The Whims and Foibles of Sports...
Well, three basketball games left until we turn our attention to the Saints' draft prospects, and Kentucky is still unbeaten at 38-0. That alone has made the top-ranked Wildcats the prohibitive favorite in Las Vegas and the logical favorite of the sports media wretches who predict those things for a living. But fans of other contenders itching to see Goliath fall have their own logic on why Kentucky’s dream season will drown in the Indiana rain. As my pal and fellow UK grad Paul Jensen, the former PR guy for the Arizona Cardinals, has said all year: “The haters are out, and haters will hate.”
Two teams who did not make it out of the Elite Eight had their reasons for thinking they could beat the Wildcats. Louisville fans wanted another chance to avenge a 58-50 loss to their arch-rival on their home floor in December. This time, they said, Rick Pitino had his team peaking and surely they would beat UK. But nobody told Michigan State, and the Cardinals couldn’t hit free throws down the stretch in an overtime loss. Likewise, some fans wanted Gonzaga to get the chance so Kyle Wiltjer could light it up against the team he helped win the 2012 title. Wiltjer transferred to Gonzaga in 2013 and sat out a season before becoming the team's leading scorer, but he lost his chance when the Zags were beaten by Duke in the East Regional finals.
Of course, the other three finalists have their own reasons for wanting to stick it to the Cats. Wisconsin is motivated by revenge for their unlikely ouster by 8-seed Kentucky in the 2014 Final Four in Dallas. Aaron Harrison’s shot heard round the Bluegrass gave the Wildcats a 74-73 victory and a trip to the championship game. The Badgers' four best reasons are the four starters back from the 2014 loss, led by national Player of the Year candidate Frank Kaminsky. Wisconsin is one of few teams that line up against Kentucky’s size, and Bo Ryan’s offense is even more efficient than Notre Dame's. But last year, the Kentucky defense allowed Kaminsky only seven shots from the field and four field goals for eight points as Sam Dekker and Ben Brust led the Badger scoring with 15 each. Brust is gone, but Dekker scored 50 points in the two regional games and is a weapon.
If Kentucky gets past Wisconsin, they will play either Michigan State or Duke. Sparty, overlooked for much of the season, takes over the role Connecticut filled to perfection in 2014, a 7-seed that peaked at the right time and beat the Wildcats for the championship. To get that chance, Michigan State first must get past Duke, which most prognosticators say they will not do, leaving Kentucky and Duke in a classic final on Monday night. The Blue Devils also are led by a raft of McDonald’s All-Americans, led by another Player of the Year contender, 6-10 Jahlil Okafor. Six-foot-6 freshman Justise Winslow had the hot hand in the regionals, and at guards senior Quinn Cook and freshman Tyus Jones are quick, can shoot and surely would give the UK guard-by-committee trouble.
Those are some of the reasons the haters have hope, but they should know that Big Blue Nation has heard it before. The most recent, and maybe the best example of Big Blue Confidence came Saturday against Notre Dame's opportunistic offense. After Willie Cauley-Stein missed a tip-in with 12:05 left, Kentucky didn't miss another shot.
There was a lob dunk by Cauley-Stein and a layup by 6-10 Trey Lyles. Then back-to-back backdown baskets by 6-10 Karl-Anthony Towns. UK trailed by six, 59-53, with 6:10 to go in the game, the most they have trailed late in the game this season. Notre Dame Coach Mike Brey decided on the next trip he had to double Towns. Lyles fired the ball to point guard Tyler Ulis on the right wing for a three. No more double-teams. Sharpshooter Aaron Harrison got open for another three. The defense also clamped down. Notre Dame did not score in the final 2:35 and missed all three of its shots.
Kentucky wears down its opponents with its depth and with its height. And in games like the ones coming up this weekend, they force the other team to make extraordinary plays to win. The haters hope they make them, but, so far, nobody has.
The good Cinderella was big at the box office over the weekend, extending her global sales performance to $253 million in the five weeks since her release. In another dominion much closer to home, the bad Cinderella made enough appearances in the first weekend of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament to wreck most brackets and then, in the tradition of fickle blondes everywhere, departed leaving millions of poor saps in financial and emotional ruin.
The voodoo queens in New Orleans were busy last week, counseling the suckers on the current karma of Coastal Carolina or the geographical value of such unknowns as North Dakota State, Eastern Washington or Texas Southern. Of course, this week the herd of losers lined up outside the free psych clinic to learn why we do this year after year. And, yes, my name is Jim and I am a bracketoholic!
Every guy out there who thinks he knows anything at all about college basketball fills out the annual NCAA men’s basketball bracket. It’s an obligation to do so, like shaving or putting the garbage out on Tuesdays and Fridays. Some guys fill out a bracket so they can have something to share with the schmuck down the hall who takes the last cup of coffee out of the pot or the last brownie from the tray. It’s not only a right of civility but a leavening process that puts anyone on the same level as anyone else, regardless of job title, your high school or your political preference. Just because one guy wears $1,000 suits or Hermés ties does not mean he knows any more than Joe Sixpack about picking 12-seeds over 5-seeds.
But it is worse when you compete in Bracketology with a family member. Take the renowned C.C. Miller, for example. My son is a high school senior, and, while not declaring himself smarter that Pops just yet, he takes great delight in his little victories. And he is on his way to a major one in our annual NCAA bracket showdown. In fact, thanks to that skank Cinderella who ditched me this year, my son has forged ahead and now has it in the “four corners” defense. I am already mathematically eliminated.
Let’s go back to my obviously flawed thought process that put me into this position. It’s well known that every year two or three low seeds shock a higher seed and advance in the tournament. Traditionally, it is the No. 12 seed, which is typically the champion of a lower-ranked conference or the conference tournament. The secret is that such teams are generally made up of players who stay in school three or four years, who have played together longer and who are not dazzled by the hype of the higher seeds. Last year, three No. 12 seeds shockingly defeated their higher ranked rivals and advanced, and I picked every one. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin beat No. 5 VCU; No. 12 Harvard beat No. 5 Cincinnati and No. 12 North Dakota State beat No. 5 Oklahoma. (As a footnote, the fourth No. 12 seed, North Carolina State, lost by three to No. 5 Saint Louis.)
I rode that three-win margin, plus a loyalty pick of No. 8 seed Kentucky to go to the Final Four, to victory. This year, my loyalty pick is more logical with the Wildcats ranked No. 1, but I also figured the No. 12 seeds were again a good bet. I picked Buffalo to beat West Virginia and Stephen F. Austin to beat Utah, and I threw in No. 14 Albany in to upset No. 3 Oklahoma. WRONNNGGG! All three lost. To add insult, Cinderella stepped onto the dance floor and broke my heart when she winked at two other No. 14 seeds, UAB and Georgia State, who upset Iowa State and Baylor, who I had selected. The loyalty thing bit me this year when I picked the SEC schools to win at least one game, but Georgia and Ole Miss lost decisively while LSU went into the locker room with five minutes remaining and lost to N.C. State. I did get one win out of Arkansas, but the damage was done.
So here I sit, overwrought, distraught and taken aback by my humbling. The stakes were $25 against a free lawn cutting, so it wasn’t a huge financial hit, but what price can you put on bragging rights? The NCAA should be like the hotels and car dealers who send out satisfaction surveys after you stay or purchase. I know just what I would say if the NCAA ever sent out such a survey. For the sake of bracketoholics like me, blank brackets should come with a warning label. Fill it out at your own risk!
Two sets of opinions greeted ESPN’s retrospective on former Duke star Christian Laettner that aired Sunday night. There is the camp that believes ESPN has a tremendous sense of humor. After all, the show aired immediately after the 2015 NCAA Selection Show that declared No. 1 Kentucky an overwhelming favorite to win their ninth national championship. Then, there are guys like me, who have lived much of their lives in accordance with the program’s title: “I hate Christian Laettner.”
Any Kentucky fan over the age of 30 remembers exactly where he was the night that Laettner stuck a dagger into Big Blue hearts, hitting a turnaround jumper with 2.1 seconds left in overtime of a regional final to beat Kentucky 104-103. However, there is comedy in tragedy, and therein lies my story.
I was watching the game at the lobby bar at the Westin Hotel in New Orleans with Pete Rozelle. My soon-to-be-wife, the Lovely Miss Jean, drug me to a wedding reception for a high school friend at the venue where our own reception would be held in a few months. She was scouting the Westin staff to make sure they knew what they were doing. That she could drag me along on such a night was testament to two facts: She was establishing a pattern of obedience (mine), and I didn’t think my team had much of a shot.
After all, Duke was the defending national champion and ranked No. 1, while Kentucky was a low seed in the second year of Rick Pitino’s resurrection of the UK program after it had come off NCAA probation. Rozelle was there for much the same reason: Obedience (his). His wife, Carrie, was a good friend of the groom’s family, and she brought him along. Our mere presence assured, we both were allowed to leave the reception for the bar, where we watched a game that Sports Illustrated calls the greatest college game ever played and ESPN ranks as No. 17 in their Top 100 Sport Moments of the past 25 years.
With the NCAA tournament beginning this week and the Final Four scheduled April 4 and 6, the shot will be replayed over and over again. It always annoys me that the shot is considered one of the great tournament moments, although it was not a Final Four game. It was the finals of the East Regional at the Palestra in Philadelphia, and the winner would go to the Final Four.
No matter where it was played, that game has haunted me for years. One of the great mysteries of that play is why Pitino did not guard Grant Hill’s floor-length throw-in pass to Laettner. He positioned John Pelphrey and Deron Feldhaus behind Laettner, daring him to hit the shot. But until that moment, Laettner had hit all nine of his field-goal attempts and all ten of his free throws. Why wouldn’t he hit another one? Years later when I was AD at the University of New Orleans, and Pelphrey was head coach at South Alabama, I asked him why he didn’t stand in front of Laettner? “That’s the way coach drew it up,” answered Coach Pelphrey. It became a running joke between us, every time I would see him at a conference meeting or a game. He would see me coming, hold his palms up in mock defense and respond to my inevitable question: “I know, I should have jumped in front of him!”
I did extract a moment of satisfaction about ten years after the shot. I was in the front office of the Chicago Bears, and I took my older daughter, Lindsay, who was home from college, to a Bulls game. The Bulls were playing the Detroit Pistons, and at one point in the game, a Pistons player was fouled. As he stepped to the line, I saw it was Laettner. For some reason, the United Center Crowd grew quiet as I stood up from my seats about 15 rows up, and, sacrificing my anonymity, shouted “Laettner, you still suck!”
A couple Bulls fans around me clapped in support, probably because I was dissing a Piston, but a guy a couple rows down got it. He stood up and looked back at me. “Are you from Kentucky?” he said. I responded: “Absolutely!” He raised his fist and said “Me, too, and I still hate the sonofabitch!”
I don’t know many people who laugh at funerals, but pardon me while I chuckle at the reaction from Who Dat Nation over the Saints’ trade of TE Jimmy Graham to Seattle on Tuesday. No, change that “TE” identification to “Icon” with a capital “I” because if you polled Saints’ fans before about 3 p.m. Tuesday, Graham would have been listed at No. 2 current “Saint of Saints” behind QB and Icon Drew Brees.
I do not want this to sound like I wanted the team to jettison a Pro Bowler who in his first few years has revolutionized his position. No, I am chuckling because the reaction in the bars of Bucktown, the Mardi Gras dens of Destrehan and the churches of Central City is similar to the uproar that an earlier generation of Saints executives faced when we dumped another warm and fuzzy pet of Who Dat Nation, dimpled K Morten Andersen. TV programs Tuesday night showed little kids crying and some black-and-gold faithful shaking their heads. All that was missing was my mother-in-law's sister who apologized to her friends with the explanation: "Well, he married into the family!"
Of course, there are fans who understand, kind of, what the Saints’ braintrust was thinking when it sent Graham and a fourth-round draft choice to the Seahawks for C Max Unger and their first-round draft pick, which is No. 31 in next month’s NFL draft. I know what the Seattle braintrust might have been thinking: Russell Wilson would have loved to have had Jimmy Graham standing in the end zone when he threw that final pass in the Super Bowl! The trade was a win-win for both teams, although I think next time Seattle still gives the ball to Marshawn Lynch!
I made the rounds of TV shows on Tuesday afternoon commenting on what I characterized as a “bold” move by the Saints, but one question hit the nail on the head. Fletcher Mackel of WDSU-TV asked me if NFL executives ever feel an emotional attachment to players that makes the decision to trade or terminate difficult. The question and my response, which I don’t think were aired, was that sentiment does not exist in an NFL front office. There are players you grow fond of, but the bottom line is that you do what is best for your team. There are 32 sets of executives who are trying to win one gold ring each year, and the ones who let sentiment get in the way won’t be in the position very long.
NFL executives see each player as value, some higher than others, but all have value. If the case of Jimmy Graham, the Saints had a player of enormous value, but he played a position that was far less critical than other positions of need. Graham was a luxury the team could not afford. Regular readers of this space know I have carped for the past two years about the inefficiency of the Saints’ offensive line play. Drew Brees was hounded too many times by opposing pass rushers that reduced a once-vaunted passing game to an exercise of “run for your life.”
If your quarterback doesn’t have time for his receivers to get into their patterns, it doesn’t matter if the guys running downfield are named Graham, Jerry Rice or Joe the Ragman. A quarterback never completed a pass from a posterior position. Unger, a two-time Pro Bowler, will provide Brees with a new bodyguard and probably another crucial second or two to find the open receiver. Look for a revival in the Saints' passing attack in 2015.
The lagniappe in the deal was the Seahawks’ first-round pick, which gives the Saints other options. Added to the No. 13 pick, the Saints have greater flexibility to move up or down to get a player or two who will fill other areas of need. Edge pass rusher or cornerback are the greatest needs, but I wouldn’t object to another young offensive lineman or even an inside linebacker. The Saints now have a better opportunity to fill those holes.
My message to Who Dat Nation, which did make the WDSU-TV broadcast was “take a deep breath. You got a Pro Bowl player at a position of need and a No. 1 draft pick to find another.” It was a win-win for both teams. You will learn to love it!
New Orleans television fans have long embraced “Morgus the Magnificent,” a mad scientist who hosted late-night science fiction and horror movies from the 1950s into the 1980s and again in a 2006 revival. With the able assistance of his executioner sidekick, Chopsley, Morgus introduced formulas and devices such as his "Instant People Machine" that was intended to transform people into sand and back to their original form during the movie. However, by the closing credits, Morgus’ inventions and madcap chemistry usually had gone “pfffft.”
And that perfectly described the Saints’ approach to free agency exactly one year ago. Good chemistry mattered less than flashy new formulas or devices that could transform Salary Cap sand into a living, breathing body that could contend for a Super Bowl. As a result, the Saints drastically altered their chemistry by dumping (by free agency, trade or terminations) such team leaders as Malcolm Jenkins, Roman Harper, Will Smith, Darren Sproles, Brian de la Puente, Jonathan Vilma and Lance Moore.
Granted, some of them were at the end of their careers, particularly Vilma and Smith, and some were too expensive to keep, but to jettison too many veteran players at one time severely damaged the locker-room dynamic. Nobody can throw rocks at the Saints for wanting to upgrade their personnel, such as believing that 2013 rookie sensation Kenny Vaccaro gave them more speed than Harper or that it was time for young wide receivers Kenny Stills and Nick Toon to make Moore expendable. But, like most of Morgus’ experiments, most of those experiments went “pffft!” during a 7-9 season.
We can always blame the Salary Cap for forcing a team to make decisions it does not want to make, reasons that Sproles and de la Puente changed teams. But to make all those changes at one time left a leadership gap that was undoubtedly one reason that Who Dat Nation led the NFL in Prozac consumption. The good news in 2015 is that the signing of RB Mark Ingram to a new four-year deal over the weekend, on the eve of free agency, tells me that the team has learned from its experience. Ditto the contract maneuver that will keep WR Marques Colston in uniform for at least another season. By all accounts, Ingram and Colston are good teammates and positive influences on the younger players. Those qualities are critical elements in the good chemistry formula.
Similar intrigues are being contemplated even as you read this. Reports are flying that the Saints will pursue Falcons free-agent LB Sean Weatherspoon, Atlanta's 2010 first-round pick, while trying to trade LB Curtis Lofton. That makes sense especially if LB David Hawthorne is a salary cap casualty. Hawthorne might be joined by other high-cap vets, possibly defensive lineman Broderick Bunkley or one of the two starting guards, Jahri Evans or Ben Grubbs.
Whatever decisions are made, Saints fans should take comfort in the fact that GM Mickey Loomis manages the Salary Cap as well as any executive in the League. His ability to shed millions in cap dollars and still come up with free agent signings like safety Jairus Byrd last season isn’t easy. The goal is to keep contributors on the roster while terminating players whose performance in 2014 did not justify their 2015 number.
But, as Morgus has cautioned, that only works if the chemistry is good.