Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Catching Up with the Local Sports Collectives

Falcons - The Abraham deal got done, with the Falcons moving down in the first round and picking up a third- and fourth-rounder to boot. (Naturally, the AJC managed to confuse me today by stating or at least implying that the Falcons don't pick before the second round. Would it be too much to ask that AJC reporters understand the deals on which they're reporting? Remember Sekou Smith's belief last year that the Hawks were going to lose the first-rounder they got in compensation for Antoine Walker? I digress.) The team signed him to a six-year, $45M contract, which naturally means nothing and I'm still looking for a breakdown on the deal. The Falcons need to get four good years out of him to make up for the fact that they traded away the chance to draft a young, cheap, productive player with the #15 pick. The defense does look a lot better now with the safety and defensive end weaknesses addressed. Now, they can focus on getting a corner who can relegate Jason Webster to the nickel and keep Allen Rossum from having to cover anyone, along with a left tackle who can at least impede opposing rushers from getting to the franchise. I'd also like to see them get a space-eater to put next to Rod Coleman to give the team a dream defensive line, but that might be too much to ask.

Thrashers - They followed up their big comeback in Boston with an even bigger comeback against New Jersey on Thursday night and then left a real stinker on the ice in Uniondale. This, combined with Montreal sweeping the Maple Leafs (thanks for the help, Toronto), leaves the Thrashers three points out with 11 games to go. Thursday night's game with Tampa is an absolute must-win. If the team doesn't make it, then chalk their failure up to an average defensive corps that have left Kari out to dry on too many occasions. Braydon Coburn, this is your life calling.

Braves - I'm going to go on record now as saying that trading John Thomson would be an enormous mistake. He's a legitimate #3 starter and giving him away for left-handed relief help, which is completely fungible, would be stupid. I know that the Braves want to get Kyle Davies into the rotation, but it's far more likely that they'll do so when one of their starters gets hurt (it's like clockwork with Tim Hudson and need I remind our fearless GM that the ace of the staff is 38 with a history of arm problems) or when Horacio Ramirez or Jorge Sosa blow up. Ramirez and Sosa both had suspect peripherals last year and have not set the world on fire this spring. Spring ball is never a good barometer of success once the pitches start flying for real, but for players about whom we already have doubts, weak spring performances are a concern. Ramirez and Sosa aren't Greg Maddux, intentionally f***ing with hitters by throwing them cheese that will confuse them when Greg sees them again in June. They both allowed a ton of runners last year, with Horacio adding the special treat of letting those runners score at a canter on the heels of another home run. I'd much prefer Davies and possibly Chuck James replacing them in the rotation if one or both suck.

Hawks - The team is firmly back in the crapper after a solid February. They aren't competitive with the good teams and they're losing to most of the bad teams. The players seem as if they've hit a wall, which is probably to be expected with a young team, but still discouraging. The only good news is that they're earning themselves a few more lottery balls.

The Atlanta Regional - I had a good time at the game on Thursday night, although I might never forgive my friend Billy for convincing me that Texas had things wrapped up at halftime and thus depriving me of seeing dueling clutch threes from Pittsnogle and Paulino in person. Still, I got to see Redick weep off the court after crapping the bed in his final game, so the trip was certainly worthwhile. Some assorted thoughts:

1. If Coach K didn't have his carefully crafted image of "more than a coach," then he might get some criticism from inside the periphery that his post-Grant Hill/Laettner teams have mostly underachieved in the tournament. He brings in the best high school talent every year, but almost every time Duke plays a similarly talented team in the tournament, they lose. No one can look at the talent that Coach K has brought in over the past decade and claim that his teams haven't underachieved, but since he has a healthy platoon of Caucasians (who are "gritty" and "heady" instead of "talented," despite the fact that they were huge recruits with similar physical skills to those "naturally-gifted" Black guys playing for other programs) and the aura of Duke University and Duke basketball behind him, he doesn't get criticized. And why do his teams underachieve? Possibly because he doesn't use his depth? Possibly because his coaching style, especially on defense, can be exploited by teams with quality size and those are the teams that Duke inevitably confronts in the later rounds of the tournament? Possibly because he doesn't spend as much time on the tactics that he excelled at earlier in his career and has instead entered a Bobby Bowden stage where he's more CEO than hands-on coach?

1a. One major caveat: Coach K is still the same guy who made seven Final Fours in nine years, at times with relatively untalented teams. (The 1990 team comes to mind, for instance.) Billy Donovan was being written off as a one-hit wonder before this season, but now, he has reminded us all that he's the same guy who did a fine job in riding Florida to the title game in 2000. If we just used the past several years as predictors, then we never would have guessed that the Pac Ten and SEC, two conferences that have struggled mightily to place teams in the Final Four, would have three-quarters of the representatives, while the fourth representative would come from the mid-major Cinderella class that hasn't produced a Final Four team in decades.

2. The hanging scoreboard and buzzer didn't work at the Georgia Dome on Thursday night. Given the efficacy of our city and state government, I can't say that I'm overly surprised.

3. The NCAA does everything they can to make the experience of going to a tournament game as antiseptic as possible. Maybe I've been spoiled by Hawks games (and when did you ever think you'd hear that?), but the interminable commercial breaks after every four minutes of game time were made much worse by the absence of any entertainment. No videos on the Jumbotron, no t-shirts being shot into the upper deck with bazookas, nothing but me and my thoughts. Don't they know that Gen X needs constant stimulation? Entertain me, dammit! And because the NCAA piously refuses to allow the sale of beer at the Tournament (they want to get rich of the unpaid labor that are their athletes, but they apparently don't want to get THAT rich), I couldn't even maintain a buzz.

4. Naturally, it took mere hours following GMU's win over UConn before I heard the first "why can't college football have a tournament so they could have their George Mason story?" remark (courtesy of Steak Shapiro on Mayhem in the AM). First, college basketball was not discussed at all until the NFL season ended (including on Mayhem) and even afterwards, there was more of a search for a storyline ("Hey look, there are two white guys scoring a lot of points for top ten teams! And one was home schooled while the other is a Marxist! Let's hype this story to death!") than there was interest in the games themselves. College basketball has reduced itself to a three-week impact on the sports consciousness of the country. College football has a season-long playoff.

And if you don't believe me, contrast the impact that Ohio State-Texas had on your memory with Duke-Memphis or Memphis-UCLA. If you were like me, you were probably surprised to find out that the Oakland Regional final was a rematch, mainly because no one cares about college basketball until late in the season. This is the wrong year to be bitching about college football's structure, since it worked perfectly, building up all season to the two best teams meeting in the Rose Bowl and then producing an absolute classic. Isn't that better than the second-place team in the CAA playing the second-best team in the SEC for all the marbles? I'm not saying that college football's system is perfect. 2004 surely illustrated that. However, the solution is a four-team playoff, not some sort of soulless 32-team monstrosity designed to allow casual fans to ignore the entire regular season and then pick up in December.

Second, there's no way for a George Mason to compete in football. College basketball requires a limited number of good players and a limited financial investment. That's how a team like George Mason can do better than the richer, bigger flagship schools of the Commonwealth. College football requires a large number of very good players and a larger financial investment. There's no such thing as a Danny Manning in football because one great player can't single-handedly win a game. (A great player with good teammates, like say, Vince Young? Sure. Vince Young with Middle Tennessee State talent around him? Eh, not so likely.)

Third, does anyone else find it a little cheap that a team that couldn't win the Colonial Athletic Conference has a good chance to win the national title?

4 comments:

Jacob said...

I was thinking a lot about our conversation about which sports are more prone for upsets than others and it got me thinking how college basketball produces so many upsets and it also has to deal with the rules in addition to the roster size. A 40 minute game with 35 second shot clock means that a team with less talent can shorten the game to where over less means that they have a greater chance of winning. Also the short 3 point line allows even games.

Compare this to the NBA which there are basicly no upsets because the longer game will usually give the better team more chance to show the skill difference.

I think the football "George Mason" would have to be a team like Utah a couple of years ago. Theres a reason there is a I-AA division of football.

peacedog said...

Don't underestimate what the scholarship changes of the last 20 years have done for college hoops. Combine that with the increased exposure that teams are getting - something that has IMO had a bigger impact in college basketball in terms of talent distribution than on the gridiron - and more highly talented players are heading to smaller schools because they can play, stand out, get noticed, and get drafted just like the kids at UConn, Duke, etc. But yes, I definately think that the rules help make the game "upset-driven". It's upset driven at the highschool level too, despite the lack of shot clocks.

The hoops regular season is perhaps underrated here Mike; I think that the nature of football is that it's more of a spotlight sport. You play once a week and once only. Everything gears around football games in ways they don't for hoops (but Nascar shares a similar phenomina). I think Cowheard recently made an interesting point where he stated that as a society, we're becoming weekend sports fans. Hence Football remains king, Nascar is on the rise, and other sports have diminished. Topic for another time.

Mike, I might in other situations argue over John Thompson's indispensibility. As it stands, I think it's the two guys he could replace - Horacio and Jorge - that makes him indepesible. Not his own ability. Though he's been pretty good for us the last two years I cannot argue. So I don't favor a move here either.

How painful is it going to be to watch Jordan take ABs during the season? a .350 (or whateveR) spring average with no extra base hits is going to quickly turn into a .220 season. I hate it for the guy, but he's done I think.

Have you seen any spring training action? I'm wondering how Devine has looked when he's pitched. The numbers are encouraging.

I'm perfectly happy using James as the lefty specialist - fungible is absolutely the right word used to describe lefty specialists. I hope Diaz makes the team along with Jurries, and hope that Jurries' roiding days are behind him (and that this doesn't impact his performance).

Here's to big things for the younger organizational studs in 06 (Andrus, Montgomery, etc).

Michael said...

Jacob,

I think that in basketball, the major factor that can allow an inferior team to win is that there are few players on the floor, so the game can be drastically affected by one or two players having particularly good or bad games. You're right that shortening the game is helpful for an inferior team (something that Lloyd Carr has never understood - with superior talent, he should be speeding the possessions up because Michigan's superiority is more likely to pay off in a 20-possession game as opposed to a 12-possession game), but there are still so many possessions in basketball that it becomes hard for an inferior team to win. You're right that the longer NBA game and the shorter shot clock make NBA upsets less likely. The extended playoffs make upsets almost impossible.

I thought about Utah when I was writing the post, but they're not a real George Mason. Utah is a large state school with the talent and money to compete on a major level. They ought to end up in the Pac Ten. There's a difference between a non-BCS team competing with the top teams in college football, which is unlikely but possible, and a real George Mason story, which is impossible.

Peace, I don't see George Mason beating UConn out in head-to-head recruiting battles, so I'm not inclined to think that increased exposure is evening out the talent distribution. Early departures do have an effect on the best programs, but conversely, the AAU system has made identification of the best players easier, so it's less likely that a great player will slip through the cracks. I'm of the opinion that what George Mason is doing is nothing new. After all, a lowly seeded Penn team made a Final Four in '79. We're simply in a year in which the top teams were not very good. We're coming off of a two-year stretch in which the best teams have made the Final Four.

Good point on becoming a weekend society. I also think that NASCAR and football, both pro and college, are the only sports with a meaningful regular season and that's why they're popular.

Devine has apparently looked good this spring, although I haven't seen any games. I wouldn't be shocked if he's the closer before the end of the year. The Braves are clearly very high on him.

I'll be very annoyed if Cox keeps Jordan over Jurries. With Smoltz, Andruw, and Chipper on the roster, it isn't as if the youngsters definitely need another vet to tell them how to put on their stirrups. Jurries is a much better hitter and he has potential down the road, which Jordan certainly does not. Jurries could also be a member of a strong bench, which is important in close games.

peacedog said...

You aren't going to see GM beat Uconn out for anyone. But you might see Georgia, or even a "high tier" team from a mid-major conference, do it.

They likely won't win a head to head battle for a prized recruit. Nobody like Greg Oden, for example. However, what they'll do is get a guy that Uconn, or perhaps a better example is someone like UNC, would have gotten 20 years ago, but who can no longer get thanks to the rules preventing it. Schools can't stockpile kids the way they used to. How rare is it that you see a hoops player have a "late blooming" career these days? When it happens, it's usually from a guy who contributed in some form at every step of the way. I think even Morrison was putting up 10 points a game as a frosh. That's partly the nature of the sport.

But whereas Gonzaga had a chance to play with the big boys 30-40 years ago, they had much less of a chance 20 years ago, and I think things have swung back that way somewhat. Yeah, Penn made it in 79. Upsets will happen - we've already gone over reasons why. The simple expanding of the tournament to 64 teams changed things.

But, exposure now is different for teams like Gonzaga. And even the George Masons. No, you won't see them on TV much, but you'll see games from their conference tournament. Not true a couple of decades ago. The exposure is greater, and I think they're getting a slightly better class of athelete than they used to as a result. It's a general statement - there were always exceptions coming along, and Basketball is a sport that makes more room for them (at least, until the pro level).

The Rockets beating the Lakers is probably the biggest pro hoops upset in ages. And then they got soundly beaten by an all-universe Celtics team (despite the Rocket's talent, that's not surprising. I don't think many teams could take both the Lakers *and* the Celtics in consecutive series).