Friday, June 29, 2007

Please G-d No!

Frank Lampard would fit in at Barca about as well as Al Thornton and Thaddeus Young would have fit in for the Hawks last night. Let's see, an overrated English midfielder with negligible passing or dribbling skills who shoots on sight and whose primary talent is running onto knockdowns from Didier Drogba moving to a team that prides itself on short passing and movement and plays three great attackers who simply need service from their midfielders. I can't see anything going wrong there. There would be only two positives from Lampard to Barca:

1. He'd be exposed as a fraud; and

2. One of Messi, Eto'o, Ronnie, or Henry would choke him after Lampard ignores their runs for the 37th time in order to shoot into the third tier at the Nou Camp.

UPDATE: No one wants Frank. Crisis averted.

Horford and Law

I'm happy, but not overjoyed with the Hawks' draft decisions last night. If the rumors about the team rejecting a trade for Amare Stoudemire are true, then the evening was a failure relative to what it could have brought, but we'll probably never know. That aside, I like the pick of Al Horford. I would have been happy with either him or Conley. Horford was the best player available and gives the Hawks a potent front line. Billy Knight is clearly wanting to win now, as he took a college junior and a college senior who are ready to play now (we hope). I'm now excited for NBA Opening Night.

The reasoning for not taking Conley - with Joe Johnson, the Hawks need a point guard who can hit threes and make opponents pay for doubling Joe - makes perfect sense to me. The moment that the Hawks passed on Conley, the discussion on 790 immediately went to "is this passing on Chris Paul again" and I was shouting at my radio "Chris Paul was a great shooter in college! Stop fighting the last war!" Conley may very well turn out to be an excellent player, but he's not a perfect fit for this team. Then again, I wouldn't have been overly disappointed to see the Hawks roll the dice on the possibility that Conley will improve his shot.

Although I will root like hell for him, I'm not that geeked about Acie Law for the reasons I set forth before. He reminds me way too much of Randolph Childress. Compare the bios of Childress and Law if you don't agree: same stats, same size, same reputation for being clutch. I hope I'm wrong about Law and I must admit that I was excited to see that he hit 45.8% from behind the arc last year. That said, he's still a scoring point without Iverson/Terry quickness, which does not bode well.

I would have preferred the Hawks make the rumored Josh Childress for Jose Calderon deal. I like Childress's game a lot, but dealing him would have alleviated the logjam at the forward spots and brought a very impressive point guard to Atlanta. The team then could have gone with the best available player at #11, although I'm not sure who that would have been. Maybe Crittenden with the thinking being that he'll get 2-3 years to mature while Calderon is the starter and Speedy or Lue are the backups?

Mark Bradley is quite positive and thinks that the Hawks should be a playoff team next year. A contrasting view was provided by Der Wife, who proclaimed that she is not at all happy with Billy Knight taking "another forward" and that she doesn't know how she feels about the Hawks right now. (Keep in mind that this is the same woman who happily went to a half a season's worth of home games of a 26-win team with me, and not just because our section won free burritos twice during the season.) We now have a standing bet on next season as to whether the Hawks will win more than 35 games, with the winner getting to design his/her own dream date. (Note to the Georgia Theatre: if you could show Gladiator or Braveheart after a 3:30 Georgia home game in 2008, that would be lovely. The Kinchafoonee Cowboys will understand.

Incidentally, one ancillary benefit to Billy Knight's moves last night is that Bill Simmons has now and forever lost the right to rip into Billy since Knight did exactly what Simmons as the self-proclaimed "VP of Common Sense" implored him to do.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Belkinkampf: the Quagmire that Keeps on Giving

I should have known that the idea of Amare Stoudemire coming to the Hawks was too good to be true. What possible use would the Hawks have for Stoudemire, a player coming off a season in which he averaged 20/10 and shot 57.5% from the field. A player who is just now entering his prime. A player who absolutely pwned Tim Duncan in the 2005 playoffs. A player who meets a major need for the Hawks (and just about every other NBA team): a quality interior scorer. A player who would immediately make the Hawks a playoff team in the East and possibly the favorite in the Southeast Division.

Why isn't Amare coming? Because cheap-ass Steve Belkin doesn't want to spend the money on a legitimate NBA star. It boggles the mind that Belkin would buy into an NBA team and then refuse to spend the money that it takes to put a good product on the court. Did he really think that he would never be called upon to pay for a max-contract player? He can't possibly think that Stoudemire isn't worth the money, can he? Abd how is he not realizing that the Hawks have a "show us wins" fan base and thus, putting a good product on the court is more important for Atlanta than it is for teams that will draw well regardless of how good they are? Stoudemire would mean so much for the team, so naturally, Belkin doesn't want to pay for him.

Here's the real stupidity of Belkin's purported opposition: the genesis of his fall-out with the remaining owners of Atlanta Spirit was his claim that Knight was going to overpay for Joe Johnson by giving up Boris Diaw and a #1 pick. If the Hawks make the Stoudemire deal, then the final bill for Johnson will end up being Diaw (who, regardless of his success in Phoenix, was useless for the Hawks) and roughly the #18 pick in the 2008 Draft (assuming that the Hawks are about a #6 seed in the East next year). By torpedoing the Stoudemire deal, Belkin makes his criticism of the Johnson deal a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I'm normally reticent to believe every rumor that gets printed, but Ian Thomsen at SI is saying the same thing, albeit without naming the owner who is ruining everything. If I only had the Thomsen article and not the Ford article, I still would have assumed that Belkin was the problem because he opposed the Joe Johnson acquisition because he didn't want to pay Johnson's salary (or at least that was what his co-owners said). Naturally, the AJC, consistent with their apparent policy of never printing any rumors for fear of angering the local sports collectives, have nothing on the squabbling, although Sekou Smith does have a good summary of the trade rumors floating around. Mark Bradley also has a good piece on the confidence that he feels in Billy Knight this morning. He closes with this thought:

And if the night ends with Amare Stoudemire coming here, we’ll be calling Billy Knight a magician.

If Billy Knight's rebuilding process ends with a starting lineup that includes Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, and Amare Stoudemire, then a whole lot of people are going to owe him a major apology. (Add in the rumored Childress for Jose Calderon trade and you have a dynamite starting five, although depth would be a question. I like that proposed trade a lot more than the #11 for Luke Ridnour offer because Ridnour is a dreadful defender and would merely perpetuate the Hawks' inability to keep opposing guards out of the lane.) There will certainly have been a little luck involved, namely keeping the Hawks' first round pick this year, but Knight will have achieved exactly what he was supposed to do when he blew the team up after the 2003-4 season. But coming back to the first two paragraphs of this post, Knight is going to have to get past a pile of internal squabbling to get to that point.

(And I'm not even going to mention the possibility of Michael Gearon pushing Knight to take Yi because of interests in the Chinese market. That would be a classic "Real Madrid taking Beckham over Ronaldinho because Becks would sell more shirts in Thailand" move. Yi is an enormous unknown; taking him with the #3 pick when Horford and Conley are both sitting out there having proven themselves in college basketball would be insane.)

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

An Outstanding Draft Article by John Hollinger

For all the stick that ESPN gets for any one of a number of sins (relentless cross-promotion, favoritism to certain reviled teams, Stuart Scott, etc.), articles like this one from John Hollinger($) make it all worthwhile that I spend $5 per month to breathe in the rarified air of Insider status. I am a sucker for a well-reasoned, empirical approach to evaluating...just about anything and Hollinger does a great job with the question of what factors are relevant to determining who will be a hit and who will be a miss. My only quibble is that he should have used a larger sample size of draft classes. Maybe a follow-up article would be in order?

Hollinger's approach mimics that of Football Outsiders on quarterbacks, which concluded that the most important stats in evaluating college passers is completion percentage and career starts. Hollinger doesn't have the same sample size that Football Outsiders did, but he does measure for strength of schedule, which was a problem with the Football Outsiders approach. Neither Hollinger, nor Football Outsiders have figured out a way to control for the quality of teammates, which seems to be to be the critical unanswered question when drafting players. For instance, Hollinger notes that steals are a critical stat in evaluating college players, but a player like Mike Conley would have an advantage over other point guards in that respect because he had Greg Oden behind him to erase mistakes and he could therefore be more aggressive in hounding opposing guards and jumping into passing lanes. I suspect that Hollinger's counter would be that indexing for teammates is something that scouts have to do and that statistical analysis should work in tandem with scouting rather than replacing it.

A few random thoughts on the article:

1. The NBA's decision to require players to be at least one year removed from high school before being drafted makes Hollinger's analysis more potent because it allows statistical analysis of (non-foreign) draft prospects. David Stern hit on this on Bill Simmons's podcast, when he explained that the reason for the one-year rule was to provide NBA teams with more reliable information when making draft decisions.

2. Billy Knight comes out OK in the article. Josh Childress ranks 6th among available players from the '04 Draft, although Luol Deng ranked first and Deng was the player for whom Hawks fans (or at least yours truly in the parking lot of the Borders on Ponce listening to the Draft) were screaming when the Hawks took Childress. Still, Childress has turned into a good player and Hollinger's system reflects that. Marvin Williams comes off as the second-best player in the '05 Draft, which makes his selection with the #2 pick defensible, although again, Chris Paul is #1 in Hollinger's rankings and Hawks fans (often in retrospect) wanted Paul. What surprised me the most is that Shelden Williams was the second-best player available last year, despite the fact that the system penalizes four-year players. If Hollinger's system is correct, then one of the following needs to be true:

a) The Hawks have been unlucky in that the Williamses and Childress have been banged up at inconvenient times over the past several years;

b) Mike Woodson is not a good coach and is squandering a talented roster (a theory that doesn't seem to be advanced much, as all of the criticism falls on Billy Knight for some unknown reason); or

c) The Hawks have a talented roster, but it consists of mismatched parts and/or it lacks quality veteran players to fill in around the youngsters.

In light of the Boris Diaw experience, options b and c seem unfortunately plausible to me.

3. As for this year's draft, Hollinger's system indicates that the Hawks should grab Mike Conley, who is the 12th highest-rated player from the last six drafts and is the best option after the big two by a significant margin. The fact that he answers a need for the Hawks only increases the importance of taking him. I can't believe I'm siding with Terrence Moore over Mark Bradley, but I've swung back to advocating for Conley, although Horford does well in the rankings and he would certainly not be a bad pick. Hollinger's rankings set off all sorts of alarm bells about Acie Law, which I have been feeling for weeks. The Hawks taking him with the #11 pick would be the one event that could make me angry tomorrow night.

Then again, the Hawks could swing the #3 and #11 picks in some sort of four-team mishmash trade that nets us Amare Stoudemire (as was discussed on the radio this morning) and then I will dance through the streets.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Mark Bradley's Crystal Ball

It's not quite up there with Dr. Z's announcer grades in terms of an annual treat, but Mark Bradley's annual college football crystal ball is always worth a read. He doesn't offer a tremendous amount of analysis (likely because of space constraints), but he's good at assessing the general feel of where a program is headed in the coming year. OK, and the comments section is always a blast as a collection of "YOUR TEAM IS TEH SUXORS!" reasoning. Some gems that jumped out at me:

Two comments in, we learn from NASCARfan that Florida has no defense (they must not have played any subs whatsoever on a defense that allowed 13.8 points per game last year and held Ohio State to 82 yards) and Alabama has no talent (news to most recruiting services, which gave Shula credit for assembling good talent before squandering it). The next comment lauds Georgia Tech's new offensive coordinator, who hasn't coached a down on the Flats yet. The Auburn contingent then jumps in to cite Tuberville's 3-2 record against Nick Saban, a statistically significant stat if there ever was one. Bryan Daniel disabuses the notions that we have of Wake fans being smarter than the rest by describing the "connection that happens NO WHERE ELSE." We then get the obligatory shot at USC from Wassabi, who decides that a schedule including road trips to Nebraska, Notre Dame, Oregon, and Cal is a "joke."

Anyway, to the predictions:

Georgia will go 10-2 and come within an eyelash of rendering the reigning BCS titlist a runner-up in its own division. I see the Bulldogs winning in Knoxville but losing in Tuscaloosa. Part of me even envisions Georgia beating Florida on Oct. 27. Then another part — the brain, I believe it’s called — recalls that the Bulldogs stopped enjoying Jacksonville about the same time Vince Dooley stopped coaching.

I'm a smidge more pessimistic about the Dawgs because of the direction of the defense since Willie Martinez replaced Brian VanGorder. Georgia has shown more of a tendency to get torched and they don't have outstanding talent on defense this year. The season won't be a disaster because the offense will get better without Mark Richt calling plays (he always seemed distracted to me), but 9-3 sounds about right.

Alabama will win as many games (nine) as Auburn. That sound you hear is the Tigers’ window of opportunity slamming shut. Nick Saban isn’t a very nice guy, but he’s a very good coach. He’ll have the Tide playing for the SEC title within two years.

Auburn had the schedule to play for the BCS title last season but lost twice at home. This year the Tigers must face those conquerors — Arkansas and Georgia — on the road. They must also go to Baton Rouge and to Gainesville. That’s not a championship schedule. That’s a bound-for-the-Chick-Fil-a Bowl schedule.

I'm onboard with this pick. Auburn has lots of tough road games and they don't have any obvious strengths. Their 10-2 mark was deceiving last year, as they won every close game they played, including a pair of games (LSU and Florida) in which they were outgained. That said, Auburn does have a great history with senior quarterbacks and when they don't get much hype. I have a bad history of always selling them short.

As for Alabama, Saban is stepping into an excellent situation in terms of returning talent (not unlike Urban Meyer two years ago, although Shula wasn't quite the recruiter that Zook was). Saban's scheming to get around a weak defensive line will be an interesting sideplot.

Virginia Tech will win the ACC and will, for obvious reasons, become an even bigger story than last year’s ACC champ (Wake Forest) was.

Wake Forest will finish 6-6 as reality rears its head.

I like Florida State in the ACC because I'm not sold that Virginia Tech can move the ball, but I'm in agreement with the Wake pick, as their yardage and points last year were indicative of an 8-4 team, not a conference champion.

Southern Cal will play Texas for the BCS title. Southern Cal will win this time.

I have way too many questions about a Texas defense that got shredded regularly last year and is replacing its defensive coordinator, but kudos to Bradley for thinking outside of the box.

LSU will again have the SEC’s most talented team and will again lose twice — once when the Tigers go to Tuscaloosa and get outcoached by the guy who used to coach them and then against Florida in the SEC championship game. That will serve as payback for the Gators’ loss in Baton Rouge on Oct. 6.

11-2 would not be a bad season for LSU, or anyone else in the SEC. Reading between the lines, Bradley is part of the CW that Les Miles isn't a very good coach. Miles's sideline demeanor (bad hat, a little confused-looking, crazy eyes) causes his evaluation to go down, possibly unfairly.

Georgia Tech will go 8-4. One magazine projects the Jackets as a Top 15 team, but I can’t imagine how losing the nation’s most talented player and a four-year starting quarterback makes you better. Yes, Taylor Bennett looked good throwing to Calvin Johnson in the Gator Bowl, but Johnson could make any quarterback look good. (Even Reggie Ball — sometimes.) Tech was staring at a breakthrough season last November and couldn’t beat Georgia or Wake. Sorry, but I don’t see this year’s Jackets being quite as good.

Chan Gailey equilibrium. Bradley might also mention that West Virginia's pass defense is dreadful, which makes Bennett's bowl game a little more deceiving. I'm fascinated to see the reaction of Tech fans to Bennett. Regardless of whether he's good ("what the f*** was he doing behind Reggie Ball?) or bad ("why the f*** can't we have a good quarterback?"), Gailey will not look good. Just get it over with and replace him with John Tenuta.

I see Florida State being lots better with Jimbo Fisher calling plays. I see the Seminoles winning the ACC Atlantic.

If Bradley pairs this thought with the fact that Virginia Tech has a dreadful record against Florida State, then he might revise his pick for ACC champion.

Darren McFadden won’t win the Heisman because he’ll get hurt. (Louisville’s Brian Brohm will take the trophy.) Stripped of his best player and fan support, Houston Nutt will step down before Thanksgiving. He’ll announce his resignation via text message.

How about "McFadden won't win the Heisman because he won't be able to put up big enough numbers in the SEC to compensate for the fact that he doesn't play for Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Notre Dame, the Florida schools, or USC"?

Speaking of the ‘Ville: The Cardinals will lose at West Virginia on Nov. 8 in a Thursday-night matchup of unbeatens. And the Mountaineers will go 12-0 but will be barred from the BCS title game because Southern Cal and Texas will be similarly undefeated. And the drumbeat for a playoff system will sound again. And it will, as ever, go unheeded by those in position to make it happen.

Good enough for me. If we didn't get a playoff after an SEC team (not on probation) went unbeaten and didn't get to play for the national title, then we aren't getting one any time soon.

Phillip Fulmer will be replaced by David Cutcliffe the first week in December. (The final straw will be Tennessee losing to Kentucky for the first time since 1984.) Hearing the news, Johnny Majors will laugh deep into January.

An amusing thought, but Fulmer isn't a prick like Majors was and he gets along with Cutcliffe too well for this to happen. Plus, for this to come to pass, Tennessee would have to have a bad season while the offense performs well. I just don't see the defense melting down enough for that to be possible.

The Hawks' New Threads

We now look just like the Bobcats or the Cavs (when the Cavs wear their blue road uniforms). The new unis look good, but they aren't especially distinctive. Then again, maybe this is a compliment to the current sartorial trends in the NBA that teams are coming up with good uniforms. Contrast the NBA with the NFL, where the Falcons followed the trend of making their uniforms look like something an Arena League would find garish and busy.

I'm not a huge fan of changing the basic color scheme because teams should always keep the same colors, however many times their change their uniforms. The red-black-yellow has been a constant as long as I've been a Hawks fan. Then again, the team hasn't made an Eastern Conference Final since I've been a Hawks fan (or since anybody has been an Atlanta Hawks fan), so there is a good argument to be made that a break from the past is in order.

This is also going to mean an end to the yellow uniforms, which is particularly upsetting to me:

Monday, June 25, 2007

Thoughts on Henry the Catalan

How cool that every time I'm driving from Atlanta to Macon, I go through (Thierry) Henry County and now it will have added significance.

Some may say that Henry came to Barca because of its liberal ethos or its cavalcade of offensive talent to play with him. Others may say that he's unsettled by David Dein's departure, Arsene Wenger's uncertain future, or Arsenal's lack of vigor in the transfer market. The discerning fan knows that Henry is headed to Catalunya because of his desire to pilot speeders through Endor and shoot goals while Ewoks cheer wildly:

(If you don't think that the little man is being indoctrinated with YouTube, you're sorely mistaken. And the unexpected benefit is that Der Wife is taking the lead in teaching El Himno del Barca, which means that she can belt it out now, as well. This might be my crowning achievement in indoctrination. I digress.)

On a personal level, I've never liked Henry much for three reasons. First, he was Ronaldinho's rival for the title of best player in the world. Second, his whining after the Champions League final (when his inability to finish two good chances was as much a reason for Arsenal's defeat as anything else) was unbecoming, especially for a player who has a bit of a pouty face to begin with. Third, my "excessive hype by English media" alarms went off because Henry could always score in the EPL, but he never achieved the same feats in Europe, he was a washout in Serie A (albeit in part because Juve didn't use him correctly), and France could never score without Zidane pulling the strings, which is inconsistent with the notion that Henry is a great striker. I should be able to get past the first two reasons now that Henry is a Barca player and the third went by the wayside a little with Henry's excellent first leg performances against Real Madrid, Juve, and Villareal in 2006 and a strong move to draw a penalty against Portugal in the World Cup semifinal. I'm not going to like him the way I like a product of the Barca youth ranks like Messi, Iniesta, or Puyol or a player who plays with personality like Ronaldinho, but I should appreciate Henry just fine.

I think that Barca's excitement at signing Henry can be put down to a few factors. First, they learned the hard way last year that depth at the striker position is critical. Gudjohnsen and Saviola were a major step down and the entire team suffered as a result. For that reason, I do not think that this move is a prelude to Samuel Eto'o being off-loaded. Second, Barca probably have a major warchest built up because they haven't made major waves in the transfer market in the past several years. Barca's revenues were way up as a result of their success on the pitch, as membership increased and their TV revenue swelled from a deep run in the Champions League. Thus, Barca have the money to spend on Henry, as well as Yaya Toure (who answers a major need in defensive midfield), Christian Chivu (likely slotted into central defense), and Eric Abidal (meets an obvious need at leftback). Third, there aren't too many opportunities to sign top drawer players who fit the Barca system perfectly, so the Blaugrana had to jump at this.

On paper, Barca ought to be close-to-unbeatable next year, but I said the same things last summer when they acquired Thuram and Zambrotta to shore up the backline and the team won bugger all this year. They still need to be luckier with injuries, Rijkaard needs better tactical advice (and he needs to resist the urge to play all four attackers at once [except when trailing]), and the players need to be motivated. A season in which the club failed to meet expectations ought to be a sufficient spur to better play, but you never know how the egos are going to work.

There has been some criticism of the move on the grounds that Barca are now repeating the "Zidanes y Pavons" mistakes of the Real Madrid Galactico era, but there are two reasons why this is wrong. First, Madrid were very successful after they signed Figo and Zidane. They only went wrong when they signed players who were Galacticos in name only, namely Beckham and Michael Owen. I doubt that anyone puts Henry on the level of Becks and Owen. Second, Madrid's strategy was to pair their star players with mediocrities from their youth system. Thus, when their stars aged, they were left with underperforming squads. Barca, in contrast, have a number of good, young players, so they won't have the imbalance that Madrid had in the later years of the Galactico era. When Henry starts to decline, Barca will still have other high-quality players to put around him.

My wife also posed the "doesn't this make Barca like the Yankees? You hate the Yankees." question to me on Saturday as I was raving about the different ways that Henry can slot in with Eto'o, Messi, and Ronnie. It was a lot like the scene in Office Space where Jennifer Anniston asks Ron Livingston "isn't that stealing?" It was a very obvious and hard to deflect assessment. Fortunately, sophistry is my speciality, so I got out of the box in a couple ways. First, Barca don't spend any more than a number of clubs in Europe, namely Real Madrid, the two Milan sides, Juve (once they get back on their feet), the top four in the EPL (once Arsenal start spending again), and Bayern Munich. The Yankees, on the other hand, spend more than anyone else in baseball by a significant margin. Second, Henry came to Barca, at least in part, because of what the club represent. He could have gotten a major bump in pay in any one of a number of locales. I may be cynical in saying this, but there is no reason for baseball free agents to play for the Yankees other than the fact that they pay more than anyone else. Third, what annoys me most about the Yankees is that they are parasites. They sign up talented players that other teams develop, but they never contribute any good young players on their own. (This is less true now that Brian Cashman has asserted himself and has changed the Yankees' approach to talent acquisition. Cashman has been able to do so because, from all accounts, Steinbrenner isn't as involved anymore, just as the Yankees were able to build the foundation of their championship teams in the early 90s because Steinbrenner was suspended from baseball and thus, they retained their prospects.) Barca may contribute great young players who punch balls into the net, but they can never be described as parasites.

So much to Discuss

I'm a little consumed at work right now, so I'm just going to have to give you an IOU on discussing:

1. Mandel's mailbag from last week;

2. Mark Bradley's college football predictions;

3. The Braves hitting rock bottom in every possible respect;

4. The Hawks's new uniforms; and

5. Barca's new striker.

Bear with me.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Mark Bradley Advocates for Horford

I like Mark Bradley's reasoning for taking Al Horford, which is simply that he'll be the best player available and the Hawks do not have a true power forward, despite the fact that they spent the #6 pick in the Draft last year trying to acquire one. Taking Horford would be a giant admission on the part of Billy Knight that he messed up last year, but he needs to be focused on making the team better rather than making sure that his reputation is bolstered. As a great man once sang, when you ain't got nothin', you got nothin' to lose. If Horford is drafted and plays well while Shelden Williams watches, then Knight will look a little suspect, just as Bobby Bowden will this fall when Florida State suddenly has an offense after he fired Fredo. In the end, though, if the product on the field/court is good, then no one will care.

I definitely disagree with Bradley on the merits of a trade for Mike Bibby, who is in the decline phase of his career. Additionally, the salaries don't match up between Bibby on the one hand and Josh Smith/#11 pick on the other. I'm no expert on NBA trades, but I'm not sure which Hawks players can be sent back to the Kings to make the salaries match up. A third team would have to be brought into the mix, at which point my head would start spinning.

I'm coming around to Crittenden as the choice at #11. In terms of Crittenden versus Acie Law, Law isn't really a point guard. He averaged fewer assists as a senior than Crittenden did as a freshman. Law is a scoring point guard (like Tyronne Lue, minus the defensive liabilities) and he sets off Randolph Childress alarms in my head. I'm also a little leery of four-year college players who have big senior seasons competing against younger players.

As for Crittenden versus Conley, there's an argument to be made for Crittenden. For one thing, Conley's stock went up because he played on a very good team that went deep into March, so you have recency and reflected glory issues with him. Crittenden averaged more assists per minute than Conley and also averaged more free throw attempts per minute. The former stat is very impressive for Crittenden because he was surrounded by inferior talent; the latter stat can be explained away because Conley didn't have the ball in his hands as much as Crittenden did. Finally, Crittenden was a significantly better shooter from three-point range (.356 versus .304) and he did so without Greg Oden forcing defenses to collapse on him. Anyway, take all of these stats with a grain of salt, as we're talking about a fairly small sample size.

The bigger grain of salt that you should take from this post is the fact that the contrarian in me likes to defend Billy Knight. In each of the past two years, I went away from my initial instinct (taking Chris Paul or Darren Williams in 2005; taking...I can't remember whom in 2006) and bought Billy Knight's reasoning for the ultimate pick that the Hawks made. I'm doing that again right now. If the rumors of his interest in Horford and Crittenden are correct, then I'm buying the reasoning yet again when my first instinct was to take Conley and then best available 4/5 with the #11 pick. The good news is that in this instance, I have Mark Bradley in my corner.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Great Article from Chad Ford on Draft Tiers

I really like the Tier System set forth by Chad Ford. It gets past the tired "need versus best player" debate, or rather, it synthesizes the two and provides a framework for letting both interests play a role in a draft decision. There is also some specific discussion about the Hawks in the last third of the article, explaining how the tier system would have led Billy Knight to take Deron Williams in the now-infamous 2005 Draft.

Kudos aside, there are two problems with Ford's analysis of the Hawks. First, the major problem with the Williams pick is not so much that the Hawks took a player at an already-filled position (although there is some of that), but rather than the Hawks took a player who simply isn't as good as the two players picked after him. If Marvin was pouring in 20 ppg instead of 13, the criticism would be a lot less severe. Thus, the tiers are only as good as the scout who is deciding which playres go into which grouping.

Second, the Shelden Williams mistake was certainly not a result of Billy Knight taking the best player available. Rather, it was an overreaction to the mistake of ignoring need the past year. Knight was killed for not taking a point guard in 2005, so after he (correctly) identified the Hawks' problem as a lack of defensive rebounding and interior defense (the 2005-6 Hawks were a perfectly decent offensive team, but they were lousy defensively), he took the player who would address the need the best. The problem is that he again took a player who is inferior to the players taken after him. (Insert usual caveat that Marvin and Shelden are both young and could show improvement.)

The encouraging aspect for the Hawks is that they have two picks in the top 11 in a Draft in which there is consensus that there are 12 players in the top three tiers. Using Ford's framework, the Hawks will grab Mike Conley with the #3 pick since he is in tier two and answers a need (unless Knight thinks that PF is still a need in which case Al Horford or Brandan Wright will be the pick). The fact that the third tier players from which the Hawks will be drafting are all big guys indicates that Knight should go for the point guard with the first pick and then a PF or C with the second. I'll be overjoyed with Conley and Hawes if both fall to the Hawks. No, the late hour has not made me delirious; I really just used the words "overjoyed" and "Hawks" in the same sentence.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Madrid, Cabrón, Saluda al...Whoops.


Just like last week, Barca held the lead of the Primera in this hands for an extended period of time today and only a two-goal reverse could deny them the title. Just like last week, Madrid got the two goals they needed and are thus the champions of Spain for 2006-7. As painful as it is to watch the arch-enemy celebrate (and it's doubly painful when the Madrid players waltz past the Nazi-inspired decorations of their Ultras), Spain saw a terrific title race and the last day lived up to billing. The last two weeks were great advertisement for the Primera as opposed to, say, the Champions League this year.

So why did Madrid win the title? The easy explanation is cojones. They repeatedly fell behind in games, but they had tremendous self-belief and their rallies became self-fulfilling prophecies. By the same token, Barca, as defending champions and prohibitive favorites going into the season, had everything to lose and when the pressure was on late in the season, they grabbed their necks. Blown leads became self-fulfilling prophecies.

The explanation that does not rely on pop psychology is that Madrid have a terrific coach who understands tactics, whereas Barca lost their tactical brain when Henk Ten Cate took the Ajax job. Thus, Madrid got better as games went along and Barca got worse. Compounding the coaching disparity is the fact that Madrid had a better bench. The prospect of a fourth trophy-less year compelled Madrid to sign Gago, Higuain, and Reyes (in a swap for the aimless Baptista) for bench depth in addition to van Nistlerooy, Emerson, Diarra, and Cannavaro for the starting XI. In Real's rallies, they always had the ability to bring on impressive young players with fresh legs to overwhelm their opponents. Today's match was a perfect example, as Mallorca ran out of gas and had absolutely no prayer at defending Higuain and Reyes when they came on in the second half and produced a pair of quality goals that stained Ray Hudson's pants. The match today convinced me that I was a little harsh on Madrid last week when I wrote their title off to the efforts of the aging Beckham and van Nistlerooy. They have a number of very useful young players in the side, although the question is whether players like Reyes and Higuain can be excellent in roles other than as super subs. Reyes certainly didn't respond well to the idea of being the man when he was in North London.

In contrast to Real's efforts to improve the side, Barca did relatively little in the past close season to get better. Thuram and Zambrotta were good signings, although the former was useful only as a replacement for Rafa Marquez, who collapsed this season. There were no additions to the midfield and the only addition to the strikeforce was Eidur Gudjohnsen, who was a pale replacement for Henrik Larsson. Thus, Barca didn't have many good options for subs as games progressed, other than Rijkaard's menagerie of average outside defenders, average defensive midfielders, and the underwhelming trio of Gudjohnsen, Saviola, and Giuly. Joan Laporta was complacent last offseason, as one would probably expect following an epic season, but in retrospect, he should have realized that he who's not busy bein' born is a'busy dyin'.

The silver lining from watching the hated enemy celebrate a title is that it will motivate Barca to improve the squad in a major way and it will (hopefully) motivate players like Ronaldinho to train harder. The squad dissension at the Nou Camp this year was the worst-kept secret since Michael Jackson's love for the youth; having a common enemy (along with a solid house-cleaning) ought to be a solution to the problem. Additionally, Barca winning the league the past couple of years over a stumbly-wumbly Madrid had a hint of emptiness. The rebirth of the rivalry as the pre-eminent one in football ought to be a good thing.

Friday, June 15, 2007

I Have Come not to Bury Bob Wickman...

But to point out that the Braves scored a whopping five runs in three games in the Metrodome. The criticism of the team seems to focus mostly on the pitching, but a lot of ire needs to be directed at the offense. McCann finally went deep last night, but he's been slumping. Andruw and Francoeur haven't picked up much slack, either.

Oh, and one other issue: I hate criticizing Bobby Cox, who has forgotten more about baseball than I'll ever know, but why was Saltalamacchia still in the game in the 9th inning last night when Scott Thorman is a better defensive option at first base? Bobby is the guy who kept Rafael Belliard around for years for late-inning defensive purposes, so we know he isn't averse to defensive substitutions.

In all this gloom, it bears mentioning that Tim Hudson was fantastic last night. His movement and location were great to watch.

It also bears mentioning that all my hatred of the Twins came rushing back in the 9th inning. Cheating, monkeying-with-the-air-conditioning, can't-win-a-road-game bastards.

I'm Starting to Like Kobe Bryant

And not just because for a fleeting moment, I was considering him as an Atlanta Hawk. No, I'm hearting him today because it turns out that he's one of the Culés.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Fun with Stewie

Are you feeling a hollow spot in your life, something that can only be filled by a series of obvious statements mixed in with easily disprovable claims? Fret no longer, as another Stewart Mandel mailbag is upon us. Today's primary topics:

1. Oklahoma

You know one team that none of us mentioned in this impromptu title debate, despite winning 11 games last year and despite rating among Vegas' top-10 contenders? Oklahoma. Isn't that strange? Dan Johnson of Big Rapids, Mich., wonders the same thing:

Ever since the debacle against USC in the 2005 Orange Bowl, it seems like the pollsters have been a little bit leery of ranking Oklahoma high in the early part of the season. Do you think that OU is finally starting to move past that hurdle or do you think that the poll voters still keep that particular game in mind when making their decisions?

There's no question that 55-19 humiliation became something of a milestone in terms of the perception surrounding Bob Stoops' program. It's pretty simple: Before that game, the Sooners were considered a national title contender every year; now, they're not. Sure, they may start every season in the top 10, but I get the sense not too many people outside the great state of Oklahoma actually believe them to be capable of hanging in USC/LSU/Texas/Florida territory. And for that, I blame not only that Orange Bowl but also the Big 12 title-game beatdown by Kansas State the year before, the season-opening loss to TCU the following year, the end of their run of dominance against arch-rival Texas, the Rhett Bomar scandal and the Fiesta Bowl loss to Boise State. Basically, where once there was an aura of invincibility that surrounded Stoops' program, now they seem like just one of many very-good-but-hardly-impregnable teams. And that's reflected in their standing in the polls.

Isn't this just a lot of words to explain the simple fact that the Sooners lost four games in 2005 and three games in 2006, both of which are inconsistent with being a major power? I suppose Mandel deserves minor kudos for mentioning that Stoops no longer having a hex over Mack Brown is a major issue, since the Longhorns typically provided Oklahoma with their validation every year in an otherwise unimpressive Big XII, but how does he not mention the 800-pound gorilla in the room? Bob Stoops is a defensive guy and his best Oklahoma teams were dominant on that side of the ball. Last year, Oklahoma gave up 34, 28, and 35 (in regulation) in their three losses. In 2005, OU allowed 40+ twice and 30+ two more times. The interesting angle on Oklahoma is what happened to Bob Stoops' previously dominant defenses, but why go that route when we can be hyper conventional and blame it all on quarterbacks:

When you look at the 2007 Sooners on paper, there's a lot to like. Between Allen Patrick and freshman sensation DeMarco Murray, the running game should be phenomenal. They have a veteran offensive line and a solid group of receivers (love Malcolm Kelly). And most of the defense returns as well. So why can't OU win the national title? Because of one big, huge, glaring deficiency that has come to the attention of Nick Tait in Tulsa:

Bob Stoops has run one of the most successful programs in the nation, and in so doing produced both a Heisman winner (Jason White) and runner-up (Josh Heupel) at quarterback. Yet Stoops seems to be consistently scrambling to locate quarterback talent. When he kicked Rhett Bomar off the team last year, the Sooners were forced to use a wide receiver (Paul Thompson) the entire season. When Sam Keller decided to leave Arizona State, I thought he would be perfect for Norman. When he (and no one else) did not, it left a three-man competition for 2007 -- without any standouts. My only explanation for the tepid interest in quarterbacking at Oklahoma is its track record with developing pro talent. Any thoughts?

It's true: OU's quarterback stable right now borders on disastrous. None of the three contenders -- redshirt freshman Sam Bradford, juco transfer Joey Hazle and true freshman Keith Nichol -- were highly recruited elsewhere (though Nichol originally committed to Michigan State). The hope in Norman is that Bradford, the likely starter, will surprise people like Colt McCoy at Texas last year, but if he doesn't there aren't a whole lot of other viable options. Part of the problem is just bad luck -- Tommy Grady transferred to Utah because he was stuck behind Bomar and ASU's Rudy Carpenter, from what I've been told, would have been on the first plane to Oklahoma had Sun Devils coach Dirk Koetter not pulled his 11th-hour switcheroo with Keller. But I also think you hit the nail on the head in your question: High-profile QB recruits want to go someplace where they know they can develop into NFL quarterbacks. Stoops has produced two phenomenal college QBs (Heupel and White) and one very solid one (Nate Hybl), but they barely sniffed the next level. I'm not sure it's fair to blame that on OU's program, but if you're Keller, and you're going into your last season to prove yourself before the draft, and your choices are playing for the Sooners or playing for NFL passing guru Bill Callahan, you're probably going to pick the latter.

And if you're a pollster trying to fill out your preseason ballot, and you know OU is likely going to be starting a no-name freshman QB, that probably weighs on your decision far more than a 55-19 blowout three years ago.

First of all, as someone who is paid to know about college football, Mandel shouldn't have to be corrected by a lawyer taking a blogbreak after a hearing that Keith Nichol was a four-star recruit and's #6 dual-threat quarterback, right behind Willy Korn, who is expected to start sooner rather than later at Clemson.

More importantly, Mandel's explanation for Oklahoma's quarterback problems makes no sense at all. If NFL success is a pre-requisite for recruiting success with quarterbacks, then why was Steve Spurrier able to sign Rex Grossman and Brock Berlin when his NFL quarterbacks had all been wash-outs? How was Ohio State able to sign Troy Smith and Justin Zwick without having produced an NFL starter in eons? How has Penn State ever been able to sign a quarterback? How was Alabama able to sign Tyler Watts and Brodie Croyle when they haven't produced an NFL starter since Richard Todd?

The correct explanation for Oklahoma's quarterback situation is very simple: they committed to Rhett Bomar and all their other options (guys like Tommy Grady who were highly recruited) bailed, so when Bomar was kicked out of school, Oklahoma was left with nothing. They are in the process of rebuilding their depth at the position and Keith Nichol is the first step in that direction. And what the hell is with giving Bill Callahan credit for developing college quarterbacks? Ask Harrison Beck, his premier quarterback recruit, about Callahan's genius.

2. Lloyd Carr and Charlie Weis

In two years, Charlie Weis has beaten one team that finished the season in the Top 25 (No. 24 Penn State last year), yet he seems to walk on water Notre Dame's fan base and evades all criticism. Lloyd Carr has multiple Big Ten titles over the last decade and a national championship, yet a large chunk of the Michigan fan base can't stop dissing him. By mid-January 2008, what are the chances that ND Nation will be starting to wonder about Charlie and the forever Blue have all decided that Lloyd is worthy of being rated amongst their best ever?
--Ken Braun, Lansing, Mich.

There's no question this is going to be an important year in both coaches' tenures, but I'm not sure it's fair to compare the two so directly. Weis is still very much in the building phase of his program, which was pretty far down when he got there. While all those big-game blowouts the past two years exposed the 2005 and '06 Irish as national-title pretenders, I can't say I blame ND fans for being excited about the future following 19 wins and consecutive BCS berths. Apparently they've seen enough to believe Weis is the guy to lead them to the promised land. The question is, will they still feel that way if, as most of us expect, Jimmy Clausen & Co. endure a rough transition season in '07. We're talking about an offense that is going to be very young and will almost certainly struggle early in the season. Unfortunately, that also coincides with the toughest part of ND's schedule. It's not inconceivable to envision the Irish losing their first three games (Georgia Tech, at Penn State and at Michigan) as well as several others (at Purdue, at UCLA, BC, USC).

The Irish close, however, with Navy, Air Force, Duke and Stanford. If they can get to a bowl, and especially if they finally win a bowl, I would imagine the enthusiasm surrounding Weis will remain in tact come January. If they finish 5-7 or 6-7, we may see the beginnings of a Tyrone Willingham-style backlash.

As for Carr, the expectations are higher because he raised them by winning that title in '97. While Michigan has fielded many good teams since then, the closest they've come to returning to that level was last year, and even that season culminated in a familiar ending -- losing to Ohio State, losing the Rose Bowl. The prevailing feeling is that this may be Carr's last season one way or the other, but if he wants to go out with the kind of legacy and appreciation one might reasonably associate with a guy who's won 76 percent of his games and five Big Ten titles, he'd best be advised to finally beat the Buckeyes (he'd still be just 2-5 against Jim Tressel but would finish with a winning record -- 7-6 -- against OSU overall). Beating a national-title caliber program like a USC in the Rose Bowl or another BCS game would be icing on the cake.

If this is true, then Notre Dame fans are idiots because they would be deciding to be happy with Charlie Weis for beating Navy, Air Force, Duke and Stanford and then doing better than 1-7 in the opening eight games. Unless Irish fans are totally irrational (resisting the urge to take gratuitous swipe...there, it passed), then they recognize that this year and possibly next year as well are going to be the years when they will suffer the most for Ty Willingham's incredibly weak recruiting classes. That said, they probably also recognize that making a bowl is not a huge hurdle for any major program. If Irish fans liked what they saw from Notre Dame in Weis's first two years, then they should not let 2007 and 2008 affect their judgment too much, unless the Irish completely bottom out. What Mandel misses is the fact that thinking Notre Dame fans might be quietly wondering about Weis after a season in which the Irish had experienced talent all over the field and failed to produce much against almost all of the quality defenses they faced. Mandel also misses the fact that fans are almost always happy with a coach during the honeymoon period, especially when that coach is following two dolts.

As for Lloyd Carr, I can't tell you how enlightening it is to read that his legacy might be affected by whether he finishes out his career with four straight losses to Ohio State. And isn't Carr's legacy as a guy who has won 76% of his games affected by the fact that he coaches at a program that has won 75% of its games over the course of its 126-year history?

Sunday, June 10, 2007

The End

Ironically enough, after writing on Friday about the great shock of Michigan blowing a one-score lead on the final play against Colorado on September 24, 1994 (and no, I did not need to look that date up), Barca almost certainly blew the chance to win a third straight Primera title on Saturday in unbelievably dramatic circumstances. Initially, I was annoyed with GolTV when they provided live look-ins to the Barca-Espanyol match during Real Madrid-Real Zaragoza because they were spoiling the results of the former match. However, as the drama unfolded, it became clear that it was impossible to watch the Real match without knowing what was going on at the Nou Camp, if for no other reason than the Madrid celebrations after pulling a 2-2 draw would have given the result away. In a way, it's just as well that Barca blew the game, as it would have been awfully difficult to defend a league title won, in part, on a goal like this:

This is what happens when you have to root for an Argentine.

I probably could have stomached justifying a Barca title, as I only would have had to hearken back to Ruud van Nistlerooy scoring a similar goal two weeks ago against Deportivo, not to mention the fact that Barca was denied an obvious penalty in injury time in the home leg against Real that would have put the Catalans three points up at present. That said, Leo Messi is going from "cherubic wondertalent" to "cheating villain" in the minds of a lot of impartial observers and that is not a good thing in the least. He represents the future of Barcelona, but he has a lot of growing up to do.

As for the game itself, it should not surprise you that I could not bear to watch the match after knowing what the result was, but the in-game highlights and the basic write-up of the match tell me everything I need to know:

1. Eidur Gudjohnsen missed a pair of good chances. Barca surrendered the Primera title for a variety of reasons and one of them was the foolish decision to think that Gudjohnsen could replace Henrik Larsson.

2. Rijkaard started without a defensive midfielder. He has made this mistake time and again this season and it's always come back to bite him. It was especially bad given the importance that Ivan de la Pena plays as an offensive midfielder for Espanyol. Barca desperately needed Marquez or Motta screening for the vulnerable back four, but they didn't get that support until there were 12 minutes remaining and even then, it was inadequate because Barca were in a defensive posture by that point and one screening midfielder was not enough. Both Espanyol goals came from passes from the middle of the park, which is exactly where Motta or Marquez would have been deployed to break up attacks. Henk Ten Cate is missed yet again.

3. Eto'o missed a great chance to put the game away, shooting right at Kameni when he should have made the game 3-1. His finishing has been poor since returning from injury, although I'm recalling that I wasn't a huge fan of his finishing last year until he equalized in the Champions League Final and then all was forgiven. Ultimately, the difference between Real and Barca is that Real has a striker who finishes consistently and Barca does not.

I expect this to change in the close season. One rumor is that Barca and Arsenal are going to swap Eto'o and Thierry Henry (along with a suitcase of cash to the Arse), which would be a good change of scenery for both players. Another is that Barca are going to buy either David Villa, whose value is sky-high right now, or Diego Milito, who has been a revelation for Zaragoza this year and who scored a terrific goal after a super run by Pablo Aimar.

Phil Ball has advanced the theory that Barca and Real move in opposite directions; when one is going up, the other is going down. I don't see this season as the harbinger for a down period for Barca and an up period for Real. For one thing, Real's resurgence this year was the result of a series of last-minute escapes that tend not to repeat themselves. For another, Real's great closing run was fueled largely by van Nistlerooy, who is on the wrong side of 30, and David Beckham, who is headed to MLS. Barca still have the younger, more talented side; Real don't have anyone the caliber of Iniesta or Messi. The flaws in Barca's side this year - an injured and then misfiring Eto'o, a lack of quality depth up front, and bad tactical decisions - are all correctable. Actually, that's not entirely true. Barca also have a star player who doesn't bother to train or stay in shape, a modern day Ronaldo. That is a problem that might not necessarily resolve itself.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ivan Maisel's Best Game Ever Attended is the Same as Mine

Colorado 27 Michigan 26. A few recollections from the game:

The context is important if you are to understand just how deflating the conclusion of the game was. Michigan had beaten Boston College in the opener with an epic display of 34 unanswered points after they spotted the Eagles a 12-0 lead. Then, Michigan went on the road and did this to bete noire Notre Dame:

(It gets really good at the 4:45 mark.)

Losing on a Hail Mary is one thing; losing on a Hail Mary as the #4 team in the country the week after an epic win over a hated rival is something else. (Incidentally, does anyone remember what it used to be like when major college football teams would play out-of-conference schedules like BC-Notre Dame-Colorado? I digress.)

Colorado dominated the early stages of the game, confirming every fear of Michigan's fans about containing the option (Kevin McDougal had ripped Michigan to pieces during the previous season) and about the amount of talent on the Colorado offense. The Buffs had beaten defending Big Ten champion Wisconsin 55-17 in the previous game, so the fears were somewhat valid. Michigan had a brief hot spell in the first quarter when Colorado hit the crossbar on a long field goal and then Tyone Wheatley made his first appearance of the season after missing the first two games and change with a separated shoulder, but it took a late Michigan touchdown just to get back to 14-9 at the half.

The third quarter was possibly the most frenzied, exciting quarter I saw at Michigan Stadium in four years of college, which probably isn't saying much with the Big House's reputation as a somewhat sedate place to watch a game. Michigan went from 14-9 down to 26-14 up in an avalanche of defensive stops and big plays on offense, including a double reverse and a long touchdown pass to Amani Toomer(?). Michigan was driving again in the fourth quarter with a 12-point lead when Che Foster decided to become a historical footnote by fumbling deep in Colorado territory when it appeared as if Michigan had broken Colorado's will. Colorado then dominated the fourth quarter in the same way that they had dominated the first and some of the second. They drove to the one before Kordell Stewart fumbled trying to score a touchdown, then they drove for a touchdown to close to within 26-21. Michigan recovered the onside kick, at which point someone near me started singing "Goodbye." I scolded this individual, then proclaimed that it was OK to sing once Michigan got its punt off and left the Buffs on their own 15 with 14 seconds to go. (Incidentally, another footnote from that final sequence: Michigan had a makeable third and three, but a false start penalty destroyed the opportunity.)

As for the play itself, I don't have much to add to the thousands of words that have been used to describe it, except to say that the sight of Kordell Stewart throwing the ball roughly 80 yards in the air is still one of the most majestic sights I've ever seen in a sporting event, ranking right up there with Barry Bonds homering off of John Smoltz in Game Two of the 2002 NLDS. It's hard to describe how eerie the post-game reaction was. Ivan Maisel touches on this in his article, but the sudden hush of 106,000 people is difficult to properly convey. People just stood dumbfounded for minutes on end, struggling to comprehend what they had just seen. There were barely any comments from anyone on the walk back to campus. The experience was that flooring.

In retrospect, the game might not have been as significant as it appeared that day. Michigan had a badly flawed defense, regardless of the outcome of the Colorado game and they were not going to win a national title, although it's not inconceivable that Michigan could have beaten Penn State and won the Big Ten that year without the hangover from the Colorado game. That Colorado team was better than Michigan because they could stop the run and they deserved to finish #3. If they got Nebraska at home, #1 would not have been unlikely. My anger about the game has subsided, although I won't lie that I enjoyed the downfall of a number of Colorado's participants in the game:

Rick Neuheisel - Vilified by Colorado and Washington fans for running both programs into the ground. Fired for lying about participation in a final four pool.

Kordell Stewart - reduced to tears by Bill Cowher. Epic meltdown in 2002 AFC Championship Game.

Michael Westbrook - Coldcocked Stephen Davis for no apparent reason.

Rashan Salaam - Epic NFL bust.

Rae Carruth -

Phu Yuck

A couple thoughts on the Braves' current doldrums:

1. With an $85M payroll, the Braves cannot afford to waste money. With that in mind, it's telling to consider that almost half of the team's payroll is rolled up into three players:

Mike Hampton - out for the year.

Chipper Jones - out for the foreseeable future with another injury that will not heal.

Andruw Jones - currently hitting .224 (although he is leading the team in homers, he's drawn a bunch of walks that make his OBP a more respectable .329, and he's shown a bit of a renaissance in the outfield, including last night when he made several excellent plays).

2. I don't entirely agree with Mark Bradley's argument that the Braves' starting pitching is their main problem. For one thing, Bradley underestimates Chuck James (and I would have said that before last night's strong outing). James isn't great, but he seems to be a solid #3 starter. If Lance Cormier's first start last Sunday can be attributed to cobwebs, then he's a perfectly decent fourth starter. All that said, Bradley has a point that the Braves' starting pitching isn't great, but with pitching in such short supply in the majors, I'm not sure what the solution is. Coming back to the $85M payroll, it's a lot easier to find cheap hitting than it is to find cheap pitching. Compounding the problem is the fact that the Braves' system seems to produce a lot more hitters than it does pitchers. In sum, Bradley is right about the Braves' starting pitching, although he overstates the case, and the unfortunate reality is that the team's pitching shortage is going to be a hard problem to solve.

Conversely, the Braves' hitting has been suspect over the past several weeks, as the team is not hitting many home runs. Brian McCann has lost his power, possibly as the result of a nagging injury. Jeff Francoeur's OPS has dipped down under .800 after a hot start. Chipper is out of the lineup, which means that Pete Orr and Chris Woodward are getting too many at-bats. Scott Thorman is totally in the tank right now, raising the possibility that Jarrod Saltalamacchia is going to be the starting first baseman sooner rather than later.

The denouement of the team's hitting problems were painfully evident last night when they waved at Rich Hill's offerings for eight innings. The sum total of the Braves' 28 at-bats against Hill were an opposite field home run that snuck over the wall, a seeing-eye single, a blooper to right, two sharply hit outs, 11 strikeouts, and a variety of meekly hit outs. It was fun to watch a well-played pitcher's duel that took 135 minutes and got me home at 10:20, but the game confirmed a lot of my fears about the Braves' bats right now.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Sweet Lincoln's Mullet!!! It's Phil Steele's Top 25!!!

Behold the majesty:

1. USC
2. LSU
3. Oklahoma
4. West Virginia
5. Michigan
6. Texas
7. Louisville
8. Florida State
9. Virginia Tech
10. Penn State
11. Georgia
12. Hawaii
13. South Carolina
14. Florida
15. Ohio State
16. Wisconsin
17. Alabama
18. Oregon
19. Missouri
20. Texas A&M
21. UCLA
22. Nebraska
23. TCU
24. South Florida
25. Tennessee

I don't actually have the magazine yet, although I did get to touch Orson Swindle's advance copy on Saturday. (Orson, in case you're wondering, was very much like Eric Cartman after he saw the Terence and Philip movie: "I've seen the Terence and Philip movie, who wants to touch me?") Thus, I have not gotten to breathe in the sweet aroma of Steele's reasoning in six-point font, but my initial reactions are as follows:

1. USC is everyone's pick to win the national title and they're certainly a better bet than anyone else, but this Trojan team isn't so imposing so as to merit this sort of unanimity. Their offensive design isn't what it was under Norm Chow and their defense was mediocre for long stretches of last season. More importantly, although USC looked outstanding in their biggest games of the season, they also managed to lose to two vastly inferior opponents and almost lose to several others. They had motivational issues that every pundit is simply assuming are going to go by the wayside.

2. LSU is the consensus #2 team, but I have queasy feelings about them, as well. The Matt Flynn euphoria is triggered by his performance in one bowl game. Bowl games are not usually good measuring sticks of a team's merit and this is especially true when Miami, a team notorious for mailing in bowl performances when they aren't playing for the national title and/or at home ('94 Fiesta Bowl ring a bell?), is involved. Phil rightly gives a nod to Florida State for picking up Jimbo Fisher, but shouldn't he knock LSU down a peg for losing Fisher and replacing him with Gary Crowton, who was somewhat underwhelming at Oregon? Again, LSU is as good an option as any at #2, but why does there seem to be such consensus that they are far and away the best team in the SEC and the second-best team in the country?

3. This is the second straight year that Phil has bought what Bob Stoops is selling, hook, line, and sinker. Oklahoma wasn't especially good last year and they're replacing a senior quarterback with an unheralded JC recruit (I know, Josh Heupel, blah blah blah) and Adrian Peterson.

4. The prevailing skepticism about Phil's picks has centered around his selection of Florida State at #8. Personally, I think this is a really solid pick. Last year, I thought that Steele had the Noles too high and was proven right by Wake Forest 30 Florida State 0. This year, the Noles have the combination of great talent and no-longer incompetent coaching. Florida State's decline neatly tracks the departures of Mark Richt and Chuck Amato, combined with the inexcusable decision by Bobby Bowden to promote and retain his son as offensive coordinator. Now, Amato is back and Fredo Bowden has been replaced by Jimbo Fisher, who was last seen grooming Jamarcus Russell into the #1 pick in the Draft and losing out on the UAB job because some Alabama boosters didn't want their new coach to be the third-best coach in the state. (This was prior to Nick Saban shocking all of us and taking the Alabama job.) Adding Rick Trickett from West Virginia is icing on the cake. The only way that Florida State won't be significantly improved this year is if it takes time to clear out the effects of years of Jumpballpalooza.

5. Contrast Steele's top 25, which features all sorts of changes from last season and appropriately reflects the volatility in college football from year to year, with the static rankings offered by most pundits. Steele famously touted Arkansas last year and has now banished them out of the top 25, which is reasonable since they had an unusually experienced roster and home game-dominated schedule in 2006. Every pundit has Wisconsin in their top ten, while Steele has the Badgers at a more reasonable #16, which takes into account the fact that Wisconsin had no offense last year, played a weak schedule, lost to the one very good team they played by 17 (despite the fact that the very good team in question was in a classic let-down situation), and were beyond fortunate to win their bowl game after being badly outgained. Steele has South Carolina in the Arkansas slot this year, which makes sense given the amount of talent that is returning in Columbia, as well as the fact that this does not look like a vintage year for Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee. Then again, last year didn't look like a vintage Florida year to me or Steele and yet this happened: