Wednesday, March 21, 2007

The Slipper Doesn’t Fit

Following an opening round devoid of major upsets, the second round brought much of the same, with all 4 top seeds remaining and no double-digit seeds advancing to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time since 1995. Maybe it was the lack of upsets, or the styles of play, but the 2007 tournament is one of the least entertaining in recent memory thus far, with Saturday as its lone shining star.

Some observations from Round Two:

  • Edgar Sosa is going to be a star, and Louisville is going to be a force next year. Unfortunately, the 2007 version of the Cardinal showed their inexperience in letting this one get away. They had a few chances down the stretch to takeover the game and one last gasp to close it out, but could not capitalize. Sosa was gutsy, hitting clutch shots, carrying the offense, getting to the line, but I think he eventually ran out of gas. The last minute of the game you could see he was gasped, missing his first foul shots of the day, then settling for a terrible shot on the final play of the game. I felt Louisville had the chance to really put A&M on the ropes after connecting on the alley-oop with about 4 minutes left. They had the momentum, they had the lead, they had the crowd, but they lacked the killer instinct. And can they put a big guy on the floor without getting into foul trouble. Give some credit to the Aggies though, they played tough, withstood Pitino’s best shot, and are still standing. Just like I thought, great game. On a side note, someone let Gus Johnson know that he is actually doing Edgar Sosa a disservice by comparing him to Stephon Marbury. College kids should have good attitudes.
  • After getting disrespected by the committee, according to many analysts, the Big East needed strong outings from its top two teams to carry the torch for the conference. Georgetown was just too much for BC inside. Roy Hibbert was pretty much able to get position and score at will during a key stretch in the second half when Georgetown took over the game. Then when BC collapsed on him, the big guy was able to dish to cutters for easy hoops. Green and Hibbert are going to be tough to beat, plus the Hoyas have that nostalgia going for them with the Ewing /Thompson combo.
  • As strong as Georgetown looked, they were dangerously close to being the Big East’s only representative in the Round of 16. Pitt blew a big lead to VCU, then missed two foul shots at the end of regulation for the win, and had to survive an OT battle. Pitt has struggled the last month or so after being a Top 5 team during the middle of the season. They look out of it offensively at times and really wilted under the VCU pressure. Foul shots and inability to close out games usually catches up in the tourney, though their next opponent is not exactly an offensive juggernaut…
  • My apologies if you had to sit through the Indiana-UCLA game. Clearly unable to live up to the legacy of these schools, this was a battle of attrition. I think these two schools could have fielded intramural teams that can put the ball in the basket. 21-13 at the half?!?!? Is this the NBA circa 2003? And throw in the fact you were subjected to the James Brown play-by-play training ground, and this game was totally unwatchable. JB must either bribed someone or CBS execs lost their mind when they put him behind the mic and decided to bump Gus Johnson out of the booth for the regionals. Terrible job.
  • Michigan State was gutsy, especially Neitzel, and I thought they would give UNC a run for their money and have a shot, but UNC is just too deep and athletic. The Heels just had too many weapons and eventually wore MSU out. Their biggest mistake was trying to run with Carolina at times during the first half. UNC definitely has some flaws, but their talent makes up for it. The only team that can go man for man talent-wise with them is Kansas. And I love Tyler Hansbrough. He plays his rear end off all game. Watch him on the bench, he can barely breath. Definitely not the most talented on the court or the team, but has lots of talent and works much harder than everyone else. That’s why he’s the best.
  • And Xavier (or the media) can yell all they want about calling an intentional foul on Oden, but how about making some foul shots. Or maybe the coach coming out of his coma and fouling the Buckeyes before they can shoot to put them at the line for two shots down by three. Or even trying to put OSU away when they are up double-digits in the second half. In my mind they handed the game over and were asking for one bad break to kill them.
  • 8 games, 3 OT, all but one decided by single digits. Saturday was a great tournament day.

Saturday, March 17, 2007

Bracket Banter

Surprise, surprise. We are through the first round of the tournament and the top 5 seeds in each region are all standing. And the only two upsets, Winthrop and VCU knocking off Notre Dame and Duke from the 11 seed, are hardly shockers. Both mid-major schools have received a ton of publicity all season, were picked by many so-called experts to win, and had many upset factors in their favor, such as veteran players, inexperienced opponent, riding a hot streak.

What does the lack of upsets mean? Well, some great matchups over the weekend and more proof the selection committee did a terrible job with the last few at large teams. I think Stanford’s stellar performance against Louisville (down 26 at the half) , Illinois ability to blow a double-digit lead to an overrated Virginia Tech, and Arkansas inability to make it close with USC all lend credence to the selection committee mishap. Given the last time the top 5 seeds all made it to round 2 back in 2000 yielded a Final Four with two 8-seeds and a 5-seed, pretty much means early success does not guarantee anything for the favorites.

Wisconsin and Memphis both received scares in the first round. I picked both of them to get knocked off in the second round, and their Day One problems support that. Wisconsin has wilted a bit down the stretch and losing Brian Butch takes away a big part of the outside game, plus UNLV has a tough team. I like Nevada over Memphis, more for how good I think Nevada is than how overrated Memphis is. Fazekas is as good as they come, and his supporting case showed their medal during a sub-par first round performance, for his standards. The only big win for Memphis in recent memory is a 1-point OT win against Gonzaga, after they lost Josh Heyfelt.

Watch that Michigan St.-UNC game. The Spartans are capable of beating anyone. They have the talent, they have the go-to guy and leader in Neitzel, and that guy Izzo is not that bad in big spots either. Besides UNLV and Nevada, the other underdog to keep an eye on in Round two is Louisville. I like A&M, but Louisville has played extremely well over the last month, and absolutely dominated Stanford. They may be peaking at just the right time. And with Gus Johnson at the mic, god I hope its a close one.

Well, off we go to Round 2. More than upsets, hopefully this round brings us more games that come down to the wire.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Rebuffed, Rebuked, SNUBBED!

I don’t even know where to start I’m so shocked. No way did the though even cross my mind that Syracuse would not get into the tourney when that Selection Show started. But a half hour later I needed an explanation. You can cut the numbers five ways from here to Sunday, RPI, road record, last 10, record vs. Top 50, quality wins, and so on. If you try hard enough you can probably make a case for and against each of the teams that competed for those last 5 or 6 spots. Unfortunately the committee showed no consistency in their selection criteria. Arkansas used a strong conference tournament to overcome a mediocre conference record and lack of quality wins, while Xavier’s overall body of work was enough to overcome its low RPI, but apparently Syracuse’s quality conference wins, including a thumping of #2 seed Georgetown only two weeks ago, and a fifth place finish in a conference that received 6 bids, were not enough. Apparently in their case the committee decided to look at the early season schedule more. Bottom line, there is no way Syracuse is not as good as the last 5 teams that made it. Yeah, they had some bad losses, yeah their non-conference schedule leaves something to be desired, but are they better than Stanford, Purdue, and Illinois? You bet.

Syracuse was not alone though. People are crying about Drexel, and the overall lack of Mid-Major at-large bids, down to only 6 this year after as many as 12 in recent years. The other big name that deserved a spot is Kansas State. They blew out a solid Texas Tech team, had some quality wins, and play in a very good conference, better than the SEC and Big 10, but NIT it is. And I would also make a case for West Virginia. If not for a bad officiating job, they may get past Louisville in the Big East’s, and who knows from there.

The committee is not off the hook yet. They did a sub-par job with some seeding as well.
Without going to detailed, Louisville is better than a 6 seed. The ACC is overrated across the board with Duke, BC, and Virginia all a few slots higher than they played. Texas is playing better than a 4 seed. That’s going to be a tough break for UNC if they meet. I don’t know about Vandy as a 6 either.

Overall, the committee’s primary mission is picking the last 5 or so at-large teams and getting the seeding right since the other at-large teams are usually clear by this time. In my mind, they failed this year with some extremely questionable selections for the last few at large slots. Honestly, I have a hard time seeing these big conference, bubble teams that received at-large bids do anything in this tourney. Time will tell.

Now, onto analyzing the teams that did make it…and counting down to tipoff.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Conference Tourney Musings

Going around the horn quickly on some of the conference tourney’s as we prep for the big selection show:

Big East

Without having watched as much of the tourney as I’d like, there have been no surprises here. Villanova and Syracuse took care of business in the first round clinching NCAA berths, then bowed out to the higher seeds in Round 2. West Virginia made a very strong showing, shooting the lights out in the opener and taking Louisville to the brink before losing with the help of the officials in OT. Other than that, the only thing that sticks out to me is Georgetown dominating the final, potentially making a statement to the country that they are a legit Final Four team.

Big 12

Almost had a Cinderella with former Top 10 team Oklahoma State making a run, before running into the Kevin Durant show. Everyone has known about Durant all year, but as the microscope hones and in and the spotlight turns up in March Durant and Texas are only getting better. Before hearing our ESPN brethren discuss it on Sunday I proclaimed to fellow bar patrons and a few pints of Guinness that Durant could do for Texas what ‘Melo did for Syracuse in 2003. He is that good. And the Texas freshmen are starting to come together. Just a note, A&M is stumbling a bit down the stretch.

I like Texas Tech, but how do you get blown out of the building in a big game against a mediocre team?


What’s worse, Duke’s performance or Sidney Lowe’s blazer? If there was any doubt about Georgia Tech they put that to rest with a win, but Florida State still sits firmly on the bubble. I think Tech should be in the tourney and could cause an early stir, but FSU not so much. Those quality wins are not as quality as they sound in the ACC. Carolina is the cream of the crop hear and I doubt any other teams make a deep run.

Big 10

The nation’s most overrated conference. They should have 4 tourney teams, Ohio State, Wisconsin, Indiana, and Michigan State, that’s it. Almost exactly like the football season, the conference is top heavy and extraordinarily mediocre from top to bottom. Mediocre also describes the quality of play at times in this conference championship.

Pac 10

I didn’t catch this tourney, but I’m high on the Pac-10. Watch out next week. The only enigma remains Arizona. They have the talent, but you never know what team will show up.

Why We Watch: Holy Cross, Albany, Miami (Ohio), George Washington, to name a few. Conference Championship week is about those schools and those kids. Those moments of exhilaration exemplify collegiate athletics.

Despite the big conferences lacking any surprises, the Mid-Majors provided a few tourney upsets that will steal at-large bids. Hello GW, Wichita State, New Mexico State. Goodbye: Air Force, Colonial getting 3 teams, and hopefully the Big 10.

Saturday, March 10, 2007

Hit Me!

Sports can be physical, especially hockey and basketball, but usually when it comes to violence or questionable hits the topic is reserved for the football field. But this week brutality struck, not once, but twice.

Maybe calling the Gerald Henderson elbow/smack to the face of Tyler Hansbrough brutal is a bit of an overstatement, and it’s clearly not comparable to the violent act we’ll get to in a minute. Really, in this case, the big question is, was it violent or is it just part of the game. I guess I fall on both sides of the fence: violent-no, part of the game-yes, intentional-No Doubt!

With UNC handing it to a less than stellar Duke team for the second time this season, there was clearly some pent up frustration in the Duke players. That is human nature, if they were not angry with their performance up to that point then they should give up the game. Throw in the fact that some of the stars that ran the score up were still on the court and it’s the recipe for a cheap foul. You know what, its not the first time and won’t be the last time there is a hard, unnecessary foul at the end of a game between bitter rivals.

While Henderson definitely meant to go after Hansbrough and send a message, I don’t think he intended to bust up his nose and cause a bloody mess. There should be no suspension. I can live with an ejection, intentional foul, etc., but no suspension. This was not Kermit Washington.

And one other thing, enough of this nonsense that Duke players are above this type of behavior and that its not Coach K’s style. Every human being lets their emotions get the best of them. It would be above Duke and UNC to let the Nuggets and Knicks fiasco break out, but not one flash of the moment hard foul.

Now onto the abominable act by Chris Simon on Thursday night. After a clean check into the boards by Ryan Hollweg, Simon turned around went after him and swung the stick like a baseball bat at Hollweg in Juan Marichal style. Luckily it caught Hollweg mostly in the chin and not cleanly in the throat and it he was not seriously hurt, but by no means should that minimize the penalty.

Unlike the Duke elbow incident, the debate hear is not whether it was intentional or violent, we already know it was, but rather what the penalty should be. There is precedent with the Marty McSorley and Todd Bertuzzi hits of the past few years. Conversation runs the gamut anywhere from suspending him for the rest of this season to criminal charges in the court of law.

Bottom line, if the hit is a couple of inches down Hollweg may still be unconscious. That’s a horrifying thought. On the ice, I say Simon is done for this season, regular season and playoffs, and then we make a decision on next season in the summer. No pay, no benefits, not allowed near the team, just leave. On the criminal side, it’s a bit more touchy. Was there intent, yes. Could he have seriously injured or possibly killed Hollweg, yep. But it was done in the course of competition, and I don’t think any player shows up at a game thinking they may wind up in jail for an on the court incident. If they were in an alley way its highly unlikely that Simon would have done the same thing.

I can’t justify pressing charges, but the suspension and fine should be severe. Oh, without going on a rant about professional sports fines, they should nail him for like 10-20% of his annual salary for that. I don’t care if it’s a $100,000 or a million dollars. Make it hurt, just like Hollweg was hurt.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Keeping Up With the Jones’

After watching the Patriots strike early in the 2007 Free Agency period widening the gap in the AFC East arms race, the Jets finally counter-punched yesterday. Gang Green filled the gaping hole in their backfield by acquiring running back Thomas Jones from the NFC-champion Chicago Bears, along with the Bears second round pick, in exchange for the Jets first second-round pick. Essentially the Jets traded down from the pick 37 to 63 and get a starting back coming off consecutive 1200+ yard seasons.

On the surface it may look like a steal for the Jets. Well, that’s because it is. All the chips fell into place for the Jets to cash in on this trade, an unhappy player disappointed with sharing the backfield, a team unwilling to extend a contract expiring next year, and the availability of a handful of other starting running backs making it a buyers market. Throw in the fact the Jets not only fill a huge need, but also grab the best player available at the position, and it looks like another great move for the Mangini/Tannenbaum regime.

Jones brings the power running game that the Jets sorely lacked last year in the absence of Curtis Martin. At 5’10”, 220 lbs., Jones can run between the tackles, and be the complement to the speed and finesse of Leon Washington. Just having a threat in the backfield automatically improves the offense since defenses will be more vulnerable to Chad Pennington’s play action fakes, thus opening up the passing game. Throw in the fact Jones comes off two stellar seasons for a division champion, including a Super Bowl appearance, and the Jets seem to achieve one of the offseason priorities.

Things are not all peaches and cream though. There is always the question of dedication after signing a long-term deal, which the Jets have inked him to, though it’s less prevalent in the non-guaranteed world of the NFL. Some may question Jones’ character after some bickering the past two seasons over having to compete for playing time with Cedric Benson, while others can point to the fact that at the ripe old age of 29 he may be over the hill for a running back.

All in all, the Jets needed to make this move. Outside of Adrian Peterson, who is out of their reach in the draft, there appear to be no immediate standouts available from the college ranks, and of the NFL retreads on the market Jones was definitely the most attractive when you take performance and injury risk into consideration. I still think Leon Washington will be instrumental in this offense, but he needed a complement. Does this win the Jets a Super Bowl? Um, no. How about addressing the run defense before going that far. But it does balance the offense and take them a step closer to where they need to be, Jones works out as planned.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

The Orange Rollercoaster

No matter how hard I try, I just can’t figure this team out. Another inconsistent road loss at Villanova in the regular season finale only adds to the confusion. Grant it, yesterday’s loss snapped a 5-game winning streak that all but guaranteed a spot in the Big Dance and also secured yet another 20-win season, but by no means were they dominant throughout that stretch and yesterday brought back a few question marks.

First off, I have sung the praises of Demetrius Nichols over the past few weeks. The leading scorer in the Big East most of the year finally showed signs of stepping up and being the go-to guy in key spots and assuming the senior leadership role. A dominant second half performance and career high 37 points against St. Johns, then two huge buckets down in crunch time to weather a UConn storm and lead the Orange to another win, and of course the game winner against Providence on the road last weekend. Nichols was stepping up when the team needed him. Any team with plans on winning in March needs at least one player like this (see Gerry McNamara circa 2006).

Just the type of player the coach turns to when momentum shifts to the opponent in the second half and a 10-point lead becomes a 6-point deficit. Call a play for “The Man”. But Nichols was nowhere to be found, a non-existent 2-13 shooting performance marred with a number of bad off-balance 3’s. Not to mention a missed foul shot after the ref’s tried to give ‘Cuse a gift at the end of the game. If the Orange want to make any run in the Big East tournament and, dare I say, win a game in the NCAA’s, Nichols has to be more assertive and come to play every game. If his shot is off he can’t just fade into the background though. Whether its driving to the basket and getting the line, or setting up his teammates, Nichols has to be active on offense.

It would be wrong to put everything on Nichols though, and it would also be wrong to mark the game as a total failure. Eric Devendorf played a phenomenal, under control game. Boeheim should just show him tapes of this game every time he decides to start hoisting away. Devo took it the rack, showed great body control, made good decisions, kept his emotions in check, and hit some HUGE shots.

This game was almost the anti-thesis of the winning streak. Nichols pulled a disappearing act, Andy Rautins couldn’t throw it in the ocean, and, the one player that usually gives me nightmares when he has the ball, Eric Devendorf, was the only guy who I wanted to see with the ball.

Without even touching on the play inside, which left something to be desired defensively as Sumpter and Cunningham put up some numbers against the zone, but the guards MUST show up ready to play and make shots if this team plans on making any noise. Standing around hoping Nichols hits a big shot or watching Devondorf run a one-man offense will not get it done.

The 2007 final exam starts Wednesday at The Garden. Only time will tell if this Syracuse team will pass or fail.

A-Rod-Jeter, Oh the Drama

Before even discussing the topic at hand, I think it merits mention that in late February, in a city with 5 professional teams in-season, that baseball, particularly the Yankees, grab the back page headlines almost day in and day out without any on field news to report. With that said, the story of A-Rod and Jeter’s fractured friendship officially going public is great drama.

This is not exactly breaking news, recall the Jeter stare down after the missed pop fly last season and the many passes Jeter has made when he has the opportunity to defend or encourage A-Rod among other things, but it’s the first time it has been publicly commented on by either party. Pretty much true to their public persona’s, Rodriguez was candid in speaking about the fact that he and Jeter are no longer buddy, buddy like they were as emerging stars a decade ago, while Jeter played it closer to the vest in stating that while the relationship has changed it is still fine and also making it clear this would be the last of his comments on this subject.

From my perspective, Jeter is exactly right when he said that lots of relationships he has have changed over the last 10 years. That’s something you and I can relate to. I’m not best friends with the same people. I don’t even talk to the same people. And A-Rod has to be kidding when he talks about no longer having sleepovers or going for dinner every night. The guy is married with a kid. Not many fathers I know are out sleeping at their friends houses. I know that was not his point, but it exhibits how ridiculous some of these comments are.

What does all the mean on the field? Absolutely nothing! This is by no means an excuse for A-Rod’s pathetic postseason performances or inability to live up to expectations in NY. Nor will this cause any issues for the Yankees going forward. First off, baseball is not the type of sport where teammates have to pass to each other or block for one another, and second both of these guys just want to win in the end and can probably care less who they play with.

My only concern is A-Rod’s psyche. He has shown the ability to easily get rattled and show his frustrations. One interesting thing to watch is the impact of Doug Mientkiewicz, an old friend and high school teammate of Rodriguez. It will only help to have a shoulder to lean on during the tough times, the shoulder many thought Jeter should lend but didn’t. If Mientkiewicz can help A-Rod keep his head on straight, that would probably be his biggest contribution to this team.