N&O’s “Roy Williams Was Never Getting Fired” Column, with Links

UNC gave Roy Williams a contract extension today, which the News & Observer’s UNC writer, Andrew Carter, said was no surprise. Carter wrote:

He was never going to be fired. That was never a possibility.

Those who thought he might be fired – or should be – amid the NCAA investigation into the long-running scheme of bogus African studies paper classes at UNC probably fit into one of two categories:

▪  The under-informed who have made Williams the face of a broad, complex paper class scheme that went on for 18 years – a decade of which took place before he became UNC’s coach in 2003.

Or:

▪  Supporters of rival schools who’d simply love nothing more than to see Williams lose his job and watch his program go up in flames.

But what’s inarguable is this: The Wainstein report essentially cleared Williams and his staff of wrongdoing associated with the classes.

So who were these people “who thought he might be fired — or should be”? Good journalism should include some links to back up its claims, right? Since this piece had no links, I’ve helped add some:

Those who thought he might be fired – or should be – amid the NCAA investigation into the long-running scheme of bogus African studies paper classes at UNC probably fit into one of two categories:

▪  The under-informed who have made Williams the face of a broad, complex paper class scheme that went on for 18 years – a decade of which took place before he became UNC’s coach in 2003.

The N&O has a paywall, so in case you run up against it and can’t see the stories, this is what those links point to:

williams1

 

williams2

 

williams3

 

And before you start, no, this is NOT an attempt to absolve Williams or UNC for whatever they did and failed to do.

This is just to point out that as a journalism outlet, if your UNC writer — the guy who presumably is the most knowledgeable on your staff about the situation with UNC athletics — thinks anyone who says Williams might be or should be fired is either under-informed or has an ax to grind, perhaps you should think twice about trading in news and opinion pieces saying exactly that.

You know what? I can even forgive the opinion pieces because they are, after all, just that — the opinion of a single individual, who may or may not share your UNC writer’s view on this. But that news story that leads off by suggesting that the findings of the Wainstein report and Williams’ contract provisions might get him fired? Written by the same UNC writer who’s now writing that there was never any question whether Williams might be fired? The same writer who’s now also writing that the Wainstein report “essentially cleared Williams”?

Look, it’s not complicated: Either you believe the Wainstein report cleared Williams and won’t get him fired, or you don’t. But you don’t write a news story saying the report’s findings could get him fired, and then later write that the report’s findings cleared him and that his dismissal was never a possibility. The Wainstein report did not change between the time when you wrote those two pieces, so which is it? If you don’t believe his firing was ever a possibility, then why did you write a story suggesting it was? And why wait until he got a contract extension to assert that he was never going to be fired?

JOURNALISM!

On Dean Smith

On a day awash in memories of Dean Smith, I have no tales of personal encounters with the legendary coach to share, but here’s what he meant to me.

When Smith said that a billion people in China didn’t know or care about the outcome of a UNC game, he was absolutely right. I was one of those billion people. When I emigrated from China to North Carolina in 1990, I was 10 and had never heard of the Tar Heels or Smith. I came from a country that had no tradition of pickup basketball and viewed sports in general as distractions best ignored in favor of homework. Continue reading On Dean Smith

Cowardice in Columbia

Note: See the update at the bottom of the post.

As much as we have connected over the years, Spurrier and I are not personal friends, simply because that is not a professional approach to his business or my business. As I said before, relationships can be difficult. I very much enjoyed the company of former USC athletics director Eric Hyman, and we talked about how maybe some day our families could be friends. Professionally, we knew that was not possible as long as he was the AD and I was the sports columnist.

The same is true with Spurrier, as it must be between a sports columnist and a coach. When that professional line is crossed, the journalist stops becoming a neutral party in assessing the actions of a coach and his program.

— Ron Morris, sports columnist at The State

 

But we need to make some changes and I really believe between President Pastides and the guy that runs the newspaper, that some good changes are coming forth and I encourage the people that canceled their subscriptions last year, when some of this crap started last year, to give the newspaper and our university a chance. I believe that our city is going to be better off.”

The City of Columbia and the University of South Carolina, our newspaper, we’re all going to get along better, which is what it’s all about and, hopefully, that can come from this week ’cause we’ve had some serious discussions about things, but basically I said I’m not taking anymore of the stuff that’s coming out of our local paper.”

— South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier (emphasis mine)

Background: The State Tells Its Sports Columnist He Can’t Cover University of South Carolina Football

The State’s publisher apparently agreed with Spurrier that it is indeed all about the newspaper getting along better with a large public institution and a prominent state employee in its immediate coverage area. Getting along is so important, in fact, that The State might’ve coordinated with said public institution in first trying to fire its columnist and then ultimately barring him from covering the team. So important, in fact, that The State then hired a self-admitted friend of Spurrier’s to cover the Gamecocks after the coach put in a word for the guy with the publisher.

Coaches will throw tantrums. Fans will hate columnists. People will demand journalists’ heads for something they wrote. These are par for the course. If journalists knowingly publish false information, they should be punished. That is as it should be. What is disgraceful about this episode is a journalism organization making personnel and editorial decisions to appease the very entities that it’s supposed to be holding accountable. Even if we give The State the benefit of the doubt (which it does not deserve) and assume it did not talk with South Carolina or Spurrier in deciding to reassign Morris, hiring Spurrier’s friend to cover his team is a journalistic cardinal sin on its own. You’re supposed to be a watchdog, not a lap dog.

I was a designer and copy editor in the sports department at The State 10 years ago and left on good terms after seven months. This disgrace makes me wish it wasn’t even seven seconds.

Disclosure: I worked with Morris during my time at The State. We were cordial colleagues, though our interactions were limited. He worked mostly days; I worked nights. Also, I’m turning off comments on this post because I don’t need trolling from misguided Gamecocks fans who can’t understand that this point holds true for every school and every coach, not just theirs.

Update, Sept. 12, 8:25 p.m.

There is a little bit of justice in the world after all. After Romenesko’s story generated tremendous Internet outrage aimed at Spurrier and The State, the newspaper reversed course and announced to its staff that Morris is once again free to write about anything he wants to, including South Carolina football (Spurrier’s friend, though, remains on staff).

However, even the internal e-mail announcing the reversal of the ban reveals further cowardice on the part of the newspaper’s leadership. Even after the story circulated all over the Internet last night and today, they still refused to own up to their mistake. Instead, they peddled this weaselly explanation of Morris’s exile (my apologies to weasels):

As with any relationship, it sometimes helps to step back and allow conditions to cool. In recent months, we asked Ron to draw upon his considerable sports knowledge and experience to produce highly readable, relevant columns and enterprise features.The work has been outstanding and has given sports fans much to enjoy and to think about. During this time, we asked Ron to focus first on coverage other than the USC football program.

As Romenesko points out, this was not what happened. Even after acknowledging at the beginning of the e-mail that everyone on staff has surely read and heard about what went down, The State’s brass still proceeded to hide behind a lie (a pitiful one at that) instead of owning up to their mistake.

For organizations whose job it is to bust up such lies from the people they cover and whose reporters scoff at anything remotely resembling spin, newspapers are amazingly inept at managing their own PR. The reversal of Morris’s ban could have served as an opportunity for The State to offer a mea culpa, reaffirm your journalistic commitment, and regain some of your staff’s confidence and a little bit of the credibility you’ve lost. Instead, its leaders just essentially looked their people in the eye and lied, seemingly without even bothering to at least make it a convincing lie.

 

 

Infographic: NCAA Men’s Basketball Coaching Tenures

Earlier this month, Patrick Stevens at D1scourse.com compiled the hiring dates of all 351 NCAA Division I men’s basketball coaches. That data set piqued my interest, so I played around with it a bit and created the giant infographic below (click the image for a larger version, or download the PDF). You can also see the spreadsheet I worked with to generate the data behind the infographic.

Update (6/27/2013): Thanks to everybody who’s dropped in to take a look at the graphic, as well as those who retweeted it. This graphic is also now a Staff Pick on visual.ly, which looks like an honor attached to about 4 percent of the more than 38,000 submissions on that site.

Update (7/1/2013): Thanks to Tyler Moorehead at CollegeSpun.com for republishing this graphic and taking a closer look at each section.

Web

Stop Saying the Robot Out-wrote A Reporter

You would think a top-notch news organization like NPR would know the difference between journalism and non-journalism. That wasn’t the case, however, in this NPR story titled ” ‘Robot Journalist’ Out-Writes Human Sports Reporter”.

The story really caught on on Twitter, where the original NPR tweet has been widely disseminated (just search for “robot journalist” on Twitter). Here’s a sampling:

The only problem is that the person out-written by the software program is not, and doesn’t even claim to be, a journalist. Instead, the human-produced piece in this case is a press release on the official George Washington athletics website — in other words, a PR piece.

Having read countless sports press releases during my career as a sports journalist, I know these things are kind of hit-or-miss. Some schools have very well written releases that tend to be fair, while other schools produce horrible homerish material. I’ve even seen a number of examples of releases burying great performances by opposing teams, though not quite to this degree. In this case, even as a PR piece for the team that came out on the wrong end of the perfect game, the writer made a bad decision in burying the rare feat. If a journalist reported about this game, however, that mistake in judgement would never have been made because this is as easy a judgement call as it gets for a journalist. There’s no way you’d bury the perfect game. The way the NPR story distorted the facts to call the sports information writer a journalist is a slap to the face for journalists everywhere.

But it gets even better. In case you missed it, Poynter addressed that bad gwsports.com piece a good three weeks before the NPR story (and here’s a bunch of sports journalists discussing it). The money quote from the Poynter piece (emphasis added by me):

“This is the George Washington website,” GWU sports information director Dave Lubeski tells Romenesko. “We’re in the business to promote our athletes and our team. We’re not claiming to be journalists.” What some call “the buried lead” was discussed after the story was posted, says Lubeski, and it was mentioned that the perfect game could have been noted in the sub-hed. But “we’re not in the newspaper business,” notes the SID.

So despite the quote above from the sports information director saying, “WE’RE NOT JOURNALISTS,” whoever wrote NPR’s “robot journalist” story decided to call the person who wrote the piece on gwsports.com a journalist anyway. It’s hard to imagine that anyone could mistake a school’s official athletics site for a journalism site, and I would certainly expect someone working at one of the top journalism companies in the country to know the difference. The question, then, is what’s the motivation for distorting the facts? Is it just because “robot out-writes journalist” makes for a better story than “robot out-writes PR piece trying to hide home team’s embarrassment”? If so, then whoever wrote that NPR piece has no business calling him or herself a journalist. Or if the NPR writer really couldn’t tell the difference between gwsports.com and a journalism site, then he/she should be replaced by a computer program.

Update 1 (4/18)

I should add that I’ve known about Narrative Science’s sportswriting software for a while and I’ve checked out some of its work from the Big Ten Network’s website. For the most part, the stories are actually not bad and definitely usable. If I was putting together a non-rev sports roundup from press releases, I would definitely take these computer-generated stories over some of the ones I’ve gotten in the past because they are a lot easier to extract useful information from. However, there are signs in the computer-generated stories that are relatively easy to pick up that would lead you to wonder if they were written by software, such as the odd placement of a particular factoid.

Update 2 (4/18)

If you were going to ask me which of all the posts I’ve written that’s going to shatter the single-day record for visitors to this blog, I would not have guessed this one, but this story apparently grew legs as it has been picked up by a few other sites and retweeted a number of times (I know, a few hundred views really aren’t much, but considering this blog probably averages around 100 views a day, it’s a big number for me). I’ve had traffic spikes before, but nothing quite like this:

Of course, much more important to me than my traffic numbers is the notion of correcting bad information that’s been widely disseminated. So, thanks to everyone who took the time to check out this post and pass it on. Also on that front, thanks in part to King Kaufman and the folks at the news bug-catching service mediabugs.org, NPR has changed the headline on the story. You can read more about this at mediabugs.org, where Kaufman reported the error and the service contacted NPR about it. Like Mark Follman said in the discussion there, I think NPR does need to post a more prominent correction than just a note in the comment thread on the story.

Update (4/20)

I saw this last night but didn’t have time to update the post until now. NPR has indeed gone back and added a correction at the beginning of the story, as well as on its corrections page.

Knowing When to Be Content

With a Final Four that has no No. 1 or No. 2 seeds and includes an 8 vs. 11 matchup on one side of the bracket, it’s easy to wonder “what if” as a UNC fan. What if Kentucky had just made one fewer 3-pointer on Sunday? What if John Henson didn’t get into foul trouble? What if Harrison Barnes had gotten going a little bit earlier? If any of those things happened, imagine how tantalizingly close UNC could be to a championship right now. I mean, c’mon, Virginia Commonwealth had even been kind enough to make sure Roy Williams won’t have the psychological nightmare of possibly facing Kansas in the championship game.

Of course, those are the kind of questions that any fan of any of the 64 schools that didn’t make it to the Final Four could ask. In all honesty, I was disappointed for only about 30 seconds after Sunday’s UNC loss to Kentucky. By advancing to the Elite Eight, this UNC team had already so thoroughly surpassed all my expectations that it’s hard to feel unsatisfied at the end of this season like I did when UNC blew a late lead and lost to Georgetown in the Elite Eight back in 2007 or when the Tar Heels got smacked by Kansas in the national semifinals in 2008. There were a lot of things about this year’s team that drove me nuts game in and game out, but in the end, I’m more proud of this team than probably any other UNC squad I’ve watched since I started following college  hoops back in the early 90s.

Going into the season, I thought it was absolutely ludicrous that UNC was eighth in the preaseason AP poll, especially after it had been ranked fourth in the preseason poll the previous year and wound up in the NIT. I thought they should’ve been ranked no higher than in the mid-teens and that that’s probably where they would end up. The Tar Heels finished No. 6 in the season-ending AP poll, and while that might have been a tad inflated by their rout of Duke in the regular-season finale, it’s hard to argue that they didn’t earn it, considering that they dropped out of the poll entirely early in the season and then clawed their way back in and up the rankings incrementally.

The best part about this season was watching the team show tangible growth game by game: Seeing John Henson start to figure out how to be an effective offensive player in the low post and then blossom into a reliable scorer, seeing Leslie McDonald become a key player off the bench, and of course, seeing Harrison Barnes morph from an on-and-off freshman who could hit a few key shots into a star who could take over a game.

What really impressed me about this  team was its knack for doing exactly what it needed to do in the final minutes of close games, especially considering that last year’s team could do almost nothing right in those situations. This year’s squad was far from perfect and probably played no better than a border-line Top 25 team for the first 35 minutes of most games. When it got down to the last five minutes, however, it showed the poise of an elite team of seasoned veterans. The Tar Heels almost always seemed to get the key rebound, make the big defensive stop, and hit the key shots to pull out a win, however ugly it may be. Considering how young this team is, that ability to win close games was simply remarkable. Sure, you could chock up a few of those to luck, but it just kept happening. It happened even before the switch at point guard. You saw it in the two-point win against Kentucky, the six-point win over Virginia, and the three-point win over Virginia Tech. After the Tar Heels pulled out close victories against Clemson and at Miami, I noticed that, as a fan, I actually started to feel confident again about UNC’s chances when it went into the final minutes in a close game, even if it was trailing by a few points. No longer was I constantly waiting for the other shoe to fall or expecting the game to be out of reach when the Tar Heels went down early. Comebacks and clutch plays were no longer surprises, but expected. For almost the entire remainder of the season, that confidence was not misplaced.

This team also impressed me with the way it absorbed every adversity that came up and just kept going, whether it be the unexpected off-season loss of all of its backup low-post players, the even more unexpected mid-season defection of Larry Drew II, or the late-season injury to Reggie Bullock, all of which left the team with basically seven players who see significant action by season’s end. I’ve also been extremely impressed all season long with the way Tyler Zeller and Henson not only held their own, but dominated inside. Henson in particular really surprised me with how effective he was in the post on both ends of the floor, considering how much bulk he was giving up to most opposing low-post players. It was the polar opposite of what the Tar Heels got from Ed Davis and Deon Thompson last season, when they had a big size advantage but always seemed to get outplayed by smaller but more aggressive front lines.

That’s enough rave reviews. The Tar Heels also did plenty to make me scream at the TV in frustration this season, from their late-season knack for slow starts to their inability to put away overmatched opponents. The fact that they were in so many close games is a testament to their shortcomings, and many of those close wins could easily have been close losses. This team needs to learn how to make things easier on itself.

UNC needs more consistent 3-point shooting, and it needs to get better defensively. The Tar Heels did a pretty good job of holding most opponents down points-wise (it also helped that the ACC had a down year as a whole), but after the Drew defection, UNC really had no answer for guards who were adept at penetrating into the lane and also did not force as many turnovers as it traditionally does. I watched one of the UNC games from 2008 from the ACC Vault the other day, and the difference between this team and that one is like night and day. That 2008 team was running up and down the floor on seemingly every possession, with a lot of those transition opportunities coming off of turnovers. This year’s Tar Heels, on the other hand, didn’t get a whole lot of easy baskets by UNC standards and made it much harder on themselves than it needed to be when it came to scoring points. On the offensive end, the 2008 team was smooth and fluid, while this year’s team was more ragtag and herky jerky except in stretches. Some of that certainly is due to inexperience, and I hope this year’s key players will stick around so next year’s team will have that experience. This group may never be as explosive as Hansbrough-Lawson-Ellington-Green, but it does need to find a way to get more easy baskets.

Still, in spite of the headscratching blunders and curse-inducing moments, this year’s team wound up with 29 wins, a regular-season ACC title, and an Elite Eight trip to its name, none of which I expected going into the season. A year like this one also serves as a helpful reminder for us fans about how hard it is to actually be an elite program year in and year out. When your team has to scratch and claw for almost every win, you realize how impressive it is to actually win 25, 30 games a season.

And now, I’ll just savor the culmination of what has been an amazing NCAA Tournament. I’ll be pulling hard for VCU and Butler and their intern-lookalike head coaches. It’s a shame that they can’t meet in the title game, but it’s also nice that one of them is guaranteed a shot at the championship.

Why This Rant Against Sportswriters at the ACC Tournament is Full of Sh*t

You know, I like a lot of the terrific journalism work that Shane Ryan is doing at Reesenews.org, but I just can’t stomach this diatribe of his at his Seth Curry Saves Duke blog (and not because it’s a pro-Duke blog). He starts off by telling the story of his experience at last week’s ACC Tournament and how he sat next to a radio guy who gave him a hard time about being a Duke alum and then lectured him about not cheering on press row when he showed just a teensy flinch of emotion about a great play by Nolan Smith. From there, Ryan proceeds to lambaste basically the whole group of sportswriters at the tournament. An example:

You can’t cheer on press row. You can look at your computer, and back at the court, and back at your computer. You can share tired jokes in an attempt to sound gruff. You can hammer out your two-bit tale in the moments after, trying like hell to beat a deadline. You can gobble up the free food they give you at every venue, augmenting your complacence. You can slowly grow bitter and tired of the thing that brought you here in the first place. You can focus on baskets and touchdowns and home runs and forget why you came. You can forget the people, and the inner human drama that these games actually represent.

But the sneaky, waddling, frantic lackeys I witnessed this weekend are not the heart, the soul, or the brain. They’re the fleshy tire around the midsection, weighing the body down. They’re dead weight, and they need to be shed.

Here’s my point: I don’t want to march in lockstep with the drones of inadequacy. I can already tell it’ll swallow me whole. My place is with the fans in the crowd. Failing that, it’s in front of a television. And I don’t have $150 to spend on a scalped ticket, so I’m not going.

I actually agree with one of Ryan’s chief complaints — the absurdity of some of the questions in the postgame press conferences. It’s always been a pet peeve of mine, as the whole postgame press conference is like some absurd stage act where the coaches and players know exactly what the media will ask them and the media knows exactly what the coaches and players will say, with very few exceptions. Some of the questions, in effect, are just another way of saying, “Give me a quote, coach.”

Now comes the part where I start poking holes in the rest of Ryan’s attack on the sportswriters at the tournament.

1. Ryan holds up Dan Wiederer as an exception to the “drones of inadequacy” he’s raging against and points to a three-part series Wiederer wrote about Mike Krzyzewski as example of his excellence and observes:

Interestingly enough, in all the postgame press conferences we attended, I never once saw Dan Wiederer ask a question. Maybe it’s coincidence. Or maybe his narratives are organic creations that don’t have the taint of prefabrication.

But here’s the problem with Ryan’s reasoning. The three-part series he points to is a big feature that was done under completely different circumstances than at the ACC Tournament. The deadline for that feature, I’m sure, wasn’t two hours after the game ended, and I doubt the interviews that went into that series were done in postgame press conferences. So what did Wiederer write from the ACC Tournament? Some examples:

To be absolutely clear, I’m not offering these examples to say that Dan Wiederer is not a good writer. This post is not about him, and I haven’t read enough of his stuff to form an opinion one way or another. Instead, I offer these links to show that it’s comparing apples and oranges to pit his Coach K feature against stories coming out of the ACC Tournament. Note that his stories from the tournament contain many of the same quotes and cover the same storylines that appear in many of the other stories written by those “drones of inadequacy” at the same event under the same circumstances. Oh yeah, and some of these are the quotes that came from the “dumb, leading, and boring questions” that Ryan is lambasting. The point is, you can’t compare live-event reporting to features. Many of the other sportswriters at the ACC Tournament have written excellent features when they’re not laboring under a tight deadline.

Also, consider how little sense Ryan’s reasoning makes in suggesting that perhaps not asking questions at the postgame press conference is a sign that a writer’s story doesn’t have the “taint of prefabrication.” If the questions being asked are indeed signs of prefabrication, then won’t a key part of getting to the “real” story be asking good questions, rather than no questions at all? If the questions being asked are not getting the real story, and you don’t ask the questions that do, then how is what you write going to be anything but prefabricated? Again, I’m not saying that as a slam to Wiederer, just to show that it makes little sense to say that because someone didn’t ask a question, it could be a sign he’s not going into his story with a prefabricated script (By the way, I didn’t ask a single question in those press conferences either, so by Ryan’s logic, I should be feeling pretty good about myself).

2. Ryan also writes:

But the old world is dying while the old order persists. Except for pieces of local interest, sports sections of newspapers go unread. Especially by young people. I honestly can’t think of one friend who starts his or her mornings by opening a newspaper to read the latest Duke or UNC story.

The problem with that argument is that most of the people covering the tournament were there to cover teams of local interest. In many cases, when the team in a particular newspaper’s coverage area got eliminated, the reporters from that paper went home because there’s no longer any local interest there. That is why there were more and more empty seats on press row as the tournament progressed. Also, while I, too, cannot think of a young person who starts his or her day by reading the latest Duke or UNC story in a newspaper, I sure as heck know plenty who read that same story online at the newspaper’s website.

3. Ryan says sportswriters live for the negative because it makes them relevant and because they only wield power when something bad happens, and that’s why coaches and players try to be bland in interviews. All I can say to that is that in the decade-plus that I’ve worked with sportswriters, I’ve never known one to “live for the negative”. In fact, some of them hate it when a team they’re covering is struggling because it becomes more and more difficult to cover the team without coming off as too negative. I’m simultaneously amused and angered by such attempts to paint sports reporters (and those who work in the media in general) as evil trolls wishing ill on those they cover for the sake of personal gain. I’ve seen journalists who are egotistical, and I’ve seen ones who are incompetent, but in no greater proportion than in any other field. Sportswriters, for the most part, are ordinary folks. They have a job to do, they do it — some better than others — and then they want to tend to other parts of their lives. They aren’t some subspecies of the human race with a particular genetic disposition toward villainy.

4. Ryan writes about his dislike of the “no cheering on press row” rule:

You can’t cheer on press row. But it’s also hard to love the game.

As I wrote [intlink id=”5117″ type=”post”]in my previous post[/intlink], I was at that same tournament, sitting on the same press row, and in a similar situation — it was the first time I had been to the ACC Tournament and I’m not a regular member of the sports media at games. I can relate to the feeling that Ryan describes. On press row, you are in the middle of all this emotion and fanfare, and yet you are not a part of it. However, as I wrote in that last post, I don’t find it hard to rein in my emotions or my love for UNC — which I’d pit against Ryan’s love for Duke any day — when I’m sitting on press row.

The way I see it, experiencing a game as a fan and as a reporter are different things and require different approaches. When I’m on press row, I’m there to do a job — to observe the game and then to explain to people what happened. To do that doesn’t require me to live and die with every Harrison Barnes 3-pointer or Nolan Smith drive; instead, it requires that I take a more analytical approach. As some of the commenters on Ryan’s post said, you can have all the emotions you want, just buy a ticket and sit in the stands. Complaining about the lack of cheering on press row is like complaining that the staff at a beach resort isn’t enjoying the fun in the sun as much as the guests are. The people on press row are there to do a job, and I know most of them are plenty passionate and knowledgeable about the game. Don’t mistake the lack of cheering for a lack of love for the game.

In his post, Ryan takes some pretty vicious swipes at the sportswriters at the tournament. Yet, strip away the fluff, and this is what I hear: “I sat next to a prick at the tournament who gave me crap about showing a little bit of emotion on press row, and I found that I don’t like watching my team play without being able to cheer, so not only am I not going to do that again, I’m going to flame everyone who does.”

Is the radio guy in Ryan’s story a jerk? Maybe (certainly from the way he tells it, though a commenter on his blog who was also on press row offered a different take). You don’t like watching your team play without being able to cheer like a fan? No problem. I totally understand, and if you ask me to pick, I’d want to watch as a fan rather than as a reporter. But if you’re going to flame an entire group of people, you better have something substantial on which to base your criticism. In Ryan’s post, aside from the complaint about bad questions — one that I share — I saw little else of substance to back up the rest of the diatribe. I know, I know. Letting words like “facts” get in the way of a good rant is another one of those stupid passé journalism rules like “no cheering on press row.”

Update (3/15)

To his credit, after receiving some not-so-positive feedback on his piece, Ryan has posted a mea culpa apologizing for speaking “too broadly, and too extremely.” It seems like a classy, sincere apology, and thus I’m appeased. (See update below)

Update (3/17)

So after doing right and offering what seemed like a sincere apology, Ryan then wrote in his next post:

*Apology for any Sportswriter I Might Have Offended

Please forgive my swear words and general attitude of rebellion and disrespect. If you were about to give me a job at a high level or even low level organization or were just going to let me cover junior high volleyball for free, please direct me as to which parts of the post I should delete. Better yet, I’ll just give you my login information and you can write this yourself. If I’ve upset any of you fine folks, I sincerely apologize and hope you’ll drop me an e-mail telling me where you’d like me to make confession. Oh wait, I already know; I’ll see you at the Church of the Divine Silence, the Holiest Incarnation of the Blessed Grimace, i.e. press row.

(Grabs crotch defiantly, skateboards off into the distance while a pair of black un-belted pants slowly fall down.

In the context of the post, I can’t decide if he’s just kind of kidding around a bit with this or if he’s serious and has suffered another bout of ass-clownery.

My Weekend on the Front Row at the ACC Tournament

I got the opportunity to not only go to the ACC Tournament in Greensboro this past weekend, but also get an up-close look at the action. The newspaper I used to work for got me a press pass for the tournament — partly as a thank-you for years of meritorious service — and I went to help out a bit with the paper’s coverage of the event. In exchange, I got to take in the action from press row, a mere few feet away from the court.

Some observations from my weekend at the tournament:

The Good

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: Sitting courtside for the ACC Tournament rocks. It was the best seat I’ve ever had at a big-time sporting event. On Friday, my first day at the tournament, this was the view I had:

When the players were inbounding the ball from the sideline, they were literally right in front of me. Things definitely look a little different when you’re this close:

  • At first, while I was watching the action, I thought, “These guys don’t look so tall.” And then I realized that the seat I was sitting in is elevated about a foot off the floor, so yeah, these guys are tall, and big.
  • From my vantage point, I was a little surprised at how small the court’s dimensions seemed. It just didn’t seem that far from one end to the other or from one sideline to the other. Of course, that probably had something to do with the next point …
  • When you’re sitting just a few feet away from the players on the court, you gain a whole new appreciation for how fast the action moves.

Other good things:

  • Hey, free food! Ok, so who doesn’t like free food (and sports reporters especially)? The ACC put on a pretty nice spread each day for the media, but the best parts were the candy baskets and the mini-fridge stocked with Häagen-Dazs bars. Oh, there were healthier snack alternatives, but for some reason the fruit basket always stayed pretty full 🙂
  • The atmosphere was awesome. I’ve covered some college games before, and I’ve been to the Greensboro Coliseum once before for a women’s ACC Tournament game, but the atmosphere this past weekend was unlike any I had experienced. When UNC was making its comebacks in the quarter- and semifinals, the arena was literally deafening, and being down on the floor, the cheers from the stands felt like raucous walls closing in on me. It’s only now that I have a true idea of how big a home-court advantage it can be for the Tar Heels and, to a less extent, Duke to have the ACC Tournament in Greensboro. I took an unscientific measurement of the decibel level in the arena during the games with an app on my iPod, and the meter was fluctuating between about 97 and 100 during those UNC rallies (for context, the same app shows the sound level in my office to be in the 60s). According to the information on the app, that’s roughly the equivalent of noise from a heavy road transport vehicle, a motorcycle, or a circular saw. Of course, the app maxes out at 100 decibels without an external mic attached, so I suspect the actual decibel level was probably above that.
  • The Maryland mascot. The terrapin is the only mascot I’ve seen that actually takes part in forming a human pyramid with the team’s cheerleaders, and the tortoise isn’t on the bottom either. No, he gets hoisted up into the air with the cheerleaders. Pretty impressive considering how unwieldy that costume must be.

The Not As Good

  • The obnoxious confetti cannons that went off at opposite corners of the court after Duke won the title game. Ok, I’ll admit that if UNC had won, I would probably be more tolerant of the confetti, but regardless, confetti is less fun when you’re sitting a mere few feet away from where they’re getting blown out.
  • NO MORE “LIVING ON A PRAYER” … PLEASE!!! Sitting through all or parts of five games, I got to hear the Bon Jovi classic covered relentlessly by seemingly every school band at the tournament. Not that their performances were bad or anything, it’s just that … well … you can only listen to a song so many times in a day, and I think the tournament maxed out my limit for “Living on a Prayer.”

The Flat-Out Horrible

  • Duke winning it all. Enough said.
  • UNC’s play in the first halves of every game. During a restroom break during halftime at the tournament final, I overheard someone remark that it’s like being in the movie Groundhog Day, and I can’t say I disagree. It’s kind of befuddling to get this sense of déjà vu over and over and over.

Working vs. Watching

Being at the tournament was a fantastic experience, but being at the event as part of the working media was a bit of a strange feeling, especially having watched sports events the past few years as a fan rather than as a journalist. While it was definitely a treat to get to see the action up close and experience the tremendous atmosphere, there was also a feeling of detachedness while sitting on press row. When I watch UNC games at home, I’m the type that yells at the TV and jumps up and down throughout the game. When I set foot on press row, however, it was as if a switch had been flipped. The great surges of emotion that usually accompany my watching a UNC game were replaced with a cool, analytical mindset. Keep in mind that even when I’m watching at home, that analytical mindset is always there, but it seems that when I’m watching at home, the emotions of the experience are amplified, whereas when I was watching from press row, that aspect was minimized while the analytical aspect took centerstage.

I’ve already mentioned that the atmosphere in the stands was tremendous during the UNC comebacks, but I didn’t feel like a part of that atmosphere from press row. I know that if I was watching, say, the Miami-UNC game at home, I would’ve been yelling at the top of my lungs and ricocheting between emotional poles with every play and feeling my heart pounding at the back of my throat. Yet, when I watched from press row Kendall Marshall deliver a perfect pass to Tyler Zeller for the winning basket a mere millisecond before time expired, all I could muster was to mouth a quick “Oh my god.” And the thing is, this restraint required no effort. I didn’t need to try to force myself to stay in my seat. I didn’t even feel the inclination to do so much as a fistpump in celebration while the players, coaches, and people in the stands around me were going nuts. I was right in the middle of something — totally enveloped by it, you could even say — yet I was not a part of it.

The other thing about being at the tournament as part of the working press is that you ARE working as opposed to just there to watch the games. Most of the people on press row were busy keeping play-by-play or taking some kind of notes throughout the games, and it’s a bit of a scramble after a game ends. There’s the dash to the locker rooms and the postgame press conference, then a good solid hour or two of pounding away at the keyboard. And I had it obscenely easy compared to most of the other journalists there. All I was doing was staking out the postgame press conferences, transcribing those quotes, and then typing up a short item or two for a notebook. And even that usually took up so much time that I would end up missing most of the game that followed.

Also, covering a four-day event like the ACC Tournament is a bit of a grind. Making the hour-long drive to and from Greensboro each day and then spending a good eight to eleven hours there adds up after a while, especially when you’re sitting in one position, either on press row or hunched over your laptop in the media room, for much of that time. And again, I had a pretty light workload at the tournament, and even I was feeling a bit drained toward the end, so imagine what the other people who were there doing the actual heavy lifting must’ve been feeling. Sure, as far as jobs go, covering sports is a pretty sweet gig (as most sportswriters would tell you), but make no mistake: It IS a job. All things considered, I think I would probably prefer watching the games as a spectator, even if it meant having to sit a few rows back (ok, more like a few dozen rows back). Nonetheless, it’s good to get a taste of the action every now and then, just to scratch that old journalist itch again, and I couldn’t ask for a better venue in which to do that than the ACC Tournament.

Update

Someone else who was also on press row at the ACC Tournament for the first time had a different takeaway from the experience than I did. Here’s his take, and [intlink id=”5133″ type=”post”]my response[/intlink] to it.

Early Observations About the Tar Heels

OK, let’s get the blatantly obvious out of the way: That No. 8 preseason ranking for North Carolina was ludicrous. Whoever thought that an NIT team from the year before with no frontcourt depth, no proven guard play, and even less veteran leadership should be a top-10 team going into the season obviously didn’t learn their lessons from last year, when the Heels were ranked No. 4 in the preseason and ended up with on of their worst seasons in recent memory.

Five games into the season, and this year’s team is looking a whole lot like last year’s team in all the wrong ways. Start with the offensive struggles in the half court, which were in plain view when UNC had to scrap to reach 60 in the losses to Minnesota and Vanderbilt. In fact, the three games in which UNC has cracked 80 have come against Lipscomb, Hofstra, and UNC Asheville, which hail from, respectively, the Atlantic Sun, the Colonial, and the Big South. And the only game where the offense actually looked good throughout was against Hofstra, which was picked to finish fifth in the CAA. That also happens to be the only game in which the Tar Heels shot better than 50 percent from the field. Frankly, UNC teams, even those that are so-so by UNC standards, should be eating such teams for lunch. A border-line decent Roy Williams team AVERAGES more than 80, which means it tends to go well above that against such relatively weak early-season foes. This team, on the other hand, has struggled just to reach 80 against these also-rans.

The other disturbing similarity between this year’s team and last year’s squad is the myriad of deficiencies they are displaying. They are not struggling because of only one or two shortcomings, but rather because of a number of things that take turns rearing their ugly heads, preventing the Heels from getting into any kind of rhythm or sustaining good play for more than a few minutes. Aside from struggling to find points in the half court, UNC has been misfiring from the free-throw line. The win over UNC Asheville was the first time this season the team had made more than 70 percent of its attempts, and it’s missing an average of nine free throws a game and hasn’t missed fewer than eight in any contest, which really hurts when you consider the Heels’ two early losses have been by five and seven points, respectively.

The problems don’t stop there. There was the late-game breakdown on the defensive glass against Vanderbilt that played a key part in the final outcome. There’s the inconsistency on both ends of the court, as evident in UNC’s being able to spurt out to a 22-point lead in the span of about five minutes against UNC Asheville but being unable to hold it, giving most of it back in the ensuing eight minutes. There’s the lack of a consistent second scoring threat, which also was evident against UNC Asheville, when the Bulldogs aggressively double-teamed Tyler Zeller late in the game and caused the UNC offense to stagnate as UNCA made its comeback. There’s the inability to hit consistently from outside (throw out the ridiculous 12-for-17 performance from 3-point range against Hofstra, and the Tar Heels are shooting only 27 percent from behind the arc in their other four games).  There’s the tendency to muck up what should be easy transition opportunities. And then there are the stretches of just plain sloppy ballhandling that lead to piles of turnovers and squander staunch defensive efforts at the other end of the court.

So where does that leave the Tar Heels? Well, quite frankly, right about where they left off last year — a team that’s closer to the NIT than the NCAA Tournament. In fact, the game against UNC Asheville felt disturbingly like an NIT matchup: A scrappy team from a small conference against a mediocre big-name program from a power conference, each with one or two good players but both plagued by a number of shortcomings. Both teams go through cold stretches in which they fail to capitalize on the other’s struggles. One team goes on a hot streak but then exhibits why it’s not playing in the Big Dance by letting a big lead slip away. You end up with not a good game, just a close game. Eerie.

The good news is it’s still early in the year (and I sure am not ready yet to say this UNC team is NIT-bound again); the bad news is that, as last season showed, these problems won’t magically disappear in a month just because it says “North Carolina” on the jersey or because that’s Roy Williams standing on the sidelines. Near the end of the UNC Asheville game, the TV announcers were talking about how UNC probably needs to win two of the three upcoming games against Illinois, Kentucky, and Texas in order to establish itself nationally. Right now, though, just staying close in any of those games seems like a tall task. The road back to elite status is going to be a long march rather than a quick sprint. Remember: The team that came after the 8-20 season landed in the NIT, and the next year, Roy’s first at UNC, the Tar Heels were nothing more than a middling top-25 team before they got back on top the year after.

A few other observations:

  • I didn’t blame all of last season’s woes on Larry Drew, and I even defended him at times. I thought the talk about wishing he would transfer was cruel and overzealous. However, I am ready to see Kendall Marshall get an audition as the starting point guard. The reason is that Drew doesn’t seem to be playing with any confidence on offense. Last season, his main bugaboo was that he would drive toward the hoop with no clear idea of what he’s going to do, often resulting in a turnover when he whips an impossible pass to an unsuspecting teammate. This season, however, he’s not even looking to drive and attack. When he catches the ball on the perimeter, it almost always stays on the perimeter, whether via dribble or pass. That’s too passive a role for a point guard in an offense that relies heavily on its point guard getting into the lane. Marshall has had his off nights, too, but he has clearly shown a much stronger knack for getting into the lane, forcing the defense to adjust, and making things happen (and his passes are actually catchable). In terms of shooting, Drew is showing zero confidence in his shot right now, from the field or from the free-throw line, the latter of which is extremely damaging for a point guard. Marshall, meanwhile, has shown a better-than-expected touch. He’s a freshman, and he’s going to have his ups and downs, but that’s still better than a point guard who won’t drive and can’t shoot.
  • Say it with me: Thank you, Alabama, for not offering a masters program in sports administration and thus making it possible for Justin Knox to transfer to UNC and play right away. Knox has really been impressive so far. He doesn’t back down on defense, and when he catches the ball on offense, he’s no Ed Geth. He can actually score with his back to the basket and has shown a nice touch from the free-throw line. You can certainly win in college basketball without a ton of depth, as long as you have the right kind of depth at the right positions, and Knox might prove to be just that for UNC.
  • Between Dexter Strickland, Leslie McDonald, and Reggie Bullock, UNC is bound to get more production out of its two-guard position than last year, when Marcus Ginyard couldn’t shoot, couldn’t handle the ball, and didn’t show anywhere near the kind of leadership the team needed. I like Bullock’s game and would like to see him get more time. I like Strickland when he has the ball on a breakaway, but his horrendous assists-to-turnover ratio drives me nuts. McDonald’s jumpshot looks improved, but he’s probably another season away from being a big-time contributor off the bench.
  • How good a year Zeller has will depend heavily on whether a second scoring threat emerges, as opponents will soon wise up and start running two guys at Zeller every time he touches the ball in the post.
  • Plug Harrison Barnes into the “phenom recruit of the year” role that John Henson occupied last season, along with the “good scorer if he’s hitting from outside” role that Will Graves played, and you basically have the same kind of starting lineup as last year: An on-and-off small forward who does most of his damage outside, a turnover-prone two guard who can’t shoot, and a shaky point guard. Zeller might be an improvement offensively over Ed Davis or Deon Thompson, but like them, his impact on a game is limited by the shaky play of the guards feeding him the ball. And while Thompson and Davis [intlink id=”2784″ type=”post”]played as if they were undersized post players[/intlink] last year, John Henson is an undersized post player this year.