THE WEEKEND EDITION
This is the weekend where we all start to adjust to what our lives will be after the Super Bowl next Sunday. It’s also the weekend the NHL has its All-Star game and coming up by early afternoon on Saturday, TheSportsNotebook will post a complete report on how things are shaking out in the NHL as teams prepare for the final push to the playoffs over the next 2 ½ months. And online now is a look ahead other exciting weekend action. Check out the following…
*A conference-by-conference look at the college basketball schedule
*A peek at the NBA hoops card, highlighted by Sunday’s Chicago-Miami game.
*A preview of horse racing’s Holy Bull Stakes, as TheSportsNotebook continues its Road To The Triple Crown series.
Friday, January 27
When I saw the headline that Greg Schiano had been hired as the new coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, my first reaction was disbelief, followed by an immediate “Do these people have any idea what they’re doing?”
The first reaction is disbelief because Schiano peaked as a college commodity in 2007, when Rutgers got late into the season undefeated. But that team faded, and he never won a conference championship in a mediocre Big East. The man whose Penn State ties seemed to make him a natural for Happy Valley didn’t even get a whiff of media speculation as that job search unfolded. In fairness, we don’t know how attractive the Penn State job is, at least for the next 2-3 years, while the Sandusky scandal looms over everything, but it was still good enough to pull Bill O’Brien from his gig coaching a Tom Brady-led offense.
I wonder if Tampa Bay knows what its doing because their pattern on this search started with wanting to hire a veteran NFL man who would bring discipline to the operation. Mike Sherman and Marty Schottenheimer were interviewed. Then out of nowhere the Bucs made a run at Chip Kelly to try and pry him loose from Oregon. When that failed, they returned to Plan A and gave Sherman a second interview. Now they settle on a college coach who’s no longer the Hottest Thing Going. If you can make sense of that, let me know.
It’s a quiet night tonight, with no major college basketball games going and the NHL on the All-Star break. The ESPN fare is the Knicks-Heat at 8 PM ET and Oklahoma City-Golden State is on at 10:30 PM ET on NBA-TV. For those who get the League Pass package, the good games are Indiana-Boston and Utah-Dallas. The Celtics rallied from 27 down to nail Orlando on the road last night and have inched closer to .500, while the Pacers are coming off Wednesday’s win over the Bulls. Utah and Dallas are both lurking in the Western playoff race.
Today at TheSportsNotebook, it’s time to take a look at college basketball’s remaining undefeated team in Murray State. And we also make Baltimore fans re-live the agony, as we ask the question of whether their loss in New England on Sunday was the most devastating in the history of Championship Sunday.
Thursday, January 26
The NHL goes into the All-Star break with no games scheduled the rest of the night, and the talk around the league is about Boston Bruins’ goalie Tim Thomas refusal to join his team for a White House ceremony honoring their 2011 Stanley Cup run. Thomas’ reasons for overtly political, as confirmed by the goalie himself.
I did not vote for President Obama in 2008 and don’t intend to in 2012, and I will admit that anything that sends The Boston Globe into an editorial tizzy brings immense satisfaction. But I also believe Thomas should have gone with his team.
The reason is that I don’t think everything should be politicized. There’s a tendency among political activists to make everything personal—i.e, I think this guy’s wrong, he shouldn’t be in office, therefore he’s an atrocious human being on every level, so let’s ostracize him.” This is, quite frankly, sick.
Sports, like other cultural institutions in this country, should be seen as a place of common ground, where people who otherwise disagree can get along. It doesn’t mean saying your political views aren’t important, or even that they’re less important than tonight’s game. But it means stepping back and being willing to use common interests with others as a way of finding common ground.
While I didn’t vote for the president, I don’t hate him. It’s Thomas’ right not to go, but I wish he would have made the same distinction.
Looking at tonight’s games, it’s a night low on volume, especially with hockey on break, but the quality in TV games is there…
College Hoops: Three of the five teams in the ACC that have just one league loss are in action tonight. N.C. State meets North Carolina in Chapel Hill (7 PM ET, ESPN) and then Virginia defends their home floor against rebuilding Boston College (9, ESPNU). Duke and Florida State are the other two and both held serve last night. In the SEC, it’s Florida-Ole Miss (7, ESPN2), with the Gators trying to keep pace with Kentucky, while Ole Miss is a team in the mix for an NCAA berth. And in the Big Ten, I’ll be making the trip personally to Madison to watch Wisconsin host Indiana (9, ESPN2)
NBA: Thursday means its time for the TNT doubleheader. Boston visits Orlando, a return game after the Celtics crushed the Magic on Monday night. That game tips at 8 PM ET. Then the LA Clippers, off a tough loss to the Lakers last night, host Memphis (10:30 PM ET).
Here at TheSportsNotebook, it’s going to be a Midwestern feel today. We’ll look at the Big Ten’s minddle class, where Wisconsin, Indiana and Purdue are somewhere between conference championship level and the NCAA Tournament bubble, and we’ll see if any are likely to make a decisive swing in either direction the rest of the season. And in the NBA, it’s a look at the Central Division duo of Indiana and Chicago, coming off the Pacers win over the Bulls last night. To keep the geographic theme going, we’ll also pull an artificat out of The Notebook Museum. Read up on 1987, where Indiana’s NCAA championship basketball team was just one part of a successful year on the Hoosier state. The Big Ten & NBA features will be posted later this morning.
Wednesday, January 25
Prince Fielder finally found himself a team yesterday and when I heard he got a deal from Detroit for nine years at $214 million, I had to question whether the world itself had completely gone mad. Not the Detroit Tigers. Not the MLB milieu. The entire world. For Fielder to get onto the far side of $20 mil annually, for it to come from a team in a pitcher’s park, for it to come from a team who already has the best first baseman in the American League in Miguel Cabrera, for that kind of long-term security to be given to a player who doesn’t appear to be in the greatest of physical condition, and ultimately to determine Fielder should be paid at a level more appropriate to Albert Pujols…well, yes I think the world has gone mad.
Fielder and Cabrera will now have to sort out who will be play first and who will DH, or if it will be some mix of both. TheSportsNotebook will take a look at that once we start spring training reports in the latter part of February. For now, all that’s there to say is “Wow. What a country.”
Looking at tonight’s games, here’s a snapshot of the highlights…
College Hoops: The ESPN doubleheader is Villanova-Louisville and Duke-Maryland. The first one’s a yawner, with ‘Nova on a down year, while the College Park should be rocking as the Terps try and move into the class of ACC championship contenders.
Away from the TV spotlight, Florida State goes to Wake Forest. ESPN2 has Missouri-Oklahoma State (7:30 PM ET), in a year where the Cowboys aren’t that good. But Mizzou has to face the road coming off the big win over Baylor on Saturday and moving up to #2 in the polls. Who knows, this one might get interesting. ESPNU has a twinbill of West Virginia-St. John’s and Kansas State-Texas Tech. Nothing special here, although in both cases you have the superior team on the road. And the underrated Atlantic 10 race has a key matchup with St. Louis-Xavier, both teams having two league losses. Dayton beat Xavier over the weekend and sent the message that this league will be open. The Flyers play a St. Joe’s program on the way up after a few years in the wilderness.
NBA: NBA-TV has a good doubleheader here, with Indiana-Chicago and LA Clippers-LA Lakers. And Atlanta goes to San Antonio, and it’s an opportunity see how the Pacers match up with the Bulls.
NHL: Only one more game before the All-Star break and its Detroit-Montreal tonight on NBCSN (formerly Versus) at 7:30 PM ET.
Here at TheSportsNotebook, we’re checking in on both the Lakers and Clippers, as this new rivalry gets center stage tonight, and in college basketball it’s time to take a look at the Mountain West, where San Diego State and UNLV are each in the top 15.
Tuesday, January 24
Yesterday I did my twice-weekly podcast at PrimeSports Network with Greg DePalma and we rehashed the results of Championship Sunday. You can listen to the one-hour show, but Greg brought up a good point and it’s this—in a year where it seemed quality was just so far down in the NFL, is it not appropriate that both championship games are being remembered more about who lost them than who won them?
Even a media that rushes to assume every quarterback with a 12-for-20 statline for 119 yards “led” his team to a win if they happen to prevail, hasn’t accorded that honor to Tom Brady or Eli Manning. The talk is about Kyle Williams, Lee Evans and Billy Cundiff and I think that’s fair enough. But it is a mark that in a league where you had a team reach 13-0 without good pass protection, without a running game and a defense that hemorrhaged yards, then it does sound appropriate that championships were lost, and not won on Sunday.
The other interesting point (well, there were more than two interesting points the whole show), but the one I recall, was—if I may be so immodest to say so, belonged to yours truly. It went to the question of is Eli Manning now an elite quarterback. Most of us laughed in August when he said he was. Most of us are eating crow right now. But honestly, I’m not quite ready to put him in a class with Brady, or Peyton, or Rodgers or Brees, who set the standard at this position.
I will absolutely give Eli credit for getting a heckuva lot closer than I even though. I will allow that it’s now a subject for reasonable debate. But I don’t think he’s there yet and here’s why—elite quarterbacks reach a level where expectations that are impossible to fulfill week-in, week-out are thrust upon them. Brady and Eli both played elite defenses on Sunday. Both had their moments. Both had their mistakes. Eli completed a higher percentage of his throws, Brady got more yards per throw out of his. Brady’s two interceptions were not on him—the first bounced off a receiver’s hands, the second was an extraordinary play by the defense, where the ball was thrown in a spot it would not normally be picked. Essentially, the two quarterbacks had pretty equivalent days.
So what was the media reaction? I won’t say they called Eli a hero, but they did make it out like this was one more step into the pantheon. The same media reported that Brady had a bad game, helped further along by the QB’s own candid statement that he “sucked”. The media places higher expectations on Brady, who in turn places them on himself. It hasn’t happened to Eli yet. Admittedly, this is not the defining benchmark of elite status, but it is an intangible yardstick along the way.
The Sports Notebook’s got college basketball and hockey on tap for today. We take a closer look at the contenders in the Pac-12, where Cal is currently leading the pack. And we’ll zoom in on NHL division leaders Vancouver and San Jose, looking for a possible rematch of last year’s Western Conference Finals. And please take a look at the work of TheSportsNotebook’s newest contributor, Will Fairbanks, who has an insightful piece of how bad tackling has become in the NFL, replete with statistics to back it up.
Monday, January 23
For TheSportsNotebook’s weekend edition, I was trying to pick out the best Championship Sunday to use as one of the historical features. I ended up settling on 1987 and was surprised at how few years had consecutive great—not just good, but great games. There were seasons like last year, where both games stayed interesting, but you always felt like you knew who would win.
As one who’s interested in history I hate making sweeping statements in the immediate aftermath of a current event—but since I just finished reviewing all Championship Sundays since 1976 looking for candidates, I feel like I can say that what we saw yesterday will stand the test of time as the best ever.
If you’re Kyle Williams, Billy Cundiff or Lee Evans you might not feel that way. If you’re the Harbaugh family you might not feel the way. For that matter, if you’re just a fan of Baltimore or San Francisco, you might be able, at best, to give that statement, grudging credence. But for a fan just looking for a good day of championship football it couldn’t have been better.
My strongest rooting interest yesterday was for New England, but we need to get an early comment in here on both Joe Flacco, and to a lesser extent John Harbaugh. No one is blaming the quarterback or coach right now for the loss, recognizing that you can’t do anything when a receiver allows himself to be stripped of a game-winning touchdown pass and a kicker shanks an easy field goal to tie it. Please remember that in future years if the Ravens don’t get to a Super Bowl, and the temptation is to say that Harbaugh or Flacco can’t win the big one. They were right there in position to do it, and you only get so many chances.
Finally, an ode to Bill Belichick. How many other coaches could have won an AFC title with this kind of talent on defense? The Patriots not only did, but played a good defensive game against the run and beyond the drama of the finish, that’s the biggest reason they won the game.
For today’s features, TheSportsNotebook will focus in on college hoops—which is going to get daily action all week, and pretty much every day from now through the Final Four in early April. We’ll look at Kentucky and three other contenders in the SEC. And in the NBA, Orlando and Atlanta are hanging right with Miami in the Southeast Division, and the Magic are on TV tonight in Boston, so we evaluate how those three teams are doing in the first quarter of the schedule.