Thursday, December 2, 2010

Qatar "Makes It Rain," Beats USA Soccer, 2022-0

ZURICH - On a cold and cloudy morning in a neutral country, FIFA made clear its own biases.

The world's governing body for soccer awarded the 2022 World Cup home site to Qatar on Thursday morning, drawing cheers from a Connecticut-sized country that will become the first nation in the Persian Gulf region to host the sport's biggest tournament.  The cheers, due to the country's small population, were not loud enough to be heard by anyone in the area, but the people carried on nonetheless.

"This is an enormous win for us," said Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al-Thani, the country's emir. "We would be shouting from the tops of mountains if we had any."  

Qatar, which won the committee's final vote 14-8 over the US, assuaged concerns about climate and crowd control by reasoning that their budget for the tournament would more than cover any health and safety measures that needed to be put in place to ensure a good experience for players and fans alike.  Russia, which won the bid for the 2018, had similar justifications for its own ability to host; both countries rank in the top 3 in proven natural gas reserves, and the export of such resources remains the driving force behind each country's economy.
"It took a lot of convincing,'' Al-Thani admitted. "We were not sure that [FIFA's executive committee] would consider us a worthy candidate because of our small physical size, population and average summer temperature of 118 degrees Fahrenheit. But once we made the final round of voting, we knew that our financial capabilities were starting weigh heavily on their minds.''

"Yeah, they've got money," FIFA president Sepp Blatter said. "We like that. The decision to host this year's cup in South Africa was more sentimental than fiscal.  We don't intend to go back any time soon if we can help it - the financial constrains are just too difficult to work through." 

FIFA's announcement gave a huge boost to wealthy underdog countries that have hopes of hosting future tournaments. Luxembourg, Singapore and Hong Kong, all of which share with Qatar a top-15 worldwide ranking in per-capita GDP (purchasing power parity, 2009), were rumored to have already begun talks with the federation regarding hosting possibilities for post-2030 tournaments.


If your brain is half the size of a Jabulani, you've intuited by now that the above 300+ words were tongue-in-cheek satire (though the linked facts are real).  The emotion, however, was legitimate, and I know there are many frustrated soccer fans across the country that would agree.

I'd be doing soccer fans a disservice if I counted myself among their ranks, but for one day this past May, I put myself in their shoes and walked into Lincoln Financial Field to watch the US take on Turkey in a pre-Cup friendly. The US won, 2-1, but even more than the win, what struck me was the atmosphere. You hear about it from people who have attended matches and you see the chaos on TV, but it's impossible to appreciate the feeling in the building unless you're actually there.  Even when Turkey was winning, the fans were on their feet, smoke bombs going off now and again, beach balls surfing the crowd and chants resounding from section to section. There was as much noise and more passion in that stadium - for an exhibition, mind you - than you would find at any regular season NFL game. That level of excitement, coupled with watching Landon Donovan's improbable goal (props to Ian Darke on a masterful call), had me thinking "Hey, this is pretty fun!"

You can imagine, then, the disappointment I shared with millions of other American supporters when I heard FIFA's decision.  The bid had slipped to the back of my memory until last week, and I had forgotten the surge of enthusiasm I'd felt this summer. It never really hit me that there was a good chance that we wouldn't get it. It made sense: we've got the stadiums, the accomodations, the transportation, the people - and a good team, to boot. Why not US?

I failed to remember, however, what is becoming increasingly clear in sports: money talks, and when you need it, the talk is louder than any sports-related motive every will. It is its own language and native speaker, fluent in every dialect and more persuasive than the shiniest of trophies. It can buy you your health, your house, and your car, and it can buy things for others if you want it to. It won't give you happiness, but it can buy a lot of things with it that will make you happy. Best of all, money doesn’t tell you what to do – it only asks what you want and if it can help; only when you answer does it stop talking.

For FIFA, and to be fair, for many other letter combinations, the answer is yes. NFL. BCS. ESPN. The list is long. Michael Crabtree. Pete Rose. Frank and Jamie McCourt. Cecil Newton is just the most recent example.  I'm not pretending this theme is going to die away anytime soon, because it won't.  But it's infuriating when there are unequivocal dangers in seeking that kind of compensation and people and organizations choose to follow their wallets anyway; it is particularly upsetting when there is a smaller payday in sight that makes much more sense.  No matter. The glint of a whole lot of coin is blinding.

"There's no way around it: I am disappointed," Sunil Gulati, president of US Soccer, wrote in an email sent out on behalf of  "Millions of U.S. soccer fans worked hard to bring the World Cup to our country. To come up short is very difficult to take."

Indeed.  I'm sure it hit these fans hardest; it's gonna be a while before they have something to cheer.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

When "Welcome Back" Means "Duck and Cover"

I'm sure you're aware that Lebron James returns to Cleveland this week (with Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh in tow) for the first time since leaving his hometown team this summer.  If he's hoping for the warm welcome that Donovan McNabb got when he went back to Philadelphia as a member of the Redskins, he's about as naive as James Harrison was to think that he wouldn't get fined after stating his intention to "hurt people" in his violent and often questionable collisions on the gridiron.  There's enough James-related vitriol in northern Ohio right now to light the Cuyahoga River on fire (again), though I don't think fans/arsonists will actually be dumb enough to set the Quicken Loans Arena aflame no matter how badly they want Lebron to feel their heat; in any case, he's certainly not feeling his own Heat right now, given Miami's barely .500 winning percentage nearly a quarter of the way through the season.  If James is really serious about proving his doubters wrong, he won't be affected by angry fans or needling chants, but he should definitely take note of what Michael Jordan says in the video response to his "What Should I Do?" commercial (posted below).  Jordan is as savvy and as fiery as they come, and the used-to-be-number-23 James would do well to heed anything his numerical predecessor says.  I, for one, hope James plays well and that there are no extracurricular incidents that might throw a wet towel on an already stormy night.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Bear-ing Down: Robert Griffin, Art Briles & Baylor's Quest for Big 12 Respect

Since losing to conference opponent Missouri on Saturday night, the Oklahoma Sooners have fallen all the way to number nine in the BCS standings, momentarily boxed out of the national championship picture by the seven undefeated teams still remaining in college football. They also ceded their position atop the Big 12 North because of the in-conference loss.

The new tenants? The Baylor Bears.


Yes, that Baylor, the school that has yet to post a winning record in 14 seasons as a member of the Big 12. Although it may seem like a sick joke to the other 11 public universities that populate the conference, this is no hoax. In a little less than three seasons, head coach Art Briles has lured the Bears (6-2, 3-1 in Big 12 play) out of their bottom-feeding cave and steered them to bowl-eligible status despite playing in a division that includes two of the last four BCS National Championship participants.  These are not uncharted waters for Briles: when he took over as head coach at Houston (his alma mater) in 2003, the Cougars had won eight games in the previous four years, but he managed to lift the program to a 34-28 overall record and four bowl appearances in the next five seasons.

That said, the turnaround at Baylor is not born solely out of Briles' wisdom. The coach does possess one commodity not afforded to any Bears coaches before him: believe it or not, the most valuable quarterback in the Big 12, Robert Griffin III, goes to class in Waco.

"You know, Robert brings a dynamic, energetic quality to your football team," Briles said before this season. "Without a question, we are a different football team [with him playing]."

Hello, understatement.

In his 2008 true freshman campaign, the 6'3" signal-caller from Copperas Cove, TX wowed the whole league, drawing all-conference freshman honors despite playing for an overmatched squad that finished 4-8, not to mention 2-6 in the conference.  Griffin's playmaking abilities were prominently displayed even against a schedule that included six bouts with ranked opponents, among them No. 1 Oklahoma, No. 4 Texas, No. 7 Texas Tech and No. 8 Oklahoma State; he threw only three interceptions in those games (they were his only picks of the season) while completing 81 passes, often using his feet to gain ground while covering up shoddy blocking on the offensive line. His end-of-year stats (2,091 yards passing, 843 yards rushing, 28 total touchdowns), though not eye-popping from a yards perspective, established him as an up-and-coming player that belonged in the same category as Ryan Broyles, DeMarco Murray, Kendall Hunter and Roy Helu Jr.

Despite his claim that he "couldn't have had those stats or all the accolades without the 10 other guys on the field," Griffin's importance was highlighted last year when he tore his ACL in a blowout win at Northwestern State.  Without Griffin under center, the Bears went 2-7.

"I felt like I let the community down, the fans and those seniors from last year," Griffin said in an interview after the season. He refused to let that disappointment shake his focus. "I don't wanna come back with that 'I'm back' mentality, trying to prove that I'm still the man. I just want to come back, have fun with the guys. I don't think it'll be a drastic change [from before the injury]."

"What we do fits him to a T," Briles said, "so we're just gonna cut loose and play and let Robert do his thing along with everybody else."

After a year of surgery, physical rehabilitation and lots of practice, the political science major returned to the Floyd Casey Stadium turf on September 4th, throwing for 242 yards with two touchdowns and running for another score in the Bears' season-opening win. RG3 was still himself.

""He is the same Rob," offensive tackle Danny Watkins said after the game. "He's still the wizard back there. I mean, at times we weren't clicking on offense but we're going to get better every week." 

For the most part, the Bears have done that.  They won their next game against Buffalo, with Griffin throwing for 230 yards in the first half of 34-6 victory; since then, Baylor has only been held under 30 points once, dropping a tough game to No. 4 TCU on September 18th in Fort Worth. (The vaunted Horned Frogs defense held Griffin to just 164 yards passing and one touchdown.) Even in a painful 45-38 loss to a streaky Texas Tech team, Griffin passed for 384 yards and two scores and added a pair of touchdowns on the ground.

The bad news for the Bears at this point in the season is that the meat of their schedule is right in front of them.  Baylor, which plays 12 straight games from September through November without an idle week, is about to go toe-to-toe with Texas (in Austin) and  No. 17 Oklahoma State (in Stillwater) before returning home for games against Texas A&M and No. 9 Oklahoma.  In their bid to win the division, the loss to Texas Tech was a huge blow, but there is still some scratching and clawing left in these Bears.  Though it's doubtful that Briles' guys will run the table, it isn't ridiculous to believe that they can go 2-2 over that stretch.  Texas has trouble scoring; OSU struggled mightily against dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez; the Sooners are relatively weak against the run and play suspect red-zone defense; the Aggies have turnover issues.  With the right combination of balanced playcalling and on-the-money execution, the Bears can steal a win in any one of these games.

"Like we said from day one: every week is a new season and we are just trying to become a better football team each week," Briles told the media yesterday after beating Kansas State 47-42. "We haven't peaked and that is the encouraging part as a team member and a coach."

Clearly, Griffin and running back Jay Finley need to be playing their best brand of mistake-free football if the Bears are to finish November with a winning record. They need one more win to complete a turnaround season on which they can lay the foundations for next year, but Briles doesn't sound as though he'll be happy with just one.  It won't be easy, but the Bears certainly seem capable and motivated to finish the job. 

While Griffin remains overshadowed by Terrell Pryor and Darron Thomas, fellow 2008 recruits leading their own November charges at Ohio State and Oregon, he will keep doing 'his thing' for the No. 25 Bears, who are ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 1991. A win against Texas, OU or Oklahoma State would be huge, though it would totally blow Griffin's cover as an underdog diamond-in-the-rough and potential 2011 Heisman candidate. But that's alright - Baylor believes they still have yet to play their best football. The Big 12 had better take notice.      

Friday, October 15, 2010

Brian Wilson: The Will Ferrell of Baseball Interviews

Today is October 15th. This is an interview from September 3rd, and how it has escaped my viewing until this week is beyond me.  Maybe it was on SportsNation when I wasn't watching, or maybe it was just too preposterous to be taken seriously.  Whatever the case, in this clip from Rome is Burning, Giants closer Brian Wilson presents himself as the Will Ferrell of baseball interviews.  His style is more eclectic, and his tone has more edge and less play, but I'll be damned if he's not equally absurd. The phrases spilling out of his mouth are unbelievable, and Jim Rome eats it all up.  Whether or not Wilson is actually the resident I-dare-you man in the San Francisco clubhouse is irrelevant; he plays the part like a champ.  It's really a shame that he had to tone down his Twitter account - I can only imagine the things he might have to say if the world were not so politically correct.  In any case, I think I know who I'm rooting for in the NLCS. Enjoy the yucks.  

Friday, October 1, 2010

San Diego's Salvation Series: Padres Desperate to Keep Their Season Alive

If divine intervention services are required in Major League Baseball, clearly the San Diego Padres are the leading candidate at the moment.

As of this morning, San Diego is 3 games behind the San Francisco Giants in the race for the NL West division crown. There are only three games remaining for the Padres, all of them in San Francisco. 

For a team that Sports Illustrated's Tom Verducci described as "the closest [team] to a sure thing [to make the playoffs]" just one month ago (they sported the best record in the National League at the time), time has not flown quite as quickly as the Padres had hoped.  In the month of September, San Diego was just 13-16, inluding an 8-9 mark against division rivals.  The starting rotation has just six wins in that timespan, including one by the newly activated Chris Young, who's been on the DL for almost the entire season.  To complicate the matter, the Giants are not the Pads' only competition at this point - if Atlanta wins two of its next three, they will pull the wild card rug right out from under Petco Park.  The Braves, of course, are playing a three-game homestand against Philadelphia, and there's a good chance that the Phillies, owners of the best record in the either league, will be looking to rest their starters as they prepare for a postseason run. 

I wish there were room enough for all three teams.  Statistically, the Padres are worse than the Giants and the Braves, but they've worked awfully hard this season to come away with nothing.  For a team that finished 19 games out of first place last year, they deserve a bid for turning the ballclub around as they have.  The Giants have made remarkable progress since the All-Star break, rising from 3 games above .500 to a 91-68 record atop the West, buoyed by the development of catcher Buster Posey (.313 BA/.365 OBP/.511 SLG) into a future franchise backstop.  The Braves are trying hard to claw their way into a playoff spot for retiring manager Bobby Cox, hoping to allow for an appropriate October exit for a man who ranks 4th on the all-time managerial wins list.  It's difficult to pick a villian in that group.
That said, I'm pulling hard for the West. It would be cool to see the Padres and Phillies take 2 of 3 on the road, forcing a San Diego-Atlanta one-game playoff next week.  Here are the pitching matchups for this weekend:

Phillies @ Braves
FRI: Kyle Kendrick (10-10, 4.76 ERA) vs. Brandon Beachy (0-1, 2.89 ERA)
SAT: Cole Hamels (12-11, 3.09) vs. Tommy Hanson (10-11, 3.41)
SUN: Vance Worley (1-1, 2.25) vs. Tim Hudson (16-9, 2.76)

Padres @ Giants
FRI: Clayton Richard (13-9, 3.71) vs. Matt Cain (13-10, 2.95)
SAT: Tim Stauffer (5-5, 1.89) vs. Barry Zito (9-13, 4.08)
SUN: Mat Latos (14-9, 2.92) vs. Jonathan Sanchez (12-9, 3.15)

If the Phillies are going to win 2, it will probably have to be the first two, given the inexperience of Beachy and the fact that Hamels' only complete game this season has been away, at night, on grass.  The Richard-Cain duel should keep you glued to your seat; whatever happens, the Padres absolutely have to win on Sunday and steal a win tonight or tomorrow.  Let's hope this weekend is as good as it gets.

Baseball gods, are you listening?

Friday, September 24, 2010

Whoa, Philly: Michael Vick Deserves to Start... For Now

So the Philadelphia Eagles, according to head coach Andy Reid, are going to start Michael Vick at quarterback this week against the Jacksonville Jaguars and for the remaining part of the season.

Stop. Slow down. Contain yourself.  Having learned about this development, there are probably hundreds of people, mostly NFL analysts, former players, or Eagles fans who either just tied a hangman's noose or fell to their knees in appreciation. And those people need to cool their jets.  There was considerable backlash from an ESPN football panel in light of Reid's choice to bench Kevin Kolb in favor of Vick, including sentiment expressed at what many believe a knee-jerk reaction and a miscarriage of judgment in how the Eagles are dealing with Kolb's progression as a quarterback.  NFC West Blogger Mike Sando seemed to be the only one talking sense:
 I'm not sure what all the drama's about. Everyone in the Eagles' locker room can see Michael Vick is the best option right now. Go with him and make no apologies. Andy Reid's obligation is to the team. His first responsibility is to play the best players, not to make sure Kevin Kolb or anyone else gets a fair shake.  
 Sando nails the current objective for Reid and the Eagles, i.e. winning.  If having Vick at the helm is the best option, go with it.  The frustration of losing a starting job on the basis of injury is understandable, but to rationalize the back-and-forth waffling of a quarterback situation in order to stick to one's guns fails to use all the information at hand to make the best decision possible.  Right now, given Vick's statistics and the way he is conducting Philly's offense, it would be illogical to take the ball away from him.  That said, people are acting like this is a watershed decision, and it isn't.  Kolb will be right there on the sideline, ready to answer the call when needed (and that call will come, eventually). Is it unfair to Kolb? After everything he's been promised, sure, it can certainly be seen that way, but there's no human decency clause in an NFL contract.  Coaches change their minds all the time; if Kolb is good enough and Vick fades towards the bye week, we're going to see exactly how "permanent" this decision is.  "If it ain't broke, don't fix it" - at this moment, Michael Vick seems far from broken.

Photo credit to Ed Yourdon, courtesy Creative Commons

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Ashes to Ashes: Is It Time for a Maple Bat Moratorium?

Eric Byrnes/Miguel Olivo - August 2006 

Don Long/Nate McLouth - April 2008

Todd Helton/Susan Rhodes - April 2008

Miguel Olivo/Brian O' Nora - June 2008

Mike Napoli/Brad Ziegler - August 2010

Welington Castillo/Tyler Colvin - September 2010

The names and dates above link to six separate, highly publicized incidents in which broken or shattered maple bats have hit and or injured persons at an MLB game, both those on the playing field and off it.  In the most recent case, Colvin, a Chicago Cubs rookie playing in his first full season, was struck in the chest by the sharp end of Castillo's bat and ended up with a wound that will prevent him from playing in any further action this year.  The injuries sustained by Long, O'Nora (pictured) and Rhodes were considerably more horrifying than Colvin's, but in spite of maple's notoriety for emulating a cruise missile with Frisbee rotation, there has yet to be any action taken by the league.  I know I'm far from the first person to bring this up, but here's what people aren't talking about: it's almost a certainty that the situation will get worse before it gets better.  According to an official quoted in the Byrnes/Olivo article, it would take years to end the production and use of maple bats if commissioner Bud Selig were to put the kibosh on them after this season. Here's the 2006 quote from Chuck Schupp, an employee for the company that makes Louisville Sluggers:
Schupp, in his 24th year with Hillerich & Bradsby and the liaison between the company and the players, said he recently warned MLB not to make a hasty decision on eliminating maple.

"I told Major League Baseball if they say maple bats can't be used anymore, do not do it until late 2008 or 2009," Schupp said. "We already ordered everything for next year. You've got to cut the wood, dry it, process it. I can't call the lumber mill and say I need 10,000 ash bats."
Do the math and you see that maple will still be terrorizing ball fields for at least another 3 years; with a possible maple extermination looming, veterans will be racing to use whatever maple is still left in production at the time of decree.  That said, at least there is something being done - certain maple bats were banned in the minor leagues this year, and bat specifications were tweaked to promote bat strength.  It seems that the MLB is trying to root out the problem by applying the rules to all who have yet to make a 40-man roster, but the rule needs to be clarified considerably. An example: if a player spends his entire time in the minor leagues hitting with an ash bat, and then gets called up and wants to use a maple bat, can he? Sure, you would guess he would stick with what works, but if he thinks maple gives him added power over the contact he felt using an ash bat, wouldn't he use it? More importantly, anyone who has already made it to The Show has free reign to use whatever they like, so the present rule would not completely eradicate the existence of maple until all of the players who debuted last year finish their careers.

The unknown entity here is the stance of the MLB Players' Association, which will most likely seek to retain the maple bats in spite of their dangers so that it can provide the best competitive advantage to the players who are members of the union.  As someone who owns a maple bat, I understand that perspective completely - maple seems sturdier and solid contact feels more pure than the same swing made with an ash bat.  The real issue, as McLouth pointed out, might be more psychological at this point, given how particular players are about the equipment they use; after all, this is the superstition-fraught sport that gave us Pedro Cerrano.

At the same time, there are extenuating circumstances here that say otherwise. When Colvin was struck, he was running in foul territory while watching to make sure the ball Castillo hit was not caught - he did not have any reason to think he was in danger of bodily harm, being that he was not in the field of play and not near the ball.  Had he run just a little bit faster, he might have been struck unexpectedly in the face, and that's a fear no player wants to have while he's trying to do his job. Likewise, Rhodes and Long were paying attention a ball in the field of play when they were hit; if fans and players alike are not properly protected during game action, they can't be expected to watch/play at the risk of their own physical health.  Others writing about this topic have mentioned the additional netting put in place by the NHL after an errant puck fatally struck a 13-year-old girl, and it wouldn't be a bad idea for Selig to at least consider having the same kind of netting put in place between the dugouts and the present backstop at each ballpark - though you can catch a high-speed foul ball, you can't exactly stop a shattered bat with a baseball glove.

Given the preference for maple, it will not be easy to find a suitable replacement for SamBats and other popular brands used by the pros.  One thought would be to mandate a bat that is some combination of a composite handle and a maple barrel that would make the maple less likely to shatter in long, sharp fragments as it presently does.  Another idea is simply trying to find a different wood source for bats - many cricket bats are made of willow, which might be a decent alternative if it can be cut down to an easy-to-wield weight.    Whatever the solution, the decision needs to be made in winter meetings before the start of next season - it would not be wise or safe for the MLB to continue to allow its faithful patrons to risk their own livelihoods because they are unable to keep track of two divergent trajectories, hit ball and flying bat, at one time.  No other major sport forces us to do that on a regular basis.

Credit to Yahoo! Sports,, SB Nation,, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for media and information used in this post. 

Friday, May 14, 2010

Sorry, Mr. Deford: Baseball's Length Is Its Gift

Dear Mr. Frank Deford,

Last week, you wrote an article for lamenting what you described as the "stultifying sluggishness" that is presently plaguing Major League Baseball.  The article bemoaned the "dreadful strategy" of hitters allowing themselves to see as many pitches as possible in order to tire out the pitcher.  You seem to see this as one tactic among many from which teams can choose, a gameplan just like using the hit-and-run or a zone blitz.  However, this "virus" that is pushing the game to average lengths nearing three hours is not as quite as simple as a belt-high fastball or a pop-fly to the pitcher.        

To be clear, baseball has never been about time.  There is nothing in major professional American team sports that rivals the inning, a yardstick that measures the progress of the game by action rather than duration.  It's not like the game has undergone a radical rule change like the introduction of the 3-point shot or the forward pass.  Working the count, rather, is the logical progression of human thinking that has been years in the making.  In the days of Frankln P. Adams, who is mentioned in your article, starting pitchers regularly threw over 300 innings in a season, meaning that complete games were far more common than they are today.  For batters, it made sense to swing more often at that time, particularly later in the game, because pitchers who were still pitching after six innings would be at a huge disadvantage.

Having already faced a team's lineup twice, hurlers would be physically tired, thereby making them more likely to throw pitches that missed the strike zone; if batters wanted to get on base, they had to swing at a fastball that was too far inside or outside to be called a strike, or they could wait for a breaking ball that (lucky for them) saw way too much of the plate.  Or, heaven forbid, they could wait for a good pitch and stay still if one never came.  Most of the time, they swung because, as Bob Klapisch points out, they had to: if they didn't, the game would extend beyond the regular nine innings and (presumably) they would not be able to finish before it was too dark to see the ball.
In the last 30 years, the only pitchers to even approach the 300-inning mark (for one season each, mind you) were Bert Blyleven (1985) and Jack Morris (1983).  The reason for that, whether you agree with it or not, is the medical concern that overworking pitchers would cause them to wear out more quickly, and signing new arms every few years would be substantially more expensive than retaining one arm for the long haul.  Enter the pitch count, sworn enemy of young pitchers' mental development and aggressive hitters everywhere.  Armed with the idea that throwing their aces for too long would be detrimental to their performance, managers at every level have begun yanking their pitchers after a certain number of pitches thrown, often with little regard for the game situation in which the move is made.

For disciplined batters, knowing that the man on the hill is on a pitch count is a tantalizing prospect: they realize that if they can force the starter to throw a lot of pitches in a short time, there is a better chance that they will have more at-bats against a relief pitcher who is not as skilled at getting them out.  So, they watch, and they judge, and they swing if forced by the count or if lured into doing so by a floating meatball. But the ultimate goal is to wear down the opposition, just like a football team pounding run after up-the-middle run to keep the defense on the field.  The difference between the two is that batters have no game clock and can therefore hold out for as long as they are able, and with many games now played under artificial lighting, they can mark time all day and all night if that's what it takes to win.  A good bullpen, then, becomes the great equalizer for managers whose pitchers are lacking in stamina, having an off night, or limited by the pitch count.    

To attack the practice of working the count ignores the evolution of baseball itself.  The Klapisch article mentions that the Yankees saw more pitches than any other team in the American League last season, and sticking to that strategy earned them some valuable dividends, namely a world championship.  If you want to fault the Yankees and Red Sox for lollygagging in the batter's box, that's alright, because according to The Hardball Times, they do.  However, it should be said that the growing length of a baseball game is not a deal-breaker in terms of whether or not a baseball fan will watch a game, especially a die-hard Boston or New York fan who will fawn over their team and soak in all the ridiculous instances in which their favorite players take obscene license with the time allowed by the umpires.  Admonishing the umpires and MLB officials to enforce time limits between pitches, in warm-ups and within at-bats is one thing, but blaming teams for using a strategy that has proven itself to be successful is wrong.

You're right in saying that baseball enjoys a sense of intellectual suspense that just isn't possible with timed sporting events.  Your irritation, however, is misdirected - rather than wag a finger at teams for taking too long because of their strategy, be upset with players who dawdle in their at-bats. In this case, it's OK to hate the player rather than the game.  

Sincerely and respectfully,

Tyler Springs

Saturday, May 1, 2010

"...And Then We F----- Up The Endgame"

Botched end-of-game scenarios drive everyone crazy.  It would seem logical, especially for professional teams that practice regularly during the season, that coaches would make sure their teams practiced these scenarios until the Gatorade ran out, but time and again teams manage to bungle their chances of winning the game by making stupid mistakes (usually rushed decisions) or forgetting simple things that they would easily remember in a morning shoot-around. I won't claim to know what the best plan is for every time-sensitive situation, but there are certain situations in which teams seem to make bad decisions that any fan watching on TV could make.

Exhibit A: Lakers-Thunder, Friday night.  LA down 1, OKC ball, :30 to go.  Russell Westbrook misses a J and Kobe Bryant gets the rebound, :17 to go.  And then this.

Where do I start? First, Oklahoma City lets Westbrook (6'3") pick up Kobe (6'6") as he brings the ball upcourt.  Mind you, Kobe's had a lot of trouble in this series when being guarded by Kevin Durant (6'10") because of Durant's length, but Westbrook is doesn't present the same degree of difficulty.

After crossing midcourt, there is about a 3-4 second window in which Kobe is completely stationary, priming Westbrook for his next move.  If you're Westbrook and you realize that you are guarding the man who has made more shots in the last :10 of games this season than any other player in the league AND you are not the best man on the floor for the job, shouldn't you foul him instead of risking embarrassment when Kobe (more than likely) makes the winning shot? More to the point, shouldn't you foul him, so that even if he does make his free throws, you still have time to retaliate rather than watching him score at the buzzer?

I realize I'm acting like Kobe made the shot, but effectively he did.  If the shot had gone in, there would have been roughly 2.5 seconds left on the clock, which is ample time to run a decent inbounds play from halfcourt, but it seems like having 5-8 seconds and the ball while being down by 1 or 2 is a better option.  In that scenario, there is at least time for the player receiving the inbounds pass to consider dishing to a teammate rather than just shooting.        


On another note, here's ESPN's preview of Madden 11. The video below isn't tied to the article, but it gives a decent taste of the action.  The new system for calling plays looks good, but the lack of a turbo button will take some getting used to.

Friday, April 30, 2010

Unga Unguarded: A BYU Cougar Under College Football's Microscope

Running has never been a staple of Brigham Young University's football program.  Names like Detmer and McMahon have always defined the Cougar offense.  Sarkisian, Beck, and Hall are among the men who have best worn the "Y" in recent years. Even the Young family itself is in the business of passing, having produced one of the better left-handed quarterbacks to ever play in the NFL.  To put it mildly, BYU passes, and has always passed, with colors flying, save only for one small category: assimilation.

To say that a university founded on the principles of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) wanders slightly from the beaten path of modern American post-secondary education is only an approach shot to the truth.  On its Provo, Utah campus and elsewhere, the bylaws of BYU demand that its students and faculty hold themselves to "the highest standards of honor, integrity, morality, and consideration of others in personal behavior."

Veiled extremism it is not; although some might want to float the notion that it is cult-like in its existence, BYU more closely resembles something of a social utopia, one in which men and women are asked to treat their peers with the respect and courtesy that might otherwise be reserved for close family members and well-respected adults.  For that, it also seems encased in a bubble at times, a bubble which draws many a confused glance and its fair share of criticism for the uniquely lofty expectations it professes - after all, aren't these are men and women attending their first college classes still trying to find their way in the world? 

Harvey Unga is, by normal definitions, one of these men.  Entering his senior year, however, he is something much rarer than the prototypical Cougar. He's a runner by blood (his dad was a Cougar running back in the 1980s), and he has lots of local support, having grown up and gone to school in Provo. In his time in the BYU backfield, Unga has amassed more yards than any back before him, having just completed his third straight 1,000-yd./10 TD season for a team that finished the year ranked No. 12 in the country.

To put that performance in perspective, Unga ranked 37th in the nation in rushing, ahead of highly touted first-round draft pick CJ Spiller; he was also one of only three running backs to finish in the top 40 in rushing while playing in an offense ranked in the top 20 in passing.

"I'm [just] Harvey," he said in a September interview after breaking his finger, humbly deflecting the notion that he played like a superhero on the field. "Without [fullback Manase Tonga] or the line, I'm nothing."      

Nothing? Nothing short of outstanding, maybe. But who would ever know? Unga's luster-lacking running style, his school's non-BCS status and his distance from East Coast media outlets have all helped reduce a  6'0" 237-pound freighter of a man to little more than a cool train set, a small-scale exhibition of considerable force that seems limited almost exclusively to recognition within the Mountain West.  The modesty his school expects had Unga setting a good example, but minding virtue had not made him into a household name.

Two Fridays ago, on the first day of April exams in Provo, the Cougar athletic department released a statement saying the Unga had withdrawn from school "as a result of a violation of the BYU honor code."  In addition to Unga, junior women's basketball player Keilani Moeaki was mentioned in the release, with the school citing that she had made the same decision on the same grounds.

If you are not familiar with Brigham Young's honor code, you should know that although it is summarized simply in some places, it is actually a 12-page monolith that more or less covers the whole nine yards of student life on its campus.  However, when abridged, the second tenet is just six words: Live a chaste and honest life.

Artlessly, people bolted to conclusions because two athletes, male and female, were mentioned in the same press release.  The critics had reason to do so, too: the two had been previously engaged and were still dating in recent weeks, according to an area newspaper.  But while making that assumption shows a logical progression of thought, it also shows a lack of respect for the athletes and the honor code itself. 

The biggest percentage of the honor code deals with academic violations, which are just as plausible given the intensified workload that is common at this time of year. So, for example, if Unga were to have plagiarized or falsified a source in a paper for one of his classes, he could conceivably withdraw prior to the Honor Code Office adjudicating his violation.    

That's not to imply that Unga's violation was premeditated, since students that agree to live by BYU's honor code probably don't enter the university with the intention of violating it; some of the principles mentioned in the abridged version (respect others, use clean language) do instruct on everyday actions that for most people are largely spontaneous and instinctual rather than carefully conceived.  Having said that, although all commands of the code appear to be treated equally, it would not be surprising for some to consider an act like drinking alcohol a more serious violation (and worthy of withdrawing oneself from school) than calling another student an idiot.

The confidentiality adhered to by the BYU administration in regard to any honor code violation is an admirable maintenance of student privacy, but in this case it is a football-sized thorn in the university's side. The longer it takes for Unga to figure out his situation, the more the already-drawn conclusions will solidify in the minds of the public.     

It is clear through Unga's decision not to declare for the NFL draft this past January that he wants to return for his senior year.  Due to the fact that he withdrew, there is no further investigation required by the Honor Code Office; the determination regarding readmission instead lands in the lap of BYU's dean of students, so long as Unga can obtain an endorsement from his local bishop.

"Harvey's first choice and what he is fighting diligently for and trying to express to the administration at BYU is that he wants to be back," head coach Bronco Mendenhall told the Salt Lake Tribune. "To stay at BYU... That is his hope. That is his intent, and that is what he would like to do."

But do the 30,000 other BYU students, all of whom are bound by the same LDS code that Unga violated, feel the same way?

Mendenhall has said that he will give his full support to whatever course of action Unga undertakes (or is forced to undertake), which is not surprising for a coach who is placed precariously on the edge of a moral precipice.  On the one hand, another blue ribbon season from his prized hoss would do wonders for an offense that graduated its starting quarterback and top receiver to the NFL.  On the other, it would be hard to find fault with the assertion that Unga's actions have, in the eyes of some, tainted his ability to represent all that BYU stands for.

For fans and fellow students, the conflict is no less heart-wrenching.  Is it permissible to let a classmate tarnish his own reputation and that of his peers and still admit him back into the fold, onto the field where the institution they all embody is most prominent in the public eye? Is it wrong to find a fault in one person such that he should no longer be thought to personify a special establishment, a unique way of life?  Would this decision be treated the same way if it involved someone who was not a public figure?  All are questions waiting to be answered.

As good a runner as he is, it should be noted that Harvey Unga doesn't appear to be making a dash toward the NFL Supplemental draft, Division II football or any other harbor that might protect him from dealing with his mistakes directly.  If he really does want to right his ship "in the most desperate way," he's started the right way, gathering his own fumble.  Whether or not he'll make it back to the line of scrimmage is not entirely under his control, but at least he's willing to put his shoulder down before he gives up.    

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Purple Prospectus: Analyzing the Ravens' 2010 Draft Needs/Targets

With the NFL Draft less than a week away, it's time to look at who's high and who's low on the Ravens' wishlist this year. If you think the primary focus will be improving what some fans considered an atrocious performance by the defensive secondary this year, you might be in for a surprise. Lucky for you, Ed Healy is here to provide some insight.

Who's Ed Healy, you ask? Good question. He's a man of many talents, but among his greatest passions is NFL player evaluation. Ed doesn't work for ESPN and he doesn't run his own draft website, but he does have a few things to his name that give some weight to his opinions. In addition to having personal interaction with Mel Kiper Jr. and watching hours of Ravens game footage from last season, Ed has become a quick study in breaking down film - his written evaluation of the Ravens' play in the 2008 season drew praise from a handful of NFL general managers and player personnel directors, and he was subsequently asked to submit further scouting reports on a selection of personally scouted 2010 NFL prospects for an AFC team in preparation for this week's events. An amateur he may be, but Ed is serious about his football. Without further ado, here is his take on the Ravens' needs in this year's draft, provided exclusively to Springs on Sports.

The Ravens really have few holes heading into the 2010 draft, with essentially every starting position filled. What this team needs is to add depth and youth to prepare this roster for the exits of Todd Heap, Kelly Gregg, Derrick Mason, Trevor Pryce and other key veterans that are likely within the next two seasons. The Ravens are a bona fide Super Bowl contender the way the roster is right now, but they are just a few key injuries away from being 9-7 just like last year. With that said, let’s take a look at some crucial positions heading into this year’s draft.

WR- With the additions of Anquan Boldin and Donte’ Stallworth and the return of Derrick Mason, most people have written off the wide receiver position as an area of need. But when you consider that Stallworth is on a one year deal, Mark Clayton will be a free agent after next year, and Mason could easily retire after this coming season, the Ravens could be left with Anquan Boldin and Marcus Smith for Week 1 of the 2011 season. This scenario is quite possible and would just leave us looking for wide receiver help again next offseason. As much as this annual search for a WR has been fun for us Ravens fans, at some point we’re going to have to have an offseason where the wideout position is of no concern. Dez Bryant may be available at #25 with some teams concerned about his character, but the WR the Ravens should target at #25 (if that’s the direction they want to go) should be Demaryius Thomas of Georgia Tech. At 6-3 230 pounds, he averaged over 25 yards per catch this year. (Note: Jermaine Lewis’ highest average in Baltimore was 19.1 yards per catch, and he was only 5-7.) Another name to keep an eye out for in later rounds is Mike Williams of Syracuse. He’s 6-2 221lbs. and is a legitimate downfield threat. He could slide far in this draft due to character concerns, but if he falls near the 4th round the Ravens should definitely snatch him up.

- Todd Heap is coming back this year, but is obviously getting up there in age. The Ravens should be in the market for an heir apparent, just as when Heap was brought in for a year under Shannon Sharpe. The man for that job is Jermaine Gresham (pictured above) and Jermaine Gresham only. After watching many Oklahoma games during his junior year, I was convinced Gresham would be an absolute stud at the NFL. He is an amazing pass catcher who will be an elite NFL tight end. He won’t go in the top ten but in ten years from now people will wish they had taken him. If the Ravens are unable to grab him, they should wait ‘til next year for Heap’s replacement. We really need a backup tight end who is a mauler of a blocker, but that can come from the veteran free agency pool. Edgar Jones is a nice developmental project and special teams player as the third tight end. The only way the Ravens should improve this position through the draft is Jermaine Gresham.

- This group put up an atrocious first half of 2009, but they truly came on strong in the second half. The concern here is that Fabian Washington and Lardarius Webb are still rehabbing from injuries that may keep them out until late in training camp. Chris Carr stepped in late last season and performed way better than anyone could have imagined opposite Dominique Foxworth. If all were healthy, a lineup of Foxworth and Webb starting with Washington as the nickel and Carr as the fourth corner would definitely be a quality stable of corners. What may actually dictate how we handle our corner position is the 2010 schedule release before the Draft. If the Ravens face the Steelers, Patriots, and Saints early on, they may need to look for a corner. If those games are towards the back end of the schedule, the Ravens may not need to address the position. But if they do, a big and physical Chris McAlister-esque corner is needed. Players like Patrick Robinson of Florida State or Rutgers’ Devin McCourty fit that description as early round candidates. Chris Cook, Myron Lewis, and Nolan Carroll fit as late round candidates. One interesting middle round prospect is Javier Arenas of Alabama. He’s not the size the Ravens should desire in a corner this year but he’s physical and an absolute playmaker. He’ll probably go in the third round but he could be a gem. If you’re hoping Kyle Wilson of Boise State will be available, keep dreaming.

DT- The current group consists of Haloti Ngata, Kelly Gregg, and Brandon McKinney. Gregg is getting older so a young big body could be used in the middle to help a group hurt by the loss of Justin Bannan. An obvious direction to go in during the draft would be Terrence Cody of Alabama. He would be the perfect run-stopping defensive lineman to pair with Ngata to protect Ray Lewis. Taking him at #25 may be a small reach, but I don’t think he’ll be around at 57 and I don’t see the Ravens using picks to move up to get him when they only have 5 to start. A more reasonable outlook could be to draft a defensive tackle in the later rounds or trust Ozzie to find another solid undrafted lineman like he has done in the past (Lional Dalton, Maake Kemoeatu etc.). Big bodies to look out for in the later rounds are Torrell Troup and Kade Weston.

DE- Currently, the Ravens only have Trevor Pryce and Corey Redding as true defensive ends for their 3-4 scheme. The addition of Redding has not excited many Ravens fans, but in the last 5 seasons, Redding has recorded at least one sack and over 40 tackles. These numbers aren’t amazing but the Ravens don’t need him to be amazing - that’s what Terrell Suggs is for. If Redding can just control his gap assignments and create the occasional rush, he’ll be a serviceable player in the system. The other hope at DE is that Paul Kruger adds weight so that he can be a full time defensive end. With these three, the need to draft a 3-4 defensive high in the draft like Jared Odrick would be low. The Ravens should look to draft a big defensive end late to groom as a replacement for Trevor Pryce. A highly talented player who could drop to #57 is Carlos Dunlap of Florida, but options in the later rounds like Alex Carrington, C.J Wilson, and Greg Hardy are more likely.

FB- The Raven’s biggest mistake for the 2009 opening day roster…keeping RB Matt Lawrence. The Ravens should have kept a reserve fullback who could play special teams instead of a reserve running back. This negated any possibility of bringing in Le’Ron McClain in short yardage situations with a blocker in front of him and took away a dimension of our offense that worked well with Lorenzo Neal in 2008. It would make sense for the Ravens to try and find a fullback late in the draft or undrafted who could bulldoze running lanes for McClain in goal-line situations. Cory Jackson of Maryland may just fit the bill.

S- I don’t view this as an area of need. Even if Ed Reed retires, Tom Zbikowski, his replacement, did a great job filling in last year. Dawan Landry and Haruki Nakamura both are quality players at the strong safety position, making the Ravens three deep at safety without Reed. The Ravens have had no indication from Reed that he will retire and there’s no way they keep a 5th safety with the way they like to carry lots of multifaceted linebackers.

Here’s how I see the draft hopefully unfolding-

1(25). TE Jermaine Gresham (Oklahoma)

2(57). DT Terrence Cody (Alabama)

5 (156). CB Nolan Carroll (Maryland)

5 (157). DE Brandon Lang (Troy)

6 (194). WR David Gettis (Baylor)

Although I feel good about these projections, I'm no expert, so I’ll end with this…
In Ozzie We Trust!

Ed Healy is a college student and avid fan of the Baltimore Ravens and Baltimore Orioles. In his spare time, when not following one of his two favorite teams, Ed enjoys playing pickup hoops, schooling his friends in a number of PS2 sports games and coaching youth lacrosse and soccer. He lives and attends school in Baltimore, Maryland.

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Last Underdog...?

I thought Butler would win.  I really did.

But nothing is ever certain, a lesson I learned the hard way during high school football.  I've been lucky enough to experience a lot of great sports moments in my life already - a goal-line stand, a game-winning field goal, a walk-off grand slam, a hole-in-one, and a buzzer-beater are all events I've witnessed or participated in.  I've seen two of my favorite teams win championships, and I've been to an NCAA basketball regional final.  I guess I don't have as much room to complain as some, but the two things I really want the most are a World Series ring for the Orioles and a true Cinderella story.  The former is still at least a few years away, but I've been painfully close to the latter on multiple occasions, the latest coming last night.  I still remember seething about Davidson's loss to Kansas in the '08 tournament, taking out my frustration on the hoop above my garage for a good 45 minutes after the game.  I wanted nothing more than to do the same after the Devil buzzer sounded. Too bad the gymnasium doesn't stay open that late.  

This will sound familiar, but I feel robbed.  I know there were circumstances that could have prevented Butler from being in that position at the end of the game, the most prominent being enough bricked free throws by players not named Hayward to build a small tomb for Butler's bulldog mascot.  Still, it kills me to think that they did all that work for six months to come up a few inches short, inches that were well-deserved, too.  Even Maryland's furious comeback against Michigan State was not as worthy an effort as Butler's tough-as-nails, shot-for-shot bout with Duke.  If only that team were not so darn likable - Babyface Hayward, Mustache Howard, Missile Mack, the always lurking Veasley, Nored the fingersmith, Stoneface Stevens.  That doesn't even include Jukes, the Alabama transfer and charity founder who stifled Zoubek for much of the game, or Hahn, the little engine that dropped a big trey in the first half.  Vanzant scrapped for those loose balls because his life depended on it
Maybe we'll feel feel better about it if we find out in two years that there were all kinds of NCAA infractions committed by this team, but we would probably just feel more duped.  Some things seem to defy all our attempts at coping and our best-faked better-luck-next-year mentalities.  This one stings the most because we don't know that we'll ever see it again.

If the NCAA tournament expands to 96 teams, as the ESPN crew working the NIT Finals hinted last week, a so-called "underdog" team would have to win five games in ten days just to make the Sweet 16, making a Final Four run all but impossible for a Butler-type team.  It means more money for the NCAA and first-round byes for the top 32 teams (most of which will probably hail from major conferences), but it will ruin the competitive balance that it has maintained so well up to this year.  There's already one matchup that is almost impossible to win (although Princeton nearly upset No.1 Georgetown in the first round in '89), so if a team seeded worse than No. 80 somehow makes it to the round of 64, how are they even supposed to compete? It's no contest.

I'm almost convinced that a "Cinderella" story will never be transplanted into real life.  In each recent March Madness case, there were players who carried their teams (Jai Lewis for George Mason, Stephen Curry for Davidson, Gordon Hayward for Butler) to success, each one with the good fortune of playing close to home (Washington DC, Raleigh, Indianapolis) and each one ultimately coming up short of the biggest goal.  (Even this year's Cornell team couldn't beat a tough Kentucky squad while playing in Syracuse.)  All of these teams try desperately to fit the mold, and all have fallen short.  These conclusions beg the question: how spectacular will the odds be when a non-major team finally overcomes them to win it all?  Or will the next team win it, the last in a line of slow progression from Sweet 16 to Elite 8 to Final Four to National Championship game? It's difficult to say.

To be frank, I think I would die a little bit on the inside if the tournament format changed. Here we have the closest thing in college sports to a fair shake for postseason-caliber teams, and to throw away the integrity of such a system for a bump in revenue runs counter to the uniqueness of collegiate athletics.  Are we willing to reduce the opportunity for pure competition to solely the high school level and rec leagues? What happened to the singularly American experience of playing organized team sports with complex strategy while representing an institution, an idea you stand behind?  There's nothing like it anywhere else in the world, and to alter it irreparably would be doing unspeakable damage to the "maybe" factor of the sport, eliminating the unlikely possibilities that even now are more real than we think.  It will be a sad day when that time arrives, and my fear is that it's not too far away.  If that's the way it is, here's to Butler for keeping our hearts for as long as they could.  We may never see another team like them.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Cinderella to the Palace

The Butler Way is defined on the school's website as "teamwork, working hard, giving selflessly, having fun and making a difference."  Idyllic as it sounds, it's not difficult to see those qualities in those who play and coach on the Bulldog basketball team.

Giving selflessly: check. Guards Shelvin Mack and Ronald Nored average a combined 7 assists per game.

Working hard: check. Forward Gordon Hayward collects over 8 rebounds per game in spite of his lean physique (6'9", but only 207 pounds).

Having fun: check.  Head coach Brad Stevens is a willing supporter of showing a little spirit.

As for teamwork and working hard, you would have to be living in a doghouse to not have heard what these Bulldogs have accomplished.  Despite sharing their state with Larry Bird's alma mater, two Big Ten schools and Touchdown Jesus, Butler has built a program that has won its last 24 games in a row (leading the nation) and was ranked in the national Top 25 polls for most of the regular season.  The Bulldogs' small-time conference background (the Horizon League, formerly known as the home of Valparaiso and Bryce Drew), was proved irrelevant when they beat Big Ten champ Ohio State and Sweet 16 qualifer Xavier in back-to-back games in December.  Yet in spite of all they accomplished, Stevens' team still carried the underdog label all the way into March, the "liberal arts university" with only 4,000 students that was still more famous for its historic Hinkle Fieldhouse, the filming location of the sports cinema classic Hoosiers, than for its own team playing in that building.

In the space of 4 games and 11 days, the Bulldogs showed us again, like Davidson and George Mason before them, why this tournament is so much fun.  During the first weekend, they beat No. 12 seed UTEP in the opening round and downed No. 13 seed Murray State in the second round to propel them to their first Sweet 16 in 3 years.  Those wins were not hard to believe, but when senior forward Willie Veasley hit a 3-pointer and tipped in a Mack miss to give his team a six-point lead with under a minute to play against No. 1 seed Syracuse, people started talking.

What if?

It's a question that Stevens simply would not ponder during a wildly successful regular season, one that he managed to stave off until after the win over Murray State. Now that Butler had matched its highest threshold of success seen in this decade, why shouldn't he fantasize about how cool it would be to take out the No. 1 seed in their region?  What did they have to lose?
A minute later, the Bulldogs found themselves two halves of All-American basketball away from a Final Four berth.  Even more astounding was their timing: what are the chances that of all the arenas in the country, this year's host site happened to be Indianapolis, just five miles from their very own campus?  Might that have been extra motivation for their matchup against second-seeded Kansas State? 

Call it luck if you can't believe it.  Call it fate if you can't understand it.  Call it good basketball if you like, for that's what it really is.  Any way you slice it, the Butler Way shines through. At the end of an evening of stifling Bulldog defense, punctuated by two Nored steals in the last 30 seconds of Sunday's game against Frank Martin's Wildcats, you saw the Butler Bulldogs boarding a flight from Salt Lake City to Indianapolis with a West Regional trophy in hand.

It's not an original plot line, at least not in concept, but somehow, that doesn't make this journey any less exciting than the ones before it.  And it's not done yet.

To quote a younger Gus Johnson: "The slipper still fits!"

Mountaineering With a Vengeance
What was it like to watch Kentucky's debacle with West Virginia on Saturday night in a Memphis restaurant? (Shout out to Central BBQ!)

I'll tell you. Righteous euphoria, the kind you haven't seen since Shaq nanny-nanny-boo-booed Kobe by winning the NBA crown with Miami in '06.  In a well-occupied dining area dominated by a projection screen TV, the enthusiasm with which Memphians cheered on the Mountaineers proved just how much hate and hurt was left over from the Calipari era.  Every time Cal appeared on screen, boos and jeers echoed from almost every booth and table, and when West Virginia pulled ahead near the end of the game, there was almost a standing ovation, cheers that didn't celebrate Bob Huggins' crew as much as they applauded Calipari's demise.

Had the John Wall and Wildcats made the Final Four, it would have been a crushing blow for a city that was unfairly stripped of all its basketball success because of one man's transgressions, but thankfully, justice was served, at least for this year. (Watch out Kentucky. I've said it once already - you make the bed you lie in.)  I hope I get to see the same level of enthusiasm for a successful Josh Pastner-led Tigers' squad sometime before I graduate, and my gut says it will be sooner rather than later.  Can't wait.

Spartan Resilience
Michigan State's bid to Indianapolis marked Tom Izzo's sixth trip the Final Four in twelve seasons. My question is, does that really surprise anyone? The guy's only been doing this for fifteen years straight - drawing in a solid group of recruits, teaching them to rebound and play hard-nosed blue-collar basketball in one of the best facilities in America and eventually pushing them to be 20+ win teams.  In his tenure, Izzo has yet to go a full four years without making the Final Four.  That means every recruit signed by Izzo that has continued to play basketball all four years and matriculated academically through his senior year has played in the Final Four.  I don't see how anyone can turn down an opportunity like that.  So, uh, if I all-but-guaranteed you a spot in the Final Four a year or two from now, would you take it?  The real question is why you wouldn't take it.  How man people can say they've played in the Final Four? Not many that I know.  I'm surprised high schoolers haven't started camping outside HIS house, Cameron Crazies-style, just to be able to show him their face.  He's the one with all the talent (pun intended).

As you might have guessed, I'm rooting for whoever wins the Butler-MSU game.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Hurtin' in the Home of the Terrapin

 It still hurts.

If you didn't see Maryland's devastating 85-83 defeat against Michigan State on Sunday, then I know your pain.  I was on a plane when the game ended, and having seen the halftime score, reading the final tally in a text message when we landed was like taking a big gulp of a drink too strongly mixed.  Would I rather see us lose by 8 or 10? No. Hell no. The effort they made in that comeback was worthy of a win. I see where Mike Wise is coming from with the whole "fitting end to an up-and-down career" for the seniors, but poetic justice only goes so far, and I'm not satisfied with that loss.  They deserved better. Vasquez worked especially hard to be the player and floor leader that he showed he was on Sunday (26 pts, 8 assists, 4 rebounds, 3 steals against the Spartans), and for him to go out like that . . . nuh uh. Not a worthy send-off.  I wouldn't care as much if they lost in the Sweet 16, but to not even make it to the second weekend is pretty weak.  It's crummy for Hayes and Milbourne, too, one seriously under-appreciated and the other grossly overshadowed by his backcourt despite having been forced to play out of position for 3 years.  Wise is right that an era of Maryland basketball is ending, just as it did with the graduations of Juan Dixon and Steve Blake, but it sure isn't the ending we wanted.

So what do the Terps have to write home about for this season? They have an ACC championship shared with Duke that was made possible by a signature home win on national television against a team they hate. They are fortunate enough to have had the ACC Player and ACC Coach of the Year.  They won seven in a row to end the season and rallied from halftime deficits for road wins at Florida State, NC State and Virginia Tech in February.  Shoot, there was even a thrilling buzzer-beater finish at home to slay Georgia Tech.  We saw the emergence of a Lonny Baxter-like low post figure in Jordan Williams, something Gary's been missing for years.  None of this even mentions the solid class of recruits slated to arrive in '10.  The future looks bright.

Most of all, these Terps didn't turtle.  They didn't falter after a loss to William & Mary.  They didn't succumb to pity after an embarrassing loss in Durham.  They didn't bring the disappointment of their ACC tournament exit with them on the plane to Spokane.  And staring at a 15-point deficit with less than nine minutes remaining in their tournament life, they clawed and scratched and fouled and swished and stole their way back into the lead after playing their hearts out for 99.75% of the game.  The soul-crushing .25% of the game that remained drove a spike through my chest the size of Vasquez's hair gel bottle, but in no way could I have asked any more from those guys than what they had already given.  Milbourne's pose in the post-buzzer photos speaks to that: hands on the sides of the head, completely (forgive the pun) shellshocked, having no idea what else could have been done to win that game.

Nothin' left to do, Landon.  Y'all gave it your best shot. Sometimes you trick the bull, but sometimes the bull gores you.


Now, having given the Terps their due, I'll try to settle up my bracket. Red indicates airballs, yellow is bricks, and green means count it.

  • Montana led at the half, but the No. 14 Grizzlies couldn't hold off No. 3 seed New Mexico (half credit for saying they would win 1 game).  Anthony Johnson, hero of the comeback against Weber State, went 1-for-12 from the field and missed all four of his 3-point attempts, amassing a lowly six points.  Here's a shocker - averaging 19 PPG in the Big Sky conference is not quite as applicable to the NCAA tournament as you might think! (Springs, you dummy, a kitten could have picked that right!) Yeah, well, no tears shed. Long shots are just that.
  • Oklahoma State point man James Anderson shot 0-for-6 from deep and 3-for-12 inside the arc for a total of 11 points (hang on, there's not a patten here, is there?) in a pillow fight loss to Georgia Tech in which nobody scored more than 14 points.  Disappointing, dude, especially when my buddy A-Dick claims you're a good guy.  I guess it didn't help that the Pokes got outrebounded by 11. That Lawal-Favors combination can getcha, I know. But you forgot. Rule #72: No excuses, play like a champion.
  • UTEP started strong but ultimately underwhelmed a Butler team (jury's still out) I thought to be very beatable.  Derrick Caracter showed well (20 points, 9 boards, 10-13 shooting), but I think the Miners fell victim to their lack of depth in losing a six-point halftime lead. Memphis, where are you?! (Oh, you lost to Ole Miss in the NIT did you? Nice work guys. Yeesh.
  • The fact that I upchucked violently on St. Patrick's Day after one drink (don't ask) was not a good sign for Notre Dame.  When you play on the low block and average a double-double in the Big East for most of the regular season, it's not okay to lay an egg in the first round game of a tournament which you need to dominate in order to have a chance of being looked at by NBA scouts.  Regardless of Tory Jackson's 2-for-11/1-for-7 performance while playing all 40 minutes, Luke Harangody's 2-of-9 shooting performance and 3 personal fouls doomed the Irish as sure as Mike Brey's blazer-and-turtleneck combination cost him 3.1 dates per year in college.  See if I ever pick the Irish to the Elite 8 again (highly improbable unless my next bowl of Lucky Charms turns into a pot of gold).
  • Cal beat Louisvile on the backs of their threesome (Randle, Christopher, Robinson), but the Golden Bears were overwhelmed by Duke's threesome (Smith, Singler, Scheyer). Imitation is a sincere form of flattery, but that doesn't mean it will get you places.
  • BYU continues to fall short for me.  I said they had the best chance to win the MWC and get a No. 3 seed. They didn't. I said Jimmer would be the gas for their Sweet 16 go-cart, and they puttered out.  Fredette scored 21 against Kansas State, one point below his season average, but his 38% shooting from the field was sub-par when the Cougars needed an all-star.  He may have just secured a spot as one of the 15% of BYU students who aren't married by the time they graduate.
  • Gonzaga didn't make the second weekend; still, Mark Few continues to receive (and decline) high-profile job offers.  I admire his loyalty, but he better take his team places soon before people begin writing him off (shoot, I already started).
  • Cornell knocked off Temple and Wisconsin, proving they are stil the upset-minded team that almost took down Kansas earlier in the year (foreshadowing a future Kansas loss to a mid-major).  I'm excited to see the Big Red in the mix and I'll be pulling hard for them against Kentucky.  Look for Louis Dale to make some noise - he's an Alabama native, and they don't take kindly to SEC foe.
  • West Virginia and St. Mary's are both doing well, particularly the Gaels who stunned No. 2 seed Villanova in a Big East arena on the broad shoulders of Omar Samhan (32 points, 7 rebounds).  West Virginia should make the Elite 8, and I wouldn't be surprised if Samhan and Co. does as well - Baylor and Washington are both beatable teams.
Picks for The Second Weekend
I'm still going off of my original bracket, and my Final Four remains intact as of right now (Ohio State, Syracuse, Duke and Kentucky, with 'Cuse beating Duke in the final).

  • Pitt beats Kansas State and 'Cuse tops Butler to set up an all-Big East regional in the West, which the Orange win.  Arinze Onuaku should try to play against Pitt, but I think Wesley Johnson can carry the load against the Bulldogs.
  • Ohio State bests Tennessee and faces whoever dares step on the court (I picked Kansas - oops).  UNI vs. Sparty will be fun to watch, but neither one will take down the Buckeyes on Sunday (although Michigan State would be the greater challenge).
  • West Virginia beats an over-matched Washington team and Kentucky manages to barely stifle a tough Cornell team, and the 'Cats squeak by again in the regional.  Realistically, I can see a UK-WVU matchup going either way.
  • Duke ends Purdue's chip-on-the-shoulder power trip with a dominating performance from Kyle Singler which can't be matched due to the absence of Singler's foil, Robbie Hummel.  I'll go out on a limb and say St. Mary's beats Baylor (I took 'Nova) - I really think they have it in them, and that would set up the ultimate mid-major-vs.-juggernaut rivalry, a fiesta for underdog sympathizers of all ages. Duke wins.
  • I'd love to see Cornell beat Kentucky, even if they get no further (although a Final Four berth that goes went through John Calipari AND Bob Huggins would be insanely cool). It's a simple good-over-evil, straight-over-sleazy fantasy for fans dealing with the ethical dilemmas of modern recruiting, one-and-done prospects and special player privileges.
  • It would be awesome to see UNI Farokhmanesh the daylights out of Michigan State (yeah, I said it), but secretly I'll be waiving a small Sparty flag for Tom Izzo. He does things by the book, and he doesn't take himself too seriously. Gotta love it.  
  • I hope Chris Kramer and Purdue stick it to the Devils, even if that busts my bracket. They have a much better shot than any other team Duke will face except maybe Syracuse.  If Baylor wins the other game (which I wouldn't mind seeing) and Purdue somehow gets by, I would be glued to the TV just as much for Tweety Carter, LaceDarius Dunn and E'twuan Moore as I would be for a Duke-St. Mary's matchup. Those are the best two possibilities in that region.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

The Drop on the Draw

It is THE most wonderful time of the year. And I'm missing it.

Yes, we've arrived at March once again and all the wild college basketball games that go with it.  Sadly, I'm going to be out of the country for rounds 1 and 2. At this point, you're surely asking yourself if Springs has gone off the deep end; I myself will certainly feel that way on Sunday and all next week.  An island village in Costa Rica, however, is a locale rarely available to the average college student, so I lunged at the chance.  Given that I don't think I'll have access to an international phone, I'm giving my picks to the gracious twin, who has promised that he will submit them on my behalf.  Given that I'm going into Selection Sunday with a significant level of blindness, I'll have craft a gameplan based on seedings and my opinions of already all-but-in teams.  Without further ado...
  • There will be at least two No. 1 seeds in the Final Four. Science, logic, duh.
  • At least one No. 10 seed will beat a No. 7. Again, pure science, aka the completely unquantifiable feeling in my gut.
  • Maryland will make the Sweet 16. I believe they have the potential to reach the Elite 8, but I'm not getting my hopes up. However, anything less than the second weekend will be serious blueballing of a very unfair variety.  Oh, and no other ACC team will make the second weekend, aside from Duke (and they may not even make it).
  • UTEP will make the Sweet 16. Five players average double-digit point totals.  Randy Culpepper is silly athletic, and Louisville transfer Derrick Caracter is a solid inside presence.  Imagine if you had him in the frontcourt together with a guy like Samardo Samuels. Doesn't that sound great? Hey, wait a second. . . . .
  • If Montana gets a No. 14 seed or better, it will pull the upset.  Anthony Johnson went off the map to beat Weber State, and I believe he can do it again.
  • Calipari hasn't won a championship yet, and he won't do it with this crew. (Even if he does, it's just gonna get investigated and forefeited 3 years from now, right? Sorry UK - you make the bed you lie in.) And for good measure, Duke won't win either.
  • Oklahoma State will win its first round game. James Anderson has Stephen Curry-like potential (no one can truly replicate '08, but people will come close), and I can see the Pokes possibly getting to the Elite 8 on his back, but an early KO by K-State in the Big XII tournament didn't help their confidence.
  • California is better than people say. Randle, Christopher and Robinson will show up. They will win their first game.
  • Notre Dame makes the Sweet 16 if it gets better than a No. 7 seed (i.e. No. 6 or No. 5); if not, they might be one-and-done.
  • BYU gets to the Sweet 16 on the basis of good shooting and the fact that every announcer has to love saying "Jimmer" 20 times a game. He's gotta be around at least 3 games!
  • New Mexico will win its first round game. Beyond that, I have no idea. Lack of size has hurt Maryland in past years, but to win 25+ games with two 6'8" guys down low is some brand of amazing. We'll have to see how it goes.
  • Butler and Gonzaga go no further than the sweet 16, if that far. Biggest mid-major teases of all time.
  • Ohio State will make the Final Four. I don't remember the last time I saw confidence like that which Evan Turner displays. He's Greivis Vasquez on steroids, or Greivis is the poor man's Turner. Whichever you prefer. I like the former.
  • West Virginia's hot. Da'Sean Butler probably makes another buzzer beater before people realize they have to cover him. Hello, Sweet 16, how do you do.
  • Cornell is my other waffle team with New Mexico. They hit a ridiculous number of 3-pointers the other night to win the Ivy League. That kind of thing is also extremely hit-or-miss on any given night. They're capable of winning on Thursday/Friday, but it's less likely that they'll do so on Saturday/Sunday. I don't know what to do with them.
  • Saint Mary's will usurp Gonzaga's place as best WCC team - they will make the Sweet 16, and should keep the third game competitive to the end.
To all y'all competing bracketeers: best o' luck. The Madness begins. Here's hoping that if you must get busted, it will be memorable.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Maryland-Duke Retro Diary: Reliving the Shootout

If you’re like me, you’re still living in the past, that being Maryland’s thrilling upset of No. 4 Duke last Wednesday night and their subsequent share of the regular season ACC title. Hungry for some more celebratory Terps stories? Then sit down, read on, and enjoy these next few minutes.  On the eve of the ACC Tournament, I present to you the grossly informal and somewhat lengthy game log that I wrote during last week's contest in College Park. This is what the view looks like from the mountaintop.

Moments before tip-off

Oh man this crowd is loud! The seats are just a wave of pulsing gold all the way up to the roof behind the basket. I feel like I’m on Danny Glover’s toilet in Lethal Weapon 2. This is intense!

Maryland wins the tip, and Eric Hayes starts the scoring with a floater.
We’re on the board! The student section is bouncing off the ceiling right now.

Duke misses their first two threes.
Promising opening. Maybe they won’t hit one all night.

19:02 Greivis Vasquez takes a bad shot and reminds us he can still be the same idiot who called out John Calipari’s Memphis squad before their matchup in last year’s tournament. If you don’t remember how that went down, good.

18:45 Kyle Singler gets blocked by Jordan Williams. Nice. That’s a tone-setter. This kid is really something for a freshman. He’s almost averaging a double-double on the season (9 points, 8 boards), and he’s reached double digit points or rebounds (or both) in each of the last 5 games.

17:46 Jon Scheyer misses an open 3. Is that his 2nd miss in a row? That’s lucky.

16:09 TV TIMEOUT MD 10-2
This is a conspiracy! The refs stopped the game to fix the nets right when we have all the momentum. Unbelievable. Maryland always catches these bad breaks when they’re doing well. I’m steaming like a blue crab. Let’s go!

Singler hits a long 3 right out of the timeout. Hear that? It sounds like the air slowly beginning to trickle out of the Terps’ balloon.

15:04 Hayes with a reverse baseline layup. There we go! Good pass underneath, Greivis.

14:32 Nolan Smith misses at the other end. Rebound Sean Mosley, Terps on the break with numbers. What if I hit the pause button on the Tivo right now? Wouldn’t that suck? Watching it in slow motion might be even worse. . .
Vasquez flips a no-look pass to Williams for the dunk over Scheyer. And 1.
BOOM! Seriously thunderous. He is a steamroller of a man. That’s poster-worthy. Scheyer flopped like a wet noodle; he may have to change his shorts. Williams hits the free throw - off the glass, for good measure. How late is the bank open on Wednesdays?

13:28 Another breakaway. Cliff Tucker gets the putback off the initial miss. We’re running a good transition game so far!

11:43 TV Timeout MD 21-8
By the way, what’s with the patterning on Duke’s jerseys? Very weird. (Apparently it’s supposed to look like the Gothic architecture on Duke’s campus.) Didn’t think Coach K would go for that; then again, it may not have been his call.  Money talks, but Nike money screams like a Scheyer-faced banshee.

8:34 Brian Zoubek takes a charge on Vasquez? C’mon! There’s no way he set his feet!

8:21 Singler travels. ‘Bout time they called that.

8:10 Zoubek called for the foul. That’s 6 on each team.

7:31 Zoubek gets a putback from an offensive rebound that Gregory should’ve had. Guys, we can’t do that! We may win in spite of his play, but let’s try not to let him dominate like he did in Durham (16 points, 17 rebounds).

6:50 Zoubek grabs another board put misses the tip and comes down holding his hand like he jammed a finger. What a puss.

6:42 Hayes hits from deep!
Duke timeout, MD leads 30-19
I don’t like this. Zoubek was way too involved in the last 4 minutes. I won’t wish an injury on anyone, but I’m not gonna complain if he stays out. . .
The replay shows Zoubek’s hand in more detail. Wow, that finger is really crooked. Dislocated. That actually hurts.

6:22 Airball by Smith. He’s gonna hear that all night. Let’s not forget that this crowd once took verbal shots at J.J. Redick’s younger sister. Compared to that, Smith should be happy that he’s being hounded with “AIIIIIIIIIIIIR-BAAAAAAAAAAAALL” calls.

5:53 What’s a Plumlee brother doing hitting a 3? That isn’t in the scouting report. Duke still down by 11.

3:24 Hayes with an overhead soccer-style pass from near midcourt thru traffic to Mosley at the baseline. He’ll shoot 2. Nice dish, dude! That had some mustard on it. TV timeout, MD 36-26
Mosley hits both, exits for Vasquez.

3:10 Singler for 3. Rats.
Is Duke playing a zone defense? Since when do they do that?

2:35 Hayes cuts backdoor, feeds Williams underneath. If Hayes has a signature move, it’s a flawless backdoor cut and a stroke from outside. Pete Carril, are you listening? This kid’s perfect for Princeton!

2:09 Hayes misses a 3. Zoubek’s back and looks awkward.
1:44 Zoubek called for the offensive foul! Two on him, Scheyer and Thomas.

1:11 Smith hits a 3. Timeout Maryland. The lead is five, 40-35.

0:41 Scheyer hits a 3 from the corner. $#!+@%&. Duke within 2.
Duke is still in the 1-2-2 or 3-2, can’t tell which. We’re holding for the last shot.

0:02 Mosley airballs AND it’s a shotclock violation. They’re gonna Give duke the ball. Great. Just peachy. The fans messed him up on that one - they were a second ahead of the actual clock in their verbal countdown. Come on y’all!

Maryland 40, Duke 38
We’re up, and that’s good, but the mo’ is slipping a little. We have to come out strong in the 2nd 20. MD shot roughly 50 percent from the field and 40 percent from 3 in the first half. Everybody on Duke had at least one foul, too. So far, we’re taking care of business. Don’t let up!
FSU beat Wake tonight, which can only help the Terps even though Georgia Tech lost to Clemson last night. 19 Wake turnovers and no points for Al-Farouq Aminu. Yikes.

Duke gets the first 2 baskets. Ughhh.

Blue Devils are back to playing man to man. Vasquez hits a floater to start the MD scoring.

18:15 Singler blocked by Landon Milbourne, but Smith steals it away from Hayes. Their ball. Duke timeout, tied 42-42. We haven’t heard a lot out of Milbourne tonight. As a senior playing in his final home game, I suspect we will soon.

Singler scores, and Duke has their first lead of the night at 44-42.

Offensive foul on Smith. Good work Mosley! He’s been matched up on Singler (giving up 4 inches in height) all night and has done a solid job guarding him so far. Very underrated as a defender.

16:23 Zoubek rebounds a Scheyer miss. We gotta find a way to keep him neutral.
16:05 Another Zoubek rebound, this one from a Singler miss. Aaaaaah!

15:55 TV timeout. Duke 46, MD 44. This is not the fast start that we wanted to have coming back out of the locker room.

15:00 3 straight offensive rebounds for Duke. Guess who? Singler, Singler, Zoubek. Finally a foul is called on them. We just can’t keep letting them do that.

14:40 Vasquez airballs from outside. We are not strong right now. Maryland has only 4 points in six 2nd-half minutes.

14:05 Baseline skyhook off the glass for Williams. And 1! Tied again, 47-47.

12:40 Adrian Bowie steals the inbounds pass from Scheyer, fastbreaks the other way and puts in a lefty scoop shot after switching hands in the air. Sweetness! Are those his first points of the night? You betcha.

12:10 Tucker feeds a driving Milbourne for a one-handed slam! Oh baby that was big! The student section is bananas right now.

11:00 Duke timeout. Terps up by 6, 54-49. Zombie Nation on the loudspeakers, gold shirts bouncin’ – now THIS is Terrapin Basketball!
Vasquez goes to the bench. Gary’s resting him for the final push.

9:11 Smith hits the lean-in jumper and 1. Tied at 54. Vasquez, Hayes and Williams return to the floor. Here we go, boys!
8:39 Smith draws another foul on the drive, no basket. He misses.

8:04 Smith hits the teardrop.

7:51 Timeout MD. Duke leads 56-54. Smith has scored the last 7 for Duke.

7:43 Vasquez draws contact from Smith. He hits both free throws. Tie game. MD runs full court press, but Duke navigates it well. Devils outrebounding the Terps 12-7 on the offensive glass thus far.

6:25 Singler draws the foul on the drive. Timeout Maryland. Duke leads 59-58.
He misses the first, makes the second.

5:58 Mosley to Hayes on a great backdoor cut! He is SO good at that.

3:42 Vasquez runner off the glass! They Terps have lassoed back the lead, 67-65. Timeout Duke.

2:25 Hayes cuts to the basket and gets the friendly home-court roll .

1:09 Smith and Scheyer both miss chances at 3. Rebound Vasquez, who moves the ball slowly into the offensive half. MD up 71-69.

0:39 Vasquez takes Scheyer off the dribble from outside the arc. He drives diagonally, crossing the lane and throwing up an absurd circus-shot runner from the far side with basically no shooting angle at all. It bounces up off the iron and goes down.

MD 73, Duke 69

About half a second later, I lost it.

Regardless of your allegiance as a fan, that shot ignited either raw exhilaration or throw-up-your-hands-in-frustration incredulity. Given the circumstances, it could be considered as a legitimate candidate for Clutch Shot of the Year; in some cases, the game itself has been dubbed as the year's best, due in large part to that play. In fact, that play may have sealed Vasquez's bid for ACC Player of the Year, since Scheyer was the one defending him. In her post-game column on Vasquez, ESPN’s Dana O’Neil described the shot as “sensationally insane,” a “how-in-the-world-did-that-go-in, off-balance, back-footed jumper from deep in the corner” that was, by all accounts, “vintage Vasquez.” In his SportsCenter highlight call, Stuart Scott used just three words (as only Stu can): “Greivis. Vasquez. Ri-DIC-ulous.”

After that, it was a matter of fouls and howls. The game was won there on that play. Of course, that didn’t stop me from worrying through the last 39 seconds, but once it was done, I was so pumped that I couldn’t go to bed for a whole 3 hours. We had beaten Duke, and we had done so in much the same way I had suggested prior to the game.

FINAL: Maryland 79, Duke 72
Nice work, fellas. Let's see if we can't do it again in the ACC tourney. Woo!