Something Does Exist

The road to this year’s Final Four has reached its destination and will now feature a highway of hate between two opponents.  John Calipari and Rick Pitino will lead each of their respective squads in a late season showdown. The 44th chapter of the non-rivalry, according to Coach Calipari, will take place miles away from the usual chaotic game day cities of Lexington and Louisville.  New Orleans can only hope each set of fans from the state with the Bourbon Trail behave on and around Bourbon Street.

Competition within separate conferences doesn’t necessarily have the two schools jockeying for the same hardware each season.  Instead, both Kentucky and Louisville basketball teams play to represent a distinction of who will wear the crown for the Bluegrass State one year at a time.  Whatever someone would like to distinguish this now annual meeting of basketball teams, will see an early renewal on state supremacy.  The initial Battle of the Bluegrass was played in 1913 with Kentucky earning a win.  Decades passed with these two schools meeting sporadically on the hardwood. The two have since scheduled each other yearly since 1983 with Kentucky holding a 29-14 overall series lead.  Compared to Duke-UNC who has played over two hundred times, Calipari’s assessment may indeed have some truth.  The storyline this time around may have more to do with the opposing coaches than the players on each roster composing the box score.

The first collegiate meeting of these two coaching minds seen Pitino play host to Calipari’s University of Massachusetts team in Lexington back during the 1991-92 season.  The Big Blue Nation witnessed Pitino leading his Kentucky team to a convincing 90-69 win.  They would meet again in the NCAA tournament the same season with Pitino earning another victory.  It wasn’t until the beginning of the 1995-96 season before both coaches would again convene on a basketball court, with Calipari earning a notch in the win column.  An additional encounter took place a few months later in the Meadowlands during the Final Four weekend.  Pitino avenged the early season loss by besting a now vacated semifinal appearance of Calipari’s as Kentucky went on to win their sixth national championship.

After brief stints in the NBA, where these two coaches crossed paths a total of six times, a return to the college landscape had them reuniting as adversaries in Conference USA.  Calipari was able to defeat Pitino four straight years during their regular season match-ups.  They only met once during the 2001-02 campaign, but the following three seasons seen Pitino win each rematch, twice during their conference tournaments, before Louisville moved into the Big East.

Recent success has been one-sided, favoring Calipari’s three straight wins since arriving in Lexington. If Calipari can beat Pitino on Saturday he will surpass the longest win streak for either against one another. A New Jersey Nets victory in 1999 coupled with Memphis beating Louisville in 2002 and 2003 has matched Coach Calipari’s current consecutive wins bragging rights. Pitino currently holds post-season bragging rights with a 4-0 record.

Loyal die-hards will show their unwavering support for each side even though one set of fans may claim the city which sits on the Ohio River and plays host to the Kentucky Derby each year doesn’t exist.  Just short of his children being born, Coach Pitino claims making the Final Four this season is the greatest moment of his life, even though a banner in Rupp Arena hangs his defining coaching accomplishment.

Neither coach will recognize the grudge they hold by name.  The recipe simply doesn’t fit the menu when feeding each of their egos.  Even though both have trouble facing reality, they should have no issue in facing each other for a chance to play for national prominence.

Sweet 16 Thoughts

Each of the 1-seeds made it to the sweet sixteen for the first time since 2009.  When filling-in a bracket you almost always have the 1-seeds advancing to the second weekend.  Huge upsets wrecked brackets the past two years.  If everyone chose the favorites so far this year, you should still be alive in your office pool.  The top four seeded teams had injury or eligibility concerns before the NCAA tourney began with the exception of Kentucky.  Fab Melo of Syracuse was ruled ineligible. Branden Dawson of Michigan State sustained a season-ending injury to his left knee during the last regular season game versus Ohio State and North Carolina’s John Henson injured his wrist during the ACC tourney.  All four are still standing and the person who has each of the 1-seeds winning their respective region may have the winning bracket.

West region boasts coaches with the most winning handshakes during the tournament.  Combined, Tom Izzo, Rick Pitino, Billy Donovan along with Buzz Williams have won 109 NCAA tournament games, more than any other combination in other regions.  Izzo, Pitino and Donovan have also won at least one championship each.  The Midwest bracket is the only other region with multiple championship winning coaches with Roy Williams and Bill Self still game-planning.

The scaphoid bone is connected to North Carolina’s title hopes.  Tar Heel fans must cringe when they see the replay of Kendall Marshall’s awkward landing.  The broken bone may handcuff UNC’s chances of making a trip to Bourbon Street.  Marshall, and at least his father, believes he can play because it’s his non-shooting hand.  If Marshall can play an effective enough game against Ohio to help his team win, we will possibly see a rematch of the 2008 national semifinal between North Carolina and Kansas.

Kentucky and their fans want revenge.  It was bad enough the Turner Networks promoted this year’s tournament as the 20th anniversary of Christian Laettner’s shot.  Then UPS jumped in with advertising mentioning the logistics of the play.  Their fans have had to also relive replay after replay of the game-winning shot Indiana made back in December when the two teams met in Bloomington.  The harassing came to a quick halt when the Wildcats went on an 18-2 second half run against Iowa State.  Iowa State looked like they had about 25 high-competitive minutes in their bodies to keep-up with John Calipari’s bunch, but the talent of the tournaments overall top seed prevailed.  First on the revenge docket is a rematch with Indiana.  If they can beat the Hoosiers and advance past the winner of Baylor-Xavier game they will set their sights on the host city responsible for their only other loss this season, New Orleans.

Ohio Bobcats may fit the glass slipper.  Ohio University is the lowest remaining seed in the tournament and with another win they could conjure-up memories of VCU and Butler tournament runs from the past couple of years.  Both Xavier and NC State are also double-digit seeds but they hail from bigger basketball conferences and have been to the ball before.

Who needs charity? Half the teams still alive in the NCAA tournament shot less than .700% at the free-throw line before the tournament began.  Some of those teams are still shooting poorly but are advancing because they are making more freebies than their opponent take, or they’re facing teams who also cannot hit from the foul line.  Kansas in-particular is shooting 63% but both Purdue and Detroit aided to the Jayhawks winning cause by heaving just as many bricks.  Why is this important you might ask?  Of the last ten tournament champions, only one team shot below 69% from the line going into the tournament.  Take all the free ones you can get.

Still feeling blue?  I had mentioned in a previous post that each of the last eight NCAA tournament champions wore blue in their uniform.  There are six remaining teams sporting blue (Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, Marquette, Florida, Xavier) who can keep the streak going.  The next dominant color is red who also has six each (Ohio State, Indiana, Louisville, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, NC State) followed by green (Michigan State, Baylor, Ohio) and Syracuse donning their familiar orange.  Baylor’s uniform colors are up for debate as to whether they should have their own “bright” category.

 At least two conference commissioners will arrive in New Orleans.  The Big East and Big Ten each have four teams left in the field.  Neither of their conferences though can collectively claim each region for a lone conference Final Four.  The Big East at best can have two teams play for the national championship.  The Big Ten can occupy three of the final four spots.

Jim Nantz is trying to channel Gus Johnson.  The overall consensus for March Madness fans is that we all miss Gus and his erupting scoregasms.  Jim Nantz is doing his best to get his celebratory scoring cheers out even when it’s a four possession game with less than 15 seconds to go in the game.  Although he might be getting all of this excitement out of his system so he’s able to transform into calm Masters Voice Jim Nantz in a couple of weeks.

At least we do not see Coach K during every commercial break.  Its possible advertisers knew Duke wouldn’t make it far this year because Coach Kryzyzewski’s face hasn’t been popping-up every minute during breaks in the action.  The commercials for this year’s tournament may not garner any views on YouTube in the near future because we already have them memorized.  They have been aired more than the old Pizza Hut March Madness promotional basketball still stuck in the back corner of the garage.  What we have learned though is Tears For Fears will now reach a new generation.  Charlie Sheen enjoys driving cars the size of go-karts in his house and the guy who worked as a fast-food cashier in Super Troopers has a new gig promoting a milkshake at McDonalds.

*Article originally published 3/20/12 at ultimatesportstalk.com

http://www.ultimatesportstalk.com/NCAA/2012/03/20/sweet-16-thoughts/

Core Problems Solved?

The New York Knicks have seemingly found a remedy to their post all-star break woes with the Big Apple ouster of Mike D’Antoni.  Since the resignation of D’Antoni, the Knicks have won each game by double-digits.  The Mike Woodson coaching era began with a lopsided win over Portland, who may also have known their coach was on the verge of an exit as well.  All is well currently for the team who call New York home.

Included within the three game winning streak are consecutive victories over the Indiana Pacers.  Crucial wins for a team holding onto the final playoff spot.  Of their remaining games in March, they will face a team with a winning record only three times and five times they will suit-up against a team .500 or under.

April will turn into the most important month of the season though for New York.  A delayed start to the season also placed the hype on hold for the always optimistic Knick fans.  After an opening day win versus Boston, close observers seen the Knicks struggle for an identity in the usually high-octane offense D’Antoni employs.  A stretch in January seen the team lose nine out of ten, prompting sane basketball fans to declare this may not be the year for the blue and orange.  Then a miracle happened for not only D’Antoni, but also for a kid from Harvard.  A season saved as fans bought into a phenomenon with the Knicks winning games again.

The novelty of the various puns involving Jeremy Lin began to wear-off with the return of Carmelo Anthony.  Some were questioning if the player they traded for, who hasn’t had a chance to play a full season with New York, was the guy they wanted to build a team around.  Whispers and speculation ensued regarding the possibility of Anthony being traded.  For a season shortened by the lockout, this particular year has been a long roller coaster ride with no clear ending in sight.

The cure-all for almost any team in sports is winning.  If this Knick team can continue their newly found winning ways the controversies should subdue.  Unless J.R. Smith continues his hand at photography in the bedroom, then the team may have a whole new unusual set of problems.

*Article originally published at ultimatesportstalk.com on 3/18/12.

http://www.ultimatesportstalk.com/NBA/2012/03/18/core-problems-solved/

The Sheriff Will Deputize a New Team

Jon Gruden once dubbed Peyton Manning as The Sheriff.  Manning has now been asked to turn-in his badge to the Colts.

In an eerie yet saddening press conference, both Jim Irsay and Indy’s former gunslinger took the podium to announce the end of a 14 year relationship. The two reminisced of the good times and explained of when they first met.  Their words mirrored one another in regards of how well they had gotten to know each other.  A brief summary from each was spoken as they took a trip down memory lane.  But, as the case with some relationships ending, they both knew this was coming.

Irsay held back some tears as he spoke highly of his now former quarterback.  Manning also paused through his thoughtful and prepared speech in hopes of not displaying a full public breakdown of his first NFL break-up.

Years from now each will certainly both look back and remember the great times they shared.  In the meantime, they will now go their separate ways and hit the market for their next successful marriage.  The Indianapolis Colts owner has already groomed his team for a younger and more attractive model.  The bachelor party for Andrew Luck will soon end as the first pick in this year’s NFL draft.

Manning will ride into a new town though with a reputation of being loyal and honorable.  He shouldn’t have any trouble looking for his next first date.  His biggest concern instead is to see if another team is ready to settle-down with the wounded heart, soul, and body of a man who has won the NFL’s most valuable player award four times.

With exception of a few destinations, most everyone else will want to see if Manning can lead their city to a title.  The obvious question every team will ask is if he’s healthy enough.  They will not have to question his drive and motivation.  If Manning wasn’t truly inspired to keep playing, he would have rehearsed a line or two at the press conference stating he was retiring his six-shooter instead.

Where Manning lands will cause a great deal of intrigue not only around the league, but also within the organization he potentially signs with.  His landing spot will most likely involve a team starving for a chance to win a championship.  Anything less than a playoff berth while Manning is the quarterback would disappoint.

Whichever team does hand him the reins may also look to sign his trusty steed in Reggie Wayne as well.  They trust each other and have reconciled for over 70+ touchdowns during the regular season and playoffs.  Manning should also easily gain the trust of his new owner and teammates.  If not, Manning’s next honeymoon may end before it begins.

*Article originally posted to ultimatesportstalk.com on 3/7/12.

One Shining Moment, For Life

Only one team will cut down the nets on April 2ND in New Orleans.  The losing team will then conclude towards the same sadness the rest of the field experienced along the way once they were eliminated.  The losses are always heart-breaking. Especially when seeing a senior player being consoled after walking off the court for the last time of their college career.  These somber moments will outweigh the joy of winning in some cases.  Some of those who experienced celebration before departure will receive a brief consolation prize during the 2012 rendition of One Shining Moment.

Plenty of excitement will first pave the way to this year’s Final Four.  Fan-bases will begin occupying airports, interstates, and hotels to see their beloved team make a run towards the championship.  Some fans may actually get to sleep in their own beds the night before the game if traveling as is the case with Kentucky playing up the road in Louisville.  Duke Blue Devil fans and North Carolina Tar Heel faithful know the Greensboro area better than some of the local residents this time of year.  For others not making their way into a host city, the combination of CBS, TBS, TNT, and truTV will brighten the spirits of many once they see their favorite squad tip-off.

We all get to wet the palate early with the play-in games on Tuesday and Wednesday.  After these initial winners are decided the 60 teams receiving a first-round bye will welcome them into the traditional field of 64 before the next three weeks whittles the bracket down to one.

Many methods of selecting the winners for each round have already taken effect.  The fan that goes with their heart already has their favorite team winning it all by double-digits in the championship game.  The fan who knows their rooting interest isn’t good enough to win it all will still find a way to eliminate each of their rivals before the round of 16.  Advancing all of the top seeds worked really well in the 2008 tournament.  Taking the underdogs has panned-out well the last couple of dances.  Some fans will make it as simple as flipping a coin.  Determining the winner may come down to color preference.  (Note to self, the last eight champions have worn some shade of blue.) Other fans will change their selections more than Nicki Minaj changes hairstyles.

However someone predicts the bracket to commence will end once Murray State and Colorado State take the floor shortly after noon on Thursday.  Wings, pizza, and dips will then go down as easily as a foul shot leaving the hands of an 89% free-throw shooter.  Beware of not only the Ides of March, but the heartburn as well.

The tournament will see both reality and actuality. We will know drama when we see it and the very funny moments as well.  Enjoy the games and hopefully the team you have winning it all, or the team you’ve grown fond of through the years, has the last dance before America’s most watched network cue’s the music.

*Article originally posted to ultimatesportstalk.com on 3/12/12

Tennessee’s True Transformational Leader

The Lady Vols have cut the nets for the 15th time as SEC conference tournament champions under Pat Summitt.  For a coach like Summit, some might proclaim this as old hat because of the recurring feats she has notched during her career.  Others may feel this was a remarkable season for the coach who has built a reputation as a fearless leader.

In 1974 the University of Tennessee hired Pat Summitt as Head Coach for the women’s basketball team.  Summitt has experienced a legendary career since she first began roaming the sidelines in Knoxville.  Equipped with her well known deep blue-eyed stare towards referees and players, Summitt has achieved numerous accomplishments during her 38 years as a head coach.

Among Summitt’s accomplishments are eight national titles and ranking first on the all-time wins leader list in college basketball history, including both men and women programs.  She has never experienced a losing season at Tennessee and has guided her teams to 18 NCAA Final Four appearances.

College basketball fans, let alone Tennessee fans, would likely admit there was a worry going into this season.  After all, when life-altering circumstances affect a person’s health, everything else tends to take-on less importance.

Coach Summitt though possesses a desire to succeed in everything she is involved with.  She has enjoyed her success by surrounding herself with not only skilled players but also with bright individuals outside of basketball.  One of the off-court accomplishments Summitt has had a part in is a 100 percent graduation rate of each student-athlete who completed their eligibility at Tennessee.  Going into each season, Summitt has each new freshman-recruit complete a personality profile to have them define who they are as a person and basketball player.  The main traits Summitt looks for are how competitive someone is, and if the person also always works towards improvement in whatever they do.  Summitt looks for leaders on her teams to take charge in the heat of the moment.  Instead of controlling every situation with her words, she allows players on her team instruct each other.

Adaptability is one of the greatest strengths Summit has shown throughout her career.  She would watch the coaching styles of two legendary men’s college basketball coaches, Dean Smith of the University of North Carolina and Bob Knight at Indiana University, and seek advice from them as well.  Summitt adapted both of their styles and helped to transform women’s college basketball.  Besides helping change a sport, there have also been personal changes as well.  In the earlier years of coaching there was a greater chance of seeing her yelling and engage any and everyone around her with confrontation.  Summitt has admitted she needed to adapt and become a better communicator instead of taking out frustrations on her players.

Above all, Summitt hates losing.  Whether it was her actual playing days in high school and at the University of Tennessee-Martin, or coaching, Summitt simply despises not being the winner.  So much in-fact she admits a loss will make her physically sick.  An example of her desire to win was evident throughout her college basketball playing career and also when she qualified for the 1973 World University Games.  An injury was sustained after making the team causing a dramatic weight gain.  Giving-up was not an option.  Persistence rewarded not only her but also the team with a silver medal during the competition.

Summitt’s determination and dismay for losing has now led her to a point in her life where she has learned to lean on her leadership and life skills more than ever.  This past May, Summit was diagnosed with early-onset dementia, Alzheimer’s type.  Much like Summitt’s coaching career in her earlier years, she addressed the diagnosis initially with anger.  Since then though, she has chose to accept any and all advice from doctors regarding the brain disease.

The support group Summitt has surrounded herself with on the hardwood will not let her down.  Going into this season, three loyal assistants have served a combined total of 50+ years roaming the sidelines with the coach who lives and breathes Tennessee.  She realized this year more coaching staff responsibilities, including play-calls, would have to fall in the shoulders of these assistant coaches.

Before the season began, assistant coach Dean Lockwood explained “one of Pat’s strengths is that she’s done a great job in giving people autonomy and leadership in key areas…this is probably one of the greatest insurance things she’s done, and the sign of her leadership.”

Her imprint on the team still shows visible.  As the second half of the SEC championship game between Tennessee and LSU became a back-and-forth affair, Coach Summitt was allowing her team and collection of coaches decide the outcome.  Coach Holly Warlick paced the bench waving her arms when she needed to grab the attention of a Lady Vol player, shouting instructions.  The team displayed continued resilience by not relinquishing the lead, except for a tied score within the first few minutes of the half.

When the final horn sounded, Tennessee would walk off the court again carrying championship hardware under Pat Summitt’s tenure.  A tenure which has seen a program transformed and validated into a winner for the past five decades.

*Article originally posted on ultimatesportstalk.com 3/4/12

Keep Smiling

The end of an era has culminated in Pittsburgh.  The man who wears an effervescent smile while playing a violent game has calmly been shown the door.

The recent news of Hines Ward being told his release is imminent from the Rooney family has sparked debate as to whether a place in Canton is in the near future.  The talk though is premature.

Ward has stated he has some more football left in his body.  Those already comparing his statistics to other wide receivers in the Pro Football Hall of Fame may have to wait until at least this time next year to finally study his resume.

Some of his accomplishments to date are a couple of Super Bowl rings with the first accompanied by an MVP honor.  One additional appearance in Super Bowl XLV was a losing effort, but his seven catches during the game moved him into 2nd place all-time with 88 post-season receptions.  If Ward does indeed return for another season he will likely look towards a contender in hopes of adding a third championship ring.

As strange as it may sound or also look, if and when Ward wears a new uniform, there were several other Steeler greats before him who were faced with the same decision of closing the curtain on their own storied careers, but instead opted to call a new place home.

Franco Harris spent twelve seasons donning the black and gold before he landed for one year as Seattle Seahawk.  Mike Webster spent fifteen years snapping from center while displaying the hypocycloids on the right side of his helmet until the last two of his career were played with an arrowhead above each ear.

Other Steeler greats also felt they had more to offer after their playing careers in the steel city.  Three time first-team all-pro Greg Lloyd spent his final season as a Carolina Panther.  Former 2nd round pick Levon Kirkland also found more work as a middle linebacker in Seattle and Philadelphia after he was sent packing in Pittsburgh.

Rod Woodson played nine years with the Steelers before he was told his skills had diminished.  Woodson played an additional  seven seasons with San Francisco, Baltimore, and Oakland.  He was a starter on the Super Bowl winning team for Baltimore in Super Bowl XXXV.  Woodson also helped lead the 2002 Oakland team to Super Bowl  XXXVII and his eight interceptions during the regular season led the team.

Ward may not find the same prolonged career as Rod Woodson unless he stumbles upon a fountain of youth.  The harsh reality for a football player in their mid-thirties offers no such finding.  His skill-set at age 36 may not even garner him another start if he can find further employment with another franchise.

Much speculation has already been made as to where Ward will land.  Two former offensive coordinators, Mike Mularkey and Ken Whisenhunt, might do more than just kick the tires and offer him an opportunity.  A connection to Chicago has also been made with a former college coach now holding the wide receivers coaching position with the Bears.  His work ethic and style of play could also potentially land him with one other NFC North team residing in a blue-collar town, the Detroit Lions.  His hometown of Atlanta has also been mentioned as a landing spot.

The true unthinkable destinations would have Ward playing for another AFC North team.  It may not seem as far-fetched though.  Ward has played most of his career with an attitude to show others he can get the job done.  The Steelers organization tried on different occasions to move him down the depth chart by drafting wide receivers with their first round picks.  Troy Edwards came and went.  Plaxico Burress and Santonio Holmes were each taken under the wing of Ward and both eventually departed to become part of the New York Jets self-proclaimed flight 1017 last year. Because of being somewhat highly publicized receivers, Burress and Holmes managed to find one-way tickets out of Pittsburgh while Ward stayed grounded.

If indeed the book closes on the playing career of Hines Ward, it will have done so with many chapters referencing his familiar grin as a foot-note.  For a football player who defined a position by inflicting pain and initiating rage in his opponents and opposing fans, he will likely experience those same feelings if he’s not able to return towards a huddle smiling.