Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Painting A Legacy: Painter Makes Right Decision to Stay

Matt Painter just solidified himself as one of the good ones.  He was already in the class of college basketball's classy, but his decision to turn down more money at Missouri to continue coaching at Purdue puts him just outside the category of Izzo, Krzyewski, and Dean Smith.

Painter, just 40-years-old, has a chance to jump on par with these elite coaches once he guides the Boilermakers to a few Final Fours, but for now, Boiler Nation should take pride in knowing their coach thinks first with his head and heart, not his wallet.

When I first heard news that Painter was considering the jump to Mizzou, I was confused.  Why would you go to, what I perceive as, a lesser job?  Why would you leave your alma mater?   And could you really turn your back on Robbie Hummel?

It didn't make a whole lot of sense. 

Then came the numbers.  Painter is the eighth highest paid coach in the Big Ten.  A conference his teams have finished no worse than second in over the past four seasons and one in which he has been named its Coach of the Year in three of his six seasons in West Lafayette.

Painter deserves more and is finally getting it, a reported eight year extension, although the details are not disclosed, yet.

I don't know how close he was to actually becoming a Tiger.  According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, it was all but done.  But, I do know that Painter gains a lot more by sticking at Purdue than bolting.

Despite his success in the regular season, the Boilers have still fallen short of the coveted Final Four run their fans are so desperate to experience, again.   If Painter would have left, he would have been villafied for not following through on a goal he preaches so adamently to fans and, more importantly, his players. 

It would have very much mirrored LeBron's "decision."

Had Painter switched jobs, he would have looked like a quitter, who leaves when the going gets tough. 

Expectations will be understandably lower next year with the loss of Big Ten Player of the Year, JaJuan Johnson, and NBA prospect E'Twaun Moore.  Nonetheless, Purude, and all schools, want a coach that is going to stick through the tough times and fight back to prosperity.

Instead of taking his talents to Columbia, Painter decided to follow his own words and work until the job was done. 

Painter's decision sends a message and invokes an identity to his players and recruits that Purdue is a family and families stick together.

Is Painter a "Lifer" at Purdue like Izzo announced he would be in East Lansing, maybe not?  But he proved that he is at least a fighter, competitor, and leader...something college basketball could use a lot more of these days.

Friday, March 25, 2011

E=MC Titles: Chemistry is Sports' Winning Equation

To call myself a ladies man would be an insult to Leon Phelps.  I am in no way, shape, or form cut from the same mold as Hugh Hefner, David Hasselhoff, or Dirk Diggler.

But, I'm not exactly Screech Powers either.  I've had my fair share of girlfriends and dates, some memorable and some that made me want to find a big patch of sand to bury my head in with shame.

Minka Kelly: Dream Date
The best ones were obviously attractive (at least in my eyes), fun to hang around, and could carry on a conversation.  In other words, there was mutual chemistry.

The ones that didn't work out so well, were more along the lines of, "do you think she'll buy it if I fake a heart attack?"   Meaning, the chemistry was as jacked as an Englishman's teeth.

I was on Facebook, recently, and was reminded of one such date.

I won't disclose the young woman's name because I'm a gentleman (don't roll your eyes!), but here is a little background.  We met at a party, struck up a conversation, and decided to go out to lunch later in the week.

This girl was fine.  I mean fine.  No doubt a 9-9.5, even Ray Charles could see that.  Cute face, nice smile, a body so amazing it was as if Praxiteles had sculpted it himself.  Physically, she was stunning.  (Full disclosure, I exceeded expectations by even convincing her to go out with me.  *Pats on back*)

We went out, which I proceeded by actually showering and putting on clean clothes. I sported the usual Mr. Rogers-clone look of cardigan sweater, jeans, and Nikes. It was a pretty nonchalant meal, standard because I was buying.  But because I am shallow and she was sooo good looking, I upgraded from my usual dollar menu first date and opted for a chain restaurant, still keeping the bill under $20, though.  (G-status).

The fries were the best part of the date.  I spent more time tracking baseball scores on my phone than talking with this vision-of-beauty sitting across the table.  We didn't relate in any way.  I'd ask a question, she'd respond with yes, no, or my favorite, the blank stare
It was miserable, for both of us.  After our lunch, we parted ways with that weird, awkward hug you give with your head turned to the side while cringing your eyes to express the frustrated pain that you just spent two hours accomplishing nothing.

And that was that. Physically beautiful + conversationally disconnected = No chemistry.  No chemistry = one-and-done date.

Sound familiar, Duke, Miami Heat, New York Knicks?

It should.  Just as lack of chemistry ruined my date, your teams' lack of chemistry ruined your season.    Like me, you were suckered in by attractiveness and didn't take into account anything else.


Duke thought plugging in its all-world freshman point guard, Kyrie Irving, would mean a cake walk  to another Final Four.  However, they discounted the fact that putting a kid on the floor that hasn't played in three months would disrupt the bond and rhythm the rest of the team had developed during that time.

Irving is a phenomenal talent.  He will be a top-5 pick in the draft.  But, his ability can't compensate for messing with a team's chemistry.  That's what happened to Duke against Arizona. They looked confused, unbalanced, and out of sync.  That's why they will be spending the remainder of the season, like the rest of us, watching the tournament from home.

That and because Derrick Williams attacked the rim like a warrior.

Example B.  The Miami Heat. 

I'm not one of those people that think the Heat don't have a chance to win a title this year.  They are too good not to be considered contenders.  But, I never thought they'd win 75 games, either.  No matter how talented Bron, DWade, and Binky Bosh are, it still takes time to learn each others tendencies and establish, here's that word again, chemistry.

Unfortunately for Miami, chemistry doesn't form from strobe lights and preseason pep rallies.  It takes focus, commitment, and above all else, time.

Plus, you can't just surround your stars with journeymen garbage.  A guy who made an all-star team 10 years ago doesn't mean he fits into your superstar experiment, now.   It takes work to find pieces and lineups that gel together.

The Heat will win titles eventually, but to think they will be able to get past teams that have been through battles and wars before, as a unit, like the Spurs, Celtics, and Lakers, is unlikely.

And Example C. The Knicks.

Where is that buzz in the Garden, lately?  It must be drowned out by the sound of bricks hitting the rim.  New York stinks right now, but it shouldn't be a surprise. 

Trading for Carmelo Anthony is a great move for the future, but to think he was going to come in a take the Knicks to the promise-land in three months is absurd.  Melo's game is different than the way the team has played all season. He is a forward who prefers to play in half court sets.  Before his arrival, the Knicks were driving up and down the floor so fast it was as if they were passengers in a white Bronco driven by Al Crowlings.  They were moving, explosive, and winning.

Carmelo has slowed their pace, changed their identity, and messed with their chemistry.

It's probably going to take an off-season to re-establish who the Knicks are, which means, like the JETS, it'll be another disappointing, title-less end to a season in the Big Apple.

Now look at teams like Butler, the 2004 Pistons, the San Francisco Giants, and the Green Bay Packers.  They have CHEMISTRY! They meshed together and blocked out any distractions.  They fought through tough times and decided as a group that a championship is the only focus.  While they may not be the most talented, their team cohesiveness is more powerful than any one or two elite players.

Chemistry is the most fail-proof formula for winning titles....and scoring second dates.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Ohio State Taking High Expectations Head On

Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger has been heckled, taunted, and beat up this season. College basketball’s newest star has felt hostility in almost every gym he’s played in outside of Columbus and has been physically tested in the paint against every opponent. In West Lafayette, Purdue’s student section even sang Miley Cyrus’ “Party in the USA” when he was at the free throw line to mock a YouTube video of Sullinger singing the hit song.

But through it all, the 18-year-old All-Big Ten selection and the rest of the Buckeyes are asking for more.

“You just got to have heart at this point in time,” he said. “This team has a chip on our shoulder. We feel like everybody’s been doubting us and everybody’s been pretty much on our back.”

Ohio State enters the NCAA Tournament as the number one overall seed. They locked up the top spot winning their second straight Big Ten Tournament title. The Buckeyes beat Penn State 71-60, Sunday, at Conseco Fieldhouse. It was their seventh win in a row.

“Obviously I am happy that we have the number one overall seed, but it is what it is,” said center Dallas Lauderdale. “Now we need to go to Cleveland and play Ohio State basketball.”

The hostility against the Buckeyes will likely be toned down as they play their first and potentially second round games just two-and-a-half hours from their Columbus campus. But, no team will play with a bigger target throughout the tournament than Ohio State.

“This is like the playoffs. It’s the biggest tournament of the year, so we have to have a different mindset when we come in to this than what we had in the regular season and [Big Ten] tournament and just go hard,” said Sullinger. “It’s a big stage. It’s just a whole different mindset that you have to have. You have to be tougher.”

Ohio State has fought its way to a mark of 32-2. It’s the most wins they’ve had entering the NCAA tournament and second most in school history. The only team with more was the 2007 squad that lost in the National Championship game.

Senior David Lighty was a member of that team that lost to Florida. He said it was hard to understand the magnitude of a Final Four run so early in his career, but wants to build on that experience to get back there.

“I didn’t really know the hype of the NCAA tournament,” he said. “Going through tournaments and being in it now, I’m kind of settled in with what the NCAA’s are about.”

But, if the Buckeyes make the trip to Houston, they are going to have to rely on guys who haven’t been on this stage before. Ohio State’s primary eight man rotation includes four freshmen. Point guard Aaron Craft is one of them. He said the team’s youth doesn’t mean they aren’t ready for the challenge.

“We’ve done a pretty great job of taking any kind of adversity that’s been thrown at us throughout the season,” he said. “Once you get on the court all it does is break down into a basketball game and that’s all it is.”

So far, no team has played more consistent basketball than the Buckeyes. Their only two losses came on the road at Wisconsin and Purdue, both who are ranked in the top-15.

With that kind of resume, it comes as no surprise that Ohio State comes into March Madness as the favorites. And they are staring the high expectations right in the face.

“We honestly don’t feel any pressure,” said Jon Diebler. “We are just really enjoying this time and enjoying this ride we are having right now.”
Even Sullinger, who is public enemy number one for opposing defenses and fan bases, can’t wait for more of the ride, no matter how bumpy it may get.

“This whole season we had a target on our backs,” he said. “We are going to keep taking those bullets and take it in the chest like a man.”

March: The Month of Miracles

Scott Doyle has been one of my best friends since freshman year of high school.  Doing my math, that makes 12-years of Doyle.  For those who know him, you understand that's like partying in dog years.  I'm closer to 104 than my actual age of 26.

We were roommates in college and despite his attempts to make my liver as effective as Mike Tyson at a forensics speech competition, we remain close friends.  He is as good of a friend as he is a partier and that is saying something, because Scott at a party is like a Teddy Pendergrass record in a sexless marriage.  When you bring it in the room, it can go from 0 to 60 in a matter of seconds.

I specifically remember one conversation he, our other roommates, and I had while sitting in our East Lansing apartment during our senior year of college.  It came after another, what can only be described as "Epic," celebration of Saint Patrick's Day.  Scott, finally awaking from the chaos, rose out of bed like a zombie, with his blond hair disheveled as if he were a 6'1 troll, shook his head and said "I don't know how much longer I can do this.  No way do I make it to 25."

Well surprise, he's 26 (almost 27) and still ticking.

Maybe even more surprising is the guy who was, and to some extent still is, famous for giving unrequested strip teases is GETTING MARRIED!

That's right, Van Wilder's long lost, often shirtless, cousin is locking it down, jumping the broom, embracing the ole' ball-n-chain.

It wasn't long ago that I, his other friends, and probably himself, would have considered this day far from realistic.  And that's what makes it so special.

(Well that, and the fact that April is waaaay out of his league, but he's managed to keep her around.)

Scott Doyle getting engaged this week is fitting, because no other month provides more surprises and Cinderella stories than March and it's famed NCAA Tournament.

Like Scott, you never know what to expect during March Madness.  Teams that are overlooked and undervalued take the opportunity to prove they have what it takes to play with the "elites."

Every year a Butler or George Mason steps out of the shadows and slips on the glass slipper. (This year that should be Oakland, I hope.)   They become the darlings of the sports world and give other teams, initially seen as peasants, a reason to believe they too can steal the show.

No other event in sports is as much fun.  Office productivity shuts down for four weeks, budgets for paper are pinched because brackets are printed non-stop, and Rolaids' stock shoots through the roof for uncontrollable heartache caused by amazing buzzer beaters.

The NBA is great, but is as top heavy as Dolly Parton wearing spanks.  The NFL is America's sport, but by week 5, half the teams are already looking at draft position and Major League Baseball is so often dominatd by the teams with the deepest pockets, you can almost predict the playoff teams before the season starts.

What makes the NCAA tournament so unique is that a season of ups and downs can be erased by a few hot weeks. 

Michigan State's runs to the Final Four the last two years came after regular seasons that almost shifted my balding processes into high gear.

But when the calendar turned to March, the Spartans transformed and made me forget how excruciatingly frustrating they made my life for the five months prior.

It also gives players at smaller schools a chance to shine as stars. It's the perfect stage for those like Steph Curry, Jimmer Fredette, and Bo Kimble.

We live in a world that loves surprises.  That's why we are obsessed with Christmas gifts, horror movies, and college basketball.   They can get your heart racing in the most special of ways.

The sense of not knowing what comes next makes everything more interesting.

You may think you know which teams are going to the Final Four, but by the second round of the tournament, your bracket probably has as many red spots as the interior of Chris Brown's Lamborghini.

The month represents everything that's right in sports, in fact, everything that should be right in the world.  Everyone has a chance and everyone has a reason to believe.

It's the month of miracles and if you don't believe me, just's the same month in which the guy who once got so drunk he puked on and ruined my textbooks, even before the SCHOOL YEAR STARTED, has transformed into a distinguished, upstanding, engaged gentleman.

Anything is possible in March.

P.S. Congrats April and Scott...I wish you guys nothing but the best.  You're both AMAZING!

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Battle Tested: Talor Guides PSU Past Spartans

Michigan State point guard Kalin Lucas ignited his team with their backs against the wall scoring 30-points, Friday, in an upset win over Purdue.

Less than 24-hours later, he was watching someone else rise to a similar challenge and breathe life into their own NCAA tournament hopes.

“He is a good player and when he gets going, he was on fire,” said Lucas of Penn State’s Talor Battle. “That’s definitely what changed the game.”

Battle scored a game-high 25-points in the Nittany Lions 61-48 win over the Spartans to advance to the Big Ten tournament final for the first time in school history.

“I think [MSU] solidified their spot [in the NCAA tournament] yesterday when they beat Purdue. We didn’t have anything solidified, so we just wanted to come out and play,” he said. “Our goal is to win this tournament regardless of if we think we are in after this win. So we are just competing and trying to win games.”

Early on, the Spartans appeared to catch the same fire they shot with against the Boilermakers the night before. They jumped out to an 11-2 lead against Penn State, but the Nittany Lions clawed back and pulled even to 26-26 at halftime.

The final 20-minutes belonged to Battle. He scored 14-straight Penn State points during one stretch, including four three-pointers in a row. Eventually the Nittany Lions pushed the lead to 15 and Michigan State never got back within single digits.

“I was zoned in,” said Battle. “I don’t think Michigan State did a bad job. They were contesting all of our shots. I just kind of got in the zone where I was really hot and just shooting the basketball and could care less who was in front of me.”

Penn State’s offense was just the cherry on top of another stout defensive performance. For the second straight game, they held their opponent under 50-points.

Michigan State shot 32-percent from the field and 34-percent from beyond the three-point arc. Lucas was held to 16-points on 5-of-12 shooting and the Spartans got just seven points off their bench compared to 22 against Purdue.

Guard Tim Frazier, who scored 22-points, said what the Nittany Lions do on the defensive side of the floor dictates if they will win the tournament title and how far they can potentially go in the NCAA tournament.

“We just keep playing defense and we just keep scoring and everything will just come with it,” he said.

The loss puts Michigan State back in waiting mode. At 19-14, they remain on the NCAA tournament bubble and in jeopardy of missing the dance for the first time in 14-seasons.

“Resumes speak for themselves and if we get in, we get in, if not, we don’t,” said forward Draymond Green.

“We’re not going to sit here and say ‘oh we should get in because of this, or we should get in because of that.’ I think we had some pretty good wins this yea,r so if that doesn’t take care of itself, then it just wasn’t meant for us to get in.”

Penn State can rest a little easier, at least about their NCAA tournament resume. But, they may be a little restless thinking about their next opponent, Ohio State.

The Buckeyes beat the Nittany Lions twice in the regular season, including on their home floor on Senior Night.

Battle said he hasn’t forgotten about how Ohio State ruined his final game in Happy Valley and wants nothing more than to give them some payback.

“They came in and whooped us up pretty good. Jon Diebler shot lights out, so we just want another opportunity to play them again,” he said. “We are just going to try to zone in and win a big game.”

Feeling Fresh in Columbus: Buckeyes Young Stars Provide Spark

Ohio State didn’t exactly coast through the Big Ten regular season, but they were unquestionably the toast of the conference.

The nation’s No. 1 team has arguably the best player and freshman in the country, Jared Sullinger, the conference’s all-time three point shooter, Jon Diebler, and veteran leadership with senior David Lighty and junior William Buford.

However, Saturday’s 68-61 conference tournament semifinal win over rival Michigan was due in large part to the Buckeyes that don’t dominate the headlines and awards.

“That’s one of the weapons that we have, that we possess. Anyone can get hot at any given time,” said senior David Lighty. “You never know who it’s going to be.”

While Ohio State got standard strong performances out of Sullinger, Diebler, and Buford, who combined for 46 of the team’s 68-points, they were sparked by the play of their youthful bench.

Freshmen Aaron Craft, Deshaun Thomas, and Jordan Sibert gave the Buckeyes some depth and fresh legs in their second game in just over 24-hours.

“We have each other’s backs and that is definitely comforting in a tight game, in a close game” said Craft.

Craft and Thomas each scored nine and Sibert added another bucket. They all played pivotal roles in the Buckeyes’ 16-0 run that put them ahead for good against the Wolverines.

Ohio State needed the boost. They were coming off an overtime battle with a pesky Northwestern team and were trying to beat the Wolverines for the third time this season.

“I’ve never played a team twice in high school and coming in, I thought it was hard doing it twice, but three times is definitely tough,” said Craft. “There isn’t much else you can throw at a team when you play them three times so it just comes down to execution and the little things and doing what you can.”

No one may be enjoying his time in Indianapolis more than Thomas. The first-year player from Fort Wayne, Indiana said he has embraced the opportunity to play in front of his family and friends from home.

“I won a couple of championships on this court so it’s been really exciting,” he said. “This atmosphere is way bigger than the state championship. You didn’t have that many people out there… but, it’s way bigger than high school.”

Just a year ago the young Buckeyes were thinking about proms and graduations. Now, the focus has shifted to back-to-back Big Ten tournament championships. Craft said playing on college basketball’s grandest stage has been made easier having guys in the locker room who have played at this level before.

“What they went through last year and Dave [Lighty] being here four years, you can’t put a saying or anything on that type of experience,” he said. “That’s something that not many teams have and we are fortunate.”

Not many teams have four freshmen contributing at a champion caliber level, either. But Ohio State’s youngsters are not overwhelmed by the moment, they are embracing it.

“Not many freshmen get this opportunity,” said Thomas. “We had to be ready and we were, played great defense, scored the ball well and that’s what we’ve got to do when coach calls our names.”

Friday, March 11, 2011

Spartans Fight to Stay Alive; Stun Boilermakers

Michigan State entered the Big Ten tournament with its season hanging by a thread.  Their bubble was floating in air, delicately trying to avoid what seemed to be an inevitable pop.

But, as they have done throughout the Tom Izzo era, the Spartans switched courses and came up with a big win in March and now appear poised to dance in the NCAA tournament, yet again.

“When March comes, when you lose, you’re done and we want to keep winning, we don’t want to go home,” said guard Kalin Lucas.  “I think when March come’s that’s when we turn it up even to another notch.”

Michigan State upset ninth-ranked Purdue 74-56 at Conseco Fieldhouse to advance to the semifinals of the Big Ten tournament.   Lucas carried his team from the start.   The second-team All-Big Ten guard contributed on 26 of the Spartans first 32 points with 18 of his own and three assists that led to eight points.

“We wanted to play hard.  My teammates found me early and we definitely didn’t want to lose to [Purdue] either because they beat us twice already,” said Lucas.  “It definitely feels good to get this win.”

Lucas finished with a game-high 30 points.  He became the first Spartan to score 30 in a Big Ten tournament game.
It’s also just two-points less, 32, than he had total in his first two meetings against Purdue this season, including a nine point outing in their game in West Lafayette.

“He’s a great player.  You can’t take anything away [from him].  He’s got his head up,” said Purdue guard Lewis Jackson.  “We just let him get comfortable early and he took advantage of it.”

Michigan State shot an unconscious 7-13 from beyond the arc, while holding Purdue to just 3-16 from deep.  The Spartans, who have been plagued by turnovers throughout the season, were efficient sharing the basketball, as well.  They turned it over just twice in the opening frame, and eight times for the game, compared to 13 assists.

“We said we had to throw the first punch,” said Draymond Green.

The Spartans threw haymakers.   Michigan State never trailed and led by as many as 20 in the second half.  Purdue shot 37-percent from the field and only 60-percent from the free throw line.

“We got off to a good start defensively,” said Green “When you get off to a good start defensively, it turns things up a notch.”

Big Ten Player-of-the-Year JaJuan Johnson tried to keep his team close with 21-points and nine rebounds and E’Twaun Moore netted 17, but the Spartans put the game out of reach by finishing on a 14-5 run.

“Any time you put yourself in a hole, it’s hard to get back, especially with a team like Michigan State” said Johnson.  “In the second half we did play harder, but it just wasn’t enough.”

Although it might not show in the box score, Michigan State’s X-factor was junior forward Delvon Roe.  Roe battled with Johnson for most of the night.  He was a physical presence in the paint finishing  with eight-points, seven-rebounds, and four blocks.

“I think I did a good job of doing what I have to do to help this team win.  Rebounding, help defense, and making things happen that don’t always show up in the stat sheet,” Roe said. 

No shot was more important for the Spartans than Roe’s put-back tip-in to end a Boilermakers 8-0 run midway through the second half.  

Purdue had cut MSU’s lead to single digits and Conseco Fieldhouse, which is less than an hour from the West Lafayette campus, came to life in support of the Black and Gold.   Roe’s bucket silenced the crowd and helped Michigan State regain momentum.

“It was a big shot.  I don’t know how I got it,” said Roe.  “I was up there like ‘c’mon ball, come down, come down, come down and it finally came down.”

The Spartans will try to continue their run through the conference tournament Saturday against the winner of Penn State and Wisconsin.

While their NCAA tournament hopes seem more realistic after their win over the Boilermakers, the only bracket they are concern with is the one in which they are currently in the semifinals.

“We haven’t had the greatest season, but we said weeks ago, we weren’t throwing in the towel or anything, we are just going to keep on fighting,” said Green.  “We’re still taking it one game at a time.”

Purdue now must wait.  The ninth-ranked Boilermakers will limp into the NCAA tournament losers of two in a row.  They were upset by Iowa last weekend.

Despite the setbacks, the Boilers continue to believe they still have a lot of basketball left to play.

“The tournament starts over.  We got bounced out of this one, but the NCAA tournament is six games and anyone can win,” said Jackson.  “We just have to go in positive.”

Monday, March 7, 2011

Spartans! What and Where is Your PASSION?!

There is this thing out there that is more potent than that drug called Charlie Sheen.  It is ten times as intense as the stuff those Club Kids were using in the early 90s and it's something that can ignite revolutions in the Middle East and spark story book romances.

It's called PASSION and for the love of Tom Cruise jumping on Oprah's couch, will someone please give Michigan State's basketball team a dose.

You know what, a dose probably isn't enough.  They are going to need to basically O-D to salvage this season.

I've watched almost every Spartans game this season and every single one in Big Ten play.  Win or lose, I am left with the same feeling of emptiness.

This isn't your grandfather's Spartans with Magic and Greg Kelser.  It's not your Dad's Spartans with Scott Skiles and Steve Smith.  This isn't my Spartans with Mateen, Mo Pete, and J Rich.  Hell, this isn't even your younger brother's Spartans with Drew Neitzel, Travis Walton, and Raymar Morgan.

This year's team has played with a sense of unwarranted entitlement and have been as lifeless as a goth painter.

Blowout losses to Iowa and Purdue were awful.  Falling twice to U-of-M is almost unforgivable.  And national TV flops to Duke and Texas were shameful.

There is plenty of blame to go around.  Did Tom Izzo flirting with the NBA serve as a distraction?  Maybe.  Did losing their two best perimeter defenders Korie Lucious and Chris Allen hurt?  Absolutely.  Did the pressure of the preseason hype overwhelm them? I think so.

But as the saying goes, "excuses are like a** holes..."

So no more.  It's time to get grimy, dirty, and rugged and show up like you've got a pair.

Michigan State has one final shot to salvage a season of embarrassment this week in the Big Ten tournament.  But it won't be easy.

Waiting for them in the first round is an Iowa team who just upset 6th-ranked Purdue and routed the Spartans earlier in the year in a game I turned off at halftime to watch the Bad Girls Club.  That's right, I couldn't stand the sight of watching MSU play, so I was forced to find some kind of emotion and energy on the Oxygen Network.  THE OXYGEN NETWORK!

If, and I mean IF, State can muster up some tenacity and beat the Hawkeyes, they will be rewarded with playing the tournament's second-seeded Boilermakers.  In case the Spartans forgot, this is the team from West Lafayette that spanked you in Primetime in January and then followed that up by handing you a Kevin Bacon "thank you sir, may I have another" beat down on your home floor a month later.

That alone should be enough to fire you up, but if it's not, let me continue.

You should want to be Purdue.  They represent everything Sparty fans want out of their team.

I've covered the Boilermakers all season and can say, without question, there is not a more determined, passionate team in the conference.

JaJuan Johnson
They lost their leader, FOR THE SECOND TIME IN NINE MONTHS, and have responded like Champions.  Purdue used Robbie Hummel's injury and the doubt that followed as fuel to put together a top-ten season.

JaJuan Johnson is as quiet of a player as there is off the court , but when he is on the hardwood, he is an ultimate warrior.  He'll pound his chest, bellow, and battle as hard as anyone and that intensity has rubbed off on his teammates.

E'Twaun Moore has come alive after a slow start to the Big Ten season.  D.J Byrd and Ryne Smith are more confident.  And maybe most impressive is Lewis Jackson who has transformed into an All-Big Ten caliber player.  It's not because the 5'9 point guard is the most talented, but because he is the most driven to prove all doubters wrong. 

Michigan State, you need this drive and need it now.

The problem with passion is that there is no Cialis-type drug that you can just pop to get it up in an instant.  It's something you're either born with or build as a team.  There isn't much time left, but Sparty has three days to start constructing ferociously like Bob Vila.

And don't think that this is going to be like the last two years when you made those miracle runs to the Final Four.  You aren't those teams.  You aren't that talented.  But, you can overcome those shortcomings by equaling the passion of those teams.

Kalin, Delvon, Draymond, Keith, and especially's time.  It's time to stamp your legacy on this program.  If the history book on this team came out now, it would be titled "Michigan State 2010-2011: The Flop. A Story in Underachieving."  You don't want that.  That story is ugly. It's 'No Country for Old Men' ugly.

Use the Big Ten tournament to write a new chapter, one of triumph and success.  Be Rudy, or the Miami Sharks, or Hoosiers.  I don't care which you pick, but just don't be your normal passionless selves.

If I still haven't gotten through to you, I'll take one last shot, and if this doesn't do it, all hope is lost.

Wes Leonard
Last week, in your own state, Fennville basketball player Wes Leonard gave his life playing the game you are currently taking for granted. He died of an enlarged heart after hitting the game winning shot that helped his team improve to 20-0.

There isn't a friend, family member, teammate, classmate, or person who has read his story that doesn't wish the 16-year-old would have another day, hour, or minute to play the game he loved just one last time.

Wes Leonard is what basketball is all about.  He worked hard and prepared himself for the biggest moments.

He is an inspiration.

Michigan State Spartans, you need to find your inner Wes Leonard. 

Play as if every minute was your last.  Dive for every lose ball.  Continue to fight if you get down.  Come together as a team, get inspired, get passionate, and if you do, you will be successful...finally.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Buckeye Women Maturing Into Champions

Ohio State’s women’s basketball team is arguably as hot as any in the country heading into the NCAA tournament. But, it wasn’t long ago that the Buckeyes were struggling to find wins, and maybe more importantly, struggling to find an identity.

“We are very confident,” said guard Samantha Prahalis, “but we don’t forget where we were a month ago. All we have is each other and I think we realize that now and we play for each other.”

Ohio State won the Big Ten tournament for the third consecutive year by beating second-seed Penn State, 84-70.

It was another step in the team’s transformation.

“I think we’ve come a long way as a team, mentally, toughness-wise, I just think we came together” said senior center Jantel Lavender. “Tonight, in this tournament, we proved that we are a good team and can contend with any team in the country.”

The Buckeyes started conference play five-and-six, including a nine point loss in January to the Lady Lions. Three of the other losses came by double digits.

Exactly a month after their last defeat, the Buckeyes feel like they’ve found themselves. Since falling to Northwestern at home on February 6th, Ohio State has won nine in a row.

Three of the wins came against 11th-ranked Michigan State and they avenged the 80-71 loss in Happy Valley by beating Penn State twice, including in the tournament title game.

“It doesn’t matter what is thrown at us because we dealt with adversity at the beginning of the season,” said Lavender.

“That made us a lot tougher. It’s shown in these last nine games that we are a good team...There’s just a lot of things we’ve overcome as a team and I’m just excited we can get through those things and play still.”

Coach Jim Foster thinks that resiliency is a sign of his team’s evolving maturity.

“We are who we are,” he said. “We are a bi-product of our experiences, and we’ve had a lot of them. We grew up a lot.”

Ohio State’s success in the Big Ten tournament the last two seasons hasn’t necessarily translated to long runs in the NCAA tournament.

The Buckeyes were bounced from the dance in the second round last season and in the Sweet 16 two years ago.

But, Foster thinks the team that cut down the nets, Sunday, at Conseco Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, is the poised to make their deepest run yet.

“Walking into this tournament I thought we were really playing well. I thought we were focused. I thought we were together,” he said. “This was the best team of the last three. I think how we won this [tournament] is a reflection of that.”

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Lavender Smooth: Jantel's Big Night Helps OSU Down Spartans

Ohio State center Jantel Lavender admits she likes playing in Conseco Fieldhouse.

The home of the NBA’s Indiana Pacers became her stage Saturday as the Buckeyes senior poured in 37-points and nine-rebound to help her team advance to the women’s Big Ten tournament final against Penn State.

“My teammates saw me in a good position and I just took my time and made my shot,” she said.

She made almost all her shots. Lavender finished the night 15-of-2o from the field and seven-of-seven from the free throw line.

After the Buckeyes went down by eight early, Lavender put the team on her back, carrying Ohio State to a ten point lead by halftime.

She scored 21-points in the opening period.

“I thought Jantel Lavender was just amazing,” said Spartans head coach Suzy Merchant. “I thought it was the best I’ve seen her play all year.”

In the second half, the Spartans came roaring back and tied the game with eight-and-a-half minutes to play. Lavender then went back to work. She scored 10 points during a 13-0 Buckeyes run which helped them pull away for good.

“She is one of the best players in the world in women’s college basketball,” said sophomore Tayler Hill. “Having her presence down there takes so much off everybody else and she is just a big presence on the game offensively and defensively. She is just a great player.”

Lavender’s performance was even more impressive because she did it against the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, Lykendra Johnson.

“It was an all out war,” said Johnson. “I was trying to do any and everything I could to just stop her.”

The Buckeyes entered the Big Ten tournament in an unfamiliar position. Ohio State is used to being one of the conference’s top seeds, but instead came in the middle of the pack as the five seed.

Lavender said they took their struggles in the regular season and used them to fuel their recent hot streak.

The Buckeyes have won eight in a row, including their tournament wins over Iowa and 11th-ranked Michigan State. It was the third win of the year over the Spartans.

“This game, we tried to take that approach, of just be within the game, have fun with it, play great defense and execute on offense.”

Lavender did all of those things. If she does it again Sunday against Penn State, she will be leaving one of her favorite arenas with a keepsake beyond just solid numbers, the Big Ten tournament trophy.

Illinois' Miracle Run Stopped by Penn State, Lucas

Illinois’ miracle run through the Big Ten women’s tournament is over.

The slipper was finally removed from the foot of the weekend’s Cinderella in a 79-64 loss to Penn State.

Illinois shocked the league with surprise wins over sixth seed Wisconsin and third-seeded Michigan on Thursday and Friday.

Heading into the tournament, Illinois hadn’t won a game in a month in a half.  They were close with single digit losses at Northwestern and in the regular season finale against Michigan, but when the final buzzer sounded, the Illini always fell short.

At Conseco Fieldhouse they found their rhythm and were within two of Penn State at the half, but the Lady Lions defense and points in transition ultimately wore down the Illini.

Penn State went on a 17-1 run midway through the first half, before Illinois answered with a 16-2 run to end the period, cutting the deficit to 35-33.

In the second half, Penn State used a full court trap which slowed the momentum Illinois built up before the break.  

Maggie Lucas led the Lady Lions with a game-high 23 -points.  The conference’s Freshman and Sixth Player of the Year was 5-of-9 from behind the arc and a perfect 4-of-4 from the free throw line.
Julia Trogele chipped in 20.

Illinois got double-digit performances from freshman Amber Moore and Adrienne Godbold who scored   19 and 16, respectively.

As a team, the Illini shot just 39-percent from the field and turned the ball over 17-times compared to just 12-assists.

Penn State will face the winner of top-seed Michigan State and fifth-seeded Ohio State, Sunday.  The Spartans and Buckeyes are playing in the night cap at Conseco Fieldhouse.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Purdue's Super Seniors Shine in Mackey Finale

Purdue head coach Matt Painter said when they first arrived on the West Lafayette campus E’Twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson would complain that he was stealing their “whole day, every day.” Painter’s intense practices and workouts proved to pay off on days like Tuesday.

“They’ve had tough days, but they have never made excuses and just continued to work,” said Painter. “They’ve been a pleasure to coach on and off the court. They’ve been great.”

The Purdue seniors capped off their Mackey Arena careers with a 75-67 win over Illinois to give the Boilermakers their first undefeated season at home since 1969.

“I tried to take it as just a regular game,” said Johnson. “It still doesn’t feel like it’s my last game here at Purdue, actually. Maybe a couple of weeks from now it will sink in that it was my last game at Purdue. I don’t know when that feeling will come, but it will come.”

Moore and Johnson played their final game under the bright lights of Mackey Arena and didn’t disappoint in the curtain call.

Johnson led all scorers with 23-points and Moore added 18, including three triples.

Purdue’s seniors are a rarity in college basketball. They are superstars who stayed in school all-four years and turned a struggling program into contenders.

“It was a fast four years,” said Moore. “I tried not to think about it, but I couldn’t help it.”

At the start of the season, Johnson and Moore thought they’d be celebrating their home finale with fellow senior Robbie Hummel. But, Hummel tore his ACL on the second day of practice and is sitting out the season. He will return next year, but in his absence, the 2011 campaign fell squarely on the shoulders of the Boilermakers other four-year men.

Moore and Johnson have carried their team almost flawlessly. The Boilermakers have won seven in a row, are a game out of the Big Ten lead, and are on the shortlist of teams vying for a number one seed in the NCAA tournament.

They are making those who wrote Purdue off after the Hummel injury swallow some crow.

“It says a lot about their dedication and how they want to help this team and go far in the tournament,” said guard D.J Byrd. “That’s the kind of attitude they bring and our players are starting to emulate that, especially towards the end of the season. They’ve seen how it’s paid off for [Johnson and Moore] and I think that will help our team in the long run.”

The Boilermakers made a run to the Sweet 16 a year ago, but fell to eventual National Champion, Duke. Almost 12 months later, Purdue believes they can ride their senior stars to the same destiny as the Blue Devils.

“E’twaun Moore and JaJuan Johnson make other players better,” said Matt Painter. “The impact they’ve had is really their development and how they’ve carried themselves.”

Johnson and Moore have become Purdue icons while playing under the rafters where the retired numbers hang of some of the program’s legends like Rick Mount and Glenn Robinson.

And it likely won’t be long until the numbers 25 and 33 drape from the Mackey ceiling, but Purdue’s super seniors hope to leave several more lasting impressions in the Arena they’ve called home for four years, championship banners.

“We can still win the Big Ten tournament and make it to the Final Four, so all of our goals are still intact,” said Johnson.

Purdue’s dynamic duo isn’t in any hurry to end their college careers, but they closed out another chapter like they’ve done throughout their time in West Lafayette, as winners.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Rough Times Meant for Leaders Not Quitters

I never thought I would say this...but, I am disgusted by the Detroit Pistons.  Their recent "walkout" was as embarrassing of a move as there is and another display of a dangerous trend in sports, quitting.

I am as much of a Pistons homer as there is.  I have vowed to name my first son after members of the 2004 Championship team.  (Ladies, this means your future son could be Chauncey Rasheed Klemet or Tayshaun Elden Benjamin Klemet, any takers?)

But what has transpired over the past few weeks has dimmed the light on the one of the players that has shined so bright in my heart from my entire life.

When Richard Hamilton and his teammates decided they were going to "take a stand" and show up their head coach by not coming to practice, it was a black eye to the team, the franchise, and in a larger context sports and society.

Rip Hamilton is a veteran. He has been through the battles of the NBA.  He has been on All-Star teams and a champion at both the college and pro levels.  He should be an icon in the league and a leader for its younger players.

Instead, he is just another example of what is wrong with athletes today.  The ones that don't get what they want revert to childish behavior.  They cry, complain, and stomp their feet until matters are settled their way.

That type of mentality has resulted in incarcerations of Michael Vick and Plaxico Burress, draft busts like Michael Olowokandi and Korleone Young (who you ask? Exactly), and public humiliations like Tiger Woods and LeBron James.

What do these athletes all have in common?  They have been fed a golden spoon since the minute they threw their first TD or dunked their first basketball.

With every bite from that spoon, their egos grow to uncontrollable levels.  But, I don't blame them entirely.  Some of the blame needs to be pointed at what is lacking in the locker room, leadership.

The irony of Rip Hamilton is that he was a member of maybe the greatest TEAM in history.  The 2004 Pistons had no business beating the Hall-of-Fame filled Lakers.  They weren't more talented, they didn't have home court advantage, they didn't have finals experience.  But, they had heart and determination, and above all, leadership.

The Pistons had leaders who were willing to grind out wins no matter how daunting the task.  Chauncey Billups was a fighter.  Ben Wallace was a warrior.  Tayshaun Prince was a hustler. Lindsey Hunter was a rock.

My favorite quote from the 'Stones title run came from Mr. Big Shot.  Chauncey said after a win "If it ain't rough, it ain't right."

What a motto!  It was a modern day "When the going gets tough, the tough get going."

The problem with athletes today is that when times get tough, players quit.

Rip Hamilton is a quitter.

The Pistons are a terrible team this year.  They are destined for another early summer and a spot in the draft lottery.  It can't be fun to be in that locker room when the losses pile up higher than crack rocks on Charlie Sheen's coffee table.

With every failure is a chance to grow.

Rip Hamilton should use this challenging season as an opportunity to teach and lead.  Last time I checked, the Pistons weren't exactly the toast of the NBA before they won the title in '04.  They were knocked out of the Eastern Finals year-after-year-after-year.  It was excruciating to watch as a fan, and had to be ten times worse as a player.

But instead of folding, the Pistons put on their hard hats, grabbed their lunch pales and, as their motto read, "went to work."

Apparently work stops when the winning does.

Hamilton is blowing a chance of cementing his greatest legacy, as a mentor in the sport.

Leadership in the NBA, and the majority of major sports, is eroding.  Players want all the glory to themselves and are not looking out for the betterment of the future of the league by teaching young guys how to conduct themselves appropriately. 

If LeBron had better role models in the locker room, do you think he would have made so many poor off-season "decisions." I don't.

If someone stepped up and took Mike Vick under their wing and told him the dangers of living recklessly, as opposed to stroking his ego because he was an elite talent, do you think he would have spent a-year-and-a-half of his life confined between prison walls?  I don't.

If someone pulled Tiger aside in the clubhouse and told him to focus more on his putting and not his pants putter, do you think he would have ended up taking a three wood to the face?  I don't

There is more to being a professional athlete than just stats, money, and fame.  Financial success and notoriety are certainly rewards for talent, but with that comes responsibility, the greatest of which is giving back to the league that has afforded them these riches.   Helping others get better and improving their career and lives is what is most important.  Athletes have the perfect stage to do that for their teammates and kids everywhere.

Rip Hamilton, and every athlete that is more concerned with how to get that next big contract, should take a good, hard look in the mirror and takes steps into helping their teammates mature into champions on and off the court.

If they don't, in ten years when the next Rip Hamilton comes along, we can expect even more immature behavior, because there was no one guiding them on the right path from the beginning. 

It won't only be leadership eroding, but sports crumbling as a whole.