Tuesday, June 22, 2010

2010 NBA Mock Draft Final Update

Read this article on Bleacher Report

The NBA season has come to an end, and the draft is almost upon us. Last time, we focused on how the NBA draft combine affected player rankings, but this time, we will take a look at groups of players who may be somewhat interchangeable within a certain range of picks, as well as individual players who have risen or fallen in the rankings.

DeMarcus Cousins in particular has been falling in several notable mock drafts. NBADraft.net currently has him at #7, while DraftExpress has him at #6. If you are confused, trust me, I'm right there with you.
His critics tend to point out that he lacks maturity, or that he's a loose cannon, or that he's uncoachable. Okay, sure, there are a few things that he can work on, but come on . . . let's face it, everyone is pretty immature when they are 19 years old. I'm 24, and I still get into the occasional scuffle on the basketball court in pick up games at the local YMCA. Basketball is a physical and emotional game, it's just the way it is.

Why don't we just take a step back and realize how rare a player Cousins is. First off, he has an NBA body. The guy is a monstrosity of the human race. He's 6'11" with a 7'4" wingspan and weighs in at 290 pounds, and despite that, he can make surprisingly quick moves around the post to find scoring opportunities. Cousins is a natural post scorer, and is by far the most polished big man in the draft.

Cousins averaged 15.1 points and 9.8 rebounds at Kentucky, winning the distinction of the SEC Freshman of the Year over the likes of his own teammates John Wall and Eric Bledsoe. He was THE best big man in college basketball last year.

So he's a little emotional on the court. I'm okay with that. I like my big guy to be a little mean. Honestly, would you rather your center be a soft spoken, quiet, unassuming nice guy, or would you rather have a big, mean, physical guy who scares away small children at a glance? I'll take the bad dude. The paint area in the NBA is no place for wimps.

Will Cousins pick up a good deal of technicals? Probably quite a few, but that didn't stop Rasheed Wallace from becoming an NBA champion. Does he need to lose a few pounds? Yeah, he's a little overweight, but that didn't stop Shaq from becoming an NBA champion.

I think we just need to take a deep breath and realize that a player like DeMarcus Cousins doesn't come along every draft. He's not eh most athletic guy, but he's got a wonderful post game for a player his age, and his size is unmatched by anyone else in this draft. There's no way he falls out of the top 5, and anyone who tells you otherwise is just wrong.

So now that I'm done ranting, lets look at my final rankings. I've broken down the first round into five separate tiers, and several notable players have moved around since my 2nd edition. Take a look . . .

Tier 1

1. John Wall
2. Derrick Favors
3. Evan Turner
4. DeMarcus Cousins
5. Wesley Johnson

These are my surefire top 5 picks. The only difference from my previous edition is that I moved Wes Johnson to #5 up from #6. These players will go on to have good to great NBA careers as eventual starters and post solid numbers year after year. John Wall has the potential to be one of the best point guards of his generation, Favors and Cousins should become two of the most dominant scoring big men in the league, and Turner and Johnson will both be valuable wings for the next decade. Turner being the versatile guard/forward who can do a little bit of everything, and Johnson being the athletic lockdown defender who can shoot from range. Anybody who drafts in the top 5 can rest easy knowing they took a good impact player. Barring injuries, you can take that to the bank.

Tier 2
6. Greg Monroe
7. Ekpe Udoh
8. Al-Farouq Aminu
9. Paul George
10. Ed Davis
11. Luke Babbitt

Now these are the players who can make or break a championship caliber team. Where the first tier guys were all surefire impact players, here we have 6 guys who could either be really awesome, or just some decent contributors, who may or may not be in a starting lineup in a few years. The best prospect here is clearly Monroe. He has the physical attributes which suggest that he could one day be one of the most dominant forwards in the league. The only question mark in his game is his somewhat passive demeanor. He needs to compete harder.

As I have mentioned several times before, I absolutely love Ekpe Udoh, he's just such a unique prospect, and I think he will have a brilliant career if he can polish his perimeter skills and smoothly combine that with his size and athleticism.

Paul George is by far the biggest mover since the first edition of this mock. The ultra-athletic 2 guard from Fresno St. is a strong finisher and has a good jumper as well. However, his ball handling is somewhat suspect and is currently the biggest weakness that he must improve upon.
Babbitt, as I see him is a better version of Kyle Korver. He's more athletic, can play a little defense, is much better off the dribble, and is every bit as good of a spot up shooter as Korver was coming out of college.

Tier 3
12. Xavier Henry
13. Gordon Hayward
14. Cole Aldrich
15. Patrick Patterson
16. Avery Bradley

This next group of players should mostly become very good role players, with the decent chance that one of them could become a star. Henry has been quietly creeping up the rankings for a long while, and it's about time he got his due. He's a great spot up shooter who can play good, physical defense. He must become more attack-oriented if he wants to hit that next level.

Hayward and Patterson are both pretty versatile options. Patterson is a bit undersized for a 4, but has enough of a shooting stroke to make defenses respect him. Hayward's magnificent ball handling skills make him a very difficult guy to match up with, but he will have a hard time learning to play defense against NBA forwards.
Bradley should become an instant offense off the bench guy kind of like J.R. Smith or Nate Robinson, but I don't see him developing as a strong defender anytime soon.

Aldrich fell quite a few spots since last time because I just don't see the real selling point for taking him in the top ten other than his rebounding. Sure he's big, but can he guard Dwight Howard or Chris Bosh? I just don't know.

Tier 4
17. Eric Bledsoe
18. Hassan Whiteside
19. Kevin Seraphin
20. Daniel Orton
21. James Anderson
22. Damion James
23. Jordan Crawford

The new face here is Jordan Crawford, the outstanding guard out of Xavier. He's athletic and is one of the best scorers in the draft class. He made a name for himself in this year's NCAA tournament, scoring 32 points in an overtime loss to Kansas State. He can catch and shoot and is great at finishing in the paint. Just ask Lebron James, who Crawford famously dunked on. However, Crawford has a lot of trouble drawing fouls, which limits his efficiency.

Tier 5

24. Elliot Williams
25. Devin Ebanks
26. Solomon Alabi
27. Dominique Jones
28. Quincy Poindexter
29. Gani Lawal
30. Stanley Robinson

I have cooled off a bit on Solomon Alabi, because he is just so similar to Hasheem Thabeet. He's big and long, but he really needs to bulk up, otherwise, I don't see him contributing in a big way immediately.

I think Elliot Williams is a steal at this point in the draft, as I believe he is one of the best on ball defenders in this class.

Gani Lawal has been underrated by most mocks in my opinion. He has an NBA body and is capable of scoring in bunches.

Friday, June 18, 2010

NBA Finals: Grades

Well, the Lakers did it. They won it playing some of the best defense I've ever seen that particular team play, and were able to score just enough points to hold off the Celtics, who were down their biggest, most physical interior defender and rebounder. (Kendrick Perkins) Still, even without Perkins, the Celtic's couldn't hit a shot. I mean, their offense was basically give Paul Pierce the ball and clear that side of the court. That idea worked in 1 game this whole series (game 5), what made them think it was going to work in game 7 after it had been failing all game long? Not quite sure. In Boston's defense, they played unbelievable defense on Kobe Bryant. I mean, wow, Kobe got like 3 or 4 good looks all game long. Unfortunately, Ron Artest decided to start hitting shots and everyone on the Lakers squad grabbed about 30 rebounds each. I like the way they grade players after World Cup Games, so I'll do the same for this NBA Finals series.

Kobe Bryant: A

27.1 PPG
8.0 RPG
3.9 APG
40.5 FG%

Not one of Kobe's most efficient playoff series offensively, but that was to be expected with Boston's defense which often involved double or triple teaming him. From a leadership standpoint, Kobe got a little too hot-headed in game 5 when he basically stopped trusting his teammates and tried to do everything himself. (Including playing defense) However, there is no doubt that he is the Finals MVP because no other player in the series played harder or wanted it more than Kobe. You could just tell he gave it all on every play, every loose ball, every rebound. He was ultra intense for the entire series, and that's what you have to love about him.

Rajon Rondo: B+

13.6 PPG
6.3 RPG
7.6 APG
45.4 FG%

From my perspective, Rondo was clearly the second best player in this series. He had a couple of off games, but was still THE most important player on offense for the Celtics. A huge part of their offense relied on fast break scoring, and no player was more instrumental to scoring on the fast break than Rajon Rondo. Also, like Kobe, Rondo played his heart out, never took a single possession off, and he played brilliant defense, keeping his hands active and creating numerous turnovers and fast break opportunities.

Paul Gasol: B+

Gasol was nearly unstoppable in the series, scoring and rebounding at will. This time around, Boston's physical defense was not an issue, and Gasol emerged as the best, most consistent big man in the series. He also came up big in the 2nd half of game 7, when his team needed his offense the most. Very, very impressive series from the Spaniard.

Paul Pierce: B-

I'm just put it out there that Paul Pierce is probably my least favorite player in the NBA. I've never seen a guy who flopped/acted/complained more. Say what you want about Kobe, but at least the guy doesn't act like he got hit by a truck every time he draws contact. Pierce was held in check most of the series by tough defense from Ron Artest, but still managed to get to the free throw line about a bazillion times in true Paul Pierce fashion. While he was one of the leading scorers for Boston, in the end, they needed much more out of him. He just didn't deliver.

Glen Davis: B-

Big Baby was surprisingly efficient, scoring the ball on many post up situations. He showed major hustle and tenacity to grab all kinds of loose balls and rebounds all over the place. However, he was lost trying to guard Pau Gasol, a match up where his lack of height really hurt him.

Ron Artest: B-

As much as I have criticized Artest through the season, I've got to admit at this point that the Lakers could not have pulled this off without him. Had they kept Trevor Ariza, they would have had no answer for Paul Pierce. Pierce is too strong for a player like Ariza, and the bullish Artest basically shut the Truth down for 6 out of 7 games. Not only that, Ron-Ron validated his entire season with the Lakers not once, but twice: first in the pivotal game 5 against the Suns at home by hitting the last second putback to win the game, and then again, hitting the go ahead three pointer in the final minute to put the Lakers up by 4 against the Celtics in game 7. Artest gets a B- however because of his questionable shot selection and decision making on offense.

Kevin Garnett: C+

K.G. was surprisingly consistent on offense, other than in game 2, when he was limited by foul trouble. He beat Gasol in face up situations time and again and also converted on several tough jumpers. Unfortunately, K.G. was terrible on the boards. He grabbed 4 or fewer rebounds in 3 games in the series and only got more than 6 in 1 game. In game 7, Garnett only came up with a paltry 3 boards, allowing the Lakers to dominate the offensive glass all night long.

Derek Fisher: C+

Everytime you think Fish is done, he just hits another big shot. He inching closer and closer to Robert Horry territory at this point, although he will need a few more game winners to seal the deal. At any rate, the Lakers probably don't win game 3 without Fish's absurd 11 point outburst in the 4th quarter, and his 4th quarter go ahead three pointer to tie the game in game 7 after coming back from a painful looking leg injury was just incredible. One of the most clutch players I can think of in recent memory.

Lamar Odom: C-

It took Odom until game 6 to actually show up. And it always boggles me how the he isn't a 20-10 guy every year. He's got huge size, amazing athleticism, and ball skills like a guard, but he's just so passive and soft it makes me cringe. But anytime Odom gets double digit rebounds, its almost a guaranteed Lakers victory.

Ray Allen: D

After an all-time performance in game 2, Ray never recovered. I would go as far as to say that the Celtics lost this series because of Ray Allen's ineffective shooting from the perimeter. Outside of game 2, Ray went 4 for 30 from three point range. OUCH. 0 for 13 in game 3 was an absolute killer. That was such an important game for the Celtics to win, and Allen was nowhere to be found.

So basically, Boston's Big 3 came up short. Rondo was the star of the team throughout the playoffs, and even the fact that the team is still known for the "Big 3" is laughable. Kobe and Gasol were brilliant, and the Lakers role players Artest and Fisher came up with big shots when it mattered most. Congrats to the Lakers on their 16th championship.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

World Cup Buzz Kill

By Rick Reilly

Read this article on ESPN.com 

Here are the top 10 most annoying things about watching the World Cup already:
  1. That pesky cerebrum-blowing incessant buzzing sound coming from the TV set. "Babe, something's wrong with the TV," my wife said Saturday. But there wasn't anything wrong. It was the dreaded vuvuzelas, the yard-long plastic horns (voo-voo-zella) that South African fans blow all the time, without rhyme nor reason, when something is happening and when it's not (it's usually not), during timeouts and time ins, during halftime and at the breakfast table and while they're on the bus and while doing their taxes, until you just want to stab two fondue forks deep into your ears and stir. They never stop. It's like having a desk in the center cubicle at American Bee, Inc. They sound like 80,000 yaks getting sick. They are the leading cause of Tylenol sales in the world today.
  2. The embarrassing photographer bibs the guys on the bench have to wear during the game. They're very purple and dorky. My God, who knew you could make a World Cup team and be made to look like a geek? Hey, are you on the American national soccer squad or do you throw bags for Northwest Airlines?
  3. The Twinkie-fingered gloves goalkeepers wear. No wonder the English goalkeeper allowed that easy shot to give America a 1-1 tie in the Group C opener. You couldn't stop a beach ball with those big goofy things. What, is Hamburger Helper a sponsor? Why must they be so huge? Doesn't Roger Rabbit need them back? And where do the batteries go? How are goalkeepers expected to hang on to the ball with them on? And is it difficult to play goalie while also taking things out of the oven?
  4. The godforsaken vuvuzelas! Make them stop! One of the charms of soccer is the singing that fans do. There is always loads of singing and chanting because every game is 1-nil, so there's plenty of time for singing and chanting. Soccer fans sing and chant inane hilarious things like, "We are from Norway! We came on a plane! And we are very drunk!" But we don't get to hear the singing and the chanting because of the horrible, hideous, heinous vuvuzelas! My god, they should take them into the mountainous caves region of Pakistan and play them until Osama bin Laden comes running out, screaming, "OK, OK! I give!"
  5. All the faking. I haven't seen this much bad theater since I saw former "American Idol competitor" Ace Young starring in "Hair" on Broadway. These guys collapse as though they've just caught a javelin in the groin every time an opponent so much as asks them for the time. These guys make Paul Pierce look sincere. Sell it somewhere else, Sven. We live in the U.S., where hockey players pop their eye back into their socket without missing a shift. This will be the new rule when I'm made president of FIFA: If you stay on the ground longer than 30 seconds, you're out of the game; 45, you are taken directly to the nearest hospital; 60, you get a telethon.
  6. The yellow cards. I love the way the refs come running up to the player as though he has just taken out a chainsaw and sawed somebody's hand off. The ref looks very stern and upset. And then all the ref does is snap his little yellow piece of paper out of his shirt pocket and stick it in the offender's face, as though the little yellow card has some kind of superpower. As if to say, "Ha! you are powerless against my little yellow piece of paper, which shows your less-than-average marks from third grade!" I'd love to see that in the middle of an NBA fight. Can you imagine seeing some ref come running up to Rasheed Wallace after laying out Carmelo Anthony with a roundhouse right and sticking that yellow card right in his face? He'd soon be digesting it through his ear hole.
  7. The ties. In the NFL in the past 10 years, there have been two ties. As of Tuesday morning, in the first 11 games of this World Cup, there have been five ties. You will not see more ties at a J.C. Penney's Father's Day sale. I hate ties. Doesn't anybody want to win in this sport? All these ties are about as exciting as a Jonas Brothers roundtable on sex. 
  8. The World Cup itself. Really? All this running and vuvuzela-ing and pulling off shirts for that trophy? It looks like somebody soldered it together in their basement -- after drinking a handle of Jack Daniel's. It looks like something you'd use to prop open your Tuff Shed door during spring cleaning. It's gold and small and looks like somebody accidentally melted it somewhere along the way. I mean, there IS chocolate in the middle of that thing, right? Maybe I just don't get it.
  9. Stoppage time. Why can't we know how much time is left? Why must it be such a mystery? Whose idea was this? Why do only the refs get to know? Wouldn't it be more exciting if we all knew? You tell me which is more exciting:
  10. The vuvuzelas from eardrum-hellas! Don't tell me it's discrimination to want them to stop. Don't tell me it's an essential part of South African culture. If it is, it's an annoying part of their culture. Yes, I know that centuries ago, the vuvuzelas were made from animal horns to call the village elders in for a meeting. And I'll bet you five wildebeests that when the elders finally got to the meeting they said, "Would you STOP already with the blowing? You're making me crazy!" I've been to Africa four times. They do some of the most beautiful singing you can imagine. At the World Cup, I'm hearing no singing. I'm hearing no chanting. I'm hearing 80,000 kazoos on steroids.
          But it still sounds better than Ace Young

Monday, June 14, 2010

Chris Paul CP3 Elite Guard Camp: News and Notes

 By Ryan Feldman

Read this article on the Hoops Report

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. - Watching the Chris Paul CP3 Elite Guard Camp this weekend was a great opportunity to see some of the top college basketball players in the country during the offseason. Players had the chance to improve their guard skills, learn from arguably the best point guard in the NBA in Chris Paul, and compete against other top college players that many of them see during the season.

The majority of the players at the camp were either Big East or ACC players. Five of the 17 players were from either Duke or North Carolina. Duke was represented by Kyle Singler, Nolan Smith and Seth Curry, while North Carolina was represented by Harrison Barnes and Kendall Marshall.

It was interesting to see Singler there, a player who is clearly a forward but wanted to improve his guard skills. Barnes said himself that he doesn't see himself just as a wing. He sees himself as a player who can also handle the ball and play in the post. And Barnes was one of the most impressive players at the camp. He did everything just as well as any of the guards, including ball-handling, shooting, speed and quickness.

There were a lot of interesting storylines in watching the Duke and UNC players, including getting previews of Singler vs. Barnes, the connection between Barnes and Marshall, the connection between Curry and his teammates (Singler and Smith), and just getting to watch Curry play.

When Singler and Barnes guarded each other, both played hard on defense and didn't allow the other player to get easy shots. Neither play dominated offensively against each other, but Barnes showed throughout the camp that he can play and defend multiple positions easily.

Singler and Barnes were easily two of the best players at the camp, and they should be because they were the tallest players at the camp and they have the most NBA potential.

Singler was solid in all aspects. He shot the ball well and scored well inside. He struggled in some of the ball-handling drills, especially when he had to dribble two balls at once, but that's why he was at the camp. He also struggled when he was guarded by Chris Paul in 1-on-1 drills. But overall, Singler played well and he played hard.

Barnes was rather impressive. In one of the baseline sprint drills, he was the fastest player out there. He is excellent at handling the ball and has great quickness. He showed the ability to score from anywhere on the court. From how he looked this weekend, Barnes should immediately be one of the top players in the ACC.

Marshall is taller than most of the guards at the camp, at 6-foot-4, but he looks like he will be a very good point guard at UNC. He handles the ball well and can compete with most of the guards in attendance, but at times he appeared to be coasting and not really putting in a full effort. His jumper was also inconsistent and is something he needs to work on.

Curry was one of the better players at the camp. He was certainly the best outside shooter of the bunch. He doesn't put much rotation on the ball when he shoots, so if his shot hits the rim it will almost never go in. But that's okay because his shots usually do go in. He showed the ability to shoot from NBA range and make floaters in the lane. Curry did well when he had the opportunity to defend Chris Paul in 1-on-1 drills, getting some defensive stops and even stripping Paul once when he went up for a shot.

Smith certainly improved his shooting this past year, but his jumper looked a bit off during the camp. He doesn't have a pure release and his shot really lacks consistency. But his ball-handling and quickness looked great throughout the camp. He certainly will be fine running the point again for Duke this season if Coach K elects to put him there.

Georgetown's Chris Wright didn't look great in the ball-handling drills compared to some of the other guys. But when they played in a 3-on-3 setting, he made good decisions with the ball and was really shooting the ball well from the perimeter.

UConn's Kemba Walker was one of the best players at the camp. He looked great in every aspect, including ball-handling, quickness, speed and outside shooting. He really shot the ball well when he got his feet set.

Richmond's Kevin Anderson was very impressive. He has a very slender frame but he is a great ball-handler and is very quick. He is very good at driving to the basket but he needs to work on being more consistent with his outside shot.

Marquette's Darius Johnson-Odom was an excellent outside shooter during the season, but he didn't look the same this weekend. He missed a large percentage of his outside shots.

Miami's Durand Scott was rather impressive. He has many of the qualities that make up an elite guard: great ball-handling, quickness, speed and athleticism. Scott isn't a great outside shooter, but if he can improve that aspect of his game he will be a player to watch out for in the ACC.

Washington's Isaiah Thomas looked decent on the first day of camp. He showed his quickness and explosiveness and knocked down some jumpers. But he injured his foot on the second day was limited for the rest of the day.

Syracuse's Brandon Triche is a physical specimen. For a point guard, his strength is incredible. He's in terrific shape and can really overpower most guards. He just has a great feel for the game and is solid as an all-around player. He should be one of the top point guards in the Big East next season.

Virginia Tech's Dorenzo Hudson was probably the best defender at the camp. The 6-foot-5 guard does a great job at staying with smaller, quicker players and forcing them into tough shots. His biggest weakness is that he isn't a great shooter. Hudson injured his knee on the second day of camp when he slipped and fell during a baseline sprint drill, and he had to sit out the rest of the day.

Thursday, June 10, 2010

A College Basketball Fan’s Guide To Watching The World Cup

Wow, I've been phenomenally lazy with the blog lately, but I've been working a lot. However, I've still been keeping up to date with all the sports news out there and I'll keep posting interesting articles that I find here. In addition, I promise I'll be posting more original content soon. In the mean time, here's a great article about the World Cup (THANK GOD for the world cup . . . if I had to sit through another f***ing women's softball game on ESPN, I might have killed myself.
In less than 48 hours, our televisions will be taken over by the biggest sporting event the world has to offer.  Your TweetDeck (or whatever Twitter application you use) will be lousy with friends, celebrities, and sportswriters tweeting about it.  Your Facebook friends will be centering their status updates about it.  And, for the next five weeks, when you walk into your favorite sports bars, as you peer at the flat-screens you’ll notice an increased presence of a game to which you might not be accustomed.

It’s World Cup time.

Like the Olympics and the Fields Medal, this is an every-four-year event.  It pits nation against nation in the sport that still stirs up the most passion among its fans on a worldwide scale.  Imagine if we only got one NCAA Tournament every four years.  Well, this is the one summer in four that soccer (the word we’ll use for this article, though we’re aware that most of the world calls it football) lovers get to enjoy their chance to crown a champion.  If you follow RTC on Twitter (if you don’t, shame on you, and go click our logo at right), you’ve probably been impressed by our occasional tweet about other sports or even current events.  It’s not exactly a long limb we’d be going out on for us to assume that if you’re a college basketball fan, you’ve probably got an interest in other sports, too — though international soccer might not be one of them.

Worry not, our fellow college hoopheads.  We’ve got you covered.  We want you to be able to hang in those conversations at those sports pubs.  We want you to be able to approach that lovely blonde bespectacled German girl wearing her Deutschland jersey in the supermarket (this actually happened to us a week ago).  We want you to impress your friends with your world vision and increased overall sports knowledge.  You think those kids in the stands at Duke or Xavier or Utah State are both well-prepared and berserk?  Wait until you hear the crowd at a World Cup soccer match.  We want you to enjoy that vital aspect of it all, as well.  We’re by no means experts on the subject, but to those ends, we give you — trumpet flourish — Rush The Court’s College Basketball Fan’s Guide to Watching the World Cup.
First, let’s list some of the participating  teams and define those squads in terms familiar to college hoop fans.  As you’ll see, by the way, national soccer teams have some of the best nicknames you’ll ever hear.  The best?  Cameroon.  The Indomitable Lions.  I mean, COME ON…

South Africa. The host nation.  Not much is expected of them, but this is a sports-loving nation that’s becoming more soccer-savvy by the day.  They’ve improved in recent years and they’ll be better after this particular World Cup.  They don’t have the resources of the bigger national programs, but the chance to play history-making matches in front of their home fans may propel them farther in the tournament than a lot of people will pick them.  In terms of college basketball parallels, could this be anybody else but the Butler Bulldogs from last season?  We haven’t asked him, but we guarantee you, this is the side (soccer teams are often called “sides” by the way) for which Kyle Whelliston and the Mid-Majority are rooting.
Argentina. Here’s an interesting bunch.  This is a side with a proud history in the sport that’s also a sexy pick to win the whole thing.  It’s not just because they have the guy largely considered the best player in the world right now in Lionel Messi, but the supporting cast is high-quality as well, with a fiery finisher in Carlos Tevez and stable midfield presence of Javier Mascherano.  The biggest problem — their coach is kind of a boob.  He may be one of the great soccer personalities and players of all time, but Diego Maradona’s coaching ability has been questioned from the day he was hired, and for good reason.  So, we asked our guys here about a college basketball example of a team with possibly the best player in the game and a decent supporting cast, with sort of a boob of a coach whose talented players only made him look like slightly less of one.  At that moment, the Wake Forest grads here — without looking up — simultaneously raised their hands and said, “Wake Forest, 1995 to 1997.  Tim Duncan. Dave Odom. Take it to the bank.  You won’t find a better one.”  We’re going with it.  And we’re sorry, Winston-Salem.

England. America’s first opponent reminds us a lot of the Kentucky program from the last couple of years.  England has a proud history, a crazed but phenomenal fan base, and some titles in their past, but have posted some disappointing results in recent World Cups while playing under coaches that might not have been good fits for such a high-pressure job.  Kentucky went through a similar phase from 2007-2009 under Billy Gillispie, but hope returned when a new coach of Italian descent arrived in the form of John Calipari (for England, it’s Fabio Capello) and loaded the team with exciting young stars and turned things around for them instantaneously.  Like Kentucky last season, England is one of the top teams in this tournament and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they won it all.  Also like last year’s Wildcats, England are fielding a much more exciting team this time, with their version of John Wall being Wayne Rooney, a fierce competitor, great scorer, and exemplary teammate, not to mention a fellow who will gladly sacrifice his body to score, or assist on one.  Similar to Wall, Rooney might be considered the best player in the game…were it not for just that one other guy (the aforementioned Messi, in the role of Evan Turner).  And the recent English soccer infidelity scandal involving John Terry and Wayne Bridge makes this whole Eric Bledsoe nonsense look like a jaywalking  ticket.  Maybe we should have chosen Louisville.
Ivory Coast. I know…who?  Don’t kid yourself, the Elephants (niiiice) have been an emerging soccer nation for a while, now, and this was a World Cup in which they were expected to break through and do some real damage.  A lot of experts picked them to go as far as the Final Four, er, I mean, semifinals.  But you’ll note my use of the past tense, there.  That’s because they are the 2010 World Cup version of the Cincinnati Bearcats from the 1999-2000 season.  You recall that that UC team had Kenyon Martin, a fierce, physical specimen of a player who was thought to be the best player in the game at that time, expected to take his team pretty doggone far.  Then he broke his leg on the virtual eve of the NCAA Tournament.  Those who don’t consider Lionel Messi the best player in the world say that it’s either Wayne Rooney, or Ivory Coast’s Didier Drogba.  Unfortunately for the Ivorians, Drogba also suffered a bad fracture — to his elbow, in this case — a mere eleven days before his side’s first game.  And like Martin’s Bearcats from 2000, Drogba’s squad is now considered to be pretty much toast, their chances of advancing far into the tournament all but gone.  Incidentally, Drogba had emergency surgery and is actually going to try to play, but that experiment will unfortunately end with the first hit on that plates-and-pins rigged elbow.

Spain. They’re currently the world #2, but they’re the team everyone’s picking to win it.  If you took last year’s Kansas and Syracuse teams and made an all-star team out of it, you got Spain.  Like both of those teams last season, Spain can get scoring from any position, except maybe from defender and captain Carles Puyol.  I wouldn’t leave Xavi, David Villa, Fernando Torres, Cesc Fabregas, or Andres Iniesta open past the midfield line.  The problem is, like Cole Aldrich, Wesley Johnson, and Sherron Collins, they’ll use their size and/or speed to create their own scoring space regardless of what you do, unless they allow you to bring a baseball bat, and even that might not do it.  Like our KU/SU all-star team parallel, there just aren’t any weaknesses, here — the second team would contain starters for most other squads.  Ridiculous athletes?  Check.  Gorgeous passing?  Check.  Scoring ability?  Double check.  Coaching?  Check.  Most experts feel you can go ahead and write the check for La Furia Roja (awesome, again).  Of course, that’s what we thought about Kansas last season…which is why we threw Syracuse in there.
Germany. Die Mannschaft (that’s the national team’s name…yeah, I know, right?!?) always exceeds expectations, no matter what they look like leading up to any World Cup.  Even if they look mediocre on paper, they’ll do better than that.  You can count on it.  For this cup, they’ve got a core group of three fine players — Miroslav Klose and Lukas Podolski up by the goal, and a midfielder with what we consider the best and likely most fear-inducing name in the tournament: Bastian Schweinsteiger — with some good role players surrounding them.  This brings to mind Tom Izzo of the Cleveland Cavaliers and his Michigan State program, a bunch that always seems to do better than people think they will even though they might look ordinary in the regular season and Big Ten Tournament.  Also, they lost the former Big Ten Player of the Year to injury when Kalin “Cool Hand” Lucas suffered that awful Achilles tendon rupture against Maryland in the Tournament last year; Germany also lost their most important player, Michael Ballack (nicknamed the “Little Kaiser”), to an ankle injury back in mid-May, and he won’t be playing in South Africa.  Still, like the Spartans in any NCAA Tournament, you’d be a doofus to ignore Germany.

Brazil. The current top-ranked team in the world.  Out of the 18 World Cups that have been played, only seven countries can claim to have ever won the title.  Brazil has five Cups, the most of anyone, and two of the last four.  They are constantly loaded with stars, on-the-ball magicians of the highest order.  We’ll go ahead and say that they’re “led” by midfielder Kaka, striker Luis Fabiano, and one of the top defenders in the world in Lucio, but the reality is there’s not one player on the Brazil side who can’t put it in the net.  Each one of them can kill you.  It would be easy to compare Brazil with UCLA, since each has the most titles in their respective sport.  But Brazilian coach Dunga couldn’t carry Ben Howland’s jock if he had a wheelbarrow.  And we won’t even mention him in the same sentence as John Wooden.  No, if we remove this past season, Brazil reminds us of North Carolina — rich in tradition, two recent titles, constantly talented at every position, always possessive of great depth, and an automatic first- or second-favorite to win any tournament in which they find themselves.  By the way, most Brazilian players are mononymic because Portuguese names can be pretty darn long (Kaka’s real name is Ricardo Izecson dos Santos Leite), so that’s what that’s about.
Netherlands. A national side with a proud and illustrious history (but no World Cup titles), this year’s Netherlands team is loaded with goal scorers possessing laser-knife accuracy, namely Arjen Robben (who’s 26, looks 40, but plays with the passion and speed of 19), Wesley Sneijder, and that bully Dirk Kuyt.  And we think Robin van Persie still has some goals in him.  Despite the loads of skill at both ends, almost nobody’s talking about them, and they also have a pretty easy draw, all things considered.  The parallel may break down as far as the titles are concerned, but otherwise this sounds a lot like last year’s Duke Blue Devils — overflowing with talent, getting blamed for an easy draw, and ignored without good reason.  And, like some recent Blue Devil teams, the Netherlands has a little recent history of bowing out of the big tournament earlier than expected.  We saw what Coach K’s team thought about that last year, though, didn’t we?
USA. This is a tough one, because of the obvious bias.  We won’t expound on why soccer has yet to take off in the US as much as people seem to keep predicting it will; that’s for another time and another blog.  Soccer in America is still a work in progress, but this year’s side has got more talent than some of the international experts are letting on, and they’ll be one of the fitter teams in the competition.  Striker Jozy Altidore has something like -13% body fat, defender Oguchi Onyewu has a suspect knee but looks like he could go a few rounds with Floyd Mayweather, Landon Donovan is becoming one of the world’s finest midfielders (and was once married to Bianca Kajlich, so props, brother), the versatile Clint Dempsey tends to rise up and score right when you think he’s literally sleeping, and goalie Tim Howard is one of the world’s best at his position.  It’s tough to think of an analogous college basketball team, and people aren’t going to like this, but we’ll call them last year’s Northern Iowa squad.  Dangerous if they’re on, and capable of one big upset, but the best-case realistic scenario is the Sweet 16.  We hope we’re wrong.

Keep in mind, this is a college basketball blog.  We don’t even know if what’s written above is coherent.  We just took what we know about these teams and personalities and made connections with what we really know, which is college roundball.  So don’t be making any special trips to the ATM after reading this, unless you’re betting opposite what we say.
So, disclaimer out of the way, here we go:  we’ll take England over Mexico in a seriously close quarterfinal, and the Netherlands surprising the holy living caipirinhas out of Brazil in the other quarter on that side.  On the other end, we’ll take Tim Duncan and Argentina over Tom Izzo’s Germany side, and Spain’s La Furia Roja over Cameroon’s Indomitable Lions in a battle of great nicknames (Cameroon wins that one if it were nicknames only, though).  That gives us Netherlands over England is the first Final Four matchup, and call us crazy, but we’re taking the Oranje (that’s Holland).  Then it’s Spain over Argentina in the other Final Four bout.
It would be the safe play to take Spain in the final…but where’s the fun in that?  We’re going with the Netherlands to pull the shocker.  It wasn’t a shock when Duke won in Indianapolis a few months ago, but as far as the tournament as a whole, the similarities are there.  They’re talented at every spot, deep, have scorers who can light up the scoreboard and defenders who can turn out your lights.  They’re well-coached.  The road in won’t be very difficult, and despite all that, nobody will really talk about them until they actually get close to winning it.  If they actually get there and knock off the Spaniards, it would be closer to Villanova over Georgetown, but what the hell.  The Netherlands will be singing “One Shining Moment” on July 11th — or some strange-sounding version thereof.

And that pick has nothing to do with the fact that the administrative assistant here at the RTC Southern Compound is a knockout babe from Maastricht.

Enjoy the World Cup, fellow college basketball fans…now that you can.

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Conference Realignment: The Sad Reality

By Eamonn Brennan

Read this article on ESPN.com

The college basketball fan lives a difficult life. The season is too short. The offseason is too long. The NCAA tournament, as brilliant a competition as any in sports, is under siege. And maybe the worst of it? Nobody cares.

Oh, it's not that nobody cares about college basketball. But there's a difference between most people -- those whose fandom shifts and glides with the seasons, moving thoughtlessly from one sport to the next -- and the die-hard college basketball fan, who year-round sees everything through the prism of the game he or she loves.

Most people follow college hoops from January to April. The die-hard follows it from April to April.

Most people start thinking about their brackets when the conference tournaments start. The die-hard begins thinking about his bracket when the Maui Invitational starts.

You might be a college basketball die-hard if ... OK, OK, I'll stop. You get the idea. College basketball fans are passionate, but they're outnumbered. And in case the die-hard college basketball fan needed yet another reminder of their downtrodden disparity, I give you ... Conference Expansionocalypse 2010.

Everybody's making moves. The cell phones are ringing, the tweets are flying, and the e-mails are being leaked. But the most recent and potentially most dire development to the college hoops fan is that of the Pac-10's rumored attempts at forming the Death Star of West Coast conferences: The Pac-16.

That plan, one of many discussed at the Pac-10 meeting this past weekend, involves raiding the southern half of the Big 12 and adding teams like Texas, Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and either Colorado or Baylor to the current Pac-10. It's a move that would complement Missouri and Nebraska's apparent angling for spots in the Big Ten, and it would effectively dissolve the Big 12 as we know it.

What's insane about this scenario -- OK, there's a lot insane about this scenario, but let's start here -- is the teams that would be left behind. There's Baylor, a rising hoops program under coach Scott Drew. There's Kansas State, a rising hoops program under Frank Martin. There's Iowa State, which is a traditionally proud hoops program currently mired in the rebuilding muck.

That's at least two programs who finished in the top three of the Big 12 conference standings in 2009-10 who could get left out to dry in several of the conference expansion scenarios. If you add Missouri, which is playing a delicate game of chicken with the Big Ten and its own conference at the same time, you get three in the top five.

And that's before you talk about Kansas.

Remember Kansas? You know, one of the nation's premier hoops programs, a veritable cradle of the game, the place that employed James Naismith as its head basketball coach a mere six years after the Canadian doctor wrote the sport's first official rules, and a place that has pretty much done nothing but win at basketball since? The team that plays in one of college hoops' most revered fieldhouses and the site of many a basketball pilgrimage each winter? Yeah, that Kansas.

The Pac-10 doesn't want Kansas. The Big Ten doesn't seem wholly interested. The Jayhawks are, for the moment, on the outside of conference expansion looking in. Which says a lot more about conference expansion than it does the Kansas Jayhawks.

What it says is that college basketball doesn't at all factor into what conference expansion will produce. Those results might be elegant and simple -- Notre Dame joining the Big Ten and rounding off the expansion dominoes in one fell swoop.

Or it could be unwieldy: a Pac-16, a Big-16, the dissolution of the Big East, a joint deal between the Big 12 and the Pac-10, the SEC annexing itself from the NCAA and starting its own college football league on the moon. Everything's in play. But no matter what happens, basketball won't be a factor. And that's just a little bit depressing.

This isn't the first time someone has written this, by the way. A soul-crushingly handsome young fellow with a funny Irish name wrote about the potentially disastrous effects of Big Ten expansion on the Big East in late April, back when Big Ten expansion was the hottest topic in town. (Oh, how times have changed.) To be sure, the Big Ten's encroachment into Big East territory would mark a huge shift for college hoops; it would effectively neuter the Big East, potentially robbing it of two marquee basketball programs (Syracuse and Pittsburgh) in what is at its very core a basketball conference.

But at least Big Ten expansion seemed to show some signs of sanity in regard to college hoops. Picking up those two programs wouldn't be the focus of any expansion, but it would serve as a nice perk. If the Big Ten added Syracuse and Pittsburgh, or Syracuse and Connecticut, it would be grabbing up two of the nation's premier basketball programs in two important markets while simultaneously morphing into the best basketball conference in the country. The situation works in toto. That can't be discounted.

The Pac-16 would be a good basketball conference, sure, but that's clearly not the goal here. Texas (the state, not the school) is the target, and Texas, despite a couple of good basketball programs in Austin and College Station, is not basketball country. Same goes for Oklahoma. Oklahoma State, with its intense fandom and quirky Gallagher-Iba arena, is the one school mentioned that feels like it traditionally loves its hoops as much as its college football. One out of six ain't bad.

Ah, but what are you going to do? As always in conference expansion, this is nothing more than a lament. We hoops fans get it. We understand the game. College football makes the money. College football pays for everything else. College football is what moves the needle, and moving the needle is what conference expansion is all about. We're not naive.

We are, however, a little bit sad. No one wants Kansas? The Kansas? Really?

College basketball die-hards may understand the cold reality of conference expansion. But that doesn't make it any less insane.