Monday, January 26, 2009

Some random thoughts of randomness ...

A few thoughts while enjoying a wonderful bowl of Frosted Flakes ("They're Grrrrrreeat!")

  • Much has been made around the country about the 100-0 result in a Texas Association of Private and Parochial Schools girls basketball game a couple of weeks ago. The Covenant School played the role of Shellackers in that one, while Dallas Academy proved to be the Shellackees. When word of the rout spread, Covenant officials quickly tried to distance themselves from the outcome, even going so far as to request the sanctioning body record the game as a forfeit for their school. "A victory without honor is a great loss," Kyle Queal, headmaster for Covenant, was quoted as saying. The carnage continued Sunday when coach Micah Grimes, who was steadfast in his belief that he and his team did nothing wrong, was fired, apparently for sending an e-mail to various news organizations, including USA Today. In his e-mail, he said, "I do not agree with the apology or the notion that The Covenant School girls basketball team should feel embarrassed or ashamed. We played the game as it was meant to be played." Amen. What "honor" would come from Grimes' players giving up and allowing Dallas Academy to score? Is it honorable to stop doing your best just because you're far more talented than your opponent? Absolutely not. It was up to Dallas Academy to do something different, anything, to try to slow down the scoring assault of Covenant. Of course, Dallas Academy is winless over the past four seasons, so nothing seems to be working. Here's an idea: if you can't do any better, maybe you ought to drop basketball. I applaud the girls on this team for sticking it out and trying, but perhaps it's time to try something different. Table tennis, anyone?
  • One of my favorite columnists is a fellow named John Canzano for The Oregonian in Portland, Ore. Unfortunately, he erred a bit with this offering, where he essentially wrote that Tiger Woods and LeBron James finally are becoming more involved in important political issues, much as Jim Brown and Muhammad Ali did before them. What soapboxes did Tiger and LeBron climb? Prop 8 out in California? Abortion? Genocide in African nations? Nah, they both applauded our new President, Barack Obama. Oh, and for good measure, Tiger thanked the members of the military for their service to their country. Now, let me get this straight: I've got nothing wrong with supporting these things. I'm as excited about the possibilities of Barack Obama as anyone, and I always have admired countrymen (and countrywomen?) who risked their lives to protect me. What a sacrifice. But let's wait until LeBron or Tiger actually stand for something before we anoint them the 21st Century versions of Tommie Smith and John Carlos. Maybe when Tiger declines an invitation to The Masters because of Augusta National's longstanding policies against minorities (race and gender) we can pat him on the back. Or when LeBron vows to stop wearing Nike shoes unless the company closes one of its manufacturing plants in some Third World country, where children work for pennies a day to make the latest $150 shoe, then we can nominate him for some Nobel prize. Until then, they're just what they always were: splendid athletes more concerned with making money and cultivating their image (not that there's anything wrong with that).
  • In case you missed it, Southern Cal and Washington State might have forced Dr. James Naismith to roll over in his grave Saturday in an epic fight for Pac 10 mediocrity. The Trojans prevailed 46-44, and no, a jump ball was not held after each basket, and yes, they had actual rims on the backboards instead of peach baskets. Proponents of this style (say "Hello!" John) would argue it was a defensive struggle, with players on both teams digging in when they didn't have the ball to deny scoring opportunities. I watched the game, and what I saw was a couple of teams set on walking the ball up the court, working the shot clock down to the waning seconds, then frantically firing an open jumper that clanged off the rim. It was awful. Why do the majority of college coaches feel as if they need to reign in their players, control them from start to finish, instead of letting them play the game? It reminds me so much of North Carolina State's Sidney Lowe, a wonderful point guard for the Cardiac Pack of 1983 who acted as a coach on the floor. Now, as the coach on the bench, he does the same thing, orchestrating each possession as if the young men on his team can't possibly know what to do. Ease up, Sidney (and Tony Bennett and Tim Floyd). Let your players show their skills. I think you might be surprised.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Checking back in on Grinnell ...

Anyone miss me? I've been gone awhile but return with good news: I'm here to break down "The System" used by my Grinnell Pioneers and coach David Arsenault. Remember, he's the coach, and his son of the same name is the point guard. That could be vital knowledge as we go forward.

I've watched at least parts of all seven Midwest Conference games for Grinnell this season and find myself in the unique position of knowing more about this team than anyone I know. Pretty heady stuff. Here are some general generalizations I've come up with based on my experiences:
  • Firstly, even though this is Division III and no one is on scholarship, the Pioneers are more athletically challenged than their opponents. No, that's not code for "they have too many white guys;" pretty much every team I've seen them play has predominantly white players. Grinnell essentially has kids who believe in what they're doing and go to great lengths to give maximum effort. Certainly, the trifecta of stars (the aforementioned younger Arsenault, leading scorer John Grotberg and Bobby Long) are dazzling and would be equally as successful in any system. Many of the other players? Not so much.
  • The teams most familiar with "The System," i.e. the conference foes, appear to have a pretty good handle on, well, handling the pressure. Whether it be good spacing on offense (forcing the Pioneers to look far and wide for traps) or tight man-to-man defense (not allowing any open shooters), the MWC teams face little surprises. It is a testament to coach Arsenault and his players that they still manage to thrive despite this handicap.
  • Even the best plans go astray with the fatigue that Grinnell forces on the other team. Sure, the Pioneers are accustomed to running full tilt for 40 minutes each night and take the necessary precautions through their liberal substitutions. The opponent isn't as fortunate, and those crisp passes to break the press in the first half become a bit lazy down the stretch, leading to turnovers and missed layups. It's amazing to see.
  • Of course, Grinnell has its share of missed layups, too, and not just from players not named Arsenault, Grotberg or Long. It can't be from being tired (at least not all the time), and it probably is too trite to blame it on guys being more comfortable behind the 3-point line. For some reason, the Pioneers give up a lot of points on the offensive end by failing to convert from in close.
  • And, often, they simply turn down those shots to pass it back out for a 3. That is all well and good, yet they spend too much time looking for their top scorers. Shooters who can make shots often defer to one of the leaders, which is great to see in some respects. But it helps cost the team opportunities, and the lesser-known members of the Pioneers would be better served taking those shots themselves.
  • I'll admit, while watching the Pioneers struggle on the scoreboard over the weekend (more on that later), I thought of ways to improve "The System." What if they didn't give up so many uncontested layups? What if they drove to the basket more often and kept the long-range jumpers to a minimum? What if they didn't swipe so much at the ball and allow their opponents to spend an eternity on the free throw line? What if ....? Eventually, I realized I was falling into the trap of second-guessing a tried-and-true strategy. No, it doesn't lead to victories all the time, but more often than not, coach Arsenault comes out on top. Pretty difficult to argue with a man who has been perfecting his creation for 20 years.

As I said, the weekend wasn't kind to Grinnell, which lost two in a row to fall out of a tie for first in the MWC. Both losses were at home, so that makes it doubly difficult to take. Carroll College held on for a 108-102 victory on Friday, and St. Norbert College (ranked 17th in the latest poll from pulled away late to win 107-96 on Saturday.

The Pioneers (8-5, 5-2 MWC) have nearly a week off before traveling to Lawrence on Friday. The Vikings (9-4, 5-1) are third in the conference, trailing Carroll and St. Norbert, with Grinnell fourth.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Coach Sweater Vest, Coach Jags and the Dude from Miami (Fla.)

I've got a friend who absolutely loves Ohio State football coach Jim "Sweater Vest" Tressel (you know who you are, John, go ahead and stand). For anyone who hasn't seen the Buckeyes play in the eight seasons of the Tressel era, the coach always dons a scarlet (read: red) sweater vest, along with his smartly starched white button up shirt and scarlet and gray tie. Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of the sweater vest in and of itself, just not this coach who must have a whole closet full.

Now, it's difficult to argue with the results. Ohio State won the national championship in 2001 and has absolutely owned its biggest rival, Michigan, since Tressel arrived on campus. My issues with the coach stem from an exchange we had back in my days as a sports writer, when he smugly answered my question about his conservative offense and reliance on field goals. "That's how we play at Ohio State," he said with a look of superiority.

Fine. As the saying goes, Tressel has forgotten more about football than I'll ever know. He has completely restored his program to where it was during the days of the late Woody Hayes, and some might argue he has taken it even further. It doesn't mean I have to agree with all his tactics.

That conservative nature? Well, maybe if the Buckeyes hadn't settled for field goals on three trips across midfield in Monday's Fiesta Bowl (sorry, TOSTITOS Fiesta Bowl), the Texas Longhorns wouldn't have been able to make the thrilling comeback. Nine points wasn't going to do it against Texas, and even a couple of late touchdowns wasn't enough to save Ohio State.

Another move by Coach Sweater Vest that completely annoyed me was the muzzle he put on freshman phenom Terrelle Pryor, the Buckeye's starting quarterback. When every other starter attended media day except Pryor, Tressel explained that he felt his QB would be better served watching film. (As an aside, seriously, why keep calling it "film?" No one watches "film" anymore, it's all digital now.) Apparently, Pryor watched a lot of TAPE in the days leading up to the game, since he apparently wasn't available a single time for reporters.

My good friend (again, John, take a bow) would point out that Tressel is trying to protect Pryor from the vultures in the media, men and women who would love to get him to provide some "bulletin-board" material for the opponent. Certainly, Tressel has the authority to do whatever he wants with his players, legally, but I would think he would be better served "protecting" Pryor and others from unscrupulous agents and alumni. ("Need any money for the weekend, Maurice Clarett?")

College is supposed to be a learning experience, and Pryor would get more out of it by dealing with the questions. Likely, he's savvy enough to avoid saying anything derogatory about an opponent, but so what if he does? Live and learn. Isn't that what being a teenager and a college student is all about?

Which brings me to another winner of the coaching fraternity, Boston College's Jeff Jagodzinski. By the time you read this (anyone out there?), Coach Jags might be "former Boston College coach." He was told by his athletic director, Gene DeFilippo, that if he interviewed with the New York Jets he wouldn't be welcomed back in Chesnut Hill. Well, apparently Jagodzinski did just that, so if he doesn't get hired by New York, or New Jersey, or whatever you want to call the Jets, he likely will be looking for work.

Good for BC. It's about time a college stood up to one of these coaches who always are looking for a better gig. Coach Jags was two years into a five-year contract, but now because the NFL might come calling, he wants to abandon his players, his staff and the Eagles fans. Hopefully, DeFilippo sticks to his position and finds someone who would love to have what turns out to be a pretty good job.

Of course, a coach can love his job and his team a little too much. At Miami, coach Randy Shannon (who unfortunately doesn't have a catchy nickname) knew quarterback Robert Marve wanted to transfer, and Shannon agreed to release the second-year player. Oh, but he wanted to restrict where Marve could go, since the last thing you'd want is a former player going to another school in your conference and returning to deliver a beat down.

Initially, there were 27 schools on this list (but apparently none in Canada) before the athletic department, swamped by a public outcry, softened its stance somewhat. Now he can't transfer to any school in the Atlantic Coast Conference or any Football Bowl Subdivision school in the state of Florida. He can look to the Southeastern Conference, just not Tennessee, Florida or LSU.

Nice going, coach Shannon. Way to alienate recruits all over the country, not to mention some players already in your program. Of course, he might not be the one behind this move, but as the public face of football for the Hurricanes, he should feel the full brunt of our disdain.

Monday, January 5, 2009

Grinnell is back on track

It's all good back in the cornfields of Iowa (that's where my Grinnell Pioneers do their thing). Coach David Arsenault and the boys traveled to St. Louis to face Fontbonne University on Monday, a rare 5 p.m. local time weekday start, and they will return home with a couple of school records along with their victory.

The Pioneers (6-3) won 163-145 before a whopping crowd of 100, establishing a new high for points in a game; the previous best was 160 against Martin Luther College ("Nothing good ever comes of zone defenses") on Nov. 23, 2002. At the half of this one, Grinnell led 88-76 despite allowing the Griffins to make 83 percent of their shots in the first 20 minutes.

Fontbonne went cold after the break and only shot 71 percent. The lone lead for the home team came at 3-0 on a Brian Fogerty's three-point play 9 seconds into the game.

Also, Grinnell senior John Grotberg finished with 36 points to become the leading scorer in school history, surpassing Steve Wood's total of 2,379 points. Grotberg now has 2,385 with more than half the season left. Grotberg was 13-for-26 from the field, including 10-for-19 from beyond the arc. Of course, all that production came in 23 minutes of playing time.

Bobby "Ironman" Long was even better, playing a team-high 25 minutes, setting a career high with 44 points and adding nine 3s of his own. The Pioneers were 35-for-69 for the game from downtown and finished at 53 percent overall. That's good shootin'.

Oh, and the point guard, young David Arsenault, had another double-double, his ninth in nine games, with 28 points and 11 assists (and one turnover).

Grinnell returns to action Saturday with a road game against Midwest Conference rival Illinois College. The Pioneers are 3-0 in the MWC, one of four unbeaten teams.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

College hoops weekend ...

Conference play began around the country this weekend, and there was no bigger surprise than Boston College accomplishing what earlier in the season appeared impossible: beating North Carolina.

The Eagles led virtually throughout in the Atlantic Coast Conference opener for both teams, sprinting to a big lead midway through the second half and holding off a furious rally by the Tar Heels. Watching the game, I tried to get a handle on what BC was doing, and really, it was very simple -- pound the ball inside, hit a timely 3-pointer and bully UNC around a bit on the other end. It worked to perfection.

Mostly sticking with their flex offense, which really can almost be like hand-to-hand combat, the Eagles picked apart the Tar Heels in the paint, with cutters often getting open looks from in close. And when that part got closed down, Tyrese Rice and Rakim Sanders took turns making it rain from outside. It was as thorough a beating as North Carolina has suffered in a long while. Of course, if Deon Thompson (1-for-6) and some others make their free throws, it might have been a different game. "Woulda, shoulda, coulda ... ," right?

Elsewhere, my Grinnell Pioneers took it on the chin, too, falling 130-109 to Wheaton College, which was ranked No. 2 the most recent poll. Remember when we talked about the Pioneers' (lack of) defense? Wheaton pulled away in the second half by converting 25-of-30 shots -- from the field! That's 83.3 percent for those of us not equipped with my brother Kevin's mathmatical skills. For the game, the Thunder made 80 percent, despite missing all four attempts from beyond the arc. The "Big 3" of Tim McCrary (32 points), Kent Raymond (31) and Jake Carwell (25) combined to make 35 of their 42 shots.

Grinnell gets in trouble when no one can make shots, and that appears to be what happened. John Grotberg, the leading scorer, was 5-for-17, and Bobby Long finished 6-for-19. The Pioneers only managed 12 steals, too, down from their season average of 19, second in all of NCAA Division III. Grinnell looks to get back on track Monday on the road against Fontbonne University, home of the mighty Griffins.

Congrats also to Craig Robinson, and not the former burly forward of the Virginia Cavaliers from my youth. This one is the first-year coach of the Oregon State Beavers and just so happens to be the brother-in-law of President-elect Barack Obama. With Roeland Schaftenaar (dude, buy a couple of consonants!) coming up huge with a game-tying 3-pointer to force overtime in the final seconds, Robinson and the Beavers snapped a 23-game Pacific 10 losing streak with a 62-58 victory over Southern Cal. Of course, the home fans at historic Gill Coliseum brought out a wonderful chant with the outcome decided in the waning seconds of the extra period: "Just like football! Just like football!" (Those of you under a rock for the past six months might not realize Oregon State upset the Trojans in September to deny USC an opportunity to play for the BCS Championship.)

Finally, kudos to Rockingham, N.C.'s own Dave Davis, who works as a college hoops referee in his spare time. He had a rough back-to-back this weekend, traveling to Gardner-Webb on Saturday for the Runnin' Bulldogs Big South matchup with VMI, then keeping the peace for a Division II Pfeiffer-Bluefield College tilt on Sunday.

To put that in perspective, the VMI Keydets of coach Duggar Baucom lead Division I in scoring at around 99 points a game, and the Pfeiffer Falcons are eighth in Division II. Neither team disappointed, with the Keydets holding on for 96-92 victory and the Falcons rolling 102-74. Hopefully, Dave will get a chance to soak his feet on Monday.

Incidentally, he worked the Saturday game with a crew which included Scott Smith, son of Hall of Fame coach Dean Smith. I love dropping knowledge.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


OK, I'll admit it. I have a bit of an obsession with the basketball team at Grinnell College. Never heard of it? You have now.

The Pioneers, who play in the NCAA Division III Midwest Conference, use a pressing, high-octane system that allows them to score points like no other team in the country. So far, through seven games, they are averaging 126.6 points, with more than 130 in five games. One player, John Groterg, scores 37 points a game, while point guard David Arsenault (the coach's son) drops more than 13 dimes a game (dimes is a hip way of saying assists).

As my good buddy John Maultsby would point out, Grinnell also gives up a lot of points, although a lot less than it scores. The average point differential of 21 points is among the best in all of Division III, so the Pioneers obviously do what they do pretty well.

It reminds me so much of my all-time favorite college hoops team, the 1989-90 Loyola Marymount Lions. Most everyone remembers those guys, with Bo Kimble honoring his best friend, Hank Gathers, who collapsed and died during a West Coast Conference tournament game. The Lions roared (wow, that's bad) all the way to the Elite Eight, where eventual tourney winner UNLV ended their season. LMU's victory over Michigan in the second round still is the best game ever, a 149-115 rout of the defending national champions.

Jeff Fryer, a guard for the Lions, dropped in 11 3-pointers in that one and scored 41 points. Kimble added 37. In the second half alone, LMU outscored the favored Wolverines 84-57. Wow.

But I digress. Back to Grinnell ...

The Pioneers take what coach Paul Westhead did at LMU a step further by concentrating the majority of their offense on 3s. Grotberg has shot 128 in seven games (more than 18 a game), and Grinnell puts up 64 each outing as a team. Yep, that's right, 64! Amazing.

All the gambling with traps forces about 32 turnovers, too, making up for the fact that opponents rarely miss when they hold on to the ball. The Pioneers give up 62 percent shooting, which likely would drive most coaches crazy. But it's all part of coach David Arsenault's plan.

To execute it, he relies on a rotation that resembles something you'd see from a hockey team. When Grinnell subs, it usually is with at least four new players, and often five. Remember John Grotberg, the leading scorer? He is on the floor for 23 minutes a game, barely more than half. So far, 14 players have seen action in all seven games, with three more getting in six.

Don't worry, I'll keep you up to date as the Pioneers get into the heart of their schedule. They return to action Saturday against Wheaton College.

Welcome to KP's World!

Welcome to my first attempt at a blog!

I just returned from the Polar Bear 150 at Rockingham Speedway, where about 65 cars took the green flag under sunny, cool conditions. Honestly, in the sun, it wasn't all that bad. Now, when I left and walked behind the grandstands, in the shade, it was a bit cold. Karate-chop cold, as Colleen would say.

What did I think of the race? Glad you asked. The racing itself was great, very enjoyable and very impressed with the drivers. The organization of the event left a little to be desired, with each caution taking much too long and the laps clicking off slower than I would have liked. Nothing really can be done with somebody crashes, so not sure what could be done to speed up everthing. Maybe let the pace car travel a bit faster, to at least put in some laps.

The size of the crowd surprised me a bit, so hopefully owner Andy Hillenburg thought it was worth his while to hold this race. No clue on the exact figure, obviously, but my brother and I estimated it was close to 5,000. And that was only what we could see on the frontstretch. It doesn't include the suites, which I heard were packed, or the infield. I would imagine the race will return next year.

Speaking of racing, I saw a disturbing report that Petty Enterprises officially will close its doors when a merger with Gillette Evernham Motorsports is complete. The ends about 60 years of fielding a NASCAR team. For race fans such as myself, it probably feels much as it did for fans of the Brooklyn Dodgers when the team left for Los Angeles. Hard to believe there isn't an opportunity in today's sport for the King. RIP, Petty Enterprises.