Monday, March 30, 2009

Congratulations are in order

What Will said, what Jay said. I don't care if we're talking about college varsity Candy Land championships: six titles in seven years is one hell of a record, particularly since we're not talking about competitive Candy Land competitions but one of the most brutal and demanding sports in the NCAA.

So to Richard Quick and Brett Hawks and all the Tigers who made this happen: Congratulations. You rock, and I'll be the first to admit I don't give you the credit you deserve, either.

Ok, now for some bad news: Real Life AAARRRRGGGHHH means this is probably today's only post. Might get back to you tomorrow, might be Wednesday. Sorry.

Saturday, March 28, 2009


That Anthony Grant has landed at Alabama isn't all that surprising, especially after it became clear Billy Donovan wanted no part of stepping into the hornets' nest at Kentucky.

This is a little more surprising:
VCU athletic director Norwood Teague said his initial list includes Rams assistant Tony Pujol, Auburn head coach Jeff Lebo, Florida assistant Shaka Smart and Texas assistant Russell Springmann.
My response: ????!?!??!!!??!??

Putting aside for a moment how it would further Lebo's career to leave Auburn for a Colonial team (albeit a good one, and you're not going to find me knocking the CAA--but the way to bigger and better jobs probably doesn't lie that way), the finances don't look feasible from here:
His contract runs through 2013 and has a mutual buyout clause. If Lebo left for another job and Auburn decided to enforce the clause, Lebo would owe $375,000 for every year remaining on the contract, or at least $1.5 million.
There isn't actually a big difference in Grant's VCU salary and what Lebo's pulling in at Auburn, but that buyout's an awful big chunk of change for tiehr Lebo or VCU or whoever'd wind up paying it.

So I don't think there's anything to see here. But then again, Lebo wouldn't be the first Auburn basketball coach to leave the Plains for VCU, would he?

Friday, March 27, 2009

The Works, talkin 'bout practice-style

Photo is Goldberg's. Same link also has a nice video where you can get a little taste of how fast Malzahn wants his offense to line up ... Caudle lets a pass go and before he's even stopped watching it, someone's yelling "TRIPS RIGHT."

Tons o' stuff. Hoo boy, do I feel like I shouldn't feel like there's a bunch of worthwhile news coming out of yesterday's, um ... second spring practice, in shorts. A bunch of worthwhile news shouldn't really come out of that, should it? But when we've gone without for a month, I guess this is what happens.

So, stuff I think is worth noticing:

1. The big theme of the day is that Chizik's cracking down on the scourge of baseball caps that ruined last season. You remember when Chris Todd wore a little silver chain around his neck and it caused his arm to fall off? Not a problem this year.

I'll be frank here: as someone who functions at my best when surrounded by a certain level of clutter and wearing clothes of a certain level of casualness, this kind of Type-A anality (analness? you know what, let's move on) makes my skin crawl. I'd be asking the same question Evan Woodbery asked of Lee Ziemba:
Does all this stuff really help you win football games?
Of course, the reason you might want a coach who believes it does is because Ziemba responded like so:
As long as the players are buying in and see Chizik's attention to detail as evidence of how strong a leader he is instead of an unecessary burden, we're good.

2. Man, does Ziemba sound like a much happier camper. I would think being told to put on weight rather than take it off would always be good for a lineman's mood, but getting past this little issue ...
The Arkansas native couldn't bend the joint properly, which is a terminal issue for an offensive tackle. Lateral movement was hindered. Ziemba felt pain each time he pushed against an opponent.

A team official pitched the idea of a season-ending procedure to remedy the issue. Treatment and rehabilitation weren't enough. Ziemba instead chose to play through the pain.

"I had the opportunity to have surgery then, but I didn't," he said. "It was tough. I made it through, I guess."

Asked if he regretted that decision, Ziemba stumbled.

"I'm not going to comment on that," he said.
... has to be a weight off, too. (For the record: I also wish Ziemba had had surgery. Playing through pain is one thing. Doing it in the name of a season that was clearly lost as soon as the gun blew on the Arkansas game was ... well, Ziemba uses the word "tough," and that seems appropriate.)

3. Hello: Mike Slade is running with the first team ahead of Mike McNeil, at least for a day.

4. Back to the linemen: if Malzahn wants them bulking up, it helps explain why John Sullen got his offer and why they were chasing Audrey Phillips, huh?

5. Oh man, poor Chris Todd. I'm glad he got a well-written, sympathetic article, because I have this nagging feeling we're not going to hear a lot more from him unless that shoulder recovers like it's made of whatever bionic shoulders are made of. But even then: having to go through all of spring practice in front of a completely new staff without even throwing a football? Tough row to hoe, buddy.

6. Lots of interesting stuff from Tommy Thigpen, starting with this:
"When was Auburn good? When we controlled two states: Alabama and Georgia. If we get those two states -- that's my main concentration -- then we won't have to go outside of that. I do Pahokee, the glades, Ft. Lauderdale. I'm going to recruit it, but I'm hoping we don't make it that far."
Word. He also made pretty clear who we've got to thank for his services: none other than Mack Brown, who as it turns out remains a big Gene Chizik fan. Bully for us. More on how the Lolley/Thigpen tag-team in the secondary is working out here, via the OA-News.

7. Lots of juicy tidbits from Jay Tate here, with the most reassuring one from my point-of-view being Chizik's hands-on approach to special teams. Yes, we'll need those. Also: Tate has been generally high on Neil Caudle's new-and-improved outlook under the new staff and said he threw better than either Burns or Trotter. Nothing major, but something to keep an eye on, certainly.

8. Tracy Rocker really did not sound happy about this unit's work on Day 1. Probably nothing, and maybe it's even a positive since we got the term "microwave process" out of it.

9. Andre Wadley isn't back yet and may be on the Brent Slusher express train to medical scholarship land.

8. Who needs school? Philip Lutzenkirchen and two recruits were in attendance at the practice Thursday, allegedly.

9. And lastly, an intriguing quote from Andrew McCain (who, as expected, is running with the first team o-line at right tackle): "The chaos is much more controlled." Compared to who or what, pray tell, Andrew?

Update. As of right now, all the chess pieces on the giant chess board that is the college basketball coaching world are still in place. Gillispie's still at Kentucky, Grant still hasn't said yes to Alabama, Billy Donovan hasn't deigned to say he wouldn't listen to the 'Cats if they asked. But this equilibrium isn't going to last: when someone as connected to UK athletics as Pat Forde goes on record on ESPN as saying Gillispie's a goner, it's very, very likely he's a goner. No surprise Grant's willing to wait it out, then. Very soon--as in when Kentucky moves--the ball will likely be back in 'Bama's court: do they wait on Grant in the hopes Donovan stays put in Gainesville, or pray that Mike Anderson (last seen absolutely schooling John Calipari, as you know) won't get too attached to Missouri during this potential Final Four run, or try a third party (a commenter yesterday suggested Tim Floyd)? And what will Georgia--also very likely to be in the running for Anderson if he's willing to move, and Paul Westerdawg points out the cash suggests he will be--be able to pull off in the middle of this madness? Bottom line: this should be fun. Unless the Tide ends up with Anderson. That will be less fun.

Also from the world of hoops coaching changes: Auburn assistant John Cooper will be the new head coach at Tennessee State. Congratulations and best of luck to Cooper, who's getting an explosive but erratic team at TSU.

Swim, baby, swim. The Auburn men are second after the first day (of three) of competition at the NCAA Championships. Matt Targett blew past some fool on the way to getting Auburn a win in the 200 freestyle relay, Auburn's eighth win in the event in 12 years. All together now: Aussie aussie aussie! Oy oy oy!

Crystal ballin'. Woodbery goes over the probable 2009-2010 Auburn basketball roster (always just "probable" with this program, right?) and concludes:
Bottom line: If all goes well for the next few months, Lebo will bring back a deep, veteran team. Finding new sources for Barber's lost production might determine how successful the season will be.
Agreed. Essentially, Auburn will be trading some of their experience underneath for experience on the perimeter, with a little more size added in for good measure. The key dudes to me seems to be Hargrove and 6-8 JUCO forward Kenny Gabriel: if they can pick up just a little of the rebounding/post-scoring slack left behind by Barber, Auburn should be OK. I think.

"I Think, Therefore, War Eagle." That's the name of this quick, and, yes, satisfying blast of nostalgia from Guaranteed to Satisfy. This struck a little close to home:
Running through the ampitheater, you felt transformed to an older version of yourself. You always claimed Pat Sullivan or Bo Jackson in the pick up football games with the other kids. And if you really wanted to show off, you'd go with Terry Beasley, or Tucker Fredrickson. The other kids would stare and ask 'who's that?', and you knew then you were the smartest one in the game. In the absence of being the most athletic, being the smartest sufficed.
Man, even I don't know if I ever busted out "Tucker Frederickson." Tommie Agee was about as obscure as I got.

Etc. Auburn might actually have a shot at 2010 running back superstud Lache Seastrunk; if we snag both him and Tremendous Campbell-Scott, we can fill out the rest with 1.5-stars for all I care ... Braves and Birds wonders if Duke is really such a big deal any more, and the answer is "no."

Enjoy your weekend.

The Amazing Age We Live In, case file No. 473

Oh, Tyrik. I want to tell you to spend less time on Facebook and more time on those precious, precious grades, but when you're using that Facebook time so productively ... what can I say?

I strongly suggest reading the entire Lifetime of Defeats post detailing and quoting the Facebook back-and-forth between Tyrik Rollison, Auburn's QB-of-the-future signee pictured above, and Toney Clemons, the former Michigan wide receiver who made public his decision to transfer this week. But here's a brief recap:

1. Rollison, whose Facebook updates on his efforts to qualify have been studied by Auburn fans like Torah scholars going over the Dead Sea Scrolls ever since Signing Day, leaves an update calling Clemons "my man" and asking Auburn fans to leave messages encouraging Clemons to come to the Plains on his Faceboook page.

2. Auburn fans do so, apparently in meaningful numbers.

3. Clemons responds with a message that the interest and support from Auburn fans "means a lot" to him and that he is "seriously looking into Auburn" with plans to contact the program.

Several thoughts on this entire fascinating development:

--First of all: I wouldn't hold my breath, Auburn fans. Clemons is from the Pittsburgh area and had plenty of mutual interest from West Virginia before committing to Michigan; WVU who could also use wideouts and is rumored to be Clemons' most likely final destination. If not the Mountaineers, he also has a sister (and the hometown connection) at Pitt. Clemons also said this:
"I just don't want to play in a spread offense. This is best for me as an athlete."
So, yeah. There are some caveats: Clemons' problem with Rich Rodriguez's system may not have been the whole "spread" thing as much as where Clemons fit into it, since RichRod was trying to use the 6-3 Clemons as a slot jitterbug; Malzahn would very likely use him as a downfield threat on the outside, so hypothetical scheme concerns might not really be an issue. Clemons also said he would "love to play for a school in the Pac-10, Southeastern Conference or Atlantic Coast Conference," so there's that.

But still: from West Virginia, with a distrust of the spread, and with who knows how many options available to him. This is a loooooooongshot no matter how many Auburn fans whisper sweet nothings onto his Facebook site.

--Bigger picture: I officially do not know what to think about where college football fandom is headed in the 21st-century. My gut is screaming CREEPY PERVY STAY AWAY, as it should whenever full-grown adults take an overactive, direct interest in not just the athletic performances but the day-to-day lives of 18-year-old athletes. There's a reason it's called Facebook "stalking," right?

But I wonder if there aren't some fringe benefits to this new interactive landscape, too. A common complaint amongst those of us who despise the booing in Jordan-Hare and the anonymous shredding of Auburn's football players on the Internet is that fans don't see their "beloved" athletes as people, as common kids: I do think sometimes they see them from behind the "fourth wall" of TV and film, as actors on a complicated stage performing for their entertainment rather than kids trying to win a football game. I always think of Adam Carolla's description via Bill Simmons of Ron Artest charging into the stands, how it would be like Captain Hook walking out of a movie screen.

I wouldn't be the first person to say that Facebook and its ilk are blurring that wall between fans and athletes ... and I have to think that in many cases, particularly with fans that don't attend Fan Day or went to class with athletes or otherwise have some opportunity to interact with the players they're rooting for, there's good reason to want that wall blurred. But is Facebook the right way to do it? If John Q. Leather-Lung leaves a message on Tyrik Rollison's wall today, would it make him less likely to scream obscenities at him later? Or will that personal connection, however slight, just make J.Q.LL feel all the more betrayed and angry?

I don't know. But we're going to find out, since there's absolutely nothing to be done about it now. Especially when guys like Clemons continue to be genuinely (or at least apparently genuinely) flattered by the attention, the genie's not going to go back in the bottle.

--I have to wonder what Auburn's current receiving corps would think of Rollison's claims that Auburn "could use" Clemons, but, uh, Rollison's probably right. For starters, Auburn's receiving corps is the Auburn receiving corps. Secondly, Clemons (who was a true sophomore at Michigan this year and would use his redshirt during his transfer year) was a four-star, top 100 prospect ranked the No. 12 receiver in the Class of 2007. He didn't set the world on fire at Michigan, but he was stuck behind the likes of Mario Manningham and Adrian Arrington as a freshman and was playing out of position as a sophomore. It's doubtful he wouldn't be extremely useful where Auburn is concerned. But again: NOT holding my breath.

--This might be the most important development out of this whole thing: there's no doubt any more Tyrik Rollison sees himself at Auburn. I've said a few times I wasn't going to get excited no matter how good Rollison was until he actually arrived on campus, since he was 1) a grades risk 2) more than good enough to get the attention of lots of other high-profile schools if he did wind up at prep school or a JUCO. We've been through this already with Enrique Davis and Jermaine Johnson and the like, so why get my hopes up again?

And still, nothing is written in stone by a longshot. But Rollison--or, um, Rollison's Facebook profile--certainly hasn't fit the profile thus far of either someone who doesn't care about his grades or someone who committed to Auburn because there was nothing better and will flitter off to Texas or wherever if he winds up shining at prep school.

So, yeah, I'm letting myself get a little excited about the possibilities of the Tyrik Rollison experience. Because of things he wrote on his Facebook. I have got to be crazy, but at least I'm not the only one.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Works, WEAK TOT ACTION-style

OK, that was me. As a devoted John Gasaway reader, I couldn't help but answer his call for favorite NCAA commercials, not when there's one that stands so head-and-shoulders above the rest:

I swear, when Jay Jacobs and the Powers That Be release their third album, we're naming it "You Go Strong to Your Mouth or You Don't Go at All."

You know, this could go better for us. In a truly stunning development, basketball developments have slowed the coverage of the Tide's spring practice thanks to the will-he-or-won't-he question mark now hanging over Anthony Grant's head.

As someone who has a ton of respect for what Grant's accomplished at VCU and has probably even more respect for what Mike Anderson has pulled off at UAB and Mizzou, I feel like Auburn's in a bit of a no-win situation here. I don't want the Tide to hire Grant or Anderson, and the latter's definitely a possibility if Grant wants to hold out and hope the Florida job comes open (as it may if Kentucky fires Gillespie and Donovan bolts for the bluegrass). But the best-case scenario is still for Grant to say no. I think there's definitely a chance Anderson would choose to stick with the rising juggernaut he's creating in Columbia, at a campus where hoops is every bit as big a deal as the football team, rather than rebuild in the shadow of the Coachbot. I know Anderson's an Alabama native, but the only school in the state he has any ties to is Jeff State. The guess here is that the odds are better than 50/50 in 'Bama's favor if they have to go hard after Anderson, but it's not exactly Momma calling.

Now, if they somehow manage to land neither? I don't know who's next in line. This, as an Auburn fan, is what I'm hoping for.

I'm trying to think of the appropriate metaphor here. Via Fields of Donahue, footage of Trooper Taylor leading a wide receiving drill in which his charges break off the line with "No drops":

So what is this most like? A line of chihuahuas saying "No yipping!"? A line of Washington politicians saying "No partisanship!"? A line of fast-food employees saying "No mistakes!"? So many possibilities.

Incidentally, the video is courtesy of the OA-News's AuburnVersus channel and is one of six in a series from Tuesday. The others are at that link.

Baseball. PPL has a typically kick-ass season review with the first third of the year now in the rearview. He notes that despite having some of the best bats in the SEC, Auburn is pretty much right in line with the (decidedly modest) expectations set out for them by the preseason polls, thanks to some awful relief pitching and defense the new coaching staff hasn't been able to correct yet. But there are signs of improvement:
As much as Auburn has struggled pitching, Scott Foxhall (the pitching coach) has a proven track record and Auburn does actually have some good things going for it. Auburn is in the middle of the SEC for staff strikeouts (192) and last year had 394 as a staff. It took Auburn all of March and February combined to reach 196 last year.
I strongly suggest you read the rest.

Back to hoops. Phillip Marshall notices that even worse than the SEC's down year on the hardcourt is that not many people realized how down a year it was:
It’s not the end of the world that the league only got three teams in the field. A few years back, only three ACC teams made it. But what is troubling for the SEC, or should be, is the fact that it didn’t seem to make a ripple nationally. Outside of the southeast, nobody seemed to notice.

When talking heads have brought up power conferences this season, the SEC has not even been mentioned. It’s like it has become irrelevant ...

When Florida won back-to-back national basketball championships, it should have helped the league’s national image. But when the Gators followed that up by missing out on the tournament two straight seasons, it only reinforced old stereotypes. When Kentucky isn’t a national force, the league goes even further off the radar.

The SEC is such a football power, known so much for football, that everything else is overshadowed. Even when the SEC has been strong in basketball, it has not been mentioned in the same breath as the Big East or the ACC or even the Big Ten.
It's a pretty shrewd observation here by Marshall, but the SEC's hoops problem isn't just that Florida fell back off the wagon or that Kentucky's having issues. It's that aside from Kentucky, no one in the entire league has built a consistent, year-in-year-out hoops program. The longest current streak of NCAA Tournament appearances currently belongs to Tennessee, at a whopping "four," and before those four the Vols had made the tournament just five times in 23 years. Arkansas of course was supposed to join the 'Cats as the league's second premier program when they joined up, but it hasn't worked out like that for quite some time. Every other team in the league has had "their" year or two over the past 20 where they jumped into the nation's elite, but no one in the SEC's second tier has had the staying power of a Maryland, an Illinois, a Washington, or any of those other perennial NCAA teams that make up the second tier of the nation's primary hoops leagues.

If the SEC wants to become a national player on the hoops scene, it's not about taking football less seriously or even getting Kentucky back on its horse--it's about finding more coaches like Bruce Pearl who have the know-how to get their programs not just into the tournament discussion for a year or two but keep them there for good.

Countdown to Spring Nos. 2, 1: Injuries; DUH

Yes, this position is a matter of some importance.

2. Can Auburn get through spring practice without any serious injuries?

To some extent, this is a question that could apply to every program in the country. It's not Pete Carroll is going to have a defensive lineman rupture an Achilles in a spring drill and just shrug it off.

But for this Auburn team, avoiding the kind of injuries in the spring that could be issues in the fall is critical. The Tigers might be able to weather a torn ACL at running back (where I'd like to think McCalebb could step in for Fannin without too much problem) or wide receiver (where all parts seem to be virtually interchangeable), but anywhere else? Uh, no. I don't even want to consider a loss along the offensive line, at defensive tackle, in the secondary, or even at linebacker--sure, Auburn's had LBs like they've grown on trees for years, but I keep looking at the depth chart and expecting to find someone I'm comfortable with behind Bynes or Stevens, and they're still not there. Hell, one of the names that does pop up is Adam Herring, and he was apparently already getting medical attention Tuesday night.

Turning around a situation as dire as "2-6 in the SEC, with wins via missed Bulldog FG in Starkville and fumble recovery for touchdown vs. Tennessee" odesn't just require good coaching, good players, good execution, all that stuff that actually relates to playing football. It also requires healthy doses of pure leprechaun-level luck, too. The spring injury list (and possible subsequent presence of, say, Vance Smith in the starting lineup) is a crucial indicator for whether 2009 Auburn is going to have that kind of luck, or is going to have to battle uphill every single step of the way.

1. Gee, whaddya think is the No. 1 issue confronting Auburn during the spring?

To paraphrase an old political line about the economy: It's the quarterbacks, stupid.

I'm not sure what I've got to add here that hasn't been duly covered elsewhere. If Gus Malzahn truly is going to pick one quarterback and stick with him, and the entire Spread Eagle house of cards depends on the performance of whoever that quarterback happens to be, clearly the process of choosing that quarterback is as important a process as spring practice could possibly give us. Everything else is secondary, pretty much by definition.

If I had to take a guess at how that process will play out ... well, I've already made it pretty clear I think it's Burns, and with Todd still rehabbing that shoulder and Trotter still something of an unknown I think we might see a Neil Caudle renaissance.

But the bottom line is that it doesn't really matter which of the QBs takes the reins: it's about finding one who Malzahn believes is worthy of doing so. I'd suggest, too, that the winner of this little quarterbacking derby use the spring to cement themselves in the position as firmly as he possibly can--I remain skeptical Tyrik Rollison will arrive on campus this fall as planned, but after another round of optimistic Facebook updates on his academic status, at the very least it's safe to say he's taking this qualification thing seriously.

I would not expect Rollison to come in and become the starter as a true freshman, but at the same time: was there anything Burns or Todd (or, of course, Trotter or Caudle) did last year that Rollison likely couldn't do this fall? No. I'm not sure it's enough for anyone on the current roster to just win the job this spring--it's about genuinely making that job their own in a way it never was in 2008, because if Rollison qualifies, I don't think being the starter by default will be enough.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Spring in their step

So spring practice got under way for the football team yesterday, ending 121 days of Gene Chizik leadership that never actually involved the coaching of players to play the game of football.

Until last night. Developments worth noting:

--According to Jay G. Tate, Aairon Savage and Phillip Pierre-Louis were both "pretty fully" participating after their knee injuries last season. I don't think it's unexpected for Frenchy, but Savage's injury was much more serious and I think there was some doubt he'd be able to push himself much during the spring. Apparently that won't be a worry.

--Tommy Trott, who tore his ACL much later in the year than Savage (first week of practice) or Frenchy (first play of the season) isn't moving nearly as well ... but if he's taking part at all, that's still a decent prognosis for his availability this fall, I would think. Evan Woodbery wrote the following:
We later talked to Trott and Savage. Trott is sitting out this spring and taking mental reps. Savage probably won't do any contact this spring, but is running and cutting and generally feeling good. He said he plans to play cornerback (he's played both positions in college).
So, yay "mental reps"?

--Reading between the lines, other offseason surgery undergoers Lee Ziemba and Zac Etheridge seemed to be where they ought to be health-wise.

--Uh ... is Brent Slusher done as a football player at Auburn? Chizik described his absence from practice as due to being on "medical hardship" though Woodbery reported it as a "medical scholarship." The distinction may be important, because unless I miss my guess, moving onto a medical scholarship (a la Chaz Ramsey, Tyrone Prothro, and a whole heap of other Tide players, as you'll recall) means there's no coming back. You're done. Whereas a medical hardship waiver simply means that Slusher wouldn't have to count last year as either a year of eligibility or his redshirt year. I would think if it was the former the beat guys would have made a bigger deal out of it ... but maybe Chizik wasn't entirely clear?

In any case, it looks like Slusher--a nominal TE who's been moved around and who missed all of 2008 with injuries--has a looooooong road back to contributing.

--Not surprisingly, I sympathize with the beat-writing crew regarding the lack of access to practice, especially when Chizik's rationale for closing practice off is offered thusly:
"I think there's enough pressure on these guys already to deliver. We just feel like this is a deal where we don't want any outside or any extra pressure on these guys. We just want them to go out and practice and not worry about what anybody thinks or writes or hears."
Wait, we're expecting these same guys to be mentally tough enough to go into Baton Rouge and come back with a victory, but we don't expect them to be able to deal with a pasty guy with a notebook standing a few feet away from them as they practice? It's Chizik's team and he's within his rights, but come on.

--Gabe McKenzie was a no-show, but Tate's "seen him around" and Chizik seemed to expect him back from his mysterious injury problems sometime soon.

--Even as Chizik admits he's "a little undersized" to play on the interior, former and possibly future TE Vance Smith is currently working with the offensive linemen thanks to Auburn not having any offensive linemen. Gee, it seems like some Auburn blogger made some offhand comment weeks ago about the possibility of Smith switching positions ... but which one? It'll come to me, I'm sure ...

--Enjoyed Tate's general description of practice and the contrast of Tubby's "watch his coaches coach" approach with Chizik's more hands-on strategy. Woodbery provided a similar anecdote. I certainly wouldn't deign to call one style preferable to the other, but I do think it's emblematic of Auburn's new head coach and new staff's energy. we've got a long, long way to go towards figuring out if that energy means anything, but it's there.

--Also enjoyed this tidbit from Tate:
Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn doesn't negotiate about what happens in practice. He knows exactly what he wants and that's how it's going to be.
Hmmm, why would "negotiating" be an issue for an Auburn offensive coordinator, eh?

--Good heavens, Chris Todd on his shoulder problem:
"What they did is basically go in and shave off the end of the clavicle that had become damaged or arthritic. They were just trying to play with it. They cleaned all that up. They drilled a hole in the AC joint and tied it back together and yanked it back down, so it's in place now."
He told Bitter that his arm was weaker than it had been since his sophomore year of high school. Best of luck to you Chris, 'cause I get the feeling you're going to need it.

--The non-Todd QBs (i.e. Burns and Caudle) seem really happy with Malzahn--not surprising, given the previous regime's treatment of the two of them--and reaffirmed that Auburn's going to be as up-tempo as Malzahn wants to be. Easy to say now.

--And lastly, Wayne Bolt is back on the Plains, having followed Chizik from Iowa St. to become Director of Football Operations. Though let's not sugarcoat things here: falling from years of service as a D-I defensive coordinator at all kinds of schools to an administrative position--even at Auburn--can't be an easy pill to swallow for him. Still, Chizik must like him to want him around.

Some stories can only end one way

There are times when I really, really wish I lived back home, close enough to go see games like last night's massive NIT quarterfinal--there's an oxymoron that only applies when teams like Auburn and Baylor are involved--between two genuinely desperate teams at Beard-Eaves Coliseum. Part of that longing is because this was just a whale of a basketball game--both teams were sharp, both played like they wanted it as badly as they'd ever wanted any game, and both were within a point of each other in that devastating final minute.

But past that, it's because being there in person gives you a chance to get caught up in the crowd, to start believing things because you feel everyone else believing it too. As Fields of Donahue describes:
This was a team of destiny. Not NCAA destiny, but still, for Auburn, it was some kind of destiny. When you're down seven with a minute and a half left and come back to within one with two free throws in front of DeWayne Reed, that's it. Beard-Eaves was roaring, and I mean the kind of roaring reserved for Saturdays in the fall.
I wish I'd had that kind of faith. Because when Dewayne Reed stepped to the line last night with two free throws to potentially win the game, I felt pretty much the exact opposite way: I hoped he'd hit one of the two and we'd go to overtime. I wasn't expecting him to hit both, at all. And I thought it perfectly possible--maybe even likely--that he'd clank both.

Because, come on, this was the only way Auburn's season can end. When a team has spent an entire season proving that it can do every single other thing required for a basketball team to win games (at least in spurts) except for the simplest, easiest act on the court, that season will end on missed free throws. Always. Just ask Memphis. So no, I wasn't surprised when both of reed's free throws glanced off the rim.

But I really would have liked to have been. This team deserved that kind of faith--they overcame so many deficits, so many setbacks, so many talent deficiencies and so many doubters (yours truly certainly included). I can't even remember an Auburn team I rooted this hard for, that I found so eminently likeable. (That they share so much "scrappiness" DNA with mid-majors like Siena or Western Kentucky is a help, no doubt.) Two free throws should have been nothing.

It's just too bad they had to be free throws.

Other thoughts:

--As expected, the Auburn offense found some success against the Baylor D, even with the Bears playing zone. Not surprisingly for a team that was never all that good from the perimeter, the Tigers' shooting could have been better, but the zone has its downside against Auburn, too: if your offense turns the ball over just 8 times and collects 15 offensive rebounds, that's going to lead to a lot of extra possessions. Given that Auburn shot 39 percent to the Bears' 50 percent, maybe it's surprising that they were even in the game; given that Auburn took 10 more FGA and 4 more free throw attempts, maybe it's surprising they didn't win the game.

--That said, that 50 percent shooting for Baylor was just killer. I said yesterday the game would come down to whether Auburn could force the Bears to shoot a lower-than-normal percentage, because we couldn't expect a huge turnover margin. Sure enough, Auburn might have turned it over just 8 times, but for Baylor the number was still just 12--making the visitors' shooting paramount. They connected just enough to pull it out, thanks to mostly some clever offensive basketball ... but also in part to one or two late closeouts and dumb fouls (in a game this close, how huge were those one-and-one trips to the line for Baylor on fouls at halfcourt or the free-throw line?) that have to be laid at the feet of Auburn's defense.

--Let's do hear it one more time for this Auburn team's resilience, huh? Down 10 first half, down eight second half, down seven with under 2 to play ... and they come back every single time. Hell of a performance.

--Brad Nessler and Jimmy Dykes criticized Barrett for not going to the rim on the final shot, but, uh ... that's a pretty good look to win the game, and as the only senior on the court who could have the ball in his hands at that point, it's his shot. Auburn could have done a lot worse there.

--I absolutely love his defense and hustle, but man, playing 4-on-5 on the offensive end with Quantez Robertson--who took just two shots all game--can get tough at times, especially against the zone.

--I know it doesn't fit this team's usual style, and I have even less room to second-guess hoops coaching than I do football coaching, but I have to ask: is it really so impossible to play Vot Barber and Brandon Knox at the same time? Knox got all of six minutes, during which he time he was able to post up once. But on that post-up, he confidently spun and kissed in a bank shot as pretty as you'll see. After a steady game-long diet of threes and dribble-drives, wouldn't it be a nice change-of-pace to let Knox do that more often?

--I'll say more about it and the women's season in a wrap-up post tomorrow, but I'll also take this opportunity to say: fantastic season, fellas. War Eagle.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Around the Plains, 3/24


Hoops. Forget the banner or that crazy misguided notion of "momentum" heading into next season. (Ask Dave Odom and South Carolina's back-too-back NIT championships about how much that's worth.) The one genuinely cool thing that comes out of playing the NIT is having your team's players take a trip to New York to play (and, OK, possibly win a banner) in the most famous and storied gym in the world.

And hey, whaddya know, Auburn is one win tonight away from doing just that. They'll take on Baylor on ESPN at 7/6 p.m.

Baylor's a seriously weird team. They started off the year in the preseason top-25, won at Kansas St. Jan. 21 to move to 15-3 (with wins over Arizona St., Providence, Oklahoma St., etc.), proceeded to lose 10 of their next 12 to finish the regular season with a 5-11 record in the Big 12, then suddenly dispatched Nebraska, Kansas, and Texas to come within a game of Georgia-ing their way into the NCAAs. They lost that game to Missouri, but have since edged Georgetown at home and absolutely crushed Virginia Tech on the road to earn their trip to Beard-Eaves.

So, uh, if Auburn has to face the same bunch of Bears we've seen over the past few weeks, they're in for a tough game. If Baylor reverts back to their February form, though, it's a cakewalk. They key for Auburn will be forcing the Bears to miss shots--they don't grab a ton of offensive rebounds (thank goodness) but they very rarely turn the ball over and shoot a nice percentage, especially inside the arc. Defensively, they're nowhere near as good: they don't do anything particularly badly, but they're not good at anything in particular, either.

Auburn should score enough to win a game against most teams--the question is whether they can keep the Bears from hitting enough shots that Baylor won't outscore them anyway. Baylor's not going to be nearly as generous with the ball as Tulsa was. In the end, I think home court advantage should be just enough for Auburn to pull it out--but the way the Bears are playing at the moment, it's not going to be be easy.

Baseball. Oopsie: Auburn suffered a three-game sweep over the weekend at the hands of Arkansas. In Auburn. The Hogs are a top-25 team, but still. That brief flaring of optimism following the Tennessee series may be on the wane already.

Tubby. Not that I ever really expected Auburn's deposed head football coach to actually follow through on that "stick around and help the school and program however he can and in exchange, here's $5.1 million" bill of sale from last December ... but Tubby's really not following through on it. Read through this rather comprehensive description of Tubby's current offseason activities and see if you can find any reference to Auburn-centric activities anywhere. And via WRAS, another sign that Tubby doesn't exactly feel tied down to the Auburn area: his lake house is up for sale. (Remember, prospective buyers: 9,000 square feet! That "steam shower" sounds pretty sweet, too.)

The point: he's moving on. Don't blame him, don't begrudge him. Do kinda wish we could have skipped that little part of Jacobs' song-and-dance at the time of his departure, though.

Swimming. The Auburn women took sixth at the NCAA national championships last week, which is awesome when compared to nearly every other women's swim program out there. That said, from the official site wrap linked above:
The Tigers’ sixth-place NCAA finish was the lowest for an Auburn women’s team since coming in 11th at the 1999 championships. The 2009 NCAA Championships also marks the first time since 2000 the Tigers return no event titles to The Plains.
Hrm. With the coaching turbulence in the swim program this year, I guess it's not unexpected. Get 'em next year, ladies.

Countdown to Spring, Nos. 4 and 3: front seven, wideouts

Hey remember two weeks ago, when I started counting down the JCCW's five biggest issues to keep an eye on (or theoretically keep an eye on) during spring practice? Probably not. But I haven't, and so we're continuing now with Nos. 4 and 3 on the countdown just ahead of tonight's 7 p.m. kickoff to spring practice.

Great story. Great linebacker?

4. Who's filling the holes on the front seven?

For a defense that's returning seven starters and might get a functional Aairon Savage back on top of that, Auburn's 2009 unit sure has a lot of questions to answer. The biggest ones just happen to also be the biggest players on said defense: the two defensive tackles.

With Tez Doolittle's graduation and Sen'Derrick Marks bolting for the monetary joys of the NFL, Auburn will have to replace both interior players with new starters while playing opposite a no-huddle offense that promises to put a heavy strain on the d-line's conditioning. So things are already pretty scary. They get even scarier when you consider that only three players on the current roster--Mike Blanc, Jake Ricks, and Zach Clayton--saw any meaningful time at DT last season.

But even if the middle of the line weakens, at least Auburn will have an experienced linebacking corps behind them with Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens returning, right? Well, sort of--Bynes and Stevens are the only members of the two-deep to return after three seniors graduated and, of course, a certain Mr. Blackmon sets his sights northward.

So across the front seven, spots will be there for the claiming during spring. Things look a little more clearcut at the open starting linebacker spot, where Eltoro "The Toro" Freeman should step right in for Messrs. Evans and Johnson. But it will bear watching--spring will be our first real look at Freeman, and if he follows in the footsteps of Auburn's other recent JUCO busts, the above-pictured Great Story Pybus could make a push for an even greater role after popping up now and then as a true freshman in 2008. And that's even before we get to the other backup slots--Adam Herring made an appearance on the two-deep after Blackmon's departure and could seal up a role in the rotation.

At tackle ... well, Nick Fairley's inability to get himself eligible and enrolled early hurts, since from here it looks like he should be able to lock up a place in the DT rotation. But now, unlike Freeman, we'll have to wait until fall to find out if he's the difference-maker we've been hearing about. In the meantime, Clayton, Blanc, and Ricks will likely do battle for the inside track on starting positions while behind them ... I honestly don't have any clue. Most of the remaining d-linemen on the roster are end-sized. With Tracy Rocker potentially shaking things up, maybe large gentlemen like Jomarcus Savage or Derrick Lykes get shifted inside?

So there's a lot to pay attention to up front, especially since the no-huddle means that the backups are likely to see even more time this fall than we'd normally expect. Here's to hoping spring gives us a clearer picture of exactly who those players are going to be.

3. Uh ... who's going to catch the ball?

Only in the Auburn receiving corps could the combined loss of a solid-if-unspectacular possession receiver in Rod Smith and an erratic drop-plagued jitterbug in Robert Dunn--and their combined height of 12' 1"--be considered major blows.

But ah, that's why it's the Auburn receiving corps, and why no unit on the entire team is more collectively wide open. Malzahn's offense will put three or four of them on the field at a time, minimum, and there's zero guarantee any receiver on the roster will be one of those first three or four. The competition will very likely continue well into the fall as Malzahn and Trooper Taylor figure out who they trust out there, but I think there's three guys who can really make a move during the spring:

1. Phillip Pierre-Louis: Tony Franklin, as we all know, had some big plans for Auburn's answer to Trindon Holliday before he missed the season with an injury. Now two big questions loom for him: first, how much of his old explosiveness does he still have after the injury, and will Malzahn--much more interested in throwing downfield than Franklin was--be able to find a use for him if he does?

2. Tim Hawthorne. Speaking of going deep ... does Auburn have anyone on the current roster who can? Hawthorne's never been particularly fast, but he's got size and decent hands. He's not the prototypical deep threat, but Malzahn's going to have to recruit someone to do it. Is it going to be him?

3. Terrell Zachery. Hey, remember when this guy was going to be a big-time playmaker for Auburn? He finished last season with two receptions, or two fewer than Derek Winter and one fewer than Gabe freaking McKenzie, who spent most of the year at defensive end. Maybe Taylor can turn him into a worthwhile reclamation project. Maybe not. We start to find out over the next couple of weeks.

Even aside from those guys--can Montez Billings be more than Smith's replacement? Is Winter or Darvin Adams capable of a breaking out into a bigger role than capable-handed third-stringer? What does Quindarius Carr bring to Malzahn's table? We'll see.

Just not fair

Traveling to New Jersey to play the seventh seed (and preseason No. 3 in the country) on their home court, for starters. But more on that in a sec.

What's more unfair is that this proved to be the coda for a season and a team that bore no resemblance to it, in any fashion whatsoever. This team had defined itself with its precise and explosive offense--it's not fair for it to finish by shooting a miserable 20-of-72 (28 percent) from the field. This team had defined itself with the calm and poise of its senior leadership--it's not fair for it to have fallen into a shell-shocked 22-4 deficit straight out of the gate. This team had proven itself to be the best team in the Southeastern Conference and one of the top 10 teams in the nation--it's not fair for it to end its season on the wrong end of an 80-52 embarrassment. (I wish I felt like another word for it.) It's just not fair for DeWanna Bonner and Whitney Boddie and Trevesha Jackson and Sherell Hobbs to go out like this. Not fair, not fair, not fair.

But since basketball games are played in the real world and not in orange-and-blue tinted storybooks, not fair happens sometimes. And that's OK. Because all the stuff that came before is still the same stuff. This team still won the SEC. The seniors are still Bonner and Boddie and Jackson and Hobbs and all the things they made those names mean over the last four years. This team will never stop being one of the most (if not the most) explosive team in transition in women's basketball. Nell Fortner is still as good as any coach in this league and someone who's going to make Auburn as proud as any coach at the school for as long as she remains on the Plains. Nothing that happened in Piscataway changes that afternoon in Auburn when Pat Summitt's bunch was sent running back to Knoxville with their tails tucked firmly between their legs and the cheers echoing in a sold-out Beard-Eaves rafters.

In short, even a night as unfair as last night changes nothing about what this season meant: that Auburn women's basketball is back, and even if 2009-2010 maybe isn't quite as watershed as 2008-2009 proved to be, it's going to stay back. One day, it's possible the Rutgers game won't look unfair at all; it'll just look like one more growing pain on the way to a perennial championship program.

Other thoughts:

--I know women's basketball needs the fans and doesn't want its biggest games of the season played in front of row upon row of empty seats for the ESPN cameras, but the current setup is a joke. It's just a joke. Either go back to letting the protected seeds play host to their "pod" or follow the men's neutral-site procedures. Attendance issues or no attendance issues, sports that take themselves seriously don't let teams that earned higher seeds with their regular-season play suffer from obvious, overwhelming disadvantages when the games start counting. And yes, I would have said this if Auburn had won.

--The response to that is probably "having it at Beard-Eaves wouldn't have made up 28 points," but you know what? Maybe it would have. You don't know. What I do know is that it wouldn't have created one of those "never had a chance" situations where the home team is going against an underdog and the circumstances are so perfect the favorite never has a prayer, a la Auburn's Tennessee win earlier in the year.

--I've opined multiple times here that this Auburn team would have to get Alli Smalley going to have any chance of breaking down a quality, committed defense like Vandy's or Rutgers'. Her line last night: 2-of-11, 0-for-5 from 3, 4 points, 0 assists, 1 turnover. That wasn't going to work.

--Of course, pretty much everybody had a nightmare last night. When KeKe Carrier and her 7 points on six shots is Auburn's most effective offensive player ... well, it's been a bad, bad night.

--At least you can't fault the effort: Auburn grabbed a whopping 22 offensive rebounds on their 52 (!) misses, so it's not like they weren't trying.

--Auburn got a lousy draw not only in having to face Rutgers in New Jersey, but having to face Rutgers at all. The Scarlet Knights (as mentioned before, and as Graham Hays detailed in his post-mortem) were a preseason top-5 team that have been to four straight Sweet 16s entering last night with one of the best coaches in the game. As I detailed after the draw, according to Sagarin's computer ratings the Scarlet Knights were somewhere between a 4- and 5-seed in reality, not a 7. And could Auburn have gotten a worse match-up than a slow-paced, defense-first team that likes to clog the lane and force outside shots? In retrospect, the Scarlet Knights should have been the favorite and it's entirely possible Auburn will have faced a Final Four team in the second round. Stupid Committee.

--Look, we can probably be honest about this, too: it doesn't detract from their accomplishments, but Auburn's SEC title probably didn't mean as much in terms of their team quality as it normally would. The conference has already seen Auburn and Tennessee (who provided both of Auburn's best victories of the season) bite the dust, with Miss. St. also duly eliminated and Florida soon on their way after facing UConn tonight. Meaning that unless LSU upsets a very good Louisville team this evening (at least they're playing in Baton Rouge as the third-seeded Cards get the same treatment Auburn got), the SEC will have all of one representative--Vandy--in the Sweet 16. Oh well.

--I've got a hoops wrap-up for both Auburn teams planned for when the Auburn men finally wrap things up (hopefully not for another week), but for now: War Eagle, ladies. Hell of a season. Thanks for the ride.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Round the Second, and its chalky aftertaste

I've fretted more than once over the past couple of years about having to say good-bye to the NCAA Tournament I've loved for so long, the one where anything can happen and Cinderella lives and no one saw this coming and all that beautiful, beautiful jazz. And I'm fretting again.

Because for three years running now, we've set new records for chalk. Before 2007, no tourney had had a Sweet 16 with no team seeded lower than sixth or an Elite Eight with no team seeded lower than third. Before 2008, no Final Four had ever featured nothing but four No. 1 seeds. And never before 2009 have the top 12 seeds all advanced to the Sweet 16, never before have 14 of the 16 protected seeds survived the first weekend. It's been enough to make me wonder if 2006 and its George Mason/Northwestern St.-fueled awesomeness was the last hurrah, a tournament so spectacular from the point-of-view of mid-major fans like yours truly we'd have to pay for it for a decade to come.

But even after watching Cinderella check out early for just the sixth time in 25 years (and second in the past three), I'm not despairing. Not quite. Instead I've been taking a close look at the 1996 bracket, the tournament that closed a three-year stretch with just one Cinderella (12th-seeded Tulsa in 1994) and just 14 protected seeds eliminated before the Sweet 16--the previous record for a three-year span until the current span's 12. 1996 saw just one team (Princeton, in their classic UCLA upset) seeded 13th or lower win a game--like this year. 1996 had two 12 seeds win a game, one of them a slumming "Big Six" team that would eventually make the Sweet 16, but the other a mid-major--just like this year. 1996 saw two other mid-majors go on to the second round from slightly higher seeds--No. 10 Santa Clara and No. 9 Eastern Michigan--in a similar fashion to No. 11 Dayton and No. 9 Siena from ... wait for it ... this year. In some ways even this year's bracket is more exciting than '96's--that Sweet 16 had just two teams outside the big six conferences and one of those was Massachusetts, the Calipari-coached Memphis of the late '90s. This one at least has Xavier, who even Kyle Whelliston can embrace, and a Gonzaga team I still can't help but have a soft spot for.

So things could be worse, especially when you look at what happened in 1997--Coppin St. pulled off the third-ever upset by a 15 seed and 14th-seeded UT-Chattanooga knocked off first Georgia and then Illinois to become the last 14 seed to reach the Sweet 16. And just two years after that 1996 bracket, this happened:

So I'm going to wait until at least next year to give up on the thing. If 2010 is as boring as this year, then we'll talk.

You suck. With every year, the growing national obsession with bracket-building rubs the unrepentant snob in me more and more the wrong way and closer to Whelliston's viewpoint on the issue. Not the act of filling out a bracket itself, mind you--anybody who just has a good time tossing some names onto a print-out or an Internet site, ponying up 5 bucks, and then getting that extra little bit of a kick from Tournament Game X is fine by me.

But then you get guys like the tool sitting a table in front of me at the bar last Friday, wearing no Kansas paraphernalia or showing any particular affection for Kansas over any of the other eight teams playing at the time ... and nonetheless frequently turning to clap and cheer the Jayhawks and 7-foot behemoth center Cole Aldrich as they desperately held off North Dakota St. and the legitimately spectacular and yet not quite 7-foot Ben Woodside. Why? I'm assuming--because this has been the logic of similar tools over the years--because he had Kansas in his bracket.

Attention, tools: if you would rather win your pool than see North Dakota St. upset Kansas, you are not a sports fan. You are a fan of something else: a Brackets fan, a You fan maybe. But not college basketball.

This point was driven even further home watching Siena do everything they possibly could to defeat Louisville Sunday afternoon. But there's only so much 6-9 spindly white kid Ryan Rossiter and 6-5 Alex Franklin--fantastic players as they are--can do against 6-9 supermen/megaliths like Earl Clark and Samardo Samuels. Over and over again Rossiter would do exactly what he had to do on a defensive rebound--find Clark, set his feet, body up, and leap ... only to find that Clark has already launched himself a foot higher and snatched the board already. The Cardinals' decisive advantage on the offensive glass--seriously, without the offensive boards, Siena's ball-control wins this game for them--didn't come about because Siena wasn't better prepared or their players don't understand positioning or because--vomit--Louisville's guys "wanted it more." Louisville was better on the glass because they're athletic freaks, and that's it.

For all I know Louisville's guys may do anonymous charity work in the slums of Sao Paulo in the offseason. But when they're on the basketball court, I'm not cheering for the freaks. Hoping Louisville beats Siena or Kansas beats NDSU because you stand an ever-so-slightly improved chance of winning a few bucks is like rooting for U2 to outsell the New Pornographers because your second cousin got Bono's autograph outside a coffee shop in South Beach once. Don't do it.

Gonzaga. I'll say this up front: I wanted Western Kentucky to win that second-round game, because Orlando Mendez-Valdez is such a player, because Cort at the Bracket Board is a WKU fan and kicks ass, because the 'Toppers are mid-major in a way the Zags really can't claim to be any more.

But I can't begrudge the Bulldogs their place in the world of college basketball the way Kyle can, either. Gonzaga is Gonzaga because they earned it--going to the Sweet 16 for three straight seasons as a 10, 10, and 12 seed and beating Stanford, Florida, Louisville, St. John's, and Virginia along the way ... that's an unbelievable run, something even Butler hasn't come close to matching. And the WCC is still the WCC. This isn't Memphis ruling over the C-USA or even UNLV hanging out in the old Big West. (As for Xavier, they're a cash-laden team in a major metropolitan area in the same conference that's given us three No. 1 seeds in the last 15 years. They're better than anyone from the Big Six, but ....)

I think in the end there's something to be said for letting someone carry the mid-major banner who's got a real chance to carry it all the way to the final, too; despite their defensive struggles against WKU, their offense is still humming along as smoothly as ever. I've got to hop on someone's bandwagon at this point--might as well be the Zags.

Ummmmm..... There's not a lot else to say when you're a blogger who focuses on mid-majors, and they played just four or five games in the second round, depending on your definition, and just two of those was competitive. A quick nod to Cleveland St., though--the Vikings were closer than the score indicated and would have made a real run had all those uncharacteristic made threes going back to the butler game caught up with them. They went 3-of-23 from deep against Arizona instead; regression to the mean is, as always, a cruel mistress.

Now? Already?

I am a person who lives in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and until last August had spent the previous several years as a full-time employee of various newspapers.

So it has been more than a little shocking to receive the news today that as of this summer there will be no such thing as "The Ann Arbor News." This hyper-literate city of 110,000 people will have no dedicated print newspaper as of July. This July.


Sure, there's already an online newspaper that's doing much of the municipal grunt work. Sure, the future online-first incarnation of what's now the A2 News will run a print edition a couple times a week. And sure, on the national level, the Rocky Mountain News and Seattle Post-Intelligencer and bunches more major metropolitan newspapers are already gone--it's frankly stunning the Detroit News is still standing.

But but but: readers in Denver still have the Denver Post, Seattle readers the Seattle News, and when the Detroit News finally kicks the bucket the Free Press will still be there. Ann Arbor will have nothing, or at least nothing in the way of what we think of as a "newspaper" for a city of its size. It's over.

I wouldn't say I wouldn't have predicted something like this eventually ... I mean, c'mon, it's newspapers. And if you'd asked me which newspapers would going to go down first, it would be the ones in the nation's most economically depressed state. But already? It's stunning, and sad, and more than a little scary for someone who believes it's important for writers to get paid to write. I would like very much, please, if the current generation of high schoolers who like writing but aren't the next Hemingway have another option besides churning out toaster oven operations manuals. (Or teaching, for those of us like yours truly who gave it a shot but just aren't that responsible, thanks.)

There's a blog post here that sums up why this has hit so close to home:
One thing you hear all the time is that the mainstream media does a terrible job in this country, and I feel that way quite often. But there are so many passionate people in media too, people who give their hearts to the job, people who want only to break news, and tell stories, and shine a light on injustice, and make people laugh, and document the times we live in.
So apologies for the bout of navel-gazing, but the idea of these passionate people--and I've met many of them myself--doing something besides telling stories for a living, and the countless, countless stories that ought to be told going untold has me a bit shaken. It's starting here in Ann Arbor, but it feels like it's only going to get worse.


Appropriate domination. I think that's the best term for the Auburn women's
85-49 demolition of Lehigh in the NCAA Tournament first round Saturday. The Tigers led 25-7 eight minutes in and never led by less than 13 from that point. The 15-point halftime lead didn't seem quite as overpowering as you might like for a Final Four contender taking on a Patriot League team ... but then again, it's not like Auburn's bench has ever been this team's strength. With the starters returned for the start of the second half, the lead got pushed to 20 by the under-16 timeout and that was all she wrote.

And that bench--in the biggest development of the game for Auburn--got plenty of work. Boddie and Bonner got only 31 and 30 minutes, respectively. Meanwhile, Chantel Hillard got 19, Reneisha Hobbs 15, and Morgan Jennings and Parrisha Simmons combined for 14, probably the most those two have received since the nonconference portion of the schedule. Between the long layoff before this game and the abundance of bench time, Auburn's ironwoman starting group should have plenty in reserve for the second-round game.

Other positives: 1. Alli Smalley went 2-of-5 from deep, which is just about the minimum percentage she's going to have to shoot from out there to keep opposing defenses honest 2. Bonner was Bonner: 2 points, 7 rebounds in those 30 minutes. 3. Hilliard went 5-of-7 for 10 points and continued to look like she might be capable of taking over some of Trevesha Jackson's or Bonner's minutes if it came to it. 4. As a team, the Tigers shot 53.1 percent from the floor. Yes, that's good. 5. The Tigers held Lehigh to 30 percent flat from the floor for the game and--get this--just 5-of-30 (16.7 percent) in the second half. Also good.

Not everything was perfect, of course. Whitney Boddie posted her usual 9-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, but shot just 4-of-12 against a team that shouldn't have been able to keep her away from the rim. 15-of-25 from the free throw stripe isn't especially impressive and in a very-likely close game against Rutgers could be the difference.

But when you see other 2-seeds that had to go into overtime to survive (or best-programs-of-all-time that are busy getting blown out by Ball St.), it's not time to complain. Auburn needed domination, they got it, and that's more-or-less the end of the first-round story for them.

Rollin'. Vot Barber played 13 minutes and the Auburn men won by 19 against a team that had legitimate NCAA designs at one time. Hopefully that tells you something about how dominant the Auburn backcourt was against Tulsa Friday night, especially on the defensive end: 18 turnovers forced? 12 steals? 34.4 percent shooting allowed? 5-of-18 from 3? That's a good night's work on that end, no doubt about that.

Given that that's the end where motivation is usually more of a problem, it's safe to say that Jeff Lebo has continued to have a marvelous season coaching this team. On paper, it's giant-killin' Tulsa who desperately wants to win this game and NCAA-disappointed Auburn who maybe secretly wants the season over or some such. Not quite the way it worked out, and full credit to Lebo and the seniors for making sure that was the case.

On the offensive end, well, Barber's absence was felt a little, but Tay Waller has a Tay Waller game (3-of-7 from deep, no 2-point FGAs) to keep the defense just stretched enough for Barrett to get into the lane and rack up 17 points without a turnover. It was enough, despite the fact that Lucas Hargrove disappeared again.

Next up: Baylor, Tuesday night. The Bears are about as hot as it gets, having come from nowhere to nearly steal the Big 12 tournament and having been last seen pummeling Virginia Tech in Blacksburg. But with the game in Auburn and the trip to Madison Square Garden now squarely (heh) on the line, I don't see motivation as an issue anymore. And for an Auburn team that's always been good this year when fully motivated, 74-55 over Tulsa is one heck of a good sign.

Tonight. At 7 Eastern, the Auburn women will take on 7th-seeded Rutgers on Rutgers' own home floor because that's the way the fairness-challenged women's tournament works. In a top-notch preview of the game, ESPN's Graham Hays writes that this may be an issue:
Nell Fortner's team went 13-2 on the road during the regular season (18-3 counting neutral-site games). But although winning is all that mattered on each of those 15 occasions, how the Tigers went about winning now matters as we start looking ahead. In seven conference road games, the Tigers averaged just 69.7 points, compared to 79.9 points in conference home games.

On the road in conference play, the Tigers shot 44.5 percent from the floor; at home, they shot 51.6 percent.

On the road in conference play, the Tigers had 74 assists and 104 turnovers; at home, they had 127 assists and 79 turnovers.
Hays goes on to point out that Rutgers will also refuse to speed the game up--shades of Vandy--and that the Scarlet Knights' 57-51 first-round victory over VCU maybe wasn't quite as close as the score indicated. Thanks, Captain Bringdown.

But Hays does mention that Rutgers' overdependence on star player Epiphanny Prince could hurt them, and here's a few other reasons to think Auburn could/should come away with a win tonight:

1. Auburn's the better team. Not by a wide margin, and by an even slimmer margin given where this game is being played, but they are. They've proven it. That matters

2. Bonner and Boddie will play 40 minutes each. Assuming they stay out of foul trouble, Auburn's two stars won't sit. They don't have to, not with longer TV breaks and the extra rest they've gotten over the past two weeks.

3. Seniority. Rutgers has only two seniors on the entire roster; Auburn, as you know, has four in the starting lineup. If Rutgers maybe has an edge in tourney experience, it won't matter much when Auburn has an edge in overall hoops experience, especially at the point.

So the game should be tense and tight. But if Auburn can play their brand of defense and--as always--Smalley can loosen up the defense in the lane, there's no reason the Tigers can't overcome Rutgers' various advantages to move on to the Sweet 16.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

Round the First

Sorry for the absence. I was busy.

My favorite game of the first two days ought to be Ronald Moore and Siena shutting up a Dayton arena packed to the rafters with Buckeye fans. (How happy does the thought of thousands of Ohio St. fans soberly trolling the concourse looking for someone to take their second-round tickets off their hands make me? So, so happy.) Or, of course, Cleveland St. not just beating Wake Forest but cruelly, bloodlessly choking the life out of the Deacons in the kind of fashion that makes you think the the little "13" and "4" beside their team names were swapped. Maybe even East Tennessee St., who even in defeat reminded us that--yes, Virginia--one day the 16-over-1 upset is going to happen. One day.

But none of those games were my favorite. My favorite was Western Kentucky cruising past the undermanned and hopelessly overseeded Illinois Illini 76-72 in the final game Thursday night. The game wasn't particularly exciting--the 'Toppers went up by 12 late in the first half and never trailed. It wasn't especially well-played--Illinois was pretty well still the same team that scored 33 points in a game earlier this year, and while WKU drained 9-of-19 from 3 they weren't especially sharp from inside the arc or at the free throw line. It wasn't even the best game on at the time--VCU and UCLA and the Rams' ill-fated last-gasp comeback saw to that.

But there's always the fear that this year will be the year that nothing goes right, that it'll be like Day 1 last year--maybe my least favorite day of the NCAA Tournament ever--or a repeat of 2000, when 11th-seeded Pepperdine beating Indiana was all we got in the way of mid-major joy. Even with all three of my best-bets playing Friday, coming to the very end of Thursday without a single mid-major in Round 2 would make for a very nervous Day 2 for those of us who take this sort of thing seriously.

But then Western Kentucky beat Illinois like a drum, and I knew everything would be OK. And sure enough, by the end of Day 2, with Siena and Cleveland St. and WKU and Dayton all advancing, everything was.

So close. Dude, all East Tennessee St. had to do was shoot something close to their averages from either 3 (4-of-22?!?) or the free throw line (12-of-24?!?) and it would have happened. Never thought I'd see the day when a 16 seed played a below-average game and still trailed 59-57 with a little more than three minutes to play. But it's right at that moment when ETSU showed why it wasn't going to happen: insane drive by Kevin Tiggs, turnover, transition the other way, and-one, five-point swing, game never within reach again. So it goes.

Viking plunder. Even after having watched American lose their 14-point second-half lead the night before, I never worried when Wake Forest made their little run at Cleveland St. early in the second half. They were doing it on the back of 3's--they were shooting 5-of-7 at that point despite the fact they'd sank like 31 percent during the year and several of them had been contested. I figured at that point: Wake will continue shooting 3's because they're behind and because they think they're "hot," and they will miss, and Cleveland St. will run away with it. And that's exactly what happened.

Kenpom takes a beating. The world's most famous set of basketball ratings got several things right over the first two days--Wisconsin beating Florida St., USC whipping Boston College, Wake Forest's status as the most vulnerable of the four seeds--but hoooooo boy, otherwise it was not a good Round 1 for the numbers. Kenpom No. 1 Memphis watched Ca. St. Northridge hang for 35 minutes. No. 18 BYU got housed by a Texas A&M team that lagged waaaaaaaay behind. It missed and missed badly on the Cal-Maryland and Michigan-Clemson matchups. And your topper: a West Virginia team Kenpom has been saying all season was horribly underrated took on a Dayton team Kenpom has been saying all season has been horribly overrated ... and Dayton led virtually wire-to-wire in a comfortable victory. Oooooooops. Yours truly will not be relying quite so heavily on Mr. Pomeroy's numbers in picking next year's first round: the Million Dollar Bracket went 3-5 in 8/9-7/10 games, and one of those wins was the non-numbers based Michigan pick.

Ooof. Two of the JCCW's favorite upset picks were North Dakota St. and Portland St., solid three-point shooting teams who figured to make a defensive living on their turnover-prone opponent's turnovers. The shooting showed up, more-or-less, but too bad Kansas and Xavier didn't play along: they combined for all of 12 turnovers, including just five for the Jayhawks. Nuts.

AUpdate. The Auburn men blitzed Tulsa yesterday even without Vot Barber's usual contributions; they're now a win away from going to Madison Square Garden, which would be seriously kind of awesome. More on them and the women, currently up 15 at the half on Lehigh, tomorrow. Pinky swear on that one.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

My team, my teams

One of these people is me:

That photo was taken at Birmingham-Southern's 70-69 home win over Winthrop on Jan. 24, 2004. I'm one of the guys standing up in the back row, probably the dude in the cap wearing a gray t-shirt over a white longsleeve.

That was a hell of an afternoon. My Panthers, in the final stages of their transition to D-I, were taking on the Big South's reigning bully in the program's first quasi-nationally televised home game. (Thanks, Fox Sports Net!) Bill Battle Coliseum sold out--all 2, 076 seats--and James Collins hit two free throws at the end of the game to give BSC what was pretty well inarguably the program's biggest win since taking the NAIA national title in 1995. It didn't matter that Winthrop was in the middle of a single-season lull or that the foul that sent Collins to the line was a terrible ticky-tack call that drove Gregg Marshall nearly clear out of his skin. We'd beaten Winthrop--twice that year, in fact. We all walked out into the sunshine that afternoon not just thinking but knowing that our little school's basketball team would one day play in the NCAA Tournament. Maybe it wouldn't be right away, but it would happen. The Big South wasn't too big for us. Two years later, with BSC again looking like a legitimate threat to battle for the bid, I started this blog to chronicle their march to the tournament and give other Big South fans a voice out there in the wide world of the Interwebs.

In the final game of the 2006 regular season, BSC hosted Winthrop again with the league's regular season title, homecourt advantage throughout the conference tourney, and a minimum NIT berth on the line. They lost, 56-43. A week later they would be eliminated in the first round of the Big South tournament by a team they had beaten by 16 points in their most recent meeting. Some three months later, Birmingham-Southern would abandon its scholarship athletics program and drop to NCAA Division III.

Most of me understands that the financial realities of Division I athletics made the move inevitable. Part of me will never recover, or forgive.


It's not an exaggeration to say I've loved the NCAA Tournament and the underdogs that play in it for as long as I can remember. I cried when Chuck Person's Auburn team were eliminated by Louisville in the 1986 final eight, which makes sense--I was seven, and they were Auburn. But I cried when Syracuse lost to Indiana in the 1987 final, too, for no other reason than that I felt like the Orange weren't supposed to win.

The next year I remember giddily penciling in 13th-seeded Richmond past Indiana in the first round and then Georgia Tech in the second on my precious, precious bracket ripped from the inside of the Sports Illustrated. By 1989 I was already head-over-heels for the mid-majors of the world, staying up late to watch highlights of No. 14 Siena beating No. 3 Stanford on SportsCenter and reading the AP story that popped up in the Opelika-Auburn News under the headline "Measle Men"--there had been a measles outbreak on Siena's campus that had forced the team to spend a month on the road, or something--a dozen times. That same week, Curry Kirkpatrick wrote a snippet for his back-page Sports Illustrated column about how Middle Tennessee State's Mike Buck had outscored fourth-seeded Florida St. all by "his own scrawny self" for some extended period. So I watched MTSU's second-round game against Virginia with wild hope--too bad it was one of those games where every time MTSU would draw within three or four in the second half, the bad guys would drain a 3.

Come next March, at age 11, I was watching all the small conference championship games ESPN could give me--though I don't remember the details, I know the first one was Monmouth falling to Robert Morris in the NEC final, because, seriously, How cool of a name is "Monmouth"? The same goes for "Coppin State"--I know I watched the Eagles win the MEAC, because I remember how disappointed I was when John Saunders told us at halftime of another game that their "valiant effort" against second-seeded Syracuse was going to come up short.

No point in sugarcoating it: this is aberrant behavior for an 11-year-old child. No boy growing up in rural Alabama, no matter how sports-obsessed, should be transfixed by the likes of Monmouth and Coppin State. I understand that*. Hell, it's not even particularly normal behavior now.

The point is this: I didn't fall in love with mid-majors and underdogs because of Birmingham-Southern's basketball team. I fell in love with Birmingham-Southern's basketball team because they were a mid-major and underdog.


The last three college basketball seasons have been ... weird.

I've kept up with the Panthers, but after not fielding a team in 2006-2007--not surprisingly, the roster full of scholarship players did not stick around to be non-scholarship players--it's going to take some time to ramp back up to speed even in D-III, and really knowing a D-III team from a thousand miles away is almost impossible anyway.

Auburn could have filled the void, I guess, but towards the end of that infuriating 2000 season I let myself stop caring and really, until this past two months, what reason has there been to start caring again?

So during these regular seasons I've been rooting for ... no one, really. Mid-majors over majors in November and December? Of course. Auburn? Always against Alabama, at least, even if the stakes have been so depressingly low otherwise. Any mid-major in position to sew up an at-large bid is an automatic favorite.

But those motivations only go so far. For the most part, the regular season has been a kind of extended information-gathering session, a convoluted and prolonged set of preliminaries before the real games being during Championship Week. What once felt like, well, sports now feels a bit like research. It's research I enjoy, research that on certain days--BracketBusters, those occasional Saturdays when ESPN airs a critical Valley game, that first glorious day of Championship Week--I outright cherish. But research.

This is, of course, how millions of Tournament-only college basketball fans already see the sport. But for someone for whom the hoops season became something much, much bigger than research, this is deeply disorienting, wildly frustrating. There have many times during the past couple of Januaries and Februaries where I've felt like I haven't known what to do with either myself or this blog.

I don't think that feeling will be as bad in the future. But I don't expect it to ever go completely away, either.


The always-brilliant Michael Litos on what the selection of Arizona for the 2009 NCAA Tournament:
Prior to the selections, I said to everyone who would listen–-and to some who would not–-that this was the ultimate policy year for the committee. I was careful to use those two specific words together because you could see it coming from a mile away. There was enough bubble malleability and enough sameness to get a true understanding of the NCAA tournament worldview despite the mid-numbing rhetoric thrown around by the various “ologists.”

Resumes and bodies of work and RPI and SOS and top 50 wins aren’t the point. We all see now.
To further his point, Litos quotes this section of Gary Parrish's response at CBS:
What you need to know is that no BCS-affiliated school with a top 50 RPI was omitted this season, but six non-BCS-affiliated schools with top 50 RPIs were -- specifically San Diego State (34), Creighton (40), UAB (46), Illinois State (47), Saint Mary's (48) and Niagara (49). What that means is that for the fifth consecutive season, the three best RPIs omitted from the field belonged to non-BCS affiliated schools.
When we're little kids on the playground, the first rule we're taught is Play fair. This is one of the best things about sports: unfairness can be tough to spot in real life and even harder to do something about, but in sports it's usually pretty clearcut. Using drugs to hit a baseball farther than your opponent can is unfair. Hitting a player after the whistle has blown on the football field so he can't play any more is unfair. Lying about your age so you can compete in a gymnastics competition is unfair. And though it's certainly not a new development, the selection process for the NCAA Tournament is unfair. In some ways, it's more unfair than any of these other examples, because there's no immediate punishment: in baseball, a steroid user can be suspended and have their records taken away. A football player can be penalized. An Olympic athlete in gymnastics or any other sport can be stripped of their medals. There is nothing like this for the Committee or the teams that benefit.

That does not mean there is no punishment. Today and tomorrow, 24 different teams from the non-power conferences will take on power-conference teams in the first round of the Tournament. The job of punishment is theirs. I am a fanatic, and I realize this--as I tried to make clear, I don't have a choice, always been this way--but mid-majors beating high-majors in the NCAAs isn't just fun, exciting, cool, etc. It's justice.


A handful of friends from BSC and I made a pact. Whenever the Panthers advanced the Big South tourney final--not if ever, whenever--we would be there, no matter our jobs or obligations or travel distance. Whenever they won, we would storm the court, even if we were in our mid-50s and bald. And then we would follow them to their first-round game, and scream our lungs out for them, and watch Birmingham-Southern pull the upset.

I'm telling you: that was a dream. Giving it up hurt like hell three years ago, and it hurts today. But I'm so, so glad I had it, because it gave me an idea of what it'll be like for the kids at North Dakota St. when they beat Kansas, or at VCU if they knock off Notre Dame, or at Morgan St. when they write their names into the history books against Oklahoma. Without exaggeration, without a trace of hyperbole, I can tell you it will be a dream come true.

And this is why today and tomorrow are my favorite two days on the American sports calendar. That dream is going to come true, somewhere on this bracket, sometime in this first round. Justice will be served. Mad celebrations will take place. There have been a couple close calls, but it's never not happened at least once. It'll happen.

Today and tomorrow, then, are not research. There's no neutrality, no cold detachment. It's the sharing of that dream, the collective hope of all those who follow this sport from the underside of Kyle's Red Line. So Go Butler. Go Radford. Go VCU and Go American and Go Morgan St. and Go Akron and Go Western Kentucky and Go Northern Iowa and Go Cal St. Northridge. I don't have a mid-major team any more, but this is the NCAA Tournament: I have all these teams.

Make it happen, guys.

A quick p.s.: I'm going to try and check in during the day today and definitely will tomorrow a.m., but it's possible this will be the last post today. And just in case it is, congrats to Auburn on their first postseason victory in five years last night, though this post probably makes clear why I'll enjoy any future ones a little more than that one.

*As for an explanation ... I don't have one. Maybe some secluded part of my brain had already taken a hard look at my genetic profile, determined how badly I would always, always suck at sports, and drove my sympathies towards teams with similar handicaps. Maybe it was a weird offshoot of my professional teams at the time being the utterly hapless Braves and Falcons. Maybe I was just a big softie from the start. I don't know.