Saturday, March 23, 2013

Madness? You bet...

There's a certain pleasure we amateur pickers get when we see an "expert" like Jay Bilas or a magazine like Sports Illustrated get their brackets busted by the sexy pick, a k a VCU, exiting early.

Here are some observations from the couch, and section 117 at Sprint Center:

- Bird mascots are faring well in the tournament thus far.  That means my granddaughter's bracket is beating my rear end.

- Carolina versus Kansas/Roy versus Bill was expected; LaSalle versus Ole Miss was not.  It's a buyer's market for tickets to tomorrow's action at Sprint Center.

- CBS color commentators:  Wily veteran - Bill Raftery; up-and-coming rookie - Doug Gottlieb.

- Spotted at Sprint Center yesterday:  NCAA President Mark Emmert sat on press row during the afternoon session; Angel Morris, mother of Marcus and Markieff, sat in the Kansas section last night; Wanda Williams, wife of Roy, was in her usual aisle spot in the North Carolina section.

- How can Kansas State not have Rodney Magruder touch the ball even once during its last two possessions yesterday?

- Mitch McGary was heavily recruited by Kansas but John Beilein of Michigan won that recruiting battle.  McGary had a career game today and his energy was a difference maker for the Wolverines against VCU.

- Marshall Henderson of Ole Miss is a mercurial talent and one of the most emotional players I've ever seen.  One of yesterday's refs did a good job when Henderson cursed after a questionable call, following Henderson into the Rebel huddle and warning him that the next such outburst would result in a technical.

- AT&T campaign with the children is endearing and the new basketball-themed spot about the pick-and-roll is good work.  But, how in the world can the brand rationalize spending millions on its NCAA partnership, yet now using the designation in any way in this advertising?

- Big Red, the Western Kentucky mascot, drew audible laughter from the Sprint Center crowd when it made its appearance last night.  The red blob is nothing if not unique.

- Those lucky enough to be in Sprint Center's Founders Club for a halftime cocktail and bite to eat were shooed out once halftime ended, given the NCAA's dictum to keep fannies in the arena seats.

- At some point, doesn't Georgetown have to question its propensity to schedule patsies during the non-conference portion of the schedule?  The Hoyas dug a huge hole yesterday against Florida Gulf Coast and never could recover.  Georgetown is a team, in recent history, who seldom seems tournament tough.

- On the clock:  The Ben Howland watch is officially underway at UCLA.  Conversely, Shaka Smart will be mentioned as a candidate once jobs begin opening up in the days and weeks ahead, as will Memphis' Josh Pastner.  I wouldn't be surprised to see Pastner as the front-runner for the UCLA job, if Howland departs, given his experience in the Pac 12 while at Arizona.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

K.C.'s compelling story lines

The NCAA Mens Tournament games this weekend at Sprint Center in Kansas City are rife with story lines.  There's the possibility of Ol' Roy versus Bill III, Marshall Henderson as anti-hero, the emergence of Perry Ellis as an offensive force for Kansas, that Wisconsin dude's hair, and the question of whether Kansas State fans will cheer for Kansas...and vice versa.

Roy versus Bill III

If North Carolina and Kansas meet for the third time in six years in the tournament, both teams will have advanced past first round foes Villanova and Western Kentucky.  (North Carolina is a four point favorite over Nova while KU is favored by 20 over the Hilltoppers.)  Reports out of Chapel Hill indicate that Williams isn't happy about the eight seed placed upon the Tarheels and that displeasure was compounded by the prospect of facing his old school for yet a third time in recent postseason play. KU, and Self, have famously whipped Carolina twice and both were in higher stakes games--the Final Four semifinal in 2008 and last year's regional final in St. Louis.  It can't make Roy happy to think that version three will play out in front of thousands of Kansas fans eager for a third helping of Carolina blue.

Marshall Henderson

Henderson has catapulted the Ole Miss basketball program, long irrelevant, into the national conversation.  Henderson was the leading scorer in the SEC but did not make either first team or second team all conference--to say he's a polarizing figure would be kind.  Henderson has poked fun, and worse, at numerous fan bases and often has to be pulled into team huddles during games given his propensity to focus elsewhere.  He's not only a handful for the team he's playing, but for his coaches and teammates as well.  How will Henderson perform on a national stage?  We'll find out when the Rebels take on Wisconsin in the first game of Friday's session in Kansas City.

Perry Ellis

It's been well documented that Perry Ellis of Kansas had his coming-out party at the Big 12 Tournament.  Consider this--Ellis went 18 for 23 (78%), had 19 total rebounds and 43 total points in 55 minutes of play during the three games of the tournament.  In the title game, Ellis came off of the bench against Kansas State and notched 12 points and six rebounds in 13 minutes, a stark contrast to the zero points in six minutes he had when the teams met February 11 in Lawrence.  If Ellis continues his sterling play off of the bench, the offense opens up for Ben McLemore and Jeff Withey, thus giving KU solid scoring opportunities across the floor.

Mike Bruesewitz

Mike Bruesewitz, a k a "that guy with the hair," isn't a stellar scorer or rebounder for Wisconsin, but he is "one of the 26 hottest guys of March Madness" according to Cosmopolitan magazine.  Bruesewitz's curly hair caused Cosmo to write, "there's just something about Mike's ginger fro that makes us swoon."  Uh, okay...

Kansas State versus Kansas...and vice versa

Kansas fans will cheer for KSU during the day session, won't they?  Wildcat fans that show up for the evening session will cheer for KU, right?  Hmm...maybe.  The forecast cold weather and snow this weekend may keep both fan bases inside Sprint Center, instead of opting for the adult beverages across the street in the P&L courtyard, thus causing an interesting dilemma about whether one roots for one's in-state rival. I, for one, will cheer on our Big 12 comrades.

Roy's wardrobe

How big a deal is William's sartorial choices?  Well, there's a Facebook page devoted to Roy's choice of neckwear, and last weekend's plaid sportcoat of choice was the stuff of much social media scuttlebutt.  What will Roy wear in K.C.?  Call me crazy, but I doubt any of it will veer far from a Carolina blue hue.

Bruce Weber and Bo Ryan

The Sunday match ups, if all goes to plan, will not only feature Roy versus Bill but also Bruce versus Bo, two former coaching colleagues in the Big Ten Conference.  Ryan was 12-9 versus Weber in the Big Ten and knows Weber's motion offense, which flummoxed many a Big 12 foe.  Wisconsin is 2-0 against Kansas State in recent tournament history, bouncing KSU in the second round in 2008 and in the third round in 2011.  If they meet on Sunday, Kansas State will be the favorite by virtue of their seed and the Sprint Center crowd, but this match-up gives Willie the Wildcat the willies.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

A one-year old's view of bracketology

I decided to turn to my granddaughter, who celebrates her first birthday today, to make my March Madness selections.  No, she's not talking yet but I do think I know her well enough to know what teams she'd pick if she was filling out a bracket.

Here would be her strategies:

Birds win - The nursery is decorated with a bird motif, so that means that birds will advance throughout the tournament, be they Jayhawks, Cardinals, Bluejays or Owls.

Bears win too - Brown Bear, Brown Bear is her favorite book, so that means that Golden Bears, Grizzlies and Bruins are all solid picks.

Dogs and cats, oh my! - My granddaughter's pets include a dog and a cat so she'd have to pick Bulldogs, Great Danes and Wildcats, right?

Is it pink? - No school in the field of 68 sports pink as a color but purple, another favorite, is prominent and would certainly influence her choices.  Perhaps we throw in the color orange as well, given that Syracuse is the only school with a lone color as its nickname.

Once these strategies are implemented, the bracket yields a Final Four comprised of Kansas (bird), Syracuse (color), Louisville (bird) and Kansas State (cat.)  Who wins?  Well, Kansas beats Syracuse as the bird trumps color and Louisville beats Kansas State as she prefers birds to cats, given the general grumpiness of her family's feline.

National championship:  In the final, and match-up of the best birds, Kansas would emerge as the winner given her final strategy, i.e., "I'd pick who Mommy and Daddy want to win!"  (It also wouldn't hurt that her family holds five degrees from that fine institution.)

Sunday, March 17, 2013

It's Selection Sunday!

Yeah, yeah, I know it's St. Patrick's Day but, c'mon, what really is important is that it's SELECTION SUNDAY!  In case you've been under a rock and not cruising your favorite sports websites, today is the day when all of us will spend way too much time trying to find out Middle Tennessee State's Ken Pom rating or debate whether Gonzaga is truly deserving of a one seed, even if they do have the best record in the country.

Let's throw it around a bit as we all gamely wait for 5:00 p.m. CT and the talking heads at CBS, followed by the inevitable wailing from Dick Vitale and his posse on ESPN an hour later.

- Why isn't winning a regular season conference title a prerequisite for becoming an NCAA Tournament one seed?  Sure, as a Kansas fan, this is self-serving but the reality is that this provides greater relevance and importance to the regular season, thus heightening fan interest.

- The big one seed debate seems to be Kansas or Duke.  The so-called locks at the one line are Gonzaga, Indiana and Louisville who, by the way, all won their regular season conference titles.  Duke has long been suggested as a one but did not win the ACC regular season (that honor went to Miami) and is not in the final of the ACC Tournament.  Yes, I know that Duke was undefeated with Ryan Kelly in the lineup but he was starting when Maryland took the Blue Devils down on Friday.  If Duke gets the one, then Kansas will surely be the two in that region--likely the South.  But, the Jayhawks deserve the one by virtue of sharing the Big 12 regular season championship coupled with their winning the league's post-season tournament championship.

- John Higgins, the veteran ref who T-ed up Bill Self on Friday night, did not work the Big 12 Tournament final yesterday.  Higgins normally would seem to be a logical choice for that final game, given his experience and stature, which makes me wonder if league officials decided that pairing him with Self, the day after, was not a good choice.

- And, on the topic of officiating, yes, in both halves yesterday, there was an opening foul disparity of no fouls for Kansas and six for Kansas State.  The final tally in the game was 12 fouls on KU and 14 on KSU.  A key reason for the early gap in numbers was the way the Wildcats opened each half--eating up shot clock and standing on offense versus attacking the basket.

- Suggestion to Bruce Weber:  Don't tug on Superman's cape by lamenting the loss of a regular season conference crown due to questionable officiating in Ames, Iowa.

- Jeff Withey of KU won the Big 12 Tournament MVP but I'm curious about how many votes were cast for Kansas' Perry Ellis.  Ellis exploded in two games against Iowa State and Kansas State, going 15 of 18 from the field with six rebounds each night.

- Rodney Magruder of Kansas State is one of the least appreciated players in the country.  The kid is terrific at creating space to get his shots and is a load in Weber's motion offense.

- This weekend's Big 12 Tournament set attendance records, which means more of the same will follow should both Kansas and Kansas State make it to Sprint Center, as expected, on Friday and Sunday of this coming week.  KSU will likely end up in Kansas City, should they score a four seed or better.

Friday, March 15, 2013

The View from the Big 12 Tournament

Almost ten years ago, a small group of locals activated an effort to build a downtown arena in Kansas City, MO and this week the region is feeling, once again, the benefits of that dream.  Sprint Center is hosting the Big 12 Mens Basketball Tournament for the third straight year and fourth out of the last five, and has the tournament through 2016.

Here are some observations from yesterday's action in and around the arena:

- When did Iowa State fans turn from that lovable, ketchup-and-mustard clothed traveling band to an angry horde?  I am not big on generalizing about fan bases but during last year's and this year's tournament, ISU fans seem to have grown surly and profane.

- Parking was a big issue yesterday given the daytime start times and the lots already filled downtown with regular office worker traffic.

- Former Kansas guard Sherron Collins was in section 110 with a small posse and new Kansas City Chief took in his first major event in his new town.  There was also a rumor that Michael Jordan was courtside scouting on behalf of the Washington Wizards.  The rumor was never confirmed.

- The P&L District makes this tournament something special--the opportunity to walk across Grand and  into the area filled with bars and restaurants is a differentiator for Kansas City.  However, there needs to be pop-up food options, given filled restaurants, and more seating on the closed-off section of Grand.

- The between game "entertainment," hosted by 810 Radio, featured a bad game of "horse" by contestants pulled from the crowd along with a sausage eating contest.  C'mon...this event deserves better.

- For those nostalgic for the good ol' days, the four remaining teams in the tournament are all ex-Big Eight members--Kansas, Iowa State, Kansas State and Oklahoma State.

- Thursday game awards:  Loudest fans - Kansas State; Best player - Ben McLemore; Streakiest player - Pierre Jackson; Worst call - Phantom foul on Phil Forte of OSU; Worst uniforms - Baylor; Best cheer squad - Texas.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Getting ready for the postseason

Let's wrap up things a bit as we get ready for the postseason of college basketball--the most wonderful time of the year (contrary to the same lyrics that go with a well-known Christmas carol.)

Turnover:  Shame on Kansas State coach Bruce Weber if he truly did joke that he had hoped to celebrate a Big 12 championship a week earlier on Senior Day, but poor officiating--referencing Kansas's overtime victory at Iowa State--"got in the way."  I've yet to have anyone bring up the 34 foul shots ISU received in that game, even though they jacked up 41 three-point shots, or the horrible charge call on Jeff Withey in the first half that negated a KU basket.  Once again, let's make the point--an official's questionable call in the first minute of a game equals the same questionable call in the last minute of the game.

Assist:  Speaking of Weber, he is the clear-cut choice for Big 12 Coach of the Year.  The current players on KSU's roster were recruited by Frank Martin but the team bought into Weber's motion offense and now is a load to guard for a full possession on the shot clock.

Slam Dunk: has a bracket titled "The Most Hated College Basketball Players of the Last 30 Years."  Not surprisingly, Duke has its own portion of the bracket with Christian Laettner, Greg Paulus, Steve Wojciechowski, Shane Battier, Danny Ferry, Austin Rivers, J.J. Redick and Bobby Hurley all in the 32-name "tournament."  The other player are grouped by decade--the only Big 12 player making the list is Kansas' Kirk Hinrich.  North Carolina has three players on the list--Rick Fox, Eric Montross and Tyler Hansbrough.

Charge:  Indiana coach Tom Crean has become a YouTube sensation given his blow-up with Michigan assistant coach Jeff Meyer after IU's thrilling victory Sunday in Ann Arbor.  The stupid grin that Crean had walking off the floor makes me wonder if that verbal exchange was a bit more premeditated that perhaps the Hoosier coach let on?

Block:  Can someone please explain Baylor's mens basketball team to me, please?  The Bears looked unbeatable on Saturday against Kansas, with Cory Jefferson and Pierre Jackson combining to go 22 of 26 (53 points.)  Yet, this same squad did not beat any conference team in the upper half of the league.  In addition to the Kansas home win, the only other victory of note was back on December 1 at Kentucky.  Baylor will have to beat Oklahoma State on Thursday if it has any chance of making the NCAA Tournament.

Timeout:  Kansas was once again reminded that it's a mediocre team if it does not play with energy and defend.  The loss to Baylor was KU's first since the infamous three-game losing streak to Oklahoma State, TCU and Oklahoma.  The more optimistic KU fans are suggesting that the defeat was actually a good thing--that the Jayhawks now are poised to go 9-0 with a romp through the Big 12 Tournament, and then the NCAA Tournament.  I'm not so sure--this team is too mercurial offensively and has horrid shot-making ability coming off of the bench.

Last-second shot:  CBS Sports' documentary, The Miracles, on the 1988 Kansas national championship team is a wonderful glimpse back at a program that was trying to rebound from high expectations and a disappointing 1987-88 season.  It's also a reminder of the sensational talent of Danny Manning and the coaching ability of Larry Brown.  That national championship, combined with the Final Four appearance in 1986, was the beginning of Kansas' current, unprecedented run as the winningest program in college hoops.