Category Archives: College basketball

Ready to stumble? Nope Xavier’s Mack up to the task

I’ve known Chris Mack for about six years, and I’ve always liked him. When I covered Xavier from 2004-06 (and parts of the 2006-07 season) and he was a Musketeers assistant coach, I’d occasionally drop by his office for a little chit-chat. He was watching film or just getting off the phone with a recruit, but usually, he’d try to make the time.

But when athletic director Mike Bobinski hired him to replace Sean Miller as the head coach before this season, I had major reservations. The first thought I had when I heard Mack was the leading candidate for the job was the final Xavier game of the 2008-09 season when the Musketeers lost to Pitt in the Sweet 16. I remember Pitt’s Levance Field hitting a game-winning 3-pointer with less than a minute to play, and as CBS cut to the handshake line, it focused – for just a split-second – on Mack. Who was yelling at Fields. A 39-year-old yelling at a college student. It didn’t look good.

I still liked Mack. I just wondered whether he was mature enough to be the head coach. That’s what I wrote about last week in my column on the tremendous job Mack has done this year in his first year as the Musketeers head coach leading them back to the Sweet 16.

I thought about asking him about the Fields confrontation for an article I wrote on him for Cincinnati Profile magazine before the season, but it instead came out as a question about whether he was a hot-head. He said he was actually pretty laid-back. So, that went nowhere.

But since I knew I wanted to write this column about that particular incident – I figured this was a unique perspective I could provide to the CBSSports readership – I knew I’d have to ask him about Fields.

Here’s what I wrote in the column:

The scene set up this way: Pitt’s Levance Fields had just hit the game-winning 3-pointer to beat the Musketeers in last year’s Sweet 16. At the end of the contest, as the CBS camera crews cut to the handshake lan after the game, they spotted Mack — then an assistant coach under Sean Miller — engaging in some unfriendly postgame banter with Fields.

It was a few seconds of TV that quickly were forgotten by most. But I thought it also showcased a potential hazard, and when Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski hired Mack two months later to replace Miller, the first question that popped to mind was this:

Was Mack really ready for a job like this?

More than a year later, I could feel Mack cringing on the phone when I asked him about those few inglorious seconds.

“We’re all competitive whether we have suits or uniforms on,” Mack said this week before flying to Salt Lake City with his Xavier (26-8) squad to prepare for Thursday’s Sweet 16 showdown with Kansas State (28-7). “Sometimes coaches lose their cool and will do things that maybe they regret. But I’ve handled myself as well as could be expected. I’m not going to change the person that I am. It’s who I am. It’s made me a competitor my whole life.”

I told Mack in an off-the-record aside about why I was asking about Fields, and we talked about it for a few minutes. I think the article turned out pretty well, though I still question whether I should have led with a negative anecdote for what turned out to be a pretty positive story.

I guess it was fine. I guess.

The anatomy of a deadline story

I don’t write on deadline much. Don’t really have the chance anymore. And sometimes, I miss it.

Deadline writing is an art and a rush, a sweat-inducing, fingers-shaking exercise. You’re having a brain cramp or writer’s block? Doesn’t matter. You want to write flowy, inspirational words that could win you a Pulitzer? Doesn’t matter. All that matters is deadline. Miss deadline, and you’re screwing everybody on the copy desk who are in charge of getting out the paper on time. You miss deadline, and your story might not make the first edition. You make deadline, though, and it’s a wonderful, endorphin-releasing, tension-exhaling moment.

It, if I had to pick a word, is awesome. And scary.

I haven’t had to do it in quite a while. When I worked at the Augusta (Ga.) Chronicle, I’d spend a couple nights a week covering games and writing on deadline. When I moved to the Cincinnati Post, an afternoon paper, that deadline pressure (and euphoria) disappeared. Since the paper didn’t begin printing until the next morning, you could take all the time you needed to write your story, edit your mistakes, and adjust your prose. The copy didn’t really need to be in until 3 a.m., so basically you had, if you really wanted it, three or four hours to write.*

*This, of course, is a blessing and curse. When your deadline hits, your story is done – for better or for worse. Then, you can go home or to the bar or to wherever. With no deadline, there’s no ending time. You just keep working until you’re done. I never did it this way, but if a former colleague of mine didn’t like his story, he’d delete all his copy and start over again. Like Sisyphus with ink-stained fingers. That, my friends, can be a curse.

The only day you really felt that deadline pressure at the Post was on Friday nights, because Saturdays were the only days we published in the A.M. So, every once in a great while, covering the odd college basketball game on a Friday night, you could satisfy your jones for that deadline high.

You get used to not worrying about deadline. You get used to writing stories that aren’t formulaic gamers. You can analyze, you can spend extra time getting the key quote, because you have the extra time to report and reflect. You don’t have to write play-by-play. You can be better than that.

So, you forget the deadline emotions. You forget the fear of missing it and the euphoria of making it.

Which leads me to the game a couple Saturdays ago when I covered the UC-Providence basketball game for the Providence Journal. If you want, you can check out my game story and my notebook (well, it was originally a notebook. I guess the final two notes were killed).

My first deadline for my game story (and it was an actual game story, with play by play and everything) was 10:45 p.m., about 45 minutes after the game should have ended. Then, a quick-hit notebook had to be in by 11:15 p.m. The problem was the game went long; didn’t finish until about 10:15. Which meant I had to talk to at least two people for the stories I was writing – the Providence head coach and a player. Which meant I didn’t have very much time. That’s an understatement, actually. I had no time.

Since, by early in the second half, I knew this game wasn’t going to be a blowout (the dream scenario for a sports writer on deadline is a blowout one way or the other, because you don’t have to worry about your story hinging on the end of the game, where a last-minute lucky shot can force you to delete everything you had spent the past 30 minutes writing), I had to write during the game. The last 8 minutes or so of the game: couldn’t really tell you what happened, because I wasn’t watching. I was tapping.

With about 2 minutes or so to go – I can’t be sure because, again, I wasn’t watching the clock or the game – here’s sort of what I had on my laptop.

By Josh Katzowitz

CINCINNATI — The collapse for Providence wasn’t quite as shocking as the South Florida game eight days ago when the Friars blew a nine-point lead with 49 seconds to play. But on Saturday night, in a game the Friars desperately needed to win, the downfall was nearly as devastating.

Cincinnati, keyed by a point guard who barely had seen the court lately, went on a huge second-half run and kept Jamine Peterson from having an impact in the final 20 minutes to roll to a xx-xx win at Fifth Third Arena.

With a stretch of seven games that includes five contests against ranked teams (including at No. 4 Syracuse, vs. No. 7 Georgetown, at No. 3 Villanova and vs. No. 9 West Virginia), the Friars had a good chance to pick up another road win against a middle-of-the-pack Big East squad.

Coupled with a 15-point victory against No. 19 Connecticut on Wednesday, a win versus the Bearcats on Saturday could have vaulted the Friars (12-9, 4-5 Big East) into the top half of the conference.

Instead, the Bearcats went on a 16-1 run midway through the second half to take a three-point PC lead and turn it into a double-digits deficit for the Friars. Much of it came with Peterson on the bench. Yes, Peterson scored 19 points, but none of that came in the final 17 minutes of the game.

“xx Insert coach quote here xx”

Now, the lead is just kind of eh. I realize the collapse I was speaking about during the Cincinnati game wasn’t nearly as devastating or shocking as what happened to Providence the week before. But since I haven’t followed Providence all season, this was the best line I could deliver. Wasn’t great; wasn’t terrible.

Then, things changed. Dammit, things changed.

Providence started making a comeback, started pulling closer and closer to the Bearcats. I was writing my story, but this was hard to ignore. If Providence, God forbid*, tied the game or took the lead, I was completely screwed.

*I don’t mean this because I went into the game wanting to see Cincinnati win. You know I don’t care about that. But when Team A builds a double-digit lead and you spend 30 minutes crafting a game story based on those facts, you don’t want to have to start over when deadline is peering over your shoulder. As sports writers say, “I don’t root for a team. I root for myself.” At this point, I wanted Cincinnati to win, because if not, it would be a ginormous pain in my ass. And because I might not make deadline.

I had stopped keeping play by play in my notebook with 8 minutes to go, because 1) I didn’t have time to jot notes while writing my game story and 2)I figured it wouldn’t matter anyway because Cincinnati was on an easy path to victory. Then, a Providence player (and Marietta, Ga. native) named Sharaud Curry hit a 3-pointer to cut the lead to three with 8 seconds to play. I was nervous. I needed Cincinnati to score to seal the game. Time out after time out had pushed the game to 10:10 p.m. or so. The writer next to me, also on deadline, said: “What do you think about an overtime?” I told him I would not be amused. Luckily for the scribes, the Bearcats hit a free throw with 5 seconds remaining to seal the game.

So, I inserted this sentence at the end of paragraph No. 2, and even though it was a bit clunky and didn’t really show how close Providence had been to making its comeback, there wasn’t anything else to do.

PC, thanks to Sharaud Curry’s 27 points, made a last-minute desperation run but ultimately fell short during its 92-88 loss to the Bearcats at Fifth Third Arena.

OK, once the final buzzer sounded, I was off to talk to coach Keno Davis and Curry. The problem was that the visitor’s locker room at 5/3 Arena is diagonal across the court from the media room, through a doorway, around a corner, down a flight of stairs, around a couple of more corners. It’s not close to anything. So, that makes life a little more difficult. By the time Davis emerged from his postgame meeting – maybe 10:30, 15 minutes to deadline – I walked and talked with him on his way to the media room for the presser.*

*I obviously couldn’t attend because I had to book it back down to the Providence locker room to talk to Curry before I could finish my first story. Normally, I wouldn’t have bothered to get Curry to talk. But I felt like I couldn’t carry a game story and a notebook with only coach quotes. I felt like I had to have another voice to, if nothing else, add length to my stories.

10:35: back to the Providence locker room for a quick 2-minute interview with Curry. 10:38: running/sprinting back to the media room. 10:40: back in my seat in the media room inserting a few quotes into my story. 10:48: hitting the Send button.

Three minutes late: not the best, but I can live with it. I ended up being a little later on the notebook – got it in at 11:23. The big problem was that it’s hard to interview a coach and jot down dependable, readable notes while fast-walking to the media room. So, I had to listen to my digital recording for quotes, and that took extra time that I had not allotted.

But it was exhilarating.

I had felt the sweats and the shaking fingers and the adrenaline. The deadline that I love and loath.

As a freelance writer, you don’t often get to experience that, and for a night, it was nice to feel like a real journalist again. For a night, I got to feel the rush.

Sometimes, I miss it.

The New Steward of Xavier Tradition

When Sean Miller resigned as Xavier’s basketball coach to take the job at grand old Arizona following the 2008-09 season, I figured Chris Mack – Miller’s right-hand man on the bench – would get a shot at the job Miller was leaving. At first, I didn’t think he’d actually get the job.

I’d covered the Musketeers for three seasons, and I got to know Mack fairly well when he was Miller’s top assistant. I like him.

But I wasn’t sure he was the right guy for the job. I thought Xavier, with two Elite Eight appearances since 2004, could draw in somebody more high profile. A coach who had run his own program before. A coach with more accomplishments. Ultimately, Xavier athletic director Mike Bobinski went with his gut – and the recommendation of Miller – and hired Mack. I’ve questioned Bobinski about the move: are you sure Mack was the guy you wanted, the right guy for the job? And every time, Bobinski – whose judgment I trust tremendously – has been resolute. He’s sure.

For the latest issue of Cincinnati Profile magazine, the editors wanted me to write about Mack. How would he deal with the expectations that continued to filter throughout the Xavier fan base, even as the exhaust from Miller’s jet plane out of town barely had evaporated? How would Mack perform as a head coach?

I sat down with Mack for about a half-hour, and the interview was perfectly fine. But honestly, I had a tough time writing this story. Some stories are like that. Not sure of the lede, I had to work for a way to begin the story. I had to work hard, harder than normal to find the right words. After having just read it, though, I think it comes out pretty well. Mack comes off pretty well* also.

*Enough so where, before a recent game vs. Kent State, Mack spotted me in the hallway outside the Cintas Center media room, stopped in his tracks and said he appreciated the article.

His coaching career hasn’t started so splendidly, though. The Musketeers are 5-3 after putting up an uninspired effort against Kansas State on Tuesday. Yes, in Miller’s first season, his squad went 17-12 and missed the NCAA tournament. Fans blasted him. Mack, I imagine, will begin receiving the same treatment soon if Xavier doesn’t improve. I still like him, but ask me if he’s the right guy for the job, and the only answer I can give is this:

I’m still not sure.


I stole that headline from somebody – maybe – but it tells the story of the Kentucky-North Carolina basketball game from last Saturday pretty well.

The first time I worked a game at Rupp Arena – the first time I’d been inside the building at all – was when I worked at the Red & Black student newspaper and covered the University of Georgia basketball team. The arena, from what I remember, was packed – probably sold out. But as the game began, the crowd wasn’t loud*. The fans weren’t exactly silent, but it wasn’t a great atmosphere. I remember thinking it had been a “wine and cheese” crowd. Since that 2000 contest, I’ve been back to Rupp maybe a half-dozen times. The atmosphere hadn’t changed much since. Still crowded, still laid back.

*That could have been a function of the fact that the Bulldogs, though an NCAA tournament team that year, weren’t exactly filled with superstars and perhaps not as exciting as other squads in the conference.

Last week, though, I covered the Kentucky-North Carolina game for The Wildcats were ranked fifth; the Tar Heels No. 10. The place obviously had sold out – more than 24,000 for a new Rupp Arena record. It was loud. Spine-chillingly loud. Awesomely loud. The last time I covered a game in front of a crowd like that was the Mike Tyson-Danny Williams heavyweight fight in Louisville’s Freedom Hall.

It was incredible. And I’ll never think about Rupp Arena in the same way. In a good way.

Pitino: a good lesson for all

If you’ve been on the Internet tonight, surely the Rick Pitino story has slapped you across the face and punched you in the gut.

If not, here’s the news as reported by the Louisville Courier-Journal. It’s about sex and cheating and deceit and abortion payments. It’s a great strip-across-the-front-on-1A kind of story.

It’s also a little bit sickening.

This story doesn’t mention that Pitino is married – and was married at the time of this encounter in a restaurant bathroom in 2003* – but he is. And he was. And that’s probably going to be a problem, now that Pitino has admitted to having consensual sex with the woman mentioned in the article and that he gave her $3,000 for an abortion. Not a problem for me, because, frankly, whatever happens between Pitino and his wife should stay between Pitino and his wife. But it might be a problem for his spouse of 32 years.

*The Digital Underground would be proud.

About a month ago columnist Jason Whitlock wrote this article about why athletes should not get married. I didn’t disagree with it then. I agree with it a little more strongly today. The first three paragraphs from Whitlock:

I’ve never understood why a college or professional athlete would get married.

They enter into the institution of lying/marriage with as much chance of remaining sexually faithful as I do entering a Wendy’s and adhering to my diet.

Their constant travel, discretionary income, peer-pressure influence and celebrity status expose them to women eager to please, adept at sleaze and scarred by emotional, mental and physical disease.

That last graf refers perfectly to Pitino. Constant travel: he’s all over the place during the season with his basketball team and all over the place in the offseason recruiting for said basketball team. Discretionary income: Yes, he’s very rich. Peer-pressure influence: I know plenty of coaches and athletes who perhaps aren’t the most faithful guys out there. It’s not like these guys aren’t talking with each other about their road beef conquests. Maybe not peer pressure in the, “Chug, chug, chug” variety. But the atmosphere out there doesn’t discourage it. Celebrity status: He might have some competition from University of Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari, but name another figure in the state who carries as much fame as Pitino. Mitch McConnell, you say? Ha, I say.

And with Pitino also comes this: the good looks, the charm, the expensive and tailor-made suits, the success.

Plenty of women, I’m sure, would want a piece of him. Whether he’s married or not.

This story makes me a little sad. Not for Pitino or his reputation. Not for the Louisville program and its supporters. But for his wife and five kids who now have to read this in the newspaper and on the Internet, words on a computer screen that will burn forever in their brains and online for all the world to see.

The lesson, as far as I can see it, is simple. It’s what Dan Gallagher learned and Dewey Cox learned and what Mark Sanford learned.

Sleeping with a woman who’s not your wife is never a good way to go.

Building Toward the Future 06-06

I got a call a few months ago from the Atlantic 10 conference, asking if I’d like to write a few articles this summer for the league’s web site. The A-10 said it’d pay me in money, so, naturally, I said yes. Here’s the first one, a study on why the conference’s schools have been building and revamping their basketball arenas and how much the new construction is helping the A-10.

I figured that if I can talk to St. Joseph’s coach Phil Martelli – who is my favorite coach in the A-10 (at least from a media perspective), followed by Dayton’s Brian Gregory – and basketball writer Gary Parrish, then, yeah, I said, I can write the story. So, that’s what I did. And Martelli and Parrish made it infinitely better.

And a key fact: for the first time since I started my freelance career in Jan. 2008 after the Cincinnati Post’s demise, this is the first time I’ve been paid before I wrote a story. So, yeah, the motivation wasn’t so high after I deposited the money in my bank account. Actually, that’s not true. But still, I’m happy that I know the money is safe in hand. This is not true for three stories I wrote last August (still haven’t been paid for those).

  • I watched five seconds of the Michael Jackson tribute this afternoon. That’s all I could stand. Luckily, my cable was out most of the day, so I didn’t have a choice.

  • Best news of the day, though, comes from C. Trent Rosecrans: after a week of vacation, Thinking Out Loud is back.