Levine: For a month, it's Madness again


Levine: For a month, it's Madness again

By Rich Levine

In the midst of my 48th straight hour of watching players Ive barely heard of run up and down the MSG floor, theres only one thing I have to say:

College basketball is back!

And I know thats a ridiculous statement.

I know that for millions of fans out there, the notion that college basketball somehow hasnt existed these last few months is more insulting than the ATM surcharge at casinos (and . . . other places). For a lot of people, college hoops has clogged the sports radar since the clock struck Midnight Madness, and has remained at the forefront for the better part of this painful winter.

And I appreciate that.

I have nothing against the grind of the college basketball season, or the game itself, and nothing but respect for the diehard fans.

Im just not one of them.

At least, not anymore.

I grew up obsessing over college basketball.

For most of the 90s, I studied recruiting classes, could rattle off seven or eight guys on each of the Top 25, and probably break you off a pretty good scouting report on the top 50. (In retrospect, it might not have been that insightful during the middle school years.) I watched a ridiculous number of games. I read every magazine (even Lindys!). I had far more pictures of UNCs Jerry Stackhouse on my wall than anything that would now be considered cool. I loved college hoops.

The first reason was just that I loved basketball, and at the time, the Celtics werent exactly the worlds most exciting team. The Big Three were past their prime before I could really appreciate them, and after that, the only remotely cool player in Boston was Reggie Lewis. He died when I was 13. And until Antoine Walker came along three years later, the C's didn't have too much going on (Although, looking back, I wish I'd been smart enough to realize how awesome a Dino Radja poster would have been)

But regardless of the lack of professional options, I also loved college hoops because I felt closer to it. The NBA (especially after MJs first retirement) was old. College players were younger, cooler, and more like me. Not that I actually had much in common with Cameron Dollar and Miles Simon, but it felt like I did. Every one in the NBA had existed before Id started to care. These college athletes were new; they were the future. And that seemed so much more interesting than whatever was going on now.

(It also helped the that around the same time, UMass was consistently one of the best teams in the country and BC made their ridiculous run to the Elite 8. Where you at now, Meat Hook?)

Anyway, Stackhouse was probably the tipping point. Im not kidding about how obsessively I followed him. Its pretty uncomfortable to think back on now. I kept an album of his newspaper clippings (mostly from Basketball Weekly) in my closet. I had his 1995 SI Player of the Year cover framed above my TV. My first AOL screen name: UNC2342 (Jordan and Stack). It was really weird. And then, in the summer of 95, he moved on to the NBA.

I was 15, my favorite athlete was changing leagues, and I had to straighten out my priorities.

That season, Stackhouse, along with Rasheed Wallace and Joe Smith, joined an NBA that was already starting to be dominated by players Id watched grow up through the ranks: Shaq, Kidd, Webber, Penny. And eventually, as the league continued to fill up with more and more of my college heroes, and the time I had available to spend obsessing over sports wasn't getting longer, I had to make a decision:

Whats more important: Is it the game or the players?

And ultimately, it wasnt that difficult of a choice.

I still have my VHS copy of Stackhouses first game against the Celtics. It was a preseason game, and entirely meaningless. Afterwards, I watched it every day for probably two weeks. And from there, the NBA started its take over. Over time, Stackhouse, Wallace, Webber, Kidd and Penny were joined by guys like Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Antoine Walker, Tim Duncan, Marcus Camby, Vince Carter and Paul Pierce.

Meanwhile, players like Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, Jermaine ONeal and T-Mac made college feel a little less important, as did the influx of international talent. There were guys who were too good for college basketball? Does that mean college basketball isnt that good?

It didnt all happen at once; it was more of a slow, decade long shift. But by the end, just like that, my college basketball had become the young NBA.

The time Id once invested into college hoops was now spent watching my favorite athletes compete at the next level. Eventually, the college game became the equivalent of what the college fan in me used think about high schools. I only cared about the stars. Now its gotten to the point where Ill only tune in, at least in the regular season, when a guy like Adam Morrison (yikes), Kevin Durant, Blake Griffin, John Wall or Jimmer Fredette comes along. And even then, its never about winning or losing, or even college basketball. Its about the fact that I know this guys going to be a pro, and I want to know more now so that Ill be ready when he gets there. When it matters. Its sad thats its gotten to that, but what can you do.

As time goes on, you have to make sacrifices, and ultimately, college basketball was mine. (Some people graduate with a big-time alma mater to keep them focused on the college hoops. No offense to Colgate, but I never had that.) I cared more about following my guys than finding the new ones. The future wasnt as appealing as the present. And now, my love for college basketball exists entirely in the past.

To this day, Ill be messing around on the court, throw up a bomb and yell, Alex Dillard for three! or Curtis Staples with the dagger! (Its even funnier when I miss the rim entirely.) Ill still laugh any time someone mentions Serge Zwikker or Mamadoue N'Diaye. I swear to God that God Shammgod still comes up in conversation at least once a month. Im just about having an anxiety attack over how great Sundays Fab Five documentary is going to be.

Thats all still there, but as far as today, Im casual at best. The NBA won. It consumes almost all of my basketball focus even if, by now, Jerry Stackhouse and just about every player from my college basketball and then the new NBA is either on their way out or already there. The pros rule my world. I'm in for good.

And as a result, its at this time every year when I feel like an unbelievable fraud.

Because no matter how I spend the first five months of basketball season, come March, Im still a dangerously obsessed 15-year-old. Ill still spend four straight days watching the Big East Tournament, and then set out on a cracked-out cram session to absorb everything I can. Right now, Im lucky if I can name two guys on most teams, but by tip-off next Thursday, Ill be a short-term encyclopedia.

Ill be able to talk the talk, even though most of that knowledge will be the product of 15 minutes spent clicking around a teams online Clubhouse. Of course, that knowledge will be useless. Ill get destroyed in my brackets like I have every year since I can remember. Ill be exposed to be the fraud that I am, and then crawl back under my NBA rock.

But, like every year, Ill have a hell of a time doing it. Because even if I can't hang with college basketball like I used to, for one month, it's still a lot of fun to pretend.

Finally, college basketball is back!

Rich Levine's column runs each Monday, Wednesday and Friday on Rich can be reached at Follow Rich on Twitter at http:twitter.comrlevine33

NHL Power Rankings: Bubble starting to burst for Cinderella teams


NHL Power Rankings: Bubble starting to burst for Cinderella teams

The bubble is beginning to burst for some of the Cinderella teams out of the starting gate around the NHL. The Kings have lost four games in a row and look like the offense is again becoming a problem, the Rangers are back to losing after an extended winning streak, and both the Flyers and Stars have dropped three games in a row after decent starts to their seasons amid low expectations.

There are still a few other teams like the New Jersey Devils, Detroit Red Wings, Winnipeg Jets and Vegas Golden Knights, among others, that are bucking expectations and defying convention thus far. It will take a bit more sustained success before people are truly ready to buy in on them this season. Until that happens they remain a nice little story among the true contenders vying for league dominance.  

Anyway, without further ado here are this week’s preseason power rankings:

1.  Tampa Bay Lightning (regular season record: 15-2-2, rank last week: 2) – The Bolts are on another five-game winning streak, and continue to serve notice that they were the sorta new, sorta old sheriff in the Eastern Conference. First in the NHL in goals scored, second in goals against and second in power play is some pretty amazing performance.

2.  St. Louis Blues (14-5-1, rank last week: 1) – Brayden Schenn and Jordan Schwartz are the top two scorers for a Blues team that’s fought their way to the top of the Central Division. While that’s a great story in St. Louis, it does raise questions about how long they can sustain that over the course of a full hockey season.

3.  Winnipeg Jets (11-4-3, rank last week: 5) – Three wins in a row and one regulation loss in the last 10 games for a Jets team that seems to finally be getting it. Mark Schiefele has really become a difference-maker in Winnipeg.

4. Toronto Maple Leafs (13-7-0, rank last week: 6) – The Maple Leafs have won five games in a row without Auston Matthews, which is a pretty impressive feat for such a young group. It does appear like it could also be a season of streaks for a Toronto club that’s shown both extremes already this season.

5. New Jersey Devils (11-4-3, rank last week: 7) – The New Jersey home for wayward Bruins has been pretty good thus far with both Drew Stafford and Jimmy Hayes making the most of their next opportunity after varying degrees of success in Boston… very varying.

6. Los Angeles Kings (11-6-2, rank last week: 3) – The Kings have hit a bit of a wall with four losses in a row where they’ve scored a grand total of six goals while looking much more like last season’s bunch of Kings. Jonathan Quick will keep them in those games now that he’s healthy again, but you’re not going to win if you can’t score.

7. Columbus Blue Jackets (12-7-1, rank last week: 8) – The Blue Jackets have bounced back from four losses in a row to win three games in a row where they needed to grind it out with an on-his-game Sergei Bobrovsky. That’s pretty much how it’s going to go for Columbus.   

8. Pittsburgh Penguins (11-7-3, rank last week: 4) – Phil Kessel is leading the Penguins in scoring and Sidney Crosby has been merely okay offensively (six goals in 21 games) with a minus-12 on the season. Has the whole world of the Penguins turned upside down or what?

9. Vegas Golden Knights (11-6-1, rank last week: 9) – The long goaltending nightmare is over for Vegas as it appears that Malcolm Subban is approaching a return to the lineup. Credit to the Golden Knights for holding things together while the injuries played out, and continuing to defy the odds of what they could do this season.   

10. Nashville Predators (10-6-2, rank last week: 10) – The Predators are 5-1-1 in Music City and once again making that a tough place to play for opponents. Certainly the sight of PK Subban in a cowboy hat during pregame warm-ups is sign that the Predators players are fully buying into what’s going on in Nashville, and that makes them a very formidable opponent.

11.   New York Islanders (10-6-2, rank last week: 11) – The Isles have won a couple of games in a row and appear to have hit their stride while slowly moving up the Metro Division ranks. That they’ve done with so-so seasons for Jordan Eberle and Andrew Ladd certainly says plenty about other guys stepping up.  

12. Ottawa Senators (8-4-5, rank last week: 13) – Nobody has played fewer games in the NHL than the Senators, and they are just outside a playoff spot after adding Matt Duchene to their lineup. I’d say things are looking pretty good for Ottawa and where they’re set up at this point in the season.

13. San Jose Sharks (10-7-0, rank last week: 20) – The Sharks are the best defensive team in the NHL, and have the second-best penalty kill in the league this season. That’s certainly a change from the past for the Sharks, but they remain, as ever, in the hunt for the playoffs.

14. Detroit Red Wings (10-8-2, rank last week: 19) – It’s less than a week before Thanksgiving and the Red Wings are in a playoff spot. It’s a big question if they can sustain what they’ve built up this far and they do have three or four games on much of their Atlantic Division competition, but they are in a better spot than anybody could have imagined at this point.

15. Minnesota Wild (9-7-2, rank last week: 26) – The Wild have won four games in a row as Devan Dubnyk is starting to get his stuff together, and are once again in the mix in the Central Division as they seemingly always have been over the recent past.

16. Chicago Blackhawks (9-8-2, rank last week: 24) – The Blackhawks have been jolted back to life by rookie Alex DeBrincat pumping up the offense to support the longtime veteran core. They’ve won two of their last three games and scored 15 goals in those three games as well.

17. Calgary Flames (10-8-0, rank last week: 12) – The Flames have won five of their last seven games, but also gave up eight goals to the Red Wings in their last loss. Jaromir Jagr has been pretty okay since getting healthy for the Flames, so the legend keeps on growing.

18. Washington Capitals (10-9-1, rank last week: 18) – The Capitals are 24th in the NHL in goals against and Braden Holtby has been pretty ordinary for the Capitals this season. It sure feels like they’ve lost a little something defensively this season, which doesn’t bode well for their Cup chances.

19.  Vancouver Canucks (9-8-2, rank last week: 15) – All three of their leading scorers are young, talented forwards, so at least the Canucks have that going for them…which is nice. But the Sedins have five goals and a combined 15 points in 38 games, and it appears the end may be nearing for the Swedish twins.

20.  Colorado Avalanche (9-7-1, rank last week: 21) – It feels like Gabriel Landeskog and Nathan MacKinnon have both played much better since the Matt Duchene train left the station. Maybe that’s a coincidence, but it doesn’t feel like it for whatever reason.

21. Philadelphia Flyers (8-6-0, rank last week: 14) – The Flyers have scored a grand total of one goal in their last three games, which is also a three-game losing streak for the Broad Street Bullies. Who would have guessed that offense would be a major issue for this group?

22. Anaheim Ducks (8-7-3, rank last week: 17) – The Ducks have points in four of their last five games, and finally seem to be pulling things together a month into the season. This isn’t the same team that was a Western Conference powerhouse a couple of years ago, but they can still be a heavy, formidable foe on any given night.

23. New York Rangers (9-9-2, rank last week: 16) – The bad news for the Rangers is that the six-game winning streak is in the rearview mirror. The good news is that Rick Nash seems to have found his game, and is producing offense for a Blueshirts group that needs everything they can get.

24. Boston Bruins (7-7-4, rank last week: 23) – The Bruins, through injuries and major inexperience, are slowly sliding down into oblivion before Thanksgiving, and are going to need to find some things to hang their hat on if they want to survive the month of November.  

25. Dallas Stars (9-9-1, rank last week: 22) – The Stars are 2-4-1 in the month of November, and have been outscored 24-7 in the losses this month. It really feels like there is a compete problem in Big ‘D’ where they shouldn’t be getting dominated like that from a talent standpoint.

26. Montreal Canadiens (8-10-2, rank last week: 25) – While it’s good that Charlie Lindgren has stepped up and been pretty good for the Habs in an emergency-type situation, it’s an absolute disaster that Carey Price is banged up again for Montreal. This is a season where everything that could go wrong pretty much has for the Habs.

27. Carolina Hurricanes (7-6-4, rank last week: 27) – The Hurricanes have taken seven of their last 10 points, but it’s not really making much of a dent in the Metro Division. The one truly encouraging sign has been some very good goaltending from Scott Darling and Cam Ward.

28. Edmonton Oilers (7-10-2, rank last week: 28) – The Oilers seemed like they might be pulling out of their early-season funk, but then lost four of their last five games to stick close to the Pacific Division basement. It’s been a rough start for Cam Talbot, and that’s been one of the big differences for the Oil.   

29. Florida Panthers (7-9-2, rank last week: 30) – You have to wonder where the Panthers would be if they hadn’t brought in a player like Evgenii Dadonov, who has been one of the best offensive players on the team this year. That’s a nice win for Florida’s management group to get him back in the fold this season.

30. Buffalo Sabres (5-10-4, rank last week: 29) – So many sticks to break for Jack Eichel, so little time.

31. Arizona Coyotes (3-15-3, rank last week: 31) – The Coyotes have gone 3-5-2 in their last 10 games. That is considered a major roll for them, so they have to be getting pretty excited out in the desert.


Young Celtics playing high-level defense without fouling a lot

Young Celtics playing high-level defense without fouling a lot

When you’re an NBA rookie or early on in your career, there’s so much to learn, especially when it comes to playing defense.
Despite having at least two players with a year or less experience in the starting lineup and at least three or four other rookies who see regular action, Boston’s top-ranked defense has been able to do the seemingly impossible – defend without fouling a lot.
Boston comes into tonight’s game against Atlanta averaging 19.8 fouls committed per game which is the ninth-lowest total in the league.


Celtics guard Kyrie Irving has some ideas as to how the team has been able to defend without fouling a ton.

“Our length, being able to communicate on the fly, having a system that’s predicated on shrinking the floor, just being very active,” Irving said. “Obviously, we’re going to foul. But the times we don’t foul, we limit teams to some tough shots, some tough two’s or some tough contested threes; I feel we put ourselves in great position. And then when you have guards down there rebounding as well as bigs down there boxing out and staying active it makes all our jobs easier, all five connected out there. We understand the importance of valuing each possession.”
The qualities that Irving talks about make sense when you’re talking about the qualities of an elite team defensively.
But for the Celtics to have so much youth tossed into such prominent roles, it is unusual to see everything seemingly come together so quickly.
“They utilize their length appropriately,” said Celtics head coach Brad Stevens. “They’re both long for their positions; that helps. So, you’re not playing Jaylen at the 3 (small forward) as much, and Jayson (Tatum) at the four (power forward) as much. You’re playing them at the two (shooting guard) and three (small forward) a lot. So, they can use that length rather than try and have to battle.”

Irving points out there’s added incentive to play at a high level defensively without fouling.

“If you don’t, you’ll be on the bench,” Irving said. “Brad has made that very clear. If the effort isn’t being put out there, and you’re not paying attention and you’re not preparing the way all of us should be preparing, that goes from the head coach all the way down to the 15th guy, if you’re not preparing the way you should and not perfecting your craft outside the game and that’s being very diligent, understanding what we’re trying to do in strategy, understanding our system, why it works, and why we’re doing it, then why the hell would you expect to play? So, he made it very simple. All the guys understand that. We’re a young team, but what we’re trying to accomplish will take a lot of energy and effort and focus. They understand that at a very young point in the season.”