Tuesday, March 25, 2008

The Rookie: Still Inspiring Belief in Baseball, Even When We Know the Awful Truth

I saw The Rookie last night for the second time. I liked it a ton the first time, and it still holds up. It still moves the viewer. John Lee Hancock directed this 2002 biopic starring Dennis Quaid as Jimmy Morris, who made his major league baseball debut at the age of 35.

Drafted out of high school in 1983 by the Milwaukee Brewers, Morris bounced around the minors for six years, then chucked it all in 1989. He then became a high school teacher and coach in Texas. In June 1999, he gained an unlikely pro tryout, impressed scouts with his live fastball, and, before the season was over, was called up to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays (a team with woeful pitching), with whom he finished the season.

Morris made the Rays roster in spring of 2000, though he only lasted about five weeks into that season, returning to oblivion, but not before he struck a blow for dreamers everywhere. In two very partial seasons, Morris compiled modest numbers: no wins or losses, 15 IP, 4.80 ERA, 13 Ks.

Morris’ story is inspiring, even without all the Hollywood melodrama, of which there is a fair amount in Hancock’s film. Yet despite the hokum—which, on balance, is probably handled as well as any director could—Hancock also does wonderful things with the camera, which bring to life the dusty Texas setting and exhibit particular strength in the critical relationship scenes between Quaid and Rachel Griffiths, who, as Morris’ wife, exudes an earthy sexuality and a subtle appeal. Hers is a fine performance, but so is Quaid’s, and watching him one wonders why he isn’t (or wasn’t) a bigger star. He handles all the baseball stuff like a champ, with convincing athleticism and a sense of determination that reads as credible without once getting mawkish. He also manages understatement in the scenes in which he coaches the high school baseball team to a surprise successful season. Scenes played with Brian Cox, as his dark-spirited father, are also very affecting.

If only director Hancock hadn’t indulged a tendency to over-focus his lens on kid actor Angus T. Jones, known now as the obnoxious tween-child on the TV series Two and a Half Men. Jones plays Quaid’s son, and this bit of thematic schmaltz (fathers and sons) becomes tiresome, even though it does have some logic in context. It doesn’t help that Jones isn’t charming. Luckily, it doesn’t kill the film.

The movie’s musical score, with the exception of some overly sentimental recorder motifs, is terrific, a fun blend of rockabilly and Americana and country that keeps us mindful of the rural surroundings.

But maybe what The Rookie achieves beyond excellent filmmaking is the evocation of a sincere regard for baseball at any level. I watched the flick remembering how much I loved the sport as a kid, even though my own achievements never extended beyond grammar school leagues or softball fields. Hancock’s careful direction successfully reminds us what a great game baseball is.

The irony is thick, then, when Quaid as Morris, finally inside a major league locker room, strolls past the hanging jersey of Jose Canseco, who, in actual fact, was then having the last quality year of his steroid-checkered career (.279, 34 HRs, 95 RBIs). At that point, the movie just as easily reminds us what an awful business the pro game has become at its highest rung. Dopers and liars among players, weak-sister executives, perversely bloated salaries, ticket prices affordable only to the well-to-do, an overextended season that becomes mind-numbing and loses its meaning, plus a playoff season that drags nearly into November, when, at some games, teams dress in winter underwear and fans freeze their nuts off. Meanwhile, television (and, by extension, the New York Yankees) calls all the shots.

The Rookie has the power to re-instill devotion to baseball. It’s well-crafted sports story-telling that never overstates its case and often induces chills in those who still have a fondness for baseball’s mythical properties. Too bad money and greed have ruined it all.

Nevertheless, baseball is right around the corner. Joe Torre is managing the Dodgers, the fabulous Ryan Howard of the Phillies gets a fresh start on the season, and the Washington Nationals open a brand-new ballpark, Nationals Park, on March 30, against the Atlanta Braves.

Somewhere, Jimmy Morris will be watching. The rest of us will have blinders on.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Chalk Talk: When NCAA Brackets Bleed Davidson Red

If you’re anything like me, you have an NCAA bracket stained with blood. Mine, I’m afraid, is probably redder than most. I play a limited chalk (higher-seed) game. In the opening round, I mostly pick favorites, but I leave some leeway for teams that I think will surprise.

The bracketeer who went strictly chalk in the first round this year would’ve ended up 25-7 in the first 32 games. I was 23-9, which basically sucks but isn’t that far from the norm. You could say I was “done in” by Connecticut, Gonzaga, Southern Cal, Clemson and Indiana, higher seeds who went down. But I also picked Siena to defeat Vanderbilt, and Western Kentucky to take Drake, two lower seeds that came through in fine fashion.

But it was the other teams I took a flyer on that really hurt me. Faced with a tough Kent State (9)-UNLV (8) matchup, I picked the Golden Flashes, mainly because MAC teams have surprised in the tourney before, and because UNLV’s resume just didn’t tell me enough. Bad guess.

In the Arizona (10)-West Virginia (7) matchup, I went with the Wildcats. I never figured them to get any further, but I thought they were good for one win, based on their PAC-10 pedigree. I definitely underestimated West Virginia, partly because their coach, Bob Huggins, is not really regarded as a strategist. He’s proved himself to be a great recruiter, but in his first season with the Mountaineers, these aren’t really his players. They look very strong, though, just as their resume portended. Another bad guess.

I went with Oregon (9) versus Mississippi State (8) and took a bath there, too. To me, that game was a toss-up on paper, and I was hoping the fickleness of the tourney would play in my favor. Wrong. (Never count on the fickleness of the tourney.)

But where I really got hurt was with St. Joseph’s. With the small but scrappy Philly school playing well at season’s end—with a good-sized front line and good shooting stats—I selected them as the surprise team that would catch fire. I got it into my stupid head that this was the miracle team of the tourney. I penciled the Hawks in for three wins, taking down Oklahoma, Louisville and Tennessee along their way to the Elite 8. Well, if the tourney’s not for fun, then why do we do it? Needless to say, my fantasy jollies are now out of my system.

I had three other teams moving on to the Sweet 16—Gonzaga, Clemson, Connecticut—who, like St. Joe’s, never even made it out of the first round. Add other picks Duke and Marquette, who fell in the second round, and that means I enter the Sweet 16 with 10 viable teams, a .625 percentage. Not the worst, but if I were in an office pool with a lot of other bracketeers, I’d probably be long out of the running.

Here’s the good news where following along the tourney is concerned. I have 10 out of my Sweet 16 still playing. I have 7 out of my Elite 8 still playing. Plus, I have all my Final Four teams still looking strong—North Carolina, Kansas, UCLA and Texas.

You can’t take this bracket stuff too seriously, or you’ll go crazy. It’s nice to have some fun with it. Of course, it’s nice to win a few too.


ACC (4)—Except for North Carolina, they’re done, with Clemson exiting early, and Miami and Duke falling in their second game.

Big East (8)—Louisville, Villanova, and West Virginia remain, but I daresay they’re probably not the three most bracketeers counted on. Notre Dame, Georgetown, Marquette and Pittsburgh are done, but with decent showings. Connecticut took an early powder.

Big 12 (6)—Only Kansas and Texas remain. Oklahoma, Kansas State, Texas A&M each won first-round games, Baylor exited early.

Big 10 (4)—Wisconsin and Michigan State remain, and that’s a better percentage so far than most of the other major conferences. Especially interesting since the Big 10 was considered in a down cycle this year. Purdue won one game; Indiana exited early.

PAC 10 (6)—They have three remaining entries, Washington State, Stanford and UCLA, all of whom have played well to get to the Sweet 16. Southern Cal, Arizona and Oregon all lost first-round games, and didn’t look very good doing so.

SEC (6)—Not a good showing here for the home of the reigning champs, Florida, who didn’t even qualify this season. One team remains in the Sweet 16, Tennessee. They’re looking good, but they face a Louisville team that has completed two laughers against Boise State and Oklahoma. As for the other five SECs: Vanderbilt (as predicted here), Georgia and Kentucky were one and done; Arkansas and Mississippi State each won a first-round game and had respectable showings.

Atlantic 10 (3)—Xavier remains; they’ve looked very good. St. Joe’s and Temple exited early.

The remainder of the Sweet 16 comprises single schools from so-called mid-major conferences: Memphis (Conference USA), Davidson (Southern Conference) and Western Kentucky (Sun Belt Conference). While Memphis is still a favorite to advance (albeit with a tough game versus Michigan State), Davidson has a longer haul against taller, stronger Wisconsin, and Western Kentucky takes on UCLA, an improbable task.

Man of the Moment: Stephen Curry of Davidson has poured in 70 points in his first two NCAA games, and the #10-seeded Wildcats have taken down #7-seeded Gonzaga and #2-seeded Georgetown. Fifty-five of Curry’s points have come in the second half. His team has now won 24 games in a row including the regular season.

See you next week.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

March Mudness: Clarifying the Murky NCAA Field for Stalwart Bracketeers

Yes, I’m going to fill out an NCAA bracket. No, I’m not going to share it with the world. It’ll be tough enough to deal with my failed projected upsets in private, much less have the international blogosphere be privy to ‘em.

Instead, I’m going to share my wisdom about this year’s teams. I’ve crunched a lot of data in the past few days, and I think I have some worthy observations that might help everyone else feel a little more informed about the field.

Here goes nuthin’:


1. North Carolina (32-2)—A tourney favorite. They have depth and talent. And Tyler Hansbrough. Their path to the Final Four looks almost too easy.

2. Tennessee (29-4)—I’ve watched these guys. They’re great. More talent on a college b-ball court you won’t find. They play a pressing D, and their transition game is breathtaking. They can score in bunches, but they give up tons of points, too. They might go far, but someone with a more controlled style might shut ‘em down.

3. Louisville (24-8)—Rick Pitino coaches good basketball teams. This is one of ‘em. They tied for second in the Big East. But their out-of-conference performance, while decent, was not noteworthy.

4. Washington State (24-8)—My initial reaction to these guys was lukewarm. But check out their rcord. Their overall performance was surprisingly consistent, they beat everyone they should logically beat, and they performed well enough in the tough Pac-10. Who they didn’t beat was UCLA. Could surprise.

5. Notre Dame (24-7)—Strong Big East resume and a balanced lineup. They score, hit their treys at a 41% clip, are strong on free throws, and they have a big man, 6’8” Luke Harangody, who averages a double-double and hits 51.7% from the floor. So why aren’t they a higher seed?

6. Oklahoma (22-11)—Big front line, and presumably battle-tested after playing Big 12 teams like Kansas, Texas, Texas A&M, and Kansas State. They are below average both from the foul line and the three-point stripe. A bit of an unknown quantity.

7. Butler (29-3)—Reputed to be under-seeded. They’re ranked 10th in the nation, so why aren’t they seeded higher? They have some good wins on the resume, but nothing earthshaking. And playing in the Horizon League, you almost wonder how they could lose at all to the likes of Wright State and Cleveland State. They had a late-season loss at home to Drake, 71-64. But maybe the tournament committee had the same suspicions I do. They hit their free throws, though.

8. Indiana (25-7)—They’ve underperformed since coach Kelvin Sampson was told to take a hike. They’re talented but appear vulnerable. Best free-throw-shooting team in the tourney.

9. Arkansas (22-11)—They’ve got some size and general ability. They have some decent wins to their credit, including a victory over Tennessee in the SEC tourney (for what that’s worth). They’re mediocre from the foul line and the 3-point line. First-round matchup versus Indiana should be competitive. After that, who knows?

10. South Alabama (26-6)—They don’t really have any top-quality wins, and they lost twice to Middle Tennessee State, a scrappy but generally mediocre outfit. They’re an at-large team from the Sun Belt Conference, with decent shooting numbers but against suspect competition. Their presence here probably makes Arizona State fans grumble. Yet they get a first-round game against Butler in nearby Birmingham, so maybe the gods are smiling on ’em.

11. St. Joseph’s (21-12)—Atlantic 10 at-large choice getting props from the pundits. They’ve got a serious front line (no man under 6’8”), and their shooting numbers in all phases are impressive. Have yet to prove they can beat a great team.

12. George Mason (23-10)—The darlings of the ‘06 tourney. Half of this squad was on that Final Four team. So maybe look out. Statistical numbers are so-so. They’re not very tall, but neither was the ‘06 outfit. Odds of lightning striking twice are pretty slim.

13. Winthrop (22-11)—They’re relatively short, and their stats against generally mediocre competition are unimpressive. Supposedly they play good D. They did beat Miami, however, who beat Duke, Mississippi State and Clemson. Hmmm....

14. Boise State (25-8)—A couple of decent wins (BYU, San Diego), and they shoot treys well. Also strong shooting from the floor. Weak schedule. Survival odds slim to none.

15. American (21-11)—Best three-point shooters in the tourney, statistically speaking. Hit their free throws, too. Hardly any size, though, and they didn’t play anybody of note. They beat Maryland in College Park, which probably says more about the Terps than it does about the Eagles.

16. Coppin State (16-20)/Mt. St. Mary’s (18-14)—Pick your poison. Play-in game combatants have lousy records and played almost nobody that matters. Maybe they should re-think the system.


1. Kansas (31-3)—Strong in every phase of the offensive game, has size, and definitely a contender to take it all. They couldn’t beat Texas, though. They also have a recent history of underachieving in the NCAAs.

2. Georgetown (27-5)—Big East power does most things well. Proved they could beat the top contenders in their league. Play strong D, and have a serious big man, 7’2” Roy Hibbert. Pundits like ‘em to go far.

3. Wisconsin (29-4)—Well-coached squad that has risen above its penchant for lackluster offense. They beat Texas and Michigan State, which is saying a lot. They’ve got some size, and simply seem to play fundamentally sound b-ball, despite averaging only 68 points a game.

4. Vanderbilt (26-7)—Started the season 16-0, which means they’re 10-7 down the stretch. Not impressive. Only 7-7 on the road, too. On paper, they look great: they have size, hit their treys (fourth best among tourney teams), hit their free throws, and have a wonderful all-around star in 6’6” forward Shan Foster. So why do they look vulnerable?

5. Clemson (24-9)—Solid ACC entry, with wins over Duke, Miami and Mississippi State. They hit their treys at a decent clip, but for some reason aren’t so good from the free-throw line. Average-sized squad. Bit of an unknown quantity in the grand scheme of things.

6. Southern California (21-11)—They beat UCLA, Stanford and Arizona. Pretty good team, with decent size and solid numbers from the floor. Plus they have frosh sensation O. J. Mayo (20.9 ppg). They have an interesting first-round matchup with Kansas State and their frosh sensation, 6’ 10" Michael Beasley (26.5 ppg). Pac-10 resume might bode well.

7. Gonzaga (25-7)—West Coast Conference overachievers whose tough out-of-conference schedule includes victories over Connecticut, Western Kentucky, Georgia and road wins at St. Joseph’s and Virginia Tech. They also lost close games to Washington State, Tennessee and Oklahoma. No other so-called mid-major has better prepared itself to play in this tourney. They get a tough first-round matchup against another pundit favorite, Davidson.

8. UNLV (26-7)—Average height, mediocre shooting numbers and little in the way of quality wins. The Rebels mostly stuck to opponents in the west. When they played Louisville, they got trounced. First-round matchup versus Kent State might be a very good game.

9. Kent State (28-6)—Undisputed champs of the MAC. A couple of decent wins on the schedule, but really good teams (North Carolina, Xavier) beat ‘em soundly. Stats are very average.

10. Davidson (26-6)—On a 22-game win streak. Pundits are raving, “Look out for the Wildcats.” But who did they play? Well, UCLA, North Carolina and Duke. And lost ’em all. The rest of their schedule comprises Southern Conference foes and other non-entities. Spanking Elon, Wofford and Georgia Southern tells us little. They can shoot a little, and they’ve got two 6’8” forwards, neither of whose numbers are startling. Caveat emptor.

11. Kansas State (20-11)—Hotshot freshman Michael Beasley is the story here. They beat Kansas also. Their numbers from the field do not impress, but they manage nearly 80 points per game, with Beasley rebounding and scoring at significant rates. Interesting #11.

12. Villanova (20-12)—Some solid Big East victories on the resume. Not so good from the floor; better from the foul line. Generally strong front line, and well-coached. But they could disappear quickly as easily as they could surprise.

13. Siena (22-10)—Not a bad-shooting team. Average size. Metro Atlantic competition not very good. They tended to lose whenever they played someone from a serious conference. Yet somehow, they beat Stanford. Went 14-4 in the stretch and are on a 6-game winning streak. Mystery team.

14. Cal State-Fullerton (24-8)—Small, good-shooting team that played almost nobody, and when they played someone good (Arizona, for example), they got whipped. They have a marquee player, Josh Akognon. Surprise seems unlikely.

15. Md.-Baltimore County (24-8)—Behold the Retrievers of UMBC, defeaters of American U. They have almost no size, compiled acceptable shooting stats against other nobodies, and have won playing it close to the vest with few turnovers. I suspect Georgetown’s bench could take ‘em handily.

16. Portland State (23-9)—The Big Sky champs actually have a 6’11" center, Scott Morrison, with good numbers, plus a 5’6” guard named Jeremiah Dominguez who can shoot. When they played serious opponents (UCLA, Washington), they got hammered. One late-season win against Cal State-Fullerton is the biggest notch on the belt.


1. Memphis (33-1)—Here’s a stat: Since 1974, no team has come into the NCAAs with only one loss and gone on to win it all. In Vegas terms, that makes the Tigers practically a lock to lose somewhere along the line. They’re talented African gods with good size and athleticism, but they are also one of the worst free-throw-shooting and 3-point-shooting teams in this tourney. If someone can neutralize their up-tempo pace, they can be had.

2. Texas (28-6)—Look out, below! The Longhorns have the strongest resume in the tourney. Check out these victories: Tennessee, UCLA, Kansas, Texas A&M, Baylor, Oral Roberts, Oklahoma. They’ve got size, balance, a great guard in D. J. Augustin, and they’ve won 12 of their last 14 games. Their free-throw shooting could be a little better, but they’re also playing strong D these days.

3. Stanford (26-7)—Two 7-footers should help the Cardinal advance for a while here. A 13-5 record in the Pac-10’s gotta count for something, but they could never beat UCLA. They also have a strange loss to Siena blemishing the overall record. Their shooting stats are mediocre, so if they don’t get it done inside, they might be in trouble.

4. Pittsburgh (26-9)—Another darling of the punditry. They proved they can beat Duke and their big Big East competitors. They do it with toughness and physicality. The Panthers aren’t really that tall, and their shooting numbers (especially from the 3-point line, ranked 57th in the tourney) are not noteworthy. In other words, they beat you up and play aggressive defense. It seems to be working.

5. Michigan State (25-8)—Among all the high-profile programs, the Spartans can get lost in the shuffle. They’re always hanging around, though, and with good reason. They have a super coach in Tom Izzo, and they play a solid out-of-conference schedule that gets ‘em battle-tested, even if the Big Ten is in a down cycle. They have some good size, they shoot well from the floor and the free-throw line, and they have veteran guard Drew Neitzel calling the shots. And this is huge: They beat Texas. They face a scrappy Temple team in the first round, but my money’s on Izzo and the Spartans.

6. Marquette (24-9)—Solid Big East resume and an out-of-conference victory on the road over tough Wisconsin. Still, Marquette’s other out-of-conference opponents were fairly unimposing, and their shooting stats are only just okay. They do seem to play serious D, though.

7. Miami (22-10)—For once, it’s the Miami from Florida that’s made the tourney. Seems like it’s been a while for the Hurricanes, and it’s their first NCAA since joining the ACC. They beat Duke, Clemson and Mississippi State, and that’s impressive. They’ve got two big men down low, three scrappy guards, they hit their treys and they can shoot free throws with the best of ‘em. The out-of-conference schedule had some weak sisters, but I wouldn’t bet against these guys in a close game.

8. Mississippi State (22-10)—Rather an unknown SEC quantity. They’ve got some decent players, including Tyler Hansbrough’s little brother Ben, and two guys down low, Charles Rhodes and Jarvis Varnado, who bang it up and rebound. But they didn’t really beat anybody, even in their own conference, and they’re weak from both the foul line and the 3-point stripe. If I was one of those bubble teams, I’d wonder what these Bulldogs are doing here.

9. Oregon (18-13)—Oregon is sorta the Mississippi State of the Pac-10. They have some better wins than the Bulldogs (Arizona, Stanford, Kansas State), but still, their resume looks thin in out-of-conference play. I guess losing to UCLA, USC and Washington State means more than winning against lesser or equal teams. The Ducks shoot from the floor very well (both deuces and treys). At least their first-round matchup (against Mississippi State, of course) looks logical.

10. St. Mary’s (25-6)—Not sure St. Mary’s wins over Drake and Oregon mean so much, but their victory over Gonzaga does. Otherwise, they’re a classic bubble team that may or may not belong here. Their out-of-conference schedule was mediocre, and their competition in the West Coast Conference (except for Gonzaga) just doesn’t impress. Statistically, they are a bit below average. If they advance, it’s a surprise.

11. Kentucky (18-12)—They probably shouldn’t even be here. There were other bubble teams more deserving. They can prove me wrong with a win against Marquette, and maybe that old Wildcat magic and tradition will prevail for awhile. They shoot free throws well, and they can apparently play good defense, and possibly that’ll sustain ’em. The out-of-conference schedule was decent, but they could never beat anybody that mattered. They had home victories versus Tennessee and Vanderbilt, and doubtless the 12-4 SEC record bulwarked the NCAA selection. We shall see.

12. Temple (21-12)—Not sure about these guys. They shoot well, they’ve got some size, and they’re on a 7-game winning streak. They beat Atlantic 10 foes Xavier and St. Joseph’s, though that might simply be a function of intra-league law of averages. The out-of-conference slate was mediocre, and they didn’t beat anyone who counted. They draw Michigan State in the first round, so their little bubble might burst quickly.

13. Oral Roberts (24-8)—They’ve got some size—6’6,” 6’10,” 6’8,” 6’9”—in the starting lineup, but building a resume as Summit League champs might be like being the best golfer in Alaska. They played a few out-of-conference games worth mentioning—Texas, Texas A&M, Arkansas—and lost ’em all. First-round opponent is a small Pitt squad that likes to bang bodies. Might be interesting for a while.

14. Cornell (22-5)—One thing about Ivy League teams—they don’t play nearly as many games as the others in the tourney. That said, Ivy League entries have a history of providing stiff early-round competition (think of Princeton or Penn in years past). The Big Red can offer us this: the best 3-point average in the tourney, and the second-best free-throw average in the tourney. So if they play Ivy League smart, hit their treys, and keep it close enough where foul shots matter, who knows? They beat Siena this year. Siena beat Stanford this year. Cornell’s first-round opponent? Stanford. Go figure.

15. Austin Peay (24-10)—Average height, mediocre conference (Ohio Valley), and when they played anybody good out of conference they were routed. They can shoot a little, but first-round opponent Texas should not be afraid.

16. Texas-Arlington (21-11)—The only thing these guys do well statistically is shoot from the floor (deuces only). They’ve got a 6’9” center named Jermaine Griffin who has decent numbers. The resume is thin, including a 99-66 victory over Schreiner (whoever the heck they are). One and done.


1. UCLA (31-3)—Okay, they’re great. The class of the Pac-10. But freshman center Kevin Love’s back has been sore, and if someone roughs him up, what then? Well, there’re plenty of other talented players, and they should hang in there regardless. The Bruins are not the best 3-point shooters in the world, but that appears to be their only weakness. If healthy, they could go all the way.

2. Duke (27-5)—Strong all over as usual, though not dominating and a little weak in the rebounding department. Someone might outmuscle ’em down the line, but the Blue Devils should be in for the longer haul.

3. Xavier (27-6)—Statistically, one of the best-shooting teams in the nation, in all phases. They play solid D also. A few quality wins out of conference, but a few losses too. They can strike a serious blow for Atlantic 10 respect with a good tourney showing.

4. Connecticut (24-8)—Big East perennial power that does it all well. The front court goes 6’7,” 6’9,” and 7’3,” the latter being one Hasheem Thabeet (sort of the new Emeka Okafor). Thabeet blocks shots and averages 10.5 ppg/8.0 rpg. Could be tough in the later rounds.

5. Drake (28-4)—Another team the pundits like to talk about. But their best wins were in-conference only. They simply didn’t play anybody out of conference, and when they did (St. Mary’s), they got beat. They shoot free throws and play defense (in the Missouri Valley Conference, anyway). But they’re not tall, and they look ripe for the plucking, even being overseeded as they are.

6. Purdue (24-8)—Interesting team. Their stats don’t jump out at you, but they did beat Wisconsin and Michigan State, plus out-of-conference Louisville. They play D, and wear ya down, and sometimes that’s a good strategy in the tourney.

7. West Virginia (24-10)—They’ve got size, even at the guard slot, and the Mountaineers have balance throughout the lineup in scoring and rebounding. Sometimes they look absolutely great. But their shooting stats are not impressive as far as it goes. Their out-of-conference schedule was a mixed-bag of obvious success plus close losses to teams like Tennessee and Oklahoma. They’re a serious Big East team with something to prove, and their first-round matchup versus Arizona should be a dilly.

8. Brigham Young (27-7)—An average-shooting team which is worse from the free-throw line. They’ve got a big center, 6’11’ Trent Plaisted, with solid numbers. They beat Louisville and lost to North Carolina and Michigan State, then mostly trampled on their Mountain West brethren. Their seed is about right, but how good they really are is as yet unknown.

9. Texas A&M (24-10)—They beat Texas, and that seems to be the great qualifier tourney-wide. If you can hang with the Longhorns, you gotta be pretty good. The Aggies have size all over, but their shooting is only so-so. The out-of-conference performance is good but not great. Other victories included Oral Roberts, Baylor and Oklahoma plus the non-tourney Ohio State. Keep an eye on these guys.

10. Arizona (19-14)—So here they are, with 14 losses and a fill-in coach, Kevin O’Neill. Being a Pac-10 team helped the Wildcats get into the Dance, for sure, but also, their shooting numbers are quite good (top 15 in the tourney in all phases). Plus, they’ve got their usual good size and a star guard in Jerryd Bayless. O’Neill stresses defense, and improvement is nigh. Despite their struggles—they’ve lost 8 of their last 12—they’re capable of a very good game.

11. Baylor (21-10)—Another good Big 12 team. They shoot pretty well, rebound less so. Played a decent out-of-conference schedule and defeated Notre Dame and Winthrop. First-round matchup versus Purdue will be a challenge, though.

12. Western Kentucky (27-6)—For a team from a little-regarded conference (Sun Belt), the Hilltoppers have done pretty well historically in the NCAAs (15-20). They didn’t really beat anybody this year, not even the toughest in-conference foe, South Alabama. But they shoot treys well, play defense, and have a star in 6’5” guard Courtney Lee. They line up against Drake in the first round. A tempting 5/12 upset could be in the offing.

13. San Diego (21-13)—They got in because they won the West Coast Conference tourney. But also, they’ve got wins over Gonzaga, St. Mary’s and Kentucky. Their shooting numbers are lackluster, and the Toreros tend to get into really close games, which might not be a good idea when facing off in the first round versus a physical group like Connecticut. Need a miracle to survive.

14. Georgia (17-16)—These guys aren’t even a bubble team. They were never in the running for selection at all, then went ahead and won the SEC tournament. It’s a nice story and all, but it looks like a total fluke to me. Pretty rare air as a #14-seed for an SEC team, though. If I’m first-round opponent Xavier, I wouldn’t give ’em an inch—play ’em tough and vanquish ’em fast.

15. Belmont (25-8)—A Nashville team only blocks from my condo-crib, but sentiment can’t impede the truth: They’re not even one of the top 30 teams in the tourney shooting treys, and that’s their strength! Somehow these slow white boys from the Atlantic Sun Conference have managed 13 in a row to close the season, and are making their third consecutive NCAA appearance. It’s all very nice and I wish ’em luck, but Duke is lying in wait.

16. Mississippi Valley State (17-15)—Statistically, these guys don’t do anything well. They even got outscored by their opponents on a per-game average. They did play some serious out-of-conference competition but got smoked by ’em all, including a 71-26 drubbing at the hands of Washington State. MVSU does better at producing wide receivers, like Jerry Rice. One and way done.

Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Titans Get Crumpler While Key Linemen Leave En Masse

After the opening weekend of NFL free agency, some Tennessee Titans fans are scratching their heads. I’m with ‘em. I don’t know when I’ve ever seen three veteran defensive linemen up and leave a team so quickly, all at the same time.

In the blink of an eye, defensive end Antwan Odom, defensive tackle Randy Starks and defensive end Travis Laboy all signed new contracts with other teams. They were four-year men, and as unrestricted free agents they were free to bail. Guess the big question is, Why?

While Titans brass were celebrating the free-agent signing of former Falcons All-Pro tight end Alge Crumpler, Odom, Starks and Laboy got away, as did offensive guard Jacob Bell. Tight ends Ben Troupe and Bo Scaife are also on the free-agent block, and don’t blink or they might be gone too.

Crumpler could be a good addition. He’s been one of the best TEs in the league for years, and a personal favorite of mine. But he’s 30 years old, and his playing time was limited last season due to a knee problem. Let’s hope he’s healthy—and still young enough.

Meanwhile, watching a load of young veterans get away, all solid role players in the Titans’ 10-6 season in ’07, is mystifying. Laboy and Odom were both drafted in Round 2 of the ‘04 draft. Starks was grabbed in the third round the same year. Bell, a virtual unknown, out of Miami (Ohio), was snagged later in the fifth round. (Troupe was also from that draft, during the Floyd Reese era. Pretty smart drafting for a team that had no #1 choice that year.) All of the aforementioned have made steady improvement. The DLs were key supporting players assisting Albert Haynesworth and Kyle Vanden Bosch on the Titans’ much-improved defense last season. Bell became a solid pro on a rebuilding OL unit and was presumed to be a regular starter for the next 5-10 years.

Now they’re all gone. Maybe there’s method to general manager Mike Reinfeldt’s madness. Or maybe the second-year GM is asleep at the switch. He’s not impressive in interviews, and even though head coach Jeff Fisher was grinning today about the Crumpler signing, it’s hard to know the plan.

It takes time to develop good linemen. If Reinfeldt’s getting replacements from the draft, it’s naive to think they’ll be immediately as good as the departed. And if Reinfeldt has scouted the free agent list, then he knows that most every name player at the trench positions is an older guy—and not necessarily a long-term solution. So why not sign the younger vets before they get away? He’s gonna have to sign somebody to fill their slots, isn’t he?

The Troupe/Scaife situation is also a little weird. With Crumpler’s arrival—and with third-stringer Ben Hartsock already departed via free agency to Atlanta—their status is up in the air should they stay. Scaife, a third-year man and hence a restricted free agent—which means the Titans get some compensation if he goes—had become the starting TE and one of Vince Young’s favorite targets in ’07. But Scaife is also a blocker, a valuable big man for a team that wants to run the ball. Troupe, on the other hand, has become invisible. Strange. After posting solid numbers in ’05—55 catches, 530 yards, 4 TDs—Troupe seemed ready to fulfill his promise as a star offensive TE. But he slipped off the radar in ’06 because of a foot injury, and never was in the mix in ’07, with only 5 catches for 47 yards.

It looks at the moment like Scaife will be retained, as the team moves to also keep in the fold other RFAs like kicker Rob Bironas and tackle David Stewart. Troupe might be deemed expendable, and the saga of how his star fell so far so fast remains filled with questions.

For all the hype about Vince Young, fact is the Titans returned to the playoffs in '07 due to the efforts of their defense and their offensive line. Young was an inconsistent, sometimes disappointing performer. Ditto running back LenDale White. Both still have promise, but in the meantime it was the trench guys that got things done. If the Titans were trying to save money on the recently departed, it might yet be seen as a penny-wise-and-pound-foolish mindset at work.

Reinfeldt's moves definitely bear watching. He could be a dummy—yet another ex-jock who looks good in a suit, and talks the talk, but is shortsighted. I miss frumpy old balding Reese. Pretty sharp cat.