Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Here's a Shocker: 40-and-oh!

My NCAA tournament bracket is already garbage.

What? I can't possibly be the only one who had Mount St. Mary's going all the way!

Yeah, I know. With me, the hilarity never ends. So who really is going to win?

I'm going with the one team that just about nobody is picking, the one team that also happens to have not lost a single game this season.

Yep, Wichita State.

How 'Bout Some Love?

It's weird that a 34-0 team -- a team that has had only a few close calls all season long -- could be such an underdog. Most Vegas casinos have the Shockers' odds of winning it all at 12-1 or higher, behind No. 4 seeds Louisville and Michigan State.

All five of ESPN's main "experts" -- Dickie, Digger, Seth Greenberg and Jays Bilas and Williams -- picked Michigan State to win the title. And none of the five even has Wichita State reaching the Final Four. Wow.

Two Sports Illustrated basketball gurus (Seth Davis, Luke Winn) have the Shockers getting to the Final Four but neither they nor SI's other pundits (Brian Hamilton, Pete Thamel) have Wichita State winning the title.

The only two prognosticators I could find who agree with me that Wichita State will go on to be the first unbeaten champs since Bobby Knight's '76 Hoosiers are both from Gary Parrish and Wally Szczerbiak.

It reminds me of the lack of respect folks had for Larry Bird's 1979 Indiana State team. Of course, that team -- unlike this year's Wichita State squad -- didn't bring just about everybody back from a squad that went to the previous year's Final Four.

Gregg Marshall is still coaching the Shockers and will be the hottest name for every job opening this offseason. Fred VanVleet is still running the show, Cleanthony Early is still scoring from everywhere and Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton are still leading a deep, versatile supporting cast.

I mean, I know Wichita State is from the weak Missouri Valley Conference (as were Bird's Sycamores), but come on! Dismissing an unbeaten team is one thing. But dismissing one that has proven it knows how to win NCAA tournament games -- something few others in this field can claim -- seems outright dopey.

Shockers-Cardinals, Take 2

There is nothing easy about Wichita State's road to the Final Four. Just to make the Sweet 16, the Shockers will have to beat either Kentucky or Kansas State. Win that one and the next opponent figures to be Louisville, a favorite of many to repeat as champions.

Consider this, though: While Wichita State returns so many proven performers, Louisville no longer has three of its best players from last year's title run: Peyton Siva, Gorgui Dieng and Chane Behanen.

Wichita State led Louisville by 12 points with less than 14 minutes to play in last year's national semifinals before 'Ville rallied to win by 4. The Shockers were down 3 and had the ball with 6 seconds left when Luke Hancock tied up Baker for a controversial held-ball call. Louisville had the possession arrow and clinched the win on the free-throw line.

In other words, the teams were all but dead-even a year ago, when Louisville was better than it is today ... so it's not exactly far-fetched to give Wichita State a puncher's chance against the Cardinals this time.

After beating 'Ville, Wichita State will dispatch Duke for the Midwest Regional title and Final Four berth. Maybe then, at 38-0, the Shockers will be taken more seriously.

The Rest of the Final Four Field

Also making it to Dallas on the first weekend of April: Florida, Iowa State and Creighton.

Florida is the easy pick. The Gators are well-coached, supremely talented and playing well going into the tournament. Kansas certainly is talented enough to beat them in the South Regional final, but Florida is more likely to make the big play with the game on the line. Florida also is less likely to get upset in an earlier round.

Virginia is a No. 1 seed that won both the ACC regular-season and tournament titles, yet the Cavs are getting only a little more love than the Shockers are. I guess if it's not Duke or Carolina, it's not really a representative ACC team.

Practically everybody is saying Michigan State, not Virginia, will emerge from the top half of the East bracket ... which pretty much means I have to pick the Cavs to take down Sparty. In the regional final, though, I've got Fred Hoiberg's entertaining and talented Iowa State Cyclones beating Virginia.

Creighton has the best offensive player in the country, Doug McDermott, who can score from 30 feet, 3 feet and everywhere in between. He is surrounded by great shooters -- the Bluejays led the nation in 3-point percentage (.421) and also were No. 5 nationally in 2-point percentage and No. 16 in free-throw shooting. If the Bluejays enjoy a period of sustained excellence from behind the arc, they can beat anybody anywhere.

They will meet Wisconsin to get to the Elite Eight. The teams are similar but Creighton is better -- and has McDermott. In the regional final, Arizona would be an extremely difficult opponent, but I'm thinking that either Oklahoma State or San Diego State will keep the Wildcats from getting that far.

40-0? Why Not?

So that's two No. 3 seeds (Creighton and Iowa State) and two No. 1s (Florida and Wichita State) in the Final Four.

Florida is too good for Iowa State and Wichita State is too well-rounded for Creighton, which finally runs out of 3-point bullets.

And in the title game ...

Well, Wichita State has beaten everybody -- including 99.5% of the experts -- to get this far.

So why not beat Florida, too?

Forty-and-oh. It has a hell of a nice ring to it.

Friday, March 14, 2014

Coach Mike's favorite season (so far)

After taking a couple of weeks to let it all sink in, here is a look back at my first year as a head basketball coach. My season at The Scholars Academy in Charlotte was amazing -- one of those rare life experiences that actually exceeds expectations.

I don't know if folks remember any of the things I posted months ago, but it was a rocky start back in October. And that was before the girl who was supposed to be our best player decided on the eve of our first practice to participate in Mock Trial instead of basketball. My wife said after I read that email from the girl's mother, all the color drained from my face.

I knew I had taken a job at a charter school for gifted students, but did I really lose an All-Conference player to Mock Trial? "What have I gotten myself into?"

Our Fine Nine

That left us with 9 girls, including four 6th-graders and one 5th-grader, to play in our 7th/8th-grade league. Four of them had never played basketball at any level. Several were soccer players, not accustomed to using their hands in sports. Our center, Celeste, was shorter than the guards on several teams in our league. Our guards were smaller (often significantly so) than their counterparts.

That being said, the improvement from the first day of practice to the end of the season was absolutely mind-blowing. Our little 5th-grader, Ritika, a tennis-playing basketball neophyte, turned herself into a good outside shooter. She had just 10 points in the first 13 games but was our leading scorer the last three games. Schuyler, who had trouble hitting the backboard on layup attempts -- I am not kidding! -- became a valuable contributor who made two big free throws in one game. Olivia, a soccer-playing 6th-grader who hadn't played hoops in three years, developed a nice short-range jumper. Margaret, who came into the season with some guard skills, took her game up several notches. She hit the winning shot in the final seconds of our next-to-last regular-season game and followed that by scoring 14 points, our season high for any individual.

We had incredible captains, Maddie and Sienna, and they set the tone for a group that was willing to work. If I told the girls to run, they ran hard, and they did so without complaint (mostly). They loved competing against each other in practice. They willingly dove to the floor when the situation called for it. Charlotte, one of our "littles," fearlessly stole the basketball from girls twice her size -- plays that thrilled her teammates (and her coach). Hannah was willing to mix it up with anybody, and our opponents had the bruises to prove it. Celeste and Sienna never got tired, and that's saying something because we used our 1-2-1-1 press almost every minute of every game.

Kids at Scholars are motivated, well-parented -- and smart. They loved to correct my grammar, and Maddie once raised her hand at practice to say, "I have an anecdote I'd like to share." You know, the kind of thing all athletes say. They like each other and have a great collective sense of humor. Also, and this is big, these girls care. A lot.


Despite our improvement and our team chemistry, the Eagles had severe limitations. We had trouble rebounding because of our size. Our players rarely looked up when they dribbled. We often panicked when pressured, leading to lots of bad passes. And to say we shot poorly would be doing a disservice to the word "poorly." Still, we were able to compete because we played good defense -- and because we scrapped and clawed and out-hustled every team we played. 

Once I saw the makeup of our team, I thought we could be more aggressive than our opponents and force the refs to make difficult decisions; as a guy who officiates this age group myself, I'll say most refs don't want to call everything so they let a lot go. I told the girls that I didn't care if half the team fouled out -- I wanted our opponents to know they were in for a battle. These girls are really tough and competitive, and they loved pressing full court. Coming out of huddles, we often would yell, "Aggressive!"

We played a double-round-robin schedule against the other seven teams in the league. A couple were superior and defeated us decisively. Another team was better and beat us twice, but the games were closer. We were more skilled -- and far more physical -- than three of the teams, and we won both games against each. The other team, St. Michael's, beat us in two nail-biters. 

So we went 6-8 during the regular season, and I felt pretty darn good about it considering I had once worried we might not win a game. More than that, the joy that the girls got out of playing together trumped where we finished in the league standings.

A Game To Remember

In the first round of the playoffs, we met St. Mike's again. Margaret, who by that time was sharing point guard duties with Maddie and otherwise playing the 2 or 3, was out of town with her family. So I had to use Sienna, our 4, at the point quite a bit. She did well and we battled hard, but we barely made any shots (even layups) and we trailed by 5 with less than three minutes to go. Those familiar with girls middle-school hoops know that is like being down 15! Plus, our aggressiveness finally caught up to us; the refs were calling everything, and four of our eight girls had four fouls apiece. (St. Mike's also had trouble, and one of their best players fouled out.)

It didn't look good for us, but our press kept forcing turnovers, and finally a couple of shots fell. Sienna hit a layup. Celeste made a free throw. Ritika swished a sweet 17-footer from the baseline to tie it with about a minute left. She then stole an inbound pass and hit a layup to put us ahead, and we held on to win by 2. 

Afterward, during our celebratory meeting, the girls gave me a bunch of carnations they had brought to the game. They denied it, but I'm pretty sure they thought we were going to lose and our season would be over!

Battling Right to the End

Two days later, we did fall in the semifinals to the eventual champion. St. Anne's was better than we were, and we were still without Margaret, but we cut a huge deficit to 7 in the third quarter. We made them sweat a little before they pulled away from us. 

When it was over, I got a little choked up as I told the girls (for the zillionth time) how proud I was of them. Hannah said: "I think Coach Mike needs a group hug!" It was a special moment, but the actual execution of the hug was so funny we all couldn't help but laugh.

I already had decided I was going to return to Scholars -- as long as Mock Trial would return to school hours (where it had been in previous years) instead of after school (where it was at conflict with basketball). After all the hard work we put in, I didn't want to lose half of next year's team! I was assured that the decision already had been made to move Mock Trial back into the school day. 

We had our team party two weeks after the season. (The gathering was at Charlotte's house, and she and her family did the amazing chalk mural that is displayed at the top of this post.) When I announced I was coming back, I got a loud ovation. Parents thanked me for everything I did, and the girls gave me a gift card to a sporting-goods store. I presented each of the returning players with a pair of "dribbling glasses" -- specially designed plastic frames that force players to look up when they dribble. 

Roberta, who wasn't able to make it to any games because of her work schedule, was at the party and said "there was a lot of love in that room." I have to admit it was nice to feel so appreciated.

More To Come!

Had I decided not to return, could I have gotten a better coaching job?

Well, I'm not sure how one should define "better." Could I be a high-school assistant coach or maybe a JV head coach? Could I go to a private middle school that pays good money and has top facilities? 

I don't know, and I won't know next season because I'm not looking. My players are awesome, the parents are wonderful and the administration is supportive. Though I'm an old man (OK, maybe only an old-ish man), I am a young coach, and Scholars is a great spot for me to keep growing.

Just as all of the girls became better players, I like to think I improved as the season progressed. Still, I can recount a couple of exact instances in which I was out-coached, and I hate that feeling! After every game, I wrote down things I could have done differently, and those hard-learned lessons will help me in 2014-15 and beyond.

Bottom line: I am psyched about next season. We're losing two valuable players in Maddie and Hannah, but we should be returning seven. That includes both of our All-Conference picks, Celeste and Sienna, and a good supporting cast that figures to get much better. Hopefully, the girls will "recruit" some classmates to try out for the team. (A couple of tall classmates would be nice!) It looks like I'm going to run a week-long basketball camp in June, and there might be opportunities to get more involved at the school down the line. It's all good!

So what started with me asking myself, "What have I gotten myself into? ended with me realizing that I got myself into something pretty special.

Before the season, the girls were assigned to state their goals in writing. In my welcome note to the team, I stated my goal, too:

I want this season to be such a great experience, both on and off the court, that each of us will look back months and years and decades from now and say, "I'll always remember the 2013-14 basketball season at Scholars Academy. It was one of the best times of my life."

Well, I can't speak for the girls, but I know that will be the case for Coach Mike.

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Bald bits about Oscar flicks

My wife and I just got home after a great vacation that included a 5-day Caribbean cruise followed by 2 nights in Delray Beach, Fla. So relaxing, such great weather ... and so much food. I am NOT looking forward to stepping on the scale!

I am looking forward to Sunday night's Oscars. I'm sure that Ellen DeGeneres will do a great job hosting the telecast -- and that a deserving film will win Best Picture.

On the last night of our vacation, Robbie and I saw Philomena, so I've now seen all nine nominated films. I'll give my ranking in a minute, but first a few thoughts about others awards:

Best Actor: I loved Bruce Dern (Nebraska) and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave), but Matthew McConaughey gave a performance of a lifetime in Dallas Buyers Club.

Best Actress: I did not see Blue Jasmine and that's too bad because just about every pundit out there says Cate Blanchett is a shoo-in. I saw the four films featuring the other nominees, and I'd rank Meryl Streep (August: Osage County) just ahead of Judi Dench (Philomena).

Best Supporting Actor: Four great candidates -- sorry, Jonah Hill, you'd be the one on Sesame Street's "one of these men just doesn't belong here" -- and my favorite performance was that of Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) as the leader of the Somali pirates who kidnapped Tom Hanks' character. Incredible to think that he wasn't even an actor before shooting started on the film. Most critics think Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club) will win it, and it would be impossible to argue that choice.

Best Supporting Actress: Again, because I didn't see Blue Jasmine, I can't rate Sally Hawkins. I really liked the work of each of the other four. I laughed almost every time June Squibb (Nebraska) opened her mouth, but Lupita Nyong'o (12 Years a Slave) had the most meaty role of all the nominees and was absolutely fantastic.

Now, here is where I rank each of the nine Best Picture nominees ...

9. The Wolf of Wall Street. I liked several films that weren't nominated more than this overly long, over-the-top silliness. Lots of critics liked it, but I didn't think it was one of Martin Scorsese's best.

8. Gravity. I almost feel like apologizing for liking this movie so much less than most experts do. I mean, I didn't hate it, and Sandra Bullock was fine as usual, but I was not wowed by either the special effects or the story. If it were a college basketball team, I'd be taunting it with chants of "Over-rated! Over-rated!"

7. Her. Quirky and interesting, with Joaquin Phoenix deserving of the Comeback of the Year award, if there was one.

6. Philomena. A well-written, well-acted film about an important but rarely discussed topic. Kudos to Steve Coogan, who adapted the screenplay and starred alongside the excellent Judi Dench.

5. Captain Phillips. Just as I was surprised I liked Gravity less than I thought I would, I was surprised that I liked this film more than I thought I would. It was a completely believable, edge-of-the-seat flick with outstanding acting by the two leads.

4. Dallas Buyers Club. Here's where it starts to get especially difficult for me, which is how it should be in trying to separate the Final Four. This film was superbly acted and presented, and I've got nothing bad to say about it.

3. American Hustle. I smiled or laughed throughout the entire movie and I thought Christian Bale was wonderful in leading a talented ensemble cast. It was a little goofy at times, but I know that was intentional.

2. Nebraska. As I watched this quiet gem of a film unfold, all I kept thinking was, "This is my favorite movie this year." Bruce Dern was absolutely perfect in the lead role and June Squibb was a hoot as his wife. It was beautifully filmed in black and white, and the entire production was top-notch and moving. I know it has little chance to win because it was not a "big" enough flick, but I enjoyed it tremendously.

1. 12 Years a Slave. A powerful, important story that was exquisitely presented by director Steve McQueen. Often brutal and difficult to watch, it nonetheless was filled with astounding performances, especially by Chiwetel Ejiofor, Lupita Nyong'o and the boo-and-hiss-worthy Michael Fassbender. This is the kind of film academy voters often favor -- and for good reason.


I'm just now realizing that while I posted the final results of my basketball season on Facebook, I didn't here for my loyal tens of readers.

My Scholars Academy Eagles lost our semifinal game to a bigger, more experienced, and ... well ... superior team but I so enjoyed my first season as a head coach. The girls worked incredibly hard and played with such passion, the parents were wonderful, the administration was supportive. It was just a great experience, even better than I hoped it would be.

I'll probably write more about it after our team party on Friday.