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.
On Tuesday night, the University of Connecticut Huskies demolished the Louisville Cardinals for the women's basketball NCAA championship. With the Louisville men's coach, Rick Pitino, in the stands, fresh off his team's victory in the men's game the previous night, and women's coach Jeff Walz in his trademark tie-less dress shirt, momentum seemed to be on the side of the Cardinals.
Louisville had already knocked off heavy favorite Baylor, as well as UConn's most historic rival Tennessee. However, there was no stopping coach Geno Auriemma and the Connecticut Huskies. The Huskies thoroughly dominated the game and rolled to their eighth overall championship. Coach Auriemma is now tied with former Tennessee coach Pat Summitt for the most championships in all of women's college basketball. The Huskies are just one the heels of legendary UCLA coach John Wooden, who has ten championships.
Louisville was trying to replicate a special circumstance that has only happened once, in 2004, when a university won both the men's and the women's championships. The team that did it in 2004? The UConn Huskies.
These Huskies were simply too good, too fast and too sharp-shooting for the Cardinals. The Huskies broke a 23-year-old record in netting 13 three pointers and shooting 53% overall. The Huskies led at halftime 48-29 and began the second half on a 12-7 run, it seemed like things were all but wrapped up.
Breanna Stewart was named Most Outstanding Player and Kelly Faris got to win a national championship in her senior season after making Final Fours all of her years in Storrs.
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.
Craig "Noodles" Neal cuts down the net for the 2013 MWC Conference champions
It's official. Previously-titled UNM men's basketball assistant coach Craig "Noodles" Neal will take the reigns as the program's head coach heading into the 2013-2014 season. Neal quickly became a favorite for the position following Steve Alford's sudden departure from the position as he accepted the title of head coach for the UCLA Bruins.
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 Lobos will play Wyoming in Las Vegas tonight at 7:30 and the semifinals games will be played on Friday. The championship game will be played on Saturday at 4 p.m. with Selection Sunday is the very next day.
With the MWC Tournament coming up, it's important to remember that the winner will receive an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament. While the Lobos are the only team in the Mountain West Conference currently ranked in the Top 25, Saturday's loss to the Falcons proved that UNM is far from infallible and that the auto-bid isn't a certainty. The Lobos will enter the MWC Tournament with the recent accolades of Conference Player of the Year and Coach of the Year bestowed upon Kendall Williams and Steve Alford, respectively, but also as the total focus of every other team.
While Colorado State currently sits second in the MWC, it's hard to overlook University of Las Vegas, who spent 8 weeks ranked in the AP top 25 and have ample potential for home crowd advantage, or newcomer Boise State as potential dark horses who could upset top-seeded UNM.
With seeding in the Big Dance at the epicenters of focus, UNM has got to come out strong on tonight, no matter how weak Wyoming appears. Presuming they make it through that game, the focus of the Cherry and Silver will need to be maintained on Friday and Saturday's games. As the loss in Colorado Springs proved, nothing is promised in this game, regardless of a team being nationally ranked.
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.
It was a busy night at the Santa Ana Star Event Center in downtown Rio Rancho. The Bellator 91 fight card delivered a lot of action, including plenty of finishes.
The most anticipated fight on the card, at least for the hometown crowd, was Holly Holm vs Katie Merrill. Holm, a decorated boxer from Duke City, was making her third MMA fight. The crowd erupted as she made her way to the cage
When the bell rang, Merrill ran across the cage, as Holm circled away to keep her at distance. Eventually Merrill closes that distance—it almost seemed like Holm let her. They took turns pressing each other against the cage, and break.
Holm didn’t throw a single punch until about midway through the first. When she finally flashed a combo, the blows came with such speed that it seemed like you could hear them slice the air. At this point the crowd began chanting HOLLY HOLLY. She threw another explosive combo. And another, and began following her punches with kicks to the body and head. At the end of the round she telegraphed a kick, which got caught. The round ended with Merrill on top.
In the second round, Holm threw more hands, grunting like Jackie Chan with every strike. The body punches continued to provide openings for her kicks, which began landing with power.
Holm’s strikes were like meteors, but great drama was nonetheless achieved by the fact that she wanted nothing to do with the ground game. A few times Holms landed with enough power to make you wonder if Merrill would stop, but she absorbed the strikes and kept coming. Free of fear of Holm taking her down, Merrill threw kicks at will.
Merrill tried again to clinch, and Holm went to work on her body like she was a heavy bag, and Merrill had to let go. After a few more nearly successful takedown attempts by Merrill, Holm landed a left hook to the sternum. She then took a step back, as if to get a better angle from which to watch Merrill fall. Merrill tried to absorb the blow and threw a kick back, which Holm caught and dumped her to the matt. Merrill looked done; Holm pounded on her for a few seconds until the ref agreed.
It ended on the ground, but will be remembered as a body shot KO. Twitter blew up with premature demands that Holm take on UFC women’s bantamweight champion Ronda Rousey. Alas, Holm’s lack of confidence in her ground game and tentativeness in punishing her opponent early with strikes gives us little reason to believe she would be able to stop Ronda from taking her down and arm-barring her. But if Holm ever wanted to apply herself to developing a ground game, she would be a scary assignment for anyone. Training as she does at Jackson’s MMA, she’s hardly without opportunity to do so.
After being announced as the winner, Holm bounced around the cage like a puppy, looking for her long time coach Mike Winkeljohn. When she found him, he locked his hands together as a step, and she back-flipped off the step. And the hungry, angry beast that is the Albuquerque fight fans was appeased.