Thursday, March 31, 2011

Five Alive

Chase Utley is hurt and out for god knows how long. Brad Lidge is out 3 to 6 weeks with shoulder problems. Placido Polanco is banged up, his elbow still bothering him. Shane Victorino has been hobbled at times. Raul Ibanez is another year older. So is Jimmy Rollins, who's battled injuries the past few seasons himself, something he never dealt with prior. Ryan Howard is coming off his least productive season at the plate. Domonic Brown is injured and not even on the roster. And Jayson Werth now resides a couple hours down I-95, leaving some big shoes for Ben Francisco to fill.

All of these things are reasons to be concerned about the 2011 Philadelphia Phillies' chances at getting back to their third World Series in four years and trying to win their second in that span. Yet here we are, on MLB's opening day and less than 24 hours away from the Phillies' first pitch, and I'm not overly concerned. I should be, I know. But I'm really not. Why? Because I honestly believe that the Phillies starting five will keep this team alive.

Never in my lifetime has a starting rotation had this much pressure and such high expectations. That includes the Maddux-Smoltz-Glavine Braves that saw the fourth guy rotate: Steve Avery, Denny Neagle, Kevin Millwood, Mike Hampton, etc. This team has four legitimate aces and arguably the best fifth starter in the game. Roy Halladay is the defending National League Cy Young Award winner, the second Cy Young to his name. Cliff Lee won the 2008 2008 American League Cy Young and has continued to dominate ever since, pitching in two straight World Series (2009 and 2010). Roy Oswalt is a former 20-game winner who for years was the staff ace of the Astros, pitching in a World Series himself. Cole Hamels is an NLCS and World Series MVP. And all Joe Blanton does is win, going undefeated in the 2008 postseason to help the Phillies become World Fucking Champions, hitting a home run in the World Series for good measure.

If any pitching staff can take pressure of an injured and uncertain offense, it's these guys. Yes, that means the pressure is squarely on their shoulders, but I think it's safe to say these guys thrive under pressure. Roy Halladay threw a no-hitter in his first career playoff start, then refused to let the Phillies be eliminated in the NLCS despite having a pulled groin. Cliff Lee is simply the greatest man who ever lived, completely and utterly dominating every team he has ever faced in the postseason minus one bad outing against the Giants last year. Roy Oswalt is a cool customer who gets the job done and will even play left field for you if you ask him to.

Cole Hamels became a king in 2008 and truly started letting the bad things roll off of him last season. And Joe Blanton has never really shown any evidence of succumbing to pressure. He just goes out there, gets his 6-plus innings of work in and keeps the game close, giving the Phils a chance to win.

There is ice water in all five guys' veins. They want to be the best, and they compete with each other to be the best. That's only going to elevate their games even more, trying to one-up each other day in and day out.

That doesn't mean the Phillies are a lock to get back to the World Series or even win the division for a fifth straight year, but it does give them something no other team in baseball has: Four legitimate aces, and a fifth guy that would be damn near anyone's three or four.

These five will keep the Phillies alive as they find their way offensively and adjust to their new roles. I just have a feeling.

Age and injury and production are all valid concerns, things that very well could do this team in. But with a bona fide ace trotting out 4 out of every 5 games and an extremely dependable starter out there to take the other, you still have to love the Phillies' chances. Frankly, I cannot wait until the umpire points to Roy Halladay tomorrow afternoon and yells, "Play ball!"

Finally, we'll get to see what this potentially historic rotation can do.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Philadelphia State of Mind

For the past couple of months, the Flyers have not played to the same level they had played for the majority of the regular season. It's been pretty clear that they aren't dominating the same way they were.

Still, the Flyers sit atop the Eastern Conference and have garnered points in 10 of their last 11 games, highlighted by last night's emphatic 5-2 victory over the Penguins.

Any rational fan would be happy with the way things are playing out. Sure, there's cause for concern with the level of play tapering off a bit and the ever-present goalie uncertainty that is Flyers hockey, but when you look at the big picture, the Flyers still remain as the top seed in the conference with 102 points and six games to play.

When you think about it, a lull was bound to happen sooner or later for several reasons. Number one, the Flyers were incredibly lucky with their health during the first part of the season, especially with their key players. That hasn't always been the case since. Several key players, namely Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, missed a few games here and there with the flu. James van Riemsdyk, who has really taken the next step this year, had some groin trouble and missed a few games. And most notably, Chris Pronger has been out with a broken bone in his hand. Then you add in the loss of seventh defenseman Oskars Bartulis, and the Flyers haven't been quite as lucky in the health department. Oh yeah, and Kimmo Timonen suffered a lower-body injury last night.

Then you add in the fact that at this time of year, the teams fighting for playoff position are desperate … and they play with that desperation. It's easy to say that every team should come out with the same intensity every night, but that's not realistic. The Flyers built such a big cushion early that they simply haven't had the same desperation as the teams chasing them and chasing playoff spots. That's been another huge factor of late.

It was bound to happen, and when you really think about it, you had to expect it. But this team is still in first, still as deep and as talented as anyone, and still primed to make another deep run in the quest to hoist Lord Stanley's Cup.

Flyers fans should recognize that and take some comfort in that. But this is Philadelphia, and that's not how things work. It just isn't. It's part of our DNA. Philadelphians are so used to being the unlovable losers that they always expect the worse. It's been a way of life for too long, one that was washed away briefly when the Phillies became World Fucking Champions, but something that cannot be forever taken away with one championship in 25 years.

I'm guilty of this. I know I am, especially when it comes to the Eagles. But I've recently reached a point in my life where that Philadelphia state of mind — always expecting the worst — has become tiresome. Yet I cannot avoid it, mostly because of one friend in particular.

Shortly after the all-star break, he started griping about the Flyers' play. His grumblings became louder as the team continued to look flat. And in the past two weeks, he's completely abandoned ship, saying after the shootout loss to the Capitals in which Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher let up four soft goals that the Flyers aren't good enough to win with Bobrovsky and Boucher in net, completely forgetting that this same team made it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final last year with a revolving door of average-at-best goalies. He's called them dogs, pointed out every flaw, and completely and utterly jumped off the belief this team — a team with the most points in its conference and second-most in NHL — can win it all.

Frankly, I'm tired of it. I just don't want to hear it anymore. I really don't. Am I upset and troubled by the way the team has played for the past two months? Yes. But do I think it spells doom? No. This team has been too good for too long. They have the depth and the talent, and they'll be getting Chris Pronger back right around playoff time. The pieces are still there. Do they have to turn it around and play better? Absolutely. Will they? I don't know, but I don't need to be told they can't. Last year is evidence that anything can happen, from a low seed finishing just two wins shy of the Cup to a top seed winning it all. And these Flyers aren't in position to miss the playoffs altogether or even squander hosting a first-round series the way they were the past two seasons.

We overreact in Philadelphia — as most sports fans do everywhere — to every slump and every loss. I get it. I've spent my entire life here and have done the exact some thing. But sometimes we all need to step back and look at the big picture. The Flyers have enjoyed a comfortable lead and good fortune for the majority of the season. They were bound to get complacent and hit a rough patch. It's just human nature. In professional sports today, it's rare for a team to dominate from start to finish without any hiccups along the way.

But with the Capitals, Bruins and Penguins putting the heat on the Flyers of late, they've been beginning to turn things around, even without Pronger. And last night they passed a crucial test. The Flyers entered Pittsburgh just two points ahead of the Penguins. A loss in regulation, and the Flyers would suddenly be tied with their cross-state rival in the standings, albeit with a game in hand. But the Flyers turned their game up a notch after falling behind 2-1 in the second period, scoring two goals in 47 seconds to take the lead.

They never looked back, as Ville Leino added two more in the third to put the game out of reach. With the pressure squarely back on the team's shoulders, they responded emphatically. The Danny Briere, Ville Leino, Scott Hartnell line reasserted itself, playing at the level it did in the early going. All three players had at least two points, with Leino leading everyone with three. Jeff Carter and Claude Giroux both scored, continuing to be a dynamic duo. Sergei Bobrovsky stopped 25 of 27 shots, and the Flyers picked up two crucial points without allowing the Penguins to get any. And as bad as they've seemingly been playing, the Flyers are 5-1-4 in their last 10 games. They've earned points in 10 of their last 11. And they still have a three-point lead on second-place Washington with a game in hand.

I'm from Philadelphia, born in Abington Hospital, raised in the Northeast and the suburbs, and residing in the city once again. I get the negativity. I pretty much perfected it over the years. It's the Philadelphia way. That's why we bitch and moan even as the Flyers sit atop the conference and control their own destiny for home ice advantage.

It's the Philadelphia state of mind, for better or worse. But frankly, I'm growing tired of it. I don't want to expect my team to fail just so I can I told you so. I'm not sure I'm capable of doing it, and I'm certainly not promising anything. But I'm trying because like most things Philadelphia is noted for — cheesesteaks, soft pretzels, tastykakes, scrapple, murder — the Philadelphia sports state of mind can't be good for your health.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What a Difference a Year (and a New Coach) Makes

Last season, I could count the number of times Sixers coach Eddie Jordan smiled on one hand. Maybe he was afraid to flash the world his braces, or maybe he just wasn't all that excited about his job.

To be fair, Jordan and Sixers had very little to smile about last year. They finished the season a dismal 27-55, the franchise's worst record since the 1996-97 season (22-60), Allen Iverson's rookie year.

Yet with virtually the exact same roster as Jordan left behind (Evan Turner and the Dalembert trade notwithstanding), Doug Collins has infused an energy and excitement around this team that's putting smiles on everyone's faces. And the main reason is his passion for job.

It was evident last season that Eddie Jordan didn't give a damn about the Sixers or his job — he was just happy to collect a paycheck. He never looked excited, never looked angry, upset, happy. Stories never surfaced of him reaming out the team or offering encouragement. He never showed any emotion whatsoever. Frankly, it looked like he honestly didn't give a shit. As a result, the players were miserable and performed that way.

Doug Collins has been the polar opposite. Taking over a job few wanted and even fewer thought could become a winning position, Collins threw himself into the team he used to play for. He sounded genuinely excited to be here in Philadelphia, genuinely excited about his team and genuinely excited to take on the challenge. From the get-go, he passed that enthusiasm off to the players, and even after they stumbled out of the gates, something just felt different. These Sixers cared. These Sixers played hard. And these Sixers showed they desperately wanted to avoid another embarrassing season.

Now look at where this team is and how the atmosphere has changed. The Sixers are two games over .500, sitting at 6th in the East and chasing Atlanta for the 5 seed. And more importantly, they take the floor every night expecting to win. It really hit home for me last week when the Sixers came storming from behind to beat the Atlanta Hawks in front of a raucous Philadelphia crowd. After the game, Doug Collins was beaming, smiling from ear to ear. He was pumping his fist, greeting all his players, walking off the court with his arm around one of his guys and basking in the win. There were thousands of fans roaring in excitement, but none of them were more excited than Collins.

The same thing happened last night. Following a lethargic loss to the Sacramento Kings Sunday, Doug Collins tore into his players after that game, chastising them for going to a Lil Wayne concert the night before and losing their focus. I find it hard to believe Eddie Jordan would have addressed the situation the same way last season. Thankfully, Doug Collins is no Eddie Jordan. Doug Collins cares, and he wasn't about to let his players off the hook for a subpar performance against an inferior team.

So he laid into them, and the next night, the Sixers jumped out to a 27-13 lead in the first quarter against the Eastern Conference leading Bulls in Chicago and took a 16-point lead into halftime. They came to play, because the coach demanded that they come out to play. Thaddeus Young was an absolute monster in leading the charge — the same Thaddeus Young who struggled so much last year under Eddie Jordan. This year, Thad is having perhaps his best season yet, just like Elton Brand is having his best year as a Sixer. Just like Lou Williams is thriving once again as a bench scorer. Just as Jodie Meeks and Spencer Hawes are playing the best basketball of their lives.

But even more impressive than coming out and taking it to the Bulls in those first two quarters was the way the rest of the game played out. Chicago came in as the hottest team in the East but played about as bad as they're capable of playing. Derrick Rose was ineffective and turning the ball over, the Bulls were playing no defense whatsoever, and the Sixers were taking advantage. But this is the best team in the conference for a reason, a team with the leading MVP candidate. So you knew Chicago was going to come out as a different team in the second half, and that's exactly what the Bulls did.

Rose flipped the switch from awful game to showing why he's the league's MVP. He just completely took over the game in the third quarter, getting to the rim at will and finishing with authority. The Sixers have no big men who can defend the paint, and the Bulls took advantage. Led by Rose's furious charge, Chicago cut a lead that was once more than 20 points down to four. It was the type of spot where you expect a team hovering around .500 like the Sixers to fold. The best team in the conference was asserting its will behind its MVP, and there was nothing the Sixers could do about it.

Except this team doesn't believe it's supposed to lose to the elite teams. It believes it can win every night, and it will kill itself trying. And that's because of Doug Collins. So the Sixers took Derrick Rose's best shot and countered with some huge shots by Spencer Hawes and clutch plays from everyone, holding off the Bulls 97-85.

And there was Doug Collins, smiling, fist-pumping, exuding joy just as he had the week before against the Hawks. He came out and greeted every player on the floor, grinning from ear to ear, exchanging high fives and hugs. Then, he embraced Elton Brand and walked off the court with him —  team and coach earning the victory together.

It's incredibly striking as a Sixers fan. This time last year, Eddie Jordan didn't give a shit about what happened. Not one iota. And the players looked miserable. I honestly can't remember seeing either the players or Jordan smile at all. Now, just one year later, the coach is the leading cheerleader, smiling from ear to ear after each big win, showing just how distraught he is with each loss. And the players are following suit, embracing their coach and flashing grins as big as can be with victories, while conveying a deeply disturbed look of despair with each loss.

It's often said that basketball is the hardest draw in Philadelphia, that the team has to put a winner on the floor to make people show up and give a crap, which is certainly true. Honestly, it may go even further. What Sixers fans really want is a coach, a team that cares. If the players give a crap, if the coach gives a crap, if the franchise gives a crap, the fans will too. That's really all they ask. Sure, winning doesn't hurt, but putting a passionate product on the court is just as important.

Thanks to Doug Collins, the Sixers are doing that. Just one year after the most miserable and disinterested team in recent memory drove away more fans than you can imagine, Doug Collins and the upstart Philadelphia 76ers are bringing them back. It's fun to be a Sixers fan again, even if this team has not real shot at winning a title anytime soon. That doesn't matter right now. What matters is that Doug Collins has brought the passion back to 76ers basketball, a passion we haven't really seen since Allen Iverson unceremoniously left town (the first time).

What difference a year and a new coach can make.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Kemba Walker + Derrick Williams = 68, 16 and 5

Last night, I was on complete sensory overload. Uncle Jellyfish, Adam EatShit, two of my roommates and I went to the bar to get some wings and beer and watch the NCAA Tournament and the Flyers-Penguins game.

While the Flyers left more to be desired (as has been the case for a couple months now) in the shootout loss to the Penguins, Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams provided plenty to get excited about.

Everyone knows all about Kemba Walker. He's been in the Player of the Year discussions since day 1, and being a junior playing in the Big East, the nation has watched him develop at UConn these past three years. The man is fantastic, and he was yet again last night.

In a tight battle with San Diego State (should have been Temple!), the difference was simple: The Huskies had Kemba, the Aztecs didn't. Walker torched San Diego St. for 36 points, connecting on 4 of 8 threes and getting any damn where he wanted to on the court. Basically, he did what he's been doing all year long, and especially since the Big East tournament: Putting UConn on his back and carrying them to the team's 8th straight victory — a streak that began in the Big East Tournament.

Walker's performance last night was equally matched by Arizona's sophomore star Derrick Williams.

Now, people definitely are familiar with the name Derrick Williams —  he was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year last season and the most known player on conference champion Arizona this year — but there was hardly any publicity for the man prior to this NCAA Tournament. Honestly, I didn't take too much notice myself until early in this calendar year, when my roommate was singing his praises. Then I started to watch, and man was I impressed.

Last night, he and his Arizona Wildcats impressed the entire country by absolutely annihilating Duke. Zona ripped through the Blue Devils 93-77 by literally terrifying the daylights out of them. And it was Williams who led in the charge in writing Duke's obituary.

Williams wasn't just better than anyone else on that court last night — he was way better than anyone else. Way better than Nolan Smith. Way better than Kyle Singler. Way better than Kyrie Irving, who scored 28 points himself. Williams had 32 beastly points, hauled in 13 rebounds and added two steals and a block for good measure. He completely and utterly abused Singler or whatever Mason brother Coach K. threw his way, shooting 11-17 from the floor, 5-6 from three and 5-6 from the line.

But most impressive of all, he put on a performance so NBA-like that no other player in the nation besides Kemba Walker has been able pull something like that off this season.

All season long, I've thought that Kemba Walker may not be the Player of the Year in college basketball, but he's certainly looked the most like an NBA player. Well, Derrick Williams has entered that sphere, and he may have been there all along.

Now these two men will go toe to toe tomorrow night. Arizona vs. UConn for the right to play in the Final Four, a game that you just know will be decided by these two NBA-bound players.

Last night, Kemba Walker and Derrick Williams combined for 68 points, 16 rebounds, 5 assists, four steals and a block. They shot a combined 55 percent from the field, went 9-14 (64 percent) from beyond the arc and made 13 of 16 free throws. And they led their respective teams to the brink of the Final Four.

I cannot wait to see what they have in store for us as they go up against one another tomorrow night.

It's Friday, Time to Dance

The Sixers take on the Heat tonight in what very well could be a preview of the first round of the playoffs. In fact, if the season ended today, the 6th-seeded Sixers would play the 3rd-seeded Miami Heat in round one.

Of course, Philadelphia is eyeing that fifth spot, just 2.5 games behind Atlanta now thanks to the exciting come-from-behind win Wednesday.

Anyway, the Sixers play the Heat tonight, so why not some Hot Hot Heat? Seriously, Joltin Joe Blanton thought the chorus to this song was "grab your genitals, grab your genitals, grab your genitals." Try to figure that one out for yourself.

I hope I win the Mega Millions tonight.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

My Feelings Right Now

As you may have noticed, I've been fairly absent with the posting this week, despite the tournament games over the weekend, horrific goaltending by Sergei Bobrovsky and Brian Boucher, and a big win for the Sixers last night. That's because I've been incredibly swamped at work, and today is the worst. How bad is it? Let's just say this song encapsulates my feelings perfectly today.

I seriously wish I would have just been hit by a bus this morning. I'm getting hammered tonight.

Monday, March 21, 2011

We Are the (Wrestling) Champions

Two weeks ago, Penn State won its first ever Big Ten Wrestling Championship in just the second season under wrestling great Cael Sanderson. This weekend right here in Philadelphia (while I was stuck in Washington, D.C.), the Nittany Lions did one better, winning the national championship.

For Sanderson — who went undefeated all four years in high school and all four years in college at Iowa State, winning four straight individual NCAA championships and an Olympic Gold Medal — it was his first team national championship ever, and he did it in just his second season as head coach for the Nittany Lions. Penn State won the team title with 107.5 points, 14 points better than runner-up Cornell.

Following in Sanderson's footsteps was sophomore Quentin Wright, the lone Nittany Lion to take home an individual title, as he was crowned the 184-pound champ.

Wright is now a two-time All-American.

Junior Frank Molinaro, who received All-American honors for the third straight year, finished second at 149. Redshirt freshman David Taylor finished second at 157 and was named an All-American as well.

I know I don't cover wrestling very often here on the site, and I like the rest of America was entrenched in the NCAA basketball tournament all weekend, but once upon a time I used to cover wrestling both during my days at Penn State and at my former job, and I really enjoyed it. Needless to say, I'm very happy for my alma mater, and there's no reason to believe Penn State can't do it again next year.

With Cael Sanderson in the fold and a young, talented roster, not to mention an infusion of talent pouring in thanks to Sanderson and the rest of the coaching staff, the Nittany Lions could become perennial powers.

Congrats to Cael, Quentin, Frank, David and the entire Penn State wrestling team.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Villanova Learned Nothing

Heading into the 8-9 match-up between Villanova and George Mason, I was convinced Nova would win despite the team's epic slide down the stretch. Here's why: For one, few people believed Nova could right itself, so it only made sense that they would. It is March Madness after all. Second, I thought Jay Wright would use the end of the season as a teaching tool and have his team prepared to correct those mistakes in the NCAA Tournament, since Nova has been a very strong tournament team under Wright.

I was wrong. Dead wrong. Instead, it was the same old Villanova. Blowing a double-digit lead? Check. Making boneheaded plays late? Check. Missing crucial foul shots? Check. And Corey Stoke choking big time? Check. I mean, seriously, that was the best final shot of your career you could get? A god-awful shot off the side of the backboard? Corey Stokes is terrible.

This Villanova team was the most undisciplined and least mentally tough squad in the Jay Wright era. And they should be ashamed of themselves. They learned nothing all season long, and they got what they deserved. Check that, they got more than they deserved. This team should have been an 11 seed at best, a 14 at worst given how horrendous it was in February and March.

Now Philadelphia's hopes lie in the hands of Temple, and nothing would be sweeter than seeing the Owls upset No. 2 seed San Diego State.

Thursday, March 17, 2011


Wow. What an unreal game and awesome day. Talor Battle is the man. I feel bad for him. But Ramone Moore and Juan Fernandez were just a little too much for Penn State to handle.

It's the most wonderful time of the year.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

The College Basketball Fantasy Draft (and Other Notes)

Way back when in late 2009, Ed, Kenny and company invited me to partake in the first ever college football fantasy draft (also seen here).

Well, being the innovators that they are, it was only a matter of time before that process was going to expand. So this year, they invited me to participate in the greatest college basketball fantasy draft of all-time. Please go check it out. It was a blast.

Thanks to the generosity of Ed, I'm going to post it here as well below, but first there a few things from over the weekend (and last night) that I want to get off my chest.

First and foremost, I want to congratulate my alma mater on making the NCAA Tournament. A couple weeks ago, I lambasted the Penn State athletic department for not even contacting Steven Lavin when he wanted the Penn State job, and last week, I congratulated Talor Battle on an outstanding college career despite never having made the NCAA Tournament and looking like he never would. I stand by those statements regarding the athletic department, but I'll be damned, this team would not be denied. Talor Battle and Jeff Brooks and David Jackson weren't going out like that. They had to make the NCAA Tournament, if for no other reason than to reward Battle for one of the quietest great college careers of all time.

So they took care of Indiana, squeaked out an ugly win over Wisconsin, and then won going away over Michigan State, getting all the way to the Big Ten Tournament Final before succumbing to No. 1 seed Ohio State.

As much as I've been despondent toward Ed DeChellis and the overall losing attitude of this program during my lifetime, I was ecstatic the same way I was when they won the NIT two year ago. This is my alma mater after all.

But then it was all brought back down to earth on Selection Sunday. Why? Because finally after years of being absent from the tournament, Penn State finally made it … only to be matched up with Temple, my favorite college basketball team period. Unreal. My alma mater finally makes the tourney and I can't even all-out root for them. Unbelievable. I'm a Temple die-hard. And a Penn State grad. And the god damn committee matched them up in the first round. I hate it. I hate it so very much.

I'm not going to lie, I'll be rooting for Temple. I just follow this team so damn much. As the 7th seed, they're supposed to win. But I admit, I won't be terribly upset if Penn State, the 10 seed, wins. Talor Battle will be the best player on the floor, and that means your team always has a shot to win. But my cousin put it nicely: He said it will be Temple's revenge for football for the last 60 years.

I picked Temple, and I expect them to win, but this should be a great game. It's certainly the one I'm most anticipating, for good reasons and bad, on Thursday and the one I'll have my eyes glued to. In a way, I guess I can't lose, because I'd love to see Temple make a run, but I'd also like to see Talor Battle get his due. But I still would have preferred that these two teams be matched up with anybody else so I could put my full support behind both.

Secondly, I want to congratulate Ville Leino for his first career hat trick Saturday.

It's more proof that the guy should shoot the puck more, because he's damn good at it.

At the same time, I'd like to absolutely destroy Kris Versteeg.

Versteeg is a really good player. He's going to play a major role for the Flyers in the playoffs and going forward next season. But since he's come over to Philadelphia, the team has struggled. That isn't an indictment on Versteeg, but he hasn't played particularly well himself in that span. Yes, he's shown flashes and is beginning to really develop great chemistry with Mike Richards, but he hasn't lit the world on fire.

But on Saturday night, he singlehandedly coughed up the game and cost the Flyers a point and the win. With the Flyers protecting a two-goal lead with three minutes left to play, Versteeg took an absolutely horrendous interference penalty in the offensive zone. Versteeg was upset and it didn't seem all that intentional, but it was hardly an accident either. Versteeg had his head up, he could see where he was going and where Bryan Little was, yet he made no attempt to get out of the way. Thus he got called for a penalty, in the offensive zone, while protecting the lead. It was an awful, stupid, incredibly dumb penalty, and of course the Thrashers scored on the ensuing power play to make it a 4-3 game.

Then, with less than a minute to play, he made the single worst pass in the history of hockey. Instead of clearing the puck out of his own defensive zone or reversing it off the boards hard, Versteeg tried to play it behind the net to his defenseman, only he made a horrible pass, which hit the side of the net and came out the other side to his former Blackhawks teammate Andrew Ladd, who deposited it into the net to tie the game. Of course the Flyers then lost in overtime.

Now listen, the Flyers gave up four goals in the third period and blew a 3-0 lead, which is inexcusable for a team. But Versteeg's two plays were the worst of them all, so bad that I think he should be scratched for a week for those horrendous plays. He won't because he's too valuable and too good, but the reason I say he should be scratched is because those plays were losing hockey plays. They were dumb. Egregiously dumb. An interference penalty in your offensive zone while up two? And perhaps the worst turnover I've ever seen with 45 seconds left to allow Atlanta to tie the game. He directly cost the Flyers that game and that valuable point, and it's not like he's played so great that he deserves to get a pass. He doesn't. That type of shit may fly in Toronto, but not on the East's leading team.

I know Laviolette won't do it, but I'd sit him tonight against Florida and maybe even Thursday against Atlanta and let Nodl or Zherdev play. This team is struggling at the wrong time, and benching Versteeg could be a wake-up call. I know it won't happen, and it probably shouldn't. But I was so fucking mad at him that I want it to happen. That was the worst 3 minutes of hockey by one player I've ever seen. Ever.

And note to the Sixers, please stop letting Andre Iguodala take the last shot. Please. Listen, Iggy went off last night and actually gave the Sixers the lead late with some terrific individual plays on both offense and defense. But when the game was tied and the ball in his hands for one final chance to win it, everyone in the world knew he was going to miss. And he did, and the Sixers lost to the Jazz in overtime.

Iggy is a really, really good player who is having a very good season, and he was the sole reason the Sixers gook that late lead. But please, just put the ball in anyone else's hands for the final shot. Please.

That is all. Now, on to the draft:

On the eve of this thing called March Madness, there's always a need to reflect. We've watched documentaries of the Running Rebels of UNLV and the Fab Five of Michigan over the course of the weekend. We've seen the absurdity of the current 2011 NCAA tournament bracket, and we can remember when the old folks preached the gospel about the legends of yesteryear. So usually when we start reminiscing about the glory of years past, there's only one logical conclusion...

...we've got to do a fantasy draft.

Six guys, one conference call, and an hour and a half of shenanigans later, we came up with this...the first-ever ETSF college basketball fantasy draft.

You might remember we did this back in 2009 for college football, so this is nothing new for us over here. Meet the six GMs and where you can find them:

Philadelphia's own Rev. Paul Revere - House That Glanville Built
Chi-Town's Bryan Crawford - SLAM's From the 'Go Blog
Mr. Durham, Joe Simmons - Bull City State of Mind
The Ohio Player, Sean Walton - The Fresh Xpress
The Bearded One from Dallas, Kenny Masenda - ETSF
Oklahoma's Finest, Eddie Maisonet - ETSF

Rules are simple...

1. Players selected must have played no earlier than the 1990-91 season.
2. Teams must have a starting lineup (PG, SG, SF, PF, C) and 5 bench players
3. Snake draft implementation (first to last, last to first)
4. Trash talking is not only encouraged, but mandatory.

You ready? Let's rock. One favor...take notes and keep tabs on what's going on. We might need you to pick a winner.

Round 1

The Rev - Christian Laettner, Duke
Bryan Crawford - Kevin Durant, Texas
Eddie Maisonet - Tim Duncan, Wake Forest
Kenny Masenda - Larry Johnson, UNLV
Joe Simmons - Ed Cota, UNC
Sean Walton - Allen Iverson, Georgetown

Kenny's Pick: Larry Johnson

"On the surface, this pick seemed like it was easy, but it was pretty tough. I had C-Webb, Ed Cota, and Iverson on my board. I could have gone with any of them for a number of reasons, but when it was all said and done, I went with the first grown man I remember seeing in March Madness. Larry Johnson was a man amongst boys, an intimidator, and one of the best teammates you could ever have. It doesn't hurt that he's also Texas Made, and that he was multi-dimensional for the Runnin' Rebels."

Joe's Pick: Ed Cota

Never in my life have I ever seen a man with the ability to lead and still maintain his flash the way “Easy” Ed Cota was able to lead the Tarheels. The man played in three Final Fours in four years. Cota gets overlooked because he made it look too easy. See Ed did have talent around him most years, but his ability to make it work is what separated him from the rest. He possessed an array of behind-the-back passes, no-look passes, and he had the uncanny ability to fit the ball into places that the ball should not fit.

Regardless of the talent around him, Cota had the ability to make players around him look better. One of the things about Cota that real basketball fans could appreciate was the bigger the game, the better he played. Ask Wojo down at Duke about that as he probably still has nightmares about trying to guard Ed Cota for four years.

Round Two

Walton - Shaquille O'Neal, LSU
Simmons - Chris Webber, Michigan
Masenda - Jerry Stackhouse, UNC
Maisonet - Blake Griffin, Oklahoma
Crawford - Chris Jackson, LSU
The Rev - Marcus Camby, UMass

Ed's Observation: The majority of us went with bigs here. Ken and Crawford went with Stackhouse, who was MEAN at UNC, and Chris Jackson was simply a monster in the backcourt.

Round Three

The Rev - Jameer Nelson, St. Joseph's
Crawford - Rasheed Wallace, UNC
Maisonet - Grant Hill, Duke
Masenda - TJ Ford, Texas
Simmons - Stephen Curry, Davidson
Walton - Carmelo Anthony, Syracuse

Bryan's Pick: Rasheed Wallace

When it comes to basketball, Rasheed Wallace has pretty much been cold his whole life. He averaged 16 points, 15 rebounds and seven blocks while playing just 19 minutes a game as a senior in high school, and once he got to North Carolina, it was over. Not only was he the heart and soul of the Tarheels, but he had the grown man game. If you didn't see 'Sheed play in college, just ask around... Roscoe was that dude.

Round Four

Walton - JJ Redick, Duke
Simmons - Jamal Mashburn, Kentucky
Masenda - Antawn Jamison, UNC
Maisonet - Mike Bibby, Arizona
Crawford - Ray Allen, UConn
The Rev - Kenyon Martin, Cincinnati

Ed's Pick: Mike Bibby

While some folks profess their love for the Michigan Fab Five, the UNLV Running Rebels, or the Flintstones from Michigan State, my favorite team growing up will always be the 1996-97 Arizona Wildcats. They had the sharpshooter Michael Dickerson, one of the greatest 6th-men of all time in Jason Terry, and they had a team full of light-skinnededness. From AJ Bramlett, to Bennett Davidson, to the legend that is Miles Simon, the killer on that squad was none other than Mike Bibby. Bibby's handle was serious, his court vision was superb, and his range went from Tucson to Yuma. Team Dime was legit, and I'll never forget what #10 did for Lute Olsen.

Round Five

The Rev - Eddie Jones, Temple
Crawford - Emeka Okafor, UConn
Maisonet - Corliss Williamson, Arkansas
Masenda - Glenn Robinson, Purdue
Simmons - Alonzo Mourning, Georgetown
Walton - Robert "Tractor" Traylor, Michigan

The Rev's pick: Eddie Jones

If you are looking for a complete college basketball guard, you'd be hard-pressed to do better than Temple's Eddie Jones. The man could certainly get buckets, averaging 16 points per game for his college career and 19.2 en route to the 1994 A-10 Player of the Year award. But he was also a defensive star. He was the prototypical John Chaney guard: tall, lanky and defensive minded. Eddie averaged 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks for his career. He led Temple in rebounding once and blocks twice … as a guard. And he, along with Aaron McKie and Rick Brunson, led John Chaney to his deepest NCAA Tournament run ever, going all the way to the Elite Eight.

Round Six

Walton - Trajan Langdon, Duke
Simmons - Tyler Hansbrough, UNC
Masenda - Jim Jackson, Ohio State
Maisonet - Steve Francis, Maryland
Crawford - Penny Hardaway, Memphis State
The Rev - Jason Kidd, Cal

Bryan's pick: Anfernee "Penny" Hardaway

Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway made being a 6-7 PG popular when he was at Memphis State University. Sure, Jalen Rose brought swagger and attitude to the position while at the University of Michigan, but Hardaway was easily the more complete and polished player of the two. He could shoot it, he could pass and he could flat-out score the basketball. Really, there wasn't a whole lot that he couldn't do out on the floor. Plus, he had a really cool nickname. What's not to like?

Round Seven

Rev - Ed O'Bannon, UCLA
Crawford - Juwan Howard, Michigan
Maisonet - Mateen Cleaves, Michigan State
Masenda - Baron Davis, UCLA
Simmons - Randolph Childress, Wake Forest
Walton - Jason Williams, Duke

Joe's Pick: Randolph Childress

There was no doubt that Randolph Childress was an underdog player during his career at Wake Forest. Randolph carried a team for two years that had nothing to offer. Randolph was a marksman, a sharpshooter who never seemed to shy away from the big shot. In an era of ACC supremacy and legendary players, no small guy has ever stood as tall as Randolph Childress did during his tenure at Wake Forest.

In his junior year everything changed for Randolph. Enter Tim Duncan. A scrawny, average built, big man from Nassau, Bahamas came to the Demon Deacons and changed everything for Randolph Childress as he no longer had to carry the team by himself. His collegiate highlight came in 1995, when he delivered one of the most outstanding ACC Tournament performances of all time. Named tournament MVP, Childress carried the Demon Deacons to the ACC Tournament Title. Childress averaged 35.7 points and seven assists per game. In the finals, against a UNC team featuring Jerry Stackhouse and Rasheed Wallace, Childress scored 37 points with seven assists and hit a game-winning jumper with four seconds left in overtime (not to mention the play that no real basketball fan will ever forget).

Round Eight

Walton - Dikembe Mutombo, Georgetown
Simmons - Stacey Augmon, UNLV
Masenda - Dwyane Wade, Marquette
Maisonet - Richard Hamilton, UConn
Crawford - Alphonso Ford, Miss. Valley State
The Rev - Kerry Kittles, Villanova

The Rev's Pick: Kerry Kittles

The accolades say it all: two-time All-American (first-team as a senior, second-team as a junior), 1995 Big East Player of the Year, three-time All Big East First Teamer, and the Villanova career leader in points (2,243) and steals (277). He holds the single-season steal record at Nova with 87 in 1994, and he averaged 18.4 points for his college career. Even more importantly, Kerry Kittles and Jason Lawson were the sole reasons that I took any notice to Nova as a Philadelphia youth. Temple was my Philly squad, but Kittles was too incredible to ignore: the high socks, the immense athleticism, the lethal shooting and scoring, and just like Eddie, an elite thief.

Round Nine

The Rev - Michael Beasley, Kansas State
Crawford - Al Horford, Florida
Maisonet - Keith Van Horn, Utah
Masenda - Joakim Noah, Florida
Simmons - Miles Simon, Arizona
Walton - Julius Peppers, UNC

Ed's Pick: Keith Van Horn

Look, there's nothing wrong with being the Great White Hype. Usually, if you were considered the GWH, then you were pretty damn good. We saw it when we were little with Christian Laettner and we saw it when we were grown with Adam Morrison and J.J. Redick. However, what Keith Van Horn did at Utah was downright heroic. Known for his game-winning shots, offensive exploits, and that sleepy-eyed face, dude was a killer. Plus, reaching that 1998 National Championship Game didn't hurt his resume, either.

Round Ten

Walton - Wally Szczerbiak, Miami (OH)
Simmons - Kenny Anderson, Georgia Tech
Masenda - John Wallace, Syracuse
Maisonet - Greg Oden, Ohio State
Crawford - Shelden Williams, Duke
The Rev - Calbert Cheaney, Indiana

Ed's Observations: If you're still reading this far down, God bless you.


The Rev - John Chaney, Temple
Crawford - Rick Pitino, Kentucky/Louisville
Maisonet - Lute Olsen, Arizona
Masenda - John Thompson, Georgetown
Simmons - Nolan Richardson, Arkansas
Walton - Bob Huggins, Cincinnati/West Virginia

Ed's Observations: Can't go wrong with any of these coaches, no love for Coach K though? Hate hate hate hate hate...


Rev - The Palestra (Philly Big 5)
Crawford - The Pit (New Mexico)
Maisonet - Pauley Pavillion (UCLA)
Masenda - Phog Allen Fieldhouse (Kansas)
Simmons - Cameron Indoor Stadium (Duke)
Walton - Madison Square Garden (New York, primarily St. John's)

Ed's Observations: Need to get these arenas on my bucket list...immediately.

11th Man (Because who couldn't use one more pick?)

Walton - Nick Van Exel, Cincinnati
Simmons - Kevin Pittsnogle, West Virginia
Masenda - Jalen Rose, Michigan
Maisonet - Ron Artest, St. John's
Crawford - Brandon Roy, Washington
Rev - Lynn Greer, Temple

Ken's Pick: Jalen Rose

Originally, I had Raymond Felton, but after realizing I had no members of the most influential force in my lifetime of watching college basketball, I had to get Jalen Rose. Rose was a key part of those Fab Five teams; he played hard, he played with attitude, and he always let you know he was in the building. The man wasn't afraid of a thing, and he had his moments when he was the best player on the floor for the Fab Five, which is saying a lot, considering the players he played with.

Here is the final breakout of selections...

To summarize, my team is as follows:

PG: Jameer Nelson
SG: Eddie Jones
SF: Kerry Kittles
PF: Christian Laettner
C: Marcus Camby
Bench: Kenyon Martin
Bench: Jason Kidd
Bench: Ed O'Bannon
Bench: Michael Beasley
Bench: Calbert Cheaney
Coach: John Chaney
Arena: The Palestra
11th Man: Lynn Greer

Friday, March 11, 2011

Villanova Has Nothing on Virginia's Late-Game Ineptitude

As anyone who's followed Villanova at all this season knows, the Wildcats have found remarkable ways to to lose the past two months.

But man, not even that four-point play quite compares to Virginia blowing a 10-point lead with 38 seconds left yesterday to lose in overtime against Miami in the ACC Tournament.

Wow. I can't even add anything to that.

It's Friday, Time to Dance

Wednesday marked the 14th-year anniversary of Biggie Smalls' death, so I'd be remiss to put anyone else in this spot.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

So Kemba Walker Just Did This

Somebody wasn't too please with Ben Hansbrough being named Big East Player of the Year.

In case you weren't sure, March Madness has already begun.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Highs and Lows of Wells Fargo Teams

Here in Philadelphia, there are two professional teams that call the Wells Fargo Center home and one college basketball team that plays a handful of its home games in the building as well. The fortunes for those three teams — the Flyers, Sixers and Villanova — have been quite surprising of late.

Villanova began the year the same way most Jay Wright teams begin the year, by rattling off win after win to go 16-1. Then Kemba Walker hit a ridiculous floater to give the Wildcats their first lost in conference play and just second loss on the season.

That ending was difficult to stomach, but there's no shame in losing at UConn by two points, especially with the way Kemba Walker was playing at the time. Nova rebounded nicely to roll Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, and the Cats looked like a real force to be reckoned with. Then it all fell apart.

Nova lost by 15 at Providence, then dropped a heartbreaker against Georgetown. Back-to-back wins against Marquette and West Virginia looked to get Nova back on track, but looks can be deceiving. What came next can only be described as self-destructing. Villanova lost to a bad Rutgers team in spectacular fashion.

Little did we know that that finish would turn out to be the true identity of this team. Since that epic choke job, Villanova has been a really, really bad basketball team. They headed into last night's first-round Big East Tournament game against South Florida having lost four straight games. After defeating Maryland on Jan. 15, Nova finished the regular season 5-9 in its last 14 games. They hadn't beaten a ranked opponent since defeating then No. 25 West Virginia on Feb. 5, and the only two wins Nova had since that West Virginia game came against Seton and Hall and Depaul … winning by a combined 5 points.

Somewhere along the way, this team that had started 16-1 and risen to the top 5 in the nation turned into an absolutely awful basketball team. And it all came to a head last night.

Having choked away a bye in the Big East Tournament, Villanova entered Madison Square Garden as the 10th seed, taking on the 15th-seeded South Florida Bulls. Early on, the Wildcats had cause for concern, getting off to slow a start, but then they took over. Corey Stokes was active and connecting from distance. Maalik Wayns and Corey Fisher were on point. And Nova built a 16-point lead. Everything looked good. After a very tough stretch to end the season, it looked like Nova was regaining its confidence and would move on and hope to right itself in the Garden.

Then everything came crashing down yet again. Stokes disappeared. Fisher disappeared. Mouphtaou Yarou got hurt. And Nova folded. It was embarrassing. Fisher forgot how to play basketball. The front line behind Yarou couldn't do a damn thing. And the rest of the team looked lost out there.

The only player who seemed game was Maalik Wayns, who finished with a game-high 24 points, but even he couldn't make it last.

Nova let the Bulls back in the game, but they still had the outcome in their control. Nova was up by three with less than a minute left when Corey Stokes stole the ball. The Bulls then fouled Wayns, an 80-plus percent free throw shooter, to put him on the line. Nova had not missed a free throw all game. But Wayns went ahead and missed the front end of a one-and-one, Bulls ball.

Still, South Florida did what a bad team does, literally trying to give the game away. Shaun Noriega slipped and turned it over to Nova. With 37 seconds left, Corey Stokes, a 90 percent free throw shooter who led the Big East in free throw percentage, was fouled. And guess what? That asshole missed the front end of a one-and-one too. Unbelievable.

What happened next was even more despicable. South Florida connected on two free throws to make it a one-point game. Then Wayns, a player I absolutely love, made one of the single worst passes in the history of college basketball. He lobbed a pass up back toward his own basket. It was out of the reach of Antonio Pena, stolen and laid in with 23 seconds, 68-67 South Florida.

Wayns momentarily made up for it by hitting two free throws to put Nova back up a point, but it didn't matter. Dominic Cheek played laughable defense — see none whatsoever — on Anthony Crater, letting him just go right by him for the game-winning layup.

It's as if this Villanova team is going out of its way to find new ways to lose. Blowing a 16-point lead against a far inferior (talent-wise) opponent, excellent free-throw shooters missing crucial foul shots down the stretch, inexplicable turnovers, and just letting a guy get an uncontested layup to win the game. Those are qualities of a bad team. A really bad team. And that's what Villanova is and has been for more than a month, a bad basketball team.

For the first time in memory, this is a Jay Wright team that literally has no composure and no heart. None whatsoever. Corey Fisher forgot how to play basketball. Corey Stokes is a bona fide choke artist. Antonio Pena's first half of the season proved to be a fluke. The bench is terrible. And the sophomores, as talented as they are, make incredibly boneheaded plays in big moments. Maalik Wayns with the missed free throw and horrific pass. Dominic Cheek failing to develop offensively and literally yielding a layup with the game on the line. And Yarou, while possessing tons of talent, is still raw.

This is a bad team that looks poorly coached right now. That's just the facts. Jay Wright is a fantastic coach and these players are really talented, but none of the parts have been good in 2011. None of them. Wright hasn't developed the youngsters enough. The seniors completely faded down the stretch. And this team has literally gone from a promising power to one of the worst teams in the conference. I honestly don't see Villanova winning a game in the NCAA Tournament. They will be an 8 seed at best, and even that is generous given the way the Wildcats are playing.

A once promising season has completely turned into a disaster. I'm not sure anyone saw this coming.

Conversely, the Sixers have had a completely opposite trajectory to their season. In Doug Collins' first season at the helm, the Sixers picked up right where Eddie Jordan left off, starting the year an embarrassing 3-13, including losing the first four, then losing six straight. It was terrible.

But since, the Sixers have been one of the best teams in the NBA. No, they're not going to be a contender or anything, but the Sixers have become a winning basketball team that I'm pretty sure no one wants to see in the playoffs. And they're doing it with a truly team mentality.

Take last night's game for example. The Sixers easily handled the Indiana Pacers 110-100 and took at 65-53 lead into the half. That was despite the leading scorer having all of four points after 24 minutes for Philadelphia. When it was all said and done, seven Sixers had scored in double figures: Thaddeus Young (18), Jrue Holiday (16), Andre Iguodala (16), Jodie Meeks (15), Elton Brand (12), Spencer Hawes (12) and Evan Turner (10).

Andre Iguodala and Elton Brand are playing some of the best basketball of their lives. Last night, Iggy added 10 assists to record a double-double, and Brand had 8 boards. Beyond that, Jrue has continued to develop, and there are no questions anymore about his selection. He is this team's point guard of the future. Jodie Meeks has turned into a nice scorer and is the team's most reliable three-point threat. Thaddeus Young and Lou Williams have been fantastic off the bench, and after a slow start in the NBA, rookie Evan Turner keeps developing the more he plays.

Honestly, the Sixers are a fun team to watch. They've won three straight, 7 of their last 8 and 9 of their last 11. After that 3-13 start, they're now 33-30 on year and virtually a lock for the playoffs, just a game behind the new-look Knicks for sixth in the East. Yes, they still have their issues — namely giving up double-digit leads in the 3rd and 4th quarters — but they are finding ways to win and certainly moving in the right direction. People should start taking notice.

As it stands, the Sixers will most likely have to face Boston, Chicago or Miami in the first round. An upset still would require an awful lot of luck and near flawless play. But this team should put a scare into anyone else in the East if for no other reason than they play the game the way it's meant to be played —  moving the ball, running the floor and hustling nonstop. And if they can find a way to catch Atlanta and pass the Knicks for the 5th seed, they could very well give Dwight Howard and the Magic a real scare.

For the first time in a while, it's actually fun watching the Sixers again.

Then there is the matter of the Flyers. This team has been atop the Eastern Conference for so long that it's hard to be overly upset with the four-game losing streak that they finally ended last night. But unlike Matt P. at The700Level, I do care about the play of late.

Do I think the Flyers will be fine? Yes. They are too talented, too deep and have too many good players to continue to struggle, and the body of work for the season speaks for itself. They are, after all, still leading the entire Eastern Conference with 88 points and have games in hand over most of the teams chasing them. But that doesn't excuse the bad play of late.

The Flyers lost to four teams that frankly they should beat during that streak. The Senators have the fewest points in East and second fewest in the NHL, yet they lost to them 4-1. The Maple Leafs are 5-1-4 in their last 10 games, but they're also 10th in the East, a team the Flyers should handle, not lose to by folding late. And while the Sabres and Rangers are fighting for every point and have far more desperation than the Flyers, sitting at 8th and 7th in the conference respectively, the Flyers should be able to beat one of those teams. Instead they lost a tough one to the Sabres and got completely embarrassed by the Rangers.

The good news is the Flyers got back to their winning ways last night, beating the worst team in the NHL 4-1. But the victory over the Oilers wasn't all that consoling either, mainly because the same troubles that have plagued them during the losing streak crept up.

Now, in the first period, the Flyers did exactly what they should do. They completely dominated the entire period, outshooting the Oilers 17-1 and taking a 2-0 lead, highlighted by an absolutely brilliant stretch pass by Matt Carle to spring Danny Briere for the breakaway.

If it wasn't for Edmonton goaltender Devan Dubnyk standing on his head, the Flyers easily could have been up 4 or 5. But as good as the Flyers played in that first period — and don't get me wrong, they really took it to Edmonton —  they still had trouble with their power play and connecting on passes.

Ladislav Smid earned a five-minute major for mashing Darroll Powe from behind face-first into the boards. On the ensuing major, it took the Flyers 3 minutes before they actually set up. And while they ultimately did tally on a Jeff Carter goal, they wasted the first 3 minutes of a five-minute major and missed an opportunity to completely bury the Oilers in the first.

I cannot understand for the life of me why a team this talented cannot figure out the power play, but their man-advantage is atrocious. It has been all year. To me, the biggest culprit is that these guys routinely try to get too cute, try to make the perfect play, instead of just keeping it simple. They need to get back to firing the puck and crashing the net, none of this cute stuff.

Anyway, after a owning the first period, the Flyers fell flat in the second. Edmonton just looked like a hungrier team. The Flyers were making lazy passes, turning the puck over, playing on their heels. It was maddening. Luckily, Sergei Bobrovsky was outstanding, preserving the lead, and the Flyers actually made it 3-0 on an absolutely beautiful set play off of an offensive zone draw. Claude Giroux won a draw back to James van Riemsdyk, and immediately Kimmon Timonen went backdoor. JVR hit him with a perfect pass, and Kimmo drew the defense and the goalie. Then he calmly passed it to a wide-open Jeff Carter for the slam-dunk goal.

But then the Flyers continued an alarming trend, giving the goal right back just 55 seconds later on a great deflection by Jean-Francois Jacques. That's something the Flyers have been doing routinely during this slump, surrendering a goal immediately after scoring themselves. It's been maddening.

And even though the Flyers held on with Blair Betts adding an empty-netter, they were far from impressive the rest of the way. The defensemen had some really terrible turnovers. Instead of making the smart, safe plays while protecting a two-goal lead in the third, the Flyers tried risky passes and put themselves in bad positions. Far too often, they try to enter the zone by stickhandling or making tough passes, instead of just dumping and chasing, using the forechecking style Peter Laviolette wants.

Defensively, far too often they look backward, try to reverse the puck and end up turning it over instead of just chipping it out of the zone and living to fight another shift.

And most frustrating of all has been the reluctance some of these guys have had with the puck. Claude Giroux has been outstanding all season and is without question my favorite player on this team. But lately, he has been passing up way too many shots, electing to pass instead. I know he's creative, a great passer and a guy who looks to pass first, but sometimes you just have to let it fly. Over the course of this rough patch, he's passed up prime shooting lanes in the slot and around the net, instead opting for a worse play. The man needs to shoot a little more. The same can be said for Kris Versteeg.

And defensively, the top four have been outstanding still as you would expect. Timonen, Coburn, Pronger and Carle continue to be stalwarts. But lately, that third pair that has been so awesome all season has begun to struggle. Andrej Meszaros simply has been taking too many penalties, though he managed to stay out of the box last night and had a nice game. But Sean O'Donnell, who thoroughly impressed me this year, has struggled lately. He's been getting beat on some goals, and suddenly he has the yips, coughing up the puck like Eric Desjardins in the playoffs.

The good news is these are all things that can be easily corrected and I'm confident they will. The Flyers have been too good for too long, and the talent is still there to continue to be elite. But they definitely need to pick up the intensity and play smarter, playoff-style hockey here soon. Because as we saw last year with the Flyers, a lower-seeded team can catch the top seeds off-guard and make it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final.

And as Nova has shown, sometimes a little slump can snowball into something much bigger.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Rising (UNC), Falling (Villanova) and Moving Right Along (Temple)

Saturday was the type of day that can really tell you a lot about teams heading into conference tournament play. Going in, we knew already that Villanova was struggling and North Carolina was on a tear, but both teams' fortunes could turn on a dime against big-time opponents. A win for Villanova at Pitt could help put this horrific stretch behind them.

A loss by North Carolina at home to Duke to drop both games in the season series with its hated rival could derail the young Tar Heels' confidence it had built up during this impressive streak.

As you know, neither one of those things happened. With a victory by Notre Dame, Pitt needed to beat Villanova to win the regular-season Big East title and earn the No. 1 seed in Madison Square Garden. That extra motivation proved lethal for Nova, as the Panthers won 60-50.

It was yet another example of how reliant the Wildcats are on Corey Stokes and Corey Fisher offensively. Stokes pulled a hamstring at practice last Thursday and for the second time this season couldn't suit up against Pitt. With Stokes out, Nova desperately needed Corey Fisher to come out of his three-game slump and score in bunches. He did not. At all.

Fisher was absolutely horrible yet again, going just 3-14 from the field for a measly 7 points.

It was an absolutely embarrassing effort from a big-time senior scorer.

During the course of his college career, I was often a pretty vocal critic of Scottie Reynolds. But one thing was certain with Reynolds, he was going to give Villanova a chance to win, even if he wasn't playing his best, against the big boys. I mean, who can ever forget this?

The guy was infuriating at times with his decision-making and shot selection, but he was a leader that would will Nova to hard-fought victories. As much as I like Corey Fisher, he's just not that guy. Yes, the Wildcats go as he and Corey Stokes go, but those guys just don't have that thing you can't quite describe that Scottie had. They don't rise to the big moments, the big challenges. They fade. And the rest of the Wildcats follow suit.

With Fisher struggling, it looked as though the rest of the Wildcats gave up with the exception for Maalik Wayns. Wayns, the next in line to take over as the man, scored 27 points and hit a rash of late threes to give Nova an ever so slight glimmer of hope. But he was alone. Not a single other Wildcat scored in double digits. In fact, Fisher was second on the team in scoring with his 7 points. Sorry, but that's just not showing enough passion and desire at the end of the season, especially during a rough patch and desperately needing a win.

Credit Pitt. They played great defense, holding Nova to 18 points in the first half and 50 for the game. They needed to win to be crowned Big East Champs, and they did. Even with their best effort, winning at Pitt with all that on the line for the Panthers was going to be a tough task. But to just really go down without a true fight, to drop their fourth game in a row and fall to 10th in the conference, it's disheartening to watch.

Villanova does get one more chance to try and get right before the NCAA Tournament, and it starts tonight against South Florida. If they lose this game, you can forget about any visions of a surprising NCAA run, and the way they're going, losing to South Florida isn't out of the realm of possibility.

One thing is for sure: If Nova has any hope of regaining its early-season form in the Garden, it needs Corey Fisher to play infinitely better, and it needs Corey Stokes healthy and effective.

We've all seen a team struggle late in the season and somehow catch fire come tournament time, so it's possible. But there's just something missing about this Nova team that it's had seemingly every year in the past. A lack of toughness, grit, passion, something. Probably a lack of senior leadership. Because it's hard to lead when the two guys you expect it from have been so up and down this late in the season.

Moving in the complete opposite direction is North Carolina. With Duke losing to Virginia Tech the weekend before, Saturday night's prime-time match-up between the Tar Heels and Blue Devils in Chapel Hill was for all the ACC marbles. Winner takes the regular-season championship and No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament.

Just like in the first meeting, North Carolina jumped out to a double-digit first-half lead behind the steady hand of Kendall Marshall, shooting of Harrison Barnes and interior presence of John Henson and Tyler Zeller. Unlike the first meeting, however, UNC didn't fold in the second half. Even with Nolan Smith putting up 30 and Seth Curry adding 20, Carolina fed off its home crowd and held Duke at bay to win rather easily 81-67.

Marshall once again completely controlled the game at the point for Carolina. The freshman looked anything but a first-year college player. He put his foot on the gas pedal when Duke was on its heels and slowed things down when the Blue Devils seemed to be making a run. When it was all said and done, he finished with 15 points and 11 assists, shot 5-8 from the field, 1-2 from three and 4-5 from the line. And he was the one player that influenced the pace and momentum shifts more than anyone.

Inserting him into the starting lineup was the best thing Roy Williams has done all season, and it's the biggest reason Carolina is the regular-season ACC champs. I honestly can't say enough about him. If you haven't watched him play, do yourself a favor and tune in before the NCAA tournament so you can see what the opposition is in for against the Tar Heels.

Uncoincidentally, fellow freshman Harrison Barnes has really elevated his game to the next level with Marshall at the point. On Saturday, he was huge yet again.

In the first match-up, Barnes and Duke's star senior Kyle Singler guarded each other and essentially canceled each other out. Both players played such hounding defense that neither was effective offensively. So it was interesting to see what would happen Saturday.

Well, the two matched up once again most of the night guarding one another. And once again, both guys worked incredibly hard defensively to try and slow the other down. Only this time, Barnes was able to overcome Singler's defensive efforts to put up 18 points. Singler couldn't solve Barnes on the other end, going just 3-14 to finish with just 8 points. The second go-round, Barnes was able to outplay Singler offensively without letting up on the defensive end. It was quite an impressive performance.

Then you add Henson's double-double (10 and 12) and Zeller scoring 14 points on 7-11 shooting, and you can see why more and more analysts are calling UNC their dark horse for the Final Four.

Admittedly when I first heard those mentions, I thought, "No way." And when Kenny commented that "North Carolina WILL NOT SNIFF the Final Four," the other day, I agreed with him. But after Saturday night, I don't know.

I mean, think about it. This team has an elite front line with Zeller and Henson, a front line that is dominate offensively, defensively and on the boards. They have a freshman backcourt duo that is playing damn near as well as anyone else. Marshall is a maestro with the ball in his hands and the Heels have lost only once with him in the starting lineup. Barnes is a bona fide scorer who can also defend and rebound, and he's proven to be all sorts of clutch.

They're also getting solid play from the role players: Leslie McDonald and Dexter Strickland in the backcourt, Justin Knox and Justin Watts in the frontcourt.

If they can stay healthy and keep Zeller, Henson, Barnes and Marshall out of foul trouble, this team is as talented as any and can go deep into March and early April. They're built to win in the tournament: Two really good guards, two really strong interior players and an absolutely dominant rebounding team. And they're playing as good as anyone heading into conference tournament play. So yeah, maybe Roy Williams' squad can be a Final Four team. They're certainly built for it if all the pieces fall in line, which lately they have.

The rise of Carolina and fall of Villanova have been well-documented. Flying under the radar nationally (as the entire Atlantic 10 usually does) has been the steady play of Temple. The Owls closed out their regular season by handling La Salle 90-82 to finish 24-6 overall and 14-2 in the A-10, a game behind Xavier to finish second in the conference. They are primed once again to win it all in Atlantic City, and then put a good fight up in the NCAA Tournament.

The biggest factor in Temple quietly running off 11 wins in 12 games since the loss at Xavier has been senior Lavoy Allen. Allen was expected to be a contender for A-10 Player of the Year but got off to a slow start statistically. He never really asserted himself offensively in the first half of the season and was happy to cede the spotlight to Ramone Moore or Scootie Randall or Khalif Wyatt or Juan Fernandez. But as the season wore on and Moore slumped a bit, Fernandez struggled and Randall got hurt, Lavoy has completely taken over.

Since the loss at Xavier, Allen has averaged 14.5 points and 11.9 rebounds a game. He's had double-doubles in nine of those games, including five straight with his 24 points and 11 rebounds Saturday against La Salle. He had 17 and 13 in the loss to Duke, 19 and 16 in a hard-fought win at George Washington, 14 and 18 at UMass. He's been an absolute beast of late, and that's why Temple is comfortably in the NCAA Tournament field and can only help their seeding in Atlantic City.

For his efforts, Lavoy was named First Team All A-10. Temple's all-time leading rebounder certainly earned it with his second-half play.

And there's more good news for the Owls. Khalif Wyatt was named A-10 Sixth Man of the Year, Ramone Moore made Second Team All A-10, and Scootie Randall was honored as well. Plus, Juan Fernandez has started to come alive again, evident by his 15 points and 7 assists against La Salle, including shooting 50 percent from the field and three. The Owls just keep moving right along.

And Talor Battle just keeps moving right along with his impressive play, despite the mediocrity of his team. It's going to take a minor miracle for Penn State to make the NCAA Tournament, something Battle's never been privileged to play in. He probably won't get that chance this year either (unless Penn State makes it to the Big Ten Championship game, I don't think they should make it), but that doesn't diminish his career.

Battle was named First Team All-Big Ten and rightfully so. He finished second behind Purdue's JaJuan Johnson in scoring, finishing just a tenth of a point behind with his 20.4 points per game. And more importantly, he made Penn State semi-relevant this year and has them firmly on the bubble.

It's nothing new for Battle. While the talent around him has been less than great, and the coaching of Ed DeChellis is laughable, Battle has been brilliant during his Penn State career. BSD said it best:

It sounds so cliche to say Talor Battle is one of those players that only comes around once in a lifetime, but it's true. He's one of only three players in NCAA history to score 2000 points, pull down 600 rebounds, and dish out 500 assists. He is one of those players that wants the ball in his hands when the game is on the line, and he's one of the few players that can deliver more often than not in that situation. He's a small guy that isn't afraid to get in the paint and mix it up with guys that have seven or eight inches on him. He bangs around and gets banged around, and yet he still plays more minutes than anyone in the country.

He has made watching Penn State basketball, never my favorite team to watch, fun. He's that good. Soon, he'll be Penn State's all-time leading scorer. As it stands, he has 2,119 points (16th all-time in the Big Ten), which is just 20 shy of surpassing Jesse Arnelle's school record of 2,138. With at least one Big Ten Tournament game and one NIT game, it's inevitable that he breaks the school record. He'll more than likely get there Thursday night against Indiana.

Over the years, Penn State basketball has meant so little to me. Even as an alum who absolutely loves college basketball, I could never bring myself to care more about Penn State basketball than Temple, UNC, Villanova and even St. Joe's. But Talor Battle drew me in more than anyone else before him ever did. It's been fun watching him make Penn State basketball enjoyable again. Sadly, his time is almost up, and he'll more than likely have gone these past four spectacular years without even so much as stepping foot on the court in an NCAA Tournament game.

Regardless, it's been a great career, one that certainly goes down in the record books. It's nice to see him rewarded for that.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Penn State Wrestling Wins Big Ten Championship

A whole hell of a lot went on in the sports world this weekend, and I'll get to basketball and the Flyers tomorrow, but I wanted to congratulate Penn State on winning its first ever Big Ten Championship in wrestling over the weekend.

Penn State edged perennial power Iowa 139-138 to take home the title. In doing so, the Nittany Lions had five wrestlers win their first individual Big Ten titles. Junior Frank Molinaro (149), sophomores Andrew Long (133) and Quentin Wright (184), and freshmen David Taylor (157) and Ed Ruth (174) won their weight classes. Yeah, a junior, two sophomores and two freshmen.

That investment in Cael Sanderson certainly is paying off.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Can Everyone Stop Already With the Wilt Hate?

Wednesday March 2 was the 49th anniversary of the late, great Wilt Chamberlain doing the unthinkable, scoring 100 points in an NBA game.

It's an occasion to celebrate the man, one of the single greatest players in the history of basketball. SLAM did its part by naming Overbrook High School, the Philadelphia school that Wilt graduated from, the second-best pro-producing high school of all time, mainly because of Chamberlain.

The man was a Rookie of the Year, a four-time MVP, 13-time All-Star, seven-time scoring champ, 11-time rebounding champ. He was a Finals MVP. He was named first-team All-NBA nine times. He led the league in minutes 8 times, minutes per game 9 times, games played 5 times. He led in the league in field-goal percentage 9 times. Hell, he even led the league in assists one year.

He averaged 50 points a game for a season and hauled in 55 boards in a single game. His career averages are astounding: 30.1 points, 22.9 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 54 percent shooter from the field.

And yet, the hating on Wilt seems to grow every year, all because he got traded twice and "only" won two championships.

The rhetoric was spearheaded by Bill Simmons in his book, reiterated by some guy at Fox Sports, and today, my man Ed piled on the Wilt hate in a comparison with LeBron.

Ed's post really touched a nerve with me. For starters, he called Wilt's two championships fraudulent, which is just completely bullshit, but I know he's not alone in those sentiments. Everyone needs to write this down: It's impossible to be a fraudulent champion in the NBA. As in, not possible. You have to go through a long regular season, then win multiple playoff series. Not single games. Series. The better team always wins. Always. Maybe not the most talented, but the better team for sure. This isn't a one-game fluke situation. You play series. There is no debating this. None.

Second, it was said that Wilt shied away when his team needed him the most. Yeah, a guy who averaged 22.5 points, 24.5 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 47.2 minutes, 52 percent from the field in the playoffs for his career didn't show up when it counted. Right.

Listen, I'm fine with anyone saying that maybe Wilt didn't focus all the time 100 percent, that he got bored playing against his inferior contemporaries so he made new goals for him to pursue. Maybe he wasn't always the best team guy, and yeah, you probably would have thought he'd win more than two titles — despite going against the greatest dynasty of all time in Bill Russell's Celtics.

Fine. Do that. But to question Wilt's desire in the big moments, to say he didn't live up to his abilities, to downright bash the man because he wasn't, essentially, Bill Russell is completely unfair and complete bullshit. This nonsense has to stop. It has to.

Wilt Chamberlain is one of the greatest players in any sport ever. Why can't we accept him for that? And more importantly, nearly 40 years after he retired, why is he even being compared to players in a completely different era and looked at as something less than he should have been?

It's infuriating. And it needs to stop. Right now.

Wilt Chamberlain, may he rest in peace, is, was and always will be one of the greatest of all time. Let's leave it at that and move on.


It's Friday, Time to Dance

My biggest pet peeve with college athletics, especially at my alma mater Penn State, is the absolutely atrocious, out-of-place music they play at stadiums and arenas. Zombie nation is played out. Living on a Prayer, Don't Stop Believing and Sweet Caroline don't and shouldn't get anyone pumped up. Those songs are fucking horribly out of place, and if you sing along to those songs at a college game, you shouldn't be there in the first place.

I've said it a million times, the only music that should be played at sporting events is hip hop, because that's pretty much all the players listen to anyway, and Rage Against the Machine, because that shit pumps you up. Well guess what? The George Mason student band went out and put every other college on the planet on blast, doing what I've been begging for years by breaking out the Rage Against the Machine.

Much respect to the George Mason band for that. Hopefully this is a trend other universities pick up on. Because that's the type of music I want to hear at football and basketball games, not girly pop ballads.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Harrison Barnes and the Tar Heels Make a Statement

About a month ago, I warned everyone that the Tar Heels are coming. Well, after a hard-fought victory against a defensively tenacious Florida State team last night, North Carolina is in position to win the regular season ACC championship. Saturday night's ultimate rivalry match-up with Duke in Chapel Hill will decide the conference winner.

Heading into last night's game, UNC knew it controlled its own destiny following Duke's surprising loss at Virginia Tech Saturday. And seeing as North Carolina had rolled Florida State by 20 in Chapel Hill and the Seminoles were without their best player in Chris Singleton, you had to like Carolina's chances.

However, this Florida State is a different animal at home than it is on the road. The Seminoles had only lost twice all season in Tallahassee —  back-to-back losses to Florida and Ohio State — and those losses were back in November. Since, Florida State had been undefeated at home before last night, including a five-point victory over Duke that all but assured an NCAA tournament berth. The Seminoles just play better at home. Combine that with the emotions of senior night, a chance to avenge the embarrassing 20-point loss a month earlier to UNC, and the desire to prove they could win a big game even without their star player, and this game turned into a battle.

I have to tip my hat to the Seminoles. They played their hearts out last night and nearly knocked off the Tar Heels. The defensive intensity limited Tyler Zeller to just 9 points, every shot was contested, and on the offensive end, they took advantage of every North Carolina defensive lapse. But it wasn't quite enough.

The other night, I heard one of the ESPN announcers — I can't remember who off the top of my head, but I think it was Tom Brennan —  say he thinks North Carolina is a Final Four team, with all that talent and length, and last night, Jason Williams reiterated those sentiments, saying UNC is his darkhorse Final Four team. The announcer, Brennan I think, said the key was John Henson, because when Henson really decides he wants to play, he makes them really tough to beat.

Guess what? John Henson decided to play last night.

Henson was everywhere in the first half last night. With Tyler Zeller held in check and getting in foul trouble later, Henson took his game to a whole new level. He set the tone for the Tar Heels early, putting up 12 points, 6 rebounds and 3 blocks in the first 20 minutes, and finished with 19, 12 and 3. Further, he was the one Tar Heel that was a disruptive force on the defensive end. His three blocks don't dictate just how many shots he altered. The Seminoles must have missed a dozen shots around the rim because of Henson's incredible length.

He simply went into beast mode last night, and a couple of freshmen helped him out.

UNC has lost just one game since inserting freshman point guard Kendall Marshall into the lineup, and last night he made some brilliant plays as the floor general again. He dished out 8 assists, and despite going just 3-10 from the field, he nailed a huge three late to put Carolina in position to win.

However, it wasn't all good for Marshall. Dick Vitale said it a couple times and I have to agree with him: Believe it or not, Marshall is a little too unselfish. That's an odd thing to say of a point guard, because that's the point guard's job, to be unselfish and get his teammates the ball in position for them to score. He does that incredibly well. But he's so focused on making the pass that he often passes up on great shots. At least three times he drove to the hoop and had what looked to be pretty easy shots, two times layups, but instead he dished off. And a few other times, he had shots to take but looked to pass, only to see no one was open. Then he'd throw up a shot he wasn't expecting to take, making it a lot more difficult than it should have been.

He needs to be more assertive with his own shot and become a better finisher around the rim. When he does that, he'll become truly one of the best guards in the country. A little seasoning would help too.

For all the great plays and smart decisions he's made this year, Marshall almost cost Carolina the game late with some huge freshman mistakes. After a basket by Florida State made it a one-point game with 1:55 remaining, Marshall tried to hurry back with a full-court pass. The only problem was three Seminoles were back, and the pass got picked off easily.

Then, after Dexter Strickland hit two free throws to put the Heels up by three, Marshall grabbed a rebound off a Florida State miss near the sidelines. He was immediately trapped, and this is where he really almost blew the game. There was just a little over a minute left when Marshall got that rebound. UNC was up by three and had four timeouts remaining. Four. All Marshall had to do in that instance, trapped by two bigger players with nowhere to go and no sight lines to make a pass, was call a timeout. Instead, he tried to make a pass, it was deflected and stolen, and Derwin Kitchen got a layup to make it a one-point game again. Horrible mistake.

To top it all off, Marshall, who hadn't really looked for his shot more than three or four times all night, decided to drive the ball to the hoop and shoot it himself with 18 seconds left and Carolina down a point. It was easily blocked right back into his face, and it nearly hit him on the way out of bounds. It was his third terrible decision in a row.

Luckily for Marshall, the ball didn't hit him on the way out, and his fellow freshman bailed him out.

It took a lot longer than people expected, but Harrison Barnes has been the player he was touted to be here in 2011.

He put up 18 huge points last night, going 6-10 from the field and 2-4 from three. But more important than his shooting percentage or final stat line is what happened at the end of that game.

At the beginning of the season, Barnes could not make a shot to save his life. He looked overwhelmed, overmatched and seemed to doubt himself. There was no confidence to be found. But as his shot came back to him and the Tar Heels started to win, Barnes' confidence has grown more and more. And last night, he did what the No. 1 recruit in the nation is supposed to do: He called for the ball with the game on line.

You could see in the huddle that Roy Williams was drawing up a play for Barnes. Barnes was animately talking to Roy, telling him he wanted the ball. And the coach obliged. Barnes inbounded the ball with 11 seconds left to Marshall, got it back from him, and the Tar Heels cleared out for him. This was Barnes' moment, the freshman one-on-one with his defender. You could see he had no intention of passing it. HIs shot was going to decide Carolina's face. There was no panic in Barnes' face, no fear or nervousness. Watching him, you could see the focus and purpose in his dribbles. The freshman calmly stared down his defender, backed him off the slightest bit, rose and drilled the game-winning three right in his face.

There is no self-doubt anymore, and no other doubters either. Harrison Barnes is all he was cracked up to be.

Now Carolina gets its rematch with Duke on Saturday, this time at home in the Dean Dome, for all the marbles. Who would have seen that coming at the beginning of the year, when Carolina lost back-to-back games to Minnesota and Vanderbilt, lost to Illinois, and Barnes couldn't make a shot?

Doesn't matter, because this is a completely different team with a completely different demeanor. Three months ago, the Tar Heels could not have won a game like last night's, especially with Zeller putting up just 9 and 4. But these Tar Heels can, and they're a victory away from winning the ACC.

Is it Saturday yet?