Archive | April, 2015

Can Peterson to Dallas Square the Walker Score?

27 Apr

If the phrase ‘blockbuster trade’ had not yet been coined, this deal was sure to get it minted fast. It was a real doozie.

The NFL had never seen a two-team swap quite like it, before or since.

About a quarter into the 1989 NFL season, the Minnesota Vikings and Dallas Cowboys reached agreement for what has remained the biggest exchange of players & picks in the League’s long history.

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When the documents had cleared NFL scrutiny, Dallas would receive 5 players and 8 draft picks that included three, 1st and 2nd rounders. Vikings took 4 draft choices (two 3rd rounders) and one player who was considered the deal’s prize catch in star ball-carrier and 2-time All-Pro, Herschel Walker.

And the result?

Prevailing view has been that Dallas got the better end of the deal while Vikes, in the words of Marilyn, got the “fuzzy end of the lollipop (Some Like It Hot (’59)).”

That view stems from how Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and head coach Jimmy Johnson turned their wealth of draft selections into gold, key elements of a 90s Texas Renaissance and championship run of three Super Bowl wins in four seasons (’93-94, ‘96).

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Minnesota on the other hand got a mere 2.5 years out of Walker and no trip back to the Super Bowl as they’d hoped in banking their future on the former Heisman winner and two-time All-Pro (DAL), believing him the final piece to their Super puzzle.

It should be noted the Vikings did get good value from one of their draft picks in wide receiver Jake Reed who would remain with Minnesota throughout the 90s (’91-02 / 6999y / 36td).

Why Herschel under-achieved in Minnesota was debated long & hard.

Some blame Vikings staffers for failing to properly tailor offensive scheme to suit their star, while others believe Herschel himself refused to adapt to game plans and blocking designs, stubbornly sticking to his powerful but straight-ahead run style. Still others claimed the highly touted star was simply over-rated as a pro.

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My own memories of the closing act in Walker’s tenure were not pleasant as I witnessed a man, understandably frustrated at his lack of success in Minnesota while his former team blossomed, that seemed less motivated as the end neared.

Not much dispute on how Dallas amalgamated enough picks into success (trade players were marginal). The disagreement arises as to the degree of assistance Minnesota’s generousness provided to shaping Cowboys Super results.

Draftees Emmitt Smith, Darren Woodson and Alvin Harper were key players in Cowboys rise and a direct result of the choices afforded Dallas by the mega-deal. A problem arises when some extend believed benefits to include draft acquisitions more indirectly connected and further removed from the MIN deal.

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That’s the history.

Today, Vikings and Cowboys seem well situated to forge yet another titanesque deal. The respective assets and needs are strikingly similar to 1989 but the roles reversed, cleats on the other feet, so to speak.

This time it’s Minnesota who is rebuilding and holds most the cards in this high stakes game of Texas hold ‘em. Adrian Peterson is still under contract to the Vikes who, if willing to part with their once-in-a-generation running back, could use the plethora of picks gotten in his transfer, the quantity necessary to land those draft gems (See; Dallas ‘89)).

As for Dallas, like Vikings in ‘89, they’re seemingly one man short in the motor pool in dire need of that top-flight carrier to ride to titletown, now that big yardage amasser DeMarco Murray has flown the coop (1845y / to PHI).

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One thing’s for certain, and that’s that Jones will not give up scads of draft choices that the Vikes conceded to get Herschel, though, one could argue, this go round it might make more sense, given the 2012 MVP’s credentials.

But AP turned 30 in March (Herschel was 27), having been recently removed from the Commissioner’s exempt list and set to begin his 9th campaign. Sitting out most of the 2014 season (1g) when suspn’d in a criminal domestic child abuse (discipline) matter, it’s fair to characterize the upcoming 2015 NFL season as his eight.

And that legal matter gives Peterson some PR baggage Walker did not carry. But then rage-a-holic Greg Hardy, freed but not “cleared (“Hardy‘s” / P.King / 4.23), needs a U-Haul® to lug all his baggage and Mr. Jones was receptive to his story & hire, so there’s that.

In allowing Murray to depart, one could speculate that Jones did so because he hoped to have an ample replacement in Peterson to fill the sizable void left by DeMarco who literally carried Dallas to the post-season in 2015.

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The respective salary caps, relevant contractual terms and personal preferences of the parties will control on the Peterson issue. They always do.

Jones is a strange bird these days, having gone from builder of champions to America’s most hawkish rental agent (AT&T). Former Dallas QB Babe Laufenberg has been quoted as saying that if Jerry seriously wants a player on roster, he’ll find a way to make it happen. And if he doesn’t, he won’t (See: Murray)).

How much, if at all, does Jones want the Palestine, Texas native to be in Cowboys garb? If yes he’s not alone as Minnesota owner Zygi Wilf should certainly want Adrian back in purple for a team starving of stars and a community set to welcome back its tarnished hero to start anew and ‘come in from the cold.’

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Minnesota has the upper hand, Adrian’s baggage & all. They need not negotiate with urgency. Whereas, their Southwestern trading partners are in bit of a pickle. Oft-inured Tony Romo’s not getting any younger and with a QB market fast filling with collegiate single-wing tail-backs (flash QB), their window of opportunity is closing fast.

If I’m a Cowboys fan I’m telling the owner: ‘It’s time to roll the dice, make a deal and get ‘er done, Big Hombre.’ Twenty years for America‘s Team to sit at home during the biggest shindig on the planet is quite a dry spell, even as Cowboys, Inc. makes mucho moolah.

Sticking to steers (players & picks) and tabling other considerations, including unlikely conditions-attached, this is what it might take from Jones to get ‘All-Day’ in Big D: one 1st-rounder, two 2nds (a key), two mid-to-late rangers and two proven players, including a capable running back for the Vikings. That would fill the bill and go a ways in starting to square things on Vikings painful past.

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If a Peterson deal gets done between these North – South stanchions of football, Dallas will distinguish the past while Minnesota will make comparison and hope history repeats. In any case, whether it’s back to the Land of 10,000 Lakes or starting fresh in the Lone Star State, Adrian Peterson will shine wherever he settles.

Steven Keys
NFL HunchLine
Photo credits: A.Peterson, wc.cca, J.Bielawa, 9.21.13; J.Jones, wc, suzismini, 8.30.08; H.Walker-Rep.Peterson, 5.5.04, wc, USGov, PE4Life; Vikings-wordmark, wc, 1982-03; Cowboys.helmet, wc, 5.16.08, DukeHa; A.Peterson, 1.28.12, wc, Arvee5.0; AT&T.Dallas, 9.23.12, wc, Mahanga; A.Peterson, wc, 10.24.10, M.Morbeck; NFL-Wikiproject.
Posted: 4.26.15 @ 11:52pm; edit 4.27 @ 1:56am, 12:36pm EST

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The Strange NFL Ride of Tim Tebow

25 Apr

He’s back. But if you’re a Tim Tebow fan you’d better hold off for awhile on forking out $395 smackers for that official NFL-NFLPA approved Philadelphia Eagles Nike® game jersey.

Timbo signed a 1-year contract with Jeffrey Lurie’s club on Sunday, reportedly containing no guaranteed money.

In other words, Eagles head coach Chip Kelly and GM Howie Roseman didn’t exactly make a substantial commitment to Tebow. The legal documant surely has all the necessary boilerplate but sounds about as one-sided as a landlord’s lease.

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Personally, I like seeing Tim Tebow back in the NFL, for however brief, getting what’s likely to be his last shot at earning an NFL pension (6+ years?).

Not because I’m a Florida Gators’ fan, an Eagles watcher, espouse a conservative Christian faith or get some kind of strange pleasure from seeing the rich get richer. Uh-uh.

It’s because I like Tim’s sporting spirit. He, like alot of those guys who have to fight their way onto an NFL roster, seems to respect his co-workers and the game. And then Tebowmania was a trip, if a bit oversold (See; Disney).

It’s also because I’m a sports fan and there is a tenet, one of the few that remain, that we like to see the leaders of our games give due accord. It rewards a player who‘s proven himself by finding that man a roster spot.

A favored idiom amongst athletes and brass: talk the talk, walk the walk.

Tim didn’t do much talking. What he did do in 2011 when he captivated the nation in coming off the bench to lead Denver on a 6-win run (7-4) and a playoff road win at Pittsburgh, was walk with head high and back up most his words.

But he’s got two problems:

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1) He’s been essentially inactive from football play for three years, when you consider Rex Ryan had him riding the pine in Jersey (Jets) for 2012 when he started just two games (FB-TE) and largely in a running capacity (32a / 102y); and

2) Timbo’s not a starting NFL quarterback.

He’s a run-QB by trial & trade and pocket presence is a style that the rabbit-habit (Kaep, Vick, Cam, Jon, MM) will never fully acquire. It’s an old dogs, new tricks kinda’ thing. And when you’re a 27-yr old QB in football, that’s about 175 in dog years, I think.

That, in and of itself, should not be an NFL career-ender. What might is what appears to be an ego that will not permit Tebow to switch positions, i.e., tight-end, a job to which Tim’s muscular frame, skill-set (hands & run) and past life seem a perfect fit. Not the reincarnation kind but his initial high school position in the Sunshine State (FL).

Just imagine if Tim had opened to TE in Foxborough with Gronk rehabbing and Hernandez in the clink. Not a guarantee of roster spot but an enhancer, for sure.

I don’t see Tim starting under center, nor a safety-net #2 who can see action early & long, but a clipboard 3 is a possibility. And what an energized entrance that would be, eh (See: Tebowmania)?

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Why his celebrity hasn’t given him a roster spot the past two seasons is a bit baffling, considering the NFL is, first & foremost, a business for players & owners alike.

‘My team can’t afford to give up a roster spot for celebrity,’ you say? Poppycock.

If you follow the NFL action you’d know full well that Tim’s presence on numerous rosters could not have hurt the quality of competition one iota (See; Jags, Bucs, Raiders, etcetera).

And when you consider how high up is rated Seahawks star pass-defender Dick Sherman on most fantasy lists, even as he seems to make tackles with the frequency of a noon whistle (hyperbole), Tim’s downside doesn’t seem so dour.

They used to call it accentuating the positive.

The recent word is that Tebow looks new & improved as a pro. Whatever.

The chance he breaks into the top three of a five-deep quarterback pool currently in Eagles’ spring camp, including vets Mark Sanchez, Sam Bradford, Matt Barkley and invitee G.J. Kinne, is not optimal. To crack the glass ceiling Tim seems under he’ll need to make himself valuable, i.e., multi-tasker. That means an openness to tight-end and special-teams which could make his QB3 tag a practical placement.

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As for the jersey, better go with a Tebow t-shirt for now. That could be Walmart or the Mall.

Steven Keys
NFL HunchLine
Photo credits: Tebow, E.Clemed, 1.1.12, wc; Tebow.Starlito.L.Garrett, wc, 11.1.12; Tebow, E.Clemente, 1.1.12, wc; Lincoln.Financial, wc, 9.15.11, G.Canam; NFL-Wikiproject.
Posted: 4.25.15 @ 12:31am EST

Johnny Renaissance: Manziel Begins Anew

20 Apr

Shirley Ellis called it “The Name Game” in her 1964 pop hit.

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Ever since Jonathan Manziel (Johnny Football®) made the national scene in 2011, his trademarked moniker and free-wheeling lifestyle have become fodder for a kind of national name game, i.e., “Johnny Red Flag,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Johnny Case (Study),” “Johnny Got His (Sample Cup)” are just a smattering of the gamesmanship.

Some of the word-plays have been complimentary, others have been critical but most have poked fun at the Tyler, Texas native (12.6.92).

And my title (“Johnny Renaissance”)? It’s not so much a prediction as it is a communiqué of good luck. Not because I’m a huge fan of Johnny Manziel.

Though he entered the NFL draft after his sophomore season, I had hoped he’d remain in college for the duration as I believed he stood good chance of becoming NCAA’s greatest single-wing tail-back, i.e., run-QB.

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The 2nd-year Cleveland Browns‘ QB and Heisman winner (Tx A&M ‘12) was reported to’ve voluntarily entered a “drug and alcohol rehabilitation” facility in February (“Sources: Manziel Out” / Fox-AP / 4.11). He’s exited the facility and is expected to be in attendance at Browns spring camp to kick off Monday (4/20).

Addiction, if that’s what the rehab stint was largely about, and taking steps to combat it through self examination, is serious stuff.

So I say, bravo, Johnny.

As of this write, Jon will compete with three quarterbacks for the Browns starter job, a number of rostered signal callers likely to be trimmed down to three.

Others include former Buccaneer & Bear, the pricey pick-up Josh McCown, 2nd-year man Connor Shaw (one start in ‘14) and former Brown & Bill, Thad Lewis.

Last year’s primary starter Brian Hoyer (13gs) won’t be amongst the group as he was not resigned and contracted with Houston (2y / 10M). The McCown signing doesn‘t appear a big upgrade but then the Cleveland brain-trust has been a bit shaky in signal-caller calls ever since the Bernie Kosar days ended (’91).

Brownies are not alone. A matriculating, field-savvy, healthy, clutch, long-term QB is hard to find, and getting harder.

Manziel had two starts in (0-2) and did not impress (51+ C%, 0td, 2int, y/c 9.7). But he kept the scamper to a minimum (9-29y) and generally kept his composure, excepting that backwards scoot & fumble @ Buffalo.

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Run-QB has not translated well to the pro game and I don’t expect Jon, nor Mr. Mariota, to change that trend.

The rabbit-habit works wonders on the unlevel playing fields of the college gridiron but does not cultivate the form nor mental state required for the pass heavy pro-set. Once the ‘bolt action’ begins it’s a nearly impossible habit to break. Taking hard hits is a painful learning process best begun when young, dauntless and a bit imprudent.

But most NFL observers are right now more concerned with Jon’s mental maturity and social behavior. A believed drinking habit is thought to’ve been a hindrance to his development on and off the playing field.

A devout devotion to drink will derail anyone’s development. Problem drinkers, especially of celebrity status, will usually trip-wire trouble of a very serious, regular nature, something I didn’t quite see in Manziel’s reported behaviors.

Before his rehabilitation, whenever I heard of Johnny Football’s off field shenanigans I was often reminded of that Barbara Streisand song, “People (Styne & Merrill (Funny Girl ’64)), “♫ people who need people ♫.” No joke.

Manziel appeared to this amateur psychiatrist to be a young man who simply reveled in the company of others, loved the spotlight and sharing his fame.

Whatever the reason(s) Jon went the rehab route, be it the crutch of alcohol or something else, the experience should do him good, physically and emotionally. We all could use a cleansing now & then, body and soul (See; libation, medicines, gluten, HFCS (in pop), plastics, mold, chemicals, etc.).

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The fact Skip Bayless sent out the SOS for Jon just prior to his entrance into the facility means either Skip has a conduit into the Manziel circle or his skills in long-distance observation & diagnosis are out of this world.

Whether or not the rehab will result in a rebirth of sorts, learning to respect himself and others, is something Jon, we, won’t know for some time. Change is a process. The valuable kind will often come in small steps:

Victory is not won in miles but in inches. Win a little now, hold your ground and later win a little more (Louis L’Amour);” or, “Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in, day out (R. Collier).”

That reads like standard motivational speech: true enough but rather austere.

Jon might keep one thing in mind that may prove helpful: As busy & beautiful as life can be, a good chunk of it is boredom, even if rich and famous. If you can cope with that, fill it with value, you’re halfway there.

Something in Jon’s favor: With steady decline in the number of pocket-passers coming out of the college ranks, where Sir Runs Alot has stole the show and the hearts of many a coach, the single-wing TB (run QB) should come back in vogue and, if not dominate the NFL, surely hold a dominion. Law of supply & demand.

That should also portend a rebirth in defensive dominance as offensive passing skills become more the icing rather than the greater cake of champions.

If Manziel flies right, catches a few breaks and his club is serious about winning, he could be at the forefront of a Renaissance, personally and professionally (NFL). His new theme song: “I Will Survive (Gaynor ‘78),” of course.

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Steven Keys
NFL Hunch Line
Photo credits: J.Manziel, wc.cca, ED.Drost, 7.25.14, Berea, pass; J.Manziel, wc.cca, ED.Drost, 8.2.14, Berea, head, thmb; J.Manziel, wc.cca, Shutterbug459, TxA&M, 10.20.12, thmb; J.Manziel, 7.25.14, Berea, run, wc.cca, ED.Drost, thmb; J.Manziel, Berea, 7.25.14, ED.Drost, wc.cca, standing, thmb.
Posted: 4.20.15 @12:56am EST

Krzyzewski Unseats Wooden With Title #5

13 Apr

It’s an adjective that seems tailor-made for the likes of John Wooden. It fits the legendary UCLA basketball coach like a pair of well worn wing-tips: greatest.

For the man who built Bruins basketball (1948-75) into the collegiate powerhouse and standard of excellence by which all roundball programs are judged by way of 10 NCAA titles, .804 win-% and player greats like Hazzard, Walton, Goodrich, Wicks, Alcindor (Kareem) and Meyers, the superlatives never grow tiresome.

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But while it may be blasphemy to write, after Duke‘s latest NCAA triumph over gritty Final foe Wisconsin (68-63), it may be time to bump the Wizard of Westwood from his seemingly permanent place atop college b-ball’s all-time greatest coaches perch in favor of the near nonpareil that has become Mike Krzyzewski.

It’s a roost where John’s towered over a pantheon of greats that include the names Rupp, Iba, Knight, McGuire, McCracken, Smith, Pitino, Donovan, Crum, Haskins, Calhoun, Jucker, Allen and many more, including careers that pre-dated the NCAA tourney (‘39) or side-stepped it all together (early NIT (Bee)).

Here’s why Krzyzewski should now be considered college basketball’s top dog amongst high caliber coaching canines. Metaphors and alliteration rock.

While Coach K’s five (5) NCAA titles are only half as many as the Wizard’s ten (10), consider the time span they cover.

After taking the reins at Duke in 1980, the first title trophy would be had in 1991 in a legendary run that included a semi-final upset win over defending champion (‘90 v DU) and undefeated UNLV Runnin’ Rebels enroute to a final win over perennial power, Kansas. That was followed by the validating victory over the so-called Fab Five of Michigan (’92) to complete the back-to-back reign.

The third championship would come nine year later (‘01 / UA), the fourth nine years after that (‘10 / Butler) and fifth in 2015 (UW). A 25 year span. Call it the extended dynasty and it’s in vogue (See: Popovich (NBA) and Belichick (NFL)).

And Mike’s not done, not by a long shot. Though, at the rate he’s going, he’ll need another 30 years to match John’s massive mark of ten NCAAs championships.

But quantity is not always everything (See; Bonds v Ruth & Aaron).

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I take nothing away from the fact Wooden’s achievements occurred in an era that some might distortedly describe as a period not far removed from the peach basket days.

John topped the best programs of his time while his schemes & players would without a doubt, out maneuver most of today’s mind & muscle. I simply give high praise to Mike’s splendid span of success.

And what Krzyzewski has done in adapting to change is almost incomparable.

This ability is most recognizable in adjusting to the now common early exit of under-classman to the pro ranks (seven of John Calipari’s Wildcats declared last week for the 2015 NBA draft) which makes continuity in player appreciation (of game plan) and rapport (with co-workers) so much harder to achieve.

Because rosters in many of today’s top school’s are in a constant state of flux, a coach’s duties in recruiting and stratagem must be frequently fine-tuned with great precision. The recruiting and ‘edge’ games (as in, finding one) are played out 12 months a year. It’s just one of the many job developments Mr. Wooden might find entirely exasperating.

In short, it’s harder to be a coach today: more change, more opinions, more rules, more duties, more expectations and more competition. And John would agree.

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As to in-game strategies, if there was one guy who could prevent Wisconsin from fulfilling what looked to be a destiny with greatness in 2015 by replicating Duke’s 1991 championship run, it would be Michael Krzyzewski, the Great Exploiter.

Holding your opponent to 68 is good defense but in the Final, against b-ball’s standard-bearer school (DU), you’ve gotta’ be better than good, for the distance.

Badgers lacked the zest they displayed against the favored Kentuckians, and while Kaminsky played a blinder, Dekker was a bit short in 2H. Mike will exploit any mistake, any fade-away in game like no other college coach in history.

Did the officials tilt the contest East? Maybe, by chance, but that’s just fine whine. Teams, schools looking to break through into the upper echelon of juggernaut programs will overcome adversity (See; Duke ’91) and don’t make excuses.

And it’s why the biggest stars in today’s college hoops are coaches, not the highly-touted players who often exit not long after they arrive on campus and are just as quickly forgotten when the new high school recruits arrive to fanfare

Early departures for greener pastures are no good for gurus and fans, but if you could ask that great Marquette coach and forerunner to today’s adaptable coach, Al McGuire (‘77 NCAA title (d. ‘01)), he might say something like this: ‘More power to those kids who exit early for big bucks. Life’s short and you should ‘grab the gusto’ while you can.’

That’s in opposite of the guy who’s building his own cult of personality out West in Madison, Badgers’ coach Bo Ryan (FF ‘14 & ‘15) who’s from the ‘finish what you start’ School of Thought, i.e.,‘one & done’ be darned.

Wooden or Krzyzewski? You can’t go wrong whomever you seat upon the throne for the greatest men’s college basketball coach (Connecticut’s Geno Auriemma just claimed his 10th NCAA on the ladies side). But if you don’t tab Mike, you better find Mr. Duke a big chair to power-share with the Wizard. Swish!

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Steven Keys
Straight Shooter
Photo credits: Krzyzewski, 2013, Glantzman, wc; Krzyzewski, 4.6.6, WD.Moss, wc; Wooden, 72, UCLA-S.Campus, wc; Wooden, UCLA-(SC), 65, wc; Krzyzewski, wc, 1.12.12, CJCoS(Cullen); Straight.Shooter. produce.label
Posted: 4.13.15 @ 6:35pm; edit 10:37 EST

Krash Kentucky, Bucky? Think Duke-UNLV ’91

1 Apr

March Madness is crazy for upsets.

More than any other sport festival, college b-ball’s pink carnation affairs (men’s & women’s NCAA Division I Basketball Championships) seem predicated on the high probability that powerhouse schools will get unplugged by some small-college upstart on their way to being fitted for Cinderello’s glass sneaker.

Bookies & business-types lose sleep thinking about it but fans can’t get enough.

Shockers aren’t the only defining trait of Madness. Writer Frank Deford (SI.com / “What Makes March..” / 3-9-11) believes “single-elimination” is what makes the tourney a winner.

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My own diagnosis: it’s the tournament’s inclusiveness which gives it a lovable lunacy.

The NCAA holds a big dance and (nearly) everyone’s invited.

Unlike the hoity-toity cotillion which is college football’s CFP championship, the men’s and women’s parties are where new stars are found and dreams can become reality. It’s not exactly a “Delta Tau Chi” bash (Animal House) but more like that dorm party the first week of classes: come one, come all.

Apart from a national crisis, no event does more to unify the 50 than Selection Sunday. Excitement-wise, it’s up there with the Triple Crowns, final five in the Super Bowl, last lap at Indy.500 and atlas stones lift in World‘s Strongest Man.

It’s why President Obama’s so keen to publicize his tourney picks. Savvy man.

If you can’t find a team to root for you’re not trying.

The Selection gets our attention, the upsets keep us talking.

And talk we do, as there’s usually no shortage of top seeds (#s 1-4) who handle their votes-of-confidence as if they were hot potatoes. The shockers include Texas Western (El Paso) (v UK ‘66), NC State (v HOU ‘83), Villanova (v GTwn ‘85), Princeton (v UCLA ’96) and Mercer (v Duke ‘14). Doozies.

But this year the Pepto-Bismol® stayed in the medicine cabinet as the queasy catastrophes proved relatively rare with most #2 seeds playing fairly deep into the tourney and three #1s making it to the Showcase (Final Four).

That makes Saturday’s Wisconsin (35-3) v Kentucky (38-0) NCAA semi-final (Indianapolis @ 8:49pm EST (TBS) all the more intriguing.

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For the Badgers (4-1 odds), pulling off the upset of the undefeated and favored Wildcats (2-3) will require an effort of gargantuan proportions and near flawless execution.

Wooden Award aspirant Frank Kaminsky (6-11) will need to emulate Christian Laettner (play to exhaustion) in hopes of leading his UW men to the Final on Monday where either Michigan St. (27-11) or Duke (33-4) await (@ 6:09)).

Kaminsky must score upwards of 25 (29 v UA) and dominate on the boards by exhibiting a rebounding prowess not displayed in the win over Arizona (6).

For the team’s part, a continued adherence to coach Bo Ryan’s smart play (few fouls) and cleavage away from what’s become an over-reliance on 3-pointers are keys to victory.

But most important to Wisconsin’s forward progress in NCAA 2015 is a willingness to bang inside with the Bluegrass big men. If not control of the tempo, having an equal say. A sustained presence in the paint will also open up the shooting lanes, mid-range and long (3s), not unlike establishing the run game in pro football to set up the pass.

And carving out a presence under the basket is exactly what Laettner and his Duke teammates did to stay in it against their own unblemished and defending champion opponent UNLV in the historic 1991 semi-final.

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It was the Blue Devil’s masterful performance in toppling the Runnin’ Rebels in what could be called NCAA’s all time greatest game that is now template for any team who’s presented with what appears an insurmountable obstacle, i.e., an unbeatable foe.

Not part of that template is the fact the Blue Devils, unlike the Badgers, were quite familiar with their Vegas opponent, having suffered the worst shellacking in Final history the year prior, 103-73. That embarrassing loss fostered a summer of soul searching and a sense of revenge that found an outlet in next year’s Final as the two squared off again. It was mission time for Mike Krzyzewski & Co. and we all became converts.

An advantage Wisconsin holds that Duke did not is that they face an undefeated Kentucky team that needed a bit o’ luck of the Irish to get by a hasty Notre Dame squad last Sunday (68-66) who let a win slip from their tenuous grasp.

There are chinks in UK’s armor and it’s why UW should prevail Saturday.

There’s no revenge-factor in play for the Madisonians but not having won the NCAA since Ann Sothern and Mickey Rooney were top box office (‘41), while keeper coach Bo Ryan (.742) still looks for his first title, all might serve as sufficient motivation for the guys in red & white.

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But what may serve Badgers best in prepping for the balanced Kentucky attack might be a video session of Duke’s incredible 1991 win over UNLV (See; pointers).

March 30th marked the 24th anniversary of the Duke’s highly improbable victory and remains in this writer‘s memory the most exciting, sublime game in college basketball history. It is the gold standard by which all other NCAA contests must be measured.

Why such high praise for a college b-ball semifinal game? Simply put, this David and Goliath match-up had everything.

For starters, it was an upset of the first order. UNLV was undefeated, showcased Player of the Year Larry Johnson, were riding a 45-game win streak and faced the same school they’d easily brushed aside in the 1990 Final to win their first NCAA basketball title.

While Duke was no stranger to the Final Four (their fifth under Mike Krzyzewski, ninth overall), each appearance had ended with a loss. In losing to UNLV in the 1990 Final by a lopsided 103-73 margin, the Blue Devils’ game appeared out of step with the times.

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Before tip-off it had all the signs of another massacre.

While the contrasting racial make-ups of the Texas Western / Kentucky squads gave that game serious social overtone, Duke / UNLV was not without its own psycho-drama.

It was ivy-covered halls vs. desert developers; old money vs. Sin City. More weighty was the appearance of favoritism when UNLV was given a pass by the NCAA Rules Committee and allowed into the tourney to defend their title.

Two years earlier Kansas had been denied defense of its own title by rule infractions. The normally no-nonsense NCAA and their new open-door policy for a similarly-situated UNLV smacked of some serious hypocrisy. But then, new money’s as green as the old.

On the surface the Blue Devils conveyed the student-athlete ideal. In reality & interview, Bobby Hurley, Grant Hill and Christian Laettner appeared no more studious or articulate than the Vegas bunch and emanated the same boyish arrogance as the coming Fab Five.

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As for the sideline strategists, when separated from the claims of NCAA Rules police, Jerry Tarkanian was as likeable and skilled as his Dukian counterpart Coach K.

It was on the court where the real difference existed. Duke was ball-control and fundamentals, UNLV was run & gun and dominated inside with strength.

Though a fan of neither team I wasn’t exactly neutral. Like many, I pulled for the underdog Duke. Besides that, the Rebels were a regional rival to my own school, the University of Arizona who was looking for their own breakthrough moment.

In the end, it was Duke’s relentlessness and ability to impose its style on much of the game-tempo, while managing to compete with the Rebels inside that gave the Blue Devils the narrow 79-77 victory.

UNLV didn’t lose the game, Duke won it. This was no mistake-prone Colts team stumbling against a confident Jets squad in 1969 (SB3). The Rebels played with skill and with heart. A more hard fought, back & forth battle I never witnessed. Maybe Duke just wanted it…needed it more.

Like the USA’s 1980 “Miracle on Ice” Olympic hockey team (USSR / Finland), Duke’s ability to summon the strength and close the deal against Final opponent Kansas (72-65) gave their Semifinal triumph a special place in history.

The Blue Devils have remained one of the nation’s premiere programs while UNLV has fallen into mediocrity. But both schools can look back with pride on that glorious night in Indianapolis when an epic battle raged and grit, not a miracle, made a champion.

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Steven Keys
Straight Shooter
Photo credits: B.Ryan, 1.2.12, wc, R.Hurd; Bucky-Badger, 12.1.07, S.Cain, wc; C.Laettner, wc, Buyanksky, 3.21.14; M.Krzyzewski, wc, 4.6.06, WD.Moss; B.Ryan, 1.2.12, wc, R.Hurd; L.Johnson, wc, 10.10.09, B.Horowitz; UNLV-Rebel.Girl, 3.4.06, wc, EK.Vaughn; Straight.Shooter, produce.label.
Posted: 4.1.15 @ 2:28pm; edit 11:46 EST