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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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On The Eve of Pitchers and Catchers: College Basketball and Pro Baseball Thoughts

It’s a special time of year with the days growing longer, college basketball season heading to a regular season climax with my two alma maters Columbia and Wisconsin in the hunt for post-season action, and of course spring training camps ready to open next week.

Columbia’s chances for its first Ivy League title since 1968 took a major blow on Saturday night when Princeton rallied to tie the game with 5 seconds left in regulation. After falling behind by 7 points in overtime, the Tigers finished the game scoring the last 12 points in an 88-83 victory.

Unheralded freshman guard Devin Cannady came off the bench to score a career high of 23 points, hitting the big buckets both inside the paint and outside beyond the three-point line. Yale remains undefeated in the Ivy League 14-game regular season tournament with Princeton having just one loss and now Columbia saddled with two with six games to go.

Meanwhile down at College Park, Maryland, Wisconsin avenged a loss in Madison with a convincing 70-57 victory over the highly ranked Terps. Forward Vitto Brown notched his second straight career high with 21 points.

Junior Vitto Brown is one of the nice versatile stories in college sports. He sings with his family vocal group, Shades of Brown. They performed a national anthem before one of the Badgers home games last year and probably will do it again.

Another fine forward and singer is Yale’s Brandon Sherrod who actually took off last season to travel the nation and the world with Yale’s Whiffenpoofs. He has returned to become a force up front with Justin Sears, the reigning Ivy League Player of the Year. Sherrod also set a NCAA record last month with 30 straight field goal attempts without a miss.

It is a pleasure to be well into a third decade of labor peace in Major League Baseball with neither side saber-rattling about the upcoming negotiations for a new Basic Agreement – the old one expires at the end of this year.

It was interesting though to read Tony Clark’s recent complaints about the current system. Clark, the former major league first baseman with primarily the Tigers, is in his second year as executive director of the Players Association.

He is upset that some veteran free agents like shortstop Ian Desmond formerly of the Nationals, outfielder Dexter Fowler formerly of the Cubs (and Rockies-Astros), and righthanded starter Yovanni Gallardo, formerly of the Texas Rangers, are still out on the market.

Clark is a very eloquent fellow but each of the three players mentioned above turned down a $15.8 million one-year qualifying offer from their former team. Not exactly chump change - that number was computed based on the average of free agent contracts in the past few years.

If a team signs Desmond, Fowler, or Gallardo, it will have to forfeit a first-round draft pick, a valuable commodity given the insane prices of veteran free agents, esp. pitchers.

Most teams would like to have their full rosters set by now but that is not always the case. In 2014 the Orioles did not pick up key free agents starter Ubaldo Jimenez and slugger Nelson Cruz until the last week of February. So we’ll see what happens before the games begin for keep on April 3.

I was amused by a heated exchange between Christopher “Mad Dog” Russo and analytics fanatic Brian Kenny on Russo’s “High Heat” MLB TV network show on February 12th.

Kenny was insisting that Kenny Lofton and Jim Edmonds were Hall of Famers though he admitted that only the numbers said Lofton, a good player and great athlete but not a Hall of Famer, belonged in Cooperstown.

The case for Edmonds is even weaker but the analytics people are riding high now in powerful places – new media, television, and big name universities. They are convinced that longtime sportswriters and fans have only limited insight into the game.

Their fanatic belief that the endless barrage of their new statistics tells us so much amuses me except that it is not funny when the ascendancy of the new statisticians continues to cost scouts, the real pillar of the game, their jobs. Over 100 lost their positions when the book “Moneyball” came out, and another wave of pink slips is happening now. An outrage!

Well, that’s all for now – always remember: Take it easy but take it!
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