Fred VanVleet has shown Chris Paul the way to an NBA Championship

Fred VanVleet’s costly rant appears to have paid off. Chris Paul should take note.

Precedent has been set. It is time for Chris Paul to take action. The Phoenix Suns are gearing up for a playoff run in the most wide-open Western Conference since Dennis Rodman and David Robinson were sharing the screen in stuffed-crust pizza commercials. With Kevin Durant likely to be available for the postseason, this season could be the best of Paul’s few remaining chances at an NBA Championship. In order to fully take advantage of this opportunity, Paul should pay attention to a recent Fred VanVleet administrative victory.

If he goes this route, it will certainly cost Paul some money. An astronomical figure for the average American, but a drop in the bucket for one of State Farm Insurance’s top salespersons. VanVleet was fined $30,000 for his expletive-laden diss track about NBA referee Ben Taylor, who has been responsible for three of his eight technical fouls during the 2022-23 NBA season.

Meadowlark Media’s Tom Haberstroh has noticed an irregularity in Taylor’s officiating assignments since that press conference. In the last two weeks, Taylor has spent very little time in his typical position as crew chief.

“In the last five games, Ben Taylor has only been the crew chief one,” Haberstroh said on The JD Bunkis Podcast. “He’s been the referee [No. 2] four times since that game, since that rant. Which is a real abnormality with Ben Taylor. If you look at his previous 52 games this season Ben Taylor was the crew chief in 41 of those games.”

Maybe this was simply a quick knuckle slap with a ruler by the NBA. Something to try and quietly tighten up shortly before the beginning of the postseason, while forgetting the fact “quiet” and “NBA” do not go together. The league insiders, the data experts like Haberstroh, and players on social media, all of whom are always alert. There is no moving under the cover of darkness in the NBA.

Taylor is an NBA veteran. He is currently in his 10th season as an NBA referee and has only been working postseason games since 2019. Foster is currently in his 29th season as an NBA ref. The league considers Foster one of its very best. If it didn’t, there is no way that he would have been working in enough postseason games for Paul to lose 14 of them in a row.

For Paul to properly pry open one of his final championship windows he had better tape a few extra insurance commercials, maybe even revive Cliff Paul again. One $30,000 series of F-bombs isn’t going to do it. He needs to pen a piece for the Players’ Tribune, make an appearance on The Shop, get fellow North Carolina native J. Cole to collaborate with him on an actual diss track.

Anything less than $1 million in fines and an early April suspension might not be enough. Foster has been officiating since before Paul began middle school, and will likely continue after the future Hall of Famer retires. When Foster steps down he will be right next to Joey Crawford as a legend among referees, and also in the NBA Fan Hall of Hate as one of the most dreaded faces to see with a whistle at a big game.

After last year’s unexpected battle with the 10-games-under-.500 New Orleans Pelicans in the first round, Paul had to think that there was no way around Foster. Luck of the draw would be his only hope that if he ever gets back to the NBA Finals, Foster wouldn’t again be crew chief when his team is facing elimination. Foster’s nickname might be “The Extender,” but he closed the finals in 2021.

It’s time to get desperate Chris. Offer Durant any healing remedy you have ever been recommended that you believe works, and then get to screaming from everywhere you can go viral about Foster. Use all of the foul — while also non-bigoted — language that comes to your mind. Make VanVleet’s tirade look like a campfire song by comparison.

If it can even get Foster away from you in the postseason for one game in which he would normally be assigned, your fine will be worth every penny.

The Kawhi Leonard-Paul George Clippers are proving load management doesn’t work

Tough break for the Clippers.

Very few games offer as clear a view of colliding worlds as the Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder did at the Arena on Tuesday night. Unfortunately, Paul George’s hyperextended knee put a damper on the evening. Midway through the third quarter, we witnessed the brilliance of George on display as he caught his defender sleeping with a shifty fake outside, then knifed into the paint, reeled in a bounce pass from Mason Plumlee, and then executed a smooth 360 dunk.

Late in the fourth quarter, George was being helped off the floor and carted from the arena after hyperextending his right knee. Ironically, the Clippers have been the most aggressive helicopter parents of the NBA. Their training staff has spent the entire season trying to control fate through load management. Sitting Kawhi Leonard on back-to-backs and resting George as a healthy DNP through injury management protocols, the tragedy of load management is that wear and tear aren’t the only causes of calamitous injuries.

Fittingly, it was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the former Clipper Sam Presti obtained in exchange for Paul George, who finished off L.A. Gilgeous-Alexander led the way for Oklahoma City by logging 31 points on 12-of-25 shooting. His 40th 30-point game of the season put him in the exclusive company of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook as the only Thunder players ever to accomplish that feat. SGA also joins Joel Embiid and Luka Dončić as the only players leaguewide to put up 40-plus games of 30 or more points this year.

A former Clipper point guard rising into the superstar class, while Los Angeles rummaged through the bottom of the league’s drawers for a point guard, underscores the virtue of patience that the Clippers eschewed when they gutted their team culture in the summer of 2019 by going all in on Leonard and George.

We witnessed a more melodramatic, soap-opera version of this play out in Brooklyn over the last three years while they fought unsuccessfully to emerge from underneath the New York Knicks’ shadow. The Clippers may rue the day they traded SGA for George, but he wasn’t alone in his triumphant return.

Jalen Williams chipped in 20 points, shooting 50 percent from the field and from distance. Then Oklahoma City guard Lu Dort served Leonard some of his own medicine via a dose of All-NBA defense on the final possession of regulation to secure the win.

The Thunder, who built their core organically in contrast to the Clippers’ prosaic mercenary squad, are on the verge of breaking into the Western Conference’s top six and the ultimate payoff could play out over the long term.

On the Clippers’ side, their title chances will rest on the severity of George’s knee. After losing Leonard for consecutive postseasons, 2023 has been a dismaying experience. After all the overprotective protocols to effectively wrap their stars in bubble wrap, they poisoned whatever team chemistry they did have in reserves and are in danger of slipping into the play-in crevice. George may wind up being able to recover before the postseason, but their momentum is trending in the wrong direction.

In the era of offense over everything, golf is trying to zag, and Rory McIlroy is onboard

Rory McIlroy is... in favor of this for some reason?

What would you say if I told you that baseball was capping how far a ball can be hit, basketball decided to negate shots over 30 feet, or the NFL limited how far the football can be thrown in the air? Your first reaction would probably be like mine when I read that Rory McIlroy is on board with the USGA’s proposal to limit drive distance.

In an appearance on the (ironically named) No Laying Up Podcast, the Northern Ireland golfer said:

“For elite-level play, I really like (the idea). I really do.

“I’m glad in this new proposal that they haven’t touched the recreational golfer. I know that’s a really unpopular opinion amongst my peers, but I think it’s going to help identify who the best players are a bit easier.

“Especially in this era of parity that we’ve been living in these past couple of decades.”

OK, man, whatever you say. We’re going to eliminate massive advantages of certain players, and it’s going to result in the rise of the next Tiger Woods? What kind of rough are you smoking?

Golf is already one of the most challenging sports to play, and though the scores can go super low, US Open locales still eat the lunch of most elite guys. The audience wants to watch pros do things they can’t more than they want to see a tournament where the leader isn’t under par, and if everybody is hitting the ball as far as you or I on a windy day and struggling to clear water hazards, too, that appeal is gone. Has no one rewatched Tin Cup recently? The idiocy, my god.

Other pros say rule change tries to fix a problem that isn’t there

Jon Rahm and Justin Thomas each aired their views on the proposal, with Rahm asking, “Why change what’s working?” and Thomas saying the USGA is “trying to create a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.”

I’m not sure if they were fed the same talking points or were mind-melding, but the No. 2- and No. 10-ranked players went on to say it would be bad for the game. Rahm pointed out that it would hurt the less-powerful players who would need a 4- or 5-iron to hit the ball as far as they once did with a 7, while the longer guys like Rahm would have a more distinct advantage because they can still hit the clubs they used to.

That’s probably where McIlroy got his line of thinking considering he’s leading the PGA in distance off the tee (326 yards). The deadened balls would max out at around 320 yards, but it’s not like a governor on a golf cart that immediately hits the brakes once you reach top speed. Everyone would be using the heavy ball, so the move theoretically gives bigger hitters a leg up.

Yet fans won’t be compelled by a contrived Jack Nicklaus or a bootleg Tiger. We want an actual successor — which the PGA and USGA are well aware of and freaking out about — but not one that’s a product of a rule change.

McIlroy’s resuscitated charm back on life support

If you’re like me, the constant sniping between the PGA Tour and LIV Golf has grown stale like a rap beef on its seventh diss track. It’s the sport’s best current rivalry only nothing gets settled on the course, and we’re left with McIlroy constantly bitching about Greg Norman because reporters keep asking Rory about LIV, and Rory keeps answering because this is the most attention he’s gotten since before fans realized he’s the heir apparent to jack shit.

One of the byproducts created by the exodus of talent to the Saudi tour has been the resurgence of McIlroy. He hasn’t won a major since 2014, but did earn top eight finishes in all four majors last year, including second at the Masters and third at the Open Championship, and took home the FedEx Cup as well. Is the success because of watered-down competition? Or has his righteousness boosted him on high, soaring with greats once again via the grace of an incorruptible moral compass? I don’t know, but the latter answer sounds better in the lede of a story.

While I acknowledge that McIlroy and the rest of the golfers who didn’t defect will be on the side of history that didn’t readily accept blood money, what’s overlooked is the divide started because of the PGA Tour’s shitty payment model. The Tour’s recent changes are direct responses to LIV, and I don’t feel good about either management group even though I feel worse about one more than the other.

That brings me back to McIlroy. I appreciate that he was outspoken about players jumping leagues. It was refreshing to know that not all golfers turn into amoebas when offered absurd amounts of money. However, that’s where my affinity stops. I’m good on the sound bites, I’m good on the coverage, and I’m good on Rory. Go win the Masters and give me a reason to listen to you give an interview.

Four-letter words flying during NCAA Tourney

You can’t can say that on’s cable

One of the beauties of college sports is that viewers get to see young people act like young people. Sure the professionals play the game better, but sometimes youthful exuberance makes up for the many more fundamental mistakes. While we get to view their excitement, the coaches and sports information directors do try to shield the players’ personalities from the public. The young people still have a lot to learn so it’s best that their personal shortcomings not be broadcasted. For example, young people can be quite vulgar.

Usually amateur athletes avoid cursing on camera, but a few players let the four-letter words fly during March Madness opening weekend.

It’s OK, it’s TruTV

Florida Atlantic is capturing the hearts of NCAA tournament fans as the loveable underdog. The school did not have a men’s basketball team until 1988. They weren’t Division I until 1993. 2023 is the program’s first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, and they are on their way to the Sweet 16.

Johnell Davis was so excited that he forgot to watch his language and accidentally said “shit.” He was immediately apologetic but Jamie Erdahl reminded him that while live, they were on TruTV so no FCC fine was imminent.

Once Davis broke the seal, the curse words came rushing out. Drew Timme — who is old enough to know better — dropped an F-bomb after Gonzaga’s Round of 32 win over TCU. Unlike NCAA Tournament rookie Davis, Timme did not break stride. He was so comfortable that saying a swear word didn’t even affect the length of his response.

It’s happening in the women’s tournament as well

Then in the women’s tournament on Monday Night, the University of Miami became the second team this year to knock off a No. 1 seed when they defeated Indiana. Destiny Harden hit the game-winning basket for the Hurricanes in the waning seconds. She sat down for a courtside interview with the broadcast team and revealed a discussion that she had with an assistant coach shortly before making the basket.

Harden said that she was told to “face up and win the fucking game.” She too apologized immediately following her NSFW language.

Just like Davis, Timme and Harden did not curse on a broadcast network so no harm was done. Maybe a couple of seven-year-olds heard some language that they only hear when the family car is taken to the body shop, or mommy is on the phone with a college buddy. The opening week of the NCAA Basketball Tournaments is neither the first nor last time they will hear a bad word before they are legally old enough to watch an R-rated movie.

There will likely be some reminders given to players about appropriate language in interviews, but I for one enjoyed it. The language that me and my college friends used — even the language that was used at the middle school lunch table — made Andrew Dice Clay’s act sound G-rated by comparison. That’s how young people talk, and it was fun to hear it unedited.

This doesn’t mean that college players should go Fred VanVleet on referees. That type of bitterness needs to be reserved for adults who have built that type of rage up over decades. But an excitable young person being young and excited is the reason why we watch less-than-professional quality sports in the first place.

Dillon Brooks’ admiration for Kyrie Irving can’t be just about basketball


The recent rise in profile for Dillon Brooks is a credit to him. In the current landscape of the NBA, new stars are rising with LeBron James and Kevin Durant getting older. Luka Dončić, Nikola Jokić, and Giannis Antetokounmpo are firmly among the best needle-movers in The Association. Brooks isn’t close to that talent level, but the attention he’s getting for the things he does on the court and says to the press has carved out a lane for him in the league’s diaspora. Last night however was a new low for the Grizzlies’ standout.

During last night’s game against the Mavericks, Brooks drew the defensive assignment of Kyrie Irving and the two got into it early and had a long night of trash-talking. That’s not unusual for the NBA. After the close victory over Dallas, it appeared to be water under the bridge as Brooks attempted a jersey swap, more commonly seen in soccer, with Irving as a sign of respect. Brooks received Irving’s blue smock while the Mavs guard didn’t happily accept Brooks’ jersey. “I saw that after the game. I’ll probably get it next time. … Not this time though. I was really onto the next thing, my thought process-wise,” Irving word-vomited after the game, because what in the heck does that quote actually mean? You can’t live in the moment ever?

Brooks’ fascination with Irving didn’t end after adding to his closet. He was asked in the locker room about the exchange and said this as part of his answer: “I’m a fan of Kyrie, for everything he stands for, the way he uses his platform. … “He’s just like Kobe. He’s just like Jordan and those guys. He plays the game at a different pace. He uses both hands, mid-range God. And that’s where I want to be at one day, be able to shoot the ball more.” All the comparisons to all-time basketball greats is fine, but we can’t ignore Brooks’ admiration of what he stands for and how he uses his platform. Let’s see, Irving refused to get vaccinated and pushed conspiracy theories about the health risks of protecting yourself from COVID-19. He’s a flat-Earther, and as deranged as that is, might be a little far down the totem pole of awful things he’s put into the world. Irving also refused to condemn antisemitism late last year after promoting a documentary and book overflowing with lies about the Jewish people’s involvement in the Transatlantic slave trade. He only posted a statement to social media “apologizing” after being suspended by the Nets.

In a true basketball sense, Irving has asked for trades at the worst times and was fined $50,000 in January 2021 for attending an indoor party and breaking the NBA’s coronavirus protocols. He had been out of contact with then-Brooklyn head coach Steve Nash for several days before then. Brooks can support whoever he chooses and in terms of basketball ability, Irving isn’t a bad choice. When you mention what he stands for and how he uses his platform, Brooks doesn’t get to cherry-pick only what he views as positive. It’s either all of it or none of it. Whatever Brooks is referring to, those uglier parts of what Irving has shown over the years have to be included. When mentioning Irving, leaving his legacy to solely on-court events isn’t possible. Irving made sure of that by speaking publicly about non-basketball issues in the past. And Brooks’ desire to be more like Irving has to include those moments.

Rick Pitino’s introductory press conference harkens back to glory days of St. John’s basketball

Rick Pitino speaks after being introduced as St. John’s new men’s NCAA college basketball head coach at Madison Square Garden.

In front of 98-year-old Lou Carnesecca, and seated next to St. John’s University President, Reverend Brian J. Shanley, Rick Pitino was introduced as the new St. John’s University coach at Madison Square Garden at noon on Tuesday.

The saint, the Father, and the prodigal son.

First question: “Can you win right away?”

Pitino, now 70, sounded confident notes throughout the press conference. Like this one: “It’s not about when or if, it’s going to happen for St. John’s and it’s going to happen in a big way,” Pitino said.

The arc of our cultural memory is an odd thing. Pitino is a flawed man, who left college coaching under a cloud of charges at Louisville a decade ago. This press conference, however, was like time traveling back to the glory days of St. John’s basketball, when the Big East Conference ruled the college basketball universe and coaches nearly got into fistfights on the street after a game. Before the money came in. When gambling was still illegal and the night’s losing bettors might come after you as you left the arena.

“We walked slow when we won and we walked fast when we lost,” said Pitino, who grew up on 26th St. between Second and Third Avenues in Manhattan. He even named the parish.

The Big East conference has changed a lot since Pitino coached at Louisville a decade ago.

St. John’s wants those days back. Not the part about being broke, and the gambling is now all legal, but St. John’s wants the wins like Carnesecca could stack them up. And there was the man himself to offer a benediction of sorts with a face that bore each of his years but still those eyes.

“I think it’s a home run with the bases loaded,” Carnesecca cracked.

Former St. John’s head coach Lou Carnesecca

But whatever the flaws, oh, Pitino is an excellent coach. Iona overachieved with Pitino at the helm, reaching the NCAA men’s basketball tournament twice in his three seasons with the MAAC’s automatic bid. He could not, however, win a game, and for a conference with an automatic bid, getting a round deeper unlocks real money.

He really got them as far as he probably could. He proved he could take a small program just as seriously as a national contender. That he could lead a program without scandal. A Roman Catholic program even. It’s fitting that Iona and now St. John’s were the ones to offer Pitino a second chance after he coached in Greece. Basketball’s roots are entwined with the church all over New York City.

Why did he deserve this chance, he was gently asked.

“It doesn’t matter what you believe or don’t believe… I never cheated the game,” Pitino said.

Where Big East Commissioner Val Ackerman and St. John’s athletic director Mike Craig talked about what it would mean for St. John’s to be successful again, Pitino was the only one that alluded to his time in exile.

“Nobody really wanted to hire me at that point,” Pitino said. “The NCAA unfortunately moves at a snail’s pace.” It took five years for the case to come up, and Pitino said where other people were found culpable, his involvement was deemed more minimal.

Pitino is obsessed with basketball. “A lot of these players probably won’t be back on this team because they’re probably not a good fit for me,” Pitino said, alluding to a basketball-first mindset.

And that can be good and bad. It’s great for the wins column, but St. John’s will need to put structures in place to make sure that the non-basketball things don’t fall through the cracks. It’s exciting to have Pitino come back to New York, but St. John’s needs to learn from history. Pretending nothing happened isn’t a good strategy.

Billy Donovan put in a good word for Pitino

Father Shanley said what tipped the scales in Pitino’s favor was a call from Billy Donovan, another coach in the New York City orbit who played for Pitino long ago.

“He didn’t talk about the wins,” Shanley said, “Billy talked about the impact Pitino had on his life.”

At their best, this is what college coaches do. Win-first coaches should coach in the pros, where players are adults. The college level is where that guidance is important, so it’s right that that kind of information swayed Shanley. And Pitino has to live up to the best of those hopes for his players.

This isn’t the moment anyone wanted to think about anything other than the glory days to come, where old New York merges with the new one. Where it was always the Red Storm. It’s a freshly minted start for an excellent coach, and a day for New York basketball to dream.

The Great Debates tournament: Sweet 16

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It’s Sweet 16 time. The primaries are over and it is time for the general election. In real-life debates, this is about the time when candidates would be making disingenuous retorts about each other’s bad-faith arguments.

Since this is a debate about debates, I guess you can just argue more strenuously with other Twitter users about which argument is better between who is the world’s supreme basketball player/human between Michael Jordan and LeBron James, or if Breaking Bad or The Wire is the television show most worth binge watching every summer.

Unfortunately, since the people have spoken, just like during primary season, we have to bid farewell to some memorable candidates. So, as we have done with Howard Dean, Bernie Sanders, and 776 different republicans in 2016, we say goodbye to “Is Die Hard a Christmas movie,” the Chicago vs. New York pizza rivalry, and Skip vs. Stephen A. (soccer fans, we see you.)

Be sure to go to @Deadspin on Twitter and vote on which argument you would most like to waste hours of your life screaming at another human about. If you want to catch up, check out the full field and the round of 32.

First Take Region No. 1: LeBron James vs. Michael Jordan

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For some the choice is obvious, for others it’s the type of sports debate that makes you feel like your T.V. is slapping you in the head at 10 a.m. Whether you hate or love this classic, it will make you feel something.

Michael Jordan is the face of the modern NBA. He took the interest that Magic Johnson and Larry Bird injected into the league in the early 80s and used it to build the first athlete economic empire. The NBA was selling its individual stars to market the games so Jordan’s agent — David Faulk — took it one step further with his client. He wanted Nike to market Jordan like a tennis star. Like a singular athlete.

LeBron James had seen the success of this his whole life and set a plan into action early. He signed a $90 million deal with Nike before he signed with the Cleveland Cavaliers. Since then, James has started a fast-food pizza restaurant and also owns a production company that remade both Space Jam and the early 1990s classic House Party.

These two are true A-list celebrities. Not just sports famous, but pop culture icons like Michael Jackson, Eddie Murphy, Jack Nicholson, etc. Also one has the highest points per game average in NBA history and the other holds the record for total points scored.

– Stephen Knox

First Take Region No. 5: Muhammad Ali vs. Mike Tyson

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These are two forces that the world of boxing had not seen before or since. The time in their careers when they were most dominant was short-lived, but that handful of years left a mark by which boxers are still measured.

Muhammed Ali and Mike Tyson were heavyweight boxers. This is a division in which ferocious punishment is both endured and delivered. These large men swing as hard as they can at each other. Yet, in their prime neither fighter took much damage.

Ali had near ballet movement in the ring in the 1960s. At 200-plus pounds, no one was able to close in on him. For those who believe he didn’t have power, the men he knocked out that decade might have a different opinion.

When Ali first beat Sonny Liston in 1964, he took the Heavyweight Championship from him. Sonny Liston was the baddest man on the planet and didn’t come out for the seventh round. Until Ali was stripped of his title for refusing to serve in the Vietnam War over religious objections, of his nine title defenses only two went to decision.

Tyson bulldozed his way through the heavyweight division in the mid-1980s. He was quite possibly the scariest man alive because he was knocking people out before a bag of popcorn could be popped. Fame and ego took Tyson’s Heavyweight Championship as opposed to a military draft, but at his best, his hands were real weapons.

In 11 Heavyweight title defenses — one of course the loss to Buster Douglas — only three of his victories lasted longer than six rounds. At only 5 foot 10, Tyson turned the heavyweight division into heavy bags.

At their peak, Ali and Tyson were the two best to ever put on the gloves and boots.

Stephen Knox

First Take Region No. 14: Best sports era

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It’s easy to romanticize the past. Times were simpler, the air was fresher, and sports were played by real men. Yes, can we please return to an era where point guards got dry-humped after stepping across half-court, Joe Theisman got crumpled into a heap of flesh and bone by Lawrence Taylor every other play, and pitchers threw curve balls until their arms fell off.

The last time two of my favorite teams were relevant was the ’90s, but I’ll be damned if I want to bring back the option, or 7-footers sweating all over each other, trying to see which team can make the most hook shots. Your dad, and, well, myself, might scream at the television when an edge rusher gets flagged for tackling a quarterback, and we overcorrect for past mistakes. Yet, give me high-octane offenses that put the best athletes in space as opposed to seeing what team can win a game of tug-of-war.

– Sean Beckwith

First Take Region No. 2: iPhone vs. Android

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The green bubble vs. the blue bubble.

Fashion dictates that anything a person walks out of the house with can be considered stylish if put together with intent and flaunted with confidence. However, there are usually some base requirements.

For a rapper in 2003, it meant wearing a jersey that extended to at least their mid-thigh. In the early 2010s, it meant the tighter the jeans the better for young people. Who cares if they want to procreate later in life?

Phones have been part of that as well, but in the aughts, it was mainly young people with their Razors and Sidekicks. Nowadays, an iPhone is almost considered as standard as a man wearing a tie to a business interview. How dare a group chat be besmirched with the site of that ugly green bubble. If you don’t have air pods, can you even hear?

For all of those white commas hanging out of people’s ears at the grocery store, there are still some people who are willing to part with standard formalities. They don’t need facetime, iCloud, or a phone that slows down when a new version is released.

Samsung is on its 23rd Galaxy and the NBA is advertising the new Google Pixel 7 during every game, so there are still many android users among the general population. Are those people tacky, or are they seeing with their third eye?

Stephen Knox

Siskel & Ebert Region No. 1: Cats vs. Dogs

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Let’s be a little more creative than splitting this down the gender line. You know cat people, I know cat people, and there are certain people who are just cat people. But this isn’t about which version of a crazy cat person or Best In Show dog obsessive is worse. It’s about the animals themselves.

The nicest dogs are as great as the nicest cats, and ditto for the worst dogs and worst cats. I just think your average run-of-the-mill (not puppy mill, please, responsible practices for both species) dog is better than an average cat. The upside of felines is less maintenance. You don’t have to walk them or make sure to let them out every so often. With dogs, you get to bring them outside and on camping trips and a lot of other places. (Probably too many, but again, let’s focus on the animals, not the terrible owners.)

I don’t know who prevails in cats versus dogs, but I do know who wins in journalists versus cats and/or dogs, so I am aware of just how pervasive this argument is.

– Sean Beckwith

Siskel & Ebert Region No. 4: Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson

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In 1984 a person’s answer to this question likely depended on pigmentation. If Bruce Springsteen made you want to shake your booty you were likely a Larry Bird fan. For those who preferred Rick James, Magic Johnson was probably the player for you.

Both are two of the best players in the history of the NBA. There were similarities in their basketball strengths, but they did not play the same way.

Bird was the prototype for the modern NBA forward. Give him a crack of daylight and that jump shot is falling right out of the bottom of the net. However, if the defense cheated to close in on him, he can flick a pass over an opposing player’s head or around their back for a quick assist. He was tenacious on the glass as well, averaging 10 rebounds a game for his career. Bird would also hit the ground like Dennis Rodman for a loose ball.

Johnson combined power and speed at guard in a way that the NBA had never seen, and wouldn’t again for some time. At 6 foot 9, Johnson had the Lakers’ offense rolling at a 100-meter-dash pace from the opening tip to the final buzzer. He bullied smaller players and dribbled by bigger ones. Johnson’s priority was to find the open man, but as strange as his shoulder heave of a jump shot looked, it worked. Bird never attempted 3.5 threes per game, but Johnson did once and made 38.4 percent of them.

They not only ruled the NBA for most of the 1980s but globalized a sport that televised the NBA Finals on tape delay the year that they were drafted.

Stephen Knox

Siskel & Ebert Region No. 6: Bret Hart vs. Shawn Michaels & Vince McMahon

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Did Survivor Series 1997 have to go down that way?

Bret Hart was on his way out of the WWF but was still the world champion. He had to relinquish the belt before bolting for WCW. Nothing could have been worse during the Monday Night Wars for WWF than Hart showing up on Nitro with its World Championship belt.

Taking the Wrestling with Shadows documentary’s word for it, Hart would never have left for WCW with the belt. He was willing to relinquish it but on his terms since he had reasonable creative control over the final days of his contract. Hart certainly didn’t want to lose in Canada to Shawn Michaels after an anti-Canadian storyline that the WWF had been building for months alongside Hart’s anti-American one.

However, a payoff like that is how pro wrestling works. The fans get riled up about the over-the-top storylines and performances, and there is eventually a payoff. There was no better payoff for WWF fans than Hart losing the title in Canada to Michaels before he left for WCW.

Hart didn’t want to do it. He instead agreed to a disqualification that allowed him to keep the belt and then cede it to the company on Monday Night Raw.

Vince McMahon didn’t find that satisfactory even though he agreed to it — per the surreptitiously recorded conversation he had with Hart in the documentary. Instead, McMahon ordered the bell to be rung and the belt was given to Michaels. Hart spit in the face of McMahon, who was standing ringside, then later punched him in the face backstage. And with that, the Attitude era was off and running.

Stephen Knox

Siskel & Ebert Region No. 2: Lionel Messi vs. Cristiano Ronaldo

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The people who think Cristiano Ronaldo is better than Lionel Messi eventually bring up Ronadlo’s dating history as if that’s supposed to sway an argument. Is it really about who he’s fucked, or are you fucking him? No judgment. Just be open with yourself. Ronaldo is a genetic freak who was created to score goals and serve as a role model for how not to handle stardom.

Messi is an artist, a savant, a genius, but he’s slight. And the argument folds in on itself from there. The internet has taken this debate to places no discussion should go, and it’s beyond personal for a lot of people (mostly Real Madrid and Barcelona fans).

From a purely GOAT point of view, Messi vs. Ronaldo is the best-running GOAT debate we’ve ever had. The era of men’s tennis that’s winding down right now is close, but Ronaldo and Messi took turns winning accolades and trophies for basically two decades.

– Sean Beckwith

Pardon The Interruption Region No. 8: The Rock vs. Stone Cold Steve Austin

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At the time, Stone Cold was the biggest wrestler ever, by far, at least in terms of his ability to draw money. He chugged beers, talked shit, and did it with as much charisma as anybody. That’s why it was so alarming when The Rock showed up with just as much cachet, if not more. It was one of those feuds that made fans not want to pick a side.

Of course, we did, and if you chose The Rock, good for you. It goes without saying who won the post-wrestling career arc, though I feel like things could’ve gone differently for Austin without the injuries. I mean there’s a chance this debate could still go to Stone Cold, but it’s less dependent on his future actions and more about how many Black Adams the People’s (but not Box Office) Champ has in him.

– Sean Beckwith

Pardon The Interruption Region No. 12: SEC vs. the field

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This relatively new debate arose along with Nick Saban’s run at Alabama. The SEC learned how to game the system, which is 85 percent of college athletics and has more or less run the sport of college football since, fuck, I guess Pete Carroll’s USC tenure. Fans in the South, hell people in the South, like to remind the rest of the country that their ways are the best ways.

However, this debate is about football, not whether COVID will rise again. I’m desperately rooting against all those jackass SEC fans who show up to games dressed like they’re going to a party at the plantation because I can’t take it anymore. The conference pride is taking on a tinge of something else, and we need a respite. (Paging Lincoln Riley.)

– Sean Beckwith

Pardon The Interruption Region No. 3: 72-win Chicago Bulls vs. 73-win Golden State Warriors

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The 73-win Golden State Warriors are the model of modern-day basketball. Predicated on poetic off-ball movements by the Splash Brothers and Draymond Green at the nexus of his mental and physical peak, they remain the Platonic Ideal for modern basketball. The 72-win Chicago Bulls were the gold standard. Two decades earlier, the Chicago Bulls Triangle offense starring Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen were the model of consistency. In a more physical, stagnant league, Jordan was as automatic from midrange as anyone has ever been. Each team’s stans swear the other team couldn’t hang in the other’s NBA. They’re probably both wrong though. The Phoenix Suns are proof that the Bulls could still flourish today behind hyper-efficient mid-range scorers while Golden State’s analytically superior floor spacers would eat against defenses composed to battle in the trenches instead of around endless screens on the perimeter. These contrasting play styles are ripe for endless debate, which is why there have been so many through the years.

– D.J. Dunson

Pardon The Interruption Region No. 7: Breaking Bad vs. The Wire

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The anti-hero vs. an unflattering portrayal of America.

Both Breaking Bad and The Wire ran for five seasons. Breaking Bad actually first aired during the last few months of The Wire’s final season.

Your preference between these shows usually boils down to how you like your television world. Do you prefer that they revolve around a person or a more macro concept?

The Wire is a show about — as creator David Simon calls it — “the fall of a great American city,” A show about how, before judging the people on the corners selling drugs, one must take a look at how they got there. How their city, state, and country can turn kids into shotgun-wielding thieves.

Breaking Bad is a show about the fall of a person. Walter White is a sympathetic character at first. He is a school teacher who needs money because of a life-threatening illness — another dig at America’s shortcomings. However, in the process, he turns into a murderous drug kingpin.

While both shows are considered among the best of all time, The Wire achieved critical acclaim in the years after its final episode aired. It got buried during HBO’s golden era of television in the early 2000s. Breaking Bad was highly lauded throughout its run on cable television airwaves.

Stephen Knox

McLaughlin Group Region No. 1: Biggie vs. 2Pac

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Yes, Tupac Shakur was more famous. Biggie was great playing himself on Martin, but Tupac was an actor capable of owning movies. He was bigger than simply a musician. Tupac was a star.

His personality was a force both for good and bad. He could make some truly profound statements about the state of the world, but he also went to jail for sexual assault and reveled in an out-of-control persona.

Biggie was about the music, and few have ever spit better bars into a microphone. We only got two solo Notorious B.I.G. albums. His debut — Ready to Die — was of the same quality as The Chronic and Illmatic. The next one — Life After Death — was a strong project but fell just a bit short. As a musician sometimes it’s hard to get back to the hunger and raw storytelling of a debut album. Unfortunately, we never got to see him try again.

Two young people, gone too soon, who left indelible marks on American culture.

Stephen Knox

McLaughlin Group Region No. 4: Marvel vs. DC

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It’s been fascinating to watch the polarity of Marvel and DC’s trajectories over the last decade. On one side of the comic book franchise rift, Marvel has created the greatest shared universe known to mankind. The DCEU has manifested the messiest shared universe in the film industry. The Snyder-verse, Ezra Miller’s cult, Sad Batfleck, and the revolving door of Warner Bros. overlords, have made it impossible to keep track. Marvel has made it impossible to keep track due to their overcomplicated series of interconnected streaming series, movies that continue streaming series storylines, and multiple timelines. Marvel has hit a rough patch, but DC Comics and Marvel Comics have been in a tug-of-war for supremacy for decades. How will it end? Until we get Marvel’s starting five against DC’s starting five in a final showdown, this supes battle will rage on.

– D.J. Dunson

McLaughlin Group Region No. 3: Kobe Bryant vs. Shaquille O’Neal

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The greatest rivalry of the aughts. Forget Ja Rule and 50 Cent or the Indianapolis Colts and New England Patriots. After the turn of the century, everyone was tuned into The Real Housewives of Downtown LA.

A dynamic duo that has never been matched in the NBA. Two superstars in their MVP prime playing alongside each other, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal. One had a Nintendo 64 game and the other advertised Nestle Crunch Bars and had a signature sneaker at Famous Footwear.

When playing together they were dominant, but to say their relationship had its “frosty” moments would be like saying February in Minnesota is brisk. Bryant didn’t appreciate O’neal’s offseason training and O’Neal did not appreciate any time that his name was in Bryant’s mouth.

If the Portland Trail Blazers could have made just a couple of more shots in Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals, those two likely go down as the most disappointing duo in the history of the NBA. Instead, the Blazers were as accurate as Tim Tebow at practice and a dynasty was born.

The people of Los Angeles are firmly on Bryant’s side and have been for a long time. For the rest of the county, this is certainly a “pick ‘em situation.

Stephen Knox

McLaughlin Group Region No. 7: Tom Brady tuck rule

Blue steel

Letter of the law vs. spirit of the law. That is the tuck rule game.

Tom Brady absolutely fumbled that football during the final game at Foxboro Stadium in 2002. It was ruled a fumble on the field. Anyone not blinded by New England Patriots fandom or the blowing snow would agree, but that is not the decision that the referees came to after a video review.

According to what would become known as “The Tuck Rule,” Brady kept possession of the football. He had already started a passing motion, so even though he cradled the ball like a runner, by rule the play should have been called an incomplete pass and the Patriots kept the ball.

A technicality that set the greatest dynasty in NFL history in motion.

In baseball, the “neighborhood play,” prevented situations like this. A base runner called out at second while a double play is being turned is still out if the defender’s foot wasn’t on the bag. If the foot is near the bag, we get the picture. The base runner was beaten to the bag by the defense. These days a play like that is reviewable and if the defender’s foot isn’t on the bag the runner is safe.

Is that better for the game or worse? With the tuck rule — which no longer exists — is reasonable doubt enough to overturn what looks like a clear win for the defense?

Stephen Knox

The WNBA head coaching situation, in Black and white

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When the WNBA tips off the 2023 season on May 19, it will be with two Black women head coaches on the sidelines of courts on which 79 percent* of the league’s players are Black women and other women of color. (This figure is accurate as of March 2023, when six of the WNBA’s 12 teams had more than 12 women on their rosters pending training camps, which open on April 30, before the final roster cut deadline of May 18.) A striking disparity persists, which is that the majority of Black players who have competed in the WNBA remain disenfranchised from opportunities when their playing days are done — and the WNBA’s 12 franchises demonstrated this offseason that they cannot be trusted to implement inclusive, equity-based hiring practices on their own. Left to their own devices, the methods through which teams filled coaching, front office, and staff positions have run the gamut and have not always included former players for consideration.

Only one team approached the process of replenishing its ranks or filling newly created positions with a seriousness befitting the players’ demands, present and past, that WNBA entities value them beyond their playing days. That team is the Atlanta Dream, which razed and rebuilt the organization in the wake of scandal-ravaged 2020 and 2021 WNBA seasons. The team revamped its operations with a sharp eye trained on its long-term viability.

Owned by Larry Gottesdiener, chairman of the real estate firm Northland, as well as Suzanne Abair, Northland’s president and chief operating officer, and Renee Montgomery, a title-winning WNBA player who last played for the Dream in 2019 and retired the following year, Atlanta has heeded the call to create pipelines through which former players can matriculate into coaching and front office positions when they walk away from the hardwood.

In October 2021, the Dream brought in Tanisha Wright, a WNBA champion in 2010, as its head coach. Dan Padover, a two-time WNBA Executive of the Year (2020 and 2021, Las Vegas Aces), was hired as the franchise’s general manager and executive vice president. The team drafted Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard as the first overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft. Although things did not go Atlanta’s way heading into the postseason, the team was nonetheless a Dream transformed, earning Wright AP Coach of the Year honors and Howard the WNBA Rookie of the Year award. Wright and Padover, for their strides, earned five-year contract extensions in the 2023 offseason.

And it was during this offseason that the franchise created two new positions. Kia Vaughn – who retired from playing in 2022 – was named to one of those posts. Vaughn, a 14-year WNBA veteran, became the Dream’s new Basketball Operations associate. In announcing the new hires, the Dream issued a press release that underscored the franchise’s “commitment to providing resources and opportunities to both current and former players,” and laid the blueprint for what the other teams of the league should be doing.

Of the franchise’s pilot Retired Player Transition Program, Padover said: “Larry Gottesdiener, Suzanne Abair, and Renee Montgomery made it clear to me and Tanisha from the beginning that they wanted to help players prepare for life after basketball. This gives former players a chance to spend a year developing skills that will help them transition into the next phases of their career in an effort to create the new wave of leaders in the WNBA.”

Wright praised the Dream’s commitment to do right by the women whose blood, sweat, and teams kept the franchise floating, especially through the WNBA’s difficult years. “It’s important that we continue to create opportunities for former players right here within the WNBA,” Wright said. “I am thrilled we are able to provide an opportunity for Kia to begin this next phase of her career with our organization. She has been a consummate professional throughout her career and was a major contributor in our success both on and off the court last year, and I look forward to watching her blossom in her next chapter.”

Will Wingin’ it lead Dallas to success?

Fans of the Dallas Wings, though, would not get to see the blossoming of Vickie Johnson, at least not in their city. Johnson, a starter for the original New York Liberty when the league debuted in 1997, achieved a milestone that her predecessors in the Wings era (the franchise previously operated as the Shock in Detroit from 1998 to 2009 and in Tulsa, Okla., from 2010 to 2015) had not: Its first postseason win.

For Johnson, and many of the 19 other Black women who have held head-coaching positions in the WNBA, progress was not enough.

In September, Wings president and CEO Greg Bibb announced his decision to part ways with Johnson after two seasons, citing the need for change in pursuit of “our long-term goals of advancing in the playoffs and ultimately competing for a WNBA Championship.”

Long-term goals like deep postseason runs result from plans hatched and fortified over time. The most successful teams in the WNBA share the common attribute of stability in culture and operation. Of the league’s current coaches, think: Cheryl Reeve, who made her head-coaching debut with the Minnesota Lynx in 2010 and by 2017 had four titles to her name; Curt Miller, who failed to get Connecticut over the title hump during his tenure (2016-2022) but nonetheless positioned the Sun as a recurring postseason threat; and Sandy Brondello, who helped the Mercury to their third championship in 2014 (her first year as head coach in Phoenix) and kept the team in the playoff mix through 2021, when the Chicago Sky got the better of them in the WNBA Finals. Sturdiness is cultivated over time by front-office leaders and coaches who identify gains and devise ways to stack successes on top of them. They do not scrap gains and start over as Bibb did with the Wings.

Mystics master the long game but run afoul of “nepo baby” police

The Washington Mystics, meanwhile, exemplify what it means to plan ahead, from one year to the next, toward a season that decision-makers project to be the franchise’s best shot at chasing a championship. These smart minds also understand the time it takes for a team to build cohesion and sincere camaraderie in the locker room – factors that support efforts for a squad to function on the court like a well-oiled machine.

In 2013, the Mystics brought in Mike Thibault, the league-leading coach in wins. Four years later, the team snagged Elena Delle Donne from the Chicago Sky and began reconstructing its roster around her, made year-over-year improvements, and won the title in 2019. The organization drafted Shakira Austin in 2022 as the third-overall pick, in a bid to its future championship plans. So as not to mess up a good thing, the Mystics stuck with what was working in the coaching ranks when Thibault in November announced his decision to step down from coaching.

Thibault would continue his shrewd leadership from the front office while his son, Eric, would rove the sidelines with the head-coaching clipboard. Eric Thibault had, after all, benefitted from a 10-year tenure under his father, first as an assistant coach and then as associate head coach. Still, keeping the head-coaching reins in the Thibault bloodline is nepotism, and the announcement of Eric Thibault’s appointment was ill-timed.

Hollywood, at the end of 2022, was aswirl in “nepo baby” chatter, and the WNBA was just a few years removed from the collective bargaining agreement (CBA) of 2020, which was lauded for its player-mandated provisions to open pathways through which players can land coaching and front-office positions after they retire. WNBA players, past and present, plus the league’s fervent fans, are tired of insider hiring, and this is how they viewed Eric Thibault’s appointment. One fan tweeted: “I’m not surprised but I’m disappointed that the Mystics chose Eric T as head coach, instead of someone who is out there paying their dues. That a white guy can get a head coach job through nepotism in the WNBA says we still have far to go.”

The Mystics, though, were operating on a desire to preserve what was working and prevent disruption in the eventuality that the elder Thibault, at 71, would retire.

No other candidates were considered for the position, according to a source close to the team, but Eric Thibault had been required to sit for a formal interview with the team’s owners: Monumental Sports & Entertainment Founder and CEO Ted Leonsis and Vice Chairman Sheila Johnson.

“We didn’t interview other candidates because a succession plan had been discussed for a few years with Eric being elevated to head coach and Mike moving to the front office,” the source said. “Eric has been an integral part of our winning culture and has cultivated the chemistry within our team. Therefore, he was the best option for our team.”

That means LaToya Sanders, a member of the franchise’s 2019 title-winning team, is next in the line of succession. She was promoted to associate head coach (from assistant) after the younger Thibault was named head coach. If the son follows in the footsteps of his father, Sanders could be waiting a long time for a team to call her own. Although no one wants to see a team make a token hire, change for Black women is slow, and this social inequity plays out on WNBA sidelines.

Teams have prioritized white women for head-coaching jobs

Between the league’s inaugural season in 1997 and today, there have been 93 head coaches, including those working under an interim tag and contracted for the forthcoming 2023 season. Of them, 52 have been white and 41 have been Black — a notable difference in a league that has historically been more than 75 percent Black.

By gender, more women than men (regardless of race) have held head-coaching positions: 49 and 44, respectively. Of the white head coaches, 29 have been white women and 23 have been white men. Of the Black head coaches, 21 have been Black men and 20 have been Black women. In a league made up primarily of women of color, just 21.5 percent of WNBA head coaches have been Black women in the league’s 27-year history. When the league tips off the 2023 season, it will have just two Black women in head-coaching jobs: Noelle Quinn, who led Seattle to the 2020 WNBA title, and Wright, who has been integral to the Dream’s transformation. Both are former players.

But they are minorities in the WNBA head-coaching cosmos, making up just 16.7 percent of head coaches for the 2023 season. Although 16.7 percent is a dismally unacceptable sliver of the head coaching population, it is unreservedly an improvement over the 2020 season, in which none of the league’s 12 teams employed a Black woman at the coaching helm.

Wiggle room is for the WNBA’s white coaches

Back in Dallas, Bibb has pinned his hopes for the future on Latricia Trammell, a white woman and assistant coach in the WNBA since 2017, who is coming off two losing seasons with Los Angeles Sparks in the Derek Fisher era. Thus, Bibb is going with an unproven White woman over a proven Black former player. Johnson was stunned by Bibb’s decision.

“I thought I was leading in the right way,” Johnson said. “I wasn’t perfect and my players are not perfect, but I felt like we were gonna grow together and build something special in Dallas.”

Johnson should not have been surprised.

In the WNBA, Black women are institutionally denied opportunities to grow and develop the teams in their charge. Progress, at least in Johnson’s case, was not respected enough to earn another season in which to add to the prior season’s successes. Latitude, for WNBA head coaches, traditionally has been the domain of white men, whose collective tenure averages almost six years.

In keeping with broader social hierarchies, White women average 4.4 years in WNBA head coaching positions, while Black men land in third place, averaging 2.6 years in head coaching jobs. Black women, thus, are last, averaging just 2.5 years in head coaching positions, if they manage to get a foot in the door to secure them.

Trammell, who brings a sharp defensive mind into Dallas, has her work cut out. But if hiring trends in the league remain at their current status quo, Trammell should feel comforted in the probability that she will be afforded leeway that was denied to Johnson, and which has, for almost three decades, been denied to Black women head coaches.

As for how Trammell was selected by Bibb and the Wings organization, that remains a mystery. Unlike the Dream, which issued a press release inked in transparency, and the Mystics, which provided insight into its long-haul planning, the Wings did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

In February, the Dream announced its hiring of Johnson to Wright’s coaching staff. Johnson praised the Dream as “an esteemed franchise,” and expressed feeling at home in the team’s culture. “We share a lot of the same values when it comes to building a team, and I am confident in this staff’s vision and mission to foster an environment where players can reach their full potential,” Johnson said.

“It is inspiring to collaborate with a talented group of women in the W who are emerging as influential leaders and innovative thinkers,” Johnson added. “I am excited to be contributing to building the Dream.”

The men’s NCAA Sweet Sixteen storylines to watch

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The Sweet 16 is when the NCAA Tournament starts to feel less like an ear-splitting house party and more like an interpersonal kickback in the penthouse suite. The setting is more personal, the opponents are scouted more thoroughly and the quality of basketball gets upgraded significantly. The CBS and Turner crews are preparing their intimate packages on the personalities making their way to the regional sites. Now that most people’s brackets are busted and a majority of everyone’s rooting interests have been ejected, the storylines in the upcoming tournament are what make the Sweet 16 action hit closer to home. There’s too much on the line. Here’s a comprehensive look at what stands out.

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We used to see mid-major powerhouses coming. So how do you explain FAU being picked fifth in the Conference USA preseason poll and then rattling off a 33-3 record when the entire rotation played on last season’s 19-15 team? Maybe continuity is king in the age of transfer.

FAU has never stumbled. Their offense has played a major role in them steamrolling through the schedule. FAU leads the nation in bench points per game, ranks in the top-10 in three-pointers splashed per night, hovering in the top-10 in scoring margin, have a top-20 effective field goal percentage, and won’t get dominated on the offensive boards.

In two tournament games, the Owls logged 108.5 points per 100 possessions and 16 turnovers — and their offensive motherboard was Conference USA Sixth Man of the Year Johnell Davis. Florida Atlantic’s leading scorer nearly averaged a 50/40/90 during the regular season and, in the Round of 32, swatted away a giant-killing Fairleigh Dickinson team by becoming the first player with 25 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and five steals in NCAA Tournament history.

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Madison Square Garden is The Apollo for hardwood performers from the Big Apple, and that stage will showcase a pair of New York’s finest. In one corner, there’s Michigan State senior guard Tyson Walker, a former Colonial Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year who transferred to Lansing for his junior campaign. In the other is Kansas State gnat, Markquis Nowell, whose path to little Manhattan featured a detour through the Sun Belt. Nowell created shots for himself like he had access to the Pym particle formula in the first two rounds, but the 5-foot-8 playmaker sets up teammates just as deftly, ranking second nationally in assists per game this season.

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Two of the best seniors in college basketball look like they’re throwbacks to the 1970s, right down to the untameable hair tucked inside of headbands and thick ‘staches. Both have played (and lost) in national championship games. Their Sweet 16 showdown will be the last dance for one of them. These two West Coast hoopers have been relatively obscured by college hoops’ West Coast bias, but it’s apropos that these two old-timers settle this one last time on the Sweet 16 stage.

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Houston is deep enough and talented enough to advance past Northern Kentucky and Auburn, but they’ll need him as close to full strength as possible to survive Miami and the Xavier-Texas winner. Jamal Shead is a linebacker at point guard, but the junior is playing through what’s only been described as “discomfort.” No team or player is 100 percent healthy this late in the season, but Shead and Sasser are dealing with an irregular level of wear and tear.

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For the second straight year, Miami is on the cusp of another Elite Eight. Their leading scorer, Isaiah Wong, sought to renegotiate his deal with LifeWallet after last season to match new teammate Nijel Pack’s. If he takes The U to a Final Four, his overeager agent, Adam Papas, won’t have trouble finding Wong more NIL compensation. That is if he even opts to return to college for his senior year.

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Slipping into the tournament as a four-seed, UConn flew relatively under the radar. They still are. Gonzaga and UCLA are sucking up all the air in the West regional, but Dan Hurley’s Huskies are lurking in the background. Take away a bizarre losing streak in January that resulted in them plummeting from the top 5 in the AP Poll, and the Huskies have been one of the best collectives in the country. They’re currently on a 16-game inning streak and the Ken Pom metrics position them as the fourth-best team in the country, thirds in adjusted offensive efficiency, and 14th in adjusted defensive efficiency.

UConn big Adama Sanogo has averaged a point per minute in the tournament. Through the first two games, he’s scored 52 points in 52 minutes. In the process, Sanogo became the first player since Blake Griffin to record more than 50 points, 20 rebounds and shoot 70 percent or better through the first weekend of the tournament. UConn is gunning for its fifth title since 1999 and appears poised to make a run.

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Dan Hurley wasn’t as celebrated for his collegiate playing career as his brother Bobby, and his New Jersey high school coaching accomplishments won’t live up to his father engineering St. Anthony’s to 26 state titles, but he’s carved out his own reputation in the college coaching ranks. Dan’s a proven program architect who resurrected programs that were six feet under such as Wagner, Rhode Island, and now the UConn Huskies.

Bill Murray has been spending an extraordinary amount of time in the stands watching UConn during this tournament and the camera operators have been eager to remind us of that over and over again. His son Luke is in his first season as an assistant coach on the Huskies’ staff. The further UConn advances, the more play that family bloodline will receive over the air.

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Alabama’s offense is the fifth-highest scoring unit in the country, drains an average of 10 triples a night, and features a slew of certified bucket-getters. San Diego State has a reputation dating back to the Steve Fisher era as one of the nation’s toughest defensive teams. For the eighth time in 10 seasons, the Aztecs are a top-25 defense in terms of points allowed. San Diego State’s primary objective will be slowing down Brandon Miller, but he brings beaucoup reinforcements in Mark Sears, Noah Clowney, and point guard Jahvon Quinerly.

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Princeton is in the Sweet 16 for the first time since Bill Bradley led the Tigers there in 1967. That’s eight years before Princeton’s current head coach, Mitch Henderson, was even born. After a brief interlude by Fairleigh Dickinson, Princeton has established itself as 2023’s Saint Peter’s. There’s something in that New Jersey water. It feels weird calling Princeton a Cinderella, considering its $36 billion endowment, but here we are. There’s got to be a better term for this riches-to-more-riches story. Let’s maybe reel back the Cinderella reference and dub them the tournament’s Snow Whites, as a nod to their history as a dormant basketball royalty reawakened by Prince(ton) Charming, Mitch Henderson.

On the court, Ivy League Player of the Year, Tosan Evbuomwan has been the catalyst. The 6-foot-8, 219-pound point forward hailing from Newcastle, England, is the closest thing to a Cinderella story. Evbuomwan was a late bloomer whose father sent highlight tapes to Ivy League schools hoping one would take a chance. Princeton did and Evbuomwan is paying Princeton back for doing so by registering 15 points, 6.2 boards, and dishing nearly five assists a night this season.

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There are quite a few coaches who bring players along with them to their next coaching job, but Xavier vs. Texas is a rare NCAA Tournament showdown between two Souley Boum has been sensational for the Musketeers. Prior to this season, the 6-foot-3 point guard arrived at Xavier via UTEP. Texas interim coach Terry was the head coach who recruited him there. Their paths cross again when Xavier and Texas clash in the Midwest regional semifinal. Terry is coaching for an opportunity to retain the Longhorns job while Boum looks to play spoiler against his former coach. Boum departed UTEP as a graduate transfer, but this matchup is the perfect representation of the hired gun era in college basketball.

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Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard resembles a Mini-Me clone of his brother, former Zags great Andrew Nembhard, who is five inches taller, but Ryan possesses a microwaveable hot hand. The 6-foot-tall little brother has been lighting nets on fire from deep. In Creighton’s win over Baylor, Nembhard exploded for 30 points, shot 4-of-6 from distance, and hit all 10 of his free throw attempts. What Nembhard lacks in size on the defensive end, 7-foot-1 center Ryan Kalkbrenner’s presence compensates for. Like UConn, Creighton is underseeded due to a mid-season losing streak. The Bluejays lost three games while Kalkbrenner was injured and fell from their top-10 perch. How integral is Kalbrenner to Creighton? The Creighton center averaged 15.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.2 blocks when healthy and clinched the Big East Defensive Player of the Year honor.

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It’s been a difficult first quarter of 2023 for the draft stock of Arkansas’ freshmen. The Razorbacks’ trio of highly touted 5-star freshmen were a disappointment heading into the NCAA Tournament. Nick Smith Jr. was benched in Arkansas’ first-round win and has been one of the most inefficient volume scorers in the entire country. Anthony Black has retained his top-10 status due to his raw athleticism, but he’s too inconsistent to be counted on as a scoring weapon and Jordan Walsh will almost certainly be returning next season to improve his standing by becoming a starter. Right now, Wichita State transfer Ricky Council IV is the Razorbacks’ first option and their fastest draft riser. He’s always been a streaky shooter, but the sub-30 percent shooting percentage he’s accumulated his last six games is worrying and the Razorbacks are going to need him to start lighting it up if he’s going to be their impetus for a Final Four run.

St. John’s makes it clear: Winning is more important than ethical standards with Rick Pitino hire

Good luck with allll that, St. John’s.

The last three decades have turned the St. John’s men’s basketball program from one of the most sacred brands in collegiate sports to an indifferent sigh. The Red Storm try to label themselves as New York’s college basketball team — the only non-low-major program inside America’s most populous urban area. Purists wouldn’t want Manhattan to adopt the Queens school, but any pathetic attempt from Syracuse (which is four hours from Madison Square Garden) or Rutgers (which might as well be four hours away with having to cross the Hudson River to get to the swamps of New Jersey) to draw in new fans by calling itself the “true team” of the Empire State will fall short. It’s still and will always be St. John’s mantle and the Red Storm are soiling their history in an attempt to resurrect the dormant program.

Both Rick Pitino and St. John’s public flirtation has led the former Iona coach to announce his move from the suburbs to New York City on a 6-year deal. The Red Storm didn’t have a secondary candidate, and Pitino had no problem speaking to the press about St. John’s while coaching the Gaels in the NCAA Tournament. Imagine what he did behind closed doors to get back to a relevant conference, where he hasn’t been since being fired with cause from Louisville in 2017. This couple eloping to provide what the other needs is exactly the seedy underbelly of college basketball showing itself. The worst part is, I’m not sure if the Red Storm and Pitino care, or have a level of self-awareness so low that these actions are deemed by both parties to be honorable.

Pitino’s history of scandals

Pitino’s first time under the ire of the NCAA for wrongdoing was in 1977, three years before Ronald Reagan was elected President and when Rocky won best picture. Seven Presidents and eight films in the Rocky film franchise later, controversy has surrounded the 70-year-old coach at nearly every step of his career. At Hawaii, Pitino was implicated in eight infractions that led the Rainbow Warriors to be placed on probation. Allegations included providing airfare for student-athletes and arranging for his players to have the use of cars during their time with the program. (Pitino denied any wrongdoing.)

He took over at Kentucky for Eddie Sutton when the Wildcats were under NCAA probation and somehow returned Rupp Arena into one of the sport’s most intimidating home court atmospheres. After a quick trip to the NBA, Pitino returned to the college ranks to take over at Louisville. After a decade of smooth sailing with the Cardinals, Pitino helped them win a national championship in 2013. Well, a stripped national championship. Due to an escort sex scandal involving recruits from 2010-14, Louisville’s championship and 2012 Final Four appearance were both vacated by the NCAA. The Cardinals also self-imposed a postseason ban for the 2015-16 season because of the investigation into the program paying for sex for prospective players. And that’s far from the end of Pitino’s troubles at the school.

In Sept. 2017, federal prosecutors announced an investigation into the school for an alleged “pay for play” recruiting scandal. The allegations involved an Adidas executive conspiring to pay the family of a top recruit to play for Pitino and then represent Adidas after turning pro. While the criminal complaint doesn’t specifically name the player involved in the scandal, Brian Bowen, who committed to Louisville in June 2017, has been identified by a federal judge as the recruit targeted. Pitino was placed on administrative leave and eventually fired, while Bowen now plays for the Iowa Wolves in the NBA G League. (After a lawsuit, Pitino’s termination was changed to a resignation.)

There was also an affair with one of his staffer’s wives, Pitino paying for her abortion, and then his attempts to turn himself into a victim by claiming he was being extorted. He admitted to the affair after meeting at an Italian restaurant but denied raping Karen Cunagin, who later married one of his assistants. Pitino avoided the ax in that 2003 situation, with Cunagin being found guilty of extortion and lying to federal agents in Aug. 2010. Pitino later said he used “extremely poor judgment” and that he “paid the price” for it in an interview with ESPN. The brief history lesson should be a reminder as to who the man St. John’s has solely focused on to lead it back to glory really is. Winning is the only thing that’s important, not having a standup coach to go alongside any of those wins, which might get vacated soon!

The NCAA spared Pitino of any punishment when the findings of its investigation into Louisville were announced last November. Pitino openly talked about it when flirting with the Red Storm after Iona’s loss to UConn in the 2023 NCAA Tournament. “I had to wait five years for them to basically stall my career out to finally get exonerated,” Pitino said Saturday. “I was exonerated by an impartial committee made up of legal people, legal people, not ADs and not people … they handpick. So for five years, they put me in the outhouse because they couldn’t get their stuff together. So it’s just the breaks of the game. You can’t look back. The past, it’s always cherished. You learn from it, you cherish the past. I’ve been to seven Final Fours, two championships, and I cherish that. I also learn from the mistakes that were made.”

St. John’s desperately needs a comeback

The rap sheet for St. John’s isn’t nearly as bad, with the major offenses being the drooling over Pitino and sucking for long portions of the last 30 years. Ever since Lou Carnesecca’s retirement in 1992, the Red Storm have been a shell of their former selves. Brian Mahoney led St. John’s to the second round of the tournament the next season. Since 1994, the Red Storm have made seven NCAA Tournament appearances, with only three coming over the last two decades. Mike Jarvis led St. John’s to the Elite Eight in 1999 and it hasn’t been beyond the second round since.

Let’s not pretend this hardwood marriage is a combination of using one another. Pitino’s itch to get back to the top levels of college basketball is scratched by a program that needs an accomplished coach, no matter how tarnished his legacy is. The sweetheart hire of Chris Mullin didn’t work out and after the failed tenure of Mike Anderson, who plans to file a lawsuit against the school after he was fired for cause, selling out to bring Pitino into the fold in the age of name, image, and likeness and the ever-evolving transfer is a massive risk.

Pitino likely will be around for a fun time, not a long time, as he enters his eighth decade on this planet. It’s time to put up or shut up for Pitino, who will either plunge the Red Storm further into basketball purgatory or help them regain some semblance of respectability and relevancy. Regaining public trust in the basketball industry should be a personal goal for Pitino too.