lead down to 63-62 and Northern Iowa held on. As my friend Tom Brennnan, the former Vermont coach said later, “there are going to be an amazing number of kids named Ali in Iowa in the next couple of years.”

I had the chance to talk to Northern Iowa Coach Ben Jacobsen on the weekly radio show I’m doing during the tournament and I asked him what went through his mind when Farokemanesh launched the shot. His answer, I thought, was interesting: “I figured we had a better chance with Ali taking the shot than trying to dribble the clock for 20 seconds and probably getting trapped again.”

You have to feel for Bill Self and his players. They had a spectacular season but their year will be defined by the loss on Saturday. That’s the way college basketball works. For all the paeans being sung to Maryland’s Greivis Vasquez and his gutty teammates here in the DC area today, the bottom line is they didn’t make the Sweet 16. And, even though the Vasquezites are saying he’s one of the best five players in Maryland history the stat the matters most is this: wins. In four years, Vasquez played on Maryland teams that won three NCAA Tournament games and never got to the second weekend.

Juan Dixon and Lonny Baxter—comparable because they played in the same era as Vasquez, unlike guys like John Lucas, Len Elmore, Tom McMillen, Albert King, Buck Williams, Len Bias and Walt Williams to name a few—won 13 tournament games, played in two Final Fours and won a national title.

Don’t get me wrong. Vasquez had a fabulous year. He deserved ACC player-of-the-year and he hit a bunch of big shots, including the one that gave Maryland the lead on Sunday with six seconds left. And you can’t criticize him for shooting too soon because when you’re down one you need to get a shot up and hope for a rebound if you miss.

But let’s not overstate all this. The Terrapins got into a habit of falling too far behind and figuring their press would bail them out. Often, it did. In postseason—Georgia Tech and Michigan State—it almost did. But almost doesn’t count. On the other hand, they got a lot closer to the Sweet 16 than Georgetown did.

Back to the Cinderellas. If you think Cornell is a fluke, look again. If the Big Red did nothing else this weekend they proved without any doubt that the committee must have been watching another team when it evaluated them and thought they were a No. 12 seed. Their two wins over Temple and Wisconsin, both solid, very well-coached teams, were dominating. In 80 minutes of basketball they trailed for, I think, about one minute. Their margins were 13 and 18 and in both cases they backed off at the finish because the deed was done.

Look, I’m not insane enough to say they’ll beat Kentucky. But I do think it will be a great basketball game. Maybe Kentucky will be too athletic for Cornell over 40 minutes. But one thing I’m pretty sure of is this: Cornell won’t be intimidated. This is a team that’s already played at Kansas and at Syracuse—where this game will be played with a lot of the crowd pulling for the underdog. I just wish it wasn’t tipping off at some time after 10 o’clock—God sometimes I hate CBS—because it means I’ll be up way past my bedtime—but I can’t wait to see it.

Finally: A few words on different conferences. The Pac-10 proved me completely wrong this past weekend and I attribute it to me being silly enough to write the league off because it was lousy in pre-conference play. Teams DO get better—all credit to Washington for what it did and to Cal, which couldn’t handle Duke’s defense, but dominated Louisville.

As for The Big East and the ACC, well, as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy: they’ve got some ‘splainin’ to do. The Big East advanced two of eight teams to the second week. That said, I think both Syracuse and West Virginia are capable of making Indy and if they do all will be well as far as the folks in Providence are concerned.

As for the ACC? ONE team still playing, meaning it matched the Ivy League, The Missouri Valley and the WCC—among others. In fact, here’s a stat worth considering: In the last five seasons, the Missouri Valley has placed four different schools in the sweet sixteen: Bradley, Wichita State, Southern Illinois and now Northern Iowa. During those same five years the ACC—with a LOT more bids—has played THREE of its schools in the sweet sixteen: North Carolina, Duke and Boston College.

Think about that for a minute. Then call the ACC offices in Greensboro, ask to speak to John Swofford and say this: So how’s that football expansion working out for you John?

Friday, March 19, 2010

Let’s hope the rest of the weekend goes like yesterday; I didn’t listen when told about the Huskies

So, anyone out there who wants to change the NCAA Tournament after what we saw yesterday, raise your hand.

Are you kidding me? It took about five minutes to understand that this was going to be one of those days—and we can only hope one of those weekends—where if you turned your head for more than a minute you were likely to miss something spectacular.

The loudest noise I heard in the bowels of Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville was at the moment when Florida and BYU were in their first overtime and CBS switched over to the final seconds of regulation in the Villanova-Robert Morris game. A cheer went up because there were still three minutes left in the Florida-BYU overtime and everyone wanted to see what would happen in Villanova-Robert Morris.

But at the instant Scottie Reynolds appeared on the screen with the basketball, he was gone. Someone at CBS had remembered that in Florida you can’t switch away from a game involving Florida. Poof! Reynolds disappeared as screaming broke out around the TV sets where almost everyone had stopped what they were doing to watch.

Reynolds didn’t score but Villanova won in overtime, one of the few high-seeds that got into trouble and survived yesterday. Already, Old Dominion had taken down Notre Dame and as we all know the single-digit carnage continued late into the night. Even my Lehigh Mountain Hawks, the No. 63 seed in the tournament, hung with the No. 1 seed Kansas for a long time

Of course the most stunning upset of the day was Ohio taking down Georgetown and making it look relatively easy. I’m sure my three or four Georgetown ‘fans,’ (the ones who keep hacking into my Wikipedia, proving their computer skills are equal to my 12-year-old daughter) will somehow see this as a diss, but the fact is there were few teams in the country more wildly inconsistent this season than the Hoyas.

At their best, they could beat anybody. At their worst they could, well, lose to a team that went into its CONFERENCE tournament as a No. 9 seed. If this is it for Greg Monroe as a college player you would have to label his career a disappointment. Although he was brilliant at times, showing the kind of all-round court skills that will likely make him a top five draft pick, Georgetown didn’t win a single postseason game the last two years. A clearly splintered Georgetown team fell apart last year and lost in the first round of the NIT to Baylor. This Georgetown team seemed to right itself with a rout of Cincinnati and three wins in The Big East tournament only to lose to Ohio.

IF Monroe were to return next year, the Hoyas could be a preseason top five team. If not, they’re probably more middle-of-the-pack Big East.

Which, based on yesterday, isn’t as impressive as it appeared to be. Pull up a chair Pac-10 fans, this is the part you’ve been waiting for.


Washington beat Marquette yesterday and, if you throw in Georgetown and Notre Dame losing and Villanova squeaking by a No. 15 seed—we DID get to see most of the overtime down here—it was a bad day for The Big East.

And, apparently a bad day for me too. Yup, I said there was no way Washington would beat Marquette and I ripped The Pac-10. Needless to say the Pac-10/Washington fans are out looking for me today. As they should be. Heck, even Kevin O’Neill—or at least someone claiming to be Kevin—posted that his USC Trojans would whip Cincinnati and that Syracuse would finish third in the Pac-10. One guy went even further: He said Rick Reilly picking the Huskies is proof that he’s better than me.


Now, if California beats Louisville tonight I will go back to the committee tomorrow and use every bit of influence I have to get the Pac-10 two more bids retroactively. (I watched Louisville practice yesterday. I know they’ve been up-and-down all year but this is a group that beat Syracuse twice this season. I think they’re a dangerous dark horse in the south bracket).

Seriously, I was warned by my friend Mike Gastineau in Seattle who sees Washington a lot more than I do, that the Huskies were a hot club. I didn’t pay attention and I got burned. Just remember one thing: this is EXACTLY why I don’t do brackets!

The real bottom line is that yesterday was just a wonderful day of basketball. Five double-digit seeds won and several others came extremely close. Montana scared the heck out of New Mexico; St. Mary’s took down Richmond; Wake Forest beat Texas in overtime in the game someone had to win. It was good stuff—even with the endless commercials and the halftimes that lasted longer than many marriages.

The guy I felt worst for if truth be told was Mike Brey. He did a terrific job of completely remaking his team’s playing style a month ago to adjust to the absence of Luke Harangody. That change produced a six game winning steak that jumped the Irish from outside the bubble to a No. 6 seed. They got a tough draw in Old Dominion, which came out of a league that didn’t have its best year but still had a half-dozen solid teams. Now, people will no doubt focus on the last loss (as often happens) rather than the great run the Irish made prior to the last loss.

Finally, even though I know this will probably fall on deaf ears, can someone with more influence than me—that would be almost anybody—please SCREAM at the basketball committee and the suits in Indianapolis to NOT CHANGE this tournament. The Super Bowl is the most popular sports event we have but there is nothing—NOTHING—more fun than this tournament. I’ve often said through the years that the NCAA Tournament is so good that even the NCAA can’t screw it up.

Except that they can. And probably will. So enjoy today and the weekend because it may never be like this again.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

From Jacksonville - bracket talk over, time to play basketball

Finally, they’re playing basketball.

No more bracket conversations. No more asking who is going to pull a first round upset. No more of me hammering the committee. Well, less of it anyway.

I know one of the most fun aspects of the NCAA Tournament is people filling out brackets. I think it’s great when eight-year-old kids beat their dads in the office pool and when someone who fills out a bracket based on colors they like gets all 16 of the Sweet 16 teams correct. One of the great stories four years ago was when Tony Kornheiser’s producer’s mom—known to one and all as ‘Phil’s Mom,’—did a bracket on Tony’s show and picked George Mason to get to The Final Four. She became a national celebrity and still does a bracket for Tony even though Phil is no longer Tony’s producer.

I just don’t like filling out a bracket myself. Why? Because I’m terrible at it. No matter how hard I try to divorce myself from my biases—which, as discussed everyone has—they still creep into my picks. No Hoya fans that doesn’t mean I’d pick Georgetown to lose in the first round and I’m not picking Lehigh to win the national championship. Usually it’s subconscious I don’t even realize I’ve done it until later. I’m going to want to see the Temple-Cornell winner advance not because I have anything against Bo Ryan—really good guy in fact—but because I think those two schools weren’t treated right by the committee. (Whoops, slipped, there’s a shot at the committee).

I can tell you exactly when all of this started: In 1989 my then-wife did a bracket for a pool involving a bunch of her friends. I stayed far away but couldn’t help but notice she had picked Seton Hall over Indiana in the round of 16. “I’m not telling you what to do,” I said. “But if there’s one team I know something about it’s Indiana. Knight’s not losing that game.”

“But my dad went to Seton Hall.”

“Fine. But Indiana’s winning.”

Of course Seton Hall won by 20 and went to the championship game. Instead of the bracket being a runaway winner, it was a not-so-runaway second.

After that, I retired from mouthing off when people were filling out brackets. In fact, I try very hard to stay away from answering any questions about brackets. I never pick a Final Four when asked on radio or TV shows and I enter one pool that involves a handful of friends who have sworn not to reveal just how poorly I do almost every year.

I help three people with their pools because they refuse to quit bugging me about it. One is Chris Wallace, the condition being that he can’t complain to me if he doesn’t do well. The other is my brother under the same condition. And this year my brother’s 10-year-old son Matthew, who is as big a sports freak as I was when I was a kid asked me to help him with his bracket.

Which was a delight because every time Matthew told me who he had picked in a game and I said, “Gee Matthew, I’m not sure about that one,” he said, “here’s why you’re wrong.”

Good for him. I probably AM wrong.

Today, I’ll be at the practices in Jacksonville. I actually enjoy the practice days almost as much as the games themselves. People are relaxed, still elated—for the most part—about being in the tournament. The players are loose because their real practice takes place someplace else rather than at the practices that are open to the public at the game site. They are most there to get a feel for the shooting backgrounds, the rims and the arena itself. It will all feel different the next day when the place is full, but it gives them a chance to get a feel for where they will be playing.

Usually I go back and forth between sitting on press row watching the practices or chatting with people and the press room where there is always a TV tuned to the on-going games. When a game gets good, people gather around the TV and try to analyze what’s going on and why an upset may or may not be happening.

I still remember being in Boston in 2003 on Friday night of the first week. I had finished writing and joined a group watching the finish of the Maryland-UNC-Wilmington game. UNC-W was trying to hold on to a lead and upset the defending national champions. I was catching some flack from some of my friends about the fact that my pal Gary Williams was about to go down in the first round. The Seahawks missed some free throws down the stretch and Maryland pushed the ball downcourt, the clock heading for zero, down two.

Steve Blake found Drew Nicholas on the wing and Nicholas, in full stride stepped into a three-point shot just before the buzzer expired.

“That’s good,” I said as he released the shot. To emphasize my point I walked away from the TV set in the direction of a coke. I didn’t even see it go in.

“How’d you know?” my friend Hoops Weiss said later.

“Karma,” I said. “Those guys were giving the game to Wilmington. If I’ve learned two things it is that an NCAA Tournament game is never over and you never give up on Gary.”

So I got that one right. I think that makes my record about 2-105. After all, I’m the guy who had an entire column written on Georgetown winning the national championship in 1985 before the game started. (Tight deadline).

That was a fast rewrite. Not the first time and not the last.

This week's radio segments

Yesterday I joined The Sports Reporters' Steve Czaban and Andy Pollin in the normal timeslot (5:25 ET on Wednesday's). Click the permalink, then the link below, to listen to the segment that focused on, of course, Tiger Woods and the NCAA Tournament.
Click here to listen to the segment: The Sports Reporters

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Tiger at The Masters will be fascinating, but one event will prove little

It was hardly a surprise yesterday when Tiger Woods announced he was going to return to competitive golf at The Masters. It also wasn’t a surprise that his announcement was greeted with only slightly more zeal than when man first landed on the moon a little more than 40 years ago.

In the end, the only thing different in this than what most of us expected is that he’s not going to play a warm-up tournament prior to The Masters. I had thought back in December that he would come back this month and play Doral and Bay Hill or, at the very least, Bay Hill, and then head to Augusta. Maybe he’s skipping a warm-up to show people how much he cares about Doing The Right Thing.

If truth be told I kind of doubt that’s the case. What I think is happening here is pretty simple: Tiger wants to come back in the most controlled environment possible (control is the most important word in his life) and there’s nothing that beats Augusta when it comes to control. You can bet there won’t be any paparazzi on the grounds or reporters from gossip magazines or web sites. If one does slip through, he or she will be escorted out very firmly and quickly.

Augusta is also the only golf tournament in the world that allows no media—or photographers—inside the ropes. That won’t stop the media or the shooters from following Tiger’s group, but they won’t be able to get very close and Tiger won’t have to look any of them in the eye even for a split second.

Plus, there’s this: Tiger came back from his first knee surgery of 2008 to play the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines without a warm-up event. We all know what happened there. This is a little different because back then he was still having trouble walking 18 holes right up until the first day of The Open. This time the option not to play is purely his. Still, what happened at the Open is no doubt fueling his belief that he can walk onto Augusta National without having hit a ball in competition in five months and win the tournament.

Are you prepared to bet against him? I’m not. The reason the whole world comes to a halt every time Tiger opens his mouth—or puts out a statement that seems to come from his mouth—is because he’s done superhuman things on golf courses for 14 years now. One of his great strengths as a golfer is his selfishness: he will be able to walk inside those ropes and be completely focused from the first tee forward. His life is about two things first and foremost: going down as the greatest golfer of all time and as the richest athlete of all time.

He became the first to cross the billion-dollar plateau last year although this episode has certainly set him back financially. The goal to pass Jack Nicklaus in major wins is still out there and he’ll likely go past Nicklaus at some point in the near future—two, three, four years whatever---he’ll get the record.

When he does a lot of the apologists will say he’s wiped what happened these past few years completely away. There are plenty already saying that: it is no one’s business; they don’t care what he does as long as he plays golf. I have no problem with those who feel that way. But to think this disappears under a barrage of birdies and Tiger fist-pumps is foolish.

I said this before, I’ll say it again: Monica Lewinsky is part of Bill Clinton’s biography no matter how many billions he raises for relief efforts around the world. (Slightly more important work than winning golf tournaments for those of you scoring at home). This will be part of Tiger’s biography if he wins 30 majors. Whether it is our business or not, he lied to and cheated on his wife repeatedly; he stonewalled (and is still stonewalling) about what happened that led to his outing and at least so far, hasn’t shown any signs of real remorse. If you bought into that staged Tiger and Pony show last month, fine, I have some stock in Bernie Madoff’s company I can sell you at a great price.

Honestly, at this point, I don’t care if he ever answers questions. I don’t think he will or, if he does in some form, he’ll never tell the whole truth. Fine. Frankly, I’m bored with it and I think most people are bored with it. But I WILL be interested to see how he behaves on the golf course.

Tom Watson said what a lot of people in golf have thought for years a couple of months ago when he called Tiger out for his on-course behavior. He noted that there is a difference between being a great player and a great champion. He’s right and I think Tiger knows he’s right. I think that’s why he mentioned that he needed to show more respect for the game during the T+P show.

If anything good can come of this it would be to see a new Tiger on the golf course. That’s not a reference to his game but to his personality. If he stops the club-slamming and the profanity and the club-tossing and the constant grimaces and tells his caddy to behave civilly to people, that will be huge progress. It will also be an indication that maybe he has given some thought to something other than trying to steer his way around the wreckage he has created so he can get back to playing golf.

One other thing: While the world will watch with rapt attention during Masters week—one can only imagine what the TV ratings will be—that week won’t prove anything at all. If he comes back and wins or seriously contends, well, he’s still Tiger Woods, most talented player of all time. If he misses the cut (unlikely) that doesn’t mean he’s not Tiger Woods. He missed the cut at the U.S. Open in 2006 seven weeks after his father died and then came back to win the British Open and The PGA Championship soon after that.

If he behaves impeccably between the ropes, that’s great—see if he can maintain it. And if he behaves poorly, well, he deserves some time to try to adapt to forming new habits. The Masters will be fascinating but, in the end, it will prove little.

After Augusta he’s going to have to make his way in something a little closer to the real world: tournaments that can’t and won’t control his environment the way the Lords of Augusta do. This is going to be a long and winding road. The apologists and the Tiger-worshippers will applaud everything he does. Others will never forgive him no matter what he does. The majority, I suspect, will just want to sit back and watch. It promises to be reality TV at its most real.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Play-in game starts the tournament; History of the game and what it SHOULD be

While most of you are focused on the start of NCAA Tournament play on Thursday, the first game of the 64 that will decide the national champion is actually tonight.

Yes folks, it’s the dreaded ‘play-in,’ game—a gift from the basketball powers-that-be to the one-bid conferences, courtesy of the absolute greed of the basketball committee.

If you know this story, forgive me but I think it bears re-telling. In 1999, The Western Athletic Conference split in half—eight teams staying in the WAC, eight forming The Mountain West Conference. For one year, while it was awaiting official certification, the MWC did not get an automatic NCAA Tournament bid. Beginning with the 2001 tournament it did get an automatic bid

That meant the number of automatic bids went from 30 to 31. In order to maintain a 64-team field the number of at-large bids would have to drop from 34 to 33. Hardly a big deal, right? Except it was a big deal, notably to the men in charge of the power conferences who didn’t want to risk being the one to lose that 7th bid or 6th bid in a given year. Every bid is worth money—big money these days—that is divided among the conference members. What’s more, every win in the tournament is worth money too. That means the more bids you get, the more chances you have to pile up the cash.

And so the power conference commissioners proposed that the number of at-large bids stay the same and the two lowest-ranked automatic-bid teams would be sent to Dayton—which was chosen because it is a superb college basketball town—to play their way in to the 64-team bracket.

Naturally, the committee bridled when it was dubbed (correctly) the ‘play-in,’ game. Always ready with a euphemism (see, ‘student-athlete,’) it started calling the game the ‘opening round,’ game. In fact, only after a number of people loudly objected did the committee even agree to count the victory financially for the winning team. As I said, every NCAA Tournament victory is worth money—each win is counted as a financial ‘unit,’—except the play-in winner didn’t receive a unit until four years ago when the committee finally gave in on that.

Tonight, Winthrop, which upset Coastal Carolina to win The Big South title, will play Arkansas-Pine Bluff, the SWAC champion. This is the 10th and—probably—last play-in game since some kind of expansion next year is inevitable. In nine of the 10 games one of the two schools representing the conferences made up of historically black colleges and universities has been in the game. Even if the SWAC champion and the MEAC champion were the two lowest-rated teams in the tournament there is NO WAY the committee would send them both to Dayton—they wouldn’t risk the wrath of the PC police.

In truth, if the big boys HAVE to have their 34th bid neither the SWAC champion nor the MEAC champion nor Winthrop should be playing. Tonight, UTEP and Utah State—the two-lowest seeded at-large teams—should be playing, the winner to get a 12th seed. Actually, to take it a step further, the two lowest seeded teams from the BCS conferences should play. Those conferences have the biggest budgets; the highest-paid coaches; the ability to schedule guarantee games to pad their record and the most TV exposure. With all those advantages, if they just sneak in as bubble teams, two of them should go play in Dayton.

More often than not, the players on those teams will have other chances to play in the NCAA Tournament if they stay three or four years in college. They’ve probably been on national TV a dozen times already this season. The little guys may never get another chance to go to an actual tournament site, to go through the practice day, to walk into a packed arena dreaming they’re going to be the first No. 16 seed to win a tournament game. They deserve that chance. Every year the committee denies one of them that shot—all because of greed.

I’ve brought up the notion of sending the at-large teams to Dayton with committee members through the years. I get the same answer every time: “We could do that.”

Yes and I could pass on the ice cream after dinner. But I don’t. So, I’m fat and they’re a bunch of hypocrites.

To me, the best solution to all this and all the coaches whining about expansion is to expand the tournament by THREE teams. If the field had 68 teams this season, Virginia Tech, Mississippi State and Illinois would have all gotten in and there would really be no one complaining about being left out—at least not with any serious reason to complain.

With 68 teams you take the last eight at-large teams selected and you send them all to Dayton. You have four games on Tuesday, a real made-for-TV extravaganza with some compelling matchups: Virginia Tech-California; Mississippi State-Wake Forest; UTEP-Illinois and Minnesota-Florida; how does that sound? The four winners advance to the first round as 12th seeds.


You take away the stigma of the one play-in game and you let all the little guys have their guaranteed moment in the first round sun. And you don’t blow up the magic of Selection Sunday or the first weekend by expanding to 96 teams, something that will be done for only ONE reason: money. That’s the entire list of reasons why it will happen if it happens no matter what anyone tells you.

Thursday, the first 16 first round games will be played. There will be upsets, there will be close games and there will be a few blowouts. The same thing will occur on Friday. One team, either Arkansas Pine-Bluff or Winthrop, will not have the chance to experience what all of that feels like even though both earned their spot in ‘The Dance,’ by winning their conference tournament.

The loser only gets to go to, ‘the dance.’ It’s not fair. The people who have done this the last 10 years should be ashamed of themselves. One thing I can guarantee you is this: they’re not even a little bit ashamed. Which is really a shame.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Regional breakdowns for The Washington Post; AP Top 25 ballot

While you are writing Syracuse into the second round without even a second thought, remember this: The last time the Orange played Vermont in the NCAA tournament, the Catamounts won. That was five years ago in Worcester, Mass. Then again, if Dean Smith were here, he would say Syracuse has a huge psychological advantage because of that game.

Click here for the rest of the West analysis: In Salt Lake, BYU could hold court vs. Orange


Let's start with the matchup that disproves any selection committee's claims of even-handedness: Temple-Cornell. Both teams are under-seeded: Vanderbilt a fourth seed out of the SEC? Oh, please. And Cornell just a No. 12? Ridiculous. The Big Red played a tougher nonconference schedule than almost anyone in the country. Two of their four losses were at Syracuse and at Kansas. Whom exactly did California, a No. 8 seed, beat? The Bears couldn't even win their conference tournament in a miserable Pacific-10.

Click here for the rest of the East analysis: Despite some strange seeding in the East, it's Kentucky's region to lose


For all the TV blather about Duke getting the third overall seed in the tournament over Syracuse, who cares? If you're a No. 1 seed, you're a No. 1 seed. That said, committee chairman Dan Guerrero added to the nonsense by saying, "Well, Syracuse is still playing close to home" in the first two rounds in Buffalo. Syracuse was going to Buffalo regardless and couldn't have played in the East Region final because those games will be in . . . Syracuse. So what's the difference between playing in Houston and playing in Salt Lake? 

Click here for the rest of the South analysis: Duke's drought may end, but watch the Big 12 duo



A lot of people seem to think that Kansas has a cakewalk to Indianapolis through this region. Not so.

There are at least four teams that are capable of beating the Jayhawks: Ohio State, Georgetown, Maryland and, believe it or not, No. 10 seed Georgia Tech. If you were thinking Tennessee was the fourth team that can beat Kansas because it did beat Kansas earlier in the season, forget it: The Vols will be fortunate to get past San Diego State in the first round.

Click here for the rest of the Midwest analysis: Jayhawks may be No. 1, but they can't take it easy


This week's AP Top 25 Ballot:

1 Kansas
2 Kentucky
3 Syracuse
4 Duke
5 West Virginia
6 Ohio State
7 Temple
8 Butler
9 Kansas State
10 Villanova
11 New Mexico
12 Purdue
13 BYU
14 Wisconsin
15 Pittsburgh
16 Gonzaga
17 Texas A&M
18 Tennessee
19 Michigan State
20 Baylor
21 Richmond
22 Georgetown
23 Maryland
24 Cornell
25 Georgia Tech

Selection Sunday; teams with complaints were mediocre

And so, the Self-Righteous Ten have spoken for another year.

As anyone who has ever read anything I’ve written knows, there are few days I enjoy more than Selection Sunday and I dread what it will be like next year. But one part of Selection Sunday I can’t stand is hearing the chairman—Dan Guerrero of UCLA this year—droning on about the purity of the selection process.

Oh please. These guys are human like the rest of us. They have biases and agendas. I’m not here to tell you they don’t try to do a good job but they need to quit claiming their purity while at the same time insisting on conducting their decision-making process in absolute secret. Guerrero won’t even answer the simple question: who was the last team in and the last team out. What is this, the CIA?

If it is all so above-board and pure and wonderful why not let at least one pool reporter—my suggestion has always been the U.S. Basketball Writers President, a job that changes yearly, or Bill Brill, who knows more about the selection process than all 10 committee members combined—sit in the room to explain exactly how the field was picked and seeded.

I’ve been suggesting this for most of 20 years now. The answer I get back, regardless of who is on the committee, is usually pretty direct: No. The reason given is also the same: Because we said so. The only committee member who was willing to even consider it was George Washington Athletic Director Jack Kvancz who actually brought it up in a meeting one year. He was shouted down quickly. He also got passed over the next year when he should have been chairman. I wonder if that was a coincidence.

The last few years the committee and Greg Shaheen, the NCAA staff member who runs the tournament from the NCAA side (and is very much behind the move to 96), have come up with one of the great bogus creations of our time: the mock bracket. The NCAA invites media members to Indianapolis—or in some cases to other cities for the media’s ‘convenience,’--and sets them up for a couple of days to pretend they are the committee. Ostensibly this is done so we in the media can, ‘better understand the process.’

What a bunch of garbage. It is done so that guys in my business will feel more important and think they really do know how hard it is to put the field together. Let me say this one more time: IT IS NOT THAT HARD. Eric Prisbell of The Washington Post had exactly one team different than the committee in his bracket in Sunday’s paper and missed on a few seeds by one spot. He did this ALONE without all sorts of staff members scurrying in and out, without free satellite TV all season, without first class airfare and without a five-star hotel. He’s also a lot less pretentious about it than The Self-Righteous Ten.

Driving in the car this morning hearing the two ESPN morning commercial- readers repeatedly saying, “the committee did a very good job,” I can’t help but giggle. What good job? I’ll give them credit for giving a couple of mid-major conference champions who lost in conference tournaments at-large bids. Fine. For once they did the right thing. Should Mississippi State have gotten in over Minnesota? Yes. The Gophers beat a hobbled Purdue team on Saturday and got killed by Ohio State on Sunday. Mississippi State gave Kentucky everything it could have wanted and beat two tournament teams over the weekend prior to that.

Should Virginia Tech have gotten in over Wake Forest in my opinion? Yes. But I can see the argument going the other way too based on top-50 wins and strength-of-schedule. Seth Greenberg, who is a friend, knew he had a weak schedule in the fall. Penn State turned out to be lousy when people thought they would be decent, but every other team on his schedule turned out about the way people knew they would. All of that said, Virginia Tech finished ahead of Wake Forest in the conference; beat the Deacons head-to-head and did NOT get embarrassed in the ACC Tournament. Wake’s performance against Miami was just completely god-awful.

What’s more, Wake’s AD Ron Wellman was on the committee. PLEASE do not give me the speech about committee members recusing themselves and leaving the room when their team is being discussed. Do you think the other nine guys don’t know how the guy outside the room feels? Committee members talk all the time about how close they become working under such great pressure. Well? Put it this way: every single time a bubble team has had its AD on the committee in my memory, the team has gotten in. That doesn’t mean the committee didn’t get it right—they certainly did with George Mason and Tom O’Connor in 2006—but it happens WITHOUT FAIL.

Having said all that, Guerrero’s not-so-subtle little pitch about how there was SO MANY teams they had to consider for the last few spots, rings pretty hollow. The only reason for that is that none of those last few teams could create any solid reason to get picked. Minnesota, a loser by 29 on Sunday? Florida, which lost to Mississippi State on Friday? Wake Forest? (see above). Texas—which hasn’t won a game since the end of football season? (Oh wait, it didn’t win that game either). California, which couldn’t even win the tournament in the miserable Pac-10?

Did these teams deserve to be in the tournament? Probably—because Mississippi State, Virginia Tech, Illinois and Rhode Island, were just about as mediocre overall. You could put those four in and take four of the above-mentioned out and you’d have essentially the same tournament. (For the record, NONE of these teams deserved to be seeded ahead of Cornell—check out Cornell’s schedule.)

Guerrero is clearly trying to set up the move to 96 by saying SO many teams were deserving. Hogwash. Worst-case scenario you expand to 68 teams, send the last eight at-larges to Dayton to play for the last four spots and there is just about no one who has ANY complaint at all.

Gary Williams claimed to me the other night that there are more good teams today than in 1985 when the tournament expanded to 64 teams. With all due respect, he’s flat out wrong. In 1985, Villanova, a No. 8 seed WON the tournament. In 1988, Kansas a No. 6 seed WON the tournament. IN 1986, a Maryland team led by Len Bias finished SIXTH in the ACC. There were more teams in big conferences with juniors and seniors back then, there was more depth because of that and the quality of basketball was better at all levels than it is today.

Back to the committee. The matchup that screams to be screamed at—among all of them—is Temple-Cornell. Both teams are under-seeded. And, when the committee tries to tell you this game is a coincidence, make sure you have a firm grip on your wallet. Temple is coached by Fran Dunphy; Cornell by Steve Donahue. Guess who was Dunphy’s No. 1 assistant at Penn for 10 years? If you guessed Steve Donahue you win my place at next year’s mock bracket. You win two spots at the mock bracket if you guess the committee guys will claim, ‘gee we never thought of that.’

Uh-huh. These guys are supposed to be hoops experts, right? They watch all these games, study all these computer printouts, read up on the conferences they’re assigned to study. Nah, how would they know about the Dunphy-Donahue connection or think it would make a great first round story for their ‘partners,’ from CBS. Just like Duke and Louisville—and thus Mike Krzyzewski and Rick Pitino—is a likely second round matchup. Absolute coincidence. Heck, they might not even know where Krzyzewski and Pitino are coaching these days.

Someone get me a shovel.

I don’t mind that the committee does this stuff every year, I mind that they claim it is all by accident and they are all Caesar’s wife. If so, then why not let Dick Jerardi (this year’s USBWA president) or Brill, who has been putting brackets together since about 1952, observe this brilliant and totally above-board process. (For those of you who want to write, ‘oh Feinstein you just want to get in the room,” I seriously don’t want to get in the room. I’d rather watch basketball than sit in a room with those guys for four days. But someone should be doing it).

Anyway, that’s my rant for today. Tomorrow we’ll start to deal with who is playing whom and which games should be the most fun this weekend. I’ll leave you with this for today: I’m glad Wake Forest is playing Texas because I like Dino Gaudio and Rick Barnes and this is probably the only way that one of them will have a chance to win at least one game.

Good job, Self-Righteous Ten.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Day two from the ACC Tournament, watching results roll in

AT THE ACC TOURNAMENT DAY TWO—I really didn’t expect much from the basketball here in Greensboro yesterday and I pretty much got what I expected.

None of the four games is going to be sent to the Hall of Fame anytime soon although the winners certainly breathed a sigh of relief. For Virginia, getting a win—any win—was a big deal. The same was true of Miami, although the story of that game was Wake Forest absolutely failing to show up. Georgia Tech-North Carolina was like sitting in a dentist’s chair for two hours since neither team had a point guard who could get his team into an offense. And Clemson-North Carolina State was a typical 9:30 (or in this case 9:45) game in this tournament. Both teams looked tired from the start and the building was more than half empty by halftime. Given that the score was 25-21 you couldn’t really blame people for leaving.

What was most interesting about yesterday—as it is often is—was watching other tournament results come in from around the country. Three of the four Big East double-bye teams lost and the only one that did win, West Virginia, needed an off-balance three at the buzzer to beat Cincinnati. In truth though, none of those upsets really meant anything: Syracuse will still be a No. 1 seed even though it lost to Georgetown. Villanova might drop to a No. 3 because it finished poorly and Pittsburgh might drop one line on the seeding chart. The three winners—Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame—were all in the tournament already so their victories simply give them the chance to improve their seeding.

The games that mattered were those involving teams trying to play their way into Sunday’s bracket. Everyone had decided that Washington-Arizona State in the Pac-10 Tournament was going to be an elimination game: winner goes, loser heads for the NIT. Except that Arizona State never made it past Stanford last night and they are OUT. I know they are OUT because I heard Joe Lunardi say it after the game.

I happen to like Joe Lunardi, I’ve known him for a long time. And I give him credit—sort of like Mel Kiper—for making money by doing something my friend Bill Brill has done for about 40 years, usually aided by about four or five beers and little else.

In fact, another of my long time friends, Keith Drum—who once was sports editor of The Durham Herald-Sun but now scouts for the Sacramento Kings—has an idea for the expanded tournament.

“Since ESPN is going to offer the NCAA billions for the tournament rights, they should throw in an extra billion and say, ‘in return for this last billion, we want you to do away with the basketball committee and just put Joe Lunardi in charge,’” Drummer said to me yesterday when we were joking about the minute-to-minute, ‘who’s in and who’s out,’ list.

“Lunardi can start doing hourly updates on January 1. The NCAA will save lots of money not having to fly the committee around and put them up in expensive hotels and it will be good for the teams too: When Joe says a game is a MUST win for them, they’ll KNOW it’s a must win, no ifs ands or buts.”

Personally I think it’s a great idea. Joe can be totally honest about his picks. “I left Villanova out because I work at St. Joseph’s and even if they’re 24-6, the heck with them. They can play in the CBI.”

Jay Wright’s a good guy. He’ll get over it.

Right now the big issue for Joe—and for the overpaid and overpampered selection committee—is how to find 34 teams worthy of an at-large bid. Seriously, there aren’t 34 teams out there, which makes the notion of trying to dig up 65 teams next year even more ridiculous.

Here’s some of the math we did yesterday: The Big East is getting seven at-large bids. (Remember with each of these conferences you add one to get their total because of the automatic bid: Big East gets eight total, seven at-large). The two teams that had a chance to play their way in—Seton Hall and South Florida—bombed out. They’re gone. The ACC is going to get six—yes, Georgia Tech gets in even if it loses to Maryland because there just aren’t any alternatives out there. The Big Ten gets four—again, Illinois may not be worthy but it doesn’t matter. They’re going to get in. The Big 12, which may be the most underrated league in the country, also gets six—even though it feels as if Texas hasn’t beaten anyone since New Year’s. The SEC is going to get three—Florida probably clinched its spot Thursday—and the Pac-10 will get one unless Stanford or UCLA wins the tournament in which case it will get two.

So, the big six conferences have locked down 27 spots—fewer than usual. Obviously there are teams from those leagues that could play their way in over the weekend. But for now let’s stick with 27.

The Atlantic-10 will get at least two at-larges and The Mountain West will also get at least two. The WCC will get one—Gonzaga. Conference USA might get one but having UAB and Memphis lose last night didn’t help. Add all that up and you have 33 teams (at most) with teams like Wichita State, William & Mary and either San Diego State or UNLV hoping for a miracle. The better the favorites do the next few days, the better the chances that one of those teams might sneak in.

That said, none of those schools or the other bubble teams trying to play their way in right now—teams like Minnesota or Tulsa or Mississippi—will have much to complain about if they don’t get in.

Of course if this was a 96-team field all those teams would be in easily and we’d be wondering if Miami’s win over Wake Forest vaulted it over North Carolina for one of the final spots. That’s certainly something to look forward to, isn’t it?

One last note for today: As I watched the Clemson-NC State game with almost no one in the arena, I thought of something Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey said earlier this week. I asked him to compare The ACC Tournament (in which he coached eight times as a Duke assistant) and The Big East Tournament.

Here’s what he said: “At the ACC Tournament you see all the fans from the schools sitting together, wearing their team colors, for the most part very polite, rarely raucous. There are always a lot of ladies in the crowd.

“At The Big East Tournament it’s guy’s night out. People sit with their buddies, regardless of school, they have a few beers and they get into it as the night goes on.

“A few years ago Anthony Solomon, one of my assistants, had his family there. We were playing the late game against U-Conn. His kids were little, maybe six and four. Late in the game we made a big run to get back into the game. There were a couple of guys in U-Conn shirts sitting in front of the Solomon’s. One of them turned around, pointed at the kids and said, “You know don’t you that there’s no such thing as Santa Claus.”

On that note, it’s time to go watch some more basketball.