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Wisconsin and Columbia Cagers Provide Joy While Orioles Sputter in Spring Training

There is nothing like having one's team in contention for a title. Much was expected of the Columbia basketball team this season. Its four seniors brought a lot to the table and two were coming back from year-long injuries: forward Alex Rosenberg and guard Grant Mullins.

Combined with perennial All-Ivy shooting marvel Maado Lo and the versatile Isaac Cohen - who can impact a game positively without take a shot - an end to the Ivy League championship drought since 1967-68 seemed within reach. Unfortunately for fans of the Light Blue and White Lions, Yale and Princeton were just a little bit better this season.

Yet Columbia under six=year head coach Kyle Smith has done very well in the post-season College Insiders Tournament (a tourney so "inside" that very few people know about it). Blessed with two home games, Columbia trounced Norfolk State and came from behind to nip Ball State 69-67.

On Easter Sunday March 27 at 6p they will face NJIT (New Jersey Institute of Technology) for the right to meet in the championship game on Tuesday March 29. Both games will be televised on the CBS Sports Network cable channel. NJIT's coach is a former Columbia assistant Jim Engles, something that adds a little flavor to the matchup. The Lions beat NJIT by 9 points in December.

Meanwhile out in Big Ten land my graduate alma mater University of Wisconsin Badgers has surprised all the pundits by making the Sweet Sixteen. Not once all season did they crack the Top 25 in the weekly polls. (Among superfluous ridiculous aspects in today's sports, those basketball-football polls rank very high IMHO).

Lots of heart-warming stories with this year's Badger team. High among them is coach Greg Gard earning the full-time job for his great work after taking over in mid-December after Bo Ryan's retirement.

Unlike Ryan who rarely used his bench, Gard has developed youngsters Jordan Hill and Ethan Iverson and Charlie Thomas into players who can provide key minutes while the impressive starters need a rest.

A third straight Final Four appearance seemed the unlikeliest of dreams a few weeks ago. It is still a long shot but how lovely it is to dream of it. Even to the point of writing about it just a few hours before the Badgers take on Notre Dame for the right to play either North Carolina or Indiana on Sunday.

All this basketball love has enabled me not to worry too much (yet) about how the Orioles will fare in 2016. If I were a pundit predicting the season, I would be hard-pressed not to pick them 5th in the 5=team AL East. Their starting pitching looks mediocre at best.

But fortunately no games count until Monday April 4 when they begin the season against the Minnesota Twins who swept them out of the pennant race last year with seven straight victories. Certainly the Birds are due for a win. So I will say with a wan smile channeling the late pitcher-pundit Joaquin Andujar, "Youneverknow, youneverknow."

That's all for now. Always remember: Take it easy but take it.  Read More 
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White Amoeba, Unsung Heroes, and Real Life Issues Intrude On College Basketball

On the last Sunday in February I turned on my flat screen HDTV to watch the last home game of Wisconsin’s basketball Badgers. After a woeful start and the abrupt retirement of coach Bo Ryan, my graduate school alma mater Wisconsin had been playing good basketball lately. They rose from a 1-4 league start to winners of 10 out of the last 11.

Though it was a home game, Wisconsin was wearing red uniforms, a Black History Month tribute to the unis worn during the 1970s coaching reign of Bill Cofield, the first black coach in the Big Ten. Clad in white, Michigan started off on defense very vigorously. On my HDTV screen they looked like white amoeba trying to suffocate the home five.

There is a limit to how much aggressive defense can be sustained. The Wolverines did lead by one at the half but Wisconsin took control in the second half and won convincingly. Jordan Smith, the only senior on the Badgers this year, even got into the game at the end and hit two foul shots. He received a standing ovation on the way into the game and another one when interim coach Greg Gard pulled him out to hear more cheers before the game ended.

Every team needs a Jordan Smith who plays far more in practice than in games. He usually serves the vital function of captaining the scout team that impersonates the next opponent. He gets no ink in the paper or cybermedia but by playing hard he prepares the team for the next opponent.

The Badgers’ potential seeding in the NCAA tournament did take a hit when one week later on the first Sunday in March, Senior Night at Purdue, the Boilermakers spanked the Badgers thoroughly. Purdue thus gets the double-bye in the Big Ten tournament and Wisconsin only a single-bye.

A bigger hit to the Badgers’ reputation came the day before with the revelation that retired coach Ryan had been engaged in a six-year extra-marital affair. Deadspin, that dogged on-line publication exploring the underside of sports, wrote a story that was confirmed by Wisconsin officials.

The university announced that Ryan had not used any university funds in the pursuit of his liaison and had cleared him over a year ago of any wrongdoing after his jilted lover sent a letter to top school officials. Speculation is rife that the affair was a factor in Ryan’s decision to retire. But it was denied by both sides.

We are all human which means we are not perfect. The temptations to dalliance in the public limelight must be overwhelming. I hope it won't be a blemish that tarnishes
Ryan’s great reputation as a coach and teacher. And that his hand-picked successor and longtime assistant Greg Gard gets the permanent job for his great work in salvaging the season. Gard's promotion might happen any day now.

More was expected of my undergraduate alma mater Columbia this season with four experienced seniors getting a last chance at bringing the first Ivy League title to Morningside Heights since 1968. It was not to be because Yale was too powerful and experienced.

Columbia finished third in the Ivy League with an excellent 10-4 record, but its four losses were two each to perennial challenger Princeton and new champion Yale.
The Lions suffered the indignity of watching Yale clinch the title with a 71-55 win on Columbia’s home court in the last game of the regular season.

The Elis will go to the Big Dance for the first time since 1962. They have two powerful senior forwards Justin Sears from Plainfield NJ, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year and a favorite to win it again, and Brandon Sherrod from Bridgeport, CT.
Sophomore guard Makai Mason is also vital member of Yale’s starting five and he led the Elis in scoring and court presence in the clinching game.

Sherrod has a wonderful backstory. He took last season off to tour with Yale’s famous singing group the Whiffenpoofs. But he returned refreshed in 2015-16 and in mid-season set a NCAA record of 30 straight shots without a miss.

I love the stories of players who are true renaissance men. Wisconsin’s junior forward Vitto Brown sings with his family in a choir called Shades of Brown. They are in the regular rotation of National Anthem singers at the Kohl Center in Madison.

I have not heard them sing but sure hope they bring it in under 1:30. I have little patience with Anthem singers who think the song is about them and not about fellow citizens of the United States. To me it is a symbol of what has gone glaringly wrong in our country.

The real world of scandal impacted Yale's visit to Columbia. Senior team captain Jack Montague missed the last four weekends of the Ivy League season. Yale officials will only say that he has “withdrawn” from school and has not been expelled.

Before Yale's last home game, the team wore warmup uniforms with Montague's number 4 on the back along with his nickname "Gucci". Justin Sears said it was in solidarity with their "brother" who remains in their thoughts.

I find that emotion understandable given that sports teams bond together for weeks and months and years and develop a foxhole mentality. But the charge against Montague is very serious, involving sexual misconduct. Demonstrations against him have started
at Yale and filtered somewhat to Columbia.

The New York Post wrote on Saturday that Montague has hired a prominent law firm. His father told the New Haven Register that his son was indeed expelled but the charge against him is “ridiculous.” He said that reporters will learn the full story once lawyers have cleared him to speak publicly. It is certainly a story that needs explanation.

That's all for now in my last post before I head to spring training for a few days in Arizona. Glad my New York friends will have balmy weather while I'm gone.

I will not obsess yet about the Orioles’ woeful winless start to the exhibition season. No games in spring training count for anything except getting players ready for the real season.

But it does seem that my team with its great tradition of pitching will be scuffling to find a workable starting rotation. As the late great Sparky Anderson once said, “You aint got nothing if you don’t have pitching.”

Always remember: Take it easy but take it.
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