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Hoop Thoughts: The Wonderer ponders college basketball’s burning questions

You ve heard of the wanderer? Well I m The Wonderer. I wonder round and round and round and round and round. The Wonderer wonders . . .

. . . whether we re all sleeping on Gonzaga

You might be surprised I am wondering this considering I am one of just six AP voters who did not have Gonzaga as my No. 1 team last week. But there are different questions to be addressed. There s the question of whether the Zags should be No. 1 in the polls. Then there s the separate question of whether they deserve a No. 1 seed, and potentially the No. 1 overall seed, in the NCAA tournament. Then, there s the only question that matters to The Wonderer: Can they win the whole thing?

Most people are saying yes to the first two questions yet giving a resounding no on the third. I am of the opposing view. No, I don t have the Zags at the top of my ballot, but I am increasingly convinced that Gonzaga is a short-list favorite to win the national championship. No, the Zags have never made the Final Four, but that means nothing. They have bona fide NBA talent, not just in junior point guard Nigel Williams-Goss and senior center Przemek Karnowski, but also with backup center, freshman Zach Collins. This is the only team in the country that checks all the boxes: They have a stud point guard (check), a bevy of three-point shooters (check), a classic back-to-the-basket five man (check), and a couple of stretch fours (check). They re athletic (check), committed defensively (check), have a great coach (check) and oodles of experience (check). The main reason to denigrate their chances at a title is their conference. I think this is a fair concern, not because it means they are fraudulent but because I worry that this league will not properly prepare the Zags for the mental stress of March.

Still, every team has concerns. If Gonzaga were in the ACC or the Big 12, would they be undefeated right now? Doubtful. Yet, I also doubt there are many teams who would be undefeated to this point while playing Gonzaga s schedule. Even the metrics confirm this: Gonzaga is ranked No. 1 on, No. 4 on and No. 5 in the RPI. Rank them or seed them wherever you want. But I would warn you not to bet too much against them come tourney time.

. . . whether Villanova and Kansas are destined to run out of gas

Two things can hurt a team s physical and emotional stamina: lack of size and lack of depth. So even though Villanova and Kansas were the top overall seeds when the selection committee revealed its midseason bracket on Saturday, The Wonderer wonders whether those teams have the legs to get across the finish line. Both teams lost young big men who were supposed to shore up their frontcourts. Villanova s top recruit, 6′ 9″ forward Omari Spellman, was ruled academically ineligible before the season started. Kansas freshman Udoka Azubuike broke his wrist and was lost for the season. The Jayhawks have been further saddled by the disappointing season that 6′ 10″ sophomore Carlton Bragg is having, both on and off the court. Whether it s the second week of the tournament or the Final Four, the NCAA tournament requires teams to win two very difficult games in three days, something they almost never have to do during the regular season. They need to be able to survive foul trouble, fatigue and occasional poor shooting to win the championship. I wonder if they can.

. . . whether Wisconsin s season will end at the free throw line

I love that the Badgers starting center and power forward, Ethan Happ and Nigel Hayes, are ranked 1 2 on the team in assists. I don t love that those two guys are making a combined 57.3% from the foul line. That s especially problematic considering they also account for 54.0% of Wisconsin s free throw attempts. The Wonderer wonders if the Badgers season is going to end a little earlier than it should because it got outscored at the free throw line. Hope those guys are getting plenty of reps.

. . . whether Markelle Fultz is getting unfairly penalized

The awards season has always struck me as silly, but I would submit that Washington s star freshman guard deserves every consideration for national player of the year. It is not hard to make the case that Fultz is the best player in college basketball. He is averaging 23.2 points (which ranks fourth in the country), 6.0 assists (second in the Pac-12), 6.0 rebounds and 1.6 steals. He s even ranked 10th in the Pac-12 in blocks at 1.3 per game. Meanwhile, Fultz is making 47.9% from the floor, 42.1% from three, and 64.4% from the foul line. He is the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in the NBA draft. So why isn t he in the POY convo? The answer his simple: He plays on a bad team. However, unlike the case last year with LSU, where Ben Simmons had some good talent around him, Washington is losing despite Fultz, not because of him. POY and All-America are supposed to be individual awards, not team awards. I challenge you to find five individuals who are having better seasons than Markelle Fultz. Actually, don t bother, because you can t.

. . . whether Duke s whole will ever be greater than the sum of its parts

As impressive as Duke s win over North Carolina was last Thursday, it was just as impressive that the Blue Devils were able to escape Clemson less than 48 hours later when they were emotionally spent. Still, I am not yet ready to pronounce this team all the way back. The Blue Devils lost valuable development time while they went through their rash of injuries, the suspension to Grayson Allen and the four-week absence of Mike Krzyzewski. One thing I do like is that freshman Jayson Tatum has emerged as the third leg of the stool. Senior Amile Jefferson is good, but if Duke is reliant on him to score a lot of points, then that is a problem. One thing I still don t like is the lack of a true point guard on this team, but that can certainly be overcome, as the 2010 Blue Devils, who won the NCAA tournament, demonstrated. However, that will be harder to do if Krzyzewski falls back on the habit of running an offense based around isolation drives as opposed to his more standard motion game where the ball moves quickly, creating driving lanes and three-point looks. That takes time to develop because it requires everyone to be in sync. Is the iso offense a concession on Coach K s part that there is not enough time left in the season to create a more traditional offense? The Wonderer wonders.

Hoop Thoughts: The Wonderer Ponders College Basketball's Burning Questions

AP Photo/John Locher

. . . whether Bill Walton is the most interesting man in the world

I don t get people who don t get this guy. He is an absolute original. He knows the game and does his homework, but his telecasts are a long, strange trip through his colorful, plentiful mind. We ve got enough guys who deliver us X s and O s. What the world needs now is more Bill Walton.

. . . whether people are making too big of a deal about the RPI

When the NCAA announced it was going to host a nerdapalooza of metrics mavens, many people celebrated the demise of the RPI. That may have been a bit premature. I spoke about this over the weekend with committee chair Mark Hollis, and it sounds to me that the committee is determined to stay out of the predictive business. That means shying away from models that give weight to things other than pure results. The RPI is the only metric that does this. Look, there s no doubt the RPI needs to be freshened. It was, after all, crafted in 1981. But I don t envision a lot of wholesale changes. The committee members look at all the other metrics anyway. When they see an outlier, they dig in to find out the causes, and adjust their votes accordingly. The RPI has always been made out to be more important than it really is. So it s fitting that the changes made to it will be less than many people expect.

. . . whether Marcus Keene knows he s my man crush

At least once a week, I head to Synergy to check out the latest videos of Central Michigan s diminutive dynamo. He may be a volume shooter, but he is also a volume maker, and he remains within reach of being the first player in 20 years to average 30 points per game. As of today, his average is 29.9. I wouldn t flat out tell Chippewas coach Keno Davis to make sure Keene eclipses this mark, but if he wants to call a few extra plays for my man crush these last few games, I m not going to talk him out of it.

. . . whether Leonard Hamilton needs to shorten his rotation

Allow myself to contradict . . . myself. While The Wonderer wonders whether Kansas and Villanova could use one more big body, he also wonders whether Florida State has too many. Ten Seminoles average at least 10 minutes per game, and three others tend to get significant playing time. That would make sense if this team played a frenetic, end-to-end pressing style, but it doesn t. Most coaches I ve spoken to over the years believe firmly that as long as you re healthy and not overcome by foul trouble, seven or eight is the perfect number for a rotation. I do like that Hamilton still finds heavy minutes for his top scorers and rotates everyone else through the fifth spot, but my unsolicited advice to him is to tighten things up as we head towards the postseason. Most of the time, when a coach tries to make everybody happy, no one s happy.

. . . whether the Big East is overrated

When the Big East is going well, we all get nostalgic. It s also good to see a league outside the so-called Power 5 kicking butt. But The Wonderer wonders if this league is going irretrievably in the wrong direction. Outside of Villanova, do you see a second weekend team here? That would have been the case with Creighton, but when the Blujays lost Maurice Watson, Jr., that took away their tourney potency. Meanwhile, Xavier also lost its starting point guard, Edmond Sumner, to an ACL tear. Butler has lost three of its last four games, including at home to Georgetown. Marquette and Seton Hall, meanwhile, are fighting just to get a tourney bid. My guess is one or the other will get in, but not both.

. . . whether any of the top mid-majors will get an at-large bid

During our midseason bracket preview show on CBS over the weekend, I asked RPI guru Jerry Palm if he thought Middle Tennessee would be able to get an at-large if it doesn t win the Conference USA tournament. I assumed they would because he assigned the Blue Raiders a No. 11 seed, but he was pretty emphatic that the answer was no. His logic was also sound. Middle Tennessee may be 21 4, but its only top -0 win came on a neutral court against UNC-Wilmington, and it has three losses to teams ranked below 100 in the RPI including a loss at No. 301 UTEP on Feb. 4. Any loss the Blue Raiders suffer in the conference tournament would be another bad loss. That will not stack up well against other at-large candidates. The same is true for Wichita State, which is ranked 48th in the RPI and 16th on but also owns just one top-50 win, at home over Illinois State. And Illinois State s only top-50 win was at home over Wichita State. All of this does not bode well for teams like Vermont, UNC-Wilmington, Valparaiso, Monmouth, Akron, Nevada, Belmont and New Mexico State. It s too bad, because all of those teams are capable of winning a first-round game. But they can t do that if they re not in the tournament.

. . . whether the two POY candidates might be the second best players on their respective teams

I m speaking, of course, about Villanova s Josh Hart and Kansas s Frank Mason. In Mason s case, there is no question that freshman forward Josh Jackson has been Kansas s best player the last three weeks. Likewise, there have been times when Hart has struggled such as Villanova s win over Xavier on Saturday, when Hart scored just 11 points and sophomore point guard Jalen Brunson becomes Villanova s top cat. Brunson had 17 points, seven assists and four rebounds to save the day. It s not hard to imagine his having to do it again a few weeks hence.

. . . whether Chris Mullin is building something real at St. John s

Don t look now, but the Johnnies have won three of their last five games to get to just one game under .500 in the Big East. They were legit wins, too at Providence, home vs. Marquette, home vs. Seton Hall. St. John s also played Xavier tough at home before losing by five, and earlier this season they won at Syracuse (by 33 points!) and beat Butler at home. When a program has been this down, fans will cling to any sign of optimism, but in this case it s easy to see an upward trajectory. The Red Storm s two leading scorers are both freshmen averaging more than 17 points per game. There are no seniors amongst the top seven players. Chris Mullin has two pretty good transfers sitting out this season Justin Simon, a 6′ 5″ point guard from Arizona, and Marvin Clark, a 6′ 7″ forward from Michigan State. If Mullin can keep this group together, it s not hard to envision the Johnnies returning to the NCAA tournament next season.

. . . whether Red Panda is actually human

Does a woman just wake up one day and decide to ride a unicycle while wearing high heels and start throwing bowls on her head? Someone please investigate on The Wonderer s behalf. He needs to know more about how this works.

. . . whether more coaches will start dressing like Utah s Larry Krystkowiak

As you know I m a big fan of the no-tie look, but Utah s coach takes things even further by sporting the long sleeve golf shirt during games. As far as I can tell it does not adversely affect his coaching.

. . . whether things are going to get worse at Indiana

Things sure got ugly early in Bloomington, didn t they? Those wins over Kansas and North Carolina seem like a lifetime ago. The Hoosiers got dominated again on Sunday, when they lost to Michigan at home to fall to 5 8 in the Big Ten. As disheartening as that was, it was equally problematic to see Tom Crean lay into his players in his postgame news conference. Crean may have been right in his criticism, but The Wonderer wonders whether he has lost his team.

Losing O.G. Anunoby was obviously devastating. Indiana has lost five of the seven games it has played without him. Even though James Blackmon has returned from this three-game absence due to a leg injury, it s clear he is still badly hurt. At any rate, Indiana is not going to the NCAA tournament. It s going to be a trying few weeks for a head coach who has long felt the heat in one of the most high-profile jobs in the sport.

. . . whether there is going to be the fourth team coming out of the SEC

We know Florida, Kentucky and South Carolina are going to be in the Big Dance, but does anyone else want to join the party? Anyone? It s pretty embarrassing that we are asking this question about a Power 5 conference with 14 teams, but given that the committee has to come up with 36 at-large teams somehow, I have a strong feeling that one way or another, the SEC will send a fourth. I actually think the fourth-best team in the league is Georgia, but the Bulldogs have lost a ton of close games and now own a 5 7 league record. Arkansas looked pretty good there for a while but has now lost three of its last five (including a loss at cellar dweller Missouri). Maybe it s Alabama, who just pulled off a nice win last week at South Carolina in quadruple overtime. But if there is a fourth team, the smart money is on Tennessee, which owns home victories over Kentucky and Kansas State.

. . . whether Alec Peters is going to get to play in the NCAA tournament

I ve really enjoyed watching the 6′ 9″ senior forward develop into an outstanding player during his four years at Valparaiso. Peters is now the school s alltime leading scorer, and his 23.1 scoring average ranks fifth in the country. Peters had a chance to turn pro last year but came back for his senior season, even though his coach, Bryce Drew, whose school scoring record he broke, had left for Vanderbilt. Yes, Peters made a business decision to come back and improve his draft stock, but I m hoping that his commitment to his school is rewarded with a chance to show what he can do on the game s biggest stage.

Hoop Thoughts: The Wonderer Ponders College Basketball's Burning Questions

AP Photo/Brody Schmidt

. . . whether we should Sharpie Scott Drew as coach of the year

Speaking of the Drew family, is there even a debate for the coach of the year? Baylor started the season unranked and is sporting a roster that does not include a single highly ranked recruit. Its starting point guard, Manu Lecomte, transferred from Miami because he couldn t beat out the Hurricanes starter. Yet here we are in the middle of February and Drew has the Bears in great position to earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That s not to mention the fact that this program had zero basketball tradition when Drew took over, and in his third year it was hit by massive penalties for a scandal that grew out of the murder of Patrick Dennehy.

. . . whether the basketball committee is overrating Florida

I ve been ranking Florida ahead of my fellow AP ballot voters for much of the season, but I was surprised the men s basketball committee installed the Gators as the No. 11 overall seed, ahead of teams like Kentucky, UCLA, Cincinnati and Wisconsin. I think this was a) an overreaction to Florida s home win over Kentucky and b) another indication that the committee places a high value on the rankings, where Florida has been well ahead of its poll status all season long and currently sits at No. 6 in the country. I would anticipate a correction if Florida loses at Kentucky on Feb. 25.

. . . whether UCLA should ever play zone

As I ve been saying since the start of the season, UCLA doesn t need to be a great defensive team to make the Final Four. It just has to be good enough. For a good chunk of the season the Bruins have not been good enough (they re ranked 126th in the country in defensive efficiency), but by coming back from 19 points against Oregon, the Bruins showed they are capable of being plenty good enough at that end of the floor when they set their mind to it. That comeback didn t happen until Steve Alford came out of the zone early in the second half. Playing good defense is as much about effort as it is execution, and it was clear that the Bruins were much more focused, tough and aggressive when they were playing man to man. According to Synergy, the Bruins play zone on about 12% of their possessions, and while their efficiency is slightly better in the zone, I think it robs them of their mental edge. No more zone for this group, sayeth The Wonderer.

. . . whether NC State is the most confounding team in years

They have a top-five NBA draft pick in Dennis Smith, a high-scoring 7-foot import from Turkey in Omer Yurtseven, a healthy handful of post players and athletic wings, plus a solid outside shooter in Maverick Rowan. They beat Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium, yet the Wolfpack are 3 10 in the ACC and have lost five in a row. They have lost league games by margins of 18, 24, 25, 30 and 51 points.

. . . whether people feel foolish for giving up on Syracuse so quickly

On the flip side, behold Syracuse, which lost earlier this season to three former Big East rivals who are not going to the NCAA tournament UConn in Madison Square Garden, and St. John s and Georgetown at home. They lost at Boston College by 15 points on New Year s Day and later fell to 3 4 in the ACC. Yet, it was always foolish to doubt Jim Boeheim. The Wonderer wonders why more people didn t realize that. The problem all along was that this was basically a brand new team. Boeheim brought in two graduate transfers (one of whom, Andrew White, didn t get onto campus until late summer) and had two freshmen in his starting lineup. His featured player, 6′ 9″ sophomore forward Tyler Lydon, was in a completely different role than the complementary role he played last season. The reason Boeheim s 2-3 zone is so effective is that it s all his team ever plays and practices. But that advantage is not as decisive if his guys don t have the requisite hours to work on it.

Ditto for the offense, which was disjointed until Boeheim finally installed 6-foot senior John Gillon as his starting point guard. Now, the Orange are 8 5 in the ACC and likely headed back to the NCAA tournament. Does it feel like we ve seen this movie before? We did, just last year, when Syracuse lost five out of six down the stretch but still somehow made the Final Four.

. . . whether people remember when Jay Wright was on the hot seat

They should, because it was only two years ago, after Villanova suffered yet another early exit with a second-round loss to UConn. That marked the sixth straight year the Wildcats failed to make it past the first weekend of the NCAA tournament. (They didn t even make the tourney in 2012.) Isn t it, well, wonderful how all this works?

Hoop Thoughts: The Wonderer Ponders College Basketball's Burning Questions

Icon Sportswire via AP Images

Craziness at VCU Leads to Rules Change

It s not often that a single play confuses so many people that it spurs a change in the rules, but that s what happened as the result of a wild finish that occurred Wednesday night at VCU. Here was the situation: The Rams were inbounding the ball under their own basket with 0.4 seconds remaining. George Washington had just made a three-point basket to take a one-point lead. That is important because it meant that VCU s inbounder was permitted to run the baseline. During the time out, VCU coach Will Wade reached into his bag of tricks and drew up a play which called for forward Justin Tillman, who was inbounding the ball, to run the baseline while his senior guard, JeQuan Lewis, stepped in to set a blind screen. When GW forward Collin Goss ran with Tillman, he plowed into Lewis. The official correctly called a foul on Goss. Lewis went to the line, knocked down two free throws, and VCU won the game, 54 53.

Here s the thing, though: At the moment Lewis set that screen, his left foot was out of bounds. The next day, I got a text message from an officiating source telling me that Lewis s screen should have been ruled illegal. I sent a text to another official who has refereed in the Final Four, and he confirmed the interpretation that a player cannot set a screen out of bounds. So I wrote on Twitter that the refs had gotten the call wrong, and George Washington should have won the game. Turns out, all three of us were wrong. While the rules do explicitly state that a defensive player cannot take a charge out of bounds, there is nothing in the book that says an offensive player cannot set a screen while standing out of bounds. When I spoke with Bryan Kersey, the coordinator of officials for the Atlantic 10, he confirmed that by rule, the referees had done the right thing. Still, there seems to broad agreement that a player should not be allowed to set a screen if he is out of bounds. Therefore, later this week, Art Hyland, who is secretary editor of the rules committee, will issue an interpretation fixing this omission in the rulebook. Once that interpretation is posted, the rule change goes into effect immediately. Hyland told me on Sunday that he expects the committee will revisit this situation at its meetings next May and discuss whether to write the change into the rulebook.

The craziest thing about this whole situation is that in VCU s previous game, the Rams also managed to steal victory from the jaws of defeat with the same 0.4 seconds on the clock. That happened at the end of its game at St. Bonaventure. All kinds of chaos ensued after the Bonnies took a one-point lead on a three-point shot by junior guard Matt Mobley. A security guard picked up the ball. The St. Bonaventure fans rushed the floor. The St. Bonaventure players left the bench. As the security guard walked with the ball toward midcourt, VCU forward Doug Brooks grabbed the ball out of his hands, sprinted to the baseline and threw the ball inbounds to a teammate. The final 0.4 seconds ticked off the clock. The referees assessed St. Bonaventure with a one-shot technical foul. JeQuan Lewis yes, the same guy made the foul shot and sent the game into overtime, where the Rams won, 83-77. The Atlantic 10 seemed as confused as everyone else about what went on, at first issuing a press release saying the officials did the right thing in calling the technical, and then another one the next day reprimanding the refs for mismanaging the game. That second release didn t explicitly say the technical shouldn t have been called, but that s what it meant. While there is a rule allowing for a technical to be called in that situation for interruption of continuous play, there were plenty of opportunities for the officials to stop the game to bring order. All of which is a long way of saying you better not miss any more VCU games this season.

Hoop Thoughts: The Wonderer Ponders College Basketball's Burning Questions

Icon Sportswire via AP Images

Five Games I m Psyched to See This Week

Louisville at Syracuse, Monday, 7 p.m., ESPN

Forty years ago, Jim Boeheim interrupted Rick Pitino s wedding night so he could interview him for an assistant s job at Syracuse. This game will provide Pitino with a little payback. Also, Louisville has point guard Quentin Snider back from injury and it might be the best defensive team in the country.

Louisville 76, Syracuse 67

West Virginia at Kansas, Monday, 9 p.m., ESPN

The Mountaineers throttled the Jayhawks by 16 points in Morgantown on Jan. 24. A long memory and a change of scenery should yield a much different result.

Kansas 88, West Virginia 75

Tennessee at Kentucky, Tuesday, 7 p.m., ESPN

Noticing a theme here? The Vols nicked Kentucky by a deuce in Knoxville on Jan. 24. The Wildcats will be amped to exact their revenge in Rupp.

Kentucky 85, Tennessee 68

Duke at Virginia, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN2

I think it s fair to say the Blue Devils will be defended better than they have all season and the Cavaliers aren t so easy to guard, either, especially at home. Duke would much prefer to run than grind, and the Cavaliers will be looking to bounce back from that crazy double overtime loss at Virginia Tech on Sunday night.

Virginia 69, Duke 67

Wisconsin at Michigan, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN

I still can t believe the Badgers lost at home to a Northwestern team that was missing its leading scorer. That s bad news for a Michigan squad that needs all the quality wins it can get while trying to build its NCAA tournament r sum .

Wisconsin 73, Michigan 68

Hoop Thoughts: The Wonderer Ponders College Basketball's Burning Questions

Icon Sportswire via AP Images

This Week s AP Ballot

* (Last week s rank on my ballot in parentheses)

1. Villanova (1)
2. Gonzaga (2)
3. Kansas (3)
4. Baylor (4)
5. Louisville (5)
6. Oregon (8)
7. Arizona (9)
8. UCLA (10)
9. Duke (19)
10. North Carolina (11)
11. Virginia (7)
12. West Virginia (12)
13. Cincinnati (13)
14. Wisconsin (6)
15. Purdue (15)
16. SMU (25)
17. Florida State (14)
18. Florida (16)
19. Kentucky (18)
20. Xavier (20)
21. Creighton (21)
22. Maryland (17)
23. Northwestern (NR)
24. Saint Mary s (23)
25. South Carolina (22)

Dropped out: Butler (24)

Just when I thought it was going to be an unchanged ballot, we had two unexpected results Sunday night, as Wisconsin and Virginia lost. I penalized the Badgers more because their loss came at home. Still, by this time of year the cake is pretty much baked. So many games have been played that it s going to be very hard to provoke huge swings based on one or two results. Duke was an exception, not only because the Blue Devils beat a really good team in North Carolina, but also because they are such a different (and much better) team now that they finally have all their players and their head coach. I did not punish North Carolina or Cincinnati for losing to good conference teams on the road, but I did reward SMU for its win over the Bearcats. This will not be Northwestern s first time in the top 25, but it is the first time the Wildcats made my ballot. What can I say? I m a tough sell.

It is likewise difficult for unranked teams to make their way onto my ballot this time of year. I felt like Notre Dame was rank-worthy based on its convincing win at home over Florida State, but I didn t have an available slot. Beyond that, it didn t seem like I had a lot of really strong candidates outside the top 25 this week. Virginia Tech, Wichita State, Kansas State, Dayton, VCU and Vermont earned a looksee, but none of them made the grade.

Local entrepreneur hopes to make it Reign with Vinton-based professional video game team

Brent Beckner stopped playing in professional video game competitions years ago, but that hasn t kept him out of the industry altogether.

He s now the founder and CEO of The Roanoke Reign, a national video game organization that he runs remotely from his Vinton home.

The rest of Reign s managers and 16 professional players are scattered across the country. There s FluxWolf, a Super Smash Bros. player from Minnesota, and Murdastick, a Counter-Strike player in Maryland. Reign recruits the players, organizes teams and sets a tournament schedule. The organization also brings on sponsors and pays for portions of player travel expenses and tournament fees. If one of Reign s teams wins, the organization takes a cut of the prize and the players get the rest. The business, which was founded as Virtue Gaming in 2015 but recently changed its name, is part of the booming yet often underestimated world of professional gaming known as eSports.

Top players range from teenagers to those in their early 20s. They can earn well over $1 million in prizes[1] each year, not including sponsorship deals or what they get paid to live stream practice sessions for fans. The sport quietly grew a niche following for years and only recently has started to receive mainstream attention. Competitions now routinely sell out arenas all over the world. In 2014, more people watched the League of Legends championship[2] on television and online than watched the World Series or NBA Finals that year. In 2016, ESPN joined the craze[3] and announced a major push to expand coverage of video game competitions.

There s a stigma about it that you can t make a living off gaming, that it s just a guy sitting in his basement at his mother s house, Beckner said. That s just not the case.

Beckner, 24, demurred on questions about exactly how much his players earn, but he did say no one with Reign is anywhere near the elite class of gamers who bring home seven-figure salaries. Even for Beckner, the business is a side gig he works as a security guard for a private company during the day. Beckner first discovered his passion for video games in 1999, when he would play with his older brother and hand the controller off whenever he reached levels too difficult for a 7-year-old.

Being 10 years apart, it was always kind of difficult to find something we had in common, Beckner said of his brother. But gaming was one of the few things. He bought his own Xbox in 2004, playing Halo with his girlfriend under the screen name RoaPD. (Beckner said he s always wanted to be a Roanoke police officer.)

It started as casual games after school, but soon he was playing for 14 hours at a time. Most of the tournaments back then were online, so Beckner said they were easy to fit in around his schedule.

I wasn t making enough to solely survive off tournament income; granted, back then I was in high school, Beckner said. I was definitely making more than an average $7.25-an-hour job.

Beckner switched to Call of Duty, a war-themed game, while attending Virginia Western Community College a few years later. That s when he took things to the next level, signing sponsorship deals and traveling for tournaments. By 2011, Beckner said he was playing video games for about 12 hours a day, seven days a week. That s when he decided it all had become too much.

There were times when you were just burned out, but that s with any job, Beckner said. For the most part, you still have that passion behind every match. I, personally, just sucked at time control. That s really what it boiled down to. Beckner took a few years off before rejoining the industry on the management side of things.

Reign is still a young organization, but it s slowly building a name for itself. Over the past two years, Reign s teams have placed within the top 10 at more than 20 competitions. Next, Beckner said he hopes to recruit more content creators, or gamers who record themselves playing for fans to watch. Beckner says he s also found a better balance for his own life in his new management role. He has a 15-month-old son and is expecting another early next month. Most of his video game gear has been moved to storage. When he does play, Beckner said it s usually so his son can sit on his lap and pretend to control the game.

My Xbox is still at the house, but it s used for Netflix only anymore, Beckner said. It went from Call of Duty to Mickey Mouse Clubhouse. Which, you know, I m not complaining.


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Statehouse Beat: Justice address a refreshing change

Statehouse Beat: Justice Address A Refreshing Change

SAM OWENS | Gazette-Mail Gov. Jim Justice gives his first State of the State address on Wednesday,

First, let us acknowledge the 800-pound gorilla in the room: Gov. Jim Justice s State of the State address was a refreshing change of pace, and also was a hoot and a half. Undoubtedly, that was the first State of the State address to reference both an 18-carat dog mess and Frankenstein, not to mention the speaker s own flop sweat and bad knees. I ve often said that C-SPAN s rebroadcasts of State of the State addresses from around the country are watchable only by hard-core political junkies, insomniacs and masochists. However, it s not hard to imagine viewers somewhere in America flipping channels, coming upon Justice s address, and finding themselves enthralled by this small-state governor s homespun, extemporaneous presentation.

Traditionally, the real audience for State of State addresses is the Legislature, but Justice s address obviously was directed at what Oshel Craigo calls the people in the little white houses. Justice realizes he needs to use his bully pulpit if he wants to have any hope of convincing Grover-Norquist-pledge-signing legislators to pass any of his tax increases, and he directly addressed the public at the end of the speech, asking them to get their in-laws, outlaws and neighbors to call their legislators in support of his budget plan. In his own down-home, straight talk way, I think Justice made a strong argument that the state can t get through the budget crisis, let alone ever thrive, on spending cuts alone.

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Last week, I suggested that if I were Justice, I would submit a scorched-earth budget bill proposing to make up the $500 million budget shortfall entirely through cuts, to put the onus squarely on the Legislature. In a way, he did that, submitting an alternative budget that closes the shortfall by literally closing great portions of state government, including most state colleges and universities, essentially giving pro-budget cut legislators an a la carte menu to pick their poison. For all the talk about right-sizing state government, the Legislature has found it awful to pull the trigger on any cuts of any consequence. Remember the budget impasse last year when legislators couldn t come up with $90 million of additional cuts to avoid raising the tobacco tax?

Assuming you don t want to gut public education ($1.9 billion) and you want to keep funding Medicaid ($900 million), which not only provides health care for some of our most vulnerable citizens but also draws down a nearly $3-to-$1 federal match, and you want to continue to keep bad guys in prisons and regional jails, continue to have State Police patrolling our highways, and continue to have National Guard and Homeland Security on call in the event of natural or man-made disasters ($350 million), you basically have about $850 million of general revenue budget left from which to make $500 million of cuts. Or as Justice said of cutting the way out of the deficit, I can t get you there.

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As the Legislature discovered last year, every line-item in the budget has a constituency, and Justice s comparatively modest proposal of roughly 0.5 percent of budget cuts (compared to 15 percent cuts enacted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin during his term) are already generating uproar. The aftermath of Justice s proposal to cut $26.6 million from what currently is a $4.1 billion general revenue budget saw multiple articles raising myriad concerns about the harm the proposed cuts would cause.

The cynic in me might think that the programs targeted for cuts were specifically selected to generate maximum uproar, involving entities that many West Virginians hold dear, including Marshall and West Virginia universities, West Virginia Public Broadcasting, and the Culture and History fund that supports fairs and festivals, symphonies and theater arts, historic preservation, and museums around the state. In fact, if you told me to go through the budget, and come up with reductions that would cause the maximum amount of uproar per dollar of cuts, I m not sure I could top what Justice and company have proposed. The proposed Educational Broadcasting Authority cuts are particularly interesting. The elimination of general revenue funding, $4.6 million, is not quite half of EBA s total annual budget. However, almost all of the $4.6 million (save a $300,000 grant for Mountain Stage) is for personnel costs (payroll and benefits). Theoretically, there would still be special revenue funds to maintain the studios, transmission towers, and nuts and bolts to put WVPB on the air, with no staff to operate them.

The cynic in me might also say the stage is set for another budget impasse, and another countdown to a government shutdown this June.

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First major management change by new Revenue Secretary Dave Hardy: John Doyle, longtime deputy secretary and, before that, longtime delegate from Jefferson County, who did a lot of work on the national Streamlined Sales Tax project, was let go Friday.

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Charlie Monte Verde, senior government affairs specialist with Amtrak, was at the Capitol last week doing some groundwork for pending legislation for West Virginia to help form an interstate compact to expand Amtrak Cardinal operations from three days a week to daily service.

(And, yes, he rode the old redbird from Chicago to get here.)

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Finally, one of the more unexpected elements of Justice s address was what seemed to be his call for a dress code for Department of Environmental Protection inspectors, describing inspectors as being unshaven, wearing T-shirts and old pairs of jeans.

Listen, I think they ought to look like something, and they will look like something, or we ll have them out tending to Grizzly Adams, Justice said. I probably paid more heed to those comments than I normally would have, since it just happens that the new administration has also raised issues about what it considers the less-than-stellar appearance of some members of the press corps who cover Justice. Certainly, I m in no position to make judgments on fashion or appearance. If Penney s ever stops selling Dockers and oxford shirts, I ll be clueless about where to buy work clothes.

The governor didn t strike me as someone who would be all that concerned with appearance or attire, but upon further consideration, I guess ownership of an upscale resort would make one acutely aware of such things.

Reach Phil Kabler at, 304 348-1220, or follow @PhilKabler on Twitter.