Final Thoughts on the 2011 NCAA Tournament

UConn defeated Butler 53-41, in a snooze-worthy performance that didn’t come close to matching the high intensity of the rest of the 2011 NCAA tournament. Now that the tourney is done, here are my random thoughts (mostly about the TV coverage and tournament format) in no particular order.

I’m pissed that UConn won it all

I know it’s sour grapes, but I can’t stand that UConn has won — and has made it three championships since 1999. As a UMass alum, I simply cannot root for UConn. It’s ingrained. What can I say? Obviously I’m bitter because UConn has been the much better of the two bordering state schools over the last decade or so. I also can’t forgive Jim Calhoun — as if he needs my forgiveness — for refusing to continue to play UMass a few years ago. That said, it was an incredible run for the Huskies; winning five games in five days in the Big East Tournament and then winning six more to take the title. It’s just another painful reminder that UConn is on a completely different stratosphere than UMass.

Jim Nantz was as brutal as ever with his corny puns

In my most recent post I predicted some possible Jim Nantz puns for the end of the championship game. Most of mine were pretty bad, but what we got from Nantz last night may have worse than his usual predictable quips covered in cheese. He gave us a little appetizer at the second-to-last media timeout with a “Walker, Texas Ranger” reference to UConn’s star guard, Kemba Walker. What he came up with (well in advance, I’m sure) at the final horn was “Huskies are the top dog!” First of all, he had already mixed in a few dog puns in the second half — one of which was a mention of “dogfight” (I guess the statute of limitations is up on dogfight references in sports). Secondly, I’m not even sure “Huskies are the top dog” is grammatically correct; shouldn’t it be “top dogs“? After his game-ending call, he gave us a bonus a few minutes later with “Connecticut wins best in show.” It was around this time I was hoping Butler’s mascot dog, Blue, would come over and tear Nantz to pieces! See ya at the Masters, Jimbo.

Mid-Majors continue to gain ground

This was as good as it gets for the so-called Mid-Majors. Two Final Four teams, with Butler (for the second straight year) and VCU. George Mason, five years since its Final Four run, is still relevant — the Patriots beat Villanova in this year’s tourney. Morehead State beat Louisville in a thrilling first rounder. Mountain West schools BYU and San Diego State both made extended runs. Gonzaga, a tournament staple at this point, trounced St. John’s in round one as an 11 seed. Adding legitimacy to the Mid-Majors is the fact that VCU coach Shaka Smart turned down the NC State job on Monday to stay with the Rams. Brad Stevens is likely staying put at Butler, and why not? Two straight Finals appearances can only help recruiting and keep the Bulldogs in the national spotlight. He and Butler are putting the Indiana Hoosiers to shame at the moment.

The teams that won a “First Four” game did NOT win an NCAA Tournament game

First of all, I wish they would just go back to 64 teams in the field. Secondly, call these games what they really are: Play-in games. Now these four extra games are considered the first round. So eight teams play in the first round and 64 play in the second? Huh??? Why do we need to spice these games up. This is Division I collegiate athletics; no need for the “everybody’s a winner!” sentiment. And let’s get one thing straight: If you win one of these “First Four” games, you did NOT win a tournament game. When Clemson beat UAB in one such game this year I heard one of the broadcasters mention that it was Clemson’s first NCAA Tournament win since 1997. Well, the Tigers lost their next game to West Virginia…so in my mind they still haven’t won a tourney game since ’97.

Is the Big East overrated? I have no idea

On the one hand, the National Champion comes from the Big East. On the other, out of the 11 teams from the conference that were in the tournament only two made it to the Sweet 16. Either way, plenty of people from the national media and the Twitter universe made proclamations about this conference. I’ll sit on the fence on this one. Judging an entire conference based on how 11 teams performed in a two and-a-half week tournament seems a little ridiculous. I think the conference is very good, but it has 16 teams in it! Of course there will plenty of good teams. If the SEC had 16 teams, it would likely be just as good as the Big East. The conference is way too big and it’ll get bigger when TCU arrives. The fact that every team plays in the conference tournament is a joke. But I digress. It is a very strong conference that had two teams limp into the tournament (Georgetown and Villanova),  eight that were tripped up early, and one that took the whole thing.

Anyone’s bracket even close?

I did not get one single Final Four team. I’m sure I’m not alone. I thought I was going out on a limb putting San Diego State and Florida in (I also had Kansas and Ohio State). Apparently I needed a longer limb. I can’t even beat myself up about this particular bracket. I was as likely to win the lottery and be struck by lightning on the same day as I was getting this Final Four picked correctly. Hey, at least I had VCU winning one game — a real tournament game, not that “First Four” game!

Putting games on four networks was a great move

No surprise here. This worked out very well. There was no more guessing which games I would get to see in my region. No more wondering if CBS would switch to a game more exciting than the one I was watching. It was nice to be able to choose your own adventure in the first couple of rounds. The only negative was the fact that TruTV was the only channel of the four that was in standard definition only. Not a complaint I would have made a year and a half ago when I did not even have HD. But TruTV was an eyesore compared to the crisp pictures on CBS, TNT, and TBS. Overall, it was nice to have the ability to watch every game. Otherwise, just one other annoyance…as someone who notices sportscaster cliches, I think I counted four or five times when a broadcaster said something to the effect of “Make sure you have fresh batteries for your remote,” referring to the constant channel changing due to multiple games being played simultaneously. I think Ernie Johnson said it two days in a row. Gus Johnson even said it. C’mon, Gus! You’re better than that.

College basketball is not very good right now, but damn that was a fun tournament

I love college basketball, but even I have to admit the sport is not as good as it once was. There are very few great players. Actually, I’m not sure if there are any truly great players right now. Kemba Walker? Maybe. Derrick Rose, Michael Beasley, John Wall, and Kevin Love would still have had eligibility at this point; imagine what could have been! I’m not the first to say that college basketball has suffered greatly with players leaving after a year. You saw it in this tournament. The level of play was OK at best. Yeah, the championship game brutal, but the quality of basketball overall in the tournament continues to be lacking in many areas. Even so, as long as we still have buzzer beaters (check), overtime nail-biters (check), and upsets galore (definite check), the tournament will always be an awesome event. This tournament, championship game aside, was one of the most entertaining in my lifetime.


Predicting Jim Nantz’s NCAA Championship Call for All 16 Teams

The 2011 NCAA tournament has been similar to others in the recent past. There have been a few major upsets and many games decided in the final seconds. Unpredictable and full of drama.

One thing you can always count on in the tournament is Jim Nantz will eventually script his final call when the winner is determined. He is probably already working on a few.

Since he’s become master of the cheesy NCAA championship pun, I figured I’d help him out in advance. In the past, I’ve seen blogs that have done this sort of thing just prior to the Final Four. Let’s get an earlier start this year, and give Jim a few options for all 16 remaining teams.

I could not find any video of examples of Nantz’s wordsmithery, but here are a few in text form:

“Nothing could be finer…North Carolina is your National Champion.” (as in “nothin fina’ than Carolina” from UNC’s 2009 title)

“Rock Chalk Championship.” (a play on Kansas’ famous slogan, “Rock Chalk Jayhawk” from 2008)

“A milestone victory for Arizona.” (in reference to Arizona’s Miles Simon, from the 1997 championship)

OK, now that we’re up to speed, here are some incredibly corny puns that only Jim Nantz could love. Some of these are stretching it a bit, but hey, that’s what Nantz does anyway.

Arizona Wildcats

That’s two, son! (a reference to Arizona winning its second national title and also a play on words with Tucson)

Arizona has risen!

Duke Blue Devils

A Double Dose of Duke. Back-to-back titles!

A devil of a team!

(OK, OK they’ve won it too many times. He wouldn’t have anything original left anyway, hence last year’s “Duke is the king of the dance!”

Connecticut Huskies

“They may have Walker, but what a RUN to a championship!”

“UConn call the Huskies the 2011 champions!”

What will Jim Nantz say if the Aztecs win it all? Here's a candidate.

San Diego State Aztecs

“Fisher reels in a championship for San Diego State!”

“Go Diego, Go! The Aztecs are national champions!”

“A championship made to order just above of the border!”

BYU Cougars

“A night they’ll never Fredette! BYU is the 2011 national champion!”

“Sex and drugs may be out, but a championship is allowed at BYU!”

“This feeling will never get OLD at Brigham YOUNG! The Cougars win the title!”

Florida Gators

Gator done! Florida wins the 2011 championship!

Chomping for a championship!

Butler Bulldogs

This time, the Butler did it! (way too obvious, of course)

BUT of course! The Bulldogs are the 2011 champions!

Wisconsin Badgers

Bucky ain’t so sucky! The Badgers are the 2011 national champions!

Nothing cheesy about this night!

Virginia Commonwealth Rams

Virginia is for championships!

Nothing COMMON about winning a title!

VCU is the SMART pick. The Rams have SHAKA the world!

Florida State Seminoles

They are too much to (pan)handle! The Seminoles win the 2011 national championship!

A Hall and Oates reference is unlikely, but you never know with Nantz.

Richmond Spiders

The itsy bitsy championship goes to Richmond!

From rags to Richmond!

She’s a Richmond! You can rely on your old man’s MOONEY!

Kansas Jayhawks

Kan-sas really be happening?? The Jayhawks are champions!

You couldn’t have asked for anything Morris!

Rock Chalk Cham – oh shit, I used that one already.

Marquette Golden Eagles

Milwaukee’s Best! The Golden Eagles are 2011 champions!

Right on the Marq!

The Golden (Eagles) Rule!

North Carolina Tar Heels

A Tar-iffic season ends with a championship!

What a thrill for Chapel Hill!

Head over Heels for a national title!

Kentucky Wildcats

Yes, they Ken!

Look what the cats dragged in…a championship!

Ohio State Buckeyes

O what a night!

One of the great nights of Columbus!

It’s not bad being Thad! The Buckeyes are the national champions!

If you stuck with me all the way to this point, you have my extreme gratitude! Enjoy the rest of the tournament.

Thinking About the Devestation in Japan

I realize I am a few days late with this, but I want to express my sympathy for the people in Japan who are dealing with the recent earthquake, tsunami, and now radiation in some areas. While I typically like to keep things light and sports-related here — I am most certainly amped up for the NCAA tournament and upcoming baseball season — I feel it necessary to make mention of this.

Having a sister-in-law from Japan, who still has relatives there, has made this hit a little closer to home. Luckily her family is located far enough away from the most severe damage and is doing OK. Even so, I can’t even imagine how scary this must be for them.

The vast majority of crises in the world are caused by some person or group of people. The unique thing about natural disasters, however, is that there isn’t anyone to blame. In a way it creates a helpless feeling. Though perhaps a silver lining here is that instead of causing arguments, this has brought a lot of people together. We’re already seeing the support from here in the U.S.

I’ll be back soon with some NCAA tourney thoughts, but I’ll leave that for another day. Thank you for reading.

Advice For Filling Out Your NCAA Brackets: Don’t Take Anyone’s Advice

Other than the rare times when my favorite teams are playing for championships, there isn’t anything in sports I get more excited about than the NCAA tournament. I love college basketball in general. I am a rare fan who will watch from the very first tip in early November all the way to the final buzzer of the championship game.

With that said, I get into the tournament largely for the same reason as the guy from your office who doesn’t know Georgetown from George Mason: the brackets.

While I’ll certainly watch as much of the tournament as I possibly can, the games in the later rounds lose a bit of their luster once my bracket has bit the dust. For all of its faults — and this year’s selections have many — the tournament format is still as close to perfection as you’ll find. The brackets and the pools that go along with them have a perfect marriage with the games themselves. If the NCAA ever decides to reseed after each round or make some other fundamental change to the format, CBS (and now TNT, TBS and TruTV this year) would lose a huge number of viewers because filling out a bracket would be impossible once a true tournament style is taken away.

Enjoy the game. Enjoy making your selections. But one piece of advice: Don’t seek out any kind of help. Chances are it won’t lead you to the glory of winning your pool.

I’ve never won an NCAA pool, and I’ve probably done about 20 or so in my life. I don’t even think I’ve come in the top three. Again, I’m a huge college basketball fan. I’ve seen almost every one of the 68 teams in the field play this season, and many of them multiple times. This isn’t a good thing when it comes to making picks.

I’ll start to think, “this team has more seniors, so its experience will put it through” or “that team doesn’t have the size inside to match up with its opponent.” This type of overthinking is what you’ll get if you listen to any one of ESPN’s college basketball talking heads — most of whom I like by the way. And those guys know a lot more than I do, so they’ll really have you trusting them when it comes to bracket assistance. Don’t fall for it.

The tournament is always filled with upsets and who the heck knows where they’ll come from? This year appears to be tougher than ever. There is no dominant team, and beyond the top four seeds in each region you might as well pick out of a hat for teams seeded 5 through 12 (no team is favored by more than six points in such matchups).

Of course I will still do my research, recall the games I’ve seen involving the teams, and make my most educated predictions for the tournament. And more than likely I will have a below average bracket that will be fit for shredding on Sunday afternoon, if not earlier.

So if you like to pick based on mascots or team colors, go for it. If you want your dog to make your picks, have at it. If you pick based on which school requires the higher SAT scores, good for you.

Just don’t listen to the experts. Don’t even listen to me. In fact, forget you even read this. Just make your picks and enjoy the games!

The Miami Heat Cried and That’s OK

I hate to do this, but I am going to defend the Miami Heat.

In his press conference yesterday, following a fourth straight loss, coach Erik Spoelstra said, “There are a couple guys crying in the locker room right now.” 12 words he’d probably love to have back right about now.

In fact, he has backtracked today and blamed the media for blowing that statement out of proportion. He may just be doing some damage control, but there is no need.

A four-game losing streak in the middle of an 82-game season, where the team is 43-20, is not a reason to freak out, but whichever players did allow a salty discharge to drip down their cheeks actually care. Not something you can say with certainty about every professional athlete.

It’s OK for Little Leaguers to cry. It’s OK for collegiate athletes to cry when they realize they have just completed the final games of their careers. Once athletes reach the pro ranks and are paid millions, we tend to think of them as machines. In a sense they are because their jobs are to perform at the highest possible level and bring their teams championships, while putting more money in their teams’ owners’ pockets as well as their own. When it’s all said and done, however, it’s the same game they played as 10-year-old kids.

Maybe crying shows weakness. Then again, if I were a Heat a fan, I’d much rather hear a couple players were crying following a fourth straight brutal loss than partying the night away at a South Beach club after the game. I wouldn’t want them to be crying after each loss, of course, but perhaps they reached a breaking point, which may consequently be a turning point in the season. Again, the Heat are 43-20. They can rebound from this and still gain home-court advantage in the playoffs.

After all the pomp and circumstance from this past offseason, when LeBron James had his “Decision” and the Heat held a glitzy pep rally of sorts to introduce their Big Three, most non-Heat fans have savored the few rough moments the team has had. The tears in Miami have quickly become fodder for bloggers, talk radio, sports TV shows, and likely will get a mention on the late-night talk shows tonight. However, world-class athletes tend to be at their best when people are doubting them. Now they’re not only doubting LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and company, they are laughing at them. As a Knicks fan with no love for the Heat, this is scary.

I admit that I got a chuckle out of hearing that a couple of Heat players were crying after the game. I’m enjoying this losing streak as much as anyone — especially when the Knicks beat them on February 27. I also understand the media making a story out of this; crying isn’t deemed acceptable in male professional sports. Erik Spoelstra doesn’t need to cover up his tracks, though. His team is hurting. They are mentally and physically drained from four awful games and it’s human to let your emotions get the best of you.

While I can only hope the Heat continue to struggle, I fear that is a far cry from what will actually happen.

It’s Starting to Feel Like Baseball Season

Padres' and Mariners' spring home in Peoria, AZ - taken on my cross-country trip to to California in November of 2009

It’s unseasonably cold and damp out here in Los Angeles, but somehow that makes it feel like baseball season is around the corner. Having lived on the East Coast up until late 2009, this is the type of weather I am used to in mid-February. This is the weather that makes spring training sites in Florida and Arizona feel like millions of miles away, but at the same time lets you know those chilly, dreary April days at the ballpark — in the Northeast anyway — are getting close.

While my transition from football to baseball has clearly gone into effect, I am not one of those fans who gets goose bumps from the now-cliched phrase, “pitchers and catchers.” Pitchers and catchers reporting to their teams’ spring training camps serves as the official start of the baseball season for some. For me, it’s one big tease. At the same time, knowing the players are starting to toss the ball around down south gets me thinking about baseball again; about how the Mets can avoid a bad season, and ditto for my fantasy team.

For sports fans like me, who put baseball and football at the top of their lists, there isn’t a whole lot going on right now. As a Knicks fan, I am enjoying their new-found success this season, but the playoffs are still two months away. I love college basketball, but the fact that my favorite team and alma mater, the UMass Minutemen, have floundered since a good start has tempered my excitement for the time being. So why not start thinking about baseball? Why not have some of those bar stool conversations about whether the Yankees or Red Sox win the AL East? or listen to your wife gloat about her Phillies?

For some reason, in baseball more than the other sports, every team thinks it has a chance when it arrives at spring training. At least that’s what you hear anyway. It’s strange how that philosophy seems to go along with baseball, since it’s the only one of the four major sports without a salary cap. I guess people in Pittsburgh and Kansas City don’t think their teams have a chance when spring comes. The notion of every team starting at 0-0 and being on equal footing before Opening Day might not be rooted in reality, but it has its merits; did anyone think the Tampa Bay Rays would be American League Champs in February of 2008?

While the time frame of the baseball season is actually shorter than that of basketball or hockey, it feels longer. In much of the country, the season begins with a nip in the air. It takes us through spring and into early summer. In July and August, we take the game with us to the beach or sweat through the heat and sometimes humidity at the ballpark. In September, baseball fights with football season for attention, and less kids show up for games, as the words “school night” re-enter their vocabularies. The playoffs in October take us right back to where we started, bundled up in everything from sweatshirts to winter coats.

Right now we’re in the exploratory stages of the 2011 baseball season, and even in typically warm and sunny LA, it’s a little cold and breezy.

It’s starting to feel like baseball season.

Super Bowl XLV Thoughts: A Bad Rendition of the Anthem, A Good Game, and an Overrated Stadium

My predicted score of Packers 27, Steelers 21 didn’t quite happen, but I’ll give myself a pat on the back for nailing the margin of victory. Anyone who claims he predicted 31-25 is a liar by the way.

All in all, Super Bowl XLV was another good one. Certainly not a classic, but anytime a Super Bowl comes down to a potential game-winning drive with less than two minutes remaining, it will be considered a memorable one. That now makes eight straight Super Bowls in which the games ranged from decent to outstanding. This is a far cry from a mostly dull run in the 1990s.

Looking a little deeper into my prediction from last week, the game wasn’t decided by anything fluky like a safety or blocked kick. However, you can say the fumble by Rashard Mendenhall and the ensuing Packers’ touchdown are what turned the game. Even though the Steelers answered right back with a touchdown plus a two-point conversion to get the game back to a three-point deficit, their huge momentum swing was thwarted just long enough for the Packers to regain their footing and their swagger offensively. In the end, despite having a crack at it with nearly two minutes left, the Steelers had too big a hill to climb.

The game itself gets an A- from me. The second half was about as good as it gets, but the first half woes of the Steelers keep this from being a truly great Super Bowl.

As for some of the peripherals, there weren’t many positives.

I’ll be blunt. Christina Aguilera was awful. Botching one line of the Star Spangled Banner, while embarrassing, didn’t even bother me all that much. It was the fact that she attempted to turn a two-hundred year old American classic (they don’t call it an anthem for nothing!) into her next radio single that irked me. It’s been going on for years now, but artistic freedom with the Anthem has gone way too far. I’m all for Christina singing it with passion and giving it some of her own personal touch, but contorting certain notes of the song to the point where I forgot what I was even listening to is not acceptable. If we want to hear your vocal range in all its glory, we’ll see you in concert—if you’re even still touring!

The Black Eyed Peas at halftime made me feel old. I didn’t see the appeal. Most of the songs sounded familiar, but didn’t bring up any emotions one way or the other. I enjoyed seeing Slash make a cameo, though I am sure Axl Rose spit up his beer after seeing Fergie give a karaoke-quality performance of “Sweet Child O’ Mine.” Despite the fact that the performance didn’t do much for me, I understand the NFL and FOX shifting over to a pop act after years of legendary/AARP rockers like The Who, The Rolling Stones, Paul McCartney, Tom Petty, and Bruce Springsteen. I’m hoping for Metallica next year, but I doubt I’ll get my wish.

I really didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the commercials, so I’d be foolish to give a review. On the whole, as the Super Bowls have gotten better in recent years, the commercials have seemingly declined—but I’ll take that trade.

While I’m being a bit negative…can NFL analysts and broadcasters stop fawning over Cowboys Stadium? It’s huge, it’s state of the art, has every modern amenity you can imagine; I get all that. But it’s a football stadium, not a luxury hotel. It’s a hunk of steel with astroturf on its floor, if you want to get down to it. Football is rough, gritty game. To talk about the aesthetic beauty of Jerry Jones’ “palace” just doesn’t jibe with that. So this place hosted a Super Bowl, but what else has taken place there? 400 fans were turned away from the big game because the NFL didn’t get the OK for a chunk of temporary seats; six people were injured by falling ice in the week leading up to the game; the movie theater screen that covers nearly the entire field has had a punt hit it; and a worker died during construction of this massive stadium. I’m not placing any blame on any one person or groups of people for those things, but let’s settle down before we consider this thing the NFL’s version of Disney World.

Despite some of my complaints, it was an enjoyable late afternoon watching Super Bowl XLV while scarfing down a double-double and fries from In-N-Out Burger.