Tuesday, March 3, 2009

The one program in the country having it harder than UMass in 2009

I've been pissing and moaning all year about how bad T Boone Pickens screwed UMass. How he bought our coach for his alma mater (which is noticeably better than they were a year ago under Alcohol and Pills Addict Jr.). I've really never shut up about it. UMass is sitting on ten wins, and without a win tomorrow night against George Washington will likely miss the Atlantic 10 tournament for the first time in 39,000 years (ever). However, that is nothing compared to the team I saw playing on ESPN tonight.

Kelvin Sampson massacred one of the most storied programs in history and left the team in ruins entering this season. Eric Gordon had declared for the NBA draft after his freshman year. DJ White graduated. Terrell Holloway transferred to Xavier. Eli Holman to Detroit Mercy. DeAndre Thomas was dismissed dismissed from the program. After ugly divorces from the school, guard Armon Bassett landed back with Mike Davis at UAB and Jamarcus Ellis is no longer with the team. Yet a group of walk ons and freshmen (two star freshmen at that) had the premier team in the Big Ten on the ropes for all but about 12 seconds of their game tonight.

I speak, of course, of Indiana, which appears it will end the season with six wins, one in the Big Ten. If I were to rank the programs in the Big Ten based on a tradition, it would look something like this:
1: Indiana
2: Michigan State
3: Illinois
4: Michigan
5: Purdue
6: Ohio State
7: Minnesota
8: Iowa
9: Wisconsin
10: Penn State
11: That team that has never been to the NCAA tournament.
Indiana is to the Big Ten as Kansas is to the Big XII, or as UCLA is to the Pac 10. To see them suffer like this is difficult. The amazing thing is that Assembly Hall is going nuts for this team. They love supporting these guys. It reminds be of a situation a few years back when St. John's had to dismiss basically their scholarship players (minus Kyle Cuffe) due to a sexual assault fiasco that occurred during a road trip in Pittsburgh. Much like Indiana, the once-proud program was a wreck. Much like Indiana, they managed to win one game in their conference, at home over Georgetown.

It was impressive watching guys who may not have been the best players on their high school teams giving Michigan State all they wanted. Sad to see them fall short, but fun to watch them compete at such a high level. It also serves as a reminder that the great programs, as tough as times can be, will always be back.

Indiana University, 2015 NCAA Champions.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Thanks Muskies

Remember 2004, when the Big East died as a football power conference? You know, when the ACC proved to the rest of the college sports world that sports are indeed about nothing except money. They raped and pillaged and came away with the two programs in the eight-team Big East that could really compete for national championships, Miami and Virginia Tech. That season, Pitt earned the tie break as quad-Champions in the seven team Big East (UConn played their first season as a member, Temple and Boston College their last). In the Tostitos Fiesta Bowl, the Panthers got to play the first ever BCS-buster, Utah, and boy oh boy did that go badly. The Utes smacked Pitt around for four quarters, throwing occasional salt on the wounds with things like a hook and ladder play for a touchdown.
With Temple being excused from the conference after years of failing to produce a competitive 1A program, and BC joining the other backstabbers in the ACC, the Big East was left with just five programs. So what did they do? They turned to Conference USA, and did to those guys what the ACC had done to them: Show your flashy "power conference" perks and steal the best talent. Ultimately, Louisville, Cincinnati and South Florida hopped over to the Big East (as well as Marquette and DePaul in non-football sports, though I still can't figure that one out). Coming off of that horrendous showing in 2004, fans had to be skeptical about whether or not the conference really deserved their automatic bid in the BCS anymore. I mean, they were represented by a four-loss team which lost by four touchdowns to the champions from the Mountain West. That's pretty disastrous.
Adding insult to injury, the one newcomer that people thought might be the solution (Louisville) dropped their first conference game to a heavy underdog (USF), 45-14.
So what happened? Well one team that hadn't really been a national title contender in recent years, but had been a consistently decent program, truly stepped up, and did it behind a slew of talented underclassmen. Freshmen Pat White and Steve Slaton, and sophomores Owen Schmidtt and Darius Raynaud led Louisville to an improbable 11-1 season and a birth in the Sugar Bowl, being played at the Georgia Dome due to the damage Hurricane Katrina had done to the Louisiana Superdome. Making their task in the Sugar Bowl more difficult was that their opponents, the Georgia Bulldogs, champions of the mighty SEC, now almost had a home game.
But West Virginia did not seem starry-eyed on prime-time national television. In fact, they didn't seem affected at all. The Mountaineers came out and put up 38 points on the Dawgs before sealing their 38-35 win with a successful fake punt in the final minutes. The win was a statement for the Big East: Yes, we will compete and we will win big games now and in the future.
The thing about it is... Louisville didn't make that statement. Pittsburgh didn't either. Nor did Rutgers, Syracuse, USF, UConn or Cincinnati. West Virginia single handedly saved the Big East. They made it so that people had to respect the teams in their conference while those other teams rebuilt to the point where they could defend themselves.
Doesn't that seem ridiculous?
That is why today, I think that it is important for UMass basketball, along with Temple, Saint Joe's, George Washington and URI to say THANK YOU to Xavier, for keeping Atlantic 10 basketball relevant for the past few seasons. Dayton is winning as well, but when those programs get back from obscurity, they'll be damn lucky to be in a conference that a few people still give a damn about, and they owe that to the X-men.

So Xavier, from a man who desperately wants his alma mater to be a contender again: Thanks.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

RIP, Kay Yow

Kay Yow won over 700 games (she is fifth all time in major women's college basketball). She had a plethora of 20-win seasons and sweet sixteen appearances while the head coach at NC State. She led the Wolfpack to the final four once and led the US Women's Olympic team to a gold medal in 1988 in Seoul.
However, her greatest impact was as an ambassador for the fight against cancer, and a board member of the V Foundation -- named for fellow former NC State coach Jim Valvano. Jimmy V lost his battle with cancer fifteen years ago. Today Kay Yow, who was fighting breast cancer for the third time, passed away at the age of 66.
R.I.P., Kay Yow. No one did a better job of carrying Coach Valvano's message to my generation.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

BCMess Redux

The amazing thing about the BCS is that it really doesn't seem like anyone is happy with it.
Honestly, who hasn't been screwed over by it? Last year, there were a number of good two loss teams heading into bowl season, vying for the second spot in the title game against Ohio State: LSU, Georgia, Virginia Tech, West Virginia, USC, Missouri and Oklahoma. Kansas actually had only one loss, but it was in their only notable game, and as a result they were relegated to the Orange Bowl. Missouri and Georgia failed to win their conferences, so they enjoyed trips to the Cotton and Sugar Bowls, respectively. Virginia Tech and West Virginia were out of the ACC and Big East, so they went to Orange and Fiesta. USC and OU were the two with the biggest gripes, and USC thrashed Illinois by 32 points in the Rose Bowl (OU lost to WVU in the Fiesta Bowl), leaving people to wonder who the real national champ should be after LSU finished off Ohio State in New Orleans.
Then there was Hawai'i. I wrote about the Warriors last year before the Sugar Bowl, accurately predicting that the Warriors would be trampled by Georgia. This coming one year after I strongly rooted for Boise State's upset of Oklahoma. The reason Hawai'i didn't belong in that game was simple: They were a gimicky team (see: 2008 Texas Tech Red Raiders) that won games over bad opponents and beat their only true test (Boise State) on their little island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, which is one hell of a home field advantage. Not surprisingly, Georgia rolled.
This year, I figured Utah would fare better in the same game, but didn't anticipate them winning. But guess what? One quarter into the Sugar Bowl, Utah led the mighty Tide 21-0 on their way to a 31-17 triumph. Utah's win gives them wins over four legitimate opponents this year: Oregon State, 9-4 with a win over USC and a Sun Bowl victory; TCU, 11-2, with wins over BYU and Boise State and their only other loss coming at Oklahoma; BYU, who finished 10-3 and in the top 20; and Alabama, 12-2 after spending five weeks as the #1 team in the country.
I don't like Utah. Their fans are generally backward, homophobic Mormons, their coach is from the tree of Urban Meyer, and their marching band is downright dreadful. However, I've seen enough of this game to know that, had Michigan played the exact same schedule -- put TCU in Ohio State jerseys, there isn't much of a difference -- and gone 13-0, they would be the undisputed national champions of college football.
That being said, arguments can certainly be made for Southern Cal and Texas as well. So, I'm going to refer back to the tried-and-true method I've used each of the past several years. Who did you beat and who did they beat and who did they beat, etc.
UMass beat Holy Cross
Holy Cross beat Lafayette
Lafayette beat Liberty
Liberty beat Elon
Elon beat Georgia Southern
Georgia Southern beat Austin Peay
Austin Peay beat Eastern Illinois
Eastern Illinois beat Illinois State
Illinois State beat Youngstown State
Youngstown State beat North Dakota State
North Dakota State beat Southern Illinois
Southern Illinois beat Northern Iowa
Northern Iowa beat UNH
UNH beat Army
Army beat Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech beat Mississippi State
Mississippi State beat Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt beat Ole Miss
Ole Miss beat Florida
AND!
Ole Miss beat Texas Tech
Texas Tech beat Texas
AND!
Texas beat Oklahoma
AND!
Oklahoma beat TCU
TCU beat Stanford
Stanford beat Oregon State
Oregon State beat USC
See? UMass wins again. This year's was a little tougher. Because... you know... we didn't win any games against good teams. Plus you have to throw out Utah. Because... you know... they didn't lose...
Okay, I'm done.