Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Rooting Interest

Originally published on AOL Hometown

On Selection Sunday, as the brackets for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament were being revealed, the grim reality gradually sank in that my school, the University of Maryland, would not be invited for the first time since 1993.

Once I finished sulking about that, I faced the next logical issue—figuring out who I would root for during the tournament. Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t need a rooting interest in order to watch a basketball game, but it does enhance the experience for me, and I gather many other fans. If I can buy into a game emotionally, I can reap greater rewards if my team wins. I can also suffer greater consequences when they lose, but it’s that uncertainty that is at the very heart of the experience of watching these games.

This concept can work two different ways. As I viewed this year’s NCAA tournament brackets sans Maryland, I focused on three groups of schools. First, there were teams I liked—Illinois, Wake Forest, Georgia Tech, Southern Illinois, and Boston College.

The second group consisted of schools I didn’t have strong feelings about but I predicted would advance on my bracket sheet—Connecticut, Syracuse, Pittsburgh, (yes, folks, I drank the kool-aid for the Big East and it led to my demise), Florida, and Gonzaga.

The third group I looked at was the teams I rooted against. This rogue’s gallery was headlined by Duke and also included North Carolina and Texas Tech (any team coached by Bob Knight makes this list). One standard topic of debate at this time of year among college hoops fans is the issue of rooting for or against teams from your school’s conference.

In the “for” camp, the argument is often made that the success of conference opponents will ultimately improve the stature of every member school including the one you cheer for, therefore you should cheer for them. Accepting this point would have required me to root for Duke and North Carolina in the tournament.


I have pitched my tent in the “against” camp on this issue. I just don’t see how you can have an intense, even nasty, rivalry with a team throughout a season only to flip a switch in the post-season and cheer for them because of some intangible benefit your team could receive.

At Maryland, fans have turned hating Duke into a passion bordering on a religion. Carolina has also been a huge thorn in the Terps' side over the years. I will not condone the outright hatred of any team or player or coach (boy, that’s not easy to write) because God doesn’t want us to hate or judge anyone. He does not, however, say I have to root for everyone either, so I have no problem joining my fellow Maryland alumni and fans in rejoicing at the early demise of the Blue Devils in their Sweet Sixteen loss to Michigan State.

Sadly, I did not see Duke’s loss. I was at a Good Friday church service while the game was being played. As soon as I left the service, I hustled to my car and turned on the radio broadcast, which was in the post-game wrap-up. As soon as I heard the score, I giggled and squealed with delight like a little girl. I figured, okay, I did my part by choosing the service over the game, and the Big Guy did his part by seeing to it that the evil ones (Blue Devils) were vanquished.

Isn’t it interesting (or pathetic) to see how a fan can take credit for something he had absolutely no influence over? Or didn’t I? Did any Duke fans give up watching the game to attend church? Hmmmm.

Like so many college basketball fans, I reveled in the drama and high quality of play in the Elite Eight games last weekend. You didn’t need a strong rooting interest to appreciate the amazing shot-making of West Virginia, the gutsy comeback by Illinois, and the drama in the Michigan State-Kentucky game. My only concern going into those contests was having a clear rooting interest in the Final Four matchups. After all, it’s harder to justify spending Saturday night in a sports bar if I don’t care who wins the games.

Fortunately, I’m all set for the Final Four. I have Illinois to root for in the first game and North Carolina to root against in the second. I had a similar situation last year, when I was cheering for Georgia Tech and against Duke and went 2-0, and I hope for the same results this year.

Here’s something else to think about; if North Carolina goes all the way and wins the title, can the cosmic balance withstand Phil Mickelson winning the Masters, the Red Sox winning the World Series, and Roy Williams winning a national championship, all within 12 months of each other? Personally, I doubt it.

You’re all welcome to pitch a tent in my camp and root against it.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

All Hail The Mighty Big Ten

Originally published on AOL Hometown

The Elite Eight is now set in the NCAA men's basketball tournament, and the conferences the experts touted all season have proven their worth by dominating the final eight spots in the brackets.

Actually, Mr. CourtMaster, that's not correct.

What are you talking about? Certainly the mighty ACC is well represented.

Not so much. Only North Carolina made it, and they only barely defeated a Villanova team without their best big man, Curtis Sumpter.

Okay, well then at least the Big East teams stepped up big, didn't they?

None of them outside of West Virginia. Syracuse, Connecticut, and Pittsburgh didn't make it out of the first weekend.

Oh my! That really must have opened things up for the Big 12 then.

Have you even watched these games? The Big 12 teams are all gone. Mighty Kansas lost to Bucknell for crying out loud!

So I suppose that leaves.....

The Big Ten. They've got three teams in the Elite Eight. Illinois making it is no surprise, but Wisconsin and Michigan State also got there. The Spartans even beat Coach K for the first time!

I have been watching the games, I just lost sight of them and was looking at my pre-tournament bracket predictions, which have become almost totally irrelevant. Anyway, I thought this was supposed to be a dreaded "down year" for the Big Ten.

Apparently no one told them that. Last night, Michigan State's Paul Davis, who you have said should have two bolts in his neck, outplayed Duke's All-American big man Shelden Williams. Wisconsin held NC State's leaders, Julius Hodge and Ilian Evtimov to a combined 6-26 shooting while Alondo Tucker lit up the Wolfpack with 22 points.

It looks like the key here is the Big Ten teams have players who are stepping up in the big games, and they are holding down their opponents' stars. Speaking of that, what happened to J. J. Redick of Duke last night?

Hecame up rather small, shooting only 4-14. He was not a factor down the stretch.
Redick didn't help himself in that debate regarding who is better, him or Arizona'a Salim Stoudamire, did he?

Not exactly, since the night before Stoudamire made the game-winning shot for Arizona.
Here we are, after all the talk about mid-majors this season, with the Elite Eight consisting entirely of teams from the six power conferences.

That's right, CM, and the Big Ten is the only one with more than one team standing. Didn't see that coming, did you?

Oh there's a whole lot in this tournament I didn't see coming. At least my pick to win it all, Illinois, is still alive.

The Illini are now officially doomed!

Hey, who are you anyway?

I'm your father, Luke.

Great, a mysterious voice that's a wiseass. Will I hear from you again?

I'll be back!

Friday, March 25, 2005

A Night for the Aged

Originally published on AOL Hometown

I hate to see missed opportunities, and I saw a big one last night during the first night of the men's NCAA basketball tournament Sweet 16 games. I’m not referring to Oklahoma State's John Lucas, who missed a potential game winning shot at the buzzer vs. Arizona. No, I’m thinking of sponsorships.

Where was Geritol, or Metamucil, or Wilford Brimley extolling the virtues of Quaker Oats Oatmeal? After all, the theme was age last night, and plenty of it. Prowling the sidelines without the aid of a walker were head coaches 64-year old Bob Knight of Texas Tech, Oklahoma State’s 69-year old Eddie Sutton, and the dapper 70-year old Lute Olson of Arizona.

Anytime I watch Bob Knight coach, and the television cameras always make sure we catch his every gesture and utterance, I just feel the joy and fun sucked out of a game. When I see someone in a public forum, be it a speaker, an entertainer, an athlete, or a coach, I am drawn to someone who appears to enjoy what they are doing. I can not recall ever viewing Knight in that way.

As I see the General during the game, it appears as if he is fulfilling an obligation by coaching when he would rather be fishing. It also looks like he could use some Metamucil, but maybe that’s just me. The good folks at Indiana gave Knight the opportunity to go fishing in 2000, but he chose to continue his pursuit of Dean Smith’s career victory record and preaching the gospel of his way to play basketball to the unenlightened.

Knight demonstrated again this season that he is one of the great coaches in the game, taking his Red Raider team far beyond what their level of talent would lead you to believe they could achieve. I just find it difficult to root for a bully who would walk up to me and shake me down for my lunch money.
Sutton, on the other hand, seems to be a good ‘ol boy you could lean over the fence and talk to on a Saturday morning while you are doing yard work. It’s easy to picture him with a blade of grass sticking out of his mouth telling tales and making you chuckle.

Don’t let that Eddie of Mayberry persona make you sleep on Sutton’s accomplishments though. He has led the Cowboys and Arkansas to the Final Four, and took Kentucky to the Elite Eight before being pushed toward the door in the wake of a recruiting scandal involving star Chris Mills. Early in his career, he took Creighton to the NCAA Tournament, making him one of only a handful of coaches to dance at four different schools.

After Oklahoma State was eliminated last night, Sutton indicated he would be back to coach the team next season, which promises to be a challenging one after losing six seniors from this year’s squad. The good news is that the assistant who is in charge of wiping the drool from Sutton’s face during the game will still have a job.
When I look at Arizona’s Lute Olson, I just hope I look as good as he does when I’m 70. Olson has been a bit cranky at times this year, complaining about his team, particularly star guard Salim Stoudamire, not receiving enough recognition from the “East Coast biased” media. The more I see Stoudamire play, the more I realize he might have a point, especially when Salim shook off a sub-par night to calmly drain the game winning shot last night. By the way, Salim, dude, your hair—shave it, braid it, trim it, just do something with it please. It might give you a couple extra inches on your vertical.

Of the three venerable coaches last night, Olson trumped the others by leading his team to a victory in a great game against a veteran Oklahoma State team. His career is a remarkable model of consistency. He built the Iowa program up to the point where they made five straight NCAA tournaments and reached the 1980 Final Four. Then, after taking a year to clean up the mess at Arizona, he has led the Wildcats to 21 consecutive NCAA appearances. The Cats have reached four Final Fours and won the 1997 National Championship.

After recently losing my wife, I have a special place in my heart for a man like Olson, who lost his beloved wife and partner Bobbi to cancer in January, 2001. Not only did he avoid falling apart, he returned to lead Arizona to the National Championship game that April, where they lost to Shane Battier’s Duke squad. I respected that accomplishment at the time, but having walked a few steps in his shoes myself, I now have a deep admiration for Olson. He had to deal with his loss in a very public forum yet still managed to not only keep himself together, he made sure his young players stayed focused enough to complete one of the best seasons in school history.

If I have to pick between two people to succeed, I’ll take the man with the inner strength and quiet grace over the playground bully any time. With Arizona’s win and Texas Tech’s loss, I found Thursday night to be a very satisfying night to watch basketball

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Still the Dean of Coaches

Originally published on AOL Hometown

University of North Carolina men’s basketball coach Dean Smith has seen two of his all-time career records surpassed in the last week. Does this diminish his stature among the great coaches in history? Hardly.

University of Tennessee women’s basketball coach Pat Summitt eclipsed Smith’s career record of 879 victories, the most in Division I basketball history, when her Lady Vols advanced in the NCAA Tournament and gave Summitt her 880th career win. Two days earlier, Duke’s Coach K posted his 66th career NCAA tournament victory, eclipsing Smith’s mark of 65. These are both impressive accomplishments.

Summit is the gold standard for coaches in women’s basketball, building Tennessee’s program from scratch years before the NCAA officially sanctioned the sport. She in unquestionably a great coach, one who would likely be successful coaching men or running a business if that is what she chose to do.

Coach K’s record is well known and needs no defense. His three national championships and sustained track record of excellence puts him on any short list of the best basketball coaches of all time. Like Summit however, Coach K’s recent eclipsing of a Dean Smith mark does not yet put him at that level among the all-time coaching greats. Both achievements are due in part to the environment in which they were accomplished.

Coach Summitt’s record is the easiest to put in perspective. While she was accumulating many of those win in the 1970’s and 1980’s, women’s basketball at the collegiate level was still in its neophyte stages. Few schools devoted any resources to the sport, and it took the strict enforcement of Title IX laws to change that. As schools like UConn and Stanford have risen up in recent years to challenge the Lady Vols, Summitt’s stranglehold on NCAA tournament success has loosened. Tennessee is still among the top teams in the nation, but is no longer a dominant program.

Coach K’s mark has unquestionably come against the strongest competition, but he has benefited from changes in the NCAA Tournament itself. When Dean Smith became the Tar Heels’ head coach in 1961-62, only 25 schools were invited to the NCAA Tournament, and only one from each conference. That did not change until the 1974-75 Tournament, which expanded to 32 teams and allowed a second team from a conference to be invited. This structure made it harder for teams to qualify and gave them fewer games to play.

The NCAA tournament gradually expanded over the next ten years to its current format-64 teams and no limits on how many from each conference. This covered only the final 13 of Dean Smith’s 36 year reign as North Carolina head coach. Coach K, who took the helm at Duke before the 1980-81 season, has benefited from this format for most of his career. Many of those additional games have been as a #1 seed crushing a helpless #16 seed in the first round.

I am not seeking to diminish either Coach Summitt’s or Coach K’s recent accomplishments. They are impressive and stamp them as two of the most successful coaches in college basketball history. I just don’t want to hear any more reports of how they have surpassed Dean Smith. Their numbers in these categories may have, but their stature has not.