College: Riot of Upsets
On college basketball, let me make my feelings clear: I am an enthusiastic fan, almost an uncritical one. This year's wide-open regular season, with its revolving door at the top, has been fascinating and promises an incredible championship tourney, one that is almost impossible to forecast.
I know there are aspects of the game that are not as they should be. The clearest issue is the "one and done" rule that the NBA has practiced with regard to its draft, thus preserving the NCAA game's role as training and proving ground for the pros, yet not requiring the top pro prospects to waste more than a single year in unpaid practice of their profession. I can live with it, but I don't like it. The second biggest problem I have is how the conferences have been de-stabilized by the madness of college football and the search for playoff and conference championship money there. Since basketball's tourney has long-since opened up sufficient at-large bids that the winners of conference regular season and postseason conference tourneys have little advantage, the main problem is the breaking of treasured rivalries, but with basketball's busy season there is room to re-schedule the most important ones.
The "one-and-done" rule certainly has its effect on the recruitment of top high school players. Certain colleges, or more precisely, certain college coaches, have earned a reputation for developing guys who can make it in the pros and for not holding them back. Foremost among them is John Calipari, who has inherited the seat--an honored one, but a very hot one--as head coach of the University of Kentucky, my #1 team. I am one of the rare Kentucky fans who also roots openly for the Wildcats' instate rivals, the University of Louisville, coached for several years now by Rick Pitino, another who does well in preparing NBA players (though as pros they don't have to work quite as hard as Pitino makes them do with his all-time, full-court press--it didn't go over too well in his stint as an NBA coach). I've also got rooting interest in two more proven NBA star producers, U. of Indiana and Syracuse University. Bottom line, I seem perfectly willing to attach myself emotionally to the efforts of those who utilize and develop the talents of future pros.
As is true in many or most years, these teams are right at the heart of this year's drama for NCAA basketball leadership: Indiana, Louisville, and Syracuse have all had their moments to be the #1 team in the rankings (not that they really matter). Defending champion Kentucky had to rebuild its team after five players turned pro; it became clear very quickly that it had been rated too highly in the preseason, based on a strong freshman class and the dominating performance of the previous year's freshmen, and U of K's ranking fell off quickly. Kentucky was showing signs of recovering and competing, but its top freshman, center Merlen Noels, was injured for the season and they are floundering once again.
Compared to last year, what is different this year is the uncontrolled chaos at the top. Besides those three I mentioned above, Duke, Michigan, Florida,and Kansas have all had their turns at the top, some of those runs lasting just days, or even fractions of days. The common theme is that the best teams in the top conferences can not win consistently on the road. Since the NCAA tourney is, after the first couple of rounds, conducted in neutral arenas, the performance of these homers suggests that none of them are going to earn the title; instead, I would look to outsiders like Gonzaga, VCU, Butler, or, most surprisingly, ACC leader Miami (Fla.), teams which have proven they can win big games against the top teams outside their home gyms. This would be the year to bet on a relative longshot; the only prediction I will make at this point, with the brackets yet to be determined, is a huge number of upsets and several teams from the "mid-majors" among the final 16.
NBA: Midseason Assessment
Tonight is the All-Star game; not much of a game, really, but a good time to review the course of the season so far and where it is likely to go. In terms of the regular season, teams have played between 50 and 56 games so far (a surprisingly wide range) of the 82 games, so 60-65%, but when one considers the two-months of playoffs (somewhere between 16-28 additional games for the finalists), it's about halfway for the better teams.
First, I am struck by the number of teams which have been profoundly affected by injuries and trades. A few examples: Derrick Rose not able to return yet for the Bulls, Rajan Rondo's season-ending injury for the Celtics, Pau Gasol's injuries, the ramifications of the Dwight Howard trade to the Lakers, the ascendancy of the New York teams--the Knicks, and now the Brooklyn nets--assembled through ambitious trades, the Grizzlies' trading Rudy Gay in midseason, and the trades which may be coming up before the deadline: the Clippers and Celtics? the Lakers?
Second is the mix of new and old among the contenders, and, logically, among those not contending. The Mavs and the Lakers are, at this point, not playoff teams at all, while rising teams like the Knicks, Pacers, Clippers, and Nets figure among those which seem headed for home-court advantage in the first and even the second round. Then there are the San Antonio Spurs, the most successful team over the last 15 years or so, which have the best record in the league and have a 9-1 record in their last ten games; those ten included their longest road-trip of the year, and they did not have their perennial All-Star Tim Duncan for most of it. It is unclear how they are doing it and whether they can continue, but they have earned respect and consideration as the favorite in the West.
In the East, there is Miami and then the rest; the Heat have opened a significant lead over several teams that will vie for the second spot. This does not mean that Miami will sail through the playoffs unchallenged: Indiana, the Bulls, and the Knicks all have the kind of defensive prowess and front-line scoring that can pose a problem; even the Celtics could be a difficult first-round opponent if the conference standings end up setting them up (right now, the Celtics are in 7th, so it would be 8th-place Milwaukee that would be the Heat's first-round opponent).
The biggest news of the season, so far, is the continued emergence of LeBron James as the king of the NBA; he is beginning to draw awed comparison to Michael Jordan; though their games have different stylistic features, they are alike in terms of the difficulty of stopping them from scoring and the way they control the games at the finish. Jordan is drawing a lot of press notice here in Chicago this weekend for his 50th birthday, but he has so far not emerged to make any public statements; he remains a mystery to most; a bit of a loner in a team game who overwhelmed with his desire to win above all else. From the games I watched him play, I remember thinking that he was relatively slight and skinny next to many of the league's behemoths, but his skills and speed were what impressed daily, and his ruthless leadership what impressed in the clutch. James, instead, is an awesome power on the court; and his basketball IQ (for playing) seems just as high as Jordan's. If he can continue to improve--and add to his number of championship rings--the comparison to the man most consider the game's greatest acheiver may yet become apt.