Tuesday, July 15, 2008

My 2008 MLB All-Star Pregame Diary

Well now that Jeannie Zelasko and her bizzare pants are off my television screen, let's get to the REAL pregame festitivities...only on FOX.

For the next three+ hours, I'll be trying to give my best Bill Simmons impersonations, and offer my "First Annual MLB All-Star Game Diary." Considering the enormity of this event: it's location in my home city and at the most important sporting venue in our country, and the fact that the NL is putting out arguably its strongest club in the past ten years, in hopes of breaking the recent AL all-star dominance, make this game significantly more important than ones in recent memory.

Without further ado, let's go to one of the most informative and wittiest broadcasters in the business: Joe Buck...

7:55: Television legend (and Bronx native) Regis Philbin introduces some of New York's finest athletes, entertainers, taxi cab drivers, and policemen, as each group is shown reciting a line from Frank Sinatra's famous, "New York, New York." Wouldn't expect anything else from FOX...doesn't get much cheesier.

8pm: Joe Buck announces the NL all-star team's bench, after giving props to legendary Yankees PA announcer Bob Shepard.

Some observations of the crowd's reaction to these players being announced:

Alfonso Soriano gets a louder ovation than Lou Piniella, which was sort of curious to me.

David Wright and Billy Wagner get mostly boos, as expected. Nothing else out of the ordinary.

Now to the A.L. Bench players/coaches:

Yankees' manager Joe Girardi gets a nice ovation.

J.D. Drew, Jason Varitek, David Ortiz, and Jonathan Papelbon get booed lustily, as expected.

Grady Sizemore gets a surprisingly nice ovation.

Mariano Rivera gets a loud ovation, one that lasted the longest of any reserve announced.

8:11pm: 49 Hall-of-Famers are placed around the Yankee stadium field, in sort of an awkward placement.

Some of the best pitchers of the previous century are announced. Goose and Whitey Ford get the loudest ovation of the names announced, as expected.

8:15pm: Ben Sheets and Cliff Lee are introduced...the game's starting hurlers. Each shake the hands of the Hall-of-Fame pitchers near the mound.

Next come the best first basemen in MLB history...capped off by Willie McCovey, who gets out of his wheelchair to greet the crowd. A great moment.

Kevin Youkilis gets lustily booed, as he's introduced after Lance Berkman.

Rod Carew, Bill Mazerowski, and Ryne Sandberg are introduced at second base. They're met and greeted by Chase Utley and Dustin Pedroia.

Brooks Robinson, Mike Schmidt, George Brett, and Wade Boggs are announced at third base. Wade gets a nice ovation. All four legendary third basemen are met by starters Chipper Jones and Alex Rodriguez...A-Rod gets a nice ovation and hugs each HOFer.

The HOFer Shortstops are announced: Luis Aparicio, Ozzie Smith, Robin Yount, Ernie Banks, and Cal Ripken Jr. A great group of ballplayers right there. They're joined by starting shortstops Hanley Ramirez and Derek Jeter...the king of New York. Chants of "Derek Jeter" eminate from the crowd in a great moment. Yes, I'm still a Mets fan.

Paul Molitor is announced...a HOFer who was inducted as a DH. He's greeted at second base by Albert Pujols and Milton Bradley.

Lou Brock, Billy Williams, and Mets legendary broadcaster Ralph Kiner are introduced in the left field. They're met by Ryan Braun and Manny Ramirez...who's booed heartily.

8:20pm: Willie Mays is introduced in Center, and receives a loud ovation. Willie's reaction doesn't seem to be a particularly appreciative one. In fact, he doesn't seem to notice Josh Hamilton when he tries to greet the Say Hey Kid out in Center.

Tony Gwynn, Al Kaline, Frank Robinson, Dave Winfield, Hank Aaron, and Reggie Jackson are announced in Right. This is easily the most recognizable and star-studded of the groups, and the crowd reacts that way. Chants of "Reggie" eminate from the rafters, as the HOFers are met by starting right fielders Matt Holliday and Ichiro.

Hall of Fame managers Earl Weaver, Tommy Lasorda, and Dick Williams are announced behind the plate. They're joined by Clint Hurdle and Terry Francona, another victim of the boo-birds.

8:25pm: Geovany Soto and Joe Mauer are announced as the starting catchers, and meet the HOF catchers in front of the plate...Gary Carter and of course, Yogi Berra. Chants of "Yogi" are heard loud and clear through my television set. Yogi receives the loudest ovation of the night it appears, perhaps louder than Jeter's.

8:30pm: Cheryl Crow sings the National Anthem, guitar and all. Seems like a decent enough choice, and she delivers a soft and strong rendition of the anthem. She has kind of a tough time hitting a couple of the notes, but rebounds nicely at the end. The guitar didn't seem to add or take away from the performance to me. Not too bad.

8:32pm: All of the Hall of Famers gather near the mound after greeting many of the current All-Stars.

8:33pm: George Steinbrenner is brought in via Golf cart to throw out the first pitch. Not an over the top ovation for The Boss, but he doesn't appear to be in particularly good health. It's no wonder you're always hearing Hank instead of George these days, he doesn't look too hot.

George is joined by the Yankee HOFers in attendance: Goose Gossage, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, and Whitey Ford. They each throw out the first pitch to the current Yankee All-Stars. Another well-thought-out moment.

Each of the Hall of Famers congregate around the mound after the first pitch. It was a cool pregame, but I'm not sure if it generated the momentous effect that FOX and Major League Baseball wanted, but maybe I'd be more overwhelmed if I were in the stadium. Seeing so many of these living Hall-of-Famers come together for this event, and seeing Willie McCovey get out of his wheelchair to greet the crowd, as well as the ovations received by Yogi, Derek, and Mariano, definitely affected me as an observer watching via TV. I hope the pregame was appreciated more by the observers in the stadium.

The pagentry has ended, so let's get to the game!

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

Why I watch ESPN's Monday Night Baseball on Mute

So I turn on ESPN's Monday Night Baseball this evening for a traditional rivalry contest between two of the National League's more popular clubs in the Mets and the Cardinals, and I'm excited.

Now I'm always excited when the Mets play on national television, but I'm especially excited this evening because John Maine is on the hill, one of the Mets' most consistent starters this season. But to my dismay, as has become custom far too often this season, the Mets fail to show up to the ballpark, and get annihilated by a Cardinals team chock full of 5'8" no-names who bust their butt on every play, and conduct themselves as if its the ninth inning of a game seven.

Aside from my disappointment at the game's outcome, I'm almost as disappointed with the coverage of this nationally televised game.

Now I know that Dan Shulman is probably better known for his prowess calling the NBA with the venerable Hubie Brown. Steve Phillips is a former GM who's used to giving analysis and anecdotes on ESPN's Baseball Tonight, and Orel Hershiser is a former pitcher who alternates between calling life-changing events like the Little League World Series. But to be completely frank, it was tough to watch and listen to these gentlemen tonight, and I had to put the TV on mute on more than one occasion.

Yes, this game was not a particularly close contest, and the Mets played with as much life as David Wells after a night of makin it rain at Bungalow 8.

But I calculated an eight-minute span in the second inning of this game where Shulman, Phillips and Hershiser discussed the after-effects of concussions in professional sports, not even limiting their discussion to the Mets' Ryan Church. As this was occurring, Endy Chavez gave the Mets their first hit of the game on a line single to right. This "concussion" conversation (which almost gave me one) continued as Brian Schneider fouled off seven consecutive pitches, after finally reaching base. John Maine was the next hitter up, and made the final out as abruptly as one might expect.

But never once did Shulman call the action on the field during both Chavez' and Schneider at bats. They were concentrating on a relatively inconsequential, and irrelevant human interest story far more than they were concentrating on the actual game action.

Now I understand that these "nationally televised games" give a chance for fair-weather sports fans and fans of other teams to catch a glimpse of teams and players they've seen on a limited basis up to this point in the season, but the job of a sports caster is to call the action in the game.


Shulman failed to do that for an eight-minute span during the SECOND inning of this game...and this result hadn't even become a blowout yet.

The point being that there are far too many pointless diatribes being discussed during telecasts of professional sporting events these days. Whatever happened to just calling the action, and concentrating on the events directly pertinent to the game and its overall outcome?

Human interest stories are interesting every so often, especially in the latter innings of blowout ballgames. But these guys get paid FAR too much money NOT to call the baseball game, and need to give the viewer the action as it occurs on the ball field.

Shulman's not the only perpetrator of this act, but he seems to be part of a greater problem in sportscasting. If you want give the viewer human interest stories and anecdotes, go ask for Bob Ley's position on ESPN's "Outside the Lines." I don't really care about what your hotel was like in Omaha, Nebraska during the College World Series for two minutes, or your thoughts on whether Dave Duncan deserves to be in the Hall of Fame for 15 straight minutes. (And as angry as I may seem right now, Duncan actually should be the first non-managing coach to enter)

99% of people who watch ESPN baseball telecasts like the ones shown on Monday Nights tune in to watch the game and hear intelligent analysis by so-called experts.

They don't tune in to hear eight-minute diatribes about the dangers of post-concussion syndrome, or minute-long comments about large fat white natives of St. Louis eating melting ice cream.

Call the game, and give us pertinent analysis. After all, isn't that why you're paid?
Now to be fair, maybe the producers informed the announcers of these types of transgressions because they seemed to improve after the sixth inning. But these guys were extremely unimpressive for the first two hours of the game.

Maybe I've been spoiled from hearing the best announcing team in Major League Baseball in SNY's Gary Cohen, Ron Darling, and Keith Hernandez. But, I really didn't enjoy this evening's telecast on ESPN...and it wasn't just because of the result.

ESPN needs to address this issue...or surely other intelligent viewers will begin to take notice of this mediocrity, and cause ESPN to wonder what happened to their previously respectable Monday Night Baseball ratings.

Friday, June 27, 2008

Willie Randolph is Gone: Who Might Be Next?

At 3:15 AM EST this morning, the New York Mets wrote a brief press release in the dead of night, stating what every single person with a vested interest in the team (players, fans, upper management, trainers, team doctors, clubhouse workers, stadium vendors, beer men, Shea Stadium parking attendants, custodians, and Mr. Met) had been expecting to hear for days, weeks, maybe even months: Willie Randolph had coached his last game for the New York Mets.

The damage is finally complete. The waiting is over. The entire saga has worsened the play of the team to the point where they now blow late-inning leads like they're ordering pizza. The upper management of the Mets has had a track record of blasting its managers in the press over the years. Think about the Frank Cashen/Davy Johnson conflict that lagged on for much of the '80s, or the Steve Phillips and Bobby Valentine bust-up in the '90s.

Omar and Willie have been added to that list. The higher-ups in this organization have a proven track record of throwing each other under the bus. As much as the Wilpons are respected around the NY area and throughout baseball, they aren't the classiest humans to walk the planet.

I'll be honest: I haven't been the biggest Willie Randolph supporter over his tenure in Queens. As a native New Yorker who's extremely passionate about his Mets (as most Mets fans are), I never saw Willie emanate that same passion on the field. I never saw him get in his players' faces. I never saw him get in the face of an umpire, or kick some dirt around the infield.

He obviously came from the Joe Torre school of managing, keeping that poker face on while seated on the bench at all times. He tended to overuse his bullpen as well, another tactic I never got.

What happened to the Orel Hershiser days of throwing 20 complete games and 10,000 innings a season? These starters are paid to pitch. Let them pitch. Let them decide the game. If the fans aren't smart enough to understand that, then screw them; you're the manager.

I just never felt that Willie had that ability to fire up this bunch. The collapse last year is a perfect example of that. It seemed that the Mets felt they had already clinched a spot in the postseason by early September, and decided to put themselves on cruise control.

Some of that blame should be put on the veterans, the Carlos Delgados and the Carlos Beltrans, who have played in this league long enough to understand how crucial every single game is.

But then again, it's tough to read how much those two really care about what's going on sometimes, as evidenced through their desire to ignore talking to the press, and have their white, English-speaking teammates like David Wright and Billy Wagner do the dirty work. They need to wake up, or they will continue to get rightfully booed by the fans.

The monumental collapse of last year should have signaled the fact that maybe Willie wasn't the right fit for this team. That his style of managing may prove more beneficial for a younger team, still learning to play the game the right way. When things go wrong, a more even-keeled manager might prove more beneficial when instructing his younger players, as opposed to a more volatile one.

Regardless of this fact, the timing of this decision was horrendous. If you have a problem with your manager, you fire him before the season, at the All-Star break, or at the season's conclusion. You don't fire him one-third of the way through the season, in the midst of a West-Coast road trip...especially after the team has just won a game.

But maybe that's the problem. This Mets team seems to want to turn it on and off when it sees fit...kind of like an inferior Detroit Pistons squad.

When they catch news that their manager might be fired the next day, they seem to want to play their absolute hardest in hopes of saving his job, and saving their own reputations. But when that news has gone away for a day or two, it seems like the same lackadaisical Mets return, blowing away big leads and slumping around in the dugout like a bunch of sad children.

Maybe Jerry Manuel will do the trick. He's a smart guy who's had valuable experience at the Major-League level with the White Sox. He seems to know the game extremely well, and has a career managing record of over .500. He's gotten tossed out of more games than Willie, so it appears that maybe he's better at firing up his players, and he publicly appears to give a crap. But something's got to give.

Should Willie have been fired?


Should he have been fired last night?


Should this ordeal have been handled differently?


With a team that has a psyche that's already as sensitive as the Mets', any little distraction will take them off their game. As bold, bellicose, and brazen as the Mets of the 80's were, these Mets appear to be the complete opposite. It's impossible to ignore the constant talk of firing their manager on the sports radio, the papers, and on ESPN had to have taken its toll on this team.

But the ordeal is over. I hope the Wilpons are happy. I hope Omar is happy that he's still with the club, because he played an extremely vital role in causing this poor play and last year's debacle. He brought these players here and assembled this roster and these personalities to mesh with one and other, but it hasn't happened. It was his job to build a championship contender, and he's failed at that so far.

But of course, when it comes to playing the blame game, these players are more to blame than Willie for this fiasco. Who should leave this ball club? Let's start with Billy Wagner, continue with Carlos Delgado, Joe Smith, Luis Castillo, Oliver Perez, and Pedro Martinez. Yeah, that should do it. Actually, every one should be put on notice. Any of them, excluding Wright, can be traded tomorrow.

It's up to these Mets to erase all doubt about any lingering effects from last year. They're paid to perform on the field. They're given these rich contracts because they've proven that they can produce in the past. It's time for them to do their jobs.

Don't ask any questions. Talk to the press. Put the blame on yourselves. Be men. You play in, and represent, the greatest city in the world. Take some pride in that. As the cliché goes, there is no worse place to lose than New York, but there is no better place to win.

Luckily for the Mets, the season isn't over just yet. They're only six games behind first-place Philly. Can Jerry Manuel get the team out of this slump? Will the team put this all behind them, and concentrate on playing hard-nosed baseball, if not for the fans, or the management, but for each other...and maybe for their beleaguered ex-manager?

I don't really see it. I'm not sure anyone can get this team to wake up and play the baseball everyone's been waiting for them to play. What happened to the team that experts unanimously picked to represent the NL in the Fall Classic? As much as it nauseates me to say it, that team might play in a gorgeous new ballpark 100 miles south of Queens.

I really hope Omar and the Wilpons know what they're doing...because if progress isn't made as the season continues, it won't matter if they bring back Tommy Lasorda, they will be under more pressure from the media and their fans than they ever could have imagined.

The Mets are taking some bold steps right now...let's hope they pan out.

Good luck to Willie in his future endeavors.

Boston Red Sox, Mamaroneck High: Boston Post Road Perhaps More Than Just a Geographic Link

Located in Southern Westchester County, New York, the communities of Larchmont and Mamaroneck share a school district, and lay fifteen miles north of the bright lights and chaos of Times Square, and solely eleven miles from legendary Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. Needless to say, this area is die-hard Yankee country...sprinkled in with a few supporters of that senior circuit squad from Queens.Survey the members of the Mamaroneck High School baseball team on which team they support, and you'll get an overwhelming amount of pro-Yankees responses, with a dose of frustrated Mets fans.Yet to no one's surprise, you won't hear a single member of the 2008 New York State High School Championship Baseball team pledge their support of that team two states to the north...the Boston Red Sox.

Yet, upon further investigation, it appears that the two proud programs might actually share more than just the Boston Post Road...Like the Bombers' rival to the north, Mamaroneck has played its way into its Section's title game numerous times, coming up short on more than one occasion. We're not talking Buffalo Bills "short" here...we're talking achieving regular season success over a long period of time, then falling in title games under the most unfortunate of circumstances.

Mamaroneck had won 10 Section 1, League A titles from 1980-2002 under legendary coach Mike Chaipparelli, an era of success un-matched in Westchester County High School baseball during that time. The legendary coach had developed over 90 student-athletes who would go on to play Division 1 or professional baseball. Yet with all of that success and prominence Mamaroneck had achieved during the better part of three decades, the program had failed to deliver a sectional title and a state playoff birth. Often times, their defeats were frankly puzzling.Example #1?Mamaroneck was ranked in the national top 20 for nearly the entire 1995 season, yet they couldn't get out of their own section to play in the state tournament. They faced a formidable opponent in FDR-Hyde Park from the Poughkeepsie area, but were clearly the favorite going into the match up. Yet to everyone's dismay, Mamaroneck's struggles in post-season play would come back to bite them. The Tigers had a chance to win the game in the bottom of the seventh on a base hit, but the runner proceeded to lose his balance after rounding third base, and fell to the ground. Needless to say, the out was made, and the game went into extra innings. FDR-Hyde Park would score in the following inning, and Mamaroneck would choke away another shot at the state playoffs. But that isn't even the worst occurrence in Mamaroneck playoff history.

How about another?

The 1999 season featured another Mamaroneck team poised at breaking the 35-season sectional championship drought, and was once again ranked for a good deal of the regular season. Mamaroneck faced another solid opponent in Suffern, who had built itself a pretty solid program across the Hudson in neighboring Rockland County. The Section title game was close the entire way, but Mamaroneck had taken a lead in the sixth, and looked poised to hold it. Yet, history repeated itself once again, as the Tigers fell to Suffern on a dropped ball by the first baseman that would have given the team its first sectional championship since 1964. Instead, the throw was mishandled, and the decisive run scored.

The 2003 season brought more great expectations, and a top 50 national ranking. This team would finally live up to the hype, and break the curse. The team went 24-6, knocking off powerful North Rockland 5-2 to win the Sectional title behind a solid pitching staff and a plethora of offensive weapons. Three of the team's seniors would go on to D1 baseball careers, including Chris Vasami who's currently in the Colorado Rockies system after starring at Notre Dame and Elon.

One can compare the 2003 Mamaroneck team with the 2004 Boston team, as teams who both battled the odds (Boston came back from a 3-0 ALCS deficit, and Mamaroneck won their section without playing a SINGLE HOME GAME for the entire season as their field was under renovation). The 2004 Boston Red Sox broke the franchise's curse by winning their first world championship since 1918 after coming "oh-so-close" countless times, and may be regarded as the most important team in that franchise's history. The same may be said for the 2003 Mamaroneck Tigers, a squad that broke the program's curse, and gave their legendary manager and their school its first sectional title since the 1964 season.

Whereas the '03 Mamaroneck and '04 Boston teams may have been the most important, the '07 Boston and '08 Mamaroneck teams were easily the best in the respective club's histories.

Boston was arguably the best team in baseball for the entire 2007 season. People weren't yet ready to crown them favorites going into the postseason because of their past history, and the track record of those hated New York Yankees. They had superb pitching, a plethora of bats, and was one of the most efficient defensive teams in baseball.

Mamaroneck also looked poised for a championship run in the 2007 season. They dominated their opponents in the regular season, but returned to their pre-2003 form come post-season, and inexplicably lost to the #16 seed in their tournament, forcing a first-round knockout from sectionals.

Was the curse REALLY broken? Or was 2003 just an abberation. Not quite the freak collapse endured in the 1995 and 1999 seasons, but this 2007 flameout was just as shocking, and stung the players just as lethally.The 2008 team featured almost all of the same players from the previous team, and sported the slogan: "Unfinished Business," on the back of their warm-up tees. They took no game for granted, and only dropped two the entire season, one of those losses coming to the #1 team on the East Coast: Don Bosco Prep of New Jersey. A Junior-heavy team full of talent, discipline, passion, determination, the Tigers entered their sectional tournament an angry bunch. They felt humiliated from the previous year's collapse, and embarked on a mission to seek and destroy.

Their first opponent was the same Carmel team that had knocked them out of the first round in '07. Mamaroneck got past them 5-3. The Tigers got past a game Arlington squad 8-6 in the second round, with help from a controversial non-call that may tied up the contest. With confidence soaring, the Tigers got past long-time nemesis and Dutchess County power, Ketcham, in a slug fest: 24-18. All that stood in Mamaroneck's way was Suffern, the same team that had shocked the Tigers in '99. But this team seemed different than the Mamaroneck teams of old. The seal had been broken, so to speak. No one on the field had nervous thoughts about choke-jobs or previous historical collapses. These players had won a national championship three years earlier on a summer league team. They had felt pressure, and refused to succumb to it. They knocked off Suffern, 12-1, giving Mamaroneck their first sectional title since 2003.

But these Tigers weren't done. This wasn't 2003. "Breaking the curse" wasn't sufficient. These players wanted it all. They wanted to give their coach, their program, and their town something it had never experienced: A New York State title. Game one of the state tournament? A 6-0 win over Vestal, from the Binghamton area. Game two? A 13-3 win over Minisink Valley, from the Catskills area...the same team the '03 squad knocked off before falling to Union-Endicott in this round. Next? The New York State final four... uncharted territory for the Mamaroneck Tigers.

Game One featured the top two teams in the state...27-0 La Salle Institute from Troy, NY, against the 30-2 Mamaroneck Tigers, who had recently achieved national recognition as the #8 team on the East Coast. National recognition was nothing new to Coach Chap and Mamaroneck baseball. Living up to those expectations and the hype? That was.

The Tigers lived up to their rep, and knocked off the #1 team in the state 7-5, handing La Salle their first and final loss of the season.

The Tigers were on a tear and seemed unstoppable. "Unfinished Business" was a slogan to be taken quite literally it seemed. The unfinished business didn't end with taking revenge on Carmel, and it didn't end with winning the section. The unfinished business apparently ended with achieving the greatest of goals. It ended with erasing all of those years of heartbreak and frustration. The dropped balls, the base running snafus, the unfulfilled expectations.

The 2008 Mamaroneck Tigers put a program on its not-so-diminutive shoulders...and took it to unforeseen heights. And those heights peaked with the 2008 New York State Championship plaque...the #1 team in the entire state.

The 2003 Boston Red Sox Championship season gave the franchise a sigh of relief, eliminating it from the butt of all jokes. The 2007 squad's title solidified the franchise as one of the greatest and most successful in professional baseball.

The 2003 Mamaroneck team's section title was a sigh of relief, assuaging the pain endured from years of heartbreak and unfulfilled expectations. The 2008 team won the New York State title, and Mamaroneck is now a New York State power, not just a local one. That's a completely different animal in itself.

Perhaps a Bengal Tiger.

Friday, May 2, 2008

Why New Orleans Hornet Chris Paul Should Be MVP

Let's face it, the 2007-2008 New Orleans Hornets have made for one of the most surprising stories in sports this year.

The emergence of Chris Paul, as everyone knows, has been and continues to be the key to this team's success.

In just his third professional season, CP3 has developed the ability to score from almost anywhere on the court. He has an exceptionally high basketball IQ, and an uncanny eye predicting plays before they happen.

He performs with ardent passion and, most importantly, Chris Paul puts his teammates in the best possible positions to succeed.

This last characteristic immediately evokes memories of Isiah Thomas, and is the definition of a true point guard. He is a leader who makes everyone around him look good.

Examples? Let's start out with number 30. One figured that David West looked the part. He is a big, strong, and physical player with a decent amount of athleticism and a consistent mid-range game.

Yet, thanks to Paul's efforts and the increasing attention given to him by other teams this season, West has improved his interior play. He has also benefited from having more chances to convert those open opportunities into points.

West has almost perfected the 17-foot jumper thanks to the attention teams give Paul everywhere on the court, and Peja out on the perimeter.

After all, Paul calls David the "17-foot assassin." But make no mistake, without Chris, it's doubtful that West would have made this meteoric rise from decent NBA power forward to bona fide Western Conference All-Star.

Tyson Chandler has undoubtedly benefited from CP3 as well. People always expected big things from Tyson, yet he still seemed to underachieve while in Chicago.

Coming out of high school, Chandler looked like a sure thing. He was 7'1", fast, strong, and played with a passionate fire not found in every high school athlete.

He had great hands and a great ability to box out almost any opponent and bring down the rebound. Like West, Chandler looked the part.

Yet upon first entering the league, teams found that Chandler wasn't much of an offensive threat. His jumper was mediocre at best, and he wasn't particularly physical, fleet of foot, or disciplined on defense.

As most know, Chandler had little success in Chicago. He still appeared to be a young kid trying to learn his way through professional basketball. He wasn't surrounded with many great players during those years either.

But like West, Chandler is now regarded as one of the league's premier centers. How did this happen? Well, he has matured quite a bit from his years in Chicago.

Chandler does still tend to argue with referees far more than he should, and he still lets his emotions get the best of him once in a while. But this is a far cry from the immature and overrated player that he once seemed to be.

A change of scenery had to have invigorated Chandler. He seems to thoroughly enjoy playing with this squad in New Orleans, and he seems to enjoy being around his teammates.

Every time I see him practicing on the court, talking to his coaches and to others in the organization (including the lowly intern that I am), he constantly sports a smile on his face, and seems upbeat about the forthcoming game.

Of course, winning helps everyone's mood. But it does seem as though Chandler is becoming more at peace with himself. Perhaps this comes simply from getting older and more comfortable with the landscape of professional basketball and the NBA.

But Tyson Chandler's success on the basketball court, like West's, has most benefited from the intelligent and unselfish play of Chris Paul, and the high-octane, up-tempo style of play enacted by coach Byron Scott. Chandler's Baby Bulls were more Wisconsin Badgers than North Carolina Tar Heels.

It's evident that this fast-paced style of play is more to Chandler's liking.

Relatively quick for a center, Chandler has the ability to get up and down the court quite well. He has benefited from the strong outlet passing of Chris Paul and a myriad of alley-oops from his star point guard.

He is near the top of the league in shooting percentage, even though his mid-range jumper is not much better than it was at the United Center.

Paul's ability to make Chandler's opportunities easy ones have made him look like an absolute stud, statistically. He is becoming more and more a player for whom teams need to seriously plan.

Quite a turn-around from the afterthought the opposition regarded Chandler to be in Chicago.

In case there was any doubt, Chris Paul is the backbone to this team. He is the primary reason why Tyson Chandler and David West are having career years, and he is the reason why Peja Stojakovic is once again among the league-leaders in three-point shooting percentage.

Paul is also the reason why bench contributors like Jannero Pargo and Julian Wright are having breakout seasons.

Paul may be small in stature, but he is far from diminutive in his influence over this ball club, his passion on the basketball court, and in his unselfish play. He has a drive to be perfect in all facets of the game, and even as a 22-year-old he demands the same from his teammates.

Let's face it, without everything Paul has brought to the table this season, the New Orleans Hornets would probably have a worse record than they had last year. A stronger and deeper Western Conference of a year ago wouldn't have made life any easier.

You know something significant is happening when the Hornets can shoot a combined 39 percent from the floor, have a star point guard shoot 6-19 from the floor and make a monumental four turnovers during a critical fourth quarter span, be down by 14 on the road against a solid Orlando Magic squad, and STILL FIND A WAY TO WIN!

Paul's influence and overall play this year has made everyone around him better, even when he is having mediocre games by his own personal standards.

Wins like last night's capture the essence of what this overachieving team is doing this season.

The Hornets are 51-22 with cellar-dwelling Miami and New York coming up in the next few days. After that, they square off against Golden State on ABC Sunday, then Dallas and Utah to name a few.

This team isn't guaranteed a top-four playoff seed yet, but if it can play like it did last night against a playoff team, and still win, I'd say the Hornets' chances are good.

But a deep playoff run? Let's not get ahead of ourselves just yet.

With the exception of Boston, the Hornets have improved their stock like no other team.

A city has jumped on the proverbial bandwagon, and now games are regularly being sold out. Boston never had attendance problems, even when its teams were struggling.

With all respect to D-West, Chris Paul has no Paul Pierce. Boston plays in the East. As a result, Kevin Garnett is no more deserving of the MVP than is Chris Paul. He just has better talent around him, and plays inferior teams more frequently.

But more importantly, unlike Garnett, Kobe, or even LeBron, one can argue that 22-year-old Chris Paul has changed the way a whole city looks at basketball.

Now I wasn't here for the pre-Katrina Hornets years, and obviously not when Maravich led the New Orleans Jazz, but this city likes a winner. Before the Hornets began to win, the city really didn't support the team through its bad times.

At the advent of the season, attendance numbers for games often lingered in four digits. Now? Let's just say it's difficult to hear yourself think during Hornets' home games at the Hive.

Especially when the crowd is chanting, "MVP, MVP."

Hilltopper Basketball: Giving "Big Red" a Real Reason To Cheer

If you're a die-hard sports fan like me who watches a ton of TV, then the chances are pretty good that you've seen the ESPN and/or the Capital One commercials that often feature mascots partaking in ridiculous activities. The Virginia Cavalier, Wisconsin's Bucky Badger, the Stanford Tree, Syracuse's Otto Orange. And then there always seems to be that big red blob with the letters "W K U" etched on a belly similar in size and color to that of Peter Griffin.

While watching these commercials, have you ever asked yourself: "Who the hell is that, and what university does he or she represent?" If you're like me and have ample time on your Tuesday evenings to answer that question, then you would find out that the mascot's name is "Big Red" and it represents Western Kentucky University, the pride of the Sun Belt Conference.

Western Kentucky University? Yes, it exists...just ask Drake and San Diego.

Prior to the 2008 NCAA men's basketball tournament, I could potentially ask a sample of 50 contributors to the Bleacher Report where Western Kentucky University is located, and what conference it plays in. Chances are I could count the number of respondents who replied with "Bowling Green, Kentucky, and the Sun Belt Conference" on one, maybe two hands. And we're supposed to be experts. Yet I would bet that at least 75 percent of those same respondents would probably tell me they recognized Big Red and knew which university he represented.

Thanks to the exploits of the Western Kentucky University basketball team during the 2007-2008 season, and in the NCAA tournament more importantly, this institution of over 18,000 students located in the southwestern Kentucky community of Bowling Green, might just be living up to its tagline as a "Leading American University with an International Reach." People may begin to recognize WKU more for its basketball prowess than for its bizarre award-winning mascot, or for being the alma mater of Cleveland Browns Head Coach Romeo Crennel.

Under 35-year-old Head Coach and WKU alum, Darrin Horn, the Hilltoppers have become this season's Gonzaga. And I'll happily admit that I chose them to play UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen this year, upsetting both Drake and UConn (the latter matchup obviously never came to fruition) in the first two rounds.

I've always been a believer that in order to have success in the NCAA tournament, you need to have solid experienced guard play, and a number of players who can light it up from the outside from any time. Western Kentucky had that coming into the tournament. They have an NBA prospect in 6'5 swingman Courtney Lee, who has the physique of a Joey Dorsey and the quickness of a Darren Collison (okay, maybe not that quick, but you get the point). They have an experienced and intelligent point guard in Senior Tyrone Brazelton, who managed to light up the scoreboard when teams would often swarm Lee, a solid two guard in A.J. Slaughter. They also feature another sharp shooter in Ty Rogers, who made one of the more remarkable game-ending shots in recent tournament memory against Drake, and two sizable big men in Jeremy Evans and D.J. Hagley who are monsters in the paint, and pride themselves on their defense foremost.

In checking out these first round matchups on Selection Sunday, I saw a team that, like Drake, had dominated its conference tournament, and seemed to be playing its best basketball at the advent of the NCAAs. But compared to Drake, who was having its best season in 35 years, and had the reputation of the entire Missouri Valley Conference on its shoulders, Western Kentucky really had none of that added pressure. One could argue that WKU's out of conference schedule was comparable to Drake's. WKU played Gonzaga and Tennessee very close on the road, losing by three and six points respectively. It dominated its conference competition, with the exception of fellow tourney member South Alabama.

A 12-5 matchup against a mid-major having to live up to the hype as a highly-ranked squad throughout the season was just what Coach Horn and his team wanted. When it’s this time of year, many coaches feel that its far more preferable for their team to fly under the radar and be perceived as an underdog, then to have all the pressure on them to deliver the goods that were expected all along.

After all, Drake was a team WKU matched up quite well against in terms of overall personnel and general style of play. Everyone talked about Drake's spectacular perimeter play, but no one seemed to mention WKU's guard talent, or its superior inside play. On paper, it should have been an incredibly high-scoring game, and the two teams would not disappoint.

The Hilltoppers carried the momentum of that miraculous finish against Drake (after dominating the first 36 minutes of regulation mind you), with an impressive wire-to-wire win over the University of San Diego. The Toreros were visibly bruised and battered after their hard-fought come-from-behind upset of the Connecticut Huskies, one of the most physical teams in college basketball. The Hilltoppers showed they could score over 100 points one day, and hold a team to 63 two days later.

I had a hunch that this squad was a versatile one that could win a ball game multiple ways, and it showed its ability to clamp down on the defensive end in its second round victory over UCSD.

Just as I predicted.

Yet as much as I love this Hilltoppers squad, they're about to run into a buzz-saw. UCLA is playing its own backyard, and although WKU might have the guard play to keep up with the Bruins for a half, it certainly doesn't have the size, depth or experience that the Bruins have.

I also picked the Bruins to win it all in a Bleacher Report article exactly one month ago, and I'm not straying from that prediction.

This matchup will be close for at least the first half, but UCLA should run away with this one in the last ten minutes, closing out with a 78-67 win.

UCLA will find a way to stifle WKU's studs on the perimeter, and force the Hilltoppers to beat them in the paint, which won't happen.

Nevertheless, the Western Kentucky Hilltoppers should be proud of themselves for a solid season, and a memorable tournament run. One can bet that that the University has increased its "international reach" just a little farther with its basketball team's recent performance. But this being the NCAA tournament, who knows what will happen in this Sweet 16 matchup of 1 vs. 12. I've been wrong in plenty of my picks in this year's tournament, and I could blow this one too.

One thing I am certain of is that Big Red will be out and about in full force in Phoenix, sporting that WKU on his belly, and a constantly drunken and bewildered look on his face.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

2008 NCAA Basketball Tournament: Betting on UCLA

Today is Feb. 27, 2008. March Madness begins in less than a month, and the regular season schedule is winding down to its final days before the heated conference tournaments begin. (No, you're not included Cornell.)

Parity in men's college basketball has increased exponentially in recent seasons. Some reasons for this? More and more kids seem to grow up playing basketball than ever before. Youth and travel leagues are increasing, and college recruiters seem to have increased and have more "connections" in different parts of the nation than ever before. If you are a star in your area, chances are a recruiter has heard of you and will bombard you with phone calls (or drunk texts at 4 a.m. if you're Kelvin Sampson).

Kids also seem to be growing bigger and stronger earlier in life. There absolutely may not be scientific or genetic proof behind that statement, but when I see 17-year-old boys looking like they should be on "The World's Strongest Man," I feel as if something has changed. Most importantly, the NBA has demanded that the young baller spend at least one year at a college or university before deciding whether they want to enter the NBA draft.

You combine the improved play of the game by children domestically and abroad, as well as improvements in coaching across the American basketball landscape, and the raucous environment that a university's home fans pass on to their beloved team during their home contests, and you have a recipe for parity across the college basketball landscape.

Simply put, it's becoming more acceptable for coaches to spew out basketball cliches, and truly believe what they're saying: "anyone can beat anyone on any given night," "they put their shoes on the same way that we do," "this might be the biggest game of your life." Hey, with the way this season has gone, who knows?

I can't tell you the number of teams who have fallen from their top 10 standing on a nightly basis. The number of "upsets" of top ten teams this season by teams either lower-ranked or unranked is astounding, and the number has to be some sort of record.

The Associated Press and ESPN top-25 rankings have become like a game of musical chairs being played on a scratched compact disc.

The only constant this season has been the No. 1 ranking, and that's been relinquished in recent days by Memphis and the Tennessee Vols, after UT earned the title for an impressive 29 hours after losing to Vandy on the road.

Where am I going with this? Picking a perfect bracket this year is going to be even more difficult than doing so in recent years. March Madness is something I looked forward to each season. In my pre-college years, my team was the Kentucky Wildcats, and I regularly chose them to get to the final four.

After deciding to go to a school in Tulane with no real positive tradition in basketball (aside from its point-shaving scandal in the late '80s that had the program suspended for two seasons), I was left with no real team to bet the house on.

Until this year.

The UCLA Bruins set the standard for college basketball under coaching legend John Wooden. Yet, it appears former-Pitt head coach Ben Howland has brought some wizardry of his own to Westwood in returning pride to UCLA basketball. This is the same program that won 88 consecutive games under Wooden and had a winning record for 54 consecutive seasons until 2002 and 11 National Championships. This year's Bruins team looks to me as if they can get the school No. 12, after coming oh-so-close in 2006 and 2007.

This year's team has flown under the radar once again. Playing their games on the West Coast and getting slightly less TV and press coverage than the Big East and Big Ten teams, UCLA probably doesn't mind. Their records have essentially mirrored those of North Carolina and Memphis - the two teams who have dominated the No. 1 spot this season- yet the Bruins only have owned the ranking for one week, and that was in the ESPN poll, not in the AP.

The Bruins currently sport a record of 24-3, good for No. 4 in the nation in both rankings. Yet, the way they have won has been impressive. A team that has been known for its stifling defense under defensive guru Howland, for the past couple for seasons, the Bruins have improved their offense dramatically this season and have often been able to win games in shootouts. The interior offensive numbers put up by freshman sensation Kevin Love have been staggering. The Oregon native leads the team with 17 and 11 per game. Love is complemented inside by Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Lorenzo Mata-Real, two veterans who pride themselves on their tough defense and are rebounding machines. The team also makes it a habit of not sending their opponent to the free-throw line. Sounds like a pretty good recipe for success to me.

To go along with their consistent inside play, the Bruins have some of the best guard play in the nation. As the saying goes, "3-point shooting and defense win championships." Well, the Bruins have both of those. Not every contender does. Josh Shipp, Darren Collison, and Russell Westbrook are all highly-regarded pro prospects, who are athletic freaks and play an unselfish brand of basketball. The point guard Collison, who has been to two Final Fours already, averages 14 points and four assists per contest. Veteran swingman Shipp also averages 14 per game and might be the most athletic player on the squad. Sophomore guard Westbrook averages 13 points and 5 assists per contest. He's also the team's most deadly 3-point shooter, to go along with the floor general Collison, and the freak Shipp who also can both stroke it from beyond the arc.

The Bruins have eight solid players who can rotate into the game at any time and give the team a lift. Depth is another factor that can help a team come tournament time.

Some people might think my pick of UCLA is a safe one. Ask how many of your buddies are picking the Bruins to go all the way. No, ask them what the team is ranked this season. Nine out of 10 probably won't know. Most probably will pick North Carolina, Memphis, Tennessee, Kansas, or Texas to win. And they aren't wrong in doing so. But the Bruins are hungry to get over the hump. They've been in the last two Final Fours, and came up short. They have the experience, the coaching, the offense, the defense, and the depth. And they have four very winnable games to close the regular season in Arizona State, Arizona, Stanford (which will be a fun one), and rival Cal.

For the aforementioned reasons, I have the most consistent program in the history of college basketball taking the title in one of the most chaotic, unpredictable, yet exciting seasons in the history of college basketball. Let's hope this trend of parity continues in future seasons.

But, for now, I'm taking the Bruins to bring No. 12 back to Westwood. This may be their best chance as their star freshman already is looking at condos in D-Wade's South Beach building for next year.