In the National Basketball Association, the country may not get quite as mad as the NCAA Tournament, but we are down to the final four, and there is plenty to pay attention to. The NBA Playoffs have delivered their fair share of surprises (The Bulls taking game one against the Heat) as well as caveats and disappointments (Russell Westbrook's injury in the series against the Houston Rockets), but they've wound down by this point to the Conference Finals.
On Sunday, the Memphis Grizzlies got smacked around in their first game at San Antonio against the Spurs. The Grizz had a tough path in making their very first Conference Finals, taking down the Los Angeles Clippers in round 1 and the Westbrook-less Oklahoma City Thunder in round 2. Their defense, touted all season, has looked strong and will give the Spurs a serious test. The Spurs, meanwhile, defeated the disappointing Los Angeles Lakers in a round 1 romp and the upset-minded, young star-studded Golden State Warriors in round 2.
In the Eastern Conference, the Miami Heat have rolled through the Playoffs as most suspected they would. After blanking the Milwaukee Bucks in round 1, they were surprised by the Chicago Bulls for a game, but ended up sweeping the remainder of the series. They'll start the conference finals on Wednesday against a team that is the Eastern Conference mirror of the Grizz, the Indiana Pacers. The Pacers haven't made the Conference Finals since 2004, and many did not figure them to be back here this year, with the absent Danny Granger and his uncertain status during various points of the season. However, the Pacers have clearly found their way forward without their star player, recommitting to defense and grinding games out that may not be beautiful, but give them the win. They defeated the Atlanta Hawks in round 1 in 6 games and then did the same to the New York Knicks. In each series for the Pacers, home-court advantage has seemed to matter. They will not have it against the Heat, and the vast majority of sports pundits are picking LeBron James and company to beat the Pacers.
So the probable match-up is the Spurs vs the Heat. This would be a callback for James, as the first Finals he made, while he still played for the Cleveland Cavaliers, was in 2007, against the Spurs. Those Spurs destroyed that Cavs team, sweeping them out of the Finals in an unceremonious manner. James certainly remembers that and may use it as motivation if the two teams do meet. However, a player of his caliber is certainly not over-looking his current series and it's worth thinking about the possibility of the Grizzlies and the Pacers meeting. Memphis and Indiana are first and second in defense respectively and they'll both give their opponents more than a cursory spat in their Conference Finals games. San Antonio, known for its defense for seemingly decades, sits at a mortal 11th place in that category this year, but is balanced by the fourth-ranked offense. Again, the Spurs are the favorite in their Conference Final. But sitting above all other teams, in both esteem and odds, reign the Miami Heat. With both the fifth-best defense and offense they look, at times, unstoppable.
We'll find out about the Heat and the Pacers tomorrow. The Grizzlies and the Spurs, meanwhile, are off to a terrific start. All of the remaining Western Conference games can be seen on ESPN, while the Eastern Conference games will be broadcast on TNT.
On Monday morning Jason Collins penned a first-person essay that was released in Sports Illustrated coming out as the first active player and openly gay man in one of the four major sports leagues of North America.
While the chatter about breaking the barrier for sexual orientation has focused on the possibility of four NFL players, Collins said, "I didn't set out to be the first openly gay athlete playing in a major American team sport ... if I had my way, someone else would have already done this. Nobody has, which is why I'm raising my hand." By taking this mantle up for himself, Collins has both inspired people and courted controversy, even if some people see that as not totally justified.
The NBA family, at least those who have spoken out publicly, have done an admirable job welcoming this news into their lives. There are certainly going to be more opinions, though, whether they get expressed or not, that fall into the category of fear or disdain. In fact, just earlier this month, Phil Jackson, seen by many in the NBA as one of the most open-minded individuals, spoke out in a manner that was very difficult to understand. Was Jackson dismissing the possibility of the disdain that individual would face?
With so much regarding the gay population of America in turmoil these days and a Supreme Court case to be decided this summer, there's a lot to be said about stepping out into a leadership position on this issue. There will be no lessening when it comes to these kinds of issues, only an intensification. The quicker that individuals can set themselves up as leaders, the easier it will be for the next domino to fall.
While the attack at the Boston Marathon is still being investigated, the stories have already started rolling in concerning the human cost, putting names and faces with the sobering numbers.
In the aftermath of an event like this, there are so many angles to take. And while there are reporters who are digging into the whos and whats of motive, perpetrators, and so on, it can be somewhat reassuring to see the kindness of people in uniting to overcome. There were the initial reports of people running straight from the finish line of the marathon to the hospital to give blood (something that is always in short supply after a tragedy. There was Patton Oswalt's reminder that mankind's goodness has almost always outweighed those who would do harm. And there was, of course, a nod to Mr. Rogers.
This taking place at a sporting event, though, there were uniting factors beyond the above-mentioned. The Boston Bruins have postponed their next game, originally scheduled to take place on Monday night. The Boston Celtics have canceled their last home game of the season, originally schedule for Tuesday night. And more than the logical steps of Boston stepping up security and delaying or canceling events, there have been showings of support from near and far.
Chicago—no stranger to misery in regard to sports, nor in terms of tragedy in their own streets—showed unity in their newspaper. New York had monuments that were displayed quickly and will, presumably, show much more support, both emotionally and financially. Even the London Marathon, amidst worries of their own, showed mental fortitude.
When disaster strikes, whether man-made or nature-related, there are so many different ways in which people react. It's incredible to see the world of sports doing what they can to contribute to the good.
On Monday night, the Louisville Cardinals defeated the Michigan Wolverines for the NCAA men's basketball championship. Rick Pitino, the coach of the Cardinals, has now won his second title, and the University of Louisville captured their third overall. On the same day that coach Pitino was elected to the Hall of Fame, he became the first coach ever to win national championships with two different schools.
Much was made of the talent of the Wolverines, including Glen Robinson III and Tim Hardaway Jr., but the Wolverines simply could not keep up with the number one overall seed, Louisville.
Louisville had its own superstars, notably in Peyton Siva, who led the team in heart, if not in statistical categories, and Luke Hancock, who was named most outstanding player of the Final Four, and finished the game with a team-high 22 points. However, there's no denying the impact that Kevin Ware had on the Louisville team. Sitting courtside and being interviewed as the last player for the Cardinals, his words represented the will of a team that refused to lose.
In the first half, Michigan led by as many as 12 points. There was a special significance to the event for the Wolverines, as it brought about a reunion of one of the most heralded teams of all time. With the Fab Five in attendance, it seemed as though the circumstances might be ripe for a cathartic forgiveness for the voided Final Four appearances 19 and 20 years ago. Instead, those five ceded the spotlight—as people might hope they would have done had Michigan won, too—and let the new champions have their one shining moment.
While the Cardinals won the game and deserve the accolades that Hancock and Siva accumulated, it's worth noting that, aside from the progeny of former NBA stars, the Wolverines have a player who's been touted as an example for all athletes for his recent diet and exercise regime, Mitch McGary. The teams also possesses the player of the year, Trey Burke, who sat out of the last twelve minutes of the first half due to foul trouble. At the time, it didn't seem like too much of a problem, thanks to Spike Albrecht, who hadn't missed a three pointer in the entire NCAA Tournament and started the championship game by going 4 for 4 from deep, before finally missing one with 11:23 left in the game. Averaging only 7.5 points per game for the season, McGary had 9 points before the first half was halfway through.
When the game was over, though, the Cardinals were the victors, Pitino added another notch to his coaching resume, and Americans who'd gasped for breath upon seeing Kevin Ware's traumatic injury were able to breathe a sigh of relief.
The news started pouring in on Saturday morning, first broken by Andy Katz via Twitter. The University of New Mexico men's basketball head coach Steve Alford will resign his job at UNM to take the reins at UCLA. Andy Katz, for those who might not remember, has a history in Albuquerque and seems like a natural voice to break this sort of news. Alford had, merely days before, signed a contract extension with UNM, furthering his time in Albuquerque by a decade. As the rumors flew back and forth regarding buyouts, betrayal and hurt feelings all around, both UCLA and UNM moved quickly to offer their official statements. Alford held a noontime press conference to get his side of the story out and it became official.
In the ensuing days, Athletic Director Paul Krebs named former assistant coach Craig Neal as the interim head coachand people have begun to speculate. Will Neal get that interim tag removed and become the next head coach of the Cherry and Silver? There are rumors that prized center Alex Kirk has told the University that he will transfer to UCLA if that's not the case. Of course, there are always clamors from all over the city to hire a big name.
The biggest question, beyond the next coach and the impact that will have on which players leave and which players stay, though, is the effect this will have on the team and its relationship with the city. Lobo fever was near its all-time high as the NCAA Tournament rolled around this year. People who hadn't cheered for the Lobos in years picked them as a Final Four team and bought tickets to the newly-renovated Pit in record numbers, averaging 11,000 season tickets sold per year. After yet another disappointing early exit from the post-season and the departure of a nearly uniformly revered coach, how will the fan base handle the change? Alford has already confirmed that he will take his son, Bryce Alford, with him to UCLA after graduation from La Cueva High School. And the reigning MWC player of the year, Kendall Williams, was himself plucked from UCLA by Alford, after the Bruins pulled his scholarship. In fact, the only other player, so far, to have committed to UNM for next year comes from California.
While UNM begins its search for the next person to guide the men's basketball team, Alford will be moving on to what he called, "the premier basketball program in the country." No matter how hurt any fan's feelings may be today, Alford should be recognized and commended for the job he did in establishing a winning culture in Albuquerque. As a fan of basketball, it should be acknowledged that this is probably a step up for him. As a fan of the Lobos, I'll look for a continuation of the success that Alford reignited in our city. And with a little bit of a grudge, I'll look forward to a UNM-UCLA match up.
The University of New Mexico Lobos received a number 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament on Sunday. Selection Sunday was a huge occasion in Albuquerque this year, asthousands of people flocked to the Pit to watch the Lobos receive their placement in the Big Dance. The Lobos were rewarded with a ranking of 10th in first AP poll of the postseason. As a top 16 tourney team, the Lobos were placed in the West division of the NCAA, meaning they will play the vast majority of their early games (assuming they continue to win) near home.
The Lobos will play their first game against 14th-seeded Harvard on Thursday, March 21 in Salt Lake City. The game will be nationally broadcast on TNT, and regional preferences will almost assuredly guarantee that New Mexicans will see the majority of the game, unless something extremely dramatic happens in one of the other games scheduled around 7:50 PM MST.
With the disparity in seedings and overall records for the year, Lobo fans are expecting a big victory. If UNM does win on Thursday, they'll play again on Saturday, again in Salt Lake City, against either the sixth-seeded Arizona Wildcats or the eleventh-seeded Belmont Bruins.
A win over either of those teams would send UNM back to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1974, the first time the NCAA Tournament was strictly a Division I affair, but also a time when the post-season only took in 25 teams. The ESPN preview of the West bracket, written by Robbi Pickeral, says the team is ready. The fans who celebrated on Sunday seem to believe so. But with a run into the Sweet Sixteen, the path gets significantly more difficult.
If the seeding holds up, UNM will match up with Ohio State University in the Sweet Sixteen on March 28 in Los Angeles. OSU is a powerhouse that many feel could have qualified for a number 1 seed. The game is never easy, of course, but this match-up might prove difficult for the Cherry and Silver squad. However, the Lobos aren't without their believers. Sports Illustrated’s Seth Davis says the Lobos will not only defeat OSU, but will be carried into the Final Four.
A victory in the quarterfinals would take UNM—again, if the seeding all holds up and the teams that are supposed to win do so—against the little mid-major that could, Gonzaga. A constant presence in the NCAA Tournament for the last 15 years, Gonzaga's been rewarded for its consistent non-conference play, and the winning they did along with that schedule this year, with a number 1 seed in the West. An Elite Eight appearance would match Gonzaga's best-ever Big Dance record, but it'd be a new one for the Lobos. Both teams, then, will have plenty to fight for, if the match up arises, in order to make the Final Four in Atlanta.
With five teams from the Mountain West conference in to the NCAA Tournament, UNM doesn't have to go to the trouble of scheduling so many non-conference games to toughen up their schedule. In fact, UNM had the second most difficult schedule strength in the nation. And it's clear that the MWC is holding its own during the season. Now is the time, however, for the real stars to shine. If any MWC teams can make deep runs in the postseason, it's good for the whole league. And Burqueños are hoping that it'll be their beloved Lobos that get the chance to shine the brightest, with a possible trip to Atlanta at the end.
The University of New Mexico Lobos basketball team has continued to climb in the national rankings, rising to number 12 this week in the AP top 25. With only two games left in their regular season, now is the right time for the Lobos to be making that climb. On Wednesday, UNM plays at Nevada. While no team should ever be overlooked, nor any game looked past, the Wolf Pack currently sit in the basement of the Mountain West Conference rankings and have only won 12 games all season. If the Lobos can get past Nevada, the Air Force Falcons wait in Colorado Springs on Saturday night for the conference finale. If both of those games fall in the W category, things will look pretty good come Monday, when the next rankings are released, and it would be reasonable to expect a little bump before the MWC Tournament begins in Las Vegas on March 12.
The focus in the team's locker room, of course, will remain solidly committed to the sports cliché of “one game at a time” and never looking past any opponent. But that's not something that we have to pretend to indulge in, so let’s let the speculation run rampant! If UNM does what they should and wins out in Nevada and Colorado Springs, they'll have a clear path to a 1 seed in the MWC Tournament—not to mention the early rumblings of their deserving a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament. If they can manage to run the gamut of the MWC, they'll earn the automatic berth into the Big Dance, and Selection Sunday will be an interesting day to say the least.
Of course, nothing is automatic. Nothing is promised or guaranteed. But, if the standings stay as they are, UNM will play either Nevada or Fresno State on March 13, followed by either San Diego State or Boise State on March 14. The path to the MWC Championship Game and the automatic berth looks possible. More appealing than the auto-entry to the tournament, though, is the prospect of reeling off all those wins in a row and entering March Madness with all that momentum on the side of the Cherry and Silver. While there will always be anonymous commentators who dismiss any non-major conference team's placement in the national rankings (don't even think about reading the comments on Gonzaga's recent ascent to number one if you want to retain faith in your fellow humans), the numbers are pretty solid on the side of the Lobos in this case. With an RPI of 2 right now, and a strength of schedule of 3, the data-driven amongst the selection committee have to be looking very hard at UNM.
College basketball is a game of runs and momentum. UNM taking care of business in its non-conference schedule was the first step. The Lobos are now close to finished with taking care of business during the in-conference schedule. Next up, the MWC conference tournament. After that, who knows how far these boys could go? With the right momentum, match-ups and seeding, it could be an unprecedented time.
On Monday, the AP released their latest rankings for the NCAA Division I men's college basketball teams and the University of New Mexico's Lobos moved up to number 14. Although the Lobos have been ranked higher (the 2009-2010 team hit number 8), this week's movement represents significant gains for a team that's made no bones over their serious goals. Since head coach Steve Alford took over the program in 2007, his squads have made some kind of post-season each year. While the NIT appearances in his first two seasons may have disappointed some, it was clear in 2010 that the incremental progress meant something. The Lobos crashed in the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a (possibly over-seeded) 3-seed, which had come about because of the only 30-win season in New Mexico's history. Their seeding meant a match up against Montana in the first round, but an upset by Washington in the second.
The next season began with high expectations, but failed during that season to live up to most of them. Finishing the year 22-13, the Lobos headed back to the NIT. However, in the wake of the super-successful previous season, coach Alford and the University signed a new contract, locking Alford up until 2020 and it would soon be proved that both sides were serious about keeping the forward momentum.
Last year, the Lobos finished with a record of 28-7, going 10-4 in Mountain West Conference play. They won the MWC Tournament and earned a 5-seed with their automatic berth to the NCAA Tournament. They lost again in the second round eventual Final Four team Louisville.
So, with momentum and history on our side, the Lobos now gear up for their final four games of the regular season. San Diego State visits the Pit tonight, and though the Aztecs are only the fourth place team in the Mountain West Conference, they are one of only two in-conference teams to have beaten the Lobos (the other being UNLV). SDSU will come to the Pit looking to knock off a quality opponent, hoping to boost their resume for the Big Dance in March. After SDSU's visit, the Lobos have only one home game left—Wyoming will come to play on Saturday. The Lobos then finish up their schedule on the road at Nevada on March 6 and at Air Force on March 9. The Mountain West Tournament will be held in Las Vegas March 12-15.
The biggest thing for these Lobos at this point is to continue their impressive streak. Winning in Fort Collins against top-25 ranked Colorado State in an impressive fashion last Saturday was a great boost for the team's RPI, which is the single biggest determining factor in figuring out seeding for the NCAA Tournament. Losing to any of our remaining opponents has the potential to crash that rating. Winning the regular season outright and taking that momentum through the MWC Tournament would obviously be ideal. While everyone loves to be nationally ranked during the season, there's a clear preference to be one of the last teams standing, regardless of ranks. These Lobos have shown they've got a strong will to win. They've got four conference games and a conference tournament to show that it has not been a fluke.
The 2013 National Basketball Association's All-Star Weekend in Houston is officially in the books, and the League, after suffering through a lockout-shortened season last year, is back on track in a major way. While LeBron James is playing at a record-breaking efficiency rate and the Lakers have stumbled in ways that no one expected, the regular season has been full of drama. Tony Parker of the San Antonio Spurs might be having his best season ever and the Oklahoma City Thunder, after shocking the League by trading James Harden have quietly put together one of their best seasons. The Boston Celtics are in the midst of proving the Ewing Theory as valid, going 8-1 in games since star point guard Rajon Rondo went down. And the Chicago Bulls are sitting in fifth place in the Eastern Conference despite Derrick Rose being far from returning to the court.
In the midst of this tumultuous return-to-glory season, the NBA's just-over-halfway break is a welcome change of pace for the competitors. On Friday night, things kicked off in the most relaxed way possible: an All-Star game in name only, celebrities and ex-players attempted to show off their skills. Amongst the players this year: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who played professionally in Australia, and comedian Kevin Hart, who makes a habit of winning the MVP trophy in these games, whether he has the best game or not. Theoretically, after the celebs get off the court, things are supposed to pick up a notch. Formerly called the Rookies versus Sophomores Game, All-Star Friday night's last event has been rechristened the Rising Stars Challenge. The reason? The NBA wanted to break up the 1st and 2nd year players, making for a more competitive game. This year's game showed that intentions don't always follow format. The Rising Stars game's final score was 163-135.
Things were planned to pick up on Saturday night, but once again didn't necessarily live up to expectations. After the much-maligned Shooting Stars challenge, the guards took to the floor for the Skills Challenge. The only safe bet was that defending champ Tony Parker wouldn't want to win again in order to avoid being asked back next year. Damian Lillard won the event with a time of 29.8 seconds. After the presumable rookie of the year got his trophy, the anticipation for the next two events continued to build. Normally a snoozable event, the Three Point Contest had received a little press for the grassroots Twitter campaign of Matt Bonner. Bonner's dedication to the event paid off when he made the final round, but he couldn't overcome the red-hot shooting of last year's ROY, Kyrie Irving. Last but not least, the Dunk Contest was supposed to be filled with pure dunkers, despite a lack of star-powered names. While Gerald Green got things off on the right foot the first dunk of the night, the contest quickly descended and shooting sunk to less than 30 percent. Granted, some of the dunks were incredibly difficult, but it's hard to maintain enthusiasm for something when the misses are piling up. Terrence Ross of the Toronto Raptors eventually took the crown from last year's champ, Jeremy Evans, despite an amazing so-cheesy-it-was-good dunk where Evans jumped over a painting of himself dunking.
When Sunday finally rolled around, the elements were all in place for a great game, the cream of the basketball crop getting to play fast-paced ball without any of that pesky defense getting in the way. The game never descended into the trap of a blowout that makes viewers tune out and players give up on anything other than one-on-one clear outs and dunk contests. The biggest attention gatherers were the MVP-performance of Chris Paul and the stifling defense that Kobe Bryant played on LeBron James down the stretch. More than anything else, those two factors led to the West triumphing over the East, with a final score of 143-138.
The NBA's regular schedule returns on Tuesday as the players make ready for the second half of the season and the push to the playoffs.
In making a furious comeback over the Falcons, San Francisco firmly established their young quarterback, Colin Kaepernick, as a foundational piece for the future. After recordinga performance in last week's game against the Packers that tops the list of rushing yards for a quarterback, Kaepernick continued his hot streak, matching Matt Ryan in efficiency, if not in yards thrown. The 49ers got the all-important W, and coach Harbaugh's decision to switch Alex Smith out of the quarterback position in favor of Kaepernick seems validated. The 49ers will be appearing in their sixth Super Bowl. They have won all five of their previous big games. They are the only team in NFL history to have an undefeated Super Bowl record. It's a lofty record to rest on the shoulders of a young man who took over the team during their sixth game of this season. However, he's proved himself to be more than capable.
In stark contrast to San Francisco's reliance on a young QB, the Baltimore Ravens showed that their defense still reigns supreme. Their leader, Ray Lewis, announced that this season is his swan song. He is just about set up to exit the stage on a perfect note. The Ravens smashed the Tom Brady-led Patriots. Humbling the would-be dynasty with a smothering defense in the second half, and leading to the Patriots' first ever defeat at home after leading at half. Baltimore is far from a one-note team. Generating plenty of heat from the QB position, they've gotten more from Joe Flacco than ever before. The 5 year veteran has hovered right around the same completion rate for each of his seasons, but he's played with a loose air this postseason that is reflected in this Super Bowl appearance. This mixture of Flacco's experience on offense, and Lewis' veteran status on defense combines to make the Ravens a tough out.
For now, the two teams will retreat to their respective corners and cede the spotlight to the Pro Bowl, while their coaches plot strategy. But next week, as media day approaches and the teams arrive in New Orleans, the bright lights will appear even more frequently as we all prepare for something unseen: brothers coaching against one another in a Super Bowl. Fortunately, the teams match up well enough to justify all the hype it's going to get. The San Francisco 49ers get the early edgeas 4-point favorites, proving that sometimes, the little brother can have an advantage.