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NCAA Madness and Dolla, dolla, bills Y’all…

April 3, 2010 Leave a comment

In honor of the start of the MLB season, I was planning on making this a baseball only weekend for the blog, but then two things happened, one stormy weather knocked out power and internet for most of yesterday, essentially disabling my efforts to write multiple baseball columns, and two… the NCAA (seemingly) made another money grab decision.

I could, and at some point probably will, write a column all about the hypocrisy represented by the NCAA, which exploits young men for incredible profits, while also hanging those same meal tickets out to dry for the slightest violation (for more see James Paxton’s situation with Kentucky). The absurdity of the league banning student-athletes from hiring representation actually strikes me as a violation of the student’s rights. On top of which, while I’m all in favor of amateur athletics, I can’t for the life of me figure out why a player can’t put his name into the NBA draft, hire an advisor to ensure that his interests are being met, be drafted 36th, negotiate with a team, decide that economically it makes more sense for him to return to school, and come back to play college hoops again. Until he steps on a court, or field, to play professionally, his amateur status should be maintained.

Anyhow, that’s an argument for another day. What bothers me here and now, is this “proposal” to expand the field of March Madness to 96. Without mincing words, I hate everything about this idea. I hate that the coaches are in favour of it, because they believe it will create more job security. Uhmmm… no Frank, it just makes reaching the tournament less meaningful. Suddenly your bosses will require you to be something like a top eight seed instead of just qualifying. It doesn’t lessen your job expectations, it just changes the parameters.

I hate that whenever a playoff is discussed in NCAA football, one of the excuses against such a construct is that it would impact student education, but here the NCAA is about to implement a change that would keep more than 500 students out of classrooms for much of the second half of March. On top of which, I hate that NCAA senior vice president Greg Shaheen is seemingly so smugly dense that he cannot pick up the nuance of John Junior Feinstein making just that point.

I understand that the tournament has gone from 16 to 32 to 64 and that each time opponents of expansion complained that it was diluting what was a perfect field, but I hate that the proposed expansion is diluting what is a perfect field. I know that this season is one shinning beacon of how parity has come to NCAA basketball, but lets hold our horses here for a second. We have still yet to watch a 16 seed upset a one seed, only four 15s have knocked off twos, only two 14 seeds have made the Sweet Sixteen, and no team lower than an twelve has made the Elite Eight, where they promptly lost.

LSU in 1986 and George Mason in 2006 are the only 11s to break into the Final Four and they were twenty years apart. Finally, Villanova, an eighth seed in 1985, remains the lowest ranked team to win the whole enchilada. So, lets go a little easy on the parity talk. If you think about it, the Final Four this year is actually pretty chalky, you have perennial Michigan State, Bob Huggins coached West Virginia, and a little heard of basketball institution known as Duke. So, uhmmm… yeah! Yes, Butler is a surprise Final Four team, but they’re a five seed, which means that they were no worse than 20th in the country. So it’s not really as though we are talking about Arkansas-Pine Bluff here.

Finally, I hate that whatever sugar they coat this decision with, the only reason for the NCAA to make this move, just like the only reason that the NFL would expand their regular season from 16 to 18 games, is the big shinny dollar. And, because they are running the biggest monopolized racket going, it’s all money that will be funneled straight into the pocket of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. So, please Shaheen, just stop. Stop talking. Stop planning. Stop bullying student-athletes. Stop counting your money under the table with one hand while holding a microphone espousing the virtues of a virtue-less idea in the other… but mostly, just stop this expansion, because it truly is madness.

Arne Duncan, David Stern, and a College Hoops Education…

March 20, 2010 Leave a comment

The NCAA tournament always brings a litany of stories relating to education, often in the form of how long NBA prospects should be required to stay in school and occasionally related to the graduation rates of top college basketball programs. This week’s tournament is no different.

On ESPN, two of their NBA columnists are going head to head over the NBAs age restrictions (sorry, requires ESPN Insider), meanwhile early last week the Secretary of Education made headlines by proposing (to the media) that college basketball programs with graduation rates below 40% should be banned from postseason play. Since these issues are on some level related, I’m going to tackle them together, starting with the latter and then tying it back in to the former.

Education Secretary Arne Duncan is a former college basketball player from Harvard, which superficially gives him credibility when he discusses college hoops. He’s using that supposed insider status to attack the institutions whose graduation rates are floundering, which would be fine, except that in doing so, he shows an absurd ignorance about the purpose served by big time college hoops.

Right off the top, I am in no way arguing that education isn’t important, or that collegiate athletics shouldn’t be structured such that athletes have every opportunity to achieve a real education from their talents, but that has very little bearing on the majority of top flight basketball players who attend institutions like Kentucky, Louisville, and Maryland (three of the twelve schools that would be expelled from this year’s tournament under Duncan’s proposal). Most young men who attend these schools are doing so for one reason, to further develop their basketball skills in hopes of landing an extremely profitable career in professional hoops.

That’s their purpose, a basketball education. They aren’t there to earn one of those exceptionally useful History degrees, or to develop their math skills. They are there to develop their post-up game, to impress scouts, to hopefully be drafted to the NBA, but failing that to impress an overseas’ professional league. Is this any different than a world class cellist who attends university and earns a music degree? And what is the purpose of college? Is it the pursuit of academia, or is it to prepare young men and women for future employment? One could easily argue that the problem currently facing many educational institutions is that too many people believe it to be the former, when in reality it is, and should be, the latter.

Top flight college basketball, as opposed to say Ivy League basketball, is all about preparing kids to play professionally. In return for allowing athletes to hone their talents and display their abilities in a highly competitive atmosphere, the schools receive millions of dollars in revenue. This, of course, makes it an absurdly poor deal for the students, but that’s another fight for another day. Some kids earn professional contracts and most don’t, but that doesn’t change the fact that from the athlete’s perspective, that’s the purpose of college. Thus, when considering these graduation rates, Duncan has to include how many students left school to professional jobs in basketball, either nationally or abroad. Otherwise, you’re punishing the schools for doing what they are supposed to do. After all, nobody complains when technology geniuses drop out to pursue millions developing software, creating video games, or online social networking sites.

Then there’s is this, at some point each of these kids makes a choice about whether or not they want to continue their education. While the programs should probably have better support systems in place to ensure that the students have every opportunity to finish their degree, at what point does it stop being the school’s responsibility and become the players’? Without getting too personal, a few years ago I became disenchanted with the university experience and dropped out. While I eventually returned and finished my degree, because my graduation was more than six years after the start of my schooling, the qualifications used in the report that Arne Duncan is basing his proposal upon would not consider me “graduated.” Leaving school was nobody’s decision but my own, and despite the protestations of those authority figures in my life who would have encouraged me to continue with my studies, like Keyser Soze I was gone.

Complicating this problem is the NBA’s age restriction, which forces the very best basketball players in the country to attend one year of post-secondary school before being allowed to graduate to the NBA. This has created the hated “one and done” system. So, what should top college programs do? Ignore these kids who are talented enough to pursue professional employment directly from high school?

If you read my column from Thursday, you know that I have nothing but disdain for John Calipari, but his success is predicated upon the fact that he is upfront with kids about his goals. He wants to produce the very best basketball team every single season, and he believes that the surest way to accomplish this is to have preeminent talent every single season. So, he recruits young men like John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, and Eric Bledsoe. Both coach and player understand from the very beginning that this is a one year relationship. Calipari will teach these kids what he can, promote them as widely as possible, and give them his blessing when the declare for the NBA draft in June. In return, those three gave him a 29 win team that earned a number one seed in the tournament. That’s three guys who will not finish their degree, but who will find six figure employment before virtually every other student enrolled at Kentucky this year.

Duncan’s proposal puts these ‘one and done’ kids into professional limbo. If he is serious about his better than forty percent claims, then he needs to address the NBAs age restrictions. Ten years ago, I would have argued that David Stern was right that the NBA needed an age requirement. Now? With the success of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, and Kevin Garnett, what logical argument is there that allowing high school graduates to turn pro hurts anyone?

Who are the best basketball coaches in the world? Are they the college coaches who routinely flame out in the NBA? Or are they the world class, highly paid coaches employed by NBA teams? The answer, of course, is the latter. The players receive better instruction going pro, especially given the creation of the D-League, which allows NBA teams to send players to a development team for more playing time and closer instruction than they might receive with the big team. By contrast, consider that Duke is probably the top college program of the last twenty years. Yet, despite recruiting top flight talent, winning the majority of their games each season and having the great Mike Krzyzewski as their coach, Blue Devil players have a reputation as being professional busts.

Honestly, was the league worse off for having LeBron James drafted as an 18 year old? Was the league in some way more adversely affected by high schooler Darius Miles flaming out, than say sophomore Stromile Swift? Were the injuries that ruined Jonathan Bender’s career caused because he missed out on the “college experience”? No, no, and no. On the flip side, if Bender had suffered those injuries in college, would David Stern have paid him the roughly 30 million he earned in his star crossed career?

The NBA wants guys to go to college so that they can play at Kentucky for a year (or preferably two), become a star and then join the league. That’s it, that’s the reason. The NBA doesn’t have an age limit to benefit the players, nor to improve the skill level of teams, it has an age limit because it benefits the NBAs marketing machine.

David Stern might give lip service to how forcing athletes to attend two years of college better prepares them mentally to the off court challenges faced by professional players, but come on… Have Garnett, LeBron, TMac, or Jermaine O’Neal been hurt as people by missing college? Hurt financially? From a marketing standpoint? Really? How? Did Allen Iverson learn at Georgetown that excessive gambling was a surefire way to plummet into debt? Yes, Kobe Bryant was accused of sexual assualt, but then Ben Roethlisberger went to college and he’s been similarly accused. Besides, Tiger Woods went to Stanford and last I checked, that didn’t teach him that infidelity was wrong.

Finally, there’s this, Duncan is proposing to ban teams from the tournament whose graduation rates are low, which penalizes the kids who are still in school and could still potentially graduate, as opposed to the kids who failed to graduate. Exactly what purpose does that serve?

Overtime, Buzzer Beaters, and Upsets… Oh My…

March 20, 2010 Leave a comment

The first day of the tournament realistically might have been the best opening day of March Madness ever. It included three overtime games, eight games decided by fewer than five points, six “by the number” upsets, fifteen seed Robert Morris almost toppling number two Villanova, and 14th ranked Ohio (not Ohio State, but just Ohio) taking down Georgetown. That Georgetown upset was obviously the biggest of the day, as 97.6 percent of the 4.8 million brackets (including mine) submitted to ESPN had the Hoyas waltzing past Ohio. Many of them, though thankfully not mine, had the Hoyas going to the eight, and a few even had the Hoyas going to the Four… talk about your bracket buster.

The second day, well… it lacked much of that intrigue, but it still brought three ‘by the number” upsets, the best of which was twelve Cornell knocking off five Temple.

How’d Sports on the Brain do? I’m glad you asked, I had that Cornell upset (snap!) and over the two days, I went a very respectable 24-8. I had six of the nine upsets, including Georgia Tech, Missouri, Saint Mary’s, and, thirteen Murray State over four Vanderbilt. I only lost three teams I had surviving past the round of 32. Best of all, none of those three did I have going beyond the round of sixteen. So, all my elite eight survive to the weekend.

Upset of the 1st Round – Come on, this isn’t even a contest. I mean, if Bobby Morris had held on to topple Villanova, then it might have been a different story, but only 115K of the 4.8 million ballots on ESPN had Ohio beating Georgetown, that’s an upset.

Performance of the 1st Round – Oh JIMMER… If you’re an NBA GM and watched BYU’s classic double overtime victory against Florida and didn’t come away convinced that Jimmer Fredette can play 10 years in the NBA, well then you’re probably Mike Dunleavy. ESPNs Chad Ford had him ranked 59th on his top 100 draft board, going in to the weekend, but if I was a GM picking in the 25-30 range, I’d have a hard time not selecting a kid with a sweet stroke, superb court vision, and the toughness necessary to succeed on the next level.

Game of the 1st Round – I don’t know how you top the very first game of the tournament. Double overtime, multiple lead changes, and an impressively high level of play. BYU was challenged, but behind Jimmer’s 37, they continually hit big shots when it mattered. Florida had two separate chances to hold for the final shot and missed them both, which is perhaps emblematic of one of the worst coaching moves routinely practiced. Having your team dribble the ball up top until the dying seconds, then having a single player make a rushed attack on the basket, before he takes an ill advised final shot. This has such a miserable success rate, that I wonder why nobody tries
actually working the ball around for a better score.

Goat of the 1st Round – If you watched any college hoops this winter, all you heard about was how dominant the Big East was. At some point pundits were arguing that they deserved ten teams in the tournament, and that they would certainly have as many as four teams in the elite eight. After the first round of the tournament, we know that the Big East is a good, but vastly overrated conference. On the first day, they had four teams in action and went a stellar 1-3, with their single victory Villanova’s near disaster against Robert Morris. All three losses involved upsets, with two sixes losing to eleven seeds, and the ignominious Georgetown defeat. On Friday Syracuse, West Virginia, and Pitt all protected the shield (with only nine seed Louisville getting dropped), but the damage had already been done. Barring deep runs by the four remaining teams, this tournament will be seen as failure for the not quite as Big as they thought East.

All in all a superb opening round, and we can only hope for more of the same from the weekend. Check back Monday to hear about how Gonzaga, Wake Forrest, and Old Dominion destroyed my bracket…

Descending into Madness…

March 18, 2010 4 comments

I’m not going to lie, I’d love to be writing something really romantic about the NCAA tournament that’s going to start in a hour and twelve minutes, but this week’s been a little busy. On Monday night I had an emotional breakdown, on Tuesday, Spirit of the West was playing a rare live show, so I had to go see them. And last night there were about 18 Guinness begging to be drunk. On top of all that, the Billion Served aren’t serving themselves, so despite asking Ronald if I could take time at work to drop some college hoops knowledge, I’ve got nothing.

Long story short, instead of writing something really beautiful about the tournament, those 18 Guinness are rattling around my brain and the clock’s ticking down on the starting time. So… yeah, basically, this year I’m one and done.

However, we wouldn’t be Sports on the Brain if we hadn’t filled out a bracket, so lets take a quick wander around the country and see what we see.

Before the brackets came out, if you’d asked me who I thought the Final Four were, I’d have said: Kansas, Syracuse, Ohio State, and Georgetown, so you can imagine my chagrin when three of those four ended up in the same bracket.

The Midwest is dumb, just flat out dumb. How Kansas could be ranked as the top team, but end up saddled with a stacked bracket is just another example of the Committee’s arrogant inebriation. Ohio State has the best player in the country, Evan Turner, who seems locked in and ready to carry them, Carmelo Anthony like, to the title. Georgetown is a schizophrenic team that may well go out in the first round, but when they bring it, can beat anyone in the country. Beyond that, you have Maryland, Michigan State,Tennessee and Oklahoma State. That’s an incredibly hard top seven. Nobody wants to play a Tom Izzo coached team in the tournament. Maryland won the ACC regular season and in Gravis Vazquez has a player who can win a game or two by himself, and Tennessee and Oklahoma State are the only two teams to have beaten Kansas this season.

So this is the minefield that Kansas has to navigate if it hopes to make the Final Four. Still, they are so good that most brackets have them surviving… Not me though. I like Turner to lead Ohio State past Georgia Tech, past Georgetown, and past Kansas to the final four. Turner’s the best player in the tournament, and in March transcendent talent matters.

The West Region is Syracuse, Syracuse, Syracuse. I like Xavier to make a little run and upset Pittsburgh and Kansas State, but I think their run ends with Syracuse. Maybe I’ve just become a Jim Boeheim homer. It’s not as though I know him, or spend a lot of time in upstate New York, but Boeheim appears on the PTI show regularly and every time he does I am struck by how great a guy he appears to be.

The players in college change so rapidly, that it’s hard to cheer for players, so you’re left cheering for an institution, or for the man in charge. I’ve never attended an American University and while they’re pretty good, I doubt that UVic is going to be earning an at large bid to the tournament, so… coach it is.

I could cheer for Coach K or Roy Williams, but cheering for Duke or North Carolina is a little like cheering for the Yankees or the Sox and you know I have nothing but disdain for the Sox and the Yanks. I could cheer for John Calipari but… Come On! He’s led two teams to the Final Four, and left both schools right as the NCAA was stripping those institutions of their Final Four runs. Boeheim though? He seems like an upstanding guy, he’s been at Syracuse forever, he’s won a title, he graduates most of his players, so Syracuse is my team.

Forunately, this year they have the chops to back me up. Sure Arinze Onuaku is hurting, but I think they can win two games without him, and when he comes back it’s straight through to the final four for them.

In the East I like Cornell to break the Ivy League’s tournament losing streak by upsetting Temple. I then like them to become first weekend darlings by dropping Wisconsin. Unfortunately, next week they run into Kentucky, who might be susceptible to the upset, but wont lose to Cornell. Kentucky and West Virginia will meet in the regional final and my cloudy crystal ball sees WV outsmarting the Wildcats down the stretch to pull the upset. There’s no doubt that Kentucky has either the most or second most talent in the country and really, despite making some of their games interesting, Kentucky has only lost twice. So, yes they’re precocious kids, but… I have to toss my crystal ball out the window and take Kentucky to beat West Virginia and go to Indy.

As I’m sure you know, the Southern Region is absurdly easy, with the committee apparently clearing the way for Duke to make a deep run. Unfortunately, there is nothing that Duke has done over the last eight or nine years to make me think that this team is capable of going deep in this tournament. So, I (like seemingly everyone else) have Louisville upsetting them in round two. Louisville has come out of a tough league, Duke has come out of a weak ACC, the coaches are a wash, but I think Louisville gets up for Duke and shuts down their big three scorers. Of course, getting up for Duke, leads to a big drop off and so I have A&M ending Louisville’s run. On the other side of the South, I have Baylor becoming the top story of the tournament.

The Bears making a run through the cleared out South will create a buzz over their recovery from the dark depths of 2003, when Patrick Dennehy was murdered by teammate Carlton Dotson. It would easily outstrip everything else as the story of the Final Four, and Baylor would be everyone’s darlings.

So, if you’re keeping score at home, I’ve got Ohio State-Syracuse and Kentucky-Baylor as my final four. Form there, I’ve got Syracuse knocking off Turner and Kentucky ending Baylor’s magical run. In the dream final of contrasting coaches, you have the slimy Calipari against the classy Boeheim. As I said above, I’m a Boeheim homer, so I’ve got the ‘Cuse as National Champs. Of course, I’ve only slept off seven of the 18 Guinness, so what the hell do I know…

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