Saturday, December 31, 2011

The Top 11 of 2011

There was no shortage of excitement and intrigue in the sports world in 2011.  There were stories of inspiration and of controversy.  In honor of the year that was, I present my Top 11 momements, athletes, and games of 2011.

11. Women's World Cup Final

Soccer took center stage during the early part of the summer for the second year in a row.  Twelve months after the U.S Men's team made their exciting run through the World Cup, the American women did the same, and arguably in even more exciting fashion.

The U.S Women's team's journey to the final had several phenomenal moments, including a quarterfinal win over heavily favored Brazil that included an Amy Wambach goal in the 122 minute and the U.S winning on penalty kicks.

The team advanced to the finals after beating France in the semis.  In the title game against Japan, it was the United States that jumped out to a lead, only to see the Japanese team fight back with a late goal and win on PK's.

The World Cup Championship game had enough drama to fill an entire season of HBO Sunday nights and the performance of both the Japanese and United States teams extended beyond the pitch.

The U.S economy and political spectrum continues to be a mess.  There are signs of progress, but with each new issue comes a new set of stalemates.  During the several weeks of the World Cup, the nation had something to distract its attention.  The women who took the field representing the United States gave every citizen something to be cohesively proud of.   During the roughly three hours the team was on the field, there were no political divisions, no stresses over bills, and thoughts of war were trumped by visions of triumph.

Even though they came up just short of winning the World Cup, the U.S Women's Soccer team brought enjoyment and hope to a nation desperately searching for inspiration.  That is better than any trophy.

With that said, the trophy probably meant more to Japan than any other team in the tournament.  Just months before, the nation was ruined when a 9.0 magnitude earthquake and tsunami hit one of the country's most populated islands.  Nearly 16,000 people were reportedly killed by the natural disaster.  The physical recovery  may take decades, the emotional scars may never heal.

But, like the U.S team which gave their country a break from its hardships, the Japanese team did the same times ten.  Their run through the tournament was described by many soccer experts as the most unlikely ever.  They embraced the challenge of representing a nation at a time when greatness was needed most.  The Japan Women's World Cup team did more than win a championship, they started a healing process for a nation in shambles.  That is an immeasurable accomplishment.

10. Larry Merchant v. Floyd Mayweather

It's a shame boxing has lost its luster.  Some of the greatest athletes of all-time made their living in the ring.  Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson, Jack Johnson, and Muhammad Ali all put on the gloves to make the sport a must-see event.  Even Mike Tyson, who probably never lived up to his talent, made fans shell out $59.99 for Pay-Per-View fights.  Who doesn't want to see a modern day Alexander Pushkin take to the mic after a knockout fight?

Now the sport is but a mere afterthought.  Sports fans around the world are hoping for one showdown and one showdown only, Floyd Mayweather v. Manny Pacquiao.  With Pac Man's promising singing career and Mayweather starting a 90-day stint as Andy Dufresne, the fight seems like it will remain one of the great unsolved mysteries.

I am one of the many who want to see these two legends go toe-to-toe, but it falls second to another fight I NEED to see.  Money Mayweather v.  Larry Merchant.

After Mayweather dismantled Victor Ortiz in September, Merchant stepped in to conduct his usual postgame interview, like the Detroit River on the 4th of July, fireworks sparked immediately.  During the roughly two-and-a-half-minute interview, Mayweather told a man who could be his great grandfather that he "ain't S*#t" and Merchant, who speaks at a snail's pace, did what Pacquiao has refused to do, he challenged Mayweather.  It was a remarkable moment of two men defending their pride like school kids on the playground.  Neither came out looking all that classy, but class is not exactly in boxing's DNA.

We may never get the "fight of the century" between Mayweather and Pacquiao, but in 2011, we did get the next best thing, Money Mayweather v. Grandpa Merchant.

9. Black Pearl

Every year there are individual performances that can't be defined.  An athlete digs deep and performs at such an  elite level that those who witness it can only look on in awe.  In 2011, there were certainly a fair share of these moments.  Robert Griffin III against Oklahoma, Dirk's Free Throw Shooting in the NBA Finals, and Justin Verlander's no-hitter come to mind immediately.  However, the greatest individual effort of the year may not have even come from a human.

In April, a force of nature shook the ground in Las Vegas.   Black Pearl, a mamouth bull put on one of the most epic performances you will ever see.  Bull Fighting?! you say.  Indeed.

My dad and I have developed an appreciation for the sport and tuned in to watch "The Last Cowboy Standing."  I'll admit, our knowledge of the sport is in the infant stages, but we have watched enough to appreciate not only the cowboys who ride, but the real athletes, the bulls.

These beast creatures have hops like Harold Minor, physicality like Bruce Smith, and grace like Baryshnikov.  They are remarkable.

Black Pearl is at the top of the list.

What he did to Pistol Robinson was brutal.  Ike Turner would have told him to take it easy.  Robinson spent a good two minutes getting ready in the shoot.  The second (literally) the gate opened, Black Pearl sent him right back in.  The enormous bull made one move and threw Robinson back into the shoot in, wait for it...1.47 seconds.  The speed of light had to hustle to catch up to that kind of dominance.   Then, like Prince Fielder after a walkoff home run, Black Pearl took a moment, posed for the crowd and pimp walked out of the arena, but not without a final kick just to remind the rest of the riders who he is and what he does.  I believe the kids call that, SWAG!

(Watch the epic performance here.)

Black Pearl may not be a household name, but there were few individual efforts in the 2011 sports world that were as powerful and awe inspiring as the one he put on in Las Vegas.  That's no Bull (c'mon, you had to see that coming!)

8. Derek Jeter

Most boys grow up idolizing their favorite athletes.  For me, it was Earl Boykins.  But, very rarely do grown men idolize other grown men.  I admit, I idolize Derek Jeter.

Mr. Gift Basket not only dates the most beautiful women (Minka, Halle, Jessica Alba, ADRIANA!, and for those of you who are into a little crazy, Mariah) but he is also one of the greatest shortstops of all-time, a bona fide winner, and to top it all off, he does it all with humility.

In 2011, Jeter had one of the best moments when he became the first Yankee with 3,000 hits.  He did it in Yankee Stadium, on a perfectly sunny summer day, and with a home run, no less.  He is so good it's disgusting.

But, the aspect that gets Jeter on this list is that he rejects the spotlight.  Unlike the majority of players who whore themselves out to any device with a record button, the Captain goes about his business and goes home.  He is great with fans and the media, but never makes it about him.  He represents what an athlete should be, great on the field, respectful off.

The five-time champion and future Hall-of-Famer has enough accolades to develop a Stewie Griffin big head, but he respects his profession and his dignity and chooses to take the high, humble road.  For that, Derek Jeter deserves tremendous credit.

7.  MLB's Final Day

If I was a good investor, I would have bought stock in a pacemaker company prior to September 28th.  Major League Baseball's final day of the regular season provided a multitude of heart stopping moments.

The Boston Red Sox and Tampa Bay Rays were playing for their postseason lives.  The Sox were in Baltimore with a chance to claim the final AL Wild Card spot.  The Rays were at home against the Yankees hoping to cap off an epic late season rally to even get in contention for the playoffs.

It appeared as though Tampa Bay's efforts were going to fall short.  New York jumped out to a 7-0 lead in the 5th inning and the Red Sox and Orioles were in a close battle.  If nothing else, it looked like there was going to be a one game playoff the next day.

Then, the baseball world was turned on its head.  The Sox and O's were delayed by rain.  During that time, sports fans got one of the best sound bites in the history of predictions.

 While mother nature slowed the completion of the game in Baltimore, the Rays were mounting a historic comeback.  They scored six runs in the eighth to draw within one and then with two outs and two-strikes in the ninth, Dan Johnson hit a solo homer to revive the Rays season and send the game into extra innings.

Meanwhile, play resumed between the Sox and Orioles.  Boston took a 3-2 lead into the ninth with their ace close Jonathan Paplebon coming to the hill to close out the win.  Apparently, Baltimore didn't read the script. The O's tied the game on a ground rule double and then Robert Andino hit a walk-off single to give Baltimore a 4-3 win.

Before the Red Sox could even get off their jock straps, the Rays finished the exciting night with an Evan Longoria walkoff home run in the 12th inning against the Yankees.

The Red Sox blew a nine game Wild Card lead over the final month of the season, which led to front office changes galore in Bean Town.  The win helped Joe Maddon secure Manager of the Year honors, even though the Rays were bounced out of the playoffs by the eventual AL Champion, Texas Rangers.

There was more drama on September 28th than a Telenovela.  Twiiter exploded.  Facebook timelines featured everything from "OH MY GOD" to "THIS IS THE GREATEST DAY EVER" and Tim Kurkjian was as giddy as a high school boy on prom night, voice cracking and all.  It really was one of the most special nights in baseball, and all of sports, not just in 2011, but ever.

6.  Twitter

Few things had a greater impact on sports this year than the little blue bird.  The 140 character messages had immense influence, from the Penn State and Ohio State scandals, to LeBron's Hairline and fourth quarter non-existence, to calling out God; athletes, journalists, and fans took twitter to a different realm in 2011.

Sports Journalism has been reshaped because of Twitter and athletes are using the social media platform to expand their brand and establish a closer connection with fans, for better of worse.

Twitter has become the top source of breaking news and become the primary sounding board for criticism and praise.  It's amazing how influential such short messages can have, but in 2011 Twitter ruled the sports world and it appears to be gaining even more momentum heading into 2012.

(My favorite athlete tweet of the year came from Arizona Cardinals Defensive End Darnell Dockett.  He tweeted...)

"This lady heard me PEE'N in the bathroom and said "that was loud I thought a horse was in there" I said "sh*t! it was", and winked at her!"

...And for information like that, I say cheers to you Twitter.

5.  The NBA (pre-lockout)

I tried to pick specific aspects of the National Basketball Association to put on this list, the problem is, the League would have taken up about ten spots, so I put the NBA as a whole in this slot.

Before the lockout, the NBA experienced excitement not seen since the MJ, Magic, and Bird-era.  Every night provided something special.

Kevin Durant evolved into an elite scorer, and then in the summer became the greatest street ball legend since Pee Wee Kirkland.  For nine months, Blake Griffin doubled as a priest, and baptized the majority of power forwards and centers.  John Wall dougied. World B. Free was replaced by Metta World Peace for the best name ever. The Heat flamed out, and  Dirk and Jason Kidd added the final championship piece to their Hall-of-Fame resumes.

The level of intrigue in the Association sky rocketed.  Fans, both die-hard and casual, tuned in for everything from unreal dunks, Melanie Iglesias-type dime assists, and buzzer beaters to newest tats, reality show stars, and Chuck, Kenny, and EJ.

The league has been plagued with poor play and suspect characters for years.  The latter isn't vastly improved, but the level of competition and, in some respects, parity made the NBA truly special in 2011, even if it did almost throw it all away with the lockout.

4.  The NFL Rookie Salary Cap

There is nothing better than leaving college and knowing you have a lucrative job waiting for you, or so I've been told, I'm almost five years out and am still waiting on that big contract, but I digress.

The NFL makes million dollar dreams come true every April during the draft.  But, before the league agreed to a rookie salary cap, teams were paying guys by the names of Tim Couch, Jamarcus Russell, and Ryan Leaf superstar money before they even stepped on the field.  Their college resumes and potential were enough to put them at the top of the payroll at the professional level despite not proving they were capable of handling on field or off field duties.

If a top draft pick was a bust, the financial hit to the team that picked them was substantial and set them back for years.

The NFL's lockout, while miserable for fans, did produce the rookie pay scale which in the long term is a huge benefit for the league's overall health and players, as well.

College players now have less incentive to go for a money grab even if their skills aren't ready for the next level.  They know the money will be there the following year and makes the decision easier to stay on campus and hone their skills for another season.

That means better, more complete players coming into the NFL out of college and subsequently keeps the quality of play in the league strong.

And when guys do come into the league, their "big" contract must be earned.  While no one should turn their nose up at any millions, all players want that $100-million deal.  With the salary scale in place, they must earn this through hard work and productive Sundays.  Again, that only makes the league better for everyone involved.

3.  Justin Verlander

The stigma that a pitcher can't win the Most Valuable Player award was shattered this year by a flame throwing right hander for the Tigers.  Justin Verlander put together a season for the ages in 2011.

His no hitter against Toronto was the highlight, but every time JV took the hill was a must watch.  He does things with the baseball that can't be described.   He gets better as the game goes on and triple digits are the norm.  That's not normal.

Verlander's 24 wins in the regular season helped the Tigers stay afloat early and then when they added Doug Fister in a mid-season trade with Seattle, Detroit owned maybe the best one-two pitching combo in the league and costed to an AL Division Championship for the first time since 1987.

It's scary to think how good Verlander can become.  He is just 28 years old and is adding to his repertoire.  No more does Verlander try to just over power hitters, in 2011 he learned to manage situations and his arm while still getting wins.

He was the best player on the field every time he played and was baseball's most must see player.  JV was the MVP, no doubt.

2.  Michigan State v. Wisconsin: Rounds 1 & 2

Personally, my two favorite moments of 2011 involved Michigan State and Wisconsin.  The two teams played two of the best games of the college football season and I was on hand for both, sort of.

I drove up to the alma mater the night before the regular season showdown between Sparty and Bucky to truly relive the college experience.  I got up there early to tour the ESPN College Gameday set, hit up SBS to get new MSU t-shirt, and then Saturday tailgated at the tennis courts.  It was like being back in college all over again.

I went to MSU from 2003-2007, those are the John L. Smith years, also known to Spartans as the Dark Ages.  So to be back on campus four years later with an elite team in the National Game of the Week was a big deal for me.

My friends and I didn't have tickets, but like we did throughout the majority of our time as students in East Lansing, headed to Ricks to watch the game.

Early on it looked like it was going to be SOL, Same Old Spartans.  But, unlike during our years there, this MSU team fought back with some tremendous defense and special teams play, took the lead at halftime, and appeared to be coasting to a victory.  Then, the Badgers awoke.  They stormed the Spartans in the fourth quarter and drew even late in the game.

...and then it happened.

As time expired, Kirk Cousins connected with Keith Nichol on the play of the year in college football, the game winning Hail Mary.

Spartan Stadium erupted.  Ricks erupted.  Most of East Lansing shook a little.  There were "bro-hugs" going all around.  I never experienced as much joy on MSU's campus as I did that night.  It was a perfect ending to a perfect weekend.  That's what sports is all about.

So you'd think, wow, how can that be topped?  How about round two?

Michigan State and Wisconsin  met in the inaugural Big Ten Championship game in Indianapolis.  I work less than an hour from Lucas Oil Stadium and secured a press pass for the game.  I took full advantage of the opportunity.

I was like a kid on Christmas.  I slept MAYBE three hours the night before, because I was so excited to go to the game.  I got down there around 8:30 a.m (the game started 12 hours later)and just took in the sights.  I interviewed some of the top journalists and players in the country, highlighted by getting career advice from Paul Pabst, who is the Executive Producer for the Dan Patrick Show.

I had the chance to meet up with some of my former college friends and, oh yea, I also got a prime view another classic game.

The Spartans and Badgers went back and forth just as they did months before and I was on the field for the final five minutes to see Wisconsin earn a trip to the Rose Bowl.  Even though my Spartans fell short of the conference crown, they made being at the game something I will never forget.

Sports are all about experiences.  Being at those two games reminded me of why I fell in love with sports and journalism as a kid.  Not much else tops the fun and excitement the Spartans and Badgers provided this year, except.....


Those who aren't Detroit Lions fans can't truly understand the agony of those who are.  Sure you can sympathize, but you can't empathize.  Lions fans are the most hopeful in all of sports and have experienced the fewest returns.

Barry Sanders never had a great O-Line.  Charles Rodgers couldn't stay healthy physically or mentally.  Morningweg prefers the wind over wins.  Mike Williams.  Rod Marinelli and Mike Martz were the Odd Couple who were funny only if you were one of the other 31 teams.  0-16.  Stafford injuries.

Every year there was hope for the Lions and within the first few weeks, that hope dissolved to looking at next year's mock drafts.

For lack of a better term, being a Lions fan sucked.

But not this year.  Nope, 2011 has been a blast.  The Lions redefined themselves as winners.  This season had it all.  Double digit comeback wins at Minnesota and Dallas, Monday night dominance against the Bears, player and coaches fights, and in the end, and most importantly, a playoff berth.

The last time the Lions were in the postseason I was in eighth grade.  I am now 27 and when the clocked ticked to 0:00:00 Saturday and they secured their playoff spot, a single tear formed in my eye.

The 2011 version of the Lions displayed heart and resiliency that is representative of the hard hit city where they play.  They weren't perfect by any means.  There were plenty of moments when the Lions were undisciplined and lethargic, but they grew and united as a team to reach a goal that has eluded them for so many years.

The Lions have the potential to make some noise in the playoffs.  If they do, that will be the icing on the cake. But, for a franchise and city that has waited more than a decade to return to prominence, the Detroit Lions deserve all the accolades in the world.  Their fight and the positivity they brought to the Motor City and entire state of Michigan can not be understated.  The Lions transformed into winners and hopefully will serve as the symbol of change for Detroit as a whole.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Bowl Win A Momentum Builder for Purdue

(Audio version of the story here)

 Purdue senior linebacker Joe Holland said the team’s season is defined by its final game.

“Some ups and downs and the ebb and flow of everything, it made it a lot of fun,” he said. “To come out on top means a lot to us, especially the senior class.”

The Boilermakers capped off their 2011 campaign with a 37-32 win over Western Michigan in the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl in Detroit.

Purdue trailed 8-0 early, but responded by recovering two onside kicks, taking a kickoff 99-yards for a touchdown, and forcing seven turnovers to claim its first bowl victory in four seasons and first under head coach Danny Hope.

“Our football team knew the magnitude that (a win) could have,” said Hope. “We came into the ball game six-and-six and we were going to leave here with either a 6-7 record or 7-6 record and even though it’s only one game difference, it’s a huge difference.”

The bowl victory was the crescendo to a year that had a little bit of everything.

The Boilers ended the 2010 season on a six-game losing streak and they were determined to erase that black cloud immediately. But, before they even played their first game of 2011, the Boilermakers lost their starting quarterback, Rob Henry, to a torn ACL. 

Once the season got underway, the successes and tribulations were about even.

The team needed a blocked field goal to survive its first game against Middle Tennessee State and then lost the following week when their game winning field goal try was blocked at Rice. The Boilers suffered blowout losses at Michigan and Wisconsin, but also pulled off upset wins against then-ranked Illinois and Ohio State.

Purdue had to win two of its last three games to even qualify for a bowl. They did, including a road victory at rival Indiana on the final week of the season.

Junior running back Akeem Shavers was named the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl Most Valuable Player. He said the team’s struggles and challenges throughout the year prepared them physically and mentally to come away with a win Tuesday in Detroit.

“We’ve been through a lot on this team,” he said.  “We are really made for things to go this way. I think just being in this predicament, it was really nothing different for us (because) we have been through it plenty of times and we knew how to handle ourselves.”

That kind of determination and focus made of one of the Boilermakers’ most successful alum proud. 

Cliff Avril now calls Ford Field home when he plays defensive end Sundays for the Detroit Lions. The NFL star was on the sidelines Tuesday to watch his alma mater capture the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl trophy.  He said their grit and ability to bounce back from setbacks proves they are making progress.

“They’ve got something to build on for next year, and the years to come, so (the win) definitely means a lot” said Avril. “They did really well. The intensity was here. The guys came out here and played. They had a couple of rough spots, but they played well.”

Purdue Athletic Director Morgan Burke is encouraged, as well. He showed his confidence in the job Danny Hope and his staff is doing when last week he extended Hope’s contract two-years.

Burke said the Boilers performance against Western Michigan is evidence Purdue is moving in the right direction.

“We’ve been to the postseason eleven times in the past 15 years, but we had a dip and now we are climbing back out and you’ve got to do it the old fashioned way. You’ve got to slug and keep going and that’s what they did. They didn’t give up,” he said. “It’s a start. To a lot of those kids, they haven’t been to a bowl game and it’s very contagious once you start to get there.” 

The victory is special for Purdue on many levels. For seniors like Joe Holland, who was named the Little Caesars Pizza Bowl lineman of the game, he will leave West Lafayette as a winner. For younger guys like Shavers and freshman Raheem Mostert, who was responsible for the 99-yard kickoff return, the win in Detroit is a building block moving forward.

Although it was the first bowl win for Danny Hope as a head coach, he has been a part of bowl wins as an assistant and he believes a postseason win can have ripple effects for the program’s future.

“You can have a great season and then lose your bowl game and go into the offseason with a loss and I am really happy for our team to be able to go into the offseason with a win. I think it builds great momentum for our team,” he said. “It’ll certainly be a shot in the arm in the recruiting process and certainly re-energize our fan base in a lot of ways.” 

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Bulldogs Display Champion Fortitude

Championship rings don’t just get handed out to anyone.

Ask Butler, they know. 

The Bulldogs lost in the National Championship game in consecutive seasons, once by a last second shot, once by a blowout.  Neither was any less painful.

But, through those losses, the program has also learned resiliency and it was on display Saturday during their comeback win against Purdue.

“It’s hard work and I think that’s something these guys are learning,” said Captain Ronald Nored.

The night before, the Bulldogs received their Final Four rings for last year’s run through the NCAA tournament.  Eight months ago, they dreamed of owning the rings Connecticut is wearing, but their jewelry still serves a purpose, two in fact. 

It is a message to Butler’s young players of what can be achieved through concentration and determination and a reminder to the veterans that even with all the effort that was exerted, you have to do even more to become the best.

“I think that is something that is so far down the road, so hard to achieve, not being in the final, but even being in the tournament, and it requires daily improvement,” said Butler head coach Brad Stevens. 

Butler showed against the Boilermakers that improvements are being made. 

Down 15 late in the first half, the Bulldogs started to chip away.  They cut the deficit to eleven at halftime and to four with 10:28 to play.  After Kameron Wood’s layup brought the game to 58-54, Purdue went on a quick 5-0 run and pushed the lead back to nine on a Terone Johnson layup with 8:48 remaining.  That was the last field goal the Boilers made.

Butler closed the game on a 13-7 run, capped off by Andrew Smith’s game winning tip-in with one second left.
“We had a great gameplan coming into the game.   The coaches always do a great job with that and we kind of got away from it in the first half,” said Smith.  “We refocused and were able to get more defensive pressure (in the second half).”

Purdue (9-3) now has to prove its resiliency.  The team has squandered double-digits leads in two losses this year.   If they hope to get on a run similar to Butler’s the past two seasons, they need to show their ability to rebound from setbacks.

“(We have to) keep our heads up,” said Boilermakers guard Lewis Jackson.  “It sucks.  It’s going to suck for a while, but obviously we don’t get a trophy for the non-conference and we can take this into the Big Ten season, so if we get back in this situation we can handle it and get a win.”

Nored said Butler’s rings prove that learning from obstacles prepare you for future challenges.  The senior didn’t bring his ring with him to the game against Purdue.  But, said his team’s play Saturday represented what the ring stands for.

“I think sometimes, human nature, you take that for granted,” he said.  “Coming into this year, we possibly could have taken that for granted and I think we are seeing here that it takes so much work.  It takes so much mental toughness, so much togetherness to go out there and play together and achieve and I think all the guys in the locker room, that’s what we want to achieve again.” 

Smith's Tip-In Lifts Butler Passed Purdue, 67-65

Butler dipped into its bag of magic a little early this season.

The Bulldogs, who are known for their heart stopping runs through the NCAA tournament in March, used an Andrew Smith tip-in with one second to play to beat in-state rival Purdue 67-65 in the Close the Gap Crossroads Classic, Saturday, in Indianapolis.

“The play was for Roosevelt (Jones) to get the ball and drive it.  If he had an open lane for the layup, go for it, if not, he’s just going to get it up on the rim and hopefully we could get an offensive rebound,” said Smith.  

“Fortunately Purdue did not block out and I was right there and the ball came right to me so I was able to tip it in.”

The win snaps a three game losing streak for Butler.  For Purdue, it’s another tough loss.

It’s the second time this month the Boilermakers have squandered a double-digit lead.  Purdue lost to Xavier, December 3rd after being ahead by 19.

Saturday, they were up by 15 at one point, but allowed the Bulldogs to mount a comeback.

“We had them,” said Purdue guard Lewis Jackson.  “Give Butler credit though, we punched them in the mouth, they punched back.  We punched them and as soon as we think it was over, they kept fighting.”

Butler’s fight was a team effort.  Smith and Kameron Woods each scored 12, but no other Bulldog was in double figures.   Erik Fromm helped them stay afloat when Purdue ballooned the lead in the first half.  He scored all nine of his points in the opening frame and Khyle Marshall scored nine, as well.

But, it was Butler’s defense that turned the tide.  The Bulldogs held Purdue to just 20-percent shooting in the second half (6-29) after going 20-36 in the first.  Purdue didn’t score a field goal in the final 8:48.

“It’s amazing when the ball goes in it looks like you have great offense and when it doesn’t, you have bad offense,” said Purdue head coach Matt Painter.

“I thought Rob Hummel had some good looks that didn’t go down.  I thought Ryne Smith had a couple of looks that didn’t go down and in the first half they did go down.  So I think it really compounds at that point to you are running bad offense, when in reality Butler is pretty good on D and we had some shots that just didn’t go down.”

Hummel finished with a game-high 16-points, but just four in the second half.  Ryne Smith added 14 including three triples, but was held scoreless in the second frame.

Lewis Jackson added 13-points, six assists, and seven rebounds.  But, made just one of two free-throws with ten seconds left that kept the game tied and opened the door for Smith’s heroics.

“It hurts,” Jackson said.  “I’m at a loss for words.  It hurts right now.”

Purdue (9-3) heads back to West Lafayette to play IPFW, Tuesday.

“We felt like we should have won the last two games that we lost,” said Painter.  “I think we have a positive to look at, but we don’t have a lot to show for it.”

Butler (5-6) travels west for its next two games, first to Gonzaga then to Stanford.  Butler captain Ronald Nored thinks the win against Purdue can serve as a catalyst for turning the team’s slow start around.

“Hopefully we learn from this.  We learn from the things we did well, the things that led to winning and then also grow from the things that we didn’t do well, “he said.  “I think if we do that and take this game and ride along with it, ride along with the things we did well, it can change things.”

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Brawl Suspensions Deliver a Black Eye to Accountability

The brawl between Xavier and Cincinnati in the closing minute of their game Saturday was not only a poor reflection on those basketball teams, but a microcosm of how college athletic programs continue to fail, as a whole.

Words were said, fist flew, trash talked continued; the resulting punishment...nothing more than a slap on the wrist.

Four players from both teams were suspended for their roles in the melee.  

Three Bearcats were given six game suspensions, including Yancy Gates who sucker punched Xavier's Kenny Frease leaving him bloodier than a UFC fighter after five rounds in the cage. Cincinnati also gave a six game penalty to Cheikh Mbodj who pulled a Ndamukong Suh and stomped on Frease after he fell to the ground after getting cold clocked by Gates. 

Xavier handed out a pair of four game suspensions, a two-gamer, and a one game sit down to its best player, All-American candidate, Tu Holloway.

None of these players will miss "pivotal" games.  Most won't even sit out a game in conference play.

What kind of lesson is learned from these Charmin-soft penalties?

In the press conference following the game, which was ended nine seconds early because of the fight, Holloway said, "We got disrespected a little bit before the game, guys calling us out.  We are a tough team, we are grown men over here.  We've got a whole bunch of gangsters in the locker room, not thugs, but tough guys on the court.  We went out there and zipped them up."

In Tu's eyes, a grown man proves his toughness by fighting and showing up his opponent. Judging by their actions, I think Cincinnati's players feel the same way.

This mentality didn't just boil over from what was said during a radio interview or on Twitter.  This started from not being taught accountability.  And at a place of 'higher' learning, this is simply unacceptable.

Gates and Holloway are pivotal pieces to what their teams hope will be seasons that end in deep runs through March.  No doubt, their talent on the basketball court has opened multiple doors for them.  They both earned scholarships to play, and hopefully study, at Division I universities which, in theory, should set them up nicely for any professional career moving forward.

But, they are clearly not using the opportunity to grow into men, not the kind that is defined by a perception of toughness, but one that is defined by reality.

If they were, the fight never would have occurred.  

Guys would have talked smack and just let it roll off their backs because a real man's toughness is not how he connects with his fist, but how he connects with his mind.  

Winning should have been enough for Holloway.  He did his job and shut up any trash talk the Bearcats may have thrown his way prior to the game.  But, Holloway wasn't content with his own accomplishments, he needed more.  He needed the satisfaction of knowing his opponent was humiliated in the process, so he started a brawl.  He is like the guy dating a super model who has to go out and tell everyone about it.  He needs attention to justify his success.

Holloway is weak minded. 

These players clearly need people to set an example of what it means to be a man.  Sadly, the suspensions that were handed out prove those who should be role models have no more of a clue than their immature players.

Cincinnati head coach Mick Cronin gave an emotional, inspirational post-game speech regarding the actions of his players.  

"If my players don't act the right way, they will never play another game at Cincinnati," he said.  "I will meet with my AD and my president and decide who will be on the TEAM moving forward.  That's what the University of Cincinnati is about.  PERIOD."

Ok, Rafeal Palmeiro.  That sounds nice, but suspending your players for games that mean about as much as a five dollar bill in a Vegas strip club, makes the message fall hollow.  All it proves is that discipline is important as long as it doesn't impede winning.

These players are spoiled and have been catered to because they are exceptional athletes.

When will being an exceptional person start outweighing being an exceptional athlete?

Season long suspensions, or at very least, missing a double-digit amount of games is in order.  Doing so would send a very real message.  Both Xavier and Cincinnati likely would lose their fair share of games with their best players watching from the sideline.  Wouldn't they get a better understanding of the magnitude of their actions when they see their teams struggle, and maybe even miss the postseason?  

That's the type of impact that leaves a lasting impression.

Instead, these guys will be back on the floor no later than mid-January.  That's plenty of time to help their teams pad their NCAA Tournament resume.

College sports programs across the country are trying to get out in front of any controversy in the wake of the Penn State, Ohio State, and Syracuse scandals.  They are trying to prove they have control over their teams and the players who represent their schools.

Cincinnati and Xavier are being represented by, in their own word, "gangsters," and those who had the chance to  redefine that representation are doing nothing to change it.  

College experiences, for all students, are supposed to serve as life lessons.  The one that was taken away from Saturday's brawl is actions have consequences, well, until those consequences hinder the opportunity to win and make more money.

The brawl left players battered, bloodied, and bruised. If done right, the suspensions COULD have been a band-aid to mend the damage, but instead, resulted in another black eye to the reputations of the teams, schools, and college sports.

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Tough Stretch: Purdue Grows Through Top Tier Battles

Sharon Versyp knew her team’s recent three game stretch would be a challenge.  Saturday, in the finale, she learned just how tough.

Purdue fell to last year’s national runner-up Notre Dame 66-38 at Mackey Arena.

The Boilers were outplayed from the opening minute and were reminded just how focused they have to be every time they step onto the floor if they want to compete with the best in country.

“They have to play as a team,” said Versyp.  “You’ve got to believe in the system and got to be able do the things that we normally do, and we didn’t do it.  It’s not like they took us out of our game.  We just didn’t post up hard, we didn’t rip hard, we didn’t attack hard.  There are a lot of different things that we didn’t do.”

Purdue went 1-2 in its consecutive games against top ten opponents.  The Boilermakers fell at then seventh-ranked Duke, rebounded to topple the defending National Champions Texas A&M at home, and then lost to the third-ranked Irish, Saturday.

Despite having a losing record during that stretch, Versyp believes Purdue learned invaluable lessons along the way.

 “Winning one out of three was huge.  I think that was big,” she said.  “The first two games I was very pleased with the effort, I was pleased with the focus, today (against Notre Dame) I am extremely disappointed.”

Purdue was bounced from the NCAA tournament in the second round by perennial powerhouse Connecticut a year ago.  They used that game as a building block heading into this season.

 Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw, whose team knocked off some of the best in the nation during their Final Four run in March, believes the Boilers recent three game stretch against top ten opponents can help them grow even more as a team moving forward.

“You really learn a lot about your team.  It’s great to schedule good teams like that,” she said. 

“I think it really helps your team.  They are a pretty young team, overall.  I think that the way they are playing, they are going to win a lot of games.  I think when you play teams like that it makes preparing for the Big Ten easier because you have played a high caliber opponent and now you are ready to play anybody.”

While that may be true in the long term, Versyp wants her team to play with more energy now, no matter who the opponent.  Saturday, she sat starting guard KK Houser on the bench for the majority of the second half because as Versyp said “she didn’t bring it.”

Versyp is looking for not only talent, but consistent effort and this tough slate of games gave her a better idea of who is willing to do so.  She is so determined to spark her team’s energy level that she planned on holding practices after the Notre Dame game and before their game Sunday against Central Michigan.

“I want players out there that really want to compete and help their team,” she said. 

Purdue’s next test comes less than 24-hours after they walked off the floor against Notre Dame.  The Boilers travel to Mount Pleasant, Michigan to face the Chippewas.

It’s the next challenge and Purdue’s response will be another step in the learning and growing process.

“We’ll show what our team is about (against CMU),” said Versyp.  “If we do well, then we are right back on track and be fine.  We’ll be 8-2 heading into finals, I’d be ecstatic about that.”

Notre Dame's Defense Shines in Win Over Purdue

Purdue’s women’s basketball team had a chance to beat a top-five ranked opponent in back-to-back games, Saturday. It would have been the first time the program did that since 1998.

But, the Boilermakers quest was put to bed early in their 66-38 loss to number three-Notre Dame.

“We were just flat,” said Purdue head coach Sharon Versyp. “Today, I am extremely disappointed because we are better than this. They played well. We didn’t play well.”

The Irish asserted themselves from the opening tip at Mackey Arena. Skylar Diggins and Devereaux Peters helped Notre Dame build a 24-point lead in the first half and they never looked back.

“Notre Dame is very physical,” said Versyp. “We were more of a physical team in the second half, but [when] there is a stretch [in the first half] where you can’t make four open layups and then hit outside shots, it just kind of snowballed from there.”

Diggins, who is a top candidate for National Player of the Year, scored nine-points, dished out seven-assists, and pulled down six-rebounds.

Peters recorded a double-double with 16-points and 11-rebounds. Natalie Novosel added a game-high 17-points, with 11 coming in the second frame.

“They execute well. They run their system. They understand stuff. Obviously, that is why they are a top team in the country,” said Versyp.

Purdue never led.

The Boilers shot just 24-percent from the field and were one-of-ten from three point range. Six days prior in their 60-51 win over fourth ranked and defending national champions, Texas A&M, the Boilers shot 38-percent from the field and knocked down six triples.

“We just didn’t bring it,” said Purdue’s Brittany Rayburn. “It’s very surprising. We should have been up for this game. We were very, very, very prepared for this game. I can’t explain what happened.”

Notre Dame applied full court pressure for the majority of the game which slowed Purdue from getting into their offensive sets and when they did, were forced to take mostly perimeter shots. The Notre Dame defensive forced 24 Boilermakers turnovers.

“We really tried to put pressure on them early. We knew they have very quick guards, so we were trying to get an early trap,” said Diggins. “We tried to face guard and do some different things there, some run-and-jump, some things like that, just really putting pressure on the ball.”

Courtney Moses scored a team high 14-points for Purdue. She has led the Boilers in scoring each of the past three games. However, neither she nor Purdue’s other starting guard KK Houser recorded an assists. The Boilers had just five as a team for the game.

“If I was an opposing team, I would press us every second,” said Versyp. “It throws our rhythm off and then we just panic in the half court.”

With the win, Notre Dame extends it winning streak to six. They host number ten Kentucky, December 18th.

"We can be a lot better," said Notre Dame head coach Muffet McGraw.  "Defensively I think we are about where we need to be, now that we are rebounding better, but offensively, I think we can play better."

Purdue (7-2) returns to action Sunday at Central Michigan.

”I think it’s good for us to get back after it tomorrow,” said Rayburn. “We have to come back out and change our game completely. We didn’t compete tonight.”

Friday, December 9, 2011

Nixed Trade May Spark an NBA Revolution

Apparently NBA Commissioner David Stern hasn't been paying close attention to international events, because if he had been, there is no way he would have nixed the trade sending Chris Paul to the Lakers.

Uprisings in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, as well as in cities across America, took aim at those with power.  And for the most part, the 'citizens' toppled those at the top.

David Stern just put a dictator-sized target on his back.

Stern threw the hammer down on a three team deal that would have moved Paul from New Orleans to Los Angeles.  The Hornets would have received Kevin Martin, Lamar Odom, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic, and a first round draft pick.  The other team in the deal, Houston, would have acquired Pau Gasol who would have helped fill their void at center after Yao Ming retired this summer.

The consensus among sports writers and analysts is that, for all parties involved, this was a pretty fair deal.

Paul wants to leave the Nola when his contract expires at the end of the season, so this was a way to help New Orleans cut its losses and have some pieces to build around in the future. 

The problem is the Hornets are owned by the NBA.  The league took over the franchise last year because the team's former ownership reportedly was operating with a $100-million deficit.  At the time, the move was necessary to keep professional basketball in New Orleans afloat, but now it has the potential to cause some Titantic-sized sinking.

Stern intercepted the trade because he believed doing so was in the best interest of the league.  In some ways, I agree with him.  Coming off of a lockout that was centered around leveling the playing field for small market teams, i.e New Orleans, Stern couldn't have one of the NBA's top superstars shipped to a top three market in exchange for players that may be solid, but not "stars."  (Gasol, a star, but would not have benefited NO). It would have been a public relations nightmare.

Stern reports to the NBA owners.  His allegiance is to them.  The majority of the owners are in non-marquee markets.  They want protection against the New York, LA's, and Miami's.  If the trade went through, these owners would have questioned Stern's entire summer of work.  They would have had a clear example of him favoring "dream teams" in dream markets.  Stern had to stop the trade or he would have lost the support of those who he works most closely with.

That doesn't make it right.

While Stern may report to the league's 30 owners, his primary responsibility is the overall health of the NBA.  I think it's safe to say, this is a decision that does more damage than good.

The players, whose respect for Stern was already less than Jared Allen's for Detroit, have no reason to believe the commissioner has their best interest in mind.

He is now viewed as Bobby Fischer putting pieces where he wants, when he wants.  That's a precedent that will hinder progress.

I personally don't like that players are dictating where they want to play.  I think it takes balance away from the league and does, in fact, hurt small market teams.  But, they have every right to do so.  The new collective bargaining agreement makes it advantageous for players to stay with their current teams which can offer them even more money than if they move to another franchise.

If a player is willing to take a pay cut to play with other greats in an effort to win a title, I can't berate them for that.  It's their right.  (LeBron, is a unique situation).

Stern's desire to have balance is a nice concept, but the reality is that the NBA has always been top heavy.  Since the 1980's, less than a dozen franchises have won championships.  In the 80's it was the Celtics, Lakers, 76ers, and Pistons.  In the 90s, the Pistons, Bulls, Rockets, and Spurs.  At the turn of the Millennium, it was again the Lakers, Spurs, Pistons, and Celtics, with the Heat and Mavericks sprinkled in the mix. 

Balance is a dream.  It doesn't exist.

Stern is overreaching trying to achieve that dream and in the process is tearing down the integrity of the league and alienating the players who make it great and, most importantly for him, sell tickets.

Like the dictators in Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya, Stern is trying to mold the league to fit his vision, but is ignoring the wants of those below him, the players, who may have finally had enough.

The end result will likely be chaos and an overthrow of power.  This may be the move that sets off an NBA revolution.