Saturday, March 30, 2013

Tourney Notes, Part Three

Random thoughts now that the NCAA Basketball Tournament is down to the Elite Eight:

The Victors
It remains to be seen whether this year's Michigan Wolverines team will remain eponymous with the school's fight song come April 8th. But their stunning comeback over Kansas did give them a "team of destiny" kind of feel. If they win it all, I hope that feat will trigger the nation to properly remember Michigan's 1989 national championship team, which reached the game's summit by edging Seton Hall in one of the best title games ever played.

Rumeal Robinson sinking two free throws with three seconds left to erase a one-point deficit and deliver the championship to Ann Arbor remains one of the finest clutch moments in sports. However, when you ask about Michigan's basketball history, all anyone talks about is the Fab Five - a group that did not win a championship. What a shame.

Yes, Syracuse played a tenacious 2-3 zone defense in their Friday night win, but contrary to what all the talking heads keep saying, that system is not why they won. Indiana had plenty of open shots, only to shoot woefully off-target bricks on many of them. Syracuse won for the simple reason that they were the better team that night - and that fact would would have remained the same no matter which system they used.

Then there was Cody Zeller. After the second round, I wrote that he "played skittish and with no sense of authority" and that he had "to be considered one of the most disappointing players in the tournament." Well, against Syracuse he played even worse than he did the round before. He is not the sole reason Indiana lost, but he played so bad that the only way the Hoosiers might have had a chance is if every one of his teammates played literally perfect. On Friday, for the second game in a row, Zeller played like he doesn't believe he belongs at this level, and that kind of non-belief always proves to be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

'Twas a helluva fun run guys, from the endless alley-oops to the sight of Sherwood Brown shaking hands with the TV announcers as the clock wound down against Georgetown. Sorry it ended, but it's good to know it was legit. Your school's enrollment is sure to skyrocket, and America can't wait to see you back next season.

Today: In the early game, Marquette will win a defensive struggle by a handful of points, pulling away from Syracuse at the end...Then Wichita State will edge Ohio State by sinking all their shots in the last three minutes, brushing aside what had been a tie and showing the Buckeyes that those who repeatedly play with fire ultimately get burned.

Tomorrow: Michigan will beat Florida. After staging a comeback like the one last night, how could they not?...Then Louisville will sweep the court with Duke and it won't even be close.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Happy Anniversary, LOML

It has been fourteen years since Erika and I tied the knot, and I just want to say how much I cherish and appreciate her, the love of my life.

For being my partner in the merry-go-round of life, in times of scarcity as well as times of abundance.

For being mother to our four children - two who went to Heaven before leaving her womb and two who bring us daily smiles with their presence on Earth. (Love you, S and P!)

And for countless other things as well.

Love you LOML.

Monday, March 25, 2013

Tourney Notes, Part Two

Random thoughts now that the NCAA Basketball Tournament is down to the Sweet Sixteen:

Khalif Wyatt
It's too bad for this senior guard that his team did not make it past the second round. Even though I was pulling for Indiana, not Temple, I felt bad for Wyatt because his performance over the course of two games was tournament-MVP-caliber. At one point in the loss to Indiana, he had 20 of Temple's 24 points and it had nothing to do with ball-hogging. He is clutch, pure and simple, and when no one else stepped up on offense he eagerly filled the void.

Cody Zeller
On the flip side of the same game, Indiana's highly touted seven-foot sophomore played skittish and with no sense of authority. His Hoosiers have what it takes to run the table and cut down the nets in Atlanta, but he must ratchet his level of play way upward if that is going to happen. Given the Hoosiers' #1 seed and the many accolades thrown his way since he arrived on campus, he thus far has to be considered one of the most disappointing players in the tournament.

The Tiff
On the one hand, there is no doubt that Kansas fans are pleased their Jayhawks have made it to the Sweet Sixteen. But on the other and strangely stronger hand, there is no doubt they are thrilled to have beaten Roy Williams en route. Not North Carolina's team, mind you, but North Carolina's coach who once coached their own program. Am I the only one who finds their punitive Williams-hating passion to be exceedingly bizarre at this point.

Williams has been gone from Lawrence for ten seasons now. And he left the program in good shape. And he left to coach his own alma mater half a continent away, not to coach a conference rival. And everyone knew for years in advance that coaching his alma mater was his lifelong dream. Yet a (very) sizeable percentage of Jayhawks fans still consider him a traitor in the mold of Benedict Arnold, or perhaps even Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, only worse.

As an Auburn graduate, I have spent years in the thrall of America's most heated college rivalry, and I speak with confidence when I say that Kansas fans talking about Roy Williams have their priorities even more out of whack than Alabama fans talking about football. (Auburn fans are of course rational and reserved and respectful at every moment of their lives.)

Gotta love FGCU, gotta talk about FGCU...Screw anyone who ever referred to their team as America's Team, because the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles clearly are America's team...They dunk better than the Phi Slamma Jamma and play with a chemistry that reminds me of the Pat Riley Lakers...Monte Towe knew how to set up David Thompson on alley-oops, but Brett Comer knows how to set up everyone on alley-oops while ad-libbing on the fly...Watching them play hoops is like listening to Ella Fitzgerald scat "How High the Moon"...They personify what is great about America because they are out to earn their chops on merit, unintimidated by their higher-seeded foes just like the minutemen were unintimidated by the higher-seeded redcoats...They are not likely to win the national championship, and in fact the odds say they do not have much of a chance to win their next game, but since when does FGCU care about the odds?

Speaking of FGCU, they have played so impressively that they are no longer considered a sleeper. But if I had to pick a sleeper from the rest of the remaining field, I would pick Oregon. They are hitting their stride at the right time and seem capable of resuscitating the Pac-12's reputation all by themselves. Since everyone has been waiting for Oregon's football program to win a national title for the last several years, wouldn't it make a good story if their basketball team came out of shallow left field to win one that few people are expecting?

And with that...
...bring on Thursday. I can't wait!

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Tourney Notes, Part One

Random thoughts one round into the 75th NCAA Basketball Tournament (some people might say we are two rounds in, but I do not count that absurd play-in which has come to be called the "First Four"):

The Surprises
Not counting Florida Gulf Coast's grande cojones throttling of Georgetown – which probably belongs in a category all its own – the first-round upsets that surprised me most were Ole Miss taking down Wisconsin and Temple taking down North Carolina State...And yes, you read that correctly. I found those outcomes more surprising than Wichita State over Pitt and Harvard over New Mexico and even LaSalle over Kansas State.

I expected Wisconsin be a giant-slayer in this tournament. Specifically, I expected them to eliminate top-seeded Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen, thus making it all the way to the Elite Eight before bowing out.

When it comes to NC State-Temple, most people will find it hard to see much of an upset taking place when a ninth-seed beats an eighth-seed. However, I considered the Wolfpack to be the biggest threat Indiana could face before the Elite Eight (sorry, Syracuse) and in my mind I believed they were good enough to come together and make a Cinderella run all the way to Atlanta.

About that Florida Gulf Coast Victory
It was the margin and completeness of their victory, much more than the simple fact of their victory, that made their already impressive showing even more impressive. The Eagles smacked Georgetown down with authority and outplayed them in every phase of the game, acting like they knew all along that they were going to prevail. And perhaps we shouldn't have been surprised, since they did beat Miami and hang close to Duke for a while en route to a 24-win season.

The Incomplete Analogy
Speaking of Miami, this year's basketball Canes remind me very much of the 1983 football Canes whose national title established that program as a national force no one could ignore.

Both teams were borne from programs whose very existence had sometimes rested on uncertain ground, for during the 1970's Miami seriously considered dropping its football program and actually did drop its basketball program (which was reinstated 15 seasons later)... Both teams were taken less seriously than they deserved by national power brokers…And both programs had produced only one nationally prominent figure prior to their respective championship runs. For pre-1983 football it was Ottis Anderson and for pre-current basketball it was Rick Barry.

Of course, we are just one round into the tournament and this basketball team has not won the national title like their football counterparts did. But having won both the regular season and conference tourney championships of the nation's most storied hoops conference - one which includes basketball bluebloods like Duke and UNC - these Canes will not be intimidated by the Louisvilles and Indianas of the world, just like the '83 football Canes were not intimidated by Nebraska.

Quality of Play
I am liking it. Most radio commentators and sportswriters seem to be upset by the low scoring, but based on the games I have watched, the low scores are primarily the result of legitimately stout defense, not poorly executed offense. For the most part, I have seen teams running true team-oriented offense with perpetual motion, smart passing, shrewd patience, and plenty of picks and rolls and backdoor cuts. Despite all the hand-wringing over low point totals, I am seeing three-pointers swish through the nets with impressive regularity. What I do not see much of is the kind of aimless and disorganized "drive to dunk and try nothing else" play that just a few years ago had me fearing "real" basketball had become a lost art.

Bring on Round Two!

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

The Annoyance

Saturday morning I saw the world's most annoying bumper sticker for about the one hundred millionth time. I am talking about that blue sticker that says "coexist" in white lettering, with the letter "C" portrayed by an Islamic crescent, the "X" by a Star of David, and the "T" by a cross. It was plastered on a minivan turning into an outlet mall in Vero Beach, FL, and I was finally moved to say just how much I detest it.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with the idea of different people coexisting in peace and harmony. The problem is that coexistence is not possible unless all sides are willing -- and of all the sides highlighted in the sticker, the one whose symbol appears first has no intention of peacefully coexisting with anyone. Thus, at best the sticker is a brainless banner for Pollyanna suckers; or at worst, a snide swipe against those who actually do want coexistence.

Judaism and Christianity are represented by the Star of David and cross, respectively, and as a rule their adherents believe in peace and tolerance among all faiths. Whenever a fellow Jew preaches intolerance or practices violence, masses of Jews join their voices together by the millions to condemn such preaching and practice. The same happens among Christians when the offender is a fellow Christian.

On the other hand, when a Muslim commits murder in the name of Islam (a not-uncommon occurrence) we hear no mass outcry from his co-religionists. If anything, we hear them criticize Jews and Christians for supposedly committing slights that drove the killer to kill -- even though the alleged slights are usually nothing more than Jews and Christians not being Muslims.

Every now and then Muslims will specifically identify a perceived slight. And almost every time, it is nothing more than the propensity of some Jews and Christians to support the state of Israel's right to exist without its citizens being murdered in cold blood for the dastardly sin of not being Muslim. Interestingly, none of the liberals who paste coexist stickers on their cars bother to realize, much less appreciate, the fact that Israel is the only country in the Middle East which actually does practice coexistence.

After all, it is the only nation in the Muslim world which permits religious freedom. It is the only practicing democracy in that part of the world, other than the vulnerable, fledgling governments in Iraq and Afghanistan which were established thanks to an American president who was a practicing Christian. Though widely thought of as a "Jewish nation," Israel has had Muslims elected to office.

It is dangerously incorrect and patently offensive for the makers and purchasers of the coexist sticker to presume what they obviously presume; namely, that your average Jew or Christian needs just as much reminding as your average Muslim when it comes to the concepts of human dignity and mutual respect. What else can explain giving the crescent equal billing with the star and cross?

(Actually, cowardly groveling also explains the decision to give them equal billing, but since when has a cowardly groveling mindset been less likely to result in bondage than a mindset which is willfully blind?)