Friday, March 19, 2010

Relax Big East critics

The first day of the NCAA tournament is over and already pundits are ripping the Big East.

The conference got eight teams into the dance, but only saw one of four teams win first round games on Thursday. Georgetown was bounced by 14th-seed Ohio University, Old Dominion clipped Notre Dame in a 11-6 upset, and Washington knocked out Marquette at the buzzer. No. 2 seed Villanova managed the only win, in overtime, over Robert Morris.

Was it a bad day for the Big East? Of course. Any conference supporter wants all its teams to advance. But really, should the conference be embarrassed at its first-day showing? Absolutely not.

As an alum of a Big Ten school, I've had to listen to these grumblings during numerous past tournaments. Six or seven Big Ten schools get into the dance, and only one or two advance beyond the first round, which cues the criticism. But if you notice, rarely are the top-tier of the conference exiting early. Pundits should complain about the weakness of the Big Ten if Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State are upset today, not if Minnesota and Purdue lose.

No one expected Ohio to dominate Georgetown, but the Bobcats shot 57 percent, including 56.5 percent from the 3-point line. You put up those numbers you're going to win, even if you play Kansas.

As for Marquette or Notre Dame, both losses were expected. I hate to burst some bubbles, but the Irish were lucky to get into the tournament. Their best player is hobbled by an injury, which made the game a toss-up. Marquette fans should not have been surprised either. Washington won the Pac 10 tournament -- certainly not a push-over -- while the Eagles posted a 12-loss regular season.

There are no easy games in the NCAA tournament. Fans, especially those of big six conference teams, have to recognize that mid-major teams can play big-time basketball. These teams may not land starting line-ups filled with high school All-Americans, but they are well-coached and experienced. These mid-major teams aren't scared of the big schools any more.

I really can't call the Notre Dame or Marquette losses upsets this year. An above-average team in a big six conference is no longer miles ahead of the winner of a mid-major counterpart.

Now if Pitt, West Virgina and Syracuse have trouble or find themselves out after this weekend, then I would push the panic button. But don't dump on the Big East because its second tier couldn't compete with the best mid-majors.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Tiger Effect on The Masters

Likely the greatest benefactor of Tiger Woods' return to golf will be the Internet.

Yesterday during the frenzy surrounding Woods' announcement that he would return to golf at next month's Masters, I heard a CNBC reporter suggest the ratings for Sunday's final round could reach Super Bowl levels if he has a chance to win. I think that's a stretch, even if Woods is in the lead heading into the final day. There are so many Super Bowl viewers that are not interested in football -- those that watch for the commercials, those at parties who normally wouldn't watch the game -- that will not watch The Masters. Woods transcends the sport, but not to the level the Super Bowl transcends football.

I do think the first two rounds could set records for the number of online viewers. will broadcast live video of the entire tournament. Just like tomorrow and Friday, when office workers will secretly access live feeds of NCAA tournament games, Woods fans will be tuning in on their computers and smart phones to watch him tee off on the first hole as well as his entire opening and second rounds.

I would expect this year's first two rounds to easily set records for online viewers. It will be another sign that online media is evolving into a major money-maker. I suspect the price for online advertising on Masters-related Web sites already is shooting up.

Undoubtedly more people will tune in to the weekend TV broadcast if Woods makes the cut. But expect the real story to be Thursday, when Woods takes his first swing, and where everyone was watching...

Not on a TV, but on a computer.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Tiger's baaack...

Tiger Woods said in a statement today that he wants to make his return to golf at The Masters next month. His decision finally puts an end to the firestorm of speculation over which tournament he would play first. I like everyone else, assumed he would not miss a major championship, if for no other reason because his window to surpass Jack Nicklaus' record is closing at an increasing speed.

Many pundits, as well as I, suspected Woods would play at least one tournament prior to The Masters as sort of a tune-up. For those non-golfers out there, tournament golf cannot be simulated on the practice tee. We all thought Woods would want a warm-up before taking on a major championship field.

However, as the news broke this morning, I thought making his return to The Masters probably is the best place to do it. And here's why:
  • Logistically, it makes the most sense: Woods return already is being called the biggest return to sports in the last decade, maybe ever. The crush of sporting press at his first tournament will be out of control. Add the gossip press that is covering his non-golf problems and you create much more than a media circus. Because it is a major championship, which draws media from around the world every year, The Masters is equipped to handle the onslaught. Woods can hide there if he wants.
  • If Woods is seeking control of his return, he can get it at The Masters: Augusta National Golf Club hosts The Masters each year, not the PGA Tour. It invites whoever it wants to play the event each year. And as a private club, it strictly controls a limited amount of tickets for the gallery. In fact, badges for the event are famously difficult and expensive to obtain. That will limit the number of potential hecklers or hooligans that potentially could be on the grounds.
  • Woods can control the media crush as well: Augusta National can credential whichever media outlets it chooses to cover the event. That means if they don't want on the grounds taking pictures and asking questions, they can do that. There is no indication yet whether the club will do that, but my guess is Tiger's people have made the request.
  • Woods has dominated the course: Woods has won The Masters four times, finished in the top three seven times and the top 10 nine times. Of the 15 times he has played the event, he has finished in the top 25 12 times. Club officials lengthened it and added rough because it was too easy for him. His game suits that course.

Should Woods be considered a favorite to win? Probably not, although I wouldn't put it past him. If it's true what he says that he didn't pick up a golf club for a few months after the Thanksgiving incident, I doubt he will be in contention. Like any other sport, golf requires athletic ability that you can't just turn on and off.

For someone who enjoys the pressure of competition, this will be Woods' ultimate test. Not only is he dealing with a major championship, chasing the record of the greatest golfer of all time, and expectations that he must win every time he plays, now he is shouldering the burden of returning to golf after the off-course disaster.

He will have the biggest stage to show he hasn't lost a step. I think he'll have a good showing, but not a great one. He'll make the cut and finish in the top 20, but I don't think he'll be in contention during the final round.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Post-season considerations

After finishing 10-21, there aren't too many superlatives to shower on the Hoosiers this year. But I looked at the schedule again after the release of the NCAA and NIT tournament brackets, and I decided the Hoosiers may have, at least in part, been a victim of their quality opponents.

Twelve of the 31 games on the Hoosiers' schedule this season came against NCAA tournament teams: Maryland, Pittsburgh, Kentucky, Ohio State (2), Minnesota (2), Purdue (2), Wisconsin (2), and Michigan State. Another six games were against NIT teams: Mississippi, Illinois (2), and Northwestern (3). That's 18 out of 31 games, or 58 percent, against the best 97 teams in the country.

Among those playoff teams were one of the favorites to win the national championship: SEC champion Kentucky; the ACC regular season co-champion, Maryland: and two games against the Big Ten regular season and tournament champ: Ohio State.

I know it's hard to compare college basketball and pro football, but all the sudden the Hoosiers' difficulties this year seem a little more understandable. Whenever the new NFL schedule is released, a huge emphasis is placed on the number of playoff teams each fan's favorite club will face that year and is used to predict success. Given coach Tom Crean's extremely young and inexperienced team going into the season, could fans have expected a whole lot more than this year's results if I told you they would be playing more than half of their games against playoff teams?

If the Chicago Bears had to play two games against the NFC North division champ, the Minnesota Vikings, another two games against a Wild Card winner, the Green Bay Packers, as well as a game against the best team in the conference and NFL champion, the New Orleans Saints, and another Super Bowl favorite, the Indianapolis Colts, would you expect them to make the playoffs or have a winning record? If the Bears lost all six of those games, the margin of error to grab a post-season spot shrinks dramatically.

I firmly believe Indiana should include quality teams in its non-conference schedule because it can provide a valuable measuring stick for players and coaches. So I would not say the Hoosiers over-scheduled their team this year. But I definitely can't fault them too much for struggling. The team was not good enough to expect any easy wins and it was difficult to find many games where the Hoosiers had a fighting chance short of playing a perfect game.

The good news is in several cases the Hoosiers played well against the superior competition. They beat Pittsburgh in New York, by far the biggest win of the year, beat Minnesota in Bloomington, lost at the buzzer to Illinois on the road and lost by three to Purdue at home.

Unfortunately, Crean and his players have a long way to go. While it was painful at times, we did see some improvement over last year. Let's hope the program has taken another step forward at this time next year.