Sunday, September 5, 2010

The First Saturday in September

I was watching Kansas St. vs UCLA on ESPN2 and the announcers said, “There haven’t been a lot of close football games today.” And as of 10:30pm Saturday, that’s still true. The college football season has started with a thud. I know the joy of the first weekend is just seeing real football games again, but usually one or two of the BCS matchups goes down to the wire. Today we saw North Carolina crippled by suspensions against LSU, UConn and Purdue providing surprisingly little resistance to Michigan and Notre Dame, and not a lot else. Heisman hopeful QB Jake Locker of Washington could not even mount a drive when trailing by 6 against BYU. Oregon St. trailed TCU by 7 late, but rather than rally for a tie, they had a bad snap and kicked the ball out of the endzone for a safety. This is not drama. Even matchups that are usually great rivalries like Colorado-Colorado St. simply had no sizzle this weekend. I enjoyed watching North Dakota State beat Kansas, but not quite enough to write a blog post. But there was obviously one game of the day, Jacksonville St.’s win over Ole Miss.

(Of course as soon as I was putting the finishing touches on this post, I flipped back to ABC and saw North Carolina inside the 10, trailing LSU by 6 points with 2 seconds left. UNC’s pass fell incomplete as time expired. What?!! North Carolina came back? And after a day of garbage games, I missed that comeback. Sigh.)

Jacksonville St. vs Ole Miss

We start with the back-story. Mississippi head coach Houston Nutt was a former assistant under Jacksonville St. head coach Jack Crowe from 1990-1992 when Jack Crowe was the head coach at Arkansas. But in 1992, in his third year at Arkansas, Jack Crowe lost the season-opener to the Citadel. Crowe was fired immediately. (I love how whenever someone gets fired in the middle of the season, people act like this is a “new trend”. But this has been happening for decades, and it was certainly not a new trend in 1992.)

The other piece of back-story is the QB situation at Ole Miss. TMQ Gregg Easterbrook would probably label this game the curse of Jeremiah Masoli. Masoli, the former Oregon quarterback had multiple off-field incidents that led to him being dismissed from the Oregon team. But Ole Miss was happy to snap him up and let him play immediately. Anytime you are willing to look past indiscretions other teams take seriously, it usually comes back to haunt you.

But that did not appear to be the case early. Ole Miss had a huge lead in this game, something like 20 points, and I almost deleted it from my rotation of channel flipping. But nothing else was really must-watch TV, so I kept coming back. And in the fourth quarter, Jacksonville St. brought in freshman Coty Blanchard to play some snaps. It seemed like an innocent move at the time. Both teams wanted to play some of their backups to get them some game experience.

But out of nowhere Blanchard immediately sparked the offense and helped pull Jacksonville St. within 5 points. Arkansas added a field goal to make it an 8 point lead, and then with limited time remaining, Jack Crowe made the head-scratching decision to put QB Marques Ivory back in the game. Was he trying to give the game to his former assistant? This logic was baffling. Blanchard was the hot hand, why not continue to use him? But of course, Ivory now saw that his job was in serious jeopardy and lead the team down the field for the touchdown and game-tying two point conversion. And we headed to overtime.

In OT, Jacksonville St. scored first and Ole Miss needed a fourth down conversion for a TD to send the game to a second OT. Then after Ole Miss scored a TD again, Jacksonville St. found themselves with their back against the wall. After a loss of 5 yards, Jacksonville St. faced a 4th and 15 from the 30, needing a TD to stay alive. And of course Jack Crowe chose this moment to reinsert QB Coty Blanchard. Blanchard then proceeded to throw a 30-yard precision touchdown strike, caught at the very back of the endzone by a Jacksonville St. receiver. It was an insane pass and an insane moment. This type of QB shuffling almost never works, but here Crowe shuffled QBs at the end of regulation, and in OT, and whoever he played rose to the occasion.

At this point, Jacksonville St. just decided to end the insanity and go for the two point conversion. Either they would win or lose, but it would all come down to this play. Ole Miss blitzed, Jack Crowe faced huge pressure up the middle, and calmly flicked the ball ahead for the game winning conversion.

You might coach 20 years, and only once are your QB substitutions going to work as perfectly as they did in this game. Congratulations to Jack Crowe, and here’s hoping Houston Nutt doesn’t get fired after week 1, even if he was willing to play Jeremiah Masoli.

The FIBA Knockout Round is Here

First, here is a quick recap of Thursday. In a complete shocker, Ivory Coast upset Puerto Rico and that allowed China to advance to the knockout round.

Elsewhere New Zealand beat France which allowed Spain to steal the second spot in Group D. But because Greece finished third in Group C, this meant Greece and Spain met today in the first round of the knockout round. Spain and Greece were effectively 1-seeds and expected to be semifinalists in this tournament. But because neither team could win their group, they make for an insanely marketable first round match-up.

Meanwhile the other “1-seed” Argentina fell to Serbia which means that only one of the group favorites, the United States, won their group.

Today we had two knockout round games on tap.

Spain vs Greece

The matchup of these two heavyweights was a disappointment, because in the end, it wasn't close. With Greece within 4 points, Spain grabbed a pair of late steals, built a 10 point lead, and coasted to victory. From what I could tell, the early part of this game was back and forth and if you watched the whole thing, you probably were not disappointed. But if you tuned in with 6 minutes left in the game like me - sorry.

Serbia vs Croatia

I start with two pieces of background on this game. First, like Turkey-Greece in the opening round, Croatia and Serbia are geographic rivals. Croatia and Serbia are both part of the former Yugoslavia. Here’s a map. Second, note that there have probably been over 100 players from this region to play in the NBA. This region tends to be a huge recruiting zone for NBA big men. And college basketball is full of them too. I remember a time when nearly every player on Northwestern’s basketball team had an “ic” at the end of their name.

Also note that Serbia was the heavy favorite in this game. They’ve already beaten Argentina in this tournament and they have the Euroleague MVP form last year in Milos Teodosic and NBA forward Nenad Krstic. Meanwhile, Croatia has a decent team, but after losing to the US, Brazil, and Slovenia, they finished 4th in group B. On paper this was a mismatch. But that’s why they play the games.

With 1 minute to go in regulation, Croatia’s Roko-Leni Ukic had one of the best drives and passes of the tournament as he drew two defenders and flicked the ball to Marko Banic to pull within two points.

Fast forward to 24 seconds left. Croatia was still down three points, but they had the ball with a chance to tie. And Serbia decided to foul with 15 seconds to avoid the game-tying three. I thought this was a horrible decision. 15 seconds was way too early to foul in that situation. And for once this instinct was correct. After Croatia made both free throws, Croatia’s Marko Tomas stole the inbounds pass. Instead of a last second desperation three to tie, Croatia now needed just a two-point bucket to win the game.

But Serbia fouled again and this time Croatia made 1 of 2 free throws to tie the game. Then after a time-out, Croatia fell asleep on the inbounds pass and Serbia hit the home run ball for a wide open-layup to take the 72-70 lead. But once again Serbia fouled. What were they thinking fouling when up two? Again, the logic seemed to be to avoid a three pointer, but I was baffled by this strategy as it almost certainly meant overtime.

Croatia made both free throws to tie the game at 72. But in a tie game with 5 seconds left, Serbia pulled it out. After driving the ball up court, Serbia drew a foul with 1 second left and hit a free throw to hold on to win the game. Yes Serbia won, but the crazy fouling at the end almost cost them to game. I’m sure at some point, fouling while leading by three makes sense. But I’m pretty sure it is not with 15 seconds left.