Bring on the Madness!

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One of my favorite times of year is finally here – March Madness. The good weather, the high stakes, and basketball on television nearly every minute of every day. Now, I am by no means an NCAA aficionado. I don’t watch every minute of every regular season or even conference championship game. But since when does being an expert make you more qualified to pick winners when it comes to the NCAA tournament? Sure there are trends to follow and hot players and teams heading into the tournament, but what truly makes March Madness great is its unpredictability – the “madness” if you will. It is one of the few sports bets you can make where the biggest college basketball fan has little advantage over the casual viewer. The thing I love about it is that no matter who much I know about any of the teams going in, I am going to become as emotionally invested as any other fan once that first game tips off. I actually think I approach this with a bit of an advantage over someone rooting for their alma mater. My college doesn’t even have a team, so I go in completely unattached and open to jumping on and getting behind whoever I think is the most fun to watch. It is one of the few times for me where a loss doesn’t equal heartbreak. Its like speed dating. I don’t have a life-mate, nor am I looking for one. I’m just going out looking to have fun.

With that said, lets make some preliminary picks. These may not be the picks I stick with, but they are the ones I like right now after actually watching a good amount of college basketball this year and using a healthy mix of good, solid research and pure gut prediction. I’ll go region by region.

Lets start in the Midwest. I only see one real upset coming out of the Midwest, and that is 12th ranked Buffalo topping 5th ranked West Virginia in the first round. Aside from the history of upsets in the No. 5 vs. No. 12 portion of the bracket, I think there is a lot to like about Buffalo and they are a perfect underdog to get behind. This is their first trip to the tournament, coached by former NCAA star and NBA player Bobby Hurley. Their main weapon is big man Justin Moss, who nearly averaged a double-double this season. With a few notable injuries on West Virginia and a little cinderella magic dust, I can see this twelve seed moving on. I like Notre Dame, but they struggle to get stops on the defensive end. Teams with stars typically have success in the tournament, and Maryland potentially has one in Melo Tremble. But this region starts and ends with Kentucky, and I believe it ends with them. They are more than just hype, this is a team nobody wants to play. They have depth and were dominant all season long. Sure someone could always sneak up on them, but as of today, this is my team to come out of the Midwest.

Now to the East. I don’t see an obvious favorite coming out of this region. To me the team to watch out for is Michigan Stage. Don’t be fooled by their seven seed. You can never count out a Tom Izzo coached team, who will be coming in with a seven seed and a big chip on their shoulder as a result. I think they could get past two seed Virginia, but may have trouble with a team like Oklahoma. In fact, I’m going to take Oklahoma out of the East. They finished the season hot and have one of the best starting fives in all of college basketball.

Now to the West where Big Ten champion Wisconsin holds the top seed, but I think Arkansas is the dark horse team to watch in this region. Arkansas can flat out score and are led by SEC player of the year Bobby Portis. Wisconsin is probably still the favorite and Arizona will be a tough out, but I am not buying Wisconsin. Bo Ryan has them right there every year and they are as fundamentally sound as a college basketball team can be. If the tournament were a “best-of-seven” scenario, Wisconsin might be my champion. But this tournament is about momentum as much as it is about skill and I see them being beaten on any given day by a team playing with more heart. I’m going to take Arizona out of the West because of how well they play against ranked teams.

Finally, we visit the South region. The South has my true Cinderella team, Stephen F. Austin. SF Austin is a great offensive team who made noise in the tournament last year and I think have a favorable bracket to do it again. But to me this region comes down to whether or not Duke and Gonzaga are for real. Duke is a favorite every year and Jahlil Okafor may be the best player in the tournament. Gonzaga is one of the top teams every year, and this may be one of the best teams they’ve had in recent years, but the ‘Zags have a tendency to disappoint come tournament team. If either one of these teams come up with a let down, look out for Iowa State in the South. I like them every year, probably because of my affinity for head coach Fred Hoiberg, but I also think they can shoot lights out.

So, my Final Four looks like this: Kentucky, Arizona, Oklahoma, Iowa State. And my National Title game? Kentucky over Iowa State to win it all. Kentucky is just too skilled and too deep. They have everything that makes a championship team, and as much as I love to ride an underdog, I just don’t see them being upset on their road to becoming NCAA National Champions.

Jimmy Hall Impressive at Northwestern Pro Day

Scouts from every NFL team were in attendance as Northwestern football had their pro day on Tuesday at the Nicolet Football Center in Evanston. Among the players featured were linebackers Chi Chi Ariguzo and Jimmy Hall, running back Treyvon Green and wide receiver Kyle Prater.

Coach Pat Fitzgerald was excited for the opportunity for some of his players to get in front of NFL scouts and embark on the next step in their journeys as they leave Northwestern. Of the players participating, the one who garnered the most attention was Prater.

“There’s no doubt Kyle is a terrific person and he’s overcome so much”, said Fitzgerald. “Everybody here is a huge fan of his.”

There is no doubt Prater is a physical specimen standing at 6’5″, but he said he was out to show scouts that he is not just a one-trick pony.

“I can go out there, run NFL routes and be dominant at the NFL level and I felt I did that today”, Prater said after his workout. There were a few blemishes I saw in Prater’s day. His height and length at times affected him negatively in some of the agility drills, and he came up limp after a quick cut while running a slant pattern during position drills. But it’s hard to watch Prater without one player coming to mind – Brandon Marshall. In fact, Prater told reporters that he has been working out with Marshall in Florida and has been able to learn from him.

“He’s a big brother, a mentor and a great friend to have”, Prater said. “It’s been the best thing for me knowing how to approach the game, not just on the field but off the field”.

The player who stood out the most to me was Jimmy Hall.  He ran the fastest 40-yard dash (4.50 seconds) and looked the crispest on all of his drills. This is the issue with these pro days, though. A player can measure well and be great at running drills, but this does not always translate to success on the field. Hall was not a standout player this season for the Wildcats, but you’d never know it watching him on Tuesday.

The most notable injured players not participating were safety Ibraheim Campbell and quarterback Trevor Siemian, who will have their own pro days in a few weeks. While Coach Fitzgerald was mostly just disappointed for Siemian not being able to participate, he was very high on Campbell when asked about him, calling him “the full package”

“He’s a no-risk prospect”, said Fitzgerald. “He’s put together a terrific resume. Hes got a great football IQ, he’s a high, high character guy. He’s the real deal and I think teams will be really excited for him.”

Campbell will get his chance to show scouts what he can do, and still hopes to make an NFL roster, looking up to All-Pros Earl Thomas and Ed Reed as having a “playmaker’s mentality, high enthusiasm and a high passion for the game”.

In addition to the Northwestern players working out for NFL scouts, a number of local athletes were present as well. A few of the standouts were wide receivers Adam Drake from Eastern Illinois, and Cameron Meredith from Illinois State. Drake was named second team All-Ohio Valley Conference and third team All-American by Sports Network in his Junior season, and Meredith led ISU with 66 receptions, 1,061 yards receiving and nine touchdowns. Last season he became one of just six players in school history with over 1,000 yards receiving in a season.

Fitzgerald summed up the day perfectly, calling a chance to play in the NFL “the icing on the cake”. The most important thing, he said, is that they are leaving already with Plan A in hand. A degree from Northwestern.

 

Who Covers It?

Over the last 20 years, the ways in which Americans consume information has changed drastically. This growth is not just limited to the number of sources or the number of platforms, but also to the accessibility of news and information. No longer are we limited by time of day or location. For the most part, we can now access anything we want, whenever we want. Social media, multi-channel media outlets and multi-platform devices have made getting our news easier than ever.

A surge in the technological advances in covering news has come, as we’ve also seen an increase in the availability of information itself and the transparency of companies and people. In fact, the news that receives the highest ratings and demands the most interest comes from stories we never would have known about 20 years ago because it deals with something that used to be known as “personal.”

In addition, so much of news now has become editorial. Hours of news time on television and thousands of websites now feature opinion over fact. There was a time when a journalist’s job was only to report the news. Now entire shows and websites are dedicated primarily to opinion.

For those reasons, the line has been blurred in terms of what constitutes “news.” So when a major story comes along in the world of sports, be it cheating, domestic abuse or legal issues, who should cover it?

Two of the top 15 most-watched television shows in 2014 were sports. There are over 50 channels covering sports in the U.S., and that does not include all of the packages that include every NBA, NHL, MLB or NFL game. What’s more, covering sports now goes well beyond the games themselves. The headlines in sports are now dominated by stories of scandal, violence, drug use, cheating, death and money. Put all of this together, and the conclusion I draw is that sports is news. Like any other sub-category, specialists are still assigned to cover it; case in point, there are political news stations and websites, but politics are still covered on all major news outlets. The same goes for money, business, entertainment and technology. Journalists and broadcasters who specialize in those areas work those beats, but all are featured on major stations, (ABC, NBC)  newspapers (USA Today, The Wall Street Journal) and websites (CNN, Yahoo).

The major stories in sports are no longer the game results. Scores are located on small bars at the top of websites or small tickers at the bottom of your television screen. Small fonts, scrolling swiftly. The voices you hear, the pictures you see, the analysis you receive, all go beyond the game to issues you might find in any other subject matter. So while these stories, like any other, should be assigned to people with knowledge in that specific area, sports should absolutely be considered under the umbrella of news like anything else.

There should not be a question as to whether or not a major story in sports should be covered as sports or news. With so many similarities to so many other categories of news coverage, it is time to accept that sports is most definitely news and deserves to be covered as such.

The Sweet Snell of Success

As we head into the NBA All-Star break, there are a number of positive stories coming out of Chicago. Derrick Rose seems to be finally returning to form. Pau Gasol and Jimmy Butler are All-Stars this weekend. Joakim Noah is looking more and more like last season’s Defensive Player of the Year. After struggling through much of January, the Bulls now find themselves 2 1/2 games out of the two seed in the Eastern Conference heading into the second half of the season.hi-res-7742632431ecbfef4c83d527f017118e_crop_north

The big story this year has been the emergence of Butler, who made his first all-star appearance this weekend. Butler was the 30th overall pick in the 2011 NBA draft by the Bulls and saw very little time on the court in his first two seasons. It took an injury to Luol Deng for Butler to emerge, and he took advantage of the opportunity. After barely playing in the first half of his second season, Butler averaged 40 minutes per game in the second half of the season and became a solid part of the Bulls’ rotation.

Sound familiar? Tony Snell was the 20th overall pick in the 2013 draft out of New Mexico. Barely used and often looking out of place in limited playing time in his rookie season, Snell led the Bulls’ summer league team in scoring and looked to be primed for a break out season. But backcourt depth and coach Tom Thibodeau’s relience on veteran players gave way to very little opportunity for Snell early this season. As was the case in Butler’s second year, injuries gave Snell an opportunity early this season to play but had trouble establishing himself in those games. Snell quickly found himself back in Thibodeau’s doghouse, the recipient of a couple DNP-CD in a row. But since Mike Dunleavy missed 19 games with an ankle injury, and much to Thibodeau’s surprise, Butler can’t play more than 48 minutes in a game, the door re-opened for Snell, and he has made the most of it.

After another DNP-CD agains the Rockets, Snell has made an impact in his last four games, averaging 18.3 points in just over 30 minutes per game. In his last two games playing in place of the injured Butler, Snell averaged 23 ppg only missed 4 shots. He provides the Bulls with a long, athletic wing player (a description that has long had GarPax salivating) who can hit three pointers, defend on the perimeter, and has a surprisingly effective drive game. And while there will surely be more growing pains in only his second NBA season, Snell is starting to fit the description for exactly what the Bulls are missing.

Even more than I was surprised by Butler’s emergence, I’m shocked by what I’m seeing from Tony Snell. I had to see it to believe it. My only worry has we head into the second half of the season is what happens to Snell once the Bulls are fully healthy and get back to their regular rotation. Thibodeau  has, sometimes to a fault, over-valued Kirk Hinrich. I’ve been a Hinrich fan during his entire career on the Bulls, but he has really struggled this year and he is not a two-guard. With rookie Doug McDermott not getting an opportunity, Snell is the backup two/three that the Bulls need to backup Butler and Dunleavy. The big questions is, will Thibs allow Snell to take some of Hinrich’s minutes when everyone is healthy. This is an opportunity for Thibs to show that he can break habit and choose what is best for the team over his own stubbornness.

When the team is fully healthy, hopefully after the all-star break, this is how I’d like to see it break down:

Hinrich and Aaron Brooks can act like a tandem lefty/righty out of a bullpen. Call in Brooks when offense is needed, call in Hinrich when defense is needed and occasionally mix and match them with Rose to cause matchup problems on the other end.

Snell comes off the bench as a combo 2/3 to backup Butler and Dunleavy. He can play both positions and give Butler the much needed rest he so rarely gets.

Cut a few of Gasol’s minutes per game and allow the Bulls to use a lineup with Mirotic to help spread the floor against teams with bigs who have trouble guarding the perimeter.

And finally..

Start letting McDermott get a few minutes at the end of the second quarter and the start of the fourth. Let him regain some confidence and give the Bulls another weapon on the wing.

My gut is that the Bulls will not make a deal at the trade deadline, and if Snell can continue to make progress like this, they won’t need to. One thing is for sure, Gar Foreman and John Paxon know how to find gems late in the NBA draft, and Snell appears to be their latest success story.

72 is Safe

If you’re looking for the greatest team in NBA history, look no further than Randy Brown, Jud Buechler, Jason Caffey, James Edwards, Jack Haley, John Salley, Dickey Simpkins, Bill Wennington, Ron Harper, Steve Kerr, Toni Kukoc and Luc Longley.

Oh, and that Jordan guy, his buddy Scottie and some wacky-haired worm. 1996-Chicago-Bulls

I’m talking of course about the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, owners of the best regular season record in NBA history at 72-10. Not only did the Bulls only lose 10 regular season games, but they only lost 3 playoff games on their way to their first NBA title since Michael Jordan’s return to the court.

So, why are we revisiting this other than the warm feeling it gives me to think back on those glorious days? Because while teams will continue to get close (see this year’s Golden State Warriors, coached by a member of that team, Steve Kerr) I believe this record will never be broken.

There was no such thing as a “rest day”

During the Bulls’ 72 win season, Michael Jordan played all 82 regular season games. So did Steve Kerr. Kukoc played 81, Harper played 80, Pippen played 77. At no point did Michael Jordan decide he suddenly needed two weeks off like LeBron James did this year. Phil Jackson wasn’t benching his stars on the second of back-to-backs. He had his best players there and playing almost every night. And while resting your stars tend to lead to losses to teams they should not be losing to, teams don’t seem to mind anymore because, well, reason number two…

The regular season doesn’t matter anymore

Somewhere along the line, top tier teams started to figure out that they could coast a bit in the regular season and find a new gear in the final two months heading into the playoffs. This was not the way things were in the 90’s. Teams played hard and played to win every game. Seeding mattered and so did regular season awards. Stars were stars night in and night out. Which leads me to my next point.

Everyone wasn’t a star

The Atlanta Hawks should have had all five starts on the East All-Star team. Many other teams have 2-3 all-stars or future all-stars/hall of famers. There were less stars in the NBA in the 90’s, and the quality of reserve players has improved greatly. Teams then only had one, maybe 2 top caliber players. Now so many teams stack their roster with all-stars, the competition is greater and there are more great teams to compete with. No one team is unbeatable. And finally the biggest reason the Bulls’ record will never be broken.

They had the greatest player to ever play the game…and he had a massive chip on his shoulder

Coming out of retirement during the 1994-95 season, Michael Jordan was still shaking a lot of the rust off. Jordan only averaged 26.9 ppg, his lowest since his second year in the league. The Bulls struggled to a 45-37 record and were eliminated from the playoffs in a devastating series against former Bull Horace Grant the Orlando Magic. It had been a long time since Jordan and the Bulls went to the playoffs and didn’t go home NBA champions. Michael Jordan did not take losing very well. He came back the next year and averaged over 30 ppg on his away to his 8th scoring title, the league’s most valuable player award, All-NBA first team and All-Defense first team.  Michael Jordan was not going to be denied two years in a row. If he was going to come back to the NBA, he was going to return to being the best in the game. The unique circumstance that saw Michael Jordan briefly retire, return, struggle and return to glory is something I don’t think we’ll see again.

And thus, the 72-win Chicago Bulls will forever be the winningest team in NBA history.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Silent Mode

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For a week leading up to perhaps the biggest game in professional sports, the news has been filled with just about anything but. Between “Deflate-gate”, Tom Brady’s sniffles and late night fire drills, the football game being played on Sunday has settled comfortably into the back seat – for now.

One of the big stories this week has been the ongoing soap opera between Marshawn Lynch and reporters. Let it be known, Lynch has not exactly been complicit in such matters. He was already fined $50,000 for not speaking to the media in November.  Reporters are understandably frustrated about his unwillingness to participate, and Lynch continues to challenge them to keep showing up even though he has already told them on many occasions that he would not answer their questions.

Lynch was under the biggest spotlight yet this week as everyone had to endure media day. Now before I get into my opinion on how both sides are behaving, lets make something very clear about media day. It has become an absolute joke. Anyone expecting anything serious to come out of this day is fooling themselves. Rob Gronkowski read a selection from an erotic novel named for him and Bill Belichick gave up perhaps his most lucrative secret – his favorite stuffed animal. Perhaps if the NFL didn’t treat it like a joke and allow in anyone who could afford the $30 admission, the approach might change.

That said, this still touches on an issue that has been the subject of great debate this week. Should Marshawn Lynch be excused from his contractual obligation or should he have to just suck it up and answer their questions for five minutes? Yes, he should have to follow through on what was agreed to in his contract, which we must remember was collectively bargained, but I argue that the issue is more about the rule itself.

Lynch claims his behavior is more about not wanting to make it about him, that he doesn’t have anything to say, that it is “superficial”.  And yet he has absolutely made this about himself. In fact, by handling interviews the way he has this week, he actually attracts more attention to something non football related than if he just answered their questions about the game.

But perhaps more ridiculous than Lynch’s antics, are the members of the press who continue to show up and ask him questions. Maybe if the media stops showing up, this issue with Lynch goes away. Its like asking a 5 year old the same question over and over while they answer “I’m not talking to you” over and over.  Either Lynch or the media needs to be the adult here. Neither one of them are stepping up. If you’re so upset about Lynch being immature, stop coming. There are 52 other players more than happy to talk to you. 

And honestly, what kind of answers are they being robbed of? “We just gotta play as a team”, “They’re a really tough opponent”, “I’m looking forward to getting out there on the field”. Come on. Athletes in the Premier League aren’t required to talk, and – wait for it – it is still covered by reporters. Incredible!

More importantly, Lynch’s “silence” is still a story. In fact, its probably an even bigger story! So while journalists are complaining about him “shutting out” the media, they are still getting plenty to cover in print, on television, radio, Twitter, and the list goes on.

I, being both an actor and an introvert,  knows first-hand that the same person can feel completely comfortable being onstage in front of large crowds doing what they love and yet shy when in front of cameras or just a few people. I do not believe that athletes speaking to reporters as often as they are asked to is any more “part of the job” than celebrities going on talk shows or being photographed by paparazzi is. Actors make millions too, are very public figures, and yet many very successful ones rarely show up in the tabloids or in interviews at all. In fact, many celebrities who don’t do interviews are respected for putting the work first. They still get written about and their projects still get supported.

I don’t think either party is necessarily right in the case of “Lynch v. Media”, but I do think there is a better solution to this than the one currently in place. Maybe if there were to be an incentive in the players’ contracts to encourage athletes to talk, a bonus of some kind, instead of a penalty for refusal. So if someone doesn’t want to answer questions, they just don’t make that money. It offers a positive incentive as opposed to a penalty that doesn’t seem to be respected.

If only there were something to distract us from all of this. Like the biggest football game of the year.

Oh, yeah. That. 

Truly “Mr. Cub”; Ernie Banks dies at age 83

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I’ve been a Cubs fan since birth, and sadly, being a Cubs fan has never really been about winning. Sure I still root for them every year, but I’ve grown weary of the “this is our year” mentality that tends to end in heartbreak. For me, being a Cubs fan has always been about my connection to the Cubs through my family. My dad is a Cubs fan, as was his dad who, like Ernie Banks, lived 80+ years and never saw the Cubs win a World Series.

In many ways, Ernie Banks embodied the true spirit of what it means to be a Cubs fan. Even after his playing days were long over, he found so much joy just being around the team. Everything friendly about the confines of Wrigley Field came out in his smile.

But “Mr Cub” wasn’t just about bringing positivity to the ballclub. His “Let’s Play Two” mentality is something we still remember fondly and embodies his “live life to the fullest” spirit. He was also one of the best who ever played the game. Banks was an 11-time all-star who played in 2,528 games, all of them as a Chicago Cub. He was the first African-American player ever on the Cubs and was also the first number to be retired by the Cubs organization. To this day he is still the Cubs’ leader in games played, at-bats and extra-base hits and is second in home runs, hits and RBIs.

No matter how well (or not) the Cubs are doing, I get a very special feeling walking into Wrigley Field. I feel like a little kid again. Growing up in Chicago, the Cubs were always a big part of my life. It has always felt like family there, and Ernie Banks always felt like the godfather of that family. He felt that sense of joy and appreciation every time he entered the ballpark. In a world, particularly in sports, with so much importance put on on results, Banks proved that so much of the joy came in the doing. So rarely nowadays do we appreciate our lives in the moment. We look at so many things in terms of “getting it over with” or thinking ahead to the next thing we’re doing. I feel like even though Ernie Banks never won a World Series, he loved playing baseball so much that you’d never know it to hear him talk about his playing days.

It is an exciting time to be a Cubs fan again, and a good time to be reminded that this exciting off-season doesn’t automatically equal immediate results. But instead of finding things to complain about, instead of nit-picking 20 year old ball players who are still growing and learning how to play, just allow yourself to enjoy watching the first team of players in the last decade to truly be proud and excited to be playing for the Chicago Cubs, just like Ernie Banks was every single day of his life.