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?