Ever since Christmas break wrapped up shortly after New Year’s, life has been a whirlwind with travel, back-to-school meetings and school work. I’ve certainly made time for sports, but I haven’t had the extra hour post-game to write. So today, I want to offer my perspective on a few things I’ve missed relating to college basketball, Arsenal and of course, the Patriots and the increasingly frustrating Deflategate.
I’ll start with basketball. Over the long weekend, I had the opportunity to go to three big time games in the state of North Carolina on three straight nights. On Sunday, I was at UNC-Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill, experiencing the Dean Dome for the first time. Monday night, I joined my high school friend in the front row at Cameron Indoor for Duke-Pittsburgh. And Tuesday night, I put down the pen to revel in Davidson’s surge of school spirit in our upset win over no. 22 Dayton, taking in the game from the student section instead of my usual spot on press row.
Beyond the excitement I get from simply watching good basketball, I really enjoyed picking up on the differences between the three fan experiences. UNC felt like an NBA atmosphere – albeit without luxury boxes. Fans were excited, and granted, it wasn’t that close a game, but it didn’t have the small-town feel I associate with the college game. I loved all the history they played up. I also enjoyed all the smart, intellectual conversation being had about the game all around me. I sat pretty high up, but I felt like everyone around me knew what was going on and could appreciate the intricacies of the Roy Williams defense. I left impressed with their basketball culture and tradition, but underwhelmed by the atmosphere.
Being in the student section at Duke was the opposite. It was about the experience. At one point, I heard the guy behind me trying to explain what an air-ball was to the girl next to him. This is someone who waited in line all day for second-row tickets, and yet they didn’t know anything about the sport. That being said, the environment in Cameron is terrific. It was unbelievably loud and so much fun to be a part of. But it was hard to concentrate on the game. Everyone seemed more focused on getting on tv and taking pictures than actually watching the game. I certainly enjoyed watching Jahlil Okafor post-up, but I’m not sure the girl behind me even noticed the 6’10” superstar ten feet away.
Davidson-Dayton was an anomaly by Belk Arena standards. I’ll admit that Davidson games typically aren’t great basketball experiences. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this game was my favorite atmosphere of the three. More than half of Davidson’s student body showed up for this game. Where else does that happen? It was loud and engaging but at least I had a little space to move, unlike at Cameron where line-monitors literally push everyone as close together as possible. People got fired up with every made three, and the roof nearly came off when Davidson kept stretching their lead. And then there were the five swimmers, who stripped to speedos for free throws and danced – see photo (which I am in as well). I loved every second of it. This Davidson game had both the basketball experience and the game experience. For me, this game experience beat UNC’s and Duke’s – at least on this weekend.
From a basketball standpoint, I remain really impressed with UNC, having seem them play Davidson two months ago as well. Their length causes so many issues for opponents, and their offense looks even more balanced now than it did two months ago. With Marcus Paige picking up his play, I expect this Tar Heels squad to peak in March. Watch out. Duke looked good too, especially offensively. Watching Okafor in person gave me a new appreciation for how good he really is. Duke has the shooters to make him all the more effective against the inevitable double-teams too. What worries me about Duke though is their lack of depth and their defensive lapses. Justice Winslow also seems half a step slow to me. They’re good, but right now, I don’t see them as being National Champions-good.
Davidson is at an interesting point in their season. Overlooking the recent 30-point loss on the road at Richmond, this team has done everything right. But injuries are starting to take a toll as the grind of the A-10 begins. Road trips anywhere without Jack Gibbs ’17 at the point won’t be easy. Is this team good enough to make the tournament? Absolutely. But it’ll be a challenge to get there with a seven-man rotation that includes two foul-prone 6’7” freshmen forwards. I’m confident. But cautiously so. Follow me on Twitter (@Klaus_Faust) for continued A-10 coverage and thoughts. It’s going to be a fun couple months of college basketball.
Now to the Arsenal, where I’ve been way behind in my coverage. This weekend was the first time I’ve felt legitimately happy about Arsenal in a really long time. I’m tempted to say since the FA Cup Final, but that was more relief than happiness. The performance against Manchester City felt like a dream. Texts I sent to my friend included, “I can’t believe my eyes,” “What a day to be a Gooner” and “Coquelin is my hero.” If you told me a month ago that I’d say those last four words, I would have laughed.
But I have to keep reminding myself that it was only one performance. Three points are only three points until you win the next game. A shift in mentality is only a shift if it can be repeated. Much is still to be done. And lest we forget, Arsenal are currently outside the top 4. But there is now hope and hope is something I haven’t experienced as a Gooner in far too long. I’d almost forgotten it could be this way.
I’m excited to see Mesut Özil and Theo Walcott back for the FA Cup tie this weekend, but I think Arsene Wenger needs to be careful with rupturing the flow of this team by thrusting them back in the lineup long-term. I want to see them play, but not at the expense of removing Coquelin or putting Cazorla out wide. I also think David Ospina should continue to start in goal. Wojciech Szczesny made a mistake, and he needs to learn. Sit him for as long as Ospina plays better than Szczesny had been playing. If that’s through the end of the year, I’m perfectly fine with that.
Switching topics, Deflategate is one of the most overblown, poorly handled things I’ve seen in sports. As a Patriots fan, I realize nobody cares what I have to say on this subject and won’t take me seriously, but take a moment to step back and think about what is going on. It’s ridiculous that the NFL has let it get to this point.
If the Patriots doctored the balls after inspection, yes, that is bad. They should be punished. But what about the line judge and umpires who touched the balls on literally every single play in the first half? Why didn’t they notice? And if informed by the Colts staff, why didn’t they stop to check them during a break in action? If there wasn’t a noticeable difference – remember the two pounds is measured in PSI, not weight – then it can’t have that big an effect. The referee should have checked it on the field and replaced the ball. If deemed not important enough to check on until halftime, then who cares about it now? It wasn’t even flag-worthy when they found out they were deflated. They just switched them out. So why are we sitting here nine days before the Super Bowl wasting our time on this issue?
If the NFL wanted to punish the Patriots, it should have done so on Monday. Letting it drag out this long is a disservice to everyone, the NFL included. It takes away from what has happened on the field and what will happen on the field. Hate on Bill Belichick all you want. He doesn’t deserve the benefit on the doubt on this one – I get it. But comparing slightly deflated balls to bounty-hunting and to Spygate is an injustice to sports reporting.