Friday Q&A: Okada-Omega; Power Five Breakouts; Terrance Ferguson


Wrestling’s most exciting rivalry of 2017 is Okada-Omega, the New Japan feud headlining the two biggest main events of the year to date. It’s also the subject of just one entry in this week’s Friday Q&A.

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So 2017 has been a pretty incredible year for New Japan at the midway point. The organization owes much of its success to kicking off 2017 with a bang at Wrestle Kingdom 11, headlined by the IWGP Heavyweight Championship bout between Kazuchika Okada and Kenny Omega.

NJPW has had a pretty consistent run of excellent Wrestle Kingdom shows to open the year on Jan. 4: Wrestle Kingdom 9 featured an outstanding double-main event of Kota Ibushi vs. Shinsuke Nakamura, which earned 5 stars from wrestling journalist Dave Meltzer, and Hiroshi Tanahashi vs. Kazuchika Okada. That match deserves 5-star consideration. The next year’s top two bouts are both surefire 5-star, A-plus matches by judgment: Okada vs. Tanahashi in the rematch, and A.J. Styles vs. Nakamura, shortly before both left for WWE.

As good as those shows were, I didn’t read the same buzz on the social media as I had for Wrestle Kingdom 11’s main event of Okada vs. Kenny Omega, fueled in part by an unprecedented 6-star rating. I even received text messages from multiple friends asking if I’d seen it, shortly after the show aired.

With all the hype, there was no possible way Okada-Omega could live up to its billing. Until…it did.

That first Okada-Omega match combined the lengthy drama of Ricky Steamboat vs. Ric Flair with the bell-to-bell intensity of Bret Hart vs. “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. It isn’t necessarily my Match of the Year — Tetsuya Naito and Hiroshi Tanahashi’s WK11 rematch at this month’s Dominion might be my top choice right now — but Okada-Omega I certainly delivered.

The rematch did, as well. However, I prefer the Wrestle Kingdom bout for its aforementioned intensity. II went 18 minutes longer, and for that reason, required the two wrestlers to preserve some of their energy. The match from Dominion felt more dramatic, like part of a bigger narrative within a story, and played out like a movie with a first, second and third act.

Act 1 provided exposition. Act 2 saw a rise in intensity, eventually transitioning into the theatrical finish. Bullet Club hitting the ring and Cody Rhodes teasing throwing in the towel. NJPW crowds have already taken to Omega as a face, and his eventual title win will be met with a lustful crowd reaction. Omega needs to be split from the villainous Bullet Club as a result, and this is a masterful beginning of that storyline.

Act 3 provided the cliffhanger that transitions Okada-Omega into the final phase of the trilogy. Time ran out on Omega rather than him losing, so it’s only natural we get a decisive match. My original thought was that Okada would lose the IWGP Championship to Naito, winner of the G-1 Climax. Naito’s been built as a true main-event player for the last year, and his winning the G-1 would add an element of intrigue after Omega claimed it last year.

However, I’m wavering on that. I think we see the Okada-Omega trilogy conclude at WK 12 with Omega getting the win, and Okada going full heel. It’s been teased in the last few months in matches with Tiger Mask W and Katsuyori Shibata, though he’s ultimately maintained his status as the company ace. But with both Omega and Naito gaining increasingly boisterous followings, the next six months should see one or both transition into top face roles.

Recreating Oregon’s rise to national prominence is difficult, because UO had so many cultural advantages through its affiliation with Phil Knight. Oregon was the first college football program to really emphasize facilities and swag; both have become ubiquitous.

Moreover, Oregon reached national prominence in the 2010s, but the Ducks’ sustained success was the culmination of a long build. In the 15 years before Oregon played Auburn for the BCS Championship, the Ducks won three Pac-10 Conference championships; played in two Rose Bowls and won a Fiesta Bowl; had a Heisman Trophy finalist (and would have had a second had Dennis Dixon not injured his knee late in the 2007 season) and four players selected No. 13 or higher in the NFL draft.

In order to pinpoint the next Power Five breakthrough program a la Oregon, find a non-traditional powerhouse that has made waves for a reasonably sustained length of time without quite reaching that elite level. Now, add commitment to building up resources across all athletics, which Oregon has done simultaneous to growing its football program.

The clear answer when applying these factors is Louisville.

Louisville’s been successful across multiple sports: Women’s basketball has four Sweet 16 appearances since 2011 and a national championship run; the men’s basketball program is in that class just below blue blood, and won a [REDACTED] in [REDACTED]; baseball has reached four College World Series in the last decade.

Football’s rising on the same tide. The 2004 season marked the beginning of an impressive rise, with the Cardinals beating undefeated Boise State in an instant classic at the Liberty Bowl, 44-40. That UL team finished 11-1, with their only loss — and ostensibly the reason the Cardinals weren’t the first BCS busters — coming in a 3-point loss at No. 3-ranked Miami.

Louisville’s 2004 is the origin point, much in the same vein as Oregon’s 1994 season culminating in a Rose Bowl. UL moved from C-USA to the Big East shortly thereafter and won an Orange Bowl in 2007.

Like Oregon, which endured a handful of lean years between the end of Joey Harrington’s tenure and the 2007 season, Louisville suffered a dip. That Charlie Strong was able to resuscitate Louisville football in short order after the disastrous Steve Kragthrope era speaks to the strong structure at UL.

Lamar Jackson’s Heisman Trophy win last season marks another significant milestone. The next is Louisville winning its first Power Five championship — but that also means besting Florida State and Clemson. Not many better indicators of national relevance than that, though.

I don’t necessarily believe either was the case. Former 5-star recruit Terrance Ferguson remained in the first round, going to Oklahoma City at No. 21, despite putting up some woeful numbers for the Australian Adelaide 36ers (4.6 points per on 38 percent shooting, 1.3 rebounds per). I’m not convinced a season at Arizona would have improved his stock any.

Arizona had a logjam on the wings once Allonzo Trier returned from suspension. Ferguson lacks the offensive refinement of Trier, and isn’t the same kind of high-energy defensive presence UA has in Rawle Alkins. Ferguson’s draft position is less a reflection of where he is now as a player, than it is indicative of what OKC’s front office believe he could be.

That’s the prevailing mindset that prompted franchises to draft high schoolers like Jonathan Bender and DeSagana Diop in the lottery before the one-and-done rule, or take fliers in the first round on freshmen such as Zach Collins and Justin Patton in the current era. And it’s the same mindset when evaluating these occasional one-year overseas prospects.

Consider Brandon Jennings –coincidentally, another UA commit, though he predated Sean Miller.

Jennings’ statistics were marginally better in Italy than Ferguson’s in Australia, but certainly not spectacular. Nevertheless, he went in the lottery of the 2009 draft. Likewise, Emmanuel Mudiay didn’t arrive in China and unseat Steph Marbury as that nation’s premier basketball import, and he still went No 7 overall. Front offices evaluate the raw tools more than production for players of that age.

That said, I’m not surprised Jennings going to Italy didn’t start a trend, as many critics of college basketball predicted at the time. None of the high-profile prospects to go that route improved their draft stock any. It’s also not in the interests of the professional clubs taking these players on, knowing they’re doing so on a one-year rental. An organization isn’t going to invest shaping its strategy around an 18-or-19-year-old on a one-season layover at the expense of veterans.

Further, there’s a unifying theme among the more high-profile prospects who’ve made that leap. Jennings was committed to Arizona when that program was mired in turmoil; Lute Olson hadn’t retired officially, but wasn’t coaching due to health. Kevin O’Neill spent a season on the Wildcats sideline, and Russ Pennell was head coach for the one season Jennings would have played there.

San Diego native Jeremy Tyler actually skipped his senior year of high school to play overseas, and entered the NBA draft after stints in Israel and Japan. Tyler had a notorious reputation in the San Diego prep scene, and left his Israeli pro team for personal reasons.

Both Mudiay and Ferguson played at Prime Prep, the now-defunct Dallas athletic factory with murky accreditation.