Thursday, August 30, 2007

Navigating the sports universe


Wow. I take a weekend off from the world of sports, and when I return... I am overwhelmed. I ask myself, What should I write about?

The flailing Tigers? The surging Padres? The never-say-die Phillies? The U.S. Open? Big Ten football? Michael Vick? Fantasy football? Yi Jianlian? Team USA? The WNBA playoffs?

The list goes on and on right now. The sports world is blowing up. So I came to the revelation that there's only one thing for me to do — cover it all in one bloated column.

Here goes...

Are the Tigers out of it?
As I sat watching the Tigers wallop the Yankees 16-0 Monday night, all I could think was, And now they'll probably lose to Kansas City tomorrow.

Not only did the Tigers lose to the Royals on Tuesday, they also fell to them Wednesday, getting shut out 5-0. Combine those losses with two Indians' wins, and the Tigers find themselves a whopping four and a half games behind Cleveland in the AL Central and three out in the wild card behind the Mariners and Yankees.

And no signs point to a turnaround. Detroit's starting pitching remains frustratingly inconsistent and there are too many holes in its lineup.

During baseball season, things can obviously turn around very quickly, so I'm not counting the Tigers out. But they better find a recovery medicine soon, or they'll be hitting the links come October.

The impact of a single series
Just a few days ago the Mets held a comfortable six-game lead over the Phillies in the NL Central. The Diamondbacks maintained a three-game cushion on the Padres in the NL West. The Yankees were a whopping eight games out in the AL East. And the Mariners were a mere two games behind the Angels in the AL West.

Scratch all that. It's nonsense now. The past three days showed what kind of impact a single series can have on a pennant race.

The Phillies, heading into Thursday's series finale, trailed the Mets by just three games — reviving hope in the City of Brotherly Love.

That cushion for the Diamondbacks? Well, it's gone now. They're tied with the Padres, who have all the momentum.

The Red Sox aren't feeling the New York Heat yet, but entering Thursday's matinee at Yankee Stadium, their lead was down to six games.

Meanwhile, the Mariners basically lost the division to the Angles with three consecutive losses, falling a seemingly immune five games behind.

But, then again, the teams play four more games in late September, when the exact opposite could happen.

Just goes to show how quickly momentum can shift in a competitive (or previously non-competitive) division race.

Don't forget about the tennis
With everything else going on, it's easy to forget that there's a big tennis tournament going on — namely, the U.S. Open, the final Grand Slam of the year.

But it'd be a shame to skip paying attention to the tournament simply because of the beginning of football season (the U.S. Open's men's final will be on the same Sunday as Week 1 of the NFL season). There should be plenty of drama on both sides of the tournament's draw.

On the women's side, the Williams sisters no longer can be listed as underdogs after taking two of the year's first three Grand Slams (Serena won the Australian Open and Venus won Wimbledon). It will be interesting to see how they respond to the higher expectations in Flushing Meadows.

Also, where has Maria Sharapova been? Since getting clobbered by Serena Williams in the finals in Melbourne, Sharapova has kind of gone underground, losing in the semifinals of the French Open and bowing out in the fourth round to Venus Williams at Wimbledon. Last year's U.S. Open champion has some proving to do.

On the men's side the big question is, Will it be Federer-Nadal III? I'm sure that's what everybody's hoping for after the epic five-set match in the Wimbledon finals, but Nadal has never proven himself at the U.S. Open, where he has never reached the finals.

While I'd bet my saving on Federer making the finals, I wouldn't bet a fifth of my savings on Nadal doing likewise.

Then again, after looking at Nadal's half of the bracket, I don't see a player who I'd take over the Spaniard (Andy Roddick is in Federer's half).

All we can do is let the drama play out...

Are you ready for some college football?
I can't believe the college football season kicks off tonight, as in Thursday night, August 30. It has come so quickly. Before I can catch my breath, there will be a thrilling upset, a barnburner out west and a matchup of top-10 SEC teams.

Yes, things will get going very quickly, and up here in Michigan all the talk is about the Wolverines, who are thinking national championship.

If you can believe this, Michigan has failed to beat Ohio State or win a bowl game the past three years. Surely, the Wolverines seniors — led by the offensive trio of QB Chad Henne, RB Mike Hart and LT Jake Long — don't want a repeat this season.

That is a reason why I wouldn't be surprised if the Wolverines suffer an early hiccup (they've got home games against Oregon, Notre Dame and Penn state in three straight weeks).

Still, I like Michigan to come out on top in the Big Ten. The Wolverines will score a lot of points, and the defense will improve as the season progresses (remind you of a team? How about last year's Ohio State squad?). With that said, here is my predicted order of finish in the Big Ten:

1 - Michigan
2 - Ohio State
3 - Wisconsin
4 - Penn State
5 - Iowa
6 - Purdue
7 - Illinois
8 - Michigan State
9 - Indiana
10 - Minnesota
11 - Northwestern

As for the nation's top squads, everyone's talking about USC — and with good reason — but you just never know this time of year. What if John David Booty gets injured? Obviously, anything can happen.

I think a national title team has to have an experienced, savvy quarterback. You don't see many inexperienced play-callers leading their teams to national titles. Regardless of how good a team's defense is, it's going to be in a close game where the QB's going to have to make big plays. That's why I like the following teams:

USC (Booty)
Texas (Colt McCoy)
West Virginia (Pat White)
Louisville (Brian Brohm)
Michigan (Henne)
Boston College (Matt Ryan)
Hawaii (Colt Brennan)

My national title prediction?

The Mountaineers go undefeated and just barely beat out a number of one-loss teams in the BCS to face the Trojans in January.

Do I have to talk about Vick?
OK, just for a minute.

While Vick's public apology wasn't bad, this is one of those cases where his words really don't mean anything. Only his actions do.

I won't start considering forgiving Michael Vick until he begins putting some money and effort into helping pet shelters, into saving strays' lives. His words ring hollow. Especially when he throws in dozens of "you know?"s in his speech.

No, I don't know, Michael.

The contriteness was a start. Now Vick needs to be proactive.

The impact of a 3-point shooter
As the U.S. romps over unmatched opponents in the FIBA Americas tournament (although it will finally face a test against Argentina Thursday night), I can't help but think that maybe — just maybe — the Americans have finally found a cohesive unit devoid of malignant holes that can win the 2008 Olympics.

My biggest piece of evidence? A guy named Michael Redd.

With the Milwaukee Bucks' starting shooting guard, the Americans have a reliable outside shooter to take the pressure off everyone to try to drive the basket against swarming international defenses. Every time I see a USA highlight, Redd is knocking down an open 3-pointer.

With Redd — not to mention Chauncey "Mr. Big Shot" Billups and Memphis' Mike Miller — America's athletic behemoths finally have some room to roam down low because opponents can't leave him open.

I'm not predicting anything, but this U.S. team is definitely showing great potential.

The game against Argentina will tell us even more.

Signing Yi
The Milwaukee Bucks finally did what I thought they'd never do: sign their first-round draft pick, Yi Jianlian.

All it took was a trip by Bucks' management to China to talk to Yi's parents and treat them to an expansive dinner (or something like that).

Still, I believe Yi has a lot of learning to do to become a top-notch big man in the NBA. He's young. He's inexperienced. He appears soft. He might be the next Darko Milicic, meaning it will take him a few years to get used the NBA's physical style of play.

I'm not sure if he was worth the No. 6 pick in the draft, but at least the Bucks were able to sign him.

A couple months ago it appeared that might not even happen.

Did you know?

With everything that is going on in American sports right now, you may not have even heard this — unless, of course, you are a die-hard Celtics fan. Anyway, to break the news, the Celtics signed former Miami forward James Posey to a two-year contract Monday.

This may not seem like a big signing, except that it is. After unloading just about their entire team for Kevin Garnett, the Celtics were in need of solid role players. Posey is exactly the type of player they needed.

Unselfish offensively. Tough defensively. Can play large chunks of minutes. He'll be a serviceable backup for Paul Pierce and Ray Allen.

And maybe he'll get to be part of another Eastern Conference championship team...

All right, I'm out. But before I go, don't forget — it's important to get outside and enjoy the weather these waning days of summer.

Even if it seems like there's a constant barrage of sports events worth watching.

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