Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Now That Princeton's Out of the Ivy Race. . .

I will be rooting for. . . Penn.

Click here to see the Ivy League's stats for men's basketball.

Harvard is 10-2.

Penn is 9-2.

Yale is 9-3.

Now, before Princeton fans are about to jump on me, our beloved Tigers are 7-4 and, of course, I will be rooting for the Tigers to defeat the Quakers next week in Jadwin Gym. That's a given.

But if the Tigers at 7-4 in the league are not in a position to win it, I will be rooting for Penn. Here's why:

1. To me, the Ivies have always been about the Penn-Princeton rivalry. When it doesn't exist, or when one is good and the other is not (or when both cede territory to Cornell), all is not right in the hoops world. So, if it can't be Princeton, it should be Penn. That should inspire Princeton to turn up its overall efforts and recruiting a notch so as to heat up the rivarly and take the title back from the Quakers. This, really, is the main reason.

2. Penn coach Jerome Allen was very nice to my son this summer at a basketball camp in Bucks County (held at a high school whose colors are orange and black). That said, I don't think we'd be as in like with Harvard mentor Tommy Amaker under similar circumstances. I do happen to like Yale's James Jones, who has done a very good job in New Haven for a long time. But not enough, though, to root for the Bulldogs. Okay, perhaps if a bunch of great swag were thrown in, we'd consider it.

3. Penn's Zack Rosen, the likely Ivy Player of the Year, is a special player, leader, clutch performer, fun to watch.

4. I grew up rooting for Penn, went to the Palestra, watched great teams playing magical games on television durign the Palestra's golden era, so I'm waxing nostalgic and getting older, I suppose. This does count for something, I think, although if you knew me as an undergrad, you wouldn't have heard me express such sentiments (that said, in 1979 I was glued to my black-and-white TV in my dorm room watching Penn upset North Carolina and St. John's in the Eastern Regionals to make a surprise visit to the Final Four).

So, that's my reasoning. The other question out there is if Penn or Yale were to win the Ivies and get the automatic berth, would Harvard get an at-large bid. I'm not an expert on such things, but if that were to be the case, I am sure that many a Princeton fan would be pulling for Harvard to win the Ivies outright. The reason: Northwestern. The Wildcats's coach, Bill Carmody, coached at Princeton, and the current Princeton coach, Mitch Henderson, was his top assistant there for years. So, the loyalty to the family tree runs pretty thick, which, translated, means that a Harvard at-large bid would push one fo the last teams reported to be in onto the bubble or beyond. In this case, that well could be Northwestern, and the Wildcats have never been in the tournament. Imagine the volcanic eruption in Evanston among those who care (as at elite academic institutions, far from everyone does) should the Wildcats go dancing. It would be something to watch.

Okay, so perhaps I'm torn. Carmody coached one of the greatest teams in Princeton history, when Henderson was his point guard. But to root for Harvard, perhaps the Ivies' evil empire, to win the league because that somehow will help Northwestern (and, remember, many were not happy when Carmody left) is a bit of a stretch. It's a tough call, but I'm holding true to my initial thoughts.

I'm pulling for Penn.

Overall, but not against Princeton.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

A Team Pete Carril Would Love

This is by no mean a knock on Princeton's men's basketball team, which won the Ivies last year and almost knocked off Kentucky in the first-round of the NCAA tournament.

That said. . .

The Princeton women's team is going to the NCAA tournament for the third consecutive year, is 21-4, has won 14 straight, is 11-0 in the Ivies and is flat-out dismantling its Ivy opponents. That's right -- dismantling. Or destroying. Or annihilating.

Coach Carril's motto was "Play to Win." Coach Courtney Banghart is honoring that motto and then some on Carril Court at Jadwin Gymnasium. Her teams are fun to watch.

You hear about Harvard's men's team, about the wondrous or miraculous recruiting efforts of Tommy Amaker in Cambridge, about how Harvard was nationally ranked and how the Princeton men upset them a week ago in Jadwin, and all that helps create good stories for the Ivy men's teams. What -- or who -- gets overlooked amidst all that press are the Princeton women.

Hats off to Coach Courtney Banghart and her team for another outstanding year!

Play to Win?

Play to Win!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Live at Cornell-Princeton in Jadwin Gym Last Night

Went there on the spur of the moment and left with wondering how Cornell how could have beaten the team that showed up last night. Very bright spots were soph guard TJ Bray, who handles the ball well and shoots with authority, junior forward Ian Hummer, who simply takes charge out there, senior guard Douglas Davis, who is finishing up an outstanding career and forward Patrick Saunders, who had a bunch of nifty one-handed shots inside. Atop that, frosh forward Denton Koon looks like a future star and junior forward Mack Darrow had a career night the night before on ESPNU against Columbia. At 6'9", 230 pounds, he is a very good player.

Cornell played with a lot of energy, substituted perhaps too much to find the right combinations, but tended to overplay on defense and lacked the shooting ability that the Tigers displayed last night when rolling up 42 points in the first half. The team showed a lot of zing, and if I were to have one point of constructive feedback, they need to defend better and play better switching defense, especially inside. Cornell scored too many baskets when the perimeter player broke through, only to remain unchecked inside. My guess is that the coaches will see this on film and do something to correct it.

While it's doubtful that the Tigers can win the Ivies, and while they will miss Davis next year, they have some players in the pipeline who are difference makers and who are fun to watch. While Harvard has the hot hand that Cornell did during the last three years of the Steve Donahue era, it's not that hard to fathom that Princeton (and Penn, for that matter) cannot recruit enough players to make the competition in the Ivies more compelling over the next several seasons.

Good fun last night in Jadwin Gym.

Odd Twist of Events in Raleigh at N.C. State-Florida State Game

The visiting Seminoles won, but the big story was that an official summoned a security guard to toss former N.C. State greats Chris Corchiani and Tom Gugliotta out of the arena. It's a bit hard to believe, but it happened.

Apparently, Corchiani tweeted that he and Gugliotta (who were sitting several rows behind the scorers' table) were on the officials for having a bad day and being inconsistent and that they were telling the truth.

The whole event seems bizarre. How vocal were the two former players? Was it typical ref-razzing or was it inflammatory, riot-inciting and threatening? How thick a skin does this ref typically have? Very thick (so that if he went to these lengths, he had a point) to thin to the point that he leads the league in ejections?

I'd like to give both sides the benefit of the doubt here and not pass judgment on a) how difficult it can be to official and hear the banter and b) how frustrating it can be (i) to be a fan when things aren't going your way and (ii) to be a former player whose competitive juices are still flowing and whose team is on the losing end of the contest. Neither, in and of itself, justifies this type of ejection, but it would be interesting to hear what actually happened.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The Continued Fall of Allen Iverson


Against the backdrop of a 76ers' team with a passionate, refreshing and straightforward coach and players who dive for loose balls, defend, set screens and pass (to the point that the other night 7 players scored in double figures), comes this story from veteran, venerated columnist Bill Lyon. It's perhaps one of many we'll continue to see, about the (spectacular) free fall of one-time NBA MVP Allen Iverson.

What's particularly sad about this story is that mostly everyone who followed the 76ers saw it coming and yet remained powerless to protect Iverson from himself. He played like a house afire and lived his life the same way -- exciting, determined, stubborn, kinetic, frenetic, unique. But we all knew that the energy couldn't last, the money would run out, and the style of basketball would be exposed for what it was -- a one-man band, with a supporting cast whom the star failed to help make better, especially when the star took too many shots to score the points that he did.

The will not to believe, of course, was strong. The will not to believe that the type of basketball was borne of guts and energy but not discipline (both on the court and off) could last or was good, especially because of all people Larry Brown gave public testimony for it. The will not to believe that poor off-the-court habits could outdo and outlast the stronger work ethic of players like Kobe Bryant, who made up for their lack of bling and pizzazz with their sniper's accuracy. The will not to believe that AI would end up where he is now.

Which is unwanted and broke, a basketball junkie and lifer without a team, without crowds chanting his name, designating him as the most valuable player. It wasn't so long ago that he could run by opponents, leave announcers agape and fans wanting more.

And most of us saw it coming.

Even if, for a while, few wanted to believe it.

Princeton Allegedly Tells Injured Football Recruit "No" -- Unfair, Sour Grapes, or a Sign of an Inconvenient Truth?

Lou Rabito of The Philadelphia Inquirer reports on the story of a high school football player from a well-regarded Philadelphia-area private school who had his heart set on Princeton (to the point where he told other schools that Princeton was the one), only to have his hopes dashed after he suffered a season-ending injury early in the football season. As Rabito tells it, Princeton asked the player to attend a boarding school for a post-graduate year and, when the student-athlete didn't agree with the request, told him that he wouldn't be getting in. The kid's reasoning was simple -- he went to an elite private school and got good grades, so what would he have to prove by attending the boarding school?

Naturally, Princeton cannot comment because, well, the NCAA prohibits such commentary. The article allows for the concept that this story probably happens frequently elsewhere. But let's be clear about a few things. First, this particular newspaper will ding Princeton any chance it gets, especially when it can put Princeton in a bad light at the expense of hometown Penn (which, by the way, isn't on any church's beatification list for athletic recruiting, either). Second, what the article hints at is the hidden or inconvenient truth that a) all, b) many, c) some or d) a sacred few recruited athletes in the Ivies only get in because of their sports (sure, their grades are "in the ballpark," but some of these kids wouldn't get in unless they can block, shoot a basketball, wield a lacrosse stick). That happens everywhere in the Ivies, so what Princeton might have been saying to this kid is, "Hey, you won't be getting in here unless you show us that you can play football, and with this injury we're not sure that you can. So, go to the boarding school, show us you still can play, keep your grades up too, and then we'll let you in." Which means, perhaps, that the recruit's comment about his grades misses the point -- it's about your football playing ability and your grades.

Now, before former Ivy athletes, current Ivy athletes, all of their friends and parents, Ivy administrators and coaches and anyone else gets their dander up, think about it. The conventional wisdom is that the easiest way to get into an Ivy is if you're a recruited athlete (unless, of course, you're a recruited athlete and one of your parents went to that school). So, it stands to reason that in the particular case Rabito is reporting about, the recruit in question wouldn't have gotten in because of his academics and his entire body of extracurricular activities as a whole didn't wow the admissions office. That goes, by the way, for 95% of the kids who apply to Princeton, so this kid is by no means unique. Be a great actor, have a 3.5 GPA at a good school, you might get in. Hit other football players hard, fill the gaps in the line, project that you can do it in the Ivies, have a 3.6 GPA at a good school, you might get in. Fail to shine outright in your chosen extracurricular, well, your GPA, body of extracurriculars and scores must be off the charts. Ergo, get hurt, perhaps be unable to play at the next level, have less than off-the-chart grades and scores and you fall back into the pack.

Look, I feel for the subject of the article. He seems like a good kid. I also am no huge fan of the meat grinder that can be college athletics and the on again, off again hypocrisy of Ivy athletics (and the lengths some Ivies will go in certain sports to win -- Harvard's interpretation of the "index" to gain supremacy in basketball, Yale's taking as a transfer a quarterback to went to at least three high schools in four years -- for football reasons -- you name it, someone does something to find an edge). So, perhaps the Ivies are as human as the rest of us -- they push, they pull, they interpret, they advocate -- everyone gets that. But the cold reality is that the Ivy coaches are fighting for their jobs year in and year out, and roster spots come at a premium. So when a solid recruit shows that he might not be able to deliver, well, the coach has to find someone who can.

This recruit remains in the rarified air, has his whole life in front of him and will land well for either intercollegiate football or wrestling or both. But it's a stretch to say that he should have gotten a spot at Princeton, regardless of his ability to play the sport for which he was recruited, precisely because in all likelihood he wouldn't have gained admission unless he was on the football coach's list as a preferred recruit. Rabito kind of misses that point, perhaps because he doesn't get it, just missed it, or really believes that this recruit should have gotten in even with the injury. If the latter is his reason, then he's missing the inconvenient, hidden truth of Ivy recruiting for sports -- it's a tough, harsh, competitive game, even in the Ivy League.

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Coaching a Shorthanded Team to Victory

Our team was short its top two scorers this weekend. They're good athletes, rec league basketball is not their top priority, and their commitments to their main sports had them out of town yesterday. The meant that we had eight of our ten players, and everyone is required to play half the game.

At our one, one-hour practice during the week, I conferred with my co-coach and we decided that we would tell the kids the news at practice so that they could prepare for the absence of these two players. At no time did we say that we would have difficulty winning or that it would be hard. To me, that would be offering them an easy excuse for failure and then not give their best effort. They could say, "well, how could we win without these guys there?" Instead, I said that the absence of these two players created opportunities for everyone else -- to shoot more, to create more and to do more. I encouraged each of them to step up his game a bit, concentrate better, make better decisions. I also said that we played well as a team together, we should continue to play stingy defense, and that we should honor the good play that the two players who would be absent showed and play their best.

We played against a well-coached, talented team, a physical team with a heady point guard, a bunch of kids who could handle the ball and knew what they were doing. They ran high-post plays, and my guess is that they worked reasonable well. One basic was to have a post player start low, run to the high post, grab a pass from the point guard and then send it right back on a give-and-go for a layup. Good stuff.

It was by no means an aesthetically pleasing game. One of my kids forgot the travel rule -- again. A few who are newer to the game got called for three seconds, and when you're short players you don't seem to get the calls. . . whether that's real or imagined is something for the economists and behavioral psychologists to write about, but the refs seemed a bit shorthanded yesterday, too, in their thinking, and these are good refs, refs who for the most part lets the kids play. We got off to a good start, and took a lead after the first quarter, in part because of stellar defense and in part because of good spacing. Without our two leading scorers, we were left with only three kids who really can handle the ball, and I planned to make sure that we had two of them on the court at all times.

The second quarter would be the real test, because that's when the top three scorers are permitted to enter the game for both teams. We were without ours, and we played two kids again in the second quarter to help make sure that we had appropriate matchups (without two players, four players can play three quarters apiece). The second quarter proved to be a revelation. Yes, we fell victim to the give-and-go once, but then sealed the back door shut the rest of the way. Our third-leading scorer ran the point and weaved in and out, but it was our fourth-leading scorer who did a lot of damage, too. By defending their point guard tenaciously, and by setting screens at every opportunity on offense, giving the point guard enough space to drive to the basket. We were up four at the half, and I saw something in our kids that I didn't see as much of in the other team.

The kids looked at me seriously, and for those who might have had some doubts about winning, they knew that they were in a game and that they were contributing to it. Some of the less experienced players remained a bit stiff and frozen on offense, not sure how to get open, not sure where to move, but they defended closely and challenged every shot. We remained up four after three quarters and held on to win by two. Our good screener had played the first three and was unavailable in the fourth, and his absence proved somewhat costly, as those who were on the floor did not know how to set screens on their own the way he did. But in the end, it was "hands up", hard-working defense that wore out the other team and enabled a close victory under challenging circumstances.

Did everyone on our team step up? On defense, yes, on offense, no. Did our remaining leaders step up, yes, by doing what they did well -- either penetrating, defending, rebounding or screening, and it was enough -- just enough -- to help an average-sized, not all that physical team beat a good team on a challenging day. Yes, it is a rec league, but they do keep score and they have playoffs. It was, by all accounts, a game that the team should not have won, but the kids have worked hard in practice all year and have learned the value of team play and defense. Given their hard work, it behooved their coach to think of every possible way to coach them to put them in a position to win.

Their effort made it easy. I had them focus on the things that they could do well, and in a fifth- and sixth-grade rec league that started with playing solid defense. Deflections, steals, sealed passing lanes caused the other team to rush, to throw up bad shots, to toss the ball away. That changed the tempo in the game and required us -- a team short on scorers -- to need fewer points to win. The kids were happy with the victory, not knowing, afterwards, the significance of their accomplishment. When asked, about half raised their hands saying that they thought we could win without our two leading scorers. Naturally, these were the kids who contributed the most. We will tell all of them on Monday night why they won -- their attention to detail, their hustle, their focus -- and reinforce it, all without letting their heads swell.

We play a well-coached team again this Saturday, and we'll need a great effort to keep pace with them. But we all learned something yesterday afternoon -- that kids are resilient, that leaders step up and sacrifice themselves for the team, that everyone has a little something extra that he can share and give in a time of need. We learned more about the value of concentration and worrying only about what we control in front of us, and not about two teammates who weren't there. And yet, at the same time, it all seemed so normal, intense, yes, but just like another game. And that made it special, too.

There was no special rejoicing, no extra back-slapping, none of that, because the kids know how to win or lose with grace. They win more than they lose, and much of it is because they want to show each other that they can play and not disappoint themselves, each other or the coaches. They are eager to learn and to contribute, they are good kids who give a great effort. Knowing that, they were easy to coach. Sure, I yelled to them "stay with your man" or "get over there", and I coached individually ("that's not your shot", "push with your legs when you shoot" and other advice like that), and I gave advice about when to set screens, but in the end a coach is not a puppetmaster, and the kids are not marionettes. If they come to the game ready to play, ready to win, you have a chance.

By raising the bar, the coaches gave them a good foundation to put in the effort to win. Their leaders played with grit and confidence, and the others followed and stepped up.

It wasn't the prettiest game, the most graceful or the biggest win.

But in certain ways, it was one of the best.