Saturday, April 30, 2005

How Much Honor?

Well, I suppose it is a total no-brainer to put last night Sixers’ win under the category of “Extremely Satisfying”- particularly in light of the press’ love affair with the amazing Detroit Pistons. The nation’s entire imprudent sports intelligentsia had written Philadelphia off after two crushing defeats in Detroit. The sole exception being the loyal fans of Philly- who could only shrug their shoulders and remind folks that as long as #3 wears a shirt with “Sixers” on it and the team plays home games, the Sixers will never go quietly.

Since it was obvious that AI was going show up, so did the home court advantage: demanding defense, rewarding effort. Only Philadelphia would have the pure audacity to mock the Pistons in the 4th quarter.

Now, I have seen enough pro-sports to know that this home win is one that the underdog can get. Particularly since, frankly, the Sixers are simply not that bad. They are actually pretty darn good on offense- and have been for about eight weeks. There is no need to apologize for hanging 115 on the Pistons. This team is without doubt as good as anyone in the secondary collective in the East: Boston, Chicago, Indiana and Washington. Sure, this game is not an effort the Sixers are likely to repeat again and again- shooting 55% from both the floor and arc, turning the ball over only seven times, Iguodala getting five steals & Dalembert never in foul trouble, holding the Piston’s bench to two points, only giving the Pistons’ front line a six board advantage.

Iverson’s amazing 37-point (on 15-26 shooting) and 15-assist performance is probably not repeatable either- since only one person in the NBA play-offs has gone for 37 and 15 since 1970. Think about that for a second- all the great players who have played in the NBA play-offs since 1970: Kobe Bryant. Larry Bird. Magic Johnson. Michael Jordan. And to think some people have the nerve to mention AI and say, Gilbert Arenas, in the same breath.

So it is still hard to imagine the Sixers winning this series, let alone getting another game. But for the first time in a long while, it is the Pistons who have to react. The Sixers have gotten Iverson untracked. Obviously, I cannot see Iverson continuing to shoot 58% from the floor- but he now seems to be a threat to go for near thirty each night. If the Pistons cannot get more than 33 minutes and 2 points from their bench, they are frankly in some trouble. The Sixers have put a game plan and players on the floor that played good enough basketball to handle and convincingly defeat the Pistons. Now the Pistons, for the first time since probably last year, must counter- rather than merely breeze to the conference semi-final.

I would be pretty surprised if the Sixers force this back to Philly for a sixth game. However, this one showing, coupled with their very solid push over the last twenty regular season games, does indicate Philadelphia heads into this off-season closer to forty-eight wins than forty. AI is not yet 30- coming off his best year as a pro. Webber is not a great player anymore- but he is an effective front court asset. And there is candidly young talent here: Iguodala, Dalembert, and Korver are a nice trio of developing resources. For the first time in awhile, I am bullish on this team for next season.

Wednesday, April 20, 2005

White Smoke?

Gosh, did I have a great day yesterday or what? You could be forgiven if you thought you were seeing white smoke pouring not only from the Sistine Chapel on CNN, but also Zephyr Field on ESPN2- where there also was a changing of the guard of sorts in Louisiana college baseball.

Baseball is not like football- where one game can tell you a lot about the merits and failings of the two teams involved. Accordingly, I am not sure there is much unique or insightful to be drawn from last night’s satisifying whipping of the Tigers. Tulane's “everyday eight” is a clear step better than the Tigers this year. JR Crowel is a competent mid-week pitcher- with all the pluses and minuses that entails. Billy Mohl has been a revelation- if just because he gets nine or so outs every time he takes the ball. Any serious observer of the Green Wave right now knows these things already; so it was a great pleasure to see the Wave show the country- via methodically dismantling the Tigers, again, on national television.

To be honest, I found the game more interesting from an LSU standpoint. They are a sort of odd dichotomy this year. How can the #12 team in the nation not play .500 ball in their league- and get swept by its biggest in-state rival and lose a game to Centenary?

I have to imagine that today the Tigers are closer to a sub. 500 SEC team than the #12 team in the country. Even a casual observer can see that these are not the same Tiger teams that dominated the 1990s. How about that starter last night? Nall? Frankly, he was a joke. From the first pitch, it was obvious this guy was not capable of fifteen outs in this spot. I can remember when LSU, as out-of-conference starters, would wheel out endless freshmen who threw fire, and who were desperately trying to crack the weekend rotation? Or classy upperclassmen whose talent level just missed the elite level demanded from the weekend guys? Not this sort of slop. Seriously, Tulane might have nine pitchers with more ability than Nall- probably Ramirez too.

I was also struck by the “bottom four” hitters in the Tiger line-up. When was there as weak a crew of offensive players in LSU history? LSU used to hit top to bottom: average, power, etc. Again, no huge deal- except that relentless offensive pressure was a hallmark of LSU baseball for a decade. And again, I don’t follow LSU baseball all that closely- but I bet a big reason they are 2-5 in their last seven against teams other than Northwest State- is they don’t bring that scary offensive pressure anymore.

Bottom line- I don’t think there were any surprising revelations about Tulane last night. They are a solid Top Five team- with a troublesome weakness atop the rotation- both before and after the game. Nothing changed. The only impression I had altered is that the Tigers aren’t as deep or scary as normal.

Lastly, of course, Glory! Glory! Glory to God! Long Live Benedict XVI!

Friday, April 15, 2005

AI Saves the Season!


The guy stands his ground. Again. Never once have I regretted the Sixers bringing this guy to Philadelphia. No one tries harder, wills more- maybe Bobby Clarke. All 53 minutes. 38 points. 16 assists. 13-for-13 from the line- including two huge ones to force overtime.

They will probably make the play-offs as a result. New Jersey, down two with four to play, realistically has to win every single game they have left. And Cleveland has to probably win three of four. I doubt both will happen- so the Sixers are most likely in.

Thursday, April 14, 2005

Five things to miss....

Ed Barkowitz wrote this yesterday on five things we'll miss without the hockey play-offs. It needs no improvement:

1. Game Sevens - no matter the round or the teams involved.

2. Overtime. Double overtime. Triple overtime. Think somebody will score before the bar closes?

3. The intensity (or terror, depending on your view) of a two-man advantage.

4. The intensity/terror of the overtime power play.

5. Keith Primeau, 2004. Warrior.

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

The Wave is Back

After an impressive weekend sweep of Charlotte, the second sweep in a row, the Wave is back atop C-USA and #1 in Collegiate Baseball's poll. Nine wins in a row will always go a long way to soothing fretting back-benchers like me. The struggles during the Louisville series appear to be just some mid-season doldrums- perhaps even understandable coming after a few weekends of high intensity outings.

Winning solves everything. One guy starts to hit- which correspondingly takes the pressure off other guys- so they too immediately begin to hit. Same thing with pitching. The Wave sure looks like a better team with Owings playing like an All-American than merely having the credentials of one.

Most of my angst stems from the simple fact that while Tulane is Omaha-level good, they have a glaring problem. Their lack of a true lights out Friday starter hurts them. The Wave cannot afford to play in a regional or even super regional featuring both a quality team with a big arm to throw at them- so it behooves them to play hard for a high NCAA seed. Sixteen teams will make the super regionals. Seeded in the top three spots, Tulane might not see a true Top 15 team until they get to Omaha- and thus avoid a big pitcher with a good team in a near "one and almost done" situation.

Thus, it is important that Tulane not screw around. Win this league's regular season- and render the conference tournament semi-unimportant for them. At this point, based on their tough out of conference schedule, if Tulane wins the league regular season the Wave is a very high NCAA seed. Then the league tournament does not matter so much- as long as they put in any kind of a decent league tournament appearance.

Also, nice to see LSU playing, well, frankly really bad.

Like Owings, I too was once a five-tool player:

Thursday, April 07, 2005

2005 National League East Preview

The National League East is hard to pick this year- particularly in light of my strong, correct view that Atlanta- to their great credit- overachieved last year. Every team but the Nats could arguably win at least 85 games- but none really ought to win 95. And the Nats aren’t that bad. Everyone but the Philadelphia improved off-season on paper- and the Phils made a determined effort to improve by subtraction.

Nevertheless, I prefer the Atlanta Braves to win their 14th straight division title- but not comfortably. I was shocked to see them win 96 last year. They will be hard pressed to duplicate that number again- but again, I imagine something barely north of 90 wins will get in done here.

The Braves probably need less to go right than anyone else in the division. Their offense is still kind of a mess- losing the enigmatic JD Drew won’t help here. Brian Jordan stinks, and running him out there with Mondesi is not hopeful. In the National League, if you can’t count on consistent offense from your corner outfield spots and first base (LaRoche and Franco- ouch), you have problems.

But the top four in the rotation are superb- when your biggest rotation gamble is John Smoltz you have few problems. Kolb is a very solid closer- and the bullpen can get lefties out. The Braves make mid-season moves as well as anyone in baseball. So they’ll find someone to get righties out- and add another hitter in the outfield at some point- then Atlanta will narrowly win the division.

If I had to pick a team to make the play-offs that did not last year, well, give me the Marlins. They cannot hope to pitch with Atlanta over five months- unless Leiter and Willis have huge bounce back years. That does not mean they cannot pitch though- one thru five are guys who belong at this level- and four of them had ERAs under 4.02 last year. That is tough.

Delgado is a huge addition. You can hide him at first- and he hits like a NL 1B should: .269/32/99. Pierre and Cabrera are outstanding major league players- but yes, okay, they absolutely have to find an outfielder other than the worthless Encarnacion. They’ll get 100 HRs from the infield- a huge number. The projected rotation won 46 games last year- which is scary- but all five guys are pros and ought to do better with this offense. North of 90 wins too.

The Phillies have 86 games two years in a row- which isn’t bad. Had Millwood been anything other than a total bust, they would probably be looking at defending their second straight division crown.

The Phillies are sort of odd bunch. They are solid in a lot of places. Manuel has the best shortstop, first baseman, rightfielder and closer in the East, if not the National League. The bullpen is excellent- with a top-notch closer. If they were to try and trade any of their supplementary arms, the line would go around the block. Again, the Phillies get offense from where you need to get offense in the NL: corner outfield positions (Abreu .301/30/105 and, at times, Burrell .257/24/84) and 1B (Thome .274/42/105). Rollins is an elite player.

But can they pitch? The rotation won 35 games last year. Not good. Every one of the starters, other than Leiber, is a candidate to go 5-8, 4.28. In fact, Wolf did last year. It would really, really help if either Padilla or Myers has a breakout season. I have sort of given up on Wolf. He has a sore arm- tendinitis- and that just never gets better. Basically, they have one #2 starter (Leiber) and four #4 starters. CF is a complete mystery worthy of Scooby-Doo- and if Bell plays sixty effective games at third, I will be stunned. The Phils have cleared some payroll- so I guarantee one big in-season trade, where they take a big contract, to fill a pressing need- which helps.

I do sort of think the rotation will bounce back this year- but the division is better too- so Philadelphia could be a better team and still win just 87 games.

The Mets are better too. You could argue that if Martinez and Glavine pitch to at All-Star level, the Mets will make the play-offs, as no one else will have to do all that much. But I don’t think the Mets have caught up to the three good teams in this division- because where they are bad, they are dreadful.

The bullpen is probably the worst in the National League; it is horrid. Guys like DeJean and Heredia play key roles- and you can’t fix that with a shrewd Urbina trade- like say, the Phillies CF problem. The infield does not hit at all- and Piazza is down to a sad 20 HRs. Beltran and Cameron provide some juice- but they need lots of guys on to put up big offensive numbers- and where is that coming from? Reyes? Matsui? Wright is a nice player .293/14/40- but they probably need him to drive in runs- and I am not sure he is up to that six days a week.

Outside of Pedro, the rotation looks like the Phillies, except some guys are sort of a stretch for the #4 role. Trachsel’s loss really hurts- that missing 200+ innings probably means the ‘pen gets another 50 late frames to pitch- which will cost New York a handful of games. Tough division too- plus probably capped out payroll wise- so no big help is coming. 82 wins- more if Glavine is better. If Glavine can get to 14-10 that could get them to the fringe of the wild card chase.

The Nats probably are no longer a disaster- if just because the rotation is no longer a scary mess. Hernandez and Loaiza are true major leaguers- and probably won’t be cast off to play-off contenders in July as in past years. I like Rauch a lot. The infield is pathetic- they cannot be seriously considering letting Nick Johnson play 1B a lot, can they?- and will be pathetic until Castilla proves his 35HRs aren’t a Colorado mirage. Should be fun watching these guys field…

Conversely, the outfield can flat-out hit- quality players across the board- but like the Mets core hitters- who gets on consistently to drive in? How do they get to five runs night after night? If they can get 20 wins out of the rotation’s back three, the outfield hits and the ‘pen finds some arms outside of solid Cordero, all of which are probable, the Nats probably get a win total well into the 70s.

Friday, April 01, 2005

My Man Dave

I am fine with Dave Dickerson.

Yes, I have no idea if he'll be successful. I can't tell you three sentient facts about him- but on paper, he is surely qualified- so great. When you hire an assistant coach, you are rarely going to find a consensus “up or down” on the new guy. By the very fact Dickerson has never been a head coach, he becomes a blank canvas on which everyone can paint his expectations or fears. In the matter of Dickerson, no matter what side of the issue you are on, you can come up with a articulate set of speculations.

It sort of reminds me, in a sense, of the never ending Scelfo debate: good or bad? The arguments rage with so much fervor simply because the question is unanswerable. Scelfo is neither a good nor bad coach; he is merely okay. Accordingly, both sides can points to pluses and minuses- and simply neither convince nor un-convince.

But I am not here to discuss the Traitor Scelfo.

The only comfort I can offer is that, particularly in sports, rules of thumb normally come about for good reasons. A program like Tulane normally goes for a head coach at some place smaller or an assistant at a major program- because both approaches work. Not all the time, not in every case. But you can point to successful examples of each approach. If one approach or the another was demonstrably better, smart people would figure it out quickly.

Accordingly, Dickerson looks the part of paper. By all accounts he can recruit- which is the number one issue here, right? The players are not, on the whole, major conference talent. Can he recruit at Tulane? I don’t know- but you can tell a coherent story for him as well as just about anyone else who was serious about coming here.

So, outside of my original point, Dickerson is a rational selection- I do not have much to offer. I will say that this "he wins and he'll leave" qualifier ought to be let go. It simply isn't true. It seems true- because you hear on the news endlessly about the guys who do leave and thre associated speculations- and not the ones who don't. Sure, a handful of mid-major head coaches will step up in class this year. But it is just that- a handful. A mid-major coach has to both win and be pretty lucky- there just are not that many jobs.

I mean, how many of those sixty or so jobs, which are a clear cut over Tulane, open up every year? Six? Seven? And usually they aren't even open calls- there is an alum or hot name or something.... But the vast majority is guys like- oh say, Fran Dunphy- who always wins, runs a great clean program and in reward occasionally gets some interest from some place like LaSalle. Phil Martelli at St Joe's. Perry was at Tulane for a long time- won a lot- and just how many jobs was he really in line for- even potentially? And so forth. In each case, you can come up with a disclaimer: Phil is a Philly guy, etc. But I can come up with them too for Dickerson. To begin with, he is an African-American head coach in a world where it is still disproportionally hard to get a minority the first seat on the bench at a prestige program.

Also, this phenomenon is not exactly limited to Dickerson- just about anyone you bring in here who wins could be tempted. If it applies to everyone- then it is no longer a rational or realistic discriminate criterion, right? Sure, you could find a Scelfo-type guy- supposedly loyal to the end- but how many eunuchs of the Quills’ crowd can possibly exist? Are we to restrict our search to those three guys on the planet?

Bottom line, if you really look at it, very few coaches leave successful mid-majors right away. Over the past three years, give me the names of five guys who coached college basketball some place for just three years and then left because they won too much. Sure, it could and obviously does happen, but frankly it is not immediately likely or unique to Dickerson- and accordingly, ought not to influence your thinking.

Lastly, one positive thing Dickerson definitely has going is that there are zero expectations for this team to win next year. Any sign of a pulse will get him lauded to the heavens.