At 8:48 on the morning of January 24, 2013, Indianapolis fell to its knees. One of the town's biggest celebrities had just announced his retirement on Twitter. Civilians reeled and the local media sprang to action. In just six weeks, Blue II, the eight-year-old English bulldog serving as Butler University's living mascot since 2004, would pass the collar to Blue III, the one-year-old English bulldog handpicked to succeed him.
"You would have thought we shut the power off in Indy, it was such big news," Michael Kaltenmark tells me. Butler's director of web marketing, Kaltenmark is the man behind Blue II's Twitter account and the rest of his robust web presence. He's also the dog's owner, or as his own Twitter bio puts it, Blue II’s "father." Those dual roles mean he has escorted Blue, as everyone calls the dog, both on official appearances and pee breaks since he was only eight weeks old. In their nearly nine years together, they’ve forged an indelible bond as Blue has gone from beloved campus mascot to a national icon that appeared at consecutive Final Fours. "I feel like Blue and I blazed a trail," Kaltenmark tells me.
Today is the first of March, and so I wish you a Happy March Day. March Day is the lesser-known cousin of May Day, which is a pagan holiday celebrated on May 1. But March Day is far more important because it means we're getting close to the most essential time of year: The Madness. When 64 become one, all shall be revealed. Hail March Day, for The Madness Is Upon Us.
(If there's ever an apocalypse that wipes out most of humanity, I hope the only thing future societies recover from our time is the paragraph above, with absolutely no context.)
Time for the top 10 games of the weekend. Note that a week from Sunday, the regular season is OVER.
In case you were busy setting all the clocks in your house back an hour as part of an ill-conceived "February Fools" prank, here's what you missed in sports on Thursday.
After missing birdie putts on the last two holes he played, Phil Mickelson finished with a 60 in the opening round of the Phoenix Open, one stroke off of the PGA record for the lowest score in a single round. "I'm not thinking about those two putts," a haggard Mickelson said 12 years from now, panhandling outside of a Piggly Wiggly's in West Memphis, Arkansas, a broken shell of his former self. "But, man, they were both so close. I bet things would be different if one of those bad boys fell. But no, I'm not thinking about them. Hey, you got some teeth I could borrow?"
One of the unfortunate realities of sportswriting is that you're often compelled to make bold predictions, only to suffer all the indignities that follow. Only a true masochist makes predictions, because when you're wrong — and you're always going to be wrong — it becomes a feeding frenzy for the bottom-feeders of the homer ecosystem. Here's what I wrote about the Villanova-Syracuse game on Friday:
As the box score shows, ’Nova shot lights out and got to the line at an incredible rate. These are not repeatable skills for a mediocre offensive team, so I fully expect Syracuse to come in and dominate.
Here's what happened:
Bolstered by the heroics of freshman guard Ryan "Archie" Arcidiacono, ’Nova went on to win by four in overtime. Along the way, they repeated the unrepeatable skills of shooting very well and getting to the line, and threw in a lot of offensive rebounds for good measure. I knew retribution was coming. When I checked my Twitter feed a few hours after the game, it was full of "barbs" from the Wildcats partisans. And the tone — my God, the tone! Brotherly love, my ass. One gentleman from the "Nova Basketball Report" even went back to the article itself and left this gem: "You couldn't be more wrong about nova... good call jackass." Three others liked it.
Today we're playing Ben Howland ball. No stalls, go go go! Let's get right to the countdown …
10. No. 5 Louisville at Georgetown, Saturday, Noon, ESPN
One revelation for me this season is that teams that play very slow, physical styles with a focus on defense — and a less worthy offense — tend to be very unpredictable. KenPom has the Hoyas as a top-10 defense, but a distant 145th on offense, and their results have been all over the place. There's an OT loss to Indiana, a win over UCLA, a blowout loss against Pittsburgh, a blowout win against Notre Dame, and grinding losses to Marquette and South Florida. When you look at Virginia's profile — 9th on defense, 131st on offense — you see the same apparent randomness. Which means that this game is actually pretty tough to predict. You'd expect Louisville to bounce back in a big way after dropping two straight to Syracuse and Villanova, and you'd expect that the excellent Pitino defense would hold Georgetown to somewhere around 50 points, but there's the nagging possibility that the Hoyas could return the favor and steal one at home.
Let's begin by delving into the realm of the imagination. Pretend it's November 1, 2012, and you and I are real-life acquaintances. Pretend we're having a conversation on a park bench near a vacant outdoor court. The wind is whistling, and it's far too cold to even consider playing, but we can't help stare longingly at the torn net hanging from the bent rim. The wind dies down for a moment, and I tell you that I've had a vision. There will be a number of buzzer-beaters this year, I say, but only one of them will be truly peculiar. You'll watch the replay over and over, but you still won't quite be able to wrap your mind around how it all happened. And tell me, I continue, as the wind begins to howl, tell me which team is involved. More than that, tell me which team wins.
We both know what you'd say, even without the benefit of a mystic vision. "Butler." Of course you'd say Butler. It's always Butler.
In case you were busy writing the first part of a gritty 3-D trilogy reimagining the story of Humpty Dumpty called "HD Volume One: Sitting on a Wall," here's what you missed in sports last weekend.
The Baltimore Ravens topped the Patriots, 28-13, behind three touchdown passes from quarterback Joe Flacco. After the game, Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs reportedly said, "Tell (the Patriots) to have fun at the Pro Bowl." When told this, Patriots quarterback Tom Brady grinned ear to ear, saying, "Terrell said that? Really? I thought that guy didn't like me, what with the all the hitting and screaming today. I guess I learned a valuable lesson in judging. Tell Terrell congratulations on his hard-fought victory, and that we will have a great time at the Pro Bowl because nothing is better than chilling with friends in Hawaii. And then tell him aloha, because, hello, what a great competitor; goodbye, I'll miss his sweet face; and I just love that guy's attitude!"
Wednesday, January 9, will go down in infamy as the Night of Two Dunks. It started with Illinois' Brandon Paul trying his luck against Minnesota's Trevor Mbakwe:
On any other night, that would easily be the top jam. It was so good that if you had to nominate 10 dunks for some kind of Dunk of the Year award, it would be an automatic entry. There's no way there will be nine better in the entire season. The idea of topping it that same night was ludicrous; at most, you might have a dunk that looked exactly the same, but it wouldn't be quite as cool because it came second.
And then San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin did this:
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Monday.
Mark Sanchez finished with five turnovers, including three on the final three possessions, as the Jets lost to the Titans, 14-10, and were eliminated from playoff contention. "So many asses," said Sanchez ruefully. "Just so many asses out there, getting in the way of good football. This sport used to mean something. Now they just put you out there like a Christian in the lion's den, attacked by a thousand asses."
First things first — you might notice there's been a bit of re-branding in these parts. I've been using "epiphanies" as a catch-all term for the recap column this season (as in, "15 Epiphanies from the weekend in college basketball!"), but it gets tough having so many epiphanies every week. Eventually your brain begins to hurt from all that sudden insight and joy, and you start to think, hey, maybe I can fake an epiphany or two. Then you catch yourself typing things like, "EPIPHANY:Bo Ryan is secretly the most exciting man in college athletics," and it gets so bad you can't even look at yourself in the mirror. Such guilt!
So no more epiphanies. From now on, this is The Hardcourt Shuffle. Here are my two reasons for choosing the name:
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports over the weekend.
Tom Brady led New England on a stirring comeback, but the Patriots' 24 fourth-quarter points weren't enough to beat the 49ers, who prevailed, 41-34, and secured a playoff spot. After the final whistle, Jim Harbaugh and Bill Belichick stared at each other from across the field and simultaneously shouted, "It's probably better if we don't do this!"
When I was a kid, I was allowed to open one present on Christmas Eve. I'd get really psyched up for this ritual, even though all the prime booty was hidden in a closet somewhere and I had to choose from the secondary tier of gifts sent by relatives, which all looked suspiciously like clothing and had been under the tree for a week. Intuitively I knew that my Christmas Eve present would be crap, but did I care? Is a starving man picky when he finds a morsel of food? Hell no. It was a terrific moment, even if it lasted all of two seconds. But when it was over, and after I had tried on the hunter green JC Penney turtleneck from Aunt Maureen, I had to be restrained from attacking the rest of the gifts in a hurricane of arms, wrapping paper, and saliva (you can open three gifts at once if you're OK with biting). Every year, as I beat a hasty retreat to my room before temptation overwhelmed me, I realized that the Christmas Eve gift had been a mixed blessing. Yes, I got my pre-Christmas present-opening high, but it was only going to make the night that much longer. I was like a shark that tasted a drop of blood, and now I was in the frenzy zone.
December basketball feels like those late-night moments, stuck in my room, shaking and knowing that sleep is a fantasy. We've already had the epic November games, which get better every year, and in a few days we'll have conference play. But now? Now we just had a stretch of four days in which the best game was unranked Tennessee upsetting barely ranked Wichita State. Or maybe it was a Big Five game nobody noticed because both teams are in a down year. Brutal, brutal stuff. Unlike the turtleneck, I wouldn't trade in the November experience, but man ... we need some real action bad.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports on Tuesday.
Dwight Howard scored 23 points and grabbed 15 boards as the Lakers beat the Nets 95-90 in Mike D'Antoni's first game on the L.A. bench. It was a virtuoso performance for D'Antoni, who, despite a knee injury, was firing on all cylinders with such bench-themed moves as the running bench slide, the sitting bench slide, the Captain Morgan leg, the reverse Captain Morgan leg, Poppo's Droppo, the fussy towel wipe, the angry kick, the Ruppian hop, the Wooden whine, the frustration head-bury combo, the satisfaction back lean, Magglio the Good Pirate, the gentle head pat, the Faustian substitute, the restless foot tapping two-second sit-me-down, the supine cry, the post-dunk defensive urge, the smirk of fierce disbelief, the hurried jump, Nap Time, the furious Chaplain march, the standing contemplative hand-to-mouth, the existential laugh of the oppressed, the recumbent plea, the player's shoulder strap grab-and-toss, the Dutch persuasion, Appletini, and his favorite, the two-clap Crazy James Nai-Nai.
In case you were out living a life of leisure, here's what you missed in sports over the weekend.
Eli Manning threw for 316 yards and two touchdowns and Lawrence Tynes hit the game-winning 31-yard field goal as the Giants advanced won the NFC championship with a 20-17 win over the 49ers. After the game, Satan lazily turned on his television and came across Tom Coughlin's post-game press conference. "Holy shit," he said, shuffling through some papers, "I still haven't collected that guy's soul from 2008?!"
Billy Cundiff shanked a 32-yard field goal with 11 seconds left as Tom Brady and the Patriots survived to win the AFC championship 23-20. After the game, former Buffalo Bills kicker Scott Norwood placed a sympathetic phone call to Cundiff. "Don't worry," said Norwood. "People will forget this after a few- sorry, hold on a second Billy, someone's urinating on my window again."