Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Unique NFL Tailgating

I have always suspected that most guests on The Jerry Springer Show hail from California, Florida and Texas, and I sometimes have thought during my life that new ideas come from the Golden State. This unique brand of tailgating, worthyof Springer, mind you, actually took place in Tampa, Florida.

I sometimes have wondered about the allure of NFL tailgating anyway. After all, most of it takes place on asphalt, near major roads, where it's windy, noisy and not aesthetic. It's a far cry from the type of scenic partying you can do on a major college campus (or even a minor one). Yet, lots of people go to games, pack a large larder's worth of stuff, and cook all sorts of delicacies and unwind. Most of it is good, clean fun.

What went on in Tampa certainly changed the landscape and is a bit hard to believe. I sense that most major sports leagues are reluctant to locate a franchise in Las Vegas, but after this, why shouldn't they?

Good beer. Good food. Good cigars. What's missing?

Click on the link, and you'll find the vendor who thought of that little something extra.

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Do Baseball Hall of Fame Voters Know Something That We Don't?

I read about the Baseball Hall of Fame's ballot in this morning's paper. Among the eligible candidates are relief pitchers Rich "Goose" Gossage, Bruce Sutter and Lee Smith, the all-time saves leader.

A few days ago, the Blue Jays inked free-agent closer B.J. Ryan to a five-year deal. Yesterday, the Mets signed former Astro and Phillie closer Billy Wagner, 33, to a four-year, $43 million deal. Wagner did a great job for the Phillies last year and helped them to a great finish.

There are three relief pitchers in the Hall of Fame -- Dennis Eckersley, the one-time starer turned reliever who walked virtually no one and enabled manager Tony LaRussa to re-define the role of the closer in modern times, Rollie Fingers, who played for the great A's teams in the early 1970's and later for the Brewers, Hoyt Wilhelm, an early knuckleballer who starred for many teams. There have been many outstanding closers between Wilhelm and Eckersey and thereafter, but the Hall of Fame voters haven't considered them worthy of admission. Gossage was lights out, and it looked like the ball literally disappeared into the catcher's mitt when he pitched. Sutter helped define the modern closer's role, and Lee Smith saved game after game after game (although I wouldn't put him in the Gossage or Sutter category; he is a Phil Niekro, relatively speaking, to Gossage's Gibson or Carlton, for example).

While I think that Gossage definitely belongs in the Hall and Sutter probably does and that a good argument can be made for Smith, none are there. Which begs the question: how important is a top-drawer closer to a team? After all, the game's best closer over the past several years, Eric Gagne, played for a non-playoff team, and the White Sox won the World Series this year without a bona fide closer. Are the barriers to entry to becoming a very good closer as high as they are to becoming a very good starter? And can you win the World Series without a top-drawer closer more so than a stopper, a #1 starter?

My answers to those questions are (i) it depends, because if you have starters who can go 7 or 8 innings a top-drawer closer can make a huge difference, (ii) not as great, as new and very good closers seemingly are minted every season (this year, it was Chad Cordero who emerged with the Nationals, and I think that turning an existing reliever into a #1 starter would be very hard to do) and (iii) probably more likely than you can win one without a #1 starter.

That's not to knock excellent closers, because they certainly make a difference. The question, really, is how valuable they are. Is Wagner, in a position that has more transients than the New York Port Authority, worth the big bucks at age 33, when a lot of hard throwers can break down? Will he make that much of a difference in New York, a team that had an iffy bullpen last year? Sure, he shores it up, but who will pitch the 7th and 8th and give Wagner the opportunities? From another angle, compare him and the Phillies closer of 2006 and see what the net gain (or loss) will be for the Mets? Then again, the Phillies' starting pitching corps isn't as strong as the Mets.

Mariano Rivera is perhaps the best closer of all-time, and a likely Hall of Famer. He clearly made a difference for the Yankees and their World Championship teams from the mid-1990's on. He's the first example of where a great closer makes a big difference. Rivera aside, though, is it wise to spend so heavily on the best closer when you could spend money on that extra starter or on that extra bat? I'm not a baseball numbers cruncher (I respect those who are), but I wonder what the math guys have to say about this. Did the Mets spend wisely?

The Mets probably are the team to beat in the NL East in 2006, although the Braves won't give up their perch without a fight and have won the division an unthinkable 14 years in a row. The Braves won't yield; the Mets will have to take the division. Will it be a great year for them, now that they've added Carlos Delgado and Billy Wagner to a roster that already includes Pedro Martinez, Carlos Beltran, David Wright and Jose Reyes, or will they end up with a swollen roster that can seem to get it all together and therefore be fodder for the New York media? And are the Mets done, or will they finally swing the trade that brings Manny Ramirez to Shea Stadium as well?

The Phillies lost a lot when they lost Billy Wagner yesterday, and all Phillies' fans know that. Let's not gloss over the fact that Wagner is a tremendous competitor and made a big difference for the club. GM Pat Gillick had to make a decision about where to lock up some of his money, and he decided that a four-year, no-trade commitment just didn't make any sense. The Mets beat out the Phillies four years ago for Tommy Glavine because they gave him a fourth year, and it appears now that they overpaid for the future Hall of Famer in the process. Will the same be said about what they did with Wagner?

Only time will tell, and the overarching question is the value of the top-drawer closer or the closer, period. Is the reliever that comes in with the based loaded and no outs in the sixth or seventh and gets the team out of a jam with no runs scored (a la El Duque in the playoffs against the Red Sox) in fact more valuable than a closer? And are closers somewhat fungible, in that there's not as huge a difference, relatively speaking, among tiers of closers the way there might be among tiers of cleanup hitters? Is that hypothesis right, or is it wrong?

Great closers are great to have, but my guess is that they don't get the respect that they deserve because they don't get to shine unless their teams have good enough starters to put them in the spotlight. That's not necessarily fair to an otherwise great closer, but it might explain why the position doesn't get taken that seriously come time for voting for the Hall of Fame.

And if that in and of itself is an indicator of the collective wisdom of baseball minds and guardians of the game, then is that a statement that the Blue Jays definitely overpaid for B.J. Ryan and the Mets overpaid for Billy Wagner?

Let's watch the next couple of seasons and see.

On the Steve Mariucci Firing

One of the most popular teachers when I was in high school was a hip woman in her early-to-mid twenties who taught Romance Languages, wore short skirts and drove a VW bus. She was very positive, very helpful and a wonderful teacher. It was hard to find anyone who would say a bad word about her.

She did have one noticeable problem, though.

Car accidents.

About four in two years, including one, if I recall correctly, that had her miss several months of school because she was seriously injured. That last accident prompted the following exchange between my father and me at the dinner table:

Son: Miss So-and-So got into another car accident last week. She'll be okay, but she's going to miss some school. It's a shame she keeps getting into accidents. What bad luck.

Dad: Son, if you get into a car crash say once every ten years, it could well be an accident. But if you have four in two years, you probably have a driving problem.

Which brings me to the Detroit Lions and Matt Millen, who is the President and CEO of the team.

There's lots of good stuff about Matt Millen. He was a great player at Penn State, an excellent pro with the Redskins, a very good commentator on Fox and, as I have read before, is a very good woodworker.

He's also just fired his second coach in the past four years.

Fire one coach in four years, well, that happens. The coach might not have lived up to expectations or the team didn't make meaningful progress or a combination of both and a few other things thrown in.

Fire two coaches in four years, including one (the one you just fired) who fared well at his last job, and, well, you may have a management problem.


Steve Mariucci didn't draft Joey Harrington. Steve Mariucci didn't draft a wide receiver in the first round in each of the past three years. Steve Mariucci wasn't responsible for the draft or personnel decisions, which, in retrospect, he might well regret. This firing surprised me. I'm not a close follower of the Lions, but I would have thought from a distance that if the Ford family was going to make a move, it would have fired Matt Millen before Steve Mariucci.

Is it that Matt Millen cannot pick players? Is is that he cannot pick coaches? The team's record suggests the former, and Matt Millen's hiring three coaches in five years (once he hires Mariucci's replacement) suggests the latter. In fairness to Mariucci, what Millen's track record suggests is that Millen at best isn't confident in picking coaches, because there are many (John Madden among them) who believe that Mariucci is an excellent coach. At worst, Matt Millen just can't translate his other successes into success at management.

Steve Mariucci wanted the Lions job. He's from Michigan, is best friends with Michigan State hoops coach Tom Izzo, and wanted to return to his native state. It's not as if the Lions job was a dream job or the franchise has a glorious tradition. And it's not that Mariucci couldn't have gone elsewhere. Unfortunately, some roadblocks came up on his journey, and what he had hoped would have been an enriching homecoming turned out to be a disaster.

At some point, Matt Millen will get fired unless he resigns first because he wants out of the football management game. In either case, Steve Mariucci will get many more feelers for his next football job (including NFL head coaching jobs) than Matt Millen.

Because at some point, it can't just be the coach's fault.

And at some point even great players have to admit that they can't be great at everything.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Holiday Shopping in the Philadelphia Area

I went holiday shopping with my five year-old yesterday, and we stopped in a sports memorabilia store at a nearby mall. I actually was looking for something for his older sister, who has become quite the baseball fan in the past six months.

Now, I'm not a huge fan of memorabilia stores and am wary of signed merchandise, but the little kid in me piques my curiosity from time to time. My son's favorite sport is football, and we walked past some figurines. Featured prominently among football figurines were several of Philadelphia Eagles' quarterback Donovan McNabb. Here's now the conversation went.

Son: (enthusiastically, and in his husky voice) Dad, here's a Donovan McNabb. Can you get it for me?

Dad: (a tad tired of being asked to buy things at this point) Well, maybe. I'll put it on your holiday list. Is that okay?

Son: (happy that he's managed his father to the point where Dad is not saying "no" automatically) Sure.

They keep on looking. A few seconds later, son stops at a particular rack.

Son: (surprised and disappointed) Oh now, here are a bunch of figures of He Who Must Not Be Named.

Harry Potter's Lord Voldemort meet erstwhile Eagles' wide receiver Terrell Owens ("We must not speak his name. . .").

It's amazing on what kids pick up on, but at this point all they know is that T.O. got into a major disagreement with the beloved Eagles front office and now is at home, sitting in his room. While labor disputes are something that elementary-school kids can't fully comprehend, being sent to their room is something that every kid can identify with -- in addition to the Harry Potter series.

So now all that remains of T.O. in Philadelphia are unsaleable jerseys, figurines and all sorts of memorabilia that probably won't make most people's top-ten lists at holiday time. It's amazing in the world of sports how someone can go from being the center of attention to the bottom of the pile in a matter of less than a year.

And now we don't speak his name, not because of any superstition or any edict that we must not, really. It's only because now he's old news, and there are no on-field exploits to talk about.

The New York Times and a Golden Goose

The Sports Biz blog posted this about yesterday's front-page NYT article regarding a high school in Miami that purportedly has Hogwarts-like qualities. Go there after failing elsewhere, and, magically, you'll become DI eligible. The post links the NYT article, and I suggest that you read the whole thing.

To what lengths do certain schools go to get kids into their programs? Previously, there was the federal prosecution (about which I blogged here) about a booster who allegedly paid a HS coach to steer his kid to his favorite college's program. Now there's this NYT article regarding a certain high school in Miami that allegedly has turned itself into an eligibility mill. What will be next? And why is winning in college football so important in the scheme of things?

I've asked the latter question before, and have been told in comments to this blog that I just don't understand the southern mentality regarding college football. A friend, a midwesterner who grew up in a college town, told me about the good will entire communities attach to their favorite universities' teams. I grew up and live in a metropolitan area where the focus is much more on professional football than college, but isn't there something about college that is supposed to be different? Such as educating our kids first and foremost? Sure, if you're going to field a team, play to win, but there are different costs to winning.

And I would submit some of them are not worth bearing. Such as admitting kids who have no business being in your college.

I also issue a challenge to the NCAA to take a stand on this issue and to audit hard the admissions records of certain programs if they are not doing so already. The NCAA has many rules on compliance that its member insitutions must follow in order to keep student-athletes eligible, but they need to look more closely at the foundation of their member insitutions programs -- are kids being admitted legitimately? I would submit that it's hard to get into many NCAA member institutions than it is to stay in, and I've also posted before on certain disclosures I would like to see NCAA schools make to help ensure that kids get full disclosures about a school's priorities on academics before they sign a letter of intent. But what does it say about the entire process if the system fails these kids by not putting meaningful demands on them and looking out for their welfare at the expense of the day-to-day moods of people who follow their state schools to the ends of the earth and support them with a fervence usually reserved for a religious figure?

Before ardent supporters of NCAA athletic programs jump all over me, please note a few points. My challenge to the NCAA and its members schools isn't meant to indict the NCAA overall for what it does or to indict major college football programs as a whole. I am not questioning the point that most of the kids who play sports at NCAA schools put their academics first and that many coaches try to do the right thing. So let's get that clear so that the wagons don't start circling. Finally, don't attack the NYT here because it's become the whipping boy for many red-state politicos and their supporters as a partisan paper that takes sides against conservative politicians, the Bush administration and, ergo, various elements of American life that red-staters hold so dear, such as college football. Read the article, question both the NYT's coverage and the questions it both asked and didn't ask, and then question the insitutions themselves. If you're a proud alum of any of the institutions named and what's written in the NYT is true, then in this regard the institutions within your alma mater that you hold so dear are doing nothing but cheapening the value of your degree, which presumably you worked hard to earn.

I can't tell now whether this is a brewing scandal a la steroids in baseball or whether it will get buried around the country because there are dirty little secrets that programs don't want to reveal and whether the writers who cover them have enough support from their papers to do some digging as to what's going on. I hope that the sports press corps everywhere will make these inquiries and ask the hard questions. If they do so, they'll distinguish themselves from the baseball media, which either refused to acknowledge or just plain missed the advent of steroids in baseball. My guess is that reporters in Alabama will jump all over Tennessee given the scandal that developed several years ago regarding Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer's allegedly turning in Alabama for recruiting violations. But the question is whether Alabama-based reporters will examine the practices of Alabama and Auburn and whether Tennessee-based reporters will examine the practices of the Volunteers.

I suppose that the passage of time will tell us a lot. Is major college football (and basketball, for that matter) built on a solid foundation or is it virtually impossible to have admitted, and keep eligible, a championship team?

Sunday, November 27, 2005

Lafayette 57 Princeton 46 (in Princeton)

I think that both the Princeton men's basketball team and I went into today's home game against Lafayette somewhat buoyant for several reasons. First, Drexel, the team that put Princeton away in the season's opener for both, went on a mad dash last week and almost beat both #1 Duke and #16 UCLA, showing that a team that had graduated four seniors only 6 months earlier is a very good team. Second, Princeton went up to Lehigh and socked the Mountain Hawks (formerly Engineers) by 12 in a game that wasn't that close in their own building. Third, Lehigh was predicted to finish fourth in the Patriot League, with Blue Ribbon picking a relatively young Lafayette team (only two upperclassmen get meaningful playing time) last. Fourth, a reasonably rested Penn team (and one with its least depth in years) did beat Drexel last night, but struggled to do so, winning by 8 over a team that was playing its fifth game in nine days.

I did come into the game wondering whether Penn was 21 points better than Princeton, having beaten Drexel at home by 8 with Drexel having beaten Princeton at home by 13. At the start of the day, I didn't think so, figuring that a reasonably rested Drexel team might have beaten the 2005-2006 Penn Quakers at this junction in the season. I also came into the game wondering whether Princeton would be overconfident, given that it had beaten Lehigh by 12 about a week earlier on the road (and the game wasn't as close as the score suggested).

The answers to those to questions are maybe and definitely yes. Princeton looked awful today against Lafayette, showed little urgency and lost by 11 (the margin was 14 until reserve guard Max Schafer hit a long three at the final buzzer). The game wasn't that close (Lafayette led by 10 at the half, led by 16 at some points and Princeton didn't score its first point in the second half until 6 minutes into it), and, once again, Lafayette head coach Fran O'Hanlon showed his mastery at coaching offense, moving the ball around and substituting to get the best matchups. His Leopards moved the ball with zip and confidence, hit the boards and clogged the lanes better than the cold-shooting Tigers, who got some good looks but had trouble hitting the open jumper. While Noah Savage had 17 for the Tigers and Scott Greenman 14, many of those came during a desperate try to get back into the game with about 7 minutes remaining. The problem is, you can't play poorly for 33 minutes and then try to steal a victory, especially against a well-coached team that played with a sense of purpose and energy during the entire game.

There are plenty of places to get good game recaps, so I won't provide a detailed one here. I will provide some observations about the Tigers and, from what I've read, the Penn Quakers:

1. Princeton forced the ball too much today. Starting 2G Geoff Kestler had his shot blocked twice on the first possession, and there was a memorable possession during the final five minutes when junior forward Luke Owings tried a hook shot that got blocked.

2. The Tigers' woes at the center position continue. Patrick Ekeruo tries hard, but he's limited on offense and, with the exception of one outstanding move where he put the ball on the floor from the foul line and converted a layup, he is not a shooter and other teams lay off him defensively. Starting C Harrison Schaen is on a very short leash, and doesn't play either end with much confidence. He had a good amount of confidence on the defensive end two years ago when he was a freshman, but he doesn't look like he and Coach Joe Scott are on the same page yet. Whatever happened to the great passing Princeton centers of the past 30 years? Are any of your kids ready for admission to the school?

3. The Tigers did not look that crisp out there at either end of the floor. Scott played 9 players. Starting were Schaen at center, Savage and Owings at forward and then Kestler and Greenman at guard. Seeing a good amount of playing time were Ekeruo, reserve guards Schafer and Alex Okafor and sophomore forward Kyle Koncz -- a junior, two sophs and a frosh (Okafor is the freshman of the group). Okafor also is limited offensively, and Koncz did not do much to distinguish himself today. Starter Owings, counted on to be a mainstay, got into foul trouble and eventually fouled out without contributing much.

4. Noah Savage appears to be Princeton's best player, but opposing teams will put their best defender on him and dare the other guys to beat them. He worked hard for his shots today, but there were many sequences when he just wasn't open. He only took 6 shots (making 5). I don't think the Tigers will win with Harrison Schaen, their 6'10" center, shooting the three (he took one too many and spent most of the game on the bench). Kestler and Okafor received some good pre-season press, but right now they are overmatched, especially on offense. The other three freshmen -- Noah Levine, Michael Stritmatter and Jason Briggs -- appear to be at the bottom of the depth charts. Greenman brings a lot of energy at times, but I thought he didn't show nearly as much energy during the bulk of the game as he did during the final 10 minutes. As the team's captain, he probably needs to rev the engine into overdrive earlier in contests. Still, he's a keeper, but after Savage and him, it's hard to say who the next best player is (okay, so it's probably Luke Owings, but after that it's a toss-up).

5. I'd bet that with Savage and Levine, Princeton has set an NCAA record for the first time two guys named Noah are on the same Division I basketball roster.

6. Princeton clearly has some work to do. They took a step forward with the win at Lehigh, and then a step backwards today. It's clear from his substitution pattern that Joe Scott is still trying to find the right five. Several starters were on the bench within the first ten minutes of the game.

7. Why do they keep Jadwin Gym so hot? The temperatures in the gym were parching, so I guess that Princeton's endowment must be performing so well in an energy crisis that they can afford to overheat their gym.

8. The choice of halftime entertainment was interesting, two streetballers performing a routine. That type of hoops is contrary to the Tigers' way of playing, and it was amusing to see the performance. I'm sure that I'm not the only one who noticed the irony.

Now as for Penn. . .

Their starting lineup looks to be the following:

C Steve Danley
F Frederich Ebede
F Mark Zoller
G Ibby Jaaber
G Eric Osmundson

with the first four players off the bench being G David Whitehurst, G/F Brian Grandieri, and Fs Brennan Votel and Tommy McMahon. The starting lineup has two seniors (Osmundson and Ebede, the latter of which played sparingly in his first three years, this after being touted by some as the next Ugonna Onyekwe) and three juniors (the remaining three). Off the bench are essentially one soph (Whitehurst), one "red-shirt" freshman (the Ivies don't red-shirt, but Grandieri missed last year because of injury) and two pure freshmen (McMahon and Votel). Danley and Jaaber are first-team all-league caliber players, while Osmundson's stepping up last year was a major reason why Penn won the Ivies. Zoller just makes play after play. Whitehurst is regarded as an athlete and a shooter, but people thought going into the season (and still do, as one game does not a season make) that Penn would need contributions from its bench in order to repeat as Ivy champs and win its 9th Ivy title in 14 seasons.

So what happened last night? Against the emerging Drexel Dragons, Brian Grandieri came off the bench to score 12 points and grab 15 rebounds. Has Penn Coach Fran Dunphy found another gem, the way he did Mark Zoller? The entire season will tell, but if you're a Penn fan, you have to be a little giddy from last night's game, not because you beat a surprisingly tough Drexel team, but because you perhaps had a serious question answered last night -- who will step up and fill a meaningful part of your rotation.

It's not that as Brian Grandieri goes, so will the Penn Quakers. There are plenty of veterans who will power the Penn engine -- Jaaber, Danley, Osmundson and Zoller. It's just that many teams have gone into a season with 3 to 4 players (the Princeton team Chris Young's freshman year featured Brian Earl, Gabe Lewullis, Mason Rocca and Young, but had to rely upon so many frosh that it just couldn't beat a more experienced Penn team for the title) and couldn't finish the job. Penn will need a deeper bench -- and it could well be on its way.

After the Lehigh game I was thinking that perhaps I was too harsh in picking the Princeton Tigers to finish fourth in the Ivies. That's what happens when you make predictions, you get a form of predictor's remorse. I'll stand by that prediction, and I think that a young Princeton team learned a tough lesson at the expense of a young Lafayette team today -- you have to go out there and take your victories game in and game out. Princeton would have gained a lot of confidence today if it had built on the Lehigh win. Instead, it took a step backwards by failing to honor it.

Kudos to Lafayette Coach Fran O'Hanlon and his young bunch today. You went on the road and beat a storied program in their (relatively empty) building. That's no small feat, especially for a young team.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

ESPN The Magazine and Steroids in Baseball

A few issues ago, ESPN the Magazine ran a big story on the steroids scandal in baseball. I read it, didn't really learn anything new, but somehow felt that ESPN the Magazine wanted me to feel grateful because it addressed the issue. That feeling irritated me, because where was ESPN in the first place, when the problems started?

Instead of several years too late.

ESPN clearly had a conflict of interest. I'm not sure whether ESPN actually is in the journalism or entertainment business, but sometimes the lines can get tangled. After all, it's hard to put your investigative muscle on a brewing scandal when that scandal could cost you millions in ad revenue because you have a big contract with Major League Baseball to televise its games.

One reader castigated ESPN the Magazine by writing "The steroids story needed telling. But missing were any hard questions for ESPN's baseball folks about what they knew and when they knew it. You apparently tried to confront players, who then refused to comment, but why weren't your star reporters put in the same position?" That's what Mark Ludolph of Peoria, Illinois wrote.

Good questions.

And here's what ESPN the Magazine wrote in the last line of its short missive on the topic: "When the national pastime is infected, so are we all."

That is absolutely pathetic. The purpose of the press is to ask the hard question and to press. Where were the photo analyses of changed physiques, the yearly comparisons of player's listed weights, the comparisons of stats, so that a banjo hitter who never hit more then 10 homers in a year got questioned when he then hit 50? Or the pitcher whose miles per hour on his fastball mid-to-late in his career jumped by more than 5 m.p.h.? Are the baseball media really journalists, or they simply cheerleaders who can't believe their good fortune that they get to watch games for a living. Say what you will about the media who cover the national political scene, but if they were on this case, they wouldn't have missed it at all, and the game would be better off for it.

ESPN the Magazine, don't separate your shoulders patting your collective selves on the back. Your signature piece, as it were, was several years late. Your justification for the press's huge miss is even worse.

Make up your minds: are you publicists and entertainers, or are you journalists? In the case of baseball in the recent past, the answer is obvious.

I've blogged tirelessly (to myself and perhaps tiresomely to others) on the steroids issue. The mainstream baseball media took a huge powder here and shouldn't be given a pass. They got coopted and corrupted and instead of wondering why the numbers were getting so inflated, they took a joyride in reporting a sudden surge in performances and the sports renewed popularity. It's the job of the press to ask how and why, and the mainstream baseball media, ESPN included, struck out.

Without even taking their bats off their shoulders.

Friday, November 25, 2005

Drexel Dragons Breathe Fire

They were picked seventh in the pre-season polls for the Colonial Athletic Association. They graduated four starters. They are not part of Philadelphia's famed Big 5, even though they are a Division I hoops team that plays its home games not far from Philadelphia's 30th Street Station. They're the not-so-much-talked-about stepsister to the debutantes that stroll hoops' catwalk each year and have figured prominently in the public spotlight: Villanova, St. Joseph's, Pennsylvania and Temple. Two are in the Top 15 list for all-time NCAA wins. All are storied programs (the fifth, LaSalle, hasn't had a winning season in the past ten but shows signs of improving under coach John Giannini).

They slayed Princeton in the home opener a few weeks ago by showing a fierce combination of athleticism and tenacity. They took advantage of the relatively young Tiger team, especially when Princeton's four best players were on the bench together for a good part of the first half, saddled with two fouls apiece. It was at that juncture that Drexel went on a 17-0 run (against a Tiger fivesome on the floor that averaged roughly 2 points per game collectively last year -- showing that they could put away a well-schooled opponent when it had them on the ropes. The Dragons showed everyone that night that they are finishers. Good finishers.

It was a rough night for the Tigers and an excellent night for the Dragons. The Dragon faithful were buoyed that their team defeated a perennial rattlesnake, while the Princeton faithful sensed a dreadful season, as their Tigers played badly (one piece of evidence -- they were outrebounded 46-17).

As it turns out, Drexel might not finish in the second division in the CAA, as they had an amazing past few days, giving #1 Duke a great game mid-week before losing by 10, and then getting nipped by #16 UCLA today by a point, both in the pre-season NIT. Both games were played in Madison Square Garden. Which goes to show you that the Drexel Dragons are better than people thought, and that the Princeton Tigers, who followed that game with an excellent effort and runaway win over Lehigh on the road, are better than the Tiger faithful might have feared after that disastrous opening night. Why? It could well be that the Drexel Dragons are just that good. We'll learn more about how good after their tangle with Pennsylvania tomorrow (with a caveat that the Dragons might well be tired, as this will be something like their fifth game in seven days).

In Philadelphia, the pre-season skinny was that Villanova was a lock for the NCAA tournament and that Pennsylvania was the strong favorite in the Ivies, and that if they play their cards right Temple and St. Joseph's might have a shot at the NCAA tournament. Everyone knows that LaSalle is rebuilding, and almost no one mentioned Drexel in the conversation.

They will now.

Sure, Drexel didn't beat either Duke or UCLA, but the effort was there.

If the Dragons honor those performances the remainder of the season, they could well be part of the post-season conversation -- as CAA champions.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

Live Blogging: Michigan State -- Gonzaga

MSU missed a layup with 4.6 seconds to go. There was a held ball call afterward, which looked like a bad call. The Gonzaga swingman who garnered the rebound wasn't tied up. Gonzaga had the arrow, got the ball, got fouled with 4.4 seconds left. No timeouts left for either team. Gonzaga at the line, up one, with PG Derek Raivio at the line; he has 24 points on the night, and the Zagas are something like 25-26 from the charity stripe for the night. The players look very tired. . . now they put 0.2 back on the clock. Raivio hits first shot. . . Zags have hit 25, now 26 in a row. Raivio hit the second shot. . . 27 in a row. . . MSU couldn't get a shot off, thought their shooter was fouled behind the arc, but there was no call. . . Tom Izzo thought Kevin Brown was fouled, but announcers agree with the no-call, thinking that Brown had jumped into the Zags' defender to initiate contact.

Gonzaga wins, 109-106. Unbelievable game.

Live Blogging: Triple OT, Michigan State - Gonzaga

This semifinal in the Maui Invitational is unbelievable. I'm blogging with 31.9 seconds left and Michigan State up 106-105. Both teams are playing great basketball. As I posted before, Adam Morrison, Gonzaga's first pre-season all-American, and Michigan State's Maurice Ager, who just fouled out (he played 20 minutes with four fouls and just fouled out) are playing great basketball. Ager poured in 36 points, and Morrison has 43, with Gonzaga now leading 107-106 with 15.6 seconds left.

This is just unbelievable, March Madness hoops in November. It's hard to imagine it getting any better than this.

Giant Killers Again

Last year, early in the season, Bucknell beat #10 Pitt at Pitt, the first time they had ever beaten a top-10 team.

Tonight they did in Syracuse in the Carrier Dome, beating the #19 ranked Orangemen 74-69.

Suddenly, I think, this mid-major is quickly becoming a major, at least for the year. If Bucknell keeps this up, they'll crack the Top 25. Just goes to show you that there is more to big-time hoops in the Northeast than the Big East and Atlantic 10 (and, for those diehards, Penn and Princeton in the Ivies).

Lewisburg, Pennsylvania hasn't necessarily been on the hoops map until recently.

Last year, it got some attention.

This year, it's a must stop.

Live Blogging -- Michigan State Versus Gonzaga on ESPN

This is a great game, going into overtime.

If there are two more clutch players out there than Gonzaga's Adam Morrison and Michigan State's Maurice Ager, I'd like to see them.

Money, Happiness and Success

The Mets gave Carlos Beltran $120 million when the Yankees weren't willing to give him $100 million, primarily based on Beltran's amazing post-season with the Astros two seasons ago. The Mets gave a sore-winged Pedro Martinez a fourth year on his deal, when at 33, no other team was willing to give him that. About four years ago, the Mets gave future Hall-of-Fame hurler Tommy Glavine four years when no other team was willing to go beyond three.

And now the Mets are primed to offer closer Billy Wagner, 34, more money and more years than anyone else (or, at least, more years). The Phillies have offered two years with an option year, and it may be that the Mets are willing to go four years. That's a lot of dough for a 33 year-old closer.

Let's recap a bit on the expenditures:

1. Beltran performed much below expectations, and the early school of thought is that the Mets overpaid for him.

2. Pedro delivered big-time for the Mets last year and helped put people in the seats. The Mets, a .500 team last year, drew 2.8 million. The question remains how well Pedro's arm will hold him in the remaining years of his contract. It was only a season ago that he had basically turned into a once-a-week pitcher for the Red Sox.

3. Glavine has a 33-41 record in his three years with the Mets and a bad walks-strikeouts ratio. I like Tommy Glavine and believes that he is an all-time great pitcher, but at 33 you have to believe that the Mets overextended for him.

No one will argue that Wagner is one of the best relievers in baseball. He is that. He also had a great season in Philadelphia last year, and he's pitched under pennant-race pressure. Few will argue that his familiarity tour of NYC will make much difference in his decision where to sign. Most players opt for the most money. It would appear at the moment that the Mets are willing to offer more than the Phillies, unless the Phillies determine that for public relations reasons, among others, they just have to have Wagner (perhaps the way the Mets really needed Pedro). If that's the case, look for the Phillies to compete hard to sign their free-agent closer.

The question I have, though, is how well these signings really work out. If Wagner wants a title, he might be better suited to taking less money from the White Sox or Red Sox, both of whom could use some help in that area. The Mets still have their holes and faded badly down the stretch. The Phillies had a good year and missed out on the playoffs by one game and their division title by two. The issue there is whether last season was a fluke or whether the team can build on that success. Neither team is a sureshot for the playoffs, even with Wagner.

Wagner will improve their teams, but by how much and for how long. If both teams have a "win now" philosophy, then signing Wagner makes all the sense in the world. But if they're less certain about the present and more committed to a few years down the road, they might not like the fact that they're saddled with an expensive deal for aging closer with a no-trade clause.

The Mets most recent signings have given Mets' fans the confidence that the Mets' ownership is committed to opening up its purse to sign top-notch talent. But they also should give those same fans cause for pause about whether the Mets have been spending their money wisely. The Glavine signing has been a disappointment, and it's too early to tell on the other two signings. All that said, Mets fans are expecting big things from management and the big-name signees, with or without Billy Wagner.

As well they should.

The Yankees spent over $200 million last year for a team that averaged about 34 years of age at the season's outset and didn't win the World Series for the fifth year in a row. A Nobel physicist once said, "Excellence cannot be bought, but it must be paid for." I'm sure someone else once said, "you can find excellence in all sorts of places -- if you look hard enough." Opening up the coffers is one way to create a core for your excellence, but you also must find enough complementary players to complete the team and, hopefully, some putative bargains who can grow into outright steals.

True, you won't win the World Series with a bottom-five payroll.

It's just that you're not guaranteed to win one with a top-five payroll either.

Monday, November 21, 2005

Senior Citizens With Tattooes

Will he wear long sleeves and perhaps even turtlenecks, or will he take his shirt off at the beach, when he's old and gray?

I don't think that Allen Iverson looks good with his tattooes now, and about six months at Wal-Mart I saw a woman who had to be in her 70's with a bunch of tattooes. Now, I doubt that she was a professional athlete like Iverson, so she didn't look as toned as AI, but I can't imagine that he'll look cool at 70 with a bunch of old tattooes. She certainly did not.

Don't get me wrong, I like his game (within reason) even when at times I questioned his coachability, but I just wonder about the tattoo thing. Sure, I'll take a polka-dotted, tattooed shooting guard if he can fill it up with the best of them. I just wonder about tattooes on very old guys. Oh, not just the Navy anchor that many a former Navy guy has somewhere on is forearm because he hoisted a few too many when on shore leave. I'm talking about the wall-to-wall artwork.

Somehow, I can't imagine AI as an old man, but I imagine that he'd still think at the age of 70 that he could fill it up with the best point guards. My guess is that he'd be willing to go out on the court and take the best of the NBA's players to the hoop.

Tattooes or no tattooes.

A Vote Of Confidence

The head coach's record is 26-33 over six years. His teams have had two winning seasons, three losing seasons, and one .500 season in that span. This past year, his team was 7-3 and finished second in its league. The league: Ivy. The team: the Princeton Tigers. The coach: Roger Hughes.

This year's Princeton was picked to finish sixth in the Ivies. Many pundits figured that if the Tigers were to bear out that prediction, and finish something like 3-7, Roger Hughes would be out of a job. The prediction had some merit, as the Tigers had lost three-year starting QB Matt Verbit and star LB Zak Keasey, both of whom were in NFL training camps this summer (Miami and Washington, respectively).

The Tigers, though, paid little heed to what was written, and they knew they had a lot to prove. They got off to a good start, and they had two key mid-season wins that showed they were more than just fodder for other programs. They beat Harvard at Harvard, the first time in nine tries they had beaten the Crimson, and then they beat Penn at Penn, the first time in ten years they won a game at fabled Franklin Field. Led by DB Jay McCareins, who always seemed to make the big play, is the nation's leader in interceptions and is a candidate for the Ivies' player of the year award, the Tigers went into their game against Yale a few weeks ago tied for the Ivy title. Win out, and they were assured for nothing less than a tie for the title with Brown.

They took it to a tough Yale squad early in that game, leading 14-0 with a few minutes to go in the first half and the ball in the red zone. Then their game fell apart. The Tigers coughed up the ball, and they weren't the same. Instead of going into the half leading 21-0, the lead was 14-0. And the coaching staff lost its creativity, and the offense started turning the ball over. Seven times in all, and a few times in the final minutes that enabled Yale to score two touchdowns in the final two minutes to defeat the host Tigers and leave the hometown crowd breathless. Some longtime Princeton observers, like TigerHawk, called for Coach Hughes' firing. The game clearly was a lead balloon.

This past weekend Princeton played Dartmouth at Dartmouth, always a tough place for the Tigers, and especially in late November. The Yale loss had to be devastating for Princeton, not because they lost to a gritty Bulldog team but because of the way the game was lost. The championship was within their grasp, and they let it slip away. Literally. A lesser team would have mailed it in, and a lesser team would have wilted, but the Princeton Tigers regrouped and pasted the Big Green, 30-0. I, for one, thought that this was a great showing of character for a team that simply blew its chance for a league title the week before.

I also thought it said a lot about Roger Hughes. On the one hand, I didn't think that Tiger AD Gary Walters did a good job when he hired Hughes. I was looking for someone with a track record as a head coach, and the most successful coaches in the Ivies had that track record before arriving on their campuses. Penn's Al Bagnoli, an outstanding coach, had an excellent run at DIII Union College before coming to coach the Red and Blue. Harvard's Tim Murphy coached at Cincinnati, and Yale's Jack Siedlecki coached at his alma mater, DIII Amherst College, before moving on to New Haven. That's the type of coach I was looking for.

Instead, among the finalists for the Tiger job were an assistant at someplace like Colorado, former Tiger WR and NFL assistant John Garrett (Jason Garrett's older brother) and Roger Hughes. At the time, Hughes was the offensive coordinator at Dartmouth, which, after having enjoyed much success, including in the early 90's with QB Jay Fiedler, had fallen on hard times. Distant observers would have scratched their heads in bewilderment, whereas insiders in the Ivies knew that some of Dartmouth's problems lay at the hands of an unsympathetic admissions office. Hughes has a PhD, seemingly is a good guy, and got the job.

It didn't seem to be the strongest pool, and some football alums were mystified at what AD Walters was thinking. Where was the next Bagnoli? The next Siedlecki? They had to be out there somewhere, and they hired not a head coach but a coordinator. It struck me at the time that the Princeton faithful expected a hire with more pizzazz than Coach Hughes.

And he hasn't done that great at Princeton. After six years, Tiger fans might have expected a little more. Two winning seasons in six is no ringing endorsement, but this year by all accounts was a good year. My view is that the alma mater should be in the conversation for the first division of the league every year, finish in the top half two years out of every three, contend for a title once every five years and win a title once every ten. Hughes hasn't done that, and he's been in Princeton for six years (Columbia fired its coach, Bob Shoop, over the weekend, and he was 7-23 in three years). The question is, how patient should Princeton be?

The positives are that Roger Hughes is a good man who has engendered some good feelings among the alumni. It appears as though the players like playing for him, but I'm not certain whether they feel inspired by him. The team did have its best year under him this year, and they showed a lot for an expected also-ran. To replace him would mean several years of rebuilding, and he only should be replaced if the school can hire a better coach. Based on this past season and the other factors I cited in this paragraph, I think that Coach Hughes should be retained, at least for another year.

Gary Walters, the Princeton AD, played basketball for Princeton in the mid-to-late 1970's, when Princeton was part of the national hoops conversation. Put simply, he likes to win, and he might get very formulaic here and terminate Hughes simply because he's had only two winning seasons in his six in Tigertown and has only contended for a title once in six years. Some would support the decision, and it certainly could be considered by the book. But that wouldn't make it a wise decision in the least. Ironically, Walters' own track record in hiring a football coach would work against him. If he doesn't like Hughes' performance, what's to say that he'd hire someone better than the person he hired in the first place? You cannot guarantee it.

I talked with a former football player about Coach Hughes' future. On the one hand, the Yale game frustrated him -- he thought the coaching that day was terrible. On the other hand, he likes Coach Hughes, thinks he had a good year, and thinks that the kids respond to him. As we are wont to joke, it's the Ivy League, and it shouldn't be totally about winning and losing. Yes, winning is important, but there are more nuances to Ivy League football than there are in the next two conferences combined. He opined that there's something about Coach Hughes and his comportment that warrants another season at the helm.

I agree. Coach Hughes showed a lot this season by shaping a team that had a great run. It would be a shame to terminate a coach after this good a season.

Sunday, November 20, 2005

You're Not Too Old To Learn

I'll be the first to admit that I was wrong about Joe Paterno (and I'm doing so because Penn State won its first Big Ten title in eleven years, and not because I've been prompted by some e-mails from people who disagree with my prior sentiments). Those who read this blog regularly know that I have the ultimate respect for Coach Paterno, and that my differences for the most part rested with the lack of succession planning in State College and the fact that the question of Coach Paterno's retirement had taken on a life of its own. You can click here for my last post on the topic, which links to prior posts that will outline my thoughts on the subject (and reveals the comments that the post generated). If you read through all the posts, you'll note that I was hardly a Paterno basher. Anything but.

I give Joe Paterno a ton of credit on two fronts. First, he stood tall in the face of the doubters and continued with the same sense of professionalism that has made him what he is. Second, as if he had taken Kipling's "If" to heart, he allowed for the doubting of his detractors. Truth be told, Penn State football was in a rut. To argue otherwise would have been denial. Coach Paterno realized that his program had issues, and he didn't stubbornly continue to do things the way he had done say in 1983. Instead, he changed his offense, he lightened up with his players, he changed some coaches and he put the full-court press on in recruiting and came up with his best class in years. Instead of trying to justify how well his team had done (which would have been hard given the collective won-loss record over the five previous seasons), Coach Paterno responded with the type of effort that Penn State fans had come to know over the years.

It didn't take alumni or writers to prompt him into action. Hardly. And while I'll be the first to admit I called his continued tenure into question, I'd challenge everyone who is singing his praises today to be honest with themselves whether in their discourse with others over the past couple of years (and especially after last season) they too had not raised the same questions. The same way that 100,000 people told Wilt Chamberlain they were in Hershey, Pennsylvania the night that he scored 100 points against the Knicks, I'm sure there are no current Penn State fans or college football fans who doubted about whether Coach Paterno could continue to keep Penn State competitive. If you believe that. . .

It's great to see a program with the tradition of Penn State both on and off the gridiron excelling. It's nice to see the plain-vanilla uniforms return to prominence, Linebacker U. take center stage, and a football program with one of the top graduation rates qualify for a BCS Bowl. At the end of the day, that's what Penn State supporters and fans of true student-athletes really want to see. I, for one, had not watched New Year's weekend Bowl Games in recent years because of the absence of Penn State. It's not that I didn't appreciate good football, but if you're from the northeastern part of the country, you'll admit that we don't have the same intensity about college football as SEC fans do, nor have we enjoyed the same excellence in recent years. Penn State's resurgence this year wakes up perhaps as many if not more echoes than Charlie Weis's outstanding work at Notre Dame this year.

Suddenly, succession planning doesn't seem that much of a concern.

Last time I checked, Penn State alums were lobbying the state legislature to determine whether they would permit cloning in the Commonwealth.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

About My Ivy League Hoops Prediction. . .

Cornell lost to Penn State today.

The significance?

Penn State is not to Division I men's hoops what Temple is to Division I-A football, but it is to major-conference men's hoops what Temple is to Division I-A football.

The Big Red now know that while they have talent, it just might not be enough. Clearly, Cornell has some work to do. Penn State's men's hoops have suffered more personnel losses in recent years than an insolvent company, and an Ivy team that wants to be part of the mid-major conversation should have put them away.

That's not to say that I'm relegating Cornell to the Ivies' second division. Suffice it to say that they're going to have to do a lot better to supplant a rebuilding Princeton team that has little depth and a Penn team that has its least amount of depth in years. Losing to Penn State doesn't send a message that you're formidable.

Just a Hunch

I think that Fresno State will upset USC in Troy tonight.

Fresno State got a goblin out of its attic this season when it beat archrival Boise State, and the Trojans have played with fire in a few of their victories this season. Pat Hill is an outstanding coach who would get a lot more publicity if he were coaching closer to the Mississippi River, and something tells me that a funny thing will happen on the way to the BCS championship game.

Call it Fresno State 35, USC 31.

The sports gods were kind to the Boston Red Sox a few years ago and created a storybook finish. What a better way for Joe Paterno at 78 to have a classic fable-like ending if somehow Fresno State were to win tonight and Penn State would jump into the BCS title game against Texas.

It just could happen tonight.

I Don't Want To Pile On

especially after a loss, but I actually never thought that the Stanford Cardinal men's basketball team was athletic enough to be part of the conversation for the Top Twenty. Today's result might be an aberration or a wake-up call, but I'm not sure that the hoops is as good down at The Farm as Cardinal fans might want you to think.

UC-Irvine 79, Stanford 63. (This after UC-Irvine lost its "heart and soul", Jeff Gloger, to a knee injury in the off-season. Now, the Cardinal was missing one of its top three players, Matt Haryasz, who tweaked an ankle on Friday, and that might explain why Stanford lost. But what I think that Coach Trent Johnson has realized is that the Cardinal must show its more than a three-man team of Haryasz, ace swingman Dan Grunfeld (who had 29 points) and PG Chris Hernandez (who had 13 and was the only other Cardinal player in double figures).

Clearly, the absence of Haryasz explains what happened. I doubt Coach Johnson thinks it's an excuse.

Friday, November 18, 2005

The Patriot League Hypothesis

Years ago, the Ivy League encouraged the formation of the Patriot League in order to have schools with a similar mission against which to compete, especially in football. Initially, this proved to be a good deal for the Ivies, because none of the schools provided athletic scholarships, and Colgate, Lafayette, Lehigh and Bucknell proved almost every bit as expensive as an Ivy. Which meant that the Ivies had the advantage on the gridiron and won more than their fair share of games -- at the outset.

Times have changed, though, on the gridiron and basketball court, as all Patriots (including American and Holy Cross) except Lafayette give athletic scholarships. Army and Navy are in the Patriot League for basketball (and not football) and they give full rides to all of their students (as everyone knows). Now, I'll put aside the football question for a moment, because it takes a lot of resources to mount a competitive football team, and I'd really like to focus on basketball.

Last year, Bucknell was the darling of the eastern media, the Little Liberal Arts College That Could. They beat Pitt at Pitt during the regular season, at a time where Pitt was ranked in the Top 10, and then they surprised Kansas in the first round of the NCAA tournament in a great game. They have all five starters returning, a strong recruiting class, are picked in the top 10 in the current mid-major poll and SI has them rated as the 30th best team in the country. They are in pretty good company, given that most conference champions from non-major conferences rank no higher than say an 11th seed come tournament time. History has shown that, with certain exceptions. If Bucknell performs up to expectations, they could approach the accomplishments of the '98-'99 Princeton team, which rose to as high as #8 in the national polls before losing to ultimate Final Four team Michigan State thanks to a clutch three by Mateen Cleaves in the final minutes. (Before Bucknell fans get too giddy, remember that they have a tough opener tonight against a very talented Rider team that, before the season is over, could be a surprise mid-major team and a potential NCAA tournament team -- so beware of the Broncos tonight in Lawrenceville, New Jersey).

Meanwhile, the Ivies haven't had an NCAA first-round win since that Princeton team. That doesn't mean that the Ivies are in decline. In fact, I'd argue that the average Ivy team is better than it has been in say almost 20 years, and the worst team is better than it's been in a while, relatively speaking. The Ugonna Onyekwe-led Penn teams were very talented, only to disappoint by not winning an NCAA first-round game. Penn and Princeton have outstanding hoops traditions, Penn's coach Fran Dunphy is the dean of Ivy coaches, Penn plays in the Palestra, and Princeton coach Joe Scott worked the miracle of miracles a few seasons ago when he led Air Force to an at-large NCAA berth.

While they might not offer athletic scholarships, they do offer financial aid based upon need, and several Ivies grant full rides to kids whose families earn under a certain threshold and then don't count home equity in a family's assets in financial aid calculations where the family income is under a certain (if greater) amount. For these students, the aid comes in the form of grants, which means that loans and student jobs are no longer part of the package. Not all potential players qualify for this form of aid, but this type of aid philosophy should help some players defray the $40,000 price tag with minimal family contributions.

Looks rosy for the Ivies, right? Look, Penn and Princeton will lose out to Duke and Stanford every time when pursuing the same recruits. Both wanted Dan Grunfeld, a HS star out of suburban Milwaukee who happens to be Ernie Grunfeld's son. Well, Grunfeld the younger went to Stanford, where he's become the star of a nationally ranked team. Top-35 HS senior Brian Zoubek, a very able 7' center from southern New Jersey, is the son of a former Princeton football and baseball player -- and he chose Duke. They probably will lose out to Notre Dame and even Vanderbilt (Penn was hot after now-former Vandy PG Russell Lakey, who went to the prestigious Harvard-Westlake School in L.A.), and maybe even Northwestern and possibly even Rice and Tulane. The reasons are clear -- bigger time competition, along with a full ride. You can debate the relative merits of the education offered at any of those institutions as well as a chance to get to the NCAA Tournament, but if the money isn't equal (that is, if the athletic scholarship schools offer a full ride when the Ivies don't), the decision could be easy for a kid and his family to make. (Kids being kids, they'll want to go to the biggest-name school possible in most cases, although there is a certain gravity pull that might keep them closer to home to enable their folks to see them play).

But what about the Patriot League now that most of its schools are offering basketball scholarships? There are some excellent academic schools in the Patriot League, although my guess is that the top students out there would choose Princeton and Penn before say Lehigh and Bucknell if athletic scholarships weren't part of the equation. Please don't label me an academic snob, as I'm not trying to get into a debate about the relative merits of those schools. Call that an assumption, which, if true, would lead you to conclude that the hypothetical hoops recruit would choose Princeton or Penn over Bucknell and Lehigh because of the schools' academic reputations and Ivy status, not to mention their sterling hoops traditions and their place in the Top 15 on the NCAA list for all-time wins by a DI hoops school.

Now toss athletic scholarships into the picture. There are those parents who value an Ivy education over everything and would do anything to have their kids play hoops for Princeton or Penn. I would submit, though, that there aren't as many as you think there are given the high cost of education, the fact that there are many families with more than 1 kid who wants to and can go to college, and the fact that the difference among these outstanding schools isn't as readily apparent to all parents. Put differently, if Bucknell knocks on the door and offers your kid a full ride worth $38,000 per year and Penn knocks on the door and offers you $19,000 in aid and suggests that you take out a second mortgage to pay for the rest (as they did for football for the grandson of a family acquaintance who ended up going to a service academy), your income is such that that five-figure contribution would seriously drain your disposable income and you have two other kids to educate, what do you do?

Now, it's one thing if the kid really, really wants to go to Penn, has dreamed about playing in the Palestra, or has dreamed about playing the Princeton offense and following in Bill Bradley's shoes (to the extent that they still hear about his legend today). Then the question doesn't become "How can you afford Princeton?" but "How can you afford not to go?" It's just that the hypothetical kid (and, of course, not the kid whose dad heads up an investment bank and can pay the full freight) will have to take out substantial loans to go there and have to pay off that debt upon graduation. Many parents would support that decision if the kid really wanted it badly, but others would countenance a debt-free existence and encourage true economic freedom post-graduation. For those kids who aren't heck-bent on the Ivies or who don't see the magic in them as others do, the full ride -- and the view that there's power in having earned that ride -- could take precedence over the lure of the Ivies -- even Penn or Princeton -- even if that kid is a very good student.

Because those very good students can do math very well, and if they're competitive enough they'll figure that their work ethics will suit them well post-graduation, whether they go to a Patriot School or an Ivy. Some might surmise that a demonstration of true smarts is taking the full ride and giving yourself a better balance sheet post-graduation and removing any worry from your family about financial support. Others (read: Ivy alums) might surmise that the economic decision puts short-term interests over an expansion of one's horizons at a school with international appeal that could pay greater long-term dividends (financial and holistic) that only an Ivy can offer. Both arguments have merit -- for grownups.

But there's also the little man that stands on the other shoulder of parent. Because if you're a parent of that HS kid and you hard, are generally tired from going to work, are a good parent and spouse and chauffers your kids to tons of activities, you might begin to wonder when it gets more relaxing, when it gets easier, when you'll have enough money to say to the man that you've had enough and want to retire to your small bungalow in the mountains where the bass bite in the summertime and when you can take long walks without hearing traffic, when you can relax because your kids won't need your financial support. And then it gets interesting.

Do you take the full ride or don't you? Do you encourage your kid to play at Harvard (former Maryland back-up center Mike Mardesich passed on the opportunity, triple-majored at Maryland and played on an NCAA title team), a school with a lousy hoops tradition that hasn't been to the NCAA tournament in a long time if ever, and pay $15,000 a year (if that's what you're left with after you see the financial aid package) or take the full ride from Bucknell and play for a hot coach and an NCAA tournament team? Is it that easy a decision to make?

I am sure that some of my friends would say, "how can you turn down Harvard?" (who, by the way, has a good coach who seemingly doesn't get enough good players admitted), while others would say how can you turn down that type of money (and hoops opportunity)? Especially if you have other kids who won't earn scholarships.

If you're a HS kid, well, I can't begin to go there, because I haven't been one in a while. You'll want to go where you believe you can fit in best, where you develop a rapport with the coach. Some kids like the flash and dash and promises of playing time, and some kids like it when the coach who recruits them tells them that they'll have to earn their playing time and that there are flaws in their game that need correcting. Some will see the magic of the offer the full ride as something they've always dreamed of, and take it at the expense of a "better" school. Others might focus more on life after basketball and what school would they want the degree from if they were to get hurt and pick the more prestigious school (Bill Bradley broke his foot after his senior HS hoops season and had been all set to go to Duke; after the injury, he thought about life after hoops -- and ended up at Princeton -- but then the cost of the two schools wasn't that different, and as the only son of a bank president Bradley could afford to go to Tigertown in the early 60's as a frosh with minimal financial imposition on his family).

My hypothesis is that more kids will opt for the Patriot League at the expense of the Ivies than you think, especially with dynamic coaches such as Ralph Willard, Billy Taylor and Pat Flannery. And, if they don't, they'll most certainly have given the Patriot schools a very hard look.

It's an expensive world out there, and it's not like you're making a deal with the devil to go to most Patriot League schools over the Ivies. In fact, some would say it's a very smart decision, indeed. If, in certain cases, a very difficult one.

Didn't The Bears Get The Memo?

The one that reads, if you have an off-day event at an FBI site, don't hold your intramural Steel Cage matches (in this case, without the cage) there. It's just not a good idea to get into a rip-roaring brawl in the FBI's living room, so to speak (okay, it was a shooting range). Need I say more?

Click here and read all about it.

Thankfully, no guns were involved, just a couple of big 'ol offensive linemen doin' some wrasslin'.

And pummeling each other pretty well.

In case those linemen hadn't checked, their team is well on their way to the playoffs. Save the energy for the opposition guys, or you would have thought that's what they would have done. Because now they'll have to save some money for the FBI investigation.

I've heard the comment that fiction writers have to write believable stuff, because otherwise it won't sell. Well, if you made this up, I don't think people would believe it, but here it is. I haven't checked my own prior posts as to how the Bears did on the Wonderlic, but perhaps this was a case where regardless of the venue, emotions took over.

Thankfully, no one got badly hurt.

Not even the Bears' playoff chances.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Billy Wagner Sweepstakes

Here are a couple of business rules that reflect good common sense:

1. If you're a sales person, don't insult a potential customer by telling him he's stupid.

1. If you're a picketing union member, don't drive your 2005 Mercedes SUV to the picketing site (as happened in a Bucks County, Pennsylvania school district recently).

3. If you're the GM of a professional baseball team, don't browbeat your star reliever over the telephone at the end of a contract year and when you really want to re-sign him.

4. If you're the GM of a professional team who wants to sign your free-agent, go to his house, talk with him, tell him about your grand plans, and tell him why it will make sense to re-sign with your club.

#3 actually happened over the summer, when then-Phillies GM Ed Wade apparently called Phillies' closer Billy Wagner to berate him on not making negative comments about his team's chances. #4 happened yesterday, when a troika of Phillies' executives visited Wagner in Virginia and made a pitch to him. So pleased was Wagner with the meeting that he was quoted as saying he's optimistic that he'll get something done with the Phillies.

For Phillies' fans, that's great news. Many had figured that once the Phillies didn't sign him during their exclusive period, the Mets were a lead-pipe lock to offer Wagner Big Apple-type bucks (read: more money or contract years than anyone else is going to offer, a la the deal they gave Tommy Glavine). Among those singing that tune were Mike & the Mad Dog of WFAN Radio in NYC.

Then again. . . it may be that Wagner is playing the ambassador, saying the right things to the right people so that he doesn't alienate anyone. Phillies' fans feel so burned by Ed Wade that they might have some skepticism about what really happened in Virginia. My view is that Wagner said what he said, and he's been frank before with the press so he really means what he said. He liked new GM Pat Gillick, he liked the plan Gillick had, and the Phillies had a good run last year.

That said, competition for choice free agents is always fierce, especially proven closers. Will Wagner want to go to NYC, a city that he really doesn't care for? Or will the money be so great that he'll just won't be able to pass it up? And how desperate are the Phillies to keep Wagner?

The Phillies' success last year rested in significant part with their bullpen and with Wagner as closer. He was great last year, and losing him could cost them many games and perhaps push them down to fourth in a competitive division. Then again, the one position that seems to turn over more than any other in baseball is closer, and sometimes teams aren't as worse off after they lose a closer because there's potentially an untapped gem in the wings, a Joe Nathan, a Chad Cordero or someone like that. Okay, so those guys might not be Billy Wagner, but that untapped gem will help you avoid committing $40 million over 4 years to a 33 year-old closer. You're taking a risk if you do that.

The Phillies will send Wagner their proposal in the middle of next week, before Thanksgiving, and perhaps in the midst of Wagner's visit to New York, just to make the situation more interesting. If you're a Phillies' fan, you have to like this news.

Few recall that at one point in his career the successful Gillick was called "Stand Pat", because he wasn't always quick to pull the trigger on deals at the trading deadline.

Yesterday, he was "Pat on the Back" Gillick, going to Virginia to show appreciation to Wagner, and he showed that by going on the road he was doing anything but standing pat.

He visited Wagner in his house.

Sitting Pat.

He was open and frank with Wagner about his plans for the franchise.

Stand-up Pat.

And if he can ink Wagner to a deal and help improve some other areas for the hometown team, Philadelphia fans will give him rousing applause.

And "Stand O Pat" has quite a nice ring to it.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

A Fine Balance

Josh of the Double A Zone, the NCAA's in-house blog, has posted on what attracts athletes to colleges, the hope that a coach stays with the school for four years and the right to transfer. He had a great experience at a DIII school, in part because his coach stayed for four years. Many student-athletes can't make that claim, and then the question arises why they chose the school in the first place.

It's naive to think (and by no means has Josh suggested this) that even kids who go to DIII schools to play sports don't do so in some part because of the coach with whom they'll spend a bunch of time for four years. These kids don't get athletic scholarships, and some of the schools charge Ivy-like money to go there. For example, Williams College, one of the best colleges in the entire country, has an excellent men's basketball program. Its coach, Dave Paulsen, was a finalist for the Dartmouth job a few years ago before he took his name out of the running. My guess is that many of the kids who opt for Williams over other schools (including lower-end DI Ivies where they might get into the rotation but, if so, be at the end of it) do so because of Coach Paulsen and the excellence he has continued with the Williams basketball program. I also surmise that were Coach Paulsen to have gotten the Dartmouth job, no Williams kids would have transferred, Williams would have hired an acceptable successor, because kids who go to Williams go there for many reasons that transcend athletics. They don't have much of an expectation, if any, to play at the next level.

At the other end of the spectrum are the elite athletes who might well play at the next level and who opt for a college because of its excellent program and facilities, a big-name coach and that coach's track record for advancing kids to the next level. Those kids are out there too, and I am sure that among them are kids who have very little interest in academics. It's not that they're bad kids, it's just that they're kids, and they're so focused on becoming the star athlete -- and they've been so hyped and coddled -- that for them college is a finishing school. An athletic finishing school. For those kids, the coach is everything.

Then a coach is fired or leaves for another job, or the school gets put on probation for nothing that had to do with a particular kid. Which means that the kid did nothing wrong, but all of a sudden the main reason why he chose his college is gone. This particular athlete might even want to get a degree to put it in his back pocket, but he's primed for the NFL or playing pro hoops in the NBA or Europe, and the coach they bring in is a stark contrast to the coach that recruited the kid. A dropback quarterback finds himself with an option coach. A shooting guard in an up-tempo offense finds himself with a half-court coach who favors big men. What happens next?

Kids don't get their scholarships renewed. Kids transfer, jumping before they're pushed or buried on depth charts. Kids get false promises that the coach will adapt the system to the talent, and then find themselves on the bench. Kids stay and don't fulfill their potential because of the change in coaching style. Lots of stuff can happen.

The best solution may be for the kids to transfer to a school that better suits their talents. That's easier said than done for a freshman or sophomore than an upperclassmen, because some schools are funky about letting credits transfer along with the kid. And there's no guarantee that the school to which a kid transfers won't undergo a coaching change in the near future either.

That the kids have to sit out a year could be inequitable too. After all, the coaches don't have to sit out a year. They get right back in the saddle and coach their new teams. Is that really fair? Many think that it is not. Of course, the NCAA wouldn't want the coach who has moved to raid the program he left, taking say 35 players with him and leaving his former school bereft. But there's an easy solution to that problem. Let the players transfer to any school but the school to which his former head coach or coordinators went to as a head coach and play right away, and if they want to follow a former head coach or coordinator, then they have to sit out for a year. That would seem to be an equitable solution.

My strong guess is that most NCAA student-athletes look at their athletic program as only a part of their education. Most will not play professional sports, as there aren't pro leagues that pay great money for every sport and as pro leagues themselves are well-populated and the competition is fierce. Some kids get hurt, some burn out, some think that it's time to move on. Which means, in the end, that many kids will stay put precisely because they are living a college life in balance, they've put down their first set of roots, they've made some friends, they've gotten familiar with their schools and they like their coursework. That's the way it should be, regardless of who the coach is.

Not everyone thinks that way, however. For kids bent on playing professionally, the stakes of who is coaching him are much, much higher. Which raises the question of whether some of these guys should be in school in the first place, if they're really picking the school solely because who the coach is. After all, they don't get to pick their coaches in the pro leagues -- the teams pick them and can trade their contracts. And that could mean that enduring a coaching change in college -- even for the most elite athlete -- is good preparation for the professional level too.

So the question remains -- how important is the coach to the student-athletes overall well being at a college or university? I'm sure the answer is "very" to most kids, but we all should remember that the reason for going to college transcends the playing fields, and that balance should be sought at every opportunity.

Play your best all the time, yes, but get meaningful degrees and become a better person in all facets of life in the progress. For most student athletes, one without the other would give the college experience a lot less meaning than it should have.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

There Are Rivalries And Then There's This

Check this out from RammerJammerYellowHammer.

If you're from the Northeast and you think that the Penn-Princeton game is the ultimate in hoops rivalries or that the Army-Navy game is the ultimate football rivalry, you don't live in SEC country, where apparently the parties are more spectacular and the rivalries are more intense.

'Bama might be favored to win this game, but you have to love the courage of the one Auburn kid who is sitting by his lonesome. Down in Tuscaloosa, wearing an Auburn sweatshirt amid all those Crimson Tide fans (most of whom apparently did not feel strongly enough to wear their favorite school's colors) may not be akin to the lone student standing in front of the tanks in Tianananmen Square 16 years ago, but it is an act of courage nonetheless.

Warren St. John of the RammerJammerYellowHammer blog is great at finding fun pictures, and this is a can't miss.

Drexel 54 Princeton 41

Original post: 9:19 p.m. on November 14, right after the game.

Not much else to report except a score from Yahoo!. The Tigers were playing at home. Now the Tigers know how much work they have to do.


A friend who attended the game said it was just plain ugly. The Tigers couldn't do anything inside, and at one point in the first half the team's best three players -- G Scott Greenman and Fs Luke Owings and Noah Savage -- were on the bench with three fouls. Princeton's key reserves averaged about 2 points a game last year, and before the game Princeton coach Joe Scott told the Princeton faithful that the Tigers had a young team.

The box score was ugly. Tigers were outrebounded 46-17, shot a hair under 33% for the game (although they had 8 turnovers to Drexel's 13). They had no inside game. All in all, just a bad night for Princeton.

Thanks to Ivy Basketball for some links that provided good information on the game, and thanks to Princeton Basketball News for posting the box score.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The NCAA Has a Blog

Click here and check it out.

So Is David Bell

About a month ago I wrote about my eight year-old daughter's newly found love affair with baseball (my five year-old son is more into action heroes right now, but he does have an interest in playing tackle football even though he is reluctant to shoulder into the action while playing little league soccer), and her efforts to write a few current Phillies to ask them for autographs. She went about it the right way, handwriting letters and addressing both the envelopes and the self-addressed return envelopes. And then she waited.

As the linked post points out, she heard back rather quickly from 2B Chase Utley and received a very nice glossy card that he signed for her (he was kind enough to return the magazine picture that she had sent to him). I'll remember her shouting to get my attention about what he received in the mail and the smile on her face for a long while.

Today, almost a month after receiving the card from Chase Utley, a handwritten envelope, addressed to my daughter, arrived in the mail. It didn't have a return address, and it's postmark was from out west. The handwriting was very neat, so much so my wife didn't recognize it. She wondered aloud who would be writing from such a far distance to our daughter.

Upon seeing it, my daughter responded, "Mom, that's my writing." Her eyes got really big. She tore into the envelope. Out popped the baseball card she had sent to David Bell. It was different from what she had sent him -- precisely because he had signed it. Three requests, two autographs. David Bell, like Chase Utley, is a hero in my house. He has a fan for life.

We all love getting personalized mail, and it's especially satisfying when it rewards you for some hard work of yours. For an eight year-old, the joy is extra special.

Thanks, David Bell, for brightening my daughter's day.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

SportsProf's Ivy League Hoops Predictions

As most of you know, there isn't a lot of scientific reasoning behind my Ivy League hoops prognostications. I read media websites, I read blogs, I read newspaper articles, I read the Blue Ribbon Guide, I read The Sporting News' guide, I talked to some cognoscenti and here I am. Part of me likes to go on past history, on precedent, and I take a general view that unless presented with some reasonable evidence to the contrary, I will tend to pick last year's champion to repeat. My basic premise is that they're the defending champions, and someone has to take the crown away from them. (Of course, I'm not that daffy, such that if they had five senior starters and graduated all of them, I'd probably pick someone else). There's also one more theory that bears watching. Penn has won eight of the past thirteen Ivy titles, and its coach, Fran Dunphy, is the dean of Ivy coaches. Put another way, it's hard to go against the team that has controlled the conversation in the Ivies for that period of time.

I also think that Fran Dunphy of Penn did his best coaching last year in his 16 years at Penn. Until last year, Dunphy won his titles with an established point guard running his show. Jerome Allen, Michael Jordan and Andrew Toole all fit that bill, and last year Penn ran its offense with three two guards, one small forward and one big forward. Despite that limitation (for Dunphy, historically, at least), Penn dominated the Ivies. Pre-season favorite, Princeton, with two returning first-team all-Ivy players and one of the nation's hot coaches, fell to sixth. It was a great year for the Penn Quakers.

Part of the reason for the Quakers' success, though, is gone. Four year-starter Tim Begley, a two guard/small forward who could run the offense, graduated. Now, most of the time teams like Penn find other Begleys and re-load, but he was a very special player. He could hit the three with consistency, he could pass the ball amazingly well, and he blended in to make his teammates better. I thought he was the best Princeton-type player I'd seen in the Ivies for years, and as Princeton's luck has been of late, he spent his past four seasons playing his home games not at Jadwin Gym, but at the Palestra. One thing I particularly admired about Penn's offense during the Begley years was its crisp passing. Begley always knew where the ball should be going, he didn't hold the ball for too long, and his court IQ seemed to rub off on his teammates. That type of player doesn't come around too often, even at Penn and Princeton.

Most of the time people default to Penn and Princeton or Princeton and Penn, for a few reasons. First, they've dominated the Ivies since the league's inception, and only Yale (tied with Princeton and Penn in 2001), Cornell (1988) and Brown (1986) have won the Ivy men's hoops crown other than Penn and Princeton in the past 35+ years. Second, Penn and Princeton form a formidable tag-team pair. For those of you unfamiliar with the Ivies, they play their league games on back-to-back nights, which means that if you're going to beat Penn and Princeton, you have to beat them on consecutive nights. The Ivies might not be as tough as other leagues, but the back-to-back games can be grueling. In order to challenge the titans, you have to hope your tag-team partner -- your travel pairing -- is formidable enough to give Penn and Princeton fits so that they'll be a little worn out before they play you. That, too, isn't as easy as it sounds.

Can it happen this year? Or will it be Penn and Princeton again?

Here are my picks.

1. Cornell. I thought that last year was a watershed year for Steve Donahue, formerly Fran Dunphy's top assistant, in this fifth year at Cornell. It was time for the Big Red to make a move, and I honestly (and wrongly) thought that his job was in danger if Cornell didn't make it into the top four in the Ivies. Donahue has gotten less hype than other newer Ivy coaches, but he's a good coach who has recruited reasonably well in Ithaca. In frontcourter Ryan Rourke and swingman Lenny Collins, he has about an able a 1-2 punch as any team in the Ivies. The Big Red can shoot and rebound a bit. The big question is their backcourt. It has some health and experience issues, and it's hard to win in any league without solid guard play. If the Big Red can get decent guard play, I think they'll win the Ivies. This, of course, is a stretch prediction, but I think that it's one worth making. The 1-2 punch is an excellent one.

2. Penn. Most of the pundits are picking either Penn or Harvard, and it was hard for me not to give Penn the nod. They are the defending champions, and while they lost three key players from their seven-person rotation (G David Whitehurst didn't figure into the picture until the very end of the season), they do have four back. Besides losing Begley, they lost two frontcourters, 6'10" Jan Fikiel (who relaxes and had his best season last year, even if his overall career was a disappointment) and 6'9" Ryan Pettinella, who was a huge recruit three years ago (and who now is playing community college ball in upstate New York after an aborted transfer to Cincinnati). Pettinella loved to go inside, was good on defense, and without him and Fikiel Penn is thin inside this year.

Penn does have a good nucleus returning. In 6'2" two guard Ibby Jaaber, they have one of the best players in the Ivies. Jaaber is an excellent defender and decent penetrator, but he's an iffy outside shooter. Begley's ability to hit the three consistently emboldened Penn's other players and caused defenses to give other Penn players more room to maneuver. Without both Begley and enough depth inside, teams be able to player close perimeter defense on Penn, and that could make points harder to come by (Danley did keep opponents honest last year, but Penn will need to establish more inside depth to help take the heat off the guards). Probable PG Eric Osmundsen got healthy and out of Dunphy's doghouse last year, and he played with some confidence that was sorely lacking in his earlier seasons at Penn. He's a good outside shooter, but he's not a creating-type of PG. He'll need another offensive threat from the wings to help bring out the best in him. SF Mark Zoller was a surprise rookie star two years ago, when he got off to a great start and faded a bit down the stretch. He had a good year last year, although he played at times with too much emotion and sometimes disappeared, perhaps because Ivy coaches learned that he is a stealthy type of player who you can't leave unguarded anymore. Zoller's a winner, and Dunphy always seems to unearth players like him.

The most improved player for Penn last year was center Steve Danley (as I'll submit that neither Jaaber nor Zoller improved as much as I thought they would have last season). Danley was a stiff offensive player as a freshman who became more fluid last season, and his very consistent play helped lead Penn to the title. Penn has a host of returning bench players, the best of which is Whitehurst, who, along with Zoller and Jaaber, has been nursing an ankle injury. Whitehurst is an outstanding athlete whose game still needs some refining. The Quakes also have five freshmen in what was a highly touted recruiting class (and much more highly touted than the prior year's class). For the Quakers to repeat, they'll need some help from among Gs Aron Cohen and Kevin Egee and forwards Cameron Lewis, Brennan Votel and Tommy McMahon. Lewis is the top recruit.

Top to bottom, Penn has the most talent in the Ivies. Fran Dunphy is a master tinkerer, and he'll relish the challenge of cobbling together enough offense with what should be a pretty stellar defense to win the Ivy title.

3. Harvard. Heresy, you say? Where are your Princeton Tigers, you ask? Read further, and you'll get there. In 7' C Brian Cusworth and 6'8" F Matt Stehle, the Cantabs have the best frontcourt in the Ivies. A good enough frontcourt to have many pundits predict them for second in the Ivies, and perhaps there's a first thrown in here and there. Both are outstanding players, and, as Blue Ribbon is quick to point out, no Ivy coach has won more games over the past ten years (outside of Penn and Princeton) than Frank Sullivan. He's a solid coach; he just doesn't always get enough players. Harvard's backcourt questions going into the season are bigger than Cornell's, and two players doesn't a team make. Opposing defenses will pack it in on Harvard until someone in the backcourt or on the wings can hit the three with consistency. If that can happen, the Crimson might make a serious challenge for the Ivy title. But if you make that bet, get some good odds. Frosh G Andrew Pusar out of the outstanding Seton Hall Prep program in NJ could be the answer Sullivan needs at the guard position.

4. Princeton. Before last season, Tiger fans relished the thought of combining two returning first-team all-Ivy players, 2G Will Venable and C Judson Wallace, with the disciplined approach of Princeton alum and former Air Force coach Joe Scott, who pulled off one of the all-time coaching feats two seasons ago when he led Air Force to an NCAA tournament bid. The problem was, the Tiger insiders were a little worried. Scott coaches an ultra-orthodox version of the Princeton offense, whereas his former teammate and predecessor, John Thompson III, coached a more liberal one. In Venable, he had a somewhat undisciplined 2G who couldn't shoot too well, and in Wallace he had a center who was on okay defender but a mediocre passer (and who also liked to put the ball on the floor too much). Both were suited for the liberal version of the Princeton Offense, but a conversion to orthodoxy in their senior seasons was a bit too much to ask for.

Unable to meld this unit into a punishing defense team, the Tigers (who shot the ball very well), fell to sixth in the Ivies. It was a very frustrating season.

What will happen this year will depend in large part on the performance of returning big man Harrison Schaen and frosh inside players Noah Levine and Michael Stritmatter. Schaen took last year off, and the press has reported that his frosh season was a disappointment, especially for a Top-150 recruit out of a nationally ranked HS program (Mater Dei in Orange County, California). Having watched many of the Tigers' games down the stretch two seasons ago, I thought that Schaen changed the game in a way that numbers always can't reflect. When he was in the game, opponents' offenses frequently wilted. He was a dominating defensive presence who could control the glass, and two years ago Princeton outrebounded its opponents for the first time in memory.

His offense, though, is raw, and it's an open question whether he can grasp the Princeton offense and pass well enough within it. At times he's looked lost in practice, but he also has shown flashes of talent. If he can play well at both ends, look to the Tigers to stalk the other favorites and perhaps run them down. Levine might figure into the rotation; he has a big body (relatively speaking) and is an older frosh after having spent a post-graduate year at The Hill School last year. It also looks like he can hit the open jumper. Still, he's a freshman, and the center position in the Princeton Offense is a tough one to learn.

The starting forwards are the Tigers' strength. One of the team leaders is 6'6" Luke Owings, a wing player who is a very intelligent basketball player and an outstanding shooter. He's asserted himself in practice, and he is primed to have a good year for the Tigers. Princeton's most aggressive player is the other starting forward, 6'5" Noah Savage, a good shooter who can handle the ball reasonably well and who plays tough defense. Savage, though, is foul-prone, and he'll need to stay on the floor more for the Tigers to contend. Alex Okafor, a 6'5" frosh from California, looks very athletic, looks to be a potentially very able defender and might figure into the rotation. 6'6" soph Kyle Koncz also could see some time.

Returning at point guard is the team's captain, 5'9" guard Scott Greenman, a gritty player who's a better shooter than he looks, an able passer and a clutch player. Greenman captained the U.S. team at the Maccabiah Games in Israel this past summer, and Scott's looking to him to show his teammates the way. He's an able guard, but he'll need help, and the 2G position remains a mystery for the Tigers. Among those who will contend for playing time are juniors Max Schafer (who almost didn't make the team this fall, despite having been a first-team all-state player in NJ two years ago out of HS) and Edwin Buffmire, who keeps on hanging in there and looks worthy of more playing time, soph Matt Sargeant (who started a bunch of games last year), and freshmen Geoff Kestler and Jason Briggs. Kestler has been running with the first team in practice, and it looks like he'll start. Schafer has the most athletic body, and Buffmire, when given the chance, has made things happen. Whoever gets the nod will need to establish himself -- and in a hurry.

The Tigers have a bunch of talent on their roster, but the question remains who will step up and help complement Savage, Owings and Greenman. They particularly need help on the inside, and, if they don't get it, they'll be in the first division, but not contending for the title. If Harrison Schaen lives up to his prior billings, it could be an exciting time in the last two weeks of the Ivy season for Tiger fans.

5. Columbia. Joe Jones might have more talent on Morningside Heights than his brother James has in New Haven, and despite suffering some recruting losses he has another good recruiting class (his second). The Lions should benefit from last season's great turnaround (from the year before), and Columbia should build upon last year's success.

6. Yale. This is James Jones' seventh year at Yale, and the rhetoric about how good Yale is and how they're primed to challenge Penn and Princeton year-in and year-out has dimmed significantly from what it was four years ago, when the Bulldogs won 21 games and tied Princeton and Penn for the Ivy title. While Yale has won in double digits the past three years, they've not contended, and they've had some decent talent, albeit talent that didn't fulfill its potential the way Coach Jones thought it would have. Jones substitutes a lot, prides himself on having well-conditioned teams, and, I think, coaches on emotion a bit too much. That formula worked in the short-term when he first arrived in New Haven, but it hasn't worked well as of late. In C Dominick Martin and Fs Sam Kaplan (now healthy) and Casey Hughes, Jones might have one of the best frontcourts in the Ivies, and his guards aren't half-bad either. It could be that this team is the surprise of the Ivies, or it could well be that Yale plays this year the way it has played the past 3 seasons and finishes in the middle of the pack if not the second division. Part of it is that Yale isn't that deep, and part of it is that I think other Ivy coaches have figured out how to play Yale.

7. Brown. Last year Brown had returning first-team all-Ivy player PG Jason Forte, SG Luke Ruscoe and a few other players who were perimeter players who could shoot and who could play hard, but Brown had to rely upon a lot of freshmen and never developed any chemistry. Now Forte is gone. Ruscoe and G Damon Huffman, among others, return, and there is a promising recruiting class. Still, Brown has to establish its froncourt players, and while Miller has worked magic before, he'll be rebuilding at least this season. Look for Brown to improve, as the league is better top to bottom this year, but it's still a rebuilding year for the Bruins.

8. Dartmouth. I actually don't think that Brown and Dartmouth are traditional Ivy doormats. I think both will give teams fits. Dartmouth made some good strides last year and has some good players, but Coach Terry Dunn only has been there a year and needs more time to get his type of players. G Mike Lang and swingman Jonathan Ball are the best returning players, while frosh G Marlon Saunders has received some significant advanced hype. If Dunn can develop a few more players, the Big Green might be able to climb out of the cellar.

Predictions for first-team all-Ivy

Ryan Rourke, Cornell (Player of the Year)
Ibby Jaaber, Penn
Matt Stehle, Harvard
Noah Savage, Princeton
Lenny Collins, Cornell.

Those are my thoughts, and, as always, all typographical errors are mine.