Monday, March 30, 2009

Yet Unnamed Monday Weekend Sports Re-Kap


Coming Home Never Felt So Good


On Friday night, less than 48 hours from their game with Michigan State, the Louisville Cardinals were mopping the floor with Arizona in their Elite Eight matchup. They were playing at a frenetic pace. They were forcing turnovers and immediately translating them into easy baskets. Everybody was bombing away from downtown. They put up over 100 points, almost unheard of in any college basketball game that does not involve six overtimes. And yet, despite this near perfect showing, Tom Izzo's charges were not fazed in the least on Sunday.

After a tight first half where buckets were at a premium, the Michigan State Spartans assumed total control in the final 20 minutes, flexing their muscle and exposing Rick Pitino's Cardinals in the process. It was classic Izzo lockdown defense. Man-to-man, nothing easy. Terrence Williams, Louisville's superstar senior with an eye on the NBA draft lottery, was practically blasted into the 2nd round with his invisibility act in the biggest game of his career. Travis Walton and company turned him into a jump shooter, which is like turning David Ortiz into a base stealer. Williams is the key to everything that Louisville does, and the masterful defensive job put on him by Walton and others cannot be overlooked. Terrence Williams may have been lauded recently by Sports Illustrated as the "Next great point forward," but in my eyes, the guy's main position has always been "athlete," and not a whole lot more. Today showed it.

It's become apparent that asking for big games out of Chris Allen and Durrell Summers at the same time is too much to hope for. But if just one of them can hit 3-4 big shots each game, Sparty's chances of winning increase greatly. Summers was the sizzling wingman on Sunday, canning several big hoops in the 2nd half on his way to a super-efficient 12 points on just 6 shots. As for Allen, it is only a matter of time before the Michigan State basketball program is looked into with a serious NCAA probe for trying to use an athlete more than the allotted four years of eligibility. In the middle part of the decade, Chris Hill played in East Lansing for his entire college career, and now he has tried to secretly return with a different surname, but the unmistakably similar inconsistent jumper. Izzo might get an occasional outside burst from this bushy eyebrowed fellow, but I don't think the risk is worth the reward here.

So many people had penciled Louisville and North Carolina into the championship game. But Goran Suton was not having any of it. Suton has beautifully blended an inside dominance with a feathery touch from long range to become one of this tournament's most dangerous players. Kalin Lucas has not been putting up Big Ten Player of the Year numbers in the tournament. He has led the team confidently, though, and hit shots at big times, including the clutch personified And-1 against Sherron Collins in the waning moments against Kansas. Draymond Green has gone from pudgy non-factor to invaluable sub off the bench, helping to make up for the void left by the now pulse-less Raymar Morgan.

And through it all, there is Tom Izzo. While the shots may fall some days and others not, hard-nosed defense never goes anywhere. And true to form on Sunday, it was Izzo's trademark team D that took center stage. The Big East was regarded all year as the best conference in America, but it appeared the Cardinals had not witnessed anything close to this kind of basket prevention at any point in the year. Most other big-time coaches flee their program at some point for the bright lights of the NBA or the irresistible dollars from another school. But not Izzo. He has remained fiercely loyal to this team over the years, and now he is being rewarded with a Final Four trip in his home state.

It is well known that the people of Michigan have been struggling for some time now with this plummeting economy. Vacant storefronts are becoming the norm. Cash flow is not what it used to be. However, one thing remains certain. There will be plenty of green floating around the city of Detroit next weekend...and they will be in search of one thing that even money can't buy.
A National Championship
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Worst of All-Time???


Saw the new Nicolas Cage movie "Knowing," and the only thing I walked out of there 'knowing' is that this was possibly the worst piece of film I'd ever laid eyes on. Nicolas Cage...to steal a line from classic 90's band Offspring, "What in the world happened to you"?? Moonstruck put you on the map for good in '87 and you were on your way. In the 90's, you could do no wrong. You charmed us with Honeymoon in Vegas and It Could Happen To You. Then you made us laugh (or me, at least) with Trapped in Paradise. Then you thrilled us with back-to-back-to-back hits in The Rock, Con Air, and Face/Off. Even Snake Eyes started growing on me after the 50th viewing. Then this decade began and you were still pretty much on your game. The Family Man was an underrated flick, albeit a tarnished one by the involvement of perennial movie downer Tea Leoni. Matchstick Men was clever enough, and The Weather Man is actually pretty good if you give it a chance and aren't afraid of being depressed for a couple hours. But the last few years have not been good to Mr. Cage.

There was The Wicker Man, an absolute abomination of a film (now that I think about it, does every movie this guy does end in the word 'Man'?) And most recently, Knowing, which in short, was one of those movies that you end up checking your cell phone 75-150 times during the course of the two hours to see how much more you have to go. It's like being in a terribly boring class. You're just trying to do whatever you can to get to the finish line. That was me in Knowing. It was basically the poor man's Day After Tomorrow/Sixth Sense/Mercury Rising. Those are solid movies to be sure, but put them all together, reduce the quality by 85%, and this Nic Cage rubbish was the result. His son in the movie was no great shakes, either. The kid had about as much range as an actor as Deivi Cruz did as a 250 pound shortstop with the Tigers in the late 90's.

I would warn you of possible spoilers in this review, but the truth is, the whole movie is a spoiler. As in, go see this movie, and your entire week will pretty much be spoiled. If you find yourself in desperate need of a Nicolas Cage fix in the near future, steer clear of your local theater at all costs. Instead, I suggest going to rent World Trade Center from Blockbuster and rooting hard for Cage to get permanently caved in by all that rubble. That way, maybe the space-time continuum would change the events to follow and we would be spared from these atrocious performances he has inflicted on us in the years since.



This Week's Edition of "Unfortunate Lottery Picks of the Past"

"With the 9th pick in the 1995 NBA Draft, the New Jersey Nets select Ed O'Bannon, Forward, from UCLA"

Ed O'Bannon remains to this day one of the bigger mysteries in NBA draft bust history. If you watched the guy lead his UCLA Bruins to the national title in 1995, you walked away thinking the guy was going to be a borderline star in the league for the next decade and beyond. O'Bannon was a svelte 6'8 swingman with a real smoothness to his game. He could take you off the dribble, shoot the 3, and also rebounded the ball very well from the three spot. But once Ed got to the NBA, it was a different story entirely.

Maybe it was the smoothness of O'Bannon's game that was also his undoing. Things came so easily to him in college. It might have been hard for him to understand the need to ratchet up the intensity that much more when it came to the NBA. As it happened, Eddie O came to an awful Nets team led by Armon Gilliam and Chris Childs, and he still couldn't find any minutes. The longer 3-point line in the league also affected him in a major way. Once a 40+ percent shooter from the long line in Westwood, O'Bannon was now a guy that sank an embarrassing 10 of 56 3s in his rookie year.

He was coming off a memorable tournament run at UCLA where he was voted the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. He was coming to a franchise in dire need of some young blood after making draft mistakes each of the last two years with Yinka "No Dime" Dare and Rex Walters. On paper, O'Bannon to the Nets looked like a match made in heaven. Fast forward a few months. The once can't miss All-America from college basketball's winningest program was buried on the depth chart behind 34-year old Vern Fleming, a veteran just playing out the string in his final NBA season. Turns out O'Bannon was pretty close to the end as well.

A year later, Ed was unloaded to the Mavericks, where he promptly played a few garbage time minutes and called it a career. A mere two seasons into his NBA dream, the man that had gained national fame by finally leading storied UCLA back to the promised land was being shown the door at age 24. It puzzled me then, and it puzzles me now. The guy was 6'8, lefthanded, could run the floor, handle/shoot the rock, and always stepped it up as the stage got bigger. But somehow, it did not translate to the pro game. It did, however, earn him a spot, along with Mike Sweetney and Rafael Araujo, on our list of "Unfortunate Lottery Picks of the Past." Please join us next time as we examine the plight of another historic draft bust; the right handed equivalent to Ed O'Bannon, former Pistons #1 selection Mr. Rodney White.


"Getting a Haircut" Thought of the Week...

"How about you watch it with the electric razor around the ears, pal?"

Whereas the barber should be handling the tool with a careful sensibility, instead it is somehow a better strategy to simply wield the sharp object in any direction with no fear of damaging my main hearing mechanisms. Do what you want on top of my head, around the back, but take an extra second and make sure the ear does not get clipped. That's soft cartilage, baby!! And how clueless do they act when it does happen? You flinch a little and give off a facial expression that says "Watch it...that stung!" And they're always like, "Oh, I didn't catch ya there, did I"?? No, no, not at all...I am just writhing here in pain and shouting obscenities for a completely different reason. So if you happen to be reading this, "Russian woman working the 3rd chair on the left at L.A. Clips," make sure next time the haircut is injury free. Because you can get as many haircuts as you want in your lifetime...but ya only get one set of ears.


A Small Glimmer of Hope??

Just when you thought they were dead and buried for good, the ballers representing the D go out and squeak by two of the NBA's elite, the Wizards and 76ers. Ok, maybe not elite, and maybe not even good, but they are still NBA teams for the most part. Slowly but surely, the Pistons are getting their troops back from the injury list and working them back into the lineup.

First, it was Rip Hamilton on Saturday night. Nice to see Rip take it easy on his first night back by only hoisting 29 shots.

Then it was Allen Iverson, who returned on Sunday after a long absence due to the always treacherous "sore back" epidemic. I was a little surprised that in the newspaper, they didn't just list Iverson's real ailment. That being the famous, "Yeah, I'm just fine, but I'm not touching the ball enough and now I hear I may not be starting anymore, plus the good college games are about to get going, so I'm gonna stop traveling with the team for a bit while I 'recover,' and will decide to come back when everything is all 'healed up' and 'one hundred percent,' not just because the playoffs are around the corner and I want to play in those if we make it" injury.

Rasheed Wallace is supposedly on his way back soon as well. It will give the Stones a full lineup for the first time in a long time. And with Will Bynum stepping forward as a dark horse MVP candidate, the boys might have one more run in them yet. As the legendary George Blaha always says, "Don't look now," but the Pistons and Magic are still on course to meet in the opening round of the playoffs. And last I checked, Dwight Howard still turns to mush when he goes up against Rasheed and Stan Van Gundy's head is still liable to explode at any minute, especially if faced with this nightmare pairing.

It's been a nasty year all the way around, but let's just wait and see for a little longer. Maybe it's just blind faith coming from a guy that once compared Rafael Addison to Scottie Pippen, but I think there is one final push coming. You can get in your pajamas, turn off the lights, and get under the covers...but don't sleep on these Pistons just yet.


Got a thought on the article? Throw a comment below or shoot me an e-mail over at highsockslegend@gmail.com

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Hoopin' It Up with the HSL


The NBA, NCAA, and a memorable amateur tournament from the late 90's. It's an all basketball Thursday for the High Socks Legend on this cold, dim, fluorescent morning...

-Is there any greater pleasure than seeing Grant Hill decide to turn back the clock and just take over a game? This happened Wednesday night when the Suns nipped the Jazz at home for their 6th straight win, courtesy of G-Hill's 26 points. He had several big hoops in the 4th quarter, including the game winning baby fadeaway in the lane with under a minute left. While these nights are now fewer and farther between than they used to be, with Hill averaging a little over 11 a game, it just makes these special performances all the more meaningful. Regardless of how you view Hill, either as one of the all-time NBA greats or a guy incapable of leading a team on a playoff run, there is no questioning his unending determination and his genuine love for the game. He could have hung it up long ago, with his mega bucks from the Orlando contract secured safely in the bank, and just relaxed 365 days a year. But it was never about that for Grant Hill. His passion for the sport was always so evident in watching him play, and as evidenced by his display last night, that candle is still flickering.

The Suns are making a mad dash for the 8th playoff spot in the West, currently owned by the Mavericks. I will be paying extra attention to their place in the standings over the next couple weeks. Just imagine the underdog Suns creeping into the postseason, then taking down the hugely favored Lakers in a gut wrenching Game 7 at Staples with Grant Hill leading the way on those creaky, worn ankles. You just got the chills, didn't you?

-Louis Amundson continues to get under people's skin, and tonight I found out why. About a month ago, the Suns forward was involved in a confrontation with Zach Randolph that saw Amundson get cracked in the jaw with a beautiful left hand. Randolph defended his actions by claiming he was fearful of a potential Amundson kiss when they got face-to-face (not kidding). Randolph was curiously only suspended for two games. A few nights ago, Amundson was again bothering the opposing big man. This time it was Nene. It did not seem as if anything major was going on. Just a simple possession, most guys moving at half speed, when Nene apparently felt it was an appropriate time to headbutt Mr. Amundson. When's the last time you saw a guy employ the headbutt in an NBA game? As if that weren't enough, when Louis remained on his feet following the initial blow, Nene tried finishing the job by winging a little elbow in his grill. The Nuggets center was immediately tossed from the contest. Subsequently, he has been hit with a two-game suspension, or more aptly titled, the "Louis Amundson Special."

It seems like you can do whatever you want to this pony tailed instigator, and walk away with just a couple of games docked from the paycheck. Tonight, I found out why the penalties are so light. Paul Millsap, a terrific sub off the bench for the Jazz, entered the game and found himself going up for an easy layup. Not so, said Amundson. He fouled him hard, preventing the easy bucket. However, on replay, when looking up at the ball when it was released to see if there was contact, it appeared everything was clean. Yeah, on top, everything was clean. Look a little lower. You'll notice Amundson's size 16 Reeboks making severe contact with Millsap's "Jackpot Zone." Put it this way...when Millsap went to the line to shoot his free throws, I've never seen a player trying harder to take a deep breath. Cut to the Suns on offense maybe 90 seconds later. Amundson is driving to the hoop, and flies through the air for a pretty finger roll. Looks harmless enough. Cue the ESPN replay, as we now see that Amundson brought the knee up this time and delivered a second hard shot to Millsap's home base. Somehow, Millsap swallowed his pride and did not retaliate as Randolph and Nene had before.

Millsap could have put Amundson in a choke hold. He could have given him a swift karate kick to the ribs. He even could have went "Last Boy Scout" on Amundson and just popped a cap right between the '1' and '7' on his jersey. But he did nothing of the sort. I guess Millsap was uninformed of the aforementioned NBA edict stating that any violence towards Amundson short of on-court murder will be treated the exact same...a two-game hiatus with specific instructions to "finish the job" next time.

-Some players to watch in this weekend's NCAA tournament action...

DeJuan Blair, Pittsburgh- My friend BK described him well. "It's like watching Jason Maxiell, but 20 pounds heavier." Pretty good comparison. Blair is an undersized force in the post at just 6'7, but makes up for it with his wide frame and ultra-physical nature in the post. He attacks the offensive glass with ferocity. And much like Maxiell, Blair struggles mightily from the charity stripe, checking in at about a 60% clip. There is only one reason that Pittsburgh managed to avoid becoming the first top seed ever to drop the opening rounder to the #16 team: DeJuan Blair. He tallied 27 points and 16 boards, practically declaring the painted area his own private property for the afternoon. Blair is the only player to have personally destroyed UCONN center Hasheem Thabeet this year, as he continually took it to the 7'3 giant on his way to a 20-20 performance back in February. Pitt struggled mightily in getting out of the first portion of their bracket. But now, with some of the early tournament jitters gone, look for Pitt to get back in high gear against Xavier, with the big fella doing his best Maxiell impersonation along the way.

Chase Budinger, Arizona- I like this guy for one reason and one reason only. He is one of the best volleyball players in the country, and the announcers never let you forget it. Budinger could dunk from half court, or sink a 3 from the upper deck. He could turn the ball over 35 times, or airball every free throw he takes. The play-by-play guy doing the game will always have the exact same reaction after anything that Budinger does.
"Hey Jim, did you know that Budinger was an all-state volleyball performer in high school? How about that!!"
Just trust me. Try and watch 5 minutes of Zona's game with Louisville without Budinger's volleyball prowess being mentioned. Never gonna happen.

Cole Aldrich, Kansas- The 6'11 hoss for the Jayhawks has been a monster in the first two rounds, racking up a combined 36 points and 33 rebounds. The fun part about watching Aldrich is the feeling of deja vu that hits you any time he does something on the court. You see the lumbering pivot man with "Kansas" etched on the chest of his jersey, and your brain immediately tells you, "Hey, you've seen this guy before...come on, just take your time and think of it. About 15 years ago...same exact person...maybe a little better looking." Oh, yeah!! Now I remember. I have seen this guy before. And I liked him much better back then...when he was called Greg Ostertag.

-Sometimes during the NCAA tournament, we are treated to an inside look at a team's locker room before the game as the coach relays his final inspirational thoughts. How the players relaxed to that point is anybody's guess. Some probably took a nap. Others might have just laid back with the big Rasheed Wallace headphones on, letting some tunes sharpen their focus. But I once witnessed the most unique pre-game ritual in the history of competitive basketball. The year was 1997, and I was in Milwaukee with my brother Gabe to represent Detroit in the annual Maccabi games. While we were part of the Ping-Pong faction of the delegation, one of our good buddies J-Brown was a member of the hoops squad. He was a reserve guard with the court vision of a young Mark Jackson and a penchant for the "occasional" turnover. We went to check in on him before their big game against San Francisco. The room was dimly lit. It was almost silent, with very little chatter among any of the guys. I found it to be a bit puzzling. I mean, it's good to get your mind right, but this felt like a library.

So I casually whispered to Brown how quiet it was in there and if maybe his guys were a little too nervous for the game. Next thing I know, I'm being sssshhhh'ed by everybody in the room. I say one thing, and the place flips out. Then I realize, everybody around me is seated and staring up at a small TV screen in the front of the room. Ahh, now I get it. They must be watching something to motivate them, like a montage of famous basketball clips or a scene from Braveheart. I felt bad for a moment, until I turned my head and saw exactly what it was that had been commanding their full attention. Two words...Major Payne. Let me say that one more time just so it registers...they wanted to watch something to get them in the perfect frame of mind for a gold medal opportunity, and "Major Payne" was the selection. The horrid 1995 comedy starring Damon Wayans as a discharged Major from the Marines was the piece of film that was getting these boys ready to go to battle in the biggest game of their lives. When you see that movie, you walk out thinking, "If I write a personal note to Damon Wayans, do you think he could find a way to get the last 95 minutes of my life back for me?" This was the single worst choice in basketball history for pre-game motivation in getting a team ready to play.

Not surprisingly, J-Brown's squad from Detroit suffered the same fate that 'Major Payne' did at the box office...they bombed. Now, granted, that 15-16 year old San Francisco group had a few guys that were probably NBA ready. But the main reason for defeat that day lies in the two hours prior to tip-off. One team was being pumped up by the words of Winston Churchill, Vince Lombardi, and Jim Valvano...and the other one was hearing Damon Wayans say things like, "Killing is my business, and business is GOOOOOOOD!"

So while you may think that the winners and losers this weekend will be decided during the games, it is in fact much more important to note what goes on before any on-court action even takes place. Because you can always make up for a missed shot or unforced turnover with good defense or a crucial rebound. But attempting to recover from a disaster like "Major Payne" in such a short amount of time is beyond human capability. Guess they shoulda went with Blankman.


Drop a comment about the article, or float me an e-mail at highsockslegend@gmail.com

Monday, March 23, 2009

Yet Unnamed Monday Weekend Sports Re-Kap


It was an eventful sports weekend. Baron Davis in town to face the Pistons, Michigan and Michigan State trying to advance in the NCAA tournament, and most importantly, another player gets compared to a side of rice pilaf. Let's get to the particulars...
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Pistons-Clippers, A Diamond in the Rough, and a "Celebrity" Sighting


I was in attendance Friday night with my Dad as the NBA's version of the Detroit Lions, the Clippers, invaded the Palace. It was honestly one of the more enjoyable Piston games in a long time. Coincidentally, the game was won by several guys not accustomed to leading the Pistons to victory. It seemed that all the best Pistons decided a late season Friday night affair with the Clip Show was not worth their time. Not only did Rasheed Wallace, Rip Hamilton, Allen Iverson, and Rodney Stuckey all sit out the game, not a single one of them was even on the bench for the game. Stuckey's absence is understandable as he had come down with a miserable cold earlier in the day, but the lack of the others puzzled me. Regardless, there was an unexpected pleasure in seeing the Pistons win a game led by a different cast of characters. Despite the tremendous accomplishments of the Pistons core over the years, sometimes we crave change as sports fans. This night, it was Will Bynum, Walter Herrmann, Kwame Brown, combining with usual faces Antonio McDyess and Tayshaun Prince in carrying the Stones to a blowout W over the Clips. Even though it's not saying much, the crowd was as into the game in the 4th quarter as much as I can remember this year. Some highlights from the night...

-With all that is going on in Detroit sports right now, one man is seriously flying under the radar. Conversations revolve around Jeremy Bonderman, Matthew Stafford, and Chris Osgood...and all the while, Will Bynum is having a coming out party for the Pistons. You can almost hear him saying to himself, "Why was I on that bench all year? I can play this game"!! And he's right. On Friday night, in his first ever NBA start, Bynum blew by Baron Davis so many times that it became unclear whether it was actually the real Davis or just a very good likeness taken from an LA wax museum. His incredible quickness, Nate Robinson like elevation, and an uncanny ability to finish with either hand around the bucket make Bynum an almost impossible 1-on-1 cover for anybody in the NBA. Whereas most guards that get the ball rotated to them simply rise for an open J, Bynum does no such thing. Instead, he explodes towards the rim, relishing the contact from any defender that dare impede his path.

The impressive thing about Will is that while he is moving at a breakneck speed and constantly dribbling through his legs and behind his back, he is almost always in control. His turnovers are minimal, unlike a player such as Allen Iverson, who is more inclined to throw an errant pass and look toward the referee for a sympathetic whistle. To keep things in perspective, I am not suggesting that Will Bynum should be the Pistons starting point guard next season and play 40 minutes a night. He has holes in his game that need to be addressed. He is not a confident outside shooter, and has not mastered the art of using his penetration in order to get easy buckets for other players. But what Bynum has done, after waiting patiently and finally getting a real chance to showcase his skills, is prove that he belongs. In this league, and more importantly, on this team.

-Sometimes you can go from zero to hero in the blink of an eye. Before the game, I noticed a girl wearing a nice home Pistons Chauncey Billups jersey. "Gotta respect that," I thought to myself. Mr. Big Shot gets traded, but she's still representing in a big way. To go out and purchase the Billups jersey and stick with it is....wait, wait a second, hold up, flag on the field. Adorning the bottom part of the jersey was an advertisement logo, and the word was not 'Nike' or 'NBA.' Instead, it read "Bob Evans." Yep, this was definitely a previous game night giveaway, not a legitimate Pistons jersey as I had first thought. I'll even give you the benefit of the doubt on wearing the giveaway jersey if the major sponsor is 'Meijer' or the 'Detroit Free Press.' But rocking any Pistons related gear that also sports the words "Bob Evans" anywhere on the garment is strictly off-limits. The building is called the Palace, so let's try and keep it a little bit classy, people.

-When you attend a Pistons-Clippers game on a Friday night when the weather is just starting to get better and the NCAA tournament is in full swing, you can expect the celebrity turnout at the game to be less than stellar. Such was the case on this night. Taking my seat, I noticed Baron Davis shouting at a fan a couple rows off the court. I look over, and whaddya know, it's Mike Epps!! I'm sure most of you are thinking, "Hmm...you said 'celebrity,' right...who is Mike Epps"?? The answer, in short, is a poor man's Chris Tucker. He's an actor/comedian that is neither a great actor nor an overly talented comedian. Nonetheless, I was semi-excited for the sighting. As he approached, I gave a "Whassup, Mike!" and stuck out my hand. He obliged immediately with the high five/handshake/hug, obviously thrilled to be noticed by somebody in the crowd. Him and his crew settled in, and as the game progressed, were forced to move three or four times for being in someone else's seats. That's something you expect to see from a bunch of 15-year old boys trying to sneak up into the premium seats when all they bought was standing room. But to see a Hollywood "star" attempting to pull off this caper, and subsequently getting busted, was embarrassing to say the least. Spike might be a Knicks regular, and Jack might be at every Lakers game, but on this night, we had Mike Epps. Even if he never did find his seat...

-Brian Skinner's goatee deserves its own reality show. If you haven't seen this thing up close, you haven't lived. I probably spent a good 25 minutes throughout the night just staring at this abomination. It is half black, half orange, and extends approximately 2-3 feet below his chin. It's as if David Wells' goatee sat down for a meeting with Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart's goatee, and decided to form one ultra-bizarre, head turning piece of facial hair. Next time you look up Skinner's statistics and wonder why he's still in the NBA, just remember; goatees like that do not grow on trees. Or do they???
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The NCAA Tournament, Plus a Random Unrelated Thought


-While this weekend was the reward for a terrific season for 64 teams in the country, one of the most beloved children's television hosts was left home for the festivities. The San Diego State Aztecs were not invited to the Big Dance despite a very respectable 23-9 record. And their head coach, Mr. Rogers, was none too happy about it. Apparently he reacted to the snub by running his players through a brutal practice session, culminating with the oft-complaining senior point guard Prince Tuesday being thrown out of the gym completely. Coach Rogers also confiscated everyone's car keys as punishment, forcing them to get around strictly by way of the trolley. Wait a second, what's that? Ok, I am now being told that the SDSU boss is still Steve Fisher, and not Mr. Rogers, as previously thought. Coulda fooled me...

-While watching Michigan win their 1st tournament game in 11 years from Champp's on Thursday, an unexpected comedy bonus was added to the equation courtesy of my man Kurt. Come to find out during the night that Kurt is a refereeing aficionado, and enjoys mimicking the officials' signals with each call, leading to this enjoyable sequence. Michigan would go on a little run, and following a big 3 or transition bucket, Kurt would immediately place the hands on top of the shoulders to signal a needed timeout by Clemson. The funny thing is, usually he was right that the Tigers needed a breather to regroup and stop the run. Only their coach, Oliver Purnell, did no such thing. He let the surge continue until he was absolutely forced to call a T.O. to save face. Oliver Purnell may have been the "Coach" on Thursday, but Kurt was much more aware of when to change the pace of the game, even with a couple of Blue Moons already working their way into the system. Coach Purnell has now wrapped up his 21st season, and his all-time tournament victory total is the exact same as Kurt's. When Clemson most likely begins searching for Purnell's successor in the coming weeks, they will comb through the other power conferences trying to steal a fellow big name guy. But if they were smart, they would just head up to 14 Mile and Orchard Lake to Champp's Sports Bar...you're gonna get a coach unafraid to signal for a timeout in a crucial moment...and a pretty good basket of Mozzarella Stix.

-Is there a better mascot in college basketball than the Hilltopper of Western Kentucky? The guy is basically a red version of King Hippo from 'Mike Tyson's Punch Out,', and that spells F-U-N to me.

-Let me be the first to say what so many of us out there are thinking...Is that blind guy on American Idol really "blind"??? Caught most of his performance last week. The guy was dancing, moving around, doin' his thing... but always managed to find the microphone when he resumed singing. And it wasn't like he was grabbing for the pole the mic stands on...he just knew where it was. I'm reminded of Cedric Ceballos' "blindfolded" throwdown in the 1992 Slam Dunk Contest. Ceballos managed to run the length of the floor, completely blindfolded, leap at exactly the perfect time, and stuff it through. It's been hotly debated ever since as to whether Ced was really without vision on that dunk. Similarly, I expect debate to rage on over this historic American Idol contestant. As LeBron James says in the classic commercial where he discovers a man confined to a wheelchair is in fact perfectly healthy, "Dude's fakin..."
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This Might Be the Last Game of the Season...Act Accordingly


Any time you watch a team all year and follow them day in and day out, there is an empty feeling when the run finally comes to an end. This was the case Saturday afternoon, as Wolverine rooters saw their team's tournament run come to a screeching halt at the hands of the Oklahoma Sooners. And while 99% of the media outlets recap the game using only the words 'Blake' and 'Griffin,' here at the HSL we like to look at things in a more unique way. In this space's humble opinion, the rigidity of John Beilein reared its ugly head at the worst possible time in the 1st half, possibly costing Michigan a real chance to pop the 2-seeded Sooners on a day when they were not at their best.

Coach Beilein has always been of the belief that if a player picks up two first half fouls, he'll be watching the remainder from a cozy seat on the bench. It is understandable to have this in your pocket as a general rule of thumb, but it cannot come at the cost of failing to understand that each game is a fluid situation and the same rules cannot apply all of the time. Such was the case in this game against Oklahoma. Michigan's best player, Manny Harris, picked up two quick whistles in the first five minutes. Boom! He got the hook, and for the next 15:09, he was a spectator like you and I. I could not imagine that Beilein would allow the man that carried his team almost singlehandedly to victory in the opening round to sit for 75 percent of the opening half. This was different than just any regular season game. The consequences are unforgiving. A loss, and you do not have a chance to make up for it three nights later. A loss here means you'll be waiting until about Halloween to step foot back out on the court. To be fair to Beilein, I do see certain situations where "sitting a guy until the 2nd half because he picked up two quick fouls" makes sense. Here are some examples...

1. You are the superior team. You have no problem biding your time until the half, making sure the game remains close, and knowing full well that your overall talent advantage will take over down the home stretch. Not the case here. Oklahoma was around the Top-10 all year, while Michigan struggled to get to .500 in the Big Ten.

2. You are extremely deep. The prolonged absence of the player (or players) in question will not have much of an effect since the squad goes 10-11 strong with scorers at every position. Again, not the case here. The Wolverines can play a number of guys, but many of them are just role players and cannot be counted on for big minutes in the biggest games.

3. You're protecting a big lead, affording you the luxury of sitting your superstar player. Like the previous two examples, this was not the case on Saturday. Michigan hung tough (more on this), but never had a commanding advantage that would allow for such an extended rest from a player of Harris' caliber.

Many fans probably watched the 1st half of that game, saw Harris sit for the final 15 minutes, and ended up saying to themselves, "We're only down one! We survived without Manny! We are in great shape"!! Unfortunately, that was far from the truth. The 1st half of this game was a classic kind of 1st half that has roots going back to 1976. College basketball historians will note that Indiana stormed through the entire season undefeated that year, the last team to do so. In the National Championship game, the Hoosiers matched up with these very Michigan Wolverines. U of M came in as heavy underdogs, and played a perfect first 20 minutes...and were up 35-29. My dad always says that you almost knew that it wasn't enough...that a half that perfect should have resulted in a 15-20 point lead. Sure enough, Bob Knight's crew came out thrashed Michigan after the intermission, winning by 18.

While the circumstances were slightly different on Saturday, the gist was the same. Oklahoma couldn't buy a bucket for a large part of the 1st half. Missed layups, bricked free throws, wide open 3s going begging, and turnovers were all part of their struggles. The Sooners didn't just leave the door slightly ajar for Michigan. They practically removed the hinges and sent out formal invitations for the Wolverines to RSVP to the Sweet Sixteen. But I sat bewildered as Beilein trotted out anyone on his bench not named Manny Harris, and the Wolverines entered the halftime break with the most deceptive one point deficit in college basketball history. After the half Blake Griffin and company had just played, Michigan needed to be up about 6-8 points. For Beilein to somehow think that Manny Harris, after being confined to a folding chair for 62 total minutes, would come out with the same energy he might have in the 1st half, is beyond my comprehension. I know his teammates call him "Manny Fresh," but after a 62-minute break, you can be too fresh. It even got to the point that in the 2nd half, (your season is on the line, sir!!) with both DeShawn Sims and Harris saddled with 3 fouls, but facing a 10 point deficit, Beilein still removed both stalwarts and attempted to come back with the pick and roll combination of Zack Gibson and Rice Pilaf Merritt.

The heroic contributions of Anthony Wright were unexpected and hugely important. But for anybody to think that Michigan is capable of beating a Top-10 team in the NCAA tournament with their best player on the court for just 21 minutes, they are sadly mistaken. When it is literally 'win or go home' time, it is imperative that you go down with your best players on the floor as much as possible. I would find a box score read out of "Harris, 5-17, 38 minutes" much more comforting than his actual line of "3-9, 21 minutes." You would walk away knowing you threw your best punch, with your best puncher doing the throwing. Sadly, it was not to be on Saturday, and the best Michigan season in over a decade has come to an end. It was an important season for the Wolverines. They got back on the college basketball map, and even managed to make a small dent in people's brackets around the country. And while John Beilein did an excellent job in leading this team throughout the campaign, one is never too seasoned or too experienced to stop learning.

For Beilein, it is important to remember that while having a belief system and a coaching philosophy is necessary and creates an identity, it is never safe to go into a contest with preconceived rules that are not to be altered regardless of the in-game circumstances. In the biggest game of the season, the player that had played biggest all year was not on the court. While most people in doubt simply rely on the old standby, "Put your best foot forward," Beilein gambled and decided to try and win the game by putting his 4th or 5th best foot forward. It might work in December and January against Savannah State or Indiana, but winning games against elite programs in the NCAA tournament is a different animal. The comeback year for the Wolverines was an important one, but it is now over. One can only hope that next time, things will be a little different...because you can't win it all with your biggest gun tucked away in the holster.
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Saving His Best for Last


A large part of what makes the NCAA tournament so special year after year are the memorable performances by the guys you'd least expect to step forward in times of crisis. When Michigan played North Carolina in the 1993 Final, a total of 10 future NBA players stepped on the floor. And lo and behold, the kid that emerged into the national spotlight was Donald Williams, a streak shooter that never quite had the chops to reach The League. But he was plenty good that night. He exploded for 25 points and made every big shot to give Dean Smith one final championship (nobody remembers Donald anymore because Chris Webber managed to steal the headlines just a little bit late in this game). On Sunday night, with the USC Trojans giving Michigan State absolutely all they could with a Sweet Sixteen berth on the line, a most unexpected form of offensive firepower came to the rescue in the form of Travis Walton. And boy did they need it.

Walton is a very valuable player for the Spartans. He's a senior. He provides leadership on the floor. He is a ballhawking defender, just recently taking home Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. But his offensive game has always been limited, to say the least. Walton struggles to create his own shot. His range from the outside halts at about 17 feet. In 20 games this year against Big Ten opponents, Walton touched the double digit scoring mark a grand total of zero times. In the first round blowout of Robert Morris, Travis was a big fat goose egg in the scoring column.

But none of that mattered on Sunday at the Metrodome. Walton poured in a career high 18 points, knocking down big shot after big shot and playing his best ball when it mattered most. He showed a confidence with the rock in his hands like never seen before. When the Trojans seemed to have the momentum on their side, Walton would answer. When they would tie the score and be looking for that one critical stop on the defensive end, Walton would bury a high arcer from the elbow. On a day when Goran Suton could not throw the ball into the ocean, and Raymar Morgan was a complete non-factor, Walton's performance was more than just a welcome addition to the box score. It saved the season.

In Game 5 of the 1956 World Series, Don Larsen took the ball for the Yankees. The series was knotted at two with the rival Brooklyn Dodgers. The only thing was, Larsen had gotten shelled by these same Dodgers in his Game 2 start. Many were surprised that he was being given another opportunity in such a critical spot. Larsen was a sub-.500 pitcher, and was by no means a guy you would look at and say, "He's about to do something special." But that's exactly what he did that day. Larsen climbed the mound at Yankee Stadium, and 27 batters later, he had become the only pitcher in baseball history to throw a perfect game in the World Series. Two days later, the Yanks would clinch the title with a Game 7 massacre at Ebbets Field. Travis Walton was not perfect on Sunday. He missed five shots and even tossed in a couple of turnovers. But like Larsen did on that historic day in '56, Walton forgot that he was supposed to be a background guy, confidently striding to the forefront and preventing what would have been a devastating season ending loss.

Don Larsen's heroic afternoon led to the Yankees bringing home the title. The Michigan State Spartans still have a ways to go before they can claim that same triumphant fate. But when and if they do, this career defining night by Travis Walton will long be remembered as the one that kept the season alive. After all, to be thought of as one of the all-time best, you need years of sustained greatness. But to be hero for a day, all you need is a ball and a hoop. Walton had that, and capitalized in a way never before seen in his previous 138 times donning the green and white. It is on to the Sweet Sixteen for Walton and company...but maybe it is just a little bit sweeter for old #5 tonight than it is for the rest. You might not have expected it, and in all likelihood, he probably didn't either. But the fact remains...the Spartans could have easily dropped this game to a more than ready USC Trojans squad, but Travis Walton was not going to let it happen. Tonight was his night, and somewhere, Donald Williams and Don Larsen were smiling. Their club has a new member.


E-mail me at highsockslegend@gmail.com or drop a comment in the area below

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Unorthodox Selection Methods and a Classic Bracket Story

Nobody has a more interesting way of selecting the NCAA tournament games than my brother Gabe, and by interesting, I mean "almost guaranteed to finish last in any pool he enters." In summary, here is what goes on. He figures out the percentage that a certain seed will beat another seed based on past tournament history. For instance, a #6 will beat a #11 about 69% of the time. Then he takes the trusty old TI-83 calculator and performs a weighted coin toss with those odds. The machine pumps out the winner of the toss and the bracket is slowly completed. But it can lead to some bizarre selections to say the least. This leads to classic conversations like this one.

Me: You got Michigan winning?

Gabe: Yea...actually, I have 'em winning two games.

Me: Wow, taking down Oklahoma, eh?

Gabe: Yeah, I never said that...

That's right, folks. You heard it here first. The immortal Morgan St. Bears are going to shock the world and become just the fifth #15 seed of all-time to slay the #2. It might seem unconventional and insane. Ok, it really is those things.

Sure, Gabe is the same guy that used to routinely pick Holy Cross to win 2-3 games every year despite the fact that their superstar big guy would always be chugging up and down the court being held together by the world's largest and most obtrusive knee brace. And I'll grant you that he might be the least successful bracket selector in history. But put it this way. When's the last time you punched a slew of digits into a calculator, waited for the answer to compute...and it spit out the wrong answer?

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It was always one of the more exciting nights of the year growing up. My Dad would return home from work on a Monday or Tuesday night with fresh brackets displaying the names of the 64 entrants in that year's NCAA basketball tournament. We would gather around the kitchen table and each carefully craft our perfect bracket. The year was 1992, and the world was still far from the "Internet ruling the world" days, so entering the pool still meant actually taking a pen to a piece of paper. My brothers and I would always enter our Dad's office pool, and this was the year I planned to shock him and the rest of his adult co-workers by proving that the young High Socks Legend had a wealth of knowledge at his disposal and planned to use it for significant monetary gain. Just one problem...the brackets never found their way home.

It's hard to remember now exactly what went on that week. Maybe he worked late a couple nights. Maybe he forgot the brackets on his desk. Maybe I was just too consumed with playing UNO during that time to notice anything else going on in the world (UNO occupied at least 80-85 percent of my thoughts from the age of 8 to 17). However it went down, the tournament started Thursday afternoon and I was sitting in Mrs. Hines classroom, listening to stories about "The Boxcar Children," and seething inside that I was not able to fill out that bracket. I was not a happy little 45-pounder.

When my Dad returned home that night, he tried to make things right. He told us he was sorry for the bracket mishap, but he'd solved the problem by filling out a bracket for each of us and turning it into the league commissioner. After all, as long as you're in the pool and you have teams to root for in every game, who cares how it got filled out? I did. I was high on Roy Williams and Kansas all year, though most of that admiration was based on my obsession with the giant Jayhawk logo plastered at midcourt of their gym. Regardless, I wanted Kansas all the way on my bracket...yet my Dad had given me a sheet with 'Duke' written in the "Champion" slot. He had stolen my dream. His bracket correctly displayed 'Kansas' as the last team standing. Sure, they were both #1 seeds, but Duke was not Kansas! My one chance to dominate the month of March and it was going up in flames because of a little miscommunication?!?? I demanded a swap!

"You take mine...I'll take yours!! I wanted Kansas!! Please"!!!

Like any good father would do in that situation, he obliged without even thinking about it. Kansas was mine, at last. I handed over my Duke bracket without an ounce of regret. I could practically feel that grand prize of about $100 in my little Jayhawk claws. The rest of the tournament went a little something like this. Kansas steamrolled #16 seed Howard in the opener. The next opponent they would dismantle would be Don Haskins' UTEP Miners. But as was the case countless times during the 90's, Roy Williams was severely outcoached by the man on the other side of the court. The elder Haskins toyed with Williams, manipulating the shot clock till the last tick on nearly every possession and devising a defense that would hold the high powered Jayhawks to just 60 points in a devastating upset loss. On the other side of the coin, Duke was rolling through the bracket. Bobby Hurley was dishing, Grant Hill was finishing, and Christian Laettner was hitting the most famous shot in college basketball history. They would go on to win the National Championship, and my Dad was swimming in $5 bills.

It could have been me. That was my bracket originally. But I thought I knew better, and my blind loyalty to Kansas ended up coming back to bite me in the end, in a big way. Now that I'm older and I think about the whole situation from a more mature standpoint, I realize I made a terrible mistake in not trusting my Dad to lead me down the right path. He mapped out the route for my ultimate victory, and I flipped it upside-down. But there's still one thing I can't quite figure out, even 17 years later. When I demanded he switch brackets with me, why was there not even the slightest bit of hesitation on his part? Could it be that he knew I would object to whichever team he gave me, and want the other one instead? I'll never know.

I do know this much, however. Thursday afternoon might come around and I will realize I forgot to fill out my bracket for the pool. My Dad will let me know he scribbled out an entry for me at the last minute, with 'Binghamton' emerging victorious at Ford Field. I will think, "Hmm, they seem like an improbable champion." But my mouth will be slammed shut.

I'm not making the same mistake twice.


Reach me at highsockslegend@gmail.com

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Best Time of the Year


My good friend Larry Horn used to describe the first two days of the NCAA tournament as the "High Holidays." It was the perfect description. There's nothing quite like those first two days of the Big Dance. It's a basketball fan's dream. Wall-to-wall games for 48 hours. Dramatic finishes. Historic individual performances. Top seeds flexing their muscle. Enough fried salami to feed the entire Western Kentucky starting five. For 'The Lar Horn,' Temple was very much a part of his religious experience...after all, their matchup zone can cause nightmares for opposing teams.

The tournament brings together the hard core hoop-heads that know all the top players on each team and the less ardent followers that root for Marquette each year because "it's a Michigan school." (Me and my brother Gabe grew up firmly believing that the Marquette basketball powerhouse was located in our great state's Upper Peninsula...and a small part of me still does.) Some love the tourney simply out of a sheer passion for the game. Others look forward to getting a closer look at the top players to predict which ones will be the next group of superstars moving on to the NBA.

But the vast majority of tournament crazies consists of those filling out the sacred brackets, trying to be crowned victorious in the zillions of pools that will be created in the next 72 hours. Without further ado, let's take a look at the prospects for MSU and U of M, along with some other teams to watch for in this early preview of March Madness.


Michigan State

Tom Izzo's group has been one of the most consistent teams in the nation throughout the course of the year. They put together long winning streaks, won tough games on the road, and now finally seem to be fully healthy heading into the NCAA's. I know it is one of the biggest cliches thrown around when the brackets are first unveiled, but you really do have to love the way this bracket sets up for Michigan State. Robert Morris, the 1st round opponent, is one of those odd schools that is obviously named for somebody, even though none of us have any idea who that person is. It doesn't exactly carry the same clout as say a "George Washington" or "James Madison." My favorite example of this kind of school is the similarly named "Morris Brown College," a place I'd always assumed growing up was named after the local legend in our neighborhood by the same name. Years later, however, I discovered that it was actually a historically all-black college...and the Mo Brown in our 'hood was a Jewish doctor. Maybe it wasn't named after him after all.

The 2nd round will see Sparty either taking on Boston College or Pac-10 tournament champs USC. I don't expect too much of a problem with either squad. BC has an extremely talented scoring guard in Tyrese Rice, but somehow Al Skinner's teams usually find a way to lose in March. USC might be a cute pick for some because of their recent hot streak, but they've been up and down during the year, and do not have the depth to match MSU.

It's funny. Sometimes I think Michigan State's greatest weapon can also be a bit of a hindrance. Their outstanding depth. Tom Izzo is not afraid to run 10, even 11 guys out for significant time on a given night. This allows players to go full throttle when they are in the game, with fresh bodies always available to come in when necessary. Teams with only 6-7 quality players can be worn down when trying to match State's intensity for the whole 40 minutes. However, there are is also something to be said for guys having a hard time getting in the flow of the game when the minutes can be so brief and sporadic at times. Shot attempts are so widely distributed among Izzo's guys sometimes that the hot hand can go ignored instead of utilized. For instance, Goran Suton made his first five shots in the Big Ten tourney loss to Ohio State, yet played just 27 minutes, and never took another shot. A guy like Durrell Summers has shown the ability to be a dynamic scorer and shot maker in big games, but has seemingly fallen out of favor with Izzo. He's also a guy that is more prone to play well when getting into the rhythm of the game and playing big minutes, while tending to struggle when forced to quickly find his shot in 10-15 minutes of court time.

But that's why Tom Izzo is the master. As he usually does come the month of March, he will find a way to get the absolute best out of his team. He will find the right mix at the right times, and we know this because he has been doing it better than almost any coach for the last decade.

Other questions surround this second seeded Spartan team...

Can Kalin Lucas, the Big 10's Player of the Year, lead his squad to the Final Four as just a sophmore?

People love to talk about the hit or miss nature of Raymar Morgan, but I think the more important mystery is whether you're going to get the good or bad Chris Allen. When he is firing from distance, the duo of him and Lucas make the Spartans one of the most dangerous teams in the country. When he's not, he can shoot you right out of a game with that quick and inaccurate trigger (see losses against Northwestern, Ohio State).

If Michigan State can reach the Final Four to be played at Ford Field, they would have a distinct advantage playing so close to East Lansing with loads of green and white sure to pepper the crowd. Yet while they have had a tremendous season, dominating the Big Ten regular season and attaining a # 2 seed in the Big Dance, I do not see them finding their way home. Rick Pitino's Louisville Cardinals loom as a potential opponent in the Elite Eight, and that is where I see Sparty's dream ending. A very good season to be sure, but one that might end up just a few paces short of the D.


Michigan

Once Michigan fans get over the panic they felt watching the first three quarters of the NCAA selection show, they can begin to assess the upcoming first round clash with Clemson. For the first time since 1998, the Wolverines are in the tournament that matters. For the last number of years, Michigan's postseason home has come to be Madison Square Garden, home of the NIT Final Four. Thankfully, they will be nowhere near New York this year.

Talk about catching a team at the perfect time. The Clemson Tigers performed their annual pratfall after winning their first 16 games of the season. This is one of college basketball's most consistent traditions. Clemson will burst out of the gates, going undefeated through non-conference play while everyone buzzes about their title possibilities. Then they'll drop a game or two in ACC play, and before you know it, they're heading downhill faster than Tommy Moe, and whimpering quietly out of the tournament. This year, their end of season slide was right on cue. The Tigers dropped 4 of their last 5, including a deflating ACC tourney loss to Georgia Tech, a team that went just 2-14 in conference play. And while Michigan has not exactly been setting the world on fire the last few weeks, they do come in as the hotter team. With the coaching matchup clearly favoring John Beilein over Oliver Purnell (Purnell has failed to win an NCAA tournament game in his 21 year career), Big Blue is the choice in this mini 7 vs. 10 upset.

As for the rest of the tourney, well, I think it's safe to say that most Michigan followers would be ecstatic with even one W. Oklahoma waits in the wings in round two, led by the possible future #1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, Blake Griffin. The Sooners also have a nice collection of shooters surrounding the big man in freshman Willie Warren and point guard Austin Johnson. I wouldn't put it past Michigan to give them a run for their money, as they have with most top teams this season, but this is likely where they bow out. If you could believe that both DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris would show up for every game, a long tournament run would not be out of the question. But this has been a nagging bugaboo all year, trying to get both stars going on the same night for an extended period.

That is what the tournament is all about. Having your best players playing at a high level for six straight contests. For Sims and Harris, no off-nights can be tolerated, or they will be sent packing. And for now, the Wolverines just do not have the firepower from the supporting cast to make up for such a performance. Stu Douglass, Zack Novak, and Laval Lucas-Perry are wildly inconsistent and need more seasoning. These three could be a handful in the coming years, though. And despite Gus Johnson's semi-insane proclamation that C.J. Lee has been the Wolverines' "2nd most important player this season," the truth is that the Wolverines routinely get very little production from the point guard spot. There are not a whole lot of teams in tournament history advancing through the rounds with nothing more than a stopgap at the lead guard slot.

(Sidenote: I respect Gus Johnson as a broadcaster, but the guy has been nothing short of bizarre with some of his comments regarding Michigan. Besides the Lee compliment, he has also begun referring to Stu Douglass as "Stuey," while mentioning in the same breath that Douglass is "extremely athletic." Hmm...since when did "taking a million 3s and rarely venturing into the lane" translate to a high level of athleticism. Johnson frequently compares Douglass to former Piston Bobby Sura, who actually was a highly athletic 2-guard that could sky and make acrobatic plays. The only thing Sura has in common with Douglass is that they are both white, and to be honest, Sura was always very tan, so even that parallel is a stretch.)


Other Teams to Watch For

Gonzaga

The Cinderella of yesteryear has undergone a role reversal and is now a perennial contender in March. However, they have struggled in that role, bowing out early in each of the last two tournaments. I think they're a different squad this year, though. Matt Bouldin (a bigger Dan Dickau) and Jeremy Pargo (a mini Will Bynum) make up one of the best and most experienced backcourts in the entire field. That's usually a good recipe come this time of year. Up front, they have a very rugged, but skilled big man in Josh Heytvelt.
And last but not least, Austin Daye (right), the freakishly versatile 6'11, 200 pound power forward. He does it all for this team, and many scouts project him as a future lottery pick. Not to mention, the man is a first ballot "T-Shirt Hall of Famer" made up of guys that made a point of wearing a big, baggy t-shirt under their jersey during the college days. Toby Bailey and Roy Hibbert are Co-Presidents of this prestigious group.

The problem for this squad, as in most years, is the lack of competition they get during conference play. Indeed, they coasted through with an unblemished 14-0 mark, and steamrolled through their postseason tourney. Another perception with the Zags is that, as my boy Harold says, they are "tissue-paper soft." Sometimes they do not acquire that nasty edge necessary for tournament play, having spent the past couple of months trouncing the likes of Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, and the University of Rice Pilaf. If Mark Few's boys from Gonzaga can manage to squeak by North Carolina in a possible Sweet 16 battle, I like 'em to make a surprise appearance at Ford Field.

Utah State

You might have fun picking them to win a game or two, because they have the WAC Player of the Year in Gary Wilkinson...who is a Chris Weinke-esque 26 years old. He's like a man amongst boys on the floor. On many possessions, he simply discards the man trying to stay in front of him, then lays the ball in the hoop. Wilkinson is a 6'9 redhead, and you can envision him looking exactly like Philip Seymour Hoffman in 15 years. And while most players in the tournament have a girlfriend or their parents in the crowd, when Wilkinson is involved, there are constant screen shots of his wife. This is not your typical college Senior, and Utah State is not to be ignored. All joking aside, they had a magnificent year in the WAC and trounced Nevada on their home floor in the conference tournament final. They take on Marquette in the 1st round, with the game taking place in nearby Boise. I suggest you heed my advice and advance Mr. Capote and company along in the bracket.

(Sidenote: Where does Hoffman's role as 'Sandy Lyle' in "Along Came Polly" rank in terms of all-time great movie characters? Top ten? Five? The best ever? Taking Ben Stiller's grease from his pizza for his own...the "Let it rain!" and "Raindance!" call on every bricked jumper...his hilarious scenes acting in a community theater presentation of "Jesus Christ, Superstar,"...and finally, the admission that the camera crew following him around the whole movie for a hit reality show was really a farce, and that he had hired the guys himself, with no actual show in place. The combination of these factors presents a pretty intriguing argument that he is, in fact, at the top of the list. And yeah, the clock reads 3:08 AM right now...this last paragraph reflects that.)

Purdue

I love the way they are playing and defending right now. With UCONN as the #1 seed in that area of the bracket, I expect the Boilers to give them all they can handle should they meet. Matt Painter is an excellent coach and you sense that his club is peaking at the perfect time. After all, Connecticut's national championship teams always revolve around great guard play, whether it be Rip Hamilton, Khalid El-Amin, or Ben Gordon. This year's edition does not have that. Look for Purdue to possibly be that 2nd Big Ten squad, besides MSU, to make some noise in this tournament.

Duke

A team that everyone, including myself, loves to hate, but they seem to be due for a classic Coach K run here. With a relatively pedestrian side of the bracket, and both Jon Scheyer and Kyle Singler shooting the ball extremely well of late, look for Duke to get back to their winning ways this year. They might not have the bulk to match a team like Pittsburgh in the Elite Eight, but let's also remember that Jamie Dixon has never led his Pitt squad past the round of 16. Do not be surprised to see the Blue Devils in Detroit three weeks from now.


Coming Wednesday...funny tales about past bracket mishaps, potential million dollar paydays, other tournament thoughts, and a pick for the eventual National Champion. Drop a comment below, or e-mail me for "expert" bracket guidance at highsockslegend@gmail.com

Thursday, March 12, 2009

I. Don't. Understand...

I don't understand how Antonio McDyess continues to find the intestinal fortitude to outwork and outhustle guys 10-15 years his junior on a nightly basis. After Dyess slapped a 21 and 22 effort on the Knicks with 10 offensive rebounds, I honestly believe there is no athlete in Detroit right now more enjoyable to watch. The amount of effort he displayed tonight, against an also-ran like the Knicks, when many guys are just waiting for the playoffs to arrive, is truly inspirational. He always drains every last ounce of energy from that creaky 34-year old body, hoping upon hope to just get one more legitimate shot at an NBA title (I profiled Dyess' best chance at a ring, here). McDyess probably could have gone to actual title contenders like the Celtics or Spurs when he was granted his release from the Nuggets after the Billups-Iverson deal, but it was Detroit or nothing. The guy is loyal, and is the epitome of how a professional athlete should carry himself, both on and off the court. It feels so good to see McDyess have a night like he did tonight, and you could tell it even put an extra hop in George Blaha's step, too. When Dyess hit another clutch 17-footer late in regulation, Blaha exclaimed as only he can, "Antonio McDyess officially owns the night!!!"

In what has become an all too common theme throughout this strange season, the Pistons ended up dropping another heartbreaker at home. The starting lineups have changed, players have bounced in and out of the rotation, and the heart and soul of the team was sent across the country...but Antonio McDyess plows forward with that same unparalleled effort, just as he has since the moment he slipped on the Pistons jersey five years ago. This season will most likely end up being one of the more forgettable campaigns in recent memory, but that does not mean an unforgettable performance can't be sprinkled in along the way. Tonight was one of them. The Pistons lost the game on the scoreboard...but it was Antonio McDyess that owned the night.


I don't understand why you would ever go for a Dr. Pepper, unless there are literally no other options available and you have exhausted all possible leads. Dr. Pepper is just not on the same level as the elite pops, but it still finds its way into our vending machines and grocery aisles, alongside the legends. It doesn't have the same kick as Coke, it's got a funny little aftertaste, and no matter how long it's been in the fridge or how much ice is in the glass, for some reason it's never that cold. Even my cousin Mayer, who invented the "keeping bottles of pop out in the snow during winter to keep 'em nice and chilly" move, could not get a Pepper to be anything more than "slightly cool."

Is it just that people like to be different in their beverage selection sometimes? I will admit that I used to be that guy. But in my defense, I did it with Squirt, a very refreshing choice that has never been anything but good to all of us. If you want a dark pop and you aren't a Coke or Pepsi guy, why not go Root Beer? Dr. Pepper just never had an identity to me. Are you trying to be Cherry Coke? Are you trying to make me sneeze? Do you go good with a burger? Am I allowed to drink you if I am also eating a food that contains pepper? The Doc never really answers these questions. I, for one, am skeptical of the man's motives and will continue to steer clear of him and his pop in the days ahead.



I don't understand Greg Kampe's coaching, or lack thereof, in the last 10 minutes of their Summit League conference title game. His Oakland Golden Grizzlies had a comfortable 10 point lead with around 7 or 8 minutes to play, yet were playing as if the score were reversed. For the most part, with that lead and that duration of time remaining, you can begin to salt the game away with good clock management. Hold the ball near half court until about 8 remains on the shot clock, then begin the possession. If you get just a couple of baskets along the way, to complement the melting of the clock, a victory would surely be in hand.

However, Kampe's squad was firing away as if margin of victory was more important than simply getting the W. Wild 3's, risky passes, ill-advised drives...even Oakland's most poised player, senior point guard Jonathan Jones, succumbed to the pressure of the moment and made costly turnovers. While the players are ultimately the ones making the plays and deciding the outcome, I still thought coach Greg Kampe could have made all the difference in the world by simply calling a time out and calmly stating, "Hey, guys...the NCAA tournament is about 7 minutes away. Let's make sure we take at least 25-30 seconds off the clock on each possession. If we even get a couple buckets, they cannot come back. Let's go get that NCAA bid." Kampe did no such thing, the game continued to get away from them, and ultimately they dropped an absolute gut buster to North Dakota State.

It's always nice to have as much in-state representation in the NCAA tournament as possible, and many Michiganders, even if not Oakland grads, are disappointed today. My man M.S.G. is about as die-hard an Oakland fan as there is in the area, and I would not have wanted to be in his presence at about 9:55 Tuesday night. It was that tough to take. This title game evolved into a situation where good clock management was equally as important as actually putting points on the board. Unfortunately, their play did not reflect this truth, and Kampe's tournament dreams went up in smoke. The Grizzlies earned that victory by dominating about 80% of the game...if only their coach could have taken them the final 20.


I don't understand how Will Bynum is ever kept out of the paint. I've never seen a point guard attack the basket quite like our man Bynum does. He's super athletic, very confident handling the ball, and extremely strong for a player his size. Bynum is able to get to the rim pretty much anytime he wants, and he finishes well, too.

The real trick, however, in him progressing into something more than a 10-14 minute a night guy will be for him to establish a respectable outside game. It is too tough to function as a little guy in the NBA relying exclusively on penetration with no threat of pulling up from 16 and canning a J.

Not to suggest that Bynum is on Tony Parker's level, but they share a similar ability in their knack for knifing into the paint and scoring over bigger defenders. However, Parker worked on his jumper relentlessly over one summer and became a deadly mid-range shooter to make his offensive arsenal complete. If Bynum can do likewise and refine his outside game, there is no reason he can't be the Pistons full time backup point guard heading into next season.


I don't understand what happens to you if you decide to go where no man has gone before...and eat the green part of the watermelon. Do you pass out immediately? Do you just start shaking? Is is just immediate death? I can't think of too many foods in which the crust is completely off-limits. Lord knows that's not the case with 'Za. It's not the case with pie. Yet the watermelon remains a mystery. Growing up, we are taught three basic lessons.

1. Look both ways before crossing the street.

2. Do not talk to strangers.

3. Never go near the edge of the watermelon. It is a forbidden place, and testing it's powers will result in the most severe consequences and possibly your own mortality.

It's hard to wrap your head around this concept because the rest of the fruit is so delicious. It's juicy, it's tasty, and remains one of the few fruits you can acceptably eat with a knife and fork. Admit it. When dessert comes out at a summertime BBQ, you yawn at the same old cake, brownies, and additional hot dogs. But when you get a look at that giant platter of fire-engine red watermelon, that's when you realize you're really in America.

But something prohibits us from getting full enjoyment from the big WM. And it's not just that we can't down the crust...we also have to make sure to avoid that last 20-25% where the red kind of starts turning white, in fear of getting too close to the Danger Zone. I'm tired of living in fear, and next time I'm hit with a plate of watermelon, I'm going for broke. If this is the last column I'll ever write because of it, then so be it. It's time we eat the fruit...and not the other way around.


I don't understand how we're supposed to tell the good guys from the bad guys in "Die Hard 2." While the 1st, 3rd, and even 4th installments of this franchise proved to be excellent flicks, the 2nd one is just all over the place. Is Dennis Franz supposed to be a good guy? He's a cop, so that makes me think he's on the right side of the law. But at every turn, he's chastising Bruce Willis and making his life more difficult. Maybe the fact that he refers to himself as "terminal police" lets us know he's nothing more than a toy-cop. McClane is out there trying to save thousands of lives and prevent large commercial airliners from crashing, while Franz does his best to get in McClane's way and accuse him of being the instigator. How in the world did this guy pass police training???

And then you have the biggest shocker of the movie. Wait, scratch that...the biggest shocker in the history of American cinema. John Amos, more affectionately known as Cleo McDowell from his classic turn in "Coming to America," arrives on the scene in "Die Hard 2" as the hardened military general ready to aid in bringing down the terrorists. Then, in one showstopping moment, he takes a big ole butcher's knife to homeboy next to him and we discover he is "one of them." Absolutely stunning, and to this day, I'm still shaken from that turn of events. I understand Amos wanting to branch out after playing the jovial fast-food owner in 'America,' but was this really the best way to go? He went from being "the most likable person on the big screen" to "the guy you desperately pray ends up meeting his maker before the final credits roll." This movie was utterly confusing at times, and despite Bruce Willis's typical greatness, it could not be salvaged. And in the irony of all ironies...which of the four 'Die Hard' movies do you think appears on TV the most? You got it...Numero Dos. Now I really don't understand that.



Hey, you can't understand everything...drop a comment below or shoot me an e-mail at highsockslegend@gmail.com

Monday, March 9, 2009

Yet Unnamed Monday Weekend Sports Re-Kap

An Early Look at the Eastern Conference Playoffs


1. Cleveland Cavaliers- With the way things sit right now, the Cavs occupying the top spot in the East, you'd have to make them the favorites to represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals. LeBron's crew has registered an almost unfathomable 28-1 record at Quicken Loans Arena. How would you like to go up against those odds in a game 7 on the road? Exactly. Danny Ferry has done an outstanding job of finally surrounding James with several top shooters, making it that much more difficult to double and triple team the MVP candidate. Mo Williams, Delonte West, Wally Szczerbiak, and Daniel Gibson (I've never been comfortable calling him 'Boobie') are all capable of a big night from behind the arc.

Not a whole lot to find fault with on this squad, as the Cavs are also the best defensive team in the NBA, by a wide margin. The only reason I am skeptical of Cleveland is the bad karma LeBron brings to himself and the team from the Basketball Gods with his pre-game ritual. While everyone now seems to think that his big display before the game with the talcum powder flying into the air and into the crowd of screaming admirers was a LeBron original, educated fans know otherwise. Kevin Garnett was doing that move loooong before King James came on the scene. It's always confused me how nobody brings this fact up more often. I guess there's just a "No Criticizing the King" mandate in NBA circles nowadays, but that does not apply here. It's bush league, it's taking credit for another man's invention, and it will most likely end up costing the Cavaliers a shot at the championship.

2. Boston Celtics- I still think when it's all said and done, the Celts will be the last East team standing. Once Kevin Garnett returns, they will be able to solidify their rotation with their new additions (Stephon Marbury, Mikki Moore) and prepare for another long run in the playoffs. However, I think the Marbury signing was an unusual move for this franchise. The guy has proven to be an enigma around the league and a horrible teammate the last couple of years. And in seeing him struggle mightily against the Pistons last Sunday, it appears his once All-Star caliber game has deteriorated quite a bit. Will Bynum is an energetic player and a pesky defender, but the way Marbury got stripped clean by him twice in that 1st half was a sad sight for those that remember Marbury's smoothness for years in Phoenix. And on the other end, I know Walter Herrmann had a significant height advantage, but he's still Walter Herrmann, and Marbury was getting abused every time down the court.

And when has the 'tattoo on the side of the head or face' ever worked out for anybody? We all remember Mike Tyson's infamous artwork he had inked around his left eye. With the new tat, Tyson suffered depressing losses to tomato cans like Danny Williams and Kevin McBride, and called it a career. If history is any indication, Marbury's addition will do more harm than good.

3. Orlando Magic- The Magic could go 82-0 in the regular season, end up facing the 8th seeded Pistons who won 35 games, and you would know full well who's coming out on top in that series. Somehow, the Pistons just have this squad's number. It was no coincidence that the Pistons regained their swagger a little bit and snapped their 8-game losing streak when playing in Orlando. Everybody remembers when T-Mac and the Magic took a commanding 3-1 series lead on the Pistons back in 2003. It was all Pistons the rest of the way in that battle, with three straight beatdowns taking place, including Chauncey's 40 spot in Game 6. It has been the same way ever since.

While Orlando sports an impressive 45-16 mark this season, the backcourt really does not strike a whole lot of fear into you. Take a look at this group: Rafer Alston, Courtney Lee, Anthony Johnson, Mickael Pietrus, and J.J. Redick. I don't care how dominant Dwight Howard has become. I have a very hard time imagining that group of guards leading a team to the conference finals, let alone the final round.

Lastly, it is nice to know Tony Battie will remain on this team the rest of the year, with no chance of him returning to the Celtics. Many Pistons fans, including myself, are still scarred from the sight of him in the '02 playoffs with Boston. In that series, Tony sported the half green-half white mouthpiece that made him look like a cross between the Green Goblin and Casper the Friendly Ghost. Let me tell you, there was nothing friendly about that image...or the way the Pistons got manhandled in that series by the elite backcourt combo of Tony Delk and an elderly Kenny Anderson. Moving on...angrily.

4. Atlanta Hawks- Sorry, but I just can't imagine Mike Breen belting out this call during a game in the Eastern Conference Finals.

"Hawks trail by two with the ball. Flip Murray's got it on the right wing, here comes Zaza Pachulia to set the pick. Murrary penetrates, and kicks out to Maurice Evans. Evans for 3...it's good"!!!

Clearly, that Atlanta bench leaves a lot to be desired.

Anywhere from Seed 5 to 8, Detroit Pistons- The Pistons are slowly rounding into form of late. Despite the setback in Atlanta, the Pistons are finally showing some fight and are competing hard nightly with the best teams in the conference. It remains to be seen how Allen Iverson will fit in when his back begins to feel better, but at least you can now see a resemblance between this team and the one that has made six straight conference finals.

The guard play has been superb of late, with both Rip Hamilton and Rodney Stuckey benefiting from the absence of AI and his monopolizing of the basketball. Tayshaun Prince has also been very good, but you worry about the way Michael Curry is allowing his minutes to creep back into the 40's again. We have all seen the way that Tayshaun can wear down when the playoffs unfold, and it would be wise for Curry to try and get Tay a little more rest in the season's home stretch. Obviously, Curry wants to win games to solidify their spot, but he also must be smart enough to make sure Tayshaun has a little something left in the tank for the postseason.

I'm actually looking forward to this year's playoffs. I think it will be a refreshing change to be able to root for the Pistons in an underdog role, and I tend to think the players will find some motivation in that, too. It's either that, or I'm the biggest homer this side of Mark Champion. Here's hoping it's the former.


"Yes, Trust Me...I Shoot Ball Very Well...No Worry...Just Draft Me."

When Darko Milicic was being scouted feverishly by NBA general managers leading up to the 2003 draft, there was clearly a fascination with the Serbian seven-footer. Not just because of his immense height and strong inside game, but because of his dual ability to also step out and shoot the 3-ball. Not many had him pegged to be the next Bill Russell. Instead, you heard comparisons to Dirk Nowitzki, with many expecting Darko to eventually display the type of inside-out game that had made Dirk a star in the league. That is why one particular stat has always fascinated me and continues to now. Darko Milicic, once made the 2nd overall pick in the draft largely because of his perceived outside touch for a big man, has now played over 5,500 minutes in the NBA...and has never made a 3-pointer. Shaquille has one 3 to his credit and even Ben Wallace managed to hit 5. But Darko is yet to toss one in from behind the long line. And it's not as if Darko was originally thought to be in Shaq and Big Ben's company. He was viewed more as a big man that could do it all. It boggles my mind on a daily basis, because there is no way that Darko would have garnered even close to the kind of attention and admiration he received in '03 had everyone been made aware that his supposed "range" did not extend outside the painted area. Shouldn't this note from Darko's pre-draft scouting report have been seen as a giant red-flag??

"Several scouting reports indicate he has three-point range, but he does not take this shot when playing for his team in regular season play in order to comply with his coach’s wishes."

So let's get this straight. Darko is an excellent outside shooter who can do damage from the 3-point line, but his coach basically demands he never attempt the shot. Why would that be?? Could it be that his coach has seen Darko in practice and knows full well that the man has no long distance game to speak of?? Anytime your coach insists you not do something, that generally means you are sorely lacking in that particular department. But Darko was a magician in that time leading up to the draft. He had everyone thinking he was one thing, and behind closed doors, he was somebody completely different. He was 'Mrs. Doubtfire.' He made you think he was Brad Daugherty meets Sam Perkins. He turned out to be Brad Sellers meets Sam Jacobson.

I'm just hoping that at some point in these last few weeks of the season, Darko manages to tickle the nets from 23 feet. That way, at least we can say with some sense of satisfaction, "Hey, you can see where Joe Dumars was coming from...the guy does have range." But I'm guessing it will never happen, and we will continue wondering how someone with absolutely no 3-point game to speak of managed to use his supposed strength in that exact area to help become the #2 pick in the draft. But no, I'm not still bitter or anything...


Regardless of Time, Score, Situation...I'm Jackin' It Up

J.R. Smith is the only player I have ever seen that seems to always be playing as if it's garbage time during an exhibition game. He's out there windmilling threes from 35 feet out. He'll go coast-to-coast and put up a blind lay-up in traffic with half his team still making their way down the court. The guy is undoubtedly talented, with dazzling athleticism and a sweet shooting stroke to match, but where is the man's head?

He's sort of a present-day Vernon Maxwell, and that's not a great thing. Vernon, although immensely talented at both ends of the floor, could never quite settle himself down to best utilize his ability. Either Mad Max was pressing his umm, package, against another driver's car window after being rear-ended...or he was smashing a dumbbell over teammate Carl Herrera's head and then trying to go retrieve a gun from his car. Apparently he was trying to replicate Marques Johnson's classic scene from "White Men Can't Jump." ("I'm goin' to my car...get my other gun...shoot everybody's _ _ _.")

J.R. Smith is not quite at Maxwell's level off the court, but with the wildness he displays on the offensive end with no regard for anybody else on his team, it's almost as if his on-court persona is equal to that of Maxwell's off of it. One of two things will happen here. Either Smith will tone down his game and play at a more reasonable pace, or George Karl will become the first coach to choke a player to death on the court. Stay tuned...


A Little Perspective

Anybody else kind of confused by the whole Joe Smith phenomenon in the last week? LeBron James made a big public campaign expressing his desire for the Cavs to reacquire Smith, and he got his wish. This is Joe Smith we're talking about here, right?? Just making sure.

Joe Smith has been in the NBA going on 15 years, and the man has been a part of one winning playoff series. I'm not saying he isn't a solid veteran who will provide you with 15-20 decent minutes off the pine, but let's stop acting like the guy is the 2nd coming of Robert Horry. He's a career journeyman who has literally changed teams 6 times in the last 3 years. And more often than not, when the news of Joe Smith coming to your team is viewed with actual excitement, it's a sign that things are not going well.

Take for instance the 2000-01 Pistons. This was after Smith had signed the illegal deal with the Timberwolves, so he was looking for a new home. The Pistons were gawdawful that year under George Irvine. Joe D signed Smith a few weeks into the season, and I remember the reception he got from the Palace crowd the first time they saw him was practically deafening. It was the kind of roar you'd expect if the Pope entered the building, and at the same time Cuppy Coffee and Biggie Bagel were coming down the home stretch. And Smith was only in street clothes, having not joined the team officially just yet. But the Pistons fans were starving for some type of excitement, and they weren't getting it from John Wallace, Dana Barros, and Mateen Cleaves.

Joe Smith was a former #1 overall pick, but sadly, that's pretty much where his accolades begin and end. So, to repeat, if you're LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, do not jump out of your seat because Joe Smith joined the squad. It's embarrassing for you, and it is hard for us to watch. This can't end well.


This Week's Edition of "Unfortunate Lottery Picks of the Past"

"With the 8th pick in the 2004 NBA Draft, the Toronto Raptors select Rafael Araujo, Center from Brigham Young University"

There is a cardinal rule whenever you're watching a UFC event or anything that involves some type of martial arts. If you ever see a guy whose first name starts with an R, but is pronounced as an H, that guy is simply going to be awesome. It means the guy you're watching is probably Brazilian, probably comes from the famous Gracie clan, and will undoubtedly be a success in the cage for many years to come. Unfortunately, that same principle does not apply to basketball, which leads us to our man Rafael (pronounced HA-fye-ell) Araujo.

When he finished his senior year at BYU, there were some questions about his mobility and on-court behavior. You heard commentators refer to Araujo as a "less skilled Bryant Reeves." He got in hot water during college by once punching an opposing player during a game and also purposely elbowing Andrew Bogut in the head. With a track record like that, you have to wonder if the Raptors really expected Araujo to blossom once he got to the NBA.

I'm thinking the Raps front office just figured at the least, if Rafael never panned out, he would still be able to use his Brazilian heritage to prepare a large amount of rice pilaf for the veterans on long road trips. Not surprisingly, the big fella lasted three uneventful years in the league before he was exiled back to Rio. Rumor has it that while Araujo's post game was actually steadily improving, the pilaf was not, and thus he was never heard from again.


Never Woulda Guessed Who's Behind Door Number Three

It's been the story of Michigan's season. DeShawn Sims and Manny Harris usually show up most nights, putting up big numbers in trying to lead the Wolverines back to the NCAA tournament. But the problem has remained that nobody has really stepped up and become that consistent 3rd scorer needed to put Michigan over the top. Stu Douglass has shown flashes, but cannot be relied upon to get 12-15 points a game just yet. Zack Novak can light you up for 20, but that's basically a once a month proposition. When Michigan emerged from a timeout in the 2nd half on Saturday facing a double digit deficit in Minnesota's gym, the question of whether that 3rd scorer could emerge from the shadows would eventually decide their season. And in one of the most surprising clutch performances in recent Wolverine history, Laval Lucas-Perry became that guy.

There were just over 11 minutes left when Lucas-Perry took over the game, an affair that was seen by many as an unofficial NCAA tournament elimination game. He canned a 3 to bring the lead to seven. After a Minnesota bucket and free throw, Lucas-Perry responded with another trey. And another. Tubby Smith frantically signaled for a timeout, his once insurmountable double digit lead now whittled to just four, all because of the baby-faced Laval Lucas-Perry. After LLP knocked down a pair of free throws, Michigan was now within a single basket and his work was done. He had done what many others have failed to do, assuming the critically important role of the 3rd scorer. Sims and Harris would carry the Wolverines the rest of the way, cementing a .500 Big Ten record for Big Blue and putting them in a fairly strong position to grab their first berth to the real dance since 1998.

Many Michigan fans had expected Laval Lucas-Perry, a transfer from Arizona, to be this kind of force from the moment he stepped on the court. And for a while, it looked like they'd be right. He scored in double figures his first six games, displaying a fearless attitude when attacking the rim and a range from the outside that extended well beyond the 3-point line. But then the roof caved in on his season. His shot deserted him, his confidence diminished, and his minutes went from 30+ to single digits. He would be the last guy you would have expected to rescue Michigan in their most important game of the season. But there he was Saturday, knocking down 6 of his 7 shots on his way to 19 points, 11 of which came in succession when the Wolverines needed it most. If Michigan is announced as one of the 65 entrants on CBS next Sunday, it will be due in no small part to the season-saving contributions of Laval Lucas-Perry. The man with three names stuck out his chest and announced himself as the 3rd scorer on a team that desperately needed it...and it couldn't have come at a better time.


Rites of Spring- Annual Tigers Storylines

1. Jeremy Bonderman is in the process of learning the changeup. The man with two quality pitches (fastball, slider) has been searching for an effective change throughout his career and it wouldn't be spring without this story. Whether it's Kenny Rogers teaching the pupil the secrets of the pitch, or a new grip that is bound to work wonders, Bonderman never gives up on this now almost fruitless quest. And we're still waiting for confirmation on this, but it looks like Bonderman will be allowed to wear the #34 this season in honor of his mentor, Mr. Nate Cornejo. A nice tribute by Bondo.

2. Could Marcus Thames be an effective everyday leftfielder? The guy has always shown flashes in part time duty, but never seems to get that golden opportunity he has always craved. This story is especially unique because it gets some play before the season, and then we are also treated to the mid-season version as well. Thames will go on a power tear at some point during the year, leading to questions like, "Hey, if this guy were starting for another team, wouldn't he bomb 35-40 homers a year"?? These comments are usually coupled with Jim Leyland announcing that he's finally going to give the guy a real shot and run him out there everyday as the starting LF. The following events then occur in real time. The plan Leyland set forth will last anywhere from 2-3 games. Marcus will sit against some recycled lefty like Jimmy Gobble. You'll wonder what happened. Nobody will really pay it any attention, and that will be it for the "full-time" experiment. Then one year later, just lather, rinse, and repeat.

3. Brandon Inge is the best all-around athlete since Jim Thorpe. While he might not be able to hit a baseball with any consistency, which is what he is actually paid to do, let it be known that Inge has many other talents away from the diamond. He can hit a golf ball over 400 yards. He throws curveballs with his right hand and they break as if thrown by a southpaw. And then usually they'll just make some other stuff up to fill the story, like "Inge once hit a tennis serve over 200 mph," or "Brandon has been known to run sub 4-minute miles...in three feet of snow." It's like they have to keep bombarding us with useless information about his exploits in other sports so we won't remember just how lacking he is with an actual baseball bat in his hands. Not to be too pessimistic about Inge's prospects for 2009, but the man's average has undergone a dramatic dip each and every year since 2004. But now he's back at his favorite spot, the hot corner, and ready to turn it around...and if not, there's always the PGA Tour.


Other Very Important Thoughts

We have no idea what it does, or why we need it...but we all feel a little safer when we throw in that little "Bounce" sheet with the clothes in the dryer. It's kind of the babysitter for the clothes, telling you, "Hey, don't worry. You can go ahead and move on with your day. I got it covered in here. Come check on us in a couple hours...we'll be ready to come out."

You know a lot of people that stop whatever they're doing whenever "Jurassic Park" or "A Few Good Men" come on the TV. Others feel this way about "Remember the Titans." Then you have my Dad, who pretty much can't resist checking in for a good 30 minutes anytime he notices that "Hollow Man" is on the tube. Yeah, you heard me. The movie stars Kevin Bacon, or technically, just Kevin Bacon's voice, since he appears throughout most of the movie as some type of invisible mutant trying to kill people. I've never seen it in full, but any time I take a look, it seems to be the same scene. The 'Hollow Man' is there for a second, then not, and then before you know it, he's got a gun to your mug. Not really my cup of tea, but my Dad can't get enough. I believe the next viewing will put his total at triple digits. Congrats...I guess.

You may not spend any time during the day hankering for Cheetos, but you can bet your bottom dollar that if you see someone else tearing into a bag, you're going to experience three separate emotions. Jealousy of the other guy's great snack, frustration that you didn't think of the idea first, and finally, a tremendous motivation to seek out your own bag, while vowing never to make this same mistake again.



Who do you have coming out of the East? What's your favorite "Annual Tigers' storyline"?? How many times have you seen "Hollow Man"??? Drop a comment below or fire an E-mail my way at highsockslegend@gmail.com