Best Rivalry in College Sports?

•February 11, 2007 • 3 Comments

This past week, ESPN dubbed its coverage of NCAA basketball as “Rivalry Week.”  It featured matchups considered by many as some of college basketball’s greatest rivalries.  And the week lived up to its hype, with several games going down to the wire.

The pinnacle of rivalry week took place on Wednesday night when Duke and North Carolina squared off at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC.  Considered by many as the greatest rivalry in college sports (not just basketball), Duke/UNC has all the ingredients that make rivalries so special. Both schools have great tradition. Both are close in proximity (approximately 8 miles separate Durham from Chapel Hill). Both programs are consistently successful, producing teams in the top 10 (and there is always a lot at stake when they square off). Both play every year. And, most importantly, both schools hate each other. There’s no one else on their schedule they’d rather beat than the other one.

Here’s a clip from inside Cameron before Wednesday’s tipoff (note the noise…so loud it’s shaking):

This year, UNC got the best of Duke (or “Dook,” if you’re a UNC fan) on Duke’s home court. But, if you happened to tune into the game, you saw another classic battle. The place was hopping (rumor has it that students camped out for days to get a seat at the game). The tensions were high. It was an evenly-matched game. And there was a lot at stake.  Add it to the long list of classic battles between the two powerhouses on “Tobacco Road.”

After watching the game, and several others in the ESPN “Rivalry Week” lineup, I began to reflect upon which rivalries I believe are the best in college sports. However, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that — in my opinion — there are many more great rivalries in college football than college basketball.  For example, take the following college football matchups that produce epic battles every year:

  • Michigan – Ohio State
  • Auburn – Alabama
  • Texas – Oklahoma
  • Florida – Georgia
  • USC – Notre Dame
  • Army – Navy (in recent years, this has lacked the competitiveness, but not the pageantry)
  • Texas – Texas A&M
  • Nebraska – Oklahoma
  • Florida State – Miami
  • California – Stanford
  • Harvard – Yale

And the list goes on.  However, when reflecting on college basketball rivalries, here’s what I come up with:

  • Duke – UNC
  • Kentucky – Louisville
  • Kansas – Missouri
  • Arizona – UCLA
  • Syracuse – UConn
  • Duke – Maryland

At this point in my list, I’m struggling to think of any more — at least, any more that compare to their counterparts in college football.  For some reason, I just don’t think college basketball has quite as many. Now, that’s not to say that college basketball rivalries are less intense.  That’s hardly the case.  I’m just not sure there are quite as many epic rivalries in college hoops as college football.

However, I will agree that Duke/UNC might just be the best rivalry in college sports.  Why? I’m not sure I have a great reason…I just think they produce incredible games with national championship implications year-in and year-out. And as neighbors, they literally recruit the same players, use the same airport and hear about each other year-round.  For two schools who dominate the national landscape in hoops, that’s pretty amazing.

For all I know, it could be that I’m just riding the wave of in-season emotion. Come this fall, I may reach a different conclusion. 

Super XLI: Dungy and Smith Make History

•February 4, 2007 • 3 Comments

Lovie SmithTony DungyHistory will be made today when the Indianapolis Colts take on the Chicago Bears in Super Bowl XLI.  For the first time ever, two African-American head coaches will match wits to determine who will be world champs. 

But, while much ado is being made about the race of Tony Dungy and Lovie Smith, perhaps more should be made about the character of these two men. In addition to being brilliant coaches, both are men of integrity. Both share a common faith in Jesus Christ. Both put their families first.  And, in an era when the spotlight is often on players and coaches who make the most noise, who tout their own abilities, who cause off-field problems, we should all pause to applaud two men who are excellent role models — two men who have attained their success the right way.  I only hope there will come a time when their character will be the headline, rather than their color.

As for the game itself…I predict it will be close.  In my opinion, it will come down to turnovers.  If Peyton and co. can take care of the ball, the Indianapolis Colts will win.  If the Bears defense can force turnovers, Chicago will win.  I admire Peyton Manning and will be rooting for him as he finally gets his shot at the “big one” that has eluded him throughout his career. However, in the end, I think the Bears defense will be the difference:

Chicago — 31, Indianapolis — 27

Missouri Valley Conference Among NCAA Elite

•February 1, 2007 • 8 Comments

Last weekend, I attended a Missouri Valley Conference (MVC) basketball matchup between Creighton and Indiana State at Qwest Center Omaha. The attendance? 17,200. The atmosphere? Crazy. To give you a little taste, here’s a clip from the video board at the game:

In fact, the atmosphere at the Creighton game reminded me of a Big East game I attended two years ago between Georgetown and West Virginia at the MCI Center in Washington D.C.  Truth be told, the only difference between the two experiences was that one was considered a major “BCS” conference showdown while the other was considered a “mid-major” matchup.  Is that really fair?

On CBS’ coverage of the NCAA selection show last year, Billy Packer said it was an outrage that the MVC got four teams in the Big Dance.  He claimed that the level of basketball in the Valley (widely considered a mid major conference) was nowhere near the caliber of major BCS conferences like the Big East, ACC, Big Ten, Big Twelve, SEC or Pac-10.  He said the MVC teams didn’t deserve the bids and didn’t belong in the tournament.

The evidence would show otherwise. Over the course of the next few weeks, two of the MVC teams — Wichita State and Bradley — advanced to the Sweet 16, defeating teams like Seton Hall (Big East), Tennessee (SEC), Kansas (Big 12) and Pittsburgh (Big East) along the way.

Was it just a fluke?  Not according to this year’s results.  In the 2006-07 season, teams from the MVC have had an incredible 56-5 record at home against non-conference foes.  Among the victims of the Valley’s non-conference success this year are teams like Wisconsin, LSU, Syracuse, Butler, Iowa, Iowa State, DePaul, George Mason and Xavier.  To top it all off, the MVC has gone a combined 5-0 against Big East opponents.

Once again, the Valley has four teams in the RPI Top 50 (Southern Illinois, Creighton, Missouri State and Bradley) and, as a conference, is ranked fifth in the RPI among all conferences, ahead of the Big East and Big 12. (the NCAA Selection Committee uses the RPI rankings to help determine which teams get at-large bids to the NCAA tournament). With one automatic bid and the possibility of three at-large bids, discussion is already heating up again about whether the MVC deserves four teams in the tournament. Why? Because of their so-called mid-major label.

Is that fair?  Hardly. The conference that has produced Larry Bird and Oscar Robertson in its distinguished history, is once again showing that it can compete with the best teams and leagues in the NCAA.  Yet, many still claim the MVC is a mid-major and doesn’t belong with the big boys.

But, when you stop and think about it, where does the mid-major label come from?  And what is the criteria? 

The media largely perpetuate this label.  The problem is, there really isn’t a defined set of criteria to determine it.  Is it based on the number of NCAA tournament bids a conference gets?  Is it based on their non-conference success?  Is it based on the size of the schools, their athletic budgets and fan bases?  Or is it a purely subjective measure?

I think it’s a combination of all those things.  And yet, as I take a look at each criterion, the MVC holds it own as well as any major conference. 

Not all members of the media are guilty of labeling the MVC a mid-major.  Some are recognizing the accomplishments of this league.  Take, for example, ESPN’s “Drive to 65” — a feature on ESPN.com that reviews which teams are making progress toward inclusion in the NCAA tournament.  The “Drive to 65” lists the Big 6 conferences first, examining the teams that have a chance at making the NCAA field from each of those conferences.  In the past, it has included MVC teams in another category titled “Other At-Large Contenders” — a nice way of grouping all of the teams from mid-major (or smaller) conferences.  However, this year, they are listing the MVC along with the Big 6 — a significant sign of respect for the Valley’s success.

Perhaps others will follow.  Maybe it will take another year (or two) of Valley teams dominating opponents from big conferences before they will begin to give the Valley the credit it is due. 

I think it is time that the Missouri Valley Conference be grouped with the NCAA’s elite conferences.  Teams from the Valley have proven their skill and toughness. They are attracting and retaining some of the top coaches in the country. They are drawing huge crowds and creating big-time atmospheres for regular season matchups. And the conference is regularly sending three or four teams to the NCAA tournament — teams that stick around for a few rounds. 

Who knows?  Maybe this year one of the Valley teams will follow George Mason’s lead and crack the Elite Eight or Final Four.  Until then, it’s time people start recognizing the Valley for the elite conference that it is.

Poll: Which Streak is Most Impressive?

•January 30, 2007 • 5 Comments

Roger FedererThere’s an interesting poll on ESPN.com today. It asks the question, “Which of the following is most impressive?”:

  • Phoenix Suns’ 17-game win streak
  • Tiger Woods’ 7th straight PGA tour victory
  • Roger Federer not losing a set in the Australian Open
  • Wisconsin basketball team winning 21 of 22 to start the season

That’s a tough one.  The Suns’ win streak is awfully impressive…as is the winning streak of the Wisconsin men’s basketball team.  It is extremely difficult to string together 17 straight wins in any professional league…or 21 of 22 wins in any NCAA Div. I-A sport for that matter.

But, even as impressive as those streaks are, in my mind the real debate comes down to Woods and Federer. As I discussed in a previous post, Woods and Federer are two of the most dominant figures in sports today. What they are doing in their respective fields of competition is unparalleled.  As for the question “who is more dominant?” — I decided that Woods (barely) had the edge, simply because of his age, experience and track record over a longer period of time.

However, this is a different question, focusing on a different set of criteria. So, which is more impressive? Woods’ 7 straight PGA victories? Or Federer’s run through the Australian Open without dropping a set?

On this one, I have to give the edge to Federer. The last man to go through a Grand Slam without dropping a set was Bjorn Borg in the 1980 French Open.  That was 27 years ago. And while it’s true that Tiger has won 7 PGA events in a row, he was knocked out of the HSBC Match Play Championship in England and finished second in two tournaments in Asia during that time.  Granted, those weren’t PGA events, so they don’t count against the streak, but I’m going to count them for the sake of this argument.

Federer didn’t lose even one set in the Australian Open, competing against the best in the world.  Just ask Andy Roddick how dominant Federer was — he can speak from experience.  The equivalent would be Woods winning every single round in a Major (which, by the way, he is very capable of doing). However, in this instance, Federer gets my vote.  Who gets yours?

Kansas City Royals: Future World Series Contenders?

•January 29, 2007 • 3 Comments

Alex GordonI’ve long held the belief that the Kansas City Royals have one of the best farm systems in Major League Baseball. The only problem (if you’re a Royals fan) is that the Royals have been a talent pipeline not for themselves, but for other MLB franchises.  Just consider a few of the players who have recently come through the Royals system:

  • Johnny Damon
  • Jermaine Dye
  • Carlos Beltran
  • Kevin Seitzer

Talk about talent. But, under previous management, the Royals dealt each of these stars away. And each of them went on to great success as All-Stars for other teams.

But, for the first time in a long time, there is reason for optimism in the town that hasn’t had a World Series-caliber team for more than 20 years.  Under the direction of new GM Dayton Moore, recent indicators suggest that the Royals have two of Major League Baseball’s brightest stars coming up through their farm system. In fact, an article on Sports Illustrated’s website suggests that the Royals have two of the top 15 prospects in baseball: Alex Gordon (ranked #1 by SI) and Billy Butler (ranked #9).

According to major league scouts and various media outlets, Gordon (pictured above) is the “ultimate hitting prospect.” An article on ESPN.com regarded him as having the bat power of Mike Sweeney with the versatility and star potential of George Brett — music to the ears of Royals fans everywhere.  Gordon is a left-handed hitter with a “gorgeous” swing who won the 2005 Golden Spikes Award (an award given by USA Baseball to the top amateur player in the country).  Last year in AA Wichita, Gordon dominated opposing pitching, hitting 19 home runs in the team’s last 60 games…in a park known for being “pitcher-friendly.”  To top it all of, Gordon is somewhat of a local product, hailing from nearby Lincoln, Nebraska.  Put all that together, and you have the makings of a future All Star and Hall-of-Famer.

And then there’s Billy Butler. Butler is well-regarded for his raw power. He unashamedly swings for the fences every time…and lent his big bat to Team USA’s lineup last year. The Royals are hopeful that Butler will be able to provide protection for Gordon, dealing opposing pitchers (and coaches) fits.

Gordon and Butler might just be the long-awaited answer for the Royals trials and tribulations.  The long-suffering fanbase has suddenly been given a reason to hope — and they are looking to these two bright stars to be nothing less than saviors of the franchise.

I wouldn’t be surprised if we see Gordon and Butler both called up to KC this season. And while I don’t think the Royals will be competing for the ALCS this year (or even the central division), I do expect to see marked improvement. 

Give this dynamic duo a few years to mature — and Dayton Moore a few years to get all the pieces in place — and I think we could be looking at the Kansas City Royals back among baseball’s best.

Unseeded Serena Puts the Smack ‘Down Under’

•January 28, 2007 • 1 Comment

Serena Willserena2.jpgiams is back. After a championship drought of nearly two years, the tennis star returned to center stage at the Australian Open, becoming only the second unseeded player to win the Australian tournament in the open era. And boy did she win. In the final, Serena laid the smack down on Maria Sharapova, the world’s current No. 1 player, in straight sets (6-1, 6-2).  It was the first time Sharapova had lost in a Grand Slam final.

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention to tennis, you may wonder what happened to Serena.  I, for one, was curious how someone who won four straight Grand Slam titles in 2003 (and the Australian Open championship in 2005), could fall to an unseeded status.  The short answer is injury.  Serena has had recurring knee injuries that have hampered her in a major way. But, she’s also had off-court distractions, including the drive-by shooting death of her half-sister, Yetunde.  Serena was forced to appear at the sentencing of the gang member who shot her sister last June. Saturday, she carried a note with her to the match that simply said: “Yetunde.” After her victory over Sharapova, she told the crowd of 15,000 that she dedicated the title to her sister, who would sometimes accompany her and her sister, Venus, as a personal assistant when they competed.

Many critics claimed that Serena couldn’t come back.  They said she was too overweight. Too slow. They said she didn’t have it in her anymore.

Serena had an answer for them.

“It was an awesome win, because I had so many critics. So many people … saying negative things,” Williams said. “It’s like, tell me ‘no’ and I’ll show you that I can do it. I get the greatest satisfaction just holding up the Grand Slam trophy and proving everyone wrong.”

I’ll be the first to admit that I haven’t always been the biggest fan of Serena Williams. She’s a little too flashy for me. And she sometimes can come across as immature or even arrogant. I used to get tired of her and Venus dominating the tennis headlines all the time.

But after Saturday, I have a new-found respect for Serena Williams. If the Australian Open told us anything about Serena’s character, it’s that she isn’t afraid to back down from a challenge — and she never gives up.  Her memorable run in Melbourne will vault her from No. 81 to No. 14 in the world rankings, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her make a run at more than one Grand Slam this year and return to her rightful position as No. 1.

Duke Beats Clemson in Controversial Thriller

•January 26, 2007 • 1 Comment

In an epic ACC battle last night between two ranked teams, Duke beat Clemson on a layup with .1 seconds remaining on the clock.  It was a finish to remember, but not necessarily because of Duke’s buzzer-beating shot.  It turns out that Duke was given 4.4 seconds to drive the court and hit the winning layup, when in reality, they should have only had 2.8 seconds.  Don’t believe me?  See for yourself:

Call it luck. Call it Duke magic.  Call it whatever you want, but the bottom line is, Clemson got robbed. 

Remind anyone of Colorado’s famous 5th down to beat Missouri in 1990? 

That season, CU went on to win a split national championship.  Will Duke do the same?