Thursday, March 28, 2013

Please let Florida Gulf Coast win it all

They are everybody's new favorite team, this school with the clunky name and the joyous game. Florida Gulf Coast University, the first No.15 seed to ever get to the NCAA’s Sweet 16, plays the University of Florida Friday at around 10 p.m.

The Gators are 13-point favorites – the largest point spread among the Sweet 16 games. But I hope Florida Gulf Coast wins again – not only that one, but the next three after that, too. Because if the Eagles can pull it off, they will become the best NCAA tournament story ever.

FGCU, located in Fort Myers, Fla., was only established in 1997. It has only been eligible for the NCAA tournament for two years.

All of the Eagles’ high-flying players are older than the school. They have scored almost 20 percent of their baskets in this tournament on ferocious dunks that have made millions of Americans chest-bump in delight.

They play basketball the way we all think we could play it if we could grab the rim with both hands – celebratory and creative, with an appreciation for the moment that often seems lost on the blueblood schools that get to this point of the tournament nearly every year. The players sign autographs in the stands after games. They do chicken dances on the bench. They literally click their heels.

Now they probably will lose, either Friday night or not long after. Although widely known as the team that beat Miami earlier this season, Florida Gulf Coast also has a secret that gets lost in the YouTube “Dunk City” shuffle. This team can be maddeningly inconsistent. FGCU lost twice to Lipscomb (12-18) this season, as well as to Stetson (15-16), East Tennessee State (10-22) and Maine (11-19).

But I hope the Eagles keep winning. Because this has serious potential. This is a basketball story that could be better than N.C. State in 1983. Better than Villanova in 1985. Better than George Mason in 2006 or Davidson in 2008.

(Read more about FGCU in my column in Friday's Charlotte Observer).

Monday, March 25, 2013

Feeling better about Panther free agency

The Panthers' second week of the free-agency period was a lot better than the first, as the team made a splash (at least by their low-level free-agent standards) by signing return specialist Ted Ginn Jr. and have now also been able to re-sign cornerback Captain Munnerlyn and defensive tackle Dwan Edwards to one-year deals.

The Ginn signing was a small coup for new GM Dave Gettleman and should make Joe Adams, Kealoha Pilares and Armanti Edwards nervous. Those three guys all have gotten some kickoff and punt returning experience with Carolina, with very mixed results. Of the three, I think only one will likely be on the roster by the end of training camp.

Ginn should take over all return duties, and he might be the No.3 receiver as well (that's a little more questionable in my opinion, but certainly he's got a chance at it). Anyway, the days of the four-yard punt return are hopefully over. The Panthers' coverage teams improved a lot last year and will be helped by the re-signing of Jordan Senn. Ginn's arrival should help the return teams.

Getting Dwan Edwards back was less glamorous but no less essential. Defensive tackle is currently one of the thinnest positions on the team. Edwards is no young pup -- he turns 32 in May -- but he had a fine season in 2012 and the Panthers would love to get one more good year out of him in 2013.

Munnerlyn is a decent nickel cornerback, can fill in at punt returner (another reason for the returners mentioned earlier to be nervous) and knows what defensive coordinator Sean McDermott wants. He's been around long enough now he can actually qualify as a team leader. The Panthers have already added some more depth to the secondary, but who knows how that will turn out. Munnerlyn is a known commodity -- undersized but tough -- and there's no doubt he will see the field.

Getting Munnerlyn and Edwards back, as well as backup quarterback Derek Anderson for another year, are the sort of under-the-radar moves that ultimately make for a good team. As I've said before, the Panthers are in position for a good run in 2013, and I think they will make one. (And they better make one if Ron Rivera wants to coach a fourth season -- owner Jerry Richardson made him wait six days before telling him he could coach the upcoming season, his third).

The players they've lost or released in free agency -- Chris Gamble, James Anderson, Gary Barnidge -- will certainly sting a little, but that's not like losing Julius Peppers. To me, Gamble and Anderson were no longer difference-makers on the defense -- solid starters, yes, but not absolutely essential ones.

The draft on the other hand will be essential. Carolina needs help on both sides of the line and at wide receiver. The Panthers badly need to get at least one new starter on each side of the ball there. Because while they have been OK at holding the fort so far in free agency, other than Ginn they have made no significant upgrades. And if you're not getting better in the NFL, you're getting worse.

Friday, March 22, 2013

NC State goes down with trademark inconsistency

DAYTON, Ohio -- On the 30-year anniversary of N.C. State’s dreamy run to the national championship, the current version of the Wolfpack had a first-half nightmare on Friday.

N.C. State’s first NCAA game of the 2013 season was also its last, as the Wolfpack lost to Temple, 76-72, on Friday afternoon.

The Wolfpack sealed its own doom with a terrible start, trailing 38-22 at halftime. By then, coach Mark Gottfried – who has never won an NCAA tournament game in consecutive years -- had called two early timeouts. Glares, befuddled looks and strong words had been exchanged in the team huddles. Temple’s players -- led by Khalif Wyatt, who ultimately had 31 points and was the best player on the floor -- had gained immense confidence.

N.C. State then came storming back in the second half as Scott Wood finally got hot, making two three-pointers to get the Wolfpack within three. Lorenzo Brown had a three-point shot with 90 seconds that would have tied it. But that missed, and Wood missed another three, and Temple made a few free throws and soon enough it was over.

It seems strange to say a team dramatically underachieved after it won 24 games, but that’s what this N.C. State team ultimately did. It was No.6 in the country in The Associated Press preseason poll, ahead of both Duke and North Carolina.

But the Wolfpack ended up only finishing No.5 in its own conference by seeding for the ACC tournament, then only got to the ACC semis. Gottfried admitted after the game that the team had struggled with immaturity at times this year and with "sustained" and "maintained" defensive effort.

So a Wolfpack team that had made a run to the NCAA Sweet 16 a year ago, had just about everyone back and added three McDonald’s All-American recruits lost in the round of 64 this time. And the loss came to a No.9 seed, a Temple team that has been mostly known in recent years for its own “one-and-done” NCAA tournament exits.

N.C. State played the second half like it should have played the first, and if it had we would be talking about what a State-Indiana matchup would look like on Sunday. But this N.C. State team was consistent only in its inconsistency, which made Friday’s effort – one good half, one bad one – a fitting epitaph for an unfulfilling season.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

A loss no Davidson fan will ever forget

Marquette devastated Davidson Thursday with a monumental NCAA tournament comeback, knocking down three straight three-pointers and then a running left-handed layup by Vander Blue with one second left to edge the Wildcats, 59-58, in a heartbreaking game at Rupp Arena.

This will be one of those losses that no Davidson fan will ever forget. No.14 seed Davidson looked to be in control, up seven with 1:49 to go and still leading 58-54 with 20 seconds left following Nik Cochran’s two free throws. But No.3 Marquette got a three-pointer and then De’Mon Brooks threw the ball away down the sideline trying to get it to Cochran (who leads the nation in FT shooting and had just made two).

After the turnover, with about six seconds left, Blue took the inbounds pass and drove to the rim with no one able to stop him. Davidson switched a screen and Cohen was on Blue, but Blue shot it left-handed over Cohen and banked it in. Cohen came within a few inches of blocking the shot.

Give Marquette credit for playing an unbelievable last 70 seconds. Davidson was up 54-48 with 1:10 left. But in Marquette's last four possessions, the Golden Eagles made three three-pointers and Blue's running layup. Up until then, Marquette had made only one three-pointer the entire game. Davidson called a timeout with one second left, but had the ball 94 feet away from the basket. Blue intercepted Cohen's pass and it was over.

The Wildcats wasted what was otherwise a fine performance, as they led for almost the entire game. Cohen had 20 points. Cochran and Brooks both had 11.

In the silent Davidson locker room, the talk was mostly about the team's four seniors and how difficult the loss would be for them. "I'll have another chance," Brooks said. "They won't."

Monday, March 18, 2013

4 first-round NCAA upset picks

The best part of the NCAA bracket other than seeing one for the first time in its pristine state is trying to forecast where the inevitable upsets will occur. They are the "can't-miss" part of the tournament, the games that envelop offices and living rooms around the nation. Other than the Olympics or the World Cup, when all of America pretty much pulls together to cheer for the nation's own athletes, I can't think of a much more singular experience in U.S. fandom than pulling for, say, a No.15 seed to beat a No.2.

With that in mind, here are my four upset picks for the first round of the tournament. (I don't count it as a real upset unless a double-digit seed wins -- no No.9 over No.8 games). Use them in your own brackets at your own risk. I stay away from online gambling for several reasons, but one of them is that I'd lose money at it:

1. No.14 Davidson over No.3 Marquette. Davidson has won 17 games in a row -- the longest win streak in the country -- and has much more size than your average mid-major conference champion in Jake Cohen and De'Mon Brooks, who has found his game just in time. Marquette is a serious team -- the Golden Eagles went 14-4 in the bruising Big East and love to grind it out. Don't be surprised if the final score is in the 50s. But if the Wildcats can make 35 percent or more of their three-point shots, they're going to surprise the country.

2. No.12 Oregon over No.5 Oklahoma State. Oregon was seeded too low to begin with and Oklahoma State once lost to Virginia Tech. Yes, that Virginia Tech.

3. No.13 New Mexico State over No.4 Saint Louis. I know Saint Louis is the class of the Atlantic 10. I know that conference was really good this year. For some reason, though, I just think this one is going to happen.

4. No.13 South Dakota State over No.4 Michigan. A team nicknamed the Jackrabbits? You've got to love that. Plus, guard Jackrabbit guard Nate Wolters can shoot the lights out.

If you've got a better upset pick, I'd like to hear it.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

4 quick thoughts on UNC win over Maryland

GREENSBORO – Four quick observations from the second ACC tournament semifinal Saturday, which UNC won, 79-76, after holding off a frantic Maryland comeback:

1. The best sign for North Carolina was that P.J. Hairston started the game and showed no obvious ill effects from the eight stitches he took on his left (non-shooting hand) Friday. The rotation on Hairston’s shot looked normal, he made about nine three-pointers in a row during pregame warmups and in the real game he finished with 13 points (although his shooting was off in the second half).

2. Maryland (22-12) is definitely good enough to be in the NCAA tournament and I would give the Terps a bid, but it’s questionable whether they will get in with that 8-10 regular-season conference record. Even with Dez Wells (30 points in the upset over Duke) having an off game compared to his first two here in Greensboro, the Terps still stayed toe to toe with UNC. Maryland had a chance to tie on the final possession, but Logan Aronhalt airballed a deep three-pointer and UNC smartly ran out the clock.

3. Tournament officials had to be happy with North Carolina’s win. With N.C. State and Duke already out by the time the Tar Heels played, UNC represented the last chance at an in-state team in the final. If Maryland and Miami had met for the ACC championship in Greensboro, there would have been some yawning gaps in Sunday’s crowd.

4. One thing Saturday didn’t have: lead changes. There were exactly zero in Miami’s 10-point win over N.C. State and only one in the UNC-Maryland game (following a 2-0 Maryland lead). Although the second game was very close, this won’t go down as one of the most scintillating Semifinal Saturdays.

2 shows you should watch on Selection Sunday

You know that Sunday is Selection Sunday, and so undoubtedly if you are a college basketball fan you will be watching as the brackets get filled up and analyzed Sunday night starting at 6 p.m.

But here are a couple of other shows that you will enjoy if you like ACC basketball. Set your DVR or watch them live.

1) "Kings of the Court" (airs in Charlotte Sunday on WBTV at noon, right before coverage of the ACC tournament final). This excellent Raycom Sports syndicated series this time profiles paralyzed former Wake Forest star Rodney Rogers and former N.C. State center Tommy Burleson in a 30-minute episode. Both pieces are well done, but the Rogers story is particularly poignant.

Rogers, the 1993 ACC Player of the Year, was injured in a dirt-bike accident in 2008. Comments from his wife, former coach Dave Odom and former teammates and opponents add considerable depth to a superb piece.

In a similar vein, I wrote a story this past week on cowboy Jerome Davis, who was one of the world's best bull riders until he sustained a bull-riding accident in 1998. He has been in a wheelchair for 15 years, but has more mobility than Rogers (Davis can use his arms and hands). They have similarly positive outlooks on life.

2) "Survive and Advance" (airs nationwide on ESPN, 9 p.m. Sunday). This two-hour documentary of Jim Valvano's 1983 N.C. State national championship team, with Dereck Whittenburg playing a starring role as he tracks down old teammates, has garnered rave reviews in sneak previews in Raleigh this week. I haven't seen it yet, but knowing the high quality of ESPN's "30 for 30" documentary series, I will certainly be watching it.

Speaking of that 1983 team, I have a long story coming in Sunday's Charlotte Observer (it will be published in the Raleigh News & Observer as well) on Pam Valvano Strasser, who was Jim's wife during the 1983 title run and remains close to the State program (she has been at all of N.C. State's ACC tournament games this weekend). She remarried in 2003 to a Raleigh veterinarian. She has seen "Survive and Advance" and says it is both "gut-wrenching" and "beautiful."

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Panther moves so far -- hmmmm....

This can't be a surprise to any of us, given the Panthers' longtime history of low-profile free-agent signings and their current location deep in one corner of salary-cap jail (see the post right below this one for more on that), but they haven't done much to improve the team in the first couple of days of free agency. On the other hand, I don't think they've hurt themselves, either. Let's take a quick look at the "major" moves so far in the first year of new GM Dave Gettleman.

-- Releasing Chris Gamble. This had to be done for salary-cap reasons, but I don't think it's that bad a thing. Gamble hardly played last year due to injury -- I think he was coming to the end of his rope. I don't know that his "retirement" will stick -- I have my doubts about that -- but to me the money Carolina was going to have to spend on Gamble can be better spent elsewhere. Ideally, I think the Panthers are going to need to take a defensive back in the first two rounds of the NFL draft and start him.

-- Releasing James Anderson. A little surprised by this one, simply because Anderson has been a solid player for seven years. He set a team record for tackles in 2011 with 174 (since broken by Luke Kuechly). I liked Anderson both as a person and as a "depth" guy, but he's definitely not as explosive a player as Jon Beason, Kuechly or Thomas Davis. Then again, there's no way you can count on all three of those guys staying healthy throughout 2013. The main problem was that former general manager Marty Hurney overpaid for Anderson. A player like Jordan Senn, who is cheaper and has signed a new one-year deal, will now have to fill that role. Still, I don't consider this a monumental loss.

-- Losing Gary Barnidge to Cleveland. Greg Olsen is one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the league. Unless he gets hurt, this will go virtually unnoticed. Good luck to Barnidge, who reunites with Browns coach Rob Chudzinski. In the meantime, the Panthers re-signed blocking tight end Ben Hartsock cheaply, and that's a good thing.

-- Signing cornerback Drayton Florence. A 10-year veteran, Florence is two years older than Gamble (but has only 18 career interceptions compared to Gamble's 27). The Panthers can use a veteran presence at the position, so this will help a little, but Florence certainly isn't going to step in and be a No.1 shutdown corner. Again, this is all about bang for the buck.

-- (Possibly) resigning Derek Anderson. This, to me, is the best thing Carolina has done so far (assuming it happens -- our Joseph Person says Anderson is "leaning" toward Carolina). Cam Newton has been very durable so far and let's hope that continues, but having a big-time backup like Anderson is a huge plus.

I'm also heartened that the Panthers have (so far) found ways to keep highly-paid veterans Jordan Gross, DeAngelo Williams and Beason on the team. All have been speculated to be finished with Carolina due to various money issues, but they've all got some gas left in the tank. To me, Gettleman hasn't taken a major misstep as of yet. But Carolina still needs to find some more bargain players who can play -- treading water in the NFL, as we all know, isn't good enough.

Monday, March 11, 2013

USA Today ranks Panthers dead last in likely free agent activity

This is nothing new for Panther fans, but get ready for a mostly nondescript and sometimes frustrating March, as players who could help the team sign elsewhere (such as DT Cullen Jenkins, who will sign with the New York Giants).

The Panthers traditionally have not dipped into the deep end of the pool in free agency, signing mostly second-tier free agents for modest cost even when they did have money to spend. That will undoubtedly be the same way it will be this season -- at best -- since Carolina is in salary-cap jail (thanks to Marty Hurney and all those long-term contract extensions) and having a hard time getting out. New GM Dave Gettleman really doesn't have much to work with cap-wise. In the meantime, Tampa Bay is third on this list and Atlanta (ranked No.10) looks likely to get back tight end Tony Gonzalez, who had thought seriously about retiring (but who the Panthers coaching staff figured would likely be back all along).

The NFL's free-agency signing period officially begins Tuesday at 4 p.m. Eastern, and USA Today ranked the teams from 1-32 in Monday's newspaper on how active they would and could be, given salary-cap considerations and team needs. Read the full list below, starting with the teams likely to be most active, and here's a link to the full USA Today story, which includes a brief comment on each team:

1. Cleveland

2. Miami

3. Tampa Bay

4. Indianapolis

5. Cincinnati

6. Philadelphia

7. New England

8. Buffalo

9. Seattle

10. Atlanta

11. Tennessee

12. Minnesota

13. Baltimore

14. Kansas City

15. Jacksonville

16. Chicago

17. Houston

18. Washington

19. San Diego

20. Dallas

21. Denver

22. Green Bay

23. Detroit

24. San Francisco

25. New Orleans

26. New York Giants

27. St. Louis

28. New York Jets

29. Oakland

30. Arizona

31. Pittsburgh

32. Carolina

Saturday, March 9, 2013

Davidson rolls into tourney semifinal

I'm here in Asheville, where Davidson advanced in routine fashion to the Southern Conference semifinals Saturday, whipping Georgia Southern, 86-59, at the U.S. Cellular Center.

The No.1-seeded Wildcats (24-7) will face No.4 seed Appalachian State Sunday at 6 p.m. in Asheville. The Mountaineers dispatched Furman, 74-60, Saturday. If Davidson wins that one, they will play the Monday final at 7 p.m., with the winner going to the NCAA tournament. Most likely matchup in that game in my estimation: Davidson-Elon. But it's tournament time, so who knows?

Davidson has won 15 games in a row, last losing Jan.14th against the same Georgia Southern team. But this one was never in doubt, as Davidson ripped apart a Georgia Southern zone with 10 first-half three-pointers on the way to a 45-22 halftime lead.

Nik Cochran led the Wildcats with 18 points (although the nation's free-throw percentage leader did miss one of his four free-throw attempts, drawing a gasp from the crowd). Tyler Kalinoski had 14 points, De'Mon Brooks 13 and Jake Cohen 12. Davidson shot 56 percent as a team and had 20 assists on 28 made baskets.

Appalachian State lost its two previous matchups to Davidson by 23 and 35 points this season, but the Mountaineers talked bravely about a possible upset Saturday night. "Nobody's invincible," Appalachian State's Nathan Healy said.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Good for Hamlin refusing to pay NASCAR fine

Good for Denny Hamlin, who has vowed not to pay a $25,000 fine levied by NASCAR for simply speaking his mind about the quality of racing (or lack thereof) last Sunday at Phoenix.

NASCAR has a tendency to want to play "Big Brother," and here it goes again with a fine that sounds straight out of George Orwell's "1984" novel. Hamlin's comments about the new "Generation 6" car were so mild that when I first read them I skipped right over them. But now NASCAR has a PR problem on its hands of its own making, drawing a silly line in the sand and daring Hamlin to cross it.

So he has, vowing Thursday: "I'm not going to pay that fine. If they suspend me, they suspend me. I don't care at this point. It's an opinion, and it's not even a bad one."

This would be analogous to an NFL player saying he didn't like the rules protecting quarterbacks or the rule change in which the kickoff was moved up and touchbacks thus increased. Have you ever heard something like that before? Of course you have, and the NFL doesn't fine people for it.

Look, I understand that freedom of speech isn't absolutely unlimited. If a driver unleashes a string of vicious curse words on live TV, or if someone used a racist term while being interviewed, that's worthy of a fine. That clearly hurts the sport. Many pro sports do have rules saying you can't criticize the officials' calls publicly or you will risk a fine, and that's OK, too -- that undermines the sport.

But NASCAR is now suffering from a self-inflicted wound. To back up for a second, here's what Hamlin said Sunday when talking about the difficulty of passing: "We learned a lot. I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our Generation 5 cars. This is more like what the Generation 5 was at the beginning. The teams hadn't figured out how to get the aero balance right. Right now, you just run single file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you."

Sounds pretty tame to me. But NASCAR, in announcing the fine, said Hamlin's comments denigrated the racing product, saying in part in its statement: "Denny Hamlin made some disparaging remarks about the on-track racing.... While NASCAR gives its competitors ample leeway in voicing their opinions when it comes to a wide range of aspects about the sport, the sanctioning body will not tolerate publicly made comments by its drivers that denigrate the racing product."

Oh, c'mon. Someone needs to go to hypersensitivity training.

This could have easily been handled by NASCAR quietly pulling Hamlin aside, asking him to be a little more careful about what he says, and otherwise leaving it alone. Instead, NASCAR is trying to publicly embarrass Hamlin, calling him up in front of class and having him stick his nose in a circle drawn on the chalkboard while NASCAR Nation (and the other drivers, in particular) watch closely.

Hamlin is not having any of it.

And I don't blame him one bit.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Davidson stiffed me, but then I messed up

I wrote a column published Tuesday about Keith Hornsby, the son of musician Bruce Hornsby and a fine player for UNC Asheville. Not only is Hornsby averaging 16 points per game, but he also is second in the nation with a 93.0 free-throw percentage. His father, who had a string of hits in the 1980s like "The Way It Is," is also a basketball nut who helped change his son's FT style at the line for the better.

That Hornsby is No.2, of course, begs the question as to who is No.1? The answer is Davidson guard Nik Cochran, who is shooting a ridiculously good 95.5 percent. And here's where we at The Observer messed up in Tuesday's newspaper -- as pointed out in a very good reader email that I excerpt later in this blog post.

In the interest of transparency, this is how it happened.

My original idea was to write a column about both Hornsby and Cochran and the oddity of the fact that these two N.C. guards were 1-2 out of of 347 Division I-A teams in free throw shooting. UNC Asheville was fine with this idea, as schools almost always are about "positive publicity" types of stories.

Davidson, somewhat amazingly, was not. Coach Bob McKillop would not let me interview Cochran about his free-throw shooting. (I get the feeling that he believes it would be something like jinxing a no-hitter, but that's just a guess -- McKillop did not relay his reasoning when he had one of his "people" tell me no).

So perhaps you think I didn't mention Cochran's name in the story out of spite, because I was angry at McKillop -- who I have generally found smart, interesting and a great "quote" -- for not allowing this interview. Not so.

I actually wrote a short box about Cochran that would go along with the Hornsby story, thus at least giving Cochran his own headline (although in a shorter story, since I couldn't interview him). That box did run in the online version of the story. It pointed out Cochran had only missed five free throws all year (he's gone 105 out of 110 -- try doing that sometime) and that Davidson also led the nation in team free-throw shooting (at slightly over 80 percent).

Then, as a newspaper, we messed up. Somehow, the Hornsby story got into the paper and the Cochran box was left out of the print version. Not sure where the mistake in communication was, but I'm taking the blame for it. That omission generated this excerpted email from an alert reader named Ron Munse who I agree with completely:

I really think you missed the mark by NOT indicating who the No.1 rated free throw shooting college player is this year. And why you wouldn’t mention this is beyond me. It’s would be the first question anyone would ask: Wow, Hornsby shoots at 93 percent - amazing. Who could do better? .... Nik Cochran at over 95 percent. Now, I think it’s amazing to shoot over an entire year at 93 percent, but I also think it’s unbelievable to shoot at 95 percent-plus.

And when you can brag about these two top young players from schools within our own state of North Carolina…………Well, why won’t you?

Absolutely true. Mr. Munse is right. We messed that one up, and I apologize. But I am covering the Southern Conference tournament this weekend in Asheville, watching Davidson, and rest assured Cochran's free-throw shooting will get in the newspaper several times during that coverage.