Monthly Archives: March 2014

Another round of Heat and Pacers

The rivalry between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers developed quickly and intensified even faster. When the two teams met in the 2012 Eastern Conference semifinals few thought that the Pacers would hold their own against the Heat. Naturally everyone was shocked when the Pacers jumped out to a 2-1 series lead. Although the Heat would eventually win the series, the roots of a new rivalry were planted.

Nearly two years later, the rivalry is in full bloom, both on and off the court. The Pacers made public their goal of clinching the best record in the East, thus ensuring home court advantage during the playoffs. No doubt they are still stinging from a Game 7 loss on the road during the 2013 conference finals. In fact over the past two seasons the home team has won 14 out of the 19 matchups between the Heat and Pacers.

Yesterday’s 84-83 victory by the Pacers wrote another chapter in this passionate, physical rivalry. A game that featured multiple hard fouls, trash talking, and even an ejection, displayed the toughness and determination that has exemplified this rivalry. Over the past two seasons, the teams have played each other close, with Miami holding a slightly better head-to-head record at 10-9. Heat fans are quick to (correctly) point out that the playoff series count is 2-0, but the Pacers are hoping to narrow that gap this season. Each team has made specific roster adjustments. The Heat signed Greg Oden to give them a stronger inside presence.  The additions Rashard Lewis and Michael Beasley didn’t hurt either. The Pacers upgraded their bench, trying to get more offensive production from Luis Scola, C.J. Watson, and Evan Turner.

Many expect the Heat and Pacers to meet in the Eastern Conference finals. Brooklyn, Chicago, and Toronto are trying to stay in the mix, but the conference’s top two teams are focused squarely on each other. ESPN has capitalized on this, and #BeastsOfTheEast soon was trending on Twitter, not to mention showing up on every television screen. The disparity between the East and West doesn’t help either, since 9 Western Conference teams have a higher winning percentage than the current 3-seed in the East. While Boston is in rebuilding mode and Chicago adjusts to the length of Derrick Rose’s injuries, Miami and Indiana have risen to the top of the East. Don’t expect them to give up any ground. Miami’s health and endurance have come under question this year (refer to Dwayne Wade’s hamstring exit after futilely chasing Evan Turner’s breakaway layup at the end of the 4th quarter), but they always know how to turn on the intensity come playoff time. If the goal is to keep the Big Three together, they will still be in the mix for championships. Meanwhile the Pacers have assembled a strong core of players, coupled with the league’s top defense. Paul George has blossomed into a superstar, and his cast of fellow starters have improved every year. This young team is about to reach their prime, and their eyes are set on championships. The Heat and Pacers should meet in the conference finals, not just because they are clearly the two best teams in the East, but because they simply will not let anyone else stand in their way. Both want their chance to send a message: the Heat to remind us who are the defending champs, Pacers to prove they belong with the league’s elite. After one more regular season matchup, the two will gear up for what promises to be an outstanding playoff series. It shouldn’t be any other way. In fact, why not have it out right now: a best of 7, neutral court, half Miami fans/half Indiana fans, winner gets whoever survives the battle for the West.

Every play from last night’s contest displayed the high intensity and passion that it takes to win a championship. Just look at the last two minutes. Evan Turner, replacing the ejected Lance Stephenson, makes two critical layups. An injured Wade has to leave game (which also cost the Heat an important timeout, given their clock management down the stretch). After James barely misses on a go-ahead 3-pointer, David West(?!) of all people connects from outside the arc, sending the capacity crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse into a frenzy. Not to be outdone, Chris Bosh cuts the lead the one with a 3 of his own. George Hill somehow misses two critical free throws, and Bosh heaves up the would be game winner that didn’t even touch the rim. How’s that for a two-minute warning? The Heat and Pacers have as many as 8 more matchups this season. If you want a preview, just watch the last 2 minutes of last night’s nailbiter. Then think of what they will do with another 384.  AN

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New names, same games

One of the main stories of this college basketball season followed the effects of nationwide conference realignment. Syracuse and Pittsburgh, former household names of the Big East, immediately made a splash in the ACC. The new Big East saw Providence and Creighton play for the championship, a matchup no one would have even fathomed a decade ago. The Big Ten included 12 teams, while the Big 12 fielded (you guessed it) ten. Most fans didn’t realize who exactly was in the “American Athletic” Conference, since many probably thought AAC was a just a typo. But Louisville won the ACC, I mean AAC, giving Coach Pitino three different conference tournament championships in the past ten years. With these new conferences came new matchups. Teams used to facing the same opponents every year suddenly faced off against new conference foes. Players adjusted to different styles of play; coaches scouted different teams. Fans wondered how these decisions would affect the landscape of college basketball. We all did. If rivalries take time to develop, how would these radical changes affect the history and tradition so important in college basketball? Business decisions are made in offices, but on the court, we just wanted to see the same level of competition and pride. If it was so easy to part with tradition, why did any of it matter?

Championship week reminded us. For one week, every team is playing for something. Some are capping off a successful regular season; others are just trying to extend theirs. There are NCAA tournament spots at stake, and teams that already qualified are gunning for a higher seed. Conference championships are about bragging rights, about banners and trophies, about pride. Not every team (realistically) hopes to win a national championship, but for a few days in early March, everyone in the conference tries to be the last team standing. Conference championships bring out the best in a lot of teams. The familiarity of ones opponent leads to extra preparation, and the scheduling of games on consecutive days is as much a mental test as a physical one. Players take pride in leading their teams to conference championships, and close games become instant classics.

This year was no exception, already giving us memorable moments. Seton Hall’s last second victory over Villanova. A would-be game-winning layup by Illinois falling just inches short against Michigan. Kentucky losing the ball on the last possession trailing by 1 in the SEC final against top-ranked Florida. Russ Smith leading Louisville once again to a conference championship. With every championship, another road to the NCAA tournament was completed, another dream extended. You only need to hear the words of celebration and praise from victorious coaches to convince you that these games matter; they matter a lot. Teams change, players change, conferences change, but the importance of winning does not. During this week, we see the real beginning of March Madness. We can quantify the size of a school, the money invested in a program, and the number of wins in a season. But once the tournaments begin, everyone is suddenly 0-0. Every team just wants to be on the last line of the bracket, and that’s when see what is great about sports. Pride. Heart. Determination. Competition. Victory. We wonder how decisions made in the background will affect the landscape of sports. But we needn’t have worried. When they step on the court, players just want to win. Just give them something to play for.  AN

The Young and the Old

When Florida and Kentucky took the court in Gainesville, one team was trying to cap off one of the best seasons in SEC history, including a perfect 18-0 conference record. The other team had began the season with one of the highest-rated recruiting classes in history, and even higher expectations (the UK 40-0 promotional shirts admittedly were a ridiculous idea even before the season started). So on the final weekend of the regular season, it was Kentucky that had failed to live up to their preseason #1 ranking. Florida, on the other hand, spent much of the season ranked behind Arizona and Syracuse before reeling off 23 consecutive wins and a likely number one seed in the NCAA tournament.

Their most recent win finished an impressive 18-0 SEC record. The last regular season victory culminated one of the winningest four-year spans for Florida basketball. After three consecutive trips to the Elite Eight, this group of seniors has a great chance for a return to the Final Four for the first time since their 2007 national championship. No freshman phenom highlights the Florida roster; this team was developed into a championship contender over the past four years. In the “one-and-done” days, when each top prospect is already circling NBA draft night on the calendar, this Florida team showed that players committing to improving each year can build a great team.

The parity was made clearer against a Kentucky team that perennially collects the nation’s top recruits before sending them to the NBA. On Saturday, Kentucky started 4 freshman. Florida started 4 seniors, who combined for 51 points, including key baskets in the second half that put the game away. How fitting that their final victory occurred on Senior Day. This was supposed to be Kentucky’s year, led by a band of teenagers ready to waltz through a national championship on their way to the NBA. Instead it’s Florida that has captured the national spotlight, showing exactly what can be accomplished by a team that commits to a goal and believes in the system.

After Florida won the 2006 national championship, all 5 starters committed to returning the following year, and vowed they would repeat as champions the following year (they did). Maybe there’s something about sunny Gainesville that makes players want to stick around, but whatever the reason, Billy Donovan is again coaching a determined, experienced team ready to make another championship run. This is a tribute to a team that has improved, developed, and focused their efforts into another postseason run, highlighted by the leadership of senior players.

It’s hard to fault any talented player for entering the NBA draft. Not everyone can pass up a pro contract for another year playing of college ball. Yet although the lottery picks steal much of the media attention, let us not so quickly forget the great teams that rebuild, set goals, and improve every year. After all, that is one of the best aspects about sports: the accomplishments of a team can emerge greater than the sum of its parts. Each season, teams bring in great recruiting classes with tremendous potential. If they commit to improving every year and focusing on a larger goal, there’s no limit to what they can accomplish. We only wish that more players would stay long enough to find out.  AN

31-0 speaks for itself

When the buzzer sounded, the celebration began. Players and coaches congratulated each other on another victory. Students held up replica newspapers reading “31-0.” Wichita State finished a convincing 68-45 win over Missouri State, culminating one of the most successful regular seasons of all time. The season was not without challenges. They trailed at halftime to St. Louis on the road. They rallied from an 18-point deficit before topping Missouri State in overtime the first time the two teams faced off. Yet their biggest obstacles may have been internal: resolving to return even stronger after a Final Four berth the previous year; staying focused through a long season; managing their own expectations; and dealing with the pressure for perfection that mounted with each successive win. Because as soon the celebration began, so too did the debate: how important is 31-0, if it comes against a comparatively weak schedule?

Supporters of Wichita State endorse their brilliant coach and talented players. Gregg Marshall built Winthrop into a strong mid-major program before beginning his successful run at Wichita State. Forward Cleanthony Early is an All-American candidate, and Fred VanVleet is one of the best point guards in the country. Skeptics point to their schedule. The Missouri Valley Conference does not have the same basketball powerhouses as the ACC or Big Ten. Wichita State cannot match the number of “big wins” over ranked teams compared to other schools. Would they still be undefeated if they played a ranked opponent every weak? Maybe not. Is it more difficult to finish an undefeated season playing in the Big East instead of the MVC? Probably.

Yet these objections detract from the inherent achievement applies itself to a 31-0 record. Talent creates potential. Execution determines results. It is one thing to say that a talented team with a smart coach should win most of their games in a season; it’s another to take the court and win every single time. The Shockers are 31-0 because of execution, because they set a goal for their team and were disciplined enough to accomplish it. Execution is staying focused for an entire season, even if the non-conference schedule is viewed as a time to iron out early season wrinkles. Execution is overcoming a poor shooting night or an early deficit to grind out a win. Execution (or lack thereof) is why Syracuse, the other undefeated Division I  team at the time, gave up a 13-point lead to Boston College last week and lost in overtime. Or why a 29-0 Illinois team lost by one to unranked Ohio State in their last game of the 2005 season. There is a reason why 31-0 does not happen every year. It takes the right team, the right circumstances, and yes, a bit of luck, but a lot more skill.

Today’s sports analysis ensures that no accomplishment goes without scrutiny. Opposing teams try harder playing against the best. Games, matchups, even individual plays can be broken down to discover a team’s tendencies or weaknesses. It is more difficult than ever to play “under the radar.” Wichita State played most of their season with a target on their back, and still won; 31 consecutive times. Advanced metrics quantify the strength of schedule and win probability that assigns a number to measure the relative importance of different accomplishments. But on the court, where games are decided, statistics don’t matter. Winning matters. After all the algorithms, there’s only one number that matters to Marshall and the Shockers: zero, which is the number of losses Wichita State had at the beginning of the season, the same number they have now, and the number of other Division I teams that can claim the same.

In the most recent polls, Wichita State was still ranked second. They should be ranked first. Why not reward one of the greatest regular seasons with a well-deserved number one ranking?  Polls are subjective anyway, and once the conference tournaments start, rankings matter even less. History will evaluate the Shockers based on their postseason results, but the time to appreciate their regular season is now. The coaches and players stated after their final regular season game that they were still not satisfied. The Shockers have more to accomplish: an MVC championship and another run to Final Four. If they fall short in the games that follow, critics will (unfairly) minimize their regular season accomplishments. They well try to assign this team as another talented mid-major team that didn’t prevail against proven blue-clip programs. I hope this doesn’t happen. In today’s game, it’s more difficult to win, and even more so to win consistently. Running the table through the MVC is no guarantee of postseason success. But who cares? All teams except one will end their journey in the NCAA tournament with a loss. 31-0 shouldn’t be diminished by a schedule or a ranking. A perfect regular season shouldn’t need a qualification. 31-0 speaks for itself.  AN