The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
I missed church Sunday because of a nagging chest cold, but I watched the Masters so I figure I’m covered. You can’t help but see a religious parallel to a golf tournament played at a course the purists call the American Cathedral of Golf. CBS’ Jim Nantz sounds like the priest at a hospice when he solemnly intones factoids like Bubba Watson’s first victory as a pro was at Hartford in 2010 when he disclosed his father was dying of terminal cancer. Or his observation that Watson’s wife Angie and son Caleb were not in Augusta when Bubba won his first Masters in 2012 because they had just adopted the newborn. Nantz is the guy you want giving your eulogy if James Earl Jones is not available.
Augusta is supposed to be the one tournament where marshals will toss any miscreants shouting “Innahole” or similar inanities after a shot. I did hear some irreverent louts get away with it more than once, but I am confident they were quickly identified, escorted out and burned at the stake somewhere behind Butler Cabin. But CBS has a way of offsetting Augusta's reverential nature with its merry pranksters, David Feherty, Nick Faldo and Ian Baker Finch. I don’t know why they give speaking parts to so many of the Queen’s subjects when the best finish from any European Ryder Cup veteran was Lee Westwood at No. 7?
Feherty and Faldo were not shy about questioning Watson’s erratic putting on Saturday and some decisions he made on Sunday. One in particular came on No. 15 when Watson held a three-stroke lead and pulled his drive into the woods. He had a narrow opening for about a 200-yard shot that had to cross Rae’s Creek, but most players in the field would have punched out to reduce the chances of disaster. Not Watson. “He’s lost his marbles,” Feherty told the world just before Watson striped an iron through the pine straw and over the creek to a safe spot just off the green.
I wonder what Gary McCord would have said in that instance? I miss McCord, who was barred from the CBS Masters team after his remark that the 17th green at Augusta was so fast it seemed to be "bikini-waxed." He also informed his viewers that "body bags" were located behind that green for players who missed their approach shots. The Augusta National Golf Club, in charge of The Masters, has a well-polished record of no sense of humor when it banned Jack Whitaker, one of the most respected announcers in televised sports history, after Whitaker referred to the gallery as a "mob" rather than "patrons" in 1966. I don’t think Augusta National requires visitors to wipe their feet before they can follow the players, but they might have relaxed that rule after women were admitted to membership eight months ago.
Playing a round at Augusta National is on my bucket list, but the players enrich the viewing experience to the point you almost believe they are sitting with you watching the event with a tub of popcorn and a few beers. I would love to go frog-gigging with Bubba or have a drink with Miguel Angel Jimenez, the 50-year-old pony-tailed Spaniard whose golf game trails wine and cigars as his primary interests. I’d also love to go to a Braves game with Matt Kuchar, the Georgia Tech product who just looks like he is having a ball out there. I was pulling for Kuchar and Bubba, but I kept thinking that Jonas Blixt was the Swede in the weeds who would make a last-minute charge. Fortunately for local golf fans, we will get to see more of Blixt at the Zurich Classic this week.
I haven’t discussed this with the Lovely Miss Jean, but I would like to introduce our 19-year-old daughter to Jordan Speith. The kid took a two-stroke lead at No. 7 on Sunday before he dropped back to Watson’s shotfest, but he was gracious and poised at the finish. I wonder if he likes horses?
Since college basketball is over and I have my life back, I celebrated with a round of golf with friends on Wednesday. It was a great day to be on the course with 70 degree temperatures, a clear azure sky and a slight breeze. I could not imagine a more pristine setting, unless of course I was at the Masters golf tournament, which teed off Thursday morning. But there I would be watching, and here I was playing, although my game has not changed much over the winter. Of course, I have nobody to blame but myself. Did I see a pro to help me? Naaaahhhh! I try to fix my golf game like a guy with a broken leg Googling "fix broken leg."
Why is it inherent in the human condition to think we can solve every problem, physical or otherwise, through self-medication? We refuse to go to professionals and instead we seek advice from sources whose only credentials on the subject is accessibility. Usually, we seek answers online or we consult such wizardry as the Dalai Lama’s Book of Answers, now available in new, used or Kindle versions on Amazon.com.
My wife gets her medical advice from a sister who should have been a doctor. I know that not so much by all the cures and solutions she dispenses freely, but from the Voodoo mask and smoldering chicken bones in her secret upstairs solarium. Here are some free samples: For a sore throat: “Take Echinacea tablets; I think there’s a few left in this bottle. The Indians discovered it. You ever see a Navajo with a chest cold?” How about allergies: “Ye gads, I don’t care what the doctor says, don’t take Prednizone! It makes you crazy!” I once had a troublesome rash on my leg about the same time she saw the movie “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.” She advised me to follow the cure-all practice of the movie’s Michael Constantine. I sprayed the rash with Windex. Damned if it didn’t disappear!
Where all this is leading is the fact that even as we self-medicate our physical problems with easy solutions we do the same thing when trying to fix our golf game. I once paid for a series of lessons, but I don’t remember if they worked because it was just before the blur of Katrina. But since I have friends who play, I’ve asked a couple of them for advice on how not to hit the ground two inches behind the ball. One told me to roll my left hand counter-clockwise on my backswing. I went out and hit 100 golf balls while working on turning my wrists counter-clockwise. I hit 50 duck hooks that went between 30-60 yards, and 50 more swings that grounded three inches behind the ball. Another guy told me just before my backswing is at the top, start moving my hips forward and aim for a contact point three inches in front of the ball. I tried to hit 20 balls with that advice and had 19 whiffs and one club that I sent whirlybirding about 40 yards down the range, further than my last hit!
The online swing gurus promise to let me in on the secrets of their success for $57 a year, although I learned later that the full enlightenment of their mysticism will not come until I fork over another $225 for the complete set of 49 instructional DVD’s and their logo visor! Lessons with a pro are out of the question, because instructors today make them way too complex! Even the most friendly golf instructor can make us feel stupid. It is a rare instructor who sends the student off with fewer than five or six things to work on, a checklist of a dozen mechanical issues that the average guy can’t possibly grasp, much less incorporate into his game. The more technical the lesson, the worse it gets. I can’t process advice such as turning around a pivot knee while holding my right elbow close to my side then thinking about a proper swing plane before I hit down on the irons or up with the driver. I need to find a Golfer’s Anonymous meeting. “My name is Jim, and I’m a golfaholic!”
But maybe the problem is all that advice. There are simply too many moving parts to a golf swing, and every tip I’ve ever tried has become a part of my swing. Now, with all this new advice that hasn’t worked, I am supposed to instantly stop turning my left hand and moving my hips forward when none of it works? You can’t just try something for a few days and then not think about that tip anymore and expect it to go away. We can’t discard swing tips like we discard beer bottles. There is no “Default” or reset switch on the golf swing. I just want to hit the damned ball, but golf might be the only sporting activity where practice can make you worse.
If you’re an average-to-poor player, and you don’t know why, then you are doomed to eternal failure. That is part of the reason I have failed at trying to get the Lovely Miss Jean to come out and play golf with me. Why won’t she come out and play? “Because I don’t want to play until I can play better!” But you are never going to get better until you play, I scream. “And how is that working out for you?” she responds sweetly as she heads for the mall. With her sister.
I wonder if she has any good advice? Like spraying Windex in my eyes before I swing?
I am writing this on Sunday afternoon, less than an hour after returning from Dallas where my son and I saw Kentucky and Connecticut win NCAA Final Four semi-final games in very different but compelling fashion. You should know by now that Kentucky’s Aaron Harrison justified his coach’s description that he is a “cold-blooded assassin” by hitting a three-point shot with 5.7 seconds to go for a 74-73 win over Wisconsin. You probably also know that top-ranked Florida was victimized by a couple Connecticut pickpockets in the Huskies’ surprisingly easy 63-53 victory. What you don’t know is why I am back in New Orleans and not still in Dallas for the Monday night championship game?
You need to know that the student-athlete who lives in my house has three tests on Monday, and his mother insisted that he come back and take all three! No matter that he had the chance to see our favorite team win another NCAA championship game live and in person. Breathe. I am a proudly devoted parent and husband first and a Kentucky fan second. Most of the time. As long as parental obligations don't mess with my carefully organized four-hour window on Monday night! Breathe deeply. Let’s change the subject.
I felt bad for Florida, who didn’t see that one coming! Kentucky had better watch out Monday night or they won’t see it, either, the “it” being Connecticut guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. The best description of the Huskies duo I have heard is that they play defense like two angry squirrels who have climbed inside your shirt. The two, Boatright in particular, embarrassed the SEC player of the year Scottie Wilbekin, who was stymied every time he tried to do the things he had done with ease all year. Repeatedly, Wilbekin faked a drive, and Napier or Boatright did not budge. Wilbekin would fake again, and Napier would swipe at the ball and knock it loose, to Boatright. Wilbekin finished with two shots and one assist against three turnovers.
Boatright and Napier have been decapitating offenses throughout the tournament by abusing the point guard tasked with running them. Michigan State’s Keith Appling managed only two points and four turnovers in an Elite Eight loss. If the Huskies are to hoist a trophy on Monday, it must happen again to Kentucky’s twin engines, the 6-foot-6 Harrison brothers, who have committed just 10 turnovers combined in the last three games. The Harrisons' size also could turn the tables on the UConn pair, much like they did when they handled Russ Smith and Louisville's pressure.
I believe Kentucky has some other advantages, even over Florida, when it comes to matching up against the Huskies. If a player with limited skills like Florida’s Patric Young could score effectively in the paint, Julius Randle should have a big night. He is a little taller than Young, but he is much more skilled. Plus, he's a lefty, which makes him more unconventional to defend. As long as James Young stays out of foul trouble, Kentucky will always have a go-to option on offense. And if UConn double-teams Randle, he has become savvy about passing out of double teams, and more trusting of his teammates. But Randle is not Kentucky's only viable frontcourt threat. He is one of four Wildcats who are long, strong and skilled enough to hurt the Huskies in the paint.
Which brings us to another Kentucky edge, the bench contribution. In five tournament games, the Wildcats are averaging 10.6 points per game from their bench, but 32 of their 53 bench points in the NCAA tournament have come in their last two games. That’s because of the contributions from forwards Alex Poythress and Marcus Lee, who for much of the seasonwas the forgotten McDonald's All-American. The beast is Poythress, who returned after a "disappointing" freshman season and reinvented himself as an energizing glue guy off the bench. He tipped the balance against Wisconsin by providing eight points and seven rebounds in 29 minutes. Connecticut has averaged 10.2 points per game off of its bench in the NCAA tournament, but has received only 12 points from its reserves in its last three games. UConn relies heavily on Napier for its scoring, but if either team can get a spark off the bench, it could be a big advantage Monday night.
And that is when I will be at home in front of my 42-inch HDTV, not the six-story, 25,000 square foot HDTV at AT&T/Jerry Jones Stadium, that hovers over the court and in my face, even from Section 444. Breathe. I will sit there, agonizing over Kentucky’s normal first-half malaise, complaining at the inevitable “bad calls” that go against my team, cheer madly when they come back and then go to the liquor cabinet to toast the 2014 champions. And only then I will breathe easy. Being at home might not be so bad after all! Go Cats!
If you are planning on traveling to the Final Four in Dallas this weekend, you might want to read this so you will know what to expect. You already know that Florida plays Connecticut in the first game, followed by Kentucky and Wisconsin in the second. Winners will meet on Monday night for the world’s championship. It’s no mystery that I picked Kentucky to win it all in my bracket, and their play throughout the tournament justifies it. The only hang-up to a title, as I see it, is Florida, top-ranked and the owner of a 30-game win streak. But if the two SEC titans make it to Monday night, Kentucky has the rare opportunity to exorcise a demon from its storied past. We’ll do the Paul Harvey “rest of the story” later, but I’ll give you a hint. When was the last time an SEC team lost three times to a conference opponent then beat them when it counted?
The Florida Gators are the hottest team in America, and they will stretch their win streak to 31 against the Huskies. It should be closer than the 6-point spread, primarily because Connecticut G Shabazz Napier will continue his tournament hot streak. However, the Gators have the best money player in the tournament in G Scottie Wilbekin, who is ably complemented by seniors Casey Prather and Patric Young. Gators by a field goal.
In the second game, Kentucky should beat the two-point spread, but not by much. It will depend on how well the Wildcats can bottle up the four Badgers not named Frank Kaminsky. The 7-footer offers UK fans a player with a background similar to former Cat star Anthony Davis. Kaminsky was a lightly regarded guard who suddenly grew up and retained his quickness, ball-handling ability and a Dirk Nowitski-like long-range jumprer. Wisconsin’s offense is versatile and the defense is tenacious. The Badgers can play at various paces, against teams with different styles. A few breaks and this team is as good as any to win the national title, but I don’t think they match up that well against the Wildcats.
Everybody knows Kentucky relies on young talent, and a few weeks ago it was messy, confused talent. But Julius Randle will be an NBA All-Star, and throughout the tournament, the freshmen-laden Wildcats are playing more like seniors in clutch situations than any other team in the tournament. But the edge I believe Kentucky carries through Monday night is that the Wildcats finally have the chance to exorcize a bad memory. The season was 1985-86, and Kentucky, led by All-American Kenny “Sky” Walker, was ranked as high as No. 3 in the nation. Up in Baton Rouge, Dale Brown had a team of try-hard guys, which means they were longer on tenacity than talent. The Tigers rose as high as No. 17 in the national rankings, but Kentucky defeated the Tigers in two regular-season games and knocked them out of the SEC tournament.
The NCAA committee seeded the Wildcats No. 1 in the Mideast Region and LSU (22-11) was given a No. 11 seed. However, when the tournament began, the Tigers played up to their competition. They defeated No. 6 Purdue in the opening match, then dispatched No. 3 Memphis State and then upset No. 2 seeded Georgia. That set the stage for a regional championship with top-seeded Kentucky. The gritty Tigers upset the Wildcats 59-57 to become the first double-digit seed ever to reach the Final Four. LSU bowed out in the semifinal to "Never Nervous" Pervis Ellison and the Louisville Cardinals, but they carved out a place in tournament lore.
Kentucky lost both regular-season games to Florida and then dropped a one-pointer to the Gators in the SEC final. To beat the Gators on Monday night for the school's ninth NCAA championship would duplicate what LSU did to them 28 years ago and provide Big Blue Nation with some long-awaited historic comfort.
Big Blue Nation woke up this morning in a very unfamiliar position. It’s not the fact that the University of Kentucky basketball team earned its way into its 16th Final Four after outlasting Michigan Sunday. The team has been there before. No, it’s more the fact that Cat fans are just happy to be here. This Final Four trip is a gift that was not unwrapped until Aaron Harrison’s three-pointer with four seconds to go broke a tie and added one more weekend to what has become an amazing story.
The unusual thing is that BBN is relishing this newfound role as underdog. Normally, it's been "big, bad Kentucky" beating up on (or being upset by) some poor unfortunate. Cat fans bite their nails and whine throughout the game because their team is supposed to win and they are afraid of losing. Believe me, I am speaking from personal experience! Guilty as charged! But this year, there's no pressure because Kentucky was not supposed to be here. I even poured my first Makers Mark on the rocks at halftime Sunday and actually enjoyed the second half. When Kentucky is favored, the lovely Miss Jean hides the MM until the game is over! Different expectations, different guy!
Kentucky's unexpected presence in the Final Four also has some historical implications. This Final Four run will be the first time Kentucky has ever worn its road blue jerseys in every game it plays after the opening round. The home jerseys go to the higher seeds, and as a No. 8 seed, and the lowest remaining, Kentucky will wear its road jerseys. Only once before has a No. 8 seed with ten losses won the NCAA men’s championship, and that was Villanova that won the 1985 title, coincidentally, at Rupp Arena.
So how can this team still be playing when the more favored programs, at least according to Clark Kellogg and Steve Smith on CBS, are sitting at home? Good old Charles Barkley stood up for UK against Kellogg and Smith in every game and was the only one of the so-called experts who knew what he was talking about. Closer to home, only the bluest bloods in BBN did not give up after Kentucky limped home in its last four regular season games, an overtime loss to Arkansas at Rupp Arena, a shocking loss at last-place South Carolina, an unimpressive win over Alabama and then a blowout loss at No. 1 Florida.
But then Coach John Calipari announced that he met with the players, admitted he had micro-coached them all year and told them to have fun in the SEC tournament. He called it a “tweak,” but the result was an impressive 85-67 win over LSU and a methodical 70-58 victory over Georgia. The proof that something different was happening was the SEC tournament final in which they played Florida dead even until James Young slipped and fell before he could take what could have been the winning shot. Did I mention the Gators were ranked No. 1 in the land? Kentucky suddenly was not only playing to their pre-season hype, they were actually having fun. Could the light finally have gone on in these young noggins or did Calipari finally, after months of excusing their erratic performance as “that’s what freshmen do,” finally figure out how to harness their talent?
Whatever the answer, the Cats started off their NCAA run with a workmanlike performance against a gritty Kansas State team. Then, as a four-point underdog, they came from behind to upset undefeated Wichita. After that game, now considered one of the best in tournament history, Kentucky was playing with house money. BBN was just happy to still be around, facing hated Louisville in the Sweet 16. Kentucky was a five-point underdogs to the Cardinals, which looked safe after they fell behind by double digits in the first half, but they came back and won. Ditto against Michigan, when they found themselves down by ten midway through the first half only to close it to 37-37 at halftime and keep it close enough to pull ahead at the wire.
Whether Kentucky wins its ninth NCAA title or not, Calipari’s strategy of recruiting freshmen who might only play one year in college has been vindicated. His 2010 team lost in the regional final, but might have been his best with freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. He took a more veteran team to the 2011 Final Four, but it was led by freshmen Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones. He won the 2012 championship with a team led by freshmen Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Marquis Teague but supported by veterans such as Darius Miller.
However, he had never done it with a team that relied almost entirely on rookies. But, hey, if he wants to endure the gray hairs of teaching pups, that's his biz. So long as the light finally goes on and they play like they have the past two weeks. Don’t get me wrong. I still wish the NBA Players Association would agree to a two-year obligation for recruits. If that happened, I am sure Calipari would “tweak” his recruiting strategy and rarely find his team playing the underdog role again.