Monday, February 28, 2011

Vets in Revolt

Friday afternoon, I took a little break from work and went for a walk to hit up the ATM and buy some lottery tickets. When I returned, there was an email from Adam EatShit inviting me to go to the Sixers game along with his girlfriend, uncle jellyfish and a few other friends. I gladly accepted, and believe it or not, I was looking forward to seeing the remains of Tracy McGrady, who has been playing pretty good basketball lately, in person.

I decide to duck out of work about 20 minutes early, throw on some more comfortable clothes and down a few drinks before the game. So I get to my house and turn on ESPN as I get ready, and what do I see? That Tracy McGrady, Richard Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince, Rodney Stuckey, Ben Wallace and a slew of other Pistons didn't show up to the shootaround (or showed up insanely late), apparently as a protest aimed at coach John Kuester. Awesome.

Then I heard Kuester had said he'll go with the guys who showed up for the game. Great. Not only was I going to see the Sixers play a terrible team, but I was probably going to have to see them play a terrible team without most of its best players and a short roster. Fantastic.

Even though the Sixers could pull to .500 on the year — honestly an impressive feat when you consider where this team was a month into the season — I wasn't overly excited to watch them play a disinterested, overmatched, shorthanded squad. So I got loaded as I waited to meet up with uncle jellyfish, hopped on SEPTA and got to the game.

It was exactly as expected. There were McGrady, Rip, Prince, Stuckey, Wallace along with Austin Daye and Chris Wilcox, glued to the bench with their warm-ups on, never once moving from their seats. The Pistons played just six players on the night. Six. The Sixers played 9.

Unsurprisingly, the game wasn't even close, and honestly, it wasn't all that interesting either. Yes, the Sixers took care of business against an inferior, depleted opponent to pull to .500 on the season, winning easily 110-94, and the Sixers got great performances from their four best players this season: Jrue Holiday (12 and 10), Andre Iguodala (21, 11 and 7) and Elton Brand (20 and 17) all had double-doubles, and Thaddeus Young led the Sixers with 24 points off the bench, making 12 of his 15 shots. But beyond a few exciting defensive plays and dunks, I was more excited that it was Friday than I was at this game. The Detroit veterans in revolt sort of spoiled my mood.

However, I do have to give the Sixers their due. They followed up the win on Friday by holding off the Cavaliers yesterday — though they did blow another big third-quarter lead to make it closer than it should have been. Regardless, Holiday nearly had another double-double, leading the way for Philadelphia with 13 points, 9 assists and 6 rebounds, and six Sixers in all scored in double figures. Under the first-year tutelage of Doug Collins, your Philadelphia 76ers are now officially a winning basketball team, at least for the time being (they take on the Mavericks tomorrow night).

The most impressive and potentially important thing about the Sixers of late is that they are taking care of business and beating the teams they should beat. In February, the Sixers went 9-3. Those three losses came at the hands of the Knicks, Magic and Grizzlies, three teams with winning records and in position to make the playoffs if the season ended today. In that time frame, they've disposed of all the bad teams they played: New Jersey, Minnesota, Washington, Detroit and Cleveland. You can throw Houston in there too if you'd like —  the Rockets are a game under .500 right now.

The fact that the Sixers have handled every bad team they've played of late is a really good sign. Then you factor in wins against the Knicks, Hawks and Spurs this month, and you can see why the Sixers stood pat at the trade deadline. You don't have to agree with it — personally, I don't, but I do understand why they did — but you can't deny that this team is looking much better than anyone could have hoped coming off a horrific 2009-10 season.

I'm not about to fool myself into thinking this team can win a playoff series, but I'm starting to suspect the Sixers will give Miami, Chicago, Orlando or whoever they end up playing more than a handful. The same way they did a few seasons ago against the Pistons.

As for this current incarnation of the Pistons, I have to admit, I understand the frustration of an incompetent coach. Kind of makes me wonder why no Sixers revolted against Eddie Jordan last year.

And I'm about to lead a revolt against Tim Curley and the Penn State athletic department. Why, you ask? Because after I watched every second of St. John's knock off fledgeling Villanova Saturday, I go and read that Steve Lavin wanted the Penn State job back when he was fired by UCLA. But Penn State didn't even contact him back, mainly because they didn't want to shell out the kind of money Lavin would command.

Are you kidding me? The same school that doesn't shy away from hiring the best of the best in virtually every other sport on campus — like shelling out huge bucks to get Cael Sanderson for wrestling — wouldn't even talk to a proven coach from a big-time program that is renowned as an excellent recruiter. Instead, they opt for the incompetent Ed DeChellis, a guy I wouldn't feel comfortable having as the coach of my high school alma mater's basketball team.

Now all Lavin has done is transform St. John's into one of the best teams in the Big East in his first year that is surely headed to the NCAA tournament, and has one of the nation's best recruiting classes coming in. Penn State meanwhile has not made a single NCAA tournament under DeChellis, has been a bottom dweller for most of his tenure, and even with this season's strong showing, Penn State is an NIT team that loses its best player to graduation and will most assuredly drop back down to the basement of the Big Ten in 2011-12.

I'm sorry, but that's just unacceptable, and the athletic department is to blame. We've been hearing forever that all Penn State needs is that one big recruit or one big coach to make something of the program. Seven years ago, a big-time coach who brings in big-time recruits went out of his way to show interest in the job, and Penn State gave him the cold shoulder. No wonder so many students there return the favor. That sort of indifference and stupidity in regard to the basketball program is why people like me, who have roots outside of Penn State, spend infinitely more time consumed with Temple and Villanova and other higher profile programs. Because those schools care about putting a good product and reputable basketball program together. Penn State doesn't.

As for Lavin, I'd say things have turned out pretty good for him. St. John's continued its surprise season by beating Villanova at the Wells Fargo Center Saturday, and they did it leading pretty much from start to finish.

I know a lot has been said about Dwight Hardy lately, especially when discussing Big East Player of the Year candidates, and Saturday was exactly why. Hardy was unbelievable. He scored a game-high 34 points. He was 9-16 from the field, 5-9 from three and 11-13 at the line. And he made some truly remarkable shots, a couple in big moments to stave off a Nova run. It was an impressive performance to say the least, and proof that he definitely belongs in the POY discussion.

For Nova, the slide continued. It was their third straight loss to a ranked opponent, all at home, and now a team that was expected to contend for the Big East title is 9-7 in conference play, with two very difficult games — at No. 9 Notre Dame and at No. 4 Pittsburgh — to wrap up regular-season play. The way the Wildcats are playing, they could very easily be staring at a .500 conference record when it's all said and done.

Lately, the reason has been simple: Nova hasn't had its two best scorers, its two senior guards, play well at the same time in forever. When the slide began, Corey Stokes couldn't throw a beach ball into the ocean. Then he got hurt. Corey Fisher did all he could, carrying the offensive load, but it wasn't enough.

On Saturday, Stokes finally showed up again. He scored a team-high 20 points, going 7-11 from the field and 6-10 from three. It was just what Nova needed … except that as Stokes re-emerged, Fisher fell off a cliff. Nova's leading scorer finished with just 2 points. He went 1-10 from the field. And no matter what kind of performance the team gets from Stokes and Maalik Wayns (10 points) and anyone else, Nova will not win with Corey Fisher netting just 2 points. If he's not in double digits, the chances are Villanova will lose.

It was the second straight game Fisher failed to reach double digits. Stokes finally got out of his funk against the Orange last week, scoring 24 points, but Nova lost largely because Fisher shot 3-16 and finished with just 8 points. Same thing happened Saturday. In his last two games, Fish is 4-26 from the field and has scored a combined 10 points. It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that Villanova needs Fisher AND Stokes to play well in order to win. And that's been the root cause of this skid. The fact that the two senior guards have not been able to play well at the same time has crippled the guard-oriented offense of Jay Wright, and Nova has struggled because of it.

Just take a look at the numbers. Since January 17, when Nova lost at UConn, the Wildcats are 5-7. In those seven losses, Fisher and Stokes failed to both score in double digits five times (one of those games, against Pitt, Stokes did not play). Only the losses at Providence (Fisher, 15; Stokes, 13) and Rutgers (Fisher, 23; Stokes, 10) saw Nova lose when both scored in double figures, and the Rutgers game had the combination of that absurd ending and Stokes barely reaching double digits.

On the flip side, Nova has only won two games in which either Stokes or Fisher failed to reach double digits. One was the victory against West Virginia, in which Antonio Pena, Mouphtaou Yarou and Maalik Wayns each picked up Stokes' slack by scoring in double figures. Then came the win at Depaul with Stokes inactive, but Nova needed 34 points from Fisher and overtime to beat a really, really bad Depaul team.

The formula for Nova is simple: If Fisher and Stokes score, Nova wins. If one of them fails to show up, they lose. The solution is not so simple. Because lately, every time Stokes has a good game, Fisher struggles, and vice versa. All I know is these seniors better figure it out if they expect to make any sort of run in the Big East and NCAA tournaments.

Lavoy Allen, meanwhile, is a senior who is most definitely figuring things out when his team needs it the most.

The Owls came out insanely flat against a game George Washington team Saturday and found themselves getting blown out in the first couple minutes. Then Temple put the vice grip on GW defensively, and worked all the way back to get within three by half. From there, it was the Lavoy Allen show.

Temple's all-time leading rebounder was everywhere, altering a shot and hauling in a board on one end, then finishing around the rim —  and even once from deep — on the other. He put forth a 6-minute spurt where he made every damn play. A block here, rebound there, pass here, bucket there. He looked like the player many expected heading into the season, when he was a preseason favorite for A-10 Player of the Year.

His performance turned what at one time had been a huge lead for George Washington into a 16-point blowout win for Temple. Allen was dominant with 19 points, 16 rebounds and three blocks. He didn't have a single turnover, only committed 2 fouls and shot 8-12 from the field. It was the type of performance you expect from a senior leader when his team truly needed it. And Lavoy answered the call.

The other good news for Temple is that Juan Fernandez seemed to get rejuvenated in the second half. His numbers overall weren't good — 2-8 from the field for just 6 points and 2 assists — but he hit two big three-pointers and looked confident taking them. And if there was any question about those shots jolting him back into feeling good about himself, he fired a one-handed, behind-the-back pass for a bucket, the type of pass we saw him make from time to time the past two seasons but has been conspicuously absent this year.

Hopefully it's the game that gives Juan his confidence back and lets him find his game again. Because if Temple can get Fernandez playing good ball, the Owls can be a legitimate Sweet 16 team. If not, it would take a Herculean effort by Allen, the kind he put forth Saturday.

Finally, I wanted to give Tyler Zeller and John Henson more praise for their performances last night in the 87-76 win over Maryland.

Zeller was outstanding. He scored 25 points on 10-16 shooting, and the best part about it was Kendall Marshall kept feeding him the ball. The biggest frustration last year was watching the UNC guards ignore Zeller time and time again, despite the fact he is this team's best player. Not last night. Marshall saw Zeller was scoring at will, and he kept feeding him. Marshall, by the way, had 10 assists, 6 boards and 3 steals. Something tells me this team doesn't miss Larry Drew.

For his part, Henson had a near triple-double: 10 points, 15 rebounds and 7 blocks. The way he and Zeller control the paint has me thinking the Tar Heels may do more damage than anyone expects come tourney time. Of Henson's 7 blocks, 5 of them were spectacular. He just seems to be able to reach heights most shot-blockers can't because of his freakish length.

When you add the interior dominance of Zeller and Henson to the increasingly stellar guard play from freshmen Harrison Barnes (21 points and 6 boards last night) and Marshall, not mention better play from Dexter Strickland and Leslie McDonald, you have a legit threat in the tournament. The Tar Heels can score and rebound, always a dangerous combination. And you know they'll be well-coached.

Unlike the Pistons. And Penn State.

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