Virginia in State of Denial

February 6th, 2019 sendarama Posted in college basketball No Comments »

Thomas Jefferson’s presence looms large over the Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia, which he conceived, designed, and founded exactly 200 years ago, in 1819. In doing so, he was motivated by a desire to perpetuate through a great learning institution the principles he set forth in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, namely the preservation of individual freedoms and the right of each individual to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Called “Jefferson’s Masterpiece,” the campus gives physical shape to his ideals. The Academic Village, the Rotunda, and the Lawn continue to serve as reminders of Jefferson’s vision of bringing educational opportunity, and the full panoply of human rights, to the common man.

But there is one section of Charlottesville to which Jeffersonian egalitarianism does not extend.

On the outskirts of town, about fifteen times a year, within the unfriendly confines of the John Paul Jones Arena, the University of Virginia men’s basketball team routinely denies opponents their heretofore fundamental right to possess the basketball, dribble the basketball, pass the basketball, and yes, God forbid, to shoot the basketball.

They do it with a defense which never lets up and is first in the nation in points allowed (52.9 ppg ), overall field goal defense (37%), and 3-point field goal defense (24.7%). They’ve held nine of their opponents this season under 50 points. Often, they’ll blitz you right out of the gate. Recently, they led Wake Forest 25-3 and Notre Dame 15-0 in successive games. In fairness, the referees should issue a Miranda warning to the opposition before tip-off because when an offense tries to score against the Cavaliers, they ain’t got no rights at all.

How does Virginia do it? And why does no other team in the country come close to replicating the havoc caused by Cavalier defenders?

TJ looks things over

TJ looks things over

The short answer is their pack-line defense which is a variation of man-to-man defense developed by ex-coach Dick Bennett, who just happens to be the father of Virginia coach Tony Bennett. Under the pack-line man-to-man defense, one man pressures the ball outside and the other four defenders sag back inside the imaginary “pack line,” which is about two feet inside the 3-point line. The idea is to clog the inside, prevent point-guard dribble penetration, and to always have a hand in the face of the 3-point shooter. Deny the post, deny the drive, deny the three-ball.

But they do not do it on defense alone. They’re patient with the ball and milk clock with every possession, shooting 48% from the field, 76 % from the stripe and almost 40% from 3-point land. Trying to come from behind against the Cavaliers is like slogging in heavy boots in quicksand.

Playing in the tough Atlantic Coast Conference against the likes of Duke, North Carolina, Syracuse and Louisville, Virginia’s regular season record since Bennett took over has been phenomenal. Since 2013-2014, They’ve won 30 or more games three times, 29 once, and at 20-1, they’re on track to win 30 again. Their record within the ACC during that stretch is 81-18, a full eight games better than North Carolina and Duke.

The knock against the Cavaliers is two-fold. They do not have elite talent and they have performed disappointingly in the NCAA tournament, most notably last year when they became the first number one seed ever to lose in the first round. They start two skinny white kids in the backcourt, a four year journeyman at center, and they have exactly one NBA prospect on their roster. Duke, their opponent Saturday night in what is likely to be the game of the year, has four future pros, including the unstoppable force, Zion Williamson.

The counter to the talent argument is that the Cavs are better than they look, and because of their cohesion, their whole is greater than the sum of their parts. Their spindly backcourt duo of juniors Kyle Guy and Ty Jerome is wily strong and plays like assassins. On 50-50 balls, they go 75-25. They will bury open 3’s as if they were lay-ups. Jack Salt, the nondescript pivot man, sets picks, rebounds and blocks shots. At opportune times, he will provide surprising offense, and he is an excellent interior passer. The front court is filled out by superstar, D’Andre Hunter, and by the rapidly improving Mamadi Diakite.

Mamadi Diakite an Emerging Star

Mamadi Diakite is an emerging star

But the secret weapon for the Cavs heading into the last third of the season may be their bench. 7’1” Jay Huff is a productive replacement for Salt, and 6’8” Braxton Key, a transfer from Alabama, is athletic and can shoot the three. 5’9” back-up point guard Kihei Clark, a skilled ball-handler and the only freshman who plays, completes the 8-man rotation.

As for their post-season play, the notion that they under perform is a canard fueled by their untimely exit a year ago. They stormed through the ACC tournament last year and lost their best player, Hunter, to injury on the eve of their first round game against UMBC. It will come as no surprise if they turn last season’s humiliation into a run to the Final Four.

When Duke and Virginia meet, it’s not just for supremacy in the ACC; it’s a clash of cultures. Duke in the past few years has parroted Kentucky and recruited McDonald’s All-Americans for instant gratification. So what if they depart for the pros within eight months of enrollment? Virginia recruits for the long haul with a view to developing midlevel recruits into ACC stars. The classic example of the Virginia way is Malcom Brogdon, an unheralded recruit who stayed five years, improved every year, and is now a mainstay for the Milwaukee Bucks.

When they played at Durham January 19, star power won out. Williamson and RJ Barrett combined for 57 points in Duke’s 72-70 triumph, and Virginia shot an uncharacteristic 3 of 17 on 3-balls. If the Cavaliers shoot their normal percentage and keep the bullish Williamson under wraps, Saturday’s outcome will be different.

With their overpowering talent, Duke is one of the few teams which can contend with the Virginia defense. Another is North Carolina, Virginia’s opponent Monday in what will certainly be a defining week for the scrappy Cavaliers. To win, their defense must contain these prolific quintets to 70 points or less.

There’s no denying that.

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No Judgment for Nunberg/ Cavaliers Look to Finish the Job

March 13th, 2018 sendarama Posted in college basketball No Comments »

March Madness came early this year.

I refer not to the howling winds which ravaged the East Coast and uprooted a large tree in my back yard on March first, nor to Michigan’s stirring victory in the Big Ten tournament, which was held a week early to accommodate Madison Square Garden scheduling, but to Sam Nunberg, a virtually unknown former Trump Aide, who dispensed his own brand of insanity during multiple interviews on CNN and MSNBC last Monday.

Nunberg reacted to a Robert Mueller grand jury subpoena by going on TV and defiantly declaring that he would ignore it. “Screw that,” he said of the summons. He also had racy things to say about Trump (“Idiot”), Sarah Huckabee Sanders (“A fat slob’), Corey Lewandowski (“scum bag”), and others in the Trump circle. He fanned the flames of Trump involvement with the Russians. It was refreshing to finally hear a Republican call these deplorables out; but Nunberg’s narrative,though juicy in parts, sounded like a desperate and disjointed plea for relevance by a lost soul.

Maybe Nunberg is smarter than we think, and coyly seized a chance to make himself famous by acting eccentrically on a national stage. Not likely. He came across as unhinged and not very bright. Remember, he was initially fired by the Trump campaign for making racial taunts on Facebook, and called Al Sharpton’s daughter the N-word.

Two questions come to mind. First, who’s loonier, Nunberg or Carter Page?

Secondly, is Nunberg Jewish? Probably. His first name is Sam. He went to law school. His name ends in “Berg.” But he acts and sounds more like a Non-Berg than a Nunberg. None of the Bergs, Greenbergs, Grossbergs, Sternbergs or Ellenbergs that I have known has been a 36-year old schlemiel with the temerity, make that stupidity, to challenge the world’s toughest prosecutor on national television.

Not surprisingly, Nunberg appeared before the Grand Jury on Friday and avoided a court-ordered jail sentence for contempt. He is free to renew his career as the poster boy for lowlife political operatives. As long as Trump’s in power, there will always be demand for his services.
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
With Nunberg having receded from view, we can focus on the real March Madness without the distraction of cable news. But there are other distractions. Casting a giant shadow over the NCAA tournament, which begins tonight, is a federal investigation into the seamy relationship between sports agents and coaches affecting the recruitment of star athletes.

A September, 2017 indictment in the Southern District of New York charges four assistant basketball coaches, including Emanuel “Book” Richardson of Arizona, as conspirators in a scheme with sports agents to lure athletes to schools with secret cash payments, and then through the good offices of the assistants, to refer them to the conspiring agents for lucrative representation agreements. The sources of the cash were the agents and apparel companies who paid both the players and the assistant coaches.

And it’s possible that the wrongdoing stretches beyond the assistants. Acccording to an ESPN report, there exists a taped phone conversation in which Arizona head coach Sean Miller is heard discussing and/or authorizing a $100,000.00 cash payment to current Arizona sensation Deandre Ayton. Miller denies involvement and has been allowed to stay on the job after a meeting with the Arizona Board of Regents. The NCAA has provisionally cleared Ayton to play in the NCAA tournament, but if Ayton received under-the-table cash to play for Arizona, there remains the possibility that any victories achieved with him in the line-up could be retroactively voided.

It is not a crime by itself to pay a player to attend a school or to sign with an agent. The statute which the defendants are claimed to have violated is 18 U.S. 666, entitled Theft or Bribery Concerning Programs Receiving Federal Funds. The essence of the crimes charged is that the payments made were in violation of NCAA rules against impermissible benefits. The irony here is that the NCAA would love for the indictment to disappear, but its archaic rules against athletes receiving compensation gave rise to the charges. There will be great pressure on the NCAA in the months to come to permit regulated compensation to student athletes.

You can understand why Miller might have bent the rules to secure Ayton’s services. The 7’1” – 260 lb forward-center is being heralded as the best big man prospect since Shaquille O’Neal. And he is coming on like gangbusters. In the final two games of the Pac-12 tournament, against UCLA and USC, Ayton averaged 32 points and 16 rebounds shooting 27 of 36 from the field and 9 of 10 from the foul line. He shoots 36.4% from 3-point land. Ayton is certain to be the first player selected in the NBA draft and may overtake Trae Young as player of the year.

Arizona is a center of attention for reasons other than the looming scandal. Ayton’s development and its late burst to win the Pac-12 regular season and conference tournament make it one of the hottest teams in the NCAA’s. Under-seeded at number 4 in the South, the Wildcats stand to face Kentucky in round 2 and if successful, Virginia in the sweet sixteen. They will be a tough out for the Cavaliers.

Virginia, the top-rated team in the tournament, has had a most remarkable season in a most unorthodox fashion. Its primary guards are two skinny white guys; their starting forwards average 18 points/game between them; their center primarily sets picks and rebounds; and their best athletes come off the bench. They average 67.5 ppg, a full six points less than any other team in the NCAA field.

Yet they finished 31-2 overall, 17 and 1 in the tough ACC, and set a record by winning all of their ACC road games. How did they do it? The answer is by defense, by a smothering, suffocating, swarming assault on the ball which leaves no entry pass or shot unchallenged. The result is a team which is greater than the sum of its parts. They allow 53.4 ppg, more than ten points less than any other team in the tourney, save Cincinnati. And when they take a lead, they hold onto it, by being careful with the ball and by making their foul shots.

Can they be beaten? Yes, by a hot shooting team which takes a lead, controls the pace, and can get into the 70’s. Arizona, averaging 80.9 ppg with three future pros in its starting five, meets the description. But their defense failed them in February losses to Oregon, Washington, and UCLA, and it’s not at all clear that they have elevated their game to Virginia’s level.

Villanova (30-4) has an easier run than Virginia to the Final Four. Only second-seeded Purdue in the round of eight is capable of giving ‘Nova a hard time. Kansas,the number one seed in the Midwest, will either fall to Seton Hall in the second round or in the round of eight to the Duke-Michigan State winner. The West’s top seed, Xavier, will be hard-pressed to get by Gonzaga in the Sweet Sixteen.

Despite Virginia and Villanova’s gaudy records, this NCAA field resembles the pool of candidates for the Democratic nomination for president in 2020. There are no standouts, only contenders. Some of the contenders bring a lot of firepower. But unlike offense, which comes and goes, defense always travels.

And the Cavaliers have their bags packed. Virginia to win it.

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Back-up QB’s Diminish Cousins’ Value / In Revived BIG 12, Trae Young Is Tres Good

January 16th, 2018 sendarama Posted in college basketball, pro football No Comments »

Washington Redskins quarterback Kirk Cousins earned 24 million dollars in 2017, which is about twelve million more than the combined salaries of Case Keenum, Blake Bortles and Nick Foles. This previously unheralded trio, of course, led their teams to victory in last weekend’s divisional playoffs, overcoming twenty five million dollar men Matt Ryan, Ben Roethlisberger, and Drew Brees in the process.

Keenum’s last-second fling to Stefon Diggs for a 61-yard touchdown was football’s Shot Heard Round the World. The Minnesota Miracle may have done more to alter pro football’s landscape than Bobby Thompson’s legendary blast off Ralph Branca in 1951 affected baseball. First, it was the first playoff game to end in a touchdown and certainly the most exciting ending to an NFL playoff game since Franco Harris’s Immaculate Reception in 1972; second, it resuscitated an NFL season plagued by boring games, sideline kneel-downs, interminable play reviews, and declining ratings; third, it set the stage for the Vikings to be the first team ever to host a Super Bowl; and fourth, together with the performances of Bortles and Foles, it may have put the lie forever to the notion that you need a top-tier quarterback to succeed in the NFL.

Keenum was undrafted out of Houston in 2012. He bounced around for several seasons between the Texans and Rams before signing a one-year contract with the Vikings for two million as a backup to Sam Bradford. He became the starter in week two after an injury to Bradford, and has excelled ever since, no more so than with his perfect pass to Diggs. Foles is playing for Philadelphia because of an injury to Carson Wentz. Bortles has been much-maligned during his five years in Jacksonville.

Stefon Diggs makes miracle grab

Throughout Cousins’ free agency, during which he has received the franchise tag twice, the debate has been whether he was an elite quarterback worth a top tier rate over a long-term contract. In light of the playoff performance of the back-ups, perhaps the better question is whether Cousins has the skill set to mesh with the current roster of Redskins to deliver a regular playoff contender. If not, as appears to be the case, then the payroll can be put to better use acquiring a number one wide receiver, a durable running back, a sure-tackling free safety and yes, a serviceable but not star quarterback. For the same reason that a non-contending baseball team refuses to pay top dollar for a closer, the Redskins may pass on Cousins.

Cousins is a former back-up who made good seeking great quarterback money. In an odd twist, the success of his erstwhile colleagues may have turned the market against him.


Just a few years ago, after the massive realignment of the power conferences, the Big 12 was the little kid left at the station. Think Kevin in “Home Alone.” Gone were Nebraska. Colorado, Missouri, and Texas A&M. Replacing them, sort of, were West Virginia and TCU. WVU pitched the SEC hard, but took the Big 12 as a last gasp. While the ACC, Big Ten, SEC and Pac-10 increased their memberships to fifteen , fourteen, fourteen, and twelve teams, respectively, the Big 12 reduced to ten. But it kept its name, the Big 12.

There’s been pressure on the football side for the Big 12 to add member schools. At twelve, it could create two divisions and add a conference championship game, thereby increasing the chances of the winner qualifying for the college football playoffs. And additional members would perhaps facilitate the creation of a conference-themed TV network as the Big Ten, SEC, and Pac-10 have done.

But on the basketball side, there’s an advantage to being smaller. One of the most attractive features to conference play has always been the rivalries, which fester best in home and home regular seasons. Familiarity breeds contempt. The second meeting between conference rivals, late in the season before a boisterous crowd, with NCAA seeding on the line, is an inspired setting.

Having expanded to an unwieldy number, the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten have been required to abandon the balanced schedule, with the result that some teams face tougher schedules than others, and there is only a limited home and home component. You cannot judge a team based on conference record without having examined its conference schedule.

But the Big 12 remains pure. Top to bottom, the conference is arguably as good as it’s ever been. Nine members have qualified for the NCAA’s in the last two years, The outlier, TCU, started this season 12-0. Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and TCU breezed through the non-conference portion of their schedule at 54-5. Kansas, West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech are in the top ten of the current AP and Coaches poll.

But the biggest reason for the Big 12 buzz is Trae Young, Oklahoma’s lighting quick 6’2” freshman point guard. The Young-ster leads the nation in scoring (30 ppg) and assists (10/gm). On December 22, he handed out 22 assists against Northwestern State, tying a record set by Sherman Douglas of Syracuse 30 years ago. He’s a lock for freshman of the year and a near-lock for player of the year. Young says that he patterned his game after assist maven Steve Nash, but his quick release, global range and striking accuracy most resemble Steph Curry. At TCU January 13th in a revenge encounter, Young added another name to his cast of characters – Russell Westbrook.

Trae Young at work against TCU

With the Sooners trailing by six points late, Young took over. En route to a 43-point, 11 rebounds, 7 assist performance, Young scored 11 points in the last three minutes to force overtime, where Oklahoma pulled away. It was the second wrecking job that Young inflicted on TCU this season. On December 30, he registered 39 points and 14 assists against the Horned Frogs including two foul shots with seconds remaining to win it. “Sometimes you wonder if he’s even human,” mused teammate Christian James.

Also on January 13, Kansas, at home, edged Kansas State 73-72, and Texas Tech overcame a 10-point deficit in Lubbock to defeat number 2-ranked West Virginia 72-71, ending the Mounties’ 15-game winning streak. Just another routine day in the Big 12. Considering the strength of the conference, this looked like the year to break Kansas’s 13-year stranglehold on the Big 12 regular season title. But on Monday, as a 6.5 point underdog at West Virginia, Kansas put its detractors on hold. The Jayhawks made up a 16-point second half disadvantage to startle the Mountaineers 71-66, their second defeat in 48 hours after winning fifteen straight. Last night, Kansas State at home flashed its bona fides by spanking Oklahoma 87-69. Young, who can be overzealous, came back to earth with eleven turnovers.

You can make the case that there is no more difficult task in college basketball than winning a conference game on the road in the Big 12. “There are no easy outs in the Big 12,” lamented WVU coach Bob Huggins. “Every team is tough.”

All ten of them.

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March 15th, 2017 sendarama Posted in college basketball No Comments »

I’ve spent hours staring at my NCAA grid trying to divine who among the top seeds has the least obstructed path to Phoenix, and the answer is …..nobody. There are valid reasons why 10-15 teams can either win all their games or be knocked out by the second round.

And I’m not the only one confused. When the most respected source in the college basketball industry, the Pomeroy College Basketball Ratings, rates West Virginia, a four seed, as the 7th best team in the country, no. 1 seed Kansas 10th, 5th seed Virginia 7th, and no. 2 seed Arizona 20th, you know that we are not dealing with an exact science.

Unlike a year ago, when Michigan State was robbed of a no. 1 seed, there was no outcry this time over the top seeds. The wonderment arises over several mid-level slottings. How do Maryland and Minnesota rate higher seeds than Michigan or Wisconsin? What is Florida State, which limped home with losses to Georgia Tech and Pittsburgh, doing as a rarefied 3 seed in the West? The biggest travesty is Wichita State, eighth in the Pomeroy ratings and winners of 10 straight, seeded 10th in the South. The selectors may have been trying to set up a re-match of their classic bout w/Kentucky three years ago, but the seeding is an insult to the Shockers’ season.

Among the top 25, no team really stands out, and no team can be counted out. Can no. 8 seed Wisconsin topple Villanova in the second round in the East? Absolutely. Can no. 7 seed Michigan, fresh off a sweep of the Big Ten conference and featuring a revamped starting lineup, beat Louisville and Oregon to make the round of eight (and more) in the Midwest? That’s a definite maybe.

What about unnoticed and unheralded SMU, sixth seeded in the East and winners of 20 straight? The Mustangs were ravaged by scholarship reductions resulting from NCAA violations, and injuries, and lost their coach, Larry Brown, abruptly just before the season. But they boast the nation’s 3rd best defense (59.4 ppg), five starters 6-6 or taller, and one of the nation’s great players in Semi Ojeleye, a transfer from Duke. SMU-Duke in the round of 16 will be a collision.

The curve ball in predicting any outcome is the presence and prevalence of the 3-ball. More and more games are being turned by disparities in 3-point accuracy. Big leads are being extinguished in moments by 3-point specialists on hot streaks, which leads to the greater chance of upsets.

Among the top seeds, Gonzaga probably has the easiest early path since they’re a gimme to win their first two games, but Notre Dame, their likely opponent in the round of sixteen, should put up fierce resistance. The Irish offense is a force. They shoot 80.9 from the charity stripe. 6-5, 240 lb forward Bonzie Colson is Charles Barkley in diapers. He averages a double double. Seniors Beacham and Vasturio are smooth operators. Notre Dame is battle-tested and Gonzaga is not. Upset alert.

Kansas is flawed and can be toppled early by either Michigan State or Iowa State, its Big 12 rival. The Jayhawks played a lot of close games, and their front court is far from overpowering. They do not shoot fouls well.

Through 25 minutes of the semi-final ACC tourney match between North Carolina and Duke, Carolina looked like the best team in the country. They won the regular season of the nation’s strongest conference by two games, have size and depth to burn, and are ultra-experienced, having lost in the finals last year to Villanova on a last-second shot. But the last 15 minutes of their semis encounter with Duke rekindled all of our suspicions about them. They lost their point guard, Joel Berry, to foul trouble; they lost a 13-point lead; and they lost their nerve.

Based on their strong regular season, North Carolina held onto the number one seed in the South, but this is clearly the toughest region, particularly in the bottom half of the bracket. where four powerhouses reside – Kentucky, UCLA, Cincinnati, and Wichita State. Fortunately for the Tarheels, following difficult but winnable outings against Seton Hall and Butler, they will have to face only the survivor of the four; and they should be up to that task.

But analysis gets us only so far. Kismet can matter just as much as adjusted offense efficiency when crowning a champion.
It’s been twenty years since an NCAA champion (Arizona) came from the Pacific time zone, and this year’s Final Four is in their back yard. The Arizona Wildcats, featuring the positively splendid 7′ freshman from Finland, Lauri Markkanen, cut down the nets.

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Gonzaga Rises above the Rubble/Fed not Dead

February 2nd, 2017 sendarama Posted in college basketball, tennis No Comments »

With the sporting public finally focused on college basketball during the two week lull before the Super Bowl, the nation’s top quintets made a compelling case that there is no clear favorite to cut down the nets in Phoenix on April 3rd. They did so not with their stellar play but by a run of losses to lesser foes which suggests that not a team among them can string together the necessary six victories under difficult conditions to win a title.

Last week, seven of the top 10 and fourteen of the top 25 lost once. Six of the top 25 lost twice.

No. 1 Villanova blew a 17- point lead and lost to unranked Marquette 74-72. Oregon, winner of 17 straight, was upended by lowly Colorado 74-65. No. 2 Kansas lost to West Virginia 85-69. After playing six straight games against ranked teams with a 5-1 record, Florida State lost back-to-back affairs to weak Georgia Tech and unranked Syracuse. Conference kingpins Kentucky and North Carolina lost on the road to Tennessee and Miami, respectively. Duke, the pre-season number one in the AP poll, has lost five games already, including at home to NC State for the first time since 1991.

If Marvin Gaye were alive, he’d wonder “What’s Goin’ On?” The answer is not a Lack of Lovin’, nor a deterioration in the quality of play. The top programs are getting more than their share of the one-and-dones, and there is no shortage of top talent to fill out the supporting roles. So why are the best teams losing so much?

A couple of changed conditions are at work. As a result of the realignment of the conferences into five super conferences containing up to fifteen teams, the regular season schedules in the Big Ten, ACC, Big Twelve, and Pac-12 have become minefields for upsets. Prior to expansion, Duke and North Carolina used to steamroller their way to lopsided regular season records in the ACC with home and aways against Boston College, Virginia Tech, Georgia Tech, and Clemson. Now, they must face the likes of Louisville, Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh in a staggered schedule. Six of Carolina’s next eight games are against Duke, Notre Dame, Virginia , and Louisville, all top 25 residents.

West Virginia, which entered the Big 12 in 2012, has already inflicted losses on Kansas and Baylor. Maryland has made things difficult for everyone in the re-constituted Big Ten. In the new Big East, Creighton, Marquette, Xavier, and Butler are tough outs for Villanova, and for each other.

Secondly, liberalization of the transfer rules has made it easier for middle tier programs to reinforce their rosters with proven scorers. Big ticket freshmen often flame out, but there is little risk to recruiting a two or three year starter who wants to take his talents elsewhere. The one –year waiting period for undergraduate transfers remains, but players with remaining eligibility who have achieved their undergraduate degrees can transfer to another institution and play immediately.

The addition of a mature scorer to an team with a pressing need can transform a middling team to a good one, a good team to great. For example, Syracuse, hit hard by the surprise defection of freshman Malachi Richardson to the pros after a break-out 2016 post-season, recruited fifth year transfers Andrew White III and John Gillon for the 2016-2017 season. Between them, they scored 71 points in the Orangemen’s overtime win over NC State on Tuesday.

Another leading exponent of transfers is also the principal beneficiary of the carnage of losses which has afflicted the top 25. Quietly, rung by rung, Gonzaga has climbed from an opening rank of number 14 to its present position at the top of the charts. The Zags did it, not with a run of big victories, but by avoiding losses during their relatively soft non-conference schedule and decidedly soft West Coast Conference schedule.

Gonzaga is not all smoke and mirrors and a patsy schedule. At 23-0, including last night’s 85-75 disposal of Brigham Young, they’re the nation’s only undefeated team. They’ve won 16 straight by double digits, and convincingly beat tough Arizona on a neutral court. They’ve made the NCAA tournament for eighteen consecutive seasons, but suffer annually from a failure to be taken seriously. This is because they play in the weak WCC, and because they have not one Final Four appearance to show for all of their post-season appearances. More often than not they have been bounced from the Big Show early.

This year’s team is anchored by three transfers. Sharpshooter Jordan Mathews left California as a graduate transfer after three years of double-digit scoring for the Golden Bears. Johnathan Williams is a burly rebounder and interior scorer who played two years for Missouri. Point guard Nigel Williams-Goss was a star at Washington for two seasons before moving down the road to Spokane.

Williams-Goss is already the best yet hyphenated transfer, but if he continues to shine with his all-round game, he may become Gonzaga’s best player ever, John Stockton and Adam Morrison notwithstanding. He leads the team in scoring, rebounds, steals, and assists and exerts a Jason Kidd-like control over the game. Last week, against San Francisco, he became the fifth player in the last 20 years with 35 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and 80 percent shooting from the field in a game. Against BYU, he shot 12 of 18.

NWG driving against BYU

Williams-Goss leads a balanced attack. The first seven average between eight and fourteen ppg. Transfer Williams supplements a massive front line, featuring 7’ 1″ 300 lb. senior Przemek Karnowski and 7’ freshman Zach Collins, who averages 10.8 ppg in less than 20 minutes a game. Rounding out the backcourt with NWG are reliable returning lettermen Josh Perkins and Silas Melson.

Unlike their Power Five counterparts, Gonzaga does not face continuing regular season challenges. Only St. Mary’s on February 11th stands a ghost’s chance of stealing a victory from the Zags before NCAA play. If form holds, they will become only the fourth team to enter the NCAA tournament undefeated in the last 25 years.

If form doesn’t hold, they could lose a regular season game. But if so, or if not, be prepared for another surprise – a long Zag run in the tournament.

Fed not Dead

A most welcome interlude from the onslaught of hoops and cacophony of Super Bowl talk was Roger Federer’s five-set victory over Rafael Nadal Sunday in the Australian Open. If you saw the match, you will never forget it.

Both Federer and Nadal were returning from long lay-offs. Federer, 35, was sidelined for six months after knee surgery. The leader in major victories at 17, Fed had not won a big one since 2012. Entering the tournament, he was seeded 17th. Furthermore, Nadal , winner of 14 majors, had Federer’s number. Federer had not beaten Nadal in a major in ten years, going 0-6 in the process.

The first four sets played according to form. There was one service break per set, and each proved decisive. Each player had registered 110 points after four sets. In the fifth set, all hell broke loose.

Nadal broke Federer in game 1. Federer failed to convert either of four break points in games 2 and 4 and entered the fifth set down 1-3. To survive, Federer needed to scale breakback mountain twice, a tall if not impossible task.

Federer held serve decisively in Game 5, and finally broke through on his sixth break point to make it 3-3. Three service aces propelled him to a 4-3 lead. Federer won the first three points on Nadal’s service in game 8 to set up three break points, but Nadal elegantly fought back to deuce. After a 26-hit rally to get to ad point. Federer scaled the mountain.

The wind at his back, Federer served for the match at 5-3. Nadal reached two break points, but finally faltered. Match point, decided on an appeal of a line call, was almost anti-climactic. But there was no shortage of jubilation to come.

With all permissible props to the wondrous Nadal, Federer’s victory at Melbourne, all things considered, qualifies as one of the very great individual sports triumphs of our time.

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