"For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong."
Game #9-210: Florida International Golden Panthers at Western Kentucky HilltoppersDecember 27, 2012 8:00 pm
E.A. Diddle Arena
- H.L. Mencken
BOWLING GREEN, Ky. - E, S, P, and N are not four letters we like to use in sequence around these parts, and most of the time with good reason. However, as much as people try to make everything into absolutes, the answers in life are rarely that simple.
I often wonder, as I do currently as the country heads toward the ridiculously named "fiscal cliff", how almost every Republican and every Democrat could think the exact same way on issues. In the current House (which will change next week), we're talking 242 Republicans and 193 Democrats, all (presumably) with individual, creative minds that brought them to the pinnacle of our great nation's political system.
Yet, almost all, with remarkable consistency, vote along "party lines" nearly 100 percent of the time when an issue becomes controversial.
Sports tend to lean in the same direction, hence the proliferation of the sports talk show. Either a team or player sucks or they're awesome. Sometimes they vacillate several times over the course of the season, without ever appearing to the untrained eye to touch anywhere near the middle.
And so ESPN, while detestable for much of the day, still has things that are worth watching, and I can freely admit that without compromising my general position. One of them is their SportsCenter commercials. They're not all huge hits, but enough of them are legitimately funny to make me tip my hat. ESPN used to promote its pregame NFL show with a series of intermittently humorous ads from Football University (it might have had a more clever name, but I don't remember).
In one, Chris Berman, as the teacher, polls the class on what Neil O'Donnell could have done differently after throwing an interception. After a couple of responses, he says, "Perhaps O'Donnell should not have thrown the interception. Fundamentals, people." (I looked hard for it on YouTube, but no dice).
So why in hell was I in Bowling Green, Kentucky for a Sun Belt Conference battle between Western Kentucky and Florida International Thursday night? Because there was a basketball game going on there. Fundamentals, people.
I'm not really fooling you and I hope to have time at some point to regale you about the perils of said journey, and there have been many. Let's just say I was extremely overjoyed to be walking into Diddle Arena an hour before tip-off. For now, though, the game demands our attention.
As I already stated, generalizations are mostly bullshit, but the Sun Belt seems to be caught in a never-ending struggle between wanting to be true mid-majors and striving for the big time, lured - of course - by the ever-tempting and delicious looking pigskin.
Western Kentucky, a long-time FCS (Division I-AA) power recently took the bait and is now FBS (I-A). It has a beautiful stadium, recently (like the day prior to this game) played in a minor bowl game - their first (the Little Caesars Bowl, if you care).
They were good enough that their coach (Willie Taggart) jumped the Red Line, er, CS line to go to South Florida, whom I think is still in the Big East. Anyway, WKU stunned everyone by hiring formerly disgraced Bobby Petrino to coach their team next season and beyond.
You don't know him? Probably better off. But this explains the situation better than I could. The best paragraph if you're lazy:
"If all of this makes you want to vomit, then you're living under the fantasy notion that winning with integrity is still a priority in college sports. It is in a few places, but one needs to only follow the recent conference realignment wars to know that ego and/or desperation drives most decisions these days. And it's not like anyone in power is stepping in to stop it."
At some point on this trip, I hope to go into some of the cultural makeup of some of the regions I've visited. An example here being that there was no alcohol served at Diddle for the game, which - coming from the Northeast - I find strange in an arena that size. I actually like the idea, but it was just weird. But yet Petrino got a standing ovation when he was announced to the Diddle crowd at a television time out.
The man behind me as I walked in before had a shirt and tie, but carried a red handkerchief looking thing (I would get the significance of the Red Towel later). It turned out he was WKU President Dr. Gary Ransdell, and in the minute or so he was walking within earshot, he shook hands and answered the same question four times, all about football. None of them were about the coach. He answered them the same way, as if he had rehearsed it, even with the same smile.
"The boys played well, I thought. One play was pretty much it. We'll be back bowling next year, don't worry."
Diddle Arena has a few amenities that have tried to modernize its five decades of existence, but it's not too over the top. It has a distinctive roof, a nice atmosphere, and a pretty loyal fanbase from years of success. In short, it's a tremendous mid-major basketball facility. And no I'm not going to start ranking them. I loved it, that's good enough.
Then, of course, there's Big Red. He didn't look as big in person, but you know the camera does add 10 pounds, which translates into about 25 for mascots, I believe. It's tough to find a good person to play the mascot, as they graduate sometimes as well, but whomever was inside the costume knew what they were doing: playing with little kids, giving the proper requisite high-fives, etc. I found it poignant that when they had a ceremony to dedicate the court at Diddle to former coach John Oldham, standing next to the microphone were the President, the Athletic Director, and Big Red. Why not?
(Interestingly, the 1971 Final Four that Oldham led Western Kentucky to was officially vacated by the NCAA due to recruiting violations and WKU was put on probation soon after, even though Oldham was gone. So I guess some things don't change over time.)
The Sun Belt is playing a 20-game conference schedule this season with 11 teams (they'll have more next year as everyone chases the elusive football rainbow), so the Hilltoppers were already 2-0 in conference play heading into this contest. Last year's remarkable season was well-chronicled here at Mid-majority as WKU was so miserable at the beginning that Ken McDonald was fired, with Ray Harper picking up the reigns and miraculously winning the Sun Belt Tournament and a play-in game.
Their opponent was Richard Pitino and Florida International, new guys on the block in more ways than one. Pitino looks like he has a little talent, but not a whole lot of workable size, which is going to make it tough to play in the zone like the one his father prefers, currently at Louisville. It was funny to watch the Panthers play in a "Pitino-like" way, a passive-ish zone press back into a 2-3 zone, although Richard didn't seem to have too many of the mannerisms his dad does on the sideline. Maybe he has to put on the white suit first.
Papa Pitino has a huge game of his own against defending national champion Kentucky Saturday, but still found time to make the two-hour trip to Bowling Green to watch his son. He discreetly got to his seat behind the FIU bench and sat in relative peace. Until the television cameras (and therefore the arena big screens) showed him at the first media time out. After that, he had regular visitors, whom he tried to fend off cordially, succeeding for the most part, although halftime was a struggle. Rick tried to not show too much emotion, but got a few cheers in as the Panthers came from behind to grab the lead late in the first half behind the hot hand of Malik Smith, who would finish with five #superhoops. At the half, the game was tied at 33.
Florida International tried its best to hang in, but the Hilltoppers got a huge boost for two players who were coming off injuries (WKU was coming in losers of three straight, all non-conference and all on the road) in T.J. Price and Kevin Kaspar. Kaspar, from Turkey, was 5-of-8 on #superhoops, while Price made only four of his 14 shots, but was a calming presence, and his #superhoop with five minutes remaining put the Hilltoppers up nine and pretty much ended any hope of a comeback.
WKU even got cameos from Marcus Vasquez and Kawuan Jakes, who had played in the Little Caesars Bowl the day before in Detroit.
As I like to do if I have time, I did a quick walk around the Western Kentucky campus (as much as I could, at least). The school has 18,000 undergrads, and you can see why it might want to be playing with the "big boys". But hopefully it doesn't have to sacrifice what it is in all the other sports (see: basketball) to get there. Some of that is obviously beyond its control. But when you talk about the classic mid-majors that have had success historically, Western Kentucky probably has to be on your list somewhere. Even recently, they have a Sweet 16 appearance in 2008, and another NCAA victory the following year.
I'm preaching to the choir here, obviously, but to lose that to chase a football dream that seems, well, obtuse for lack of a better word.
In the end, there was one last decision to make. Before the game, I went to the concession stand to see how cheap a Big Red stuffed animal was. $16, I was told. I weighed how silly it was for a man my age and with my limited budget to spend that kind of dough on a doll. It would likely sit in my house and I would have to answer to guests what the hell it was and where I got it.
Was that worth it?
I told them I'd be back. Finally, at the end of halftime, they were shutting things down, and I had to make a difficult choice.
I drove this far, of course I bought the God damn thing.
at WESTERN KENTUCKY 76, FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL 63
FLORIDA INTERNATIONAL 4-6 (1-2) -- T. Murphy 6-11 2-2 14; M. Smith 6-13 3-4 20; T. Akomolafe 1-4 2-4 4; J. Frink 6-7 1-2 15; G. Belardo 0-5 0-0 0; J. Ferrales 3-6 0-0 6; M. Porcher Jimenez 1-4 1-2 4; D. Hill 0-0 0-0 0; J. De La Rosa 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 23-50 9-14 63.
WESTERN KENTUCKY 9-5 (3-0) -- B. Harris 2-4 7-8 13; K. Kaspar 6-10 0-0 17; T. Price 4-14 2-4 12; G. Fant 9-12 6-6 24; S. Drane 3-4 2-3 8; A. Rostov 1-1 0-0 2; O. Akamune 0-1 0-0 0; P. Blade 0-0 0-0 0; T. Akol 0-0 0-0 0; E. Alcantara 0-0 0-0 0; S. Sheldon 0-0 0-0 0. Totals 25-46 17-21 76.
Three-point goals: FIU 8-21 (G. Belardo 0-1; T. Akomolafe 0-3; J. Ferrales 0-1; J. Frink 2-2; T. Murphy 0-1; M. Porcher Jimenez 1-2; M. Smith 5-11), WKU 9-22 (K. Kaspar 5-8; T. Price 2-10; B. Harris 2-4); Rebounds: FIU 26 (T. Murphy 8), WKU 27 (B. Harris 10); Assists: FIU 10 (G. Belardo 5), WKU 15 (B. Harris 6); Total Fouls -- FIU 20, WKU 14; Fouled Out: FIU-T. Akomolafe; WKU-S. Drane.