Saturday, March 31, 2012

Final Four Down to Final Two--Ky. and Kansas

At the end of the day, the Final Four will narrow to the Final Two, most likely Kentucky and Kansas. Here's how they'll climb to the championship game.  

Kentucky vs. Louisville:
Can anybody beat Kentucky, which dwarfs all of college basketball with its extraordinary pool of future NBA talent?  The team most likely to beat Kentucky is, without question, Kentucky.

Kentucky is pretty close to invincible, but could lose to hated intrastate rival Louisville. If the Wildcats do fall, they'll probably have only themselves to blame, for playing boneheaded, self-destructive basketball, doing dumb things like getting into foul trouble, committing a flurry of turnovers, missing bad shot after bad shot, making lazy, errant passes, succumbing to big-game jitters. Also, Kentucky could be derailed if its Player of the Year center Anthony Davis has a miserable game.

Louisville, an eight-to-nine-point underdog, is just a long-shot to engineer the upset. They don't have the talent, but they do have an incredible reserve of drive and energy. For forty-minutes they'll attack Kentucky at full-throttle, with relentless defense, hoping to force mistakes and frustrate and wear down the more athletic Wildcats. If Louisville does pull off the upset, you can bet that its 6-11 shot-blocking center and most dangerous weapon, Gorgui Dieng, will be a major factor. So will point guard Peyton Siva, who has to seriously disrupt the Kentucky machine and harass Wildcats' point guard Marquis Teague into playing like a rattled freshman.

Kentucky already beat Louisville once, 69-62, in Lexington on New Year's Eve, using a powerful inside game and a huge rebounding edge to counter the Cardinal's ferocious defense, which held the Wildcats to just 30% shooting and three three-pointers. That may have been Louisville's best game of the season--and it still wasn't good enough.

What makes Kentucky so scary is that it's not just an explosive offensive force, but also a crack defensive team, maybe the nation's best. And its transition game, with those thoroughbreds sprinting up and down the court, is second to none. To have any chance at all, Louisville needs to slow the game way down.
If you're betting, taking Louisville and the eight or nine points is worth a shot. You're gambling that Louisville coach Rick Pitino has savvy enough to keep the game close.

Ohio State vs. Kansas:
It may come down to this--Ohio State point guard Aaron Craft vs. Kansas point guard Tyshawn Taylor. Can Craft, a deadly defender who can clog an offense all by himself, throw Taylor so far off his game that the Kansas offense never gets out of first gear? On offense, Taylor has been shaky in the tournament, particularly from behind the three-point line. But if Taylor lags, there's another gem in the Kansas backcourt, Elijah Jonhson, who can also handle the ball and fuel the offense.

When these teams played during the season in Kansas, the Jayhawks won, but Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, one of the top two or three players in college ball, couldn't play because of back spasms. So that game is no measuring stick. Sullinger will play today and along with DeShaun Thomas, a superior shooter, form a formidable front line. But can they out-duel and out-board the strong Kansas front line, Thomas Robinson and Jeff Withey? Not so sure about that.

So far in the tournament Kansas has hardly been a powerhouse, playing just well enough to win. And whipping North Carolina with its main cog, point guard Kendall Marshall, on the shelf, isn't a gold-star achievement. But Kansas has an ace in the hole--coach Bill Self, who's a whiz at making adjustments during a game. He may be able to outsmart Craft and his Buckeyes with clever offensive and defensive schemes.

This is a tough one to call. Though Ohio State is favored by two, this is more like a pick 'em. But banking on  coach Self, that tough front line and Taylor being sharp, give the edge to Kansas.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Jets' Vet Balks at Tebow Signing

"That damn Tim Tebow will kill us!," howled a furious New York Jets' veteran who, for obvious reasons, doesn't want to be named.

That was one of his nicer comments. Speaking with a source who's close to several Jets, the veteran said he'd spoken to at least a dozen teammates, all infuriated over QB Tebow being signed as a backup to Mark Sanchez. They were bubbling over with complaints, griping that a locker room that's already fractured didn't need a media bombshell named Tim Tebow. The veteran referred to Tebow as "something else to fight about."

Tebow is stepping into a hornet's nest. The Jets' locker room is already a mess for several reasons, including players taking sides in the battle between Sanchez and receiver Santonio Holmes, who don't like each other. There are lesser conflicts, adds the source, including squabbles over women and the sexual preferences of certain players, that are festering.and are liable to flame out of control in the media firestorm swirling around Tebow. Already insecure and uncertain, Sanchez, with the added Tebow tension, may unravel.

This very well-connected source has contacts in Denver, which pointed out there was discord in the Broncos' locker room over Tebow. Despite the QB turning Denver into a winner, many players hated dealing with that circus atmosphere, while others were just plain jealous of his super-celebrity status. Media outlets swooned about the harmony in the Broncos' locker room. That was all hogwash, insist these sources, contending that Tebow was disliked by a sizable faction of the Broncos. He was hailed in the media as the main reason Denver reached the second round of the playoffs, while the improved defense, a crucial factor, was a constant afterthought.That created bad feelings in the locker room. Look for Tebow's presence to  generate resentment in the Jets' locker room, particularly, said the veteran, among Sanchez supporters.

That's not all. To accommodate Tebow, who's basically a runner, the offense will have to learn many new plays. According to the veteran, doing extra work, for a second-string player, will definite irritate some players.

Bottom line. The Jets are trying to get to the Super Bowl. A calm, focused team, with all the players working hard and in harmony, is essential. Is this the kind of team the Jets will be with the addition of Tebow? The veteran, said the source, summed it up: "This team could fall apart, all for a damn backup quarterback."

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Kentucky Better Watch Out For Baylor

Kentucky vs. Baylor is a David vs. Goliath matchup. No way should Baylor whip the Wildcats. But that doesn't mean Kentucky is a shoo-in to reach the Final Four. Remember how that David-Goliath bout turned out.

Why should Kentucky win? Let's count the reasons. First of all, Kentucky is the usual hotbed of NBA talent. Most of Baylor's players aren't good enough to make the Wildcats' team. Second, defense usually wins in the later rounds of this tournament. Kentucky led the nation in field-goal defense and blocks. Baylor's defense isn't in this class.

Baylor does have a chance, though. Teams like Kentucky can easily beat themselves. What happens is that they get weighed down by their egos and excessive cockiness. And they make all sorts of mistakes. Kentucky should have been in control of  their last game, against inferior Indiana, in the first half and cruised through the second half.. But IU was still in contention in the second  half because Kentucky star center Anthony Davis hardly played in the first half because of  foul trouble. In addition, the Wildccats' defense got lazy, allowing IU many easy baskets. Eventually Kentucky woke up and won. But making mistakes and letting inferior teams stay competitive is a dangerous practice. Sometimes the overwhelming favorite falls into a hole and can't climb out.

Baylor is a long-shot, a seven point-underdog. But if they give their all and Kentucky slacks off, David could upend Goliath.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

NCAA Hoops Betting Tips

Picking the Final Four is a lot easier when you're just choosing from sixteen teams.  But, even starting at this level, it's possible to blunder. In seasons where some Cinderella crashed the Final Four party, you could spot the unexpected star a mile away. It's safe to say there's no Cinderella in this bunch.

The Final Four should be Ohio State, Kansas, Kentucky and Michigan State. The absence of defensive superstar Fab Melo is likely to halt Syracuse's trip to the Final Four. And North Carolina, with all its talent, still needs a healthy Kendall Marshall at point guard to top Kansas in the Midwest regional. Though a left-hander, his busted right wrist will either keep him on the bench or slow him significantly. Still, either of these two could slip into the Final Four, but don't bet on it.

The way things look now, don't bet against Kentucky. Like any ridiculously talented team, Kentucky may screw up in any number of ways--like players getting into early foul trouble, too many turnovers or frigid outside shooting. Or maybe freshman point guard Marquis Teague will get an attack of the jitters and have a meltdown. But any of these flubs isn't likely to happen in regional play. Well, at least the Teague stumble anyway. In the Iowa State game he showed he has ice water in his veins. Besides, the competition just isn't that formidable in the South bracket.

Kentucky should breeze by Indiana, which lucked into the Sweet 16, inching by VCU on a missed three-pointer. Then Kentucky confronts the winner of Xavier-Baylor. Xavier scratched its way into the Sweet 16 on the back of center Kenny Frease, who had the game of his life against Lehigh. But Baylor is far superior to Lehigh. In a regional final against Kentucky, Baylor can only win if Kentucky falls apart--possible but, at this level, not likely.

More later

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Angry Tim Tebow Gets the Shaft

Tim Tebow is angry. He may not show it because, as a humble, forgiving, God-fearing guy, that's not his style. But underneath the smile and the p.c. comments, the blood of the Denver Broncos' QB has to be boiling. You can't blame him. He has a right to be furious. He just got the shaft from the Denver  management

Today they signed former Indianapolis Colts' QB Peyton Manning to a five-year contract. So it's hello Peyton, goodbye Tim.

And after all he did for Denver. Last season he was riding the bench, a little-used backup on a Bronco team headed for oblivion---1-4 and sinking. With QB Kyle Orton tanking, the coach gave Tebow a shot and, suddenly, Tebow-mania is born. The former Florida QB, who also won the Heisman, loaded the Broncos on his back and hauled them into the second-round of the playoffs. Finishing 8-8, Denver won the AFC West, upset the Pittsburgh Steelers and were finally stopped by the AFC champion New England Patriots. Tebow did it the hard way, with last-second victories and without standard QB skills. With his linebacker-body, he's a much better runner than a passer. It wasn't pretty, but Tebow turned Denver into a winner.

What happened last season clearly doesn't matter to Denver, though. They didn't see a future with a QB who can't pass and are more willing to take a chance on a 36-year-old QB with a damaged neck who hasn't played in a year.

So what happens to Tebow? Staying with Denver apparently isn't an option. Word is that he'll be traded, probably for a mid-round draft choice, by the end of the week. Reportedly Denver has received calls from several teams about him. A possibility is Jacksonville, which is in an area teeming with Evangelicals--his biggest fans--and not far Gainsville, the site of his college heroics. Though Jacksonville just signed QB Chad Henne, it's a struggling franchise that could use a Tebow-sized boost.

You can't help feel sorry for Tebow, who seems like a decent guy. No matter. There's no place for sentiment in sports, which is a cruel business. With Denver, it's nothing personal against Tebow, just doing what's best for the team.

But wouldn't you just love to see Tebow explode? Just for a moment,wouldn't you like to see him lose it, leap out of character and get all ghetto, blasting the Denver management, particularly that back-stabbing John Elway?

Dream on. Tebow will continue to be Tebow, bottled-up anger and all.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

49ers Chasing Peyton Manning--A Stupid Move

What in the hell is wrong with the San Francisco 49ers? They've lost their minds. Suddenly they're making crazy move after crazy move.

First lunatic move. On Monday they signed 35-year-old,  has-been, head-case receiver Randy Moss, who hasn't played in a year. Then they top that by joining the hunt for damaged QB Peyton Manning, another 35-year-old who hasn't played in a year. They've already signed Moss,  but there's time to stop the Manning insanity.

The Indianapolis Colts had a chance to re-sign Manning, their QB for 14 seasons, for a small fortune. They're smart. They declined, pushing him down the free-agent trail. There are many problems with Manning. Sure, he's among the top five QBs of all time, but he's also nearing the end of his career. What's worse, he didn't play last year because of a neck injury. After four surgeries, though, his doctors swear he's ready to play. But considering age, injury and the year off, he may be reduced to an average or ineffective QB.

The Colts wisely passed on re-signing Manning because they didn't want to spend jillions on damaged goods. Also, with the No.1 pick in the upcoming NFL draft they have their choice of potential superstar QBs, Stanford's Andrew Luck or Baylor's Robert Griffin III.

So on the open market, Manning has narrowed his choices to the Denver Broncos, the Tennessee Titans and the San Francisco 49ers. Reportedly he's leaning toward the Titans, whose eager, desperate owner Bud Adams is prepared to give Manning whatever he wants.

What are these teams thinking? This Manning isn't the Manning of old. He can't be. Not only is he old, but he'll be battling rust after missing a year. On top of that, I don't care what he says, he'll be playing tentatively, knowing that he's one resounding hit from ending his career, or, worse, from suffering some crippling neck injury. Also, he'll need first-rate pass protection. Not sure he'll get that from the 49er line, which is just average and best at run-blocking. Fans normally cringe when their QB gets pounded. Watching Manning, who'll be even slower at his advanced age, be a target for pass rushers will be positively nerve-wracking. It would take some of the fun out of watching a Niner game.

That's not all. Manning isn't really a good fit with the Niners. He's used to a fleet, grade A passing offense and top-notch receivers. That's not what he'll get with the Niners, a slow-moving, grind-it-out team geared to rushing and crunching defense. Vernon Davis and Michael Crabtree are a notch below the receivers Manning is accustomed to. And who knows what you'll get from Randy Moss?

What makes chasing Manning even more stupid is that it may cost the Niners their veteran QB Alex Smith, whose contract is up. Though not great, Smith is solid and a good fit for this team. Reportedly he's unhappy with the Niners' three-year offer, preferring something longer and more lucrative. So Smith is talking to other teams--Miami and Seattle so far. There's something else bothering Smith. His agent, Tom Condon, also works for Manning, a clear conflict of interest in negotiations with the Niners. Look for Smith to hire someone else.

It's quite possible that Manning, who says he'll decide by Tuesday, may sign with Denver or Tennessee and Smith may wind up with another team, leaving the Niners with no QB.  It would serve them right. When you make stupid moves, you pay the price.

Speaking as a San Francisco 49ers fan, I have a message for former Indianapolis Colts QB Peyton Manning. "Peyton, Peyton go away, don't bother us."

Friday, March 16, 2012

Why the Lakers Will Really Miss Derek Fisher

The Lakers are going to miss point guard Derek Fisher, who was traded yesterday to the Houston Rockets. But not for the reasons you think.

You can't argue with the facts. At 37, Fisher has slowed considerably, his skills clearly eroded. He was one of the primary weak links on the Lakers. With him at point guard, they weren't going to contend for a championship. So in one of two trades, the Lakers acquired Cleveland's Ramon Sessions, a scrappy, 25-year-old point guard who can score 10 points a game, consistently slither into the paint and keep up with the greyhounds who play this position in the NBA. Particularly a liability on defense, Fisher couldn't do any of that. So the much younger, quicker Sessions is definitely an upgrade over Fisher. But there's a drawback.

Who's going to control Kobe Bryant, who, according to several sources, is furious at management about the trade?  Fisher was the real Kobe-stopper. Opposing defenders couldn't stop him but Fisher could. He kept the lid on Laker star, a surly, ill-tempered, cold fish who's a real drag in the locker room. The other players struggle to deal with Kobe, but Fisher knows how to manage him, how to keep him cool, how to smooth, as much as possible, his relationship with the other players.

Fisher was not only his close friend, but, as anyone close to the team knows, his only friend on the Lakers. According to a source close to one of the players, Kobe, a really lousy, self-absorbed teammate, is always angry and without compassion, routinely berating and looking down on other players. With Fisher to keep him in check, Kobe was barely tolerable to the rest of the team. But now...

With Sessions at point guard, the Lakers will win more games and, most likely, challenge Oklahoma City for the Western Conference title. But the Laker players, with no one to soothe and pacify Kobe, are going to be miserable. In their best public-relations mode, with regard to Kobe, they'll continue to say all the right things--and not really mean a word of it.

With Fisher gone, leadership, which shouldn't be underrated, will be a problem. He was the real team leader. So who takes over now--maybe soft Pau Gasol or flaky Metta World Peace? You know who it won't be.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

NCAA Hoops:Kentucky and Missouri Hot? Maybe Not

How will Kentucky and Missouri fare in the NCAA tournament? Maybe not as well as you think.

Consensus has NCAA tournament top seed Kentucky rolling over the competition and claiming the national championship. History, though, tells us that's not going to happen.

No question this is the best team in the country, teeming with pro-calibre-talent, like ridiculously skilled Anthony Davis, who could be an NBA star right  now. Against top-flight opposition, like North Carolina, Louisville and Kansas, Kentucky's defense went into shut-down-mode. But there's cause for concern in two areas. Possibly wizard point guard Marquis Teague just might succumb to freshman jitters or maybe the Wildcats, who don't play strong half-court offense--the scheme of choice in the NCAAs-- are vulnerable to an exceptional defense. This team is beatable, which an inferior Vanderbilt team proved in the SEC tournament. So careful wagering on Kentucky.The best team doesn't always win the national championship.

Also, be wary of  Missouri, the No.2 seed in the west. This offensive powerhouse is a popular Final Four pick. That's because some bettors look for dazzling offensive stats and look no further. This is a squad full of sharpshooters, including Marcus Denmon and sixth man Michael Dixon, with a nearly 50% accuracy rate. They can outshoot anybody. They can also, if they're cold, shoot themselves out of games. Their most worrisome weakness, though, is their lack of interior height. A tall team can give them fits.  Look what happened with Kansas Statte, which whipped the Tigers twice, decisively outrebounding them. If the Tigers don't have the ball, their offensive skills don't do them any good.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

NCAA Hoops Betting Suggestions

If you're filling out brackets for the men's NCAA basketball tournament or contemplating assorted wagers, keep a few things in mind:

Predicting who'll do what in the tournament is needle-in-the-haystack time. It's a maddening exercise in futility. You deserve kudos for accurately forecasting three-fourths of the sweet 16 or half of the Final Four. Doing research helps some but two problems create huge, performance-altering X factors. Both are critical, emotional issues. First, players get jittery on the Big Stage and second, it's hard to predict how they'll perform in neutral, hostile environments. Too often good teams wilt under the pressure.

Hopefully you found out in time, before completing your brackets, that Syracuse center Fab Melo is ineligible for the tournament. Apparently hours before the official statement was released, at 2:30 p.m. EST,  insiders knew he wasn't going to play. Of course that means Syracuse, the No. 1 seed in the East, won't make it to the Final Four. They won't get far without Melo, a scary, seven-foot shot-blocker who's the best defensive player in the Big East. With Melo out, Syracuse might not even get by No. 8 Kansas State, which has a strong front line, or No. 5 Vanderbilt, which beat Kentucky in the SEC tournament. If Syracuse does survive that threat, they'll get murdered by the killer defense of either No. 2 Ohio State or No. 3 Florida State. So, so long, Syracuse.

More tomorrow.

Friday, March 9, 2012

How Good is the Pac-12 Player of The Year?

How bad is the Pac-12 in men's basketball?

It's no secret that the conference is down--way down--this year, and in danger of having, embarrassingly, only one team advance to the NCAA tournament. But something just happened that shows just how bad the conference is. It named Cal guard Jorge Gutierrez Pac-12 Player of the Year.

No disrespect to Gutierrez, but if this guy its top player, the conference is in deep trouble. Handing him the award is an unintentional indictment of the league's talent level, acknowledging there wasn't much to choose from.

Gutierrez, though, does have value. A bundle of energy, he plays with incredible heart and boasts an exceptionally high basketball IQ. A top-notch leader, he fuels the Cal engine. Without him, Cal (24-8), the second-place team in the Pac-12, would be several notches worse. His signature skill, though, is playing defense. Appropriately, he was also named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year.

But the conference Player of the Year has to be an offensive force. That's not Gutierrez. He's not a big scorer, averaging just 12.9 points a game, rarely topping 20.  He's not even the best offensive threat on his own team--Allen Crabbe is.

Compare Gutierrez to players in other major conferences and he doesn't hold up very well. On most good teams in the ACC or the SEC, he wouldn't even start. Imagine him on a loaded, high-flying powerhouse like Kentucky. Have you seen those guys play? The Pac-12 Player of the Year would be no more than a role player coming off the bench, logging limited minutes.

What's sad is that, in the Pac-12,  with its low talent level, Gutierrez has no real competition. You can't point to any other Pac-12 players and argue they should have won the award. When the league is bristling with skilled athletes you can name at least half dozen players who'd be viable contenders for the award. But not this season. The other all-conference players, including Cal's Crabbe, Washington's Tony Wroten and Terrence Ross,  Colorado's Andre Roberson and Arizona's Kyle Fogg, all have holes in their game and just aren't conference Player of the Year material.

At the end of the season, Gutierrez didn't look much like the conference Player of the Year. When Cal desperately needed two wins, his game went south. In the loss to Colorado, he failed to score. When Stanford beat Cal Sunday, he contributed eight points and four turnovers. To his credit, though, he scored 22 points--19 in the second half--leading Cal to a 77-71 win over Stanford Thursday night in the Pac-12 tournament. Just in time, he emerged from that mini-slump and lived up to that Player of the Year billing.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Tiger the Tease

Tiger is a terrible tease. Once again he's tantalizing us with a spurt of great golf. Woods put on a show in the final round of the Honda Classic last weekend that had fans and media wailing. "Tiger is back, Tiger is back!"

Not so fast. He's lured us down that path before, and it's a dead end.

But he can be convincing--for a round anyway. For the first three Honda rounds he was the B-minus golfer we've been used to since Thanksgiving, 2009, wobbling into the final round nine strokes behind Rory McIlroy. It looked like he'd be lucky to finish in the Top 10.

But suddenly it was like the good old days. Tiger went on a tear, a dazzling eagle-birdie binge, breathing down McIlroy's neck, at one point just a stroke away. Eventually Tiger was tamed, finishing two strokes behind winner McIlroy, in a tie for second with Tom Gillis. Tiger's 62 was his finest final round score ever. His second place finish was his best since he won the Australian Masters in 2009, back when he was the world's top golfer.

TV ratings were up on Sunday as fans tuned in to savor Tiger's surge. No doubt there will be a huge TV audience watching this weekend when Tiger tees off in Doral, Fla., at the WGC-Cadillac Championship. The tournament will be teeming with top golfers, including McIlroy, who climbed to the No. 1 spot in the PGA rankings. Sure, there's interest in McIlroy, who's the second youngest, after Tiger, of course, to reach No. 1. But McIlroy is blah, blessed with none of Tiger's spice. McIlroy doesn't attract a big TV audience but Tiger is still a draw--golf's lone draw actually--especially after he's done decently in a tournament. What's more, he continues to be a magnet for those who don't even like golf.

When Tiger has a good day, us cynics wonder if he's back on the prowl, chasing women like he did when he was the king of golf. When he was married, all that lying and cheating apparently was good for his game. But after he was caught and his marriage dissolved, his game went down the drain. Possibly a return to raunch might elevate his game. He claims he's being a good boy these days, but maybe that 62 on Sunday signals a return to the bad-boy Tiger. We'll see.

What going to happen in Doral? Tiger will probably disappoint, as he usually does these days, remaining a shadow of himself, complete with uncertain swing and shoddy putting.

Whatever he does, we can't stop watching. If he beats the odds and becomes consistently first-rate again, millions of us don't want to miss a moment.

No question. Tiger the Tease is at it again. He's got us back in his grip.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Who's The Hidden Contributor To The NFL Bounties?

Remember that tune "Who Let the Dogs Out?"  How about a revised version: "Who Let The NFL Assassins Out?" The answer to that one is easy. We did. We fans did.

Last week, after a lengthy investigation, the NFL charged that the New Orleans Saints operate, against league rules, a bounty system, which pays defenders for hits that knock offensive stars out of games. So everybody is huffing and puffing with self-righteousness, aiming to blow down the culprits. Our stomachs are turned by the notion of NFL defensive players turned headhunters motivated by profit. Stocked by contributions from 25-30 players, the pool reportedly reached $50,000. Need some extra cash? If you played for the Saints you could make a few dollars by inflicting serious damage on some offensive star.

Sounds dirty, doesn't it? Well, it wouldn't be happening if so many of us weren't lusting for that extra dose of violence. It's what rabid fans want. It's what bettors want. If you've got money on the game and a QB is in the way, you want him mowed down. Say otherwise and you're not telling the truth. The Saints were just giving us what we wanted, and making a little cash on the side while doing it.

We like to think we're decent people and we don't want to see an enemy quarterback, running back or receiver maimed or knocked out for the season or, God forbid, for his career. But, on the other hand, we would like to see a star roughed up to the point were he's out for the game or unable to play at peak efficiency. Face it. In many of us there's a bloodthirsty streak that wants just that.

We're as guilty as the Saints.While they were in assassin mode, feathering their nests, they were simultaneously catering to our wishes. I admit it, mine too. I particularly recall that Vikings playoff game in early 2010 in which Saints' pass rushers beat the hell out of Minnesota QB Brett Farve. Though he stayed in the game, he was less effective after that unmerciful pounding. While wincing at those hits, I secretly cheered them. Why? Because I had a wager on the Saints to make it to the Super Bowl.

Were the Saints doing the right thing? Hell, no. But they were doing what millions of us wanted done, and doing it with our unofficial blessing. Those damn fools just made the mistake of getting caught.

By the way, the Saints are not alone. The bounty system is decades old. Defensive coordinator Buddy Ryan reportedly operated one in the heyday of the Chicago Bears in the mid 1980s. According to knowledgeable insiders, there are at least four other teams right now running bounty systems. Those culprits have been busily covering their tracks for months, hoping to elude persistent NFL investigators.

The Saints are waiting for the NFL to levy penalties, which should be severe. Will the punishment stop the bounties? Probably not. The brutal bounty system will just go farther underground and be protected more carefully. So, next season, when you see a QB take a particularly nasty hit or a wide receiver nearly beheaded trying to make a catch, think bounty. And if the victim is someone you'd like knocked out of the game, remember that body-rattling hit is also for you.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Fire UCLA's Coach Howland? For What?

Should UCLA coach Ben Howland be in hot water, in danger of losing his job? Certainly, but not for the reasons you think.

That notorious Sports Illustrated story, charging that the UCLA basketball program is chaotic and out of control, is a tempest in a teapot. The fear was that writer George Dohrmann had uncovered some NCAA violations that would torpedo the program. But he didn't come up with anything scandalous, nothing that people close to the program haven't known about for years. Yes, Howland can be a cold, abusive jerk. Yes, his best player, Reeves Nelson, is a bully and a bonehead who was running amuck, unchecked by the coaching staff. Yes, the players like to party.

But so what? Do you fire a coach for those accusations?

What Howland did wrong was tolerate Nelson's transgressions for way too long, allowing him to morph into a disruptive monster, menacing coaches and players. Finally, after two years of Nelson's ugly antics, Howland kicked him off the team last December. Also, the players weren't acting like choir boys and Howland didn't do anything about  it. But they were simply doing what other college boys do, what other college players do--drink, smoke weed and chase coeds. It's possible to do all that and still win basketball games. Players all over the country do it all the time.

Dohrmann dredged up no program-crushing violations--like player payoffs, like boosters paying for hookers, like players abusing steroids, like drug parties, like players hanging out with shady characters. Aside from the Nelson mess and Howland's surly personality, nothing surfaced in that story but frat-boy foolery. People close to the program way before the Howland years insist that UCLA players have been partying hard for years. But those teams were constantly winning so nobody cared.

No question Howland should have reigned Nelson in. What would Coach K or Rick Patino or Roy Williams have done in that situation? How long do you think they would have tolerated an outlaw like Nelson? But Nelson was given so much slack by Howland because he was the best player on the team, one the coach felt he couldn't afford to lose. At Duke or Kentucky or any other big-time hoops college that's routinely stocked with five-star studs, Nelson wouldn't have been The Man. He would have been surrounded by players that are equal or better. At those schools, a coach intervention probably wouldn't have been necessary. An arrogant ass like Nelson would have been squashed by the players themselves

Howland deserves blame all right, but mismanaging the team was a minor blunder. Where he blew it was in  recruiting. Since the 2006-2008 Final Four teams, he's signed talented players who haven't developed into stars. That famed No. 1 recruiting class of 2008 never amounted to much. His bad judgement and coaching skills have put him on the hot seat. It's a simple as that.

Look at Duke and Syracuse and Kansas and the other crown jewels of college hoops. There's a constant flow of pro-calibre players running through those schools. The best ones play one year and graduate to the pros. At those schools, reloading--finding more Grade A players--is a cinch. They're in the Top Ten every year. After those three consecutive Final Fours, Howland created high expectations.  Everybody thought many of the nation's best high school players would flock to Westwood, like they did in the Wooden era. But that didn't happen.

Howland's skill isn't handling super-talented players who're forced to endure that mandatory year in college before jumping to the pros. Few of those players want to come to UCLA. He's best at finding promising, B+ players and forging them into winners. He hasn't done that. For that reason, he should be hanging by a thread.

At 17-13, UCLA isn't good enough to shine this post-season. AD Dan Guerrero may dump Howland after this season but it's not likely. The coach will probably get one last chance to field a first-rate team next season in remodeled Pauley Pavilion. Howland may have signed two saviors for next season, Kyle Anderson from Jersey and Virginia's Jordan Adams.

But another season like this one, and Howland is history.