Monday, December 28, 2009

You may not know of Brittney Griner, but you should


I'm going to be honest — until I picked up and leafed through my most recent Sports Illustrated, I had no idea who Brittney Griner is. So thank you, SI, for waking me up to one of sports' best stories, and one of its most overlooked.

In case you're like me, here's Brittney's quick bio: She's a freshman center for the Baylor women's basketball team. (Yeah, I know, big news!). But here's the kicker — she dunks basketballs with ease. She makes it look so simple, in fact, that it's not even a story when she throws one down.

As far back as I can remember, there hasn't been a women's basketball player like Griner. She's 6-foot-8, wears 18½-size kicks, has an 88-inch wingspan and dunks like it's nothing. Remember when Candace Parker dunked a few years back? It was huge news, making all the highlight shows. Wow! A woman had dunked.

For Griner, dunking is as simple as tying her shoes. She does it every day in practice. There are a handful of YouTube videos of Griner going through the motions as she throws down one-handed slams, two-handed slams and throws the ball off the backboard to herself for dunks. She executes them as if she's doing the dishes.

The whole story here is that, well, it's not a story. Rather, dunking is just a small part of Griner's game. Never before has a woman's player made dunking a basketball not a big deal. During her freshman season, instead, Griner has received more attention for her shot-blocking abilities. Through her first 12 games at Baylor, she is averaging a ridiculous 6.4 blocks per game. The NCAA record for a season is 5.7 bpg.

And Griner's presence on the floor has completely transformed opponents' game plans. They've tried every kind of zone against her and crowded her like no other player ever before, and on the other end she's affecting shots before they're even attempted. As a result, Baylor is ranked No. 5 and has just one loss (to Tennessee).

The best thing about this story is that it'll only get more deserved attention — Griner's got at least a few more years of college basketball.  There probably aren't a lot more players with Griner's combination of size, length and athleticism coming up through the women's basketball ranks, so for now we should all just enjoy and cherish the unique abilities she brings to the court.

Griner may be just a freshman, but she's already proven that she's a special player who doesn't come along very often. Her defensive presence has even gotten her comparisons to some guy named Bill Russell. Too soon? Definitely (and comparing men's and women's players is kind of pointless to me). But that speaks to just how dominating and overwhelming her game is. And the Russell comparison also says this — observers of Griner's game can't think of a past women's player who matches up.

Did I mention that she dunks like it's akin to putting on socks? According to SI, she has six jams in her arsenal and is working on adding a windmill. No, she doesn't come close to matching the dunks of even unimpressive men dunkers, but given context, her nonchalent throw-downs are impressive and historic.

And, to many, unknown. 

So spread the word. And if you're still unsure, watch her videos. Brittney Griner is in a class of her game. A women's hoops player like we've never seen before.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Roger Federer is my male professional athlete of the decade


I heard an interesting discussion on the radio this morning, and now I can't help but dive into it -- because I disagree, can you believe that?, with both of the show's hosts' opinions.

The debate: Who is the athlete of the decade?

When thinking about this question, I must lay out just a few criteria:

1. It can't be an athlete who's only been around for, say, six years. I want someone who has performed at an extremely high level since Y2K.

2. The athlete must have won multiple championships. One of the hosts threw out Peyton Manning only to get bludgeoned by the other. Manning's been great, he's graced the cover of SI several times ... but he has just one championship.

And that's it.

My pick? Roger Federer.

Didn't have to think twice. Let me hit you with the numbers.

2000: In his second professional season, Federer reached the third round at the Australian and U.S. opens.

2001: Federer won his first ATP tournament and won three matches for Switzerland in the Davis Cup in the same month. Then he made the quarterfinals at Wimbledon, beating four-time champ Pete Sampras to get there. Not bad for a kid who wasn't even 20 yet.

2002: Federer won his first Masters Series final and beat two former world No. 1s in the Davis Cup against Russia.

And then he really began his ascension to the best in the world.

2003: Won Wimbledon, his first major.

2004: Took the tennis world by storm, winning the Australian and U.S. Opens and repeating at Wimbledon (4 career grand slams).

2005: Wimbledon, U.S. Open (6).

2006: Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open (9). Runner-up at French Open to Rafael Nadal.

2007: Australian Open, Wimbledon, U.S. Open (12). Runner-up at French Open to Nadal.

2008: U.S. Open (13). Runner-up at French Open to Nadal.

2009: Won the French Open, finally, and Wimbledon to claim the all-time grand slams record with 15. Was the runner-up at the other two majors -- and could have easily won either of them.

I mean, name me a year in which Federer wasn't great? Critics said he was losing it in 2008 -- and he still managed to win a major and lose to Nadal in what was the most epic major-championship final ever at Wimbledon.

I guess the first three years have to be looked at as his down years, because he hadn't won a major yet. But he was still a top-10 player. He wasn't a no-name. People knew he was going to become good.

If not this great, if not the-best-of-all-time great.

Here's the mind-boggling statistic that points to Federer's consistent greatness, to his never having an off day: When he made the semifinals of the '09 U.S. Open, it marked his 22nd consecutive berth in a grand-slam semifinal. Yes, if my math skills are correct, he hasn't been eliminated in the first five rounds of a major since the 2004 French Open.

That's consistency at about its highest level.

So why is Federer more deserving than Tiger Woods, than Albert Pujols, than Kobe Bryant?

Well, let's dismiss Pujols first. And believe me, this isn't easy -- he's been nothing short of amazing. Including his 2001 rookie season, he has hit at least .314 every year with more than 30 home runs. And he might, actually, have avoided the performance-enhancing-drugs phenomenom (although we can never know for sure).

But then there's this: He's only won a single championship -- and it was in a World Series (2006) that the Detroit Tigers lost as much as the St. Louis Cardinals won.

OK, let's move on to Tiger -- and this is easy.

Woods, like Federer, has dominated an individual sport. But he hasn't quite, simply, been as dominant as Federer. And that's despite the fact that he was already experienced and a two-time major winner entering the decade.

Woods had his greatest year in 2000, winning the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship. And he followed that up by completing the Tiger Slam with a win at the '01 Masters. After two more majors in 2002, however, he then had two down years with no majors, including the '04 season that featured just one win. In fact, he was only fourth on the PGA Tour money list in '04 as he battled swing changes.

Woods had very good 2005 and '06 seasons, winning two majors apiece, and then added one each in 2007 and '08 -- with the second victory his amazing, one-legged, comeback thriller at the U.S. Open. But he again went dry in 2009 despite pronouncing his health better than before his leg surgery.

So that leaves him with 12 majors for the decade and six runner-up finishes to Federer's 15 and four.

And Woods had a handful of majors in which he was never a factor.

I'll take Federer.

Finally, there's Bryant. He's won all four of his NBA titles during the decade. He's been among the league leaders in scoring and MVP votes most of the decade. And, well, he's been one of the top three players in the league for basically the entire decade -- and competed against studs such as LeBron, D-Wade and 'Melo.

But here's the knock on Bryant: He won those first three titles with Shaquille O'Neal, who was named the MVP of the NBA Finals each time. Then, when Shaq ditched L.A., Bryant struggled to do anything with his team for three straight seasons.

Obviously, in team sports other contributors are needed to help a star win championships. But during those down years, Bryant was often seen as selfish and disliked by teammates. He didn't do much to assuage such opinions and created all kinds of controversy around the team by saying he wanted to be traded, then refuting his statement, then reiterating it.

No doubt, Bryant has been amazing. But not on Federer's level.

The other "athlete" mentioned was Jimmie Johnson, who has won four consecutive NASCAR Spring Cup championships. I'll admit it -- I hardly follow NASCAR beyond knowing who wins the Cup each year. And maybe Johnson's greatness is as good as it gets. But he didn't reach the pinnacle of his sport until 2006.

So Johnson gets my vote for the best athlete of the last half of this decade.

There are arguments for others, no doubt, but when you look at the numbers and remember the moments, nobody has been better, nobody more clutch, and nobody more consistent than Roger Federer.

My top 7
1. Federer
2. Bryant
3. Johnson
4. Woods
5. Pujols
6. Tom Brady

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Tiger should follow Kobe's lead


Here's a little game. Some think-quick questions:

Question: What's the first thing that comes to your mind when I say ... Tiger Woods?

Sample answer: Scandal. Cheater. Idiot. Womanizer. ... Oh, and he's a pretty good golfer, too.

Question: What comes to mind when I mention ... Kobe Bryant?

Answer: One of the NBA's top three players, four-time NBA champion, he finally won without Shaq.

OK, no more games. Here's my point. Right now, and likely for another year or two, no mention of Woods — whether at a business meeting, a cocktail outing or on a party boat — will go without reference to how he completely tarnished his image in the course of two weeks. Regardless of the measures he and his people take to to try to mend his image, the main Tiger conversation will be about his infidelity, his inability to drive out of his driveway and what, exactly, happened involving his beautiful wife, a 9-iron and the back window of his Escalade.

And Tiger deserves all of it. He deserves to be booed at tournaments whenever he returns from his indefinite leave from golf. He deserves to have to answer difficult questions at press conferences and on television. Yes, this is his "private life," but scrutiny of his personal life comes with his fame (along with all those endorsements, cash and black-tie events). Sorry, Tiger.

But there should be, if Tiger can see this far ahead, a place not too far down his career path when Tiger could go back to simply being called the world's greatest golfer and, still a possibility, the best to ever play the game.

Bryant, an athlete of similar fame and achievement, can vouch for such a scenario. In fact, maybe Woods needs to sit down with the Lakers star for advice.

You'd never know it from hearing people casually talk about Bryant today, but six years ago he was in a quagmire similar to Woods' current mess. Quick recap: In the summer of 2003, he was accused of rape. That charge was eventually dismissed, but Bryant admitted to adultery. He had never been exposed for negative off-the-court behavior. No legal issues, no family problems.

Just like that, however, Bryant was despised by the American public. Even after he made the right move by holding a tear-filled press conference in which he admitted his infidelity — I'd advise Woods to hold a similar presser and drop some tears while holding his children at the podium — he was booed and heckled at opposing arenas throughout the 2003-04 season as his case progressed. It was a season from hell for the All Star.

But then the case was dismissed. And the Lakers were eliminated from the playoffs. And the lazy days of summer took over.

And by the following fall, the only questions surrounding Bryant were how he'd deal with not playing alongside O'Neal for the first time in his career. Cheating on his wife? A rape charge? ... What??? All in the past. Water under the bridge, kids.

Now, after an NBA title last June, Bryant is once again revered in NBA circles. His teammates love him. His fans absolutely adore him. His jerseys are sold worldwide . His world is one of perfection, almost — kind of like the one Woods inhabited, at least in the public's view, until Thanksgiving.

So, Tiger, I know I'm not one to give you, the man, advice. But it's really simple. If you get back to playing golf and swallow the pills that you deserve. If you find a way to save your marriage and be a good family man (Bryant might recommend a pricey diamond ring; just ask his wife). And if you get back to being the world's supreme golfer and winning majors ... well, that's all anyone will talk about.

And here's the added bonus for you, as you begin this comeback: You play a sport that you can stick with, at a very competitive level, for another 20-plus years. If you do your thing, nobody in 2033 will be talking about your nine (or so) affairs way back in the first decade of the century. PUH-lease! It'll be all about how you broke Jack Nicklaus' majors record with that amazing chip on the 17th hole of the 2016 US Open. And, of course, golf lifers will reminisce about where they were when you won the Open on a broken leg (I'll never forget that I was at a family reunion).

The thing about sports is that they're all about the present. One week, a certain image might capture your attention. The next, you'll have completely forgotten about it thanks to a new amazing moment, a new astounding play.

It'll take awhile for Tiger Woods to get back to being, simply, that amazing golfer (especially while he's on this leave from golf). But after a couple years of dominance on the course, assuming he won't let his personal issues affect his play on the course (he certainly didn't struggle while having these supposed affairs), Woods will return to his old self.

And be thought of as his old self. In other words, Tiger Woods the golfer — not Tiger Woods the very flawed person.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Wie maturing on a healthy diet of golf, college and Spam


Quick quiz: How old is Michelle Wie?

Based on how long she's been around -- did Brett Favre's or her career start first? -- you'd think she's at least 25, maybe starting to bang on that door of the 30s.

Um, no. How 'bout not even drinking age? That's right -- Wie is just 20 years old. It really does seem like an eternity ago when she took the golf world by storm as a precocious 13-year-old focused on playing with the men and showing up veteran golfers across the world.

That was then. Read this Sports Illustrated article and you'll see that Wie -- despite the teenage fits, despite the overbearing coaching style of her parents, despite the endorsements, the fame, the money -- has turned out just fine. Actually, it's pretty incredible that Wie has become, almost, a normal college student at Stanford who loves Spam, hangs out with a large group of friends and, get this, is even frugal.

Frugal? If I had millions of dollars at that age, I think I might upgrade from Spam. Just a thought.

But this column isn't about Spam. I'll be sure to dedicate a future column (non on this blog, mind you) to the utterly disgusting food. This is about the maturation of a famous athlete both as a player and a person.

Who knows how good of a career Wie will have? That's as unpredictable as the economy. But she did pick up her first LPGA victory recently, showing grit in the final round to stave off a strong field of contenders. Learning how to win is a big, big part of becoming a top-notch pro, especially as a golfer out there on the course alone. Wie did that, and now here, less than a month later, she has greater confidence as she prepares for the 2010 season.

Is she stressing about building off the win? Absolutely not. She's more concerned about her papers that are due, her finals coming up. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Wie is her ability to balance schoolwork at a top-notch institution along with playing golf professionally. She'll graduate from Stanford in the next couple years, and still have plenty of good years on the golf course ahead.

Perhaps the biggest indication of her maturity is what her competitors are saying, and they're not just praising her because of her importance, marketing-wise, when it comes to the LPGA's success. Just a couple years ago, they were sick of her childish behavior and pompousness on the links.

And now? "So many players have come up to me this year and said, 'Wow, Michelle is a really cool, really sweet, really down-to-earth girl,'" Natalie Gulbis was quoted in the SI article.

Having friends and admirers, of course, doesn't win tournaments. And neither does getting A's in college. But from all indications, Wie has found a happy balance in life -- and is playing the best golf of her career as a result.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Unless Iverson changes, he's not a good fit for any team


Not to brag, but since I'm rarely right about things, just an average American writing my opinions, I must do a little ego-boosting...

When Allen Iverson signed with the Grizzlies this summer, I forecast a failed marriage in Memphis. I didn't foresee such a quick divorce, but I can't say I was overly shocked when the stubborn guard and the awful franchise parted ways just a few games into the season.

So there.

Iverson, apparently, never sat down with the Memphis coaching staff prior to the season, never thought he'd be coming off the bench. This despite the fact that the Grizzlies have a factory full of young guards they're aimlessly trying to develop.


So when AI found himself coming off the pine — behind, gasp, players 10 years his younger — he, and his enormous ego, couldn't take it. He cut ties with the Grizzlies and began searching for his next ill-fated suitor.

When the Knicks, smartly (yes, the Knicks actually made a smart personnel decision besides dumping all their talent and hoping, praying, that LeBron will join their minefield rotation next summer) passed on the Answer, he discovered that no other team was instantly interested in him.

So, naturally, he "retired," which, basically, means he got desperate. His retirement statement read more like a resume, stating that Iverson still had plenty left in the tank and and thought he could still play at the NBA's top level.

Which brings us to the present, with the 76ers reportedly not ruling out signing their former star for a second stint to help out an injury-riddled backcourt.

I've got three elementary words for Philly management: Don't do it.

This isn't to say that bringing back the Answer would be an utter failure. He would, after all, actually help the 76ers sell tickets — and, man, have they been horrific in that department this season, filling a league-worst 58 percent of their arena. Iverson, it can't be disputed, will attract fans. He's always been good at that.

But he's never been good at being a team player, never been much of a winner. Sure, he "took" the 76ers to the 2001 Finals, but only because his teammates played incredible defense despite getting constantly ignored on the offensive end.

Anyone who thinks Iverson can start for a championship team need only watch tape of his last three (short) tenures in Denver, Detroit and Memphis. In Denver, he never worked to gain a chemistry with Carmelo Anthony and his teammates, and the Nuggets couldn't get out of the first round despite having the league's top two scorers. Look what they're doing now with Chauncey Billups in the backcourt.

In Detroit, AI helped create an absolute mess (with a big assist from not-ready-to-be-a-head-coach Michael Curry). And in Memphis, well, we already went over that. Not good.

Now if Iverson could change and be willing to come off the bench and play 15-20 minutes a game, he could be a valuable commodity for a championship contender. Other teams, for the most part, wouldn't be able to bring such an explosive offensive player off the bench. He could stop droughts, start runs, ignite teams.

But forget that, because it isn't happening.

Sadly, Iverson is too stubborn for his own good. He talks about winning championships, but doesn't realize what it takes to make them happen. Heck, he doesn't even sign with teams that have a chance at such glory. Instead, he wants the minutes, he wants the spotlight, he wants the stats. 

That's the only conclusion I can weave from his actions.

And if that's really the case, then maybe he ought to consider going somewhere else, to another league.

Or he can continue to wait for that NBA team that has no interest in winning this year and developing young players, but rather just wants to sell tickets.

The Knicks sure seemed like the best bet for that. They said no. 

I don't think this is the end, but the Answer sure isn't painting a pretty legacy in his twilight years.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Michigan's Rodriguez deserves a third season -- barely


Bill Martin is heading out the door as Michigan's athletic director -- and not at a pretty time. He isn't exactly leaving his post on a high horse, having witnessed the worst season in Michigan football history ... followed by yet another losing season.

But Martin does deserve a widget of credit for saying, as he prepares to peace out, that Rich Rodriguez, the man he hired, deserves a third year, a third chance, as the football coach in Ann Arbor.

Martin, of course, wants things to work out for Rich Rod because, well, he brought him to campus. But as biased as he might be, he is right -- the coach, as poorly as his teams have performed, should get one more season to prove he can lead the Wolverines back to being a national contender ... scratch that, a Big Ten contender ... wait, scratch that -- a bowl team.

Yes, things have gotten that ugly in the Ace Deuce.

They could only get worse, however, if Rodriguez were ousted before next season by whoever succeeds Martin. The last thing the Wolverines need now -- at least for the next year -- is change. They need some kind of continuity, consistency. They need the players to feel comfortable with the program; they need the strong recruiting class of 2010 to stay the strong recruiting class of 2010 and be freshmen in the fall.

They need Rodriguez and his staff back in the fall. For one more try at this thing.

Bottom line is this -- if you hire a proven coach (like Rodriguez), a guy you know can coach at the top level of the game (remember, he was one win away from taking West Virginia to the national-title game), you have to give him three years to prove himself. At least. Period.

Rodriguez has only gotten to use one class of his recruits, his style of player -- as freshmen, of course. He should get the opportunity to use these same players as sophomores along with another group of his recruits.

(I'm almost tempted to say a coach with Rodriguez's pedigree should always get four years, barring huge off-the-field problems, but we'll cross that bridge 360-some days from now if we have to.)

Here's another reason Michigan has to stick with Rodriguez: Who else is out there? Who wants to come to Ann Arbor? Don't tell me an Urban Meyer, or anyone on a similar level, would consider leaving his post to try to clean up this mess. Ain't happening.

For now, Rich Rod is the best man for the job (at least out of well-known, proven candidates; yes, to cover all bases, a dude could come from out of nowhere and suddenly turn things around. This scenario isn't likely, however, and wouldn't play well with the heavy-pocketed boosters).

So as bad as Michigan has been the past two years, let's not rush to rash conclusions. Let's hold off on the fire sales for now. And let's not forget that Michigan's offense this season was the Big Ten's best -- the Wolverines just couldn't stop anybody. The defense was atrocious. Get some talented guys in there, and maybe things could change.

There is hope, as ridiculous as that sounds. And unless the ongoing NCAA investigation blows up and reveals all kinds of indiscretions that warrant Rodriguez's ouster, he should be allowed to stick around for another season (although he probably shouldn't make too many public appearances).

He shouldn't be fired, not yet, for his record as a coach. Not yet, I repeat.

But he sure hasn't made many friends in his new home state. One more season like the last two, and he'll most likely join the millions of other unemployed Michigan citizens.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

2009-10 college basketball preview: predicting the 65


I love and live March Madness as much as the next college hoops fan — or bracket fanatic  — but I've got to be honest here: The level of "Madness" has really died down the past three years.

Since the George Mason surge to the Final Four in 2006, there hasn't been much drama. The big schools, the money schools, the schools with the kids whom had been recruited since kindergarten, have dominated. The little guys haven't been invited, for the most part, to the second weekend of the Dance.

And then the big guys have beaten each other up, not even providing us fans and media with dramatic moments (yes, the '08 title game was thrilling — because Memphis decided to stop making free throws — and, yes, Villanova's last-second win over Pitt last year was as exciting a way as possible to make the Final Four). 

But name me another memorable game late in the Dance the past few years? I've got nothing.

Bottom line: The sport hasn't been quite as heart-pounding as it usually is (and, to add to the negativity, there have been several off-the-court issues that have stolen attention from the games).

However, this new season's underway (yes, believe it; I was even shocked by the Monday-night start) and will undoubtedly provide plenty of drama in some parts of the country (although the big guys will still, for the most part, rule).

So with that said, here's my annual prediction of the 65 teams that will make the NCAA Tournament:

THE CHAMPIONS (31 teams)
Big East
Villanova: The Wildcats made it to the Final Four last year, and they'll follow it up with a Big East title thanks to the leadership and guard play of Scottie Reynolds.

Metro Atlantic
Siena: This conference is loaded, but I can't pick against the Saints, who made the Big Dance the past two years and took down Ohio State in the first round a year ago.

America East
Vermont: The Catamounts are still stinging from blowing a 25-point lead and the regular-season title a year ago. Won't happen again.

Atlantic 10
Dayton: Coming off an NCAA win over West Virginia, the Flyers return all but one starter. In a down year for the conference, they'll stand out.

Ivy League
Cornell: Most. Obvious. Pick. Ever. Seriously — the Big Red have won two straight titles and return their starting lineup. Enough said.

Patriot League
Holy Cross: I look forward to attending some American games here in DC, but the two-time defending champions lost everyone. So the league is open, and the Crusaders have enough talent to claim the bid to the Dance.

Long Island: The conference is loaded with returning talent. The Blackbirds return the most.

North Carolina: This isn't as obvious of a pick as it was a year ago, but the whole conference is down and the Tar Heels still have the most talent and the ability to put it all together.

Morgan State: The Bears will put together their third straight regular-season title behind Reggie Holmes.

Big South
Radford: The Highlanders return a host of top-notch players and will be able to hold off pesky Winthrop.

Virginia Commonwealth: The Rams lost Eric Maynor and coach Anthony Grant, but they return all their other players from another NCAA Tournament squad.

Wofford: This season will bring great unpredictably to the conference, as Davidson is normal again sans Stephen Curry. Expect Wofford to grab the tourney berth.

Kentucky: We all know John Calipari can coach when he has talent (I'll leave out the part about how the talent is recruited), and guess what he has a lot of at Kentucky? Yep, talent.

Ohio Valley
Morehead State: Expect the Eagles to make their second NCAA Tournament appearance in as many years. Who saw that coming?

Atlantic Sun
Jacksonville: The Bears have reached the past two conference title games and will finally break through thanks to the return of three double-digit scorers.

Sun Belt
Western Kentucky: It's hard to pick against the two-time defending champion, which demolished Illinois in the Big Dance last year. The Hilltoppers return three double-digit guys.

Oakland: If the Golden Grizzlies don't break through this year, they simply won't. After losing the title in heartbreaking fashion last March, they return almost everyone while other teams lose a lot.

Big Ten
Michigan State: Wow, this conference is loaded — and the Spartans are the kings until they're knocked off. They'll miss Goran Suton and Travis Walton, but return loads of talent. 

Akron: The McKnight brothers, Bret and Chris, will lead the Zips back to their second consecutive NCAA Tournament in a weak conference — what happened to the better days of the MAC?

Conference USA
Tulsa: And, finally, Memphis isn't a lock to dominate the conference. The Golden Hurricanes will gladly assume the mantle, led by 7-foot stud Jerome Jordan.

Butler: You'd have to be an idiot, a joker or blind to not type "Butler" here. The Bulldogs return everyone from a 26-6 NCAA Tournament team. They're a legit Final Four contender.

Big 12
Kansas: The Jayhawks won't waltz through the conference — not with Texas right beside them as a national-title contender. Still, they've clearly got the best class of talent in the nation.

Missouri Valley
Northern Iowa: The Panthers surprised by reaching the Dance last March, and they return everyone to make a second straight run.

Nicholls State: Who knows what will happen here? It's a crapshoot after Stephen F. Austin lost two former conference players of the year.

Arkansas-Pine Bluff: The Golden Lions did well a year ago despite the departures of four key players. Now boosted by the return of their top guys, expect a conference title.

Utah State: The Aggies will remain atop the conference, boosted by a pair of double-digit scorers and, of course, the confidence that comes with usually winning this league.

Big Sky
Weber State: The Wildcats dominated last year, winning the regular season by four games, and freshman of the year Damian Lillard will lead them to a similar result.

Mountain West
BYU: The Cougars lose big-time forward Lee Cummard, but little else. The rest of the league's contenders lose more, which leaves BYU there to take the automatic bid.

California: Jerome Randall and Patrick Christopher are the lone all-league players returning, and they're on the same team. Sounds like the makings of a championship squad.

Big West
Long Beach State: The 49ers return four consistent performers, who all averaged double figures or close to it, plus gain Providence transfer Dwain Williams. 

West Coast
Gonzaga: It's tempting to pick Portland, which returns its 10 best players from a very solid team. But the Zags, despite heavy losses, have one of the nation's best coaches in Mark Few.

THE AT-LARGE BIDS (34 teams)
*In order of higher-seeded teams
Big East
West Virginia

Georgia Tech
Boston College
Wake Forest

Mississippi State
South Carolina

Big Ten
Ohio State
Penn State

Big 12
Oklahoma State
Kansas State

Missouri Valley


Mountain West

West Coast

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Yankees thrived on not feeling pressure


Many of the 27 New York Yankees World Series-winning teams thrived on pressure. They relished being the sought-out team, the hated group, the huge favorite, the cadre of players envied by opposing teams' general managers.

The 2009 Yankees, a group made up of many players who had suffered through some, most or all of eight seasons of failed expectations, were not one of those teams.

They didn't play their best when they were tight, when the pressure was so immense that it choked them, slowed down their swings, took the "curve" out of their curveballs. Rather, this group of champions rolled to this championship by playing loosely, by acting as if they weren't the hunted, weren't the team everyone expected to be spraying the final bottles of Champagne.

Just look at Alex Rodriguez, who was infamous, entering this October, for not performing in the playoffs. If you look at the tape from past postseason failures -- take 2004, '05, '06 or '07 -- you'll see an uptight A-rod with a serious face. You'll see him strikeout and then walk back to the dugout, head down, almost as if he was hoping Yankees fans wouldn't boo him.

He was afraid of failure, scared of not living up to the gazillions of dollars the richest franchise in MLB invested in him.

Not anymore, sports fans. This season, the Yanks brought in Nick Swisher, who refuses to live without a smile. They also paid the big bucks for C.C. Sabathia, a big, pudgy, relaxed -- yet fierce -- pitcher who never lets the enormity of a situation get the best of him.

And, all of a sudden, A-rod changed.

Think back to spring training. It came out that Rodriguez had used PEDs while in Texas. He admitted to using them, and immediately lost all his Facebook friends. Then he suffered a bad hip injury that would keep him off the field -- the only place where he could redeem himself -- for over a month.

Things couldn't have been worse for the guy. (OK, maybe that's an exaggeration. Dating Kate Hudson and having a little money equals a serviceable life.) And there was no indication that his fortunes would turn around, especially coming off the torn labrum in his right hip.

But A-Rod came back to the diamond relaxed, sporting a new, always-smiling demeanor. I'm not sure where it came from, but I think Swisher, Sabathia and Co. deserve some credit. Whatever the case, A-Rod's fresh outlook helped him the most this postseason, when he was absolutely explosive in the first two rounds and then drilled the biggest hit of the series to win the crucial Game 4.

Take away A-Rod's postseason, and there's no way the Yanks are dancing all over the Unnecessary Stadium's green sod late Wednesday night. He, really, was the difference this October (and early November).

This isn't to say that other guys didn't play huge roles. Hideki Matsui provided the nail in the Fightin' Phils coffin, hitting everything Pedro Martinez threw at the plate in Game 6 to drive in a ridiculous six of the Yanks' seven runs. He also slugged the key (and game-winning) homer off, you guessed it, Pedro in Game 2 -- on a pitch, it must be mentioned, that was just higher than the top of the Vlad Guerrero hitting zone.

Mariano Rivera was stellar -- what's new? -- in shutting down the Phillies whenever provided with a late-inning lead. If I didn't know the guy to be classy and honest (and I'm absolutely positive on this), I'd think he's ingesting something illegal the way he's pitching at age 39. Joe Girardi used him so many innings, I mistook Rivera for a 26-year-old closer.

And fellow veterans Derek Jeter, Johnny Damon and Jorge Posada contributed as well, with Damon's heads-up baserunning in the ninth inning of Game 4 something that will certainly be recalled when looking back on this Series.

But did we expect anything different from these guys? After all, they've never been the problem for the Yankees in the Postseason (at least not while in Pinstripes; Damon had a big hand in the Red Sox' Comeback for the Ages in '04, hitting the grand slam that sparked the Sox in Game 7).

So what if Jeter got on base in every game of the postseason? Is that really surprising? No, that's what the guy does.

No, what put these Yankees over the top, what allowed them to finally get back to the pinnacle of baseball greatness, were the contributions of the New Guys and, of course, what the new A-Rod did.

Yes, New York did what it always does during the cold months, madly outspending the rest of the league to acquire the big names. But that wouldn't have mattered if Rodriguez had swung through pitches, again, in the postseason.

Instead, he relaxed, his teammates stayed chill, they blew some big bubbles, Swisher kept smiling -- even when benched briefly -- and they calmly rolled to the Yanks' 27th title.

What pressure?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

2009-10 (last-second) NBA preview


Listen, I love the NBA as much as the next basketball-starved fan. But I'm in an honest mood this evening, as I anticipate the start of another -- loooooong -- season:

The 2009-10 regular season isn't going to provide much excitement. The first couple rounds of the playoffs won't be much better.

Then, finally, the action will heat up, along with the weather, in mid-May. Yep, it will take that long.

All of this is because the league, more than ever, is extremely front-loaded. Barring serious injuries or out-of-the-blue stars, there will be a handful of contributors ... and the rest of the teams.

With that said, read my ensuing, entertaining (at least I think) preview of all 30 teams. Playoff teams are marked by an asterisk.


Central Division
*1. Cleveland Cavaliers (60-22, 1st in East): LeBron and Shaq will coexist just fine, and don't forget about the overlooked key acquisition Anthony Parker. He'll hit the big shots if Delonte West continues wielding guns in guitar cases.

*2. Chicago Bulls (48-34, 5th in East): Derrick Rose will only get better, but they'll miss the big-shot ability of Ben Gordon. They still lack an inside scorer. How far they go in the playoffs will depend largely on whether Luol Deng wakes up from his year-long hibernation.

*3. Detroit Pistons (43-39, 8th in East): The Pistons will be able to score, there's no doubting that. But what about defending teams? Gordon and Charlie Villanueva ain't exactly known for playing "D." And new coach John Kuester was an offensive mastermind. He's saying the right things, but...

4. Indiana Pacers (39-43, 11th in East): This team won't be out of the playoff race until late because they've got maybe the most unknown star in the league. Danny Granger can do it all and will continue to do so, taking a leadership role on a team full of chemistry-builders.

5. Milwaukee Bucks (25-57, 15th in East): Yes, this will be another ugly season for the Bucks, who are without Richard Jefferson. One plus -- Hakim Warrick, that guy who blocked the shot at the end of the 2003 national title game, will at least give them some defense. But he's one dude.

Atlantic Division
*1. Boston Celtics (58-24, 2nd in East): Only one thing can derail this team from being outstanding -- injuries. And that, obviously, is a big concern for this bunch of old dudes. Don't worry, however, about Rasheed Wallace. When he knows he's around competent, championship-caliber players, he doesn't fool around -- except for the normal technicals.

*2. Toronto Raptors (44-38, 7th in East): This squad made a significant upgrade by stealing Hedo Turkoglu from the Magic. He will form a, pardon the cliche, "dynamic duo" with Chris Bosh. Of course, you need a lot more than that to do anything special in the postseason.

3. Philadelphia 76ers (39-43, 11th in East): The 76ers will be competitive until mid-April, led by an ever-improving stud in Andre Iguodala (can he shoot better from outside?). But they'll miss the on-court leadership of Andre Miller regardless of how well Elton Brand bounces back from a horrid season.

4. New York Knicks (35-47, 13th in East): Take a look at the Knicks roster and tell me who scares you. Seriously. David Lee? Yes, this team will score a lot of points and create some exciting nights at MSG. And, yes, they'll get better throughout the season because Mike D'Antoni's a good coach. And, yes again, they can't wait for the Summer of 2010.

5. New Jersey Nets (27-55, 14th in East): The good news first: Devin Harris and Brook Lopez might just be forming a strong little guard-big guy combo (although Lopez especially still has a lot of developing to do). The bad news: There are no other proven parts.

Southeast Division
*1. Orlando Magic (57-25, 3rd in East): Vince Carter will do his best to fit in and try to win a championship, but he won't be as effective as Turkoglu was in that role. That's not a knock on him -- Turk just fit it perfectly. Other than that, they'll be just as good -- but not improved like Cleveland and Boston.

*2. Atlanta Hawks (49-33, 4th in East): This squad will present scary matchups every night ... and Jamal Crawford will finally make the playoffs. The Michigan man (for one season) is 0-for-9 in that department, but now he'll come off the bench for a stacked team and provide instant offense.

*3. Washington Wizards (45-37, 6th in East): The Wiz are everybody's comeback team in the East, coming off that dismal 19-63 season. Still, will they be able to stay healthy? Antawn Jamison's already out for 10-15 games to begin the year. If their Big Three are on the court, they'll roll into the playoffs. If not, it could be another disappointing season.

4. Miami Heat (41-41, 9th in East): Just the presence of Dwyane Wade gives Miami a shot at the playoffs. But D-Wade can't be happy that management didn't do a thing to upgrade the roster. Michael Beasley and Mario Chalmers might be improved, but that won't be enough to return to the postseason.

5. Charlotte Bobcats (40-42, 10th in East): It will be a case of deja vu for the Bobcats, who will hang tough under L.B. only to fall just short of their first postseason. They've got a tougher lineup with Tyson Chandler, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell, but defense will still be an issue. They're definitely on the up-and-up, however.


Southwest Division
*1. San Antonio Spurs (56-26, 2nd in West): Just when I think the Spurs might be over the hill and out of title contention, they go out and get two rock-solid veterans to bolster a rock-solid roster. Richard Jefferson will score a lot and provide toughness. Antonio McDyess will score, rebound and provide toughness. And if Manu Ginobili stays healthy, watch out Lakers...

*2. New Orleans Hornets (50-32, 5th in West): Just about everyone has forgotten about the Hornets, who still have the best point guard in the Association. Depth is still a huge issue (thanks, injury-prone Peja), but Emeka Okafor will provide down-low scoring and did I mention Chris Paul?

*3. Dallas Mavericks (49-33, 6th in West): This is a big year for the Mavs, who are starting to get old and need to take a step toward contention. Shawn Marion certainly helps that cause, and Jason Terry will continue to be one of the game's most underrated players. Drew Gooden will provide solid defense, too, but how far can this team go with the Spurs and Lakers lurking?

4. Houston Rockets (37-45, 9th in West): This team should really suck, dude -- like really, really bad. There will be no Yao sightings (except on the bench), not many T-Mac sightings (except on the bench) and tough guy Ron Artest is replaced by talented but young Trevor Ariza. Shane Battier will help lead this group to about as good of a season as it could expect.

5. Memphis Grizzlies (29-53, 14th in West): Well, more tickets were sold. Yay! That's what Allen Iverson provides for a team. Scoring. Cool moves. Amazing shots. And more sold tickets. What he doesn't provide are more victories. The only way this team makes significant strides is if Mike Conley has a breakout year at point guard.

Northwest Division
*1. Denver Nuggets (54-28, 3rd in West): The Nuggets didn't do much, or get any attention, during the summer, but is that a bad thing? There's something to be said for standing pat when you're coming off a damn-good year. Carmelo Anthony finally is a leader. Chauncey Billups manages the game as well as anyone. Everyone else fills a role. Don't count 'em out.

*2. Portland Trail Blazers (50-32, 4th in West): There's no doubt this team is loaded with talent. The question is how everyone will fill roles like the Nuggets do so beautifully. The jury's still out on Greg Oden. Who will run the most at point guard (Andre Miller meet Steve Blake)? Those are just two of the questions surrounding the excitement in Portland.

*3. Utah Jazz (46-36, 7th in West): I don't think the contract-talk discussions will be as bad as they were a year ago. However, this team doesn't give off the best vibe right now. What, exactly, is Carlos Boozer playing for? The good news is that Paul Millsap will be super motivated after getting a huge contract. He's just not as offensive as Boozer.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder (35-47, 11th in West): Give it a year or two, fellas. With the young nucleus of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Jeff Green, this squad is primed for future success. That's especially the case with Durant now vowing to take a leadership role. It'll just take a little time.

5. Minnesota Timberwolves (30-52, 13th in West): I love Jonny Flynn. He's in such good shape, he could play 40 minutes one night and still be ready to run up and down the next night. I also love a healthy Al Jefferson. But where's the leadership on this team? This will be the West's version of the Knicks (very fast-paced, of course) -- just more exciting to watch even when losing.

Pacific Division
*1. Los Angeles Lakers (62-20, 1st in West): We all know the positives, so I'll focus on a (possible) negative. I think Ariza was a better fit here than Artest. Don't misinterpret -- Artest will get along fine with his teammates. But he often holds onto the ball and takes ill-advised shots, whereas Ariza kept the offense flowing.

*2. Phoenix Suns (44-38, 8th in West): The Suns aren't close to what they were five years ago, but give Steve Nash big ups for coming back to a non-contending team instead of selling himself to a top dog. He might not be able to play D, but he's a great team guy. If Amare Stoudemire plays a full season, they might be able to play themselves up a spot or two, but not further.

3. Los Angeles Clippers (36-46, 10th in West): Poor Clippers. On the day the season begins, it's learned that No. 1 draft pick Blake Griffin is out for roughly six weeks. That's brutal. Griffin will make an impact when he returns, but it will take time to get used to the NBA game. And by then, the Clippers will be well below .500, knowing another season will end sans the playoffs.

4. Golden State Warriors (32-50, 12th in West): What a mess. Stephen Jackson wants out, but isn't going anywhere (for now). Meanwhile, Monta Ellis doesn't think he can play with Stephen Curry. Obviously, he hasn't watched the rookie, because Curry is much less selfish than he is. On the plus side, big men Anthony Randolph and Andris Biedrins are becoming solid players.

5. Sacramento Kings (23-59, 15th in West): Congrats, Kings, on getting the best shot at the lottery in May. See? We're staying positive. Rookie Tyreke Evans could be a stud down the road, and look for Jason Thompson and Spencer Hawes to continue to get better down low. But winning? Hah, that's for the future.


Eastern Conference
First Round
1 Cleveland def. 8 Detroit (4 games)
2 Boston def. 7 Toronto (4 games)
3 Orlando def. 6 Washington (6 games)
4 Atlanta def. 5 Chicago (7 games)

Conference Semifinals
1 Cleveland def. 4 Atlanta (5 games)
2 Boston def. 3 Orlando (7 games)

Conference Finals
2 Boston def. 1 Cleveland (7 games): Hey, I love both teams, baby!!!! But if Boston's healthy, I can't go against the Celtics here. Not only did they add Wallace, but also Marquis Daniels, who will help to spark a bench that outplays Cleveland's.

Western Conference
First Round
1 Los Angeles def. 8 Phoenix (5 games)
2 San Antonio def. 7 Utah (5 games)
3 Denver def. 6 Dallas (7 games)
4 Portland def. 5 New Orleans (6 games)

Conference Semifinals
1 Los Angeles def. 4 Portland (5 games)
2 San Antonio def. 3 Denver (7 games)

Conference Finals
1 Los Angeles def. 2 San Antonio (6 games): I love the Spurs, and they'll be playing with a sense of urgency, knowing their window to win with Tim Duncan is closing. Still, they'll be fatigued from a hard-fought series with the Nuggets, and the Lakers simply have no weaknesses.

NBA Finals
Los Angeles Lakers def. Boston Celtics (7 games): Yes, we've been waiting for an epic NBA Finals. And here it is. The Lakers, however, will be just a little fresher and, of course, will have at their service one of the NBA's top three players. Paul Pierce will be good, but he won't outplay Bryant like he did in '08.

Yeah, the ending will easily be the most dramatic part of this long haul we call the NBA season.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Instant replay must be expanded for MLB playoffs


Major League Baseball can't deny it — the game needs to expand its instant-replay system.

This postseason, by itself, has proven that.

During the past two weeks, there has been a plethora of badly missed calls. If you've watched the games with one eye, you know what I'm referring to.

All the umpires have been able to do is apologize. They can't dispute the calls, because, um, their mistakes have been obvious. For instance, the Twins' Joe Mauer hit a blooper down the left-field line in Game 2 of Minnesota's series against New York. The ball landed a good half foot inside the line, but, somehow, the foul-line umpire called it foul.

The call might have cost the Twins the game and a chance to make that series interesting.

That was the biggest goof, but there have been many others.

And they only illustrate the need for the expansion of instant replay.

At least in the postseason.

I'm not opposed to keeping the regular season as it stands. There are so many games, no team can legitimately take a blown call from one game, or even two, and say that it cost them a playoff spot (yes, I'm talking about this season's Tigers).

So keep the regular-season system as is. Review close home runs. Play the games.

But when it comes to the postseason, the system needs to be altered ASAP. There's no opposing argument.

The fix is simple. As many of the baseball sages have suggested, put an umpire in the press box with a TV. When he sees a call such as the Mauer one that's transparently wrong, he'll signal down to the field umpires in some fashion (um, this is the 21st century; I'm sure they can come up with something).

The call is reversed. Everyone is happy. (Well, maybe not the team that was the beneficiary of the bad call. But they won't feel so guilty about getting a break. ... Scratch that — they probably wouldn't feel guilty in the first place, but you get my drift.)

The point is, this is a simply fix. This isn't football, when some fumble-or-no-fumble reviews are so close, they take 5 minutes, 43 seconds (and seven beer commercials) to review.

No, baseball doesn't need to allow managers the ability to call for reviews, even though the comedy of Lou Piniella furiously throwing a red flag from the dugout would be hard to match.

For all the baseball purists out there, MLB shouldn't let managers be involved in the reviewing process. Rather, the ump in the box should have all the authority to overturn, not "review," any call that appears clearly incorrect. In other words, if they see a replay and know right away that the call on the field wasn't right, then overturn it.

If two replays don't show conclusive evidence, play on. And no, balls and strikes should never be reviewed regardless of how many pitches are called wrong — that's part of the game and always should be.

But there's no excuse to miss calls like the one in Game 4 of the Yankees-Angels ALCS series, when Mike Napoli clearly tagged out two Yankees by third base who weren't touching the bag. Innocently but very incorrectly, respected umpire Tim McClelland ruled that Robinson Cano had his foot on third base.

The first replay showed what I had thought when I saw the play live — Cano's foot was a good 6 inches from touching the rubber.

That could have been changed in a matter of a minute.

Nice and quick.

Postseason baseball games are long to begin with. What's the big difference between 3 hours, 35 minutes and 3 hours, 47 minutes? Twelve minutes, I believe, if my math is correct.

This is the 21st century, sports fans, and baseball hasn't been "pure" for a long time.

It's about time the league take the necessary measures to make sure all its postseason games are fairly decided.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Gilbert Arenas' silence indicates lack of self control


When I moved to the Washington D.C. area, I expected a few things:

An overdose of daily politics.

More than 100 losses by the Nationals each season.

And, of course, plenty of banter -- some ridiculous, some comical -- from the always-loquacious Gilbert Arenas.

While the first two expectations have come through, the third, startlingly, hasn't. Gilbert Arenas, or "Hibachi," the trash-talking, loose-lipped, oft-injured point guard of the Washington Wizards, suddenly can't talk.

Arenas is finally healthy after two seasons, basically, spent on the bench (he played in 15 of a possible 170 games), including almost all of last year when the Wizards were a dismal 19-63.

So he's back, he's feeling good, he's getting drafted high in fantasy leagues once again, he's making people around here feel optimistic about a possible huge turnaround for this team, which still has the steady Antawn Jamison and the All Star Caron Butler...

And he's refusing to talk.


Arenas spoke to reporters at media day. And since then, he hasn't uttered a peep to them.

Actually, that's not entirely true. The other day he decided to go all Rasheed Wallace, telling the press after a win, "Both teams played hard."

Thanks, Gilbert.

The only reason Arenas stated for talking at media day? To avoid being fined by the league. Well, the league has since fined him $25,000, rightly so, for refusing to talk to the media during the preseason (the team also incurred the same fine).

Look, I understand, kind of, what Arenas is trying to do. During the past few years, he became known more for his voice than for his play. His blog became hugely popular and writers could always wander over to his locker for a good sound bite.

The last two seasons, he's simply been known as an injury-plagued player.

So in the course of a few seasons, he's gone from one of the most highly regarded players in the Association to nobody special. And now, he wants to play his way back into the top echelon of players -- letting his play, entirely, do the talking.

But that doesn't mean Arenas can't talk.

As he could learn from hundreds of other pros -- ask your boy Jamison, ask Butler -- you can talk to the press without being self-aggrandizing or saying something controversial. Just talk about the game, about how you feel, about this play, about that play.

I've never been an NBA player, but is that really difficult?

Arenas, after all, isn't some 19-year-old rookie. He's 27 and is entering his ninth NBA season. He should be used to the grind, to the flocking of the press to a team's best players, to the hard questions after difficult losses.

What his silence speaks to is a lack of self control. Does he think that if he started talking, something unsavory would come out of his mouth? I have no idea what his real reasoning is, but the silence, regardless, demonstrates an immaturity that indicates Arenas simply isn't well-rounded enough to be one of the league's stars.

Maybe he'll go out and have an outstanding season. Maybe he'll get the Wizards back into the playoffs. But during that time, especially, a team needs its leader to step up and speak for it, to say the right things to relax the players in a tense situation.

Who knows whether Arenas will be talking come April (and I don't mean more "Both teams played hard" quotes)? Maybe a wealth of fines will have gotten to him, not that his wallet is feeling light -- in the summer of 2008, he inked a six-year, $111 million deal.

We'll have to watch and see.

But for now, Hibachi -- not that he goes by the nickname anymore -- is showing an immaturity and lack of self control that might just be a preview of his ability (or lack thereof) to lead this team to great things down the road.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

MLB playoffs preview


If you've already penciled in the Yankees for their first World Series championship in 10 seasons, you might want to backtrack a bit.

And read this analysis in today's Washington Post.

As I've been pretty sure of the past few years, considering some of the teams that have won the World Series this decade (the nondescript 2006 Cardinals stand out), nothing that happened in the regular season means a thing.

Not a team's amount of wins, not on-base percentage, not the number of leaked-out steroids users.

It's a new season featuring eight teams, and anything -- Any. Possible. Thing. -- can happen.

Which is a nice segue to my picks:

Division Round

New York def. Minnesota (4 games): I really, really, really want to pick the Twins. But the Yankees will find a way not to choke this series away and cause rioting in Manhattan.

Boston def. L.A. Angels (4 games): Boston owns the Angels in the playoffs. That's all you need to know about this series. It has to be in the Angels' heads, and once again their bats will go cold. Count on it.

Philadelphia def. Colorado (5 games): Everyone is jumping on the Rockies' bandwagon, so, naturally, I'm taking the other side. The Rockies' pitching is shaky, and the Phils bats are not. Expect an exhilarating, high-scoring series.

L.A. Dodgers def. St. Louis (5 games): The best way to pick this series is to flip a coin (or a credit card; seriously, I tried this a couple weeks ago, and it evens out). I love both teams.

Championship Series

Red Sox def. New York (6 games): Hey, Yankees fans, just face it: This is the Red Sox' decade. Maybe you'll get back to winning championships in the next one, but not this season. Expect the usual domination from Beckett and some big hits from Big Papi.

Dodgers def. Phillies (6 games): Phils got 'em last year, Dodgers get revenge this time around. Why? Well, for one, there won't be any Matt Stairs heroics for the Phils. Oh, and I heard that Brad Lidge wasn't the closer any more. Sorry about all the analysis. Bottom line: I flipped a credit card, and it read "Dodgers."

World Series
Dodgers def. Red Sox (7 games): I smell an epic World Series. Well, not literally, but it's the first phrase that hopped into my head. There will be abusive coverage of Manny playing his old team. So much so, the winner of Game 1 will almost be forgotten. But then the intensity will increase, there will be some late-inning magic and, finally, Sox fans will have something to be miserable about when Manny laces two doubles in a 4-2 Game 7 victory at Fenway.

Enjoy the unpredictability, sports fans.

That's October baseball for ya.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

How the Tigers somehow lost the Central


Randy Marsh, to rhyme, was harsh. To the Tigers, that is.

As the home plate umpire made poor calls Tuesday evening, it was almost as if he was saying, "Hey, you guys had your chances. Why are you even here tonight?"

And that's a good question.

The tendency at this moment so closely removed from the end of the Tigers' 6-5, season-ending loss to the Twins is to pick apart how Detroit lost the 12-inning game.

Hey, I spent a one-hour train ride dissecting the causes:

— Marsh's horrible calls (a called third strike on Placido "I never strike out" Polanco in the top of the ninth with no outs and runners on the corners; not giving Brandon Inge a base for getting brushed by a pitch with the bases loaded in the 12th. The Tigers failed to score in both innings).

— Two defensive miscues in the bottom of the 10th that allowed the Twins to tie the game. First, Ryan Raburn badly misplayed a fly ball to left, turning a single at the worst into a leadoff triple. Two batters later, Polanco somehow missed a groundball up the middle that could have been a game-ending double play.

— Twelve runners left on base and several innings in which they couldn't get a run home from second or third with less than two outs.

But to understand why the Tigers aren't preparing to hop a plane to New York to take on the Yankees, you can't just look at Tuesday's result. Rather, this was a three-week collapse.

They were up seven games just a few weeks back, with a favorable schedule down the stretch that featured a plethora of home games.

They struggled during that stretch, losing several games to inferior opponents, but rebounded last week to take two out of three games from the Twins. That left them up three games with four to play.

Only three times since 1901 had a team blown that kind of lead.

And the Tigers had their final series at home, where they had been strong all season.

But after losing to a desperate Minnesota team last Thursday, the Tigers looked lifeless in an 8-0 loss to the White Sox Friday. Then Saturday they continued their scoreless streak, not putting a run on the board until the eighth inning of a 5-1 loss.

In the bottom of the eight inning of that defeat, Detroit was within 4-1 and had two runners on with no outs. After Magglio Ordonez sharply lined out, Miguel Cabrera took a lazy swing at the first pitch of his at-bat and grounded into an easy 6-4-3 double play.

Why do I mention this? Because it was later reported that Cabrera had been heavily drinking Friday night and fighting with his wife, which explained the scratches on his face noticed by those close to the first baseman.

Nice timing, huh?

I doubt it's a coincidence that the Tigers' best hitter finished the series 0-for-11.

Chalk that up as another possible reason the Tigers couldn't wrap up the Central Division during 162 regular-season games.

Listless play. Disappearing bats. And possibly the pressure of holding off a charging, hyped-up team with nothing to lose.

But I saw none of that from the Tigers Tuesday. They came out swinging, taking a 3-0 lead. And when the Twins clawed back to snatch a 4-3 advantage in the seventh inning, Ordonez stepped up to the plate and calmly launched a home run — a rare thing for him this season — to lead off the eight inning and tie it.

Brandon Inge had a terrible game at the plate for most of the evening, but he stepped up with two outs in the 10th and delivered an RBI double to give the Tigers the 5-4 advantage.

And after Raburn's gaffe helped cost the team the lead in the bottom half of the inning, he made a hell of a catch and throw on a line drive to nail Alexi Casilla at the plate and extend the game.

I haven't even mentioned Fernando Rodney, who pitched almost three full innings and was very solid. He kept his cool and didn't allow free baserunners — which, usually, is his downfall.

So in the aftermath of Tuesday's heartbreaker, the Tigers have nothing to be ashamed of. They played one hell of a game and simply didn't come away with the win.

That happens sometimes.

But when they return to Detroit to clear out their lockers, I'm sure they'll all relive in their minds the letdown that precipitated Tuesday's trip to the Metrodome.

And they'll know this lost season never should have needed one right call from Randy Marsh or, for that matter, a win in a win-or-go-home game.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Michigan not great, but learning how to win


Watching the Michigan football team Saturday, it was clear that they're not a great team, not a national-title contender, probably not a team that will win the Big Ten title.

There were missed tackles, poor communication on offense, and, overall, just mediocre play against an an Indiana team they should have beaten by three touchdowns at home.

The Wolverines, I'd say, are just about appropriately ranked in the low 20s of the national rankings.

But the one thing that stands out about this year's group, and could even make them achieve more than their talent might dictate, is that they know how to win. That can't be undervalued.

Especially during conference play, there are going to be ugly games, there are going to be turnover-infested affairs, the going will rarely be smooth regardless of whether Ohio State or Northwestern is on the opposite sideline.

That's why knowing how to win tight games and having an unyielding belief in one another is so key.

The Wolverines, in September of 2009, have developed that confidence.

And it all starts with their freshman quarterback Tate Forcier. Sure, coach Rich Rodriguez has done a good job of galvanizing his players and getting them to mesh well together.

But confidence is gained between the sidelines, and Forcier has led the charge. Saturday's 36-33, come-from-behind-several-times victory over the lowly Hoosiers was a prime example.

Due to extenuating circumstances, I didn't catch the first 20 minutes of the game, during which each team scored two touchdowns to set the stage for a wild day. But according to accounts from my Dad and my man Tick, both avid Wolverines fans, Forcer "played like a freshman" (Dad) and didn't look like he belonged on the field, to paraphrase what Tick said.

That's why, apparently after a terrible Forcier interception, the first two series I watched featured the speedy, flashy Denard Robinson playing QB. Now I love Robinson, but he still is very shaky as a passer. And Michigan wasn't about to win, even against the Hoosiers, just by running the ball.

The Wolverines would have to throw it, and Forcier is the man for that.

So back he came in the second half, and in the fourth quarter he showed, just like he had two weeks earlier against Notre Dame, why he's such a winner — he makes the plays when they're needed most.

Overall, it might have been his worst game as a Wolverine. But two times in the final period, he took Michigan on scoring drives (of 70 and 52 yards) to regain the advantage.

On the first drive, he made an Elway-type play, fearlessly diving over a couple defenders into the green, plush end zone for the score on third down. Not only that, but he followed it up by running the two-point conversion in on a QB draw after a penalty pushed the Wolverines 5 yards back.

(It can be argued that Forcier also risked the Wolverines' season by subjecting his body to such a beating. He'll have to be smarter about taking such hits as the Big Ten season heats up.)

And on Michigan's final scoring drive, Forcier fought off pain from a bruised shoulder to lead the Wolverines down into Indiana territory before throwing a perfect, lofted (possibly painful?) pass right into the bread basket of Martavious Odoms for the winning score.

The defense finished the job.

So Michigan is 4-0. Meanwhile, Ohio State and Penn State — both national-title contenders at the season's beginning — have losses. Does that mean Michigan's better than the conference's favorites?

Um, no.

But what we've learned — and it's very educational, sports fans — is that unlike a year ago, or even a couple years ago under Lloyd Carr, Michigan has a team that absolutely knows how to finish the job no matter how ugly the process may have been.

In the coming weeks, we'll learn just how good, and tough, these Wolverines are. We'll finally get to see them play road games the next two weeks at hurting rival Michigan State and Iowa, fresh off an upset win at Penn State.

The young Wolverines will really have to show their mettle, and cohesiveness, in those two tough environments.

And the results of those games? Who knows. Could be two W's, could be two L's.

Michigan didn't hurt its chances, however, during the first month of the season by learning, within the confines of the Big House, what winning is all about.

Led by their precocious, forgets-about-past-mistakes quarterback.

Who will need to stay healthy and on the field for the W's to continue piling up.

Friday, September 18, 2009

For Grizzlies, winning has a different meaning


Forgive me for making assumptions, but the Memphis Grizzlies are not going to win the NBA championship in the next year, or two years, or three years or four.

Sorry, Memphis fans.

In fact, they won't even make the playoffs.

In fact fact, they probably won't win 40 games in any of the next few years.

What they will do, at least for a while, is actually garner respectable crowds at the FedExForum.

They can thank Allen Iverson for that.

Because that's what the 34-year-old, journeyman guard does: He dazzles, he razzles, he does a little bit of this and a little bit of that -- and some fans like that.

(Me personally? I'd rather hit up YouTube for such pyrotechnics and save my ticket money for an enjoyable night at the local pub.)

But here's what Iverson won't do for the Grizzlies -- help them win more games. Which, to me, makes this signing so damn confounding.

Take a look at Memphis' roster. The Grizzlies actually have a couple players to build around in small forward Rudy Gay and shooting guard O.J. Mayo. And they're hoping point guard Mike Conley proves this season that he can be a starting PG in the Association.

The smart play would be to build around the three young play-makers with savvy veterans who know how to win and can share that knowledge with the talented but losses-burdened kids.

(Oh, and I forgot to mention center Mark Gasol, who still has a lot of developing to do, but is only 24 and has plenty of potential.)

Bring in a P.J. Brown, a Cuttino Mobley, don't pay him much, and tell him to teach the team's future how to win.

That makes a lot of sense to me.

So, of course, being the management group that traded Pau Gasol to the Lakers for, um, nothing, Memphis dedicated its summer to recruiting a player who has never, really, been called a winner.

Sure, Iverson took the 76ers to the 2001 Finals, but if you listen to his former teammates -- who all sacrificed a lot to stand in the background while he took center stage -- they could have won a lot more if he wasn't such a selfish, ball-hogging player.

Since then, only one of his teams -- out of eight seasons spent between Philadelphia, Denver and Detroit -- has made it past the first round of the playoffs, and he's been on some supposedly good squads.

In Denver, he and Carmelo Anthony led the league in scoring for long stretches of two seasons -- and they looked listless in back-to-back first-round defeats.

And in Detroit, he almost single-handily ruined a cast that had made six consecutive Eastern Conference finals, relegating the Pistons to first-round trash for the Cavaliers to dispose of with little to no worries.

So tell me, does this player sound like someone who will magically appear in Memphis for training camp -- just barely on time, it's expected by the way, after a commitment in Europe -- and turn a team that hasn't won more than 24 games the past three seasons into a winner?

Forget about it.

Iverson will score plenty of points, he'll draws "wows" from fans after some of his moves, and he'll help the front office sell thousands of tickets.


He'll also take bad shots, keep the Grizzlies from developing offensive rhythm, be nothing special on defense, and probably bicker, at least internally, if he's brought off the bench and plays minimal minutes (which, at this point, would be the smart thing to do).

Add selfish malcontent Zach Randolph, who averaged 17.4 shots per games last season in just 50 nights on the hardwood, to the mix, and this franchise will be stuck in neutral for at least this season.

When the focus should be on developing the young players, including No. 2 draft pick Hasheem Thabeet -- who has a lot of work to do to become a serviceable NBA player -- it'll instead be on a guy who has already written his legacy.

I'm all for feel-good, late-career success stories, but one won't be happening for Allen Iverson in Memphis -- or anywhere else, for that matter.

There's a reason the top-tier teams didn't even show a vague interest in signing the 2001 MVP.

Memphis would be smart to take a look at the types of players San Antonio, Boston and L.A. sign.

Then maybe the Grizzlies could improve in a category other than ticket sales.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

2009 NFL Preview

**Editor's Note: Due to time constraints, I had to finish this after the opening-night game. But believe me (or don't). That didn't change my picks.


Heading into this long-awaited NFL season -- seriously, it seems like the buildup has lasted for, like, 67 days -- the odds are stacked against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Forget the fact that the defending champions return, basically, their entire team and coaching staff. Recent history dictates that they'll become complacent and struggle, even, to make the playoffs.

Since the Patriots won back-to-back Super Bowls to conclude the 2003 and '04 seasons, champions have flopped the seasons following their titles.

So the Steelers will do the same, right? We don't know in what fashion, but things won't go close to as planned in the Steel City, correct? Most national pundits seem to be buying this idea, going with the masses.

I ain't hopping aboard the bandwagon.

The Steelers will repeat as champions.

Simple as that.

Obviously, it won't be easy. But when is it ever?

On paper, however, they have the most talent. And a coaching staff that won't let hype get to any player.

That's the recipe for continued success.

So how will the season transpire? Here's my last-minute preview. I'm pretty sure, of course, that everything I say will happen is true.

So lay down your bets (and, by the way, don't listen to a word I say):


North Division
1. Green Bay Packers (11-5): The transition to the 3-4 defense will be smoother than most think, and the offense will be as explosive as ever. Who needs No. 4?

*2. Minnesota Vikings (10-6): The Packers made a good choice, and so did the Vikings. Favre won't play every game, but he, and Tarvaris Jackson, will do enough to complement A.P. and sneak into the postseason.

3. Chicago Bears (9-7): Jay Cutler is definitely an upgrade at QB, and he'll help balance the offense, but a lack of big-play WRs will keep the Bears from being as explosive as the rival Packers.

4. Detroit Lions (3-13): There will be improvement -- but only a little. Lions fans can only hope that Matthew Stafford improves throughout the season and has as sunny of an outlook come dreary January in Michigan.

East Division

1. Philadelphia Eagles (11-5): Not everything will be perfect -- think McNabb-Vick tension -- but there's way too much talent and good coaching to not hold on to the division.

*2. New York Giants (10-6): The lack of a big-play downfield guy will hinder the G-Men and allow opponents to put eight in the box, but Brandon Jacobs will still plow his way to his best-ever season and the defense will win some games by itself.

3. Dallas Cowboys (8-8): For the first time in a few years, Dallas won't be one of the organizations that gets a lot of the league's attention (and time on ESPN). In fact, the new stadium's scoreboard will earn as much of the pub as the team. That's not necessarily a good thing.

4. Washington Redskins (6-10): Not every team in this super-competitive division can have a winning record. The Redskins might be a playoff team in the West, but with a shaky passing game and not as good of a defense, they'll lose several close games.

South Division
1. Atlanta Falcons (10-6): Just about everyone's back and Tony Gonzalez is added. What's not to like? The key pieces are all young and gaining confidence. And the expectations are raised. This is a playoff team for sure.

2. Carolina Panthers (9-7): The running game will, once again, be solid, but Jake Delhomme's not getting any better. And the defense is starting to age.

3. New Orleans Saints (9-7): It's a shame that a Drew Brees-led team can't do better, but the defense still isn't very impressive. And Pierre Thomas' injury isn't encouraging.

4. Tampa Bay Bucannears (6-10): This team will still be very competitive, but members of the new-look offense will take half the season to gel. And most of the six wins will come in November and December.

West Division
1. Seattle Seahawks (9-7): In the ugly West, the Seahawks will win ugly -- but win. Tim Hasselbeck will stay healthy and benefit from an improved and, yes, healthy corps of WRs. That'll be just enough to make the postseason.

2. Arizona Cardinals (8-8): The Super Bowl jinx will definitely hit this team, which is primed for a letdown. Kurt Warner won't make it through the season alive, and Matt Leinart won't be prepared to step in and perform. The defense will give up a ton of points.

3. San Francisco 49ers (6-10: They'll ride their running game to a handful of victories against mediocre teams -- many of them within the division -- but struggle against non-division opponents.

4. St. Louis Rams (5-1l): Steven Jackson will actually have some holes to run through, but that doesn't mean the Rams will leap into playoff contention. There is still a dearth of talent at most positions.


East Division
1. New England Patriots (11-5): Tom Brady is back, and that's about six wins right there. Sure, the defense is getting old and has some holes, but we'll be hearing Brady-to-Moss every week.

2. New York Jets (7-9): Look for the Jets to improve throughout the season as people -- from the coaches to the players -- get on the same page and gain confidence in each other. The building process will make strides under Rex Ryan.

3. Miami Dolphins (6-10): Tony Soprano's first-year magic will lose some luster with a subpar nucleus of running backs and big-play skill guys. Some of those close wins from a year ago will become L's.

4. Buffalo Bills (5-11): This could get ugly -- on the sidelines. T.O. will not be happy with Trent Edwards, and that'll create unpleasant discourse. It'll also cost Dick Jauron his job.

North Division
1. Pittsburgh (13-3): Everyone's back and Big Ben is one of the NFL's top three quarterbacks. What's not to like? This team has already put last season behind it and is hungry for another championship.

*2. Baltimore (10-6): The Ravens are for real, and they'll feast on the division's bottom-feeders along with the Steelers. Expect a strong running game to be complemented by an even more confident Joe Flacco who will open it up a bit more in his second season.

3. Cincinnati Bengals (6-10: Carson Palmer's return will give the offense a bit of life, but this team, as a whole, is a mess that can't be fixed by one, or two, players.

4. Cleveland Browns (4-12): The Bengals might be bad, but the Browns will be worse. Points will be hard to come by, especially with such a late decision on who the starting quarterback will be. The defense is nothing special, either.

South Division
1. Indianapolis Colts (11-5): The Colts are under the radar entering the season, and I'm sure they're happy with that. In addition, I'm positive Peyton Manning will be as ready as ever to lead this team back into the conversation. He's still got plenty of weapons to use toward achieving that.

*2. Tennessee Titans (10-6): The Titans will suffer from some close losses against teams that are simply more efficient in end-game scenarios, but they remain rock-solid on defense and Kerry Collins will do enough to lead them back to the playoffs.

3. Houston Texans (9-7): This team has a bunch of talented skill players on both sides of the ball, and you know no franchise is itching more to make the playoffs. But they're still a bit soft, and they're in a division chock-full of teams that know how to slug out ugly games.

4. Jacksonville Jaguars (7-9): David Garrard is one of the league's most underrated QBs, but he simply lacks the skill players to get it done every week. The defense, which fell apart last year, will be improved but not dominant.

West Division
1. San Diego Chargers (12-4): If the Chargers don't roll to this division title, they're hopeless. There is no way they shouldn't win it by a few games. L.T. is healthy, Philip Rivers is in his prime, the defense is stacked. Enough said.

2. Denver Broncos (6-10): I know this team has all kinds of issues, but I still like it more than the Chiefs and Raiders. If Brandon Marshall behaves himself, Kyle Orton will have a nice pair of wideouts to sling it to.

3. Kansas City Chiefs (5-11): Matt Cassel's first year in K.C. won't be smooth. For one, there's a lack of targets to throw to (no Randy Moss or even Tony Gonzalez). Secondly, he's got a malcontent, L.J., in his backfield. I guess that's why they're paying him the big bucks.

4. Oakland Raiders (3-13): Give me one reason why the Raiders will win more than three games? Seriously. They have a very raw, struggling quarterback. Their running back of the future can't hold onto the ball. And their owner's senile. Yeah, No. 1 pick coming right up.


Wild Card round

(3) Minnesota def. (6) Atlanta
(5) N.Y. Giants def. (4) Seattle

(3) New England def. (6) Tennessee
(4) Indianapolis def. (5) Baltimore

Divisional round
(1) Philadelphia def. (5) N.Y. Giants
(2) Green Bay def. (3) Minnesota

(1) Pittsburgh def. (4) Indianapolis
(3) New England def. (2) San Diego

NFC Championship
Philadelphia 27, Green Bay 18: The Eagles will get enough big plays from their passing game and "trickeration" and win the turnover battle to get to the game they should have made a year ago.

AFC Championship
Pittsburgh 20, New England 16: Brady and Co. will be able to move the ball, but the Steelers' tough-stuff defense will stiffen in the red zone, holding the Pats to field goals. And when the fourth quarter rolls around, Big Ben will be the Q.B. taking his team on the game-winning drive.

Pittsburgh 26, Philadelphia 17: In the Battle for Pennsylvania, Pittsburgh will win a year's worth of free cheese steaks for bringing home a second consecutive championship. Big Ben deservedly will take home MVP honors for another heroic performance in place of a dismal running game. The Eagles will have chances, but squander them with turnovers and remain a franchise without a single title to boast.

The Steelers will fly back west, relatively speaking, with No. 7.