Monday, March 30, 2009

Cubs' roster down to 28

The Cubs today released Paul Bako (eh) and lefty Mike Stanton (double eh). Micah Hoffpauir will officially be part of the team, while Koyie Hill officially gets the nod as the backup catcher. Hill, 30, is batting .381 this spring.

The Cubs have a few more infield/outfield/reliever decisions to make, but with one week 'til Opening Day, they're getting real close to finalizing the Opening Day roster.

Click the title of this post to view the Cubs.com story.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Taking a spin around the world of sports

It would not be surprising to see three or four Big East teams in the Elite Eight, and even two or three in the Final Four. Of course, anyone can get hot in March, but the Big East teams have the advantage of having faced the heat all season.

-Brandon Christol, Feb. 23, 2009, from the blog "Wait 'til this Year"



I know, I shouldn't toot my own horn, but it's my blog and I needed to make myself feel good about something after a weekend filled with tragedy and despair.

Louisville had a chance to make it three Big East teams in the Final Four, but the Cardinals--normally a second half team--absolutely folded up their tent in the second half against Michigan State on Sunday. They were outscored 34-25 in the latter half, and shot 10-18 from the free throw line for the game. They shot just 38% from the field and were outrebounded by eight. Not a strong performance by the top overall seed in the tournament. So only two Big East teams will head to Detroit, but still an incredible tournament for the conference.

On the other side of the bracket, I cannot wait to see Villanova's defense go up against UNC's offense. North Carolina has averaged 89 points in their four tourney victories, but Villanova shut down a good Duke team in the regional semifinal and has allowed just 66 points per game in the tourney. They play great team defense, but UNC has numerous weapons. Should be fun.

One reason I'm left with zero (that's right: zip, zilch, nada) Final Four teams in my bracket is because of th
ose all-important free throws. Here are the free throw numbers for my Final Four teams in the games in which they were eliminated:

Memphis: 18-32 (56%)
Pitt: 21-29 (72%)
Louisville: 10-18 (55%)
Oklahoma: 10-16 (62%)

That's 62% overall. My teams just kept shooting themselves in the foot when they stepped up to the charity stripe. Oh well, you live and you learn. I learned that a bracket can go downhill faster than Bode Miller: I had 14 of 16 Sweet Sixteen teams, y
et none of my Final Four picks are booking hotels in Motown.

The Tiger and the O'Hair

Tiger's back, baby. He trailed by five strokes entering the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational, but he stormed back to tie it and nailed a 15-footer for birdie on the 72nd hole
to win by one. You gotta love it. Tiger's been solid but not quite Tigerish since returning from injury, and then he puts it all together in his final tournament prior to the Masters, which starts April 9. Tiger is now in 12th place in the 2009 FedEx Cup standings despite playing just three tournaments while everyone else in the top 30 has played at least twice that many.

Gregg to close for Cubs

In one of the few decisions that remained for Lou Piniella this spring, Kevin Gregg was named the Cub
s closer Sunday, while Carlos Marmol will be the primary set-up man. Gregg has more experience closing (29 saves last year, 32 in 2007) and has not allowed a run in 8.1 innings this spring. I've always thought the closer position is overrated (since the game is often decided in the 7th or 8th inning rather than the 9th), so I'm not too worked up about this decision. It will be nice to have someone with Marmol's stuff to bring on in the late innings, as was the case last year when Marmol put out many a fire. And if Gregg struggles or gets hurt, Marmol should be able to fill in nicely.

Yes, there was snow on the ground today in Chicago, but have no fear--baseball season is just a week away.

Sizing up the lineup

Before the season starts up (in eight days!!), I wanted to take a look at the Cubs lineup. The lineup has been controversial ever since the Cubs acquired Soriano, and with a few additions and subtractions this year, there's even more room for debate regarding the Cubs batting order. Here's what it will probably look like come April 6:

1. Alfonso Soriano, LF
2. Kosuke Fukudome, CF
3. Derrek Lee, 1B
4. Milton Bradley, RF
5. Aramis Ramirez, 3B
6. Mike Fontenot, 2B
7. Geovany Soto, C
8. Ryan Theriot, SS
9. Pitcher

So Soriano will still be belting leadoff solo home runs; Fukudome will either set the table nicely with his ability to get on base or create a black hole in the two spot with his complete inability to get on base; Lee, whose slugging percentage was better than that of only Fukudome and Theriot last year, will still bat third; Bradley provides the lefty 'tween the two sluggers; and Theriot would bring up the rear.

Baseball Musings, a great Web site, has a lineup analysis tool that uses players' on-base percentages and slugging percentages to determine the best and worst possible lineups. Plugging in last year's numbers for these players, Baseball Musings projects the following:

  • Best lineup: 5.42 runs per game
  • Probable lineup: 5.15 runs per game
  • Worst lineup: 4.88 runs per game

The Cubs scored 5.31 runs per game in 2008.

Their best lineup, interestingly, looks like this:

1. Bradley
2. Fontenot
3. Fukudome
4. Ramirez
5. Lee
6. Soriano
7. Soto
8. Pitcher
9. Theriot

Few things: 1) this is a very untraditional lineup that we would never see, but it's interesting to look at, 2) notice the little LaRussa-ism in there, with Theriot batting ninth behind the pitcher, and 3) all three lefties are at the top, eliminating all the lineup balance Piniella is seeking for this year's team.

Here's how I would fill out the lineup card:

1. Theriot
2. Fontenot
3. Ramirez
4. Bradley
5. Lee
6. Soriano
7. Soto
8. Johnson/Fukudome
9. Pitcher

This lineup generally places the strong OBP at the top, whereas Piniella's backloads them. Baseball Musings points out that the Cubs just may score more runs in the second inning this year than the first, with on-base guys like Bradley, Ramirez and Fontenot coming up in the second.

This lineup also provides nearly the same balance as Piniella's, with lefties batting 2, 4 and 8. I've placed the Cajun Connection and their +.380 OBPs at the top. While I hope I'm wrong, Lee seems to be to be on the decline, and I would take his subpar slugging percentage and move it down. Ramirez is the purest run producer on the team, so I move him into the all-important three hole, with lefty Bradley behind him. Soriano's .532 slugging percentage looks nice in the six spot, followed by the capable Soto and presumably the weakest (though hopefully not weak) part of the lineup, the Reed Johnson/Fukudome platoon.

Under the assumption Piniella doesn't read my blog and alter his lineup plans, the Cubs offense should still be in good shape. This is virtually the same lineup that led the NL in runs scored (855), OBP (.354), SLG (.443), and finished second in batting average (.278) in 2008. Can you BELIEVE the Cubs--the Chicago freakin' Cubs--led the NL in on-base percentage? If the Cubs maintain a focus on taking bad pitches, drawing walks, and getting on base however they can, this offense will be another force to be reckoned with. They've essentially replaced Fukudome with Bradley and Johnson/Edmonds with Johnson/Fukudome. Lee has room to improve over last year, Fukudome was useless for three months, Soriano missed over 50 games, and Soto was just a rookie. On the other hand, can Theriot and Fontenot keep it up? Will Bradley trot out to right field enough to justify his contract?

One note on Fukudome: I can understand giving him a chance to play everyday--he's making $12 mil, and he demonstrated potential last April and May. The Cubs' high OBP was even referred to as the Fukudome Factor until Fukudome himself was no longer a factor. But I am worried about him. He looked lost during the WBC, tallying no extra base hits and getting benched for the championship game. Reed Johnson plays the game hard and finds ways to contribute. So once again, I understand giving Fukudome a shot, but I personally would have him on a short leash.

So, what do you think about the lineup? Share your thoughts and suggestions in the comments.

Here's to setting another franchise record for walks and breaking the 900 run mark!

Super 'Nova

Well, put some butter and/or jam on my bracket, because it's toast. Pitt finally did what they had been threatening to do throughout the tournament--lost. The game was close all the way--the best game all tourney, if you ask me--and while DeJuan Blair was a force down low and Sam Young tried to carry the Panthers into the Final Four (28 points), I was extremely disappointed in Levance Fields. Fields suffered a sore groin March 4 against Marquette, and perhaps the lingering injury explains his postseason performance, but he didn't do anything to justify the hype. He rarely drove the ball, made some silly passes, and wasn't a big time scorer. I'm not saying Fields was a bad player--he averaged 11 points and 6 assists--but his shot selection and overall decision-making led me to believe he's perhaps the last point guard I would want of those remaining in the tournament.

Kudos to Villanova not only for making it to the Final Four, but also for their 22-23 performance from the free throw line. Had they not suffered the one miss, they would have set the tournament record for free throws made without a miss. Now that my bracket has more errors than a Bill Kristol column, I may root for the Wildcats--they're fun to watch. I'm looking forward to watching Louisville today as well.

One more note from Saturday: can someone please stop the runaway train of terrible that is Dick Enberg? The fast pace of college basketball seems to be too much for the 64-year-old Enberg, who was constantly saying the wrong score, wrong name, incorrect statistics, etc. Thank God we're done with him--I assume the Final Four will be called by Jim Nantz. I like Enberg's voice and style, and I think he's still well-suited for football, but these basketball games were painful.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Elite East--I mean Eight

How scary did Louisville look Friday night? They dropped an NBA-like 103 points on the only wannabe Cinderella remaining, Arizona. Eight teams remaining, four of them in the Big East. It's sort of like we're about to watch another incarnation of the Big East conference tournament. If that's the case, I wouldn't mind seeing another six overtime thriller, though I'd prefer Pitt doesn't suffer the same fate as they did back in mid-March.

My stab at an upset stabbed me right in the back, as Gonzaga was never in it against an upstart Tarheel team. UNC was just two points shy of the century mark, and they now carry the ACC banner into the Elite Eight.

Michigan St. defeated Kansas in what really did become a battle of coaches. There must have been at least four timeouts called in the final two minutes. Whenever a team calls a timeout, much of the responsibility for the ensuing play must be placed on the coach, as he has the opportunity to draw up a play from scratch. In the end, Tom Izzo outscored Bill Self 7-2 in the final 1:48 to net a Spartan victory.

And Blake Griffin continues to raise his potential NBA stock value. He averaged 30.5 points and 15 rebounds in the first two tournament games, and proved he's nothing if not consistent with a 30 and 14 performance against overmatched Syracuse. That's right: a Big East team lost. Weird, I know.

Elite Eight conference breakdown:

Big East: 4
Big 12: 2
ACC: 1
Big Ten: 1

Friday, March 27, 2009

Who's got a date with the Elite Eight?

Really, Memphis. Really. Reeeaaally. Really?

I admitted in my predictions that I didn't know how good Memphis really was. They were rarely on TV this season, and they play in a conference with teams such as Southern Methodist and Rice (sorry, Andrew). If you go from Christmas through St. Patrick's Day without losing, you're good, no doubt. But it was nearly impossible to tell just how good a team like this was.

Well, we found out Thursday night. Missouri gave Memphis a good ol' Big 12 whoopin'. The Tigers (Mizzou, that is) put up 102 points on a Tiger team (Memphis, that is) that allowed just 58 points per game this season. Interestingly, Missouri coach Mike Anderson coached the last Conference USA team to beat Memphis--he was UAB's coach when they took down Memphis just 62 conference games ago.

So I put too much stock in unknown Memphis, picking them to take down UConn for a Final Four spot. But that's OK, because ...

The Big East continues to carry my bracket, with an assist from the overrated ACC. Villanova schooled Duke Thursday, and made it look easy. The Blue Devils continue to disappoint (unless you're me), as they have not made it to the Elite Eight since 2004. Now if only Gonzaga can make UNC suffer the same fate this evening ...

Pitt continued to look as though they have no interest whatsoever in winning the national championship, yet they pulled out another close victory. They seem destined to fall at some point if they keep this up (they've won by 10, 8 and 5 against weaker opponents), but I have to give them credit for grinding out victories to this point. And credit is also due to the Panthers for making it to their first ever regional final.

UConn handled Little 10 opponent Purdue with relative ease, transforming them into a perimeter team with the imposing presence of Hasheem Thabeet down low. Michigan State now carries the torch for the Big Ten, as they face Kansas in a sweet coaching match up--Tom Izzo vs. Bill Self. Sweet announcing match up as well--that's right, Gus Johnson will be doing this one, as well as the Louisville-Arizona game. Who wants a buzzer beater? I do! I do!

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lance Armstrong severs left foot in hopes of making this year's Tour victory even more incredible

From the Wait 'til this Year Humor Vault


In his latest attempt to prove that he can overcome any ridiculous obstacle, cyclist Lance Armstrong chopped off his left foot Wednesday, making his upcoming Tour de France victory his greatest yet.

Armstrong overcame testicular cancer to win the Tour a record-breaking seven consecutive years from 1999 to 2005. Earlier this week, Armstrong crashed during a race and broke his collarbone, creating yet another hindrance to his stunning cycling comeback.

"I've always believed that I can do anything I set my mind to, overcome anything," said Armstrong while pedaling his hospital bed/bicycle, a unique contraption that enables him to train while recovering from any medical emergency. "These latest setbacks will only confirm this belief."

Armstrong added that he plans to win the 2010 Tour on a unicycle and hopes to be blind in at least one eye for his 2011 victory.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

CollegeInsider.c'mon

Perhaps the best buzzer beater of the NCAA basketball postseason came in the Bradley vs. Oakland game, as Bradley sank a 70-footer after inbounding the ball with just .9 seconds remaining. What's that? You don't remember Bradley or Oakland being in the NCAA tournament? That's because they're not. But remember, there's also the NIT, aka the National Invitational Tournament. But it turns out they're not in that one either. "Oh, the College Basketball Invitational, then," you say. "Yeah, I've heard of that one." Nope. Bradley and Oakland weren't quite good enough to merit CBI invitations either. No, these powerhouses went at it in the inaugural CollegeInsider.com Tournament, the fourth and most absurd of the postseason tournaments. And yet I show you the clip anyways, because who doesn't like to see a 70-foot game-winner?

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

World Series will now be called just Series

World Baseball Classic's refusal to "just go away" forces name change

From the Wait 'til this Year Humor Vault

Sixteen countries from six continents participated in the 2009 World Baseball Classic, shaming Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig into changing the name of MLB's decisive playoff round from "World Series" to simply "Series." MLB is comprised of teams from a paltry two countries and just one continent, and only one team--the Toronto Blue Jays--plays its home games outside of the U.S. Watching the WBC propelled Selig to make a change so as to better reflect the league's pathetically provincial makeup.

"We've been living a lie," said Selig. "Everyone knows it's not really a 'World' Series, but it wasn't until the World Baseball Classic shoved its way onto the scene that it really began to sound ridiculous. I mean, c'mon, a world series between the Boston Red Sox and Colorado Rockies? That's like calling an Olympic gold medalist an Intergalactic Champion."

The first WBC was played in 2006, and while Selig says he considered changing the name at that time, he held out hope that everyone would hate the WBC, and that "maybe they would just forget to play it ever again." When the international event returned this year, featuring live TV coverage of nearly every game and an exciting extra-inning championship game featuring two Asian teams, Selig knew the jig was up.

"The World Baseball Classic is here to stay," Selig grumbled. "The fact is, MLB's championship series is really just a series of games to determine the best team located north of the equator and between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. It's an Americanada series, or a Canadamerican series. But it's definitely not a world series. To make things easy, we're just going to go with 'Series.'"

When asked about the marketing challenge of promoting future winners as simply "Series Champions," Selig's eyes opened wide as he appeared to have an unpleasant epiphany, perhaps realizing that MLB's annual schedule features nearly 1,000 different series. Selig remained quiet, then stood up from the interview table and backed ever-so-slowly out of the press room.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The road to Detroit does not go through Upset City

"M" Madness
In a game brought to you by the letter "M," Missouri held off Marquette 83-79 despite the magnificent efforts of McNeal and Matthews. Mizzou's win sets up a meeting with Memphis. The Golden Eagles trailed by 16 at one point, but turned it around in the second half to bring us one of the tournament's best games to this point. Who needs Dominic James when you've got these two guys? Jerel McNeal is Marquette's all-time leading scorer, and his 30 points were topped only by Pitt's Sam Young on Sunday. Wesley Matthews also did his part, adding 22.

They are who we thought they were
The top three seeds in each region have never gone 24-0 combined in the first two rounds. That is, not until this year. I mentioned in my March Madness preview that I thought the NCAA was top-heavy this year. After the first two rounds of the tournament, that appears to be the case.

If you were wary of picking upsets, your bracket is looking mighty nice. The Midwest has 1, 2, 3 and 12; the West has 1, 2, 3 and 5; and both the East and South regions have all four top seeds remaining. So just two of sixteen teams will be lacing it up unexpectedly next weekend.

Conference analysis
Taking a look at the Big Ten, Michigan, Minnesota, Illinois, Wisconsin and Ohio State are done, while Purdue stays alive to face UConn and Michigan St. prepares to take on Kansas. The Big Ten has a 6-5 tourney record.

With 16 teams remaining, here's the conference representation:

Big East: 5 (breaks the conference record of four)
Big 12: 3
Big 10: 2
ACC: 2
Conf. USA: 1
Pac-10: 1
Atlantic 10: 1
West Coast: 1

The Big East has thus far lived up to the hype, while the Big 12 has come through with solid performances by KU, Missouri and Oklahoma. Not a ton of buzzer beaters and exciting finishes this weekend, but I can feel them coming on in the next two rounds.

Marketing Madness
On a separate note, I've never understood businesses purchasing the naming rights to stadiums. The United Center? Petco Park? Quicken Loans Arena? I'm sure you could find some marketing experts who would tell you I'm subconsciously affected by these monikers, but I absolutely cannot imagine that I am more likely to fly United even if I watch every Bulls game for the next 10 years, or that I'm going to walk into Quicken Loans next time I need a loan just because I happened to catch a Cavs game the night before.

However, Taco Bell Arena--which is on Boise State's campus and served as host to some tourney games this weekend--is a name worth every penny. I don't care if TB paid $10 mil a year for the naming rights--I must have considered making a run for the border at least five times Sunday. I don't need a loan while I'm watching a basketball game, and I certainly don't have pet food on my mind when I'm taking in an afternoon baseball game. But I could definitely go for a Mexican pizza and a double decker taco at halftime. Mmmmm, or maybe some cheesy fiesta potatoes. I guarantee you that if I had attended Boise State University, I would have eaten a minimum of six meals a week at Taco Bell and, at some point, I would have dropped out of college, made every effort to secure a loan (NOT from Quicken Loans), and purchased a Taco Bell franchise. I would now be the proud owner of a Taco Bell restaurant somewhere in Idaho, weighing in at 400 pounds and thinking that pizza is a dish with two tortillas and eaten with a spork. I never thought I'd say this, but that was a great decision to buy the naming rights to that stadium, Taco Bell. It's a good thing for me there's no Cold Stone Creamery Coliseum or Popeye's Park.
UPDATE: I just ate Taco Bell for dinner. I wish I were kidding, but I'm not. It was delicious.

A big, big man, a Blake, and a buzzer beater

Wow, did UCLA look overmatched against Villanova or what? The Bruins are young, and they'll be back, but they looked like they were in the way of a Villanova scrimmage on Saturday.

The only upset of the day was Purdue over Washington, a 5/4 upset at that. JaJuan Johnson has looked great, but will he be able to handle UConn's 7'3" Hasheem Thabeet? One of my favorite moments in Saturday's action, by the way, was when Thabeet, of his own accord, tried to walk past coach Jim Calhoun to sub into the game. Calhoun said something to the effect of "Where the heck do you think you're goin'?!" and told him to get back on the bench. I love that the 7-foot big man thought he could sneak past his coach unnoticed. The only way it could have been better is if he had been whistling as he tried to saunter past.

Michigan had no answer for Blake Griffin, as he scored 33 points and grabbed 17 rebounds. In two tournament games, he has 61 points and 30 boards.

But the game of the day was Gonzaga vs. Western Kentucky. It was close the whole way, and WKU tied it up with eight seconds left when the Player With the Most Superfluous Letters in His First Name Steffphon Pettigrew tipped in a miss. But Demetri Goodson went the length of the floor and banked in the game-winning shot just before the buzzer, netting a Bulldog win.

With Goodson's help, I went 8-0 Saturday. Will Sunday's games echo Friday's, and be full of upsets?

Friday, March 20, 2009

Sorry to burst your bracket

Cleveland may not be a state, but Cleveland State made a statement Friday with an 84-69 win over #4 Wake Forest. That statement was: "Brandon Christol, how dare you belittle us by doing nothing but make fun of our school's name in your blog prediction? Hope you enjoyed our sweet victory, punk." Touché, Cleveland State.

Cleveland State's win also sets up an interesting 13/12 game with Arizona, as the Wildcats defeated Utah in yet another 12/5 upset. What is it about that 12/5 upset? It's like death and taxes. If Louisville makes it to the Sweet 16, they'll face a serious underdog. That's me putting a positive spin on a terrible day of bracketeering for me.

It took 'til the final two games of the first round, but we eventually got to see a couple of great overtime games, both of which resulted in upsets. Ohio St. and Siena actually needed double OT, and Siena eventually claimed a thrilling 74-72 victory; Wisconsin made it three 12/5 upsets with an overtime victory against Florida State. The Big Ten finishes the first round 4-3.

I don't know about you, but I lost a pathetic eight of the sixteen games Friday. A full one-third of the day's games were won by lower seeds (13, 12, 12, 11, 10, and 9 seeds). At least all of my Elite Eight teams are still alive ... so ... that's somethin'.

Well, the first round went out with a bang--bring on round two!

Exclamation points

Friday's early stories: big players coming up big, and the Big 12 doing the same.

Sherron Collins scored 32 points for Kansas in an 84-74 victory over North Dakota St. NDSU star Ben Woodside did all he could in the loss, dropping 37.

Dionte Christmas didn't disappoint either, putting up 29 in Temple's loss to Arizona St.

Chris Wright scored a career-high 27 as Dayton flew past West Virginia to pull off the 11/6 upset. Bob Huggins-led squads (Cincinnati and West Virginia) had been 13-1 against the Flyers, with 13 being more than the number of players who graduated under Huggins at Cincy.

DeJuan Blair had 27 points and 16 rebounds in Pitt's much-closer-than-it-should-have-been 72-62 victory over E. Tennessee St. Maybe this was a wake up call, maybe it was a sign I shouldn't have picked Pitt to win it all. Only time will tell.

And while no one on Stephen F. Austin came up big (hence a 15-point loss to Syracuse), I have to point out that "coming up big" would be impossible for guard Eric Bell, who is listed at just 5' 3"! Bell is (was) the smallest player in this year's tournament. He didn't score any points in Friday's loss, but he gave height-challenged people everywhere hope that they, too, one day, could possibly score zero points in an NCAA Tournament game. (toth: mc)

And the Big 12: Kansas, Texas A & M, Missouri, Oklahoma, Texas, and Oklahoma St. have all won either Thursday or Friday. 6-0 for the Big 12. The Big East is close behind at 5-1.

Piniella Marshals the rotation

Piniella unsurprisingly announced Thursday that Sean Marshall will be the Cubs' 5th starter. This gives the Cubs two lefties in the rotation, and signifies that Aaron Heilman will take over the 7th/8th inning role, setting up for Gregg and Marmol.

Marshall has a decent ceiling, and could probably be a 3rd or 4th starter on many teams. The rotation is in good shape.

As for the bullpen, Piniella said there's essentially a six-man race for two remaining spots. With Heilman, Neal Cotts, Gregg and Marmol locked in, and Luis Vizcaino in good shape, it's down to Jeff Samardzija (9.90 spring ERA), Chad Gaudin (11.17), Angel Guzman (14.40), Kevin Hart (6.14), David Patton (1.17) and lefty Jason Waddell (1.13) for the last two spots.

Ore-gone

The Illini just aren't there yet. They had a very good season, finishing second in the Big Ten regular season. Bruce Weber has garnered commitments from some strong recruits, and while they'll lose Chester Frazier, Trent Meacham and Calvin Brock, the Mikes--Tisdale and Davis--are only sophomores, and so is Demetri McCamey.

Unfortunately, some of those players looked like deer in headlights in Thursday's 76-72 loss to Western Kentucky in Portland. The game wasn't close--it was a 13-point game with 3:17 to go--until the Illini stormed back a la their game against Arizona in 2005. Mike Tisdale was invisible (zero points) unless you count his four personal fouls, and McCamey did sneak into double-figures with 10 points, but was 0-5 from behind the arc. Meacham carried Illinois with four treys and 24 points, but Western Kentucky dropped nine three-balls and outscored the Illini by eight at the foul line.

Illinois finished the season 24-10, and WKU moves on to face a Gonzaga team that got a bit of a scare in their first round game with the Akron Zips.

But the scare of the day goes to Cal State Northridge, who led #2 seed Memphis by six with 10:12 remaining. The Tigers were bailed out by a guy named Sallie, as he dropped 10 threes (!) and scored 35 in the 81-70 Memphis win. Paging Robert Dozier? Paging Shawn Taggart? Anyone? I have you in the Final Four, Memphis! Get it together!

I hope UT-Chattanooga and Radford enjoyed their short-lived dance; their March was mostly sadness. The Mocs and Highlanders (apparently they're not immortal) lost to #1 seeds UConn and UNC, respectively, by an average of 49.5 points.

P.S. I was 14-2 on day one, losing Butler and Clemson. It was a day without many shockers (see the "Notable Number"), so many people had a strong start. On to day two!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

The road to Detroit

First Round
Midwest

Louisville over Morehead St. I had Alabama St. winning this one, but then they lost the play-in game and completely screwed up my bracket.

Ohio St. over Siena. They're playing this game in Ohio! Not fair!

Utah over Arizona. Until 2007, Arizona had a player with one of the greatest names of all time: Mustafa Shakur. The loss of such a wonderfully-named player still haunts them.

Wake Forest over Cleveland St. Cleveland's not even a state, is it?

West Virginia over Dayton. Dayton's becoming a trendy pick, but West Virginia beat Pitt and Villanova, and Alex Ruoff can play.

Kansas over North Dakota St. Bill Self's squad won the regular season Big 12 title, and he'll have them ready to make a run in the tourney.

Boston College over USC. Middle-of-the-pack ACC over middle-of-the-pack Pac-10.

Michigan St. over Robert Morris. The Big Ten can't beat everyone, but they can beat the Northeast Conference.

West

UConn over UT-Chattanooga. The Mocs did win the SoCon tourney, and Stephen McDowell made the second most 3-pointers in the nation ... but no.

Texas A&M over BYU. I like the Aggies' size over the Cougars' shooting.

Purdue over Northern Iowa. UNI has a chance to pull the ol' 12/5 upset, but Robbie Hummel is healthy and the Boilermakers have a big man down low in JaJuan Johnson.

Washington over Mississippi St. MSU beat Tennessee (twice), LSU and Kentucky, and if they get hot from downtown, they could take it. But the Huskies score points by the bucketful, and I'll keep my money on them.

Marquette over Utah St. This game will be in Idaho, which neighbors Utah, and that's wack. But I still think Marquette has the firepower to take down a WAC team, even if they have lost five of six after losing stud Dominic James.

Missouri over Cornell. Those 1500 SATs won't do you any good against the run-and-gun Tigers!

Maryland over Cal. See: Boston College over USC.

Memphis over Cal State Northridge. Just a warm-up for Calipari's boys.

East

Pitt over E. Tenn. St. Just too many abbreviations in E. Tenn. St. You can't win when even your name is half-assed.

Tennesee over Oklahoma St. This one's tough. Could be a shootout, and I'll put the money on Bruce Pearl finding a way to get the win.

Florida St. over Wisconsin. The Badgers lost to Marquette, UConn, Texas, Michigan St. and Purdue (twice). Florida St. can handle 'em.

Portland St. over Xavier. I wanted to pick an upset. Xavier's young, Portland St. can shoot the trey. Go get 'em, Vikings!

UCLA over VCU. If only VCU had one more letter, then maybe they could win this rather acronymous match-up.

Villanova over American. Um, Villanova's just better.

Texas over Minnesota. I had a hard time with this one, but I guess I'll take A.J. Abrams over ... wait, who the heck does Minnesota have, anyways?

Duke over Binghamton. I'm pretty sure I've never heard of Binghamton.

South

UNC over Radford. I'm pretty sure I've never heard of Radford either.

Butler over LSU. Butler beat Xavier, and Xavier beat LSU. The transitive property never fails.

Western Kentucky over Illinois. Did you know that WKU beat Louisville? Illinois has no go-to guard, hasn't been able to close out games lately, and lost Chester Frazier to injury. Plus there has to be a 12/5 upset.

Gonzaga over Akron. The Zags are my Cinderella team. Oh, wait, that was like eight years ago, you say? A 4 seed can't be a Cinderella? How about a sleeping beauty, then?

Arizona St. over Temple. Dionte Christmas is good, but he's all they've got.

Syracuse over Stephen F. Austin St. OK, I'm positive Stephen F. Austin isn't a state.

Clemson over Michigan. I'm not even sure Michigan should be dancing, though they do have talent and could cause some trouble.

Oklahoma over Morgan St. Blake Griffin = good. MEAC = bad.

Second round
Midwest

Louisville over Ohio St. The Buckeyes made a nice run in the Big Ten tourney, but Louisville won their conference tourney. Take that!

Wake Forest over Utah. Jeff Teague is sweet. Sweet Sixteen, that is.

Kansas over West Virginia. I think WVU could pull off the upset, but Bill Self will keep the back-to-back dream alive a little longer.

Michigan St. over Boston College. MSU's got Izzo, and they've got they best rebounders in the country.

West

UConn over Texas A & M. Aggies' big men ... meet Hasheem Thabeet.

Purdue over Washington. Defense over offense.

Missouri over Marquette. The Golden Eagles just aren't the team they were two months ago. Mizzou, on the other hand, won the Big 12 tourney.

Memphis over Maryland. Put a pin in the Terrapins.

East

Pitt over Tennessee. The Vols aren't disciplined enough to take down one of the best.

Florida St. over Portland St. It was fun while it lasted, Vikings.

Villanova over UCLA. Villanova beat Pitt once and Syracuse twice. They'll ruin the Bruins.

Duke over Texas. The Dookies are a little soft, but Gerald Henderson is a man.

South

UNC over Butler. Ty Lawson or no Ty Lawson, don't matta.

Gonzaga over Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers won't be able to top the hill of threes built by Gonzaga. Wow, that was awful.

Syracuse over Arizona St. They may not even need overtime!

Oklahoma over Clemson. Terrence Oglesby can only do so much.

Sweet Sixteen
Midwest


Louisville over Wake Forest. The Deacons aren't quite there yet.

Kansas over Michigan St. Can you tell I'm not real big on the Big Ten?

West

UConn over Purdue. Told ya I'm not big on the Big Ten.

Memphis over Missouri. I gotta be honest: I don't know how to judge Memphis since they play in Conference USA and weren't on the tube a whole lot this year. But I think they're good enough to beat the Tigers.

East

Pitt over Florida St. FSU meets their match, and more.

Villanova over Duke. It's no fluke Duke will get nuked earlier than expected--they do it every year.

South

Gonzaga over UNC. I guess you could say this is my upset special. I'm counting on an old-fashioned shootout, a not-100% Ty Lawson, and a classic ACC flameout.

Oklahoma over Syracuse. The Orange had a great (and exciting, and long) conference tournament, but they only finished sixth in the regular season.

Elite Eight
Midwest

Louisville over Kansas. Great coaching match-up, great overall match-up, but Louisville is older and better.

West

Memphis over UConn. The Tigers haven't lost since Christmas--can they make it to Easter?

East

Pitt over Villanova. The Wildcats won by 10 earlier this year, but move ova 'Nova, Pitt's got revenge on their mind.

South

Oklahoma over Gonzaga. The Sooners can match any style of play, and they have more talent than the Zags.

Final Four

Louisville over Memphis. Louisville didn't just survive the insane gauntlet that is the Big East--they won the regular season and conference tournament titles. They're good.

Pitt over Oklahoma. DeJuan Blair, Sam Young, Levance Fields, Jermaine Dixon--this team's loaded.

National Championship game

Pitt over Louisville. Pitino's squad won by six in the regular season, but that was in Looavul. Pitt was undefeated at the time, but fell victim to a 24-8 Cardinals run over the final nine minutes. Revenge is a dish best served in April.

Are You There God? It's me, March Madness.


It’s March, and you know what that means: It’s Fire Prevention Month!

Oh, and it’s time for March Madness! Ah, March Madness—an annual tradition of buzzer-beaters, upsets, watching basketball at work while trying not to get caught, and—most exciting of all—lots of numbers accompanied by alliterative adjectives (e.g. Sweet Sixteen, Elite Eight and Final Four). It’s an extended sports spectacle that grabs the attention of Americans young and old and fills the coffers of bookies everywhere. Sixty-four teams enter with one common goal: to apply the concept of Murphy’s Law to my bracket by losing if I pick them to win and winning if I pick them to lose.

March Madness is one of my favorite times of year, mainly because it features 126 hours of sweet hoops action spread out over 10 different days. But there are many other reasons to feel much gladness about March Madness:

-You get to hear Gus Johnson call last-second shots. “Rises and FIRRRRRRES … GOT IT!!!!”
Sometimes I spice up my day by pretending Gus Johnson is announcing my actions. As in: “He drives down the road, looks right as he goes to parallel park, squeezes in there, straightens it OUUUUUUUUUTTTTT … GOT IT!!!” If you don’t know what I’m talking about, or even if you do, click here, sit back and enjoy the beautiful rhetorical stylings of the third greatest announcer in the world.

-The Chippens NCAA Tournament Challenge!

-It means baseball’s Opening Day is just around the corner. In fact, the championship game often coincides with the Cubs’ first game (like it does this year), which is like having your birthday on Christmas or buying a house and discovering that it comes with a BMW.

-It’s college basketball with no Dick Vitale. Why won’t he stop yelling at me? I don’t care what BMOC stands for. What did he say? The ACC is strong this year? I can’t understand him when he screams like that. He sounds like Kermit the Frog if he were afflicted by voice imodulation disorder and injected with some sort of serum limiting his speech to strange and ridiculous exaggerations.

-Winning the Chippens NCAA Tournament Challenge!

-One word: Drama. It’s Win or Go Home. There’s something natural and Darwinian about it. Teams play 25+ games, fighting and clawing to claim a spot in the tourney, and then all of a sudden—BAM!—a last-second heave from half court (hopefully called by Gus Johnson) can send them packing ‘til next year. There’s no best of five, no byes, no Papajohns.com Bowl. It’s drama to the 64th power.

If you want to reminisce, or perhaps whet the palate in preparation for this year’s Big Dance, check out some of these clips:



Sunday, March 15, 2009

Cubs news and notes

Fifth starter battle all but over?
Sean Marshall is making a great case for himself as the fifth starter. He pitched into the fifth inning against the Mariners Friday, allowing three hits and one unearned run, lowering his ERA to .68. We all know this doesn't mean he'll lead the NL in ERA this season, but combine his spring success with the fact that Piniella has hinted at Marshall winning the starting job already, and Sean's gotta be feeling pretty good about his chances right about now. Aaron Heilman also threw just two innings in his start Saturday, another good sign if you're Sean Marshall.

From fifth starter to first
Piniella announced that Carlos Zambrano will make his fifth consecutive Opening Day start for the Cubs. This one's a catch-22: Big Z is an emotional guy, and he could have reacted adversely had he lost his #1 starter status; but on the other hand, Z's emotion often gets the best of him in these season-opening games, as he's 0-1 with a 5.57 ERA in such starts. Good news, though: Zambrano threw 6.2 scoreless innings on Opening Day against the Brewers last year, walking just one and striking out five.

Side note, courtesy of the Sun-Times: Zambrano will become just the third Cubs pitcher to make five consecutive Opening Day starts, joining Fergie Jenkins and Rick Sutcliffe.

Beyond Opening Day
Dempster will follow Zambrano in the rotation, followed by Lilly and Harden. Since the Cubs will skip the fifth starter the first time through, Lilly is slated to start the Cubs' home opener April 13 against Colorado.

Murphy's Law at work for Marmol
Carlos Marmol went back and forth about whether to play for the Dom
inican Republic in the WBC, and while he surely would have felt some regrets had he decided not to, he can't feel all that great about his performance in the event. Marmol blew a save as the DR was stunned by the Netherlands, getting bounced in the first round. Overall, Marmol allowed two runs (one earned), two hits, a walk and a hit batter in 1 2/3 innings. Marmol says he's still glad he went, and hopefully any negative emotions from the experience won't linger as he fights for the closer spot this spring. I would expect him to make an appearance with the Cubs very soon.

Kosuke to bat second
The 2008 pre-All Star Game Fukudome would fit great in the second spot in the order. The post-All Star Game Fukudome would be a black hole between Soriano and Lee. As I sai
d earlier, it's very difficult to know what Fukudome is going to do this season. If he can provide a strong on-base percentage as he did early on last season, I absolutely love him in the two spot. The good news is, if he struggles, Piniella can turn to Reed Johnson, a reliable backup whom the Cubs can afford to start given the firepower in their lineup.

Fontenot wins 2B job
Yes! I have nothing against Aaron Miles--in fact, I think he'll be a nice little scrappy a
ddition to the team--but Fontenot deserves to play. Piniella said Fontenot will be the everyday second baseman, at least against righties. Miles will no doubt fill in at times and will probably get some starts against lefties, as he is a switch-hitter. Expect Fontenot to bat sixth, providing the lefty-righty-lefty-righty situation that Piniella dreams about. I'll do a more in-depth post about the Cubs lineup at a later time.

Meaningless spring stats
Players having a strong spring thus far:
Ryan Theriot batting .444
Mike Fontenot batting .371
Micah Hoffpauir batting .302 with 2 HR and team-leading 9 RBI
Sean Marshall 13.1 IP, 9 H, .68 ERA
Aaron Heilman 8 IP, 4 H, 1.13 ERA

Players struggling to this point:
Derrek Lee batting .182 with one RBI
Alfonso Soriano batting .148
Jeff Samardzija 8 IP, 10 H, 6.75 ERA
Chad Gaudin 8.2 IP, 13 H, 10.38 ERA

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Can't win 'em all


The IWU women's basketball team nearly proved that adage false, but their magical season came to an abrupt end Saturday night at the Shirk Center with a 58-53 loss to a talented, well-coached Washington University squad. The '08-'09 Titans finished the season 30-1, setting a team record for victories and going deeper into the postseason than any team before them.

The Bears had the Titans out of sync the entire game. IWU had just 20 points at halftime, and finished the game with season lows in points, field goal percentage (30), and assists (six). It was a defensive game all around, as IWU held Wash U. to 37% from the floor, but the Titans trailed pretty much the entire game and just couldn't get over the hump.

IWU trailed by 11 at the half, but utilized a suffocating full-court press in the second half to draw within two at 36-34. The Titans later trailed 51-49 and appeared to force another turnover an an inbound play, but a foul was called, sending Wash U. to the line. With under one minute remaining, Claire Sheehan laid one in to once again pull the Titans within two, but the Bears made five of six free throws down the stretch to seal the deal, and will take on Amherst in the Final Four (the other matchup is undefeated George Fox against unranked College of New Jersey).

Mallory Heydorn led the Titans with 18 points, and Christina Solari and Claire Sheehan added 12 and 11, respectively. The Titans were outrebounded 40-30.

Congratulations to Coach Mia Smith, to all 16 players who saw time this season, and specifically to Claire Sheehan, Mallory Heydorn, and Colleen Caplice, the three seniors who will leave knowing they provided the Titan faithful with some wonderful memories. The attendance for the team's first home game this season was 138. The count for Saturday's game? 2,150. That's the largest crowd for any IWU men's or women's game this season. And I must say, the crowd for the entire tournament, and especially Saturday's game, was incredible. During the Titans' comeback in the second half, especially when they were employing an exciting full-court press that Wash U. struggled to deal with, the crowd was loud and proud. And while the game ended in a loss, I'm sure glad IWU served as host for the regional and sectional rounds of the tournament.

Coach Smith showed great character, grabbing the mic just minutes after a tough loss in order to thank her players, the fans and the amazing IWU pep band. It has to be difficult for her to swallow the fact that the team's first misstep, their first "L," sends them home for good. I still think IWU might be the better team, but Wash U. was better on this night, and when it comes tournament time, that's the name of the game.

But it doesn't get much better than 30-1, and it doesn't get much better than a 27-0 regular season, nor much better than outscoring your opponents by an average of 22 points, nor much better than having the CCIW's Player of the Year (Solari) and Coach of the Year, nor much better than playing in the Elite Eight in front of the biggest basketball crowd the Shirk Center has seen all season. Nope, it just doesn't get much better than this year's IWU women's basketball team.

3-0 and 30-0

UW-Stevens Points led 2-0 Friday night against the Titans, and then never again. IWU controlled the game the entire way--they led by eight at halftime, extended it to 15 at one point, and ultimately rode a 77-64 victory into the Elite Eight.

Christina Solari had a huge game, putting up 18 points, grabbing 13 rebounds and leading the team with five assists. Claire Sheehan, Hope Schulte and Colleen Caplice also scored in double figures, as the Titans shot 52% from the field while holding the Pointers to just 37%. The win brings the Titans' record to a nice round 30-0.

The Titans have outscored their three tournament opponents by an average score of 79-59. On the entire season, the Titans have outscored their opponents by an average score of 79-56. They have shown remarkable consistency in the tournament, simply playing their game and not getting thrown off no matter what the other team throws at them.

Photos, by the way, are courtesy of Shannon Wisecup.

#1 Illinois Wesleyan vs. #6 Washington University, 7 pm, Shirk Center

As I mentioned yesterday, IWU defeated the Wash U. Bears 72-69 back in November. Wash U. is a very balanced team, with no player averaging over nine points per game despite averaging 73 points per game on the season as a team. Seven different players have led the team in scoring at some point this season (that number is identical for the Titans). In terms of minutes, the Bears are about 9-10 players deep. The Titans opted not to employ a full-court press Friday night, and played a zone defense much of the game. Thus, they should have a lot of energy left in the tank tonight.

--------

In other tournament action, the winner of the IWU-Wash U. game will take on the winner of (25) Brandeis vs. (11) Amherst, while (2) Hope and (3) George Fox go at it in hopes of playing the winner of New Jersey vs. (20) Scranton. I'm "hoping" for a win by George Fox, as I'd rather not see the team hosting the Final Four make it to said Final Four. But most importantly, I'm hoping for another Titan victory tonight!

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pointing the way to victory

Friday at 8 pm, the #1 ranked IWU women's basketball (29-0) team will take on the #4 UW-Stevens Point Pointers (26-3) at the Shirk Center.

According to IWU Coach Mia Smith, the Pointers run a motion offense with one primary ball handler. They like to post up and shoot 10- to 12-footers. They have a balanced offense with two players averaging double-figures (Britta Peterson 14.5, Jessi Sporle 10.5). Like fellow WIAC member UW-Eau Claire, they are a defense-oriented team, allowing 52 points per game.

I seem to say this for every game, but it's worth pointing out: the Titans are about 10 deep compared to about 7.5 for the Pointers. With Stevens Point's half-court style offense and no full-court press, it will once again be a battle of playing styles. IWU won that battle last Saturday, putting up 80 points against an Eau Claire team that allowed just 51 points per game during the season. IWU is also a better rebounding team than Stevens Point, and should be able to garner an edge on the boards Friday.

Stevens Point has some strong history to look back on: they won the NCAA championship in 2002, and placed fourth in 2004. They rattled off 14 straight victories at one point this season, and have won their last six.

There are some eerie similarities between the two teams: Stevens Point shoots 33% from the arc compared to 32% for IWU (though we've attempted 663 threes compared to just 407 for the Pointers), while IWU has a 46-45 advantage in overall field goal percentage. The Pointers have allowed 22% more points in the second half compared to the first, which bodes well considering Coach Smith's ability to make wonderful halftime adjustments--IWU outscored their first two tournament opponents by a combined 29 points.

One final note: Stevens Point played Eau Claire (whom the Titans beat 80-63 last Saturday) three times this season, going 2-1.

One more final note: as of Friday, the Titans will have played the Battling Bishops, the Blugolds, and the Stevens Point Pointers in the tournament. This has to be the worst collection of nicknames faced by any team in the tournament. And since we're talking about women's basketball teams here, would it be fair to refer to Stevens Point's squad as the Pointer Sisters? (toth: ck)

Saturday's potential foes:
St. Benedict (26-3) vs. #6 Washington University (23-4), Friday, 6 pm

St. Benedict has won 16 straight, while Wash U. has a 12-game winning streak of their own. St. Benedict outscores their opponents by 14, while Wash U. dominates their foes by 19 points per game (IWU has them both beat with a point differential of +24).

St. Benedict is a deep team, but has no player averaging over 12 points per game, while Wash U.
has no one averaging double-figures but still scores 74 points per game. It is also worth noting that IWU faced Wash U. in St. Louis in November, and the Titans walked away with a 72-69 victory.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Taking a spin around the world of sports

A-Rod out 6-9 weeks after opting for hip surgery

This begs the question: What has been A-Rod's worst experience this offseason?
  • Divorcing his wife after a reported romance with 50-year-old Madonna (this technically took place during the '08 season, but I'm counting it anyways)
  • Getting tossed to the scrapheap by a 50-year-old
  • Being labeled "A-Fraud" in Joe Torre's book
  • Being linked to steroids by Sports Illustrated
  • Having to admit to steroid use in a press conference
  • Having surgery to repair torn right hip labrum
Ouch. A-Rod has had a worse winter than the Dow Jones. A marriage shattered, a love unrequited, a friendship torn asunder, a reputation shredded, a painful admission, and a serious medical procedure. "Are you sure it's my hip that needs to be repaired, Doc? Because it hurts right here (points to heart). It hurts ... (lip quivering) ... right here (single tear)."

No tears need to be shed when it comes to the Yankees chances, however. Going A-Rod-less for the first month or so may cost them a few games, but it seems like the Damn Yankees can do pretty much whatever they want in April and May and still flip a switch for the stretch run (they were 14-16 and 10-14 on May 1 the last two seasons). In fairness, they did miss the playoffs last year, which was totally sweet, but they won 89 games. And with a $209 million payroll, I wouldn't worry too much about their chances of competing this season.

T.O. released by Cowboys, signs with Bills

The 'Boys were no longer willing to throw the paper at Terrell Owens, but Buffalo was happy to throw some bills his way. For the first time in his career, Owens will play in the AFC.

Owens is a player with big-time talent and an even bigger ego (think: running to the star in the middle of Cowboys Stadium after scoring a touchdown with the 'Niners). If he could just shut his mouth every once in a while and be a team player, he wouldn't bounce around the league like a pinball.

Yes, he still gets the job done on the field, but there's no doubt his attitude has a negative impact on his teammates. Jerry Jones wants to win, and he wants to win bad. There's no way he releases a top five wide receiver from a team that hasn't won a playoff game since 1996 unless his 'tude is more toxic than a Britney Spears single.

How many rings does T.O. have (I'll give you a hint: it's equal to the number of games the Lions won last year)? Granted, that's partly due to Tony Romo's tendency to go into hibernation every winter, and also to the fact that the Eagles were run over by the Tom Brady Train in Super Bowl XXXIX.

But the fact is: chemistry matters in sports, and it REALLY matters in football. A QB has about four seconds to drop back, make his reads and decide whom to throw to. Having a little T.O. voice in the back of your head saying "Throw to me even if I'm not open or I'll chew you out on the sideline or in the media" doesn't help.

Owens is getting up there in age--he's 35 now. It's time for him to wisen up and stop bringing his teams down. He's got so much ability, and it's time for him to take full advantage of it. The Bills are counting on it, especially in an improved AFC East where they'll get no mercy from the Patriots and Dolphins.

Big East tournament tips off with two upsets


If Georgetown had any remaining hope of making the NCAA tournament, it was crushed today with a 64-59 loss to St. John's.

Selection committee: Who wants to be an NIT team?
Georgetown: I do! I do!

In other action, DePaul smacked Cincinnati in the head with a giant bag of "What the f*** just happened?" The Bearcats had some quality wins this year, beating Georgetown twice and taking down both Notre Dame and West Virginia. They were seeded 9th in the Big East tournament.

But even if they had been seeded 90th, they still should have beaten DePaul. Apparently the Blue Demons were just biding their time, going winless in conference play to assure themselves a 16 seed so they could sneak up all cat-like and take someone out before they knew what hit 'em.

DePaul will now take on Providence, which, along with being a college in Rhode Island, is also defined as "God, esp. when conceived as omnisciently directing the universe and the affairs of humankind with wise benevolence." If there is a God, s/he will surely end this charade here and now before DePaul gets any ideas about being a real basketball team. However, if this God has a sense of humor, s/he will surely direct DePaul to a Big East Conference tournament championship, because that would be hilarious. And it would be a downright knee-slapper to see DePaul take on an Oklahoma or North Carolina in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

Journey to the pre-Tourney tourney



Big Ten tournament: First round is Thursday, second Friday, third Saturday, and championship Sunday.

Illinois will be strongly favored in their match-up vs. Michigan or Iowa, but facing (potentially) Purdue in the semifinals won't be an easy task. The tournament is in Indianapolis, just an hour from Purdue's campus, and it's always difficult to beat a team three times in one season.

ESPN's Joe Lunardi currently has Illinois as a 5 seed in the NCAA tournament. Dropping the game vs. Purdue could put the Illini closer to the middle of the tourney pack as a 6 or 7 seed, but going deep into the Big Ten tournament could reward them with a 4 or 5 seed, especially if they make a statement by beating Michigan State in the championship game.

Illinois has lost three of their last five games, and it would be nice to see them gain some momentum with a successful Big Ten tournament. It would also be nice to see someone step up as a "go-to" guy, as they've been faltering late in games recently. If they don't take a step forward this week, I'm not sure they'll be making a whole lot of Illi-noise in the big tournament. But it should be fun either way; the conference tourneys provide a nice little appetizer to the madness that will ensue.

Sunday, March 8, 2009

29 and Oh Yeah!

Greg Chadwick dons his cleverly updated t-shirt at Saturday's game. More tape needed after Saturday's result!

I have some good news. Check that, I have sweet news: The IWU women's basketball team is headed to the Sweet Sixteen for the first time in history.

More sweet news: The Titans advanced with an 80-63 victory over 9th-ranked UW-Eau Claire, controlling the game from the outset against the best team they've played in quite a while.

And more: IWU will host the next two rounds of the tournament, this Friday and Saturday. They'll take on 4th-ranked UW-Stevens Point Friday at 8pm, and if they win, they'll face either 6th-ranked Wash U. or unranked St. Benedict Saturday night (these two teams play at 6pm Friday).

Saturday against UW-Eau Claire, the Titans shot 50% from the field compared to 40% for the Blugolds (really? The Blugolds? They should have been penalized five points just for their uncreative name. I guess they figure it's creative because they took out the "e."), and forced 20 turnovers. But perhaps most impressive was that IWU put up 80 points against a team that prides itself on defense and allowed just 51 points per game this season. The Titans dictated the tempo and made one of the better defensive teams in the nation look below average.

Claire Sheehan led the Titans in points and rebounds with 17 and 8, and Christina Solari and Mallory Heydorn put in 13 each. Stacey Arlis provided 22 strong minutes off the bench, and Kylie Castans added eight points of her own, including two threes.

The Titans are obviously a phenomenal team--you don't go 29-0 by accident--but the CCIW had such a down year that it was difficult to know how they'd perform against a top team. For me, Saturday's game proved that IWU is an elite team and that they should be able to play with anyone. For that reason, I can't wait until Friday night. Look for a preview of this weekend's games later this week.

The Titans should be extremely proud of what they've accomplished this season. They're in uncharted territory, and they rightfully drew a combined 3,750 fans for their first two tournament games. It should be a great atmosphere next weekend, and

GO TITANS!

Saturday, March 7, 2009

Thrilling Thirty-Two

There's no name for the second round of the tournament, so I made up my own. I've included some pictures from the first round game at the Shirk Center. It was a great atmosphere with an announced attendance of 1,800.

IWU advanced to the Thrilling Thirty-Two (aka second round) of the NCAA tournament Friday night with an 80-51 victory over Ohio Wesleyan. The Battling Bishops, who finished the season 17-12, are a decent team but clearly didn't belong on the same court as the #1 ranked Titans. It was a 39-28 Titan lead at halftime, but the Titans came out swinging in the second half, starting on a 22-4 run to all but seal the deal.

Just to give you an idea how good this team is: Despite this being the first round of the national tournament, bench players Sarah Cotner, Jessica Hinterlong, Karen Solari, Stacey Arlis, Amanda Murray and Brittany Hasselbring all played at least six minutes. In all, 15 Titans played in the game.

IWU shot 53% compared to just 31% for Ohio Wesleyan. Four Titans were in double figures: Heydorn 17, Solari 13, Sheehan 12 and Cotner 11. IWU advances to play presumably the toughest foe they've faced in over three months, as they take on 9th ranked UW-Eau Claire Saturday night at 7pm.

The second round game will be a fascinating clash of styles. Eau Claire defeated DePauw 62-50 Friday, and allows just 51 points per game. They have a 6-5 center and size all around, and thus prefer to play a half court game as opposed to the Titans who love to run. Whichever team can force the other to play their style will most likely prevail. Hopefully the Titans can exploit Eau Claire's zone defense with a strong shooting performance, as well as force the action downcourt to take advantage of their superior athleticism. The Titans will also hope Christina Solari doesn't get into foul trouble against her 6-5 opponent, as they don't have another significant frontcourt presence to take on the 6-5 Ellen Plendl if Solari has to sit.

Go Titans!

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Bishops and Tigers and Blugolds, oh my!

It's a battle of Wesleyans Friday at the Shirk Center, as the IWU women's basketball team takes on the Ohio Wesleyan Battling Bishops (17-11, 10-6) at 8pm. Ohio Wesleyan enters the tournament by virtue of their North Coast Athletic Conference championship. Including their conference tournament, they've won five consecutive games.

During the regular season, Ohio Wesleyan beat UW-Eau Claire (currently ranked 9th in the nation) but also lost to Wheaton by 22, a team we beat twice by a combined 76 points.

According to IWU coach Mia Smith, the Battling Bishops run a triangle offense. This offense, which you may recall the Bulls ran under Phil Jackson, relies on defensive recognition rather than pre-set plays. This motion offense allows multiple players to get involved, and the Bishops have four players averaging between 12 and 16 points per game.

Smith also said Ohio Wesleyan is not afraid to shoot even a long three-ball, and this is evidenced by the team's .361 3-point shooting percentage (IWU's is .322). However, the Bishops allowed a .354 opponent 3-point percentage, so the treys could flying on Friday.

IWU should find a familiar advantage in this one--the ability to wear the other team down and force them deeper into their bench than they would like. Our full-court press could disrupt the precision of their triangle offense, and our pressure half-court defense could get them out of sorts and force them to use more players than usual due to either fouls or weariness. IWU is legitimately 11- or 12-deep, while Ohio Wesleyan appears to go about 9- or 10-deep, and has only seven players averaging over one point per game (IWU has 12).

UW-Eau Claire (23-5, 12-4) vs. DePauw (22-5, 12-2)

I have absolutely no idea who will win this match-up of the 9th and 22nd ranked teams in the country, but I'll provide some info on each team in case we meet them in the 2nd round.

Eau Claire opened the season 12-0 and finished 5-3. They can play "D," as they've allowed 35, 41, 47, 34 and 46 points in their last five games. Overall, they allow just 51 points per game compared to 56 for IWU. It would be interesting to see IWU's high-powered offense go up against the stingy Eau Claire defense.

In games against top teams, the Blugolds went 2-1 against UW-Whitewater (#10) and 0-3 against UW-Stevens Point (#4).

The DePauw Tigers rattled off 16 straight wins at one point this season, and finished 5-2 in their last seven. Their first game of the year (and ours) was a 77-76 loss to the Titans on a neutral court. They are an extremely balanced team offensively. Here are some player scoring averages:
12.2
9.3
9.1
7.6
7.2
6.9
6.6
5.6
5.3

Here's a good sign: The Tigers allowed 25% more points in the second half this season compared to the first, and the Titans have been a good second half team all year. While a match-up with Eau Claire has the potential to be a little more low-scoring, DePauw shoots .364 from the arc and averages 74 points per game, so another game in the 70s certainly wouldn't be a surprise.

Back in November, Mallory Heydorn poured in six threes and four Titans scored in double-figures. Hope Schulte hit the game-winning free throw with just one second left.

It should be a good weekend of basketball! If you can, march over to the Shirk Center and catch the madness!

Tuesday, March 3, 2009

Spring training position battles

Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez got into the swing of things today with their first spring homers, and the Cubs won 6-4 behind three perfect innings from Sean Marshall as well as scoreless appearances from Neal Cotts, Luis Vizcaino and Kevin Gregg.

There isn't a whole lot of news out of Mesa this year, partly because the Cubs roster is so set. You can pretty much bet your house on the following players breaking camp:

C: Soto

IF: Lee, Miles, Fontenot, Theriot, Ramirez

OF: Soriano, Johnson, Fukudome, Bradley

SP: Zambrano, Dempster, Lilly, Harden

RP: Marshall (could start), Vizcaino, Gregg, Marmol, Heilman, Gaudin

That's 20 players, which means there are five spots up for grabs, and some of these are pretty darn set, but not set enough to fulfill the above criteria of being worthy of "betting your house." Apartment, maybe, but not house. Not in this economy.

Anyways, this situation is not exactly a recipe for spring training excitement, especially when you factor in that the Cubs are playing 750 spring training games this year. But here are the decisions Lou will have to make this spring:

  • 5th starter: Marshall vs. Samardzija vs. Heilman (side note: since Lou Piniella has to make this decision, could we call it a "manager a trois"?), with Samardzija a slight question mark to make the team, as it's possible the Cubs would prefer him in AAA preparing to fill in as a starter if needed, as opposed to coming out of the 'pen with the big club.
  • Reserve 1st baseman: Hoffpauir vs. Jake Fox, with Hoffpauir having a significant edge because he's a lefty and hit .342 in the majors last year.
  • Lefty reliever: Cotts vs. Mike Stanton, with Cotts having a huge leg up due to Stanton being 112 years old (actually 41) and not having pitched since '07, when he had a 5.93 ERA, and he has a 9.00 ERA thus far in spring. Translation: Mike Stanton is old and bad.
  • Reserve outfielder: Joey Gathright vs. Sam Fuld/So Taguchi, with Gathright having the edge. If MLB ever allows cars to be used on the field, Gathright will definitely be on the team: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cySfw8f0beg
  • Starting centerfielder: For now, the plan is to platoon Fukudome and Johnson, but perhaps Lou will use spring training to help determine who should start the majority of games. That being said, their performance during the regular season will likely mean more than spring, especially with Kosuke playing in the WBC this month.
  • Starting second baseman: Miles vs. Fontenot. When Piniella mentioned the lineup he's currently got in mind, he put Miles in the two hole. I would have thought Fontenot would start after his .305/.395 campaign last year. Lou has said he hopes to get both of them a bunch of at-bats during the season, but perhaps spring will vault one above the other before Opening Day arrives.
  • Reliever if Samardzija goes to AAA: Angel Guzman vs. Kevin Hart. Guzman pitched in six games last year (5.59 ERA), and has been a hot prospect for a while but has dealt with injuries. Hart appeared in 21 games last year (6.51 ERA).
  • Reserve catcher: Paul Bako (remember him?) vs. Koyie Hill. I don't even want to talk about this one. These guys both suck. Hill is 29 and has a .190 career average. Paul Bako is thirty-freakin'-six and weighs in at .231. Both have thrown out under 30% of base runners in their careers. What happened to Henry Blanco? Crap, I got carried away with anger and just talked about Bako and Hill for like seven sentences. If Soto gets injured for an extended period of time this year, are we allowed to just use the backstop as a catcher and skip that position in the batting order? If someone knows the rule on this, please let me know.

There's a good chance we'll see Bako behind the plate, Hoffpauir off the bench, Mike Stanton's arm fall off in the next three weeks (so Cotts in the bullpen), and Joey Gathright patrolling the outfield. That leaves us with the 5th starter battle and the relief spot associated with it. Piniella has said Marshall gets the first crack at starting, and if that's how it shakes out, my guess is the Cubs decide to have Samardzija throwing flames out of the 'pen (2.28 ERA last year), which shores up every spot on the 25-man roster.

These certainly aren't guarantees, but either way, there isn't a whole lot of drama in camp this year unless a trade is made, someone gets injured, or Milton Bradley punches Lou Piniella in the trachea at some point. Lack of drama is not a bad thing; the Cubs have a lot of talent and a lot of veteran players, and there just aren't that many decisions to be made.

I'll be watching the 5th starter competition (previous blog post here), Miles and Fontenot, and Hoffpauir/Fox. I will be trying my darndest to completely ignore Paul "I really wasn't all that good the first time I was on the Cubs" Bako and Koyie "I batted above .250 one time, but that's because I only had three at-bats" Hill.

It's great not to have 10 roster spots to fill and huge questions to deal with during spring training. Sit back and enjoy it!

UPDATE: Piniella said Tuesday that Fukudome will start against right-handers. I can't say I feel strongly about this one way or the other. Fukudome looked like a great slap-hitter and on-base guy in the first couple months of the season, and then completely fell off the table. With a whole year in the states under his belt and a year of major league experience behind him, he almost can't be worse in 2009. At the same time, Johnson was extremely productive in his role last season, so I don't want to see him get limited at-bats this year. Like I said above, I still think their performances during the regular season will dictate their playing time.