Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Buy, Sell or Hold in the Big 12

We're three games in to the Big 12 basketball conference season and the league leader has a familiar look--Kansas, winner of the past nine straight conference championships.  There's plenty of hoops left to be played--15 games to be exact--but KU's victory at Iowa State was even more impressive than a week ago when the Jayhawks won in Norman, OK after laying an egg at home the prior Sunday versus San Diego State.  The road doesn't get any easier for Kansas--Oklahoma State and Baylor at home on Saturday and Monday--but a 3-0 start has silenced, for now, the doubters.

So, with one-sixth of the regular season under our belt, let's check in on who we should Buy, Sell or Hold in the Big 12.

Buy:  Kansas, of course.  The puppies in Lawrence are growing up and appear to be a quick study on what it takes to win now on the road given non-conference road losses at tough gyms in Gainesville, FL and Boulder, CO.  Last night's win was not only impressive because it came against the #8 team in the country, but also on a night where Perry Ellis was off offensively.  The Jayhawks have many, many weapons and are deep--they can win big and they can win small.  The perennial conference champ is definitely a strong "buy" the day after they deflated the so-called "Hilton Magic."

Hold:  Iowa State.  Conversely, Iowa State has now lost two games in a row and faces a tough road test on Saturday with a trip to Texas.  The Cyclones have feasted on opponent mismatches and have ridden conference player-of-the-year candidate DeAndre Kane's playmaking ability and offense.  KU exposed ISU's lack of post presence and the consequence of State's reliance upon the three.

Sell:  Kansas State.  Tonight is a crucial game for Bruce Weber's Wildcats who are coming off a 26 point blow-out loss at Kansas.  KSU built a gaudy record, after losing early to Charlotte and Georgetown, but in that 10 game winning streak were no true road games.  A win tonight followed by a Saturday win at home against West Virginia will momentarily right the ship but I'm not convinced that this team is a top four squad in the league.  Given the toughness of the Big 12, KSU will make the NCAA Tournament but...I'd sell this investment.

Buy:  Joel Embiid.  The past two opponents have exposed that Embiid's shy nature off the court changes dramatically when on the court.  We also saw, last night, the dramatic growth curve of this superb talent--he took over the game in a key second half stretch that included an assist, block/steal, two baskets and altered shots by the opposition, all done while looking like some cross of Wilt, Dikembe Mutombo and Hakeem Olajuwon.  The guy is special.

Hold:  Look for Baylor to be the team solidly in second place to Kansas entering the month of February.  The Bears are at Texas Tech on Wednesday, then return home for an important date against Oklahoma.  They travel to Lawrence for Big Monday next week and then face Texas and West Virginia, both at home, to close out January.  The play of Isaiah Austin has been a disappointment but Cory Jefferson and Brady Heslip are guys who seem like they've played at Baylor for six years.  The Bears seem tougher than past BU teams but we've also seen that opinion change once conference season rolls around and Scott Drew's teams get punched in the mouth by the likes of KU, Oklahoma State and Oklahoma.  Baylor is solidly in the Hold category for now.

Hold:  Kansas' throwback uniforms.  Why isn't this a Sell given that the Jayhawks are 2-0 wearing these togs?  Well, the issue is adidas--the uniform supplier.  While the three-stripe company is to be applauded for the design of the two sets of unis, in typical adidas merchandising style the replica jerseys and shorts aren't available until next season.  Huh!?  But, hey, you can buy t-shirts right now that utilize the two designs.

Hold:  Texas is a work in progress and two important tests are upcoming--Iowa State in Austin on Saturday followed by KSU at home the following Tuesday.  Texas owns what, at the time, was a marquee win at North Carolina but given the Tarheels' issues, that win has lost a bit of luster.  The Longhorns lost at Oklahoma State and at home to Oklahoma, held serve versus Texas Tech and won at West Virginia.  It's hard to know what we'll get from UT over the next six weeks--let's hold on to this investment for now.

Sell:  Brent Musberger.  Big 12 fans were rudely reminded last night that, once again, we get Brent Musberger as the play-by-play guy on ESPN's broadcasts.  Musberger, whose voice is more tightly linked to college football, is out of his element on basketball broadcasts.  He's ill-prepared, acts as if he is more of a hoops expert than he is, and simply has lost several steps.  Among ESPN's stable of game broadcasters, Musberger trails--far behind--Dan Schulman, Dave Pasch, Sean McDonough and pretty much anyone the World Wide Leader has to offer.  Last night's broadcast made me reminisce of the days of Ron Franklin and Jon Sundvold.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Putting a bow on the BCS...and this season

We bid adieu to the Bowl Championship Series--whipping boy for pundits and fans alike but a system that over its shelf life of 16 years brought together the nation's number one and number two team each of those post-seasons.  In comparison, the number one and two teams met in bowl games only eight times in 56 prior years.  (Remember the Bowl Coalition and the Bowl Alliance?  Yeah, I didn't think so.)  So, while flawed, the BCS ratcheted up interest in college football such that the sport is now pushing the NFL in avid fan interest and is solidly in second place in viewership, attendance and overall interest among our nation's sports fans.

Let's put a bow on this season, and the BCS, with some final observations about 2013-2014.

Best national championship game ever?  It's hard to point to another BCS National Championship Game that was better than Monday night's Florida State victory over Auburn.  The 2005 Texas win over USC, also in the Rose Bowl, was the prior best final game with the Ohio State two-overtime win over Miami, in 2002, also in the running.

Phil Steele.  Let's give it up for Phil Steele, the guy who publishes what annually is the best preseason manual for the coming college football season.  Steele picked Florida State as his "surprise team of the year" and they certainly delivered with a magical 2013 season.

SEC.  Which SEC team won a meaningful bowl game?  Well, that would be Missouri and its win over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl.  Not only did Auburn fail to continue the SEC national championship streak but Alabama whiffed against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

Johnny Football.  Love him or not, name me another college football player in recent memory who has been so mesmerizing on the field as Johnny Manziel.  He's the kind of player who makes you run back into the TV room to see what he'll do when Texas A&M has the ball.  If Manziel announces today that he is leaving for the NFL, college football will lose one of its most compelling stars.

Brent.  It's time for Brent Musberger to go quietly into that announcing night.  Musberger's awkward forays into hip-hop mentions and other odd on-air left turns were a continuation of the Katherine Webb dust-up last year.  There simply are other, quality options for on-air talent for a stage as big as the national championship event.

ESPN.  The Monday night Megacast was a hit as ESPN used its portfolio of programming options to provide fans with coach insight and unique camera views for the national championship game.  Let's hope the Worldwide Leader, and other sports cable programmers, do more of this unique viewing solution.

The fans.  Fans are watching college football in droves with viewership on the title game eclipsing the NCAA basketball final, NBA Finals, Daytona 500 and other major non-NFL sports events.  However, a danger cloud is on the horizon and that is fan attendance and ticket buyer satisfaction.  The college game has got to get its act together when it comes to customer service, game-day experience, affordability and venue bandwidth in order to attract students, alums and fans back into stadiums.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Why do we care about preseason rankings?

On the eve of the last BCS National Championship Game, let's pause, go back and take a look how one national media outlet, like most others, whiffed on predicting the top teams in college football for the 2013 season.

Sports Illustrated issued its preseason edition of the magazine on August 19 and chose Alabama as its number one team.  The top ten was rounded out by Alabama, Stanford, Texas A&M, Ohio State, Oregon, South Carolina, Louisville, Notre Dame, Florida and Clemson.  Nope, no Florida State and no Auburn, and no Michigan State or Missouri either.  SI had the Seminoles at #13 with Auburn failing to dent the top 25.  Missouri also didn't make it into that preseason group as the Tigers weren't chosen over the likes of Virginia Tech (25), Northern Illinois (24), Northwestern (22) and Boise State (20.)

As for the Heisman winner, SI tabbed Jameis Winston as 25 to 1 to win the award, listing him with others who "are a long way from New York City but could replicate Manziel's rise and make an out-of-nowhere run at the Heisman Trophy."

Now, it's easy to yelp about how the media once again failed to adequately predict who would be the winners and who would be the losers in this season of college football.  But, isn't that unpredictability what makes this sport great?  I'm all for holding these preseason predictors accountable but also love that, each year, there is an Auburn who comes from nowhere with a story that's compelling and sucks us all in.

Here's to another stellar year of college football--let's hope tomorrow night's BCS National Championship Game will be a fitting jumping off to the new College Football Playoff that debuts next year.