Monday, September 12, 2011

Novak Djokovic cements the greatest year in men's tennis history


Novak Djokovic stood on the trophy stand, decked out in a red polo shirt and an FDNY hat.

He looked more like a fireman than a tennis player, and for a couple minutes at least, he could have been mistaken for one rather than the greatest tennis player in the world.

Then he was handed the U.S. Open trophy, and there was no ambiguity.

Standing in the middle of the largest tennis stadium in the world stood a 24-year-old who, undoubtedly, has put together the most impressive season in the history of men’s tennis.

“The greatest year we’ve ever seen in the sport of tennis,” said John McEnroe, who had the only comparable season in 1984.

After overcoming the incredibly resilient Rafael Nadal — in McEnroe’s words, “the greatest effort player” in tennis history — in a four-hour, four-set match 6-2, 6-4, 6-7 (3), 6-1 Monday to win his first Open, Djokovic is 64-2 in 2011, has 10 titles and won three of the year’s four majors, becoming just the sixth player in history to accomplish that.

Those numbers don’t do his year justice, however. Most impressively, he’s 6-0 against Nadal (all in finals), defeating the former world No. 1 and winner of three slams a year ago on every surface. On Monday, Djokovic imposed his will on Nadal, took the Spaniard’s best punch over and over again, suffered a back injury going into the fourth set, and then dominated and, ultimately, broke Nadal’s spirit at the end.

This came just two days after, let’s not forget, hitting what McEnroe termed “one of the greatest all-time shots in tennis history” Saturday against Roger Federer when he faced double match point and rifled a return forehand crosscourt. On the following point, Djokovic fought off a Federer serve that was coming right at him, won the point to force deuce, and never looked back in completing an epic, improbable comeback from two sets down.

No one could ever have imagined such a season from Djokovic. Three years ago, he was criticized and deemed childish for his impersonations of top players, who didn’t much like his mocking. Two years ago, he was swept in straight sets at the Open by Federer and, I wrote then, simply wasn’t as tough mentally as Federer or Nadal.

Now? Djokovic has the mental fortitude that has won Federer 16 majors and Nadal 10. And, oh, by the way, Djokovic has four.

“What this guy’s doing is an unbelievable thing,” the always-gracious Nadal said post-match. “What you’ve done this year is probably impossible to repeat.”

That’s very possible, but Djokovic’s performances won’t begin tailing off anytime soon. He’s in his prime, and Monday he demonstrated why he’s been so dominantly consistent all season.

Never showing signs of collapsing, Djokovic broke Nadal a ridiculous 10 times, influencing McEnroe to say he’s never seen a better returner of serve. His scintillating forehands dropping at the feet of Nadal and nicking the baseline didn’t disprove this.

If Nadal didn’t get his first serves in, it was advantage Djokovic every time.

Nadal has worn down players his entire career with long, grueling, side-to-side rallies. Not Djokovic. Instead, he dictated the majority of the points with his pinpoint, flat groundstrokes.

Most importantly, Djokovic never let the pro-Nadal (or, rather, pro-“I want to see more tennis!”) crowd get to him despite constant outbursts during and before points. He never was mentally affected by the swings in momentum Nadal created with his incredible defense and shot-making.

And when Nadal finally broke through to win the third set in a tiebreak with his best, most aggressive tennis of the afternoon/night, Djokovic — despite feeling back pain — pulled out a deuce game on serve to begin the fourth, took a medical timeout to tend to the back, and then proceeded to clinically destroy and finally dethrone the proud defending champion.

By the final game, the ending had been written inside Arthur Ashe Stadium. Djokovic’s forehands were too perfectly placed. His returns kept tangling Nadal’s feet. Djokovic has never been talked about for his fitness, but Nadal was the one who seemed worn down from the four hours, 20-shot rallies and multiple-deuce games Djokovic pushed him to on his serve. He was done.

Not that he’ll get it with Davis Cup matches next weekend, but Djokovic deserves some rest. In three days, he played nine sets against the top two players of their generation, coming back from two sets and two match points down against Federer with the gutsiest shot-making you’ll ever see and then outlasting Nadal in what McEnroe called the most physical tennis match he’s ever seen at the Open.

64-2. 3 major titles. 6-0 vs. Nadal.

With those 2011 numbers, Novak Djokovic won’t be fading into oblivion anytime soon.

Rather, he should be gracing the covers of magazines.

Probably in his recognizable tennis outfit — not that the polo & hat didn’t fit.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

NBA playoffs preview: Enjoy the high-level basketball while it lasts


In many ways, NBA fans will tell you, the Association has never been better off. Television ratings are soaring through the roof. There are several star-studded teams. And we are about to begin what could be one of the most entertaining playoffs ever.

However, the league is also in big trouble. According to NBA Commissioner David Stern, it's losing money each year. Just eight franchises are pulling in profits. And there's no competitive balance — teams in appealing, big-market cities get all the big names (sorry Cleveland, Detroit, Indiana).

NBA owners says a change must be made. The current system of players taking 57 percent of the revenue pool has to be adjusted. The collective bargaining agreement expires June 31, which doesn't give the sides much time to come to a new deal before the NBA joins the NFL in lockout city.

Many people, myself included, think it's highly possible that a lockout will continue into next season and maybe, even, wipe out the entire 2011-12 season. That, of course, would bring to a screeching halt all the progress the league has made with the booming TV ratings and increased attendance for the seventh consecutive year.

All this talk, however, can't overshadow what begins today. A NBA playoffs that couldn't be more hyped.

A stacked Eastern Conference with four legitimate Finals contenders. A wild, open Western Conference with a shaky No. 1 seed. And a first-round matchup that Stern and company must be salivating about.

So let's leave the lockout talk behind for a minute, take a seat on the couch, and enjoy what is sure to be a highly entertaining two months of playoff hoops:


First Round
1 Chicago def. 8 Indiana (4 games): Sorry, Pacers, but this one's already over. No team is hotter than the Bulls and likely MVP Derrick Rose.
2 Miami def. 7 Philadelphia (5 games): Has the Heat completely found its chemistry? Nope, not yet. Which is why the overwhelmed 76ers will steal a game.
3 Boston def. 6 New York (7 games): Oh, what a series this will be. The (aging) Big Three + Rondo vs. A'mare, Carmelo & Chauncey. The Garden vs. The Garden. Of course it will come down to Game 7 in Boston. Edge goes to the more experienced, defensive team.
4 Orlando def. 5 Atlanta (5 games): Is there a less inspiring team than the Hawks? All the talent, but minimal effort. No one's talking about the Magic, which makes it more dangerous.

Second Round
1 Chicago def. 4 Orlando (6 games): The (somewhat) young Bulls' first real test will be passed, as Rose, only 22, runs circle around Jameer Nelson, and Joakim Noah & Co. handle Dwight Howard.
3 Boston def. 2 Miami (6 games): Listen, we all know the Heat is younger and probably has more talent. But until it finds that balance, especially late in games, it's not ready to take down an opponent like the Celtics in a grind-it-out series.

Conference Finals
1 Chicago def. 3 Boston (7 games): This will be another incredible series, which, ultimately, will be decided by role players. Everyone talks about Rose, but the Bulls' wings will step up and hit big shots and shut down Paul Pierce. And with the final game on the line, Rose will rise to the occasion.


First Round
1 San Antonio def. 8 Memphis (6 games): This will be far from a walk on the hardwood for the Spurs, especially minus Manu Ginobili for at least the first game. But their experience won't let them go down yet.
2 L.A. Lakers def. 7 New Orleans (4 games) The Hornets have really overachieved to get in the playoffs with David West out for the season. They have no size to deal with the Lakers' bigs, though. And Kobe will go into playoff mode.
3 Dallas def. 6 Portland (6 games): The Mavericks know the truth: This could be their last go-around with the current roster; with Dirk holding the reins. That will be enough to get 'em past the pesky Blazers.
4 Oklahoma City def. 5 Denver (5 games): I love what the Nuggets have become post-'Melo. Without a superstar, they're one of the best "teams" in the league. However, it still helps to have a Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. They'll be too much for the Nuggets to handle.

Second Round
4 Oklahoma City def. 1 San Antonio (6 games): This, to me, isn't an upset. Prior to the season, I had the Thunder as the second best team in the West. I still believe that's the case. The Spurs have overachieved. Kendrick Perkins will handle Duncan, and Westbrook will neutralize Tony Parker.
2 L.A. def. 3 Dallas (6 games): Name a position where the Mavs have a real advantage? They'll make this a series with a pair of wins, but the Lakers' size will wear them down and Kobe and Derek Fisher will provide the finishing touches.

Conference Finals
1 L.A. def. 4 Oklahoma City (7 games): Oh, baby! This is what I'm waiting for out west. Remember last year when these teams met in the first round? The Thunder made it a series despite being newbies to the postseason. This time around every game will be competitive. The Lakers, though, will have a wee bit more urgency. They know this is probably their last good chance at a title

NBA Finals
L.A. Lakers def. Chicago Bulls (6 games): Since the season began — and through the losing streaks — I've never doubted that L.A. will win this championship. I still believe it'll happen. For one, Phil Jackson only wins titles in sets of three, right? Secondly, as mentioned, the Lakers know that their current group isn't getting any younger and it would be a very tough task to win without Phil after this year. As brilliant as the Bulls have been on the big stage all year and, I predict, through three rounds in the playoffs, their role players will struggle — especially on the road. Toss in some clutch Derek Fisher 3s, a wild Ron Artest junk shot, and the usual brilliance of Kobe and Pau Gasol ... and you've got a third straight title for the Lakers.

Enjoy the hoops while it lasts.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

The healed toe effect: Blue Devils to win national championship


One toe, ultimately, will decide a national championship.

So what's new on Tobacco Road?

In my mind, just how healthy Kyrie Irving is -- and how quickly he can return to pre-toe injury form -- will determine whether the Blue Devils cut down the nets in Houston, completing Mike Krzyzewski's second back-to-back titles run.

If Irving doesn't regain his game, this tournament is wide open. Ohio State is probably the most well-rounded team. But the Buckeyes could lose as early as the Sweet 16 against an uber-talented Kentucky team. Kansas is the deepest team, but Louisville -- a potential round of 16 matchup -- is as dangerous as anyone.

It's just hard to know. Impossible, really. That's the beauty of this tournament.

But, ultimately, I'm expecting a healthy, productive Irving -- just like Ty Lawson for the Tar Heels two seasons ago -- and, thus, another national title for the Blue Devils (and the third in a row for North Carolina's Triangle).

Here are the picks:


First Round
1 Ohio State def. 16 UT-SA-Alabama State: Um, yeah, I feel safe making this pick before the "First Four" game tonight.
8 George Mason def. 9 Villanova: Name a team in the tournament that's looked worse than 'Nova recently...
12 Clemson def. 5 West Virginia: Tigers have been playing extremely well coming in and give Mounties issues with their size.
4 Kentucky def. 13 Princeton: This Princeton team doesn't even play slow-it-down Princeton basketball. Wildcats a little more used to running.
6 Xavier def. 11 Marquette: Musketeers always find a way to win a few tournament games. This time, it's Tu's turn.
3 Syracuse def. 14 Indiana State: Larry Bird isn't walking through those doors...
7 Washington def. 10 Georgia: Huskies are one of country's most bipolar teams. I'm thinking the scary-good one shows up for this.
2 North Carolina def. 15 Long Island: LIU bring the nation's longest winning streak into this one. UNC is a bit of a step up from the Northeast, however.

Second Round
1 Ohio State def. 8 George Mason: No miracle this time for the Patriots. Sullinger dominates down low and home crowd helps Buckeyes pull away.
4 Kentucky def. 12 Clemson: Wildcats win the battle of tempo, wearing out the three-games-in-five-days Tigers.
3 Syracuse def. 6 Xavier: Orange's big guards give Tu fits, and Musketeers have nowhere else to turn.
2 North Carolina def. 7 Washington: Huskies might be capable of this upset if it were in Seattle, not Charlotte.

Regional Semifinals
1 Ohio State def. 4 Kentucky: Buckeyes bend but don't break, getting big 3s from veterans Diebler and Buford.
2 North Carolina def. 3 Syracuse: In racehorse game, UNC's Mr. Clutch freshman Harrison Barnes does it again.

Regional Final
1 Ohio State def. 2 North Carolina: Buckeyes are too solid for inexperienced Heels. Aaron Craft gives Kendall Marshall all kinds of fits and OSU's wings dominate UNC's.


First Round
1 Duke def. 16 Hampton: My only interest in this game: How much will that Kyrie guy play?
8 Michigan def. 9 Tennessee: One team is playing its best basketball of the season. The other is playing its worst.
5 Arizona def. 12 Memphis: Derrick Williams is the least-talked-about All-American candidate in the country. Tigers have no one to match him.
4 Texas def. 13 Oakland: The Grizzlies are scary (just like the bear) and are used to playing high majors. But they won't have an answer for Texas swingman Jordan Hamilton in this one.
11 Missouri def. 6 Cincinnati: Tough call here because the Tigers have been horrible lately, but it's just a feeling. Their hectic style will fluster the Bearcats.
3 Connecticut def. 14 Bucknell: Hard to pick against Kemba, although I'm tempted to go with giant killer Bucknell (remember, Kansas?).
10 Penn State def. 7 Temple: DO NOT WATCH THIS GAME IF YOU LIKE POINTS. Why PSU? The Lions are excited to be in the tournament; the Owls are a bad tournament team.
2 San Diego State def. 15 Northern Colorado: Congrats to Northern Colorado for making its first Big Dance. It will end quickly.

Second Round
1 Duke def. 8 Michigan: Bring back the rivalry of the early '90s!! These Wolverines are tough and have played their share of top teams (OSU three times, Kansas), but beating Duke in Charlotte? No chance.
4 Texas def. 5 Arizona: Plenty of talent on the court, but Longhorns' depth will be the difference.
3 Connecticut def. 11 Missouri: Rematch of '09 regional final game. Same result. Kemba factor. Mizzou has no one close to him in talent.
2 San Diego State def. 10 Penn State: Another low-scoring affair; against Aztecs' stingy 'D', Nittany Lions will struggle to hit 50.

Regional semifinals
1 Duke def. 4 Texas: The potential guards matchup: Dogus Balbay and Cory Joseph vs. Nolan Smith and Kyrie. Mismatch!
2 San Diego State def. 3 Connecticut: Aztecs are getting tired of taking on national player of the year candidates. Jimmer, now Kemba? They shut him down and move on.

Regional final
1 Duke def. 2 San Diego State: This will be a great game in Anaheim -- huge homecourt advantage for SDSU -- and it's tempting to pick the Aztecs. But the combination of Smith and Irving will be too much to overcome for D.J. Gay and company.


First Round
1 Kansas def. 16 Boston U: The 'U' has a great study abroad program. I went through it to visit Australia and enjoyed my time there. ... Their hoops program? Not so strong.
8 UNLV def. 9 Illinois: The Illini have shown no interest, really, in pulling out games lately. The Rebels are battled-tested after a handful of games against BYU and SDSU.
12 Richmond def. 5 Vanderbilt: An annual rite of mine? Choosing Vandy to lose in the 12-5 game. The 3-point shooting Spiders will take 'em down just like Murray State did a year ago.
4 Louisville def. 13 Morehead State: Player to watch -- Kenneth Faried, the nation's ALL-TIME leading rebounder. He plays for Morehead. If only he had more of a team around him.
6 Georgetown def. 11 VCU/USC: I don't really care whom they play. If Chris Wright plays like he's capable of, this Hoyas team is as good as any Big East squad.
3 Purdue def. 14 St. Peters: The Peacocks -- great name! -- scored 30 points in their season opener and then improved. I expect the parabola to be completed against the defensively strong Boilers.
10 Florida State def. 7 Texas A&M: Another "this guy is back and will make the difference" situation. In this case, Chris Singleton pushes the Seminoles into the second round.
2 Notre Dame def. 15 Akron: The Zips are a tough, fighting outfit (see the end of the MAC title game). Speaking of toughness, only one team has a Hansbrough...

Second Round
1 Kansas def. 8 UNLV: There's plenty of talent in the Mountain West, but nothing like the Morris twins.
4 Louisville def. 12 Richmond: Cardinals' four-guard lineup will give Spiders fits on the perimeter, disrupting their long-range shooting.
3 Purdue def. 6 Georgetown: Hoyas have no answer for JaJuan Johnson. None.
2 Notre Dame def. 10 Florida State: Defensive Seminoles will be able to muck this one up, but Fighting Irish are quite used to such games. They won a few games in the Big East, ya know?

Regional semifinals
1 Kansas def. 4 Louisville: Jayhawks have the ballhandlers to deal with Louisville's pressure. Cardinals don't have the answer for Jayhawks' big-time boarders.
2 Notre Dame def. 3 Purdue: How 'bout that? A pair of strong NCAA teams dominated by seniors. Irish's five-senior starting lineup will outdo Johnson and E'Twaun Moore.

Regional final
1 Kansas def. 2 Notre Dame: Kansas will keep throwing more and more speed and athleticism at the Fighting Irish, who will inevitably be worn down by  40 minutes of playing against fresh bodies. And the 3-pointers will start to fall short.


First Round
1 Pittsburgh def. 16 UNC-Ashville: I thought the Bulldogs showed a lot of heart in their "First Four" win last night. They'll need a little more than heart against the Panthers.
9 Old Dominion def. 8 Butler: Gosh, I HATE the selection committee. "Why don't we put the scariest two mid-majors against each other in the first round??" Grr... This year is ODU's turn (see: second round).
5 Kansas State def. 12 Utah State: Anyone remember that K-State was ranked in the preseason Top 5? Recently, the Wildcats have been playing like that.
13 Belmont def. 4 Wisconsin: I was here in D.C. three years ago when the Bruins came within a point of knocking off second-seeded Duke. Taking down the 33-point Badgers won't be as difficult.
11 Gonzaga def. 6 St. John's: INJURY ALERT! The Red Storm are still dangerous, of course, but losing leading rebounder D.J. Kennedy to a torn ACL hurts. The 'Zags are due for a tournament run.
3 BYU def. 14 Wofford: One of those tempting upset games, but I think Jimmer might be able to take Wofford all by himself.
10 Michigan State def. 7 UCLA: This will be an ugly, defensive game between two established programs. Only one team has Kalin Lucas, however.
2 Florida def. 15 UC Santa Barbara: In Tampa, the Gators are playing 135 miles away from home; the Gauchos? 2,496 miles. Jet lag, anyone?

Second Round
9 Old Dominion def. 1 Pittsburgh: My big upset of the opening weekend. Nobody in the nation hits the offensive boards harder than the Monarchs, who won't be intimidated. Pitt always seems a bit tight come tourney time.
5 Kansas State def. 13 Belmont: Jordan Henriquez-Roberts (name drop!) is a 7-footer who's been giving good minutes off the Wildcats' bench. Look for him to dominate the boards against Belmont's small lineup.
3 BYU def. 11 Gonzaga: In the Battle of the West, I'm going with Jimmer's crew. Why? Because of Jimmer, obviously. I have no other reason.
2 Florida def. 10 Michigan State: Playing in Tampa with a senior-dominated lineup, the Gators outlast the inconsistent Spartans.

Regional semifinals
5 Kansas State def. 9 Old Dominion: Remember the last time Jacob Pullen and "The Beard" played in the Sweet 16? Look it up. I expect a repeat performance.
2 Florida def. 3 BYU: Jimmer's magic runs out against the balanced Gators, who, coincidentally, like to shoot 3s from Jimmer range but also have more of an inside presence than Brandon Davies-devoid BYU and rebound very well.

Regional final
2 Florida def. 5 Kansas State: The Gators already beat the Wildcats this season. Of course, that was in December and means nothing. In a close game, however, Florida's chemistry and confidence will shine through.

1 Duke def. 1 Ohio State: This will be one heck of a game. The Blue Devils' bigs will be able to contain Jared Sullinger with their length. The teams' 3-point shooting will even out. The difference? Smith and Irving's ability to penetrate and make plays late in the game.

1 Kansas def. 2 Florida: It was a good run for the Gators, but they'll be overwhelmed by Kansas' depth. Florida can rebound with Kansas, but its scoring guards will be hassled by fresh Jayhawks guards all game long. Jayhawks bench players Tyshawn Taylor and Thomas Robinson will be the difference.

1 Duke def. 1 Kansas: It's been exactly 20  years since these powerhouses met in the Final Four during the Christian Laettner era, and the result will be the same. It will be an entertaining game full of playmaking. The Jayhawks have a huge advantage down low with the Morris twins. But if Duke's role players perform anywhere close to the level that they played at in the ACC tournament, the Blue Devils will come out on top with seniors Smith and Singler plus that Kyrie guy -- and his toe -- leading the way.

The Big Dance is already underway. And it's wide open. Enjoy the madness, sports fans.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Reviewing my preseason Field of 68


Before you even consider entrusting me with your toughest bracket picks, take a look at how my preseason prediction of the Field of 68 stacks up against the just-released bracket.

And then if you think I'm your man (a crazy thought, I know), take the plunge:

Total correct picks: 42 of 68

*Correct picks are in bold. Teams I didn't choose are in (italics).

Big East
Pitt: Maybe no team in the country is better and more comfortable at grinding out close wins, and with the ball in Ashton Gibbs' hands, why not? This team is experienced and hungry for a title.

Metro Atlantic
Fairfield (St. Peters): The Stags have improved their win total four years running, and now return four starters. That might just be enough to unseat those Siena Saints.

America East
Vermont (Boston U): The Catamounts aren't loaded, but often in these smaller conference tournaments, the teams — and coaches — that have been there before prevail.

Atlantic 10
Temple: It's hard to pick against the Owls and their back-to-back conference crowns. Point guard Juan Fernandez returns to lead the way.

Ivy League
Princeton: People are pretty high on Tommy Amaker's crew at Harvard, but the Crimson will really miss Jeremy Lin. That's why I'm taking a flier on the up-and-coming Tigers.

Patriot League
American (Bucknell): Living in DC, I attend every Eagles home game. And this team is stacked. A team returning all of its top players from a year ago adds transfers Troy Brewer (Georgia) and Charles Hinkle (Vandy).

Quinnipiac (Long Island): There are four new coaches implementing new systems in the league, but one player who knows how to win is the conference's POY Justin Rutty.

Duke: Only injuries could derail this from happening. These Devils are that good; the Tar Heels are still rebuilding; and the Hokies are still learning how to tough-out games they should win.

Morgan State (Hampton): Here's a small conference that could be devoid of drama — again. The Bears have claimed three consecutive titles and return enough talent and experience to make it four.

Big South
Coastal Carolina (UNC Asheville): They had a phenomenal regular season only to watch — guess who? — Winthrop steal the tournament bid. Not this time. A pair of South Carolina transfers won't let it happen.

Old Dominion: The Monarchs return all but one key player from the squad that took down Notre Dame in the Big Dance. Yeah, they'll be back.

Wofford: After coming within a few hairs of taking down Wisconsin in the tournament, Wofford returns four starters and five seniors.

Florida: The Gators return a starting lineup that features three seniors hungry for some success considering their unmet expectations the past three years. Talented freshmen also are on the scene.

Ohio Valley
Murray State (Morehead State): Easy choice. The Racers return eight contributors from the fun-to-watch outfit that took down Vandy in the Dance and almost snuck by St. Mary's.

Atlantic Sun
Lipscomb (Belmont): Betcha can't guess who the nation's leading returning scorer is? Heard of Adrian Hodzic? Nope, me neither. But the dude dropped in 22.7 ppg a year ago.

Sun Belt
North Texas (Arkansas Little Rock): The Mean Green — best name ever, by the way — will make it to the Dance for the third time in five years thanks to double-double machine George Odufuwa (pronounce that!).

Oakland: Now that the talented Grizzlies finally got a brief taste of NCAA Tournament fever, they really want to return. NBA prospect Keith Benson (17.3 ppg, 10.5 rpg) will make sure of that.

Big Ten
Michigan State: Ohio State's going to present quite the challenge, and Illinois, Purdue and Minnesota will also be tough (and Northwestern!). But the Spartans will emerge from a loaded conference.

Ohio (Akron): One of the most entertaining games to watch on the first night of the crazy tournament was Ohio's thrashing of Georgetown. The Bobcats couldn't be stopped. With most of the catalysts back, expect similar results.

Conference USA
Memphis: The young Josh Pastner is quietly assembling a, um, young, loaded squad at Calipari's old stomping grounds. Expect a return to normalcy in the conference.

Butler: They'll miss Gordon Hayward, no doubt, but don't think for a second that these Bulldogs will lapse during conference play. Under Brad Stevens, they'll continue to dominate the conference.

Big 12
Kansas State: Sorry, Kansas, but your rivals will be the ones to steal your grasp of the league. I love Jacob Pullen — fear the beard! — and his late-game heroics, and the frontcourt is loaded.

Missouri Valley
Wichita State (Indiana State): The Shockers return all but one key player from a team that came a win away from taking the place of Cinderella Northern Iowa in the Dance.

Texas State (Texas-San Antonio): Anytime you add a Kentucky transfer — A.J. Stewart — to a Southland team, things are usually looking up. Such is the case for Texas State.

Jackson State (Alabama State): Despite an injury to preseason player of the year Grant Maxey, the Tigers won the regular-season crown by three games. Now Maxey, plus four other starters, returns. Watch out.

Utah State: The Aggies are one of the most consistent, and overlooked, programs in the country. Of course, that does happen when you don't play anybody. But within the league, they dominate.

Big Sky
Weber State (Northern Colorado): The Wildcats, I'm sure, have used the entire offseason to work as hard as possible to forget the sting of blowing a 20-point lead against Montana in the conference title game. No repeat.

Mountain West
San Diego State: I love Steve Fisher's squad, which returns five starters, including double-double guy Kawhi Leonard. The Aztecs could do some damage in the Dance.

Washington: Arizona and Freshman of the Year Derrick Williams are up-and-coming and will be back in the Dance, but the Huskies are clearly the class of the league led by G's Isaiah Thomas and Abdul Gaddy.

Big West
UCSB: The Gauchos have the returning POY (Orlando Johnson) and a dude who had nine 20-point games (James Nunnally). Enough said.

West Coast
Gonzaga: Speaking of enough said, guess who dominates their conference every year? The 'Zags might need to win the conference tournament considering their nonconference war zone: SDSU, Kansas State, Duke/Marquette, Illinois, at Notre Dame, Baylor, Xavier and Oklahoma State. Brutal!

THE AT-LARGE BIDS (37 teams)
*In order of higher-seeded teams

Virginia Tech
North Carolina
N.C. State
Virginia Tech
(Florida State)

Atlantic 10

Big East
West Virginia
(St. John's)
(Notre Dame) 

Big Ten
Ohio State
(Penn State) 

Big 12
Texas A&M

Missouri Valley

Mountain West

Arizona State

Mississippi State

Other tournament teams I missed
George Mason

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Michigan's incredible journey to the brink of the Big Dance


Before considering what Michigan’s 70-63 win over Michigan State Saturday means for their NCAA Tournament chances, ask yourself this:

Could you have ever imagined this prior to the season and especially six Saturdays ago?

On that afternoon, the Wolverines were dominated at home by Minnesota. They fell to 1-6 in the Big Ten. The team was a mess. The season wasn’t headed anywhere.

What’s transpired since then isn’t short of amazing. Fueled by a players-only meeting, the Wolverines traveled to East Lansing five days later and shocked the Spartans, winning at the Breslin Center for the first time since 1997.

And they’ve carried that momentum since then, winning seven of 10 games to finish the regular season 19-12 and 9-9 in the Big Ten.

The most incredible part? This is a young, inexperienced team.

You just don’t see this from freshman-dominated teams playing in such a difficult league like the Big Ten — easily the second toughest conference in the nation.

Maybe there is, but I’m having a difficult time thinking of a team nationally that has grown as much as the Wolverines during such a short time period.

No victory has come easily to this young group — and many have had an ugly side — but the Wolverines have found a way to win ’em. Pulling out close games isn’t usually a trait of a green team, but these Wolverines have gotten it done.

The close losses might stand out more because of their heartbreaking nature — the two-point defeat at Illinois; the shot-put 3-point buzzer-beater delivered by Wisconsin — but seven of Michigan’s wins during the streak have been by nine or fewer points and four by four or less points.

This team knows how to win tight games.

Against the Spartans, the Wolverines were dominated on the boards (44-25), shot just 5-for-19 from 3-point range and missed the front ends of two 1-and-1 opportunities at the free-throw line.

And they won by seven! There’s no way that’s the case early this season.

This is a complete team. It doesn’t need to make a ton of 3s to win — a central thought earlier this season.

It doesn’t rebound very well — although it’s been much better than Saturday’s pitiful performance — but makes up for it by taking great care of the ball (despite the rebounding disparity, Michigan State took just 11 more shots and Michigan attempted 11 more free throws; the Wolverines had just seven turnovers).

Tommy Amaker’s biggest weakness as Michigan’s coach was his inability to develop players. They didn’t improve from game to game, year to year. That, clearly, isn’t a problem for John Beilein. In fact, it’s a strength.

Just watch Tim Hardaway Jr.., the player who has most fueled Michigan’s late-season success. During the first two thirds of Michigan’s schedule, Hardaway was a talented player with horrible shot selection, buttery hands, and an ineffective outside jumper.

Seriously. I know it’s hard to believe now, but I would cringe every time he attempted a 3-pointer.

Against the Spartans, Hardaway was Michigan’s second-half offense. He scored all 20 of his points in the final 20 minutes and made the biggest play of the game, feeding Jordan Morgan for a dunk off a pick-and-roll after Michigan State cut its game-long deficit to 56-54 with 5 minutes, 48 seconds remaining and had all the momentum.

The Spartans never got closer (although in typical Wolverines fashion, the game wasn’t decided, really, until the final 10 seconds).

Now when Hardaway takes any shot, there’s no cringing. The kid’s a player and is only going to get better in Beilein’s system.

That’s the key. Every Wolverine is improving. Player development at its best.

And they’ve learned how to play cohesive defense. They were abysmal during the 1-6 start to the Big Ten slate. There was miscommunication on the court. Players didn’t talk and consistently left shooters open.

On Saturday, the Wolverines held the Spartans to 32.8-percent shooting. If they rebounded, they would have blown them out of Crisler Arena.

Did I mention they don’t win easily? Well, whatever. Bottom line: The Wolverines have developed into a tough, confident, NCAA Tourney-bound? team. (They could be in now, but beating Illinois in their first Big Ten tournament game would seal a bid.)

And they’ve got a little swag. As Morris received the ball with a little over 10 seconds left in the backcourt, he shredded a pair of Spartans with behind-the-back moves then, seeing the lane wide open, took it to the hoop and finished things with a silky finger roll.

Necessary? Not at all. Classless? Perhaps.

But considering what this team’s accomplished in three fortnights, a little icing on the cake just seemed appropriate.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Carson Palmer is a Smart Man

Memo to young, talented quarterbacks: Your NFL career will, more than likely, be difficult and filled with mind-numbing injuries (literally). That's why it's not the dumbest thing to step away before too many limbs are snapped.

You don't have to go all Brett Favre to have a successful career. If you're smart with money, in fact, you can control your career. Just look at Carson Palmer, Cincinnati's frustrated signal caller.

Recently, the USC product has come out and blatantly said that if he's not traded, he will not play another down for the Bengals. He's serious. I don't blame him. 

It's hard enough playing QB in the league, regardless of how many rules are created to protect the position. You're going to get blasted. You're going to get beat up. And, yes, you'll probably suffer a concussion or 13. Fun? Not in my mind.

When you're stuck with an incompetent owner in Mike Brown, however, who's only goal is to sign as many shady characters as possible -- Pacman Jones? I'll take him! And throw in Tank Johnson too, please! -- and who does nothing tangible to actually, you know, improve the team ... well, running the offense year after year doesn't seem so rosy. 

Sorry, forgot to mention the constant barking in your ears -- one for each -- from Ochocinco and T.O. Fun.

So why, honestly, would Palmer play another down for the Bengals? What is there left to prove? He's played nearly six full seasons -- in addition to an injury-plagued, four-game campaign -- and taken the previously moribund franchise to the playoffs twice (somehow). The first time, he didn't survive the first quarter and was carted off the field.

He's been to the Pro Bowl twice. He's survived the Chad Johnson-Ochocinco era. Seriously? What more could he do (and don't even mention Super Bowl and Bengals in the same sentence).

Well, he's doing the smart thing. At 31, he knows he could probably play a few more productive seasons. But at the same time, he's invested wisely and has "$80 million in the bank." I think he, his family, his kids' families, and some more families are set for life.

Recently, Sports Illustrated ran an illuminating article about Jake "The Snake" Plummer, who stepped away from the league early, completely separated himself from football, and now is living a fulfilling, healthy, financially stable life playing handball and raising a family.

That makes perfect sense to me (well, except for the handball part).

I find it hard to blame an athlete, even Favre, for hanging on to the game they've loved for as long as possible. After all, there aren't many "careers" that can end in one's 30s. But at the same time, we now know more and more the toll a long, bruising NFL career can have on one's body both in the near term and 10, 20 years down the road.

So whenever a player walks away "early" -- or threatens to do so -- I admire his ability to be able to make that smart life decision. Even if he is leaving something on the field.

Finally, I'm not always an advocate of players who demand trades. If a franchise is legitimately trying to improve and get to where you want to go, what's to complain about? Just play. But the Bengals under Brown haven't come close to doing that.

So bravo, Carson, for standing up to the (bad) man. Your decision will look smart come the next NFL game regardless of whether you're behind center for a team with an owner who knows what he's doing.

On that thought, just hope you're not traded to the Redskins.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Don't go east, Carmelo Anthony, if you want an NBA title


I'm no basketball insider, and I certainly don't have the connections of a Mark Stein or the ability to read a player's mind, so forgive me if this is completely naive...

But what, exactly, is Carmelo Anthony thinking?

If Anthony, as reported, accepts a three-year extension offer to join the lowly Nets — that is, if the Knicks can't get a deal done beforehand — he'd be, in effect, sabotaging any chance he has of winning an NBA championship. He'd be relegating himself to Karl Malone status.

Sorry, Mailman.

It's not that New Jersey — or New York — would be a worse team than Anthony's current employer, the Nuggets, who have managed to go 32-25 despite being asked trade-related questions for the last 1,479 days. If the deal goes through with the Nets, he'd be accompanied to Jay-Z's Empire State, or close to it, by his current point guard, Chauncey Billups, and would join a young, burgeoning big man in Brook Lopez.

In the actual Empire State, there'd be the opportunity to play with Amar'e Stoudemire and an improving Raymond Felton. 

Either squad, with Anthony, would be an annual playoff participant. But, and here's the important part, also an annual playoff loser before the NBA Finals. Guaranteed.

It comes down to one simple fact: The Eastern Conference, and the future of the East, is much better than the West. At least the teams at the top, that is. For the next six or seven years — the prime years for the 26-year-old Baltimore native — 'Melo's current Denver outfit would actually have a chance of making the NBA Finals, simply because the West's top dogs won't be great.

A quick breakdown:

In the East, we all know Miami will be stellar for several years to come. Boston might be aging, but I give the Celtics a couple more years of competing for a championship with their core group (Ray Allen looks like he could swish 3s over defenders' fingertips for another decade). Orlando is going to be tough for another decade with Dwight Howard finally playing some offense and deservedly garnering MVP consideration. And let's not forget the Bulls, who are becoming very scary with perhaps the MVP frontrunner, Derrick Rose, tearing up opponents.

So that's a trio of teams — plus Boston — who should be very good for a very long time. It would be difficult for a 'Melo-led Nets team, especially with Billups aging, to get past the second round of the playoffs.

Now for the West. In three years, who scares you? The Lakers, clearly, are not frightening even though they'll probably get things together and win another championship this year to give Phil Jackson some symmetry with those Three Peats. In five years, though, they'll almost be an afterthought. The Spurs are old (don't let this year's success, so far, fool you: they're not winning another title). The Mavericks are old. The only team with a lot of upside is Oklahoma City, but it's still missing pieces and hasn't won a playoff series.

Not very scary, right?

Amidst all this banter, people seem to forget that this is a Nuggets outfit that came within two wins of downing the mighty Lakers and heading to the Finals just two seasons ago. The team hasn't changed much since then, which might be a reason why Anthony wants out. But from watching a few Nuggets games, this is a team that can play with anyone in the West and is downright, yes, scary when Anthony is on his game.

A team that, if focused, could make a run to the Finals. Seriously.

Billups is still Mr. Clutch, and Ty Lawson is a serviceable and electric backup point guard. Arron Afflalo has come into his own as a shooting guard and made the game-winner the other night at the buzzer against the Mavs. Nene can produce down low, and Kenyon Martin is a defensive stalwart when healthy.

Yes, sometimes they resemble their erratic, tattoo-covered character, J.R. Smith, and, yes, they're a couple pieces away from being a true contender. But that's not the point.

Bottom line: Anthony would have a better chance of reaching the NBA Finals by staying put than signing with the Nets or even the Knicks.

I know it isn't how superstars, likely, think. And a competitor like Anthony doesn't look at a Miami and back away.

But in this case, a little pre-trade analyzing would do him well. If, indeed, winning a Larry O'Brien trophy is his No. 1 objective.