Tag Archives: purdue boilermakers

Is… Is Purdue Getting Better?

I have a longstanding tradition when I write about the Big Ten. I’m not really sure when or exactly how it happened, it just did. Basically, as long as I’ve been writing for Campus Pressbox or its previous iterations I have been mean to Purdue. There’s not actually an article with the main subject being the Boilermakers but I have taken a shot at Purdue in a vast majority of my columns.

Well, I am here to say that the time for that is at an end.

At least I hope it is but for the moment at least, I am a believer in what Jeff Brohm is doing down in the state of Indiana.

So there is something that needs to be taken into account when talking about Purdue that was maybe lost on me in the past. Purdue is not a football school, Purdue is a basketball school. The top tier of football talent is never going to show up in West Lafayette. If you want to look at it in terms of NFL draft picks, there hasn’t been a first-round pick out of Purdue since 2011.

Purdue is in the same boat as Northwestern in that they’re very rarely going to get top level talent but still have to compete in one of and arguably the toughest conferences in the Big Ten. Given that fact, it’s less surprising that the Boilermakers haven’t posted a winning season since 2007 and third coach since 2009.

But that doesn’t mean that my former criticisms weren’t justified. Purdue has only won nine games since 2013 including a 1-11 season in that year. It’s been a bad couple of seasons.

So why do I think Jeff Brohm is going to change the culture there?

First off, Brohm has had success before despite only being a head coach at one stop before Purdue. However, Brohm had success during his three-year tenure at Western Kentucky University. Three winning seasons, including two with more than 10 wins and two bowl game wins over South Florida and Central Michigan. Is it Conference USA? Sure but that doesn’t mean you can win more than 10 games without any talent.

Does that mean that Brohm is going to have success at Purdue? It most certainly does not. Previous winning experience doesn’t always mean you’re going to win at the next level. Right, Brady Hoke?

But let’s look at the early season results.

Lamar Jackson is a heck of a player and Louisville is a pretty good team but Purdue was actually leading going into halftime. The Boilermakers ended up losing only be a touchdown. That’s already an improvement after they spent 2016 mostly getting blown out by teams that aren’t nearly on Louisville’s level.

Missouri’s not a top-tier program anymore but they’re still a SEC school. Purdue absolutely torched them. The Tigers were held to under 70 yards rushing which at first glance means that Missouri is bad at running the ball. But Purdue actually kept Michigan bottled up for most of the game. Take away one breakaway run by Chris Evans for 49 yards and the Wolverines are under 100 yards rushing too.

Guys, Purdue is actually getting better.

But let’s hold off on penciling them into the Big Ten title game. This isn’t something that’s going to happen overnight. Let’s see what happens in three weeks when Purdue travels to Wisconsin. If the Boilermakers can hang with Wisconsin or even somehow manage a win, we know that this isn’t a mirage.

Purdue might actually be climbing out of the Big Ten gutter. And I’m going to have to start being mean to someone else. I’m thinking Illinois.

Image courtesy Pixabay

E-mail Tim at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @tbach84.

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Big Ten Power Rankings Week 2

When I initially did the power rankings, I didn’t expect too much movement to happen but since then, things have been stirred up especially after the four losses in Week 2 particularly Ohio State’s.

  1. Penn State (previous ranking: 2): The 2016 Big Ten champions are back in the driver’s seat after a 33-14 victory over in-state rival Pittsburgh. Heisman hopeful Saquon Barkley accumulated 183 yards and two scores while Trace McSorley totaled 164 yards and three touchdowns despite missing several wide open receivers, mostly in the first half. Other than that, it was a solid victory and the Nittany Lions look like the team to beat in the Big Ten.
  2. Wisconsin (3): A classic, 31-14 Badger win as Jonathan Taylor ran for 223 yards and three touchdowns, joining Zach Brown, Ron Dayne and Alan Ameche as the only true freshman in program history to rush for over 200 yards. Ameche and Dayne were Heiman trophy winners. In addition, the defense looked stout against Lane Kiffin’s Owls, holding them to under 250 yards in total offense.
  3. Ohio State (1): Oklahoma avenged last year’s loss to Ohio State in Norman with a 31-16 win. Sooners quarterback Baker Mayfield torched the secondary for 386 yards and three scores while J.T. Barrett was just 19 of 35 for 183 yards as the passing game was wildly inconsistent and below average. Buckeyes need a playmaker to emerge on offense. The loss is hard to swallow but it really doesn’t affect their chances as a contender.
  4. Michigan (4): A week after a 33-17 victory over Florida in which the Gators were held to 192 total yards, the defense looked very stout in a 36-14 win over Cincinnati. The Wolverines D kept the Bearcats at 200 total yards and had two pick-sixes. However, quarterback Wilton Speight, who threw two pick-sixes versus Florida, continued to struggle with accuracy and consistency. He needs to improve if Michigan wants to contend.
  5. Maryland (11): Fresh off a 51-41 upset over a then-ranked Texas team, the Terrapins continued where they left off and put on quite encore in a 63-17 rout of Towson. They gashed the Tigers for 367 rushing yards with D.J. Moore scoring three times and freshman under center Kasim Hill looking good in his debut.
  6. Iowa (6): The Hawkeyes defense looked strong in their 24-3 win over Wyoming, holding potential NFL draft hopeful Josh Allen to 174 yards but was consistently getting beat against Iowa State. Fortunately, first-year signal-caller Nathan Stanley passed for 333 and five touchdowns and tailback Akrum Wadley had 190 total yards as Iowa came back from a 10-point deficit to escape 44-41 in overtime. Defense needs to play better.
  7. Michigan State (9): After last season’s 3-9 debacle, the Spartans are off to a promising 2-0 start following a 28-14 win over Western Michigan as the defense has not allowed an offensive touchdown in eight consecutive quarters. Michigan State quarterback Brian Lewerke threw for 161 yards but showed he’s also a dual-threat as he rushed for 81 yards including a 61-yard touchdown run. The Spartans have off this week before hosting Notre Dame.
  1. Indiana (10): It will be interesting to see what Indiana does at quarterback as it has two capable throwers. Senior Richard Lagow, who threw for 420 yards versus Ohio State, is still the starter but after struggling early against Virginia, redshirt freshman Peyton Ramsey replaced him, completing 16 of 20 passes for 173 yards and two scores as the Hoosiers won 34-17.
  2. Nebraska (7): The Cornhuskers are a tough read. Nebraska allowed the Oregon Ducks to go up 42-14 at halftime but held the Ducks scoreless in the second half and scored three unanswered touchdowns, nearly rallying from a 28-point deficit before falling 42-35. Yet, quarterback Tanner Lee threw the last of his four interceptions with two minutes remaining and Bob Diaco’s new 3-4 defense has allowed 1,063 yards this year.
  3. Minnesota (8) Good things are happening for new head coach P.J. Fleck. Minnesota trounced Oregon State 48-14 on the road as the defense forced three turnovers and running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks combined for 253 yards and four touchdowns. In addition, two areas of weakness were addressed as quarterback Conor Rhoda cemented himself as the outright leader of this team and Tyler Johnson has emerged as a go-to receiver.
  4. Purdue (12): Purdue has impressed me so far. They put up a valiant fight versus Louisville in a 35-28 loss and put on an offensive clinic (558 yards) in a 44-21 victory over MAC contender Ohio. Head coach Jeff Brohm promised an up-tempo, high-scoring offense and the Boilermakers haven’t disappointed. Watch out for quarterback David Blough as he led Purdue on a 24-0 first half run.
  5. Northwestern (5): I picked Northwestern to be a contender in the West this year but its play so far has concerned me. The Wildcats escaped against Nevada in Week 1 and were decimated by Duke 41-17 on Saturday as quarterback Daniel Jones accounted for 413 total yards and four touchdowns. Northwestern signal-caller Clayton Thorson was picked off twice and Justin Jackson rushed for 18 measly yards on seven carries.
  6. Illinois (14): Yes, the Fighting Illini came into Champaign as underdogs to Western Kentucky, a Conference USA team that averaged 45.5 points per contest in 2016, best in the country. However, none of that mattered as the young defense of Illinois held the Hilltoppers to one score and 244 yards while also getting 111 rushing yards from freshman Mike Epstein in a 20-7 win.
  7. Rutgers (13): Following a 16-13 loss to lowly Eastern Michigan on Saturday, Rutgers showed how incredibly far behind the other Big Ten programs it is. The game was the Eagles’ first victory over a Power Five opponent in 59 tries and I fear this is just the tip of the iceberg for how ugly things will get for the Scarlet Knights this season. A long, treacherous road lies ahead.

Image: flickr user morebyless

2017 Big Ten Power Rankings

Only nine days until college football Week 1 officially starts, though as my fellow writer Mitch Gatzke wrote, it leaves much to be desired.  Stanford versus Rice from Australia is your headliner. Yay. Can you sense the sarcasm? For me, it kicks off on Thursday August 31st when Ohio State takes on Indiana. Speaking of the Buckeyes, based on how 2016 unfolded in the Big Ten, here are the unofficial power rankings for 2017 with that team from Ohio sitting on top. Enjoy.

  1. Ohio State Buckeyes

The Ohio State Buckeyes are completely stacked for another playoff run and poised to win a conference title. With 15 starters returning, arguably the best front defensive coordinator Greg Schiano has coached, an offensive line that features two potential first-round draft picks (Jamarco Jones and Billy Price) and the hiring of Kevin Wilson as offensive coordinator to help J.T. Barrett return to freshman form, this is by far the best team in the Big Ten.

  1. Penn State Nittany Lions

Nipping at the Buckeye’s heels will be the Nittany Lions, who went from conference afterthought to Big Ten champions after reeling off nine consecutive wins in 2016. The dynamic duo of quarterback Trace McSorley and running back Saquon Barkley fit seamlessly into Joe Moorhead’s up-tempo, spread attack and will have four returning starters on offensive line to protect them. Yet, the luck they had last season against Ohio State will be long gone in this year’s rematch.

  1. Wisconsin Badgers

Coming into this season, Wisconsin already had a void at outside linebacker with T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel departing and then inside linebacker Jack Cichy suffered another season-ending injury. Fortunately, there is a lot of depth and experience on the defense for first-year coordinator Jim Leonhard to work with. Plus, the offensive line returns all five starters and with a more feasible schedule, the Badgers will be the favorite in the Big Ten West and a top-ten team.

  1. Michigan Wolverines

So close, yet so far away defined the 2016 Michigan Wolverines as two late season losses by four measly points cost them conference glory. Now, only four offensive starters and one defensive starter return and even more pressure will be on Wilton Speight to deliver with a new receiving corps. Jim Harbaugh has recruited some good raw talent, but I feel the Wolverines will take a small step backwards before reaching their full potential.

  1. Northwestern Wildcats

Northwestern has a solid chance to make some noise this season with a speedy, explosive defense that features a disruptive front seven and an offense with the strong arm of Clayton Thorson and the tireless workhorse Justin Jackson. Unfortunately, they’ll be without the leading receiver from the Big Ten last year in Austin Carr and need a reliable target to emerge. Also, they ranked 108th in pass defense and face their biggest divisional opponent Wisconsin in Madison.

  1. Iowa Hawkeyes

While the Hawkeyes have limited experience at quarterback with presumed first-time starter Nathan Stanley and few receiving options besides Matt VandeBerg, they possess one of college’s best offensive lines and a home-run threat in senior running back Akrum Wadley. On defense, they also are raw and young at most of the skill positions. Yes, they’re anchored by linebacker and leading tackler Josey Jewell but one man can’t do it all. Nonetheless, their ceiling is still 7-9 victories.

  1. Nebraska Huskers

Though the Nebraska Huskers started 7-0 and had a great opportunity for a championship game invite in 2016, they lost four of their final six. Now, they are in a state of transition with pro-style quarterback Tanner Lee under center trying to resuscitate an offense that averaged 211.7 passing yards a game (86th). On defense, they still have a very stout secondary in their new 3-4 scheme but with all the changes, I see more growing pains than success.

  1. Minnesota Golden Gophers

Even with P.J. Fleck’s infectious positive energy, that only goes so far. The Gophers have essentially no experience at quarterback and wide receiver besides leading wideout Rashad Still (18 catches). They’ll have to rely heavily on running backs Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks, both of whom averaged over 4.7 yards per carry and combined for 1,808 yards but the offensive line is thin and lacks depth. The defensive line is lean as well. Expect a middle-of-the-pack finish.

  1. Michigan State Spartans

Jekyll and Hyde perfectly describes the Spartans last two seasons, plunging from a conference champion to a basement dweller, and it remains to be seen if they can rebound after a rough off-season. I believe with their three-headed monster in the backfield (L.J. Scott, Gerald Holmes, Madre London; 3,300 combined rush yards)and the return of quarterback Brian Lewerke, who played well versus Michigan before breaking his leg, the Spartans will compete for a bowl bid. Anything more is wishful thinking.

  1. Indiana Hoosiers

The defense, which improved from 121st to 45th in passing yards allowed in 2016, has nine returning starters and should be the strength especially in the linebacking corps with Tegray Scales (23.5 tackles for loss in 2016) and secondary with Rashard Fant (48 passes defended). Richard Lagow has a canon for an arm but needs to work on his accuracy (17 interceptions). If the offense can cut down mistakes and the defense rises up like last season, this is a scary, dangerous team. I forecast a definite bowl game.

  1. Maryland Terrapins

A 2014 four-star recruit by 247sports, there is a lot of hype surrounding North Carolina transfer quarterback Caleb Henderson. He has good size and can run and pass as he commands Maryland’s spread offense and tries to improve an offense that averaged just 178.2 yards a game (106th). The defense is experienced with their senior-laden front seven led by middle linebacker Jermaine Carter Jr. but allowed over 28 points seven times. Sadly, I see them drastically receding.

  1. Purdue Biolermakers

David Blough can air it out with the best of them but he led the league with 21 interceptions and losses his top four pass catchers from 2016. To make things even trickier, Purdue is young on offense with just one returning starter on the line so protection is a concern. Depth on the defensive line and secondary is also a weakness.  New head coach Jeff Brohm maybe an offensive whiz but he has a lot of work to do.

  1. Illinois Illini

Lovie Smith will have a tough time this season as the teams top five pass rushers including standouts Carroll Phillips and Dawuane Smoot as well as leading tackler Hardy Nickerson Jr. are gone. In fact, the defense will be very young and untested and will have one senior starter in corner Jaylen Dunlap. On offense, quarterback Chayce Crouch is healed after attempting just 32 passes and gets two formidable receivers in Mike Dudek and Malik Turner. Other than that, nothing is sound here.

  1. Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Four quarterbacks are competing for the starting job and electrifying return man Janarion Grant returns. Other than that, not much to say besides good luck not losing any games by a significant margin. Every year I think they will stop getting killed, but it always seems it gets worse. Is it even possible to be embarrassed more than being shutout 78-0? I hope it doesn’t for the sake of the conference’s reputation.

E-mail Mike at mike [dot] tews [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Burning Big Ten Questions for 2017

It’s almost time for football and thank goodness for that.

As the days count down, everyone’s focusing on the big questions. Well, there are more questions to ask besides whether or not Ohio State is ahead of schedule in their rebuild or what flavor ice cream Jim Harbaugh is eating. I’m only partially kidding as it’s been mentioned before. If there was an actual article dedicated to it, the rest of this article would be an unintelligible angry mess.

So, without further ado, here are my burning non-big Big Ten questions.

Can Minnesota row a boat?

In what was a highly irritating situation, the Golden Gophers fired their head coach Tracy Claeys for essentially encouraging his players to stand up for due process. Not only did the school get away with it with little ruckus due to Minnesota not being a major player for some time, the administration managed to land the hottest coaching prospect in Western Michigan’s P.J. Fleck.

There’s no way to say this without being slightly disparaging to Western Michigan players but you don’t find the same kind of players at Minnesota. Not necessarily talent-wise because Corey Davis was a beast but I’m talking mindset. There’s a different mindset when you’re playing in the MAC versus being on national television every weekend in the Big Ten. A cheesy saying like Fleck’s “Row the boat” might work at Western but will it in Minnesota?

In my mind, there are two ways this ends: either Fleck builds the Golden Gophers into a power program or he’s out of a job in three years.

Will Purdue ever get it turned around?

Making fun of the Purdue Boilermakers is something I enjoy immensely. If you read my columns regularly, you’ll notice that I usually get a dig in about them being terrible pretty much every time. It’s starting to lose the amusement factor and is becoming just sad.

Since head coach Darrell Hazell took over in 2013, the Boilermakers have 9 wins. That’s not a year, that’s a collective total. Purdue hasn’t won a Big Ten title since 2000 and hasn’t had a 10-win season since the 70’s. That’s just brutal.

Purdue did hang tough in a couple games and showed some spunk last season so maybe that could be the start of something? As much as I like picking on the Boilermakers, I’d rather they stop getting ridiculed by the national media too.

Can Indiana get over the hump?

The Hoosiers have been probably one of the best four to six-win teams in the last six years. Look at the 2016 season for instance, Indiana beat the teams they should’ve beat but then went toe to toe with the big dogs. Only Ohio State and eventual Big Ten champions Penn State beat the Hoosiers by more than 10 points. Go back another year and the Hoosiers gave up a late lead to Iowa and took Michigan to double overtime. There are some good players at Indiana and the ones that keep getting drafted confirm that.

We’re going to get the answer to this question almost immediately. In what had to be scheduling blunder, Indiana gets Ohio State in their season opener at home. If Indiana can knock off the Buckeyes… watch out.

Will Rutgers be any less terrible?

I probably should’ve been making fun of Rutgers last season, not Purdue, but Rutgers is just so, so sad. Even their coach looks sad, I mean real sad, and I can’t even find the picture of him in the rain looking like he’s crying.

At one point, Rutgers lost by a combined total of 150-7 to Iowa, Ohio State, and Michigan. It wasn’t even fun anymore, especially if you were a certain steakhouse in Ann Arbor. At a certain point even opposing fans would’ve been OK with giving up a field goal or something.

You’d think  there’d be really nowhere to go but up since the Scarlet Knights went 2-10 in 2016 but with a change of offensive coordinators and philosophies, there’s currently a 4-way battle for quarterback. Not like a “We really know who the starter is and just aren’t saying” type of battle but a legitimate “We don’t know” type battle.

The schedule doesn’t do Rutgers any favors either. They open against 2016 playoff team Washington and travel to Michigan, Penn State, and Nebraska. Guys… it’s not going to be pretty but I think they can get three wins.

I don’t know about you but I’m looking forward to getting some answers. I’ve got a solid hunch about Rutgers and Purdue but watching Indiana and Minnesota should be interesting. The Gophers have a shot at seven or eight wins and so does Indiana. There’s just that tiniest of chances that the Big Ten could be a little less top-heavy this season.

E-mail Tim at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @tbach84.

Image courtesy Flickr via Creative Commons

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Over/Under: Big Ten West

Yes, I know a lot can happen during spring practice and the summer months so it may seem premature to be doing an article where I’m doing over/under for the upcoming year but with March Madness upon us, I feel like a gambling man and figured to take a risk. This week I’m doing the Big Ten West and the East next time around.

Illinois 3-9, 2-7 = Under 3-9, 1-8

Illinois loses its entire starting defensive line including first-team, all-Big Ten pass-rushing end Carroll Phillips (20 TFL’s, nine sacks) as well as spots at middle linebacker and secondary for a defense that already ranked near the bottom of the conference In almost every statistical category.  Its offense loses quarterback Wes Lunt and, while running backs Kendrick Foster and Reggie Corbin, who combined for 1243 yards and nine touchdowns, are back, as well as receiver Malik Turner (48 catches, 712 yards, 6 tds), backup quarterbacks Chayce Crouch and Jeff George Jr. were subpar as they appeared in nine games. Lovie Smith’s second year will be even worse.

Iowa 8-5, 6-3 = Under 8-4, 5-4

The biggest question for the Hawkeyes is can sophomore Nathan Stanley, who is slated to be the starting quarterback heading into spring practice, be a reliable leader like his predecessor C.J. Beathard despite his limited experience? Other first-year starters like Beathard and Ricky Stanzi did pretty well and Stanley will have some resources like a seasoned offensive line and tailback Akrum Wadley but few options at receiver even with Matt VandeBerg returning. The other concern is at corner, where they lose the dominant Desmond King and Greg Mabin and have to use raw prospects Michael Ojemudia (five tackles) and Manny Rugamba (19 tackles, two interceptions). I say Iowa takes a step back because of its harder schedule.

Minnesota 9-4, 5-4 = Under 7-5, 4-5

With the departure of Mitch Leidner, Minnesota has very limited quarterback experience. Fifth-year senior Conor Rhoda has just one career start and a host of others are fighting for time including Demry Croft, junior college transfer Neil McLaurin, and redshirt freshman Seth Green and Mark Williams. Yes, starting halfback Rodney Smith was fourth in conference with 1,158 yards and second with 16 touchdowns while backup Shannon Brooks finished with 650 yards and five touchdowns but I see growing pains for a team that went through a very tumultuous season. Plus, they have a new system to get acclimated to with P.J. Fleck and an entirely different staff.

Nebraska 9-4, 6-3 = Under 8-4, 5-4

It’s hard to replace a starting quarterback especially one like Tommy Armstrong Jr., who holds most of the passing and touchdown records for Nebraska, but there is some upside and potential on the roster with Tanner Lee, Patrick O’Brien and Tristan Gebbia. Lee played two seasons at Tulane while O’Brien is a redshirt freshman and Gebbia is an early enrollee who has the second most yards in California high school history (13,109). On defense, Nebraska’s secondary looks strong as starting corners Chris Jones and Josh Kalu (103 tackles, 21 passes defended, four ints) return as well as safety Kieran Williams (five ints) and Aaron Williams.

Northwestern 7-6, 5-4 = Over 9-3, 6-3

Quarterback Clayton Thorson was fourth in the league in passing yards per game (244.8) and tossed 22 touchdowns and nine interceptions. Running back Justin Jackson had career highs for rushing yards (1,524), touchdowns (15) and yards per carry (5.1). If another receiver can emerge as a reliable target as Big Ten receiver of the year Austin Carr is gone, this offense could be a handful for opponents. On defense, the ultra-talented Anthony Walker is gone but they only have two starters to replace and leading tackler Godwin Igwebuike returns. If Northwestern can improve on pass defense, which ranked 109th nationally, I can see them an upset or two away from division glory.

Purdue (3-9, 1-8) = Over (4-8, 2-7)

There seems to be a lot of optimism surrounding Purdue’s new head coach Jeff Brohm, who led Western Kentucky for three seasons. The Hilltoppers ranked fifth nationally in passing offense and first in scoring offense last year, averaging 44.6 points per game. Yes, the Boilermaker’s lose their top three receivers (DeAngelo Yancey, Bilal Marshall, Cameron Posey) as well as Domonique Young, all of whom combined to haul in 157 passes for 2,122 yards and 17 touchdowns but David Blough has a lot of talent and Brohm’s system could greatly benefit him. Winning one more conference game isn’t much but it’s a step forward for a program that has won two Big Ten games in the past three years.

Wisconsin 11-3, 7-2 = Over 12-2, 8-1

It remains to be seen if quarterback Alex Hornibrook is the answer and can build upon a solid freshman season but the Badger faithful are crossing their fingers he is because if he can deliver, this team could be very dangerous. Yes, they lose both outside linebackers T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel but still should be a disruptive front seven especially at inside linebacker as T.J. Edwards led the team in tackles for a second consecutive season and Chris Orr and Jack Cichy return after suffering season-ending injuries. Secondary, which was second in FBS with 22 interceptions, will also be strong. With all this in mind and a softer schedule, I predict another 10-plus win season.

E-mail Mike at mike [dot] tews [at] campuspressbox [dot] com or follow him on Twitter @MDeuces2051.

Image courtesy of flickr user usdagov

March Madness – From Pistol Pete to a Magic Carpet Ride

I didn’t begin to grow my hair, longer than the crew cut I sported at the time, because of the influence of rock groups I listened to, like Steppenwolf and Cream, who were popular at the time. It was due to a basketball player who was my idol, “Pistol” Pete Maravich. I loved the way Pistol Pete’s shaggy brown hair flopped as he brought the ball up the court for his team, the LSU Tigers.

Freshmen weren’t allowed to play on the varsity back in 1966, so Pete’s first year as a starter for the Bayou Bengals was the fall of 1967. And there were very few games that were televised back then, but when there was a game on television I was watching. I couldn’t wait for Saturday afternoons and the SEC game of the week.

I was also a sophomore on our high school’s team in ’67 (we didn’t have a varsity and junior varsity). We had an “A” team and a “B” team and I was on the “B” team.

The problem was, we had to cut our hair to play sports at Wilcox County High School in Camden, AL. I began to let mine grow in 1968 which was my second year on the “B” team (that team went 17-0 by the way). But come November and basketball practice, whack, we had to get that hair cut. Mine wasn’t trimmed short enough so I had to go back and get it snipped again. And friends, it wasn’t very long to begin with.

The fall of 1968 was also when I had my first kiss, my first taste of whiskey, and my first cigarette. I’ve since given up the cigarettes.

So those were heady days. And as the lyrics to the Grateful Dead’s Uncle John’s Band go, “Wo, oh, what I want to know, where does the time go?”

It has now been 50 years since Pistol Pete Maravich was in his first varsity season down in Baton Rouge. I was fortunate to witness him play the first game in what became Beard-Eaves Memorial Coliseum in Auburn on January 11, 1969. The home team Tigers won that game, 90-71. Sorry Pete.

And, it is noteworthy that LSU never made the NCAA Tournament during Maravich’s playing days. They did receive an invitation to the NIT his senior year.

March wasn’t exactly bursting with madness back in those days. In fact, there were only 23 teams in the NCAA Tournament. But, the UCLA Bruins were in the middle of a three-year title run under the tutelage of John Wooden and the leadership of their star center, Lew Alcindor, who was later to become Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

Yes, it’s a long way from those 23 teams, from 50 years ago, to the field of 68 that we grapple with today, and there are 10 of the usual suspects (North Carolina, Princeton, West Virginia, Dayton, Virginia Tech, Kansas, Louisville, New Mexico State, SMU, and UCLA) in both sets of brackets.

But interest is at a fever pitch, in the year 2017, and we are all caught in the throes of what is now termed “March Madness.”

The “Sweet 16” will have begun play by the time you read this, and here is the way I see it shaking down.

In chronological order:

Sweet 16

Michigan over Oregon

Gonzaga over West Virginia

Kansas over Purdue

Arizona over Xavier

North Carolina over Butler

South Carolina (Welcome Cinderella!) over Baylor

UCLA over Kentucky

Wisconsin over Florida

 

Elite Eight

South Carolina over Wisconsin

Gonzaga over Arizona

Kansas over Michigan

UCLA over North Carolina

 

That leaves us with a Final Four of:

South Carolina vs. Gonzaga

Kansas vs. UCLA

 

So let’s fasten our seat belts as we approach the final turn on that magic carpet ride… ”March Madness.”

 

E-mail Bird at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @Autull.

NCAA Tournament Midwest Region Notebook: Sweet 16 Preview

Heading into the tournament, the Midwest appeared to “chalk” heavy, with the top four seeds expected to advance to the Sweet 16.  That held true for the most part, but #7 seed Michigan busted up the heavyweight party.  Kansas and Oregon have an opportunity to restore order by advancing to the Elite Eight as the highest seeds remaining in the region, while Michigan and Purdue could set up a B1G showdown, guaranteeing a conference rep in the Final Four.

Blitzed by Moritz

Michigan pulled off the upset over #2 seed Louisville on Sunday by going with a heavy dose of Moritz Wagner.  Whereas the Cardinals chose to go away from everything that was working in squandering a nine point second half lead, Michigan repeatedly went to Wagner.  Time and time again the Wolverines set up pick and roll opportunities to exploit Louisville’s switching defense, leaving Wagner isolated on smaller defenders.  John Beilein executed on the under used mantra of running the same play until the opponent stops it.  The Cardinals never did, and Michigan is now set up for the Sweet 16 showdown with Oregon.  It’ll be interesting if Beilein will be able to utilize as much of Moritz against the athletic frontcourt of Oregon, or if the three-point barrage which was missing for much of the game against Louisville will be the weapon of choice.

Big Man Boiling Over

It’s no surprise that as Purdue has found its way to the second weekend of the NCAA Tournament that Caleb Swanigan has by and large been the driving force behind it.  Swanigan has absolutely gone ballistic, displaying all the prowess which made him a blue-chip recruit; and now has him emerging as an absolute star.  After hitting Vermont with 16 points and 14 rebounds in the Round of 64, he dropped 20 and 12 on Iowa State, along with an astonishing 7 assists.  The Boilermakers are facing a different animal in the Kansas Jayhawks.  Bill Self’s team has been playing at a high level which is expected of a #1 seed.  As I mentioned prior to the tournament, the one possible sore spot for the Jayhawks is in the frontcourt.  Swanigan has enough help in the frontcourt to allow him to continue the tear that he’s on.  Don’t bet against the big man from being the difference maker if Purdue upends Kansas.

Putting the Chalk in Rock Chalk

March is the time of year when it can become en vogue for bracket filler-outers to pick against Kansas.  There have been several occasions where it would make sense to do so; and it appeared that with a Round of 32 draw against Michigan State, that 2017 would be one of those occasions.  The Jayhawks have shown through the first two rounds that was not a good idea.  Not only has Kansas won, but the Jayhawks have won big.  Not that anyone expected UC Davis to give Bill Self’s squad any fits, but many (myself included) thought that Tom Izzo’s Spartans would make the Rock Chalk faithful sweat a bit.  Kansas has an awful lot of experience, particularly in the backcourt, where it matters most come tournament time.  Frank Mason III is the catalyst, and he will be critical for the Jayhawks to continue to march on this March.  Facing a Purdue team that has its legs underneath it, after such disappointment in last year’s tournament, will be no easy task.

No Ugly Ducklings

Dana Altman’s Oregon Ducks are the other remaining team in the Midwest, but that does not make them an afterthought.  Oregon was another team that had some questions coming in to the Big Dance, and seemed susceptible to being bounced early.  The Ducks are another example of experience paying off in large measure.  Tyler Dorsey has been a beast in the first two games, and Dillon Brooks has been a steady star.  Despite being on the ropes against Rhode Island much of the game on Sunday, the veteran Oregon crew found a way back, and wiggled into the Sweet 16.  One of the biggest concerns – the loss of Chris Boucher – has not come back to bite the Ducks to this point.  The players seem to have taken the route of motivation as opposed to desperation regarding their fallen teammate.  The Ducks have the firepower and are more than capable of dispatching Michigan’s team of destiny.

The Elite Eight will be set in the Midwest by the close of business on Thursday night.  The guard play of Kansas will provide enough of an edge to outlast Caleb Swanigan’s heroics, and the Jayhawks will send Purdue with some nice memories, but nothing more.  Michigan on the other hand continues their path to destiny, at least for right now.  Seniors Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin will provide the steady guidance, and Beilein will blitz the Ducks with more Moritz to shoot down Oregon.  After getting their revenge on Louisville from the 2013 tourney, Michigan will give Kansas a crack at their own form of revenge from that same tournament.  The Jayhawks and Wolverines will battle for a spot in Phoenix.

E-mail Damon at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

2017 NCAA Tournament: Midwest Region Notebook

Good fortune finds that the region that I happened to be covering turned out to be the only part of the bracket I predicted 100% correctly after the Round of 64.  No real surprises, as the top seeds took care of things in a business like fashion; and the only higher seeds to advance – #9 Michigan State and #11 Rhode Island – were anticipated.  The Round of 32 presents some intriguing match-ups as the first weekend of the Big Dance commences.

Close but no Cigar

I mentioned in my tournament preview on Thursday that the Midwest felt like a bracket that would not have much in the way of double-digit upsets.  The teams I felt were most likely, if any, to pull off upsets were Vermont and Nevada.  I make the mistake every year of picking a few too many of the 11-13 seeds to advance out of the Round of 64.  In customary fashion, both of these schools played very well, and hung tough for the majority of their respective games, but in the end Purdue and Iowa State were able to outlast the upstarts.  No surprise that Monte Morris led the way for the Cyclones, and B1G player of the year Caleb Swanigan did the most damage for the Boilermakers.  This sets up a 4/5 tilt between two schools recently plagued by early tournament failures, and something’s gotta give.

Wolverines continue their tear; have a shot at Revenge

The #4 seed Michigan Wolverines kept on rolling, outlasting Oklahoma State 92-91 in one of the more entertaining opening round games.  Senior Derrick Walton Jr. led the way with 26 points and 11 assists, setting up a Sunday afternoon showdown with Louisville.  The Cardinals once again got off to a shaky start, allowing themselves to fall into a 10-2 hole, before taking the lead permanently with just under seven minutes left in the first half.  The Cards got surprisingly strong contributions from big men Mangok Mathiang and Ray Spalding in order to outlast Jacksonville State.  Michigan has an opportunity to grab a little revenge, as John Beilien’s Wolverines fell in the 2013 National Championship game to Rick Pitino’s Cardinals.

Ram Tough

Dan Hurley’s Rhode Island team handily dispatched #6 Creighton, lining up one of the match-ups I was most looking forward to in this tournament, a date with the #3 seed Oregon Ducks.  All five starters scored in double figures, led by freshman Jeff Dowtin, who along with E.C. Matthews, went 10-10 from the free throw line.  The Rams will need every bit of toughness they have in them, as Oregon handled their business the way the tops seeds should, running up 55 points in the first half, and cruising to victory.  When Dana Altman’s team exerts all of their talent, the Ducks are elite.  This will be a fun game on Sunday.

This is Sparta!

The 2016-17 instillation of the Michigan State Spartans isn’t the typical powerhouse that Tom usually has at his disposal.  Coach Izzo knows how to pull the right strings at the right times, and now is presented with a golden opportunity to knock out top-seeded Kansas.  The Spartans thumped the Miami Hurricanes, and now await the Jayhawks, who, as expected, destroyed UC Davis to move into the Round of 32.  What was expected was the performance of Michigan State’s powerful freshman Miles Bridges and Nick Ward.  The keys on Sunday will be how Izzo’s club deals with the Kansas backcourt, particularly Frank Mason III, and whether the Jayhawks have enough support for senior Landen Lucas on the interior, in order to keep him on the floor.  I like Bill Self’s team to get through, but it may be a battle of attrition.

The Midwest Region is set up to have an outstanding Sweet 16.  Purdue or Iowa State will grab the first slot as that game caps off the action on Saturday night; then everyone else will fill in the gaps on Sunday.  Here’s hoping I can keep one clean region, and have each of my picks roll through, including #11 seed Rhode Island, there to upset the apple cart, and close out the opening weekend of the 2017 NCAA Tournament.

E-mail Damon at  or follow him on Twitter @DamoKnowsSports.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

The Real Madness of March

Every year, I spend far more time and energy than I should filling out my NCAA Tournament March Madness bracket.  I debate whether chalk or Cinderella’s will prevail.  I agonize over which 12-5 upsets are ripe for the picking.  I look at strength of schedule and see who beat who, as if that matters.  Then, I spend the entire tournament second guessing myself.

Inevitably, I get caught in between rooting for my bracket and cheering for those Cinderella’s that capture our hearts.  It ends up being a very stressful month and at the end, I never feel like I have fully enjoyed what is truly an amazing sporting event.

I like to act as if I know what I’m talking about when predicting these games.  Really, I don’t.  None of us do.  Why bother pretending?  It’s not like I’m a big college basketball fan anyway.  I mean, sure, I watch the tournament religiously.  The first Thursday and Friday of games are days that I believe should be national holidays.  Why play the charade of going to work and acting like I’m not watching online?  I am.  #SorryNotSorry (I am, however, sorry I just used that expression. #NeverAgain)

Anyway, when it comes to regular season college basketball, I never watch many games.  This season though, that’s never been truer.  Confession: I watched a grand total of three full college basketball games this winter.  The complete list: Mt. St. Mary’s vs. Michigan (I was actually in attendance), Xavier vs. Cincinnati (Go Bearcats! #BeatX), and Tulsa vs. Cincinnati (Again, I was in attendance).

So, yeah, I don’t really have any idea what went on this college basketball season.  (Though, I hear tripping people has become a hot button issue.)  What I do know, from hardly following along, is that there was a lot of movement in the Top 25.  It seems to me that this is one of those years where there are a ton of good teams in the field, but not many great ones.  Is that a fair assessment?  Honestly, I’m asking.

Let’s highlight some things as I take my first look at the bracket.  (That’s right; I didn’t watch the selection show either.)

East

Hey!  Mt. St. Mary’s made the field… sorta.  The only first round upsets I have here are Marquette over South Carolina and New Mexico State over that Baptist school in Waco, Texas.  Give me Virginia over Florida in the second round.  Other than that, there’s nothing too exciting.  Looks like an easy path to the Final Four for defending champion Villanova.

Midwest

Woo, lots going on here.  First, Michigan State got lucky.  The Spartans are bad but the Hurricanes sound beatable.  The rest of the first round seems pedestrian but man, look at these possible second round matchups.  Kansas vs. Michigan State is enough said.  Iowa State meets Purdue in a battle of teams with high hopes.  Creighton vs. Oregon will be fun.  And Michigan gets a shot at revenge against Louisville.  I’m still upset about 2013 and, as a result, I’m going into full homer mode.  The Wolverines beat the Cardinals, the Ducks, and the Jayhawks on their way to Phoenix.  (#SorryNotSorry… Damnit, that didn’t last long.)

West

Smart guy alert in the 8-9 matchup as Northwestern and Vanderbilt get together.  Wait, the Northwestern Wildcats made the NCAA Tournament!  Congrats to them.  I’ll even pencil in an opening round win for them before getting smacked by Gonzaga.  Give me the other smart guys at Princeton to pull the upset on Notre Dame.  On the bottom half, I’m going a little upset crazy.  Florida Gulf Coast makes another run to the second weekend with wins over Florida State and Maryland.  And St. Mary’s finds its way to the Elite Eight for a fourth try at besting West Coast Conference rival Gonzaga.  You know what they say, “it’s tough to beat a team twice, thrice, four times in the same season.”  Well, Gonzaga will.

South

I’ve got Seton Hall beating Arkansas for the same reasons I have Marquette beating South Carolina.  I’m Catholic and the SEC is still a terrible basketball conference, until proven otherwise.  Middle Tennessee State earns its second tourney win over a Big Ten opponent in as many years, my second 12 over 5.  Cincinnati will beat UCLA with a superior defense the likes of which the Bruins have never come up against.  Unfortunately for my adopted school, the Kentucky Wildcats will be waiting in the Sweet Sixteen.  North Carolina will be able to handle Coach Cal’s bunch en route to yet another Final Four.

Final Four

Last year’s championship game was so phenomenal, why not have a rematch?  Michigan and Gonzaga fall victim to destiny.  This time around, Villanova won’t need a buzzer beater.  The Wildcats will repeat, beating North Carolina quite easily.

There you have it.  Now all that’s left to do is wait until Thursday so I can hide my internet browser behind some important-looking work stuff and enjoy this damn thing for once.

I recommend you do the same, but don’t expect many of you to.  That chance at glory is too tantalizing to pass up, isn’t it?  Yes, you’d rather drive yourself crazy trying to arrive at the perfect bracket that you’ll literally never achieve.

And to you all I say have fun losing your group for the umpteenth time to your aunt who bases her picks on the team mascots.  After all, this is the real madness of March.

E-mail me at [email protected] and I’ll send you back an invite to my bracket group.  Should be easy to beat me since I’m not trying, right?

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Q Sweep Gives Cleveland State a Boost

Going into the game against Bethune-Cookman at Quicken Loans Arena, there were so many reasons to think that Cleveland State would have no problem dispatching of its MEAC foes. However, the specter of a four-game losing streak, coupled with the Vikings’ inability to win at the Q at all last season likely gave head coach Gary Waters a bit of pause.

In spite of Rob Edwards still appearing to be hampered by a hand injury (as evidenced by 8-14 from the free-throw line), he still managed to drop in 19 points. And a healthy Demonte Flannigan lead CSU with 21, allowing the Vikings to stave off a Wildcat surge, led by Quinton Forrest’s 24 points, to take their second win of the season, 73-62.

While the win was much-needed, especially on the heels of a 28-point drubbing at the hands of Arkansas State the game before, it did seem as if Cleveland State was a bit out of sorts. It probably didn’t help that the Vikings were a meager 21.9 percent on three-point shots.

Or perhaps it was because it seemed as if depth in the backcourt was seriously lacking against Bethune-Cookman. Gavin Peppers remains out with the bone bruise to his foot, and now walk-on Nelson Maxwell, who provided CSU with minutes backing up Kash Thomas, is out of the lineup with a hamstring injury.

Despite all of this, the Vikings regrouped and finally put together the kind of complete game fans have been hoping for all season with an 85-62 pasting of Western Michigan. The win game Cleveland State a sweep of the two games at the Q, a venue that gave the Vikings nothing but headaches last season, as they couldn’t muster a single win in the five games there.

In the win, Edwards’ hand appeared to be much improved from the previous game, shooting 50 percent from the field and finishing with 15 points. Flannigan, who has slowly but surely eased his way back into the swing of things since returning to the start lineup, dominated the paint and finished with 20 points.

But the big news coming out of the Q on Wednesday was the performance of Oral Roberts transfer Bobby Word. The junior had struggled mightily during the four-game slide, and even in the B-C game wasn’t terribly efficient (eight points on 3-9 shooting).

The WMU game, however, was a much different story.

Word practically couldn’t miss against the Broncos, and torched them on an astounding 75 percent (9-12) from the field, including making five shots from beyond the arc. His 25 points led all scorers, and could possibly serve as the spark the Vikings need on offense.

And that need won’t be felt more than it will be when Cleveland State travels to West Lafayette on Saturday to face 18th-ranked Purdue. And while the last ranked opponent the Vikings faced, then-No. 1 Kentucky, almost felt like an automatic loss, the Boilermakers, particularly their coach Matt Painter, isn’t underestimating CSU.

Whether the Vikings can retain the momentum from overcoming their woes early this season remains to be seen. But maybe Cleveland State, especially when Peppers, Maxwell and also-injured Anthony Wright return, can get to a point where it’s not sitting near the bottom of the Horizon League standings.

Email Bob at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @bobmcdonald.

Image via CSUVikings.com