March 12, 2013

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Wooden Award Watch

By: Tyler Vespa

College basketball’s player of the year race is starting to heat up. In this wide open season where we’ve seen top 5 teams go down almost every week, the Wooden Award Watch has also been sent into a frenzy. We’ve seen so many teams picked to finish in the middle or the bottom of their conference rise above expectations. This parity has put names on the Wooden Award Watch that nobody saw coming.

Will Indiana's Victor Oladipo win the Wooden Award?

With that, here are my top 5 players (in order) that could take home player of the year honors:

Victor Oladipo- Indiana

His incredible quickness helps him do so many different things for the Hoosiers. Oladipo is one of the best I’ve seen at turning defense into offense. He averages 14.0 ppg, 2.1 assists, 6 rebounds and 2.3 steals and to top it off, he is shooting 63% from the floor. His play has been so consistent it’s hard to put anyone ahead of him at this point.

Otto Porter- Georgetown

The Hoyas swingman rises to the occasion in big games. Porter scored 33 points in a win at Syracuse, and scored 21 of his 22 points in the second half of a double-overtime win against Connecticut. Porter shoots 51% from the floor and averages 16.6 points. 2.5 assists, 7.6 rebounds, 2 steals and 1 block. The Hoyas have won 11 in a row, and Porter is averaging 19.2 ppg in the last 13 games. In other words, he single handedly took the Hoyas to the top of the Big East.

Rodney McGruder- Kansas St.

The Kansas State senior guard is averaging 14.9 ppg and 5.3 rebounds, 2 assists, and 1.3 steals. This play by McGruder has helped the Wildcats win 5 in a row and take over 1st in the Big 12.

Deshaun Thomas- Ohio St.

In the toughest conference in the country, the junior forward has averaged 19.8 ppg, 1.3 assists, and 6.1 rebounds.  This consistency, along with Thomas’ 84.5 free throw shooting has helped the Buckeyes win 4 of their last 5, putting them 2nd in the Big Ten.

Marcus Smart- Oklahoma St.

The freshman guard is averaging 14.6 ppg, 5.6 rebounds, and 4.3 assists and 2.9 steals. Smart does it all for the Cowboys, who have now won 10 of their past 11, with their only loss coming against Kansas in double overtime. They now sit just one game behind Kansas and Kansas St. in the Big 12.

I would be in shock if one of these 5 didn’t win player of the year. Even with the conference tournaments and the NCAA Tournament right around the corner, these are the top guys in the top conferences in the nation. I can’t wait to see how these guys perform down the stretch in the race for a national championship.

February 12, 2013

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The State of Indiana is Back on Top of the Basketball World

By: Matt Bowen

Right now, the entire state of Indiana is once again thriving as the basketball capital of the world. Sure, basketball may not have been born in Indiana, but the state is the heart and soul of the game.

It’s not that basketball ever left the state, but the attention did for quite some time. After Reggie Miller retired from the Indiana Pacers and Bobby Knight was removed as head coach of the University of Indiana Hoosiers, the correlation of Indiana and the game of basketball became seemingly forgotten about. For what seems to be a lifetime in basketball years, Indiana was a second-class citizen

Then, the small school of Butler forged their way into the national spotlight. The Bulldogs became the Cinderella team for two consecutive years in 2010-11, making the Final Four, but coming up just short in the national final in both years.

Purdue is one of the many teams in Indiana that could be heading to the NCAA Tournament.

Butler missed out on the Madness last season, but is currently ranked  No. 11 in the country with a 20-4 record and will undoubtedly be dancing once again this season.

Notre Dame is also ranked at the moment and the University of Purdue is around .500, but considering they play in the ultra-tough B1G Conference a strong finish to the season could mean a ticket to the dance.

While these teams are definitely on the college basketball radar, it’s the Hoosiers who bring the state such recognition. While it’s been tough for any college team to solidify themselves as the No. 1 overall team, the Hoosiers are as good as any team in the country.

Head coach Tom Crean has officially put the Hoosiers and the state of Indiana back on the map. It took Crean four years to bring the school back to prominence, but now they are a favorite to win it all.

Regardless of who wins it all this season, there’s a great chance that a team from the state of Indiana will be around late in the tournament.

On the NBA front, the Indiana Pacers are an up-and-coming superpower too

Heading into this season, the Pacers were in the discussion for playoff contention. Now, with the All Star Game just around the corner, they have positioned themselves as legitimate title contenders.

Believe it!

The Pacers may be near the bottom of the entire NBA in scoring at 92.8 points/game, but it’s their stingy defense that makes them tough to topple. The only allow 90.2 points/game and are the league’s best rebounding team.  A similar historical team to compare them to is the Detroit Pistons of a decade ago. The Pistons didn’t have the best offense, but they won with defense. The Pacers could be that team of this generation.

What’s most impressive about the Pacers is that they’ve been winning without Danny Granger, their best player who is sidelined with a knee injury for the entire season to this point.

Their current record of 31-21 is third best in the Eastern Conference. Granger is set to come back soon which should boost their scoring. All young NBA teams need to learn to win on the road and the Pacers are only 11-16 thus far, but that means they only have 14 road games left. A realistic goal would be to go 7-7 in those games and give them some road confidence heading into the playoffs.

In any event, they aren’t to be taken lightly and have made themselves a factor.

In total, the state of Indiana is thriving because of their favorite pastime of basketball. Regardless of where you’re from, this is great to see. In short, it simply brings the best out of the game.

January 11, 2013

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NCAA Men’s Basketball Weekend Watch List

By: Tyler Vespa

Just about halfway through the college basketball season, we are beginning to find out who’s for real and who’s a pretender. After Arizona’s loss Thursday night to Oregon, there are only two more teams left undefeated; Duke and Michigan. Now were going to party like it’s 1992. Yes it’s been a little over 20 years since Duke played Michigan for the national title, with the “Fab 5” as freshmen. For Duke, almost nothing has changed, Mike Krzyzewski is still the head coach, and Duke is number 1 in the country. However, in Ann Arbor, pretty much everything has changed. The only slight similarity is the youth movement that features a starting 5 with 2 freshmen and 1 sophomore. The Big Ten has officially dethroned the Big East as college basketball’s top conference, and the ACC is having a down year without Florida State and North Carolina in the top 25. That being said, the Blue Devils will have to beat themselves to lose the ACC.

With that I give you the marquee matchups this weekend in college hoops:

1. Duke (15-0) (2-0 ACC) at 20. North Carolina State (13-2) (2-0 ACC) Saturday 12 noon (ESPN)

The Blue Devils are without starting senior forward Ryan Kelly who is out indefinitely with a foot injury. The Blue Devils don’t have the depth to replace a guy who averages 13.4 PPG and 5.4 RPG. The Wolfpack are balanced with 6 guys averaging double figures in scoring. Mark Gottfried’s club also ranks 1st in field goal percentage. Duke will have no answer for C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell on the interior.  Prediction: Duke-69 NC State- 73

Michigan State, a perennial Big Ten power, fell earlier this season to Minnesota.

8. Minnesota (15-1) (3-0 Big Ten) at 5. Indiana (14-1) (2-0 Big Ten) Saturday 12 noon (BTN)

Since their lone loss to Duke on November 22nd, Tubby Smith’s Golden Gophers have won 11 in a row including two big conference wins against Michigan State and Illinois. Indiana has won their last 5 since losing to Butler. The Gopher’s Andre Hollins may be the best point guard in the country. That in combination with Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams in the post is too much for the Hoosiers. The Gophers will do it by committee to pull the upset at Assembly Hall.  Prediction: Minnesota-67 Indiana-63

2. Michigan (16-0) (3-0 Big Ten) at 15. Ohio State (12-3) (2-1 Big Ten) Sunday 1:30 (CBS)

There hasn’t been this much excitement in Ann Arbor since the “Fab 5”. The Wolverines have 4 guys averaging over 12 points per game. Their backcourt is the best in nation with Wooden Award candidate Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. Big Blue’s frontcourt is also scary with two fabulous freshmen in Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III. This balance will be too much for the Buckeyes. The Buckeyes are 12th in turnovers per game while the Wolverines are 2nd. The Buckeyes will struggle to find high percentage shots and Michigan’s depth will dominate from start to finish.  Prediction: Michigan-66 Ohio State-58.

March 3, 2011

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March Madness Brings out the Underdog in All of Us

By: Stephen Arnold

The season spans five months, but the madness of the NCAA basketball tournament makes one month more significant than all the others combined: March. For four weeks each March, while the boys of summer begin spring training and professional golf moves from the west coast to Florida, college basketball sits squarely in the collective conscience of the American sports-viewing public. And the yearly edition of the NCAA basketball tournament continues to be “the greatest show on earth.”

This time of year, it’s hard not to think of Kentucky’s horse fences or the budding flowers lining Tobacco Road in North Carolina. These states are synonymous with college basketball, and their universities have thrilled us time and time again on the hardwood. But each year, the royal families of basketball get some competition for the hearts of America from one team: the “little guy.”

At every level, from the small college gymnasiums of Division III to the huge stadiums of the Final Four, college basketball decides its national champions on the court—not in the polls. When the tournament dust settles, there is no arguing the best college basketball team in America. (Are you listening, college football?)

March is the month of the little guy. Every few years, the tournament features a smaller school upsetting a few larger, heavily favored teams and capturing the imagination of fans and media alike. The 68-team tournament serves as the great equalizer, pitting large universities with national fan bases and huge operating budgets against smaller schools with tenacity and a cohesive style of play, reminding us of the style of basketball played in decades past.

Like an old-fashioned playground fistfight, the NCAA tournament is the perfect way to settle scores. When fist meets chin, a school’s size, fan base and national reputation mean very little. Each school sends its five best players to the floor. In a world where this statement is often made but rarely meant, size means nothing in the NCAA tournament (though it doesn’t hurt to have a talented 7-footer on your team).

A funny thing happens across living rooms and in arenas when an underdog challenges a favorite deep into the second half of a tournament game. Electricity builds as fans cheer for schools they don’t care about and players they don’t know, for one simple reason: Americans love an underdog.

Last season, tiny Butler University from the state of Indiana took basketball behemoth Duke to the brink of elimination in what would’ve been college basketball’s equivalent of the Hickory Huskers upsetting the South Bend Central Bears in “Hoosiers.” For 40 minutes, Butler’s group of relative unknowns stayed with the Coca-Cola of college basketball programs basket for basket. In the end, a half-court shot for the history books missed by less than an inch.

Underdog Butler's Mascot, Blue II

But the moment wasn’t lost on Butler, Duke, the media or the millions of fans watching at home with weary eyes and clenched fists. Prior to last season’s tournament, most fans couldn’t have named the town where Butler University is located. Several years ago, the same could be said for George Mason University and before that, it was Valparaiso University. And yet, each year fans stand with sweaty palms, hoarse voices and accelerated heartbeats—all hoping to see David slay Goliath.

As Americans, rooting for the underdog must be part of our DNA. As underdogs ourselves, we won our independence from a bigger, stronger rival and established the “a man can be anything he wants” credo. Americans have a soft spot for the overachieving “little guy.” We love him. We are him. Each March, we can’t get enough of him.

The underdog represents the best of America—in sports and beyond. As we look forward to all this month holds in store, somewhere out there an underdog is preparing to capture our hearts. Long live college basketball.

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February 9, 2011

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It’s Still a Team Game

By: Stephen Arnold

In an era focused on individual stars, one NCAA team reminds us that basketball is still a team sport: the Ohio State Buckeyes. The Buckeyes are 24-0 and ranked No. 1 despite losing last season’s college player of the year, Evan Turner. In a well-respected Big Ten Conference and at a school best-known for football, Ohio State has quietly become a national power on the hardwood, winning 38 of their past 40 games. I have to think even Aretha Franklin would agree: It’s time for the Ohio State basketball program to start getting the respect it deserves.

Team basketball was meant to be played the Ohio State way. Four OSU players average double figures per game: Jared Sullinger (18.0), William Buford (13.6), David Lighty (12.5) and Jon Diebler (11.2). The Buckeyes can beat teams inside or outside, driving past defenders or shooting over them. If the defense collapses on freshman sensation Sullinger, Ohio State has four guys shooting more than 40 percent from 3-point range. If their opponents guard against the 3-pointer, Sullinger can destroy them in the lane.

And if Ohio State is off their offensive game, they can survive with athletic man-to-man defense led by sixth-year senior, Lighty—the best and most versatile defender in college basketball. At 6-foot-5, Lighty is quick enough to cover smaller guards and athletic enough to guard larger forwards, earning him value well beyond the box score. All in all, the Buckeyes are talented and selfless, a rare combination in today’s sports world.

Ohio State is the total package. I haven’t even mentioned Aaron Craft, the freshman point guard who comes off the bench and averages nearly 7 points, 5 assists and 2 steals while playing terrific defense. And true freshman Deshaun Thomas, the seventh guy in the rotation, is the third-leading scorer in Indiana high school history and averages nearly 9 points and 4 rebounds per game. Throw in defensive and shot-blocking specialist Dallas Lauderdale at the center position and Ohio State is one very complete team.

In the modern game, high school superstars often play only one season at the college level. Nobody knows this better than Ohio State coach Thad Matta who, in the past five seasons, has lost six freshmen and one senior to the NBA Draft. Since the most talented players leave early, any team wanting to make a national championship run needs to strike the right balance between talent and team leadership.

There are teams that take the opposite approach and avoid players likely to leave after only one year of school. Such programs attempt to beat teams consisting of raw superstars (e.g., Memphis) with solid veterans (e.g., Pitt).  In this year’s Buckeyes, Matta has the best of both worlds. His seven-man rotation features three seniors, one junior and three freshmen. So the question remains, how do experienced teams with good players or inexperienced teams with great talent beat an Ohio State team with both? No one seems to know the answer.

I am not guaranteeing that Ohio State will cruise through March Madness  en route to their first national championship since 1960, when some guys named John Havlicek, Jerry Lucas and Bobby Knight roamed the floor. Winning a national title takes talent and experience, but also good health and luck.

Truthfully, with seven regular season games remaining and the Big Ten and NCAA tournaments yet to begin, I feel comfortable saying Ohio State will not end the season undefeated. The last team to do so was the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Theirs was an era of less parity, no conference tournaments and a 32-team NCAA tournament. Like a lot of things in life, “it was easier back then.”

The 1976 Hoosiers finished 32-0. In order to have a perfect season, Ohio State would have to go 30-0 in the regular season, 3-0 in the Big Ten tournament and 6-0 in the NCAA tournament, for a total record of 39-0. Such a feat would be the greatest team basketball achievement since John Wooden and the UCLA Bruins won 10 titles in 12 seasons between 1964 and 1975.

With the 14th ranked Wisconsin Badgers eagerly awaiting the Buckeyes’ arrival in Madison, Wisconsin this Saturday—a venue where Matta is 0-7 as Ohio State’s head coach—the Buckeyes face their toughest challenge of the season.  A road test against Purdue and home games against Michigan State and Illinois still loom.

In the end, the odds of a perfect season are long and the road to perfection nearly impossible. However, the Ohio State basketball program is announcing its presence with authority on the national scene and deserves some well-earned R-E-S-P-E-C-T.

The respect of analysts and fans isn’t important to this team. The pursuit of an elusive perfect season is a dream for the players, but the ultimate goal is a national championship—perfection in itself.

To make it all the way, Norman Dale, coach of the Hickory Huskers in the iconic basketball movie, “Hoosiers,” has some advice that rings true for any basketball team competing at any level in any era:

“Five players on the floor functioning as one single unit: team, team, team. No one more important than the other.”

It may be the wrong state, but these Buckeyes are the right team. And they’re playing a brand of basketball not seen in years. March Madness can’t get here soon enough.