(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.


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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Kentucky-Notre Dame

Last night showed a few things:

1.  Notre Dame played a game worthy of a national championship title.

2.  In any other year, that effort might have earned them that title.

3.  Kentucky has a lumpy, transparent game plan that basically pounded the ball into the post and desired to foul out Notre Dame's one big man, Zach Auguste.  So much so, that it seemed that everyone else on their team stood around watching the offense for most of the game.

4.  Notre Dame's freshman big man, Karl Anthony Towns, will be a very good professional basketball player.  It's hard to imagine anyone save Joel Embiid and DeAndre Jordan coping with him at length in the post.

5.  Auguste perhaps outplayed the collective efforts of every Kentucky big man over 6'9" tall (with arguments, of course, that Towns excelled last night).

6.  Notre Dame's Mike Brey outcoached Kentucky's John Calipari last night, particularly with the strategy of having Auguste follow a penetrator into the lane for open putback jams after the Kentucky bigs thwarted the initial shot but then were out of the way. 

7.  While the Wildcats made a statement by demolishing West Virginia in the Sweet 16 round two nights before, perhaps their sense of destiny and invincibility got to their heads.  The NCAA Tournament cannot be that easy, can it?  Clearly, the Wildcats underestimated Notre Dame, and for a while it was as though each Wildcat not named Towns was waiting for someone -- anyone -- to step up, spark them and perhaps lead them on a run.  It just didn't happen.

8.  But despite all of that. . . last night's result, a Kentucky 68-66 win (after the Wildcats trailed for most of the second half) shows how hard it is to beat the Kentucky Wildcats and what a great team that they are.  Calipari, in his remarks after the game, was being honest when he said that the Fighting Irish played a great game and his team did not.  While it's a cliché that the mark of a great team is that they can play poorly on a big night and win, well, that's precisely what Kentucky did.  In tournaments, despite all the hype behind and beyond the '89 Princeton-Georgetown game, there's no such thing as a bad win or a good loss.  After all, despite Notre Dame's great efforts, it is Kentucky who is moving on.

Friday, March 27, 2015

That Freight Train That You Heard Last Night

Was the Kentucky Wildcats.

Perhaps WVA Coach Bob Huggins will instruct his team to say less during the pre-game hype.  Having a freshman suggest that a 36-0 team "doesn't play hard," didn't help matters.

That WVA didn't shoot nearly well enough to get its vaunted press going made things much worse.

Monday, March 23, 2015

The Magnanimity of Mo'Ne Davis

Philadelphia-area high school star turned DIII baseball player tweets something offensive and stupid. 

He's not the first, and he won't be the last.

The tweet goes viral.  The young man quickly learns that while he can pick his sin, he cannot pick his consequences.  His DIII school boots him off the baseball team. 

The young man realized that he did something very stupid and apologized.  I don't know the college baseball player, cannot say that this behavior was an aberration, whether his being cut derived from either a) the school's fear of reprisal from doing anything less, such as a suspension or b) the student-athlete's conduct prior to this incident.  Perhaps the school had warned him about other behavior, and this was the last straw.  Whatever the case, the young man did something dumb, drew national publicity to himself (whereas, in high school, his bat spoke for him), and lost the ability to do something he loves.

Enter Mo'Ne Davis, the object of the stupid e-mail.  The college baseball player called her an ugly name.  Instead of feeling the need to retaliate or lecture, Mo'Ne  Davis offered forgiveness and asked the school not to kick the player off the team, but to reinstate him.  So far, the school stands by its decision.

Mo'Ne Davis is a big person and is the bigger person here.  Many kids would have ignored this, gotten on a high horse, or retaliated with tough if permissible language (on an ever-changing landscape of what is and is not permissive)..  Instead, she either got good advice and took it or came up with this idea herself -- that a young man did something dumb, was publicly humiliated for his bad statement and suffered enough -- so why keep him off the team?

She took the high road on a social media network that offers many an abundance of low roads on which to travel.  In doing so, she didn't approach becoming the type of person for at least at the moment the college baseball player became.  In doing so, she showed, once again, what a leader and transcending person she can be. 

A young man made a dumb mistake.

And even younger woman elected not to pile on.  Instead, she offered forgiveness and assistance.

If you know teenagers and the pain they can go through on social media and in social networks, this is pretty huge, a great example as to how to help make a better world.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

Villanova Coach Jay Wright Shows a Sense of Humor in Defeat

After the upset loss to North Carolina State, Wright offered that he hoped that Chip Kelly would so something soon for the Eagles so as to take the media's attention off his Wildcats.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why Were the Princeton Women "Only" an 8th Seed?

Argument for higher seed:  They were 30-0 and the only undefeated team in Division I.  And, some of the relatively new statistics demonstrate that they perhaps have the 17th best chance to win it all (perhaps that's the 538 blog), which would argue for a 5th seed.

Argument for lower seed:  Sure, they were 30-0, but their league is weak and their non-conference schedule wasn't sterling.  Sure, it's great to have been 30-0 and yes, you play who you play, but it's not like you were playing an ACC or SEC schedule.  Beat someone really good at a neutral site or on the road, like a ranked team, and then pop off.  Or, at least that's the argument.

Argument for an 8th seed:  Add the arguments above up and divide them by two, and you get an 8th seed, honoring both the undefeated season and allowing for the doubting that your league isn't among the strongest and neither was your non-conference schedule. 

My take:  An 8th is rather harsh because it is the committee's way of saying, "well, if you're any good, you're going to beat a 9th seed but then we'll get rid of the distraction that you present, the snobbery about your version of a student-athlete and the negative comparisons about academics because you'll go up against a #1 seed if you win in the first round and that will guarantee that you won't play on the second weekend."  A 7th or a 6th seed would have given the Tigers a better shot to win two games and get to the Sweet 16.  So, yes, I think that the Tigers got screwed.  You don't go 30-0 and draw a #13 ranking in the country and get a seed worthy of the #32 team in the country.

If you go back to around 1999, the Princeton men were 27-2 in the regular season and ranked 8th in the country.  They weren't going to draw a #2 seed in the tournament -- everyone knew that.  Look, they were in the Ivy League and they had a similar comparison to the Princeton women of today.  But the tournament committee gave them a #5 seed, which they had earned, and they won their first-round game before bowing out to a very good Michigan State team (with Mateen Cleaves) in a close second-round game (I believe that Michigan State went to the Final Four that year and might have won the whole thing). 

At the end of the day, the NCAA Tournament Committee got it wrong. 

Now it's up to Princeton to show 'em on the court.

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Tim Tebow in Philadelphia


Perhaps Chip Kelly was doing Urban Meyer or someone in the Florida family or Tebow himself a favor. 

Or perhaps the Eagles were trying to create a distraction for the local media, as a Tebow sighting is wont to create.  Give Tebow a tryout and the experts on the air waves will have a field day with the possibilities for him in the Oregon Offense.  Give Tebow a tryout and you divert attention away to Kelly's curious moves of trading a lot for a gimpy quarterback and emphasizing a running game in an increasingly passing league.  Give Tebow a tryout and you'll divert attention away from the fact that the Eagles have holes at safety, offensive line and wide receiver.

Perhaps that's all it was -- a distraction.

That said, the bigger distraction would have been had they signed Tebow.  Tebow is guaranteed to bring a media circus with him, even if his throwing motion resembles the back-and-forth of one of the oil wells in the lead in to the TV show Friday Night Lights

I don't think that the distraction worked, however.  The Tebow appearance was a bit like the passing of a comet -- people talked about it while it happened and for a little while afterwards, but they've moved on.

Which means that they remain curious about Kelly's moves and are picking at the roster openings as if they were infected, open sores.  Memo to Jeffrey Lurie:  you have an eager, somewhat desperate fan base, and they are confused and unhappy (at least many of them).  It's amazing how you and the front office and Coach Kelly have converted the over-the-top enthusiasm for Kelly's arrival two years ago into abject skepticism whether he knows what he's doing, all this despite being two for two in double-digit win seasons in his two-year career. 

Two years ago, everyone thought that Chip Kelly was a big step up over Andy Reid. 


Chris Borland's Retirement from the 49ers at 24

Not a good month for the NFL, when four players under 30 (although seemingly and increasingly most players are under 27, -- if you get to 30 you are an NFL Methusaleh) retire for various reasons.  Jake Locker retired because he lost his passion for the game; Jason Worilds did so to pursue other interests.  Patrick Willis did so because of injuries, and Chris Borland, who replaced an injured Willis last season, did so because of a fear of what repetitive blows to the head could have on his long-term health. 

Which shows, to some degree, that Borland put his Wisconsin history degree to use in researching the effects of the game on him and the cost-benefit analysis for his life as to whether he should continue playing and risk debilitating consequences or quit and hope that all of the hitting he did prior to the ripe old age of 24 doesn't have long-lasting effects. 

Seemingly, this is a smart move.  Football is a violent sport.  Even with rules changes, it is full of collisions.  And, in what we've learned about neurological issues, repetitive head-banging (among linemen) might have long-term consequences too, even if the blows aren't as noticeable as those that once appeared on ESPN's ill-advised "All Jacked Up" feature on SportsCenter. 

Look, some guys love the game and want to take the risk.  They like the rituals, the contact, the violence, the stature and the glory that can come with having had a long and prosperous NFL career.  But the sad truth is that NFL careers on average last three years and represent the culmination of football playing for kids who could have started as early as 6.  So, by the time a young man is 25, he has had at least a decade and a half of hitting other young men.  Most of us are schooled -- in life -- to avoid getting hit if at all possible.  After all, it hurts.  What's worse -- even if deep down we saw it and knew it decades ago -- is that it could hurt a lot worse as one ages and effect one's ability to function or even live.  And despite having a union that has increased its clout, the average NFL player, after taxes, does not come away with nearly enough to create a nest egg to help protect him from all those problems later in life, let alone retire. 

Some people play because they love the game and might not be nearly as good at anything else and could have limited earnings potential elsewhere.  Others might play because playing then could lead to a career for something similar -- in coaching, in broadcasting, in working for the team's front office.  In that sense, the "investment" in an NFL career, even if "short-lived," is worth it.  But for those who are in between -- talented enough to do something else for a living outside football and make a good living -- the economic choices (and a choice for a long-term healthy life) can be pretty clear -- get out, and get out as fast as you can. 

That's what Chris Borland seems to be saying in his retirement.  My guess is that the stats and math guys, the Nate Silver's of the world, could run simulations that show you that based on the average life span of an NFL veteran of so many years and Borland's decision to quit when he did and his potential earnings power elsewhere, that Borland made a superlative choice if he wants to chase his kids on a ball field or play with grand kids and remember their names.  After all, there are analytics for everything. 

And all this should make the NFL worried, the same way that MLB should be worried that many young people see baseball as too slow a game, one without action and one that their grandfathers took their fathers to.  The NFL should be worried, not necessarily because of an occasional retirement like Borland's or even a slew of copycat retirements down the road.  It should be worried because fans could migrate if the additional long-term health data get published showing the game's long-term debilitating effects.  How many fans will continue to turn out if they know that they are enjoying a game where people could suffer life-threatening injuries as young men and without sufficient remuneration or financial support so that they can take care of themselves and families later on? 

The NFL has a serious problem.  Sure, it can hire a good publicity firm to isolate the Borland matter (and the 49ers handled the news with grace and dignity), but inside the league's offices they should be looking into how they can make the game safer and protect the participants more.  My bet is that down the road football becomes more like lacrosse -- the players will gear up, but there will be much less hitting and perhaps "electronic" means of tackling along the lines of flag or touch football so as to reduce injuries.  Sure, the running game might be affected (perhaps Greco-Roman upper-body holds to stop a runner might be adopted), but overall we'll have more football players around walking unaided when they are 70.  The public might not like that idea right now or be willing to accept it.

But suppose someone like Chris Borland were your kid.  Suppose that you work a nice job, but a job that doesn't get publicity and has its ups and downs.  You're pretty good at it, but you're not going to get promoted again, and you work for the teamwork, the brand and the benefits, among other things.  Suppose you enjoyed the ritual of going to games on Friday nights in high school and on Saturdays in college.  You ended up with an extra bounce in your step because he was a good student and got an athletic scholarship to a big-time school.  You traveled to watch him play, went to his bowl games and got a big kick out of his getting drafting and playing well in the NFL.  And then he tells you that he's going to hang it all up to go get a master's degree. 

What would you say to him?  Would you be deflated that you were about to lose your extra cache among the guys at work, where they rallied around you as you shared inside dope as to what Coach Harbaugh was really like and the perks on the private jets that ferried the teams to games?  Or would you forget all that and think, "you know what, we raised this kid right.  He used his talents to get a scholarship, got his degree and then thought for himself.  What a wise decision." 

My guess is that for most it would be a little bit of both.  Don't discount that NFL cache and the perks that went with it, but don't underestimate the unconditional love of parents and support for decisions.  For most people, the latter will trump the former, and Dad will realize that there is more to him -- a lot more -- than just having had a son play in the NFL.  The son will realize that while the parents loved his football life, there is a lot more to them than being happy because he was a star player.  Together, they will go forward, quickly and perhaps have more time to spend with one another because they will have a better chance to be in the same place. 

And the parents can cease worrying that one hit in one game could change their son's life for the worse forever.  Deep down, all parents of football players worry about that much more than parents of baseball or basketball players do.  And they will be relieved.  Perhaps in the summer Chris Borland's biggest risk will come if he tries to jaywalk at a busy intersection in Madison, Wisconsin, en route to a class. 

Chris Borland made a wise choice.  Football is a dangerous game.  We tried to tell ourselves that smoking wasn't bad for people or that too much sugar in the form of soda, ice cream, candy and cookies is okay, but now cigarettes are very expensive and banned in most public places and there is an international diabetes problem.  We can tell ourselves that all is okay because the players have assumed the risk and that there just is not enough data, but that's only because we are anesthetizing ourselves away from the blunt truth that football -- and all of the hitting -- can create long-term problems.  What's worse is how popular the game is -- at the high school, college and pro level, and, as for the latter two, perhaps because football is a much easier game to bet on than any other because of the point spread.  Most Americans love their football -- football is an event, there's ritual, there's pageantry and, yes, there's hitting.  And betting, and tailgating and drinking. 

Chris Borland's decision compels us to think hard about our pastime and whether all of the violence that young men volunteer to endure is worth it.  We'll try to tell ourselves it is because it's always been so. 

But we might be wrong.

Occam's Razor: Penn Picks Steve Donahue to Be Its Next Men's B-Ball Coach

He is a native of the Philadelphia area.

He was an assistant on some great Penn teams, working under the legendary Fran Dunphy.

He excelled at Cornell and took them to the Sweet 16. 

He cashed in, went to B.C., didn't fare all that well and lost his job. 

He worked the past year as a commentator, a coach in waiting.

All of that adds up to good criteria to be Penn's next coach. 

He knows the school and he won at a place without a basketball tradition.

The hope at Penn is that Donahue has a second Ivy act and the thinking has to be, "well, if he could do all that at Cornell, imagine what he might be able to do at Penn."

The simplest, most obvious solution for Penn might well prove to be the best one.

Jerome Allen was a great player and is a good guy; it just didn't work for him as Penn's coach.

Penn didn't overthink it this time, as it probably did after Fran Dunphy left University City for North Broad Street. 

And "not overthinking" is what the smart folks are supposed to do.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

Harvard versus Yale -- for the Ivies' Automatic Berth in the NCAA Tournament

If you have told someone 25 years ago that this would be the case, that they would be co-champions, you would have told that foreteller that he was nuts.  There is no way, the listener would have argued, that anyone other than Penn or Princeton would be winning the title, save some interloping in the late 1980's.  But time hasn't been kind to that great rivalry, and, among others, Cornell and Harvard have gone on some impressive runs, statistically more impressive because each got the Round of 16, something that Penn and Princeton found elusive (at least after 1979).  Put differently, both Cornell and Harvard won two games and got to the Sweet 16.

Sure, I'm a Princeton fan, but I grew up a Penn fan and know how strong the rivalry was.  Each team needed the other to bring out the best in it and the most passion in its fans.  Somehow, it's just not the same between Harvard and Yale or Cornell and anyone.  They call the football game between the Crimson and Elis "The Game," but no such moniker gets attached to any basketball match.  Penn and Princeton, though, in its heyday, was another story.  They were national programs with players and coaches who drew national mention.  But that was then.

Inflation in the late 1970's and early 1980's plus freshmen eligibility plus every school's wanting to have a big-time basketball program plus the Ivies' not giving any athletic scholarships or full grants to those who needed them (as opposed to a package of a grant, a loan and a job) pushed players away from the Ivies who might otherwise have gone there.  Still, Penn and Princeton persisted, both because of a rich history and, in Penn's case, arguably the best venue for college basketball in the country (at least when the house is packed).  But then a couple of things happened, too.

One was that Steve Donahue, Fran Dunphy's top assistant, went to Cornell and worked some Penn magic in Ithaca.  Another was that Dunphy left Penn for nearby Temple, and Penn didn't have a ready successor, choosing Brown's Glen Miller, who had success at Brown (including three simultaneous first-team all-Ivy players despite not winning the title), who failed to mesh with anyone at Penn (he's now the top assistant at UConn, where he has earned a few championship rings during his coaching career).  Princeton kept drawing from its coaching family, first naming Bill Carmody in 1996 to succeed Pete Carril and then John Thompson III when Carmody opted for the Big 10 and Northwestern in 2000 (Thompson's coaching job at Princeton in his first season ranks as one of the all-time best coaching jobs anywhere; the Tigers lost center Chris Young to professional baseball, two players missed the season and five started it with injuries -- and they still won the Ivy title).  When Thompson left for Georgetown, the Tigers logically hired Joe Scott, an alum who had worked wonders at Air Force.  Sadly, though, Scott had similar problems at Princeton to those that Miller at Penn.  Put simply, he couldn't go home, not much worked, and he ended up opting for the University of Denver a season or two perhaps before he would have been asked to leave.

Those hiring decisions, as it were, showed that dynasties do not last forever and that other schools can build basketball programs if they make the right hires and because you don't need all that many players to turn around a moribund basketball program as you do a football program.  While Cornell was burning it up with Donahue (only to lose him to Boston College, where he failed), Harvard made a threshold decision -- it fired affable, honorable Frank Sullivan (who did an unheralded job), changed the way it would view admissions about basketball recruits, and hired a Duke alum, Tommy Amaker, who had not succeeded either at Seton Hall or at Michigan.  Harvard must have felt that the third time was the charm and that Amaker, with better players, could help build a winning program at Harvard, which he has done (in the face of withering criticism about Harvard's allegedly lowering its recruiting standards for men's basketball players and a cheating scandal at the school that compelled two stars a few years ago to take a year away from Cambridge or else risk suspension or expulsion).

But Ivy basketball isn't the same.  Penn just fired coach Jerome Allen, one of the best players in its history, who took over the Quaker program after Miller had left it like a battleship without a rudder in the middle of a firefight.  His supporters argue that he had begun to turn the program around; his critics would contend that Allen is a better recruiter than a coach.  At any rate, Penn will look to re-build its program.  It has a few alumni out there who have head coaching jobs, and one would think that the favorite is former Penn guard Andy Toole, who is the head coach at Robert Morris, which is headed to the NCAA Tournament.  Matt Langel, the Colgate coach, and a former Dunphy assistant, should figure into the mix, but he has not enjoyed much success up in Hamilton, New York.  Of course, Penn could go outside its alumni network and the Ivies, too.

Princeton, in contrast, seems to have a better rudder.  Coach Mitch Henderson, the star point guard on the team that went 27-2 fifteen years ago, just finished up a 16-14 season without his best returning player, Denton Koon, who missed the season because of injury.  The Tigers relied heavily on underclassmen, and they seemed prime for improvement.  And yet. . .

Something is missing.  Both schools need to vie for recruits, to become two of the best teams not in a major conference in the Northeast, and two return to the times when they were the best two teams in the Ivies and both rivalry games were like playoff games, especially because the Ivies have no post-season tournament.  I know, it's good to see change, nothing should last forever, and perhaps it's Harvard's and Yale's turn, and Coach James Jones at Yale is a most unheralded coach and worthy of a tournament bid.  I get all that. . .

And yet. . . it's just not the same.

And that makes me sound -- and feel -- a bit old.

I yearn for the days where I hear a Penn fan hit a drumstick on a cowbell at the Palestra, when the Penn fans yell "Let's go Quakers," and the Princeton fans exhort their Tigers, where the Palestra and Jadwin are filled and when both teams play each other the first time without a league loss and the second time when the game will determine whether there is a tie or not and perhaps a playoff game.  That was some good basketball back then, that was electricity, and that was the special feeling that a fan gets when he knows he's watching something truly special.

Sorry, Harvard and Yale.  You have a lot of great aspects to you, you really do.  And, yes, right now you might be atop the Ivies in men's basketball.  Congratulations -- it's very hard to do that.

But it's just not vintage Penn-Princeton.

And it never will be.