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 scout.com.

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 jakeblloyd@gmail.com.