College basketball

5-1, 4-1, 3-1, 2-1

Over and over again Thursday night and Friday morning, my Twitter and Facebook streams lit up with the same, repeated message. The Florida basketball team had just eeked out a win against Brigham Young University in the Sweet Sixteen, and again and again I was informed, “The Florida Gators have NEVER lost in the Elite Eight.”

If I’d only seen it once or twice, I’d have probably just rolled my eyes, or even found it mildly amusing. But it wasn’t once or twice. I was bombarded with that one little trivium for almost 24 hours, and so I ended up going through a progressive series of reactions:

1. That’s a truly useless little statistic.

2. We’re not exactly Kentucky or Kansas or a school in the Research Triangle. (Though by the time Billy Donovan retires, we might be.) We’ve been to four Final Fours, so if we’re undefeated in the Elite Eight, that means we’ve been to (quick arithmetic on fingers) four Elite Eights. Maybe the reason we’ve never lost one is because we haven’t had terribly many opportunities to lose one.

3. Well, now the math thoughts are kicking in. Let’s see.

I’m pretty sure the Gators’s first Sweet Sixteen was the 1994 team who went to our first Final Four.* Which means I should be able to go through every UF trip to the Sixteen in my head.

The next time we were in the regional semi-finals was 1999, when we lost to Gonzaga in the midst of their first great Cinderella run. Since then, we’ve been to three more, all three of which resulted in a trip to the Final Four. So counting the win over BYU, that makes us 5-1 in the Sweet Sixteen. And after the game against Butler, we’ll either be 5-0 or 4-1 in the Elite Eight.

And then we come to the Final Fours. In 1994 we lost to Duke; in 1999, 2006 and 2007 we progressed to the national championship game. In our three national championship games, we lost to Michigan State in 1999, beat UCLA in 2006 and beat Ohio State in 2007.

So let’s see. 5-1. 5-0 or 4-1. 3-1. 2-1.

Well then, clearly it’s time to lose in the Elite Eight, for the symmetry.

Now, that whole thought process? I thought it to myself rather glibly, because I actually expected the Gators to win. (By contrast to the previous two rounds, where I’d gone in with a pessimistic feeling that we were going to end up being upset by, respectively, UCLA or BYU.) But when we ultimately went down in overtime, I silently thought at all the people who’d been so excited by our previously immaculate Elite Eight record, “Told you. Silently. In my head.”

It was pretty disappointing to see Florida lose that game, so to compound my misery, I hopped onto ESPN.com to see how badly I was doing in my bracket league. I’d been tied for last place after the Round of 64 and in second-last after the Round of 32. I was vaguely hopeful I’d worked my way up to third-last, or morbidly hopeful I’d managed to tie up dead last place.

Much to my surprise, I discovered that not only had I locked up second place, but that I was actually in the 97th percentile for ESPN’s entire bracket competition. And the remaining three of my Final Four teams were all in the three remaining Elite Eight games–and were in fact the higher-seeded team in each of those three games. I was looking forward to having successfully predicted three of the Final Four.

Well, thanks to VCU and Kentucky, it turns out I only predicted one team in the Final Four–UConn. But I’m still in ESPN’s 96th percentile, and I can presumably still improve on that position, since I have UConn winning the national championship. I can’t get to first place in our group, though, since my sister Claire also has UConn winning it all. But I still have the satisfaction that Claire and I were the only two people in our group to predict Kentucky beating Ohio State in the Sweet Sixteen.

Obviously, I’ll be cheering for UConn to beat Kentucky in the Final Four. And I’ll be cheering for VCU to beat Butler, both because I live in Virginia and because Shaka Smart was an assistant coach on the Gator basketball team that won consecutive national championships four years ago. If we end up with a UConn-VCU national championship game, I don’t know who I’ll be pulling for. More likely it’ll be UConn–a childhood spent in large part in Connecticut will do that to a person.

I

*When I looked it up later, I was wrong about that part. The Gators had previously been to the Sweet Sixteen in their first ever NCAA Tournament, in 1987. As a 6-seed, they beat 3-seed Purdue in the second round and lost to 2-seed Syracuse in the Sixteen. So we’re actually 6-1 in the regional semi-finals. Whatevs. Still a good point.

A worthy successor to Phil Fulmer, at least in terms of blithering idiocy

Lane KiffinHonestly, it’s very rare that I take pleasure in Florida beating a specific team. For me, an outlook dominated by rivalries is a sign that the rivalries are all you have to play for, that you’re a smalltime team.* But we are Florida. We play for bigger things. We play for SEC championships and national championships, and every win is important to us. Beating Charleston Southern is just as important as beating Florida State, because losing either game has an equal chance of keeping us out of the national championship game.

But I confess, I’m going to enjoy the shellacking the Gators will give Lane Kiffin and his Tennessee Volunteers in Gainesville this afternoon.

I’m really looking forward to embracing some of the great traditions at the University of Tennessee, for instance the Vol Walk, running through the T, singing Rocky Top all night long after we beat Florida next year. It will be a blast.
–Lane Kiffin, at the press conference introducing him as the new Tennessee head coach last winter

Let’s remember the context of that remark. As Vols head coach, Kiffin succeeds Phil Fulmer, the single greatest head coach in Tennessee history. A coach who gave Tennessee their only perfect season, 13-0 in 1998, when they won one of the school’s only two national championships. A coach who finished his Tennessee career on a four-game losing streak to the University of Florida–a streak that’s still active for Tennessee, and should extend to five games this afternoon. A coach who lost to Florida again, and again, and again, for two decades. But Lane Kiffin’s gonna change all that. Sure.

He’d already look pretty stupid just for saying that. But then came National Signing Day, when Kiffin decided he was going to “turn Florida in right now right here in front of” an assembled group of Tennessee boosters. Urban Meyer was cheating, Kiffin said–in violation of the rule prohibiting contact with a recruit while that recruit was visiting another school’s campus, Meyer had spent Nu’Keese Richardson’s visit to Knoxville ringing him constantly on his cellphone.

Except, of course, that that isn’t cheating, because no such rule exists. Way to go, Lane.

By contrast, let’s look at all the ways Kiffin himself has cheated in the few short months he’s been Tennessee head coach, even without Tennessee having played a game. At least, all the ways he’s cheated and been caught. At least, I think these are all the ways, but honestly at this point there are so many, and no one seems to be keeping a master list, so it’s entirely possible I’ve missed one:

1. Tennessee decided to give their recruits a taste of what it’s like to be a Tennessee Volunteer on game day, breaking out the fog machine and have them run onto the field.

2. Then the recruits got to feel what the adulation is like after a game as well, by participating in a mock news conference.

3. In a radio interview Kiffin sang the praises of visiting recruit Bryce Brown by name, something prohibited when speaking of uncommitted players.

4. In May, Kiffin announced via tweet that JC Copeland had committed to the University of Tennessee, before Copeland had in fact signed his National Letter of Intent.

5. And then. And then. AND THEN. This one is my favourite. In June an ESPN crew visited Kiffin in Knoxville to tape a story about his fast-growing track record of continued violations. As part of this story, Kiffin allowed ESPN to tape (and then broadcast) himself meeting with recruits, in flagrant violation of the rule prohibiting a media presence during meetings between recruits and coaching staff. In a news story about how he was trying to overcome his history of recruiting violations, Lane Kiffin committed another recruiting violation.

There’s not a 6. on this list, because it turns out “Calling someone with a much more impressive track record than you a cheat when they weren’t breaking the rules, when in fact you’re the one who’s cheating,” isn’t actually a recruiting violation. Maybe the rule makers thought that one went without saying.

I think what sums Lane Kiffin up best is that he is so dumb, and so unjustifiably impressed with himself, that he makes even the Oakland Raiders look sane and competent:

Lane Kiffin is a flat-out liar. He lied to the team, he lied to the fans, and he lied to the media. He will try to destroy that university like he tried to destroy the Raiders, and will eventually clash with [Pat] Summitt and [Bruce] Pearl. Other than that, the Raiders can say nothing further.

(I really love that last line there. “Other than that, the Raiders can say nothing further.”)

Two of my most important rules as a sport fan are that I never let Florida’s rivalry games take precedence over the ultimate goals of SEC and national championships, and I never assume a game’s been won before it’s been played.** Today I’m breaking both those rules–and I’m going to enjoy it.

Go Gators!

I

*This rule crystallised for me in December 2006, when Florida basketball had just begun the first of two seasons as defending national champions. I discovered that one of the new hires at work was a Florida State grad–up here in the DC Metro area, both Gators and Seminoles are rather rare. So I immediately smiled and said, “Ha. I went to UF.”

He snorted. “We just beat you in basketball.”

“Well,” I said, obviously not caring, “we’re still the national champions.”

He reacted with disbelief, completely mystified that I would find this relevant. “Oh come on, I think we can all agree which is the better position to be in. I know I’d much rather be the one who’s just won a game played just now than the one who won something months ago.”

I actually laughed at that. “Well yeah,” I said, “because you’re a Florida State fan. You have nothing but the individual games to play for. We’re Florida. We play for bigger things.” And that’s exactly the terms in which I’ve described it ever since.

**Actually, I never assume a game’s been won till I see how the second half starts. However well one team did in the first half, the other team can always match it in the second.

So that’s where the whackiness was hiding!

Appalachian State at MichiganRemember when I complained about the startling lack of whackiness in the NCAA basketball tournament this year? Well, I figured out where it went. It was being withheld and saved for this year’s college football season, so that the football season could be as super whacky as it’s ever been.

Seriously. Not one of the preseason top ten teams made it six games into the season undefeated. For week seven, the top two teams in the polls were the preseason number eleven and a preseason unranked team. And one of those teams lost Thursday night, meaning that a second preseason unranked team will be moving up this week to take its place. Southern Cal lost to Stanford. LSU lost to Kentucky. K State lost to the undefeated Kansas Jayhawks. Nebraska lost to Missouri for something like the first time in thirty years. South Carolina, in total control of their own destiny in the SEC East, just lost yesterday at home to Vanderbilt. Notre Dame is one and seven. And Michigan. Do I even need to elaborate on Michigan?

What comes next? I’ll be stunned if we have two undefeated teams at the top of the polls by the end of the season. Heck, at this point I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if we end up with a two-loss team in second place. It came very, very close to happening in 2001, and frankly, that season felt far more stable than this one.

I

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Like the Beach Boys said, be true to your school

Lisa hates making choices. Frequently she prefers to have the choice made for her, and once that’s done, then she’s prepared to make the choice. Basically, after someone has picked for her (after I have picked for her), she can then evaluate that choice and decide if she’s happy or unhappy with it. And if she’s unhappy with it, she goes the other way instead.

Looks like Billy Donovan is the same way. He made his choice–he went to the Orlando Magic–and only after he’d held his press conferences in Orlando and Gainesville announcing that decision did he realise that it was completely the wrong one and he’d much rather remain at the University of Florida.

I must admit, I was really surprised when the announcement was made that Billy D was leaving Florida. Not that it’s so surprising that a guy who just did the supposedly impossible–win consecutive national titles–would jump to the NBA. But right after the national championship, amidst all the speculation about Billy going to Kentucky, he committed himself quite firmly to Florida.

And the non-sporting, personal life-related reasons he gave for staying at Florida over going to Kentucky then didn’t really seem to apply any less to a move to the NBA. He wanted to spend time with his kids while they were still kids. His son, a freshman at Gainesville High School, just finished his first season on the GHS boys’ basketball team, and Billy made it to all of his games this season.

Granted, working in Orlando would allow his family to remain in Gainesville, which is why the Magic would be the only team he might have gone to, but it’s still the NBA–it’s still about three times as many games a year, and it’s still week-long road trips.

Whatever. I’m just glad he’s staying.

I

My son the magic charm & The Lord of the Rings

Firstly, my 57th favourite book is The Lord of the Rings by JRR Tolkien. I said a few weeks ago that Nineteen Eighty-Four is TLOTR’s only real rival for most important novel of the twentieth century, but really, I think that TLOTR ultimately wins that debate. I find The Lord of the Rings profoundly powerful (and its enduring success–despite the fact that, really, it’s full of pretty dry and monotomous prose), because it uses ancient archetypes to tell a story of the fundamental, unique change that the human experience underwent in the twentieth century. But I realised when going through this blog’s archives a few weeks ago that there’s not really much I can say about that that I haven’t already, so here you go.

Secondly, Man United set a record on Tuesday night. Their 7-1 win over Roma in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal (winning 8-3 on aggregate) is the largest margin of victory in the knockout stages of the Champions League. The win puts them in the semi-finals (where they’ll play AC Milan); they’re also in the semi-finals of the FA Cup (they play Watford on Saturday) and lead Chelsea by three points in the Premier League.

Only once in the fifty years Europe has had a champions’ cup has a team from one of the Big Five leagues (England, France, Germany, Italy and Spain) won the Treble of European Cup, domestic league and domestic cup in the same season*–Manchester United in 1999. (And back in 1999, when we were in both semi-finals and leading the League–by a slimmer margin over Arsenal then than we have over Chelsea now–is when I started getting excited about the possibility of the Treble.) So while being in both semi-finals while also leading the league with a month to go isn’t, of course, the same as winning all three trophies, it is nevertheless an uncommon position to be in–an opportunity to equal the most successful single season any professional sports club has ever had.

And I note that it comes at the same time as the University of Florida is enjoying a period of success in the two major sports that no other school has ever parallelled. In the past thirteen months, they’ve won both SEC regular season championships, both SEC Tournaments, both NCAA Tournaments, the SEC East, the SEC Championship Game and the BCS Championship.

But what’s the link between the two, I wonder? Well, the answer seems obvious.

Boy.

When Boy was born last year, it’s true that the English football season still had a month to run. But United had already been knocked out of both the important cups (the Champions League in the autumn and the FA Cup to Liverpool, either in the fifth round in February or the quarterfinals in March–I don’t recall which), and Chelsea’s lead in the League was so prohibitive that the contest had already effectively ended.

Which means that, given how United’s doing this year, both Manchester United and the Florida Gators have yet to be eliminated from a major competition in Boy’s lifetime. I therefore feel quite comfortable predicting that both the club and the University will be winning every single major competition in which they participate. And I’ll continue to believe that until I’m proven wrong.

I

*Three clubs from Europe’s more minor leagues have won their domestic double the same season they were champions of Europe (one Scottish and two Dutch), a less impressive achievement because of how much less competitive those leagues are.

Inheritance
Words yesterday: 1066
Words total: 10,938

Time writing: 4.5 hours (10.30-noon, 2.30-4.30, 10.30-11.30)
Reason for stopping: Parenthood, quota
Food: Pizza from the Marymount College career fair
Words that boggled Word: rivermouth, offerance

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Okay, apparently we DID need to come up with a new obnoxious graphic

I

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And we didn’t even have to come up with a new obnoxious graphic …

… because the one we used for football works just as well now:

Image and video hosting by TinyPic

Congrats, guys. I’d particularly like to point out how well Greg Oden played for Ohio State against Florida. The easiest way to win is to pick out what your opponent needs to do to win, and then to take it away from them. But the Florida basketball team were able to let Oden, by far Ohio State’s best and most threatening player, play a great game (not by choice; or rather, not by their own choice, but by the officials’ choice) and were still able to end the game as a contest by midway through the second half.

When the University of Florida won the football championship in January, I blogged about how it moved us permanently amongst the elite of the elites in college athletics–the Notre Dames, the Kentuckies, the Ohio States, the Dukes, that handful of teams in either sport whose names get spoken with reverance, whose greatness transends considerations of how well they’ve done this season or the past couple of seasons and passes into the lore of the sport in question. So then what does tonight’s win mean?

I’m not big into nevers–I’m not prepared to say that no other school is going to be able to match our accomplishment of holding both major college sports national championships at the same time, for instance (Florida’s accomplishment lies in being the first school to do so in the three generations that both sports have had a national championship)–but I feel confident in saying with near-certainty that no other school will be repeating as men’s basketball national champion in the lifetimes of anyone who watched tonight’s national championship game.

I think, therefore, that the uniqueness of our repeat championship, and the manner in which we won it–by all five of our championship-winning starting lineup from a year ago choosing to return, despite that each of the five would have made millions of dollars by entering the NBA draft in a day and age when it’s no longer uncommon for high school basketball players to skip college altogether and go straight to the pros–means that both our football and men’s basketball programmes have moved into their elite groups independently of each other.

When we beat the Ohio State football team in January and became the only school to reign as national champions in both sports at the same time, the UF athletic department as a whole joined that special group of college athletics programmes whose names must almost be spoken reverently. But after tonight, you can strip away everything the basketball team has accomplished, and University of Florida football will still carry the same aura as Nebraska, or Notre Dame, or Ohio State, or Miami or Michigan. And what’s more–and this is where it gets really surreal to those of us who can still remember the time, just ten years ago, before Billy Donovan had even coached a Florida team into the NCAA Tournament, and must seem even moreso to those who were Gator fans before Florida earned its first ever NCAA bid in the mid-1980s–you can also strip away Florida football, and the men’s basketball team can still hold its head up as an equal with Kansas, Kentucky, UCLA, North Carolina or Duke.

And the more I think about it, the more I’m sure that we’re the only school who can claim that in both sports.

I’ve never been prouder to say I’m a Florida Gator.

I

Inheritance
Words today: 231
Words total: 1880

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Oh, and congrats on the Final Four

Yay Florida Faculty Senate! Boo Florida Alumni! Pointed out on Eddie’s blog.

And also on the UF topic, I become increasingly convinced that Billy Donovan will no longer be the University of Florida’s head coach next week, whether because he’s at the University of Kentucky or he’s gone to the NBA. Because if I’m certain it will happen, the worst that can happen is that I simply get confirmed in my expectation.

One bright spot, though. John Feinstein was on the Tony Kornheiser Show today and recounted how Billy D told him that his goal right now is to have more time to spend with his kids while they’re still kids (his oldest son is fourteen now). For instance, he scheduled his recruiting trips this winter to make sure he could attend all of his son’s (a high school freshman) basketball games. Neither Kentucky nor the NBA seem like places where a coach is going to have more free time or more privacy than the University of Florida.

We all like to mention–and I’m sure Billy D is getting tired of hearing it–about how it doesn’t matter how many national championships the UF basketball team wins in a row, their head coach can still only ever be the second most popular guy in Gainesville. But then we also all like to mention how, if Billy were to go to Kentucky, the best he could do would be to equal Adolph Rupp (or even Rick Pitino, who for all his success there is still less of a mythic figure than Rupp). But bear this in mind, Billy: you’re now a made man at Florida. And stay here for another ten years, and you have the opportunity to establish yourself as the face of Florida basketball for all time. You can be our James Naismith, our Adolph Rupp, our John Wooden, our Mike Kryz- Kr-…

… our Coach K.

I

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Whackiness

So on the basis of the first, this year’s NCAA Tournament’s particular brand of whackiness appears to be a lack of whackiness. Except for the freakishly good 11 seeds.

I’m not worried about my own bracket, though. While I had more first-round upsets than I would have liked, fifteen of my Sweet Sixteen and all of my Elite Eight still progressed to the second round.

But I’m still currently in a three-way tie for third (of six) in our bracket league, fifty points behind my litter sister in first place. My sister who told me before the selection show on Sunday that she would need my help filling out a bracket because she hadn’t heard of so many of the teams. Yes …

I managed to fix the formatting on the Zokutou metre, but that then did some bizarre reformatting to the sidebar on my blog, so I’m going to stick with the writertopia wordmetre.

Words today: 429
Words total: 3830

Reason for stopping: Parenthood, brackets
Time spent writing today: One hour (11.00-noon)
Food: Overpriced Archer frozen pizza from Target
Tyop: n/a
Darling: “Paro,” he exclaimed, with such exaggerated enthusiasm that no one could have mistaken it as sincere, “how good to see you this morning.”
What I like: In his introductory scene, he’s coming across as a really cocky jackass who’s a little dangerous.
Monomyth elements covered so far: Ordinary world

I

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A couple of points to keep in mind when filling out your brackets this week

1. When people fill out brackets, they pretty much always go with the highest seed. The Fox Sports bracket challenge* is proof of this. For instance, in each region more than eighty per cent of the contestants have picked the no. 1 seed to reach the Elite Eight, and more than fifty per cent have picked them to reach the Final Four. An additional 35% have picked the no. 2 seed to reach the Final Four, meaning that for each region 85% of contestants have either the no. 1 or no. 2 seed going to the Four.

But last year, precisely one no. 2 seed and precisely no no. 1 seeds reached the Final Four. (How many people do you think had picked brackets where that happened?) Last year the Four comprised a 2 (UCLA), a 3 (Florida), a 4 (LSU) and an 11 (George Mason). This despite all the predictions of all the success the top seeds would enjoy–CBS’s premier analyst, Clark Kellogg, picked all four no. 1 seeds to win their region. (This year he’s picked three no. 1s and a no. 2.)

Because much as we feel more comfortable picking a bracket that runs to seed, it just doesn’t happen that way. Brackets go whacky. Your best tactic is, therefore, to pick a moderately whacky bracket, where the top seed only wins from sixty to 75 per cent of the time. Have all four number ones in the Elite Eight? Have three number ones in the Final Four? Have more than two number twos in the Elite Eight? Have no seed worse than an eleven winning in the opening round? Your bracket’s not whacky enough.

Chances are, of course, that your bracket’s particular brand of whackiness is going to be dead wrong and your bracket’s going to be busted by the Sweet Sixteen at the latest. It might be years before you happen to chance upon the right whackiness for that tournament. Who would have picked George Mason making the Final Four last year? But if you pick your bracket to run to seed, you’ll definitely be wrong.

2. I’d just like to remind everyone that no school not named the University of Florida Gators has won a national championship since the end of the 2005 season. Do you really want to be picking against history? The NCAA Committee sure didn’t–Florida is the no. 1 overall seed in the entire tournament.

I

*For anyone interested, our group in the bracket challenge is called Raceys and the password is claire. Everyone’s invited.

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