NFL Fumbles on Catch Rule

January 16th, 2015 sendarama Posted in pro football | 1 Comment »

Dez Bryant at the end of the play

Odell Beckham, Jr’s reign as maker of the Greatest Catch Ever was about seven weeks and two hours old when Dez Bryant threatened to usurp him.

Beckham’s back flipping, one-handed grab of an Eli Manning aerial on 11/23 against the Cowboys was widely hailed as the greatest catch of all time. Nobody had ever seen that kind of catch before. But the impact of the stunning grab was to the senses only. Beckham’s second quarter touchdown did not avoid the Giants’ 28-31 loss, their sixth straight, which Bryant sealed for the Cowboys with his second touchdown catch of the day with 1:01 remaining.

The stakes were a lot higher last Sunday in the NFC playoffs when on fourth and two from the Packers 34 with 4:42 to go, trailing 21-26, Cowboy quarterback Romo launched a 30-yard spiral towards the left sideline to Bryant, who was closely guarded by Sam Shields. Bryant made a terrific leaping catch at the eight yard line, turned in mid air, planted his left, then right foot, and then drove off his left leg to the end zone while switching the ball from his right to left hand. When Bryant’s left hand hit the ground just short of the goal line, the ball came loose momentarily, and Bryant secured it. The ruling on the field was a completed catch, and a Dallas first down at the one.

When the catch occurred, few questioned it, least of all the announcers, who were dumbfounded by Bryant’s athleticism and made no mention of the ball coming loose. Perhaps they were overwhelmed by the magnitude of the play, which was described by Sally Jenkins in Tuesday’s Washington Post: “Bryant’s catch was such an act of vaulting physical genius that for a moment it shook off all earthbound anxieties.”

So much had occurred between the catch and the ball’s dislodgment: Bryant had landed both feet in bounds, taken an additional step, switched the ball into his left hand, and then dove to the end zone. At worst, we had a catch, and maybe a fumble, recovered by Bryant. Beckham tweeted his agreement. “I thought Bryant made the catch, then went towards the end zone for a touchdown, lost the ball, and then recovered it.”

It was a surprise when perspicacious Packer Coach Mike McCarthy requested a review of the play, and an absolute shock when the referees reversed the catch. The reason offered was that Bryant had not maintained possession of the football “through the entire process of the catch.”

The ruling stems from Rule 8, Section 1, Article 3 of the NFL Rule book, which states, “If a player goes to the ground in the act of catching a pass, he must maintain control of the ball through the process of contacting the ground.” But the same section provides: “ A catch occurs when a player secured control of the ball in his hands, and has maintained control of the ball long enough to enable him to perform any act common to the game.”

Bryant took three steps after making the catch and lunged to the end zone. Later, Referee Gene Steratore said, “ Bryant’s actions after the catch were all done while falling, and he never had another act common to the game.” NFL VP of officiating Dean Blandino said, “We need control with both feet and then (the receiver) do something with it.”

I can’t define “an act common to the game,” but I do know that when a receiver takes a step, switches the ball into another hand, and dives to the end zone, then he is “doing something.”

The rule was introduced a few years ago to eliminate the need to determine whether a player had full possession before reaching the ground. But when a player continues to push forward after making a catch, without breaking clear of his tackler, the referee must be able to draw a line between the catch and the fall. To the dismay of everyone but Packers fans, the officiating crew on Sunday did not do so.

Bryant had trumped Beckham‘s great catch, on November 23, and now the referees had trumped Bryant.

Bryant could not believe it. For a very long moment, he plaintively extended his hands face up to the sky, and asked the world for justice. But he wasn’t getting it from the 80,000 Lambeau Field attendants, who could not believe their good fortune.

Bryant has had a troubled past – born to a 14 year old crack addict, arrested for domestic abuse, and branded as a hothead for most of his early career – but it’s doubtful that he’s ever felt more abused by the system than when his magnificent moment was snuffed out on a technicality.

The call, of course, was outcome-determinative. The Packers took over at the 34 , and ran out the clock.

The official Cowboys reaction was surprisingly accepting . ‘Boy fans were slitting their throats, but owner Jerry Jones and coach Jason Garrett stayed composed. “I do think he made it (the catch), but we’ve had a lot of re-looks at things around here. Sometimes they go for you and sometimes they don’t,” he said. Jones view was tempered by the knowledge that the Cowboys had beaten Detroit the week before with the aid of an egregious no call on an obvious pass interference; and he is a member of NFL royalty. Garrett was about to sign a five year contract to continue as coach. Neither was in a position to cry bloody murder.

Not so for the millions of fans who know a catch when they see one and are fed up with games being decided by the application of obtuse rules which run contrary to the mainstream of judgment. One writer noted,”I could go into a bar right now, and ask 50 drunks whether it was a catch, and all 50 would say it was a catch.”

The NFL has had a very bad year off the field. Only by the sheer magnificence of its on-field product has it managed to thrive ratings-wise and revenue-wise. But when games are decided on the basis of technicalities rather than the quality of performance, it’s high time for another rule change.

Or maybe they should hire drunks as referees.

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Nats, Bums Skippers Too Good For Their Own Good/ Commish Justice Runs Amok

October 8th, 2014 sendarama Posted in baseball | No Comments »

Stacked with superior every day players, armed with the best starting pitchers, and compilers of the best regular season records in the National League, the Nats and the Dodgers were better than their NLDS opponents at virtually every position but the one that mattered most – in the dugout.

Of the twenty three managers elected to the Hall of Fame, all but one is either a former catcher or journeyman or never played in the majors. The exception, Leo Durocher, a slick-fielding but weak-hitting shortstop who made three all-star teams, was described by Babe Ruth as “the All-American out.” It will come as no surprise to witnesses of the just concluded NLDS series that the victorious Giants and Cardinals are managed by non-descript ex-catchers Bruce Bochy and Mike Matheny,respectively, while the losing Nats and Bums are piloted by former star players Matt Williams and Don Mattingly.

It’s hard to describe the “Je ne sais quoi” quality which Bochy and Matheny bring to the table, but it’s safe to say that neither Williams nor Mattingly has it. Call it touch, call it feel, call it an ability to think outside of the box; but when it came to the crucial pitching choices which determine tight playoff games, both Williams and Mattingly were thoroughly outclassed by their counterparts across the diamond. Maybe all those years of thinking about ways to get an edge have sharpened the minds of less-talented players who became managers to the detriment of managers to whom playing the game came easy.

Much has been made of Williams’ unfathomable decision to remove Jordan Zimmerman with two outs in the ninth inning of Saturday’s game 2; but he may have exceeded that extraordinary level of ineptitude in Tuesday’s decisive fourth game. First, in a move which smacked of desperation, he pinch hit for starter Gio Gonzalez with two outs in the top half of the fifth inning and a runner on first. Despite successive bone-head plays in the field by Gonzalez which handed the Giants two unearned runs in the second inning, Gonzalez was pitching well, the Nats trailed by only a run, and the move heralded a parade of relievers who were not up to the task.

Having spent Tanner Roark and Jerry Blevins to get through the sixth, Williams made his next mistake by starting the seventh with situational left-hander Matt Thornton. Thornton is most effective facing a left-handed hitter late in the game with men on base. Upcoming later in the inning were dangerous right-handed hitters Buster Posey and Hunter Pence. To save Thornton, his last remaining lefty pitcher, and to best deal with the threat posed by Posey and Pence, the situation called for a right-hander.

Then, when Thornton got into trouble, Williams summmoned Aaron Barrett, a rookie who walks more than five runners per nine innings of work, ahead of reliable veterans Craig Stammen or Tyler Clippard, or even Steven Strasburg, who was available in the bullpen. In his only previous appearance in the series, Barrett relinquished a double to Pence to lead off the twelfth inning of Saturday’s marathon. Barrett was bailed out by Blevins on that occasion, but there was no damage control this time.

Barrett walked Pence to load the bases, and then bounced a pitch to Pedro Sandoval, allowing the lead run to score. Then, to cap one of the worst relief performances ever, Barrett overthrew his catcher while attempting to intentionally walk Sandoval. Posey, who had singled earlier and gone to third on the passed ball, broke for home and was thrown out on a bang-bang play at the plate. The Nats escaped this most bizarre inning only one run down, but the Giants held on. The Nats’ best bullpen arms remained glued to their seats while Barrett, enabled by Williams, sabotaged the season.

Mattingly’s mistakes were less visible, but no less damaging to the Dodgers. In game one, he dissipated a 6-2 seventh inning lead by allowing Clayton Kershaw to stay in too long, and then replaced him with untested rookie Pedro Baez, who promptly relinquished a three-run homer to Matt Holliday. In game four, he benched the team’s best hitter, Yasiel Puig, for light-hitting Andre Ethier, and then inserted Puig into the game in the ninth inning, as a pinch runner, Mattingly was lambasted a year ago for questionable game management during the playoffs, and he did nothing to help his cause in this go-round.

The Giants led the Dodgers by nine games in the National League West on June 8th, and then proceeded to lose 19 of their next 26. They finished six games behind the Dodgers and struggled to make the wild card. During the course of the season, three-fifths of their original starting rotation was either disabled (Matt Cain, Yusmiero Petit) or discredited (Tim Lincecum), and three regulars – centerfielder Angel Pagan, second baseman Marco Scutaro, and first baseman Michael Morse – missed the NLDS due to injury. But for Giant catcher Posey, who may finish his career as the greatest catcher in history, every Giant position player was inferior statistically to the corresponding Nat.

The Nats, of course, coasted to the National League East title, emasculating Atlanta by seventeen games.
They entered the NLDS as a 9:5 favorite over the Giants. But for the second time in three years, the Nats faithful were blindsided by an unexpected result. Season ticket holders can wallpaper their dens with unused playoff and world series tickets for 2012 and 2014. This time, they can’t blame inexperience.

At first blush, the Nats post-mortem will focus on the Giants’ shutdown of Span, Werth, La Roche, Desmond, and Ramos, who collectively batted .111 in the four games. La Roche’s performance will make his imminent departure from the team less painful. The only positive takeaway was the brilliant play of Bryce Harper, who after a disappointing regular season, shone in the field and at bat. When Harper’s maturity grows to match his talent, he will be a transcendent superstar.

But it’s too easy to blame the dormant bats. Everybody knows good pitching stops good hitting, even more so in the playoffs. Power outages are common in October. In the regular season, talent wins out. But in the playoffs, talent takes a back seat to the intangibles. And the most tangible intangible of them all was Bruce Bochy’s superiority over Matt Williams.

Commissioner Justice Runs Amok

What has more hang time than Michael Jordan, more legs than a caterpillar, more curves than Mamie Van Doren, and more twists and turns than a large box of Snyder Hanover pretzels?

If your answer is the Ray Rice saga, you are correct.

Four weeks after release of the video of Rice cold-cocking his girlfriend in an Atlantic City Casino elevator, three weeks after NFL commisioner Goodell called a news conference to explain his too-lenient punishment of Rice, two weeks after Ravens owner Steve Bischotti called a news conference to defend himself against an allegation by ESPN that Bischotti had lobbied Goodell to reduce Rice’s punishment, one week after an unnamed Atlantic City law enforcement official claimed that he sent a tape of the elevator incident to the NFL office in April belying Goodell’s statement that noone in the office saw the tape before its release by TMZ on September 8th, and just one day after NFL owners convened to discuss modifying the commissioner’s currently unfettered power to punish players for violating the NFL’s personal conduct policy, the Rice affair continues to bedevil, bewilder and befuddle the NFL.

In our politically correct – charged climate, a cottage industry of complainers has arisen as a result of the NFL’s handling of the matter and its history of indifference towards domestic violence. Women’s groups have been quick to point out the contrast between the NFL’s punishment of drug offenders and drunk drivers and its kid gloves treatment of domestic henchmen. Before the Rice video went viral, Rice was nursing a mere 2-game suspension and girlfriend pounders Ray McDonald and Greg Hardy were unpunished. Since release of the video, Rice has been suspended indefinitely by Goodell, Hardy has been placed on an “exempt” list, Cardinal running back Jonathan Dwyer has been suspended from play for the entire season by the Cardinals for an incident occurring last July, and there has occurred a crackdown throughout the college ranks against players arrested, but not convicted, for crimes involving violence.

What’s going on here? Has the NFL or its executives intentionally disregarded the rights of women or other innocent victims of violence? Is Steve Bischotti a bad guy for intervening in behalf of his star player, who until he bashed his wife, had been a spokesman for the Ravens at community events and a so-called model citizen? Has the NFL all of a sudden become a sanctuary for felons and wife beaters? Or is this simply the latest instance of social media taking over an issue and whipping it out of proportion?

Rather than point the finger at Goodell, who was certainly trying to do the right thing, we should focus instead on the sports leagues’ systems for administering punishment for off-field conduct, which concentrate too much power in the hands of the respective commissioners and in the case of the NFL, are entirely unregulated. Unlike the NBA, Major League Baseball, and the NHL, where the commissioner’s actions are subject to review by an arbitrator or panel of arbitrators, Goodell’s decisions are appealable only to Goodell. The source of his power is the league constitution and the collective bargaining agreement between the players union and the league.

The result of concentrating non-reviewable power in one person without reasonable standards for imposing punishment is public outrage when the commissioner’s decision offends the public’s notions of fairness. And these days that outrage spreads like wildfire. The solution is to curb commissioner power and to establish rules and regulations for how and when extra-judicial punishment is to be imposed. When Goodell’s sanctions in the New Orleans Saints bounty case became the subject of a lawsuit, he quickly relented by agreeing to let the case be reviewed by an independent arbitrator, ex-commissioner Paul Tagliabue. When the NFL announces its new policy for handling allegations of misconduct, we can expect the commissioner to play a less dominant role in the disciplinary process.

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Mob Rule in the NBA

April 30th, 2014 sendarama Posted in pro basketball | No Comments »

Midst the near universal acclaim for NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to suspend Donald Sterling “for life” for the racist comments attributed to him in a taped conversation which went viral, it has been overlooked, or at least disregarded, that Sterling’s comments were made in a conversation intended to be private occurring several months ago to a girlfriend who may have been trying to set him up. The taping, without Sterling’s consent, was illegal under California law. You can be sure that at TMZ Sports, the smut-dispensing web site which broke the story, they were exchanging high fives at the water cooler when Silver announced The Decision II.

In the absence of social media, the firestorm which greeted the disclosure of Sterling’s comments last Saturday would have amounted to little more than a campfire. A close reading of Sterling’s comments reveals that they made little sense. Were they the calculated expression of a dedicated racist’s antipathy to blacks, or were they merely the rantings of a delusional octogenarian to an opportunistic ex-lover with an ax to grind? Did GF Vi Stiviano plan to catch Sterling on tape? Did she sell the tape to TMZ? Silver didn’t wait to find the answers before hitting Sterling with the nuclear option.

There were sound reasons for Silver’s rush to judgment, but none of them had to do with fairness. You can find more offensive language than Sterling’s in any country club steam room or Thursday night poker game. Sterling has been a rogue owner for 33 years, combining enough negative personality traits to make Charles Manson blush; but is he any worse a person than Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert (abusive mortgage loan practices), Knicks owner James Dolan (gross incompetence, permitted executive harassment and sexual exploitation), or the Maloof brothers, who ran the Sacramento franchise to the ground?

It’s not as if Sterling was broadcasting his animosity towards blacks in a public forum. In fact, his public face was to be supportive of blacks. He retained Elgin Baylor as his GM for 23 years, hired Doc Rivers as coach, and was the recipient of an NAACP lifetime achievement award for (gulp) humanitarianism. Can you punish a man for his private thoughts? Should we not consider that an 80 year old man who grew up when anti-semitism was rampant and blacks would not be served at lunch counters may lack the sensitivity to be discreet in the age of social media?

Indeed, under the collective bargaining agreement, NBA players may be better protected from disproportionate punishment for indiscretions than was owner Sterling. Kobe Bryant made a public slur against gays, and received a mere slap in the wrist. How many NBA players have committed felonies, failed to make paternity payments, or been charged with DWI’s, and resumed their careers with little or no interruption?

No, Silver trumped any concerns about fairness to preserve league stability, retain sponsorships, and return attention to the playoffs, all of which were in jeopardy after the defections of several Clipper sponsors and very real player threats to walk off the court unless Sterling was severely punished.

Mark Jackson, Golden State coach, encouraged his team not to play last night if the punishment was not sufficient. So many current and former NBA stars chimed that “there was no room for Sterling in the NBA,” you’d think they’d worked in hotel management. The Players Association engaged Sacramento mayor and former NBA great Kevin Johnson to be its lead spokesman on the matter, and Johnson did not miss a sound bite. He appeared before a group which included Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Steve Nash, and other dignitaries to applaud Silver’s decision.

But it took a while for the players to rally around Sterling’s punishment. Only after Silver announced that he would hold a press conference on the Sterling matter did the players bring forth the heavy artillery. Until then, they were content to turn their shirts inside out in protest. From Shaq to JR Smith, the Twitter network buzzed with kudos to Silver for showing Sterling the door. By extending the punishment from the anticipated “indefinite suspension” to “suspension for life,” Silver quieted the crowd and diffused the situation.

While Silver’s power to suspend Sterling for statements “prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of the league” is clear, he may be on shakier grounds when he attempts to drum up the required three-fourths of owners’ support for a termination of Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers. If widespread scorn over a misdeed or misstatement is the measure for expulsion, rather than the character of the conduct , some of the more rebellious owners may envision themselves in Sterling’s place. Many Knicks fans, for sure, would have voted to terminate Dolan’s Knicks ownership after the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade.

Silver has been hailed for making a decision consistent with the “cultural diversity“ of the NBA. And cultural diversity is a good thing. But when in obeisance to cultural diversity, a man’s right to be comfortable with his own thoughts is trampled by a social media stampede, that’s a bad thing.

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On Any Given Thursday

March 18th, 2014 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

Let’s play the word game.

The NFL coined it, but college basketball best exemplifies it.

It’s what you got when 6-19 Boston College upends 25-0 Syracuse at the Carrier Dome, when lowly Penn State beats Ohio State twice, and when Providence beats Creighton in the Big East conference tournament final seven days after being crushed by the Blue Jays.

It’s in the air when 16-0 Wisconsin and 15-0 Ohio State both lose five of six in Big Ten play before regrouping to land NCAA bids, and when Baylor and Oklahoma State fall to 2-8 and 4-9, respectively, in conference, before making late season surges.

The NFL mandated it, by its inverted draft system and by biased scheduling, but in the college game, it just came naturally.

During NCAA bracket time, which is right now, it’s the word on everybody’s lips. It’s the “P” word. It’s PARITY. You can’t just rely on chalk when completing your grid. You may actually have to know something.

In this year’s bracket, you can make the argument that the three seeds are better than the two seeds and that two of the four seeds – Louisville and Michigan State – have a better chance to win the tournament than three of the one seeds (Florida excluded). Curiously, the NCAA selection committee has underseeded several teams (New Mexico, Oklahoma State, Louisville, Michigan State) and overseeded others (Creighton, UMass, St. Louis).

In the old days, before conference re-alignment, a traditional basketball power in a Big Six conference could win half its games in conference play and be assured of an NCAA bid. Now, because of uneven scheduling in the re-aligned super conferences, one man’s 12-6 may be no more impressive than another’s 9-9. Virginia, for instance, played Duke, North Carolina, Pitt, and Syracuse only once each while fattening up twice on Maryland, Virginia Tech, Notre Dame, and Florida State. The inequality of conference scheduling has forced the NCAA selection committee to place greater weight on other factors – strength of schedule, wins against top 50 opponents, and so-called “bad losses” to teams out of the top 100.

But the selection committee was not consistent in weighing these factors and in balancing recent performance versus year-long body of work. Despite Louisville’s paucity of top 50 wins, how could the committee ignore that it was steamrollering recent opponents? Ditto for resurgent Michigan State, which is healthy for the first time all season and dominated the Big Ten tourney. By way of cop-out, selection committee chairman Ron Wellman cited the “paper-thin” differences involved in seeding teams.

Just six years ago, in 2008, all four number one seeds made it to the Final Four. Now, you can’t tell a number one seed from a four seed. Where did all this parity come from?

Several factors have contributed to the leveling of the playing field in Division 1, notwithstanding the hogging of top freshman prospects by Kentucky and Kansas.

The pool of available talent has expanded. Teams are recruiting outside of the United States. Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis, Michigan’s Nick Stauskas, and Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins all played high school ball in Canada; and New Mexico’s aspiring Lobos feature two Australians in their starting lineup.

Further, liberalization of the transfer rule has allowed players to more freely change teams. At least twenty transfers are playing major roles for NCAA-bound teams , including Arizona ‘s T.J. McConnell, Duke’s Rodney Hood, San Diego State’s Xavier Thames, and Iowa State’s DeAndre Kane.

DeAndre Kane celebrates Cyclone’s Big 12 Tournament Win

Players who stay are improving during their career. Notwithstanding Kentucky’s success in 2012 with one-and-dones Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd -Gilchrist, and Marcus Teague, coaches are coming to realize that bringing in five or six star recruits is not the formula to win championships. A blend of returning veterans is required to be successful. Of the sixteen top-seeded teams, only Arizona and Kansas start more than one freshman.

When Kentucky won in 2012, it relied heavily on the contributions of returning lettermen Terrence Jones, Darius Miller, and Doron Lamb. Starting four or five freshmen the past two years, Kentucky has played erratically and immaturely, losing 22 games. Barring a Wildcat run in this year’s tournament, the John Calipari model has been discredited. The feeling now is that coaches who can maintain continuity in their program have the advantage of fielding wiser, stronger players than high turnover teams in pursuit of the top recruits.

Another big equalizer has been the increasing importance of the three-point shot. A weaker team trailing for the entire game by 10-12 points can narrow the gap quickly by making a few three-balls, as Boston College so notably did against Syracuse. To succeed today, a college team must shoot the three, make the three, and defend the three better than its opponent. Duke and Creighton are living off the three pointer.

Conference play is so grueling, said former Tennessee coach Bruce Pearl, that among the toughest tasks in sports is to win a road game in conference in February. The intensity is heightened during the conference tournaments where teams are meeting for the second or third time in the season, sometimes only a week apart. Teams know each other. “Familiarity breeds contempt,” said Emerson, but in addition, it allows teams to formulate a new defensive approach for the re-match. This makes for even more parity.

Thus, Providence was able to better contain Creighton’s 3-point shooting and Kentucky, in its third try, was able to push Florida to the buzzer in the SEC championship.

The most competitive of the conference tournaments was the Big Twelve’s. It was parity on steroids. Seven of the eight teams in the quarterfinal round made the NCAA tournament. During the regular season, these teams beat each other up. Only Kansas lost less than six games in conference play. Iowa State, the conference tournament winner, was 15-0 outside the conference, and 11-7 in it. After enduring the rigors of conference play, Kansas, Iowa State, Oklahoma State, and even Baylor are capable of making protracted runs in the NCAA tournament.

Number one seeds Florida and Arizona have relatively clear paths to the Final Four, particularly if Kansas’ center prodigy Joel Embiid does not return at full strength from a back injury for the round of eight match with the Gators; but Louisville and Michigan State pose huge obstacles to Wichita State and Virginia progressing beyond the round of sixteen. The pundits are almost uniform in the belief that these upstart number one seeds will fall early to the number fours with the big resumes.

But the Shockers and the Cavaliers did not earn their high ranking by guile and good fortune alone. Both are in the top five of the respected Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings.

“To expect the unexpected shows a thoroughly modern intellect,” wrote Oscar Wilde.

In the topsy-turvy world of bracket completion, it would be wise to heed the words of the Old Aesthete.

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Syracuse-Duke Demands an Encore

February 6th, 2014 sendarama Posted in college basketball | No Comments »

There’s no proof that Punxsutawney Phil is a college basketball fan. But after dozing through Sunday’s Superbowl snorefest on Groundhog Day, on the heels of Syracuse’s heart-rending 91-89 OT victory over Duke Saturday night at the Carrier Dome, even a failed meteorologist with little knowledge of hoops would forecast six more weeks of intense college basketball leading to the start of the NCAA tournament on March 18th.

The build-up to the Super Bowl eclipsed interest in Syracuse-Duke. Many a sports fan with an inkling that Duke would be coming to Syracuse February 1st for their first-ever ACC meeting failed to block out the 6:30 start time with the wife and kids or simply forgot about it…… and came to regret it. Because long after the name of Super Bowl MVP Malcolm Smith (who?) is forgotten, this game will be remembered and recounted.

Well before the first tip, there was a sense of the enormity of the event. The opposing coaches – Mike Kryzyzewski and Jim Boeheim – were one, two in NCAA victories all time, 974 and 940, respectively. Though they had met twice before in pre-season tournaments, this was the first regularly scheduled game between the coaches. It would be Syracuse’s signature 2-3 zone defense against Duke’s equally suffocating man-to-man.

The Carrier Dome had been sold out for months. A record crowd for basketball of more than 36,000 was expected. Syracuse, number two in the nation, in its first year in the Atlantic Coast conference, had won 21 straight to start the season, including 7-0 in conference play. Duke, after a slow start, was back to being Duke.

When the defections of Syracuse and Pitt from the Big East to the ACC were first announced in September, 2011, followed by the departures of Notre Dame and Louisville, the predominant reactions were loathing, disgust, and sadness over the dismembering of the Big East. For the sake of cash, historic rivalries honed over the past 35 years were being trashed. The annual Big East tournament, one of college basketball’s great shows, would be diminished. Didn’t anybody remember the epic battles between Syracuse and Georgetown? How about some respect for the conference which produced eleven NCAA teams as recently as 2011?

But after Saturday night, any outcry over the emasculation of the Big East is likely to be muffled. Because as good as the Big East was – and it was very good – no regular season Big East encounter ever produced the drama of Saturday night. “There’s never been one as good as this one,” said Boeheim. If an expanded ACC can produce regular season games like this, it can’t be all bad.

On the way to their classic encounter, both Syracuse and Duke underwent growing pains. Syracuse needed to replace early departer Michael Carter-Williams at point guard, and Duke was experimenting with a new, albeit incredibly talented, front court. After uncharacteristic losses to Notre Dame and Clemson, the Blue Devils plunged to no. 17 in the national ratings.

Appropriately, Pitt served as an appetizer for both teams in advance of Saturday night’s showdown. On January 18th , Syracuse bested the Panthers in a bruising affair which was reminiscent of their Big East wars. You can transplant northern folk to Tobacco Road, but you can’t take the Big East out of Pitt-Syracuse. The Panthers dominated the offensive glass 16-4, outscoring the Orange 19-2 on second-chance points, but the game was in play until the final moments, when Carter-Williams’ replacement, freshman Tyler Ennis, took charge.

Ennis directs traffic against Duke

Exactly 52 weeks after The Hyphenator catapulted to national prominence with a virtuoso performance against then no. 1 Louisville, punctuated by a steal and thunderous driving dunk to provide the winning margin, Ennis calmly weaved his way through the Pittsburgh traffic for two layups, including a lefty floater with 30.6 seconds left which clinched the victory. Twelve of his sixteen points came in the second half.

“He made some of the best plays I’ve seen in a long time,” said Boeheim of Ennis after the Pitt game. “He has a knack for getting to the basket that’s about as good as anybody I’ve ever seen.” That’s tall praise considering that Boeheim has played with or coached Dave Bing, Pearl Washington, and Carmelo Anthony. “He’s Fred Astaire in sneakers,” said Bill Raftery.

Ennis has filled the vacancy created by the flamboyant Carter-Williams with a calmness and stability unfamiliar to Orange fans. Despite its success over the years, Syracuse has traditionally been turnover prone and erratic at the foul line. Carter-Williams himself was a high-risk player. Big leads often melted into nailbiters, or shocking losses. But with Ennis at the helm, late leads are like money in a safe deposit box. Ennis avoids turnovers (4:1 assist-turnover ratio), makes his foul shots (5-6 against Pitt, 8-8 against Duke), and shoots to a high percentage for a point guard (43.6%). He is as efficient as he is conservative.

Duke played its best game of the season at Pitt on Monday January 27th, pulling away for an 80-65 win. The plodding Panthers were overwhelmed by Duke’s 3-point marksmanship. Andre Dawkins, a fifth year senior returning after a year’s absence, led the way with 6 of 7 from beyond the arc.

The Blue Devils’ low national ranking belied their rapid improvement over the past three weeks and the emergence of freshman Jabari Parker, transfer Rodney Hood (Mississippi State), and sophomore Amile Jefferson to form an uber-talented front line. Armed with a quartet of sharpshooters in the back court, Duke was equipped to provide Syracuse its toughest test. And that it did. Despite the disappointing loss, they have the goods to make another run at a national title. All Duke lacks is a big body to protect the rim.

From the get-go, the Game lived up to its billing. Syracuse’s zone and shot blocking ability gave Duke fits. The Devils kept pace with their devastating 3-point shooting. Syracuse exploited its size advantage down low, and put Duke in early foul trouble. The Orange made their first 11 from the charity stripe and led 38-35 at the half.

Everyone played well. For Syracuse, C.J. Fair and Jerami Grant had career highs. Center Rakeem Christmas had a personal best six blocks and ten rebounds. Ennis was his flawless self. Duke had a season best fifteen 3-pointers out of 32 attempts. Parker, Hood, and Jefferson were superb. Tyler Thornton rescued Duke at the 6-minute mark with three 3-pointers in less than two minutes to erase a 7-point Syracuse lead. Rasheed Sulaimon hit two 3-pointers in the final minute including a tying shot at the end of regulation.

In the overtime, with Parker and Jefferson having fouled out, Ennis took advantage of the size mismatch and fed Grant with three perfect entry passes for no-dribble dunks. Two late foul shots by Ennis provided the winning points. Syracuse didn’t beat Duke. It outlasted the Blue Devils.

Were this a boxing match, the public would be crying out for a re-match. But it need not waste its breath. Duke-Syracuse II is scheduled for February 22nd at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Tickets are available from $1069.00.

I have a feeling that wives and children will take a back seat to this one.

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