Butler Basketball: At-Large Bid Hopes Still Alive

“We’ve got to change everything we’re doing right now. What we’ve been doing the past nine games hasn’t worked, so we have to go back to the drawing board and change it.”

Butler sophomore Gordon Hayward told me that following the Bulldogs’ 72-65 loss to No. 13 Georgetown at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night. It struck me as a bit dramatic; after all, Butler was 6-3 and ranked 20th in the country.

But Hayward, despite his 24 points and eight rebounds, was frustrated. His team, ranked No. 10 in the preseason coaches’ poll, failed to win any of its match-ups with other ranked teams, dropping games to Minnesota and Clemson in Anaheim before falling to the Hoyas. The team that exceeded expectations last year en route to a 26-6 record, another Horizon League regular season title, and a berth in the NCAA Tournament, was struggling.

The media was starting to question whether Butler could still earn an at-large bid, as they did a season ago. The Bulldogs’ next two games were certainly going to be important. Yesterday, they took a step in the right direction by beating No. 15 Ohio State 74-66. (Hayward again had 24, and shot much better from the field.)

Skeptics will be quick to point out that it was a Buckeye squad playing without Evan Turner. Does that lessen the quality of the win? Absolutely, but let’s wait and see how Ohio State fares without its star. If the Buckeyes can adjust and start winning some games, Butler’s ‘W’ will look better.

Butler’s next two opponents are Xavier and UAB (it also has a yet-to-be-determined BracketBusters game in late February). Neither is ranked, but they’d still be quality victories. My point is, those who have written off the Bulldogs are making a mistake. The Butler program has earned national respect and should get some leeway come March. I’m not saying a third-place finish in the Horizon League will get them a bid, but the committee won’t overlook the fact that eight of Butler’s 12 nonconference games are away from home.

Here’s head coach Brad Stevens’ take: “I look at every win as really meaningful. I know sometimes the media doesn’t. They just count certain wins as meaningful and others as not.” He noted his squad went to Northwestern and handed the Wildcats their only loss. “We’ll see what’s meaningful at the end of the year,” he added.

The next two games will be very important for Butler. After the loss to Georgetown, many felt those games would be irrelevant.

Congress Approves Anti-BCS Bill

I love sports and I don’t appreciate it when people tell me “it’s just a game” after Michigan loses to Ohio State or the Mets get eliminated from playoff contention. It bothers me even more when people take the time to explain to me that there are so many more important things in life than who wins a basketball game.

Because, uh, no kidding.

Even the most passionate, obsessed, die-hard sports fans realize this. Just because someone gets upset when their favorite team loses doesn’t mean they think it’s more devastating than cancer or war. We sports fans have perspective. We realize that when it comes to sports, like everything in life, “it’s all relative.”

Unfortunately, Congress doesn’t share this belief. At least that’s the message it sent when it approved legislation that prohibits referring to the BCS title game as a national championship game.

It’s beyond egregious that taxpayer money is going towards something so frivolous. Don’t get me wrong, the college football playoff debate is an interesting one, and certainly a worthwhile topic for college football enthusiasts. But for politicians to spend their working hours on this is absurd.

My favorite part of the news articles written about this bill is that many of them mention that President Obama said he is in favor of a playoff. Yes, he did, but that’s only because he was asked. He didn’t say he was going to spend time pushing policy that would eliminate the BCS.

But that’s what an entire Congressional committee will spend its time doing. I could mention all the problems in our country — the economy, healthcare, Wall Street corruption, etc. — and although that does make this news even more unbelievable, something like this shouldn’t be happening even if our country was prospering.

If our elected leaders continue to waste time and money on such insignificant debate, America’s road to recovery might be even longer than anticipated.

BCS Formula Needs to Remove Preseason Poll

Now that it’s official — undefeateds Cincinnati, TCU, and Boise State won’t be playing for the National Championship — fans will start arguing how their school was a victim of a postseason snub.

But they’ll be wrong.

Their favorite teams were slighted before the season even began.

The BCS is far from perfect, but with a contract through 2014, college football would be better off if critics spent their time developing ways to improve the system as opposed to petitioning for a playoff. One fairly simple change is to remove preseason polls.

Let’s take a look at this year’s preseason coaches’ poll (that’s the one that factors into the BCS), which ranked Florida No. 1, to see where the eventual undefeated teams were placed. There’s Texas (2), Alabama (5), Boise (16), TCU (17), and Cincinnati (NR).

Not surprisingly, of these teams, the two ranked highest in the preseason are the two meeting for the title. The voters are, simply put, stubborn. “Not so fast, my friend!” you might say, pointing out the impressive rise of the other three schools, which have all climbed into the top six. Sorry, I don’t see that as those teams moving up — I see it as the losing teams moving down. In other words, you can move up if you win, sure, but only if those above you lose.

The voters of the Harris Poll, another component of the BCS, agree with at least some of my thinking and don’t release their rankings until after week four. I might recommend pushing it back an additional week or two, but at least the voters get to see the teams in action for a few weeks before making their judgments. In their opening poll, they placed Texas and Alabama Nos. 2 and 3, respectively, but had Boise (5), Cincinnati (10), and TCU (11) much higher than the coaches did in their first poll.

Here’s the thing: I’m not arguing that Alabama and Texas shouldn’t be playing for the title. At the same time, if the title game paired any two of the undefeated teams I wouldn’t be complaining. It’s a remarkable feat to go through an entire season unblemished. (And, if you want to look at out of conference games, Boise’s win over Oregon, TCU’s win at Clemson, and Cincy’s win at Oregon State look a lot better than anything Texas did outside of the Big 12; just sayin’…)

What I am arguing for is the tweaking of a system that is giving unfair advantage to certain teams. With no actual results to analyze, a team is placed in the preseason poll based on name brand, where it finished in last year’s final poll, and how many skill position players are returning. The TCU’s and Boise’s aren’t exactly in the forefront of the voters’ minds in August, leaving them in a position where they have to jump more teams than they probably should have to en route to a top ranking.

To be fair, even if there were no preseason rankings, even if the voters, the computers, and everything else that goes into the BCS were not collected until the conference championships were over, it’s possible we’d still have the same title match-up we have now. And that’s fine. But given the apparent unwillingness of voters to be flexible with their ballots, preseason polls must go (and maybe there should be some sort of counseling or something to remind voters that they can change their opinions on teams throughout the season).

The little guys (non BCS-conference schools) have enough hurdles to climb. They can’t do anything, schedule-wise, about the majority of their games — victories against almost all of their conference opponents don’t carry much weight.

If a minor change can help remove one of those obstacles, it should be done. Getting rid of the postseason injustices should start in the preseason.

MAAC Basketball Preview

Conference play in the MAAC began tonight with Marist visiting Fairfield. There are three more games tomorrow night. So I thought it would be worthwhile to review what the MAAC has done so far this young season. I’ll go in reverse order of preseason conference ranking which, along with the three preseason All-Conference teams, was voted on by the coaches.

Marist (10)
The Red Foxes are 0-4. Their average margin of defeat is 17.5 points. They’re probably not going to be all that competitive this year.

Iona (9)
The Gaels (4-2) have been a pleasant surprise, beating Boston University in their opener and playing three competitive games in the Old Spice Classic in Orlando, losing by five to Florida State, falling in overtime to Baylor, and beating Creighton. Iona has reached the 80-point mark twice this season, and their deep bench allows them to employ the up-tempo, full-court press attack that coach Kevin Willard prefers. They may be a year away from being a serious competitor in the MAAC, but I think the Gaels have proven they are a dangerous team right now.

Manhattan (8)
The Jaspers are 4-2 but have no quality wins. We’ll know a lot more about Manhattan the next time they return home, which isn’t until Jan. 4 — Friday starts a tough stretch of seven straight road games (which includes four conference games and a trip to Vanderbilt.)

Canisius (7)
Much like Manhattan, Canisius has a winning record (3-2) but hasn’t beaten anyone of note. They open conference play tomorrow at home against Loyola. The Golden Griffins have three players averaging at least 14 points per game.

Loyola (t5)
It’s become a theme: Loyola is 4-2 but doesn’t have any impressive wins. Preseason second-teamer Jamal Barney is averaging 12.3 points and 4.3 rebounds a game for the Greyounds.

Saint Peter’s (t5)
St. Pete’s is the team that played the 6 a.m. game as part of ESPN’s 24 hours of college hoops. They won that game, shaking off a season-opening loss at the buzzer to Seton Hall. Since, they’ve had a couple of bad losses and now sit at 2-3. Second-teamer Wesley Jenkins leads the Peacocks in scoring with 14.4 per game.

Fairfield (4)
Unfortunately for the Stags, they’re probably not going to be as good as their preseason ranking suggests. Much like last year, injuries have taken a toll on Fairfield. Second-team preseason selection Greg Nero, who missed a lot of time last year due to back spasms, has not played yet this season and might miss the entire season after having offseason sinus surgery. Without Nero, the Stags are far less dangerous. They’re 4-2 but lost their only two real tests (against Maryland and Hofstra).

Rider (3)
The Broncs (5-3) got a huge win to start the season, winning at then-No. 19 Mississippi State. They have cooled off a bit since, suffering 30+ point losses at Virginia and Kentucky and then losing to Sam Houston State. They are coming off a win against St. Joe’s, though. Rider has three players on the three preseason teams, including preseason Player of the Year Ryan Thompson, and is considered to be one of the two teams with a chance to dethrone Siena.

Niagara (2)
The Purple Eagles (4-3) lost by four at Auburn to open the season and have been somewhat quiet since. But they certainly have the talent to win the MAAC, and with four straight conference home games to start MAAC play, it’s fair to assume they’ll likely be at the top of the conference standings when they visit Siena Jan. 9.

Siena (1)
The Saints have been a disappointment so far, losing to Temple, St. John’s, and Georgia Tech, essentially eliminating themselves from getting an at-large bid should they fail to repeat as MAAC Tournament champs. First-team selection Edwin Ubiles has been hampered by a knee injury, but Siena has plenty of talent to pick up the slack.

Big Ten-ACC Challenge 2009

The Big Ten/ACC Challenge tips off tomorrow night, and I had intended to write about how this was the year. How after 10 straight losses — the entire history of the Challenge — the Big Ten was finally going to win. Then I looked at the match-ups. I’m no longer very confident.

I’m a fan of Big Ten athletics but I don’t claim it’s the best conference every year, in football or basketball. I did, however, enter this hoops season believing the Big Ten was the best conference in the country. It has a couple of really good teams (Michigan State and Purdue) and aside from its two worst (Indiana and Iowa), is very strong top to bottom. Most of the teams in the consensus three through nine (Michigan, Ohio State, Illinois) are very good.

The ACC, on the other hand, appears to be in a bit of a down year. North Carolina, despite its high preseason ranking, has a ton of young, unproven players. Duke should be strong again, but overall the conference simply doesn’t have the depth of the Big Ten. The Big Ten takes a lot of flack for whatever reason, and its winless streak in the Challenge was not helping matters. Yet it seemed to be in great position to end that streak this year.

So why am I less certain now than I was before I knew the match-ups? Let’s take a look:

Penn State at Virginia
Wake Forest at Purdue
Maryland at Indiana
Northwestern at North Carolina State
Michigan State at North Carolina
Virginia Tech at Iowa
Illinois at Clemson
Boston College at Michigan
Minnesota at Miami
Duke at Wisconsin
Florida State at Ohio State

The Challenge sets up favorably for the ACC. Two teams that are likely going to lose no matter what, Indiana and Iowa, are “wastes” of home teams. In some of the more balanced match-ups, the ACC has home court advantage (North Carolina, Clemson, North Carolina State).

But these just sound like excuses for the Big Ten, which has had 10 previous attempts to win the Challenge and failed each time. So, although I wasn’t as confident as I once was, I’m still going to say that this is the year for the Big Ten. It should certainly grab wins with Ohio State, Michigan, and Purdue. Virginia Tech and Maryland will most likely prevail for the ACC. Other than those, it’s difficult to project winners, but I think the Big Ten will get the requisite six victories to win the Challenge.

Just for the heck of it, here are my projected winners.
Big Ten: Penn State, Purdue, Northwestern, Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State
ACC: Maryland, Virginia Tech, Duke, North Carolina, Clemson

Do you agree that the Big Ten will end its drought or will the ACC win its eleventh straight? Share your opinions in the comments section.

2009 Iona Gaels Mens Basketball Coverage

I am excited to announce that I will be covering the Iona Gaels men’s basketball team this season. I will be credentialed for all the home games, at which I’ll be sitting courtside and given post-game access to players and coaches.

I’ll be writing for the Iona athletic website ICGaels.com, but also providing exclusive content for The Sports Journalists. Iona’s season starts tomorrow night, with a home game against Boston University, so check back here this weekend for coverage.

Notre Dame vs. Pitt Preview

The following is a guest post written by Stephen Kahn.

In order to save his Notre Dame coaching career, Charlie Weis might have to pull off an upset victory at Heinz Field — the site of his college coaching debut. At about 8:00 pm on September 3, 2005, the Fighting Irish ran onto the turf at Heinz Field with an unproven quarterback in Brady Quinn and an inexperienced head coach in Charlie Weis. By midnight, ND Nation, and a large population of sports writers around the country, were hailing Charlie Weis as a genius.

Funny how things come full circle. Like in 2005, the Notre Dame Fighting Irish make the trip to Pittsburgh as underdogs. That being said, I think this could simply come down to who has the ball last.

There is no doubt that this matchup should be very high scoring. I will start by breaking down the Pittsburgh offense versus the Notre Dame defense. I see something different than most — most people would expect the Panthers’ sensational freshman running back Dion Lewis to run all over the Irish; I do not. With the exception of last week, the Notre Dame front seven has been very strong when it comes to stopping the run. That leads me to believe that junior nose tackle Ian Williams was speaking some truth when he implied that the Irish were “out-schemed” against Navy. I expect the Notre Dame defense to return to form and limit Lewis, quite possibly keeping him under 100 yards.

The key for the Panthers offense will be sophomore WR Jonathan Baldwin. On the season, Baldwin has 35 catches for 698 yards and four scores. He lacks explosive speed, but at 6’5″ 225 lbs, I’m not sure he needs it. The average height and weight of the four cornerbacks in the Irish rotation is 6’0″ 190 lbs.

In last season’s four overtime classic, Pitt threw four straight fade routes to Baldwin from the five-yard line. Note that in order to run the same play four times, it must have failed the first three, yet the Panthers were not afraid to try again; the fourth attempt was successful. Do not expect things to be any different on Saturday night. Baldwin has matured as a receiver and the Notre Dame secondary has done nothing to prove that they can stop a legitimate playmaker.

I now move on to the Notre Dame offense versus the Pittsburgh defense.It is important to note the injury status of several players. All-America TE candidate Kyle Rudolph will not play and is most likely out until a potential bowl game. I do not expect his absence to affect the Fighting Irish on offense. The Irish have failed to utilize Rudolph as of late and with Mike Floyd back, he is no longer as necessary in the red zone as he once was. Second, he probably would not have caught many passes. Rudolph caught just three balls per game against Michigan and USC. The reason: Teams with a legitimate pass rush force the Irish offense to use a tight end to block, with the tight end essentially serving as a third offensive tackle. Pittsburgh has the most sacks in the nation this season with 39, a whopping seven more than USC, which ranks second. For this reason, I do not expect Notre Dame TE’s to do anything but block and Mike Ragone and Bobby Burger should have no problem stepping in for Rudolph in that regard.

On a more positive note for Irish fans, junior running back Armando Allen and sophomore right guard Trevor Robinson are both expected to return from injury and play this week. Aside from that, no more analysis of the Irish offense is necessary because they have three consistent performers in Jimmy Clausen, Golden Tate and Mike Floyd.  The Irish will throw early and often and put up a lot of points; assuming Clausen has time to throw.

All things considered, my prediction is as follows: without a doubt the game will be high scoring. I give the edge to Notre Dame because they have been pushed to the brink on a weekly basis and Pitt has yet to be tested. The Irish will battle for sixty minutes, fighting for their coach’s career with a chip on their shoulders after a crushing loss to Navy. Pitt might be looking ahead to its Big East battle with Cincinnati, which is likely to crown the conference champion and award an automatic BCS bowl bid. When the clock hits all zeros and probably not a second earlier, the score will be:
Notre Dame – 45
Pittsburgh – 42
–Stephen Kahn

One man's writing in one place.