Friday, November 9, 2007

Preview: Knicks vs. Magic

The Knicks (2-1) meet the Orlando Magic (4-1) tonight at Madison Square Garden. A big game for both teams hoping to improve upon last year. The Knicks won two of three meetings last year.

Things to watch:

Curry vs. Howard: A meeting of two, young big men who seem likely to be vying for the same spot on the All-Star team for years to come. Howard got the nod last year but he also was entirely dominated by Curry in early February shortly after the selections were made public. Curry dropped 27 on Howard and the Magic and lead the Knicks to victory that night. If both players can continue to develop this has the potential to be a great rivalry a la Shaq/Zo in the late 1990s.

Q: Does he start? I think so. Does he make his presence felt? I think not but I hope so.

Renaldo Balkman: Can games like his monster performance against Denver propel Balkman ahead of Lee into the Sixth-Man role? Or could he start ahead of Q? In a starting line-up with five scorers it wouldn't be so crazy to start Balkman at the 3 just to play D on the other team's best player. Will he get a shot to defend Rashard Lewis tonight? Listed at 6-10, Lewis is taller than Balkman (and Carmelo) so it would be a good test. If he can handle this guy then it's hard to keep him on the bench. Even if he were to move into the starting lineup you'd still have Nate and Lee as your set of sparkplugs to bring in (along with Q who could give the second unit a veteran presence and an outside threat) off the bench.

Home-Court Advantage: We're 2-0 at home. The Garden woke up Tuesday night. Let's build on this. Starting tonight and continuing against the struggling Heat on Sunday.

Tonight the role of Daniel Gibson will be played by....Hedo Turkoglu

Playoff Implications: Gosh, it is way too early to be talking about playoff seeding but these two squads were fighting for that last spot up until the Knicks injury-riddled tailspin ended their chances. If the Knicks had stayed close they would have owned the tiebreaker between the two sides.

Around the Internets in Eighty Minutes

1) This high school football team from Kansas has outscored opponents this season 704-0

2) Yao vs. Yi is tonight and bigger than the Super Bowl

3) Drew University's Mens Soccer Team rolls 5-0 in first round of ECAC tourney

Bonus Track: A comprehensive and unnecessary listing of every song played during the Knicks/Wolves game last Sunday

We got Sunny D, Purple Stuff and The Juice

With approximately 160 players eligble for free agency this offseason, there were many folks taking note of this week's story in the Boston Globe revealing that up to eleven members of this year's FA crop were asked to speak with George Mitchell as part of his investigation into the use of performance enhancing drugs in baseball.

At first, the deal was that eleven players were to be named in a forthcoming report but that got changed to eleven players just being asked to meet. So, this whole thing could be a non-starter. Or all eleven free agents could be players that most fans have never heard of before. Still, it seems odd that Mitchell would draw this much attention to the impending announcement if it was just going to be a rag-tag group of middle relievers and back-up second basemen.

And, I don't know what good it does Baseball to keep outing guys like Schowenwiess and Byrd while seemingly obvious offenders like Bonds go unpunished. The best players have the most money and the best doctors and the best masking agents while Scott S. is probably stuck drinking a bunch of vinegar before his piss test just like a high school pot-smoker. I guess that busting the small fish allows everyone to look tough-on-crime by doling out punishment while also allowing them to skirt the larger issues of the record books and the potentially tainted stats.

Some Notable Free Agents Who May Have Spoken with Mitchell:

Pitchers:
Bartolo Colon (perhaps administered orally with a side of fries)
Victor Zambrano (would the Mets be able to get Kazmir back?)
Eric Gagne (if I were a betting man...)
Curt Schilling (ditto)
Tim Wakefield ("Is there a knuckle involved in any way?")
Kerry Wood (see notation regarding my gambling and Gagne)
Joe Borowski (for a guy who couldn't throw hard, how did he keep gig?)
Paul Byrd (the cat may be out of the bag on this one)
Todd Jones (fighting to keep hard-throwing Zumaya from taking job)
Kenny Rogers (from playoff chump in '99 to dirty-handed hero in '06?)
David Wells (seemed to prefer performance inhibiting drugs)
Armando Benitez (even if he wanted to, couldn't figure it out)
Scott Linebrink (would look great in a Mets uniform)
Tom Glavine (if he was, he stopped taking them after leaving ATL)
Andy Pettitte (wouldn't be a shock considering his mentor)
Roger Clemens (his treatment is the epitome of cognitive dissonance)
Mariano Rivera (gosh he had a good run, too good?)
Antonio Alfonseca (with 12 fingers his mom was one on drugs)
Jon Leiber (big season, big contract, back to mediocrity is suspect)
Greg Maddux (an old school guy, PEDs are today's spit and sandpaper)

Bats:
Andruw Jones (following Bartolo's recipe)
Julio Franco (actually invented steriods in 1894)
Mike Lowell (would take shine off out-of-nowhere, contract year)
Cliff Floyd (used to make a D. Wright inject him during rookie year)
Adam Dunn (I don't think anyone would be surprised)
Kenny Lofton (got from Franco when teammates in Negro Leagues)
Kaz Matsui (nope)
Sean Casey (the Mayor doesn't need this in an election year)
Pudge (I thought we had already agreed on this one)
Luis Gonzalez (and this one)
Aaron Boone (classic "used them to recover from injury" guy)
Craig Biggio (Mitchell would be assassinated before this got out)
Mike Sweeney (Jesus would not approve)
Torii Hunter (power numbers would mean he took a bad cycle)
Moises Alou (the pee-hands makes him seem a home-remedy guy)
Marlon Anderson (is there a designer drug for pinch-hitting?)
Shawn Green (is HGH considered kosher?)
Paul Lo Duca (some of those ball/strike arguments looked a bit rage-y)
Jorge Posada (career year/contract year for a 36 year old catcher?)
A-Rod (best player in baseball seems a poster-manchild for HGH)
Mike Piazza (I would be devastated, honestly)
Aaron Rowand (carreer-year/contract-year guy, tempted by tiny park?)
Barry Bonds*
David Eckstein (for the biggest little-man it would be good irony)
Sammy Sosa*

Will this announcement about the future announcement force teams to hold tight their check books until the names are made public? Does this become the get-out-of-jail-free card that GMs use as their defense against charges that they're colluding against A-Rod and Boras? Could some fearless or unscrupulous GM get the jump on his peers by throwing caution to the wind and inking players who may turn out to be on the list? Do people in the baseball world already know what's up? After all, Mitchell is currently employed by the Red Sox and undoubtedly has a lot of ties to folks in the game.

Additional Reading: The Big Lead on the ONLY player whose guilt would be a shock

The Heat is Off (and they're out of Diesel fuel)

One year ago the Miami Heat were defending champs, bringing back the NBA Godfather in Shaq and a young Michael Corleone in Wade. Now they are the losers of 16 games in a row (going back to the end of last year) and are heading for a season that may be remembered in South Beach less kindly than third installment of that famous film trilogy. Here's how it went down:

2006-2007 Regular Season
L 89-91 Boston
L 68-94 Orlando
These two games can be excused because the Heat had qualified for the playoffs. At this point, the defending champs couldn't be blamed for mailing in the last two games of the season. Still, the streak has begun...

2006-2007 Playoffs
First Round Series versus Chicago Bulls
L 91-96 (Shaq's line: 27 min, 19 points, 6 rebs, 3 assists, 2 turnovers, 6 fouls)
L 89-107 (31 min, 17 points, 8 reb, 1 assist, 7 turnovers, 3 fouls)
L 96-104 (32 min, 23 points, 13 reb, 1 assist, 2 turnovers, 3 fouls)*
L 79-92 (16 points, 7 reb, 0 assists, 3 turnovers, 3 fouls)
This performance was shocking even though everyone knew this team was getting old and that they had coasted through stretches of the regular season. Wade lead the team in scoring in every game of the series and Shaq's only effort worthy of his playoff history came in a game three loss. He then turned in a 16 and 7 clunker in the elimination game.

2007-2008 Preseason
L 86-103 Detroit (Shaq DNP)
L 100-106 OT Atlanta (16 min, 10 points, 1 reb)
L 69-102 Orlando (DNP)
L 76-92 Charlotte (6 points, 3 reb; he left after 1st quarter with injury)
L 85-92 New Orleans (DNP, injury)
L 98-104 Memphis (DNP injury)
L 87-104 San Antonio (17 points in 1st half but left with injury)
Obviously you can't get too worked up about the NBA preseason. In a league where the regular season is largely meaningless then what is there possibly to say about the pre-season? These games generally fall under the "if a tree falls in the woods..." category. However, given the struggles of this team that bookend these games they are worth noting. And, you'd have thought that if this team (and Shaq) felt like they had gotten raw deal in the playoffs last year that they would come out guns-blazing before settling into cruise control. Teams with something to prove showed up in the preseason this year. Surprisingly. There was even a tilt between the Knicks and Celtics that felt like a playoff game because both teams were trying to send a message. The message sent by Miami was decidedly different.

2007-2008 Regular Season
L 80-91 Detroit (29 min, 9 points, 7 reb, 2 assists, 4 turnovers, 5 fouls)
L 85-87 Indiana (28 min, 8 points, 7 reb, 1 assist, 4 blocks, 6 turnovers, 6 fouls)
L 88-90 Charlotte (32 min, 17 points, 9 reb, 2 assists, 1 turnover, 5 fouls)
L 78-88 San Antonio (31 min, 17 points*, 3 reb, 1 assist, 1 turnover, 2 fouls)

And, here we are. 16 losses on the bounce. The sky is falling. The jet boats are sinking. While Wade could have made the difference in all of these games it looks quite clear that Shaq is no longer capable of doing that. Focusing on the middle two ball games, 2 points losses to Indiana and Charlottte, it is clear that the Diesel is running out of gas. No matter how much better either Indy or Charlotte are than anticipated these are the sort of close game that Shaq used to take over down the stretch. Instead of totaling 8 points in 28 minutes against the Pacers he would have scored 8 in the final 3 minutes a few seasons ago. He was too powerful and determined to lose a game like that very often.

All-Star pitchman and All-World player Dwyane Wade is still sidelined after undergoing knee surgery. His first full-contact practice was earlier this week and there is yet to be a solid return date. Meanwhile, Pat Riley's hair badly needs an oil change and the acquistion of Ricky Davis is a short-sighted, stop-gap solution to replacing Wade's offense and not an actual plan to reconfigure this roster in such a way so that it can compete for a title. Honestly, I think they'll be hard pressed to make the playoffs.

It seems to be the end of an era. Someone needs to replace Dwight Howard's Bible with rhyming dictionary if he has any chance of being the Next anything. Of course, Shaq may break out a big game here or there once Wade is back to take some pressure off of him, but unless he can find that Fountain of Youth, which Ponce de Leon did believe was located somewhere in Florida, it seems that the Heat are in trouble. And, with the Phoenix Suns coming to Miami tonight it doesn't look like they'll be turning things around just yet.

Additional Reading: Ian Thomsen over at SI doesn't think that Shaq is done just yet.

What If....NCAA Champions League

Given the fact that Kansas could very likely be shut out of the BCS National Championship game even if they can run the table and remembering that Boise State was held out last year with an undefeated record it is clear that most teams in the country are entirely prohibited from playing in the BCS National Championship game.

And if that is the case then I say we embrace that insular reality and play America's favorite game: let's figure out a better and more exciting way to determine a National Champ within the small pool of teams that could actually win the whole thing. If the regular season doesn't really matter as much as we say (meaning a one-loss team from the right conference can jump ahead of an undefeated team from the wrong one) then let's institute the NCAA Champions League that emulates the UEFA Champions League in Europe. This annual, extended soccer tournament pits the very best professional teams from each of the separate domestic leagues against one another in the most compelling sporting event on the earth. It is like March Madness but even better because there is more of it and the level of competition is higher. And we have nothing like it in America. Here's our chance:

The current college football season lasts approximately 18 to 20 weeks for those teams who make it to a New Year's Day bowl. These are the teams that we're talking about so let's work within that timetable and remember that no one likes the obscenely long lay off between the last regular season game and the NC game.

Each team currently in a BCS affiliated conference (since we should stop pretending that the rest factor into the NC conversation) would have 10 weeks to play a 7 to 8 game conference season. At the conclusion of this conference season the top two teams from each of the six BCS affiliated conferences would send their two best teams to participate in the NCAA Champions League just the way it works when each of Europe's top soccer leagues send their top teams to vie for the title of the Champions of Europe.

If the Champions League of College Football were to exist in lieu of the BCS bowls and other top tier bowl games (and there wasn’t any more shuffling in the conference rankings from today to the end of the season) then we would be looking at a mini-season of games between these 12 teams.

PAC 10:
Oregon
Arizona State

BIG 10:
Ohio State
Michigan

BIG 12:
Kansas
Oklahoma

ACC:
Boston College
Virginia Tech

BIG EAST:
West Virginia
UConn

SEC
LSU
Georgia

These NCAA Champions League participants would be broken into two groups for a round-robin group stage. This could be done via seeding, geographically (ACC, BIG EAST and SEC/PAC 10, BIG 10 and BIG 12, which I think actually works from a competitive standpoint) or it could be done via random drawing like the UEFA Champions League.

Each team plays every other team in their group. The top two teams from each group after the five weeks would advance to the next stage. Rankings within the group would be determined first by number of wins and losses. In the event that two teams finish with the same record the team to advance would then be decided by margin of victory over the course of all five games just as it is in soccer (goal differential). This would ensure that no team would take a single play off during any game. This also eliminates the "well if X beat Y and Z beat X but lost to Y then [insert SEC team] advances!" arguments that always crops up as the BCS rankings harden.

These games would be amazing. A week one schedule could look like this:

LSU vs. Kansas
Boston College vs. Michigan
West Virginia vs. Arizona State
Oregon vs. Virginia Tech
Oklahoma vs. UConn
Ohio State vs. Georgia

There would be five whole weeks of games like this. Fans would get to know these teams and to love and to hate them. And even if a team were outclassed in a particular matchup late in the five-week season they would know if their opponent needed to win by a specific number of points to jump up in the standings and suddenly the difference between losing by 13 or 21 becomes as exciting as a close game would have been. In effect, this would make the over/under and the point spread an actual on-field factor in every game.

After two winners emerge from each of the two separate groups then the remaining four teams would either be seeded one through four or chosen at random in the manner that it is done in soccer. Each team would then play a home-and-home series with the team they are matched with. Each team gets to sell out there stadium, showcase their fans and their atmosphere for high school recruits and the television time is sold twice over as we get two weekends of great football in which these teams have enough time to develop a rivalry. The winner of each match-up is decided first by wins and secondly, only if necessary in the case of a series split, by aggragrate point total. In the event that the points totals also match up then the team who scored more points on the road moves on. Same as with the soccer version of this event.

The incorporation of margin of victory into the decision again means that each game will be exciting and compelling. Even if a team looks certain to lose the opening game of the set you can't throw in the towel because a "garbage" time touchdown could make the difference. Every play counts.

More importantly, the home-and-home format prevents a team playing at an unexpectedly friendly or hostile “neutral” site. Every year in the NCAA basketball tournament certain teams end up playing before a home crowd for the first two weeks. In this scenario, each team plays before their home crowd and there is no possibility for an unintended advantage. The two-game format also eliminates the “any given Saturday” logic that muddies the picture and can be used to cast doubt on any winning team. In a two-game series, potentially using aggregate scoring in case of a split, the better team is far more likely to advance consistently than in any other scenario. It’s not a lock but death and taxes have the monopoly on sure things.

And, then once the two better teams advance from each semifinal pairing there is a single National Championship game between the last two standing after a seven-week mini season against the best teams from the various power conferences. At this point college football fans will be very familiar with all of the players after having watched these games over the preceeding several weeks. Every team will have a national following at that point and there will be NO boring matchup in a National Championship game. It just isn't possible because no one can be considered unworthy after making it this far and no one can claim to have been railroaded after playing a group stage and a home-and-home series. There can be no controversy.

The National Championship game will now be held at a neutral site that is selected from a pool of four sites on standby at the outset of the NCAA Champions League season. Having four potential hosts each season allows the governing body to pick a site that is as neutral as possible. While one school will always be somewhat closer this system prevents LSU from playing a national championship game in the Superdome because it was selected as host site a few years in advance of the game. And just so the people at the Superdome don’t get too upset, in the event that they are in the pool of potential host sites in a year that LSU looks like the may make the final then they will just go back into the pool for the following season.

Wherever the game is played it is simply four quarters of football between the two teams with an unimpeachable right to be there. They have survived their conference season and then played the toughest possible out-of-conference schedule possible in the form of the NCAA Champions League. To make it through, a team must have talented athletes but it also must have the fortitude and maturity to show up and perform each and every week.

And, yes, this is the most far-fetched college football scenario that I’ve ever seen. It is not even within the realm of possibility for so many reasons that it doesn’t even pay to go into all of them. But this should have provided some non-soccer fans a pretty good tutorial on how the UEFA Champions League works in Europe. And you didn't even know you were learning!

It should also convey the unbridled awesomeness that is the UEFA Champions League and the complicated and wonderful inconvenience that it presents for those teams involved. It is the best of the best playing a separate season to pit the two very best teams against each other in a match after which no one can contest the winner. That sounds simple enough, but clearly it isn't.

*In case you were wondering, this NCAA Champions League scenario would last exactly as long as the current college football season and requires the athletes to play at most (if they make it the NC game) one or two more games. Also, in this imaginary system the teams who do not qualify for the NCAA Champions League would then be able to accept invitations from all of the dozens of other bowl games that proliferate. Those folks at the Meineke Car Care Bowl could still have their party and invite the 4th best teams from whatever conferences they are nominally associated with.