Sunday, December 30, 2012

Grading the Jayhawks

Kansas has one final non-conference game, against Temple at home, and then begins defense of its Big 12 conference championship, seeking an unprecedented ninth straight league title.  Oklahoma State will provide stout competition but the stage is set for yet another conference championship for the Jayhawks.

Let's take a look at how these Jayhawks have graded out as we prepare for conference play.

Overall:  It's hard to complain about a 11-1 record to date and a likely top five ranking for the coming week.  Highlight:  A road win over Ohio State.  Lowlight:  A Champions Classic loss to Michigan State where KU could not hold a lead down the stretch.  Grade:  A-.

Elijah Johnson:  Johnson started slow and had a pretty horrid first half against Ohio State.  Overall, though, let's give E.J. the benefit of the doubt as he battled some early-season health issues and also had to adjust to being the point guard and the leader of this team.  He's grown comfortable in both roles, and the emergence of Nadir Tharpe as a very capable PG back-up will help Johnson immensely.  Grade:  B.

Travis Releford:  Early on, Jayhawk fans had to wonder what was up with Releford given the number of turnovers and bonehead plays by this fifth-year senior.  He then played two games in the CBE Classic at Sprint Center, was named MVP, and hasn't looked back.  Releford is Kansas' best on-ball defender, a tremendous finisher, and can score, particularly when needed most.  One could make the case that T-Rel is KU's season MVP to date.  Grade:  A.

Jeff Withey:  Is this the same Jeff Withey who struggled in the past against smaller teams and appeared apathetic at times on the court?  Withey has parlayed his tremendous 2012 second-half-of-the-season and NCAA Tournament into vying for national defensive player-of-the-year honors in 2012-2013.  Withey anchors what has become a suffocating Kansas defense through his shot-blocking ability and altering presence in the paint.  Grade:  A-.

Kevin Young:  Let's see a show of hands by KU fans--who thought that Young would start at the beginning of the season but would quickly give way to either Perry Ellis or Jamari Traylor as the four man in the Kansas lineup?  Yep, pretty much all of you, right?  Young is the energy guy for KU and has more impact on a game than any other non-scoring starter in a top ten program in America.  Grade:  A.

Ben McLemore:  Did anyone other than Bill Self see this coming?  McLemore was touted as a good player but no one forecast his current standing as a top five pick on NBA draft boards.  Benny Mac is still very much learning the game and his potential impact on a team led by four seniors but improvement, and learning, happens with each game.  If he continues to progress, McLemore will leave KU at the end of this season and will become the best Kansas pro since Paul Pierce.  Grade:  A.

Bench:  What's to like--the emergence of Tharpe, Ellis' double-double against American last night, the motor of Traylor, and the sweet-shooting potential of Andrew White III.  What's not to like--to date, there has been no real consistency from Kansas' bench, save for Tharpe's performance over the past three games.  The only under-performing area of the team to date is the play of the seventh, eighth and ninth guys off of the bench--the potential is there but the game-to-game consistency is not.  Grade:  B-.

Coaching:  It feels like Bill Self has this team right where he wants them--10 and 1 at the break with two weeks of practice focus and seniors who finally seem to be leading the youngsters out on the court.  This team will not be one of Self's toughest, but it could be one of his smartest.  Self knows that this squad will be disadvantaged by playing in a league that, top to bottom, is weaker than normal.  He'll have to pull different levers to keep the toughness quotient--both physical and mental--dialed up for a hoped-for deep run in March/April.  Grade:  A-.

Schedule:  Temple comes to Allen Fieldhouse on January 6, followed by Iowa State on January 9 in the conference opener.  Key January games--Baylor on January 14; at Texas, January 19; at Kansas State, January 22.

Friday, December 28, 2012

The Miracle on the Brazos II

In 1972, Grant Teaff was hired to turn around the football program at Baylor University, a team that had gone 7-43-1 in the five seasons preceding his arrival.  A short two years later, Teaff led Baylor to an eight-win season, a Southwest Conference championship, and a win over Texas where the Bears rallied from a 24-7 halftime deficit.  It was Baylor's first victory over Texas in 17 years and their first conference championship in 50 years.  The season was referred to as the "Miracle on the Brazos,"named after the Brazos River that borders the Baylor campus.

Perhaps Art Briles five seasons at Baylor don't merit "miracle" status, but let's consider what he's done for a program that had not been to a bowl game since 1994, prior to his arrival.  Briles has gone 33-30 since arriving at Baylor, including a 25-14 record over the past three years.  He has a 14-12 record, over the past three years, in the tough Big 12 and this year defeated then #1 (BCS standings) Kansas State on the road.  And, last night, Briles' team capped an 8-5 season with a 49-26 win over #17 UCLA in the Holiday Bowl.

Not only has Briles brought consistency to Waco (the team has gone to three straight bowl games for the first time in school history), he recruited a player who ignited the program and ultimately won the Heisman Trophy.  Robert Griffin III not only was a scintillating talent on the field, he became the classy face of the program off of the field.  In the process, Briles' leadership, with a healthy dose of RGIII thrown in, was the impetus for the latest proof point of Baylor's newfound football relevance--a new football stadium that is being built on the Brazos River, on the Baylor campus.

Briles', and Baylor's, success is proof that there are downtrodden programs, outside of Manhattan, KS, that can undergo a dramatic turnaround.  The key is finding a coach who is the right fit; finding a talent like Griffin was the lightning in a bottle that now has Baylor firmly positioned as a potential top half program in a conference featuring heavyweights like Kansas State, Oklahoma, Texas, Oklahoma State and TCU.

I'd say all of this does qualify as the 2012 version of "Miracle on the Brazos."  Let's give it up for Coach Briles and the Baylor football program.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Duke-Carolina, rivalries...and the state of college hoops

Do you need proof of the monster that is college football?  Here's one reason ESPN is investing mega-millions into the sport, including an annual rights fee of $470 million for the college football playoff, which starts at the end of the 2014 season--the 2011 regular season matchup between Alabama and LSU pulled a 11.9 rating on CBS.  In comparison, the highest rated regular season college basketball broadcast, between Duke and North Carolina, had a 2.7 rating on ESPN.

The difference in the two help illustrate the striking comparison to "the best regular season in sports," as touted by college football marketers, versus the hoops regular season that detractors opine has lost its meaning given the expanded field of the NCAA Division I Men's Basketball Tournament.

I recently attended the IMG Intercollegiate Athletics Forum in New York and the hot topics were conference realignment and the coming college football playoff.  The phrase "college basketball" was not uttered until well into the afternoon of day one of the conference.

Football is driving the conference realignment bus and college basketball rivalries are the collateral damage.  The Duke-Carolina rivalry, considered the pre-eminent matchup in college hoops, had the best regular season television rating of the season, yet it was only a quarter of the rating achieved by Bama-LSU.  The highest-rated broadcast network games were North Carolina-Kentucky, 2.0; Ohio State-Michigan State, 2.0; and Kansas-Missouri, 1.9--all on CBS.

The ratings for the 2011-2012 college basketball season do not represent declines over prior years as both CBS and ESPN have had steady or slightly improved ratings since 2008-2009.  However, the emphasis continues to build on March Madness as TV advertisers invest far more during the tournament than during the regular season.  Nielsen research indicates that advertisers spent more than $1 billion on the 2011 NCAA Tournament compared with just under $300 million during the 2010-2011 regular season.

What's the solution?  I'm not sure there is one given that college basketball gets started in November when college football is in the midst of its important final regular season games.  The attention then shifts to conference championship games and then to bowl games, meaning that TV eyeballs don't really start focusing on college hoops until mid-to-late January.

College basketball still produces the best consecutive three weeks in sports but has to accept that it is the afterthought in the new world order of college athletics and athletics department revenue.  Duke and North Carolina will always be great theater but pales to the appeal of the "one loss and done" format of March Madness.  That, my fellow hoops fanatics, is a shame.

"Must See Rivalries"


Ohio State-Michigan State


"Going, Going, Gone"



Pittsburgh-West Virginia

(Source:  Sports Business Journal, November 2012)

Saturday, December 1, 2012

College football's disappointments and surprises

The regular season and conference championships are over, as of tonight, so let's look back at this entertaining season and this year's disappointments and surprises.

Disappointment:  We have to start with USC, don't we?  The Trojans were picked by some as a preseason number one and Matt Barkley was all but given the Heisman.  Neither will happen given the porous USC defense coupled with a season for Barkley that has to be termed less-than-expected.

Surprise:  Kansas State.  The 'Cats were one surprise loss from being in the national championship game and QB Collin Klein still may win the Heisman.  Kansas State has had its best season ever and will now get to win game 12 in the Fiesta Bowl, the second BCS bowl in the school's history.

Disappointment:  Should we put Missouri in this category?  Probably not given that the injury to QB James Franklin dramatically impacted MU's season.  But, the Tigers did get a wake-up call on what it will take to compete in the SEC.

Surprise:  Texas A&M surprised everyone and, in the process, replaced Ryan Tannehill with "Johnny Football," the most electric player in A&M history since John David Crow.  Manzeil is now the front-runner to win the Heisman.

Disappointment:  The ACC...again.  Florida State was the premier team in this league but, after the 'Noles and Clemson, the gap was wide.

Surprise:  Penn State.  Who would have thought that the Nittany Lions would finish 8-4 and 6-2 in the league after starting with losses to Ohio and Virginia?

Disappointment:  West Virginia started the season 5-0 with an offense that seemingly could score at will, and a QB who seemed destined to win the Heisman.  Five games later the Mountaineers were 5-5 and had to win their last two games, against Iowa State and Kansas, to become bowl eligible.

Surprise:  Let's give it up for Urban Meyer and Ohio State--undefeated and the best team in the Big 10.

Surprise:  And, of course, we have to end with Notre Dame, another undefeated team and in the national championship game against Alabama, the first time the Domers have been in this lofty spot since 1988.