Thursday, January 31, 2008

Super Bowl prediction: Don't be stupid, the Pats will win


I'm done going with the "sexy picks," enough with taking the underdogs, I'm through with trying to be "that guy."

The New England Patriots will win the Super Bowl. I "guarenSheed" it.

34-20. That'll be the score.

It will be 20-17 in the third quarter before New England pulls away with a touchdown late in the quarter and about midway through the fourth.

The perfect season complete, 19-0, champaign, blah, blah, blah.

Sure, it's the boring, predictable pick, but anyone outside of the Giants locker room — those guys have to think they can win; if they don't, it'll be 56-12 — who actually thinks New York will win has lost a few too many brain cells.

Go ahead, bring up Tom Brady's ankle. I'm telling you right now, it won't be a factor.

Go ahead, tell me how great the Giants' defensive front is. But, yeah, don't mention the best offensive line in football.

Go ahead, say the Giants' running game will bully the New England linebackers like scrawny kids on the playground. I'm sure Tedy Bruschi — with his three rings — and his boys are used to being underestimated.

I'm sorry for being so blunt, but I am tired of making the "unpopular pick," of taking a team because I have a feeling they're more "hungry" then the guys who have won on the big stage before.

Three years ago, I was silly enough to pick the Eagles over the Patriots. I remember doing some kind of debate with a fellow writer for my college paper. I think I mentioned Donovan McNabb's Campbell Soup ads as a reason Philly would win. I was dreadfully wrong as the soup, possibly, caused McNabb to fatigue in the final minutes ... and started the whole T.O.-McNabb tift ...and eventually led to T.O.'s dismissal from Philly.

So, I'm sorry, Eli, but your Oreo ad isn't going to lead your Giants to victory (nor will your "SportsCenter" brotherly love ad with Peyton).

Go ahead, talk about the Giants' momentum, about Manning's growth as a quarterback, about the Giants coming so close in the team's regular-season meeting. It doesn't matter. The Patriots are the better team and will find a way to win.

There's nothing else to predict. I don't know if Randy Moss will catch 12 balls or one. I don't know if Brady will throw zero interceptions or three. Both scenarios are possible, but as New England proved nearly two weeks ago, it can win ugly.

Maybe Plaxico Burress will be correct. Maybe New England will score just 17 points — although I'd bet this laptop and my kitchen counter on the Patriots scoring 20-plus points. But even if they do, it'll be more than the Giants put up.

I'm not going to address the "best team ever" argument. Not now at least. Who knows what would happen if Brady and Terry Bradshaw faced off?

But I think I watch enough football to know that these Patriots are better than these Giants in just about every phase of the game, and even if they give a B- performance, they'll come out on top.

Patriots 34, Giants 20.

I'm sticking to it even if Randy Moss eats some bad fish on Saturday night.

Stop kidding yourself otherwise.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Hornets are for real


Let me start off by saying that until they are eliminated, the San Antonio Spurs remain the favorites to win the NBA title.

I don't care how many games they lose or what seed they end up with. If they're healthy come mid-April, I'm picking them — with the same nucleus as a year ago — to repeat as champions.

With that out of the way, here's a question: Which Western Conference team has the best record?

The Spurs? Nope.

The Mavericks? Nope.

The Suns? Not quite.

No, the correct answer is the New Orleans Hornets. (Don't believe me? Check your local paper.)

The Hornets began Wednesday a game up on Dallas and three and a half games ahead of San Antonio in the stout Southwest Division. Their 32-12 record is percentage points better than Phoenix's 33-13 mark.

Their turnaround from a sub-.500 record a year ago is not as unbelievable as you might think.

The only reason New Orleans missed the playoffs a year ago was injuries. Point guard — and current MVP candidate — Chris Paul missed 18 games. Newly acquired free agent sharp-shooter Peja Stojakovic played in a mere 13 games. David West, the most underrated player in the league, missed 30 games.

For all you math whizzes out there, that's 117 games missed by the team's Big Three.

This season, all three are healthy and thriving. But they haven't risen to 20 games above .500 by themselves. The reincarnation of big-skinny man Tyson Chandler has been a huge key in New Orleans becoming one of the NBA's best defensive teams.

Chandler, who stands 7 feet 1 inch, is averaging a career-best 12.1 points per game and matching hist output from a year ago of 12.4 rebounds a game. (Yep, that was a Bulls fan who just jumped off a bridge, mourning management's decision to give up on the young stud by handing him to New Orleans for two players no longer in the Windy City.)

It is clear that the 25-year-old Chandler has regained whatever confidence he lost during his five non-productive years in Chicago. He plays with a renewed swagger down low, and he's a big reason why scoring easy buckets against the Hornets is no longer a walk in the park.

Because of the team's newfound success, it's easy to question whether the Hornets are a legitimate contender. I tried to do that the other day. Here's how my conversation with myself went:

Doubter: I'm concerned about their depth, especially inside. Melvin Ely isn't exactly a playoff performer.

Responder: That's an excellent point, but here's the beauty of this team: Every key cog is young and fit. Chandler doesn't mind playing 35 minutes a game, and Ely's a banger. They don't need him to score.

Doubter: OK, but Stojakovic is so fragile. What happens if he goes down again?

Responder: Dude, Jannero Pargo is playing out of his mind right now (my fantasy team just picked him up). He averages 7.5 points and 2.6 assists per game, and he's an upgrade defensively. A Stojakovic injury wouldn't do the damage it caused a year ago.

Doubter: But what about the lack of experience? Besides Pargo getting stepped over by A.I. in the finals seven years ago and Stojakovic throwing up a lame-duck air ball against the Lakers, this team is devoid of seasoned playoff players.

Responder: Two words: Chris ... Paul. At the midway point of the season, averaging 20.6 points, 10.7 assists and 2.57 steals a game, he's my MVP. There, I said it. This guy is icy clutch and isn't about to disappear in May. The modern NBA is ruled by point guards, and the Hornets might just have the best one in CP3. Plus, anyone who watches "SportsCenter" knows that David West makes as many game-winning shots as Kobe, LeBron or anyone else in the league. The team you see right now will be playing the same way — or better — come "win or go home" time.

And with that protracted, but strong, response, the conversation ended. I had convinced, well, myself that these Hornets' sting won't be any less painful in the months to come.

With one of the NBA's top starting lineups, a decent bench, and a hunger that is seen on both ends of the court, New Orleans has what it takes to make a run in the playoffs. Of course, I'm writing this in January — a lot can, and will, change between now and money time.

But don't be surprised if, just like the Saints last year, the Hornets bring energy to their struggling city with some late-season excitement.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Parity a good thing for men's tennis


At 3:03 a.m., I passed out on the couch.

I couldn't make it to the 3:30 starting time. But that doesn't mean I wasn't excited about this men's Australian Open final. In fact, I was more pumped for the Novak Djokovic-Jo-Wilfried Tsonga matchup than for any grand slam final in recent memory.

For the first time in three years, one man was absent from the final: Roger Federer. And for the first time in three years, I didn't see a clear favorite. Djokovic was the seeded player — No. 3 — who knocked off Federer in straight sets in the semifinals. But Tsonga played the most dominant match of the tournament in dispatching of No. 2 Rafael Nadal in straight sets.

Plus, Tsonga has looks similar to a certain Muhammad Ali, a fact not lost upon his boisterous French fans, who like to shout out, "Go Ali!"

So I was not surprised when I suddenly awoke from my deep sleep at 6:14. Some old Super Bowl — I think SB XXIII featuring the 49ers and Bengals — was playing on the TV, but I was just alert enough to locate the remote, which was under the couch, and flip over to ESPN2.

... And it didn't take me long to wake up.

Djokovic and Tsonga were immersed in an emotion-filled, energized final. The crowd, quite decorous for most of the tournament's two weeks, was voluble, yelling out encouragement to their favorite, Tsonga, after each point. Djokovic's fans responded with chants of "Nole! Nole! Nole!" — the 20-year-old Serbian's nickname.

It was the fourth set, Tsonga having taken the first set before Djokovic won the second and third sets. And it would go down to the wire.

Not once during the drama-filled set did I find myself yearning for Federer or Nadal, who have dominated the grand slams the past few years. Watching Tsonga and Djokovic fight for their first grand slam title was good television, especially at 6:15 on a Sunday morning.

(No, I don't watch cartoons.)

I even found myself gaining a rooting interest in Tsonga only because I wanted to see more tennis. When Djokovic won a point on Tsonga's serve in the tiebreak, I pounded the pillow I was holding in frustration. When Djokovic took a commanding 6-2 lead, I gingerly started planning my sleeping plans.

Yes, I was disappointed that I didn't get a fifth set, that I didn't get to stay awake for another hour, but that didn't take away from how great the tennis was during the 45 minutes I was able to stay out of sleep mode.

And this could only be the beginning.

As good as Roger Federer is, the competition has caught up to him. At 20, Djokovic has loads of potential. As annoying as his several-bounce routine prior to big service points is, his talent and cool-customer demeanor are very similar to traits of the Great Federer.

Tsonga, 22, has just as bright of a future. Anyone who saw his match against Nadal knows what he's capable of.

Will either player be as consistently dominant as Federer?

C'mon, mate? Arya crazy?

But no longer can we pencil Federer in for three grand slam championships a year and Nadal for the French Open title.

As in other sports, parity is a good thing for men's tennis.

Federer is still the undisputed world's No. 1, but he's got some company at the top.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Perspective, dedication drive Sharapova


It could have happened again.

Maria Sharapova
showed signs of a second consecutive letdown in the Australian Open final Friday night.

The 20-year-old, who managed to win just three games a year ago when she was dominated by Serena Williams in the grand slam final, committed three double faults to let Anna Ivanovic break her to tie the first set 4-4.

A few minutes later, Sharapova found herself down 5-4 and 0-30 — just two points from losing the first set. But instead of panicking, Sharapova gathered herself, got her serves in and won three straight games to take the set.

After a relatively breezy 6-3 second set, Sharapova had won her third grand slam to go with her Wimbledon and U.S. Open championships.

And as she told the Laver Arena crowd, neither she nor Ivanovic are done winning. By cruising through seven matches — all won in two sets - including a convincing quarterfinal win over No. 1 seed Justine Henin, Sharapova took the thrown as the top female player in the world (regardless of what this week's rankings say).

A big reason for Sharapova's newfound success is her maturity.

She made an elegant championship speech, dedicating the win to her coach Michael Joyce's later mother, Jane Joyce. And she said that each time she takes the court, she thinks of Joyce.

Sharapova said that the loss of Joyce has given her perspective, kept her level-headed. This is not good news for Sharapova's opponents.

Her maturity was evident during that first set. After those three double faults, Sharapova had to be thinking about the 2007 Aussie Open. It is a memory she definitely hasn't forgotten. When reminded about it prior to her speech, she corrected the ceremony presenter that she hadn't just lost the match, she had been dominated.

But Sharapova's mind was right late in that crucial first set, even in the blistering Australian heat. She stopped committing double faults and proceeded to outlast the talented Ivanovic, another 20-year-old with a very bright future.

After Sharapova had completed her speech and accepted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup trophy, one thing was transparent: Not only is she the richest female athlete in the world, she's also one of the most grown-up 20-year-old athletes in the world.

Combine that with her talent and all-around game — her net play the past two weeks was the best it's ever been — and there could be plenty more grand slams in her future.

Sharapova said that in the middle of 2007 she never could have imagined standing on the winner's podium Friday night. The past year was one of her more difficult. One in which she failed to win a grand slam and was victorious in just one tournament.

But the 2008 version of Maria Sharapova is a different player, a more mature player, a player with an entirely different view of life.

Sure, she still shrieks during points, much to the amusement of Ivonovic's fans — one held a sign that read "Quiet please Maria" — but her screams are in no way childish.

The are squeals of effort, intensity and dedication.

All coming from the best women's tennis player in the world.

For now, and possibly for the next few years to come.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Michigan can't catch a break


The Michigan men's basketball team played its most complete game of the season Tuesday night.

It still wasn't enough to equal a much-needed win.

Michigan lost a heartbreaker 64-61 to Wisconsin to fall to a morose 5-14 overall and 1-6 in the Big Ten.

Back in December, my friend Tick said Michigan might manage just one or two Big Ten wins. I called him crazy. The Big Ten, after all, isn't the power conference it used to be. And Michigan plays bottom-dwellers Penn State and Northwestern twice.

But if the Wolverines continue to be on the receiving end of the type of bad breaks they were Tuesday, Tick might be a prophet.

Coaches like to say that teams create their own breaks. Sometimes, however, that just ain't true.

During the tight second half, there was Michigan's Manny Harris scoring on a baseline runner ... only to have it called off by a questionable charge call. The basket, at least, should have counted since Harris released the ball before he made contact with the defender.

Then with Michigan trailing by a point in the final minute, Harris lost the ball, which squirted away from a teammate before finally being corralled by a Badger, who called a timeout.

And finally, there was Wisconsin forward Marcus Landry connecting on a 3-pointer over the outstretched arm of Michigan's best defender, Ekpe Udoh, to give Wisconsin a four-point lead. Any other basket would have given the Wolverines a chance to tie the game, but not Landry's bomb.

It's hard not to feel sorry for the Wolverines after Tuesday's result. They came oh-so-close to beating the No. 11 team in the country, to getting that signature win they desperately need, and they couldn't get what coach John Beilein calls the "50-50" balls.

Michigan had several opportunities to take the lead throughout the game, but it never did. Not once. It tied it on a Udoh jumper, but Wisconsin quickly retook the advantage.

The Wolverines rightly took a lot of positives from the game. Harris, who was spectacular, scoring a career-high 26 points, said the team has turned a corner.

But this team still needs to learn how to win. Or, better put, it simply needs a postmark win however it can get it. Even if it comes due to a few fortuitous bounces and a 3-pointer by an unexpected source.

Then the Wolverines will turn the next corner, gaining loads of confidence in the process.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

For one night at least, Sharapova is world's No. 1


If Maria Sharapova plays close to as well in the next two rounds, there's no way she'll lose.

Sharapova played the match of her life Tuesday night in Melbourne (and early Tuesday morning here in North Carolina), dominating the world's No. 1 player, Justine Henin, 6-4, 6-0.

The match was in sharp contrast to Sharapova's loss to Serena Williams in the Australian Open final a year ago. That match was also one-sided, but not in Sharapova's favor. Williams simply overpowered Sharapova en route to the upset victory.

Such was the case for Sharapova in dismantling Henin.

For the first time since winning the U.S. Open more than 16 months ago, Sharapova appeared a very confident player. She didn't hit a single shot directly to Henin, making Henin race all over the court to cover Sharapova's shots. But many of those shots were unreachable, as Sharapova used a combination of power and placement to hit several winners.

ESPN2's commentators repeated throughout the match that Henin wasn't playing poorly. Rather, Sharapova was just on another level.

She showed no weaknesses. That issue of hitting double faults that has plagued Sharapova in the past? Gone. She didn't hit a single one, and she had a great first-serve percentage as well.

And most importantly, Sharapova showed a lot of heart against a very gutty player in Henin. This was most evident in the final game of the first set, a marathon that went to four deuces before Sharapova closed it with one of her several strong, two-handed backhands.

Henin had two chances to win the games, but she couldn't close it. Sharapova also had to keep her cool after after great shots by Henin kept the set alive on two occasions — including one Henin shot that hit the net and just barely dribbled over.

But Sharapova was able to withstand Henin's rally — Henin had broken Sharapova to make it 5-4 — and close out the set. And then, very impressively, she didn't let down one bit in the second set. Sensing the huge victory, Sharapova refused to lose a game in the set, continuing to pound Henin with a diversity of shots that kept Henin unsure of where the ball was headed.

Sharapova has never been considered a great net player, but that was another area where she outplayed Henin. She charged at the right times, when Henin was on her heels chasing a Sharapova screamer, and she finished nearly every opportunity she got.

This was a statement victory, no doubt about it. This entire tournament, Sharapova has played with a countenance of complete seriousness. She's all business on the court. You can tell she's eager to win another grand slam. For a player with her ability, it's been too long.

When the match was over, the handshake complete, an announcer commented, "And when fans see that (result) around the world, they are gonna be shocked."

Initially, maybe. But anyone who saw how well Sharapova played, should be shocked Henin managed to take four games.

Even if Sharapova doesn't play as well as she did Tuesday, she's on track to win her first Australian Open.

And perhaps en route to becoming the world's new No. 1.

Nadal a mighty strong No. 2


Rafael Nadal
is akin to the Utah Jazz of the late 1990s.

While the Karl Malone-, John Stockton-led Jazz made the NBA Finals in consecutive years, both times they were sent home weeping by the M.J.-led Bulls.

Roger Federer
has been the bull in the way of Nadal.

Yes, Nadal has won three straight French Open grand slam titles. Not bad at all for the 21-year-old. But just imagine how many more grand slams he would have if not for Federer.

Nadal lost in the last two Wimbledon finals to Federer, and there were other occasions where the world's No. 1 stopped Nadal en route to another grand slam.

But the difference between No. 1 and 2 is closing. I'm not doubting Federer's ability (that would be as bad of an idea as jumping in Lake Michigan right now). Rather, I'm loving Nadal's recent play.

(And I'm salivating over the possibility of a Nadal-Federer final in the Australian Open.)

Last night, Nadal overcame great first-set play by Jarkko Nieminen to defeat the 24th seed 7-5, 6-3, 6-1.

Nadal appeared close to flawless in advancing to the semifinals. As healthy as he's been in quite sometime, Nadal was able to cover the entire court while spraying an array of shots to fight off the energetic Nieminen.

Afterward, Nadal said it wasn't his best tennis. If he can win quarterfinal matches in straight sets without playing his best, watch out in the next round.

Federer, meanwhile, has looked human this tournament. In the third round, he was pushed to a fifth set by Janko Tipsarevic — a result I was shocked to see after I had fallen asleep before the match became very interesting.

And now Federer has a difficult trek to the final. While Nadal has just a semifinal against unranked tournament surprise Jo-Wilfried Tsonga, Federer faces a quarterfinal against James Blake — who is playing extremely well — and then a possible semifinal versus young No. 3 seed Novak Đoković, who gave him a battle in last year's U.S. Open final.

I wouldn't be (that) surprised if Federer is upended.

But let me catch myself. What separates Federer from the rest isn't just his talent, but his will to win, his clutch shots when the pressure reaches its peak. Will an opponent be able to match him in this category? Will Nadal get that first grand slam win off clay?

I like the Spaniard's chances.

But until it actually happens, he'll remain the Jazz to Federer's Bulls. So close, yet so far.

Thursday, January 17, 2008

All-night sports rundown

All right, folks, I know I’m first posting this an hour and a half after kickoff — consider it the equivalent of not showing up for the first half — but here it is. My all-night sports rundown. I’ll be up until I go to work at 5 Friday, watching hoops and tennis.

Below are random thoughts as the night progresses. Enjoy, and please comment when you feel like it.

10:45 — The Barn, as Williams Arena in Minnesota is known, is going nuts as the Golden Gophers take a one-point lead on No. 10 Indiana.

It’s pretty impressive what Tubby Smith’s been able to do in his first season with the Gophers. Sure, he inherited several upperclassmen. But he also inherited a 9-22 team. To have already succeeded that number of wins — impressive.

10:50 — Wow, just have to throw this out there. Serena Williams, in her match against Victoria Azarenka, just challenged a serve of hers that was called out. The official review revealed that it just barely — as close as can be — nicked the line.

Tennis’ replay system has to be the best in all of sports. It makes the sport almost entirely decided by players … and, of course, the flawless system.

10:54 — Just how whacky has this college basketball season been? St. Louis, after mustering a record-low 20 points the other night, scored 68 to upset ranked Rhode Island. Very, very interesting.

11:30 — Sorry about the delay. Was talking with my mom. Anyway, it’s time for Maria Sharapova’s third-round match against a player named Vesnina. Sharapova looked extremely focused in her domination of Lindsay Davenport in the second round. I’m still waiting for her to have a breakout year, to win two grand slams in a year.

Wow … her forehand is explosive.

11:48 — Another college basketball shocker. Cleveland “freaking” State took down Butler. Even on its own website, CSU is described as “a program in disarray for most of the past 20 years.” Last year, it was 10-21. Wow.

12:01 — This is turning into a grinder of a match. Sharapova just got broken to tie the first set at 2-2 in a match that’s already taken 31 minutes.

12:06 — Rafael Nadal’s having a rough time against Frenchman Gilles Simon, who’s up 5-2 on the No. 2 seed in the first set. Nadal just completely missed on a forehand. Could the Melbourne heat be getting to him?

12:09 — Another forehand choke job by Nadal. Watch out.

12:27 — Sharapova just pulled away for a 6-3 opening set. Still, it took nearly an hour. Also, it looks like Nadal-Simon is gonna be one heck of a match. There was a point the last game that lasted 38 strokes. Nadal's down 5-4 on serve.

12:33 — How feisty is Nadal? Down three set points, he comes up with back-to-back aces and then finishes off Simon to tie the first set 5-5. If Simon loses this set, he'll be devastated. Stay tuned. I, for one, can't leave the couch right now.

12:43 — After an hour and 10 minutes, Nadal wins the opening set 7-5. The announcers point out that Nadal's 51-1 when he wins the opening set in grand slams. Good luck, mate. And it's time for me to take a leak.

12:52 — Can L.A. make a comeback with Kobe on the bench? (Yes, we're back to the hardwood.) The Lakers began the fourth quarter down 79-61, but they've scored eight straight points in less than 2 minutes. And who scored all the points? That's right — Sasha Vujacic. As I used to scream in my newspaper's office, "Vujacic!!"

1:07 — Did I just see ESPN's Stephen A. Smith in the front row at the Staples Center? Ain't he supposed to be on press row? As for the game, Boris Diaw appears rejuvinated after an indolent 2006-07. He's hit a pair of midrange jumpers to help the Suns to a commanding 13-point lead. This battle of the Pacific Division appears headed in the Suns' direction.

1:17 — Despite Kobe's valiant efforts — knocking down 3s from all over the court with hands in his face — Diaw again has the last laugh, knocking down another jumper to give Phoenix an eight-point lead with 20-some seconds yet. I'm not penciling it in, but I'd bet my bank account on the Suns.

1:20 — Ballgame. Phoenix 106, L.A. 98. The Suns, 27-12, now have the best record in the West. Isn't it intriguing that the league's two-best records belong to teams in the East (the Celtics and Pistons)? But, yeah, it's only January. I'm sure Western supremacy will be felt later in the long season.

1:28 — Kudos to ESPN2 for showing doubles action at the Australian Open. Normally, we don't get to see four talented players on the court at the same time, but such is the case right now as the Williams sisters take on a team dressed in green and white. Doubles tennis is often more entertaining than singles and helps to keep my droopy eyes open.

1:52 — Boy, was I getting ahead of myself when I predicted Nadal-Simon would be a great match. Nadal cruised through the second set and is now just three points away from advancing. ... Make that two points. I'll stay with you here.

Random thoughts escaping me ... I could really go for a pepperoni pizza.

And Nadal's now a point away from the break and the victory. And, yes, he looks in peak form, ready to challenge Federer in '08.

Random thought ... man, I wish I was back in Australia now, biking down the pictueresque Ocean Road.

And Simon has rallied for deuce, but, oh, it's into the net. Another set point for Nadal.

But, yes! another winner for the Frenchman. But, no! Nadal gets another chance.

But, yes! yet another winner for the Frenchman (how much longer can he hold on?). And, there, another huge forehand gives Simon a chance to make it 5-4 Nadal. A chance to break Nadal to even the set.

But, alas, Simon's forehand sails just wide. Deuce #4 here we come. My fingers are getting tired.

... Simon long, adv. Nadal.

And, wow, what a final winner by the Spaniard. Nadal sails an absolutely beautiful lob shot over the charging Simon, concluding a match in which Nadal simply got stronger with each game. That's the sign of a great player — a player who peaks at the end of the match.

OK, my fingers (and brain) need a rest.

2:04 — OK, real quick. "Inside the NBA," TNT's post-game show, just concluded. And I just needed to say that it's the most hilarious, well-put-together show in the business. E.J., Kenny and Charles are a perfect trio. In tonight's final segment, E.J. read off Charles' new "schedule" — now that Turner Sports owns NBA TV — which included an hour segment called "How to build a franchise with Isiah Thomas."

Yesh, absolutely hilarious.

On a not-so-funny note, tennis is off the air until 3:30 — replaced by always-enthralling PBA action — so I think I'll go grab some late-night food and maybe do some sit-ups. Back in a while. Stay glued, folks.

3:33 — It's prime time, baby! At least in Melbourne, Australia, it is. The tennis is back on, and I'm back in front of my Apple. Mardy Fish, Andy Roddick, it's gonna be a patriotic night across the world. So grab a cup of coffee and a muffin, sit back, and enjoy my sleepy accounts of some early-morning tennis before work.

3:53 — I need to point out that "Mardy Fish" is the coolest sports name I've heard since Coco Crisp arrived in the majors. OK, I'll shut up now.

4:00 — According to ESPN2's Chris Fowler, they just felt the first rain drops of the Aussi Open. I'll take them for their word. In other news, it's supposed to be about 5 degrees in Green Bay Sunday night for the NFC championship game. That, my friend, is cold.

4:17 — Well, there is a break in the action. Apparently, the rain decided to stay for some kangaroo pizza — which, by the way, is a must-eat for all carnivores in Australia — and the Fish-Markko Nieminen match is being moved inside.

Unfortunately, this development is causing me to call it a day/night. I've decided to drive to work, sleep for half an hour, then get busy washing dishes — should be .... um, fun??

Anyway, thanks for staying up with me, folks. Send me some comments on the live column, and if the feedback's positive, I'll be sure to do it again — with a six-pack of Red Bull by my side next time.

Cheers, mates!

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Williams' Tar Heels reminiscent of national title squad


He's doing it again.

Yep, North Carolina coach Roy Williams has apparently taken the rims off the Dean Dome baskets during recent practices.

That maneuver did not, however, help the Heels defensive effort against last-place Georgia Tech Wednesday night. UNC had to survive a potential game-winning missed shot by the Yellow Jackets for a thrilling 83-82 victory.

Good for television ratings. Probably not so good for Williams' long-term health.

Sure, UNC is 18-0 — a game better than those Patriots — and off to its best start since the 1983-84 season, but perfection hasn't been easy. Two of its three ACC wins have been heart-pounders — first, the Heels needed a last-second 3-pointer by Wayne Ellington to beat Clemson in overtime; then there was Wednesday night's episode of "Survivor."

The fortunes of this team remind me of UNC's last national championship squad in 2004-05.

Among the traits shared by both teams:

— An unbelievably fast and elusive point guard (Raymond Felton then, Ty Lawson now).

— An extremely talented, high-scoring big man (Sean May then, Tyler Hansbrough now).

— A sweet-shooting 2 guard with occasional no-show games (Rashad McCants then, Ellington now).

— And, perhaps most frustrating to Williams, a defense that shows up for some games (such as Saturday's walloping of N.C. State) and isn't very effective in others.

Three seasons ago, Williams was able to get his players to buy into the fact that they couldn't win solely on their extreme amount of offensive talent. They needed to exert just as much energy on the other end, because they would run into teams that could match them on the scoreboard if they didn't.

Such was the case Wednesday against a Georgia Tech team with plenty of offensive potential, but ... well, the Yellow Jackets are now 7-9. 'Nuff said?

The Heels played hard on the defensive end at times Wednesday, but they didn't do enough to cut off the Yellow Jackets' penetration lanes, to limit their open outside looks and to keep them off the offensive boards. Georgia Tech made eight 3s and grabbed 15 offensive rebounds.

I'm sure those numbers will be a focus in the Heels' next film session and practice. And, yes, good old Roy might have the rims removed once again.

It's a great position to be in. To have a team with very few offensive issues. A team that averages 90-plus points a game.

For Roy Williams, it's a similar challenge to one he faced three seasons ago.

If he's able to succeed once again, these 2007-08 Tar Heels might just give Williams his second national title in four years.

Paulus saves Blue Devils


It was beginning to look very, very familiar.

A 17-point lead was out the window. So was all momentum. To add to the fire, a raucous crowd was cheering against them, heckling them every time down the court.

Late in the second half of Duke's game at Florida State Wednesday night, the Blue Devils were getting bullied around. They couldn't hang onto the ball, they turned the ball over, and on the defensive end, the Seminoles were driving to the basket at will.

After FSU took its first lead since early in the game, it appeared the Blue Devils were headed for their second loss of the season — again, because of being out-muscled, out-toughed down the stretch.

But after precocious freshman Kyle Singler drained a 3-pointer for a 57-55 lead, Duke got tough, got nasty. When feisty point guard Greg Paulus came up with a big rebound in the final two minutes, a scramble ensued as FSU players piled on and Paulus kicked his feet outward. It wasn't a pretty sight, but it was what the Devils needed on the way to their 70-57 victory.

Until the end, Duke had played too finesse of a game. With Duke holding onto a 54-53 lead, ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said, "These last four minutes, it’s going to be about which team is tougher."

Bilas was right. I was wrong. I thought FSU was the tougher team. I thought the Seminoles would pull off yet another comeback victory over the Devils. Everything was pointing in their direction.

But then something changed. That something was the play of Paulus.

First Paulus got a steal and a layup to give Duke a five-point lead. Then he iced the game a minute later, after running down the shot clock, by taking the ball strong and laying it up over a taller defender.

The junior point guard had played poorly the game's first 35 minutes. But when the Seminoles made their big push, he stepped up and toughed out a win.

Wednesday's game was Duke's first real road test of the season. In the ACC, it'll face several more. Just look at how difficult it was for No. 1 North Carolina to beat last-place Georgia Tech 83-82 on the same night.

The Devils will need to play stronger as the ACC slate progresses. Led by Paulus, who received a big hug from coach Mike Krzyzewski afterward, the Devils landed a meaty right hook Wednesday.

Monday, January 14, 2008

Kansas is my No. 1


Sure, I'm located down here on Tobacco Road, where North Carolina and Duke — Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski — dominate the headlines.

And, sure, the Tar Heels began this week No. 1 in the national polls. But after watching Kansas decimate Oklahoma Monday night, 85-55, I like Kansas as the best team in college basketball.

In case you're curious, I've got UNC No. 2, Memphis No. 3, UCLA fourth and Duke fifth.

But the Jayhawks are the best team in the land — by a slight margin.

Why is that? Well, they have no weaknesses. The other contenders have a few.

Last season, UCLA battered the Jayhawks in a regional final, which left Kansas demoralized after an otherwise sterling season that included Big 12 regular-season and tournament titles.

The Jayhawks, simply, had no answer for the Bruins down low.

That is not the case this season. A big reason — both literally and figuratively — for Kansas' 17-0 start has been the play of 6-foot-9 forward Darrell Arthur. On Monday, the sophomore used an array of inside moves to score 14 points to go with eight rebounds.

Arthur has given the Jayhawks a low-post presence that they lacked last season. He's more mature and skilled, and if he continues to play this well, Kansas will be hard to beat.

That's because he is surrounded by loads of talent. Frontcourt mate Darnell Jackson (17 points, eight boards Monday) is having a huge senior year, averaging double figures for the first time in his career and providing plenty of muscle in the paint with his 6-8, 250-pound frame.

But the majority of Kansas' talent is where it was a year ago: in the backcourt. Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush (a 6-6 guard with a forward's body), Russell Robinson and Sherron Collins make up a quartet of guards who are experienced, fast, good shooters and good passers.

They love to get out and run and finish in transition, but the Jayhawks no longer struggle in the half-court offense. The biggest reason for this is the development of the big guys. Being able to post up Arthur makes Kansas' offense much more dangerous, because he can score one-on-one or kick the ball out to Kansas' deadly outside shooter when the defense collapses.

Bottom line — this team can score in a variety of ways.

But how is it different from Memphis, which has just as many scorers? Well, the main reason is free-throw shooting. When the games get tight come March, Kansas' late-game free shots — it made 17-of-18 against the Sooners — will make it the better team.

While the Jayhawks aren't a great free-throw shooting team, making 64 percent of their attempts, none of their key contributors are terrible from the stripe like Memphis' Joey Dorsey, who entered the week making a putrid 36 percent of his attempts. Dorsey plays nearly 25 minutes per game and is a big part of the Tigers' success on both ends of the court. But any smart team will go to a "Hack-a-Dorsey" strategy in certain late-game situations.

Free-throw shooting — the small edge Kansas has on Memphis.

The Jayhawks are better than the Tar Heels because of their depth. As good as UNC's Tyler Hansbrough has been this season, can you imagine the Heels without Hansbrough? No, didn't think so. If Hansbrough gets into foul trouble in a tournament game, the Heels would be in big trouble.

Kansas, meanwhile, doesn't have an indispensable player. The Jayhawks have seven players who average between 7.1 and 13.4 points per game. If they lost Arthur for a do-or-die game, they would still have a great chance at winning. The same can't be said for a Heels squad without Hansbrough or starting point guard Ty Lawson now that backup Bobby Frasor is out for the year.

Again, a small advantage, but it makes the Jayhawks No. 1 in my eyes.

Of course, a lot can — and probably will — change between now and March. But if the Jayhawks stay healthy and in form, I'll more than likely pick them as my national champion when completing my bracket.

No one can say there's a clear weakness on this team. Except, maybe, that they haven't been there — that no member of the Jayhawks has made it to the Final Four.

And that's an issue the Jayhawks are addressing right now, playing the best basketball of any team from Westwood to Chapel Hill.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Evaluating UNC and Duke: It's gonna be awesome, baby!


Dick Vitale might be out for a while with a throat condition — anyone surprised? — but his absence shouldn't have any effect on the excitement surrounding the two top hoops teams on Tobacco Road this ACC season.

The craziness is already underway.

On Sunday night, I stood in the middle of Duke's media room, having just completed my article on the Blue Devils' non-conference win over Cornell. I know this sounds wrong, but there I was — again, in Duke's media room — watching North Carolina.

The Tar Heels were having a helluva time against the league's third-best team, the Clemson Tigers. In fact, Clemson led almost the entire game before the Tar Heels tied it late in regulation. The game went to overtime, and Clemson held a one-point lead until UNC shooting guard Wayne Ellington drained a 3-pointer with fourth tenths of a second remaining.


And ... let ACC play get under way.

UNC will take on secondary rival N.C. State on Saturday — the Wolfpack's first ACC game — and Duke will begin its conference slate when it hosts Virginia Sunday night.

While Clemson will be tough, Miami and N.C. State could pull some surprises, and no league game is easy, the league title will ultimately come down to — guess who? — Duke and UNC.

Let me try my best to evaluate the two teams:


This is where UNC has its biggest advantage. Did anyone see Tyler Hansbrough dunk over 7-foot-7 behemoth Kenny George of North Carolina-Ashville Wednesday night? Yes, Hansbrough is a shoo-in All-American (although a closer look reveals that he traveled before the dunk).

The big question mark for the Heels hasn't changed in two months. Deon Thompson has yet to prove himself as a consistent player alongside Hansbrough. And his 46 percent free-throw shooting could cost UNC an important game.

Marcus Ginyard isn't a great shooter, but he's a solid defender and team player.

Duke, meanwhile, played without its two biggest players against Temple Wednesday — regular starter Lance Thomas and fill-in starter Brian Zoubek. Neither, however, is a big contributor for the Devils — and I don't see their roles expanding that much during conference play for the fast-breaking Devils.

Senior DeMarcus Nelson, who stands 6-foot-4, plays as if he's 6-8, consistently leading Duke in rebounds. He's also great at getting to the basket. Freshman Kyle Singler is Duke's other top rebounder — as well as one of its leading scorers. He will be counted on greatly against physical frontlines such as UNC's.

... Advantage UNC


Ellington is a different player this season. A lot of that has to do with confidence. You can tell that he believes he's going to make every shot he takes. I'm not sure that was the case a year ago. His 36-point performance against Clemson saved the Heels' perfect record.

His backcourt partner ain't bad, either. Ty Lawson still can be turnover-prone at time, but most of the time he triggers the Heels' fastbreak, forcing the fast tempo on opponents. When he and Ellington both play well, they form one of the nation's most formidable guard combos.

Duke shooting guard Gerald Henderson has great potential, but he doesn't perform at Ellington's level yet. Of course, he's also a different player. Henderson can get his own shot from anywhere on the court by simply elevating over the defense. He's probably the most athletic player on either team. He just needs to refine his moves a bit and take a little more initiative on the offensive end.

Point guard Greg Paulus is a deadly 3-point shooter, making 47 percent of his 3s. He lacks Lawson's speed and ability to penetrate, but he's been nearly as good at taking care of the ball, averaging two assists for every turnover compared to a 2.1-1 ratio for Lawson.

... Advantage UNC


This is where the Blue Devils have an advantage.

UNC suffered a huge loss when it lost backup point guard Bobby Frasor for the season to an ACL tear. Frasor was a nice change-of-pace player, who came in to give Lawson a rest and shot the ball well. Current backup Quentin Thomas is also battling an injury and hasn't gotten into any kind of playing rhythm all year.

UNC's Danny Green has been a great sixth man, playing substantial minutes and hitting key shots when the starters struggle — he made a huge 3 late in the Clemson game. Green is a big reason why UNC remains undefeated.

Green's fellow bench players have been ineffective, however. Forward Alex Stephenson missed a few games while visiting an ill relative in California and hasn't been much of a factor while in the lineup. Freshman Will Graves has seen an increased role of late and showed off his ability to step out and knock down 3-pointers, but he remains very young and inexperienced.

Duke's pair of freshmen off the bench are not inexperienced. Forward Taylor King and point guard Nolan Smith have played substantial roles this season, with King shooting his unlimited-range 3 and Smith relieving Paulus at the point — and, of late, playing alongside Paulus at times. Both players will be key cogs down the season's stretch.

But neither is Duke's best player off that bench. That distinction belongs to sixth man Jon Scheyer, who started all 32 games as a freshman but has graciously accepted his new role. No member of the Blue Devils considers Scheyer a bench player. He plays the second-most minutes (behind Nelson) and is one of Duke's five double-digit scorers.

David McClure is another key Blue Devil reserve. Back from knee surgery, which sidelined him early in the season, McClure is a complementary player who shoots when he's open, makes smart decisions, and is one of the Devils' best defenders. Maybe most importantly, he helps give Duke a 10-player rotation when everyone's healthy (Zoubek is currently out "indefinitely" with a broken foot, but coach Mike Krzyzewski estimates he'll be back shortly).

That rotation allows Krzyzewski to keep everyone fresh and running up and down the court every game, which is when the Devils are at their best.

... Advantage Duke


C'mon, this is like comparing Hawaii and Tahiti. Roy Williams and Krzyzewski are two of college basketball's best, and both will squeeze what they can out of their talent.

... Advantage Even


UNC gets a slight nod here, because it is more effective in the halfcourt. Come March, it's harder to get out in transition, and the Devils have a more difficult time scoring when their fast-break opportunities are limited. UNC can always throw the ball down low to Hansbrough, although the Heels have to do a better job of getting him a touch on nearly every possession.

... Advantage UNC


Both teams have had so-called "wakeup calls." UNC struggled against Nichols State, not exactly a tough opponent, and then responded with a blowout win over Valparaiso. Duke blew a large lead against Pittsburgh and ended up losing its only game of the season, 65-64 in overtime. It then took a 16-day break, which showed in rusty offensive showings against Cornell and Temple. It will be interesting to see how the Devils shoot the ball against the Cavaliers.

Both teams have upperclassmen to lead them. While Duke is extremely young, Nelson is a senior who leads by example. Hansbrough is your consummate team player. He's said that he won't leave Chapel Hill until he wins a national title. What more can you ask?

Both teams have similar goals of winning the league and the national title, although the Heels' goal of taking home the main price is more pronounced. I'm sure, however, that if you ask Nelson what his ultimate goal is, it's to win Duke's fourth national title.

... Advantage UNC (by a hair)


I can't wait for these teams to meet on the hardwood. Like every year, I'm sure the games will be epic. I'm sure they'll be close. I'm sure they'll come down to the end.

While I believe UNC and Duke will split their two games, I'll take UNC to win the regular season title by a game or two over the Devils and then defeat the Devils for a second time in the ACC title game.

Get your couches ready for some serious sitting, folks. It should be another heart-pounding season of ACC hoops here in the Triangle.

Sunday, January 6, 2008

Harris, Sims must lead Michigan


Here's what someone who didn't watch Michigan's 65-58 loss to Purdue Saturday might glean from today's game story:

These Wolverines, now 4-10, are the quickest team in school history to reach double digits in losses.


But watching the Wolverines battle Purdue on its homecourt Saturday, I saw hope in the form of two young players.

Freshman Manny Harris and sophomore DeShawn Sims.

The guard-forward duo simply refused to let Michigan receive its annual shellacking at Mackey Arena.

Despite going nine minutes, 37 seconds without a basket in the first half and trailing by 14 at the break, Harris and Sims ignited a furious second-half rally that pulled Michigan to within two points on three occasions.

Sims initially pulled got the Wolverines within a basket by swishing two 3-pointers, including a contested 3 after he used a jab space to create a small sliver of space.

Then the freshman took over, consistently driving to the basket and scoring or getting to the free-throw line, where he didn't miss in the half. Harris also showed his versatility, stepping back for a late jumper that pulled Michigan within three.

Purdue's young squad, however, refused to miss free throws in the final minutes, making seven in a row and 11 of its last 12 from the line to pull out the win.

And leave Michigan with another loss.

But here's another great thing about the precocious Harris. As hard as losing hits him, he finds light in each "L," always looking toward the future — which is the only way this history-making (in a bad way) Michigan team can stay positive.

"Our best is still to come, and we're still getting better," Harris told the Ann Arbor News. "You can pull a lot of positives out of this game, but it's still a negative because we lost."

Well-said, Manny.

In all, Harris (25 points) and Sims (15) scored 29 of Michigan's 38 second-half points. And that was with Purdue's defense keying on them. A player is good when he can score against a team-focused defense. A player is great when he can score when a defense is determined to stop him.

Let's be realistic. As much as any good player and any good coach wants to win every single game in which they compete, this season isn't — and shouldn't be — about wins and losses. It would be unwise for John Beilein or any player to set a goal of, say, 15 wins.

They'd just be setting themselves up for disappointment — a common theme under Tommy Amaker's six Michigan teams.

Rather, this year is about the underclassmen becoming comfortable with each other and Beilein's complex Princeton-style offense and 1-3-1 trapping defense. It's about this team showing in spurts what it can be — all the time — two years down the road.

And it's about the future leaders of that future team emerging.

If it wasn't clear before Saturday, it is now that Harris and Sims are Michigan's "dynamic duo," the pair that might finally lead the Wolverines back to the NCAA tournament.

Sims is the player who best understands Beilein's system. He knows that big men like him must step out to shoot 3s over defenders unwilling to defend on the perimeter. And he made a beautiful bounce-pass feed to a cutting Ron Coleman for a layup in the second half Saturday.

Harris is easily Michigan's most talented player. He still makes freshman mistakes — on a side note, is "freshman mistake" still a viable phrase in today's freshmen-dominated college basketball environment? — such as his pair of bad passes out of bounds Saturday, and he finished with a team-high four turnovers.

But when he also leads Michigan with those career-high 25 points and five rebounds, the giveaways don't look so bad.

What's most important is that Harris is a player who can create shots for himself and get to the free-throw line — from which he's money — when nothing else is working offensively. He played a team-high 36 minutes versus Purdue, but he also scored Michigan's last four points to keep it in the game. His legs were far from dead in the closing minutes.

So now the brutal road continues with a home contest against No. 12 Indiana on Tuesday. The game will mark six ranked opponents in Michigan's first 15 games.

Again, ouch.

But even with each loss, Michigan fans can hold out hope that an NCAA tournament birth isn't that far down the road thanks to the play and leadership of a freshman and a sophomore.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

NFL playoffs preview


I can't remember the last time there was as big a favorite entering the playoffs as there is this year.

New England is a 1-2 favorite to win the Super Bowl. The team with the second-best odds is Indianapolis, which has a 4-1 shot.

So, basically, people are pretty high on these Patriots. Guess that's what happens when you go 16-0.

But something tells me that these playoffs are going to be the craziest in quite some time. There will be upsets galore. Crazy weather. Heart-pumping finishes. Not just a unsympathetic romp to 19-0 by another Boston-based team.

I might be wrong. Heck, I'm probably wrong — picking against the Patriots is about as smart as wearing a T-shirt outside in Boston this time of year.

But what fun would it be picking the favorite? With that said, here's my playoffs preview:



(6) Washington 27, (3) Seattle 20: Unlike in sports with longer seasons, such as the NBA, momentum means something entering the playoffs. No team – besides those 16-0 guys — has more of it than the Redskins.

(5) N.Y. Giants 24, (4) Tampa Bay 18: Speaking of momentum, the Giants played their best game a week ago. Now, Eli Manning will step up in the playoffs and finally lead them to the divisional round.


(3) San Diego 27, (6) Tennessee 10: The teams' first meeting was a battle, but the Titans' injury list is almost as long as their active roster. Plus, the Chargers have won six straight games.

(5) Jacksonville 20, (4) Pittsburgh 14: The Jaguars run the ball well and don't turn it over. That will be enough to win in adverse conditions once again in Pittsburgh. Coming in, the Steelers have not been playing good football.



(6) Washington 28, (1) Dallas 27: Remember what happened a week ago? Sure, the Cowboys didn't have T.O., but the Redskins owned Tony Romo and ran roughshed over the 'Boys. It will be closer in Dallas, but the same shocking result.

(2) Green Bay 33, (5) New York 21: I find it interesting how little is being talked about the Packers despite their dominance from week to week. There's no way they're losing at home in January.


(1) New England 24, (5) Jacksonville 16: Not an easy win for the Patriots, but Randy Moss breaks free for a touchdown and the defense is steady.

(2) Indianapolis 26, (3) San Diego 17: Last time these teams played, Peyton Manning threw six interceptions in the rain. This time, in the dome, Manning is very efficient, and Philip Rivers throws the picks.



(2) Green Bay 28, (6) Washington 17: The Redskins lose their magic inside frigid Lambeau Field as the Packers, boosted by that improved running game and the reborn Brett Favre, return to the Super Bowl. The city goes absolutely beserk.


(2) Indianapolis 24, (1) New England 21: Even minus pass rusher Dwight Freeney, the Colts will make Brady n' Co. take sustained drives down the field. There will be no bombs to Moss. Meanwhile, Joseph Addai will repeat his standout performance from the teams' first meeting, and guess who will make the game-winning field goal? Yeah, you guessed it.


... You'll have to wait a few weeks for this. I don't want to embarrass myself too much.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Marbury's case a unique one


While the New York Knicks continued to stink up Madison Square Garden Wednesday night, losing 107-97 to three-starters-less Sacramento, there was a positive for Isiah Thomas' dreadful bunch.

The return of point guard Stephon Marbury.

Not every Knicks fan, I'm sure, was excited to see their mercurial No. 3 back in uniform, but I sure was pumped. Marbury is a key cog on my fantasy team, and his 16 points in 30 minutes Wednesday was a solid first game back.

But enough fantasy, let's talk reality.

Wednesday marked a full month since the death of Marbury's father, Don, on Dec. 2. During the month, Marbury briefly came back for bits and pieces of three games, but he missed 10 games. His case is extremely rare in today's fast-paced sports environment.

Usually, an athlete mourning a family member's death will miss one game — or two at the most — before returning to their team. Rejoining their teammates and staying busy is the best way for them to grieve, for them to get over their enormous personal loss.

But not for Marbury, which is very interesting.

I can only speculate as to what Marbury has gone through the past month. Losing a family member who was very close to him must have been extremely difficult. But returning to one of professional sports worst franchises couldn't have been too enticing either.

Was there more to Marbury's absence? Or was it a combination? I find it hard to believe that if Marbury was a key player on, say, the Dallas Mavericks, he would have taken off a month.

That's just me — and I might be entirely wrong — but it's not as if everything was rosy for Marbury before his father's passing. Almost three weeks prior to Marbury's personal tragedy, Thomas fined him a day's pay for leaving the team in Phoenix, because Marbury was angry about being pulled from the starting lineup.

Since then, there have been conflicting accounts from both parties as to whether Marbury informed Thomas he was leaving. But by all accounts, it was not a day in the sun for the soon-to-be 31-year-old Knick. Marbury flew to Los Angeles for the Knicks' next game against the Clippers, and there he was shaking Thomas' hand before playing 34 minutes in another loss, but were things truly peaceful between player and coach?

Again, questions we may never know the answers to.

To go back even farther, Marbury's name surfaced during the sexual assault case against Thomas prior to the season when it was learned he had consensual sex with an intern working for Anucha Browne Sanders. The former Garden employee eventually settled the lawsuit against Thomas and MSG to the tune of $11.5 million.

So the last four months of 2007 weren't exactly smooth for the bald-headed Marbury. His already flailing reputation as a point guard who shot too much and simply didn't win games was hurt by the benching incident followed by the flight out of Phoenix. His off-the-court reputation wasn't helped by the revelation in the lawsuit — Marbury is married, after all.

But a month removed from his father's death, a more-at-peace Marbury made his return to MSG Wednesday night. Longtime New York Times columnist George Vecsey described Marbury's demeanor as "as soft and gracious as he had ever seemed." Marbury, Vecsey said, came back because of his faith in God.

Which sounds good, but how many times have we heard an athlete thank God or praise God for their accomplishments? How many times, during the course of a game, do players point to the sky with both fingers to salute God?

Very, very often.

So what was Marbury's motivation for sitting out for most of a month? Is he, now in his 12th season in the NBA, depressed about his situation? Forget the $20 million he's making, we all know money doesn't buy happiness. Marbury has yet to lead a team anywhere close to the NBA Finals. He's no longer considered one of the league's premier point guards — or even one of the top 10 PGs.

Again, lots of questions, no real answers.

It's often easy to label athletes: Some are selfish players, some are consummate team guys; some are brainless, some are smarter than we think; some have a knack for getting in trouble, most are pretty decent citizens.

With Stephon Marbury, however, it's hard to know.

I'd like to think the month he took off was because he really was struggling to get over the death of his father, because he didn't think his return would be beneficial to the already-unfocused Knicks. I really would like to think that.

But as long as he produces for my fantasy team, I guess I won't worry too much about what's going on within that shaved noggin.