Thursday, November 30, 2006

"Wednesday night wrap-up"

ACC destroys Big Ten again
Well, another ACC-Big Ten challenge is complete and nothing's new. The ACC dominated again. The ACC won 8-3. It has never lost the event. Its ownership of the Big Ten has never really been in doubt.

And this was possibly looking like a bit of a down year in the ACC, with Duke's roster not full of the offensive pyrotechnics we're accustomed to. But the Blue Devils ground out a Big Ten-style 54-51 win over Indiana. Michigan somehow found a way to lose to N.C. State, who - trailing 14-4 early in the contest - lost its best scorer to an injury. The Wolverines obviously felt sorry for the Wolfpack, who played just six men the rest of the game. And the rest of the games really weren't that surprising.

Only promising sign for the Big Ten? The Buckeyes showed that they can play with the nation's best, fighting UNC to the finish despite the absence of a man named Oden. With him, there's no doubt in my mind: If he's as good as advertised, they would have won. I hate to admit it, but the Buckeyes own football and basketball in the Big Ten right now. Ouch.

More college hoops
OK, if there was a BCS in college basketball, it would be a shame if the Missouri Valley Conference wasn't considered a major conference. That's how good the MVC is getting. Forget four teams; this conference could place five in the Big Dance this year - maybe more than the Big Ten. Key non-conference wins already of note: Missouri State def. then No. 7 Wisconsin; Wichita State def. then No. 6 LSU. And there are more. I just don't have time to list them. Watch out for the MVC.

NFL babies
Are you kidding me? How difficult is it for these guys to keep their words in-house? The Giants are almost as rife with clubhouse banter as the A-Rod Yankees. First Tiki Barber spouts off. Now Michael Strahan and Plaxico Burress? I don't get it. We in the media love this stuff, because we don't have to dig for stories to write. But wouldn't life be easier on everyone in the organization if players would talk about their problems privately? Would it have been too much for Strahan to approach Burress when there were no cameras or reporters around to voice his displeasure? It just seems ridiculous to me that these two professionals have to criticize each other through the media (albeit the feisty New York media).

Oh, Albert
Mark my words: I love Albert Pujols. I love everything about him as a player. I love how he works on his opposite-field hitting during batting practice instead of simply drilling balls into the left-field seats. But I disagree with Pujols' criticism of the voters decision to name Ryan Howard the MVP. Pujols said that the award should go to a player who makes the playoffs.

I agree to an extent. It should not go to a player on a crappy team. But Howard was not on a crappy team. In fact, he just about single-handedly led the Phillies to more wins than the Cardinals. If not for stellar play from the Dodgers and Padres down the stretch, the Phillies would have continued playing in October. The Cardinals, on the other hand, just squeaked into the playoffs. And we know what happened from there. But the MVP is based only on the regular season. And I'd say Howard's team had a very similar regular season to that of the Cardinals. And he had a slightly better season than Pujols. Thus the slight victory for Howard.

Final Word
A piece of advice to college basketball players trying to decide whether to live together during the season. If you don't want to endanger your team's success, don't do it. Florida's Corey Brewer is out indefinitely with mono, and earlier today Gator Nation received a scare when Joakim Noah was said to have mono as well. Luckily for the Gators he doesn't and will play this weekend against Florida State. Brewer's housemates might want to relocate, however. Not only does Noah room with Mr. Mono, but two of Florida's other key contributors - Al Horford and Taurean Green - also stay with Brewer. Could you imagine a season ruined because of mono? Wackier things have happened.

What to Watch on Thursday
NBA doubleheader on TNT: Pistons at Heat; Jazz at Lakers. Will the Heat show up in the first game? Doubtful. So if you're only going for one helping, sleep through the opener and stay up late for the nightcap, which should be a dandy.

"Wie should stay the course"

As Bill O'Reilly might say, all of Michelle Wie's detractors should just "SHUT UP!"

Not that the extreme right-wing O’Reilly would ever support Wie's crusade into the testosterone-laden world of the PGA Tour. But if I don't agree with one thing the man says, can't I steal his vocabulary?

Ok. Enough about O'Reilly. Let's talk about Wie. The 17-year-old - yeah, she can drive now, but not smoke or even think about drinking - has never made a PGA Tour cut. At her last tournament in Japan she finished second to last. At her last PGA event, the 84 Lumber Classic, she was dead last. She's never won an LPGA event.

So why in the world should the naysayers have their mouths stuffed with Titlists? Because what Wie is doing is not only good for the game of golf, but good for American society as a whole.

Do-gooders always talk about never being satisfied with the rights we have, never thinking that everyone is equal. Well, Wie is not satisfied to be a normal women’s golfer. She's not gonna sit back and compete on the LPGA Tour, where she might get noticed by avid golf fans but no one else. No, she's making a statement. That's not why she's competing (she simply thinks she can stand next to these guys). Heck, she's only 17. She doesn't need to be making political statements at this point in her life.

But she is. Even if she doesn't know it.

And as long as sponsors are paying her to compete in select tour events, I see no reason why she should back down now. She obviously has not reached her peak. She can only improve. And that must be a scary thought to the men. After all, she hasn't been at the very bottom of the leader board at all her two-day forages onto the men's tour. In her first men's event - the 2004 Sony Open - she finished just one stroke below the cut line, beating 47 men.

So we definitely know what she's capable of.

And the physical attributes to walk with the fellas are also evident. Wie consistently drives the ball longer than 280 yards. It's not uncommon for her to outdrive her male playing partners. She just needs to become much more consistent, so that a bad round is a 73 or 74, not a 78 or 80.

Look, Wie will probably never be a great player on the PGA Tour. She'll never be a threat to Tiger or Phil or even Vijay. But she can do so much for women's sports just by competing against the men whenever she gets the chance.

As much as her compatriots on the LPGA Tour complain about Wie's affinity for playing in men's events, would they pass on the opportunity? The LPGA doesn't get close to the publicity the men's tour gets. The purses aren't nearly as big. And most of the players aren’t nearly as good.

But Wie is an exception. Even if she hasn't won an LPGA event.

Would golf be nearly as popular in minority communities if not for Tiger Woods? Of course not. And I can guarantee you that Wie continuing to play in PGA Tour events will boost the game's popularity among girls. Think about it. If a girl's father is watching golf in the living room, which tour is he going to be viewing?

Obvious answer: the men's. While girls might idolize Woods - like Wie did as a child - it doesn't take rocket science to know that girls would rather have a female as a role model than a male (at least I think so – correct me if I’m wrong). It's in the genes. Y chromosomes and X chromosomes.

Wie's foray onto the men's tour will tell girls across the world that, no, boys aren't always so much greater at sports.

Enough playing dolls, let's go to the driving range!

Michelle Wie is doing nothing wrong. She's breaking no rules. She's simply taking the opportunities given to her. For this, she should be embraced, not harangued.

Because there are not many Michelle Wies out there.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

"From mansion to trailer park"

Being from the Midwest, I've grown accustomed to shockingly quick changes in the weather. One October afternoon I'm outside in shorts raking leaves. The next day I'm still doing outdoor work - but with a snow shovel.

The same can be said for the fortunes of a sports team (which is not to say there's any way the Knicks or Celtics will make the playoffs this year - there are, after all, exceptions). One day a team is on top of the world. Everyone's playing exceptional. Everyone gets along - even the team managers hang out with the boys. Everything is bliss.

But then something sudden happens - the sky clouds over - and thanks to that one tiny instant, nothing is the same any longer. There is tension in the locker room. There are fights over meaningless things. Everyone starts playing for themselves instead of the team.

And it all happened so quickly.

Of course this pattern works in the other direction as well. A team can go from a trailer park to the seaside mansion. But that's never as easy. Right now, when looking at the major sports leagues, it's much easier to find instances of the mansion-to-trailer park story.

Let's start in the unpredictable NFL. The Philadelphia Eagles began the season 4-1. Donovan McNabb was arguably the best QB in the NFL. No one in the City of Brotherly Love cared anymore about the whole TO disaster. There was renewed talk about the Eagles making a run in the playoffs. Then they lost three close games, falling to 4-4. But after a 27-3 pasting of Washington, Philly’s hard-to-please fans were still optimistic. After all, McNabb wasn’t just winning games – he was the fantasy football owner’s dream QB.

Then disaster struck. The perfect storm hit Philly and wiped out all hope. And just like with any perfect storm, there was no buildup. The water was calm – except that Philly trailed Tennessee at home on Nov. 19, but, c’mon, this was the Titans, who feature a rookie quarterback. Everything would work out. But then McNabb rolled out to the right on a play from midfield and after not finding a receiver downfield scampered out of bounds. He wasn’t hit, but somehow on that single play he tore his ACL.

Done for the season. Might not even be ready for 2007. And after two losses, the 5-6 Eagles’ 2006 season is all but cooked.

Let’s stay in the NFL but swing over to the AFC and the Rocky Mountains where things are, well, pretty rocky for the Denver Broncos. Just two weeks ago Denver was 7-2 and sitting in a tie for first in the AFC West with the San Diego Chargers. But after back-to-back losses (and two more San Diego wins), the Broncos still have work to do to make the playoffs and they’ll be starting a rookie quarterback against Seattle in a primetime game this Sunday.

Who knows? Maybe the Broncos will salvage their season. But there’s no way I see Jay Cutler leading them to the Super Bowl. Expectations in Denver are a mile lower now than they were a few weeks ago.

All right, let’s move to the hardwood, where the season is still early, but a couple playoff teams from last season are atrophying quicker than a dog can gobble up a left-out piece of chicken.

Just a couple weeks ago the Los Angeles Clippers, at 6-2, were the toast of LA – the city’s best team. That is now hard to believe. The Clippers have dropped five games in a row, they’re 0-6 in road games and… they’re starting to look like the old Clippers. And most of their losses haven’t even been close. Since a 105-101 loss to the Lakers, three of the Clippers’ four defeats have been by double digits.

This is difficult to make sense of, considering the talent on their roster. But as the Knicks will tell you, talent doesn’t mean a damn thing when it comes to success. When Chris Kaman is playing like a dude with a new contract (no passion whatsoever); when Sam Cassell might be finally feeling his age (he missed the team’s loss to Sacramento last night with an ankle sprain); when role players such as Quinton Ross aren’t performing like they did last May… things can change quickly.

Suddenly the Clippers are back to being the Clippers. While the Lakers are back on their pedestal.

Finally, how better to segue from LA than to follow Shaquille O’Neal's tracks to Miami? Despite consecutive wins for the first time this year (over powerhouses Charlotte and Philly) the Heat are still 6-8 and without the injured O’Neal for at least a few more weeks – maybe even until 2007. The only thing the defending champs have going for them is Dwyane Wade, who is carrying them like a father carries his tired son.

Let me put it simply: Wade’s teammates are not inspired like they were last year. Gary Payton, who got his first ring last June, is averaging a paltry 6.9 points and 2.2 assists a game. Antoine Walker, who also got his ring, is playing uninspired. Right now he should be the team's second scoring option, but instead he's averaging just 10.3 points a game on 39 percent shooting, including 21 percent from downtown.
We all know the Heat only care about making the playoffs and then taking work seriously - that's the luxury of playing in the Eastern Conference - but the players better check themselves at some point before April, otherwise they may not be able to find that same magic in the postseason.

Yes, winter has arrived, snow has fallen, and some teams' dispositions have quickly changed from sunny to slushy.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

"Hall of Shame?"

A huge dilemma is brewing in Major League Baseball. And in the coming months, analysts, past players, and fans will try to make it more complicated than it is. They'll say this about one player and this about another.

When in reality all they should say about all of the players is either "yes" or "no."

Yes, beginning in 2007, members of the Steroids Generation in baseball are eligible for induction into the Baseball Hall of Fame. It was announced Monday that Mark McGwire and Jose Canseco - Canseco admitted to steroid use then wrote a book accusing others; McGwire repeatedly refuses to discuss the past despite rather clear evidence of steroid use, although what he took was legal at the time - are on the Hall of Fame ballot for the first time.

And I'm sure others who have played under the dark cloud of the Steroid Era will make the ballot in the years to come. Barry Bonds, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro, to name a few.

We will likely never know for sure if these players took 'roids (although we can be damn close to positive about Palmeiro after his failed drug test and Bonds, the way he has gotten better and bigger with age). The chance of any of these very proud ex-sluggers admitting to using an illegal substance is close to none.

The best thing voters can do is to either say, "I'm going to consider all of them," or, "I'm going to dismiss all of them." There shouldn't be any reading between the lines here. Either vote for the Steroid Generation as you would for another group of players - based on what they did on the baseball field - or don't vote for any of them because they may have cheated to achieve what they did.

Saying things like: "What about what Bonds did before he was on steroids?" just muddies this debate and makes voters stay up way too late at night - it just ain't healthy. Because, for one, you can't really be sure exactly when Bonds started taking steroids. Yes, it is stated in "Game of Shadows," and I certainly would take the word of those two courageous "San Francisco Chronicle" journalists over Bonds' testimony, but again, nothing is ever exact.

And what about the other players? Not every steroid user got a book written about him (in fact, one player had to write his own).

Of course, the difficult part will be weeding out the players who we know positively didn't take steroids during the past 10 or so years. To do this, consider who was in their prime during the Steroid Era - the later 1990s and early part of this century. McGwire, Sosa, Bonds, Palmeiro, Jason Giambi. Not Ken Griffey Jr., not Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken Jr. - both of whom are on the 2007 ballot and will almost certainly deservedly get in.

Any player who was at his peak during the steroid era and has been suspected of steroid use should not be elected. I know this system is flawed, but there really is no easy way to resolve this issue.

At least this way voters don't need to dissect how "suspected users" performed "before use," “during use” and "after use."

Because that’s just way too confusing. I get a migraine simply reading that sentence.

Sunday, November 26, 2006

"Never pencil it in"

The most important lesson I've learned in life didn't occur in a classroom, but rather in the living room of my former middle school basketball coach, Cosey.

Cosey, a basketball man full of knowledge (who knows where Kevin Duckworth went to school), always preached one thing to me when watching a game: "Never pencil it in." In
other words, the game ain't over until the final buzzer sounds, until the clock shows 00:00, until the final out of the ninth inning has been made, until the 18th hole on Sunday is complete. You get the point.

And thanks to Cosey, I've seen some amazing finishes to games that others may have missed out on. A couple of my favorite basketball comebacks: Duke storming back
from 10 down in the final minute to force overtime and beat Maryland about five years back; Tracy McGrady single-handedly bringing Houston back from a 12-point deficit in the final 35 seconds against the Spurs two seasons ago, scoring 13 straight points for an 81-80 victory; Illinois coming back from a 15-point deficit against Arizona
with four minutes left in the Elite Eight two years ago (the Illini won in OT).

Basketball isn't the only sport in which there have been many incredible comebacks. How about football? How about this year? How about yesterday? I didn't see it, but what influenced me to write this column was Tennessee's improbable comeback from a 21-0 hole against the New York Giants - all in the final 10 minutes – to win 24-21. The Titans didn't score until 9:35 remained, and yet they were able to add two more touchdowns and then a field goal with six seconds remaining to embarrass the G-Men (6-5), who had much more to play for than the 4-7 Titans.

And to think that probably half the stadium was empty for this Music City Miracle. Or maybe not. Maybe the fans remembered the franchise's proudest moment - the first Music City Miracle in the 2000 playoffs, when the Titans returned a kickoff for a touchdown on the final play of the game.

Nothing in sports is more exciting than a comeback. Nothing. Baseball has seen its share of comebacks. Even both sides of the Yankees-Red Sox rivalry have experienced the thrill of overcoming enormous odds. Of course we all know the Red Sox Story. Down three games to none in the 2004 ALCS to those hated Yanks and trailing by a run in the bottom of the ninth of Game 4, Dave Roberts scored the tying run and David Ortiz ended it in extras. The Sox also won in extra innings the next night and went on to win the series 4-3.

Now, c'mon. Would that have been as memorable if the Sox had taken it in five games? Nope. No way. That's why the World Series sweep of the Cardinals seemed like a letdown. The ALCS was the real Series. And although the Yankees lost the 2001 World Series, Games 4 and 5 were almost as memorable as Arizona’s Game 7 comeback. The Yankees gave New York something to cheer about less than two months after 9/11, hitting two-run homers on back-to-back nights when they trailed by two runs with two out in the bottom of the ninth. They went on to win both games.

I have always despised the Yankees, but those two nights were pretty special.

Now that Andre Agassi is retired, we can reminisce about his greatest
moments. It wasn't a championship moment, but how about when he came
back from a two-sets-to-none hole against James Blake in the 2005 US
Open to win in five sets. Arthur Ashe Stadium was absolutely rocking.
Sitting 500 miles away watching on TV, I got the chills just watching
it on my old-school 20-inch idiot box.

Golf is different in that you can't mitigate your opponents' play. But that doesn't make a
comeback any less exciting. No golf fan will ever forget the 1996 Masters, where Greg Norman opened the final day with a six-stroke lead, but struggled to a 78. Nick Faldo took the serendipity and ran with it, shooting a 67 to win his third Green Jacket by a whopping five strokes. Just between the ninth and 12th holes, Norman went from three up to two down.

Sports are incredible because on any given day, in any given game, anything can happen. And you have to keep saying that until the final horn.

Most athletes understand this. But not all fans, media members and others do. Sure, players for the Giants were shocked after the game Sunday, feigning disbelief at the catastrophe that had just enveloped them. But members of the Titans weren't saying anything about "shock." They had simply kept playing, never losing hope.

Never penciling it in.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

"Navigating the sports universe"

I was going to write about a specific topic - maybe how there should be a three-team playoff in college football, the Utah Jazz, baseball's moneymakers or the indomitable Tiger - but then I realized just how much is going on in the sports world. So, I figured, why not try to touch on all of it. Try the apple and pecan pie - not just the pumpkin. So grab a turkey sandwich, pour some milk, sit back and enjoy.

"KG's situation"
I can guarantee you this: Kevin Garnett will never win a championship with Minnesota. GM Kevin McHale will never give him the supporting cast he needs, and even if McHale steps down, I don't see a new GM making that happen - especially with the money they're paying KG. Garnett isn't blameless, however. I think the Timberwolves had the talent to win with Cassell and Spreewell, but didn't get it done, as KG struggled in the playoffs. There were times he didn't take the big shot when he should have. KG, who won the league MVP in 2004, is still easily one of the top 10 players in the league. It'll be a shame if we never see him on the big stage though.

"Woe, Gilbert"
Washington's Gilbert Arenas may be averaging 26.2 points and 6.2 assists per game, but he's struggling to lead the 4-9 underachieving Washington Wizards. Maybe that new house with the specially refined air is affecting him. He's shooting a pitiful 38 percent and he hasn't played well on the road, which is why, most likely, Washington is 0-7 away from home. Arenas' shooting performances on the road: 1-12; 2-12; 6-20; 5-19; 7-20; 9-25; 8-26. Arenas needs to shoot the ball much better otherwise the Wiz may end up out of the playoffs, as hard as that is to believe in the atrocious Eastern Conference.

"Yeah, that Eastern Conference...."
The Central Division was supposed to be the NBA's best. Well, not quite. After Saturday’s action its five teams were 33-34 and if not for Indiana's win Friday night, it would have just two winnings squads (9-5 Detroit and 9-5 Cleveland). Miami - somehow - won a championship five months ago with the exact same group of players who have gone 5-8. New Jersey was supposed to be improved with "Vince during contract year" and Marcus Williams spelling Jason Kidd. Hey, at least 5-7 is good enough for first in the Atlantic Division with Philadelphia and Boston tied for second at 5-8. The cumulative record of the teams in the Atlantic? Try 23-42. The only pleasant surprise in the East is Orlando, which is 10-4. And, yet, I've got this feeling that again a team from the East will walk away with the title, making that three in four years.

"Million Dollar Babies"
I must admit: I have been a bit surprised by the amount of dough being thrown at major leaguers older than 28 this off-season. The craziest deal? The Houston Astros dumping $100 million to sign 30-year-old Carlos Lee for six years. Lee is a very good major league hitter. He's hit at least 30 home runs each of the past four seasons. But he's not a great player. He's no Pujols; no Bonds; no Lance Berkman even. Lee, who has played in two All-Star Games, has never been in the top 10 in the league in on-base percentage or slugging percentage. Again, he's good, but not great. I guess this goes back to the lack of a salary cap in baseball. Teams are following George Steinbrenner's lead, dishing out big bucks for anyone they can get.

Take the Cubs, for example. They have already signed Alfonso Soriano (eight years, $136 million) and Aramis Ramirez (five years, $75 million), and many people say they're not done wheeling and dealing. While you can't fault teams taking an aggressive approach to improving (the Cubs will definitely be better in 2007) I wonder whether these spending sprees are the way to go. After all, if you look at recent World Series champions, they didn't necessarily feature lineups full of veteran stars. The MVP of the Cardinals this October was David Eckstein, a feisty leadoff hitter. The White Sox had no proverbial star in 2005 - just a bunch of guys who could manufacture runs and an overachieving pitching staff. The 2003 Marlins had zero big-names. It was just a bunch of young, hungry players. While there is no doubting Lee's and Ramirez's desire to win their first World Series, I think a lot of the time good veteran players are overvalued.

"Can anyone stop Tiger?"
We are currently in golf's "off-season," so it wouldn't be surprising to not hear Tiger Wood's name in the news for a while, maybe until after Christmas. Let the other guys win some tournaments. Give 'em a break. No such luck. Tiger put an exclamation point on a dominating season by winning the Grand Slam of Golf for a record seventh time on Wednesday. And he showed his versatility, too, coming back from a three-stroke deficit to Jim Furyk to claim the tournament. Most of the time Woods grabs a lead early in a tournament and never relinquishes it, but, I surmise, since it was only a two-day event, Woods figured a comeback would make for better theater. In a year in which he suffered through the death of his father, Earl Woods - with whom he was very close - Woods showed amazing resolve, winning eight tournaments, including the British Open and PGA Championship. He is alone in second place on the all-time majors list with 12. Only Jack Nicklaus' 18 stands in front of him.

With the way Woods is playing, I'm saying give him five years and he'll be ahead of Jack.

"Butler wins the NIT Season Tip-Off"
It's not close to March, but the Madness has already begun. The reason I wrote that column about the 'Zags a few days ago? Because I knew the Bulldogs might fall to Butler, which is also the Bulldogs. The undefeated Bulldogs beat Indiana, Notre Dame, Tennessee and the 'Zags to claim the title. Very impressive. It's safe to say that when the real Madness beckons, the Bulldogs - marring an awful rest of the season - will be in the discussion, if they don't win their conference, for an at-large bid.

"Tiki's Take"
Tiki Barber couldn’t have been more correct when he criticized the Giants coaches this week for their playcalling during the Giants' 26-10 loss to Jacksonville Monday night. Barber was frustrated that New York abandoned the running game early after falling behind. He finished with just 27 yards on 10 carries. Coach Tom Coughlin was not pleased with Barber for his comments, but Barber was right in this case. He may be retiring at the end of the season, but right now he's one of the best backs in the league. Unless it's the fourth quarter or the Giants trail by a large margin, Barber should be involved in the game. Barber's 998 yards heading into last weekend was fourth best in the NFL.

Against Jacksonville the Giants trailed just 10-3 at the half and 16-10 after three quarters. Their biggest deficit pre-fourth quarter was 13-3! Run the stinking ball. Eli Manning is a good quarterback, but he's not good when the defense knows what's coming - especially a solid D like the Jaguars'. While Coughlin had to respond to Barber in order to let his team know that he won't tolerate criticism of the coaches' decisions, he should take Barber's words to heart. We'll see if he did this weekend when the Giants travel to Tennessee.

"USC rolls"
I had to delay this column until the end of the Trojans' huge win over the Irish in case something incredible happened - which was not the case. USC dominated the Irish. The Trojans scoring drives looked effortless. When Notre Dame managed to score, it took them forever. They had to exude way more effort than the Trojans. While Dwayne Jarrett's three-TD performance brought back memories of Mike Williams just a few years ago, I was most impressed by the Trojans' defense. With the exception of a long run by Brady Quinn, they did a good job against the run, and their pass coverage was especially impressive. Quinn didn't even complete 50 percent of his passes. I don't think it's as clear anymore that Michigan is the No. 2 team in the land. I would still take the Wolverines over the Trojans - I'd like to see how John David Booty would respond to Michigan's pass rush - but in a close game. That's why there should be a three-team playoff this year. Never gonna happen, but it'd be perfect. Have USC and Michigan play on New Year's Day and then the winner take on the Buckeyes a week later. That'd be the best way to determine the title.

Of course USC hasn't clinched it yet, but a win over UCLA next Saturday will put them in the title game. Don't pencil it in - the Bruins will have had two weeks to prepare - but I'd be shocked if it's a close game. Meanwhile, the SEC contenders proved this weekend why they're not quite on the same level as OSU, USC and Michigan. Arkansas lost any hope of receiving a miracle bid to Glendale after losing to LSU at home. And Florida snuck by the worst Florida State team in decades, 21-14. If USC and Florida win on Saturday, the best scenario would be for the Trojans to go to Glendale and for the one-loss Gators and Wolverines to meet in Pasadena. There definitely should not be a Notre Dame-Michigan rematch in the Rose Bowl. And Florida is the only BCS team out of the top three who could challenge the Wolverines.

"Ready for Bears-Patriots"
I'm expecting a great game in Foxboro this afternoon when the 9-1 Bears tangle with the 7-3 Patriots. New England is obviously back on track after stomping the Packers last week, 35-0, and the Bears? Well they keep on winning. Consecutive wins in New York is not an easy thing to do. Tom Brady taking on the Bears defense should be a heck of a matchup. Chicago is coming off a shutout and expect it to attack Brady, considering New England's lack of a big-play receiver. On the other side of the ball, the Bears' offense was not especially impressive last week, scoring a field goal after an ill-advised onside kick by the Jets and scoring their lone TD on a long pass. Expect them to try to establish the run to take pressure off Rex Grossman. If they can remain balanced, I believe Grossman will make some plays in the second half. Just enough to grab the well-earned victory.

Prediction: Bears 13, Patriots 10

Thursday, November 23, 2006

"What I'm (not) thankful for"

I know Thanksgiving is still being celebrated in America. There's plenty of leftover turkey for sandwiches and the unwanted sweet potatoes will be in the basement 'fridge for days. But, here in Australia, there's no such thing as Thanksgiving. No turkey, no football, no uncles passing out in the love seat.

So, in honor of the country I'm inhabiting, here's a list of things I'm not thankful for in sports.

- Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday night college football
- Barry Bonds' enlarged head.
- Vinny Testaverde still in the NFL at 43 (you're not Morton Anderson!)
- People criticizing Tiki for retiring young
- People who still criticize Barry Sanders for retiring young (he played for the Lions!)
- Commercials before and after kickoffs in the NFL
- The Kansas City Royals (except when they’re playing the Tigers)
- The New York Knicks (except when 5-9 Nate Robinson blocks Yao straight up)
- My hometown Detroit Lions
- My hometown Detroit Lions getting beat by their old QB, Joey Harrington, on Thanksgiving (ouch!!)
- The Arizona Cardinals (a moveable stadium wouldn't save this franchise)
- Adam Morrison's mustache
- Bob Knight's outbursts
- John Calipari. Period
- John Chaney not coaching Temple
- Temple football
- Duke football (even worse now than Temple)
- North Carolina football
- Doping in cycling
- Doping in track and field
- Athletes denying they doped (when it's obvious)
- Coaches who encourage their athletes to dope (Trevor Graham, anyone?)
- Greg Anderson being owned by Bonds
- MLB players getting way-too-big contracts (Soriano, Soriano, Soriano)
- The Chicago White Sox changing the starting time of their night games to 7:11 p.m. since 7-Eleven is sponsoring them
- Ballparks named after banks
- Ballparks named after orange juice
- Ballparks named after anything corporate
- Tearing down Tiger Stadium
- The Yankees leaving Yankee Stadium
- The Mets leaving Shea Stadium
- Anyone who thinks of the Red Sox leaving Fenway or the Cubs leaving Wrigley
- Long breaks between games in series during the two-month-long NBA playoffs
- The referees during the NBA playoffs
- Giving D-Wade star treatment during the NBA playoffs
- The new no-tolerance rule in the NBA (although they're letting up a little)
- The new ball
- Whatever Kenny Rogers had on his hand
- Derek Jeter not winning an MVP in 10 seasons (although I despise the Yankees)
- The Red Sox spending as much as the Yankees
- Playing four NFL pre-seasons games
- The fact that Roger Federer will someday have to retire from tennis
- The fact that Tiger Woods will someday have to retire from golf
- Latrell Spreewell (did he retire? How's he gonna feed the family?)
- Eddie Griffin
- Watching KG continue to get no support on the T-Wolves in his 10th season
- The thought of KG never winning a championship
- The thought of AI never winning a championship
- The thought of Peyton Manning never winning a Super Bowl
- Any extraordinary athlete never winning a championship
- The 2006-2007 pitiful Miami Heat
- Athletes riding motorcycles
- Athletes driving drunk
- Detroit Lions' assistant coaches driving drunk
- TO being singled out
- TO adding more charcoal to the fire
- TO writing children's books
- TO not wishing McNabb the best after McNabb tore his ACL
- Schools with 0 percent graduation rates for their basketball teams
- College coaches who use players and then forget about them
- Universities who use players and then forget about them
- People who say college athletics isn't a big-money business
- Telecasts that don't cut away from the blowout to give you bonus coverage of the close game (not everyone has Direct TV)
- The New York Knicks (did I mention them?)
- The lack of minorities in front-office jobs
- The lack of interest in baseball in the inner cities
- The lack of kids playing sports for fun anymore
- Parents who live through their kids' athletic feats
- Parents who pull guns on coaches or refs over nothing
- Parents who do anything other than simply support their kid and let him or her play
- LeBron driving a Hummer
- Roger Clemens owning six Hummers
- Anybody driving a Hummer
- Fans who interrupt a game
- Fans who berate players without having a clue what it's like to play
- Fans who attend a game for the food
- Fans who attend a game to get drunk
- The "real" fans not getting to see the NBA All-Star Game because all the celebrities take up the seats
- The Pro Bowl
- The two zillion college football post-season games
- The winner of the All-Star Game getting home-field advantage in the WS
- The BCS
- A playoff system (which would still cause controversy)
- The BCS title game being played Jan. 8
- Any bowl game played before my birthday (Dec. 24)
- When a team or player I like is on the cover of SI
- The Madden Jinx
- The Williams sisters falling off the face of the earth
- Watching cricket matches
- Box seats at Fenway eclipsing the $100 mark
- Comerica Park (especially the mile-away upper deck)
- The whole Duke lacrosse mess
- Boston College in the ACC
- Marquette and Cincinnati in the Big East
- Conference USA being dried up
- Teams that run up the score
- Players who pad their stats (ummm.... Ricky Davis)
- Michael Jordan in a front office and not on the court
- Chewing tobacco over Big League Chew
- Anyone who says a game is over when it's not (don't EVER pencil it in)
- Anyone who leaves a game early
- Anyone who doesn't want to move down when there are clearly empty seats closer to the playing surface
- Point guards who shoot too much
- Centers who don't average seven-plus rebounds
- The Sean Bradleys of the world
- Owners who refuse to do anything (ummm... William Clay Ford Sr.)
- GM's who are awful and get new contracts (ummm... Matt Millen)
- Anyone against a rematch
- Having to wait two full days until USC-Notre Dame
- Having to wait three full days for more NFL action
- Only having Miami-Boston College to watch on Thanksgiving night because Denver-Kansas City was on the NFL Network
Wait... I'm in Australia. There is no Thanksgiving anyway. OK, how about "University of Miami football. Period"

Fine. That's how I'm closing the list - with images of Larry Coker floating through my head. Yeah, life sans Thanksgiving is definitely a hurricane.

"Never underestimate the 'Zags"

Conversation last night between Gonzaga basketball fans after 82-74 win over No. 2 North Carolina:

Fan No. 1: "Um, Adam Morrison, you remember him?"
Fan No. 2: "Yeah, vaguely, pretty good player. Remember he sported a famous mustache."
Fan No. 1: "Oh, yeah, that's right. I think he could shoot too, but really don't recall much about his game."
Fan No. 2: "It seems like he was here such a long time ago. Or maybe my memory's fading..."

Yes, Gonzaga fans are no longer mourning the departure of Morrison for the NBA draft last spring (Morrison, by the way, scored 26 points last night in a Charlotte Bobcats victory). After the 23rd-ranked 'Zags shocking (but not so shocking) win over the Tar Heels, all is well in Bulldogs' land.

And, really, it's quite amazing. You - definitely - can no longer calle Gonzaga a mid-major school. Sure, it competes in the West Coast Conference. But that's about the only thing that could classify Gonzaga as a mid-major anymore.

The 'Zags even have a new arena - completed in 2004 - called the McCarthey Athletic Center that is similar to those of top-notch programs in bigger conferences.

But, mostly, the Bulldogs have eclipsed mid-major status because every time we - the media - think they're going to have a down year, every time we believe they're going to take off the proverbial glass slipper, every time they lose their best
player(s)... they don't miss a step.

But, surely, this has to be the year. I mean, they lost Adam Morrison, one of the two best players in the country last year. He was Gonzaga last season. They rode his coattails to victory and they rode his missed jumped shots to defeat.

There's no doubt Duke isn't the same team it was last year after losing the nation's other best player - J.J. Redick - to the NBA. They already have a loss.

But not 5-0 Gonzaga. Last night they hampered Tyler Hansbrough, one of the best players in the country. They swarmed him, holding him to just one field goal and seven points - well below his 22.3 ppg. average. These 'Zags were far from flustered after falling behind 10-0 to the mighty Heels.

They stormed back, led by senior point guard Derek Raivio - the only name on this year's squad I recall from a year ago - who led them with 21 points, including five 3-pointers. Four 'Zags scored in double figures. Everyone contributed.

The Bulldogs led by double figures for much of the second half before allowing a brief UNC comeback that made the game's final moments tense. But this was the 'Zags game, their annual chance to prove that, yes, they're back, that, yes, they're not going anywhere.

The average basketball fan would have trouble naming a single player onthis Gonzaga team. The average basketball fan may not even know exactly where on the west coast Gonzaga is located (in Spokane, Wash.).

Well, they better learn soon. Because Gonzaga is on the big-time basketball map to stay.

"A cup of tea and a short match of cricket"

Do you doze off during three-and-a-half-hour college football games? Are you bored to death by scoreless soccer games? Do you scream at the TV every time a veteran pitcher takes 30 seconds between pitches?

Great. Good. I do too. But you ain't experienced nothin', mate! Come to Australia, watch one cricket match, and you'll be begging for a Toledo-Bowling Green Tuesday night football game.

The length of a cricket match? Well, there are one-day matches, which usually run about six hours. But currently The Ashes, a Test Series match between Australia and England, is taking place. Today was the first day. The Ashes is like a five-game series in the MLB playoffs. Only there's one catch: Each "game" is five days. And - just a reminder - each day takes about six hours.

So, you think, nobody could possibly watch this. Nobody could possibly sit through this. Oh, c'mon, grow up. Every day of the Ashes is sold out. More than 40,000 attended Day 1. And everybody in the office here was listening on their computers, pretending to do work like we Yankees do during March Madness.

Blokes in Australia love their cricket like a good Yankee loves their baseball.

But cricket is just so... wack.

An inning in baseball is an "innings" in cricket. An out in cricket is celebrated like a Kansas City Royals victory at Kauffman Stadium. You really should see it. Since outs happen about once every two hours, the 11 players on the fielding team hug each other for 10 minutes before they realize that they still need nine more outs.

Yes, teams need 10 - not three - outs to end an innings.

A run in cricket is about as exciting as a popup in baseball. It usually involves the batter hitting the ball and running to the wicket opposite him while the "non-batter" runs to his wicket. But there are a million other ways to get a run. It's not quite as simple as crossing home plate.

There are no "first base" and "home plate" in cricket. Just wickets, which the "bowling" team tries to knock over.

Cricket may be boring, bland, as exciting as a neurology conference, but it definitely trumps American sports when it comes to breaks in the action. While all us Yanks can come up with is the seventh-inning stretch, at cricket matches there are tea breaks and a lunch break. The players actually get to take a reprieve, grab some crumpets and kick back and relax.

After the strike in 1994, MLB could have instituted tea breaks during the games (maybe after the third and sixth innings?) to revive interest in the sport. Stadiums could have offered $1 hot dogs and $3 beers during these breaks. That way, baseball fans wouldn't have needed the 'Roids Rage to bring them back to the ballpark.

No Sammy, no Big Mac? Who gives a hoot? We've got tea!

Outfielders could probably learn some great passing-time techniques from cricketers. After all, there are 11 players on the bowling team at a time, but only the bowler bowls, the wicket-keeper occasionally catches, and once in a blue moon a fielder has to chase down a ball.

Hey, Milton Bradley, you think it's tough standing in that Bay Area sun for 30 minutes? Try six hours. Try going that long without abusing a voluble fan.

Watching cricket teaches you life lessons. It teaches you patience. It teaches you focus (never know when that out's gonna occur!). And it teaches you to take back what you've always said: that you'd never meet a sports competition you wouldn't enjoy watching.

It also makes a college football game seem as long as a Jennifer Lopez marriage and a scoreless soccer match as entertaining as a Tyson-Holyfield fight.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

"Trying to lose?"

We've heard athletes and coaches say it over and over and over again. In post-game interviews, in press conferences, whenever they're interviewed: "All that matters is winning"... "As long as we win I'm happy"... etc., etc.

So, naturally - having been brainwashed - I am a bit surprised when I see things that make me believe a team and organization are not trying to win. A small example to begin with: The Minnesota Vikings were trailing the Miami Dolphins 24-13 this past Sunday in a very important game for Minnesota, which is trying to get back into the wildcard picture in the NFC.

Anyway, the Vikings were driving in the final minute. Their chances of winning the game were not good - but stranger things have happened. There were seven seconds remaining and Minnesota had the ball at the Miami 1-yard line. Now, obviously, they needed two scores. So that would entail a quick touchdown, an onside kick (which, on average, takes 1-4 seconds to recover), and a Hail Mary pass. Again, very, very unlikely, but possible ("We'll do whatever it takes to win").

So what did the Vikings do? Not a quick slant, not a quick out. No, they ran a play-action rollout play, which took six seconds. And they didn't even score. Of course, they punched it in on the next play.

But the game was over. Case closed. Time to hit the showers.

Again, I know I'm being nit-picky here, but if professional teams really do want to win every game, the Vikings would have continued to try in those final seconds instead of running a stupid play that decreased their chance of winning from .1 percent to 0 percent.

All right, enough of that.

To move on to bigger and badder things, let's stay in the NFC North where the Detroit Lions are hanging in their usual spot: at the bottom of the standings of the worse division in football. At 2-8, Detroit has no use in playing out the season (except, maybe, to get that No. 1 draft pick - but there are no receivers that good this year).

Ok, no more wide receiver jokes. I promise. The Lions organization is a perfect example for this column. In fact, it made this column. If not for the Lions, I wouldn't be writing this - although I really was enraged with the Vikings' play-call on Sunday.

The Lions' problems are not on the field so much as they are upstairs. Current general manager Matt Millen is an absolute joke. He's been with the Lions for 90 games. They are 23-67. They haven't made the playoffs once. They haven't won more than six games in a season and have suffered two-win and three-win seasons. You get the picture.

And yet Lions owner William Clay Ford Sr. refuses to rid of Millen. Millen continues to bring in new coach after new coach (he's on his third helping with Rod Marinelli); he's drafted a bevy of malcontents (Charles Rogers; Mike Williams, unless he shapes up). And he's cast a dark cloud over this organization. It got so bad last year that before and after the team's final home game fans marched up and down the streets outside Ford Field yielding anti-Millen signs.

Ford could have possibly saved the franchise by ditching Millen before this season. No such luck for Lions fans.

Ford is ridiculously loyal to Millen, and right there, Lions fans, you have your recipe for disaster.

No, it wasn't quarterback Joey Harrington, who's returning Thursday as the starting quarterback of the Miami Dolphins, a franchise that actually carries a sense of hope. No, the Lions' struggles this season are not because Shaun Rogers flunked a drug test (although that is pretty sad).

I rarely blame losing on someone who doesn't play or stand on the sideline. But in this case, it's too obvious. Millen's coaches haven't succeeded. His draft picks have dogged it. His teams have had chemistry issues. He hasn't done a damn thing right in nearly six years.

And the Lions keep on losing. I found it kind of eerie when I visited the team's official website and couldn't find a link to the Lions' season-by-season records. There was every other possible statistic - but no records. Obviously, not just the fans are embarrassed by their team.

Hopefully Clay's cheeks will begin to redden. Only then, maybe, would he consider throwing Millen into the cold, giving this franchise a chance to win.

Maybe it'll be after Thanksgiving. Could things get any worse than Harrington returning to Detroit and winning?

We shall see.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

"Falling of the Bulls"

Living in Australia, where the main sports are rugby and Australian rules football, there isn't exactly a lot of interest in the NBA (although I think I saw a Paul Pierce jersey the other night). Because of this - big surprise - NBA games on television are few and far between.

Last night I was lucky enough - at least I thought at the time - to catch the Chicago Bulls-Los Angeles Lakers game. It was the first NBA game I'd watched live since Game 6 of the Finals in June.

I needed my NBA fix.

Instead, after watching a quarter-and-a-half of basketball, I realized that the only people who need a fix are the players on the Chicago Bulls.

Chicago looked awful in the 82-72 loss. The Bulls shot jump shot after jump shot, and they bricked most of them. When I checked the box score after the game I was actually surprised that the Bulls even shot 33.8 percent. I had projected around 30 percent. The only bright spot was Andres Nocioni, who shot 50 percent - 11-for-22 - and scored 30 points. Only one other Bull - Luol Deng - scored in double figures, with 13, and he was a grimy 5-for-16 from the field.

Ben Wallace - I repeat, Ben Wallace!!! - was the only Bull to shoot upward of 50 percent. He was a nice 3-for-5 for eight points.

The Bulls are now 3-7 about an eighth of the way through the season and I'm already regretting my pre-season prediction of them finishing fifth in the Eastern Conference. This team is not playoff material right now, and I honestly don't see them becoming playoff material unless they make a trade in the next few months.

Before the season I shook off the nagging voice in my head telling me the Bulls wouldn't be able to score consistently without an inside threat. "But they have a great defense and plenty of shooters," I told the voice. "They'll be fine. They did all right with this system last year."

I should have listened to that voice. The Bulls are finally facing the consequences of having absolutely no inside offensive threat. Chicago's inside players - Wallace, PJ Brown and rookie Tyrus Thomas - scored a combined 10 points last night. Ten points. Nocioni is listed as a small forward, but he plays mostly on the outside. Eighteen of his 30 points came from behind the 3-point arc.

The Bulls' guards aren't even getting to the hole. Last year I admired the courage shown by small guys Kirk Hinrich and Ben Gordon as they attacked the basket possession after possession, drawing fouls on the opposing big men. Last night the Bulls went to the free-throw line a mere 19 times compared to 29 attempts by the Lakers. And six of those free throws were attempted by Wallace, one of the five worst free-throw shooters in the league.

To summarize, the Bulls offense is about as threatening as a prairie dog in a cage. They're averaging 93.7 points a game, fifth worst in the league. They're shooting 44.1 percent from the field, seventh worst in the league. I could throw more stats at you, but I don't want to cause any sickness.

But one of the things I said to myself before the season was: "The Bulls defense will keep them in any game, even if their throwing up bricks every time down the floor. They've got Ben Wallace!"

Well, Chicago's defense is in the top half of the league. They're giving up 93.6 points a game. But they're not exactly intimidating opponents. Last night I was shocked when Kwame "was he really a No. 1 draft pick?" Brown caught a pass from Kobe Bryant just inside the free-throw line and soared over Nocioni for a rim-rattling jam. Because I didn't catch the game's first half, I missed a Smush Parker dunk over Wallace. For those of you unfamiliar with Smush, he's a 6-foot-4 guard. Not exactly another KG.

Nobody is afraid of Chicago's defense and nobody even has to prepare for Chicago's offense. They know what to expect: jump shots, jump shots, and more jump shots. And, maybe, a few Wallace free-throw bricks.

It's a sad sight to watch. Here, the Bulls signed Wallace for $52 million and the city of Chicago was thinking, "Finally, after eight years of suffering, we may be on our way back to the glory days." The United Center crew was prepared to play the song "We are the Champions" once again.

No one's thinking such thoughts anymore. Yes, the season's early. The Bulls could turn this ship around. But it's unlikely. And they're definitely not a championship contender.

Oh, well. At least there's the Bears

Monday, November 20, 2006

"NFL Week 11 wrap-up"

"Eagles done"
You can take one team off the list of Super Bowl contenders. The Philadelphia Eagles. After losing star quarterback Donovan McNabb to a season-ending ACL injury in a loss to Tennessee yesterday, Philly is done. At 5-5, they could, possibly, still make the playoffs with Jeff Garcia at the helm. But even then, it would just be cutting into their vacation time. Philadelphia sans McNabb is nothing better than a middle-of-the-pack team. And no one will be scared of Philly the rest of the year.

"Wacky NFC South"
Does anybody want to win this division? Despite the talented teams here, it's beginning to look like the NFC North. OK, maybe not that bad. But it's not living up to expectations. As it stands right now:

Carolina 6-4
New Orleans 6-4
Atlanta 5-5
Tampa Bay 3-7

I fully expect the Panthers to pull away because they are the best team and they have momentum (having won two straight games rather handily), but then again, things are so wacky down south, anything could happen. And momentum means nothing in the NFL. If the Buccaneers had one more win, I'd be tempted to say they've got a chance to steal the division.

New Orleans and Atlanta meet in the Georgia Dome next Sunday. That game should tell us something. If Atlanta loses, I think they're done. Injuries have decimated the Falcons' D, their running game is nonexistent, and Michael Vick got sacked five times Sunday. That's not supposed to happen to Michael Vick. New Orleans, on the other hand, somehow got blown out by Cincinnati at home despite Drew Brees throwing for 510 yards. I never know what to expect from the Saints. But I do know their defense isn't very strong. So that leaves the Panthers, who shut out St. Louis 15-0 yesterday. I'm picking them. But for all I know, they could end up missing the playoffs.

"Wacky NFC West"
This division is even more confusing. The San Francisco 49ers - who won six games the past two seasons combined - are somehow 5-5 after defeating the Seahawks 20-14 yesterday. And they're just a game back of Seattle (6-4). Meanwhile, the Rams, who began the season 4-1, have dropped five in a row - including two two-point losses to the Seahawks - and they're likely out of the race along with the 2-8 Cardinals.

It's hard to imagine the 49ers winning the division - especially with Seattle QB Matt Hasselbeck expected to return soon from injury - but with another game against Seattle in December and home games against the lowly Packers and Cardinals, you can't rule them out. QB Alex Smith isn't making mistakes - he was an efficient 19-of-25 for 163 yards, a touchdown and no interceptions yesterday - and Frank Gore is quietly becoming one of the league's best backs. His ability probably can't be hidden any longer, however. Not after his 212-yard performance yesterday.

My prediction: The Seahawks will get it together and hold off the 49ers. But the fact that I'm even discussing San Fran at this point in the season is a credit to that team.

"Indy finally loses"
Better sooner than later. After the Colts fell to the Cowboys 21-14 yesterday, I firmly believe that. Last season Indy went 13-0 before finally falling to San Diego and Seattle in back-to-back weeks. The Colts - having wrapped up home-field advantage throughout the playoffs - didn't play their starters much in their regular-season finale against Arizona. And you know what happened against Pittsburgh in the playoffs. They were flat-out rusty until the fourth quarter.

The Colts' loss yesterday not only gets the burden of going undefeated off their shoulders, it also gives them six weeks to get their play up to the level it will need to be at in the playoffs. Another plus for the Colts is the challenge they're getting from Baltimore and San Diego in the AFC. Both teams are 8-2 and just a game back of Indy. The longer the Colts have to play meaningful games, the better off they are. It is essential that they enter the playoffs playing their best football of the season.

"Monday Night prediction"
New York Giants (6-3) at Jacksonville Jaguars (5-4)
Having likely lost quarterback Byron Leftwich for the season this week due to ankle surgery, the Jaguars are going to play inspired football in front of the home crowd. And QB David Garrard won't have to worry about Leftwich breathing down his back, like in past weeks. He's Jacksonville's QB for the rest of the season. He'll relax and play one of his best games. The Giants will put up a great fight, getting another solid game from Tiki Barber, but in the end the Jags will rebound from last week's loss to Houston.
- Jacksonville 24, New York 17

"Ravens are Super contenders"

A year ago I picked the Baltimore Ravens to go to the Super Bowl. I didn't bet money or anything, but I told all my boys, "The Ravens, watch out for them come January."

Um, I won't go into all the jibing I received throughout the season as the Ravens absolutely stunk, finishing 6-10. One of the reasons I had picked them was their "stellar defense," led by Ray Lewis, the most intimidating player in the league, and Ed Reed, possibly the league's best safety.

But Baltimore gave up 299 points, the most in three years. That's nearly 19 points a game. And that's definitely not Baltimore football.

I think that D struggled because Baltimore's offense wasn't giving it any reason to be auspicious. Quarterback Kyle Boller continued to struggle, Jamaal Lewis wasn't his old self and Baltimore had no legitimate receiving threats besides tight end Todd Heap. Baltimore scored just 265 points (16.5 ppg).

I'm not gonna throw cliches at you, but it can't be denied that a good offense makes life much easier for a team's defense. Even if the offense drives 40 yards only to turn the ball over or miss a field goal, it's giving the defensive players time to rest. This was not the case last year, as 3-and-outs in Baltimore were as common as crushing hits by Ray Lewis usually are.

It was not a pretty situation in Baltimore - which, remember - is just six years removed from a Super Bowl victory. That team was led by a stingy defense and a quarterback who did just enough but didn't try to do too much: Trent Dilfer.

It became obvious last season that Baltimore was going to need more than a Trent Dilfer - and conspicuously an upgrade from Boller - at QB to contend for a Super Bowl again.

And then Steve McNair fell into the Ravens' lap.

After a dispute with the Titans, McNair signed with Baltimore. McNair has meshed really well with Derrick Mason, who was McNair's teammate in Tennessee for eight years, and McNair has also found a favorite target in second-year-man Mark Clayton out of Oklahoma.

Also, Jamaal Lewis is regaining his form. While I don't always agree with Tony Siragusa, I couldn't argue with the sideline reporter when he told the Fox audience watching yesterday's Baltimore-Atlanta game that Lewis looked better than he had in a long time.

Helped by Lewis' three touchdowns, the Ravens easily defeated Atlanta 24-10 to improve to 8-2. They hold a commanding three-game lead over the Bengals in the AFC Central Division.

And they're one of the true Super Bowl contenders out there. They have the formula for success.

Great defense; good running game; veteran quarterback; receivers who can make plays.

It's amazing how things can change in just a year, isn't it? Maybe that's why Lions fans return to Ford Field every September hoping for a miracle from their moribund team.

But this Baltimore team wasn't lacking in talent last season. It just didn't have the mentality to go out and win football games. The offense's struggles wore on the defense, which didn't have the fire it usually has.

Yesterday the Ravens were without Ray Lewis, who was relegated to a cheerleader on the sideline. Yet that defense didn't need a pep talk from its leader. It harassed Michael Vick all game, sacking him five times and allowing just 127 passing yards.

Even in the final few minutes, with Baltimore comfortably ahead 24-10, Lee Suggs dragged Vick down from behind, adding an exclamation point to the Ravens victory.

Nobody picked this team to go to the Super Bowl before the season, not even me. Some forecasted the playoffs, others didn't. The expectations in Baltimore were higher than those for the town's other professional team, MLB's Orioles, but not by much.

Well, expectations have been raised. By a lot.

And with good reason. With Indianapolis' loss to Dallas yesterday, Baltimore (along with San Diego) is just a game back of the Colts in the AFC.

And last year's vacation from good football in Baltimore is history.

"Hail to the computers"

I was wrong.

I thought Michigan would fall in the BCS after its close 42-39 loss to Ohio State Saturday evening. Even though the Wolverines are clearly the second-best team in the land, I thought they'd fall at least one spot in the BCS. After all, one-third of the BCS is comprised of computer rankings that don't take into account what we all know: if Michigan played USC, it would probably win; if Michigan played Florida, it would probably win. You get the picture.

But, lo and behold, the computers might have saved the Wolverines. While Michigan is third in this week's coaches’ poll - which factors into the BCS formula, unlike the AP poll that has Michigan second - it remains second in the BCS, barely, over USC because the computers favor it. USC holds a slight edge over Michigan in the third component of the BCS, the Harris poll.

The top three play out like this: Ohio State 1.000; Michigan .9263; USC .9188. It isn't difficult to see that the Trojans are just a hair behind the Wolverines, and they will undoubtedly jump Michigan if they win against Notre Dame (fifth in the BCS) Saturday night.

But if the Trojans lose? Well, we could be set for a rematch come Jan. 8 of Saturday’s Thriller in Columbus.

There's no way Notre Dame will jump Michigan with a win over USC. I just can't see it happening. And Florida and Arkansas in the SEC are too far back. Nothing is for sure until things are announced on Dec. 3, but it looks like either USC (which also has to play UCLA on the road Dec. 2) or Michigan will be tangling with the Buckeyes.

I never thought I'd say this, but hail to the computers. They may not have brains; they may not have perspective; but, somehow, they know who the two best teams in football are.

At least for a week.

So, now, believe it or not, Michigan fans will be rooting for the Irish on Saturday. It won't be easy - they may even gag a few times - but, remember, it's for the good of the Wolverines.

A chance at a historic rematch.

Some fellow Michiganders are worried that if Michigan ends up in the championship game and wins, it won't be a legitimate championship. I can see where they're coming from, but at the same time, consider this: Whoever plays the Buckeyes will have one loss (sorry, Boise State). So if that team wins they will have an identical record to Ohio State.

And all of the other teams' losses aren't nearly as impressive as Michigan's. Not that anybody would ever call a loss "impressive."

Also, a rematch in the title game isn't foreign (although it has never happened during the 10-year BCS era). In 1996 Florida lost to Florida State in the regular season before coming back to wallop the Seminoles in the Sugar Bowl and win the outright championship.

You can't take the Big Ten championship away from Ohio State. The Buckeyes earned their first outright title since 1984 and I'm sure they'll cherish it for years to come - regardless of the result of the Fiesta Bowl.

And you won't be able to take away the national title from whoever wins on Jan. 8. They will deserve it and they'll certainly cherish it for years to come.

Hopefully the coaches’ poll and Harris poll will follow the computers' lead, placing a deserving potential champion across from the Buckeyes.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

"College football wrap-up"

What a Saturday in college football. As much as it pains me to punch the keys after a Michigan loss, there still is a lot that can happen in the next two weekends. Nothing is certain except that the Buckeyes are headed to Glendale. With that said, here's my BCS outlook.

I said it in my previous column: I think a Michigan-Ohio State rematch should happen on Jan. 8. This unlikely scenario would have been helped by a USC loss to Cal tonight, but the Trojans scored 14 points in the fourth quarter to pull out a 23-9 win. The Trojans will be No. 2 in the BCS this week, heading into their matchup with Notre Dame next Saturday. And if USC gets by the Irish and then UCLA a week later, it'll be playing the Buckeyes. No questions there.

But what if Notre Dame wins Saturday? How can the BCS take the Irish over the Wolverines, who demolished them 47-21 back in September? Unlike in past seasons, Notre Dame's resume isn't that strong. Its biggest win was its opening-game victory over Georgia Tech on the road. It beat No. 19 Penn State a week later, but the Nittany Lions (8-4) are no longer ranked (and Michigan also defeated PSU). The Irish needed a late touchdown to sneak by a weak UCLA team (currently 6-5) and 24 unanswered fourth-quarter points to sneak by 4-8 Michigan State, which Michigan killed 31-13. Besides that, their wins have come over Purdue (8-4), Stanford (1-10), Navy (8-3), UNC (2-9), Air Force (4-6) and Army (3-8).

To summarize, out of the 10 teams Notre Dame has defeated, only five currently sport winning records. The cumulative record of Notre Dame's opponents is 51-59. Not exactly impressive.

While Michigan's schedule hasn't been stalwart, they weren't really threatened in any of their wins, which included the blowout in South Bend and a home win over now-No. 12 Wisconsin (11-1) which in just about any other year would be headed to a BCS bowl instead of the Citrus Bowl. The fact that just four of Michigan's wins came over teams that currently hold winning records is deceiving. Minnesota and Iowa are both 6-6 and Indiana is 5-7. The overall record of the 10 teams Michigan destroyed is 69-60.

OK, enough numbers. I think it's pretty obvious - even if the Irish defeat USC next week - that the Wolverines deserve the championship game over the Irish.

As far as Florida and Arkansas are concerned, anyone who has watched the two teams play and watched Michigan knows who's better. The Gators needed three blocked kicks to sneak past South Carolina (6-5) a week ago and they only have two quality wins, defeating Tennessee by a point and LSU by 13. A win over Georgia does not look as impressive as in other years because of the 7-4 Bulldogs' struggles. Florida's victory this weekend came over I-AA West Carolina, which is 2-9.

While Arkansas has put together a great season, not losing since it was pasted back in September by USC 50-14, its body of work is still not as impressive as Michigan's. I'll be higher on the Razorbacks if they can get by No. 9 LSU on Friday and then beat Florida in the SEC title game.

I'd be more inclined to put Arkansas against the Buckeyes than the Gators. But Arkansas over Michigan? Forget about it.

Anyway, for Michigan to make the trip to Glendale, here is what I think needs to happen:
- USC loses one of last two games (vs. Notre Dame; at UCLA)
- if Notre Dame wins Saturday, it is very close and not that impressive
- Arkansas loses to LSU on Friday
- Arkansas defeats Florida in the SEC championship game
- Florida loses to Florida State on Saturday and Arkansas loses to LSU or Florida

I'll be rooting for this to happen, but as you can see, there are a lot of "ifs."

On another note, how can you not feel a little sorry for Wisconsin. Almost any year an 11-1 record will get a Big Ten team into a BCS bowl. But the Badgers find themselves in the Citrus Bowl, where they will face a team with at least two losses. True, the Badgers didn't have to play Ohio State. But, still, finishing with that record in the Big Ten is impressive. Even in a weaker-than-usual Big Ten.

Finally, Rutgers came down to earth Saturday, getting ripped apart by 6-5 Cincinnati (and its backup QB) 30-11. Now we won't have to worry about Rutgers fans complaining when their team is left out of the title game. If that Rutgers-Buckeyes matchup did occur, my prediction: 49-14 OSU.

That's enough college football for now. These next two weeks should be very interesting.

"Unlikely rematch should happen"

It's sad that it's not likely going to happen. Although the new BCS rankings haven't come out, it is very unlikely that Michigan will meet Ohio State again on Jan. 8 in the Fiesta Bowl.

The Buckeyes will probably face off against USC, Notre Dame, Florida or Arkansas instead. These are all good teams, but none of them is the No. 2 team in the country. Most experts won't debate this.

Michigan is No. 2. All you had to do was watch the Buckeyes' 42-39 victory Saturday evening to know this. Yesterday's contest reminded me of a thrilling game that was played last January. Yep, the USC-Texas national title game.

It was back and forth. Michigan took the early lead (as did Texas); the Buckeyes came back to snatch a two-possession advantage (as did USC); Michigan made a late charge (as did Texas); but then the Wolverines ran out of time (if only they had held on to just one timeout, they could have gotten the ball back at the end).

I bet if Michigan had five additional minutes it would have gotten the ball back and scored the go-ahead touchdown (just like Texas did).

This was a national title game. Simple as that. No Ohio State-USC matchup will live up to yesterday's barnburner. There were great plays on both sides as well as great coaching. Jim Tressel came out with an excellent game plan offensively, spreading out Michigan's suspect secondary with four- and five-wide-receiver sets. This resulted in a 28-14 halftime lead for the Buckeyes.

But Michigan's D didn't lie down, coming out in the second half and forcing an interception and recovering two botched snaps by the Buckeyes. If not for a long Antonio Pittman touchdown scamper in the third quarter and Shawn Crable's helmet-to-helmet hit on Troy Smith on a third down late in the fourth quarter - which resulted in an automatic first down and, a few plays later, the clinching touchdown - the Wolverines shut down the Buckeyes in the second half.

Defensive coordinator Ron English - whom Michigan MUST hold onto for years to come - made some adjustments at the half, as his boys got more pressure on Smith during the final 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, the Michigan offense was able to move the ball on almost every drive. Only a couple of missed opportunities stalled Michigan drives. In the first half Chad Henne overthrew a wide-open Mario Manningham, who was on an island by himself after deking the entire Buckeyes' secondary with one of his amazing double moves. Then in the second half the Wolverines called a deep pass on a third-and-one when Hart was having no trouble picking up yards.

Michigan was as good as the Buckeyes on Saturday - except for a few plays. Three of Ohio State's touchdowns were 39 yards or longer.

Yes, the Buckeyes exposed flaws in Michigan's stalwart defense, which entered the game leading the nation in rushing yards allowed. Yes, you have to give the Buckeyes credit for making the plays when they mattered most.

But this game was just as close as that USC-Texas matchup last Jan. 4. And this game should be played again. Because, like I said coming into yesterday's contest, I (and every other analyst or fan) wouldn't know what to expect on Jan. 8. Would the Buckeyes come back with the spread offense? How would Michigan adjust its defensive strategy? Given more than six weeks, the coaches on both staffs would undoubtedly come up with excellent game plans.

And on Jan. 8 we would get to experience this again. Another epic classic.

Something the Trojans, Fighting Irish, Gators or Razorbacks simply wouldn't be able to provide.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

"Friday night wrap-up"

Well, folks, it's the weekend, and what a weekend it'll be. A slew of huge college football games hit us tomorrow- most notably UM-Ohio State and USC-Cal - and then Sunday there are several important games in the NFL for teams trying to position themselves for a run at the playoffs. And, of course, there are several NBA and college basketball games, and we'll see how Tiger responds to actually finishing second in a tournament last weekend.

But, first, let's wrap up the week.

The Utah Jazz are on fire. After defeating Seattle tonight, they are 8-1. Carlos Boozer is playing like Tim Duncan and second-year point guard Deron Williams is playing well beyond his years. Just look at his 27-point, 8-assist performance tonight. I'll be interesting to see how tomorrow's matchup between Utah and Phoenix turns out.

"The Diesel" is out. Shaquille O'Neal is undergoing knee surgery and will be out four-to-six weeks for a struggling Miami team. Sans O'Neal, the Heat were embarrassed by the Knicks at home tonight, 100-76, as they scored 27 points in the second half. The Heat better start playing with some fire, otherwise when O'Neal returns in January they could be fighting just to make the playoffs. It all starts with Dwyane Wade. If he wants to truly be considered one of the all-time greats, he needs to take a leadership role and get into his teammates about how they're playing. Michael Jordan never would have tolerated this, regardless of how many championships he had. Yes, it's still very early, but the Heat need to wake up sooner rather than later.

Michael Vick must be in a chirpy mood tonight. That's because the Ravens' Ray Lewis will not play when Baltimore meets Atlanta Sunday. Vick might be more inclined to take off, without having to worry about Lewis, but Ed Reed will still be hunting him down.

One of the first big off-season signings occurred today when Toronto signed Frank Thomas away from Oakland for two years (and $18 million). I don't think Thomas will be able to replicate the numbers he produced this year(39 HRs, 114 RBIs - both team-highs), but it's a good risk by the Blue Jays. A lineup with Vernon Wells and Thomas back-to-back sounds very dangerous.

All right, I'm out. Enjoy The Game.

Friday, November 17, 2006

"The reason I'm hooked on UM football"

The last few days have been absolutely hectic for me. And it's got nothing to do with school, work, my family and friends or my health.

Well, maybe my mental health.

Chaos has overcome me because I have been frantically searching for a way to watch the UM-Ohio State game tomorrow from here in Sydney (game time will be 7:30 a.m. Sunday morning).

I realized around Wednesday afternoon - while I was at my work desk, not doing work - that no bars show college football here. None. So my search became relegated to the Internet.

Finally, yesterday I bought a service that allows you to watch American TV on your computer, only to find out that ABC wasn't one of the channels. I could watch Fox News no problem (yeah, right), but when it came to ABC - one of America's most-watched stations - I was flat out of luck.

To finish off this short anecdote and get to the real point of this column, the website is going to post a way to watch ABC, so I should - emphasis on should - be able to watch The Game.

But I'm still holding my breath.

Unfortunately, Bo Schembechler, Michigan's legendary coach from 1969-1989, has no breaths remaining. Schembechler collapsed suddenly Friday morning after taping a television show (a preview of the game) and died of terminal heart failure.

It was an evil fate for the 77-year-old who, I'm sure, would have died happily had he stayed alive 36 more hours and witnessed a Michigan victory.

Schembechler is a big reason why I'm such a huge Michigan fan. If not for him, the last few days might have been normal for me. If not for him, I might not be worried about missing The Game.

Thanks to Bo, I have a strong passion for Michigan football which, in turn, has helped feed my overall marriage to sports.

Schembechler took over a program that had suffered an unheard-of six losing seasons in 11 years and had been to just one Rose Bowl in 19 years. Basically, he took the reigns of a Michigan program that had lost its identity. It was no longer among college football's elite.

Bo changed that. Right away.

In his first season he led the Wolverines to an 8-3 record - tied for first in the Big Ten - and a birth in the Rose Bowl. He would go on to either win or share the Big Ten title in 13 of his 21 seasons. He finished his coaching career at Michigan with an incredible .796 regular-season winning percentage and he took 17 teams to bowl games - an impressive feat, considering there were far less bowls back then.

Schembechler won seven Big Ten Coach of the Year awards and held a 194-48-5 record at Michigan.

He didn't win a national title and his teams struggled in bowls - going 5-12 and 2-8 in Rose Bowls - but he brought respect back to a drowning program.

And he beat Ohio State.

Bo's teams went 11-9-1 against the Buckeyes, including 5-4-1 when his nemesis - and friend - Woody Hayes led OSU.

By the time Bo stepped down from coaching in 1989, Michigan's program was no longer treading water, and I was becoming a fan.

When I moved to Spring Street in 1994, I was just a mile away from the Big House. My family never had tickets, but on Saturday afternoons I'd hop on my bike and ride down to the stadium to scalp tickets.

I've never made it to a UM-Ohio State game, but I'll never forget the Iowa game in 1997 – the year Michigan went undefeated and won the national title (the Wolverines "technically" shared it with Nebraska, which somehow got crowned in the coach's poll in the last pre-BCS year).

The mid-October clash with the Hawkeyes was Michigan's biggest scare of the season. Michigan trailed 21-7 at the half, but stormed back to grab the lead in the final minutes, and an interception by Sam Sword closed the deal.

I'll never forget that day, or many of the other afternoons I've spent in the Big House cheering on the Wolverines. I'll also never rue how every Sunday morning I'd wake up to check the “Ann Arbor News” sports section, carefully studying all of the top teams' results and schedules and trying to figure out how UM could make the championship game - even if it had one or two losses.

In the early '90s, right after Bo stopped coaching, I became a UM fan. And with the team's success each year, I've become an even bigger fan. Even after the 7-5 record last season, because of UM's tradition I knew this team could be special.

There aren't a lot of programs like that.

Bo won't be watching tomorrow. But thousands of die-hard Wolverines fans all over the world will be. Some are long-time fans - people who've been around since the Fritz Crisler and Benny Oosterbaan days, back before the team's pre-Bo struggles. Others hopped on the train during Bo's coaching days. And then there are fans like myself, who were too young to pay great attention when Bo was on the sideline, but became enamored with UM football soon afterward.

As long as there’s no more chaos, I'll be watching tomorrow afternoon, cheering on the Maize and Blue, but - simultaneously - also not forgetting why Michigan football is such a big part of my life.

"Thursday night wrap-up"

College Basketball
I know this is ridiculous, the fact that I'm getting excited about college basketball, when the biggest college football game in years (at least for Michigan fans) is about to be played, but I can't help it. All signs, in these young days of the college basketball season, point to an unpredictable, wild year - just like last season.

Thursday night's evidence? Michigan State - unranked to begin the season because of the loss of all but one key player - defeated Texas 63-61 in the semifinals of the Coaches vs. Cancer Classic. Drew Neitzel, the only key returning player for the Spartans, hit the game-winner with just over 2 seconds remaining.

Nothin' like a little pre-Thanksgiving college hoops excitement, is there? With that said, here's a look ahead to how I think the Big Ten standings will look come March.
*NCAA tournament qualifier

*1. Wisconsin - Badgers return five starters, including potential Big Ten Player of the Year Alando Tucker.
*2. Ohio State - Greg Oden will be a bit rusty when he hits the court in January or February, which is why the Bucks are No. 2 and not No. 1.
*3. Michigan - Toughest pick to make. The talent is there, but will Courtney Sims and others avoid collapse? And will Lester Abram stay healthy? Questions abound.
*4. Michigan State - Despite returning just one starter, something tells me Tom Izzo will get this group to overachieve.
*5. Illinois - Rich McBride will light up scoreboards and Bryan Randle will fill in nicely for departed James Augustine.
6. Purdue - Despite 9-19 record last year, Boilers return two talented guards - David Teague and Tarrance Crump - who missed last season and two frontcourt players in three-guard lineup averaged 25 ppg combined last season.
7. Indiana - New coach, new players. There's talent here, but it'll take a little while for everyone to jell. Plus, no player in starting lineup averaged 10 points last year.
8. Penn State - Nittany Lions are only getting better. Lost just one key player from last year, and two senior guards will lead the way.
9. Iowa - Should be a down year for the Hawkeyes, which might make Steve Alford wish he chose to take the Indiana job.
10. Minnesota - Returning just two starters from an NIT team doesn't bode well. Not even Williams Arena will save 'em this year.
11. Northwestern - Wildcats should never be taken lightly on a given night, but this year they won't be much of a threat on most nights.

The Big Ten is very weak this year. Wisconsin and Ohio State are the only teams that could do some damage in the Big Dance. But that won't take away from the excitement of the season. Should be interesting to see who finishes in the 3, 4 and 5 spots. Can the Wolverines finally make the tournament? I'm showing some confidence, but I won't pencil anything in until March.

The injury bug is already hitting a couple teams pretty hard. Denver has lost Kenyon Martin for the season due to his knee injury. This is devastating for the Nuggets. Reggie Evans can play big minutes and bang with anyone in the league, but he's no scorer like Martin (he's averaging 8.5 ppg). So, basically, Carmelo Anthony is going to have to carry this team. And he might just do that. They still have a shot at the playoffs, and Anthony, who's playing extremely well (30.6 ppg), will make a run at the scoring title.

Milwaukee lost Charlie Villanueva for four-to-six weeks with a bum elbow. For a team struggling, this was not what the doctor ordered. The Bucks (3-6) have lost five of six, and unless Michael Redd goes on a terror (one of those Kobe streaks - like 40 points in eight straight games) - Milwaukee could find itself near the bottom of the East come Christmas time when Villanueva returns.

In an off-the-court matter, Allen Iverson is paying for the funeral of a man who was shot in 2003 and died Tuesday morning. The man was shot because he wouldn't give up his AI jersey. He was paralyzed, in a wheelchair, and eventually on a ventilator before being taken off life support. Anyone can criticize AI for being a poor role model and for his incidents with the law - he once threatened a family member with a gun - but I think he's sincere when he talks disgustedly of the frequent gun slayings in his city: "It's just terrible, what's going on in Philadelphia." Hopefully the 31-year-old is maturing and will perform more deeds in the future that will prevent killings from occurring.

Yao Ming is living up to his tall expectations this season. The Rockets are 6-3 and Yao's averaging 26.4 points, 9.5 rebounds and 1.88 blocks a game. I've said it before: If Yao and T-Mac stay healthy, the Rockets will do some things in the playoffs.

All right, I'm out. Enjoy a crapload of NBA games tonight.

"Big Game Prediction? No clue"

I have read it all. All the columns, all the analysis, all the feature articles. I've read it all.

I've memorized the keys to The Game. All the important stats are ingrained in my head (Tressel 4, Carr 1; Troy Smith 2-0 vs. Michigan; Wolverines 17-1 when Hart rushes for 100 yards).

Blah, blah, blah. I've got it all. Everything.

Yet when it comes down to picking the winner of The Game, I'm clueless, as dumbstruck as a dude in Montana who thinks Michigan is on the East Coast.

Oh, there are certainties to this game. Here are a few:

- Troy Smith will score a touchdown (with his arm or legs)
- Mike Hart will score a touchdown (definitely with his legs)
- Lamar Woodley will sack Smith once, but get juked by the QB another time
- There will be at least three field goals attempted
- The Buckeyes won't rush for 60 yards (just like all of Michigan's other opponents, except Minnesota (108 yards)
- Yet Smith, when given time, will shred the UM secondary on the side of the field opposite Leon Hall
- Ted Ginn Jr. will make a big play
- Mario Manningham will make a big play
- There will only be one or two turnovers.
- It will be a low-scoring game
- It will be a close game
- It will come down to coaching

And, here, finally, is where I come out of my womb.

Michigan fans, I'm sure you remember two years ago when the Wolverines faced Texas in the Rose Bowl. Great game. Back-and-forth. Electric offenses. Braylon Edwards. Vince Young.

There was a lot of hype heading into that contest. Well, not so much, if compared to This Game, but let's not do this. It was a hyped up game between very equal teams.

And it came down to the final minute.

Texas was driving for the winning field goal. Michigan had timeouts and Steve Breaston was having an unbelievable day returning kickoffs. But, for some reason, Lloyd Carr didn't use his timeouts, letting the Longhorns wind the clock all the way down until 2 seconds remained.

Then he burned one to "ice" the kicker. The kicker made an easy straight-away, medium-range field goal. Texas won by a point.

Anyway, when looking forward to tomorrow, I believe one of my "certainties" was "it will be a close game," which will mean the decisions made by the coaches in the final minutes will be crucial (almost as important as the play on the field).

Clock management will inevitably be a factor. The coaches will have to decide, in a matter of seconds, when they should burn those precious TOs and when to hold onto them.

Will Carr make a similar mistake to his 2005 Rose Bowl blunder? It's hard to tell.

Just like it's impossible to predict this game. But I will make one forecast.

If Carr commits another time-management sin, I'll be applying for "clock manager" come springtime.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

"Wednesday night wrap-up"

Plenty of things to cover tonight, but let's start in - where else - the world of women's golf (and I promise no Michelle Wie news. I promise!). So, then, what is there to comment on? How about the new LPGA drug policy. Beginning in 2008 the women's tour will test players for drugs - something the men's tour doesn't do. Interesting. Could the older players, the "feisty veterans," be worried about the young guns (mostly just Wie, but Morgan Pressel deserves a mention) who are outdriving them (and hitting longer than some men)?

It's possible. There must be a better reason for this other than: “We want to be proactive; we don’t want to react to this," as LPGA commissioner Carolyn Bivens remarked.

I can't wait to see who the first victim is. Pat Hurst, maybe? We'll see.

College basketball
Kansas ruined everyone's plans to watch a No.1-No.3 matchup or even No.1-No.2 matchup on Nov. 25 when the Jayhawks and Gators meet. The Jayhawks lost to Oral Roberts (now 1-1) at home.

Are you joshing me?

I know hardly anybody will be talking about this come March, but I still can't get over it. Yes, Kansas is young. Yes, they're inexperienced. But you have to take care of business in these easy non-conference games if you want to be one of the nation's best. It will be interesting to see how the Jayhawks rebound. They've got three more "cupcakes" at home before their matchup with the Gators. We'll learn soon enough if they lost because they weren't focused or if they're just not that good of a team.

North Carolina also got a scare tonight, having to come back from an eight-point halftime deficit to defeat Winthrop 73-66 in the NIT Season Tip-Off (the 'Heels advanced to next week's semifinals at MSG, where they'll face a low-profile Gonzaga team, aka "dangerous"). I'm expecting a great game. In coming back against a Winthrop team that returns four starters, UNC showed the difference between itself and Kansas. Experience and maturity. The 'Heels didn't panic as they went to their sophomore big man, Tyler Hansbrough (who plays more like a senior), who scored 20 points and grabbed 10 rebounds.

With Hansbrough leading the way, and a slew of talented freshmen, I expect the Tar Heels - playing in a slightly weak ACC (if you can call it that) - to have a big year.

One other college basketball mention: My hometown UM Wolverines defeated Wisconsin-Milwaukee 66-59 to improve to 4-0. I know the Wolverines haven't played any quality teams yet - their other victories came against Central Connecticut, Davidson and Eastern Michigan - but, still, they're taking care of business (unlike those Jayhawks).

My life depends on an NCAA tournament birth for the Wolverines this year. Ok, not really (I wouldn't risk that), but it sure would be nice. After watching them collapse last year, losing seven of their last nine when all they needed was one victory, it was hard to move on.

But this season's team - which I don't think has the talent last year's squad had, mainly due to the loss of point guard Daniel Horton - is showing signs of possibly making a push for the Big Dance. Seniors Dion Harris and Courtney Sims have been particularly impressive the first four games. Harris is averaging 15.7 ppg and 4.7 assists per game as the starting point guard - a position he seemed uncomfortable at two years ago when filling in for an absent Horton. Sims, who has been soft and inconsistent his first three years at Michigan, is averaging 15 points a game. His 5.3 boards a game still needs to improve, but it's a start.

As is everything in college hoops this time of year. We'll really see what the Wolverines are about when they face UCLA (on the road) and Georgetown (at home) around Christmas time.

Vinny Testaverde ain't done playing. The 43-year-old signed with the Patriots yesterday. I personally think he should sit down and talk with Tiki Barber. Even though the chances of him playing in a game are close to zero, just getting hit in practice will take its toll. I'm not telling anyone what to do, but for the good of his body, wouldn't Vinny be better off at home watching the games?

Joe Girardi won't be an analyst on the YES Network for long - that's providing he wants to manage again. After being fired by the Florida Marlins following his first season - because he didn't get along with Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria - Girardi was voted the NL Manager of the Year yesterday for guiding the Marlins back from an 11-31 start into playoff contention before they finished 78-84. Girardi is just the second manager to receive the award for a team he no longer is in charge of. Davey Johnson resigned from Baltimore before winning the award in 1977.

In the AL, the awards continued to come for the Detroit Tigers. Jim Leyland became the third manager to win the award in both leagues (he received it in 1990 and 1992 with Pittsburgh). It was well deserved. Leyland was the main reason for the Tigers' success this year. He got them to believe in themselves, as simple as that sounds, and it made all the difference.

All right, I'm out. Enjoy Chicago-Houston tonight. Big Ben vs. Yao.

"David Stern's Agenda"

Vince Carter - not exactly the humblest of athletes - admitted it.

It was last Sunday night, after New Jersey defeated Washington 105-93 in overtime, and Carter was talking about his desperation 3-pointer in regulation that clanked off the back of the rim - straight into the air - and then back through the net.

The improbable triple tied the contest at the end of regulation and the Nets wore out the Wizards in OT.

When asked about whether the shot would have gone in with the NBA's old ball, Carter responded firmly: "If it would've hit like that? Heck no. No way."

Thanks, Vince.

NBA commissioner David Stern can try all he wants to turn the media and NBA fans’ focus to the play on the court, but the fact remains that he made two curious rule changes before the season that are being questioned by not only the media and fans, but players as well.

There was the switching of balls from the traditional leather texture, which had been used for 35 years, to a "microfiber composite with moisture management." Apparently, the ball is supposed to provide "superior grip and feel throughout the course of a game."

But from the box scores I've browsed on a daily basis, I've been shocked at the number of turnovers teams are committing. I've seen individual players routinely make five or six turnovers, and teams give up the ball more than 20 times. Through six games, Allen Iverson is averaging 5.2 turnovers a game. Last season, Gilbert Arenas led the league in turnovers. He played 80 regular-season contests and gave the ball away 297 times. If you do the math, that's just over 3.5 times per game - which is nowhere near AI's average.

Through Wednesday night's games, only two teams - Washington (11.83) and Cleveland (13.71) - were averaging less than 14 giveaways a game, and eight teams were averaging 17 or more turnovers. The Orlando Magic - the team averaging the most turnovers at a 19.75 clip - averaged 15.1 last year.

The statistics tell the story. Teams are throwing the ball away more often. Now, this could be due to players still getting used to the ball's composition, but think about it: Including the pre-season, teams have been using the ball for over a month now.

The "we're still getting used to it" excuse would be pretty lame at this point.

Another thing about the ball: Players, especially post guys, have complained that the ball bounces off the rim differently (softer, mostly – like with Carter’s shot). As a result, when they anticipate the rebound, they move to the wrong part of the floor. Maybe that’s the reason that Paul Pierce, who was on hand to help introduce the ball in June, is leading the league in defensive rebounds.

He’s got “new ball knowledge.” He’s also just 6-foot-6 and has never come close to leading the league in a rebounding category before.

OK, enough balling about the ball. The other rule big rule change is the no-arguing-with-the-refs rule.

And, boy, has it caused some controversy. Players are being T'd up before they can even utter a word. A nasty look toward a ref - especially by Rasheed Wallace (who received two T's in the Pistons' opener) - can bring about a T. If a player begins to say something but catches himself... you guessed it: he's likely getting a T.

Wallace compared the new rule to slavery. I wouldn't go that far, but it's definitely affecting players. I've never played on a level close to the NBA - rec ball is my only claim to fame - but even I know that players get emotional during the course of a game (you should see the arguing that takes place in some of those rec games). If they don't think they touched an opponent and are called for a foul, in the heat of the moment, a yell or waving of the arms may occur.

These actions should be allowed.

I agree that excessive arguing after the play has been over for a while should warrant a T. There is no need to continue bickering with a ref while standing outside the lane, awaiting a free-throw attempt. Shut up, move on, continue to play.

But to T-up players for expression initial feelings about a call is ludicrous.

Another complaint I've heard about the rule is that players are treated differently. Veterans such as Sam Cassell who have made a of habit of chatting with refs for five or 10 minutes after a call continue to get away with their antics. Players such as 'Sheed, on the other hand, are T'd up immediately.

Something needs to be changed; that's a given.

I have to wonder why these changes were made. Especially the new ball. No players were complaining about the old rock. Why switch things up? Was Stern fishing for publicity for his league during October, when the MLB playoffs and football dominated the headlines?

I'm not sure, but couldn't he wait? The season was right around the corner, and the NBA is a league that you either follow or don't. You won't find many on-the-fence NBA fans. So once the season began, those fans were going to follow their teams and the league.

Regardless of whether there was a new ball.

The discipline rule wasn't a bad idea. It just needs to be toned down a little. I'll admit that it was ridiculous, watching the playoffs last season, how every time a player was called for a foul he would bicker with the refs. It got to the point where I wondered if some players were even focusing on the game at hand.

Stern might have instilled the rule to protect his refs, who were reamed in the 2006 postseason for missed calls and favoritism. In the final minute of Game 5 of the Finals, Dallas players, coaches, fans - and, of course, Mark Cuban - thought the refs charged the Mavericks with a timeout they didn't call which happened to be the Mavs' final TO. And any team that played Miami complained of Dwyane Wade receiving all the calls during the playoffs.

But, then again, we've seen the favoritism thing for years. Remember a guy by the name of Michael Jordan and a certain Bryon Russell who got pushed off? And Reggie Miller always got away with his share of shoves to free himself.

So favoritism hasn't changed. And neither, really, has the players' bickering. So did Stern make the move to protect the refs, or was it another publicity stunt?

We'll likely never know, but one thing is for sure: The changes will continue to receive plenty of pub throughout the course of the season and into June.