Friday, January 27, 2017

Historical Gas Prices

Here they come.  The reporters with their feature stories, the announcers with their anecdotes, the Lunardis and the KenPoms and the retinues of seeders and bracketmancers, all bivouacked in Evanston because the Northwestern Wildcats inch ever closer to the NCAA Tournament. 

Before, the fresh-faced, short-straw reporters for ESPNRequiredByContract covering a Northwestern basketball game would wait until up to several seconds of game clock had expired to mention the Wildcats' woeful tourey drought.  Now, they all live in the Chicagoland Metropolitan Area and spring from elevated train platforms and Italian beef wholesalers to proclaim to passersby that Northwestern has never made the NCAA Tournament.
Did you know Northwestern has never made the NCAA tournament

The Wildcats are 17-4 and rising through a delightfully mediocre Big Ten.  This could be the best Northwestern team in modern history, albeit a history of opponents metaphorically dunking on Northwestern for decades at a time, even in decades where the scandalous dunk shot was banned from college basketball and opposing players had to subject them to vicious layups followed by strongly-worded letters to the college newspaper.  

Northwestern's historical basketball futility means that every single time they do something, the broadcasters need to break out their historical gas prices.  Their latest feat involved downing Ohio State in Columbus for the first time since 1977, as announcers gleefully changed into their disco pants and haircuts.  Ohio State plans to change the historical sign from the site of their Big Ear telescope that previously noted that in 1977, scientists discovered a potential extraterrestrial signal with an unknown origin and also the Buckeyes lost to Northwestern in basketball.


Northwestern's unending Sisyphean attempts to qualify for the NCAA tournament always bring to the fore the experts in seeding and strength of schedule and all of the statistical models and bracket hokum that usually serve the purpose of telling us that the Wildcats will not make the tournament. While some teams that always make the tournament seem to cruise through losses to non-conference Washington Generals and tournament-tainting RPI infections like Northwestern most years, they seem unaffected, materializing as a seven seed in a far-flung regional.  On the rare occasions when Northwestern seems poised to qualify, any loss to any team seems to knock them off the bubble, consigned to the dustbin of the NIT.  People who pay attention to and understand NCAA Tournament seeding have logical, iron-clad, and data-supported reasons why this happens, but as a person who wastes enough of my own life immersing myself in dumb sports arcana, I cannot bring myself to learn about this process and get angry over seeding; I prefer to give myself over to the numbers sorcerers and the Selection Committee and watch every Wildcat game in a preventive flinch.

The creation of the latest Mock Bracket

The annual desperate charge towards the NCAA Tournament remains the all-consuming goal for Northwestern basketball despite its meaninglessness.  A recent ESPN article compared the tourney drought to the Cubs' historical win in November, but while the Cubs threw off more than a century of thwarted attempts to become the champions of the entire sport, Northwestern desperately hopes to qualify for a tournament that continually expands to more and more rounds to the point where you or I may actually be in the NCAA Tournament right now and not even know it.  It's not even a conference championship; at best, it represents a Certificate of Basketball Competence, and a way to end the sole defining feature of the program in January and February where the name of the school for all intents and purposes becomes Northwesternwhichhasnevermadethetournament.  

A streak like the Cubs' championship drought tortures Cubs fans but also accumulates folklore and fanciful legends and generational yearning.  Northwestern has accumulated droughts in athletic feats so prosaic that they have no meaning at all to anyone.  They nurtured a bowl loss streak for more than sixty years, even as the number of bowls proliferated to the point where teams can declare bowl eligibility by filling out a notarized form.  Bowl wins have become devalued and instantly forgotten and yet the Wildcats' inability to win one of the crappy bowls they qualified for became an unbearable albatross that inspired nothing other than a plush monkey purchase by Pat Fitzgerald.  Their inability to qualify for the NCAA Tournament even as it keeps doubling in size remains an achievement in and of itself.  Northwestern's loftiest sports goals of winning crappy bowl games and getting to the NCAA Tournament often serve as fireable offenses at other schools.

These modest goals represent the larger goal for Northwestern's programs, which is to exist in the Big Ten as sports teams and not a traveling museum of historical athletic catastrophe. See the team that once lost a bunch of football games and threw the goalposts in a Great Lake.  See the team that has never made the NCAA Tournament.  See the stadium so filled with opposing fans that they have to go to a silent snap count or endure free throw taunts echoing from the rafters of their basketball barn, which the opposing fans taunting Northwestern players find inadequate. There are few things in sports more fun than a historically downtrodden team making its run.  Let's hope we have a reason to watch the first Selection Sunday I would ever care about.


The Per Synergy Sports basketblogging set have argued that the worst place for an NBA team is on a treadmill of mediocrity, where teams have no chance to compete nor have they been shitty enough to be rewarded with a high lottery pick that could blossom into a superstar.  They are wrong.  The best thing an non-contending team could do is to throw off the yoke of basketball decorum and descend into a shit-flinging soap opera of madness. 

Virtually everyone who pays the slightest attention to the National Basketball Association looked at the Bulls adding an aging Dwyane Wade and combustible brick artist Rajon Rondo to a front office that hires an organist to follow Gar Forman and John Paxson around to play foreboding diminished chords and a head coach who looks like he spends the off-season getting swindled in carnival games had the look of a disaster.  Even me, a dullard who knows next to nothing about basketball, described the crowning of the Three Alphas as a nickname that hilariously summed up the exact way that the team was destined to fall apart.

Wednesday night, after the Bulls blew their 400th consecutive loss to the Atlanta Hawks, the entire thing exploded in a glorious cacophony of recriminations.  Wade complained to reporters that his teammates suck.  Jimmy Butler, the Bulls' All-Star who made a miraculous transformation from a role-playing defensive specialist to one of the best players in basketball, agreed with Wade that his teammates suck.  Wade invoked Michelle Obama to complain that his teammates suck.

Rondo, already disgruntled about his descent from major free agent acquisition to a space on Fred Hoiberg's point guard minutes roulette wheel, could not sit on the sidelines without wading in.  That's Rondo's nature.  He appears to have a reputation so toxic that NBA GMs seem to be only interested in acquiring him to put in a sealed train and send to rivals like how Germany sent Lenin to St. Petersburg.  Rondo's innovation in the art of the destructive meltdown involved chastising Wade and Butler through a free verse poem called "My Vets."

(Borat Voice) My Vets

Bulls hero Nate Robinson has been closely monitoring the situation and has put out his own social media postings of angry Wade and Butler quotes with a plea to rejoin the Bulls, where he is only four years removed from his vomit-strewn takedown of the Brooklyn Nets.  I think that the Bulls should bring him in and should conduct all personnel business via Instagram.

So it begins.  Wade and Butler are marching down Madison Street.  Rondo is massing his forces from the East, preparing to siege the Advocare Center.  The rest of the Bulls' crappy players are hiding in Hoffman Estates.  Paxson has retired to his goblet-hurling arena while Fred Hoiberg wanders the country looking for a Blockbuster Video so he can find some inspirational movies to splice into his game film of the Bulls advancing upon each other in testudo formation.  Doug McDermott is having extreme plastic surgery to disguise himself as Creighton's Maurice Watson and claim he has miraculously returned from injury. 

Doug McDermott undergoes a Recreightioning Procedure

Thank goodness the Bulls are rotting, dysfunctional mess.  They enter the doldrums of the NBA season as an unwatchable mediocrity that relies almost entirely on two players to make contested jumpshots.  They will either fade into the late lottery or cling by their fingernails to an eight seed in the putrid east where they will be more or less instantaneously annihilated in the first round.  Fortunately, they have decided not to quietly limp to the finish in a parade of missed 75-foot Mirotic jumpers but to implode into a ridiculous black hole of infighting and social media sniping that has filled the void of spending these months wondering if Derrick Rose is Back.


Northwestern's glorious run hits its most precarious stretch as it faces Big Ten powers Indiana, Purdue, and Wisconsin.  They could continue to hang on or they can make a convincing case for themselves with a major upset.  This team has come back, it has hung with some excellent teams on the road, and it has closed out games at the line and with defense.  The players say they are focusing on one game at a time as required by law, but fans know that every dribble, pass, and shot is weighted with tournament implications.  It's nerve-wracking in the service of a modest achievement, but the best basketball in the Chicago area is happening at Welsh-Ryan while the Bulls destroy themselves through poisoned letters and sword duels.  Maybe this is the year we don't need to bask in the reflected funhouse glory of Bill Carmody.  

Wednesday, January 4, 2017


Kudos to whatever maniac dreamed up the Pinstripe Bowl, a football game played in a baseball stadium in a city that on a late December afternoon could be overrun by snow, ice, polar winds, and complex societies of hibernating bleacher creatures who spend the winter deep in the bowels of the stadium while composing new clap clap clapclapclap cheers for the springtime and occasionally clashing over whether or not A-Rod is a true Yankee and marching to battle in their souvenir sundae batting helmets.  The game drew a healthy contingent of blanket-swaddled fans and surely a massive television audience of people at gyms, muted bar televisions, and people stuck at work forced to stream the game into their cubicle joined by their ergonomic back pillows and a staple remover with googly eyes named "Bite Golic."

ESPN went all out and scrambled all available Golics

Northwestern came into the Pinstripe Bowl as underdogs against a confident Pitt team disappointed to be slumming it with Northwestern in a low-status bowl within the incomprehensible Great Hierarchy of Bowls. Pitt's turbocharged offense managed to march down the field repeatedly but had trouble crossing the goalline.  Anthony Walker ripped star running back James Conner from a one-yard score and Godwin Iguibuike came up with an endzone interception.  On the other side, Justin Jackson slithered, danced, juked, and stiff-armed his way to 224 yards, three touchdowns, and a slew of prone Pittsburgh defenders laid to rest in an armtackle graveyard.

Justin Jackson temporary stops the rotation of the Earth on its axis for his second touchdown

Pat Fitzgerald coached like he had nothing to lose.  An earlier post discussed Fitzgerald's more aggressive playcalling this season on fourth down.  The ESPN commentators made it seem like this was part of the Fitzgerald package, as he recklessly calls for fourth down conversions like a child emperor demanding that courtiers get kicked by exotic animals for his amusement because they haven't seen the thousands of times that the Wildcats have tried to kneel down for entire quarters, or sent out the punt unit in situations that even Kirk Ferentz would find excessive, and asked Northwestern's kickers to kick into howling squalls where the only way to get a ball through the uprights would be to speak some sort of ancient phrase in a dead language.  Fitzgerald trusted his offense and they converted all four times on fourth down after watching similar attempts falter this season by cruel inches.

Pat Fitzgerald goes all in on fourth downs

Northwestern drew inspiration from some ESPN personality who picked Northwestern to lose the Pinstripe Bowl on television to the point that Fitzgerald called him out twice: immediately after the game and at the postgame press conference.  Fitzgerald made sure the clip of an ESPN blowhard was the last thing that Northwestern players saw before taking the baseball field and this is easily the second funniest aspect of the Pinstripe Bowl except for the existence of the Pinstripe Bowl.  One can only imagine how far the Wildcats could go if someone informed Stephen A. Smith of their existence.

If it were me, I would not have kicked it to Jeremy Maclin. I would 
have said I'm gonna drill a hole in the dome and I want you to punt 
into the real Alamo which is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE but a 
MOTIVATIONAL EFFECT. I would have put everyone on the endzone 
against RON KELLOGG the THIRD and the FIRST and SECOND for 
GOOD MEASURE. I would have called a PLAY against MICHIGAN 
where it is PHYSICALLY IMPOSSIBLE for Siemian to fall on his butt. 
I would have REMOVED HIS BUTT. I would not have lost 34 consecutive 

football games. I would not become embroiled in a basketball 
point-shaving scandal instead I would say y'all aren't shaving a TENTH
of a POINT until we at least make the NCAA TOURNAMENT

The Pinstripe Bowl provided a solid bowl experience.  It featured wild lead changes, huge plays, a swashbuckling coach who kept going for it on fourth down, controversial unflagged hits that knocked out Pitts' quarterback and inspirational superstar running back, Joe Girardi, a low number of hamfisted baseball references which is good but also slightly disappointing like Al Pacino's performance in Insomnia which was excellent but I spent the entire time waiting for a sleep-deprived Pacino to bug out his eyes and scream at someone like an unhinged maniac which is like the first thing you'd expect to see in a movie about a Pacino character who hasn't slept in days but he's barely even irate, and an upset for an incredibly rare Northwestern bowl victory.


One of the most enjoyable things about bowl season is that the college football discourse, already a roiling pot of text-spittle, becomes given over to its favorite topic: whether a conference is bad.  Any rational person knows that a small series of one-off games often decided by a few plays tells us relatively nothing about the entire conference; it is hard to imagine a rational person sitting through more than 35 seconds of discussion about college football which consists of either a person screaming at Paul Finebaum while wearing a single-strap unitard or a person who sprays um actuallys around the internet like a sprinkler hooked up to a sewage line.

The Big Ten lost a bunch of bowl games and now it is bad.  Ohio State, which grabbed a controversial playoff spot despite not playing in the Big Ten Championship, got annihilated by Clemson.  Penn State lost a ludicrous quarterback duel by a last-second field goal.  Michigan lost because of a delightfully insane series of invents involving an effectively flummoxed kick returner and an interception that featured a potential missed offsides call that has led to the endowment of the Barrett Chair in Drawing Arrows on Pictures of Football.  Only Big Ten West powers Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Unstoppable Wildcat of Northwestern managed to win their relatively lowly bowl games.

Michigan scientists analyze the interception in the brand-new Offside and Spot Center

The Big Ten's bowl season flop remains completely meaningless.  For one, it is incredibly satisfying to watch the bullies of the Big Ten beaten in bowl games.  Conference pride is incomprehensible; why should I root for the very teams that sweep into the stadium every year with their legions of fans and more often than not bludgeon Northwestern?  There are few things in college football more satisfying than watching Ohio State get towed out of the Glendale stadium like one of its detachable grass fields with the possible exception of watching Jim Harbaugh explode into a million Harbaugh particles, each of them spitefully calling a meaningless timeout in the dying seconds of the Orange Bowl.

Second, the Conference Argument Industry takes place in a bizarre, lofty space that has nothing to do with the experience of college football fans.  While the big teams and the arbitrary playoff committee or BCS or whatever rudimentary scapulimancies used to divine the national champion before then take up all the air in the room, the vast majority of college football teams are either scraping for a bowl in whatever pizza city may take them or having fans argue about firing their coaches on the internet, or doing both at the same time. There are approximately three teams in each conference that  determine whether the whole thing is good or bad, and Northwestern has absolutely nothing to do with any of it.  The only thing that matters are Hats and bowl games, and the bloviations of various windbags obsessed with which team will lose to Alabama remains as ancillary to most teams' experience of college football as the seeding in the strongman competition where the giant Scandinavians are forced to scuttle around while strapped into economy cars.

Mr. Bay, I'm here to audition for the transformer. Yes, I'm ready, here it 
goes: Reet rot roat. Shit let me try that again


The last time Northwestern won a bowl game, the players participated in a horrifying ritual disembowelment of a plush monkey toy representing the Wildcats' bowl drought.  Now, they've won two.  Northwestern's bowl losing streak came down mainly to the relative paucity of bowl games and the team's historical football ineptitude.  Then, when the walls opened up and flooded these United States with a cornucopia of bowl spectacles, Northwestern ran into what appeared to be a universe determined to shut them out.  They played in all manner of bowls against big teams, against small teams, in Pasadena, in Detroit, and in every available venue in the state of Texas and they could not win their final game whether they were matched up against an SEC juggernaut or a cresting MAC team. They lost in overtime.  They lost on an overtime fake field goal.  They had NCAA officials stop games and invent novel overtimes and special teams scenarios for the Wildcats to falter.  

Brandon Breazell has spent the last 11 years returning Northwestern's 
onside kicks for touchdowns

The Pinstripe Victory was not as satisfying as that emotional, drought-wrecking Gator Bowl against Mississippi State.  That was a ranked Northwestern team in a New Year's Day bowl that had all the pomp you would exepct from a Mid Status Bowl Game: the sun-dappled Jacksonville coast, a guy in a knight suit threatening tax code with medieval weaponry, numerous cuts to an interview with a race car driver.  

No sports victory could possibly be more enjoyable than a long-awaited win after losing for decades and decades.  Those games, the ones that require the shredding of a stuffed animal monkey and brutal display of its plush carcass in post-game press conferences as a warning to FAO Schwartz, come once in a lifetime.  That does not diminish the Pinstripe Bowl, which featured a heavy underdog Northwestern team wearing officially licensed hats in triumph with their third winter victory in program history.  I hope there are many more crappy bowl game trophies to come. 

Until then, the only thing to do is sit and wait for the next great impossible victory: become one the 68 best basketball teams in the country.