I’m sorry, Muhammad

It’s hard to quantify what Muhammad Ali meant to the city of Louisville.
On one hand, you have the brash, slick-talking, greatest-of-all-time champion who predicted when he would knock out his opponents and turned press conferences into circuses. The Louisville Lip.

On the other, the humanitarian and social activist who was called a draft dodger, a Muslim extremist and an agitator. The former Cassius Clay. The man who converted to Islam, changed his name and marched for justice in several realms outside the ring.

I’m sorry, Muhammad. I should’ve respected this sooner.

It was a surreal feeling to get the news Friday night – a man that almost felt too big to be bothered with something like death. The same man who took on both George Foreman and the United States government. And won.

We knew you were ours. This was your city. You were Louisville’s native son. We’ve seen you accomplish so much, anything more these days seemed trivial. The same man whose name adorns a museum, a street and countless other monuments within the city limits got the Presidential Medal of Freedom? Cool. What else happened today.

I’m sorry, Muhammad. Your best should’ve always been recognized.

He was a man that, no matter the constraints of his time, always appreciated where he came from. He gave credit to Louisville when he could. Notably shouting the city out after beating Foreman in Zaire when the world was watching. Yet from all I’ve heard and seen, some from older generations didn’t reciprocate. And some of those from younger generations didn’t study your history enough appreciate it.

I’m sorry, Muhammad. You deserved better.

Men like Ali come around once in a lifetime. He was lucky enough to be the best during boxing’s heyday and also thrown in the mix during a period in United States history when the country was in turmoil. The Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement were ripe for a champion to speak up and be heard when he was the voice for millions. Muhammad Ali was that voice.

Whether you chose to hear it usually determined how you feel – and how those that came after you feel – about him now.

I’m sorry, Muhammad. Your voice was powerful.

On the way home from work last night, I drove my usual stretch of Muhammad Ali Boulevard, this time with the final moments of the call from the Rumble in the Jungle blasting. It’s one of the top calls in sports history, made possible by Ali again defying the odds in front of millions.

“Ali has won. Ali has won by a knockdown. By an knockdown. The thing they said was impossible, he’s done it.”

Impossible. Ali did it. It became second nature. Foreman. Frazier. A federal conviction. Boxing exile. Parkinson’s Disease. He beat it all by how he lived with the situation he was dealt.

But now, that’s all we have. The epic memories of a man who impacted billions around the world with his kindness, bravado and an unwillingness to bend to you or anyone else’s beliefs.

At his very core, Ali was a man who stood for what he believed in in front of the entire world. And he made sure you knew he wasn’t backing down.

I’m sorry, Muhammad. There should be more like you.

You shook up the world, Champ. You’re a bad man.

RIP The Greatest.

The Top 5 moments in the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry

With all the hype that’s surrounded Saturday’s matchup between Kentucky and Louisville, it’s been almost impressive that one has called this year’s version of the annual meeting between the no. 4 Cardinals and the no. 1 Wildcats the biggest in the rivalry’s history. It can be argued either way, that it is or isn’t.

But no matter which way you look at it, one aspects of the game remain important over everything: This is the last foreseeable major obstacle for Kentucky which could keep them from at least a perfect regular season.

In the modern history of this rivalry (it was played consistently and 1913-22 and in 1948, 1951 and 1959. But was started again on a yearly basis when the two teams met in the Mideast Regional final of the 1983 NCAA Tournament), there have been an incredible amount of great moments and stunning games. Back And Forth did the digging and came up with the Top 5 moments from the UK/UofL rivalry.

5.) Samaki Walker Goes For a Triple-Double – Jan. 1, 1995

On New Year’s Day ’95, Samaki Walker, a future Top 10 pick in the NBA Draft, gave a performance those in the rivalry are still talking about.

With the Cardinals taking on the no. 5 Wildcats in Freedom Hall in Louisville, Walker recorded the first triple-double in school history with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 11 blocks as UofL won 88-86. The game was close throughout, as Tony Delk dropped in a game-high 23 points for the Wildcats.

Much like two years later (as you’ll see lower in the column), Kentucky fans would get a measure of satisfaction at the end of the season, as then-coach Rick Pitino (which is still hard for some UK fans to stomach) would lead Kentucky to their first national title in 18 years later that season.

4.) Patrick Sparks Draws The Line – Dec. 21, 2004

Patrick Sparks wasn’t even recruited by Kentucky out of high school (he transferred there after two seasons at Western Kentucky) but he made his mark on the Wildcats with his performance – mainly with 0.6 seconds left – against Louisville in 2004.

Sparks scored 12 second half points for the no. 11 Wildcats to keep them steady with the no. 14 Cardinals, and got his chance to etch his name into the rivalry’s lore when he inbounded the ball with Kentucky down 58-57 with 4.8 seconds left. The Central City, Ky. native got the ball to Kelenna Azubuike, who drew three defenders and passed it back to Sparks for a three-pointer from the baseline corner.

Sparks pump-faked, catching a charging Ellis Myles in the air as Sparks jumped into the air (though a large portion of the UofL fanbase will argue he walked in the process) and drew the foul on Myles. A visit to the monitor confirmed the officials’ call and Sparks hit all three free throws for a 60-58 UK victory.

3.) UofL Stuns No. 3 Kentucky – Dec. 26, 1997

It’s one of those games no one around the state (or rivalry in general) saw coming.

UK was ranked no. 4 in the nation and on their way to the program’s seventh national title – and second in three seasons – while UofL was struggling towards the end of the Denny Crum era (they wouldn’t when 20 games in a season in his last four years as coach) and would end the year 12-20. But first they had to go to Rupp Arena in Lexington and take on UK, who had already beaten three Top 25 teams that season, their lone loss coming to then-no.1 Arizona in the Maui Invitational.

The Cardinals didn’t have a single player on their roster over 6-foot-7, and were playing the Wildcats’ arsenal of future pros including Scott Padgett, Jamaal Magloire and Nazr Muhammed. It didn’t matter. Louisville hit 12-of-22 threes, held Padgett to 7 points and UK to 5-for-23 from three-point range, and got 20 points from Eric Johnson to pull the 79-76 shocker.

2.) Aaron Harrison Starts His Shooting Spree – March 28, 2014

In the previous three seasons, the Louisville-Kentucky rivalry has jumped up considerably with the high level of play from both programs – they’ve combined for two national championships and three Final Fours. The fact that the schools have met in two of the last three seasons in the NCAA Tournament hasn’t hurt, either.

Last year, the Cardinals came in as the favorite, a no. 4 seed playing against the 8-seed Wildcats, who were riding the momentum of their win over previously undefeated Wichita State in what is known by many as the college basketball game of the year for 2013-14.

The game was close throughout, but Aaron Harrison opened what became his legendary string of game-winning shots with his left-corner three with 39.1 seconds left to give the Wildcats a 70-68 lead. UK would go on to win 74-69 and end their season with a loss in the national title game to UConn.

1.) Lou-Orleans v. Blue-Orleans – March 31, 2012

For Louisville and Kentucky fans, it was the pinnacle of the rivalry’s stage. The two storied college basketball programs from the Bluegrass State playing for the right to play in the national championship game in the Mercedes Benz Superdome in New Orleans.

Kentucky rolled through the regular season (including a 69-62 victory over then no. 4-Louisville on Dec. 31) at 36-2 at the time, grabbing the no. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. Louisville made a run to the Final Four as a no. 4 seed and an upset of no. 1 seed Michigan State in the Sweet 16.

The Wildcats led 35-28 at halftime and the Cardinals tied the game at 49-49 on Peyton Siva’s three with 9:11 to play in the game. But future no. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis went for 18 points and 14 rebounds while Big Blue shot 57.1 percent overall and held the Cardinals to 34.8 percent from the field. Louisville actually out-rebounded the Wildcats 37-32, but Siva led UofL with 11 points as Kentucky’s talent proved to be superior.

So no matter if you agree with this list or not, it’s probably not up for debate that given recent history with this rivalry (this moment, this moment and this moment get honorable mentions nods), people can expect to see something during the game that they’ll remember for years down the road. It’s what makes this rivalry great, and arguably the best in college basketball.

David Harten runs The Backboard Chronicles. Find him on Twitter at @David_Harten.

TCU is in the Top 25 in basketball….no, really

Yes, Monday night, TCU beat Grambling State, a team that has zero wins against Division I teams this season.

Yes, TCU’s 12-0 record consists of victories over three SWAC teams, the worst team in the Pac-12 (Washington State) and what will probably turn out to be a middle-of-the-pack SEC team in Ole Miss.

Yes, TCU hasn’t been challenged all that much. But that’s not anywhere near the point that will be made in the following paragraphs.

Bottom line, when you look at the no. 25 ranking on the Associated Press Top 25 poll right now, you see “TCU” next to that number. The Horned Frogs — the same program that went 0-18 in Big 12 play last season and 9-22 overall — are ranked in the Top 25, in basketball. And judging by what they’ve got on the roster, there’s nothing stopping them from being a .500 team in conference play by March and, dare anyone say it, an NCAA Tournament team.

Trent Johnson’s team doesn’t do it pretty. His top scorer is Kyan Anderson at 12.8 points per game. Next on that list? Kenrich Williams at 9.5 per. But the Horned Frogs’ scoring depth has made having a big-time scorer unnecessary, with six players averaging between 9.5 and 7.4 points per game.

But the Horned Frogs are winning collectively. They’re in the Top 50 nationally in rebounds, points and assists per game, as well as team field goal percentage and blocks (which they’re ranked 10th prior to the Grambling win). They’re 13th in the nation in scoring defense, allowing 55.7 points per game. They’re not just winning, but winning effectively.

Again, the schedule sucks, we know. But look at the program’s last two seasons in non-conference play, which included 18 total wins. Losses to Tulsa, Houston and SMU in 2012-13 and Longwood last season. Despite easy non-conference slates then, they still lost games to beatable teams. Their progress to this point is purely just a decent step in the right direction.

The development of talent is also an obvious contributor to TCU’s early success. Karviar Shepherd going from highly-touted freshman to dependable sophomore (a team-leading 7.1 rebounds per game, with 14 points and nine rebounds against Ole Miss) has helped. Senior Amric Fields’ staying dependable despite his stats dropping has set an Unselfish tone. Nine players are averaging at least 10 minutes per game.

As the sentences above have shown, TCU has become all about depth. Anderson paces the team — he also leads TCU with 4.6 assists per game — but behind him are a group of players who seem to do whatever’s asked of them.

Is anyone expecting Johnson and his team to challenge Kansas for Big 12 supremacy? Nah. But for a team that has only been to seven NCAA Tournaments in their history, the last coming in 1998, finding their way onto the NCAA Tournament bubble would be extensive progress.

Find David on Twitter at @David_Harten.


Washington’s patience is Lorenzo Romar’s — and the Huskies’ — gain

Scott Woodward could’ve taken the easy way out last season.

As Washington slogged toward a third straight season without an NCAA Tournament appearance, the Huskies’ athletic director could’ve listened to some of the fanbase and axed long-time head coach Lorenzo Romar. Washington has the type of college basketball history where a drought like that isn’t taken lightly.

No one would’ve blamed him. The Huskies had gone 35-31 in the last two seasons under Romar, who is now in his 13th season as head coach in Seattle. Also, in a stacked 2013-14 year for the Pac-12 in which the conference sent six teams to the tournament, UDub failed to be one of them. In fairness, that run includes a Pac-12 regular season championship in 2011-12 — but came in a weak season for the conference (Colorado and California were the Pac-12’s lone bids to the Dance) and ended in an NIT bid.

But in the microwave society of major college athletics, Woodward took a refreshing approach and waited. This season, to this point, Washington is reaping the benefits of letting things play out. This was never more apparent that on Saturday night when the Huskies, ranked no. 16 in the nation, took down no. 15 Oklahoma in Las Vegas, their second win over a ranked team so far this season. Washington is now 10-0.

In the past two seasons combined, Romar’s team combined for a grand total of …..zero victories over ranked opponents.

Late last season, Woodward reinforced his faith in Romar, telling the media he was the “right man for the job.

Some could — and probably will — argue that the reasons for keeping Romar are partially tied to his 10-year contract that is currently paying him $1.7 million per season. That’s fair. But given the Huskies’ start to the 2014-15 season, it could easily be rebuked.

Looking at the roster the Huskies currently have, it’s a classic peek into what waiting can do for a program. There’s a steady mix of both immediate impact players (Fresno State transfer Robert Upshaw and sophomore dynamo Nigel Williams-Goss) and developmental projects, as well as long-time roster stalwarts, coming to fruition (Shawn Kemp Jr., Andrew Andrews and Mike Anderson). They’ve been able to minimize the impact of any transfers (none of note in the last three seasons) and attrition to the NBA, losing both Terrence Ross and Tony Wroten to the league following the 2011-12 season.

The Huskies are currently 12th-best in the country on the glass, averaging 41.9 rebounds per game, despite having just four players 6-foot-9 or taller on their roster. And even when they don’t get a ton of boards, they’ve been able to adjust to another style of play and win, beating then-no. 13 San Diego State 49-36 while getting outrebounded 42-36.

Add in a win over a UTEP team that pushed Arizona to the brink on Friday night, and it’s been a solid start for Washington, and one of the more surprising starts in college basketball.

Follow David Harten on Twitter at @David_Harten.

Miami: Recent ruler of the ‘WTF?’ loss

In the 2012-13 season, Miami had arguably their best year in program history. With one of the oldest teams (the average age of the team hovered around 22 years old) in the nation under coach Jim Larranaga’s watch, the Hurricanes went 29-7, won both the ACC regular season and tournament championships and made it to the Sweet 16.

And to open that season, they lost to St. Leo in an exhibition game.

That’s a pretty important thing to remember when you examine what happened to the Hurricanes on Friday night. Behind awful shooting, The U suffered what is by all accounts the worst loss under Larranaga and one of the worst losses in program history, a 72-44 loss to Eastern Kentucky. Before Friday, EKU had beaten as many Top 25 teams as I have.

Against the Colonels, Miami allowed 14 threes (EKU hit 53.8 percent of them, 14-26, from three-point range) and shot 29.3 percent from the field themselves. They were out-rebounded 37-26 and made only 12 shots all night. As far as implosions go, the Hurricanes couldn’t do much worse than allowing a now-6-4 team to go on a 22-2 run in the second half while on the road.

Under Larranaga, Miami has become what Gonzaga seemed to be around the mid-2000s. They play to the level of their competition when you don’t see it coming. For every great win (at Florida, against Illinois) there are baffling losses (the aforementioned EKU stinker, and the home loss to Green Bay two games earlier).

Looking back at the 2012-13 season again, Miami didn’t stop with the ‘huh?’ losses when they went to the Diamondhead Classic and lost to Indiana State. Though that loss would later not be seen as all that bad, as the Sycamores were a solid team. But compared to how they finished the season, that defeat left some scratching their heads at the time.

They would also add losses at Wake Forest (who finished 13-18) and at home against 16-15 Georgia Tech in ACC play.

But that’s just how Miami is recently. And it’s really not that bad, considering that this is essentially the golden era of Hurricane basketball. They have depth, with 10 players averaging at least 10 minutes per game. Five players are averaging at least seven points per game and as a team, Miami is shooting 47.2 percent. The offensive funk that came Friday night probably won’t last.

The U will pull as many weird losses out of its hat as it will great wins. And while they’ll no doubt drop from their no. 18 national ranking out of the Top 25, Miami should still have a solid season as ACC play approaches. The wins over the Gators and Fightin’ Illini weren’t a fluke.

We only need to look back at a little history to see that.

Follow David Harten on Twitter at @David_Harten.


Creighton is leaning too hard on Austin Chatman

Last season, despite having the nation’s best scorer on their roster in Doug McDermott, one of Creighton’s best assets was that they spread the production among those on the roster. McDermott got the buckets to the tune of 26.7 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting, but five other players averaged at least six points per game while all five shot at least 42 percent from the field.

Austin Chatman, who has emerged — as expected — as the top offensive option for the Blue Jays in 2014-15, finished last year putting up 8.1 points per game. This season, Chatman is cranking out 13.3 points, 5.1 assists and 4.8 rebounds per game, hitting shots at a 40.4 percent clip.

Those numbers aren’t a bad thing. The following numbers, however, could be.

Chatman’s minutes per game have recently spiked. In Creighton’s last five contests, the senior from The Colony, Texas, is clocking 44 minutes per game and hasn’t played less than 35. In Creighton’s last game, a 91-88 win over South Dakota in double overtime, Chatman played 47 of a possible 50 minutes. It’s the second time he’s played at least 40 minutes, along with the Blue Jays’ 57-47 win over Middle Tennessee State, where he played the entire game. Against Ole Miss, Chatman played  39 minutes.

If Creighton wants to compete in the Big East in their second season in the conference, they’ll want to save Chatman’s legs for conference play. In these past five games, Creighton is 3-2 — after starting the season 5-0 with a win over a ranked opponent — with Chatman getting way too much burn.

Add all that in with the fact that Chatman leads the Blue Jays in assists and is second by a tenth of a percentage point in rebounding, you’ll see he’s doing it all. A high amount of minutes along with a high percentage of stats this early? Not good. In a 65-63 victory over then-no. 18 Oklahoma on Nov. 19, Chatman went for 17 points, 11 rebounds and 6 assists in 38 minutes. Too much run, too early (though it could be argued that a win like that will look too good on the Blue Jays’ resume to hold anyone back, and I’d be inclined to agree). Four players already average 20-plus minutes for Creighton, so the problem isn’t others’ minutes going up. It’s Chatman’s minutes needing to be scaled back.

Then, you look at what else Creighton has on its roster. Outside of Isaiah Zierden’s 12.4 points per game, there isn’t a ton of help for Chatman to rely on in the scoring department. The middle of the roster is balanced with mid-level scoring, as five players average between 6.1 and 8.7 points per game, but a third scoring threat will have to emerge hitting a higher clip. Will Artino, who is third on the roster averaging just under nine points per game, should be the likely candidate to jump his production up, as he’s shot at least 62.3 percent in three previous seasons and leads the team in rebounds. Freshman Toby Hegner’s 7.5 ppg could also increase if he can find his shooting touch (he dropped in 11 against the Sooners).

It’s not a ridiculous task to find some offensive help for Chatman. Coach Greg McDermott is a solid coach who could really take advantage of his first post-Doug season if he raises the level of his team on offense.

None of this is to say Chatman can’t handle the workload. He clearly can. But the schedule will get harder for the Blue Jays as they welcome St. Mary’s to Omaha on Saturday and open conference play at Providence on Dec. 31. As the schedule gets tougher, so will Chatman’s ability to keep going 35-40 minutes per game. And if Creighton wants another trip to the NCAA Tournament, Greg McDermott might want to look one year into the past to see how they were successful with sharing the responsibilities, even if the numbers didn’t show it.

Love it, hate it, think you can do better? Find David on Twitter at @David_Harten.

TBBC Fantasy Series: Sleepers, Locks, Over-valued players

Some people player fantasy sports (personally, if it’s not fantasy football, I don’t have any interest in it). With games a few days away, we take a look at a few players from a fantasy perspective, and how they might fair this season.
Jabari Bird, California – Bird didn’t receive a ton of national love on an average Cal team in ’13-’14. He averaged 8.3 ppg and 2 rpg last year. That should change this season.
Bryn Forbes, Michigan State – The grad transfer from Cleveland State who should add a shooting touch to the Spartans.
Aaron Cosby, Illinois – A Seton Hall transfer who will step into a secondary scoring role with Darius Paul gone on a year-long suspension.
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma – The 6-4 guard made a huge jump in scoring (7.8 ppg to 16.5 ppg) from his freshman to sophomore years.
Ian Chiles, Tennessee – Yet another grad transfer who will lead a very inexperienced Volunteers team.
Freshman to watch (Note: We’re leaving out the obvious ones of Okafor, S. Johnson, Alexander, etc.)
Devonte’ Graham, Kansas – Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre have been getting all the love, but Graham could piggy-back on that to double-digit points as the Jayhawks’ point guard.
Goodluck Okonoboh, UNLV – He’s a 6-9 shot-blocker who is much-needed for Dave Rice this season.
Chris Chiozza, Florida – There won’t be a lot of pressure on Chiozza with the talent the Gators have. I expect him to use that to his advantage.
D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State – Scouts are enthralled with him. He’d be getting more love, but his earlier eligibility issues stunted his hype.
Myles Turner, Texas – Texas is getting sleeper status and Turner, a highly-touted forward, is at the center of it.
Locks (Guys who will consistently put up great numbers)
Jahlil Okafor, Duke – The 6-10 sure-fire one-and-done is about as safe a bet as there is this season to average around 15 and 8.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky – WCS has gone from mildly-heralded recruit coming to Lexington, to guaranteed NBA Draft first rounder. Might be the best-shot blocker in program history.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina – The Cousy Award leader will be counted on to get the UNC offense running. Probably the best point guard in the nation.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville – He went from a high-motor recruit to 6-8 big with wing skills who’s improved his perimeter shot this season.
Briante Weber, VCU – One of the best defenders — maybe the best — in the nation. Definitely the best one-on-one defender, hands down (or up).
Over-valued players (Guys who won’t have to do as  much as originally thought)
Cliff Alexander, Kansas – He’ll get his stats, probably around 11 ppg and 6 rpg. But what he won’t do is lead the team in points and rebounds as some seem to think.
Branden Dawson, Michigan State – A lot of people believe coach Tom Izzo will lean on him heavily. I don’t see it. There’s enough talent to ease it off of him.
Tyler Ulis, Kentucky – He’ll be a great point guard….next season. This is Andrew Harrison’s role and Ulis should learn all year. Just watch his assist-to-turnover ratio.
Players who are worth more than their stats
Traevon Jackson, Wisconsin – Sam Dekker and Frank Kaminsky may get the pub (and it’s well-deserved) but it takes a smart, patient point guard to run the Bo Ryan sets. That’s Jackson.
T.J. McConnell, Arizona – On a team full of athletes, McConnell will be the one in charge of getting the team in focus.
Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga – The stats show a good player (10.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 59.3 FG percentage). The stats even lie. Karnowski is an even greater defensive presence.
Michael Frazier II, Florida – He’s going to be this season’s Ron Baker. He’s more than a shooter.
Anthony Hickey, Oklahoma State – Being a transfer, it’s easy to miss him. But he’s combines a great mix of distribution (3.7 apg last year) and defense (1.8 spg).