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.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Farewell to Faulk

This is a couple days late, but I wanted to make sure I got this in before too long...

The long-expected announcement became official on Monday when St. Louis Rams running back and first-ballot future Hall of Famer Marshall Faulk retired from the NFL at age 34 after 12 seasons. Now, Faulk delves into the broadcasting world, a foray that served him well last year in his "year off" from football.

Even on great teams, Faulk's sublime presence stood out. On the 1999 "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams, Kurt Warner won the accolades, but Faulk was the fulcrum that kept that machine of an offense moving. His versatility as both an elusive ball carrier and a dangerous pass receiver int he open field kept defenses honest, forcing them to focus more than they would have liked on the Rams' short-mid range game. Of course, that worked to open up opportunities for dangerous deep threats Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt.

It was also Faulk, who indirectly, had some influence on the emergence of QB Kurt Warner in that 1999 season. In the preseason game in which then-Chargers safety Rodney Harrison knocked out St. Louis' Plan A starter, Trent Green for the season, it was Faulk who failed to complete his blocking assignment. Of course you know now that opened up the door for Warner, and Super Bowl followed.

I would rank Faulk just behind Barry Sanders as the second greatest running back of his generation. I put him ahead of backs like Emmitt Smith, Curtis Martin, and Terrell Davis for the plethora of ways he could affect a game. So long from the field Marshall. We'll see you in Canton holding up your bust in 5 years.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Hoya Saxa!

I've been warned not to blog about the Georgetown Hoyas by my friends - if I do, I might jinx them into a loss. But the way I see it after today's improbable, heart-stopping win over North Carolina in the East Region Final, these Hoyas have been beating the odds all year, so my little old blog isn't going to wreak too much havoc.

What an incredible 48 hours to be a Hoya. After the shot of a lifetime from team bastion Jeff Green to beat Vanderbilt on Friday night, it was looking like we were going to suffer the ultimate letdown. From an incredible high to a feeling of desperation knowing we had come this close to Final Four immortality. That's how I felt with about 8 minutes left in today's game against the Tar Heels.

It wasn't the North Carolina lead that bothered me. In theory it was more than a workable margin. It never ballooned to a point that would have put the game out of hand. It was the fact that Georgetown was playing North Carolina's game, and we seemingly had no answer for their fast-break offense. If the remainder of the game had played out like that, the Hoyas would be headed home empty, because they wouldn't have had the ability to cut the deficit. Luckily, with time starting to run out on Georgetown's season, they were able to impose their will on a game that had been in North Carolina's control for 30+ minutes.

In retrospect, you could see that Georgetown had a chance even before they began their surge late in the half. The prolific scoring of the first half, resulting in a 50-44 UNC halftime lead, played right into the Tar Heels' hands. If Tyler Hansbrough and company could score another 50 points in the second half, their ticket to Atlanta would most assuredly be punched. When that scoring pace didn't continue to start the second half, the Hoyas had new life. Now, a slow-down, half-court type of game was being played - exactly what Georgetown Coach John Thompson III wanted. It suddenly hit me with 6 or 7 minutes left that the score was only 75-72 Tar Heels. Neither team was pushing 85 or 90, which is what would have happened had the Tar Heels continued to play at their pace in addition to make some shots.

Ah yes, the field goal drought. Georgetown came back in this game in equal parts because they got tougher on the boards and got back to playing their trademark efficient half court game. But just as importantly, North Carolina went as dry as the Mojave for such a prolonged period of time that the lead couldn't help but be cut. I watched with utter amazement as the offensive firepower of the Tar Heels - dangerous from players 1-12 - flamed out in spectacular fashion. In the end, the Heels' sudden offensive futility combined with clutch shooting and toughness from the Hoyas resulted in a 12 point overtime win.

To me, this team is special because of their mental makeup. As they have shown in the last three games in this tournament, they do not allow themselves to get flustered when trailing. They keep the game within reach, and when they eventually able to figure out how to slow down what the opponent has thrown at them, they close the gap, then shut the door. That ability to strategically adjust in-game to the intricacies of the opponent's style has been a hallmark of Coach Thompson and the Hoyas all year, and it has become even more evident in the tournament.

Now comes Ohio State, in a rematch of last year's second-round tournament game in which the Hoyas came up victorious. But this game will bear little resemblance to the matchup from a year ago. Both teams have improved immensely over the course of that year. And now we get to see a matchup of the two best centers in the tournament, Ohio State's Greg Oden vs. Georgetown's Roy Hibbert. The right to play in the national championship game awaits.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Peyton Manning on SNL

I caught a little bit of Saturday Night Live last night with Peyton Manning as the host, and was pleasantly surprised by how well he did. I guess the 13,756 commercials he's done have served him well, because he seems to have a good sense for comedic timing.

Also, I've gotta say, he did one sketch late in the show with his shirt off, and I was shocked that he's not more built. From what you could see on the camera, he just looked like a regular guy. To be honest, with the arm that he has, I was kind of expecting Popeye-esque biceps.

Anyway, he acquitted himself well, and I bet he'll get an invite back to the SNL stage sometime in the future.

Friday, March 23, 2007

Thursday Thrillers

Have you exhaled yet? College basketball at its highest level was on display last night with three down-to-the-wire thrillers out of the four total games. SI's Grant Wahl put it best in an article from today, saying, "Are you starting to see why a rash of opening-week upsets aren't always the greatest thing?" Amen. Now we get the best teams playing against each other, and yesterday, that produced three classic games. Some of my quick thoughts from last night:

- The Ohio State-Tennessee game encapsulates the Volunteers' season. They're capable of looking like world beaters when they're on their game, forcing their frenetic pace on the opponent and draining 3s. That's what happened in the first half when they raced out to a 20 point lead. But that hyper-aggressive style can also let teams back, and sure enough, the Buckeyes worked their magic for the second consecutive game, making it a workable margin very early in the second half.

- I have to come clean and admit it. I never thought Memphis would get so far, and I was very wrong. They've certainly got plenty of talent, and are determined to prove the many doubters out there. I think the win against Texas A&M shut up most of those doubters, myself included. And to do it in what essentially amounted to a road game in front of a throng of Aggie supporters in San Antonio made it all the more impressive. With Ohio State looking vulnerable, the Tigers have a great shot to make the Final Four.

- On the other hand, my opinion on Pittsburgh was confirmed with yet another Sweet 16 exit for Jamie Dixon's crew. For some reason, year in and year out, they have not had the ability to win the really big game. They're consistently at a level where you consider them one of the very good teams in college basketball, but they're struggling to reach the elite status.

- Kansas showed they were capable of winning a close game against a defensively smothering team in Southern Illinois, a huge statement for a team that likes to get up and down the floor and score a lot of points. This was about as great a preparation as they could have had in advance of playing another defensive-minded team in UCLA in the Regional Final.

Four more games tonight!

Georgetown vs. Vanderbilt
North Carolina vs. USC
Oregon vs. UNLV
Florida vs. Butler

Thursday, March 22, 2007

I Guess This Means David Carr is Out of a Job

Showing a remarkable (remarkably foolish or prescient is the question) amount of faith in a man who has started all of 2 regular season NFL games, the Houston Texans completed their trade for erstwhile Falcons backup Matt Schaub by signing him to a 6 year, $48 million deal to be the starter.

The details of the contract only bind the Texans to the first three years of the contract at $20 million overall. But that's still quite a bit of faith in a QB that has limited real-time game experience. My initial thought was that the Texans overpaid for him and that may yet prove to be true. But I can understand the rationale. They're trying to lay a stable groundwork for their offense for years down the line and this contract is an indisputable statement that Schaub is the guy who they believe will provide them with that stability. It's just that they're just taking a calculated gamble on a man with much to prove. My guess though is that he'll struggle this year for the same reason that Carr did during his time at the helm, which is the Texans' porous offensive line.

As for Carr, where does this trade leave him? Well, the former #1 overall pick is certainly out of Houston, a fact punctuated by Schaub's fat contract. But he will certainly have more than enough suitors in this QB hungry league. Minnesota comes to mind immediately as a place where one would think he'd be able to compete for a starting job right away. Even if he's not starting immediately, with the dependence on backup QBs we've seen of late in the NFL, my guess is that we'll see him leading the offense for some soon-to-be-determined team before too long.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

If I Had $2 Billion....

The offbeat story of the week is that of journeyman Dodgers pitcher Matt White, who discovered he was sitting on $2 billion worth of stone on his land.

According to the AP article on this:

Matt White, a 29-year-old left-hander, discovered a valuable rock quarry behind a house he bought from an aunt three years ago in western Massachusetts.

That got me thinking. What would other figures in the sports world do if they had $2 billion?

Pete Rose would bet it all on the Cincinnati Reds, because that's how much he believes in his team

Cincinnati Bengals owner Mike Brown might have then have enough reserves for bail money for his players

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman could pay the American public to care about his league

Forget running for Governor of Alabama - Charles Barkley could set up a bid for the White House in 2008!

George Steinbrenner could finally put together the Yankees team of his dreams

Barry Bonds could start his own TV network where the programming is Bonds on Bonds 24/7

The U.S. could afford the services of David Beckham for 1.59 more years

Latrell Sprewell could afford to feed his family

Any more ideas that I'm missing?

Monday, March 19, 2007

Cinderella's Pumpkin Has Arrived

Well, well. How quickly Cinderella retreated back to her attic room. The story of the tournament so far is the lack of any low-seeded teams to get excited about going into the second week. This year's George Mason is - UNLV? That in itself is a ludicrous statement to make. It's a school that along with sketchy dealings, is synonymous with domination, as the early '90s teams were some of the greatest in the sport's history. And considering the slim to nonexistent gap separating the tournament's #4-#10 seeds, it's really not all that surprising to see the Rebels there. They're more of a curiosity at this point because - let's face it - they're from Vegas and no one east of the Rockies has seen them play.

While the Tournament has been pretty ho-hum other than Saturday's batch of games, college basketball fans were still setting themselves up for disappointment this year. Excitement was at an all-time high last year when George Mason made the Final Four. And it was warranted. It was an unbelievable feat that has never happened in this modern era of college basketball. (By modern, I'm talking post shot clock and 3-point line implementation and major network exposure. So that's why I don't count Larry Bird's 1979 Indiana State team.) It was a high, and like a drug, you wanted more of it. But this time, a team making it to the Final Four wasn't enough - they had to get even further. Clearly that wasn't realistic, and as a result the tournament seems pretty boring to the fan that no longer has a team to root for.

But when you think about it, what was the real effect of George Mason's run? It gave the mid-majors the responsibility of raised expectations. Now, instead of a small school needing to catch lightning in a bottle and a couple of lucky breaks to make a real run, people expect them to advance because of their merits. That's why nobody is talking about Southern Illinois and Butler with any real excitement. They were expected to get this far because they are good teams that really can be counted among the best 15 or 20 in the nation. When they won, predictability won out, and that doesn't make for a compelling storyline.

I'm not saying that the mid-majors won't always have the some of that underdog in them - clearly they will, as there are only so many resources to go around. Not every school can realistically dream about a national championship. But as the gap between them and the power conferences closes, the aura of Cinderella that reached an all-time high last season will continue to wane.

The interesting point this brings up is - is this good for college basketball or not? I argue that it is, as more competition creates for a higher level of play, and more exposure for schools that would traditionally get none nationally. But if the rise of the small school continues, the number of teams that will fit our traditional profile of the Cinderella team in the NCAA Tournament will decline, and that could create for diminished excitement in a tournament whose appeal is based around excitement.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Thoughts from Day 1 of the Tournament

It wasn't too exciting of a first day of the 2007 Tournament, with one thriller in VCU's upset of Duke and only one other pretty good game in Xavier-BYU. With that in mind, here are some of my other thoughts from yesterday:

- Eric Maynor, the point guard of VCU who calmly sank the game winning shot against Duke last night, is a star. To be honest, I hadn't even heard of him until about a week ago, but this is now twice in the course of a week that he has willed his team to huge wins in the final minutes. Last week in the CAA Conference Tournament final, with his team losing to George Mason, with a couple of minutes left, he was clutch on the offensive and defensive end with a couple of steals to rally the Rams to the win. Yesterday against the Devils, everyone knew he was going to have the ball in his hands in the final minutes, and he still delivered. He's shown to not only be a composed leader but also an aggressive and quick player who penetrated into the paint time after time against the bigger Duke players.

-Speaking of VCU, their coach Anthony Grant looks like he's about 25 years old. I heard that he's 34 actually, but man, he looks young.

-What happened to George Washington yesterday? You'd think having been in the tournament for the third year in a row would translate into some kind of success on the court. Evidently not, as Vanderbilt mopped the floor with the poor Colonials.

-I know that North Carolina ended up winning by 21 over Eastern Kentucky, the #16 seed. But to take a 22-3 lead to start and let it get down to 6 in the second half is unacceptable for the Tar Heels. They were able to pull away at the end, but the lack of a killer instinct to put down an inferior team is troubling. This team just reminds me a lot of last year's UConn team - NBA talent all around, but you somehow doubt they can win a national championship.

-I'll be the first to admit, I was guilty of this, having picked Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16. (Ouch, that hurts.) But it's amazing how a lot of people dogged Washington State for their lack of tournament experience in picking them as the #3 seed most likely to be upset. But we don't seem to mind that lack of experience or lack of familiarity with teams from smaller schools when picking our upsets in our brackets.

- I love James Brown, but he doesn't do anything for me as a play-by-play man. He does best when he plays his role as the down-to-earth moderator in a group of over-exuberant jocks. As a play-by-play man, he's just not that exciting to listen to.

Games of the day today:

- Texas vs. New Mexico St. - because every game could be Kevin Durant's last in college

- Notre Dame vs. Winthrop - let's see if the Eagles can match the hype they've generated in recent weeks and pull off the upset

- Nevada vs. Creighton - good chance for the nation to see Nevada's star Nick Fazekas, one of the country's best players

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