Thursday, March 31, 2011

Happy Opening Day 2011

Known more for his regal bearing than any joie de vivre, Opening Day of the Big League baseball season could even bring out the kid in New York Yankees legend Joe DiMaggio:

"You look forward to it like a birthday party when you're a kid. You think something wonderful is going to happen."

Of course, Opening Day generally did mean that "something wonderful" was on the horizon for the Yankee Clipper. Aside from bedding Marilyn Monroe and establishing that historic 56-game hitting streak, Joltin' Joe won a whopping 10 World Series in 11 appearances during a 13-season career. Given those gaudy accomplishments, I can understand why he was on optimist.

As a Mets fan, Opening Day is typically the time of year (recently, at least) when the optimism and applause of Spring Training blossoms into the booing and Calvanist fatalism of the regular season. I've been hard-selling my friends that this should not be the case this year, but we shall all finally see when Terry Collins' 2011 Metsies open their campaign tomorrow in Miami.

There are any number of reasons that the New York Metropolitans are not one of the dozen teams playing in the six high-profile games today. Among that number of reasons are the numbers 83 and 1.

- 83 losses in 2010, resulting in a fourth-place finish in the NL East.

- 1 billion dollars, the sum of money that the owners of the Mets are at risk of losing thanks to their involvement with the Madoff ponzi scheme.

DiMaggio's former club, however, was pencilled into the leadoff spot in MLB's Opening Day lineup. The Yanks will host the Detroit Tigers up in the Bronx this afternoon, with the first pitch scheduled for 1:05 p.m. at the ATM that Steinbrenner Built. The skies over New York were an ominous gunmetal shade this morning so it's possible that that game will be postponed. But perhaps not. In which case, we'll have only Suzyn Waldman to describe weather conditions perhaps better left to Grantland Rice.

If the game takes place then we'll also have a ceremonial first pitch thrown out by former Yankees hurler Mike Mussina. He will be the 10th retired Yankees player to toss out such a pitch. Others scheduled to throw ceremonial first pitches around the Majors include a retired chief of police in Cincinnati, retired pudgy screwballer Fernando Valuenza in Los Angeles and retired outfielder Jim Edmunds in St. Louis. President Barack Obama had been scheduled to throw the first pitch at Nationals Park in the District like he did last year, but was a late scratch. It may have been because the Braves have so many right-handed hitters Or it may have been that Obama wanted to avoid upsetting the same blowhards who were upset that he took a few minutes to fill out an NCAA bracket earlier this month.

In most cases, these ceremonial pitches are given to local celebrities or beloved former players. In all cases the honoree has name recognition with the home crowd and is likely to receive a warm welcome. This was not always the case.

In 1968, the first pitch at Yankee Stadium on Opening Day was heaved onto the field by Marianne Moore. She never patrolled center field anywhere or held any elected office in the city, county or state of New York. Moore was a Pulitzer Prize–winning modernist poet.

Supremely talented and possessing a sharp wit, Moore become a fixture of the New York social scene starting in the 1930s. Wearing her signature tri-corner hat, she would regularly attend sporting events. Later in her life she forged an unlikely friendship with Muhammad Ali, even writing the liner notes for a spoken word album released by the champ. Once penning "A Poem on the Annihilation of Ernie Terrell" with Ali over dinner, Moore's sporting acumen occasionally shined through in her work. This marriage of poetry and athletics was perhaps never better than in "Baseball and Writing."

Baseball and Writing

Fanaticism? No. Writing is exciting
and baseball is like writing.
You can never tell with either
how it will go
or what you will do;
generating excitement–
a fever in the victim–
pitcher, catcher, fielder, batter.
Victim in what category?
Owlman watching from the press box?
To whom does it apply?
Who is excited?Might it be I?

It’s a pitcher’s battle all the way–a duel–
a catcher’s, as, with cruel
puma paw, Elston Howard lumbers lightly
back to plate.(His spring
de-winged a bat swing.)
They have that killer instinct;
yet Elston–whose catching
arm has hurt them all with the bat–
when questioned, says, unenviously,
“I’m very satisfied.We won.”
Shorn of the batting crown, says, “We”;
robbed by a technicality.

When three players on a side play three positions
and modify conditions,
the massive run need not be everything.
“Going, going . . . “Is
it?Roger Maris
has it, running fast.You will
never see a finer catch.Well . . .
“Mickey, leaping like the devil”–why
gild it, although deer sounds better–
snares what was speeding towards its treetop nest,
one-handing the souvenir-to-be
meant to be caught by you or me.

Assign Yogi Berra to Cape Canaveral;
he could handle any missile.
He is no feather.”Strike! . . . Strike two!”
Fouled back.A blur.
It’s gone.You would infer
that the bat had eyes.
He put the wood to that one.
Praised, Skowron says, “Thanks, Mel.
I think I helped a little bit.”
All business, each, and modesty.
Blanchard, Richardson, Kubek, Boyer.
In that galaxy of nine, say which
won the pennant?Each.It was he.

Those two magnificent saves from the knee-throws
by Boyer, finesses in twos–
like Whitey’s three kinds of pitch and pre-
with pick-off psychosis.
Pitching is a large subject.
Your arm, too true at first, can learn to
catch your corners–even trouble
Mickey Mantle.(“Grazed a Yankee!
My baby pitcher, Montejo!”
With some pedagogy,
you’ll be tough, premature prodigy.)

They crowd him and curve him and aim for the knees.Trying
indeed!The secret implying:
“I can stand here, bat held steady.”
One may suit him;
none has hit him.
Imponderables smite him.
Muscle kinks, infections, spike wounds
require food, rest, respite from ruffians.(Drat it!
Celebrity costs privacy!)
Cow’s milk, “tiger’s milk,” soy milk, carrot juice,
brewer’s yeast (high-potency–
concentrates presage victory

sped by Luis Arroyo, Hector Lopez–
deadly in a pinch.And “Yes,
it’s work; I want you to bear down,
but enjoy it
while you’re doing it.”
Mr. Houk and Mr. Sain,
if you have a rummage sale,
don’t sell Roland Sheldon or Tom Tresh.
Studded with stars in belt and crown,
the Stadium is an adastrium.
O flashing Orion,
your stars are muscled like the lion.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Falling Action

Knicks Fail Down Stretch, Lose to Celtics

It was the unstanched stream of blood Knicks' turnovers in the final three minutes that sealed the come-from-ahead loss to the Boston Celtics at the Garden last night. After out-hustling, out-executing, out-witting and, most importantly, out-wanting the defending Eastern Conference champs through three quarters, the Knicks suffered a bewildering bout of stage fright in the waning moments and squandered a double-digit lead.

"We just got to a point there, I thought we just panicked," increasingly under fire 'bockers coach Mike D'Antoni Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni told reporters after the game.

Panic or not, in the grand scheme of an NBA season, there is relatively little shame in losing a close game to a title-contending team like the Boston Celtics. It's certainly not as hard to explain come Selection Sunday as losing to lottery-bound dregs like Detroit and Milwaukee, who toppled the Knicks while we were watching college basketball over the weekend. Yet this most recent loss hurt (me) so much more because my hopes were raised and then dashed. Defeat was snatched from the jaws of victory.

In a well-plotted narrative - which this hard-fought, bloody game surely was - there is a segment of the plot cycle called the "falling action." It comes between the climax and the conclusion. And unlike in the bedroom, the climax is not the conclusion when plotting a story.

This "falling action" is the moment of reversal after the climax. In a comedy, or any story with a happy ending, that falling action is when things finally turn around for the previously embattled protagonist. In a tragedy, it's when things start to unravel for the protagonist as the antagonist gains the upper hand. In last night's tragic (in the narrative sense, not in the Japan sense) loss, I identified the falling action as this failed play coming out a timeout with the Knicks still leading, 82-78, with 6:45 remaining in the fourth quarter.

Was this isolation play drawn up in the huddle? Was Anthony supposed to use that pick that Ronny Turiaf tried to set? Or to feed the ball to Amar'e at the high post or the top of the key when he flashed up? Did anyone look toward the bench when the first iso attempt sputtered, resulting in another out-of-bounds play for the Knicks?

Monday, March 21, 2011

Monday Mudita

While my 60-year-old father was being refused entry to Red Bull Arena and I was generally re-thinking my attachment my local MLS side in blustery and clusterfucked Harrison, NJ, on Saturday night there was a more redemptive narrative unfolding several states to the south. Once and possibly future US national team striker Charlie Davies continued his comeback from a horrific car accident that nearly claimed his life in the run-up to the 2010 World Cup by netting a brace for D.C. United against Columbus.

A pacey north-south threat and a confident finisher, Davies made the US counterattack something of a menace at the June 2009 Confederations Cup in South Africa. That US side halted Spain's epic win streak in the semi and held a lead, however brief, over Brazil in the final. In Ocotber 2009, Davies was a passenger in a car which wrecked on the highway. The driver was drunk, Davies suffered catastrophic injuries and another passenger was killed.

After the game an emotional Davies spoke about his return from the brink. Coincidentally, the driver on the night of the accident was sentenced on Friday in nearby Alexandria, Virginia. In Federal Court, Davies' friend tearfully apologized and was sentenced to two years in prison for involuntary manslaughter.

Barcelona is known for scoring breathtaking goals in the run of play thanks to their geometric passing precision, but here is a wonder strike by Dani Alves that is a moment of singular inspiration.

And, because I was in the last row pretty much directly behind and above the goal when this happened:

Saturday, March 19, 2011

A Private Audience with the King

The WWOD? Interview with King Kaufman, sportswriter and leader of the new school.

Having majored in English, it was probably Laura Miller's literary criticism that first caused me to bookmark while I was in college. Then it was probably the (mostly) liberal content that kept me sporadically coming back while my United Students Against Sweatshops phase was in full bloom. Ultimately, though, it was discovering the sports content that made a daily visitor to that space for a decade.

The author of most Salon's sportswriting was a columnist with the regal sobriquet King Kaufman. He was articulate, well-read, versatile and progressive. And his caricature had tattoo. Once it became apparent that he was willing, and able, to cover international soccer without the condescension that was de rigueur for virtually every other domestic columnist, well, then I was hooked. His "Sports Daily" became as much a part of my routine as tooth brushing.

While print columnists were still reading tobacco spit Rorschachs and writing paeans to the brave men lining their pockets with our ticket money, Kaufman embraced sabermetrics and demanded that sports fans consumers be given the best product available, even if that meant breaking tradition. Like another Internet sports columnist gaining popularity at the same time, Kaufman provided a fan's eye view of sports. The King, perhaps appropriately, lacked the common touch that became the Sports Guy's oeuvre, but this ultimately was his strength. King wasn't merely the everyfan, rather he represented the best– or, at least, better-case fan, one who was sober, intellectually curious and possessing a sense of fair play that superseded his desire to see his team win. Most important, his insights were actually insightful in all of the ways that most of us aspire to be when we are pontificating to half-listening friends in a crowded bar while watching the NCAA Tournament or while waiting on line for the men's room at our tax-dollar built local stadium. He didn't necessarily write as the everyfan, but he advocated on behalf of the everyfan, and in the years before Fire Joe Morgan, Awful Announcing and Deadspin he was really the only one.

Not that long ago, I learned that the King had been brought aboard at upstart open-source network Bleacher Report as the manager of writer development. To put it mildly, I was surprised and intrigued by the news, as BR's reputation was more or less antithetical to everything that King had accomplished at Salon. I assumed that he must be bringing some sort of missionary zeal to a place that is largely viewed as a leper colony by other writers on the Interwebs. Rather than just assume, I sent him an email and asked. Exceedingly gracious and gregarious, the King was kind enough to talk about his recent career move and various other sporting topics.

WWOD: Your resume sort of reads like a Modern History of Sportswriting in America, how did you go from print boxing writer to columnist at pioneering online liberal political affairs magazine?

King Kaufman: You make it sound so sprawling. It wasn't exactly Jack London going straight from covering the “Great White Hope” fight to a gig at Deadspin. The leap wasn't as big as it might sound. Salon was founded by David Talbot, who left his job as the arts/style editor of the San Francisco Examiner to do it. I was a copy editor on the arts/style desk, the last in a long series of jobs I had at the paper, some in sports, some not. Talbot took some Examiner people with him, not including me.

But we stayed in touch. I left the paper shortly after he did, at the start of 1996, for a job at a different dot-com, now long forgotten and with good reason. That dot-com eventually moved into the same building as Salon, the China Basin Building, that skyscraper on its side that's across Third Street from AT&T Park, though AT&T Park wasn't there yet. I used to park my car roughly where home plate is — for three bucks a day! Run, kids! Grandpa's tellin' stories of the old days!

Anyway, David and my former Examiner mates and I — Gary Kamiya, Mignon Khargie, Scott Rosenberg and Andrew Ross — still talked. We'd run into each other on campus, as it were, and when layoffs were on the horizon at the dot-com where I worked, I literally walked about a quarter mile down that enormous hallway to Salon and asked David for a job. He hired me as Salon's first copy editor. I was the copy chief. The chief of me.

WWOD: Once you began your daily column, did you have any marching orders from your editors at Salon? Any guiding principle that you established for yourself?

King: I had no marching orders. For the first few years at Salon I was an editor, though everyone wrote sometimes, including me. I wrote about sports and other things. For a while in 1999 or so I tried a daily sports column but it wasn't very good because I didn't have enough time to devote to it. I became a full-time writer in 2000 or '01, writing about all sorts of things, including sports.

During the 2002 Winter Olympics I wrote just about that, and it got a great response, including a fan letter from Berkeley Breathed, the great cartoonist, which I thought was really cool. So David called me up and said, "How about writing about sports all the time." I actually hesitated at first, for some reason, but when David said, "You don't have to write about golf," I went for it.

That was the extent of my marching orders. I didn't have to write about golf. I think I wrote about golf four times in seven years. Once defending Tiger Woods when someone criticized him for not speaking up about social issues, once about the controversy over letting women in to Augusta — though those two might have been one piece — and I think I might have written something about Annika Sorenstam playing with men and Michelle Wie being so young.

I had complete freedom. The guiding principle I established for myself after a while was that this was a conversation. Blogs existed in 2002 but they weren't nearly so dominant as a format and, while it seems hard to believe now, Salon did not have comments at the end of its stories. We had an old-fashioned, curated, letters to the editor column.

But I got e-mails. Lots of them. And I answered every single one. I used to say that the conversation in my in box was way better than my columns. I began lobbying then at Salon for us to print every letter that came in, which we finally did in the form of comments years later. But I quickly realized that what I was doing was not a one-way street, or a pronouncement from on high. It was a conversation with my readers. That's now a mainstream blogging point of view, but it wasn't then.

I also came to think of the over-arching theme of my column as "what it's like to be a sports fan." I was writing from the point of view of a fan, or a better way to put it would be the point of view of a sports consumer, because fandom for any one team was not the view. An informed consumer who sometimes — though often not — had more access than the average, but still a consumer, a fan. My joking tagline for the column was: "Like talking to the guy on the next barstool, if the guy on the next barstool were pretty smart and not drunk." It was a joke but I meant it.

Sometimes what it's like to be a sports fan is all about "Did you see last night's game?" Sometimes it's wrestling with the ethical issues around watching college sports given that massive corruption is not just present, but a necessary component of the system.

That fan point of view is why I wrote a lot of what is essentially media criticism. Because most sports fans consume most sports not by attending live events, but by watching, listening, reading and — I was deficient in covering this — playing video games.

WWOD: What's the most dramatic sporting event that you've covered in person?

King: I'll tell you the first thing that popped into my mind. I was covering baseball for my college newspaper, the Daily Californian. It was a mid-week non-conference game between Cal and Cal State San Luis Obispo. The game didn't mean much of anything, but it was just one of those epic games. High-scoring, see-saw, extra innings, and all of this on a nasty, cold, stormy day — outlined against a blue gray October sky, if you will, only there was no blue. There were intermittent, pretty severe hail storms, which is pretty unusual in the Bay Area.

So SLO wins in extra innings on a double by some guy, and I'll never forget his postgame quote. I asked him what was going through his mind in the key at-bat. He said, "It's cold, it's dark, I'm tired, there's snow on the field, I got a midterm tomorrow. I just wanted to get a hit and get us outta here."

It was an early lesson in narrative and story line and drama. How we're interpreting all of that is not necessarily how it's happening on the field. And that's not a bad thing. It really was a dramatic game, for me, and my story reflected that. Being young and all, I may have referenced the Toccata and Fugue in D minor. But to the players on the field, it was all about, dang, it's cold out here.

WWOD: In your opinion, what's the most inspired analysis you've delivered from afar?

King: I'm not sure how much inspired analysis I've ever delivered. Common sense, which is not so common, well thought out and well written. I aspire to that and I'm happy when I achieve it.

The two things that I think resonated most with readers in the years I had the column at Salon were my insight, illustrated through the “Panel o' Experts,” that experts are not necessarily any smarter about sports than average fans, and my pleas, my cris de couer, to the television networks to, for the love of everything decent and kind in the universe, show us the damn ball, or wherever the action is, rather than indulging their artistic side with creative camera angles that make other TV people go ooh and ah and leave the rest of us going, "Where's the damn ball?!"

WWOD: Did you ever have to explain the Neifi Index to Neifi?

King: No. I tried to reach him for a chapter I wrote about him in the book Top of the Order, but his career was over by that time and I failed.

WWOD: At Salon you wrote a blog called “The Future of Journalism.” Well?

King: I co-wrote it for most of the time it existed with Katharine Mieszkowski, who's twice the journalist I am on my best day. She's at the Bay Citizen now.

I got interested in the subject when Salon dropped my column and offered me a job as an editor, which, in the midst of the crash, I was happy to take. I'd had my nose in my own work for about eight years, so when I looked around me for the first time in a long time, I was amazed at the revolution that was going on. I'd been vaguely aware, but hadn't really paid attention.

It was kind of like when I was first introduced to sabermetrics. I couldn't get enough. I was, and am still, fascinated by the possibilities, by the pace of change, by the problems and issues that have arisen and the various ideas people have to deal with them. And, frankly, as with sabermetrics, I became fascinated by the willful ignorance and inflated self-regard of the old guard as it raged against clear reality with increasingly unhinged arguments.

If by "Well?" you mean what's the future of journalism, I get to paraphrase my favorite line from Mark Twain: I'm gratified to be able to answer promptly. I don't know.

These are chaotic, revolutionary times and I don't think too many people are able to see too far into the future. Naught will change but mutability for a while. That's like the fourth high-falutin' reference in this interview. I ate my Wheaties today.

But I will say I remain, as I was when I was working on that blog in the summer of 2009, an optimist. I believe that society has certain needs — information, watchdogs on our institutions, analysis of yesterday's game and so on — and that our society is pretty good at finding ways to fill needs like those. The ignorant, uneducated, bigoted people who were running around two centuries ago figured it out. I think we can too.

One thing that will help is to be clear about what we're talking about. Whenever you hear someone talking about how we need to save journalism, chances are you can replace the word "journalism" with "my paying job." And while I feel for anyone who loses any job, I'd feel a lot worse about losing the important watchdog role that newspapers and other old-guard media play if they actually did a little of it once in a while.

WWOD: Why Bleacher Report?

King: Bleacher Report recruited me. They approached me about this job, we talked about it, I liked what they had to say, liked the people I met, and we were able to strike a deal.

What I like about Bleacher Report is it's a startup, so it has that startup energy, though I've come on a couple of years into the process. So it's not brand-new startup energy, but it's still got a new, fresh, exciting vibe to it. I really enjoyed that about the early days of Salon, and had come to miss it there as it inevitably dissipated over the years.

I also like that it's doing something new, and it's smart and nimble and willing to experiment. I can't emphasize enough how smart the people at Bleacher Report are, and how smart I think it is as a company. It's not known for real smart content. That's one of the things I was brought in to change. But it's a really smart company, and obviously I think that someday soon it will be known as the home of smart content as at least part of what it offers.

I feel like I'm on the front lines of what I used to call, in the blog, Future of Journalism world. Not that Bleacher Report is the Future of Journalism. I don't think that. But I think the model it's using is one small piece in that puzzle.

WWOD: How has the reception been at BR? From the writers that you are attempting to mentor? And from your friends and peers?

The reception has been great, and kind of surprising in some ways. When we first announced that I was hiring on, I thought I was going to get roasted as, I don't know, a sellout or something, sacrificing my standards to go to work at this horrible evil content farm that strangles puppies or whatever. Because that seemed to be the attitude toward Bleacher Report of a lot of people I knew — or "knew," in that online, virtual-only sense.

But it wasn't like that. It caused a little ripple in the circles I move in, but it wasn't negative at all. It was raised eyebrows, certainly, but the reaction was more like: "This is interesting. I'm eager to see how this plays out." Several people said, or tweeted, that they were going to have to give Bleacher Report another look, which is great. All we can ever ask of people is to judge us based on what we're doing now, not based on what you saw in the past.

Within Bleacher Report, of course my co-workers in the office were very welcoming, which I expected. But I didn't know what the reaction from the writer community would be. I was coming in under the banner of "This guy's going to improve the quality of the writing." And right away I set to work on a couple of tasks, creating educational materials and directly critiquing some of Bleacher Report's top writers. I thought I might get a reaction like "Who's this guy to tell me? I've got a million page views. I'm doing just fine, thank you very much."

I haven't gotten a whiff of that. The writers mostly seem to be interested in what I have to say and grateful to have the feedback. A lot of them are eager, hungry to improve their writing. They say things like "Fire away, I can take it. I just want to get better at this and make my living at it."

Now, some people don't say anything, and for all I know every one of them is thinking, "Who's this guy to tell me? I've got a million page views. I'm doing just fine, thank you very much." But nobody has said that.

WWOD: Who is your top upset pick in the NCAA tournament?

King: Northern Colorado, my new favorite 15-seed. Coach B.J. Hill wrote a Guest Column for Bleacher Report — our first — about life as a potential Cinderella, which is to say life as an underdog. It was really good. My California Golden Bears aren't in the tournament, again, so I'm hoping to bandwagon on to the Northern Colorado Bears all the way to the Final Four.

Now, being a realist, and knowing that that game is tipping off mere hours after I send this to you, I'll tell you that in my bracket, the lowest seeds I have going the farthest are St. Johns and Georgetown, both No. 6's that I have going to the Sweet 16 — and that that is based on absolutely nothing. My NCAA Tournament brackets are always based on a pretty solid foundation of ignorance, but this year more than ever.

Friday, March 18, 2011

T.G.I. Friday Games

No. 4 Texas Longhorns
27-7, 13-3 Big 12
No. 13 Oakland Grizzlies
25-9, 17-1 Summit

West Region
Bank of Oklahoma Center
Tulsa, OK
12:15 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Texas -10
Over/Under: 154

It's not really that long ago, that Texas looked a likely candidate for the No. 1 overall seed in the Big Dance. The Longhorns opened the season at a scorching 23-3, boasting wins over UNC and Kansas. Through Valentine's Day, Coach Rick Barnes' team had only lost Pittsburgh (by a bucket), USC (rocked, actually) and UConn (by a point in OT). But since then they've scuffled to a 5-4 mark. Those struggles combined with the presence of senior Oakland center Keith Benson make this a popular upset pick.

Standing at a muscular 6-11, Benson is the most impressive player in this game. He averages 18 points, 10 boards and more than 3.5 blocks per game. He's as close as Oakland may ever get to having an actual grizzly in the lineup. In his team's marquee win at Tennessee, Benson went for 26 and 10 with two blocks, he even dropped in a pair of three pointers. Against Oral Roberts in the championship game of the Summit League Tournament, Benson went 10 for 17 for the field and 8 of 12 from the line to score 28. He grabbed 14 boards, doled out 4 assists and blocked 3 shots while playing 38 out of 40 minutes. He is in full bloom and has the skills and the senior drive to lift his team over the Longhorns.

Worth Mentioning: Although I'd more often than not advance the Longhorns in my brackets, I'd be looking for a favorite that I thought would cover and parlay or tease that result with the underdog Oakland squad in this game. If I could tease UNC down to 11.5 and get Oakland up to 16 then I'd feel pretty good about winning that bet.

President Obama: Texas
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Oakland
Nate Silver/538: Texas (84%)
SI's Seth Davis: Oakland
Bill Simmons: Oakland
WWOD?: Texas

No. 8 Michigan Wolverines
20-13, 9-9 Big Ten
No. 9 Tennessee Volunteers
19-14, 8-8 SEC

West Region
Time Warner Cable Arena
Charlotte, NC
12:40 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Tennessee -2
Over/Under: 127.5

For the past few seasons, I've felt like red-faced and manic coach Bruce Pearl was a strength of the Volunteers. Well, him and Wayne Chism's headband. But, that does not seem to be the case any longer. The tangerine bespoke suits have been covering up various NCAA rules violations. And when those were exposed, Pearl attempted to cover them up with lies. As always, the lying has done far more damage than the initial infractions themselves. The Tennessee AD looks poised to sack him once the season is out and turmoil is the order of the day in Knoxville.

Like any program accused of recruiting violations, though, the Vols have loads of talent. 6-foot--8 freshman forward Tobias Harris is from Dix Hills, NY and is an absolute beast for the Vols, averaging 15 and 7. Selected All-SEC Second Team by the league's coaches, Harris is a bona fide first-round prospect.

With another freshman, point guard Tim Hardaway. Jr., leading the charge, the Wolverines have been playing better lately, going 9-4 since late January. Still, their top wins came over Michigan State (twice), Penn State (twice) and Clemson whereas Tennessee has taken down Belmont (twice), Villanova, Pitt, Memphis and Vandy (twice). No matter how exciting Hardaway may be and how much I love point guards, I'm going to go with the SEC school that played a lot of Big East teams over the Big Ten team that swept Penn State.

President Obama:Michigan
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Tennessee
Nate Silver/538: Tennessee (57%)
SI's Luke Winn: Michigan
Dan Shanoff: Tennessee
WWOD?: Tennessee

No. 2 Notre Dame Fighting Irish
26-6, 14-4 Big East
No. 15 Akron Zips
23-12, 9-7 MAC

Southwest Region
United Center
Chicago, IL
1:40 p.m. EST

Point Spread: ND -14
Over/Under: 135.5

The number that interests me the most about No. 2 seeded Notre Dame isn't 3 (the number of players on the roster shooting better than 42% from three) or 10 (their national rank in assists per game). It's 77,500. That's the number of dollars that the state of Indiana fined the ND for safety violations that resulted in the death of a 20-year-old student Declan Sullivan, who was killed in a fall from a hydraulic scissor lift while videotaping football practice for the coaching staff. Despite winds of 53 mph in the area, the coaches didn't want to move practice indoors. About an hour before his death, Sullivan tweeted: “Gusts of wind up to 60 mph today will be fun at work … I guess I’ve lived long enough,” he wrote.

President Obama: ND
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: ND
Nate Silver/538: ND (91%)
SI's Luke Winn: ND

No. 8 George Mason Patriots
26-6, 16-2 CAA
No. 9 Villanova Wildcats
21-11, 9-9 Big East

East Region
Quicken Loans Arena
Cleveland, OH
2:10 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Villanova -1
Over/Under: 135

I just don't like the look of Villanova coach Jay Wright. For as long as I've been aware of him, I've disliked him. His smug face and his slick hair and his self-righteousness. All of it. Which is weird. Because I usually like those characteristics in a coach (see: Pearl, Calipari, Pitino). Nova is one of the most enigmatic teams in the field. They were a juggernaut early, exploding out the gate to a 16-1 start. But they flailed and failed down stretch, losing seven of their last nine, including five on the trot heading into this afternoon. So, it's hard to be to confident.

On the other side, the Patriots can score. They averaged 73.3 per game this season and their. 474 field goal percentage was 18th best in the nation. I worry, though, because this team didn't play any Big East clubs this season and lost to NC State, the only ACC school on the schedule. They did sweep conferencemates Old Dominion and split with VCU.

Due to the aforementioned Wright issues, I'll be rooting for George Mason to advance, but I have a hard time believing that the team that ranked 167th in rebounds per game (while playing a style that results in a lot of shots) is going to be able to withstand the physical test of playing a talented, albeit mercurial, Big East squad.

President Obama: George Mason
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: George Mason
Nate Silver/538: Villanova (61%)
Conan O'Brien: Villanova
SI's Luke Winn: George Mason
WWOD?: Villanova

No. 5 Arizona Hoopcats
27-7, 14-4 Pac 10
No. 12 Memphis Tigers
25-9, 10-6 C-USA

West Region
Bank of Oklahoma Center
Tulsa, OK
2:45 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Arizona -5.5
Over/Under: 139.5

When the most compelling case that sportswriters can make for your team's chances is that your young head coach rode the bench as a player several years ago for your favored opponent then I'm not interested in wagering on you.

President Obama: Arizona
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Arizona
Nate Silver/538: Arizona (67%)
SI's Stewart Mandel: Arizona
WWOD?: Hoopcats

No. 1 Duke Blue Devils
30-4, 13-3 ACC
No. 16 Hampton Pirates
24-8, 11-5 MEAC

East Region
Time Warner Cable Arena
Charlotte, NC
3:10 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Duke -23
Over/Under: 134.5

I believed in NYC-schooled point guard Jamal Tinsley and thought that he had his Iowa State Cyclones whirling and wrecking their way to the Final Four in 2001. It was Tinsley's senior year and he was named the Big 12 Player of the Year. In Rucker Park, he was also known as Mel Mel the Abuser. My bracket was filled accordingly. I made my picks around Iowa State, choosing upsets elsewhere to create a path of least resistance for them. This seemed incredibly foolish when they were upset in the first round by Hampton, a place that until then I'd only thought of in terms of Phish concerts. It was just the fourth time that a No. 15 seed every toppled a No. 2.

Odds are long that Hampton will become the first No. 16 ever to topple a No. 1 today when they tip off against Duke, especially when considering the news that highly-rated freshman point guard Kyrie Irving is returning from an injury that kept him sidelined for most of the season.

Born in Elizabeth, NJ, Irving is a dark-skinned Dukie that even Jalen Rose can appreciate. Yet his presence is perhaps the only thing that could help the Pirates. Perhaps Duke will be thrown off their game by reincorporating him into the rotation. Perhaps Nolan Smith would not like being moved back off the ball. Or, perhaps, I just spent more time writing this game capsule than any of us will actually watching this game.

President Obama: Duke
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Duke
Nate Silver/538: Duke (91%)
SI's Stewart Mandel: Duke
WWOD?: Coach Kommercial

No. 7 Texas A&M Aggies
24-8, 10-6 Big 12
No. 10 Florida State Seminoles
21-10, 11-5 ACC

Southwest Region
United Center
Chicago, IL
4:10 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Texas A&M -1
Over/Under: 122

Boston College beat Texas A&M. Boston College lost to Florida State. Ipso facto Florida State should beat Texas A&M. It's elementary, my dear Lunardi.

Worth Mentioning: This game has the second lowest Over/Under of anything on today's schedule. So fasten your seat belts.

President Obama: Florida State
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Florida State
Nate Silver/538: Florida State (56%)
SI's Luke Winn: Texas A&M
WWOD?: Whomever Toney Douglas is rooting for.

No. 1 Ohio State Buckeyes
32-2, 16-2 Big Ten
UT-San Antonio Roadrunners
20-13, 9-7 Houston

East Region
Quicken Loans Arena
Cleveland, OH
4:40 p.m. EST

Obviously, I've spent thousands or words and nearly as many at-work minutes making all of this NCAA stuff impenetrably complicated (and hopefully interesting), but sometimes you don't need to overthink these games. Ohio State is the best team in the country. UTSA isn't even the best school in the University of Texas family. Not even close. By the end, these roadrunners may be looking more like Wile. E. Coyote.

President Obama: Ohio State
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Ohio State
Nate Silver/538: Ohio State (99.7%)
SI's Luke Winn: Ohio State
WWOD?: Ohio State

No. 1 Kansas Jayhawks
32-2, 14-2 Big 12
No. 16 Boston University Terriers
21-13, 12-4 Am East

Southwest Region
Bank of Oklahoma Center
Tulsa, OK
6:50 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Kansas -22.5
Over/Under: 136

If this were a hockey game then I'd be going BU all the way. But it's hoops, so see Ohio State entry. Rock. Chalk. Jayhawk.

President Obama: Kansas
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Kansas
Nate Silver/538: Kansas (79%)
SI's Luke Winn: Kansas
WWOD?: Kansas

No. 2 UNC Tar Heels
26-7, 14-2 ACC
vs. No. 15 Long Island University Blackbirds
27-5, 16-2 NEC
East Region
Time Warner Cable Arena
Charlotte, NC
7:15 p.m. EST

Point Spread: UNC -17.5
Over/Under: 158.5

Jimmy Fallon picked LIU. Your argument is invalid.

President Obama: UNC
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: UNC
Nate Silver/538: UNC (93%)
SI's Luke Winn: UNC

No. 3 Purdue Boilermarkers
25-7, 14-4 Big Ten
No. 14 St. Peter's Peacocks
20-13, 11-7 MAAC

Southwest Region
United Center
Chicago, IL
7:20 p.m. EST

Point Spread:Purdue -14.5
Over/Under: 120

A boilermaker is a beverage composed of a glass of beer and a shot of whisky. Sea Bass digs them. A peacock is made from banana liqueur, blue curacao, melon liqueur, peach schnapps and chambord.

Despite, this overwhelming advantage to Purdue, as a Jersey City resident, I'm pulling for St. Peter's mostly just to go try to be the random bearded 30-year-old at the college celebration party gassing cigarettes and pulling off a flask.

President Obama: Purdue
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Purdue
Nate Silver/538: Purdue (93%)
SI's Luke Winn: Purdue
WWOD?: Purdue

No. 6 Xavier Muskateers
24-7, 15-1 A10
No. 11 Marquette Golden Eagles
20-14, 9-9 Big East

East Region
Quicken Loans Arena
Cleveland, OH
7:50 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Xavier -2
Over/Under: 140.5

There are two midmajors that aren't. One is Gonzaga. The other is Xavier. The muskateers are regulars in the tournament. They've been so often that their glass slippers have lead toes and are made by Timberland.

President Obama: Marquette
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Marquette
Nate Silver/538: Xavier (52%)
SI's Luke Winn: Xavier
WWOD?: Xavier

No. 8 UNLV Runnin' Rebels
24-8, 11-5 MWC
No. 9 Illinois Fighting Illini
19-13, 9-9 Big Ten

Southeast Region
Bank of Oklahoma Center
Tulsa, OK
9:17 p.m. EST

Point Spread: UNLV -2.5
Over/Under: 132.5

With so much attention being paid to ESPN's Fab Five documentary, HBO's documentary on the Johnson-Anthony-Augmon Runnin' Rebs has garnered little notice. I don't think this game changes that. Five of UNLV's eight losses came to San Diego State or BYU, which is very impressive. The problem is their wins. Yeah, they did beat Wisconsin and K-State but no one else of note. Led by senior guard Demetri McCamey, Illinois vanquished UNC, Gonzaga, Oakland, Michigan State, Michigan while taking Texas to overtime and narrowing losing to Ohio State once (and being rolled the other time). They also beat Wisconsin.

President Obama: Illinois
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: UNLV
Nate Silver/538: Illini (59%)
SI's Luke Winn: UNLV
WWOD?: Illinois

No. 6 Georgetown Hoyas
21-10, 10-8 Big East
No. 11 Virginia Commonwealth Rams
24-11, 12-6 CAA

Southwest Region
United Center
Chicago, IL
9:55 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Georgetown -5
Over/Under: 134

This game taking place just one day after St. Patrick's Day would seem to bode well for the Hoyas. That the Rams had to play the USC Trojans two days before the commemoration of St. Patrick riding the snakes from the Garden would also seem to favor the favorite.

Yet, Georgetown isn't exactly what they seem to be. With senior guard Chris Wright sidelined with a broken hand since late February, the Hoyas have dropped five straight games heading into the tournament. Before Wright went down, Georgetown had knocked off five ranked teams and was 21-6. Since then, though, they've lost to Cincinnati twice as part of that losing streak. Wright was injured in the first loss to the Bobcats and his team floundered, managing just 46 points. In the next meeting two weeks later, Cincy rocked the Hoyas by 22.

In the last game the Hoyas won, Wright scored 26 points while contributing 3 boards, 4 assists and 1 steal. It was a much-needed bounceback win over South Florida, coming right after a tough loss to UConn. Wright was the guy that lifted the team when it needed lifting and tellingly injured himself diving to the floor for a loose ball. Without him they have been rudderless. Even worse, they were meek.

If this team had struggled with Wright down the stretch or even managed to split with Cincy without him then the Hoyas would be the pick here. Even without Wright, the Hoyas are more talented than the Bobcats. It really is telling to me that they lost to them twice in a short span of time. Sort of like the Knicks dropping pairs to the Pacers and Cavs in short order. These things are revealing about a team's fortitude.

The good news for the Hoyas is that Wright is supposed to play tonight. How he'll play remains to be seen, but he should be one the floor. But, this isn't Kyrie Irving returning to play a reserve role on a team hitting on all cylinders and on the fast track to the Final Four. This is a sputtering team time trying to switch drivers will stalling out in the breakdown lane. I think Wright helps but not enough to derail a VCU team already humming.

President Obama: Georgetown
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Georgetown
SI's Stewart Mandel: USC (who lost to VCU in play-in game)
Conan O'Brien: Georgetown

No. 7 Washington Huskies
24-10, 11-7 Pac 10
No. 10 Georgia Bulldogs
21-12, 9-7 SEC

East Region
Time Warner Cable Arena
Charlotte, NC
10:08 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Washington -5
Over/Under: 140

It sends an icy chill down my spine whenever I hear that name. Thankfully most sportscasters, at least around here, are aware enough of the PTSD rampant among hoops fans to make clear that they're not taking about that Isiah Thomas when they're taking about Washington's Isaiah Thomas. This other diminutive Thomas spells his name like the Old Testament prophet and not like the egomaniacal hoops star turned ruiner of franchises and minor leagues.

Not much taller than Nate Robinson, who starred in a Huskies' run to the Sweet Sixteen, Thomas knocked down a stepback winner at the buzzer in the finals of the Pac 10 tournament. The junior dynamo is a gamebreaker who can score and distribute, and he has the scoring talent and charismatic confidence to upset UNC in the next round all on his own.

President Obama: Washington
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Washington
SI's Stewart Mandel: Washington
Bill Simmons: Washington
WWOD?: Kemba West

No. 3 Syracuse Orange
27-7, 12-6 Big East
No. 14 Indiana State Sycamores
20-14, 12-6 MVC

East Region
Quicken Loans Arena
Cleveland, OH
10:30 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Syracuse -12
Over/Under: 129.5

It's true that Larry Bird played college basketball for Indiana State. He was a 6-9 forward. In their last came, an upset over Missouri State that earned them a bid in the Dance, the Sycamores started players with heights of 6-5, 6-8, 6-4, 6-3 and 6-4 while getting key contributions off the bench from guys listed at 6-6, 6-4 and 6-2. The Orange, meanwhile, start dudes listed at 6-9, 6-7, 6-10, 6-2 and 6-4 while bringing in reinforcements measured at 6-4, 6-8 and 7 feet. In this case a bunch or Oranges are going to tower over the Sycamores.

President Obama: Syracuse
ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Syracuse
SI's Luke Winn: Syracuse
Bill Simmons: Syracuse
WWOD?: Syracuse

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Pencils Down, Brackets to the Front of the Pool

No. 5 West Virginia Mountaineers
20-11, 11-7 Big East

No. 12 Clemson Tigers
22-11, 9-7 ACC

East Region
St. Pete Times Forum
Tampa, FL
12:15 p.m. EST

To kick things off, we've got two stout but flawed teams from power conferences going at it. Both play solid defense, allowing less than 65 points per game. Clemson is coming off a win over UAB on Tuesday night in Dayton while West Virginia last played on March 9, when they squandered a sizeable first-half lead to Marquette in the Big East Tournament. After Clemson's play-in win they had to fly to Florida. They didn't hit their hotel until nearly sun-up on Wednesday and are tipping off just after noontime on Thursday. If scrappy WVU guard Joe Mazzula - who got some national ink last season for playing well with a shoulder injury in the tournament - can get the Mountaineers off to a fast start then I think the physical toll of playing in the so-called "First Four" will start to show on Clemson. And even if Clemson comes in with the momentum after winning its first NCAA game in 14 years, I'd give WVU the edge down the stretch for having played in the better conference during the regular season. Moreover, Clemson's 3-7 road record doesn't give me much confidence that they're going to reel off another neutral site win under these circumstances.

Worth Mentioning: Yup, it's the 5/12 matchup that has historically produced so many upsets. I tend to think that the archetypal 5/12 matchup features an under-seeded mid-major and an over-seeded team from a power conference. That is not the case here, with an ACC and a Big East school. Nevertheless, in a bracket pool that rewards upsets it might be worth considering picking all the 12 seeds.

Point Spread: WVU -2
Over/Under: 123.5

President Obama: WVU
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Clemson
SI's Luke Winn: Clemson
Dan Shanoff: WVU
Conan O'Brien: WVU
Nate Silver/538: WVU (55%)
WWOD?: West Virginia

No. 8 Butler Bulldogs
23-9, 13-5 Horizon
No. 9 Old Dominion Monarchs
27-6, 14-4 CAA

Southeast Region
Verizon Center
Washington, D.C.
12:40 p.m. EST

Last year's Final Final darlings, Butler, came within inches of winning a national championship in 2010. I don't think that they're going to get that close this year. In fact, I will probably wager that they don't last through the weekend. With Gordon Hayward, the rangy player with the damn-near unlimited range who heaved that near-miss against Duke in the final, plying his trade before the sympathetic fans of Utah at the next level, Butler depends too much on oft-foul-troubled Matt Howard. If the fiery Howard gets into foul trouble, which seems likely against a physical and veteran Old Dominion group that rebounds relentlessly, then the Bulldogs are neutered.

Many of those aforementioned ODU rebounds come at the offensive end. This is one of my go-to stats for March. I dig offensive rebounds, and ODU was tied for second in the nation with 15.5 per game. The team's total of 511 on the season led the nation. I also tend to favor mid-major teams stacked with upper classmen. Again, ODU comes through. The Monarchs start three seniors and two juniors, with another senior playing big minutes off the bench. In their CAA conference title game win over Virginia Commonwealth (who dispatched USC last night with ease), ODU only had two minutes played by a sophomore, without a freshman touching the floor.

Worth Mentioning: Both teams are hot, having each won 9 games on the trot so I expect a tight game and would only be surprised if one team managed to rout the other.

Point Spread: ODU -2
Over/Under: 122.5

President Obama: Butler
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: ODU
SI's Seth Davis: ODU
Slam Magazine: ODU
USA Today's Tim Gardner: ODU
David Letterman: Butler

No. 4 Louisville Cardinals
25-9, 12-6 Big East
No. 11 Morehead State Eagles
24-9, 13-5 OVC

Southwest Region
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
1:40 p.m. EST

The first non rec league basketball team that I saw play a lot in person was Rick Pitino's running and pressing Knickerbockers of the late 1980s. It was back before the white suits, back when Patrick Ewing was a spry seven-foot dynamo and Mark Jackson was a savvy and surly youngster wearing a gold chain on the fast break. It was a fun team to root for (even if that style killed Ewing's knees), and I've rooted for Pitino's college teams ever since. They run, they press and they try to win the game aggressively. WWOD? approves.

But, I'm not picking rooting for Pitino's Cards in their opening game. I'm going with the nation's leading rebounder Kenneth Faried of Morehead State. This wild-haired and loose-limbed leaper pulls down 14.5 boards per game and 5.7 of those come on the offensive glass. Thanks to a rough-and-tumble upbringing and a mother with failing kidneys, Faried has been the subject of human interest stories by every credentialed college columnist. Aside from being a heckuva story, he's a preternaturally gifted athlete with a motor that won't stop. Projected a a Dennis Rodman-type at the NBA level, I would love it if the Knicks were able to draft this perpetual motion rebounding machine late in the first round come June.

Worth Mentioning: Louisville has only two players who averaged more than 5 rebounds per game this season and neither of them grab better than 6.1 per contest. Faried could and should run amok on the glass. He averages more offensive boards per game than all but one of L'ville's players average total boards per game.

Point Spread: Louisville -9.5
Over/Under: 131

President Obama: Louisville
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Louisville
SI's Seth Davis: Louisville
Special K of the Harlem Globetrotters: Louisville
Nate Silver/538: Louisville (81%)
David Letterman: Louisville
WWOD?: My heart says Morehead State (while my head agrees with everyone else), especially if I'm getting the points.

No. 7 Temple Owls
25-7, 14-2 A-10
No. 10 Penn St. Nittany Lions
19-14, 9-9 Big Ten

West Region
McKale Center
Tucson, AZ
2:10 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Temple -2.5
Over/Under: 121.5

Prominent among my many annual bracket biases is a distrust of the Big Ten. I understand that Ohio State is the highest rated of the No. 1 seeds, but I don't believe that a rising Buckeye tide lifts all Big Ten boats. In terms of building a bracket, I don't see either of these teams giving San Diego State a problem in the next round so I'm not overly invested with this one either way.

Worth Mentioning: Penn State twice beat a ranked Wisconsin squad, along with wins over ranked Illinois and Michigan State.

President Obama: Temple
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Temple
SI's Seth Davis: Temple
David Letterman: Penn St.
Nate Silver/538:Temple (55%)
WWOD?: Temple

No. 4 University of Kentucky Wildcatts
25-8, 10-6 SEC
No. 14 Princeton Tigers
25-6, 12-2 Ivy

East Region
St. Pete Times Forum
Tampa, FL
2:45 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Kentucky -13.5
Over/Under: 131

Princeton edged Harvard on the below buzzer-beating basket just to reach this game. It took everything they had to beat Harvard, who just got walloped in the opening round of the NIT by Oklahoma State.

I think most hoops watchers out there would be awfully surprised if the Ivy League school added another highlight to its year-end tape. Even without John Wall or DeMarcus Cousins, this Kentucky team managed to win the SEC Conference Tournament last week. Like any Calipari-recruited team, they've got talent for miles and a lack of poise and scheme for days. As much as I'd like for brains triumph over braun, I'm going to side with the athletes.

Worth Mentioning: This is a senior-laden Princeton squad that isn't going to give up no matter how far they fall behind. I could see a back-door cover against a younger 'cats group that might let their guard down if they seem to have the game in hand.

President Obama: Kentucky
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Kentucky
SI's Luke Winn: Kentucky
Conan O'Brien: Kentucky
Nate Silver/538: Kentucky (88%)
WWOD?: Kentucky

No. 1 Pittsburgh Panthers
27-5, 15-3 Big East
No. 16 UNC-Asheville Bulldogs
20-13, 11-7 Big South

Southeast Region
Verizon Center
Washington, DC
3:10 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Pitt -18
Over/Under: 135

Considering that UNC-Asheville sells itself as the public liberal arts school of North Carolina, I'd like to think that, win or lose, the world will be richer some riveting narrative accounts of the Bulldogs' journey into the NCAA tournament. Thinking as an editor, I'd suggest that the book would open with the delirious high of Matt Dickey's ridiculous buzzer beater against Coastal Carolina.

Beginnings, though, are the easy part. For this story to have a memorable ending rooted in the Southern Gothic tradition, Asheville probably needs to be absolutely pasted by Pitt. Perhaps Dickey will blind himself with lime like Hazel Motes in Flannery O'Connor's Wise Blood. Now that would cause a stir.

President Obama: Pitt
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Pitt
SI's Luke Winn: Pitt
David Letterman: Pitt
Nate Silver/538: Pitt (97%)
WWOD?: Pitt

No. 5 Vanderbilt Commodores
23-10, 9-7 SEC
No. 12 Richmond Spiders
27-7, 13-3 A-10

Southwest Region
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
4:10 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Vandy -3
Over/Under: 135

Unlike the West Virginia-Clemson contest, this game is your classic 5/12 matchup. In Vandy, you’ve got a middling team from a power conference that no one really thinks can do much. Yeah, the Commodores played a solid schedule and have accrued a few signature wins (over UNC, Kentucky, St. Mary’s and Belmont), but nobody is sold, least of all the President of the United States.

On the other side of the ledger, you’ve got the Richmond Spiders, a potentially under-seeded squad with 27 wins out of the Atlantic 10. The Spiders can fill it up at better than 70 points per game and word on the street is that Vandy's defense is Knickerbockerian. If you recall, the Spiders were outsed last year by Omar Samhan and St. Mary’s after earning a No. 7 seed. They had one less regular-season win last year than they’ve got this season. I'd imagine that they're more comfortable in the underdog role here whereas I don't know if Vanderbilt can see itself as a Goliath. A marquee win against Purdue early in the season proves the Spiders have got the minerals for an upset here.

President Obama: Richmond
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Richmond
Dan Shanoff: Richmond
SI's Andy Glockner: Richmond
Nate Silver/538: Vanderbilt (59%)
WWOD?: I'm afraid of Spiders. Also, Richmond with the points.

No. 2 San Diego State Aztecs
32-2, 14-2 MWC
No. 15 Northern Colorado Bears
21-10, 13-3 Big Sky

West Region
McKale Center
Tucson, AZ
4:45 p.m. EST

Point Spread: SD State -15.5

I have purchased tickets for the night when the Steve Fisher Redemption Tour stops in my town. The former Fab Five coach, Fisher has the Aztecs bringing it every night, and they have an average margin of victory of 13.3 points per game this season. Their only losses of the season came to BYU, who they later beat in the conference tournament. And, last I checked (which happened just once a few minutes ago), the University of Northern Colorado is not a Mormon school. In other words, no Jimmer.

President Obama: SD State
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: SD State
David Letterman: SD State
SI's Luke Winn: SD State
Nate Silver/538: SD State (93%)
WWOD?: Aztecs

No. 2 Florida Gators
26-7, 13-3 SEC
No. 15 UC Santa Barbara Gauchos
18-13, 8-8 Big West

Southeast Region
St. Pete Times Forum
Tampa, FL
6:50 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Florida -13
Over/Under: 128

Without any must-see team in the SEC this season, I didn't see very much of Florida ths year. I'm aware the Gators won the SEC regular-season title and that they looked good heading into halftime at the SEC Tourney Final (before Kentucky ran away from them). I also know that gifted 6-foot-10 senior forward Chandler Parsons leads the team in rebounding (11.5) and assists (3.5). That second fact, particularly, impresses me. I know that guard play is huge in the Dance, but Bigs who can board and dime are rare.

Like I said, I may not know much about Florida, but I do know that everything that I do know about them is far more impressive than playing .500 ball in the Big West Conference like the Gauchos did during the regular season.

Worth mentioning: The Gauchos won the Big West Tournament to earn this bid by beating teams that had swept them during the regular season. Perhaps they've caught lightning in a bottle. Not necesarily enough lightning to strike down a No. 2 seed, but perhaps enough to cover the Vegas point spread.

President Obama: Florida
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Florida
SI's Seth Davis: Florida
Nate Silver/538: Florida (95%)
WWOD?: Gators

No. 4 Brigham Young Cougars
30-4, 14-2 MWC
No. 14 Wofford Terriers
21-12, 14-4 Southern

Southeast Region
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
7:15 p.m. EST

Point Spread: BYU -8.5
Over/Under: 147

Without forward Brandon Davies, who was kicked out of school for violating the honor code by having consensual intercourse with his girlfriend, there is no pretending that BYU is anything but a one-man band. They are arguably the most vulnerable favored team in the tournament because if all-world guard Jimmer Freddette rolls an ankle or gets in foul trouble then this team is cooked. Well, I'm sure that the Cougars are more worried about the ankle because Jimmer takes the same view on defense as his school's administrators do on premarital sex. That being said, as a one-man band this dude is about as effective as Trent Reznor. He can do it all.

On the other hand ...

President Obama: BYU
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: BYU
SI's Tim Layden: BYU
Nate Silver/538: BYU (86%)
WWOD?: Jimmer

No. 2 UConn Huskies
26-9, 9-9 Big East
No. 15 Bucknell Bisons
25-8, 13-1 Patriot

West Region
Verizon Center
Washington, DC
7:20 p.m. EST

Point Spread: UConn -10.5
Over/Under: 132

The concern that everyone has about Kemba Walker and the UConn Huskies is their fatigue after running the gauntlet of the Big East Tournament with five wins in five nights. I share that concern. But I don't think it applies to this game because these guys haven't played in a few days. Maybe it catches up with them on Saturday or next weekend. But I think today they need to be more concerned with coach Calhoun's celebratory antics. That guy is a danger to himself and those around him.

President Obama: UConn
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: UConn
Conan O'Brien: UConn
Nate Silver/538: UConn (81%)
WWOD?: Kemba

No. 4 Wisconsin Badgers
23-8, 13-5 Big Ten
No. 13 Belmont Bruins
30-4, 19-1 A-Sun

Southeast Region
McKale Center
Tucson, AZ
7:27 p.m. EST

Point Spread: 5
Over/Under: 126

I played on a university soccer team while studying abroad in England. Our team was the Badgers. We had a Welsh graduate student named Gareth on the roster. He was a sort a den mother, who was more useful off the pitch when it came to arranging train schedules and drink meet-ups, then he was in action against UCL. Still, he was very proud of his affiliation with the team and is surely playing on the old boys side in a London park every weekend. Aside from being very pleasant company, he was full of knowledge about our animal namesake. From him, I learned just how fierce a badger can be. I leanerd that the way a badger's jaw is constructed makes it impossible for any prey to unclamp it. Once a badger has it's teeth sunk in, you're surrendering whatever appendage that it's got before it unhinges that jaw.

Now, I don't think that these Wisconsin badgers are particularly fierce. Their power is more in their conservative consistency than in any sudden ferocity. In this way, they're sort of like Gareth. To their credit, they did beat Ohio State. The Bruins, meanwhile don't seem to have a win over a ranked team in their deceptive total of 30.

President Obama: Wisconsin
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Belmont
SI's Seth Mandel: Belmont
Nate Silver/538: Wisconsin (81%)
WWOD?: Fear the Badgers

No. 7 UCLA Bruins
22-10, 13-5 Pac 10
No. 11 Michigan State Spartans
19-14, 9-9 Big Ten

Southeast Region
St. Pete Times Forum
Tampa, FL
9:20 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Michigan State -1.5
Over/Under: 125

What an odd spot for these two teams to meet. And, no, I don't mean Tampa. I mean, the first round. For the better part of a decade, these two clubs wouldn't likely meet until the second weekend at the earliest in the NCAA tourney. Yet after up-and-down-and-down-again years, here we are. Tom Izzo and Ben Howland coaching against one another in the (real) opening round. Although I historically bet Izzo, I'm more impressed by UCLA's recent win over Arizona and their not-so recent almost-win over Kansas. In the Bruins' last game (loss to Oregon) in the Pac-10 tourney, they started two sophomores, a freshman and two juniors while getting big minutes off the bench from two freshman and a junior. Perhaps these Bruins Kids are finding their stride at the right time. If they're not awestruck by the moment then I trust Howland to keep them disciplined enough on defense to win this game. If not, I'll return to betting on Izzo next year.

President Obama: Michigan State
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Michigan State
SI's Andy Staples: Michigan State
Bill Simmons/Joe House: Michigan State
Nate Silver/538: Michigan State (67%)

No. 6 Cincinnati Bearcats
25-8, 11-7 Big East
No. 11 Missouri Tigers
22-10, 8-8 Big 12

West Region
Verizon Center
Washington, DC
9:45 p.m. EST

Point Spread: Pick
Over/Under: 137.5

Cincinnati is on the upswing. No doubt about it. They've improved their win total in each of the last four seasons and more than held their own in the best conference in the country this season, but I just don't think they're ready for the "Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball" style that Missouri is going to run at them. Mizzou is one of those athletic up-tempo teams that provides a bad mismatch for so many consistently solid but physically unspectacular teams. Missouri averages 81.4 points per game whereas Cincinnati gives up just 59.2. Something's got to give. I'm going to guess it's Cincy's poise when the scoreboard starts looking like a slot machine.

President Obama: Cincinnati
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Cincinnati
Conan O'Brien: Cinncinnati
SI's Luke Winn: Cincinnati
Bill Simmons/Joe House: Missouri
Nate Silver/538: Cincinnati (51%)
WWOD?: Missouri

No. 6 St. John's Red Storm
21-11, 12-6 Big East
No. 11 Gonzaga Bulldogs
24-9, 11-3 WCC

Southeast Region
Pepsi Center
Denver, CO
9:55 p.m. EST

Point Spread: St. John's -1.5
Over/Under: 135

From January 30th through February 26, the Johnnies toppled Duke, UConn, Pitt and Villanova. It was February Fanaticism at Madison Square Garden. Not since the days of Ron Artest, had the Storm been getting as much pub in the Big Apple. Steve Lavin was getting massive ovations while in stands at Knicks games, and his team came into the Big East Tournament looking to serve notice to leaguemates, like Syracuse, that the World's Most Famous Arena belonged them. The Johnnies squeaked by Rutgers in their first game before getting matched with 'Cuse. Which is when senior SJU swingman D.J. Kennedy tore the ACL in his right knee. Without him for most of the game, St. John's lost.

Not only do I think the Johnnies peaked too early, but I think that they will sorely miss Kennedy and their home court. This game is being played in Denver and might as well be a home game for the Zags. Note: SJU was 5-7 on the road this year. As someone who wil be rooting for them, I'd like to think that playing what is essentially a road game with all the pundits picking against them will take them back to that us-and-them mentality they had when third-ranked Duke came calling on Feb. 26.

President Obama: Gonzaga
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Gonzaga
Snoop Dog: Gonzaga
SI's Luke Winn: Gonzaga
Nate Silver/538: Gonzaga (66%)
WWOD?: Zags (in a Tom Jackson-taking-the-Pats fashion)

No. 5 Kansas State Wildcats
22-10, 10-6 Big 12
No. 12 Utah State Aggies
30-3, 15-1 WAC

Southeast Region
McKale Center
Tucson, AZ
10:05 p.m. EST

Point Spread: K-State -2.5
Over/Under: 129

Last season, we all thrilled to that enervating double-overtime K-State-Xavier game when Jacob Pullen battled Jordan Crawford. Although there were enough clutch shots for an addendum to the "Shining Moment" montage in that game, it was Pullen's three that propelled the Wildcats to the Elite Eight. He was epic. And he's still on the team.

Which is the only reason that I'm not wagering next month's rent on the Aggies. Under towering, paunchy and bespectacled Stew Morrill, Utah State has 87 wins in the last three years. Morrill's boys will run their disciplined offense, moving the ball the way I wished the Knicks would. They'll use the shot clock and they'll feed the rock to Tail Wesley in the post. On defense, they'll be conservative, they'll pack it in and clear the boards. They'll do what they normally do because Morrill has these guys drilled to perform in their sleep. And, it will all go to plan as long as Pullen don't explode past the Aggies on the break like they've got the howls of Frank Martin at their heels. Oh, wait.

President Obama: Kansas State
ESPN Bracketologist Joe Lunardi: Utah State
Dick Vitale: Kansas State
SI's Luke Winn: Kansas State
Nate Silver/538: Kansas State (57%)
WWOD?: Aggies

Happy St. Patrick's Day

Not only is it St. Patrick's Day but it's also the (real) opening day of the NCAA Hoops Tournament. It's the Las Vegas Leap Year. Get your brackets in by noon.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

WWOD? Non Sequitir: The Faceless Fifty

Stop what you're doing, especially if it's fretting over Chauncey Billups' inability to run a Knicks' offense predicated on ball movement, and go read about the 50 workers who have stayed behind at that burning, leaking and altogether melting down Japanese nuclear plant in a last-ditch effort to stave off a nuclear catastrophe in the aftermath of the shockingly strong 9.0-strength earthquake that rocked the nation.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Not Worth Saving

As a kid growing up in a leafy suburb in New Jersey, I couldn't wait for the start of Daylight Savings Time each Spring. From Groundhog Day on, I would intermittently ask my mom when we could change the clocks. I would pester her about it almost as often as I would ask my dad when was the next Knicks game that my grandpa had tickets for.

An annual harbinger of the ending of the academic year, Daylight Savings Time seemed more an act of god than a piece of civic legislation. I mean, all of a sudden there might as well have been 25 hours per day. To me, that was a miracle on par with snow days. This new found time was best used in three ways.

1.Full-field scrimmaging till dusk at soccer practice while a phalanx of Chevy Suburbans and Dodge Caravans lined the edge of the field behind the Catholic church in town.

2. Riding bikes.

3. Practicing post moves that I'd cribbed from Patrick Ewing in the driveway but would never really be tall enough to use in a game not against my two younger brothers.

Having no driveway and no soccer practice these days, I drove out to West Orange, NJ on the first day of Daylight Savings Time to get an Italian hot dog from Jimmy Buff's. I was moderately puzzled by the differences between the clocks in the car, kitchen and on my phone as I traversed the Mordoresque expanse of Kearney, but I figured this unsettled feeling had as much to do with my having slept on the couch as it did with the loss of any hour.

By the time that I'd polished off my combination order (one hot and one sausage) with all the fixings (peppers, onions, potatoes) in the inimitable pizza bread, I was feeling even more aware of the hour of sleep that I'd lost at some point in the night. Driving home, knowing that I needed to be at the Garden somewhat soon for the 6:00 p.m. tip-off, it felt like that hour had been stolen from me.

No way, though. Thoughts like that almost seem resentful of Daylight Savings Times. That grogginess must have been the gunmetal sky conspiring with the 17 tablespoons of unadulterated cooking oil that I'd ingested as part of my lunch, I assured myself. Because who would dare slander Daylight Savings Time? Even if just in my head while pushing my own weight eastbound on Route 7? Nobody. That can't be true. It's not possible.

False. There have actually been opponents of DST (as it's called in the Swatch biz) ever since George Vernon Hudson first suggested the practice in New Zealand in 1895. Apparently, the lives of others are not ordered precisely as my own youth. Odd, I know, but bear with me. For those DST detractors, the benefits of that extra hour of natural light in the evening didn't cover the cost of that lost hour in the morning. Farmers and rural folk have always disliked this custom intended mostly to help city slickers save a bit of coin on incandescent street lights and such. Oddly enough, the fast food lobby actually mediated the conflict at some point, as they convinced the farmers of America that the extra hour of daylight in the summer meant that substantially more french fries and burgers complete with lettuce, tomato and onions could be sold at places that probably last passed a health inspection the same year as Jimmy Buff's.

The Knicks-Pacers tilt at the Garden was getting underway at 6:00 p.m., which by Saturday's timetable would have been 7 p.m. To me, this meant I'd be home by 10 instead of by 11. No matter how jarred my body clock was, this was terrific news because it meant there might be time to watch an episode from season 1 of Breaking Bad before bed. But for some of the supporters of the Knicks' opponent it meant something else.

Indiana is in both the Corn Belt and the Grain Belt. It's also a place for cattle and dairying. Soybeans aren't an afterthought, either. So the Pacers' constituency counts among its members some of those rural types who have really never cared for all this clock changing business. To make matters even worse, Indiana is also one of 13 states straddling time zones. Mostly Eastern but partially Central, Indiana has had a contentious relationship with time pieces and timekeepers for decades. For many reasons, most of Indiana refused to participate in Daylight Savings Time. Cities near the Kentucky and Ohio borders would observe it unofficially to help keep pace with their neighbors. Over the years, counties have petitioned the state legislature to move from one time zone to other. A group of counties whose temporal status was forever murky became locally known as "the seesaw six." There was even a US naval base straddling three counties and two time zones. Finally, in 2006, it was decreed that all counties, regardless of time zone, observe DST. And people were pissed.

Which may explain why the Pacers attacked the game from the first whistle. They were most definitely playing like a team that was making up for lost time. The Knicks, meanwhile, looked like me in the driveway as a kid. Practicing, slow deliberate moves that were not much use in game situations.

Georgetown alum Roy Hibbert got as close to "rampaging" as his plodding frame will ever allow him, scoring the first four points of the game himself. Even with our defensive stopper Jared Jeffries in the starting lineup, the Knicks had no answer for this team that boasted both a legitimate center in Hibbert and a bulky power forward in Tyler Hansbrough. The Knicks can handle a team with one of those two types. And, by "handle," I mean allow that one player to kill it in the post while doing their best to run at everyone else on the wings. But two post players? This Knicks group doesn't have the equipment, physically, emotionally or schematically to handle that sort of balanced team. With Pacers point guard Darren Collison keeping the ball on a string and solid wing play from Paul George (and later Dahntay Jones), the visitors sprinted to an 8-1 lead before the 'bockers seemed to even know that the cameras had been turned on. Playing without its best player, Danny Granger, and mired in what seemed a terminal skid, this Pacers club made the Knicks look amateurish, like they might as well not go on the road while the NIT is in town later this month.

Midway through the first quarter, the Knicks would make their only true run of the game to go momentarily ahead, 17-16. That spurt consisted of Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups and Amar'e Stoudemire scoring points. Of course it did. But once that run concluded with a made Melo free throw, the game was never really interesting again. In fact, it was downright boring. Baskets were traded as thoughtlessly as business cards at a Rotary Club meet and greet. There was no urgency or fluidity to what the Knicks were doing. There was little ball movement on offense and not enough moving of feet on defense. They were stagnant. And, the crowd followed suit. After watching three quarters Hansbrough dunking and altogether outplaying his more talented and better paid peers, even the chants of Dee-FENSE were lackluster. The malaise was so severe that I could barely muster enthusiasm for the t-shirt launch.

Perhaps you just don't want to play the Heartland's Hoops Team on a day as apparently fraught with tension as the start of Daylight Savings Time. Perhaps the home crowd and the home team approached this game, played at this early time, as if it were a lazy summer lark. Or perhaps the Knicks just got their own floor mopped with their own asses. I guess, we'll find out when these teams meet again a few nights from now in Indianapolis.