Saturday, April 09, 2011

04/09 (Masters & Manny) Quickie

Chicago -- When I graduated from college and stayed in Chicago to begin my career with a scrappy little online-sports start-up, my friends and I used to have this weekend ritual of going to The Original Pancake House on Bellevue Place.

No matter how tired/hungover we were, we would drag ourselves out at 7:45 or so and roll from Wrigleyville to Rush St. Our server, almost exclusively, was Cindy, a lovely woman who we had a nice relationship with.

This morning -- in town for a wedding for one of my wife's closest friends (and to see my 3-week-old nephew) -- I wandered over to the Pancake House for breakfast, sat at the first-available table and... was waited on by Cindy.

She didn't recognize me -- 15 years is still 15 years -- and I didn't want to make either of us uncomfortable by saying "Hey, remember me and my buddies?" I secretly hoped she would say "The Two-by-Four with eggs scrambled and patty sausage, right?" I was getting the legendary Apple Pancake, anyway.

My grandparents on my dad's side lived in an apartment on Bellevue -- it always felt glamorous, and I spent a lot of time there, on family trips and when I was up the road in college. The Pancake House was always a part of that. The street will always have a lot of emotional resonance for me, and walking down it this morning, I was struck by the memories that flood back as I looked around.

Manny Ramirez is just a bit older than I am. He debuted for the Indians at the start of my junior year of college; he left baseball in ignominy yesterday. His professional career has lasted a little longer than mine, but they have basically been the same length -- until now, when he ambles off into whatever quiet place he wants to be in and I continue what is hopefully a new trajectory upward.

It took a little while for me, but I inevitably ended up in the "Manny is the best right-handed hitter of this generation" camp, PEDs or not. He was eccentric. He didn't cultivate the media (to say the least, and they punished him for that). He took some PEDs (something that it's simply impossible to single him out for when an entire generation did it -- to say nothing of the legion of all-time great players who abused amphetamines). And he had genius-level ability, to echo something Joe Posnanski said about Manny this morning. I find myself focusing more on his hitting genius than his quizzical decision-making about what to put in his body.

Just as Manny retires, Tiger resurges. It was a strange juxtaposition to follow the "Manny!" coverage, only to have it flow into "Tiger!" talk, as Woods delivered birdie after birdie, playing himself into the same old fascination that he held for years (right before doing something far stupider than Manny ever did).

The Masters storyline now is whether Tiger can catch the kids, the generation that grew up watching Tiger and seem to be impervious to his aura -- that is, until he is a shot or two back on Masters Saturday or Sunday. On the one hand, they have never known golf NOT dominated by Tiger; on the other hand, they have NEVER known golf not dominated by Tiger.

Today on Quickish: Keep up with the Masters, get a bit of day-after to Manny and a nice selection of recommendations of stuff that's just good.

Now, to walk off this apple pancake....

-- D.S.

Thursday, April 07, 2011

04/07 (Masters) Quickie

For the last dozen years or so, I think that all golf majors -- including the Masters -- come down to a binary choice:

Tiger or the field?

And, fairly consistently (at least right up until all that unfortunate business with the adult film stars), I was happy to pick "Tiger" every time.

It is somewhat heretical then that I am now firmly in the "Field" camp. In fact, count me among the folks who agree with Joe Posnanski that while we'd LIKE to see Tiger do well, the far greater probability is that his best years are far behind him and that he is on an irrevocable downward slide.

I'm not even sure I'm rooting for Tiger to do well -- I mean, it would be compelling to see him have a resurgence, but perhaps because I'm a "Tiger over the field" person, I have always found his failure to be so surprising that I find it more appealing than his success.

I feel the same way about other athletes/teams that have a vibe of inevitability of winning: The Patriots, the Red Sox and Yankees, Duke basketball, Ohio State football. Their losses are far more dramatic than their wins.

And so as the Masters starts, I pick "the field" -- unfortunately, this year, no one will give me that bet. The "Tiger kinda sucks" bandwagon is a bit more crowded.


Red Sox 0-5 start. I don't get the panic. It's no different than a 5-game losing streak in July. And it's easy to explain away the first bunch; the Rangers appear to be the real deal, particularly offensively. Again, I'll default to "The Red Sox will work themselves out" and I will simply be pleasantly surprised if they don't.


Kyrie Irving goes pro: His legacy at Duke is slightly less than another one-and-done, Corey Maggette -- who at least was part of a Final Four team and, in my opinion, the only unguardable player against UConn in the national title game, making Coach K's decision to bench him for being awesome all the more quizzical. That said: Irving will be the No. 1 player taken in the 2011 NBA Draft; that puts him as high as any talent that has come through the program -- Elton Brand-ish, if you will. But really, Irving's Duke career is a big ol' mess of "What if...?"

-- D.S.

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

04/05 (UConn) Quickie

A few thoughts about last night's game:

*Simply because of the epically bad shooting performance, it is possible that people will remember this game as ugly.

But more likely, we will simply remember UConn as champs -- few bring up Maryland's godawful win over Indiana in the 2002 title game.

We will remember Butler's run to back-to-back title games, which is a pretty good consolation prize; they get to keep that legacy no matter how they finished the second game.

We will remember VCU, going from "First Four" to "Final Four."

If the legacy of this Tournament and this Butler team is their awful shooting in one game, then it really is a signal of how superlatively bad this single game was.

But I don't think that happens. I think we remember UConn's epic run, we remember Butler's back-to-back and we remember VCU.

*That said, what strikes me as most remarkable about last night's game is that for the second straight year, Butler -- in a losing performance -- eclipsed the champion.

The legacy of last year's title game isn't Duke winning the championship; it is that Gordon Hayward's halfcourt buzzer-beater that would have won the game almost went in.

And the legacy of this year's title game isn't UConn winning the championship; it is that Butler couldn't hit the broad side of an Indiana barn. In a Bizarro twist, the shots -- again -- almost went in.

(That's unfair and doesn't give nearly enough credit to UConn's defense, which as SI's Luke Winn put it, was the greatest defensive performance ever in a title game.)

*I don't think we will focus on the horrible shooting. Then again, I don't think we will focus on UConn winning the title (or Duke winning the title a year ago).

I think this goes down as the Butler Era -- the "micro-dynasty," a two-year run that set a new standard for smaller programs, turned Brad Stevens into America's most beloved coach and captivated the country for those two months of March when everyone cares about college basketball for a few weeks.

-- D.S.

Monday, April 04, 2011

UConn Beats Butler for National Title!

The Quickie Jinx strikes again. That was an amazing, historic run by UConn -- 5 straight in the Big East Tournament, then 6 straight in the NCAA Tournament, including beating a terrific defensive (if not terrific offensive) team in Butler. Yes, I was convinced Butler was going to win.

I really want to credit UConn's defense for Butler's problems on offense, but they just kept missing shots that were totally make-able. Did they choke? That feels inconceivable. But something went horribly wrong at the worst moment. The jokes on Twitter during the game were brutal.

It's still an amazing run by Butler. And an even more amazing run by UConn. More later.

-- D.S.

On Brad Stevens

Brad Stevens shouldn't leave Butler.

Why should he? He got to two straight national-title games there. Why would he have a better shot at that if he was at a "big" program? (Let's ask Bill Self or Jamie Dixon or...)

Here's the amazing thing about college basketball: Presuming you get into the Tournament -- and Stevens will, perennially -- all you have to do is win 4 straight to be a "Final Four coach."

And, as Stevens has proven, he can win 4 straight against the best of them, against all styles, against all talents.

That's it: Four straight for a Final Four. Five straight to make the title game. Six straight to win a national title -- which I still think he'll win tonight.

The only thing Butler can't offer Stevens is money, which is why I advocated my alma mater Northwestern offering Stevens $4 million a year for 10 years -- guaranteed -- to come to Evanston and be the Midwest's Coach K.

Don't think he's worth it? The lifetime value of Stevens -- already one of the top 3 coaches in college basketball (No. 1 if you factor in age) -- vastly exceeds any other coach out there. He should be paid like Coach K, Tom Izzo, Billy Donovan, Roy Williams, John Calipari.

I agree with those who say Stevens can pick his next job, and it can be at the highest level: Duke, UNC, Kentucky, Indiana (not a great job anymore, but Stevens' home state).

Duke and UNC won't be offered to him -- no matter how much their alums might ask -- and for some reason, Indiana feels like they have a few years before they inevitably fire Tom Crean and make a play for Stevens. Maybe they know IU is Stevens' dream job and he is more than willing to wait patiently at Butler for it, even if it takes 5 years.

The one wildcard is Kentucky. I don't know if John Calipari wants to coach in the NBA again, but if UK came open and they came calling, that's a hard job for Stevens to turn down.

And yet I think he would. (How awesome would that be?) I think he is entirely happy with Butler. He has shown he can win at the highest level there.

What more does a coach need?

-- D.S.

04/04 (One Shining Butler) Quickie

Butler. That Butler has already accomplished the largely unthinkable -- making two straight national-title games -- is impressive enough.

But tonight Butler is going to win a national championship. It will be unprecedented in the modern history of college basketball. And it will become one of the most amazing championships in the history of sports -- it is heresy, but the odds of this are far longer than the US hockey team beating the USSR in 1980 in a one-game, anything-can-happen miracle.

I appreciate that some folks think that UConn will continue its own unlikely run -- as I said yesterday, there is a probabilistic argument that UConn's 10 straight in '11 is even less likely than Butler's 5 straight one year, 5 straight the next.

But after watching Butler the past three weeks -- defensively dismantling everyone from Old Dominion to Pitt to Florida to VCU and showing a rebounding prowess that belies the "mid-major" status -- I would be shocked if they didn't win.

Mostly -- and predictably -- I'm ready for the instant history of the most unlikely (and most compelling) champion in the history of college basketball, if not all of college sports. If not all of sports. It is so syrupy-sweet that you almost kind of want to feel a backlash, to hate them. But they are entirely likeable.

Not because they are "scrappy" -- ugh -- but because they are stone-cold assassins. They are better coached than everyone else. They are better prepared than everyone else.They execute on the things that matter -- defense and rebounding -- better than everyone else.

They expect a championship -- anything less than a title is a failure. That is a champion's mindset. And that's what makes them closers in the final minutes of every game they play.

It's not that things like this don't happen -- it's that they aren't supposed to happen. The system is rigged to preclude an outcome like Butler winning the national title.

This would be a victory for the underdog, yes. But it's also a victory for people who love worthy champions.


I was totally stunned by the double-dip of upsets at the Women's Final Four last night.

There is a good chance that the expected UConn-Stanford title game -- the rematch after Stanford snapped UConn's endless winning streak earlier this season -- would have been one of the most highly anticipated women's college hoops games of all time.

Will casual fans appreciate the upset storylines from Texas A&M and Notre Dame to settle in on the couch and watch? Or, alternatively, is this the worst thing that could happen to the women's tournament this (or any) year?

This is the dilemma: Upsets -- particularly staggering upsets like we saw last night -- are the lifeblood of college basketball's postseason. Just look at the love for Butler and VCU (or even UConn and Kentucky, who almost certainly weren't supposed to be in the Final Four).

And yet women's hoops relies heavily on those big brands -- UConn, Stanford, Tennessee. Notre Dame is great (and Texas A&M has proven themselves more than worthy), but I'm not sure either resonate with casual fans yet.

But there is this: Why does women's college hoops have to grow its fan base? Why can't it simply exist for its passionate fans -- no different than NASCAR or the NHL or, dare I say, men's college basketball, where "niche" status (at least from November to February) is only a matter of degree, not kind.

For passionate fans of women's college hoops, this is a stunning, exhilarating, refreshing turn of events last night -- something to be celebrated. Even if most of the rest of the country tunes out because the biggest names were bounced out.

-- D.S.

Sunday, April 03, 2011

Sunday 04/03 (Butler) Quickie

It's a shame we had to pick sides between Butler vs. VCU. But in the end, it was a can't-lose proposition: Cinderella is playing for the national title -- yes, even a "Cinderella" making its second straight appearance in the national title game.

It is impossible to not root for Butler... unless you like UConn. And as well as UConn has been playing -- more on that in a second -- Butler is playing even better. And if any team can stop UConn (hold them off is more appropriate), it's the Bulldogs.

Now, an entirely legitimate question:

What is more difficult: Winning 10 straight in a single postseason, encompassing the toughest conference tournament plus the NCAA Tournament? Or winning 5 straight in two straight NCAA Tournaments, considering your team is pretty damn good?

It's easy to say: Butler going to two straight national-title games is the most impressive thing ever! I'm inclined to say that, and that's in large part because of the team's environmental profile -- the small school, the small conference. But that last year's finalist with most of its team back made it back to the finals is hardly inconceivable. It's a longshot, but in hindsight, not really.

Probabilistically, it is harder to win 10 straight over 4 straight weeks under the conditions that UConn has than to win 5 + 5 in the NCAA Tournament separated by a year.

That doesn't make what Butler has done any less amazing. When they win -- and I cannot believe the level of doubt that continues to exist about this team when facing a "superior" opponent -- it is going to be the single-greatest championship story (and thus ANY story) in the history of college basketball, eclipsing what I consider the two greatest stories in the history of the Tournament: Texas Western beating Kentucky and Villanova beating Georgetown.

I'm already eying that shirt you see below. I feel like I'm going to want it for posterity -- for all the talk about mid-major parity, there is at least the chance that it will be years (if not decades) before we see a mid-major win the national title again. (I'm actually partial to replica college basketball shorts -- don't ask -- and eyeing a pair of Butler shorts if they win. And then there's this amazing T-shirt that will go on top of the order.)

You all know I'm partial to Florida's 06-07 team -- I think that Noah-Horford-Brewer-Humphrey-Green is the greatest starting five of the modern era of college basketball, precisely because they won two straight titles (declining the NBA in between), which gives them an edge over the Fab Five, the second greatest starting five in modern college hoops history.

Now, this Butler team doesn't have the same starting five as a year ago -- as has been noted plenty of times, this team managed to return to the title game without its best player from 2010, Gordon Hayward -- but that a mid-major went to two straight national-title games is more impressive than Florida's back-to-back titles, more impressive than Kentucky's three straight Final Fours from '96-98 (which included two titles), more impressive than Duke in 91-92.

It's Butler. (And it's OK to keep saying that: It's Butler.)

I can't remember a moment when I was rooting harder for a team I didn't have a personal allegiance to. This is a huge moment in college hoops history -- and sports history, frankly.

Even if Butler doesn't win, it is impossible to diminish what they have accomplished, no less than we could diminish what the Fab Five did as frosh and sophs.

But if Butler can win. Oh, if they can win... unreal. But so real.

-- D.S.