Monday, December 22, 2008

The last thing these Detroit Lions need is hope


If you're a Lions fan — and, believe me, there are still thousands out there (somehow) — you should be ecstatic right now. You should be more excited now than you were at this time in 2001, 2002, '03, '04, '05, '06, and '07.

And you should ask for a Cheese Head for Christmas or Hanukkah.

Why? Well, it's obvious. The Detroit Lions have finally stunk so bad, have finally proved so incapable — from ownership, to the front office, to the coaches, to the players, to the vendors — that they're on the brink of history.

A loss in frigid Green Bay Sunday, where they haven't won since '91, and the Lions will be the NFL's first 0-16 team.

And when it comes to the Lions, 0-16 seems like the only result that will get people in the organization to take a long look in the mirror and exclaim, "Nothing is working!"

Since Detroit last had a winning season, going 9-7 in 2000, it has been consistently bad. There was the 2-14 campaign in 2001 and the one-win improvement to 3-13 the following year. Then came 5-11 seasons, with a 6-10 march to nothing sandwiched in-between. Under current coach Rod Marinelli, Detroit started bad (3-13), gained a quartet of wins to 7-9, and now, well, you know...

But not until now, and perfectly coinciding with all the other depressing news choking the Motor City, has a sense of despair overtook this morbid, one-playoff-win-since-1957 franchise.

I would always laugh after previous 5-11 seasons, when people predicted the Lions to make the playoffs; when a radio host actually picked them to advance to the NFC championship game; when, after drafting yet another "big-play" wide receiver, everyone gushed over how unstoppable Detroit's offense was going to be.

I'm not making this stuff up. I lived a 40-minute drive from Ford Field up until the 2007 season, and every August overly priced tickets were sold, prognosticators forecast division championships...and then, sometimes after a couple wins, everything went downhill.

I don't consider myself the smartest person, but I must admit I'm proud of never getting caught up in Lions Fever. Even last year, when Detroit got out to a 6-2 start and everyone from Monroe to Pontiac was asking about playoff tickets. Around 2003 I told myself that I'd never predict the Lions to make the playoffs—that is, until they actually made the playoffs (if that makes sense).

So the fans continued flocking to Ford Field, filling the already-heavy pockets of owner William Clay Ford, and the Lions continued to lose. And, sure, coaches were fired. But Matt Millen stayed on board as general manager, many ineffective players were retained, and there was never talk of an "overhaul."

(On a side note, how sad is it that after the Detroit Pistons made the Eastern Conference finals for the sixth straight season last May and lost to the Boston Celtics, fans called for Joe Dumars to blow up the team. Yet after the Lions put together a seventh consecutive losing season, there was no such talk?)

Now, at long last, the memo has been sent: The Lions suck, they're terrible, they're awful. The offense. The defense. Special teams. The coaching staff. All of it.

"The Detroit Lions are the worst franchise in major American professional sports."

If I had said that even a year ago, I'm sure there would have been plenty of dissenters. But now? Outside of some baseball fans in Pittsburgh, I think a good portion of American sports fans would agree.

"Over the past eight years, no franchise has been worse than the Detroit Lions."

But it's taken an 0-15 season — hopefully soon to be the first 0-16 campaign — to dampen the spirit of the team's faithful and sometimes, sadly, extremely docile supporters. Finally, Ford Field has experienced empty seats; five of the last six games failed to sell out, with Tennessee's butt-whoopin' of the Lions on Thanksgiving the lone exception.

Only 49,309 people attended Sunday's home finale against the Saints, a tidy 42-7 New Orleans victory. It was the second-smallest crowd since the stadium opened in 2002.

The Lions intentionally made the capacity of the stadium (65,000) about 15,000 less than that of the team's former home, the Pontiac Silverdome (80,311), in an attempt to avoid TV cameras panning oceans of empty seats during games. The move worked for six and a half seasons.

But a team that can't win — at all — changes things. Even in Detroit.

Now, of course, the positive thing (I guess) is that as long as things go according to plan at Lambeau Field Sunday, this franchise will have nowhere to go but up (I think). And it is my hope that wholesale changes will be made in an effort to do just that.

With Ford in charge, however, who knows what will be done. There's a good chance the Lions will never make the playoffs under his ownership. That's simply one of those sad facts of life.

But here's what will happen over the next eight months as a result of this historic season:

1. There will be no positive predictions for the 2009 team.

2. No returning players — if there are any — will allow themselves to get fat thinking about improvements that were made during the season and late-season victories that created meaningless momentum.

3. Whoever is coaching the team will ride his staff and players harder than a jockey rides his horse coming down the stretch run of the Derby.

4. And Lions fans will finally expect the worse, regardless of whom their team drafts, knowing that their team is terrible until it proves otherwise.

I, for one, can't wait until the 2009 season. Let's call it the "Season of Realistic Expectations for the Lions."

Then, maybe, we'll be pleasantly surprised when something good happens on the field.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Wouldn't you like to be Stephon Marbury?

Question: If you could live the life of any athlete right now, whose would you choose?

Obviously, there's Tiger Woods. Dude makes yacht-loads of money, has a gorgeous wife and, oh yeah, is well on his way to becoming the best golfer of all time. But we're talking about today, and at this moment Woods can't even hit the Big Dog.

No, being Tiger right now isn't the ideal situation.

OK, how about LeBron James? Dude's one of the best two players in the NBA, is so loved by fans that the folks in Morose Minnesota gave him a standing ovation Wednesday, and he's quickly becoming a global icon. As an added bonus, you get to be boys with Stephen Curry.

Not bad, but LeBron continues to carry a heavy load for the Cavs. At this time of year, I'd prefer a little R & R.

Well, it is the baseball offseason, correct? Players don't have to report for two months. So being C.C. Sabathia would be tight, right?

Except that it wouldn't. C.C.'s going to be under such intense scrutiny next season, he's probably already hitting the treadmill two hours a day to try to trim that stout frame for the New York media hounds. Don't want them blaming your girth when you lose a game in April.

So forget about CC. Mo money, mo problems.

Except, however, when you're talking about Stephon Marbury. Yep, out of all the great players in the sports universe today — the Woodses, the Federers, the Kobes, the Peytons, the A-Rods and the Phelpses — none of them have a better life than Marbury.

Technically, Marbury is still a member of the New York Knicks. In fact, he was at their game Tuesday night against the Lakers. Only thing was, his bottom was plastered to a court-side seat at Staples Center alongside the likes of Jack Nicholson and the rest of Los Angeles' finest.

Marbury, sporting a hot-looking black leather coat, watched a tad of the game, did some texting and talking on his mobile device, and even conducted an interview with reporters during halftime. When he said, memorably, "I'm still earning my check by doing nothing. I'm staying in shape. My mindset is to enjoy my life."

In truth, Marbury is doing nothing. For all intents and purposes, he's unemployed — only his unemployed compensation for this NBA season is $21 million. And while I'm happy that he's staying in shape and enjoying life, he must be corrected on this: he is not earning that rather hefty paycheck. Not in any way.

But please don't blame Marbury. Seriously — the man's doing nothing wrong. It's obvious that New York coach Mike D'Antoni wants nothing to do with the point guard, and after a couple failed attempts at getting him to enter a game from the bench, their relationship was over.

After a fractured meeting with team president Donnie Walsh, Marbury was banned from all Knicks games and practices. In fact, he had to make sure that it was OK for him to attend Tuesday's contest in L.A. since it involved his, eh, team. (And it was fine; no violation.)

Such is the life of the 31-year-old from Brooklyn. I mean, just consider this for a moment. A kid like Marbury, who grew up dirt poor with nothing but a dream. Now he's getting paid a fortune, a life's salary, to do absolutely nothing. Life couldn't be grander, right?

Well, Marbury is actually handling this correctly. While he said he can't wait to be freed from his contract, which expires after the season, he has no plans of bailing out the Knicks for their woeful financial decisions (on a side note, Walsh must be loving Isiah Thomas right now).

And why should he? They agreed to pay him a certain sum of money. Now they want nothing to do with him. He owes them nothing, and I doubt he thinks very highly of the franchise.

Marbury said another NBA team has expressed interest in him. If so, and if he gets a new contract after the season, good for him — and maybe good for that team, as long as they are very careful not to pull an Isiah and do some deadly overspending.

Heck, maybe after a year of free millions, Magnanimous Marbury will make an appearance and agree to pay for a small salary.

Or maybe not.

But back to the question...

Come June, I'd like to be Tiger; he'll be hitting the Big Dog with regularity.

But at this moment, no athlete's life is better than Stephon Marbury's.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Graham Harrell's lack of invite a flaw of Heisman Trophy system


For those of you disgusted with the 925 members of the media, and maybe even the past Heisman Trophy winners, for not allowing Graham Harrell a free trip to New York, I'm with you.

But understand this — it's not the voters' fault that Texas Tech's super-sensational quarterback won't be on stage alongside fellow brilliant QBs Sam Bradford, Colt McCoy and Tim Tebow Saturday night.

Rather, it's the system's fault. (A college-football theme, right?)

As it stands now, the number of Heisman Trophy candidates invited to the Big Apple is determined by the number of points players get from voting. Unfortunately for Harrell, voters only choose their top three candidates.

And according to Heisman coordinator Tim Henning (Lubbock Avalanche-Journal): "We have had as little as three finalists and as many as six finalists in the past. The finalists are determined by the natural breaking point in the voting."

In other words, Harrell may easily be the fourth-best player in the country. But unless a good portion of voters thought he was better than at least one of the aforementioned invited players, he wasn't going to receive the plane ticket, hotel room and chance to meet past winners.

If I had a vote, I'd take Tebow, Bradford, then McCoy. So I don't blame the voters one bit for Harrell not getting the opportunity in the spotlight. They had to pick their top three, and most college-football analysts are in agreement when it comes to the sport's trio of most-deserving players.

Harrell had a great season, but he wasn't quite on the level — just barely — of the trio of finalists. And his team's loss, unlike theirs, was an embarrassing blowout at the hands of the Sooners. So if only three of the nation's four premier signal-callers could go to New York, the correct players are packing their bags.

Of course, it shouldn't have to be this way.

There needs to be a rule stipulating that there should be four finalists each season. Not three, not five — four. That's been the case most of the years I've watched the presentation.

And it's the right number. Big enough that no player as notable as Harrell is left off. Small enough to avoid turning the ceremony into a three-hour affair when you know three of the candidates are simply there for the handshakes with former winners and free food.

In truth, a trip for Harrell would have been just that. Even before being voted off the island, no one believed the senior had a chance. In fact, the Red Raiders became an afterthought following the No-Show in Norman. They had a phenomenal season, won the greatest game of the year, surprised a whole bunch of people who couldn't locate Lubbock on a map and were always fun to watch.

But, unfortunately, schools like Texas Tech have a very slim margin for error and can't afford a loss, especially a 65-21 beatdown on primetime TV. Once that happened, the Red Raiders' national-title hopes were dashed along with Harrell's Heisman campaign. Fair or not, it's reality.

His numbers, however, can't be ignored (and, no, he wasn't just a "product" of Mike Leach's system). Normal quarterbacks, regardless of where they play, don't throw for 4,747 yards and 41 touchdowns. Yes, the Big 12 defenses weren't exactly SEC-tough. But they were still challenging to play against, particularly on the road, and Harrell passed every test but that one in Norman.

And, it should be mentioned, he threw for the second-most yards (15,429) of any major-college player. And that player, Hawaii's Timmy Chang, faced far worse defenses.

So just because he won't dress up in a fancy suit and shake hands with Archie Griffin, let's not forget Graham Harrell. Let's not forget the memorable last-second drive he engineered in Texas Tech's thrilling win over Texas, which culminated with Harrell throwing a perfect timing patter on the sideline to the nation's best wide receiver, Michael Crabtree.

Let's remember the great season, and career, Harrell had while we watch the three finalists smile for the cameras at the presentation.

And let's hope that the BCS isn't the only college-football system that is modified in the years to come.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

With two big upsets, expectations skyrocket for Michigan


It's amusing what two games — 80 minutes of court time — can do for a basketball program and those who follow it, or now follow it thanks to the wins.

A month ago, there was mild optimism surrounding the Michigan basketball team as it got set to kick off its second season under the watch of coach John Beilein. Coming off a 10-22 season, no one doubted that the Wolverines — with almost all their key players back — would be improved. Most, like myself, predicted a winning record and NIT berth for the team.

So much for that.

With wins over a pair of No. 4 teams, UCLA and Duke — now ranked 16th and seventh, respectively, in the latest AP poll — Michigan fans are thinking of one goal for this team. It's something that the program, astoundingly, hasn't reached since a year when Bill Clinton still had two-plus years left in his presidency and Mark McGuire and Sammy Sosa were loved like cute puppies.

The year was 1998, and it was the last time the Wolverines smelled the NCAA Tournament.

Now, with Michigan sitting 6-2 and just outside of the Top 25, people in and around Ann Arbor expect big things out of this team. Just visit the Ann Arbor News' message board, where one frequent poster wrote the following:

"I am looking for a final four appearance within five years, maybe sooner."

Final Four? Let's not get ahead of ourselves. An opportunity to go Dancing would be a big, big start.

But don't bet your iPod on it. This team is much, much better than a year ago; this team has the coach and players to consistently perform like it did in Saturday's 81-73 shocker over the Blue Devils, to prove it wasn't a fluke; the two wins will undoubtedly help if Michigan is on the "bubble" come early March...

Let's just see how the Wolverines handle the newfound attention. We should get a good idea of it during the next three weeks. And I, for one, think it's a good thing the team was left out of both top-25 polls; getting at all complacent could be disastrous.

Michigan finishes the bulk of its non-conference schedule with home games against Eastern Michigan, Florida Gulf-Coast and North Carolina Central, and a neutral-court game versus Oakland. The Wolverines will be heavily favored in every game. How will they handle it?

It shouldn't be forgotten that the Wolverines needed overtime to beat Savannah State — in front of a measly crowd — a week before knocking off the Devils, which caused the sellout crowd to storm the court. Will Michigan, playing to similarly small crowds, bring the same energy against lesser opponents?

They better, because a letdown in the upcoming quartet of games would count as a "bad loss" come March.

It's not an easy stretch for 19-year-olds to concentrate during, what with final exams, the holidays and a good portion of the student body home with their families for about two weeks. At the same time, with only the four games during a 23-day period, I'm sure Beilein and his staff view it as a time to really get all the players on the same wavelength and try to set the rotation for the Big Ten schedule.

These are very happy times in and around the confines of Crisler Arena. The memory of a year ago is fading — and with it any doubts that Beilein is the right coach for the Wolverines. The man knows what he's doing. How else can you explain bringing in freshman Zack Novak, who wouldn't get a scholarship from many Division I teams?

And, yep, Novak drilled four 3-pointers, including the two biggest shots of the game, against Duke.

Beilein might not rake in top-10 national recruits, but he'll definitely continue to reel in players who fit his system. And anyone who has followed his career path knows that his system works against the best competition.

So is the program going to continue to get better?

Undoubtedly, as long as Beilein sticks around.

But is this team headed to the NCAA Tournament?

My mind tells me "yes" at the moment, but there remain many more games — some of them very difficult, some of them looking like even matchups, some with the appearance of games this team should win.

If the young Wolverines take care of those "should-win" games and win a few of the even matchups, they'll find themselves back, finally, in the only college-basketball tournament that matters. If they have more lapses, like the five-minute one that lost the game for them at Maryland Wednesday, they may have to settle for that prognosticated NIT berth.

Either way, things are looking up — way up — for Beilein and his kids. The win over Duke was the grandest since an upset of then-No. 1 Duke in 1997.

Just don't think, all of a sudden, that anything is guaranteed for this team. The survival against Savannah State should make that very clear.

The Wolverines earned their wins over UCLA and Duke by playing hard and composed for most of 40 minutes.

They'll have to continue to do the same to continue winning and not put a damper on these highly increased expectations.

Friday, December 5, 2008

Now is the time for Curry to tinker


Relax, Pistons fans. Yes, your team isn't exactly putting together winning streaks. Yes, the 11-6 record isn't up to the standard of the past six seasons. And yes, those stinking Cleveland Cavaliers and their New York-loving superstar are up three and a half games on your team in the Central Division...

Relax. Because every fact from the above paragraph has almost no meaning.

Here's what does matter: The Pistons will be back in the playoffs come springtime. I'd bet this nice laptop plus my car on that.

Here's what else is important: First-year coach Michael Curry knows what he's doing. He's performing admirably at focusing on the regular season, but simultaneously keeping his eyes on the only objective that really matters for this recently underachieving franchise: making it back to the NBA Finals and winning a championship.

Curry knew what he was getting into when he accepted Joe Dumars' blessing. A 60-22 regular season might be nice for a day, but coupled with another exit from the Eastern Conference finals, it would mean nothing and impress no one. The same can be said of winning another division title or even finishing with the conference's and/or league's best record.

Who cares?

Curry knows all this, and that's why — even here in early December, when the playoffs seem decades away — he is thinking ahead with each game. He won't admit that, but he's simply doing his job.

And that entails establishing a rotation of players he can trust come mid-April. Not just five starters and maybe a sixth man, but a larger group of players who have all played substantially and will have the ability to play big minutes — if needed — when the games count most.

The plebe coach showed off his willingness to play anyone in a loss the other night to the Portland Trail Blazers. When a lineup that included reserves Amir Johnson, Rodney Stuckey and Arron Afflalo made a run to give the Pistons a brief fourth-quarter lead, Curry stuck with his backups and left starting small forward Tayshaun Prince on the bench the entire final quarter.

Detroit went on to lose, and Prince didn't understand why he hadn't been reinserted, but Curry backed up his decision by saying Prince hadn't played well. And the numbers verify his impact on the game: Detroit was outscored by 23 points while he was on the floor.

This doesn't mean, of course, that Prince is less talented than Johnson or couldn't have helped lead Detroit to victory. But Curry went with the players who had gotten their team back in the game. And despite the loss, the trio had to gain confidence from knowing that their coach believed in them to make plays during crunch time. (And, again, the outcomes at this point don't matter so much.)

The move to go with his reserves wasn't isolated, either — although I wouldn't expect starters to sit out too many more entire fourth quarters of close games. Curry said earlier in the week that he expects to continue to cut his starters' playing time at least a little bit. This is a smart move in two respects.

One, it keeps the older starting lineup more fresh. Allen Iverson said recently that he can't find his rhythm playing fewer minutes than he's averaged during his career. Well, the 33-year-old has 65 games to figure out how to find it. That's the benefit of the Pistons' trade for the superstar happening so early in the season.

Rasheed Wallace and Richard Hamilton need to be ready to play their best basketball, not to mention be healthy as can be, come playoff time. It's no secret that the Pistons go as Wallace goes. If he's playing well and finds the range from behind the 3-point arc, Detroit is a very dangerous team.

The Pistons are even more potent when they're getting consistent production from their bench. As we saw in last year's playoffs, Stuckey can play with and against the top dogs and isn't afraid of big-time situations. With the benefit of more minutes under his belt, he'll only become better. Afflalo has shown he can not only lock down on defense, but he can shoot the ball too. He just needs the minutes in real-game situations to become more confident in that part of his game.

Detroit will surely benefit from the return of Antonio McDyess — and his mid-range shooting ability — when he returns off waivers probably next week, but it would be smart to bring him off the bench. By inserting him into the lineup instead of current starter Kwame Brown, Curry would effectively have his five best offensive players beginning the game on the court.

I don't like it. At least one forward and one guard who can score need to be stashed on the bench so that when games start out poorly for the starting five, they can be inserted to provide a "spark," an offensive shot to the arm. When McDyess returns, he'll be Detroit's lone reliable scorer at the forward position off the pine (if, indeed, that's where he begins games).

Of course, there remain 65 games for Johnson, Brown and Jason Maxiell to get valuable experience and gain confidence for the postseason. And with the way Curry's coaching this team, I expect to see some positive gains from them. If nothing else, he'll determine who he can trust in tight spots.

So, relax, Pistons fans. A loss in December means close to nothing.

Unless, of course, it puts the Lions closer to 0-16.

Monday, December 1, 2008

Barkley's right: LeBron should be quiet


The Summer of 2010 remains a long way off. For instance, here are a few sports events that should happen before then:

The Detroit Lions will win a game. Maybe not multiple games, but a game. Hey, that's a start.

Roger Federer will break Pete Sampras' record of 14 grand-slam titles.

Tiger Woods will inch closer to breaking Jack Nicklaus' record of 18 major titles.

The Michigan basketball team will make its first NCAA Tournament since the long-ago year of 1998.

And on we go...

The point is that November 2008 is no time to be talking about that far-away summer. Not even the almighty LeBron James has that right — yes, even if he's asked that question by the oppressive New York media.

This is what James had to say when asked about the possibility of playing in a New York Knicks uniform after he becomes a free agent:

"I don't know if it's going to happen. But you have to stay open-minded if you're a Knicks fan."

Charles Barkley might have been a controversial player, but you could never doubt his loyalty to the team he was on. After James' visit to the Big Apple, the outspoken former All-Star gave James some sage advice (though he could have worded it more politically correct).

"If I was LeBron James, I would shut the hell up," Barkley said on Dan Patrick's radio show. "I'm a big LeBron fan. He's a stud. You gotta give him his props. I'm getting so annoyed he's talking about what he's going to do in two years. I think it's disrespectful to the game. I think it's disrespectful to the Cavaliers."

Barkley couldn't be more correct. And thankfully he spoke out, because we'll never hear a member of the Cleveland organization speak out against James — unless he kidnaps a cute kid or shoots himself in the leg, or something — because they don't want to do anything that will lower the probability of James re-signing with Cleveland in that much-talked-about summer.

To summarize, James has the Cavaliers hog-tied. He can do whatever he likes, within the law, and say whatever he wants. And hardly anyone in Cleveland will talk bad about him.

So how did James so eloquently respond to Barkley's comment?

"He's stupid. That's all I've got to say about that."

Nice and succinct. Hey, kind of like the answer James should have given when asked about the Summer of 2010.

Seriously. James is a smart man. He understands how the world works. He reads the news, knows what's being said, knows how certain comments are reacted to. So obviously he was aware of how his comments would be interpreted.

All he had to say was this (which, of course, is boring and typical, but also the right thing to say given the situation): "My focus right now is on the Cleveland Cavaliers. I'll deal with that decision when the time comes."

We hear smart athletes make similar statements all the time. Do we enjoy the non-answers to questions? Of course not — they're boring and don't tell us anything. But from the athletes' perspectives, they're doing what's right for their situations.

Now, the immediate impact of James' flirtation with the New York media hasn't seemed to affect his team. The Cavs are on a roll, having won all three games since their rout of the Knicks last Tuesday. While the players had to deal with questions about 2010 instead of their current dominant team, they haven't let the distraction affect their play.

Cleveland rested Monday night 14-3, three and a half games ahead of sagging Detroit in the Eastern Conference's Central Division. Its next game is a home rematch with the Knicks Wednesday night.

The Cavaliers are clearly the second-best team in the East behind the defending-champion Celtics. And last season's playoff series between the teams went to an epic seventh game, which Boston barely survived. So the difference between the squads isn't as big as some might make it out to be.

The point is that James is in a pretty good situation. It's not like he's part of a dysfunctional franchise run by idiots. This Cleveland team, with its current makeup, is capable of winning an NBA title. Sure, it'd help for James to have an All-Star sidekick such as Michael Redd.

But it's not like Cleveland did nothing during the offseason to help James' cause. The Cavs signed point guard Mo Williams, who is only the team's second-leading scorer and is dishing out 4.6 assists per game (also second on the team behind you-know-who).

James has nothing to complain about — except Cleveland's crappy weather — and to his credit, he has been very upbeat about the 2008-09 Cavaliers.

So why even think about 2010? Why look ahead at all. The opportunity that sits in front of James this season has to be as tantalizing as the thought of moving to New York in 2010:

James has a chance to lead the city arguably the most hungry for a major-sports title to a championship. By giving Cleveland a title, or sticking around and winning multiple trophies, James could be remembered as the single greatest athlete in the history of Cleveland.

If he goes to New York, he'll be fighting Ruth, Mantle, Gehrig, and company, and the handfuls of championships the various sports teams have captured. If he made the move and didn't win a title there, he'd be termed a failure. That wouldn't happen in Cleveland.

But that's James' decision to make ... in a year and a half.

Until then, he'd be smart to devote all his basketball attention to the great opportunity he has in Cleveland playing on one of the NBA's best teams in front of adoring sold-out crowds every night.

Live in the present, LeBron; the Summer of 2010 will be here soon enough.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Don't forget about USC


If you love college football, folks, this Thursday through Saturday is the time to grab a turkey leg and a slice of chocolate pie and sit yourself down in front of the idiot box.

Because for all the insanity that's transpired the past 13 weeks, for all the annual dissing and hissing and pissing about the BCS, now is when things get really interesting.

The final two weekends of the college football season are the best — hands down. Of course, the bowls usually leave much to be desired (USC-Texas in January of '06 was an exception), and that's why a four- or eight-team playoff would add a thrilling ending to the season.

But that doesn't mean college football isn't still great the way it is. Consider this — since USC lost to Oregon State way back in September, no one has said a thing about the Trojans except to mention that if the Beavers win out, culminating in a victory Saturday over Oregon, they'll play Penn State in the Rose Bowl instead of USC.

But here's the kicker. Even if the Beavers silence the quacking Ducks, the Trojans could end up in the national-title game. That's how bizarre, and fun to watch, this sport is.

Here are a few things that could happen to propel USC back into the title game, although nobody outside of L.A. thinks it deserves the honor considering the anemic Pac-10 schedule it's played:

— First off, let me set the stage: USC trails Alabama, Texas, Oklahoma and Florida (in that order) in the BCS standings.

OK, here's what could happen in the next two weeks.

Scenario 1: Alabama (13-0) vs. USC (11-1) — Obviously, the Trojans win out against hapless Notre Dame and UCLA. Alabama beats Auburn and then disposes of Florida in the SEC title game, leaving the Gators with two losses (see ya!). Either Texas or Oklahoma loses this week — the Sooners being the mostly likely victim when they travel to play Oklahoma State; Texas hosts Texas A&M — and the team that wins falls to Missouri in the Big 12 title game.

That would leave Florida, Texas and Oklahoma all with two losses. Sure, Texas Tech would finish with a single loss, but the Red Raiders stand seventh in the BCS standings and surely won't get a boost from their final game against Baylor. USC, meanwhile, won't fall in the standings with two more wins despite the morbidness of its remaining opponents.

Just like that, the Trojans would be back competing for a national title. (Hey, at least the Buckeyes aren't returning.)

Scenario 2: Texas/Oklahoma vs. USC (11-1) — This is much less likely to happen, but after the craziness that dominated the college-football world at the end of last year, I'm not ruling anything out. Florida and Alabama both have losable rivalry games Saturday. The Gators travel to Tallahassee to take on Florida State. The Crimson Tide, meanwhile, host Auburn, which has won six consecutive games in the series. If both teams lose, followed by a Florida win in the SEC title game, both SEC teams would effectively be out of the title game with two losses.

That would leave the door open for USC ... Or, and I just thought of this, how about a Texas-Oklahoma rematch in the title game? Yep, it could happen. If both teams win this week and the team with the higher BCS ranking — mostly likely the Sooners — wins the Big 12 title game, the one-loss squads could face off in a rematch of the high-scoring thriller back in October. (USC, of course, would need one of them to lose to climb the ladder to No. 2 in the BCS.)

Got all that? I know, it all sounds so unlikely, but with Thanksgiving just a day away and my stomach grumbling, my mind shifts back to the absolute bedlam that overtook the college-football universe a year ago.

On the Friday after Thanksgiving, I was sitting in my aunt and uncle's den, having decided to watch No. 1 LSU take on huge underdog Alabama instead of accompanying the boys to see "American Gangster." (As I'll always tell people, you can watch a movie anytime; DVRs, TiVos, all that mess doesn't do live sports justice.) Anyway, I watched in awe as the Razorbacks, led by super human Darren McFadden, came back to defeat the Tigers on their home field in triple overtime. Having suffered their second loss, I was positive the Tigers were out of the national-title picture. So were all the TV heads, radio heads, print pundits.

Then, just a week later, I watched in amazement as No. 1 Missouri was rolled over by Oklahoma, ending the Tigers' chances, and West Virginia — a huge favorite at home against Pittsburgh — pulled a choke job that won't be forgotten anytime soon in bitter Morgantown.

All of a sudden, in a matter of an hour, LSU was back in the title game thanks to two improbable losses. Ohio State, its season having ended two weeks earlier, was already a lock to play in its second consecutive championship game. The Buckeyes, I'm sure, just didn't expect another SEC opponent (and we all know what happened).

But that's beside the point. What should be learned from 2007 is that all this talk of SEC vs. Big 12 is, simply, premature. Sure, it's very likely. Heck, I'm sure the BCS head honchos want it, so they can call those two conference title games "semifinals" — although the Big 12 game wouldn't be one, since two-loss Missouri is in it.

Just don't count out the Trojans. We'll know after this weekend if we can do that, and we'll have everything sorted out in just over two weeks.

Until then, however, enjoy the madness, because in the BCS era these are the two greatest, most dramatic weekends of college football.

And they give people like myself, with too much time on my hands, a chance to think up all the possible scenarios that could be the result of Upset City.

These upcoming games, folks, are the current college-football playoffs.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

A signature win for the young Wolverines


It was only one game in a long season. It only counts for one non-conference win.

But don't think that Michigan's 55-52 upset of No. 4 UCLA Thursday night will be forgotten anytime soon. Instead, it might be remembered as the signature victory that marked the beginning of the Wolverines' climb to respectability.

This much can be taken from the game: John Beilein has the program headed in the right direction.

Are the 3-0 Wolverines an NCAA Tournament team? Probably not — although their chances are greatly enhanced by the "quality" November win. But they're almost definitely an NIT team, which would be a big improvement from last season's 10-22 finish. And with most of their key players not seniors, they should be even better next season.

Before I applaud the Wolverines, it should be noted that the Bruins didn't look like a top-5 team — or maybe even a top-10 squad. After making a third consecutive Final Four last April, this team is clearly adjusting to the losses of three key players, and it'll be much better by March.

There was offensive confusion, bad turnovers and plenty of missed free throws to go around. It was far from a typical UCLA performance.

But who cares? A win over a great program is just that — HUGE. And now Michigan gets not one, but two shots at No. 10/No. 5 Duke. The Wolverines will take on the Blue Devils Friday night in the tournament finale, and then Duke will travel to Ann Arbor for the rematch two weeks later on Dec. 6.

While a win against the Devils — who, from watching regularly, I'd say are better than the Bruins — would be an even bigger surprise, just the thought of a non-conference resume with "W's" over two top-10 teams has to be intoxicating to any Michigan hoops fan.

But back to the team. It is clear from watching the Wolverines that Beilein knows what he's doing with his 3-point shooting, 1-3-1 zoning style. Manny Harris and DeShawn Sims are good players who could probably play on most Division I teams. As for the rest of the roster, however, they're "system" players. In other words, you would never see David Merritt running the point for John Calipari in Memphis.

Consider 6-foot-3, 175-pound freshman guard Stu Douglass, who made the biggest shot of the night. With the Bruins leading 48-46 with less than 5 minutes remaining — and seemingly on the verge of breaking away, as many would expect — Douglass unexpectedly launched a long, contested 3-pointer that I can't believe he released. It was the type of shot you groan about, thinking, "Dumb freshman."

But, holy smokes, it caught nothing but net. After they had allowed the Bruins to forge ahead, Douglass' improbable shot restored the Wolverines' confidence, and they didn't trail the rest of the game. It was the kind of shot that could be pointed to in February as momentum-building if Michigan is in the midst of a memorable season. And it was made by a player who wasn't recruited by any top-notch programs and wasn't even rated by

And it wasn't an aberration (Douglass is a designated long-range sharpshooter; that's his role). Michigan's performance in Madison Square Garden was no anomaly, either. In case you missed it, this is what the Wolverines do well and are only getting better at.

1. Defensively, they fluster opponents with their 1-3-1 extended halfcourt trap, which slows down opponents and especially makes life difficult for teams such as the Bruins who don't shoot particularly well from the perimeter. UCLA passed on several open — albeit long — 3-pointers and shot just 5-of-15 from behind the arc. At times, it exploited the defense with deft inside passing, but that takes precise execution. Half of the time, passes just a little off the mark resulted in turnovers.

Michigan forced 17 UCLA miscues. Meanwhile, the younger Wolverines gave the ball away just nine times. That was a huge factor in the victory.

2. The Wolverines still look stagnant at times on offense, and there were a few possessions when everyone was bunched together on the perimeter with the shot clock running down. But Michigan tends to move very well without the ball, creating plays such as the backdoor pass that Sims took from Anthony Wright for a huge dunk that extended Michigan's lead to 53-49 with 34 seconds remaining.

Also, all the Wolverines are quick and can shoot from anywhere on the floor, including 6-10 big man Zack Gibson. This means opponents can't sag back against anyone, which creates plenty of space for Harris to slash to the basket. The biggest thing Harris needs to work on is his passing. He made two awful passes in transition that almost cost Michigan the game. With the attention he's going to receive from opposing defenses, he needs to be able to find the open man.

So even before Thanksgiving, Michigan has an identity (not to mention that program-building win on national television). Don't tell me that there weren't some high-school kids watching ESPN2 who didn't think, "Wow, now there's a team I could see myself playing for." Yes, the win could certainly help recruiting.

But most important, the upset was a confidence-booster for a Michigan team that hasn't won such a big game since taking down No. 1 Duke on Dec. 14, 1997. Michigan fought back from 17 points down in that game and ended up going to the NCAA Tournament, where it bowed out in the second round.

Sitting in Crisler Arena's nosebleeds that Saturday afternoon, I never could have guessed that after the season Michigan would go 10 straight seasons without making it back to the Big Dance or beating a top-five team. The thought would have been met with laughter.

But sadly enough, that's what has transpired during the darkest era of the program's history.

Thursday, Nov. 20, 2008, was only one day, and it contained just a single Michigan victory, but in the months and years to come it could hold a special significance in the minds of the program's faithful followers. It could mark the day of the signature victory that boosted the program onto an infallible road back to respectability.

Regardless of how the win is remembered, this much is for sure: Beilein and staff know what they're doing and are well on their way to molding this team, and the ones to come, into one to be reckoned with throughout the season.

What the Wolverines did against UCLA is learn to win a close, hard-fought game against a more highly regarded opponent. The effects of the victory shouldn't be underestimated.

And you can bet Duke won't be taking the Wolverines lightly in the teams' first meeting or second.

Monday, November 17, 2008

McNabb's ignorance is shocking, unaceptable


A couple of things stand out about Donovan McNabb that have not a thing to do with football.

I admire him for both attributes.

First off, it has to be mentioned that the guy has a great smile. There aren't that many quarterbacks who get beat up each Sunday afternoon only to smile every time they're thrown to the cold turf by a 292-pound, angry defensive lineman. McNabb is one tough dude and an auspicious one.

He usually sees the glass half full.

And then there's his other likable trait. The man is very honest. For the most part, he speaks the truth. In today's jaded sports world, he stands out in that regard.

But, unfortunately, I must say I think less of McNabb the football player, and this may be a result of his honestly. McNabb didn't have to come out after Philadelphia's brutal 13-13 tie with Cincinnati Sunday and say this, but I guess he wasn't ashamed of it. He should have been:

"I've never been a part of a tie. I never even knew that was in the rule book," McNabb said. "It's part of the rules, and we have to go with it. I was looking forward to getting the opportunity to get out there and try to drive to win the game. But unfortunately, with the rules, we settled with a tie."

I was shocked by McNabb's revelation. It's one thing for a rookie wide receiver, such as his teammate Desean Jackson, to not know the rule. But for a quarterback, who directs the offense and decides when to snap the ball, to be oblivious to the fact that overtime is just 15 minutes is, well, just plain unacceptable.

And to think that McNabb has been in the NFL for 10 seasons. That's an eternity for a football player, folks. McNabb has played in a Super Bowl. He led the Eagles to four consecutive conference-championship games. Yet in a game Philadelphia desperately needed to win over a one-win team Sunday, McNabb didn't know that his team needed to score in the first 15 minutes of extra time to do just that.

I like McNabb, he's a good guy, but that's just sad, pitiful, unexplainable. Just hear what he had to say about a possible "tie" in the playoffs.

"I hate to see what would happen in the Super Bowl and in the playoffs."

Uh, Donovan, there are no "ties" in the playoffs. Those are the only games that would be decided in the manner you thought Sunday's ugly back-and-forth would end. There obviously can't be ties in the postseason. Even the average Bengals fan knows that.

McNabb's defenders claim that his ignorance had no effect on the game, that it would have reached the same result if he had known about the rule. I can't agree or disagree with this. I (thankfully) didn't see a minute of the game.

But let me ask this: Would it hurt McNabb to be aware of the rule? The obvious answer is no. Scouring the play-by-play of overtime — yes, I'm brutally honest too — I noticed that on Philadelphia's last legitimate possession that begin with 1 minute, 50 seconds to go, the Eagles faced a third-and-10 at their 13-yard line.

Some context: Philadelphia had smartly used its two allotted timeouts during Cincinnati's previous possession — apparently oblivious to McNabb. So this was its last chance to win the game. If the Bengals got the ball back, they'd definitely try to score. But Philly wouldn't get the pigskin back, again, with enough time to get into field-goal range.

So what did McNabb do on Philly's final meaningful offensive play, needing 10 yards? He threw a 9-yard pass to Kevin Curtis — and then headed to the sideline.

The Eagles punted. The Bengals, led by Ryan Fitzpatrick in his 12th career game, quickly drove into field-goal range. Shayne Graham missed his game-winning attempt. And Philly got the ball back with 7 seconds remaining. As McNabb took the field, he was finally told that he was a touchdown of ticks way from a tie.

So he heaved a deep pass, which was easily broken up. And the NFL had its first tie since 2002.

It doesn't matter what might have happened had McNabb read the NFL rulebook or gone online — like I just did in 27 seconds — to read the explanation of overtime. The point here is that one of the NFL's elite quarterbacks, one of its better-paid QBs, didn't know a very simple rule that the average football fan is well aware of.

This also begs the question of just how smart of a quarterback McNabb is. We all know what happened in Super Bowl XXXIX, which caused mercurial wide receiver Terrell Owens to publicly criticize McNabb and probably helped lead to Owens' exile from the City of Brotherly Love.

In that game, with the Eagles trailing 24-14, McNabb and the offense took nearly 4 minutes to drive 79 yards on 13 plays and finally score a touchdown with 1:48 to play. It would have been fine if the Eagles were down just a touchdown. But as was the case, McNabb's casualness in marching his team down the field forced Philly to attempt an onside kick.

The Patriots recovered, and even though Philly forced a punt with less than a minute remaining, the Eagles started their final possession at their own 4-yard line. A McNabb interception quickly put an end to the drama.

No one will argue that scoring against that Patriots' defense was no easy task. But how quickly you get your team to the line of scrimmage and snap the ball is not affected by the opposition. McNabb should have shown more desperation in getting his team down the field.

(Head coach Andy Reid should have also received criticism for not getting the offense in hurry-up mode.)

So here we are, almost four years later, and again McNabb's acumen must be questioned. His arm can't be questioned. Nor should we doubt his ability to thread the needle on tough throws. And he can still get out of the pocket and run on occasion. He remains a very able quarterback.

But to excel at the toughest position on the football field, one must be a complete player — both in mind and body.

Here's to hoping one of the NFL's most likable, and honest, guys spends a few minutes this week to read over not only his Eagles playbook, but the NFL rulebook as well.

Because for a soon-to-be 32-year-old (the big day is Nov. 25) quarterback and offensive leader, McNabb should be one of the more knowledgeable players on his team.

Right now, his ignorance smells almost as bad as Jackson's dropping of the football before crossing the goal line in his second career league game.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

A loss that says a lot about the Hawks


Typically, I'm not a proponent of writing about NBA teams and their fortunes in November. Or December or January, for that matter.

The season is too long, beginning in mid-fall and lasting until the beginning of summer. Entire buildings are constructed, entire pregnancies are survived, the world is sailed around during NBA seasons.

So, obviously, a lot can change during the course of the 82-game regular-season grind, followed by the protracted, made-for-TV playoffs. But, just two weeks into the 2008-09 season, I've got some bold predictions for you:

1. The Atlanta Hawks will make a strong run at winning the Southeast Division, battling the Orlando Magic to the end. Heck, scratch that last statement (I'm feeling really bold). And forget what my recent NBA preview said:

The Hawks will win the Southeast. Yep, you heard it here first.

2. The Atlanta Hawks will not be a "sleeper" in the playoffs. Rather, they'll be a contender. They will likely win one series and maybe two. And don't discount them when putting together your list of teams that can make a run at the defending-champion Boston Celtics.

Why am I writing this manifesto, here on Nov. 13, when half of America doesn't even know basketball season is underway? Well, let's just say the Hawks have made a stronger-than-Whiskey statement with their first seven games, including the only one they lost.

That happened last night, when they visited the last venue in which they lost a game with any meaning. Back on May 4, a Sunday afternoon, Atlanta traveled to Boston for a grand opportunity: a chance to knock off the heavily favored Celtics in Game 7 of the first round and advance in the playoffs.

It laid an egg, playing like the young team it was — immature, impatient, unfocused.

The Hawks were great at home during the series, winning all three games in HotLanta, making basketball relevant in the city for the first time since Dominique Wilkins routinely threw down thunderous putback dunks. But when it came to winning on Boston's home court, it was clear that the team still had to grow up, still had to find that steely focus that championship contenders maintain regardless of their next game's venue.

Well, I have no idea what most members of the Hawks did this summer — although I read an article that said Marvin Williams came back to Chapel Hill to work toward his degree, which shows his tremendous dedication, considering he spent just a single year playing for the Tar Heels. But whatever the players did, the came to training camp this fall a much-improved team both physically and mentally.

A lot was made of Josh Childress' departure for the great fortunes of basketball in Greece. Pundits thought the loss of their consistent sixth man would greatly hurt the Hawks. That hasn't been close to the case. Ronald "Flip" Murray and Maurice Evans have filled in admirable (although they're a fantasy owner's nightmare because they basically exchange having good games).

And the starting lineup has been one of basketball's best, as it showed in Boston Wednesday night. In the best game of the young season, the Hawks battled the Celtics down to the final seconds.

Williams, not known for his outside shooting, knocked down a 3-pointer — after the team's leading scorer, Joe Johnson, was double-teamed while driving down the baseline — and the Hawks took a one-point lead with 7 seconds remaining.

Of course the Celtics being the Celtics, Paul Pierce came back to make a difficult fadeaway jumper with 0.5 seconds remaining, giving Boston a thrilling 103-102 victory and ending Atlanta's perfect season.

But at 6-1, the Hawks have to be just as excited as Boston's fans were after watching their Celtics improve to 8-1. In two-weeks time, they have shown the NBA world that they definitely weren't a one-year fluke and that they definitely have the nucleus to maintain this type of play throughout the season.

At this point, I'd still rate Boston, Cleveland and Detroit — in that order — as the East's top trio of teams. But after them, it's a crap shoot. Philly has been disappointing this far, the Magic still don't play much defense and the Raptors are solid, but I still don't see championship potential there.

I'd make Atlanta my fourth-best team in the East right now. After making such a statement, I guess I owe you a few reasons:

1. In case you haven't noticed, Johnson is one of the NBA's best scorers. There's no doubt about it. Every night he's the focus of the opponent's defense, and every night he finds ways to score. He's a great shooter, he's a strong slasher, and he showed his passing ability by finding Williams for the go-ahead 3-pointer. He's a great lead-by-example guy.

2. Mike Bibby is the veteran presence the team needs. He's been through the playoff battles before (with Sacramento) and knows what it takes to win games like Wednesday's. And he plays the most important position, so when things start to slip, he can quickly get everyone back on track.

3. Al Horford will only get better. In just his second season, the Hawks' center is showing his potential. Just Tuesday, he scored 27 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. With Horford on my fantasy team, I was about to plan a party until I realized I was still losing. But in all seriousness, Horford has quickly proven that he's a legitimate starting center. And as we saw against Boston last season, he doesn't back down from anybody.

So there you go. Three reasons I'm not calling the fast start a fluke. Atlanta has the dogs to keep winning. Not at this pace, no, but at a good enough clip to win its division and get homecourt advantage in the first round of the postseason.

As it showed during this trip to Boston, basically the same group of players from last spring is now just as talented, just as hungry for success, more focused and certainly not intimidated by any opponent or any arena.

And that, to me, is enough to write such a glowing NBA column before even watching a full NBA game.

Monday, November 10, 2008

2008-09 college basketball preview: predicting the 65


What a difference a year makes. Twelve months ago, I was more than ready for college basketball season to commence here in the Triangle. So was everyone else in the area.

All three local college football teams stunk like a stunk. None of them were contending in the meek ACC, or even in the running for a half-decent bowl game. Hoops season couldn't come quickly enough.

Now, as I prepare for the first local game of the season tonight — when mighty Presbyterian visits Cameron Indoor Stadium to take on the Blue Devils — the main focus around here, at least for the moment, is on the gridiron.

North Carolina is 7-2, ranked No. 17 in the AP poll and tied for the Coastal Division lead. Duke has faltered of late, but its 4-5 record is remarkable considering the morbid seasons before David Cutcliffe arrived in Durham. N.C. State (3-6) still harbors hopes of three straight wins and a bowl game.

So for now, football retains the spotlight. But that doesn't mean I can ignore college hoops. Nope, definitely not down here. Just last Saturday, the Smith Center was almost filled to capacity as UNC played its one exhibition game sans Tyler Hansbrough against UNC-Pembroke.

And I expect a loud, boisterous crowd tonight inside Cameron.

So with that said, let me get this season underway, as I did a year ago, with my picks for the NCAA Tournament still four months away.


Big East Conference
— Louisville: The Cardinals will hold strong in this absurdly loaded conference, led by four returning starters who came so close against UNC in the Elite Eight a year ago.

Atlantic 10 Conference
— St. Joseph's: The Hawks will take advantage of a depleted Xavier squad to win a tight title race, led by all-conference forward Ahmad Nivins.

Metro Atlantic
— Siena: A no-brainer. The Saints knocked off four-seed Vanderbilt in the Big Dance and return the goods to have an even better season this time around.

Ivy League
— Cornell: Yep, expect the Big Red to repeat as conference champs after winning all 14 league games a year ago. It has Ivy League player of the year Louis Dale back to lead the way.

America East
— Hartford: The Hawks appeared in their first conference title game a year ago, losing to UMBC. Now, with all five starters back, they take the next step to the Big Dance.

Patriot League
— American: Who knows what will happen in this upside-down league. The Eagles were supposed to be at the bottom of the league a year ago, then went out and won it. Now they've got guys like first-team all-league Garrison Carr back. They should win, right?

Northeast Conference
— Central Connecticut State: After a one-year hiatus, expect the Blue Devils to come out of the Northeast again thanks to the return of a trio of double-digit scorers.

Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)
— North Carolina: Hey, anything can happen, and don't pencil this in. Duke, Wake Forest and Miami could make runs at the Heels, who will get everyone's best game. But if everyone gets healthy and there are no personal agendas, there's no stopping the country's consensus No. 1.

— South Carolina State: I know it's a risky pick choosing a 13-20 team to turn things around and win its league tourney, but the Bulldogs return three double-digit scorers plus College of Charleston transfer Josh Jackson. Make me proud, Bulldogs

— Virginia Commonwealth: Rarely do you see a team from a conference such as the CAA face such great pressure to reach the NCAA Tournament, but after being left out of the NCAAs and the NIT despite a 24-8 record, Eric Maynor won't let the Rams be on the outside again.

Big South
— VMI: I wanted to pick Winthrop to advance to the Big Dance for a sixth straight season, but with nobody back from their core, the Eagles simply don't have the makeup. So I'm going with the Keydets, who not only have a cool name but led the nation in scoring.

Southern Conference
— Davidson: Every once in a while, it's nice to get a pick so obvious, I'd bet my house on it (if I had a house). Barring a bad injury to Stephon Curry, the Wildcats will win out in the league.

Southeastern (SEC)
— Florida: Anyone who saw how inspired the Gators, revved up by Billy Donovan's tongue-lashing, played in the NIT knows that they'll be a much-improved team. Nick Calathes will lead the way to the title in a down year for the SEC.

Ohio Valley Conference
— Tennessee-Martin: I'm basing this prediction on the ability of one man — Lester Hudson. The All-America candidate passed up the NBA to return, and he's the only NCAA player to record a quadruple-double.

Sun Belt
— South Alabama: The Jaguars' 26-7 record was good enough to get them an at-large berth in the tournament, a rarity for a team from such a low-profile league. This year, they'll have to win the conference tournament to go dancing, and they have enough talent to do just that.

Atlantic Sun
— Belmont: I was in Washington when the Bruins came within a basket of knocking off No. 2 seed Duke. Now, with almost everybody back, they'll make their fourth straight tournament appearance and, no doubt, scare another high seed.

Big Ten
— Purdue: The safe pick is to go with Tom Izzo's team in East Lansing, but I love what the Boilermakers have coming back, which is everybody. This team — and I emphasize team, because everyone contributes — won't settle for anything less than a Big Ten title.

Horizon League
— Wright State: It looks like Butler's strong run will end — at least for a year — with all of its key cogs off in the real world. That leaves the door open for the Raiders, who return all-league guard Vaughn Duggins.

Summit League
— Oakland: I picked the Grizzlies a year ago ... and they let me down. I'll give them one more chance. They return all of their key players, and Oral Roberts — winners of three straight titles — has a depleted roster.

Mid-American (MAC)
— Kent State: When I realized that the Golden Flashes have won at least 20 games in each of the last 10 seasons, I jumped on the bandwagon. With MAC player of the year Al Fisher returning, I'm certainly not jumping off.

Conference USA
— Memphis: The Tigers won't be as dominant as a year ago, but don't fool yourself — they're still, easily, the best team in this conference. It will be interesting to see who develops into the team's leader.

Big 12
— Texas: For the second straight year, the Longhorns lost an All-American, this time point guard D.J. Augustin. But with everyone else back, and Kansas down after losing almost every key player, the Longhorns have the makeup of a conference champion.

Missouri Valley
— Creighton: In a mid-major conference that is feeling the losses of coaches to bigger programs and the graduations of its top players, the Bluejays return seven of their top nine guys and should ascend back to the top of the standings.

Southland Conference
— Stephen F. Austin: Expect another stellar season from the Lumberjacks, who finished 26-6 but faltered in the league tournament. They bring back six of their top seven scorers.

— Alabama State: The Hornets came out of nowhere to finish 20-11 and receive an NIT invitation. Now, with SWAC player of the year Andrew Hayles leading the way, there are higher expectations that will be achieved.

Big Sky
— Portland State: I'm expecting league MVP Jeremiah Dominguez to lead the Vikings to their second consecutive Big Dance appearance (and also just the school's second appearance ... ever).

— Nevada: The Wolf Pack figure to remain the class of the league despite losing another pair of standout performers. That's because they reeled in McDonald's All-American Luke Babbit and bring back a pair of double-digit scorers.

Mountain West
— UNLV: This league should be absolutely loaded, and the Rebels should lead the way thanks to a trio of returning seniors, including all-league guard Wink Adams.

Pac 10
— UCLA: What's new? Another season, another Pac-10 title for the Bruins. They might get a challenge from in-city rival USC, but senior point guard Darren Collison will keep them on the right path.

Big West
— Cal State Northridge: In a tough conference to predict, the Matadors — great name, by the way — return a pair of double-digit scorers plus the league's leading assists man in Josh Jenkins.

West Coast
— Gonzaga: I don't know if the Zags have entered a season with heavier expectations. They'll certainly be challenged by Patrick Mills and St. Mary's, but with WCC player of the year Jeremy Pargo, not to mention Mr. Great Potential Austin Day, back in the mix, (and I'm not even mentioning other key returnees), this team is destined for great things.


ACC (5)
— Wake Forest
— Duke
— Miami
— Virginia Tech
— Clemson

Atlantic 10 (1)
— Xavier

Big 10 (2)
— Michigan State
— Wisconsin

Big 12 (4)
— Oklahoma
— Baylor
— Kansas
— Missouri

Big East (8)
— Connecticut
— Notre Dame
— Pittsburgh
— Marquette
— Georgetown
— West Virginia
— Syracuse
— Villanova

Conference USA (1)

Mountain West (2)
— San Diego State
— New Mexico

Pac 10 (4)
— Arizona State
— Washington State
— Washington

SEC (5)
— Tennessee
— Kentucky
— South Carolina
— Alabama

West Coast (2)
— St. Mary's
— San Diego

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Please, Texas, make me your Game Management Director


In Lubbock's postgame bedlam, surrounded by delirious fans and admirers, Graham Harrell hit it on the head.

"They left us too much time," Texas Tech's quarterback said.

Harrell was referring to the Red Raiders' game-winning drive, completed by his 28-yard touchdown pass to absolute stud Michael Crabtree, that gave Texas Tech a thrilling 39-33 upset of No. 1 Texas.

Harrell took the snap with 8 seconds showing on the clock. Crabtree caught the pass with 5 seconds remaining. He danced into the end zone with 1 tick left.

If Texas had managed the clock correctly, none of the mentioned acts could have been made by the pair of Heisman Trophy candidates. The Longhorns might just be 9-0, still No. 1 in the country and four victories from the national title game.

This might be overlooked, but it shouldn't be. Here's what happened:

With just over a minute and a half remaining, the Longhorns ran a great play. From the Texas Tech 4-yard line, the amazing Colt McCoy handed the pigskin to Vondrell McGee on a draw play, and McGee burst up the middle, through a gigantic opening and into the end zone.

The touchdown, plus the extra point, gave the Longhorns their first lead of the night 33-32.

But on the touchdown play, McCoy, a seasoned junior, made a grave mistake. Or maybe his coaches committed the error by not relaying the message to him. That's for them to know and me to ponder.

McCoy took the snap with about 22 seconds left on the play clock. It was the ultimate sin that could have simply been avoided by ... waiting! I mean, c'mon 'Horns. I know you were eager to finally snatch the lead. But you couldn't wait 20 more seconds?

The situation, at the moment, was dire for the Red Raiders. They had led 19-0 and 29-13, only to lose every ounce of momentum they had built up. Not only that, but they featured zero proven field-goal kickers. AND they had just a single timeout remaining.

They needed help, and McCoy and Company obliged. By snapping the ball so early, McCoy saved the Red Raiders about 20 seconds that they certainly appreciated on their game-winning drive.

(Did I mention that the winning score occurred with 1 second remaining?)

I really am tired of writing these columns, but every season a team makes such a bone-headed move that my blood starts boiling. But, at the same time, I don't want to "diss" Texas, because I think it should hire me. Seriously, I would ditch my current employment situation to become the Longhorns' Game Management Director.

I've got friends in Austin, I heard the weather's nice and the girls are pretty.

And I'd probably save the boys in Orange a game here, a game there.

Hook 'em Horns!

As it was, as Harrell said, the Longhorns left just too much time for the Red Raiders' deadly efficient offense. There was a big kickoff return. There were four consecutive completions that pushed the ball from the Texas Tech 38 to the Texas 28.

And then there were the two plays that ultimately decided the game, although — imagine this — it's possible neither would have existed in a game missing 20 seconds.

Before Texas Tech could bring down Big Bad No. 1, Texas had to give the Men in Black a lifeline. Harrell rolled out to his left and threw a ball that hit Edward Britton's hands and deflected softly up in the air...

The ball bounced, almost in slow motion, to waiting Texas safety Blake Gideon. All he had to do was secure the slowly falling ball and the game would be over, Lubbock would be silenced, and it'd make for one happy trip back east to Austin.

As my cousin J-bo opined, our grandma, who's pretty old and doesn't move too well, could have made the interception. No joke.

But the ball slipped right through Gideon's hands and somehow, someway found the field turf. Considering the circumstances, it was the most unbelievable drop I've ever seen. Now, I feel bad for the freshman, who will have a very difficult time living down The Drop. It'll likely be in his nightmares for years to come.

And we all know what happened next. Harrell dropped back and gunned a perfect spiral to the right sideline, where Crabtree reeled the ball in, threw off a hapless defender and tight-roped the sideline into pay dirt.

The play sent the rabid fans into such a tizzy, they charged the field not once but twice ... prematurely. Their lack of patience cost the Red Raiders 22 and a half yards in penalties, pushing the ensuing kickoff back to the 7-and-a-half-yard line.

However, this lack of patience wasn't the least bit costly (just humorous, really). The game was over a play later, and the fans worked on their running form one more time, swarming the field and covering it in black in all of 3 seconds.

Texas was outplayed for most of the game, but it could have prevented Tech's one comeback of the night by looking ahead a bit. Instead, the Longhorns got caught up in the moment of taking the lead and did their defense no favors.

In the process, they probably cost themselves a berth in the national-title game. Although you just never know these days.

If only they had a Game Management Director.

Again, I'm available for employment and I could help prevent such occasions from occurring in the future.

Please e-mail me at

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

A long-awaited night for Philly, a bright future for the Rays


I know it lasted just five games, but what a great World Series this was.

Forget the poor TV ratings; forget the miserable Philadelphia weather; forget the 46-hour wait between the top and bottom of Game 5's sixth inning.

It was all worth it.

The Phillies and Rays put together a thrilling three innings of baseball in the frigid cold Wednesday night, with the Phillies emerging victorious 4-3. The end-game scenario couldn't have been more fitting:

There was Brad Lidge, Philly's perfect closer. Which is to say he doesn't blow saves, not one the entire season. But he does allow baserunners, which was the case as Fernando Perez, Tampa Bay's speedster, took a lead off second base. Eric Hinske, who was 1-for-1 in the Series with a home run entering the game, stood at the plate.

Then Lidge, appropriately, threw his nasty slider on an 0-2 count ... and Hinske had no chance. He swung at thin air. He missed badly. And the celebration was on. Ryan Howard, Philly's burly first baseman, nearly cracked a few of Lidge's ribs with a linebacker's tackle.

But he didn't. Not on this night. Not on the night that marked the first championship for the City of Brotherly Love since the Moses Malone-led 76ers improbably swept the Lakers in 1983. That was a half year before I was born, so now I'll get to hear about and read about, for the first time, all the arrests that are made as a result of Philly fans going absolutely chaotic all night.

They deserve to celebrate, that's for sure (well, legally at least). As any champion will tell you, each title should be savored, should be soaked up until it's bone-dry, because you never know if you'll be back. Even for teams with a grand-looking future, nothing is certain. For instance, after the Tigers' 2006 march to the World Series, I never thought, with the players they had returning, they'd be left out of the postseason the next two seasons.

Something tells me, however, that these Rays will be back in the postseason, that we'll be hearing from Tropicana Field's annoying cowbells in the years to come. The future of the franchise couldn't be brighter.

Their young everyday players, guys such as Evan Longoria and B.J. Upton, aren't going anywhere. That's also the case for members of their strong starting rotation. And it will only get better with the inevitable addition of 23-year-old David Price, who showed his great maturity by pitching brilliantly in the late innings of these playoffs.

And who doesn't love red wine-drinking, thick glass-wearing manager Joe Maddon. He's a great manager for his inexperienced team, and I'm 95 percent sure he'll lead them back to October baseball.

So while there was disappointment for the Rays Wednesday night — who wouldn't be upset after winning 105 games during a long season only to come three wins short? — there was also perspective. Carlos Pena, who has emerged their spiritual leader, talked positively. So did Maddon.

The lost Series will sting for a while, but well before February, the Rays will be focused and excited about the 2009 season. The Red Sox and Yankees will have a tough time overtaking them in the brutal American League East.

But back to the Phillies, because this was their night, their city's night.

The thing about this team was that it impersonated its city. As in, it didn't make anything easy. It never took the easy path to victory.

Consider how many runners the Phillies left on base in the World Series (48), consider how they fared with runners in scoring position (6-for-47 entering Game 5). They probably could have scored 10 runs in all four of their victories, instead of 3, 5, 10 and 4 runs. The Phillies let the games stay close, let the Rays fight back several times.

But then they threw the last punch. On Wednesday, it was Pedro Feliz's game-winning RBI single in seventh inning that brought home Pat Burrell, who had just knocked his first hit of the Series — a leadoff double.

When the Phillies really needed hits in the playoffs, when they were trailing or in a tie game, they stepped up and got the job done in a blue-collar manner their city appreciates. In the NLCS, the bigs hits were Shane Victorino's and Matt Stairs' two-run home runs in the top of the eight inning of Game 4. The blasts turned a two-run deficit into a two-run lead.

They devastated the Dodgers, put Philly up 3-1 in the series and paved the way for a trip to the Fall Classic that was realized two nights later.

Then came the big World Series hits. In Game 1, it was Chase Utley's first-inning, two-run jack that gave starting pitcher Coley Hamels an instant cushion en route to the one-run victory. In the wild, whacky Game 3, it was the eighth man in their order, catcher Carlos Ruiz, who fought off a tough inside pitch to dribble a roller up the third-base line. It was perfect for the bases-loaded situation in the ninth inning, scoring Eric Bruntlett for the game-winning run.

There was no drama in Game 4, as Howard joined the World Series party with a pair of HRs and five RBIs. The eight-run victory was a brief respite from drama for Philly fans, who, rightfully so, could never feel completely comfortable that the Series was in the bag. After all, it was the Phillies.

Which brings us back to Lidge, the closer, the man who put the finishing touch on 48 Philadelphia wins this season. The last time a Phillies closer was on the mound, it was Mitch Williams in 1993. And quite possibly, it was the most heartbreaking moment in the team's 125-year, morbid history. In Game 6 of Series against the Blue Jays, Williams gave up a walkoff three-run home run to Joe Carter. Toronto — a damn expansion franchise! — celebrated its second consecutive world championship.

But when Lidge threw his final nasty slider of the 2008 season, finishing off Hinske in a mere three pitches, 1993 was a distant memory. Even before the climatic moment, Williams had been forgiven. He's now a popular sports-talk radio host in the city. And Thursday, I'm sure, he'll get to spend his entire show talking about his former team. How right is that? He can't wash away the pain of '93, but how happy must he be?

The most joyous man, though, has to be Philadelphia manager Charlie Manuel. Before Game 2 of the NLCS, Manuel learned that his loving mother, June Manuel, had passed away. He didn't have to manage that day, but that wasn't an option. Instead, he led the Phillies to a victory ... and then six more. And he knows June is celebrating wherever she may be.

Manuel is far from the most eloquent man. In fact, he's the polar opposite of Maddon, who speaks in such great detail, sometimes I mistake him for a professor. Manuel is more of a Philly guy, speaking succinctly and in generalities. And he doesn't hide his emotions. His words never come out smoothly, but you know they're from the heart.

On Wednesday night, after four seasons of criticism, after hearing people clamor for him to lose his job despite winning at least 85 games each season, he was the happiest 64-year-old on earth.

Good for Charlie.

And good for the rest of the Phillies. Their star ace, their MVP, was Hamels. Their de facto slugger was Howard. But their ride to the championship was full of performances from the other guys, from the players non-Philadelphia baseball fans may not be aware of.

The happiest 45-year-old has to be Jamie Moyer, who somehow found the strength to pitch six and one-third innings of three-run ball Saturday night in Game 3. He didn't get the victory that rain-soaked night, but his team did in a game pundits like myself thought it'd lose because of the starting-pitching matchup. He proved us all wrong.

It was an amazing performance from not only a man of his age, but also a man who had been brutally sick the night before the game. His wife said that Friday night, Moyer was a mess. He was his usual collected self Saturday.

The play that should stand out from Wednesday's clincher was made by Utley, Philly's do-everything second baseman. With the game tied 3-3 in the seventh inning, the Rays' Jason Bartlett stood at second base with two out. Akinori Iwamura grounded the ball back up the middle.

Bartlett, assuming it would get roll into center field or Utley would throw to first, jogged around the bases, not even looking back toward second as he rounded third base. After backhanding the ball behind second, Utley, knowing he couldn't get the speedy Iwamura, faked toward first then fired a one-bouncer to Ruiz. The catcher easily tagged out Bartlett to end the inning.

It was the kind of play World Series champions make, a defining moment. Rarely do you see a champion not make a similar heady play. A half-inning later, the Phillies were ahead for good.

And, it should be mentioned, J.C. Romero was the winning pitcher.

It wasn't the cleanest march to the championship. The Phillies needed some help from the Rays, who made their share of baserunning gaffes (like Bartlett's) and mistakes in the field during the Fall Classic. Philadelphia wasn't at its best all the time, either. There were at-bats when Howard, even Utley, looked lost, waving at three straight pitches.

I almost expected to hear boos after such at-bats. After all, that's what Philly fans are known for. But they're also known, maybe not as well, for being knowledgeable, for knowing everything possible about their team.

And Wednesday night, they knew — they could be sure of — that the best team in baseball, the guys in white and red rejoicing on the cold, windy field, were World Series champions.

The 28-year wait since the Phillies' 1980 title, the first in franchise history, was worth it. As was the 25-year major-sports championship drought. And the aggravating 46-hour wait to complete three stinkin' innings.

One word could sum up what transpired just before 10 p.m.

Finally. Or, I guess, "Phinally."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

2008-09 NBA preview: The rivalry continues


It's amazing how Mother Nature can, just like that, change one night's column.

Just hours ago, I was preparing to write my "Philadelphia finally gets a championship" column. I had all the ghastly stats about the city laid out in front of me. The Phillies were up 2-0 in Game 5. And their ace, Cole Hamels, was mowing down Rays hitters like twigs in his backyard.

But then the rains came, Carlos Pena joined the World Series cast with a pair of clutch hits, and MLB officials suspended the game after the Rays tied it 2-2. So there's no pandemonium in Philly — yet.

Which ruined my column, but also gave me this opportunity to...

Put together, in this tiny window of time on the morning of the NBA's first day, my huge NBA preview column!

So thanks, Mother Nature, for giving me this chance to make predictions without the help of one or two days of NBA action. Thanks a lot (sarcasm). I'm sure that after Greg Oden's first game Tuesday night, I will know — no doubt — whether the Blazers are a playoff team in the West (more sarcasm).

Now I'll be watching and writing about baseball instead.

OK, enough blabbering. Here goes. Note that playoff teams have an asterisk by them and a team's finish in its division precedes the / followed by its finish in the conference. Playoff predictions are at the bottom:

Atlantic Division
*1/1. Boston Celtics (58-24): The obvious question is whether they're "hungry" enough to repeat. The obvious answer is, "Let's wait until April to answer that." They'll miss James Posey's clutch play and defense. But Rajon Rondo will be improved at the point.

*2/5. Philadelphia 76ers (47-35):
Expect Elton Brand to gradually play himself back into one of the league's best big men, although this time he'll be noticed. This team still lacks good outside shooters, especially in its starting lineup.

*3/6. Toronto Raptors (46-36):
Regardless of how healthy Jermaine O'Neal is, I liked the trade for him. Now Jose Calderon can take over the point and not worry about splitting minutes. Everything about this team says "rock solid, but nothing special." Additional pieces are needed for greatness.

4/14. New York Knicks (24-58): It's going to be a rough first year for Mike D'Antoni, and no one should be surprised. This is one heck of a rebuilding job. The main focus will be on ridding of Stephon Marbury and possibly a few other big-contract guys. They'll score a lot of points but give up even more.

5/15. New Jersey Nets (21-61): I don't like picking a Lawrence Frank-coached team to fall this far, because I believe he's one of the most underrated coaches in the game. Of course, it helped to have Jason Kidd. Now he's down to Vince Carter (for the time being, at least), Devin Harris and ... nobody. Talk about a rebuilding job.

Central Division
*1/2. Cleveland Cavaliers (53-29): Yep, I'm drinking the Mo Williams Kool-Aid. The guy can play the point, plus he's a scorer. LeBron James says the team has no excuses not to win a title now. He's right. People need to stop thinking James needs a top-five PG to win a championship. Expect an MVP year from the King.

*2/3. Detroit Pistons (51-31):
This team will play hard for Michael Curry, but the first-time coach is also smart enough to know that he'll be judged almost solely on whether his team makes it past that pest called the Eastern Conference Finals. So starters won't play big minutes, young guns will get experience, and there will be more regular-season L's.

3/9. Chicago Bulls (38-44):
Things won't be nearly as ugly as last year, and at the end of the season there will be optimism looking forward. With a new coach, Vinny Del Negro, and a rookie point guard, Derrick Rose, the Bulls will have some struggles — just enough, in fact, to keep them out of the postseason.

4/11. Milwaukee Bucks (34-48): No one can deny that the offensive artillery is in place for the Bucks. They've got plenty of guys who can score, including acquisitions Richard Jefferson and Luke Ridnour. But can they play defense? That will be a year-long project for dictator Scott Skiles.

5/12. Indiana Pacers (32-50):
I love Danny Granger, and he'll only get better with experience. And Mike Dunleavy Jr. hasn't turned out to be such a bust after all. But the big men are all soft, non-scorers or inexperienced. They'll struggle against the big boys.

Southeast Division
*1/4. Orlando Magic (49-33): The Magic won't match last year's 52-30 mark, but it won't need to as it coasts to another division title. Advancing further in the playoffs will be the goal. That will be determined by its guard play, which tends to be shaky.

*2/7. Atlanta Hawks (42-40):
People are quick to write off the Hawks despite the nervousness they caused in Boston last April. With every key cog back except Europe castoff Josh Childress, they'll be improved. Having Mike Bibby for a full season only helps.

*3/8. Washington Wizards (40-42):
Oh, the Wizards. Who knows what to expect from this injury-plagued bunch? And who knows if they'll have a better winning percentage with or without the mercurial Gilbert Arenas? What I do know is that Caron Butler is developing into a star and there's enough talent around him to barely squeeze into the playoffs.

4/10. Miami Heat (35-47):
The Heat will improve by 20 wins because of two reasons. One, Dwyane Wade will be back to his old self. That right there equals 15 additional wins. Two, Michael Beasley won't play like a rookie, putting up huge numbers and giving Miami three big-time players. If only there was a supporting cast.

5/13. Charlotte Bobcats (29-53):
Not that the preseason matters, but can it be a good thing when a team with a new coach goes 0-8? Yes, I'll admit it: When Larry Brown first got the job, I labeled this team a playoff lock for this year. After all, there's plenty of talent. I can't make the stretch anymore. The players are simply too immature. Not enough defense. No enough team cohesion. I hope I'm wrong.

Southwest Division
*1/1. Los Angeles Lakers (59-23): The Lakers will win on the last night of the regular season to clinch the NBA's best record. Nothing will come easy for them. Andrew Bynum will be fine. The key, as always, will be which Lamar Odom shows up in the big games. He can be great. He can be nonexistent.

*2/6. Phoenix Suns (50-32):
This team will have its struggles adopting to new coach Terry Porter and the idea of not running all the time. But it still has one of the game's best point guards, Steve Nash, and one of the best power forwards, Amare Stoudemire. That's more than enough to garner this spot, if not playoff success.

3/9. Los Angeles Clippers (42-40): Pundits are predicting complete doom for this squad after the surprising departure of Brand. While no playoff berth is in store, there remains some talent. Baron Davis will have a huge year in his favorite city. And I like the frontcourt, when healthy, of Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman.

4/11. Golden State Warriors (39-43):
Another team shook up by the offseason. By the way, there was nothing wrong with suspending Monta Ellis 30 games for lying about his moped accident. He was going to miss those games anyway. But the Warriors will have a hard time in those games. And did I mention they don't play defense?

5/14. Sacramento Kings (26-56):
Kevin Martin needs to be noticed. All the guy does is score, score and score some more. But with Ron Artest gone, he'll have little to no help. This team will have a rough go at it in the mighty West.

Southwest Division
*1/2. New Orleans Hornets (57-25): There's no reason to think the Hornets will be worse than a year ago, when they posted 56 wins. Not only is everyone back and wiser, but Posey gives them the badly needed veteran toughness (not to mention his two championships). Expect big things from this fun-to-watch group, which won't settle for anything in the playoffs.

*2/3. Houston Rockets(53-29): The only word that matters with this group is "health." I'm betting they'll stay healthy for the majority of the season. I know it's a risky gamble, but it's this year or never. After all, players age (and there's my obvious fact of the preview). When all is good with the bones, backs and knees, the Rockets have a very complete — and scary — team.

*3/5. San Antonio Spurs (52-30): The Spurs will finish with the same record as the Jazz, but get the lower playoff seed because Utah wins its division. As usual, people will write them off. That's always a bad idea. If — and this is a big "if" — Manu Ginobili can get completely healthy, we all know what might happen in June. 2003, 2005, 2007 ... 2009?

*4/7. Dallas Mavericks (48-34): It's amazing how quickly expectations have fallen in "Big D." After getting dominated by the Hornets in the first round, no one is scared of this team, especially its aging point guard Jason Kidd. I do think newly focused, and contrite, Josh Howard will have a good year, which will be enough for a playoff spot — and another quick playoff exit.

5/15. Oklahoma Thunder (19-63):
I didn't want to pick this young team to lose a win off of last year, but I can't choose every NBA team to finish out of the teens in the win column, right? There simply is not much talent around Kevin Durant, which is unfortunate. At least the Oklahoma City fans will be supportive, and Durant will put together some huge nights for fantasy owners.

Northwest Division
*1/4. Utah Jazz (52-30): Jerry Sloan must feel the pinch. If he doesn't do something big with this group, much of the nucleus might be gone in the summer. That's the reality of the Jazz's situation. At least there won't be too much tension in cruising to another division title. Then Salt Lake City will brace for the playoffs and whatever ensues.

*2/8. Portland Trail Blazers (45-37):
Maybe no other team is opening the season surrounded by so much excitement and anticipation. Oden is finally ready to go (as a "rookie"), and he's joining a pretty talented bunch of players. As was the case last year, expect plenty of highs and lows from this young bunch. There will be enough highs for a playoff berth and more optimism looking toward the future.

3/10. Denver Nuggets (41-41):
It's hard to imagine this, but the team with two of the NBA's best scorers will miss the playoffs. Why? Well, with Camby gone, there's absolutely no defensive presence. Carmelo Anthony pledged he, and his teammates, will be more focused defensively. Prove me wrong, 'Melo. Also, George Karl seems to have lost his passion for coaching. And did I mention they play in a pretty good conference?

4/12. Minnesota Timberwolves (30-52): Yep, I'm predicting an eight-win improvement for this team of youngsters, something to give the city hope for the franchise's future. Al Jefferson is a budding star, and Kevin Love's presence in the frontcourt will only help him. Mike Miller's addition to the backcourt will help loosen up the paint for the talented big men.

5/13. Memphis Grizzlies (27-55):
I'm also forecasting a five-win improvement for this group of adolescents. And they'll only get better as the season progresses. If the NBA was a four-guard league, they might be a playoff team. Unfortunately, they don't have a single proven big man. The onus is on Marc Gasol to become one.

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 8 Washington (5 games)
No. 2 Cleveland def. No. 7 Atlanta (5 games)
No. 3 Detroit def. No. 6 Toronto (6 games)
No. 5 Philadelphia def. No. 4 Orlando (7 games)

Western Conference
No. 1 L.A. Lakers def. No. 8 Portland (5 games)
No. 2 New Orleans def. No. 7 Dallas (4 games)
No. 3 Houston def. No. 6 Phoenix (7 games)
No. 5 San Antonio def. No. 4 Utah (6 games)

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 5 Philadelphia (6 games)
No. 3 Detroit def. No. 2 Cleveland (7 games)

Western Conference
No. 1 L.A. Lakers def. No. 5 San Antonio (6 games)
No. 2 New Orleans def. No. 3 Houston (6 games)

Eastern Conference
No. 1 Boston def. No. 3 Detroit (7 games): Here's the reality of the situation: This series will come down to who believes in themselves more. The answer to that is obvious. The Pistons, no doubt, will be thinking about all their exits in this round. Meanwhile, after a long season, the Celtics will be able to smell the Finals again. The group of veterans won't neglect another opportunity to reach the grand stage. Once again, they'll make all the clutch plays.

Western Conference
No. 1 L.A. Lakers def. No. 2 New Orleans (6 games): I'm tempted to pick the Hornets; I really like their makeup. But the Lakers simply have too much firepower, especially when Odom is playing well. They'll own the matchups in the paint, and don't forget who else they have: a man named Kobe Bryant.

L.A. Lakers def. Boston (6 games): An improved Lakers team will beat a Boston team not quite as good as the defending champions. Odom will show up. The big men will fight to a draw. And this time it will be Bryant, not Paul Pierce, knocking down all the big shots.

Be sure to remind me when all these predictions are way off.

Not that anyone will remember next summer that I even wrote this preview.

Yep, prepare for another long season.