I figure it takes an inveterate, die-hard Cubs hater to do total justice to a post acknowledging the 100 years that Wrigley Field has been hosting National League baseball. For myself, when I ask myself what is best in life, I respond, “To crush my enemies, see them driven before me, hear the lamentation of their women, and watch the Cubs lose another one.”
Simply put, Cubs fans can’t be trusted to talk intelligently about history, since the only history they know is one of heartbreak and total, abject failure.
How bad is it? I wrote this a few years back when the Cubs actually made the playoffs:
It is the most spectacular record of futility in American history, surpassing anything and everything that could possibly be compared to it, no matter how distantly. Fiction writers couldn’t create such a wretched record of sheer awfulness. Musicians could never compose an ode to capture such ineptness. Dramatists couldn’t write a three act melodrama that would glean the essence of failure and tragedy so perfectly.
In short, for almost an entire century, the Chicago Cubs have been losers – lovable to their fans but incomprehensibly awful to the rest of humanity.
To give you an idea of how truly atrocious this record of shameful failure stacks up, the next closest championship drought in professional sports is a tie between the Arizona Cardinals who haven’t won a championship since 1948 when they were the Chicago Cardinals, and the Cleveland Indians whose last World Series title was the same year. That’s a 40 year gap between the haplessness of the Cubs and their next closest competitors in the hopelessness derby.
And it isn’t only the fact that the Cubs haven’t been champions for so long that makes this franchise such tragic/comic happenstance of history. Simply put, no other sports team has played as badly, lost as consistently, or been as uncompetitive over such long stretches of time as the Chicago National League ballclub. After appearing in 13 World Series by winning the NL Pennant from 1876-1932, they have appeared in exactly 3 Fall Classics since then – none since 1945.
But to get an idea of the true nature of the Cub’s monumental inadequacy, you need to look at the past 50 years or so in order to understand how really appalling this team has been.
From 1947 to 1966 – 20 full Major League seasons – the Cubs had exactly two seasons where they finished above the break even mark for the year. Most of those years, they lost 90 of 162 games. Several campaigns saw the team lose over 100 games. They were a living, breathing joke of a baseball team with some of the most forgettable players in Major League history. And if the team managed by pure, dumb luck to latch on to a prospect who had potential, they somehow managed to trade him away to star for some other team, getting even more forgettable players in return.
It was uncanny. The Cubs found more inventive ways to lose ballgames than the rulebook allowed. Bonehead plays, crucial errors in the field, base running mistakes, decidedly un-clutch hitting, bad bounces, balls lost in the sun, windblown home runs – all contributed at one time or another over that putrid stretch of years to make the Cubs the laughingstock of baseball.
So Wrigley Field has seen it all — as well as some stuff that a surrealist could never dream of. For instance - The Bartman Caper:
Bartman is the hapless Cubs fan who is accused of singlehandedly keeping the Cubs out of the 2003 World Series by supposedly interferring with a pop foul down the left field line at Wrigley Field in the 8th inning of game 6 of the League Championship Series against the Marlins with the Cubbies up 3 games to 2 and 5 outs away from their first World Series appearane since 1945. Cubs hurler Mark Pryor was pitching a 3 hit shutout at the time and the Cubs were ahead 3-0 with one out in the inning when left fielder Moises Alou ambled over to the wall to catch the ball only to have Mr. Bartman reach out and snag it before Alou had a chance to get a glove on it.
Replays clearly showed the ball was catchable by Alou. But it was the left fielder’s angry, disgusted reaction and his glaring at the poor young man that set the fans off. They pelted Bartman with beer, popcorn, hot dog wrappers, and anything that wasn’t nailed down. They kept it up as Bartman, for his own safety, was escorted from the park by a phalanx of beefy Chicago cops. And they kept right on throwing things on the field when the Marlins, given a second chance, went on to score 8 runs in the inning, winning game six and then coming from behind once again in game 7 to defeat the Northsiders and take the series 4 games to 3.
The aftermath of the incident was surreal. A Da-Daist playwrite couldn’t have come up with anything more bizarre than what happened next. Bartman was hounded by Cubs fans from across the country. A newspaper published his name and address as well as his place of work. He was the butt of late night jokes for weeks. Political cartoons featured Bartman hiding out with Saddam Hussein or Osama Bin Laden. The ball Bartman tried to catch was actually scooped up by a Chicago lawyer who sold it at auction where it was bought by a Chicago resturanter named Grant DePorter for the astronomical sum of $113,824.16. The ball was later blown to smithereens on live television by a special effects wizard from Hollywood with what was left of it steamed – the essence of which was added to the soup at Harry Carey’s landmark restaurant in downtown Chicago.
So how did the Cubs celebrate Wrigley Field’s 100th Anniversary? They lost a 5-2 lead in the ninth inning, allowing Arizona to score 5 runs in a sequence of events that prove even to the most skeptical among us, that the ballpark — and the ball team – is cursed:
Before a crowd of 32,323 — about 9,000 under capacity, the Cubs led 5-2 in the ninth. Strop walked Chris Owings on four pitches and Castro allowed Tony Campana’s grounder to kick off his glove for an error. Castro tried to keep his left leg on second as he retrieved the ball, and second base umpire Brian O’Nora called the sliding Owings safe — a decision confirmed by the replay umpire in New York.
Pinch-hitter Eric Chavez walked on a full count, loading the bases, and Gerardo Parra struck out. Prado’s bouncer up the middle bounded off second base, eluding second baseman Darwin Barney and kicking into short right-center field as the Diamondbacks closed to 5-4. Strop struck out Paul Goldschmidt for the second out.
Montero fouled off a 2-2 pitch, took a ball, and then lined a tying single to right. Hill blooped a ball down the right-field line and Justin Ruggiano appeared to injure his left hamstring as he tried for a sliding catch near the foul line and the bullpen mound. He needed assistance to leave the field and was replaced by Ryan Kalish.
Have you ever seen the like? Two walks, three hits — including a windblown triple where the Cubs player was injured –a bizarre error, and a 5-2 deficit was turned into a 7-5 lead. This is the way it’s been for much of Wrigley Field’s 100 year history.
They are planning a $500 million renovation of Wrigley, including putting up a gigantic scoreboard in right field and a 1000 foot advertising sign in right. Of course, this would obscure the view of rooftops fans across the street who are as much a part of the charm of Wrigley as the ivy on the outfield walls. But like kids peering through a knothole in the center field fence in some old parks, management frowns on anyone making money on the Cubs unless their name is Ricketts.
Sure I hate the Cubs. But I’m enough of a baseball traditionalist to love Wrigley Field. So, Happy Birthday, old Girl. I sincerely hope you don’t have to wait another 100 years for a World Series championship.
Underdogs, that is. No fewer than 5 teams seeded lower than their opponent won away games this past weekend, demonstrating that a rough kind of parity may finally have come to the NBA.
The two big surprises; Top seed in the East, Indiana, got beaten up by 8 seed Atlanta and the West’s 3 seed, the LA Clippers, couldn’t get by the 6 seed Golden State Warriors.
In a less spectacular surprise, 4 seed Chicago was taken down by 5 seed Washington, 3 seed Toronto lost to 6 seed Nets, and 5 seed Portland squeaked by 4 seed Houston.
The Indiana Pacers are the head case of this playoffs. After shooting out of the gate looking like they would win it all, the Pacers got a little banged up injury wise after the all star break and seemed to lose focus.
This funk has carried over to the playoffs:
The nightmare continues into the postseason. Remember, there used to be a time when Indy’s defense could mask its offensive woes, but the freefall began when the Pacers couldn’t get stops. That was the story for Game 1, as Indy shot 15-of-41 in the second half but without a defense to respond. Atlanta spread the Pacers and made them pay with 11 three-pointers. The bigger picture reveals a still freefalling Pacers team that Frank Vogel has obviously lost. Game 1 is a clear sign the Hawks can definitely win the series — which somehow isn’t a surprise considering it’s a top seed vs. a losing record.
Star review: Roy Hibbert is the punchline in this joke of collapse of the Pacers. He finished with eight points, eight rebounds and zero blocks in Game 1, which aren’t too different from his regular-season numbers but are much different from his 17-point and 9.9-rebound averages last postseason. Paul George handled his business for the most part, but Hibbert needs to find himself if the Pacers hope to escape the first round.
Looking ahead: Game 2 at Indiana, Tuesday at 7 p.m. ET
How’s this for a reward for six months of hard work? The Pacers fight for a No. 1 seed and then drop the first game against the No. 8 seed. All that effort, and just like that a below-.500 team has stolen away homecourt. As bad as the Pacers have been, though, it’s hard to imagine the league’s best home team will drop both games 1 and 2. Expect the Pacers to bounce back.
The same could be said for most of the favorites who lost home court advantage. In most cases, it appeared to me that the home team failed to match the intensity of the visitors. This was especially true in the Bulls and Clippers games where it took both teams most of the first half to find their games. Neither the Warriors or Wizards are bad teams, but Chicago and LA have more talent than their opponents and know how to win. Expect both teams to take care of business in game 2.
In the case of Brooklyn and Portland, those series’ were expected to be very competitive anyway so look for both to extend out to 6-7 games.
A note on the officiating; it was uniformly awful. Ticky tack fouls being called while muggings under the basket were ignored. The number of whistles interfered in the flow of the game, and a bad call might have cost the Clippers a win:
With 18.9 seconds left in the game and the Clippers down 107-105, Clippers point guard Chris Paul was dribbling the ball above the arc when he was double-teamed by Steve Blake and Draymond Green. Paul then lost the ball after Green reached in and looked as if he had committed a foul.
The play was reviewed but since no foul was called on the floor, the only reviewable action was who touched the ball last, which was Paul. The Warriors would get the ball, hit two more free throws and go on to win the game.
The league took the extraordinary step of admitting the ref made a mistake. They issued a statement:
“Under the existing rule, referees may only use instant replay to determine which player caused the ball to go out and a limited set of other reviewable matters,” NBA president of basketball operations Rod Thorn said in a statement. “Just prior to the ball going out of bounds, Paul was fouled by Green and Paul should have been granted two free throws. Contact preceding out of bounds calls is not a reviewable matter.”
Dear refs: Please put the whistle in your pocket and let the players play.
I have thrown down my enemy and smote his ruin upon the mountainside.
They have seen my strength for themselves, have watched me rise from the darkness of war, dripping with my enemies’blood.
I swam in the blackness of night, hunting monsters, out of the ocean, and killing them one by one; death was my errand and the fate they had earned.
The Spam War is over and I have emerged victorious.
I have slain the “aunt who earned $6571 a month from her home using only her computer.” I have vanquished “Earn up to $100/day. And whats awesome is Im working from home so I get more time with my family.”
These spam are no more! They have ceased to be! They’ve expired and gone to meet their maker! They’re stiff! Bereft of life, they’re resting in peace! Their metabolic processes are now history! They’re off the twig! They’ve kicked the bucket, shuffled off their mortal coil, run down the curtain and joined the bleeding choir invisible! THESE ARE EX-SPAM!
About 7 years — or perhaps it was months — ago, Prince Aaron of Hanscom charged me with the sacred duty of seeking out and destroying the insidious invaders of our fair website who were bedeviling residents and visitors alike. As I rode off to combat this menace, the look on the faces of the court told me they did not expect me to triumph. There were whispers of the near invincibility of my foe — their resilience, their skill in battle, and most of all, their relentless constitution — a mindless, Zombie-like instinct to survive. To fight, to lose, to come back and fight again…and again — this is what I faced.
At first, I felt nearly helpless. The daily deluge was overwhelming. I would smite 100 only to have 200 take their place. The enemy was laughing at me, toying with me. After laboring all day, finally winning the battle, I would fall exhausted into a fitful sleep — only to awake early the next morning to discover that these apparitions from hell didn’t need sleep, didn’t need rest (or they were based somewhere in Europe or Asia). Peppering the many sites of PJM were 80-100 more of these demons, and the early morning combat — on an empty stomach, mind you — drained my strength, and sapped my will.
Eventually, it dawned on me that I, too, must develop a war strategy. I must maximize my strengths and limit my weaknesses. Only then could I meet the enemy on equal ground. Only then would the tide turn in my favor and I become master of the Spam universe.
As a conservative, a traditionalist, and a baseball fan for 55 years, I can say that I hate instant replay. I used to hate the designated hitter but eventually, grudgingly, accepted it so chances are pretty good about 30 years from now, I’ll get used to the game being taken out of the hands of flawed, mistake-prone umpires and placed in the hands of technology.
I always saw mistakes made by the umps as simply the “rub-o-the-green” — thems the breaks, boys and over 162 games, the bad calls tend to even themselves out. But the powers that be in baseball didn’t quite see it like that, so they built a huge “war room” in New York — the Replay Operations Center — with dozens of TV feeds for league officials to view a play and make the right call.
I am probably a little more gleeful than I should be when I report that the plot to destroy baseball via replay is not going according to plan. In fact, at this rate, the fans will be screaming for the wires to be ripped out of the ROC and by mid-season, the league go back to relying on human beings to make the right call.
I can tolerate the growing pains of expanded replay, the flaws in the challenge system, the awkward delays as managers decide whether to seek reviews, the debates over what constitutes a proper transfer, a proper catch.
But no one should tolerate calls that are blatantly incorrect after review — not now, not with a system that supposedly was designed to help baseball avoid egregious mistakes.
Something is terribly wrong when television viewers are getting better access to conclusive angles than the umpires at the $30 million Replay Operations Center in New York. And it happened twice Saturday, first in a game between the Yankees and Red Sox, then in one between the Braves and Nationals.
If it’s any consolation to Red Sox manager John Farrell, I spent Sunday trying to get a better explanation for Anna-gate from Major League Baseball, and none was forthcoming.
Farrell became the first manager to receive an automatic ejection for arguing a replay decision later that night, contending that the out call on the Yankees’ Francisco Cervelli at first base should not have been overturned because the replays were inconclusive.
The essence of Farrell’s argument is that the ball needed simply to enter first baseman Mike Napoli’s glove, not hit the back of it. The confusion alone over what qualifies as an out is embarrassing to baseball, but Farrell would not have been nearly as hot if not for the shenanigans of the day before.
Clearly, Farrell was still seething over the missed call Saturday — the one in which replay conclusively showed the Yankees’ Dean Anna had his foot off second base when he was tagged by Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts with one out in the eighth inning.
At least, the replay on FOX Sports 1 and other networks broadcasting the game conclusively showed that. No one is quite sure what the umpires at the Replay Operations Center were quite watching, but evidently their 12 feeds were not good enough.
The promise of this expanded replay was that it would be quick (90 seconds or less), and the calls would finally be correct. But, like football replay which came in making the same promises, the reality is quite different. What we found with replays in football was that even multiple angles and several minutes of examining tape, there were many inconclusive outcomes. The standard of “incontrovertible proof” necessary to overturn a call is, after all, arbitrary, and you end up adding a human element anyway.
No Tiger, no problem.
Tiger Woods may not be playing in the Masters Tournament this year, but that doesn’t mean that the usual drama and competitiveness that goes with any tournament at Augusta National won’t be present.
Golf.com gives us a couple of story lines guaranteed to pique your interest and get you watching this weekend:
The Rookies: There are 24 first-timers in the field, breaking the record for number of Masters rookies. The big difference this year: Between newbies like Patrick Reed, Jordan Spieth and Jimmy Walker, who have six victories between them in the last 12 months, these guys are brash enough to contend on the weekend and maybe even to win, becoming the first rookie to slip on the jacket since Fuzzy Zoeller in ’79.
The early favorite to lead the group of 24: WGC-Cadillac champion Reed, who went to Augusta State and played the course three times as an amateur. It was Reed who pronounced himself a top-five player after winning at Doral. As if to say, “Prove it,” the powers that be at Augusta National have put him in a threesome with Rory McIlroy and Spieth for the first two rounds. They’re off at 10:52 a.m. Thursday.
Rory McIlroy: Tournament favorite McIlroy, who is coming off a final-round 65 and a T7 in Houston, and who (other than the Australian Open) hasn’t won anything of note in the last 18 months, looked primed to atone for his 2011 Masters meltdown. McIlroy opened that Masters with a 65, closed with an 80, and has had unfinished business here ever since.
Brandt Snedeker: Unfinished business? Brandt Snedeker is still trying to erase the memory of 2007, when he limped in with a 77 to tie for third and broke down. Snedeker tied for eighth in his last start at Bay Hill.
Freddie: At least one old guy usually makes an unlikely charge on the weekend, whether it’s 58-year-old Jack Nicklaus in 1998 (he ran out of miracles and tied for sixth) or Bernhard Langer last year. (Langer faded with a final-round 76 but was on the leaderboard early Sunday.) You’ve got to believe Fred Couples will be up there in or near the lead on the weekend. The 1992 champion here, Couples has tied for second, won, and finished fifth in three starts on the Champions Tour in 2014.
Many fans will be rooting for 3-time Masters winner Phil Mickelson, who’s had trouble putting it altogether this year so far. One of the most creative shot makers in the game, Mickelson usually plays well at Augusta and is perfectly capable of elevating his game to meet the challenge.
The 2013 Masters Champion, Australian Adam Scott, will be looking become only the 4th back to back Masters champ in history (Tiger Woods, Nick Faldo, and Jack Nicklaus). The Aussie’s sweet swing has propelled him to near the top of the world rankings. If he finishes 3rd or better at Augusta, he will take the top spot away from Tiger Woods.
Even if you can’t stand golf, you can still enjoy the broadcast. Augusta National is truly one of the more beautiful spots on earth and with spring fully sprung, the blooming azaleas, dogwoods, and other plants and bushes fill up your TV screen with color and beauty.
For this Midwesterner, it will be a sight for sore eyes after the brutal winter we just experienced.
ESPN will broadcast a re-enactment tonight of Hank Aaron’s 715th home run that broke Babe Ruth’s all time major league record that stood for 39 years. Aaron hit the blast 40 years ago today, April 8, 1974.
The Milwaukee/Atlanta slugger hit a total of 755 home runs in his illustrious career. Aaron, however, does not hold the record today. That mark belongs to Barry Bonds, who ended up hitting 762 dingers.
But Bonds disgraced himself by taking performance enhancing drugs. Even though he hit more homers than Aaron, it is doubtful he will ever make the Hall of Fame, as sportswriters who cast the votes to send players to the HOF have yet to elect a PED violator from the steroids era.
I don’t think ESPN is necessarily trying to send a message that Aaron’s record breaker is more deserving of acknowledgment than Bonds’. But the contrast between the gentlemanly and dignified Aaron, and the surly, snarling Bonds along with Aaron’s sense of fair play and sportsmanship compared to Bonds’ cheating can’t be ignored.
The lead-up to Aaron’s historic blast was nervracking:
The legendary home run did not come without some controversy. Braves’ management wanted Aaron to break the record at home, but they opened the season with three games in Cincinnati. The team planned to sit Aaron for the three games, but commissioner Bowie Kuhn ruled he had to play in at least two games.
Aaron, then 40, tied Ruth’s record with his 714th career homer in his very first at-bat of the season. He went 0-for-5 with a walk and two strikeouts the rest of the series against the Reds. On the first pitch of his first at-bat of his first home game of the 1974 season, Aaron broke the record with a solo shot off Al Downing, who had a long and excellent career himself.
As you can imagine, Aaron received death threats for months leading up to the record-breaking homer. Newspapers reportedly prepared obituaries in case Aaron was murdered in the days leading up to or just after breaking the record. He also received a lot of support, from fans and the media alike.
Aaron finished that 1974 season with 20 homers, his lowest total since his rookie season in 1954. He played two more years and retired with 755 career home runs, a record that stood until Barry Bonds hit his 756th homer in 2007. Ruth’s record stood for 39 years.
Believe it or not, Aaron only led the league in homers four times in his 23-year career. His career high was 47 home runs in 1971, but he did hit 40+ homers eight times. From 1957-73, only twice did Aaron fail to hit 30+ homers. The man was as consistent as they come.
Aaron turned 80 years old back in February. He was elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 1982, receiving 97.8 percent of the vote. That is the sixth highest percentage in baseball history and was the second highest at the time, trailing only Ty Cobb.
There are still a lot of people who consider Aaron the all-time home run king, but, either way, he is one of the best and most dominant hitters in the history of the game. Record or no record, he was (and still is) a class act and one of the greatest players who ever lived.
In 1968, the altar boys of St. Raymond’s parish were given a treat; a ticket to a major league ballgame at Wrigley Field. The Cubs took on the Atlanta Braves that day and we were all excited to see the legendary Hank Aaron in person.
It was late September and the cold north wind off Lake Michigan blew straight in toward home plate, signifying that there were likely to be no home runs hit that day. But as Hank Aaron stepped to the plate for his second at bat, a bunch of us left the cheap seats and, since there were only a couple of thousand people in the stands, made our way opposite home plate in the lower deck to watch the great one hit.
Aaron was not a big man, but he was immensely strong — especially his hands and wrists. We watched in amazement as Aaron swung at a pitch that appeared to be almost in the catcher’s glove, the bat whistling through the strike zone and meeting the ball perfectly, sending it on a low line over the center field wall for a home run.
The thrill of a lifetime. A homerun hit by one of the true gentlemen of the game — pioneer and icon. It is good to give a nod of recognition to the event that, 40 years ago, resulted in breaking a record many thought would never be broken.
He’s won 5 world championships, made 13 All-Star game appearances, won 5 Gold Gloves, and in 2009, was named Sports Illustrated “Sportsman of the Year.” But beyond the awards and honors, Derek Jeter has been proudest of the uniform he wears — that of the New York Yankees — an organization he has represented with class and dignity for 20 years.
Not bad for a kid from Kalamazoo, Michigan who dreamed of playing shortstop for the Yankees growing up. Also not bad, a stat sheet stuffed with numbers that will almost certainly make him a first ballot Hall of Fame inductee 5 years from now.
The career line on Jeter — a line he will be adding to in this, his final year — tells the story of the consummate professional and teammate.
At Bats: 10,634
Batting Average: .312
Hits: 3211 (8th all time)
Home Runs: 256
Runs Batted In: 1262
On Base Percentage: .381
He was not a big home run hitter — except when the Yankees desperately needed one. He was never a big RBI man either (although part of the reason for that was because he hit 2nd in the batting order), but will be remembered as one of the greatest clutch hitters of all time.
Simply put, Derek Jeter is a winner. And as he played his final opening day at Yankees Stadium, he showed why:
“I have emotions,” Jeter says, “I just hide it. I’ve just been pretty good trying to control my emotions. You have feelings. There are a lot of “wow” moments when you’re in New York, but for me, I always felt it was easier for me to play if I try to control my emotions.”
Jeter, playing in the final home-opener of his Yankees’ career, struck out in his first at-bat, and maybe those emotions got the best of him.
REUNITED: The Core 4 reunite before opener
“You’re human,” Jeter said. “Everyone has emotions. Everyone has feelings. Especially here, we played in so many big games, so many special games throughout the course of my career. I’ll be nervous. I’ll have butterflies before this game starts, but I do that all of the time.”
This game, of course, was different than any other Jeter has ever played.
It is the last home opener of his career at Yankee Stadium. He was reunited with the rest of the Core Four before the game — the nucleus that won five World Series titles together. Jeter caught a ceremonial first pitch from Mariano Rivera. Jorge Posada caught Andy Pettitte.
“He’s the last one standing now,” said Rivera, who retired after last season with Pettitte.
The celebrations and tributes won’t just stop this day, Girardi says, but continue the entire season.
“I think it will be a love-fest, and appreciation-fest,” Girardi says, “people trying to soak it all in. I think people will show their appreciation, no matter what, just what he’s meant to the Yankees.”
And despite the perception, Jeter corrected reporters Monday, he will fully appreciate every last moment of this season, including all of the tributes and ceremonies.
“I will enjoy it,” Jeter says. “Every city I go to, every game I play, I will enjoy it. But at the same time, I get the fact that I have to play a game. I have to play a season.
“Not enjoying it is the wrong way to put it, but balancing it is a better way to put it.”
Whatever accolades Jeter gets from fans around baseball this season, he will deserve. They used to refer to some players as a “credit to the game.” You don’t hear that saying much anymore, what with drugs, assaults, steroids, and rude behavior on the part of many players. The game has not only changed, but the player’s attitudes toward it have also been altered. There isn’t the same respect and reverence for the past that there once was.
But Jeter proved that he gets it every time he put on the pin stripes and stepped onto the most iconic ballfield in the sport. For the last 20 years, on one of the biggest stages in sports, Derek Jeter rose to the occasion. And the game is better for it.
The most prolific scorer in the history of the US Men’s National Team may be left off the roster for the 2014 World Cup in Brazil this June.
Through 154 international appearances, Landon Donovan has scored 57 goals — the only American to score 50 or more goals in the history of the Confederation of North, Central American and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF), the international governing body of soccer for the hemisphere. His heroics in the last three World Cups have made him the biggest star of US Men’s soccer.
But at age 32, Donovan’s greatest physical asset — his speed — is deserting him. In last night’s international friendly against Mexico in Phoenix, Donovan didn’t make an appearance until the 59th minute. He looked sluggish in his few touches and failed to help generate any offense for the Americans who, after a stellar first half where they went ahead 2-0, had several defensive breakdowns in the second half and allowed Mexico to score a pair of goals themselves as the game ended in a 2-2 tie.
Donovan was apparently bothered by a sore knee. But USA Men’s coach Jurgen Klinsman didn’t like the way Donovan trained in the week leading up to the match and relegated him to a reserve role.
Is this to be his fate? Or might he be left off the team altogether and his spot taken by 18 year old phenom Julian Green?
Oh, and there was one other thing that Klinsmann said he discovered: Julian Green, who went in alongside Donovan early in the second half, just may be worth a spot on the U.S. team this summer — maybe even Donovan’s spot.
“You saw in some moments what this kid is capable of doing,” Klinsmann said. “How he goes in the box and draws two guys. Obviously he was nervous too. He plays his first cap in front of 60,000 against Mexico. But the team welcomed him with open arms.
“You understand within 10 minutes if he’s a good player or not. Julian is a very good player. So we are happy to have him playing for us. It was a good start for him.”
As for Donovan, he didn’t start Wednesday because he looked sluggish in training and complained of a sore knee. Should he find himself as a permanent part-time player this summer after more than a decade leading the U.S. team, his spot could go to Green, a German American who didn’t become eligible to play for the U.S. until last week.
The 18-year-old is currently playing for Bayern Munich II in the fourth tier of German soccer, but he ranks third in the league with 15 goals in 23 games and Klinsmann has hinted that Green will get strong consideration for one of 23 spots on the U.S. team for the World Cup in Brazil.
“He’s a good player,” captain Clint Dempsey said. “In a tough game he was able to get some good touches.”
Donvan’s storied World Cup career never translated into success with European club teams. Four times, he traveled across the Atlantic to try and make an impact with a top European side. And 4 times, he returned home, never able to really crack the line-up of the better teams. His last stint with Bayern Munich lasted just 7 games before he was “loaned” to the LA Galaxy. Donovan admitted to having trouble adjusting to the European game and culture.
In contrast to his disappointments overseas, Donovan has thrived in the American MSL. But the rest of the world sees the American game as inferior and Donovan has always ached to prove himself on the international stage.
Will he get the chance? It’s almost inconceivable that Klinsman would leave Donovan off the roster — even in favor of a talented 18 year old like Green. Donovan may be slowing down, but he has a nose for the ball and has risen to the occasion when the US needed him most. Age has not dulled his intensity or competitive spirit either.
But for the US side to get to the next level of international soccer excellence, Donovan may be left behind. Right now, the team is good — perhaps a top 25 squad. FIFA currently ranks the US 14th in the world, but that’s due almost entirely to the Yank’s qualifying victories over teams like Jamaica and Panama. France, which is ranked 17th, is a more talented side than the US but plays in a much tougher qualifying group.
The US has a long way to go to become an elite team. It’s what Klinsman has been hired to do and sentimentality is not likely to affect his judgment. The coach is keeping his roster choices close to his vest and probably won’t name a final squad until close to the FIFA deadline of June 2.
The U.S. plays Azerbaijan in San Francisco on May 27 before heading east to face Turkey on June 1 in Harrison, N.J. Donovan will have to show Klinsman that he can still be an asset to the team, even coming off the bench.
Given his stellar career, don’t count him out.
While the NCAA men Final Four teams await their trial by fire set for Saturday, the women are preparing for Sunday games that feature two unbeaten squads, along with two traditional women’s powerhouses.
The first game on Sunday will see unbeaten Connecticut against the Stanford Cardinal while the late game has undefeated Notre Dame against Maryland. UConn took care of 3 seed Texas A&M 69-54 to earn the trip to Nashville while Stanford handled North Carolina 74-65. The two teams played early in the season with UConn winning handily 76-57. The Lady Huskies will be making their 7th trip to the Final Four in a row. They’ll be going for their 9th national title while Stanford has won it all twice.
In 2010, Stanford ended UConn’s 90 game winning streak with a 71-59 victory. Their All-American, Chiney Ogwumike was a freshman on that squad and after suffering some health set-backs during the year, is now fit and in fighting trim. UConn will have all they can handle trying to contain Ogwumike who is expected to be the number one choice in the WNBA draft.
Noel Sheppard, prominent conservative media critic and one of the founding contributors and editors at Newsbusters, died of cancer March 28. He was 53 years old.
Newsbusters publisher Brent Bozell posted a short, elegant tribute to his friend and colleague:
Our Noel Sheppard passed away yesterday (Friday) morning at about 5:00 AM. Say a prayer for the soul of a man we’ll all miss professionally, and many, many of us will miss personally as well. Noel was not just a force of nature, he was a very good man.
How quickly this all happened. Just two months ago, Noel wrote about suddenly getting cancer at 53 called “Cancer’s Ray of Hope.” Nine days ago, he wrote us and said he was interested in writing about his “progress” — and he put “progress” in quotes. We were all wishing for better news, and really couldn’t imagine this was a battle that would end this way.
Noel joined us and was introduced to us by Matt Sheffield at the founding of NewsBusters in 2005, and he became our Associate Editor. It must be said that no blogger here was more prolific and more popular.
Matt Sheffield, one of Newsbusters’ founders, penned a tribute to Sheppard that describes why he will be missed so dearly:
Noel never intended to become a professional blogger once he began submitting pieces online. But just as America turned out to love reading blogs, Noel took to the new medium like a fish to water. Eventually, it became a full-time gig for him as he sold his financial planning business to pursue blogging full-time for us at NewsBusters as a mid-life career change.
It was a perfect combination. Noel loved attention and NewsBusters readers loved his work, making him by far the blog’s most popular writer. Very frequently, he single-handly brought in half of the site traffic each month.
In an earlier time, Noel would’ve been an ace reporter or well-known editor, such was his talent for spotting the hot story and writing about it in an engaging way. He also had the rare ability to make dry subjects interesting.
Sadly, Noel’s combination of brio, intelligence, and popular touch are all too rare in the conservative world. Noel and I spoke many times about the fact that too many conservatives and libertarians seem more interested in getting read by Republican congressional staffers than by millions of their fellow Americans. My upcoming book on the future of the American Right is inspired by many of these conversations. (For those interested in some of our preliminary thoughts on the topic, see this piece we published together in the American Spectator in 2012.)
Like everything he did, Noel threw himself into his career as a writer, literally blogging at least one post a day on NB before he fell ill to cancer and was admitted to the hospital in January. Weekend readers could always count on Noel to have something new and interesting for them to read.
Sheppard’s nose for news and his ability to distill the essence of a story into a few well written paragraphs that were enlightening as well as thought provoking is a rare combination. He will be missed at Newsbusters, but also around the right side of the internet.
If you’re a sports fanatic, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. The next fourteen days will see some of the best action, the best competition, and the most sublime events of the year.
1. The stretch run to the playoffs for pro hockey and pro basketball.
With fewer than 10 games to go in the National Hockey League season and less than a dozen National Basketball Association games left, teams are jockeying for playoff positioning and several are fighting for their playoff lives.
Both leagues play 82 games, which makes for too long a season for some. But these next two weeks will decide who keeps their championship dreams alive and who goes golfing.
Hockey has a new playoff format that includes several wild card teams that is supposed to make the process more fair. We’ll see. The top three teams in each of the 4 divisions automatically advance to the playoffs. The remaining 2 teams to make the playoffs from each conference will be determined by the best record regardless of division. As of today, there are 7 teams still with a shot of making one of the four wild cards.
The NBA still maintains its format of the top 8 from each conference going to the playoffs. In the West, there’s a ferocious battle for the final spots with 4 teams within two games of 6th place. In the East, the battle is for 3rd place and home court advantage for at least the first round of the playoffs. Three teams are within 2 games of each other.
Teams from both sports are ratcheting up the intensity. For many, the playoffs have already started.
2. Opening Day of the baseball season
Technically, the season opened last week in Australia where the Los Angeles Dodgers played two games with the Arizona Diamondbacks. But the “official” opening day is Monday with most teams in action.
I’m old enough to remember Opening Day being the one day of the year that the Sisters of Mercy largely turned a blind eye to the transistor radios hidden in our desks and let us update the class every once and a while. But even though baseball has lost its luster as our national pastime, there is a feeling associated with Opening Day that isn’t duplicated any other day of the year.
Hope, anticipation, a sense of rebirth — if you live in the Midwest, Opening Day is confirmation that the long, brutal winter is ending and spring has arrived (if not temperature-wise). It doesn’t get any better than this.
3. The Final Four
After an exciting weekend of Regional Finals, the survivors will play on Saturday night with the winners advancing to Monday’s championship game. The match-ups are intriguing. Top ranked Florida will play Connecticut in the first game, and the Gators are already 6 point favorites — a heavy spread for a Final Four game. Meanwhile, Kentucky is a 2 point favorite over Michigan in the late game. This is no doubt a reflection of how well Coach John Calipari has those Wildcats playing.
UConn appears to my eyes to be outmanned, but the history of the Final Four is replete with Davids slaying Goliaths. The Huskies have had a great run, starting as a 7th seed, they should definitely not be counted out.
The Kentucky-Wisconsin match-up should be a war with two big, tough frontcourts going at it. The Wildcat’s young bigs are athletic and can score at will, while the Badger’s Frank Kaminsky is a beast underneath. I hope the refs let them play and not call a bunch of ticky-tack fouls.
I see an all-SEC final with Florida winning a close one over Kentucky.
4. The Masters golf tournament
There are tougher courses in the world, but none more beautiful — especially this time of year. Bobby Jones’ masterpiece, Augusta National, has bedeviled, befuddled, and driven players crazy since it opened in 1933. The postage stamp greens are cut so short it’s like putting on your garage floor. The beautiful dogwoods, magnolias, and azaleas, are exploding in all their spring colors. The hillside behind #12 appears cartoonish in the splash of its many-hued plants and bushes. It’s worth watching on your big screen just to enjoy nature’s beauty.
Golfers don’t have the chance to do that, however. They’re too busy trying to navigate the 7245 yards of treacherous real estate designed to make them weep. The undulating greens make approach shots absolutely key. Where the ball lands on the green spells the difference between birdie and bogey.
It’s a tournament that’s usually competitive with the top golfers vying for the Green Jacket. There are richer tournaments. There are harder courses. But there’s only one Masters Tournament and it will be played April 10-13.
If this ruling is allowed to stand — and remember, this is Barack Obama’s NLRB — it will radically alter the face, the finances, and the reality of college sports.
But there are a lot of headwinds to navigate — including the fact that the national NLRB has to weigh in on the matter — so the odds are not good the players will win out in the end.
Basically, the Northwestern University football players were claiming that they should be designated “employees” while the school and the NCAA claim they are “students.” If they are employees, they should be able to unionize. And that’s just what regional NLRB director Peter Sung Ohr ruled.
The “employee” distinction is a landmark one because it contradicts the NCAA’s longtime stance that athletes are students and amateur athletes, and should not be compensated beyond their scholarships. The NCAA could not immediately be reached for comment.
“I have found that all grant-in-aid scholarship players for the Employer’s football team who have not exhausted their playing eligibility are ‘employees,’” wrote National Labor Relations Board regional director Peter Sung Ohr in a 24-page decision released Wednesday.
The College Athlete Players Association filed the petition on behalf of Northwestern athletes, identified in the ruling as “a labor organization.”
Northwestern plans to appeal the decision to the NLRB’s national office in Washington by the April 9 deadline, school officials said.
In a statement, NCAA chief legal officer Donald Remy said: “We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees. We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.”
Remy’s statement also said that NCAA member colleges and universities have evaluated the association’s amateurism rules in recent years and that improvements need to be made, but that “we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.”
Alan K. Cubbage, Northwestern vice president for university relations, issued a statement about the decision: “Northwestern University is disappointed by today’s ruling by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board finding that Northwestern University’s football players who receive grant-in-aid scholarships are employees and directing that a secret ballot election be held to determine whether the football players should be represented by the College Athletes Players Association for purposes of collective bargaining with Northwestern University.”
Cubbage’s statement went on to say, “While we respect the NLRB process and the regional director’s opinion, we disagree with it. Northwestern believes strongly that our student-athletes are not employees, but students. Unionization and collective bargaining are not the appropriate methods to address the concerns raised by student-athletes.”
One assumes that the reason the players wish to unionize is to end the fiction that players don’t get “paid” to play sports. In addition to a $100,000 a year college education, most players get other “goodies” allowed by the NCAA’s wildly complex and byzantine eligibility rules. With the ability to unionize, will the players want a cut of TV contracts? If a coach can get a couple of million dollars, why can’t players get their cut?
The USCs, Notre Dames, and Alabamas whose athletic programs actually make money for the university are few and far between. It doesn’t make sense for a college players union in any sport to lobby for cash benefits. For the vast majority of schools, the money simply isn’t there. On the other hand, if the players want to unionize in order to lobby for better health benefits or improved working conditions (better training facilities, study halls, etc.), that might be more realistic.
Colleges serve as the minor leagues for both professional football and basketball (less so for baseball). Scholarship athletes pointing toward a pro career use the university athletic system as a way station on their path to professionalism. Most schools don’t require athletes to expend much brainpower during their stay, although there are notable exceptions. So what is the philosophical basis for this union? The athletes get a free education at an elite school, all their needs attended to, help with their studies, and the adulation and glory that go with college sports. What’s missing here? I don’t see it, and it may be that the national NLRB won’t see it either.
And what of those scholarship athletes — the vast majority of them — who will never realize their dreams of playing pro ball? Or other scholarship athletes in sports like women’s field hockey or swimming where there are no professional opportunities at all? Unionizing college athletes sounds like the “hip” thing to do, but on a practical basis, there’s no rational basis for one.
OK — so I get outlawing the sack dance, even though it was wildly entertaining to see Junior Seau lord it over an opponent or a prostrate QB. And taunting had to go simply because it too often led to fights.
But putting the kibosh on end zone celebrations has never made any sense to me. What’s wrong with the offense lining up after a TD and doing a little dance? Or T.O pulling a sharpie out of his sock and signing the football?
Both of those celebratory gestures are now illegal. Most of these “Top 10 Touchdown Celebrations” are too.
Now the NFL wants to ban the iconic “dunk” over the crossbar of the goal posts. And the reason they give for it is stupid:
Not only is the New Orleans Saints’ Jimmy Graham redefining the tight end position, but he has also inspired an NFL rule change. According to the league’s vice president of officiating, players will no longer be allowed to dunk the ball over the goalpost after touchdowns.
Dean Blandino confirmed the rule change during a radio interview with “The Dan Patrick Show” on Tuesday. He said dunking the ball over the crossbar will now be considered a foul along with other touchdown celebrations that involve props.
Previously, dunks were grandfathered in as a legal celebration, along with the Lambeau Leap.
“We grandfathered in some, the Lambeau Leap and things like that, but dunking will come out,” Blandino said, according to NFL.com. “Using the ball as a prop or any object as a prop, whether that’s the goalpost, the crossbar, that will come out and that will be a foul next season.”
Graham is clearly the main inspiration for the rule. Twice in his career, his celebratory dunks have knocked the uprights off balance. Last season in Atlanta, a Thursday night game had to be delayed while workers releveled the crossbar.
And no player in the NFL will be more affected by the rule change than Graham, who has caught more touchdown passes over the past three seasons (36) than anyone else in the league. A former basketball player at the University of Miami, the 6-foot-7 Graham has made the goalpost dunk his trademark celebration.
Graham responded to the news in a tweet Tuesday afternoon.
I guess I’ll have to lead the @nfl in penalties next year! #funpolice pic.twitter.com/MQRFXgvaGN
If you can’t use the ball as a prop, why can you spike it? How can a stationary crossbar be a prop? The crossbar is part of the field. It doesn’t make any sense.
If the NFL had their druthers, they’d probably want the guy scoring the touchdown to hand the ball to the ref and then go over to the opposing bench and beg forgiveness for torching their free safety. So many of these rules against celebrations are put in because it supposedly angers the opponent. I say let ‘em stew. Football ain’t tiddlywinks and if you get your butt beat or you miss a tackle, the least of your punishment should be witnessing an ecstatic, choreographed celebration in the endzone. Your real ordeal will happen on Tuesday at film study when the coach rips into you for your mistakes.
If the league continues to constrain the natural inclination of players to celebrate a touchdown, pretty soon, NFL will stand for the “No Fan League.”
Now that everyone’s bracket is totally busted (you really didn’t think you were going to walk away with Buffet’s Billion, did you?), we can get down to the serious business of handicapping the 16 teams left in the NCAA tourney field and pick some favorites for the Final Four.
Three of the four number one seeds survived the first weekend. The only top seed to fall — Wichita — may be a harbinger of things to come. Kentucky’s two point win over the Shockers in the second round gave notice to the rest of the field that the Wildcats are in it to win it. Seeded 8 when the tournament began, Kentucky has benefited the first two games from a surprisingly tough defense and the emergence of frosh forward Julius Randle who ended up with double-doubles in both weekend games. The Cats seem to be coming together at exactly the right moment and Coach John Calipari has his squad playing like they’re on a mission.
The other three number ones to win through — Florida, Arizona, and Virginia — had some anxious moments against the lower seeds, but made it to the third round with minimal trouble. All three teams will play #4 seeds with upset potential written all over those games. 4 Michigan State will take on Virginia on Friday night, and if you want an upset special for next weekend, that game may be it.
The best third round game is likely to be on Thursday night when two of the Cinderella teams of the tournament clash for a chance to keep the dream alive. In the South Regional, 10 Stanford vs. 11 Dayton will play for a trip to the Elite Eight and a chance to play the winner of the 1 Florida vs. 4 UCLA contest. Dayton did not overwhelm in its two upset victories over 6 Ohio State and 3 Syracuse. But the Flyers proved to be a pesky bunch and managed to hold off their higher ranked opponents in the final minutes of both games. Stanford has been even more surprising. After getting into the tournament by advancing to the semis of the Pac-12 tourney, the Cardinal downed a very good New Mexico team and toughed out a 3 point win over a short handed Kansas squad. Both teams have demonstrated the poise and determination that should make Thursday’s contest a close, exciting game.
The other double-digit seed to make it to the Sweet Sixteen is Tennessee. The 11 seeded Vols manhandled all three of their opponents the first weekend, including a win over Iowa in their play-in game, a comfortable 19 point victory over Massachusetts, and a 20 point win over little Mercer who toppled mighty Duke. For all the bad press the SEC got pre-tournament, 3 teams from the conference are in the Sweet Sixteen. Tennessee will likely give 2 Michigan all they can handle on Friday night.
Perhaps the most intriguing third round game will take place in Indianapolis on Friday night. The Battle of Kentucky between 4 Louisville and 8 Kentucky will probably end up being a war. Two storied college basketball programs led by two probable Hall of Fame coaches. Kentucky’s John Calipari versus Louisville’s Rick Pitino in a game played just a hop, skip, and a jump from both campuses at 70,000 seat capacity Lucas Oil Stadium. Kentucky, as mentioned, is playing at the top of its game while defending champ Louisiville will not go quietly into that good night. Like an Alabama vs. Auburn football game, there will be civil war in the state until one side proves themselves the he-bull of the corral.
Take Clubber Lang’s word for what to expect: “Pain.”
The first round of the NCAA Basketball Tournament is in full swing and so far, things are going about as expected. You have your blowouts (2 Wisconsin over 15 American U. 75-35), a good effort by a David team vs. a Goliath (16 Albany College sticking with 1 Florida eventually losing by only 12 points), and a couple of mild upsets with 5 Ohio State falling at the last second to 11 Dayton (which I predicted here) and 11 Harvard taking down 5 Cincinnati.
A few loose notes:
* Betting. Some good advice from ESPN Insiders Vegas (subscription only):
Florida is the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Gators are No. 1 in the AP writers’ poll and the USA Today Coaches Poll.
But they’re not No. 1 in the Vegas Rankings.
In fact, the top team from the combined power ratings of our panel of handicappers — Geoff Kulesa (“Wunderdog”) of wunderdogsports.com, Teddy “Covers” Sevransky and yours truly, Dave Tuley — isn’t one of the other No. 1 seeds, or a No. 2 seed or even a No. 3.
Our top-rated team is Louisville, the defending national champions who again look as though they’re peaking at the right time coming off their AAC title.
There’s a lot of support in Vegas for the Cardinals as the LVH SuperBook made them 15-1 when the brackets were announced Sunday afternoon, but by the end of the night they had been bet down to co-third choice on the futures board with Florida the favorite at 5-1, Michigan State (another No. 4 seed, interestingly enough) as the second choice at 5-1, and then Louisville and Arizona at 7-1. The LVH odds for all 68 NCAA teams are in the accompanying chart, along with their Vegas power ratings.
For the bettors, it’s all about “value” rather than who wins or loses — best bets to beat the point spread.
* Cal-Poly is the 24th team since 1955 to make the tournament with a losing record. The won their play in game last night against Texas Southern. Their joy is expected to be short lived. They play undefeated 1 Wichita State on Friday.
* 7 Oregon had a surprisingly easy time of it with 10 Brigham Young, winning by 19. The Ducks rode a 15-2 run late in the game to victory.
* The oddsmakers might like Louisiville, but the Cardinal’s coach Rick Pitino is a little worried about his first round match-up. 4 Louisville will be going up against 13 Manhattan College coached by a former Pitino assistant Steve Masiello.
Those two go way back:
Masiello served as a ball boy with the New York Knicks when Pitino was coach in the 1980s, played for him at Kentucky (1996-97) and then spent another six years coaching alongside him at Louisville (2005 to 2011). They know each other quite well, and Masiello is molding the Jaspers in the Cardinals’ image.
You can’t blame him. It’s like playing a game coached by your alter ego. The Cardinals are favored by 14.5 points.
* 2 Kansas won’t have star center Joel Embiid for the first two games of the tourney. The 7 footer, thought to be a high first round pick in the NBA draft if he leaves KU, is suffering from a stress fracture in his back.
Kansas opens the tourney against Eastern Kentucky and if they win on Friday, will face the winner of the Stanford-New Mexico game on Sunday.
Since the NCAA tourney has gone to 64 teams, no #16 seed has ever beaten a #1 seed. None. Nada. Evah.
This begs the question: Why are 4 teams vying to make the last two slots just so they can be sacrificial lambs for the likes of Florida and Arizona?
The reason is cash, as Motely Fool explains:
Currently in the midst of a 14-year media contract with CBS (NYSE: CBS ) and Time Warner’s (NYSE: TWX ) Turner Sports, the NCAA divvies up this revenue based on a system known as the Basketball Fund. According to its most recent distribution plan, a little under $190 million will be split between conferences this year. The system isn’t overly complex — the further an individual team advances in the NCAA Tournament, the bigger the reward for its conference.
Participation in each tournament round excluding the championship is worth what’s known as a “unit share.” For every unit share a team earns, its conference is awarded close to $250,000 a year over the next six years — $1.5 million total. A team that loses in the first round, for example, has earned one unit share for its conference, worth $1.5 million over the next six years. A team that loses in the second round has earned twice this amount, and so on.
First given to conferences, the money is then distributed to individual teams. As Forbes points out, “some conferences equally split the revenue among all conference schools, while some provide a disproportionate share to the teams that were actually responsible for the “unit creation.”
Regardless of how the dollars are split, though, one thing is clear: It pays to be in a major conference.
Which most #16 seeds are decidedly not. But even though little Albany College, who won it’s play in game against Mount Saint Mary’s last night, is the only representative from the America East Conference to make the tourney, they’re still in line to make enough from the tourney to fund a lot of their basketball program for the next year.
But the futility of #16 seeds is jaw dropping:
Just 14 of the 1-16 games have been decided by single digits; the two in 1989 were the only ones decided by a single point.
The average gap? A Grand Canyon-like 24.8 points per game.
“I thought for sure someone else would do it by now,” said Carril, now 83, who recently sat down at an on-campus spot to reminisce about the game. “I never thought we’d be the last to come so close.”
He’s not alone. Most people close to the game are stunned that the ultimate Cinderella moment hasn’t happened, especially as parity has become the game’s biggest buzzword.
And most think it’s not too far away.
“I think it can happen anytime,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Really, it’s just a matter of time.”
If there is a sign that we’re closer, look no further than one line beneath those No. 1 seeds.
After an 11-year hiatus, a No. 15 seed has claimed victory three times in the past two years: Norfolk State over Missouri and Lehigh over Duke in 2012 and Florida Gulf Coast’s Dunk City over Georgetown en route to the Sweet 16 last year.
There have been narrow escapes lately. According to ESPN Stats & Information, Syracuse’s seven-point victory over UNC Asheville in 2012 was the first single-digit margin of victory by a No. 1 over a No. 16 seed since 1997. Last year, Western Kentucky lost to Kansas by just seven and Southern made it scary for Gonzaga, falling by six. So it would seem the climate for the shiniest of shining moments has to be changing.
“Well, I would say, yes, we’re close,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “But that’s a large part because we’re a 1-seed and Western Kentucky had us down at halftime. But seriously, I do think we’re a lot closer. A lot.”
It’s like the US Olympic hockey team playing the Soviet Union in 1980. It’s been said that if the two teams had played 100 times, the Soviets might have won 99. That may not be true, but what is undeniable is the chasm-like difference between the basketball programs at Albany College and Florida. Recruiting, amenities for players, travel accommodations, practice facilities — in every conceivable category, Florida crushes Albany.
But unless you’re a die hard Gator fan, I suspect most people will be rooting for the Great Danes to pull of a miracle.
It used to be that the National Invitation Tournament (NIT) was the pinnacle of post-season college basketball. In the 1940′s and 50′s, the NIT outshone the NCAA tourney, largely because there was very little media coverage of college basketball and the NIT was played at the sports Mecca of America at that time, Madison Square Garden in New York City.
The NCAA had a far different selection process back then, choosing one team from each of 8 regions, which prevented some very good teams from competing and consequently, loading up the NIT with excellent competition. It was easily on par with the NCAA tourney well into the 1960′s. The John Wooden era at UCLA probably contributed more to the NIT’s decline than anything. But the tournament was still a big deal until the NCAA expanded to 32 teams in 1975, and all ranked teams were usually invited.
The NCAA took over the tournament in 2005 and it now serves as a way to promote college basketball, as all games are broadcast on ESPN networks. For some teams in smaller conferences, the NIT is an excellent reward for a winning season.
One big difference between the NIT and NCAA is that the top seeds get to play their games at home, rather in a regional venue. The NIT Final Four play their games in the Garden.
This year’s tournament features some NCAA tourney also-rans like SMU and Minnesota, in addition to a lot of schools from smaller conferences. It has become, for better or worse, a “Mid-Major” tournament. A short preview from SB Nation:
The 32-team tournament has long been derided as a consolation round for teams that missed out on the Big Dance, but there is still some hardware up for grabs and the top seeds get a few more home games. It’s also an opportunity for notable tourney snubs to prove the selection committee wrong.
The first slate of games features two No. 1 seeds. The St. John’s Red Storm host the Robert Morris Colonials. Robert Morris is hoping for a repeat of last year’s NIT, when the Colonials stunned Kentucky in the first round.
Dunk City is looking to make March magic again, but the Florida Gulf Coast Eagles have to do it in Tallahassee when they take on the top-seeded Florida State Seminoles. The Seminoles missed out on the dance after falling to Virginia in the ACC quarterfinals.
The Georgetown Hoyas will try to make the most of a disappointing season when they face the West Virginia Mountaineers, while the Green Bay Phoenix look to make up for their NCAA snub. The Minnesota Golden Gophers are another team that barely missed the cut, and get a No. 1 seed for their troubles. They play High Point in the first round.
The Missouri Tigers were once thought a lock to go dancing, but a late-season swoon sent them to a No. 2 seed in the NIT. They face the Davidson Wildcats. The final game of the day features the St. Mary’s Gaels, who missed a shot to make the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year. They will play the Utah Utes.
I guess if you’re a sports fanatic, the NIT will serve as a nice change of pace from the NCAA tourney. I know that every once and a while — especially in the early rounds — if an NCAA game is non-competitive, I’m likely to switch over to peek at the NIT games. But unless your alma mater is playing, there really is very little interest in the NIT.
Given it’s storied history, that’s a shame.
Selection Sunday has come and gone and the handiwork of the committee is drawing the usual groans of anguish and cries of joy from some teams.
It’s not as bad as it used to be. The expansion of the field to 68 teams, with 8 teams vying for the final four spots in the 64 team field, there aren’t as many teams who feel they got boned by the selection process. Instead, the grousing centers on seeding. Michigan appeared to be penalized the most. The Wolverines dropped their Big Ten championship final to rival Michigan State, which apparently prevented them from getting a number one seeding.
Instead, Virginia — who lost their last regular season game to Maryland — received the nod for number one seed in the East by going to the ACC finals. Villanova’s early exit from the Big East tournament probably played a role in that decision as well.
In addition to Virginia in the East Regional, the number ones include Arizona out West, Florida in the South, and Wichita State in the Midwest. Despite being 32-0, Wichita is felt to be the weak link in the number one seeds. They have the potential to face Kentucky in the third round, followed by a possible match up with Rick Pitino’s Louisville squad. If they survive those tests, the Shockers may have to get by Duke in order to reach the Final Four.
A few more notes on the tourney:
* Biggest blow out – 3 Duke vs. 14 Mercer in the opening round. Congrats are in order to little Mercer for getting into the tournament by winning their Atlantic Sun Conference championship. The Bears haven’t been to the tourney in 29 years and have only been to the Big Dance twice in their history. Yes, the top seeds will have easy games too, but Mercer is not likely to be in the gym at the end of their game with the Blue Devils, having been blown out the door by halftime. Prediction: Duke 88-34.
* Biggest upset in the first round – 11 seed Dayton over 6 seed Ohio State. Look – the Big Ten always gets 5 or 6 teams in the tourney, and usually only one or two is left standing after the first round. It’s in the by laws — Big Ten teams can’t win in March. On the other hand, Dayton has beaten 3 tournament teams in the last 2 weeks and lost a close one to a very good St. Joe’s team in the Atlantic 10 tourney. The Flyers have a history of doing well in the Tournament.
* The most entertaining first round game — 7 Oregon vs. 10 BYU. Yes, 8-9 match-ups can be competitive but this game promises to be a barn burner — lots of points, lot of athletic players, teams running up and down the court. Neither team is expected to make much noise in the tournament but for sheer fun, I like the Ducks vs. the Cougars.
* Toughest region – Definitely the Midwest. There are 5 teams that have won an NCAA championship in that region with two others that have made multiple Final Four appearances. Whoever emerges from this region will have been blooded sufficiently to win it all.
The NCAA Tournament Selection Show is less than 48 hours away and for a dozen teams sitting on the bubble, it’s crunch time at their conference tournaments.
So far, March Madness has lived up to its billing with several high seeds losing in early round conference play. The most significant surprise was Villanova’s heartbreaking, last second loss in the Big East tournament to lowly Seton Hall. The loss probably takes Villanova out of the conversation for a top regional seed, but the Selection Committee will probably take into account their tough schedule and several good wins on the road to give them a 2 or 3 seed, probably in the East regional.
As always, it’s the bubble teams that attract the most curiosity from fans and give the Selection Committee indigestion. Who is playing themselves into the Big Dance by doing well in the conference tournaments and who is in line for an NIT bid?
SI’s Michael Beller is on the Bubble Watch:
6:30 p.m. — Big Ten: Minnesota vs. Wisconsin
The Golden Gophers had just three wins in 10 tries against conference rivals that are headed to the NCAA tournament. Can they get three in the next three days? That might be what it takes to get in, and the road starts against the Badgers. (Follow along here.)
7:00 p.m. — Big East: Providence vs. Seton Hall
Providence surely thought it would be getting top-seed Villanova if it got this far but Seton Hall’s upset scuttled those plans. A semifinal win over the 17-16 Pirates won’t help as much as a loss would hurt.
9:30 p.m. — Big East: Xavier vs. Creighton
The Musketeers appear to be well within the field of 68, but they would remove any doubt with a win over Doug McDermott and the Blue Jays.
11:30 p.m. — Pac-12: Stanford vs. UCLA
Stanford has to be feeling good about its case for the tournament after routing Arizona State on Thursday. The Cardinal split their season series with the Bruins.
ACC: Florida State vs. Virginia
It was simple: A win would have gotten the Seminoles into the field. A loss would keep them out. They lost.
FINAL: Virginia 64, Florida State 51
SEC: Missouri vs. Florida
The Tigers’ only really impressive win this season came at home against UCLA back in early December. They couldn’t add another one Friday against the nation’s No. 1 team, getting routed by the Gators in the SEC quarterfinals.
FINAL: Florida 72, Missouri 49
ACC: Pittsburgh vs. North Carolina
The Pirates were probably going to make the tournament anyway, but their lack of signature wins was cause for concern. After knocking off No. 15 North Carolina in the ACC quarterfinals, they move into the lock category.
FINAL: Pittsburgh 80, North Carolina 75
Beller is keeping on eye on these bubble teams this weekend:
Illinois: The Fighting Illini needed to advance to at least the Big Ten championship game to entertain hopes of a bid. Their upset bid of Michigan on Friday came up just short in a one-point loss, so they’ll have to settle for the NIT.
N.C. State: The Wolfpack pulled away late to beat Miami on Thursday, and though they struggled to a .500 finish in the ACC this year, they could create a little bubble chatter with a win over Syracuse in the quarterfinals.
Georgia: The Bulldogs are the No. 3 seed in the SEC tournament. Could a trip to the finals get them into the field if it includes a semifinal win over Kentucky? Not likely.
LSU: A win over Kentucky on Friday would be their second over the Wildcats this season, but the Tigers likely still need to win the SEC tournament to go dancing this year.
N.C. State may be the one team that falls victim to the Selection Committee’s sensitivity to charges that they fill out the brackets with too many middling teams from big conferences. How many teams from the ACC really deserve to go? 5? 6? Same for the Big 12 and Big Ten. Some teams like Minnesota who didn’t do well in a conference loaded with quality teams might “deserve” to go the Big Dance based on strength of schedule and non-conference record. But most conferences will only be guaranteed their conference tournament champion will make it.
There will be a lot of nail biting by players and coaches on Sunday afternoon.
The NFL has never seen anything like it. There has been a frenzy of free agent signings since the window opened Tuesday afternoon. That first 24 hours saw 64 players sign contracts worth more than a billion dollars. And that was only the beginning.
There are still some big names out there, but so far, most of the top players have inked their deals and pocketed their fortunes.
The most active team appears to be last year’s Super Bowl losers, the Denver Broncos. They bolstered their defensive backfield by signing safeties T.J. Ward from Cleveland and Aqib Talib from New England. Then they hit the jackpot by signing sackmeister DeMarcus Ware from Dallas. Ware may not be in his prime, but there’s still plenty in the tank.
As far as which position players have been in demand, offensive linemen have been a popular choice:
Branden Albert, Eugene Monroe, Jared Veldheer and Rodger Saffold all signed big contracts shortly after free agency started. (And if you don’t know where they went, just go here. I’m tired.) Zane Beadles was the first guard to go, landing in Jacksonville. Our friend Evan Silva noted that Saffold got a better contract from the Raiders than Jake Longgot from the Rams a year ago. Yikes.
Veldheer was my favorite value of the bunch, upgrading an awful left tackle situation in Arizona. Saffold looked like the most overpaid player in all of free agency by Oakland Raiders general manager Reggie McKenzie. That was until the Raiders gave New York Jets right tackle Austin Howard $15 million guaranteed on a $30 million contract after midnight.
There are still some D-line studs available, including former Pro-Bowler Julius Peppers who was released by the Bears, and Minnesota’s unrestricted free agent Jared Allen. Both players are getting a little long in the tooth but should have two or three productive years left in them.
Another name rumored to be let go that should draw monster interest is Carolina’s WR Steve Smith. The diminutive wideout is versatile, being able to line up in the slot, or outside, and has superior hands. With Baltimore re-upping Jacoby Jones and Detroit grabbing Seattle’s Golden Tate, the rest of the receiver market is pretty thin. Green Bay’s speedster James Jones expects to find a home, perhaps with Indianapolis. And New England’s Julian Edelman, coming off a 105 catch year, should command a lot of attention.
As for running backs, Vic Tafur of the Raiders blog, tweets all you need to know:
Only $100,000 of Darren McFadden’s deal with #Raiders is guaranteed … Momma, don’t let your babies grow up to be running backs
Not much action involving quarterbacks either. San Francisco traded a 6th round pick for Jacksonville’s Blaine Gabbert. And Chicago back up QB Josh McCown, who performed well when Jake Cutler went down for several games last year, has landed in Tampa Bay. Manwhile, Cleveland — a place quarterbacks go to die — released two quarterbacks in 34 minutes. The Browns have parted ways with Brandon Weeden and Jason Campbell, the team announced. They join a long, non-illustrious list of failed QB’s since 1999: Charlie Frye, Brady Quinn, Tim Couch, Colt McCoy — damaged goods and with confidence destroyed.
One other bizarre move; the Bucs have released Darrelle Revis, the 4 time pro-bowl cover cornerback who they traded for just last season. After sending a first-round pick in 2013 and a fourth-rounder this year to New York for him, Revis, coming off a severe knee injury, had a mediocre season. He won’t get the $16 million a year he was making with the Bucs, but he’s far too talented to not land a sweet deal somewhere.
Last night’s NHL game between the Dallas Stars and Columbus Blue Jackets promised to be an exciting hockey match. Both teams were battling for a playoff spot and, true to form, the game began with a fast pace and hard-hitting action.
About seven minutes into the contest, Dallas sped through center ice in attack mode and changed lines on the fly. To the bench went 31-year-old Rich Peverley, a well-traveled center who won a Stanley Cup playing with the Boston Bruins in 2011.
It’s not clear what happened next, but Peverley apparently keeled over on the bench, and lay still. Immediately, Dallas players hopped over the boards to give the medical staff room to treat him, looks of panic and concern on their faces. As the rink gets quiet, you can hear calls for a paramedic, but by that time the doctors had carried Peverley out of the rink back into the hallway behind the benches.
There, in the narrow confines of a corridor underneath American Airlines Center, doctors worked frantically to save Peverley’s life. They put him on oxygen and started an IV drip. They gave him “chest compression,” pushing on his heart trying to get the rhythm back to normal. Peverley suffered from a pre-existing heart condition for which he was operated on last summer. He missed the entire preseason and the first game of the year due to the surgery on what one doctor described as a “quivering heart.”
Working through the treatment checklist, they then used the defibrillator to steady his heartbeat. He responded immediately and began to communicate with the doctors. He told one physician, Dr. Gil Salazar, in typical tough-guy hockey fashion that he wanted to go back in and play. He was taken to the hospital where he remained awake and was pronounced in stable condition.
As for the game, it was immediately postponed. The NHL said in a statement, “As a result of the emotional state of the players on both teams caused by the medical emergency, the game is being postponed. We apologize for any inconvenience and we thank the fans.”
Indeed, most of the players looked absolutely stricken. There was never any question that the game would have to be postponed. Hockey is a game of 60 minutes — three 20-minute periods. But for the players, it is an extraordinarily intense game of 30-45 second shifts where they skate 20 MPH and throw their bodies around with abandon, only to come back a few minutes later and do it again. The mental and physical exertion to play the game at a professional level requires exceptional concentration and conditioning. In this case, both teams appeared emotionally devastated and cancelling the rest of the game was the only choice.
There was a general shuffle in the AP poll of the top 25 college basketball teams this week — except at the top.
The Florida Gators at 29-2 received 1610 first place votes to hang on to number one. Wichita State — the first undefeated team to enter post season play since 1991 at 34-0 — came in second.
The rest of the top 25 saw numerous changes from last week, as 18 of the top 25 teams lost — many to vastly inferior teams. These losses may actually hurt more this time of year than they would have a month or two ago. Teams are fighting for seeding in the national tournament and a lower seed – the result of a bad late season loss — that forces you to play a number one or two seeded team in the second round could mean an early exit.
An example of a late season bad loss hurting a team’s seeding; Virginia. The Cavaliers were sailing along, ranked number five and coming off a good win against number seven ranked Syracuse. They have won the regular season championship in the tough ACC and were looking for a number one seed in the tournament.
Then, an inexplicable stumble against a mediocre Maryland team, losing 75-69 and the dream of a number one seed is slipping away. Nothing less than a run to the ACC championship final will redeem them. The Cavaliers dropped to 6th in the AP poll.
Other teams also saw their top seed dreams crumbling. Duke went from 4th to 7th in the AP following a very bad loss to a weak Wake Forest team. Arizona, ranked number three last week fell to 4th following a tough road loss in Oregon.
The poll musical chairs had some winners. Villanova climbed from 6th to 3rd with solid wins over Marquette and Georgetown and a tough road win over Xavier thrown into the mix. And Louisville shot from 11th to 5th on the strength of two good wins against ranked opponents Connecticut and SMU.
Who will be the top seeds in the four regionals? It would seem that Wichita State, who already won the Missouri Valley Tournament, is a lock for one of them. And unless Florida loses early in the SEC tournament, they’re a good bet for another top regional seed.
Beyond that, any two of five teams could fill out the top of the brackets; Arizona, Villanova, Duke, Louisville, or Virginia. The ACC tournament is going to be a wild one with the winner all but guaranteed a top regional seed.
No doubt “March Madness” will live up to its moniker this week as a couple of teams playing in the conference tournaments surprise the experts and play themselves in to the Big Dance. Others, will disappoint.
The only certainty is that if you’re a college hoops fan, you are going to be vastly entertained.
I suppose this is better than visa restrictions.
U.S. officials have embraced sanctions and visa restrictions to punish Russia over the crisis in Ukraine. Now, two U.S. senators want to hurt Russian President Vladimir Putin where it could really sting: on the soccer pitch.
Sens. Mark Kirk (R., Ill.) and Dan Coats (R., Ind.) on Friday wrote to the head of soccer’s international governing body requesting that Russia’s membership be suspended and the country not be allowed to participate in the upcoming World Cup in Brazil later this year.
Citing FIFA statutes that bar discrimination against any country based on politics or ethnic origin, the two lawmakers asked FIFA President Joseph “Sepp” Blatter to also strip Russia’s right to host the 2018 World Cup. They cited FIFA’s decision to prevent then-Yugoslavia from participating in the 1992 European Championship and 1994 World Cup as a precedent.
“Since Russia has similarly displayed a brazen disrespect for fundamental principles of FIFA and international law, I hope you will agree that it doesn’t deserve the honor of either hosting the World Cup or participating in one,” the senators wrote.
FIFA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. The U.S. is currently ranked 13th in the world in FIFA’s world rankings, while Russia is 22nd. The World Cup, which kicks off in Sao Paulo in June, has the potential to pit the U.S. and Russia in an on-field clash if both teams make it out of the tournament’s group stage. They could then meet in the World Cup round-of-16 matches.
I suspect that FIFA will do nothing unless Ukraine becomes a shooting war. Then, I believe they would give a proposal to ban Russia from Brazil serious consideration. As the Journal points out, there is precedent for such an action. Although claiming to be a global organization, FIFA is actually run by the Europeans, who are desperately casting about for a way to sanction Russia without causing themselves any pain. Keeping the Russian national team home this summer is about as far as they would go to punish Putin for his actions in Ukraine.
The World Cup tune up match between the US and Ukraine was originally scheduled to be played in Kharkiv. But with protestors currently occupying the provincial building and the general unrest in the region, the game was hastily moved 600 miles away to the island of Cyprus.
Only 1500 fans showed up to watch a lackluster performance by the US side, who lost the match 2-0.
In truth, most of the best US players stayed home or weren’t released by their European club teams. Coach Jurgen Klinsman decided to give some European based US national players a chance to excel, thus improving their chances of making the 23 man roster that he will take to Brazil in June.
It was not to be.
The match was billed as a golden opportunity for the Yanks’ many European-based bubble players to make one final push for a spot on Jurgen Klinsmann’s 23-man tournament roster. Instead, the under-strength Americans were thoroughly outclassed during a 2-0 defeat, with few players raising their stock.
It’s hard to see defenders John Brooks, Edgar Castillo or Oguchi Onyewu making the plane to Brazil after struggling so profoundly on Wednesday. Those three were long shots to begin with, of course, even if Onyewu made January’s list as a backup. Then, the hope was that a healthy Onyewu — a two-time World Cup vet who was finally playing regularly after battling injuries for much of the last four years — would lend valuable experience to a mostly untested back line. Now, it looks as if Geoff Cameron, who on Wednesday lined up at right back once again, will be called on to provide cover in the event still-green central defenders Matt Besler or Omar Gonzalez aren’t quite up to the task in Brazil.
Midfielder Sacha Kljestan also failed to take advantage of what was probably his last chance, while youngsters Juan Agudelo, Terrence Boyd and Danny Williams barely got enough time off the bench to make a compelling case.
Still, several players helped — or at least didn’t hurt — their chances.
Brek Shea remains in contention for a reserve role on the left wing after another active performance off the bench. Alejandro Bedoya, with a spirited display, kept the pressure on MLS-based right wing Graham Zusi. And surefire starters Tim Howard and Jermaine Jones showed why Klinsmann will rely so heavily on them this summer.
The lack of experience and depth on the back line spells big trouble for the US in Brazil. At this level of competition one mistake — one misplay of the ball or bad pass — and your tournament is over. That’s the cruel reality and for the US it’s doubly true since they are going to have a hard time scoring goals as it is. Their mid field does not lack talent, but even against inferior competition, they have trouble maintaining a flow to their offense. Individual talents like Michael Bradley, Landon Donovan, and Clint Dempsey are excellent in space, but World Cup matches aren’t like MSL games with room to operate and set up plays. A premium is placed on short, crisp passes that move the ball forward deliberately, relentlessly. Frankly, American players in general just don’t possess the ball skills to play that kind of game.
This will make the US vulnerable to the counter attack, which is why your back line has to be rock solid. At this point, this crucial aspect of the game appears to be the greatest weakness of the US squad.
It doesn’t help that the Yanks are playing in a genuine “Group of Death” with Germany, Portugal, and Ghana. To advance, the US will need to beat Ghana and get a result of some kind — win or tie — against Germany or Portugal. A tall order that. Germany will be one of the favorites to win it all while Portugal has a bevy of quality offensive players that will give the US fits.
Perhaps the low expectations will work in America’s favor. They’re going to need all the help they can get.