Month: March 2015

Reflections on the Second Weekend of March Madness

KENTUCKY /NOTRE DAME

This was the game of the tournament, and an epic encounter.  Notre Dame played the majority of the contest with four guards,  and a set of balls that even Sam Cassell could appreciate.   The Irish spread the floor, and moved the ball fluidly from side to side to open up the Kentucky defense for drives and screen and roll play.  Their defense applied ball pressure and made things uncomfortable for Kentucky.   Most impressive was Notre Dame ‘ s sheer willingness to get after Kentucky in every aspect of the game.

With history on the line, Kentucky ‘ s resolve was tested in the extreme, but they were found worthy.  Karl – Anthony Towns was perfect in the second half exploiting a mismatch on the block, and the oft-maligned Harrisons each made crucial plays late.

The enduring lesson from this game can be found in Notre Dame’s last two full possessions where they lost their aggressive movement, and struggled to find shots in isolation.  I do not accept that it was simply Kentucky’s defense, but rather a a fear – based departure from character.   The Irish were good enough to win, but doubted themselves when it mattered most.

WISCONSIN

For the first time in my life, I found myself rooting for the Badgers.  It was not by plan.  It evolved organically as I watched them pull away from Arizona with poise, confidence and even swagger.  Perhaps this was the inevitable residue of having gained a greater appreciation for Christian Laettner,  but it was undeniable.  They will not fear Kentucky,  and will play loose.

MICHIGAN STATE

Tom Izzo is Mr. March.  He has continuously had his teams playing their best basketball at this time of the year.  Despite varying adversity through the course of the season, all the mantras of toughness and character begin to resonate in the Spartan soul, and they are regularly the tournament’s toughest out. 

On Sunday, they outlasted Louisville in overtime.  Both teams had chances to win, and his team did.

DUKE

This is Justice Winslow’s team.  He is a two-way force of nature player the impacts the game in so many ways.  Today, he shot poorly and rolled his ankle, but it did not diminish his energy or competitiveness.  As Duke pulled away, Winslow led them.

WHIP MF GREEN

Whip MF Green played for me at Oviedo High School, and just wrapped up his career as a Division 3 Star in the frigid Northeast.  Whip made the Oviedo freshman team as a skinny, athletic lefty with no jump shot whatsoever.  Total adventure from more than 8 feet.

By his sophomore year, he was a streaky, but effective three point shooter for my original FBGM JV squad.

As a junior and senior, Whip had to play in the post and developed a quick release 15 footer from the elbows to complement his intuitive slashing.

In college, Whip moved full time to the perimeter where he was a destroyer of worlds as a complete player.  This was possible because he improved his game and his body every year.  He actively attacked weaknesses in his game and made them strengths.  Ultimately, he did it because he wanted to play and be the best player he could be.  This is what it takes to be something other than ordinary, and I am very proud of him.

Great career and keep living the dream!

Round Two of March Madness

32 are now 16.

KENTUCKY v. WEST VIRGINIA

The Cats outlasted a game, but limited Cincinnati team to reach the Sweet 16.  It was a performance that gives belief to those that would like Kentucky to lose.  Defensively, they were solid, but not impenetrable, and on offense they were, with the singular exception of Willie Cauley-Stein’s poster dunk, uninspiring.  The victory was secured by essentially wearing down an inferior foe over the forty minute game which has been something of a formula for the Cats.

The Mountaineers literally knocked Melo Trimble adn Maryland the F… out.  Like all Bob Huggins teams, this group is athletic, defends and plays hard-nosed, seldom attractive basketball.  This is a dangerous opponent for Kentucky.  West Virginia will descend from their inscest-infested stronghold with little or no respect for Kentucky and engage them in a street fight on hardwood.  Hard screens, bumped cutters, hands on defense and limitless hustle will attempt to “bring the bitch out” of the Cats.  This game will be like a young fighter on his way to a title shot meeting a crusty, dirty old timer in one of those fights that verifies the class and quality of the prospective champion.

KENTUCKY by 4.

NOTRE DAME v. WICHITA STATE

Two teams that have won me over.  Notre Dame beat Butler in overtime on the day that Mike Brey’s mother died in an immensely entertaining game.  The Irish are a likeable team with fun players, an open style of play and a developing back story.

Wichita State over the last three seasons has been to the final four, completed an undefeated regular season only to lose in the second round of the tourney to eventual finalist Kentucky and advanced to the Sweet 16 by beating in-state overlord Kansas, who could no longer dodge them.

There will be no losers in this game….from a narrative perspective.

PUSH….enjoy the game.

WISCONSIN v. UNC

Wisconsin is a fully evolved Virginia.  At one time not so long ago, they were a one trick defensive, tempo controlling, boring ass, white bread machine.  This no longer fits the team, though any adverse description should still hang onto Bo Ryan like a bottom of the bowl skid mark, as he is truly boring. Wisconsin has developed an effective offense that creates mismatches all over the floor and more importantly enables them to compete and win games when their beloved tempo gets away from them (Virginia’s undoing).

UNC have long been masters of transition and secondary break basketball, but will likely find tough sledding against the Badgers.  UNC has been largely unimpressive and inconsistent throughout the season and the first two rounds.  I am still bitter the escaped the Crimson of Harvard and ousted Michael Qualls of Arkansas.  Further, my contempt for Teardrop Roy’s sportcoats have forced me into the bizarre and disorienting position of actually rooting for Wisconsin.

WISCONSIN by 8

ARIZONA v. XAVIER

Chris Mack faces mentor Sean Miller with the school that Miller left for more money and presumably the opportunity to advance further in this very tournament.  Good story line.  Arizona is the better team, and deserved a one seed.  They are playing good basketball and will beat Xavier making Sean Miller look like a guy who did the right thing for himself, his family and Arizona basketball.  Chris Mack will respond by sending feelers out for an opportunity similar to that of his mentor.

ARIZONA by 7

NC STATE v. LOUISVILLE

The Wolfpack rallied against a talented, but largely uncoached LSU team to advance to the second round where they took down the first one seed in Villanova.  Nevermind that Villanova should never have been a one seed, the Wolfpack are now a team of destiny….behold!

Louisville is coached by Rick Pitino.  He is a legend and enjoys brief sexual encounters in Italian eateries.  He has taken the Cardinals to the Sweet 16 four years running and is two years removed from a National Championship.  This years team is seriously flawed.  The cannot shoot and lost their point guard a few weeks ago.  That means they are vulnerable, but not this round.

LOUISVILLE by 2

MICHIGAN STATE v. OKLAHOMA

Regardless of seed, there must not be a  more disconcerting sight that Tom Izzo in the way of your path to the Final Four.  Izzo’s teams are always a tough out at this time of the year, and were excellent in dispatching Virginia.  So much so that in combination with Villanova losing, seven seed Michigan State is now the favorite in the East.  Oklahoma beat Albany and Dayton, but I watched neither game and know very little about the Sooners beyond the simple fact that they will NOT beat Tom Izzo in March.

MICHIGAN STATE by 5

DUKE v. UTAH

Duke put it on an offensively challenged San Diego State team while Utah prematurely dispatched yet another Georgetown team setting up this money game.  Five likely first round picks are spread across the two teams, and money will be made or lost by how these players perform on the same floor in direct competition making this a must see game for NBA fans.

DUKE by 6

UCLA v. GONZAGA

A rematch to the famous Adam Morrison’s Tracks of My Tears Game that marked his undoing as a basketball player and a man.  Again, Gonzaga will enter the game as the higher seed, but will undoubtedly hope for a better result.  Gonzaga is an interesting case study.  Many years ago, they were a classic mid-major Cinderella that played their way to the brink of the Final Four.  Their coach at the time Dan Monson moved on to presumably greener pastures, but slipped in cow shit in the putrid fields of Minnesota.  His replacement Mark Few has built a sustainable college basketball power in Spokane.  The Zags are regularly ranked high in the polls, play in the tourney every year and enjoy a gravitas that few other mid-majors enjoy when it comes to seeding.  The problem is that they have never made a final four, and their more recent tournament pedigree is more consistent with underachievement.  This is a big game for Gonzaga.

GONZANGA by 3.

Round One of March Madness

The field of 68 is now 32, and I have a few thoughts.

PERFECT BRACKETS

This is bullshit. Let’s have some perspective. The lottery requires you to guess 6 numbers. The perfect bracket requires you to pick winning team in 63 basketball games. No one is getting a perfect bracket. Stop trying, and be happy to outwit your friends and co-workers.

GEORGIA STATE

Coach Ron Hunter tears his achille’s tendon on Sunday celebrating conference championship with his son, RJ, who happens to be the best player on a team the features Kevin Ware, who horribly broke his leg two years ago during Lousiville’s title run.

On Thursday, RJ drains a 28 foot three pointer to give Georgia State a one point lead with seconds to play, while the ghost of Chris Kyle fires a wonder shot of his own knocking Ron out of his medical chair on the sidelines.

I have watched this moment at least 50 times, and have no shame in admitting, I have gotten choked up every time. It is too cliche, too corny. If we saw it happen in a movie, it would bother us almost as much as Coach Boone dialing up a reverse 70 yards from the end zone on the games final play and scoring, but this was real. It happened, and we are fortunate to have seen it. MARCH MADNESS!

KENTUCKY

They are the team to beat, and are playing for history. They would not sniff a play off spot in the eastern conference. I am only excited about the pro prospects of Karl Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley Stein. Towns has the size and versatility to be a star, and Stein is long and athletic enough to have an impact defensively and as a rim crashing roll and put back man on offense. As for the rest of these guys, I haven’t seen much more than middling careers on the bench.

Coach Cal is as good as anyone. He recruits like a demon, implements a hard-nosed defensive scheme, and builds a team-first culture among decorated, individual stars on an annual basis. At this point, any criticism not confined to specific in game decisions can be rooted only in personal subjective style or envy.

DUKE

The Blue Devils played some of the tournament’s best basketball. They spaced the floor, whipped the ball around against the Robert Morris zone with Spursian efficiency and created easy baskets. This was in sharp contrast with most of the other teams in the field which will be addressed later.

Jalil Okafor taps out as a solid pro for me. He is big, but not absurdly long or tall. He is not in great shape, has knocked-knees and a pear-shaped body. He lacks explosiveness of movement. To reach solid pro potential, he must make a concerted effort to retool his body for long term health. If not, he will underwhelm and spend as much time injured as playing.

Justice Winslow and Tyus Jones are my type of guys.

IOWA’S BIG GINGER

With Ed Sheeran tearing up the charts, and this kid running the floor like John Havlicek and throwing in awkward half hooks, it is a golden age for gingers.

SMU GOALTENDING

I have never been one for the letter of the law, even as I spend five days a week practicing law, but it is my undestanding that the goal tend on SMU’s big man was legally correct. This is fundamentally wrong. The call turned the result of the game on a shot that was never going in the basket, and gave us the inverse of the delightful Hunter story, with a darker, bullshittier Alford dynamic. The lesson as always though is do not put yourself in a position to do harm. If SMU’s big man, does not extend his hand, there is no call to be made and his team is playing today.

QUALLS IS QUALITY

I love this guy. He is a breathtaking athlete and plays extremely hard on both ends. The only downside of watching him play is having the announcers continue to tell me that teammate Bobby Portis was the SEC player of the year. Portis is solid, but Qualls is more important to the team, and Towns and Stein are better SEC players.

Player of the year consideration should start with the question, if I am not suicidal, and my life depends on my pick, who do I take? If the choice is close, the next question is, who has won more this season? If you are improbably still atop the fence, who has produced a more iconic moment?

Using this simple criteria, you will avoid picking Bobby Portis as SEC player of the year, and simultaneously enhance the Qualls experience.

BAD BASKETBALL

Day one featured an enduring image for the ages, five one point games, and some entertaining upsets. Day two favored the favorites. Both days highlighted bad basketball.

I have watched far more professional basketball than college basketball this season, and bad basketball is the reason. It is logical that professional basketball is better than college basketball, but it really feels as though the gulf is widening. Much blame will fall on the disruption of the one and done rule, but this is baseless nonsense. Kentucky and Duke with a fair share of one and done candidates offer some of the best basketball we will see this March. Many other mid major teams that have risen in prominence like Gonzaga, Butler, and Virginia have veteran rosters undisturbed by the one and done rule.

In watching games, I see bad spacing, bad ball movement and bad decisions. It is stunning how many times teams will not throw the ball into the heart of a zone defense to break it down and create good shots. Too often when they do throw the ball there, it is to a player that is visible uncomfortable making a decision with the ball.

In the Harvard/UNC game, UNC trapped the ball near midcourt, and Harvard passed to the screener at the top of the key. There was a 4 v. 3 situation, but the Harvard screener seemed paralyzed holding the ball and returning to the point guard who just passed it to him. UNC easily recovered their defensive shape and swarmed the Crimson into a negative play.

UC Irvine had a chance to tie against Louisville, but dribbled into a sideline trap and turned it over without a shot attempt.

Valpo ran a high ball screen much of the second half of their game, but there was little to no movement or spacing off the screen action. Most teams are equiped to guard a ball screen action, but it is often the movement outside of the main action that creates the shot, and this seems non-existent in the college game.

It has been, but for a few moments of compelling drama, a tough two days of viewing.

Jimmy Chitwood by Jason Concepcion

I shamelessly ripped this from Grantland.com, but this description of Jimmy Chitwood is epic.  Sadly, it is contained in a larger article ranking the top ten fictional basketball players of all time, and the Hickory High icon ranks only tenth.  This is simply high treason to the game of basketball.

Jimmy Chitwood. The name itself evokes the susurrus of endless fields of golden Indiana corn swaying gently in the breeze of God’s own breath, with the sun — ripe and red — setting on another bountiful Midwestern day. “Jimmy Chitwood,” whispers the stalks as evening gathers in their lengthening shadows, merging with those of the silos and barns.

All the hours here in the palm of Eden’s hand, from dawn to the deepening dim, are marked by a couplet of sounds that, hand-in-hand, beat out the metronomic and immortal pulse of the land.

Bounce. Swish. Bounce. Swish. Bounce. Swish. Bounce. Swish.

It is the Chitwood, and the Chitwood is the land.

Men, strong men, who fought in places far afield and returned to plow the land and whose pride is as undilutable as the atom, grow silent when the Chitwood passes by.

Women, strong women, who sustained the hearths and stood sentinel at every resting place from crib to coffin, beam with silent pride that among them is one who nursed this child, this man, this Chitwood.

Into this place came Norman Dale, the worst, most boring-est, play-the-right-way son-of-a-bitch garbage coach in the entire state of Indiana. “I want to see four passes before every shot,” says the worst coach ever, whose offense is so tedious that people who spend every minute of their empty lives watching corn inch ever skyward are mortally offended by its pure shittiness, and resolve to drive Norman Dale from his post and their town.

But it is the Chitwood, his hair swept back with the motor oil from a thousand broken-down tractors, who stays their hands, and whose words strike with the force of thunder above the eaves when he says, “Coach stays, I play. He goes, I go.” The men and the women of the town murmured their discontent but could do no more. The Chitwood had spoken and his words were as timeless and true as Orion’s great belt.

And how did Norman Dale, the worst fucking coach who ever walked the face of God’s earth, show his gratitude to the Chitwood, whose bounce-swish-bounce-swish carried the team, Norman Dale’s team, against all who opposed them and whose words restrained the townsfolk from chasing the coach through the night at the points of their farm implements? By trying to give the last shot of the state championship, the sacred game winner, to Buddy Long. Who the fuck is Buddy Long?

Orlando City Opener

I was skeptical,  but as I parked and made my way to the Citrus Bowl that sense was replaced by civic pride.  Orlando,  my city, had filled the bowl for Orlando City’s first MLS game.  No matter what would unfold in the next two hours, this moment existed in the heart of the city, and I was glad to be a part of it.

Moments pass though, and the purpose of all this is sustainability, and central to that is the product on the field.  Orlando City fielded a prototypical MLS team based on an aging international star in Kaka, a recognizable USMNT player in Brek Shea and a cadre of cheap labor spare parts to fill out the roster.   New York FC, the league’s other expansion team, was no different with David Villa, Mix Diskerud and the aforementioned cadre of cheap labor spare parts.

The crowd was inspired throughout, but the play was pedestrian at best.   Both teams were capable of stringing together benign passes along the back line, but very little incisive play occurred in the attacking half.  Kaka waited an eternity to play his first through ball, and the play was offside.   A few minutes later, he rocketed the ball 25 yards ahead of himself while attempting to dribble into space.   Fouls flowed in both directions in a very disjointed opening 15 minutes of play.

Kaka settled into the game playing a few combinations in the attacking half, and drew a save from the keeper with a first time strike that culminated the best passage of play all day.  For his part, Shea was an aggressive runner on the left wing, but lacked sharpness on his crosses.

For New York FC, Villa was lost for the most part without teammates capable of stringing together passes in the attacking third that would capitalize on his technical ability and timing.  Diskerud was probably the man of the match playing with consistent composure,  efficient passing and scoring the game’s first goal on a well-placed curling shot from the top of the box.

It was hard to identify any other players on the field as having an instrumental role on the game which suggests little more than they played up to their pay grade, and highlighted the problem of the imbalanced roster construction of MLS as a whole.

The game ended in a 1-1 draw as Kaka ‘ s extra time free kick took a fortuitous deflection into the back of the net. 

Unmistakable was the sense of joy with the goal.  This is critical as Orlando City must transform this civic event into a sustainable interest in the team, and more specifically, interest in the live attendance of these games.