Expectations and the Joyless Final Four

Get those smiles out now kids. It could get bumpy from here. (AP)

The date was March 27th, 2011.

My brother and I had just finished watching our 4th seeded Kentucky Wildcats knock off the 2nd seeded North Carolina Tarheels in thrilling fashion. As the realization that our beloved Wildcats were finally going back to the Final Four after 13 long years sank in, we screamed and jumped around like tweens at a Justin Bieber concert. Victory had never tasted much sweeter.

Flash forward to all but a year later and I’m sitting alone in my garage watching Kentucky dominate an over-matched Baylor team to reach their second straight Final Four. I had been confined to my “man cave” for poor behavior, as the weight of expectations had caused my scream-reflex to have a hairier trigger than most seasons.

As the minutes slowly ticked off the clock, there was no celebration in my solitary screen-room. There was only relief. This was expected, better yet, this was required.

With a roster stacked with at least 6 NBA players, Kentucky began this season as the 2nd rated team in the nation, trailing only the aforementioned Tarheels who combined similar NBA talent with “experience”. As the year progressed, we saw Heels and Orangemen fall to the wayside, and the Wildcats emerged as the “clear favorite” to win the title.

In a season that saw Kentucky beat the Tarheels, the Jayhawks, and the Cardinals OOC, they went 16-0 in the SEC. Going undefeated in a major conference hadn’t happened for anyone since the 2003. It became increasingly clear that this group was truly a notch above everyone else.

This year’s Kentucky team is such an over-whelming favorite to win it all that anything less than a shiny new National Title banner hanging in Rupp Arena will be deemed a failure. The expectations are so great, that we have writers like ESPN’s Myron Medcalf openly suggesting that it’s title or bust for the Cats.

Anything short of a national title for Kentucky will equal failure.

Let that sink in for a minute… In a sport where 68 teams are given equal opportunity to win the title, the Kentucky Wildcats are the only squad that can’t lose at any point and have their season deemed a success. It’s not just that they have the best shot to win the title. It’s that they have to win the title.

For a fanbase that’s only 3 seasons removed from the NIT, this sort of talk is sweet honey with a side of vinegar. This is what we wanted. We wanted to be on top. We wanted these expectations. In these waning hours of the greatest ball of all, though, doubt and paranoia can ruin the party.

We start projecting amazing powers on apathetic players like Perry Jones III, who probably cares as much about winning a tournament game as he does his next MWIII session on the XBox. We start imagining the taunts we will receive from opposing fanbases if we lose. “Biggest choke of all time”, they’ll say and we’ll be forced to agree with them.

So, like the hottest girl in school, there really are no excuses for this team not to be the homecoming queen. It’s all or it’s nothing. It’s the elation of a title 14 years in the making or it’s questioning the one-and-done philosophy and whether our coach is capable of winning the big one.

The Final Four isn’t enough, not this season. In short, in a year where Kentucky fans may experience their 8th National Title, there will be no joy riding along the way.

Sweet Emotions: Part II

Well, we can all breath a sigh of relief. At least two of those unbearable B1G teams can’t hurt our eyes anymore.

Thankfully, yesterday saw Syracuse pull out a close one over Wisconsin and those filthy Cards mercy-killed Michigan State. Now we’re left with an Ohio State team that does at least try to score and… Indiana. I feel better, don’t you?

Some sweet hot mama with a face like a gent
Said my get up and go musta got up and went
Well I got good news, she’s a real good liar
Cause the backstage boogie’ll set your pants on fire

Mr. Tyler is talking to you, UNC and UK fans. I think. Let’s move on to today’s games:

10 Xavier vs. 3 Baylor
This would seem like a match-up nightmare on paper for the X-Men. Baylor has a plethora of athletic lottery picks and dead-eye Brady Heslip, who can’t seem to miss when it matters. Thankfully for Xavier, games aren’t played on paper. While Baylor has top 3 talent, they seem to have a bottom 3 motor at times. When the Bears have lost, it’s been to tougher teams that have weathered the storm and delivered the kill shot. Xavier is a team that has been hammered by distractions and disappointments, and has seemed to come out stronger for it. Look for this game to be a lot closer than you might think.

The hat doesn't help, Steven.

13 Ohio vs. 1 UNC
With Wrist-Gate still in full force for the Heels, they must still feel kind of fortunate to draw an over-matched Ohio squad in the round of 16. Even without KM, UNC has an enormous talent advantage at nearly every position. Don’t get me wrong, Ohio is a good team, who has had a great run. There’s just no conceivable reason they should beat North Carolina. You could have said that about VCU and Kansas last year too, though…

4 Indiana vs. 1 Kentucky
As you all know, Indiana delivered the Wildcats one of their two losses on the season in dramatic, buzzer-beater fashion in Bloomington. The shot has been played over and over (and over and over) on ESPN all season long. While Indiana fans might cling to that game as proof that they will arise victorious once again, reality suggests this might be a bloodbath.  Anthony Davis, who played his fewest minutes of the season against IU, has grown into the (likely) player of the year. Marquis Teague, who started the season as a turn-over waiting to happen, has been molded into the poised floor leader that Calipari’s offense thrives on. Outside of the SEC tournament, Kentucky has looked nigh invincible. If teams focus on clogging the middle, then they shoot over them and beat them by double-digits. If opponents play them straight up, the Wildcats dish and dunk to double-digit wins. Add to that the revenge factor that Kentucky players have openly discussed, and you have to like their chances on a neutral floor.

11 NC State vs. 2 Kansas
The Wolfpack is back, or so it would seem. Mark Gottfried, who used to play a coach on TV, has ignited NC State from the last team in to a Sweet 16 success story. Just as admirable, Bill Self has taken a squad with little expectations going into the season and transformed them into a legit Final Four threat. From the outside, this game appears to be a strength on strength match-up of C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell versus Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey. If that equates to anything close to a stale-mate, look for the guards to be the difference, as Tyshawn Taylor and Elijah Johnson use their new-found assertiveness to put away the Pack.

While not quite as sweet as yesterday’s match-ups, there’s still plenty to watch for with the  ultimate national champion probably emerging from this group.

Sweet Emotions

Well, ladies and gents, things are about to get real. With the fun and excitement of the first weekend behind us, we are now left with serious games with serious implications and emotions in the Sweet 16. As Steven Tyler put it:

I pulled into town in a police car
Your daddy said I took you just a little too far
You’re telling me things but your girlfriend lied
You can’t catch me ’cause the rabbit done died
Yes it did

I’ll just let that sink in for a minute. While we wait, here are my thoughts on today’s Sweet 16 matchups:

4 Wisconsin vs. 1 Syracuse
I’m not going to lie. Any game featuring Wisconsin has the potential to make you want to stab your eyes out. That said, their combination of quality guard play and tough defense should make this game very competitive. The Syracuse zone forces teams to hit outside shots to win, something Wisconsin has shown it can do on occasion. There is potential for an upset, but here’s hoping Syracuse uses their superior size and athleticism to spare us another round of “Bo Ball”.

Living proof that stage presence can overcome a lot of ugly.

4 Louisville vs. 1 Michigan State
Based on the season thus far, this seems to be a match-up of similar teams on similar paths. Both teams play suffocating defense at times, both teams struggle to score, and both teams overcame mid-to-early season set-backs to win their conference tournament. While Michigan State is the higher seed, all but one of the personnel match-ups seem to favor a finally healthy Louisville roster. The problem is that one match-up happens to be Draymond Green, who can and has put his team on his back. If Louisville can somehow convert a high percentage of transition baskets, look for the Cardinals to advance.

6 Cincinnati vs. 2 Ohio State
While the Cardinals and Spartans might feel like they’re looking in the mirror at one another, the Bearcats and Buckeyes couldn’t be more different. Cincinnati seemed to switch gears from mediocre also-ran to true Final Four contender heading up to the tournament, while pre-season Final Four favorite Ohio State has gone the other direction. The Buckeyes will have the clear talent advantage and they should be able to force their tempo on a Bearcat attack that sometimes resembles a team from the Rec League Final Four. Still, I can’t help but wonder if the Buckeyes will be able to return to form this late in the season.

7 Florida vs. 3 Marquette
On paper, this pairing would seem to favor the Golden Eagles. According to KenPom, Marquette has a balanced, efficient attack with the nation’s #28 offense and #16 defense. The Gators trend toward the scoring side with the #3 offense and #73 defense. Marquette seems to be the tougher, more consistent team and with dynamite scoring from Darius Johnson-Odom and Big East POY Jae Crowder we could see them pull away. However, you can never under-estimate guard play in the NCAA tournament and Florida’s can be unmatched at times. If the Gators are hitting outside shots, this could go down to the wire.

As we all pretend to be interested in what they’re paying us to do, lets keep our fingers crossed that 4 potentially great match-ups all materialize tonight. See you tomorrow.


A “Big Hit” for the Future of Baseball?

March Madness. We love it. We live it. We breathe it. We drive our families and friends crazy with talk of brackets and upsets. For three weeks in March, it’s the ONLY thing that matters, until it’s over. At that point, the annual, “Oh no, what now?” feeling kicks in.

What’s next is baseball. Spring training is already in full swing. Opening day of the regular baseball season is just two weeks away and it’s time to start planning your fantasy league and dreaming of that breakout offensive season that no one else picked.

This year, there might be a LOT of increased offensive production if what I’m hearing about a new baseball bat is true. Baden Sports–you may be more familiar with their basketballs–has recently introduced a new baseball bat called the Axe. This is the first major change to the shape of a bat in over a century.

I spoke with the company and one of the first things they told me was that Ted Williams says in his book, “The Science of Hitting,” that swinging a baseball bat is like swinging an axe. Apparently, an axe handle guides your hand into a proper position that fits flush at the bottom and increases leverage through the swing–something that a traditional baseball bat doesn’t do.

Baden says: “The Axe bat promotes an ergonomically correct grip, a better fit, a less restricted swing and greater bat speed through the hitting zone.”

Who’s using it and what are the results?

Rollins hit a deep solo home run over the left field fence with the new Axe baseball bat from Baden. (AP/Kathy Willens)

Since this is such a new bat, big league players are just being introduced to it. It’s been approved for use in MLB games in 2012, so the company is currently working with players at spring training. They can’t “name names,” but they will say that players from every club are taking at least practice swings and becoming familiar with the bat.

Jimmy Rollins of the Phillies hit a monster home run–his first of the season—on March 12 against the Pirates with the Axe bat. He’d been practicing with it, and his first time to the plate with the Axe someone from the dugout yelled, “Let loose with that bat, Jimmy!” He did, and hit it DEEP over the left field wall.

That was the first “official” home run, but I’ve done some digging and found a reliable report that among others, Oakland As first baseman Brandon Allen enjoyed his first outing with the Axe. On opening day of spring training, Allen hit a grand slam, a two-run double and drove in the go-ahead run in the 9th … all with the Axe. 7 RBIs. Not bad.

So maybe there’s something to this new Axe baseball bat. Time will tell, but since my basketball team didn’t even make March Madness this year, my tears are close to drying and I’m getting a jump start on putting a miserable basketball season behind me.

Baseball will fill my sports cravings over the next 6 months, and I’m paying close attention to what’s happening with the Axe bat.

The Greatest Day Ever: Part II

March Madness is even more satisfying than Bill Murray.

Closing the books on the glorious masterpiece that was the first day of the NCAA tournament is done with the sweetest of sorrows, but fear not. Just like Groundhog Day, we get to hit the clock and do it again.

Here’s what’s peaked my interest for Day 2:

7 Florida vs. 10 UVA
This has to be one of the hardest games to pick that I can remember. Both teams have looked like top 10-15 material on occasion this season, but neither has found the consistency for that to materialize. Florida is #5 in KenPom’s offensive efficiency and #121 on defense, while UVA is #104 on offense and #3 on defense. It should be interesting to see how this “strength-on-strength” match-up plays out.

Is The Wolfpack Back?
NC State gave UNC all it wanted in the ACC tournament and managed to scrape their way into the field.While the Wolfpack is obviously playing their best basketball of the year, San Diego St. seems to have put theirs well behind them. If C.J. Leslie and the Pack get going, they should have a good chance of not only beating the Aztecs, but possibly making a run at the Sweet 16.

Will The Mid-Major Bug Bite KU Again?
Kansas is a very good basketball team led by a POY candidate in Thomas Robinson. Kansas has also had lots of very good basketball teams that have lost to mid-major teams in shocking fashion. Detroit is no Kansas, but they have size, athleticism, and 5 guys averaging double-digits in scoring. I’m not saying it’s going to happen, I’m just saying…

Here’s to a great day of hoops. Hopefully we’ll see a little more shock than chalk.


The Greatest Day Ever

How you doin'?

Today marks the real beginning of the NCAA Tournament and one of my favorite days all year. The upsets, the overtimes, the buzzer-beaters, the Cinderellas… It all starts today.

Here what I’ll be watching:

6 Murray St. vs. 11 Colorado St.
Are the Racers for real or have they been the benefactors of a dreadful schedule? Has Colorado State been “tested” against a tough MWC schedule or are they as mediocre as their record would indicate? We’ll get the answers today and hopefully see Isaiah Cannon put on a show.

Early Exit Artists
Will the Louisville Cardinals and Vanderbilt Commodores continue their trend of high seeds and early exits? Logic tells you that with Louisville being the Big East tournament champs and Vanderbilt taking the SEC tournament title over #1 Kentucky this should be a no-brainer. My gut still tells me to trust neither win as a given against tough first round opponents.

Is Kentucky Still Kentucky?
After steam-rolling through the regular season, the Wildcats looked anything but dominant in the SEC tournament. Was that a result of a lack of motivation or a sign of regression? We might not get a full answer against an over-matched WKU squad, but it will be interesting to see if the Cats start strong.

There’s just no equivalent to the excitement of knowing you’re going to see so many games that mean so much for each team’s players, coaches, and fans. It’s the NFL playoffs turned up to 11. It’s the NBA playoffs, if the players cared. It’s March Madness and it knows no peer.