The Real Issue Plaguing Women’s College Basketball

Photo Credit: Jessica Hill/Associated Press
Photo Credit: Jessica Hill/Associated Press

Just when people say you can’t, you can… — Jim Nantz

Those words were uttered by Nantz at the end of Connecticut’s win over Duke in the 1999 men’s basketball national championship game. Amazingly, they still apply today.

On Saturday afternoon, the UConn women’s basketball team resumed its conquest of women’s college basketball with a 98-38 slaughter of Mississippi State for its 72nd consecutive win (the team beat Texas on Monday and extended its win streak to 73).  Honestly, the game wasn’t even that close; the halftime score was 61-12.  61-12.

After the game ended, Boston Globe columnist Dan Shaughnessy, who has written and said ridiculous things in the past, tweeted this thought about the team:

In the span of 137 characters, Shaughnessy somehow does the impossible: he simultaneously has a point and completely misses the point.  He is correct in saying that the overall dominance of one team and one program is detrimental to the game.  And yet his attribution of the killing of the women’s game to the UConn women is completely reckless.  In fact, it completely misses the real source of the sport’s lopsidedness:

The other 348 Division I women’s basketball programs.

To show you the talent disparity between UConn and every other team in women’s basketball, these are the winners of the women’s tournament since 1995 (Geno Auriemma’s first national championship):

  1. Connecticut (1995, 2000, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2009, 2010, 2013, 2014, 2015)
  2. Tennessee (1996, 1997, 1998, 2007, 2008)
  3. Baylor (2005 and 2012)
  4. Maryland (2006)
  5. Notre Dame (2001)
  6. Purdue (1999)
  7. Texas A&M (2011)

Meanwhile, these are the squads that have accomplished the same feat on the men’s side:

  1. Connecticut (1999, 2004, 2011, 2014)
  2. Kentucky (1996, 1998, 2012)
  3. Duke (2001, 2010, 2015)
  4. North Carolina (2005 and 2009)
  5. Florida (2006 and 2007)
  6. Arizona (1997)
  7. Kansas (2008)
  8. Louisville (2013)
  9. Maryland (2002)
  10. Michigan State (2000)
  11. Syracuse (2003)

Notice just how much more parity there is in men’s college basketball. But why is there such a difference in the competitive balance of the men’s and women’s games?

In reality, the problem with one team dominating the sport isn’t that team’s fault; if you don’t like it, beat them (good luck with that).  As a fan, it’s nice if you want parity in the sport but you have to understand that parity can only be attained if many of the best teams in the sport have similar levels of talent.  This parity was attained in men’s basketball this season because many of the best teams were similar and unable to distinguish themselves.

If you wanted to make the argument, though, that UConn is and has been on a different level because of Breanna Stewart, one of the best women’s basketball players ever, that would seem fair.  But every school had a chance to sign her coming out of high school; few actually attempted to earn the right to her services.  Such is the case with Moriah Jefferson and basically any other player on the team. There is a wealth of talent in Storrs and a dearth of talent everywhere else; 348 coaches can look in the mirror for an explanation why.

But maybe these coaches would receive better results if their athletic departments invested more in them and their teams.  Here is some data from Joe Mussatto of the Scripps Howard Foundation Wire about pay disparities between men’s and women’s coaches at certain schools:

The Scripps Howard Foundation Wire pulled 2013 data from 65 schools, all members of the Power Five conferences and Notre Dame, to conduct its research.

Coaches of women’s teams average less than one fourth of men’s team head coaches’ salaries. Texas and Vanderbilt have the biggest discrepancy, but no school pays women’s team coaches more than men’s team coaches.

No school in the entire country pays women’s coaches more than men’s coaches.  Let that sink in and then consider the ridiculousness in that occurrence.

For example, consider the University of Tennessee.  The Volunteers had one of the best women’s coaches of all-time in Pat Summitt; Summitt stepped down after the 2011-12 season after being diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease.  Summitt, a winner of eight national championships and coach of eighteen Final Four teams, was paid an annual base salary of $325,000, with the potential to earn around $1.5 million with incentives.

On the other hand, Tennessee’s men’s basketball program hired Donnie Tyndall from Southern Mississippi in 2014.  His six-year contract called for an annual salary of $1.6 million.  The best part? Tyndall went 16-16 in his first year on the job.  Better yet, he was fired after the season for financial aid violations he had committed in his time at Southern Miss.  Not exactly equal pay based on merit.

Another example of an unjust pay disparity takes place, ironically, at the University of Connecticut.  Geno Auriemma, the greatest women’s coach in the history of the sport, earns around $2 million per year. His counterpart on the men’s side, Kevin Ollie, makes a full $1 million more than him.  Ollie is making that amount based on his team’s 2014 national championship.  That run, however, was fueled by star point guard Shabazz Napier; without him, the team likely would have been bounced in the first weekend of the tournament.

Besides the 2014 run, Ollie has made the NCAA Tournament once in his four-year UConn career.  A recap:

  • Auriemma: 10 national titles, 16 Final Fours, $2 million salary
  • Ollie: 1 national title, 1 Final Four, $3 million salary

Sure, that’s fair.  Actually, it’s completely inexplicable.

That being said, should you be interested in the Women’s Final Four, even if you and everyone else watching probably know the final outcome?  Yes, you should.  While the Huskies have been the predominant team in women’s college basketball over the last two decades, teams like this year’s squad don’t come around very often. Geno Auriemma’s team is a special group, one of the best in the history of the sport.  So yes, there is plenty of intrigue to the Women’s Final Four, even if the outcome is inevitable.

But how can the women’s game avoid lopsided seasons like this one in the future?  Even though there is nothing the NCAA can (or should) do about competitive balance, the other major schools in the sport can do something very easy and simple: invest time and money in their programs.  It really isn’t that difficult, but few schools actually do this.  Other than Auriemma, only four other women’s coaches make more than $1 million per year.  If more universities invested money in their coaches, the likes of UConn would face stiffer competition and parity in women’s college basketball would greatly improve.

But the chances of this happening are very slim.  The sad part is that aside from UConn, the Women’s Final Four is very balanced with a 2-seed (Oregon State), a 4-seed (Syracuse), and a 7-seed (Washington). If there were no dominant team, this Final Four would have the potential to be as interesting, if not more so, than its men’s counterpart.  There is a dominant team, though, and it’s UConn.

Which is okay.  But that there isn’t anyone to get in the way shouldn’t be; it’s up to 348 Division I programs to change that.  In the meantime, let’s lay off the Huskies for being so amazingly good.

Actually, let’s give them the appreciation they deserve as one of the best college basketball teams ever.

This One’s For North Carolina: The Case for the Tar Heels

Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

North Carolina can’t shoot.  North Carolina can’t pull away on the scoreboard.  North Carolina can’t dominate.  North Carolina can’t win a national championship.

These and other comments were made by myself and many others in the buildup to this year’s tournament.  Sure, the Tar Heels are extremely talented, but could they put everything together and make a deep run this month?  Many people, including yours truly, said the answer would be no.  In actuality, we got our answer last night, and it’s an absolute and definitive yes.

Going into the Sweet 16, the most-anticipated matchup had to have been the Tar Heels against the Hoosiers of Indiana.  It looked as if Indiana’s three-point shooting and ability to run the floor would make the game close; as it turned out, North Carolina’s ability to do both of these things is what would make the contest a blowout.

After dropping a cool 101 points on the Hoosiers, Carolina will face ACC foe Notre Dame on Sunday night for a chance to go to the Final Four.  But why in the world are the Tar Heels playing their best basketball of the season at the best possible time?  What changed from the regular season?

Truthfully, not a lot changed.  What did change was our perception of the Tar Heels and their ability to play with any team in the country.  What also changed was the play of senior point guard Marcus Paige.

Paige followed an extremely impressive sophomore season with disappointing seasons in his junior and senior years.  This season, in fact, may have been the worst of his four-year college career; his shooting percentages and scoring numbers regressed to freshman year levels.  His senior campaign became one mega-sized shooting slump, and he would need to seriously turn things around if the Tar Heels were to be a serious national championship contender.

And turn things around he would.  After shooting just 34.6% from deep in the regular season and 6 for 19 in the ACC Tournament, the senior has reversed course and shot 11 for 21 in the Tar Heels’ three NCAA Tournament games.  He started the Indiana game by making his first four shots within the first five minutes…. and all of them were from deep.  His reversal of course has keyed North Carolina’s success in the tournament, but the team still has its work cut out for it to win a championship, even with Paige playing like this.

To start, the Heels will have to contend with the Fighting Irish of Notre Dame in the Elite 8.  Even though the Irish have had a relatively easy road to this point with wins over 11-seed Michigan, 14-seed Stephen F. Austin and 7-seed Wisconsin, they have shown resolve, toughness, and tenacity in these three wins.

In the team’s Round of 32 game against the Lumberjacks, Notre Dame was down a point in the final seconds.  This miraculous tip-in from Rex Pflueger won the game and sent the Golden Domers to the Sweet 16:

After that game, the Irish were forced to contend with the Badgers of Wisconsin.  A late Vitto Brown three would give the Badgers a three-point lead; that shot would be quickly followed by a layup by Notre Dame’s star point guard, Demetrius Jackson.  Subsequently, the Irish would get a steal and another layup from Jackson, jump-starting an 8-0 run over the span of fewer than 20 seconds.  The game ended on that note and Notre Dame advanced to the Elite 8.

However, the Heels match up very well with the Irish.  The teams played once in the regular season, which resulted in an 80-76 Notre Dame home win.  With all due respect to the regular season, that game can be effectively thrown out the window now; the one meeting that was important between the two squads was their ACC Tournament semifinal game.  North Carolina won that contest by 31, and there were times in that game when it wasn’t even that close.

The main thing to watch in this contest will be the effectiveness of Notre Dame center Zach Auguste against the front line of North Carolina.  If Auguste can be effective and cause havoc on the glass, the Irish will have a chance.  If Carolina’s front line of Brice Johnson, Kennedy Meeks and Isaiah Hicks can control Auguste inside, it could, and probably will, spell doom for Notre Dame.  Either way, that matchup will likely be the main determiner of this game.

If the Tar Heels are lucky enough to beat the Irish, they would play either Syracuse or Virginia in the Final Four.  Carolina beat Virginia to take the ACC Tournament but lost to the Cavaliers in late February. On the other hand, Roy Williams’ team beat the Orange of Syracuse both times the teams played in the regular season.

The most interesting part of a potential Syracuse-North Carolina matchup, though, could be its off-the-court storylines, as Jon Solomon of CBS Sports notes:

Still, North Carolina would match up well with the Orange; the problem Syracuse presents is its famous 2-3 Zone, which has held teams to just 53.6 points per game in the NCAA Tournament.  Virginia, on the other hand, would attempt to beat Carolina by slowing down the pace.  If the Tar Heels can play their up-and-down style of play, their chances of beating the Cavaliers are exponentially better.

But those are hypothetical matchups.  North Carolina can beat any one of the seven teams left in the tournament because they can win in so many different ways.  They have found an extra gear this month, finding its outside stroke in the second season.  This ability to shoot the deep ball also helps Carolina’s big men indirectly, giving them more room to operate in the paint and control the boards.

This is why North Carolina is the most dangerous team remaining in the NCAA Tournament.  There are times when they aren’t clicking and very beatable, but they haven’t had many of those times in this tournament.  If they continue their virtually flawless recent play, they’ll be cutting down the nets after the national title game in Houston.

So come on and raise up, Carolina fans; this one’s for you.

New NFL Rules Bring Good Intentions, Unintended Consequences

Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey/Associated Press
Photo Credit: Jack Dempsey/Associated Press

Yesterday, the National Football League announced a wide-ranging series of rule changes designed to protect players and keep the game safe.  These include touchbacks at the 25-yard line, a “red card” rule that disqualifies a player who gets two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties and an outright ban of chop blocks.

While these changes, especially the removal of blocks below the waist, seem like steps in the right direction for a game that has struggled with safety throughout its existence, these new rules also bring about a series of unintended consequences.  This post will be dedicated to those unintended consequences.

Touchbacks at the 25-Yard Line Means…. Fewer Touchbacks?

Think about this for a second: with kickoffs originating at the 35-yard line and touchbacks coming out to the other 25-yard line, why wouldn’t the kicking team try to pin the receiving team inside their 25?  It doesn’t make sense on the surface, as there were 1,469 kickoff touchbacks in 2015; there was also a rise in injuries in the kickoffs that were returned.

However, while the NFL is trying to incentivize touchbacks and a removal of the play altogether, what they’ve just done is actually make the play more dangerous.  The play is more dangerous now because teams will (probably) decide to opt for a higher, shorter kick to force the other team to make a return.  Stopping that return inside the 25-yard line would be considered a win for the kicking team, much like pinning a team inside the 20 is considered a minor victory now.


So, if the NFL wanted to make the game safer, why would it move the touchback up by five yards?  The answer is simple: because it did the same thing to the kickoff before the 2011 season.  In theory, it would be only fair to move touchbacks up to the 25.  While it seems like the right thing to do, though, it may actually take the safety out of kickoff returns.

You can’t prioritize safety and incentivize teams to perform one of the most dangerous plays in the sport at the same time.  This is what the NFL is trying to do; it won’t work.

Code Red For Unsportsmanlike Conduct?

Recently, Richard Sherman gave an interview to ESPN’s Jim Trotter in which he said some inflammatory things about Roger Goodell.  This is just a sampling of his comments about a rule that would disqualify players who receive two unsportsmanlike conduct penalties in one game:

I think it’s foolish, but it sounds like something somebody who’s never played the game would say, something that they would suggest, because he doesn’t understand. He’s just a face. He’s just a suit. He’s never stepped foot on the field and understood how you can get a personal foul.

With recent criticisms of the NFL being a “No Fun League”, Sherman has a point here.  But what the NFL is trying to eradicate is something like what occurred between Odell Beckham Jr. and Josh Norman in Week 15 of last season, the type of foolishness that could injure someone and detract from the quality of the game.

While I understand what the NFL is trying to do here, I’d have to side with Sherman on this one.  How can we be sure that this rule won’t become the NFL’s equivalent of college football’s targeting rule, one in which players who don’t deserve to be ejected get the hook?  The referees already have the power to Dairy Queen a player if they feel his actions warrant such treatment; why can’t the league let the men in stripes decide ejections on the field?  If the referees keep a player in the game who should have been tossed previously (as was the case with Beckham-Norman), then the league can reflect this in their referee reviews.

And, frankly, if the referees can’t decide when to remove a player from a game and when to keep him in, should they be NFL referees in the first place?

Chopped: How the Game Will Change Without Chop Blocks

If you’ve ever played Madden, you’ve probably been the victim (or beneficiary) of a chop block penalty…. on many occasions.  It’s frustrating, debilitating, and glitchy to the point of making you want to throw your controller at your television (don’t do that).

But the chop block has real and serious effects on those who play the game in real life, and until this week, many forms of it were still legal. That changed, however, with the Competition Committee’s ruling banning most forms of the chop block and making this action result in a 15-yard penalty.  This is the one major rule change that I definitely side with the NFL on; the league is trying to protect the well-being of its players, and that includes their health below the waist.

Some players–offensive linemen in particular–are definitely going to be up in arms about this, saying that the new rule will disable them from being able to block effectively without getting penalized:

But how can the league justify allowing this play to occur when the risk of injury from it is clearly present and clearly unnecessary?

Also, it isn’t like the league is getting rid of all chop blocks.  For example, cut blocks that occur in one-on-one blocking circumstances and are directed toward the field of play will remain legal.  This is necessary because these blocks were and are necessary for offensive linemen to put their defensive counterparts on the ground and create a hole for a runner or time for a quarterback.

What the NFL did was get rid of the unnecessary chop blocks; they should be applauded for doing so.

What do you think about the NFL’s rule changes?  Let me know in the comments section or tweet at me.

This Is Sparta: NCAA Tournament, Midwest Region Preview

Photo Credit: Mike Carter/USA Today Sports
Photo Credit: Mike Carter/USA Today Sports

With this post, we will both continue and complete our preview of the 2016 NCAA Tournament by looking at the Midwest Region, located in the bottom right of the bracket.

This is, in my eyes, the most sane region in my bracket (funny, right?). There are still a couple of surprises; this follows the pattern set by the rest of my bracket.  However, most of this region will be controlled chaos instead of just the regular kind, with the best team in the group ultimately winning out.  As was the case with the other three regional previews, I’ll supply a list of the matchups right here:

(1) Virginia vs. (16) Hampton

(2) Michigan State vs. (15) Middle Tennessee

(3) Utah vs. (14) Fresno State

(4) Iowa State vs. (13) Iona

(5) Purdue vs. (12) Arkansas-Little Rock

(6) Seton Hall vs. (11) Gonzaga

(7) Dayton vs. (10) Syracuse

(8) Texas Tech vs. (9) Baylor

As always, I’ll break up the first-round predictions into the usual four categories: no-brainers, problematic picks, judgment calls, and upsets. So here it is, the final NCAA Tournament preview: the Midwest Region.

No-Brainer (Again, Just One)

(2) Michigan State over (15) Middle Tennessee

Simply put, there’s nothing in this matchup that screams, or even suggests, upset.  The Spartans are quite possibly the best team in the entire field of 68 and Middle Tennessee will likely be unable to stay with their balanced attack.  This is not meant to speak ill of the Purple Raiders, but Michigan State will be simply too good for them in this one.

That’s it.  This region, for me, has striking similarities to the East Region in that there is a lot of unpredictability, particularly in the early rounds.  However, I picked few upsets in either one.

Problematic Picks

(5) Purdue over (12) Arkansas-Little Rock

There’s a reason the Trojans of Arkansas-Little Rock went 29-4 in the regular season.  They allow under 60 points per game, make few mistakes, and perform very well when their best is required.  Those qualities, though, will be pushed to the limit against a Purdue team that possesses the scariest front line of any team in the tournament (Caleb Swanigan, Isaac Haas, A.J. Hammons).  Arkansas-Litte Rock will have to win this the only way they know how; with defense and intelligence.

They can absolutely do it, but it won’t be easy.  Give me the Boilermakers in a close one.

(6) Seton Hall over (11) Gonzaga

Seton Hall is the hottest team in college basketball; they also happen to be playing their best basketball at the best possible time.  They also happen to be playing Gonzaga in the first round.  It’s March, it’s the Zags, and it’s going to be a problematic game for the Pirates to navigate.  Star point guard Isaiah Whitehead should help them do it, but don’t expect this to be a cakewalk by any stretch of the imagination.

(1) Virginia over (16) Hampton

I almost pulled the 16-1 trigger twice.  I really did.  For me, the rebounding ability of the Hampton Pirates almost made me pick them to shock the world and take down the Cavaliers.  Oh, and the impromptu, post-game Jesus call from a season ago didn’t hurt, either:

While it won’t take an Act of God for Hampton to have success this time around, they will have to dominate the glass and shoot well to win.  The first part will happen; the second is iffy because of the team’s inability to sink threes (30% on the season).  I’ll take Virginia, but this could be the year that a 16-seed finally takes down a one-seed.

(9) Butler over (8) Texas Tech

Butler’s ability to score should put them over the top in this one. However, be wary of a Texas Tech team that is versatile and has taken down the likes of Baylor, Oklahoma, and Iowa State this season. This being said, have confidence the Bulldogs of Butler; just don’t be completely stunned if the Red Raiders are able to pull it out.

Judgment Calls

(4) Iowa state over (13) Iona

The fact that this is one of my judgment calls should show you just how much I think of the Gaels, but particularly how much I think of A.J. English.  English is the only player in Division I to attain 20 points, five rebounds and five assists per game this season.  If the Gaels are going to take down the well-rounded Cyclones of Iowa State, they’ll need another 20-5-5 performance from English.

Don’t be surprised if they get it, and don’t be surprised if they win the game, either.  This one truly could go both ways.  The way I took was that of the Cyclones.

(7) Dayton over (10) Syracuse

Flip a coin.  Choose the winners based on colors.  Do what you have to do to get this one right, but please don’t pretend like you know which way it’s going.  Dayton was one of the best, least heralded teams in the nation until February, when losses to St. Joe’s (twice), St. Bonaventure, and Rhode Island derailed any chance the Flyers had at a top-four or top-five seed in the big dance.

The Orange of Syracuse, on the other hand, probably shouldn’t be in the tournament at all.  At 19-13 and painfully mediocre (9th in the ACC), any chance Syracuse had at going to the field of 68 probably lied in the First Four in Dayton.  However, they’ve been put here, and they match up fairly evenly with the Flyers.  Both teams have solid defenses, and Syracuse’s is fueled by coach Jim Boeheim’s famed 2-3 Zone.  Whichever team handles the on-ball pressure and trapping of both defenses will probably win the game.

But your guess is as good as mine as to which team that will actually be.

And….

The Upset

(14) Fresno State over (3) utah

Fresno State enters the tournament hot, having won their last nine games en route to a Mountain West Conference championship.  Utah, on the other hand, didn’t do so well in its conference title game, losing by 31 to Oregon and blowing a chance at winning the Pac-12.  The battle on the boards will dictate this one, as Fresno State has a slight advantage in rebounding.  The Bulldogs also play very smartly with the basketball, averaging a mere 10.7 giveaways per contest.

If the Bulldogs play within themselves and out-rebound the Utes, the three seed in the Midwest could be taking an early exit.  I think Fresno State can and will send Utah to that early exit in this one.

Round of 32

(1) Virginia over (9) Butler

Hampton matches up with Virginia better than Butler does.  That should tell you all you need to know about this one.  Butler’s pace will be wrecked by the Cavalier defense, making it difficult for them to score and operate.  Virginia wins this one effortlessly.

(5) Purdue over (4) Iowa STate

This one also features a battle of conflicting styles.  While Iowa State likes to play a fast pace and utilize their guards to facilitate the offense, Purdue uses their harrowing front line to produce buckets.  I like Purdue and their physicality in this one over the Cyclones and their guard play.

(6) Seton hall over (14) Fresno State

The Bulldogs of Fresno State will be unable to keep up their recent level of play long enough to reach the Sweet 16.  Seton Hall rolls in this one and advances to the second weekend.

(2) Michigan State over (7) Dayton

The guard battle of Denzel Valentine and Scoochie Smith (the best name in the field) will be the most interesting part of this game. Other than that, this one is straightforward; a fairly easy win for Sparty and a trip to the Sweet 16.

Sweet 16

(5) Purdue over (1) Virginia

The reason why I like Purdue in this game is because of their versatility and their ability to win in many different ways.  They can beat you scoring 90 or 60; that’s how talented they are.  I’ll also take Purdue in this one because they can absolutely dominate the glass on both ends, something that the Cavaliers do not always handle very well.  The pick here is Purdue and the Boilermakers advance to the Elite 8.

(2) Michigan state over (6) Seton hall

This is quite possibly the most intriguing potential matchup in the entire Midwest Region; Seton Hall and their superstar underclassmen against the experience and versatility of Michigan State.  If Whitehead and the Pirates can push the pace for easy points and put the Spartans on their heels, we’ll be in for a good one.  If not, the Spartans should be able to win this game.

Either way, one thing is sure: this one is going to be fun and if it does come to pass, we’ll enjoy it greatly.

Elite 8 (Regional Final)

(2) Michigan State over (5) Purdue

Purdue’s magical run ends in the Elite 8 as Michigan State goes to the Final Four in back-to-back years.  The Spartans will beat the Boilermakers with their speed and ability to score in transition.  This matchup is worrisome for them, though; they don’t have a go-to scoring big man and putting up points against the Purdue front line will be a daunting task.

However, I’ll count on Michigan State to score enough to win and represent the Midwest Region in Houston.

X Gon’ Give It to You: NCAA Tournament, East Region Preview

Photo Credit: Cara Owsley/Cincinnati Enquirer
Photo Credit: Cara Owsley/Cincinnati Enquirer

Our preview of the NCAA Tournament continues with the top right region of the bracket, the East.

This region, thankfully, won’t be as crazy as the West region, with fewer upsets and more certainty.  That being said, there will still be surprises and upsets that we won’t see coming.  The categories are the same, with the return of “judgment calls.”  Before we get on with our preview, here is a brief reminder of the matchups in this region:

(1) North Carolina vs. (16) Florida Gulf Coast

(2) Xavier vs. (15) Weber State

(3) West Virginia vs. (14) Stephen F. Austin

(4) Kentucky vs. (13) Stony Brook

(5) Indiana vs. (12) Chattanooga

(6) Notre Dame vs. (11) Michigan/Tulsa (play-in game)

(7) Wisconsin vs. (10) Pittsburgh

(8) USC vs. (9) Providence

So, now that the matchups are out of the way, let’s get on with our preview of the East Region.

No-Brainer (Just One)

 (5) Indiana over (12) Chattanooga

While the Mocs of Chattanooga dominated the SoCon all season and will come into the Tournament ready to take down a major-conference foe, the Hoosiers of Indiana are one of the most underrated teams in the field.  They shot just over 50% from the field…. on the season.  Indiana, as well as the Big Ten as a whole, has gone vastly disrespected this March.  Look out for the Hoosiers, not just in this game, but beyond.

Let’s get to the fun stuff….

Problematic Picks

(1) NORTH CAROLINA OVER (16) FLORIDA GULF COAST

Yes, a 16 could beat a 1 this year.  I know it’s never happened before and it’s still unlikely to occur, but the Eagles are one of the few teams in the Tournament that can stay with Carolina on the boards.  We’ve seen the Tar Heels dominate the game but not the scoreboard before, so this could be a close one.  However, North Carolina’s obvious advantages are ball distribution and experience.

Also, in honor of #FreeThrowAwarenessMonth, the Eagles shoot a paltry 64.5% from the charity stripe.  If they need to make free throws to win the game, they probably won’t be able to.  Carolina escapes.

(3) West Virginia over (14) Stephen F. Austin

The havoc of West Virginia’s full-court press defense should win out over the ball distribution and flawless execution of the Lumberjacks. However, the Mountaineers have gone through shooting slumps over the course of the season, and Stephen F. Austin could capitalize on these struggles if they occur.  If West Virginia can force the Lumberjacks into turnovers and out of their game, this should be an easy win.

Against a team with tournament experience like the Lumberjacks, though, the task won’t be easy.

(2) Xavier over (15) Weber state

Xavier should beat Weber State easily.  But if the Wildcats can control the defensive glass like they are capable of, they can make a game out of this one.  Also, Xavier uses over four more possessions per game than Weber State, which will be another point of emphasis in this one.  I’ll take the Musketeers, but don’t rule out entirely the possibility of a close game here.

Judgment Calls

(6) Notre dame over (11) Michigan/Tulsa

I would probably take Michigan to beat Notre Dame in this game.  The only reason I did not pick the winner of the play-in game to take down the Irish here is because the thought of Tulsa playing Notre Dame was too daunting for me to have unequivocal confidence in taking the upset.  If the Golden Hurricane were to pull an upset of their own right over the Wolverines, I wouldn’t want to have to trust Tulsa to beat Notre Dame.

That’s the only reason I have the Irish winning.  I don’t like their prospects of a deep run and I don’t think they’ll make one.  I don’t have confidence in them winning their first round game, either.

(10) Pittsburgh over (7) Wisconsin

This isn’t necessarily an “upset”; Pittsburgh has one of the most underrated point guards in the country in James Robinson and Wisconsin is not the team it has been the last two seasons.  However, the Badgers’ experience could play a role in this game, as they’ve only made the tournament in each of the past eighteen seasons.  I do like Pittsburgh in this one because of their guard play and ability to score, but don’t be surprised if this goes in the other direction, either.

(8) USC Over (9) Providence

This game really could go either way.  The Friars boast one of the best guard-forward combinations in the tournament in the form of Kris Dunn and Ben Bentil while the Trojans can light it up from downtown.  USC is also one of the streakiest teams in the field, making this one all the more difficult to handicap.  In the words of Clark Kellogg, I’ll take the Trojans’ spurtability and ability to heat up quickly.

Now for the best part….

Upset (There’s Only One)

(13) STony brook over (4) kentucky

Hear me out on this one: the Seawolves are a very dangerous squad that matches up perfectly with Kentucky in this game.  Jameel Warney, three-time America East Conference Player of the Year, can cause havoc inside for the Kentucky big men.  Also, Stony Brook distributes and shoots the ball better from downtown than do the Wildcats, so maybe this shouldn’t be regarded as such of a mismatch after all.

If the Seawolves can win the rebound battle and make their threes, it could spell doom for Kentucky.  My bet is that it will.

The rest of this post will be dedicated to the rest of my predictions for this region.

Round of 32

(1) North carolina over (8) USC

This one is fairly simple; while the Trojans can absolutely make this a game, the Tar Heels’ ability to dominate the offensive glass will knock Andy Enfield’s team out of the dance.  This one will be closer than expected, though.

(5) Indiana over (13) Stony brook

Business will be booming for Indiana in this game.  The strong play of star point guard Yogi Ferrell will continue and the Hoosiers should easily outshoot the Seawolves in this one.  Expect an Indiana win but don’t expect it to be close.

(3) West virginia over (6) Notre Dame

I said it before; I just don’t like the Irish.  It’s nothing personal but I don’t see them causing any trouble in this region of the bracket.  West Virginia should win this one with ease and while the Irish could make it close, don’t hold your breath waiting for it to happen.

(2) Xavier over (10) Pittsburgh

This is the game that most intrigues me in the second round of this region.  The battle of point guards James Robinson (Pittsburgh) and Edmond Sumner (Xavier) will be the one to watch in this game as this matchup will dictate affairs.  If Robinson can have his way, the Panthers may pull a shocker, but if Sumner wins this contest, the Musketeers should win going away.  Look out for the Panthers in this one.

Sweet 16

(5) Indiana over (1) North Carolina

While North Carolina won the ACC title with a gritty win in their conference title game over Virginia, they’re still vulnerable.  For example, in their two games against the Duke Blue Devils, the Heels out-rebounded Duke by a combined 110 to 63.  Their point margin in these two games?  +3, including a 74-73 loss on February 17.  Mentally tough, they are.  Capable of going all the way and winning a title? They are.

Predicted to get out of the Sweet 16 in my bracket, they are not. Indiana pulls the upset and moves on to the Regional Final.

(2) Xavier over (3) West Virginia

This is also a fascinating matchup.  While Xavier boasts lots of individual talent and can win in many different ways, West Virginia and head coach Bob Huggins feel as though their ten-man rotation is as good as any in America.  They may be right, but I like the Musketeers to take another win here because they should be able to win the rebound, assist, and three-point battles.  Speeding up the tempo won’t be enough against Sumner and Xavier; therefore, I’ll throw up the X and put the Musketeers in my East Regional Final.

Elite 8 (Regional Final)

(2) Xavier over (5) Indiana

This game is absolutely fascinating, another one that will come down to the battle of the guards.  Sumner vs. Ferrell will dictate this one, and even though I picked Xavier, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Hoosiers win this one and go to Houston.  This is my personal favorite Elite 8 matchup of the four that I have, and even though I have no rooting interest in this game, I’d be thrilled if it came to fruition.

It’s a real shame that one team had to lose, but I picked Indiana to be that team.  X gives it to me and advances to the Final Four.

 

Wild, Wild West: NCAA Tournament, West Region Preview

Photo Credit: USA Today Sports
Photo Credit: USA Today Sports

We continue our preview of the NCAA Tournament with the West Region, the one that could very well be the least predictable.

In this region, anything truly can happen and there will be a multitude of upsets.  WARNING: You may want to be sitting down for this.  Some of what you are about to see will be absolutely stunning.  I will freely admit that this is the region I do not have much of a grasp on, but I’ll try my best to predict the games for this group.

So here goes nothing; my preview for the West Region of the NCAA Tournament.  As a reminder, these are the first round matchups:

(1) Oregon vs. (16) Holy Cross/Southern (play-in game)

(2) Oklahoma vs. (15) Cal State Bakersfield

(3) Texas A&M vs. (14) Green Bay

(4) Duke vs. (13) UNC-Wilmington

(5) Baylor vs. (12) Yale

(6) Texas vs. (11) Northern Iowa

(7) Oregon State vs. (10) VCU

(8) Saint Joseph’s vs. (9) Cincinnati

Unlike yesterday’s preview, this region’s first round games will be broken up into three categories: no-brainers, problematic picks,  and everyone’s favorite, upsets.  This region requires absolute decisiveness and confidence in one’s picks, so there are no judgment calls.  Here goes.

No-Brainers

(1) Oregon over (16) Holy Cross/Southern

Even though Oregon is the weakest one seed in this year’s tournament, they are still a one seed and benefit from the fact that Holy Cross and Southern are battling in a play-in game.  While Oregon is a deeply flawed team for one that is seeded so highly, they’ll obviously get past this game.

Also, Holy Cross was 10-19 in the regular season.  Southern was 19-12, but neither team can take down the Ducks here.

(2) Oklahoma Over (15) Cal State Bakersfield

This game actually wouldn’t be a no-brainer if Cal State Bakersfield was better at three-point shooting.  However, it’ll be hard for the Roadrunners to pull it out if they continue to shoot around their 34% clip from deep against a Sooner team that’s third in the tournament in  shooting from behind the arc.

Other than this, the battle between these two teams is actually kind of even.  Both teams’ rebounding and assist numbers are strikingly similar, and the Sooners are actually more prone to turnovers than Cal State Bakersfield.  It will still take a miracle, though, for the Roadrunners to get by Oklahoma in this first round matchup.  I’ve got the Sooners, and confidently.

Now that that’s over and done with, we’ll get on to the next section….

Problematic Picks

(3) Texas A&M over (14) Green Bay

Texas A&M is one of the best teams in the West Region and the NCAA Tournament as a whole.  That being said, their matchup with the Phoenix is an intriguing one.

For one thing, Green Bay plays the fastest pace of any team in the tournament (79.6 possessions per game) while Texas A&M plays one of the slowest (70.5 possessions per game).  This game, like the Miami-Buffalo game in the South, is going to be all about the tempo: slow and it goes to the Aggies, fast and it probably goes to the Phoenix.

While I went with Buffalo in that game, I like Texas A&M in this game because of their distribution of the ball and their physicality.  Look out for Green Bay in this one, though.

(9) Cincinnati over (8) Saint Joseph’s

The Hawks of Saint Joseph’s provide matchup problems while the Bearcats of Cincinnati provide tenacious defense and all-world toughness.  What gives?

This game is as close to a toss-up as it gets.  However, my pick is the Bearcats because this is basically an even matchup in all of the areas that matter except for one: defense.  Cincinnati’s defense allows the tenth-least points per game of any team in the country, and while they have struggled at times this season, their defense always translates to the tournament.  They should get out of this game, but don’t be stunned if the Hawks win this one, either.

And that’s it for problematic picks.  Yes, there are four upsets here; the craziness only starts with these four shockers.  Here are my upsets for the West Region:

(10) VCU over (7) Oregon State

While this is a minor upset, the Rams are one of the underseeded teams this March.  On the other hand, Oregon State is overseeded and likely undeserving of being on the seven line.  VCU, after back-to-back overtime losses in the tournament, can knock Oregon State around in the rebounding department; while I may overemphasize this, it is absolutely critical to win the rebound battle come postseason time.

Every other area of this matchup is fairly even, so this game should be fairly close.  However, look for the Rams to pull the minor upset here.

(11) Northern iowa over (6) Texas

The Northern Iowa Panthers were not supposed to be here.  After an upset over Wichita State, though, the team was one win away from the tournament and tied with Evansville in the final seconds of the Missouri Valley Conference title game when this happened:

Wes Washpun hit the shot at the buzzer to go to the tournament, and the Panthers have since been thought of as one of the more dangerous mid-major teams in the dance.  I can’t disagree with this, and even though the Panthers don’t fit the profile of a giant killer, their defense and experience play into their favor against the Longhorns.

This is the NCAA Tournament and Texas is coached by Shaka Smart, but it’s hard not to like Northern Iowa here.

It’s about to get really real, so buckle up….

(12) yale over (5) baylor

Yale is a very solid rebounding team and defensive team as well. While Baylor comes in as one of the more underrated teams in the tournament, this is a difficult matchup for them because of how Yale crashes the offensive glass.  The Bulldogs are one of the teams that can counter Baylor’s rebound animal and part-time tight end, Rico Gathers, and assuming Yale can keep him contained, they should win this game.

And, considering how often they’ll be in this post, they had better.

(13) UNC-Wilmington over (4) duke

While Duke’s strength is shooting from behind the arc, UNC-Wilmington’s strength is their three-point defense and their small-ball lineup.  While the Seahawks start four guards and one center, this lineup matches up perfectly against a Duke team that only utilizes six players.

This upset only makes sense from the standpoint that Duke may run out of gas because of their lack of depth.  If the Blue Devils are fortunate enough to win this game, can they beat Baylor or Yale with only six or seven players?  It will be difficult, which is why I like the Seahawks with this pick.

Round of 32

(9) Cincinnati over (1) Oregon

It’s been four years since all four one seeds made the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.  If you’re using that logic, then you’re definitely picking Oregon or some other one seed to lose here because you don’t think all four one seeds will make it.  I’ll use the logic that I really like this Cincinnati team and their ferocious defense over the Ducks.

(12) Yale over (13) UNC-Wilmington

This is, in part, a pick made by default.  However, Yale’s ability to pound the glass and their perpetual advantage in the rebound margin gives them the edge here.  I’ll put Yale in the Sweet 16.  Can they beat Cincinnati and go all the way to the Elite 8?

(3) Texas A&m over (11) Northern Iowa

I feel good about the Aggies to take down Northern Iowa here.  While this has been a magical ride for the Panthers and they will absolutely give Texas A&M a game, I think the physicality and the scoring ability of the Aggies eventually wins out.

(2) Oklahoma over (10) VCU

This one isn’t all that difficult.  Oklahoma is one of the best shooting teams in the country, and while VCU is a good defensive squad, they’ll be unable to stay with the Sooners on the other end.

Sweet 16

(12) Yale OVER (9) Cincinnati

Yale has done it!  According to me, they’ll be only the second team in NCAA Tournament history (Missouri in 2002) to make the Elite 8.  It will be very difficult for this to happen, but the Bulldogs’ small ball and ability to win the rebound battle will make the difference here.  I don’t have Yale in the Elite 8 because I think they’re that good; I think they’re good enough to win one game against a great team.  The stars aligned, however, and Yale got this far.  How much farther can they go?

(3) Texas A&M over (2) Oklahoma

While I love Oklahoma’s shooting ability, I don’t think they can withstand the physicality of Texas A&M.  Jump shooting teams, unlike in the NBA, do not tend to fare overly well in March Madness; Oklahoma relies on the jump shot too much for them to beat the Aggies.  This will be the best matchup in the entire region, and there are all sorts of intriguing battles within the game.

This is the main question: can the Aggies contain Wooden Award Winner-to-be Buddy Hield enough to make other players like Isaiah Cousins, Ryan Spangler, and others contribute more than they are used to?  My gut says yes; the Aggies have the 31st best scoring defense in the country and size at the guard spots in Jalen Jones, Alex Caruso, and Danuel House.  This size should, at least in part, slow down the Sooner offense.  They won’t be stopped, but the Aggies will contain the high-powered attack enough to win.

Elite 8

(3) Texas A&M over (12) Yale

This is where the Cinderella run finally ends for the Yalies.  This clearly weak region will be claimed by Texas A&M as their defense and size win out over the Bulldogs.  While it was a great run for Yale, the Aggies will come out of this region and represent it at the Final Four in Houston.

NOTE: post was published before Holy Cross’ defeat of Southern in the First Four.

Rock, Chalk, Regional Champions: NCAA Tournament, South Region Preview

Photo Credit: Getty Images
Photo Credit: Getty Images

If you think that there won’t be madness this March, I would politely disagree with you.

The field is wide open.  The teams are almost inseparable.  And the action is going to be gripping.

I filled out my bracket Sunday night; I’ll reveal my picks for each game in the South Region here along with explanations for each one.

First, if you haven’t seen them already, here are the teams and matchups for this region:

(1) Kansas vs. (16) Austin Peay

(2) Villanova vs. (15) UNC-Asheville

(3) Miami (FL) vs. (14) Buffalo

(4) California vs. (13) Hawaii

(5) Maryland vs. (12) South Dakota State

(6) Arizona vs. (11) Vanderbilt/Wichita State (play-in game)

(7) Iowa vs. (10) Temple

(8) Colorado vs. (9) Connecticut

I’m going to sort the preview into three categories: no-brainers, upsets,  judgment calls, and problematic picks.  This is my official preview for the South Region of the NCAA Tournament.

No-Brainers

(1) Kansas over (16) Austin Peay

Kansas is arguably the best team in the Field of 68, making its way through the Big 12 Tournament with relative ease.  The most memorable moment of the week, however, had to be Wayne Selden’s uncle, Flava Flav Anthony, absolutely losing his cookies after his nephew’s dunk on the Baylor Bears:

But, more than anything, Kansas has established itself as the team to beat in the bracket.  They’re deep, well-rounded, and do almost everything well.

The Governors of Austin Peay, on the other hand, probably should have gone to a play-in game in Dayton.  They aren’t, and while they could have given a lower-end one seed a semi-competitive game, this isn’t a lower-end one seed.  There won’t be a mercy rule in this game; there might as well be.

(2) Villanova over (15) UNC-Asheville

Villanova’s disappointments in past NCAA Tournaments will likely follow them into this one as well.  These letdowns will leave them alone in the first round, though, as the Wildcats and their top-20 defense should easily overwhelm the Bulldogs.  While UNC-Asheville could stay with the Wildcats on the glass, there won’t be a 15-2 upset in this region.

(Note: that’s it for the no-brainers.  That was fast, no?)

Problematic Picks

(5) Maryland over (12) South Dakota State

On the surface, this one shouldn’t look problematic; the Terrapins are playing as well as they have all season and the Jackrabbits were probably overseeded.  Look closer, however, and you’ll find that even though the Terps blow South Dakota State away on paper, the play on the court may tell a different story.

Maryland is, quite simply, the most maddening team in college basketball.  When they’re good, they can beat anyone in the country. When they’re bad, it’s ugly.  The team’s bad was back-to-back losses to Wisconsin and Maryland in February, a loss to Michigan in January and countless other close wins.  If Maryland struggles, look out for a Jackrabbit team that can pound Maryland on the glass.

(4) California over (13) Hawaii

The Rainbow Warriors won’t be in the dance next year because of NCAA violations committed by a former assistant; none of the violations involved any players on next year’s team, but whatever. California should win this game, but it’ll be close.

Hawaii is a top-40 team in assists and averages a full three more helpers per game than the Golden Bears.  California should be able to bang the Rainbow Warriors (that’s an amazing team name) around on the glass, but will the Golden Bears be a deer in the NCAA Tournament headlights?  Time will tell, but it’s definitely possible that this could happen.  If it does, California will be out very early.

Judgment Calls

(7) Iowa over (10) Temple

I have almost no opinion of this game.  Iowa can stroke it from downtown (over 38%) but has lost six of its last eight games to head into the Tournament as the coldest team in college basketball.  Temple was a bubble team that hangs its hat on its defense and is tied for first in the nation in turnovers per game (9.2).  This could really go either way, but I took the better perimeter and passing team in the Hawkeyes.  This one is a true flip of a coin.

(8) Colorado over (9) Connecticut

I like the Buffs and their physicality over the guard play and never-say-die nature of the Huskies.  This one will come down to the battle on the glass: if the Huskies can hold their own, then they’ll probably be the ones to take on Kansas in a second round matchup.  If Colorado has its way (meaning: knocks around UConn), then it’s game over for Kevin Ollie’s team.

And now for the best part….

Upsets

(11) Vanderbilt/Wichita State over (6) Arizona

Yes, the play-in game and the uncertainty of who will come out of it can absolutely be off-putting when trying to pick an upset in your bracket.  That being said, I truly believe either one of these teams can and would beat Arizona in a first round game.

Wichita State, on one hand, has the best defense in the country, takes care of the ball, and has major tournament experience in senior guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, or, as Aaron Harrison refers to him, the bad, bad boy.  Vanderbilt, on the other hand, is one of the few teams in the tournament that can match the Wildcats’ rebounding physicality.  Arizona is a young, albeit experienced, squad.  But beating either one of these teams will be a very tall task.

(14) Buffalo over (3) Miami (fL)

Buffalo’s biggest weakness as a team is their three-point shooting; that being said, they’re getting hot at the right time, having shot almost 44% from deep in their conference tournament.  And, to boot, they match up really well with this Miami team.

The Hurricanes, even will all their experience, could get hammered on the glass and on the break.  As a team that only uses 68 possessions per game, Miami will have to dictate the tempo to a Bulls team that uses almost 75 possessions per game.  The pace will dictate the game; if it’s slow, Miami wins.  If it’s fast, Buffalo wins (probably).  I’ll take the chance that the pace is fast and pick the Bulls to shake up the South Region.

Now that we’re out of the first round, I’ll provide shorter explanations for each of the projected matchups.  My reasoning for this is that if my bracket history is any indication, few if none of these matchups will actually happen.

Round of 32

(1) Kansas over (8) Colorado

The Buffaloes and their size hang around for most of this one but the Jayhawks pull away late on the strength of their guards.

(5) Maryland Over (4) California

Likely the most interesting first-weekend matchup in the South, I’ll take the experience of Maryland over the rebounding, raw talent, and youth of the Golden Bears.

(11) Vanderbilt/Wichita state over (14) Buffalo

The winner of the Vanderbilt/Wichita State game plays the role of 2014 Tennessee and 2015 UCLA as 11 seeds to beat 14 seeds.  Don’t count Buffalo out of this one, either.

(2) Villanova over (7) Iowa

Iowa doesn’t last very long after their win over Temple.  Nova takes this, and by a pretty wide margin, too.

Sweet 16

(1) Kansas over (5) Maryland

Maryland has the ability and the guard play to win this one.  This should be one of the best games this region has to offer if it comes to fruition.  The main matchup to watch would have to be Maryland guard Melo Trimble against Kansas guard Frank Mason III.  If Trimble and Duke transfer Rasheed Sulaimon win the guard battle over Mason, Wayne Selden, and Devonte’ Graham, the Terps could play spoiler.  If not, it’ll be another win for the Jayhawks.

(2) Villanova over (11) Vanderbilt/Wichita State

This is where the run ends for the winner of the Vanderbilt-Wichita State play-in game.  This does not necessarily mean that Villanova is an Elite 8-caliber team; all it means is that the rest of the region isn’t that good outside of Kansas.  But let’s stop raining on the Wildcats’ parade as they advance to the Elite 8.

Elite 8 (Regional Final)

(1) Kansas over (2) Villanova

This one really isn’t all that hard.  The Jayhawks are already one of the best teams in the country and, frankly, they got an easy draw in the South Region.  Kansas will take care of business against Nova to cut down the nets and go to Houston to play in the Final Four.

NOTE: post was published before Wichita State’s defeat of Vanderbilt in the First Four.

 

The Complicated Legacy of Peyton Manning

Photo Credit: Al Diaz/Miami Herald
Photo Credit: Al Diaz/Miami Herald

How will you remember Peyton Manning?

There are many answers to this question; that’s the point.  Will you remember him for his tenure with the Indianapolis Colts, one in which he shattered the record for touchdowns in a single season with 49 in 2004 and won Super Bowl XLI?  Will you remember Manning for his days with the Denver Broncos, the ones in which he broke the single-season touchdown record…. again, and won Super Bowl 50?

Will you remember Peyton for the commercials?  Yes, those commercials.  The ones for MasterCard, Gatorade, Papa John’s, Nationwide (Chicken Parm, you taste so good….), among others.  The ones that made us talk about Manning in a completely different light, not only as star quarterback but also as pitchman, funnyman, everyman.

But, as we speak about looking at Peyton in a different light, will you look at him differently because of a Title IX lawsuit against his alma mater, Tennessee, in which Manning is mentioned for improper behavior toward a trainer and then conducting a smear campaign against her and her family to impugn her name?  Would that change your opinion of him, if the allegations are true?

Will your remember Manning for his regular season successes or his playoff losses?  His broken records or ultimate January failures?  His nice-guy reputation or the allegations of sexual harassment and steroid use?

That’s the problem with Peyton Manning’s legacy; it’s complicated.  It isn’t clear-cut.  It leaves a lot of questions unanswered.  And because of this, the opinions of Manning and his career accomplishments run a very wide spectrum; one only has to look here and here to see that wide range of opinions.

If you’re of the belief that statistics and production are the two most important things for a quarterback, you would say that Peyton may be the best quarterback ever.  If you believe that playoff wins is the be-all, end-all of a starting quarterback’s career, then Peyton wouldn’t even be in your top five.  The general opinion of him, in some ways, is even more scattered than that of Tom Brady, and he may be one of the most polarizing athletes in sports.

And while he is polarizing, he did get to go out (mostly) on top with a win over the Panthers in Super Bowl 50.  While he played absolutely no part in the victory other than to not turn the ball over, he did win the game.  The defining moment of the postgame celebration, in the minds of many, was who Manning first greeted after the big win:

So, this is the summary of events on that night: Peyton wins a Super Bowl after many previous playoff disappointments, plays basically no part in the victory, then gives a celebratory hug and kiss to…. Papa John?  The entire sequence is the dream of both Manning haters and Manning lovers alike.  Why?  Because many fans and pundits value different qualities in quarterbacks.  While some reviewed that sequence of events and wondered why it was Papa John receiving the greeting instead of a teammate or family member, others saw that occur and thought of it as little to nothing; lots of players have endorsement deals, Peyton just has more than everyone else.

The pro-Peyton crowd would have just said that the haters are gonna hate and that in the moments after winning the Super Bowl, he could do whatever he wanted.

But, he isn’t going out on top like others in sports have.  When John Elway, Michael Jordan, Ray Bourque, and Ray Lewis went out with their championships, their names were clean of any allegations of cheating or misconduct.  Yes, Lewis almost went to jail for murder and had that whole deer antler spray thing before his final game, but public opinion of him at the end of his career was probably better than that of Peyton.

The allegations, both of sexual assault and HGH usage, put a damper on the retirement of one of the greats to play the game.  However, that didn’t mean he couldn’t give a great retirement speech.  That’s what he did today… for the most part.

While Manning’s farewell was rife with emotion, full of heart, raw, honest, and real, he did have to face questions after it was over.  Most, honestly, were of the softball variety (i.e.: tell us about that time you flipped off Gary Kubiak) until USA Today’s Lindsay Jones got her crack at the future Hall of Famer.  She asked him about the allegations, brought about by Dr. Jamie Naughright, the former Tennessee trainer, in the aforementioned Title IX lawsuit.  This was the end of his response:

Quoting Forrest Gump, which is appropriate at almost any other time in one’s life, was not appropriate at that particular time.  The allegations are serious, and while the reporting of New York Daily News justice reporter Shaun King is more than a little flawed and far too personal, Manning must answer to questions about the lawsuit with utmost seriousness and respect.

In any event, Jones tweeted out a brief explanation of why she asked Manning the question.  It’s more than justified:

She absolutely had to ask.  To be very frank, I’m happy she did.  In an event where reporters and VIP guests wanted to venerate Peyton, Jones decided to be the one person in the room who had the guts to ask one of the questions that should be on everyone’s mind.  While her Twitter mentions are exploding, and not in a good way (even she admits this), she did her job and should be applauded for that.

But, in getting back to Manning, his legacy, with the allegations, endorsements, wins, losses, and records, is incredibly complicated. Part of it is still unwritten, with verdicts forthcoming in the courts of justice and public opinion.  No matter what he does next with his life, though, we’ll still keep talking about him, for better or worse.

And maybe, just maybe, that is the ultimate legacy of Peyton Manning.

 

Some Thoughts on College Basketball and the NCAA Tournament

Photo Credit: John Rieger/USA Today Sports
Photo Credit: John Rieger/USA Today Sports

Trying to peg down college basketball this season is nearly impossible.  Of course, since this is the case, we’ll try to do so now.

Here are a few thoughts on the NCAA Tournament and, more specifically, the teams in it.

Wichita State Still Deserves a Ticket to the Dance

Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Here’s something to think about: there are two teams, team X and team Y.  Team X, according to Ken Pomeroy, has a .903 Pythagorean rating, 10th in college basketball; team Y is right behind with a .897 rating.  Team X has the number one adjusted defensive rating in the country while neither of team Y’s offensive or defensive ratings is in the top 15.  Team X went on a run to the Sweet 16 in last year’s NCAA Tournament, as did Team Y.

Here’s the caveat, though: team X is on the tournament bubble while team Y still has a chance at a number one seed.  It’s time for the reveal.

Team X is the Wichita State Shockers.  Team Y is the Xavier Musketeers.

The previous exercise was not meant to take down Xavier.  I think they are one of the teams that have a serious chance to win it all this year and they might be my title pick if the season ended today.  That being said, it’s hard to deny Wichita State a tournament berth.  But why are the Shockers in this position in the first place?

For one, their loss yesterday to Northern Iowa certainly doesn’t help. When you consider that this is the second time the Shockers have lost to UNI this season, with neither loss coming at home, you can start to put together that their resume might not be the greatest in the world. And it isn’t; the only top-50 RPI (Rating Percentage Index) win Wichita State has on its schedule this season is a home victory over the Utah Utes, a team that could make a run to the Final Four this season.  The problem is that that win came on December 12th.  Even worse, that’s the team’s only win against a tournament-caliber team this season; they lost to USC, Alabama, Tulsa, Iowa, and Seton Hall in out-of-conference play.

This is why I’m willing to give the Shockers one more chance, though: they have experience.  Upperclassmen Evan Wessel, Fred VanVleet, and Ron Baker are back from last year’s Sweet 16 squad.  In addition, the team has the best defense in college basketball, both in adjusted rating and points per game.

While their resume doesn’t give them any hope to make the Tournament, they deserve to go because they can play with anybody. Unfortunately, as yesterday showed, they can lose to any team, too.

Appreciating Bill Self

Photo Credit: Bill Rieger/USA Today Sports
Photo Credit: Bill Rieger/USA Today Sports

After Roy Williams made the decision to leave Kansas after the 2002-03 season and jump ship to North Carolina, the program was in a brief state of flux.  Out went Williams, but who would come in to take his place?

That question was answered in the form of Bill Self, and all he has done in his 13 seasons in Lawrence is make the Jayhawks the most consistent team in the sport.  Not bad, huh?

And this year, he might have his best team in his Kansas tenure.  The Jayhawks, led by seniors Perry Ellis and Jamari Traylor, won its 12th straight (twelve!) regular season Big 12 Title.  Over this time, Kansas has lost exactly nine games at Allen Fieldhouse.  If you’re keeping score at home, that’s a 4:3 ratio of conference championships to home losses.  If that doesn’t make you think Self is one of the best coaches in college basketball, I have no idea what will.

This year’s team is ranked number one in the country and has run the Big 12 gauntlet basically unscathed.  They’ll probably be the team to beat when March Madness comes around in just over a week, and they’ve earned that distinction.  Their resume is unparalleled in college basketball, with wins over every good team in the Big 12 and a home win over Kentucky.  They’re virtually unbeatable right now, as the team, with a championship in the conference tournament, would be well on its way to a number one overall seed in the field of 68.

And even if they don’t win it all this season, one has to credit Bill Self for building his team to be this consistently incredible year after year. After year.  After year.

Sparty Yes: Why Michigan State Should Be a One Seed

Photo Credit: Rey Del Rio/Getty Images
Photo Credit: Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

The argument against Michigan State being a one seed can be found in a one-week stretch from January 14 to January 20.  In that stretch, the Spartans lost three games to Iowa, Wisconsin, and Nebraska, and in each game, Michigan State had most of its best players, including the previously-injured Denzel Valentine.

However, the team began their turnaround with a win against Maryland on January 23, and they’ve only lost once since then.  That being said, they haven’t received the respect they deserve for their recent, sustained success.

For example, in the latest iteration of Joe Lunardi’s bracketology, he has Michigan State (the second-ranked team in the country) as a two seed behind North Carolina, Virginia, Villanova, and Kansas.  While three of those teams belong there, one does not: the Tar Heels.  Here’s why.

While Sparty has one more bad loss (meaning: a loss to a team with an RPI of 50 or worse) than Carolina, it’s obvious that Michigan State is playing better than UNC right now.  For example, look at last night’s North Carolina-Duke game.  The Heels outrebounded Duke 64-29; Duke only used seven players in the contest.  Given this information, it’s safe to say Carolina should have won by a wide margin; in real life, they won by four.  While Duke-Carolina is a rivalry in which records, rankings, and point margins should be thrown out the window, the fact that North Carolina dominated the game but not the scoreboard is nothing short of concerning as we near tournament time.

Michigan State, on the other hand, has taken care of its last six opponents by at least 12 points in each game, with impressive home wins against Indiana and Wisconsin.  During this time, the Tar Heels have had a close call with Syracuse and losses to Duke and Virginia. While this really is splitting hairs and North Carolina is one of the best teams in the country, they probably don’t deserve a one seed.

The team that does is the Michigan State Spartans.

NFL Combine Interviews Reach New, Embarrassing Low

Photo Credit: Darron Cummings/Associated Press
Photo Credit: Darron Cummings/Associated Press

If you’ve been following football since the Super Bowl, you know that the NFL Combine took place last weekend.  If you’ve been following the NFL Combine, you definitely know who Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple is.

Apple is one of the best secondary prospects in this year’s draft and is likely to be a first-round pick.  At the Combine, however, teams like to speak with players one-on-one and gather information about them that goes beyond their physical talents.  So while Apple will probably be employed by an NFL team after the first night of the draft, teams would like to know a little bit more about him.

But what would teams ask about?  One would think that questions would be about a player’s family, experiences in his life outside of football, or other things about him that teams may not know.  One of the teams interviewing Apple in Indianapolis was the Atlanta Falcons.

And, needless to say, they took their questioning way too far.

Instead of asking Apple potentially pertinent questions in regard to his personal life, an unidentified team employee started out his inquiry with this line:

So do you like men?

That was the question: ‘Do you like men?’.  There have been bizarre lines of questioning at the Combine before, but never has there been an open and honest question so appallingly bigoted as this one.  The reason that this question is so offensive, though, is not only in the mere asking of it but also in the context in which it was asked.

Let’s be honest here: what in the world could the Atlanta Falcons be getting out of a potential employee of theirs by asking him about his sexual orientation?  While the team may be looking to expel distractions in the locker room, a crazy question like this makes you wonder if the NFL has really progressed in terms of their acceptance of homosexual players and employees.

All this being said, this is not the only ridiculous question that has been asked at the NFL Combine; not by a long shot.  In fact, here are just some of the absurd interrogations teams have performed at the combine, replete with 100% real questions:

“As a white running back, do you feel entitled or like a poster child to other white running backs?” – posed to Stanford running back Toby Gerhart

“What team do you play as in Madden and why?”

“Would you rather be a cat or a dog?”

“How many different things can you do with a paper clip?”

“Can you share your internet history with us?”

These are all certifiably crazy questions, and they aren’t the only crazy ones that have been asked.  However, with the latest incident, we need to not just talk about the NFL’s tolerance problem but also about whether the combine interviews are necessary at all.

This is why one could say the NFL Combine interview is unnecessary and meaningless: what are the teams actually getting out of it?  While each team employs a sports psychologist and the answers to these insane questions help the teams in their psychological evaluations of draft prospects, does it really matter if a prospect plays as the Packers in Madden instead of the Seahawks?  Is it really that important if a player would rather be a cat than a dog?

Let’s put it this way: if Cam Newton decided that he could only put papers in a paper clip, should that answer derail his career?  In no other sport are questions nearly this stupid asked of players, and even if they are, there is little to no importance placed on the answers unless the player says something offensive.

During the course of the Super Bowl, was anyone wondering if Von Miller wears boxers or briefs?  I don’t think so.  When we look back on the 2016 NFL Draft, we will very quickly forget what player x’s answer was to the inane questions of the Combine interview.  It won’t matter to anyone if a player can’t do anything with a paper clip other than put papers in it (Note: off the top of my head, I really can’t think of any way to use a paper clip besides the obvious one, so I wouldn’t judge a player if he’s stumped by this question, too).

On the other hand, if teams and talent evaluators really want to take these interviews seriously, they should ask more serious questions. The only people who can effect actual change to this process are the people who are asking the questions.  If the interrogation were much more serious and the inquiries much more professional, players would never be asked if they liked men or if they feel entitled because of their race.  These questions should never, ever be asked in the first place, but if the atmosphere surrounding the interview was much more professional, the thought of asking such dense and unintelligent questions would never come into the mind of those conducting the interviews.

When all of this is taken into account, though, let’s remember that this is a very serious matter.  An NFL player was asked a question about his sexual orientation as if there was a right or a wrong answer; there is no right or wrong answer to that question.  It is even more deplorable to think that if Apple gave the “wrong” answer to that question, his chances of being drafted into the league could decline.  (For the record, Apple answered “no”, but that shouldn’t matter here.

However, when we take the seriousness of this matter into account, it is only ironic that the anonymous Falcons employee who asked the question felt compelled to do so because of the relaxed, jokey atmosphere that surrounds the Combine.  The fact that an employee of an NFL team could ask a bigoted, hateful, useless (and, by the way, illegal) question of a potential employee should be a signal to the league that maybe the interviews need to be taken a little more seriously.  If they aren’t tightened up, we may see more incidents like this in the future, and while Apple seemed to take the question in stride, another prospect may not.

Which is why the NFL Combine interview may not be necessary at all.