Monthly Archives: February 2013

Memories of a sportswriter

I covered high school sports for The Eagle in the mid- to late-1970s. What a time to be thrown into the fray as those years were – argue if you want, but you’d be wrong – the best in City League sports history.

I’ll re-visit this era in future MOAS posts, but today I want to focus on the Heights basketball team that

Darnell Valentine is one of the greatest basketball players in City League history. And one of the most intimidating to a young sports writer trying to find his way.

went undefeated and won a 5A state championship in 1976-77.

That team included starters Darnell Valentine, Calvin Alexander, Doc Holden, Antoine Carr and James Carr. It was 25-0 and was really tested only once all season, by South in a game the Falcons still won by nine points, I believe. Heights jumped to a 25-0 lead over Kansas City Wyandotte that season in the state championship game.

Heights’ coach was Lafayette Norwood, and he didn’t really trust me or anyone in the media for whatever reason. Norwood was a friendly enough man and someone I got to know much better as years passed. But he was protective of that Heights team and the players followed his lead by being somewhat stand-offish.

It was an intimidating bunch, especially considering I was just getting started in the business at the time and was 21 years old.

Obviously, I was around that Heights team a lot. And I did my best, green as I was, to develop relationships with Norwood and the players. Valentine was the focal point of that team, the unquestioned leader. You really had to go through him to get to anyone else. And he wasn’t an easy guy to go through.

It’s interesting writing all of this because now I consider Valentine to be one of the most friendly and approachable people I have occasion to write about. Our conversations in recent years have been more than cordial. Valentine, who has mostly lived in Portland since his NBA career came to an end in the early 1990s, appreciates his legacy at Heights and has been involved in reunions when that team has gotten together.

The bond of that Falcons team is strong. There is a camaraderie among the players unlike any other high school team I have been around. It makes sense because of its success and because I believe the Heights basketball team of 1976-77 is the best team, in any sport, I’ve ever seen relative to its competition.

The rest of the City League was no joke in those years. But the Falcons blew the doors off.

Valentine, whose thick thighs were his defining feature, dominated games defensively and could also score.

Alexander later became a professional boxer and was built like a brick house, with apologies to the Commodores for stealing their song title. This is going to sound ridiculous and it’s a little embarrassing, but I’m pretty sure I stopped approaching Alexander for interviews because of the scowls he consistently gave me.

Doc Holden was a really friendly guy with crazy jumping ability. He went on to play at Cincinnati.

James Carr, who I saw just the other day after a Wichita State basketball game, was another intimidating, big guy. I might not have interviewed him much, either, come to think of it.

And Antoine Carr was just a pup, a 6-7 sophomore with incredible skills and athletic ability. I remember watching Carr fly all over the court.

Heights had a bunch of other good players, but the Falcons’ starting five is one for the ages. There hasn’t been one close to as good before or after in City League history.

Yet as good as this team was, it wasn’t all that enjoyable to cover. Heights’ games were always blowouts, which meant the starters rarely played more than a half or, at the most, three quarters. Because no teams were even in the same stratosphere as the Falcons, there were no interesting angles to cover, no potential showdowns to highlight.

Heights wrecked one team after another. They were tough and aggressive.

And it was up to me, some kid from Derby, to try and tell their story.

I remember setting up a picture at Cowtown. It might have been an All-City picture, or it might have been a picture of the Falcons’ five starters. I just know that at least a few of the Heights starters were there, and that they weren’t happy with the concept. Valentine, especially, thought it was ridiculous to be taking a picture at Cowtown and he wasn’t shy about expressing his opinion.

Eventually, though, the picture was taken. We got through it. And I think Valentine ended up thinking it wasn’t such a bad idea after all.

What a great experience for me. Covering that Heights team, and high school sports as a whole during that era, had a lot to do with my education as a sports writer. I had to step outside of my comfort zone and discover the real world. It was scary.

 

 

Is Alex Smith the Chiefs’ answer?

I love almost everything about the Chiefs’ apparent acquisition of quarterback Alex Smith from the San Francisco 49ers.

The only thing I don’t love is that Kansas City reportedly has to relinquish its second-round pick – the first pick of the second round – to make the deal work. So apparently part of my master plan, which had the Chiefs getting Smith in a trade and then drafting West Virginia quarterback Geno Smith in the second round, isn’t going to happen.

Alex Smith appears to be headed to Kansas City as the Chiefs’ new quarterback.

Oh well. I would still strongly advise the Chiefs to work on getting another quarterback to throw into competition with Smith, even though it’s clear he’s being brought to Kansas City to be the starting quarterback from Day 1.

There is considerable consternation among Chiefs fans, which is understandable. The last QB brought to Kansas City to save the franchise was Matt Cassel. He had one good season, one playoff season, then went bust. Or, more likely, the continuous changes in head coaches and offensive coordinators was impossible for Cassel to overcome.

I still think that had the Chiefs been a stable franchise the past several seasons, Cassel would have been fine. But they weren’t and he wasn’t.

Cassel impressed the Chiefs with his 2008 season in New England, when he became the starter in the second game of the season after an injury sent Tom Brady to the sideline.

In 2008, Cassel was 10-5 as New England’s starter. He passed for 3,693 yards and 21 touchdowns, completing 63.4 percent of his passes with 11 interceptions.

Good stuff. No wonder why Scott Pioli, who had been in New England’s front office before coming to Kansas City as general manager, thought Cassel was the right guy in the right place. Now Pioli is out of a job and Cassel is probably on the cusp of being released.

Will Smith be better than Cassel? I think so, but there are no guarantees. The Chiefs are desperate for a quarterback and that’s something an NFL teams never wants to be.

Smith, the No. 1 overall pick out of Utah in 2005, was a bonafide bust during his first five seasons in San Francisco. 49ers fans would have built a railway just to help him out of town. Smith was 19-31 as a starter and was never able to find traction.

Then Jim Harbaugh arrived as San Francisco’s coach. The transformation of Smith was immediate.

In 2011, San Francisco was 13-3 and made it all the way to the NFC championship game. He passed for 3,144 yards and 17 touchdowns while throwing only five interceptions. His completion percentage was 61.3 percent.

Then, last season, Smith was even better. Under Harbaugh’s tutelage, he was 6-2-1 as a starter while passing for 1,737 yards and 13 touchdowns. His completion percentage was a remarkable 70.2 percent. In a Monday night game against Arizona on Oct. 29, Smith completed 18 of 19 pass attempts for 232 yards and three touchdowns.

The next week, against St. Louis, he completed seven of his eight passes before suffering a concussion that knocked him out of the game. And, as it turns out, knocked him out of the season.

Harbaugh turned to exciting second-year quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and never turned back to Smith. Kaepernick took the 49ers to the Super Bowl and looks like a keeper. So much so that Smith was expendable.

He’s not Kaepernick or Robert Griffin III or Russell Wilson. He’s not one of the new breed of quarterbacks who have created so much excitement around the NFL.

But he’s a quarterback who has a resume. His numbers in 2011 and 2012 were good, bordering on outstanding. It’s incumbent on the Chiefs, of course, to build an offense around him. Smith will have Jamaal Charles in the backfield, and that’s a good start. What he’ll have in the receiving is anybody’s guess. Will Dwayne Bowe be a Chief in 2013? Smith would probably like that.

Another thing I like about Smith is what some of his former teammates in San Francisco had to say about him today upon hearing about the reported trade. It was all good stuff, and not just about him being a good teammate. His teammates, it sounds like, believed in his ability.

And that’s how Smith will ultimately be judged. It’s going to be about wins and losses. For the short term, at least, Smith’s presence will stabilize what had been an ugly situation in Kansas City. He’ll get to work with Andy Reid, who has a good track record with quarterbacks. Both Smith and Reid were fired from their previous job, so they’ll have something to prove.

Overall, this is a good move for the Chiefs. They have their quarterback. For now.

 

The Elijah Johnson dunk

Why has there been so muchdebate about Elijah Johnson’s slam dunk in the final seconds of a game at Iowa State on Monday night that had already been put to bed?

Kansas senior Elijah Johnson put on one of the best individual performances in KU history Monday night against Iowa State in Ames.

I’m getting older every day and don’t pretend to know how things are comprehended by young people these days. But from the stuff I’ve seen on Facebook and especially on Twitter, it seems a lot of young Kansas fans are OK with the exclamation point Johnson’s dunk gave the evening and the win.

I’m not and here’s why. It’s an old-fashioned thing called sportsmanship, which was taught back in the dark ages before everybody became so rude.

We used to teach our kids not to rub an opponent’s nose in their defeat. To win with class and to lose with dignity, with the understand that there would be other days to fight.

Johnson had an unbelievable game against Iowa State. He saved the Jayhawks from what would have been a devastating defeat with his 39 points, including 12 in overtime. He made one clutch shot after another. And shortly after the game, Johnson apologized for the dunk. It was a concession made almost certainly at the behest of KU coach Bill Self, who was put into the uncomfortable position of apologize to Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg for his player’s zealousness.

Johnson is 22 years old. It’s crazy to get too worked up about his ill-advised dunk. He knew better; he got caught up in a moment.

But it’s also a chance for us to remind ourselves why being a sportsman is important. It’s the essence of sports, really, and as big a reason as any why every kid everywhere should be subjected to athletics. There’s a bigger picture in sports than winners and losers. There are lessons to be learned in how to deal with winning and losing.

That’s where Johnson overstepped his bounds. Those who want to put his dunk aside and move on to the next subject are missing a chance to educate. I hope there are parents out there who will explain to their children why what Johnson did was wrong and why Self felt compelled to apologize for his player’s actions.

And why, too, Johnson admitted it was something he shouldn’t have done.

Good sportsmanship isn’t fancy and it doesn’t get anyone on Sports Center. Slam dunks at the end of an already-decided game do.

I have heard the rationalization that Iowa State wasn’t making any attempt to stop Johnson, so why shouldn’t he dunk? I have heard people say that Johnson deserved that “icing on the cake” because of his tremendous performance. I have heard it said that if there are two easy points to be gotten, then by all means take them.

By dunking, Johnson showed up Iowa State and its fans. Perhaps he thought they deserved some showing up. Hilton Coliseum is a hostile environment and you can bet that verbal arrows were being shot at the Jayhawks from all directions.

Even so, Johnson should have dribbled out the seconds that remained, tossed the ball to an official and celebrated with his teammates. That he chose a more coarse way to celebrate is unfortunate.

And it has me fearful that sportsmanship isn’t being taught the way it used to be. That winning is more important than ever, by any means necessary. That what used to be inexcusable is now acceptable and that those of us who come from the old school of sports ethics are being shoved aside by a bunch of in-your-face antagonists who believe in style over substance.

Johnson’s late-game dunk had style, all right. Most of his KU teammates jumped up and down as he skied for the jam. Self, meanwhile, shook his head, understanding that he would be the one to have to clean up Johnson’s mess.

I’m not in a state of panic that sportsmanship is dead and gone. But it’s not always as front and center as it used to be in sports. Here’s hoping for a comeback.

 

Monday Night Raw

No, not the wrestling show, although I hear the John Cena-C.M. Punk match was terrific tonight. I have it recorded.

I’m talking about the Kansas Jayhawks, who for the second week in a row took their fan base through an emotional mine field on the way to a 108-96 overtime win over Iowa State inside Hilton Coliseum that left nerves raw.

It was a game marred by some late-game officiating lapses, but highlighted – then low-lighted – by KU senior guard Elijah Johnson, who was spectacular with a 39-point performance while making every clutch play down the stretch. Take away his charging foul late in regulation that wasn’t called and the point-of-emphasis dunk in the final seconds that he later apologized for, and Johnson was almost perfect.

Kansas has regained its toughness in the past couple of Monday nights with overtime wins at Oklahoma State and Iowa State, two of the most difficult places to play in the Big 12. The Jayhawks were down and out Monday before Johnson took over the game. He made 13 of 22 shots, 6 of 10 three-pointers and all seven of his free throws including two to send the game into overtime. He had seven assists and five rebounds.

The most-maligned Kansas player of the season had a game for the ages.

Iowa State is different from almost every other college basketball team. The Cyclones aren’t quite to the Loyola-Marymount level from the 1990s under Paul Westhead, but ISU coach Fred Hoiberg employs a unique offensive style that is heavily reliant on three-point shots.

Just when you thought the Cyclones wouldn’t dare foist up more than 38 three-pointers, which is how many they put up during a 97-89 OT loss to the Jayhawks in Lawrence this season, they fired 41 three-points Monday night. And made a team-record 17.

It was an incredible display of shooting and one that would have buried most visitors.

KU, though, has regained its mental edge. It looked like Bill Self was on the verge of losing his team when the Jayhawks lost to a bad TCU team earlier this month. Instead, it looks more like Kansas has found something since that terrible defeat.

For one thing, the Jayhawks smell blood. Winning a ninth consecutive Big 12 championship is a big, big deal to Self and his team, and a loss to Iowa State would have put KU a game behind rival Kansas State with only three conference games remaining. The Jayhawks’ streak of Big 12 titles is going to end someday, but they sure don’t want it to be at the hands of K-State.

But let’s be real here. The officials were a pretty good sixth man for Kansas late. First, there was a reaching foul by Jeff Withey that was called against teammate Kevin Young. Now Young did a fantastic job of raising his hand immediately after the whistle, because a foul on Withey would have been his fifth. And referee Mark Whitehead went for Young’s guilty plea, which meant Withey got to stay in the game for the 23 seconds remaining in regulation and the first 3:29 of overtime, after which he finally did get called for his fifth foul.

And in the final five seconds of regulation, Johnson went like a bullet into the lane, hoping to get to the rim and score with KU trailing by two, 90-88. He crashed into Iowa State freshman Georges Niang, who looked to have good position. Nothing was called, though. But in a chase for the loose ball, Niang was called for a reaching foul and Johnson went to the line and made two clutch free throws.

Kansas was fortunate. And in overtime, the Jayhawks were able to seal the deal behind Johnson, who has been so bad at times this season that Self has considered cutting back his playing time. Only one problem – KU has such little depth in the backcourt that limiting Johnson’s minutes was never really an option.

Johnson played 37 fantastic minutes Monday night. Now Kansas, with home games remaining against West Virginia and Texas Tech and a road game to cap the regular season at Baylor, is in good shape for that ninth consecutive Big 12 championship. It’s one of the most amazing streaks in sports.

 

Mock brackets = mock reality

Why am I so enamored by all things mock? Mock drafts, mock brackets, mock trials. You name it and if it’s got mock in its name, I’m on board.

I’m in the habit now, of course, of checking all of the mock NCAA Tournament brackets to see where our Kansas teams fall in. These efforts in “bracketology,” a word coined, I believe, by ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, are worth the paper they’re printed on. But they do sometimes give a good glimpse into potential seeding, although trying to predict who plays who is a guessing game.

I’m going to go over three of the mock NCAA brackets today and figure out the most advantageous scenario for Wichita State. The Shockers, although 24-5, are no higher than an 8 seed in the mocks I’m going with today. I’ll also address predictions regarding Kansas and Kansas State.

ESPN Bracketology (Joe Lunardi)

Lunardi has the Shockers as an 8 seed in the Midwest Regional with a second-round game against Oklahoma in Dayton. If the Shockers take care of the Sooners, they would play the winner of the Indiana-Norfolk State vs. Southern game, which I think we can all assume would be the Hoosiers.

Lunardi has KU as a 2 seed in the Midwest, taking on Long Beach State in the second round. That winner would face the San Diego State-Colorado winner.

Kansas State, according to Lunardi’s most recent projection three days ago, is a 4 seed in the East Region and would meet Akron in the second round in Kansas City. That winner would face the winner of the Ohio State-California vs. Ole Miss game.

My thoughts: Really tough road for the Shockers, obviously. Indiana is the most likely No. 1 overall seed in the tournament and Dayton is just a short trip from Bloomington. But a WSU-OU game is intriguing and if you’re going to be in the tournament, why not go for a shot to pull a huge upset? I like this scenario a lot, but would give the Shockers only about a 10 percent chance of reaching the Sweet 16.

CBSSports.com (Jerry Palm)

Palm has Wichita State as a 10 seed in the Midwest, facing a slipping Oregon squad in the second round in Philadelphia. The winner would catch the Georgetown-Stony Brook winner.

Kansas is a 3 seed in the Midwest, according to Palm, and would take on South Dakota State in the second round in Kansas City with that winner headed for a game against the St. Mary’s-San Diego State winner. There’s the potential of a KU-WSU Sweet 16 game in Palm’s bracket, one that would take place in Indianapolis. The thought of such a game tickles my heart, but how realistic is it?

Kansas State, meanwhile, is a 4 seed in Palm’s bracket, set to meet Bucknell in the second round. That winner would face the Akron-Marquette winner in the East Region.

My thoughts: Even though the Shockers are seeded two spots lower, according to Palm, this is a much better scenario. Seems more likely that WSU could beat Oregon and Georgetown than Oklahoma and Indiana. But Georgetown is playing great basketball of late, so of course the Shockers would be big underdogs. Still, the WSU vs. KU Sweet 16 game that Palm suggests would be spectacular.

USA Today

The Shockers are a 10 seed in this bracket, playing a second-round Midwest Region game against Missouri in Auburn Hills, Mich. Win that one and guess who awaits? Most likely Michigan, which Palm has meeting up with Niagara in the second round.

Kansas also is in the Midwest Region in this bracket with a second round game against Long Beach State in Kansas City. The winner of Oregon-Creighton would await the Jayhawks.

Kansas State, meanwhile, is a 4 seed in the Midwest Region with a second round game against an interesting Louisiana Tech team. If the Wildcats were to win that game, to be played in Austin according to the USA Today mock, they would face the winner of Ohio State-LaSalle.

My thoughts: Again, being in that 7 to 10 range makes it difficult to think WSU could get past two games in the tournament. But the Shockers would be an even bet to beat Missouri, I would think. And Michigan has showed some chinks in its armor of late, although the Wolverines would have a decided home-court advantage. I think the Jerry Palm bracket bodes best for Wichita State to reach the Sweet 16 while the Lunardi bracket, in which the Shockers would have to get past Oklahoma to face Indiana, almost guarantees an early exit.

 

Friday musings

* We had The Eagle’s Joanna Chadwick on radio this morning and she mentioned that North athletic director Brian Becker is interested in the possibility of playing one game in the old gym after the new North gym opens in the fall. Interesting notion and I’m all for it. I love the old gym and would love to see it continue to be in occasional use. So here’s my suggestion: Play East in the old gym every basketball season. The North-East rivalry has roots going back decades in Wichita. There are still thousands of people in town who went to one of the two schools way back when they were the only two public high schools in Wichita. Continuing the rivalry in North’s historic gym makes perfect sense to me. What about you?

* How fitting is it that the old North gym’s curtain call happens during Conner Frankamp’s senior season? Great stuff. I’m so glad that Frankamp’s full career happened while the old barn stood. He’s made it an even more mythical place.

* Could Detroit sneak up on Wichita State in their BracketBusters game Saturday afternoon at Koch Arena? It’s possible. The Titans can score and are unlike most of the teams the Shockers have played recently. They remind me some of Creighton, in that they’re a score-first team. It should be an interesting style, one that will test WSU’s defense. Remember, the Shockers have allowed opponents to reach 70 points only twice this season, and one of those was in overtime.

* Who wins the big-category Academy Awards on Sunday night? Glad you asked.

* Director: Steven Spielberg, “Lincoln.” Sometimes when I watch movies, I’m amazed at the attention to detail in every aspect. This one hits it out of the park, and that’s credit to Spielberg, who knows a thing or two about making a movie. I can’t imagine how gratifying it must be to see a finished product like this one hit the screen.

* Supporting actress: Anne Hathaway, “Les Miserables.” This is one of the three Oscar-nominated movies I haven’t seen, but I plan to see a couple of them this weekend. But many of my friends who have seen this movie believe Hathaway is a lock. So I’ll go with them.

* Supporting actor: What a tough category. Alan Arkin, Robert De Niro, Phillip Seymour Hoffman, Christoph Waltz and Tommy Lee Jones. Incredible. I’ll go with Jones, even though De Niro was great in “Silver Linings Playbook.” But all of these guys are great in whatever they do. I just hope Jones smiles if he wins. And I’m not a smiler. I do smirk at times, though.

* Actress: I’m pulling for either Jessica Chastain of “Zero Dark Thirty” or Jennifer Lawrence of “Silver Linings Playbook.” My opinion here could change after I see Emmanuelle Riva in “Amour” this weekend. I’m picking Chastain.

* Actor: Looks like a runaway to me, even though I loved Denzel Washington in “Flight.” This one has to go to Daniel Day-Lewis, whose portrayal of Abraham Lincoln will still be shown to school kids in 50 years. One for the ages.

* Picture: “Argo” is now the clear-cut favorite to win. I find that odd, since it appears Day-Lewis, Jones and Spielberg are favorites in their categories. So if a movie has the best director, supporting actor and actor, how does it not win best picture? I’m going with “Lincoln,” because it’s the best movie I’ve seen this year. No offense to “Argo.”

* Which folk rock band do you like better? Avett Brothers, Lumineers, Mumford and Sons? Neat story in the latest “Entertainment Weekly” about the strong revival of this music genre.

* I loved the two-part documentary “History of The Eagles” on the Showtime network last weekend. In fact, I’ve watched the first two hours three times and the final hour twice. Did I learn anything? Well, maybe that Glenn Frey, one of the co-founders with the band along with Don Henley, is a really harsh businessman. It was also neat to see the interviews with the past band members, especially Bernie Leadon.

* The old concert footage of the Eagles was great. I first say the band at Levitt Arena in November, 1976, when the “Hotel California” album was the hottest thing going. I was 21 at the time. Wow. Was I ever 21? I had been working at The Eagle for almost two years the first time I saw the Eagles. Hang with me, I’m having a moment here.

* The three basketball players I most imitated in my backyard as a kid were: 1) Dave Stallworth; 2) Warren Armstrong (Jabali); 3. Elvin Hayes.

* My 40th high school reunion is coming up this summer. If there is a reunion. I haven’t heard about one. Is someone trying to tell me something by not telling me something? I’m paranoid and proud of it.

* My wife is cold-blooded. I’m warm-blooded. It makes for interesting thermostat discussions when we’re both at home on snow days.

* Kansas State’s Bruce Weber is in the mix as national college basketball coach of the year. He’s not a frontrunner, though. That status belongs to Miami (Fla.) coach Jim Larranaga.

* How badly did Kansas basketball fans want to wring Naadir Tharpe’s neck before he made the game-winning shot at Oklahoma State on Monday night? Tharpe is a fascinating player. I’m not sure about that guy.

* Has anyone in recent memory had a more fly-under-the-radar outstanding season than the Jayhawks’ Travis Releford? He’s getting it done in all facets and is another example of the power of being a senior in today’s college basketball world.

* Congratulations to former Shocker baseball standout Conor Gillaspie, who was traded today from the San Francisco Giants to the Chicago White Sox. Gillaspie was going nowhere fast with the Giants, blocked at third base by Pablo Sandoval. He’ll have a better opportunity in Chicago, where journeyman Jeff Keppinger is the frontrunner at third base.

* Thanks for reading. Have a great weekend. Sounds like more snow coming late Sunday/Monday. Please post your snow pictures to Facebook and to all the media outlets because they’re just darling.

 

WSU and KU – two peas in a pod

I have a feeling Kansas basketballfans aren’t going to like what I have to say here today. For all I know, Wichita State basketball fans might not like it, either.

But here goes.

Jayhawks, you’re the Shockers.

Kansas senior Travis Releford, who should receive consideration for the All-Big 12 team, cannot believe I’m comparing KU to Wichita State in my blog today.

You’re 22-4; WSU is 23-5.

You suffered a three-game losing streak in the middle of your conference season; so did the Shockers.

During that streak, you lost at TCU, a team that had not won a conference game. During WSU’s streak, it lost at Southern Illinois, a team that had won one conference game.

Kansas is 14-1 at Allen Fieldhouse. WSU is 14-1 at Koch Arena.

KU is 10-3 in its conference, tied for first place. The Shockers are 12-4 in their conference, one game ahead in first place.

The Jayhawks average 73.2 points per game; the Shockers average 69.0 ppg.

Kansas gives up 60.3 points per game; Wichita State allows 59.2 ppg.

KU is a 35.4 percent shooting team from beyond the three-point line. The Shockers shoot 34.2 percent from the arc.

The Jayhawks limit opponents to 35.4 percent field-goal shooting. Wichita State’s opponents are shooting 39 percent.

First-year player Ben McLemore, a redshirt freshman, leads Kansas in scoring, averaging 16.3 points per game. Cleanthony Early, a first-year player and junior college transfer, leads WSU in scoring with 14.6 ppg.

There are times when it seems like each of the team’s leading scorers appears reticent to become too involved in the offense.

KU seniors Jeff Withey and Travis Releford are having outstanding seasons that could land them on the all-conference team. Ditto for Wichita State seniors Carl Hall and Malcolm Armstead.

Kansas coach Bill Self is in no hurry to play Wichita State. Gregg Marshall doesn’t appear to be losing sleep about playing Kansas.

KU has 381 assists. Wichita State has 384 assists.

The Jayhawks have made 673 field goals. The Shockers have made 681 field goals.

Kansas has committed 351 turnovers. Wichita State has turned it over 373 times.

There are so many similarities this season between KU and WSU. It’s eerie. Make of it what you will.

 

 

 

 

Believe it, Tharpe is KU’s hero

I spent most ofthe night on Twitter lamenting the game being played by Kansas sophomore guard Naadir Tharpe. I questioned his shot selection, his passing, his defense, his hair, his sneakers.

But it was Tharpe who had the last laugh by making KU’s last shot in a 68-67, double-overtime win against Oklahoma State in Stillwater.

I’m in disbelief.

Tharpe was so bad in the second half that Kansas coach Bill Self chose not to have him in the game during the first overtime. But when Elijah Johnson fouled out toward the end of the first OT, Tharpe was back.

And he wasn’t good.

But when the Jayhawks needed someone to step up and make a shot – something no KU player had done in either overtime, believe it or not – Tharpe came through. His spin move inside the lane resulted in the go-ahead basket with about 10 seconds left and the Jayhawks’ defense, led by Travis Releford, made a last stand to preserve the win.

Incredible.

I still don’t know how the Jayhawks won, except that Oklahoma State was atrocious offensively. The Cowboys shot 33 percent and made just 4 of 21 three-pointers. Credit KU’s defense, the same D that allowed OSU 85 points during a loss in Lawrence earlier this month.

Releford was great, with 18 points, six rebounds and his typical tough defensive game against OSU’s Markell Brown, who had to work overtime in a coal mine to come up with his 20 points.

Center Jeff Withey was great, with 17 points (11 of them at the free-throw line), 14 rebounds and four blocks. How big of a bonus is it for Kansas that its 7-footer can shoot free throws the way Withey can? The Jayhawks don’t win if he’s a typical big-man clanker.

Kevin Young had a nice game and so did guard Elijah Johnson, who badly needed one.

Which brings me to redshirt freshman Ben McLemore, the most talented Jayhawk in years. McLemore, though, didn’t have it against Oklahoma State. I’m sure he wanted it. He took one ill-advised shot in the two overtimes, an air ball from the deep corner. He rarely touched the ball, even.

There are times, most times, when McLemore looks like an All-American. But he has a tendency to play quietly, even with a game that screams. And that confuses me. He’s the one KU player capable of taking over a game offensively, and he has shown he’s capable of doing that. Remember Iowa State? That’s the best example of what kind of wrecking ball McLemore can swing.

There was no destruction in his heart tonight, though.

Imagine McLemore with Tharpe’s conscience, or lack thereof.

I’ll give Tharpe this: He’s fearless.

As Tharpe wheeled and dealed on KU’s final possession, looking to create a shot, I imagined KU fans standing up, pulling their hair and screaming at him to pass the basketball. As he let the shot fly, I imagined a very different Lawrence than the one that will still stand today.

Tharpe had been 1 for 10 before taking that huge shot. Someplace, someone convinced Tharpe he was a tremendous shooter. And whoever that was should have a prominent place in American government because he/she is a power persuader.

But Tharpe’s shot was good. And it was one heck of a shot, too.

There was a doghouse being constructed somewhere in which he would have lived for the rest of his life had the shot missed. But it didn’t. It really didn’t.

Tharpe’s confidence in himself should be a lesson for every young person in America. Keep shooting, even when everyone tells you not to. Be confident in yourself, even when others aren’t. Take control, even as panic sets in amongst a fan base.

If you’ve watched Kansas play this season, you know Tharpe didn’t just roll out this incredible self-assured attitude tonight. He’s had it all season. And it has served him well in several games in which he has performed well.

But performing well isn’t a prerequisite to Sharp’s self-confidence, as was evidenced with his play tonight. He’s a believer, whether we are or not.

While we’re patting people on the back, let’s give one to KU coach Bill Self, who has stuck with Tharpe through thick and thin. It’s not really like he’s had a choice because of the thinness of the Jayhawks’ backcourt.

Tharpe rewarded him with a big-time, game-winning shot. Instead of being toast, Tharpe is the toast of Lawrence. KU fans might have to swallow hard, but they have to love the kid.

For now.

 

 

Memories of a sportswriter

When I tell people I don’tcare who wins the games I cover, they don’t believe me. I’m not sure I used to believe me, either.

Just Tuesday, during my live chat at Kansas.com, someone submitted a question that went something like this: “If Kansas and Wichita State ever played basketball, who would you be for?”

I didn’t have a chance to get to the question because I had just put a wrap on the chat. But my answer would have been something like this:

“I wouldn’t have a vested interest in who won such a game. I would hope it would be competitive and that it would produce good story lines, but I don’t remember the last time I covered a game in which I had an emotional investment in the outcome.”

That’s not just journalist speak, although as someone who went to college to study journalism, one of the things that has stuck with me throughout all of these years is the impartiality of the job. It’s the impartiality that confuses people. Let’s face it, fans are fans and they should be. They are not restricted in their support for a particular team or player. And more power to them.

I’m a fan, too, of the St. Louis Cardinals. I care about that team and whether it wins or loses. But I’m detached from the Cardinals in the sense that I don’t cover them or any other MLB team.

That said, I want to make sure and mention that, despite all of the evidence to the contrary, journalists are human beings. While I believe totally in our responsibility to be unbiased, fair and accurate, I also know it’s a concept that is difficult for those who aren’t journalists to understand.

And it’s not easy to detach. As a columnist, I have the advantage of being allowed to share my opinions with readers. But for years, I had to bottle up those opinions and present both sides of the story, which is the job of a journalist. Then it’s up to you to interpret.

As a kid, I was a big-time Wichita State Shocker fan. That was still true for several years after I started working at The Eagle. I wasn’t assigned to cover WSU games, so there was no conflict.

Over time, though, I began to lose my fan connection to the Shockers. It wasn’t like one day I woke up and was no longer a WSU fan. It was more methodical.

And it was necessary.

My wife, Debbie, is a fan, not a journalist. When we watch games together, she always picks a team to root for. When it’s one of the local teams – WSU, Kansas or Kansas State – she’s boisterous in her support. She’s lucky that way.

Any comments I might make while watching a game have to do with its particular technicalities or observations about how a team or player is performing. I never find myself “rooting” for a particular team, even one from Wichita or Kansas. My unbiased approach has become hard wired over the years. So much so that I can’t see it changing even after I retire.

I know it frustrates some of my friends, especially when I write something critical of the team they support. And I know that many readers don’t buy my assertion, believing that I’m a blanket fan of so-and-so.

Wichita State, Kansas and Kansas State fans are convinced I have it out for them. Of course I don’t, but I have found the arguments to defend myself to be a waste of time. People are going to think what they’re going to think.

Truth is, I have respect for all three athletic programs and many of the fine people who work for them. I applaud their successes with proper emotional detachment. And I do not revel in their failures.

I suppose losing my ability to be a fan of the Shockers is one of the prices I have had to pay to further a career doing something I love. But those years of being a WSU fan still pay off. Just last week. I got to publicly reminisce, both on radio and her on the blog, about the Harry Miller years from 1971-78, when I was a passionate Shocker fan.

There will always be something special to me about Wichita State’s basketball team because of my formative years that were spent living and dying with the Shockers. A monster of a WSU fan was constructed in Section R, Row 23 of the Roundhouse back in the day.

Only a career in journalism was able to strike him down.

 

In Gregg Marshall’s defense

I get asked frequently whereGregg Marshall ranks among all-time Wichita State basketball coaches.

It’s a silly question, really. But silly questions come with the territory, so I try and give the best answer I can.

Ralph Miller is No. 1. No doubt. Gene Smithson is No. 2. Then it gets interesting.

Has Marshall done enough to be No. 3 in just his sixth season? Well, maybe. And maybe not.

The Shockers added another win in typical defensive fashion, beating Indiana State, 66-62, in Terre Haute tonight. It was a tough, gritty effort by a WSU team that is tough and gritty. It was the Shockers’ 23rd win of the season and in the past four seasons – and this one isn’t over yet – Wichita State has won 104 games.

Remarkable.

Am I ready to put Marshall ahead of the coach he preceded? If I’m not, I definitely have the itch to. The only thing that Mark Turgeon has on Marshall is two NCAA Tournament wins. And that’s a big one to have, of course.

But Marshall has set a tone at WSU. It’s impossible for me to believe that he’ll ever struggle to win games because the style of basketball he preaches – defense first, defense second – is so sustainable. He has a way of getting his players to buy into his approach.

Do you realize that Wichita State has given up 70 or more points just 25 times the past four seasons, in 133 games? And it has happened only twice this season – in an 82-76 win over Southern Illinois at Koch Arena and in a 71-67 loss at Evansville.

There was at least one overtime in four of the games in which WSU’s opponent reached 70 points, and two were triple-overtime games.

And get this – Wichita State hasn’t allowed an opponent to reach 80 points in regulation since Dec. 4, 2010, when the Shockers were beaten at San Diego State, 84-69. It was one of only four times in four seasons that a WSU opponent has reached 80, and twice it took triple overtime.

A mysterious three-game losing streak zapped the Shockers of some momentum this season, but they’ve picked things up with four wins in a row, including a road sweep at Illinois State and Indiana State. And they’ve done it primarily with defense, although guard Malcolm Armstead and forward Cleanthony Early are playing well offensively.

When Marshall was hired before the 2007-08 season, he said the Shockers would make their biggest marks defensively. And brother, he wasn’t lying.

Wichita State challenges almost every shot and contests almost every rebound. Marshall demands his players sacrifice on the defensive end and rewards them with great offensive freedom.

Marshall rarely gets upset with a player over a bad shot. But just watch him on the sideline if one of the Shockers gives up a good shot to an opposing player.

His style has helped Wichita State create an identity and the Shockers are now on the verge of a second straight Missouri Valley Conference championship, which hasn’t been done at WSU in close to 50 years.

So yes, it’s still Miller No. 1. Smithson is No. 2. But Marshall, thanks to his defensive demands and the winningest period in Shocker history, is rising fast.