Friday, March 17, 2017
It’s March again, which means another round of March Madness is upon us. If you like hype, crap officiating, office gambling, and media timeouts, this is the event for you. If you appreciate fairness, on the other hand, best look elsewhere. I’m talking about the real madness behind the NCAA basketball tournament: the annual snubbing of successful mid-major teams.
There are 32 conferences in Division I basketball, and each runs a postseason tournament with the winner getting the conference’s automatic berth to the tournament. Some tournaments are held at campus sites, with the higher seed hosting, making the regular season somewhat meaningful, while others are held at neutral locations. Some even hold the tournament at a pre-determined campus court regardless of regular season record; the Ivy League played their first tournament this year at Penn’s Palestra, and the #4 Quakers nearly upset #1 seed Princeton due to their undeserved home court advantage. At least the Ivy only invites 4 of 8 teams, most of the other tournaments invite every single team in a cynical move to generate as much revenue as possible, which again renders the 30-some games played in the regular season meaningless. Top teams get byes, so you end up with the #11 and #14 seeds facing off. Why? Seriously, why?
After the 32 automatic bids are set, the other 36 bids are decided by a selection committee, who are now celebrities in their own right, getting their own show to reveal their picks on the Sunday before the tournament begins. Meanwhile, “bracketologists” like Joe Lunardi predict the outcome, with bubble teams separated into “Last 4 In” and “First 4 Out”. The hype is ridiculous. Do even real college hoops fans care if Kansas State or Syracuse makes it in? Both are bad teams with no chance at winning the whole thing.
In the end, 33 of the 36 at-large teams came from power basketball conferences (ACC, Big East, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, SEC, American); the only outsiders were Dayton and VCU from the Atlantic-10 (arguably not a mid-major) and St. Mary’s from the West Coast Conference, and even they are not truly mid-major as #1-seed Gonzaga is also a member. For the other 23 conferences, only the tournament winner was afforded the chance to dance. And this is what is so unfair. The committee has an inherent bias against squads from smaller conferences, primarily based on strength of schedule. Thus garbage teams like Kansas State (8-10 in Big 12) and Wake Forest (9-9 in ACC) get coveted spots, while Horizon League champ Oakland (14-4) was left out after losing their tournament opener to Youngstown State (5-13), a game that was played at neutral Joe Louis Arena.
It is not necessarily the committee’s fault either; the entire college basketball world favours the power conferences. Mid-major teams rarely host teams from power conferences (Philadelphia’s Big 5 schools are a notable exception) so they don’t have much of a chance to establish themselves in terms of the statistical requirements mandated by the committee (“body of work”, “strength of schedule”). In other words, a small fish in a big pond is better than a big fish in a small pond when it comes to selecting schools for March Madness. And that is outright wrong.
Want proof? As a conference champion that did not win its tournament, Oakland gained an automatic bid to the NIT (along with 9 other such teams), where they were given a 7-seed. Their opponent in the first round was Clemson who finished 6-12 in ACC play. Oakland traveled to Clemson and won, 74-69. Cal-State Bakersfield from the WAC, another regular season champ who lost in their tournament, was given an 8-seed. They visited Cal, who finished 10-8 in the Pac-12, and came away with the upset win as well.
Of course, other mid-major champions lost, such as Monmouth falling to Ole Miss, but the point is that these teams can compete with the lesser lights of the power conferences and should be allowed to do so in the NCAA tournament, not in the NIT.
How can this be fixed? In some cases, regular season mid-major champions should join their conference’s tournament champs in the Big Dance. It is wrong to punish these teams for a single loss. The regular season supposedly matters for power conferences (I say supposedly because seriously, how did Wake Forest get in with their 9-9 ACC record, or Vanderbilt at 19-15 overall) but not at all for the mid-majors. Second, no team that is at or under .500 in conference play should be admitted unless they win their tournament (in fact, tournaments should not accept such teams but I know this isn’t going to happen). Kansas State (8-10) beat Baylor in the Big 12 tournament, which probably got them into the dance, but does any serious fan of college hoops really want to see another crap power conference team instead of Oakland or Belmont? Upsets are the lifeblood of the tournament and Xavier beating Maryland is not an upset.
One compromise would be to add four more teams to the NCAA tournament – the best mid-major champs who lost in their tournament – to create a First Eight. I’d be much more interested in any of those matchups than Providence vs USC, both of whom went 10-8 in conference play.
So while you sit back for the next three weeks to enjoy 67 basketball games, pay attention to the NIT as well – it has a few teams that you should be watching instead.
Tuesday, March 14, 2017
As I've mentioned in previous posts, when this weekend trip was planned, the Red Wings/Rangers game was scheduled for 12:30 on Sunday afternoon, allowing me to book an evening flight back to NYC. When the game was pushed to the evening by the evildoers at NBC Sports, I had a decision to make. Should I fly home Sunday and sell my game ticket, or stay an extra night? In the end, after adding the Windsor game to the itinerary, I decided to stay and see Joe Louis Arena one last time.
So after crossing back into America with no difficulty (the CBP officer laughed when I told her that I was in Windsor for hockey and going to Detroit for hockey), I drove around downtown looking for a parking spot, since street parking is free on Sunday. After a few minutes, I found a perfect spot near a People Mover station, so I left the car on the street and walked over to the Joe. Along the way, I had a great view of the Renaissance Center (below), where I stayed on my first ever sports road trip back in 1986, when three friends and I traveled to see the Jays play two games at Tiger Stadium (they split). What I like about this picture is the sculpture of a fist in the bottom right corner - it represents the fist of Joe Louis, and the story behind it is quite interesting.
I wrote in detail about the rink last time, so won’t cover those points again. I walked through the Cobo Center to get there and really appreciated the sign below. A unique font for a unique arena.
There are some small differences from two seasons ago, such as commemorative photos on exterior doors…
…and small “Farewell Season” stickers on the concourse floor.
I also noticed a display case with several miniature Stanley Cups and other memorabilia. I always appreciate when a team honours its past like this and hope this display finds its way to the new arena too.
The Joe remains much the same as it did when it opened in 1979, with a few additional banners honouring the team’s ridiculous record of success over the past couple of decades.
See how close the upper bowl is to the lower bowl. Just a few feet separate the two. Pretty sure that’s gonna change when the team moves to Little Caesars Arena next season.
My favourite thing here is the $2.50 box of Timbits (donut holes), possibly the cheapest Big 4 food item around. Along with the small soda courtesy of the designated driver program, it was a very affordable, though rather unhealthy, dinner.
The Joe will certainly be missed; it is the last of the old-time hockey venues. Only MSG is older as an NHL rink, and the recent renovations there make it seem brand new. The Wings are not going to make the playoffs, so if you want to see one final game here, you better do so quickly. It will be well worth the effort.
The Red Wings have fallen hard and fast and are now in last place in the East, while the Rangers are 4th in the conference, and 4th in their division too. Yes, the Atlantic is so bad that the top team (Montreal) has a worse record than the 4th place team in the Metropolitan. Anyway, I hoped that the Red Wings would put on a show for this prime time affair featuring the last visit of an Original 6 rival, but that was just silly of me. With seconds left in a choppy first period and Detroit on a power play, the Rangers broke away on a 3-on-1 and Ryan McDonagh finished off by poking home a pass from Kevin Hayes.
Detroit tied it in the second on another power play when ex-Islander Frans Nielsen completed a fantastic four-way passing play to beat a helpless Antti Raanta, starting for an injured Henrik Lundqvist. But that was the highlight as the Rangers scored two quick ones late in the frame, including another from McDonagh, and added a clincher on a power play with about 4 minutes to go in the game as they won easily 4-1. A rather disappointing end to the trip for me, but that's the way it goes sometimes.
Fans were booing heartily (spoiled brats), but it is obvious this team is in need of a rebuild. Henrik Zetterberg is far past his prime, and with other perennial stars having retired, the club has to start from scratch again. The recent passing of owner Mike Ilitch has added a bit of uncertainty, but given the way the team has performed in the past, I expect them to be back in contention for the playoffs very soon.
During the national anthem, somebody threw an octopus on the ice. The tradition dates back to the days when 8 wins was needed to take the Stanley Cup, and grew in popularity during their Cup runs, but these days, it is just a sad reminder of how things used to be.
That’s the last road trip for a while as I’m going to hang out in NYC for the next few weeks. There’s always plenty of see here, and I’ll be going to games here and there, but the next out-of-town adventure will be in late April to see the Jays visiting the St. Louis Cardinals. Of course, plans change, so check back on occasion to see what I’m up to.
Monday, March 13, 2017
I visited Detroit this past weekend to see the Pistons and Red Wings before they move to Little Caesars Arena for next season. The Red Wings game was originally scheduled for 12:30 Sunday, allowing me to fly back that night. Unfortunately, NBCSN decided to switch that game with the Chicago/Minnesota tilt, moving the Wings to 7 pm. Other than the NFL flexing games (a well-documented policy that can generally be forecast in advance), I absolutely hate when game times are shifted for TV, which results in paying fans, particularly those traveling, getting shafted. I can't believe that NBCSN expects that they'll get more afternoon viewers in the Central Time Zone the day after Daylight Saving Time took effect, but who knows what they were thinking.
But I am not one to cry over spilled milk, I'd rather make lemonade. Or something like that. So when I found out that the Windsor Spitfires were home that afternoon, and I was able to book a mileage flight back to NYC for Monday morning, I decided to forgo my original flight and see both games, making it a two-country hockey doubleheader.
In a well-known bit of trivia, Windsor is actually south of Detroit, and there are two ways to get there: the Ambassador Bridge, and the Detroit-Windsor Tunnel, which is generally a better option as no commercial traffic is allowed. There is a toll both ways ($5 on the way there, $4.50 on the way back, slightly more in Canadian dollars) but the bridge is no cheaper and you certainly can't swim across. With the Flint Firebirds the visitors, I expected a few Michiganders to make the trip, but I guess I overestimated the popularity of the OHL in Michigan and there was no wait at the Canadian border.
Opened in 2008 to replace Windsor Arena, WFCU Centre is about 10 km from the tunnel along surface streets, but on a Sunday morning, an easy drive by the waterfront, with views of Detroit across the river. Parking is free in the general lot just off McHugh, with season ticket holders getting the spots a bit closer. There are a number of community rinks and a pool here too, so you can use that lot if you prefer, but it might take you a while to get out after the game as it is on the far side of the facility.
My Michigan friend Mike decided to join me and brought his family along to root for Flint. The Spitfires have a special where you get 4 tickets for $69 along with 2 programs and $15 to use at Subway, so Mike picked that up and I got a single ticket next to them. Those seats are in the Red section behind the net that Windsor defends twice and are $18 usually, so not much of a discount. The view from our seats is above. Center ice seats are $25 and there are $14 seats in the top few rows higher up. There are also platinum seats but these seem to be only available to season ticket holders and are not on sale to the general public.
The arena is not symmetrical in that sense that at one end is a restaurant, which limits the number of regular seats behind that net (view from the restaurant above).
The other end has about 30 rows (above), including those $14 seats, and it was mostly empty on this day so if you want some space, this is where to sit. I was surprised that Windsor attacked the end with less seats; I would expect you'd want more fans to see the home team goals.
The concourse is relatively narrow but sufficient for the crowd, although it can be a bit busy during intermissions. Along one side there is a lounge for those platinum seat holders who want some space before the game. As I walked by, I noticed the Chicago-Minnesota game on TV and realized that I would not be here if that game had not been switched. There are also suites above the seating bowl as you can see below.
The Spitfires have a long history and won back-to-back Memorial Cups in 2009-10, and these are commemorated with banners, along with other titles and accomplishments.
A number of players have gone on to NHL greatness (Adam Graves and Ed Jovanovski for example) and banners on the opposite side of the rink denote these.
You might also notice #18 for Mickey Renaud above. Renaud was the Spitfires captain and a Flames draft pick when he suddenly passed away from a heart condition in 2008. There is a display case honouring him along the concourse, while the road leading to the rink is named for him as well.
The scoreboard is octagonal and quite small, with the video screen barely enough to see the replays clearly, but at least replays are shown, including those of visiting goals.
Food is quite cheap, at least when thinking about it in American funds. For example, a $5 hot dog is only 3.75 USD, a relative bargain these days. If you wish to eat beforehand, there is a Tim Horton's about a kilometre away, though this branch did not have sesame bagels for some reason. Seriously, how can a Tim Horton's not carry sesame bagels? Let me tell you, 12-grain is no substitute.
Overall, WFCU Centre is typical of junior hockey rinks built in the early years of the 21st century. A simple seating bowl, a few amenities for the season-ticket holders, a restaurant, and some history on display. It is a simple recipe, and although not as unique as older barns in Kitchener and Peterborough for example, it is still well worth a visit for any hockey fan. If you happen to be in Detroit in the winter and want to see some Canadian junior hockey, check out if the Spitfires are in town and make the trip across the border to add this rink to your collection.
Windsor was 5th in the OHL’s West Division with 39 wins from 64 games while Flint was 7th, but substantially worse in terms of record, having won 32 of their 64 contests. Both teams had already clinched playoff spots, so there wasn't a lot to play for. The Firebirds scored early when Everett Clark sped by a defenseman and beat Michael DiPietro (no relation to Rick) just 1:48 in. The rest of the period was crap, with Flint outshooting Windsor 7-6.
In the second stanza, Flint again scored in the first two minutes, this time Nicholas Caamano (drafted in the 5th round in 2016 by Dallas) tipped in a Clark shot. Midway through the period, Caamano added a power play marker and the fans became quite restless as their team didn’t seem to be playing with much urgency. Shots after two were 14-13 for Windsor, a snoozer that continued into the third period, though the Spitfires started to attack more.
With about 9 minutes to go in the third, Caamano poked home a rebound for the hat trick, and the fans behind me got up to leave, saying “That’s it, we’re outta here”. But wait! The referee did not signal goal! The play was offside but nobody heard the whistle! The score remained 3-0, but the fans behind me had already left, breaking the golden rule of attending a game: “Never Leave Early”. A couple of minutes later, Flint again had a goal disallowed after a review showed that it had been kicked in. I jokingly told Mike that Windsor would use these disallowed goals as motivation, but it turns out I was right. About a minute after the second disallowed goal, Sean Day (Rangers 3rd-rounder in 2016) scored a seeing-eye goal on a power play, and just 22 seconds later, Julius Nattinen (Anaheim's 2nd rounder in 2015) slid a backhander through the legs of Garrett Forrest to cut the Flint lead to 3-2. The Spitfires sensed the Firebirds were fading and kept buzzing around the net, quickly tying the game with 5:25 to go as Nattinen added his second on a slapper from the left circle.
Flint managed to get the game to overtime, but that was their only accomplishment as Windsor kept the pressure on during the 3-on-3 session and eventually Aaron Luchuk scored after being left all alone in front to complete the improbable comeback. A great finish to an otherwise dull game, but I can’t help thinking of the reaction of those fans when they heard the final score was 4-3 in favour of Windsor. How could that be? They were losing 4-0 when we left! Once again: "Never Leave Early".
Highlights can be seen here if you care.
Only the first goal was scored in our end, lending credence to my claim that Windsor should attack the end with more seats to make the game more exciting for their fans.
The WFCU Centre will host the Memorial Cup this year between May 19-28. The Detroit Tigers have home games against Texas from the 19-21 but are out of town the rest of the time. All games are in the evening, so a same-day doubleheader is not possible.
Even though Windsor is not likely to win the OHL title, they will contend for the Memorial Cup as hosts. I have always hated this rule because it rewards the ability of the bid committee to attract the tournament, and not the team itself. If Windsor doesn’t take home the OHL championship, the fourth team should be the OHL team with the best record in the regular season to make the games that much better. Even Windsor fans would probably appreciate competitive games over seeing their team get shellacked.
Sunday, March 12, 2017
The Detroit Pistons will be joining the Red Wings next season at Little Caesars Arena, making this the last season that one can see both the Palace of Auburn Hills and Joe Louis Arena as Big 4 venues. I've been to both a couple of times, but the last time I saw the Pistons at home was way back in 2003 for a playoff game against Orlando. This was Game 5 in the first round with eighth seed Orlando up 3-1, when Tracy McGrady said he was looking forward to the second round. Oops! The Pistons won in 7, including a 98-67 win in that game.
Anyway, I wanted to visit the Palace once more before it shuts its doors to the NBA, and found a weekend where the Red Wings were also at home. Coincidentally, both teams were hosting New York teams, making it an all-Manhattan weekend in the Motor City!
Auburn Hills is just over 30 miles north of Detroit, so I stayed in the area that day to avoid the drive back after the game. My friend Mike, a Michigan native who lives nearby, met me at a local bar beforehand. We planned to drive, but Mike found a place called Hoops that offers $4 shuttle rides, thus saving the hassle and cost of parking. We stopped there for another drink before catching the first shuttle that dropped us off at the East Terrace just after 4, an hour before the rather rare 5 p.m. start.
I had bought tickets through the exchange program on TicketMaster which allows you to enter by having the ticket’s bar code on your phone scanned. Before we did that, I stopped at the box office inside the East Entrance to see if they could print us hard tickets as a souvenir. The staff were very amenable and although it took them a couple of minutes, they were able to print the tickets using different stock than the usual boring tickets with no images, something I was quite happy about. A nice souvenir indeed as you can see below.
Our seats were in Row A, but this is only the first row of the fixed seating area, and floor seats are directly in front. There isn’t enough of a difference between the two levels, so the view was partially blocked by people in front. At halftime, we moved a row back to see more clearly.
I won’t describe the arena in detail here since it won't be used for major sports going forward; if you want to know more check out its Wikipedia entry.
As stated in that article, the Palace is considered the first "modern" NBA arena as it included luxury suites and club seats, but even then it used only a single concourse, so the upper bowl is still quite close to the floor. All new venues have an upper and lower concourse, usually separated by one or two suite levels, so the upper bowl is often far away from the action. The photo below was taken from about the middle of the upper and shows that the view is not that bad. The answer to the trivia question (shown on the very impressive scoreboard) is Jon Leuer.
A few other pictures of the arena:
The concourse was more than wide enough, as you would expect in a venue that was built without any constraints from existing streets or buildings.
Past stars are displayed in photos above concourse entrances and with banners. Note the William signature below; this is for Bill Davidson, who owned the Pistons and funded the Palace entirely with private funds. He passed away in 2009 and the team and arena were sold to Tom Gores in 2011.
View from the good seats...
...and the top row of the end zone.
The Palace is really an impressive arena considering its age. The only problem is its location, at least for those who actually live in Detroit, who must be happy to save 70 miles of driving for every game starting next year. For those hoops fans that live nearby, their gas bill is going to go up considerably. As for me, I'm glad I made one final trip to see it. Can't say the same for the Knicks though.
A somewhat meaningful encounter with the Pistons battling for that all-important 7th spot in the East at 32-33, while the Knicks continue to destroy Phil Jackson's reputation, coming in at 26-39.
The teams were tied at 9 when Detroit went on a quick 12-0 run behind 7 points from Tobias Harris, and they led by 12 at the end of the first, even after the Knicks Chasson Randle hit a buzzer beater from half-court. The second quarter was a wash as the Pistons took at 66-53 lead into the break.
The Knicks started shooting well in the third and when Randle hit a trey with just under 2 minutes left, they pulled within 3 at 81-78 but the Pistons finished the frame on an 8-3 spurt and continued the trend in the final period with a 9-4 advantage that removed all doubt and they coasted to a 112-92 win, with the Knicks putting up a woeful 11 points in the fourth. The Pistons outshot the Knicks (48-44%) but New York's 3-point percentage was better (43-33%). The difference in the game was turnovers, as the Knicks committed 18 compared to just 7 for the Pistons, giving them an extra 12 attempts from the field. In the end, it was not a bad game as there were only 33 fouls called, so it moved quickly.
The Palace will not be razed as it hosts many other events throughout the year, catering to the 2 million or so people who populate Oakland and Macomb counties. So if you like to visit former sports arenas, you can do a doubleheader with the Pontiac Silverdome which is just 4 miles south. Its roof collapsed in 2013 and lies in ruins now, but that didn't stop some people from touring it recently.
Sunday, March 5, 2017
I grew up just as boxing was exiting from the mainstream sports scene, hurt by corruption and a confusing array of sanctioning organizations. Even now, there are four such associations each of which can have a champion at 17 different weight categories. It is simply too difficult for the average sports fan to follow all of these, so you only hear about the top boxers, such as Floyd Mayweather, who retired as an undefeated professional in 2015, leaving the World Boxing Council (WBC) welterweight title vacant from November of that year. In January 2016, Philadelphia's Danny Garcia beat Robert Guerrero to capture the championship.
Mayweather also held the World Boxing Association welterweight belt at that time, and that was stripped in 2016 due to his retirement. Keith Thurman from Orlando, the interim champion, was promoted and defended the title against Shawn Porter in June at Barclays Center in a bout that was broadcast in prime time on CBS, the first fight accorded such a privilege since Ali-Spinks in 1978.
With both Garcia (33-0) and Thurman (27-0) sporting undefeated records, a title unification bout was inevitable and that was set for March 4, again at Barclays Center. My buddy Eddie, a serious boxing fan, told me that this was one of the biggest fights of the year, and with tickets in the upper bowl just $57, I decided to attend. For those who care, floor seats were $757, while lower bowl seats ranged $157-500 or so. With binoculars, the upper bowl seats were certainly the most cost-effective, though it is difficult to tell from the photo above.
There were eight other bouts on the card, and I arrived as the third fight, a super lightweight encounter between Sergey Lipinets (#7 in the world) and Clarence Booth (#144, all rankings from BoxRec.com), was getting underway. As you would expect from such a mismatch, Lipinets won by TKO in the 7th round. This was followed by a welterweight bout as Richardson Hitchins, a Brooklyn native who represented Haiti in the Olympics, won his professional debut in just 90 seconds over Mexican Mario Perez. That led us to the televised portion of the evening, which consisted of two bouts. Before the main event, a super welterweight fight between Erickson Lubin (#15) and Jorge Cota (#102) resulted in Lubin knocking down Cota in the fourth round. During the TV interview, Lubin boasted "I landed that overhand and it was night-night", which received a lot of laughs from the fans.
With the first fight finishing so quickly, we had to wait about 30 minutes for the main event, which began around 10 pm. Thurman (#2 in the world behind Manny Pacquiao) entered with somebody next to him singing "My Way" (above) and Garcia (#3) followed shortly thereafter, wearing a mask (below). Those were the only "hype" moments of the evening; for a sport that relies on pre-match promotion, the actual event is very quick and relatively quiet.
The fight was scheduled for 12 rounds, and Thurman (#2 in the world, in red below) was the aggressor early, particularly in a highly entertaining first round. Boxing rounds are scored with the winner getting 10 points and the loser getting 9, unless he is knocked down, when he will get 8 or possibly 7. After six rounds it was 58-56 Thurman according to the judge I was following online, meaning Thurman had a 4-2 lead in rounds. Thurman continued to win rounds and had a 97-93 lead after 10, suggesting that Garcia had to knock him out to win the match. But Thurman did not engage for those final two rounds, resulting in a cascade of boos from the fans as he backpedaled the whole time. With twelve rounds completed and both fighters still standing, we went to the scorecards. When the winner was announced, it was a surprising split decision with Thurman winning 116-112 and 115-113 on two cards, while Garcia took the other 115-113. Both fighters were interviewed and Garcia was polite in the loss, though the believed that he had won the fight. A rematch is possible.
With the main event done, about 16,000 of the 16,553 fans fled for the exits, but there were three more bouts on the card. I moved down to the lower level and watched a super lightweight contest with Mario Barrios (#28, in black below) defeating Yardley Suarez (#169) in a sixth round TKO. Look for the 21-year-old Barrios to move up the rankings over the next few years.
The final two matches were for true boxing fans only. First, another super lightweight bout saw 21-year old Thomas Velasquez (#262) knock out 32-year-old James Lester (#602). Lester lay face down for a few minutes before being helped out of the ring, I hope he retires for his own sake. The final bout saw a couple of 30-year-old featherweights with Pablo Cruz (#216) dominating Rickey Lopez (#102) only to lose on a split decision. I can't find any stats on the fight, but Lopez seemed to be backing up through the entire thing so I don't know how he won. The evening finished at 12:30, fully six hours after it started, a good deal if you got the cheap seats.
Overall, this was a good introduction to boxing and how it operates. A couple of high-profile bouts with several more of the second or third-tier variety. New York has several major fight nights a year, and I might try go again once or twice, but I wasn't convinced that boxing is a sport that is worth following regularly.
I expected a lot of celebs in attendance, but only Boomer Esaison and Phil Simms were announced on the big screen.
If you are going to a boxing match, floor seats are not that good because you are looking up through the ropes. The best seats are midway up the lower bowl in the section looking straight at the ring.