SportsProf

(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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Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Coaching Leadership

E.g., Doug Collins.

Call it "old school," call it humble, call it simple, but it works. You don't win all the time by being right, by being a know-it-all, by being a hardass, by yelling. You can win by being straightforward, fair and encouraging, especially with a young team.

Doug Collins has the 76ers believing, and while it's hard to imagine their getting past the first round of the playoffs, if they play the Heat, by the time the series is over, the Heat will have been in a hard-fought series.

At the season's outset, the 76ers were dreadful, and no less an authority than Stephen A. Smith offered that the 76ers were lucky to get Collins given who they had on their roster (he wondered why Collins would have been interested in the job). Well, now they're not dreadful, and the image of a relaxed, enthusiastic Collins is as inspiring as the development of a group of players that to a person seems like a group of very good guys. Yup, it's that "chemistry" word again, and Doug Collins might be part alchemist, part chemist. Whatever you call it, he's done a great job on South Broad Street.

The Phillies Cut Luis Castillo; What They Didn't Say, Though

When the Phillies grew all concerned about Chase Utley's season, they inked the recently released Castillo to a minor-league deal. The fans thought that Utley's season (and future) might be in doubt. After all, Castillo is a seasoned second baseman. Apparently, the team might not have been confident starting journeyman Wilson Valdez at second (even though he filled in admirably for Jimmy Rollins last season when he was hurt), or giving significant playing time to Rule 5 draftee Michael Martinez and veteran non-roster invitees Delwyn Young and Pete Orr.

That was about 10 days ago. But a funny thing happened, or a few funny things did. First, Castillo didn't bust his rear end to get to Phillies' camp, showing up a day later than he should have and then offered a lame excuse. Second, he played matador on a ground ball/throw combination in an exhibition game that might be a nuance to many but not to Phillies' observers. Put differently, he showed that he's a bit of a diva/disaffected veteran who might have become used to a culture of losing in New York. As Jayson Stark of ESPN.com said on The Mike Missanelli Show on Philadelphia talk radio today, "he just isn't their type of guy."

That's interesting and not surprising to hear, that chemistry means a lot to the Phillies and that they won't consider adding even one player with a questionable attitude for fear that he'll infect the rest of the team. That's the price an excellent team pays to win, even if it means passing -- on the cheap -- on a veteran second sacker who might have helped the team. So, they canned Castillo today.

Stark also had another interesting thing to say (or two or three). He offered that the Phillies must be more sanguine about Utley's return than they were a week ago. So, instead of having Utley out until the All-Star break, he's sensing Utley could be back in May. Second, he observed that the team likes Delwyn Young and Pete Orr, even if it might not be able to keep both. Third, Michael Martinez will make the team -- among other reasons, Charlie Manuel loves him.

The genius/beauty of the Phillies last year was their ability time after time to find spare parts to fill in until the big names returned. The Achilles' heel turned out to be that the big names weren't fully recovered and had trouble hitting to their capabilities afterwards. That said, the Phillies have had a knack to surface a Valdez, Dane Sardinha and others to help.

Opening Day is just around the corner. The baseball gods have dealt the Phillies four aces. It will be interesting to watch how they play the hand and whether it will prove to be enough.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

The Goofball Express

Its chief engineer today has to be the Cowboys' Dez Bryant. Prospective NFL players take courses on the pitfalls of excess. It also could stand to reason that they have good parents, that they go to a place of worship, that they have mentors somewhere. Apparently, though, in the case of Dez Bryant, despite all the warnings of becoming a statistic, part of the detritus of the NFL landscape of busted legs, heads, relationships and bank accounts, he figured that he'd be Superman, transcend it all, and handle it. The only thing, though, that seems to be getting handled is lawsuits.

It was bad enough when the veterans set him up to pay $55,000 for a dinner for a bunch of his teammates. That was wrong, in bad taste, and if I were the coach of the Cowboys I would have singed the team's leadership for doing something so stupid. It's not cool to take advantage of the youngest folks, even if you were similarly taken advantage of.

Insanity is sometimes defined as doing the same thing over and over again when it's futile. Somewhere, somehow, there's a toxic, insane culture in the NFL that leads talented young men to bankruptcy. Look, I'm not saying that each of these young players needs a financial guardian. But where's the players' union to set them up with a mentor, perhaps a retired player with a sense of finances who can guide the youngest players about temptations, about pitfalls, about saving a good chunk of their money. This is just so sad to see. Here's a talented young receiver, and pretty soon all he'll be doing is playing for his creditors. That is, if he'll continue to have the will to do so when he realizes that there won't be much left in it for him, except memories of the excesses that were his rookie year.

The Goofball Express is already booked beyond capacity. When will the lunacy end?

Jalen Rose on Duke, Coach K on Jalen Rose

A mentor once said, "clarity can be offensive."

No further do we have to look than the ESPN documentary on the Fab Five, in which Jalen Rose was blunt and honest about how he felt about Duke at the time he was recruited. For me, it was raw data, an unguarded assessment as to what a poor kid from Detroit must have felt at the time of his recruitment. Nothing more, nothing less, and, yes, I inferred from his inflection and tone that Jalen a) didn't necessarily think that what he thought then was actually the case then or is the case now and b) that Jalen realized that he was expressing jealousy over what he didn't have.

Coach Mike Krzyzewski responded, defending his turf, laying into Rose, and also digging into the Fab Five by saying that they didn't establishing anything at Michigan the way the teams under his auspices have. Fair enough, I suppose, because Coach K hasn't ascended to the top of the collegiate coaching ladder by breaking out tea and crumpets and singing "Kumbaya" with Jim Calhoun, Roy Williams, John Calipari or anyone else who might get in his way. So, there, I'm being blunt too -- with some exceptions, there's a little bit of a tough guy/jerk at times in those who get to where Coach K gets. There has to be -- because these guys know what they want and where they want to go, and sometimes you have to go out there and "take" your turf, even if it means hurting someone's feelings.

And I can definitely see where the Grant Hills and Jayson Williamses of the world are ticked, because Rose made some comments that weren't fair. I get that. And, as peers, age-wise, of Rose, I figure that they get the right to say their peace. What's amusing to me is that Coach K couldn't have left it with, "Listen, he was a great player, he's a heck of a competitor, and he was reflecting on what he felt as a teenager. We've all said things during those years that we're not proud of, and I'm sure that this wasn't Jalen Rose's finest moment."

Leadership. Defense. High Road. Defense. Retaliation. Turn the Other Cheek. When you do what is sometimes tough to determine. When you do what, though, says a lot about you too. Coach K is a very accomplished coach, very successful. Hill and Williams were great players, as was Rose. What I saw in the documentary -- and what I thought the filmmakers must have loved -- is that Rose took off the varnish and said how he felt. He didn't sanitize it, and I think that's okay because he was being truthful as to what he thought at the time. That said, I suppose that it's hard for me to say that Coach K should have acted one way (not responding) and Rose the other (being blunt). Then again, Rose was reflecting on the thoughts of an eighteen year-old, and that's what made his statements so compelling. Documentaries can expose raw nerves. They're not always fair. And this one got out in the open perhaps what many others had thought in different ways -- that the Duke program was "perfect", that everyone said so, and that if you weren't part of the "perfect" kids you somehow were a lesser being.

It's not that people don't respect the Duke program -- how can you not? It's just that they might not like it all that much because of the perception that it's perfect and the rest of us are not. And we all need a Duke to chase, shoot for, try to beat -- most of us do. I recall being in my school system and always hearing how x, y and z were the smartest kids and were touted as such. Well, they were bright, but who were certain teachers to decide that x, y and z were the best and the rest of us didn't measure up. That ticked me off, and I was determined to use them as a benchmark and a motivator to beat them. And a bunch of the times I did, if only by hard work and sheer force of will. I respect those guys to this day, but I didn't appreciate being told that I wasn't as good as them.

The thing of it was, for Jalen Rose and the Fab Five, that they were as good as Duke, if not better. They had the talent, but they just couldn't quite win a national title while playing for Michigan. They had great careers, but they didn't get the championship ring. There's a story in that, too, which is that the x's, y'z and z's are that good, very good, and, sometimes, they are better. That's life, whether you like the Dukes of the world or not. That people are still talking about this topic means that the documentary filmmakers were onto something and did their job. As for Jalen Rose, he's done all right for himself, proving that the world is big enough for Duke and non-Duke players alike.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Former Penn Coach Glen Miller Makes It to the Final Four

He's the Director of Basketball Operations for UConn.

Meanwhile, Penn's men's team continues to struggle since his departure. This past year's senior class was the first since Ben Franklin founded the university (or at least since Chuck Bednarik played football there) that did not win an Ivy title or make it to the NCAA tournament. My guess is that some of the blame will be put on Miller's doorstep, but no matter how you slice it, he's in the Final Four.

And Penn will not be able to use the Miller interlude as an excuse for much longer. (And whether Miller was a good fit to begin was the decision of A.D. Steve Bilsky, who had no succession plan for what was becoming an increasingly likely departure of legendary Fran Dunphy, who had the itch to go to more competitive pastures for years).

Penn will return to a preeminent perch in the Ivies soon. But, for right now, Glen Miller is in the Final Four.

What has Buck Showalter Won?

The Orioles' skipper is providing bulletin board material in the AL East by questioning whether Theo Epstein is any good as a GM and Derek Jeter's instincts when he takes inside pitches. Why? You would think that if you were the Orioles' manager, you'd lay low and hope that the Red Sox and Yankees would take you very lightly in between games against each other and the Rays, among other very good teams. Instead, you are provoking the giants, which only ensures that they'll take specific glee in beating the tar out of you and keeping you perpetually in the cellar. Can you say Pittsburgh Pirates of the AL (East), anyone? Sheesh. There are those who say that Showalter is a good manager, and perhaps he is, but you would think that he'd have more things to worry about than publicly commenting on his opposition. You would think that he'd know that he's a manager now and not still a talking head. And, finally, you would think the he wants to leave a legacy of a title somewhere, and not just be the next Gene Mauch. And if you're under 45 and have never heard of Mauch, there's a reason. Google the Phillies in 1964 and the Angels in the early 1980's, and you'll see that his teams almost got there but just quite didn't. The '64 Phillies were up 6 1/2 with 12 to play, only to finish in third place. That spectre loomed over Philadelphia for a long time, and thankfully for Phillies' fans the Mets' blowing a 7 1/2 game lead with 17 to play eclipsed the Phillies' meltdown in 1964. As for the Angels, they were within one strike of the World Series before their bullpen collapses. So, Buck, what should you really be concerned about? That when the Red Sox and Yankees play you in Baltimore, not only will there be more fans of the visiting team there, but that they'll be very loud, and giving you grief every time. Surely, you'll generate more interest in these rivalries, but at what cost and for what purpose?

The Compelling Story of Butler's Matt Howard

And why the NCAA Tournament can be so enthralling.

From a small Indiana town that once hosted a Ford plant, one of ten kids, good student, player that all coaches love -- smart, disciplined, unselfish and plays very hard. There are many good stories out there like this year after year. Programs usually don't get this far without them. This is the kid who makes his teammates better, who gives his team its heartbeat, and who was Butler's first top-100 recruit. He could have gone to bigger-time programs; he chose Butler.

And he's one of the main reasons why (along with Shelvin Mack) the Bulldogs have returned to the Final Four.

Thanks to Pete Thamel of the New York Times for writing such a good piece.

Sports in Northeast Weather

We love our sports all over the country, but most of us who live in the colder-weather regions of the country have memories of stinging hands and chapped skin from playing baseball in weather that was much more made for December football games, when at least you were more ready for temperatures in the high 30's and the stiff winds that accompanied them.

So, here's a tip of the proverbial softball visor to my middle-school-aged daughter, who scrimmaged in this godawful weather on Friday afternoon and had a 1 hour and 45 minute practice for a local team yesterday afternoon. And, also, a tip of the lacrosse helmet to my elementary school-aged son, who will be playing a lacrosse game in weather more geared for the Eagles-Giants at the Meadowlands in December than a local contest in late March.

So much for the arrival of spring -- it's cold out there for everyone, and thanks to Under Armor and youthful endurance, the kids are doing just fine out there, everyone's kids, that is.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

The Phillies Shape Their Bullpen and Make a Bad Decision

The Phillies still have 7 relievers on the Major League roster after optioning Scott Mathieson and Mike Zagurski to AAA Lehigh Valley, opting to keep both Danys Baez and David Herndon ahead of Mathieson and Antonio Bastardo as the second lefty ahead of Zagurski.

I'm not going to get into a debate over the Bastardo/Zagurski decision, even if Baseball Prospectus wrote glowing things about Zagurski and his torrid second half in Lehigh Valley.

That same publication wrote even more glowing things about Mathieson, who had a great season last year in AAA, showed a great recovery from arm surgery and just pitched great. He's also had a good spring, but, for some reason -- probably because he has an option left, the Phillies are sending him to Lehigh Valley. It also may be for two other reasons -- a) they'll want him to get regular work on the farm (and regular work won't be guaranteed in Philadelphia) and b) they'll probably want him to close (which he won't do in Philadelphia, at least now). That all sounds good, but the guy is a keeper, and keepers want to be with the big club, and it's my view that Mathieson has more than earned a roster spot.

Why? Because while Herndon has had a decent spring, he pitched mop-up duty exclusively last year and struggled, and he only did so because he was a curious Rule 5 pick that the Phillies didn't want to return to the Angels so he had to stay on the roster. Then there's Baez, who was a terrible free-agent signing (to a guaranteed two-year deal, too) and whose contract for some reason the Phillies don't want to eat. That's in stark contrast to the cash-strapped Mets, who have decided to eat about $18 million in monies they owe to Oliver Perez and Luis Castillo, whom they released. Baez is owed about $3 million, which is a small price to sacrifice for a roster whose payroll is among the five highest in baseball. It's hard to believe that the Phillies couldn't find a way to keep Mathieson over one of those two guys, and Mathieson and his agent must be thinking the same thing.

As must be Chad Durbin, who also deserves one of those roster spots, but, instead, is a refugee in Cleveland for a team whose season might be over by August. If you're a Phillies' fan, you'd rather have Durbin and Mathieson over Baez and Herndon.

Then again, this is the Phillies, one of baseball's oldest teams, and a team that used 22 pitchers last season. Which means, of course, that Mathieson will be back up soon, and, when he returns, he'll likely stay for a while.

Still, Mathieson deserves his spot now. In the meantime, stay tuned to what the Phillies' lineup will look like, who will hit third and fifth, and who will play second base. The Phillies are a good team, but their lineup won't scare that many teams, no matter how good the starting rotation is.

SportsProf's Hierarchy of Rooting

You've heard of John Wooden's "Pyramid of Success" and Maslow's "Hierarchy of Needs," so I figured I'd share with you how I determine to root for teams in the NCAA Tournament, in order of priority.

1. Princeton. That's easy, I went there, love the Tigers, love the Princeton basketball brand.

2. Temple. Again, pretty easy. My father went there, and the Owls have an excellent brand, too. They had one under Harry Litwack, Don Casey and John Chaney, and they continue to enjoy an excellent brand under Fran Dunphy.

3. Any other Philadelphia-area team. So, for example, I rooted for St. Joe's and Jameer Nelson when it went to the Elite Eight, and Villanova when it went to the Final Four. I'm a little lukewarm about Penn, Princeton's archrival. On the one hand, I was a huge Penn fan as a kid (both parents have degrees from there), and I respec their brand and program very much (huge Dunphy fan). That said, well, it's kind of hard to root for Penn, even if I respect the Quakers greatly.

4. Any team with a connection to where I live. That means Temple, again, as Lavoy Allen went to high school where I live, and West Virginia (ditto for Dalton Pepper). This, though, is a pretty small category, as most school districts might send one kid to a DI program in a generation, and, if that, what are the odds that the kid will get significant playing time.

5. Any team with a Princeton or Philadelphia connection. Richmond qualified doubly this year, because head coach Chris Mooney is a Princeton alum and Philadelphia native. Having both, though, didn't move Richmond ahead of, say, West Virginia. That also meant Wisconsin, whose head coach, Bo Ryan, is a Philadelphia-area native, and it also means Kansas (which I picked in my bracket), because the outstanding Morris brothers, Marcus and Markieff, are from Philadelphia.

6. Underdogs. Butler and VCU, for example. But, if Kentucky somehow were an underdog in the tournament, I confess I would find it hard to root for John Calipari, no matter how fundamentally sound his team has looked in the past couple of weeks.

7. North Carolina, because I love Dean Smith, so much so that a Carolina presence sometimes can upset the hierarchy (although it's hard to tell a close friend whose a Wake Forest alum that). Also, the sometimes fealty to Carolina would trump, say, #5, when it came to Duke, a program which I also respect, last season, because Duke's center, Brian Zoubek, is a Philadelphia-area native (and his father is friends with friends of mine).

Which means, of course, that I might be faced with a dilemma if Butler were to face North Carolina or Kansas in the NCAA final. Believe it or not, I'd probably go with the underdog, even against beloved Carolina, and most likely against Kansas, regardless of whether it was Wilt Chamberlain's school and is the Morris brothers' school. and was my pick to win it all. The reason? There's just a magnetism to underdogs that I can't escape.

Which means, of course, that my team usually will not win the national title game.

But, it would be pretty amazing if they could.

So that's my Hierarchy of Rooting.

What's yours?

The Next Great One?

You've already met Butler's Brad Stevens. The question is whether he remains in Indianapolis or takes his coaching talents to a bigger conference with a bigger stage.

Then again, the Big East is supposed to be the biggest stage, and teams from that conference for the most part disappointed in the post-season (save UConn and Marquette). So, perhaps a stage is what you make of it, and if you make it big, it's big.

In the late 1940's, after a deal with Minnesota didn't work, John Wooden left the Midwest for a UCLA team that played in an old gym that Wooden and his assistants had to sweep and share with other teams. Wooden was in Westwood for 15 seasons before he won a national championship. Fans, devotees and disciples of one-time Cal coach Pete Newell would argue that if the (legendary in his own right) Newell hadn't retired young because all the cups of coffee and cigarettes took their toll and his doctor advised him to quit, perhaps Wooden's legacy wouldn't be as vast and great. Those folks have empirical evidence to support them -- Newell's Cal teams were preeminent in the early 1960's (winning 1 NCAA title and getting to the Final Four at least 1 other team), and from 1960-1964 Cal was 8-0 against UCLA. Of course, that argument comes from the "woulda, shoulda, coulda" school, and Wooden's legacy is almost without peer.

In the early 1980's, when to this day I don't know why Bill Foster left Duke (which he took to the title game against Joe Hall's Kentucky team in 1980) for Northwestern of all places, the Blue Devils were looking for a head coach. I'm sure that they thought of all sorts of established names from big-time programs, but the Duke A.D. took the advice of one of the two or three top coaches in the game at the time, Bob Knight, and hired a relatively young coach from Army with a career record of 1-game over .500, Mike Krzyzewski, and the rest is history.

Hiring Stevens for a big-time program would seem to be a slam dunk without much if any risk. I'm sure that while athletic directors in the six largest conferences will look at Richmond's Chris Mooney and VCU's Shaka Smart, they'll also spend a whole bunch of time figuring out how to pry Stevens out of the Horizon League and into theirs.

Because if there's a sure thing, this guy is it.

And the college basketball world should be thrilled that while Stevens did okay being a pharmaceutical sales rep, he's happier wearing sweats, coaching and teaching.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Yo, Directors of the NCAA Men's B-Ball Telecasts

Can you please stop the idiocy of having your banner of other games' scores on the top right of the screen? Viewers cannot see where high-arcing shots will fall because your *&#@#! banner gets in the way. Threes, foul shots, what have you?

C'mon, get in the game!

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Tale of Two (Great) Teams in One City

A good read: Adam Himmselsbach's piece in today's New York Times about Richmond and VCU, which are five miles apart.

Which got me to thinking, going into the tournament:

1. Would you have thought that the Big East would only get two teams into the Sweet 16?
2. If you had picked a city to put two teams in the Sweet 16, would you have put Richmond, Virginia? (Oh, sure, Carolina hoop afficionados, Duke and North Carolina aren't all that far apart, either, but they aren't in the same city).

I wouldn't have. It's also pretty amusing that the tournament committee pitted Florida State, with the best field-goal defense in the nation, against good-shooting Notre Dame, only, once again, to expose Notre Dame as the type of "day late, dollar short" team when it comes to the Big Dance. And, while he professes to know zero about college hoops, worthy opponents proved Charles Barkley right when he said that the Big East was overrated and only deserved to get eight teams in the tournament. To that, I would ask, which eight, because nine fared poorly.

Stay tuned. What could possibly happen next?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Which Team is Better -- the 2011 Phillies or the 2010 Phillies? Are you sure?

Last year's lineup and pitching staff (top 5 starters and closer)

C -- Carlos Ruiz*
1B -- Ryan Howard* (who wasn't the same after the injury)
2B -- Chase Utley* (who wasn't the same after the injury)
3B -- Placido Polanco*
SS -- Jimmy Rollins*
LF -- Raul Ibanez
CF -- Shane Victorino*
RF -- Jayson Werth

SP -- Roy Halladay
SP -- Cole Hamels
SP -- Roy Oswalt
SP -- Joe Blanton
SP -- Kyle Kendrick
Closer -- Brad Lidge.


This year:

C -- Carlos Ruiz
1B -- Ryan Howard
2B -- Luis Castillo or one of four journeymen
3B -- Placido Polanco (who battled an injury in spring training)
SS -- Jimmy Rollins
LF -- Raul Ibanez
CF -- Shane Victorino
RF -- Ben Francisco (most likely)

SP -- Roy Halladay
SP -- Cliff Lee
SP -- Cole Hamels
SP -- Roy Oswalt
SP -- Joe Blanton
Closer -- Brad Lidge (who battled an injury in spring training).

So, the question that poses itself is, which team is better?

Answer: It's pretty hard to say. On the one hand, the pitching looks stronger in 2011. On the other hand, the offense didn't look great in 2010, and it doesn't look any better this year. Also, are they seriously thinking of keeping Dennys Baez? Look, the cash-strapped Mets ditched $18 million in salaries by cutting Castillo and Oliver Perez. Can' t the Phillies shed Baez in favor of Scott Mathieson, who has more than earned the chance and looks to have the makings of an excellent Major League reliever?

In favor of 2011: Cliff Lee and Roy Oswalt for a full year, Jimmy Rollins is healthy, Ryan Howard is almost fully healthy.

In favor of 2010: Jayson Werth might have been the team's best hitter. You had the presence of Utley if not the performance down the stretch. Position players all are a year older in 2011. Lidge got better as the season progressed, is battling an injury now. The team successfully cobbled together makeshift lineups to stay in the race and then get to the NLCS. CAn it really have that type of success two years in a row? A lot has to go right.

If the Phillies were to open today, could the lineup look like this:

1. Shane Victorino, CF
2. Placido Polanco, 3B
3. Jimmy Rollins, SS
4. Ryan Howard, 1B
5. Ben Francisco, RF
6. Raul Ibanez, LF
7. Carlos Ruiz, C
8. Luis Castillo, 2B
9. Roy Halladay, P?

They say that you're supposed to put your best hitter third. Well, that would be a fully healthy Utley, but the risk with Rollins is that he's had two bad seasons in a row. If not Rollins, though, who? Francisco? That's a lot of pressure. Victorino? His big problem last year was trying too hard to hit it out, and, in the process, he lowered his OBP to a dangerous level. The Phillies don't need him doing that now. The player with the best on-base percentage is Carlos Ruiz, but is he a 3-hole hitter? Doubtful.

Last year, they got a lot of mileage out of Wilson Valdez, Dane Sardinha, Francisco, Ross Gload and a few others. But the lineup that I just wrote in isn't nearly as scary as it was last year when it had Chase Utley and Jayson Werth in it.

The Phillies have a good pitching staff, but they will need run support. The front office should be worried, at least a little bit.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

President Obama's Final Four and What His Days Must Be Like

One of the headlines on ESPN.com is that President Obama lost his first Final Four team last night when Butler upset Pitt. Fortunately for the President, Duke survived Michigan earlier today, while Ohio State folded, spindled and mutilated George Mason and Kansas plays tonight. You can read the article here.

And that got me wondering about international diplomacy. Imagine if the White House created at least a Sweet 16 bracket of foreign governments who are a royal pain in the ass to Washington or worse. Who would be in his Final Four? My bet would be Iran, Libya, North Korea and Cuba. Perhaps also making the Elite 8, as it were, would be Yemen, Syria, Afghanistan and Pakistan. You also never know where Russia would fall. The possibilities are endless.

Of course, the President discussed his hoops bracket with ESPN. Many pundits might speculate as to his troubling sovereign nation Final Four, and even WikiLeaks doesn't know for sure. But it would be interesting to know.

Here's to Non-Parent Volunteer Coaches

My daughter plays on an AAU volleyball team, and what's refreshing is that the coaches love the sport, take a bunch of their personal time to develop kids (including 1 or 2 weeknight practice sessions in their off-season and a few long days on weekends at tournaments that are significantly more than a skip and a hop away from where we live). These a good, knowledgeable, enthusiastic men, who are patient with the girls, who take the time to teach, who run a good ship and a meritocracy. They are trying to build their program in the school district, but they dedicate a bunch of time to develop these kids.

What's refreshing for my daughter is that this is a purer world than softball, where league and team politics were such that you couldn't be sure if someone was playing a position because the commissioner promised someone a spot, she was the coach's kid or the kid of a vocal, annoying parent who pressured a coach too much and the coach yielded. She happened to do well in that environment too, playing a premium position and batting in the heart of the order. But to her, this is different. There's none of the noise about whether the coaches know what they're doing (they do), why they're playing kids in what position (that's they're call; they know a lot more about it than parents do), etc. I'm sure that the coaches wouldn't tolerate, nor should they have to.

Look, that's not to say that other travel sports are deficient because parents are involved. I don't want to indict a whole universe, but I do think it's better in competitive situations to have non-parents coach kids to be sure that the situation is a meritocracy. Otherwise, the team dynamic will falter, because coaches get put between the other parents, their own kids, their spouses and their families if their kids are on the team. There are many dedicated coaches who are determined to field the best lineups, even if their kids sit. But I'm not sure how many there really are, and whether that number is a majority or not. What I do know is that there seems to be much less angst when well-qualified, respected neutral parties run the show. Lobbying the coaches is just not an acceptable alternative.

I'm grateful to these coaches for taking the time to teach and coach these kids. They have their own lives and their own families, but they love the game and want to enrich others through their efforts. That's commendable and noble, and the parents very much appreciate it. So, if you're one of those coaches, here's a tip of the cap to you -- thanks for doing what you do. And, if you're a travel coach who sometimes gets tempted to run something other than a meritocracy, ask yourself this question when temptation rears its ugly head -- "am I fielding the best team possible if I do that?" If the answer is no, set the right expectations for your parents, run the team fairly and without regard to politics, and the team will practice harder and play better -- because no one at 14 or 16 should be guaranteed a spot without earning it. Show me someone who is, and I'll show you a kid and family who might yield to the excesses of entitlement, with the result that the player doesn't reach his or her potential because he/she doesn't get pushed. And I'll show you a team dynamic that is filled with resentment and disappointment. And I'll probably show you a team that doesn't win nearly as much as it thinks it should.

Volunteering, coaching and teaching are a great thing combined. We all know that. Let's just make sure that when we volunteer, we're teaching everyone -- the kids and the parents -- the right lessons.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Kentucky 59 Princeton 57

I watched the game in the Princeton Sports Bar (in my day, it was a restaurant called The Annex where my advisor took me and drank Manhattans) with TigerHawk, and we were among the oldest people in the joint, at least chronologically, but certainly not in spirit. It was, of course, an exciting game, underdog Princeton, we of the back-door play, much-better-than-historical defensive rebounding, and with some size, against one of the most storied programs in college basketball history, Kentucky, coached by the anti-Carril, master recruiter and lightning rod for criticism (whether justified or not), John Calipari. The story line, for Princeton amongst even the other Ivies, always seems to be the same. They are Rocky to anyone else's Apollo Creed.

And great did the Tigers play, staying with the Wildcats the way Frazier stayed with Ali in each fight, although deep down in this hoops version of the Thrilla in Manila you knew that the hoops version of Ali, bloodied if not bowed, might still have some more magic than your team's version of Smokin' Joe. It came down to the last possession, the hoops' version of a last round, and that's when hoops Ali showed why he and not your slugger was the greatest. Less than 16 seconds to go, and the Wildcats ran an isolation play with their all-world point guard, who, amongst the Wildcats, perhaps had the most to prove this late in the game because he was ineffective for most of the afternoon. If Kentucky was Ali, then Brandon Knight was its potent left jab, and that left jab, usually devastating, had missed for most of the game.

But not this time. With two seconds to go a well-guard night drove hard to the right, the Tigers' forward and Ivy defensive player of the year (in a mismatch) counterpunching, staying with the highly touted Knight most of the way, with Knight perhaps getting a step late in the sequence. And then Knight kissed the ball high off the glass, where it fell into the basket with two seconds to go. Ball game.

Just like that, Kentucky flashed its thoroughbred bona fides, showcasing its ace in crunch time and reminding the Tigers that even if the difference between the Wildcats and the Tigers was half a step on this fun-filled afternoon, that's the difference between perennial powerhouses and perennial mid-major darlings. That half step and a big man with the unlikely name of Josh (most Joshes I know aren't built like barroom brawlers, and this Josh had the body of a noseguard with the feet of a ballet dancer and the hands of a wide receiver) were the differences on this unlikely afternoon.

The crowd at the sports bar oohed and aahed with every Kentucky move and applauded with every Princeton basket or defensive stop, at one time pausing to chant "defense" when the Tigers needed to thwart Kentucky late in the game. They even applauded out of respect to the Tigers after the game had ended.

All in all, a great day for the Tiger coaching staff and players. There might have been some debate about whether Harvard, whom Princeton beat Saturday in a playoff to make it to the NCAA tournament, was the better team or has more talent. But fair Harvard lost by 17 in the first round of the NIT to Oklahoma State, and this Princeton team took Kentucky to the wire. Harvard, with a total of 11 underclassmen, might have its day in the sun next year or the year after. But this season, Princeton was the better team, and they honored their victory with another "game for the ages" against Kentucky. And, while they'll lose Kareem Maddox and Dan Mavraides, they'll return an excellent nucleus that will battle Harvard and everyone else in the Ivies. That seems for certain, although the sneakers of those two will be difficult to fill.

As we were getting ready to leave the establishment, I said to my friend, "Great game, but I'm tired of moral victories." Yes, it's great to remember the '89 game where #16 seed Princeton almost upset #1 Georgetown, and this game will be talked about for a while. Thankfully, though, in the year of Pete Carril's retirement, the Tigers beat defending national champion UCLA in the first round, and several years later beat UNLV. Moral victories are all well and good, but, in the end, the real victories taste better.

Make no mistake, I'm thrilled the way Sydney Johnson has turned around the program, and I'm proud of the effort that Princeton gave today. Because, you see, each and every Princeton team that makes the NCAA tournament is far from a member of the "Happy to be There" club. No sir, they honor the teachings of the old master, Carril, whose motto was "Play to Win." And there's not doubt that the valiant Tigers gave the last full measure this afternoon in doing just that.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk!

I agree with President Obama -- Kansas will win the national championship. The Morris brothers -- Marcus and Markieff, native Philadelphians, will honor the late Wilt Chamberlain, another Philadelphia native, by bringing Kansas another national title (Wilt came very close, only to see his Jayhawks lose in Triple OT to North Carolina over a half century ago.

Rock, Chalk, Jayhawk, indeed!

The Power of Pete Carril

Great article on former Princeton men's basketball coach Pete Carril in the online version of Time by one of his former players, Sean Gregory. A must read. (Credit where credit is due to the Princeton Basketball blog for linking to this gem).

It seems like very time the NCAA tournament rolls around, people still talk about 16th-seeded Princeton's 50-49 loss to #1 Georgetown and Princeton's 1996 upset of defending national champion UCLA in the first round.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

The End of a Season

My rec league team started its season in mid-November. I remember the night I got my roster, wondering who could defend, who could put the ball in the basket, and whether the team that the league gave me would be any good or not. After the first practice, I could tell that we had a good group of kids, some athletes, some more knowledgeable about the game than others. They paid attention, they practiced hard, and that was all that I could have asked for.

Fast forward three and a half months, and the playoffs began. We were cast as the #4 seed (out of 20 teams), having finished the season at 8-2. We lost to the #1 seed by 6 (although the game wasn't that close) and the #3 seed by 1 (without our more experienced point guard). We beat everyone else by at least 10 points or more, scoring over 30 in each game. Our goals were two-fold --to run the break and get downcourt before the other team could set its defense, and then to run a disciplined offense out of a 1-4 stack. Put differently, we beat who we should have beaten.

We played a team in the first round that won a play-in game to get to the round of 16. We had beaten them soundly during the regular season, something like 40-21, and that was the one game where we could have scored 60 had our players not insisted upon trying to run the break spectacularly after each rebound. We threw the ball away a lot, and we beat a team whose coaches usually ran plays for their own kids, who only passed the ball to each other. Atop that, the two coaches were perhaps the most difficult coaches for the referees to handle.

I make it a habit of wishing the opposing coaches good luck before a game and introducing myself to the officials (no need to this time, as they had officiated at our three previous games). The opposing coaches were on the refs from the jump, arguing that our kids were double-teaming their ballhandler (the rule is that teams must play a man-to-man defense, that switching is permitted but double-teaming is not). The problem with their logic was that they had three players lined up on the foul line between the elbows, spaced about as close together as dominoes, with the result that it was almost impossible for a pass to that area not to be contested by multiple players. To make a long story short, we won 31-22, taking time at the end of the game to clear out on defense to enable a kid on the other team who hadn't scored all year to score a basket. Our kids played a good, crisp game, ran the offense well and defended great. It was a good first-round win. There were two memorable moments -- first, my son defended a friend who had scored 6 baskets in his last regular-season game and held him to one shot, and, second, at the beginning of the second quarter the lead ref ran by me, shook his head and, gesturing to the other bench, said that he wished the other coaches would leave already (in their last regular season game, those coaches got into an all-out shouting match with the two refs who officiated this game). So, we made it to the round of 8.

We then faced the #5 seed, featuring one of the two tallest kids in the league, a 6' sixth grader with some moves around the hoop. You have to understand that we played on back-to-back courts at the same time another playoff game was taking place, with the result that there were about 18 inches between my shoulder blades and that of a coach of a team in the other game, our kids on the bench had almost no room to sit and one of the out-of-bounds lines was two inches from a wall. The parents had to sit at either end underneath the basket, and the gym was crowded, hot and loud.

As I think I'd written before, the technical rule is that a team's best three players may not play in the first quarter, and the spoken if not written rule is that you play your best five in the second quarter and your worst five in the first quarter. One modification that some coaches make is to ensure that they have 1 or 2 kids who has a few clues about the game play in the first quarter, or else the first quarter could be dreadful and a team could be far behind before the better players get on the floor. Most coaches do a pretty good job with these rules. This game turned out to be a big of a rugby scrum -- we held their second-quarter unit to a single field goal for the entire game and won 21-12. (This team took us out of our offense entirely by denying our entry passes into the post, so we had to change things up a big on offense). We were up 8-2 after the first quarter thanks to the spirited play of a feisty point guard who they couldn't defend, were up 10-2 at the half but only 14-10 after three. Their third quarter unit hit some shots, and we went into the fourth quarter with our biggest player and second-leading scorer having four fouls. We scored a bucket, they scored one and then we scored the final five points to give us the game. It was a hard-fought battle, and that took us to the Final Four.

I was a bit nervous going into the quarterfinal game, because as we walked into the gym the #1 seed, which was undefeated, tall and athletic, lost to the #8 seed by a point, a team that we had pasted about a third of the way into the season, something like 31-17. I was afraid that my players were going to get overconfident, thinking that they dodged a bullet, but thankfully they played well enough to win. The only thing that concerned me was their shooting --they didn't show great habits in some of our shooting drills in practice, and I feared that as we went deeper into the playoffs, we would get fewer fast break opportunities (as the most athletic teams would advance) and, therefore, would have to finish more shots in traffic.

The semifinals presented an interesting issue for us, in that the team we had waxed a) was much improved and b) had its point guard available (he missed the earlier game against us). He's a tall, strong kid whom I had coached two of the three previous years, and what I had recalled was that he didn't pass the ball much. At any rate, the gym was packed, and I gathered the team. I told them that we had a great season, that basketball is a fun game when everyone plays together and doesn't try to do it himself, that they needed to honor their prior victories by going out there and giving me the best 16 minutes (as each kid plays a half) they possibly could. I told them that our gold shirts were symbolic, because gold shines, and each of them had it in him to shine on that night. Vintage Coach Taylor from Friday Night Lights.

They went out and played a bad first half, turning the ball over, forcing shots, not switching on defense, and we were down 8-1 after the first quarter and 14-7 at the half. I had called a few timeouts to settle everyone, and the fact of the matter was that a) their size was huring us, b) our kids weren't switching to take on a ballhandler who blew by one of our defenders, and c) we weren't finishing our shots. I told them to stay calm and play their game, and I told the third quarter unit that if they could reduce the deficit to four the fourth quarter unit -- featuring our best players -- would win the game for them. I was pretty relaxed, but, truthfully, our shooting was also killing us. The ball just wouldn't go in.

And then something magical happened. Our third quarter unit -- featuring our younger players -- figuring out that they needed to switch before they heard my voice, and they defended voraciously. And our point guard -- the smallest kid on the team but perhaps the most athletic -- became a one-man wrecking crew. On defense he challenged the other team's point guard on several occasions, had three steals in the quarter and converted each for baskets. You could hear gasps in the gym, because before we knew it, we were up 19-18 with only the fourth quarter to play. It proved to be quite a battle, that quarter, with great defense, tough rebounding, a few missed shots inside, but our leading scorer hit a nifty runner with under a minute to go and we fended them off, winning 25-24. We were headed to the finals.

We were hoping to play the #3 seed, the team that had beaten us by a point early in the season, but that was not to be. The #2 seed, which hadn't played the #1, #3 or #4 (us) seeds during the season, beat the #3 seed by about 12 points. The #3 seed had several good shooters and, as icing on the cake, an outstanding fifth grade travel player who wasn't required to play in the second quarter and who could play in the first quarter because he wasn't one of his team's top three scorers.

Facing this great team, we had a few disadvantages. First, our leading scorer had a longstanding pre-existing commitment to a travel tournament for his best sport, so he was out. (Our first/third quarter point guard decided that he didn't like soccer any more, so he backed out of that tournament to play for us -- even after I told his parents that I understood commitments and fully expected him to play soccer). Then, our second-leading scorer and tallest player showed up at the championship game yesterday under the weather -- his mother told us that he had been battling a stomach bug the night before and that morning. Put simply, he looked pale, sweaty and doing his best to keep his head up.

Finally, our charms ran out. Our opponents -- with the fifth-grade travel player leading the way in the first quarter, got off to a 9-0 lead, and that was pretty much it from there. (I still wonder what if I had adjusted my lineups to break-up the 1/3, 2/4 lineups that I had gone with much of the year to adjust to his playing in the first quarter, but I'm not sure that it would have made that much of a difference). Our boys battled back valiantly, but we just couldn't put together a run. We didn't switch as well on defense as we had in the prior games (a tribute, also, to their speed), and we missed too many makeable shots, something that I had diagnosed from our shooting drills in practice, where the kids just weren't as crisp shooters as I had been used to). We executed at least 6 plays to perfection, only to have our players miss their shots. In the end, we lost by 16, our worst loss of the year.

It was, though, a great season. My goal was to get the team to the Final Four, and we did that. We reached the finals with a nice group of kids that got along well, supported one another and listened to their coaches. The kids played hard, they learned more about the game, and they improved their skills. The great thing was to see the best sixth graders play so hard and encourage everyone else -- their leadership had everyone else on the team wanting to keep up, and that factor almost alone made the team so much easier to coach.

Sure, we lost in the championship game, but sometimes the shots don't fall, and sometimes the other team is just better. There's nothing wrong with that, that's all a part of the game. What made me feel very satisfied, though, was the way the boys conducted themselves throughout the season, the way they played with poise and dignity, the way they battled on each possession, and the way they approached the game. After four months, it was time for the season to end, as it's time for the kids to move onto their other sports. But I'll remember these kids and their parents for a long time -- for their good spirits, their good habits, their enjoyment of the game, and their receptiveness to me and my fellow coaches. I coach for the ability to teach skills and transfer my love of the game to the kids, and I did just that. The teaching part is the most compelling -- there's not much you can do on game day except to yell "hands up", "switch" or call out the plays. But it's the interaction, talking to kids, helping build their confidence, challenging them to try to develop a new skill, that keeps a coach coming back year after year.

Again, we lost in the championship game, a pretty good accomplishment when you think about it. But, at this age group, we won, too, in so many ways other than the final score on the scoreboard. And that's what makes a worthwhile season.

Tigers Win! Tigers Win! Tigers Win!

Princeton 63 Harvard 62, on a last-second buzzer beat by junior guard Douglas Davis. Click here for a link to the Princeton Basketball website, which has all sorts of wonderful coverage, from video clips, photos, links to the eleven hundred articles on how the brainy schools can hoop it up and how the team that didn't prevail (because according to the Boston Globe's Bob Ryan, nobody lost) deserves an at-large bid, presumably over a team from a bigger-time hoops conference that just might have a representative on the selection committee. A great, gritty, exciting game that Princeton won, because, well, they held Harvard to under 70 points (a significant benchmark, because the Crimson were undefeated in the many games where they went over 70).

This last-second shot took me back to 1996, where the Tigers had a playoff with a Penn team that had defeated it without too much trouble twice during the regular season, including a victory less than a week before the playoff game. Well, Princeton beat Penn, went on to the NCAA tournament, and defeated defending champion UCLA on an exquisitely executed back-door play with less than a minute to go. That's the year that Coach Pete Carril retired.

It's not, of course, that we expect Coach Sydney Johnson to retire, but I do admire his game plan for this game. The Crimson beat the Tigers by a dozen up in Cambridge a week ago, enough to tarnish the confidence of even a 24-6 team that was league co-champions coming into this game. Princeton entered as the team with the veteran cast and the more vaunted tradition, Harvard the younger, arguably more talented upstart laden with freshmen and sophomores and the national-type of hype once reserved exclusively for Penn and Princeton. (It's not that Princeton and Penn don't get their love from the national writers, it's just that over the past couple of years they've been eclipsed, first by many outstanding Cornell teams and more recently by Harvard, its coach Tommy Amaker, and his ability to recruit). Coach Johnson's adjustments deserve mention because the Tigers figured out a strategy to control the tempo better and to eke out the victory.

It was a great game from start to finish, and both teams are to be commended for their outstanding seasons and effort yesterday. It was a championship game in every sense.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Where They Are Now: Bobby Morse

The one-time Penn great (one of the best shooters I ever saw) is a lecturer in Italian at St. Mary's College in South Bend, Indiana (click on this link and then scroll down; he looks a bit different from when he played at the Palestra). Back then, when Penn was ranked in the top 10, featured a backcourt of Steve Bilsky and Dave Wohl, and front court players like Morse, Corky Calhoun, Phil Hankinson and Craig Littlepage, the Big 5 in Philadelphia reigned supreme. Great basketball, great doubleheaders at the Palestra, gripping games televised locally on UHF TV, Channel 17. It was about as good as it got, and Bobby Morse, who then went on to a distinguished career in Italy, was one of the major reasons why.

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

More Inspiration: The Managers of Villanova's Basketball Teams

Great story on the front page of today's Philadelphia Inquirer about managers on both the men's and women's basketball teams who are afflicted with cerebral palsy. The coaches, programs, players and schools -- and especially the young men themselves -- are just terrific.

In a time when most of the headlines deal with negativity, violence, excess, cruelty and what have you, it's heartening to know that there are people who make a positive difference every day.

Saturday, March 05, 2011

An Ode to An Athlete Dying Young

Click here for the tribute to Khristin Kyllo, a Princeton softball player who recently passed away from natural causes. Her teammate, Lizzie Pierce, wrote this terrific tribute.

Friday, March 04, 2011

Reports from the Concussion Front: Ice Hockey

Tough guys then aren't so tough now.

Read this piece from the New York Times about former enforcer Marty McSorley, who, among other things, had Wayne Gretzy's back in the glory days in Edmonton.

One of the most compelling points in the article is that the cognitive problems many of these players have results from not fighting, but the average hitting that goes on in the NHL.

Glory in your twenties and thirties, sure, but would you trade that for serious problems after your career?