Good morning and welcome back to Culture Corner! Today we’ll be looking at basketball season as the NBA and NCAA begin play. First, though, another football update.
The NFL season rages on into its third month, with the Eagles still comfortable at the top of the pecking order (one of my best bird puns yet) and most teams remaining roughly where they were before. One interesting team to watch, though, is the Baltimore Ravens. You might remember from the August 18th column that the Ravens are in possession of the Nest Trophy: a fan-created title that is passed between bird teams whenever the reigning champion is beaten by a challenger. The Ravens have held it for years, benefitting from scheduling as they are the only bird team in the AFC and therefore face bird challengers less often. This year, though, they faced two: the Seattle Seahawks and the Arizona Cardinals. The last two weeks the Ravens have swatted both away to keep their title securely in Baltimore for another year (barring a Super Bowl bird fight that is).
Their reward? A comfy seat at the top of the AFC North. Two games behind them are the Browns, Bengals, and Steelers, all tied for second. After dropping one game to their rivals in Pittsburgh, the Ravens dismantled the NFL media darling Detroit Lions to the tune of a 30 point margin of victory, with Lamar Jackson looking like his prime MVP self. This week there was a brief injury scare for Jackson, but he seems to be fine and will return to the line-up for a few pivotal divisional home games in November. If there’s one bird team I can get behind it’s Baltimore, as Lamar Jackson looks to shake off his reputation as a playoff no-show despite an incredibly competitive and gutsy division.
Let’s move to college. Oregon dropped a game in October, losing to Washington and their Heisman hopeful under center, Penix. The Ducks are still ranked 6th however, and could very well earn a rematch against the Huskies in the PAC 12 Championship Game, the last PAC bout for both schools before a move to the Big Ten next year. First, though, they need to beat the hypothetically-still-good USC Trojans as well as their interstate rivals Oregon State, who have put together a strong season and earned a legitimate ranking. They’ll have their own title hopes and will badly want to punch their big brother rivals in the teeth before the Ducks skip town.
Speaking of putting together a strong season, I want the record to show that I was high on the Kansas Jayhawks back in August. With a 7-2 record, the Jayhawks are already bowl eligible and earned themselves a signature win when they upset the Oklahoma Sooners a few weeks ago. Their only losses are to the Longhorns and Cowboys. With those two schools at the top of the Big 12, Kansas would need a whole lot of things to go their way before they could be in the conversation for a title game. 7-2 is still a notable improvement, though, and once Texas and Oklahoma leave for the SEC, Kansas could very well be in the mix for the top of a weakened conference. Let Bear Sees Birds be one of the first outlets to declare it: Kansas could very well be a playoff team in the next few years, especially in an expanded tournament. For now, they should be happy with their improvement and look to boost their bowl assignment as best they can.
The Delaware Blue Hens are looking pretty good, with a 5-1 conference record earning them a small piece of the five way tie atop the Colonial Athletic Association. In the American Athletic Conference, the UTSA Road Runners may very well have a shot at a conference title of their own. With a 5-0 record in the AAC, the Runners are tied with Tulane and SMU at the top of the standings despite UTSA dropping three hefty non-conference losses. They travel to Tulane at the very end of the season in what could wind up being an incredibly impactful game, but I still have a hard time putting much faith in them. Sure, they have a few titles from their old conference, but this is their first season in the AAC and they don’t exactly have the prestige or resources of SMU or Tulane. Tulane is ranked by the College Football Committee, for crying out loud, and the Roadrunners lost to Army. Army! I’m rooting for them though, and I hope they prove me wrong.
With football covered, let’s talk hoops. The NBA and NCAA basketball seasons are underway, and we have lots of bird teams to watch. I won’t be spending too much time on basketball until 2024, since football is still dominating the sports media landscape and basketball really doesn’t heat up until the spring. But what teams am I keeping an eye on?
In the pros, we have two bird teams: the New Orleans Pelicans and the Atlanta Hawks. Both feature fun to watch stars and maddening inconsistency. In New Orleans, Zion Williamson is badly trying to put together a healthy season so he can charge with Brandon Ingram into the thick of a crowded Western Conference. I’m skeptical. The Atlanta Hawks are hoping to tame the chaos a little bit, as dazzling sharpshooter Trae Young settles into a new backcourt alongside semi-star Dejounte Murray, who they traded for from the Spurs last year. On paper, they should be great: their roster is full of contributors and their new head coach Quin Snyder led the Jazz to consistent regular season success for years. But with Atlanta, things are rarely as they should be. I just hope that if they make the postseason, it’s another fun matchup like when Young played heel to the rowdy Knicks fanbase, as opposed to another short lived stint against a title contender like Boston. In a top heavy East, they probably can’t break through to the later rounds, but a strong regular season could give them a shot. That’s more than I can say for the Pelicans, who might surprise me but will most likely find themselves in the Play-in tournament again, fighting for a chance to lose to the Warriors or Lakers.
Men’s collegiate basketball features one obvious bird team standout: the Kansas Jayhawks are perennial contenders, with a banner going up in 2022. Since then, though, things have been rocky. Coach Bill Self was suspended for four games (by his own school) for a recruiting violation, and then was held out of the NCAA tournament due to a sudden health concern. He’s back now, though, and AP has faith in his ability to get back into the swing of things this season, awarding Kansas the top rank in the country for the start of the season. I will be very clear that I think rankings are meaningless this early in the season, with Men’s college basketball being known for it’s chaos and plurality. However it certainly makes them a school to watch.
Also in the rankings, though, is a less storied program: the Creighton Blue Jays. The Blue Jays have been steadily pushing their way into the national conversation. In 2021, they made it to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in around 50 years. In 2023, they made it to the Elite Eight for the first time in around 80 years! Making the round of 32 the last three years in a row is, in and of itself, a great accomplishment. But the Jays are certainly setting their sights higher than the round of 32, and want to keep pushing further into March. While a conference title is unlikely (going up against the likes of UConn, Xavier, and Villanova), they will certainly be worth keeping an eye on. The fact that I love blue jays is just a bonus.
What about women’s basketball? Women’s basketball isn’t quite as random as their masculine counterparts, both in college and in the pros. Anybody paying attention could have told you back in February that the Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty would face off in the WNBA finals, and that’s exactly what happened (and it was great). After last year’s thrilling Final Four, it’s easy to imagine similar teams making deep runs this year. Dawn Staley’s program at South Carolina is a goliath bird team currently sitting at 6th, and the Iowa Hawkeyes (currently #3) return their star guard Caitlin Clark who will make a run for the best player in the nation against LSU’s Angel Reese and UConn’s Paige Bueckers. Both should make serious waves in March.
One shocking upstart team from that final four is the Virginia Tech Hokies, who exceeded all expectations and are ranked 8th as they try to build on their success. Will they? Only time will tell, but I think they may have benefitted from some bracket luck that allowed them to go quite a while without facing serious star power. If they want respect, they need to show consistency. Just last night they took on the Hawkeyes in a WBB Bird team bout, and it was a closely contested game ultimately won by Caitlin Clark's heroic 44 points. Not a bad start for the Hokies.
Basketball is an exciting sport in part because the narratives unfold slowly over a long season, rather than explosively like you see in football. So we’ll check back in with these teams in a few months when we’re approaching the tournament in college and perhaps hovering around the All-Star break in the pros. By then, we’ll have a better idea of who’s hopes are legitimate. But for now we put our hope into the Oregon Ducks and the Baltimore Ravens, our best hopes of a bird championship anytime soon.
Oh and the Boston College Eagles are the top ranked team in NCAA Men’s Hockey. So that might be something.
That’s all for us today at Bear Sees Birds, next week I’ll be looking at recent developments in the ornithology world in another installment of Big Blue Birdhouse.