Wednesday, February 28, 2007

"A big win, but what now?"

Let's focus on the present... at least for a minute here.

The University of Michigan men's basketball team put together a very solid effort in defeating Michigan State last night 67-56 at Crisler Arena. The Wolverines (20-10) are back on the bubble, and a win Saturday against No. 1 Ohio State would likely put them one Big Ten tournament victory shy of their first NCAA tournament appearance since 1998.

Of course, talking about beating the Buckeyes isn't quite as difficult as guarding Greg Oden or closing out on their five million 3-point shooters. The Wolverines would have to play an even better game than they did Tuesday night to pull off the monumental upset.

It would be perfectly fitting, though. The last time Michigan knocked off a No. 1 team was when it beat Duke during the 1997-98 season - the last year in which it made the tournament.

So things are - kind of - looking up in Ann Arbor. There's no Fire Tommy Amaker Talk this week (but if the Wolverines miss the tournament - which is still the most likely scenario - expect a quick return of FTAT). The Wolverines sold out Crisler on Tuesday and I'd expect the same to happen for Saturday's nationally televised game.

Senior Dion Harris has stepped up of late. Against the Spartans Harris scored a game-high 24 points, including 8-for-8 from the free throw line. And whenever the Spartans threatened to take the lead in the second half, Harris responded with a big bucket.

Senior Courtney Sims also came to play, scoring 13 points and grabbing 10 rebounds off the bench.

And the player whom Michigan's game-to-game success seems to depend the most on, sophomore point guard Jerret Smith, played his best floor game of the season, logging four assists and just one turnover in a game-high 36 minutes of action. Whenever Smith avoids mistakes, the Wolverines are successful. They turned the ball over a season-low eight times on Tuesday.

That's how you win games. By playing mistake-free basketball, good defense and getting big scoring contributions from your seniors.

I'd like to get caught up in the moment. After all, we can only live in the present, right? At least that's what my high school counselor said. But the question must be asked: Where has this been?

Why haven't Harris and Sims shown this kind of leadership all season? How in the world did they let Iowa go on a 20-1 run at Crisler Arena a few weeks back to deal Michigan a devastating loss - the Wolverines' only home loss of the Big Ten season? Where was this effort a mere week ago, when the Wolverines managed just 42 points in a pitiful loss in Champaign, Ill., to a dilapidated Illinois squad? A win in that game, and Saturday's gig with the Buckeyes wouldn't be so much of a must-win. Now, it's beat the Buckeyes or win at least three games in the Big Ten tournament.

Yeah, the odds are stacked against the Wolverines. It certainly didn't have to be like this. If the Wolverines had shown up to play Georgetown in front of a home sellout crowd back in December and pulled out a victory, no one would be talking about their lack of a "signature victory." The Hoyas are now a top-10 team. But Michigan completely tanked in that game, shooting horribly and allowing Georgetown to shoot 52 percent from the field. Sims put together a marvelous disappearing act, attempting just four shots and scoring four points.

Inconsistency has plagued the Wolverines all season. They're a very good representation of the stock market. One day they're looking good, people are talking about the NCAA tournament and Amaker is off the hot seat. A few days later, they're a disgrace headed to another NIT and Amaker needs to go at season's end. It's a rollercoaster ride, and they've gone down more hills than they've climbed.

By a slight margin.

The realist would say it's time for another descent. After all, Michigan hasn't won three straight games since they beat up on no-names in mid-December. A win over Ohio State would be three in a row. Only a huge optimist would give the Wolverines a chance Saturday. They'd point to Michigan's 17-3 home record this season, including 6-1 in the conference. They'd point out that it will be Senior Day, and Harris, Sims and Brent Petway will refuse defeat.

It all sounds good. It reads like a recipe for success. But the Wolverines still have to take the court. It will be the biggest game at Crisler Arena in quite sometime. And it should be a voluble atmosphere - at least at tipoff.

But will it stay that way for two hours? And even if it does - even if the Wolverines pull off the impossible - they'll still likely need that win in the Big Ten tournament.

What would keep the rollercoaster from racing downhill after Saturday?

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

"The Spurs just keep plugging away"

In case you forgot - amidst all the behind-the-back passes by Steve Nash and 10-game winning streaks by Dallas - the San Antonio Spurs are still in the NBA.

I know. It's almost as hard to believe as the idea of Brittany Spears with hair. But it's true. I promise.

Oh, and one other thing... they're still pretty good.

At 39-18 and riding a six-game winning streak, the Spurs are nowhere near the indomitable Mavs, who have won 12 straight games - their third 12-game winning streak this season (an NBA record - how cool!!!). But the Spurs are second in the best division in basketball - the Western Conference's Southeast Division - and if the playoffs started today, they'd be the fourth seed in the West.

I wouldn't be the least surprised if they made it to the NBA Finals. This is, after all, their year. Since 2003, the Spurs have won the title every other year. And it's too bad they couldn't come through in 2001, because then the EOY streak would extend all the way back to 1999 and the playing days of Dallas coach Avery Johnson.

Since 1999, the Spurs and Lakers have the most NBA titles with three apiece. In the past four years, the Spurs, with two, have the most

But nobody - and I mean, not a soul outside San Antonio's city lines - talks about the Spurs as title contenders this season. I’ve been fed so much Phoenix talk, I'd rather eat a cactus than hear another peep about the Suns' playoff chances. Yes, the Mavericks have earned their praise, because they certainly are the best team in basketball. But let's not forget that the Spurs were a Dirk Nowitzki three-point play away from eliminating the Mavericks a year ago in the conference semifinals. We even hear more talk about the Utah Jazz than the Spurs. And nobody, until this season, even knew Utah After Stockton & Malone existed.

The reason, apparently, no one likes to mention the Spurs at the dinner table is because they're flat-out boring. Tony Parker brings the ball downcourt. They post up Duncan. Someone throws it to him. He either shoots or kicks it out to Parker, Bruce Bowen or Manu Ginobili. Bowen shoots. Parker shoots or drives, throwing up a teardrop. Ginobili drives acrobatically to the hoop...

OK, stop. What is so boring?? It's not like they give the ball to the same guy every time downcourt (see Cleveland), or post up the same 300-plus-pounder whenever he's in the game (see Miami sans Wade), or let the same dude shoot ridiculous fadeaways 75 percent of the time (see Houston; Tracy McGrady).

Yes, San Antonio's style of play isn't as exciting as Phoenix's. But what team's is?

The Spurs are ignored, disliked, thrown under the bus (if you want to go with the cliché) because they're the Spurs. Because they are consistently good. For the past 10 years, no other team has been as consistent as San Antonio. They've made it to the second round of the playoffs or farther all but one year, they’ve reached the conference finals four times and all three times they've gotten to the finals, they've won the Larry O'Brien trophy.

In a way, the Spurs have become the Yankees of the NBA. But instead of people constantly scrutinizing them publicly, people show their hatred for the franchise by blatantly ignoring it. Regardless of what San Antonio does the rest of this season - unless Ginobili scores 100 points or something - it won't get any attention. We'll talk plenty about Phoenix and its chances of winning its first ever title. Dallas will definitely be in the news. Houston. Detroit. Miami, if D-Wade comes back. Cleveland. Washington. Chicago.

They'll all get plenty of attention from the national media. But the Spurs? Nada. Not until they methodically begin to make another push toward a championship.

And to be honest, the only team I'd take over San Antonio right now is Dallas. And just by a hair. I'd pick the Spurs over the Suns, or Jazz or Lakers. I'd take them over the Pistons in the Finals.

I know we've all forgotten, but San Antonio has the same nucleus from its 2005 championship team. Duncan, Ginobili and a now-married Tony Parker. Yeah, they're all older, but so are Steve Nash, Nowitzki and Rasheed Wallace.

The Spurs are like your '67 Firebird. You forget about it and leave it in the garage. But when your son gets his hands on the keys and decides to take Dad's car for s spin, it runs as smooth as your '07 Benz.

I can't blame people for considering the Spurs old laundry. We live in a rapidly changing world. Wasn't it yesterday that Discmans (you know, those things that play CD's that used to be considered hip) were attached to every adolescent? And I'm afraid to mention the word "cassette" around my peers for fear of unrelenting "you're old" heckling.

The point is, people love what's new - which, in the NBA, is the Phoenix Suns and their style of play (although, as any NBA historian will tell you, Phoenix is far from the first NBA franchise to employ the run-'n-gun - think Showtime; 1980s). No kids wear Tim Duncan jerseys anymore. He's way too fundamentally sound to have a good-selling jersey. Cats on the And1 Mixed Tape sell more jerseys than Duncan. Heck, ask a 13-year-old basketball player who Duncan is, and he might not even know.

It's a shame that more young players and enthusiasts don't appreciate the Spurs. If someone wanted to learn how to play basketball the right way, San Antonio would be the team to watch. They're so solid in all the fundamentals, which is one of the big reasons why Duncan has three fat rings on his fingers (although, knowing Duncan, he probably never wears them in public because he hates to show off).

That's right. You'll rarely see a SportsCenter Top 10 play provided by the Spurs. Or, for that matter, even much of a highlight of any of their games. They're rarely on national TV, despite the great record and pedigree (they get awful ratings). But come April, then May, then June, there's a good chance they'll be around, winning games like usual.

And people will ask each other, where did these guys come from?

When, as hard as it is to believe, they've been here all along.

Friday, February 23, 2007

"Don't be surprised by Neitzel"

He doesn't exactly look the part. Skinny. Bald white head. Short – at least for his main hobby- at just 6 feet. Not your typical star. But does it matter?

This past Tuesday basketball fans all over the country - from the Smokies in West Virginia to the canyons of Utah - who turned on ESPN around 8:40 p.m. EST probably saw some "kid" they'd never seen before drain 3-pointer after... 3-pointer against one of the best defensive teams in the country They probably asked themselves, Who is this kid? Where he'd come from.

Well, folks, let me tell you. Drew Neitzel, Michigan State's point guard/shooting guard/top scorer/second-best assist-giver, comes from Grand Rapids, where he attended Wyoming Park High School. And anyone who saw Neitzel play in the state semifinals his senior year is not at all surprised he's finally blowing up. What they're miffed by is why he's taken so long. But take it easy, guys, he was playing behind guys such as Shannon Brown and Maurice Ager - who play in a league called the NBA now. I think they were pretty good.

In that semifinal game, Neitzel led his grossly undermanned team against a stalwart Detroit Renaissance team that featured Malik Hairston and Joe Crawford - two guys people knew would be big-time players in college; that is, even the people who didn't attend that game. Neitzel played the grittiest game of his life. Ok, maybe not THE grittiest - because, I'm sure, he's had some fierce driveway games against his dad/brother/cousin/best friend etc. - but he was basically unstoppable. The problem was his teammates froze in front of the capacity crowd at the Breslin Center. They dropped his dimes as if they only accepted quarters. They suffered defensive lapses. All Neitzel needed was a little help from them. He got none. He finished with 30-something points and a couple pockets full of assists.

But lost. Hairston and Crawford went on to win the state title. Hairston's now at Oregon. Crawford's the leading scorer at Kentucky. Both - surprise, surprise - have better supporting players around them than Neitzel has this year. Yet - no surprise - Neitzel has taken over the steering wheel for the Spartans and has them headed to another NCAA tournament.

By the end of the first quarter of that semifinal, I knew that State had landed another gem. Forget the questions about his height or strength. In college basketball, at least, heart and work ethic will get you very far. Neitzel displayed both of those against Renaissance. As soon as, according to MHSAA rules, he was allowed to begin warmups, Neitzel was on the hardwood practicing his dribbling. He'd do the same move over, and over, and over again. Until you couldn't differentiate Take 1 from Take 4. Now that, A.I., is practice. Then, despite his teammates' choke job, Neitzel didn't lose his cool or bitch out his boys. Instead he stayed focused and gave the huge crowd a show.

When he walked off the court, I knew - and I'm sure MSU coach Tom Izzo knew - that Neitzel would be a great contributor for him.

But Michigan State's savior? No one would have guessed that.

Since Izzo made his first Final Four in 1999, us Michiganders have become accustomed to two things come March: Michigan not making the NCAA tournament; and Michigan State making the tournament and often going deep into the dance. The Spartans won their only championship in 2000 behind point guard Mateen Cleaves, and made Final Four trips in 2001 and 2005.

Even last season the Spartans - with Ager, Brown and big man Paul Davis - seemed a very dangerous No. 6 seed in the Big Dance. That is, until they got knocked off by some school named George Mason, which happened to also beat North Carolina and Connecticut on its way to the Final Four.

But then something as strange as a team called the Patriots making the Final Four happened to MSU. The talent well became dry. Brown left school early. Davis and Ager were seniors. The Spartans didn't have any blue-chip recruits coming in. They were left - entering this season - with Neitzel, who averaged a moderate 8.3 points per game last season, as their most experienced returnee.

Clearly it was Neitzel's time to show his true colors. To show that, sure, he can pass the ball - his primary role as a freshman and sophomore - but, man, can this kid shoot it too. So, with Travis Walton overtaking point guard duties some of the time, Neitzel has been free to do just about everything he can for an otherwise anemic Michigan State offense (besides Neitzel's 18.5 points per game, the only other Spartan averaging double figures is Raymar Morgan, averaging 11.1 a game).

Against Wisconsin on Tuesday, Neitzel took over down the stretch, scoring 11 consecutive points - including three triples - sandwiched around two Wisconsin free throws in just over 2 minutes to turn a four-point deficit into a five-point lead. Minutes later, MSU's fans stormed the court to celebrate knocking off the No. 1 or No. 2 team in the land (depending on what poll you subscribe to).

Neitzel clearly outplayed the Naismith Award candidate for Wisconsin, Alando Tucker, outscoring him 28-16 on just two more shot attempts. Both players finished with two rebounds and two assists. While all the publicity Tucker has gotten for leading the Badgers to one of the nation's best records and a shot at the Big Ten championship is deserved, Neitzel - did I mention, he's a junior? - has been nearly as impressive, especially of late. Tucker’s 20.2 points per game average is slightly higher than Neitzel's, but his 5.3 rpg average isn’t as impressive as Neitzel's 4.3 assists per game.

And, of course, Tucker has better, more experienced teammates around him who he can almost always count on to make smart plays in a close ballgame. When Michigan State finds itself in a tight one, it's on Neitzel's shoulder - as witnessed Tuesday. Besides Kevin Durant at Texas, find me a player on an NCAA tournament team who's more vital to his team's success than Neitzel. Not as easy as taking out the trash, is it?

So as we head toward Championship Week, don't forget this kid. He may not be able to leap out of the gym - I don't even know if he can dunk. He may look as if he could be Greg Oden's kid - if, in fact, Oden really is 43 like we all surmise. But you'll be seeing a lot of this kid the rest of this season and into next year.

Don't be taken aback by the things he does, either. He's been doing them for a long time.

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

"Now I know why there's great parity"

I don't usually allow my often pathetic performance on the basketball court to affect my opinion of the "real athletes" who play the game competitively.

But last Thursday - in my basketball class (yes, I know it sounds bad, but, really, I take legitimate classes as well) - was the exception. I had been wondering for weeks about the amazing parity in college basketball this season. Whole bunches of teams in the major conferences were lumped together, with no teams, it seemed, trying to stand above the rest.

I found my answer - kind of - in this basketball class. We were playing a 3-on-3 tournament. I liked my team. We had what you need for a successful three-person team: a point guard, a shooting guard/small forward and a big man. But, somehow, we lost two of four games to undermatched opponents. The reason? We simply didn't bring it. We didn't play at 100 percent. We didn't give it our all. We must have been tired from all those mind-taxing English classes.

Granted, this was a 3-on-3 gym class tournament. But I think it relates to major college basketball. Most teams, I've noticed, fail to maintain their intensity from night to night. These are, after all, college students. We can say all we want about them not going to class or being like me and only taking gym classes, but the fact is they live tiring lives, often traveling twice a week.

It's not easy for them to bring the same focus and effort to every game, especially when they're on the road and the home team is juiced up by the crowd. That's one of the main reasons, I believe, why there is so much parity in the college game this season - more than ever, it seems.

There are a few teams coasting through their leagues. Florida in the SEC, Wisconsin and Ohio State in the Big Ten, Memphis in Conference USA. But besides them, all the major teams are clumped together, which should make life even more difficult for the selection committee come Selection Sunday in less than three weeks.

Look at the Big Ten. After Wisconsin and Ohio State (both 12-1 in the conference), there are six teams that have records between 7-5 and 6-6. How ridiculous is that? And excluding Iowa, those teams have very similar overall records as well. Additionally, with the exception of Indiana's win over Wisconsin, none of these teams have a signature victory. They've all just beat each other at home. So it's nearly impossible to differentiate between these teams. If you played the "blind resume" game with these squads - as ESPN analysts often do - it'd be a guessing game as to who is who.

The Big Ten isn't the only conference. The ACC's almost as wild. There are four teams - North Carolina, Virginia, Boston College and Virginia Tech - within a game of the conference lead, which is currently shared by the Tar Heels and Cavaliers at 9-3. Then there are five teams with records spanning 7-6 to 5-8 who all harbor hopes of getting into the NCAA tournament. And, needless to say, anything can happen on any night, as witnessed by North Carolina State (4-8) thrashing Virginia Tech (8-4) by more than 20 points the other day. The league might be a bit down overall from years past, but it's as unpredictable as ever.

And the king of parity, of course, is the 16-team Big East. While Pittsburgh and Georgetown appear the only two teams left in the race for the title with two losses apiece, there are seven teams who have between four and six conference losses and are still in the hunt for a tournament bid, and that's not even including 18-9 Villanova, which sits on the bubble. The Big East tournament should be wackier than ever this season inside Madison Square Garden.

This parity has penetrated all of college basketball, from the huge conferences, to the mid-majors, where Gonzaga isn't even in first place in the West Coast Conference. Those in television must be sucking their thumbs, because no game is a sure win. Even Florida, which had won 17 straight games, fell last Saturday at unranked Vanderbilt. Gone are the days of one team dominating the pack. Gone is the talk of a Duke or Kentucky beating opponents by an average of 20-plus points.

Every team in every conference believes it has a chance on any given night, especially when it's at home. Likely because of the travel, teams are completely different away from home. Take Michigan and Purdue as examples. The Big Ten schools faced each other twice within a week. At Purdue the Boilermakers trounced the Wolverines 67-53. But at Michigan it was a completely different story, with the Wolverines rolling to a 71-55 lopsided victory.

At first I was bemused by this. Why, I asked Albion College players I know, is it so difficult for teams these days to win on the road. They cited, of course, the opposing fans creating a difficult atmosphere. But they failed to mention what I learned from my 3-on-3 tournament: Sometimes, you just don't have it.

Remember, these are 18- and 19-year-olds we’re talking about. They're not professionals. OK, except for the Kevin Durants and Greg Odens of the world. They're just kids, really. And it must be tough to take a 5-hour plane ride, try to study and then play a fired-up team in front of a raucous crowd.

Check that. It is tough. Minus the plane ride and the crowd, I experienced this a week ago in my own tiny, dismal basketball world.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

"Don't do it, Scottie"

Scottie Pippen didn’t have to do this. He didn’t have to put himself out there like this, to get reamed by the always voluble Charles Barkley. If Pippen really wants a seventh NBA championship – a way to one-up Michael Jordan – he could have easily become an assistant coach with almost any team in the league.

Who’s going to turn down Pippen? Maybe the Pistons or Lakers. But that’s about it. The Spurs, the Heat, the Mavericks. I’m sure he could have gotten a gig with one of them.

But, no, Pippen would rather play. Pippen, 41, declared late this week that he’s “hoping for a late-season return to a contending team.” In other words, Pippen wants to play maybe 10 regular season games and then cruise through the playoffs to the championship.

Sounds like a good deal to me if anyone’s willing to pick up the man with the bad back. Pippen retired in 2004 after a return to the Chicago Bulls lasted just 23 games. He averaged just 17.9 minutes and 5.9 points per game that season. Between 1998 – the year of the Bulls’ last championship – and 2004, Pippen played for Portland and Houston.

Pippen is kidding himself if he actually believes he’ll be able to return and play a key role for a contending team. He’ll be no more than an assistant coach – relegated to the bench, maybe playing five to 10 minutes a night. If that satisfies his competitive juices, then “Go for it, Scottie!!” but more than likely, this story will end up like his teammate’s did in 2003.

When Jordan made his second return to the NBA in 2002 with the Washington Wizards, NBA fans – rightfully so – were ecstatic. This was, after all, MICHAEL JORDAN! To modern-day fans, the greatest player of all time. I’m sure NBA commissioner David Stern was sipping champagne, because every time Jordan played TV ratings soared.

But Jordan’s two years with Washington – he was also the general manager at the time, but was fired after he stopped playing – were riddled with injuries on the court and issues off it. He refused to listen to doctors about his bad knee, instead playing way more minutes than he should have, basically ruining the knee. He refused to work with his teammates, getting in a feud with Richard Hamilton – who was shipped to Detroit after Jordan’s first season – and demeaning Kwame Brown, whom Jordan had selected in 2001 with the No.1 pick in the draft, in front of his teammates. Jordan absolutely shattered Brown’s confidence, and I’m not sure Brown has completely recovered it.

Jordan left the game in 2003 with nothing more than when he retired for the second time in 1998 after hitting his famous final shot over Utah’s Bryon Russell in the NBA Finals. Jordan’s legacy will never, ever be tainted. He was too good for that. He could have averaged two points a game those last two seasons, and the majority of this country would still consider him the best player to ever lace up sneakers.

Pippen is another story. His legacy could definitely be tainted. During his playing days, Pippen was always characterized as Jordan’s sidekick. No one thought he’d be anything without Jordan. He almost disproved this during the 1994 playoffs, but the Bulls couldn’t get past the New York Knicks in a hotly contested seven-game series.

In 1997, however, Pippen’s legacy was validated when he was named one of the NBA’s top 50 players of all time. Then, in 2005, Pippen had his No. 33 retired by the Chicago Bulls in a tear-stained ceremony that Jordan and several other Bulls’ teammates attended. No longer were there critics jumping on Pippen for being Jordan’s piggyback. His place in basketball lore was cemented.

Now, what’s happened has happened. No one can take away what Pippen accomplished during the 1990s. But he can certainly mitigate people’s opinion of him in the coming months. If Pippen returns to play a few games for a contender, he’ll be viewed as a “ring seeker.” Yep, just another guy hungry for a championship ring, but not willing to put in the work a whole season requires.

And, did I mention, he won’t be doing much playing during his return? Mostly, he’ll be sitting on the bench.

Something he could do as an assistant coach, which wouldn’t tarnish his image one bit.

And he could still play rec ball on the side.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"The Hardaway Gang"

In the next few days, Tim Hardaway will likely get reamed for his comments made on a radio show Wednesday about how he would react to having a gay teammate and what he thinks about gays in general.

Hardaway, a retired five-time All-Star guard, said on Miami sports talk radio to columnist Dan Le Betard: "You know, I hate gay people, so I let it be known. I don't like gay people and I don't like to be around gay people. I am homophobic. I don't like it. It shouldn't be in the world or in the United States."

Hardaway later apologized for his comments, but he's not getting away with this one. His words are out there, and columnists across the country are thanking Hardaway for giving them such an easy column to write in the next day or two.

I'd like to follow the pack and write that Hardaway was way out of line and that his viewpoint is the exception among past and present NBA players. I want to absolutely ream him and take away the "T" from TMC.

But, alas, I can't.

Because, honestly, Hardaway was just the speaker of the house. In other words, there are others out there who feel the exact same way he does. Players who are appalled at the thought of showering next to a gay man. We just don't know their thoughts. We just haven't heard them all over America's airwaves.

Why do you think John Amaechi hid in the closet for his entire career? Because, obviously, he was scared to death of what would happen to him if he came out. He wasn't a great player. He wasn't a star. He wasn't making wheelbarrows full of cash. He couldn't afford for his career to be cut short.

Amaechi played just five seasons in the NBA and averaged 6.2 points per game. If he had declared his homosexuality, say, during his second year, I bet he'd have been out of the league within a year and out a few million bucks. So he made the smart move.

It's great that LeBron James said he wouldn't mind having a gay teammate and that he'd want the player to come talk to him about his sexuality. James sounds sincere in saying this. But let's remember that James is also the man who said he wants to become the richest person in the world. He's going to need everyone's support to do that. A few critics here, a few critics there, and he'll be relegated to the Top 10 list.

As demeaning as Hardaway's comments were, they weren't that shocking. Professional sports laud being macho, testosterone-ridden, and "The Man." None of your boys are going to be calling you "The Man" if you share the ball with a gay teammate or become good friends with him.

They'll be questioning your sexuality, your manhood. It just wouldn't work.

A gay player in the NBA, or NFL, or MLB would find himself all alone in the clubhouse, isolated by his teammates. He'd be viewed as "the gay guy" and his friends would be limited. He wouldn't be as trusted on the court or field as his teammates. He might not receive as many passes in basketball. If he is a running back, his offensive linemen might intentionally miss blocks, leaving him out to dry.

It's not a pretty picture, but it's a realistic one. Tim Hardaway's not the only homophobe. How else could you explain this country's resistance to gay marriage? People may not hate gays - like Hardaway does - but they certainly don't feel comfortable around them. And in a tight locker room, feeling relaxed around your teammates is high on the priority chart.

No other athlete - past or present - will paraphrase Hardaway's comments in the coming days. They'll see how the former star, the "T" in TMC with the killer crossover, is castrated by the enormous American sports media.

But don't be ignorant on this one. They're out there. More Tim Hardaways.

Just ask Amaechi. That's why he kept his secret for so long.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007

"The tortoise and the slow tortoise"

With about a minute left in the Michigan-Michigan State men’s basketball game last night, ESPN commentator Steve Lavin began rambling about coaching philosophy and continued with his monologue for the final 5 minutes of real time - and meaningless Michigan fouls - during the Spartans 59-44 victory.

I don't blame him. There was nothing left to say about either team. One was bad, the other was terrible. One might make the NCAA tournament. The other would need Steve Nash to make it.

For about 33 minutes Tuesday night, Michigan was able to convince Michigan State that mediocrity is OK. The Wolverines would turn the ball over one possession. And then the Spartans - perhaps tempted by peer pressure – would give it right back. The play on both ends of the court was so bad, I was tempted to check my calendar to make sure it was Tuesday, not Thursday, when ESPN2 airs a high school game of the week.

Then again, a good high school team probably could have snuffed out at least the Wolverines on this night.

Finally, leading by just two points, 38-36, with 6:40 to play - that is, in the second half - the Spartans decided to depart Michigan's party, outscoring the Wolverines 21-8 the rest of the game. They moved the ball on offense, creating several easy layups. They took advantage of Michigan's dismal ballhandling, creating several turnovers. Basically, they solidified to the casual observer that they're not in the same rat hole as the Wolverines.

After the game, it was hard to believe that the Wolverines were actually in this thing. That they actually led for all but 1:09 of the first half. The Spartans played so poorly the first 20 minutes, they gave Michigan a chance to build a lead. The Wolverines, of course, always the polite ones at the dinner table, declined, deciding instead to pass out more than 10 turnovers even though they were the guests.

For the first 13 minutes of the second half, the gracious Spartans toyed with their friends from Ann Arbor. Then they embarrassed them.

So sad. So unkind. So pitiful

I don't know if there is one word that can describe this Michigan team right now. Pitiful. Lackluster. Confused. Dazed. Out of sorts.

They have a lame duck coach - Tommy Amaker - who runs possibly the most discombobulated offense in the country. They don't have a point guard (more on that later). They have a center - Courtney Sims - who challenged Greg Oden several times last week, but on Tuesday took just six shots against a player by the name of Goran Suton. They have a talented shooting guard - Dion Harris - who doesn't even get to play his position a lot of the time, and when he does never gets the ball because (did I mention) Michigan lacks a point guard.

They have two guys - Brent Petway and Ekpe Udoh - who can jump out of the building. But just one lob was thrown last night

They have a guy - Reed Baker - who can do one thing: make 3-pointers against a zone. Yet Amaker played him against MSU's man-to-man defense, resulting in a 5-second call.

That's what they have. And if you add it all up, it equals a mess. Jerret Smith, their supposed point guard, has no idea how to run the offense. He might be the worst Division 1 point guard in the country. He can't penetrate. He can't make open shots. And he can't set up his teammates. He's a scrub, plain and simple.

If Michigan had a decent point guard, they'd have a shot at the NCAA tournament. Michigan State has an exceptional point guard - Drew Neitzel - who is the only reason why they still have a shot at the tournament. Besides him, they're no better than Michigan (the Wolverines might even have more talent). The two squads could be found at the same birthday party.

But the Spartans got sick of Michigan's gig Tuesday night. They were ready to move on. So they went ahead and graduated middle school.

Leaving the elementary Wolverines alone in the sandbox.

"Tuesday morning wake-up call"

Last night I watched as Kevin Durant had a decent night in Texas' 83-54 dismantling of Oklahoma State. Durant scored 21 points, grabbed 12 rebounds, dished out three assists, made two steals and blocked a shot. Amazingly, it was a below-average night for the freshman, who's averaging 24.9 points, 11.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks per game.

On Wednesday, I'm hoping, I'll get a chance to watch the nation's other freshman phenom, Ohio State's Greg Oden, when the Buckeyes take on Penn State in a nationally televised game. Oden, busted hand and all, has averaged 15.3 points, 9.4 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game, while also affecting the flight of just about every opponent's shot inside the lane.

How lucky are we to be witnessing this? Check that. How lucky is the NCAA, the Buckeyes and the Longhorns?

They should be bowing down to David Stern right now. There's no way the NBA-ready Durant and Oden would be in college right now if Stern hadn't instituted an age limit for the NBA, put into effect before last June's draft. All players have to be out of high school for a year before becoming eligible for the NBA.

So Durant and Oden chose two universities and have made them, likely, hundreds of thousands of dollars this year off ticket sales, merchandise sales and television.

And college basketball fans across the country have gotten to see two of the best freshmen of all time perform like seniors, making incredible play night after night.

In Boston, where the Celtics are riding an 18-game losing streak, there is actually hope because of Durant and Oden. I was in the city this past weekend, and all the newspapers made sure to not only mention the Celtics' struggles, but also where they sat compared to the league's other teams (dead last now) and what their chances would be in the NBA lottery this spring.

Can you imagine the drama there will be for that lottery? Teams' representatives might as well be on their knees, praying for one of the top two picks. Celtics followers will pray that they don't get screwed with the third pick - as was the case in 1997, when they had the worst record and were salivating about Tim Duncan, only to receive the third pick and end up drafting Chauncey Billups.

The whole basketball universe is benefiting from Stern's decision. College basketball analysts are never lacking in material to talk about with Oden and Durant playing twice a week. Just today I saw an article comparing LeBron James and Oden. And the NBA can't wait to steal these two players in a matter of months.

This cycle could repeat itself, too. Who knows? Maybe next season, O.J. Mayo will be tearing up the Pac 10 with USC.

It's a beautiful thing for basketball fans from East Coast to West Coast.

And this might only be the beginning.

Monday, February 12, 2007

"Dennis the Hall-of-Famer"

If I had a kid, Dennis Rodman would be near the top of my list of people not to leave my kid around. He is, after all, a hard-partying, nose-earring-wearing, past-Madonna-husbanding, arresting middle-aged man.

Not exactly a trustworthy babysitter.

But is he a Hall-of-Fame basketball player? I'd bet my kid's life on it.

Rodman, retired from the NBA since the 1999-2000 season, isn't yet eligible to be nominated for a Hall-of-Fame ballot, according to a "New York Times" article, because he has played professionally in other leagues since then. A player has to have been retired five years to make the ballot.

When he becomes eligible, Rodman should be on that first ballot. He was that good - if not controversial - of a player.

I know Bostonians won't like this comparison, but Rodman was a mini Bill Russell. All he did was win. Russell won 11 championships, a record that will most likely never come down. Rodman won five championships in a much more competitive era.

First he helped the Pistons overcome their nemesis, the Lakers, in the 1989 finals and then repeat the next year. Rodman stayed on with the Pistons for two more playoff runs, which both ended in defeat, before the team missed the playoffs in his final year there. Then Rodman joined San Antonio for two years during which the Spurs averaged more than 57 wins a season. Again, they failed to make a playoff run. But Rodman's impact cannot be denied. The 62 games the Spurs won in 1995 was the most ever by the franchise until it won 63 last year.

Finally, Rodman came to Chicago and helped lift the Bulls to their second three-peat. Ask just about any player from those teams, and they'd say that without the rebounding machine, they couldn't have accomplished that feat.

When asked whether Rodman should make the Hall-of-Fame, past teammate Scottie Pippen said: "The Hall of Fame is not built on offense, it’s built on greatness, and Dennis was one of the greatest I’ve ever played with. Maybe you could have made the argument before he joined the Bulls that he didn’t have the credentials. But with our team, night in and night out, he proved his greatness, and now his credentials speak for itself. In my mind, he’s a first-ballot Hall of Famer."

A few more of Rodman's numbers. The 6-foot-7 forward led the league in rebounding seven consecutive years. That is absolutely amazing, especially considering the guys he was competing against. Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Charles Barkley, Robert Parrish, Dikembe Mutumbo, Alonzo Mourning. The shorter, skinnier Rodman outworked all of these behemoths to the ball year after year. There were six seasons in which Rodman averaged more than 15 rebounds a game. That, right there, is a Hall-of-Fame-worthy statistic. Rodman recklessly threw his body all over the court to snatch rebound after rebound.

Russell finished his 13-year career with averages of 15.1 points and 22.5 rebounds per game. Rodman, in the 14 seasons he played, averaged 7.3 points and 13.1 rebounds per game. On the surface, the number don't even seem close. But you have to realize that Russell played in a very high-scoring era during which teams chucked up several more shots than during the low-scoring '90s, in which Rodman was at his prime.

Also, like Russell, Rodman was a beast of a player on the defensive end. He even managed to win two Defensive Player of the Year awards in 1990 and 1991. For a 6-7 player on the same team as "Bad Boys" Isiah Thomas, Joe Dumars and Bill Laimbeer, that's awfully impressive.

Was Rodman even close to the player and leader Russell was? Heck, no. Russell was one of the five greatest players of all times - and if you ask Boston sports writers, such as Bob Ryan, he was the best ever. Rodman was just a role player. If he hadn’t been around leaders like Thomas and Michael Jordan, he might not have fit his role so well.

But as ABC and ESPN statistician Elliott Kalb writes in his book, "Who's Better, Who's Best in Basketball?" Rodman "should be remembered for being the player who hustled non-stop - and did all the dirty work. He would dive on the floor. He would deny the entry pass. He would pass up shots so his teammates would be happy. He gave his team more extra possessions than anyone."

Kalb rates Rodman as the 30th greatest player of all time, a huge compliment to Rodman. He even calls Rodman "the greatest defensive player in the history of the game." While that statement could surely spark a dinner-and-dessert argument, it can't be dismissed. This guy made every single team he was on - even the '98 and '99 Lakers - better. He played unselfish. He played hard.

And most of his histrionics were off the court and didn’t affect his team. By no means was he a T.O. or Barry Bonds.

You may not like Dennis Rodman. But if you appreciate the game of basketball, you have to appreciate Dennis Rodman. And you have to believe that he's a future Hall-of-Famer.

Thursday, February 08, 2007

"For now, Florida is the best"

Right now, Florida is the best men's college basketball team in the nation.

No question about it.

Despite defeating Duke in sports' best rivalry Wednesday night, North Carolina showed some vulnerabilities that could plague it come March. This is not to take anything away from the Tar Heels' victory. A win at Duke is a win at Duke.

Special. Especially when you do it two years in a row.

But North Carolina didn't look invincible like it did two weekends ago when it clobbered Arizona, making me stand up and declare, "That team is the best in America."

I've reconsidered.

The great thing for the Tar Heels is that they're extremely young. They're inexperienced. They're going to make mistakes that veteran teams - such as Florida - avoid. The hope down in Chapel Hill, I'm sure, is that as the season progresses into March those miscues will become part of the past and this team will start performing like the upperclassmen-dominated squad that won Roy Williams his first national title two years ago.

If not for Josh McRoberts picking up his fourth foul with just under 12 minutes remaining last night, allowing North Carolina sophomore Tyler Hansbrough to hit two shots sandwiched around a Wes Miller 3-pointer to tie the contest at 52-52, the Tar Heels might not have ended up on top. Freshman sensation Wayne Ellington, purportedly North Carolina's best outside shooter, couldn’t find his touch Wednesday, making just 2-of-8 field goals for four points.

Luckily for the Heels, senior Reyshawn Terry stepped up and hit two 3-pointers and Miller added that key triple to make up for Ellington's off-night. Against a good, but not great, Duke team, that was enough. Especially with freshman point guard Ty Lawson making two strong layups in the final 2 minutes.

But Wednesday's effort would not have been good enough to dethrone the Gators.

What makes Florida the best team in the country is that everyone has a role and knows exactly what it is. There is no confusion. Joakim Noah and Al Horford dominate down low, often catching ally-oop lobs from their teammates for easy buckets. Corey Brewer can hit 3-pointers but can also drive to the hoop. Taurean Green runs the offense - and occasionally drops a big 3 - and all Lee Humphrey does is hit 3-pointers.

It's beautiful to watch. Game after game, night after night, the Gators execute the same game plan. Sometimes they're down in the first half. Sometimes they're even down in the second half. But with their poise, they never deviate from their recipe for success, and the results are victories. If I'm a Gators fan, and they're down 10 with 15 minutes to play, I'm not worried. They'll pull it out.

If I was a North Carolina fan last night, trailing by 10 with just over 16 minutes to play, I wouldn't have been concerned. But that's only because it was Duke. When was the last time these two teams didn't play a close game? That's another story for another day.

Another concern for North Carolina has to be the fact that it doesn't show up for some games. Specifically, the Virginia Tech and North Carolina State road games - the Tar Heels' two conference losses. Williams said he was perplexed after his players didn't come prepared for NC State last Saturday, allowing the mediocre Wolfpack to upset the Tar Heels.

Isn't North Carolina State supposed to be North Carolina’s second rival? And the Tar Heels had to know that Virginia Tech is a very dangerous team. Yet they didn't seem to wake up until they made a furious second-half rally from a huge deficit that made the final score respectable.

One of these cases in the NCAA tournament, and North Carolina will be done. Again, a lot of this probably has to do with youth. But no one in Chapel Hill will be making excuses for this bunch of ultra-talented athletes in March. The expectations are set very high, and anything short of a national title will be a disappointment for these Tar Heels.

Wednesday night's win was big. Huge. But at the same time, it is clear that Florida is still the best team in the country and has to be the favorite to win the national championship.

As disgusting as a Gators’ threepeat sounds.

Wednesday, February 07, 2007

"A loss is a loss"

Here is what two Michigan basketball players had to say last night after their 76-63 loss at Ohio State:

"Everybody's going to look at the score and think we got blown out. It was a lot closer than what it seemed. This is the best we've played on the road. We can build on this." - senior center Courtney Sims

"We took our time and didn't let anything affect us. Usually, we let other teams go on runs, and we self-destruct. We kept within our game plan and did what we wanted to do on offense and defense." - senior guard Dion Harris

Both players' statements are true. The game was fairly close until the final three minutes. This was the best game Michigan has played on the road all season - and possibly the best game it has played all season overall. Michigan did avoid the turnovers that have plagued it all season. It committed just nine of them. Michigan turned the ball over more than that in the first half of its road loss to Purdue.

Sure, this is a game the Wolverines can build on. They can feel good about themselves going into Saturday's home game against lowly Minnesota.

BUT... did I mention the Wolverines lost?

Michigan players and coach Tommy Amaker can say all the positive things they want to about the loss to the No. 3 Buckeyes, but at the end of the day it was nothing more than their fourth consecutive defeat.

Michigan is now 16-8 overall and 4-5 in the Big Ten. It has yet to pick up a quality win this season. If the NCAA tournament started today, it would be left on the outside for the ninth straight year.

That, right there, is what matters. Not the Wolverines' "execution" on Tuesday or how they didn't "self-destruct."

They lost!

Tuesday's game should not make Amaker's job any more secure. It should not keep fans and columnists from blasting the program for its ineptitude.

No, instead the game should serve as a wakeup call for the team. If Michigan played against Iowa last week like it did Tuesday, it would have blown the Hawkeyes out of Crisler Arena. If Michigan played against Indiana two weekends ago like it did Tuesday, it would have had a good chance of escaping Bloomington with a victory instead of another lopsided road loss. Ditto the loss at Purdue

Where has this play been? Especially against the Big Ten's lesser teams, which is everybody sans Wisconsin and Ohio State. Let's face it: Michigan would have to play perfect to beat either of those teams. But it could beat any of the other eight Big Ten teams the way it performed on Tuesday.

Sims actually played like a man on Tuesday. The 6-foot-11 center, who usually plays as if he’s scared to be touched, wasn't afraid to challenge behemoth Greg Oden. Despite getting blocked a handful of times by Oden, Sims finished with the same number of points - 17 - and almost as many rebounds - seven to six. Sims has now scored 46 points the last two games and grabbed 17 rebounds. Where has this been the entire Big Ten season? He's a senior, and he should have been ready from the start.

Harris' play is just as perplexing. Against Iowa last week he shot 0-for-11 from the field and scored one point. On Tuesday he was 6-for-11 for 14 points, including many difficult pull-up jumpers. Half of his performance Tuesday - if used against the Hawkeyes - likely would have produced a needed victory.

So here we stand, not knowing what to expect from Michigan's two leading scorers on a nightly basis, talking about the best game Michigan played all year - which happened to be a loss - and wondering what the heck happens next.

I, for one, have no idea. Michigan needs to win at least four of its final seven conference games to have a chance of making the NCAA tournament without having to win the Big Ten tournament. While it has two games remaining against the terrible Gophers, it also faces Ohio State again, Michigan State twice, Illinois on the road and Indiana at home.

All of those games are winnable... if Michigan plays like it did against the Buckeyes. They're also very losable... if it plays like it did against the Hawkeyes.

And, no, a 5-point, or 3-point or even 1-point loss will not count as a win. The Wolverines no longer have the luxury of accepting moral victories. A couple more L's and they'll be headed back to their regular March destination.

The NIT.

Monday, February 05, 2007

"Who's soft now?"

Who's soft now?

Certainly not the Indianapolis Colts. Not a defense that was the worst in the NFL this regular season. Not four defensive linemen and five offensive linemen who completely dominated the "Physical Bears" in the trenches.

Who's a dome team now?

Certainly not those Colts. Not when Peyton Manning disregarded the Miami downpour and made a perfect pass downfield to Reggie Wayne to get Indianapolis on the board. Not running backs Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes who continued to razzle-dazzle all night long, even as the Pro Player Stadium sod became soaked and slippery. Definitely not Adam Vinatieri, who actually missed a field goal, but came back, of course, to make two in the second half to claim his fourth Super Bowl ring.

Peyton Manning may have received the MVP in South Beach Sunday night, but this was the definition of a team effort. An effort by a team completely different from anything we saw between September and January.

Seriously, who are these guys?

The Bears were supposed to be the more physical team, the smash-mouth style team. But instead it was the Colts. Sure, Manning passed for a good chunk of yardage. But the Colts won this game between the trenches.

It is about time the following nine players be mentioned. We talk about Manning 59 times a day. We love to compare Marvin Harrison to Jerry Rice. But these guys deserve a ton of the credit for the Colts second Super Bowl win - and its first since moving to Indy.

The Colts offensive line: Jeff Saturday (C), Tarik Glenn (LT), Ryan Lilja (LG), Jake Scott (RG) and Ryan Diem (RT).

Plus, of course, possibly the most underrated tight end in the NFL: Dallas Clark.

This rarely-talked-about O-line allowed Manning to be sacked just once Sunday night. At the end of the game, despite the condition of the field, Manning's jersey - one, I'm sure, he will hold onto for years to come - was barely dirty.

This O-line allowed the Colts to run for 191 yards against that vaunted Bears defense. Addai and Rhodes ran free into the Chicago secondary all night. Aside from a couple big tackles, Brian Urlacher was unheard from.

Credit the O-line.

On the other side of the ball, these guys need to be mentioned: Robert Mathis (LDE), Anthony McFarland (LT), Raheem Brock (RT) and Dwight Freeney (RDE).

The Bears scored a touchdown on the opening kickoff and one later in the first quarter, which was basically the product of one big Thomas Jones run of 52 yards. In the second half, the Bears got the ball in Colts territory thanks to a good kickoff return and an unnecessary roughness penalty, leading to their final points of the night - a field goal.

So, basically, the Colts defense gave up seven points because of one play. Besides that, they shut down the Bears all night long. That front four hassled Rex Grossman, forcing him into four turnovers (although, Grossman would admit, a couple of the turnovers were simply miscues on his part).

Anyone who picked the Bears before the game (including, I must say, myself) thought Jones and Cedric Benson would wear down the Colts defense. That was far from the story. Aside from Jones' 52-yard saunter, the Colts gave up just 59 yards on the ground. And 165 yards through the air.

It all started up front.

Manning will likely snare all the front pages of this nation's newspapers tomorrow morning. Manning's legacy will be talked about for the next week. There will be plenty of talk about how he compares to other Super Bowl-winning quarterbacks.

But this was all about the team. Two years ago, even five months ago, the Colts were a one-dimensional team. Manning and his offense were amazing. The defense was not.

Not anymore. Sunday’s Colts were a well-rounded bunch, with no player needing to stand above the rest.

There are no lingering questions now. No questions about this team's toughness, its resolve. No questions about this team being able to win an ugly, defensive battle.

No, Sunday's victory wasn't pretty. You didn't see a lot of beautiful Manning-to-Harrison hookups. The Colts weren't mistake-free - to the tune of three turnovers.

But, here's a question: Who really cares?

That team you saw dominate almost the entire game was the Indianapolis Colts.

You better believe it.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

"Super Bowl preview"

Since I know you haven't gotten enough analysis from Sean Salisbury n' Crew shoved down your throat the past two weeks, here is everything you need to know about today's big game.

Here are the keys to victory.

Yesterday, Florida beat Tennessee in basketball. We all know where Rex Grossman and Peyton Manning went to school.

Also, when Manning was at Tennessee, he never beat Florida. That can't bode well for him.

Also, Chicago's Alex Brown is a Florida alum.

Also, Florida was the first school to win both the college basketball and college football national titles in the same year.

Also, Udonis Haslem and Jason Williams of Florida won the NBA title with the Miami Heat last June.

Also, David Eckstein of the Florida won the World Series with the St. Louis Cardinals last October.

Also, this is the fourth time in Super Bowl history that the NFL's best defense has met the NFL's best offense. Advantage defense every time.

Also, the team with the least amount of turnovers has won 28 of 32 Super Bowls. The Bears have two turnovers the past two games. The Colts have three.

Also, Lovie Smith's alma mater, Tulsa, is 14-7 this season. Tony Dungy's alma mater, Minnesota, is 9-14 and both the football and basketball coaches were fired.

Also, everyone is picking the Colts to win. Remember, back in early January, when everybody picked the Buckeyes to win?


Need I say more?

Bears 28, Colts 24

Friday, February 02, 2007

"Friday's around the nation column"

OK, folks, the weekend is almost here, another big weekend in sports, so there is a lot to touch on. Let me get right to it.

Nothin’ on the Super Bowl yet. Don't worry, though. I'll have a preview for you tomorrow before you have to make your bets with Vegas.

Let's start with college basketball.

UCLA is the best team on the West Coast. No doubt about it. The Bruins proved this last night when they drilled high-scoring Oregon 69-57 in a game that wasn't even as close as the final score indicated. Look, I love the surprising Ducks as much as the next basketball aficionado, but no on should consider them a legitimate threat to make the Final Four. They lack an inside player whom they can go to when defenses are keying on guards Aaron Brooks, Bryce Taylor and Tajuan Porter. They are, basically, a replica of last year's Villanova team, which got a No. 1 seed and made it to the Elite Eight. Making it that far would be a success for these Ducks.

The Bruins, on the other hand, are very legitimate title contenders. Right now I'd say the top three teams are North Carolina, Florida and UCLA, in that order. The Bruins have all the pieces a team needs to make a run at the title. Darren Collison reminds me of Tyus Edney, and all Edney did was lead the Bruins to their last national title in 1995. Collison is not only dishing out a team-high 5.7 assists per game, he's also scoring 13 points a game. So when defenses have taken Aaron Afflalo and Josh Shipp out of a game, Collison will score four quick points and the Bruins will be on their way.

And unlike the Ducks, UCLA has plenty of capable big men. Power forward Luke Richard Mbah a Moute averages 8.9 points and eight rebounds a game and starting center Lorenzo Mata gives the Bruins 6.5 points a game. Most importantly, these guys hit the offensive glass, so if a defense overpursues an outside shot by Afflalo or Shipp, UCLA's bigs will make it pay with a second-chance bucket.

The Bruins are playing in the toughest conference in college basketball, and that's only going to prepare them for the NCAA tournament.

But how good is North Carolina? Just last Saturday the Tar Heels traveled to Tuscan, Ariz., and handed Arizona its worst home loss under the long tenure of Lute Olson. The Tar Heels' spanking of the Wildcats only further verified that when they're playing at their best, they are unbeatable.

This team reminds me of Michigan's Fab Five squad that went all the way to the championship game in 1992 and 1993. Most of the main contributors are underclassmen. Sophomore Tyler Hansbrough is dominant down low - averaging 18.4 points and 8.2 rebounds a game - and he has also showed that he can shoot the mid-range jumper.

But he is just UNC's top weapon. It also has freshmen power forward Brandan Wright (14.8 ppg) and guards Wayne Ellington (12.5 ppg) and Ty Lawson (9.6 ppg, 5.1 apg). And in case a senior needs to step up, Reyshawn Terry fits the role. Terry is averaging 9.3 points and 5.9 rebounds a game.

The Tar Heels only problem is that they might have too much talent. Almost all of the players that led UNC to a surprisingly successful season last year now find themselves on the bench, replaced by the fantastic freshmen. But so far, dissent has been nonexistent in Chapel Hill. Roy Williams is doing a great job of keeping his guys happy, and they continue to dominate each opponent they face.

North Carolina has won five consecutive games by 16 points or more since its loss at Virginia Tech. It takes on Duke in the amazing rivalry Wednesday night in Durham. Games between the rivals are ALWAYS close, but if I had to bet on a UNC-Duke game being a blowout, it would be this one. This UNC team is far superior to this season's Blue Devils.

All right, let's move on to the NFL for some non-XL talk.

Guess who's back? Yep, you guessed it, Brett Favre. The 37-year-old Green Bay quarterback announced Friday that he will return for a 17th season in the NFL. I think it's a great decision on his part. He seemed to get better as this past season went on, and if the Packers had won one more game, they would have made the playoffs.

This is a team on the upswing, and Favre believes he can take it somewhere next season. I wouldn't bet against him. As he said Friday, he's got a young nucleus of players returning, and, remember, the Packers play in the NFC North. That means two games against the Lions and two games against the Vikings. That should result in at least three wins right there.

Anyone who says Favre doesn't have it anymore didn't see his final game this season, when he lit up the Chicago Bears, who were still playing all their starters. Favre may not have the ability he had in the late 1990s, when he led the Packers to back-to-back Super Bowls - winning one - but he can still throw the ball downfield and get creative when he needs to, tossing an improvised shovel pass every now and then.

I'll tell you who's not happy about Favre's decision. Defenses around the league who'll have to play him next fall. I'm sure they'd rather be facing Aaron Rogers.

And now to the NBA.

I know that fans vote in the All-Star starters, but c'mon...

Shaq a starter? He only played in five of his team's first 40-something games. Dwight Howard is having a phenomenal season and should have been recognized. In the West, there's no way Steve Nash shouldn't have been named a starter instead of Tracy McGrady. T-Mac hasn't been bad this season, but he missed some games. Nash has led the Suns to one of the two best records in the league, and never seems to slow down. Give the two-time MVP his dues. He's just that good.

Speaking of good, how about Dwyane Wade? I know this is an unpopular argument, but I'm going to make it. Wade is better - just barely - than LeBron James.

Thursday night was a perfect example of why. Wade scored 41 points, including 23-for-24 from the free throw line, to lead the Heat to a 92-89 win over LeBron's Cavs. James managed just 17 points on 6-for-18 shooting from the field and 3-for-8 shooting from the line. James had a chance to tie the game, but his 3-pointer right before the buzzer was off the mark.

Wade - to put it simply - is more clutch than James. Both players make big shots. No one will deny that. But Wade makes them all the time. James only sometimes. And the players' ability to hit free throws is another huge difference. Wade is an 82 percent free throw shooter compared to just 68 percent for James.

Wade wills his team to victory. Eleven of Miami's 21 victories this season have come by seven or less points. Always, at the end of a tight game, Wade is the man making the big plays, hitting the big shots. James isn't quite to that level yet.

Is James a better all-around player? By a millimeter. Just look at his stats (27 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 6.1 apg) compared to Wade's (28.7 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 7.7 apg). Does Wade have more capable teammates? When Shaq's healthy - which hasn't been very often this year.

Advantage James.

But who's the biggest winner between the two, regardless of numbers or Shaq's health? It's got to be Wade. He's got an NBA championship. And he'll lead the Heat to the playoffs this year, despite Shaq’s absence. And when he does, I'll pick his team to go farther than James,’ leaving the door open for James to completely destroy my argument.

OK, it's time to wrap this column up.

Let me leave you with a few "must-see" games this weekend. And I'm not even talking about XL.

Tomorrow is a huge day in college basketball, with nearly every ranked team in action. The big games on TV begin in the middle of the afternoon. Games you need to watch:

- No. 9 Oregon at USC, 3:30 p.m.: Can the Ducks recover from the blowout at UCLA?
- No. 3 North Carolina at North Carolina State, 3:30 p.m.: If you haven't seen these Tar Heels yet, now is the time.
- No. 4 Ohio State at Michigan State, 4:00 p.m.: Anyone who saw these teams' thriller a week ago in Columbus won't want to miss this one.
- No. 8 Texas A&M at No. 6 Kansas, 9:00 p.m.: Huge matchup in the Big 12. Both teams have huge aspirations for the rest of the season. Plus, you get Dickey V.

Then, on Sunday, switch over to the NBA before getting the snacks ready for XL.
- Detroit at Cleveland, 2:30 p.m.: Two of the top three teams - the other is Chicago - in the fiercely competitive Eastern Conference Central Division.

Enjoy the games this weekend. And, again, my Super Bowl preview is coming soon...