Saturday, October 27, 2007

On The 2007-08 NBA Season

Using age, health and previous seasons’ value scores, I projected ratings for all key players this season (for rookies, there’s more guesswork, although I did try to track the key ones against previous similar players). Then, I added up the scores, along with a constant bench modifier, to project all 30 teams’ records. These were distorted a little at the edges to add a “real season” feel to the projections (every team won’t be between 28-54 wins, although they may all project there), and the analysis is subjectively mine, but the order is completely unchanged from my numbers. And the system doesn’t care what name’s on the jersey, so some traditional powers better look out.

Also, at various points I comment on player ages. These are not always strictly correct, because the list I worked from had age as of 1/1/08. For example, LeBron has a December birthday. So I consider him to be 23, although that is not yet true.



Indiana Pacers. They failed to unload Jermaine O’Neal in the offseason, which is a shame for them because he’s declining and was never an A level star in the first place. I was really looking forward to watching him go to the Lakers for an Odom package, and then watch Kobe morph from giddy to horrified as he slowly realized his team had gotten even worse. Indiana could get a good year out of everyone on their entire team and still miss the playoffs. And they have exactly zero young players with genuine star potential—Danny Granger appears to be on the good support player arc, Ike Diogu scores when he plays, but doesn’t apparently ever shine enough to get consistent minutes, and that’s pretty much it for their youth movement. I don’t think a franchise could have accumulated a less inspiring roster on purpose.

Projected Record: 26-56

Philadelphia 76ers. In contrast, the 76ers are going about being bad the right way. In Andre Iguodala, they do have a budding star. Andre Miller probably has a few serviceable years left at PG, and Kyle Korver and Samuel Dalembert are great specialists. In Louis Williams, Rodney Carney and Thaddeus Young, they’ve found a high-potential young draftee three years running. This is the sort of roster that, with one good Ping-Pong ball next spring, would become an actual team again.

Projected Record: 32-50

Milwaukee Bucks. Michael Redd is a great scorer, but he’s not quite a superstar. Mo Williams is a nice player, but he’s not quite an elite point guard. Andrew Bogut is a solid presence inside, but he’s not quite a game changer. Charlie Villanueva is ultra-talented, but he’s not quite all there. Yi is an intriguing prospect, but they’re not quite sure if he’s really 19 or 22. I want to like Milwaukee’s roster, but I can’t quite justify it.

Projected Record: 33-49

Charlotte Bobcats. Although they still have a ways to go, the Bobcats have done a good job building their team slowly from the ground up. They have a young core; Matt Carroll and Jason Richardson, aged 27 and 26, are the oldest of Charlotte’s key players, and the two best players on the team (Emeka Okafor and Gerald Wallace) are 25. Throw in Raymond Felton and Matt Carroll, and the Bobcats have weapons. Next year, when Sean May and Adam Morrison return from injury and the others have had another year to improve and play together, they will probably be a playoff team. But not this year, I think.

Projected Record: 37-45

Detroit Pistons. The system is tough on aging players and conservative with rookies, and the Pistons are counting heavily on both. Chauncey Billups, Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace are all past 30 and have started showing signs of decline already. Dumars is high on Jason Maxiell and Amir Johnson, but there is limited evidence so far to judge them ready to step in and play, and of course Rodney Stuckey is jumping about fifteen degrees of difficulty coming from Eastern Washington. Richard Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince are fine, but I think it was always Billups and the Wallaces that made the Pistons go. It isn’t sure by any means, and 50 seems likelier than 40, but this is a team that could drop quickly. You’ve been warned.

Projected Record: 40-42

New York Knicks. What, you thought I was going to put them in the playoffs? Come on. Isiah actually has put together some talent, though: Zach Randolph, while psycho, is a great post presence to add to David Lee and Eddy Curry, Jamal Crawford and Quentin Richardson are actually just 27, even though they seem to have been around forever, and Stephon Marbury could safely (and thankfully) be described as one-of-a-kind. Then there’s a whole slew of fringe players that other teams would be happy to have. Still, the Knicks don’t have a definite leader or a true point guard, and that’s enough to make them come up a little short again.

Projected Record: 40-42

Atlanta Hawks. Q: Why are Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Josh Childress, Zaza Pachulia and Marvin Williams alike? If you answered, (1) they are the Hawks’ five best players, (2) they are all 26 or younger, (3) they were all better in 06-07 than 05-06, or (4) they all played fewer games in 06-07 than 05-06, you are correct. That’s a recipe for a team that could do a lot better this year. (By the way, if you answered (5) none of them is a point guard, or in any way resembles a point guard, you’re also right). Add in fellow youngsters Shelden Williams, Al Horford and Acie Law, and the Hawks have a lot of potential. Law especially will have to step up, because Atlanta needs point guard minutes somewhere. As improved as they should be, they may regret passing up Mike Conley.

Projected Record: 42-40


Toronto Raptors. The Raps are likely to spend this entire season victimized by expectations. They won 47 games and their division last year, but they were fortunate in close games and fortunate in performances by supporting players. Bosh is a star, and the Raptors should make the postseason, but they are likely to regress a little this season.

Projected Record: 42-40

Miami Heat. They weren’t all that good last year, and they’ve got injuries again. D-Wade is sidelined for at least the first 10 or so games of the season, and who wants to bet he’ll make it through the next 70 unscathed? And how many games can a 35 year old Shaq play? And when those two are out, the Heat aren’t going to scare anybody. Suffice to say 2007 isn’t really the year you want to see Shaq joined on your roster by Alonzo Mourning, Jason Williams and especially Penny Hardaway. The Ricky Davis trade was a good one, though. He gives them someone to score when Wade is out, he’ll be a good citizen on a team with established stars like Shaq and Wade, and best of all he isn’t Antoine Walker. Also, when healthy, Wade is one of the very best players in the league.

Projected Record: 42-40

Washington Wizards. This is a franchise that has to be very worried. Although he says it is only a business decision and he has every intention of re-signing, the fact is that Gilbert Arenas is opting out of his contract at the end of the year. I have no doubt he means it when he says he wants to come back, but consider that every other key Wizard (Jamison, Butler, Stevenson, Daniels, Haywood) is older than him. There’s no help coming. The only reason the Wizards can make the playoffs at all is Arenas himself; just go back and watch how easily the Hibachi-less Wiz were swept by the Cavs last year versus how intense the Gilbert/LeBron scorefests were the year before for evidence of this. Unless he wants to become a D.C. icon, which he might, there’s no rational reason for Arenas not to jump at a better situation next year. Enjoy him this year, Washington, because this might be it.

Projected Record: 44-38

New Jersey Nets. Vince re-signed, Kidd proved with USA basketball that he’s still one of the most valuable players in the NBA or anywhere else, and Jefferson and especially Krstic should be healthy again—I don’t think they’re really a title contender anymore, but they’re easily a playoff team.

Projected Record: 44-38

Orlando Magic. If you were picking a player to build your team around for the next decade, you couldn’t do much better than Dwight Howard. At 22, he’s one of the best low-post players, and probably the single best rebounder, in the NBA. Unfortunately, his supporting cast isn’t that strong, and even more unfortunately, it probably won’t be for quite some time, thanks to Rashard Lewis’ $118 million contract. A max contract for a 28-year-old wing who gives you 20 ppg and nothing else? They couldn’t have waited just one year and offered that money to Arenas? Apparently the Magic were eager to lock themselves into Eastern Conference also-ran status forever. Sorry, Dwight. You seem like such a nice kid, too.

Projected Record: 45-37

Boston Celtics. Now here’s an easy team to enjoy. What would happen if we sold our entire future for a couple of over-30 superstars to match with our own 30 year old superstar in hopes we can win a title in a two or three year window? And what if we can’t count on our coach, or anyone on the team that isn’t one of the three stars? Oh, and what if one of our three guys has entirely reconstructed knees? What then? I have no idea, and neither does anyone involved. Which is exactly why the Celtics will be so much fun to follow.

Projected Record: 48-34

Cleveland Cavaliers. My numbers indicate that LeBron should be easily the best player in the NBA this year. Shocking. Also, the likes of Hughes, Ilgauskas, Gooden and Varajeo aren’t really that bad of a supporting cast on an absolute scale, only compared to the other ensembles that make the conference or NBA finals. Obviously, they’d love to have a real #2 star, and they probably need one before they can expect to actually win the Finals, but the Cavs can compete as they are.

Projected Record: 51-31

Chicago Bulls. Paxson is taking some heat for not making a big move for KG, Kobe or even Pau Gasol, but he shouldn’t be. First of all, they had the best point differential in the conference last year, meaning they should improve a little bit just due to luck. They have tons of young talent on the perimeter in the form of Kirk Hinrich, Ben Gordon, Chris Duhon and especially Luol Deng, who is developing into a true go-to scorer. They have veterans starting in the frontcourt (Ben Wallace, Joe Smith, and Andres Nocioni) supplemented by two dynamite defensive substitutes (Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah). In short, the Bulls are loaded. And there’s just something right about seeing Chicago at the top of the standings, don’t you think?

Projected Record: 59-23


This is weird. Of the top ten picks, five were awarded to Eastern Conference teams, but Boston and Charlotte traded theirs to the West, Horford and Noah both went to teams with four or five solid players in the frontcourt already, and Yi is a complete unknown. Indiana and Philly are definitely rebuilding, but the Pacers had no picks, and the Sixers went with projects (most notably Thaddeus Young) who probably aren’t polished enough to challenge for tons of minutes right away. Even the top Europeans went to places like Memphis, Houston, Golden State and Portland. One darkhorse ROY candidate is Sean Williams, who could get lots of minutes at the four for playoff team NJ if he stays out of trouble.


All-Eastern Conference Team:

Arenas, Wade, James, Garnett, Howard

Seven Other Potential All-Stars:

Bosh, Kidd, Billups, Deng, Iguodala, Johnson, Carter

Rookie of the Year:

Yi Jianlian



Minnesota Timberwolves. Considering they had to make some sort of move, I think they made out pretty well in the Garnett deal—obviously trading Kevin Garnett isn’t going to make you better in the short run, but Al Jefferson is a really good get, Ryan Gomes is solid, Theo Ratliff helps with the cap, and there’s even a pretty good chance that either Gerald Green or Bassy Telfair will mature into a real basketball player someday. Matched up with Randy Foye, Craig Smith, and Corey Brewer, that’s a core that could make the edge of the playoffs in two or three years. In the meantime, they can have a couple seasons to grow and make lots more picks, including the one they just got for Ricky Davis, who would have been their best player.

Projected Record: 17-65

Portland Trail Blazers. There are two major problems that can come up in projecting seasons. The first is injury. If LeBron goes down, obviously you can throw out any guesses about the Cavs, but even if a secondary player like Gooden were to miss significant time, the estimates would shift noticeably. The second issue is the Leap. The system incorporates adjustments by age, but it cannot know which players are going to push themselves to an entirely different level. For example, Deron Williams last year could have been expected to be a very competent young point guard, but he really outdid himself. Stars are born every year, and it is difficult to guess their due dates.

The reason I bring this up now is that the Blazers, even without Oden, boast one of the densest collections of prospects in the NBA. After jettisoning Zach Randolph, no one on the current roster has ever posted even a “minor star” quality season, but it’s a safe bet that eventually at least one of these guys will. The question is will it be this season or later when Brandon Roy, LaMarcus Aldridge, Jarrett Jack or whoever makes the Leap? And the other question is, how bad will the Blazers be if it isn’t? This was a 30 win team, they had a point differential suggesting they should have been even worse, they come in to 2007-08 without last year’s best player. However, since Portland is aiming for contention in 2010 or so anyway, there’s no rush. If their play this year gives them a chance to invite OJ Mayo, Eric Gordon, Derrick Rose or someone similar to join Oden, Aldridge, Roy, Jack and company into the future, well, I think everyone here could live with that.

Projected Record: 19-63

Los Angeles Clippers. In pro sports, everyone’s going to have injuries. But when you lose both of what you were planning on being the two most important players on your team, star power forward Elton Brand and hopeful star point guard Shaun Livingston, to long-term injuries even after which they may or may not ever be the same, that’s just cruel. And the Clips are on fate’s shortlist of franchises that this would ever happen to.

Projected Record: 30-52

Sacramento Kings. This franchise is sort of muddling around. They sort of lucked into having Kevin Martin, but it’s unclear how they’re building around him. They drafted tenth, right after the last three definite lottery picks (Brewer, B Wright and Noah) came off the board, and inducing them to take a big chance on Spencer Hawes. Maybe Brad Miller’s terrible season was just a blip and he’ll be an All-Star quality center again this year, but he might be done. He is 31. Mike Bibby’s injury didn’t do them any favors; he’s no superstar, but solid and consistent are always in short supply. And God only knows what Ron Artest has in store for us next.

Projected Record: 31-51

Golden State Warriors. The Mavericks can take hope that their nemeses will miss out on the postseason this year. Baron Davis and company overachieved last year in winning the eighth spot, and buffed up competition for that spot is likely to send them back down again—especially when any injury to the notoriously fragile Davis would pretty much seal their fate. With youngsters Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins improving, and rookies Brandon Wright and Mario Belinelli in the fold, Golden State will be heard from again, but I think 2007-08 is too soon.

Projected Record: 33-49

Memphis Grizzlies. Pau Gasol is a franchise player, and his friend Juan Carlos Navarro joins Mike Miller and Hakim Warrick as very solid role players. Darko, Rudy Gay, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley are great prospects. If one of them develops into a second star—and it could happen very soon, especially with Conley—Memphis will be back in business. It will take a little time, but none of the listed players is over 27. They have some time.

Projected Record: 34-48

Seattle SuperSonics. The Sonics will get good exactly as fast as Durant can make them. In the meantime, they have an astounding number of players in that possible fourth or fifth starter, great to have in the rotation but you don’t really want to be featuring them class. That description fits Chris Wilcox, Earl Watson, Luke Ridnour, Wally Szczerbiak, Nick Collison and Delonte West perfectly, and potentially rookie Jeff Green too. That’s impressively mediocre. However, there’s two plusses to that method. First and foremost, it’s like having seven numbers on the roulette wheel: if anyone at any position starts to blossom, the Sonics can easily make more minutes for him (by the way, it’s really about six and a half numbers. Watson is 28 with a lot of experience; he is not particularly likely to make the Leap. Also, in case you were wondering, the reason Szczerbiak counts as a full number even though he’s 30 is the possibility he makes it through the whole season completely healthy, in which case he could in theory score twenty points a game). Another benefit to this method is that it makes Seattle less vulnerable to injury than most other teams. Everybody has at least one potential stand-in. Well, everyone except Durant.

Projected Record: 36-46


Los Angeles Lakers. Two things about Kobe. First, his trade demands are funny. He supposedly has three favored destinations: Phoenix, Dallas and Chicago. Really, Kobe? You’d like to go to any one of the three best teams in the league? The teams that are going to have no incentive in preseason to break up what they have now for the potentially implosive force that is Mr. Bryant? Nice try. Also, I have to take issue with the basic assertation made by other players, coaches and writers that Mr. Bryant is the best player in the league. The Lakers aren’t the Washington Generals here. Lamar Odom is good. Phil Jackson is supposed to be some sort of basketball Zen-Buddha-Jedi thing. Luke Walton being the third player on your team is not a good sign, granted, but what’s makes Kobe finishing just over .500 and losing in the first round of the playoffs so much different than when Tracy McGrady was doing pretty much the exact same thing with the Magic? Or Gilbert Arenas doing the same thing now? I know there’s an East/West thing, which explains some of it, but hey, one of those Orlando years T-Mac’s coach was Doc Rivers and his second-leading scorer was Pat Garrity. That’s not exactly Phil and Lamar. Yes, Kobe has rings, and yes, Shaq needed a dependable late-game scorer to get around the hack-a-Shaq and take over when he was tired or in foul trouble, but I can’t think of a single reason that scorer had to be Kobe in particular. In fact, Penny and Wade seem to be obvious counterexamples. People will tell me his greatness is self-evident, that I should watch Kobe take over games, but the standings are a “Scoreboard!” chant style trump card. If he’s so good, why doesn’t he take over seasons? Mr. Bryant is near the top, but he is not now and has never been the best player in the NBA.

Projected Record: 41-41

Denver Nuggets. Carmelo Anthony, Allen Iverson and Marcus Camby are guaranteed production, which make Nene, JR Smith and especially Kenyon Martin the most important Nuggets. With big seasons from any or all of them, Denver could push through the first round of the playoffs. If not, it will be another wasted year, and the clock is ticking. AI and Camby aren’t getting any younger.

Projected Record: 44-38

New Orleans Hornets. The Saints aren’t living up to expectations this year, but that’s all right, because the most exciting young athlete in the Big Easy isn’t Reggie Bush. It’s point guard Chris Paul. Paul, who is quicker than any person has a right to be, followed up on the best rookie season in recent memory with similar ratios in an injury-shortened season last year. He has two gifted young colleagues in the frontcourt; David West is a great scorer, and Tyson Chandler was impressive enough on D and the glass to earn a Team USA invite this summer. On the wings, the Hornets have solid veterans Morris Peterson and Peja Stojakovic and talented rookie Julian Wright. Last year, they finished three games shy of the playoffs with Paul missing 18 games due to injury, West missing 30 games and Peja missing 69. With even average health this year, they’re in the playoffs, and if they stay completely healthy, they could be scary.

Projected Record: 44-38

San Antonio Spurs. I don’t doubt Duncan-Parker-Ginobili, but I certainly doubt everyone else. This year, Bruce Bowen and Brent Barry are 36. Michael Finley is 34. Francisco Elson, Fabricio Oberto, Jacque Vaughn: 31, 32, 32. And let’s not even bring up Robert Horry. Also, what happens if one of their stars does go down? This is a team that dropped the Mavs series two years ago and was arguably a clever hip check away from losing to the Suns last year. Now one year older, and without bringing in any fresh blood, I think the Spurs have been caught up.

Projected Record: 49-33

Utah Jazz. Carlos Boozer and Deron Williams are very good players, and it will be interesting to see if they were playing a little over their heads last year. If not, Utah is in really good shape. What may be even more interesting is to see how the Andrei Kirilenko situation works out. If he’s happy and fitting into the system, AK-47 is one of the brightest and most unique talents in the league. If he isn’t, the Jazz believe they can get by without him. That’s true against most teams, but against other West contenders, they can’t.

Projected Record: 49-33

Dallas Mavericks. Dallas will win a ton of games; Dallas always wins a ton of games. Other than Devin Harris, though, there’s no key Maverick that can really be expected to match his 2006-07 season. Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Josh Howard were all fantastic, and neither Jerry Stackhouse nor Erick Dampier can have too much left in the tank. This should be a fun season, because the three most established teams in the West are feeling time pressure, but the only teams who’ve taken out any of the Big Three since Shaq and Kobe were teammates (besides each other, of course) are Golden State and Miami, who could easily both miss the playoffs. For obvious reasons, this would make Dallas especially happy.

Projected Record: 55-27

Houston Rockets. In Tracy McGrady, Houston has a go-to scorer. In Argentine Luis Scola, Houston has a 27 year old two-time MVP of the Spanish league, considered the best league in Europe. In Rafer Alston, Shane Battier, Luther Head, Mike James, and maybe even Dikembe Mutombo and Steve Francis, Houston has a formidable supporting cast. In Yao, though, what does Houston have? Either a low-post monster who can’t be guarded and can’t be fouled (25 ppg, 86% FT last year), or, as in over one-third of their games over the last two years, the world’s largest cheerleader. If the former, the Rockets are a threat to win it all; if the latter, poor T-Mac may be looking at one and done again. Then again, with the talent around him, even besides Yao, maybe not.

Projected Record: 56-26

Phoenix Suns. The Suns are better than ever, and they’re backed against the wall. This makes them dangerous to everybody. Steve Nash is playing better than ever, but the threat of his back injury limits his window. Shawn Marion (who really is way more important to Phoenix than Stoudamire) feels underappreciated, and for pride and luxury tax purposes may be on his way out next year. Boris Diaw, Leandro Barbosa and Raja Bell are perfect role players. Grant Hill brings his veteran presence and scoring to the team, and rookie DJ Strawberry is a fantastic athlete who loves to run the court, doesn’t need the ball to be effective, and plays great defense. With all the pieces in place, this is the best edition of these Suns yet, and with the Marion situation, it is probably the last. They’ll make it count.

Projected Record: 66-16


And the Western Conference gets even richer. Obviously winning Oden and Durant makes the conference better, but they also had picks that become Conley and Brewer, and traded for the rights to Green and (Brandon) Wright. They also picked up Julian Wright and Al Thornton in the late lottery and added top European prospects Marco Belinelli and Rudy Fernandez. Western teams also nabbed the best of the established foreign players in Navarro and Luis Scola, who is a rookie only in the sense that Ichiro was a rookie when he first signed with the Mariners. Most of these guys landed on teams with plenty of minutes for them right away. Brewer and Thornton especially could hang around the Rookie of the Year race just by having opportunities from the start, but I don’t think they’re really in the class of Durant or even Conley.


All Western Conference Team:

Paul, Bryant, Marion, Nowitzki, Duncan

Seven Other Potential All-Stars:

Nash, Gasol, Parker, McGrady, Boozer, Deron Williams, Yao

Rookie of the Year:

Kevin Durant

Thursday, October 25, 2007

On The Beginning of College Football Madness

This week is fun. There are tons of games with conference championship implications, meaning that West Virginia-Rutgers, South Florida-Connecticut, Florida-Georgia, Kansas-Texas A&M, Tennessee-South Carolina, and Cal-Arizona State didn’t make the cut. Also, the very fact that South Florida-Connecticut made that list and Nebraska-Texas didn’t tells you most of what you need to know about this season in general.

Also, this week is fun because this is the point in college football where it's officially one loss and out. No one at this point can lose and expect to be in the BCS Championship game: in the relatively weak Big 10 and ACC, Ohio State and BC can't afford not to go undefeated, and even LSU can't expect to get away with losing twice.

1. #12 USC at #5 Oregon. Despite the superior rankings in the next game, this is the top matchup of the week. First of all, no one brought this up at the time (who really wants to make excuses for USC) but Booty broke his finger in the second quarter of the Stanford game, and Carroll let him try to tough it out. Otherwise, those four picks and super upset don’t happen, and USC is comfortably the #1 team in the country. On the other hand, if Oregon hadn’t fumbled the game-tying touchdown into the end zone against California, they might well be undefeated and in the top two. Now it’s a Pac-10 elimination game. This is why college is great. Every week matters.

2. #2 Boston College at #8 Virginia Tech. These teams are a combined 13-1, and have played exactly one really good team combined (LSU, 48-7 loss by VT) and only two even okay teams (BC over Wake, VT over Clemson). Now they get to play the first game of two for conference supremacy (UVa is the only possible spoiler, which is pathetic), with national title implications for BC. Got to love ACC football.

3. #1 Ohio State at #25 Penn State. Two years ago, after Ohio State dropped the Texas game, my friend who is a die-hard Buckeye fan said the only team left on the schedule that scared him was Penn State, because of their team speed. Remember, this was still early in the year, well before sportswriters acknowledged that JoePa was still even alive. And Penn State won. Even last year, the 28-6 “blowout” was a one score game with Morelli having a chance to tie until the two straight INTs for touchdowns. This year, back in State College, the Lions will be scary again. And the Bucks’ offense hasn’t looked all that great against the only semi-decent defenses they’ve played.

Predictions: Oregon has outplayed everyone on their schedule badly, including themselves against Cal—and they almost pulled that one out. But USC’s talent level is really off the charts, and I think this might be the game they remind everybody. Everyone’s afraid to play in Blacksburg, but the secret is that this VT team isn’t really all that great. And I’d love to pick Penn State, but I won’t take Morelli against Ohio State’s D. I refuse.

Picks: USC, BC, OSU

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

On Even More SEC Games, and South Florida

Well, LSU-Kentucky cemented this college football season as one of the craziest ever. Interestingly, most of this year’s big games (with Florida-LSU standing as a big exception) have been important only in retrospect. Nobody was circling Stanford or Appalachian State on the calendar. This logic holds in the Big Ten, Big 12 and ACC—except BC/VT and Ohio State/Michigan, the (non-championship) games that matter in that league are whatever the remaining upsets are. The Pac 10 doesn’t have any Big Four matchups this week, so guess which two conferences are showing up again?

1. #17 Auburn at #4 LSU. Maybe writing Auburn off for losing to South Florida was a little premature. Still, the Tigers, er, Auburn version, have some red flags. They did lose to Mississippi State, and they did fail to score a TD against Arkansas, which is less than North Texas and UT-Chattanooga can say.

Meanwhile, it goes without saying the Tig—LSU Tigers—are going to be pissed. Also, somewhat desperate. They’ve gone from the no question #1 in the country to needing two straight wins (Auburn, at Alabama) to even stay atop the SEC West.

2. #15 Florida at #7 Kentucky. Yes, it is right back on the horse in this conference. Kentucky suffered a tough loss at South Carolina and got thrown back in against LSU, and now they have no time to enjoy that victory. Like everyone in the SEC East except Vanderbilt, both these teams are pretty close to in control of their own destinies and very much in contention. That ends for the loser of this game. By the way, if you don’t think Urban Meyer has some new wrinkles from his bye week, you are crazy.

3. #2 South Florida at Rutgers. USF drew an almost obscenely fortunate home schedule, getting West Virginia, Cincy and Louisville in Tampa. So this trip to New Jersey is their only visit to a Big East contender. Although, with their wins coming against Buffalo, Navy, Norfolk State and Syracuse, and with home losses to both Cincinnati and Maryland, is Rutgers really a contender? Someone will have to be, if they’re going to keep South Florida out of the national title game.

Predictions: LSU should come out angry and take advantage of Auburn’s offensive struggles. Last year they lost this one 7-3; this year it could be 30-7. Forcing Kentucky to face a rested Florida after the emotional LSU win is just about as unfair as forcing LSU to play a rested Kentucky after the emotional Florida win. Isn’t the SEC fun? And Rutgers has already been exposed; don’t expect South Florida to falter yet.

Picks: LSU, Florida, USF

Friday, October 12, 2007

On the National Championship Picture and Week 7

Well, one of the Big Teams lost last week, like I predicted. It just wasn’t LSU. USC’s loss, coupled with some writers’ claiming they aren’t out of it yet, got me thinking. Who is still in the national championship race? The way I see it, there are three such classes.

First are the major conference undefeateds. This includes LSU, Ohio State, Cal, Boston College, South Florida, Missouri, Arizona State, Cincinnati, Kansas, and Connecticut. You might argue the last teams on that list probably wouldn’t get in no matter what they do, and I’d guess you’d be right, but they would at least have a shot to get in by winning out.

Second are the high-profile one loss teams that could get back into the race with some statement wins and some luck. This group consists of USC, Oklahoma, Oregon, West Virginia and Virginia Tech.

The third group is Hawaii. They’ve already forfeited their chance by having close games and having a terrible schedule, but I would be interested to see how many #1 votes they would get if they managed to go undefeated and everybody else lost a game. In fact, I root for this to happen for the best non-BCS team almost every year.

Anyway, with that in mind, let’s look at the Big Three games this week.

1. #11 Missouri at #6 Oklahoma. With apologies to Andre Woodson, Tim Tebow, Colt Brennan and Matt Ryan, Chase Daniel is the #1 QB in college football right now. He has been nearly perfect for Missouri, and has played his best two games of the season in his two biggies: Illinois and Nebraska. That said, Missouri’s defense has given up a ton of points, against teams vastly inferior to Oklahoma.

As a side note, how great is it that the last two undefeated teams in the Big 12 are Missouri and Kansas? It’s a shame they don’t play earlier in the season; if they’ve both dropped from 5-0 to 8-3 or 7-4 by the time the finale rolls around, that will be too bad. In the meantime, keep an eye out for KU’s CB/WR Aqib Talib, who had a pick, a TD catch and the coolest name on the field against K-State last week. No one cares yet except NFL scouts, but like Daniel, you could make a case Talib is the best player in the Big 12.

2. #1 LSU at #17 Kentucky. That’s the sound of the clock striking midnight on the Wildcats. That’s okay; it just means time for basketball season, where Kentucky is no Cinderella.

Or is it? One of my friends called this one a big game to watch out for; LSU just had the draining win over Florida, and Kentucky is dangerous, coming off a loss and at home. Also, Woodson rarely gets picked, and that sort of decision-making is a necessity against a D like the Tigers’. As we’ve seen this year, it could happen.

3. Louisville at #15 Cincinnati. Cincy is one of those teams that we’re not yet quite sure if they’re for real. They have shown one classic signal of a really good team—they don’t just beat the teams they should beat, they destroy them. Their first five wins were by an average of five TDs. In the sixth game, they won at Rutgers.

Louisville missed out on an undefeated season last year by failing to do just that. And, as sad as they’ve been this year, only one of their three losses has been in conference. Sooner or later, the coach and team have to get onto the same page, and when they do, let’s not forget the Cardinals are still loaded with offensive talent. While the Cincinnati front seven has been fantastic, Mike Teel threw for 334 yards last week, but failed to capitalize due to three INTs. Brian Brohm, who is dropping behind Woodson and Ryan on draft boards pretty much entirely due to his defense’s inability to get a stop, probably won’t have the same problem. By the way, I should have apologized to him above. Sorry twice, Brian.

Predictions: Missouri-Oklahoma is going to be a shootout. Daniel will put up points, but Mizzou simply can’t bring the D they have into Norman and expect anything good to happen. Kentucky doesn’t have the athletes to hang with LSU. Woodson’s greatest strength is making good decisions and delivering the ball to open players: when no one is open and the pocket can’t hold, that won’t do him much good. Louisville’s offense will expose Cincy’s secondary, and sooner or later their D has to jell, right? I’m taking Louisville, and I love that it’s an upset pick. Who would have guessed?

Picks: Oklahoma, LSU, Louisville

Wednesday, October 3, 2007

Mike, On MLB's Toughest Places to Play

Now that the NFL previews have been written and posted and the season is underway, it’s time to begin another collection of features. This time, as you might have guessed by the title, we’re going to look at the most difficult venues that opposing teams have to face. As it is nearing the postseason, we’ll begin with baseball, and then move onto college and pro football, by which time we should be entering into the beginnings of hockey and basketball, so we’ll have every sport covered.

With these articles, I’ll rank the top 5 most difficult places to play, and give some honorable mentions as well. These rankings are, as is always the case, merely my opinion, but I will try to provide as much fact-oriented information as I can to support my decisions and rankings. So, with that in the background, and keeping in mind that I can actually claim to have watched a game at every one of these parks…

5. Petco Park, San Diego Padres – You’re probably already dismissing this list, but there’s a legitimate reason for this ballpark being at number 5 on this list. First off, everyday is absolutely beautiful in San Diego. As a visiting team, the allure of the beach and the wonderful scenery can be a bit distracting. The bigger reason, however, is the sheer size of the park itself. The dimensions are easily the largest in baseball, and with most of the new ballparks being built smaller than before (and, as is the case with Philadelphia’s Citizens Bank Park and Cincinnati’s Great American Ballpark, in such a way that the ball carries into left and right field, respectively, like a balloon on a windy day), the disparity between Petco and the rest of the league is rather large. It takes a completely different style of baseball to win games in SD, as evidenced by the fact that for most of the year Jake Peavy and Chris Young were 1-2 in the NL in ERA and no one on that team has had a 20 HR season since the park opened. It’s a totally different series for each and every road team than anywhere else, and it can play with your mind as a hitter (and a fielder) if you let it.

4. Wrigley Field, Chicago Cubs – This would be higher if everyone on the North Side wasn’t collectively waiting for the other foot to drop every single season. Outfielders for opposing teams risk having beer dropped on their heads, as happened to Ryan Spilborghs during the game I witnessed, and the bleacher seats in general produce some of the rowdiest fans in all of sports, period. The amenities are few and far between, the bullpens precariously close to the field (just ask the Phillies’ Michael Bourn), the walls are made of sheer brick, and ball carries well on a windy day, there’s very little foul ground – again, it’s just an entirely different ballpark than any other stadium around. The downside is the atmosphere, which feels more like a party than a baseball game. Plus, the aforementioned feeling of doom that lingers over the fans adds to the opponents’ confidence slightly (see: Florida Marlins, 2003). If the Cubs were to ever actually WIN a World Series, this place could easily become number 1 on the list.

3. Shea Stadium, New York Mets – Only at Shea Stadium could one fan call up a sports talk radio station and jokingly suggest having a John Rocker Battery Night for the first Mets-Braves game in 2000, after Rocker’s infamous Sports Illustrated interview, and over 55,000 people show up, batteries in hand, waiting for the first sight of the hated lefthander. Add to that unbelievable fan passion an extraordinarily loud PA and sound system, coupled with a decrepit and decaying structure, and you get a very difficult atmosphere for visitors. Again, this is a stadium that could easily be number 1, if not for the fact that when this team struggles, the fans leave in the seventh inning, and sometimes earlier. That detracts from the emotion in any sort of comeback scenario against the visitors, so it can’t be any higher than number 3.

2. Yankee Stadium, New York Yankees – If I have to explain this one to you, stop reading because you clearly know nothing about baseball. History, tradition, talent, passion, excitement – it’s all there. If you ever happen to go to a game and don’t feel goose bumps walking into and out of the same stadium as DiMaggio, Mantle, Ruth, Maris, Berra, Gehrig, Mattingly, Jeter, Jackson, Ford, Clemens, Martin, Larsen – the list is endless, and you simply can’t help get excited. Even a mid-August Yankees-Royals contest was electric. It’s an amazing ballpark in an amazing city with amazing fans and amazing tradition. It simply doesn’t get any better. Well, except for…

1. Fenway Park, Boston Red Sox – Sure, I love Yankee Stadium, but there are no better fans, no more passionate crowds, and no bigger homefield advantage in baseball than in “Bah-stahn.” The “Sawks,” and yes, you must pronounce those two words in that manner, constantly sell out homegames, and I believe they will one day soon pass the Cleveland Indians mark of consecutive sellouts that occurred back when the Indians mattered and Jacobs Field had just opened. The fans are knowledgeable and passionate, and they’re on their feet from the first pitch of the game. Couple that with some awkward outfield dimensions – namely, the deep crevice in centerfield, the absurdly low wall in right center, and the ridiculously short distance down the right field foul line – and that’s before you even get to the most distinctive feature in all of baseball, the Green Monster, and you get a really hard place for outfielders to play defense effectively. That thing is the single biggest producer of doubles in all of baseball history. For opponents to win in Fenway, they not only need talent to compete against the Red Sox, but they also need a strong-willed starting pitcher with good intestinal fortitude, a good center fielder who can cover lots of ground, and a good closer to prevent the now famous Boston Red Sox 9th-inning comeback. Oh, and they also have that thing called “tradition” too, just like NY. Pretty good home field, I’d say.

Honorable Mention: Angel Stadium, Los Angeles Angels – Citizens Bank Park, Philadelphia Phillies – Coors Field, Colorado Rockies – Jacobs Field, Cleveland Indians – AT&T Park, San Francisco Giants

On College Football's Week After

I lost two of three games again last week, but I don’t feel too bad. Last week was insane. Everybody good lost or almost lost.

On the plus side, we now have a situation in which the #8 and #11 teams are playing each other in a game that probably doesn’t even have any BCS implications, because I don’t think either Kentucky or South Carolina is talented enough to beat out both Florida and Georgia. With Vandy playing well, and Tennessee still being Tennessee, either of them could even finish last. Or Georgia/UT, which is also this week, could be a basement battle. Who knows?

Anyway, let’s start with an SEC game that really does matter.

#9 Florida at #1 LSU. Not as big as we thought before Florida dropped the Auburn game, but in some ways even bigger. With a loss, Florida relinquishes control of its own destiny in the SEC East. LSU looked mortal against Tulane but still cruised. A win here pretty much solidifies their #1 ranking. If there’s one team that isn’t intimidated by all-everything DT Glenn Dorsey, though, it’s the Gators. They don’t run straight up the middle anyway.

#10 Oklahoma vs. #19 Texas. Another game that lost some luster last week. Colt McCoy and the Longhorns offense has been out of sync all year, and Oklahoma got ambushed by Colorado last week after winning their first four by 50 points a game. The key now is that it’s a knockout game. Let’s note a couple of things real quick before moving on. First of all, in Oklahoma’s favor, they actually played well in last year’s loss to Texas, but were undone by a -5 turnover ratio. Second, Texas gave up three return scores to K-State, and Colt McCoy likely played the second half concussed. That will cut short a comeback. Also, Limas Sweed looked back to full strength the week before.

#4 Ohio State at #23 Purdue. Big Ten undefeateds match up. Thanks to a terrible schedule (c’mon, Eastern Illinois and Notre Dame), Purdue joins Kansas, Cincinnati, Connecticut, Arizona State and Hawaii on the list of unbeaten teams we know nothing about. This will change. Meanwhile, Ohio State is busy giving up seven points a game, with a Washington away win on their resume and looking to add Purdue and take the inside track in the Big Ten.

Predictions: I thought Florida would take their first loss at LSU, but after last week I’m not so sure. All of a sudden, Florida really needs this win, and Urban Meyer tends to do well in must win games. Also, I feel like Oklahoma is a little bit overrated on offense, and that a healthy Colt-Sweed would be a big connection for Texas. I want to pick the upset here, and with a little faith in the Longhorn secondary I would, but I have to go with Oklahoma. And in the Big Ten, I think Ohio State’s defense is too much for Purdue, who isn’t ready for the three steps up in competition this week.

Picks: Florida, Oklahoma, Ohio State