Monthly Archives: March 2011

All about baseball

The baseball season starts today, but as I look out my hotel window in New York I see some rain, lots of clouds and people bundled in coats and jackets.

Still, this is an exciting day. For me, especially, because I have such deep passion for the game and for the St. Louis Cardinals.

St. Louis Cardinals second baseman Skip Schumaker

I’m at once anticipating and dreading the season, feelings to which I suspect all fans can relate. I have high hopes for the Cardinals but legitimate concerns.

1) Starting pitching. Adam Wainwright is out after Tommy John surgery. Former reliever Kyle McClellan is in the rotation. I like McClellan, but he’s no Wainwright. Which means Chris Carpenter, Jake Westbrook, Jaime Garcia and Kyle Lohse need to be good. Really good. Starting pitchers need to get into the sixth and, even better, seventh and eighth innings of games. I hope this group is able to do that consistently. I have my doubts.

2) The bullpen. The Cardinals have a shaky closer, Ryan Franklin. He usually gets the job done, but when he doesn’t things can get really ugly really fast. I keep waiting for fire-ballers Jason Motte and Mitchell Boggs to solidify themselves as outstanding components of the pen, and I’m still waiting. This group makes me nervous.

3) Lance Berkman. He’s 35. He used to be one of the best hitters in the game but last season was not good for Berkman, who was injured and ultimately dealt from Houston to the New York Yankees at the trade deadline. Not only are the Cardinals hoping for an offensive resurrection from Berkman, they’re moving him to right field, a position he hasn’t played in a while. Keeping my fingers crossed. Definitely upside here if Berkman can revert to form, but it’s an $8 million risk.

4) David Freese. Can the third baseman stay healthy for a full season. This guy has a live bat and crushes to all fields. I love his game. But he’s got to be in the game and his chronically-injured ankles aren’t a guarantee to hold up.

5) Ryan Theriot. He’s the Cardinals’ new shortstop. Brendan Ryan, one of the best defensive shortstops in the game – and one of the worst hitters – was traded to Seattle. I have always thought Theriot was a pretty good player, but he didn’t hit much this spring and he’s not as good defensively as Ryan. We’ll see.

I think the Cardinals could win the National League Central and I think they could finish fourth. Cincinnati, Milwaukee and the Cubs are factors. Houston has good pitching but nothing else. Pittsburgh is Pittsburgh.

I like it that the Cardinals are sending Chris Carpenter to the mound today against the San Diego Padres. I like it that Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday are going to hit 3-4 in the lineup. I think center fielder Colby Rasmus, still only 24, is going to have a breakout year. Yadier Molina is the best catcher in the game. I think Skip Schumaker bounces back from a disappointing offensive season in 2010 to hit his customary .300.

If things go true to form, I’ll watch probably 120 Cardinals games this season. Maybe more. It’s an emotional ringer I go through every summer, but I can never turn back. I’ve been this way with this team for close to 50 years.

There are things I don’t want to think about much as the season begins, Albert Pujols’ contract situation being at the top of the list. There’s nothing I can do about that, so I’m just going to enjoy Pujols and hope this won’t be his last season in a Cardinals uniform. If it is, I’ll deal with that when the time comes.

I’m sure most of you have your favorite team, too, and I wish you luck. It’s always great when you’re team is 0-0. Now, if the Cardinals fall to 0-1 today against San Diego, I’m going to be pretty frustrated. If they’re 1-0, it’ll have been a good day. But the thing about baseball is that the next game is always just around the corner.

My picks:

AL East

1. Boston

2. New York

3. Tampa Bay

4. Baltimore

5. Toronto

AL Central

1. Chicago

2. Minnesota

3. Detroit

4. Cleveland

5. Kansas City

AL West

1. Oakland

2. Texas

3. Los Angeles Angels

4. Seattle

ALDS

Oakland over New York

Boston over Texas (wild card)

ALCS

Boston over Oakland

NL East

1. Philadelphia

2. Atlanta

3. Florida

4. Washington

5. New York

NL Central

1. St. Louis (I hate everyone else)

2. Cincinnati

3. Milwaukee

4. Chicago

5. Houston

6. Pittsburgh

NL West

1. Colorado

2. San Francisco

3. Los Angeles

4. San Diego

5. Arizona

NLDS

Philadelphia over San Francisco (wild card)

Colorado over St. Louis

NLCS

Colorado over Philadelphia

World Series

Boston over Colorado

KU in Wichita? It could happen

This morning, Lawrence Journal-World sports editor/columnist TomKeegan wrote that Kansas, the team he covers closely, should begin a basketball series with Wichita State.

I’ve been writing and saying that for years, but I don’t work in Lawrence. That Keegan does gives the argument a new voice, one emanating from the home of the Jayhawks.

I posted Keegan’s column on Facebook and if I was smart I could post it here. But I’m not and I can’t and we don’t need to get into all the reasons why. Also, I’m in a bit of a hurry this evening because of the Shockers’ NIT game against Washington State, which starts in a little more than an hour and a half.

Kansas and Wichita State should be playing every year. Somewhere. And now that argument is sure to get fuel because KU officials confirmed Tuesday that the school is working on playing USC next season at Wichita’s Intrust Bank Arena. Oddly, it would be a home game for the Trojans, who played in an arena that seats just more than 10,000 and appear willing to take the extra seating capacity in exchange for a home game.

Some Wichita State fans are railing against KU playing a game in Wichita that isn’t against Wichita State. But since this would be a USC home game, I wonder if those fans will relax their stance.

Anyway, it’s a great thing for Kansas to play at the Intrust Bank Arena. It will allow people who normally don’t have a chance to see the Jayhawks play at Allen Fieldhouse an opportunity to watch KU in person. And it’s another great “get” for the folks at the Intrust Bank Arena, which probably will be the site of a game between West Virginia and Kansas State next season, as well. All the details haven’t been worked out, but that game is most likely going to happen.

It’s humorous to me that some Shocker fans are talking like the KU game at IBA should be boycotted. By who, exactly? Shocker fans can boycott that game all they want and there will still be 15,000 people in the stands.

Kansas playing a game in Wichita is good for everybody. And I’m as big of a honk as there is that KU should be playing Wichita State. It shouldn’t be up to Bill Self or Gregg Marshall or the KU chancellor or the Wichita State president. It should just happen. It should be a yearly occurrence – same for Kansas State and WSU.

Wichita is a Wichita State town. But it’s also a KU and K-State town. It’s a fun town that way.

If I had to guess, based on my 56 years of living in and around Wichita, I’d say the breakdown goes something like this:

Shocker fans: 50 percent

Kansas State fans: 20 percent

Kansas fans: 15 percent

Oklahoma fans: 5 percent

Nebraska fans: 5 percent

Everybody else: 5 percent

Does that sound close? Again, I have no scientific evidence to support my theory. But I think it has to be in the ballpark.

* Really looking forward to the Shockers’ NIT game. Some people are saying there could be as many as 500 Wichita State fans here tonight. You Shocker fans might be a little out there at times, but you sure do support this basketball program. And that’s awesome, because it sets Wichita State apart. And that unconditional support is one of the reasons the WSU coaching job will always be attractive.

It was telling that VCU coach Shaka Smart went out of his way during a session with the media in San Antonio over the weekend to praise the atmosphere at Koch Arena. He said it was as good as any in the country, and that’s an unbelievable compliment. WSU fans are passionate about their team and that’s always a good thing.

So I won’t even try to convince WSU fans that KU playing a game at Intrust Bank Arena is a good thing. But it is. It really is. Take away your hatred and admit it.

Thanks for reading. Have fun watching the game tonight, Shocker fans.

NYC

I flew into New York just a few minutes ago. I’ve been five times now, but I still don’t have a comfort level. I’m not even sure natives have a comfort level. Nothing bad, it’s just so immense, so unnerving, so awesome.

We flew in over the city at dusk and the view as magnificent. Of course, I didn’t take a picture because if I had pulled my cell phone out on the plane to do so – well, I should have done that. I apologize. I don’t think like a modern social networking guru should think and that’s my fault. I blame my age.

Anyway, I’m in the hotel I’m sharing with Wichita State beat writer Paul Suellentrop. I’ve been rooming with men a lot lately. Insert joke.

We’re here, of course, to cover the Shockers in the NIT and we’re staying at the Affinia Hotel just across from Madison Square Garden. Tomorrow, Bruce Haertl and I will do our radio show, Sports Daily, from the studios of WABC Radio on the 17th floor of the Penn Building, which is also the building that houses MSG. Yes, we’re important. My plan is to woo Diane Sawyer and get some kind of job with the network. I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

* Boy, some of you really hate Kansas. Listen, I saw the game Sunday against VCU and the Rams were fantastic, especially in the first half. But Kansas was off its game and while I give VCU a ton of credit, there was something missing with the Jayhawks, namely shooting.

VCU dictated the pace, but KU loves playing at a fast pace. It wasn’t that the Jayhawks didn’t get good shots. They just missed a lot of them. When are Tyrel Reed and Brady Morningstar going to combine to go 2 for 16?

The better team on Sunday won. I have a hard time believing VCU is a better team than Kansas on most days. Again, that’s not a swipe against the Rams. I think what this year’s tournament – and so many in the past few years – has shown is that more “mid-majors” deserve to be in the 68-team field. Let’s cut down the BCS schools by four or five and give those spots to mid-majors. If we did that, Wichita State and Missouri State probably would have gotten in this year.

Then again, people will point out that Connecticut, the eighth-place finisher in the Big East, is in the Final Four. So do we just throw 128 teams into the mix? Of let them all have a shot?

Personally, I wouldn’t like that. But I do believe there should be a better way to set the field without the current dependence on RPI and non-conference strength of schedule. The mid-majors have a difficult time getting the big boys of college basketball to play them. So let’s punish the big boys, unless they start scheduling more of the teams from the Colonial, Mountain West, Missouri Valley, Horizon and the like. Make it mandatory that BCS schools have to play a certain number of those teams from the mid-majors. Not the low-majors, the mid-majors.

Butler, especially, has shown those schools belong. And now VCU has stepped up to the plate. We’ve seen it time and time again in the tournament.

* Since teams started being seeded for the NCAA Tournament in 1981, Kansas has won two national championships and lost games in the other 26 tournaments.

Of those 26 defeats, 14 have come against lower-seeded teams, six seeded 8 or lower. And it has really been a trend under Bill Self, who led the Jayhawks to a national championship in 2008 but barely held off a 10-seed, Davidson, in the regional finals in Detroit.

In 2005, KU lost to a 14 seed, Bucknell, in the first round. The next year, 13th-seeded Bradley beat the Jayhawks in the first round. In 2007, KU, a 1-seed, made it to the West Regional finals before losing to UCLA, a 2-seed.

Last season, ninth-seeded Northern Iowa knocked off  the Jayhawks in the second round and now VCU, another 10, beats Kansas in the regional finals.

That’s a lot of disappointment. And a lot of under-achieving.

Butler too good to miss

I’ve written before about how I feel sorry for people who have no interest in sports.

They’re missing out on so much. I get it, sports can be mundane. The day-to-day cycle of sports can be overwhelming and confusing. There’s so much of it. And if you’re not raised as a sports fan, it must be really difficult to try to hop aboard a train that is moving at 300 miles per hour.

Butler Bulldogs coach Brad Stevens has his team in a second consecutive Final Four.

But I wish non-sports people would give it a try. I think they would be glad they did. There’s just so much about sports that is historical, relevant and just plain fun.

I’m leading up to the Butler Bulldogs, who knocked off Florida on Saturday to advance to the Final Four for the second straight year. There’s never been anything like this in the 72-year history of the NCAA Tournament. It’s one of the best stories in American history, it just happens to have a sports bent.

Sports aren’t life or death, of course. But sports are life and I can’t imagine living a fulfilling one if you totally close off sports to who and what you are. Am I being judgmental? To a degree, I suppose I am.

I’d rather think I’m trying to be helpful to those of you who just can’t, for whatever reason, get into sports.

Butler can draw you in. Follow the Bulldogs. Read about them. Look for as much information as you can find about their coach, Brad Stevens, who looks like a high school science teacher and has accomplished the impossible.

Butler is the first non-BCS school to reach consecutive Final Fours since UNLV in the early-1990s. But UNLV doesn’t count. UNLV was on a different playing field.

Butler plays in the Horizon Conference. The Bulldogs had their moment last season, improbably reaching the Final Four behind the play of Gordon Hayward, who has had a so-so rookie season with the Utah Jazz. This year’s version of the Bulldogs don’t have an NBA player. On Feb. 3, Butler was 14-9 overall and 6-5 in the Horizon League. It didn’t appear there was any way the Bulldogs could make it to the NCAA Tournament, let alone win four game and reach another Final Four.

But there’s something about Butler. The Bulldogs look different when they play. They have a veteran-laden team that doesn’t get rattled when it falls behind in a game. And they have a coach who teaches and instructs his players rather than yell and scream at them.

It’s fascinating to watch and Butler, once again, has captured the imagination of American sports fans. If you’re not one of them, I’m sorry. You’re missing something really big and really cool.

Getting to know Shaka Smart

Shaka Smart, VCU’s basketball coach, made a great impression while talking to the media Saturday as his Rams prepare to face Kansas on Sunday with a trip to the Final Four on the line.

Shaka Smart

I didn’t know much about Smart, VCU’s 34-year-old coach who is in his second season with the Rams after being an assistant at Florida, Clemson, Akron and Dayton. He played at tiny Kenyon College in Ohio. He’s originally from Madison, Wis. And he was captivating during his 45 minutes on the dais.

I remarked to somebody that Smart did even more to enhance his appeal to athletic directors seeking a new coach while answering questions and giving America more of an idea who he is. And KU coach Bill Self, who came on after Smart, said life is going to change for the VCU coach because of this NCAA Tournament success.

“It’s going to become – crazier is not the right word – but in our profession he’s going to live in the fast lane more going forward,” Self said. “Expectations are going to change and yoru recruiting base changes – not the base but the opportunity to maybe recruit a different guy, so to speak. It’s a fun, exciting time, but certainly the reality sets in that the more you taste it the more you like it and that makes you very hungry as a coach.”

Here are some of the things Smart had to say during his Saturday media session:

On the background and history of his first name.

“It’s the best thing my dad ever did for me, because I was raised primarily by my mom. Shaka is an African name, named after a king in southern Africa who united hundreds of thousands of people. He was a warrior, he was a tough dude, and my dad chose to name me after him. You may have seen the movie “Shaka Zulu.” That’s who I’m named after. When I was growing up, and still to this day, I get kidded a lot about that. People call me that or Chaka Khan, different things. It doesn’t bother me, I’ve heard it all before.”

On being the flavor of the month among hot coaching candidates.

“It’s something that goes with the territory of advancing in the NCAA Tournament. It’s just the way our basketball culture works. It’s not necessarily right or fair, it just is what it is. And I try not to get caught up in all of that. The reality is that I have a phenomenal opportunity to be the coach at a school that I love and to every single day work with players that I absolutely adore and care about. And that’s where my focus is and that’s where my focus will be.”

On picking Kenyon College over schools like Harvard, Yale and Brown.

“I chose Kenyon because of the basketball coach (Bill Brown). I was accepted to those Ivy League schools but I’m from the Midwest. And to be honest, that kind of East Coast, fast-paced attitude was a little intimidating to me when I went out there and visited. And I had a very strong relationship with the coach at Kenyon College. He’s the closest thing I’ve had to a father figure in my life. Going to Kenyon was an easy decision because of the relationship he and I had established.”

On the importance of education in his life.

“I didn’t have a choice. My mom didn’t have a lot of rules. I didn’t have a curfew when I was a kid. I never had to make my bed. But if I came home with a bad grade then I wasn’t able to do what I wanted to do, which was play basketball and the other sports that I competed in. And sometimes a bad grade was as high as a ‘B.’ So I had to excel in the classroom. At the time, I really didn’t understand it but I really appreciate it now because when I went to college I wanted to do well for one reason and that was just to make my mom happy and make her proud and to follow what she had taught me.

“But what happened was a beautiful thing. In college, I found a subject matter (history) that I really enjoyed and classes that I loved. And all of a sudden I started learning because I enjoyed it and because I wanted to. I wish that would happen for everyone who goes to college because I think that’s what it’s all about. It opens up so many opportunities for learning.”


Friday blog: NIT edition

Today, an NIT history lesson:

* This is Wichita State’s 12th appearance in the NIT and before this season, the Shockers didn’t have a lot to show for their participation. They had won only three tournament games – versus 11 defeats – and had never won more than one game in any NIT.

Of course, the NIT was a much different animal when the Shockers were involved in the tournament in 1954, 1962, 1963 and 1966. In those days, the NIT was considered to be on equal footing or just a notch below the NCAA Tournament. Still, WSU failed to win a game in any of those tournaments, losing to Bowling Green, Dayton, Villanova and NYU.

It wasn’t until 1989, in its seventh NIT appearance, that Wichita State finally broke through with a 70-62 win over Cal Santa Barbara in Wichita. The Shockers lost their next game to Michigan State, 79-67, in East Lansing, Mich.

Coach Mark Turgeon re-vitalized Shocker basketball during his seven season (2000-01 through 2006-07) and took WSU to consecutive NITs in 2003, 2004 and 2005. After first-round losses to Iowa State and Florida State (a memorable, 91-84 double-overtime game at Koch Arena), the Shockers broke through with a pair of wins in 2005, beating Houston and Western Kentucky before losing a heart-breaking 65-63 game at Vanderbilt. The next season, 2005-06, Wichita State advanced to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament.

* There’s no question the Shockers’ appearance in the NIT semifinals is a great thing for the program. Can it help recruiting? I’m not sure. I know it can’t hurt. Wichita State has gotten a good amount of exposure the past couple of weeks and it will only intensity in New York, where the Tuesday semifinal against Washington State is sure to be viewed by a large number of basketball junkies who need a fix before the Final Four.

Madison Square Garden is a grand stage. And while I’ll admit to not being able to name the 2010 NIT champion before looking it up earlier this week (it was Dayton, by the way), the NIT can help vault a program to higher levels. It happened with Wichita State in 2005, when the Shockers won a pair of NIT games and then made a run in the NCAA Tournament the following season.

It didn’t happen to Dayton, though. The Flyers did not even make the NCAA Tournament this season after winning in MSG a year ago.

NIT winners since 2000 include: Wake Forest (2000), Tulsa (2001), Memphis (2002), St. John’s (2003), Michigan (2004), South Carolina (2005-06), West Virginia (2007), Ohio State (2008), Penn State (2009) and Dayton (2010).

* I think all Shocker fans are hoping for a Wichita State-Colorado championship game. It would be great to see former Shocker assistant coach Tad Boyle, now the head man at Colorado, work against his former team.

* Nine of the 10 Missouri Valley Conference teams have played in the NIT (Northern Iowa has not), but only two have won. Bradley has four NIT championships (1957, 1960, 1964, 1982) and Southern Illinois won in 1967, when Jack Hartman was the Salukis’ coach and Walt “Clyde” Frazier was their star player.

Bradley has made 21 NIT appearances, followed by Wichita State (12), Illinois State (11), Creighton (10), Southern Illinois (9), Missouri State (9), Drake (3), Evansville (2) and Indiana State (2).

More coaching speculation

College basketball has such a great postseason tournament, but it’s unfortunate there is so much talk about which coach is going to end up where at this time of the year. It tends to drown out even the enormity of the NCAA Tournament.

So with that being said, my topic today is coaching openings and possible ramifications. Because, like you, I’m fascinated with the stuff. It amazes me how so many coaches who supposedly preach loyalty and integrity are so quick jump at a new job. I think it’s all about their egos. These guys need to consistently be stroked. Not all of them, but more than you would think.

Missouri now has an opening after Mike Anderson jilted the Tigers, after saying time and time again he was going to stay, and moved to Arkansas. I read the St. Louis Post-Dispatch every day online, because of its Cardinals coverage, but I also take a look at what columnist Bernie Miklasz writes in his blog. Today, he went through a list of potential candidates for the Mizzou opening. Names are being thrown around with no regard as to whether they might indeed be interested. It comes with the territory.

Miklasz likes Missouri State’s Cuonzo Martin for the Missouri job and it makes sense. He’s from East St. Louis and has done a very good job at Missouri State. But, has he done enough? I think it’s a fair question. Martin’s team this season was loaded with upperclassmen, most of whom he didn’t recruit.

Miklasz also mentioned Northern Iowa’s Ben Jacobsen, who I think would be an outstanding hire for Missouri. And, yes, he mentioned Gregg Marshall of Wichita State. Although his words weren’t kind. Here’s what Miklasz wrote about Marshall:

* Gregg Marshall, Wichita State: Did an exceptional job in a steppingstone job at Winthrop, leading the team to seven NCAA Tournaments in nine years. Had to rebuild Wichita State and is four years in; finished second in each of the last two seasons. Kind of a quirky personality, which is a polite way to put it. OK, let me be more direct: the guy can be a real jerk. (Then again, so can I.)

Hmmm. Makes you wonder where Miklasz is getting his information, since I don’t think he’s been around Marshall once. He sees him at the Valley tournament, but calling a guy a “jerk” is a pretty strong statement.

I like Miklasz’s work and he’s not usually one to say something like this. Are other coaches telling him Marshall is a jerk? Is he getting that perspective from the people who work for the Missouri Valley Conference?

I have been around Marshall – a lot – and I would not call him a jerk. He is a bit high strung and perhaps overly sensitive to what is written and said about him. And he pays too much attention to that stuff, in my opinion. He and I have had our go-’rounds, but he’s going to get a lot more of guys like me in bigger markets, if and when he decides to make a move.

On the plus side, I think Marshall is a funny and very smart guy. And a good coach, especially as it relates to getting his players to play hard. The Shockers rarely take nights off, especially defensively. He’s a proven winner and I think he would win at Missouri, North Carolina State or the NBA, if that’s where ends up someday.

I have been around enough coaches in my life to get some sense as to what makes one successful while another might struggle. Marshall has the intangibles. He’s tough on players, but they know he has their backs. His kids are great and his wife, Lynn, is a lot of fun.

As I have written before, I have no idea if Marshall is interested in leaving Wichita State. I know he was asked about the subject last night after WSU’s win over College of Charleston in the NIT and denied having been contact, or made contact, with any school. I have no reason to doubt that he’s telling the truth, although coaches have a way of stretching the truth when it comes to job searches.

In talking to other reporters and columnists here in San Antonio to cover the Southwest Regional, it’s noteworthy that some who cover Kansas on a daily basis are curious as to whether Danny Manning might be interested in the Wichita State job should Marshall leave. There are rumors floating that Manning has made it known he would be interested in the Shockers. Remember, that’s just a rumor. But it’s a fascinating one.

Would Manning, in his fourth season as a KU assistant coach, potentially be a good fit? I’m not sure, I can see both sides. Manning has a cool relationship with a lot of media members. Three years ago, when the Jayhawks were in San Antonio for the Final Four, he wouldn’t talk to reporters about his induction into the College Basketball Hall of Fame.

He has, however, done a masterful job coaching the Jayhawks’ big guys, specifically Marcus and Markieff Morris and Thomas Robinson. All have made great improvement under Manning’s tutelage. And he is Danny Manning, one of the biggest names in the history of KU basketball.

Again – and I can’t stress this enough – there is no reason to think Marshall is going anywhere. And there isn’t one bit of evidence out there, as far as I can determine, that he has even been approached or that he is looking. I know he loves coaching basketball at Wichita State and that he’s amazed by the support from Shocker fans. He has a good thing and he knows it.

A late blog

Consistency is a key for blogging, I know. But when March Madness hits and you’ve got three teams in the mix and you’re going here and there and . . . well, if it sounds like I’m complaining, I’m not. I’m just saying that blogging isn’t easy to do at this time of the year.

I spent today driving to San Antonio with Eagle reporter Tony Adame. We ate at the Cracker Barrel, always a special thrill for me. I had the hamburger steak, cooked medium well, with green beans, corn and hashbrown casserole. Yummy. Throw in a slice of cornbread and it was a heavenly dining experience. Plus, we were in Waco, one of my favorite cities. No rednecks in Waco.

It was at least a 10-hour drive. And the stretch from Dallas to San Antonio – a long stretch – is heavy with traffic. In America, we need a bunch of 10-lane highways. That’s how I want my tax dollars put to work. Yes, 10-lane highways would solve our nation’s ills.

We arrived at the Hyatt Regency just about an hour ago. I caught up on my e-mails and exchanged pleasantries with my wife, Debbie. It looks like I’m going to be on the road for a while now that the Shockers beat College of Charleston on Wednesday night and are headed to the NIT in New York City. That’s where I’m headed to on Monday, after KU (most likely) wins the Southwest Regional and advances to the Final Four in Houston next week.

If that (most likely) happens, I’ll fly from New York to Houston after the Shockers are finished in the NIT. By the way, I’ve been told there’s still a third-place game in the NIT. Why? Why are there third-place games at any level of sports. Do third-place finishers feel a lot better about themselves then fourth-place finishers. And if so, don’t you feel really bad for the fourth-place finishers. Why humiliate a team with two losses? Let it lose one and get on a plane back home with at least some of its dignity.

Third-place games are our nation’s second biggest problem, being highways that don’t have enough lanes.

On the way here, I found out Mike Anderson is leaving as basketball coach at Missouri to go to Arkansas. Don’t worry, Missouri fans. You can do better than Anderson. I think he did a good job at Mizzou, especially because of the shape the program was left in by previous coach Quin Snyder. But I don’t get the sense Anderson’s frenetic style is going to consistently work. I think it’s too dependent on getting exactly the right kind of players and that’s not and easy thing to do.

And while I believe Arkansas has good upside in men’s basketball, and that it’s probably the best available open job in college basketball, I don’t think it’s a slam dunk. The Razorbacks are 62-97 in SEC play the past 10 seasons. And football is the biggest deal in Fayetteville, although there are more basketball lovers there than there are in most SEC towns.

Oh, how about those Shockers? They’ve taken a less-than-satisfying situation and turned it into a real positive for the program. Getting to New York for the NIT semifinals is a big deal. For these players to be able to say they’ve had a strong postseason run – even if it is the NIT – and will have gotten to play a game at the most exciting venue in America, Madison Square Garden, is just cool. I’m looking forward to watching Wichita State play Washington State in the semifinals. I think it will be Washington State, anyway. The Cougars are leading Northwestern at halftime as I write this.

If that game happens, it will be WSU against WSU for the first time since Dec. 15, 1960, when the Shockers beat Washington State, 83-64, at what was then called the Roundhouse in Wichita.

Meanwhile, all kinds of things are shaking in San Antonio. And there’s just a lot on my mind. But I’ll blog when I can the next few days and share the sights, sounds and smells from this great Texas city. Thanks for reading. Be safe. And remember, call your congressman or congresswoman about highways with more lanes.

Is Marshall hot?

I love this time of the year, and not just because the NCAA Tournament is in full swing and the MLB season is just around the corner. I love it because the grass is getting greener and flowers are starting to think about blooming.

But I really love this time of the year because of coaching changes in college basketball. Just today, Bruce Pearl went down at Tennessee, which wasn’t a shock. Pearl had to be dismissed and I’m sure some school will give him a job. He might have to take a year

Gregg Marshall could be an attractive candidate for some program.

off – Billy Gillispie had to take some time after leaving Kentucky and now has re-surfaced at Texas Tech – but Pearl isn’t finished in the game.

No coach who is a proven winner is ever finished.

Which brings us to some interesting openings around the country, where jobs at Georgia Tech, Oklahoma, Arkansas, North Carolina State and now Tennessee are open.

Of course, the hot names are the coaches who are making runs in the NCAA Tournament, especially Shaka Smart at VCU. Interesting, since just a couple of weeks ago Smart was viewed as a guy who was not winning enough because of the Rams’ fourth place finish in the Colonial. But now he’s hot, thanks the his team’s three NCAA Tournament wins that has gotten VCU to the Sweet 16.

Richmond’s Chris Mooney, whose Spiders meet Kansas in the Sweet 16 on Friday night in San Antonio, is another hot name.

But what does a run in the NIT do for a coach? And yes, I’m talking about Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall. If the Shockers get to the semifinals in New York – and perhaps even deeper – does Marshall jump off the page?

I think that happened a while back, honestly. I think there are schools out there who will at least make a phone call to Marshall or his representatives to gauge the interest of the Shockers’ coach, who is finishing his fourth season at WSU. I have no “inside” information to support my case; it’s just a hunch. Well, a hunch founded in following coaching searches with interest for quite a while now.

Marshall isn’t a young coach moving up the ranks. He’s a veteran coach who has slowly but consistently built on his resume.

But if Marshall isn’t viewed as a hot candidate for some of these openings, it’s because athletic directors and college presidents have to make a sell. It’s going to be easier for an AD to convince a fan base that Smith, Mooney or Xavier’s Chris Mack, for instance, are more glamorous hires than Marshall. Perhaps Kansas State’s Frank Martin jumps at one of these openings now that he’s established himself as a consistent winner who also has strong recruiting ties to the East.

I’m going to zero in on Marshall and Smart and try to convince you that Marshall is the better candidate of the two.

First, he inherited a program that was low on talent when he took over. It took him a couple of years just to re-stock the cupboards, but in the past couple of years the Shockers have reached the NIT and, if  the Missouri Valley Conference had been stronger overall, would have been in the NCAA Tournament. For my money, Marshall is a safe hire in that he’s going to win wherever he goes.

Smart might be the finest young coach out there, but I have some concerns. He inherited a VCU program from Anthony Grant, who led the Rams to a 76-25 record in three years before leaving for Alabama after the 2008-09 season. He was replaced by Smart, who had been an assistant at Florida for one season before taking over at VCU. Before that, Smart was an assistant at Clemson, Akron, Dayton and California U. (Pa.)

In Smart’s two seasons, VCU is 53-20 overall. Very good, but not as good as Grant’s teams. In Colonial play, VCU is 23-13 under Smart; it was 45-9 under Grant and before that 51-21 under Jeff Capel.

My point is that I think it’s too early to judge Smart as a head coach. He’s getting tremendous run at the moment because of what the Rams are doing in the NCAA Tournament, and there’s no doubt it’s been impressive. I just don’t think he’s as proven as Marshall, who still has those nine great years at Winthrop to show to any athletic director in the process of hiring a new coach.

I’m not saying Marshall is leaving Wichita State. I’m not even saying he’s interested in leaving WSU, because I’ve never had a conversation with him about the subject.

I’m saying he would make sense as a candidate for one of the openings. I know there were boosters at North Carolina State who liked him a few years back for the Wolfpack finally settled on former basketball star Sidney Lowe. It didn’t work out. NC State has not been able to contend with Duke, North Carolina and other programs in the ACC. The Wolfpack will be looking for an energetic coach who isn’t afraid to stand toe to toe with Coach K and Roy Williams. It’s not an easy job.

I would think NC State will try to lure Sean Miller away from Arizona. He’s a great coach who did a fantastic job at Xavier before moving to Tucson two years ago. Miller is a former Wolfpack assistant under Herb Sendek at a time when Miller’s brother, Archie, was a star player for NC State.

It’s fascinating stuff and it’s just getting started. Keep an eye out.

The NCAA Tournament road

I get asked all the time about how much fun it must be to cover the NCAA Tournament.
It is, but I’ve never been able to trust my memory as to where covering this tournament has taken me over the years. So today, I looked it up.
This is the 16th NCAA Tournament I’ve covered going back to 1981, when Wichita State (I was the Shockers’ beat writer) beat Kansas in the Sweet 16 in New Orleans, then lost to LSU for a chance to reach the Final Four.
Since 1998, I’ve covered every NCAA Tournament as a columnist. And now I’ve documented exactly where I went and when, which I’m going to share with you lucky readers today.
The tournament has taken me to 23 cities, a few of them multiple times, and 16 states plus the District of Columbia. Here’s the rundown:

1981 – Wichita (first and second rounds, Wichita State), New Orleans (Sweet 16, Wichita State)

1994 – Wichita (first and second rounds, Kansas Coliseum)1998 – Oklahoma City (first and second rounds, Kansas), San Antonio (Final Four)
1999 – New Orleans (first and second rounds, Kansas), St. Petersburg, Fla. (Final Four)
2000 – Winston-Salem, N.C. (first and second rounds, Kansas)
2001 – Dayton (first and second rounds, Kansas), San Antonio (Sweet 16, Kansas)
2002 – St. Louis (first and second rounds, Kansas), Madison, Wis. (Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, Kansas); Milwaukee (women’s Sweet 16, Kansas State); Atlanta (Final Four, Kansas)
2003 – Oklahoma City (first and second rounds, Kansas); Anaheim, Calif. (Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, Kansas); New Orleans (Final Four, Kansas)
2004 – Kansas City (first and second rounds, Kansas); St. Louis (Sweet 16, Kansas)
2005 – Oklahoma City (first round, Kansas)
2006 – Greensboro, N.C. (first and second rounds, Wichita State); Washington, D.C. (Sweet 16, Wichita State)
2007 – Chicago (first and second rounds, Kansas); San Jose (Sweet 16 and Elite 8, Kansas)
2008 – Omaha (first and second rounds, Kansas, Kansas State); Detroit (Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, Kansas); San Antonio (Final Four, Kansas)
2009 – Minneapolis (first and second rounds, Kansas); Indianapolis (Sweet 16 and Elite Eight, Kansas)
2010 – Oklahoma City (first and second rounds, Kansas, Kansas State); Salt Lake City (Sweet 16, Elite Eight, Kansas State)
2011 – Tucson (first and second rounds, Kansas State)

So, the city breakdown:
Oklahoma City (4)
San Antonio (3)
New Orleans (3)
St. Louis (2)
Wichita (2)
Winston-Salem, N.C.
Dayton, Ohio
Anaheim, Calif.
Madison, Wis.
Milwaukee
Atlanta
Kansas City
Greensboro, N.C.
Washington D.C.
Chicago
San Jose, Calif.
Omaha
Detroit
Minneapolis
Indianapolis
Salt Lake City
Tucson
St. Petersburg, Fla.