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, March 30, 2010

Will the Phillies Return to the World Series?

What Can Go Right

1. Starting Pitching. Roy Halladay shows up as advertised, Cole Hamels returns to 2008 form and makes people forget Cliff Lee (now injured), Joe Blanton has another good year, J.A. Happ picks up from where he left off in 2009 and somehow Jamie Moyer wins 10-12 games.

2. Bullpen. The Phillies develop alternatives to Brad Lidge and J.C. Romero early in the season (while both are rehabbing in Florida) and then both Lidge and Romero return to 2008 form. Also, the Phillies develop a second lefty in the bullpen or somehow coax Scott Eyre to return either from his farm or from driving around the country in an RV with his family to be that second lefty. Finally, Dennys Baez defies the prognosticators in Baseball Prospectus and shows up as an excellent third righty in the 'pen.

3. Starting Lineup. Placido Polanco adds precisely what the Phillies need -- on-base percentage from the second slot in the lineup (Pedro Feliz had an awful on-base percentage matched only by his poor knowledge of the strike zone). Jimmy Rollins gets off to a good start and returns to 2007 (or 2008) form. Ryan Howard picks up on breaking balls better, strikes out less, and has his usual 40 homer, 120 RBI season. Chase Utley has the MVP-type season he was having in early 2008 before hurting his hip and doesn't tire late in the season. Jayson Werth, playing for a contract, has a monster year. Raul Ibanez has a complete, uninjured season and puts up the type of numbers he did in the first half of 2009. Carlos Ruiz continues to hit in the clutch; Shane Victorino thrives in the #7 spot.

4. Bench. The Phillies get solid production from their re-built bench and don't suffer long pinch-hitting droughts the way they did in 2009 from Matt Stairs, John Mayberry and occasionally Greg Dobbs.

What Could Go Wrong

1. Injuries. The Phillies' minor league system is pretty thin now, as they traded away many good prospects in deals to get Joe Blanton, Cliff Lee and Roy Halladay. That means two things, both bad, for the Phillies. First, there aren't many, if any, guys down on the farm who can come up and distinguish themselves for significant periods if someone goes down. Second, and perhaps worse, there aren't many, if any, prospects to trade for help (of course, Tadahito Iguchi might be out there, somewhere, waiting for a call).

2. Starting Pitching. Barring injuries, Hamels remains inconsistent, Moyer falters, Kyle Kendrick falters in replacing Moyer or J.A. Happ has a sophomore slump. The Phillies can survive Moyer's faltering, but they will have trouble making the playoffs if Moyer falters, Kendrick falters and Happ goes 5-10 with a 5.68 ERA. If Moyer and Kendrick falter, I'm sure there's always a Rodrigo Lopez-type out there waiting to pitch during the summer. Heck, there's always Pedro Martinez.

3. Bullpen. If you had told me at the outset of last year that every pitcher in the bullpen would miss time except Ryan Madson (who perhaps was overused by season's end), that J.C. Romero would be a bust, that Brad Lidge's ERA would defy gravity, and that Clay Condrey and Chad Durbin wouldn't distinguish themselves and that the team would still make the World Series, I would have signed up for that tour of duty in a heartbeat. This year, they will have significant problems if Lidge and Romero cannot pitch effectively, if Madson were to get hurt or if they cannot develop a significant lefty in the bullpen (why they didn't try to sign free agent Joe Beimel -- mullet and all -- surprised me). Still, if last year's bullpen could have taken them to Game 6 of the World Series, so can this bullpen. Lidge can't have a worse season, can he?

4. Starting Lineup. Hard to see much going wrong except for significant injuries to one or more players. This is a poweful lineup, and you don't see the possibility of a decline except perhaps for Raul Ibanez, who is 38 and at the end of his career. That said, if Rollins continues to have an OBP below .300 or if Howard gets off to a bad start and ends up hitting .195 (albeit with 35 homers and 103 RBIs), that would hurt. But right now this lineup is in its prime, and it doesn't have many question marks.

5. Bench. Again, last year's bench didn't play well, so you have to expect more out of Brian Schneider, Ross Gload, Ben Franscisco, Greg Dobbs and Juan Cruz. Don't you?

All told, I think that the prognosticators are right to predict that the Phillies will return to the World Series. Last year, they didn't think this to be the case, and some had them in third, behind the Mets and the Marlins or Braves. This year, the Braves are formidable, while the Marlins give teams fits and the Mets have tons of talent (but their pitching is thin). Still, with Roy Halladay as their ace and with a strong starting lineup, this team should repeat as NL East champs and win the pennant.

Charlie Manuel for Mayor, anyone?

Saturday, March 27, 2010

76ers-Hawks Last Night at the Wachovia Center

Yes, I went to the 76ers' 36th home game of the year and watched them win their 26th game (against 47 losses) by beating the now 46-26 Atlanta Hawks, 105-98. A few observations:

1. The Wachovia Center, which seats over 20,000, seemed to be about half full.

2. I paid $60 apiece for two tickets whose face value is $114 apiece. That got us into the 7th row downstairs, right across from the 76ers' bench. It also got us a preferred parking pass and let us park right outside the arena, so close that it took us all of 30 seconds to enter. StubHub can be the great equalizer, especially when you need only one set of tickets for one game (and, to confess, we went to see the Hawks).

3. In this week's Sports Illustrated, an NBA scout from a Western Conference team absolutely buried the 76ers, calling them pretty much every name in the book. That quote had to be bulletin-board fodder for the team, which looked loose and relaxed and seemed committed to finding the open man and playing help defense.

4. 76ers' assistant coach Jimmy Lynam very much resembles Don Rickles' character in the movie Casino. He seems to be right behind head coach Eddie Jordan, hunched over, the way Rickles' character shadowed Robert DeNiro's. Uncanny. (I tried to find a recent picture of Lynam but failed, but if you see a 76ers' game on TV you'll know what I'm talking about).

5. Each NBA team seems to have more than 5 assistant coaches. What can all of them possibly be doing?

6. As for the game, it was a great one and an example of what the NBA can be. It was highly competitive. As for the 76ers, I think that they've found a true point guard in Jrue Holliday. He plays with great energy and enthusiasm, looks for the pass first, can penetrate with a spin move that would have Earl "The Pearl" Monroe nodding his head with approval. He also seems to energize his teammates, particularly Sammy "Hands of Stone" Dalembert (who had many slam dunks off great alley-oops from Holliday, but, truth be told, the 76ers might have won by double figures had Sammy been able to grab control of at least three boards that clanged off his hands and went out of bounds). Jason Kapono hit some key threes, Elton Brand banged inside for his points, and Andre Iguodala was the best player on the floor last night, almost scoring a triple double. The main problem with this team is that they have only 2 or 3 bona fide front-line NBA players and a bunch of guys who would fit in nicely in rotations for good teams (Dalembert as a back-up center, Brand as a back-up power forward, Thaddeus Young as a back-up forward, Lou Williams as a back-up guard, Kapono as the designated shooter off the bench). Holliday is a starter, as is Iguodala, but the team has a lot of work to do.

7. Zaza Pachulia, Atlanta's back-up center, has one of the best names in the NBA, an announcer's dream.

8. Joe Johnson is a quiet assassin. He's not flashy, he's built like a tight end, and he can bury you. Al Horford is a very smart player who not only gets his double doubles, but he also does the little things well, and it's those things that distinguish a contender from an also-ran. Josh Smith seems to be an emotional catalyst for the Hawks. Marvin Williams really didn't show up last night, and Mike Bibby still has a lot of game left in him. The announcer said that he's 6'2", but comparatively he didn't look like he's more than 5'11". Both he and Johnson can really stroke it.

9. The announcers said that Elton Brand is 6'9". He looked no taller than Andre Iguodala to me.

10. The 76ers also got good games from Jason Smith and Willie Green off the bench.

11. There are too many side shows at the game -- dancing women, dancing high school girls (no joke), choirs, contests, t-shirts shot into the stands. They detract from the game and interfere with the players.

12. As I watched the dancing women out there in attire more suited for beaches in Rio or South Beach than your average sun-deprived American city, I got to wondering what was more unlikely, the 76ers' playing the Princeton offense (for which they and Eddie Jordan have been oft-criticized) or Princeton University's men's basketball team having scantily clad dancing women at their games. Knowing both fairly well, I'd say that the 76ers would be much more likely to run the Princeton offense successfully than Princeton University ever would host the 76ers' dancing women. They'd be more likely to make Sarah Palin a visiting lecturer than host the 76ers' dancing women.

13. Overall, a fun experience. We ate at Chickie's and Pete's at the Pavilion, my son won a t-shirt from the sports talk station 97.5 by answering a trivia question, the crab fries hit the spot, and it was a very good basketball game, and traffic was surprisingly light (put differently, it's much worse on a Friday night when 45,000 people are trying to get to Citizens Bank Park than when 10,000 are trying to get to the Wachovia Center). We went there expecting the Hawks to blow out a spent, done-for-the-season 76ers' team, and we ended up seeing an outstanding product. Kudos to the 76ers and Hawks for a great effort, well worth what we paid for (but still not worth the face value of the tickets that the people sitting near me paid).

Good night for the 76ers and for their fans.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Break Out the Fantasy League Bidding Wars -- Jason Heyward to Start in Right for the Braves

The next Dave Parker/Willie Mays/Barry Bonds/Ken Griffey, Jr. is about to make his debut in the Majors. He's big, he's a disciplined hitter, he has power.

His name is Jason Heyward.

Let the bidding wars begin!

Memo to Eagles: Remember One of the First Rules of Human Resources

Don't can someone unless you're absolutely certain you can replace him/her with someone better.

So, if you're looking to replace Donovan McNabb, who's led the team to a pretty good won-loss record during his time in the Soft Pretzel City, you had better be sure that Kevin Kolb and Michael Vick are going to do better. There's some chance that the former can be good, while the latter looked out of shape and didn't show much (albeit in limited time) for the Eagles last season.

Sure, McNabb isn't perfect and he can be streaky, but the won-loss record speaks volumes about his contribution to the team.

Andy Reid hasn't always made the best personnel decisions (he has made many good ones).

This might be his riskiest yet.

Reflections on NCAA Men's Basketball

There were a bunch of big stories arising from last night. The best game was Xavier against Kansas State, a barn-burner of a contest that featured great competitiveness from both teams. It was a treat to watch. In the end, Xavier ran out of three-point shooting magic dust, and Kansas State, which played clutch ball itself, prevailed. Great, great game.

Cornell got off to a red-hot start, which it needed to do to try to shake the confidence of Kentucky. But after a 10-2 start, Kentucky went on a 30-6 run to make it 32-16 at the half, and, for the most part, that was the ball game. Cornell needed to keep it close and couldn't do it. Credit Kentucky for playing great basketball to make the second half virtually a non-issue.

Unfortunately, I had a prior commitment that prevented me from watching the earlier games, but Butler did the Mid-Major World proud with its upset of Syracuse. Meanwhile, West Virginia got the stealth bomber award, beating Washington with little incident despite being without its starting point guard. The other three games -- either from their publicity (Cornell), their stunning result (Butler) or their quality (Xavier-Kansas State) eclipsed West Virginia's win last night, at least from the standpoint of publicity.

Kentucky looks primed to win the national championship. Yes, they are young, but they are very talented and they played well together last night under tremendous scrutiny. That said, West Virginia is a formidable team, the last one standing from the Big East. West Virginia might well be Kentucky's toughest hurdle en route to winning a national title.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Cornell-Kentucky: Classic Match-Up Looms in Sweet 16

Why, you ask?

Because Kentucky coach John Calipari, to many, represents all that is wrong with college basketball. Sorry, John Feinstein, but I'm with Bob Knight all the way on this one. There's something amiss when you leave the two college programs you led amid the fog of scandal. Have it happen once, you might be unlucky, suffer from a bad booster. Have it happen twice, well, you might have a problem of your own making. Moreover, Kentucky opened up the vault for Calipari, making a statement that it would do whatever it takes to bring home a national title. So, for lack of a better villain, Kentucky represents, today, the evil empire of college hoops (even if it has very talented, and, yes, likable kids in the program).

Cornell represents the stark contrast to Kentucky. Its coach, Steve Donahue, worked his way up through the great network that is Philadelphia basketball. He helped the legendary DII coach Herb Magee (the winningest men's basketball coach in NCAA history) at Philadelphia Textile, now Philadelphia University. Then he worked with Fran O'Hanlon (then an assistant under Fran Dunphy at Penn, now the head coach at Lafayette) and Fran Dunphy at Penn (he assisted Dunphy for 10 years at Penn and helped coach some great teams). And then he took the Cornell job against great odds, perhaps the toughest in the country, because prior to his winning his first Ivy title three seasons ago in Ithaca, Penn and Princeton had combined to win all but two Ivy titles in 35 or so years (Cornell did win one -- in 1988). So, to come to a hockey school with not much of a tradition in basketball, to win three Ivy titles in a row and then beat Temple and Wisconsin in the NCAA tournament (becoming the first Ivy team to get to the Round of 16 since 1979, when Penn went to the Final Four) is one of the greatest coaching jobs in the past, well, 30 years.

Anywhere.

And he did it without basketball scholarships, without much help from boosters, without special living quarters or travel accommodations for his players, well, without a whole lot of hype, jazz, spectacle, or anything else. These kids play their league schedule on back-to-back nights, Fridays and Saturdays, in order not to miss too much class. They travel by bus for league play, and the Ithaca to Philadelphia ride never is a lot of fun. They have two grueling weekends every year, playing Penn and Princeton on back to back nights. Sure, it's not Vanderbilt, Florida or Mississippi State, but within the league these are as hard-fought contests as in any league. And trying to beat Penn and Princeton on back-to-back nights is like trying to beat Duke and Carolina on consecutive nights in the ACC, but they don't play back-to-back nights in the ACC or any other league for that matter.

Cornell has no McDonald's All-Americans. Their league doesn't have a TV contract, and they don't appear all that much on television, and, when they do, outside the NCAA tournament, it's on ESPNU. Generally speaking, their kids don't plan on going into the NBA; they're students first and foremost.

(That's not to say that the Kentucky kids aren't good kids, aren't smart, don't care about their studies, etc. But those kids' priorities have to be a bit different when four of the players are projected to be first-round picks in the NBA draft. By the way, if I were a projected first-round pick in that draft, I'd make it a priority to improve my basketball skills if that's what I'm most talented in).

So, you have the student-athletes of Cornell against a very talented and explosive Kentucky team. Can Cornell stay with the Wildcats? Can they do the unthinkable and win?

Well, they scored a ton of points on two teams -- Temple and Wisconsin -- that are supposed to be excellent defensive teams and they beat those teams rather badly. In Kentucky, they'll be facing a young team that has great athleticism and quickness, but a team that generally played (relatively) close games during the regular season (winning league games by about 12 but not really blowing anyone out). That quickness could be a shock for the Big Red, but if they stay in their game, get out to a quick start and take a lead, they'll force Kentucky to play from behind and to press themselves. If they can continue to cut the game in half -- staying close at the 10-minute and half-time marks and then keep it close with 10 minutes to go -- they can win the ball game.

Because to suggest anything else would be silly, given what the Big Red have done so far. Cornell has to be careful not to rest on its laurels, not to get too giddy over a tremendous accomplishment. Kentucky has to refrain from getting overconfident. I'm sure that while the coaches are pounding the players on the fact that someone forgot to tell the Cornell players that the Ivy entrant is supposed to play gallantly for about 28-32 minutes before losing the first-round game by 15 and that the Big Red are formidable and can beat them, deep down the kids in Lexington have to be thinking that given their pedigrees and their performance in the tournament to date, they can crush Cornell easily. Sure, you can tell yourself that the kids will believe the coaches and bear down hard, but kids are kids, and they'll believe what they want to believe and the hype about their exploits in the tournament so far.

And, if you don't think so, then what's to explain, to some degree, how underdogs such as St. Mary's, Washington and Northern Iowa have advanced so far. Yes, they're good teams, but you have to believe at for some period of time their opponents looked at the name on the jersey and their seeding and figured all they needed to do was show up and play a half-decent game.

Big mistake.

Sure, Kentucky will be favored, and perhaps by double digits, given their great play in the first two games, their #1 seeding, and Cornell's being from the Ivy League. And they might win by 15 or 20. And then there won't be much of a story except to say that Cinderella's carriage turned into a pumpkin, with Kentucky being the enforcer of the midnight curfew. That's a familar tale.

But every now and then a Gonzaga gets to the regional final and a George Mason gets to the Final Four. It may be that St. Mary's and Northern Iowa are better set up for that type of run, but after their stellar play -- winning two games convincingly -- you can't count out the Cornell Big Red. They are playing great basketball and are playing confidently.

And they're playing for all the kids and all the conferences who annually get patronized or dissed on the major networks, by the tournament committee, and by the greedy athletic directors who will argue with you until their blue in the face that there should be 96 teams in the tournament or that conferences with teams like St. Mary's, Northern Iowa and Cornell shouldn't get automatic bids if the tournament were to remain the same size. They're playing for the alums of those schools, too, and for the alums of all of the conferences who have to suffer from the slobbering that goes on about teams in the 6 "power" conferences.

Sure, Kentucky travels well and will have a lot of fans in the building. But I've been to 2 Final Fours and one regional final tournament, and I can tell you that the local fans will root for the underdog of the four teams in the group -- the team with the best story -- especially if it smells an upset. Should Cornell keep it close or take the lead, the bulk of the fans in the building will be rooting for the Big Red.

Loudly and proudly. I've seen it happen during my days in Philadelphia, especially with a regional final in about 1978 that featured Maryland, Syracuse, Georgetown and Iowa. Somehow, some way, the Philadelphia fans united behind Lute Olson's Iowa Hawkeyes, which won the region. There was no reason to root for them -- all of the other schools had better connections to the area -- but the fans did. They were the underdog, they played smart, and they played very well.

I'm sure that Coach Cal and his assistants are trying to warn the Kentucky players about the perils of playing Cornell. Steve Donahue probably doesn't have to do as much work in this area. Kentucky's reputation precedes itself, and showing a few minutes of highlights from Kentucky's first two games will make believers out of even basketball athiests and agnostics.

This NCAA tournament shows why they play the games. There are many good teams out there, and there are many kids who are eager to show that they belong with the over-hyped power conference schools. While the networks might be lamenting the loss of Villanova, Georgetown and Kansas (among others), hoops purists are overjoyed at the presence of St. Mary's, Northern Iowa and Cornell.

And we're hoping that those schools cause the network executives more pain and the tournament selection committee more embarrassment.

Sure, it's a long shot for any of those three teams -- especially Cornell -- to get to the regional final.

But they've gotten this far, haven't they?

And they have a taste of slaying the giants now, too.

The giants should tread lightly and carefully.

Because someone forgot to tell the Davids of the hoops world that they don't belong, that they shouldn't be here.

Season 4 of Friday Night Lights Premieres on NBC on April 30!

Yipee!

Great, great show. Don't miss it.

Will Baseball Re-Align?

Bud Selig wants the Lords to consider it, although he's not clear as to what he wants. That's either because he doesn't know or he isn't saying. From the linked article, it's not clear that he knows what he wants.

So, how about this proposal -- have two divisions, the top 16 and the bottom 14. The top 16 represent the 16 best teams from the prior year, and the bottom 14 represent the 14 worst. For the post-season, six of the top 16 will make it, and two of the top 14. Then, you'll take those 2 of the bottom 14 and move them to the top 16, and you'll take the bottom two of the top 16 and relegate them. You also could add drama by having a playoff series between the #3 team of the bottom 14 and the third-to-last team of the top 16, with the winner getting elevated and the loser getting relegated.

Would that work?

What would the top 16 look like? How would you create their divisions? For example, it wouldn't seem right to have 4 four-team divisions separated by geography, resulting in having the Yankees, Phillies, Mets and Red Sox in the same division. Would it make sense to have divisions at all, or just to put the top 6 finishers into the post-season?

Who would be in the top 16?

Based on last season's results, the top 16 would be

1. New York Yankees (103-59)
2. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (97-65)
3. Boston Red Sox (95-67)
3. Los Angeles Dodgers (95-67)
5. Philadelphia Phillies (93-69)
6. Colorado Rockies (92-70)
7. St. Louis Cardinals (91-71)
8. San Francisco Giants (88-74)
9. Florida Marlins (87-75)
9. Texas Rangers (87-75)
11. Minnesota Twins (87-76)
12. Atlanta Braves (86-76)
13. Detroit Tigers (86-77)
14. Seattle Mariners (85-77)
15. Tampa Bay Rays (84-78)
16. Chicago Cubs (83-78)

17. Milwaukee Brewers (80-82)
18. Chicago White Sox (79-83)
19. Cincinnati Reds (78-84)
20. Oakland A's (75-87)
20. San Diego Padres (75-87)
20. Toronto Blue Jays (75-87)
23. Houston Astros (74-88)
24. Arizona Diamondbacks (70-92)
24. New York Mets (70-92)
26. Cleveland Indians (65-97)
26. Kansas City Royals (65-97)
28. Baltimore Orioles (64-98)
29. Pittsburgh Pirates (63-99)
30. Washington Nationals (59-103).

Let's further suppose that we played out last season with two divisions, with the result that the top 6 from Division I made the playoffs -- Yankees, Angels, Red Sox, Dodgers, Phillies and Rockies and the top 2 from Division II (who, presumably, playing each other, would have had much better records). You'd relegate Tampa and Chicago (who, presumably, playing only Division I teams, would have had worse records) and elevate Milwaukee and the Chicago White Sox.

Would it work? I'm not sure. First, you'd eliminate traditional rivalries or at least wound them depending on how some traditional rivals fare (I still think that the Pirates are reeling because they're not in the same division as the Phillies). Second, relegation would have devastating effects on ticket sales and TV revenue (just ask the English Premiership). Suppose the Yankees were to suffer catastrophic injuries to their pitching staff and finish in the bottom 2 in Division I? That would hurt all of baseball, to see them relegated to the second division (in England, grave wounds would occur would Manchester United, Arsenal, Liverpool or Chelsea suffer relegation, even if self-inflicted). Of course, teams that aren't willing to spend enough money might deserve to be in the second division, but they'd have a better chance for the post-season by playing against more level competition. Then again, you'd punish the first division teams by not lettting them play at least a few cupcakes. Then again, the competition in the first division would be much more compelling. There's little joy in seeing your team play the Nationals 19 times a season.

As you can see, there are plenty of pluses and minuses. Let the thoughts roll, and let the debate begin.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Princeton Women Shoot Poorly, Get Out-Quicked, lose to St. John's, 65-47

Click here and read all about it.

I saw some of the game on ESPN SD (as the HD in my area featured, of all teams, Michigan State against Bowling Green). While St. John's was shorter, they were quicker, and they defended tenaciously, getting into the grilles of Princeton playerrs more often than not. That said, Princeton had a bunch of good looks; the Tigers just couldn't finish them.

Tough way to go out after a stellar 26-2 season, but the Tigers' future is bright, as they started a junior, two sophomores and two freshmen. The junior was a second-team all-league player, while one soph and one frosh were first-team, and the Tigers boasted the Ivies' rookie of the year. Next year, should they get back to the tournament (and they'll be the favorite from the Ivies), they'll know how much they'll have to step up to win a first-round game.

The Big East, Mediocrity and a Dumb Comment from the Big East's Commissioner

It hasn't been as though the Big East has dominated the NCAA tournament so far. The Big East, which benefits from huge media coverage precisely because most of its teams are in the densely populated northeastern part of the U.S., has shown, well, that it's human. Thursday's games were one overtime win (Villanova, which beat Robert Morris by playing 8 on 5, if you counted the refs as part of the Wildcats' starting lineup) away from an unmitigated disaster of biblical proportions.


The Big East has many good programs and teams. It has benefited, though, from great public relations and much more significant media coverage than the average conference that's west of the Mississippi. The huge concentration of population in the northeastern United States and the presence of ESPN in Connecticut helps ensure that Big East teams get a great deal of attention. The performance of Big East teams in the NCAA tournament, however, suggests that the Big East gets too much attention when compared to, say, Washington or Cal (my pick to beat Duke in the second round on Sunday).

Compounding the overhyping is this article at NCAA Fanhouse, where Big East Commissioner John Marinatto is quoted as favoring a 96-round tournament and says he is looking forward to the day when 16 Big East teams make it into the NCAA field. Here are a few reactions to his comments:

  • are you kidding me?
  • what the heck did you expect him to say?
  • yes, I'd like to see DePaul and Rutgers in the first round, even if they're 7-21 apiece.
  • your conference has played so well in the tournament so far that I just can't wait to see how the teams that finished in the bottom 8 of the conference would fare in the first round.
  • and this would be good for college basketball because?
  • do you have at least once ounce of objectivity left in you?
  • Yep, that's just why we need to create a 96-team tournament, so that every school in the Big East, ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big 10 and Pac 10 can make it into the tournament.
  • haven't you paid any attention to the NBA at all about having too many teams make the post-season?
  • he's just puffing.
  • Goofball.
  • Why would any conference ever get all of its teams into the NCAA tournament?

And, I'm sure, many more. 96 teams is a bad idea. It's mercenary and it's greedy. The NCAA believes that it will enhance revenue, but a 96-team field will dilute the outstanding brand name the tournament has now and might dilute revenues, as I can't imagine people in the northeast watching Bowling Green-Michigan State in the first round (as we had to do mid-day today in high definition in the women's bracket). Sorry, Mr. Marinatto, regarding your overall views of the expansion of the field to 96, but you're just plain wrong.

All 16 Big East teams in the NCAA Tournament?

How exciting!

Not!

The Ugly Side of College Basketball

If you're a purist, read this and weep.

Those who would call purists naive and unrealistic -- and perhaps themselves realists -- still might be surprised at what one junior college coach and one AAU coach had to say in the linked article.

The article focuses on St. John's firing of head coach Norm Roberts, by all accounts a class act who just didn't win enough for the good fathers who run the place. The quotes from the juco and AAU coaches reveal, in a nutshell, their belief that the Johnnies cannot win and return to the top echelon of college hoops without at least bending some rules (and, remember, while the quotes are pretty interesting, I would venture to guess that some juco and AAU coaches won't be totally transparent about what they really mean, meaning, then, that perhaps their use of "bending" means, actually, "breaking."). Roberts played by the rules and got fired after 6 years.

What the article reveals -- to a degree -- is the ugly underbelly of what is a very big business. Play by the rules and lose -- and you're out. Great message from a leading academic and spiritual institution. Perhaps if more schools took a stand for coaches like Norm Roberts other coaches won't leave wakes of investigations and probation behind them as they seek bigger dollars and more prestige as they move from school to school.

The sad truth is that revenue sports in college have never been just an extracurricular activity. Their a big business, and athletic departments expect a certain return on investment in order to pay for the departmens' entire budget, other programs and new facilities, as well as to generate funds from boosters. That means that you can't settle for the 6'11" kid to show up and dazzle. You have to go out there hunting when the kids are 14, make your presence known, and figure out how to solve a bunch of his problems, from his test-taking ability to his scholastic ability to his sibling's inability to get into a school to his father's trouble keeping a job, or some combination of all of the above that some school might be willing to solve to put people in the seats and get the team to a Sweet 16 a few years in a row. It is hardly as simple as saying, "we've got a good program, we graduate 85% of our players, and you have a chance to improve and contribute here." Sure, that happens sometimes, with kid whose expectations are that playing D I ball is a privilege and not a right. When that isn't the case, people sometimes start to shake hands by offering their palm -- facing the sky.

So Norm Roberts leaves St. John with his head held high, as he should. He did his best, and he did so ethically.

But he wasn't a winner in the way St. John's has now defined the term.

The Smartest Man in Baseball

You won't be able to guess who.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Mea Maxima Culpa!

Okay, so the 11th commandment for a Princeton basketball fan is "Thou Shalt Not Criticize Anything About Princeton Basketball." The 12th commandment, after yesterday, should be "Ivy Hoop Fans Shalt Not Doubt the Ability of the Ivy that Goes to the NCAA Tournament to Win a Game." In other words, boy was I wrong.


Temple is one of my favorite teams and has been for decades. Fran Dunphy is one of my favorite coaches. My father went to Temple. And, I don't think that partisanship got in the way. Temple is a good team.


But so is Cornell, and they showed it yesterday. The Big Red are the first Ivy team to win a game in the NCAA tournament in over 10 years. Great job for the Big Red!

More NCAA Observations

1. Hats off to Ohio U. More often than not I think it's been the case that an underdog that has won its conference tournament flames out in the first round of the NCAA tournament because they're spent. Ohio was seeded 9th in the MAC tournament, was 7-9 in conference play and a #13 seed. You wouldn't have known it by the way they played last night. Georgetown looked like a glue horse, stuck in a slow gear, and played without much energy for most of the night. Ohio played like a champion.

2. Big conference bias. Were Marquette and Notre Dame truly worth of #6 seeds? I say not, especially Notre Dame. Is it that the Big East, because it's back east, gets much more attention and, as a result, hype (as, perhaps, the best hoops conference in the country), or is it that other teams by comparison don't get as much attention on ESPN? At any rate, the Big East was 1-3 yesterday, and the 1 was somewhat controversial, given how much Villanova got to the foul line against #15 seed Robert Morris (whether 'Nova deserved a #2 seed after their late-season dive is also another good question). I didn't see the 'Nova game, and defenders of the officials have taken the view that Villanova was more aggressive and that you draw fouls when you drive to the hoop and that you draw a lot more fouls when you do that and your opponent only shoots jumpers. Decent point, but it was hard to find a voice on the radio yesterday or this morning who didn't take the point of view that Robert Morris got jobbed.

3. Hats of to Murray State, Old Dominion, Washington and St. Mary's, all of whom won in upsets. St. Mary's, of Moraga, California, thrashed Gonzaga in the WCAC conference tournament final and poses a serious threat to Villanova in the second round. Something's up at Villanova. Jay Wright benched Taylor King for a few games during the end of the season and benched his starting backcourt for 4 minutes yesterday as a teaching lesson. Wright's a good guy and a good coach. Either this strategy of discipline will propel 'Nova to the much-predicted regional final game against Duke, or they won't get past St. Mary's. And, if the latter's the case, then there is a chemistry/discipline problem at 'Nova that bears watching. Is the team unglued? Has Jay Wright lost his team? Or, are this isolated incidents? Hard to know.

4. Unless one of the darlings of the predicters of upsets, Cornell, beats Temple today (and I blogged about the unlikelihood of that yesterday), Temple might be the best team that no one's heard of. Doug Gottlieb of ESPN pretty much said so this morning, arguing that the Owls were more worthy of a #3 seed than Pitt. We'll see today, but the Owls don't turn the ball over, rebound and defend well, and can score enough points to stay with almost anyone. Fran Dunphy only has 1 NCAA tournament win in his career (and that shows you how difficult it is to both get in the tournament and win a game); he's going for #2 today.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

NCAA Tournament Observations

1. Forget the hype about Cornell. There's just way too much of it. Yes, they are a good team. Yes, they did place 3 players on the Ivies' first team. Yes, they almost took Kansas in Lawrence. All valid points. They are good. But, so is Temple. And Temple is better. The Owls play very stingy defense, particularly on the perimeter, and they don't turn the ball over. Sure, Jeff Foote of Cornell is good and got a lot of hype, but Lavoy Allen of Temple is better. Great basketball IQ, outstanding rebounder, good scorer and passer. Cornell is one of those trendy picks, but they would have been better off playing an up-tempo team they could stun instead of a buzz-saw, grind-it-out team like Temple. Cornell barely beat Princeton twice this year, edging the Tigers both times by about 3 points per contest in low-scoring games. Princeton had a good year but with a weak RPI. I just can't see that same Cornell team going a full 40 minutes with Temple and winning; they might go a good 30 minutes, but in the end I see it as Temple 56 Cornell 43.

2. The college hoops gods smiled upon Duke when they created the brackets. What was that all about? Not only did Duke get a #1 seed, they were rated as the third-best #1 seed. Sorry, but they probably shouldn't have been a #1 -- that spot should have gone to West Virginia (as the fourth #1 seed, with Syracuse being the third). Duke has this Dallas Cowboys-like aura -- a bunch of fans around the country, but if you don't root for them they're probably the first team you root against, because you dislike the hype and the sometimes self-righteousness that surrounds the program. Ask any fan of a team in the NFC East, and they'll tell you that they like to beat all of their rivals within the division, but they like to beat Dallas the most. So it goes with Duke. I admire what the program has accomplished -- it's hard not to respect them -- but I think that the Dookies got a big gift in the post-season, especially when you look at the road Kansas will have to get to the final game. Still, somehow, I'm not sure that Duke gets past Cal in the second round or Villanova or Baylor later.

3. My Final Four -- Kansas, Syracuse, West Virginia and Villanova, with Kansas winning it all, beating West Virginia in the final game. Of course, I'll be totally wrong about this.

Princeton Hoops: I Was 1 of the 665 in Attendance

I didn't know whether to go to the opening round of the College Basketball Invitational last night. Princeton was hosting Duquesne (rumor has it that the Tigers paid roughly $60,000 for the privilege of hosting the game and having it televised on HDNet), the Princeton students were on spring break, and the two people whom I thought might be interested in going were out of down. "Don't worry," I told my wife, "there are some die-hard alums there whom I know, I probably just end up sitting with one of them." And so I did. The conversation was probably better than the game, or, more fairly, the first 10 minutes, when both teams played as though they had molasses on their sneakers and butter on their fingers. But the Tigers snapped out of it with about 9 minutes to go into the first half, took the lead going into the locker room and didn't look back.

Click here for the link to the Princeton Basketball website for the full report. Princeton won, 65-51, thanks to solid play from guard Douglas Davis, heady inside play by frosh forward Ian Hummer and great passing from senior center Zach Finley. Best moment of the night was when seldom-used senior Nick Lake dunked with less than a minute to go in what might have been his final game in Jadwin Gym. If so, it's a nice way to go out. Princeton will take on the winner of IUPUI-Hofstra, site, I think, to be determined.

It seemed like there were more than 665 people there. It didn't seem like there were any Duquesne fans in attendance, and you'd have to think that each Tiger player (say there were 15 dressed) didn't bring 42 fans apiece. So, actually, there were some students, some older alums and some administrators and professors in attendance.

But not that many. Good win for the Tigers, and it's good to keep playing basketball for as long as you can, I suppose. The beginning of the game left a lot to be desired, but the last 28 minutes or so were worth watching.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Princeton Women are a #11 Seed

And, only in America. . . they get to travel to Tallahassee to play St. John's, the #6 seed, in the first round.

Of course, it's the big dance and all, but couldn't they have met halfway, say, at Fairleigh Dickinson or St. Peter's, and played there?

Just kidding, of course, but it's hard to imagine that more than a contingent of Tiger parents, diehard fans and relatives will make the trek to Florida State's home court.

The game will take place on Saturday at 12:21 p.m.

Go Tigers!

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Will the NCAA Expand the Field in the Men's Bracket?

It's all about the bucks, kid. (I think it was Gordon Gekko who said that in Wall Street).

Click here for an article in the New York Times on the subject. Note that it's the coaches from the more academic-oriented, low-Division 1 schools that contend that the NCAA will be diluting the honor of making the tournament and the brand if they permit 96 (of about 336 Division 1 mens' hoops teams) into the tournament. I suppose, then, that they'll re-name the NIT the NOT tournament (perhaps signifying the "Nincompoops Only Tournament"). Lest I digress. . .

Here's what the NCAA is contending with:

1. The NCAA men's basketball tournament constitutes 90% of its revenue.
2. The NCAA has the right to opt out of its contract with CBS after this version of March Madness. ESPN might be waiting in the wings and willing to pony up more money for the tournament.
3. The economy stinks, opportunity is knocking, ergo. . . if another network shows the money, CBS can kiss March Madness goodbye.
4. The big-time schools will love this, because you can't begin to think that the NCAA will be doing this to ensure that two teams from each of the 31 conferences receiving automatic bids gets in. So, unless two Ivies have transcendant years and beat some bigger-time schools, it's very likely that only one team from conferences such as the MEAC, the NEAC, the Ivies, the Patriot, the SWAC, etc., will go dancing. But, think of the fun you could have watching the #6 team from the Pac-10 playing the #9 team from the Big East in a Round of 96 play-in game.
5. The coaches absolutely want this. Remember, many get fired because they cannot get their teams repeatedly to the NCAA tournament. Expansion means greatly increasing their odds, particularly in the 6 "major" conferences. So, go 18-12 every year, you might earn, what, a #26 seed.
6. Tom Izzo makes a good point, though. Expansion might end teams scheduling cupcakes to puff up their won-loss total. Which means, of course, that coaches could take a page out of John Chaney's book and actually schedule some formidable teams early in the season. Somehow, I don't think that will happen as much as Izzo contemplates, but it's a good thought.
7. The word "hypocrisy", of course, comes up, too. For years, the BCS schools and the NCAA have argued against a Division I-A post-season tournament for the laughable reason that a tournament will cause the kids to miss more school. But Divisions I-AA and III, particularly, which have more academically inclined schools among them, have post-season tournaments. And, do you mean to argue (convincingly) that expanding the NCAA tournament won't distract the kids more, either?

65 teams always puzzled me, and 64 teams sounded about right. Heck, I'd compromise at 72, figuring that there are about half a dozen or so teams whose bubble bursts every year and who might be worthy. That type of expansion will guarantee a few things -- 1) at-large bids for Mid-Major schools (at least as many as 8), 2) that bubble teams won't get penalized when the odds-on favorite in a Mid-Major conference loses in its conference tournament (thereby guaranteeing that conference two spots but pushing another worthy team out of the tournament and 3) that more than 25% of the Division 1 population doesn't go to the tournament, thereby making getting a berth pretty scarce and, thus, valuable.

It has struck many observers that the problem with 2 of the 4 major professional sports leagues is that the seasons are way too long for as many teams as make the playoffs. Way too many teams make the playoffs in the NBA and the NHL, and both those leagues suffer from oversaturating fans with meaningless games and playoffs that are endless. It's preferable when the regular season means something and when teams that are less than top-notch make it to the post-season. The NCAA might just be making a similar mistake, and my guess is that if they do so the stats after five years will bear out that no seed below a #48 really has a chance, which will kind of make the whole exercise of expansion pointless.

But if the NCAA has created a structure where so much of its funding depends on a single sport, it might have left itself with little choice other than to take its Golden Goose and put it on steroids.

Watch out.

Bracketology: Princeton Women Will be a #11 Seed

And, by doing that they'll have achieved a higher seed than their counterparts in the men's bracket, the Cornell Big Red, who are a #12.

And they'll have done that with much less fanfare.

Click here for ESPN's bracketology for the women's bracket.

Wow! (Of Course, It Probably Won't Happen)

Perhaps ESPN published the story to spice up a weekend of terrible weather on the East Coast.

Perhaps some ESPN baseball writers boozed it up a bit too much in Florida weather that really hasn't been great, either.

Perhaps the teams actually discussed what the story reports -- that the Phillies and Cardinals have spoken about swapping -- gulp -- Ryan Howard for Albert Pujols.

The Phillies deny the story, but at some level it makes some sense, particularly for the Cardinals. Pujols can become a free agent after this season, and it will take a boatload of bucks to re-sign him. Howard is signed through the 2011 season and is from St. Louis. The Phillies also could use a big righty bat to complement lefties Chase Utley and Raul Ibanez in the middle of the order (as well as switch hitters Jimmy Rollins and Shane Victorino). Pujols probably is less of a gamble for a long-term contract because he's the best hitter in the game, much less streaky than Howard and won't have to worry about his weight as much.

The only reason this deal could happen is if the Cardinals believe they won't be able to ink Pujols to a long-term deal and if the Phillies think that they can. If that were to happen -- wow! If that were to happen, and, say, the Phillies were willing to sign Pujols to a 5-year, $150 million deal (unlikely, as Philadelphia sports teams traditionally have treated nickels like their manhole covers, but, to be fair, the Phillies have stretched more in recent years than they have historically), then you'd continue to have a nucleus beyond the 2012 season and you'd build the team for more than a two-year horizon. It's not as crazy as it seems.

But it sounds far-fetched right now.

Good Day for Guys Who Coached or Played In (and in One Case, Still Coaches in) the Ivy League

Georgetown. (John Thompson III played for and coached at Princeton).

Temple. (Fran Dunphy coached at Penn).

Richmond. (Chris Mooney played for Princeton).

Cornell. (Steve Donahue was an assistant coach at Penn).

Siena. (Fran McCaffrey played at Penn).

Houston. (Ah, you might have forgotten that Tom Penders once coached at Columbia).

Ironic first-round match-up, Temple versus Cornell, as Big Red head coach Steve Donahue worked for and with Temple's head coach Fran Dunphy for 10 years when Dunphy was the head coach and Donahue an assistant at Pennsylvania.

For all of the talk about the Princeton family tree of coaches, score this one Penn 3, Princeton 2, Columbia 1.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Men's All-Ivy Hoops Teams

Courtesy of Princeton Basketball News.

A couple of observations:

1. The first-team is what most Ivy observers would have predicted, including 3 Cornell players, and one each from Harvard and Penn (despite Penn's awful record).

2. I am not a close enough observer to say it's curious, but it's interesting that second-division Penn got a player on the first team and the second team while Ivy runner up Princeton had two players on the second team. That suggests, of course, that the Princeton team played better together and had much more depth than Penn, which had a bad season.

3. As one observer noted on PBN, it was surprising that Princeton's Kareem Maddox did not draw any mention at all. He was a force to be reckoned with in many Ivy contests.

Congratulations to all players on the list for a job well done.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Richmond Coach Chris Mooney's Road to the Big Dance

Excellent article in today's New York Times about former Princeton player Chris Mooney, the head coach at Richmond, on the jobs he held before he got to Richmond. It's a classic case in starting at the bottom and working your way to the top.

Saturday, March 06, 2010

The Washington Wizards Have 7 Assistant Coaches

Click here to see the roster.

Logical responses are, as follows:
  • why?
  • WTF?
  • huh?
  • are you kidding me?
  • no wonder why the NBA is in big trouble.
  • Bill Simmons must laugh every time he hears this, because he generally thinks that most head coaches don't make a difference.
  • are you *#(_@&! kidding me?
  • can I get myself a job like that? (Six-figure income, travel on chartered planes, stay in top-rated hotels, get a per diem on the road, probably a good medical plan and a 401(k) with a decent match, to boot).
  • can I get myself a job like that?
  • can I get myself a job like that?
  • are they hiring?
  • really?

At any rate, it's hard to believe that 7 assistant coaches can make a difference -- for any team.

Sometimes, the headline says it all.

Free Landon Donovan!

Now. Forever.

Perhaps the best U.S. player has been playing in the English Premiership recently. Yes, as a starter for Everton. Okay, Everton isn't among the top 4 in the Premiership, but it's having a good season, and Donovan is primary among the reasons why. He's achieved all that he can in the MLS, which is a second- or third-tier league. It's time for MLS to let him go. More importantly, it's time for U.S.A. Soccer to work with the U.S. pro league to help ensure that the best U.S. players are playing for the top European teams. Until the top 25-50 U.S. players are playing in the English Premiership, for example, with many of them starting, it's hard to see that the U.S. will be a serious contender to get past the Round of 16 in any World Cup.

The reason is simple -- unless your players are playing against elite competition year-round, it's hard to see how say half a dozen players who've played well in the Premiership can partner with a dozen and a half who are playing in the MLS. Not when the top players in Europe are playing in the top leagues in England, France, Germany, Spain and Italy (okay, so I highlighted the Premiership above, but I did so only because it's the league with the smallest language barrier, among other reasons). Read this article and see what you think.

The L.A. Galaxy most certainly are entitled to some amount of consideration. That's the way of the world in soccer, and Donovan's the Galaxy's most valuable asset. That said, the U.S. needs to get more of its best players playing in the top European leagues. That is, if the U.S. wants to make a serious run at a World Cup.

Earl the Pearl

Sometimes legends get embellished over time.

Not this one.

Click on this link for a You Tube highlight film of Earl Monroe.

Seeing is believing.

Friday, March 05, 2010

The Fall of Allen Iverson?

The bad news just keeps on coming for the former MVP.

The whole article is worth reading.

I've always wondered what happens to former players, especially the high-adrenaline guys who push themselves to their limits (even if, in Iverson's case, they don't always play smart or play the best team ball) and then leave the game because time or injuries catch up to them. What do they do after they're gone? What can they do that will help them repeat the experiences that they were perhaps best suited for? It's hard to turn the edge that helps them become stars off. It's not that they just flip a switch and then say they'll become a physical education teacher and coach in their hometown, a stockbroker or a car dealer. It's not to say that some can't, but what do most do? Where do they go? What becomes of them?

I worry for Allen Iverson. What will he turn to now?

Movie Review: "More Than a Game"

I had long flights this week and had the opportunity to watch the documentary about LeBron James, the kids he grew up with, and how they fared at St. Mary's High School in Akron. Short answer -- watch this movie, it's a good one.

Cameras followed LeBron and his buddies as they played youth ball and then made it to high school. The producers, writers and directors did a good job of following the team, the emergence of LeBron James as a transcendant star, and the interactions of the core group of kids who got their start by playing at the Salvation Army. Sure, you know how it ends with LeBron, but nonetheless this movie is worth watching.

Strat-o-Matic's Negro Leagues Game Cards Just Arrived

Either I need more hobbies or need to spend more time on the hobbies that I have. At any rate, I look forward to batting Josh Gibson cleanup, Cool Papa Bell leadoff, and pitching Satchel Paige.

Princeton Women's B-Ball Can Make History

The Tigers can clinch the Ivy title this weekend and make their first-ever trip to the NCAA tournament. They're on the road facing a tough trip at Harvard and Dartmouth; the Crimson are 9-2 in the league (Princeton is 11-0), and Harvard is the only team with a chance to win the title other than Princeton.

Blame It on Chicago!

So says Milton Bradley.

The Cubs' organization must have hijacked his body and done something to him, because nowhere does he indicate that he had anything to do with his disappointing year.

Should be a fun time in the Mariners' clubhouse this season.

Remember, hope is not a strategy. So if the Mariners hope that Bradley will fit in well, they ought to have a better plan than that.