Nothing much to say today, but here are my picks for the tournament, which kicks off in like an hour. I won't be watching, though. Not tonight, anyway. I have to see if Puerto Rico can finally top the Dominican before I can worry about basketball. Anyway, here are my picks. I totally missed Akron's big injury until after I had already picked them, and it didn't feel right to go back and change it. If I picked again today, I probably would take Oregon as my 12-winner instead of Akron.
And, for good measure, here's Kristine's. Our brackets weren't too far off from each other.
The brackets were released yesterday, and I’m going to share my picks (and Kristine’s, for good measure) later. But, today, we’re going to talk about a different bracket.
Purdue was such a disappointment this year that the NIT would have been a step up. No, this year the Boilermaker freshmen will be cutting their postseason teeth in the CBI. It’s an embarrassment and I am fully ashamed of being in this tournament. But, those with the power have decided it would best for Purdue, so I’m going along with it.
The CBI (short for College Basketball Invitational) is run by The Gazelle Group. I have absolutely no idea what the Gazelle Group does outside of creating postseason college tournaments to add to an already bloated NCAA and NIT field, but it does some good, I suppose. This is the seventh tournament. The past winners have been (in order) Tulsa, Oregon State, VCU, Oregon, and Pittsburgh. Schools you’ve heard of, certainly, but hardly powerhouses.
The format is just slightly funky, so here’s the deal. It’s a sixteen team tournament. It goes like you would expect, single elimination all the way through. Until you hit the championship, where it’s suddenly a best of three series. Why the sudden format change? I have no idea. That isn’t explained anywhere I can find.
In any case, the first tournament had about as many teams turn down the invitation as actually played in the tournament. When all the dust settled, the “power conference” teams involved were Virginia, Cincinnati, and Washington. Virginia was the only one of those teams to advance out the first round, getting to the semis. The championship came down to Bradley and Tulsa, where Tusla won in three games. Apparently all those games were played on the respective home floors in Tulsa and Peoria just
like a professional team would, which is actually kind of impressive that they would spring for that kind of travel.
The next year, the “BCS” teams were St. John’s,*Oregon State, and Stanford. Those teams did a little better, which only St. John’s bowing out in the first round, and they were the four seed facing number one Richmond that year, so it sure wasn’t an upset. Oregon State and Stanford met in the semis, with Oregon State advancing to face UTEP in the finals, with the Beavers winning in three games.
*Okay, so they don’t play football, but they’re part of the Big East, which is still a BCS member for now. And was at the time.
In 2010, there were only two BCS teams with Oregon State (the defending champion) and Princeton (who is in the same boat as St. John’s). Oregon State got bounced as a one seed in the first round by Boston* while Princeton made the semis before bowing out. Saint Louis** and VCU squared off in the final, where VCU won in two. VCU was a known team then, they’d upset Duke and would make a run to the final four the next year, routing the most dispirited and demoralized Purdue team I’d ever seen in the process.
*The Terriers of Boston University, not the Eagles of Boston College.
**For reasons I don’t understand, apparently Saint Louis University is very particular about spelling out the Saint. St. Louis is good enough for every other team in the area, though.
2011 saw only Oregon from the BCS schools, and they went on to win the whole thing, culminating in a three-game series over Creighton. This I think was when I learned that the CBI even existed, and I’m sure why I got the impression that it was meant for small schools to get a chance to showcase themselves outside of the Big Dance. I mostly remember that because the Evansville coach was talking about the tournament on the radio, hoping to get into it. They did, and lost in the second round to
Last year’s edition saw a few more bigger schools. Oregon State and Princeton returned, and Pittsburgh and Washington State made their first appearances. It should be noted that Butler fell into the CBI last year, too. And those four teams were your final four in this tournament, leading to a three game series that the Pitt Panthers pulled out over the Cougars of Washington State.
Now that you know damned near everything there is to know about this tournament, let’s take a look at what Purdue is facing this year. Purdue and Texas are the only BCS schools this year, but you probably remember George Mason from their recent March runs on the big stage as well. Purdue kicks off by facing Western Illinois, who went 22-8 this year out of the Summit League. The Leathernecks* tied for the regular tournament championship, but fell in the semis of their conference tournament. Purdue has
never lost to WIU and never really been particularly close. But Purdue usually isn’t this bad, either. As a side note, Wabash played a disc tournament at Western Illinois, and they were one of the most jerk-filled teams we ever played. So Purdue beating them would carry a little bit of personal satisfaction.
Anyway, if Purdue wins that game, they’ll get the winner of Vermont and Santa Clara. Santa Clara was 21-11 this year and only 9-7 in the WCC. As we discussed when going over Gonzaga earlier, the WCC is not exactly murder’s row. Vermont has an identical overall record, but went 11-5 in the America East. Also not exactly a great league. I would have to imagine that Purdue would be able to beat either of these teams if they play anything resembling what they looked like during the Big Ten season. Even that half-assed effort against Nebraska would likely be enough to get that done.
Now, in the semis, teams are reseeded, so it’s hard to say who Purdue would get at this point. Without knowing too much about any of these teams, I would guess that Texas would come out of their portion, though George Mason is dangerous and I think the College of Charleston had a big win early in the season. But I’ll stick with Texas. In the next portion, my gut tells me Richmond will win. They were only 8-8 in conference, but the Atlantic 10 is a darned good league. That last spot I would guess would go to Wyoming, mostly because they were in the Mountain West and by some numbers, the Mountain West was even better than the Big Ten. Even so, they only won four conference games, so I’m the least confident in that one.
Out of that group, I still think Purdue is the best team. Yeah, it’s the worst Purdue team in several years, but this is a soft tournament. And Purdue has the excuse of playing in the toughest conference in the land. And, honestly, they looked a hundred times better in league play than they did beforehand. And they had looked really good in the games leading up to that Nebraska disappointment. Here’s to hoping they play more like the team that should have beaten Michigan and stomped Minnesota.
But, if we do win this thing, I would be just fine in skipping the whole banner thing.
I think I’ve mentioned it here before, but when I was a senior in high school, I kinda ran out of things to take. I could have done some home ec or something like that, but as far as things I was interested in and that would help for college admission, I’d pretty well run the gamut. Because of this, I took a couple college classes in the afternoons at DACC. It really couldn’t have worked out better for me. Only half days of real school, two or three free afternoons every week, one freshman-level community college course on the “busy” days. It was a dream come true, especially if you wanted to watch the Cubs play those day games.* My spring semester, I took a Tuesday-Thursday speech class. It was okay, I wasn’t too thrilled about it, but I liked the schedule. The fall, though, I took “Introduction to Humanities” Monday-Wednesday-Friday. And, to be honest, I enjoyed the hell out of that class.
*Hint: I did.
I really couldn’t tell you for the life of me how I did in those classes. I think I did well, but it didn’t really matter. They weren’t going to transfer to Wabash,* and I looked at it more as something to do. I think I did pretty well, though, and I do distinctly remember rocking the final in the humanities class. I quite enjoyed the fine art and music portions of the class, which was pretty predictable. What might have been a surprise to you and to me at 17 was how much I enjoyed the architecture part. I don’t think I would have particularly enjoyed being an architect, but I could have been happy writing about buildings and their different forms and the like.
*Or, at least, I don’t think they did. I must admit that I never made the first attempt to try to get that credit to apply. I don’t mind at all, though. If it would have applied, the only difference it would have made would have been to make me not take the one speech class I took at Wabash, which I thoroughly enjoyed. So, really, it would have been a bad thing if it had worked that way.
I guess I shouldn’t have been all that surprised, though. I’ve always been a baseball person, and I think I’ve made the argument here before that a huge draw to baseball, for me, is where it is played. It is played* in the open air under the sun, when the weather is beautiful and the grass is impeccably green. Sure, football is played outside, too, but then the weather is turning cold, the leaves are falling, and everything is in the process of dying. Plus, football doesn’t quite give you the same opportunity to drink the atmosphere in so completely as baseball. That seems clear enough in the architecture of the games. Look at baseball stadiums. They are works of art, opening up to graceful city skylines or, in the case of a few minor league teams, into the wonder of nature. Football stadiums are fully ringed with seats, all the focus completely on the field. There seems to be a bit of a move away from that mindset in places like Lucas Oil Stadium with the window and Heinz Field with the open end, but by and large, football stadiums are solely focused on function. It’s a big reason why, for me, Winter Classics largely fail in football stadiums but are huge hits in baseball stadiums.
*At its best, anyway.
All of this is a prelude to this: it upsets me to no end when teams feel they have to tinker with their stadiums. This came up the other night when the USA played Puerto Rico the other night in Miami’s new ballpark. Some Marlins bigwig was up there talking about the different formulas and considerations that go into having the roof opened or closed, or opening or closing the back wall and how that affected offensive and defensive numbers. Which then led to John Smoltz* observing how big this park played, which led to the Marlins guy talking about how they were going to look at the numbers after a couple season and decide how they were going to have to tweak the park most likely to encourage more power numbers.
*I think it was Smoltz, anyway. Could have been Matt Vasgersian, I didn’t take any notes.
I like to think I showed some considerable constraint by not screaming at the TV. If I thought there was a prayer I could have been heard in Miami, I would have. No! NO! Please God, NO! Does nobody give a damn about what has made baseball great all these years? It’s like the front office of MLB suddenly realized in the last couple years that they are way behind the NFL in popularity and have now knee-jerked to try to emulate. Please, don’t get greedy, baseball!* In a country this big that spends so freely on entertainment, there is absolutely nothing wrong with being second place. And, if you haven’t noticed, the NFL is in a bit of a precarious spot. Sure, the numbers keep going up (other than actual game attendance), but there are a whole lot of changes coming to for safety which could well alter the whole popularity thing again. Besides that, all these things are cyclical and have been since the dawn of time.
*Far, far too late for that, I know.
Please, baseball, enough with the tweaking to try to appeal to every last person on the planet. You were more than good enough as you were. You’re starting to come off like turkey.* There is no need to keep on with interleague at all, let alone expand it by evening out the leagues. Baseball is not a conference sport, it never has been. Embrace what you are, embrace what you have been, baseball! Not all parks are created equal. That’s always been the case, that’s always been the fun, and especially been the fun of debating the success of players. Embrace that! Not every park needs to have the same incidence of home runs, doubles, etc. Build the damn park and play it as it stands! You hear a lot about Fenway and Wrigley and the bemoaning that comes with changes there, but you might notice that practically all those changes are coming outside the fences, not inside. Just because a ballpark plays bigger or smaller than average does not mean you have to go move the fences or the plate. It is what it is, and you deal with it!
*“I hate turkeys. If you stand in the meat section at the grocery store long enough, you start to get mad a turkeys. There's turkey ham, turkey bologna, turkey pastrami,.Someone needs to tell the turkey, man, just be yourself.” - Mitch Hedberg
Petco Park in San Diego has been a pitcher’s haven since it was built. This year, it’s been announced that the fences are coming in to encourage more offense. Why? It’s not as if the fences were impossibly long or anything. 322 down the lines, 402 at the deepest. That seems pretty darned reasonable to me. If you have a 500 foot fence, you might decide somebody was a little overenthusiastic. Even though the Giants made that work for years and years. You build the park, you play the park as it turns out. You know you won’t be hitting a lot of homers in your park, Padres and Marlins? Then don’t build a team that depends on power. You want to play in a bandbox, Cincinnati? That’s just fine, but make sure you have enough offense to keep up with people at home. Or load up on ground ball pitchers and watch over-anxious visiting hitters fail while they swing for the fences.
It’s called strategy. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but it’s what makes the game fun. There are plenty of sports where the environment is largely static and irrelevant. Like, all of them. Baseball is different. There is no reason to conform and make everything so similar. Be proud of what makes you different, as a sport and as a team. You built a very nice stadium, Miami. My brother has been to it and has very nice things to say about the stadium itself.* So what if you aren’t going to hit a ton of homers in that park. You’ll have great pitching flocking to you and you need to load up on guys like Jose Reyes in his prime.** You only need one or two guys like a Giancarlo Stanton to be enough of a menace on the road. As long as you win much more often at home, you’ll be fine.
*The neighborhood, not so much. But then again, the White Sox don’t necessarily play in the best part of Chicago, either, but it’s still a great time.
**Note to the Marlins: Emphasis on “like.” Do not actually pick up Jose Reyes after he’s already had success and looks to be breaking down. Honestly, it doesn’t seem like it would be that hard. Hasn’t every metric ever shown us you’re better off developing your own talent than trying to buy free agents?
You don’t need to be football, MLB. Sure, baseball is not the king of sports as it was before the ‘94 strike. That’s okay. It’s not as if you aren’t successful if you’re not first. Bide your time, stick to your guns. If you build it right, they will come. No matter where you put the damn fences.
Are you ready for a world where Italy is the best baseball playing country in the world? You might want to think about it. As I type this, Team Italy* is leading the Dominicans 4-1 in the fifth inning and threatening to put more on the board.** It’s a thought that never crossed my mind before, but it’s real.
*I have a hard time calling them “the Italians.” We’ll discuss in a bit.
**The Dominicans ended up winning 5-4. Took them until the 8th both tie and get ahead.
A few things to take from this. One the other side of the bracket, we have only mild surprise. Of course Japan won that said, they were the home team and the only team to win this whole tournament so far. There might be a little surprise for the Dutch over the Cubans, but as we’ve talked about before, if you remember Curacao, it makes sense. I watched a good chunk of that game this morning, the Dutch made things interesting for about a half inning before Japan put their foot down on that comeback attempt.
That brings us to this game. Is there a more underachieving national team than the Dominican Republic baseball team? Dominicans dominate major league baseball. Take a look at the Dominican roster. That’s a stacked team if there ever was one. This is not a new trend, either. Yet, in the first tournament, they managed fourth place and didn’t make it out of pool play in 2009. The US is just slightly better, as they managed a fourth place showing in 2009 and got to the second round in 2006. Still not good. If you had a general poll of the top baseball countries, I would imagine the US, Japan, and the Dominican would be universally the top three in some order. Maybe Cuba would sneak in here and there. But two of those teams have just plain not got the job done in this tournament.
On the other hand, Italy seems to be the ultimate overachiever, at least this year. In the first WBC, Italy won one game in pool play before going home. They repeated that performance with just a lone upset win over Canada in 2009. Which is a good and fine story. If it helps baseball become a big thing in Italy, that’s good. I don’t know how much the Italian media cares, though, if nothing else because there aren’t that many Italians on the team. By my count, there are seven players born in Italy on team. 18 players are from the US, and then one each from Brazil, Canada, and Venezuela. So, basically, this team is about as Italian as Olive Garden. So is this run really all that unexpected?
Yes and no. I mean, this is obviously a much better showing than a team of purely Italian born players would do. There is no questioning that. So, in that sense, no. But, even with the American players, there is a distinct lack of star power on this team. The only player on their roster I would really go out of my way to get is Anthony Rizzo, who is probably the best thing to happen to the Cubs since 2008. Nick Punto is only other player who I would really take note of, and I believe I’ve written here before his distinct lack of hitting ability. I guess I should admire Punto, in a way. If I would have gone on to a career of playing baseball, I would likely be very similar to Punto. In any case, those guys were born in Florida and California, respectively.
So, how did this roster get built? This is straight from the WBC site.
So, basically, if you’re a citizen, one or your parents are a citizen, or if the WBC says it’s cool. That last bullet seems to say you have to at least qualify for an Italian passport even if you haven’t sought one. But there is that little clause there: “presents documentary evidence satisfactory to the WBCI.” It seems pretty clear that the organization that runs the WBC is not going to hold people quite to the same standard of citizenship that an actual government agency would. I’m sure there’s documentation somewhere that “proves” all these guys could be Italian or have Italian parents if they wanted to be seen that way. I would be curious to see how far some of these justifications stretch.
Is that a problem, though? Probably not. Again, the main aim of this tournament is to grow the game in places it hasn’t traditionally had a foothold in. Like Italy or the European Netherlands. The success of these teams can only help that cause, whether the players are honest-to-God Italian or from Evansville. When we watch the World Cup, do you really care where the American players come from? Or does it just matter that they wear USA on their chest? Chances are, it’s the latter. That’s likely just as true in Italy as it is here. Every blue jersey I see right now says Italia on it, no matter what their birth certificate says.
The only potential harm I see is if Team Italy steals the spotlight from more “deserving” teams. If a team of carpetbaggers* with spurious claims of being Italian knocks out a traditional power like the big three mentioned above, it could be a big hit to the credibility of the tournament. And if the competition isn’t seen as legit, you will never build interest in your stronghold countries, which means fan support and TV money will dry up, which means no more tournament and no building a “real” Italian team.
*There are maybe some derogatory connotations that come with that word, but it’s the best I could come up with.
Think of it like wrestling. For ages, professional wrestling had to appear real and breaking kayfabe was a mortal sin. The competition had to be seen as legit and credible to get anywhere. But, as the 80’s and 90’s wore on and it became clear that wrestling’s fanbase was established and not going anywhere, that all the fans with money were smarks, it ceased to matter if the competition was legit. The interest was cemented, so kayfabe went away, or at least greatly diminished.
If you want a more “sporty” example, you can look at the NCAA tournament. If little schools like Butler and VCU and George Mason won all the time, it wouldn’t seem we were getting a true result, and interest would fade. Instead, schools like that making deep runs were and are far more the exception than the rule, which makes those small schools feel legit or incredibly lucky when they do make a run, rather than forced to succeed by the NCAA.
So, essentially, good on you, Italy. Keep on winning. But not too much, not until you have a bit more Italian spoken in the dugout, capisce?
Well, I guess I’m officially a convert. Forget anything bad I ever said about the World Baseball Classic, I’m won over.
Now, look, I know I wasn’t all that critical of the tournament before, but I did suggest maybe it wasn’t as relevant now as it was when the idea was first proposed. But, honestly, forget that. Those are now all wasted words. In past years, I’ve watched bits and pieces of the WBC and been interested. But I’ve never been hooked like I am now, and it all really started with last night’s game.
I’d been paying closer attention to the tournament this year than I had the past two, mostly because of this blog and wanting something to write about. Maybe it’s that closer attention, maybe there’s something more to it. But, it seems like this time around, these games mean much more to the players than it has in the past. Honest-to-goodness brawls? Check. Big, on-field celebrations for moving on? Check. Heck, big, on-field celebrations for narrowly avoiding elimination? Check. Fans lustily cheering and booing as they would for a playoff game? Check. What is there not to love? The fact there are some spoilsports who didn’t want to join the national team? Forget them. If they don’t want to be there, then they don’t deserve to be there. There are still plenty of big name players on Team USA. And as the Lakers and formerly the Heat have shown us,* just throwing names together doesn’t make them a good team. You go with the guys who care, who will give it their all, and that’s who is here.
*And maybe past US National Baseball Teams, it seems like there were bigger names in previous years.
If you didn’t watch yesterday’s elimination game between the US and Canada, you missed out. There have been a lot of good games and nail-biters, but this seemed to be the game to watch if you really wanted to get hooked. The US team’s fate hung in the balance. Thanks to short pool play, the US would win the pool with a win or fall to last place with a loss. And finishing last in your pool means no automatic qualifier in the next tournament. Can you imagine a world where the United States isn’t automatically assumed to be one of the best baseball nations in the world? I couldn’t, and the thought of that being a possibility made my stomach turn.
On the other hand, it’s hard not to feel for Canada. They were a bit of the little engine that could in this game. That loss to Italy hurt and maybe didn’t make a ton of sense, but against the US, the Canadian team was made up of mostly minor league players and three big time hitters.* A bit of interesting side trivia. The Canadian line-up was almost entirely left-handed, most likely owing to the strong hockey background. Anyway, a bunch of minor-league or Nippon League pitchers going up against an all-star line up in the US, and for the most part, they delivered. The loss didn’t sting quite so bad for Canada, as they won’t have to requalify (sorry, Mexico), but I’m sure they wanted very badly to be moving on.
*Votto, Morneau, and Saunders, if you’re counting.
How close was this game? A hell of a lot closer than the final score, 9-4, would tell you. That won’t tell you that Canada led for most of the game, or the US seemed to be absolutely unable to cash in runs. But, as Dan Dakich likes to say, water finds its level. If you consistently get your lead off guys on, you will eventually be rewarded for it, and that’s what happened with the US. Canada just got themselves into too many jams, and finally the dam truly broke in the ninth. It was a valiant effort, and could well have reignited some interest in the majors in some guys that have been toiling in Japan or elsewhere.
Related to that, the announcers made an interesting comment that I’ve certainly hit on here before. It’s well past time to stop coddling pitchers. It seemed like nearly every pitcher that Canada threw out there besides Brewer John Axford and soon-to-be Pirate Jameson Taillon had spent some time in Japan where they rediscovered how to pitch. How do pitchers consistently have this revelation in Japan? And, furthermore, how does Japan have such a reputation for producing pitchers? In a stunning development, it turns out they make them pitch. A lot. There are pitch counts, sure. It’s just that the Japanese tend to look at pitch counts as pitch floors and not pitch ceilings. They also are dedicated to great mechanics, so you don’t wear yourself down by bad, repetitive motions. Over here, teams freak out and won’t draft a pitcher if they hear he does long toss. And American pitchers break down. If you can’t make the connection, you are beyond help.
Anyway, due to geography, the Japanese leg of the second round finishes up at six tomorrow morning with a rematch of Japan and the Netherlands.* Japan crushed the Dutch in their first meeting, 16-4. The Dutch responded by slipping by the Cubans for a second time, putting Cuba back to their island. This game is just for seeding, by my understanding. The winner of this game will play the runner up of the Miami leg of the second round and vice versa.
*Unlike my previous statement, the Netherlands are Curacao heavy. Which is just fine. That would be like people complaining that Shane Victorino is on the American team because he’s from Hawaii.
Getting started at a more reasonable one o’clock (in the afternoon!), the Miami portion starts off with the very surprising (but not very Italian) Italy team and the big expectation (but has always failed to live up to them to this point) Dominican team. Puerto Rico and the US will follow that up in a game that might be one of the last times Puerto Rico gets to field their own team. You know they want to get that W, like an overeager little brother smelling blood in the water.
And you know who’s going to be watching every pitch possible? This guy, and I’ve got the USA chant down pat for whenever it feels applicable.
As a bonus, here is my score sheet from last night.
Me, Andrew, and Max, respectively.
My father-in-law had some more work done today to clean up some of the aftermath of the heart attack (or to prevent a second one), so I decided to let my brother, Andrew, write a guest spot. Here's his take on the NHL's Eastern Conference, since I haven't watched a single Eastern game all year.
So we’ve reached the midway point of this shortened NHL season, so it is time to start thinking about playoff contention. Today, let’s examine the NHL’s Eastern Conference. Looking at the standings, you may be a bit surprised to see who the division leaders are at this point: Montreal Canadiens, Pittsburgh Penguins, and the Carolina Hurricanes. Two of these three teams finished at the bottom of their respective divisions a mere season ago. So how did the Canadiens and the Hurricanes improve by such leaps and bounds? Let’s take a team-by-team approach in examining this query.
Let’s start with the Canadiens. For a team that struggled last season, they had a very quiet offseason making no roster moves of any significance. However, they did send Erik Cole, their second leading scorer from a year ago, to Dallas for Michael Ryder last week. So far, this move has served the Canadiens well with Ryder picking up four points (all assists) in his first five games with the Habs. Erik Cole could only manage six points in 19 games for the Canadiens. You may be asking yourself how this team can be much improved without making any roster moves. My only response is player development paired with stellar goaltending.
The Canadiens have quite a few young stars that are just now hitting their stride at the NHL level. Stars like 23 year-old defenseman P.K. Subban and 24 year-old Max Pacioretty have led the way in scoring and have continued to develop their respective games. P.K. Subban is a force on the ice that can get under opponent’s skin, logging over 100 penalty minutes in his first two seasons. However, this year he is a valuable asset on the power play, scoring four goals. If Subban can keep his offensive production up, he may develop into one of the games top defensemen. As for Pacioretty, his offense prowess is continuing to evolve. Many people questioned how he would be after the vicious hit he received from Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara. Pacioretty answered those questions by leading the Canadiens in scoring last season with 65 points (33 G-32 A), and he is once again leading the Canadiens in scoring this season with 20 points (8 G-12 A) in 20 games played. If these two guys can keep it up throughout this condensed season, the Canadiens may find themselves going deep in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
Next, let us take a look at the Penguins, who unlike the other two division leaders had a (somewhat) successful 2011-12 campaign. The Penguins were a 100-point tam last season but were defeated in six games against their rival, the Philadelphia Flyers. Although the Penguins may find themselves on top of the Atlantic Division, some of their problems from last year’s playoff series have seemed to resurface. Pittsburgh may have the two most talented players in the NHL in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, which mixed in with James Neal and Chris Kunitz should be all the firepower you could ever need. Pair that with a top defensemen like Kris Letang, and you should have a formula for Stanley Cup contention for years to come. However, as last year’s playoffs showed, it’s not all about offense.
Although the Penguins were leading the NHL in penalty killing throughout the season last year, we saw a complete breakdown against the Flyers in the playoffs. The penalty killing problems have carried over to the first half of this season. The Penguins find themselves ranked 20th in the league in PK percentage this season, which must improve if they want to be true Stanley Cup contenders. The Penguins must play a more disciplined game to stay out of the box, because too many times they have taken silly retaliation penalties leading to crucial goals. A prime example is the Florida Panthers game from last week. The Penguins lost the game 6-4, giving up four power play goals to the Florida Panthers. A majority of those penalties were roughing calls after the play, which ultimately lead to goals. However, it is not only power play goals the Penguins are struggling with, it is also late period goals with less than 30 seconds left. Late period goals often shift momentum and lead to more goals the next period. Once the defense breaks down in the waning seconds, it seems to become a mental block for the Penguins. It may be time for a roster move to bolster the blue line, given that the Penguins have had a few injury problems and lost Ben Lovejoy and Zbynek Michalek. Although the Penguins have the firepower to compete in high scoring games, that is not always the best method to win hockey games.
The Penguins have also struggled to protect home ice this season. Last year they were 29-10-2 at Consol Energy Center, but this year they find themselves hovering around the .500 mark, at 6-4-0. Thankfully, they have been impressive on the road going 10-4-0. I see no reason for the Penguins to have a disadvantage at home. They have a loyal fan base that fills the arena for every home game. If the Penguins can improve at home, they may still be a contender for the Stanley Cup. But it may take more than gaining home ice to put them in contention. Goaltending was an issue in last year’s playoff series, and has been an issue at times this season as well. Marc-Andre Fleury has played very well this season, but the off-season acquisition of veteran net minder, Tomas Vokoun, has not panned out. Vokoun’s save percentage is under .900 and his GAA sits at an ugly 3.32 this season. Vokoun is 36 now, so he is in the final stages of his career, but he has never posted a GAA over 3.00. I’m afraid that streak may come to an end this season. Vokoun has never seemed to have found his niche in Pittsburgh, and his numbers are reflecting it. I would not be surprised to see the Penguins call up AHL all-star selection, Jeff Zatkoff, for a look at the NHL.
Finally, let’s take a look at the Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes had a busy off-season, starting on draft day when they sent Brandon Sutter to the Penguins for Jordan Staal. Not only did this unite brothers Jordan and Eric, it also added offense, which seemed to be Carolina’s goal this off-season. With the addition to Jordan Staal, the Hurricanes also acquired Alexander Semin from the Washington Capitals. Semin has been a 40-goal scorer in the past, and is coming off a 21-goal season. Adding offense seemed to be the answer to the Hurricanes getting over mediocrity, as they finished last season with a 33-33-16 record. Carolina finds themselves tied for sixth in the NHL, averaging 3.00 goals per game. It’s no secret that scoring goals is how you win hockey games, but Carolina’s new offensive attack has been on fire recently, putting up 15 goals in the first four games of this month. Jiri Tlusty has been a pleasant surprise for the Hurricanes, as he is on pace to set a career high in goals. Tlusty netted 17 goals last season, and he currently has 11 goals in 23 games this season. The Hurricanes have had contributions from many different players this season, which is a good sign for the organization.
With so many injuries, a lot of the talented, young players in the organization are getting ice time at the NHL level, which helps in development. And to see the Canes still be sitting at the top of the division despite all the injuries they have had speaks well to how talented and deep this club really is. At one point in February, the Hurricanes were missing three of their top defensemen in Tim Gleason, Jamie McBain, and Joni Pitkanen, as well as their second leading scorer (at that time) Jeff Skinner. However, the young guys stepped up and performed very well. As GM Jim Rutherford put it, “It’s shown what they can do here right now, but also a projection for them where they can be next year,” he said. “I’m very, very pleased with most of those guys who have jumped in.” And why wouldn’t he be? The Hurricanes have gone from the bottom to the top in one season, and Rutherford is looking like an Executive of the Year candidate because his young guys have answered the bell. With all that being said, the real test may be these coming months, as starting goalie Cam Ward was diagnosed with a third-degree MCL sprain and is expected to be out for six to eight weeks. If the goalie duo of Dan Ellis and Justin Peters can hold up for a few months, the Hurricanes may be looking at a favorable matchup in the playoffs.
However, this is only the division leaders as of now in the Eastern Division. Other teams are well within contention, such as strong Boston Bruins squad who only trails the Canadiens by a single point in the Northeast Division. There are also quite a few mid-season surprises in the opposite direction. The Philadelphia Flyers find themselves in last place in the Atlantic. Like most inconsistent teams, the Flyers defense has been lackluster at best. With Chris Pronger’s (non)retirement** for chronic vision problems and Kimmo Timonen’s age catching up with him, the Flyers defense seems sluggish and has been no help in the offensive zone. The Flyers should be shopping for an offensive-minded defenseman in the coming weeks. (Jay Bouwmeester?)
**Pronger still appears on the Flyers roster as an injured reserve, but he will never play again. Here are some direct quotes from Chris Pronger as evidence:
My eye is still troubling. It's not working properly. I don't have peripheral vision. I don't have a lot of the things I have that have worked well for me in the past. My eyesight is-- I keep having to get stronger and stronger glasses. I just got another new prescription. You work on getting healthy.
I have some vulnerability that [doctors] are worried about. That may or may not go away. No matter how long it takes, I have to get healthy that's my main focus and goal.
At times, I can be disoriented, I can lose my train of thought. My cognitive skills are a little suspect at times. It comes and goes on certain days. I can be sitting here and you might say 'what's wrong with him?' and I'll figure out what I was saying and start going again.
I have glasses and I can drive, yes, but I can't run. Anything where I have to move my body fast. If I ride a bike where my heart rate gets up to high, I get symptoms. Pretty much anything where there's a lot going on. ... I've been on the ice with my kids but I can't say I'm really doing a lot. Pushing pucks around. I've been on the ice and I've gotten symptoms and tried to do some things. It didn't go very well.” **
As with Chris Pronger, only time will tell the outcome, but we should have an exciting few months of hockey left with plenty of roster moves to come. One key acquisition could put a team that was thought to be out of playoff contention right in the middle of the big dogs, especially with big names like Jerome Iginla, Brendan Morrow, Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry, and Jay Bouwmeester.
What a disappointing night. The Boilers and Pacers lost in nearly identical fashion last night. At least the Blackhawks won (in almost identical fashion to how my basketball teams lost). Still, we must carry on here. I’d also apparently like to welcome China to my international fold. I might not be able to get to my own blog at work, but by God, it’s good enough for Chinese internet. Oh, and the Bureau of Economic Analysis dropped by. I hope it’s not related.
Here’s how we’re going to take my mind off things. Something you may or may not know about my brother and me is our passion for creating leagues and tournaments. It was something we’ve always done from as long as I can remember.* We would make up professional teams from Covington and then make up a schedule for them to play**, and then go through the season. I’d be a little interested to hear what our parents would say about this or how much they really realized we were going into it. But it was a pretty awesome time. We had our pitching rotations set up, we had left-handed and right-handed pitchers and hitters so we got turns to do both. We researched other team’s rosters*** so we could get the handedness of their hitters right and switch off accordingly. Or, if it was Andrew’s turn in the rotation that day, he would stay pitching and I learned to switch hit a little bit. I got to be fairly decent at it. We kept this up for a whole lot longer than either one of us would probably care to admit, but the “make believe” part became much less important than the excuse to go out and play some ball. We just had an existing framework to fit the game in. It was nice.
*And, being the older brother, I’m guessing as long as he can remember.
**We’re going to talk about baseball here, because it was by far the most in depth, but basketball and football certainly happened, too.
***This became much easier when we got more current video games.
With this sort of background, you might not be surprised that we both forced league templates into video games that didn’t already have them built in. We at one point had some pretty in-depth spreadsheets to manage our Little League* schedule and subsequent tournament. Andrew had tours going for Mario Golf and Tennis before those games just became too easy for him. I tried to organize a boxing season of sorts using my Rocky game before coming to the same conclusion. I found a way around that using Super Smash Brothers: Melee by letting the computer duke it out and recording the results. We built a surprisingly detailed league on Sammy Sosa’s slow pitch softball game, where each built a league (a la National and American) and played the team from our respective league when it came to head-to-head matches. Plus, that had the built in advantage of picking the field you wanted to use, so that meant every team had a home field.
*By the way, still one of the best baseball games ever. I would highly recommend a ROM if you’re at all into that sort of thing.
And, well, if you’re familiar with my brother’s site, you can see this hasn’t exactly ended. And I can assure you that isn’t the only league or tournament he has going on with his dice-and-card games.
So, yes, I would like to think that this kind of organization is in my blood. Which is why it pains me to absolutely no end that there are 68 teams in the NCAA tournament these days. It makes absolutely no sense as a tournament or determining who the best team in the country is. Even as a money grab,* it makes very little sense. You grab a few small schools and a few schools that had pretty disappointing years to sell some tickets for one night and one extra night of TV?
*Which, clearly, the NCAA and its members are very familiar with.
How much do you really gain from that one night? I see what Dayton gets out of it (something instead of nothing), but what does the NCAA really get? There’s seems to be very little profit to be made from this extra night. I can’t imagine these games draw all that much in TV ratings. For example, if you were scrolling through your guide on a random Tuesday and you saw Lamar vs. Vermont on TV, would you stop and watch that game? I would probably check it out, because I have a soft spot for small schools, but I don’t think the general population would. You’re going to get a few extra eyeballs now just because it’s declared a tournament game, but I would be floored if it gains all that much. If advertisers are paying top dollar for those games, they’re getting gouged.* So, again, as a whole, what is the NCAA gaining from this?
*My guess would be that night gets tacked on for the package you see for the whole tournament. That’s why you see the same commercials over and over again all month until you can recite them by heart in the middle of June if you had to.
It just seems silly to me. 64 teams is more than enough. Hell, I wouldn’t be opposed to going back to 32 teams. That will never happen, and I’m not sure I would really want it to. 64 was the perfect number. That gives you the perfect length tournament. You will still get all the teams who really earned their way in. The number works out so you don’t have these stupid play-in games.* Long story short, if you’re still on the bubble at 64 teams and it bursts, well, that’s just how it goes sometimes. Lines have to be drawn somewhere. And if your team was in that position, you can probably easily look back on the season and point to a few games that got away that would have solidified your position.
*I know the NCAA doesn’t like calling them that, but I don’t think anybody buys that they’re anything else.
It’s a problem you have, NCAA. You try to fix things that weren’t broken. Like all this conference realignment. I’m not saying nothing can ever change. There are things that do need to change. But these are the sorts of things that were better off before. Let it be, college sports. Let it be.
I guess I have to start by thanking Ohio St. That was a nice win by the normally-hated Buckeyes over the even-more-hated Hoosiers in Bloomington. On Senior Night.
I’m told by Dan Dakich today on the radio that apparently Senior Night is a big deal around IU. I can’t really make a judgement, I really don’t know too much about what they do down south for senior day. I can’t imagine it’s too much different from what most schools do. Recognize the seniors, have them say a few words, give them a jersey or something. It’s nice, I like going to Senior Night at Purdue for that. But, I mean, is it really all that special? If there’s more IU does, I’ve not heard about it.
But, I’m digressing here.* I’m not here to compare how special different school’s senior nights are. I just wanted to make a few points here about last night’s game and what it could mean going forward. For starters, IU is not a tough team. They’re kind of like Butler, who beat the Hoosiers, as you might remember. If you get physical with them, they won’t respond to it well. I’m sure a lot of that goes on the thin back of Cody Zeller. There have been a lot of nice things said about his game, a lot of things I don’t necessarily see. But I haven’t heard too many people comment on how physical a presence he is and how well he bangs with other big guys and the like. Basically, he’s almost the polar opposite of Tyler Hansbrough, who to this day people seem compelled to point out how hard he scraps and what sort of brute strength he has.
*Especially impressive in that I hadn’t really even started yet.
To that end, in a way, it seems to be up to the officials just how far this Hoosiers team gets in the tournament. If games are tightly called and IU gets to shoot free throws every other time down the floor, they will win games. And this is a very real possibility of happening all throughout March. I mean, it’s been widely discussed here about how IU coasted on their 80’s reputation to get a four seed in last year’s tournament. It was outrageous. Literally. Every Purdue fan I knew was outraged by it. Especially when considering that Purdue was handed a 10 when there clearly wasn’t that much difference between the teams. Again, I’m going off the rails a bit here. There is a good chance that Indiana will get the benefit of the doubt, we’ll say.
But, on the other hand, it just takes one game where they don’t. One game like last night, where Ohio St. played hard-nosed, physical defense and the refs let the players play. Indiana is a team you can wear down. And, honestly, even if the refs don’t allow it, with the heavy schedule that the tournament brings, there’s a chance that the Hoosiers will be manhandled for a game they pull out at the free throw line, only to find they’ve got nothing left in the tank for the next night after they’ve been beaten up.
Look, I’ve been on record as saying I don’t think IU will make the final four. Some of that is being a Purdue fan, and I realize that. But it is not all based on that. A lot of it is the fact that this is a heavily flawed team, like every team in college basketball this year. This is maybe the most down season in my lifetime for college basketball. There is clearly no great team in the nation, and I would buy arguments that there really aren’t any good teams. Because of that, it makes it awfully hard to pick who a final four might consist of, just because it’s so easy to envision every team slipping up. Why? Because we’ve seen it happen multiple times to each of the “top” teams.*
*Except maybe Gonzaga, because of that schedule we talked about. But we did see them slip up once at Butler. Just not multiple times. Yet.
Is IU a final four team? It’s very possible. It’s very possible that they aren’t. With the apparent talent level stretched so thin in college this year, this promises to be the most unpredictable tournament in years. I should be excited for it. Hell, I should ecstatic about the parity. But I’m really not. I just feel like I’m watching a bunch of also-rans that all happened to fall into the same bracket.
We need to bring back the college ball of the 90’s. I’m begging here.
It was a good weekend. The Blackhawks keep on rolling, Purdue came up with a big win (though it did help IU), and the Pacers had a big win over the Bulls. But for some reason, I just couldn't find much to talk about with that today. Instead, I present you this video.
And while you're at it, enjoy this picture, too.