Russell Westbrook Should Win – Narrowly

Amidst many thrilling sports stories this year, we now have a stunning competition for the NBA MVP. Watching several future Hall of Famers duke it out – how cool!

I suspect this is not the year for reigning champ, Stephen Curry. Nor will it be for Chris Paul or Kevin Durant, two extraordinary players who’ve been injured for a good part of the year.

John Wall and Isaiah Thomas have been outstanding, but I don’t see them making it to the top tier. Nor will the young stud, Giannis Antetokounmpo.

LeBron James is the best player of the era, no doubt. And, in his 14th season, he has great numbers (26.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.7 assists). But the Cavs have not impressed recently, and others have surpassed the King in both performance and leadership.

I love San Antonio and am thrilled at the continuing development of the remarkable Kawhi Leonard. A strong case can be made on his behalf. He’s, without question and by far, the best defender of the bunch, and that should count a lot. His shooting has improved dramatically, and he continues to be exceedingly careful with the ball, with very few turnovers.

But, though they have had a strong and winning season, the Spurs have flagged in important recent games. I simply don’t see Leonard making the difference an MVP should make, at least not this year.

For me, as for most, it comes down to James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Their achievements on the court have made for one of the best MVP competitions in NBA history.

Look at Harden, my oh my. Ask those who have to defend against the Rockets. What do you do when Harden comes at you? The Rockets’ offensive firepower owes most credit to Harden’s rare shooting, passing, and moving skills. He has 29.3 points per game, with 8.1 rebounds and an eye-popping 11.3 assists.

Harden’s shooting efficiency is off the charts. Further, his proponents make a good argument that the Rockets have outperformed expectations in wins, more so than the Thunder. All this makes the case for Harden very strong.

Yet, I think Russell Westbrook – on a close call – deserves the honor.

I put some weight, but not all, on his extraordinary achievement of being the first player to average a triple double during a season since Oscar Robertson did it in 1961-62. Also, I do marvel at his setting the record for triple double games in a season. But that – alone – doesn’t drive my opinion.

Emotionally, I confess to being turned a bit by Westbrook’s scoring 50 points, with a buzzer beater, to win the game in which he set the triple double record. Why? It spoke volumes about the special passion and competitiveness he brings to his play, on behalf of his team, and as the key to Thunder wins.

Has he done more for the Durant-less Thunder than Harden has done for the Rockets? I understand the case here for Harden and the Rockets, but I hold to the opinion that Westbrook has been the greater difference-maker. His contribution has meant more to Thunder wins than Harden’s has to Rockets’ wins (though both are totally off the charts in this respect).

Indeed I feel strongly enough in this respect to believe the Thunder would take down the Rockets, if the two meet in the playoffs. And, part of that calculus is based on the fact that I would take Westbrook against Harden in a face-off of the two great players/leaders.

So, I’m for Westbrook. But I won’t be disappointed if Harden wins.

What I celebrate above all else is that we’ve been blessed with a truly epic competition this year involving a good number of the best players who have ever played the game.

 

An Eight-Team Playoff – Now

It was only a matter of time.

Yet, though bad, it could have been worse. And, in future years, it likely will be.

But now we have proof enough that a four-team playoff in college football is insufficient. This year, in my view, only Alabama merits sure inclusion. It gets crazy from there.

Let’s start in Happy Valley. Penn State would make the argument that they both beat Ohio State and won the Big Ten championship. Even with two losses, their case, at least for inclusion, is strong.

And, as we look at the rest of the competitive teams, how confident can we be about the other picks of the committee? However these “experts” came to their decisions, are we really convinced, for example, that Washington is better than Penn State and Michigan? One loss in a terribly easy schedule should not be deemed better than two losses in a tough conference with big wins against top teams.

And Clemson? Look at their pitiful schedule. Do we want to say their work merits beating out Michigan, Penn State or even Oklahoma, for that matter? After a rough start, Oklahoma, like Penn State, came on strong to win 9 straight games against a stronger set of opponents.

Recall Michigan’s situation. They handily beat Penn State, and they beat Wisconsin, the two teams in the Big Ten championship game. They beat Colorado. They lost two games on the last play of each game, including the game in overtime with Ohio State at Columbus.

Last year, the problem began to surface with Stanford’s exclusion. This year, it’s gotten worse. In future years, it will likely get even worse.

The role for committees and pundits and points should be reduced again. (Aren’t you totally tired of pundits and TV talkers, by the way?) This experiment with four teams is an improvement, to be sure. But let’s take the needed next step. I realize if there’s an eight-team playoff there will be teams in the 9th and 10th spots who will complain. No system is perfect. But making it over the bar of at least the top eight to compete for the national championship is probably the right and best marker.

So, Alabama should absolutely be in. Ohio State, Clemson, Washington, Michigan, Penn State, and Oklahoma ought to be among those to play, too. They’re too close in achievement for a committee to be able to make legitimate off-the-field judgments in favor of some and against others in the group. Let’s not just be satisfied that the committee did the best it could and accept it. Let the close decisions be resolved on the field, not in the committee room.

The bureaucrats complain the season will be too long if there’s an extended season. Balderdash! Cut out one of the meaningless early games. Or eliminate the conference championship games. Or, perhaps best of all, let four teams play extra games.

Fans would love it. The revenues would be huge and could be shared appropriately. Although the details would have to be worked out, the existing bowls could largely share in hosting most or all of the games.

I repeat: it will only get worse. There will be years when the problem is greater than it is this year.

So, fix it ASAP. Pretty please.

Sports As a Metaphor For Life

My mother was a huge sports fan. She followed college football as closely as anyone I ever knew. In fact, she developed a method for recording a football game in a written system that was unique and remarkable. It’s amazing to look back through her old binders and see accounts of all the great Longhorn games, especially in seasons in which they won the national championship.

 

Well – sports was more than sports to her. She had the view, and frequently taught us based on it, that sports is a metaphor for life. We learned more from her about the proper conduct of our lives from events in sports than lessons in the Bible. Often, it had to do with never giving up. Sometimes, it was about how to confront difficult challenges. It always had to do with understanding and living true to the traits of good character. You get the drift.

 

Now that Mother is no longer here to teach from this perspective, I find myself teaching from it myself, as those who live on after their parents’ death tend to do. So, let me say it right here: you understand, dear reader, that Sports Is a Metaphor For Life.

 

The other night I happened upon the YouTube of the first fight between Cassius Clay and Sonny Liston. It’s tempting to look back at that fight with a lens colored by our strong current view that Muhammad Ali was probably the greatest fighter who ever lived. So, of course, we reason, it’s only natural to think, he won. It was the fight that got him started on the path.

 

Unless we lived through those times or know the history, we might not realize that Liston was an 8-1 favorite and that the debate among those-in-the-know at the time was whether Liston would knock Clay out in the first round or the second. This was hardly the expected win of a future superstar.

 

Sure, Clay bragged he was great and would take Liston down. Who can forget his pre-fight histrionics? We know now things folks then didn’t know. But, then, perhaps with the exception of maybe Howard Cosell, no one took Clay seriously.

 

It’s very much worth your while to watch this video of that fight. It’s amazing simply to see how archaic TV was at the time, as was coverage of sports generally. It’s of interest to watch the way the reporters and the crowd responded to the fight, including the inimitable Joe Lewis who provided color commentary.

 

But, mostly, it’s worthwhile to watch how Clay handled himself. How does a quite good and cocky young person handle such a challenge? That’s the magic to see here.

 

Yes, he was better – by far – than anyone at the time knew. Further, he had assets few knew were as valuable as they turned out to be. But what truly impresses is how he built on these assets.

 

He was extraordinarily fast. So, while Liston was powerful, Clay prepared, obviously tirelessly, to stay away from Liston’s punches through his speed and foot movement. He had a tremendous reach advantage over Liston (and most fighters he would later face). Keep Liston away with that reach, and use it to probe for openings, he strategized.

 

While not the stronger fighter, he figured to be stronger than he appeared, and to use combinations in fast flurries when there were openings.

 

Finally, Clay determined first to win the battle psychologically. Ali did this frequently in his career. Here once the first few rounds were over and Liston not only had not won but also was actually behind and fatigued, Clay was well on the way to victory. Listen for the moment after a few rounds when Lewis observes this reality in stunned surprise.

 

I can hear my Mother’s thoughts as I write: listen, we’re not all Muhammad Alis. We’re not even Cassius Clay in his first fight.  But we all have strengths that if we work to develop and use we can surprise all those who take us lightly. We can win battles that others (and perhaps we ourselves) are unsure we can win. Confidence in our selves is important. If we don’t think we can win, we probably won’t. And, if we don’t have confidence and the will to succeed, we won’t do what it takes to prepare ourselves to have the best chance to win.

 

Watch the fight. It’s truly one of the great events in sports. Look at what Clay does. Look for the little things, such as how winded he was after the first round. Look at how he took advantage of his strengths and the mammoth preparation he did in advance of the fight that made a good deal of what he did seem effortless.

 

It’s a joy to watch on its own as sport. But, as my mother would insist, it’s great evidence of Sports As a Metaphor For Life. Don’t you agree?

 

Let’s Start Over Again on Our Brackets

Amazing! I thought I’d apply meta-analysis to filling out my brackets at the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament this year. I spent an entire afternoon studying at least two dozen systems with varying degrees and types of sophistication involved in them. There were those steeped in deep statistics. Others had other mathematical twists. Some were “qualitative.” Others were simply the reflections of regional or national basketball “experts.” One, of course, was that of our amiable President. I put it all together as one would with a crude sort of meta-analysis.

And, of course, they were all equally wrong, as was my distilled version of them. That’s the beauty of March Madness.

Really, Michigan State, going down to Middle Tennessee. How does one deal with that?

Well, I say let’s have a do-ever!

I admit to looking at fivethirtyeight this morning. But, I don’t know why. It’s like listening to pundits on the presidential race. What good does it do you?

So, I’m largely now operating on feel, relying mostly on what my eyeballs saw in many of the big games in the first two rounds and games I saw during the season. Here are my picks for the Sweet Sixteen and beyond to the championship. What are yours?

Sweet Sixteen: Kansas beats Maryland. Miami beats Villanova (my nervously chosen upset). Oregon beats Duke (though that damned Duke has a way, don’t they?). Oklahoma beats A&M (The Okies would never blow a double digit lead in the last minute.). UNC beats Indiana. Wisconsin beats Notre Dame (50-50. Yikes!). Virginia beats Iowa State. And Gonzaga beats Syracuse.

Elite Eight: Kansas beats Miami. Oklahoma beats Oregon. UNC beats Wisconsin. Virginia beats Gonzaga.

Final Four Semis: Kansas beats Oklahoma (what a series this has been all year). UNC beats Virginia.

Final: Kansas beats UNC. (Texas beat UNC but lost twice to Kansas. That’s my test.)

There you go.

 

sandy-kress-march-madness

The 2015 College Football Season: Not Quite Saved By the Bell

Candidly, this would have been a nastier essay but for the surprisingly exciting game between Clemson and Alabama.

Notwithstanding a much better-than-expected championship game, college football this year was a tale of two seasons. The regular season was one of the best in memory. It is hard to remember a Saturday during the fall in which there weren’t multiple several exciting games.

There were so many fine games it’s not possible here to list and discuss even a fraction of the great action. But, just to bring a bit of it back to mind, recall: Ohio State-Michigan State, Michigan State-Michigan, Clemson-Notre Dame, Ole Miss-Alabama, Oklahoma-Tennessee, TCU-Texas Tech, Clemson-Florida State, and Stanford-Notre Dame.

As spectacular as the season was, the bowls were mostly a bust.

It began with the usual run of mostly horrible minor bowls. Mediocre teams, for the most part, playing mediocre football. Standards for the first week of post-season football are so low that teams with 5-7 records are invited.

It’s so bad that a bowl can attract virtually no fans and display poor football,  yet make enough money from sponsors from TV to go forward with these games. If there are enough viewers who are bored and desperate enough for bad football, I guess one can argue that satisfying them and the market is good enough. I don’t buy it. Making a little extra money by showing a few extra bad games during the holidays is simply setting a ridiculously low bar. Cut back on the minor bowls.

Next, the powers-that-be chose to produce the big semi-final games on New Year’s Eve. What? “Let’s take on a major national tradition and hope to make the folks adapt.” This was a boneheaded mistake that lost 1/4 of the audience for football and let fans who had other plans miss key games. Further, it didn’t help that the games were busts.

I realize that things move slowly in the world. But does it really have to take years to get to 8 teams in the playoffs? The authorities are lucky they haven’t had huge disasters in the selection process, with some very even teams getting in while others are out. Such disasters will likely happen one day unless the problem is fixed. As it is, we missed strong Stanford and Ohio State and got feckless Oklahoma and Michigan State. Although Alabama-Clemson was exciting, the play was such that either Ohio State or Stanford could easily have shown better. Shorten the season by a game, and create a better playoff regime.

As for New Year’s Day, without placing blame, one can only say it was the worst such day of football in memory. Indeed, except for the ridiculous, but incredibly exciting TCU-Oregon game that a few crazy souls stayed around to see, there wasn’t much of quality in any other of the remaining games.

It’s easy, I know, for sports fans to moan and groan. We do it all the time. We love college football, but the game’s big bosses need to make better decisions to keep and grow the love.