Mocking

In 2007, the NCAA started inviting select members of the media, in various forms, to participate in a mock selection of the NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. In 2007, I added another item to my bucket list. Eight years later, it was checked off this week, as I had the pleasure of joining some of the country’s preeminent college basketball writers, broadcasters and bloggers. We made a bracket. It was our baby. If the NCAA Tournament started on February 13th, I think we nailed it.

But, that’s not the point. Despite some heated conversations at the table about who belonged and what makes a tournament team, the real value was seeing how the committee goes through the process of creating the world’s most interesting bracket. The procedures, the technology and the scope were all impressive.

I would consider myself an NCAA apologist. Unlike some in the room, I had no agenda to ‘out’ the organization on perceived bias or systematic inefficiencies. As somebody who has hosted dozen of selection shows (for the NCAA), I respect the challenge of those tasked with giving schools a shot at a championship. Call it blind faith, but I think they do the best any of us could do. But, how do they do it? A few things stood out:

1) The process is so extensive and so organized, it becomes impossible for any committee member to view a team by name. While we talk about Duke, Indiana, Notre Dame, etc., after hours of staring at screens, the name of the school is rendered simply to a cue to look at a resume.
Within that, choosing teams to make the field is exhaustive. At the start, the committee ranks every team. Each team is either identified as an at-large selection (a team that you think is a lock to be in), under consideration (worthy of discussion to make the tournament) or nothing (better luck next year). With 10 members on the committee, it takes 80% of the at-large vote to immediately make the tournament (we slotted 17) and 30% of the consideration vote to make the discussion list (we identified 45).

Mock Shot 1

Those 45 teams took forever to whittle down. Each committee member then lists his/her top 8 from the consideration list. The consensus top 8 is then given to each committee member to rank, 1 thru 8, and the consensus top 4 are then slotted into the at-large list we established from the beginning. Oh, and we discuss teams at every juncture. Rinse, repeat, until you fill the field.

The ‘list 8, rank 8’ process is also used to seed teams once they are in the at-large list. While it’s the same process, it also offers a break from picking teams. Shifting back and forth is really helpful, especially as the resumes get worse. It helped to talk about really good teams for a few minutes before sorting through the muck.

2) The technology and information available is tremendous – I’m jealous of the committee. What they get to stare at for five days in March is like Christmas mated with the 4th of July for a college hoops fan. Ask to see two teams compared, boom, the magic NCAA Fairy Statmother pops them up together on the screen for all to see. What, you have four teams you want to see? There’s a Nitty Gritty report for that. My favorite: Hover your cursor over a particular stat (say, road record) for a team you’re comparing, and it highlights all those instances for every team you have pulled up.

Wanna compare the top 50 wins of Cincinnati, SMU, West Virginia and Georgia? There's an app for that!

Wanna compare the top 50 wins of Cincinnati, SMU, West Virginia and Georgia? There’s an app for that!

3) It’s an objectively subjective process – I brought this up to a committee member, but I thought the numbers in front of us were skewed, in that most of the stats were all related to wins. Top 50 wins, no less. I don’t have a problem with that. Who you beat is more important than who you may have lost to. That doesn’t mean that losses didn’t hurt a team, but wins were valued more. That was a question I had going in.
Strength of schedule was also big, and teams (I’m looking at you, Notre Dame, Ohio State and West Virginia) who didn’t bother to schedule in the non-conference schedule were skewered in moments.
Then there was the dreaded ‘eye test.’ It was mentioned so much during football season that I figured it was used, but to what extent? It turns out, a lot. It’s important. Once our mock committee heard that, we never went back.

So, which one means more? There is no correct answer. You want one? There isn’t one. And, you know what, it’s okay. There were good discussions between two teams, but with a room full of knowledgeable people, criteria was never a sticking point. There is no wrong answer. And, believe it or not, almost all cases have a clear cut “winner” in resume.

It should be noted that there are also several ah-ha moments that just slap you in the face. Oklahoma’s resume was crazy good. And then you have to ask yourself, “Is Oklahoma a 2 seed?” I still don’t know how to answer it.

4) Bracketing is about geography. No really, it’s about geography – Remember that cool technology part? Once you have teams seeded, it’s time to send them somewhere. Highlight the top seeded team and each geographic location is shown on screen with the total miles from that school’s campus to the venue. The NCAA want fans and schools able to make it. There were complications (conference conflicts, rematches, etc.), and I don’t want to simplify a process that took over an hour, but it really felt simple. Pick team, find closest venue, slot and continue.
This is where the age-old bias argument comes in. And, of all aspects of the selection process, it couldn’t be further from the truth here. I actually thought to myself, it is infinitely harder to create a biased situation on purpose than do what is actually done.

 

I wanted to write about certain teams, or scenarios (we had 3 Pac-12 teams in the First Four; don’t ask), but it really meant nothing for our exercise. It’s about the process. The committee will be questioned on Selection Sunday. Somebody will feel offended. What will be my response? Go beat somebody.

2015 Mock Selection Bracket

Best Picture in Golf

Yesterday on PGA Tour Pregame on SiriusXM PGA Tour Radio, in honor of the Academy Award Nominations, I solicited feedback from the listeners to add to my own list (6 of my 7 were suggested by callers; great minds…) and come up with the ultimate showdown vote off of The Best Picture in Golf.
This is not a movie discussion, but rather a discussion of what is the best visual image of golf. The debate was friendly and incredibly diverse because, let’s face it, there is no wrong answer. Personally, I think standing on the tee of the 18th at my home course is one of the best framed views in golf that I’ve played, but I am extremely biased and nobody could pick it out of a lineup if they tried:

Fort 18

So, in thinking about the Best Picture in all of golf, I felt that it had to be both beautiful (stunning or regal) AND recognizable. It’s why, to me, the 18th at St. Andrews has to be on the list. The hole itself is a tarmac, but it has one magical little bridge, and encompasses a walk unlike any other in golf. While there are prettier holes in the old country, there aren’t many that conjure up as much emotion. Perhaps you love the intensity and stadium quality of the island green, or the exposed brute simplicity of the 7th at Pebble.

So, without further ado, here are the seven choices (randomized) for you to vote on as ‘Best Picture’ in golf:

2015, Here We Go

Freelancing is the most flexible, exhilarating, stressful, awesome approach to having a career. Case in point: With contracts in the air and scheduling a bit late, I entered the month of December with no clue when/where or if I would be working in early 2015. I guess I was optimistic. Sources close to the situation informed me that it would likely work out.

It has. But, the time off over the long holiday allowed me to prepare my accountant, while also looking back at the year that was.

I’ve had this conversation with a number of peers and most of us agree: We get more excited to get gigs than to actually work them. I’ve called buzzer-beating winners, countless championship moments, holed-out golf shots and inspirational feats, yet I get more excited when the phone rings and somebody books me to work. I think it has something to do with being a fierce competitor. Almost all broadcasters have a formative, primal connection to sports. We can’t compete with the athletes we call, but we can compete with ourselves, our peers and the industry. It’s a brutal business, and you try to win.

But, it is healthy to always look back, reflect on what was accomplished, and just find a way to appreciate the ride. I may not be working in broadcasting in five years, but nothing will ever take away my stack of credentials, my library of DVDs/CDs or the archived moments of sports history. Some day, maybe I will have a job. For now, I have a dream journey. A journey that, in 2014, featured:

– 16 states
– 62,346 airline miles
– 6,780 miles in the car
– 10 sports covered in some way (m/w basketball, golf, curling, volleyball, men’s gymnastics, soccer, football, wrestling, tennis, softball)
– 3 levels (high school, college and professional)
– 5 mediums (TV, radio, internet, satellite, print)
– 8 clients (PGA Tour Radio, SiriusXM, Horizon League, ESPN3, ESPNU, NCAA, Fox Sports Indiana, IHSAA)

In the end, by my rough calculation, between talk shows, selection shows and play-by-play, I talked about sports for 554 hours in 2014. That’s 6.3% of the entire year. Not enough!

Second Season

Golf has become my signature. I played it. I know it. I love it. Now, I broadcast it… a lot. But, I have always prided myself on being versatile and, more importantly, a fan of every sport. (Don’t believe me, check out Curling!) Which is why I love trying to pack my golf “offseason” with as much other work. Basketball is a must, but volleyball has become a true love. The sport is fast, it is athletic and I think the potential for drama is great. Not to mention, momentum shifts in volleyball are lightning fast.

My late fall run of volleyball started this past week, with the 2014 Horizon League Volleyball Championship on ESPN3. You can watch a full archive stream of the championship match here, or here is a recap of the championship. So good to be calling volleyball again. I missed it!

Who To Pick

When Tom Watson was named Ryder Cup captain of the United States Ryder Cup team for 2014, I was thrilled as a fan of the game, and an American. No nonsense, no close connections to eligible players, no worry about results affecting any legacy. It was a brilliant move by the PGA, highly unconventional, but who needs convention when history shows nothing but European wins.

What I was disappointed in was Captain Watson removing some of his own power in limiting himself to three picks outside of the 9 automatic qualifiers. I wanted more gut feelings, artistry in assembling a team, from one of the all-time competitors. Now? I feel sorry for Watson. His team will head to Gleneagles as, possibly, the biggest US underdog in Cup history (4 European team members are currently ranked ahead of any US player in the World Golf Rankings – the top ranked American is Jim Furyk, which I didn’t see coming, did you?). Couple that with a Dustin Johnson lifestyle suspension, a Jason Dufner bulging disc and a Tiger Woods “it’s not you, it’s me” removal from consideration, and it is slim pickins to put together a full squad.

So, the biggest storyline now, even with the FedEx Cup ($67 million!!) getting started, is who will those final 3 picks be. Because a) everybody has an opinion and b) I love Power Rankings, here is my list of US hopefuls to make the squad that will shock the world (we can dream right?):

1, 2, 3, 4 & 5 – Keegan Bradley (13th in Final Points)
Technically, Bradley is top 3 of the “outside looking in” crowd because we’ve removed The Duff (10th, last out, in final standings) from consideration. We generally don’t get insight into who was the first captain’s pick, but this will be Watson’s. He brings emotion, a 3-1 record from Medinah and a good run of late (T4 at US Open, Greenbrier & Bridgestone). The MC at Valhalla stings a little, but he’s arguably the best driver in America (11th on Tour in Total Driving). He also is a good teammate by all accounts, obviously has a sweet partnership with Lefty (although I’d love to see Phil with Rickie a bit), and despite tinkering with the anchored putting stroke this year, was 21st in Total Putting. Oh, and he makes birdies. Why am I making an argument for Keegan here? It’s done. He’s on the team. No debate.
[He also accompanied Captain Watson to a practice round at Gleneagles in case you have doubt]

2 – Webb Simpson (15th in Final Points)
This one is so weird for me. A month ago, when it looked like the picks would need to include a lot of names that made you squirm, I felt like Webb was a lock. He was Top 10 for much of the year in FedEx Cup points, he has Ryder Cup experience, yada yada yada. It felt like the obvious, smart, safe pick. I even told Paul Tesori, Simpson’s caddie, that it was a done deal and he hinted that there was some conversations between possible player and possible captain when paired together at Greenbrier. Here are your other reasons: 10th in strokes gained putting and he was a closer this year, ranking 15th and 8th in third and fourth round scoring average this season (averaged under 70 for the weekend all year). While Simpson doesn’t strike you as a stone-faced killer on the course, this team needs a little historical edge to go into enemy territory. I think this is a safe bet.

3 – Brendon Todd (12th in Final Points)
If you don’t have captain’s picks, he makes the team on merit, which is crazy to think about. He was ranked 186th in the world on January 1st and is #41 as of today. You can make a case that he was the hottest American player for a good stretch of the summer: He has missed one cut since the Tour left Florida. Since winning in I’m-not-scared-of-winning fashion at the Nelson, he went T5, T8, T17, T5, T4. But now the but… No top 30s since the first week of July, including a whimper of a finish at the PGA after sitting atop the leaderboard early on Thursday. You get the feeling that if he is the last pick, he needs to show form in New Jersey and Boston while Watson still evaluates. Putting wins Ryder Cups, right? Todd is 6th in strokes gained putting. Jeff Overton made a Ryder Cup team as the from-nowhere hot hand. Give me Brendon Todd. Besides, in the year of Georgia Bulldogs, we need a four-year Dawg on this squad (Bubba and Reed had briefer stays)

4 – Brandt Snedeker (20th in Final Points)
Lots of love in the Sneds fan club and I just don’t get it. But, where there is smoke (everybody is practically giving him a spot on the team), there must be fire, so I put him here to avoid total embarrassment when I am wrong with my top 3. What Brandt has done is stolen Brendon Todd’s heat. Since the British, Snedeker has 14 of 16 rounds in the 60s and four straight top 25 finishes. The swing change appears to be settling in. While his putting wasn’t as amazing as we expect from him, he was still a top 20 roller on Tour this year. His ball striking from tee to green was ‘bleh’ for the year, but it’s getting better. He makes the team because he can putt, he’s playing well and you know what you’ll get. He won’t play in every session, but could you argue with Bradley, Simpson, Snedeker? Not really.

5 – Kevin Na (17th in Final Points)
I’m not joking. You want a putter? Check. (30th in strokes gained putting and near automatic inside 10 feet) Precision iron player? Check. (Top 10 on tour in proximity from 125-175 yards) You want hot play? Check. I have to give all of the credit to Rob Bolton on this, but nobody who isn’t already qualified for the US team accrued more World Golf Ranking points in 2014 than Na. Not even my boy, Brendon Todd. I say we throw both Todd and Na on the team, and put them out against McIlroy and McDowell and see if we can simply suck the life out of the match to a USA win!

6 – Ryan Moore (11th in Final Points)
With Dufner’s injury, Moore is unofficially the first one out in the point standings, and yet I don’t think I’ve seen anybody give him a shot of making the team. This is weird to me because, until Patrick Reed made us aware of how good his match play record was historically, Moore was the guy with the amateur resume that can’t get no respect. Hasn’t missed a cut since May, which includes three top 10s of late. You want numbers? I’ve got numbers: 9th in birdies, crazy accurate (14th in fairways and 12th in greens), and on a team that will dominate Par 5s, how about having the guy who led the Tour in Par 3 birdies and was 5th in Par 4 birdies? We need to start the ‘We Need Moore’ campaign now, right?!

So, there you have my top 6 to consider. I sooooo wanted to put Harris English on the list because he is a star waiting to be a star, but nothing inspiring of late inspired me. It’s an impossible situation for Captain Watson, made a bit “easier” with Phil qualifying and Tiger disqualifying, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see 3 “veteran names” added to boost the squad that will be breaking Spieth and Reed into Ryder Cup battles.

Full Circle

Eleven years ago, I hit a crossroads in my career before it ever started. I knew I would broadcast sports for a living, but the pathway to be successful at that was clouded by my final years of “education.” College, and the internships that accompanied that experience, had built me to be your local television sports guy. Problem was, in that senior year of college, I had totally fallen out of love with the idea of local sports. At the time (2003, internet exploding), the industry was dying rapidly.

So, left with an uncomfortable decision, I took the unconventional route. I wanted to call sports, be a play-by-play guy. To do that meant staying in Indianapolis, freelance in broadcasting and find an alternative job to makes ends meet. That first job came serendipitously. I became a golf professional. To be an assistant pro in Indianapolis was perfect for a guy broadcasting basketball in the winter. It also allowed me to have a great time for two years out of school, in a sport I had played and competed in growing up.

That job also introduced me to a good friend (and roommate). Fast forward a decade (plus) and it doesn’t feel like that much time has passed. I’ve been blessed to merge the combination of golf and broadcasting for a living now. That roommate matriculated through the business to become Executive Director of the Ohio Turfgrass Foundation. And then, both of our careers were able to come together. Maybe it’s romanticizing it a bit in my I-am-now-an-adult mind, but to professionally benefit your best friends after trudging out into the world together long ago is just a great feeling. Just don’t tell my bosses that we know each other! 😉

Check Another Off

I love sports. I am, in fact, a sports junkie. In 33 years on this Earth, I have broadcast basketball, football, golf, tennis, baseball, softball, lacrosse, swimming, cross country, track and bowling. So, new opportunities don’t seem to come as often as they once did. So, when I was able to drive up the road and broadcast the 2014 NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championship, I was pumped.

Prepping for a sport you are familiar with is like riding a bike. Prepping for a sport you’ve never broadcast is like cramming for the Bar Exam. It was an absolute blast. I’ve never learned more at an event, or had a greater appreciation for the athletes like with gymnastics. Hope to be back soon.

Here are the highlights:
http://www.ncaa.com/video/gymnastics-men/2014-04-12/mens-gymnastics-individual-finals-recap
http://www.ncaa.com/video/gymnastics-men/2014-04-10/mens-gymnastics-day1-recap

Here are the full shows:
http://www.ncaa.com/video/gymnastics-men/2014-04-12/mens-gymnastics-individual-finals-full-replay
http://www.ncaa.com/video/gymnastics-men/2014-04-10/mens-gymnastics-day1-pm-full-replay

Different Sides

For the second time in my career, I had the privilege of calling the Elite Eight for the NCAA Men’s Division II National Championship. It is one of the greatest days in all of college basketball. The goal is to get there, and when it tips off, anything can happen. Here is a recap of the day:

http://www.ncaa.com/video/basketball-men/2014-03-27/dii-mbk-quarterfinals-recap

What was interesting to me was that these games came on the same day that the Northwestern athletes took one step closer to unionizing. While I think dialogue about stronger medical benefits for college athletes needs to be advanced, this outpouring of criticism on behalf of “exploited” student athletes is mystifying to me. That it comes from Northwestern students is somewhat laughable. An institution whose annual tuition and costs are well above $50,000, meaning that scholarship athletes could get more than 200K worth of value for their athletic services. Not to mention a degree that most of them would never obtain without being good at sports.

I thought about this all while watching D2 athletes shed blood, sweat and tears on a court simply for the love of the game. There will be no pro contract. There were less than 1,000 people in the gym. Yet, they had an incredible championship experience representing their school. An experience, I might add, that was afforded to them because of the money the NCAA is making on its few profitable entities. Does that make the whole system right? I think that is up for debate. But, when I hear people bash the NCAA, I wish they could have sat next to me during that D2 Elite Eight and see where much of the money is going. Those players trying to win a championship may be at risk if we head down a path where we ‘share the wealth’ with those football and basketball players and the D1 level.

Fatherhood

I am in full golf mode this week (frozen into my house and escaping with images of the PGA Tour in paradise, Maui). Plus, I begin my 2014 season covering the pros at the Humana Challenge next week. The big story is Webb Simpson seeking a title while his caddy, Paul Tesori, is back home with his newborn son, who is fighting for his life.

Being a father is a gift; a life-altering event that adds maturity, perspective, love and blessings to every waking moment of each day. Am I pulling for Webb because of Paul? You betcha. It also made me dust off a piece I wrote back in July, after leaving the Canadian Open and reflecting on my PGA Tour experiences as they relate to fatherhood. This piece was never published, so I post it today… 

(July 29, 2013)

Zoe Olivia Mahan is going to get a really nice baby gift from Brandt Snedeker. He said as much after capturing the RBC Canadian Open on Sunday, a tournament Hunter Mahan was leading on Saturday before withdrawing upon learning his wife was in labor. But, years from now, when Zoe is old enough to read back through the stories surrounding her birth on July 28, 2013, hopefully she recognizes the gift her father gave her: being there.

What began as a quick-shock story surrounding the leader of a golf tournament exploded into viral conversation on morality, priorities and family. It seemed as if everybody was waiting for there to be controversy. The funny thing was, there wasn’t.

“That is obviously a way more important thing than a golf tournament,” Snedeker reflected after his victory. “I missed a golf tournament when my first (Lilly) was born and it was the best decision I ever made, and I am sure Hunter would say the same thing.”

Mahan was warming up alongside the rest of the late-afternoon wave on Saturday when he suddenly was gone. The media actually found out about Mahan’s withdrawal before the players, and the information was disseminated to those still on the practice range minutes before the final tee times. The reaction was universally the same.

John Merrick, who would be relegated to playing solo in the final tee time, was immediately shocked by the prospect of a more lonesome walk and his newfound position atop the leaderboard. Surprised that Mahan made the decision? No.

Bubba Watson heard the news, reflected, and provided a momentary shrug, as if to say, ‘yep, makes sense.’

Dustin Johnson, whose eagle on 18 moments after the news put him on top with Merrick, summed up the feelings succinctly: “Obviously, there’s no reason why he wouldn’t go.”

Mahan’s decision, in fact, wasn’t a decision. It was an inevitability. Some have spiced up the conversation with hypothetical situations (major, outside top 125 in FedEx Cup points, first win, etc.), but the lack of wavering in Mahan’s actions on Saturday reflects the best of the men on the PGA Tour.

Life on Tour is tough. Consistent travel, uncertainty and change are commonplace. While the payoff at the top is big, the journey is taxing. At the head of every PGA Tour professional household is a husband/father who travels 200 days a year with no guarantees. To have a sense of normalcy is key to survival and also the reason family has become not just important, but essential.

“It puts golf in perspective,” Snedeker said. “Out here, you can place too much importance on how you swing a golf club. Even though it is our career, it doesn’t define who we are as people.”

Mahan’s first moments as a father came 14 years after Phil Mickelson famously declared that he would leave the 99th U.S. Open at Pinehurst if wife Amy went into labor with their first child. Fast forward to the present, ironically less than a week prior to the Canadian Open, and there was Mickelson in a minute-long embrace with Amy and three children after his British Open triumph. He would credit them as much as his game for one of the most memorable wins of his career. They were all invested.

A week before Muirfield, Daniel Summerhays led the John Deere Classic by two shots going into Sunday. Within reach of his first win on Tour, some bad bounces and a plugged lie in a bunker at the last ruined a golden opportunity. As he climbed the 100-yard hill to the scoring trailer, he walked as if he had lost. But before he could even sign his card, two joyous little boys (Jack and Patton) raced to give a hug. Clueless to the fate their father had just met, the unconditional love was moving, and provided immediate perspective.

Golf is a game, one that provides the world’s best with a quality life, but that life is only as rich as the family off the course. The month of July has allowed the public to peak behind the curtain and see that while ‘these guys are good,’ they are also human. And, if the first day is any indication, Hunter Mahan is going to be a really good dad.

Another Whistle?

We are approaching a week into the college basketball season, and the conversation should be on the games that took place last night (Michigan State looked experienced; Kentucky looked scary talented; Kansas looked like a long version of Kentucky; Duke looked like Duke… with Jabari Parker). But, and I’m afraid it will get worse before it gets better, we are talking about the officiating.

A common phrase you’ll hear from fans is “the officials took over the game.” This is uttered more often than it should be, because there are games the honestly require it. I don’t like using it, and I am generally an apologist for the men in zebra stripes because the job is so hard. However, I think I am going to coin my own phrase for the start of this season:

The Rules are Taking Over the Game

Call me old fashioned. Call me a fan of the little guy, who needs to limit possessions. Call me a supporter of rugged styles. I didn’t think the college game was becoming too physical or defensively dominated.
The new rules to avoid contact appear to be a culture shock to the players. Natural reactions are being met with a whistle. Out-of-control players are bailed out because they draw contact.

Here’s the deal: The whistles will diminish a bit as we move forward. Too many free throws; games going over  by 30+ minutes; stars being disqualified. All of those will play on the human reality that makes officials, well, human.

I don’t broadcast a basketball game until conference seasons begin (in January) and I’ll be interested to see how the games are officiated at that point. I think teams will learn slightly, but officials will back off some. What you will see, I hope, are some touchy calls early, followed by an environment that allows more free playing late.

Time will tell, but I’m with most fans right now: let’s swallow the whistles a bit and let the players welcome us back to the college basketball season.