I can't imagine that Astros fans are terribly happy with Brewers' manager Ned Yost right now. Not after he pulled Ben Sheets from a dominant shutout effort. Not after he stayed with supremely mediocre reliever Jose Capellan. Not when he walked Juan Encarnacion to put the go-ahead run on base. Certainly not when all of that culminated in a Jericho-like mushroom cloud when pinch hitter Scott Spiezio drove in three runs with a triple. 3-2, Cards. Ballgame. Season over for Houston. Well, at least it is pretty much over, unless they win today and tomorrow and St. Louis loses, then loses again in a makeup game against San Francisco on Monday.
Just yesterday it looked like the Astros might be the NL favorites. Now they are done like dinner. No, Houston fans can't be pleased with Ned Yost at all.
(By the way, doesn't it seem like Spiezio is always doing this? He hit the home run that basically won the 2002 World Series for Anaheim and has had a variety of pretty big hits in this career, which is surprising, because he sucks something awful pretty much all of the time. Has there ever been a worse player with more big hits? Someone needs to research this.)
Saturday, September 30, 2006
This Saturday of college football is only a few hours old, but I'm already going on record by saying that the performance of Illinois' freshman quarterback Juice Williams will be the overlooked story of the day.
Maybe I'm impartial to Williams because he goes by the name "Juice," which happens to be the nickname of one of my best friends, but I don't think that is why his ability to lead the Illini to a 23-20 victory over Michigan State this morning was so significant. No, it is more to do with the fact that Illinois - the same Illinois that had lost 24 of its last 25 conference games and is coached by the woeful Ron Zook - was able to go on the road and beat a superior Big 10 opponent.
Now, granted, Michigan State had to be down after the crushing loss to Notre Dame, and granted, the Spartans aren't nearly as potent as the porous Irish defense made them look, but this is still a team that qualifies as at least halfway decent. They were, after all, a 26-point favorite in this contest. And Illinois beat them! On the road!
Perhaps you have to be living in the state of Illinois to really understand the significance of this, but if you don't, just take my word for it: this is a shocking development. And, by my calculation, the credit belongs to one person: Juice Williams. After the Illini were slaughtered by Rutgers and beaten by a hideous Syracuse team, Zook decided to turn the team over to his prized recruit. The initital results weren't good as Illinois lost a home game to Iowa by the score of 24-7 and Juice was a woeful 9-for-32 with three picks.
What a difference a week makes. No doubt it helped to play someone besides Iowa (who I still think is going to beat Ohio State tonight and win the Big 10), but you could also see Juice improve by leaps and bounds after having a full week of practice with the first team offense. He was decisive with his throws, carried himself with confidence, made several big plays, and - most importantly - wrecked havoc with his running ability, rushing 17 times for 103 yards.
It was an absolutely enormous win for a program that is completely off the national radar. However, with the electric Juice Williams coming of age right before our very eyes, it seems that Illinois football finally has something to be excited about for the first time in years.
Friday, September 29, 2006
The talk of Major League Baseball heading into the final weekend of the season is centering on the possibility of the St. Louis Cardinals suffering a collapse the likes of which we've never seen. Nine days ago, they led the Houston Astros by 8.5 games in the NL Central. Now, heading into tonight's games, that lead is down to a mere half game. If Houston wins the same number of these final three games as St. Louis, the Cardinals will be required to play a makeup contest against the Giants on Monday to fend them off. If Houston wins one more game than the Cards, St. Louis will have to beat San Francisco just to force a playoff. To say that this situation was unexpected would be a massive understatement.
However, to focus only on the potential collapse this weekend is to miss the point entirely, at least in regard to the Astros. While this would certainly be a dark day for Cardinals fans, the fact is, they appear unlikely to do much damage in the playoffs. I've talked to fans of a variety of other NL teams and they all say the same thing: "We want to play St. Louis." The Cards have Albert Pujols and Chris Carpenter and not a whole lot else right now. They were looking like either the perfect patsy for the now Pedro-less New York Mets, no match for San Diego's pitching, or the ideal opponent for hot teams like the Dodgers or Phillies. Not for one minute did the Houston Astros enter the equation.
And now that they have, everyone seems to be ignoring the implications of this reemergence, which is a mistake. Because if Houston makes the playoffs, it signifies more than a dramatic story - it changes the entire face of the National League playoffs.
Try this on and see how it fits: Houston Astros, NL Favorites.
Crazy? Hardly. This is a team that for what seems like the 20th straight season has risen from the ashes in remarkable fashion. Every year they keep cutting it close and closer and maybe this is the year they don't make it. But if they do? Can you imagine a team going into the playoffs on a bigger high? It is safe to say they would have momentum on their side. In addition, they would also enter the postseason with the confidence and experience that is the result of winning the NL pennant last year. They know what it takes to win.
Beyond the emotional and mental advantages that the 'Stros might have, they also have some things going for them on the field. Obviously, they have tremendous pitching. Roy Oswalt has quietly had another fantastic season, going 15-8 with a 2.98 ERA (why isn't he getting mention for NL Cy Young with Carpenter, Brandon Webb, and Trevor Hoffman?). Andy Pettitte is 7-4 with a 2.92 since the All-Star break. Clemens is 7-5 with a 2.35 ERA and is far healthier than he was at this time last year. While they lack a strong fourth starter, Houston clearly has the best rotation (apologies to the Padres) of any NL contender. As for the offense, it is finally starting to come around. Since being swept at home by the Phillies, Houston has won 10 of 11 and scored 64 runs (5.8 per game) in the process. Thanks to callup Luke Scott (14 RBI in last 10 games), the largely overlooked Lance Berkman (.314/44/133), and Aubrey Huff (6 for last 10 with two home runs and five RBI), Houston is finally pushing some runs across the plate. Not enough to scare anybody, but enough to win 4-2 games in October. In fact, other than the question marks surrounding Brad Lidge at the back end of the bullpen, you could argue that the 'Stros actually have fewer issues than any other team in the National League.
All of this is just another reason to keep a close eye on the Astros and Cardinals over the next few days. Because if Houston overtakes St. Louis, we won't just be witnessing an epic collapse. We might be seeing the balance of power in the National League shift right before our very eyes.
Saturday, September 16, 2006
The NFL's first week gave us plenty to think and talk about. Will the Seahawks figure out how to block without Steve Hutchinson? Is Chad Pennington for real? Why are the Packers signing Koren Robinson? And, of course, why do so many players have mohawks?
However, some of the biggest and scariest questions surround the new laughingstock of the NFL, the Oakland Raiders. Will they ever score a point? Will they set football back 10 years or 20? And will Art Shell ever blink? Against San Diego, the Raiders couldn't block, couldn't game plan (how about throwing a screen pass?), and made no adjustments whatsoever. I guess that is what happens when you bring in a retread quarterback, throw together a patchwork offensive line, and hire a head coach and offensive coordinator that have both been out of the game for a decade.
Now, what ultimately happens to the Raiders isn't that big of a deal, unless you are part of Raider Nation. But I can't help wonder what is going to become of Randy Moss. Just a few years ago Moss was one of the most interesting players in the NFL - the type of guy that would hit traffic cops with his car, walk off the field during the game, sport a sweet afro, and, of course, catch ridiculously deep touchdown passes. In fact, Moss is not only an enigma of a personality, he's arguably the greatest deep threat to ever don a uniform.
Now? He's mired in Bead and Breakfast Hell (a nod to offensive coordinator Tom Walsh, who was running a B&B until he got the phone call to come dissect uber-sophisticated NFL defenses - that might, just might have been a mistake). The danger here is that Moss is just going to fade away, become irrelevant. Setting aside whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, the big question is: will it happen?
Moss caught four passes for 47 yards in the Monday night opener, which served as a red flag, especially considering the fact that he has owned Monday Night Football in the past. Moss is the kind of guy that always thrived when the lights were brightest. On Monday he barely got a chance to participate, with Oakland reduced to throwing him successive swing passes just to get him the ball. In fact, you could argue that Moss' future actually lies in the hands of others. If Shell and Walsh keep sending him out on 25-yard patterns that require Brooks to take a seven-step drop, we can just end the discussion right now. It will never work. They will have to start running some screen passes and slants to loosen things up. Whether the geniuses on Oakland's staff figure that out is probably a 50/50 proposition. But even if they do construct a better offense, Moss still has to do his part.
So ... will Randy bounce back? To answer that question, let's look back at how he has responded to adversity in the recent past.
From 2002-2005, Moss strayed from his usual outstanding play and threw up a "poor" performance (fewer than 60 receiving yards) 20 times. It might be surprising to learn that Moss has fallen short of 60 receiving yards in over a third of his total games during that four-year stretch, but it is important to note that he still found the end zone in many of those contests and almost always served as a deep threat to open up the offense. That said, any team with Randy Moss is going to be more effective when he's going for 150 yards than when he's tallying 47.
Of those 20 "poor" performances, we are going to focus on the 11 that occurred either at the start of the season or popped up amidst a string of good performances (the other nine were attached to the initial outlier performances, as you will see in just a moment). In other words, these are the 11 games when Moss was suddenly faced with the adversity that comes on the heels of a disappointing performance. How he responded to those contests is what interests me.
After those 11 "poor" games (I realize this is a rather arbitrary determination of a poor game, but bear with me) only one time did he immediately bounce back with a Randy Moss kind of game (100 yards or more). That was when he came back from a tough outing against Green Bay and hung 113 yards and two scores on New Orleans. On a whopping seven occasions it was the second game when he got back on track. One instance, in 2004, it took him four games to find the range. And last year he had those horrible stretches where it took him five games and seven games to break out Vintage Moss.
The question is whether or not we can throw last year out of the analysis. On one hand, Moss played hurt most of the season and barely resembled the Randy Moss we were used to. On the other hand, he was a Raider, which is what he is now. And arguably, his situation is even worse than it was a year ago - Aaron Brooks is more mobile than Kerry Collins, but for one week, that didn't translate into more time for Randy to run his deep routes. He's stuck in an archaic offensive system with a mediocre (at best) quarterback and a horrible offensive line. Combine that with some of his recent negative comments and it seems possible that the old Randy Moss is long gone. It could be that last year's rough stretches are exactly what we should be looking at when trying to predict this season.
However, if last year is not the correct proxy - regardless of the wide receiver's attitude and dire team situation - then it seems highly likely that Moss will be getting back on track in week four in a home game against Cleveland. After all, from 2002-2004, Moss suffered a setback in the form of a poor game nine times and on seven occasions, he came back with a more typical Randy Moss performance exactly two games later. He was almost robotic in his consistency, enjoying his "rebound game" during the second week 78% of the time.
So, what is it going to be? Is Randy Moss still the game's most dangerous deep threat - a guy capable of beating double and triple teams and making everyone around him better? A guy that always seems to take one step back, only to shake the cobwebs, absorb all the doubts, and then sprint two step forwards? A guy that history tells us is nearly a mortal lock to get his 100 yards against Cleveland in Week Four? Or is Moss now doomed in the Silver and Black, ready to point fingers and accept defeat?
If you ask me, that game against the Browns is looming pretty large right about now. That is, if you even care about Randy Moss in the first place. But that's a whole separate question, isn't it?
Thursday, September 14, 2006
(Note: This column originally appeared at BlogCritics.org.)
One of the biggest Saturdays of the college football season is about to sneak up on us. It doesn't feature the bubbling anticipation of opening weekend, nor is it cloaked in the mystique of rivalry week, but when the dust settles on this college football season and BCS bowl bids are being handed out, we might look back on Saturday, September 16th as the most critical day of the season.
Coinciding with a slate of huge games this weekend is the release of The Black Dahlia, the crime thriller from Brian De Palma based on the fabulous novel by James Ellroy. In honor of this highly anticipated film (which inexplicably stars Josh Hartnett, by the way), I am choosing seven De Palma films to represent the seven games taking place between ranked teams this Saturday. After all, why write a sports column if you can't incorporate a cheap pop-culture gimmick?
Carlito's Way: #17 Miami at #12 Louisville. I was tempted to put Scarface here for the obvious Miami connection, but I had to save that little nugget for later. Luckily, Carlito's Way fills in nicely. In the movie, Carlito (played by Al Pacino) gets out of jail and seeks to make a new life for himself, dreaming of a move to the Bahamas. In this game we've got Louisville, trying to get into the national title picture, dreaming of playing in a BCS bowl and boasting a Heisman Trophy finalist (Quarterback Brian Brohm). Unfortunately for Carlito, he has shady friends that pull him back into his old life (the famous quote used to open Jay-Z's In My Lifetime Vol. 1 says it all: "Somebody's pulling me close to the ground."). In the case of Louisville, they lost their star running back Michael Bush and could slip back to the pack if they can't get by the Canes and their stifling defense. Plus, for all the recent hand-wringing in Coral Gables, Miami has a certain aura that can be tough to overcome, especially for teams trying to break through. Essentially, Louisville is trying to become what Miami has been for years and years, but to do so, they have to beat the Canes on Saturday. Of course, Carlito's Way has another perfect quote for that dynamic: "You think you like me? You ain't like me [profanity]. I've been with made people, connected people. Who've you been with?" Exactly.
Snake Eyes: #24 Texas Tech at #20 TCU. Brian De Palma has made some good movies, he's arguably made a few great movies, and he's made some absolutely awful movies. Snake Eyes is a fabulously awful movie made purely for entertainment purposes (at least, I hope so). That's why it is perfect for this game. Texas Tech has a high octane offense that routinely throws up 400 passing yards in a game no matter who stands under center (or, accurately, stands a few yards behind the center in the shotgun formation) and TCU is a conference-hopping running back factory that currently owns the longest winning streak in the nation. The chances of either of these teams landing a BCS bid are slim, but it should make for some nice, mind-numbing entertainment.
Carrie: #15 Oklahoma at #15 Oregon. In 2004, the Sooners knocked off Oregon 31-7 in Norman. In 2005, the two teams met again in the Holiday Bowl when a Ducks squad angry over a BCS snub blew a tire and lost to Oklahoma once again. Needless to say, the men in the strange green uniforms have had this date circled for quite some time. And what better movie to represent Oregon's quest than Carrie, the ultimate horror tale of teenage revenge? It is also an apt comparison in that the Ducks' Nike uniforms are often a horror show in their own right. (Okay, okay, enough about the uniforms.) This battle between OU and U of O features the best high school running back from 2003 in Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson taking on the best high school running back from 2004 in Oregon's Jonathan Stewart. It pits two of the finest coaches in the nation against each other in Mike Bellotti and Bob Stoops. And for all that, it will probably come down to a battle of athletic quarterbacks that weren't supposed to be here. Most people in Eugene figured Brady Leaf to be the Ducks' starting quarterback, and certainly nobody in Norman expected Rhett Bomar to get kicked off the team just weeks before the opener. Yet here are Dennis Dixon and Paul Thompson, squaring off with a potential (if distant) BCS bid hanging in the balance.
The Bonfire of the Vanities: #7 Florida at #13 Tennessee. By all accounts (including my own), this was a horrendous movie. Pacing issues galore, egregious narration from Bruce Willis, and overacting across the board. That said, this poor adaptation of the brilliant Tom Wolfe novel sort of tells the Tennessee story of the past few years. A "Master of the Universe" (as Tom Hanks' Sherman McCoy character refers to himself) is on top of Wall Street/college football, raking in the money/recruits, and generally getting the best of everything. Then, suddenly, it all slips away. For McCoy, he partakes in an illicit affair with a Southern Belle (see, this movie fits the matchup perfectly), gets involved in a hit-and-run in the Bronx, and then is trotted out to a salivating public demanding The Great White Defendant. It is quite a tale and it isn't far from the downfall that Tennessee experienced last year when they started the season #3 in the Associated Press' preseason poll and finished 5-6. This year the Vols have throttled Cal and fended off Air Force to start 2-0 and reemerge as a relevant force in the SEC. I guess it is ironic that they seek to continue their Sherman McCoy-like escape from the depths (in the movie he wiretaps his mistress, entraps her in a lie in the courtroom, and manages to avoid certain prison time, then disappears into the ether as - we are led to believe - a free man with a new perspective) in an epic home game against Florida. You see, the Gators are just two years removed from The Ron Zook Era, which was a bit of mess in its own right. However, under Urban Meyer they are now moving back to the forefront of college football. Despite the falls from grace these two powers have experienced recently, it is safe to say that the only bonfires occurring this weekend will be at the pep rallies on Friday night.
Mission: Impossible: #11 Michigan at #2 Notre Dame. I'm not saying that it is impossible to go into South Bend and beat Notre Dame (although Penn State would argue that it is), but when you look at Michigan's recent history, things don't look good. Lloyd Carr is 0-3 lifetime in South Bend, Michigan hasn't won a road opener in six years, and the Wolverines are coming off a very disappointing 7-5 season in 2005. So let's call it Mission: Extremely Difficult. The good news for Michigan is that they have a ferocious ground game featuring stud junior Mike Hart (not to mention talented backups Kevin Grady and Brandon Minor) running behind a fantastic offensive line. They also have a passing game led by Chad Henne and Steve Breaston that is dying to show what it can do. The Wolverines have more than enough ammunition to take down the Irish. The question is whether they choose to accept their mission (actually the question is which team executes, but that didn't make for a very good ending). Cue the theme music!
The Untouchables: #19 Nebraska at #4 USC. As depicted in the movie (that I suspect was good in its day but really doesn't hold up very well), Eliot Ness' "Untouchables" were a group of incorruptible lawmen that spent their days battling the likes of Al Capone and other mobsters in Chicago during the 1930's. Today, that tag could describe the offense that USC has been trotting out the last four years. Beginning with Carson Palmer and Mike Williams, cresting during the Leinart/Bush/White era, and now the transition to John David Booty and a host of talented backs, receivers, and tight ends, the Trojans have become the most feared offensive juggernaut in college football. Can Nebraska stop them? For that to happen we are going to have to see a sudden and dramatic return to the "Black Shirts" days for the Cornhuskers defense. The other option, of course, is to try to outscore USC. While this is no easy task - especially against So Cal's improved defense - Nebraska might be one of the few teams up to the task. Behind Bill Callahan's explosive offensive scheme and Zac Taylor's (no relation to our 12th President) strong right arm, the 'Huskers might have the right formula to get the job done. (Note: Between Callahan and Pete Carroll, this might be one the better all-time "guys that weren't so good in the NFL but are great college head coaches" matchups. If only we could get Steve Spurrier involved in some way.)
Scarface: #6 LSU at #3 Auburn. Scarface was a bloody masterpiece. I don't mean "bloody" in the way British use the word, but rather in the literal sense ... it is probably the best movie ever made to rely solely on visceral violence. That gore factor alone is perfect for a game that should rank among the hardest-hitting contests of the year, but the "coming up against all odds" element fits as well. In Scarface, Tony Montana (Al Pacino) fights to gain respect and move to the top of Miami's criminal underworld, which is fitting, because both LSU and Auburn have been fighting for respect and a place at the top of the college football world for the last couple of years, cresting with Auburn's exclusion from the BCS title game in 2004 (you know, the year they were drilling people by 40 every game and featuring like eight NFL first round picks, but couldn't get past a wildly overrated Oklahoma team in the old computer rankings). It is a shame that one of these teams will have a loss so early in the year, but the winner becomes one of the favorites to win it all. Perhaps Thunderdome is a better reference ("Two men enter - one man leave"), too bad De Palma didn't direct that one. Anyway. Auburn continues to win with defense and a relentless ground game and only puts the ball in quarterback Brandon Cox's hands when the defense overloads the box. As for LSU, they have been arguably the most impressive defensive team in the country through two weeks and feature an extremely talented but inconsistent quarterback in JaMarcus Russell, a monster athlete with perhaps the best arm in all of football (including the pros). LSU asks its quarterback to make plays early and often while mixing in a running game by committee (spearheaded by Justin Vincent and Alley Broussard). It says here that the most physical (we'll bail out of the Scarface comparison long enough to avoid the term "violent") team wins.
It should be a fantastic weekend of college football - probably the best one of the entire season. Now I just hope De Palma's latest film holds up its end of the bargain.
Sunday, September 03, 2006
I hate only one thing about college football and that is that the opening weekend sneaks up on you. No football game that counts should happen before Labor Day. Hey, if I can still wear white pants until Labor Day, that means it is still summer. And that means no real football.
Oh well, I guess all it means is that I didn't get to churn out a 3,000-word column breaking down my top 16 teams and ultimately anointing my title pick. Instead, I will just give a quick run down here. You can feel free to take these picks to the bank.
BCS Conference Winners:
Pac 10 - USC. You can see my Pac-10 preview here, but the gist of it is that I'm not one of the people doubting the Trojans. When you have a former #1 recruit stepping in at QB after spending two years in the system, as John David Booty is doing, it is not called rebuilding, but reloading. Matt Leinart was far less proven when he took over for Carson Palmer. Booty is going to throw for at least 2,500 yards and 30 scores this year. As for the rest of the team, let's see ... They have arguably the best defensive linemen in the country. They have their best linebacking group of the Pete Carroll era. They have an improved secondary. Their tight end, Fred Davis, is a monster. They have like 19 sweet running backs. Oh yeah, and they have one of the best receiving tandems in recent memory in Dwayne Jarrett and Steve Smith. Sick, sick, sick. Plus, they play almost every key game at home. 12-0 and a trip to the title game sounds about right.
Big East - West Virginia. I'm a sucker for teams that run the spread offense and rack up thousands of rushing yards. Especially when the guys doing the running emerged as freshmen sensation as QB Pat White and RB Steve Slaton did last year. The Mountaineers have a soft schedule and a lot of talent. Ring it up.
Big 12 - Texas. I've got Ohio State beating that Longhorns next weekend but I think there is a good chance that SC is the only undefeated team by the conference title games, so Texas could get back to the promised land. Either way, the Big 12 sucks, Oklahoma sucks, and UT should win the conference easily.
Big 10 - Iowa. I wanted to pick Michigan, but between going to Penn State and going to Ohio State, it doesn't look good. Plus, the only way the Buckeyes aren't winning this conference is if someone gets to play them at home, beats them, and then avoids losing more than one game the rest of the way. I've got Iowa accomplishing the feat (losing to Michigan) behind quarterback Drew Tate and running back Albert Young.
ACC - Clemson. Everyone seems to think Florida State is back (they aren't), that Miami isn't fading (they are), and that Virginia Tech has the best defense in the country (actually, they might). Meanwhile, I am enamored with Clemson's experience, defense, and monster running game that features sophomore James Davis and frosh C.J. Spiller. This is my big sleeper pick.
SEC - LSU. The SEC should be a bloodbath this year, so I'm going with the team that has depth at key positions. What happens to Auburn if Kenny Irons goes down? How about Florida if they lose Chris Leak? Alabama without Kenneth Darby? You get the idea. Meanwhile LSU has one of the best quarterbacks in the country in JaMarcus Russell, yet he barely kept his job because backup Matt Flynn is so good (you might remember him carving up Miami last year). At running back they have Justin Vincent, who was the freshman hero when LSU upset Oklahoma in 2003 ... and he's a backup behind monster Alley Broussard, who would have started ahead of eventual first-round pick (and current fantasy football favorite) Joseph Addai if not for a knee injury. Plus they have four veteran receivers, the best safety in the country, and a relentless defense. I'm telling you, I love this team.
I think the additional teams gaining BCS births will be Ohio State (lone loss against Iowa) and Auburn (lone loss against LSU).
As for the champ ...
I have LSU losing at Tennessee then defeating the Vols in a rematch in the SEC title game. One loss teams such as Texas and Ohio State plead their case for a title birth, but by virtue of being in the country's toughest conference, the 12-1 Tigers get the nod. They will meet the 12-0 Trojans in the game that should have happened in 2003 (when USC won the AP title by beating Michigan while LSU knocked off an undeserving Oklahoma team) with LSU coming out on top.
That's right, I am taking an SEC team that has to play Auburn, Tennessee, and Florida on the road. No, I'm not insane.
Friday, September 01, 2006
Well, Team USA got bounced in the wee hours of the morning today, losing to Greece 101-95. The score alone should tell the story: a Greece team known for slowing the pace and grinding it out with size and physical defense found a way to light up the scoreboard for over 100 points in 40 minutes. By all accounts, the Greeks played the game of their lives. However, that won't be the slant in the media coverage. No, the stories will focus on Team USA's inability to play team basketball, how they couldn't stop the pick and roll, and other things that we did wrong. While those criticisms may or may not be true, those weren’t the reasons we lost. What are the reasons? I'm glad you asked.
1. The Nature of the Game. No matter what anyone tells me, I firmly believe that the biggest reason for this upset is that upsets happen in basketball. When you play a one-and-done tournament and the teams are even close to being equal, you simply can't win them all. This is why the NCAA Tournament is so riveting, because George Mason can beat UConn on any given day. There is no way you can ensure victory all the time and when a Greece team that supposedly can't shoot straight starts burying 25-foot fadeaways against the shot clock, well, these things can happen.
(While we're here, I just want to note how irresponsible, negative, and pedantic ESPN's Chris Sheridan has been during his coverage of the event. I normally don't take shots at specific writers, but this guy is a joke. He hammered out 1,500 words today about how no one likes him, how he is "yelling into the wind" regarding international basketball, and other things that absolutely no one cares about. Then, after his self-indulgent wrap-up column about, well, himself, he decided that because Team USA is going to finish third or fourth in this tournament, that America is the third or fourth best basketball-playing nation in the world. Sure, that makes sense. Just like UConn is somewhere between the fifth and eighth best college basketball program and Duke is somewhere between ninth and 16th, because they lost in the Elite Eight and Sweet 16, respectively. I think not. We all know that Duke and UConn have the two strongest college basketball programs and that their finish in any particular tournament does not automatically change that standing. For Sheridan to make that inference shows how little he knows about basketball. Either that, or how much he hates his own country’s basketball team.)
2. Chris Sheridan. Okay, just kidding. But who knows? Negative thinking produces negative results. How would you feel if you were on Team USA and the primary writer from your country's largest sports media engine was tagging along asking you scathing questions, calling you out in print, and basically rooting for Spain and Argentina? I'm guessing it would be more than a little annoying. Thanks for doing your part, Chris.
3. Luck. This kind of goes with “nature of the game” above, but you should have seen some of the breaks in this game. Team USA was throttling Greece early when two horrendous fouls were called on three-point shots. Boom, six free points that kept them in the game. There was also a banked-in three with the shot clock expiring, a missed dunk by Wade (when he was clearly fouled) in a crucial situation, and a terrible intentional foul call on Hinrich with the score 91-86 (and all the momentum on the side of the red, white, and blue) that probably cost us the game. Throw in some of the blatant offensive fouls (apparently, leading with your off-arm is perfectly acceptable in FIBA play, as long as you are not American) that Greece got away with and I'm conservatively estimating that they lucked their way into between 15 and 20 points. And that doesn't even account for a poor shooting team somehow making 14 of 18 shots in the third quarter, many of which were contested heaves from behind the three-point line.
4. Free Throws. If there is one thing that Team USA did that was truly blame-worthy, it was the brickfest at the line. LeBron missed like four in a row at one point, Melo missed three in a row, even guys like Paul and Shane Battier seemed to happy with hitting one of two. It was awful. Team USA allowed too many layups and missed way too many free throws. Even I will admit that. In fact, my only lingering criticism about the contruction of this team (something I'm sure people will rail about in the coming days) is that somehow, someway, not enough attention was paid to shooting ability. Again. Considering the bricks we threw up in Athens, it seems impossible that we could turn a blind eye toward shooting, but it sort of happened. Not a single guy that finished in the top-30 in three point percentage last year was part of this team. How is that possible? I still find it unacceptable that Mike Miller was not on this team. The constant clanging was a problem from outside, a problem from the line ... it is just a problem. And it is the one armchair quarterback element of team construction that is totally valid, even for those pundits that were drooling all over themselves for the last three months.)
5. Not Enough One-on-One Play. I know this sounds weird, especially because everything you are going to read is about the fact that there was TOO MUCH individual play. However, there are a few important things to note. First, this team doesn't have years of experience playing together. Not only is this one more reason why we should employ my All-Duke idea for international play, but it also means that we can't and shouldn't try to play like the other teams. We're not going to look like Spain or Argentina with magical ball movement and total synergy, so why fight it? (Although I have to tell you, I watched Argentina and Spain play as well, and either one of them would have lost to Greece today by 20 points. Just so you know. Don’t tell Chris Sheridan though, I wouldn’t want his feelings to get hurt by criticizing his precious favorite teams.)
Team USA should be spreading the court and allowing our superior athletes to take these scrubs to the rim. If you saw the end of the game, you watched LeBron destroy people with great ease, getting to the hoop for layups and monster dunks at will. I know Greece was guarding against the three-pointer and trying not to foul, but I find it hard to believe that they could have stopped him. Ever. Early in the game LeBron faked a handoff and glided to the rim for an easy layup like there was no defense at all. I think Team USA tried so hard to play like Euros that they accidentally negated their biggest advantage, which is that we have quite a few players that simply can't be stopped. They should have just taken turns running isos at the top of the key and putting on highlight shows.
The bottom line is that we are still learning to navigate the new international landscape. There are half a dozen teams that can play at a high level now and while Team USA is always going to be one of the favorites, there is no way to ensure victory every time out on the court. The key is to stick with the system, embrace our advantages, work to mitigate our disadvantages, and just go out and play hard. I am proud of our team and thought they played hard and for the most part played well. They just ran into a decent team that played great. And in one-and-done, tournament basketball, those things happen.
Oh, and it doesn’t mean that we are any less of a basketball-playing country, no matter what Chris Sheridan tries to tell you.