Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Lakers Need Monster Performance From Dwight Howard

So what are we supposed to do now? Believe in him, pull for him to have a fine performance and play like the Superman he once was in Disney World before migrating to Disneyland? If the issue was whether he was burnt out from the Epcot Experiment and just wanted to experience a California Adventure, it's because the Los Angeles Lakers are usually in contention to win a championship.

It's hard to make a case that either he desperately joined the Lakers to flee the chaos in Orlando, but whatever the reasoning was behind Howard's trade, he's a factor for the Lakers and must have a monster performance in Game 2 Wednesday night in San Antonio. So this is a chance for Howard to really lead the Lakers to a playoff series win, without the services of Kobe Bryant because of a torn Achilles tendon that he suffered during a regular-season win against Golden State. And now Howard is the most important player for the Lakers in these playoffs.

If they can somehow pound the ball inside they can easily tie this series, despite the Spurs' swarming defenders that forced Howard to turn the ball over. Yet Howard's ability to execute underneath the basket remains a question and, after a loss in Game 1 of the playoff opener, it raises concern about whether he can hold on to the ball, let alone adjust the way he attacks in the post or sets rock-solid screens to create space for himself to dominate the paint and frustrate a pesky Spurs defense.

If the Buss family is smart, no matter how the season ends, they won't let Howard walk at the end of the season. If everything goes right, the Lakers will sign him to an enormous deal and he will keep on a purple and gold uniform. Assuming that he's come to L.A. to be the star of the post-Kobe era, he's indeed the one the Lakers will count on when the going gets tough, like now. He pretty much has been aggressive in a fierce battle against the veteran Tim Duncan.

It's about one big man trying to outdo the other. It's about the strongest and smartest, and with that in mind, Howard would have to stand up to the ageless and more assertive Duncan. If so, the Lakers could likely travel back to L.A. with a victory in the books, but Howard will have to play dominant and like a beast, one we've never seen, one that's not commonplace, one that convinces us he can carry the weight on his shoulders without his pal Kobe.

There's much about Howard that is significant, striking and perceptible, so it would only be wise to assume that he's more than just a 6-foot-11 big man with size and superhero physique. He is truly one of the funniest guys in the game. Known for his antics and whimsical nature, he'd probably be a damn good standup comedian and could sell out the Laugh Factory. He's that funny and humorous, but on Wednesday in a game that will likely dictate the nature of this series, he will need to wipe away his captivating smile and do the impression of a ferocious animal.

Howard needs to put aside the playfulness and be for real. More than that, he's now a willing leader who is not backing down from the challenge and has embraced his role in Bryant's absence. It might come down to Howard knocking down two free throws to clinch in the final minutes of a pivotal game. It might come down to him blocking and corralling what could have been a game-winning shot. It might come down to him putting back a missed shot or grabbing that crucial rebound, which could change the perspective of the game.

There is zero chance that the Lakers, a team that relies heavily on a big man in the pursuit of their NBA titles, would survive without a big game from Howard. He believes the Lakers can surprise the world -- very dangerous -- in these playoffs. It's one thing to dream, but another thing to turn it into reality. Without Kobe, the Lakers have no choice but to attack the rim with Howard's size and power. And lately, he's been living up to his nickname, rightfully so. He's been playing like Superman, not Superless Howard. He's been playing like an untamed giant, despite his silly passes and poor handling of the ball and the number of turnovers he's committed in the previous game. That can make this Lakers team dangerous.

The Lakers need his presence, his mental toughness and another dominant performance, without any mistakes. That means he can't account for 10 of the Lakers' 18 turnovers. But amazingly, after waiting and waiting, he has been everything the Lakers expected from him. Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, loves it in Los Angeles, but who knows if he'll stay? That doesn't matter at the moment, when there's much on the line in these playoffs and plenty to focus on. What we do know is that he's a different player since Bryant went down.

What we do know is that Howard is not only a defensive force but also a beast in the interior. The Lakers are a better team when he's healthy and when he plays like the Lakers are his team. Furthermore, he's the league's best rebounder, but he needs to continue to play like that all the time and cannot take nights off. The dominance he's shown is what the Lakers had in mind. He's playing with more energy and pizzazz. He's playing with a different mentality, the Dwight Howard that no one has seen much.

He's proving that he fits in well, and he's merely the key piece to make a deep playoff run. If he does become the most dominant center in the NBA, to follow Shaquille O'Neil, a Laker legend, maybe folks are going to perceive him as a likable superstar and not a polarizing diva who has been known for his wishy-washy, flaky mannerism.

This game will determinate what he's made of.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Tweet This, Kobe! Lakers’ Big Men Have to Get It Done

So how would you feel if you were Kobe Bryant, suffered a season-ending injury and watched your team from afar struggle against a stronger Spurs team? How would you feel if you were a 15-time All-Star who averaged 27 points, 5.6 rebounds and 6.1 assists and couldn’t help your team in the first series of a mind-numbing postseason, missing the playoffs for the second time in your polished career? How would you feel if you were the Black Mamba, the central figure of the Los Angeles Lakers, lashed out on social networking and tweeted from home throughout the game since you currently can’t travel with the team?

If you were like Kobe, a competitor and enthusiast, you would be very upset, frustrated and “bored.” On Sunday afternoon, from his Newport Beach home, he sat on the couch with his surgically repaired left leg elevated. Bryant sat in front of his television, as he was tweeting and nervously watching the Lakers run into trouble and come unstuck for the first time since he ruptured his Achilles tendon, expected to be sidelined six to nine months while recovering from surgery. The beloved star guard for one of the most celebrated franchises in pro sports was madly posting quotes via Twitter during the Lakers’ 91-79 loss in Game 1 of the playoff opener, which was still on, when he was using 140 characters to coach and encourage his teammates.

“Matador Defense on Parker. His penetration is hurting us.”

No growling. No snarling. No scowling. Maybe from his home, but not on the court. Bryant won’t be around to facilitate or hit a game-winning shot with much at stake in a postseason when folks already have doubts about the Lakers, following a porous season of disappointments, frustrations and woes that eventually culminated with a miracle to the playoffs. The idea that the Lakers are a social fabric, a main event, and more importantly, the most famous organization in a diverse community that comforts Californians in the Southland is why it is often hard any time the team is eliminated from contention in late April or early May and fails to lift the trophy come June. If Kobe were somehow healthy to indeed play, it would only give the Lakers a greater chance over the Spurs, if not a greater shot of winning a championship.

“Nothing worse then watching your bothers struggle and u can’t do crap about it #realtalk.”

In this particular series, nothing is worse than Mike D’Antoni’s boneheaded coaching philosophy, and sometimes he has the mind of a doofus by using his run and gun style of offense. This was not a workable or useful system for the Lakers all season. This was realistically a flawed coaching system as it showed all season. Given that he arrived and installed a fast-paced offense this season, which the Lakers needed time to adjust and learn D’Antoni’s peculiar style, an aging and slothful team isn’t capable of running the floor with players from opposing teams who are faster and younger. Deemed an offensive genius, as a generalization is not a misguided theory, he’s never preached defense. If he’d like be a Lakers coach for a very long time, then he must have the ability to alter his offensive and defensive strategy.


He knows there’s a tremendous amount of pressure on him, in other words, or blame could lie with D’Antoni for his inability to coach a championship-caliber team. Only he can rectify the frailty and blemishes by making smart choices. The most erratic basketball team in the world is coached by someone who is baffled and has no clue what way to utilize his players. Now wasn’t the time for Steve Nash to start for the Lakers. The decision, it could be debatable, has allowed Nash to return to the starting lineup for a team that can really use his presence and he better suits D’Antoni’s offensive mantra that his point guard ran effectively under him in Phoenix.

These Lakers aren’t the Suns, though. These Lakers are older, much older than that fast-running Phoenix team D’Antoni coached in the desert. This year, Nash is battling with injuries, which is only by far slowing down the 39-year-old veteran. He is not even fully healthy and should have come off the bench, especially with how well Steve Blake has been producing highest-scoring performances of his career to help the Lakers secure a playoff spot without the Twitter Coach.

Everyone loves to believe, though Nash missed eight games with a hamstring injury, that he can change everything for the Lakers in this series as a scoring threat that the Lakers badly needed. It felt like the start of something, a breath of hope and optimism in a game that Pau Gasol spaced the floor and ran pick-and-roll sets for Nash. More to the point, he scored 16 points on 6-for-15 shooting with three assists and a lone turnover in his first appearance in nine games. And while this was happening, as it did, Bryant was sharing his feelings and thoughts with the world, tweeting during the game, for which his rants and endless tweets might have been more entertaining than the game itself for more than 2 million followers.

He tweeted, “Post. Post. Post.”

I’m with Kobe on this one. Great minds think alike.

He is now offering support and his best advice on what the Lakers need to do as a team if they want to keep winning and be successful in a playoff that they are a least favorite to make it out of the first round against the San Antonio Spurs. Yet even after the loss, Bryant still believes the Lakers can win with the group they have. It’s now time to realize that without Kobe, though he’s tweeting about the game, the Lakers can’t make too many mistakes. Worse than all, the Lakers turned the ball over 18 times like it was a hot potato, as though they could slow down Spurs guard Tony Parker by carelessly having more turnovers. With Kobe out, he has embraced his role as, well, not a team cheerleader but let’s just say a social media freak.

Feeling this way, since he’s not healthy to help his teammates make a deep run in the playoffs, he’s providing insight and a vote of confidence. He was perhaps aware that Howard and Gasol combined for a total of 10 turnovers and that it has stifled the Lakers since the early part of the season to dictate their status as they jockeyed for a playoff position. With this in view, Howard and Gasol, the two Lakers’ big men, are more vulnerable and benign. This series, and Bryant knows this as well, will be long if Howard and Gasol can’t limit the number of turnovers.

While it’s true that Howard and Gasol are the team’s best options, with Bryant missing the postseason, the Lakers’ offense must be a heavy post attack. If they are going to be a real threat, and make life miserable for Gregg Popovich’s Spurs, well, then Howard has to defend the rim, establish a post game and dominate underneath. The fact he was getting the ball stripped away every time he was down low, plagued by two Spurs defenders, hurt the Lakers as the big man turned it over with awful passes and ball-handling. By then, Kobe was furious and ready to scream. He wasn’t laughing out loud — LOL. By then, Kobe probably was shaking his head.

I know I was shaking my head — SMH.

Gasol is playing well and raised his game in Bryant’s absence, a gifted Spaniard who is confident in his ability to score. He had 16 points, adding 16 rebounds and six assists, to register another double-double. Howard scored 20 points, but it was lost after having so many turnovers.

As it happened, Bryant was still tweeting and tweeting and tweeting.

Quite frankly, he’s publicly communicating with his team via social networking, speaking his mind, illustrating his passion as always, while he misses playing with the guys. He is vocal and outspoken, never has been afraid to rip anyone or speak the truth about a specific topic regarding the Lakers and never backed down from anyone or anything. Therefore, he’s tweeting messages he says to the Lakers when he’s on the sideline during timeouts or when he’s on the floor, where he has a penchant for scolding and chiding his guys.

If the Lakers expect to win this series and tie it in Game 2, then Howard must take care of the ball and have a big game, so does Gasol.

Aside from that, for those who are Twitter fanatics, subscribe to Kobe.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

After All the Scares, Lakers Survive to See Playoffs

It has been an exasperating, up-and-down, trying season and one that caused panic and anxiety throughout L.A., where basketball is the pride and joy of the community, symbolizing all what’s charming about the entertainment capital of the world. You could almost sense the sign of relief when the Los Angeles Lakers survived a 99-95 overtime win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday night in their building, on their home floor and in front of their tense crowd.

As nervous as these fans have been, as queasy as they were watching these Lakers painfully drop against lackluster teams throughout the season, they hung in and witnessed a different group of guys who turned it on late in the season to notch a fifth consecutive victory. By winning the final game of the regular season, to end one of the most dismal and disappointing seasons, the Lakers earned a first-round playoff series against San Antonio and avoided Oklahoma City, the top-seeded team in the Western Conference and a horrifying matchup for an older and short-handed Lakers unit.

It would have been one of the biggest disappointments in the history of the NBA if the Lakers were to miss the playoffs. It could have been quite embarrassing for the Lakers, considering all the talent and star power they acquired during the offseason. It took another kind of dominant, laborious effort from a group that was determined, relentless and persistent in order to clinch a playoff berth. In the playoffs, and a long, long way to go, the Lakers match up well with the Spurs.

It was a great fear, a great possibility that the Lakers wouldn’t make the NBA playoffs, but through all the scares, suffering and nightmares, they managed to reach their ultimate goal with help from Memphis on the night when the Lakers earned the seventh seed by beating the Rockets. The Lakers were in a fight with Utah for the West’s final spot, but the Grizzlies defeated the Jazz as the Lakers secured the final playoff berth. There is no equating late momentum to postseason success, but the Lakers can continue to piece together victories.

Entering these playoffs, with an abundance of confidence and staying power, the Lakers have much to feel good about. So it’s a series when the Lakers are underdogs, even when they are loaded with otherworldly talent. That’s what happens when a top-notched team underachieves and barely survives the regular season, with star players suffering injuries that hinder a contender from posing a challenge for its oppositions in the West.

When the season started, the Lakers were one of the most hyped teams and were the clear favorite to advance on to the NBA Finals. When the season began miserably, the Lakers were a riddle and fans went into panic mode, after the team’s 0-3 start that alarmed Kobe Bryant and the rest of the gang. When the season ended on a high note, after all the horror nights at Staples Center, the Lakers came together, acted with a sense of urgency and found the formula to winning.

The moment the season began for those wearing purple and gold, they were doomed to a dreary stretch of failures, under a fired Mike Brown. Then came Mike D’Antoni to replace Brown a few days after the team’s bungling of Phil Jackson’s return in mid-November. The blame laid with the Buss family for their failure to hire Jackson. And so they picked D’Antoni over an 11-time NBA champion, over someone who brought five championships to the Lakers and over someone whose familiarity and relationship with the organization ideally suited the team’s personality. But we all know too well that Phil and Jim didn’t get along.

Buss is simply not one of the best owners, and sometimes we wonder about his business acumen. He’s made faulty trades since taking over the personnel decisions in 2005. He’s made bad choices with coaches twice by hiring Brown over Brian Shaw and then hiring D’Antoni over Phil. He failed to satisfy a disillusioned fan base and foolishly made the worst draft picks. He couldn’t put his ego aside and believed D’Antoni would run an offense better fitted for Steve Nash.

All season, the Lakers, who were revamped last summer, were still forlorn and struggling to win games. They were an utter disaster and were very painful to bear or watch, incapable of meeting expectations, albeit they were loaded with talent and had maybe too many players with swollen egos. It’s just a start on what could be a watchable and fun playoff as the Lakers, in all considering, are playing stupendous defense, which allowed the team to play its best basketball without Bryant’s services.

There’d be enough talk about the Lakers not being the juggernaut they were believed to be. There’s talent everywhere on this team, maybe not as much since Bryant went down with a season-ending injury. But what matters, what really matters, is whether the Lakers can thrive without him. The Lakers will be without Bryant, their main character and clutch performer. His season ended in anguish when he ruptured his Achilles tendon, having to miss the rest of the season, consult with his teammates and watch painfully. Bryant is 34 years old, the Lakers star, and because he was the catalyst and the fiercest scorer on earth, he’s a loss for the team but they’ve played effectively without him late in the season.

The world-famous franchise, one that has a history of championships and a list of all-time stars and legends, will have the weight of that postseason run that everyone anticipated — although the Lakers have struggled through injuries and even playoff positioning. It was in the summer that the Buss family added All-Star Dwight Howard and Nash to the team, joining a roster that already had Bryant and Pau Gasol. The problem here is not a plethora of injuries but the team’s inability to match the speed of younger and fresher legs, along with D’Antoni’s coaching methods. He doesn’t realize that this Lakers team cannot run. He doesn’t emphasize the significance of defense, but he was Buss’ guy.

All things considered, the Lakers like what they saw of Nash, who was injured for a long time. So, they’d watch and stand around as Bryant put on his Kobe Lakeshow spectacles. He might have worn down, mentally and physically, and late in the season he endured pain and played so many minutes to carry this lifeless team. By many accounts, Steve Blake rescued the Lakers on Wednesday, scoring a career-high 24 points. He was the streakiest, hottest scorer in the building, knocking down his 3-point shots and free throws.

More than anyone, even Blake, Gasol is capable of scoring and bouncing or delivering a pass to his teammates. You can cheer for Gasol. He is, mainly, producing without Kobe on the floor and had his second triple-double this month, finishing with 17 points, 20 rebounds and 11 assists. Then, his counterpart, Dwight Howard, became the youngest player in NBA history to collect 9,000 rebounds.

If the Lakers are to beat the Spurs as everybody is ruling them out, they can indubitably survive in these playoffs. There’s no telling how long, but as of right now, the Lakers are alive.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

All Eyes Are On Tiger — Well In Striking Distance

When he was Tiger Woods, a golfing phenomenon of this generation, he was so dominant that no one could beat Eldrick. Walking down the first fairway with his caddie Joe LaCava on Thursday afternoon, he was focused on winning his fifth Masters tournament title, beginning his quest for 18 major titles to surpass Jack Nicklaus’ all-time record.

He’s not an amateur athlete playing with the big boys and climbing the leader board at Augusta National Golf Club. He’s Tiger Woods. He’s a big boy. Yet he, too, can sputter and miss the fairway on a poor shot that affects every player’s game. Then again, he can try for his magic number five, after making birdies and blasting perfect shots, up and over the trees, that rested on the green as spectators in the galleries believe in a potential comeback.

If he wins this weekend, after reclaiming his spot as the No. 1 ranked golfer in the world, it would be accurate to say he’s back and our obligation to forgive Woods. If he wins this weekend, which he’s a favorite to don another green jacket come Sunday evening, Woods will reclaim his status in his respective sport on his path to redemption. As the world’s greatest golfer, standing in perfect position to take the lead, Woods can rehabilitate his reputation and his public image with a major victory for the first time since 2008, for the first time since his erotic scandal, for the first time since he allegedly neglected his ill half-brother who is suffering from multiple sclerosis and for the first time since allegations swirled about his use of performance-enhancing drugs.

And now, on this successful day of his career, in what puts him in striking distance for round two of the Masters on Friday, Woods is finally putting fear on players’ faces. Maybe he is back, but he’d have to win a major title before we can actually acknowledge that he’s Tiger. He has emerged from the darkness of a cheating scandal that stunned the golf world and dominated the front page of tabloids for weeks, for months and for nearly a year. He’s trying to contend, as his late father taught him the fundamentals of the game and how to be a competitor throughout his childhood.

Golf is a much better game when Woods is atop the leader board and when he’s playing his best golf, and as usual, he’s the subject of the Masters, simply because he’s the world’s No. 1 golfer and a legend, win or lose. The Tiger Comeback is interesting and fun to watch, and whenever he’s playing and dominating with aplomb, he’s the scariest athlete at Augusta, a place where he has enjoyed his greatest victories and will forever have lifelong memories. As Woods tries to find the smoothest way back to truly being the Tiger he once was, he’s more focused and knows he’s capable of removing the stains of his infidelity with a victory this weekend.

This was a day when he was a golfer from another planet, maybe not from Pluto, but from another galaxy and finished round of two-under 70. This happened on a day when Tianlang Guan, the 14-year-old sensation, shot at 73 in his opening round at the Masters. It’s a moment the China native will remember for years to come, and spectators were amazed by his maturity and poise, even though he’s an amateur. This is a remarkable story for a teenager who, as the youngest player in a major since 1865, is truly thriving and will one day embark on a lifelong pursuit.

And in this moment, after everything he has fulfilled in just the first round to become the topic of discussion all week long, you can sense that he will be around for years to come if he continues to impress viewers with his efforts and magnificent performances. And as nice as the story was, and always will be, Guan defeated Ian Poulter and Hunter Mahan by three strokes and Bubba Watson, the Masters defending champion, by two strokes. The kid to whom we grew to glorify, a confident and well-mannered teenager who was unfazed and stayed calm, beat the rest of the world and made golf popular in China.

The focus of golf, although there are other golfers who have mastered the game just as well as the world’s greatest, has been Woods, nonetheless with endless debates on whether he’d ever overcome adversity to be the central figure of the game and the same golfer he was 10 years ago. If there is going to be any moment in his career that he comes back, like the dominant athlete we once knew, it is going to happen at the Masters and so far he’s hitting the ball admirably. Now, we know all too well that Woods is capable of a fifth green jacket.

He knows he’s capable of beating the best in the world with his dominance, as good as he’s been, and he knows he was splendid in the first round, finishing with a 2-under-par round of 70. He’s not young, or as dominant, still the greatest, once again trying to win his first major in five years, long after he and Elin Nordegren split up, long after he had fallen from grace by cheating on his ex-wife. He’s playing well and he’s in another relationship, dating Olympic skier, Lindsey Vonn.

And while she was looking on and supporting her honey — wearing a soft brace on her surgically repaired right knee — her boyfriend hit six balls and putted each one. He might be more fascinating to watch than he has been in years, especially after putting together a convincing round that he hit 13-of-18 greens, in his 19th Masters. Woods had finally made his first birdie of the day at the par-3 6th, and sunk another one at the par-5 8th, then played Amen Corner in 1 under by birdieing the 13th. After that, he three-putted for his first bogey of the tournament at the 14th green, but then missed the 15th after a solid drive.

And you know Tiger still has it in him. This is about reclamation for Woods, a time when everyone is — yet again — talking about how he’s the hottest player coming into the tournament, in an environment where he’s experienced the greatest achievements.

The reality is that Eldrick just might be back.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Chill On Tiger: Wake Me Up When Woods Wins Major

It wasn’t long ago when Nike, a marketing ploy for the world’s No. 1 golfer Tiger Woods, released a controversial ad featuring a quote that read “WINNING TAKES CARE OF EVERYTHING.” The worst thing about Nike’s creativity for Woods, who reclaimed his No. 1 golf ranking after winning the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Florida, is that it created a social media storm.

At a time when he’s beginning to see the light, giving chase to Jack Nicklaus’ record of 18 major titles, he’s favored to overcome months of misery and dismal performances by winning the Masters. There is, believe it or not, a chance Woods can win the Masters at Augusta National by Sunday evening, eyeing a fifth green jacket and finally returning to normalcy. It’s more likely that populace thinks he’s back now that he’s the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer for the first time since 2010. It’s more likely that citizens are convinced he’s back now that he’s won six of his last 20 tournaments, none of them major titles by the way.

But he’s not so convincing when he’s gone five years without roaring back to win the big one, as the golfing world is gushing about Woods winning three events this year, including the last two times he has played. So now we are supposed to applaud a once spotless athlete who is, once again, the heavy favorite going into the Masters. So now we are supposed to buy into the notion that he’s back, that after years in disarray he’s finally comfortable in his swing.

He’s playing his best golf for the first time since undergoing reconstructive knee surgery to repair a ruptured anterior cruciate ligament and since his infamous sex-scandal. He’s still worth a lot in endorsements and he sells products in the best interest of his corporate enablers. For instance, even during the allegations and shocking secrets involving a platoon of mistresses, Nike stood by him and understood bad publicity means good publicity.

He’s poised to end a major drought, he’s focused on his game and hopes to recapture his dominance at a place where he’s won his first major as the second greatest golfer alive. After overcoming a bad relationship and after his ex-wife Elin Nordegren filed for divorce, he’s dating his new girlfriend Lindsey Vonn. But to say that he’s back is utterly silly, when he has not won a major title since his 91-hole extravaganza to outlast journeyman Rocco Mediate in a sudden-death playoff of the US Open at Torrey Pines in 2008.

Believe whatever you want, but he won’t be back until he wins a major. And, should that happen, maybe he will restore his damaged reputation, regain his form and exceed all expectations. The last time he’s put on a green jacket was in 2005 at age 30, when he beat Chris DiMarco in an astonishing duel for his fourth Masters title. At that time, the hope was to dedicate the thrilling victory to his gravely ill father who taught him everything he knows about the game throughout his childhood.

When he was at his best, he was a newlywed with a spotless image who dominated and clearly became an unmatched player in his sport. When he was the world’s most famous athlete, the guidance of his father helped his path to become a winner, as Woods embraced the pleasures of fatherhood, raising his two children with his ex-wife. Woods’ life has never been the same since the humiliation of a tabloid scandal and since he was embroiled in ugly extramarital affairs, but now he’s slowly getting over an embarrassing sex escapade.

He’s a winner, once again, and only cares about winning major tournaments at this point. By winning a major, of course, it cures and heals the wounds of a man who is trying to repair a public image. The thoughts of his scandal won’t wither or disappear anytime soon, and he won’t ever dominate as he’s done before. The public perception, among those who worshipped Woods before his transgressions, won’t ever be the same, either. People love or hate Woods. It’s one or the other.

In the meantime, though, a Masters victory would be one way to rid the stain of his infidelity. It’s fitting for Woods to have the comeback of his lustrous career at Augusta National Golf Club, where he’s had a ton of success way before the sex scandal came into view, way before we even knew that side of Woods, way before we found out that he was never an impeccable athlete and lived a double-life.

For now, that is until he wins another major title, he’s an overly hyped golfer only because folks wanted to believe he was the most recognizable athlete, the most sensational athlete, or the most popular athlete in American sports. If he was back to being Tiger, he wouldn’t have gone eighteen consecutive major tournaments without a victory. Thus, for quite sometime now, he’s showing he’s still the greatest golfer of this generation and has been greatly dominating.

When he tees off at the Masters on Thursday, he will have a chance to build on confidence and make use of rehabilitation to repair his ravaged career. So finally, he’s producing a little magic and believers are quick to say he’s back without even knowing the truth behind Woods. Keep in mind that Woods dropped from No. 1 in the world to No. 58 and just recently climbed back to No 1., which has created the unnecessary hype about a man who still clearly has an elephant-sized ego, a man who still is getting publicity from his frivolous Nike commercials.

As always, each time the Masters comes around, Woods raises eyebrows for competing in a four-day event at the most prestigious golf tournament. This time around, which people are talking endlessly, he stands at No. 1 for his 19th Masters appearance. And right now, Woods is long overdue for a victory in one of these majors — the Masters, US Open, British Open or PGA Championship.

As we all know, he failed to break par in a final round in a major a year ago. He unraveled in the third round with a 5-over-par 70, after he was tied for the 36-hole lead at the US Open. What happened at the British Open was more disappointing when he shot par in the third round and had four bogeys and a triple bogey in the final round at Royal Lytham & St. Annes. He fell short at the PGA Championship, beginning the third round tied for the lead, but then rain started to pour in Kiawah Island and he couldn’t bounce back. Which, in this case, he’s not back.

That was another full year without Woods winning a major. So it will remain uncertain, whether he’s back or not. I’m not certain that he’s returned to usual form when he’s still seeking to capture another major title at Augusta National, a place where the azaleas bloom in the spring. If Tiger truly is back, if he has what it takes to reach the 18-major milestone, he has to win a major title and then we can say he’s back. If he does win this tournament, it would be indisputable to say he’s not back, it would be silly to believe he’s not the old Tiger. The greatest golfing creature on the planet is capable of playing better than he has in a long time. He’s healthy, he’s happy and he’s reinvented his golf swing. Anybody can see that this can be a monumental weekend.

At age 37, he’s playing his best golf, but he’s not even close to being back. If he leaves Augusta with a victory to end an 8-year drought, then we can say Tiger is truly Tiger.

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Louisville’s Rick Pitino Reaches Mountaintop

Rick Pitino is a perfectionist and a traditionalist. The moments of sentiment and joy were sweeping through the Georgia Dome, the high emotions were pouring out from the players, the confetti was falling from the ceiling and the fireworks display scared the heck out of Pitino. It couldn’t have ended more perfectly for Pitino and Louisville, the top-seeded team overall built on depth and talent.

By the end of the night, Peyton Siva jumped around like a 10-year-old kid, hugged his injured teammate Kevin Ware and smiled to the Louisville crowd. At the final horn, Luke Hancock, who was the star in the Final Four, unleashed his emotions with his teammates. He was seemingly an all-around player in the tournament, making nearly every big play down the stretch, to respectively become the first reserve to win Most Outstanding Player Award. Pitino’s players had climbed up a ladder to cut down the nets.

The last player to cut the nets was someone who gave his teammates inspiration and become America’s most sensational athlete after his horrific leg injury. Recovering from a surgically repaired right leg, Ware couldn’t stick to the usual ritual, and when it was finally his turn, the basket was lowered. Standing on his crutches, just as he anticipated, Ware cut the last piece of the net. The universal support from across the country inspired the Cardinals to get the job done, and certainly in the absence of Ware, Louisville survived and prevailed. With the net around his neck, he was smiling and embracing the moment, while moving around on a broken leg with crutches under his arms.

Amid a grand celebration, Pitino’s wife, Joanne, rushed onto the court and wrapped her arms around her husband as she fought back tears. The best week of his life ended on Monday night after L’ville’s 82-76 victory over Michigan in the NCAA national championship. The best week of his life ended when he lifted the trophy and celebrated an enjoyable moment with his players and family. It had been a long time since Pitino been to a place he hadn’t been to in 16 years, finally winning his second national title, the first coach to win national titles at two different schools — winning those trophies in a state in love with basketball.

It’s a game he’ll talk about for years to come, a moment he’ll never forget. He’ll remember the dramatic comebacks, as Pitino was fortunate to guide his most talented and toughest squad ever. It was Louisville that lived up to a moment far more remarkable than most schools, surviving a field of 68 teams and recapturing bragging rights in the Bluegrass State, proving to outweigh state rivals, Kentucky. Just a year ago, John Calipari won his first title as Wildcats head coach and cut down the nets. But it’s Louisville’s turn to win back the state of Kentucky, on the day that Pitino was elected to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

This is Louisville’s third national title in school history. This is Pitino’s first title since the much-publicized and embarrassing one-night stand he had with his mistress that turned out to be extortion. That’s why Pitino’s marriage nearly broke up five years ago when he confessed to having an extramarital affair with another woman. The media joked about him having sex at a table in a restaurant, and more than ever, the public was stunned by the allegations. Suddenly, folks had lost respect for him and felt he was immoral, and yet, his wife stood by him through the hardships.

By now Pitino, a married father of five and a devout Roman Catholic, is slowly regaining respect among citizens and a community. He’s now 60, and as the older he’s gotten, he’s learned to cast aside his sizable ego and finally shows signs of humility and willingness to become a better person and teacher of the game. It’s been a tough road, indeed, and Pitino’s life has been a roller-coaster ride. He’s won a national title in 1996 in Kentucky, but then hell broke loose when he left the University of Kentucky for an NBA coaching opportunity and spent a woeful three seasons in Boston with the Celtics. When he came back to the college level, becoming Louisville’s head coach, he took the Cardinals to a Final Four, before he was the subject of a sex scandal in the Karen Sypher case. The story was so grisly and sick, that he was embarrassed as she claimed rape and tried to extort him.

This latest championship wasn’t just about Pitino, but he was one of the reasons the Cardinals thrived to greatness. The chemistry that the Louisville men’s basketball team shared was special, and it created a growing bond that was unparalleled. These players are firm believers of brotherhood and absorbed the sense of goodwill and kinship. Brothers unite. Brothers compete. Brothers inspire. Brothers overcome struggles. Brothers are winners. It’s a team of brotherhood, and essentially these brothers had each other’s backs. This team developed trust and rode on Pitino’s confidence to complete an incredible journey that might have been one of the greatest runs for a team in tournament history.

Down by 12, with just under 4 minutes left in the first half, Hancock, an unlikely hero in the Final Four and title game, hit two free throws. The Cardinals spent much of the first half trailing — but ultimately when there’s a player making clutch plays down the stretch — it doesn’t seem far-fetched for Louisville to rally late from a double-digit deficit. This was when Hancock spotted up for a 3-pointer and made every shot, making four in a row that changed everything for Louisville.

Hancock’s hot shooting erased Michigan’s 12-point first half lead after freshman Spike Albrecht couldn’t miss from beyond the arc and scored 17 points. He scored 22 points, 14 of them coming in 2 minutes of the first half. The Cardinals 16-4 run turned a 12-point deficit into a one-point lead. As the Wolverines jumped out to a fast start with a dazzling performance from the unlikely freshman, Albrecht, they weren’t running away from Louisville. Playing with a heavy heart, Hancock’s father, Bill, is staidly ill, and while dealing with a personal issue, he was Louisville’s best scorer. His dad was watching from the front row behind the Louisville bench, the only game he’s been able to appear at and support his son.

It was hard to imagine that Siva wouldn’t bounce back from a poor 1-for-9 shooting in the semifinal game against Wichita State and not have an all-round performance in the national title game. This was the night that Siva finished 18 points, five assists and four steals, in what was the final game of his career. This was the night that Chane Behanan had a monster performance after promising his teammates and Pitino he would play his best game. Along with Hancock, he was big for Louisville in the second half and registered a double-double with 15 points and 12 rebounds and 11 rebounds.

But above all else, it was a total team effort and everybody had a part in Louisville’s greatest run. This was the greatest moment, the One Shining Moment for Ware and Pitino especially.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

Rick Pitino On the Verge of Historic Feat Because of Humility

If you’re 40 or older and were watching college hoops in the 80s era, you know Rick Pitino coached point guard Billy Donovan and took Providence to the Final Four. If you’re in your late 20s, you know Coach Pitino, who’s impetuous and impertinent, led Kentucky to the national title in 1996. If you are growing up today, hooked on college basketball and the Cardinals, well, then you know that he’s taken Louisville to three Final Fours.

For 28 years of coaching at the college level, a well-dressed, charismatic Pitino, one of the most brilliant minds in coaching, is primed to become the first coach to win NCAA titles with two different schools. He’s been a mentor, a guiding teacher, a motivational speaker. He has elevated his program back to the No. 1 seed overall with his coaching methods by opting to run full-court press, forcing those who’d play against the Cardinals to turn the ball over, which usually turns into points by getting out in transition and running the floor well. It’s debatable whether he’s the son of college basketball — more complete and more polished than most coaches.

He’s a New Yorker, wearing his custom suits and walking the sidelines smoothly, with a professional hair transplant. Even now, at age 60, he’s cementing a legacy and will most likely reach the 900-win club, especially when he’s committed to strong defense, continues to replenish a roster of elite talent and condition his players, teaching them the basics and fundamentals of basketball. He always says the right things, always has been an extremely hard worker. As of today, he still has the winning touch, his unflagging work ethic and his sophisticated speaking skills.

And now that he’s back in the national title game, this time guiding Louisville, he has an entire basketball-crazed state salivating for a championship. It’s still amazing to think how far he’s come with help from those talented players he’s coached and sent off to the pros. The team he coaches now, the ones who will play Michigan in the NCAA national title game on Monday night, is far more talented and deeper than most squads he’s ever directed. It would be irresponsible, or cruel, or just absurd to not realize that he’s piled up lifelong accomplishments.

This is where he can enjoy life, embracing the best week. He’s more than just a basketball coach, he’s a father to his 30-year-old son, Richard, who was hired at Minnesota after just one year and 18 victories at Florida International University. And Pitino’s horse, Goldencents, won the $750,000 Santa Anita Derby and earned a spot for the Kentucky Derby. The man who has rejuvenated a much-publicized basketball program clearly is one of the best college coaches all time, representing Louisville and has done it with heady leadership, honesty, good recruiting and intelligence.

The fact that he’s fortunate to have Peyton Siva and Russ Smith, who are arguably the nation’s best backcourt, gives Pitino the best chance to win. But Pitino’s group, seeded No. 1 overall, has already seen Luke Hancock and Tim Henderson, the unlikely heroes off the bench, making clutch shots and emerging into stars. It’s true what they say about Pitino. He knows how to win and reach the Final Four, no matter who he’s coaching or who he’s breeding. And his kids, as usual, are students of the game who eventually turns into studs.

Down 12 in the second half to a pesky Wichita State on Saturday, without the injured Kevin Ware, Pitino’s confidence uplifted his player’s assurance to spark one of the greatest comebacks. Although Pitino’s signature full-court press decided the outcome for the Cardinals, Hancock and Henderson kept their hopes alive for a national title. It’s a journey back to a place he hasn’t been in 16 years, finally returning to college basketball’s biggest stage to bring back the national spotlight. Where he made his mistake was when he ditched college for the pros.

Had Pitino not coached in the NBA for six seasons, he could have been climbing the mountaintop as one of the greatest coaches alive and nearing 900 career victories. Pitino, in his own way, relinquished his humongous ego and erased the memories of his bleak tenure in Boston, where he was mediocre and humiliated, luring him back to the college level. But now, he’s a man of great humility, and he’s changing as a person following an extortion case that nearly ruined his marriage and family.

Pitino, meanwhile, believed in his team and saw winners in his players. No wonder athletic director Tom Jurich stood by his side, giving him a second chance, although Pitino was scrutinized and belittled. And amazingly, he pulled through and salvaged his coaching job at the University of Louisville, where he’s the god of the community and campus.

The road ends here. And Pitino can end it historically.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Final Four: There’s No Denying It, You Can’t Stop Louisville

He was everywhere. He was shooting the ball effectively. He is a guy shooting well over 50 percent. Russ Smith looked up at the scoreboard, watched the clock expired and heard the buzzer sound. He was relieved to know it was finally over, he started crying and teammates hugged him, but no one appreciated him more than his coach, Rick Pitino, who kindly exchanged words and laughed with his fast and talented guard on the court.

There’s no better transition guard in the country, the top-scoring player relentlessly defending the perimeter, the speedy runner who exploits lateral quickness and displays ferocity as he’s omnipresent and turns the game into a track meet. With Smith outmuscling and outworking opponents in basketball, committed to playing at a fast tempo and managing to get into the lane and score at will, Louisville beat a pesky Wichita State 72-68 to reach the title game for the first time since 1986. The highest point for Smith, a skilled guard who’s as loved as horses in Kentucky, an endearing athlete for a Louisville squad one win away from the third national title in school history, came into view when his stardom began to rise and when he reached the acme of his incredible career with the gift and enthusiasm to translate well to the NBA.

There’s a reason he’s leading all scorers in the NCAA tournament and he has earned an excellent reputation, even a nickname “Russdiculous,” which was given to him by Pitino. This was to have been the beginning of another jubilee, the first national title trip since Denny Crum guided Louisville to two national championships in the 80s. The Cardinals were down by as many as 12 points with 13 minutes to play in the Final Four when walk-on Tim Henderson hit a corner 3-pointer off a pass from Luke Hancock, then Henderson drained another 3-pointer from the same corner, finding his sweet spot and becoming an unsung hero.

This hot shooter couldn’t be stopped and barely was contained, finishing the night with six points in just 42 seconds, a spectacular effort from a guy who had to write letters to Pitino, begging him for an opportunity and finally was welcomed to join the basketball program. It was a scenario similar to when Daniel “Rudy” Ruettiger, the former walk-on at Notre Dame, featured on the big scenes and became an inspiration, just as we are seeing the emergence of a backup guard, rallying one of the greatest comebacks in Final Four history.

This was a motion picture in the making. This was a cinematic Final Four.

The college basketball world told a story about Ware for much of the week, the injured guard who vastly was a primary topic and an inspirational tale. But, as it turns out, Henderson, and respectively so, is the one player everyone is talking about. He performed incredibly and confidently stepped up and played well. It was a great night for Smith, as well, and he finally altered his game to play more efficiently and consistently. A long time ago, he was awful, he attempted ill-advised shots, and he was selfish and unintelligent. A long time ago, he would turn over the ball and miss free throws. But now, he’s more disciplined, he secures the ball as if he’s holding an infant tightly and, well, he’s careening and spinning into the lane.

The swishing of the nets was loud, the cheering of the fans was deafening on a night when Luke Hancock was the star and on a night when Smith, an emerging star who is averaging 26.0 points during an outstanding NCAA tournament, scored 21 points, handed out three assists and snatched two steals. The most awesome part of Louisville’s late surge was Hancock, who might have been virtually the storyline of the Final Four, making clutch plays in the second half and settling for 20 points.

A packed Georgia Dome with a multitude of Louisville fans screamed, as the Cardinals overcame the largest second-half deficit in a national semifinals in 12 years, the last we’ve seen a Final Four so compelling, so electrifying — for those who are in love with epic ballgames and comebacks. The Louisville crowd, louder than those red shirts, howled and cheered on the Cardinals, during which Henderson went on a shooting tear. As Wichita State, worn down and exhausted, was leading by 12, Henderson knocked down his first 3-pointer with 13 minutes left. Seconds later, he was firing another long-range shot to reduce the Shockers lead to six, still on fire with his clutch shots that overwhelmed Wichita State.

The Cardinals, however, kept their hopes alive, their promises and chances of winning a national title intact, while a dream suddenly came to an end for the Shockers. The boys from Wichita slowly worked the ball upcourt, fatigued and plagued by Louisville’s speed and up-tempo offense, which created fast-break points and allowed the Cardinals to beat Wichita State. The favorites are more foreseeable and scarier than ever, yet it still overwhelms the senses that Kevin Ware is not available to play because of a broken leg and that Louisville, the No. 1 overall seed, bounced back, overcame adversity and fought hard against the underdogs, Wichita State.

The Cardinals, clearly the deepest squad in the country guided by Pitino, the only coach to have taken three different schools to the Final Four, are inspired, motivated and on a mission. They may have lost one of their men and may have experienced one of the most horrific injuries in sports, but Ware’s words have inspired and uplifted the team’s spirit to compete hard and strong, to raise the trophy and cut down the nets by the time it’s all over.

Plus, Smith, the 6-foot-1 specimen, is undeniably the x-factor to Louisville’s unstoppable, high-octane offense, having amazingly one of those games. It should be noted, now that he’s a third-team All-American for the No. 1 team in the country, that he’s the frontrunner for the NCAA tournament’s Most Outstanding Player award. In this game alone, he was 6 of 17 shooting. It turns out he was clumsy and careless with the ball, having four turnovers in the first half, five total. And he was terrible from the foul line, going 5 for 12. He’s quick with the ball and has the ability to finish in traffic as a skilled penetrator and defensive specialist.

The praise belongs to Henderson, just as much as Smith merits recognition for setting the tone early, despite that Wichita State jumped out to a fast start and could have pulled off the improbable even. Late in the game Hancock and Chane Behanan, who scored eight points, both led the way for the Cardinals. And as much as fans love Peyton Siva, the nation’s most complete point guard, he only shot 1 for 9 from the field, having one of those off nights that every player is entitled to have once in a while. There was not much scoring from Gorgui Dieng or Wayne Blackshear, if at all, but the good thing is that Smith, Behanan, Hancock and Henderson especially had those players’ backs, regardless of how poorly the starters were playing.

It’s good to know Ware had confidence that Henderson could prevail and prove his worth on college basketball’s big stage, and amazingly, he knew Henderson had it in him, finishing 4 for 17 from the 3-point line. Together, as the deepest and most well-coached team in the country, they won a pivotal game. And when Henderson was called to play, taking the place of his injured teammate, he was certainly ready and succeeded in his role. It took a couple of unexpected shots Saturday night to make a name for himself.

It wouldn’t be nice to spoil Smith’s night and realize that he was huge in the semifinals, a major part why the Cardinals will be playing for a national title. If different guys can show up each night, it just goes to show you that this team will likely be crowned winners by Monday night.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Firing of Mike Rice Not Good Enough: Rutgers’ Pernetti, Barchi Must Go

He’s made national headlines in the wake of his video scandal, unwittingly and oddly. It was time for Rutgers to fire the head basketball coach, upon seeing a disturbing videotape that aired showing Mike Rice berating, kicking, grabbing, throwing basketballs at his players' heads and groins, and using homophobic slurs during practice.

The enormity of an upsetting video went viral by Tuesday afternoon with outrage growing over Rice’s abusive behavior — and by now the world has seen the video footage exposed by ESPN, and by now the world is a bit bewildered and stunned, but mainly infuriated that Rutgers athletic director Tim Pernetti and university president Robert Barchi were grossly negligent and failed to resolve the problem. It goes without saying that Pernetti and Barchi should be relieved of their duties at the university. The firing of an abusive coach was not enough to protect the reputation of a basketball program in ruins or purge the traces of a disgraced athletic department, and in the meantime, Pernetti won’t sell his program to prospects.

There’s a dark cloud hanging over Rutgers, a university in hot water in the wake of Rice’s deplorable actions and obscenities that resulted in a three-game suspension and $50,000 fine. The videotape evidence of Rice’s contemptible behavior was shown to Pernetti in November, but he failed to take responsibility and public accountability, and he did not decide to take action in the best interest of Rutgers University and waited months to terminate Rice. The world was watching, disturbed and outraged, Rice taunting and putting his hands on players, unable to stomach the verbal and physical abuse — something America wouldn’t have known about had the video not surfaced.

Maybe this was an embodiment of how some coaches are treacherous and maniacal. Maybe this was a moment for people to be aware of the corruption and be able to see that not all coaches are honest and good. Maybe this was an alarming sign for people, realizing it is not wise to ignore any harsh treatment of players. It’s hard not to wonder, whether defamatory language and physical abuse might have occurred at more universities, as we often read or hear about educators and priests molesting children in an insane, twisted and sick-minded world. The scenes simply were horrifying, but when Pernetti first saw the video, he allowed a coach who assaulted players at practice to keep his job.

He has been an overbearing enabler, an unworldly patron, an indifferent athletic director, in denial and embarrassed by the actions of a now-fired coach. He has shot his credibility, then stained his reputation for standing behind a bully and a raging monster, and should eventually be canned by the school’s board of governors. He has not only let down the students but perhaps the university — including the taxpayers of New Jersey, numbed and distraught — for allowing Rice to undermine Rutgers University for months because of his bad temper.

It will be the topic of discussion for a couple of days whether Pernetti should be fired or forced to resign. But now he is safe, or so they say, for brokering a deal to navigate Rutgers into the Big Ten, quickly becoming part of the fabric of that university. And since he was embarrassed by Rice’s wrongdoing, the uncertainty of his future will germinate in our minds, until the school’s board of governors ponder and decide whether to retain or dismiss Pernetti, whose full body of work and hard-working ethics are not vital or befitting for a university. Sadly, while he was salvaging a shaky program, he was aware of a videotape of Rice’s appalling behavior and stupidly welcomed him back to coach after suspending and hitting him with a fine.

Moving forward, he will have a hard time regaining the trust of Rutgers University, after refusing to look out for the best interest of the players for the sake of the school’s image. Rice has mistreated a daunted group, diminished the morale of the team, and demanded discipline that had a negative approach, all while customarily belittling and assaulting his players. Finally, Rice is done, removed from his coaching position very belatedly, and shouldn’t be allowed to coach kids again. But now that Rice is gone, the taxpayers of New Jersey and dignitaries are calling for Pernetti and Barchi’s job.

He’s held liable for the lack of responsibility and for the mismanaging of the program. He’d made a mistake in not dismissing Rice, an awful decision by someone who’s in a position of power and had too much influence on the university. Pernetti will likely keep his job, over Rice, but after giving the man a chance and believing he could build a program, he warrants a dismissal, appropriately and justly. There’s a lot of disingenuousness, a lot of fallacies that have tarnished the university with a growing scandal from a videotape, obtained by a worldwide sports network and revealed to the world. Feeling perturbed and shaken, Rice unquestionably would still be coaching Rutgers today.

It amazes me that Rice was slapped on the wrist and that no university official, not one, policed Rutgers. It bothers me that the only disciplinary action was a suspension and fine, but it should surprise no one that Rice, when considering he has anger-management issues, fired basketballs at his players, scolded them and launched into profanity-laced tirades at practices. The hell for Pernetti worsened by admittedly acknowledging that he was so meticulous and that he watched the entire videotape. It was that moment when Pernetti, seemingly after watching the disturbing footage, heard vulgar epithets and anti-gay slurs. It was that moment when he saw pushing and shoving, kicking and grabbing, but did nothing about it.

It’s becoming more transparent that Barchi may not be telling the truth, but was certainly more concerned with reducing the devastation, just as Pernetti tried to do the same. If you believe Pernetti, he claims he informed Barchi about the video and said he saw it four months ago. If you believe Barchi, he said he’s never seen a video. Someone is lying. Someone is not being truthful. The truth is that Pernetti and Barchi panicked when this story went national, finally realizing the seriousness of the damning footage leaked out for the world to see it. The lunacy of the scandal is actually about what Barchi knows about the videotape, denying knowledge of it when he’s the president of the institution but apparently knows nothing about video evidence. As the public outcry generates a controversy, for all of the talk of the Rutgers scandal, Barchi will take as much of the blame as Pernetti.

The outrage at Rutgers was unacceptable and inexcusable, mostly despicable and downright embarrassing, an issue that could be affecting more schools. So now people realize the president might be the bigger problem for his failure to gain knowledge of what was happening on his campus to athletes and students, and for covering up the mistreatment of players. The first thing that comes to mind, with reference to a crushing sports scandal, is the Penn State sex abuse scandal — which is far more sickening than a coach throwing basketballs at kids’ heads and groins. The president and athletic director have learned nothing from Penn State. Whatever decisions the university will make Rutgers better make them fast and should not be hesitant about firing Pernetti for not doing the right thing.

This isn’t Penn State. And Rice is not Jerry Sandusky.

Rice is not Bobby Knight, either

Because, well, Knight, despite his behavior issues, won three national championships at Indiana. For Rice, he’s won zero national championships and lost more than he’s won games at Rutgers. By the way, Knight has 902 career wins when Rice has only won 44 of 95 games as the school’s coach. So Rutgers really won’t miss him.

The awful thing about it, for all concerned, is that he crossed the line. If he ever coaches again, it won’t be for at least a couple of seasons. If he never coaches again, it won’t be surprising but Knight ended up coaching at Texas Tech. There’s no excuse for Rice’s actions, no way a sane person defends Pernetti’s inaction. First and foremost, by employing Rice as long as he did, it justified the right that it was fine to physically and verbally abuse student athletes.

It turns out Rice’s behavior was just as bad as his losing record and evil-minded personality. And by definition, he was a loser and had to go. With Rice around, Rutgers would not have won games or gain national regard, and might not even win with an imprudent athletic director still around.

The coach is gone, but what about the AD and president?

For those who fathom the seriousness behind this, they know it is time to clean house at Rutgers.

Sunday, March 31, 2013

Forget the Fab Five: Michigan’s Renaissance Better Than Ever

He cradled the bronze plated trophy, handed it to Tim Hardaway Jr. and watched as his team celebrated and partied in North Texas. Then came the tears of joys, the prolonged hugs with his wife, Kathleen, and kids and grandkids. John Beilein, Michigan basketball coach, is a big name at the school, and he has renewed a widely known program. He watched his players climb a ladder to cut down a piece of the net, one by one, and he was proud of his players and embraced the moment, realizing a dream had finally come true.

It’s almost unreal that No. 4 Michigan, going to the Final Four for the first time since the Fab Five in 1993, thrashed No. 3 Florida 79-59 in the South Regional final Sunday. It’s a real surprise Michigan has made it to this point, lasting longer than expected and radically becoming the storyline of college basketball, but all season long, the Wolverines rate as having the most efficient offense in college basketball — a prolific backcourt with the likes of Hardaway and Trey Burke, who’s believed to be the best guard in the country.

The program is back and it’s necessarily great for Michigan fans that waited a long time to witness such a gratifying moment again in school history. The reemergence of Michigan in 2013 — when they won 26 games and ranked No. 10 in the final AP Top 25 — rekindled a tradition over all other programs. That’s not an overstatement. It’s the truth. But this Michigan team, which is seeking its second championship in school history, is more extraordinary than the Fab Five.

The year, from beginning to end, has been remarkable and folks have seen a glimpse of the latest version of Michigan basketball and fans may have witnessed the best team in school history, yes, more spectacular and proficient than Jimmy King, Juwan Howard, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose and Ray Jackson. However, it didn’t seem like a Michigan team would ever be as good as the Fab Five.

As for this Michigan team now, despite having one of the best offenses in college basketball, they weren’t supposed to beat fifth-seeded Virginia Commonwealth, dismissed by so many experts. As for this Michigan team now, despite having a teacher in Beilein, they weren’t supposed to beat No. 1 Kansas, a team that had seniors who could have beaten the Michigan kids. But star guard, Trey Burke, took the last shot in the final minutes of a thrilling Sweet 16 classic. When he hit the game-tying three-point shot over Kansas’ Kevin Young to send it into overtime for what might have been the most sensational second-half comeback in the history of college basketball, amazingly for Michigan, it stunned the world and generated buzz.

The tournament told a story no one hardly believed, every bit as fabulous as Burke’s seven assists, as grand as center Mitch McGary’s 9 rebounds and as outstanding as Nik Stauskas’ 22-point performance to lead all Michigan scorers. You wouldn’t believe it if you see it, but now you can start believing. Michigan fans, the population in Ann Arbor, haven’t stopped believing — keeping the faith and have been very optimistic that this is the moment for the Wolverines to reign supreme in the Big Ten.

This is a great time for Michigan’s program, a rebirth, a revival — renewing its brand name, mastering success and elevating its chances of winning a second title in school history. This is a great story indeed — and would be even greater if they beat fourth-seeded Syracuse on Saturday night in Atlanta to secure the final spot in the NCAA basketball championship on Monday night. Nobody should, as we have done in the month of Madness, ignore and disrespect a renaissance for a national power that finally made the Final Four, erasing the memories of misadventures and long-suffering. It is real what we’ve seen so far, and yet it’s also too tremendous refusing to acknowledge.

There’s a Big Ten team not many expected to make the Final Four. The chances of Michigan winning the whole tournament, evidently in for a heavyweight fight against Syracuse, are likely although the 2-3 zone defense used by Jim Boeheim is a riddle that some of the best teams in the country haven’t been able to understand. But this season, Burke, who is considered a strong candidate for national player of the year honors, is one of the marquee stars of the Big Ten. He has been combustible, knocking down one of the most famous three-point shots in NCAA history, making a dramatic game-winner to become a hero in the month of March.

The Wolverines reached this year’s Final Four by Burke’s playmaking and game-saving shots and by Stauskas’ three-point shooting. This season means something. This season has been a huge accomplishment. Burke is a superstar, a student of the game. He’s grown and he’s matured into a natural ballplayer, an intelligent sophomore in position to win an NCAA championship. For Burke and Stauskas especially, this was a fantastic kind of performance, having arguably their best game this season.

If this day was any hint as to how superb the Wolverines truly have been in this tourney, disbelievers can appreciate what Michigan has accomplished with these offensive weapons, ideal game strategies and efforts. The Wolverines are playing like, you know, hungry beast. The hustling, strenuous boys of Michigan bolts up the floor, moves the ball before it goes to Burke’s hands and then he beats the press to finish at the rim if the ball doesn’t go to McGary up high. It’s an insult to have a Cinderella tag affixed to Michigan’s name in the NCAA tournament when, in fact, the Wolverines pummeled Florida, who was vital and expected to be a Final Four team to some. It can be lovely to watch, so awe-inspiring, an instant classic every spectator looks for when watching the NCAA tournament.

There was something evidently odd that even Florida coach Billy Donovan didn’t ever see coming in this tournament matchup. The night for 6-foot-6 freshman Stauskas was beyond exceptional, scoring 22 points on just eight shots and finishing 6-for-6 on 3-pointers to become the first player in NCAA regional finals to reach that plateau. The game began with McGary hitting four shots from the paint, jumping out to a 13-0 start and leading by as many as 25 points in the first half to secure a spot in the regional championship next Saturday. The talent, it seems, is everything for Coach Beilein and Michigan, mind you.

It’s amazing what Beilein, at West Virginia and now Michigan, has done to transform both programs into winners. But at Michigan, he’s done more than just transformed the program back into winners. He’s renewed tradition for a well-known school and has been given a chance to coach elite talent, already modifying the program and attracting prospects who might be interested in committing to play for Beilein’s Wolverines. The program, before he came along to restore it, was shredded and paralyzed for all the misfortunes that Michigan invited over the years.

Beilein, one of the best offensive coaches in the game, has done something not even Brian Ellerbe or Tommy Amaker could accomplish. He’s taught his boys to work diligently and give it their best effort. The resurgence of Michigan happened once Beilein arrived to be a teacher to his kids and he has demanded hard work, discipline and unselfishness. The 2013 Wolverines essentially heals and erases the hideous memories of the sanctions and punishments that poisoned the program — victories were vacated, banners were taken down and the school was banned for the postseason.

What’s not to like about this Michigan team?

It wouldn’t be surprising to see the Wolverines win it all.

Friday, March 29, 2013

Trey Burke’s Late-Second Heroics Served Up Michigan’s Epic Classic

The folks witnessed a wave of excitement and felt a shiver on Friday night, a tingling sensation vibrating throughout their bodies. The folks went berserk in the building, the Michigan fans screamed and the jitters vanished fast, sending a crowd clad in U of M blue into a state of delirium. The star guard, Trey Burke, the Big Ten player of the year, rescued Michigan in a late comeback, one of the virtuoso classics of March and in this tourney alone.

The Wolverines and No. 1 Kansas played a basketball game that was an epic and thrilling finish — 87-85 win for Michigan in the South Regional semifinals. There’s nothing like the drama of a clutch three-pointer that sent a game into overtime, extending what was incredibly an electrifying ending to probably the greatest last-second shot in NCAA tournament history. Burke is building a legend, in just his sophomore season, his first Elite Eight appearance with Michigan. When he finally heated up, he changed the nature of the game, by hitting jump shots and by scoring on a layup to pull within three.

He has to be Michigan’s hero for his last-second heroics, although, with his first-half struggles and poor shooting, he was not playing virtually like a hero but a wannabe Harlem Globetrotter with funny tricks, lack of discipline and commitment. What this game meant for Burke was to pull off an incredible comeback and climb to elite status. The talk of the college basketball world, of course, is Michigan and Burke’s magnificent shot, turning out to be a dangerous scorer when he’s on the court and pulling through when much is at stake.

More remarkably, Burke poured in 23 points in the second half and overtime, pulling up from far out and burying the game-tying three-pointer with 4.2 seconds left, a shot that forced overtime and saved Michigan’s feel-good season. It happened after Kansas’ Elijah Johnson missed a free throw and Michigan grabbed the rebound. Playing with vehemence and ferocity, Michigan rallied from a 14-point deficit in seven minutes, having a better all-around performance in the final 20 minutes to oust Kansas, who was believed to be en route to the next round and then Atlanta for the Final Four.

There had been moments when Michigan blew opportunities to cut the deficit, but then Burke, who is probably the best point guard in the nation, couldn’t miss a shot after starting the game 3-of-11 while trailing by double digits. With 35 seconds left, Tim Hardaway Jr. missed a 3-pointer in the final moments, but while down by five, Glenn Robinson III stole a Kansas pass and scored a reverse layup. After over two hours of craziness and after freshman center Mitch McGary hit a jumper to give Michigan an 83-82 lead, all part of an awesome game with five lead changes in overtime — the first OT game of the tournament — it’s simply fine to believe in the Wolverines.

The emergence of McGary just clearly means Michigan likely can win it all — or at least scare its next opponent in the South Regional Finals. It appears he’s a scorer, leading Michigan with 25 points and 14 rebounds, although his counterpart, Burke, is getting all the recognition for that one shinning moment. Now, to be logical, McGary still is growing as a player and he’s not a star at the very moment, but he’s quickly bursting into view. The basketball program basically has been retransformed into a national power of the Big Ten, bigger than its little brother, Michigan State, a team that could meet No. 1 overall seed Louisville in the Midwest Regional Finals.

But, in the meantime, Michigan is buoyed by Burke, a vocal leader of this team, and more notably, a factor on offense. He’s having as much fun as ever, and he has encouraged fans to serenade the Wolverines with “Go Blue!” chants, especially when Michigan perpetuated an unimaginable run. All along, Burke’s coach, John Beilein had confidence that he could produce in big moments, and surely, he managed the mental state and tension of an important game nicely.

The fun will continue for Burke and the rest of his teammates when Michigan, a heavy-favored team to make the Final Four, will have a chance to make noise and counter the defensive-minded Gators or Florida Gulf Coast, the darlings of this year’s NCAA tournament. And, more generally, Michigan finished by making the boldest and loudest statement and by getting national regards, advancing deeper into a compelling NCAA tournament. The man of the night was Burke, despite that he was scoreless and struggling in the first half. He’s a Columbus native who grew up a Buckeyes fan, but was not recruited by Ohio State and blossomed into a star at Michigan, becoming the ultimate centerpiece.

All around him are players, contributing and playing collectively, but obviously, from the progress Burke has made this season alone, Beilein gave the reins to his sophomore. That’s what happens when a team’s star player evaporates and plays with confidence after maturing and staying poised and patient, which usually convinces the coach that a player is capable of taking charge. He’s now a floor general, a focal point for Michigan, leading the team the deepest it has been in ages, and with his second half performance, he strengthened his credentials. If he’s aiming to forgo his junior season for the pros, then he may have even enhanced his NBA draft stock, which seems to be the least on his mind — focused on winning the school’s first national since 1989.

This year, Michigan looks like the menace of March, with one of the most prolific backcourts in college basketball. It’s exactly the kind of basketball fans have been craving and there’s a good chance Michigan will be cutting down a net, making it to the Elite Eight for the first time since 1994. If the Wolverines walk over the Cinderellas of the tournament or even beat No. 3 Florida on Easter Sunday, a game projected to be just as spectacular as what we’ve witnessed, then Michigan will advance to the Final Four and could cut down the nets in Atlanta, Ga. In a year that anyone can win it all, given the parity and talent of the remaining teams, No. 4 Michigan might just be the team to make it happen.

It’s now time for Dick Vitale to gush over Michigan, then Louisville, then Ohio State, then Wichita State, then maybe Duke.

There will always be surprises, of course, and Michigan happens to be one of those surprises in the 2013 NCAA tournament, refreshing our memories of the Fab Five era, whether the players were scintillating or infamous.

One day, we will look back at Trey Burke.

One day, we will remember Trey Burke. And they will talk about him for many years.

Monday, March 25, 2013

There’s No Mirage: La Salle Dances Through Tourney

The cutest, most lovable team is dancing to the Sweet 16 certainly eager to stun crazed fans of its astonishing, jaw-dropping tournament run, looking to upset No. 9 Wichita State and create a memory of a journey no one imagined. After enduring a week of skepticism about not being the heavy-favored team to advance past No. 4 Kansas State and beat No. 12 Ole Miss 76-74 on Sunday, the Explorers generated as much attention as George Mason and Davidson a few years ago.

It’s a Cinderella story — presumably the cunning team from the Atlantic 10 Conference, the coolest underdog other than Florida Gulf Coast. Yet as much as La Salle’s miracle is ignored from Tyrone Garland hitting a floating layup in traffic with 2.5 seconds remaining to send the Explorers to the next round, La Salle poses a threat in the NCAA tournament. The striking, euphoric tale of a little school from Philadelphia elevating to contenders has become a national power with its epic, mind-blowing stories — the school’s deepest run since 1955.

The insults of La Salle’s incredible, historical victories are not a surprise when the school is not recognized as a powerhouse from the Atlantic 10 Conference and, with all the disrespect, the Explorers are unnoticed and undiscovered. Just like that, after two decades of gloom and murkiness, La Salle sets out on a Cinderella run. With La Salle portrayed to be perhaps the scariest and toughest out of the tournament, beating and sending high-seeded teams packing, the Explorers have a scintillating backcourt with the likes of Garland and Ramon Galloway. The darlings of March, forgotten or not, have morphed into contenders in the month of Madness. The cuddly creatures of March, undervalued or not, will take the floor with high hopes and elevate the program to the ranks of perennial schools quickly to emerge in a tournament of agony and ecstasy.

This is immensely a team that comprise of more than just sleepers or bracket killers but believers and winners, which specifies just how well equipped and crafty the Explorers really are in a tourney where they can make one of the deepest runs among Cinderella teams. For those who follow college basketball religiously every spring, it has been another magical, compelling March Madness, as it is normally with a few unexpected teams that sometimes creep into the Final Four. This year, it happens to be La Salle, a Philly team some have actually fallen in love with after surviving Boise State in the First Four, the Wildcats and then after surprising America in the Round of 32, ending what could have been a treasured Cinderella tale for Mississippi as well.

The love of an underdog captivates American, maybe even American pop culture, enduring the beauty of underdogs and upsets to become really intrigued by the compelling stunners that leave fans speechless and shocked. This is a March Madness made of chills and thrills, and maybe even an instant classic. By night’s end, La Salle had celebrated something worthwhile, something that meant a lot to the school and those players who aren’t intimidated and believes they can win it all, dance with glee, cut down the nets and hold the trophy.

The accomplishments of the little guy are something America has become fascinated with, and incredibly, the underdogs contend against the big guys while having a “take on the world” mentality. The underdogs, amazingly, gives us a story and millions gather at fraternity houses, workplaces or bars to root for the little folks, witnessing the emergence of the precious underdogs — David trumping Goliath. That’s what America likes to see, falling in love with La Salle quickly, and now that brackets are destroyed all over the nation, why not root for the Explorers?

And after a big win, hope floated in the minds of the little people and they are now dreaming of the ultimate prize. We like to believe that this tourney has a way of hypnotizing our minds and that underdogs can be decided on the basis of unquestioned talent and sheer domination, which defines La Salle, an underemphasized school that has been belittled for struggling in the second half of the prior two games — although the Explorers somehow survived.

There’s much pleasure in watching Garland, the Virginia Tech transfer who was raised in Philly. The shot he made was a well-timed floater, a game-winning bucket in a thrilling third-round contest in the West Region that sent La Salle to the Sweet 16. Trailing by five with 4:18, La Salle was able to take advantage of Ole Miss’ abysmal free-throw shooting. The hot shooting from Ole Miss star Marshall Henderson, who scored 40 points in two games, wasn’t enough to grind it out. With time winding down, La Salle tied the score at 74 with 31 seconds remaining. The ball went to La Salle on the next possession following Ole Miss’ shot-clock violation but Henderson said he was fouled on that play. The game ended with La Salle’s Tyreek Duren dribbling the ball up the floor, burning as much clock, dribbling to his left and dishing off to Garland. The 6-foot-1 guard drove into the paint and delivered a right-handed floater.


What we are about to witness is sweeter in the round of 16 teams, maybe the best you could ever have, with La Salle believing it can beat anybody it plays in the upcoming weeks. For those who don’t believe, the Explorers are real, not bothered by the insults of being called a Cinderella team when the Explorers feel they deserve to be regarded as top contenders. If things turn out right for La Salle, a school that was guided by a Philly basketball legend Tom Gola and won a national title in 1954, it would be a dream come true and a run you don’t get often in this tournament.

The Explorers are still not the overwhelming favorites to even reach the Final Four but La Salle coach, John Giannini, insisted that his team was more than just a “Cinderella,” a tag annexed to his Explorers. Legitimately, Giannini stimulated and strengthened his own players. Giannini, who earned his PhD in sports psychology, has never been to the NCAA tournament, let alone the Sweet 16 in his nine years at the school.

The most La Salle ever settled for was the NIT — National Inferior Tournament — and wouldn’t ever advance further than the first round. Emboldened by his words and brilliant coaching, his players amazingly played with a purpose and has not been denied of unthinkability of a run that signifies the joy of the moment. There will be discussion about La Salle winning its play-in game, flashing back to ancient history of a storied program from decades and decades ago.

A year from now, we will remember La Salle’s incredible joy ride, no matter how long it lasts.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Kansas Overcomes Tough Obstacles, Shows Resilience

It ended with Kansas coach Bill Self meeting North Carolina’s Roy Williams to give him a friendly handshake, and then he chortled and smiled with his players near mid-court. It ended with Williams walking out of the tunnel, long after his players and assistants, long after a Kansas party erupted in the Sprint Center. It wasn’t bad, couldn’t have been to hear from a fan base that still appreciates Williams, who can tell us plenty of stories about his Kansas days.

Much to Williams’ chagrin, who is 0-3 lifetime against Self and Kansas since taking the UNC coaching job in 2003, the Tar Heels lost a comfortable lead by the second half. All around him, fans kindly stood and praised the former Jayhawks coach. But an emotional Williams, as usual whenever UNC can’t beat the Jayhawks in the NCAA tournament, sits at the podium during news conferences and congratulates Kansas, while he talks about a disappointing end of another season.

It started with sloppy plays for the top-seeded Kansas Jayhawks on both ends of the floor. Early on, things were bad enough and couldn’t get any worse for Kansas, a team many national experts picked to make the Final Four. The game was boring and slow, uneventful and uninteresting in the first half. The coach’s stare was edgy. Self was hysterical and uneasy, and he nervously walked back and forth on the sidelines, without even sitting and having a drink to settle down.

With Kansas struggling early, Self was gesturing to his players and encouraged them to loosen up and find a rhythm. The gutsy 70-58 win late Sunday afternoon against eighth-seeded North Carolina was followed by the ballsy victory over No. 16 Western Kentucky in the first round. And like most successful teams, resilience just makes the Jayhawks stronger as a team. The depth and talent has been working to Kansas’ advantage, a senior-laden team pursuing the ultimate goal, which is to win a national title. If they win a trophy and cut down the nets, it would be Self’s second national title.

Kansas, however, might be the most dangerous team in this tournament and certainly is up for the task, realizing that another trip to the Final Four is at stake, along with potentially another back-to-back national title appearance. The rulers of basketball are the Jayhawks — a perennial national power of college basketball, winning five of the last seven Big 12 tournaments, despite falling victim to the biggest upsets in tournament history to both Northern Iowa and VCU.

Great teams overcome adversity. Great teams grind out victories and endure to the end. Great teams find ways to rally and show that resilience is the result of success and building late momentum. That’s exactly what Kansas was able to do against the Tar Heels. With each victory, the Jayhawks have become stronger and more efficient. It was not Kansas’ best game, I assure you, but it was enough to survive and beat North Carolina for the second straight year, and the Jayhawks will advance to the Sweet 16 and will face No. 4 Michigan in Arlington, Texas, on Friday.

It wasn’t pretty that seven-foot center Jeff Withey, the nation’s best shot-blocker, was not intimidating and a factor inside the paint to start. There were simply too many turnovers and missed shots. They were lucky to be within striking distance and not trailing by many by the end of the first half. They couldn’t make a jump shot in the opening 20 minutes against North Carolina. It took them about 22 minutes to snap out of a shooting drought, and Kansas had the worst shooting percentage in a half, only shooting a staggering 25 percent.

By assuming that the slow start scared thousands of panic-stricken fans, though fans were confident and hopeful the Jayhawks would turn it around in the second half, one could only wonder whether or not Kansas was on the verge of a disappointing ending. The Jayhawks were sluggish, torpid and clumsy, turning over the ball 17 times, barely settling for put backs and a couple of dunks. Surely, you saw the Jayhawks’ best player Ben McLemore finish 2 for 14 from the field in two tournament games. He’s one of Kansas’ top scorers, but he wasn’t playing like it, scoring like it, and mostly, he was missing shots by taking ill-advised ones. And surely, you saw Kansas guard Elijah Johnson shoot 2 for 12. There was a universal sense, both for national experts and Kansas’ fans — that Johnson was not a five-star player — that he’d oftentimes struggle and receive unwarranted criticism from thousands of critics.

Self wasn’t too happy and pleased with what he saw in the first half. So then he followed his team into the locker room and, without a doubt, delivered a message to his players. His team’s lack of effort and poor ball execution had been formidable, but whatever he said to his players during the half, it was enough to wake up everyone. By that, he gave them one of his halftime speeches, a coaching strategy Self exercised, especially when Kansas failed to play effectively in the first half of a contest. At halftime, Kansas trailed by nine points and the night was so nerve-racking, so excruciating and then it was so tantalizing.

And perhaps most incredibly, Kansas finally drilled jump shots. The first three-pointer of the tournament, after 13 consecutive misses over two games, was buried by Travis Releford and it was a game-changing shot and might have given the Jayhawks momentum in what turned out to be dramatic. Had it not been for Releford the Jayhawks could have been eliminated in the Round of 32, but he made the team’s first three-pointer after Kansas had gone without a three for the first time in 201 games against Western Kentucky. As it happened Withey, whose toughness and confidence soon became contagious, grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds.

This kind of thing happens in March and that’s excitement and thrills, such was Kansas running the Tar Heels out of the building by scoring 31 points in nine and half minutes. It came down to who had the most energy and who was the strongest and hungriest. Turns out it was Kansas. With a Sweet 16 berth at stake, Kansas shot the ball efficiently, limited turnovers and played smart, perpetuating a 35-12 run and turned the game into a pep rally for the crowd.

The Kansas seniors, including the rest of the team, are well coached, to be sure, and don’t want to go home empty-handed. At the right time, Releford, who is a defensive specialist, was on fire, scorching the nets and finishing with 22 points. It’s time for all of us to realize that Kansas is a tough out. Before we discount KU, realize they have size with Withey, who blocked five shots and had a double-double, giving him a total of 43 swatted shots in his NCAA career, second all-time behind Tim Duncan in the postseason.

Holy smokes.

Now that the top-seeded Kansas has shown it can overcome obstacles, Self’s team is definitely a dangerous out.

Saturday, March 23, 2013

Ben Howland May Have Reached His Expiration Date at UCLA

The month of March is described as madness at UCLA because it’s when the Bruins usually wave goodbye under Ben Howland, a coach who has been under heat and scrutiny lately for not having much success in the NCAA tournament. The dreaded ending is something we’ve typically seen coming, and it seems every national expert picked Minnesota as the upset pick over No. 6 UCLA.

If you were UCLA athletic director Dan Guerrero, then, how tough would it be to face a decision on whether or not to dismiss and lean toward replacing Howland? This 83-63 loss to 11th-seeded Minnesota in the first round of the NCAA tournament was the sign of a reign coming to an end, and rumor has it he won’t return for his 11th season. The truth is, he has past his expiration date to coach UCLA and couldn’t ever bounce back after falling to Florida in the national title game in 2006 and then suffering two heartbreaking losses in the Final Four appearances. This was supposed to be a moment to shine, celebrate another trip to the Final Four and represent the unvalued Pac 12 conference.

If this was another one of those magical UCLA teams, the kind we’ve seen advance to the Final Four and write miraculous stories — a UCLA library of books with stories to tell — it certainly wasn’t a story to be told this year, and in reality, Howland’s tenure is coming to an end. There is a slight chance Howland probably coached his final game as a UCLA head coach after a decade of accomplishments and disappointments. He is the biggest reason the Bruins had three consecutive Final Four appearances from 2006-2008, despite falling short in all three trips. He is the biggest reason UCLA rolled to 25 wins and won the Pac-12 regular-season title, the most victories the Bruins had since winning 26 in 2008-09.

For the Bruins, this year at least, March Madness was March Sadness and UCLA was eliminated from the tourney early. Once again, before tip off Friday night, UCLA wasn’t favored by every metric. There is a problem that can’t be solved until Howland is escorted out of the door and to his car. This is definitely a moment to rebuild and recreate a brand that defines the late John Wooden, an all-time UCLA great who built a pyramid of success. No one will ever come close to Wooden obviously. But you know — like I know — that this is a deep and talented team.

The brilliance of bringing together one of the nation’s top recruiting classes by UCLA’s polarizing coach is overlooked because of Howland’s conservative style of coaching and a suffocating defense. Either his players aren’t listening to him or he can’t coach five-star studs. If that was the case Friday night, Howland might be the one critics point fingers at, following a blowout loss that raises much concern about his job status. The Bruins seem to be in opposite directions and yet Howard landed the nation’s No. 2 recruiting class.

As we’ve seen so many times from other programs, the Pauley Pavilion was renovated but UCLA was barely making progress at home, winning a bulk of its games on the road. Before we judge, he represented UCLA with class and dignity but couldn’t give what a demanding program was anticipating as an ambassador who was once admired by a community that truly was confident that he would restore the general principles of success and pedigree. This shouldn’t be surprising to anyone. Obviously he’s not Wooden.

There’s your hit for what had gone wrong at UCLA, definitely bringing forth a discussion that became old as time progressed, that annoyed fans and had everyone speculating about Howland’s job status. This might be the time he won’t make it through this latest fiasco, and won’t be given another shot to rid the failures he and the Bruins have encountered lately.

For a very long time now, his players have done their own thing and detached themselves from Howland, with an attitude that it was their way or nobody else’s way. The bad thing is, Howland’s inability to bond and inspire his players has divided the team and affected the Bruins’ performances in the past four seasons. In a postgame news conference in front of reporters, after a painful ending to what could lead to a divorce, he couldn’t answer the last question.

“Do you think you’ve coached your last game as UCLA coach?” he was asked.

“No comment,” he said.

Meanwhile Howland is still employed, saying all the right things to salvage his job year after year, when the program can wave goodbye and begin a coaching search for someone who is worthy to take on a challenging task. But, we can only hope that he won’t return next season. The way the athletic department figures it, for business purposes, this will be Howland’s last season. That, by the way, means UCLA will buy out his $2.3 million contract. So maybe he could have saved his job only by getting the Bruins to the regional semifinals, having missed the Sweet 16 for the fifth consecutive year.

Now, because he failed to build on his three Final Four appearances, he’s being pushed out the door. Easy thing would be to cut ties with someone who is described as a control freak, and even when he’s responsible for the letdowns at UCLA, fans behind the Bruins bench gave him a standing ovation in his final moments. It’s too bad freshman point guard Jordan Adams’ season-ending foot injury in the Pac-12 tournament derailed a season and even possibly ended Howland’s tenure. At the beginning of a miserable night, the Bruins were in a drought and failed to score a point in the first four minutes.

And while Larry Drew III and Shabazz Muhammad were missing easy layups, you have to wonder whether or not if his players ever respected him. It was late in the first half when the UCLA starters made their first field goal. By halftime, the Bruins had nine turnovers and missed an array of shots. Then in the second half, the Bruins were still in the game while Minnesota made nine threes and blew open its largest lead. It was more disgusting to see Muhammad, who is UCLA’s leading scorer, miss all seven shots in the first half and never really find a groove.

I happen to like Howland and mainly thought he was good for UCLA and its program. For instance, I defended him over the years while former UCLA big man Bill Walton recently called for Howland’s coaching job, which a bevy of growing critics continues to pick apart his slow, methodical offensive sets and poor clock management of the game. The criticism of Howland won’t ever cease and certainly not after the Bruins were eliminated in the first round of a tournament they once were allowed to brag and celebrate about — after a long history of dominance and Final Four trips. These haven’t been easy times for the Bruins, and especially not for Howland, whose job security could be in jeopardy.

The program embodies the essence of extraordinary traditions and achievements, but lately the team has had poor discipline and lack of leadership from players who performs individually and selfishly, not playing as a team and pouring on effort. The whole idea of having a coach is to recruit brilliantly and build a competitive athletic program, and while Howland has accumulated talent, the Bruins have floundered to find ways to win when it counts.

A nation of fans lost no sleep when Tubby Smith’s Golden Gophers routed UCLA and sent a distinguished program back home to Westwood, California, where fans clad in classic blue and gold were cheering for the Bruins, who usually makes the tournament and rarely misses the action in the month of March.

Logic is, Howland’s UCLA career has been a great run but it is essentially over.

Leaving fans wondering, once again, will he return?

My guess is no.