Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Road to First NCAA Tournament Berth Gets Tougher for Northwestern

Northwestern entered the 2011-2012 season with high hopes of earning its first ever trip to the NCAA Tournament. After tonight's nerve-wracking 75-73 loss to No. 10 Ohio State, Northwestern will likely once again find itself on the outside (of the Tournament field) looking in.

If ever there was such thing as a "must win" game, tonight's contest with Ohio State represented that for Northwestern. The Wildcats came into the game clinging precariously to the NCAA Tournament "bubble." When the game tipped off, they had a 17-11 overall record, with a 7-11 record in the rugged Big Ten. The main credential on Northwestern's NCAA Tournament resume was an impressive mid January win over then-No. 6 ranked Michigan State. But after that, the Northwestern resume was a bit thin: their only other "big" win was an early February win at Illinois.

That's why tonight's home finale against Ohio State was so big. With an upset over the No. 10 Buckeyes, Northwestern would have had two signature wins over opponents ranked in the top ten of the AP Top 25. Even with a win, Northwestern still probably would have needed to beat Iowa this weekend and win a game in the Big Ten Tournament to get into the NCAA Tournament. But a late-season upset win over Ohio State would have made Northwestern's case for receiving a bid to the NCAA Tournament considerably more credible.

That's also why Jared Sullinger's tie-breaking and game-winning turnaround bank shot with 3.1 seconds was so crushing. The Wildcats overcame a 13 point defecit late in the second half to tie the Buckeyes in the game's final seconds. Momentum was on the 'Cats' side and they were that close to taking the game into overtime (at home, no less -- overtime is usually kind to the home team); Sullinger's game-winner was dagger that probably ended whatever chance Northwestern had of making its first appearance at the "Big Dance."

However dispiriting tonight's loss may be for the Northwestern basketball program and its fans, a brief look back at the road that led Northwestern to the NCAA Tournament "bubble" provides some needed perspective. Overall, Northwestern basketball is a success story. The once-perpetually moribund Wildcat basketball program has slowly and quietly become a legitimate second-tier competitor in the Big Ten conference. Head coach Bill Carmody was originally hired away from Princeton in 2000 to install the famed "Princeton offense" at Northwestern, and thus, give the ever-undermanned Wildcats at least a fighting chance to a "hang" with their athletically superior Big Ten rivals. In recent years, however, Carmody has been able to attract significantly better players to the highly-selective Evanston, Ill., school. As a result, the Wildcats have gotten a lot better: they've made three straight N.I.T. appearances, and they put together back-to-back 20 win seasons in 2010 and 2011.

The one big thing they haven't done yet, though, is make it to the NCAA Tournament.

All the gradual improvement of the Carmody era has been great (however deliberate and plodding the Wildcats' style of basketball may be), but Northwestern basketball won't have officially turned the corner and won't officially be on the college basketball "map" until the Wildcats take the floor in the NCAA Tournament. Things, however, looked quite promising prior to the start of the 2011-2012 season: with what the "experts" expected to be a "weak" Big Ten (how wrong they were!); with the attendant expected "wide open" open Big Ten race; and with four returning starters coming into 2012 -- including leading scorer John Shurna -- 2012 was supposed to be the year.

Obviously, things didn't exactly work out as expected. The Big Ten turned out to be the strongest conference in Division I college basketball. Outside of Penn State and Nebraska, every Big Ten team has, at various points in the season, looked like a potential NCAA Tournament invitee. Northwestern had an easy non-conference schedule and subsequently raced out to a 10-2 non-conference record (which included wins against LSU, Seton Hall and Georgia Tech). But the rough-and-tumble Big Ten brought the Wildcats back to Earth a bit, and despite the aforementioned impressive wins over then-No. 6 ranked Michigan State and at Illinois, Northwestern limped into tonight's home finale against Ohio State with a 7-9 conference record and in desperate need of a win to keep their NCAA Tournament hopes alive.

They're now 17-12 overall, 7-10 in the Big Ten. And barring some "bat out of Hell" run in the upcoming Big Ten Tournament, Jared Sullinger's game winning shot likely relegated them to their fourth consecutive N.I.T.

(Photo: Jared Sullinger game-winning shot, courtesy of Lake the Posts).

Monday, February 20, 2012

Freak: The "Piggyback Bandit"

Drive and Dish has heard from several readers who wonder why we haven't weighed in on the strange tale of Sherwin Shayegan, the 28 year old man who shows up at high school basketball games across the Western United States, gains access to the teams' benches and cons his way into getting piggyback rides from players. He's known as the "Piggyback Bandit," and his story has gone viral over the last several days.


HELENA, Mont. -- The stocky man showed up in a basketball uniform for a game at Century High School in North Dakota. Players and coaches assumed he was a fan who had come with another team, so nobody objected when he began to pitch in around the bench.

"He helped lay out uniforms, got water. He even gave a couple of kids shoulder massages. Creepy stuff like that," said Jim Haussler, activities director for the Bismarck Public School District.

After the game was over, the man joined the winning team on the court and asked if he could get a piggyback ride. One bemused player gave it to him.

Sherwin <span class=
AP Photo/Bismarck SchoolsSecurity footage taken this month at Century High School in Bismarck, N.D., shows a man identified as Sherwin Shayegan of Bothell, Wash., known as the 'piggyback bandit.'

"He makes himself appear as if he's limited or handicapped. I think he plays an empathy card, so to speak," Haussler said. "We didn't realize what we were dealing with until several days later."

What they were dealing with the night of Feb. 4 was the Piggyback Bandit -- Sherwin Shayegan of Bothell, Wash., a 28-year-old man who ingratiates himself with high school sports teams, then hoists his 5-foot-8, 240-pound frame onto the backs of the student athletes.

Shayegan's antics stretch back to 2008 and had been mainly confined to Washington and Oregon. But since last fall, he has worked his way east to Montana, North Dakota and Minnesota, leaving a trail of befuddled athletes in his wake.

Shayegan has asked for piggybacks, attempted to pay for piggybacks and just sprung one upon an unsuspecting kid. He favors basketball games, but he also has leapt onto hockey, soccer and football players.

He has pretended to interview athletes for a term paper, acted as a team manager or just tried to blend in with the crowd for a piggyback payoff.

Why he does it is unclear, as is who came up with the "Piggyback Bandit" nickname that now follows him wherever he goes.

"Why he does it is unclear?" No it's not. It seems pretty obvious that he has some kind of "piggyback" fetish, and that he receives some measure of sexual gratification -- however strange it may be -- from jumping on young athletes' backs.

The only thing that's "unclear" is whether or not the kids whose backs he jumps on feel something poking them in the back.

Well, that and what his parents were smoking when they named their kid "Sherwin."

Sherwin Shayegan.jpg (Photo:


Little is publicly available about Shayegan's background, other than his arrest record. Phone numbers listed for relatives rang unanswered, and messages left were unreturned.

One person who has known Shayegan for several years is Mike Colbrese, the executive director of the Washington Interscholastic Activities Association. Colbrese said he became acquainted with Shayegan about seven years ago, when Shayegan was a common fixture at games and used to ask for work as a waterboy in state high school basketball tournaments.

"He would just wander around. You wouldn't see him interacting with coaches and players when we were first aware of him," Colbrese said.

Nobody knew where he lived or what he did, Colbrese said. Eventually, he was viewed as an eccentric nuisance who generally bothered staff for jerseys or for a role at games.

Things changed in 2008, when Joel E. Ferris High School of Spokane won that year's state basketball tournament and Colbrese spotted Shayegan hanging around the locker room after the game.

"He was jumping on players' backs after they showered and came out of the locker room," Colbrese said.

It sounds as if he's been attracted to high school basketball players for a while, but that he had to spend about three years working up the courage -- or polishing up his "challenged" water boy schtick -- to escalate his con to where he could get close enough to the young athletes to jump on their backs.

It seems like a lot of people are approaching the "Piggyback Bandit" story as if it's some kind of funny, off-the-wall tale about an extremely eccentric, oddball dude. But in our opinion, it's really a story about some guy who's just a seriously fu**ed up pervert.

The cat's out of the bag now, though. The guy's strange compulsion has made him into something of an internet star/"meme." So he's famous, baby! But so was Brian Peppers.

This much is certain -- now that Mr. Shayegan's story is known in all 50 states, it's going to be that much more difficult for him to pull off his "Piggyback Bandit" antics at high school basketball games (and to find/maintain gainful employment).

It will be interesting to see if he keeps trying.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Illinois Loses "Must Win" Game to Purdue, End of Bruce Weber Era Now In Sight

Illinois entered last night's game with Purdue in desperate need of a win. And frankly, that's quite the understatement. A more accurate portrayal of the pressure cooker that the Fighting Illini and their embattled head coach, Bruce Weber, entered when they stepped onto the court at Illinois' legendary Assembly Hall would include the following disclaimer: if the Illini had any hopes of getting off the proverbial "schneid;" of salvaging the 2011-2012 season; or of remaining in contention for an NCAA Tournament berth and preventing the eventual off-season firing of their head coach, they simply could not lose at home to Purdue.

But lose at home to Purdue they did, 67-62 to be exact.

And now the wheels have officially come off the Bruce Weber era at Illinois.

With a first-year Athletic Director now calling the shots in the Illinois athletic department (and fresh off of firing football head coach Ron Zook), Bruce Weber came into the season knowing that he had almost no room for error. First year Athletic Directors lick their chops at the prospect hiring their own coaches; any coach who ends up working under new a A.D. knows that he's got a giant target on his back. The only way a coach in that situation usually keeps his job is by winning so much that it's impossible for the A.D. to pull the trigger.

So with the team in a tailspin, and with the knowledge that both the 2011-2012 season and their coach's job were hanging in the balance, Illinois went into last night's game with no other recourse than to win.

But they didn't.

So their NCAA Tournament hopes are all but over and the noose has officially been hung around their head coach's neck.

And clearly, he knows it:

Bruce Weber's post-game press conference is depressing. He appears to be completely defeated. Weber is a good coach, and he's had some great successes at Illinois. But he knows that he's a dead man walking.

Weber's post-game press conference might as well have been his post-firing farewell. He laments having "mollycoddled" his players this season in attempt to win a few more games, rather than having instilled discipline and an overall culture of winning. Interestingly (though not surprisingly to anyone who's been paying attention), Weber's lamentations confirm what Drive and Dish suspected were problems plaguing Weber's program way back in 2008.

A little background:

In his second season as head coach at Illinois, Bruce Weber's Illini steamrolled their way to the 2005 Final Four, where they eventually lost to North Carolina in the NCAA Championship game. But it took Weber several years to break through with Chicago area recruiting circles, and recruiting hit a four year rough patch following the '05 Final Four.

By the time the key players from Weber's 2005 Final Four team had all moved on -- Deron Williams and Luther Head ended up being NBA first round draft picks in '05; Dee Brown and James Augustine graduated in 2006 -- it had become apparent to anyone who had eyes that the cupboard was bare in Champaign-Urbana.

That didn't prevent Illini fans' expectations from being raised higher than Mt. Everest though. And Weber's early success only made his recruiting misses -- and the attendant drop-off in talent -- that much harder for Illini fans to swallow.

By 2009, Weber was finally starting to attract some decent players to his program, but his earlier lean recruiting years left his teams with a perpetual dearth of talented upperclassmen. Unfortunately, that forced the otherwise conservative Weber to rely heavily on the contributions of freshmen and sophomores, many of whom were thrown into the fire before they were truly ready.

So things were up and down following Bruce Weber's early glory years (2004-06). Drive and Dish never expected the 2007 Illini to play in the post season. We thought that Illinois' talent level was so low that year that the team would need a near-miracle season just to get into the N.I.T. But somehow, the team that probably had the least talent of any team in the Weber era managed to grind and muck its way to the NCAA Tournament -- even if it was accomplished by the heavy use smoke and mirrors.

Many Illini fans started to lose confidence in Weber that year (he'd been considered a genius by most Illini fans in 2005 and 2006), but we were impressed that he managed to do so much with so little ... though it certainly wasn't pretty, or fun to watch.

The 2008 season turned out to be a disaster for Weber's Illini, though. When they were in desperate need of a win to get off the NCAA Tournament "bubble," they got the Jamar Smith DUI/car crash fiasco instead. The fact that Smith and teammates went out and got s**t-faced drunk -- Smith's blood alcohol content was measured at over 2.0 -- the night before a "must win" game probably says as much about the state of the program at that time as anything that happened on the court. After Smith incident, the 2008 team tanked, and ultimately missed the post season altogether.

Illinois basketball rebounded in 2009, however, and what had originally looked to be a rag-tag assembly of "try-hard" overachieving upperclassman perimeter players and underfed, reed-thin underclassman big men, turned out to be the surprise upstart of the Big Ten. Illinois' nails-tough senior guards led the Illini back into the upper reaches of the Big Ten and back to the NCAA Tournament.

Predictably, after the surprisingly good 2009 effort, expectations were once again high for Bruce Weber and Illinois for the 2009-10 season.

But Bruce Weber had loosened the reins following the gruelingly ugly of campaigns of 2007-08, and with the absence of the toughness and leadership that senior guards Trent Meacham and Chester Frazier had provided in 2009, the 2009-10 Illini lacked -- you guessed it! -- toughness, discipline and leadership.

They ended up missing the NCAA Tournament and losing at home to Dayton in the N.I.T.

In 2010-2011, Illinois added the most heralded recruiting class of the Bruce Weber era to the returning upperclassmen who had so underachieved in 2010. Illini probably fans should have waited to see how the team would come together before they allowed their expectations to get out of control, but the Illini Nation was just so giddy over the fact that they finally had a big time recruiting class that it was virtually impossible to for cooler heads to prevail. Things really got wild after Illinois ran highly-rated North Carolina off the Assembly Hall court after Thanksgiving in the ACC - Big Ten Challenge. But predictably, as the season wore on, the Illini failed to live up to their fans' lofty expectations (unrealistic though those expectations may have been).

Illinois had more ups and downs than a bipolar manic depressive in 2011, and the senior-laden team spent much of the season in a familiar place -- the NCAA Tournament bubble. The Illini stumbled into the NCAA Tournament, but once there, they dismantled former Illini coach Lon Kruger's UNLV squad in the first round ... before being dismantled themselves by Kansas in the next round (Kansas, of course, was coached by Kruger's successor and Weber's predecessor at Illinois, Bill Self).

As the roller coaster 2011 season wore on, a significant percentage of Illini fans turned on Bruce Weber. By the time the season ended, most fans were happy to move on to 2012. The seniors who graduated in 2011 had comprised the core of two famously underachieving Illini teams. Bruce Weber had spent 2011 on the hot seat, but there was a feeling in much of Illini land that things might be better in 2012, if only through the process of addition by subtraction (of the departed underachieving seniors).

But the Illini 2011-2012 would return only two players who had played significant minutes in 2011, and there was absolutely no evidence to suggest that Weber's young and inexperienced team would fare particularly well in a league as stacked from top to bottom as the Big Ten.

After the graduation of four key seniors from the 2011 team (disappointing though that team may have ultimately been), and with the infusion of six freshmen and a senior transfer (that's seven new players!), it should have been clear to everyone that 2011-12 was going to be a rebuilding year for Bruce Weber's Illini. There were probably even residents at the Chicago Lighthouse For the Blind who could see as much.

Interestingly, many Illini fans did not have unrealistically high expectations at the beginning of the 2011-2012 season (for once). Illini fans were generally eager to see how all the new, young faces would fare once they took the court, and if you asked them, most fans would probably have told you that they just hoped that their young Illini would be competitive, and would improve as the season progressed .

But that changed pretty quickly: the Illini got off to a fast non-conference start, and 7'1" sophomore center Meyers Leonard blew up after dominating Gonzaga's Robert Sacre in front of a national television audience in December. So once again, expectations soared to the heavens.

Predictably, Big Ten conference play brought the rebuilding Illini back to Earth (although the Illini did upset two teams ranked in the Top Ten, Ohio State and Michigan State).

Anyone with a shred of knowledge about college basketball should have expected the young 2012 Illini to be a perpetual work in progress. Young teams like Illinois are usually "up and down": they usually win some games that they probably shouldn't win, and lose some games that they probably shouldn't lose.

And that's exactly what happened. But once the fans let their expectations start running wild, everybody seemed to forget that 2012 was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Thus, with each close win and with each disappointing loss, the Illini Nation turned their increasing ire to Bruce Weber (as many had done last year). And by the time the Illini hit their February losing skid, the overwhelming majority of the Illini Nation was pining for Weber's scalp.

Bruce Weber has spent the latter half of the 2011-12 season with the prospect of a coaching change hanging over his head like the Sword of Damocles.

Now the sword has broken free, and it's about to take a good man out.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

RIP "Spoon": Charlie Spoonhour, 1939-2012

(Image: Kansas City Star)

Legendary college basketball coach Charlie Spoonhour died in his Chapel Hill, North Carolina, home today at the age of 72. Spoonhour spent nearly 20 years as a head coach in NCAA Division I college basketball, having served as head coach at Missouri State University (then known as Southwest Missouri State), Saint Louis University and the University of Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV). Spoonhour had been in poor health in recent years. He was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis in 2010. He received a lung transplant at the Duke University Medical Center in August of the same year.

Charlie Spoonhour rose to prominence in the mid 1980s when he turned the university now known as Missouri State -- then, as previously noted, a little-known state school in the Ozarks known as Southwest Missouri State -- into something of a mid major college basketball powerhouse. Spoonhour had nearly twenty years of paid coaching dues under his belt when he arrived at the Springfield, Missouri, school in 1983 to begin his career as an NCAA Division I head coach, a mere year after the Southwest Missouri State men's basketball program began competing as an NCAA Division I institution.

During his time at Southwest Missouri State (1983-1992), Spoonhour led the Bears' basketball program from obscurity to relative national prominence (short-lived though it may have been). From 1986 to 1992, Spoonhour's Southwest Missouri teams were fixtures in the post season: during that stretch, the Bears made five NCAA Tournament appearances and appeared in the NIT twice. But it was the 1986-87 team that caught the attention of the the national media and thrust Charlie Spoonhour into the spotlight. Led on the court by future NBA point guard Winston Garland, Spoonhour's 1986-87 Bears steamrolled their way to the Mid-Continent Conference championship, finished the season with a 28-6 overall record and upset the Horace Grant-led, 13th-seeded Clemson Tigers in the NCAA Tournament. But "Spoon," as he was affectionately known, didn't gain notoriety solely on the basis of his on-court exploits. By the late 80s, the man at the helm of the little school from the Ozarks with the somewhat bewilderingly directional name (at least bewildering to media types in Manhattan and Bristol, Connecticut) had garnered the attention of the national sports media in part because of his endearing personality. A son of Kansas and Arkansas, Spoonhour combined a crusty, old school demeanor with a sharp wit and a folksy, yet charismatic persona.

In 1992, Spoonhour left Southwest Missouri to take on the challenge of returning the once-prominent Saint Louis Billiken basketball program to college basketball relevance. At St. Louis, the "Spoon" succeeded and then some. In seven seasons as the Billikens' head coach (1993 to 1999), Spoonhour's teams made three NCAA Tournament appearances; went from playing sparsely attended home games in a small, antiquated gym to regularly playing in front of full houses in the new 19,000 seat downtown St. Louis home that they shared with the National Hockey League's St. Louis Blues -- the then-newly-opened Kiel Center (now known as the Scottrade Center); and convinced the most sought-after St. Louis prep basketball star in a generation -- Larry Hughes -- to resist both the temptation of jumping directly from high school to the NBA draft, and the pull of playing for one of college basketball's high-profile, elite programs (Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse, Arkansas, Missouri, etc.) in order to stay home and play for the Billikens.

As it happens, Hughes left college for the NBA after playing only one season (and it was a relatively tumultuous season at that), but his unexpected decision to stay home and play for Charlie Spoonhour made it abundantly clear that Coach "Spoon" had put the St. Louis Billikens back on the college basketball map. Unfortunately for St. Louis, the Billikens' time in the sun was short-lived. During Spoonhour's tenure, St. Louis was a program that routinely acquitted itself well in Conference USA -- when C- USA was considered a major conference (St. Louis' Conference USA rivals included Louisville, Cincinnati, Marquette, DePaul, Memphis and Alabama-Birmingham [UAB]). But the program regressed to perpetual mediocrity shortly after Spoonhour's 1999 departure. The Billikens last appeared in the NCAA Tournament in 2000 ( under the stewardship of Spoonhour's successor, Lorenzo Romar).

Saint Louis' fortunes fell further in 2005, when Conference USA came apart after most of the aforementioned power programs left for the Big East. Saint Louis joined the Atlantic 10 Conference in 2006, where the Billikens remain. The Atlantic 10 is, to be sure, a quality league, but there's no doubt that its stature is a notch or two (or three) below the stature of the old C-USA. And it's only been in the last two years, under the guidance of another larger-than-life head coach -- Rick Majerus -- that the Billikens have been competitive in their new conference home.

But while Saint Louis was fading from its brief, Spoonhour era return to college basketball's national scene, Charlie Spoonhour was busy trying resurrect another well-known college basketball program -- the once-fabled Nevada-Las Vegas (UNLV) Runnin' Rebels. In 2001, Spoonhour was hired to replace former John Calipari assistant and one-time coaching wunderkind Billy Bayno as the head basketball coach at UNLV after Bayno landed the historically scandal-ridden Rebels' basketball program in hot water with the NCAA (who'd have thunk it!) over improprieties pertaining to the recruitment of then-prep star Lamar Odom. At UNLV, "Spoon" did what he was hired to do: right the ship, make the Rebels' notoriously sleazy basketball program respectable, get the program off of the NCAA's hit list, and win basketball games. But Spoonhour inherited a program that the NCAA had placed on probation for four years as punishment for Bayno's sins. Spoonhour compiled a respectable 54-31 record -- not bad for a program on probation! -- but failed to win over UNLV alumni and fans the way he'd won fans over in St. Louis. Spoonhour abruptly retired during the middle of the 2004 season.

The following year, Lon Kruger was hired to steer UNLV back to respectability. Kruger succeeded in short order, but he couldn't have done so if not for the foundation that Coach Spoonhour had spent the previous three years laying down.

In the years that followed his retirement from the coaching ranks, Charlie Spoonhour did yeoman's work as a television analyst for Missouri Valley Conference men's basketball games. Though Spoonhour's TV work for the Missouri Valley never reached a big, national audience (thanks to the Valley's relative obscurity and strictly regional appeal), "Spoon" was easily one of the best color commentators in the business. Much like the "color work" that Bob Knight currently does for ESPN, Spoonhour drew on a lifetime of basketball knowledge to break the game down into terms that entertained, but more importantly, informed the viewer. His breezy, down-home style was engaging and fun, but if you listened closely, the "Spoon" could be heard putting on a veritable coaching seminar. A better example of "wit and wisdom" could hardly be found.

Charlie Spoonhour will be missed.