Archive for March 13th, 2007

quietriot.JPGIs it just me, or have the NIT brackets been simplified? I seem to remember that in the past the bracket branched and forked in unexpected directions, in much the way that the family tree of European royalty doesn’t. This year it’s a nice, tidy, orderly march to Madison Square Garden. And they’re even cramming all of the first-round games into the two days before the Big Dance starts, instead of taking a week to get everything sorted out for round two. Good job, I guess.

Anyway, for those of you who root for a team that’s now permanently outside the NCAA bubble, life goes on. The NIT may not be your first choice, but nobody shows up to lose and go home, right? So let’s look around the blogosphere and see what fans are saying about their National Invitation Tournament experiences.

Mississippi State: Gregg Ellis is upbeat about the Bulldogs.

Michigan: Fire Amaker? Then the terrorists have won.

Syracuse: I tell you, WE WERE ROBBED! OK, maybe we gave some of it away…

West Virginia: At least it’s better than the BCS.

Drexel: Making their case. (spoiler warning – it didn’t work)

Alabama: Loser With Socks has an open letter to Mike Gottfried.

Wow. Not very many people writing about their teams except about 1,000 Syracuse fans. C’mon, where’s the outrage, the righteous anger? Give those selection committee bastards a piece of your mind!

Why do I get the feeling that I’m the NIT of sports blogs? Or worse yet, the North Alaska Shootout?

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I’ve been seeing the Cinderella book popping up as a search term recently, and gaining steam as the tournament approaches and everyone looks back fondly at George Mason’s amazing Final Four run. As a service to my readers, who are hungry for all the college basketball coverage they can get their hands on, and to me, who is looking for a way to provide that coverage without losing his day job, I am going to re-run my review of Michael Litos’ compelling study of the 2006 CAA season. Enjoy.

cinderella.gifThe surprising run that George Mason University made to the 2006 Final Four is the reason this book will be a hit, but it’s not the reason the book was written, and it’s not the only story the book has to tell.

Michael Litos has long chronicled the travails and successes of the Colonial Athletic Association in his blog, titled The CAA: Life as a Mid Major. And this account of one season inside the CAA continues that tradition, giving partisans and outsiders alike a portal into the passion that galvanizes college basketball outside of the elite conferences. By the time you’re done reading, you’ll know a great deal more about NCAA hoops than you did before.

The stars of this book are the coaches. Litos’ narrative follows the CAA season in general, but four personalities really stand out. There’s Jeff Capel, the VCU coach who parlayed mid-major success into a job in the Big 12; ODU’s Blaine Taylor, the preseason favorite who overcame adversity to reach the final four of the NIT; Tom Pecora, the native New Yorker who has made a powerhouse out of Hofstra; and, of course, Jim Larranaga, the man who took his underdog GMU Patriots to Indianapolis before finally bowing to the eventual National Champion. It’s fascinating to see how each man uses his own unique background and philosophy to build a winning team.

There’s solid research behind the personal portraits, however. One early chapter details the economics of Mid-Majordom, which are fraught with “buy games” and miniscule budgets. The picture of a vicious cycle emerges: if a mid-major team gets good enough to beat a major foe, the major foe will never schedule them, and they languish in the RPI basement. That means few NCAA tournament appearances, and no chance to improve or play meaningful games.

The nits must be picked, of course. There is a sense about the book that it was rushed to print, which is perhaps understandable given the unexpected window of opportunity surrounding the GMU triumph. But there are odd word choices and several typos throughout the book. The most baffling, and yet the most hilarious, are the persistent references to college basketball analyst Greg Gumbel as Greg Gumball. The devil is in the details, as they say.

masonwins1.jpgBut everything rich and enjoyable about this book is in the details as well. Mr. Litos’ behind-the-scenes access uncovers some poignant moments: VCU guard Jesse Pellot Rosa mentoring an autistic athlete; The Monarchs’ struggles with grief, disease, and violence; Pecora’s respect for an opponent who has just beaten him; and Larranaga’s famous grit in deciding to sit a star player for the first game of the NCAA’s. Those intimate moments illustrate Coach Pecora’s philosphy that “(E)verything we do is a microcosm of life”. It’s never just a game.

There’s something about this book that resonates a little more than similar in-season studies. Previous books have tried to find the human dimension behind household names like Bobby Knight, Larry Brown, and Dean Smith. But no amount of deconstruction can make a legend seem like the guy next door. In Cinderella, most of us are getting to know the players, coaches, and administrators for the first time, and they are indelibly human. The reader rides the roller coaster, too.

Anyone can debate the merits of the glamor teams. If you really want to sound like a college basketball savant during this year’s NCAA tournament, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

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Well, it was my secret weapon until I told you about it. I recently discovered a fellow WordPressor who is living the dream. His high-quality amateur baseball writing at The Diamond Cutter got him noticed by a discussion group called The Pittsburgh Lumber Co., which was on the MVN site.  When the minor league beat came open, he got called up to the show.  He now writes Minor Details for MVN and is saving my bacon.

This guy knows his stuff, and he’s analyzing prospects from the ground level.  I’m certainly going to keep an eye on any hitter he profiles, and I hope my counterpart Mr. Thursday finds some use for the site as he works on the pitching side in GoodEnough for Me

I don’t know if any of the players profiled here will make it out of the minors this year, but if any of them do, I’ll be ready for them, thanks to Minor Details.  If they don’t, well, as Cubs fans say, WAIT ‘TIL NEXT YEAR!!!!

Recent profiles:

Alexi Casilla – Minnesota Twins 2B

A look at how the top hitting prospects are faring in spring training – Spring Ahead

Cameron Maybin – Detroit Tigers CF

A team-by-team look at the best prospects, starting with the Arizona Diamondbacks

There’s a lot more for the avid baseball fan here.  Though I discovered Mr. Whipps (great name for someone who evaluates pitching performance, by the way) after he signed with MVN, so we never really exchanged comments or anything, I congratulate him on his dream job, and thank him for his insight.

This job just got a whole lot easier.

Not sure what the hell I’m going on about?  Check out the Smells Like Pujols archives.  It’s all explained in post #1.

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