Friday, March 28, 2008

Lawd, I was born a ...

... what was it the brothers Allman sang? Oh yeah, a Travelin' Man. Aspen you know about. Tucson you do not. Atlanta either.

I got a chance to land some key interviews on Tuesday for an upcoming story on the Colorado Rockies, so I high-tailed it to Tucson on Monday night. It ended up being much cheaper to drive than fly so I put 800 miles on the ride (just a week after putting 1300 miles on it from the Aspen round trip), spent about 7.5 hours in a hotel room in Tempe and another 5 hours at the ballpark before returning home 28 hours after I'd left. But I got the interviews, so there.

On Friday I fly out to Atlanta to meet Mrs. Gopher, who is running in the local half-marathon, her second such feat of epic physical prowess. Needless to say, I'm very proud of her. I also get to visit old friend Corey and meet his new gal, and we're going to take in the Braves-Pirates game on Monday, the 2008 home opener at Turner Field. Wow, baseball is upon us already. You know what that means -- daily Twins posts! Or something like that.

Carry on.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Monday Morning Meltdown: March Madness

I was watching the hometown five take it in the shorts against top-seeded Kansas on Saturday afternoon when I had an epiphany. I turned to Mrs. Gopher, who was intermittently listening to my frequent rants, and said, "I don't think sports telecasts are produced with sports fans in mind."

The sequence that triggered my ire occurred midway through the second half, as UNLV's Joe Darger picked up his fourth and fifth fouls in about a 20-second span. Darger is basically a swingman being forced to defend the rim because the Rebels are so small this year, and his departure with 10 minutes to play was the final nail in their coffin.

So I was already ticked off, because it appeared that Darger's fourth foul was a total mirage -- an illegal screen on offense, his second of the game and a real judgment call -- and his fifth foul was an over-the-back on defense when four guys went up in a pack and the ref picked out Darger. But what really bunched my undies was the fact that CBS didn't replay either call.

Any UNLV fan knows that Darger is a huge presence (no pun intended) in their lineup, so I'm sure we all wanted some visual proof of the fouls he supposedly committed. But showing a replay of a moving screen and a scrum going for a rebound isn't good TV. The two plays were crucial to the Jayhawks' ability to run away from the Rebels the rest of the way, but we never got a second look at either of them.

If I were a conspiracy theorist (or at least a full-time conspiracy theorist) I might be tempted to say that CBS didn't want to show the replays because they would reveal the officials' incompetence, and the Big Eye is so in bed with the NCAA that it's avoiding criticism of the refs at any cost.

But I don't think it runs that deep. I don't think that much thought was put into the refusal to replay those calls. I think the producer or director just figured those plays were too wonkish, too inside-basketball for the average fan to care about them. Why replay two significant but visually forgettable plays when you can show a monster two-handed dunk for the umpteenth time? That's what the March Madness audience wants, because CBS knows the March Madness audience is composed of people who watch 90 percent of their basketball during this three-week stretch and care more about the integrity of their brackets than the integrity of the game.

Not that CBS gets it right when they do show replays. Thanks in part to the "innovations" that FOX brought to sports TV when they started covering the NFL, CBS has fallen into the trap of the ultra-closeup, making sure we can see the facial expressions and flying sweat of one or two players, rather than giving us the big picture.

For example, one of Kansas' key 3-pointers in the second half came off a kickout pass from their point guard to a sharpshooter on the wing. Said sharpshooter was wide open, and I was wondering what happened to UNLV's defense to leave him completely unguarded. Were they packing the lane to compensate for their lack of size? Did the shooter's man try to pinch the point guard and disrupt his dribble, or did he get into the wrong passing lane?

Well, the replay didn't give me any help. CBS used a camera angle that showed the back of the point guard and the face of the man guarding him -- and nothing else -- then followed the ball from the passer's hands to the shooter's hands. Then another super-extreme closeup of the shooter as he released the ball, and then the predictable shot of the ball spinning through the air, reaching the top of its arc and dropping through the hoop with a lovely swish (as if something might have happened during the flight of the shot to affect its accuracy).

It made for a wonderfully artistic piece of footage for CBS. The director's buddies probably slapped him on the back and said he was a shoe-in for the Pulitzer Prize For The Presentation Of Sports Beauty. But it didn't tell me a damn thing about why Kansas was able to score three points against UNLV on that trip down the court.

But again, sports telecasts aren't produced for me, or anybody else who cares about sports. They're produced with the big Final Four montage in mind -- you know, the One Shining Moment when CBS gets to show off their technological artistry. If you want journalism, read a newspaper.

They still publish newspapers, right?

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Easter romance?

So, what happened in Henderson today? Well, it was Easter Sunday, and on the way back from Mass, Nora and I looked up at the brilliant blue sky to see this:

By the time I'd retrieved the camera, the characters had faded a bit, but you should still be able to tell that it said "H (heart) J" at one time. Then another image appeared:

I actually held the camera upside-down (rather than taking the time to invert the image) so you could clearly see the smiley face added to the composition.

So ... skywriting? Seriously? I thought that went out with penny candy and the Charleston. Still, it was a nice sentiment, and it went well with our Easter egg hunt.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Aspen, part V -- let it snow!

I don't think I can emphasize enough how much snow they've got here! This is late March, which is supposed to be "mud season" as the snow melts and the ground turns to mush. Instead, they're talking about extending the skiing season by another couple of weeks -- until late April -- and the locals are actually sick of looking skyward and seeing another dumping of "white gold" on the way.

Today was play day for the family. Fiona and I took a snowshoe tour of the back side of Mt. Ajax (that's her with our tour guide, Lindsey), bathed in brilliant sunshine -- and my face has a pinkish hue to prove it.

Toward the end of our trek, the skies turned dark, and Lindsey pointed toward the horizon and said, "In 20 minutes, you won't be able to see the tops of those mountains." And sure enough, dark clouds heavy with snow soon obscured our view of those majestic peaks.

After lunch, we took the kids sledding (which was a gas -- like riding a bicycle, you never forget, no matter how long you've lived in the desert), and it was still sunny. But by mid-afternoon, a heavy snowfall blanketed the valley (if you can call 7900 feet a valley). Massive flakes the size of quarters floated down upon us, and the girls decided it was time to sneak in one last dip in the hot tub.

It's been a great week, and the 10-hour return trip to Southern Nevada begins in a scant few hours, so I'll sign off for now. But Aspen has won me over. Any time the local publisher needs some face time with the VP of Circulation from her parent company, I'm riding shotgun.v

Aspen, part IV -- climbing that mountain

It's been an interesting and enlightening visit to Aspen (as well as entertaining and relaxing, of course). Aside from all the fun side trips and good meals and pool time, I've had the chance to engage in some geological and economic reflection. To wit:

We've heard numerous times that this is the snowiest winter anybody here can remember. As of two weeks ago, all the streets in town were one-way because the snowbanks were encroaching on the lanes. (At left, you'll see workers shoveling snow off the roof of the restaurant atop Mount Ajax.) There's serious concern about flooding this spring. But we Nevadans are hoping that all this snow will trickle down to us via the Colorado River. Anybody who's been to Lake Mead in the past couple of years knows how low the water level has dipped -- some have speculated that the lake itself will be dry by 2021, and the underwater ghost town of St. Thomas, which was flooded when the dam was built, has recently reemerged from its watery grave. So bring it on!

This week has also provided a stark lesson on the relative weakness of the American dollar. Everywhere we turn, we're face-to-face with foreign tourists who are taking advantage of the strength of their native currency to enjoy Aspen on the cheap (relatively speaking). Germans, French, Italians, Spaniards, Brits -- they're everywhere. On the bright side, it's nice to see that the world's supposed anti-American sentiment isn't preventing our allies from spending their money here -- or at least the skiing portion of that population.

Then again, I can't see why anybody would turn down a chance to come here. I don't even ski (haven't been on skis since a rather embarrassing and frustrating trip to Mount Kato in about 1984), but there's still plenty to do. The whole family took the gondola to the top of Mt. Ajax on Wednesday for a little lunch and some hiking around. And the views from 11,000 feet are spectacular. Fiona and I returned on Thursday for a snowshoe tour of the back side of the mountain, and despite the thin air we huffed and puffed our way through a great 90-minute hike.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Aspen, part III -- snow swimming

The condo where we're staying has an outdoor swimming pool. I'm sure it comes in handy when the temps rise in the summer, but I couldn't imagine using it in the winter. Then I found out that they heat it to 103 degrees, so it's like a giant hot tub.

The girls and I have enjoyed a long soak each of the past two afternoons, and we plan on hitting it again today. We're about to head up to the top of the mountain (via gondola -- we're not that ambitious!) for lunch with Mrs. Gopher, and rumor has it there will be opportunities to strap on the snowshoes and go for a hike. If so, we'll need another long soak in the giant hot tub.

Aspen, part II -- the snowman

Grandpa Tom requested a snowman. The girls couldn't let him down.

Aspen, part I -- getting here

The four of us rolled into Aspen late Sunday night. Mrs. Gopher has some business meetings here this week, and the little Gophers are on Spring Break, so we decided to make a family vacation out of it.

We arrived to a few inches of fresh snow, enough to make driving treacherous for our poor Highlander, which had never seen the white stuff. Let's just say that tires made to withstand 115-degree summers don't perform as well in wintry conditions.

St. Paddy's Day was pretty tame, given the holiday's unfortunate coincidence with Holy Week. Aspen's big celebration was held last week, so we settled for decent take-out barbecue and made our Guinness stew (no soda bread) on Tuesday.

The girls and I frolicked in the snow at a local park yesterday. Photographic evidence that these Minnesota ex-pats are still conversant with the frozen medium is provided below.

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Happy St. Hoffarber's Day!

Blake Hoffarber three years ago:

Blake Hoffarber last night:

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Best game I ever saw

For years, the best college basketball game I ever saw in person was a Gophers-Iowa tilt at the Barn in January 1989. We had a cartoon keg before the Saturday noon tipoff (root beer, of course), painted our faces, and sang the Rouser until we were hoarse. The Gophers took an 82-80 lead on a tip-in by Jim Shikenjanski (remember him?) with one second left. After a timeout, Iowa fired the ball the length of the court, and Roy Marble buried a 3-pointer ... after the buzzer. Gophers win, euphoria sets in, and a hangover probably set in the next morning.

That was the best college basketball game I ever saw in person ... until tonight.

My buddy Tim and I have been trying to get to a UNLV game all season, and we finally made it over to the Thomas and Mack tonight for the first round of the Mountain West Conference tourney. The second-seeded Rebels were playing seventh-seeded TCU, a team they'd beaten twice by double figures in the regular season.

But the Horned Frogs were up to the challenge tonight. They came out firing, knocking down 3-pointer after 3-pointer in the first half and responding to every Rebel bucket with one of their own. UNLV pulled ahead late in the first half and took a 40-38 lead into the locker room. Tim and I kept saying, "They can't keep shooting like this all night. The Rebels will pull away in the second half."

And when they opened the second half on a 9-2 run to take a 49-40 lead, we figured we were right. But once again, TCU wasn't paying attention to the script. Guards Brent Hackett and Ryan Wall caught fire again, and a 15-2 run put the Horned Frogs back on top by five midway through the second half.

The Rebels responded with their trademark gritty defense -- hard to believe, but almost all of those 3s were buried with a hand in the shooter's face or with the shot clock expiring as the ball sailed to the hoop, that's how hot the Froggies were -- and the teams traded buckets until the final minute, when the Rebels held an 86-85 lead.

The Frogs worked the ball around and found Hackett, who of course drained his sixth 3-pointer of the game to put TCU on top by one with 30 seconds left. After a couple of timeouts, the Rebels inbounded the ball under the basket with 7 seconds left. Wink Adams took the ball outside the 3-point line, lowered his shoulder and willed himself to the basket. He hit a runner while getting fouled, and his free throw gave the Rebels an 89-88 lead with 3.2 seconds left.

But Hackett wasn't done. He took the inbounds pass and raced down the court, eventually pulling up for a running one-hander from the top of the key at the buzzer and ... it hit the front rim and bounced away harmlessly. Rebels win, and probably punch their ticket to the NCAA Tournament along the way.

One look at the stats will tell you why this was such a remarkable game. The Horned Frogs hit 17 of their 23 3-point attempts -- that's not a misprint; they actually hit 74 percent of their 3s -- and they were 17-for-19 from the line. The Rebels were no slouches themselves, going 11-for-25 from behind the arc and shooting .585 from the floor. Adams' 29 points led the way, while Hackett finished with 26 for TCU. There were 15 lead changes and 10 ties. And the over/under for the game was 125, which they passed with about 11 minutes to play in the game.

Here's a great recap from the AP's Arnie Stapleton, who had a tough task because unless the policy has changed since the days when I wrote for them, he had to file a story within five minutes of the end of the game. There was so much action to summarize and so many key stats to include in the story, I'm amazed he was able to get them all in.

The Rebels play Utah in the semis on Friday night, and the winner will face Brigham Young (unless San Diego State can pull off a major upset). BYU is going to the NCAAs no matter what, and with New Mexico losing to the Utes in an overtime thriller tonight, the Rebels are probably safe as well.

But given the action that took place at the T&M tonight, it'll be hard to pass up a return trip to the Shark Tank on Friday.

Oh, please

If anybody needed any further explanation why most sports fans despise the New York Yankees (and their fans), all you have to do is click on this link. Yes, that's right, the Yankees "signed" Billy Crystal to a one-day contract and let him bat leadoff in their spring training game today against the Pirates in Tampa.

The true mark of organizational arrogance is when you're so full of yourselves that you think you're bigger than the game. And yeah, you could accuse me of being a baseball curmudgeon, and this was just a fun little publicity stunt, and it's only a spring training game, and it's only one at-bat, and it's a nice way to honor one of their longtime celebrity fans.

Whatever. This just smacks of the self-obsessed, obnoxious attitude that most of the country hates about New Yorkers. I watched some of the coverage, and the actual at-bat itself, on the YES Network this morning, and you'd think they were reporting on the appearance of Lou Gehrig's ghost or Roy Hobbs himself stepping into the batters box.

Of course, Crystal struck out and looked silly in doing so. He laid off a couple of borderline pitches, swung through a couple of meatball fastballs from soft-tossing lefty Paul Maholm, and the one time he did make contact, he was so far behind the lazy curveball that he slashed it foul down the first-base line.

Personally, I was hoping Maholm would stick the first pitch in his ribs and Crystal would pull a hamstring on his way to first base, but a strikeout is the next-best thing. Oh, and if the Yankees had any guts, they would have trotted out this circus yesterday when they played the Rays and maybe Crystal could have instigated a brawl.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Tift Merritt -- Another Country

The Weekly's web site is posting each week's reviews in a group, so there's no individual file to link to. Here's the link to all of last week's reviews, but if you don't want to sift through them all, mine is posted below. (But please click the link anyway to build the Weekly's pageviews!)

Tift Merritt
Another Country
4 stars

After wowing the critics with her 2002 debut, the country-tinged Bramble Rose, Tift Merritt shattered the girl-with-a-guitar stereotype on her second album, the funkified soul-fest that was Tambourine. Now she's back, nearly four years later, with another gem, this time an elegant, more polished journey to her Americana roots.

During her hiatus, Merritt spent a soul-searching stretch living in Paris, where the bulk of Another Country came together, and her lyrics reflect an artist emerging from a period of desperation and confusion with a fully realized vision of her place in the world. "I Know What I'm Looking For Now" and "Morning is My Destination" are beautifully simple tracks that illustrate the restorative powers of a little quality time alone with a piano and notebook.

Merritt's crystalline soprano is one of the hidden gems of the music world today, and Another Country is the perfect vehicle for her Emmylou pipes. Whether she's putting a soulful tinge on "Tell Me Something True," ringing out the tenderly precise phrases of "Broken," or fluttering along with the achingly gorgeous title track, it's obvious that she's found her voice in every sense of the word. With a solid backing band and a reputation for putting on sizzling live shows, Merritt continues to show why her star is rising in the alt-country world and beyond.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Yes, they can!

It's looking like the West Coast Conference might get three NCAA bids after all, with San Diego claiming the automatic bid by virtue of their 69-62 victory over Gonzaga on Monday.

So the Toreros are in, and the Zags are going to get an at-large bid because they're still at top-25 team. St. Mary's might be on the bubble, but as I noted in yesterday's post, the Gaels finished with a decent RPI (recalculated to 39 after they lost to San Diego in the semis), and both of their so-called "bad losses" came at San Diego, the latter in double overtime. So I think they're in as well.

This is all good news for Vegas, because it's been officially announced that the WCC postseason tourney will be held at our own Orleans Arena next March. Selling tickets for a one-bid league would be tough, but with three teams coming off NCAA Tournament appearances, the WCC tourney should attract a bit more interest from curious observers.

Also, all three of these teams should be loaded next year. The Zags are the Zags -- they're always stacked. St. Mary's loses only one starter and one top reserve, neither of whom fall into the irreplaceable category. And San Diego doesn't have a senior on its roster.

The one drawback to the WCC this year is that it's been very top-heavy. After the top three, the dropoff is severe -- the bottom five teams are all below .500. But out of those teams, I think Santa Clara and Portland are on the rise, with good young coaches and talented youngsters on their rosters. LMU, Pepperdine and USF are still a far cry from being able to compete, but if this conference goes five-deep, wow. It could be a great weekend at the Orleans one year from now.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Torero Fever: Catch It!

Well, the WCC Tournament had gone pretty much as expected until late Sunday night, when No. 3 San Diego stormed back from a 15-point second-half deficit to beat St. Mary's 75-69 in double overtime. The Toreros actually had the last shot in regulation and the first overtime, but Brandon Johnson missed pull-up jumpers from about 18 feet both times. Then Johnson hit the shot of the game, a fall-away 3-pointer off an inbounds pass in the corner with the shot clock at 1 to put San Diego up by five points with three minutes to play -- the Gaels never got closer than four thereafter.

So San Diego, which is playing the tourney on its home court, now faces top-seeded Gonzaga, which slipped past Santa Clara in Sunday night's other semifinal. It should be a good one, because the Toreros are led by first-year head coach Bill Grier, who spent 16 years as an assistant at Gonzaga before getting his first head coaching job in San Diego. The Zags won both regular-season matchups against USD this year -- by 10 in Spokane, and by four in SoCal -- but they looked shaky against a .500 Santa Clara squad that had played the night before.

Oddly enough, St. Mary's might be cheering for San Diego in this one. The Gaels should be in the NCAA Tourney -- they finished the regular season with an RPI of 33 and scored big victories over Oregon, Drake (everybody's darkhorse heading into the big dance) and Gonzaga. Their only two "bad" losses were both at San Diego.

The Toreros are 20-13 and they'll need to win on Monday night to get to the NCAA Tourney. Gonzaga is in by virtue of their 29 RPI and their regular-season conference championship. Conventional wisdom says that a San Diego win knocks out St. Mary's, because the WCC just isn't worthy of being a three-bid conference.

But that logic should be shot down when you look at the numbers. If St. Mary's ends the season with a top-40 RPI, a strong showing against a decent nonconference schedule, and a total of three WCC losses -- all against regular-season champion Gonzaga and tourney champion San Diego -- I don't see how the committee could stiff them.

Then again, this is the NCAA we're talking about, an organization that could screw up a one-car parade. Which means it's just as likely that they'd give the WCC only one bid if the Zags knock off San Diego again on Monday.

Should be an interesting night of hoops, and a long week for Randy Bennett and his St. Mary's Gaels.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Front-page news

Thanks to Farris Thorne over at FreeForm Fresno for this tip. Among the Breffarve retirement mania, which included some seriously delusional parents who named their newborn twin sons Brett and Favre, this, apparently, is what serves as front-page news in Green Bay these days.

As they say, you can't make it up.

This explains a lot

I had to post this link, because like the author of this blog, I know many of my frequent readers are fans of the Chicago-based rock band Wilco. A bit of background: I subscribe to an e-mail from the New York Times that summarizes its daily blog posts, and apparently they have one blog entirely devoted to migraine headaches and the struggles of those who suffer from them.

I've been a fan of Jeff Tweedy and his various musical outlets (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco, Golden Smog, the Mermaid Avenue project with Billy Bragg) for years, and I've read enough about him to know that he's kind of a ... complex individual. He quit drinking way back in the Uncle Tupelo days, and he claims to have been turned off by the whole drug scene.

But he's also had his battles with migraines and depression/panic attacks, and the medications prescribed for him to deal with those maladies left him vulnerable to substance abuse. I knew he went into rehab -- a dual-diagnosis clinic that helped him kick the pain-killers and deal with his depression -- about four years ago and he claims that he's been healthier than at any point in his life ever since.

But this essay on his migraines provided some remarkable insight, or maybe just confirmed some suspicions, about how his illnesses affected his musical output. When A Ghost is Born came out, I was initially turned off by a couple of songs that extended past the 10-minute mark and seemed to me to be little more than musical masturbation.

In this essay, Tweedy reveals that during the recording of Ghost, he was deep in the throes of his migraines and pain-killer addiction, and the purpose of those two stemwinders was an attempt to give his audience a sense of what he was dealing with behind the scenes. Makes perfect sense now, but at the time, I never fully grasped the artistic intent of "Spiders (Kidsmoke)" and "Less Than You Think." (For those of you who are not familiar with Wilco's catalog, the article includes snippets of both of those songs.)

Then the post-rehab Tweedy helmed the exquisite Sky Blue Sky, which hit the top of a number of critics' best-of-2007 lists (it checked in at No. 2 on my honor roll). Given the perspective of this essay, the whole album comes into clear focus. It didn't take me long to grasp that this collection of upbeat (if not up-tempo) songs was a celebration of life and an appreciation of all that it has to offer when the clouds blow away, but after reading Tweedy's insights into his struggles, it just seems that much clearer to me now.

Favre: I don't mean to bug ya'

Editor's note: One of Vegas Gopher's old friends is RJ, frequent commenter and purveyor of Midwestern tales of parenting and sports at "The Sirvio 5" blog. In the wake of the retirement of Breffarve (pictured left on his wedding day with groom John Madden, sans kneepads), RJ has agreed to grace WHIH with his take on the legacy of the man known throughout Dairyland simply as "No. 4."

"At the request of WHIH, I decided to take a different approach to this retrospective of Breffarve. I could have simply relived highlights and fond memories, spouted out statistics ad nauseum and reveled in the fact that Breffarve dominated the Vikings in recent years after a dubious history against the hated rival, but I thought there was an interesting parallel making an unlikely link between two icons. Enjoy.

Brett Favre and Bono have each had their share of glorious moments and achievement (Super Bowl champion, three-time MVP, certain hall of famer; primary songwriter and frontman for one of the best-selling bands in history, Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame inductee, noted philanthropist and champion for social issues) as well as moments which made even their biggest fans cringe (one-time painkiller addict and alcohol abuser, all-time interceptions leader, questionable decision-making in key plays of games; an over-the-top performance in “Do They Know It’s Christmas?,” an inexplicable photo kissing Liam Gallagher, the goofy “Stuck In A Moment…” video). (Editor's note: This list is incomplete without mention of Bono's mullet, circa the concert at Red Rocks.)
Believe me, I know both sides of the coin being a fan of both icons and their work. Ample ammunition has been supplied over the years to arm their critics. But just as the fans need to be honest to acknowledge the flaws, the critics need to acknowledge and recognize the legendary, one-of-a-kind greatness and bravado they personify, performing in a unique way very few in their respective fields have been able.
Favre and Bono reached points in their respective careers where they appeared to be washed up and no longer relevant (dismal 2005 NFL season; Pop) only to rebound back to prominence and greatness (2007 record-breaking NFL season; All That You Can’t Leave Behind to present).
They both stay true to themselves and truly don’t care what anyone else thinks; they only know one way to do what they do, according to their own convictions. Their courage to take risks is what propelled them to become great.
And at the end of the day, the ledger of highlights outweighs the faults.
These are flawed heroes but all-time greats nonetheless."

Thursday, March 6, 2008

What to watch this weekend, hoops edition

It's March, so the inevitable Madness is just around the corner. That means we're about to go neck-deep in conference tournaments as the brackets take shape in the next 10 days.

It's hard to sort out all the smaller conferences -- even I can't keep straight your Atlantic-10s from your Atlantic Suns, your MEACs from your MACs and your Big Wests from your Big Sky Conferences. (Nor can Billy Packer, apparently, since last year during UNLV's electrifying Sweet 16 run he told CBS viewers that the Runnin' Rebels were the champions of the "Big Mountain" Conference.)

However, thanks to my work with the good people at Blue Ribbon, I've been able to keep my finger on the pulse of the mid-major world for the past few years. I used to write the preseason previews for the Horizon League and the Midcontinent Conference, but last year (given my geographical shift) I was handed the keys to the West Coast Conference previews.

You might know them as Gonzaga and the Seven Dwarfs, but there's a lot more here than what meets the eye. Eight small, private schools -- six in California, one each in Oregon and Washington -- that play a pretty good brand of basketball. And there's a good chunk of hoops history on display here, as this conference used to play host to guys like John Stockton (Gonzaga), Steve Nash (Santa Clara), Dennis Johnson (Pepperdine), Bill Russell (San Francisco) and the Hank Gathers-Bo Kimble teams at Loyola-Marymount.

Plus, if you like NBA legacies, scan the rosters of the WCC squads and you'll see why there will be quite a few famous faces in the crowd at the conference tourney this weekend: Luke Sikma of Portland (son of Jack), Austin Daye of Gonzaga (son of Darren) and Mychel Thompson of Pepperdine (son of Mychal) all have seen significant playing time this season as true freshmen.

This is also a great coaches conference. Mid-majors are often proving grounds for coaches looking to make the leap to the bigtime (check out the resumes of guys like Bruce Pearl, Ben Howland, Bill Self, Bo Ryan, Thad Matta and Matt Painter, to name a few), and the WCC has a number of the next wave of hotshots. Mark Few, of course, has turned Gonzaga into a perennial powerhouse and could have his pick of jobs if he ever wanted to leave Spokane. Few's longtime assistant, Bill Grier, has taken San Diego from the cellar to third place in one year. Eric Reveno is in his second year at Portland after handling the recruiting for Stanford, and at Santa Clara, former UCLA assistant Kerry Keating is getting his first shot at running a program after earning a national reputation as a killer recruiter for Howland's Bruins.

Oh, and you want competition? It appears certain that the WCC will be a two-bid conference (a rarity among mid-majors) with regular-season champion Gonzaga and second-place St. Mary's both earning RPI ratings in the low 30s. Last Saturday, the Zags beat St. Mary's to clinch the title in the first game in WCC history (50+ years) that featured two ranked teams.

And don't count out San Diego. Grier's Toreros have already beaten St. Mary's, and he should know how to play Gonzaga if they get that chance. And they're playing the conference tournament on their home court, an advantage they reportedly won't have next year based on reports Wednesday that the WCC postseason tourney is coming to Vegas next year.

So, if the seeds play out accordingly, the semifinals on Sunday night (ESPN 2) will feature Santa Clara vs. Gonzaga and San Diego vs. St. Mary's. The Gaels (that's St. Mary's, from the East Bay hamlet of Moraga, Calif.) would dearly love another shot at Gonzaga in the title game (Monday night, ESPN) after splitting their two regular-season tilts, but getting past San Diego on its home floor will be no small feat.

So if you're looking for some great mid-major hoops action to prepare you for the big boys' conference tourneys and the release of the brackets on March 16, check out the West Coast Conference this weekend. Maybe even Billy Packer will be watching.

The Boss (hearts) Neko

OK, so I stole this link from Simmons, and I'm on record that I'm not necessarily the world's No. 1 Springsteen fan, but I had to post this interview with the Boss because there's a cool feature at the top of the page where you can scroll through what's on his iPod right now.

I like it -- in fact, I think every blogger should have this capability on his or her web site, because I'm one of those guys who heads straight for the CD cabinet when I go to a friend's house for the first time. I firmly believe you can learn more about somebody from what they listen to and what they read than from any other endeavor.

And what did I learn about the Boss from scrolling through his iPod? Predictably, he's got a lot of classic American music on there -- Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Dylan, Chuck Berry, et al -- but among the newer artists on the list, he's got no fewer than five (5) Neko Case tunes! Sure, they're all from The Tigers Have Spoken, so it's clear somebody needs to get him a copy of Furnace Room Lullaby and/or Fox Confessor Brings the Flood pronto. But it's good to see that the man's got taste.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I rest my case

Turns out, Barack Obama has to focus on Hillary Clinton before he turns his attention to John McCain, because apparently fear still buys votes.

The Strib has an interesting look at what lies ahead on the road to the Democratic nomination, in light of Hillary's wins in Texas and Ohio on Tuesday. The headline says it all: "Wins could ratify bitter attack ads." In my mind, here's the money quote:

In Ohio and Texas, a majority of voters also thought Clinton attacked Obama unfairly, the exit polls found.

"That ad makes me angry," said one Ohio voter, Josh Stoneburner, a dog groomer. "We've been dealing with that kind of politics long enough. I don't want to be scared into voting. Enough fear-mongering."

And yet, Clinton's "3 a.m." ad seemed to do the trick. It'll keep her in the race, and it'll probably lead to more mudslinging before the Pennsylvania primary next month. Is it any wonder people are sick of politics in this country?

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Political jujitsu

I realize I'm a little late to the game on this link, but this is a great example of why I think Barack Obama represents the Democrats' -- and the country's -- best hope in November.

About not wearing an American flag lapel pin, Obama said Republicans have no lock on patriotism.

"A party that presided over a war in which our troops did not get the body armor they needed, or were sending troops over who were untrained because of poor planning, or are not fulfilling the veterans' benefits that these troops need when they come home, or are undermining our Constitution with warrantless wiretaps that are unnecessary?

"That is a debate I am very happy to have. We'll see what the American people think is the true definition of patriotism."

I know Obama has been ridiculed for his talk of "change" -- that he's all rhetoric and bluster and woefully short on the details. Of course, this is bunk -- there are plenty of policy papers and statements and proposals on his website, but they don't fit into a 10-second soundbite so the average American hasn't taken the time to read them. (Note: I am an average American.)

But the change that's so exciting to me is that perhaps finally we've found a politician who knows how to strike back at the mudslinging from the right-wing hate machine, by pointing out the ridiculous nature of the attacks instead of scurrying like a church mouse to defend himself from these scurrilous attacks.

The 2004 campaign should have been a slam-dunk win for the Democrats, but John Kerry and his advisors fell right into the trap set for them by Karl Rove and the Fox News crowd. Here was a decorated war hero who both served his country admirably and understood the danger of fighting an ill-planned and poorly executed war. But instead of riding roughshod over the draft-dodging chickenhawks in the Bush administration, Kerry scrambled to refute the Swift Boat attacks, something he should have been able to do within two days of the first ad by pointing out the differences in the service records of the Democrat and Republican on the ballot.

Now we've got Obama, who doesn't even have a military record on which to run, providing the blueprint to quash the slime flung at him from these faux patriots. And the reason I said he is the country's best hope is not because I am a Democrat, or because I am an Obama supporter (I'd just as willingly back Hillary if I thought she were capable of doing the same, but she's proven that she isn't).

Obama's campaign represents the country's best hope for a better future because this kind of crap has to stop. Questioning another American's patriotism is the lowest kind of dirty trick, because it appeals to some deep insecurities in the American populace, the kind of appeal that only serves to divide our country further. Obama is on record countless times showing his love for this country, and no lapel pin or posture during the national anthem can prove otherwise.

The sooner we can stop these cynical attacks from drooling right-wing sycophants, the sooner we can start talking about the issues that affect the bottom line and quality of life for all Americans. Of course, that's exactly what most Republicans don't want, because they know when it comes down to the issues, most Americans realize it's time for a change.

And, FYI, I'm just as down on ridiculous attacks on McCain or other Republicans from left-wing nutjobs. I just don't think they rise to this level in the frequency of those on Democrats from the right. If you disagree, feel free to try to set me straight.