A Few Thoughts 01/25/17

Full disclosure: I am a college basketball fan. My two foundation sports growing up in Trenton, N.J. were major league baseball and college basketball. March is my favorite month. I fully recognize the foibles of big-time college sports, and I sincerely wish we could start all over with a more rational approach. We are the only country on earth in which our institutions of higher learning provide widespread entertainment for the masses (including our neighbors to the north, where college sports are essentially Division 3 level) and this has led to obvious abuses. But I am a registered Enabler. So shoot me.
Just want to lay my cards on the table.

James Snook, USA TODAY Sports

James Snook, USA TODAY Sports

Now then, what an interesting college basketball season this is turning out to be. On Tuesday evening the number 1,2 and 4-ranked teams went down to defeat. Ranking are dubious measurements at any time, but we enjoy them because they give us something to talk about. The NCAA Selection Committee has access to all sorts of data that allows them to circumvent rankings as a major component when they make their decisions, but rankings are, and probably always will be, a part of the conversational deal when we take up the subject of college sports. It is a prestige thing, and thus what a moment it will be for the folks at a certain Jesuit University in Spokane, Washington if and when the next AP and USA rankings come out and the Bulldogs are ranked number one. Yes, we are used to seeing Gonzaga inside the Top Ten, but number 1? Wow.
This rise began in 1999, when the Zags went to the Final 8, losing to eventual champion Connecticut under coach Don Monson. Undoubtedly figuring his big ship had slipped into the dock, he skipped out to Minnesota, where he banged heads with the Big Boys in the Big 10 until 2007 before departing for Long Beach State, where he remains. An unknown assistant named Mark Few took over and he has transformed Gonzaga from a cute little “mid-major” power to an annual serious Capital P, Player in the college basketball world. As his teammates take the floor on Thursday evening to play San Diego State his 17 and a half year record as head coach is a gaudy 486-111. The only thing missing has been a trip to the Final Four. Oh, and a number one ranking. But that one may soon be forthcoming. This is heady stuff for the alma mater of Bing Crosby, Jean Claude Lefebvre (look him up in your spare time) and John Stockton. OK, I can’t leave you hanging like that. Jean Claude Lefebvre was a 7-foot-3 inch Frenchman who played for the Zags in the late 50s and whose claim to fame was “En Suspension;” i.e. a jump shot. And you thought Kristaps Porzingis was something new? Ha!

Every season we attempt to figure how many teams have a legitimate shot at winning the six games in succession necessary to become the national champion in college basketball. Well, let’s see. There appears to be three in the Pac 12 alone (Arizona, Oregon, UCLAP). There are always multiple teams knocking on the door from the ACC. The Big East will be heard from, starting with the defending champ, Villanova. We have Kentucky. We have the Zags. Oops, can’t forget the Big 10, although at the moment their only Top 25 team is Wisconsin. (Maybe we can forget them). Realistically, I wouldn’t think the number is much higher than 10, and it may be as low as 6. But it is only January.

Bravo to Steve Kerr for speaking out on the mess the NBA players — some of them, anyway — made of their All-Star voting. He properly called it a “mockery” that 300 players got at least one vote to be a starter from the players. Fans just don’t understand that, contrary to what they might think, players should not be entrusted with votes for anything. Not as many as you might think really pay attention to what’s going on outside their little worlds, and in this particular case voting for buddies appeared to be one explanation for the ludicrous voting pattern. Of course, there are conscientious exceptions. But, trust me, they are a very small minority.

superbowl51-page Has there ever been a Super Bowl in which both teams came in with monster boulders on their shoulders? The Patriots want to stick it to Roger Goodell. That’s self-evident. People in New England have been fantasizing all season about seeing the hated commissioner being forced to hand the Lombardi Trophy over to Bob Kraft as a smirking, leering Number 12 peers in over Goodall’s right shoulder. The Falcons have their own issue. They have had a magnificent season from the very start while not being given sufficient team credit for the accomplishments. Yes, Matt Ryan is getting his proper accolades, but the Falcons entered the post-season as an afterthought following the Packers, Seahawks, and, most of all, the Cowboys. The fact is the two teams that should be in the Super Bowl are in the Super Bowl. The Falcons had the best overall offense in the league and the Patriots romped home with a 14-2 record despite not having Tom Brady for the first four games and despite trading exiling linebacker Jamie Collins to Football Siberia (sometimes known as Cleveland) in the middle of the season. The Pats have gaudy defensive numbers, helped in some measure by a very soft schedule and some phenomenal good fortune. They did not have to face many of the top QBs, and when they came up against Ben Roethlisberger in the AFC title game Big Ben lost a major weapon in Le’Veon Bell early in the game. It’s a reasonable premise that the Pats would have won, regardless, but the task would more than likely been significantly harder had Bell been in there to do all his Bell things.
When you point this out to Patriots diehards, many of them go bat you-know-what. I’m wondering what so many of them just won’t step back, take a deep breath and look at the facts. (or even, perhaps, some alternative facts). Did the Pats defense answer the bell as well as could be reasonably expected? Yes. Did the defense improve as the season went on? Again, yes. But did they really have many stern tests? N-O, No. So the night of February 5, against the Atlanta Falcons offense, will be a suitable Final Exam. Why is that such an odious premise?
For the record, I think they will answer that challenge. But it may well be the most they’ll have to work in order to get the job done all year.

image-9  Usain Bolt may not be inviting Nesta Carter to his next birthday party. The nonpareil Jamaican sprinter now has one fewer gold medals than he thought he had because the man who ran the leadoff leg in the Beijing 4 X 100 relay has been found to have tested positive for the banned substance methylhexaneamine.  No longer can Bolt say he amassed a “triple-triple.” He’s 8-for-9, not 9-for-9. But I think his legacy is safe.

I don’t know about you, but I’m rooting for Roger Federer Down Under.

Bob Ryan

Award-winning writer for the Boston Globe and contributor to ESPN Sports Reporters.

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