Sunday, April 6, 2014

All for Saul

Saul Phillips cares - a lot.

When his North Dakota State Bison got knocked out of the tournament after upsetting Oklahoma in the first round, Phillips cried on the podium. Not because his team wasn't good enough but because he wasn't going to get to coach his group of six seniors again.

"Got to watch a group of guys that deserved it and wanted it so bad and made it a priority in their life and did everything I asked them to do. This season - wow," Phillips said after the Bison's loss to San Diego State.

Sometimes you can just tell when a coach is special. Phillips has all the makings of being that.

When a coach connects with his players so profoundly that it brings him to tears, well, Phillips put it best - wow. His next group of players is noticing that too.

That's already a good sign.

Jim Christian, who departed Athens for an ACC job with Boston College, did a fine job with the Bobcats. Many didn't like his hire or his tenure but he won 49 games in two seasons. That's far from mediocre and a resume strong enough to capture a power conference school's attention.

However, something tells me we may look back at this as a blessing in disguise, similar to when former Ohio coach Tim O'Shea bolted for another opportunity on the east coast.

As with Christian's departure, the news of O'Shea leaving came out of left field (more so because it was for Bryant University and not a prestigious, northeast gig O'Shea had been rumored to desire). Whatever the reason or feeling in the aftermath, O'Shea's exit opened the door for John Groce's entrance and two of the most magical runs in program history.

Groce was a young, hungry assistant replacing a guy whose resume reeked of a MAC lifer. Most of us knew that Groce, if he reached his potential, was not going to be Ohio's head coach for an extended period of time. Reaching the Sweet 16 meant Groce's profile rose even higher, even sooner and earned him a Big Ten job with Illinois.

Christian's hire was a contrast to Groce. No doubt the former Kent State coach had the MAC pedigree and track record but his return to the MAC only four years after his departure was an interesting development.

By no means do I think Christian is a bad coach, as some have made him out to be. I don't think he's a traitor or a liar for taking the BC job after only two years with the Bobcats. This happens in college sports. As Jason Arkley aptly wrote in his piece examining Christian, I don't think he was duplicitous.

However, my biggest concern with Christian was one that presented itself again in Athens. Despite all of his regular season success, Christian's teams never found that March magic that catapults a coach to prominence. Those six 20-win Kent State squads made only two tournaments and were bounced both times in the first round. The best one, the 28-7, 2007-8 Flashes, were a No. 9 seed in the tournament, very high for a MAC champion. Yet, they had a historically bad, embarrassing 10-point first half in a loss to UNLV after a historically impressive season complete with a major Bracketbuster win on the road vs. top 25 St. Mary's.

The ability to conjure that magic has just been missing for Christian. You really can't qualify why but, like Groce, Phillips has proven he too has it. He brought his Bison to the dance in their first year as a Division I program and then led them to a tourney win four years later.

Christian still has zero NCAA Tournament victories to his name. That's a stat that's hard to argue or shake.

Phillips may not have the recruiting ties in the region that Christian had but he has a proven capacity to build something from the ground up. If he does it right in Athens, we may very well have another coaching search in a few years. And that's OK.

Athletic Director Jim Schaus knows how to hire these guys. Phillips may or may not be another Gregg Marshall, who Schaus tabbed as Wichita State's head coach and has created a serious contender, but we should have faith in Schaus to continue to make the right call in advancing the program.

Dream-crushing 'Cats

Aaron Harrison just likes to win. Most of us like it but this freshman is getting good at it.

As he lined up a three to give his Wildcats the lead with only seconds left in Saturday's second national semifinal, we should've know it was going down.

"He's got that clutch gene," Wisconsin's Sam Dekker said.

So does that mean you can clone him? Harrison does have a twin brother but his unflappable ability to stick a dagger in his opponent this tournament has been unmatched.

If you've lost count, this is the bill on Harrison in the final minute of his last three games: go-ahead three with 39 seconds left vs. Louisville, go-ahead three with 2.6 seconds to go vs. Michigan and tonight, go-ahead three with 5.7 seconds on the clock to do in Wisconsin.

Somewhere Robert Horry is even a bit awestruck. 

March Madness is ripe for heartbreak and the 'Cats, propelled by Harrison, have doled out a heaping helping.

They've been the underdog in their last four games against some of college basketball's titans. Just take a moment and appreciate who they've beaten: No 1 seed and 35-0 Wichita State, the defending national champion Louisville, the defending runner up Michigan and a very balanced, formidable Wisconsin squad.

Harrison is a 19-year-old Texan playing the biggest games of his life in his home state. "JerryWorld" as AT&T stadium has become known, is a massive, behemoth of a place. Fans sitting in the upper reaches of the stadium had two views of Harrison's cold-blooded shot - the life-size one on the enormous HD video screen and the ant-like one of the proceedings taking place on the court.

No stage is too big for Harrison though who has found that special variable that fuels a team's run in March.

When you look back at past champions, there's always that one player you associate with a champion's run. For Kentucky, it was Anthony Davis in 2012, Jeff Sheppard in 1998 and Tony Delk in 1996. Connecticut, the Wildcats' opponent Monday night, has a title tradition too - led by Rip Hamilton in 1999, Emeka Okafor in 2004 and Kemba Walker in 2011.

Those championship teams make it difficult to pick just one "defining" player. The '99 Huskies also had Khalid El-Amin and the '04 version the scoring prowess of Ben Gordon. Kentucky's 2012 team was full of phenomenal underclassmen like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Doron Lamb and Terrence Jones, the '96 team boasted Ron Mercer and Antoine Walker too.

You don't win a title solely on one guy's greatness.

This year, Shabazz Napier is Connecticut's stud but DeAndre Daniels has been the X-factor in this tournament. Julius Randle is arguably Kentucky's best - and most pro-ready - player on the floor. However, Harrison, who's had his ups and downs this season and tournament, has been the most clutch.

Intangibles are by nature an unquantifiable quality. Harrison has it in spades right now, which makes betting against this Kentucky team's "One Shining Moment" a difficult prospect.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Wichita State's loss to Kentucky did plenty to show who they are

If there was ever a college basketball class war, this was it.

Wichita State a dominant mid-major who coasted through a perfect regular season.

Kentucky the highly-touted preseason No. 1 who faced its fair share of ups and downs.

Wichita State a veteran-laden squad coming off a Final Four appearance.

Kentucky starting five freshmen, a totally different group from last year's which was bounced from the first round of the NIT by Robert Morris.

Wichita State full of unheralded recruits developed by coach Gregg Marshall.

Kentucky with a boatload of top-rated prospects, one of whom is projected as a top five pick in the NBA draft.

Blue blood vs. little guy.

The Shockers don't play like the little guy and were the higher seed but when it comes to tradition, history and recruiting clout they're in a different realm than their opponent Sunday, the Kentucky Wildcats.

Their matchup was one that captivated the masses and not just because it turned into the best game of the year and one of the most hard-fought in recent tournament history.

Eighth-seed Kentucky's 78-76 win over top-seed in the Midwest Wichita State wasn't compelling just because it was an upset that sent one of the nation's top four teams home before the second weekend.

Last year, Wichita State played the role that Kentucky did, knocking off a No. 1 in the tournament's first weekend. That was different. The Shockers knocked off another mid-major Gonzaga, a No. 1 seed who received many of the same complaints as the Shockers this year. When you dominate a non-power conference, questions arise about toughness or strength of victory.

Wichita State's first loss of the season answered some of those - just not in the way naysayers may argue.

Not that they were overrated or any less deserving of their No. 1 seed or that their perfect regular season was a sole consequence of a weak schedule.

No, the Shockers' heartbreaking loss showed off the basket-making of Ron Baker, scintillating skills of Cleanthony Early, precision and mettle of a team that didn't lose all year - until Sunday.

On this day, Kentucky played its best game of the season - by far. They needed a few things to happen to win: the Harrison twins to have big days, Julius Randle to put up a double-double and to limit mistakes in crunch time. They got all of those - and still Wichita State was only two points less. That's all it takes - two points, like the two that slipped away when Early narrowly mistimed what would have been an authoritative dunk late in the second half.

This loss isn't an indictment of what Wichita State aren't.

It's an indictment of what they are - a great team that played a great game and lost to an extremely talented opponent that played at its best and finally lived up to lofty expectations.

Wichita was up to the task. They just fell short but that doesn't discount 35-0. The "1" that now sits beside that 35 should be a badge of honor, a testament to a team that proved its mettle in a colossal battle.

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Nine years later, Pats get vengeance at the corner spot

Ty Law has long been a mentor of Darrelle Revis.

Revis wears the No. 24 like Law, blankets receivers like Law and has now pulled a free agent crossover reminiscent of Law.

ESPN's Adam Schefter reported Wednesday night that the New England Patriots will sign Revis to a one-year, $12 million deal, just one offseason after the star corner was traded from the New York Jets after the two sides couldn't come to a new contract.

Jets fans are fuming as Revis moves north to a division rival to play for a coach who he called a "jerk" only a couple years ago.

If you're looking for a similar example, look no further than these two teams and this same position.

Jump back nearly a decade ago to 2005 - Law was cut by the Patriots after 10 seasons in New England because they didn't want to pay him more than $12 million.

Like Revis, Law was not far removed from an injury. The Jets opened their checkbooks and scooped up the corner who was long an enemy twice every football season.

Back to 2014 - the Bucs released Revis Wednesday one year after acquiring and signing him to a six-year, $96 million, non-guaranteed deal.

Who else but New England to land the man who built his island in the green and white. These two teams have a pretty rich history of snatching each other's goods.

Bill Parcells bolted New England for New York in 1997 and eventually took Hall-of-Fame running back Curtis Martin with him too. Years later, the Jets were on the other side when Bill Belichick quit after one day as their head coach and then took the same position with the Patriots.

Law played only one season with the Jets, who couldn't afford to keep his contract. He was 31 but scored a career-high 10 picks en route to a Pro Bowl selection. Revis is 28. It's yet to see how much dividend he will pay.

What's for certain is New England will again have a shutdown No. 24 lining up at corner and surely a sweet shot of vengeance slugged in front of a division foe's face.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Trading for Revis is tricky proposition

On paper it looks excellent.

Darrelle Revis, still one of the best cornerbacks in the game last season despite coming off a knee injury. ProFootballFocus graded him the top Cover-1 corner ahead of Super Bowl champion Richard Sherman.

So it's no surprise that one of the most-buzzed about rumors at the start of the NFL's new year is that the Bucs will either trade Revis or flat out release him. At this point, it seems like a near certainty that Revis will not don the pewter next season.

But you have to ponder - why would a second team in two offseasons be looking to move a player who could be so valuable on the field, who experts still consider the best at his position?

When it came to the Jets last offseason, the two sides were never going to come to a money figure that appeased both. Revis didn't want to just be paid handsomely but at a historic rate.

The Jets moved him for a first-round pick and Tampa Bay was willing to dole out $96 million over six years. Yes, none of that money is guaranteed but his yearly figures are massive.

Revis is scheduled to make $16 million in 2014 under his current contract. The next highest-paid corner, Dallas' Brandon Carr, will make just more than $10 million.

That's a lofty number, even for a team with a lot of cap space. You tie up that much money in one position and it's rarely a boon, especially for a team in search of a franchise quarterback, as those are the guys who typically warrant that type of payday.

But many fans are salivating over the prospect of their team adding Revis, similar to Nnamdi Asomugha in the 2011 offseason.

Remember him? Asomugha is out of the league now but just a few years ago he was the hot ticket, considered an elite cornerback. Philadelphia won the sweepstakes, signing Asomugha to a five-year, $60 million deal. Jets front office members were "deflated," bummed they were unable to create their monster tandem (on paper) with who else but the guy we're talking about now, Revis.

Those 2011 Eagles were supposed to have a dream secondary combining Asomugha with Asante Samuel and Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie. But that joyous offseason turned into a nightmarish regular season in which Philadelphia finished a disappointing 8-8. The darlings of free agency failed to make even the playoffs, let alone reach the Super Bowl.

Asomugha never turned out to be worth that chunk of change. In fact, he didn't even play out the entirety of that contract, cut by the Eagles after just two years and then the Niners three games into last season.

If Revis can reclaim his island, he could make a general manager's gamble look wise. But if he's even just a good corner, not an exceptional one that disrupts the offensive gameplan, then it could be an Asomugha redux.

Again, as with much of free agency, it's a case of buyer beware - and crucial to remember the Super Bowl champions build teams through quality drafting and continuity, not the biggest splashes.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Olympians with Ohio ties suffer heartbreaking finishes

Off the post of an empty net with a gold medal little more than a minute away. 

That close.

Pull out all those cliches about sports being a game of inches or decided by the narrowest of margins and they're all too fitting to describe the U.S. women's hockey team's anguishing 3-2 loss to Canada in Thursday's Olympic final.

Heartbreak probably puts this too mildly for the Americans, like Brooklyn Heights' Kelli Stack and Sheffield's Brianne McLaughlin, who spent four years training for that day, that rematch.

Canada is the women's hockey behemoth, now winners of the last four Olympic gold medals. That's a dynasty.

Yet, the U.S. knew how close they were to halting the Canadian reign.

"We go up two goals and we're just counting down the minutes," Stack told WKYC's Sara Shookman after the game.

It was the Ohioan Stack who flung that ill-fated puck down the ice, just shy of Canada's wide-open net.

Amazingly, that wasn't a first, she told SI's Richard Deitsch: "I did that once before in college, and it's the worst feeling in the world." Stack said she thought it had a chance at first but even though it narrowly missed, the U.S. was still on top.

Seconds later, Canada tied it, then won in overtime.

An inch the other way and Stack seals the deal for the Americans.

Another Olympian with ties to the Buckeye State experienced similar heartbreak in her 
event. Katie Uhlaender, whose father Ted played for the Indians and Reds, fell just .04 shy of a bronze medal in the skeleton.

"I just felt the support of America behind me," Uhlaender told the Denver Post, "and I'm just heartbroken that I lost it by four-hundredths for them."

Adversity pushed Uhlaender, who lost her dad in 2009. She disappointed in the Vancouver 
games but wrought strength from his spirit in competing the past few years.

Tears welled up in her eyes as she spoke of just how close she was to the podium.

They flowed from the eyes of the American women who again settled for a color other than gold, watching their rival Canada revel in glory.

All that's left now is to wait.

That's what's crazy about the Olympics: in seconds - or Uhleander's case hundredths of a single one - a dream can slip away, but years it takes to get another shot at capturing it.

Glory and cruelty both equally immeasurable.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Former Xavier player becoming half-court shot legend

Half-court heaves are propelling former Xavier guard Brad Redford to an iconic status in the electrifying world of media timeout contests. 

"Shooting a half-court shot without any practice shots in a shirt and tie with penny loafers on puts me in a level with few others," Redford said (tongue-in-cheek). 

Few can master the art the way Redford has, hitting half-court shots during two straight Xavier home games. 

"I would say other than myself I could only see a couple other people achieving such a feat. Possibly Chris Mullens or Rik Smits. That's probably about it," he continued.

As a senior, Redford averaged 7.6 ppg, shooting 44.6 percent from three. This season, he serves as the MC of all Xavier home contests, running events during media timeouts. 

His now infamous one is the Penn Station Hot Shot Contest, in which Redford grabs a student from the stands to take a half-court shot. If the student misses, Redford said he usually gives it a shot. 

After missing on his first two tries of the season, Redford is finding his groove.
So, what is the key? Practice?

"I don't really practice shooting from half court," Redford said.

Nix that idea - just messing around is about as much as he has done.

But there has to be some strategy, a secret to this awe-inspiring success.

"Visualize yourself making the shot before. Lean with whatever shoulder you shoot with and try to work it in a straight line," Redford advised. "Toss that thing up there, put a little spin on it, and say a little prayer beforehand."

Boy, he makes it sound so easy.

Maybe it's because he has been in the pressure cooker before. Last year against a ranked Memphis team, Redford nailed a three with about a minute to go to give Xavier a one-point lead. Back in high school, he remembers catching fire from three to open his senior season, hitting 11 of 13 attempts in a game.

"The half-court shots are right there with those," Redford joked.

Legends come and go. Their fame and prominence can be fleeting.

Has Redford reached his zenith? Will he ride into the sunset or go for an unheard of three straight makes?

"That decision has yet to be made."

Authentic suspense, folks. Xavier's next home game is Wednesday against DePaul.