Saturday, January 7: WEEKEND EDITION
It’s the start of the NFL playoffs, and that’s the focus here at the Notebook. There are previews of the games on Saturday (Cincy-Houston, Detroit-New Orleans), plus those on Sunday (Atlanta-NY Giants, Pittsburgh-Denver). There’s also some historical reflection on some memories from this round of the NFL postseason.
Also part of the weekend edition is the following….
The Notebook initially planned to do a live blog for the NFL playoff games, although it doesn’t look like that will be practical. In the meantime, take a look around the site, check the historical museum, have a good weekend and we’ll see you Monday.
Friday, January 6
The best of the non-BCS bowls goes tonight in Dallas, as Kansas State and Arkansas meet in the Cotton Bowl (8 PM ET, Fox). There’s some conference bragging rights on the line here as well, with the SEC undoubtedly prepared to use an Arkansas win as evidence of the belief that the BCS National Championship Game should be their exclusive province, and the Big 12 hoping a Wildcat win might make voters think twice about a rematch next time around.
I’m in the Anti-Rematch crowd, but I do like Arkansas’ chances here tonight in front of what should be a raucous crowd. Last year’s LSU-Texas A&M Cotton Bowl had a great atmosphere and this year’s teams are again in good traveling distance and should be hungry to win a game like this. Offenses are again expected to rule the day. Kansas State’s pass coverage is poor, while Arkansas’ run defense is soft. Both teams can exploit the others’ weakness. K-State has a solid running back in John Hubert and he isn’t even their best runner—that honor goes to tough quarterback Collin Klein, who can also throw the ball. Arkansas’ combination of Tyler Wilson throwing to Jarius Wright is outstanding. One caveat is that both defenses did a little bit better in November against bowl teams. But a caveat within the caveat is that K-State’s better pass defense came against Texas and Iowa State, while Arkansas’ improved run defense came against South Carolina and Mississippi State. All of the above teams were lacking weapons.
Arkansas’ win over South Carolina was the single best win either team has here, and for that reason I’m giving the Razorbacks the edge, although at a pointspread of (-9) this one should be, as Lee Corso would put it, “closer than the experts say.”
In the NBA Portland continues on its nice start, moving to 5-1 after a 107-96 win over the Lakers, where Los Angeles missed all 11 of its three-point shots. Miami went to 7-1 in a triple-overtime thriller over Atlanta, where the Heat won with Dwayne Wade and LeBron. With a combined 25 rebounds off the bench from Udonis Haslem and guard Terrell Harris, the Heat are getting contributions everywhere and won a road game against a team that will probably be in the playoffs. Dallas’ slow start continued, as they hit 1-of-19 from behind the arc, Dirk Nowitzki only scored six points and San Antonio rolled to an easy win.
Looking ahead to tonight, ESPN will start its Friday NBA coverage with a doubleheader of Chicago-Orlando and Portland-Phoenix, beginning at 8 PM ET. Also on tap is Indiana-Boston from the Garden. The Celtics have bounced back from their 0-3 start to win four in a row and now face a pretty good Pacers team.
The New York Rangers continued to roll in hockey, winning an overtime battle over Florida 3-2, where raw volume eventually prevailed as the Rangers outshot the Panthers 41-21. New York’s division rival in Philadelphia edged Chicago 5-4 in a back-and-forth game that wasn’t settled until a power play goal with under a minute left. Out west, Dallas got a pair of first-period goals from Mike Riberio and beat Nashville 41, while Los Angeles played a tight, clean game with Phoenix—few penalties, few shots and no one scored until the Kings picked one up in overtime.
Atlantic Division action continues tonight on the NHL Network with NY Rangers-Pittsburgh (7 PM ET). This is then followed by the New York Islanders taking on the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, and for those who don’t follow the NHL, this is the equivalent of the Colts-Rams getting national TV coverage. Is there an Andrew Luck somewhere in the hockey draft?
One day after the city of Philadelphia saw three of its teams win big college basketball games (see below for yesterday’s Morning Line), the entire state of Pennsylvania saw three surprise games. Villanova officially won’t be part of any Philadelphia party, losing to South Florida 74-57 at home. In the center of the state Penn State beat Purdue 65-45 and Pitt’s road trip to DePaul ended in an 84-81 loss. In the Big Ten, Indiana won a good 73-71 game over Michigan because they controlled the frontcourt, with Christian Watford and Cody Zeller combining for 43 points. Out west, UCLA got a season-saving win, at least for the time-being, when they beat Arizona at home 65-58. The Bruins are still only 9-7, but have shown an ability in recent years to turn tough Decembers into improved conference seasons. They’ll have to do that again this year.
FRIDAY’S NOTEBOOK FEATURES
It’s NFL playoff time, and the Notebook will do previews of both the Saturday games (Cincy-Houston, Detroit-New Orleans) and Sunday (Atlanta-NY Giants, Pittsburgh-Denver). Both coming up later this morning. And since today is the Cotton Bowl, our historical feature is 1977, a part of which involves Notre Dame coming to Dallas at #5 and leaving as national champs. Check it out here.
Thursday, January 5
It was a good day to be a sports fan in Philadelphia yesterday, particularly college basketball. Temple upset Duke 78-73 because they shot 56 percent from the floor, and Duke’s softness inside became a problem again. The Notebook will doing an overview of the entire ACC this morning, so I won’t go into it all here, but the Blue Devils came into yesterday’s game ranked #5, and if there’s only four teams in the country better than they are, it’s a weak year in college hoops.
Temple wasn’t all. LaSalle knocked off Xavier 80-70. The Musketeers have all their players back from the suspensions of December that came after a brawl with Cincinnati, so this was no fluke. Xavier turned the ball over and shot poorly from behind the arc. Then Philadelphia struck one more time, as St. Joe’s beat Duquesne in overtime 84-82. The Hawks finally have their program back on track after some rough seasons of late. That’s a 3-0 sweep in college hoops and it didn’t even require participation from Villanova. Add to that, the Phillies’ NL East rival Florida weakened themselves by adding temperamental and inconsistent Cubs’ pitcher Carlos Zambrano and it was a good day to be in Philadelphia. I’m inspired enough by it that today the Notebook features a piece from the historical archive, a look back at 1980 when it was great to be a Philly sports fan.
It wasn’t a very good day to be involved with the Clemson football program, who suffered a 70-33 humiliation in the Orange Bowl against West Virginia. The Notebook live-blogged this game, but called it a night early. You can offer up a number of factors for a defeat like this, but I’ll just throw in this tidbit—Clemson’s star receiver Sammy Watkins only had five catches for 66 yards. West Virginia forced most throws to DeAndre Hopkins who caught ten balls, but it moved Clemson off their biggest strength.
There’s no college football tonight, with bowl action resuming on Friday with the Kansas State-Arkansas game in the Cotton Bowl (8 PM ET, Fox). The college hoops card is also light, with Michigan-Indiana (9 PM ET, ESPN2) being the best game on the docket. It’s also worth checking the Pac-12, where Washington tests its ability to win on the road against a beatable Colorado team, while UCLA has to stop its slide when they host Arizona.
Thursday night is the NBA’s night on TNT though, and they’ve got a good doubleheader ahead. Miami goes to Atlanta in the early tipoff (8 PM ET). The Hawks are 4-2, but more importantly, both Dwayne Wade and LeBron are dealing with injuries and both are listed as questionable. Miami is currently posted as a 3.5 point favorite, which sounds as though Vegas believes both will play, but in a compressed schedule maybe this will be a night they get off. Then in the 10:30 PM ET nightcap it’s Portland hosting the LA Lakers. The Trail Blazers are off to a strong start and solidifying that with a big home win over the Lakers on national TV would be a nice touch.
Not much in the world of hockey tonight. Last night, Vancouver moved into the top spot in the West with a 3-0 win over Minnesota, as Daniel Sedin scored a goal and had an assist. In the East, Boston thumped New Jersey 6-1. You can look at the two goals for Patrice Bergeron. Or the fact that Nathan Horton scored on a power play, a circumstance that Bruin fans know is about as rare as being able to park at a Red Sox game for less than $25. But for me, the best part about this game was that Shawn Thornton scored the final goal. Thornton is my favorite hockey player. He’s beloved by Boston fans for his hard-nosed play (translation: he’s the guy we line up to get into a fight when it’s necessary). Which makes it ironic that he shares a name with John Wayne’s character in The Quiet Man. The Shawn Thornton of Hollywood lore got into one of the greatest fights in film history.
NOTEBOOK THURSDAY FEATURES
Wednesday, January 4
The NFL carousel of hirings and firings has officially begun and there was no bigger shock than what came out of San Diego yesterday, where Chargers’ owner Dean Spanos announced he was keeping A.J. Smith as general manager and Norv Turner as head coach. Smith’s retention is no shock—although his famed skills for talent acquisition has declined in the five years since Marty Schottenheimer was the one fitting the pieces into the puzzle, the GM still has a good reputation in the league. But Turner coming back is nothing short of stunning. I suppose I shouldn’t shout too loudly, because I generally think organizations would be better served by an excess of patience than by running people in and out the door. But that was my rationale for arguing last year that Turner should be given another year. The Bolts are still undisciplined and still can’t win a mediocre division. The longer this drags on, the longer Norv is kept from a career renaissance as an offensive coordinator, the same way Wade Phillips, another miscast head coach, got it done running the defense in Houston.
Chicago did a little shakeup up of their own, with GM Jerry Angelo and offensive coordinator Mike Martz being shown the door and Lovie Smith staying on. As long as Smith stays as head coach, I don’t feel strongly about either of the other two, but it seems safe to assume that Lovie is now on the hot seat. Andy Reid will also be back in Philadelphia, a good move to retain someone who is a genuine consistent winner. This is the kind of move I’m talking about when I say that teams should be patient, not what’s going on in San Diego.
It was a wild finish in last night’s Sugar Bowl and you can re-live it through the eyes of the Notebook’s live blog. A night’s sleep hasn’t changed my view that the Hokies were robbed when a circus touchdown catch by Danny Coale got overturned in overtime. If anything, I’m more irritated this morning. The Orange Bowl is tonight with Clemson-West Virginia (8:30 PM ET, ESPN).
Another spot where there was a wild finish was Madison, where Michigan State and Wisconsin went to overtime and the Spartans prevailed 63-60 when a last-second banked-in three-pointer by Ryan Evans came just a tick after the clock hit 0:00 and was overturned. Watching this play and then reviewing the box score made me think of a moment shortly after I graduated high school and watching a football game at the alma mater. A close game was lost at the end and a player came off the field, slammed his helmet on the ground and all the padding came out. Rather than be impressed with the player’s tenacity, the coach just shouted, loud enough to be heard in the stands, “Maybe if you would play well during the game, you wouldn’t have to go through all of this after!” Given that Jordan Taylor was the only Wisconsin player who did anything at all in the first 44 minutes and 59 seconds, maybe if Evans and the supporting cast did something during the game, they wouldn’t need all this drama at the end. Its two straight home losses for the Badgers, and Michigan State did its usual yeoman’s work on the glass, winning the rebounding battle and Draymond Green grabbing 14.
THE NOTEBOOK’S WEDNESDAY FEATURES
The Notebook’s features today are an Orange Bowl preview, coming up later this morning and a look at the NFL Coach of the Year debate. We’ll have another live blog going for the Orange Bowl when the game kicks off. There’s not much else going on tonight, unless you want to follow the battle the cities of Boston and Trenton will have with each other. It’s Bruins-Devils in hockey and Celtics-Nets in hoops, so some East Coast bragging rights are on the line.
Be sure to check out my book The Last New Year’s, which recounts the high point of the January 1 bowl games. The era 1976-1993 was the apex of New Year’s Day. If you’ve got a Kindle, you can get it for $9.99 and a “regular” book is twelve bucks and change at Amazon.
Tuesday, January 3
Most of the Notebook coverage yesterday and through Wednesday will be about the major bowls in college football, but we haven’t lost sight of the NFL as they head into the playoffs. With Pittsburgh at 12-4 set for a road game at 8-8 Denver on Sunday, the criticisms of the NFL playoff structure have again resurfaced.
Denver, by virtue of winning the AFC West is guaranteed a top-4 seed, while Pittsburgh, a wild-card who finished behind Baltimore can’t get higher than #5. Should the NFL change the rules to seed the playoffs based on record? I say no.
The point of the regular season is to win your division and a big part of the excitement of the regular season is derived from our knowledge that the consequence of not doing so is big. That was why the AFC North drama with Baltimore and Pittsburgh battling on the final weekend was so interesting. The winner got a week off and a home game in the second round. The runner-up faced a long road to the Super Bowl. To me, having excitement among really good teams in the regular season is important. I emphasized the part about really good teams, because I don’t get all that excited about wondering whether the Bengals, Jets or Titans will get into the playoffs. If I was a fan of those teams I’d feel differently, and I certainly find it interesting. But I don’t get a sense that I’m watching something that will play a big part in who ultimately wins the AFC title. I had that sense in watching the Baltimore-Pittsburgh race unfold and that’s something that shouldn’t be given away. And in the end, if the Steelers are “all that”, they’ll take care of Denver and set up a battle in Baltimore or New England anyway.
On the other side of the NFL, it’s time to change the draft system so there’s no more incentive to tank in the final weeks of the season to get the #1 draft pick. Never was this talk more prominent than this season with Andrew Luck looming large over the entire year. Luck looked like the real deal in last night’s Fiesta Bowl and while the teams involved deserve great credit for winning games in December and showing some integrity, a league should never encourage a race to the bottom. Adopt the NBA system and give every non-playoff team a shot at the top pick in a lottery. If you want, weight the drawing to give the worst teams a better chance. No sane fan would root against his team to get a couple additional balls in a lottery. No fan worth his salt would give up a shot at the playoffs for a minimal chance at the top pick. And that’s the way it should be. Call me crazy, but I think when fans have encouragement to root against their own team, and those that want to see their team win actually have to defend themselves, there’s something wrong.
The Notebook’s Tuesday features are a Sugar Bowl preview and a breakdown of the NFL MVP race. During tonight’s Sugar Bowl, there will also be a live blog with running commentary throughout, as was done yesterday for the Rose & Fiesta Bowls.
Be sure to check out my book The Last New Year’s, which recounts the high point of the January 1 bowl games. Virginia Tech coach Frank Beamer just said yesterday that the BCS needs to get back to playing all its games on January 1. The era 1976-1993 was the apex of New Year’s Day. If you’ve got a Kindle, you can get it for $9.99 and a “regular” book is twelve bucks and change at Amazon.
Monday, January 2
It’s all about college football today, with four games going on in the early time slot, followed by the beginning of the BCS Bowl showcase. There’s lots of reading material here at the Notebook today..
*Game previews of the four undercard matchups, all involving Big Ten teams and three including the SEC.
*Rose Bowl Preview: Wisconsin-Oregon
*Fiesta Bowl Preview: Stanford-Oklahoma State
*A look at my book which chronicles the best of New Year’s past…you didn’t think I’d make it through without a little self-promotion?
*And if you like hockey, last week’s posting of an Atlantic Division overview that includes NY Rangers-Philadelphia, who meet in today’s Winter Classic. Note that since that post went online, the Rangers have moved to the top of the Eastern Conference.
We’ll talk about the NFL playoff picture in the Notebook’s free weekly newsletter that will be sent out later this morning. Sign up on the upper right hand side of the home page.