Saturday, December 30, 2006

"Do the right thing"

Shawne Merriman’s invitation to the Pro Bowl in February should be rescinded. No ifs, ands or buts.

The San Diego Chargers linebacker might be the top defensive player in the NFL. He's recorded an incredible 16 sacks in just 11 games this season. You'd have to do some digging to find a player who has put up similar numbers.

But he cheated. No, check that. He got caught cheating. Merriman was suspended earlier this season for four games for violating the league's substance abuse policy.

Yet pundits are saying he still deserves his spot in the Pro Bowl and possibly the defensive player of the year award. On the TV show "Quite Frankly," Rob Parker of the "Detroit News" said he believes several NFL players use performance enhancing drugs, so, therefore, Merriman shouldn't be left out of the conversation about postseason awards just because he got caught.

While Parker may be right about several players using, he's wrong about Merriman. He broke a rule, was punished and should have to stay home whenever San Diego's playoff run concludes. What kind of message would the NFL be sending if it named Merriman the league's top defensive player?

That if you cheat to become a great player then you can make it to the top and soak up all the honors while clean players busting their butts only make the back page.

That ain't right.

There are so many issues in today's sports world involving athletes cheating or getting arrested or jousting with their teammates and coaches. This situation provides an opportunity for the NFL to step in and say it isn't going to reward players who haven't played and/or acted by the rules.

Strip Merriman of his Pro Bowl spot. Give the defensive player of the year to Miami's Jason Taylor, who shouldn't have been the one to speak out against Merriman, but I can't really blame him. No one else was doing it. Taylor has had a great season. His numbers don't match Merriman's, but by no means would it be wrong to give him the award.

Like it would be to hand it to Merriman.

Even if it was a simple mistake, one of those "how did that get in my morning smoothie?" occurrences, a message needs to be sent here. No, it likely won't stop others from taking whatever their taking. Yes, Rob Parker, there will still be drug use in the NFL. But the players will know that if they are caught, any chance they have of being recognized for their play on the field with a piece of hardware will be gone.

Their name will not be added to the record books. Only their numbers will be recognized. Do it before it's too late. We all know what steroids have done to baseball and how awkward it will be if and when Barry Bonds breaks Hank Aaron's hallowed home run record.

The NFL can take a baby step toward cleaning up its game in the coming month. While NFL fans will likely enjoy watching Merriman in the playoffs, the only honor he should be able to celebrate this season is being a Super Bowl champion.

Thursday, December 28, 2006

"Sour optimism"

You could tell Thursday night that University of Michigan men's basketball coach Tommy Amaker might be hearing some of the whispers going around about him getting fired at season's end if it concludes with another NIT appearance.

Amaker appeared desperate, as the Wolverines took on Army in their second-to-last non-conference game before Big Ten play starts next Wednesday. For the first time all year he switched up his starting lineup... completely.

Amaker benched his five starters for three freshmen and two sophomores. It turned out to be a great decision. Jerret Smith, Reed Baker, DeShawn Sims, Jevohn Shepherd and Ekpe Udoh didn't just start the game and then let the regular starters take over. They played most of the contest, and may have gotten themselves permanent starting jobs with their play.

Credit Amaker for finding five guys who were enthused about playing, played with passion and energy and were thankful for the opportunity.

It wasn't pretty at times, to the tune of 22 turnovers, but the new starters carried Michigan to a 62-50 victory. Baker, who's listed as 6-foot-1, but doesn't looking taller than 5-11 (and appears maybe 16 years old), scored a career-high 19 points, including five 3-pointers. Regular starter Dion Harris, who is supposed to be Michigan's top 3-point threat, didn't score until the final minutes and finished with three points. That gives him five for the past two games.

Udoh was all over the court on both ends. For the first time since Hakeem Olajuwon retired, I thought a player had a chance at recording a triple-double that included blocks. Udoh finished with eight points, seven rebounds and nine blocks. Yes, nine.

And, hopefully for Michigan fans, they can forget about Mr. Passive, Courtney Sims, because there's a new Sims in town, a Sims who can play. DeShawn Sims is raw. He still makes careless mistakes. But he always brings a plethora of energy to the court, something that can't be said of the elder Sims.

D. Sims also wears No. 4. Chris Webber's heroics might be erased from the history books, but no one from Ann Arbor will ever forget the impact he had on the program. Sims isn't as developed as Webber was as a freshman, but he's got the talent to be something special here.

So what did a mediocre victory over an Army team that had one scoring threat (Jarell Brown - 22 points) prove about this team?

It clearly showed that the players who want to be on the court the most are the young guns. Not the guys who have been here three-plus years and suffered through NIT appearance after NIT appearance. No, the guys who haven't had to witness Michigan's recent history.

In a month, when the Wolverines are taking on the likes of Ohio State and Wisconsin, playing hard won't be enough. They'll still get fed to the cows. But on Thursday it was a start. Michigan's second team (or first team on this night) was clearly better than its regular first team.

Maybe (but probably not) Courtney Sims and company will get the message and start playing like they care. Maybe fifth-year senior Lester Abram will step up and be a vocal leader that this team so desperately needs. Maybe Harris will finally free himself of this shooting slump.

But don't count on these things.

The only thing you can count on from the Wolverines right now is that those second five will play their hearts out every game.

And maybe (but probably not) save Amaker his job.

Tuesday, December 26, 2006

"Eagles flying high"

"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." - my blog, 11/20/06

I was wrong. Completely wrong.

When Donovan McNabb went down in Week 11, with the Philadelphia Eagles 5-5, I thought the Eagles' shot at making the playoffs in the weak NFC was very slim. After all, they'd be starting a 36-year-old quarterback who had struggled the past two seasons on mediocre teams.

Without McNabb, the Eagles appeared to be just that - a mediocre team.

On Christmas Day Philly looked like a championship team. The Eagles went into Dallas with the division title on the line and whooped the Cowboys. There was no question who the better team was after Philly's 23-7 domination of Dallas. With a win at home against Atlanta next Sunday, Philly can clinch the NFC East.

Who would have thought? Not me.

The Eagles have proven what other teams would like to prove - that their season doesn't hinge on one player. San Diego would like to say they could win without L.T. Atlanta would like to say it could win without Michael Vick.

But they certainly don't want to try. The Eagles never complained after losing McNabb. Despite an extremely difficult stretch-run schedule, the Eagles have put together four straight wins after losing their first sans-McNabb game. They've defeated Carolina at home and Washington, the N.Y. Giants and Dallas on the road.

Not exactly easy pickings.

Garcia has stepped in and earned his teammates' trust. He's completed 62.2 percent of his passes and thrown 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions.

Running back Bryan Westbrook hasn't been at 100 percent all season, yet he's only missed one game and has rushed for over 1,200 yards, averaging 5.1 yards per carry. He's the most underrated running back in the NFL.

And the defense seems to be coming around too. Philly entered the Christmas Day contest giving up the second-most rushing yards in the league, but it shut down Dallas' two-pronged attack of Julius Jones and Marion Barber, holding them to just 41 yards on 16 carries.

With Garcia playing mistake-free football and the defense shutting down the run and harassing opposing quarterbacks - Philly had three sacks and two INT's Monday against Pro Bowl quarterback Tony Romo - the Eagles have to be considered a Super Bowl contender.

You can quote me on it. I've already been blatantly wrong about this team once. Another wayward prediction won't hurt.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

"U-M lays an egg"

Anytime you turn the ball over as many times as the number of field goals you make, you're probably going to lose.

You're probably going to lose by a big margin.

Such was the case for the University of Michigan basketball team Saturday afternoon, as it was drilled by No. 1 UCLA 92-55 in Los Angeles.

This game was supposed to be U-M's chance to prove to the nation that it was a legitimate team, an NCAA tournament team. The Wolverines had a full week to prepare for the Bruins compared to just three days for UCLA. The team even arrived in L.A. on Thursday. Exams were over. The players would get a couple days off upon returning home.

But, instead, the Wolverines took much of Saturday's game off.

Sloppy ballhandling. Awful passes. Poor offensive execution. They were all a part of Michigan's performance (if you can call it that) at Pauley Pavilion.

UCLA, meanwhile, converted each Michigan miscue into an easy layup on the other end. The Bruins had to work hard for maybe 12 of their 33 field goals.

Still think this Michigan team is NCAA tournament material? Well, one game definitely doesn't decide a season, but consider this: The Wolverines have played four teams with winning records, going 2-2. The rest of the teams have been walkovers. Michigan has played on the road just three times, going 1-2. Its only victory came when it eked out a six-point win over 4-7 Miami (Ohio).

It should be interesting to see how the Wolverines handle road games versus No. 3 Ohio State, No. 5 Wisconsin and No. 25 Michigan State. Add in games at upstart Purdue, and Illinois and Indiana (whom Michigan hasn't won at in what seems like an eternity) and the only roadies I'd actually pick Michigan to win are against Northwestern and Minnesota - by no means gimmes.

The only Big Ten team Michigan has routinely defeated on the road during Tommy Amaker's six-year reign as coach is Penn State. The Wolverines only face the Nittany Lions at home this year.

Yes, the forecast is not so bright anymore. An 8-8 Big Ten record would likely get Michigan into the NCAA tournament, but unless it suddenly starts winning road games, that would mean winning at least six of eight home games - a very tough task.

Maybe Saturday was nothing more than an aberration. Maybe this team will come out against Army (on Thursday) and Georgetown (on Saturday) and finish off the non-conference season on a high note. But even that wouldn't prove much.

What this team has proven over the past few years is that just when things are starting to look rosy, it can find a way to ruin the season, to banish itself to the ignored NIT tournament. It took a 2-7 finish to last season after a 16-3 start and a Top 25 ranking. What is in the cards for the 2006-07 version of the Wolverines?

We'll have to wait and see. But if Saturday was any indication, these Wolverines don't have any more bite than Amaker's past teams.

Friday, December 22, 2006

"The NBA's conundrum"

The next time you run into an NBA team, try something for me, OK? Ask the players who Bob Pettit, or George Mikan, or Wes Unseld, or Earl Lloyd was.

Ask them about these former NBA icons, about what these past greats mean to the players. I bet half of the team won't even know some of these guys.

That's too bad. And it's also one of the main problems with the NBA today.

When I was so young that I couldn't even toss a ball to the rim, there was a poster on my bedroom wall of a wolf. It read: "Respect your elders."

If today's NBA players had a greater knowledge and respect of those who came before them, I believe several of the "image problems" we constantly hear associated with the league would no longer be issues.

The truth is that most players gifted enough to reach the NBA are pampered from the beginning. Scouts are drooling over them by the time they reach puberty. High school is nothing more than a prep school for the NBA, as is the one year of college ball. By the time players reach the NBA, their heads are so big that any sign of disrespect just isn't going to be tolerated.

Hence, the minor brawl at MSG the other night. J.R. Smith took exception to Mardy Collins’ hard foul. So he retaliated. Carmelo Anthony was sick of the lowly Knicks talking junk and beating up his players, so he threw a cheap punch.

These players lose their cool over the smallest things. Perspective could help them.

Consider the fact that in the 1950s and '60s, most NBA players didn't make enough money from playing to support themselves. So they worked other jobs during the off-season. I’m sorry - I just can't imagine LeBron bagging groceries.

Back in the day players didn't complain at every call. They just played hard as can be for 48 minutes. There was no need for a "no complaining" rule.

If today's young guns sat down and watched some old tapes, they would see what the NBA is all about: Playing hard every night and representing yourself well off the court.

This isn't to say that all of the past NBA greats led A+ lives. But there wasn't a general problem like there is today.

Too many kids not taught to respect authority. Too many kids taught solely to "get yours." Too many kids who don't appreciate their opportunity.

When all they need to do is take a peek into the NBA archives.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

"Since when has trading been fair?"

The more, and more, I look at it, I am... shocked.

An NBA trade that was actually fair. A trade from which both sides should benefit (although one much sooner than the other). It's just not common, just not... right?

Except that it is.

I am going to write Christmas cards to the Denver Nuggets and Philadelphia 76ers for making a deal that didn't make one of the organizations look dumb (especially Philly, considering the last time it traded away a superstar - Charles Barkley in 1992 - it got virtually nothing in return). Neither team's fans should be shaking their heads after this one. The trade that sent Allen Iverson to Denver for Andre Miller, Joe Smith and two 2007 first-round draft picks was about as fair as you can get.

For the rest of the season, of course, it will seem like a one-sided deal. Denver, with the two top scorers in the NBA, is now a contender to win (gasp) an NBA championship. Do I see it happening this year? No, sir. But Iverson, just 31, and 'Melo should anchor this franchise for at least the next five years.

Next question: Will the Nuggets win a title in that time period? There's a decent chance. And if I'd been asked that before the trade, I'd have said, "No chance."

Anthony is a great player, but - just like Kobe - he needed a sidekick to take this franchise to the level San Antonio, Phoenix and Dallas are on. He's got him now.

Look at every NBA champion in recent memory. No team has won the title with a superstar and group of average players. Bird had at least one other All-Star on all three of his championship teams. Ditto Magic for all five of his titles in L.A. Jordan had Pippen. Duncan had Robinson. The '04 Pistons didn't need a star. Last year, Wade had Shaq.

LeBron could (maybe) be the first player to win a title without an All-Star teammate, but I'm not convinced. He'll have to be at his best.

Denver gave up a lot to get Iverson. But it will all be worth it. These two guys on the court at the same time will be something to watch.

Unlike the 2006-07 76ers.

This team will not put up many W's in the months to come. They’ll certainly play hard and grind out some victories, but even with a HUGE upgrade at the point guard position (Kevin Ollie wasn't exactly the answer at the position), this team will have a tough time scoring. This is not a good thing, considering the Sixers give up over 100 points a game.

But while Philly's tough-necked fans won't be cheering much this season, they can expect better things in the near feature (even if they won't admit it, just like after the Eagles drafted Donovan McNabb). June's NBA draft will be absolutely loaded with talent, provided most of the nation's big-time freshmen come out. With three first-round draft picks and plenty of cap room, the 76ers would have to pull a Matt Millen to not come away with some NBA-ready talent.

Add two or three capable players to Philly's young corps of Miller, Andre Iguodala (now the only A.I. in town), Samuel Dalembert and Kyle Korver, and you've got at least a foundation for future success. And possibly a future superstar (one of the draft picks).

The NBA is a "What have you done for me today?" industry, and the results this season will not be pretty in Philly. But take a look at this team in a couple years, and there's a good chance Allen Iverson won't be a part of the conversation.

No one will be saying, "How could we let him get away?" but rather, "Look what this deal's done for us."

And no one in the Rockies will be regretting the trade either. The Nuggets will be among the NBA's elite.

Making the Dec. 18 trading of A.I. to Denver one of those rare deals after which both sides are content.

I guess it really ’tis the season for giving.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Stay tuned

Hey everyone,
I'm sorry for not posting much recently. I have been wrapping up my stay here in Sydney, and now I am heading to New Zealand for four days and will not have computer access. But I can assure you that once I return to Ann Arbor on Dec. 20, I will start posting again on a regular basis. Thanks again for reading.


Monday, December 11, 2006

"Size is overrated"

(Note: This is probably the last time all season I'll say a good thing about the New York Knicks).

You know what my favorite moment of the still young NBA season has been? When little Nate Robinson (listed as 5-foot-9, but he looks about 5-foot-7) got up in the grill of Yao Ming and stuffed the 7-foot-5 center (who actually looks 7-5). It was the most legitimate block I've seen all season.

And by a 5-foot-7 guy.

Robinson didn't just stuff Yao, he tossed aside the perception that you have to be "tall" or "big" to be successful in the pros.

Size is one of the most overrated things in American society. It goes all the way back to the 1990s (I know, seems so long ago) and the "Super Size" phenomenon. Whenever I went to McDonalds with my friends, I wasn't manning up unless I "Super Sized" that Big Mac meal.

Hey, if you're gonna eat the junk, might as well go all out, right?

But this "bigger is better" fetish isn't just related to food and Texas culture.

It's evident in sports as well. Especially in football and basketball. Every spring before the NFL draft scouts drool over "tall quarterbacks." Every summer prior to the NBA draft, scouts question whether smaller players will be able to compete in the league. They question whether they'll be able to guard "bigger guards."

And yet, despite all the doubters, despite the lack of respect, "little guys" continue to get it done in the NFL and NBA.

Allen Iverson (ever heard of him?) is just 6-foot. Still, he's been a force in the league now for 10 seasons. He's led the league in scoring four times, won an MVP and taken an overachieving team to the NBA Finals. Despite this, people continue to question him (especially now that he's finally asked out of Philadelphia).

For five years people have said that Iverson, 31, will wear down, that his body will not be able to handle the beating he takes any longer. Uh, yeah, I'd still take a guy averaging 31 points and seven assists. Even if he was 4 feet.

I can't believe teams aren't rushing to put together packages for Iverson. Here's a team willing to ship one of the top 10 players in the league, and people aren't going crazy over him?


Troy Smith still has one very important college football game to play, but after that he'll start preparing for April's NFL draft. Only recently have people started considering him even a top 15 pick. Here we have the nation's most successful quarterback, the only OSU QB ever to take down Michigan three times. And he's not even considered a top 10 pick.

It all comes down to size. Scouts don't think the 6-foot-1 Smith will have the vision he needs to make accurate throws. They prefer Notre Dame’s Brady Quinn, who's 6-foot-4 and a possible No. 1 pick. It doesn't matter that Quinn has never won a bowl game or beaten USC, Notre Dame's prime rival. He's got the size and arm, so he'll be fine.

While size is overrated, winning, it appears, is underrated. Last season Vince Young, who quarterbacked Texas to the national title, was questioned over and over again because he scored poorly on the Wonderlic IQ test.

Who cares? He's a winner, he’s athletic and he’s a good passer - that's all that should have mattered. Right now Young is making teams that passed over him look silly, including the Texans, who he beat in overtime on Sunday.

The NFL's hottest quarterback, Drew Brees, is barely six feet - shorter than Smith. He, of course, was not considered a high draft pick coming out of Purdue, despite leading the Boilermakers to their first Rose Bowl in 34 years in 2001. He was taken in the second round by the San Diego Chargers, who got a certain L.T. in the first round.

Not a bad draft, I'd say.

You want more? How about less (size)?

Two of the NFL's best wide receivers are hard to spot - they're simply too small. Carolina's Steve Smith (who, I'm sure, the Bears are hoping doesn't make an appearance in the playoffs) is a nice 5-foot-9. Marvin Harrison, Peyton Manning's favorite target, is a short 6 feet. Both players are 185 pounds, yet they continue to lead their team in the receiving department year after year. Harrison, in his 11th season, has missed just five games in his career. While Smith missed most of the 2004 season because of an injury, in every other season he's played nearly every game.

Remember the NBA Finals last June? Remember that guy who willed Miami to victory? Yeah, that was Dwyane Wade, all 6 feet, 4 inches of him. For a shooting guard in the NBA, he's undersized. But that hasn't stopped him from becoming one of league's top five players.

Let's minimize this. Earl Boykins is 5-foot-5. Since he graduated from Eastern Michigan he's been doubted. No one thought he could possibly be successful at the professional level. Now, for four straight years, he's scored in double figures as Denver's backup point guard.

Don't get me wrong. Size is important. There are no 6-5 centers in the NBA, no 200-pound defensive linemen in the NFL. But don't underestimate the heart of the little guy. These guys play as if they have something to prove, and often they do prove something: that they belong just as much, if not more, than the taller guys on either side of them.

And yet they still don’t receive the respect they deserve.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

"The Heisman jinx"

I'm not one for superstitions or "jinxes." When some CBS broadcaster says that a team or player is "jinxed" I throw my hands up in the air, thinking to myself, "Don't you have anything else to talk about?"

But, unfortunately, there are some patterns in sports that simply cannot be ignored. They are too conspicuous to wave off with your right hand. The "Sports Illustrated" cover jinx is probably the most well-known jinx in sports. Each year several athletes and teams are victimized by it. Every time I see one of my teams grace the cover - such as the Detroit Tigers this past August - I wince, because I know that their fate is likely decided (and, sure enough, although the Tigers fought the jinx about as well as one can, they eventually succumbed to it in the World Series).

The only time a team is safe on the SI cover is when it is a championship cover.

A sports jinx starting to pick up momentum is the Madden Jinx. In recent years, every player featured on the front of the video game box has suffered an injury, with the most severe being Michael Vick missing most of the 2004 season after being featured. If I was LaDanian Tomlinson and I was offered a spot on the 2008 cover (as he should be), there's no way I'd accept it.

Way too big of a risk.

Those are the most renowned jinxes. But, after watching Troy Smith easily walk away with the Heisman Trophy Saturday night, I was reminded of another jinx not as popular as the others, but still out there.

The "non-USC Heisman Jinx."

The past 14 years, 11 of the Heisman Trophy winners have gone on to have subpar careers in the NFL or not even make it to the league. The only three players who seem to be doing all right are USC alums: Carson Palmer (2002); Matt Leinart (2004); and Reggie Bush (2005) - and these guys are still young. A lot can still go wrong with them.

But check out how the other 11 have fared.

1992 winner Gino Torretta (Miami): Was just a seventh-round pick in the 1993 draft; didn't play at all in '94 or '95; threw one touchdown pass for Seattle in 1996; retired in 1997.

1993 winner Charlie Ward (Florida State): Was not selected in the NFL draft, so instead played in the NBA for several seasons, even making the 1998 All-Star team.

1994 winner Rashaan Salaam (Colorado): As a rookie with the Bears rushed for over 1,000 yards, but didn't do a thing after that; played in the ill-fated XFL.

1995 winner Eddie George (Ohio State): Easily the most accomplished of these "jinxed" players, having played in four Pro Bowls, however wore down over the years and was out of football after 2004.

1996 winner Danny Wuerffel (Florida): Played seven seasons for four teams, never putting together a good season; highlight of his professional career was winning the MVP in World Bowl 2000 as a member of the Rhein Fire.

1997 winner Charles Woodson (Michigan): One of the most overrated and overpaid players in the NFL. Has also had off-the-field issues.

1998 winner Ricky Williams (Texas): We're all familiar with this guy's story. Talent has never been the issue with him; it's a motivational thing. Or maybe he's always felt the weight of the jinx bearing down on him.

1999 winner Ron Dayne (Wisconsin): Rushing numbers have decreased nearly every season, with best year coming in 2000 (770 yards); mostly just used as a short-yardage back.

2000 winner Chris Weinke (Florida State): Well, he did throw for 423 yards yesterday as Carolina's backup in a loss to the Giants, but that's probably the highlight of his career - not a good thing. Has played in 10 games since his rookie season.

2001 winner Eric Crouch (Nebraska): He is the fourth-string quarterback for the Toronto Argonauts in the CFL; that's all you need to know.

2003 winner Jason White (Oklahoma): Wasn't drafted and was eventually signed by the Tennessee Titans before quitting (citing a knee injury); is already out of football.

So, there you have it. A crop of 11 highly successful college players who basically became duds in the NFL. The Heisman Trophy means about as much as a smooch on the cheek when it comes to being successful in the NFL.

Which is why, the question must be asked: Does Troy Smith have a chance at side-stepping this jinx?

First of all, it must be noted that Smith is not a normal Heisman winner. He won the trophy by the second largest margin ever, behind O.J. Simpson in 1968 (which brings about a completely different jinx - but that's for later). He received the highest percentage of first-place votes ever (86.7 percent) - and this award has been around since 1935.


But all of that will mean nothing come April. The herds of NFL scouts won't give a hoot what Smith accomplished in college. They'll only care about his arm strength, and his speed, and his ability to stand in the pocket and take the hit. They'll question his height (6-foot-1), they'll question other things. And the hardware he now owns will be quickly placed in the back of the china cabinet.

I personally think Smith has what it takes to be successful in the league. I think he will be doubted just like Vince Young was this year (look how nicely Young's progressing). I think he'll overcome the odds, just like he did at Ohio State.

But would I put money on it? No way, Jose. As many of us have learned, it's never a good thing to bet against these sports jinxes.

Saturday, December 09, 2006

New Feature

Hi everyone,
Hope you're enjoying the blog. Again, please post comments about articles and send any feedback or suggestions to me at I compulsively check my e-mail at least 30 times a day.

I have added a new feature to the site. Each day - unless I'm on vacation - I will post a 100-word blog in the upper right-hand corner of the page. This is a short "take" on a hot issue within sports. And it only takes around 30 seconds to read. So enjoy.


Thursday, December 07, 2006

"Thursday night wrap-up"

Anyone catch the Phoenix-New Jersey game tonight? Phoenix won 161-157 in two overtimes. Now that would have been fun to watch. The point guards had pretty good games. Steve Nash: 42 points, 13 assists. Jason "triple-double" Kidd: 38 points, 14 rebounds, 14 assists.

Every Phoenix starter scored at least 16 points, and backup point guard Leandro Barbosa added another 16. Anytime your point guards combine for 58 points, you're probably going to win. The Nets had seven players in double figures. Kind of takes us back to the '60s, when games were regularly in the 120s and 130s. Fun to watch. But I enjoy a defensive battle as well.

OK, let's move on to the hard news.

"Bonds is back"
Barry Bonds will play at least another season. Bonds is ready to resume his chase of Hank Aaron's hallowed home run record after reportedly signing a one-year, $16 million deal to stay with the Giants. This is good for Bonds, because San Francisco is the only baseball city where he's only cheered, not jeered. It would have been interesting to see what his reception would have been had he signed elsewhere, but now Bonds, I believe, has a good chance of breaking Aaron's mark this season.

Bonds sits on 734 home runs, 21 shy of Aaron's total. If he stays healthy and is able to play 110-120 games, I'd say Bonds breaks the record in early September. Oh, boy, will there be a media storm in the Bay Area if that occurs. In terms of the contract, I think the Giants are slightly overpaying Bonds. But, at the same time, he is still one of the most feared hitters in baseball. He still gets intentionally walked several times each year, and he has a good on-base percentage. But the fact that Bonds has to continue playing in the field will hurt him. If he was a DH, he'd have a better season.

My 2007 Bonds prediction (which, pending injuries, legal issues, etc. I might change): .260 average, 24 home runs, 75 RBIs, .374 OBP.

"Shannon to coach Miami"
The Miami Hurricanes filled their vacant spot at head coach Thursday from within. The Hurricanes chose Randy Shannon, Miami's defensive coordinator the past six seasons, to replace fired coach Larry Coker. Shannon becomes the sixth black coach in Division I-A football.

I think this is a good move by the Hurricanes. The players were in favor of this decision, and right now that's the most important thing. There needs to be a trust on this team between the players and coaches. Shannon should be able to establish this. Don't expect any more 6-6 seasons from the 'Canes in the near future.

"Final Word"
According to reports, Carolina quarterback Jake Delhomme probably won't play against the NY Giants on Sunday. This is a huge loss for the 6-6 Panthers. Thirty-four-year-old Chris Weinke will likely start. Weinke hasn't thrown a pass this season and threw just 13 last year. Maybe this break will help the Giants stop from blowing a game. Maybe. As Chris Berman says, "That's why they play the game!"

"What to watch Friday"
Miami at Denver, ESPN 10:30 p.m. - Stay up for this one for two reasons: Dwyane Wade and Carmelo Anthony. Both players are having huge years. Anthony is leading the league in scoring for the surprising Nuggets, and Wade is literally carrying the lifeless Heat. He won't take an off night against 'Melo.

"Sports' influence"

When the name Troy Smith is mentioned in a sports bar today, a riveting conversation about Ohio State's star QB is sure to follow. His three wins over Michigan, his Heisman Trophy candidacy, his chance at being an effective NFL quarterback are sure to be mentioned.

But the fodder won't likely include how Smith got to the pedestal he stands on today, on top of the college football world, about to win the Heisman Trophy on Saturday and play for the national championship on Jan. 8.

No one mentions how Smith was the last player to be given a scholarship in 2003.

When the name Dwyane Wade is brought up in a sports bar today, there is plenty to talk about. Wade's heroic performance in the playoffs last year, as he led Miami to its first NBA title; Wade being compared to Michael Jordan; Wade being compared to LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony.

But no one mentions Wade's road to South Beach, how he escaped the projects of Chicago's South Side, how he dealt with having a drug addict mother - who was arrested more than once - to make it to the NBA.

Today these athletes' stories, rightly so, are being told. "Sports Illustrated" named Wade its "Sportsman of the Year," dedicating a substantial article to Wade and his upbringing. As Smith prepares to accept the Heisman, the media is telling his story.

Both are inspiring, both are "feel-good" and both show what sports can do for boys who need direction.

Both Smith and Wade grew up without a father (until Wade moved in with his father while his mother was struggling with drug problems - but he would later leave his father's home for his girlfriend’s house during high school). Both players' mothers were drug addicts. Both players grew up in tough neighbourhoods, where nothing came easy for them.

They were confused young boys with no direction in life - no one pushing them to where they needed to go.

Sports saved them.

Smith found football at a young age, playing for Irvin White, who also took the young boy in as a foster child. Wade didn't discover his love for basketball until he moved in with his father. He would eventually push himself harder and harder because he wanted to send a message to his mother that she could overcome her problems.

Life was never easy for either of the boys, but non-parental figures helped them get college scholarships. Without the scholarships, there's no way they could have afforded college. Smith got Ohio State's last scholarship. Wade, pushed by his girlfriend and her mother, elevated his test scores enough to receive a scholarship to Marquette.

It is common for people to criticize universities for pampering athletes, for ignoring failed exams in the classroom. And, to a certain extent, this is true. Athletes at major universities do get preferential treatment.

But on the flip side, the scholarships handed out are the only way a lot of these young men and women can afford college. And while they may not have academic aspirations when first enrolling in school, they often discover that football or basketball isn't everything.

Smith plans on graduating with a communications degree in the spring. As a quarterback, it's needless to say communication is a huge part of the job.

Both of these athletes are on top of the world, but, at the same time, they remain humble, realizing that where they come from, nothing should be taken for granted. Just look at Maurice Clarett, the last Buckeyes' star to lead them to a national title. Now he's in jail.

That's how quickly things can change for the worst.

But for so many young kids in broken-down households, with no one to grasp onto, sports is an escape from the abyss they are in danger of being swept into.

Hopefully youngsters across the country will get a chance to read the articles on Smith and Wade. Because although a very, very small percentage of young men and women go on to become professional athletes, a great number of adolescents are touched by the grace of sports, finding motivation to do things with their lives they never would have thought possible.

And they inspire others at the same time. Smith's and Wade's mothers are clean now, not only celebrating their sons' improbable accomplishments, but doing positive things for themselves.

It's remarkable, if you think about it. As Pat Forde wrote about Troy Smith's story: it's "Bordering on Fiction."

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

"Dumars' two big mistakes"

I'm not gonna lie. I love Joe Dumars. He was my favorite NBA player during the 1990s, even when he was aging and his arching 3-pointers were hitting the front of the rim instead of swishing through the net. I admired him for transforming the Detroit Pistons from a mediocre, middle-of-the-pack team into NBA champions in 2004.

I really like the guy. He's one of the classiest men in sports, no ifs, ands or buts.

But, again, I can't lie in saying that Dumars' work the past three years has been subpar. Nowhere close to as poor as that of, say, his old Bad Boys' teammate, Isiah Thomas.

But Dumars has made two key mistakes as Pistons' GM that are hurting the franchise, which is not to say that the Pistons are falling fast. They're still one of the NBA's elite, but they could be even better.

It all starts with the 2003 NBA draft. Of course the Pistons went on to win the title the following season - making us onlookers oblivious to Dumars' miscue - but now, after two playoff disappointments, we are more apt to examine Dumars' drafting of Darko Milicic with the second pick of the draft behind LeBron James.

I understand Dumars' thinking in taking Milicic. He was a young talent out of Serbia & Montenegro. His potential seemed sky-high. Dumars knew it would take time to develop that talent, but he was fine with that because he knew his current crop of players could win without Milicic (although, more than midway through the season, Dumars realized he needed a big man who could score and traded for Rasheed Wallace).

Milicic, meanwhile, would practice with the team, work with Dumars' specialized assistant coaches - and sit on the bench during games, except in the closing minutes of blowouts. This, of course, is when the Detroit crowd would begin the "We want Dar-ko" chants.

But, in drafting Milicic, Dumars overlooked three studs who have gone on to become stars. Denver drafted Carmelo Anthony, who had just led Syracuse to a national title as a freshman, with the third pick. Toronto took Chris Bosh, a similar young big man like Milicic, but given the opportunity to play large chunks of minutes, Bosh has developed into the Raptors' best player. Finally, Miami took Dwyane Wade, like Anthony a proven winner, who had led Marquette to its first Final Four since Al McGuire's championship team of 1977.

Wade, as you know, has surprised everybody in the league. He, not Shaquille O'Neal, is the Heat's best player. He rallied them to the NBA title last year and this year he is carrying a Shaq-less, uninspired bunch.

Dumars, it seems, was more concerned with drafting a player who wouldn't disturb the chemistry of the group he had than drafting a proven marquee player who had proved he could win games on one of sports' biggest stages. Had he drafted Anthony or Wade, he likely would have had to move one of his starters - either Richard Hamilton or Tayshaun Prince.

I love Hamilton and Prince. I can imagine how difficult it would be for Dumars to ship one of them to another team. They are selfless players who always play hard. But let's be honest here. What Pistons' lineup is more intimidating: One with Hamilton or Anthony starting as the two guard?

The answer's a no-brainer. Anthony has had his ups-and-downs in Denver, but this year he is showing his true colors, leading the league in scoring and shooting over 50 percent. Additionally, he is a better defender than Hamilton and he occasionally draws double teams.

And Anthony hits big shots. Can you imagine a backcourt of Chauncy "Mr. Big Shot" Billups and Anthony? It could have happened had Dumars drafted Anthony. And he wouldn't have necessarily had to dump Hamilton or Prince, either. One could have been the first man off the bench, cutting their minutes down a little, but not a ton. Twenty-five to thirty minutes a game is still a lot for an entire 82-game schedule.

Yes, the Pistons might not have won the championship with Anthony instead of Milicic in 2004. But there have been two seasons since then, and Anthony is still just 22 years old - a year older than Milicic. I bet the Pistons would have a title by now with Anthony, and possibly many more on the horizon.

But Anthony, instead, is tearing it up for Denver, a team that should be in the lower half of the Western Conference. And Milicic isn't even in Detroit anymore.

Which brings me to the second mistake Dumars made: unloading Milicic too soon, and for hardly anything. In fact, not only did Dumars give Orlando Milicic last season, but he also unloaded backup point guard Carlos Arroyo for Kelvin Cato and a possible 2008 first-round draft choice (the Pistons get the pick if the Magic don't draft in the top five in 2007 - which is likely considering Orlando's hot start to the season). Arroyo is having a career year for the Magic, averaging 10.6 points and 3.2 assists a game as a backup to Jameer Nelson.

Milicic, meanwhile, given the minutes he was never granted under Larry Brown and Flip Saunders in Detroit, is putting up decent numbers in Orlando, averaging eight points, 4.9 rebounds and two blocks a game.

Dumars gave up on Milicic too soon. Obviously Dumars has a better basketball eye than most, but if you look at international players - especially those from the 2003 draft - playing in the NBA, it usually takes three or four seasons for them to really become comfortable. Dumars didn't even give Milicic three full seasons.

The Pistons could use Milicic's big body right now. After losing Ben Wallace in the off-season to Chicago, the Pistons - despite the signing of Nazr Mohammed - are short on forwards. Besides Antonio McDyess, Detroit's main big man off the bench is Jason Maxiell, who is undersized at 6-foot-7 and is averaging just 10.4 minutes a game. Mohammed, 29, is not in good enough shape to play big minutes (he's averaging less than 20 a game), which is forcing Rasheed Wallace, 32, to play more than he should (35.5 minutes a game).

One of the Pistons' main downfalls in the playoffs last season was fatigue. The starters - especially the guards - played too many minutes during the season and didn't have any gas left come May. Rasheed Wallace is just as important to this team's fortunes as Billups or Hamilton, and if he's not playing at full throttle in the playoffs, Detroit might not even reach the conference finals.

Milicic's presence would be very beneficial right now. Look around the league at the other foreign players who were chosen in the first round of the 2003 draft. Many of them are thriving for the first time in the league. They are, at last, comfortable.

Mickael Pietrus, who was chosen 11th by Golden State, is playing at an all-time high. After averaging less than 10 points his first three seasons, Pietrus is scoring 12.8 points per game and averaging 5.2 rebounds. We all know about Boris Diaw's story. Chosen 21st by Atlanta, Diaw struggled for two years in HotLanta, averaging less than five points. But he emerged last year in Phoenix, scoring 13.3 points per game, and he was named the NBA's most improved player.

Of course, a lot of Diaw's newfound success can be attributed to the system he joined and the passing of Steve Nash - and his numbers are a little down this season (8.6 ppg; 5.1 rpg; 4.0 apg) - but don't tell anyone in Phoenix that he's not an integral part of their team. He is, and likely will be for years to come.

Diaw's teammate, Leandro Barbosa, was another foreign player chosen in the 2003 draft (with the 28th pick by San Antonio). And Barbosa didn't emerge onto the scene until his third year. He averaged 7.9 and seven points per game his first two seasons before blowing up for 13.1 a game last season. This year he's been even better, averaging a career-high 18.9 points and 4.7 assists a game. Don't even think about mentioning Phoenix's plan for success with throwing in a "Leandro" or "Barbosa." He's a huge part of the NBA title contenders.

But would anyone have thought that a year ago? Probably not.

Phoenix didn't give up on Barbosa, just like Golden State didn't give up on Pietrus, and now both teams are reaping the benefits of their decision. The Pistons, meanwhile, haven't gained anything from the Milicic trade. They thought the move would allow them to re-sign Ben Wallace this past summer, since Cato's $8 million-plus contract expired during the summer, but Chicago outbid Detroit.

And the Pistons are left with nothing, except a 2008 first-round draft pick. Of course, by then the Pistons could be without Billups, who is a free agent after the season. Dumars would be very smart to make sure Billups does not skip town. Do whatever it takes.

Because then he could be back at square one - just like when he became GM in 2000 - with an average team.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

"Around the country"

In this column I promise two things:
1 - Plenty of insights on sports within the US.
2 - No B(C)S

So let's get to it.

"NFL talk"
How wacky is the NFL right now? Just check out the wild-card races in both leagues. In the AFC, the following teams are 7-5: Cincinnati, Denver, NY Jets, Kansas City and Jacksonville. Only two of them will make the playoffs. I honestly have no clue which pair will end up with the spots, but if I had to choose, I'd go with the two hottest teams - the Bengals and Jets. The Broncos have lost three in a row and are starting a shaky rookie QB and the Chiefs and Jaguars are maddenly inconsistent. That will cost them down the stretch.

But, I'm sorry AFC, the NFC wild-card picture is even murkier - if that's possible. Here are the teams who still have a realistic chance at securing a wild-card bid:

Philly (6-6) - Never would have thought this possible with McNabb out, but Garcia's three TD's and zero INT's against Carolina Monday night said something.
Carolina (6-6) - I have a churning feeling that "Sports Illustrated's" annual choice for the Super Bowl will somehow miss the playoffs.
Atlanta (6-6) - Seemed dead entering the week with their "coach killer" quarterback, but Vick put his middle finger to good use, and suddenly they're right back in the thick of things.
NY Giants (6-6) - How many more games in a row can this team lose before being eliminated from playoff contention? Actually, they could probably lose one more, but I wouldn't recommend it. G-Men need to find a way to pull out games at the end. Don't count them out.
San Francisco (5-7) - Obviously a long shot, but you can't say "no chance" in this league. Frank Gore has become a Top-10 running back in the NFL.
St. Louis (5-7) - All signs point to the Rams not making the playoffs after an embarrassing home loss to the Cardinals (by a 14-point margin, no less), but if they can somehow get by the Bears on Monday, the rest of their schedule is favorable - at Oakland; vs. Washington; at Minnesota.
Minnesota (5-7) - If not for the Bears, the NFC North might be banned from the NFL - yeah, it's that bad. But... somehow, we can't count out the Vikings. And their two remaining road games are against their NFC North counterparts - the Lions and Packers. You never know...

So, with four weeks to play, there are still 11 teams in the NFC with a legit chance at making the playoffs and nine teams in the AFC (excluding the 5-7 teams). Should be a nutty final month of the regular season.

"NBA talk"
The quietest 12-game winning streak in the history of the league is over. Yes, the Mavericks lost Monday, falling to the Wizards. Good to know it's over. Maybe people would have started noticing if they won 20 straight.

One team that's turning heads is the Orlando Magic. Before the season, people were predicting the Magic as possibly a seven or eight seed, but right now they have a stronghold on the Southeast Division of the Eastern Conference with a 14-5 record. They are five games up on Atlanta - yes, Atlanta - with Miami five and a half back.

And the Magic's success revolves around one thing: balance. They are the Detroit Pistons of 2003-04. Seven players are averaging between eight and 17.2 points per game, with big man Dwight Howard leading the way. Howard is also proving to be an absolute beast on the boards, averaging 13.5 a game (easily the best mark in the league - Toronto's Chris Bosh is next at 12.2) to help Orlando outrebound opponents by nearly four a game.

Finally, as with almost any good team (main exception: see Phoenix Suns) the Magic are playing good defense, limiting opponents to just 93.1 points a game (fifth best in the NBA) on just 43 percent shooting. Howard and reserve Darko Milicic have formed a nice defensive combo down low, with each of them averaging two blocks a game. The Magic aren't spectacular, but playing in the weak Eastern Conference, what they're doing is easily enough to win two out of every three games.

Winning in the Western Conference, however, is not a walk in the park, which makes what Denver's doing all the more impressive. The Nuggets are actually leading the league in scoring (109.9 ppg) - just better than Phoenix's 107.6 average - despite the absence of a main scoring threat down low. Kenyon Martin is gone for the season and Nene Hilario has only played four games and is scoring just eight points a game, yet the Nuggets (10-5) are scorching opponents on a nightly basis.

It all starts with Carmelo Anthony. I think he really got into an offensive groove at the World Championships this summer and it's carrying over to the season. Or maybe he's out to prove that LeBron James and Dwyane Wade aren't clearly the best players from the great draft class of 2003.

Well, he's doing a great job of it. Anthony is leading the league in scoring at 32.3 points per game and even more impressive, he's shooting 52 percent from the field. Instead of settling for 3-pointers (he's just 6-for-23 on the year) he's taking the ball to the basket, earning 9.5 free throw attempts a game. Anthony is playing at an all-time high.

And his performance is rubbing off on his teammates. J.R. Smith is averaging 16.9 points a game. That's not bad for a guy who no one thought would do much in Denver. He's become 'Melo's sidekick. A huge key to whether Denver can keep this up will be Smith. Can he continue to produce? And Andre Miller, who has faded a bit the past couple seasons after leading the league in assists in 2002, is back in form, averaging 13.5 points and 9.3 assists a game. He also has an unheard-of 4.24 assist-to-turnover ratio.

Maybe Miller was feeling the heat from backup Earl Boykins, who continues to amaze at 5-foot-5, scoring more than 10 points and dishing out more than four assists a game. And when talking about the Nuggets' success, you can't forget about the invincible Marcus Camby, who keeps on trucking despite the slew of injuries he's been hit with. A healthy Camby is also averaging double figures in points (10.9) and, most importantly, he's the team's main rebounding presence, grabbing 11.3 a game. Somehow, with Reggie Evans adding 8.6 boards a game, the Nuggets are outrebounding their opponents despite the absence of Martin and the minimal impact of Nene, who's still getting used to game speed.

"MLB talk"
Well, the stove is officially "hot," in fact the flames are turning blue. Yes, it's been a busy off-season in Major League Baseball thus far, with two more marquee signing happening today. Greg Maddux is headed to San Diego and J.D. Drew is going from one coast to the other to play in Boston. The Red Sox are giving Drew $70 million over five years to play right field and bat behind David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez in the lineup.

This 3-4-5 combination sounds formidable, but I'm not sold on Drew as a "big-time player." Drew has played 130-plus games just four of his nine seasons in the majors, and he's hit over .300 just twice (excluding his rookie year, when he played only 14 games). He has hit 30 home runs just once (2004) and last year's 100 RBIs was a career-high for him. And I've never seen great desire from him to succeed. Tony La Russa said it in his book, "Three Nights in August," and I agree - Drew doesn't seem to love the game. He seems to play more for the money than for the team.

I don't know. Maybe this move by Theo Epstein will pay off. But I'm not sold on Drew as someone who can help the Bo Sox back to the playoffs.

The Red Sox also signed shortstop Julio Lugo on Tuesday to a four-year, $36 million deal. Shortstop has been a revolving door position for Boston the past few seasons. The Red Sox didn't retain Orlando Cabrera after he helped them win the World Series. Then Edgar Renteria couldn't handle the pressure of playing the position in Boston, committing 30 errors before he was paid off to leave. And last year's SS, Alex Gonzalez, was let go in free agency.

It will be interesting to see how Lugo pans out in Boston. I have question about him, just like with Drew. He's a career .277 hitter and his career on-base percentage is an average .340. If the Red Sox really plan on having him lead off, Lugo's going to need to improve on those numbers. Also, will he be able to handle the pressure of Boston? Last season in invisible Tampa Bay he was great, hitting .308 and scoring 53 runs in 73 games, but when he was traded to the playoff-contending Dodgers, his numbers slacked dramatically. He hit just .219 and scored only 16 runs in 49 games in LA.

Epstein has been right to make moves this off-season, but I'm not sure if they were the correct signings. And we'll still have to see how the Daisuke Matsuzaka signing works out. Boston has until Dec. 14 to sign the Japanese pitcher.

Maddux signed a one-year, $10 million deal with San Diego, continuing the exodus of players from the Dodgers. While Maddux turns 41 in the spring, he continues to prove that he can pitch in this league. He's won 10 games each of the last 19 seasons - better than any other active pitcher - and his presence in the clubhouse, among several young San Diego pitchers, should be beneficial. Good move by the Padres. He should be worth the $10 million.

I can't hit on all the signings - there are simply too many of them. But one pattern is very evident during this off-season: Several teams are handing out record money for good - but not great - players. It's not just the Yankees anymore.

Monday, December 04, 2006

"Oh, those tricky coaches"

Hmmm.... just read over the final college football Coaches' Poll that is released to the public. Interesting, insightful, inquisitive.

All those "I" words and a downright travesty.

The Harris Interactive poll has to be rated the worst prong of the horrid BCS - four voters voted Michigan No. 4!! - but the Coaches' Poll is right up there, reveling in BCS ignominy. When it came to picking No. 2 in the final, everything-is-on-the-line poll, I can guarentee you that most of the 61 coaches who voted made their picks based not on who they considered "better" (I know, it's a confusing word), but on "other things."

Such as what conference their team plays in...

Every SEC coach voted for... drumroll... the Gators. Every Big Ten coach voted for... another drumroll... the Wolverines. Except Jim Tressel (who, so diplomatically, refused to vote) and Illinois' Ron Zook, who just happened to be Florida's coach a few years back.


Such as if they played Florida or Michigan during the season...

Every coach of a team that lost to Michigan who voted... chose the Wolverines. Even Ball State coach, Brady Hoke, whose team lost just 34-26 at the Big House backed the Wolverines (maybe to help him schedule another big-money game at Michigan in the future).

Notre Dame's Charlie Weis even went as far to say that he chose Michigan No. 2 to “show respect to the team that beat us.”


Such as if your team is south of the Mason-Dixon Line, you're probably not voting against Florida. Only three southern coaches voted Michigan No. 2: Troy's Larry Blakeney, Texas' Mack Brown and South Florida's George O'Leary.

Now, let's examine these anamolies. We know that Brown's Texas team played Michigan in the Rose Bowl two years ago, escaping with a one-point win after Lloyd Carr refused to use his timeouts (obviously, Brown owed Carr a favor). But to be more serious, Brown's teams have played against the Big Ten three times in the last three seasons, beating Michigan and Ohio State and losing to the Buckeyes this year, and he realizes how good the league is.

The motive for Blakeney and O'Leary to pick Michigan No. 2 is more difficult to understand. Both coaches have always worked in the South. O'Leary's team even played Florida this season, losing 42-0. Maybe these guys are actually coaches who voted based on who they thought was "better" (that word, again).

But those are just two coaches.


Such as your team played a non-conference game against the Big Ten or SEC this season. Washington State lost to Auburn, 40-14, in the first game of the season - and Auburn went on to give Florida its lone loss - so, obviously, without giving second thought, WSU coach Bill Doba gave the Gators the nod. The University of Colorado, another (somewhat) northern team, fell to SEC foe Georgia, so, naturally, coach Dan Hawkins went with the Gators. To be balanced, I must point out that the University of Connecticut defeated Indiana, which lost to Michigan... and UC coach Randy Edsall took Michigan No. 2.

I'm not going to bombard you with any more statistical analysis. The patterns are not difficult to identify. Forget filling out March Madness brackets, next year how about filling out final Coaches' Poll brackets! I bet it'd be easy to 90 percent right when attempting to identify each coach's top two or three (depending on how many teams the almost inevitable BCS controversy involves).

The Coaches' Poll has become a joke. There's no denying this. And to think that the computer polls used to get most of the public's anger.

I won't even get into the blasphemy that is the Harris poll. All I needed was one example to prove its voters' incompetence. According to the "New York Times," George Lapides, a Memphis sports radio talk host, said he thought Florida would lose to Michigan if the Wolverines and Gators faced off, but that didn't stop him from moving the Gators from No. 4 to No. 2 after Florida's SEC title game victory over Arkansas.

“I liked the idea of a conference champion playing a conference champion,” Lapides told the New York Times. “I think that’s more appealing than a rematch. I think you try to pick something as appealing as possible.”

Right. So the BCS has come down to this. Coaches voting for their conference reps, other coaches voting for the team that beat them in September, and clueless voters basing their choice on what matchup is "appealing."

Yeah, it's needless to say this system needs to be scrapped.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

"How Michigan can overcome the BCS"

Memo to the University of Michigan athletic department:
Do you want your football team to play in the national title game? Do you want to avoid getting screwed by the BCS, particularly human voters? Do you want your football team to get what it deserves?

Well, here's an idea.

Don't end your season before Thanksgiving. Don't play Notre Dame in September. Instead, take on the Fighting Irish on the final weekend of the season. They weren't playing - what else are they going to do? Study? PUH-lease. This is the big-money business of college football.

Don't start your schedule in the first week of September. Games in September mean about as much as a broken hairdryer does to a teenage girl.

No one cares that Michigan beat Notre Dame on Sept. 16. Likewise, no one gives a hoot that the Wolverines took down Wisconsin, now the No. 7 team in the BCS, the following week. All that is in the past.

All that mattered to those men who vote in the Coaches' Poll was that Florida beat Arkansas in the SEC title game and, of course, that Michigan "had their shot."

But would people have been saying this had the Wolverines played this weekend, maybe defeated the Fighting Irish? No way.

Who cares about tradition? Who cares about playing Ohio State in the last game of the season? Michigan needs to extend its schedule - period.

How about this: Michigan plays Hawaii on Thanksgiving weekend - like Purdue did this year - and then the Fighting Irish on the final weekend. I think that'd be enough to get the Wolverines into the title game. Skip the first week of the season, start their schedule on the second weekend and take a bye sometime in October (like Florida did this season - their bye came after their lone loss to Auburn).

And play all the way into December. I don't care if it's snowing in South Bend or Ann Arbor. That's what football's all about, right?

Michigan ended its season so long ago that I bet several of the voters forgot just how dominant the Wolverines were. For instance, voters likely looked at Michigan's 17-10 win at Penn State in October and thought, "That doesn't seem that impressive, defeating a team that finished 8-4 by just a touchdown." They would have failed to see, of course, that the Michigan defense knocked two Penn State quarterbacks out of the game and that the Nittany Lions didn't score their touchdown until 3:18 remained in the contest.

And you have to give the voters a break. That was October, after all. Several voters already have Christmas trees. The only Michigan game fresh in voters' minds is the Wolverines' lone loss - 42-39 at Ohio State on Nov. 18 (and maybe their 34-26 so-unimpressive win over Ball State on Nov. 4, although, of course, they don't remember that after taking a 31-12 lead, coach Lloyd Carr inserted second- and third-string defensive players).

The game most voters were undoubtedly thinking about Sunday when they inked their votes was Florida's 38-28 win over Arkansas because it happened a day earlier. It doesn't take a brain surgeon to know this. They saw the Gators upend the Razorbacks and thought to themselves, "Wow, this is a good football team. How can we possibly keep them out of the title game?"

Florida was the Christmas Day prime rib while Michigan was the leftover turkey from Thanksgiving.

So, University of Michigan athletic department members, if you truly care about your football team, if you care about them not getting hoed by the BCS (just like the coaches did to them in 1998, giving Nebraska a share of the national title), then you need to be proactive.

Mess with tradition, change your schedule. Yes, it has come to this.

"Gator Nation"

What has changed in the past two weeks. No, check that, what has changed in the past week?

A week ago the situation was simple: Either USC wins and faces Ohio State in Glendale, Ariz., on Jan. 8; or USC somehow loses to UCLA and Michigan faces the Buckeyes in a rematch of their Nov. 18 epic.

Not anymore. Suddenly, after Florida's not-so-impressive 38-28 win over Arkansas in the SEC title game - combined, of course, with UCLA's 13-9 shocker over the Trojans -the Gators have as good a chance as Michigan to play the Buckeyes.

A week ago close to no one said the Gators had a chance. Some media members said they had a "slim chance." Not anymore. BCS experts are picking the Gators to hop Michigan in the computer polls, and they say that Florida does not have finish ahead of the Wolverines in the Harris Poll and Coaches' Poll - they just need to improve their standing.

I'm not disagreeing with any of these experts. I'm just trying to figure out how in the course of a week the Gators suddenly are right in the thick of things to get that spot in the title game.

Several columnists seem to have jumped on the Gators' bandwagon, making their case for a Florida-Ohio State title game (which is eerily similar to media members vouching for Nebraska to share a piece of the national title with Michigan in 1997-98 after their Orange Bowl victory). Maybe they're SEC sympathisers who can't stand the thought of the conference being on the wrong side of another BCS controversy - undefeated Auburn missed out on the title game two years ago. Or maybe they saw something in the SEC title game that convinced them the Gators deserve the shot.

But all that should matter is this: Which is the better team - Michigan or Florida?

That's what the BCS' job is, right? To pit No. 1 against No. 2. Not to pit two conference champions against each other. Not to pit teams from the top two conferences. Just No. 1 against No. 2.

And this year, more than others, it's difficult to pick No. 2. But if voters were with Michigan one week ago, there should be no reason for them to switch sides now. Florida beat a 10-3 Arkansas team got slaughtered by USC that lost to UCLA. Florida got a big break when an Arkansas punt returner fumbled on his own 5-yard line and the Gators recovered in the end zone.

It was not that impressive of a victory - not enough to change voters' minds.

Let's face it: Teams that play deeper into November and even into December have a huge advantage when it comes to influencing voters, columnists, pundits, etc. No one remembers Michigan's blowout victory on the road at South Bend. All they can say is that Notre Dame is grossly overrated, which may be the case - but that doesn't diminish how impressive the win was at the time. And, of course, no one remembers Florida's lone loss of the year to Auburn - a good SEC team, but not great.

All most people remember about Michigan is its last game of the season - the 42-39 loss to Ohio State. And when it comes to Florida, most people are thinking about what they saw last night - a win over a Top 10 team.

Advantage Florida.

As many columnists have pointed out, Florida played the tougher schedule, Florida beat more ranked opponents, yada, yada, yada.

That's all true.

But... is Florida the better team? If the Gators and Wolverines lined up right now, who would come out on top? That team should be playing in Glendale.

Forget everything else. Forget that Michigan didn't win its conference. Florida would have suffered the same fate if it was in the Big Ten. Forget that it'd be the dreaded word... a rematch. Forget all that.

None of it matters. If I was a voter, I'd look at both team's entire seasons - not just the past three weeks. I'd look at their wins, I'd look at their losses, then I'd ask myself the question: Who's better?

And by the slimmest of slim margins, I'd choose Michigan.

'Nuff said.

Saturday, December 02, 2006

"Miracle at the Rose Bowl"

USC must think it's cursed in Pasadena. For the second time in a year, the Trojans fell to an underdog at the Rose Bowl, this time losing to UCLA 13-9 in the most improbable of upsets.

USC is now out of the national title picture. And Michigan is back in. The Wolverines will more than likely get that rematch against the Buckeyes in Glendale Jan. 8. Florida, which is currently beating Arkansas in the SEC title game, is the only other team with a chance. But it would take some serious shifting of votes for the Gators to jump the Wolverines in the BCS.

I just chatted with someone in Ann Arbor. They're honking horns in the streets. They know the implications of UCLA's huge upset.

No one - and I mean no one - outside of the UCLA locker room saw this one coming. The Bruins didn't even choose a starting QB until three days ago. The Bruins (7-5) suffered through a four-game losing streak earlier this year. The Bruins hadn't beaten the Trojans since 1998.


So much credit needs to go to the Bruins defense. USC was coming off a 44-point performance against Notre Dame. USC hadn't scored less than 20 points the entire season. And the Bruins shut out the Trojans for an entire half of football. Very impressive.

The Bruins took the big play away from the Trojans. While Dwayne Jarrett was spectacular last Saturday, he was very average this Saturday, catching four passes for 66 yards and no touchdowns.

Every time it looked like the Trojans were ready to break the Bruins defense, it didn't happen. In the third quarter, trailing 10-9, USC got the ball in UCLA territory after the Bruins' lone turnover in the contest - a mishandled backward pass. The momentum seemed to be swinging toward the Trojans.

But a penalty, then a sack, and all of a sudden the momentum was back in UCLA's hands. I was convinced USC would pull ahead, find a way to retake the lead. Even after a great interception by Eric McNeal gave UCLA the ball with 1:10 left I wasn't convinced. USC had all its timeouts. But after a great 63-yard punt by Aaron Perez, it was all but over.

And Michigan had new life, another shot at the Buckeyes.

If Michigan gets the nod in the BCS, there is going to be a lot of pressure on Lloyd Carr going into the title game. No U-M coach has ever lost two games in a season to OSU. OK, I know they've never played twice in a year. But, like it or not, wrong or right, if Michigan falls again to OSU, the chants to fire Carr will begin again.

Which, of course, would be absolutely ridiculous. But that's life in Ann Arbor.

Sometimes it's great, sometimes it's not.

And right now, well, let's just say it's on the "great" side of the scale.

Thanks, 100 percent, to the Bruins.

Friday, December 01, 2006

"NBA players need to remove shackles"

"New York Times" columnist William C. Rhoden came out with a book this summer that brought great controversy with it.

The book, titled "Forty Million Dollar Slaves: The Rise, Fall, and Redemption of the Black Athlete" details how the black athlete's plight hasn't really changed over the past 100 years - how "black athletes’ exercise of true power is as limited today as when masters forced their slaves to race and fight. The primary difference is, today’s shackles are often of their own making."

Well, I can't say I agree or disagree with Rhoden's argument – I won't be able to do that until after reading the book - but today in sports there is an obvious case of a powerful white man - NBA Commissioner David Stern - controlling a large group of athletes, mostly black.

I wrote a column a couple weeks ago about the effect the new microfiber ball and "zero-tolerance policy" is having on the league this season. Several of the NBA’s players have complained about the changes since the beginning of the season. Everyone from Shaquille O'Neal - one of the league's biggest players - to Steve Nash - one of its smallest players - has grumbled about the ball. Turnovers are up, it bounces weird off the rim - making traditionally strong rebounders average - and players simply don't like its feel.

I don't blame them. Especially the veterans. Here, they've been using one ball for 10 years, now all of a sudden it's gone? It's ludicrous.

Friday the players' association took a stand, filing two unfair labor practice charges against the NBA over issues with the new ball and the league's crackdown on player complaints. Union director Billy Hunter said that if changes aren't made, legal action could be the association’s next step.

Washington Wizard Antonio Daniels, in his 10th season, hit it right on the head when he said, in an article, "You never want to feel that the NBA's a dictatorship."

That must be what it feels like to the players right now. Stern is making changes that have an impact on every single game, and the players aren't allowed to fight back? That's a dictatorship, for you.

I don't care how much money these guys make. I don't care about how "easy" their lives are compared to ours. We know all that. But that doesn't mean they shouldn't get the same rights as any member of an organization to have input on important decisions made by that organization and to protest changes they disagree with.

Although officials have slightly improved during the season's first month, technical fouls are still up from last year. There were 175 T's through the first 225 games this season. Last year there were only 120 through 225 games. While it was ridiculous how much players argued with refs during the playoffs last season, the way officials have clamped down on even minor emotional outburst by players this season has been overzealous.

Players, naturally, are going to be upset if a foul is called on them that they disagree with. To not allow any sort of reaction is, well, shackling them.

This situation would be completely different if at least some of the league's players agreed with the new rule and the implementation of the new ball. But I haven't heard one good word spoken about either new measure. Even when Vince Carter received a friendly bounce from the new ball to save a game for the New Jersey Nets, he wasn't praising the ball. Instead, he said that what happened never would have occurred with the old leather ball.

Hopefully enough high-profile players will speak out against the new measures that Stern will be forced to make some changes. Not only would this benefit the players, but it would also prove that they are not slaves living under a dictatorship. It would prove that they have the power to influence the league's direction and that it's not just a one-man show.

And it would tell the fans that, no, players aren't just entertainers on your television screen. They are real people, just like you, who - regardless of the amount of money they're making - care about how their organization is run and won't let themselves be treated like insubordinates.

"Thursday night wrap-up"

"Bengals crash the party"
I didn't see it because, believe it or not, not everybody gets the NFL network. But I could hear the pads smashing in what must have been a very physical 13-7 Bengals victory over Baltimore Thursday night. It looks like after all the letdowns, the Bengals' defense might have actually saved Cincinnati's season. After giving up 120 points in four games, the Bengals have surrendered just seven in the past two contests. At 7-5, it still won't be easy for them to make the playoffs. But they have the momentum of a three-game winning streak, and for that reason I'll take them over the Jets, Broncos, Chiefs and Jaguars as the No. 1 wild card team. Road games at Indy and Denver will be huge in sorting out the AFC playoff picture.

"Kobe silences the Jazz"
132-102? I'm sorry, I know it's one game, but last night's Lakers' blowout of the Jazz alone should bump Utah below San Antonio in the Western Conference (and NBA) power rankings. Utah couldn't stop Kobe Bryant, who erupted for 52 points, including 30 in LA's 42-point third quarter. Bryant has now scored 50-plus points 12 times during his career. He's not close to leading the league in scoring this season, but I still consider him one of the NBA's three or four best players. In the next few days I'll write a column about who I think is the league's best.

But how about the Lakers? They didn't really do much during the off-season to improve, but right now they're looking like one of the five best teams in the league at 10-5. And it has everything to do with the play of Lamar Odom and Andre Bynum. Odom has never been a consistently good player in his career until this season. His performance last night was a perfect microcosm of how he's played this first month. He scored 14 points, grabbed 11 boards and dished out eight assists. Bryant no longer has to do it all because Odom's helping him.

Bynum might be one of the league's biggest surprises - providing he keeps this up. Despite scoring just six points last night, Bynum is still averaging 8.5 points and, more importantly, 6.3 rebounds for a team that is outrebounding its opponents by almost two boards a game. Yeah, the Lakers are getting big this season. That's a scary thought for the rest of the West.

Final Word: It's about time, Tony Parker. He is finally engaged to Desperate Housewives diva Eva Longoria. We'll see how this affects his play. My prediction: He'll be fine. She doesn't seem like the type of demanding woman who would distract him. Not that a few losses would kill the Spurs anyway.

What to watch on Friday: Sacramento at Dallas, 8:30 p.m ESPN. Have the Mavs really won 11 in a row since starting 0-4? Has anyone been paying attention? It might be the quietest 11-game win streak in the history of the NBA. Only 22 more W's and they tie the 1972 Lakers for the record. Yeah, right.

"Changing sports"

I've been inspired by Justin Gatlin. Not because he took steroids to break world records (that's about as inspiring as a goose crapping on my municipal golf course).

No, Gatlin has influenced me to muse about which professional athletes could thrive in other sports. That's because he tried out for the Houston Texans yesterday (and who knows, maybe he'll make the team; they are the Texans, after all). Anyway, here goes.

NBA starting lineup made up of NFL players:
Point guard: Tom Brady, Patriots
- Main strength: Very steady, very consistent. And all he does is win. Plus, his confidence will rub off on his teammates
- Main weakness: Too slow.
Shooting guard: Ladainian Tomlinson, Chargers
- Main strength: Not a tough pick. Simply knows how to score. He's also very versatile. Can shoot from the outside and take the ball to the hole.
- Main weakness: Are there any?
Small forward: Ed Reed, Ravens
- Main strength: Tough as nails. Can bang down low when you need him to; could even play at the base of a 1-3-1 zone. Great defender.
- Main weakness: A bit undersized and a little bit of an offensive liability.
Power forward: Antonio Gates, Chargers
- Main strength: Played basketball his entire life. Need I say more?
- Main weakness: Does he still have the desire now that he knows he can dominate two sports?
Center: Bubba Franks, Packers
- Main strength: This guy is on a mediocre team, his old college coach just got fired, and he doesn't know who his next QB will be. Simply put, he needs a change in sports. And he's a strong dude. He could overpower many NBA centers.
- Main weakness: His height. At just 6-foot-6, Franks will struggle against the KGs and Shaqs of the league.
Sixth man: Michael Vick, Falcons
- Main strength: Easy pick here. He can be brilliant in spots.
- Main weakness: Just don't leave him in for too long. He's bound to sour.

NFL skill positions starting lineup made up of MLB players
QB: Derek Jeter, Yankeees
- Main strength: One of the smartest players in the game, always makes the most of his at-bats. Will do the same with his throwing opportunities. And can scramble out of the pocket.
- Main weakness: At times can be too aggressive, forcing balls into double coverage.
RB: Craig Monroe, Tigers
- Main strength: Very versatile. Is powerful, but can also show bursts of speed at times.
- Main weakness: Too often tries to bust the long run instead of just lowering his shoulder to get the needed yard.
WR: Greg Maddux, Cubs
- Main strength: Simply put, this guy catches anything that he can get his hands on. It doesn't matter how hard it's thrown, either.
- Main weakness: Well, he's getting kind of old.
LB: Jason Veritek, Red Sox
- Main strength: Is very quick laterally. Can get from one side of the field to the other in an instant. Also, one tough egg, and keeps his head in the game in crucial situations.
- Main weakness: A bit undersized at just 230 pounds and has had injury problems.
SS: Jim Edmonds, Cardinals
- Main strength: He was born to play safety. Can move all over the field very quickly, has a good combination of strength and speed and is good at judging angles on players he has to chase down.
- Main weakness: Aging a bit and already has his championship. Have to question his desire.

MLB partial lineup made up of NBA players
Starting pitcher: Kevin Garnett, Timberwolves
- Main strength: Great speed, plus with his height makes for a very intimidating figure on the mound.
- Main weakness: Isn't a proven winner. Can he break out of that?
Closer: Dwyane Wade, Heat
- Main strength: Gets the job done when needed. 'Nuff said.
- Main weakness: None, really.
Catcher: Steve Nash, Suns
- Main strength: Does an excellent job controlling games from start to finish.
- Has to take at least two days off each week. Better have a good backup (Leandro Barbosa??)
Shortstop: Bruce Bowen, Spurs
- Main strength: Great defensive player who hits in spurts. Also a winner, which is very important for this position.
- Main weakness: Old and injury-prone. Might have to switch him to third base like Ripken.
Center fielder: Josh Smith, Hawks
- Main strength: He's young, fast, and he can climb the fence for any fly ball within reach. He also adds a little pop to the front of your lineup.
- Main weakness: He's young, still immature and if he has a big season, he might test the free-agent market. And he's never been on a winning team.

Tennis player most likely to succeed at golf: Roger Federer
- He's so smooth, and he makes everything seem so effortless. Are there any doubts?

Golfer most likely to succeed at tennis: Tiger Woods
- It wouldn't have been right to pick anyone else. I think Tiger could excel at most sports.

Coach of professional sports team who could play a different pro sport: Avery Johnson, Mavericks
- Still relatively young, I could see him as a utility second baseman.