Stri Smarts

(NOTE: while the regular columnists are either knee-deep in job searches or master’s theses, our favorite (and only, so far) guest columnist has plenty of opinions…) 

Screw Borowski. I have more important things to talk about. There are so many interesting sports stories right now that I almost don’t know
where to start. Actually, I do know where to start:

1) The Lakers: Not too long ago, Kobe was making noise about wanting out of LA. In fact, the last time he was in a critical playoff game he was refusing to shoot because he was so unhappy about the poor level of talent he was surrounded with. Think about that for a second: Kobe basically blew a playoff game because he was unhappy in LA. Now, one (awesome) trade later, the Lakers look unstoppable. That’s an incredible turnaround, no? I mean, Gasol was the PERFECT fit. You can’t focus the entire defense on Kobe, because Gasol will slaughter you. And he distracts everyone enough that Lamar Odom can actually be useful again. It was an incredible trade that led to incredible results and I feel like it’s almost an under-reported story if that’s possible in LA.

2) The Knicks. The NBA’s other signature franchise finally parted ways with Isiah Thomas. To quote another pretty well known black dude “free at last, free at last, thank god almighty, we’re free at last.” Silver-spooned owner Jimmy Dolan finally did something right by hiring Donnie Walsh but he inherits possibly the worst situation in the history of sports: a terrible, god awful team, no salary cap room, an incredibly impatient fan base that won’t tolerate a rebuilding project, the stupidest owner, hell the stupidest rich person, hell the stupideset human, hell the stupisent non-retarded monkey on earth in Jimmy Dolan and, in addition to all that, Stephon Marbury. Good luck Donnie, you’re going to need it. Ladies and Gentleman, one final round of applause for the Isiah Thomas era!!

3) Speaking of moronic coaches, after Isiah was fired it opened up the “stupidest coach on the planet” spot. Thankfully, Doc Rivers was gracious enough to step-up and fill that role for us. Is there any universe in which the Hawks should be tied with the Celtics right now? No, there isn’t. Let’s put it this way, in sitting down to write this I tried to highlight the 5 most inane coaching decisions Doc has made in this serious and I realized it’s impossible to choose just five. So let’s just put it this way: Dear Doc, Please get off your knees and close your mouth – you’re blowing the series. Thank you, STRI.

4) Let’s talk some baseball and, while we’re on the subject of stupidity, everyone who know that giving Barry Zito a $126 million dollar contract was a terrible idea, please raise your hand. He look, 15 billion people just put their hands up. If you’re an owner, and your GM makes even one more as bad as that (or let’s say trading Scott Kazmir for Victor Zambrano) do you fire him on the spot? I do, and I have him escorted out by security. There was absolutely no defensible rationale for that contract.

5) For the second time in two years, a Carlos on the mets is having a big problem with the fans at Shea. This time it’s Delgado instead of Beltran. After hitting two home runs in one game yesterday Delgado, who has been booed consistently over the past month, refused to come out of the dugout and acknowledge the fans pleas for a curtin call. Carlos Beltran did the same thing last year. Which begs the question: As long as a player is playing hard, hustling, and trying to help the team win, should he ever be booed for poor performance? I think no. Players should only be booed by their own fans for lack of effort, refusing to play for the team that drafted you (J.D. Drew, Eli Manning) which should be universally booed, doing something absurd (Ron Artest, Stephen Jackson, Latrell Spreewell), or completely boneheaded (Chris Webber‘s timeout), cheating (bonds, clemens, mcguire, sosa), or failing to support a team member (Carlos Zambrano, Terrell Owens). Past that, you’re obligated as a fan to support your players. Just my opinion.

More to follow…

Looking Ahead to Next March

One of my favorite columns to read every year are the ones where, in the aftermath of the championship game, the writers project the top teams for next year’s college basketball season.  I’ll attempt to beat them to the punch this year, although my research probably won’t be as exhaustive.  One of the reasons the columns are interesting is because you have to guess which underclassmen will leave for the NBA, and assess how that will affect the team.  The top two teams on my list are very much in the “wait and see” category.  As a basic rule of thumb, if I think a player is questionable to come back, I’ll rank his team as if he is coming back.

hansbroug1. North Carolina: I’m assuming that Tyler Hansbrough returns for his senior year and that Ty Lawson moves on to the League.  Even without Lawson, this would be the team to beat.  Hansbrough would be joined by the likes of Wayne Ellington, Deon Thompson, and Danny Green, and he would also be a man on a mission, with a national championship being the only thing missing from his college resume.  If he can pull it off, Hansbrough would go down as one of the most accomplished college players in the history of the game.

2. Kansas: This ranking could potentially drop like a rock, depending on the decisions of Brandon Rush, Darrell Arthur, and Mario Chalmers.  Russell Robinson, Darnell Jackson, and Sasha Kaun are gone, but a nucleus of Rush, Arthur, Chalmers, and Sherron Collins would certainly contend again.  Players tend to leave early after a national championship, so Bill Self may have to turn his attention to bringing these guys back to school after he signs his re-worked contract some time soon.

3. Duke: This Duke team will probably still be lacking some inside muscle, but with everyone except DeMarcus Nelson returning to a team that earned a 2-seed in the tournament this year, they will be tough.  The nation’s top high school center, 7’2″ John Riek, is still considering the Dukies, and he would cement them as a Top 5 team heading into next season.

4.  Louisville: At first, you see that Louisville is losing some big-time talent, with David Padgett, Juan Palacios, and Earl Clark all moving on.  But, assuming Terrence Williams returns, they will probably be even better than they were this season.  Jerry Smith, Edgar Sosa, Andre McGee, and Derrick Caracter also return, and two blue-chip recruits, Samardo Samuels and Terrence Jennings, will be joining the front-court.

5. Tennessee: It looks like Bruce Pearl has this team in it for the long-haul.  Chris Lofton and Jajuan Smith exit, but nexttyler smith year’s team will feature a ridiculous junior class that includes Tyler Smith, Ramar Smith, J.P. Prince, Wayne Chism, and Duke Crews.  Top recruit Scotty Hopson will attempt to replace some of the perimeter scoring lost with the departure of Lofton and Jajuan Smith.

6.  Pittsburgh: Mike Cook graduates, but they were without him for most of the season anyway.  Guards Ronald Ramon and Keith Benjamin are also gone, but any team in the nation would be happy to have the trio of Sam Young, Dejaun Blair, and Levance Fields leading the way.

7.  UConn: Jim Calhoun brings his whole team back, so if A.J. Price can recover from the torn ACL he suffered in the tournament, he will join Jeff Adrien, Jerome Dyson, and Hasheem Thabeet on a team that could return UConn to national prominence.

8.  Gonzaga: The best team on the West Coast next season may very will be the Zags, not a Pac-10 team.  Only David Pendergraft graduates, meaning Mark Few will have Jeremy Pargo, Matt Bouldin, Josh Heytvelt, Austin Daye, and Micah Downs at his disposal.  The Zags will certainly look to make some noise early in the season with some big-name non-conference wins.

9.  Michigan St.: The Drews, Neitzel and Naymick, graduate but the Spartans will still have a boatload of talent, led by Raymar Morgan, Kalin Lucas, Travis Walton, and Goran Suton.  Excellent recruit Delvon Roe will also contribute.

10.  USC: This may seem like a strange choice, with O.J. Mayo definitely heading for the lottery, but USC will still have Daniel Hackett, Taj Gibson, and Davon Jefferson.  Maybe most importantly, they will replace Mayo with arguably the top guard in the Class of 2008: L.A. native Demar DeRozan.

Other Notes:

-The Big East will be the best conference in the country next season.  Besides Louisville, Pitt, and UConn, there will plenty of other top teams.  Notre Dame returns Luke Harangody and Kyle McAlarney.  Villanova returns everyone from a Sweet 16 team.  Marquette could be great if Dominic James and Jerel McNeal come back and West Virginia will be very tough if Joe Alexander stays.  Georgetown loses Hibbert, Wallace, and Ewing, but an amazing recruiting class, led by Greg Monroe, will keep them in the tournament.

-Memphis will be doing some rebuilding with Douglas-Roberts, Rose, and Dorsey gone.

-UCLA will be the hardest hit by early departures, with Love, Collison, and Westbrook probably leaving.  Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute will be joined by top recruit Jrue Holiday.

-Purdue (everyone back) and Wisconsin (with Marcus Landry and Trevon Hughes leading the way) will challenge Michigan St. in the Big Ten again.

-Texas returns everyone but Augustin and will be poised to take the Big 12 from Kansas if the Jayhawks are hit hard by early departures.

-Clemson and Miami both return their top scorers, among others, and will be back in the tournament out of the ACC.

-Xavier will contend in the A-1o, but not nationally, with the departures of Duncan, Burrell, and Lavender.

-Other teams headed for a downturn: Stanford, Washington St., Butler, Vanderbilt, Indiana.

2008 Phillies: 3 Games In

hamels rollinsNot that I’m the first person to accuse Philly fans of lacking some perspective, but I think, with the first series of the Phillies season complete, it might be time for all the fans out there to take a step back and have a look at the big picture.  I’m not talking about the “big picture” in the sense of “It’s a 162-game season, it’s a marathon not a sprint, it’s only three games, don’t worry about it”.  The Phillies (and us fans) have seen too many seasons recently go down the drain with abysmal Aprils and I don’t think any of us want to hear that anymore. 

I’m talking about the picture even bigger than that.  It seems like, heading into the season, many fans got caught up in assuming that this team would do better and go further in the playoffs than last year’s team.  They have a pretty young core, the thinking went, that includes three MVP-caliber position players and a legit ace at the front of the rotation.  They have a year more experience, they will inevitably have less injuries and, most importantly in many people’s mind, they know how to win now, after capturing the division title last year.

I think, in the afterglow of the team’s first playoff appearance in 14 years, a lot of people forgot something: this is still a flawed team.  I think no less an expert than the man who put this roster together, Pat Gillick, would agree with that statement.  Offensively, they have absolutely nothing to worry about. Yes, they were shut out by the Nationals on Wednesday, but those sort of anomalies happen. 

The shortcomings all lie in the pitching staff, and those flaws have already been on display: Tom Gordon imploding on Opening Day and Jamie Moyer struggling yesterday.  Not only are Gordon and Moyer old and unreliable, but they’re also filling very key roles on this team, as main setup man and #3 starter, respectively.  That tells you something about the starters and relievers that, in effect, rank below them as far as level of confidence from the coaching staff.

All that being said, this team still has a great shot of repeating as NL East Champs.  The anticipated flaws of the Mets and the Braves have also been on display early, with Pedro Martinez and Mike Hampton finding themselves in a very familiar position: on the disabled list.  If pushed to make a pick, I would still have to go with the Mets as favorites, just because I put so much stock in the left arm of Johan Santana, but this should be a nip and tuck race between these three teams all season.

Basically, my point here is to make a preemptive plea for some sanity.  Instead of building this team up to something they’re not, or tearing them down after a couple of bad losses, let’s all try to keep some perspective.  If you take a look at the proverbial “big picture”, you’ll see an incredibly exciting team that plays hard every day and is really just fun to watch.  Having a core like Rollins, Utley, Howard, and Hamels is something that doesn’t happen for any team very often, so let’s enjoy it.  With some of the stiffs on this pitching staff, there are bound to be ups and downs, but they have a definite chance of heading back to the playoffs, and maybe even doing some damage this time when they get there.  It’s a good time to be a Phillies fan.

How successful was Ohio State’s season? …and other stories

WHAT’S THE VALUE OF AN NIT TITLE?
Ohio State played an strong game last night, topping off a pretty impressive run to an NIT title.  They beat a game UMass team 92-85, in which the Minutemen got the tempo they wanted and still could not beat the youthful Buckeyes.

This raises the question:  How successful of a season is one where you win the NIT?  A lot of people call the NIT champ the 66th best team in college basketball.  That is obviously not the case because there is no doubt that Ohio St. (or any season’s NIT champ) is better than, at the very least, a dozen automatic qualifiers, and probably quite a few more.  So, is it the equivalent of an Arizona (a first-round loss)–a sort of vindication of being left out of the field, so that you can say to yourself, “See, we should have been in?”  Or, because you won five straight games against quality opponents, can you say it is better than that?  Is it as successful as a UNLV-type team, that made the tournament and won a first-round game before bowing out to a much better team?

There is much to be said about setting the ultimate goal as getting to the Dance, and anything short of that (especially for a defending Final Four team in a major conference) is a disappointment.  So, even an Arizona or a St. Joe’s, who squeaked into the tournament and then got beat soundly in the first round, had better seasons than Ohio St.  I do not completely disagree with this argument, but I am not so sure that I completely agree.

To clarify my forthcoming answer, I think we need to clarify the question.  If the question is:  “Is it a more successful season to make the Big Dance than to win the NIT?”  Then, I agree, somewhat, on that premise.  But, if the question is:  “What is better for the health of a program, a NCAA berth or an NIT championship?”  Then, I would say, without a doubt, a major conference school (particularly one with young players) is better served winning the NIT than bowing out unceremoniously in the first round of the tournament.  In fact, for a young big conference team, I think winning the NIT may even come close to equalling a Sweet 16 appearance, as far as breathing life and health into a program–just look at the success of past NIT champs and what they went on to do in the next couple of seasons.

In short, I think if you asked the Ohio St. athletic director or any Buckeye fan whether they would trade their season for UNLV’s, they would quickly say refuse.  And, if you asked Thad Matta, he would also tell you he would take the UNLV season.  But deep down, I would be willing to bet that Thad sees the benefits of this run and probably believes that over the course of this class’s future at OSU, the Buckeyes are better served with this title then, maybe even, the Sweet Sixteen run of Villanova–or at least better than Big Ten rivals Purdue and Indiana.
ANOTHER ILL-DEFINED QUESTION
The AP named their National Player of the Year and National Coach of the Year yesterday.  This is also a matter that needs to clarify the question at hand before a clear answer can be given.  Let us start with the “player of the year.”  Is it the “best” college player?  Is it the “most valuable” player?  Is it the “most talented” player?  Is it the player that “most defines the ’07 – ’08 season?”  What is it? 

The award was given to Tyler Hansborough, which is very difficult to argue with no matter how you define the award, but let’s give it a try.  In my college basketball preview, I basically said that Hansborough was a “lock” to win this award.  Doogan disagreed and said that he would not be surprised to see a freshman win it.  Well, the reason I am not gloating right now is because it did not take me long to switch my opinion and side with Doogan.  I believe that Michael Beasley should have been the player of the year.  He was the inarguably the “best” player and arguably (very arguably, I admit) the “most valuable” player as well. 

Has anyone looked at the numbers Beasley put up?  Per game averages:  26.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 1.6 blocks, 1.3 steals, and 1.1 three-pointers.  Uh…wow!  Now, the naysayers will point to Hansborough’s slightly similar numbers (22.8 & 10.3), but these people fail to realize that the Tar Heels run-and-gun style led to their team averaging 89 points and 44 rebounds per game.  Kansas State, as a team, only averaged 78 points and 41 rebounds per game.  The next argument you will hear is that Hansborough’s numbers are only lower because the opposing defenses have several other quality players on which they must focus.  Well, I think this only strengthens Beasley’s case, in that all he had was Bill Walker and a cast of mediocre college players, so he had to do everything.  Beasley was consistently putting up games of 30-15 against double- and triple-teams.  He was better. 

One more quick point for all the Hansborough supporters:  does anyone believe that UNC would not have made the tournament without Tyler?  In fact, I think they may have still won the ACC.  Admittedly, they would not have been a #1 seed, and probably would not still be playing right now, but they still would have been a nationally-ranked, top 4-5 seed in the tournament.  Now, how is K-State without Beasley?  .500?  Worse?  Probably.  They certainly are not even in the discussion for an NCAA bid.  With Beasley:  the second round.

Despite all of these arguments, I think it is a very, very tough decision, and I am perfectly fine with the result.  In fact, I am kind of happy with it because Beasley has a ton of accolades in his future, and Hansborough seems like the type of kid that would really appreciate being named player of the year.  But, if I had a vote and a true mission to get it right, I would have voted for Michael Beasley.
LIKE FATHER, LIKE SON
Dr. Tom Davis was the coach of the year in 1987 at Iowa.  Yesterday, his son, Keno Davis, was named AP National Coach of the Year for his terrific season guiding the Drake Bulldogs.  Before last season only one first-year coach had ever won this award, but after Tony Bennett won it last year at Washington State, Keno Davis makes it two years in row.  Even more ironic may be the fact that this is the second straight year where a son that took over his father’s program has won it, as like Bennett, who followed his father, Dick, at WSU, Keno took over for Dr. Tom at Drake.

All in all, thought there are others that may have equally deserved this award (Trent Johnson, Ben Howland, Rick Barnes, even Coach K), I have no problem with this award going to Davis.  He did a terrific job at Drake, and is justly deserving of such an honor.

  
THE BEST CONFERENCE JUST GOT BETTER
The Pac-10 was, in my mind, the undisputed top conference in the country this year.  And, though it had a lot to do with the players, it may have even had more to do with the coaches.  It is no secret how I feel about Ben Howland, as a coach, but this conference is stacked with great coaching minds.  I have also written how I feel about Herb Sendek and Tony Bennett.  Tim Floyd is a terrific coach, and Trent Johnson did a phenomenal job with Stanford this year.

Well, next year, the conference will be even better as far as coaching talent.  Arizona replaces an overmatched Kevin O’Neil with the return of Hall of Famer, Lute Olson, but that is not to what I am referring here.  The University of California may have just hired the conference’s best coach.  According to a source close to the team (and reported on ESPN), the Cal Bears are about to name Mike Montgomery as their next head coach.  While at Stanford, I always considered Montgomery one of the five best coaches in the country for the program he built and sustained.  He made an ill-advised jump to the NBA, but now he’s back coaching kids in California.  That Cal team has a bright future with Montgomery at the helm.

Ironically, the lone scar on the Pac-10’s otherwise lofty collection of basketball programs took one on the chin yesterday, when Billy Grier turned down an offer to coach Oregon State.  Apparently, Grier felt that he wanted to stay at the better program–SAN DIEGO.  Yes, you know you are bad when you are in the best conference in the country and the coach of a school that no one had ever heard of until their improbable run to the NCAAs this year turns down your vacant coaching position.  Ouch!
 

ANOTHER GREAT HIRE
I love Indiana’s choice of Tom Crean to replace Kelvin Sampson as coach of the Hoosiers.  Crean is a flat-out winner, and a Midwest guy.  His coaching roots extend to one of the best, as he started as an assistant to Tom Izzo at Michigan St.  Now, he will be facing his mentor on the hardwood every year, as well as the recruiting trail.  He has vowed to close the borders of Indiana to poachers trying to take Hoosier talent away from the Hoosiers (IU fans wonder where he was two years ago, when they lost Oden and Conley to hated rival, Ohio St.).  That program is in danger of becoming very stagnant, but I do not think Crean, a fantastic recruiter (Dwyane Wade, Dominic James, etc.) and an outstanding game coach (averaging 20 wins per season in his nine years in the Big East with Marquette), will allow that to happen.  Great move for the Hoosiers.
 

COACH CAL, ALWAYS ABOUT DISCIPLINE AND CLASS
You have to credit Coach Calipari for how he handled the Andre Allen situation.  He decided on Thursday to suspend his backup point guard, not only for Saturday’s semifinal, but also for the final on Monday, if Memphis can get there without him.  Allen, not a starter, but still an important piece of the puzzle (14.1 minutes per game as the only pure PG to backup Rose), apparently pulled the ‘ole “undisclosed violation of team rules” at the worst possible time.  And Coach Cal did not waver, did not succumb to the pressure of winning, did not brush it under the rug (like probably happens quite often, but, by definition, we do not know about it).  He handled it with class and positive emotion.  Always a master of sports psychology, Calipari did what he felt he had to do, and used his famous mind games to try and minimize the impact of the loss.  Good for you, John.  Coach Chaney would be proud!

Cimorelli’s Question of the Day

Which of the Final Four teams will have:  (a) the most NBA players, (b) the most NBA starters, and (c) the most NBA all-stars?

My thoughts (tell me if you agree or not)

ALL-STARS:

  • Derrick Rose (not a sure thing, but incredible upside)
  • anyone else would surprise me (though I think Love or Arthur have the best chance of the others, I just don’t see all-star)

CONSISTENT STARTERS:

  • Love
  • Arthur
  • Lawson (will have to improve defensively–which I think he will)
  • Westbrook (I don’t totally see it, but the scouts apparently are drooling over him)
  • Collison (I think he’s a slightly better pro prospect than Chalmers)
  • Ellington (a tough call, but I think he’ll be good enough to start in the NBA eventually)

DECENT CAREERS, NEVER CONSISTENT STARTERS:

  • Douglas-Roberts (this is the toughest call–I LOVE his game, but what at position can he start in the NBA?)
  • Rush (does he have the heart to be a star?)
  • Hansborough (I think he’ll have a terrific career as a 3rd or 4th big man on a really good team)
  • Dorsey (if he develops a work ethic, he might play for 12 years in the pros, but probably off the bench)
  • Chalmers (though I wouldn’t be terribly surprised if he ends up starting somewhere)

CUP OF COFFEE:

  • Sherron Collins (probably an NBA player, but if Adonis Jordan didn’t make it, who knows?)
  • Deon Thompson (size)
  • Darnell Jackson (size)
  • Josh Shipp
  • Russell Robinson

So, my final count (to answer the question) of NBA players:

  • 5 for Kansas–1 starter, 2 good backups, 2 potential end-of-the-bench guys3 for Memphis–1 all-star, 2 good NBA backups
  • 4 for UCLA–3 consistent starters, 1 end-of-the-bench guy
  • 4 for UNC–2 starters, 1 good backup, 1 end-of-the-bench guy
  • 3 for Memphis–1 all-star, 2 really good backups 

All in all, this is going to be an INCREDIBLE Final Four!