This has nothing to do with sports. So, “stick to sports” guy, this is a great time to go away…also to reevaluate your life.
I rarely if ever write about major international issues, primarily because I never feel smart enough to come up with a coherent thought about them, but also because I’m pretty sure they can’t be solved anyway. However, the attack in Paris, the resulting discussion/name calling concerning the Syrian refugee situation and even the recent campus unrest news have produced a swirl of thoughts and memories too long for Twitter or even Facebook. I don’t feel like starting a separate blog that I will eventually ignore for non-sports pieces (I only have time to ignore one blog, I guess), so here this one will sit.
It took me a while to wrap my head around a personal philosophy about the Syrian refugee issue in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, but things were clarified for me a little with a simple pre-meeting prayer this week. This is what I posted on Facebook the next morning:
The other day I said I didn’t have an answer to the Syrian refugee issue, and maybe I still don’t, but I have found my position on it.
I’m not the world’s most religious man, but yesterday at my Knights of Columbus meeting, Fr. Dan opened the meeting with a prayer that tied Christianity and courage and it finally became clear to me. The only truly Christian response is to accept anyone seeking refuge. We’re called to risk ourselves in love for our fellow man. When it comes right down to it, isn’t that how the whole thing got started?
That said, the nativity=refugees meme is still stupid.
But there’s more to it than just an appeal to the deeply flawed, marginal Christian in me. With every new attack, every new war, every new discussion of the Middle East and the people who live or come from there, there is a college memory that sticks with me. There is always what happened to Isa.
I have had, at best, a troubled personal view of the Middle East since I was four years old. The first thing I remember being truly afraid of was a scary man with a gun in his hand and a stocking on his head (and in a related childhood misunderstanding, gorillas). He was Palestinian and for about 16 years he and others in his line of work were all knew about Palestinians. Then I met Isa.
In the only sports related part of this story, I met Isa through soccer. My fraternity team played a team of Middle Eastern students and I was, honestly, nervous about it. As happens in soccer games sometimes, he and a guy on our team reached the ball at the same time as they both tried to swing through their kicks, Isa screamed and crumpled. I expected a fight that never came. His teammates checked on him and comforted our guy who was worried about the injury. The next day in the cafeteria I saw one of Isa’s teammates and asked about him, only to find he had torn his ACL.
The next time I saw Isa on campus I made it a point to say hello and wish him well. We talked for a while and struck up a friendship. Eventually we talked about where he was from, the things that happened there, my fear and why he left. He left for the reasons so many are leaving their homes now. He hated the violence, didn’t want to be a part of the violence and wanted to get to somewhere where he could lead a better, peaceful life. It was one of the most transformational friendships of my life.
It was among the first times a world I didn’t understand as well as I thought I did was opened to me in a new way. It replaced 16 years of fear with a face and sense of humanity that thankfully has stuck with me.
When the first Gulf War started, the student newspaper at Northern Kentucky University The Northerner ran a section with students’ thoughts on what was happening. Isa was one of the students quoted. He said simply that he felt badly for the Iraqi people. That was it. There was nothing about America being wrong or Saddam Hussein being a great man. It was simply a man who had come from a place filled violence and suffering concerned for people who were about to be plunged into another one. The results were similar to a lot of what we see now.
There were calls on campus for him to be punished. And of course there were death threats. He holed himself up in his dorm room afraid to leave. I don’t know what happened after that. I believe he left school. I know I never saw or was able to speak to him again.
I live next to a Palestinian family now. I think the world of them. The father and his wife are great, and they have wonderful children. One day this past spring they celebrated their daughter’s wedding at their house. It was the first Muslim wedding celebration I had ever seen. It was – like other wedding celebrations – beautiful, filled with song and dancing and joy. I wonder if I would have seen any of that if a guy in college hadn’t torn his ACL.
There are a lot of difficult questions to answer in the world right now. I understand the fear associated with so many of them. I’ve known it almost all of my life. But I do hope that we manage to find our humanity beyond that fear. There are people who will see people coming to America from Syria or Iraq or anywhere else in the Middle East and see danger, and there is a certain legitimacy to that. I still see it too, but I also will always see Isa.
Two things to start with.
First, I’m not as apocalyptic about the UK football team as a lot of (most?) people. Nobody other than the most optimistic fans had predicted that they would be any better than 4-5 right now and that’s what they are. They have three of the seven most winnable games of the season left on the schedule. Will they win them all? Who knows? Will they win at least two of them? I think the answer is still yes. Could they lose all three? Sure. Anything is possible. I just prefer to jump off bridges as I get to them, not before.
Second, I’m not a journalist. I have described myself a lot of ways over the course of the seven years I’ve hosted Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk on NewsRadio 630 WLAP. Most commonly that description has included “button pushing chimp,” but never journalist. It’s not that I don’t have a ton of respect for journalists, I absolutely do. I tried to journalist once. It was a complete nightmare and I hated it. I probably won’t journalist again soon. What I am — and the other thing I have regularly described myself as — is a fan who was fortunate enough to have an opportunity to do something I had always wanted to do, which is host a radio show.
The second point is the most important here. As a fan, I’ve never claimed to be truly impartial. I hope that I am fair, but I’ve never been impartial. I want Kentucky to do well. I want the people a Kentucky to do well.
The people part is what made this week’s show maybe one of the most difficult I’ve had to do.
It’s no secret that the Kentucky offense has struggled in its most recent three games. Especially after the last two weeks. Come show time that meant a lot of fan anger directed at the Wildcats’ offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. They happen to be the two coaches I’m least impartial about.
Regular show listeners may find it hard to believe I like much of anything, much less people, but it’s not true. I like a lot of people. Well, I like a handful of people. Shannon Dawson and John Schlarman are two of them. One of them I know only a little. One I’ve known what seems like forever.
I always find it funny when I get a chance to be on Insiders Roundtable on Big Blue Insider with Dick Gabriel. Not funny because the table is always rectangular, but funny because I don’t consider myself an insider. My work schedule keeps me from almost all media availabilities. I haven’t spoken directly to a player in forever and I rarely get a chance to talk to coaches, certainly not one on one.
Before this season started though, I got to interview Dawson for a story I wrote for the JMI preseason magazine. He was engaging, at times funny and gave straight answers to sometimes good and sometimes less good questions. He was eager to discuss his coaching philosophies. He said he was originally interested in science and only became interested in football as a career when his coach, Dana Holgorsen, showed him how to approach it as more of a mental game.
I was headed to work after the interview and had a logo shirt on. He asked me about the logo and after the interview and though his schedule was tight, we talked for another 10 minutes about Special Olympics. He talked about an eagerness to get involved in the community. I gave him my card and two days later I had a text from him. When the Special Olympics teams visited the UK football facility during the preseason, he was there asking questions, wanting to know about the program, the athletes and how Special Olympics works. I became a fan.
I first met Schlarman in probably 1990 he was 12-ish. His sister played basketball for Northern Kentucky University and I worked in the sports information office and called games on radio. The Schlarman family traveled to every road game. I had known his older brother (who played at NKU) and another sister (a student there) for longer. John and I would occasionally shoot baskets before the teams came out. I first saw him play when his Highlands team came to the Thoroughbred Bowl at Tates Creek his senior year. Schlarman and one of his Highlands teammates spent the game getting up off of Billy Jack Haskins (who they pummeled mercilessly that night) before all three signed to play at UK. In Schlarman’s senior year at UK, I was assigned his feature story for the game program. I was thrilled when he had the opportunity to come back to coach in Lexington, close to his family. He is a terrific guy. I am an unabashed fan.
So as the calls rolled in Sunday, I hated the fact that we were having to discuss guys I know either a little or a lot, and who I like a great deal. It was a first for me.
The next three games are critical for the Wildcats and their coaches. Win two, go to a bowl, a lot of the struggles of the last three weeks will be forgotten. Short of that, and maybe even if they succeed in that, there may be changes to the Kentucky coaching staff after the season. As a fan of the Wildcats I support anything that makes the program better. As a fan of Dawson and Schlarman, I hope neither are involved in those changes. I hope both have long, successful careers in Lexington.
Yesterday, the FBI — aided by Swiss officials — arrested seven FIFA officials as part of a massive corruption probe, presumably because they couldn’t find any of the other FIFA officials to arrest with them. Overnight, primary World Cup sponsors Visa and Coca-Cola hysterically expressed their “disappointment” to find that the devil they were in bed with operated in manner so corrupt that it would make Congress blush.
Well, through crack reporting, we here at the Meisterblog have unearthed the rejected original draft of their statement.
After waking from a 25-year nap, we at Visa and Coca-Cola were shocked and dismayed to find that FIFA’s business practices have invited this kind of scrutiny. In our decades-long relationship with FIFA and the Wold Cup, we have never any moment that would have given us cause for alarm (snicker).
Now that all of our customers who only follow soccer every four years and had no idea what a FIFA was the day before yesterday are aware of what soccer reporters have been telling people for years, we DEMAND (no seriously) that FIFA get its opulent palace in order and clean up its operation…or at least not be so obvious about things.
If FIFA can’t go back to being corrupt in a way that doesn’t negatively affect us, we will be forced to withdraw our support to one of the biggest sports event’s on the face of the earth that has given us untold exposure and helped our bottom line for years (HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHA, we almost said that with a straight face).
No, seriously, we mean it.
The Meisterblog will stay on top of this breaking story. Or we will get bored and forget to post anything else about it.
The Norse got my attention again over the weekend when news started to leak that NKU had been accepted into the Horizon League and will jump ship from their original Division 1 home the Atlantic Sun Conference beginning with the 2015-16 school year. That news was confirmed on Monday.
Look, as much as I loved my nostalgic idea of the Great Lakes Valley Conference and the Division 2 powerhouse era in Highland Heights, NKU was going to make the jump to Division 1 someday. The GLVC – once the greatest Division 2 league in America and one of the most entertaining leagues of any level you’d ever want to see – already wasn’t the same. Some of the teams the Norse had built great rivalries with were gone, most notable Kentucky Wesleyan. It had also become a far flung travel nightmare, in effect a Midwestern Atlantic Sun Conference. The school was too big (and still growing) to be comfortable at the Division 2 level. It competed for attention and status in a region loaded with Division 1 schools. And in the Bank of Kentucky Center, it had an arena much too ambitious to hold a Division 2 team. Things change.And when the Norse needed a landing pad to make the jump to Division 1 the A-Sun provided one. For that, I guess I am thankful. But the A-Sun was never going to be a long-term home for the Norse. The league was a logistical nightmare with teams reaching from Northern Kentucky to somewhere near Cuba. Hell, there may BE one in Cuba for all I know. And that’s the other problem. I tried (I REALLY DID!) to get excited about A-Sun games. I fired up my kids’ X-Box and watched medium quality broadcasts on the ESPN app, and I STILL can’t name all the teams in the league (I don’t think). Other than Florida Gulf Coast’s Sweet 16 run a few years ago, there just isn’t anything to excite you there. And with the travel distance for NKU to almost every other school, no rivalry was ever really going to emerge.
There were only ever two leagues that made sense for the Norse – the Ohio Valley and the Horizon. The OVC rejected NKU before the A-Sun made itself available. And even though the OVC had three Kentucky schools and the opportunity for ready-made rivalries, the league was never really a perfect fit for the Norse. For one they have football, and basketball will always be a second-class citizen in a football league (and I would STILL be shocked if NKU ever went the football route). I grew up in the Northern Kentucky and the region always has identified to the north as opposed to the south and always will. For better or for worse, that’s the way it is.
So the Horizon always looked like the fit the Norse should covet. Thanks to now departed Butler the league has some recent basketball cache – a must for a school with basketball aspirations. And even without the Bulldogs, the Horizon sports five schools with Sweet Sixteen appearances (Cleveland State, Detroit, Green Bay, Milwaukee and Valparaiso). It also provides some unexpectedly fertile ground not to start but to RENEW rivalries.
Back when they were all Division 2 schools, NKU had many spirited contests with Wright State and Oakland. The Norse own a winning record against Oakland, and I distinctly remember thinking “If they can do it why can’t Northern?” when the Grizzlies (formerly the Pioneers – and who changes their name from Pioneers? Did Pioneers offend somebody?) jumped to D1.Wright State owned NKU for most of their history together with the Raiders – whose campus is so close to greater Cincinnati (which includes the NKU area) that a friend of mine commuted from Cincinnati to med school there – rolling up a 19-7 record against the Norse. For most of that time, Wright State was a Division 2 power and NKU was an aspirant, but the Norse won two of the last three games against the Raiders, including a 64-52 win in Regents hall in 1987, the season before the Raiders left Division 2. In that game Wright State brought a rowdy enough student section that two of their fans jumped out of the stands onto the NKU mascot. I remember that vividly, as I was that mascot (I pushed them off with my Norseman – then the NKU mascot – shield and got a thumbs up from then-NKU President Leon Booth, who was awesome).
So now the Norse have a new coach, a new transfer from Alabama (Jeff Garrett) and my attention again. I will always be disappointed that Bezold didn’t get the opportunity to coach without the strangling limitations that the NCAA transition period puts on a program, but I was also never going to be able to desert a University that meant so much to me and played such an important role in my life. Plus, I’m a Bengals fan, so I am predisposed to sticking with teams that frustrate me.
Now all I need to know is do Horizon League games play on my Xbox?
OK, it’s crunch time again. You have mere hours to fill out a bracket and you have no idea what to do or who to choose. Well, like government, I’m here to help. When I started this blog, most people (and by most people I largely mean me) thought it wouldn’t last a year. And to be fair, it really didn’t. This is my fourth post in the last two years. But this is now year four of the Meisterblog performing this vital community service for you, the loyal reader. And by “you,” I mean “hi mom.”
There are a million ways to pick a bracket. You can pick by favorite color or by cute coaches or by the preferred food of a state or region (I have a sneaking suspicion that that one is in the group somewhere). Or, if you have access and are super smart, you can use IBM’s Watson to crunch numbers and select your bracket (honestly, if you have the access and are super smart, I recommend it).
Well, I don’t have access to Watson and I’m not super smart. And while you may be super smart, you probably don’t have Watson access either. So I have focused in this space on methods that are replicable by the common man. Think of it as the bracket selection equivalent making hot dogs instead of beef Wellington.
We’ll start, as always with the ones that make sense.
We are deeply disappointed to pass along news of the demise of the Wall Street Journal Blindfold Brackets. They were easily the most fun as they gave you the opportunity to look at a graphic representation of a team’s abilities and select between teams named “Wombats” and “Screwdrivers.” I’m sad to see them go. And it leaves us one method short this year. We’re left with the two most common analytics and the most boring bracket on earth.
Higher Seeds – 2nd last year
This is as easy as it gets and is perfect for the office bracket player who knows nothing about college basketball and doesn’t want to. In that respect, it will also work for Colin Cowherd. You simply pick the team with the lower number next to its name in the margin. It gets a little tricky in the Final Four, but those teams ARE seeded. So if you haven’t followed along, this year that order is Kentucky, Villanova, Wisconsin, Duke, so you end up with a Kentucky-Villanova final and Kentucky winning it all.
Pros: You always select the allegedly better team. People will only make fun of you for a lack of originality and not for picking some of the teams that will come up later in this post. Kentucky wins.
Cons: So, so, so very boring.
RPI (Ratings Percentage Index) – 5th last year
This is probably the oldest and most widely used of the now multiple basketball analytics out there. The true analytics junkies pretty much summarily dismiss it. But you know who doesn’t dismiss it? The NCAA Selection Committee, that’s who. Most of the bracket seeds mirror the RPI this year, although there are a few oddities. For example Duke (RPI 6) is a 1-seed when it should be a 2, while Kansas (a laughable RP 3) is a 2-seed and should be a 1. Also, Wichita (RPI 17) – who the committee sort of shafted when they entered the Tournament undefeated a year ago only to draw Kentucky in the second round — is horribly underseeded as a 7 (should be a 4 or 5). There are others, maybe nobody as bad off as Buffalo (RPI 28) who is seeded 12 when they should be a 7. In fact there is only a four-place spread between Buffalo and the 5-seed they face, West Virginia. It’s one of the reasons so many people will pick Buffalo over WVU in the first round.
This year, choosing the team with the higher RPI predicts only one upset in the first round (Davidson over Iowa) and only two more (Northern Iowa over Louisville and Utah over Georgetown) in the rest of the Tournament.
Pros: You have a semi-impartial metric helping you pick the better team in each game. Kentucky wins again.
Cons: Barely any upsets, so not a lot to get really excited about.
The Kenpom rankings are named after their founder Ken Pomeroy and are the darling of the analytics crowd. They have a lot of columns with really confusing headers and I’m really bad at math, so I don’t understand anything about them. But I can count from 1 to about 112, so I can place them in this bracket. Kenpom ALSO has Wichita (Kenpom 13) as a terrible seed (7, should be 3 or 4). Kenpom REALLY loves Texas, defying other rankings and anybody who has had the experience of watching Texas play. The Longhorns are ranked 20 by Kenpom, which should make them a 5 seed, but the Committee has them in as an 11 (a LOT of people didn’t think Texas should be in the field at all). Maryland (Kenpom 33) is seeded too high at 4 according to Kenpom and should be an 8 or 9.
Like RPI, Kenpom only indicated one upset in the first round, but it’s not Davidson over Iowa. Kenpom has Ohio State (21) over VCU (27). It also has three No. 2 seeds reaching the Final Four, with Kentucky as the only 1-seed to make it to Indianapolis. It picks two other upsets in the Midwest region – West Virginia over Maryland and Notre Dame over Kansas.
Pros: You’re again picking good teams on every line. You have a few more upsets to brag about.
Cons: Still kind of boring.
And that does it for analytics. Well, you could do a BPI bracket, or you could join us and just think it’s cute that ESPN keeps pushing that one. (Note: I apparently did a BPI bracket last year. It outperformed RPI and Kenpom). So that brings us to the desperate and silly.
Coin Toss – 8th last year
Likely the least effective way to pick a bracket. Your results will be different from mine, so I won’t belabor them, but I can give you the method I used. I went division by division on each side of the bracket, so that I finished the Midwest and the West and then moved on to the East and South. Heads was always the top team in the bracket (not always the higher seed). Again this year I was too lazy to actually flip a coin, so I used an iPhone app. It turns out this is a deeply flawed approach, as to get a 1-seed into the Final four, you have to flip heads on their turn four straight times. It’s a coin so there’s a 50-50 shot of tossing heads. So over four rounds that a…a…well, it’s not likely.
Pros: Mindless. Fast.
Cons: Hard for a 1-seed to reach Final Four. Wildly inaccurate historically.
Mascots – 7th last year
Like favorite colors, there are a lot of ways to do this one. You can pick your favorite animal, or the cutest animal or whatever. I imagine every game as a mascot battle with the stronger one winning. I give extra consideration to a mascot’s ability to use a weapon or magic or mystical powers. I have generally given a lot of credit to natural disasters; however, the thought occurred to me that animals and people survive those all the time. Also, there are no natural disasters in the field this year. So you end up with an equation like this: Prince of Darkness>Fierce Animal>Fierce Human>Regular Human>Regular Animal. Again, keep in mind that weapon wielding humans get bonus points. That’s how the Hampton Pirates, knock off the Kentucky Wildcats as well as everyone else and reach the Final Four, because Pirates are terrifying (if there were ever a Clown mascot, they would win going away).
A few thoughts on how this year’s bracket shaped up:
The Louisville Cardinals vs. UC Irvine Anteaters matchup has to be the matchup between the two least intimidating mascots.
- Both the Boise State Broncos and the Dayton Flyers would knock off the Providence Friars, so they move on regardless.
- Albany are the Great Danes, which are huge animals; however, Sooners were pioneer settlers and I don’t think they’d have any trouble with Scooby Doo.
- Utah Utes vs. Stephen F. Austin Lumberjacks is maybe the toughest human matchup since I’ve been doing these.
- Eastern Washington beats Georgetown because nobody knows what a Hoya is.
- UAB is a damn dragon. That’s tough to beat.
In the end though, Duke (not surprisingly) is repped by the Prince of Darkness, so the Blue Devils knock off the Dragons in the Elite 8 and roll to a title.
Homer Bracket – 2014 Champion
It’s hard to believe this was the best performer last year, because it’s 100% based on irrational forces – fandom, personal friendships and blind hatred. Again, your bracket may be different, but here’s how mine works:
Favored Teams (in order):
Kentucky – favorite team
- Xavier – second favorite team in the field
- Indiana – friend and mentor JD Campbell is their SID. I owe more to him than I owe to probably any human on the planet other than my parents.
- St. John’s – Assistant Coach Jim Whitesell was the Head Coach at Lewis University when I was the SID there and he was great to me.
- Ohio State – residual from my football fandom
- Notre Dame – also residual from my football fandom
- UCLA – they treated us great when we practiced there on a trip to the west coast with Lewis
- Catholic schools – because I’m Catholic
Unfavored Teams (in order):
- Louisville – Kentucky’s most hated rival
- Duke – the 1992 Elite 8 game and Christian Laettner
- Cincinnati – Hated rival of Xavier and held the ball all game for a 24-11 final against Kentucky in 1983
- Arkansas – Budding most hated SEC rival of Kentucky
- Arizona – Beat Kentucky in the 1997 NCAA Championship Game, robbing Kentucky of possibly three consecutive national championships. Also, Miles Simon is the western Christian Laettner
- West Virginia – Beat Kentucky in 2010 Elite 8, denying John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Patrick Patterson a Final Four trip.
- North Carolina – Beat Kentucky in 1995 Elite 8 and just because
- Michigan State – Beat Kentucky in 2005 Elite 8
- Virginia – Stole Ralph Sampson from Kentucky
- Georgetown – Beat Kentucky in the 1984 Final Four
Pros: You end up with all kinds of crazy upsets, like Buffalo over Maryland, Harvard over North Carolina, Texas Southern (GO MIKE DAVIS!) over Arizona, Eastern Washington over Georgetown. You NEVER end up cheering against a team you like.
Cons: You better like a lot of really good teams or you’re out on Day 1.
My Picks – 2nd last year
You could always just steal my picks, although I don’t recommend it. I don’t recall ever having won money in a pool of any kind. Like anybody who does this sort of thing I’ve picked upsets here and there (and maybe too many) – Wichita St. over Kansas, Arkansas over North Carolina, Arizona over Wisconsin on one side of the bracket, and Northern Iowa over Louisville, Virginia over Villanova (only an upset because Villanova was ridiculously given a 1-seed) and Iowa State over Gonzaga on the other.
Pros: If you pick a lot of winning teams, you get a strong sense of accomplishment.
Cons: If you don’t know anything about college basketball, you may not do well. Looking at you again, Colin Cowherd.
If you’d like follow along or pick a bracket of your own to see how you match up, you can join this ESPN Tournament Challenge Group.
Now, get your picks in on time and enjoy the best month of the year. Good Luck, and GO CATS!
I’m old. I like the familiar, the comfortable, that which I already know. That’s why I loved the Great Lakes Valley Conference and I loved that my college – Northern Kentucky University – played in it. It was, without question, the best overall Division 2 men’s college basketball conference in the country. It regularly filled half the bracket or more for the Great Lakes Regional. As often as not, it seemed, a GLVC team was playing for the Division 2 National Championship. Twice Northern Kentucky University was that team. That both were losses hardly matters now, other than the fact that Shannon Minor’s three-point attempt as time expired in the 1997 championship will haunt me forever. I sat right on the line from him to the basket, and from the time it left his hand, it looked like it was going in and me and my Norseman helmet (Oh, did I mention that I was once the NKU mascot [1986-88]? And yes I still have the helmet. Never mind how or why) were about to storm the court. Except it didn’t go in, and I just sat there stunned.
Regardless, I loved the GLVC and I love Northern Kentucky University and, again, I Iike the familiar. So it was that more than a little bit of nervousness mixed with my excitement when NKU declared its intention to move to Division 1 athletics. I’ve been in or around college athletics since…well, since I was the Norseman. I knew the incredible challenge ahead of my school – and the few people I knew from my days as a student who were still there. And I knew the possibilities.
Well, those possibilities became realities today when Dave Bezold was relieved of his duties as NKU’s (now just the Norse) head basketball coach. In the interest of not so shocking full disclosure. I am an unabashed Bezold fan. He was an assistant as far back as my days at the university (which finally came to a close in 1991), and he was on the bench for both of those National Championship games as an assistant to Ken Shields. When Shields retired, Bezold was elevated to the head coach position. He inherited a tradition not only of winning at NKU, but a tradition of the head basketball coach being one of the best men on campus. For eight years, he carried on both traditions spectacularly. Bezold compiled a 161-79 record in eight seasons in the GLVC. He won or shared three division titles and finished second two other times.
He also continued being a tremendous representative for the University. Still in the Division 2 days, Bezold hired Jillian Daugherty, an NKU student with Down syndrome, as a student manager for the team (Jillian’s dad, outstanding Cincinnati Enquirer sports columnist Paul Daugherty has a book coming out about Jillian, you should probably read it). This year he and his team began playing wheelchair basketball with a team in Cincinnati.
If you watched the video, that’s Bez in the yellow shirt.
The winning over the three years since NKU made the jump to Division 1 hasn’t come as easily for Bezold and the Norse. Making the move to college athletics’ highest level is hard, and intentionally so. It is a gateway intended to ensure that only schools that are fully committed to the responsibilities of making the move even try. Among the difficulties of the jump are four-year bans on playing for a league championship or in the NCAA Tournament. That means that for a few years, Bezold and his staff were recruiting to a promise of…nothing. No matter how good you got how fast, there was nowhere to go once the regular season ended. There would be no confetti cannon, no trophy presentation. Few high school kids with the ability to play Division 1 sports are interested.
Regardless Bezold finished .500 in the Atlantic Sun Conference in his first year. The league includes a Florida Gulf Coast team that beat Georgetown in the NCAA Tournament and reached the Sweet 16 that season (NKU led them by five with 10 minutes to play in Highland Heights that first season). He dipped to 5-13 in the league the next year.
This season the A-Sun allowed NKU to compete for league titles two years ahead of schedule. The announcement came in July, long after recruiting for this past season had come to a close. The advantage would come for the coming season. The NKU coaches would finally have something to give kids to play for when they came to NKU.
Bezold got the Norse back to .500 in the league this season and they hosted an A-Sun Tournament game (in Regents Hall, the old, comfortable Division 2-level gym. The Norse’s usual home had already been leased to the high school regional tournament). The Norse lost that Tournament game. It would be Bezold’s last game in a 25-year tenure in Highland Heights. He was fired today, with one year left before NKU’s transitional period ended.
It’s a move that feels cynical, shallow, uncomfortable. Maybe it’s not the case, but the change feels like the plan all along was to leave Bezold as a placeholder, just good enough to do the heavy lifting on the way to Division 1, but not good enough to give him a real shot to compete. Now with NCAA Tournament eligibility looming it’s time get a “bigger name” or an “up and comer.”
I have always been a proud NKU alumnus. I tell everybody where I went to school. I had a tremendous experience there and I will always value it. Again, I was the Norseman for two years.
Not long ago, a scandal erupted in the NKU athletics department when then-AD Scott Eaton was charged with (and eventually convicted of) embezzling more than $300,000, mostly in Kroger gift cards no less. I wasn’t embarrassed when that story broke. One idiot did something bad. That happens. It’s a one-guy issue, not a University issue.
Today I’m a little embarrassed. This is a classless move and sends a guy who gave 25 years to the University packing. It’s exactly the kind of thing – the kind of change – I feared when the Division 1 announcement was made.
The Norse may well go on to great things from here. They certainly have the potential. It’s a good school with a beautiful basketball facility, although they will desperately need a different league if they want to draw better at the 10,000-seat Bank of Kentucky Center. Few in Northern Kentucky have heard of most of the teams in the Atlantic Sun outside of Florida Gulf Coast. Fewer care to see them play. But whatever happens from here, it won’t feel familiar, and it definitely won’t feel comfortable.
They say it takes a big man to admit when he’s wrong, and while I’m not quite as big as I used to be, I am still well within the apology weight range. As the University of Kentucky gets ready to tip-off against the Wisconsin Badgers in the Wildcats’ third Final Four in four years, I can’t help but look back at everything I’ve written and said about this team over the course of this past season. And I owe SOMEBODY an apology.
Like so many others, I had my fair share of questions about this team. At times I questioned their heart. I questioned their effort. I questioned whether or not an annual rollover roster filled with freshmen was capable of winning at the level that is expected at Kentucky (and to be fair at all elite level programs, no matter what Michael Wilbon says. You think Duke fans are happy about how their season ended?). The thing is, I don’t really have to apologize for any of that. At times, with the way this crop of Cats played all of those questions were fair enough.
However, I do need to apologize to Aaron Harrison. After the Wildcats lost to a bad South Carolina Team in Columbia a little over a month ago, Aaron famously said the following:
“Because we know what we can do. We know, we talk about it. Even after the game, we just, we know what we can do and we know we’re going to make a run to have a big, great story for everyone to talk about.”
You can watch it here (courtesy of Kentucky Wildcats TV):
The next morning on Community Trust Bank Sunday Morning Sports Talk (9 am-Noon on NewsRadio 630 WLAP), well … let’s just say I was incredulous. And I’m reasonably certain that I used stronger words than that on the show. I was wrong (Mercifully, I’m wrong a fair amount. I get used to it.).
Whatever happens tonight (and hopefully on Monday), the Wildcats passed the “great story” threshold a long time ago. Maybe their run in the SEC Tournament wasn’t enough, but certainly them knocking out top seed and previously undefeated Wichita State at least made it a great short story. For this Cats squad to go on from there to knock off Louisville and Michigan to reach this year’s Final Four may be the War and Peace of great sports stories, made all the more amazing because it was Aaron — so full of confidence and hope that ugly afternoon in March — who hit the ridiculous three-pointer to give Kentucky the win over the Wolverines (speaking of — hey, CBS/TNT/TBS/TruTV, how about you replace one of the eleventy billion annual replays of the Laettner shot with that one in future Tournament promos, huh?).
I’ve long said that regardless of how good you think your team is, the Elite Eight is as far as you can reasonably EXPECT a team to go int he NCAA Tournament. At that point you’re almost always playing a really good basketball team and the game should be considered just about a push. A Final Four trip — ANY Final Four trip — is gravy time. That’s especially the case for this Kentucky team.
The old “we overcame so much” is one of the most worn out story lines in all of sports. It is used equally when the No. 1 team in the country makes the Final Four and when an unheralded mid-major makes the trip. So I won’t use it here. Instead of overcoming obstacles, hardship or whatever you want to call it, this team grew. Game by game, week by week, these young Cats learned a little bit more of what they needed to know to be great. Aaron Harrison saw it a month ago — even if he was the only one — and he wasn’t afraid to say so. I’m sorry I laughed when he did.
Bracket Madness Update
Congratulations to jpayne5150, Kelly192510 and GREG0667, the most likely winners of the ESPN Bracket Challenge group I set up to track the progress of the brackets in my bracket selection post. Jpayne will win if Florida wins the title over Connecticut in the championship game. Kelly192510 will win if Kentucky beats Florida in the Final. GREG0667 will win if Florida wins the title pretty much regardless of who they play. All of that is unless I have done the math wrong, which is a very strong possibility.
Among the brackets I put together, not surprisingly just picking the favorite is in the lead (it won going away last year). SHOCKINGLY, however, my actual picks are second among the group (it fared…poorly…last year). Sadly both brackets have Florida winning the title (which TO BE CLEAR I do NOT want to happen). Pretty much all other options have been complete failures, although there is still hope for my homer pick bracket, because…well…GO CATS!!!!!