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Archive for March, 2011|Monthly archive page

SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan

In THE SPORTS LANDSCAPE Bill Sullivan on March 29, 2011 at 7:24 am

The Richmond Spiders bowed out of the NCAAs after cracking the NCAA Sweet Sixteen but the campus is still celebrating.

Coach Chris Mooney surprised the college basketball world by signing a contract extension at Richmond through 2020. With ACC coaching vacancies at Georgia Tech and N.C. State, somehow Mooney and his Princeton-style offense remained in the Atlantic 10

Now if Shaka Smart can stay at VCU – busy this week with an affair called the Final Four – it’ll be a coup for the Commonwealth’s Capital.

In the past five years, Mooney and George Mason Coach Jim Larranaga chose to stay at their Mid-Major venues instead of stepping onto the “coaching Broadway.” Coach L said “No” to his alma mater – Providence – after leading the Patriots to the 2006 Final Four. Maybe life in Mid-Major Land isn’t so “middle of the road.” Let’s see, you have job security, you’re assured of 20 wins a season, courts are named after you and your team is likely to reach the NCAAs year after year.

In Larranaga’s case, maybe it was the blustery Rhode Island winters that kept him in sunny Fairfax. Jim and his wife can grill out in early March, whereas in New England, you don’t retrieve the patio furniture from the garage until June. Plus, it’s easier to outrecruit ODU, VCU and James Madison that it is Connecticut, Villanova, Syracuse and St. John’s.

When Winthrop’s Gregg Marshall shunned the Friars for Wichita State, it branded the Mid-Major level anything but “mid.” He averaged 22 wins a year for Winthrop and continued the pace, winning an average of 20 a year in Wichita. I don’t think he’d have the same winning percentage at PC, NC State or Georgia Tech.

Mid-Majors have the coaching but not the publicity. The Bracketbuster – featuring clashes between the Mid-Major giants, lasts one weekend in February. League commissioners should stage a 3-4 day event (like the ACC-Big East Challenge), where every game is televised – nationally. Games involving Butler, UAB, Rhode Island, Cleveland State, Tulsa, Creighton, Murray State, Bucknell, College of Charleston, Northern Iowa, Bradley, Xavier, Dayton, Southern Illinois, Wichita State, Mason, VCU, Old Dominion and Siena would be seen by athletic directors who huddle on the NCAA selection committee – great exposure while programs tweak their postseason-hopeful portfolios.

The Colonial had TWO different teams in the Final Four in the last five years — proof a Mid-Major can compete with any league in the nation. Only problem is the nation isn’t aware of it until they’re shocked by what Mason and VCU accomplished.

And consider Wichita State (under Mark Turgeon), Southern Illinois (under Bruce Weber), Southwest Missouri State (under Steve Alford) and Northern Iowa (under Ben Jacobson) each have reached the Sweet Sixteen in very recent years.

In their Final Four runs, Mason and VCU knocked off SIX former national champions: North Carolina, Michigan State, Connecticut, Villanova, Georgetown and Kansas.

VCU’s athletic director should be huddling with Richmond’s athletic director right now on “how to keep your coach.” The alternative is calling Florida Coach Billy Donovan, who provided the Rams their last two coaches – Anthony Grant and Smart.

Though big money can be guaranteed at the big time, success isn’t. Consider these coaches who left their Mid-Major posts only to fail on the bigger stage.

Siena lost Mike Deane to Marquette and Paul Hewitt to Georgia Tech. Both are now jobless.

VCU lost Jeff Capel to Oklahoma but was fired after failing to elevate the Sooners to the glory days under Billy Tubbs (Elite Eight) and Kelvin Sampson (Final Four and Elite Eight).

Western Kentucky lost Dennis Felton to Georgia. Once in Athens, Felton was 84-91 with only one NCAA appearance in six years.

Butler advanced to a pair of Sweet Sixteens under Todd Lickliter before he left for Iowa. In Iowa City, Lickliter was 38-57 and a putrid 15-38 in Big Ten games.

Xavier lost Pete Gillen to Providence and later, Virginia but he failed to achieve the same success in the Big East or ACC. Like others, he is now out of coaching.

Richmond lost Jerry Wainwright to DePaul, which was his last stop in coaching.

George Washington made the Sweet Sixteen under Coach Mike Jarvis, who left for St. John’s. With the Johnnies, he advanced to an Elite Eight and won an NIT before being fired after six games in 2003-04 when the NCAA learned he paid a players for four years. Jarvis is now at Florida Atlantic, where he lost 42 games in his first two years before he took the team to the NIT this year.

Kent State’s Stan Heath was lights out with the Golden Flashes, winning 30 games and landing a berth in the 2002 NCAA Elite Eight. When he left for Arkansas, it took him three years just to muster a winning record. He since has moved to South Florida, where he’s 41-54 after four seasons. Looking back, Heath’s Mid-American Conference schedule included Toledo, Northern Illinois, Miami of Ohio and Ball State. Now, the menu features Connecticut, Georgetown, Syracuse, Villanova, Marquette and Louisville – all of whom have national championship trophies. And his league’s “weaker“ teams – West Virginia, Notre Dame, Providence and St. John’s – have all advanced to Final Fours in their histories.

Remember Duke’s Tommy Amaker? He had success at Seton Hall before taking the Michigan job. When he failed there, he ended up in the Ivy League at Harvard. So much for the big-time.

Conversely, consider coaching “giants” who never left their Mid-Minor venues. Pete Carril coached at Princeton 29 years. Jim Phelan spent his entire 49-year career at Mount St. Mary’s. Don Haskins coached little ol’ Texas Western to a national title during his 38-year stay in El Paso.

Maybe these coaches savored success more than most – even if the masses never heard of their schools.

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MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on March 28, 2011 at 9:19 pm

It’s going to be a miserable Monday in Madison, Wisconsin, where I’ve been traveling since January to teach a sports journalism class at my alma mater. Never mind the sub-freezing temperatures in the forecast early in the week. I’m talking about a far bigger chill—the Wisconsin basketball team’s one-for-17 second half shooting stretch Thursday night–that ended the Badgers’ hopes of advancing to the Final Four.

When you lose a rooting interest in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, it becomes March Melancholy on campus for a few depressing days, especially when it comes at the hands of an underdog mid-major like Butler, even if it did advance to the national title game a year ago.

And so, if I seem a little crabby about some of the television coverage in this space, maybe you’ll understand why. But first the good news.

How awesome has it been to have every single game in the first two rounds of the tournament available at the click of a remote, at least if you’ve paid your cable bill on time. The NCAA’s new $11 billion television contract with CBS that added TNT, TBS and TrueTV to the mix has been a hoop junkie’s godsend, though I must admit watching promos for the TrueTV series “Extreme Pawn Stars” was a tad jarring.

Instead of relying on graphic updates for whatever game you happened to be watching (by the way, virtually unreadable for those of us without a mega-screen and HDTV), you’ve got your basketball destiny literally in your own hand. Commercial break in the Wisconsin-Butler game on TBS? No problem. Click over to Duke-Arizona for a quick fix, then back to the Badgers, painful as it might have been.

Here’s more good news. No Dick Vitale on any of those four networks.

And now the bad. Let’s start with Charles Barkley, definitely a whale out of water doing college hoops. I usually love Sir Charles in the NBA studio, but I often had the sense over the last two weeks that he was simply not quite as prepared for this assignment as he should have been. Because he’s on the NBA beat week in and week out, he knows the league and its players as well as anyone in the business. But dropping him into the college game, he more than occasionally sounded like a freshman trying to get through a doctorate oral.

Still, he did have his moments. In the opening round, he ripped into the Tennessee athletic director for not supporting embattled Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl. And his teasing of guest studio host Rick Pitino about the Big East losing nine of its 11 tournament teams before the Sweet Sixteen was vintage stuff. Trouble is, there just wasn’t enough of it.

As usual, on all the networks, there were way too many commercial breaks. I know someone has to pay for that $11 billion rights fee, but do we have to leave the arena for every stoppage of play, especially in the final minutes of very tight games? I suppose so, but that doesn’t mean we have to like it, unless one of the ads is the two John Thompsons talking about being comfortable in their own Dove-slathered skins.

And let me count the clichés from every broadcaster with a microphone. Please Tom Izzo, the Michigan State coach and a guest studio host on TBS, don’t tell me that Butler vs. Wisconsin “is going to be a war,” especially when the real thing is being waged in Afghanistan and Libya.

Does anyone on the planet actually talk like Bill Raftery, whose kiss-off-the-glass comments are often incomprehensible. And when did “knock down” become mandatory on virtually every shot. Can’t they mix it up a bit with “make a shot,” “hit a shot,” “connect on a shot?” Knock it off, along with swagger. Are you kidding me — the rock (ball), Florida by a penny (point) and scholar-athlete, of which there aren’t many judging by the pathetic graduation rates of more than a few of these teams.

And Reggie Miller, did you really use the word “verticality?” Thursday night to describe a player’s jumping ability? Can’t seem to locate that one in the dictionary, either. March Madness, indeed.

New Hire: ESPN just announced that Bill Parcells has been signed up to host a pre-NFL draft special, surely a prelude to him rejoining the Worldwide Leader if they play football in the fall (and they will, trust me).

What a revolting development that is, if only because Parcells has spent most of the last few years ducking the media in his role as team president of the Miami Dolphins. You could count on one hand the number of interviews Parcells granted to South Florida reporters, print and broadcast, not to mention ESPN itself, despite the fact that he was running the franchise. His surly demeanor toward many of the people who covered him at other NFL stops along the way also should not be forgotten.

So here’s another career anti-media guy being fed by the hand he used to bite, joining a long list of broadcasters with the same DNA. Bill Walton, Sterling Sharpe, Bob Knight also went on to lucrative broadcasting careers, even after they either ran away from or insulted many of the same people they now call “colleagues.” Shame on ESPN, which has demonstrated far too often that it has none.

Nice Touch: HBO has asked Nick Charles to call the opening fight in its Boxing After Dark series on Saturday (9:45 pm), a lovely gesture for a man who has been battling a virulent form of bladder cancer the last few years.

Charles, a sports anchor at Channel 4 in Washington before George Michael arrived on the scene, was the long-time voice of boxing at Showtime as well as one of the original sports anchors for the then fledgling CNN. He recently was the subject of a moving column by Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnaski, a must read. Rick Bernstein, HBO’s executive producer for boxing, read the piece on a train ride to New York. He then decided to offer Charles, who once handled boxing on HBO pay-per-view events, the opportunity to call what likely will be his final fight.

We’re excited to be in a position to afford Nick this opportunity,” Bernstein told Kevin Iole of Yahoo Sports this week. “This is a guy we’ve had a long relationship with and, obviously, it means a lot to Nick. It was a no-brainer, honestly.”

Charles also was quoted in Iole’s story.

First of all, I want to do justice to HBO and do a great broadcast because HBO has set such a high standard and people who tune in expect nothing less,” he said. “But I also want people to know that just because you may get cancer, it doesn’t mean you stop fighting or stop living. I am a fighter and I’m going to keep fighting until I can’t fight anymore. That’s just the way that I am.”

LET ME GET THIS STRAIGHT Ross MacCallum

In MEDIA SOUND BITES Leonard Shapiro on March 15, 2011 at 10:14 am

March 21st

The Big East may just have turned in the most embarrassing effort in the history of the NCAA Tournament… at least since the field expanded to 64 back in ’85.

Eleven teams got bids.  Count ‘em.  11 !!!

Only two survived the first two rounds, and frankly, we’re not talking the Big East’s best here.  U-Conn and Marquette are the standard bearers for a league that planned on making a statement with two, maybe even three, teams in the Final Four in Houston.  Now, it would be a miracle if it had one in the Final Four.  Heck, it’s gonna take a miracle for either U-Conn or Marquette to reach the Elite Eight.

Only two Big East schools in the Sweet 16!?!  The supposedly “down” ACC has three including its very best in Duke and Carolina.  And three other conferences, including the Mountain West have matched the Big East with two in the 16.  Even the city of Richmond, Va. has two teams still dancing (Richmond and VCU).   And, to be honest, I’d take the two Richmond schools over U-Conn and Marquette right now.  And, I’ll bet I’m not alone.

So, what went wrong?

I guess the ugly truth is that the Big East isn’t “all that.”   The anointed “BEST CONFERENCE” in college basketball can’t seem to get out of its own way.  Villanova, Georgetown, St. John’s, and Louisville were one and done.  One and done!!!  The Hoyas and Red Storm were blown away by lower seeds.  Double-digit losses.  Shockingly, Georgetown was crushed by one of the First Four, VCU, for heaven’s sake.  Everybody said VCU didn’t belong, but it’s the Hoyas that probably should have been sent to the NIT after stumbling into the tournament on the heels of an injury to star player, Chris Wright.  All that Hoya talent, and G-town couldn’t overcome the temporary loss of one player who, in fact, returned just in time to get hammered by VCU.  That’s the kind of performance that can put a coach on the hot seat.  He’s lucky his name is Thompson.

Louisville’s loss was a real bracket buster for folks in the tournament “pools” at work.  The fourth-seeded Cardinals were one of the Final Four favorites.  It’s that Rick Pitino thing.  But, somebody forgot to tell 13th-seeded Morehead State about how great a coach Pitino is.

Villanova was the lone Big East squad to lose in the first round to a higher seed, George Mason.  I know Mason is a known quantity; five years separated from its Cinderella days.  But, the Big East should be able to handle a team from the C.A.A. in the 8-9 game.  No excuses, Wildcats.  I just love it when the team I highlight in an earlier column as the least worthy of all the Big Easters to get a bid proves my point in spades by blowing a double-digit second half lead to a mid-major.  Thank you, very much!

As bad as Thursday and Friday were, the second round was even uglier for the Big East.  Five losses; two of them self-inflicted.  First-seed Pitt, second- seed Notre Dame, and third-seed Syracuse all went down.  The victors:  a mid-major power in Butler, a middle-of-the-pack ACC team in Florida State, and the 10th-best team in the Big East itself, Marquette.

Yeah, Butler might be on its way to a second-straight Final Four appearance, but Pitt should never have let that happen in such a sloppy fashion.  Once again, Pitt enhances its terrible tournament reputation.

Notre Dame and its five seniors (including Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough) were technically the fifth number one seed.  But, the Irish were outplayed and outhustled in every phase of the game by a Florida State team that was only getting limited minutes from its best player, Chris Singleton.

And, what can you say about Syracuse losing to Marquette?  Sure, it’s a Big East win.  But, this can’t be what commissioner John Marinatto had in mind when he finagled and cajoled the NCAA selection committee into taking 11 of his teams.  On Sunday, Marinatto told the New York Times, “The body of work that our schools created over the course of the year certainly overshadows what happens in the tournament.”

Say what???

No way, Johnny boy.  You’re not getting off that easy.   The Big East regular season and tournament are supposed to create an atmosphere of physical play and top-drawer competition which will prepare all the league’s schools for the NCAA’s.  Except, it clearly didn’t do that.  And, we’re not talking about the bottom half of the 11 entrants.  We’re talking pretty much everybody here.  I know that U-Conn and Marquette are still alive and kicking, but honestly, they each beat other Big East underachievers to get where they are.  I have to wonder if a Virginia Tech, or a Colorado, or an Alabama, or even a Harvard had been waiting for them in round two that the entire Big East would be history as far the Road to Houston is concerned.

In reality, it’s already over for the Big East.   I doubt seriously that anybody, save for the totally deluded, has U-Conn or Marquette surviving the coming weekend.  Eleventh-seeded Marquette faces North Carolina next.  Then it’s Ohio State.  Good luck with that.  U-Conn is a three seed based on its run through the Big East Tournament, not on its mediocre .500 performance in the regular season.  The Huskies face San Diego State and then, if they’re lucky, Duke.  I’m sure that Marinatto pictured a potential U-Conn/Duke regional final on Selection Sunday, but I’ll guarantee you he wasn’t thinking that it would be his best and probably only hope of sending a Big East team to the Final Four.

What a waste of 11 cherished NCAA Tournament berths.

March 15th

I guess they couldn’t invite everybody from the Big East, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t try. Eleven members of that conference are in the NCAA Tournament. That’s a record for any single league. And, frankly, it’s overkill. Okay, okay, I get it. The Big East is the best in the business right now. But, I don’t think that all 11 invitees should be dancing at the expense of the likes of Alabama, Virginia Tech, Harvard, and so on.  Look, if you can’t finish in the upper half of your conference, how good are you? Let me channel Harry Truman for a second here, “If you can’t stand the heat, find an easier conference.”

Would it hurt a Marquette or Villanova or even a U-Conn to stay home after a 20-win season in a tough conference? Sure it would. But, save the tears. You’ll get no sympathy from the 23 twenty-game winners whose next scheduled game is in the NIT. Five of those won 25 or more and simply had the misfortune of not winning a conference title game in a conference that only rates one dancer.

So, which Big East team do you leave out. Marquette? I could live with that. But, here’s a better idea – Villanova.

I can hear you now. “Are you insane?” “Great team.” But, they ain’t playing anything close to great right now. The Wildcats were a hot ticket back in the late fall, but it’s been quite a fall since then.  Five straight losses to close the season, and losses in 7 of their last 9. Only five wins in their last 15 games. What happened to all that talk from the NCAA selection committee where they claim it’s “how you finish”? Since the field expanded in 1985, no team with 5 straight losses to end a season has been given an at-large berth until Villanova. Their two wins in the final nine games were by 3 and 2 points over Seton Hall and DePaul. Not exactly impressive in any league.

Folks at the various schools snubbed by the selection committee were quick to target VCU and UAB for their jealous scorn instead of any of the Big East 11. VCU and UAB were certainly among the very last to make the field and were dutifully relegated to the opening round or the so-called “First Four.” But, at least the Rams and Blazers have won in the month of March. UAB won the Conference USA regular season title. VCU made a serious run at the Colonial Athletic Association Tournament title losing the championship to Old Dominion. And, the CAA might be the best mid-major conference going. Furthermore, UAB’s R.P.I. was higher than three of the Big East’s 11 tournament teams, including Villanova. Yes, UAB got upset in their conference tourney opener, but Villanova’s lone Big East tournament outing was a loss to South Florida; one of the true bottom feeders in the Big East.

The selection committee says it bases its decisions on the individual team’s complete body of work. Here’s some of the Wildcats work: 5-7 versus the tournament-bound Big East members, and none of their 4 “quality” non-conference wins was a true road game.

The selection committee always claims it has no quota of teams from any particular conference. And yet, when does the Ivy League get more than one? But, you know somebody had to realize that the Big East was close to filling an entire region by itself. Haven’t we already seen the 2011 Big East Tournament?

I think we can all agree that 11 from one league is too many, and so is 10, and even 9 is a bit much. But, if just one of the Big East’s 11 had been left out, it might have been an easier pill for the Hokies and the Tide and the other complainants to swallow. It would have, at the very least, shown that the NCAA selection process is equally unfair. And, I guess we all have to live with that.

One bright spot for all the snubbed teams, Villanova was given a tough first round assignment in George Mason. So, their free and easy ride to the big dance on the Big East bandwagon might be a short trip.

Ross, the creator of Throwback Baseball 1.0, also blogs about sports memorabilia at: www.aberdeentradingco.com