The Catholic 7, More Hoopla

Here’s a postscript to the previous blog, since the Catholic schools continue to make news on the basketball court. Amazingly, the No. 1 team in America now is the Gonzaga Bulldogs, a little Jesuit school from Spokane, Wash. Of course, the Zags play in the anemic West Coast Conference, so don’t expect them to drive toward the championship.

The more compelling news is the announcement that the “Catholic 7” – Georgetown, Marquette, Villanova, Providence, St. John’s, Seton Hall and DePaul – will create a basketball-only conference next year, assuming the name of the Big East. They will likely add Catholic schools Xavier and Creighton, and look for a 10th school to round out the conference in future years.

The other big Catholic school, Notre Dame, also now a member of the Big East, will be joining the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with Louisville, Syracuse and Pittsburgh – at least for basketball. And thus does the bouncing ball tend to follow the millions of TV money available for the elite football schools.

More about that some other time, but I want to revisit last night’s action and yet another Notre Dame miracle, this time for the Lady Irish who went three overtimes to knock off Connecticut. Anyone who watched that game would have to acknowledge that chick hoops rocks.

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Notre Dame Coach Muffet McGraw has some instructions for her star, Skylar Diggins.

How can you not like a team that is coached by the brilliant and poised Muffet McGraw and stars the resourceful and indefatigable Skylar Diggins? McGraw spent half the game on her haunches on the sidelines in a dress and high heels, making both a basketball and a fashion statement. Diggins played every possession of the three-overtime game, 55 minutes, scoring 39 points and hitting key shots down the stretch.

As we get ready for the women’s conference tournaments this weekend, it’s refreshing to see outstanding teams like the Irish and Lady Huskies, although I can’t muster much love for the man among the great women coaches, UConn coach, Geno Auriemma. Auriemma has the best winning percentage among all women’s coaches, but he also recruits the best talent year in and year out, sending many of them on the WNBA. And he’s arrogant. Yeah, what’s not to like?

As a former girls basketball coach, I’m a big fan of the women’s game and coaches like McGraw, Tara Vanderveer at Stanford, Vivian Stringer at Rutgers, Jody Conradt at Texas and the indomitable Pat Summitt of Tennessee. Summitt, who won more college basketball games than any other coach (1,098), had to turn over the reins of her team this year, after 38 years of coaching, to deal with the onset of Alzheimer’s.

Listen to Summitt describe her fight to keep her mind in the game in this ABC News report:

http://abcnews.go.com/GMA/video/pat-summit-off-court-battle-alzheimers-18656174

A well-coached women’s college basketball team plays the game “the right way,” with no one individual generally dominating play, which occurs mostly below the rim (where I had to play). They pass, move without the ball, run the break and nail three-point shots with amazing precision.

But there are exceptions, such as the athletic Candace Parker who actually beat all the boys in the high school all-star game dunk contest. Candace went on to win national titles for Summitt at Tennessee and now plays for the L.A. Sparks. And then there’s Brittney Griner, the 6-8 star center for the No. 1 Baylor Bears. Earlier this year, Griner became only the second women’s player (after Parker) to dunk twice in a game.

Monday night, Griner scored 50 points to help Baylor beat Kansas State, getting two of those points with a classic drop step and dunk along the baseline. I’m sure that video will be available on YouTube soon enough, but it looked something like this:

Hold on to your hats: March Madness is on the horizon!

A Pause That Refreshes

We interrupt this weeklong train of political thought for a refresher – today is the first day of college basketball season. For fans like me, that means an exciting game tonight between No. 3 Kentucky, the defending national champion, against the upstart Maryland Terrapins in the new Barclay’s Center in Brooklyn.

Maryland will be good as the season develops and it will be interesting to see how Dez Wells performs. He’s the Xavier guard kicked out of school over sexual assault charges that apparently weren’t substantial enough to warrant prosecution. I’m not in a position to judge him any way other than by his performance on the court. The NCAA has ruled him eligible to play this year, without the usual one-year wait.

And that brings us to Kentucky. If you haven’t seen it yet, you should check out the

new ESPN series, “Kentucky: Full Access,” or as John Feinstein calls it, the best recruiting tool in the history of sports. You get an idea of the mania that grips my home state this time of year, every year. The Wednesday night series follows Coach John Calipari through another season of rebuilding – six new core players on a team that lost six to the NBA draft, including No. 1 and No. 2.

When 25,000 people show up at Rupp Arena to watch the first practice, “Midnight Madness at UK,” Calipari takes the mike and tells the people, “You all are crazy, you know that, right?” Standing ovation.

Calipari is truly in his element here – at Kentucky and in this very personal documentary. He’s the star of the show. No matter how you feel about his record of mentoring young men, you can’t argue with 15 NBA draft picks in the past three years. That’s why the kids keep coming back. Here’s what he says about it:

The “one-and-done” rule in college for NBA prospects is a fact of life, and Calipari has managed to corner the market on the best kids looking for a springboard to the NBA. By contrast, consider my alma mater, the No. 1 Indiana University Hurryin’ Hoosiers.

Christian Watford, a talented small forward who hit the last-second shot that gave Kentucky its first (of two) losses last year, returns as a senior. Other talented seniors and juniors return, as does the preseason college player of the year, 7-foot sophomore center Cody Zeller. The Hoosiers also have a talented group of incoming freshmen, including Yogi Ferrell, who will contend for the starting point guard slot.

Indiana is rated No. 1 in the country in preseason polls. Kentucky is rated No. 3. The Louisville Cardinals, coached by former Kentucky coach Rick Pitino, is ranked No. 2. As a proud Kentuckianian – native of Kentucky and graduate of IU – nothing could be better.

I attended IU when the basketball team only lost one game in two years. The 1976 team – with Quinn Buckner, Scott May, Kent Benson, Bobby Wilkerson, Tom Abernethy and John Laskowski – is the last undefeated team in college basketball. Given IU’s cupcake schedule leading up to Big 10 play, this year’s edition of the Hoosiers has a chance to win them all. Tonight they face some college named “Bryant,” and I don’t expect Kobe to be there in Bloomington to represent.

Grab a chair! There will be tons of these games from now until March. I can’t help myself but to provide a bit of armchair commentary. Hey! Maybe we’ll be able to see this again and again: