Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sunday morning coffee

- I wouldn't want to be a member of Tony Stewart's pit crew this morning.  Perhaps Stewart lit into his guys last night after the race but my suspicion is that there will be a "come to (Jesus/Tony)" session this morning where Stewart will ask "what the hell happened?"  Stewart was leading the NASCAR Sprint Cup race in Richmond last night with 13 laps remaining when the caution flag came out for debris on the track.  Stewart pitted as did Kyle Busch, then in second place.  Busch beat Stewart out of the pits and then easily nabbed the three car length lead on the restart.

- By the way, the debris on the track last night was a plastic water bottle.  So, not only was Stewart miffed at his pit crew, but NASCAR officials caught his ire at what he considered to be a flawed reason for pulling out the yellow caution flag.

- Dontari Poe.  Another Chiefs draft pick has been used on an interior lineman on the defensive side of the ball.  And, another Chiefs draft pick will be added to the list of guys who didn't last in the NFL.  For a franchise in need of help on both sides of the line of scrimmage, why use your first pick on a guy who all would concede is a high risk selection?

- I know injuries are part of the game in sports.  But, watching Derrick Rose of the Chicago Bulls go down with a season-ending knee injury just makes me sick--I hate to see the NBA playoffs impacted in this way by Rose's absence.

- Kansas very likely will finish last in the Big 12 conference football race this fall.  But, there is a different vibe with this team and this program as evidenced by yesterday's spring game.  The biggest example of this new attitude is quarterback Dayne Crist, famously brought to Lawrence as part of coach Charlie Weis' transfer program.  Crist may not be all-conference but what he brings to KU is a swagger and confidence which this program sorely needs.  The timing on offense yesterday was light years better than what Kansas fans have witnessed the past two seasons.  Now, few conclusions could be drawn from yesterday's "game," but one was that the Jayhawks have an athlete taking snaps who truly is Division 1 caliber.

- Bill Hancock is a quality guy but I'm glad we won't have to see him continue to rationalize the BCS bowl system.  The prospect of having a true college football playoff in two years is exciting.

- Washington's pick of Michigan State QB Kirk Cousins in the fourth round of the NFL Draft is a head-scratcher.  Or, perhaps the Redskins believe that Robert Griffin III is, indeed, an injury-risk and want Cousins groomed as a quality back-up?

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Turnovers and timeouts

The college hoops season is over but the "silly season" of coaching moves, recruiting news and NBA draft projecting is upon us.  Let's take a look, shall we...?

Turnover:  Bo Ryan is acting indignant that his restrictions on redshirt freshman Jarrod Uthoff's decision to transfer are causing such a stir.  But, why is it that coaches can freely come and go but the "student athlete" (the NCAA's term, not mine) is restricted by having to sit out a year or even being told, as in the case of Uthoff, where he can go and where he cannot.  Ryan has now softened his stance and said that Uthoff can transfer to any school outside of the Big Ten but that's too little, too late.  Players who wish to transfer should be allowed to do just that--transfer.  It's disingenuous that coaches, who make millions, can move with little to no consequence but players must abide by arcane rules of where they can play or not.

Timeout:  Many are tsk-tsking at SMU for hiring 71 year old Larry Brown as the Mustangs new head basketball coach.  But, what SMU gets is instant buzz and a guy who is, arguably, the best basketball coach still active.  Brown knows his ball and will take whatever SMU has and make it better.  The key to success for SMU and Brown will be hiring a staff which includes at least one top-notch recruiter.  Brown is notorious for not enjoying the recruiting aspect of the job but has, in his back yard, access to the Texas high school sports system--finding an assistant who can tap into that pipeline quickly is important.

Turnover:  Tony Parker, one of the few highly rated high schoolers who has yet to commit, now will make his college choice on Monday.  Parker, once high on Kansas, is said to be favoring UCLA now that Shabazz Muhammad has committed there along with another top ten recruit in Kyle Anderson.  Somehow, UCLA head coach Ben Howland has found a way to survive the mid-season damning story in Sports Illustrated about his program.

Timeout: has the surefire lock of Anthony Davis of Kentucky as the number one pick but now has Thomas Robinson of Kansas as the second selection.  Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky, is third, followed by Andre Drummond, Connecticut; Harrison Barnes, North Carolina; Bradley Beal, Florida; Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut; Kendall Marshall, North Carolina; Austin Rivers, Duke; and Damian Lillard, Weber State.  Perry Jones of Baylor is at 13; Royce White, Iowa State, 22; Khris Middleton of Texas A&M is 43; Kim English of Missouri is 46; Quincy Acy, Baylor, is 51; J'Covan Brown, Texas, 53; and Tyshawn Taylor, Kansas, 54.  In comparison, NBA Draft Express has Davis, Drummond, Kidd-Gilchrist, Robinson and Beal as its top five with Jones ninth; White, 25; Taylor, 27; Marcus Denmon, Missouri, 43; Brown, 54; and Middleton, 60.

Turnover:  How can Denmon not even make the list yet be listed 43rd by NBA Draft Express?  And, seriously, Taylor is the 54th best player ( in this draft class?

Timeout:  Speaking of Muhammad and UCLA, the SG is projected as the second pick in NBA Draft Express' 2013 mock draft, following Kentucky recruit Nerlens Noel.  The others in the top five are Cody Zeller, Indiana; James McAdoo, North Carolina; and Isaiah Austin, another top ten recruit headed to Waco, TX to play for Scott Drew at Baylor.  Fellow Baylor Bear Quincy Miller is projected as the seventh pick.  Other Big 12 and Missouri players include LeBryan Nash, Oklahoma State, 10; Myck Kabongo, Texas, 15; Jeff Withey, Kansas, 17; Phil Pressey, Missouri, 26; and Elijah Johnson, Kansas, 50.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

"I'm taking my talents..."

I will admit, I'm guilty--guilty of this voyeurism we call college hoops recruiting.  And, that voyeurism was on full display last night as top ranked recruits Shabazz Muhammad and Nerlens Noel made public their decisions on where they would "attend school," er, ahem, play ball.

By now anyone who has a hoops pulse knows that Muhammad chose UCLA and Noel chose Kentucky. Muhammad's choice was not a surprise--he'd long been rumored to have UCLA at the top of his list but late runs by Duke and Kentucky had recruitniks thinking that he might end up in Durham, N.C. as the latest in a recent line of Coach K "one and dones."  Noel, on the other hand, was thought to be headed to Georgetown as many recruiting services and the Twitter-world were convinced that he'd be a Hoya by night's end.  Alas, he showed up at his news conference with a "UK" shaved in his noggin and became the latest top flight recruit to "take his talents" to Lexington.

Can we all take a step back and consider what we are all part of?  These are 18-year old kids who are holding press conferences, knocking ball caps off of tables in order to don the school cap of choice, using words they've heard uttered by the biggest hoops emigrant of recent memory (Lebron James), and generally acting like the world should stop to watch their "decision."  High school basketball All Star games take breaks in action so that these kids, on the sideline, can be interviewed and announce "I'm going to ball at (fill in the name of the college hoops factory here.)"

Like I said, I'm guilty--I waited anxiously to see whether Xavier Henry and Josh Selby would, indeed, say "Kansas" or don a KU cap.  I gnashed my teeth when Kaleb Tarczewski shocked us all and said he was headed to Arizona.  And, I muttered to myself when I read, a few weeks ago, that Muhammad had eliminated Kansas from his list.  I mean, wasn't Kansas an Adidas school and didn't 'Bazz publicly state, at one point in his recruitment, that he wanted to go to a school with the three-striped shoes?

It's sad people.  Lent is over but if we had a Lent mulligan I'd swear off college hoops least, until my annual subscription to the Jayhawk Slant is up for renewal.

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Grading the Jayhawks

Thirty nine games and 5.5 months later, the 2011-2012 season is over.  Let's take a moment to grade this edition of the Kansas Jayhawks.

Thomas Robinson.  A+.  Some will quibble that a national title should move Robinson from an "A" to an "A+," but let's not get greedy--this was a masterpiece of a season from T-Rob.  Robinson was expected to be a star but few could have anticipated that he would be in the mix, throughout the season, for Player of the Year honors.  Robinson was a unanimous All-American choice and played himself into a spot as a top five NBA pick in the upcoming draft.  His jersey will be hung soon from the rafters of Allen Fieldhouse.

Tyshawn Taylor.  A-.  The Tyshawn Taylor that started the season looked, to Kansas fans, like the Tyshawn Taylor of the past three years--flashes of brilliance sandwiched around two turnovers.  Then, when conference season started, Taylor elevated his game to All-American levels and was talked about as a potential Player of the Year candidate in the Big 12.  His stat lines were numbers not put up, by a Kansas guard, since the days of Darnell Valentine.  Taylor finished his career as a third-team All-American and one of the best, most athletic guards in Kansas history.

Elijah Johnson.  B+.  Taylor's running mate also had a late season surge and was "the guy" during Kansas' tournament run.  Johnson hit huge baskets against Purdue and also versus North Carolina State, which is why I elevated his grade from a "B" to a "B+."  He attacked the basket with strength and speed not exhibited since his freshman year and showed why he was so highly recruited out of high school.  Johnson also exhibited far more confidence off of the court and was a fun interview during the post-season.  Given his tournament play and burgeoning confidence, I expect Johnson to be all-league next year and potentially vie for other post-season honors.

Jeff Withey.  B.  On February 4 in Columbia, Jeff Withey scored zero points against Missouri.  Four nights later, against Baylor, the KU big man had a career night with 25 points and his season, along with the Jayhawks, changed dramatically.  Withey became much more aggressive, after the MU loss, and ended up becoming the NCAA Tournament single game shot block record holder, after winning Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors.  Withey must hone his offensive game in the offseason but now has improved to where he will contend for all-league honors in 2013.

Travis Releford.  B-.   Releford is the consummate glue guy--he sets solid picks, goes aggresssively after loose balls, usually draws the most important defensive assignment, and can score, particularly in transition.  My one beef with Releford is his sometime hesitancy to score.  T-Rely was definitely the fourth scoring option after Robinson, Taylor and Johnson but oft seemed to wait to pull the trigger.  He, along with Withey and Johnson, will form a formidable returning threesome next season.

Kevin Young.  C+.  I have to believe that Bill Self was expecting more consistency from Young when he was recruited in as a transfer.  Young had moments of brilliance, e.g., his game against Ohio State in December, and moments where he looked lost or made a bonehead play--who will forget his inability to finish a dunk against North Carolina followed up by a horrible foul on the defensive end?  Young brings energy off the bench and is the team's best at going after loose balls.  A consistent Young, who rebounds and improves defensively, would be huge for KU next year.

Connor Teahan.  B-.  You really have to admire Teahan--a former walk-on who arguably was not a Division 1 caliber player.  Yet Teahan worked hard during his time at KU and developed into a solid defender, proving that he was more than a three-point shooter.  He also this year showed an ability to fake and drive the baseline, thus opening up teammates for easy looks or scoring the ball himself.

Justin Wesley.  C.  Wesley's minutes dwindled as the season progressed once it became obvious that Young would be the first big man off of the bench.  Wesley displayed moments of athleticism but was too often over-matched on the defensive end and picked up reach-in fouls easily.

Naadir Tharpe.  C-.  Tharpe was recruited in as a pure point guard and was expected to develop into a back-up who could give quality minutes from the bench playing behind Taylor and Johnson.  It didn't happen as Tharpe never overcame his penchant for turning the ball over.  He was loose with his dribble and too often fired a pass into the waiting arms of an opponent.  During non-conference action, he flashed moments of penetration coupled with a quick release on his outside shot.  We'll have to see what happens during this offseason for Tharpe.

The rest:  No one, outside of Jordan Juenamann, played over 2.5 minutes per game for the Jayhawks.  Juenamann graduates and the remaining roster of Christian Garrett, Merv Lindsay and Niko Roberts all will struggle to see any playing time.  One has to wonder if Lindsay, in particular, isn't a candidate for transferring to another program.

Ben McLemore and Jamari Traylor.  Incomplete.  It's no coincidence that the Jayhawks' level of play improved in the second half of the year after McLemore and Traylor began practicing with the team.  B-Mac is the real deal and could/should crack the starting lineup next year.  While he's not said it publicly, there are reports that Self thinks McLemore was the best pro prospect on KU's roster.

Coaching staff.  A+.  Who can argue with the job that Self and his staff did this season?  Kansas was picked anywhere from first to fifth (yes, Jack Harry picked them fifth) in the league and no one nationally expected, before the season, that KU would end up in the national championship game.  This was, indeed, a Coach of the Year effort.  Looking ahead, Self now has two vacancies to fill with the departures of Barry Hinson and Danny Manning.  Rumor has it that former assistant Norm Roberts, now at Florida, may return.  And, Jerrance Howard, who was on Bruce Weber's staff at Illinois and is considered a terrific recruiter, is also being floated as a possibility.

Expectations were low heading into the 2011-2012 Kansas basketball season.  That will not be the case next year.  The return of Withey, Johnson and Releford plus the prospect of McLemore cracking the starting lineup has KU fans excited.  McDonald's All-American Perry Ellis will definitely be in the mix for starter minutes and the Kansas bench will be bolstered by Young's experience coupled with Traylor's year of practice development.  Throw in the other recruits--Andrew White, Zach Peters and Andrio Adams (verbal commitment)--and this should be another formidable Jayhawk team.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Turnovers, timeouts and game-winners

- Turnover:  Bobby Petrino.  Translated:  Dude on motorcycle has accident.  Dude who has accident conveniently forgets to tell authorities that a blond-haired passenger was on said motorcycle.  Dude gets put on "administrative leave."  I'm sensing that Petrino's football coaching days at Arkansas are over.

- Timeout:  For all of those who piously are tsk-tsking John Calipari and his embracing of the one-and-done college hoops model, please turn your head to Durham, N.C.--there you will find none other than Coach K who has had two straight one-and-done players (Kyrie Irving and Austin Rivers) and is conducting an in-home visit with surefire one-and-done player Shabazz Muhammad (high school class of 2012.)

- Game-winner:  Elijah Johnson of Kansas not only grew in confidence on the court during this recent NCAA Tournament, but did you pay attention to his off-court handling of media questions?  Johnson is an incredibly articulate kid who has matured from the shy, look-at-the-floor postgame interview to a player who clearly will be the spokesperson for the KU program in the months to come.

- Turnover:  Let me say it one last time--the fan experience at an NCAA Tournament event is, in a word, stinky.  If it's not the lack of information from a sub-par scoreboard causing the pain it's the seating design in a domed stadium.  This most bureaucratic of athletic bodies (okay--maybe FIFA is worse) is woefully out of touch with the reality of today's in-person sports experience.

- Timeout:  Speaking of the NCAA, let's just repeal the minimum age requirement for entering the NBA Draft.  Personally, I think the player should have the freedom to declare for the NBA Draft, out of high school, if he wants in just the same way that today's star high school baseballer can go straight to Major League Baseball.  (Can you say Bubba Starling?)  Sure, there will be failures (e.g., Korleone Young)--guys who thought they were NBA ready but couldn't hack it in "the league" and thus squandered an opportunity to be coached up at the collegiate level.  That should be a personal decision--not my decision or yours simply because we selfishly want college basketball to be teams formed of guys who stay four years like in the "good ol' days."

- Game-winner:  Sprint Center, Kansas City, MO, will host second and third round action in next spring's NCAA Tournament.  (The "first four" will take place in Dayton, OH.)  Wouldn't it be interesting to see Kansas and Missouri both in the NCAA Tourney next March and playing alongside one another in early round action in Kansas City?

Wednesday, April 4, 2012

The view from the (Super) dome--final edition

After four days, too many beignets to count, and countless "got tickets?" posed by scalpers on the streets of New Orleans, it's time to call this a wrap.  Here's the final edition of "the view from the (Super) dome" for this 2012 edition of the NCAA Mens Basketball Tournament.

- The two teams which beat Kentucky this season--Indiana and Vanderbilt--successfully shot the ball from outside.  Outside shooting is not a Kansas strength and thus they struggled in the half-court against a Kentucky defense which made it difficult for the Jayhawks to feed the post.  Both Elijah Johnson and Tyshawn Taylor hit threes but KU needed more from behind the arc on Monday night and thus was unable to pull off an upset.

- Did you know that this is the first team, in the latest NCAA rule of "at least one year," to win a national championship with at least one one-and-done player?  While it's not official, Anthony Davis of Kentucky will surely come out as will Michael Kidd Gilchrist, thus making the Wildcats the first team to have successfully used a one-and-done strategy to win a national title.

- A severe thunderstorm in New Orleans made entry into the Superdome a wet affair on Monday night.  A steady rain then awaited fans as they exited the dome after the Kansas-Kentucky game.

- Kentucky won the fan battle by clearly having the most fans in attendance.  But, the Kansas crowd swelled appreciably between Saturday's semi-final game versus Ohio State and Monday's national championship event.

- The KU-UK game reminded me of the 1991 Kansas loss to Duke in the NCAA final.  In that game, Duke jumped out to a commanding lead but Kansas chipped away and made it close at the end before losing by seven.

- Kentucky not only benefited from a stellar recruiting class but also the threatened NBA lockout, which enticed Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb to stay in school.

- Did I say I'm not a fan of the NCAA seating configuration which places the court squarely in the middle of the floor?

- In five out of the last six years, Kansas has finished with over 30 victories.  This year's team finished 32-7.  Kansas is the winningest program of the past 25 years.

- What can we look forward to next season for Kansas?  Jeff Withey, now the record holder for most blocks in an NCAA Tournament, returns as does Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford.  Withey, Johnson and Releford form a solid starting five foundation which will be complemented by Ben McLemore and newcomer Perry Ellis.  Kevin Young returns and will fight for minutes with Jamari Traylor who, along with McLemore, sat out this year but practiced with the team during the second semester.

- Kentucky will be good again next year, even with player defections, given the recruiting class being built by John Calipari.  Indiana has already been picked pre-season number one by Sports Illustrated's Luke Winn.  And, down in Waco, Baylor once again will feature a top ten recruit (Isaiah Austin) thus placing the Bears firmly in the preseason top five.  (Baylor's place in the preseason rankings also will depend upon the status of Perry Jones III and Quincy Miller.)  Winn picks Kansas 17th but I suspect that most will have them in the top 10-12 teams when preseason rankings come out late this summer.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The view from the (Super) dome - Semi-final edition

Kentucky, the winningest program in college basketball, and Kansas, the second-winningest program, will do battle on Monday night for the NCAA Championship.  Let's break down the day and evening here in the Big Easy.

- The attendance of 73,361 for tonight's games was the second largest Final Four attendance ever.  However, the configuration of the Mercedes-Benz Superdome for the event limited the number of decent seats to just a few thousand.  Our seats, in the lower bowl, were configured in a way that we were far away from the court.  If the NCAA wants to have this event in a dome, the best fan experience is the former seating alignment where the court is pushed to one side of a dome and temporary bleachers are used on the other side.

- This morning I wrote that the matchup which would decide the Kansas-Ohio State game would be Tyshawn Taylor and Aaron Craft.  Craft controlled the game in the first half by shutting down Taylor's ability to get Kansas into any sort of efficient half-court offense and he did a good job of quarterbacking Ohio State's nine-point halftime lead. But, Craft made a critical ballhandling error at the end of the first half, which resulted in a Kansas basket, and was frustrated by Taylor's ball-hawking in the second half.

- Taylor's feed to a streaking Travis Releford, for the late first half basket, ended up being the difference in the KU two-point victory.

- Releford had his most complete game since mid-season.  He held OSU's Deshaun Thomas to nine points on 3-14 shooting; offensively, he scored 15 points including four important free throws down the stretch.

- Kentucky fans were, by far, the biggest group in attendance.  The Louisville fans seemed to make the most noise.  Overall, I'd estimate the crowd at roughly 40% Kentucky, 25% Louisville and 20% Kansas.  Ohio State had the least fan presence in the Dome as well as around the French Quarter today.

- Both Bill Self and Thad Matta kept two key players in the game with three fouls, and paid for it.  KU's Elijah Johnson picked up a third foul relatively early in the second half and stayed in the game.  He got his fourth foul and had to sit for an appreciable stretch midway through the half.  Matta then had the same issue happen with Thomas.

- Ohio State had a couple of key brain cramps late in the game.  First, Craft tried to intentionally miss the second free throw with just a few seconds left to play but committed a lane violation.  Then, OSU didn't foul, with 2.5 seconds to play, when they still had a chance for a last second shot.

- In 2008, I walked out of the Alamodome euphoric after Kansas convincingly beat a very good North Carolina team in the semi-finals.  I was confident of KU's chances to win it all on that following Monday against Memphis.  Tonight, I walked out simply shaking my head in wonderment at how this Kansas team keeps finding a way to win.  The formula for Kansas during this tournament has been to fall behind early and then, slowly, creep back into the game by turning up the defensive pressure.  They did it in beating Purdue and North Carolina State, and then shut down North Carolina in the second half to advance to tonight's Final Four semi-final.  Against Ohio State, KU's defense forced the Buckeyes into 33.9% shooting and out-rebounded OSU by 11.

So now we're down to two--Kentucky, the odds-on favorite to win it all, and Kansas, the team which keeps finding a way to win and who has yet to allow an opponent, in the tournament, to score over 67 points.  The Wildcats are early 6.5 point favorites and the ESPN talking heads are already predicting a UK victory.

I can't wait.