A week ago, the NCAA Division I basketball tournament reached its apex. And the University of Connecticut won. Nope, not the men's game, which was fantastic, sure, but the women's game. It was truly historic, and not just according to the wonks at 538, the newly minted sports blog from famed statistician Nate Silver. While there have been undefeated teams ostensibly playing for a national championship before—in college football at least—that's never been the case in basketball.
Many say the latest victory for the UConn women represents an endorsement of their coach, Geno Auriemma. With long-time rival Pat Summitt retired, it seems as though almost no one can stand in the way of the Huskies and their long-running records. Notre Dame fought valiantly for their place as the spoiler, and maybe if they'd had Natalie Achonwa or Ace playing alongside her senior teammates, things could have gone differently.
There's no shame in losing to this UConn team, but there are definitely columnists who have wondered if all those Husky wins piling up are leading to Geno and Co. fatigue. While Mechelle Voepel argues that UConn's winning ways are good for women's basketball overall, there's definitely room for disagreement. Kate Fagan reasons that games are better when they're truly competitive and if Notre Dame represents the best team that UConn had to face, things are getting into a bad place. The bottom line: We need a multitude of better teams, not just UConn.
The takeaway a week later, with almost no one talking about the women's game, despite the WNBA Draft already occurring, is that NCAA Division I basketball is still all about the men's game. March Madness, to most people, means men's games exclusively. Even if—or rather, when—two undefeated teams play, something that has never happened in the sport before, there's very little attention for the women. Something needs to change.
Kendall Williams hits a deep (unadvised) three that pretty much seals the game.
The University of New Mexico men's basketball team is going dancing. There was never any doubt. Not after winning the Mountain West tournament. Not after the automatic bid that comes with that win. The only question was one of seeding. And what of the moment on Sunday afternoon when it was revealed that UNM received a 7 seed and will have to play in the South Region and face a potential match-up with 2-seed Kansas in the second round? Well, it seems like feelings in the land of Cherry and Silver are running high.
New Mexico's first game against 10-seeded Stanford is no walk. And after flaming out against Harvard last year, there's plenty of emotion about facing yet another school known primarily for its academics. Stanford finished their season with a 21-12 record, as opposed to the Lobos' 27-6. The Cardinal plays in the vaunted Pac-12 Conference, where they ended up a pedestrian sixth—but every team that finished ahead of them in their conference wound up in the NCAA Tournament as well.
In fact, spurned Lobos fans, still bitter about many events from last year, are looking way past Stanford. Some are even looking forward to a potential Elite Eight matchup with UCLA—the team that ex-head coach Steve Alford bolted for after New Mexico was bounced in last year's Big Dance.
However, that's putting the cart way before the horse. Stanford will want to make waves by taking out the back-to-back-to-back Mountain West champs. No team goes into a game hoping or expecting to lose. But should the Lobos get past the Harvard of the West, they'll face stiff competition in a Kansas team that many were shocked to see fail to garner a 1 seed. The bit of good news for New Mexico fans is that the Lobos have already played Kansas. The better news is that Kansas was only up 1 point, 39-38, at halftime of that game. The horrible news? The Jayhawks ran away in the second half, finally winning 80-63.
If the Lobos can make it through opening weekend, the tournament doesn't get a lot easier, as they're in the same grouping as overall number one seed, Florida. However, the talent on this team believes they're capable of making a deep run; let's not forget all those #UnfinishedBusiness tweets from the beginning of the year. This is when that follow-through gets to the proving time and first-year head coach Craig Neal continues a proud tradition.
The University of New Mexico's men's soccer program began their season as the number two team in the country. Their successful season ended on Sundayin Storrs, Connecticutas as the number 13 Lobos fell to number 4 University of Connecticut. The Lobos scored the lone goal of the first half in the 32nd minute, but gave up an equalizer in the second half. UConn's Mamadou Diouf put a header in the back of the net in the 76th minute to knot things up. Despite coming out of the second-half break on fire, UNM never found the right mix, even missing a point blank shot with only two minutes left in regulation.
Heading into the overtime periods, the rules change from the regular season, and the Lobos had to fight for every inch, knowing that the golden goal would send whichever team scored first to the Elite Eight. Both teams only managed one shot on goal, UNM in the first OT and UConn in the second. It was this kick in the 105th minute that sealed the deal.
UConn will play in Storrs again next weekend when they face Creighton, who beat Akron with a 5-4 penalty count after 2 scoreless overtime periods. That game will be played to determine who will to make the trip to the Final Four.
UNM ended their season in the Sweet Sixteen for the second consecutive year, disappointing fans who were looking for improvement on last year's incredible, undefeated season. The bitter taste is sure to hang heavily on senior Devon Sandoval, who played a phenomenal game and had an excellent season. Sandoval, one of six seniors on the team, recorded 15 goals for the season. He had been mentioned all season as one of the top seniors in the nation, and is now considered as a possible draft pick in Major League Soccer's draw.
Although Sandoval stands out as the senior with the most prospects for the future and the Lobos are heading home earlier than both they would like, it should be noted that these six seniors helped the team equal a record set by the the 2004-2005 Lobos: 35 wins over a combined two seasons. The net result of those teams? A national runner-up spot in 2005 after losing to Maryland in the final game of the season. The lesson here is that Lobo soccer is back. Losing six seniors will hurt, but this team should be a force to reckon with for some time.
The stench of crime has been associated with PSU ever since the Jerry Sandusky accusations were upheld in court (and for many, long before that). The association of Joe Paterno, legendary coach and inspirational figure, has been one that many people have struggled with. The university tried on Sunday to take pro-active steps to dissociate themselves from a man who may or may not have aided in covering up these heinous crimes. But the NCAA announced on Monday that this wasn’t enough. Not even close.
The things that Sandusky has been found guilty of are undeniably horrible. No one disputes that. The University and its figureheads, according to Louis Freeh's report, did not do enough to stop these crimes. And now, the NCAA is taking unprecedented—and, some say, illegal—action to punish both the athletic program as well as the university as a whole.
So now the question becomes: Is the NCAA in the right here? Jerry Sandusky has been found guilty in a court of law, and Penn State has been found guilty in the court of popular opinion. But where is the overlap between the two and what does the NCAA have to do with either of those two things? The NCAA bills itself as "founded ... to protect young people from ... dangerous and exploitive athletics practices." The young men who were taken advantage of at Penn State were clearly in danger and were clearly exploited. Of this, there can be no doubt.
The rumors before the fines and sanctions were officially announced put the monetary figure in excess of $30 million. Now, we see that the reality is twice that amount, plus an unprecedented number of wins that are being vacated—dropping Joe Pa from first all time in coaching wins to twelfth. Yet, despite universal recognition that there were terrible occurrences at Penn State, there has been an almost-instantaneous claim that, perhaps, the NCAA has ovverreached.
The money the NCAA is fining Penn State will go to an external program—or more than one program—that focuses on sexual abuse or assisting victims of sexual abuse. The total is said to have been determined by one year's revenue from the football program, which will be handicapped for the next four years, including loss of scholarships and bowl ineligibility. The athletic department, finally, will be on probation for five years.
All of these consequences seem to send a clear message from the NCAA—that it believes there was wrongdoing at Penn State. And there is little doubt in most peoples' minds that there was. But by taking this unprecedented step—and here we are not specifically addressing the money, the wins or the handicapping, but rather the new jurisdiction that the NCAA believes itself entitled to—we are entering into a new era, one where the governing body of athletics and academics might have tremendous power in not only those two fields, but also over colleges and universities as a whole.
ESPN replayed the Michigan Fab Five documentary a few days ago. On Monday night, as the newest national champions were crowned, it seemed perfectly appropriate. If Michigan and their fabulous freshmen broke barriers insofar as starting lineups, it's been pointed out that Coach John Calipari's Kentucky Wildcats have now broken barriers insofar as winning it all.
The Wildcats claimed the biggest prize of them all for men's college basketball on Monday night, vanquishing the Kansas Jayhawks and setting a whole lot of people to doubt the whole college basketball scene. Regardless of that doubt, however, there can be none that Kentucky was the better team. It was a better team all season, and it was a better team on Monday night. Wooden Award-winning freshman Anthony Davis seems to be the best collegiate player in the country and, with this win, seems virtually assured of going first in the upcoming 2012 NBA draft. He scored a mere 6 points in the game, but grabbed 16 rebounds, smashed 6 blocks and secured the Most Outstanding Player trophy. Although he will have spent just a year in college, he emerges more of a finished product than some of his soon-to-be-peers in the NBA.
Kentucky's ascension to the top of college basketball seemed like a foregone conclusion for much of the season. It lost only two times all year—to Indiana and Vanderbilt—and it looked dominant at almost every other opportunity. Near the middle of the NCAA tournament, Charles Barkley even had the gall to make the inevitable, approximately twice-yearly, idiotic statement that the top college program could beat the lowest professional team: this time that Kentucky could and would beat the Charlotte Bobcats, the Washington Wizards or the Toronto Raptors. (Things like this always get tossed around. In football, we occasionally have to endure the pundits engaging the same lines of fallacy. Luckily, not everyone agrees.)
While the first half of the first period Monday was a back-and-forth affair, with Kansas refusing to fold, the simple truth was that Kentucky continued to pull away. The defense of the Wildcats proved to be the bigger determining factor. With Kansas wanting to push the tempo in the beginning minutes, Anthony Davis picked up his first nasty block, and the Wildcats clamped down. On the other end, the Wildcat offense proved capable of overwhelming the Jayhawks' defense, and as the first half wound down, Kentucky put firm distance between itself and the challengers, concluding the half up 41-27.
The second half looked like it was going to be more of the same, but Kansas decided, with about 4 minutes left in the game, that the fight had not gone out of them. For the first time since early in the first, they trimmed the deficit to single digits. Suddenly, with just over a minute left, the Wildcats led by a mere five points, and Kentucky looked shell-shocked. The upset was still possible! Alas, it was not to be. Five made free throws for Kentucky versus a lone made field goal for Kansas provided the final margin at 67-59.
Kentucky's coronation may bring some doubt for those who claim to love the NCAA game for its purity, but there are examples, including the conclusion of that Fab Five story, that shed more than a bit of a shadow on that purity. Regardless of its implications, the simple fact remains that the NCAA men's basketball tournament is the most exciting postseason playoff format of any sport and the title game between Kansas and Kentucky was a great basketball game.
Looks like New Orleans Saints Head Coach Sean Payton isn’t quietly accepting his year-long suspension. Payton, along with general manager Mickey Loomis, have filed an appeal for their participation in a three-year bounty system and will fly to New York on Tuesday to give their side of the story. According to the latest ESPN.com article, Payton hopes NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell will reevaluate his decision to give the harshest punishment in league history. But Payton shouldn’t be too optimistic. Not only did he know about Saints' Defensive Coordinator Gregg Williams’ bounty system, but he also lied to league officials when directly questioned. Payton's motivation for appeal seems puzzling as Goodell is unlikely to change his decision. The investigation warranted the tough suspension to send a stern message to the rest of the league of zero tolerance toward injuring opposing players on purpose. Payton should be thanking Goodell his punishment wasn't worse and instead should disappear from the spotlight.
NCAA Men's National Championship
Self and Calipari will butt heads tonight.
Tonight's March Madness conclusion between the Kansas Jayhawks and Kentucky Wildcats provides a must-see matchup hoops fans have been dreaming about. Both teams are coached by two of the premier coaches in college basketball, but their reputations couldn't be more different.
Jayhawks head coach Bill Self has transformed his program into a dominant force while avoiding any major NCAA rules violations. Along with winning the 2012 Naismith Men's College Basketball Coach of the Year, he can finish off his great season with his second ever national title. But if you talk to Self he would probably deflect any compliments and attention onto his squad. Kansas was considered an afterthought before the season started but have morphed into one of college basketball’s surprise stories. Its come-from-behind victory over Ohio State should only give it a minor psychological edge. Regardless of the outcome, in the midst of a blatant disrespect of rules and structure in college sports, the Jayhawks have remained one of the last examples of a clean sports program.
The same could not be said for the Jayhawks’ opponent. Kentucky Wildcats head coach John Calipari uses swagger and charisma to keep media and fans glued to every word he says. Calipari has been to two previous Final Fours that were erased because of rules violations. By winning the national title he can finally begin to regain the respect of the basketball community. The Wildcats have the size and skill advantage and are lead by freshman big man Anthony Davis. If the Naismith College Player of the Year can produce another dominant performance in the title game, the Wildcats will be celebrating their first national title since 1998. If Calipari achieves his lifelong dream, hopefully this team will be devoid of any controversy.
Brittney Griner heads a threatening Baylor team into the Final Four
With an eye on the past, but its gaze overwhelmingly focused on the future, women's college basketball set up a historic Final Four earlier this week.
On Monday, the Baylor Bears dispatched the Tennessee Lady Vols and legendary coach Pat Summitt. Prior to that, the Stanford Cardinal did away with No. 2 seed Duke. On Tuesday, the University of Connecticut got the ball rolling again for the 1 seeds, and Notre Dame finished off the excitement against Maryland. Over the course of four games in two nights —hardly in one fell swoop, but still in a pretty decisive manner—all four No. 1 seeds confirmed their reservations for the women's NCAA Final Four in Denver. This marks only the second time in the history of the women's tournament when this has happened—the other occurring back in 1989.
Stanford got the sweep started, carried by its senior Nnemkadi Ogwumike. Ogwumike's been in this position before, as she's made the Final Four in each of her four years with the Cardinal, having been beat by UConn twice and losing to eventual champ Texas A&M last year. Stanford, in fact, made the Final Four before Ogwumike arrived, which makes this its fifth in a row. Coach Tara VanDerveer has done an amazing job getting this school back up to lofty standards, but they've been posited with the unfortunate problem of playing Baylor on Sunday night.
If there's a standout amongst the four top seeds, it's got to be the Baylor Bears. Brittney Griner may be getting the most publicity for her in-game dunks, but there's no doubt that her defense in the true highlight. In the NCAAs, she's flirted with triple doubles, especially against Tennessee. However, the Bears' ascension means that something has to be left behind, and this year, the Tennessee Lady Vols will not be a part of the Final Four for the fourth year in a row. To put this in perspective, to find the last time Pat Summitt's team didn't make the Final Four two years in a row, we have to stretch back to 1993 and 1994. While Summitt's future is up in the air, it appears as though it's no longer a foregone conclusion that Tennessee and UConn will run women's basketball—and the sport is all the better for it.
Despite the Lady Vols being sidelined, the old guard will be well-represented by the University of Connecticut and its Huskies. Coach Geno Auriemma matches Stanford's accomplishment by making his fifth Final Four in a row, but he won't be satisfied with making just that; UConn has won seven previous national titles—and three in a row at one point—so it'll be geared up to play against Notre Dame. Coach Auriemma has even admitted that after losing Maya Moore last year, he wasn't sure what kind of team this was going to be, or how deep of a run they could make. As usual, though, the Huskies have come through with a dominant regular season and a stifling defense. UConn lost only four times in the regular season. Two of those losses, however, came at the hands of Notre Dame.
The relative newcomer of the group finished things up on Tuesday night by unleashing a beating on Maryland. The Irish, who were national runners-up last year, getting edged in the title game by Texas A&M, have only won the national title once and have only been to the Final Four once besides that. To couch these accomplishments in terms such as "only won the national title once before" shows what a decorated group of teams are about to converge on Denver. The great guard play of Notre Dame starts with Skylar Diggins, but extends to the rest of the team, too, comprising one of the deepest teams in the field.
When the games begin on Sunday in this ridiculously talented women's field, anyone who's watching will see some of the finest basketball that will be played that weekend. And when a new champion is crowned on Tuesday, it will have long-lasting ramifications for the game—no matter which No. 1 it is.
There's no doubt the University of New Mexico basketball team has had great success throughout its history. From conference championships to 30-win seasons, the Lobos have an impressive résumé. But when it comes to the NCAA Tournament, true prosperity has always been out of reach for New Mexico.
It looked like this might finally be the year that curse would be broken. In Thursday's Second Round matchup, the Lobos held off a tough Long Beach State 75-68 to face Louisville on Saturday night.
The first half featured a defensive battle with New Mexico only behind 33-31 and carrying momentum headed into halftime. Despite Drew Gordon injuring his knee early in the game, he returned and had a standout performance with 21 points and 14 rebounds. With Gordon's leadership, New Mexico seemed primed for their its first-ever appearance in the Sweet Sixteen, but when the second half started, the pressure finally got to the young and inexperienced Lobo backcourt. The Louisville Cardinals capitalized on Lobo turnovers and bad offensive execution to gain a 15-point lead. When the Lobos actually ran plays on the offensive end, they were successful and eventually closed the gap to 53-51 with 1:48 remaining. Louisville's star player Peyton Siva was contained by the Lobo defense but he proved to be the difference by hitting a pass to Gorgui Dieng to extended the Cardinal’s lead by four. Siva also nailed some free throws to give Louisville a conformable 59-53 lead headed into the closing seconds. Gordon did give Lobo fans some hope by hitting a three with 2.9 seconds left, but it was too late as Louisville advanced with the 59-56 victory.
While the Lobos have a lot to be proud of this season, head coach Steve Alford and his team have to feel they let a great opportunity slip away. Alford has lots of young talent to find a true leader to guide the Lobos out of the round of 32 and into competing with top basketball powerhouses. This loss with hurt in the short term, but Lobo fans should feel excitement for a promising future.
March Madness Sweet Sixteen Preview
As usual, this year's tournament has produced many upsets and busted brackets. With No. 2 seeds Duke and Missouri taking an early plane ride home, there are some refreshing matchups in the Sweet Sixteen.
Kentucky vs. Indiana has the potential to be one of the most memorable games in this year’s tournament. Marquis Teague hasn't let his inexperience affect his performance in the dance so far by having 24 points and 7 assists against Iowa State. Teague's lead the Wildcats to an impressive 87-71 victory and now will face a hot Hoosiers squad. Indiana had an easy time with New Mexico State but faced the dreaded VCU Rams in the second round. The Hoosiers’ Cody Zeller had 16 points and 13 rebounds to help his team survive VCU’s attempt at another run to the Final Four. Many experts and fans probably have Kentucky advancing, but Indiana has been the more battle-tested squad. If Kentucky doesn't bring the intensity, Indiana can spring the upset.
Despite winning back-to-back national titles, Florida doesn't get much national creditability compared to traditional basketball powers. The Gators haven't had the best season and their seven seed proves it, but they have improved their play and even took Kentucky to the limit in the SEC tournament. They handled their first two tournament games with ease but now will face their toughest test against Marquette.
The Golden Eagles have bounced back from their disappointing loss to Louisville with two wins over BYU and the Cinderella story of the regular season, Murray State. Now Marquette must battle a Florida team with a successful tournament track record.
UNM coach Steve Alford cuts down the net after the Lobos win the MWC tournament.
After this weekend, it’s understandable why the Lobos are on cloud nine. They beat their conference archrivals UNLV and San Diego State en route to a Mountain West Conference Tournament Championship. UNM was also awarded a fifth seed in the NCAA Tournament.
And after winning a share of the regular season title, the Lobos must feel they've accomplished most of their goals they set in the preseason. But if they want to achieve the ultimate goal of advancing to the Sweet 16, they must battle an enemy that almost ruined their season: complacency.
The team was full of swagger and confidence after they beat San Diego State and UNLV in the regular season and were ranked in the Top 25. But then they let their guard down and lost two consecutive road games. Since that time, the Lobos are on a five-game winning streak and seem to have a renewed focus on defense.
Long Beach State has played one of the toughest schedules in the nation and will face the Lobos in the second round in Portland, Ore. If they advance, a potential match up against the Big East champion, Louisville, awaits.
March Madness apps
For most people, it’s almost impossible to sit on the couch and watch the entire tournament. However, that doesn't mean you have to miss out on all the action. Here are a few mobile applications that will ensure you never miss any possession or buzzer beater:
The NCAA has their official March Madness Live mobile app for iOS and Android that should satisfy any basketball junkie. Fans will be able to fill out a bracket, get live updates on their favorite teams and even watch every game for a one-time fee of $3.99. So far usability has been pretty seamless, so hopefully it delivers at game time.
ESPN also has its Bracket Bound mobile app which offers in-depth opinions and analysis on the tournament. It’s available for for iOS and Android and offers up-to-date Twitter feeds of ESPN personalities, video analysis and the ability to follow your team’s progress in the big dance. The only negative is the app still lists the projected field of the tournament and hides the real bracket in the top corner of the application. Despite the drawback, the app is free and offers users the ability to win $100,000 for the winner of the Tournament Challenge.
With these two apps, there's zero excuse why you shouldn't be the smartest fan in the room.