SportsProf

(Hopefully) good sports essays and observations for good sports by a guy who tries (and can sometimes fail) to be a good sport.

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Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Remember the Name

I have a hunch, and I don't go on hunches. I suppose that somehow, some way, going with your gut is different from going on a hunch, but I just cannot explain it. I don't know enough about this particular player to say I have a gut feeling that he's going to be a very good one, but I have some inkling that he'll play for some serious money once he's done playing his college basketball.

(In contrast, when I saw a young low-round draft pick pitch for the Red Sox AA affiliate several years ago, my gut feeling told me that this kid, who pitched complete games, didn't walk many batters and gave up very few earned runs, would be a very good pitcher in the majors. It took a little while, and he had to recover from an injury, but now Carl Pavano is the toast of the free agent class and the subject of a bidding war among teams that will make serious runs for the World Series in the next several years).

So who is this kid? First, he's not a baseball player. He's a college basketball player. Second, while his team is undefeated, I don't think anyone is expecting a whole lot out of them this year. Perhaps an NIT berth, but I don't think that a trip to the Big Dance is in the cards. Still, his story is an interesting one, and he's been to the Big Dance before.

Which is where I first saw him, a gangly kid out of a Philadelphia suburb who no one in Philadelphia really knew about because he hardly spent any time in HS in the Philadelphia area. He went to two different Philadelphia area high schools and four in four years, as his college bio points out. So, it wasn't like he was heralded the way a Mustafa Shakur was, or a Hakim Warrick, a John Salmons, a Matt (or Pat) Carroll. No, he was just some kid who would take a more circular route to the big time, or, at least, a bigger time.

I saw him three years ago, in the play-in game to the NCAA Tournament, where he led his school, Northwestern State, to a victory over Winthrop, with 10 points, 11 rebounds and 9 (yes 9!) blocked shots. When they said he was from Philadelphia, I was thinking how did St. Joe's, Temple or LaSalle miss this kid? Or Villanova, even?

They missed him because either they didn't know he was there, he flew under the radar screen, or he hadn't accomplished enough to make the coaches at those fabled programs notice him. So, Phil Martelli, John Chaney, Billy Hahn and Steve Lappas can be given a pass. Mostly everyone else missed this kid, too. Four high schools in four years? If he weren't 6'11", he might have been playing NAIA Division II ball in Northern Alaska.

But somehow he made it to Division I, to Northwestern State in Natchitoches, Louisiana. Say Natchitoches ten times in a row quickly if you can, and you'll get bonus points if you can tell me what conference Northwestern State plays in.

After he excelled at Northwestern State, D'Or Fischer transferred to West Virginia, where he is now a senior. The Mountaineers are 3-0, and Fischer is averaging 10 points, 6 boards and almost 3 blocks per game. He blocked 124 shots last season, good for second in the Big East (behind a kid named Okafor) and third in the country.

Now, his overall numbers aren't Emeka Okafor's numbers (whose are?) and he won't make anyone forget Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning or Shaquille O'Neal. Fair enough. But the college game isn't just for the blue chips, the kids who get their pictures in the back of the Blue Ribbon Guide while in HS or get featured in The Sporting News' feature magazine that is devoted exclusively to HS players. No, it's also about the kids who blossom late, who work their butts off at the low Division I schools, the junior colleges in the middle of nowhere (such as the one that Arthur Agee went to in Hoop Dreams), who then emerge onto the scene with their play exclaiming, "Hey, take a look at me, I can play this game with anyone."

Because those kids are worth watching too. And on that one night in March of 2001, there was the gangly kid from Philadelphia (and a few other places) who blocked 9 shots with a large group of NCAA hoop fans watching. That night was D'Or Fischer's coming out party, and he's made the most of his opportunities ever since.

Al McGuire would have called him an "Aircraft Carrier."

The kids in Philadelphia's famed Sonny Hill League would call him a ball player.

So remember the name, D'Or Fischer.

And try to catch a West Virginia game this year.

College Football Coaching Merry-Go-Round

In September, I posted about who might succeed Joe Paterno at Penn State. While JoePa seems ensconced (for now) in State College, the post is somewhat relevant because there are several hot college football head coaching jobs open, and some of the candidates I identified might be among the short lists to fill them.

1. In case you didn't hear, the Notre Dame job just opened up. I mean, literally, like within the past hour. Tyrone Willingham is out, and the rumor is that Urban Meyer, who is no longer interested in the Florida job, is the prime candidate to be the next man to fill one of the three toughest jobs in America (the other two: President of the United States and Mayor of New York City). Remember that name, Urban Meyer, as he has done an outstanding job with Utah this year.

2. You probably heard that Stanford has axed Buddy Teevens, the one-time Dartmouth football star and coach who spent three losing seasons at The Farm (he replaced Willingham). The Cardinal also suffered its worst loss in its Big Game against Cal in 74 years a few weeks ago, when the #4 Golden Bears opened up a bottle of whup-ass and beat Stanford 41-6. Could it be that Willingham goes back home to The Farm? Clearly, his coaching days are not over.

3. Well, if it's true that Notre Dame considered Meyer when it hired Willingham after the George O'Leary creative writing (resume category) fiasco took place, it also could be true that it didn't think it was going anywhere with Willingham and wanted to act on Meyer before a top BCS program landed him. Which is fine, because Florida certainly would have filled that bill. But now that Steve Spurrier is in South Carolina and Meyer seems to be on Notre Dame's one-person short list, the most recently unemployed NFL coach, Butch Davis, who re-built Miami in the 90's after the Dennis Erickson years, seems to be the top candidate in Gainesville.

Stanford, Florida, Notre Dame.

Illinois, San Jose State, New Mexico State.

Who's next?

One Reason Why Yale is Better Than Harvard

Click here to find out.

Thanks to Dave Sez for venturing out of Tobacco Road and into the hallowed halls of ivy for this special report.

Sunday, November 28, 2004

There's the Heisman and Then There's

The Good Man.

Everyone knows who the Heisman favorites are, and those players are all good players in their own right. I haven't watched enough college football to have a favorite, know that sometimes regional writers vote for their players because familiarity can bring some favoritism, and that unless there's a real consensus pick, anything can happen. I also don't think that this trophy has the luster that it once had. Maybe it's because there are so many games, so many awards and so many bowls, that I'm oversaturated with both good reporting and inaccurate hype about college football. Whatever the analysis, the player who wins the Heisman is an outstanding college football player.

I frequently look for a different story, one about a kid who has hung in there, who has beaten back adversity, and who rises to the occasion when the opportunity presents itself. And that's a rare story. Because there are enough kids of character who get hurt early in their career who stay at it, make good contributions, and are the types of people that all programs just love to have. All of those kids deserve publicity, and many get them at the local level.

But there's one kid this past season who deserves a good bit of recognition. To be fair, in the weekly reports about his team's play, this player gets his share of attention because he plays a skill position and because he plays it very well.

Alvin Pearman, Jr. is a senior RB at Virginia who went into the season as a back-up behind Wali Lundy, only to replace Lundy as the feature back after a few games. He had suffered a serious knee injury a few years ago, but he stayed at it, rehabbed, and, well, he's rushed for over 1000 yards this season and has 26 catches to boot. Do a Google search, and you'll see blurbs about how Alvin Pearman led the way with 100 plus yards and a few touchdowns.

You can't do much better than that. Especially if you didn't start the season as number one on the depth chart. Pearman's is a very nice story, and he gets my award as one of the good men in college football.

I don't know whether Mel Kiper, Jr. has him on any draft boards, but one would think that his fortitude and his numbers, taken together, will get him a long look in an NFL camp in the summer of 2005.

Dave Sez is one of blogdom's resident ACC experts, so I'd welcome his take on UVA's now-star running back. But from this vantage point, Pearman is one of the many players that Cavalier fans have had to crow about all season long.

But in my book, he gets a Good Man.

Once Burned, Twice Shy, Three Times. . . What?

What's the first word that comes to your mind when you say "Jeff George"?

Your first thought?

As a football fan, do you come up with anything complimentary other than "great talent, big disappointment," or something like that?

Well, not only has George at best mystified and at worst infuriated those for whom he has played, he also hasn't played in three years. And, given that the average NFL career is something along the lines of three and a half years, that's almost a lifetime.

Which means that either the Chicago Bears know something that we don't, or they're desperated, plain and simple, conceding that their Craig Krenzel experiment hasn't worked, that Krenzel should consider going to medical school sooner than later, and that they honestly think that George is a different player from the one who got into shouting matches with his coaches on the sidelines. Whatever the case, the next starting QB for the Chicago Bears will be, yes, Jeff George.

The Bears had a good buzz going about them earlier on in the season, a good defense, and an exciting new coach in Lovie Smith. No one expected them to do much this year, and the fact that they've made a good showing bodes well for the future. They have a good base on which to build.

Which is puzzling why they've signed George, since he won't be their starter, at least for now; Chad Hutchinson, the Dallas castoff, will be. George has always thought of himself as the primary guy, but perhaps he's also desperate, looking for any NFL deal he can get.

Desperate Bears, desperate George, it doesn't sound like a good match to me. Especially if George starts to spout off about the ills of the Chicago offense and why he should be the starter -- not only for the remainder of this year, but next year as well.

Because if that happens, then there will be a serious crack in the foundation that the Chicago Bears started to create last year when they hired Lovie Smith.

Signing Jeff George is not a move that a team building for the future makes. Signing any QB that has had a 3-year layoff is not a move that a team building for the future makes. What could he have been doing during that time off that makes him ready even to carry the clipboard on the sidelines?

Good luck to both the Chicago Bears and Jeff George, because they'll need it.

Saturday, November 27, 2004

Remember the Tigers!

Princeton 3, Washington 1.

That's the University of Washington in Seattle, for those who might have had any inkling that the Tigers were playing Division III Washington University in St. Louis.

That's NCAA women's soccer, and that was the Elite 8 last night in the chilly weather at Princeton's Lourie-Love field, where the Tiger squad beat the visitors from the Pac-10 to make it to the NCAA's Final Four.

That is not a misprint.

The Final Four.

No athletic scholarships, no easy rides, no BCS-type of conference, no big recruiting budgets, no fancy places to play.

Nothing like that.

It's the Ivy League, remember?

But somehow, some way, the Tiger women earned their right to play today's UCLA-Ohio State winner in the Final Four next week in North Carolina.

It's the first time that an Ivy women's soccer team has made the NCAA Final Four.

And it's big news.

Because in a world where the North Carolinas of the world dominate, it does make you wonder how a school like Princeton, with more varsity-level sports than the next two or even three BCS-type schools combined (if you check out their websites, you'll see how few varsity programs some Division I-A football schools have), with only 4,500 or so undergraduates, got this done.

It's an amazing accomplishment, one to be savored on the beautiful central NJ campus for many years to come. A big win for the little guys, er, little women, as it were.

But why stop there?

U Dub, as they call it, will certainly remember these Tigers.

And perhaps the schools who meet the Princeton women in the Final Four will as well.

Carolina, here they come!


Thursday, November 25, 2004

Talking Turkey About Quarterbacks

I was talking with my father-in-law today about quarterbacks, as he spent more time watching the Colts dismantle the Lions than I did, which is very big of him given that he's from Baltimore and has really never forgiven the Irsays for moving the team out of town to that gridiron hotbed of Indianapolis in the middle of the night many years ago. I chalk up his watching to the fact that on Thanksgiving you watch the teams that the networks give you. Nothing more, nothing less. (The average Baltimorean still bristles at the loss of the beloved Colts in the mid-1980s).

That said, he asked a question which I'll answer at the end of this post, which is which QB has the highest single-season rating for a QB?

This question caused me to go to the Pro Football Hall of Fame's website to check out all-time QB ratings, and what you will find there is so surprising if you're not an intense fan that you'll question the overall wisdom of the rating system. Well, at least I will.

Here are the top 10, at least going into this season, with 1500 attempts required to make the list:

1. Kurt Warner 97.2
2. Steve Young, 96.8
3. Joe Montana, 92.3
4. Jeff Garcia, 88.3
5. Peyton Manning, 88.1
6. Daunte Culpepper, 88.0
7. Brett Favre, 86.9
8. Otto Graham, 86.6
9. Dan Marino, 86.4
10. Trent Green, 86.1.

Is there something wrong with this picture?

Of course.

It's probably the case that Kurt Warner is no longer #1 after this season's performance, and there wouldn't be a lot of grid justice if Warner were to have retired after last season with "rated" as the #1 QB ever. Well, maybe I'm overstating the case, because no professional or amateur pro football pundit would dare have Warner anywhere close to his top 10. Ditto for Jeff Garcia and Trent Green. Ironically, Otto Graham, who won more championships than probably the next 2 or 3 guys put together, rates only as #8.

But it gets worse.

Johnny Unitas, who some rate as the best ever, comes in at #48. It's hard to name 5 QBs you would rather have had ahead of Unitas, let alone 47. And among those 47 are Mark Brunell (#12), Aaron Brooks (#22), Neil O'Donnell (#25), Ken O'Brien (#34), Jeff George (#35), Steve Beurlein (#37), Tony Eason (#41), Elvis Grbac (#42), Mark Rypien (#44) and Jim Everett (#45).

Aaron Brooks? He could lose his starting job after this season. Ken O'Brien and Tony Eason? Yes, they were part of that great QB class of 1983 that had 6 QBs drafted in the first round. The others were John Elway (and we'll get to him in the next paragraph), Todd Blackledge (who, taken at #7, eclipses O'Brien and Eason as the worst QB taken in the first round that year), Jim Kelly and Marino, who, ironically, was the last QB taken that year after an interception-laden senior season at Pitt. O'Brien had a few good years with the Jets, and Eason never really got it going in New England. Grbac ahead of Unitas? You have to be kidding.

That's bad enough, but John Elway comes in at #39, right behind Dan Fouts, who is rated #38. Quite frankly, it's hard to think of 10 QBs you'd rather have than Elway, and 15 you'd rather have than Fouts, who I still contend was the best pure passer I had seen until Peyton Manning, and that includes Dan Marino.

Now, Joe Namath comes in at #123, and I think that there's some merit to a low ranking for Namath. Charismatic as he was and is, Namath had more career interceptions than TDs, and he get all-time QB points for having helped put the old American Football League on the map, which is unfair to the other QBs. Namath was certainly an American original, but I could name 40 QBs I would rather have had than him. And I like Joe Namath.

Other interesting names among the Top 100 are Jeff Blake (#50, which is just hard to figure), Jay Fiedler (#51), Bill Kenney (#57), Erik Kramer (#59), Gary Danielson (#60), Jon Kitna (#64), Wade Wilson (#65), Scott Mitchell (#69, just behind Ken Stabler), Steve Bono (#70), Tim Couch (#71, right ahead of Sid Luckman and Norm Van Brocklin), Rodney Peete (#82, right behind Earl Morrall), Tony Banks (#89), Bubby Brister (#90), Jay Schroeder (#95) and Trent Dilfer (#99).

Sorry, whoever created this stat, but it fails simply because Bubby Brister is in the Top 100. And if that's not enough evidence, then Rodney Peete at #82 is Exhibit B. And Steve Bono, a perennial (good) backup at #70 is Exhibit C. You get the idea.

Read the whole thing, and you can comment as to what you think. But the bottom line is that an all-time Top 10 has to include Joe Montana, Steve Young, John Elway, Johnny Unitas, Dan Marino, Dan Fouts, Otto Graham, Brett Favre and Roger Staubach. And my guess is that Messrs. (Peyton) Manning, Culpepper, McNabb and others might enter into the conversation before they're done. Somehow, the figures just don't tell the whole story here.

And the best single-season passing rating -- Steve Young, a gaudy 112.8 in 1994. Click here to read the best single-season QB ratings.

You can click on Sports Blah for some good hot-stove baseball talk, but this stuff is great fodder for hot-stove football talk.

And remember, unlike baseball, where the numbers tell a lot of the story, in football, the numbers don't tell you nearly as much.

At least the ones that they show us in the MSM and beyond.

Where's the Beef?

Okay, so this isn't the most appropriate question to ask on Thanksgiving Day, but Page 2 of ESPN.com recently published a list of the heaviest and lightest position players in the NFL. Remember the days when guards weighed about 250? Well, they don't even weigh that in the Ivy League any more.

Some of these fellows are ready for the Sumo circuit, while others look more suited to contact sports such as basketball instead of collision sports like football. Take a look at the list, and then see what you think.

For example, the 49ers have the lightest tackle in the game, a 279-pound LT named Kyle Kosier who might be light enough to have stayed with the real LT, but, then again, his team is 1-9 and I haven't heard Kosier's name mentioned with those of Walter Jones, Jonathan Ogden, Willie Roaf and Orlando Pace lately, have you? So, perhaps, he's just a symbol of an out-sized, overmatched team.

Bottom line is that some of these men need to eat many helpings at their Thankgsiving Day feast to gain some much needed mass, while some of these guys need to eat only the protein and lay off the stuffing and the pies that will be served up for dessert. After all, opposing players qualify as protein, don't they? Especially opposing quarterbacks.

But, then again, the Broncos' two guards are the lightest in the league at their positions, and, last time I checked, the Broncos move the ball as well as anyone in the NFL. Which means, of course, that to a certain extent, it's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog (and how many times have you heard that one?). (There are those, of course, who have questioned the methods of the offensive linemen of the Broncos for years, but we'll leave that discussion for a different day).

There are some good light guys, such as pinball-type RBs Warrick Dunn and Brian Westbrook, but at some point in the season those guys would qualify for finalists in the Mr. Human Bruise contest. That said, I, for one, do believe that in the NFL size matters. The 5'9, 165 running back that was the best you ever saw in HS gets supplanted in college by the 6', 200 running back who can run just as fast as and well as the guy you saw in HS, except he can knock over some opponents, and, then, with certain exceptions, that guy gets supplanted in the NFL by the 6'2", 225 RB who can just maim people and who hits the holes just as fast. That's the way it is. Bigger, stronger, faster, harder hitting.

Why? Because, like anything else, where there's serious competition for jobs, the meritocracy is fierce. That said, there is plenty of room in the league for the Teddy Bruschis, the Dan Kleckos, the Dunns and the Westbrooks, because the last time I checked, the games aren't won in the weigh room or the weight room.

They play the game on some kind of turf, not scales.

Food for thought? Most definitely.

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Things To Be Thankful For

If you're NBA Commissioner David Stern, you're thankful that the Friday Night Fight in Detroit was not worse. And it could have been a lot worse.

And, of course, you're thankful for the rapid emergence of LeBron James. Kobe Bryant as Heir Jordan? Maybe, but #23 in Cleveland is everything that the NBA had hoped he would be. And more.

If you're a fan of Iowa Hawkeyes football, thank the Iowa administration for having the smarts to ink head football coach Kirk Ferentz to a contract extension through 2012. Things are looking mighty bright for Iowa football. Click on the link and read what TigerHawk, a non- sports-blogging website that waxes eloquent on sports when Iowans are involved.

If you're a fan of Iowa Hawkeyes basketball, thank Coach Steve Alford for (finally) molding a very promising squad together. The Hawkeyes beat Louisville and Texas on back-to-back days, and both were ranked in the Top 20 or so. TigerHawk is so involved either with the political landscape or expressing his glee about Kirk Ferentz that he (or his brother, Charlottesvillain) have yet to wave the black-and-gold flag about the Hawkeyes hoops team. So click here for the official site of the Iowa Hawkeyes to get with the program (literally).

If you're Penn hoops coach Fran Dunphy, you're thankful that your team rebounded from two awful pastings at the hands of Providence and Wisconsin when they delivered a mauling of their own against cross-town rival Drexel last night. The same way Ben Franklin once said that there's no such thing as a good war or a bad peace, there's probably, to coaches anyway, no such thing as a bad win or a good loss. And while Dunphy did say he saw some progress in the 33-point loss to the Badgers (it's really hard to imagine what), what he saw last night was encouraging -- a team that shot 11-14 from behind the arc and that clearly established soph forward Mark Zoller as a secondary option to senior swingman Tim Begley.

If you're a Princeton Tigers hoop fan, you're thankful that a Tiger frosh scored in double figures in one of the first three games in recent memory. Frosh F Noah Savage (who is from the Princeton area and went to the Hun School, which is only notable because a Savage went to Hun, which raises the question whether the Tigers are going to recruit players named Dervish, Vandal and Visigoth at any time in the near future) had 12 points in a 2 OT loss at Wyoming on Monday night. The loss was disappointing, but that Savage has made a key contribution so early is most encouraging (as is the notion that Penn has yet to develop a PG to really run its team, as jr PG Eric Osmundsen didn't show much in last night's lopsided victory over Drexel -- when the Quakers don't have a PG who can really run the show, they don't win the Ivy title).

If you're Temple hoops coach John Chaney, you're thankful for a big, physical team with a strong PG in Mardy Collins and an 18-point season-opening win over Georgetown last night. That's good news for the Owls, who have not received a ton of publicity this year but who might just return to the NCAA hoops tournament.

If you're a Phoenix Suns fan, you're grateful that ownership signed PG Steve Nash as a free agent and doubly grateful that he has blended so well with Shawn Marion and Amare Stoudemire. Yes, San Antonio and Minnesota are formidable, as is versatile Seattle and aging Sacramento, but Phoenix may be the most exciting team in the West.

If you're a Boston Red Sox fan, well, if you don't know what you're thankful for or if you're not thankful, then you need a serious clue. But you're thankful for the killer instinct that John Henry and Larry Lucchino brought to the team's front office, thankful for the Curt Schilling trade, and thankful for the grit that your team showed during the last half of the season and in the playoffs.

If you're a college football fan, you're thankful for a very intriguing season thus far, the BCS notwithstanding. You're grateful for the emergence of Utah and Boise State into the BCS picture, some wild games that Oklahoma played, upsets all over the place, from Michigan State's trouncing of Wisconsin to some exciting Oklahoma games to the very close and entertaining early-season contest between USC and Cal, to Navy's getting a bowl bid, to seeing Lou Holtz retire after a distinguished career (although his team certainly gave him something to remember with its literal slugfest against archrival Clemson in what now turned out to be the season finale because neither team will accept a bowl bid as self-flagellating punishment for the brawl that took place in their game), North Carolina's upset over Miami, Penn State's winning its last two regular-season games (and preserving some dignity for Coach Joe Paterno) and many, many other wonderful moments. Most likely, there are many more to come. And, of course, you're hopeful that the national championship, as much as possible, can be decided on the field and not on some Cray supercomputer.

If you're an ACC hoops fan, you are thankful that no one can argue, at least right now, that any conference is better than yours in basketball. And it's not even close. Depending on how the seedings go, you could have four ACC teams in the Elite 8 come the NCAA tournament, as that's how strong the ACC is this year. If you have any doubts about that statement, how about this one: Duke is not among the top 3 teams in the league this year.

If you're a baseball fan, you're thankful that money cannot buy championships. Put differently, you're thankful that the team that spends the most money cannot buy championships simply by spending the most money (although you're concerned that if your team isn't in the top 10 in spending, it might not have a chance to win the World Series). And, if you do not like the Yankees, you're thankful that they have a weak farm system with few prospects to trade, meaning that George Steinbrenner will create more of a pressure cooker and higher expectations after he signs very expensive free agents and then realizes that while he might have an "A" list lineup, he has a "B" list pitching staff. Offense sells tickets; defense and pitching win championships. Even in Joe DiMaggios' heyday, Lefty Gomez and Red Ruffing, who had rather high ERAs relative to their era, were able to get people out. Repeatedly.

If you're an NHL fan, be thankful that all that's gone so far is this season. And not you're home team or the league, period.

I, for one, am thankful for a variety of aspects of the sporting world, among them (in no particular order, and I'm sure I have forgotten a few):

1. The majesty of the World Series, the beautiful shots of Fenway Park, in particular, the long, parabolic fly balls that you watched rise into the nighttime sky, wondering whether they were far enough and fair enough to turn the tide in a very compelling drama, where you looked at every pitch as something that could change the direction of world history, the bloody sock of Curt Schilling, and the never-say-die bats of guys named Ramirez, Ortiz, Bellhorn, Damon, Nixon, Varitek and many others. I haven't found a more compelling drama in sports in a while (and, sorry, ESPN, but so far your made-for-TV stuff has been lacking.).

2. The back-and-forth with readers and fellow bloggers, especially those to whom I have linked and who link back from time to time. And to those who have linked to me and to whom I haven't linked back yet, please have patience with me, as I'm more toward the technical Luddite end of the continuum and have to get to my template to update it.

3. Hot-stove discussions, drafts, the personnel aspects of rosters, coaching changes, and that sort of thing. For example, how have the Philadelphia Eagles managed to stay stop the NFC East, even with three great coaches coaching their division rivals? Have Jeffrey Lurie and Joe Banner simply adopted a football version of "dollar-cost-averaging" or some form of portfolio management in keeping their roster evergreen with talent? It seems that way. How do people become college basketball coaches? Or why? Have you looked at Blue Ribbon and the alma maters of a plurality of assistant coaches? They certainly aren't household names, and they certainly didn't play big-time college basketball. For example, N.C. State Coach Herb Sendek didn't hoop at an ACC school. Far from it. He played his college hoops at the very academically inclined Carnegie Mellon, which is probably where you'd expect a guy named Herb to play his college hoops. And the assistants went to Division II or III schools, and they're all looking to get ahead. For those who make it to the top, well, there's no doubt that they've paid their dues.

4. The burgeoning rivalry between ESPN the Magazine and Sports Illustrated for the hot stories, which, I believe, will make SI younger and more hip and ESPN the Magazine less the sports magazine world's "Pimp Your Ride" edition that it probably had been prone to be. This competition will bring out the best in both, although I wish that ESPN would literally waste less paper and write in a print that the average middel-aged person with progressive glasses can read. I liked the SI article on the Vermont men's hoops program better (in this week's edition), but ESPN scooped SI, as its article came out first. This should be an interesting rivalry down the road.

5. I like watching my kids play sports and games and watch the pure joy of the effort. Yes, I live in one of these areas where kids can play travel sports as early as the age of 7 1/2, and while I think that's one of the craziest ideas I have ever heard (they shouldn't play "travel" until they're 11 in my opinion), the sports are very much fun. When we all remember that sports are supposed to be fun, we're all better off. They should remember that in Detroit, in Indianapolis, in South Carolina, and, for that matter, everywhere else.

I could go on and on, as it's a wonderful time of the year. It's time tomorrow to go outside while the food is cooking and toss around a football, even if it's a little chilly, rainy or muddy where you are. It's time to watch the Thanksgiving Day games, even if Dallas is bad and Detroit can't quite climb the mountain yet. And it's time to catch up with family with no distractions, eat a bunch of good food.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

And the "B" in BCS Stands For?

Fill in the blank, if you're the Cal Bears and if Texas loses to Texas A&M this weekend.

And the word is probably not one used in polite company, although it pops up with greater frequency in enclosed arenas where the home fans are protesting a referee's call.

Read the whole thing, and then tell me why there shouldn't be a Division I-A playoff system. While it's a neat thing that a non-BCS school can crash the party, it would be a travesty to keep the Cal Bears out of the Rose Bowl at the expense of both Utah and Boise State.

And all because Cal came up just short to the #1 team in the country, USC. (And, to make matters worse, should USC lose to either UCLA or Notre Dame, I believe they still would go to BCS bowl over Cal by virtue of the fact that they'd be the Pac-10 champs, having beaten Cal earlier this year -- even if Cal were to surpass them in the polls!).

Last year, there was much controversy over who should have played for the national title, and, as a result, the final polls were split between the obligated (the coaches' poll, as the BCS coaches were contractually obligated to vote for the winner of the BCS title game) and the free agents (the writers). That controversy, at least, was an expected one -- that there could have been three undefeated teams.

This one, I believe, was unanticipated, which just goes to show you that the mathematical possibilities in this situation are such that even bright guys can create a system that still cannot avoid major problems. Which, therefore, compels a conclusion that the most just way to decide who wins the Division I-A football crown is through a playoff.

Because I'd rather see the top 16, 12 or 8 teams make it (and argue about which of #17, #13 or #9 got left out unfairly), then situations where an undefeated team gets left out of the title game because of pre-season determinations of voters (that is, because USC was a pre-season #1, therefore they're the #1 team, even if the #2 and #3 teams play tougher schedules) or where the #4 or higher team doesn't even get into a BCS bowl game.

Forget the arguments about missed class time. Somehow, Division I-AA, Division II and Division III have solved all of those problems. Ditto with the arguments about the bowl games -- there's enough money to go around to make everyone happy.

So, I'll repeat what I have argued before on this blog: let the players decide who the best team is on the field.

Because that's the only championship worth having.

Monday, November 22, 2004

Check out the Indiana Pacers' Roster

and tell me if you think that the remaining players can win 10 of the games that Jermaine O'Neal misses.

Because I cannot.

It is time for two players with a ton of promise to step up and take charge, PG Jamaal Tinsley and F Jonathan Bender, who skipped college and entered the league 5 years ago with great but as yet unfulfilled expectations. Scott Pollard will get a charitable reference as a role player, Reggie Miller is 39 years old, and Austin Croshere is an eighth man. Freddie Jones is a short 2G at 6'2", and David Harrison is a raw 7' center out of Colorado.

As Gertrude Stein once said upon visiting Oakland, California, "There is no there there." I still don't totally know what she actually meant, but putting it in a language Casey Stengel would understand, the roster has a bunch of ribbon clerks. (Stengel had said that there are two categories, ballplayers and ribbon clerks). Some of those ribbon clerks might turn into ballplayers, and they'll most certainly get the chance to prove themselves. The able coaching of a strict Rick Carlisle might help this squad steal a few wins, but I'd bet on a less well-coached team with more talent than the remnants of the Pacers in most situations.

So, can they win 10 of the 25 games?

It just doesn't seem likely. Take the first three scoring options off any team, and you can't expect them to contend with even the cellar dwellars.

Tinsley and Bender have a great opportunity to shine here, and how well they play will speak volumes about the future of the Indiana Pacers this season and the future for their careers.

Pressure? To a degree, yes, but, then again, the expectations on this group aren't very high. If somehow they can keep the team afloat until O'Neal and Jackson return, well, their play will be one of the big peacetime stories this season.

News from the NHL Website

It's nostalgia time at the NHL website.

No current news, so talk about playoff series that took place 15 years ago. No front page news about the labor issues, although there is a link to "CBA News", which, at first, made me wonder why the NHL cared so much about the Continental Basketball Association, but then I realized that in the world of labor law, "CBA" stands for collective bargaining agreement. How touching that the sports world has reduced itself to the point where everyday legal acronyms are becoming commonplace.

Meanwhile, there is no ice hockey, and word out of Detroit is that part of the reason for the fan unrest is that the beloved Red Wings aren't playing. Why is that significant when thrown into the post-mortem analysis of the Friday Night Fight? Because, the argument goes, the fans say and do almost anything at Red Wings games, where they throw an occasional octopus (thanks to TIGOBLUE for straightening me out that it's an octopus and not a squid) onto the ice. So, if the Red Wings were playing, presumably these fans would be taking out their frustrations on the hockey players (who are separated from the fans by wood and plexiglas) and not basketball players (who are not so separated but may be some day).

Remember, the NHL is a sport that tolerates highlight videos of on-ice fisticuffs, and some teams run replays of the best fights on their scoreboards for fans to enjoy during down times at home games.

The NBA, in contrast, runs features on spectacular dunks and passes that set up spectacular dunks. Fighting somehow doesn't make it into that league's highlight films.

So check out the NHL website, where endless film clips from some of the great heavyweight brawls of all time (such as Dave Schultz versus just about anyone, including Serge Savard and John Van Boxmeer) would be preferable to endless banter about proposals, counterproposals and the economics of a league whose next chapter in its long history just well might be Chapter 11.


Sunday, November 21, 2004

The NBA Suspensions

The NBA acted swiftly and strongly today, suspending Ron Artest for the season, Stephen Jackson for 30 games, Jermaine O'Neal for 25, and Ben Wallace for six. You don't have to be a brain surgeon to realize that the league wanted to send a strong message to the players that they have to remain calm at all times, even when provoked, and let the stadium personnel and local authorities take charge.

And send a strong message they did. That Artest got suspended without pay for the remainder of the season isn't a total shock, as the guy has had a history of flagrant fouls and anger problems. (Ironically, Friday night's foul against Wallace wasn't that bad, all things considered, although it was a bit silly given that the Pacers had a key road game in the bag). Artest's actions were uncalled for, period. I, for one, am not sure that I can give him credit for attempting to cool off after the initial fracas, given that his chosen method of doing so wasn't to head into the locker room or to a neutral corner, such as the end of his own bench, but to lie down on the scorer's table. Whether or not Artest was rubbing it in the home team's face, he certainly didn't deserve to have a drink sent through the air like a missile, landing on his chest. No player deserves that, ever.

But then he lost control. Totally. He charged into the stands, looking for the fan who committed the sin. Stephen Jackson followed, and the two players skirmished with fans. They returned to the court, Artest hit a fan who was wearing a Pistons jersey, and, as the fan was getting up off the floor, O'Neal ran over and cold-cocked the fan, sending him backwards into another fan. If that hadn't happened, and that fan had hit the floor, you might be talking coma, because O'Neal hit that fan hard, with the full force of his sprint to the spot where he launched the punch behind the blow. Fortunately, no one got seriously hurt.

Except the Pacers' chances, not only for a championship, but perhaps for the playoffs. With Artest gone for the year, they lose 17 ppg at the 2G (at least) plus one of the premier shutdown defenders in the NBA. Losing Jackson, they lose another double-digit scorer. Finally, in losing O'Neal, they lose their best player, and one of the top 10 or so players in the league. The next 25-30 games will not be pretty.

I haven't read enough to break down why each player got the suspensions he did, but presumably Artest's was not only because he was the primary instigator in an ugly spectacle, but also because either he's a repeat offender or because the NBA office wanted to give him a lifetime achievement award (which is six of one and half dozen of the other), and not the type that he was looking to get. Jackson got the ultimate equivalent of the third-man-in-on-the-fight rule, basically because he exacerbated a bad situation. Had he chased after Artest to pull him off of people, he would be getting plaudits from the NBA and the Pacers' front office. Instead, he'll miss a third of the season.

Message to the first-man in -- go complain to your coach, go to the end of the bench, give the 12th man some exercise by letting him hold you back, but, whatever you do, head away from the controversy. Message to the wingman -- don't help your teammate go in for the punch, but restrain him, get him to a place where he can cool off. But if you join in the fisticuffs, you'll get a big penalty.

The sad part of it for Jackson is that he had a difficult time in his hoops career, not going to college, bouncing around, finally making good with the Spurs a few years ago, then blowing his free agent status by holding out for too much money and signing for less in Atlanta, only to surface in a key role for a very good team in Indiana, now, once again, suffering a setback and sitting out a good part of the season. Up, down, up and then down again. It's a shame.

And then there's Jermaine O'Neal. One of the NBA's poster guys, really, a really good guy who is a contributor to the community, one of the kids who came to the league straight out of HS and did very well, and he just lost his cool. There's no other way to explain it. His actions look the worst on the film, and luckily the fan didn't end up in the ER. On the one hand, I'm sure the NBA didn't want to lose one of its biggest stars for more than a few games. On the other hand, O'Neal is lucky that he's not sitting out the entire year. Given the lingering spectre of Kermit Washington's punch to the face of Rudy Tomjanovich, O'Neal should be thankful that the fan didn't get hurt and that he didn't get a bigger punishment.

That said, I'm sure the fan will end up filing a personal injury suit against O'Neal and the other deep pockets out there. Memo to the NBA players: under tort law, just because someone is trespassing doesn't enable you to pummel them, no matter how obnoxious they are. My guess is that the PI attorneys who have billboards on Detroit highways will find some of those fans quickly, as will the criminal defense guys who have the big ads in the yellow pages. Because some of the fans will get charged. And the NBA will make sure of that, as they will to beef up security in the one league where the fans are extremely close the players without the benefit of plexiglas. Because Friday night could have gotten much uglier, and many innocent people could have gotten hurt.

Lost in all of this is that those who don't know him well enough would have thought that Rasheed Wallace would have been in the middle of the fracas. To a degree, he was -- but solely as a peacemaker. Wallace, a wonderful teammate to anyone who has ever played with him, directed his anger at the referees earlier in his career, but never toward opponents. He, and the rest of the players who tried to calm things down, did the right thing on Friday night.

I suppose that the NBA's suspensions will be a significant deterrent for players to stay out of the stands from now into the future, and that's all well and good.

But that deterrent, absent strict measures for fans who sit close to the action, might have the opposite effect of what is intended. Absent better security, fans who sit closer to the benches might be emboldened, and might be more obnoxious, knowing full well that if a player even takes one step toward the stands, that player will be putting his career in jeopardy.

NBA Commissioner David Stern is nothing if not thorough. I am certain that before this matter concludes, teams will be strongly encouraged to exercise their discretion on unruly fans and kick them out of the building, perhaps for a long time. While that should be a solid preventive measure, it still wouldn't have prevented what happened on Friday night, which was combustion, plain and simple. But perhaps a half dozen or so security personnel -- trained security personnel -- behind each bench might also be in the works.

Which leads to an interesting question -- what happens when Detroit visits Indiana next -- on Christmas day?

SI reported a few years ago that the players viewed the Pacers' fans as the most abusive in the NBA. Now they're faced watching an undermanned team against an archrival that now has to be the odds-on favorite to win the East. How will they behave?

Because the sporting world will be watching. And like it or not, they'll have to be on their best behavior. Boo, boo loudly, be creative, turn your backs when the Pistons are introduced, take some cues from Duke fans, fine, but keep your hands -- and your refreshments -- to yourselves.

Finally, a memo to the commentators, the diehard fans, those who lament that the NBA hasn't been the same since Michael Jordan, let alone Isiah Thomas, Larry Bird and Magic Johnson: this too shall pass.

Right back to the NHL when that league reconvenes.

A Must for Ivy Hoops Fans

and for those whose teams play Ivy League teams.

Check out the new look www.ivybasketball.com. The format just changed within the past few days. This is very good news, as I was wondering when we'd see this site's Ivy preview, which is the best in the business. Look for the preview beginning November 22.


John Chaney Isn't a Scheduling Wimp

Thanks to Yoni Cohen of the College Basketball Blog for this post about one of the top coaches of all-time, Temple's John Chaney. Unlike some of his coaching counterparts, he's not one to schedule cupcakes to pad his team's record or falsely build his team's confidence. If anything, I believe that at certain points he's been such a touch scheduler that he has hurt his team's confidence, if only because every now and then it's okay to schedule a low-end Division I school to give your team a breather from playing a top-50 team on the road. But that's a bit of hyper-criticism, because Coach Chaney's legacy is complete, and he's already in the Hall of Fame.

Read not only Yoni's post but the link to Greg Doyel's column in The Sporting News as well.

And look out for the Temple Owls this season. They're huge inside, and if they can get better production out of the PG position from Mardy Collins and some halfway decent outside shooting (which they have not received by and large during the past several seasons, the scoring ability of David Hawkins notwithstanding).

Body-Slammed Again

No. 21 Wisconsin 77, Penn 44.

Ouch. The Badgers played a balanced game, outscoring the Quakers by 16 in the first half and 17 in the second half en route to a rout. The villains in pro wrestling usually are accorded better treatment than visitors to Big 10 arenas, but that was not the case last night.

Penn's guards combined to shoot 2-20 from the field, and the Quakers, who were outrebounded, shot only 5-20 from behind the arc. Penn's best player, Tim Begley, had 19 points, 8 rebounds and 5 assists. The Quakers are still looking for solid options behind Begley and 2G Ibby Jaaber, who perhaps had the absolute worst game of his young career last night. Check out the box score, and you'll see that Penn mentor Fran Dunphy is looking for the right combinations for the Quakers.

Next up for the Quakers is neighborhood rival Drexel on Thanksgiving eve at the Palestra, where the Quakers will get a much-needed dose of home cooking.

Again, it's hard to measure any Ivy against other Ivies from blowouts at the hands of Top 40 teams. The Drexel game should be a better indication of the Quakers' chemistry and ability.

Saturday, November 20, 2004

But The NHL Is On Strike, Isn't It?

You thought that only this thing could happen in professional hockey, such as the time when then Boston Bruin Mike Milbury went up into the stands during a game, asked an annoying fan how much he paid for his ticket, told the fan he wasn't getting his money's worth, and proceeded to beat the fan on his head with the fan's shoe. But, of course, there is no NHL, at least right now, and the only fighting that's going on in that league is the Cold War between the head of the player's union, Bob Goodenow, and the league's commissioner, Gary Bettman.

So what has filled the void for frustrated NHL fans? NASCAR? There's no fighting there. College football? Well, outside of a few tunnel-oriented or pre-game skirmishes, the last of which, I believe, took place more than three years ago, there hasn't been any of the WWE-type of hijinks that attracts a solid core of NHL fans to hockey games. The NFL? About as programmed as the PGA, Nicolette Sheridan's antics notwithstanding. Professional boxing? Does it still exist in a meaningful way? Ultimate Fighting Championships? Those really aren't for the more genteel (self-styled, anyway), hockey fans.

But leave it to the National Basketball Association, of all places, to fill the void, with an ugly spectacle last night in Detroit that Ron Artest was in the middle of. Yes, the same Ron Artest who only a week ago said he needed more rest because his off-season efforts in producing a rap album had left him without the requisite energy to hoop for Rick Carlisle. Well, apparently Artest has found that energy, as he had enough of it to foul Ben Wallace hard late in last night's game between the Pacers and the Pistons (which the Pacers won).

Then the hockey game broke out. Players fought, things simmered a bit, Artest lay down on the scorer's table to rest, apparently, a fan threw a full cup of something that hit Artest, players went into the stands, Artest decked a fan, and the NBA is sorting the whole mess out.

Remember the NHL's glory days, before they cracked down on fighting. Brian "Bugsy" Watson, Bob "Battleship" Kelly (of St. Louis, as opposed to Bob "The Hound" Kelly of Philadelphia), and, of course, Dave "The Hammer" Schultz? Old-time hockey. The glory days of the Broad Street Bullies.

Well, now you can have Ron "The Don" Artest and Stephen "Action" Jackson, because those two were in the middle of it. No doubt, like almost every NHL fighter of memory, defending their team's (and teammates') honor. Of course, the NBA will take strong measures to make sure this type of thing doesn't happen again, for the suffering NHL fan, last night's NBA fracas offered a glimmer of hope that there is some form of entertainment out there for them.

For a night, at least, Ron Artest, the NHL fans thank you for bringing back old-time hockey.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Read All About It: Joe Paterno's Succession Planning

Here.

And Here.

Basically, Paterno, if not Penn State, wants an in-house successor. Both probably want someone to continue the program at the same level of integrity that Joe Paterno has instilled at Penn State over the years.

The question is whether both Paterno and Penn State can have it both ways, a top-notch football program that contends for the national title every several years and a program that graduates roughly 85% of its players in meaningful majors. Is that goal achievable, or has it become something of a holy grail?

The one-time Princeton coach Pete Carril was once quoted as saying "there's a great correlation between high SAT scores and slow feet." In his interview with Malcolm Moran of USA Today, Coach Paterno was quoted as saying that he knew that his club did not have enough skill position players. Which begs the question: is there are great correlation between a very compliant, earnest football program and a lack of playmakers on both sides of the ball, the linemen who can control the field and the skill position players on both sides of the ball who make things happen?

Certainly, there's a contrast between Penn State's predicament and, say, Princeton's. Princeton's was tougher in the hoop sense if you think that they really wanted to contend for a national title, which, while they played to win all of the time, they really did not (i.e., if they did, they would not have been in the Ivy League, they would have given athletic scholarships, and they would have lowered their academic standards to ones that are less stringent than they currently are). Trying to get enough "players" if you're a Princeton (or a Penn) to win an NCAA hoops title is very hard. There just aren't enough players who can meet your standards, and, some of those opt for higher profile programs (see, for example, Emeka Okafor, whom the Ivies recruited and who had 1300 plus on his SAT's, but opted for UConn). So, you're happy to crack the Top 25 every now and then, win one NCAA playoff game every five years, and rest in your nice little niche of mid-major, giant killer plus. Which means that if you're big guys could really play, someone else might have grabbed them before you did. That doesn't mean, however, that the big-time programs don't miss out on a kid every now and then, or that a big-time kid doesn't want the Ivies for academics. It happens more often than you think. Even then, there are plenty of kids who are too short, too slow, not good enough shooters, but who play the game as hard as anyone else, because no one told them that they aren't going to be the next Michael Jordan, and, if they were told, they certainly didn't listen.

I suppose I'm making the comparison here because it is the Pete Carril quote to which I referred, but the analogy is not without merit. As for Penn State, are there enough players who will submit to the type of discipline that Penn State requires, are there enough players serious about their academics, and are there enough players who can flat-out play?

The answer, to me, is an obvious yes. While the mainstream sports media is quick to report on the ills of college athletics, there are good student athletes at the top schools. Craig Krenzel, now the Chicago Bears QB, got a lot of publicity for his A minus GPA in a rigorous pre-med major. Read through the bios of kids on Division 1-A rosters, and invariably you see mention of academic prowess. And, even if the kids aren't dean's list students (and there is no requirement that they have to be), there's a big difference between recruiting kids who don't belong in college versus those who are earnest in their studies and might graduate with a C average instead of a B plus. So, unless you know something I don't, and unless Division I-A is an exploitative scam that treats its players like objects, Penn State has a chance to rekindle its greatness.

Yes, they need better skill position players.

They also need a much better offensive strategy.

And it seems like they're having a good recruiting year.

Most importantly for the Nittany Lion faithful, their beloved Penn State at least is thinking hard about succession planning for the toughest position to fill in State College, Pennsylvania.

As for the succession planning, it's always better to promote from within at a healthy institution if you do the succession planning right.

Thursday, November 18, 2004

Ugly Game for Pennsylvania Tonight

Providence 89, Penn 52. Click on the link for an early box score.

What does this game mean? Probably not a whole lot, except to remind us that there's a significant difference between a very good Big East team and one of the best teams in the Ivies. Clearly, shooting 4-20 from behind the arc and 6-13 from the foul line didn't help the Quakers. And, it also seems clear that Coach Fran Dunphy is doing what he normally does early in the season -- trying to find the right combinations.

In contrast, Princeton lost in the second round of the Coaches versus Cancer Tournament to Syracuse, and, like Penn, they played the Big East team in the Big East team's own gym. That said, if you're looking for meaning in comparative scores, Syracuse is a top 5, top 6 team, and Providence, even with all-American candidate Ryan Gomes, is unranked (of course, the Orangemen have player-of-the-year candidate Hakim Warrick and sharpshooting guard Gerry McNamara).

Why am I pointing this out?

Because Princeton played Syracuse much tougher than Penn played Providence, losing 56-45, in a game that was close until about 6 minutes to go. Because through a combination of walk-ons and others, Syracuse prepared for Princeton's style of play for about one month, as the Orange clearly had the luxury of looking beyond their first-round opponent, Northern Colorado (whom they beat 104-54), while the Tigers couldn't afford to look past pre-season Patriot League favorite Bucknell, whom they defeated 61-48.

Penn looked good in the first-round of the pre-season NIT, defeating Quinnipiac, picked by Blue Ribbon to finish seventh in the eleven-team Northeast Conference (where the favorite is Monmouth), 74-60.

So, I ask again, what does it mean? Probably that at this point in the season Princeton is the better team. They have fewer question marks, and they have fared better in a thus-far tougher schedule.

But, going into the season, all Ivy hoop fans knew that already. The question remains whether the Penn Quakers can harness their great reservoir of talent (relative, of course, to the Ivies) and take the Ivy title away from Princeton. To do so, they'll need consistent inside play, a solid eight-or nine-player rotation, and solid production from the point guard position.

So, really, nothing is new. Princeton needs to develop its freshmen into productive players, especially on offense, where some players looked a bit lost in the Syracuse game. Tiger coach Joe Scott took the responsibility for the performance of the frosh, saying that he had focused much more on defensive schemes than on offense, and that, basically, Princeton frosh have to figure out the offensive system. Translated, that means they just need more playing time. And with senior PF Andre Logan out for a while (recovering from knee surgery) and would-be soph PF/C Harrison Schaen taking a year off from school, they'll get plenty of opportunities.

And Joe Scott will be certain to have them ready.

The same way Fran Dunphy's Penn Quakers will be.

Bowling

Not really.

But are you really going to watch any of this stuff, at least before New Year's Day?

And, if so, is it because:

a) you are an alum of a school in one of the games;
b) your nephew is the scout team free safety for one of the teams;
c) your neighbor's son is the third trombone in the band for one of the participants;
d) you have a gambling problem and this is the only action you can get;
e) you're Mel Kiper looking for the next great sleeper; or
f) you absolutely, positively have nothing better to do?

Because, absent a playoff, most of these games don't matter.

At all.

Absent a meaningful playoff system, does it really matter who goes to or wins the Houston Bowl or the Music City Bowl? (The smart school is the one that can wangle a trip for its kids to the Hawaii Bowl, and they should get points if not props just for that decision).

I'd like to think that the games do, but they don't, at least, not for anyone but those who play in the game.

But, if you want to check out a scouting report as to who might play in what game, click on the link and enjoy.

And, after you read it, take up another hobby, or, at least one that will keep you occupied until January 1.

Penn State Board To Meet on Joe Paterno's Future

A suburban Philadelphia newspaper reported this morning that Penn State's Board of Trustees will meet to discuss the future of head coach Joe Paterno.

The meeting comes a year after Penn State President Graham Spanier gave the venerated head coach a four-year contract extension that would have him coaching football in Happy Valley until he's 81 years old.

I wouldn't want to be in the shoes of the Penn State trustees, because who wants to be the one to tell an icon that he's through. More than that, how do you weigh the outstanding career and the contributions to the Penn State community against the current state of the football program, a program with great integrity but a weak offense? When put that way, though, the latter pales in comparison to the former, and the decision doesn't sound that complicated.

Just say no, right?

But it isn't that easy.

Still, most of us won't be the ones to determine when we retire. In certain cases, people get let go and become unmarketable. In other cases, there are buyout packages or mandatory retirement dates. Whatever the case, the evolution of the marketplace determines, to a large extent, when it's time for us to go.

If the Penn State board decides to ask Coach Paterno to step down, it won't be because they are giving up on ethics, on making sure that players who matriculate graduate (with meaningful majors) or because they are into elder abuse or are insensitive. It will be because it is time for a change, and it will be because there are those among the icon class who are not that self-aware about whether they can still do the job and need to be told. Dean Smith knew when to go. So did John Wooden. But others have not had a clue.

That does not make those others bad people, just flawed the way the rest of us are flawed about something. And, most certainly, not fatally flawed.

One key for any board is to have an exit strategy, a plan, whatever you want to call it, so that they don't leave a vacuum that will make the situation worse. For example, if the Penn State board wants to coax Joe Paterno into a well-deserved retirement, they should have the identity of his replacement nailed down.

For if they do, they could sell the whole plan to Joe Paterno, perhaps even let him think it was his idea, and grease the skids so that they can give Paterno a grand exit and keep their program in very good hands.

And that's where the whole situation gets tricky.

Because the next coach has to be an excellent recruiter, a man of outstanding character, and a man committed to making sure that Penn State's tradition of graduating players from its football program at a very high rate is sustained. Which means, of course, that they just can't hire anyone.

I posted previously on the topic, and there is a deep talent pool out there. The question is whether any of these coaches can fit the bill. One name I didn't mention is Kirk Ferenz of Iowa, whose name has been rumored for many jobs, including the Miami Dolphins, and who some believe thinks that the Penn State job is ideal. Clearly, this is a job that Penn State won't have trouble finding applicants for.

That said, it wouldn't appear that the President Spanier, A.D. Tim Curley or the board would have to look very far, because in defensive coordinator Tom Bradley they have an alum who has proven to be a very able coordinator. Organizations that sustain their excellence frequently do so because they put a lot into succession planning, and they like to promote from within. In this fashion, they don't have to educate a newcomer, especially a high-level one, about the way things are done at an institution that has endured for well over a century and that doesn't need a savior. At about 46 or so years old, Bradley would appear to be the man for the job for a few decades (even if Penn State's succession planning hasn't been optimal).

ESPN Radio in Pittsburgh rumored that Bradley would replace Paterno last week in an episode that appeared to be more based upon sophomoric fun by co-hosts (and former Steeler offensive linemen) Tunch Ilkin and Craig Wolfley. The rumor blew up into a big brouhaha, and ultimately denials were issued all around. Nonetheless, I would venture to bet that Coach Paterno would be more likely to step down if he knew that the program he built with his own bricks and mortar would be turned over not to a search committee, but to a trusted lieutenant, a former player, and a coach who has stood out, especially this year. Someone who will carry on the tradition.

Stay tuned. There may be a graceful conclusion to this whole situation after all.

One even befitting an icon.

If the icon is willing to let go.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

In Defense of Joe Paterno and Other Serious Matters

That's the title of this blog, but it also could have been "Time to Take the Gloves Off." Why? Because there's a lot of hypocrisy out there in college sports right now, especially big-time college sports, and while big universities, their administrations and their players all share the blame, so, to a certain extent, does the mainstream media, which seems to prize access to covering the stars of the spectacles over good, old-time journalism which uncovers unsavory practices.

Let me defend Joe Paterno first. His graduation rate is up there, and perhaps surpasses, those of even the service academies, Duke, Northwestern, Stanford and Notre Dame. If you look at those peers, only one of them is a huge, public institution. How impressive is that? And, up until say five years ago, his program was very competitive, and that it isn't competitive today may have more to do with decisions as to assistant coaches and offensive schemes than with overall recruiting (although the latter has suffered as a result of the former). This year's Penn State defense is rather amazing. Statistically it's in the Top 10, and what's amazing is that I'll bet that this defense probably has been on the field longer than almost any other defense in the country. So if there's a Bill James out there for college football, I think one could argue convincingly that this defense is, minute for minute, the best in college football.

But I have digressed, because the reason I want to defend Joe Paterno is not because of his current team's defense, but because of his body of work over his career. Yes, kids have quit, kids have transferred, kids have thought him to be unfair (and, given that we're all human, I am certain that Coach Paterno has made mistakes with his kids over the years), but no one has accused him -- ever -- of running an eligibility mill, of shuffling kids to silly classes that would lead to meaningless degrees, of doing anything that would put Penn State's reputation for integrity in any jeopardy whatsoever.

The Teflon Coach?

No, not close, as there are plenty of those, guys who dress nicely on the sidelines but who really don't care whether the ace linebacker majors in pet grooming or alumni shmoozing. That's not Joe Paterno, who's all steak and no sizzle, who still wears the white socks with black shoes, the thick glasses, and whose teams still wear the same uniforms they did 40 years ago. You want substance? You'll get it by the bushel-ful in central Pennsylvania.

Mr. Clean, perhaps?

That metaphor fits better. A man who can look in the mirror with pride, a man who can honestly say that he's been honest in his dealings with others, including the NCAA, over the years. He represents an oasis in a desert of ethical sandstorms.

It's a shame that national championships aren't awarded by a combination of factors that include graduation rates, the lack of recruiting violations, the lack of disciplinary problems (although PSU, like all schools, has had some, and when you have a sport that requires collisions on an almost daily basis you're bound to get a few kids who cannot always temper their aggressiveness), then Penn State would be a perennial BCS contender.

Every year.

And it is easy to pick on Joe Paterno today because his team is down, but, thankfully, the media recognizes his body of work and has only suggested that he step down, as no one wants to affront a Titan of the sport because of his most recent work. Still, the demise, as it were, of the once-mighty Penn State football program, is easy to write about. It doesn't require any digging, and it's right there, out in the open.

As opposed to the travesties that probably go on at certain major football programs in the country, where boosters give cash to players, players get no-show jobs, players get people to take tests for them, players take meaningless courses, coaches get freebies from boosters, and where schools get on probation without getting the death penalty. Do I have any first-hand knowledge of this? Do I have any cold, hard facts that could lead to a school's getting into big trouble with the NCAA? No, I do not.

But you know it's out there. There's just too much smoke. Colorado. Ohio State. Several SEC schools are on probation, and yet down in that neck of the woods the coach who gets excoriated is not the former assistant who transgressed, but the one at the rival school who allegedly turned in the transgressors. Go figure.

And what does the mainstream media do? College football is a big business, access is key, and for the television networks that cover them they want to avoid any controversies at all costs so that advertisers will continue to pay the big bucks and fans will continue to watch the games. Their reporters seemingly are more interested in covering the main event than the sausage-factory atmosphere that goes on behind the events (such as keeping Maurice Clarett eligible --at least according to Clarett) and helps make the events what they are. Can you say inherent conflict of interest? In some cases, yes.

As for beat reporters, well, there is the age-old question of access. Some reporters have been on the job for so long in towns so small that either they feel they are part of the team or believe that they risk unemployment or physical injury if they were to call into question practices at the local school. Question the coach, question whether the school you cover really deserves the national rank that it has, and, well, you could lose access or more. Why? There's a lot of money at stake in the BCS bowl games, and no one wants to see it jeopardized. Not one bit.

So how will things really change? Well, here are a few suggestions:

1. SMU was the last school to get the death penalty for repeat NCAA violations, and the NCAA needs to go back and re-examine what it will do to repeat or egregious defenders. Shutting down a school's football program for a year or two because they either are unable or unwilling to adhere to NCAA rules would be a good step in the right direction. The other schools who might try to skirt the rules on occasion would start taking compliance very seriously.

2. Full disclosures of the types of courses scholarship athletes take and their progress toward degrees. And I mean full disclosure. Of every course, every title, every description, and how the distribution lays out. Posted on the school's website. Updated every semester. It seems that for every Craig Krenzel at Ohio State, there were many more who got credit for playing football and who probably were not in biology labs. Take away scholarships every year from the schools that are at the bottom x% of the list, while we're at it. Remember, we're still talking about an extracurricular activity here, so let's make sure the curricular receives its proper emphasis.

3. Post-eligibility, post-exit surveillance disclosure. Schools should be required to disclose what their former players are doing career-wise, as it would be interesting to see how many players from each school are working jobs for which no college degree is required. Again, updated by semester. Why is this important? Because it will tell potential recruits whether the well-dressed recruiter who comes into their houses, compliments their mother's cooking and says something funny to the bratty little sister whether the coach is selling character and career or snake oil. Plain and simple. Like a company's sales figures, the numbers do not lie. Eighteen year-olds can fall for the flash and dash because they haven't been around the block a lot. Come to think of it, the school not only should post the academic information and career information on their websites, they should be required to provide a written brochure to the recruit and get a signed acknowledgment back from them that they received the materials.

4. Increase the monthly stipend for scholarship athletes. It's been long overdue, and giving them a little more pocket money (especially because they aren't allowed to hold down jobs in-season) will remove the risks of temptation that sometimes can arise for young adults.

5. Tell boosters that it's okay for them to give money, to get a primo tailgating spot, to get a photo taken with the coach, and to get good seats, but that they should stay the heck away from the players. Too much booster influence seems only to help the boosters egos in the long run, and not the kids. And football coaches and boosters alike need to remember, in case they have forgotten, is that they're dealing with kids' futures; they are not running a plantation or football player mill. Kids are not inventory to be depreciated and written off. Each one of them matters. Any boosters who get too close to players should be banned from the campus and from having access to the team. Period.

The NCAA and its members schools have some choices to make about the type of institutions they want to be. Universities are supposed to foster innovation and are supposed to inspire better ways to live our lives at all levels. To do so truly, they need to walk the talk and ensure that all corners of their institutions are acting fairly, honestly and decently with every law, rule and regulation, and, as importantly, with every human being that they come into contact with.

Because winning the national title -- in anything -- at all costs does not make your school a champion.

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

I'm Surprised They Didn't Burn The Whole Country Down

USA Today reports in today's issue that angry football fans in Saskatchewan vandalized a kicker's home after the home team's kicker missed a chip shot that would have advanced his team in the playoffs. Click here to read all about it.

This event, while lamentable, makes one wonder at a whole bunch of different levels.

First, it's never been argued that football is a huge sport in Canada, although some friends up north have advised that it's the number two sport next to ice hockey. Which leads to a few questions. One, why isn't the rest of Canada furious over the absence of the NHL, and why aren't they showing any emotion about it? Of course, the failure to show emotion the way the fans in Saskatchewan did is probably a good thing, but you would figure that if they had an NHL franchise there these same diehards would have torched the local arena in protest against the collective silliness of players and owners. Memo to Gary Bettman: consider putting a franchise in Saskatchewan. Memo to Paul Tagliabue or the big Arena Football guy: you might want to consider the same.

Perhaps, again, the reason for the lack of protest in Canada is that because of currency differentials the local NHL teams haven't dominated the way they did 20+ years ago, which means that the NHL hockey played there is second-tier stuff. The same way American hoop fans love college basketball because of its purity, perhaps the NHL isn't that missed in Canada because the fans still have their junior hockey, and that hockey always has had a big following. And, it may be that NHL fans in Canada need a year off to rest their eyes from having to view the sartorial dyspepsia that Don Cherry delivers weekly on "Hockey Night in Canada."

But taking out a missed kick on a player's personal property? In Canada? America's gentle neighbor to the north? I suppose if the Boston Red Sox could win the World Series, anything's possible.

So, before American football fans start yelling that the New York Jets fans are nuts, or that the Philadelphia Eagles' fans are crazy, remember, that to the best of anyone's knowledge, they haven't crossed the line into a player's personal space and booed him in a supermarket, taken a bat to his mailbox, ridding a motorcycle on his lawn or put animal waste on the porch.

Still, if I were David Akers, the Philadelphia Eagles' Pro Bowl kicker, I might change my address to a P.O. Box, as the Eagles' fans are so hungry for a Super Bowl appearance that who knows what they'd do if their beloved Birds fall short again this year. While many things in America, good and bad, take root in California, let's hope that for all professional athletes' sakes this awful display of disappointment remains in Saskatchewan.


Monday, November 15, 2004

And If You Thought It Was Only The Football in State College That Was Bad

At least the Penn State football team beat Indiana on the road on Saturday for its first Big 10 win. And, the Nittany Lion gridders beat non-conference patsies Central Florida and Akron to help pad their record to a gaudy 3-6.

But the Nittany Lion hoopsters fell in their season-opener to Illinois State, and that forebodes a long season for the team picked to finish last or second to last in the Big 10.

Penn State alum Ed DeChellis worked wonders at East Tennessee State, but it seems like it's been two decades since the Nittany Lions upset North Carolina in the NCAA Tournament and went to the Sweet 16 under Jerry Dunn, and it's only been four years. The Penn State hoopsters were bad last year, and two starters transferred out of the program.

The linked article says that things cannot get much worse, but there's not a huge reason for optimism, either. And losing to Illinois State in the season opener is not exactly a confidence builder.

ESPN Gets Carried Away

Click here and see what I mean.

It's one thing to like a sport, even love it, but when you go overboard with analysis, with coverage, with hype, you get stuff like this -- and the season hasn't even begun for some schools.

I'll make anyone a bet: review the Top 25 of every major publication -- after the season. You'll find that they get it mostly right, but there are a few teams who prove to be the turds in the punch bowl that crash and burn and end up way off the radar screen, and there are several teams who make it into the Top 15 because, well, they're more worried about getting it done behind the scenes than all the P.R. they can get before the season.

To paraphrase an overused expression, it's not the amount of hype of the team that matters, it's the amount of team in the hype.

Let the games begin, because they are played for a reason.

Pre-Season All-Ivies?

Not really, as the Ivies wouldn't do anything that organized to tout their prospects, except for holding a pre-season media poll. Not to worry, however, because the premier hoops publication in the Ivies, The Daily Pennsylvanian, fills the void.

Now, you could guess who two of the favorites are, but the DP, as it is known to its fans and detractors alike, gives you some other names as well. So click here and give it a read.

And when you do, you'll learn that the defending Player of the Year, as it were, Jason Forte of Brown, has been suspended indefinitely for conduct detrimental to the team. All is mum in Providence as to what that conduct was, and, naturally, the Ancient Eight is very much considerate of an undergraduate's right to privacy under Federal law.

And while Forte's loss to Brown is huge, I still don't think that even a season-long suspension of the star guard would have as much impact on the Ivy race as two factors facing Princeton -- the knee surgery for PF Andre Logan (he's due to return in about a month) and the decision by soph 4/5 Harrison Schaen to take the year off from school. Brown didn't figure to be in the hunt, at least on this blog, but Penn and Princeton should compete to the end for the title.

Still, the Ivies would be a lot less interesting to watch without Jason Forte.

Stay tuned, and, also, read the DP every now and then for Ivy hoop coverage.

Sunday, November 14, 2004

Goodbye Columbus?

Dave Sez has a good post regarding the issues that face the athletic program at Ohio State.

I am not sure how all of this turn out, but it really doesn't look good, does it?

All coaches should learn that the kids who have their hands out are nothing but trouble. Especially when the kids who don't have their hands out have to bear witness. Robert Smith, was one who did not, and he could prove to be a troublesome witness for Ohio State, because you may recall his well-publicized battles with the Ohio State athletic program over his classroom schedules, as the fleet running back dared to want to take laboratory courses so that he could go to medical school. Basically, Ohio State ticked Robert Smith off royally, so it will be interesting to see how the story plays out from this angle. (Robert Smith played 9 seasons for the Minnesota Vikings).

There is smoke in Columbus, and soon we'll see whether the smoke is only that created by disgruntled players and former players who have an axe to grind with the current athletic administration or whether there is an inferno beneath it.

I have been critical of Joe Paterno over the course of the past few months. Clearly, Paterno's situation is different from Ohio State's, and the stories really should not intersect. Except for one thing: I'd rather have Joe Paterno and the Penn State program any day of the week than a program that pays for players and does all sorts of things to keep kids in school who should not be there. Say what you want about Penn State, but they have never done that sort of thing. Not even close.

And Ohio State fans, those who earned their degrees the right way (and especially those who worked their way through school to do so), sure as heck are hoping that the controversy surrounding their beloved Buckeyes is nothing more than smoke.

Otherwise, Columbus should say goodbye to national titles for a long time to come.

Portrait of Artest as a Young Man

I am a bit late in reporting this, but I wanted to add my two cents to the Ron Artest flap. I saw Artest interviewed on ESPN on Friday morning, while I was in the midst of my workout, and I couldn't help but find cheesy parallels to both Seinfeld and Rocky.

Putting aside the silliness of Artest's comments (Stephen A. Smith of ESPN basically threw his hands up in the air when asked about Artest), the interview itself was interesting from one vantage point.

The ESPN crew caught up with Artest in his car, and Artest offered a variety of bromides regarding the Pacers, his need for rest, the absolute authority of Rick Carlisle, his devotion to winning a championship. But all the while, he tried in the most clumsy way to flash the promo materials for his rap album onto the TV screen. It reminded me of the seen in Rocky where a local TV station was interviewing the Italian Stallion about his unique training techniques for his upcoming fight against Apollo Creed. At some point during the taping, the camera guy said that the meat packer was trying to get into the picture (and that they had to get him out of there).

Artest makes $6.2 million a year. During my career (and, unlike Captain Miller in Saving Private Ryan, who ultimately revealed what he did for a living to diffuse a tense situation, this is as close to a suggestion as to my career as you'll get), I have run across lots of people who thought that just because they were very successful in one thing they would be successful in another. Few are that fortunate to have such diverse talents, and most fail. Badly. Now, it could be that Rap won't ruin Artest's hooping talents, but it probably is the case that he won't be nearly as good rapping as he is in defending the basketball.

But, whatever the case, he should try to do both with dignity (and, should someone give him a dictionary for Christmas, integrity). Trying to get your promo materials on camera during an interview about your day job fails both of those objectives.

Rapper's Delight?

Hardly.

Thursday, November 11, 2004

Ivy League Basketball Preview

It's time for the SportsProf Ivy hoops preview. I base my preview on everything I've read about all teams, e-mail correspondence, newspaper articles, unmitigated hype by zealous fans, pessimistic meanderings by hopeful partisans, e-mail exchanges with cognoscenti, my own sense of how higher math and the stars align and past history. I'd like to point out that there are some excellent resources to read up on Ivy hoops (see the Ivy Basketball Website and the Princeton Basketball Website; the former is a one-stop shop with all sorts of good tidbits, and the latter is unaffiliated with Princeton University but provides a lot of excellent content), Dave Sez's posts about the ACC and the College Basketball Blog (a must stop for the college hoops fan), and there are many good national publications, with my favorite being the Blue Ribbon Guide (even with its cheesy holiday food add on the back cover; find out more about this publication, not available on newstands, at www.blueribbonguide.com) . As I am always wont to say up-front, all typos, mis-statements, errors in judgment, failures to read the most current editions of campus newspaper sportspages or failure to consult with the local savants about their teams -- are mine.

With all of that by way of introduction, here goes:

1. Princeton Tigers. After last season, it was easy to predict that Princeton would repeat for the Ivy title. There were many reasons to go out on this limb. First, the Tigers would be returning two first-team all-Ivy players, center Judson Wallace and guard Will Venable. Second, they lost only one player to graduation, guard Ed Persia, a short 2G who really did not improve much from his freshman year. Third, their archrival Penn Quakers lost three starters to graduation, underachieving center (albeit very athletic) Adam Chubb, guard Charlie Copp (never a favorite of the Penn fans) and 2G Jeff Schiffner, an all-Ivy player who gave it everything he had (but who proved not to be as good when he was thrust into the role of the first option as he was when he was the third or fourth option his junior year). Fourth, neither Penn nor Princeton appeared to have an all-world recruiting year, which, translated, means that neither school would have what would appear to be a serious impact player coming in to tilt the balance.

But there are other variables. First, Penn does have one first-team all-Ivy player returning in SF Tim Begley, ironically perhaps the most Princeton-like player in the league, a player who can shoot the three very well and who always knows what to do with the basketball, and two sophs who were strong contenders for the Ivy Rookie of the Year, 2G Ibby Jaaber, he of the great first step, and F Mark Zoller, he of the funky hair and unbelievably good basketball instincts. Jaaber will start for the Quakers, and Zoller will get significant playing time. Second, Princeton's coach, John Thompson III, bolted for Georgetown, being replaced by former Princeton assistant and Air Force head coach Joe Scott. There is a difference in style between those two coaches, and the Princeton players will have to make an adjustment. Third, Princeton's top reserve inside player, Harrison Schaen, decided to take a year off from school. Fourth, snakebitten Princeton PF Andre Logan tweaked his knee again, and he'll miss 3-6 weeks, giving the Tigers a shorter lineup to start the season.

Now, taking all of the above together, the Tigers have a winner of a coach in Scott, who performed one of college hoops' coaching miracles of the last half century last year at Air Force, winning the Mountain West's regular season after the Falcons had been perennial doormats up until the time Scott got to Colorado Springs four years ago. Scott's more of a taskmaster than Thompson, and the result will be that the Tigers will turn the ball over much less than they did last year. They'll also be more focused on offense, and they'll have very few sets where they run 42 seconds off the shot clock and then scramble for a shot before the time clock goes off. They'll probably shoot the three better too. All that said, Wallace and Venable benefited from Thompson's system, which was a less pure version of the Princeton offense than Scott no doubt will run and which gave them more freedom to operate than the traditional Princeton offense does. How their freelancing styles (and Logan's, upon his return) will fare remains a big question for the Tigers. It may be easily answered in the positive, which is what most fans expect, but it still remains a key question.

As does rebounding. Last year, frosh Schaen was a demon on the defensive end, grabbing almost every rebound in sight and playing intimidating defense. The Tigers outrebounded their opponents last year for the first time since Dr. Naismith put up the peachbasket during the winter time at Springfield College, and the reason was Schaen. With him gone, senior backup C Mike Stephens must continue where he left off last year, although Stephens played much better during the first half of the season than the second, when Schaen supplanted him. Last year, the Tigers were 4 deep at the 4 and 5 spots; this year, they go into the season only 2 deep. That is, unless 6'8" soph Patrick Ekeruo or 6'10" soph John Reynolds show that they can contribute. Neither played that much last season, but both might get the chance to show what they can do this season. And, early on, too.

Those are the questions, but there are plenty of answers, too, starting with Wallace and Venable. Wallace did amazing things on the court last season, had several double-doubles, and at times took over the court and dominated in a way that no Princeton big man has done in a long time. Venable was the engine that refused to let the Tigers lose, a great defender who came up big in game after game. Jason Forte of Brown won the Ivy Player of the Year Award, and he's a fine player, but had Venable won the award few could have squawked. He is a gamer. And Logan will return, presumably healthy, and he has some moves on offense and an ability to rebound the basketball, although he can tend to overdo it on offense on occasion and turn the ball over. He also has to show more consistency, as some nights he can score eighteen and the next night score four. With Schaen absent, Logan will have to elevate his game.

Right now, one question for the Tigers is who will start alongside Wallace, Venable and 5'9" Scott Greenman. Greenman has a decent shooting stroke, plays good defense and is an able passer, but he hasn't been able to shoot the three with consistency. And, without better three-point shooting, the Tigers could have some bad nights. That said, Greenman had some great games during the last half of the Ivy season last year, and if he builds on them, he could take his game to another level. Of course, it remains to be seen whether at 5'9" he'll remain, at times, a defensive liability for the Tigers. Penn has had success over the past several years of working the matchups well against Princeton, and creating distinct size advantages against both Greenman and the since-graduated Ed Persia. If Penn tries to do that again against the Tigers this year, Greenman might not be on the floor at all times, especially if and when Logan returns. But for now, look for him to get 30 plus minutes a game.

Another Tiger who figures to be in the mix is 6'1" soph guard Max Schafer, who came to Old Nassau with huge promise that has yet to be fulfilled. Tigers fans caught glimpses of Schafer's ballhandling and defense during the last half of last season, but he hasn't shown overall that he's a good offensive player. Yes, he had his moments last year shooting the three, but the Tigers would get a solid boost if he can come in (or start) and shoot the ball with regularity. Look for him to start alongside the upperclassmen guards.

The big question mark on offense is the 3 (which, with Logan's injury, really is the 4), where the Tigers have been wont to put a guard, but where the Tigers probably will need to put a forward. What makes this situation more complicated is that now 6'7" Luke Owings, who has returned from the summer in great shape and has looked improved to Tiger fans, might have to move to the 4 while Logan is out. He's a shooter, and he'll need to show that he can shoot the ball consistently. Word is that 6'6" freshman forward Kyle Koncz from suburban Cleveland might figure into the mix.

There are others, of course, such as 6'7" soph Mike Rudoy, frosh forwards Noah Savage and Zach Woolridge (son of NBA great Orlando) and frosh guard Matt Sargeant, as well as 6'4" soph guard Edwin Buffmire, who can get overlooked but who showed great energy in key moments in key games last year. Look for Buffmire to sneak into the mix the same way Kyle Wente did over much more heralded recruits several years ago. Sargent hasn't received a ton of attention because of the Tigers' deep roster, but he was one of the Ivies' top recruits and should be heard from.

So why the optimism?

Penn might have more talent, but that talent right now isn't as well developed, and the Princeton nucleus is about as good as it gets. Plus, the pure Princeton-system coaches have won with smaller lineups, and Joe Scott will coach up a storm in Tigertown. Edge to the Tigers, but not as great an edge as if Harrison Schaen had returned to school.

I've written this over the past couple of days, and tonight the Tigers beat Patriot League favorite, Bucknell, 61-48 in the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Both Judson Wallace and Will Venable were held to single digits, but Luke Owings scored 21. The Tigers were out-rebounded 27-20, but they shot 8-18 from behind the arc and turned the ball over only 9 times. Frosh Noah Savage started in place of the injured Andre Logan, and frosh Kyle Koncz and Matt Sargent saw time off the bench, as did reserve C Mike Stephens, who scored 11 points, and G Max Schafer.

2. Penn Quakers.

This is a team that lost three starters and that almost lost its beloved and excellent coach in the off-season. While losing three starters is never easy, that loss will be easier to stomach for the Quaker hoops program and the Quaker fans than the loss of Fran Dunphy, the dean of Ivy League coaches.

Okay, so how can you lose 3 starters and perhaps have a better chance to win the Ivy title, what, with Princeton returning two first-team all-Ivy players? That's a good question, but here's why. First, guard Charlie Copp, a 6' tweener guard who was a bring-it-up-and-shoot-it guard in HS for a small HS near Reading, PA, only to have to play the point. He couldn't penetrate worth a lick, could shoot the three a bit, and played surprisingly good defense. Still, he was a limited player, not the caliber of guard that Penn fans had grown accustomed to seeing. Penn coach Fran Dunphy loves players like Copp, perhaps because he sees a bit of himself in them, but he can do better with his current cast. Center Adam Chubb was an enigma, an all-airport team type of player who looked better in the warm-ups than in the game. When he harnessed his talents, he could be unstoppable. Problem was, he couldn't do it often enough. There are two hungry sophs who are eager to fill the gap that he left, and it would appear that Penn will get more consistent play out of either of them.

And that leaves last year's captain Jeff Schiffner, a gutsy player at the 2G who got everything out of his ability. But Schiffner peaked as a junior, couldn't carry a team that needed carrying as a senior, and, as sometimes is the case, was blocking a more talented player in soph Ibby Jaaber, who will get the lion's share of minutes at the 2G. In short, while they'll miss Schiffner, Penn's overall basketball talent level (as opposed to athletic ability level) probably is higher. That's a tough comment to make, given Schiffner's contributions, but Penn fans think that Jaaber has a very high upside.

Outside of Jaaber and Begley, it isn't clear who will start at PG, PF or C for the Quakers.

Sophs Steve Danley, Ryan Pettinella and Mark Zoller will get the lion's share of minutes at the 4 and 5 spots, with senior Jan Fikiel right behind. You'll recall Fikiel as a promising frosh who had turned down non-Ivies to go to Penn, only to come up with a case of stone hands on the blocks his sophomore and junior year.

As for the other three, Zoller made the biggest impact last year, dazzling everyone with his basketball smarts, really an off-the-charts hoops IQ, who always seemed to be in the right place at the right time. He faded a bit at the end, as the back-to-back Friday- and Saturday-night games take their toll, but he's a force to be reckoned with. He's only 6'6", but he's reallly a 4, although he can shoot the three and it wouldn't surprise me if they got him on the jump rope at turned him into a 3 once Tim Begley graduates. He's undersized at the 4, but that probably won't hurt him in the Ivies. It might hurt the Quakers elsewhere, though, as his athletic ability is limited.

Danley played more than Pettinella, who came in more highly touted. Danley played for DeMatha and was a key contributor inside for Penn last year. He doesn't have that much range as a shooter, but he's a tough defender, well-schooled, and should show improvement this year. That said, he's nothing close to Judson Wallace. As for Pettinella, there as a bunch of hype about him when he came to Penn, got stuck in the queue at the 4 and the 5, had a few good games, but he didn't see the action that Danley did. For Penn to contend, Pettinella needs to produce. Penn fans will argue that Fran Dunphy isn't that good at working in his freshmen, so one shouldn't write off any sophomore, while those less zealous are still waiting for now-senior Frederick Ebede to blossom as the next Ugonna Onyekwe. Personally, I think that the truth is somewhere toward the end of the spectrum that says Pettinella still can be a very good player.

First-team all-Ivy SF Tim Begley returns for the Quakers, and he is a very good player, always knowing where to be on the floor, a great passer and a good three-point shooter. Begley disappointed as the #2 option for Penn last year, as the Quakers couldn't seem to take advantage of double-teams on Schiffner. The difference this year is that unlike Schiffner last year, Begley won't have to be the #1 option, and he'll have a more dynamic player to play the #2 option for, two guard Ibby Jaaber.

Jaaber was perhaps the most spectacular frosh in the Ivies last year (although Princeton zealots will contend that Harrison Schaen fit that bill, and Dartmouth's Leon Pattman did win the league's rookie of the year award, although he got a lot of PT for a bad team). Jaaber had many good games for the Quakers down the stretch, and it says here that if he isn't a first-team all-Ivy player this season, he'll be close to it. He'll enter the season as Penn's #1 offensive option, and he has as quick a first step as anyone in the Ivies not named Will Venable. Look for him to lead Penn in scoring. That's the good news for the Penn backcourt.

The other news is that the rest of Penn's guards ain't done it yet, and PG historically has been a key position for a Dunphy-coached team. Have a PG who can penetrate and create off the dribble, and then who can pull back and hit the 3, and the Quakers win the Ivies. Jerome Allen, Michael Jordan and Andy Toole all fit that bill for Dunphy. Others have not, most recently Dave Klatsky (who was a fine reserve guard) and Copp. This year's PG candidate is junior Eric Osmundsen, a 6'5" junior who was a reserve last year after transferring from Utah. He showed some ability in the game at Princeton (where Penn buried the Tigers), hitting two key threes in the first half. But Oz, as he is called, always seems to play at a nervous full throttle and can be out of control. He will probably miss Penn's season opener with a mouth injury. If he can harness his ability, the Quakers could well win the Ivies. If he can't, then the Quakers' options are Jaaber at point (and it's not clear that will work), or frosh Michael Kach (whom Dunphy thinks is a very good player) or David Whitehurst (who is a very good athlete who might need more development as a hoopster than Kach). Dunphy recently said that if Kach is the starter, then Penn will have a PG by committee. That's not a great sign for Penn fans. The Penn zealots believe this is the deepest the Quakers' backcourt has been in years. Other observers think that going into the season, PG is a big question mark for Penn. If the Quakers can answer it, the title might just be theirs.

3. Cornell Big Red. No, this is not a misprint, and it's not a men's ice hockey preview, either, it's the Ivy men's hoops preview, and, yes, I think the Cornell Big Red will crash into the first division this year, and leap over both Yale and Brown. The reasons are a little complicated, and there is some parallel to the Penn situation, albeit a small one. Also, while no one will come out and say it, this season marks Coach Steve Donahue's fifth year at Cornell. I have no clue whether his job is in danger, but his overall record at Ithaca is 32-76. He needs a good year, especially after the Big Red crashed and burned in the League after a 6-0 start (i.e., before they played Penn or Princeton).

First, the good news. The Big Red are big, they have a hot xfer (from Air Force, of all places, by way of a JC) named Ryan Rourke, their promising C, Chris Vandenburg, is 6'10" and back from a season missed because of injury, and Eric Taylor, their 6'8" PF, also returns (he had a better year as a soph than he did as a junior last season, when he averaged 9.4 points and 7.5 rebounds per contest), as does 6'6" Lenny Collins, a SF who averated 10.3 ppg last year. Big up front, quality big people, the Big Red will bang and they will give even Penn and Princeton fits inside.

They also have a good 2G in Cody Toppert, who had a nice season last year, and they have some other guards in the mix. Their backcourt isn't as strong as their frontcourt, however.

Second, the bad news. They lost all-Ivy PG Ka'Ron Barnes to graduation, and they are counting on 6'3" frosh Khaliq Grant, their top recruit, and 6' soph Graham Dow, to fill the bill. It's always hard to replace a four-year starter at PG, and if Grant and Dow cannot do it the Big Red will have some long nights. Hard to win the Ivies, with sometimes grueling games in bandbox arenas on back-to-back nights, without very solid ballhandling. If Cornell can establish a pass-first PG with all of their trees inside, they could be very dangerous. As it is, they'll finish in the first division of the Ivies.

4. Yale Bulldogs. Three years ago, the mantra was James Jones, James Jones, look what he's done for Yale hoops, and the mantra chanters were correct. The Elis played hard-nosed basketball, flaunted their depth, banged inside and ended up in a three-way tie with Penn and Princeton for the Ivy title, only to lose to Penn in a playoff to see who went to the Big Dance. It was in that game that the Bulldogs got reminded how tough it is to ascend to the top of the Ivies, but that was then.

Since then, the Bulldogs have been a mystery, sometimes playing hoops like ice hockey, throwing the ball toward the goal and then chasing it. They won 21 games three seasons ago, 14 two years ago and 12 last season. It's as though the spell that Jones had put on the program has worn off and the Elis have elected at times to revert to their old tricks. They were a woeful three-point shooting team last year, didn't shoot the trey that often, ididn't shoot fouls well, had bad chemistry, and, well, were a disappointment despite their depth, their athletes, and two freshmen who came in highly touted, Sam Kaplan (a top-150 player) and Casey Hughes. Their two guards, PG Alex Gamboa and 2G Edwin Draughan, also seem to have regressed. Draughan scores in double digits, but his points are about the quietest that seem to get scored. His silky and slender, but he's not really a game changer. He played with Josh Childress (formerly of Stanford and an NBA lottery pick) in HS, and he came to Yale with great promise, as though his exploits would eclipse those of Penn's Onyekwe. So far they haven't.

Not even close.

And neither have Gamboa's, who came to Yale as a feisty PG from Las Vegas who showed well in his early days as an Eli, but who doesn't seem to have progressed that much since his freshman year. Normally, you'd argue in the NCAA as a whole that a team with two veteran guards could go very far, and in Draughan and Gamboa you have two veteran guards. The question is, which Draughan and which Gamboa will show up?

Hughes had his moments last year, and Kaplan really did not, and in the off-season the Elis lost hard-nosed C Josh Hill to a car accident. The Elis also return C Dominick Martin, the former Princeton player who averaged in double figures last year but seemed to play statue-like hoops on the low blocks on offense and even in the middle on defense. Martin probably gets more touches at Yale than he did at Princeton, but not necessarily more minutes, as no player in Jones' rotation seems to get more than 28 minutes a game. Martin also hasn't led the Elis to the title, as Yale fans hoped and Princeton fans feared.

The coaching style of Jones is an issue, and I'm still intrigued by it. I like the fact that he goes deep into his bench and plays a lot of players, but I'm not sure he has the algorithm right as to who should play when. Part of Yale's chemistry problem had to result from the frequent substitutions, and given the number of media timeouts, you really can play only 7 guys a ton of minutes because they're young and in good shape and because they do get ample time for rest during the game. Jones has a good idea, but he needs to fine tune it.

Best case is that the guards really blossom in their senior year, Martin gets better integrated into the offense, and Hughes develops into a first option. If that happens, Yale might contend for the title. But if the chemistry doesn't improve (as well as the trey and foul shooting), look for the Elis to finish in the middle of the pack.

5. Brown Bears. Close but no cigar, have the Brown Bears been, and the reason they haven't smoked a Red Auerbach-like stogie is that while their offense might sell tickets and bring people into their gym, as well as earn three Bears (Earl Hunt, Ala Nuatialiaa and Jason Forte) first-team all-Ivy honors two years ago (and Forte the Ivy Player of the Year award last year), they haven't played enough defense to win the title. Hunt and Nuatiliaa graduated two years ago, and three starters graduated after last year. Which means, to a certain degree, that the cupboard needs restocking.

Except somehow, in the small universe that is the Ivies, the Bears seem to re-load before they have to re-build. And, especially this year, that premise will be put to the test. In Forte they have the best guard in the Ivies (no apologies needed for Will Venable and Ibby Jaaber), but they really don't have much else besides him and 6'7" shooting guard Luke Ruscoe, a tough kid who can shoot the three and who must develop into Brown's second option for the Bruins to have a good year.

Outside of those two, Brown will look to find its starters from six sophomores and six freshmen.
Soph forward Sam Mahanga figures to start; he came into the league as a heralded frosh a year ago, but he seemed not to have a position and he didn't play all that well. Coach Glenn Miller is high on 6'2" frosh guard Damon Huffman, whose brother, Trevor, starred for Kent State in 2001 and helped lead them to the Elite 8.

Best case for the Bruins is that Forte gets so heavily guarded that he finds very open teammates who can hit the three and who can improve rapidly within the season, that the sophs can deliver and the frosh also can contribute. That best case puts the Bruins in the Ivies' top four, perhaps as high as third. Worst case is that no one else develops or Forte steps on the shoe of a defender and gets a high ankle sprain he can't shake, or that the Bruins still have not figured out to play enough defense. If a combination of those factors comes to fruition, the Bears, despite having Forte, won't win more than 7 of their 14 Ivy games. Bottom line is that Forte and Ruscoe should make the Bruins competitive, but Miller will have to do one amazing coaching job to lead the Bruins to the promised land.

6. Columbia Lions. Every year there's a team in a league that people say, "watch out for, they've been dormant, but they'll come charging ahead." This year, some of the prognosticators are pointing to Joe Jones' Columbia squad, if for no other reason than with not many new players last season Jones reversed the 2-25 debacle that was Armond Hill's last year on Morningside Heights and led the Lions to a respectable record of 10-17. He has a few solid players coming back, including SF Matt Preston and 6'8" PF Dragutin Kravic, who is currently injured, as well as a bevy of average upperclass guards and 6 recruits who have received some good hype. The question is, whether that's across-the-board good hype or simply relative hype, which means that they're very good recruits for players who weren't recruited by Penn or Princeton. That remains to be seen, although one of them, 6'9" Benedict Nwachukwu, played for South Jersey power St. Augustine and apparently was a lock for Penn before deciding to ink with Joe Jones at Columbia. The same way James Jones' got the Yale Bulldogs into the hunt for an Ivy title, his younger brother Joe will get his Lions into the first division at some point.

But not this year. There's too much turnaround required of this Lions' squad, and with all of the players on his roster, Coach Jones will have to make some key decisions and figure out which 8 are the right eight. And his club still will have to play Penn and Princeton on back-to-back nights at home and on the road, as well as Cornell and Yale.

Best case is that Coach Jones settles on a solid rotation of eight players, that some of the freshmen can play, that Preston performs at a first-team all-Ivy level. If all of this happens, look for the Lions to go 8-6 in the league. Worst case is that Coach Jones plays too many players, there is a chemistry issue, he still hasn't been able to establish solid guard play, and the frosh don't deliver what's needed. In that case, Columbia wins only 2 or 3 games in the league. The bet here is that the finish is somewhere in between.

7. Harvard Crimson. The Crimson have become the Ivies' version of a football school, as the Cantabs battle Penn in Philadelphia this weekend for the Ivy title in football. It's had to imagine that you can make the distinction in as genteel a conference as the Ivies, but the Crimson just don't seem to put the emphasis on hoops. Coach Frank Sullivan's teams are always gritty and scrappy, but they never seem to have enough players. Up until last year they were good at staying in the middle of the Ivy pack, always good for an upset or two over the top teams, but last year they were 4-22 overall and 3-11 in the Ivies. Overall, Sullivan has been at Harvard for 14 years with a record of 141-199, and unless the Cantabs are really content with winning about 13 games a season (they've won 12, 14, 14, 12 and 4 games over the past 5 seasons), the members of the 2004-2005 squad might be playing for their coach's job (ironically, I believe that when the job opened in 1990, Harvard could have hired Northwestern's Bill Carmody, who went on to succeed Pete Carril at Princeton, but passed).

Depending on how you look at it, the good news is that the Crimson lost no starter to graduation after last season. Alternatively, given the 4-22 record, the bad news is that the Crimson have everyone back. Whether that group, plus one returning frontcourter who missed last season, has enough talent and has improved in the off-season to turn the Crimson into a better team, is a huge question.

The strength for Harvard is inside, where they return 6'8" PF Matt Stehle, who averaged 13.6 points and 7 rebounds per game last year, and who blocked a lot of shots on defense last year. The problem for the Crimson last year was that Stehle really was their only option inside. This year, they get a break, as 7' center Brian Cusworth returns after a year's absence. Cusworth averaged 6.2 points and 3.7 boards per game two seasons ago, and his return should give the Crimson a solid presence inside.

The Crimson also return a trio of veteran 2 guards and swingmen in Kevin Rogus, Jason Norman and Michael Beal, who combined to average about 30 ppg last year. The problem is that they couldn't find a replacement to former PG Elliott Prasse-Freeman last season, and it looks like they'll be relying on a frosh or two this year to run the show for them.

The best case for the Crimson is that the veteran backcourt scorers play good defense and have stepped up their game, while Stehle turns into a first-team all-Ivy player, Cusworth returns to form in the middle and a frosh (Tyler Klunick) steps up and plays a mean PG. If all of those things happen, the Crimson could be the surprise team in the Ivies this season. The worst case is that Stehle doesn't improve, Cusworth is mediocre, the swingmen turn out to be gunners and no one emerges at point. Bottom line is that not all of the conditions for a good season will be fulfilled, and the Crimson will have a hard time winning more than 10 games.

8. Dartmouth Big Green. The Big Green fired their long-time coach, Dave Faucher, a decent recruiter and x's and o's man (you can read his book on coaching children's hoops), after last season, when they started 3-7 and finished at 3-25, and after a string of seasons where the Big Green only seemed to have regressed (having won 9, 8, 9, 8 and 3 games in the past 5 years). Ouch! Double ouch! This team is the LaSalle Explorers without the Code of Conduct and criminal issues surrounding the program, and they can't go anywhere but up.

They had an opportunity to hire Penn's Gil Jackson, Fran Dunphy's long-time right-hand man and ace recruiter, but opted instead for long-time Colorado assistant Terry Dunn, who is about 12 years younger than Jackson, who is about 56. (Dunn is the brother of former Penn State coach Jerry Dunn, who led the Nittany Lions to a Sweet 16 appearance four years ago). Whether Dunn was the right hire remains to be seen, but I do believe that Dartmouth missed out on a very solid hire in Gil Jackson, and usually it's a good move to hire the top aides of the league's legendary coaches.

Dunn has a further disability going into the season, as none of his recruits are his, they were all Faucher's, but Faucher didn't leave the cupboard bare. PG Steve Callahan is a very solid guard, and he has shown solid improvement over the past several years, and 2G Leon Pattman was the Ivies' rookie of the year last year. Together, they form a very solid backcourt. Critics will argue that there were other frosh in the Ivies who were just as good if not better than Pattman, and it's hard to measure how good Pattman really is because he logged a lot of minutes for a plum awful hoops team. This season should tell us whether his Rookie of the Year award was based purely on activity, or whether there was solid achievement in his rookie season.

The problem is inside, where for whatever reason the Big Green haven't been able to establish solid play inside since Sean Gee graduated over 5 years ago. Gee was a jumping jack from Nebraska who played very well, and the Big Green have tended to field unathletic centers in recent years. 6'9" Calvin Arnold and 6'5" Jason Meyer return, but they don't really scare opponents.

Best case is that the inside players can show some solid life, that they can take pressure off the guards, and that Callahan and Pattman, along with 6'4" highly touted frosh swingman Jonathan Ball, can give opponents fits, and that there's some depth beyond the starting lineup. Worst case is that the inside players aren't very good, that the Big Green sees lots of 3-2 zones, and that they can't muster much offense or defense from inside. If this team gets any meaningful inside play, it could escape the Ivies' cellar. A good season for Coach Dunn will be if he can pull his Big Green out of the Ivies' cellar and manage to win in double digits. Anything else would be pure gravy.

It should be a very fun, competitive season, and, while some things in the world change rapidly, those who aren't that fond of evolution or change should be pleased to note that in the Ivies, as has been the case for many, many years, it all boils down to Penn and Princeton.

Make that Princeton and Penn.