Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Michigan needs to toughen up


Dear friends who haven't seen a second of Michigan basketball this season:

Let me update you on the state of affairs in Ann Arbor during John Beilein's first go-around as coach of the Wolverines.

After losing 77-64 to Boston College Wednesday in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, Michigan is 3-4. In its defense, Michigan's losses have been to ranked teams Georgetown and Butler, the ACC's Eagles and strong mid-major Western Kentucky.

But, I digress, they're losses, and at a place like Michigan, a loss is a loss.

Here's Michigan's biggest problem. It's not tough. It doesn't rebound well. And it's streaky.

OK, actually those are three problems. Again, I digress.

In Beilein's complicated offense — where four players are stationed on the perimeter — the Wolverines shoot loads of 3-pointers. When they're making them, like in the first half Wednesday, they're never out of a game regardless of what happens on the other end of the floor.

Michigan trailed just 34-33 at halftime after making 5-of-10 triples.

But when the Wolverines struggle from behind the arc, like they did in the second half (4-of-15), games against good opponents tend to get away from them. That was the case Wednesday, when the Eagles pulled away in the final eight minutes.

Another problem is rebounding. To begin with, Beilein's 1-3-1 zone is not privy to rebounding acuity, but that's no excuse for getting dominated 50-32 on the boards, as was the case Wednesday.

Boston College left Michigan in the dust in a mere 2-minute stretch. First, there was 6-foot-1 point guard Tyrese Rice stealing an offensive rebound and scoring for a 56-52 lead. Then Michigan's Manny Harris tried an ill-advised baseball pass, which was intercepted by the Eagles.

Seconds later, Biko Paris was fouled. He made the first and missed the second — which was snared by BC's Corey Raji.

Raji proceeded to put the ball back up and in and draw a foul. His free throw made it 60-52, just like that.

Three more baskets — one aided by another offensive rebound — and the Eagles were sitting comfortable, up 66-52.

Of course another thing you — and the people who decided to leave early after the Eagles' 12-0 burst — should know is that these Wolverines can never be counted out of a game. On Wednesday, the late 3-pointers didn't fall, and a made one was waved off because of an offensive foul.

But there were a plethora of open looks, and Michigan had many opportunities to get back into the game. And there are several Wolverines who can shoot the three (five made at least one).

So there you have it, friends. The current countenance of the 2007-08 Wolverines.

Are they a great team?

Definitely not.

Are they a good team?

Not yet.

Are they an exciting bunch to watch?

You betcha. Considering that Michigan, despite looking far from stout defensively (especially in allowing the multi-dimensional Rice to score 28 points, including five 3-pointers), blocked nine shots, there is potential to build on defensively.

Michigan just needs to learn how to close out on 3-point shooters (B.C. was 8-for-14 from downtown) and, yes, limit second-chance opportunities. Oh, and there were a few times when the Eagles shredded the 1-3-1 setup by passing over it for easy layups.

Yep, these Wolverines have a lot to work on. But as the television announcers pointed out, plenty is being worked on during each and every Michigan practice. These kids should be granted an additional major in "Beilein's System."

But until the hard labor starts translating into quality wins, it will remain difficult to judge the progress this team is making.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

These Blue Devils are scary good


DURHAM — First off, let me just say that there is no experience akin to watching a game inside Cameron Indoor Stadium. Not only is the product on the floor usually good, the atmosphere is unbelievable. Fellow writers weren't kidding when they described the noise level inside Cameron as "earsplitting" at times during Duke's 82-58 route of 20th-ranked Wisconsin Tuesday night.

And now (read: segue) to the basketball.

This year's Duke team is not just good. Not just an NCAA Tournament team. No, it's a national title contender. Seriously.

There were questions prior to Tuesday's game about how Duke's undersized lineup would handle Wisconsin's trio of 6-foot-10-plus trees. The resounding answer is, just fine.

Offensively, Duke decimated the Badgers in several ways. In the first half, the Blue Devils shot a lot of 3-pointers ... and made a lot of 3-pointers. Using dribble-drive penetration against the slower Badgers, the Blue Devils found open shooters early and often to connect on 9-of-16 triples and build a 48-25 halftime advantage.

Freshman Taylor King was especially efficient, knocking down four of his five 3-pointers in the half. He has unlimited range and, at 6-foot-6, can shoot over most defenders. He's quickly allowing Duke fans to forget about J.J. Redick, the school's all-time leader for 3-pointers.

In the second half, with Wisconsin closing out more on Duke's outside shooters, the Blue Devils spread the floor and drove right by the Badgers. Senior captain forward DeMarcus Nelson, who stands just 6-4, made a couple of nice, twisting drives to the hoop.

And he made the loudest statement of the night, slamming down a one-handed dunk over 6-7 Marcus Landry on a fastbreak.

The play was indicative of how the Blue Devils soared above the Badgers all night. Despite its size advantage, Wisconsin held just a 42-40 rebounding edge. Smaller Duke players rose up to reject five Wisconsin shots.

And most importantly, Duke came away with nearly every loose ball. It was quicker than Wisconsin and, often times, it was stronger as well, stripping the ball from the grasp of a Badger.

All this adds up to a team that doesn't have any noticeable weaknesses.

Duke has great depth (no player regularly plays more than 30 minutes). Duke has balanced scoring (after Greg Paulus' game-high 18 points, five players have led the Blue Devils in scoring during their 7-0 start).

Duke loves to run, and can finish on transition. But as we saw in the second half Tuesday, it can also slow the game down and score in the halfcourt. It has several players capable of getting to the basket and scoring or creating for their teammates.

Defensively, Duke — with its playing rotation of at least eight players — can tirelessly pressure its opponents up and down the 94 feet, causing turnovers and generally keeping opponents from getting comfortable in their offenses.

The Blue Devils forced Wisconsin into 18 turnovers, which they turned into 31 easy points. Ten of those miscues were steals by Duke.

And, as witnessed by Nelson and 6-5 guard Jon Scheyer leading Duke with nine rebounds apiece (a career-high for Scheyer), everyone helps out on the glass, alleviating any disadvantage Duke faces because of its lack of a formidable player taller than 6-8.

What does all of the above add up to? Well, did you see the game?

If so, you know that Duke is back near the top of the college basketball ranks. There will be no No. 6 seed this season, and there more than likely will not be a first-round loss.

What there will be is plenty more craziness inside Cameron.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Let's talk sports

Here's the frustrating thing about sports and writing about sports: There are certain times during the year when there are so many games I feel I must watch, there is little time left to scribe about what I see.

Especially when I'm visiting relatives, as was the case for most of last week. And now, as I sit down to write about everything circumventing my head, my eyes keep wandering to the television screen in front of me, which is displaying one of the most intriguing games of the season — Miami 0, Pittsburgh 0.

In the fourth quarter. Of course, the offensive paucity is partly a result of the torn-up field in Pittsburgh that resembles a giant green-and-brown sponge.

Very entertaining indeed. Big Ben goes down!

But let me proceed. There's a lot to talk about outside of the Rain Game.

Let's talk college football

I was really tempted to go to a movie Friday afternoon, "American Gangster" for the curious.

But I couldn't draw myself off my aunt's couch. The reason?

The-Friday-after-Thanksgiving college football.

While my cousins watched gangsters cap each other, or something like that, I sat intrigued as No. 1 LSU and Arkansas traded punch after punch.

It was 7-6 at halftime, when I turned the game on after my sister relinquished the TV (after, I must add, watching approximately eight straight episodes of "The OC").

Then things got flat-out nutty.

Arkansas went up 14-6 on a 73-yard run by Heisman Trophy canddidate Darren McFadden.

LSU's offense awoke to tie the score 14-14.

Another Razorbacks RB dashed 65 yards. 21-14.

Back came the Tigers' suddenly efficient offense. 21-21.

After the defenses briefly stiffened, the multi-faceted McFadden — who played most of the game from the shotgun — faked a run by ducking forward, took a step backward, and found a wide open receiver down the middle. 28-21.

Back facing the prospect of that devastating second loss, the Tigers responded, driving down the field, converting an interesting 4th-and-1 on a swing pass, and then scoring the tying touchdown on another fourth down. 28-28.

Catch ya breath, we're just getting started.

The offenses went back and forth through three overtimes, with the Razorbacks making good on a 4th-and-10 in the opening overtime to keep their upset hopes alive. Then little-used QB Casey Dick fired a perfect spiral down the right sideline to tightly covered fullback Peyton Hillis, who warded off the defender to tie the game ... again.

After trading scores again in the second overtime, the drama built with the onset of the third OT, which is when both teams have to start going for two with each score.

And that's what, ultimately, decided Arkansas' 50-48 shocker in Baton Rouge. After the Razorbacks, behind the inexorable McFadden, marched into the end zone and added the two-pointer, the Tigers went to the air to score in a quick two plays.

I really thought the game was headed for a fourth extra period. The defenses were tired. The offenses were unstoppable. But that's the beauty of the two-point conversion rule. All Arkansas' defense needed was one play, one stop to turn the crowd of 92,000 into a state of bitter disappointment.

Matterral Richardson rose to the occasion. The Arkansas cornerback read the crossing pattern perfectly, cutting in front of the LSU receiver for an easy interception that finally put an end to the greatest, most exciting game of the year.

And a game with huge implications.

Friday's barn-burner was even greater because it meant so much. Because it knocked the Tigers out of the national title picture.

No, the current BCS — or "BS" — system is far from good. It does leave open the door for teams with a legitimate resume to be left out of the national title game.

But it's also great because each regular season game is so meaningful. Institute an eight-team playoff, and LSU (No. 7 in the BCS) is still alive despite Friday's loss. It still has a shot at the national title.

Teams can't afford more than one loss and still have hope of playing for college football's greatest prize. (Except in this nutty season, as 10-2 Georgia — No. 4 in the BCS — could reach the title game via losses by Missouri and West Virginia.) Teams in the weak ACC, such as Boston College, could qualify for an eight-team playoff by winning their conference title game. In this system, they're not even on the national title radar.

It's not great, but it's enjoyable. It makes games like Friday's that more enjoyable.

Saturday's games weren't bad, either. Tennessee's four-overtime victory over Kentucky provided further proof why college football's overtime system trumps the NFL's sudden death, coin toss-winning mess any day. The momentum switched several times, as one team scored only to watch the other guys tie it up.

And ultimately — how great is this? — the game came down to a missed two-point conversion by the Wildcats (similarly to the end of the LSU-Arkansas battle on Friday). Can't create much more drama than that.

After enjoying Chicago's best Mexican food at Oak Park's "New Rebozo," I caught the second half of the weekend's biggest game, the border war between Missouri and Kansas. And watching Missouri's Chase Daniel for the first time this season, I was very, very impressed.

As Kansas' offense tried to get the Jayhawks back into the game with touchdown drive after touchdown drive, Daniel wouldn't let it happen, connecting on pinpoint pass after pinpoint pass to keep the Tigers comfortably ahead until the final minutes — when Kansas' final touchdown cut its deficit to 34-28.

If the diminutive Daniel — 6 feet, 0 inches — can lead the Tigers past Oklahoma Saturday and into the national title game, he should be strongly considered for the Heisman Trophy (although considering that the trophy winners of recent memory have lost in the title game — including Troy Smith last January — Daniel might want to stay away from the trophy). Anyway, I hope voters haven't already mailed in their ballots. Let Daniel make his final pitch.

Finally, I have to nitpick. After a Missouri sack created a safety, giving the Tigers the final margin of 36-28, the game wasn't completely over. The Jayhawks could have tried an onside kick from their 20-yard line instead of booting it deep like they did. They could have tried for the miracle ending. But they didn't. Just thought I'd point that out. After watching the Trinity Miracle a myriad of times last month, I'm a believer of the Anything Can Happen Doctrine.

Let's talk NFL (and, by the way, the Steelers just scored to win 3-0)

I can't comment too much here, considering I was in a car from 8:30 a.m. CST until 11:59 p.m. EST Sunday driving from Chicago to Durham, but here are a few random thoughts.

There's no doubt the 6-5 Lions are much improved this season, and despite three straight losses, they're still in position to snag the second wild card spot. Don't expect it, however. They played over their heads the first eight games, and now the schedule is daunting — with games against 10-1 Dallas and Green Bay and at San Diego remaining.

Don't expect to see Detroit in the postseason. Seven or eight wins is more realistic.

Pundits are saying the Patriots' 31-28 scare against the Eagles might serve as a blueprint for teams unlucky enough to have the Pats on their remaining schedule. While I don't doubt that teams will view Sunday's video in preparing for New England, I think the game will help the Patriots.

No, New England wasn't overlooking Philly. And, no, it didn't lose its focus. It's immune to these common diseases — we know that. But I'm sure Bill Belichick will use the uncharacteristic dropped passes and the porous defense against a second-string quarterback to push his guys this week. And, yes, they'll kill Baltimore next Monday night.

The Patriots' close victory will help them just as much as it hurt them.

As I was driving through Ohio, I picked up the Bengals' game against Tennessee. The hometown radio announcer was clearly excited when Chad Johnson scored a second-quarter touchdown — "Go get it Chad, go get it!" — but no one should have lauded Johnson's celebration.

After making the relatively easy TD catch — his first in five weeks — Johnson ran over to a TV camera and briefly panned the crowd. The obvious result was a 15-yard penalty on the ensuing kickoff for the use of a prop in celebration. Abetted by the free yards, the Titans returned the kickoff to their 42-yard line and waltzed in for a field goal.

Ultimately, the transgression didn't matter, as Johnson (103 yards, three touchdowns, and the franchise's all-time catches record) helped the Bengals (4-7) cruise to a 35-6 win. But for a team that needs to win out to have any chance of reaching the postseason, it was stupid. Every yard matters. There's nothing wrong with a wild celebration as long as it's not at the team's detriment. Johnson's theatrics Sunday don't fit that bill.

Let's talk NBA

I was in Chicago for five days, so can you guess which underachieving team (by a long shot) I'm talking about?

Yes, the 2-10 Bulls. In my NBA preview, I picked the Bulls to make the Eastern Conference finals. Right now, they're far from a playoff team. They're a team that really, really needs Kobe Bryant — because they can't shoot.

Their leading scorer, Ben Gordon, is shooting 36 percent from the field. Their point guard, Kirk Hinrich, is making 35 percent of his shots and 21 percent from 3-point range. Yeah, you can leave him open. And this is a team that's supposed to have frontcourt issues?

My cousin in Chicago is very, very fed up with the Bulls.

On a brighter note, it appears the Celtics' experiment is running nicely. Everyone's getting along and enjoying the fruits of winning. They've won by blowing out teams, and by making last-second shots, as was the case Saturday night when Ray Allen hit a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat Charlotte 96-95.

It's way to early to consider, but the question of whether these Celtics can challenge the 1995-96 Bulls' 72-10 regular season already abounds. My take: Let's wait and see. If they're 45-5 through 50 games, then we can really start talking. More importantly, the Celtics — despite that loss to the 13-3 Magic — are the class of the Eastern Conference. They're as good as advertised.

Let's talk college basketball

I'm starting to fatigue here, so I need some college hoops talk to assist my droopy eyelids.

I got a chance to watch both Duke and North Carolina during my time in Chicago, and I was impressed by both teams. The Blue Devils, behind a balanced offensive attack, beat a very solid Marquette team to win the Maui Invitation and remain undefeated. They have 10 guys who can step up offensively on different nights.

And, lest we forget, they play stingy, turnover-creating defense. Sounds like a recipe for success to me.

The Tar Heels fought off adversity to outlast a feisty BYU team in the Las Vegas Invitational Saturday night. They lost starting point guard Ty Lawson early in the contest and he didn't return. With their playmaker out, and Tyler Hansbrough neutralized by a strong BYU frontline, the Heels turned to a couple of wing players — Danny Green and Wayne Ellington — to lead them to victory.

And they did. Green made a couple of big second-half shots and played stellar defense all night, and Ellington knocked down a 25-footer that turned out to be the key shot in the final minutes.

Additonally, UNC played strong defense down the stretch, allowing just four points in the final seven and a half minutes. We know the Heels can score, but if they can lock down defensively like they did Saturday, they'll be tough to beat the rest of the season.

Oh, I guess the freshmen deserve a mention. Guys such as Eric Gordon (27 ppg, 56 percent shooting for Indiana) and Michael Beasley (27.2 ppg, 15.5 rpg for Kansas State) are quickly erasing from mind the fond memories of Kevin Durant and Greg Oden a year ago. This freshman class is shaping up as possibly the best of all time.

And the youngsters will only improve as the season progresses. Yes, scary.

Lastly, let's talk baseball

I never thought I'd applaud Alex Rodriguez, but kudos to both him and pitcher Kenny Rogers for sidestepping zealous agent Scott Boras in their negotiations with their respective teams. Sure, A-Rod will still make loads of money for the Yankees — at least $270 million over 10 years, and as much as $305 million if he attains all five $6 million bonuses — but he showed a human side in wanting to re-sign with his team to try to win a World Series.

In Rogers' case, Boras was the only obstacle in the way of him re-signing with the Tigers. That guy is manipulative, no doubt about it. But now Rogers has freed himself of Boras, and I fully expect him to pitch for Detroit next year (although — have I said this before? — anything can happen).

Something that did happen recently was the indictment of a guy named Barry Bonds for perjury and obstruction of justice. Too bad this didn't come down before Bonds hit No. 756 last August.

At least now Bonds' career is likely over. And hopefully sometime in the next five years his name will be out of the news. Bonds is a great player, but he brought this indictment upon himself by allegedly lying to the grand jury. If he had told the truth back in 2003, there wouldn't be an indictment.

Now, after all the celebratory home runs and sellout crowds in San Francisco, the ugliness begins. Bring it on. Bonds deserves it.

And on that pleasant note, my eyes are officially closed. That's enough sports talk for one night.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Week 11 NFL picks


My picks were so defective last week, I hopped on a plane and spent two days in Philadelphia without cable TV or the internet to recuperate.

OK, that's a partial lie. The trip to Philly was a planned visit to see my grandma, but it did serve to help me kind of forget about the sports world for a couple days. Instead, I read an entire Walter Mosley novel and dined in some fine Northeast Philly restaurants.

It was a good time.

But now it's back to business. Coming off that dismal 6-6 showing, which put me at 78-48 overall, I have to reprove myself as an adequate picker of NFL games. With that said, I'm going to stop blabbering and make my picks.

Here goes:

At Green Bay (8-1) 28, Carolina (4-5) 10: I can't wait until a Thanksgiving Day game involving the Lions that actually means something when they host these Packers.

At Detroit (6-3) 24, N.Y. Giants (6-3) 21: Speaking of the Lions, this is a statement game. They have to show, after their flop in Arizona last week, that they're a playoff team. A loss here and a loss to the Packers, and they're just 6-5.

Tampa Bay (5-4) 17, at Atlanta (3-6) 13: As hard as it is to believe, if the Falcons win, they'd be just a game back of the Bucs in the division. But, no, I'm not picking a Joey Harrington-led team in a big game.

Cleveland (5-4) 26, at Baltimore (4-5) 12: Despite the loss to Pittsburgh last week, I was impressed with the way the Browns kept fighting back. That will help them this week.

At Cincinnati (3-6) 20, Arizona (4-5) 14: I know, I know. I said last week I'd never pick the Bengals again. But the Cardinals can't win on the road. Seriously, it's a proven fact.

At Jacksonville (6-3) 19, San Diego (5-4) 16: This is a pure guess. I have no idea who'll win. This could be the best game of the day.

At Seattle (5-4) 17, Chicago (4-5) 12: Even minus Shaun Alexander, the Seahawks are tough to beat at home.

At Minnesota (3-6) 18, Oakland (2-7) 13: Even minus Adrian Peterson, the Vikings have enough to dispose of the lowly Raiders in Daunte Culpepper's return to Minnesota.

At Houston (4-5) 28, New Orleans (4-5) 27: Huge game for both teams. The Texans need it a little more and make a statement at home.

At Indianapolis (7-2) 27, Kansas City (4-5) 10: Even without Dwight Freeney, the Colts will harass Brodie Croyle, who makes his first start of the season for the Chiefs.

At Philadelphia (4-5) 28, Miami (0-9) 14: The Eagles have been up-and-down, but even their worst showing won't equal a win for the Dolphins.

Pittsburgh (7-2) 24, at N.Y. Jets (1-8) 16: Could there be a letdown after the comeback win over the Browns last week? Don't bet on it. Still this will be tougher than expected.

St. Louis (1-8) 28, at San Francisco (2-7) 11: Battle of the morbid. I'll go with the Rams to up their winning streak to two games.

At Dallas (8-1) 31, Washington (5-4) 20: The more I watch the Cowboys offense, the more I'm impressed. Expect more of the same today.

New England (9-0) 28, at Buffalo (5-4) 18: The ingredients are there for an upset. Night game in cold weather on the road. Crazy upper-state New York fans. But, alas, these Patriots are immune to anything, including poisonous snakes (most likely).

Tennessee (6-3) 20, at Denver (4-5) 16: After being dismantled at home by the Jaguars last week, this is a statement game for Vince Young and his mates on national TV.

I'm out. Enjoy all the games except, well, that one in the Bay Area.

This loss wasn't Lloyd's fault


This one had to be the hardest to swallow — the absolute hardest — and not just because it was Ohio State.

Yes, losing to the hated Buckeyes six times in seven years is equivalent to hell freezing over in Ann Arbor, but the way the Wolverines lost on a dismal Saturday afternoon makes the sour taste in their mouth all the more acerbic.

There was no spread offense that lit up a slow Michigan defense for 400 yards passing. There was no running quarterback who eluded would-be tacklers all over the Big House's field turf, causing groans from the hundred thousand Maize and Blue faithful. There weren't even any silly miscues — Michigan didn't turn the ball over a single time.

Rather, the Buckeyes bullied the Wolverines from end zone to end zone, running over them on offense (hence Chris "Beanie" Wells' 222 rushing yards on 39 carries), and running to them — more specifically Michigan quarterback Chad Henne — on defense, sacking the senior leader four times and hurrying him several other times.

As a result, Henne was an anemic 11-for-34 passing for 68 useless yards. As a result, Michigan's most valuable player was punter Zoltan Mesko, who booted 12 punts for an average of 45.9 yards.

If this really was Lloyd Carr's last regular-season game as head coach, it's a shame. Here's why: The biggest reason people, including myself, have said it's time for Carr to step down is because he's behind in the innovation of college football. Despite having a bevy of talented players at the skill positions, Carr hasn't switched to the very popular — and successful — spread offense. Defensively, Carr and coordinator Ron English haven't figured out how to slow down the spread.

Those are the main reasons Carr needs to step aside after an accomplished 13 seasons.

But those weren't the reasons Michigan lost Saturday, which is demoralizing. Those who like excuses will point to the separated shoulder of Henne, who overthrew several passes that Randy Moss wouldn't have hauled in. They'll also point at onetime Heisman Trophy candidate Mike Hart, who — with a bum ankle — managed just 44 yards on 18 carries.

But despite the dropped passes by Mario Manningham and the freshman mistake by senior safety Jamar Adams, who ran himself out of the play on which Wells raced 62 yards to give Ohio State the 11-point lead, Michigan didn't lose on Saturday.

Ohio State won. The Buckeyes dominated the Wolverines in every phase — except punting — of the game. Especially, and most disheartening for Michigan, Ohio State was the stronger team. It dominated in the trenches, routinely opening holes for Wells while stuffing Hart and pressuring Henne.

No, Saturday's loss can't be pinned on Lloyd. His daddy, err, Jim Tressel, didn't pull any trickeration out of his bag to steal a victory in the Big House. Instead, he made sure Wells touched the ball whenever he wasn't winded, and he kept the heat on Henne all afternoon.

It wasn't rocket science, it wasn't even first-grade science. It was old-school football. Hit ya in ya mouth football. The kind of football that fueled the Wolverines to all those Big Ten and national titles. The kind of football that is no longer en vogue.

It really is too bad that Saturday's butt-whoopin' will probably be mostly remembered as Carr's final game inside Michigan Stadium instead of what it was: the players in red and white beating up the players in blue and gold.

As so many coaches like to preach, there's only so much they can do. Ultimately, players decide a game's outcome.

That rang oh, so true Saturday inside a damp Big House.

On a day when not even Bo could have saved the Wolverines.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tigers keeping busy is a good thing


Who are these guys? The Yankees?

Seriously. Since when do the Detroit Tigers make two lineup-altering trades before turkey is served on Thanksgiving? Since when do the Tigers not fret about a $100-million payroll?

Since last fall, Alex. That would be the answer.

And as long as GM/president Dave Dombrowski continues to hold the reins, I don't sense any slowing down in the pursuit of perfection (isn't that some company's slogan?).

It's even difficult to keep up with the Tigers' transactions these days. Not only has Dombrowski dealt for shortstop Edgar Renteria and outfielder Jacque Jones since the conclusion of the World Series just over two weeks ago. He also re-signed closer Todd Jones to a $7 million, one-year contract on Tuesday, the first day of free agency.

Apparently Dombrowski's mother never preached, "Patience is a virtue."

But that's all right, because in this case the GM's quickness to act is a good thing. In a slim free agent market, and with trades never easy to complete, Dombrowski simply gets the job done.

Are the moves risks? Of course. Just about any off-season acquisition or re-signing comes with a set of "ifs." For instance, will Jones, 39, hold up health wise and be the closer he's been the past two years. Is the left-handed hitting Jones really an upgrade from Timo Perez, who hit a scorching .389 last season in 29 games? Will Renteria, 32, hold up any better in the middle of the infield then converted first baseman Carlos Guillen, also 32, did?

There are plenty of questions. And, for now, no answers. Those won't arrive until baseball is back in full swing.

Then we'll know, for sure, if Dombrowski made the right moves.

But just the fact that he acted to make the acquisitions — and now is trying to re-sign veteran pitcher Kenny Rogers — says something about what he's attempting to build heading toward the season.

"We’re trying to win now,” Dombrowski said in the Detroit Free Press. “This fits with what we’re trying to do.”

Yes, trying to win now. Not in two years, not in five years. Since that miracle 2006 season, Dombrowski n' Co. have adopted a few pages from the Yankees' philosophical guide — the "win now" chapter. Last fall Dombrowski traded away a few talented — but unproven — prospects for the proven thunder stick of Gary Sheffield. While injuries derailed the slugger's season, that didn't make the acquisition a poor one. A hurting Sheffield still did much more than any of the traded prospects, none of whom made it to the Bronx.

Now Dombrowski has shipped away another promising prospect in pitcher Jair Jurrjens, sent to Atlanta in the deal for Renteria. Jurrjens was stellar in a few starts for the Tigers last season.

But Dombrowski knew he would have to sacrifice a talent to procure Renteria, so he sucked it up and made the move — stabilizing Detroit's infield in the process. There will be more Jurrjens, he must think. The window of winning a World Series with older players such as Sheffield, AL batting champ Magglio Ordonez and Gold Glove second baseman Placido Polanco, on the other hand, is closing.

Which comes back to the "win now" doctrine. It is now officially a motto of the Tigers organization, which has to rub off positively on the players. Close to no one wants to play for a "rebuilding" team. Just about everyone wants to play on a team like the Tigers.

A team that will take risks to improve itself during the off-season. A team that has one goal each season — to win the World Series.

Must be talking Yankees, right?

Surprisingly enough, I'm not. I'm talking that team in Motown.

Yes, the same Tigers who lost 119 games in 2003.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

The Beilein effect: Michigan off and shooting


They've played just two games, yet the changes are very evident.

A change in body language. A change in attitude. And, most importantly, a change in their style of play.

The Michigan men's basketball team is — drum roll — fun to watch.

Unlike the past six seasons under Tommy Amaker, when the Wolverines' offense was often stagnant, the 2007-08 Wolverines are never stuck in the mud. They're always moving, always creating open shots for each other.

I'm not joking when I say Michigan made nine 3-pointers in its 72-57 win over Brown — in the first half.

Since the Wolverines lack depth up front and and are far from a big team, they pressure teams defensively with a halfcourt trap that did a good job of preventing Brown from settling into its offense. The defense keeps everyone on their toes, always moving and communicating.

That's what you want in a zone defense.

More important than whether you or I enjoy watching this team, it's transparent that the players have bought into coach John Beilein's system and enjoy playing within it.

Freshmen backcourt starters Manny Harris and Kelvin Grady thrive in it, creating open 3-pointers for each other and for transformed forward DeShawn Sims, who didn't make a 3 last season but knocked down 3-of-5 Sunday en route to 17 points. (And he wasn't banking them in, either. His shooting stroke is as sweet as a shooting guard's.)

Not to be forgotten is redshirt sophomore Anthony Wright, who came off the bench to make three triples and score 10 points. And with senior Ron Coleman also swishing a 3 Sunday, that's five Wolverines who made at least one 3-pointer.

That's what commentators call "a diversity of weapons."

Michigan was far from perfect against the undersized Bears, don't get me wrong. Far too often in the first half the Wolverines picked up their dribble and were trapped in the frontcourt. And then there were the two fastbreaks when Harris and redshirt sophomore K'Len Morris threw away easy passes. And the time Harris got caught in the air on the break and threw the ball ... to a Bear.

But those are minuscule miscues for players with no college experience prior to last Friday. There's not too much Beilein and his staff can complain about after two games, two wins.

What they can smile about is the versatility of Harris, who led Michigan with 22 points on 6-for-8 shooting. Harris is the type of slashing guard that the Wolverines dearly missed last season. He has the quickness to get to the basket, but he also can knock down the 3, as he showed by making 3-of-4 from long range.

Harris has already established himself as Michigan's best and most important player. When he's on top of his game, Michigan won't be blown out of games.

Grady might be the point guard this program's been searching for. He's unselfish, quick and he takes good care of the ball. On Sunday, he committed a modest two turnovers. Also, Grady is far from an offensive liability. He proved that he can't be left open by making two first-half 3-pointers against the Bears.

Returning point guard Jerret Smith's absence from the first two games — due to a one-game suspension and an ankle injury — has been a blessing in disguise for Michigan because it has given not only Grady, but redshirt senior C.J. Lee the opportunity to show Beilein how they can run the team.

Lee did so efficiently Sunday, dishing out three assists and not turning the ball over in 18 minutes.

During Amaker's six years in Ann Arbor, the Wolverines took themselves out of games — particularly road games — with loads of turnovers. Michigan is playing much more mistake-free under Beilein, giving up the ball 22 times total so far despite being sans experience in the backcourt.

Now the real tests begin. People will say, "We'll really find out about this Michigan team in the next two games" — at Georgetown, vs. Butler in Alaska — and they're right. We'll find out how the Wolverines handle a dominant big man against the Hoyas' All-America candidate, 7-foot-2 center Roy Hibbert. We'll see how they guard an experienced backcourt full of deadly shooters against Butler.

But these first two games weren't just wins over inferior opponents — as was often the case during the beginnings of seasons while Amaaker was in charge.

The initial pair of wins of the John Beilein Era showed that these Wolverines love playing for their coach. That they love shooting 3-pointers (which they happen to be pretty good at). And that they're only going to get better.

And that's all Beilein can ask for.

That his team improves from game to game, continuing to distance itself from the not-so-pretty images of the program's last decade.

Week 10 NFL picks


In my NFL mid-season report, I pointed out the teams I think still have a shot to make the playoffs and the teams that, well, you know. Now it's time to weed out teams never to pick again unless they face off.

The Rams (who I kept thinking would win a game). Obviously the Dolphins. The Bengals — although their bandwagon was difficult to jump off. You won't see me picking these teams again unless they play each other. The Bengals and Rams, especially, have brought me too much pain.

With that said, following a 10-3 week, which boosted my overall mark to 72-42, here are my Week 10 picks.

At Carolina (4-4) 14, Atlanta (2-6) 10: If you like incompletions and offensive innefeciency, this is your game.

At Pittsburgh (6-2) 31, Cleveland (5-3) 21: The Browns have been a great surprise in the AFC Central, and they'll put some points up, but the Steelers will pull away.

Buffalo (4-4) 26, at Miami (0-8) 10: The Bills with a winning record?? Believe it. Believe it. Believe it...

At Kansas City (4-4) 22, Denver (3-5) 9: The Broncos, minus Jay Cutler, feature, um, no offense.

At Tennessee (6-2) 19, Jacksonville (5-3) 14: None of the Titans' wins have been pretty, but they're wins nonetheless.

At Washington (5-3) 24, Philadelphia (3-5) 17: Clinton Portis might finally be performing up to his ability. That's not a good sign for the Eagles.

At New Orleans (4-4) 34, St. Louis (0-8) 17: I almost bet my house on this game (except that I don't own a house).

At Green Bay (7-1) 28, Minnesota (3-5) 21: This division rivarly will be close, but then there's the Brett Favre factor. Adrian Peterson is good, but he doesn't touch the ball on every play.

At Baltimore (4-4) 20, Cincinnati (2-6) 13: Two struggling teams. One has to win.

Chicago (3-5) 25, at Oakland (2-6) 16: Not a game I'm planning to watch.

Dallas (7-1) 31, at N.Y. Giants (6-2) 28: This, definitely, is a game I will watch. Cowboys prove their the NFC's best with hard-fought road victory.

Indianapolis (7-1) 26, at San Diego (4-4) 21: Even without Marvin Harrison, the Colts will have enough to overcome the feisty Chargers.

At Seattle (4-4) 28, San Francisco (2-6) 13): The Seahawks stay in the division lead with the win. On a side note, what an awful division.

I'm out (just in time). Enjoy a week devoid of a Patriots victory.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Mavericks-Warriors always a good watch


If I were NBA commissioner for one day...

I'd strictly enforce traveling...

And make sure the Dallas Mavericks and Golden State Warriors play each other at least eight times — all on national TV — during the regular season.

Yes, their games are that good, that dramatic. Even in November.

I didn't think Thursday night's battle in Oakland could live up to the six-game series that took place last spring, when the eighth-seeded Warriors stunned the team with the regular season's best record in six games.

And it didn't. But only because the game lacked in meaning. Dallas entered the contest 3-1. Golden State was a pitiful 0-4. But that didn't keep the teams from fighting each other as if it were May. This one was a TNT producer's dream.

High-flying dunks (thank you, Matt Barnes). Plenty of 3-pointers (thank you, Jason Terry ... and everyone else). Up-and-down action. Zillions of lead changes.

Dallas' 120-115 victory featured a little bit of everything. And it was just a November win. But also it cemented Dallas-Golden State as the NBA's new premier rivalry. No, it will never live up to the Lakers-Celtics and Pistons-Bulls rivalries of the 1980s, but with today's NBA struggling to reel in new fans, this budding rivalry is the bait.

Critics of the NBA who say players don't give their all during the regular season had no case Thursday night. Golden State's new Jason Richardson, a.k.a. Kelenna Azubuike, was all over the court, flying high for several crowd-pleasing dunks. Dallas point guard Devin Harris forgot about the ankle injury that kept him out of Dallas' previous game, relentlessly attacking Golden State's ill-matched defenders, creating open look after open look for Terry (who was on fire, connecting on 10 of 17 shots for 24 points) and the Mavericks' other outside shooters.

While the '80s had Bird and Magic, and Isiah and MJ, going head-to-head, the stars of this very young rivalry aren't so pronounced. Dallas has 2007 MVP Dirk Nowitzki, but he is willing to share the prime-time shots with players like Terry and Jerry Stackhouse, who hit the huge 3-pointer in the final minute that turned out to be the difference. Golden State is led by its fearless point guard Baron Davis, who — when he wants to — can get to the basket at will.

But Golden State is far from a one-man show. The Warriors are at their best when Davis is dishing to outside shooters such as Al Harrington, who knocked down four 3-pointers Thursday, and Barnes.

Golden State-Dallas is the epitome of a team rivalry in a league that's dominated by individuals. That's one of the reasons it's become, in the course of seven months, the best matchup the NBA can promote.

Unlike in most NBA games, stagnation is missing from Dallas-Golden State affairs. The pace is fast-paced, and even when the game slows down in the half court, the teams display an unselfishness and great ball movement that smells of college basketball. The players are so caught up in the rivalry, they forget about their individual statistics, their individual goals. All that matters is beating those guys in the other uniforms.

At the end of the night, the Mavericks were 4-1 and the Warriors were 0-5. The Mavericks are off to a great start and are all but certain going to finish among the top three teams in the mighty Western Conference. The Warriors can't wait until their voluble captain Stephen Jackson returns from his seven-game suspension after two more games. Then they'll attempt to turn this ship around and sneak in the playoffs.

But well before then these guys will meet again. On Jan. 2, to be exact. And the intensity that was palpable — just from watching on high definition — Thursday night will be evident once again, as the Mavericks attempt to prove that Thursday's result was no fluke while the Warriors look to show once again that Dallas has no answer for them.

It will be a back-and-forth engagement, that's for sure. Not decided until late in the fourth quarter. With Dallas' Avery Johnson and Golden State's Don Nelson pulling every punch they've got until the final horn.

Sound like a rivalry? It should.

Because that's exactly what it is.

Even if Dirk ain't Bird and Davis ain't Magic.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

NCAA men's basketball preview: predicting the 65


I've spent the past several days pondering how I want to handle my college hoops preview.

Should I predict all of the major conferences? Should I predict the All-Americans? What about the top freshmen? Coaches most likely to be fired?

But then it came to me: What, ultimately, is Division I college basketball about? What does it boil down to? When do the casual fans ditch their dinner dates to sit in front of the TV?

You guessed it — on Selection Sunday. No matter what happens during November, December, January, February and early March, if a team is selected to participate in the NCAA Tournament, all is good. It (and its fans) has a new life. Anything can happen. It controls its destiny.

Which is why, without further ado, I am embarking on the unenviable task of predicting each of the 65 teams which will play in the Big Dance. Let's get it started.


Big East Conference
— Georgetown: Big man Roy Hibbert will have an All-American year, making his decision to return well worth it.

Atlantic 10 Conference
— Xavier: The Musketeers, led by diminutive guard Drew Lavender, could be even better than last year, when they were a last-second 3-pointer away from beating Ohio State and advancing to the Sweet 16.

Metro Atlantic
— Loyola (Md.): The MAAC's leading returning scorer, Gerald Brown, averaged 22 points last season.

Ivy League
— Cornell: Pennsylvania and Princeton have won or shared the title every season since 1962. Expect a big shift in power this season.

America East
— Albany: The Great Danes will repeat despite the loss of conference player of the year Jamar Wilson. Vermont, as always, will be their top challenger.

Patriot League
— Holy Cross: This is becoming a two-team league, with Holy Cross and Bucknell meeting in the conference tournament title game the past three seasons. Expect it to happen again.

Northeast Conference
— Robert Morris: No team has made back-to-back appearances in the NCAA Tournament from this conference. Expect the same this season as the Colonials unseat Central Connecticut State.

Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
— North Carolina: Duke might challenge the Tar Heels, but there is simply too much talent and depth, and Tyler Hansbrough is the most determined player in the country.

— Hampton: Rashad West, who led the league in scoring with 17.8 points per game, will help the Pirates back to the Big Dance.

— Virginia Commonwealth: Eric Maynor, who hit the game-winning shot against Duke in the first round of the NCAA Tournament, is back for another run at it.

Big South
— High Point: Led by Arizona "AZ" Reid, who led the league in scoring with 21 ppg, the Panthers are ready to take over the top spot in the conference from Winthrop, which lost coach Gregg Marshall.

Southern Conference
— Davidson: No doubt about this. Led by Stephon Curry, the son of former NBA sweet shooter Dell Curry, the Wildcats should spend some time in the Top 25.

Southeastern (SEC)
— Tennessee: With Florida down and Kentucky rebuilding under Billy Gillispie, this is the Volunteers' season. Scoring point guard and All-America candidate Chris Lofton will lead the charge.

Ohio Valley Conference
— Austin Peay: Buoyed by the return of all their key players, the Governors will try to get the OVC its first Big Dance win since 1989.

Sun Belt
— Western Kentucky: The league should be strong thanks to the return of 80 percent of its top players, but the Hilltoppers will be the best of the 13 teams.

Atlantic Sun
— Belmont: Expect the Bruins to make their second straight NCAA Tournament appearance.

Big Ten
— Indiana: A week ago, I would have picked Michigan State, but after watching freshman Eric Gordon play in an exhibition game, I'm convinced he'll be special. And alongside D.J. White, he'll make the Hoosiers the league's best team.

Horizon League
— Butler: Sure, the Bulldogs lost their coach Todd Lickliter (to Iowa), but Brad Stevens inherits four of the Sweet 16 team's top five scorers.

Summit League
— Oakland: The league, formerly known as the Mid-Continent Conference, has a new name, and it will feature a different team in the NCAA Tournament, as the Golden Grizzlies take Oral Roberts' spot.

Mid-American (MAC)
— Ohio: This might be the toughest league to predict, but I'm going with the loaded Bobcats, who will be led by forward Leon Williams, who averaged 14.4 points and 8.8 rebounds last season.

Conference USA
— Memphis: The biggest no-brainer. The Tigers could be the No. 1 team in the country, and if their first two games are any indication, freshman guard Derrick Rose is as good as advertised.

Big 12
— Kansas: Frank Martin's young Wildcats will give the Jayhawks a scare, but ultimately experience will prove vital as Brandon Rush and a trio of steady guards lead Kansas.

Missouri Valley
— Southern Illinois: You know the Salukis will always play strong defense, and forward Randal Falker is a beast down low.

Southland Conference
— Texas-Arlington: With every key player back, expect the Mavericks, who were just 13-17 last season, to make a surprise Big Dance showing.

— Grambling: The Tigers, who haven't won a share of the league title since 1989, return seven of their top eight scorers.

Big Sky
— Montana: Jordan Hasquet, who is the lone all-conference returning player, will take the Grizzlies to the tournament.

— New Mexico State: No Reggie Theus, no problem for the Aggies, who return loads of talent.

Mountain West
— BYU: All-conference Trent Plaisted will lead the Cougars in a down year for the conference, which lost several of its marquee players.

Pac 10
— UCLA: This conference is absolutely loaded, but there's no doubt who the top team should be. Keep an eye on freshman giant Kevin Love. He could be special.

Big West
— UC-Santa Barbara: Alex Harris, who averaged 21.1 points and 8.3 rebounds per game last season, will lead the Gauchos, who will take advantage of the recruiting violations that have negatively transformed the Long Beach State program.

West Coast
— Gonzaga: Another easy pick. The 'Zags were able to make the tournament without suspended star Josh Heytvelt a year ago. Now a remorseful Heytvelt is back, along with several other key parts of that team.


ACC (5)
— Duke
— N.C. State
— Clemson
— Virginia
— Georgia Tech

Atlantic 10 (1)
— St. Josephs

Big 10 (4)
— Michigan State
— Ohio State
— Wisconsin
— Minnesota

Big 12 (4)
— Kansas State
— Texas A&M
— Texas
— Oklahoma

Big East (6)
— Louisville
— Marquette
— Pittsburgh
— Syracuse
— Connecticut
— Providence

CAA (1)
— George Mason

Conference USA (1)

Missouri Valley (1)
— Bradley

Moutain West (1)
— Utah

Pac 10 (5)
— Washington State
— Oregon
— Stanford
— Arizona

SEC (5)
— Florida
— Kentucky
— Arkansas
— Mississippi State
— Georgia

JUST OUT: Washington (Pac 10), Fresno State (WAC), Villanova (Big East), Alabama (SEC), Mississippi State (SEC), Illinois (Big 10), St. Mary's (West Coast), Maryland (ACC), Missouri (Big 12).

Whew! That's it, folks. Please respond with feedback on the selections/omissions you disagree with. I'm sure that come March I'll feel like an idiot.

Which is why, for now, I'll abstain from predicting the Final Four or the national champion. I'll make those picks once the field is set. Once I know for sure who's dancing and who's not.

As always, enjoy the madness.

Monday, November 5, 2007

NFL mid-season report


Now that Super Bowl XLI1/2 is in the books and every NFL team — except Baltimore and Pittsburgh, who play tonight — has played at least eight games, it's time to assess the first two months of this 2007 season. It's time to place teams in categories — some good, some bad — and determine which teams still have a chance at Super Bowl XLII.

It's time to break things down like Ron Jaworski, to analyze things like John Madden. Ain't no joking in this column. Just well-thought-out answers.

The Top Tier
These two teams are miles above the rest of the NFL. There's a 90 percent chance they'll meet again in the AFC Championship Game.

1. New England (9-0) — The Patriots showed Sunday why they're the best team in the league, and one of the greatest regular season teams of all time. Tom Brady is the coolest customer in the candy shop, Randy Moss is the scariest receiver in the league, and when the offense struggles once in a blue moon, the defense picks it up.

2. Indianapolis (7-1) — The Colts are not far behind their rivals. Consider the fact that despite the absence of their No. 1 receiver, Marvin Harrison, their left tackle, Tony Ugoh, and their two starting outside linebackers, the Colts led 20-10 with under 10 minutes remaining. They came that close. Their defense is better than ever, as was the case for three quarters Sunday, and Joseph Addai has morphed into one of the league's top five running backs.

Second Tier Playoff Locks
These teams, barring a mega collapse, will be playing the first weekend in January.

1. Dallas (7-1) — How comfortable does Tony Romo look? Seriously. With a new contract and a happy T.O. running crisp routes, Romo couldn't be more relaxed if he were seated in a La-Z-Boy with a margarita in hand. The Cowboys offense isn't that far behind the Colts' and Patriots', but their defense still needs to toughen up and not give up so many big plays.

2. Green Bay (7-1) — Who would have thought? The Packers? Seven wins, one loss? Without even a pinch of a running game? This, folks, is why Green Bay fans should never let Brett Favre retire. It isn't every day that a player with Favre's competitiveness and will to win comes along. Favre is completing 66.3 percent of his passes and, more importantly, making the plays when his team needs them (such as on the first play of overtime last Monday against Denver). The Packers defense also is much stronger than people give it credit for.

3. Pittsburgh (5-2 ... play Baltimore tonight) — I expect the Steelers to take care of division foe Baltimore at home tonight, but even if they don't, I'm not moving them from this spot. Their defense is back to being steely, and Willie Parker has proven that last season wasn't a fluke. Add in Ben Roethlisberger playing his best football and new coach Mike Tomlin finding new ways to motivate a recent Super Bowl winner, and this team will make the playoffs ... only to eventually fall to Indy or New England.

Don't Pencil Them In ... Yet
These teams are in good position to make the playoffs, but there's still plenty of work to do.

1. Tennessee (6-2) — Could this team win any uglier? Vince Young personifies this rag-tag bunch perfectly, because he hasn't played very well, but he makes the plays when necessary. And the Titans find themselves just a game back of the Colts. But let's not kid ourselves. When the teams meet in the final week in Indy, the Colts will have the division locked up. But the Titans should have a playoff birth by then as well.

2. N.Y. Giants (6-2) — Another big surprise, the Giants have won six in a row and can tie the Cowboys for the division lead with a home win on Sunday. Maybe the most appealing thing about this team's run is we haven't heard any reports of players or coaches badmouthing each other. Instead, there have been reports of coach Tom Coughlin lightening up. Yeah, I know, it sounds surreal. But with a balanced offensive attack and an always-improving defense, there is reason to smile.

3. Detroit (6-2) — Here's the feel-good story of the first half. The worst franchise in all of professional sports the past five years has turned it all around in half a season. Absolutely stunning. And I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually think the Lions will make the playoffs. If Jon Kitna stays healthy. If Kevin Jones stays healthy. If the defense continues to play over its head (it scored two touchdowns Sunday against Denver!). Still can't believe it.

Bubble Teams ...
So far I've listed eight teams. And I believe all eight will make the playoffs. That leaves four open spots. The following bevy of teams will fight for those spots (two in each conference). I've ranked them in terms of their chances of making the playoffs.

1. Seattle (4-4) — I know this is sad. I really don't like these Seahawks very much. But consider the other teams in their division: Arizona (3-5, can't win on the road); San Francisco (2-6, six-game losing streak); St. Louis (0-8, no comment). It would take a major collapse for Seattle to not win the division. Mike Holmgren will save his job by getting back to the postseason.

2. San Diego (4-4) — Again, the Chargers should be thankful for the division they're in. Kansas City has overachieved to be 4-4. The Broncos (3-5) have been plagued by injuries and are lucky to have three wins. The Raiders (2-6) are the Raiders. There is simply too much talent and will (I think) on this team to miss out on the playoffs.

3. New Orleans (4-4) — The Saints are on a roll, having won four consecutive games after that shocking 0-4 start. And only one of their remaining opponents (5-4 Tampa Bay, which leads them by a half game in the NFC South) has a winning record. They should take over the division from the overachieving Bucs sooner rather than later.

4. Cleveland (5-3) — The surprise team of the AFC, the Browns have a favorable schedule to sneak in as a wild card. While their next two games — at Pittsburgh and at Baltimore — will test them, their final six games are against teams with losing records. With their balanced offensive attack, the Browns are in good position to make the playoffs.

5. Tampa Bay (5-4) — The fact that Jeff Garcia led the Eagles to the playoffs last year bodes well for these Bucs, who will likely need to win the division to get a playoff spot. With the exception of the game at New Orleans, the Bucs have an easy final seven games, with the only other winning team on their schedule the 5-3 Redskins.

6. Jacksonville (5-3) — The good news: Starting QB David Garrard is expected back in the lineup for Sunday's huge game at Tennessee. The bad news: The Jags' offense hasn't been the problem. Rather, the usually steady defense has allowed 29, 23 and 41 points the last three games. With San Diego, Indy and Pittsburgh left on the schedule, the defense better get its act together quickly.

7. Washington (5-3) — Consider how close this team is to being 2-6: two overtime victories (16-13 over Miami in Week 1 and 23-20 over the Jets on Sunday after trailing 17-3) and a 21-19 win over Arizona, which just missed a field goal at the end. But now, despite a difficult remaining schedule, they have a shot at the playoffs, and Clinton Portis' 196-yard effort Sunday had to be a huge relaxer for young QB Jason Campbell.

7. Baltimore (4-3 ... play at Pittsburgh tonight) — Obviously the Ravens' fortunes would improve dramatically with a win at Pittsburgh tonight, which would put them in a three-way tie for first with the Steelers and Browns, but I don't see that happening. And consider the remaining schedule. Home games against New England AND Indy AND Pittsburgh. This team will need to become twice as good in the second half if it wants to play in January.

8. Kansas City (4-4) — Finally, Larry Johnson is starting to earn his large contract. And veteran QB Damon Huard has been a pleasant surprise. Additionally, the Chiefs have the Chargers at home on Dec. 2, and a win in that game would give them the tiebreaker over San Diego. But I don't think they'll be able to keep overachieving, and a game at Indy in two weeks is a sure loss.

9. Arizona (3-5) — Five homes games — not to mention games against 0-8 St. Louis and 2-6 Atlanta, San Francisco and Cincinnati — give the Cardinals hope that they can catch the 4-4 Seahawks in the dismal NFC West. The fact that they beat Seattle in their first meeting means that an improbable win on the road in Seattle on Dec. 9 would give them the tiebreaker.

10. Buffalo (4-4) — With three consecutive wins, all of a sudden the Bills can't be counted out of the playoffs ... yet. J.P. Losman is back and healthy, and Lee Evans is the best receiver in the league no one talks about. But still the playoffs are a long shot. While two games against Miami will help, five road games — including three against winning teams — and home tilts with the Pats and Giants will dethrone these pesky Bills.

A Miracle Away
These teams can't be dismissed, but their fans are planning vacations for the first weekend in January.

1. Chicago (3-5) — I can't dismiss my preseason pick to play in the Super Bowl. If that defense can play up to its potential...

2. Minnesota (3-5) — Anytime you have the best new running back in the league, Adrian Peterson, who already broke the NFL record for rushing yards in a game (296), anything is possible — even with Brooks Bollinger at QB.

3. Carolina (4-4) — The good news is the Panthers are just a half game behind the 5-4 Bucs and they play Atlanta at home next weekend. The bad news is David Carr has proven he can't lead an NFL team, Steve Smith isn't unhappy (and neither is anyone else).

4. Denver (3-5) — Somehow, some way, the Broncos are just a game back in the morbid AFC West. But losses in five of their last six games and the fact that each of their wins has come on a last-second field goal by Jason Elam tells a different story. This team, which was embarrassed 44-7 by Detroit Sunday, could easily by 0-8.

5. Philly (3-5) — There are many players on this team who were on last year's squad, which won its final five games to sneak into the playoffs. But with games at New England, Dallas and New Orleans remaining, these Eagles need divine intervention.

6. Houston (4-5) — The Texans finally stopped the bleeding with a 24-17 win at Oakland Sunday, but the wound will likely reopen soon. Games at Cleveland, Tennessee and Indy will doom the Texans.

Stick A Fork In 'Em
These teams have no shot at making the playoffs and should start thinking about the '08 Draft (only five and a half months away).

1. Cincinnati (2-6) — As if things could get worse, Chad Johnson sustained a neck injury Sunday and had to be carted off the field. Even if Johnson returns, the Bengals have used up all their losses. Until they seriously address their defensive holes, they're not a team to take seriously.

2. Oakland (2-6) — The positive is they've been competitive, with their last three losses coming by a combined 13 points. But that means nothing in this league. All Raiders fans can look forward to is another top 10 pick in next year's NFL Draft.

3. San Francisco (2-6) — 49ers fans can't even remember the opening two wins after six demoralizng losses, four by 18 points or more. With Frank Gore And Alex Smith either hurt or not performing up to expectations, there really are no positives here.

4. Atlanta (2-6) — No surprise here after the Michael Vick saga derailed this franchise. Hey, at least the Falcons have a one-game winning streak.

5. N.Y. Jets (1-8) — After making the playoffs a year ago, I didn't imagine the Jets would be this bad. Inconsistency on both sides of the ball has plagued them. When they score a lot of points, they give up a lot of points. When their defense plays well, their offense enters hibernation. And the losses pile up.

The 0-fers
Two teams have yet to win a game. Can either go the entire season without a victory? Here's my take.

1. St. Louis (0-8) — The Rams will win a game — probably their home game against Atlanta on Dec. 2, or maybe even a road game at the 49ers in two weeks.

2. Miami (0-8) — While I give the Dolphins a better chance than the Rams of going 0-16, I tend to think they'll break up the streak as well. Home games against the Jets, Bengals and Bills (this next weekend coming off their bye week) give them ample opportunities to get in the win column.

The Bigger Question: Can New England go 16-0?
I'm not going to predict the playoffs until I see how matchups shake out, but I think the Patriots have a great chance to finish the regular season 16-0. The tough games remaining are at Baltimore, home against Pittsburgh and at the N.Y. Giants to close out the season.

One big factor is that if the Colts keep winning, the Pats will need to continue winning to secure home field advantage throughout the AFC playoffs. But even if the Colts lose, I don't see New England letting up on the gas pedal. Bill Belichick is taking out his anger about the "Spygate" incident on the NFL by running up the score on every opponent the Patriots overwhelm. Expect him to play his top guns just enough the final week of the season — even if there's nothing to play for — in order to beat the Giants.

Yes, the Patriots will finish 16-0.

Sunday, November 4, 2007

Week 9 NFL picks


It is almost time. After watching so much analysis on ESPN, I'm ready to punch Ed Werder in the noggin, Super Bowl XLI1/2 is finally upon us. In a matter of hours the 8-0 Patriots will take on the 7-0 Colts in Indianapolis. One of those ESPN reports noted that tickets are selling for as much as $1,800.


According to another report, there also are other games on this Sunday, as in other NFL games. I checked this morning's paper to verify this startling rumor, and was surprised to find out that it held water. There are, in fact, 13 "other games."

So let's see if I can build on a decent 9-4 week which propelled my overall picking record to a still-dismal 62-39.

At New Orleans (3-4) 24, Jacksonville (5-2) 19: The Saints continue to march after that 0-4 start.

At Detroit (5-2) 27, Denver (3-4) 20: I'm still not convinced the Lions are for real, but they're good enough to beat an underachieving Broncos team. The Roy Williams-Dre Bly matchup should be fun to watch.

At Atlanta (1-6) 16, San Francisco (2-5) 10: Do not watch this game.

Green Bay (6-1) 24, at Kansas City (4-3) 21: Another late drive by Brett Favre wins this one. He's having so much fun, he might never retire.

At Cleveland (4-3) 21, Seattle (4-3) 14: The Browns continue to act as the AFC's greatest surprise.

Washington (4-3) 17, at N.Y. Jets (1-7) 9: This will not be a pleasant first start for Jets QB Kellen Clemens.

San Diego (4-3) 31, Minnesota (2-5) 17: Chargers continue to roll, saving Norv Turner his job.

At Buffalo (3-4) 24, Cincinnati (2-5) 19: I am officially off the Bengals bandwagon.

At Tampa Bay (4-4) 24, Arizona (3-4) 14: Cardinals are a terrible road team.

At Oakland (2-5) 17, Houston (3-5) 14: Apparently people in Houston and Oakland will get this game on CBS instead of Super Bowl XLI1/2. Ouch.

At Philly (3-4) 31, Dallas (6-1) 24: The players on the Eagles dedicate this performance to Andy Reid and the hardships he's going through with his family.

At Pittsburgh (5-2) 17, Baltimore (4-3) 13: These Steelers are for real while these Ravens aren't as tough as they're rumored to be.

Super Bowl XLI1/2: New England (8-0) 34, Indianapolis (7-0) 31: While I am a huge advocate of getting outdoors on Sunday afternoons and enjoying the fall leaves, this is a game you might want to stay in front of the TV for. In fact, this game will almost certainly be better than the actual Super Bowl.

If these teams meet again in the AFC Championship Game, that will top this because of what will be at stake, but the real Super Bowl's got nothing on this game.

I expect plenty of offense from both sides, with the outcome coming down to who has the ball last. That will be the Patriots, as Tom Brady will march them down the field for the winning field goal.

OK, that's enough analysis. I don't want to be a hypocrite.

Enjoy the game everyone. Except for you folks in Oakland and Houston (hah hah hah hah).

Friday, November 2, 2007

Michigan hoops preview: Beilein's first season won't be smooth


The John Beilein Era is unofficially underway in Ann Arbor. Beilein coached his first game as a Wolverine Thursday night, leading Michigan to a 78-40 exhibition victory over Ferris State inside a brighter Crisler Arena.

While the dank arena's light finally has been adjusted to create a little atmosphere in the building, don't expect Beilein's first team to to light up opponents. This season is going to be a learning process for both Beilein and his players.

Michigan has just one contributing senior in Ron Coleman, who isn't exactly a take-over-the-game player. He occasionally makes open outside jumpers, but averaged only 5.7 points per game last season and isn't very apt at creating shots for himself.

OK, let's move to the juniors expected to play significant minutes: Jerret Smith and Jevohn Shepherd. I'm going to continue to rip Smith as the worst starting point guard in the Big Ten until he proves me wrong. Maybe Beilein will be able to mold him into a consistent floor leader.

But last season Smith was painfully inconsistent, which isn't a good sign for a player who to begin with displays just average skills. Thursday's 15-minute, five-point, four-turnover performance was not a good harbinger for Smith. Freshman point guard Kelvin Grady played 16 minutes and was a putrid 1-for-7 from the field, but he didn't turn it over.

Beilein shouldn't wait long on Smith. If he's not adequately leading the team, give the freshman a shot.

A junior new to the team who could be a pleasant surprise is Zack Gibson, a Rutgers transplant. The 6-foot-10 Gibson showed potential against Ferris State, making all three of his field goal attempts and grabbing three rebounds in 19 minutes. On a team lacking experience, Gibson will likely be thrown into the fire right away. Thursday was an indication that he might just be ready.

Now, as we get to the sophomores, we're finally exploring the meat of the team — albeit inexperienced meat.

Ekpe Udoh and DeShawn Sims played significant minutes last season and should start in the Nov. 9 opener against Radford. While Sims struggled during the Big Ten slate last winter — when he was clearly affected by the tragic death of his brother — he played his best in the final few games, scoring a career-high 14 points in Michigan's second-to-last game — a NIT win over Utah State.

Now the 6-foot-8 forward has expanded his shooting range to 3-point land, where he made three of six attempts Thursday — three more than he made all last season. Reports have it that Sims picked up Beilein's 3-point shooting/Princeton-like offense the quickest of any player and his 14 points in 25 minutes Thursday agreed.

Sims still has a lot of room for improvement, including in the rebounding department. Sims grabbed just 2.3 boards a game last season, and with Michigan's top two rebounders gone, he'll be counted on for at least four or five a game.

Udoh, Michigan's third leading rebounder of a year ago, will also be relied on heavily to hit the boards. The wiry 6-10 forward showed signs of brilliance last year, especially on the defensive end where his extremely long wingspan got in the way of myriad opponents' shots. With fellow shot blockers Courtney Sims and Brent Petway gone, it will be Udoh's responsibility to lead Michigan's interior defense.

Udoh provided a sneak preview of the defensive season he might have Thursday, blocking four shots and snatching five boards in 19 minutes. The big question is regarding his offensive versatility. He'll likely be counted on to make several passes from the interior in Beilein's offense. Will he read defenses correctly? And will he be able to finish his opportunities in the paint?

After playing in all 35 games a year ago, Udoh should be prepared to accept a significant role as one of the team's leaders.

OK, just like that, we're down to the freshmen, the biggest question marks who could make this squad a group of overachievers or be a part of a team that compiles several losses.

Thursday was just one exhibition game, but the signs are positive. Mr. Basketball in the state of Michigan, Manny Harris, was the Wolverines' best player, scoring 15 points — including 7-of-9 from the free-throw line — and grabbing nine rebounds.

The 6-5 forward displayed an aggressiveness that has been lacking on the Michigan teams of the past few years. If he can develop into a player who can drive to the basket at will and create for his teammates, the dividends will be enormous. Of course it was only one exhibition game, but Harris could become the player who — along with Beilein — gets Michigan to its first NCAA tournament since 1998.

The other key true freshman is Grady, who is billed as a true point guard. Michigan has lacked a fundamentally sound pass-first floor leader for quite awhile now, so if Grady can develop into that player, it will be a huge boost for the program.

Grady definitely needs to improve his shooting, however, in order to thrive in Beilein's offense. He made just 1-of-5 3-pointers on Thursday, offsetting the biggest positive he brought to the court: a 4-to-0 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Medical redshirt freshman K'Len Morris was the other frosh who played significant minutes Thursday. The 6-4 wingman scored seven points to go along with five rebounds in 21 minutes. With Morris and redshirt freshman Anthony Wright, a 6-6 forward, in the rotation, Beilein has 10 players he can rotate in and out, which will allow the Wolverines to run more and jack up loads of 3-pointers.

Michigan's new style of play was evident right away Thursday when it launched two 3-pointers in the opening 28 seconds. It finished the night 10-for-28 (35.7 percent) from behind the arc — not a bad debut at all.

Expect the Wolverines to shoot 3-pointers until their arms fall off this season. I wouldn't be surprised if everyone except Gibson attempts a 3 — even Udoh, who has a decent mid-range shot but would be hard-pressed to expand the range of his line-drive release.

Unfortunately for this young squad, wins won't come easy — especially early in the season. After home games against Radford and Brown, the Wolverines play Georgetown, a national title contender, on the road and then face Butler in the first round of the Great Alaska Shootout, with a possible second round game against the ACC's Virginia Tech.

Michigan closes out November by hosting Boston College in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge and then plays at Duke and home against UCLA in December. Home games against Oakland and Central Michigan and a trip to take on fired coach Tommy Amaker's Harvard team won't be walkovers, either.

When the Wolverines open their Big Ten schedule by hosting Wisconsin on Jan. 2, they could easily have a losing record. And while the Big Ten is down this season — a recurring theme, it seems, in the past couple years — Michigan would do well to win half its conference games (even though it's lucky to face conference favorite Michigan State just once).

Here's how I see the Big Ten shaking out:

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

The only two teams who I see having a shot are MSU and Indiana, who both feature players who could win national awards — MSU senior guard Drew Neitzel and Indiana super freshman guard Eric Gordon. The Hoosiers also return several experienced veterans, including senior forward D.J. White who scored 13.8 points per game last season.

But will the Hoosiers and coach Kelvin Sampson be distracted by the illegal phone calls case which has already resulted in an assistant coach resigning?

Ohio State and Wisconsin are both question marks, with several newcomers, not to mention injury issues (at least for the Badgers), but Thad Matta of the Buckeyes and Bo Ryan of the Badgers always get the most out of their players, and I expect them to get everyone on the same page to make the NCAA tournament.

What happens with Tubby Smith and the Gophers is up for debate, but with every starter back from last year's team — although, I must add, last year's team was awful — a return to the NCAA tournament isn't out of the question.

I see Illinois and Penn State on the outside looking in, although I didn't expect last year's Illinois squad to make the tournament and it surprised me.

Either way, the Big Ten will be challenged to get five teams in the tournament come mid-March. Michigan won't be one of them for 10th consecutive season.

But that doesn't mean there won't be excitement within the brighter cobwebs of Crisler Arena this season. These young Wolverines could put a scare in some of the big dogs on their schedule with their new shoot-until-you-drop system, and they might just surprise a few people.

Most importantly, just one key player — Coleman — is scheduled to leave the program at the season's conclusion. By March all the freshmen, sophomores and juniors should be comfortable following Beilein's lead, which will lay the foundation for a bright future.

And maybe, at some point, a long-awaited return to tournament they call the Big Dance.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

Duke runs circles around Shaw

DURHAM, N.C. — If anything can be gleaned from the Duke University men's basketball team's 134-55 pasting of Shaw in its first exhibition game Thursday night, it's that the 2007-08 Blue Devils love to run.

And run.

And run some more.

Using a rotation of nine players, eight of whom played 16-plus minutes, the Blue Devils ran Shaw out of Cameron Indoor Stadium early and often.

Leading 9-5 with 16 minutes, 23 seconds left in the first half, Duke scored 27 consecutive points to take a 36-5 advantage and send the Cameron Crazies into a frenzy. The Blue Devils added 32 points before halftime to take a 68-17 lead into the locker room.

Freshman forward Kyle Singler led 10 Blue Devils in double figures with 23 points in just 19 minutes. Senior captain DeMarcus Nelson added 17, and sophomores Lance Thomas — who made all six of his field goal attempts — and Gerald Henderson each scored 15.

While Duke was running most of the night, Thomas did the majority of his work in the half-court offense, where he was very effective in the paint. One question entering the season is who will score down low, and Thomas was the answer to that question on Thursday.

But Duke's fullcourt pressure defense, which caused 34 turnovers, was its main ingredient for success. Shaw's miscues resulted in 55 points for Duke.

“I was pleased with our effort," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "We’re trying to install a new system, both offensively and defensively.

"It was good to play 40 minutes like that, get a look at our half-court defense, our press and our running game."

Duke played a fullcourt man-to-man defense for the entire first half, but mixed things up in the second half, occasionally employing a 2-3 zone. Thomas and Jon Scheyer — who scored 11 points, albeit on 3-for-11 shooting — led Duke with five steals apiece. Singler had three of the team's four blocked shots.

The 134 points was more than Duke scored all of last season. And Duke did it despite shooting 8-for-28 (28.6 percent) from 3-point range. The Blue Devils finished 49-for-86 (57 percent) from the field compared to 21-for-65 (32.3 percent) for Shaw, which was outrebounded 56-29.

Jonathan Mudd and Camontae Griffin led Shaw with 11 points apiece.

Duke freshman point guard Nolan Smith scored 10 points and dished out seven assists. Greg Paulus, Brian Zoubek, Martynas Pocius and Taylor King also scored 10. Even Jordan Davidson, Duke's last man off the bench who entered the game in the final 2 minutes, got himself in the box score with a mid-range jumper, which brought forth the biggest cheers of the night from the crowd.

"It’s been a while since we’ve had 10, and when Dave (McClure) comes back, 11 guys who are pretty good basketball players," Krzyzewski said. "You have to coach who you have.

"This (running) system lends itself to having depth and having good players. Hopefully some of them can become outstanding players.”

Singler, who shot 10-for-11 from the field, with his only miss coming from behind the arc, attacked the basket relentlessly. He has now led Duke in scoring in its two games — against Shaw and in the Blue-White scrimmage last Saturday. Singler, Smith and King make up a trio of freshmen that aren't wasting time becoming accustomed to Duke basketball.

“You couldn’t really tell in a game like this but they’re really competitive," Henderson said of the freshmen. "We’ve been practicing for a good three weeks now, and I’ve been impressed with just how competitive they are.

"All three of them are really talented but all three of them have heart and they’re all winners. I love having them on our team and they’re going to contribute a lot this year.”

Krzyzewski's only critique of the freshmen was that they need to set their feet before launching 3-pointers. King was 2-for-7 from behind the arc after lighting up Cameron for five triples in the scrimmage.

The game marked a return to Durham for Shaw coach Robert Brickey, who played for Duke from 1986-1990, helping the Blue Devils to three Final Fours and earning all-Atlantic Coast Conference honors in 1987-88. Brickey also served as Duke's captain in 1990.