Behind the Mic: Bracketology

Northwestern is in!  For the first time in school history, the Wildcats are in the NCAA tournament after winning 23 games this season.  Can they win their first game ever when they take on Vanderbilt in Round One?

Before we get to that, there are more important things to consider – which of the 68 teams will win their bracket and move on to the Final Four?

WEST
Gonzaga (32-1) was given the top seed in this bracket.  There are many who believe that, despite their 29 straight wins before a loss to BYU, top seed was only possible because they played a weak schedule.  With that said, they have beaten the #2 team in this section – Arizona.  Gonzaga has never made it to the Final Four.  And… they will not make it again.  They will lose to Arizona in the Regional final.

And, by the way, Northwestern will lose to Vanderbilt in the first round.

MIDWEST
Kansas (28-4) is #1 in this region and the committee selected them #2 overall in the tournament.  They were the Big 12 champions.  I like the way Michigan played in the Big 10 tournament and they have local favorite Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman.  I like Michigan to beat Oklahoma State in their first-round game, but then they run into Louisville and their season will end.  Louisville will play Kansas in the Regional final.  Kansas is a potential national champion and will win this region.

SOUTH
After winning the ACC tournament championship, many expected Duke to garner this top spot.  Instead it went to North Carolina (27-7), a team that Duke beat two out of three times.  Time will tell if this was a wise decision by the committee.  It is probably their most questionable top seed.  It appears that UCLA or Kentucky would be their biggest challenge and that can only happen in the Regional final.  UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is certainly one of, if not the best, freshman in the country.  So I like UCLA vs North Carolina in the final.  North Carolina wins.

EAST 
I saved the East for last.  Can Villanova (31-3) do it again?  They are good enough to do it and they are certainly battle-tested having played one of the toughest schedules in the nation.  If, as many believed, Duke should have been a #1, then Villanova may have the toughest road to the Final Four because Duke is #2 in this region.  And it should come down to these two outstanding teams.  I would rather see Villanova win, but I think Duke wins this game.

FINAL FOUR
                        Kansas vs North Carolina
                        Duke vs Arizona

NATIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
                        Duke vs Kansas
 
NATIONAL CHAMPION
Kansas

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS) 

  1. It was certainly not the weekend that local basketball fans expected when our 15 boys’ and girls’ teams played in the first round of the PIAA basketball playoffs. Only four of our teams advanced into the second round of playoffs.  Northampton, Bethlehem Catholic, and Southern Lehigh girls moved on, but only the Emmaus boys won their game against Cheltenham by a 68-67 score.  It was shocking that the Allen boys, Bethlehem Catholic boys, and the Easton girls lost.  What is the adage – “That’s why you play the game.”
  2. If the local basketball players disappointed over the weekend, the District XI wrestlers did not – Lehigh Valley AAA wrestlers claimed four state titles, two runner-ups, and 18 total medals. Nazareth won the team title, had two state champions, and Coach Dave Crowell was named Coach of the Year for a record sixth time.  In AA, eight local wrestlers won medals.
  3. Parkland boys’ basketball lost to Archbishop Ryan on Saturday, indicating, once again, just how powerful the Philadelphia Catholic League teams are. Ryan was the #3 team out of District 12 and they were every bit as good as any team here in the Lehigh Valley.  They beat Parkland by 24 – enough said.
  4. The Bucknell men will face West Virginia in their opening round NCAA matchup in the West Region. Bucknell was seeded #13 and that’s impressive for the Patriot League. West Virginia is the best team in the nation at forcing turnovers, so this will not be a pleasant experience for the Bison.  But I will cheer them on and hope for the upset.
  5. One final note about the Allen Canaries – this team under Doug Snyder made basketball in Allentown meaningful and exciting again. No team had a more supportive fan base and their energy migrated out to other communities once basketball fans got to see them.  It was a great year ending in disappointment, but thanks for so many memorable individual plays and games.

Behind the Mic: Dollars and Sense in the Age of Major College Athletics

Gary will be returning with a new blog on May 19.  This week, he’s asked RCN’s John Leone to guest blog.  RCN-TV viewers should recognize John from the Lafayette College basketball broadcasts on the Lafayette Sports Network.


Pay college athletes. There, I said it. Of course, it’s certainly not nearly that simple, and after a long discussion with my lawyer daughter, well, there are more than just a few minor wrinkles that would need to be ironed out, not the least of which are legal and ethical. But it can – and many believe should – be done. Time and space preclude a detailed discussion here, but I’d like to offer a starting point. After all, dealing with a few legal and ethical details should hardly distress the NCAA. Their rulebook, after all, makes the Affordable Care Act read like “The Cat in the Hat.” I say that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek, careful to not upset them too much. My plan will require their support. And in fact, it may make life a good deal easier for them.

My high school math teacher is somewhere, cringing as I write this. But even I can calculate that the money is there to support a more palatable system. Consider that the first television contract with CBS paid the NCAA $1 billion for the rights to the national tournament. Yes, that’s with a “B.” And did I mention that was a generation ago? The latest deal (2010) was a 14-year agreement for $10.8 billion, generating $771 million per year for the NCAA. And, bear in mind that is for the tournament only. And you thought that “March Madness” referred only to the action on the court! Factor in the revenues generated throughout the regular season from concessions, parking, gate receipts, sponsorships, and yes, even more TV money, and suddenly we are talking about serious capital. That’s big business. That’s a professional system.

The true crux of the issue here lies with the NBA and the NFL and their inability, unwillingness, or more likely their lack of incentive to create a viable minor league system. But then, why should they? They have the major college programs serving the same function, and doing so free of charge. In the meantime, the impulses created by mega dollars have littered the straight and narrow pathway of college athletics with all kinds of land mines, exploding notions of academic integrity, amateurism, and in far too many instances, the broader college experience. The stories of young athletes lured to a campus where they may not belong, nor would they want to be but for the promise of an athletic proving ground, read like so many proverbs. Many colleges housing major basketball and football programs are little more than athletic incubators for youngsters whose primary – if not sole – aim is to make it to the professional level. If, as in most cases, those aims fall short of the intended target, the youngster is left with little on which to fall back. It has become a false promise, and far too many academic institutions, enticed by the exposure and tempted by the potential financial windfall for their schools, have become compliant in this charade.

The time, talent, and treasure now spent by the NCAA in its attempt to herd the cats of big- time programs into their amateur cages and preserve the slightest element of academic integrity has become the epitome of throwing good money after bad. My apologies to Kentucky, Arizona, Villanova, and the scores of other major programs for whom the pun applies, but it may be time to rethink the approach, and take some creative steps to save these major sports at the college level. If not, the college game as we know it will soon cannibalize itself at the altar of its own largesse. The advent of the “made for TV” sports of college basketball and college football have given the NCAA an opportunity to take real and effective action in the best interests of the games, the interests of its own mission, and most important, in the interests of so many young men and women misplaced on campuses throughout the country.

Of course, not every college would desire – or for that matter be required – to follow the new blueprint. The NCAA already has different rules for its different divisions, so why not simply establish one more classification? Clearly, there will be some hard decisions for those major college programs that still cling to the “student athlete” ideal. But within the parameters and rules governing the new division, schools will have the flexibility to do more or less – depending on their own interests and philosophical stance. Disparities will exist, but will they be any more pronounced than those which now separate, say, Prairie View A&M and Kentucky or Cornell and Georgetown?

For whatever system to work in favor of intercollegiate athletics and in the best interests of the young people involved, there will have to be serious and honest cooperation between the institutions and the governing body. The fallacy of academic integrity has permeated too many programs. Who among us thinks first of “academic learning or achievement” when we hear the word “scholarship”? On the contrary, the word has come to preclude most notions of higher education for so many of the athletes in question. A CNN.com article published in January underscored just how pervasive the problem might actually be.

Still, the college athletes will have to be tethered to their respective schools in some fashion. This is not only possible, but perhaps it tills fertile ground for real creative thinking. Would they be “employed” as independent contractors? Might they take courses for which they pay out of their own pocket, thereby having some “skin” in their own academic future? Perhaps some would benefit most by taking courses in basic life skills and money management. Possibly pursue a trade? In short, a system could be established to fit the needs and skill sets of the athlete, as opposed to the square-peg-and-round-hole paradigm now in play.

It is no secret – or it shouldn’t be – that the financial windfall from major college athletics largely supports all programs along the vast food chain of intercollegiate athletics everywhere. It’s an honorable end, but the means have caused significant angst and drawn more than a little well-earned cynicism from intellectually honest observers.

It may be time – especially with the kinds of dollars now pouring into the system – to take a lesson from my friends at The Rotary Club and build a system that meets their four way test. Create a system that is truthful, fair to all concerned, builds goodwill and better friendships, and is beneficial to all involved.

That’s an exam that anyone can pass.

 

Behind the Mic: Some NCAA Tournament Observations

 

1. When you look at the brackets, wouldn’t you think ONE TEAM from last year’s Final Four would make this year’s Final Four? Last year saw Wichita State, Michigan, Syracuse, and Louisville make it. None are there this year. Hmm…

2. Is there any player who has carried his team to the Final Four better than Shabazz Napier? UConn was ranked #21 in the final regular season AP poll and now they are in the top four. Napier has had games of 24, 25, 19, and 25 points. The last time Florida lost (UConn’s semifinal opponent) was on December 2 when they were beaten at the buzzer by … Shabazz Napier. Hmm…

3. #1, #7, #2, and #8 in the Final Four. That adds up to 18 – the same number as the Final Four last year – #1-Louisville, #4-Michigan, #4-Syracuse and #9-Wichita State. I see a pattern here for future bracket picks, if I could only figure out which teams add up to 18. Hmm…

4. Florida (36-2), the only #1 seed left, has won 30 games in a row. Their two losses were to Wisconsin and UConn. Both of those teams also remain. Might they be able to avenge BOTH defeats? Hmm…

5. Did you remember that Connecticut was barred from the tournament last year by the NCAA, despite having won 20 games? They were penalized for not keeping an Academic Progress Rate the previous four years. It was introduced because the NCAA was concerned that athletes were graduating unprepared for life. Hmm…

6. Do you know why the #1 seed and formerly undefeated Wichita State basketball team is nicknamed the Shockers? I can hear your guesses now – all centering around the word “shock”. Nope. It was a term given to them in the early 1900’s because most of the football players in the off-season worked as wheat shockers. The mascot is actually a funny looking bundle of wheat. Hmm…

7. Does it appear to you, as it does to many, that the officials call too much early in a game and progressively call less to almost nothing as the game winds down? Isn’t a call a call no matter when it appears in a game? And speaking of that, should it really take five minutes staring at a television monitor to make a call? Officials make split-second calls all the time. Shouldn’t one or two looks at a replay decide for them? Hmm…

8. Do you know who the Oregon Webfoots are? They were the first team to win the NCAA tournament back in 1939. Many of the players then went on to fight in World War II against Hitler and the Nazis. Hmm…

9. Did you know that Kentucky’s #8 seed is the lowest that a John Calipari-coached team ever received? He is coaching in his 14th tournament and is in the Final Four. Who has the last laugh now? Hmm…

10. Which coaches in this year’s tournament were the best players? Well, UConn’s Kevin Ollie has to be in the top three along with Johnny Dawkins (Stanford) and Danny Manning (Tulsa). Ollie played on three NCAA Tournament teams and played for 11 different teams in the NBA until he was 37. Who said great players can’t coach? Hmm…

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. Although none of my other Final Four picks made it to the semifinals, I did pick Florida to win it all. If they do win, head coach Billy Donovan would become the sixth coach to win at least three championships – John Wooden, Mike Krzyzewski, Adolph Rupp, Jim Calhoun, and Bob Knight are the others.

2. By the way, Billy Donovan makes an average of $3.7 million a year and his contract runs through the 2018-19 season.

3. Mavericks’ owner and “The Shark Tank” star Mark Cuban thinks the NFL is trying to take over every night on television and he thinks they will eventually implode in 10 years. He said, “I’m just telling you, pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. And they are getting hoggy. Just watch. Pigs get fat, hogs get slaughtered. When you try to take it too far, people turn the other way.” I have a feeling he may be right.

4. Rest assured the Eagles will now take a wide receiver in the draft now that DeSean Jackson is gone. Since Jackson’s money was not guaranteed, the Eagles also save $6.75 million against this year’s salary cap. The burning question now is, knowing the background of Jackson’s release, where will he end up? Pundits are suggesting he just go to the Oakland Raiders. He’ll fit right in.

5. This first week of baseball will give us an indication of how bad the Phillies are or how good they just might be. They play three games against the Rangers and three games against the Cubs. Neither opponent is expected to contend, but then again, are the Phillies?

 

Behind the Mic: Bracketology

 

Now that the high school season has come to a close with Central Catholic’s 60-50 loss to Neumann-Goretti on Friday night, it’s time to get serious about the NCAA Tournament. I know Monday, March 17, was St. Patrick’s Day and, also, the birthday of Benito Suarez, the five-time governor of Mexico from 1861-1872. I, unfortunately, will miss both festivities because the NCAA brackets are out! March Madness has officially begun. With the assumption that you would like a little help, I am offering “valuable” inside information on the teams that I consider to be the Top 12.

Top 4 Seeds:
1. Florida – They are healthy (and they weren’t early in the season). They haven’t lost since December 2. Early problems created end-of-season depth – that’s a good thing.
2. Wichita State – 34-0! Everyone is saying they haven’t played the best college basketball has to offer. But, the nucleus of this team barely lost to Louisville, the defending national champ, last year. They have not lost a game since.
3. Arizona – This is the best defensive team in the country. If defense wins championships, they have a shot; if offense does, they can’t make a shot!
4. Virginia – Their games are slow-paced and low scoring, but it has worked for them all year. They won a tough ACC regular season and the ACC tournament. If you want to go against the experts, this is not a bad pick.

The Best of the Rest:
5. Louisville – Defending champs; near the top in both offense AND defense; playing great ball going into the tournament. Could repeat!
6. Kansas – Is Joel Embiid (back problem) able to play? If yes, they could beat anybody; if no, probably not in the final four.
7. Iowa State – They won the Big 12 and could make it to the Final Four. I’m cheering for Villanova to beat them and for the Wildcats to get to the Elite Eight.
8. Villanova – They were upset by Seton Hall in the Big East tournament. They will be rested; they win close games (4-0 in overtime); and have local product, Darren Hilliard. Go Wildcats!
9. Creighton – Villanova’s nemesis (they could only meet again in the national championship), they have the most prolific scorer in college basketball (3,000+ points) – Doug McDermott. Great players tend to carry their teams to great performances in the tournament.
10. Michigan State – Another team in the East bracket (Virginia, Iowa State, Villanova). When they want to play, they are among the very best.

Nostalgic Picks:
11. UCLA – Great offensive team; Steve Alford at the helm. But, can they beat Florida?
12. Kentucky – Their freshmen make plenty of mistakes and, also, plenty of great plays; whichever is the majority will determine their fate.

I would give you my picks, but then, I would lose the “for amusement only” office pool.
Actually, I haven’t filled out my pool yet and I am certainly skeptical of everything I have told you! Now, if I could only find a trusted source…

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. Best high school team(s) I saw this year – Neumann-Goretti’s boys’ and girls’ teams; the talent level might have been even more impressive on the girls’ team (40-3 halftime lead in the quarterfinals!) than it was on the boys’ team. I will be shocked if both of these teams are not state champions.

2. Best player I saw this year – I am happy to say he came from the Lehigh Valley. I expected Miami-bound Ja’quan Newton to fill the spot, but no one was better this year than Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, finishing his career with a 30-point performance against Neumann-Goretti. I am truly looking forward to his college choice and I hope that he chooses a school that has great TV visibility in the East.

3. Best game I saw this year – Allen at Parkland (1/24/14): Parkland won in double overtime by an 82-74 score; there was lots of scoring and plenty of dramatic moments down the stretch. It was a great high school game.

4. Best pre-game conversation (and there were plenty) – Bill Stein, assistant coach at Liberty. I knew Bill was the former athletic director at Saint Peter’s University. I did not know he was an assistant coach at Georgetown University for 10 years under head coach John Thompson. He was there when they went on to win the National Championship. His most famous recruit was Patrick Ewing.

5. Best part of the job – Watching how efficiently and seriously the crew operates each and every night to bring you the best games, the best pictures and the best replays. And a special “Thanks for a great season” to Tom Stoudt, John Leone, and “Beet” Bowman – only they know how much fun we really have!

 

The Real March Madness – Behind the Mic – March 18th

The brackets are out!! Everyone starts the week with high expectations to be the best in their various investments into the various pools (for amusement only, of course). I have been invited to participate in nine and the list could still grow. After all, it’s only Monday. So I have started my research and I have come to the conclusion that research will most likely do me absolutely no good.

This was probably the most unpredictable college basketball season in recent history. First of all, a tell-tale sign that this is the “Year of the Whaaatt?” is that the defending national champions, the Kentucky Wildcats, are not even invited. Add to that, there were six teams that were #1 at some point during the season. So if you think you are knowledgeable about college hoops this year, you are probably going to be a loser. This will be the year of the upsets. If there was ever a time to actually get your wife, girlfriend, nerdy husband, or boyfriend involved in your selections, this is the year. If you happen to go that route, prepare yourself for the “I like their colors”, “Their nickname is cute”, “What state are they from?”, “I like teams that begin with B”, etc. I know for those of us who are purists, this kind of babble can make one wretch. But, mark my words; this year might be that year! You can wretch now while making your picks or wretch later when you are tearing up the sheets with your picks on them.

The #1’s are Louisville, Kansas, Indiana, and Gonzaga. My basketball brain tells me to go with Louisville. They are the hottest team right now, just won the Big East tournament, and seem to be in a very favorable bracket. So, should you pick them to win it all? Don’t do it!! Too obvious. This should not be the year to pick the favorite.

Of the #1’s, I kind of like Gonzaga. Their schedule made them a mystery team, but I find it fun to root for them in the post-season. The #2’s look strong – Duke, Miami, Ohio State, and Georgetown. But, can one of them go all the way? Flip a coin, throw a dart!

So, who do I like?

Midwest – Memphis as a sleeper, but I pick Louisville.

West – Still like Gonzaga; don’t like Ohio State; New Mexico has a shot.

South – Michigan led by Trey Burke; Georgetown, maybe.

East – Bucknell!! (Just seeing if you are still with me). It should be Indiana, but don’t count out Miami.

Do I have to pick a national champion? Wait until I call my wife.


 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. I am beginning to get the sense that teams that know they are in the tournament don’t care much anymore about their conference championships. Plenty of #1 seeds did not make the tournament finals.
  2. I mentioned Bucknell, the Patriot League champion, up top, but how do I think they will really do? Mike Muscala is the best offensive and defensive player in the League. If he gets backcourt help, they can shock Butler. However, Butler already has beaten Indiana and Gonzaga. This is a very tough draw for the Bison.
  3. 40 years ago, Allentown Central Catholic became the first parochial state champions in the PIAA. They beat four undefeated teams in their last five games. It is really strange this year not seeing them in the state playoffs.
  4. As I write this, the Bethlehem Catholic Golden Hawks are the last Lehigh Valley team alive in the state playoffs. To me, they look like a state champion. They have size, speed, intensity, and, most importantly, talent. Go Hawks!!

PS – Don’t bother me until after April 6. I will be checking my NCAA pool! I want to see how my wife did.