Saturday, April 03, 2010

Saturday (Final Four) Quickie

Final Four Saturday: As discussed yesterday, no one can confidently predict who will win either game -- which makes it so much more interesting. I'm sticking with Butler-Duke.

(Rooting interest? Butler, definitely -- unless you're a Michigan State fan, how could you NOT root for Butler? On the other side, West Virginia -- although I'd rather see Butler win a national title by beating Duke than beating WVU. But I can't stomach a Duke national title.)

Bracket Update: I enter the day in the 40th percentile. I have a feeling I can only go down from here -- can't possibly reach the 18th percentile nadir from last year, right? RIGHT?!?!

Lakers lock up Kobe for 3 years beyond next season: That puts the Lakers' window for more titles at 5 seasons, if you include this season. The Lakers have 3 years to find a succession plan.

Cavs beat Hawks: Eastern Conference semifinals preview? Not sure the Hawks are ready to take down the Cavs, but then again, I'm not sure the Cavs are ready to take down the Magic.

Redskins sign Willie Parker: What a Snyder-esque twist on Shanahan's old model of RB-by-committee, which used to use otherwise anonymous RBs. Now, they use washed-up star RBs.

Cripes: That story about the Notre Dame recruit is horrible.

Doesn't the Indianapolis Star know that defacing photos with Photoshop is for blogs? And, for the record, most bloggers are FAR more clever with their defacing.

-- D.S.

Friday, April 02, 2010

On NCAA Expansion to 96 Teams

Let's review why expanding the NCAA Tournament isn't the end of the world, as so many hysterical college hoops pundits would have you believe:

*The 64-team bracket is "perfect!" Actually, the NCAA Tournament is not beloved for the number of teams included.

It is beloved for its upsets, its buzzer-beaters, its weekday workday diversion in the first round and its promotion of socially acceptable gambling (or the ability to compete with your friends and co-workers).

Expansion doesn't change that. If anything, you will get more of all of them with an extra 32 games.

(And it doesn't preclude major upsets either: Northern Iowa over Kansas will still happen, whether Kansas has played a 1st-round game or not. Speaking of 1-seeds, the idea that the 1-seed ALWAYS beats the 16-seed is a huge flaw in the Tournament's current format. If anything, I think that with an expanded field, you'll see more top seeds lose in their first game than before, because they will be playing a team that just finished up a tense do-or-die play-in game. "Bye" teams in the Top 32 who come out sluggish could find their Tournaments over quickly. As soon as we see a bunch of top teams fall in their 1st game, the critics' wailing will be drowned out by fans' cheering.)

The essential qualities of the NCAA Tournament -- rather than some arbitrary number -- are born out by the fact that the Tournament has expanded from 8 to 16 to 32 to 48 to 64 to 65. And I'm sure the pundits either have -- or would have -- complained all along the way. In vain.

And, by the way: Pundits who fret about how the new bracket will make filling out office-pool sheets more difficult have apparently not tried filling out a bracket online, like 99.9 percent of the world now does. ESPN, and Yahoo will make it VERY easy to fill out the expanded bracket -- even if their columnists rail on about hating the idea -- because they have a vested interest in making it easy to fill it out.

*"It devalues the regular season!" Actually, you'd have to say FURTHER devalues the regular season, because the ascension of the 64-team tournament devalued the regular season a long time ago.

The reality is that most fans don't pay attention to college basketball until March anyway. And, aside from the die-hard fans who make up about 5 percent of the fans who follow March Madness, those that do tune in before March are watching marquee games between powerhouse teams whose inclusion in the NCAA Tournament field isn't in doubt.

If anything, people watch before March to get a sneak peek of teams they should be betting on IN March. And with 32 more teams, that means that fans who want to know the field have to watch that much regular-season basketball. Meanwhile, the chance to earn a bye gets expanded beyond the four 1-seeds to the Top 32 teams in the country -- something worth playing for in January and February.

(And, yes, there will still even be a "Bubble" -- it just slides down the list. It is arguable whether the incessant Bubble talk is even good for the sport. And don't argue about "quality"; the Bubble has never been about "good/bad" -- just "in/out.")

*"The quality of the extra 32 teams they let in will dilute the pool!" Let's see: If Ohio can beat Georgetown, I'd be curious how the 8 teams that finished ahead of Ohio in the MAC might do. Most early-round NCAA games aren't exactly pretty basketball played at high levels; they're street fights. Let's go back to the foundational point: As long as games are close at the finish or won on buzzer-beaters or feature seed upsets or "no-name" schools beating "name" schools, fans will be happy. And that will happen frequently -- perhaps more often, given the general parity between teams ranked between 1 and 100.

*"It's just about money!" (Yeah? And? So is everything else.)

*"But what about the children!?" (Oh please. Any pundit who brings this up is acting as cynically as the NCAA.)

*"Fans hate it!" Well, they hate it when they are asked about it in a poll attached to a pundit's column that says "NCAA SUCKS!!!" It's the hoops-pundit equivalent of shouting "Death panels!"

Pundits ignore the essential elements of the Tournament that fans love -- upsets, buzzer-beaters, gambling, skipping work -- because that relatively superficial reality devalues their own life's passion. There is a fundamental (and not entirely irrational) fear of irrelevancy at work here.

(Don't worry, pundits! Your jobs are totally safe! In fact, you're more necessary than ever if there are more teams in the Tournament! But first you really have to respect the fans more than you do.)

You get the sense that the college hoops pundits freaking out over expansion have one fear that overrides everything else: That they will expand the Tournament and fans will actually LIKE it. Or, at the very least, fans won't care. Fans will still enjoy the Tournament for all the fundamental reasons that make it great. Coincidentally, all the reasons that the pundits overlook or ignore.

Again, what bothers me most is the knee-jerk intractability of the pundits -- they don't even allow for the idea of expansion to make SOME sense or have ANY benefit. It is all doomsday, when -- clearly -- it's not.

They look and sound ridiculous for it -- and will look even more ridiculous a year from now, when everyone is totally satisfied with the new system. And even though I like the 64-team format very much, it takes a fundamental misunderstanding of fans and why the Tournament is so beloved -- ironic, given that these pundits claim to know and love the game -- to rail against expansion in the way they have.

-- D.S.

For some good arguments, read John Gasaway here and an NYT roundtable here.

April 2 Quickie: Final Four, The 96 Thing

I'm picking Butler to beat Michigan State and Duke to beat West Virginia.

Now that it's settled that we'll actually see a Michigan State-West Virginia championship game, let's focus on the real issue:

I haven't read anyone yet who argues with certainty about the result of either semifinal. That's partly a function of compelling arguments for each team and partly a function of the sheer unpredictability of this year's Tournament.

That makes it particularly fun. I am won over by what I saw last weekend: No team went through a tougher regional path than Butler. And Duke -- perhaps with a little help from some gift calls -- proved that they aren't as chokey as previous editions.

(That said: Giving Izzo 6 days to prepare for a Tournament game feels like path to MSU winning. And we already know from 2008 that West Virginia has Duke's number in the Tournament. But, too little too late, I'm trying not to let past performance influence future results.)

I had to lead today's SN column with my Final Four preview, but if I had my choice, I would have led with yet another defense of the expansion of the NCAA Tournament to 96 teams.

I'm working on a longer argument that I'll post later, but my larger point isn't that 64 isn't great.

It's that the hysterics in the basketball media are absurd, and that expanding the Tournament won't "ruin" anything. When you look at how people actually consume college basketball -- and the NCAA Tournament -- there is nothing to suggest the dire consequences that the college hoops intelligentsia would have you believe.

Anyway, I just deleted 500 words that I was going to put here about it, because I want to save it for a separate post.

More you'll find in today's column:

*UConn over Baylor by 30?

*Aminu will go Top 10, if not Top 5.

*MLB Opener is a sneak-peek of my pick for World Series champs (but I won't tell you whether I'm picking the Yankees to repeat or the Red Sox to re-assert themselves until next week).

*If the Rams were smart, they would skip Bradford, take Suh first, then pick up Colt McCoy in the 2nd.

Check out the complete SN column here. More later.

-- D.S.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

ESPN Local Comes to NYC

I want to talk about this GQ piece by Gabe Sherman that just came out about ESPN Local, but first I want to make a separate point:

In every market that ESPN has gone into with a local site, they have succeeded (if you judge your projects in absolute terms) or won (if you judge them in relative ones).

It isn't a question of whether or not ESPN can do well in local markets -- the evidence is as obvious as it is abundant: They are doing better than the newspaper incumbent.

Now, I'm not sure ESPN even cares whether it is "beating" the incumbent; I think they are focused -- appropriately -- on growing an audience and growing ad revenue.

I don't think we should distinguish between growing audience because they are getting newspaper users to switch or simply getting them to add ESPN to their rotation. Traffic is traffic.

(Newspaper editors, of course, better care about that. But, frankly, it is not ESPN's problem.)

New York presents a very different competitive landscape: In LA and Dallas, ESPN was competing on 1-paper towns. In Chicago and Boston, they entered 2-paper towns.

In New York, they will compete against 3 newspapers, a fairly aggressive sports-news cable network and at least one radio juggernaut.

Of course, the big question is: Who cares how many competitors there are? Avid fans will add ESPN to their rotation; casual fans may migrate from's portal to the local site. ESPN already has a radio station in New York, and they already have a huge NY-centric video library.

In other words: ESPN New York will be fine, just as they have been fine in every other market. Again: They don't need to out-traffic the Times' or Post's sports section. They don't need to poach readers. And they don't need to out-scoop anybody.

The focus of Gabriel Sherman's GQ piece was ostensibly about competition -- but I was left scratching my head. It's not sexy, but the traffic numbers speak for themselves.

(In their press release about their entry into NYC, ESPN revealed traffic numbers for their other local markets. You will NEVER hear a newspaper offer individual section traffic -- not just because the number is small compared to ESPN's, but because the number is small, period.)

I actually want to focus on another aspect of the so-called "competition" between newspaper reporters/editors and the ESPN Local reporters and editors who were hired from newspapers. Here was my takeaway from the article:

You can take the sportswriter out of newspapers but you can't take newspapers out of sportswriter.

In explaining why ESPN was making successful inroads into local online sports, Sherman unintentionally showcased why newspapers are failing:

I was baffled by the article's focus on scoops -- particularly scoops that I call "inevitable discovery." DeMarcus Ware's new contract will come out eventually.

The anecdotal focus on the ESPN editor catching up to a radio competitor who had "broken" a story explains, in very clear terms, what the problem is. They are focused on the wrong thing.

Scoops are the most overvalued asset in sports media. As fast as you can break something -- increasingly on Twitter -- I can have it. Everyone has it. Consumers have it.

ESPN's local sites -- and, for that matter, newspaper sites -- are not going to succeed or fail based on their volume of scoops -- particularly ones that everyone has within minutes anyway.

They will succeed based on creating a sense of engagement with their consumer: Analysis that tells you why the scoop matters. Depth of related things to look at -- ideally including video highlights. A reason to come back every day -- even, ideally, multiple times a day.

Despite details about the ESPN Local writers blogging and filing and updating and going "cross-platform," this is not some new-fangled workflow: THIS IS THE MINIMUM EFFORT.

What I saw was fairly relieved (or desperate) ex-newspaper people applying the same old newspaper thinking to an entirely new medium.

These newspaper folks aren't escaping newspapers' fundamental editorial problem -- they are simply taking it with them into a new medium, which can't be good for anyone.

Jason Fry pointed this out a few weeks ago: If newspapers are losing talent to ESPN, the solution is to innovate into the medium, not fight a scoop war that has been outdated for at least a decade.

And ESPN does itself no favors by telling the ex-newspaper folks to simply keep doing what they do best -- what they do best, in part, helped undermine the newspaper industry.

Obviously, there is room for breaking news that drives the news cycle and the traditional opinion column that puts it in perspective and -- yes -- even some added-value form of the classic "game story."

But ESPN has a ton of talent in-house that is unconstrained by calcified norms of newspaper sports reporting -- I hope it sends that talent out to help the ex-newspaper folks figure out a new way of thinking about how to serve consumers.

I'm not trying to indict all of ESPN Local's talent -- this was simply what Sherman portrayed in his story, and that's what I'm reacting to here. Much of ESPN Local's success is precisely because they approach coverage with as their framework, not

(I love a few of the things that ESPN New York is planning to do, like a fun tool that lets users create their own tabloid-style back-page headline. They should pick the 3 best submissions from users and let the other users vote, running the winner on the front of the site as the lead art.)

And I'm also not trying to indict all local newspaper coverage. Despite (or perhaps thanks to) the commitment it has to the print side, the New York Times has a terrific sports section -- and they are as forward-thinking online as any newspaper sports section in the country. And, obviously, the New York Post has a style that, in newspaper form, pioneered the compelling notion of "link-baiting" (before any of us knew what "link-baiting" was).

The point is this: Sherman's story was less about Newspaper vs. ESPN Local than it was an unintended expose that many of the same old ways and mindsets of covering teams in newspapers have migrated online, only with more job security.

-- D.S.

April 1 Quickie: Tiger, Final 4, More

Here's a thought experiment: Go back one year from today -- April 1, 2009 -- and pretend you read a news report or blog post that said, basically:

Tiger Woods cheats on his wife with more than a dozen women of various levels of reputation.

You would think it was the weakest April Fool's Day joke of all time -- so absurd it doesn't even come close to being believable. Google changing its name to "Topeka" is less far-fetched.

April Fool's Day has always been pretty lame -- in sports, it's particularly dumb, because it is so easy to come up with a fake or flimsy rumor and spread it.

For gosh sake, that's like 90 percent of sports media on NORMAL days.

But in the Post-Tiger Era (or "Post-Tiger-Scandal" Era), there isn't a prank or hoax you could pull that causes as much cognitive dissonance as this very real Tiger story.

And the Vanity Fair piece just pushes it along, with all sorts of new details. Just in time for the Masters next week.

More you'll find in today's SN column:

*96 teams in the NCAA Tournament isn't the end of the world and it doesn't ruin the event.

*No one should be surprised by the Colt McCoy accurate-but-no-arm-strength workout yesterday. That's how he rolled for his entire career -- successfully, I should add. As long as his shoulder is OK, I'm actually bullish on McCoy as a pro QB. As always: In the right system.

*I'm not big on the NBA regular season as some sort of harbinger for the playoffs -- however, I do constantly see great symbolism: Like the Thunder beating the Celtics in Boston last night.

*My starting fantasy SS is Elvis Andrus, so I'm hardly one to talk, but I'd stay away from Jose Reyes as an early-round fantasy pick.

*With his new Nike deal, LeBron staying in Cleveland just got a lot more intriguing -- as before, I think it will come down to whether or not he wins a championship there this year.

Complete SN column here. More later.

- D.S.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Tonight: Bob Hurley Documentary

I could argue that Bob Hurley is one of the best coaches in the history of basketball.

If you factor in preps, college and the pros, he has won with the best of them -- state titles (national record) and national titles (a couple of them). His teams play hard -- the "right way" -- and not necessarily under the easiest conditions.

His 2008 team at St. Anthony was, in my opinion, the best high school team of all time -- that includes a short list of the legendary Dunbar (Baltimore) '83 team and all those Stu Vetter Flint Hill teams (early 90s) and Montrose Christian teams (mid-00s). That year, St. Anthony had 6 D-1 players in the senior class alone, plus junior Dominic Cheek, who signed with Villanova.

During that season, I worked with a production company that was creating a documentary about Bob Hurley, St. Anthony and that 2008 team -- I did a bit of development work for them on the front end, but that was about the extent of my participation. But the film -- "The Street Stops Here" -- finally makes its national premiere tonight on your local PBS station -- probably 10 p.m., but check your local listings.

I had a chance to see the finished version last week at a screening, and it is excellent. It is a terrific story, with amazing footage and extremely high production values. I think you'll enjoy it. Obviously, I'm entirely biased, but if you like a good sports documentary, you'll like it. It is as good as the best of the "30 for 30" documentaries.

Check out the trailer below -- I linked to it when the trailer came out a year ago -- and tune in to watch tonight.

03/31 Quickie: Final Four, UConn, More

Mrs. Quickie -- Top 15 in the Daily Quickie Readers group of the Tournament Challenge -- cooked such a delicious Passover seder meal last night that I was inspired for the lead of today's SN column, asking "four questions" for the Final four.

I tried to be fair, but ultimately, for Duke, I was stuck with something along the lines of "Why? Why?!?!" (This, despite the fact that I have a standing invite to Jon Scheyer to attend our seder.)

More in today's column:

*UConn women: Best team ever?
*Final Four players to watch
*College hoops coaching carouseling
*Defending Dez Bryant (unexpected!)
*How can you not love Pat Venditte?

Complete SN column here. More later.

-- D.S.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

03/30 Quickie: Bradford, Stanford, More

I know I said I would have a post about Sam Bradford yesterday afternoon, but it ended up being the lead of today's SN column.

The gist is this: I am willing to stipulate that Bradford has a terrific arm -- hell, he could be the best pure passer in the NFL.

My question is: What evidence is there that the guy can take 8-10 clobberings a game by NFL D-linemen, when mere BYU (or Texas) D-linemen knocked him out of last season?

It's not about whether he can make the throws -- it's whether he can take the hits. And I'm not sure I want to be on the hook for $60 million with that big of an issue left unknown.

Mostly, I don't understand why the draftniks don't make this more of an issue. It seems like a huge risk factor, even for a guy as talented as Bradford.

I'm comfortable with the comparison to Troy Aikman -- but Aikman didn't spend his final season of college football out because his shoulder couldn't take a minimal beating.

More you'll find in today's column:

*I'm not sure there is an ending to a college basketball game as insane as what happened between Stanford and Xavier last night. TWO missed open lay-ups by X, then a baseline-to-baseline buzzer-beater FTW by Stanford -- all to advance to the Final Four.

*I'm totally comfortable with Wall and Cousins as 1st-team All-Americans. Less so for Scottie Reynolds, who feels like an inertia pick. My bigger issue is that they name these teams before the NCAA Tournament -- what's the point?

*Why doesn't Oregon offer Tom Izzo $10 million a year for 10 years, guaranteed? It's not like they can't afford it. Let's see him turn that down. (I'm sure he would, but still. Some marginal raise from his current salary isn't impressive at all.)

There's a lot more in there today. See the whole thing here.

-- D.S.

Monday, March 29, 2010

03/29 Quickie: Butler, Izzo, Duke, WVU

There's plenty of time this week for Butler bandwagoneering -- by Saturday, you may hate them. You will certainly come to hate the Butler-"Hoosiers" references, which are already cliched.

For today's SN column, I needed to take an opportunity to praise Tom Izzo: My argument is that Izzo's Final Four success is the defining achievement of the last decade in college hoops. If you're willing to accept a liberal definition of "decade" stretching from 1999 to 2010, Izzo has 6 FF's in 12 years. No coach has had more success, using the currency that college hoops values most.

We are living in the Izzo Dynasty.

Of course, the column also talks about Butler. And rips Kentucky for its failure. (And, yes, the season was a failure.) And -- ugh -- praises Duke for breaking back into the Final Four.

I have convinced myself of four different national champions in the last 12 hours -- I'm rooting for Butler (and against Duke), obviously. But you can make very strong arguments for Michigan State (Izzo factor) and WVU (already shown it can beat Duke in the Tournament).

But let's get to the fun stuff: The Bracket comps.

My bracket is in the 40th percentile nationally. While this seems horrible, you have to remember that I finished in the 18th percentile last year -- so, for now, a big improvement. Relatively.

In the Daily Quickie Readers group of more than 400 entries, you will see a "Shanoff" name near the top -- that's Mrs. Quickie, currently tied for 15th and in the 97th percentile nationally.

(Obama's bracket is in the tank: He's in the 56th percentile -- missing Kansas State and Kentucky crushed his bracket. If you followed the National Bracket, you'd be in the 70th percentile -- certainly respectable, given the crazy results of this tournament.)

My lesson is that I can't win -- in the years where I go unconventional, the result is conventional; in the years where I go conventional, the result is unconventional.

The constant is that my Achilles' heel continues to be putting way too much stock in what happened last year -- or previous years. Ironic for someone so devoted to "instant history."

Of course, hindsight is a killer in bracket-picking. We can all look at this Final Four and rationalize why we should have taken them. It's a futile exercise.

Complete SN column here
. More later -- I may not be able to go through the day without putting some pressure on Sam Bradford. Someone needs to.

-- D.S.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Sunday (WVU!) Quickie

Wow. Obviously, Northern Iowa over Kansas was THE upset of the Tournament, but the WAY that Kentucky lost to West Virginia was just as jaw-dropping.

Even without any 2-point shots in the 1st half, WVU played brilliantly -- precisely the kind of game (and game-plan) that an underdog needs to knock off a powerful favorite. Timely 3s. Unlikely heroes. That confounding 1-3-1 defense. Kentucky freaking out under the pressure.

Let's talk about UK for a second: Their season is a failure. Forget a championship; anything less than a Final Four trip was going to seal a season of underachievement. They have 4 NBA Lottery picks in the starting lineup -- with another NBA player or two on the bench.

But they were young. And untested. And, for the first time this Tournament, the "Big East factor" -- playing tough competition, night in and night out -- was obvious as an advantage.

It was a considerable upset, if only because it knocked Butler in the Final Four from the top of the headlines. But the Bulldogs win over K-State was hard-fought -- for the second straight game, Butler excelled in the final 2 minutes, where its opponent collapsed.

Butler in the Final Four -- let alone a Final Four in its hometown of Indianapolis -- is a tremendous storyline for the next week.

And, based on the quality of the teams that Butler beat in this regional -- 1-seed Syracuse, 2-seed Kansas State -- it would be crazy to consider them an underdog to whoever comes out of that Michigan State-Tennessee regional final.

Looking ahead to today's game: Michigan State-Tennessee is the most random regional final in a long time; either team will be a surprise in the Final Four, but the novelty of Michigan State's appearance this year is mitigated by the fact that Tom Izzo is the best Tournament coach in college hoops history.

Meanwhile, I'm sure CBS folks are rooting very hard for Duke -- they really need the marquee name in the Final Four.

I'm rooting for Baylor, for two reasons: (1) My natural anti-Duke bias, and (2) I love the idea of a no-1-seed Final Four, the antidote to the "all-1" Final Four of 2008. Frankly, I think Baylor has precisely the kind of profile of a team that has kicked Duke's ass in the Tournament recently.

Let's consider that Final Four: Butler. West Virginia. Baylor. A short-handed Michigan State or short-handed (from earlier this season) Tennessee. One of those teams -- or (shudder) Duke -- will be national champs.

Not much cachet for the majority of sports fans -- aside from Butler's faux-"Cinderella" (but very real "Hoosiers") factor -- but totally random and (mostly) unexpected.

How could you ask for more than that?

-- D.S.