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In Tennis, Championship Anxiety is Real

July 18, 2018

by John Furgele (The Dejected 228)

It happens every time. The upstart pulls some upsets, plays an epic match and reaches a Grand Slam final.

Then……wilts.

Now, before you go crazy, let’s give kudos to Kevin Anderson.  He played six great matches, beat the King of Grass, Roger Federer in the quarterfinals, survived a 50-game final set marathon against John Isner in the semifinals before bowing to the now 13-time major champion Novak Djokovic.  He certainly has nothing to hang his head over.

But, we see this all the time in tennis.  The upstart gets to the final and then gets boat raced.  Yes, Anderson had plenty of opportunities to win the third set, but he didn’t and sure, he had to be exhausted after his match on Friday.  Anybody who works out knows that you feel better the day after the major exertion.   Two days later is when the stiffness really sets in.  That said, Djokovic had less recovery time after his 5-hour plus semifinal win over Rafa Nadal that finished on Saturday.

How many times have we seen a Miloslav Mecir, a Cedric Pioline or a Mal Washington play brilliant tennis through the semifinals only to get creamed in the final?  Look, we know that these unheralded guys aren’t supposed to beat the Lendls, Federers, Djokovics and Nadals of the world, but when you see them play so well for six matches and then so mediocre in the final, it makes you sad.

Bjorn Borg won five straight Wimbledon titles from 1976-1980.  He was tested in all five matches; twice by Jimmy Connors and once each by John McEnroe and Illie Nastase.  In 1979, he played the semi-unheralded Roscoe Tanner—that match went five sets.  In the end, Tanner lost, but he scared the bejesus out of the guy who had won three straight times.

Why does this happen?  Most would say nerves; I say anxiety.  The anxiety of being so close to winning a major championship overwhelms guys like Anderson, Pioline and Mecir.

Mecir might take the cake.  En route to the 1986 final, he beat some great players and then in the final against Lendl, he lost 6-4, 6-2 and then 6-0.  That really shouldn’t happen in a final.  Why?  Because players like Mecir played—and won—six matches prior to reaching the championship match.  For six matches, momentum is gathered and then in the ultimate match, the player shrivels up like a prune.

Anderson had anxiety for sets one and two and it showed as he was throttled 6-2, 6-2.  In the third, figuring he had no chance to win, he relaxed and truth be told, should have won the set.  He squandered numerous break chances against the superior Djokovic.  If Anderson wins the third set, who knows what happens, but “championship anxiety,” entered the psyche and before you could blink—game, set and championship to The Joker.

Fans love to root for the underdog.  But, the savvy fans don’t do this.  If you have a final four of Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and say Sam Querrey, the last thing the fan wants is Querrey in the final.  If he wins his semi, the fans, commentators and writers will use words like courageous and gritty, but that same courage and grit turns mushy in the final.

The fans would rather see a Djokovic-Nadal final because they know that there will be no anxiety between the two combatants in that title match.  This year, once there was Isner and Anderson in one semi, most fans knew that the real championship match was the Nadal-Djokovic semifinal.

Many will give Anderson a pass because he had to play a 6 hour 36 minute semi against Isner.  I am not one of them.  As endless and draining as that match was, the points were not very long as the match was dominated by serving.  And, let’s not forget that Nadal and Djokovic played over 5 hours—albeit over two days—in their semifinal.  Not only were they out there for a long time, there were more rallies than the power semi that preceded them.  Anderson didn’t lose because of fatigue; he lost because of that championship anxiety.

Anderson seems to be a likeable guy and has a very solid game.  He serves well, has a good forehand and battles.  Like Isner, his return of serve is suspect, but he has reached two Grand Slam finals and has lost them both.  In the 2017 US Open final, he was routed by Nadal in three sets. Nadal played well, but Anderson was far from sharp.

Unfortunately, Anderson has twice suffered from championship anxiety, but he is not alone.  It has happened to many players over the years and the next time an upstart reaches a slam final, it is likely to happen again.

There’s a reason why three guys—Federer, Nadal and Djokovic— have 60 Grand Slam titles between them.  Sure, they beat each other, but when they face guys like Anderson, Berdych, Gonzalez and Baghdatis, they make quick work of them because they’re great and because the other guys have that anxiety.  There are a couple of guys in Andy Murray and Stan Wawrinka that seem to keep their anxiety in check.  That is evidenced by both men having three Grand Slam titles.  Let”s chew on that stat:  66 titles split between five guys.

Upsets are great along the way.  Most sports fans like to see them when watching, but be careful.  Once we get into the deep end of the pool, the anxiety too often rears its ugly head.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Time for Tennis to Make a Change

July 14, 2018

Playing on and on is no longer sexy or fair to all involved.

by John Furgele (The Tired from Watching 228)

The world is pressed for time.  More than ever.  Of course, we created this monster.  We used to take our time, we used to relax.  Remember the Country Time Lemonade commercials?  They used to show people sitting on their porches drinking the tart, lemony taste of Country Time, a lemonade that you had to scoop into a pitcher and fill with water.  No longer is there time for that.  Today, we go to the convenience store and buy a bottle that is already prepared for us and gulp it down in the checkout line or in our vehicle.

There was a time when you called your insurance agent, sat down with him/her and discussed options.  Today, you call Geico and in 15 minutes, you just might save 15 percent –or more—on car insurance.

We are addicted to our phones, struggle to pay attention to our loved ones when they’re talking and for the most part, feel rushed every minute of every day.

In sports, we have seen baseball fall off.  The game has always been slow, but today, it is slower than ever; so slow that talk show hosts—people who are paid to watch and talk sports—don’t watch the games.  If you listen to national sports talk, there is nary a mention of what used to be the national pastime.  That’s because, simply, the hosts are not watching.

We like football because the action is sporadic.  It comes in quick and short bursts, but it comes.  There’s a play, then a break, a play and then a break.  We can program ourselves for it.  It plays to our very short and small attention spans.  Because of this, we love football, the new national pastime.  And, football is not immune to the struggles of the American person.  Ratings dipped in 2017 for many reasons—players kneeling, Trump criticism, sloppy play, poor officiating and yes—games that went on too long.

Every sport is trying to come up with ways to speed its games up.  They don’t really want to, but they know that anybody below the age of 35 will not devote four hours to most sporting events.  Does baseball commissioner Rob Manfred really want to put tacky pitch clocks in ballparks?  Of course not, but he can’t have 3 ½ hour ball games on a daily basis either.

Fast forward to tennis, specifically the Wimbledon semifinal between the South African, Kevin Anderson and the American, John Isner.  We knew coming in that chances were strong that the match would be full of tiebreaks.  When one guy serves 140 MPH and the other 128, it is very hard to break serve.  We were protected for the first four sets.  Once players win six games each, they play a first to seven by two tiebreak.  And, in three of the first four sets we got tie breaks.  Isner won two of the three and then Anderson took the fourth set, 6-4.

Like many, I had things to do on Friday, July 13, 2018.  The joy of Wimbledon—for Americans—is that you can watch tennis in the morning while your kids are sleeping and before the chauffeuring begins.  Because Isner served first in the final set, my hope was that he would take the lead at say, 6-5 or 8-7 and then break Anderson and advance to the final.  But, soon it was apparent that it wasn’t going to happen.  Finally, at 17-17, I bailed because I promised two of my kids a trip to the beach on the final day of my vacation.  I gave Wimbledon almost five hours of my time.  I could not give anymore.  In fact, I should have left after the fourth set.

The World Cup soccer final is Sunday.  The teams will play a 90-minute game.  If the scored is tied after 90 minutes, they will play 30 minutes of extra time.  If it is still tied, they will decide the game with penalty kicks.  While some loathe this, it is wise.  You can’t just keep playing.  There HAS to be some sort of time limit.

Tennis disagrees.  Except for the US Open, there are no fifth set tiebreaks at the other three Grand Slams; play continues until somebody has a two game margin.  On Friday, Anderson finally pulled it out, 26-24 in the final set.  It was not riveting tennis in the end; just two robots pumping out aces and service winners time and time again.  The fans, though respectful, tired of the spectacle for even they want a finish line.  Every match can be long, but with tiebreaks, you know that once a set reaches 6-6, the set will end sooner than later.

There have been epic tiebreaks.  If you were born in 1972 or earlier, you remember the “Battle of 18-16,” when John McEnroe beat Bjorn Borg in a fourth set tiebreak to even the 1980 Wimbledon final at two sets apiece.  Ironically, the fifth set was tied 6-6, but Borg won the next two games to claim his fifth straight—and last—Wimbledon title.

There is no beauty in 26-24 sets or for that matter, the 70-68 fifth set in 2010 when John Isner defeated Nicholas Mahut.  If soccer can end the World Cup using penalty kicks to break a tie, surely tennis could use a tiebreak in the fifth sets at Wimbledon, the French and Australian Opens.

What we saw on Friday was not fair to all involved.  It is not fair to the players and in particular, Anderson, who has to somehow find the resolve to play the championship match on Sunday.  It isn’t fair to Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic who had to wait and wait and wait for their match to begin.  And, because of the wait, their match was suspended after three sets and has to resume on Saturday.  How is this fair?  Their match will now precede the Ladies’ Final, meaning that this 50-game final set has affected the Ladies final.  What if Nadal and Djokovic play an 18-16 fifth set?  What effect does that have on Serena Williams and Angelique Kerber?

And, what about injuries to the players?  If you follow tennis enough, you will notice that many matches end when one player retires due to injury.  We all know that when you play tired, injuries are more likely to happen.  A fifth set tiebreak has to help here.

Not only is it not fair to the fans, it is cruel to them as well.  Tennis isn’t like football, baseball and hockey where you can get up at any time to walk around, visit the latrine, buy a snack or make a phone call.  There is etiquette that has to be followed.  Asking fans to sit for 6 hours and 36 minutes and then stick around for another match?  Not fair and not right.

It’s time to make a change.  It would be great for the three Slams to follow the US Open and play tiebreaks in all five sets (and all three for the women).  But, the leaders of tennis are staid and set in their ways, especially those at the All England Club.  They would never bow to a country that broke away from them some 242 years ago.

So why not compromise?  Why not play a fifth set tiebreak when the score reaches 10-10, 11-11 or 12-12?  And, to distinguish things, maybe it could be a first to nine points.  Or 11.

My suggestion is once the score hits 6-6 in the fifth play a first to 11 points by two tiebreak.  In this way, you are honoring the past by making the players face some attrition, but you’re also telling your fans, both live and watching at home, that there is an ending point.  We know that there will be tiebreaks that end up 25-23, 29-27, or who knows, maybe 51-49, but eventually they will end and end in a reasonable time.  When a fifth set tiebreak comes, we all know that the end is coming, ala penalty kicks in soccer.  That’s the fair and right thing to do.

We understand why there haven’t been fifth set tiebreaks.  Sometimes, tiebreaks are decided by net cords, lucky shots and one particular point.  When you play on and on, you’re making the player win eight points to win that set—four on his serve and four on the other’s serve.  The thinking here is that the better player will win most of the time.  But, today, it was a battle to see which player wilted.

Times have changed.  The world is moving; faster than it ever has and it will continue to do so. In fact, it will move even faster.  Remember Dial-Up internet?  In some ways, tennis is still there, using AOL and Prodigy while the other sports are using lightning fast operations.

Let’s hope that this match is not remembered fondly for its 50-game final set, but rather, as the catalyst for change—a change that can benefit everybody that likes or is associated with tennis.

 

 

Nadal and Federer: Beating Father Time Or Inferior Competition?

July 10, 2018

by John Furgele (The Pondering 228)

What is wrong with tennis, specifically, men’s tennis?  As Wimbledon nears the deep end of the pool, the usual suspects remain.  It looks like Novak Djokovic has found both his game and his passion, but here again, remain the two men that have dominated the game for more than 15 years—Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal.

We all love athletes and teams who dominate.  We may not root for them, but we love them.  When the New York Islanders won four straight Stanley Cups from 1980-1983, they either received your appreciation or your scorn.  The same went for the Edmonton Oilers from 1984-1990, the Jordan Bulls 1991-1998, the Shaq-Kobe Lakers (2000-2002) and of course, the current Golden State Warriors.

It’s tougher in individual sports.  I was in the minority when I rooted against Lance Armstrong as he won the Tour de France year after year.  I didn’t like his arrogance and personally believed that he was doping.  I took a lot of criticism because I was rooting against an American—a cancer survivor no less–in an international event.

My answer was simple—if finishers 2-50 were testing positive for PEDs, how can the winner be clean?  If Armstrong had finished 25th every year, I would have believed that he was competing cleanly.  And, we all know how things turned out.  I’m not looking for apologies, but because he was so good, I rooted against him, and even if he was clean, I still would have rooted against him.

I also rooted against Tiger Woods; not because I don’t like him, but I tend to root against the dominant athlete/team.  Others go the other way; they like to see dominance and truth be told, time helps their cause.  I never liked the 1996-2000 Yankees, but now, 22 years later, I’m glad I got to see that dominance.  It’s something to tell the kids, something to file in your history folder.

The current state of tennis is a head scratcher.  How can the 36-year old Federer and the 32-year old Nadal keep winning and winning?  As Joe McGrath said so beautifully in SlapShot, “Where are the new boys?”  You hear of them, but they never win; moreover, the never pull an upset of the Big Two at any of the Grand Slam tournaments.  At this year’s Australian Open, Federer won, beating Marian Cilic 6-1 in the fifth set.  Nadal was there, but retired due to injury in the quarterfinals.

At the French Open, the only reason Federer didn’t make the final was because he didn’t play there.  Nadal cruised to his 11th title in Paris, hardly breaking a sweat in the process.  Now, as the Wimbledon fortnight nears its conclusion, here we are with Federer, Nadal, Djokovic and five others.

We hear great things about guys like Milos Raonic, Dominic Theim, and Alexander Zverev, but most of the time; these players are out before we reach the semifinals.

You never want to be that guy who says things were better “in my day,” but during the Pete Sampras Era (1990-2003), other players stepped up and won majors.  We all know Agassi won eight himself and off the top of my head, there was two for Lleyton Hewitt, two for Marat Safin, four for Jim Courier, three for Gustavo Kuerten, two for Pat Rafter, one for Thomas Muster, one for Petr Korda, two for Sergi Bruguera, two for Yevgeny Kafelnikov and even one for Andres Gomez.

Heck, even Boris Becker won the Australian Open in 1996 at age 28, and two of his six came after 1990.  We also have Stefan Edberg who won six Grand Slams, including three in the Sampras Era when he won Wimbledon in 1990 and the US Open in 1991 and 1992.

Cilic, Carlos Moya, Gaston Gaudio, Juan Carlos Ferrero, Albert Costa, Thomas Johansson, Richard Kraijcek, Michael Stich, Goran Ivanisevic and Andy Roddick join the Muster, Korda and Gomez camp of one slam win.

In today’s era, the only others that have slipped through have been Andy Murray (three titles) and Stan Wawrinka (also three).

Defenders of tennis will say that having five players—Murray, Wawrinka, and Djokovic– prove that the game is healthy.  But, look at the numbers—

Federer:              20 titles

Nadal:                   17 titles

Djokovic:             12 titles

Murray:                3 titles

Wawrinka:          3 titles.

I don’t agree.  The game needs an injection of youth, the next guy, the person to take the torch away from the greats to the point where they force the giants into retirement.  Connors had Borg, Borg had McEnroe, McEnroe had Lendl, Becker had Sampras and Agassi and so on.

When Nadal and Federer, and yes, Djokovic are done, I will miss them and so, too will the sport.  But, when you look at the others left in this year’s draw, do we think one of them can win?

Juan Martin del Potro is a great story.  He has one slam, but like Andy Roddick  (one Slam title), he can’t beat the Big Three in the big spot.  Isner has the big serve, but unlike Goran Ivanisevic (one Slam), is unlikely to even reach a Slam final.

Guys like Chris “Mad Dog” Russo, an admitted tennis lover will root for a classic Nadal-Federer final come Sunday.  And, yes, that’s what everybody probably wants to see.  There won’t be any nerves like there was last year when Federer dispatched Marian Cilic in three boring and uneventful sets.  They last played in the Wimbledon final back in 2008, yet here they are, on a collision course ten years later.  Now, a lot can happen in the quarters and semis, but the fact that 10 years later, we’re talking about the same two guys is an indictment not on the game, but the other guys that play the game.

There were defining moments that proved the torch was about to be passed.  I remember Safat destroying Sampras in the 2000 US Open final and the Hewitt doing the same to Pete in the 2001 edition.  Sure, Sampras would come back and win the US Open in his last ever match, but even Pete knew that his time was over.  I remember seeing McEnroe being blitzed in 4th rounds and he knew his time was over.  We saw Andre Agassi limping around against Benjamin Becker knowing that his time was also over.  But, for some reason, nobody is stepping up to tell Federer and Nadal that their time is over.

Eventually Father Time calls and usually the legends are pounded into submission.  It hasn’t happened yet and I wonder if it will?  Could Federer win Wimbledon at age 40 and decide to retire on top?  Could Nadal do the same at age 35 or 38 at the French?  Or, will somebody finally step up to tell these warriors that their time is up!

The most puzzled of all—Father Time.  Even he must be scratching his head.

Are the Wilpons Hurting the Mets?

June 27, 2018

by John Furgele (The Wondering Aloud 228)

Is it time?  Is it time for the Wilpons to sell the New York Mets? We all know that they certainly don’t have to do this; they own the team, they can keep the Mets as long as they see fit –and the probably will.  Far be it from me to tell a wildly successful family what to do with something they own.  That said…….

Owning a sports team is much different than developing real estate, which is how Fred Wilpon made his billions.  Investing money into IRAs, stocks and mutual funds is different that owning a baseball team.  You can make mistakes in real estate, but the next deal could be the big deal.  We can use Donald Trump as an example.  He supposedly lost it all, but had the capital to keep investing and eventually, it paid off.

The Wilpons made mistakes off the field.  They trusted Bernie Madoff and depending on which reports you believe, the Wilpons lost anywhere from $200 to $700 million dollars.  Are the Mets suffering from a Bernie Madoff Curse?

Wilpon bought one percent of the Mets in 1980 and when Nelson Doubleday tried to sell the team, Wilpon exercised a right to purchase and both he and Doubleday assumed 50 percent ownership.  It was an uneasy relationship, but it came at a time when the Mets were hot.  From 1984-1988, no team had more star power, more drama, and more excitement than the team that played in Queens.  They owned Broadway; probably the only time in history that they were more popular than the Bronx Bombers.  Save the 1969 rhetoric; that was a one-year run that came out of nowhere.  The ’68 Mets were 73-89 and the ’70 Mets were 83-79.

The Mets have played ball since 1962.  They were loved for their ineptitude, adored for the 1969 season of magic and caught America’s fancy in 1973, when the “Ya Gotta Believe Gang,” rallied to win the NL East at 82-79, beat the Mighty Reds in the NLCS and took the on-their-way-to-a-dynasty A’s to seven games in the World Series.

From 1974-1983, they were bad and the ‘77-‘83 editions were beyond that. That’s not all on Wilpon, but some of it is of course.  Think about this—the Mets are in their 57th season and have won two titles; the maligned daily Marlins are in their 26th season and like the Mets, have two titles.

The recent Mets have been hampered by the Wilpon ownership.  They assemble great pitchers, but they all get hurt and worse, they can’t heal.  They trade for Yoenis Cespesdes; he leads them to the 2015 World Series and he hasn’t played a full-season since.  David Wright, their heart and soul will end up retiring because of a career ending injury.

Is this Wilpon’s fault; of course not, but the buck has to stop with both he and son, Jeff.  As fortunate and successful as they have been in business, they have been equally unfortunate and unsuccessful as Met owners.  The 1986 championship is still revered by Mets fans and that happened 32 years ago.  32!  Meanwhile, the Yankee fan can’t remember if Derek Jeter’s backhand shuffle play came in 1999, 2000 or 2001 and they struggle to remember if Robinson Cano played on the 2009 title team.  Met fans can tell you the complete rosters of both the ’69 and the ’86 teams because that’s all they have.  Sure, that’s more than Cleveland, Seattle, the Chicago White Sox, the Cubs and the Nationals, who haven’t even played in a Fall Classic, but this is big-market New York.  And, speaking of that, it is Wilpon who complains of the costs associated with running a baseball team.  Fred doesn’t like the high salaries, gets mad when the Yankees trade for guys like A-Rod and Giancarlo Stanton and really doesn’t like opening up the checkbook.  He’s the guy that let Darryl Strawberry go in 1990, but the same guy who resigned the oft-injured Cespesdes.  Is he a guy that buys the kids dinner and when he sees the bill wishes he had cooked spaghetti at home?

We know Wilpon won’t sell the team.  In fact, he recently bought the Syracuse Triple A team and next year will have his Double A affiliate in Binghamton and the Triple A team in Syracuse, easy flights for call-ups and of course, rehab assignments.

What do the Mets fans think?  Are they sick of the Wilpons?  Before Yankee fans laugh, remember, you wanted George Steinbrenner out, but by the end of his time on earth, you loved him.  Could that happen with Fred Wilpon?  It doesn’t look like it will, but maybe they can catch lightning in a bottle one more time like they did in 1969, so the now 81-year old chairman can ride off into the sunset and eventually Heaven.

Sometimes, the game can you pass you by.  Art Modell had to sell the Ravens because he just didn’t have the billions required to stay as an owner.  The Davis family continues to hunt for revenues by moving from Oakland to LA back to Oakland and eventually to Las Vegas.  Eventually, they, too, will have to clear out.

I’m not sure to what to think with Fred/Jeff Wilpon.  They probably have a few billion, but one of the reasons they get and stay rich is by minimizing expenses.  Some guys can write the checks and not worry about it.  Others cringe when they buy new desks for the office.  It seems like Wilpon is of the latter variety.  One thing is for sure—his beloved Mets seemed jinxed and appear to be going nowhere fast.  If this was Kansas City, few would care; they would simply be happy to have an owner keeping a team in their city.  But this is New York and simply put, the Mets, under the Wilpons are not getting it done.

 

 

 

 

 

Another Ho-Hum Ending For The NBA

June 9, 2018

NHL more exciting, but not as loved

by John Furgele (The Puzzled 228)

The NBA suffered once again while the NHL flourished.  Look, we all know that the NBA is a league where dynasties—or semi-dynasties—exist. It’s no surprise to see one team win the finals more often than not.  For the fourth straight year, we saw Golden State play Cleveland and for the third time, Golden State won.

There is a pattern.  The Cavs remind me of the Philadelphia 76ers of the late 1970s and early 1980s.  The Sixers reached the finals in 1977, 1980 and 1982, losing all three times, before ringing the bell in 1983; a team led by Moses Malone and Julius Erving.  The Cavs have one title in four tries.

In the 80s, the Lakers won titles in ’80, ’82, ’85, ’87, and ’88, while the Celtics won titles in ’81, ’84, ’86, leaving room for the Sixers in ’83 and Pistons in ’89.

We all know what Jordan’s Bulls did in the 1990s. The Utah Jazz sort of played the role of the modern day Cavs.  When Jordan was struggling to hit breaking pitches in the minors, the Rockets came in and won two in a row.

Basketball is much different than the five major sports (I’m including MLS Soccer, now).  You can win with two great players.  The Lakers has Kobe and Shaq, the Bulls had Jordan and Pippen and the lone Cavalier team to win had James and Kyrie Irving.  That’s the NBA.  The aberration may be the 2011 Dallas Mavericks, but they had Dirk Nowitzki, an underrated superstar and a very good supporting cast that included Jason Kidd and Jason Terry.

There are many people that tell me that they “don’t watch the NBA.”  Most of these are white guys in their mid-50s or older and it is not because of race.  Most find the games too boring, too predictable and too bogged down.  Baseball gets banged around for pace of play and start times, but NBA games start after 9 pm and drag out until midnight.  It has nothing to do with race; NBA players—99 percent of them—are good guys who do things in the community and stay out of trouble.  But, in an 82-game season that is followed by very predictable playoffs, it is has to capture and keep one’s attention; something that usually doesn’t happen.

Everybody says that the dynasties are good for sports and perhaps that is so.  Look at the Warriors.  For years, they stunk; they couldn’t make the playoffs and when they won it all in 1975, many fans weren’t even born.  When they reached the finals in 2015, they were liked, in part because they were new and exciting.

Now, they are the enemy.  They went out and got Kevin Durant and look like US Steel in the early 1900s.  An ESPN host called them the most hated team in sports.  Yes, that’s a bit harsh and really not true, but that’s what happens when a team wins time after time.  Only Yankee fans liked the 1996-2001 teams; the rest hated them.  Even the Buffalo Bills, a franchise that went 0-4 in Super Bowls were hated because most of America was “sick” of seeing them in that game.

In the NBA, it probably won’t change.  As mentioned, in a five-man game, two guys can make the difference.  As long as the Warriors have Curry and Durant along with supporting members like Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, they can certainly win another title or two.

The NHL is much different.  It’s more of a team game because of its set-up.  Alexander Ovechkin is the star of the Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals, but he plays less than half the game.  In hockey, teams roll out four lines (12 players) and six defenseman (6 players) and a goalie—19 guys seeing playing time   In a tight game, the fourth line might get skipped as might two defenseman, but with player changes going on every 45 to 60 seconds, the game can’t be dominated, even by an Ovechkin or Sidney Crosby.

For this reason, the NHL playoffs are much more captivating.  There is more drama, more tension, because, like soccer, it is hard for one team to “boatrace,” the other.  That doesn’t mean the NHL will soar in the television ratings.  Many call hockey a niche sport.  I think that’s unfair for a variety of reasons.  Hockey has been around forever, it has a national TV deal and games can be found on weeknights during the winter.  Don’t believe the “once they left ESPN, they lost their audience,” theory for even one second.  NBCSN and NBC do a more than adequate job of promoting, showing and discussing the games.

The problem with hockey is simple.  Most Americans have never played it, many have never ice skated and states like Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, Kentucky, New Mexico, Wyoming, Montana and Oklahoma have never embraced it.  That’s a simple truth.  Basketball is played in these states, but hockey is not.  That said, we have seen how hockey can take off in “sun-belt” cities.  Nashville is now a hockey city and Las Vegas, in its first season, is already a hockey season.   Of course, there is resistance to this.  Many in the North and in Canada think that Gary Bettman has ruined hockey by taking it away from Canada and placing teams in Phoenix, Nashville, Tampa and Columbus.

The purists need to get over themselves.  Growing the game is important and Bettman has done this, making the owners who employ him lots of money.  Why would the guy in Calgary be upset that the Nashville arena sells out 41 nights a year?

All this said, the two winter sports are what they are.  The NBA relies on stars and because of this, dynasties form.  The NBA is a superstar driven league.  Steph Curry is a better shooter than JR Smith and always will be; he can get 30 points every night, Smith can’t.  In hockey, the hard working team can win because the game is set up as such.

I don’t expect people to leave the NBA for the NHL just because the NHL games are more exciting.  Basketball is the American game; we have the best players in the world and we dominate in international play.  Americans like that and it remains a reason why soccer and hockey will never get the huge national following.  As good as Americans are in soccer and hockey, we know that Canada, Russia and Sweden are better in hockey and 20 nations are better in soccer.

That’s why the middle-aged guy doesn’t watch the NBA playoffs.  It took 82 games and four rounds of playoffs to conclude what we knew back in October.  And, simply put, we don’t have time for it anymore.

Chuck Knox is Wall of Fame Worthy

May 23, 2018

by John Furgele (The Nostalgic 228)

Why would anybody make a case for a coach who went 37-36 over five seasons to be included on the team’s Wall of Fame?  But, that’s exactly what I’m doing in reference to Chuck Knox, who recently passed at the age of 86.

Knox is best remembered for coaching the Rams and Seahawks, but his five years in Buffalo should not be forgotten.

Knox was known as the “Bud Grant of NFC and AFC Championship Games.”  Each year, his teams would play great football, but could never make it to the Super Bowl.  In the NFC, he always had the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys in his way and in the AFC, his Seahawks were just lacking in overall talent to get over the hump.

In 1973—his first season as head coach– the man who loved running the ball so much that he was referred to as Ground Chuck, led the Rams to a 12-2 record.  In the playoffs, they lost to the Cowboys in the Divisional round.  Over the next three seasons—74, 75, 76, the Rams would lose NFC Championship Games to Minnesota, Dallas and Minnesota respectively.  In 1977, his 10-4 Rams lost again to Minnesota, this time in the Divisional Playoffs, and even though he had signed an extension, owner Carroll Rosenblum had had enough of the losing and Knox was dismissed.

Ralph Wilson, the longtime owner of the Buffalo Bills had seen his team fall on hard times.  Despite having O.J. Simpson, the Bills made the playoffs once, in 1974, where they were crushed by the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Wilson’s relationships with coaches were always in question and after three straight winning seasons in 1973, 1974, and 1975, the Bills hit rock bottom in 1976 with a 2-12 campaign.  Even though they finished 3-11 in ’77, that team was worse than the prior year’s squad.

Wilson had a reputation for being frugal and that was always evident when he hired coaches.  Marv Levy led the Bills to four straight Super Bowls and because of that is enshrined in Canton, but when Wilson hired him in 1986, he got him on the cheap.  Levy was coaching in the USFL; how wanted could he have been?  When Wilson hired him, Western New York did not do cartwheels; that would take a few years.

Wilson’s hiring of Knox was the best hire he ever made.  Knox was in demand; and despite not getting to the Super Bowl, was a consummate winner.  When frustrated Ram ownership let him go, coming to Buffalo was on nobody’s radar, but before you knew it, Knox was the new coach of the Buffalo Bills.

The 1977 Bills scored just 160 points in 14 games.  By then, Simpson was done and the Bills traded him to his hometown 49ers.  The ’78 team finished just 5-11, but they had improved under Knox. True to his Ground Chuck moniker, the Bills averaged 4.3 yards per rush on 558 attempts.

The ’79 team improved to 7-9, but that’s a bit deceptive.  In Week 13, the 6-6 Bills beat New England in Foxboro in overtime to improve to 7-6.  Some were thinking playoffs and the next week, the Bills hosted the Denver Broncos.  In a close game, the Broncos prevailed 19-16, a deflating loss that they never recovered from as they lost their last two to end the year on a three-game losing skid.

In the 1970s, the Bills played the Miami Dolphins 20 times.  Their record:  0-20.  In 1980, the season opener was at Rich Stadium against the dominant Dolphins.  Despite five interceptions thrown by Joe Ferguson, the Bills defense dominated Miami and won 17-7.  The 0 for the 1970s skid was over and Knox was carried off the field by his players.

The 1980 Bills were good—very good.  They began the season 5-0 and in week 4; they dominated the Oakland Raiders 24-7 at home and the next week, won at San Diego, 26-24.  Thoughts of the Super Bowl danced in the heads of Bills fans, but the team sputtered in midseason and needed a final game victory at San Francisco to win the AFC East and earn a playoff berth.  Mother Nature greeted the teams with monsoon rains, but the Bills held off the pesky Niners—and Joe Montana—to win 18-13.

Ferguson played the Divisional Playoff game with a broken bone in his ankle, but guided the Bills to a 14-3 lead over the explosive Chargers in San Diego.  The Chargers rallied for a 20-14 win.  The next week, the Chargers lost at home to Oakland; a team the Bills had routed in week 4.  But, in just three seasons, Knox had the Bills on the cusp of greatness.

The 1981 Bills were not as good as the ’80 squad, but again, they made the playoffs, this time as a Wild Card with a 10-6 record.  In the Wild Card game, they jumped out to a 24-0 lead against the Jets at Shea Stadium.  Late in the game, they led 31-27 but the Jets were driving.  Another Simpson—Bill—saved the day when he picked off Richard Todd in the end zone to preserve the four point win.

The next week, the Bills faced the Cincinnati Bengals at Riverfront Stadium.  After falling behind 14-0 and then 21-14, the Bills rallied to tie things up at 21-21.  After Cincinnati took a 28-21 lead, Ferguson had the Bills driving deep into Cincinnati territory.  On a 4th and 3, he hit Lou Piccone for an apparent first down, but the Bills were called for a delay of game penalty.  On the subsequent 4th and 8 play, Ferguson’s pass was incomplete and the Bengals escaped and the next week, routed the Chargers in the Freezer Bowl; a game that saw the wind chill reach minus 59 degrees.

The Bills, under Knox looked like they would threaten in the AFC for years to come and in 1982 got off to a 2-0 start with wins over Kansas City and Minnesota.  Then, the players strike hit and the Bills were never quite right when play resumed.  Yes, they did get to 4-2, but then fell apart, losing their last three to finish 4-5 in the abbreviated season.

By now, Wilson began to meddle, and soon, the Chuck Knox Era in Buffalo was over.  The next year, under Kay Stephenson, the Bills would finish 8-8 with a talented team; a team that under Knox would have likely been 10-6.

Knox went to Seattle and turned the Seahawks into winners.  He took Seattle to the AFC Championship Game in his first year (1983) and in nine seasons in the Pacific Northwest won 80 games.

When you look at Knox, a couple of things stand out.  One is that he never lasted long in the unemployment line.  Next, was his ability to turn things around quickly. He revived the moribund Bills and breathed life into the expansion Seahawks, which before him had never made the playoffs.  After Knox left the Bills, they went 8-8, 2-14 and 2-14, before Marv Levy, Bill Polian, Jim Kelly and Bruce Smith came to town to revive the downtrodden franchise.

After Knox left Seattle, they went seven seasons without a winning record.  Things didn’t turn around until Mike Holmgren came to town in 1999.

To me, Knox should be in the Pro Football Hall of Fame.  The naysayers will look at his record and poke holes in it, but that cat could coach.  His teams were always prepared and as a Bills fan in 1978-1982, you always thought a Chuck Knox coached team could win every time they stepped onto the field.

His 186 career wins are more than Levy and Bud Grant.  Sure, you can knock Knox for not reaching the Big One, but making it to a conference championship game is much harder than people think, both as a player and a coach.  Warren Moon never played in one; Dan Marino played in just three.

Knox should—at the very least–be on the Buffalo Bills Wall of Fame.  The critics will point to his 37-36 overall record, but it is what he did in 1980 and 1981 that should be feted.  Before Knox the Bills never scared anybody, but he brought in guys that had swagger and in 1980, Western New York was “Talking Proud, “and linebacker Isiah Robertson “had a feeling that Buffalo was going to the Super Bowl.”

Knox’s success in Buffalo was short; the player’s strike was crippling as was a sour relationship with owner Wilson, but that should now be water under the bridge.  Except for Levy, Wilson always struggled with strong headed coaches.  Many Bills fans consider Lou Saban the greatest coach in the team’s history, yet he and Wilson battled often.  Levy, ever the diplomat was the only coach to be in the good graces of the former owner.

Saban is now on the Wall of Fame, so too, is Levy and it’s time for Knox to get his name up there where it belongs.  Those two seasons put Buffalo on the football map and Knox was the guy that made it happen.

Greatness comes in two ways—sustained and fleeting—and most pundits prefer sustained.  But in this case, I’ll take the fleeting.  I was kid in 1980 and 1981 and I remember the Bills going from laughingstock in the late 1970s to a threat in those two seasons.  For the first time in years, Sundays meant something once again to Western New York football fans and the main reason for that was Chuck Knox. His accomplishments are often drowned by the Super Bowl runs in the 1990s, but as a football fan, 1980 and 1981 were fun years to be a Bills backer.

It is time to recognize what Chuck Knox did for Buffalo Bills football.  Sadly, he won’t be around to see it.

 

 

The Preakness Survives Another Year at Pimlico

May 17, 2018

They keep saying they’re going to move it, but for now, Old Hilltop keeps hanging on

by John Furgele (The Pure 228)

We all agree that the Preakness may be the “funnest,” of the three Triple Crown races and there are several reasons why.  First, as six-time winning trainer Bob Baffert says, it is the most relaxed of the three races.  The tension of getting a horse to the Derby healthy and ready is over.  That alone makes it more relaxing and fun.  Second, with the Derby over so, too is the end of the 20-horse field.  As Baffert stated, “we already have a Derby winner and because of that, this is more of a pure horse race.”  The Belmont is reliant on the Preakness and that can be good or bad.  The other mark against the Belmont is the 1.5 mile distance.  It certainly is the Test of a Champion, but it’s a distance that most horses run just once in their careers.  The Preakness, at 1 3/16 miles is a true challenge—longer than the oft-contested 1 1/8 miles but shorter than the classic 1 ¼ miles.

The Preakness has always been dubbed the “People’s Race,” and unlike the more sophisticated Derby, there will be more people in flip-flops and wedges than high heels.  There will be thousands of young people drinking unlimited mugs of beer for $20 (plus the $100 admission fee) and bands will be rocking away on the infield stage.  The pretense of the Derby has given way to a lighter, less serious tone at Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore.

That’s another issue—Pimlico.  The race course is old, falling apart, and is located in a tougher section of town.  It is only open for 12 days this year, and the Maryland Jockey Club would love to move the race to the nicer, Laurel Park.  Each year, the pundits will ask if this is the last Preakness to be run at Pimlico, but 365 days later, they’re back at Pimlico once again.

The main reason they keep coming back is Pimlico, despite the tough neighborhood and poor accessibility can handle 130,000 plus people, something Laurel can’t do.  Sure, they could run at Laurel in front of 50,000 or 70,000, but why do that when you can get 130,000 plus people to maneuver and wedge their way into NW Baltimore?  Until the MJC figures out how to make more money at Laurel, Pimlico will likely stick around.

The track likely needs $500 million in renovations to remain remotely viable and truth be told, it doesn’t make sense to make the improvements for 12, 24 or 36 days of racing when Laurel Park has already been renovated. Unless you’re Santa Anita, Del Mar or Saratoga, spending that much on renovations is hard to justify because most prefer to watch and wager off-track.

The Preakness might be the least serious and most fun of the three, but it is perhaps the most important.  The Belmont Stakes can only wait to see the outcome of this the middle jewel.  If Justify wins Saturday, the frenzy will begin; it will be three weeks of tension, anticipation and dizziness.  If Justify finishes anywhere but first, the Belmont remains a classic American race with a little less air in the excitement balloon.

The track always looks nice on TV on the third Saturday in May, but I’m not there trying to make bets, use the bathroom or get something to eat and drink.  I’m also a traditionalist; I would hate to see the race leave Pimlico because of the great history and drama.  But, I am also a realist; and if they can build a new Yankee Stadium and move the team across the street, then the Preakness can certainly move to Laurel, a mere 29 miles away from Old Hilltop.

The fans seem to be coming to Pimlico’s defense.  Last year, over 140,000 people attended to go along with over 50,000 for Friday’s Black-Eyed Susan Stakes.  The fans are making it tough for the Maryland Jockey Club to just up and leave.

Some for now, let’s enjoy the lighter, “funner” race of the trilogy and see if Justify can make it to the Belmont with a Triple Crown on the line.

 

 

Horse Shortages: Are There Too Many Tracks

May 3, 2018

by John Furgele (The Worried 228)

They say that in spring, a “young man’s fancy turns to love.”  With April gone, winter is officially over, despite what the mercury reads.  May is perhaps the busiest month in the world of sports.  The NBA and NHL are deep into their playoffs; baseball is off and running, Major League Soccer is now in its 23rd season and can no longer be ignored.  NFL teams have just drafted and now will begin signing their picks that they made just a week ago.

Horse racing begins its Triple Crown with all eyes focused on the 20 horses that will run in Saturday’s Kentucky Derby.  Harness racing is also in its busy season. With winter over, more tracks are preparing to open.  Places like Running Aces, Vernon, Tioga are raring to go or have just opened for the season.  On the surface, it looks like grand times for the sport, but in reality, that might not be the case.  Like every spring, the purses get better as does the weather, but not all share in that.  There is a horse shortage and one wonders how it can be addressed.

Buffalo Raceway is one of those winter tracks that have struggled in 2018 because of the shortage. It is a track for grinders that begins in January in cold and often snowy Hamburg, NY.  Most years, they run every Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, but this year, they have been limited.  Many cards were canceled and currently, the track is only running on Wednesdays and Saturdays.  Larry Stalbaum took his horses away from Buffalo this winter which didn’t help, but that’s not the major reason for the truncated cards.

Monticello is another “grinder track.”  It races four days per week for 52 weeks.  But, it’s normal total of 207 days has been truncated by the horse shortage.  Quietly, the track removed Wednesday from its racing schedule and has been going on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday.  It is easier to get information from North Korea than it is Monticello Raceway, but surely the reduced schedule is due to the horse shortage.

Purses are also down at Monticello.  Races that were once run for $5,900 are now running for $5,200.  Like most tracks that are tied to racinos, the purses are based on percentages of gaming revenue.  Monticello has a racino on its grounds, but just six miles away is a full-fledged casino and though it is owned by the same company who knows the real impact it has had on the track and the purses that go with it.

The most affected by the shortage is the Meadowlands.  The Big M is still the handle leader with most races generating over $200,000 on the Friday and Saturday cards.  But, this Friday, there are only 9 races scheduled—-9!  For a track that only races two times per week, that is scary. Saturday’s card features the Cutler Memorial Trot for older horses for $182,000, but even that day, there are only 11 races on the Big M card.

We know that not all tracks are suffering and we know that the higher the purses are the more interest by the horsemen.  Yonkers’ Empire City Casino continues to flourish; to the point where Yonkers offers the highest purses.  Open paces and trots have purses of $40,000 while preferred ones have $30,000 purses.  The best drivers and trainers want to race there and who can really blame them.

Not all tracks are suffering from the shortage.  Northfield Park in NE Ohio continues to run 15 races per card with eight or nine in each race.  How do they do this?  The purses are not much better than a Buffalo Raceway, yet each racing night, there are 14 to 16 races with up to nine horses entered in each race over the half-mile oval.  Some of that has to do with state sponsored stakes races, called Sire Stakes, and Ohio seems to manage this well.  Unlike New York, Ohio staggers its harness racing schedule.  Northfield is the track that runs all year, but the purses are lower.  Scioto, Dayton and Miami Valley spilt the calendar in thirds to avoid overlap.

New York doesn’t do this.  Monticello and Yonkers are the 12-month tracks and it is overlap galore from then on.  They have Buffalo/Batavia, Saratoga, Vernon and Tioga all running at the same time and with a horse shortage, how many times will Vernon have to cancel a card?

Nobody wants to see a harness track close or reduce dates, but what is the solution?  Laws in New York—and other states—state that a racino has to have harness racing, and each state’s gaming commission has to delicately balance the spreadsheets.  A track can’t just reduce racing dates unless the gaming commission approves.  We saw this at Plainridge Park in Massachusetts.  In 2017, they ran 125 cards; in 2018, they asked to run 100, in which the gaming commission said no.  The sides settled on 110 dates.

There seems to be more interest in owning Standardbreds.  There are more partnerships forming where one can own a horse for $250, $500 or $700.  While that number seems to be on the rise, the number of horses has decreased.  Incentives are nice, but they usually require some form of government subsidy; something most states have already given to harness racing.  Further subsidizing will not go over well with John and Jane Taxpayer.

New Jersey is suffering the most.  They have two racetracks—Freehold and the Meadowlands—but no gaming, and as a result, the incentive to breed in the Garden State has decreased.  Why breed in New Jersey when you can do it in New York, Delaware and Pennsylvania, all of which have purses and sire stakes money derived from racinos and casinos.  The two Jersey tracks complemented each other nicely.  Freehold was for horses on the way up or down, while the Meadowlands was for the big boys and girls.  It was always fun to see a horse do well at Freehold to the point where they would give Meadowlands a try.  The sport needs the Big M to be healthy and despite lower purses, the bettors still like the track.  But, how much longer can and will that last? Will the Meadowlands ever get a racino to help keep harness racing vibrant there?

Churchill Downs is the home of the Kentucky Derby and the Meadowlands is the home of the Hambletonian.  That means something in horse and harness racing.  I hope our leaders remember this and come up with a plan that works.

Levy Final Could Be One For The Ages

April 20, 2018

All eight are good; all eight can win

by John Furgele (The Excited 228)

The Levy Memorial is not just another race and this year’s $532,000 final could be epic.  There are eight horses entered and truth be told, you can make a case for all eight of them winning.  We all know that the eight post (Rockin Ron) is almost impossible and he may be the only horse to throw out, but the others….all have a chance.

Jordan Stratton has already said that the seven post for Bit of a Legend, “sucks,” but if any horse can win from there, it’s The Legend.  If there is such a thing as a stone-cold closer in harness racing, Legend comes the closet.  We have seen him rally from the back in the Levy legs and finish second to score the needed points.  The question is, can he overcome the seven post and win the race? I think he can and if the pace is fast, he is the one that can idle and surge at the end.  He did that in last summer’s Gerrity at Saratoga.  The field dashed and darted through blistering fractions and Legend stayed third or fourth and then surged home to win in 1:50.3 on the Spa’s half-mile track.  From the seven post, he will likely have to tuck in and move wide down the backstretch of lap two and then try to win from the outside, something he can do.

The mercurial one is Somewhere in LA.  He has a decent five post, but if you’ve seen LA run, he usually is engaged or disinterested.  When engaged, he is good as anybody, but it seems that for every good race, there’s a flat one.  Had he gotten the seven or eight post, odds are he would have finished last, so coming from the five, he should be interested and that could spell trouble for the rest of the competitors.

Western Fame drew the rail and that took him from having a good chance to having a really good chance.  Most expect him to set the pace and he is more than capable of wiring the field, but he can also idle and sit in the box and win that way, too.  And, with no passing lane, he won’t have to worry if he has the rail and the lead in the homestretch.  He keeps maturing, too; he was better at four than three and it looks like he’s better at five than four and this could be his time to shine.

Keystone Velocity is the defending champ and will be formidable coming from the three post.  All of these horses have performed in the clutch and the defending champion should and likely will have something to say on Saturday.  He hasn’t been great thus far, but he could be sitting on one.

Dr. J Hanover has looked the best in the prelims.  He has dominated and last week rested in preparation for the final.  He has the two post and is one that could get the lead and never give it up.  Last year, he paced 1:46.4 at Mohawk then regressed, but he looks like he has his top form again.

Two weeks ago, Evenin of Pleasure was dismissed at odds of 99-1.  All he did that day was run a game second to secure his spot in the final.  I don’t think he can win it, but he has a chance to get into the money.  Remember; fifth place nets $26,600.  His best chance is to get to the lead and try and hang on.  He almost did that in his last start where he finished second and come Saturday, there would be no shame in a runner-up finish.

Mach it So is much respected with morning line odds of 4-1, but I just don’t get any vibe from him, which means he’ll probably win.  I will be intrigued to see what the bettors do as post time nears.  I can’t see him being that low on Saturday; I expect his odds to be closer to 20-1 than 4-1, but at Yonkers stranger things have happened.

I’m not much on handicapping, but since I know all these horses and know them well, I’m going with this scenario:

Bit of a Legend

Western Fame

Somewhere in LA

I think Legend is the ultimate gamer and will rise to the challenge like he did at the Gerrity and the Molson Cup at Western Fair in 2017.  I love the rail for Western Fame and that should only help an already super horse and I think Somewhere in LA will be engaged enough to be secure a top-three finish, but if they finished sixth through eighth, it would shock no one; the field is that good.

The Levy is race 10 on a spectacular card with $1.3 million in purses.  In addition to the Levy, the $373,000 Matchmaker will be run as well as consolations for both the Matchmaker and Levy.  There is also a $30,000 Preferred Handicap pace, a $40,000 Open Handicap pace, as well as a $30,000 Open trot and a $40,000 Blue Chip free-for-all for mare pacers.

It should be a good night for Yonkers; which has seen a dramatic increase in handle this year.  Despite the excellent card, they will be up against the Mighty Meadowlands which continues to handle $2 and sometimes $3 million on weekends.  That said the best races of the night are at Old Hilltop in Westchester County.

 

 

 

 

March Madness Times Two

March 14, 2018

There should be an NCAA and an ACAA for college basketball and college sports.

by John Furgele (The Divide and Conquer 228)

There used to a time when the NCAA embraced the mid-majors.  Remember when George Mason made the Final Four?  They were one of two teams from that conference (the CAA) to get into the tournament.  The Missouri Valley Conference used to send more than one team and so, too, did the Mid American Conference.  Even the MAAC (Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference) got two teams in 1995 when both St. Peter’s and Manhattan made the field. And, to enhance that reward, Manhattan upset Oklahoma in the first round.

Things have changed and there are two reasons why.  Once the NCAA got the $11 billion TV deal, the event changed.  Now, they had to market the big names and big schools.  Directional schools and schools named after people like George Mason, James Madison and William and Mary were no longer going to get a shot.  Why take Davidson and St. Bonaventure when most don’t know what state these schools are in?   Remember the undefeated St. Joseph’s team?  They got a number one seed and Billy Packer screamed about it for days.  In 1979, Indiana State was a one seed.  Today, Loyola went 28-5 and got an 11 seed.  Same conference.  Different times.

Even the NIT is bad.  LSU gets in and a very good Toledo team, with 23 wins is done for the year. It looks better to have LSU and TCU as your NIT champion than it is to have Duquesne or George Washington.

The second factor is football.  Once football took over college sports, the football schools want football teams to be in the basketball tournament.  Are we surprised Alabama is in this year with a terrible 19-15 record?  It’s easy to sell Alabama, not so easy to sell Saint Mary’s.  Why take Middle Tennessee when you can take eight schools from the SEC and nine more from the ACC.  The basketball tournament has become an extension of the football season. In sum, the NCAA basketball tournament is really a football tournament.

Even the mid-majors who do make it, get seeded low or get other teams seeded in the way to make for a difficult path.  When Wichita State went undefeated in 2014, they were seeded first, but the committee seeded Kentucky eighth, knowing that the Wildcats were more than capable of pulling off the “upset.”  And, when Kentucky did just that, those that run the NCAA were happy because it is better to have the brand advancing than the state school named after a city.

I am not sure what can be done.  I throw up my hands every time I hear a panelist say that this mid-major needs to schedule tougher and that the Ionas has to schedule and beat great teams.  But, Duke is never going to play at Marshall and Syracuse is never going to play at St. Bonaventure.  The Big 12—every game is a tough one—but if that conference is so tough then why does Kansas have an Atlanta Brave like stranglehold on it?  A good conference sees different team win it once in a while, but in the Big 12, Kansas wins it every year; yet 7 of the 10 schools make the field.  Once the mid-majors begin conference play, their strength of schedule goes down, the exact opposite of those that play in a Power 5 conference.

Even when St. Bonaventure, Wichita State, St. Joseph’s, Dayton, and Gonzagas of the world make the tournament, they are always given lower seeds because they are not Power 5 schools and they don’t play football.

I am not sure what can be done.  I have been a firm believer that there should be a split in Division I athletics—the Power 5 should form their own alliance—call it the ACAA (American Collegiate Athletic Association) and the rest of the schools should stay in the NCAA.  It would work well for football because it already exists and the NCAA division could be made up of existing Group 5 and FCS schools. In football, East Carolina, Marshall, Central Florida and even Boise State can never win, or even make the College Football Playoff.  Last fall, UCF went 13-0 and at season’s end, was ranked eighth. So, is a break really that far-fetched?  In many ways, it already exists.

In basketball, you could expand the ACAA to include the Big East since that conference gets too many bids as well.  You would then have 75 teams in the ACAA. Both the NCAA and ACAA could have 32-team fields.  CBS and Turner can broadcast the ACAA, while ESPN or Fox can handle the NCAA.

We all know that the chance of this happening is dead on arrival, but should it be?  The problem will be money.  The reason the old 16-team Big East broke up was due to dough.  Because it was a conference, the football schools had to share monies with the basketball-only schools.  That meant Seton Hall got money when Connecticut played in the Fiesta Bowl. The football schools didn’t like that, and the basketball schools felt like what was once a basketball-first league lost sight of its mission.  Thus, the breakup—the American Athletic Conference for the football schools and the Big East for the basketball schools.

America would never embrace two basketball tournaments.  There has been talk of the Group 5 football schools staging its own championship playoffs, but there is reluctance because as popular as college football is, would America support two football tournaments?  If the leaders are hedging on football, then of course, they are hedging on basketball

Once the tournament begins nobody really cares and despite all the complaining, we are usually debating three to five teams each and every year.  Some thought Oklahoma State should have made it over Oklahoma; others thought Notre Dame was more deserving than Syracuse, while a third crew was left wondering how the ninth place team in the Pac 12, Arizona State, made the field over the second place team, USC.  That’s the problem.  There was little talk of Saint Mary’s, Middle Tennessee, and even Old Dominion, a team that went 25-7 in Conference USA and missed out on the NCAA and the NIT.

At the end of the day, football runs the show.  We all know that, even Jim Boeheim knows that and he coaches at a basketball-first school.  As good as SU hoops are, SU football brings in more money.  Branding is important so we get why Alabama, Syracuse and Oklahoma are going to get the benefit of the doubt and the nod over St. Bonaventure, Saint Mary’s and Middle Tennessee, but it could be fairer.  Does the SEC need 8 teams?  Does the ACC need 9?  Does the Big 12 need 7?  The answer is no; if these conferences got 6, 7, and 5, that would leave room for six little guys to make the field, something that for many years, happened.

Is that asking too much?  Apparently, it is.