Dr. Jekyll And Mr. Sports

Last night two bad things happened:  the Ohio State Buckeyes went down to defeat in the NCAA Tournament, and during the game Mr. Sports emerged.

The Buckeyes’ loss wasn’t unexpected; they’d gotten whipped by Gonzaga earlier in the season and were the underdog.  Ohio State gamely fought back from a 15-point deficit at the start of the game to briefly take the lead in the second half, but ultimately Gonzaga pulled away.  It was a good game, but also one where, from the standpoint of Ohio State fans at least, it seemed like every rolled-out layup and rattling in three-pointer and missed-shot carom just favored the Bulldogs.   Sometimes that happens in sports.

1281989935452That’s where Mr. Sports came in.  That’s the name I’ve given to the harsh, foul-mouthed, angry personality that sometimes takes over during TV sports broadcasts when one of my favorite teams is playing in a big game.  Mr. Sports wants his teams to win so badly that any adversity or bad break causes him to surge to the forefront and launch into vicious tirades about referees, opposing players, the fates, or even the opposing coach’s wife or Mom and Dad celebrating an impending win.  And, because college basketball is a game where so many bounces or debatable foul calls can happen, it’s prime territory for Mr. Sports.

Last night Mr. Sports was pretty bad.  Kish and I had decided to watch the game together, but after Ohio State fell far behind and was struggling to catch up, one of Mr. Sports’ loud and profane outbursts caused Russell’s dog Betty to leap off the couch, and Kish decided to retreat upstairs in disgust.  Mr. Sports then watched the rest of the game by himself, fulminating about the unjust fates.  After the game ended I went back upstairs, feeling sheepish and stupid about my loss of control in front of my disappointed wife and the two dogs.  Recently I’ve gotten better about keeping Mr. Sports under wraps — combining age, presumed maturity, and avoidance strategies like just not watching much college basketball this year — but sometimes the power of Mr. Sports is simply too strong.

The Atlantic recently carried an interesting article about the positives and negatives of being a sports fan, and concluded that the benefits outweigh the negatives.  And I know from personal experience how thrilling it is when one of your teams wins it all.  But it is embarrassing when Mr. Sports thunders out from my id and starts raging at the TV, and it makes me feel bad to disappoint my baffled wife, who just can’t understand how sports can cause such a fundamental change in behavior in the blink of an eye.

I’m 60 years old, and I’ve still got some growing up to do.

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The Comeback Kids

Because I can’t use my left foot or get exercise in the conventional way, I’m trying to get my blood pumping by watching the Ohio State basketball team. So far, my plan is working like a charm.

Today the Buckeyes played Nebraska in the quarterfinals of the Big Ten Tournament. Ohio State stunk up the joint at the end of the first half and the beginning of the second and were getting embarrassed, 48-30. My blood pressure was spiking at the pitiful performance, with flushed cheeks and spittle and epithets flying.

But then, improbably, a mop-topped bean pole spurred the Buckeyes. With Amedeo Della Valle hustling his brains out, and LaQuinton Ross making just about every shot he put up, and Aaron Craft playing the tough D that is his trademark, the Buckeyes came back to win, 71-67. That’s a 41-19 run to close out the game — and it was fitting that Della Valle iced the victory by coolly making four free throws with the game on the line.

How do you explain this team? They disappear, then come roaring back. They can’t make a free throw for most of the game, but as the clock winds down they can’t miss. They seem to lose their composure, but as the game ends it’s the other team that is red-faced and stunned.

So, the Buckeyes move on. Tomorrow they play Michigan. The Buckeyes had better bring their A game for all 40 minutes tomorrow, because if they fall behind the Wolverines by 18 there’s no coming back.

Survive And Advance

For the first time in years, the Ohio State Buckeyes played on Thursday in the Big Ten Tournament. Today they were fortunate to win a squeaker, 63-61, over a game Purdue Boilermakers team that gave the Buckeyes all they could handle.

The Buckeyes have been a cipher for months, and today was no different. For stretches they look putrid, then then look pretty good. They can’t make a three-pointer, and their free throw shooting is abysmal. Today they were 1-14 from behind the arc — that’s a nifty 7.1% for the mathematicians out there — and a limp 64% from the free throw line. Once again, they missed free throws that could have put the game away. They also turned the ball over 12 times, and a lot of those turnovers were simple mental mistakes. It’s got to be maddening for Coach Thad Matta when March rolls around and those mistakes keep being made.

With such miserable shooting, it’s amazing that Ohio State won today’s game. If they’d played a better team — Purdue finished last in the Big Ten — they probably would have lost. But the Buckeyes survived and advanced, which is all you can ask for when tournament time rolls around. We can be sure of one thing, though: if they don’t play better, they aren’t going to advance very far. Maybe this game is the one you somehow win when everything goes wrong, and now everything will click into place. Or, maybe this is just another reflection of a team that can’t shoot straight.

Those Baffling Buckeyes

Last night some friends graciously invited Kish and me to join them for the Ohio State-Minnesota basketball game. We had a fine time as the Buckeyes won, and I got my first personal exposure to a Buckeyes team that has a definite Jekyll and Hyde character.

IMG_1799The first half was dismal. The Buckeyes were completely inept on offense — fumbling the ball away, passing around the perimeter fruitlessly as the shot clock wound down, then launching a poor shot and not getting the rebound — and scored only 18 points. It was painful to watch. A middle-of-the-pack Minnesota team went into the locker room with a ten-point lead, and the Schott was totally deflated.

The second half was a completely different story. Led by high-flying Sam Thompson, the Buckeyes came out and attacked the basket relentlessly, pushed the ball up court at every opportunity, hit the boards to get some crucial rebounds, and quickly regained the lead. The Buckeyes were aided by steals and blocks on defense that were promptly turned into fast-break opportunities and either scores or foul shots. Ohio State held Minnesota to only 18 points in the second half, scored 46 points of their own, and won going away.

This team is a head-scratcher, and their record shows it. The Buckeyes started 15-0 and made it to number 3 in the polls, then floundered badly in the Big Ten in a stretch that saw them lose 5 of 6 games. Since then, the team has won 6 of 7, but it has been beset by stretches where it seems like the most offensively challenged team in college hoops.

Members of Buckeye Nation keep hoping that this team will find its identity offensively. Last night’s performance shows that the Buckeyes have the tools to play an up-tempo game, and with their apparent lack of outside shooters that approach seems like their best hope. As the Big Ten regular season draws to a close, however, we’re left to wonder: which team will show up — the bumbling crew that put up only 18 points in the first half, or the thrilling fast breakers who took the ball to the rim and cleaned the glass of every missed shot? Will we see Dr. Jekyll, or Mr. Hyde?

The Challenge

Every year, the college basketball season officially begins — in my book, at least — when the Big Ten and the Atlantic Coast Conference face off in the Big Ten-ACC challenge.  Early on, the ACC dominated; more recently, the Big Ten has controlled.  Either way, it’s been entertaining basketball — and also a living testament to how college basketball is different from college football.

In college football, any loss could, potentially, disqualify you from contention from a national championship.  (Just ask Alabama.)   In college basketball, on the other hand, no one goes undefeated.  In college basketball, in fact, you want your team to play the tough teams early on.  Let them get a taste of tough competition at the outset, so that they will understand the need to play hard when the later stages of the NCAA Tournament roll around and your team has to realize the need to play hard, or go home.

And that’s why the Big Ten-ACC Challenge is so great.  It’s a guaranteed, evenly matched, power conference game on the schedule, and a chance to assess how your boys fare against a quality opponent.  This year, the Ohio State Buckeyes trounced Maryland as Sam Thompson displayed his high-flying act, LaQuinton Ross displayed his silky three-point stroke, and Aaron Craft . . . well, Aaron Craft did what Aaron Craft always does.  Does it mean Ohio State will win it all?  No, or course not — but it gives us a bit of a measuring stick, and some bragging rights, too.  After all, Maryland will be joining the Big Ten next year.

I love the Big Ten-ACC Challenge!

Basketball, Or Free Throw-Shooting Contests

The NCAA apparently doesn’t believe in the old adage “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” — at least, when it comes to college basketball.

This year the NCAA decided to change the rules by which the game is officiated.  Although many of us love college basketball and the NCAA Tournament keeps hitting new heights of popularity, the NCAA was concerned that the college game had become too physical and too low scoring.  So, this year, officials will be cracking down on “handchecks,” where defenders touch the offensive player in an effort to maintain contact and control.  The idea is to make the game more free flowing, allowing skilled offensive players to dart up and down the floor, making acrobatic dunks and shots, unimpeded by pesky defensive players.  Scores would rise, the theory went, and the game would have more dash and flair.

On Tuesday I watched my first game officiated under the new approach, and it sucked.  The Ohio State Buckeyes played the Ohio University Bobcats, and the game quickly devolved into a whistle-blowing and free throw-shooting affair.  The Buckeyes won, 79-69, after shooting 51 free throws.  51!  OU would shoot from the outside and make or miss, then Ohio State would come downcourt, try to penetrate the lane, an OU player would touch the Buckeye ball handler, and a whistle would blow.  The game was a leaden affair with no rhythm or flow and lasted about 20 minutes longer than normal. Five OU players fouled out.

Free throws can be exciting in certain contexts — say, at the end of a close game — but watching 51 of them being shot makes you feel like you’re hanging out at the local YMCA.  I cringe when I think of what Big Ten games will be like, where the play tends to be more physical and some referees are eager to showboat whenever they get the chance.  The depth of rosters will be sorely tested.  How many players will still be eligible to play at the end of games?

College basketball coaches and NCAA people are now saying that this year is likely to be a transition year, where lots of fouls are called as players adjust to the new rules.  Fans should just prepare themselves — it’s going to be a frustrating, free throw-filled year.

The Big Ten In The Big Dance

The NCAA Tournament is put up or shut up time.  All year we hear about teams and conferences, and then March Madness comes and separates the pretenders from the contenders.

This year, there’s been a lot of talk — from people not named Charles Barkley — about the Big Ten being the best conference in basketball.  Seven teams from the Old Conference made it to the Big Dance, and so far they’re represented the league well.  The Big Ten’s record after the round of 64 is 6-1, with the only hiccup being Wisconsin’s dismal performance against Mississippi in a game where the Badgers simply could not put the ball into the basket.  The Big Ten’s top-seeded teams, Indiana and Ohio State, both won by wide margins, Michigan State and Michigan played well in convincing wins, Illinois survived some poor shooting to beat Colorado, and Minnesota spanked UCLA in a surprising upset.  Other conferences that were touted prior to the tournament, such as the Big East and the Mountain West, did not fare so well during the first round of play.

The great thing about the NCAA Tournament, of course, is that everything can turn on a dime.  All of these Big Ten teams could lose their next game — and if that happens the conference will be viewed as an overrated paper tiger.  For now, the Big Ten has 6 teams in the round of 32, and that’s not bad.