Friday, March 30, 2012

Right Place at the Right Time

I doubt that new Illinois basketball coach John Groce cares he was the seventh choice or even the 53rd choice to become the Illini head man.

The main thing is he got the job.

According to reports, Butler’s Brad Stevens and VCU’s Shaka Smart were above Groce in the pecking row. Smart would have been the sexy hire but like Stevens, Smart has been saying “Thanks, but no-thanks” to various suitors.

The NCAA tournament always produces at least one mid-major coaching star. His team surprises in the tournament and the big boys respond with a job offer. Smart had some carry over from last year’s Final Four appearance and winning a first round game this season.

But Groce was this year’s star. He took a 13-seeded Ohio team to the Sweet 16. Then Ohio lost to North Carolina in overtime.

Groce knows the Big Ten Conference. He was an assistant to Thad Matta at Ohio State. Groce has earned his head coaching jobs after paying dues as a long-time assistant.

Some say Illinois isn’t a great job anyone. But Groce is obviously happy for the opportunity and he hopes to make it a great job.

The way I see it, the Illinois job is a low risk, high reward opportunity for Groce. He’s in the right place at the right time.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Kentucky: Men Against Boys

I have only watched Kentucky play a couple times this season and that has been in the NCAA tournament. This team looks like men. The Wildcats’ opponents look like boys.

Kentucky has obviously talented players. The Cats play as team. They can score from the inside and the outside. They smother you with their defense. They have few holes in their armor.

Can Kentucky be beaten in the Final Four? I see only two ways. First, if the Cats get in foul trouble. They only play about seven players. If the whistles become numerous, Kentucky’s opponent will have a chance. The second way to beat Kentucky is internal. The Cats bow to the intense pressure that they win the title. Kentucky is a huge favorite. Can they withstand the pressure?

TV commentator Charles Barkley says that Kentucky could compete with some NBA teams. I agree. It helps that most of the Cats top players do go to the NBA and early. They are a type of farm club for the NBA.

As one writer said, anything less than a Kentucky national title this season will seem like a failure in the Bluegrass State.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

I will Miss Frank Martin in the Big 12 Conference

Frank Martin was introduced yesterday as the new basketball coach at South Carolina. Martin leaves Kansas State after a five-year run. His record was 117-54 and he led the Wildcats to a regional final in 2010.

Martin will be missed in the Big 12 Conference. The colorful, fiery coach built a solid program at Kansas State. Martin received a big break when Bob Huggins left after one year at Kansas State to take the job at West Virginia. Martin, Huggin’s assistant, was then elevated to the top job.

Rumors persisted that Martin and the Kansas State athletic administration were at odds. The talk was Martin wanted to depart Manhattan, Kansas. Both sides denied the so-called rift. Whether it was truth or fiction, Martin is gone to the Southeastern Conference.

Martin must enjoy a challenge. South Carolina went 2-14 in its league and 10-21 overall last season. The term, NCAA tournament, is a foreign concept. Yes, Martin has plenty of work to do.

I wrote a January blog about Martin’s anger issues. Apparently, it didn’t scare off South Carolina. The Gamecocks need some fire and a culture change.

Martin claims his fiery nature is only in his coaching life. That he tried to tame it down over his Kansas State term.

Regardless, I’ll need to pay a little closer attention to the Gamecock program now. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder. I’m sure I’ll miss Martin’s stare and glare from his Kansas States days, so I better catch a South Carolina game or two on television.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Baylor's Women's Basketball Train Keeps Rolling

The Baylor women’s basketball team is chasing a NCAA title and history.

If the Lady Bears are stressed about the process, they didn’t play like it Monday night. Baylor earned a trip to the Final Four with a 77-58 drubbing of Tennessee.

Guard Odyssey Sims led Baylor with 27 points. Yes, Virginia, the Lady Bears do have other weapons beside Brittney Griner. Griner made her presence known however. The 6-8 post player scored 23 points, collected 15 rebounds and nine blocks. She is hard to stop when near the basket and she is the most intimidating shot blocker in the women’s game.

Griner left the game early literally and figuratively. She was replaced late in the game and figured to watch the rest from the bench. But with 49.6 second left Sims and Tennessee’s Shekinnia Stricklen exchanged words and shoves which resulted in Griner and a couple teammates leaving the bench to act as peacemakers. Leaving the bench is a definite no-no in college basketball. So Griner and her teammates were banned to the locker room.

There will be no future suspensions in the incident which is good news for Baylor. The Lady Bears have a Final Four semi-final date with Stanford Sunday.

With two more victories, Baylor will not only win its second national championship but finish with a 40-0 record—the most victories in a season for women’s or men’s competition.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Handing Out More Basketball Love

I have a college friend who lives in Washington State. He mentioned to me the other day that Western Washington University was playing for the Division II National Basketball Championship. I told him I would give Western some love if it won.

Well, on national TV Saturday, Western Washington won its first ever men’s basketball title with a 72-65 victory over Montevallo.

It’s always interesting to do a little research on teams I know nothing about.

This was Western’s first national title game. The Bellingham, Washington school played in the 2001 National Semifinals. Coach Brad Jackson has led his team to 19 post season appearances on both the NAIA and NCAA levels. Jackson just completed his 27th season at the school.

Men’s basketball is obviously extremely important and successful at this Great Northwest Athletic Conference institution.

As its website declared, Western is now on the map. Even if it is far, far away on the left coast says this Iowa guy.

Friday, March 23, 2012

NCAA Does a Good Thing

This is the second season the NCAA is televising every men’s basketball tournament game to every television market in the country. This is a good thing.

The cynic in me says that the organization is doing it for the money. But even if that is the reason, it’s still a good thing.

Back in the old days, CBS controlled the TV rights. If you wanted to watch an out-of-market game, you basically had two choices: subscribe to DIRECTV or go to a sports bar or restaurant that offered the NCAA package. I remember going to a restaurant one time to watch NC State. Another time, I went to a cousin’s house to watch a California CBS station he had on his satellite that was carry the game I wanted to watch.

The new system carries games over four channels. You can watch any game and also flip back-and-forth between channels. It’s a beautiful thing.

The only problems are knowing what channels the games are on, what channel number on your particular system and what time in your time zone the games air.

But now with the Sweet 16 we are down to two networks: CBS and TBS. Once there are only eight teams remaining, CBS takes over.

This television package makes the beauty of March madness more beautiful.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Iowa State's Royce White Declares for the NBA

The Iowa State men’s basketball team rarely has a ‘one and done’ player, but the Cyclones have one this year in Royce White.

White said yesterday at a press conference that he would enter the NBA Draft. He added that Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg basically told him to go. Hoiberg was an NBA player and executive.

White’s stock rose in the NCAA Tournament. He performed well in games against UCONN and Kentucky. He scored 23 points again the Wildcats before fouling out.

According to draft experts, White is projected as middle to late first round pick. White played point forward for Iowa State. I doubt if he will play that position in the pros. White is not your typical power forward with soft hands and strong ball-handling skills.

I am somewhat surprised Cyclone fans are taking White’s news so well. Was it because he helped Iowa State become a national conversation again and help lead them back to the NCAA tournament?

White will definitely have two challenges in the NBA. Can he become a better than 50 percent free throw shooter and can he overcome the fear of flying?

Cyclone fans hope White will pass both tests.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Just Another Day at the Office

Baylor’s Brittney Griner continues to lead her team toward a national title.

The 6-8 center turned in another usual stellar performance Tuesday night against Florida. Griner scored 25 points, grabbed nine rebounds, blocked six shots and dished out four assists. Oh by the way, she also recorded one dunk. The second dunk in women’s tournament history.

Undefeated Baylor now moves to the women’s Sweet Sixteen. The Lady Bears are four games away from their second national title.

Can this group be stopped? It is going to become a huge challenge. Griner makes this team a solid national championship contender, but the Lady Bears have other weapons. Baylor entire starting five scored in double figures again the Gators.

It’s nice that Baylor is going on this run. In recent years, UCONN has been the cream of women’s basketball. Maybe it’s time for a new cream. The Baylor gals hope so.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The NC State Surprise

Flashback to the spring of 2011 after North Carolina State fired basketball coach Sidney Lowe.

Lowe was Wolfpack in thought, word and deed. He played on Jim Valvano’s national championship team. He bled red and white. But he couldn’t win enough games. Lowe had two meager NIT appearances to show for his efforts.

The NC State basketball program was frankly in a world of hurt. Then things actually became worst. No one wanted the job. A school with a rich basketball tradition including two national championships kept getting turned down like a guy seeking a prom date.

Finally, the Wolfpack found somebody. Mark Gottfried, a former head coach at Alabama, and two-year ESPN commentator accepted the assignment.

Gottfried was a surprising hire and one that didn’t exactly excite the NC State fan base or the college basketball world.

But about 12 months later, the Wolfpack is in the Sweet 16. They were one of the last teams to get into the NCAA field and they have caught fire..

Gottfried has performed magic with mostly Lowe’s players. His rah, rah speeches are getting television time. Apparently they are working. NC State has already sent a No. 6 and No. 3 seed home. The Wolfpack aims for No. 2 Kansas Friday night.

Funny how things work out. Miracles do happen. Ask Gottfried. Ask N.C State.

Here’s a team not satisfied with only being invited to dance. The Wolfpack want to dance all night long.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Thoughts on the Sweet 16

The NCAA tournament is now officially a beauty pageant. Just 16 teams remain (Sweet 16) out of the 68 teams that began less than a week ago.

No. 13 Ohio University and No. 11 North Carolina State are the only two real Cinderellas remaining in the field. No. 10 Xavier might be considered a Cinderella but recent tournament success disqualifies them in my estimation.

Xavier and Florida greatly benefited from earlier upsets. Lehigh shocked Duke in the opening round giving Xavier a better path to the Sweet 16. Florida’s thank-you card should go to Norfolk State who disposed of No. 2 Missouri. Both Xavier and Florida had tournament history on their side. No 15th-seeded teams have ever advanced to the Sweet 16.

There are plenty of traditional powers remaining. For example all the No. 1 seeds are still playing—Kentucky, Michigan State, Noth Carolina and Syracuse. Then you have teams such as Florida and Kansas. So besides a few bumps on the Final Four highway, the selection committee did another good job.

The window for upsets is becoming smaller. But wouldn’t it be great if Ohio and NC State could keep advancing? I cannot give Xavier any love because the Musketeers play Baylor Friday night.

Saturday, March 17, 2012

The Beauty of the NCAA Tournament

Thursday was a slow day for upsets in the NCAA tournament, but Friday made up for it.


Can you believe a couple No. 2 seeds went down in the same evening? It was high drama. First, Missouri falls to Norfolk State as the Tigers had a chance to win it on a last-second three-point shot. Then Lehigh shocks Duke with a workman-like performance.

Iowa State fans painfully remember the last time a No. 2 seed team lost to a No. 15. Hampton was in that position against Iowa State in 2001. Maybe now they will retire that footage and show Missouri and Duke losing instead.

I’m glad both Missouri and Duke lost. Missouri was an extremely talented team and since it was playing its final season in the Big 12, most people (other than Tiger fans) were probably cheering against Missouri. Duke is one of the New York Yankee teams of college basketball. Either you love them or hated them. There is no middle ground.

Many upset teams don’t survive in the next round. With two No. 15 seeds advancing, the next round will be unusually interesting.

It’s the beauty of the NCAA tournament.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Iowa State Gains More Respect

Iowa State knocked the defending national champion UCONN out of the NCAA tournament last night 77-64.

Nationally, most people were surprised. Nationally, not many people know about this Iowa State basketball team. People do know that Fred Hoiberg came back to coach his alma mater and it’s a good story.

But maybe people will realize Iowa State can play basketball. Was last night’s game an upset? Not really. The Cyclones were the No. 8 seed; Huskies were No. 9. But maybe it’s my Midwestern up bringing, but I sensed East Coast bias.

How could UCONN even in a down year for the Huskies lose to Iowa State? Doesn’t UCONN have better players? Iowa State who?

Iowa State landed a punch early and UCONN never recovered. The funny thing was after the game the UCONN bunch was surprised. Maybe the Huskies should have been embarrassed because they were clearly outplayed.

Iowa State placed four starters in double figures. Chris Allen, the NCAA veteran, led the Cyclones with 20 points.

The Cyclones feed off center Royce White and the three point shot. Both were clicking Thursday night. Game over for UCONN.

Iowa State plays No. 1 Kentucky in the next round. The Wildcats took notice of Iowa State’s abilities. The Cyclones are playing like a team that doesn’t want to go home. Even if the next opponent is a major favorite to win the entire tournament.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Best Part of the NCAA Tournament

I absolutely love the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA tournament. So, today and tomorrow is my time.

You have 32 games over two days. If you are hearty enough, you can watch basketball basically from 11 a.m. (Iowa time) to midnight both days. These are when the upsets are the most meaningful. You have definite low seeds defeating highly seeds. Cinderella actually develops names. You have big-names schools going home wondering how they just got beat.

Everybody’s wondering who will be this year’s Butler or VCU. Wait, it might be VCU again. The Rams are back in the tournament.

I will focus on two games tonight: Baylor-South Dakota State and Iowa State-UCONN. They should be good games. And if the team I cheer for gets behind (even a large margin), I’ll remember anything is possible. Just ask Iona losing to BYU the other night after holding a 25-point lead.

Enjoy the basketball folks.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Turning Lemons Into Lemonade

Pat Knight went from the outhouse to the penthouse in one year.

The Lamar coach, with a famous father named Bobby, took over for his dad at Texas Tech and things didn’t go well. Pat was fired last spring. But it didn’t take long for junior Knight to land another position. Mid-major Lamar hired him last spring.

Pat was officially away from his father’s spotlight at Lamar. No more following a legendary coach at Texas Tech. Pat was his own man.

But it seems these Knight guys can never stay out of controversy’s way too long. Pat ripped into his team during a late-season press conference and the remarks were all over college basketball.

Knight questioned his player’s effort and ability on everything except the color of socks they wore. Reaction as you might expect was mixed with most people chastising Knight for the negative comments.

But the bottom line was they worked. Lamar hasn’t lost a game since and captured the Southland Conference Tournament to earn the automatic NCAA bid.

Tonight, Lamar battles Vermont in one of the four play-in games. Father and son couldn’t be happier how this has worked out. Son hopes his speech will result in some more Lamar victories.

Whatever happens, it’s better to sit in the penthouse than the outhouse. Pat Knight is thankful for his place.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Too Many College Basketball Tournaments

Pardon me while I jump on my horse today.

College basketball must be taking a page out of the college football playbook. College basketball has set up its own bowl season with more games and more teams participating.

Like the college bowl scenario, more is not necessarily better.

We all know the NCAA tournament is the crown jewel of the postseason. I don’t care how many more tournaments they play, those events seem hollow. It feels like competing for third or fourth place in the National Spelling Bee.

For my international readers, college basketball now has three tournaments beside the NCAA tournament: the National Invitational Tournament (NIT), the College Insider and the College Basketball Invitational.

Those remaining tournaments receive the crumbs after the NCAA selections. And some of those crumbs are mediocre just like 7-5 and 6-6 teams in college bowl games. Some of these teams don’t know it’s time to stay home and try again next year.

There’s a good example in my state. Iowa Hawkeye fans are all giddy about their team making the NIT. Iowa’s record is 17-16. Iowa fans are just happy this tournament wants them after a real dry spell the past several years. But do the Hawkeyes really deserve a bid? I think not.

Average is apparently one new standard in college basketball. Turn on the lights in the arena, maybe put it on TV and presto you have fan interest. That is until the fans wise up. Unfortunately, the wisdom might take a while.

Monday, March 12, 2012

It's Been Too Long for Iowa State

The Iowa State Cyclones return to the NCAA tournament this season after a long absence. Iowa State last trip to the Big Dance was back in 2005.

Cyclone fans agree the wait has been too long. That might make this trip much sweeter.

Iowa State’s story is a feel good one in the college game. Former Cyclone star player Fred Hoiberg leads his alma mater back to the Big Dance with a bunch of transfers in only Hoiberg’s second season.

But the NCAA didn’t give Iowa State a break in the seeding. The Cyclones are No. 8 and play the defending national champion UCONN Huskies (No. 9). Obviously, the Huskies aren’t a national title threat this go around, but they are capable of winning some games in the tournament. And the No. 8-9 game is always a tough matchup because the committee deems the teams quite equal. And another difficult aspect this year is the winner gets the No. 1 overall seed Kentucky in round No.3.

It’s great that my alma mater is going back to the tournament. But I hope the Cyclones aren’t just happy with that. They need to go and collect wins and gain more national respect. The tournament is more than being happy to gain the field and pick up a participation ribbon. Once the tournament starts, people only remember you for the wins.

Friday, March 9, 2012

Baylor Bears Make Fashion Statement

The Baylor men’s basketball team unveiled its new post season uniforms Thursday in the quarterfinal final round of the Big 12 Conference tournament. And all I can say is wow!

Those electric yellow uniforms are extremely bright and noticeable. They might even glow in the dark.

The Bears are one of three teams Addias selected to wear these new lighter weight uniforms. Big East members Louisville and Cincinnati are the others. But with a green and gold color scheme, Baylor is the most striking color combination. Louisville and Cincinnati have combinations of red, black and white.

By all reports, Baylor players enjoy their uniforms. The players even matched them with electric yellow shoe laces for their shoes.

The best part was how Baylor played in the uniforms. The Bears played one of their best games of the season with an eight-point victory over Kansas State. Baylor and Perry Jones III dominated. Jones had his way with the Wildcats with a career high 31 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.

Maybe Kansas State played poorly because it was blinded by Baylor’s uniforms. If that’s the case, maybe Baylor should wear even brighter ones.

Baylor now plays Kansas in the semifinals. The Jayhawks don’t need to worry about those electric yellow threads. Baylor is the visiting team and will break out the green uniforms. Probably a good thing for Kansas.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

A College Basketball Player's Tasks

March is a time for playing meaningful college basketball games. First, you want to do well in your league tournament. Then, you want to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament and make the Final Four. These are the goals of all college players when they tie up those sneakers.

But besides the glamour and glory of this season, there is a stark reality. College basketball players are first students. And the better they accomplish in the tournaments, the more classes and schooling they miss.

The bottom line is a true student athlete has a difficult task in big-time college basketball. Players are constantly working on their games. They spend many hours in practice and playing in the games. Because they spent so much time away from campus in the postseason, they better have top-notch time management skills and use spare time for studying.

Sure, students can slack off but it will catch up to them. If it gets bad enough, players lose their eligibility and are prohibited from playing. I often wonder why some players choose this route. The players have invested much in themselves. The university athletic department has done likewise. Why not take advantage of the situation and earn that degree.

As you watch postseason play the next 2-3 weeks, remember the pressure the athletes are under. They not only need to perform well on the court, but at the same juncture perform well in the classroom too.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

The Beauty of March

As I have stated before, I am not a big fan of the conference tournaments but there were some wonderful storylines Tuesday night.

Princeton beat Penn to send Harvard to its first NCAA tournament since 1946. Shoot, I was even born for 10 years yet in 1946.

Western Kentucky tallied its 15th win last night. It was a big one sending the Hilltoppers to the Big Dance with a 15-18 record. It looks like a definite play-in candidate but I doubt Western Kentucky cares.

South Dakota State won an overtime game from Western Illinois in the Summit League final. The win earned the Jackrabbits their first NCAA bid ever. SDSU recently moved up from the Division II ranks.

Detroit put on an impressive show in the Horizon final. It thumped regular season champion Valparaiso on its home floor. This team has come a long way since Dick Vitale coached them. The Titans are fun to watch.

The week is young and the games just keep on coming. There will be more close games and more unexpected winners. It’s the beauty of March.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Iowa State Cyclones Riding High

Ames city officials just as well give a key to the city to their unofficial “Mayor” Fred Hoiberg right now.

The Iowa State basketball coach and his team are the talk of the city and the state of Iowa.

Hoiberg’s bunch defeated Baylor Saturday and clinched a third place tie in the Big 12 Conference with the Bears. The Cyclones will be the No. 3 seed in this week’s league tournament based on a tie-breaking win over Kansas.

The postseason awards are coming in for Iowa State too. Hoiberg was named co-Big 12 Coach-of-the-Year along with Kansas’ Bill Self. Sophomore Royce White earned first team all-Big 12 honors.

Iowa State has overachieved this season. It was picked to finish in the lower division of the conference. Few also expected 22 wins and a NCAA tournament berth.

I was in the stands for the Baylor game. People at Iowa State are extremely excited about their team. Saturday’s game was another sellout and there were folks outside wanting to purchase tickets.

It a love fest plain and simply. Iowa State fans have wanted this for a long time. Favorite son Hoiberg has delivered.

Monday, March 5, 2012

March Madness 2012 Style

This week, March Madness moves into full swing. Yes, there were a few conference tournaments last week but the majority is this week. If you cannot get your fill of college basketball, you aren’t trying hard enough.

For most teams the conference tournaments are tune-ups for the NCAA tournament. But you rather not lay an egg in the first league game. You want to build positive momentum in March not the negative kind. Teams struggling in March usually cannot just turn it on in the NCAA tournament.

Of course, there are bubble teams sweating the league tournaments. Bubble teams really want to become hot in conference tournaments and they want no upsets. For example, if a team with a losing record wins the league tournament, that school may force a bubble team to the NCAA sidelines.

Except blow-out games, close ones and buzzer-beaters this week. This is like salad before the main course (NCAA tournament) next week.

Some teams will cry foul. But it is literally the way the ball bounces this time of year. That’s why it is called March Madness.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Illinois' Bruce Weber in Trouble

Is there any college coach in America on a hotter hot seat than Illinois’ Bruce Weber?

The Illini continue to tank their season. Last night, they suffered another home loss this time to Michigan. Illinois is now 17-13 overall and a woeful 6-11 in the Big Ten Conference. The Illini need a miracle to save their season and secure a NCAA tournament bid.

This has been a strange, strange season for Illinois.

A couple weeks ago, Weber came out and blamed himself and his players for the team’s performance. Weber’s honesty was refreshing in a business that usually only talks coach-speak. But many people didn’t like the honesty (and probably the truth) and accused Weber of giving up on the season.

Well, Illinois is probably about ready to give up on Weber. The Illini already fired football coach Ron Zook. Weber is next on the hit list.

I feel for Weber. He’s a decent coach and a good man. Frankly, he’s a man of character. We need those guys in collegiate athletics. But unfortunately, coaches are judged largely by wins and losses.

But even if he gets fired, Weber will be okay. He is a smart guy and will land on his feet somewhere probably again in coaching. Let’s hope that is the outcome.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Everybody is Cheering for the Northwestern Wildcats

The Northwestern men’s basketball team has never been to the NCAA tournament. I repeat: never!

Sure the Wildcats have had some close calls, but you know what they say about close.

So you can see why everyone is supporting Northwestern’s cause to land that first NCAA bid. People want this underdog to do it.

The Wildcats had a great opportunity last night to grab a signature win against Ohio State and blew it. The Buckeyes won 75-73. The loss dropped the Wildcats to 17-12 overall and 7-10 in the Big Ten Conference. This ‘bubble’ team is working itself off the bubble.

Northwestern is now in serious trouble. It desperately needs a win at Iowa Saturday and a long run in the Big Ten tournament. Anything less could spell the initials NIT (National Invitational Tournament) rather NCAA.

The Wildcats face tough odds. They have been down the road before. They hope the scenery is different this time.