As early-season conversation starters go, the Case of the Fallen Columnist had a little something for everyone.
I’m sure you’ve heard about it by now. Moments after Iowa State completed a scintillating comeback from a 20-point deficit Thursday night to beat in-state rival Iowa at Hilton Coliseum, Randy Peterson, a sportswriter for the Des Moines Register, was tripped by a female fan who was joining a court storm. The collision fractured Peterson’s tibia and fibula. He crumpled to the ground, where his leg was placed in an air cast. Peterson was eventually removed from the court on a stretcher and underwent surgery the next day.
At first blush, the incident provided ammo for those of us who have long argued against these court storms, primarily for safety reasons. Upon further review, however, the video evidence showed that Peterson wasn’t trampled as initially reported. Rather, he was tripped by a single person. This provided ammo for the let-the-kids-have-their-fun crowd. Forget that the person in question was not a player or an official or another member of the working media, but rather a fan who paid her ticket and felt it was her right to be on the court. No court storm, no broken leg. But hey, stuff happens, right?
And yet, it’s easy to see how things could have been even worse. The video shows that while Peterson writhed in agony, he was just a few feet from the hundreds of fans who were deliriously celebrating. Several people surrounded Peterson to protect him from the crowd, but if they hadn’t seen him lying there, he could have easily been trampled.
I realize this topic is becoming tiresome, including to me, but I will keep addressing it because I believe there is a frightening inevitability to all of this. People who argue for allowing court storms always say that nothing bad ever happens, but something bad did happen in Ames. Yet, apparently it wasn’t bad enough. Next time, perhaps it will be.
I concede that the vast majority of court storms take place without incident. But there have been enough exceptions over the years to require a cease and desist. The most notorious happened in Tucson in 2004, when a high school player was overtaken by a storming crowd and ended up paralyzed. (I never understood why people dismiss this by saying, “But that was in high school.” So it’s safer when there are more people rushing the floor?) That same year, a woman got pinned under her chair during a court storm at Stanford and couldn’t breathe for several scary seconds.
There have been plenty of unsettling incidents in recent years, whether it was the N.C. State student who got knocked out of his wheelchair in 2012; the female fan who tore tendons in her ankle at Indiana in 2011; the nasty confrontation between fans and players following completion of a game between New Mexico State and Utah Valley State last year; or the scary scene at Kansas State in February during which Kansas coach Bill Self got pinned against the scorer’s table and one of his players almost went to blows with a fan who had body-checked him.
There are plenty of football versions as well, from the dozen-plus fans who were injured (two critically) when goalposts came down at Oklahoma State in 2011, to the stampede in 1993 at Wisconsin’s Camp Randall Stadium, after which some 70 students, most of them female, were hospitalized.
Furthermore, there is a mountain of anecdotal evidence from people who describe the combustible nature of these court storms. Many referees and coaches I talk to have a story about feeling helpless in a swarming mass of humanity. “It’s probably fun for the kids running out there, but it’s not fun to be in them,” said Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall, whose team faces a storm after nearly every conference game it loses. “The players are dejected, they’re walking off the court and some loudmouth who’s probably inebriated jumps in their face or bumps them. It’s just a potentially dangerous situation. Ultimately, there’s going to be a problem.”
In the wake of last year’s debacle at Kansas State, the Big 12 was supposedly going to fix things. However, when the league’s athletic directors convened earlier this year, they decided it was O.K. to allow the storms as long as the home school provided enough security for opposing players and officials to get off the court safely. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby told me by phone on Sunday that he had looked into Thursday’s incident at Iowa State and concluded that the school fulfilled its responsibilities. “In fact, the University of Iowa was very complimentary of how it was handled,” Bowlsby said. “Everybody that needed to be safeguarded was escorted off the court.”
It would be nice if the Big 12 and every other conference followed the SEC’s lead. Several years ago, the SEC instituted a policy that levied fines against schools for allowing fans onto the court or field of play. The penalties were $5,000 for a first offense, $25,000 for a second and $50,000 for a third. If a school went three years without an incident, the sequence was reset.
The policy had its intended effect for a while. Then Auburn’s fans rushed the field by the thousands following the epic Kick Six win over Alabama. And South Carolina incurred a $25,000 fine for allowing fans to storm the court following a win over Kentucky. The school’s president later said he gladly accepted the punishment and joined in the storm himself. That led the conference to upgrade its penalty structure. Now a school must pay $50,000 for a first offense, $100,000 for a second and $250,000 for a third. The three-year reset was also removed.
The SEC’s policy isn’t perfect, but for the most part, it’s working. “We’ve seen a number of institutions who’ve been very intentional about communicating a need to stay off the field or the court,” SEC commissioner Greg Sankey told me. “That doesn’t mean you can stop everyone in every circumstance, but we want to be very clear what the expectation of the conference is. We’re not trying to rob anyone of their joy. You can still have the joy, you can still celebrate the win. Just don’t do it on the field or on the court.”
It used to be that a full-fledged court storm occurred once or twice a season. Now it happens several times each week. The more games, the more storms, the greater the likelihood that something really bad is going to happen—a fight, a tragedy, something. When and if it does, a lot of influential people will promise to make the requisite changes. They’ll also have to answer a basic question:
What took you so long?
Other Hoop Thoughts
• Meanwhile, lost in the hullabaloo about the court storm at Iowa State is that this was a really, really bad loss for Iowa. The Hawkeyes committed the cardinal sin of trying to sit on a big lead. This is fatal, especially on the road, and especially during the NCAA tournament, when the team behind is so desperate. My pal Clark Kellogg calls this ill-fated strategy “trying to drive with the parking brake on.” You gotta keep that pedal to the metal if you want to close out games, people.
• When you think about Gary Payton II, you probably thinking about his great defense, what with those bloodlines and all. But Oregon State’s 6'3" 190-pound sophomore is be pound-for-pound the best rebounding guard in America. He’s pulling down 8.1 boards per game this season after averaging 7.5 as a freshman. Just making sure you knew.
• My main concern about North Carolina isn’t talent, it’s toughness. There’s no way the Heels should have gotten crushed so badly on the glass in that loss at Texas. The Longhorns had 16 offensive rebounds, which led to 12 additional field goal attempts. That’s not how you get Capone.
• The best part about the finish to that game was the fact that Shaka Smart still had two time outs left on his final possession and declined to use one. The worst part was the fact that UNC point guard Marcus Paige got leveled by Texas forward Connor Lammert but the refs didn’t see it.
• Kansas senior forward Jamari Traylor was limited to two minutes on Saturday because of injury, yet freshman Chieck Diallo only played seven minutes in the Jayhawks’ comeback win at home over Oregon State. Like I’ve been saying, the kid has potential, but he’s a long ways away.
• Ditto for Skal Labissiere, who is clearly having some growing pains. He committed five fouls in 13 minutes Saturday against Arizona State and failed to score for the first time this season. He also didn’t have a single rebound. Just shows how truly special guys like Anthony Davis and Karl Anthony-Towns were.
• I guess I like Mark Turgeon’s decision to start Damonte Dodd at power forward and bring Diamond Stone off the bench, but it feels like a temporary move. Stone is too good, and he is developing a nice rhythm with Melo Trimble.
• As if you needed another reason to be bullish on Oklahoma, here it is: The Sooners’ three leading scorers are all seniors. The fourth-leading scorer is a junior. How often do you see that these days?
• We’re gonna find out a lot about Purdue over the next two weeks. To date, the Boilermakers’ best win came on the road against Pitt and at home over New Mexico. On Saturday, they will play Butler in Indianapolis. Then they have Vanderbilt at home next Tuesday and Wisconsin on the road a week after that. Three very winnable games, but all would be better than any of the wins Purdue has thus far.
• And I’m smitten with that Xavier 1-3-1. But maybe that’s because I don’t have to try to score against it.
• It’s not often a team outscores its opponent 17 to 5 from the free-throw line and still loses, but Utah managed to pull it off at Wichita State on Saturday. That’s what committing 19 turnovers (to the Shockers’ three) will do for you. Delon Wright is not walking through that door.
• Along those lines, Wisconsin made just one—one!—free throw in its loss to Marquette. And that game was played in Madison.
• For Wisconsin fans, the only thing worse than losing at home to Marquette is knowing that the Golden Eagles’ best player, freshman Henry Ellenson, is an in-state recruit whom Bo Ryan wanted very, very badly. Time to come to grips with the probability that the Badgers are not going to be in the NCAA tournament. It appears that win at Syracuse isn’t going to help them much.
• Getting rid of that closely guarded rule has made late-game possessions a lot more boring. Here’s hoping (and predicting) it gets reinstated during the next rules cycle in two years.
• It’s a small sample size, but it’s got to be encouraging for Cal to see Jabari Bird finally string a couple of good games together. The 6'6" junior guard lost his starting spot after the Bears’ back-to-back losses to San Diego State and Richmond, but he scored a combined 28 points on 6-for-13 three-point shooting in last week’s wins over Incarnate Word and Saint Mary’s. I would still like to see him drive it more. He has attempted only seven free throws all season.
• Having Fred Van Vleet back in the lineup has obviously made a huge difference for Wichita State, but Gregg Marshall told me he still doesn’t think VanVleet is 100 percent. At one point during the Shockers’ drubbing of Utah, VanVleet had a breakaway layup, but instead of dunking the ball, he went for the easy layin. “We haven’t seen his usual burst,” Marshall said. “I think he’s protecting it a little bit.” Wichita State doesn’t have a midweek game, so VanVleet will sit out some practices to heal more. Marshall understandably wants to be cautious here. No sense messing with a balky hamstring, because one bad tweak and VanVleet will be back on the shelf for a few weeks.
• I’ve had a couple of coaches tell me they’ve noticed players seem to be sustaining a lot more serious foot injuries than they used to. I have no idea if the data backs that up, but their theory is that today’s sneaker companies are so focused on making their shoes lighter that they are not affording players with enough support.
• Also, it’s Gon-ZAG-guh, not Gon-ZAH-guh. And Purdue guard Raphael Davis’s first name is pronounced “Ray-Fell.” Please make a note of it.
• One more: For athletics purposes, Arkansas-Little Rock’s teams are now going by just Little Rock. The basketball team is 8–0, which is the best start in school history. They’re also 4–0 on the road with wins at San Diego State, Tulsa and DePaul. Might want to file that away for bracket-filling-out time.
• I don’t know why we even bother having a coach’s box. Coaches wander out all the time and nobody does anything about it. Easier just to get rid of the thing and let refs use their discretion as to when coaches have crossed the proverbial line.
• Sad to hear Spike Albrecht is hanging up his high tops. He had a great career at Michigan, but his hips weren’t getting better. He was smart to shut it down now and hopefully save himself a lot of pain down the road. I highly recommend this takeout story by Simon Kaufman in the Michigan Daily about Albrecht’s highly unusual (and unlikely) path to Ann Arbor.
• While I’m recommending stories, here’s another one by my CBS pal Doug Gottlieb on Iowa State guard Matt Thomas. It’s a healthy reminder that these strong young athletes are actually real people who are vulnerable and make mistakes, just like the rest of us.
• Here’s a number to keep your eye on: Michigan State is currently assisting on 80.4% of its made field goals. Since Ken Pomeroy began tracking tempo-free stats in 2002, no team has finished with an assist rate higher than 72.5. That number will likely come down once Big Ten season gets underway, but it underscores why I’ve been saying this is the most aesthetically pleasing team Tom Izzo has had in East Lansing.
• The word is out that it’s easy to score inside against Syracuse. That has rarely been the case.
• Kevin Ollie’s technical foul in the late stages of UConn’s loss to Maryland last week was about as bad a T as I’ve seen a coach get in a long time. It took the wind out of the Huskies’ sails as they were trying to mount a comeback. Coaches always preach to their players the importance of keeping their emotions in check, but this was one instance where the teacher could have learned that lesson from his students.
• Vanderbilt is going to have to play the next four to five weeks without 7'1" junior center Luke Kornet, who tore the medial collateral ligament in his left knee during practice. Too bad, because Kornet was providing a terrific complement to 7-foot junior center Damian Jones, the team’s second-leading scorer. It would have been fun to watch the pair go up against Purdue’s two 7-foot centers next week, but I guess it wasn’t meant to be.
• There’s just no way LSU should be this bad.
• Nobody delivers a message like Bob Huggins delivers a message. You think Jevon Carter will attempt a behind-the-back pass in transition any time soon?
• I don’t like the vibes coming out of Gonzaga about Przemek Karnowski. The 7'1" senior center has missed the last four games with back problems—and the Zags have lost two of them. He was especially missed in the loss to UCLA, where his defense would have made a huge difference against Bruins center Tony Parker, who shot 8-for-9 from the floor. Officially, Karnowski is described as having back spasms, but after the game coach Mark Few said that Karnowski was in so much pain he couldn’t even sit on the bench. That tells me that there might be more than just spasms at work here. Backs are tricky, especially for big men, and if Karnowski has a bad disc or some other neurological complication, then he won’t be available for a long while.
• On the flip side, the early read on SMU forward Markus Kennedy’s ankle injury is pretty good. Kennedy got hurt in the early stages of Saturday’s home win over Michigan and did not return. The coaching staff is hoping Kennedy will be available for Wednesday’s home game against Nicholls State, but I’m sure they will be ultra conservative about bringing him back.
• I just hung up with a head coach whom you and I both respect, and he told me he thought the most underrated team in the country is Colorado.
• Another team that really needs to get healthy is Oregon. Just when the Ducks were about to get shot-blocking sophomore Jordan Bell back into the lineup, they lost their prized freshman guard and leading scorer, Tyler Dorsey, to a knee sprain. Bell, who suffered a broken foot, made his debut in Saturday’s loss at Boise State and played 17 minutes. Meanwhile, Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis still hasn’t played because of a foot injury as well. Ducks coach Dana Altman told me over the weekend that Ennis won’t be available until at least January 1st. He hopes Dorsey will come back sooner but can’t know for sure, and that he will keep Bell’s minutes to around 20 a game until the start of conference play. Given that it takes injured players a while to get back into game condition, we won’t know until at least the middle of January just how good this team can be. That is, assuming the Ducks don’t have anyone else go down.
• I love that everyone in the MAAC has already played two league games. Might as well get started, right?
• Man, Baylor has a lot of long, rangy athletes. The Bears could be a really good zone team if Scott Drew ever committed to it. (Told you I was a zone geek.)
This week’s AP ballot
* (Last week’s rank on my ballot in parentheses)
1. Michigan State (1)
2. Kansas (2)
3. Kentucky (4)
4. Maryland (5)
5. Duke (6)
6. Oklahoma (9)
7. Iowa State (8)
8. Purdue (10)
9. Xavier (11)
10. Virginia (18)
11. North Carolina (3)
12. Villanova (7)
13. Arizona (13)
14. Butler (14)
15. West Virginia (12)
16. Miami (19)
17. SMU (20)
18. Louisville (21)
19. UCLA (24)
20. UConn (16)
21. Cincinnati (22)
22. Providence (23)
23. Baylor (25)
24. George Washington (NR)
25. Little Rock (NR)
Dropped out: Gonzaga (15), Vanderbilt (17)
The first question was what to do with North Carolina. On the one hand, the Tar Heels lost in the last second on the road against a decent (albeit unranked) team. Plus, they were victimized by a horrible non-call. That would mean only knocking them down a couple of spots.
On the other hand, the Heels should not have been in that position in the first place, so perhaps there is some justice that they got a couple of bad breaks at the end. I took the middle road, especially considering that, unlike their loss at Northern Iowa, the Heels did not have the no-Marcus-Paige excuse.
Xavier is inching up thanks to its win over Cincinnati on Saturday, but my biggest riser this week is Virginia. The Cavaliers beat a ranked team (West Virginia) on a neutral court (Madison Square Garden) convincingly (70–54). Moreover, the one team that beat them, George Washington, has continued to win, with its only loss coming by five points on a neutral court against Cincinnati. As Virginia has climbed, it has taken GW with it, and vice versa. That’s the way it’s supposed to work.
The two teams I dropped out have one thing in common: They are both dealing with long-term injuries. In Gonzaga’s case, as I noted above, we don’t know when (or if) Przemek Karnowski is coming back, but we do know that without him, the Bulldogs are probably not a top 25 team. My general rule with regard to injuries is that the benefit of the doubt is directly proportional to the amount of time the injured player is going to be out. I didn’t drop North Carolina too badly when it lost at Northern Iowa because I know the Paige was coming back soon. I don’t know that with Kornet and Karnowski, so until those teams get some signature wins, they’ll stay off my ballot.
That left open a lot of possibilities for No. 25. If you have followed my voting patterns in the past (and admit it; you have), then you know that I happily concede I get sentimental with my final spot. I got this idea from my friend and former professor, John Feinstein, who for many years has saved his final spot for an off-the-beaten-path school that deserves and genuinely appreciates national recognition. Little Rock has won four times on the road and has not lost a game. I don’t know how long the Trojans will stay perfect, but as long as they do, I will try to save a spot for them.
Other schools I considered include Wichita State, which sure looks like one of the 25 best teams in the country; Colorado, which gave Iowa State all it wanted in the season opener and hasn’t lost since; South Carolina, which is still undefeated but whose best win was over Tulsa on a neutral court; Dayton, which beat a short-handed Vanderbilt on its home floor but lost to Chattanooga at home; and UNLV, which darn near came back to beat Wichita State on the road last week before losing by six.