Monthly Archives: March 2013

Friday musings, LA edition

* Sounds like the Wichita State Shockers are growing weary of the media exposure they’ve been getting lately. Who can blame them? It’s one interview after another for these guys in the NCAA Tournament, to the point where they’re just saying the same things over and over gain.

* The Shocker players have been great, though. What a polite group of guys. I’ve made it my personal challenge in Salt Lake City and here in Los Angeles to try to get sophomore guard Tekele Cotton to open up some. Results are mixed. He’s a quiet guy. But I’m usually pretty good and cracking people. Just give me a little more time and the words will come flowing out of Cotton the way lava flows from Old Faithful.

* Can Wichita State beat Ohio State? Of course. But things will have to fall into place. Ohio State is big, athletic and quick. Deshaun Thomas might be the most gifted offensive player in the country and it doesn’t look like the Shockers, at least on paper, have a match for him defensively.

* Perhaps junior forward Cleanthony Early draws the defensive assignment on Thomas. But that would be a tough one for Early, who has at times struggled defensively. And it might also wear him down to the point that his offensive effectiveness would be compromised. WSU coach Gregg Marshall could give defender-deluxe Tekele Cotton the chore of covering Thomas, although he would be giving away five inches. That’s a real detriment; remember how Cotton, despite his great ability as a defender, struggled with Creighton’s 6-8 Doug McDermott this season. It’ll be interesting to see how Marshall goes about defending the Buckeyes. That’s first and foremost the most telling aspect of any Wichita State game, given how much the Shockers stress defense.

* Sophomore forward Jake White played just a few mop-up minutes in the Shockers’ 72-58 Sweet 16 win over La Salle on Thursday. It was strictly a match-up thing and I look for the 6-8 White to be on the floor often against the powerful Buckeyes. He could be an X factor, especially if he can knock down a couple of shots.

* One of the keys for the Shockers will be trying to keep Ohio State junior guard Aaron Craft from controlling the tempo. I think Cotton will probably guard Craft and attempt to pressure him on the perimeter so that he can’t get into the lane and dish out assists. Craft is a heady guard who understands the game. But Cotton loves these challenges and has made a name for himself in the Shockers’ three NCAA Tournament games.

* Ron Baker is feeling more and more comfortable with every game. He’s a warrior. I watched him specifically on quite a few possessions in Thursday night’s game against La Salle and he does it all. He’s a tough defender and loves to go the boards, especially if he smells an offensive rebound. He’s also a fantastic passer. In fact, I thought the Shockers had the best passing game I’ve seen from them this season against La Salle. I think Baker is a big part of that.

* To my friends who ask me what I’m doing for fun in LA. Well, not much. My son and I did go to dinner at Dan Tana’s the other night, the place where Glenn Frey got the idea for the Eagles’ song ‘Lyin’ Eyes.’ Then we went over to the Troubadour, which is just a few steps from Dan Tana’s, but we didn’t stay to hear the band. It was a punk band called Off With Their Heads. I love most styles of music, but not punk. What can I say?

* Otherwise, covering these tournaments is a lot of work. Yes, I use the term “work” loosely, because I’ve never really considered what I do to qualify. Maybe a better way to put it is to say covering the tournament is time consuming, even on the days when there are no games. It’s a process to come up with ideas, especially when most have been covered. Then there are the interviews and the time it takes to write the stuff. So I haven’t done much in Southern California. We were thinking of getting out to the Dodgers-Angels exhibition game tonight at Dodger Stadium, but we’re just too tired. Weak, I know.

* Thanks for reading. I’ll have some Saturday musings tomorrow before the big WSU-Ohio State game. It’s exciting. Thanks for reading.

 

How the Shockers stack up nationally

Just where is Wichita Statebasketball in a national scope?

The Shockers are in their second Sweet 16 in the past eight years. Only 29 other schools have been in multiple Sweet 16s during that time frame; another 30 have appeared in one Sweet 16 and a whole bunch

Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski has Duke on a high perch among the country’s Division I basketball programs.

have reached that status once.

Going into tonight’s Sweet 16 game against La Salle at Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Shockers are 109-32 the past four years. They reached the NIT in 2009-10, won the NIT in 2010-11, made a first-round NCAA Tournament exit in 2011-12 and this season have made it to where only three other WSU teams in history have gone.

Heady stuff. Gregg Marshall has taken the Shockers to new heights and there is no sign of a slow-down. WSU likely will start the 2013-14 season as a heavy favorite to win the Creighton-less Missouri Valley Conference and probably as a Top 25 club.

This all got me to thinking about where WSU – today – stacks up nationally. Where would I put them among the nation’s 345 Division I basketball schools?

So I went to work on some quick research. I found a group of programs that are obviously ahead of Wichita State. Then I defined a group that probably are ahead of the Shockers or at a similar level.

And I’m going to tell you, there’s no calling WSU a mid-major in today’s college basketball climate. The Shockers are a player with a bright future, an exciting present and a recent past that makes them viable in this discussion.

I’ve broken down the discussion into two categories: Clearly better and arguably better. Here we go:

Clearly better (19) – Florida, Duke, Georgetown, Gonzaga (15 consecutive tournaments), UCLA, Butler, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio State, Indiana, Memphis, Louisville, Wisconsin, Michigan State, Xavier, Arizona, Syracuse, Kentucky, Marquette.

Arguably better (17) – Villanova, Connecticut, Oregon, UNLV, Baylor, New Mexico, Saint Mary’s, San Diego State, Michigan, Kansas State, VCU, Illinois, Creighton, Miami (Fla.), BYU, Oklahoma State, Cincinnati.

The case can be made, with some conviction, that Wichita State is a top 20 program. Right now. As we live and breathe. Lose to La Salle in a few hours and perhaps that case becomes more difficult.

The Shockers are no fluke. This run in the Sweet 16 did not come out of nowhere, despite what those in the national media might want to tell you. Marshall has been building this program since the day he set foot in Wichita in 2007. And he’s not methodical. The Shockers have made steady, tangible progress in each of Marshall’s six seasons.

At some point, the mountain becomes more difficult to climb. That could easily be the case after this season, since Sweet 16s don’t grow on trees. Then again, there will be no shortage of talent on the WSU roster next season. Marshall has a history of success that dates back to his nine seasons at Winthrop. He and his staff know how to recruit and they know hold to mold players.

It’s an exciting time to be a Wichita State basketball fan with the Shockers on a historic run of success.

There are programs in better shape than WSU’s. But thanks to four strong seasons in a row, there aren’t many.

 

Memories of a sports writer

My recollection is hazy, at best, but I remember the one sporting event I’ve covered in Los Angeles like it was yesterday.

Kansas State came here to play Southern California in football in 2001. It was Sept. 8. It was three days before 9/11.

The game was memorable because Kansas State won against a USC team with Carson Palmer at quarterback. He passed for 196 yards, but neither team could score. The Wildcats won, 10-6, even though K-State quarterback Ell Roberson passed for only 26 yards. Then again, he didn’t need to throw.

The star of the day for K-State was anyone who carried the football. Running back Josh Scobey gained 165 yards on 27 carries. Roberson added another 119 yards rushing on 21 carries and fullback Rock Cartwright rushed for another 56. Kansas State had 340 yards on the ground and scored 10 points.

It was a weird game played at the Coliseum, a stadium dripping with tradition. I was so caught up in being inside the place that the game, I’m sure, became secondary.

After the game, which was played in the afternoon, I went out to get something to eat near my hotel. Then I got up early the next morning, Sept. 10, to catch my flight back to Wichita. It was just another day in the life of a sports writer, even though it was spent in LA.

The next day, all hell broke loose. I was doing the radio show, Sports Daily, with Jarrod Bartlett. Bruce Haertl, who also had been covering the KSU-USC game for KWCH, had stayed in Los Angeles to visit his family. He ended up not making it back to Wichita for several days after the 9/11 attacks, finally renting a car and driving home because airports were shut down.

I’m sure we started off the Sept. 11, 2001, radio show talking about Kansas State’s big win. I know we had a guest on the show that day, my friend Kevin Haskin from the Topeka Capital-Journal. It was during our interview with Kevin that we noticed just how serious the situation was getting in New York City.

It was such a strange, sad day. We eventually stopped talking about sports and stopped our show, instead going to network coverage of the terrorist attacks. None of us, like none of you, could believe what was happening. I heard either that day or in the days shortly thereafter that the airport in Los Angeles had been a target of the terrorists. For a fleeting moment, I wondered what might have been.

But it was only fleeting.

All of my thoughts were with the victims of the attacks. And, like every other American, I could barely contain my rage.

I’m back in Los Angeles to cover another sports event – Wichita State’s appearance in the Sweet 16. The Shockers face La Salle Thursday night – really late Thursday – in the Staples Center.

It’s my second time in this venue. I was here for the Eagles’ Millennium concert – Dec. 31, 1999. Everybody was kind of worried then about what the crazies might do. Turned out they did nothing. The concert went off without a glitch and the Eagles played two songs – “Those Shoes” and “Funky New Year” – that I hadn’t heard them do before and haven’t heard since.

I like Los Angeles. I know it’s overcrowded and polluted, but it’s vibrant. You can feel it. As I type this, I’m a couple of hundred yards, at most, from the Nokia Theatre. Where the “American Idol” finale will air in a couple of months and where the Grammys were held a couple of months ago. We’re staying right in the hub of LA, near the Staples Center. There’s so much going on.

And tomorrow night, there’s the biggest basketball game in years for the Wichita State Shockers.

This is fun, people. My son, Jeff, and I are heading to The Troubadour shortly. That’s the historical nightclub where Eagles founders Don Henley and Glenn Frey met in 1970. We’re having dinner at Dan Tana’s. We’re feeling pretty good about our time in LA.

But Los Angeles does conjure those memories of 2001. Everybody was inside the Coliseum on a beautiful Saturday, taking in some college football. Two days later, all of those lives – and millions of others – were changed forever.

Have fun watching the Shockers. I know a bunch of WSU fans are making this journey. This is a great experience for them and I’m sure they’ll soak in everything LA has to offer.

Thanks for allowing me to ramble some in this blog post.

 

Cardinals preview

It’s important for me today to write about baseball in the midst of college basketball’s NCAA Tournament. I hope you’ll indulge me, even with Wichita State and Kansas in the Sweet 16. I’m writing columns about the Shockers and Jayhawks all week long. I’ll be in Los Angeles with the Shockers and I have plenty more to say and write about college hoops.

But with snow on the ground and basketballs still in the air, I need a little baseball. And the season starts in less than a week. I cannot wait.

The St. Louis Cardinals are my team and even in the wildness and craziness of the past week, I do

Cardinals right-hander Adam Wainwright is the team’s ace.

whatever it takes to follow my team. I’ve watched several of the Cardinals’ spring training games, read as much as I can read and come to a few conclusions.

It’s going to be an interesting season. The Cardinals are in a bit of a state of flux, what with the absence now of injured starting pitcher Chris Carpenter and shortstop Rafael Furcal.

But I like this team. I like the possibilities. But, as with the other 29 teams in MLB, what the Cardinals do or don’t do centers around starting pitching.

So let’s start there.

Starting pitching – Adam Wainwright is the No. 1. Now nearly two years removed from Tommy John surgery, and by all accounts nearing a big contract extension with the Cardinals, he’s the ace. And a good one. He’ll be followed in the rotation by left-hander Jaime Garcia and righties Jake Westbrook, Lance Lynn and Shelby Miller, a rookie. This could be a really strong rotation, but it depends on the health of Garcia and the readiness of Miller. Garcia is only 26 and has the talent to be a legitimate No. 2 starter. Miller can be a future ace. The Cardinals need them both to approach their ceilings this season if they are to challenge the Cincinnati Reds in the National League Central.

Bullpen – It doesn’t help that closer Jason Motte, one of the best in the National League, will start the season on the disabled list with some elbow irritation. Mitchell Boggs steps into the closer’s role, at least temporarily, while rookie Trevor Rosenthal assumes Boggs’ eighth-inning role. Edward Mujica is still slated to be the seventh-inning guy while the lefties are Marc Rzepczynski and Randy Choate. Fernando Salas and Joe Kelly are likely the other bullpen guys until Motte returns. There are some nice power arms in the Cardinals’ pen, but it’s not what it could be with Motte sidelined.

First base – Allen Craig is the guy here and if he can play 140 games, he’s capable of hitting 30 homers and driving in 110 runs. The key is being healthy. If Craig misses time, rookie Matt Adams will be the guy. Adams is a powerful left-handed hitter who has had a big spring. He looks like a born hitter and he’ll be on the roster to start the season.

Second base – The Cardinals wisely asked left-handed hitting Matt Carpenter to work out at second base curing the offseason after Carpenter batted over .300 in a utility role in 2012. He’s a hitter and now he’s put himself in the mix to get some starts at second, sharing the position with Daniel Descalso. I like both of these guys a lot. I think Descalso will have his best offensive season by far. And prospect Kolten Wong is in the wings if these two can’t get it done.

Third base – Like Craig, the only question about Freese is his health. He had a relatively injury-free season in 2012 and put up nice numbers. He’s a dangerous hitter, part of a middle-of-the-order for the Cardinals that is capable of putting up big numbers. Too often last season, though, it was feast or famine. St. Louis rarely had everyone in its lineup clicking at once.

Shortstop – Warning, warning, warning. The Cardinals do not have a proven shortstop, what with Furcal scheduled to miss the season after elbow surgery. Pete Kozma, who was so good in September last season and even better in the Cardinals’ playoff run, gets the first shot. As he should. It’s possible that Kozma has simply found himself as a big leaguer, even after a lackluster few years in the minor leagues. If not, though, the Cardinals are left to scramble. Descalso has played some shortstop and is adequate. But he’s better at second and even third base. This might be an area the Cardinals have to address quickly. Then again, maybe Kozma is ready. We’ll see.

Left field – Matt Holliday is the left fielder. And he’ll be the left fielder, the Cardinals hope, for about 150 games. He’ll bat third in the lineup. There is no mystery here.

Center field – Ever after proving himself as a .300 hitter over the past three seasons, some question Jay’s staying power. Not me. I like his defense and he’s a good hitter. Not a great hitter and not one with much power. But he’s a good hitter, good enough to be in the leadoff position for 130-140 games. When Jay isn’t in the lineup, look for Shane Robinson. He’s had a terrific spring.

Right field – Veteran Carlos Beltran is the guy here, but look for manager Mike Matheny to be careful about how much Beltran is used. He’s 35 and prone to injury. Beltran can still be a huge threat, but the Cardinals are going to give him more time off in 2013. When he’s out, St. Louis can play Craig in right and Adams at first. Or Carpenter in right. Or . . . are you ready? . . . 20-year-old Oscar Taveras. It’s likely Taveras opens the season at Triple-A Memphis, but he’s ready to be a big leaguer. His time is approaching quickly.

Catcher – Yadier Molina is the best in the business. Or second best in the business to San Francisco’s Buster Posey. Tony Cruz has the loneliest job in the big leagues, backing up Molina.

Bench – Descalso, Robinson, Adams, Cruz and newcomer Ty Wigginton should form the bench when the season begins. As always, it’ll be constantly evolving.

Prediction – The Cincinnati Reds still look like the best team in the NL Central. But the Cardinals could challenge if that starting rotation pans out. There are some question marks there. I look for 87 to 90 wins. But I see a ceiling of 95 if Garcia and Miller have good, healthy seasons. The Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants are the other dynamite teams in the National League. The Cardinals fit in there somewhere.

 

Saturday musings

*Been away from the blog for a couple of days and it made me antsy. This blog is one of my favorite things. It might not be one of your favorite things, and I completely understand that.

* This is my third time spending some time in Salt Lake City and the place seems to get more beautiful every time I’m here. Why doesn’t everyone in the world live here? Outside of Mitt Romney, it’s a pretty special place. That’s a joke, folks. No letters please. Mitt’s fine.

* I’m here, obviously, covering Wichita State in the NCAA Tournament. So is my son, Jeff, who is doing sidebars and notes on the Shockers and their opponents. It’s special to cover the tournament with my kid, who (proud father alert) is good at this stuff. These are moments we’ll talk about, I’m sure, as he’s transporting me to a home in a few years.

* Jeff and I also are rooming together, which has given me an idea for a sitcom. It’s involves a 58-year-old veteran sportswriter living with his 30-year-old sportswriter son. I’m going to pitch it to the CW Network.

* Shockers vs. Zags. This is probably the most intriguing game I’ve covered in a while, what with Gonzaga being No. 1 and all. I haven’t seen the Shockers play a No. 1 team in 50 years. I know you’re going to want me to pick a winner in this game, and I will. But I’m going to save it for much later in the blog. Most of you, no doubt, will want me to pick Gonzaga since I picked Pittsburgh to upend Wichita State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. We know how that went.

* There are a lot of keys to this game, obviously. But for me, the biggest centers around how Wichita State handles Gonzaga’s best player, 7-foot  junior center Kelly Olynyk. WSU coach Gregg Marshall called him a bigger, quicker version of Creighton’s Doug McDermott. That’s quite a compliment, isn’t it? He also said Olynyk lacks McDermott’s perimeter shooting skill.

* Olynyk does shoot almost 65 percent overall, even with his 9 of 27 three-point shooting. He and frontcourt mate Elias Harris have shot 342 free throws between them. The Gonzaga guards are good at getting the big guys the ball in advantageous situations.

* Olynyk will be a tough guard for the Shockers, as well as they guard. I don’t think Ehimen Orukpe has the feet to control him. Which means Carl Hall, who gives up four inches, might be the main guy. The Shockers have been torched this season by really good players. I bring you McDermott and Evansville’s Colt Ryan as examples. It will be interesting to see how they cope with Olynyk, who has a better supporting cast than Ryan, for sure, and McDermott.

* Kansas looked uninspired Friday night against Western Kentucky, which had a good game plan of slowing down the game, lengthening possessions and attack KU’s interior defense. Good plan, not always good execution. The Hilltoppers shot poorly inside and especially outside but still kept the game in doubt until the final minutes.

* Does Kansas beat North Carolina on Sunday at the Sprint Center? I think so. I think the Jayhawks have plenty of motivation in Self Vs. Williams III. Kansas will be inspired to remain unbeaten against its former coach. A win over the Tar Heels sets up a Sweet 16 match-up against Michigan at Jerry’s World in Arlington on Friday night. The Wolverines were lights out in drubbing a good VCU team Saturday morning to reach the Sweet 16. That Michigan team beats the Kansas team that showed up to play Western Kentucky by 20 points.

* Kansas State coach Bruce Weber caught a lot of flak for his handling of the final seconds of the Wildcats’ close second-round loss to La Salle on Friday. And rightly so, in my opinion. Weber should simply have called a time out with nine seconds left to set up some kind of play with the Wildcats down by two points. He didn’t and when he finally did try neither his team nor the officials saw him. It was too late and guard Angel Rodriguez was forced to take an impossible shot at the buzzer.

* I’m not sure how many fans Weber was able to win over during his first season in Manhattan, despite a co-Big 12 championship with Kansas and a 4-seed in the NCAA Tournament. Losing to a 13-seed is never a good thing, but La Salle, from the tough Atlantic-10, is better than a 4. Still, it was a bad loss, especially considering how poorly the Wildcats played in the first half.

* But K-State fans who are attacking Weber are being short-sighted. Give the man a chance. The book on Weber, of course, is that he can only win with the previous coach’s players. That’s based on his early success at Illinois after replacing Bill Self. Weber, though, was instrumental in Southern Illinois’ powerful Missouri Valley Conference run before he went to Illinois.

* I’m not saying Weber is the answer at Kansas State. I have my doubts, too. But it’s far too early to draw any conclusions. He needs time. We’ll start to see next season, when some of his recruits show up, where Weber has K-State basketball pointed.

* Wichita State guard Malcolm Armstead is playing so well. He’s the third junior college transfer to become the Shockers’ best player down the stretch after fellow point guards Clevin Hannah and Joe Ragland. OK, Armstead isn’t technically a junior college transfer. He came to WSU after a season at Oregon. Before that, though, he played for current Shocker assistant Greg Heier at Chipola (Fla.) Community College.

* Want a non-sports take? I knew you did. The Eagles, my guys, take to the road July 6 in Louisville to start their “History of the Eagles” tour. Can’t wait, can’t wait, can’t wait. This promises to be different than any Eagles tour ever and I’m guessing they invite original member Bernie Leadon to join in. They’ll perform songs they haven’t done in years. There’s so much about this upcoming tour that excites me. I just hope they come closer than Louisville. Intrust Bank Arena would be nice. And with Leadon and his country roots (the guy’s a mean banjo player) maybe there’s a chance.

* OK, I’ve put it off long enough. I’ve thought about this Gonzaga-Wichita State game, rolled it around in my brain up one side and down another. I do, after all, have a large brain. I expect Gonzaga to play more like a No. 1 team than the Zags did in barely surviving Southern on Thursday. I also expect Wichita State to do better than 2 of 20 from the three-point line, which was their performance from the arc against Pittsburgh. I wasn’t impressed with Pitt. That’s taking nothing away from Wichita State, which I expect to be in this game against Gonzaga. I just can’t pick the Shockers to win. Which means I’m left to pick Gonzaga, 70-66. I am sure you’ll let me know, again, if I get this one wrong. Have a great time watching.

 

The Valley, the Mountain West and WSU

Here’s what we know.Creighton is gone from the Missouri Valley Conference. Probably forever. My best to the Bluejays as they join the new Big East, a powerhouse basketball conference that will generate millions of dollars in television revenue.

Creighton had to take the leap, even if the Bluejays ultimately go splat on the pavement. Which could happen, unsavory as the depiction is.

Villanova University President Rev. Peter Donohue, far left, Seton Hall University President A. Gabriel Esteban, second from left, Georgetown University President John DeGioia, third from left, St. Johns University President Donald Harrington, fourth from left, Creighton University President Rev. Timothy Lannon, fifth from left, Depaul University President Dennis Holtschneider, fifth from right, Providence University President Rev. Brian Shanley, fourth from right, Xavier University President Michael Graham, third from right, Butler University President Jim Danko, second from right, and Marquette University President Rev. Scott Pilarz, far right, assemble for a photo following a press conference on Wednesday, March 20, 2013 in New York. Big East athletic conference member schools gathered in New York to announce developments helping to shape the new basketball-focused conference. (AP Photo/Bebeto Matthews) Close

So now what? Now what for Wichita State, which is left without its biggest rivalry and its basketball brother, really. Two teams in the Missouri Valley Conference rise among the rest – Wichita State and that other school that used to be in the Valley. Sorry, Creighton, you’re dead to me.

Bradley wants to get back to prominence, but Bradley has rarely been prominent over the past 15-20 years.

Southern Illinois might recapture some of its magic. Missouri State has been viable and could be again. Indiana State? Northern Iowa?

Creighton’s departure is a PR nightmare for the Valley, no matter how commissioner Doug Elgin tries to spin it. I’m as loyal to the Valley as anyone, but have felt for too many years the conference has been too passive about its future. And none of the potential choices to replace Creighton will come even close to replicating what Creighton has meant to the Valley over the years.

So, if I’m Wichita State president John Bardo or athletic director Eric Sexton, I’m checking my options. Even without football.

And I keep coming back to the Mountain West Conference, even after feeling earlier as if the notion of the Shockers in the MWC was a real stretch. Slowly, but surely, I’m coming around.

The Mountain West has been difficult to keep track of in the past couple of years. Boise State and San Diego State left for the Big East, then came crawling back after the Big East went wacko. But while Boise and San Diego were gone, the Mountain West plucked Utah State and San Jose State from the Western Athletic Conference.

So, as it stands now, the Mountain West is an 12-team football conference, with Hawaii. But for 2013-14, there are only 11 basketball members, without Hawaii.

Ask any conference commissioner what they hate and they’ll tell you it’s a nine- or 11-team league. It wreaks havoc with scheduling, which leads me to believe that MWC commissioner Craig Thompson, despite earlier assertions that further expansion isn’t on his table, would look at a basketball-only member to round out his conference.

Or maybe I’m completely crazy. That’s a possibility.

I am playing matchmaker here. But I’m not convinced either party is even looking at one another, let alone setting up a date.

And I do this with nothing against the Missouri Valley, which has served Wichita State well for nearly six decades. There’s tremendous history there.

I’m just not convinced other schools in the Valley are equipped to take the next step in basketball. Budget restrictions are a factor. I’m not sure how many MVC schools are serious about men’s basketball. And when I say “serious,” I’m talking about doing whatever is necessary to win, attract crowds and make it to the NCAA Tournament.

Creighton was one of those schools and it’s a big reason why the Bluejays are gone. Wichita State is definitely serious about hoops. After that it gets murky. Just check coaching salaries around the league. Check basketball budgets. Check non-conference schedules. Check all of the ways that tell you whether or not a school is doing everything it can to succeed.

The Mountain West has become one of the four best basketball conferences in the country. The Big East, Big 10 and ACC are probably better. With five teams in the NCAA Tournament, including two or three that could make a run, the MWC is feeling it. It’s a place to be and Wichita State should at least investigate trying to be there.

There are concerns. Travel is one; the MWC isn’t as easy to navigate. Would WSU fans be OK with later games in the Mountain and Pacific time zones? Wichita State would be the eastern outpost of this conference, by about 500 miles. So it’s a stretch.

But look around. Does geography really matter anymore? WSU’s athletic budget would have to increase, but added TV revenues would help.

I’ve gone so far as to draw up two six-team divisions for the new Mountain West. I’m a dreamer, but am I the only one?

West – San Jose State, Nevada, San Diego State, UNLV, Boise State, Fresno State.

East – Wyoming, Utah State, Colorado State, Air Force, New Mexico, Wichita State.

WSU would have to play three West road games a season. Traveling in the East would be a lot like traveling in the Missouri Valley, without Creighton.

So what am I missing other than any indication at all either side is taking a look at this?

I think it’s viable. I think it’s doable. With Creighton gone, WSU has to take a step back and look at possibilities.

I just spoke these words to my colleague, Paul Suellentrop: “I think this can work, but maybe I’m delusional.”

Maybe I am, but the more I think about this, the more I like it.

Memories of a sports writer

In 2002, I received one of the most exciting and daunting assignments of my newspaper life, to cover the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, where I am currently to cover the Wichita State basketball team in the NCAA Tournament.

As we were flying into Salt Lake last night, from Phoenix, I saw again the beauty of this city and area. And I remembered those nearly two weeks that I spent here 12 years ago.

I was never a big Winter Olympics guy. I went skiing once and mostly fell. I wouldn’t get in a bobsled if you gave me a million dollars and the notion of me on a pair of skates is at once hilarious and horrifying.

Two sports I enjoyed covering the most were hockey, because of the number of NHL players who were involved; and curling, because it’s a sport I could see myself attempting.

Covering the Olympics is unlike anything I’ve ever done in my career. I stayed in a Courtyard Marriott on the outskirts of Salt Lake City, but was rarely there. The shuttle picked us up at 6:30 or 7 and took us downtown to the media center, where we figured out what bus we needed to be on that particular day to cover the event we were interested in covering.

Often, the drives took an hour or more as the bus battled traffic and climbed mountains, literally, to get us to our venue.

After every event, there were interviews. Then the trip back to the media center. The time to write. It was usually 10 or after by the time I made it back to the hotel. And this went on for 12 days.

I had to dress in layers because of the frigid climate. I wore snow boots and a giant parka. I was completely out of my element, left to figure out things on my own. But it was such a new experience and such a great challenge that I adapted. And after a few days, I started to know my way around.

There was some figure-skating controversy (when isn’t there?) There was a great hockey tournament. There were people from so many places. The bus rides I took from the hotel to the media center, which lasted 20 minutes or so, were like a foreign language class in school.

I’ve provided a couple of columns I wrote about the Olympics below. One is a column about the prospect of attending, written before I left Wichita. The other is my accounting of curling, a sport I fell in love with. I’ll check back a bit later with another blog on the new Big East, which now officially includes Creighton. But I wanted to share my experience of 12 years ago.

 

HERE’S TO THE WINTER GAMES _ AND AN UNFROZEN LAPTOP
 

   My first reaction after being assigned to cover the Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was to look for a blanket.
I’m not a big fan of winter. I was doing just fine with those 60- and 70-degree days in January, thank you.
Last week in the Wasatch Mountains surrounding Salt Lake, the high temperat ure was 20-below.
Hey, I believe in doing whatever it takes to bring the story to readers. But 20-below tests my limits.
The second thing I did upon getting this assignment was to search for how many Kansans will be participating in the Games.
Then I remembered: we don’t have much snow in Kansas and we sure as heck don’t have mountains. These Olympics will be as Kansan-less as an anti-wheat rally.
Recently, though, my excitement about going to the Olympics has started to spike, even though there is a poll that indicates one-third of Americans believe there will some kind of terrorist attack in Salt Lake.
Security for these Games is at an all-time high. People have told me to expect to wait two or three hours while getting my credentials upon arriving in Salt Lake.
Fine. Take as long as you want. Just keep everyone safe.
It has been fun to try and map out a schedule of the events I want to cover, realizing all the while that wrenches are likely to be thrown into my plans.
I can’t wait to see the first American receive a gold medal and witness the emotion that follows.
I’m looking forward to standing at the bottom of the Grizzly course at Snowbasin Ski Area and watching the finishes of the men’s and women’s downhill races.
In some strange way, I’m curious about the sports of skeleton and curling.
Curling sounds a lot like shuffleboard. One of the U.S. curlers, Myles Brundidge, is 41 and weighs 230 pounds. Now that’s my kind of Olympian.
Another, Joni Cotten from Mt. Prospect, Ill., is 48. But she’s only an alternate.
It bothers me that professional athletes are now sent to represent their countries in the Olympics. The novelty of the Dream Team in men’s basketball wore off after one gold medal.
And with professionals now on the ice in hockey, there will never be a repeat of the greatest moment in Olympic history – the U.S. men, a team of amateurs, defeating the heavily favored Soviet Union en route to the gold medal at the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, N.Y.
But I have to admit, watching the fight for a gold medal in men’s hockey, a fight that will include all of the great players in the NHL in the uniforms of their countries, will be fascinating.
Canada is favored to win the gold. But Canada, with a roster that includes Mario Lemieux, Eric Lindros and the NHL’s top scorer, Jarome Iginla, hasn’t won a gold since 1952.
Then again, the Canadians have never had a roster that looks like this.
I am thankful that I only have to write the names of some of the particip ants in the Winter Olympics and not pronounce them.
Even writing them, however, is a challenge.
There is speed skater Jochem Uytdehaage of Netherlands, cross-country skiers Katerina Neumannova from the Czech Republic and Julija Tchepalova from Russia, and biathletes Liv Grete Skjelbreid-Poiree and Gunn Margit Andreassen from Norway.
It would be a kick just watching them check into a hotel.
This will be the third Winter Olympics held on American soil. American patriotism, at an all-time high after Sept. 11, will be one of the major stories of the Games.
The U.S. never does that well in the Winter Olympics. Four years ago at Nagano, Japan, American athletes combined for 13 medals, fewer than Germany, Norway, Russia, Austria and Canada.
The U.S. Olympic Committee is projecting a 20-medal haul for the United States this time around.
That would mean a lot of red, white and blue.

CURLING SLIDES INTO OLYMPIC SPOTLIGHT

   OGDEN, Utah
OK, I want to curl. I want to get out there on the ice, with a broom and slick shoes, and slide stones.
I have been looking for a hobby, and curling has been looking for me.
Just one problem: There isn’t a curling rink within a two-day drive of where I live. For some reason, curlinghasn’t caught on in most parts of the United States – one of the only things that doesn’t make me proud to be an American. But if you’ve been watching the Olympic competition, you know what I’m feeling.
Don’t you?
I gotta curl, you gotta curl, all God’s children gotta curl.
“It’s so much fun,” said Olympian Kari Erickson, the skip of the U.S. women’s team. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t be doing it.”
Erickson, who said her team played poorly during a 9-4 loss to Denmark on Thursday morning, was a track athlete in middle school and a swimmer in high school.
Her parents introduced her to curling, and it was love at first sight. She has been curling 42-pound stones now for 14 years.
There are people who scoff at curling, especially as an Olympic sport. After trial runs in Calgary (1988) and Albertville (1992), curling became a medal sport in Nagano four years ago.
I have heard people say curling belongs in a bar with three or four pitchers of beer. I have heard people wonder how curling can be an Olympic sport when many of its competitors wear short-sleeved shirts. I have heard people utter these words: curling is for sissies.
Oh yeah?
Just Wednesday, American men’s skip Tim Somerville refused to talk to the media after botching a shot during his team’s loss to Germany.
That is the most encouraging sign yet that curling has arrived as a legitimate force in the United States. I mean, there are dozens of athletes in football, basketball and baseball who regularly refuse to talk to the media. Now a curler has joined that elite club.
Unlike Somerville, most curlers are eager to get the word out about their sport. And they are encouraged by the mostly positive reviews they are getting during the Olympics.
“This is wonderful,” Erickson said. “We have gotten so much coverage here and everybody is talking about us. That hasn’t happened much for us in the past.”
It’s not easy to find a curling hotbed in the United States. Erickson said most of the rinks are in Minnesota and Wisconsin, and even then many of them are make-shift, formed on hockey rinks.
“I’m lucky, there is a curling rink where I’m from in Bemidji, Minn.,” Erickson said.
Just to the north in Canada, almost every town – even the smallest – have curling rinks, Erickson said. That helps explain why Canada has been so dominant in the sport. Four years ago, the Canadian men won the silver medal, behind Sweden’s gold, while the Canadian women won the gold.
Curling - think of horseshoe pitching, shuffleboard and sweeping out your closet all thrown together – was introduced in Scotland. There is even an early Scottish poem about curling, an excerpt from which is:”No party politics around our Tee,
For Whig and Tory on the ice agree;
Glory we play for, may it be our lot,
To gain the Bonspiel (curling tournament) by a single shot.”

Makes you choke up, doesn’t it?
But curling is still the poor stepsister of the Olympics. They’re holding the tournament in Ogden, 37 miles north of Salt Lake City. And it’s not easy to keep track of what’s going on – each of the 10 men’s and women’s teams plays a round-robin tournament to determine which four teams reach the medal round.
The International Olympic Committee seems to be doing its best to hide curling under the radar of the Olympics, but the sport is making such a clatter.
People who just a week ago didn’t know curling existed are talking about it in glowing terms. In the Knight Ridder bureau, from which I do most of my work, the television is most often turned to curling.
Not skiing, snowboarding, skating or hockey.
Curling.
“I know there are so many other things for kids to do in this country,” Erickson said. “They have so much to choose from and there just isn’t much free time.”
But wouldn’t it be great, she said, if the Olympics provided a kick-start for her sport? How amazing would it be if there was a groundswell of enthusia sm for curling?
People coming out of the woodwork, demanding the construction of curling rinks? People throwing away their footballs and basketballs and buying brooms and stones?
John Madden analyzing curling? A curling World Series?
Do you feel what I feel?

No solicitors for the Mountain West

The Mountain West is sending five men’s basketball teams to the NCAA Tournament. It’s a cool place to be and only nine schools have the honor. And nine is an awkward number in today’s world of college athletics. Nobody wants nine.

With that in mind, I sent an e-mail last week to MWC commissioner Craig Thompson, who spent two years in the media relations department at Kansas State way back when. I wondered about the potential of Mountain West expansion in the coming years and I had a special interest in Wichita State, the school in my backyard.

Not literally. But WSU is close.

My e-mail was finely crafted, with just the proper punctuation. It was to the point and friendly. I apologized for sending it during the middle of the MWC tournament in Las Vegas, explaining that my timing has never been good. I expressed to Thompson that I would be happy to talk to him via phone, or that he could choose to e-mail with a reply to my question, which was this:

Given all that is happening with re-alignment in college athletics, and what looks like the impending departure of Creighton to the new Big East, I’m curious about what options might be out there for Wichita State. Of course, WSU does not have football. But I’m curious about whether a conference such as the Mountain West, which currently has nine members, would entertain the possibility of adding a 10th school and, in this case, one that does not have football,”

I went on to congratulation Thompson for having another outstanding season of MWC basketball. Then I waited to see if I could get a response. I figured it was about 50-50, considering how busy he surely.

Two days ago, I received an e-mail from Thompson. It arrived in the afternoon and at first I didn’t recognize Thompson’s name. I’m dense that way. When my brain finally started to function, though, I was eager to see what he had to say.

That he had responded was encouraging. What if, I told myself, he had something really interesting to say. Perhaps even newsworthy.

Well, after all of his build-up, I’m sorry to disappoint you. And I’m sorry I was disappointed.

Thompson, in essence, said nothing.

There is no consideration for further expansion at this time. Thanks.

That was the whole of Thompson’s response. Hey, at least he thanked me.

The Mountain West’s nine members are: Boise State, Colorado State, UNLV, San Diego State, New Mexico, Nevada, Wyoming, Fresno State and Air Force. It’s a football-first conference that happens to be a better basketball league at this point.

Wichita State, without a football program, isn’t exactly Lindsay Vonn in Tiger Woods’ eyes. The Shockers have a black hole.

Not that WSU is one bit interested in leaving the Missouri Valley Conference, where the Shockers have lived for nearly 70 years. It’s been a mostly-good living situation. But with one foot out the door for Creighton, which could any day now officially join the new Big East, it’s possible that WSU could entertain a better offer.

I suppose. Although I think it’s a stretch.

I like the Valley. I think WSU belongs in the Valley. I think WSU owes it to the Valley to help the conference come up with a viable 10th member to replace Creighton, should the Bluejays depart.

But there is an appeal to the Mountain West. That’s a really good basketball conference and it’s not a total geographical mismatch for Wichita State.

That said, the Shockers would be playing every conference road game in a later – or is it earlier? – time zone. Later here, earlier there. I guess that’s the best way to put it. Would Shocker fans like the notion of waiting for a 9 p.m. tip at Fresno and San Diego? Or 8 p.m. everywhere else?

If the door to the Mountain West were open, I doubt that would be something to cause it to close for WSU. Still, it’s not ideal.

What about rivalries? WSU-New Mexico? WSU-Colorado State? No Wichita State-Creighton in that mix.

But Creighton looks like it’s leaving. The Shockers have to fill a void there. The Missouri Valley has to fill a void there. It’ll be a different conference without the Bluejays. And it won’t be as good, at least not for a while.

So if Wichita State were to look elsewhere – and I’m not saying it is – the Mountain West would make some sense.

With an 11-word e-mail, though, Craig Thompson pooh-poohed the possibility. The door to the Mountain West, he insists, is closed.

 

A Perry Ellis break-out

* Before Kansas and Kansas Statetip off for the Big 12 tournament championship later today, I wanted to share a little Perry Ellis story from earlier this season.

As you know, Ellis had his best game of the season in last night’s tournament semifinal win over Iowa

Kansas freshman Perry Ellis slams home two of his 23 points during an 88-73 Big 12 tournament semifinal game against Iowa State on Friday night at Kansas City’s Sprint Center.

State, scoring 23 points on 10-of-12 shooting. He also had six rebounds and two steals in 28 minutes. He was outstanding.

As you also know, Ellis hasn’t had many outstanding moments during a trying freshman season. He started slowly and as the days and weeks passed, the Wichita Heights four-time All-State player and state champion didn’t seem to be making much progress.

But in his past seven games, Ellis is averaging 10.1 points and five rebounds. He has made 25 of 40 shots from the floor and 21 of 22 from the free-throw line. After struggling to shoot for so long, he’s figuring out at a key stage of the season for Kansas.

Now for my story.

After I covered KU’s 85-80 loss to Oklahoma State on Feb. 2 at Allen Fieldhouse, I was driving home on the Kansas Turnpike when I stopped at the Emporia service area – mile-marker 132 – to grab something. Strawberry milk I think it was.

Anyway, as I was going into the convenience store, I spotted Ellis’ parents – Will and Fonda. They, of course, had also been at the game in their seats a few rows behind the visiting team’s bench. I always keep an eye on them when I cover a game in Lawrence, to see how they were coping with their son’s struggles.

Well, when I saw them looking at candy bars or some such snack, my first inclination was to turn and walk away. Why? Because I thought they might be reluctant to talk about Perry’s game that day – four points, no field goals, 14 minutes – or the season he was having.

I wanted to save them the discomfort of having to discuss Perry’s basketball. Hey, that’s just the kind of guy I am.

But I ultimately decided to proceed into the story. I really like Will and Fonda, not that I know them all that well. I do know they raised a fantastic kid because I was fortunate enough to get to write several columns about Perry over the years.

Maybe, I thought, they wouldn’t look up and see me.

But they did. And I happened to be looking right at them. So, using a line I had rehearsed after seeing Will and Fonda, I said: “Tough game today.”

Brilliant. I didn’t mention Perry in particular. I was going with more of an overall-game theme with my comment, hoping they wouldn’t take it to mean that I was talking specifically about their kid.

Will spoke first, saying something about how he expected Kansas to pull that one out against Oklahoma State, but that it just didn’t happen. I’m not sure whether Fonda said anything or not. As I think about it weeks later, I believe she just smiled.

I went to the dairy case and fetched my strawberry milk. As I stepped to the cashier to pay, the Will and Fonda Ellis were still fumbling with the items they were deciding whether to buy. I managed to get out of the door without them seeing me and got in my car for the stretch drive home.

I wish I had seen them in a convenience store after Friday night’s win over Iowa State. It wouldn’t have been nearly as awkward for me.

 

Friday musings

* I watched a terrific baseball game last night between the United States and the Dominican Republic in the World Baseball Classic. I’m hooked. I know we’re smack in the middle of college basketball’s conference tournaments, but most of these big-time conference tournaments mean nothing. They’re simply money grabs to fill television programming time. Nothing significant comes out of them.

* That’s not the case with the WBC, which American sports fans have not warmed to. I’m not sure why, exactly. It’s international competition and if you saw the way the DR reacted to its 3-1 win, boosted by a two-run rally in the ninth inning against invincible Atlanta Braves closer Craig Kimbrel, you know it’s been warmed to in other parts of the world.

* I love baseball. I watched 10 or 11 exhibition games, for crying out loud. So I’m probably out of the norm. But the WBC has plenty of everything a sports fan looks for, including drama. And who doesn’t love drama?

* The previous endorsements are paid for by MLB commissioner Bud Selig.

* I was reading my morning newspaper – you should try it – and I was drawn to our All-Metro high school boys basketball team, picked by The Eagle’s high school beat reporter, Joanna Chadwick. It’s a 6-foot-2 and under team this year, but that’s fine. The five chosen – North senior Conner Frankamp (6-foot), Kapaun Mount Carmel senior Braden Hullings (5-11), Derby senior Taylor Schieber (6-2), Andover Central senior Zach Winter (6-2) and Goddard Eisenhower junior Trevon Evans (6-feet) are outstanding players. Congratulations to them.

* Then I started looking at the accompanying area all-league basketball teams and was flabbergasted – flabbergasted, I say! – to see that six players were chosen to the City League’s first and second teams. Six? Don’t basketball teams consist of five players? Yeah, I thought so.

* Then I see that all four divisions of the AV-CTL picked six players to their first and second teams. Does does the Central Plains League. Meanwhile, the Central Kansas and Heart of America leagues choose seven players as first-  and second-teamers. Do I hear eight?

* This is over the top acknowledgement. It makes no sense except as another indication that our high school sports culture is out of touch with reality. It’s tough out in the real world and not everyone gets rewarded. That’s just how it is. Sorry, but this artificial system of rewarding athletes is one of my biggest pet peeves. When the prestigious City League, the best basketball league in the state for decades, starts to name six players to its all-league team, it waters down the honor. Being an all-City League player starts to lose prestige. During the best years of CL basketball, five players were annually chosen to be first-team players. Five. Even with a case could be made for six or more players, the first team was limited to five. Being an All-City player meant something.

* It’s time for these high school administrators and coaches to get control of this situation. It’s out of hand. If that sixth or seven player has his or her feelings hurt by not being on an all-league team, tough. Better luck next time.

* Wow, I got a little worked up writing about the previous topic. I was pounding the keys on my laptop pretty hard. But, man, that one gets to me. I didn’t even mention that besides six first- and second-team players, the City League also handed out honorable mentions to another 27 players. That comes to 39 players for nine teams. The league is good, but it isn’t that good.

* OK, off to other topics.

* Wichita State is now being mentioned as a possibility to play in one of those first-round NCAA Tournament games in Dayton. Please, please, please – no. Please.

* Can Kansas get to a 1 seed by winning the Big 12 Tournament? I don’t think so. I think the Jayhawks are locked in at 2. Still, I expect KU to be in Kansas City for second- and third-round games and to be in either Indianapolis (Midwest) or Dallas (South) for an NCAA Regional. The geography sets up well for a KU run.

* It’s good to see Perry Ellis coming into his own at KU. He had eight points and seven rebounds in 14 minutes against Texas Tech on Thursday. I think Ellis has turned a corner.

* I really hope Matt Cassel is successful with the Minnesota Vikings, although it’s a tough blow that the Vikes dealt Percy Harvin, their most dangerous receiver, to Seattle a few days before Cassel went to Minnesota as a free agent. I’m reading that Cassel will be in competition with incumbent QB Christian Ponder. But who are the Vikings’ receiving threats? Jerome Simpson? Michael Jenkins? Stephen Burton? Devin Aromashodu. Kyle Rudolph? Good luck with that group, Matt.

* I’m looking forward to tonight’s Miami-Milwaukee NBA game. Yes, I said that. The Heat are riding a 20-game winning streak and the Bucks are 4-2 against Miami since April 2011. Milwaukee, though, has been playing poorly and is just 8-12 in its past 20 games. Still, intriguing since tonight’s game is in Milwaukee.

* I feel sad when an episode of “Justfied” ends. That’s how much I love that show.

* I also love “American Idol,” which seems to cause many of you who read my blog or follow me on Facebook or Twitter great angst. Why is that? This year’s crop of singers, especially the females, is outstanding. I expect a superstar or two – in the Kelly Clarkson or Carrie Underwood realm – to emerge from this season.

* I’m not impressed with the camouflage uniforms you’re throwing out there at me, Adidas. Please stop. I also believe the KU brand is harmed some by wearing those hideous uniforms. Call me a traditionalist, but not everything can be about money. Can it? Does it have to be?

* I’ll be hitting the road for the NCAA Tournament next week. This is one of the best perks of my job. You’re jealous, aren’t you? Anyway, have a great weekend. I might have something to blog about Saturday or Sunday, so please check back. Later.