Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Iowa State Cyclones have Golden Opportunity

This has been a banner year for Fred Hoiberg’s Iowa State men’s basketball team. The Cyclones are 21-8 (11-5 in conference) and could tie for second place tonight with a victory at Missouri.

The Cyclones further punched their NCAA tournament ticket with an impressive win at Kansas State last Saturday. Now they take on a bruised Missouri team that has lost back-to-back games against Kansas State and Kansas. So either the Tigers will come out fighting mad or still be feeling sorry for themselves.

No. 7 ranked Missouri handled Iowa State quite easily in an earlier contest in Ames. But the Cyclones seem to have found greater confidence and enjoy being probably the surprise of the Big 12 Conference.

The questions about tonight’s game are many. Can Royce White dominate the game and actually make free throws? Will Iowa State play like a real road team and get soundly defeated? Will Missouri’s consistent pressure hurt the Cyclones? Will Missouri score in bunches? Can Iowa State’s dream season continue?

If the Cyclones can some how get past Missouri, things could get really interesting. Iowa State hosts another top 10 team—Baylor—in the regular season finale Saturday

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Iowa Hawkeyes Go Outside the Family

Iowa football coach Kirk Ferentz is a loyal guy. When he has a rare opening on his staff, Ferentz usually promotes from within.

So it was somewhat surprising to learn Ferentz named former Texas offensive coordinator Greg Davis to the same position at Iowa. It was also somewhat surprising that Davis landed the job after being away from football for a year.

Davis was a highly successful offensive coordinator under Texas coach Mack Brown. However, he resigned under pressure following the 2010 season. Texas stumbled to a 5-7 record that year.

Iowa fans had a love-hate relationship with former offensive coordinator Ken O’Keefe. Many were happy when the long time Iowa assistant took a job with the Miami Dolphins. Many hope Davis will bring new life to the Hawkeye offense.

But if fans are expecting a radical change, forget it. Remember who your head coach is? Ferentz is loyal to the system and doesn’t favor throwing the ball 60 times per game or trying all kinds of gadget plays.

Ferentz hopes Davis is a vanilla type of coach who does his job and gets some victories. He wants no flash or different flavored ice cream. So in that vein, Ferentz’s hire was pretty typical.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Kansas Jayhawks Rise Above

The old saying, “The Big 12 Basketball Championship goes through Lawrence, Kansas” is certainly true. That proof was apparent Saturday.

Missouri had a 19-point lead over the Jayhawks in the second half. A Missouri victory would have tied Kansas for the Big 12 Conference lead. But the Jayhawks weren’t in a sharing mood.

They stormed back, forced overtime and finished the job in the extra period. Finals score: Kansas 87, Missouri 86.

Kansas’ victory clinched at least a tie for the league title (with a two-game lead). The Jayhawks should win both of their remaining games: tonight at Oklahoma State and Saturday night hosting Texas.

I was hoping the conference would have a different champion this season. Baylor looked good in the early going, but now has five losses. Missouri seemed a solid contender but recent slipups against Kansas State and Oklahoma State forged the Tigers into second place.

I have a feeling Kansas is indeed happy with its conference dominance. But in recent years, Kansas has been a flop in the NCAA tournament. The Jayhawks hope their league success this year will transfer to the Big Dance.

My gut feeling: don’t count on it.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Believing in Iowa State's Royce White

Iowa State’s Royce White has been featured in this space before. I mentioned how many people were impressed with the 6-8, 270-pound sophomore. I said I enjoyed his game too but I guess I wasn’t completely sold.

Well, I am warming steadily to the believer category.

The more I watch this guy, the more I like. What impresses me the most is his passing ability. It is a thing of beauty and some real art. He gets the ball where his teammates need it and makes it real easy for them in the process. The guy leads the team in an assists with a walloping 140. The next guy totals 64. But to be fair, White also leads the team with 112 turnovers. It’s called taking the good with the bad.

White is actually dominating Iowa State’s statistics. He is first in points (12.9 per game), rebounds (9.1), blocked shots (28) and steals (31--tied). He may also sweep the floor between games.

But the glaring weakness in his game besides the turnovers continues at the free throw line. White is only averaging 48.5 percent. When he misses he misses by plenty. He often throws up air balls. It is still painful to watch.

Iowa State has some good role players but this is definitely White’s team. He makes his teammates better and they look to him to make plays. The Cyclones wouldn’t have a record of 20-8 and knocking on the NCAA tournament door without White.

White continues to improve his game. Iowa State fans can probably thank him all the way to the NCAA tournament.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Jeremy Lin and Tommy Amaker

The whole sports world continues to be enamored with Jeremy Lin’s performance in the NBA.

It has been enjoyable to research Lin’s background. There were Facebook clips the other day where Lin talked about his faith in Jesus Christ. That was interesting and encouraging.

In one of the clips, he also talked about his collegiate coach at Harvard—Tommy Amaker. Lin praised Amaker’s coaching ability. No doubt, Amaker helped Lin become a better player and has played a part in Lin’s NBA success.

Amaker is quieting putting together a solid Harvard program. Amaker has led the Crimson to three straight 20 or more win seasons. Currently, Harvard is 20-2 and 6-0 in the Ivy League. Harvard has visions of the NCAA tournament.

Amaker was a star guard at Duke University. His Division I coaching career took off at Seton Hall where he guided the Pirates to a 68-55 mark and a Sweet 16 NCAA appearance. The Seton Hall success led him to Michigan. Amaker had reasonable success with the Wolverines at 108-84 but was fired. But Harvard has seemingly resurrected his career. I wouldn’t be surprised even if takes another top Division I job sometime in the near future.

But know this: Lin and Amaker are cheering for each other. Both have learned from each other. Both have preserved. Both are great, feel good stories.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

This Team has Missouri's Number

The Missouri Tigers have lost only three games the entire season. That’s the good news. The bad news is two of those loses came against Kansas State.

It’s safe to say the Wildcats have Missouri’s number.

Kansas State dominated the Tigers in a 78-68 win last night at Columbia. The Wildcats flexed their muscle and Missouri put up little resistance.

Kansas State is on a mission of its own. The Wildcats beat then No. 9/10 Baylor last Saturday. Now, they add No.3 Missouri to its resume. This work should be more than enough to earn Kansas State (19-8) a NCAA tournament bid.

Missouri is in danger of losing a Big 12 Conference title. The Tigers are one game behind Kansas and must face the Jayhawks in Lawrence Saturday. Missouri will have to show much more toughness against Kansas than it did against Kansas State to have a chance for a victory.

And you can bet Kansas Coach Bill Self took notes on how Kansas State bullied Missouri. Look for the Jayhawks to try that same route Saturday.

Missouri should be fine once it gets past this week. But don’t bring the Kansas State name to the Tigers. Understandably, they are a bit testy about the subject.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Be Careful What You Say or Don't Say

Longtime college basketball referee Karl Hess tossed a couple fans from the Florida State-North Carolina State game last Saturday but these were not your average fans. Former Wolfpack standouts Chris Corchiani and Tom Gugliotta departed the scene in the second half when Hess ordered a policeman to remove him.

Those are the facts but after that it’s a case of “He said…you said…” Corchiani claims the pair didn’t use any vulgar language but was just telling Hess he was having a bad day calling the game. Hess apparently was tired of the catcalls and took action. It was also reported that NC State students were on Hess’ target list.

Fans do get ejected in college basketball games but it is rare. What’s more rare is two former high profile college stars leaving early not on their own accord.

If there is blame in this incident, I give it to Hess. He needed to just suck it up and call the game. Officials will make controversial calls. They will also make some fans extremely unhappy. Officials recognize that as part of the territory. But officials need thick skin and apart from physical abuse should take the catcalls or leave officiating.

I bet Hess wishes he could redo his decision to toss Corchiani and Gugliotta. He added fuel to a fire that will burn for a while.

It will be interesting whether Hess referees any more NC State games this season. My guess is no. This flame requires some water and that water is Hess remaining on the sidelines for future Wolfpack games

Monday, February 20, 2012

Talking the NCAA Big Dance

We are approaching the stretch run of the college basketball season and anxiety and excitement fill the air.

If your team is on the NCAA Big Dance bubble, it’s anxiety. If your team is playing well and has racked up a number of wins, you’re feeling pretty confident and excited.

This time of year is a real indicator of how the post season will probably turn out. You want to secure a number of wins in a row and be playing at a high level. Michigan State is usually a team that reflects this case. Consequently, if you are struggling now and even make the NCAA tournament, chances are you won’t be making much noise there. Until last Saturday night, I would have said Creighton fits that bill. But it won a huge BracketBuster game and maybe turned the season around.

Conference tournaments start in the next 2-3 weeks. Bubble teams want to perform well and even win their particular league tournament. But the teams firmly already in the tournament really cannot improve their seeding that much. Of course, the below .500 teams are hoping for a conference tournament miracle but they probably will just be playing out the season.

You will hear of many different NCAA Big Dance predictions this time of year. But don’t believe them. How anybody can predict a No. 14 seed against a No. 3 seed in a particular region puzzles me. But I guess people read the stuff, so the predicators stay in business.

But I can wait until Selection Sunday. It will be all black-and-white on that day and then the fun really begins.

Friday, February 17, 2012

BracketBusters' Weekend Anyone?

Back in the day, ESPN had this idea to showcase college basketball’s mid-major teams. ESPN would televise games between some of the top smaller Division I schools (and conferences) in a midseason matchup in February.

This was a win-win situation for the schools. Not only would the school receive national television exposure, but with a win, the NCAA tournament selection committee might give the schools more attention for a postseason bid.

Well, like many things in life, the event grew bigger. It also has lost much of the luster of the early years.

The event now features about 70 games. Many of the teams playing in it have losing records. They couldn’t even quality for a church-league tournament let alone a NCAA one.

It may be time to repair the system or retire the thing gracefully. If ESPN wants to continue the affair, I think it should go back to focusing on top teams and fewer games. But if they wish to discontinue it, I am fine with that too. I question whether a win in this event really helps a mid-major team in its quest for the NCAA tournament. There are so many factors put into play these days for a bid, I serious doubt a Bracketbuster win carries much weigh.

That said, I’ll probably tune in tonight for a little Northern Iowa-Virginia Commonwealth on ESPN 2. VCU is an NCAA darling after its run to the NCAA Four last season.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Missouri Tigers Show Grit

The Missouri Tigers are having an outstanding season. These guys attack their opponents on the offensive end and defend them on the defensive side. Pressure is the Missouri game.

The Tigers are ranked No.3 nationally (24-2 overall, 11-2 conference) and just pounded Oklahoma State last night. Reason tells you Missouri wasn’t going to lose another game to the Cowboys. Oklahoma State inflicted one of Missouri’s two Big 12 Conference losses earlier in Stillwater.

If first-year coach Frank Haith doesn’t win Coach-of-the-Year honors it will be great oversight. Health has pushed nearly all the right buttons this season and deserves credit for bringing the team together.

Missouri has an opportunity to claim the Big 12 regular season championship. The big game is later this month against Kansas. Both schools are tied for the lead now. The Tigers already have a win over the Jayhawks.

Missouri also figures to be an interesting NCAA team. Armed with quickness and solid shooters, but lacking in height and depth (only seven players receive playing time), will the Tigers put together a serious tournament run or fall victim to their vices. You figure a tall, solid rebounding team might send Missouri to the NCAA sidelines.

But don’t count this gritty team out. The Tigers seem to find a way to get victories and they hope that march lasts all the way into April.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

What about Rivalries?

Yesterday, I wrote about conference realignment which begs another interesting question. What happens to long-standing conference rivalries once a school leaves for greener pastures?

The short answer is rivalries go bye-bye.

I have heard departing teams show interest in continuing their rivalries with selected former conference brethren. But I have heard little from the remaining conference members wanting to continue the competition.

Maybe someday these remaining conference schools will change their mind and agree to play, but for now the bad blood prevents any such agreement.

I think one coach summed it up quite correctly. Playing a departing school is like when a marriage ends in divorce and the husband wants to come back and date his former wife.

As I have mentioned before, I live in Big 12 Conference country. In this league, two of the longest rivalries in college sports will end when Missouri and Texas A&M leaving for the Southeastern (SEC) Conference. Missouri and Kansas have faced each other since almost the beginning of dirt. It is the same for Texas and Texas A&M.

It’s sad that these rivalries are nearing an end. But that’s what happens when the family breaks up in any kind of divorce even sports. I guess we will just have to learn how to cope.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

More Conference Realignment

The conference realignment talk was taking a serious break until yesterday when the Mountain West and Conference USA decided to form a love affair.

Officials are not calling it a merger but an association. Whatever! It sounds like a good ‘ole merger to me.

There are 16 teams that have declared their love for each other. Hawaii only wants part of the love in joining for football only.

The Big East was the first conference to feature 16 teams. Now with some teams leaving it, this new association should be the biggest league in the college ranks. The Mountain West/Conference USA folks could begin as early as 2013-14.

The old saying, “You cannot tell the players without a score card ,” could hold true for this new conference and the other conferences’ comings and goings.

One thing is sure: college realignment is alive and well. The Mountain West/Conference USA folks didn’t want to be left out of the party.

BTW, Happy Valentine’s Day. I can assure you I didn’t use the above love themes on purpose.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Jeremy Lin and Harvard

Jeremy Lin has made Harvard University famous in the basketball world. And that is quite the accomplishment.

Harvard isn’t exactly known as the hotbed of college basketball. Oh yes, the school does make it into the top 25 rankings on occasion or even the NCAA tournament, but face it, Harvard is known for its academics.

Lin has generated a cult-like following the last week or so as he came off the bench to star for the NBA’s New York Knicks. Of course, people want to know all about this overnight sensation. Who is he? What is his basketball background?

Lin wanted to earn a scholarship from a Pac-10 school but was turned down. He eventually landed at Harvard –a school that doesn’t offer athletic scholarships He developed into an outstanding Ivy League player and garnered first-team league honors both his junior and senior seasons.

And after struggling with his NBA career, Lin is now the talk of New York, the NBA and Harvard University.

I imagine Harvard is basking in the spotlight. There is nothing like some free publicity for your school.

Harvard University and the basketball world are cheering for Lin. This is a great story of perseverance and hard work. It also shows that Harvard can produce talented AND intelligent basketball players.

Friday, February 10, 2012

What Happens to Murray State?

The glass slipper fell off last night.

Murray State was the only undefeated team in Division I until Tennessee State mastered the Racers on their home floor. The feel good story is over.

Murray State is a mid-major that plays in the Ohio Valley Conference. The league, historically, only gets one NCAA Tournament invitation. So if the Racers don’t win the conference tournament will they break tradition and receive a bid?

The Racers want to make it difficult on the committee. They need to remain unbeaten the rest of the way until the league tournament. Murray State figures to have one major roadblock to that goal. It still must face nationally ranked St. Mary’s.

Say the Racers do win out and then lose in the conference tournament. Barring a first or second-round loss, people will mount a major campaign to allow Murray State in the 68-team field.

And I think with only two losses, the Racers deserve a bid. I don’t care who they played or where they played. They are a great college basketball storyline this season and it would be entertaining to see if the glass slipper could fit again along the tournament route.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

No Longer a Fan

I opted for a fan divorce last year and it still feels a bit strange.

I became a supporter of North Carolina State probably in the 90s. My friend, Jim, served in athletic administration there and “forced” me to become a fan of the Wolfpack. He would send me apparel and various reading materials including media guides. Even though I live in Iowa, I followed NC State closer than Iowa State or Iowa. It was all because of my friend connection.

One fall, I even traveled to Raleigh to visit my friend and take in a football game and an exhibition men’s basketball contest. It was fun being in a place that had like-minded fans.

I proudly wore my Wolfpack clothing and eagerly looked forwarded to any NC State football or basketball game on television.

But my love officially ended last year. Jim retired in late 2010 and even though I tried to continue my support, my heart wasn’t there. So I decided to retire in a way too and cut all athletic ties with NC State.

I will still watch a Wolfpack game occasionally (or in passing) but never the entire contest. I no longer look forward to the games or stand up yelling in my house at the television

It’s somewhat sad, but life moves forward. I enjoyed my time as a Wolfpack fan, but divorces happen including sports ones.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Reader Wants Me to Provide Some Love

Reader Paul (great first name by the way) read my blog post on Iowa State yesterday and wants me to extend some love to South Dakota State.

Really, Paul, what have the Jackrabbits done this year to deserve my love? They are no where in the top 25 rankings or even receiving votes. They lost to three average BCS schools (Minnesota Georgia and Nebraska). Granted the Jackrabbits did beat one BCS school (Washington) but that is another average team.

My research also tells me that South Dakota State is 17-6 overall and 9-2 in the Summit League good for second place. Being a mid-major with a good but not glowing overall record means only one thing. They Jackrabbits better win their conference tournament if they want to go to the NCAA tournament.

Paul, if the Jackrabbits accomplish that, get back to me. I will give them some love.

For now, I will give them credit for one thing—a cool nickname.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Iowa State Bandwagon Grows

The Iowa State men’s basketball team fascination continues.

Now according to a Des Moines Register story, ESPN commentator Dick Vitale has jumped into the Cyclone’s corner. Vitale, who has never broadcasted a game in Ames, says that could change in the future if Iowa State continues to rack up wins.

The college basketball nation seems smitten with the Cyclones. Fred Hoiberg starts four transfers and brings more off the bench. People wonder how Hoiberg can mess all these personalities together successfully.

Obviously, one of the big reasons is the players ‘buy in’ to Hoiberg’s philosophy. Hoiberg never coached a day in his life before taking the Iowa State job last year, but he came in with tremendous credibility. He was a star basketball player for the Cyclones, grew up in Ames and was lovely called ‘the Mayor’. Hoiberg later played in the NBA and also served as an NBA executive. Players know he is deeply respected in the Iowa State community and the guy knows the path to the NBA.

The Cyclones started slowly this season but have picked it up in league play. They are 7-3 in the Big 12 entering tonight’s game at Oklahoma State. Iowa State looks like a NCAA tournament team.

With more wins, the national fascination keeps growing. That’s fine with Iowa State. It’s been a long time since this many people cared about the men’s basketball program in Ames, Iowa.

Monday, February 6, 2012

Big 12 Conference Race Becomes Interesting

Missouri’s victory over Kansas Saturday night created a log jam atop the Big 12 men’s basketball standings. Missouri, Kansas and Baylor all are tied for the lead with 8-2 records.

There will be guaranteed separation this week.

Baylor plays Kansas at home on Wednesday and then has a road date at Missouri Saturday. The Bears two losses were at Kansas and at home against Missouri. So Baylor has some score-setting if it wants to stay on top or near the top of the league.

While the above mentioned three teams are fighting it out for the lead, Iowa State is quietly surging toward the top. The Cyclones are next in the standings at 7-3. Iowa State has been quite impressively lately. It has already picked up three roads wins and will search for No. 4 Tuesday night at Oklahoma State.

Iowa State is done playing Kansas, but has two games left with Baylor and a road contest at Missouri.

Kansas is usually the major force in the Big 12 but that could chance this season. Baylor and Missouri are legitimate title contenders and who knows with a few breaks Iowa State could enter the conversation.

This race is a fun one. And you can probably expect more entertainment to the end.

Friday, February 3, 2012

How did your Team Fare?

We made it through another college football signing day on Wednesday. Other than the political process, this day is probably the largest selling hope time of the entire year.

The usual football powers landed their usual four and five-star recruits. We heard the players say how glad they were to be joining fill-in-the blank school. They loved the tradition of the school, the coaches and probably the team mascot.

The coaches at power school acted like it was no big deal. They are used to being the most popular girl at the school dance. These players will fit into the system like the ones from previous signing days the coach’s body language says.

And then there were the schools that picked up the crumbs on national signing day. Coaches at those schools are always selling hope. They tell us they may not have signed the glamour athlete but they fitted their needs with the guys who committed. Fans of schools with records such as 2-10 and 3-9 always enjoy hearing that (my attempt at a joke).

So what did we learn? Fans still love national signing day. ESPNU must love it too with its hours of coverage. The rich got richer. The poor hope they struck gold with one or two surprised recruits. It was a pretty typical day.

I used to get caught up in the hype of this day, but not anymore. Four or five-star recruits in theory don’t win football games. Only performance does. So show me the goods on Saturday before I become impressed.

What are your thoughts on national signing day?

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Pierre Jackson Saves the Day

Baylor’s Pierre Jackson put on his Superman cape Wednesday night and went to work.

Jackson hit a three-point basket with about 17 seconds remaining in the game to help the Bears escape with a 63-60 win at Texas A&M. Baylor was down two points when the 5-10 guard launched the critical shot.

Jackson, a junior college All-American last season, seems to shine in late-game situations. Overall, he has tightened up Baylor’s point guard position this year and has also been a consistent scorer.

If Jackson would not have come through during the waning seconds Wednesday, Baylor was headed for an ugly loss.

The Bears had an 11-point halftime lead but let the Aggies back in the game in the second half. Baylor struggled with finding consistent offense. It was shocking to see the Aggies take leads in the second half. A&M was playing without two starters but benefited from a loud crowd.

The Aggies looked like they were going to steal the game. Superman had other ideas.

The guy might be small in stature but the ‘ole sports term “ice water in the veins” may be one way to describe Pierre Jackson.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Tournament Fever in Ames, Iowa

Pardon Iowa State fans if they are getting a fever—NCAA tournament fever.

Iowa State stormed back last night from a 14-point deficit to hand Kansas State a tough two-point loss. Royce White shot a jumper with 1.8 seconds remaining for the win.

The victory gave the Cyclones two straight over the state of Kansas (they beat Kansas last Saturday) and improved their record to 6-3 in the Big 12 Conference (16-6 overall).

Beating then fifth-ranked Kansas and usually ranked Kansas State has intensified the NCAA tournament talk around Ames, Iowa. Iowa State fans desperately want to return to the tournament because it has been a long time. The last tournament appearance was in 2005 under coach Wayne Morgan

Iowa State put together a so-so pre-conference season, but the Cyclones have picked up steam in league play. They are in fourth place and if they can maintain the upper conference standing, you have to figure the Cyclones have a decent shot at the tournament.

Cyclone players and coaches are saying all the right things. They are taking it one game at a time. But fans have the future in mind and they are dreaming of a NCAA tournament bid.

Dreams do come true even if you must wait several years. Cyclone fans hope this is finally the year.