Open Letter to Mizzou Fans

Listen up, Mizzou fans. You are not the first fan base to have gone through this. It is gut-wrenching. It is different from losing in the Sweet 16 or the Elite 8. It is different from losing in the first round as a 6, 8, or 11 seed. It is different, even, from losing in the first round as a 3 or 4 seed, both of which you have experienced before.

But the difference is what makes it alright. Makes it good, in fact. Nice, in fact.

Yes, the pain is excruciating: You have poured your heart and soul and all of your emotions into a team that you treated as part of the family. It gave you endless hours of fall and winter entertainment. It made you proud to have all that airtime on ESPN, to reside in the Top 5 of the rankings most of the season, to hear your school’s name mentioned every time the topic involved the best teams in college basketball.

What’s more, it made you dream: What if this is the year we finally make it to the epicenter of college basketball, the Final Four? What if it’s us reveling in the Vieux Carre? What if it’s us getting all that coverage in the Kansas City Star, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch? What if the NY Times writes about us? What if Marcus Denmon is on the cover of Sports Illustrated? What if there is a feature story on our team in USA Today? What if we’re the pick of the Wall Street Journal to derail Kentucky—if THEY even get far enough to play us?

Believe me: There is no sporting event more fun to attend than the Final Four, mingling with the fans of the only other three schools in the world sharing the same city, residing in the same stratosphere? What if we are among the only four fan bases commingling trash talk with genuine respect for their rivals? Their peers?

It is non-stop partying if that’s what you want—and who doesn’t, at least to a certain age?

You have to go if you have a chance. Every time you have the chance. Because you don’t know if the opportunity will ever come again. Not even if your school has been there in the double digits, like Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, UCLA, and, yes Kansas.

It never gets old. It is always special. And the first time is the most special. (With the possible exception of the first time sharing it with your child.)

And it was all right there. You believed it. KU fans believed it. The radio, TV, newspaper, and internet pundits believed it.

The President of the United States believed it.

How many brackets of college basketball experts pegged Mizzou as a Final Four survivor? How many brackets in the seemingly limitless number of bracket contests sponsored by newspapers, internet sports sites, and car dealerships, among others, had Mizzou in the Superdome?

How many even picked them as the eventual National Champion?

A lot.

It was all right there.

You could taste it. Most of your fellow fans could taste it. You almost expected it. History be damned. This is 2012, not some other year between 1939-2011, when Mizzou was O for 73.

Almost expected it.

Any REAListic fan understands that even the prohibitive favorite, as Kentucky is this year, rarely has better than a 50-50 chance of making it to the Final Four. Rarely does even the clearly best team have better than a one in four chance of winning it all. Usually, the best team’s odds (by my calculations) are around 15%.

There are two many good teams. Too many good players. Too many bad matchups. Too many teams and players capable of getting hot or lucky or both for forty minutes. Or the last 5-10 minutes of the game if they just find a way to hang around to that point.

But there was one certainty. Those who purchased tickets to Omaha would get to experience the emotions of the tournament, and all of its hopes and dreams, for at least eighty minutes. For an entire weekend.

Yes, Florida might spoil things. That’s Florida as in the back to back national championship Gators of 2006 and ‘07. Have to be wary of them. But you like your chances.

Or, as Mike DeArmond, long time Mizzou beat writer and alum reportedly tweeted, “The winner of the Florida/Virginia game plays Mizzou Sunday.”

Yes, there was one certainty. Mizzou would be playing Sunday in Omaha, 40 minutes from Phoenix, 120 minutes from New Orleans.

But regardless of what happened Sunday, there was all that basking in glory to enjoy all weekend.

Then, without warning, it’s gone.

It’s over.

Did I mention without warning?

And you’re thinking—well, actually, you’re not thinking.

You are feeling. What you are feeling, if put into words, is, “This isn’t right. This isn’t REAL. My team is still alive. There is time left in the game. Time to catch up. Time to win. Time to prepare for the next game.”

And you’re feeling that there is a next game. This game might be over, but it’s the best two out of three, right? The best four of seven? We’d beat that team nine times out of ten. Ninety-nine out of a hundred. Their one win can’t be today.

It’s not right. It’s not fair.

But eventually, it sinks in.

It’s over.

Without warning.

This tournament will never be played again. This team will never play together again.

And it is sad. If you are a REAL fan, if you are emotionally invested in your team, it is a very REAL loss. Maybe not a death in the family level loss. But a loss of something valuable and an important part of who you are.

It is a loss severe enough to invoke the grieving process.

It is a process that will, of course, be successfully navigated; though the time required will be different for each person, depending on his or her individual attachment to the team and innate ability to cope with what, to some, is a traumatic experience.

And yet, that is why the experience is positive.

Why was this loss so devastating?

Because your team was relevant. It was not a 6th place team in the Big 12, not a 7 or 9 seed in the Big Dance, whose purpose was to serve as a stepping stone to someone else’s success. Yes, that was the ultimate result, but that’s not the point.

The point is, your team was relevant. It was not a pair of ragged claws scuttling across the floors of silent seas. It was not an attendant lord, one that will do to swell a progress or start a scene or two.

It was, instead, talked about. A lot. It received attention. A lot of attention. It had a sycophantic following among certain portions of the media. And there is nothing wrong with that.

And all that attention is intoxicating. And not in a “driving while” kind of way. In a good way.

Yes, there are drawbacks, aside from the inner pain. There are those who have begrudged your success, who are envious of it, who have been lying in wait all season to bring you down, to mock you, to call your team “chokers,” no matter how valiantly they played, no matter how much effort they gave.

Don’t allow them to bring you down. You are in control of this.

This is a badge of honor. It is a compliment to your success. No one tries to bring down a failure. They don’t have to.

What you want to do is be in this situation as often as possible. Every year if possible.

Even if, time after time, you suffer the pain of a sudden, inconceivable loss.

It is better than the alternative: which is called Not Being Relevant.

Enough times in the spotlight, and the chances of reaching the Promised Land, of fulfilling those hopes and dreams, get better and better.

At the very least, being relevant is worth risking the pain. The fans of all of the consistently relevant teams feel that pain more often than not.

But they will all tell you it is worth it. It beats the hell out of being a non-entity.

So congratulations on being the first 2 seed to lose to a 15 seed in 11 years and the fifth in tournament history. Congratulations for being in a position to hurt.

Enjoy it while you can. Hope that you will be at risk of having to go through the grieving process again.

And again.

And again.

And soon.

--Mark

The Most Overrated Play Ever? That's "Logistics"

REALly, UPS? Your “logistics” campaign is one of the most inane in the history of advertising. No one gives a damn about “logistics,” even if inserted un-cleverly into an old Dean Martin song that probably no one remembers with the exception of those who recall the name of the secret agent he once played when he wasn’t singing “That’s Amore”or cavorting with the original rat pack.

Here’s a clue: Virtually no one knows what “logistics” are, not even with a woman’s basketball coach explaining it; and no one cares. They only care about their package getting where it’s going by the time it is supposed to get there.

What they don’t care about is having their intelligence insulted.

Like mindlessly portraying Christian Laettners’ last second shot against Kentucky as if it were the greatest play of all time. And you expect us to take you seriously by talking about the “logistics” of the pass?

It never was and still is not.

What it REALly is, instead, is the most overrated play of all time. Perhaps in any sport. And your attempt to logistify it, by glorifying the pass that set up the shot, is, to anyone paying attention, insulting.

Your commercial claims that it takes a special player to make the in bounds pass from behind the basket to Laettner, seventy feet away. And you show the pass with no players on the court other than Grant Hill (the passer) and Laettner.

Looks easy with no one else on the court, doesn’t it.

In fact, it was easy, because, for all practical purposes, NO ONE ELSE WAS ON THE FREAKIN’ COURT!

Rick Pitino is a Hall of Fame Coach. But his call on that play was the worst coaching decision in the history of sports. All sports. Not just college basketball. By comparison, Jean Van de Velde was a genius at the 72nd hole of the 1999 British Open.

"Okay, boys. here's the plan: We won’t put anyone in Grant Hill’s face. That would force him to change the angle or trajectory of his pass. Instead, we'll leave a clear, unimpeded path all the way to Laettner.

"I say unimpeded path to Laettner, because we will also not have anyone anywhere between the Hill and Laettner. We wouldn't want to make Laettner have to fight for the ball—or even adjust in the slightest manner to retrieve it."

Would anyone glorify a pass from a quarterback under no pressure to an uncovered receiver in the end zone 25 yards away? Would the NCAA and media heap twenty years of praise on the QB for making an easy throw and the receiver for not dropping the ball?

And Pitino made it that simple. “Once again, lads: Let’s not make Hill’s throw difficult. Let’s not make Laettner’s catch difficult. Let’s let Laettner grab the ball without any sort of challenge. Let’s let an 80% career free throw shooter turn and take what is essentially a free throw to determine the fate of our season."

If Kentucky fans are mad at Pitino, it should be for this incomprehensible decision, not for eventually winding up at Louisville.

If this is your idea of educating people about logistics, UPS, succeeding when there are no obstacles to overcome, give me Federal Express.

They get my shipping business from now on. Or at least while this commercial is alive and stinking.

--Mark

PhogBlog March Madness Pool

Join the Phun. Enter the PhogBlog Group in the Las vegas Journal-Review March Madness contest.

This one is a little different than most of those going around the internet. Instead of having your Elite 8 or Final Four teams knocked out in the first or second round, resulting in games of no interest to you, you pick each round after the previous round's games have been played.

In other words, every game counts.

Go to the LVRJ registration page, register, and click on My Groups. Click on "Join Public Group" and search for "PhogBlog."

Then pick away for Round One.

What do you win?

Pick all games correctly, and the LVJR says it will fork over $100,000. (About the same chance as you would have facing off against Tiger in match play.)

Garner the most points in the PhogBlog group, and you will bask in PB glory for 12 full months.

Good luck. You will need it against the PB's regular cast of luminarias.

Hint: Take KU in Round 1, and you will be perfect for at least a while, depending on the length of the other Thursday morning games. I promise.

--Mark

Afterword

UCLA made shots. Kansas missed shots.

I haven't gone back and watched the game again to determine the relative approximate cause (bad Kansas offense vs. good UCLA defense) of the second sentence above. I probably won't. In a box in a closet in my house there sits an unwatched tape of the 2002 National Semifinal, procured with the intention of charting Maryland's relative success against Kansas's man-to-man defense vs. Kansas's "point zone."

At least in the first half, Kansas missed shots they did a good job of creating. I believe that the quality and ease of shot that Kansas created declined as the game progressed.

Much of my writing here this season has depended on parsing final box scores in search meaning. I hope I have always remembered that those final numbers derive, in great part, from the effect of individual plays and brief sequences within the games. Because I am a Kansas fan and because Kansas lost, I cannot but wonder how the game would have played out if Kansas had converted some of their early opportunities, allowing them to trade blows with the Bruins for 40 minutes rather than attempting a desperate comeback over the final 13 minutes.

Because I am a Kansas fan and because Kansas lost, I focus not only on Kansas's improbable misses, but also on UCLA's improbable makes. This despite full knowledge that the inverse of both those descriptions most likely occurred. (The likelihood of Russell Robinson making both of his three-point attempts is about 11%.)

The inescapable fact of the game, the truth that catches wouldas, couldas, and shouldas in the throat, is this: UCLA won because they made shots that Kansas forced them into taking. Arron Aflalo's contributions in this regard were most frequent and impressive. Darren Collison's 23-foot heave over two Jayhawks as the shot clock expired elicited a pained, purely animalistic vocal response from me at the time. In my calmer moments and upon reflection I try to see the almost pure good fortune of the Bruins in that instance as another partial karmic payback for Clint Normore's less-contested, but similarly deep, desperate, and successful three-point make in Kemper Arena in 1988. Perhaps Collison's shot will prove to be the one that balances the books as we prepare for the twentieth anniversary of certain charmed events I would very much enjoy seeing replicated.

I had little doubt that UCLA was capable of beating Kansas. I only wish that the Jayhawks had given a better account of themselves with the ball in their hands. As a Kansas fan, though, I've experienced far worse ends to a season.

I have been cognizant of the last 24 trips Kansas has made to the NCAA Tournament. 23 of those trips have ended with a loss. 21* or 22** of those losses have been moderately to paralyzingly unpleasant. Even two days later it's a cold comfort, but I've seen worse.

*(The certain exception to unpleasantness: The 1995 loss to Virginia in the Sweet 16 was foreseen by me from the moment the brackets were announced and I knew the '95 team would return intact (and add Paul Pierce) for 1996. Unfortunately, they returned to lose to Syracuse in the worst-played Regional Final I have ever witnessed and cause the quietest two-and-a-half drive (factoring in number of people in the vehicle) I've ever been a part of on the return to Atlanta from Birmingham on the night of March 21st, 1997.)

**(A possible second exception to unpleasantness: The 1994 loss to Purdue in the Sweet 16. The supposition that Kansas had no one who could hope to guard Glenn Robinson proved extraordinarily true. The revelation that, if Kansas had found someone to guard Cuonzo Martin, Robinson's brilliance might not have been enough for Purdue to advance casts a retrospective pall of what-if over the game.)

KU Now The Favorite

According to Ken Pomeroy and Mr. Picklesimer (anybody else read "Picklemiester" every time?).  UNC is still slightly favored in a head-to-head matchup, but Kansas has an easier path.  Of course, I suspect this doesn't include UCLA's home state advantage should they meet the Jayhawks in the Elite 8.  I might be rooting for Pittsburgh next round.

Preview: Kansas vs. Kentucky (2nd Round--NCAA Tournament)

Contrary to popular perception (or at least my perception of popular perception), Tubby Smith's 2006-07 Kentucky team is an excellent shooting team that struggles to guard their opponents. Of course, Kentucky went out and beat Villanova in atypical fashion last night. A solid defensive performance made up for their field goal shooting being merely adequate rather than outstanding. The 0.94 points per possession Kentucky allowed last night marked the first good defensive performance (less than one point allowed per possession) from the Wildcats since they held Florida to 0.95 points per possession in Rupp Arena ten games ago. Extending Kentucky's defensive slump, in the two games preceding that Florida game, the Wildcats allowed 1.24 points per possession to South Carolina, and 1.09 points per possession @Arkansas. (It should also be noted that when Kentucky visited Florida, the Gators shot 73 eFG% and rebounded half of their misses en route to scoring 1.29 points per possession.)

KENTUCKY DEFENSE v. KANSAS OFFENSE

(at-risk games only)

Team eFG% OR% TO% FT Rate FT% PPP
UK def 48.2 32.8 18.9 31.2 64.7 1.01
KU off 51.5 38.6 21.1 24.0 65.1 1.07

Kentucky's at-risk profile includes home wins over Miami, OH, Eastern Kentucky, Indiana, and Tennessee (without Chris Lofton), neutral court wins over DePaul, Chattanooga, Alabama, and Villanova, road wins over Louisville, Ole Miss, South Carolina, and Arkansas, home losses to Vanderbilt and Florida, neutral court losses to UCLA, Memphis, and Mississippi State, and road losses to North Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Alabama, Vanderbilt, and Florida.

With the exception of the game against Tennessee (again, without Lofton) at home, Kentucky's outstanding defensive performances (less than 0.9 points per possession allowed) in at-risk games all occurred in mid-January or earlier: Miami, OH, vs. Chattanooga, Indiana, @Louisville, and @South Carolina.

Kentucky's defensive numbers have been helped by their opponents' poor free throw shooting. They allowed 1.04 points per possession in SEC play despite their conference opponents shooting just 62.7% from the free throw line. This is the rare instance where a typical performance at the free throw line from the Jayhawks could hurt their opponent.

It may not matter, though, as Kentucky's performance in the other three factors are what have kept them slightly below average defensively. Kansas's penchant for making a good percentage of their field goal attempts and rebounding a high percentage of their missed shots should trouble a Kentucky team who isn't very good at forcing misses and just adequate at protecting their defensive glass. Against Kansas these tendencies may be magnified if Kentucky continues to struggle to force turnovers.

KENTUCKY OFFENSE v. KANSAS DEFENSE

(at-risk games only)

Team eFG% OR% TO% FT Rate FT% PPP
UK off 54.0 33.8 22.2 24.2 69.6 1.08
KU def 44.6 31.7 23.0 35.3 67.6 0.93

Kentucky's offense performed quite similarly to Kansas's in at-risk games. The Wildcats make a few more shots and rebound a lower percentage of their misses. The frequency with which they turn the ball over will necessitate that they make a typical percentage of their field goals. That's extremely difficult to do against Kansas. Kentucky has a shot at doing so, though, as Sheray Thomas is the only player in the Wildcat rotation to shoot less than 50 eFG% or score less than 1.07 PPWS.

There's littel doubt that NBA free agent Randolph Morris will test Sasha Kaun defensively. If Kaun continues to establish good defensive position and let the double-teamer harass the opposition's best post scorer, Kansas can be expected to limit Morris's effectiveness. Though he's Kentucky's best scorer (both in terms of volume and efficiency) Morris is not a particularly good passer (2.4 A/100 against 4.7 TO/100) so effective double-teams in the post could cause Kentucky's offense to stagnate.

On the perimeter, Kansas's guards will need to refrain from gambling for turnovers against Kentucky's guards, instead forcing them into the heart of the KU defense for difficult field goal attempts. Ramel Bradley (5.0 TO/100) and Derrick Jasper (6.0 TO/100), especially, will probably turn the ball over often enough due to the basic ball pressure and swarming interior defense Kansas typically musters.

Bradley, Joe Crawford, and Jodie Meeks combine to take half their shots from beyond the three-point arc, making 37.2, 35.3, and 36.5% of those shots respectively. The guard trio troubles defenses because they are quite good at converting the two-point shots they attempt as well. Crawford shoots 52.6% inside the arc, Meeks makes 50.5% of his two-point shots, and Bradley converts on 49% of his attempts.

Kentucky's balanced and efficient offense will test Kansas's outstanding defense. The Wildcats are capable of getting hot enough that the opposing defense can effectively cease to be relevant for stretches of a game. What should encourage Kansas fans is that the Jayhawks have survived such performances from Texas each of the last two weekends. For all Kevin Durant did in the first halves of those games, Kansas held Texas 2% below their season average offensive efficiency in Lawrence, and 8% below their season average offensive efficiency in Oklahoma City.

Kentucky isn't as good offensively as Texas (though they're probably an equal amount better defensively than the Longhorns) so supressing their offense by 6-8% would put them far enough behind Kansas's expected offensive efficiency against a mediocre defense to keep the game from coming down to the final possessions.

Prediction: Kansas 73 Kentucky 62

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