Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Going with my gut

For last year's NCAA Basketball Tourney, I made my picks based on a series of key stat matchups--free throw and three point shooting, defense, assist:turnover ratios. My reasoning was that in close games, which most late round tourney games are, those factors are the most important in deciding the winner. The approach worked fairly well--I ended up in the 76th percentile of all Yahoo users, and won my family pool. So I'm sticking with the same philosophy, but I'm not carrying it out to the extremes of last year. Because there are a few cases this year where my gut instinct tells me to go against all sound reasoning.

Like my pick of Boston College over Villanova and then Florida. Both 'Nova and Florida are much better shooting teams. But after seeing BC dispatch North Carolina and barely lose to Duke in the ACC Tournament, I couldn't help but think of them as a Final Four team. It's just a feeling I have. So I'm picking them for the Final Four.

I feel the same positive feeling about Kansas. I have them upsetting Memphis in the Sweet 16. Kansas is a team on fire, and they have a critical mass of young players maturing at the right time. I do, however, have them falling to UCLA in the regional final.

I have a good feeling about Michigan State too, although the numbers back me up on this one. Quite simply, they're one of the best-shooting, best-coached teams in the draw. They've basically returned the same squad that went to the Final Four last year. It's hard to pick against them. My initial reaction when I saw the bracket was to put them through to the Elite Eight...then I thought "no way they'll beat North Carolina". But after a few hours, I returned and looked over some stats, and I can't help but shake the feeling that Izzo's crew will make some more noise in March. But can they beat UConn? Probably not.

And believe it or not, I have a good feeling about Duke. Before filling out the bracket, I figured I'd have Duke out in the Sweet 16 or at least Elite 8--I think they've been overrated all year. But...after seeing them prevail over a BC team that was at least its equal, I think Duke may just have the mojo to avoid the upset this year. I wanted to pick Texas over them so badly, but I just couldn't do it.

There are also some agonizing teams--I have no clue what to do with LSU/Syracuse, or Iowa/West Virginia. I ended up going with 'Cuse and WV in my bracket, but frankly, I wouldn't be surprised if any of those 4 teams ended up in Indy. All it takes is one hot streak. And yeah, it was agonizing to take BC over Villanova. I will look like a buffoon if 'Nova goes on to with the title, which a great number of people are predicting.

And yet, after all this, I'm going with the chalk. UConn over Duke in the final. Why UConn? They remind me an awful lot of North Carolina last year. They're experienced, but young enough to be naive. They have a fantastic coach. They are the deepest team in the tourney. They have scorers all over the court. They can beat you at your own game. They're the most talented. I remember agonizing over North Carolina and Illinois in my final bracket last year. I ended up going with Carolina, because they were deeper and more talented. There's no two ways around it. Take a look back at who has won titles--they have been the most talented teams. North Carolina last year, UConn the year before that, Syracuse with Carmelo the year before that. My concern with North Carolina last year was their lack of a go-to scorer down the stretch, but they proved me wrong. UConn doesn't have a go-to guy either, but now I'm realizing that's what makes them so dangerous.

My picks:

UConn over Duke

Duke over UCLA
UConn over Boston College

Duke over Texas
UCLA over Kansas
UConn over Michigan State
Boston College over Florida

Duke over Syracuse
Texas over West Virginia
UCLA over Gonzaga
Kansas over Memphis
UConn over Washington
Michigan State over Tennessee
Boston College over Villanova
Florida over Ohio State

Where are the upsets you say? Yeah, I know. No big upsets, no double digit seeds in the Sweet 16. I'm sure I'll miss one. But seriously, it was impossible for me to decide which upsets to pick beyond the second round. I guess the underdogs just don't appeal to my gut this year.

Monday, March 06, 2006

RIP, Puck

I've always had a soft spot for Kirby Puckett, mostly because of his performance in the 1991 World Series, in which he and Jack Morris combined to slay the despicable Atlanta Braves. Puckett's Game 6 extra inning game-winning homer is one of the most dramatic in Series history, and his clattering leaping grab in the same game is one of the best defensive plays in series history. Kirby got into the Hall based on his rate stats, but had he continued, his career numbers would have matched any centerfielder's. In 1995, his last year before his premature retirement due to glaucoma, he hit .314/.379/.515 with 23 homers. He surely would have benefitted greatly from the offensive explosion at the end of the '90s. And Puckett was always an outstanding defender--his range and fielding percentage career stats in center far outsrip the league averages for the time. From '85 to '95, only brief flashes of brilliance from Eric Davis caused any dispute as to who was the best centerfielder in the majors. The answer was Puckett, every time.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

World Baseball "Classic"

So, the World Baseball Classic is officially underway, with Korea leading Taiwan (screw you, China) 2-0 in the 6th inning. Like most people, I have very mixed feelings about the execution of the event this time around, but believe me when I say that the concept is fantastic. There’s nothing better than international competition in my book (see my blathering about hockey and soccer for proof), and of course, any kind of baseball is good baseball. I hope that this year’s tourney is the first step toward what will become an important sporting event.

This year? Doesn’t seem very important. Star players dropped out of the tourney left and right, to the point where it now looks like that Venezuela are the favorites based on their dominant pitching staff. Without Pedro, the DR doesn’t have much hope, and my feeling is that even with the inhuman leadership capabilities (*gag*) of Derek Jeter, Team USA won’t care enough to win. That, and Al Leiter is now their 4th starter. Venezuela has the passion, and the pitching, to win it.

But that’s beside the point for me. I am very interested in the result to be sure, but there’s no denying that this is a very diluted product. The WBC will never be the World Cup in terms of popularity, but it could become like the World Cup in terms of impact within the sport. Soccer players usually place playing in the World Cup over everything else, and professional leagues change their season schedules in order to accommodate it. If the World Cup rates a 10 out of 10 in importance for soccer players, it scores a 1 of 10 for baseball players, and that’s why it’s hard to think of this as anything more than an interesting diversion.

What will make it an event? The most important factor for me is that the tourney cannot be before the season–it must be after the World Series. This follows the model for the World Cup, and is advantageous in that it is close enough to the season for many players still to be in good playing condition, but it is far enough away from the end of the regular season for nagging injuries to heal. It will also allow them to drop the ridiculous pitch limit. This will make it far less likely that major stars will beg off, as they have done this season. The other factor is that the games this time around, at least in the semis and finals, must be very dramatic and exciting. There is no way to guarantee that, but it would do so much good for future prospects. Basically, Frankie Rodriguez has to be staring down Albert Pujols in the bottom of the 9th in the finals. Or does it have to be the USA? I hope that US baseball fans have enough interest that they would turn out to see a final between the DR and Venezuela. Lord knows I would, but you can’t be too sure. If the players who are sitting it out see a playoff-type atmosphere from the fans, and a close game makes for playoff-type drama, I can see a much more appealing event in 2010. I’m crossing my fingers...

Champions League Round of 16 roundup

Last week, the Champions League round of 16 got underway with the first leg of matches. Let’s recap all 8 and look ahead to the second leg. Remember that if the two legs finish tied, the team that has scored the most away goals wins. If the tie still is not broken, the 2nd leg then goes to 30 minutes of extra time (not sudden death), and then penalty shootout. Home team in the first leg is listed first.

Real Madrid 0-1Arsenal
One of the big surprises of the round, although back in December I picked Arsenal to win. That was before they went in the tank in the Premiership, so most people thought the injury-wracked Gunners would get trashed in the Bernabeu. Instead, Arsenal dominated from the start, and probably should have won 0-2 or 0-3, which would have virtually sealed the tie. As it was, their only goal came on a sublime piece of individual skill from Thierry Henry, who jinked past four defenders before a cool finish. One match report described the sequence as “shimmering” and I won’t argue. Real Madrid fans should shudder at the sight of TH14, because he could very well end up on arch-rivals Barcelona next year.

As dominant as Arsenal was, they only have the slimmest of margins. Their main task will be to prevent Madrid from scoring more than one goal, as it is a seemingly safe bet that Arsenal can manage at least one goal in Highbury. These days, Madrid is in chaos, both in the front office and on the pitch, and I think Arsenal will take care of business 2-1, winning the tie 3-1 on aggregate.

Benfica 1-0 Liverpool
Another surprise outcome, although the actual play during the game followed the same script it has all season long for Liverpool–dominating possession, utterly inept finishing. It wasn’t so much that the strikers (in this game, Fernando Morientes and Robbie Fowler) screwed up easy chances, it’s more that they were incapable of creating anything for themselves. If strikers are completely reliant on creativity from the midfield, it takes midfielders of a special class to have a consistent attack. And with Steven Gerrard on the bench, Liverpool had to rely on Luis Garcia, who is really more of a second striker than a midfield creator. After 85 minutes of drudgery, Benfica pulled a goal out of nowhere on a free kick to nip a somewhat undeserved victory.

Though Liverpool are down a goal, chances are good that they will hold Benfica scoreless at Anfield. Can they score two goals at home? I say yes, but it will take them extra time to do it. Stork-like striker Peter Crouch will be brimming with confidence after his goal in the latest England match, and I expect him to do the job again. I’ll wager Gerrard get’s the eventual winner, squeaking Liverpool through.

Bayern Munich 1-1 AC Milan
An expected result, although not entirely deserved. Milan couldn’t muster much in attack, and Bayern probably should have scored two. The Germans’ one goal came on a masterful shot from national team captain Michael Ballack, who half-volleyed on his second touch, sending a screwball into the side netting. It was certainly the goal of the round, and illustrates why Ballack is in such high demand from Chelsea, Inter, and Madrid. Milan’s goal came on a questionable penalty decision, and Andriy Shevchenko made no mistake, giving Milan a vital away goal.

Bayern now faces the unenviable task of beating Milan at the San Siro. I return to my December post, in which I commented that Bayern’s lack of a world-class striker would hurt them. I’m sticking by that argument. Ballack might score again, but he probably won’t, and Milan’s strikers are of too much quality to be shut out at home. Milan wins 2-0 and takes the tie 3-1.

PSV Eindhoven 0-1 Lyon
Much like in the Madrid/Arsenal match, this one turned on a piece of individual skill from Lyon’s Juninho, whose swerving 2nd half free kick crossed up PSV’s Brazilian keeper Gomez, to give Lyon a deserved road victory. Lyon never really looked in danger, and I’m actually surprised they didn’t look more threatening. PSV was a nice story last year, but having lost 4 starters from last year’s side that went to semifinals, they were clearly out-classed by the French side.

I can’t see things getting any better for PSV, who inexplicably left DaMarcus Beasley on the bench. He might give Lyon’s back four some problems, but it won’t be enough. Lyon will score 3 at home, and take the tie 4-1.

Ajax 2-2 Inter
A rather shocking result from Amsterdam, where Ajax probably have 1/5th of the talent Inter puts on the pitch. The Dutch club benefitted from 5 dizzying minutes in the first half that saw one fluky goal and one well-taken goal send them to a flying start. Inter showed great character to claw back and score twice in the second half, giving them the advantage going into the second leg. Inter seemed to have been taken by surprise in Amsterdam, but that won’t happen back in Milan. The nerazzuri will win 3-1 and take the tie 5-3.

Rangers 2-2 Villareal
Rangers are neck and neck with Ajax as the worst sides left in the competition, so this was also a somewhat surprising result, especially after Villareal’s stellar defensive record in the group stages. Rangers are in the awkward situation of having a lame duck manager and being completely out of contention in their domestic league, yet they realistically have a shot at making it to the quarterfinals of Champions League! Still, I can’t see Villareal conceding at home, and even if they do, a 1-1 draw would still put them through. I see their playmaker, Juan Roman Riquelme, doing one better, with Villareal winning 2-0 and taking the tie 4-2.

Werder Bremen 3-2 Juventus
An unexpected stumble for Juve, who until this game looked to stand out above the rest of the field. They still retain status in my mind as the most complete team in the world, but all the credit in this match goes to Werder Bremen, who improbably collected two goals in the final five minutes to snatch a shocking victory away. Bremen took the initial lead, but Juve restored order with goals from Pavel Nedved and David Trezeguet, putting them up 2-1 with nine minutes to play. Nine times out of ten (and perhaps even more), that would mean automatic victory for Juve and a commanding lead in the tie. Not on this night. Bremen, desperate, threw their men forward, and two moments of chaos in the Juve box resulted in the goals, with Johan Micoud capitalizing on a lucky bounce to knock in the winner.

The stunning turn of events give Bremen a slim advantage, but the away goals rule rears its ugly head here, as Juve will know they only need win 1-0 to advance. Bremen knows it can’t sit on its lead, so I expect them to attack early on. I’m going to go on the record now and say that this will be a classic match, with Juve winning 2-1, and taking the tie 4-4 on away goals.

Chelsea 1-2 Barcelona
The most glamorous matchup of the round lived up to its considerable hype, giving fans a fair share of controversy, drama, and breathtaking skill. Simply put, these teams don’t like each other, dating back to last year’s matchup in the exact same stage of Champs League. Chelsea won that tie 5-4 on a controversial goal, after having been down 2-1 after the first leg. Managers Jose Mourinho and Frank Rijkaard sniped constantly last year, and got underway this year before the games even began, with Rijkaard understandably complaining about the mud pit that passes for a pitch at Stamford Bridge. So, understandably, tensions were simmering as the game kicked off.

The game got off to a nervous start, but Barca clearly had play slanting in their direction. They consistently threatened, although never dangerously so. Ronaldinho wasn’t attacking with his usual abandon, but still dominated the ball. The game didn’t really gain any character, however, until the 35th minute, when Chelsea left back Asier Del Horno was sent off for a careless tackle against Argentinian phenom Lionel Messi. The decision sent shockwaves through the stadium, and is still being discussed almost a week later. My initial reaction was disbelief–Del Horno essentially hip checked Messi to the ground, but it was clearly not violent, merely careless. To make matters worse, Messi clearly feigned injury to attract the referee’s attention. I spent the rest of the game thinking Chelsea had been wronged. It was only after the game that I remembered that Del Horno had earlier made a much more dangerous studs-up tackle on Messi, a tackle that should have drawn a yellow card. So now I’ve realized it was karma coming back to get Del Horno.

After the sending off, the game immediately became an exercise in inevitability–when would Barca score? And how many? That’s what made the first 15 minutes of the first half so special for Chelsea. After the interval, Mourinho withdrew the slightly injured striker Hernan Crespo and subbed on Didier Drogba, a player of lesser skill, but a greater physical presence. The move made sense to me–Chelsea needed to play a defensive game now that they were down a man, and Drogba allows them to retain possession more easily than Crespo. Yet, inexplicably, Chelsea attacked! Arjen Robben and Eidur Gudjohnsen were the catalysts, and Chelsea’s daring tactics paid off, when a Frank Lampard free kick dangerously swerved toward the far post, only to be headed in for an own goal by Thiago Motta. Stamford Bridge was in ecstasy.

But there were still 30 minutes to go, and Chelsea had just expended all their energy to produce the goal. Almost immediately after the goal was scored, Messi took charge again, tearing down the right wing and squaring a perfect pass that whistled through the box with no striker there to latch on to it. That was the warning shot. Another one came from a Ronaldinho cross, with substitute Henrik Larsson heading over the bar. By this point, the field appeared to be tipped all the way toward Chelsea’s end. Barca attacked relentlessly, and were rewarded with a free kick in a dangerous position after Larsson drew a foul. Incredibly, the exact same thing happened on this free kick–a dangerous ball into the box that was accidentally knocked in for an own goal–this time by skipper John Terry, though his courageous defending throughout the night made the own goal seem especially harsh on him. From there, it was only a matter of time until Barca scored again, and they did so on a perfect display of passing–Ronaldinho squared for Larsson, who cleverly dinked to Rafael Marquez, who then sent a soaring cross toward striker Samuel Eto’o, who hammered a header into the top corner. It was a moment of true beauty, and Chelsea’s world class defenders might as well have not been there. After the ugliness from earlier in the match, it was a welcome reminder of why soccer is the beautiful game.

All of this sets up for what will surely be an even better game at the Nou Camp next Tuesday. Chelsea will have no choice but to attack, and since that is Barca’s M.O., I expect end to end action for sustained periods during the game. I will stick by my previous prediction. Barca will win 3-2 in an absolute thriller, and take the tie 5-3.

Sverige mästerskap

It’s hard for me to put my finger on what went wrong for the Canadian hockey team because...I never saw them play! Not even once! Thanks to NBC’s ridiculous practice of tape delaying every event except for hockey and my busy schedule, I was only able to watch a grand total of three games. What, tell me, would have been wrong with replaying games on USA or CNBC? The hockey competition represents a good half of why I get pumped up for the Olympics, and I’m sure I’m not alone in that feeling. Thank goodness the 2010 Games will be in the Pacific time zone, especially considering it will probably be the last hurrah for the NHL’s involvement. Don’t get me wrong, I loved the Olympics before the pros got there, but it’s always such a pleasure to watch hockey played on a big rink at its highest level.

Anyway, the Detroit Red Wings–oops, I mean Team Sweden–won the gold, but with some href="">questionable ethics in the group stage. There’s no way to prove that Sweden tanked, as the dude in the article said, but I did read something today that said at one point during their game with Slovakia, Sweden had a power play with Sundin, Forsberg, Zetterberg, Lidstrom, and Alfredsson, and didn’t attempt a shot on goal. Call me crazy, but that doesn’t sound like trying too hard. Their loss in that game meant they drew Switzerland in the quarterfinals, whom they easily dispatched, setting themselves up to be well-rested for the semis, when they beat the Czechs into submission. It didn’t hurt that the Czechs were using their third choice goaltender, either. Finland, meanwhile, made the finals on the strength of their defense and goaltending. Young Flyer Antero Niittymaki was pretty much the MVP of the tournament, going on a J.S. Giguere-like run through the medal round. The magic ran out in the finals, but Finland definitely showed it will contend for another medal in Vancouver 2010.

So yeah, these Olympics were disappointing from a hockey standpoint. I have nothing of substance to say about the rest of the events, other than “short track speed skating rules” and “aerial skiers are clinically insane”.

Anybody out there?

I am hideously disappointed in my upkeep recently. I could blame financial aid crap, but I won't. I've clearly had enough time. So, I'm gonna rapidly fire off three posts, in the hopes of winning my scant list of readers back:

1)Brief thoughts on the Olympics
2)Wrap-up of 1st leg Champions League Round of 16, preview of 2nd legs
3)Thoughts on the World Baseball Classic

Hope you enjoy...