Wednesday, October 31, 2007

All the NBA needed was one night


It's a shame the Houston-Los Angeles Lakers game didn't end until after 1 a.m. Tuesday night on the East Coast. The theater was that great. Even for a first game of an 82-game season.

As I stood in my living room, on my tiptoes, my heart beating fast, watching the Lakers erase a 12-point deficit in the final 1:36 before Houston's Shane Battier hit the game-winning 3-pointer, I forgot about the NBA's awful summer.

I stopped thinking about Tim Donaghy. About the awful Finals ratings from June. About Kobe Bryant's incessent trade demands.

Ironically, Bryant was at the center of Opening Night's action, lighting up the Staples Center with 45 points after he was booed while being introduced. Critics can say all they want about Bryant's constant complaints and selfish play, but no one can argue that he doesn't play his heart out every game when he's on the court.

And, boy, is he fun to watch. Even with the Rockets up by an insurmountable 12 points and the Lakers faithful heading for the exits, Bryant didn't quit on his current (but maybe not for long) team, launching the improbable comeback with a three-point play followed by a 3-pointer.

Rumors have swirled the past couple days about a possible trade involving Bryant becoming a Chicago Bull. If Lakers management wants its team to remain in the conversation when discussing the NBA, it better not deal Bryant. He is the lone reason fans still pack the Staples Center. He is the only reason the otherwise morbid Lakers still receive attention nationwide. Sans Bryant, the Lakers could become (gasp!) the Clippers.

Tuesday night was a long-awaited night for NBA commissioner David Stern. The best franchise in sports, the San Antonio Spurs, received their championship rings before defeating the young Portland Trail Blazers. The Spurs added a win on Wednesday to stay perfect at 2-0.

If Stern is ever accosted by a critic who says, "Your entire league is a scam," Stern can point toward The Alamo as evidence to the contrary. Not only do the Spurs win, but their superstar, Tim Duncan, understands how to increase their chances of adding more NBA titles in the next five years.

Duncan signed a two-year, $40 million extension Tuesday that will keep him in San Antonio through the 2011-12 season. He could have asked — and gotten — $51 million, but he keenly realized that the $11 million he didn't take could be used to re-sign other key players, so he made the sacrifice.

Find me one other superstar who volunteers to accept $11 million less for the sake of his organization. Stern, who was in attendance Tuesday night, should have given Duncan a big bear hug and thanked him for giving the league some positive publicity.

But compared to the burn the NBA sustained during the summer, the league must feel pretty comfortable now that the games have begun. When the biggest issue in the news is whether Bryant will be traded, things are balmy for the NBA.

Sure, there will be Donaghy references throughout the season whenever fans (or Mark Cuban) are upset with a ref's calls, but Stern n' Company undouubtedly are prepared.

As long as the basketball is as entertaining as it was on Opening Night, Stern can smile — or at least sit and relax for a minute.

The NBA's product remains pretty enticing.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Young hungry players led '07 Red Sox


(Editor's Note: This column will not contain one mention of the Yankees or Alex Rodriguez. Neither party deserves to steal the national spotlight (at least for now) from the one and only 2007 World Series champions, the Boston Red Sox.)

The Boston Red Sox have done it again. They've won their second World Series in four years after going dry from 1918 until 2004.

But anyone who thinks the 2004 and 2007 Red Sox were similar teams is kidding themselves. The team on the field Sunday night bore close to no resemblance to the comeback kids of '04.

Sure, there were the stars — David Ortiz, Manny Ramirez and Jason Varitek — in the field, and the veteran presence of Curt Schilling in the dugout, but all around them were new faces. And the new faces were the main contributors this October, helping to place the city of Boston in a state of utopia (with the Red Sox winning, the indomitable Patriots 8-0, Boston "freakin!" College No. 2 in the BCS and the Celtics about to tip-off the most anticipated season in 20 years).

In 2004 it was closer Keith Foulke shutting down the St. Louis Cardinals and then jumping into the embrace of Veritek after the final out. In 2007, while Varitek remained the catcher, young buck Jonathan Papelbon was the shutdown closer. It was the peppy Papelbon who leaped into Varitek's arms after striking out Seth Smith to finish off the WS sweep after the seven-game, come-from-behind ALCS victory over Cleveland.

Without Papelbon, there's no way the Red Sox would be World Series champions. He was impeccable during the postseason, not allowing a single run — and just five hits — in 10-plus innings. Even after setup man Hideki Okajima allowed a two-run homer in the eighth inning of Game 4, which cut Boston's lead to 4-3, you knew Papelbon would come in and finish the deal.

No doubt about it. There's one key new guy.

Let's examine the starting pitching. In 2004 it was Pedro Martinez, Derek Lowe, Schilling and Tim Wakefield who shut down the Cardinals. In 2007 Schilling was still a part of the rotation — albeit sans a bloody sock — but Wakefield was left off the World Series roster with an injury, and it was a trio of newcomers who got the job done.

Josh Beckett
, Daisuke Matsuzaka and Jon Lester, who was the winning pitcher of the clinching game despite going through lymphoma treatment just nine months earlier — an absolutely remarkable feat. Beckett has moved himself alongside Reggie Jackson in the October Hall of Fame with his postseason performances.

First there he was in 2003, pitching a shutout on three days rest to clinch the World Series for the Marlins in Yankee Stadium. Then there was '07, when Beckett was 4-0 in the postseason, including his huge Game 5 outing in the ALCS, which flipped the momentum switch from the Indians to the Red Sox, who didn't lose again.

Three new pitchers, great results.

And how about the Sox' feisty, young lineup. Ortiz and Ramirez didn't get the big hits in this Fall Classic. Rather it was the "other" guys, the players we could have mistaken for supermarket workers in '04.

There was Jacoby Ellsubry, a late-season callup, collecting four hits in Game 3 and sparking his team once again with two hits and a run scored in the clincher. He hit .438 in the series.

There was Dustin Pedroia, a 5-foot-9, 180-pound little squirt who could be mistaken for a UPS driver on the street, knocking the big two-run double in Game 3 that all but ended Colorado's hopes at turning around the series.

There was Julio Lugo, as skinny as a pogo stick, hitting .385 in the series and quietly playing flawless defense at shortstop.

I could name more new, unselfish players who contributed for the '07 Red Sox, but I figure you want me to get to my point.

Well here it is: In team sports today, championship teams (with the rare exception of the San Antonio Spurs) cannot simply bring back the same group of players season after season and expect to win. Yes, even the Patriots' roster this season is drastically different from the makeup of their 2004 championship team.

New blood has to be brought in. Players eager to prove themselves and reach the pinnacle of sports need to become integral parts of the organization. Even if they say they are, most players who have won a championship do not have the same drive to win another one. With their comfortable salaries and their perfectly fitting championship rings, they can live without reaching the zenith of their profession again.

This usually affects their play, even if the difference isn't noticeable. If you examine important members of the '04 Red Sox, such as Martinez, Johnny Damon and Kevin Millar, they haven't been the same players since. Of course injuries are a factor — especially when talking about Martinez — but so is desire. When you've already proven that you can buck the odds, that you can become a member of the first team in baseball history to come back from a 3-0 series deficit, you don't need to show the world a thing. You have nothing left to prove.

This year's Red Sox had something to prove. Their clubhouse overflowed with players who had never made it to baseball's biggest stage, who were unknown in baseball circles outside of Boston. Even veterans such as Beckett and Mike Lowell, the World Series MVP, had a chip on their shoulder.

Both players had won the 2003 World Series with Florida, but had fallen into oblivion in the following years. Both signed pretty hefty contracts with Boston in 2006, but failed to deliver the Red Sox to the playoffs in their first year. Playing in front of the skeptical eyes of Red Sox Nation, both had to show the organization that it hadn't made a mistake in bringing them to Beantown.

Mission accomplished.

Now the talk amongst RSN is that the Red Sox have the pieces to compete for multiple championships in the years to come. And they do. Papelbon, Ellsbury, Pedroia, Lugo, Lester — they're all young. And Lowell, Beckett and Ortiz aren't too old themselves.

But Boston should also be cautious. Don't become too stagnant. Don't let any player become too comfortable. Just look at what's happened to the White Sox since they won the World Series in 2005. They fell all the way to fourth place in the AL Central this year with many of the same players (but not close to the same production) from the special '05 squad.

The 2007 Red Sox were special in their own way. Just like the '04 Red Sox. And if Boston is to win another championship in the years to come, it will likely occur with several new faces.

Hungry to compete on that grandest of stages. And hungry to hold that trophy and spray that sweetest-tasting champagne on earth.

All for the first time.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

College football's greatest play... ever


If you haven't seen it by now, watch it now.

The most incredible, ridiculous, unbelievable play in college football's long history. Better than the Cal-Stanford miracle, Kordell Stewart's Hail Mary to beat Michigan and every other great play that has defined college football throughout the years.

Trinity University (Texas), a Division 3 school, proved Saturday why you should never give up hope, why you should never let yourself be tackled on the last play of the game when you need to score. Trinity used 15 laterals to complete an improbable 61-yard touchdown on the final play to defeat Millsaps College in the wildest ending to a game I've ever seen.

A few times during the play, it appeared the a Trinity player was about to be tackled, but each time he got rid of the ball before being thrown to the turf. Each time a teammate was able to get behind him to receive his toss.

I've seen hundreds of ends to Division 1 games where a player lets himself be tackled on the final play instead of throwing the ball over his shoulder to keep the play alive. Sure, the chances of scoring are about as likely as the Rockies coming back to win this World Series, but — hey — there's a chance.

Don't think so? Just watch Trinity's miracle. It'll make you believe.

Week 8 NFL picks


It's too bad the Colts and Patriots have to play next week, because I seriously believe if they didn't they'd both have a shot at going undefeated. They are that good.

It's also too bad they're in the same conference, which means the AFC championship game will be more climatic than the Super Bowl (like usual).

Of course everything can change in the course of an afternoon. Tom Brady could break his right hand. Peyton Manning could fall down the stairs and fracture his left leg. But neither of those scenarios is likely.

OK, time to get to the picks. Two of them are no-brainers. The rest are not so easy, as I try to improve on last week's 9-5 record and boost my 53-35 overall mark.

At London: NY Giants (5-2) 31, Miami (0-7) 10: Anyone who watches this game is wasting a beautiful afternoon.

At Cincinnati (2-4) 27, Pittsburgh (4-2) 21: Huge divisional game. Bengals can get back into race with win.

At Tennessee (4-2) 23, Oakland (2-4) 14: Three more field goals for Rob Bironas.

At Chicago (3-4) 31, Detroit (4-2) 17: The Lions win at home and get killed on the road. No change here.

At Minnesota (2-4) 21, Philly (2-4): Must-win game for both teams. Ugly. Plenty of turnovers. Home team survives.

Cleveland (3-3) 34, at St. Louis (0-7) 13: Man, the Rams are terrible. St. Louis fans are already focusing on college hoops season and the arrival of Rick Majerus.

Buffalo (2-4) 19, at NY Jets (1-6) 13: The Bills have more to play for.

At San Diego (3-3) 28, Houston (3-4) 21: Chargers pull off comeback victory in front of raucous home crowd just excited to be witnessing football game.

At Tampa Bay (4-3) 20, Jacksonville (4-2) 10: Brutal defensive battle in which Bucs batter backup Jags QB Quinn Gray.

New Orleans (2-4) 27, at San Francisco (2-4) 17: 49ers continue slide while Saints quietly creep into the playoff race, winning their third straight.

At New England (7-0) 31, Washington (4-2) 13: No chance for Redskins in Foxboro. Gosh, life in Boston must be great right now.

Indianapolis (6-0) 27, at Carolina (4-2) 14: No Marvin Harrison, no problem for Colts.

Green Bay (5-1) 28, at Denver (3-3) 24: On Monday Night Football stage, Brett Favre shines once again.

I'm out. Enjoy the Pats' and Colts' dominance.

Friday, October 26, 2007

My one and only NBA preview


The second-best time of the year (behind March Madness) is here, folks.

Not only is the baseball season at its climax and the football games gaining importance by the weekend, but hoops season is days away.

Here in Durham/Chapel Hill, all the talk is about the Tar Heels and Blue Devils (in fact, I expect Cameron Indoor Stadium to be packed Saturday night for the... blue-white scrimmage).

But outside of this college hoops utopia, the big boys are gearing up for another 82-game slate followed by a ridiculously (yet always-fun-to-watch) playoff stretch run.

With that said, it's time for my prognostications. For every team. And for those playoffs, which still seem light years away.

Please note that the numbers in parentheses after each team indicate where they'll finish in the conference.


Central Division
1. Detroit Pistons 53-29 (1st): With the infusion of talent in Boston, no one wants to talk anymore about the old, boring, stagnant Pistons. Fine. So be it. But they're still the best team in the East when motivated. And I have a feeling they'll come out with a little fire after that embarrassing collapse against LeBron and Co. Expect Jason Maxiell to have a breakout year and Amir Johnson to also make strides up front.

2. Chicago Bulls 48-34 (3rd): Probably the youngest, most hungry team in the East, but — still — they lack an interior scoring threat. Tyrus Thomas is athletic and exciting at times, but he's no post-up threat. Expect another big year from Luol Deng, but this team will still rely to0 heavily on perimeter shooting.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers 46-36 (5th): What a terrible off-season. Yes, last year's postseason run was special, but the group that advanced to the Finals isn't going to pull a repeat performance — especially in a tougher conference. Daniel Gibson's great, but not a true point guard. Larry Hughes is a bust. Zydrunas Ilguauskas is old. LeBron James better save a lot of energy for the playoffs.

4. Milwaukee Bucks 39-43 (9th): This team is going to be better than a lot of people expect if the nucleus can stay healthy. Michael Redd's as good a scorer as the NBA has, and Mo Williams is a versatile point guard who can score and distribute the ball. The questions are up front, where Andrew Bogut and Charlie Villanueva need breakout years.

5. Indiana Pacers 31-51 (12th): How far has this once-proud franchise fallen? Trade rumors continue to surround Jermaine O'Neal. Jamaal Tinsley can't stay out of trouble. Mike Dunleavy and Danny Granger are almost carbon copies of each other — slashers who can score 10-plus points per game, but not guys you can count on in the clutch.

Atlantic Division
1. Boston Celtics 49-33 (2nd): Mark me down as skeptical about how this new arrangement is going to work. The certainties: Kevin Garnett will play his tail off. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen will splash many 3-pointers. The uncertainties: Will all three players older than 30 stay healthy the entire season and into mid-April? Will Rajon Rondo be able to consistently make 3s when he's left wide-open? Will Rondo be able to play 40-plus minutes a game with no backup point guard in site? Will Kendrick Perkins be able to play loose alongside the three All-Stars? Who will replace KG when he has to sit? Plenty of questions, but the ride should be memorable.

2. Toronto Raptors 47-35 (4th): Nobody has said a thing about this team since it finished third in the East a year ago before bowing to the Nets in the first round. I, for one, like a lot of things about the Raptors. Like the Bulls, the Raptors are comprised of a bunch of young players eager to further explore the postseason. And, unlike the Bulls, they have a great post presence in Chris Bosh and another developing big man in Andrea Bargnani.

3. New Jersey Nets 44-38 (7th): Three big questions here: Will Jason Kidd, with his bad back, be able to stay on the court and lead this team? Will Vince Carter, with his new contract, play motivated the entire season? Will Nenad Kristic return to the player he was before an ACL injury sidelined him for most of last season? Plenty of potential, plenty of questions.

4. New York Knicks 41-41 (9th): Oh, the pain that will be felt in the Big Apple when the Knicks just miss the playoffs by a hair. We all know the talent is there, especially with the acquisition of Zach Randolph, but how will the pieces fit together? How will Randolph and Eddie Curry coexist down low? So far, not great. This team will have many winning streaks, but also many losing streaks. It lacks that veteran presence to keep everybody cool regardless of which way the momentum is flowing.

5. Philadelphia 76ers 26-56 (15th): I like the Andre Miller-Andre Iguodala combination, and when he's healthy, Samuel Dalembert is a very serviceable center. However, he's not a big scorer, which can also be said about new power forward Reggie Evans. And Willie Green is one of the worst shooting guards in the league. Plenty of rebuilding left to do in Philly.

Southeast Division
1. Washington Wizards 45-37 (6th): The Big Three — Gilbert Arenas, Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison — must stay healthy for this team to have a chance of doing big things. And even with them, it's going to be hard to post one of the East's best records with close to nothing at center. Brendan Haywood will have to play monster minutes with his nemesis Etan Thomas shelved and no decent backup in sight.

2. Miami Heat 43-39 (8th): As encouraging as Shaquille O'Neal's off-season training regimen was, the fortunes of the Heat revolve around Dwyane Wade, who will miss the beginning of the season still recovering from shoulder and knee surgeries. And then the period will begin where we'll find out if D-Wade can regain his 2006 championship form. If he can, and O'Neal stays healthy, this team is a championship contender. If he can't, the Heat will scramble to make the playoffs.

3. Orlando Magic 40-42 (10th): Same record, no playoffs. That's the difference this time around in a tougher Eastern Conference. One might think the Magic would be vastly improved after the acquisition of Rashard Lewis to take some of the scoring load off Dwight Howard's broad shoulders, but I'm not convinced. Lewis, to me, is a one-dimensional player — just a scorer. Also, I'm not sold on undersized J.J. Redick at shooting guard. Opposing guards will be able to post him and Jameer Nelson up all day. And Grant Hill will be missed.

4. Atlanta Hawks 32-50 (13th): The pieces are starting to come together. I like shooting guard Joe Johnson. Marvin Williams will have a breakout year. Josh Smith has developed into a solid all-around player. And Zaza Pachulia is an underrated, although weak (just 6.9 rpg), center. Add Al Horford and Acie Law to the mix, and the nucleus is there. But where's the chemistry? Speedy Claxton is one of the league's worst starting PGs, and the rookies still have to prove themselves.

5. Charlotte Bobcats 30-52 (14th): The season hasn't even begun, and youngsters Sean May and Adam Morrison are already decked for the season. Ouch! But this team retains plenty of scoring potential. It will be interesting to see how Jason Richardson and Gerald Wallace split up the shots, and don't forget about Emeka Okafor. PG Raymond Felton could boost himself into the upper echelon of point guards with a stellar season. But the other young guys will be sitting. That hurts.


Southwest Division
1. San Antonio Spurs 58-24 (1st): The Spurs didn't change anything because they didn't need to. The great thing about this group is that you never worry about complacency setting in. If not for a Dirk Nowitzki three-point play in 2006, we could easily be talking about the three-time defending champs right now. And there's plenty to play for, as in the Spurs' first back-to-back titles. Expect nothing less.

2. Dallas Mavericks 57-25 (2nd): The regular season is an afterthought for this talented squad. We know they'll cruise to one of the West's best records. The question is how they'll fair in the playoffs. Will Nowitzki be able to score from the post? He'll be helped by a breakout season from point guard Devin Harris, who will be all over the court. The center position — like usual — is Dallas' weakness.

3. Houston Rockets 51-31 (4th): The acquisitions of point guard Mike James and shooting guard Steve Francis give the Rockets the needed depth in the backcourt along with sharp-shooter Luther Head. But the fact remains that Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady need to remain healthy and motivated to get this team out of the first round of the playoffs. One of them needs to step up and grab control of this bunch, because it has too much talent to be a first-round exit once again.

4. New Orleans Hornets 44-38 (8th): The time has finally come. The Hornets will stay healthy and — boosted by the pickup of veteran guard Morris Peterson — sneak into the playoffs. Tyson Chandler brought a great defensive presence to the lineup last year, but no one noticed his contribution because of injuries to Chris Paul, David West and Peja Stojakovic. If those three can stay healthy, this team won't have a problem getting into the playoffs and may just scare the Spurs in the first round.

5. Memphis Grizzlies 34-48 (13th): The future of this team revolves around the point guard position. How will Mike Conley Jr. develop? Will he become a quality PG quickly, or will it take time? Pau Gasol, I'm sure, is hoping Conley will learn the ropes fast, because Gasol — encouraged by the pickup of Juan Carlos Navarro — wants to win now. Rudy Gay, Stromile Swift and Hakim Warrick are all still raw players. Darko Millicic gets a new home to prove himself.

Northwest Division
1. Utah Jazz 50-32 (5th): Forget that Andrei Kirilenko is unhappy in Salt Lake City. Just the return of precocious point guard Deron Williams and beastly power forward Carlos Boozer gives this team a chance to do big things in the powerful West. The player who needs to develop more is Mehmet Okur. He needs to toughen up around the basket and rebound better. Also, losing Derek Fisher and his clutch shooting will hurt. But in the end, the second coming of Stockton and Malone will win the division for the Jazz.

2. Denver Nuggets 48-34 (6th): Who really knows what to make of this team? Kenyon Martin is back after missing most of last season, and we'll just have to see how he progresses. Hopefully for the team's sake, he'll be content to play good defense, rebound and score second-chance points. I don't like Allen Iverson as a point guard. That's why losing Steve Blake will hurt more than people anticipate. Chucky Atkins shoots too much to get along with Iverson and Carmelo Anthony.

3. Seattle Supersonics 37-45 (11th): Too many questions to ask. Of course the main one is how Kevin Durant will perform as the vocal point of the team's offense. Then there's the question of how much longer this team will remain in Seattle, and how that will affect the players. And then there's the issue of who, besides Durant, will score. I like the pickup of Wally Szczerbiak in the Ray Allen trade to the Celtics because he can score. He'll give them a lift. Point guard Luke Ridnour needs to prove that he can consistently knock down the mid-range jumper. Seattle's still soft inside.

4. Minnesota Timberwolves 33-49 (14th): Forgive me for being an optimist, but I don't think it will be long before this team is back in the postseason. I like Minnesota's young nucleus of Randy Foye, Corey Brewer, Ryan Gomes, Al Jefferson and Gerald Green. Theo Ratliff may be old, but you can count on him to play hard and play good defense (1.5 bpg last season). Antoine Walker is the big question. Will he dedicate himself to helping this team improve, or will he cry his way through the season? Either way, this team is headed in the right direction.

5. Portland Trailblazers 30-52 (15th): Could it be? Could the Trail Blazers get the No. 1 pick for the second straight year? Greg Oden and O.J. Mayo together? It's possible. Some might call this a wasted year with Oden out, but it's a year for PG Jarrett Jack, SG Brandon Roy and PF LaMarcus Aldridge to really improve so that when Oden joins them in a year, they can make up for his rookie hiccups. Channing Frye should also make great strides.

Pacific Division
1. Phoenix Suns 56-26 (3rd): The only reason the Suns finish behind the Mavericks and Spurs is the dissent of power forward Shawn Marion who, for some ludicrous reason, wants to leave the team led by Steve Nash (makes no sense to me). The player who needs to reestablish himself is Boris Diaw, who had a huge down year last season after winning the Most Improved Player award in 2006. Also, with every passing season there's the possibility that Nash will sustain a major injury, and Phoenix fans don't want to even consider LWN (Life Without Nash).

2. Golden State Warriors 45-37 (7th): Man, is this team fun to watch, or what? It also can be the most frustrating team in the league. I'm sure the Warriors will provide their fans with both of their sides at different times throughout the season. The key is team chemistry, which begins with Baron Davis. When the point guard is distributing the ball to open shooters and running the break unselfishly, everyone feeds off him. When he's not? Well, things get ugly. I don't think losing Richardson will hurt that much because there are plenty of shooters and high-flyers to fill his void. Rookie big man Brandan Wright will fit nicely into the run-and-gun system.

3. Los Angeles Lakers 41-41 (9th): Something tells me this team won't finish 41-41. It will either be much better or much worse, with the indicating factor being Kobe Bryant's presence or lack thereof. If he stays and is happy, that probably means the Lakers will pull the string on a deal to bring Jermaine O'Neal or someone else to L.A. If Bryant remains unhappy and is eventually dealt, then the Lakers become a cellar dweller. Should make for great theater in L.A.

4. Los Angeles Clippers 37-45 (10th): No team will miss a single player more than the Clippers will mourn Elton Brand for at least half the season. Sans Brand, this will become a perimeter-oriented squad full of slashers such as Corey Maggette, Cuttino Mobley and rookie Al Thornton. They should be fun to watch, but they'll also commit loads of turnovers and not be as reliable as Brand is in late-game situations.

5. Sacramento Kings 35-47 (12th): Reggie Theus needs to turn over this dilapidated roster. Ditch either Mike Bibby or Ron Artest, because they don't seem to work well together. Build around underrated shooting guard Kevin Martin. And go from there. Brad Miller is nearing the end. Ditto Kenny Thomas and Shareef Abdur-Rahim. This team appears old and rather boring — a complete reversal of the outfit that lit up Arco Arena six years ago.


First Round
No. 1 Detroit def. No. 8 Miami 4-2.
No. 2 Boston def. No. 7 New Jersey 4-2.
No. 3 Chicago def. No. 6 Cleveland 4-3.
No. 5 Toronto def. No. 4 Washington 4-3.

Second round
No. 1 Detroit def. No. 5 Toronto 4-2.
No. 3 Chicago def. No. 2 Boston 4-3.

Eastern Conference Finals
No. 1 Detroit def. No. 3 Chicago 4-3: Pistons don't overlook opposing team in the conference finals this time. Chauncey Billups has a huge series, as does Rasheed Wallace, who deftly posts up Chicago's inexperienced big man while a hurting Ben Wallace sits on the bench.

First Round
No. 1 San Antonio def. No. 8 New Orleans 4-1.
No. 2 Dallas def. No. 7 Golden State 4-3.
No. 3 Phoenix def. No. 6 Denver 4-3.
No. 5 Houston def. No. 4 Utah 4-3.

Second Round
No. 1 San Antonio def. No. 5 Houston 4-1.
No. 2 Dallas def. No. 3 Phoenix 4-3.

Western Conference Finals
No. 1 San Antonio def. No. 2 Dallas 4-2: No huge surprise here. The Spurs are the better team all-around. Tony Parker outplays Harris. Tim Duncan outplays Nowitzki. And the role players do their jobs. The Spurs get payback for that tough Game 7 loss in 2006.

NBA Finals
San Antonio def. Detroit 4-2: Another competitive series, but the Spurs put any leftover doubters to rest that they are the team of this decade, winning their fifth title in the past nine years. This time Manu Ginobili is the MVP, as he frustrates the Pistons with his ability to get to the basket and knock down the open 3-pointers. Robert Horry finally calls it a career with his eighth — eighth! — NBA championship ring. Eva Longoria plasters her husbands with thousands of smooches.

Enjoy the season everyone. I think the refs are clean. I think the Celtics are good. And I know Rasheed Wallace will pick up a technical.

Should be a ball.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

World Series preview: Don't count out the Rockies


Here's a riddle for you:

The World Series is about to commence inside Fenway Park.

One team has won 21 of its last 22 games, including all seven of its playoff games. Not bad, eh?

The other team had to win three consecutive games and rely on some poor decisions by its opponent to advance.

One team is being picked by the majority of America outside of the Rocky Mountains to win.

That team is not the team with the 21-for-22 streak.

Question: Why is everyone picking against the hot guys? (I thought women, especially, dig hot guys).

Answer: I'm not quite sure, but here are some guesses...

America loves the Red Sox to win their second World Series in four years after going 86 years without a championship.

People point to their ace, Josh Beckett, who is 3-0 this postseason and has been indomitable. Yes, Beckett is better than Colorado's No. 1, Jeff Francis. But let's not forget who Francis beat in Game 1 of the NLCS (Arizona's seemingly unbeatable No. 1, Brandon Webb).

People point to the Rockies' eight-day layoff and say it will affect them just like the Tigers' six-day vacation hurt them last year when they lost the Fall Classic to the Cardinals in an ugly five games.

First off, I'm sure Colorado manager Clint Hurdle has made sure his pitchers work on their fielding during the respite, so, yes, I'm positive that the Rockies' rotation won't be throwing the ball into Fenway's stands.

Secondly, I like the fact that the Rockies played a couple of simulated scrimmages to prepare. No, I'm not going to pretend a no-pressure scrimmage in front of empty seats is tantamount to a World Series game in the country's most distinguished ballpark in front of blood-thirsty Red Sox Nation and millions of others watching. But the Rockies won't be rusty fundamentally. They'll play good defense. They'll probably pitch OK. And that will give them a chance.

Thirdly, a big difference between last year's Tigers and this season's Rockies is that Detroit was a huge favorite heading into the series. The Rockies, as you might surmise, are not. There is no added pressure. No "this season will be a disappointment" butterflies fluttering around the clubhouse.

If Colorado loses, so what? Close to no one expects them to win. This season will remain memorable even if they lose. The Rockies have nothing to lose. All they need to do is play hard and enjoy the moments. Can't say the same about the Red Sox, whom everybody is inking in as 2007 World Series Champions.

Fourthly, the winning streak should be getting much more press. Forget the layoff. This team believes it's going to win every game. Even when it was down in the Game 4 clincher against Arizona, there was a resounding belief that Colorado would pull it out. That can't be underestimated. It will help the Rockies each time they're down this series.

You can point to the matchups and numbers all you want. They are what they are, but they won't determine what transpires in the next week or so. If the numbers dictated the Series' direction, Detroit would be the defending champion right now. Simple as that.

But I know you want a few Xs and Os, so here they are:

I'm not joking when I say, "Colorado's lineup 1-9 is just as potent as Boston's, especially with Big Papi struggling."

Yes, Beckett has an advantage over Francis, but I'm serious when I say, "The teams' Nos. 2-4 starters are even."

I'm not delirious when I say, "Manny Corpas is just as good as Jonathan Papelbon as a closer."

I believe it when I say, "With Brian Fuentes leading the way, I like Colorado's middle relief and setup situation over Boston's, especially if Boston's Eric Gagne enters a game in a tight situation."

It's the truth when I say, "Clint Hurdle does just as good a job managing his ball club as Boston's Terry Francona does with his."

Finally, call me insane, but I fully believe that Colorado can win this series. Will it run its streak to 25-of-26? Highly doubtful. This Red Sox team doesn't play four bad games in a row (just three). But Colorado has the players, the manager, the mojo, the momentum and the crazy fans to win its first World Series.

Call me crazy, but I believe it.

Colorado in six.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Feeling for No. 7


There's a list of things inside my mind I promise myself I will never, ever do in this lifetime...

Live in Gary, Ind. Eat a Twinkie. Watch "Laguna Beach."

On Sunday night, however, I broke one promise. I felt sorry for a professional athlete. I felt remorse for Cleveland outfielder Kenny Lofton.

When his Indians completed their collapse from a 3-1 lead in the ALCS over Boston, losing 11-2 Sunday, another shot at winning his first World Series had passed Lofton by.

I have two baseball jerseys hanging in my closet (both of which were given to me by my cousin, Pete, a former college player). There's my Cal Ripken jersey, and my Kenny Lofton jersey from when he was with the Indians (the first time).

In this age of steroid use and sluggers admiring their every home run swing, Lofton is a reminder of the past. He's skinnier than a lamp post, he still steals bases at the ripe age of 40, he always plays hard and he doesn't make excuses.

During the precocious Indians' run to within a game of the World Series, Lofton was the veteran presence in the clubhouse, the guy the youngsters who make up the team could turn to for advice on how to handle the pressure of October.

'Cuz, man, has Lofton been here before.

Sunday's loss completed Lofton's 17th season in the majors. He's played on a whopping 11 teams (and probably owned 11 different houses and paid nine states' taxes — he's played for two Pennsylvania and California teams). And he's come agonizingly close to winning a World Series ring, only to fall just short every time — often in heartbreaking fashion.

Let me start from the beginning...

In 1995 Lofton was a part of a Cleveland team that went an unbelievable 100-44 and advanced to the World Series only to lose three one-run games in a six-game WS loss to Atlanta.

In 1996 Cleveland fell to Baltimore in the first round of the playoffs, losing 4-3 in 12 innings in Game 4 after the Orioles tied the game with a run in the ninth inning.

In 1997 Lofton was with Atlanta when the Braves lost to the surprising Marlins in five games, again being a part of a one-run loss in the clincher, a 2-1 Florida win.

In 1998 Lofton was back with the Indians. And — again — his team lost in five games in the divisional round, as the Indians lost the final two games at home to the Yankees.

The story was even worse in 1999, when the Indians went up 2-0 on the Red Sox only to drop three straight, including Game 5 at home, 12-8. Cleveland's pitching staff gave up 44 runs in the three losses — including 23 in Game 4. At this point, I wouldn't have blamed Lofton for throwing his hands in the air and yelling, "I give up!!!!"

But Lofton's Indians were back in the divisional round in 2001 and found themselves with a 2-1 lead... only to lose the final two games. By then, Lofton probably could have made a case that the league was fixing the playoff series in which he played.

As hard as this is to believe, Lofton's postseason fortunes got even worse when he left Cleveland after the 2001 season. In 2002, after a brief tenure with the White Sox, he ended up on the Giants, who advanced to the World Series. San Francisco led the series 3-2 and was up 5-0 in the seventh inning of Game 6, just nine outs away from jubilation. But Anaheim scored three times in the seventh and the eighth innings to win 6-5 and then won Game 7 4-1.

The "Heartbreak Kid" then migrated to the field where heartbreak comes with your ticket — Wrigley Field. After a brief stint with the Pirates, Lofton found himself manning center field in front of the ivy wall as Steve Bartman interfered with the foul ball and shortstop Alex Gonzalez muffed the routine grounder in 2003. The Cubs blew Game 6 of the NLCS (in which they had a three-run, eighth-inning lead) and lost Game 7, also at home, to the Marlins.

Unfortunately for Lofton, that heartbreak wasn't even as bad as what he'd feel in 2004 as a member of the Yankees. I'm sure you've heard the story before. Lofton's Yanks were up 3-0 on the Red Sox. No team had ever rebounded from a 3-0 deficit in a series. The Yankees were three outs away from the Fall Classic in Game 4 with Mariano Rivera on the mound. But then everything fell apart. Maybe, however, the collapse wasn't a big surprise to Lofton.

Finally in 2005 Lofton's team — the Phillies — fell just short of the playoffs, saving Lofton the heartbreak for at least one October. And when Lofton's Dodgers were swept in the divisional round by the Mets last season, it couldn't have been that painful for Lofton.

But then came 2007. Lofton played more than half the season with the Rangers, a team that had no shot of going to the playoffs. It appeared it'd just be another 162-game baseball season for No. 7, a season that allowed his free time in October to go fishing or simply relax.

But, alas, Lofton was traded back to the Indians, whose fans adore Lofton, and the fight for the playoffs was on. Cleveland separated itself from Detroit and cruised into October. Then it surprised many pundits by rolling past the Yankees in four games. And it won three straight games over the Red Sox to take a commanding 3-1 series lead with Game 5 at Jacobs Field.

The stage was set for Lofton to return to the World Series with his favorite team, for Lofton to be the veteran leader of the first World Series champion in Cleveland since 1948 — the longest drought outside of, well, you know.

What a story it would have been. Lofton, a legend in Cleveland, could have retired peacefully, with his ring hugging one of his fingers — there for life.

Instead, Lofton was in the middle of another collapse, another heartbreak. On Sunday he was called out at second on a base hit off the Green Monster in the fifth inning (although replays clearly showed he was safe). That out was followed by two hits, which would have at least tied the game 3-3.

Then in the seventh inning he was held up at third base on a single down the left-field line that he should have scored on to knot the score. But the third-base coach clearly put his hands up, signally Lofton to stop (how symbolic was that of his career?), and the next batter hit into a double play to end Cleveland's threat.

Boston scored twice in the bottom half of the frame and six more times in the eighth to ice the Game 7 victory.

It's impossible to identify another pro athlete who has suffered through as many postseason disappointments — almost all of them heart-wrenching — as Lofton.

Eleven appearances in the playoffs. Two World Series. No rings.

After the game, a politically correct Lofton said, "At least I had the opportunity."

But the words must have felt hollow. Or they might have been recycled from 1995, 1996, 1997, 1998, 1999, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004 and '06.

After all, the position Lofton sat in late Sunday night was all too familiar. Because of that, I feel sorry for No. 7.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Week 7 NFL picks


I've only got about a minute here before heading off to ACC Media Day, so here are my quick picks. Maybe this will be the catharsis for my struggles (7-6 last week, 44-30 overall). Who really knows? Here goes...

Baltimore (4-2) 16, at Buffalo (1-4) 14.

At Detroit (3-2) 24, Tampa Bay (4-2) 19.

New England (6-0) 34, at Miami (0-6) 7.

At New Orleans (1-4) 28, Atlanta (1-5) 9.

At NY Giants (4-2) 27, San Francisco (2-3) 14.

At Washington (3-2) 30, Arizona (3-3) 13.

At Houston (3-3) 21, Tennessee (3-2) 16.

At Cincinnati (1-4) 21, NY Jets (1-5) 20.

At Oakland (2-3) 20, Kansas City (3-3) 14.

At Dallas (5-1) 34, Minnesota (2-3) 28.

Chicago (2-4) 17, at Philly (2-3) 16.

At Seattle (3-3) 27, St. Louis (0-6) 17.

Pittsburgh (4-1) 23, at Denver (2-3) 17.

At Jacksonville (4-1) 21, Indianapolis (5-0) 20.

I'm out. Enjoy the Monday Night game. The Colts go down... The Colts go down...

Friday, October 19, 2007

In sports, planning ahead can never hurt


Joe Torre
didn't exactly "shock" the sports world or turn it on its axis this week when he declined the Yankees' offer to manage the Bronx Bombers for another year with a smaller salary (not including incentives).

I'm sure the Yanks' brass was prepared for Torre's rebuke — even the hour-plus press conference, not that it cared about that.

Kudos to George Steinbrenner & Sons for knowing that Torre might walk away and for beginning the "find-the-right-guy" process as soon as Torre said "No." The Yankees will likely be fine. Lots of money usually = fine. They'll pay to bring back Mariano Rivera and Jorge Posada. They'll probably pay for A-Rod (even if that's not what they're saying).

And they've got a couple of good managerial candidates in Don Mattingly and Joe Girardi despite the unsuspected migration of the other possible candidate, Trey Hillman, to Kansas City to manage the Royals (what was he thinking?).

But, more often than not, a situation like this can devastate a team. Too frequently good managers/coaches are taken for granted and dumped after a few bad seasons/losses without their team having a good replacement in mind.

It's an epidemic in the sports world that needs to be dealt with. Too many good teams becoming bad. Too many good managers and coaches finding themselves out of work while their inferiors drive their teams into the ground.

This has got to stop!! Now!!

"Detroit Free Press" columnist Michael Rosenberg knows what I'm talking about. Just earlier this week he wrote how Nebraska — feeling the pressure from its rather, uh, red fan base — dumped Frank Solich a couple years back only to be left with the rotten leftovers, aka Bill Callahan, who has not only ditched the traditional running attack for the dreaded spread (this is Nebraska, not Purdue!), but drove the program so far down that he got athletic director Steve Pederson fired so the university could bring back legendary coach Tom Osborne as an interim AD/savior of the state of Nebraska.

Yeah, maybe the Cornhuskers should have looked around at potential candidates before dumping Solich.

We haven't seen the results yet, but the Arkansas men's basketball team perfectly exemplifies this firing/hiring disaster. After Stan Heath led the Razorbacks to the NCAA tournament for the second consecutive season last March, apparently the university was unhappy with him, immediately giving him the pink slip.

Rumors swirled about up-and-coming Texas A&M coach Billy Gillispie taking over in Fayetteville, but instead Gillispie went to a place called Kentucky.

The Razorbacks eyed other big names, such as Kansas' Bill Self, but couldn't bait them. Then they hired Creighton coach, Dana Altman, but he, um, pulled a quick "Billy Donovan," backing out after one day on the job (did he get paid for that day?).

Finally, after two weeks of scrambling, Arkansas hired South Alabama coach John Pelphrey, who is there to stay — I think. And everyone's saying the right things. But is the program in better hands with Pelphrey than it was with Heath? That's not an easy question to answer. Arkansas may come to regret its decision.

Of course, the firing/hiring situation is even worse in pro sports than in the college ranks. Where else is a coach fired after a 14-2 NFL season like San Diego's Marty Schottenheimer, who was replaced with Norv "he's never performed well as a head coach" Turner after last season.

While things are a bit sunnier in San Diego now after two consecutive wins put the Chargers at 3-3 and tied for the AFC West lead, it can't be overlooked that Turner's staff has suffered as many losses as Schottenheimer's did — including the playoffs — all last year. With the same players. We'll have to wait to see how this one turns out.

That completes the history lesson portion of this column. Now it's time for the advice section, addressed to general managers/athletic directors:

1. Never fire a coach unless you have at least two good candidates in mind and you're 90 percent sure one of them will take the job. The exception, of course, is if the coach you're firing has won, like, 30 percent of his games. Then you can't do much worse.

2. Same as No. 1.

3. Don't let an angry fan base or media influence you into dumping a coach when you have no clue who will jump into the lava to save your team.

4. In college sports, give a coach four years — and three recruiting classes — to prove himself. In the pros, give him at least two years.

All general managers and athletic directors should follow the example of Joe Dumars, the Detroit Pistons president of basketball operations. In 2003 Dumars dumped coach Rick Carlisle despite back-to-back division titles and 50-win seasons and Detroit's first birth in the conference finals since 1991.

Sounds insane, right? Well, it wasn't simply because Dumars already knew he had Larry Brown in the bag to become Detroit's next coach. He was 99 percent sure Brown — one of the greatest basketball coaches of all time despite his vagabond tendencies — would step in and take the Pistons one step further than Carlisle.

Sure enough, "L.B." led the Pistons to the 2004 championship. Just like that.

After losing in the NBA Finals in 2005, however, Dumars — feeling pressure from owner Bill Davidson — let Brown, who had been talking to Cleveland about their GM position during Detroit's postseason run, go on his way, replacing him with Flip Saunders.

Saunders has received plenty of heat for failing to get the Pistons back to the Finals in his first two years. Fans have called for his head, for a new coach. But Dumars has stood pat this time. And with good reason.

There is no better available coach out there. No one who could do a better job than Saunders has. Joe-D knows how to run his team.

Other GMs should watch how his organization flourishes and take notes.

There's always an air of excitement when a new coach takes over a team. Yes, there was even a hint of verve in Kansas City when Hillman was introduced. The new man in town talks about taking the team in a "new direction."

But in many cases, that new direction is no better than where the previous coach was headed. Prudence is the key word here.

It should be used anytime an AD/GM is chomping at the bit to move in that new direction.

They should know what that direction is before making the turn.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Rockies can thank Gwynn Jr. for improbable hot streak


Tony Gwynn must be so proud of his son, Tony Gwynn Jr. (As long as he can put his San Diego allegiance to the side for a minute).

If not for his boy, the Hall-of-Famer wouldn't have gotten to commentate on one of the greatest stories baseball has witnessed in years.

The elder Gwynn is an analyst for TBS, which broadcasted the National League Championship Series. On Monday Gwynn, among others, witnessed an amazing spectacle in a chilly Mile High City. When precocious rookie shortstop Troy Tulowitzki threw out Arizona's sliding Eric Byrnes, the Colorado Rockies were headed to the World Series.

Yes, the Colorado Rockies. For the first time in the franchise's history.

Now Colorado has eight days off before traveling to either Boston or Cleveland for the World Series. The Rockies should use the 192 approximate hours to call the younger Gwynn and offer thanks. If not for him, there wouldn't be pandemonium in the streets of Denver. There wouldn't be a historic 21 wins in 22 games. There would just be Broncos talk in the football-crazy city.

Oh, thank heavens for Tony Gwynn Jr., religious general manager Dan O'Dowd must be thinking.

The day was Saturday, Sept. 29, and the setting was Milwaukee's Miller Park. The Brewers had nothing to play for. The night before their postseason hopes had been dashed when their loss to the Padres combined with the Cubs' win over the Reds had clinched the NL Central for America's most beloved loser. The Brewers' dream season was over. They'd have to wait until next year.

The Padres, on the other hand, needed just a single win to clinch the NL Wild Card. Their win on Friday spliced with Colorado's loss to Arizona had them up two games on the Rockies with two to play.

And then they were within a single strike of the playoffs. The bubbly was ready in the visitor's clubhouse. In Denver, the Rockies who played later that night were prepared for the inevitable: another missed playoffs, their 12th in a row.

But then one moment in time, one sharp crack of the bat, one arc of the ball — changed everything. Everything.

Gwynn Jr., in his only at-bat against his dad's former team, laced the game-tying triple in the bottom of the ninth inning. Two frames later the Brewers got the game-winning hit for a 4-3 victory...

And the rest is history. History in the making, I should say.

Another Colorado win and San Diego loss the following afternoon set up a one-game playoff at Coors Field. Then, on that Monday night, magic seemed to be in the air as the Rockies rallied with three runs off baseball's all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, for a thrilling, exhilarating, never-leave-your-seat-for-the-bathroom 9-8, 13-inning victory.

Little did the Rockies know, that wouldn't be their most exciting Monday of October.

What followed was a sweep over the high-octane Phillies, which made the naysayers realize just how good this Colorado pitching staff is. Then came the four-game sweep of the Diamondbacks, when everything seemed — and did — go right for the Rockies.

As a sportswriter, I'm schooled not to throw out cliches such as "team of destiny," but this bunch of youngsters fits the name way to well. Given the opportunity to play in October, this team embraced it. And, needless to say, have made the most of it.

But the players never dwelled on their success. Never thought about it too much. As NLCS MVP Matt Holliday said, most of the clubhouse talk has revolved around the well-being of everyone's fantasy football teams.

When the players took the field each night, however, they were all business, and they played about as flawlessly as a team can play. They weren't spectacular. They didn't fit the bill of past Rockies teams — lots of hitting, little pitching. No, this team — over the past three weeks — has been the paragon of a winning baseball team.

Stellar starting pitching. Great relief pitching. Timely, clutch hitting. And, not to be forgotten, tremendously sound fielding.

The Diamondbacks were not far behind the Rockies in all four games. It was just a big hit here, an Arizona error there, a great play by Tulowitzki here (he made about 27 difficult plays from his position at shortstop), a Manny Corpas save there.

As is usually the case when a team advances in October, there wasn't a star. Rather, every player who stepped on the field contributed, such as Seth Smith, who hit the pinch-hit, two-run blooper down the left field line Monday night that gave Colorado a 2-1 lead it wouldn't relinquish.

For much of the 21-of-22 streak, the Rockies have downplayed their accomplishment. When asked about it, they've shook their heads and smiled. It's unexplainable, they explain. It's just one game piled on top of another.

But you could sense on Monday, after Holliday's three-run home run in the same inning as Smith's hit gave Colorado a 6-1 lead, that the Rockies were starting to understand the enormity of their feat. They could no longer act as if things were normal, as if they were involved in "just another game." They knew they were making history.

It showed in their impatiences the rest of the night. Hurried at-bats. Poor swings. They didn't come close to scoring another run. And it almost came back to bite them, as Arizona cut the score to 6-4 in the eighth and brought the tying run to the plate in each of the last two inning.

But in the end it was the Rockies, once again — although nervously this time — adding another win onto their amazing run, a win that will stand a little taller than the rest. A win that has them four more wins from championship glory on this incredible journey.

The most improbable of journeys. The type of journey which is why people follow sports. Why it's never smart to leave a ballpark early or give up on a team prematurely (even if they need help from another team to make their dreams come true).

I could name all the records that the Rockies have set, but I'm sure they've already been ingrained in your noggin. The one that stands out to me is that Colorado is the first team in baseball's long history to reach the World Series after trailing by two games in the playoff race with — yep — a lone two games remaining.

It could be said that on Sept. 29 the Rockies were down to their final strike, one whiff away from another October on the golf course. But then Tony Gwynn Jr. saved their season, lifting them into the air of possibility.

And they haven't come down since.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Parity isn't just the NFL's recipe


Saturday night was a "Bar Night."

As in find a large bar with at least 31 TVs displaying multiple college football games and give your neck a workout straining to watch 14 games simultaneously — while drinking a beer and eating some chicken wings.

It's not quite heavy lifting, but it ain't exactly a relaxing night on the town either.

On this particular Saturday, the workout was well worth it. And if Saturday's results were any indication, each afternoon/night of college football the rest of this season will be just as intriguing.

OK, a quick rundown is in order:

Before Saturday's slate, the top two teams in the country were LSU and California. Ohio State was No. 3

By the end of the night, the Buckeyes were back on their 2006 regular season perch — the top spot in the country. The Tigers and Bears had both lost, but here's the caveat — neither can be ruled out of the national championship race.

LSU is ranked No. 4 in Sunday's first rendition of the BCS Standings. While Cal is a distant 12th, what's to say that 10 of the teams in front of it won't loss in the next seven weeks? Heck, just six of the preseason's top 12 remain in the current top 12. Michigan, the preseason No. 5, just returned to the No. 25 spot after four weeks in purgatory.

Any one-loss team from a major conference has a right to think it's in the national title hunt. Two weeks ago Sooners fans were devastated after an upset loss to Colorado — which began the cavalcade of surprises we've witnessed the past three weeks — dropped Oklahoma to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 and basically, they thought, out of the national title race.

Um, two Sundays later the Sooners are ranked No. 4 by the Associated Press and are No. 5 in the BCS. If they win out, I'm saying they're in the BCS title game.

As a Michigander, I have to consider where the Wolverines would be had they beaten Oregon — their second loss. If, let's hypothesize, their only loss was to Appalachian State. As crazy as this sounds, I think they'd be in the thick of this national title race called "Survivor: On college campuses nationwide."

The feel-good story of this mess is the Bulls. No, not the Chicago Bulls — although they're looking good this preseason. If you're unfamiliar with them, you need to Wikipedia the "South Florida Bulls" because they're your No. 2 team in the BCS.

Note: As much as I enjoy spewing humor out the left side of my mouth, the above is a true statement.

In the preseason, the Bulls (6-0) were ranked 35th by the AP behind teams such as Miami and Georgia Tech (4-3) and Oregon State (3-3 after its 31-28 shocker at Cal). Now they are — for the sake of redundancy and emphasis — No. 2 in the BCS as well as the AP.

In case you are wondering, South Florida had never been ranked in the BCS' top 25 before Sunday.

Not to be overlooked is Boston College, which stands at No. 3 in the BCS and No. 2 — ahead of the Bulls — in the USA Today/Coaches Poll. The Eagles (7-0) were No. 28 in the first AP poll.

Let's make this educational. Let's dissect the data, if you will:

1. In case we weren't sure, it is now quite transparent that the preseason polls (I mean lazy predictions by writers who haven't done any research) are garbage. And that's being kind. Want an example? Wisconsin was No. 7 in the AP poll back in August. After getting embarrassed 38-7 by offensively challenged Penn State Saturday, the Badgers (5-2) aren't getting any love from the voters.

2. Like in the NFL, parity now rules college football. Any team can play with any team. And I don't care if it's a Division I-AA school vs. a Super Subdivision superpower (or whatever teams are characterized these complicated days).

Two Sundays ago Michigan fans were displeased with several aspects of the Wolverines' ugly 28-16 victory over Northwestern, which just two weeks earlier had lost to dismal Duke, giving the Blue Devils their first win over a major college team in 28 tries and their first road victory since 2003.

I had a different take on the win. Yes, it was as ugly as Drew Gooden's hair puff on the back of his neck. But it was a win. Take it and move on. The past few weeks have proved that now, more than ever, no games are played before they're, err, played.

As Chris Berman might say, "That's why you play the game."

Anything — like, say, Stanford winning at mighty USC — is plausible. Powerhouse teams can no longer show up at a stadium, get dressed and go whoop their opponent. Everyone — even Florida International and its NCAA-leading 18 consecutive losses — can win any particular game.

Don't believe me? Fine. Just wait until the next David stones Goliath. It'll happen, probably sooner rather than later. In this age of reduced scholarships and kids wanting to "prove" themselves and make a name for themselves at smaller, less talent-heavy schools, upsets are inevitable.

Will we have more Saturdays like the past three, ripe with upsets galore? Maybe not. It'd be hard to facsimile the craziness we've seen.

But the esoteric will happen. I'll bet my Rolex on that. Never like before, teams need to remain level-headed. Bulls' fans should leave the goalposts alone for now. Because before they know it, they could be straddled with two losses and back out of the rankings.

Just visit a cavernous sports bar next Saturday, stretch your neck, and witness the madness.

Week 6 NFL picks


I'm back. After a one-week hiatus, which was a time for me to refocus and gather my senses after a 5-8 week (37-24 overall).

I'm hoping my change in scenery will result in a better week. With that said, my prediction for "The Duel in Dallas," and — oh, yeah — those other games, too.

Tennessee (3-1) 17, at Tampa Bay (3-2) 13: Possibly the best game of the week outside of, well, you know. Bucs, down to their third-string RB, fall just short.

At Baltimore (3-2) 20, St. Louis (0-5) 7: Rams, minus their starting RB and QB, aren't getting that first win this week.

At Cleveland (2-3) 24, Miami (0-5) 14: Fins will tie the franchise record for worst start.

Cincinnati (1-3) 28, at Kansas City (2-3) 24: Must-win game for the Bengals. They better show up for this one.

At Chicago (2-3) 16, Minnesota (1-3) 10: Bears defense starts playing up to its potential.

Philly (1-3) 21, at NY Jets (1-4) 17: A win-or-forget-about-the-playoffs type of battle. Should be ugly.

Washington (3-1) 20, at Green Bay (4-1) 17: No one's really talking about these Redskins, but they're quietly becoming one of the NFC's best.

At Jacksonsville (3-1) 17, Houston (3-2) 16: Who would have thought the AFC South would be the NFL's premier conference?

At San Diego (2-3) 38, Oakland (2-2) 21: Yeah, the Chargers offense is heating up at the expense of the Raaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiders.

At Arizona (3-2) 27, Carolina (3-2) 13: Vinny Testaverde gets the start for the Panthers, and even the Cardinals are licking their chops.

At Seattle (3-2) 24, New Orleans (0-4): Obviously a must-win game for the Saints, but Seahawks always find a way to win home games late.

At NY Giants (3-2) 28, Atlanta (1-4) 14: Word has it the Falcons are devoid of their starting tackles. And the Giants had, like, 12 sacks against the Eagles a couple weeks back. This could mark the end of Joey Harrington's career.

New England (5-0) 31, at Dallas (5-0) 21: Pats win the DID basically because they have zero weaknesses. They'll make less mistakes than the 'Boys, and people will start discussing 16-0.

I'm out. Enjoy the DID, old quarterbacks and soon-to-be 0-6 teams.

Friday, October 12, 2007

Life on Tobacco Road


I arrived in The Triangle on Monday, but I wasn't officially welcomed until Friday night.

To the common person, Oct. 12 is just a normal Friday. The end of the work week. A time to relax, perhaps sip a few adult beverages and prepare for the weekend's activities.

In Chapel Hill, however — and, I'm sure, on other select campuses throughout the country — the night of Oct. 12 was special. The air was cooler, the intensity was palpable.

Yep, it was the first night of college basketball practice. The first chance for Tar Heels fans to see their beloved 'Heels.

There's an important football game in Chapel Hill Saturday — a matchup between rivals No. 7 South Carolina (led by locally hated Steve Spurrier) and UNC. There's been plenty of talk about it on the radio waves around here.

But even as just a five-day resident of Tobacco Road, it's become pretty clear to me just how important college hoops is — even more than three weeks before the first game that counts.

The Dean Smith Center was packed to capacity — that's approximately 21,750 fans decked out in sky blue — as UNC alum and popular "SportsCenter" anchor Stuart Scott MCd "Late Night with Roy (Williams)," the 'Heels comedic opening practice of the promising season.

Fans from courtside to the upper nosebleeds sat through three hours of entertainment, which began with some yawn-inducing skits by the women's team. But when the men's team was introduced one by one, with each player walking down an aisle to a rousing standing ovation, I got chills.

I thought to myself, How are these players able to stay level-headed with all the love heaped upon them? How do they deal with the pressure? Or the expectations, considering that many pundits consider UNC the No. 1 team in the country entering the season?

Coming from Ann Arbor, I know how attached a city can become to a college team. Heck, 110,000-plus fans pack Michigan Stadium for a game against cupcake Eastern Michigan.

But it's just a different feeling down here. These 19-year-old basketball players can't hide behind a helmet — or an offensive line. They're exposed on the court. Their names will be etched into UNC's fine history.

As Tyler Hansbrough, North Carolina's potential national player of the year, said during Thursday's media day, UNC's tradition is one of the program's key recruiting tools. Both UNC and Duke sell themselves. These programs don't recruit players who shy away from the spotlight.

Which explains why no Tar Heel was hesitant to perform goofy dances and skits on the Dean Dome's floor Friday night. There was shaking, strutting, joking and — finally — playing in the form of a rather dramatic 37-37 tie between the white and blue team.

Even though many of the fans had slipped out by the game's end, I found myself sitting on the edge of my nosebleed seat as Ty Lawson's final-second shot clanged off the back iron, icing the meaningless tie.

I couldn't help it. It may still be mid-October — what we call in Ann Arbor the middle of football season. In places like Boston, postseason baseball grabs all the headlines.

But down here, on Tobacco Road, people are already talking basketball. Seriously.

Which makes we wonder, What will the atmosphere be come March?

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Thinking about baseball


My trip down here to Tobacco Road, to the Research Triangle, provided me with a lot of thinking time.

Approximately 13 hours alone in my Honda Civic. As good as my Journey CD is, I couldn't listen to it 44 consecutive times. I had to put on my thinking cap.

And while baseball isn't more than an afterthought in this basketball-crazy environment, it consumed my mind for much of the trip.

Here are a few thoughts as we prepare for the league championship series:

Only in New York
So it is very likely Joe Torre will not be back as Yankees manager next year after 12 extremely successful years. The Boss said during New York's series with Cleveland that anything short of a series win would probably mean the end of Torre's tenure.

Crazy, I thought -- only-in-New-York crazy.

Let's see... Torre's Yankees have never missed the playoffs and won four World Series. Of course, it's a what-have-ya-done-for-me-lately society, but any other team in the majors would be happy with making the playoffs every year (not to mention winning the division every year except this year).

Poor Joe.

On a related side note, I recently finished watching "The Bronx is Burning," ESPN's original show about the flamboyant 1977 Yankees. The show, which received rave reviews, portrayed an inexorable George Steinbrenner constantly on the brink of firing quirky manager Billy Martin.

Martin barely held onto his job and went on to lead the Yanks to an improbably
world championship that year and the next. But The Boss wasconstantly breathing down his neck, questioning every personnel decision he made.

So maybe Torre didn't have it that bad after all. He's the longest-tenured
Yankees manager since Casey Stengel held the job from 1949 through 1960.

And Stengel didn't have to deal with a certain Boss running the show.

A good start for the Tigers
The Detroit Tigers got their very important off-season running in the right
direction this week by picking up the $13 million option on catcher Ivan Rodriguez.

Is "Pudge" worth $13 million at this stage in his career? No way. But name five catchers in the game better than Pudge right now -- especially defensively and calling games.

Tough task, isn't it?

The reason keeping Pudge was the right decision is because his replacement would undoubtedly be a downgrade. Detroit wants to win now. It's not building for the
future. It's got the pieces to repeat that magical run of a year ago, and Pudge (even with his putrid OBP of .294 this season) is one of the pieces.

The most telling number that demonstrates his importance to the Tigers is that the team's pitching staff's ERA was 1.00 lower with Rodriguez catching compared to Mike Rabelo catching.

The Tigers still have plenty of work to do before pitchers and catchers report. The most pressing issue now becomes finding an All Star-caliber shortstop to replace Carlos Guillen, who's moving to first base.

Atlanta's Edgar Renteria seems like a good bet if Detroit can pull off a trade with the Braves. And then there's Alex Rodriguez, or "A-Rod."

Many Tigers fans are quick to rule out trying to sign the soon-to-be American League MVP, but before they shun the idea, they should consider who exactly they're shunning.

Forget his playoff numbers. During the regular season, A-Rod is the best player in baseball -- hands down. If owner Mike Ilitch is willing to dole out hundreds of millions of dollars, the Tigers should pursue A-Rod, who is expected to opt out of his current Yankees contract.

You just never know what might happen.

There's still baseball
Because of how quickly the first round series were completed, we've experienced this three-day window devoid of games and filled with speculation. Fortunately, this period is almost over.

Colorado-Arizona begins Thursday and Cleveland-Boston commences Friday.

Have the playoffs lost a little spice with the quick exits of the Yankees and Cubs? Sure, they have. But these two series appear very competitive (then again, I would have said the same about the first-round matchups).

As is usually the case in October, pitching ruled the first round. The Rockies shut down the Phillies' high-octane lineup and the Indians pitchers were able to limit the
damage caused by the Yankees. So forget the bats for a moment -- these two series will be decided by pitching.

Which is why I'll take the Diamondbacks and Indians in two series that stretch six or seven games.

While no one will argue that Colorado has more punch in its lineup than Arizona, the D'Backs -- led by Brandon Webb -- have the pitchers to quiet the Rockies bats (even at Coors Field).

Cleveland and Boston's top two starters are a wash, but I like Cleveland's Nos. 3 and 4 guys over Boston's, and the Indians' middle relief has proven more steady of late.

So I'll take Arizona in 6 and Cleveland in 7.

Giving the D'Backs a chance to win two World Series in seven years (while the Yanks have none during that period) and the Indians an opportunity to win their first championship since 1948.

Yes, minus the Yanks and Cubs, there are still myriad storylines left in October.

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Stay tuned...

Dear Readers,
It is transition time. I am departing Thursday morning for Durham, N.C. and a new life. Due to a three-day stopover in Washington, I'll be taking a brief hiatus from writing.

However, I will return next week with plenty to write about — the playoffs, a big weekend in college football, Week 5 of the NFL and, of course, any other interesting developments in the sports world.

Until then, so long. Next time you hear from me I'll be a southerner.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

MLB should consider instant replay


Padres fans, I'm sure, were fuming after their team's 9-8, 13-inning loss to Colorado Monday night, which officially ended their season.

Not only did their all-time saves leader, Trevor Hoffman, blow his second consecutive save opportunity — giving up three runs in the final inning — but the game-winning run didn't actually score.

Replays showed that the Rockies' Matt Holliday didn't touch the plate after diving in headfirst to send Coors Field's spectators into a Rocky Mountain frenzy. As Padres catcher Michael Barrett, who originally dropped the ball on the throw from right fielder Brian Giles, moved to tag the lying-face-down Holliday, home plate umpire Tim McClelland made a delayed safe call.

Game over. Rockies fly to Philly. Padres go home.

San Diego fans, however, have no beef this morning. The safe call was justice for a Rockies team that had to play four more innings than it should have. That's because another call was blown way back in the bottom of the seventh inning.

With Colorado leading 6-5, Garrett Atkins blasted a fly ball to deep left field which appeared — thanks to numerous slow-motion replays — to sail above the fence then ricochet off a wheelchair and back onto the field. The umpires failed to originally rule the hit a home run, and a few minutes of deliberation didn't change their minds. San Diego got out of the inning unscathed and tied the the score 6-6 an inning later.

The final score should have been 7-6 Colorado in nine innings. The Rockies shouldn't have had to use 10 pitchers in the winner-take-all-playoff less than 40 hours before Wednesday's first round game at Philadelphia.

Which is why I suggest for upcoming seasons a replay review system.

This would be nothing like the system used by the NFL or college football. You wouldn't see Joe Torre throwing a red flag out of the dugout (as much as he'd enjoy that, I'm sure). What I suggest is a system similar to the one used in the NBA, in which buzzer-beating shots are reviewed as well as 3-pointers that like like they might be 2-pointers.

I don't advocate reviewing balls and strikes or close plays at first base. The only plays that should be reviewed are those like the home run Monday and the final play at the plate Monday:

— Umpires can review any fly ball that is a borderline home run.

— Umpires can review whether a fly ball down a foul line landed fair or foul.

— Umpires can review any close play at home plate that ends a game.

— Reviews are asked for by the substitute umpire present at every game.

Those are three instances that happen very rarely. The majority of games will happen without an umpire review. The games will not be significantly lengthened.

But players — not to mention, teams — won't be robbed of home runs by umpires who are several hundred feet away from the fence, and games won't end on a missed call by the home plate umpire.

I know that umpires are very proud men who dislike being questioned. It seems that with each passing year their tolerance for players arguing with them lessens. They won't be in favor of an instant replay system.

But a system as suggested above wouldn't take the game out of the umpires' hands. Still 99.99 percent of the calls would be at their discretion, and reviewed plays wouldn't be instigated by managers, but rather by the substitute umpire.

Thankfully on Monday it was an eye for an eye. The Rockies got robbed, only to have their merchandise returned to them.

But what would people be saying right now had Hoffman not blown the save? I'm sure people in Colorado would be complaining about the missed call instead of celebrating the Rockies' first playoff appearance since 1995.

All that's needed is a small fix.