Monday, March 28, 2011

Ryan Braun

On March 13th, so-called experts on different sports shows declared this year's field of 68 to be the weakest in recent memory and they weren't wrong. Not only did this tournament feature the most double-digit loss teams ever, it also contained 5 teams with 14 losses; there have only been a total of 6 teams with 14 losses ever to compete in the tournament since it expanded in 1985. So the experts might have been right - this is the weakest field in recent memory. It also might be the most interesting.

A weak bracket should mean that the number one seeds have an easy route to the Final Four. Except not one made it. This has happened twice before: in 1980, with Louisville (2 seed), UCLA (8 seed), Purdue (6 seed), and Iowa (5 seed),  and in 2006with Florida (3 seed), UCLA (2 seed), George Mason (11 seed), and LSU (4 seed). However, this year, there are no number 2 seeds either. There's never been a Final Four with a 1 or a 2 seed in it. So much for that 'weakest field' argument. This year's Final Four is UCONN (3 seed), Kentucky (4 seed), VCU (11 seed), and Butler (8 seed). The match-ups this upcoming weekend are interesting for a number of reasons. 

First, a quick look at the first match-up. UCONN and Kentucky already played each other once this year in the Maui tournament (UCONN won 84-67). It's easy to see the draw of the UCONN and Kentucky game. Neither are strangers to the Final Four; this is UCONN's 2nd trip in the last 3 years, Coach Calhoun's 4th trip, two of which have led to national championships; Kentucky hasn't been to the Final Four since 1998, which is when they obtained one of their 7 national championships, but Coach Calipari is now the only coach to take three different teams to the Final Four (even if the first two were vacated by the NCAA). Some people might love this match-up because of the tradition of these two legendary programs and coaches. I'm rooting for UCONN because my little sister has them winning the tournament and she's the only member of our family whose bracket hasn't gone down in flames and because I think it would be a waste of a tournament if Calipari won, only to have the wins vacated later because it's bound to happen eventually. 

The other match-up, however, poses a problem for many. Often in this tournament, unless your bracket is still in the running to earn you some money (in other words, unless you're jspearlman), people tend to root for the underdog. But this is the match-up of the underdogs. An 8 seed vs an 11 seed. Two young, up-and-coming coaches (whose combined ages are less than Jim Calhoun's 68 years). So here's the problem: which bandwagon will you jump on?

Here's where I try and convince you to root for VCU, the 3rd 11 seed to ever make the Final Four. Butler beat Old Dominion (9 seed), Pitt (1 seed), Wisconsin (4 seed), and Florida (2 seed). VCU beat USC in the play-in game, Georgetown (6 seed), Purdue (3 seed), Florida State (10 seed), and Kansas (1 seed). (On a side note, Kansas has become the dream opponent for mid-major schools. Since 2005, they've lost to Bucknell, Bradley, Northern Iowa, and VCU.) Give credit to both of these teams for making it this far. Just give more credit to VCU.

From the very moment that VCU's name was announced, they were questioned, particularly from Jay Bilas, who called out the selection committee by saying their choice of allowing VCU into the tournament was "indefensible" and wondering whether the committee "knows if the ball is round". His criticism wasn't wrong - VCU probably didn't deserve their bid and probably robbed either Colorado or Virginia Tech of theirs - but VCU has used it for motivation. They've played five games so far, as opposed to the four that Butler has played, and they haven't just won these games: they've dominated. They beat Georgetown (albiet an injured and struggling Georgetown) by 18 points. They beat an incredibly healthy and incredibly talented Purdue team by 18 points. They just managed to get past another cinderella in FSU in overtime before they beat the Morris twins of Kansas by 10 points, leading at one point by 18. Butler, on the other hand, has edged over their opposition with the help of crazy shots and foul calls in every game except their victory over Wisconsin, with their largest victory being by 7. Don't get me wrong: Butler's a good team and they've played hard. I'm just suggesting that VCU has been a tad more motivated and a bit more impressive thus far. 

Butler's had their cinderella story. Brad Stevens got his Bulldogs to the Final Four in their home town of Indianapolis against all odds last year, brought them to the championship game, and was one half court shot away from bringing home their first championship. This year, it's Shaka Smart's turn. VCU had never been past the second round of the tournament until this year. This year, Brad Stevens has shown that he can get it done twice, that he wasn't depending on Gordan Hayward to win last year. This is not the last time we'll see Brad Stevens and the Butler Bulldogs; in fact, I expect him to take home a championship within the next 5 or 6 years. Hopefully just not this year. It's too early to say whether Shaka Smart and VCU will be able to do this again; whether this is the beginning of upward turn for VCU or one anomaly of an otherwise average basketball program. If that's the case, this might be the last chance VCU has for a while. They've been questioned and they've responded without any help from Lady Luck or the NCAA officiating team. They've fought too hard to stop now. If that's not the case and Shaka Smart takes this team to the next level, they're still the underdogs this year. Butler can only win so much before they're not a cinderella story anymore. They've reached that point. Back-to-back Final Fours will do that. That's a good thing - it means that they've established a successful and respectable basketball program. It also means they're not the underdogs anymore. 

There you have it. I'm not telling you that you have to root for VCU. If you're a Butler grad or know a Butler grad, if you have ties to the school or if you think their mascot is cute, then by all means root for Butler. But if you're rooting for the underdog, you gotta root for VCU. 

Today's blog is titled for Ryan Braun, an outfielder for the Milwaukee Brewers. He's from California and attended Miami University in Florida. He made his debut for the Brewers on May 25, 2007. In 2009, he became just the 8th player in MLB history with at least 100 runs, 100 RBI, 200 hits, 30 HR, 20 SB, and a .300 batting average in the same season. He's single and enjoys the beach, water sports, movies, and car. He also has his own batting line (RB8's) and clothing line (Remetee). Baseball's opening day is this Thursday. I'm not nearly as excited as this commercial says I should be. 

Hasta la vista!
The Sports Nerd

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Elmore Morgenthaler

With basketball season wrapping up, this may be one of the last posts I'm able to get in about said sport before I'm forced to write about something else. There are so many great moments from this year's March Madness already, and we're only four days in, but writing about the great moments isn't nearly as fun as watching them and, hopefully, most of you have seen most of these moments live anyway so reading about them would just be redundant. If you missed them, I'll let you wait until this year's "One Shining Moment" video to relive them all. In the mean time, I'll tell you a little about some of the great players creating those great moments. Today, halfway through VCU's beat down of Purdue, the four Naismith Finalists were announced. None of them are particularly surprising:

Jimmer Fredette - BYU
Jared Sullinger - (the) Ohio State
Kemba Walker - UCONN
Nolan Smith - Duke

Each one of them is very deserving of the award. I know which one I want to win. Unfortunately, since I'm too cheap to text my pick to 345345 and can't maneuver the darn Naismith website to vote, my opinion doesn't matter at all. However, if you aren't and you can, here's some details that might help you make your final decision.

Jimmer Fredette: I talked extensively about the BYU program and Fredette's teammate, Brandon Davies, in my previous post, but I didn't get into too much detail about the team's star himself. James Fredette is a senior from New York and is the starting guard of the Brigham Young Cougar's basketball team. He averages 4.3 assists per game and 3.5 rebounds a game while also shooting 40.6% from beyond the arc and averaging 28.8 points a game. (That's an average. So far in this tournament alone he scored 32 on Wofford and 34 on Gonzaga. He scored 49 on Arizona back in 2009 and 52 on New Mexico earlier this year.) The average seems low because of the occasional off game. "Off game" here meaning 16 points against Hawaii at the beginning of the season). He came into the spotlight during last year's NCAA tournament, particularly in his 37 point effort that pushed BYU past the Florida Gators in double overtime (who, coincidentally, will be who they play in the Sweet Sixteen next week, the first time BYU has ever advanced this far.) He was the Mountain West Conference's player of the year as well as's national player of the year. Although the Naismith is presented on facts alone, his back story is pretty interesting as well. In case you don't feel like watching that whole video, it basically shows how his brother used to help him practice by setting up scrimmages for him. With the inmates of a nearby jail. If that doesn't toughen a kid up, I don't know what will.

Jared Sullinger: Earlier this year, I shared this same video with you. I couldn't find a new one (some OSU fans need to step up and make a new mix). Also earlier this year, I questioned tOSU as a basketball team. I don't like being wrong and, with the except of my terrible bracket this year, I have a pretty good record (EX: Penn State made the tournament), but I was wrong here. Very, very wrong. Ohio State is a great basketball team and, hypocrite that I am, I think they'll win the National Championship because, honestly, who is going to beat them? Part of the reason they're so good is Jared Sullinger (and Aaron Craft, who doesn't get nearly the amount of attention that he should). He's a freshman and he averages a double-double each game: 17 points and 10.1 rebounds. He was the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He's also very active on twitter (tonight he's having some conversation with Duke's Kyrie Irving. Fraternizing with the enemy.) A few weeks ago, I showed his "Party in the USA" video. Apparently, the whole video was his idea. It's his favorite song (he tweeted that when some girl asked him if he really liked it, he took off his headphones and it was playing on his iPod). In fact, when a Minnesota fan tried to taunt him with a sign of him, he asked for the poster so he could give it to his mom (the Minnesota fan gave it to him).

Kemba Walker: I'd like to point out that one of the very first games that Kemba Walker started receiving national attention for was their victory over Michigan State in Maui. That's not a good thing, but it's where I first heard his name. Walker ranks 4th in the country in scoring with 23.6 ppg. He was particularly important during Uconn's run through the Big East tournament, where he scored 130 points in five games on five straight days. One might think that all those game right before the NCAA tournament might wear him out, but that doesn't appear to be happening anytime soon. He's from New York, says that he always wanted to come to Uconn, but if he hadn't, he probably would have gone to Cincinnati (which is the team that Uconn beat by 11 in the Big East championship game. Good decision.)

Nolan Smith: Kyle Singler's decision to not live up to pre-season expectations and Kyrie Irving's toe injury opened up a nice path for senior Nolan Smith to average 20.9 ppg, 5.3 apg, and 4.5 rpg, establishing himself as the ACC's player of the year. He was the starting shooting guard last year for Duke's championship run in March and has put the team on his back for most of the year. During the game over Michigan today, he scored 24 points on 8 out of 13 shooting, including a critical stretch where he scored 10 straight points. In my opinion (and, hey, since it's my blog I guess I can put my opinion), he's been somewhat overlooked most of the season. Obviously, he's not too overlooked since he's a Naismith finalist, but a lot of attention was focused on Kyrie Irving. With him gone, Smith led Duke just like an experienced senior should. His dad died when he was 8 years old and he now has a tattoo with the words "Forever Watching" on his arm.

So there are this year's finalists. I know who I want to win (and maybe you can figure it out too) and maybe this has influenced your opinions; maybe it hasn't; or maybe you don't really care that much at all.

As for Elmore Morgenthaler, he was the first 7 foot tall (7'1'', to be exact) basketball player. He played at college ball at the New Mexico School of Mines, professional basketball with Providence and Philadelphia from 1946 to 1949, and, despite his height, averaged less than two points a game.

It should go without saying that the thing to watch this week is the remainder of the NCAA tournament. However, if you happen to be watching a game that the great Gus Johnson isn't calling, then you could always listen to Oscar Cuesta, the Spanish Gus Johnson. Skip to about :45 seconds in; this guy is so happy he's either crying or laughing maniacally.

Peace out!
The Sports Nerd

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Julius Erving

There is a reason for why I haven't written in almost a month. It's not that there hasn't been lots to write about, because there has been. (Quick review: Carmelo Anthony goes to the Knicks, Blake Griffin dunks over a car, Trevor Bayne wins Daytona 500, baseball is in full swing, no NFL lockout....yet, tOSU wins Big Ten). I had plenty of choices. No, the reason I haven't written is because, after my last post, I told myself I would go out on a limb and write about something other than college basketball. Obviously, I've had plenty to chose from. I couldn't do it. I can't write an (interesting) post about NBA trades or NFL drama, my post on the Daytona would have been something along the lines of, "He turned left faster than everyone else", and I can't force myself to watch a full game of baseball; I prefer the ESPN highlights. So I've finally given in and have resigned myself to writing another post on college basketball. This could be a very dull blog after March. I'm not going to write about tOSU winning, though. There's someone far more controversial and interesting out there right now and his name is Brandon Davies.

A little backstory for anyone who doesn't already know where this is going. Brandon Davies was, until recently, the sophomore forward for the Brigham Young Cougars men's basketball team. He was the leading rebounder, averaging 6.2 per game, and the team's third highest scorer, with 11.1 ppg. At the beginning of the season, BYU caught the media's attention because of their senior guard, Jimmer Fredette, who averages 27.9 points a game and shoots 40% from beyond the arc. By playing (and winning) a decent non-conference schedule and beating then #6 (now #4) San Diego State on January 26th, BYU ended the month of February 27-2, 13-1 in the Mountain West, and ranked #3 in the polls, poised for a number 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Then Brandon Davies was suspended for the remainder of the season for breaking the Honor Code. He had sex with his girlfriend.

BYU is a Mormon school with a strict Honor Code. When you agree to attend BYU, you agree to that Honor Code, which includes promising to "live a virtuous and chaste life". He didn't. After his suspension, the Cougars lost to New Mexico for the second time this season and then beat Wyoming. They are still ranked #3 and while the Cougars can definitely still make a run in the tournament, this is definitely not a small challenge to overcome. Davies has the ability to score anywhere from 6 to 20 points a game, he started 24 of 27 games, he's had two double-doubles this season, and BYU was already short-handed after an injury to Chris Collinsworth earlier this season. Davies was the main player for Fredette and the team's second highest scorer, Jackson Emery, to feed to, as well as the main distraction that freed up said players on the outside. This will a be a huge hurdle for a team that fell in the 2nd round of the tournament last year and, despite 24 tournament appearances, has never reached the Final Four.

This is where the controversy comes in. College students have sex. College sports players have sex. College sports players do things much worse than have consensual sex with their significant others and are not kicked off their sports teams. Case in point: Davies' girlfriend is a volleyball player for Arizona State and she still plays, even though she slept with her boyfriend. A recent study done by CBS and Sports Illustrated revealed that of the 2,837 players that made up the 2010 pre-season top 25 football polls, 7% had criminal records, including actual sex offenses. (Here's a link to the results of the study, if you're interested.) Players are paid, breaking NCAA rules, and are forgiven and allowed to continue playing (I really can't go many posts without mentioning Cam Newton). So should Brandon Davies, who did nothing illegal or dangerous, get suspended, when so many others commit worse crimes and get away with it?

The answer: yes. With all the aforementioned scandals and lack of discipline in college sports right now, BYU should be praised for their ruling. Brandon Davies agreed to that Honor Code. If he didn't want to follow it, he could have attended any other school in the nation. But he chose BYU. And by choosing BYU, he chose to not have sex. Although that might not appear to be a huge misdemeanor when compared to what other student athletes get away with, he's breaking the rules nonetheless. And while other schools allow their players to get away with the crimes without punishment in order to keep their chances of success alive, the BYU administration upheld their values, jeopardizing one of the best seasons in school history. They're setting an example. They're sticking to their morals. Kudos to them.

What's even better? After their victory over Wyoming on the 5th, securing them the Mountain West title, they allowed Davies onto the floor to cut a piece of the net for himself. Because he is just a kid. And, compared to a lot of other kids out there, he's a really good kid who deserves a second chance. One question left: how the hell did the school find out?

Today's post is in honor of number 6, Julius Erving. He was born on February 22, 1950 (my birthday, just 43 years early), played basketball for Massachusetts Amherst and was selected as the 12th overall pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He played in the NBA for 17 years and is considered one of the best dunkers of all time. Recently, there has been some discussion about switching the NBA's logo depicting Jerry West to feature an Erving dunk, but it doesn't seem likely to happen. He was nicknamed "Dr. J", which influenced the nicknames of both Boston Celtics' Glenn "Doc" Rivers (he had a poster of Erving in his Marquette dorm room) and rapper Dr. Dre and the real name of Chicago Bears defensive end Julius Peppers.

Here's something not to watch: The ESPN documentary on the scUM's "Fab Five". For those of you who don't know, the "Fab Five" was the nickname for five players in Michigan's 1991 recruiting class (Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, Jimmy King, and Ray Jackson). The five supposedly revolutionized the game of basketball. They never won a championship, though they came close and might have if Chris Webber hadn't called a timeout against UNC in 1993 when they had none remaining, resulting in a technical foul. What they did make popular was trash talking, shaved heads, baggy shorts, black shoes, and high black socks. More often than not, they're associated with the University of Michigan basketball scandal, where scUM booster Ed Martin gave Chris Webber roughly $280,000 in a span of five years. Three other players not from the Fab Five were involved, as was the coach, Steve Fisher (currently the coach of San Diego State. Michigan fired him). The University of Michigan ended up vacating every game in the 1992-93 season as well as 1995-96 through 1997-98, which included the 1992 and 1993 Final Fours, the 1997 NIT title, and the 1998 Big Ten Championship. I'm not sure what exactly the documentary is going to focus on. Yay for cheating!

Live long and prosper,
The Sports Nerd