Monday, December 27, 2010

Tigers earn Braggin' Rights win over Illinois

The last two weeks have made one thing as clear as such things can be in December: Missouri should at least compete for a Big 12 Conference title this year. Missouri has not won a regular-season conference title since 1994, so one can imagine the excitement this brings to Tiger fans.

The No. 10 Tigers (12-1) impressed with a 77-64 win over Illinois in St. Louis last week. At times the Missouri offense struggled, but they kept putting pressure on their ranked Big Ten opponent all night. It paid off in the final minutes, when Missouri played a beautiful two minutes of basketball to close out the win.

With the game tied at 58, Mizzou’s Michael Dixon, back from a brief suspension, made a tremendous scoop shot that he banked high above the backboard box and in. This circus shot was followed by Marcus Denmon steal and Ricardo Ratliffe layup for a four-point lead. An Illinois steal and three-pointer cut Missouri’s lead to one and heaped pressure on the Tigers.

Missouri’s response showed a team that can handle adversity. Kim English rapidly inbounded the ball to Denmon, who fired a pass down the court to Laurence Bowers, who was running behind every Illini defender. Bowers made the layup and drew an intentional foul on Illinois’ Mike Tisdale. The Tigers hit free throws and played solid defense to close out the confidence-inspiring win.

In another good sign, there was no letdown after the Illinois game. On Monday night, Missouri destroyed Northern Illionis, 97-61. Missouri roared to leads of 15-0 and 43-9 in the game. This is what great teams do; they absolutely crush the inferior teams. Missouri showed good focus and decision-making with two wins by at least 36 points to bookend the Illinois game. The Northern Illinois game was coach Mike Anderson’s 100th win at Mizzou (100-46).

And about contending for what would be the 16th regular-season conference title in program history? Some of Missouri’s key competition in the Big 12 showed vulnerabilities over the last two weeks.

Kansas received a boost when the ridiculously talented Josh Selby became eligible, but his heroics couldn’t overshadow that Kansas showed it isn’t a juggernaut in only beating USC by 2 at home. It should be noted the Nebraska Fightin’ Doc Sadlers also beat USC by 2 this season.

Meanwhile Kansas State was inept offensively in a loss to Florida, and then played shorthanded in a loss to UNLV in Kansas City. Embarrassing off-court issues have caused key players to miss a few games, and the Wildcats may be missing Denis Clemente’s leadership.

But all this means is the door is open. Kansas is still No. 3 in the nation, has won at least a share of six (!) straight conference titles, and there’s the problem that they never lose at home. Kansas State is No. 17 despite a rugged nonconference schedule, and coach Frank Martin uses adversity to teach and motivate as well as anyone. Plus a handful of Big 12 South schools (Baylor, Texas, Texas A&M) will have a say in the conference race.

But Missouri's play in recent weeks has made it clear that the Tigers are a conference contender, and that has to be exciting for Missouri fans as the Tigers near big 12 play.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

An ode to Trenton

Last Sunday night as I was driving through Trenton to my grandparents' house for a Christmas gathering, I got to talking with my sister about the town. It was hard to explain, but as we drove down a street I'd gone done so many times before, as the town glowed after dark with Christmas decorations, I realized there was a quality to Trenton that I enjoy quite a bit. My hometown is Gilman City, and I live in Columbia, which has its own charms, but there is a certain catchiness to Trenton, a town I have plenty of ties to.

Trenton is covered with snow in the winter and smothered with humidity in the summer. It's spring floods in the Thompson River bottom and dry spells and some of the bluest sky you ever saw in the fall.

Trenton is that wonderful Grundy County Courthouse, particularly when viewed coming into town from the west on Highway 6, with all those spires, looking like a European castle. It's the Hyde Mansion, a tasteful, dignified, North-Missouri-sized mansion. It's the Adams Middle School and Trenton Foods and the Rock Building.

Trenton is the patchwork hub of Five Points, starting point for so many directions. It's the learning and potential of North Central Missouri College, the Rock Island Line (she's a mighty good road), and Trenton Lake, that ever-changing canvass of the seasons.

Trenton is Leonard and Andy Hill and so many great people. It's the Republican-Times, the chronicle of Grundy County, and my brother's great game previews. It's KTTN and 101.7 and slowly getting the signal when I'm getting close to home.

Trenton is, maybe as much as anything, the packed bleachers at C.F. Russell Stadium, the band playing the fight song, cheerleaders dancing, and a flash of black and gold down the green field. It's Jesse Owens racing a horse, the Sugar Bucket, NCMC Holiday Hoops, the Bluejays hitting a baseball back toward the fence at Burleigh Grimes Field, and Amber Vandevender pulling up on a fast break and burying a three.

Trenton is kids driving around listening to Waylon Jennings on the radio and kids driving around listening to Metallica on tape and kids driving around listening to Garth Brooks on CD and kids driving around listening to the lovely Katy Perry on their iPods. And much of that driving is up and down Ninth Street.

Trenton is plenty of nostalgia and memories. It's where so many farmers from the surrounding farming empire go to retire and share stories. It's a town where people love to talk about all that's happened and how things were. But it's also a town with hope and a fascinating future, hope annually visible in, among other things, the new crops in the fields and the new crops of graduating seniors. And in NCMC's and the hospital's projects. And in the dreams and ambitions and hearts of its people.

Nearly 24 years ago, I was born in Trenton's Wright Memorial Hospital. And Trenton is a pretty good place to start.

(courthouse photo by americasroof)

Monday, December 20, 2010

A farewell to the Greinke Era

He's gone. Possibly the most sensationally talented Royal in my time as a fan, and certainly my favorite, has been traded for prospects. Just like Johnny Damon. Just like Carlos Beltran. Even like David DeJesus. (Can't add Jermaine Dye to this list; he was traded only for Neifi Perez).

And now that Zack Greinke's fascinating time in Kansas City is over, I'm not going to obsess over how it ended right now. I've got far more disappointment, heck maybe even sadness, than anger right now. We'll see how the trade works out, and I can see the thought behind it, but I've seen this movie end badly before. In any event, the only legitimate reason to watch the Royals over the last two years is gone.

Sure, plenty of Royals fans or media types are in a way glad he's gone. Billy Butler had some strong, but not too strong, statements about how you have to want to be here. Without really bashing Greinke, Billy made it clear the team is better off without people who don't want to be there. Fair point, but even Billy, as much as I enjoy watching him go bam-bam and lumber around the bases, can't comprehend what Greinke has labored through. Billy has been on bad teams, yes, but he has never played on a Royals team that lost 100 games. Greinke has done this three times.

But no, no anger here. And since it's done and my team was going to be awful in 2011 either way and maybe the trade will pan out, it's time to get over the sadness. Instead, I think back to the indelible memories Greinke gave Royals fans in his eventful time in Kansas City, some bad and bizarre ones followed by greatness emblazoned on the mind.

I remember his debut in 2004 in Oakland as a 20-year-old. I listened to it on the radio at home. He left with a lead; the bullpen blew it. Quite a foreshadowing of things to come. He posted a sub-4 ERA that year as the team, picked by some to win the Central, lost 104 games.

I remember the wild, terrible 2005 season, when Greinke pitched pretty awfully, and was so disinterested he decided to throw a pitch exactly 50 mph for fun, and then he did just that. I remember he hit a home run at Arizona that year. I was at a lake house at the Lake of the Ozarks when that happened. The team lost 106 games that year.

I remember when he left spring training in 2006 to deal with his social anxiety disorder. As someone who can be quite awful in social situations, I liked the way he dealt with his issues, talked about it, left but came back. I loved how the Royals organization didn't give up on him.

I remember he slowly worked his way back. By 2008 he became a very good starting pitcher again, posting a 3.47 ERA. (Don't let anyone tell you Zack had only one good year.) The team was better, but absurd futility was always prowling at the door. After being no-hit in Boston launched the Royals on a long losing streak, Greinke took the hill as the streak-buster. This team should be past these embarrassing double-digit losing streaks by now, everyone said.

I remember Greinke threw eight innings, striking out eight while only allowing three runs to the Twins. KC took an 8-3 lead to the ninth, so manager Trey Hilllman took Greinke out. After Ramon Ramirez struck out the leadoff hitter, he gave up a single. Then Ram Ram picked up another strikeout. The Royals were up five, two out, only one on. The losing streak was all but dead. But of course, the KC bullpen couldn't hold: single, single, single, homer. Tie game. KC lost in 10. I listened on the radio in my car driving home, pulling in the drive just in time for that devastating Twin homer. It was Kansas City's 10th straight loss en route to 12 in a row.

Then, gloriously, 2009.

I remember Zack starting on fire, throwing nearly 30 scoreless innings to start the season. I remember he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, with an article by Joe Posnanski and a title reading: "The Best Pitcher in Baseball."

I remember an April game against the Tigers, when I was there with a bunch of my friends. One had never been to a Royals game, the rest hadn't seen the renovated version of Kauffman Stadium yet. Like a proud parent, I beamed as my friends and I watched Greinke dominate and the Royals look good. They had that great start in 2009. Mirages are still beautiful, right?

I remember Greinke threw a complete game, striking out 10, allowing only three hits and one unearned run to move to 4-0 with that 0.00 ERA.

I remember after that unearned run in the fifth, Greinke was as perfect as any pitcher I ever saw. He retired the last 13 batters after than run scored, striking out six of the last nine batters. As he struck out the side in the eighth, the crowd got louder and louder, roaring tumultuously as the Detroit batters waved at Greinke's dancing pitches. It was absolute poetry, one of my best Kauffman Stadium experiences ever.

I remember often pestering my friends to come to Royals games, to come see Greinke pitch. I tried in vain to get Barron and Bethany to see him, and I tried with success to get Foster and Mabes and Hayes and Yount and Brittney and Yount's mom to come see Greinke take the hill.

I remember his one-hit shutout at Seattle, losing my composure a bit when the bullpen blew his leads, his 15 strikeouts against the Indians, and his duels with Joe Mauer in a late September game in the Metrodome, regardless of whether or not first base was open.

I remember when he won the Cy Young Award after that 2009 season (during which he posted a 2.16 ERA). I heard it on the radio in the Subway parking lot in Monroe City on my lunch break. I sent a wave of excited texts and received congratulatory texts. Greinke had made the Royals legitimate, at least every fifth day.

I remember the disappointments of 2010, but also the great games mixed in, the pride out shutting down the Cardinals in a rare game with people paying attention.

But then came his comments in August, about being tired of wave after wave of failed rebuilding efforts. This offseason, with starting pitching a premium commodity and Greinke dissatisfied in KC, it became more and more clear he would be traded. Even if the trade didn't net the superprospect fans wanted, GM Dayton Moore seems happy with the trade. There are plenty of people who have analyzed the trade who know more than I do, so check them out if you would like.

But for this blog, for now, we'll focus on the memories. The good ones are special; the bad ones are part of the Royals epic tales of failure over the last 15 or 20 or 25 years. Plus he gave fans a mountain of funny and quirky quotes to enjoy. I won't begrudge Greinke for wanting out. This is a team that even made the ridiculously upbeat Tony Pena resign in the middle of a series in Toronto, saying, "I just can't take it any more." Yes, I wish it could've worked to keep the talented, homegrown, and (for my money) likeable Greinke. But it didn't.

There are plenty of reasons to be upset or disappointed or vaguely optimistic, but first, let me tip my cap to the thrill-inducing, memory-producing Greinke Era.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Friends reunite for Fastest 40 Minutes demonstration

As the Tigers rolled to 10-1 with a 116-63 home win over Central Arkansas last Saturday, Tiger fans tempted to be looking ahead to Wednesday’s showdown with Illinois had to at least pause to consider the prodigious point total the Tigers ran up, the most points a team has ever scored in the Tigers’ seven seasons in Mizzou Arena.

Though it was in some ways just another big win against an overmatched nonconference opponent, it was still a 53-point win. The 10-1 Oklahoma State Cowboys only won by 12 against Central Arkansas, and OSU scored 47 fewer points than Missouri did against coach Corliss Williamson’s UCA squad.

That name, Corliss Williamson, will tell you why the Tigers scheduled this game with Central Arkansas, a team trying to lift itself out of the Southland Conference basement in Williamson’s second season as head coach. Williamson was the star player on the great Arkansas teams of the 1990s, including the 1994 National Champions. Missouri coach Mike Anderson was an assistant coach for Arkansas under Nolan Richardson on those teams.

Williamson the player and Anderson the assistant coach developed a friendship during their shared time at Arkansas, where the team succeeded using Richardson’s famed “40 Minutes of Hell” style of play, with its frantic pace, full-court pressure and up-tempo style. Anderson employed the system in his first head-coaching job, at Alabama-Birmingham, and now his teams use it at Missouri, where they call it the “Fastest 40 Minutes in Basketball.”

Williamson is working to have his teams play this way, too. He knows Central Arkansas likely won’t reel in the best recruits, but this system can harass and overwhelm opponents with better physical talents. It could also help Williamson’s Bears make that move in the Southland Conference. He wanted to give his team a chance to play against a good team playing the “40 Minutes of Hell” style well. Anderson is building the Mizzou program with system, and Williamson wanted his players to learn from how the Tigers play.

The Tigers put on a fine demonstration, with seven Missouri players scoring in double figures, the first time since 1995 that they’ve done that.

For Anderson, basketball and family, or the family-like ties he develops, go hand-in-hand. He has said he talks with Richardson about every other day. Anderson is certainly building his own program his own way, but he hasn’t forgotten what he’s learned from his mentor Richardson, and he keeps in touch.

You can also see these ties to friends and family in Anderson’s recruiting. His son and nephew have played for him. The nephew, DeMarre Carroll, is arguably the most accomplished player in Anderson’s tenure at Missouri.

Two of Missouri’s new players this year, Matt and Phil Pressey, are the sons of former NBA player Paul Pressey, who was Anderson’s college roommate.

And, simply by being himself with his genuine style, Anderson continues to make the new connections that build the program, as is seen in the other players in this great recruiting class who aren’t the offspring of his old roommates.

After Wednesday's matchup with Illinois in St. Louis, the Missouri basketball family will take a break for Christmas before returning to action on Dec. 27 against Northern Illinois.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

My favorite line from Elf

Have you ever had one of those “Aha!” moments that nobody else really got? Maybe it’s because the moment is personal to you, or because people are wired differently, or because you’re crazy and there wasn’t really anything much to be Aha-ed anyway. I’ll admit I’m a bit different than most (Eccentric? Quirky?), so it’s often kind of hard for me to vocalize what I mean when something resonates with me.

Anyway, last Saturday night I had one of those “this is brilliant” moments that my friends didn’t really see and I couldn’t vocally give words to, so I thought I’d try a blog.

We were watching the holiday classic “Elf.” You know, Will Ferrel, Zooey (Zoe-ee? Zoo-ee?) Deschanel (Desh-an-ell? Dash-N-L?), and Ed Asner as Santa.

Ah, Ed Asner as Santa. I had seen the movie earlier that holiday season with my family, and there was a line in it that struck me for some reason. It was in Central Park, when Santa’s sleigh is broke down. Michael, Walter Hobbs’ son and Buddy the Elf’s, um, half-brother, the one who wears a Wayne Chrebet jersey, is up on the sleigh.

In this instant, as he sees the sleigh and the giant bag of gifts, his transformation is complete, from that kind of grouchy, cynical person who yells, “Go away!” at Buddy to a kid, full of wide-eyed wonder and pure, childlike joy. At that point, Santa/Asner pulls out his great book, looks up Michael’s name, and reads him exactly what he wants. Beautiful. Michael’s face lights up. The great sleigh, which is supposed to run on the wonder of “the Christmas Spirit,” rises off the ground briefly and then settles back down. Michael asks what happened.

“You made my sleigh fly.”

Santa’s response, with that St. Nick twinkle in his eye, and that brief, perfect burst of a storyteller’s tone, resonated with me. It’s hard to say why (though I’m sort of trying in this blog).

So as I watched “Elf” with my friends on a snowy, dark, chilled Saturday night in my apartment in Columbia, the above line drew near.

Just sort of talking out loud, almost without thinking, I said, “My favorite line of this movie is coming up.” I think they expected a knee-slapper, or some suggestive humor. (Do I have a reputation?)

Instead, they got Santa telling a beaming kid that his joy, his euphoria, his spirit had made the sleigh fly, had made the Christmas season what it is. It appeared to be a letdown for them of 2010 Houston Texans proportions.

But maybe that’s just how it is with things that stir the soul. Everyone’s different, wonderfully. But here’s at least a stab at why I love this line:

The wonder of the kid on the sleigh is what drives it all. It’s shows us the joy and wonder that are fitting for this holiday season. Santa says, in a way that makes me think he’s telling an ancient secret, that this is the kind of joy that makes the world fly, that makes life worth living.

Too much of life, all that ordinary stuff, is kind of a dreary grind at times. But joy like Michael’s when he made the sleigh fly, the joy and love and wonder of Christmas and a Savior’s birth are what make us fly, what make our lives soar.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Tigers become familiar with close finishes

Somehow, the Fastest 40 Minutes of Basketball has been even more dramatic early in this young college basketball season, as almost all of Mizzou’s games have been in edge-of-the-seat territory. From the unexpected battles and escapes against Western Illinois, Wyoming, LaSalle, and Oregon to the heartstopping overtime games with good Georgetown and Vanderbilt teams, the Tigers have been appointment viewing.

It’s become something of a tradition, the Faster 40 Minutes distilling into the longest five seconds as opponents fly down the court and fire up buzzer-beaters. Sometimes they go in (Georgetown) and sometimes they miss (Oregon, Vanderbilt).

But it has all been riveting, and last Saturday’s 70-55 home win over Presbyterian improved Missouri to 8-1, with the lone defeat being that tough overtime loss to Georgetown in Kansas City. Missouri faces Oral Roberts on Thursday and Central Arkansas on Saturday before the Dec. 22 showdown with Illinois in St. Louis (8 p.m. on ESPN2), which should be another key indicator of how good this Missouri team will be. Here’s a look at some of the key storylines Tiger fans will be following as the season heats up.

Expectations: Missouri was picked to finish fifth in the Big 12 preseason coaches’ poll. The preseason publications I’ve seen have the Tigers anywhere from third to fifth in the Big 12, with most projecting a Sweet 16 run in the NCAA Tournament.

It seems most Missouri fans have reasonable confidence in this team. Anderson’s teams often finish above their position in the preseason conference poll.

All in all, it’s reasonable to expect the Tigers to contend for the Big 12 title, even if they appear to be just a notch below frontrunners Kansas and Kansas State. But Missouri has a fine homecourt advantage (14-2 in Big 12 home games in the last two seasons) and lots of upside, so they should remain in the hunt.

The new Tigers: Missouri’s highly-touted newcomers include brothers Matt and Phil Pressey, sons of former NBA player Paul Pressey; junior college transfer Ricardo Ratliffe; Toronto’s Kadeem Green; and Columbia’s Ricky Kreklow, the son of Missouri volleyball coach Wayne Kreklow.

This Tiger team has a mix of experienced players to go with all the new faces. Six of the top seven Missouri players in terms of minutes and points per game so far were on the team last year. The players with experience will do the heavy lifting for now, although there likely will be times during the season when the new players are needed in desperate situations.

Denmon's emergence: Junior guard Marcus Denmon has emerged as the team's best offensive threat early in the season, leading the team with 16.4 points per game. I think he has a chance to pull off the rare feat of shooting at least 50 percent on field goals, 40 percent on three-pointers, and 90 percent on free throws. It's a mark of Denmon's improvement that this difficult standard is possible. Through nine games, he's at 51 percent on field goals and threes and at 88.9 percent on free throws.

Monday, December 6, 2010

What this year's playoff would look like

Update: Turns out that beyond being unfair, the BCS is also inaccurate. Jerry Palm discovered an error in the final standings when he checked out the one computer poll that has a public formula. An FCS playoff game wasn't factored in, and after it was counted, the BCS folks realized Boise is actually No. 10 in the final standings and LSU is No. 11, a reversal of where they were before the error was discovered. Makes you wonder about the other polls or past BCS results. And why an FCS game is determining whether Boise or LSU are better. And why the formulas aren't all public. Anyway, here is the updated playoff format.

Sometimes, in this imperfect world, you're left to turn to the wonders of the imagination. Dreams, realistic or otherwise, make the world go round. Whether it's Mizzou advancing to the Final Four, dating Candice Swanepoel or college football having a playoff, it's wonderful to imagine how things would be.

For this blog, let's take a look at this last one: a Division I-A (FBS) college football playoff. Obviously most fans want it. Almost all objections to it are ridiculous or hypocritical based on how things already are, so I will spare you a point-by-point argument of why a playoff would be great for college football and its fans. This is a post for the dreamers, for the wonders of the imagination, so here is how a 16-team playoff bracket would look, based on the 11 conference champs getting automatic bids and five at-large selections. I used the final BCS standings to pick the at-larges. The team with the better seed hosts the games, then maybe a neutral-site title game.

1. Auburn (SEC)
16. Florida International (Sun Belt)

8. Arkansas (at-large)
9. Michigan State (at large)

4. Stanford (at-large)
13. Central Florida (C-USA)

5. Wisconsin (Big Ten)
12. Virginia Tech (ACC)

3. TCU (MWC)
14. Connecticut (Big East)

6. Ohio State (at-large)
11. LSU (at-large)

7. Oklahoma (Big 12)
10. Boise State (WAC)

2. Oregon (Pac-10)
15. Miami-Ohio (MAC)

Notes: Missouri is the first team out in this playoff format, which is exactly what Brent Foster would expect... How about Boise State playing at Oklahoma? (And the potential Boise-Oregon quarterfinal?)... Great matchup in the Horseshoe (OSU-LSU)... Hot Virginia Tech team could try to spring classic 5-12 upset... Can UConn pull an upset for the ages? It would actually mean something, as opposed to if they upset Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl.

Nuts and Bolts: Maybe cut a noncon game, go with an 11-game schedule, so no team ever plays more than 15 games, even if they go to the title game. Teams have played 15 games in a season before (K-State in 2003, for one) so forget the too many games/injuries argument.
First round: Four waves of games, two games per wave. Central time kickoffs: 11 a.m., 2:30 p.m., 6 p.m., 9 p.m. (Possible date: end the season a week earlier and have it first Sat. in December, Dec. 4 this year)
Second round: Quadruple-header, one game at a time, same kick times as first round. Dec. 11.
Third round: 2:30 and 7 p.m. kickoffs. Dec. 18.
(The real) National Championship Game: 7 p.m. kickoff. Saturday, Jan. 1. New Year's Day is back, baby!

Still want bowls/a fulsome glut of games? Here's some addition bowl matchups, if you want to saturate the holidays. They're based on BCS rankings and not allowing teams from the same conference to play:

Missouri vs. Nevada
Ok. State vs. Alabama
Texas A&M vs. Utah
Nebraska vs. South Carolina
Mississippi State vs. West Virginia
Florida State vs. Hawaii

(Feel free to just do away with the bowl system altogether.)

So there you have it. I'd watch. But then I'll probably watch the bowls. It just won't be as fun as a playoff could be.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Tigers to play Iowa for first time in 100 years

The convoluted bowl selection process rewarded Missouri (10-2, 6-2 in Big 12 play) with a fine matchup against the Iowa Hawkeyes in the Insight Bowl at 9 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 28 in Tempe, Ariz. The game will be shown on ESPN.

This came as a pleasant surprise after three straight years of Missouri getting selected for bowls behind teams with equal or worse records. Really, though, the bowl selection process is based on so many factors, and the Big 12 had five teams finish at 6-2 in league play, so good fortune plays as much of a role as anything in who gets which bowl. For example, Oklahoma coach Bob Stoops’ unwillingness to play his brother’s Arizona team was a key factor in how the bowl situation would shake out until Oklahoma secured the conference title and an automatic Fiesta Bowl berth.

For the record, the Insight bowl is fourth in the Big 12’s bowl selection order. It’s probably fair to call it a middle-tier bowl.

But in any event, it will be an exciting matchup for fans in these bordering states. The Iowa and Missouri campuses are only about 240 miles apart, but the two schools haven’t played since 1910. Missouri leads the all-time series, 7-5. The teams were in the same conference for a few years in the early years of each program.

Missouri infamously backed out of a deal for the two to play annually from 2005 to 2008, pretty much because Iowa was pretty good in the early 2000s and the Tigers preferred to instead pad their record with easier games. (Can’t know what would’ve happened, but the teams both went 7-5 in 2005 and Missouri actually had better records in 2006 through 2008.)

While Iowa isn’t one of the nation’s most prestigious programs, the Hawkeyes have plenty of tradition and intrigue. Hayden Fry, the storied former coach, and Nile Kinnick, the 1939 Heisman winner who died in a World War II training flight, give the Iowa program some history. The Hawkeyes, have won or shared 11 Big Ten titles, although only one outright conference title since 1958. This year’s Hawkeye squad (7-5, 4-4 in Big Ten) features Ricky Stanzi, Iowa’s senior quarterback. Stanzi is third all-time in Iowa passing yardage.

I like this matchup for the Tigers. Iowa is a talented, disciplined team, but they finished a bit below preseason expectations. The struggled with pass protection at times, particularly in their loss at Arizona, and Missouri has a fierce pass rush. It’s a little stereotypical, but it bears mentioning that Big Ten teams sometimes struggle with speedier offenses, and Missouri’s spread is all about speed and timing.

The win would give Missouri 11 wins, which would be the second-most under Pinkel and tie for the second-most by a Tiger team ever, trailing only the 12 wins in 2007. The pick here is a close, defensive game with the Tigers breaking through late to earn the win.

Pinkel’s ten-year tenure: This season was coach Gary Pinkel’s 10th season at Missouri. There have been challenges, but he appears to be gradually improving the program. Overall, Pinkel is 77-48 at Missouri, including 42-38 in regular season league play.

Splitting his Mizzou tenure in half shows stark progress. In his first five seasons, his teams went 29-30 overall and 16-24 in Big 12 games. In the last five seasons, his teams have gone 48-18 overall and 26-14 in Big 12 games while winning two North Division titles in 2007 and 2008. (Yes, Missouri technically was also co-North champs with Nebraska this year, but division titles are only useful things if they net you an appearance in the conference title game.)

Perhaps more encouraging is Missouri’s increased ability to beat “good” conference opponents. Against Big 12 teams that finished with a winning record in conference play, Pinkel is 5-22. But he started 1-16 in such games, and has now won four of his last 10 against teams that finish 5-3 or better in conference play. He won two of three this year, beating Oklahoma and Texas A&M, losing to Nebraska.

I do think much of Pinkel's legacy at Missouri will be tied to whether or not he breaks through with a conference title or not. I'm hopeful this can happen one of these years if the Tigers keep climbing. What's already known is that Pinkel has tangibly improved the program in his time here, and he's done it without any NCAA investigations or violations, and he deserves to be commended for these accomplishments.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Why you should cheer for Nebraska

As you may know, longtime rivals and two of the most storied programs in college football history will meet in the last Big 12 Championship Game, with the format switching to round robin next year. Nebraska and Oklahoma. Oh boy. They're proud, they're passionate, they're draped in red. Pretty much everyone in the Big 12 universe except Husker fans wants Oklahoma to win, wants to send Nebraska packing without the Big 12 title. I'm here to tell you that you don't have to go with the resentful hordes, that there's another way. And since you've made it this far, I trust you'll at least hear me out before pausing, clearing your throat and yelling "Boomer Sooner!" anyway.

The Rivalry
First, quick background. There are books about Nebraska and Oklahoma, but here it is in a nutshell. Both have over 40 conference titles and they have won a combined 12 national titles and eight Heisman Trophies. Oklahoma has the highest winning percentage since World War II, Nebraska has the most wins since 1970. Year after year after year, they played for the Big Eight Championship. Even in the Big 12 era (last 15 years), these two have played in the Big 12 title game more than any of the other schools.

Both fan bases are very aware of the game's traditions, and both have, by and large, a heaping helping of Midwestern manners and sensibilities (both schools play visitors' fight songs before games). These manners are supplemented with a pride bordering on arrogance at times. In summation, more than anything else, with apologies to Kansas hoops and the pure joy that is Big 8/12 hoops, these two football schools and their rivalry have shaped the identity of this conference more than anything else.

And now, the case for rooting for the Huskers:

"Any one of you woulda done the same!"
Yes, Nebraska will leave this conference for the Big Ten at the end of the season, this after 103 years in the Big 12/8/MVIAA, and even longer before that in primitive conferences with neighbors Kansas and Missouri. A long, beautiful history is being broken, and it's okay to be upset. But don't blame the Huskers, don't harbor a grudge for their decision to leave. Most other schools in the league, certainly every other non-Colorado North team would have leapt and cartwheeled into the Big Ten if asked. Gov. Nixon and plenty of Mizzou fans politicked to do the same thing Nebraska has been vilified for. To hate the Huskers now for it smacks of envy or bitterness.

I'm (still) not sure how I feel about the move, but I know Nebraska did what they felt they had to do. Tom Osborne saw a shaky league that we all though was blowing apart, that may yet do so, and he had to make a tough call. With the program he'd help build hanging in the balance, he did what he always does: steady his hands, study the play sheet/situation, and make the best call he could. Nebraska is going to a fine, well-run, prestigious conference. The remaining teams in the Big 12 still have a legit league and will soon get a fat TV contract payday. Everyone is okay here. Yes, it's rough the tradition was sacrificed. But some tradition was already lost in the Big 8/Big 12 transition. Again, everyone is okay. There doesn't need to be a villain.

There is no shame is Nebraska wins the conference and then leaves. There will still be a Big 12 (or whatever they'll call it) champion next year. Nebraska is in the league in 2010, and if they are the best in 2010, it doesn't matter what will happen in 2011. If you just don't like the Big Red, fine, but don't give me this leaving the conference/looks bad bit. I guess I just don't see it. If you want to talk about this league looking bad, we'll examine its NCAA tourney history, but I don't want to... Not in this post, anyway.

Nebraska's fan base is known for their passion and manners. Even despite the lunatic actions of some on the fringe during this rocky season, the people I interacted with in my road trip to Lincoln were good people. Yes, they won so maybe it's easy to be nice, but they were also friendly and offered to take my group's picture before the game, before the deluge.

But this year has no doubt been a challenge for Husker fans and the high standards they set for themselves. Most were too stunned to give the traditional postgame applause to the visiting Texas Longhorns after the Huskers lost in October. Some Nebraska players said they were heckled by Husker fans. Then came coach Bo Pelini's sideline meltdown at A&M, caused by (and the cause of?) the stupendously awful officiating in that game.

Ugly fan behavior usually gets more publicity, and Husker fans were wrestling with the fear that the league was trying to keep them from winning. I want to say this is preposterous, and yet mounting evidence kept popping up. Exactly one player has been suspended by the conference office this year, and of course he's a Husker. Missing the Burkhead head-twisting at Iowa State and the crotch-grabbing of a Nebraska player at A&M as the Husker lay right by a referee were awful. They turned egregious when instead Nebraska players drew personal foul penalties on those plays. This pro wrestling referee incompetence amped up the fears of the paranoid part of the fan base, and then World Cup ref moves such as throwing flags, then saying "there is no penalty" without further explanation didn't exactly put out the fire. Neither did the way low penalty totals on Husker opponents this season. After the A&M game, Big 12 Commissioner Dan Beebe didn't have anyone from the league offices present the North trophy to Nebraska, citing the very negative mail his office had received, saying it wasn't safe. What a shame.

I don't know how much a league could/would orchestrate such a thing, and I really believe the Huskers issues here were a mix of their own mistakes and the referees, um, human struggles, not anything dark or evil or planned. But the above incidents only made this season more difficult. It's been a struggle, a mix of successes and failings.

But that's life. Now the fans can show up in Dallas in droves, and hopefully the good fans, the real fans, will be at the forefront. This could be a happy ending for the fans, coaches and players who have endured a rough year, some their own doing, some just situational. But regardless, to see them overcome all the storm, to get better and be better for all this, would be a sight to see. It would be a redemption story, and I like those.

For the outnumbered, for the underdog, for ol' Benskie
This game has the feel of Nebraska against the world. Husker fans may say that's about fair, given their, um, pride. Nebraskans went up against the wild, untamed, unbreakable prairie. They went up against the grasshoppers who descended on the plains and ate everything (hence the old mascot name, the Bugeaters). Now they stand up against an angry conference, naturally playing in Dallas, where league offices relocated to when the Big 8 became the Big 12, a move Nebraska tried to block.

And yes, Oklahoma is a slight favorite in this game. Nebraska has had injury issues on offense, at the one position toughest to overcome injuries at: the quarterback. I don't think freshman sensation Taylor Martinez will be fully healthy for this game, and that may be the difference. But he has been hurt a lot this season. The Huskers have had to adjust, swallow their pride again, and try to win on the Blackshirt defense, the Rex-cat formation (direct snap to the running back), and old reliable, kicker/punter Alex Henery. If they pull out this one with a limited Martinez, or no Martinez, these kids have guts to spare.

Lastly, yes, this is one of my teams, quite possibly my most beloved sports team after Mizzou, in any sport. More than any other team, the Huskers are a link to my youth and my ancestry. They're the team I watched as I fell in love with college football, the team I emulated as a kid in my Nebraska backyard, the team my dad heard on the radio while working on the farm as a kid. And this Saturday night, I want them to win. And maybe, just maybe, you might root for them as well. Either way, should be a great game.