Saturday, April 21, 2007

Re-Seeding the NBA Playoffs

It's hardly news to anyone who follows the NBA with a modicum of interest that the talent gap between the East and the West is canyon-sized. While the East has shown over the last 3 years that it is top-heavy (read: Detroit and Miami playing the big kid role in a field of oblivious 1st graders that is the rest of the East), there has been little depth to the conference. The same is true this year. Arguably, the top three teams in the West are all better than any team in the East. And while we shouldn't hold our breath expecting David Stern to re-seed the playoffs regardless of conference affiliation, that doesn't mean we can't fantasize about the possibility in this space. So here's how I would re-seed the entire playoff field if I were doing it NCAA Tournament style:

1 Dallas
16 Washington

8 Cleveland
9 Utah

5 Miami
12 LA Lakers

4 San Antonio
13 New Jersey

6 Chicago
11 Toronto

3 Detroit
14 Golden State

7 Houston
10 Denver

2 Phoenix
15 Orlando

A few notes on this seeding. First off, let's start with the bottom-feeders of this field. Even though Washington is seeded as a #7 in the East in reality, I'm putting them as the #16 seed in my field because they have absolutely no momentum going into the playoffs. (Remember, I'm doing this NCAA Tournament style.) This is the team that is most likely to get swept in the actual 2007 Playoffs, and that's why I'm putting them as the sacrificial lamb against the mighty Mavericks.

And who wouldn't want to see some of these matchups? A first-round series between Miami and Los Angeles would be the prime-time series of the first round for television purposes, guaranteed. Even if the Kobe-Shaq feud is officially over, you know TV execs would be salivating all over themselves to get that matchup in te premier time slot.

Houston and Denver stands out to me as another first-round matchup that you'd stop what you're doing to watch. Imagine the high-scoring theatrics possible when Allen Iverson and Carmelo Anthony go against Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, with each of the teams bearing the burden of past failures to get past the first round at stake.

Here's how I would see my second round shaping up:

1 Dallas
8 Cleveland

5 Miami
4 San Antonio

3 Detroit
6 Chicago

7 Houston
2 Phoenix

No shortage of outstanding series here. Dallas-Cleveland stands out as the most one-sided series here. The Cavs have shown over the past year that they really can't count on anyone consistently other than LeBron James. In the West, the Cavs would probably be a #7 seed.

Detroit and Chicago is probably the most intriguing series in this second round. The young up and comers in the Bulls vs. the East's grizzled stalwart of the past 5 years in the Pistons. Ben Wallace against his former team. The geographic proximity of the two cities. This is a series that I would see going 7, with the Bulls coming out on top. The Pistons escaped a dangerous Cavs team in 7 last season, but this year's Chicago edition is better than last year's Cavs and hitting their peak at the right time.

By the way, you'll notice that I'm not picking many upsets here so far. That's the way the NBA works for the most part. You'll get a series or two where some favored teams go down. But a complete shocker like Denver beating Seattle in the first round in 1994 is rare. For the most part the favorites win.

My conference finals:

1 Dallas
4 San Antonio

6 Chicago
2 Phoenix

Let's start with the easier of the two picks here. Chicago is capable of making it to the finals in this bracket, and could match the Suns' athleticism in addition to having a banger in Wallace that could go up against Amare Stoudemire. But Chicago's probably a year away from taking that last step into true elite status. So I pick the Suns in 6 in this series.

Dallas and San Antonio. Wow, talk about clash of the titans. For the first time in a while, the Spurs are heading into the playoffs not regarded as either the favorite or co-favorite not only to win the West, but to win it all. But they're hitting their peak and still have Tim Duncan, who's still one of the top 5 players in the game. But Dallas, which had 3 separate win streaks of at least 10 games this season, showed me last year that they are championship caliber on the defensive end while breaking their hex against the Spurs. This will be a battle to the end, but I see the Mavs advancing to the finals in 7.

Phoenix vs. Dallas. The finals series that everyone wants to see, but won't be able to in the traditional playoff format. The two teams produced a couple of classics this year, including the game of the year, a 2OT Suns win a few weeks back. Steve Nash is the best player in this series, but Dallas is the more complete team and has Finals experience from last year. They've had the benefit of a year to learn from their mistakes against Miami and will have the home court advantage, a huge plus for the Mavs, who are nearly unbeatable at home. This is another series I see going 7 with Dallas finally earning their coronation as the league's best team.

Would you re-seed the playoffs differently? Do you think the results would be different? Let me know what you think.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Heroism at Virginia Tech

I know this isn't exactly a sports post, but in the wake of the tragedy at Virginia Tech yesterday, there was this bright spot amid the chaos that I felt like I had to post about. We always talk about great athletes being able to make good decisions in the blink of an eye - and this student did the same with infinitely more pressure on him than any athlete will ever have to face.

Seems like with any unthinkable tragedy like this, you always hear at least one story of true heroism come out, and this is no exception.


BLACKSBURG, Virginia (CNN) -- Monday's toll inside Virginia Tech's Norris Hall might have included 11 more students had it not been for a long, rectangular table and a quick-thinking senior who used it to deflect the rampage of his fellow classmate.

Zach Petkewicz said he didn't recognize the sounds that pierced the door and cinder-block walls of his classroom as gunshots until he heard a scream from the hallway of the engineering building.

"The girls in my class peeked out in the hall and saw a gunner come out of a classroom with his gun pointed down," Petkewicz told CNN.

"They immediately slammed the door shut, told us, everybody kind of went into a frenzy, a panic. I hid behind the podium and then just kind of looked up at the door. Like, there's nothing stopping this guy from just coming in. And so I said, 'We need to barricade this door.' "

Petkewicz described his state of mind unabashedly: "I was completely scared out of my mind originally, just went into a cowering position, and then just realized you have got to do something."

Petkewicz and two other students shoved a table against the door and held it there as gunshots continued to ring out from the hallway outside the classroom.

"He came to our door, tried the handle and couldn't get in because we were pushing up against it -- and tried to force his way in and got the door to open up about 6 inches -- and then we just lunged at it and closed it back up and that's when he backed up and shot twice into the middle of the door, thinking we were up against it trying to get him out."

But Petkewicz said that instead he and the other students had placed themselves in front of the cinder-block walls, where they listened to what was going on out of sight a few inches away.

"I just heard his clip drop to the ground, and he reloaded and I thought he was coming back for a second round to try to get his way in there. He didn't say a word, and he just turned and kept firing down the hall and didn't try to get back in."

As the drama was unfolding, Petkewicz said, other classmates were on their cell phones with 911 operators, who told them police were on their way.

Soon, "I could hear police shouting all around the building. They were there really fast, it was just a matter of getting up and getting to us and getting this guy out of the picture."

The shooter -- identified as Cho Seung-Hui, a 23-year-old English major and South Korean native from Centreville, Virginia -- used one of his two guns to take care of that himself, police said.

Asked what he would say to those who call him a hero, Petkewicz looked away, began blinking rapidly, shrugged his shoulders, shook his head back and forth, removed his right hand from the pocket of his blue jeans and used it to stroke his forehead, then said in a voice choked with emotion, "I'm just glad I could be here."

Norris Hall is shut for the remainder of the semester.

Sunday, April 15, 2007

A Hockey Post?

Hmm, the world must have shifted off its axis or something. But yes, it's true, I feel inspired to write about hockey. Rest assured though, that I won't be offering up any incisive comments on strategy or making any daring predictions as everyone now travels to the lower-seeded teams' homes. However, I haven't been completely oblivious, and can at least name the 16 teams that are in it.

Today, Sid the Kid Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins got even in Game 2 of their series with Ottawa thanks to a 4-3 win punctuated by a game-winning goal from none other than Gretzky Part Deux, Crosby himself. (Raise your hands if you didn't see this letdown coming from the Senators, those notorious playoff underachievers.) That's good news for the NHL. Even though the league can't express it in so many words, it's in its best interests for the Penguins to go as far as possible in these playoffs. In Pittsburgh, the NHL has a team loaded with exciting young talent, headlined by Crosby, who the league is hoping will be the sport's answer to Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods.

With some games now being broadcast nationally on NBC, as Pittsburgh-Ottawa was this afternoon, the league will likely catch a slight ratings uptick as general American sports fans channel surfing are likely to take a flier on a chance to see Crosby and the Pens in action in the playoffs. If for no other reason than to be a part of the excitement of Crosby's playoff debut or to see what the hype is all about, more people will tune in. There's a natural curiosity factor that's built in to a Penguins series at this moment that a series like Sabres-Islanders (no offense to Buffalo and Long Island) just can't match.

The interesting thing is, I think most people who aren't avid hockey fans will tell you that when they do watch a hockey game, they really enjoy it. It's fast, physical and full of action. But hockey will always play from behind in this country, and it needs that news hook for people to watch it. This is as close to as perfect a scenario as the NHL could ask for in building that hook. An American team with a potentially transcendent player making his playoff debut. And it helps that the Penguins play in a cold-weather city. Let's not forget that the last two Stanley Cup champions came from Raleigh, NC and Tampa, FL. There's still something that seems a little off about that, as plenty of Canadians I'm sure, will tell you. A Stanley Cup in Pittsburgh though, seems perfectly acceptable. The only way it could be better from the NHL's point of view was if he played for the New York Rangers.

Nonetheless, the Pens now have the upper hand in their first round series, and though this team isn't on the short list of Stanley Cup favorites, the league can hope for an extended run - and for good reason. Upsets that stretch into the conference finals or even the Stanley Cup Finals have been par for the course in the NHL of late. Edmonton, a #7 seed, was a game away from winning the Cup last year. Another #7 seed, Anaheim, memorably did the same in 2003. On the surface, the Pens appear to have that potential and more. Now it's time to see if Sid the Kid and his precocious mates can continue to deliver.

Friday, April 06, 2007

A Tale of Two Coaches

Two of the most high profile coaches in the business made headline-grabbing moves today when Gator Golden Boy Billy Donovan quickly spurned Kentucky, which was foaming at the mouth to lure him, to return to Florida, while Bob Huggins made his escape from Manhattan (Kansas that is) and grabbed the freshly minted vacancy at his hometown school, West Virginia. What I find interesting is my gut reactions to both these decisions.

The Donovan announcement came earlier in the day, and to be honest, I would have been surprised if he had defected to the Gators' SEC rival. He seems to have a great life going in Gainesville, and his professional success has reached a stratosphere inhabited only by coaches like Krzyzewski and Wooden, as coaches who have led repeat national champions. When I read the news that he was staying, I thought to myself, "What a classy move. Now he has the chance to build a Hall of Fame career at one school, Florida. And he didn't just go for the supposedly more glamorous position at Kentucky just because the opportunity presented itself."

Meanwhile, when I found out later in the day that Bob Huggins, a coach who has more than a couple stains on his reputation, was bolting Kansas State for West Virginia, my thought process when something like this: "What a bum. He's leaving Kansas State high and dry after just one year. He just dashed the hopes of an entire university. Bush league move."

And there you have exhibits A and B of the typical sports fan's construction of sports as theater. For whatever reason, you need to create a hero and a villain, as if this was all just a grand stage with figures like Donovan and Huggins playing the opposing leads. But is that really fair? It probably isn't. What if Donovan decided he wanted to go to Kentucky because he wanted a new challenge? (Because let's face it, he was going to get paid a bundle no matter what his decision was, so I don't buy the argument that money would have been the deciding factor for him to leave Florida.) Don't people employed in everyday jobs do that all the time?

And what about Huggins? Generally speaking, he's a lot less likable than Donovan seems to be, but maybe we shouldn't decry his choice to leave so quickly. After all, West Virginia is his hometown school, and this opportunity probably would not have come around again if he didn't take it now. Don't important executives leave big corporations with regularity too? But the corporations usually find another talented person to take his or her spot and business carries on.
In an ideal world, everyone would love their jobs and serve out the balance of their contract happily, but that's not the reality of the matter, least of all in sports. All I'm saying is that we shouldn't let our own constructed - and sometimes, distorted - conceptions of what should and shouldn't be in sports (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone) lead us as fans into unfairly scrutinizing a decision when we don't have all the facts about the situation.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Murphy's Law Hits the Wizards

Just when you thought things couldn't get any worse. When losses in consecutive nights to the Charlotte Bobcats isn't even your top concern, you've got some real issues. Tonight, in losing to the 'Cats, Wiz star Gilbert Arenas injured his left knee in a collision with Charlotte's Gerald Wallace. He's having an MRI on Thursday to measure the damage, but let's not kid ourselves - you hear knee injury, and you don't think day-to-day.

Not that it's likely to matter at this point as far as Washington's chances in the playoffs go. When Caron Butler was lost, for all intensive purposes, for the season last weekend, the Wizards' season went down with it. Butler may not be the team's best player - it's Arenas - but he is the heart of the team, the glue in the Wizards' triumvirate of Arenas, Butler, and Antawn Jamison that holds it all together.

What's troubling for me is how quickly the season flipped on its head for Washington. At the All-Star break, this team was flying high. There was an MVP candidate in Arenas, an All-Star Game coach in Eddie Jordan, and a division title seemed like a formality. But the Wizards have shown an inability to play consistent ball if they are missing any of their three stars. On a team that doesn't play defense, you need all the offense you can get, and a duo of high-scorers isn't enough to win. Now, a team that once had the best record in the Eastern Conference is barely above .500 at 39-35, and an first-round exit in the playoffs seems more certain with each passing day. In the playoffs, the Wizards are likely to draw either Toronto, who they have had a ton of trouble with this year, or more likely, Miami, which has owned Washington seemingly since time immemorial.

Hopefully Arenas' MRI doesn't turn up disastrous damage, but even if that's not the case, don't expect to see Washington get past the first round for a second consecutive year.

Eddie Robinson Dies at 88

College football and sports as a whole, lost one of its greats last night when longtime Grambling coach Eddie Robinson died at the age of 88 after battling Alzheimer's for the better part of the past decade.

Robinson's, and consequently, Grambling's success was due to the determination and passion that he brought to every aspect of his job, and he needed every bit of that to turn Grambling into a nationally recognized household name. Consider this - when he first got there in 1941, the school was still known as the Louisiana Negro Normal and Industrial Institute. Heading a program woefully short on resources in the segregated American South, he was forced to act as groundskeeper, trainer, and for lack of a better term, team mom, preparing sandwiches for his players for road trips.

In spite of the institutional obstacles in his way, he went on to achieve some remarkable feats in his six decades at the helm. His mark of 408 wins is the second most of all time in college football, and until it was topped by St. John's (MN) coach John Gagliardi four years ago, it stood alone as the record.

Perhaps most astonishing is his mentorship of over 200 NFL players, which averages out to about 3 or 4 Grambling players being selected per year by the league. There are programs in big time conferences that would kill to be able to churn out NFL players at a rate like that. Included in that fraternity are some real greats, including Doug Williams, Charlie Joiner, and Willie Brown.

In reflecting on his career, I wonder if we will ever see another coach with a career like Robinson's. If Robinson had coached in today's career-climbing obsessed game, schools from all over would surely be beating down his door trying to lure him to a bigger name program. To be so content and secure with the job, lifestyle, and constancy that he enjoyed for six decades is an incredible anomaly, and very well may be a product of the times he lived in. Even so, his was a fulfilling and wildly successful life by all accounts, and I'm sure he wouldn't have changed one bit of it.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

Thanks Hoyas

A day later, the unapologetic finality of it all is setting in. The dream run of the Georgetown Hoyas came to a close last night with a deflating loss to Ohio State in the national semifinals. With the gap between the Hoyas and the Buckeyes sitting at three possessions with two minutes left in the game yesterday, I knew there would be no miracle comeback this time. And when the game ended, I kept trying to find solace in the loss, as if that would somehow change the final score, and we would be the ones playing for the championship Monday night.

All my friends and I could focus on after the game were the ifs. If Jeff Green had played a more assertive game. If we could have capitalized on Greg Oden's limited playing time. If the officials had ruled in favor of Green on a questionable bang-bang foul in which Oden tried his best to impersonate Vince Carter dunking on Frederic Weis, 2000 Olympics style. But the fact remains, those ifs never came to fruition, and the Buckeyes were the better team last night. I know that Hoya fans everywhere will cling to the idea that if we played Ohio State in a best of 5 or a best of 7 game series, Georgetown would have ultimately come out on top. But unfortunately, this isn't the NBA, and it's something the team and the fans have to live with.

It's nice to say you have to live with a Final Four appearance though. This team gave Hoyas everywhere more reasons to be proud than we've had in a generation. And frankly, such a turnaround seemed like a pipe dream three years ago when the team finished with a miserable 13-19 record in the last season under Craig Escherick. Time after time this season, Georgetown rose up and met the challenges, one by one. Defeats of Big East rivals Marquette and Pittsburgh at home to punctuate a regular season conference title. A romp through the Big East Tournament. And sweetest of all, a thrill-a-minute ride through the East bracket of the NCAA Tournament, along the way producing a game for the ages against North Carolina. Green and Hibbert became marquee names in the college hoops game, and coach John Thompson III, the irrepressible linchpin of it all, showed the country that there are few coaches out there better at what they do.

This afternoon, a group of about 100 or 150 students waited outside venerable old McDonough Arena on the Georgetown campus waiting to welcome the team upon their arrival. Students screamed the familiar refrain of "Hoya! Saxa!" with the brio of a fan base celebrating a win. A big smile flashed by Hibbert upon stepping off the bus seemed to validate the experience at least somewhat. It was a bittersweet moment - we were all struggling with the fact that they were back in D.C. with a game still to be played in Atlanta. But much more than that, there was a real sense of appreciation present. It was the least we could do for the unforgettable joy ride they've given us over the last month.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Kevin Durant Wins Player of the Year

The inevitable finally came to fruition this afternoon, as Texas super phenom Kevin Durant won the AP National Player of the Year award overwhelmingly, earning 70 of the 72 overall votes, with the other two votes going to Wisconsin's Alando Tucker. Durant is now the first freshman to ever win the prestigious honor, and as the voting reflected, there was no question about it.

Durant probably had the most eye-popping statistical season ever for a freshman, with his 25.8 scoring average and 11.1 rebound average. Not just averaging a double-double, but doing so comfortably. And he came up big in Texas's most important games, upping his scoring average in 5 postseason games (Big 12 Tournament, NCAAs) to 28.5 per game.

Certainly it helped his case that he was by far the most talented player on the Longhorns, (a team that probably would have been a #7-#10 seed in the NCAA Tournament without him), meaning he had to carry the load. But that doesn't take away from the fact that he is a spectacular talent who was great all through the season.

The fact that he was recognized as the best player - not just freshman - in the country is what is truly unique about this situation. By the end of the 2003 season, it was plainly obvious that Carmelo Anthony, having just led Syracuse to its first title, was the best player in the country. However, the award went to David West of Xavier that year, likely because of the bias that had prevailed against freshmen. The thinking was, if you're a rookie, you can't be the best player in the country. Why not? Anthony proved the opposite in winning a championship that year, and now Durant has left the voters with no other choice.

Now the question is, will he leave for the NBA or won't he? My guess is yes, and he'll make some lucky team ecstatic with his array of skills and work ethic for the foreseeable future. What's less certain is Greg Oden's status. If the Buckeyes don't win the championship, I could see Oden sticking around another year. Celtics, Grizzlies, TrailBlazers fans, et al - be praying for the #1 overall pick. #2 is no guarantee at this point.

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