Saturday, January 31, 2009

And The Winner Is ....?

There’s only one thing worth talking about this week, of course: The English Premier League!

Oh, maybe it’s that other passion of Phil’s. Go Steelers! Send your picks along. — John

Wake beat Duke!!!! (Had to get that out of the way before I exploded.)

We all remember back to October when Liverpool broke Chelsea’s non-loss streak at Stamford Bridge. This week it’s the Blues chance for revenge. Will they get it? Chelsea’s riding their longest win streak of the season, but I don’t expect it to continue at Liverpool. I’m looking for a draw.

And now on to American Football ... too nervous to elaborate ... Steelers get their sixth! — Phil

Will the Steelers be able to get their running game going again? Will the Steelers corners be able to contain Fitzgerald and Boldin? Clearly, the Cardinals have shown an ability to stop the run and get the ball to their playmakers, so there are some interesting match-ups.

But, I think the big intangible—experience—will begin to come into play in the 2nd half. After a close 1st half, the Steelers take control in the 3rd and 4th quarters and win by 10.

But what do I know … I expected Pitt to beat ‘Nova last night by at least 15. — Kurt

Super Bowl time!!! Five-time Super Bowl Champion Pittsburgh Steelers face off with the 0-time Super Bowl Champion Arizona Cardinals. Anyone else feel like they are playing on the roulette wheel? Steelers = black, Cardinals = red, and I guess a tied game = green. We can ask Donovan McNabb what happens if the Super Bowl is tied at the end of overtime—I’m sure he has had quite an education since the week of the Cincinnati/Philadelphia tie.

In a mid-football-season discussion at a regular monthly meeting I had with a group of friends, I expressed my opinion that I thought the Steelers were a really good team—certainly one of two that would contend for the AFC representation in the Super Bowl (the other being the Colts—a little off on that one). The Steelers are sporting their traditional lockdown, hard-hitting defense, and as you know, defense wins playoff games.

And the Cardinals—playing very well in the playoffs, and appear to have a defense that has the ability to play well. Add in Fitzgerald, Warner, Boldin and James, and you have some offensive opportunity. Let’s not forget the ex-Steeler coaching staff that has elevated the lowly Cardinals game.

Should be interesting to see if this coaching familiarity will have any effect on the outcome of the game. They are the underdogs, and deservedly so, as they finished the season at a paltry 9-7. There is no doubt this team needs to come out firing on all cylinders to even compete with the Steelers this week.

I’m going to make two predictions. First, I’ve spun the roulette wheel and the ball has fallen on red. It’s a tough pick, but the methodology is sound—I’m going with the Cardinals to win their first Super Bowl. My second prediction: With the exception of the commercials and the halftime show, this will be the least viewed Super Bowl in history. — Troy V. of Yardley

Um, excuse me—don’t you people have work to do? And how the heck did I end up on these long, boring e-mails?

You all clearly have spent a long time thinking about this stuff, reading about this stuff, and watching it on TV—and then additional time pouring all of that into beautiful essays worthy of a six-page spread in a sports magazine. Who knew you were all so eloquent???

MY PREDICTION FOR THE WEEK IS THIS: When you get home tonight, your wives will ask you how your day was and attempt to engage you in an actual conversation, and you will barely grunt as you walk to the TV to do more studying for next week’s predictions. Because, sadly for the wives, even when the Super Bowl is over, there will be MORE sporting match-ups on which to pontificate.

My other prediction: I will never be included in these prediction emails again. :) — Gray

I believe Gray is 1-0 (or 7-0 if she gets a point for each individual) in predictions. — Troy V. of Yardley

Yesterday was great news when I learned that St. Joe’s won its 7th straight game and that Wake beat Duke. However, the night ended on a down note as I attended the Nova-Pitt game in the last college hoops game ever played at the Spectrum.

I was one of the few in attendance cheering for Pitt and my dislike for Nova is as strong as ever. The wine-and-cheese crowd that makes up the Nova Nation makes my stomach churn. With them constantly arguing every call (Pitt got whistled for 23 fouls, Nova 13), I found myself arguing with just about everyone in my section.

One idiot wanted Pitt called for 3 seconds until I informed him that the Pitt player was standing in the NBA lane not the college lane. Anyway, years after I attended the greatest college hoops game ever played at the Spectrum (Duke 104 Kentucky 103), I had to sit through last night.

Super Bowl prediction: Pittsburgh 38, Arizona 17. Sunday noon basketball tip-off: St. Joe’s beats 18-2 Dayton at Dayton to make it 8 in a row. Sunday noon basketball tip-off: Cincinnati upsets Nova at Nova. I HOPE. — Dave

Who let Darlene in the “Our Gang” clubhouse? I think it was Alfalfa (Phil).

I'm tempted not to pick Pittsburgh to spite Alfalfa, and to be different from Buckwheat (Dave Mink, based on his Vanilla-nova rant). But you can’t go against the obvious.

Phil’s teams just keep on winning as the Steelers win in a rout. Their d-backs lock down Arizona’s receivers and Pittsburgh’s backs run wild. Another world championship for the state of Pennsylvania! — John

Thanks for the inside scoop on the Pitt vs. VU game and cheering for the good guys, Dave. So the fix was in, eh? — Kurt

Monday, January 26, 2009

College Basketball's Most Underrated Player

We on the East Coast are missing one of the best—and by far most underrated—players in college basketball this season. St. Mary's guard Patty Mills could be this year's Stephen Curry come tourney time.

He has led No. 18 St. Mary's to an 18-1 record—with 15 straight wins following a 76 Classic 75-62 loss to UTEP. Mills is averaging 18.7 points a game, along with 4 assists and 2.4 steals. The Gaels have a big game Thursday on ESPN2 against Gonzaga at 11 p.m., which again will be too late for most East Coast fans.

Here's a story I wrote about Mills for ESPN prior to the start of this season:

Patty Mills enjoyed a summer job like no other college hoops star. While other 20-year-olds took landscaping or retail-store jobs, Mills took on the world—as the point guard for Australia’s national team in the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

Mills, a sophomore at St. Mary’s College in Moraga, California, is the only college basketball player in America to compete in Beijing. The youngest player in the history of Australian Olympic basketball, Mills led the team in scoring as a reserve (14.2 ppg.). And if the Australians got more than they expected from Mills, they’re not alone.

“I’m glad my Duke team doesn’t play St. Mary’s,” U.S. Olympic team coach Mike Krzyzewski told the Mercury News. “He’ll be an NBA guard.”

Mills lit up the Americans for 20 points, three assists, two steals, and no turnovers in 28 minutes in a 116-85 loss to the gold medalists that was close throughout much of the game. He also scored 22 against an Argentinian team that featured five NBA players.

Mills admitted catching himself looking at the NBA All Stars during warm-ups in a pre-Olympic contest and thinking, “‘What am I doing here?’ It’s crazy,” he told “But you have to be here to compete and do your best.”

That Mills led Australia is not as surprising as his appearance at St. Mary’s. In Australia, Mills had been one of the country’s top prospects for years. The 6-foot, 175-pound point guard’s game compares to NBA star Chris Paul, who faced Mills in the Olympics—and was beaten by him off the drive.

“He’s quick, he can move,” Paul told the Mercury News after the U.S. quarterfinal Olympic meeting. “I read something that said he’s faster than me. They’re probably right.”

Mills competed for Australia’s World Junior Select Team in the U.S. at the 2006 Nike Hoop Summit game, collecting eight points and six assists in the high school all-star showcase game. So how did off-the-radar St. Mary’s snag a potential NBA star?

“I told my assistants this is the most under-recruited player in the world,” said St. Mary’s coach Randy Bennett. “It wasn’t like nobody saw him at the Hoop Summit game…. He’s not that big— but I can’t tell you why other people didn’t recruit him. His size, maybe, and he wasn’t a great shooter at that time, and I guess coaches figured they could get a point guard in America.

“It was a no-brainer for us. We knew he was good when we played against him on a tour a few years ago,” said Bennett. “Saying that, I didn’t think he’d be this good.”

While other schools were in the mix, including Utah, Wake Forest, Alabama, and Nebraska, Mills felt most comfortable at St. Mary’s with Bennett, who’d previously landed four other Australians since taking over in 2001.

Déjà Vu?
The West Coast Conference has seen this kind of thing before. Twice, actually. An undersized, under-recruited ballhandling whiz of a point guard with all-around talent appears at a WCC school, has a breakout career, and goes on to greatness.

Can Mills follow in the footsteps of Gonzaga’s John Stockton and Santa Clara’s Steve Nash, both of whom were two-time league MVPs and first-round NBA draft picks? Some NBA scouts project Mills as a mid-first rounder thanks to his Olympic showing.

Dick Davey, now an assistant coach at Stanford, has a unique perspective on the three WCC point guards. The longtime Santa Clara coach recruited and coached Nash, was an assistant at the school when Stockton dominated at Gonzaga, and has seen Mills play. “They all have some unique qualities that make them special,” Davey said.

“They all see the floor real well. That’s a trademark of Stockton and Nash,” he said. “For Mills, that’ll continue as he plays more, but he’s good now, too. He’s so new, but I think he has a chance to be a heck of a pro. But getting to the next level and being a consummate pro is so hard.”

Those closest to Mills, such as St. Mary’s coach Bennett, see a one-of-a-kind talent. “Whatever it is, he’s got it,” Bennett said. “A belief, a confidence that he can play with anybody, that he can accomplish anything. It’s not cockiness—he’s very humble. He defers all the attention he gets. But he has a great confidence.”

Fellow Australian Carlin Hughes, who has known Mills for years and is now a teammate at St. Mary’s, hasn’t seen the accolades change his friend. “Not off the court—he’s still one of the boys,” Hughes says. “But on the court, his leadership has definitely stepped up this year—coming off the Olympics, that really made a difference for him. And we’ll definitely feed off that.”

St. Mary’s started last season 7-0 and won the 2007 Rainbow Classic, where Mills was named the tourney MVP. The Gaels finished the year 25-7, reaching the NCAA Tournament—a 78-64 first-round loss to seventh-seeded Miami—behind Mills, who led the team in scoring (14.8 ppg.), assists (3.4 apg.), and steals (1.7 spg) as a first-team all-league selection.

The team’s success last year has captured TV programmers’ attention this season. Four of St. Mary’s first six games will be nationally televised—including the 76 Classic, which begins on Thanksgiving with a game against UTEP. Not on the schedule, to the U.S. Olympic coach’s relief: Duke and Krzyzewski.

“Tell Mike he doesn’t have to worry about it,” laughed Bennett. “We’re not trying to get on his schedule either.”

Not now, but Mills has already taken on the world, so why not?

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Anyone for this week’s picks? — John

First of all, I apologize to John and Phil; when you go to small schools like Albright (as I did) you have to write about other schools.

St. Joe’s-Penn on Saturday night at the Palestra. SJU is playing all its games at the Palestra this year as their Field House gets refurbished. SJU has started 4-0 in conference and is currently in second place. They now jump out of conference to face Big 5 rival Penn. Apparently you have to be smart to go to Penn but not be a very good basketball player. They stink this year. Their coach will be fired at the end of the year. St. Joe’s has reeled off 5 consecutive victories and will make it 6 on Saturday night. SJU 78 - Penn 51.

Wake Forest-Duke next Wednesday evening. Although Wake lost last night at home to a mediocre Virginia Tech team it is clear to me that they were looking ahead to the Duke game. They now have a week off to think about the loss and take on Duke. Duke will get the calls but Wake will get the win. Let’s go 78-65.

Lastly, Pennsbury High School made it 53 consecutive league wins last night in High School Basketball. To put that in persepective the last time they lost a league game was the night before the Eagles played New England in the Super Bowl. — Dave

Humility stopped by Winston-Salem last night and paid a visit to the previously undefeated Demon Deacons. Hopefully, his lesson will stick with the squad for a while (at least until Duke comes to town). But I'll hold off on my pick for that match-up until next week, when I'll also discuss my thoughts on the outcome of a certain American football game to be played on 2/1 in Tampa.

So in the meantime, I'll go back to picking Chelsea matches.

The Blues narrowly pulled out a win in the final moments at home against lowly Stoke City last Saturday, it is then with nothing but blind optimism that I say they'll handle Ipswich Town in an FA Cup match. — Phil

I’ll weigh in on two college hoops games: 1) Upset alert: On Saturday, resurgent Baylor moseys into Norman and hands fellow Big 12 foe Oklahoma their 1st league loss, and 2nd loss overall for the season. Bears win, 79-71.

2) The resurgent Highlanders of the New Jersey Institute of Technology try to capitalize on their 1-game win streak (which followed a 51-game losing streak) by toppling the Lancers of Longwood University. They don’t, and lose 81–61, and begin another losing streak. — Kurt

The NHL All-Star game is this Sunday. The bad news: Jeff Carter is the only Philadelphia Flyer on the roster. The good news: I've been looking forward to this game all season, because it marks the point at which I can start watching the Flyers. Long seasons have driven me to wait out the first half and see where the chips fall. Now the positioning begins. I expect good things from the Flyers this year. But I digress, on to the All-Star break.

Brace yourself for the fastest game on ice. First, some amazing competitive events on Saturday such as the Fastest Skater, Breakaway Challenge, the NHL Youngstar game, Accuracy Shooting, Hardest Shot, and Elimination Shootout. I can't even begin to pick a winner for these events, so you will just have to wait and see. However, for Sunday's main event, I will have to go with the East. Why? I just told you I don't watch hockey until after the All-Star break—I don't have a reason. — Troy V. of Yardley

I’ve been experiencing a slight sleep-disfunction stage the last week or so, and I think it’s making me a little crazy. I thought I sent my pick and some as-always amusing wisecracks, but I can’t find them in my “Sent” folder or in my In-box. Did I dream that I sent them? If I’m dreaming about anything to do with you guys, that REALLY frightens me.

I picked (at least in my dreams) a Maryland upset of Duke Saturday, since maybe the Dookies will suffer Wake-itis and look past the Terps. Also, I’m going to “Mink” up my record by picking a gimme: St. Joe’s over Penn Saturday night. — John

Friday, January 23, 2009

No. 1 Overall Draft PIcks in Philly History

I wanted to add a quick follow-up to the entry about Philadelphia’s No. 1 picks who went on to play for title teams, just to add a few more trivia stumpers for your Super Bowl party.

I wrote that nine players in the history of Philadelphia sports had been top-five draft picks and then went on to win a title in Philly, and that just Pat Burrell and Chuck Bednarik were No. 1 overall picks to win titles.

That got me wondering: how many No. 1 overall picks have Philly sports teams ever had? The answer: seven, and the last five each helped their team reach their sport’s championship game, which means Philly has done alright with the top pick.

By the way, if you haven’t already paused to try to guess the seven yourself, you may want to give it a shot, at least at the five most recent. Burrell and Bednarik, obviously are two; of the other three, the hockey player will be the stumper.

Now, for the answers, starting with the Eagles, who haven’t had a top overall pick since Bednarik in 1949. (Two meaningless late-season wins in 1968 cost the Eagles the No. 1 pick in 1969—O.J. Simpson.) The other two Eagles were Nebraska’s Sam Francis in 1937, who played four seasons, and the University of Chicago’s Jay Berwanger, who is the ultimate trivia answer.

Berwanger was the first Heisman Trophy winner, the first overall pick in the first-ever NFL draft—and one of just three overall No. 1s never to play pro football. (1938’s Corbett Davis, and the late Ernie Davis, 1962, were the others). Berwanger went to med school instead.

The 76ers had two overall No. 1 picks: Georgetown’s Allen Iverson in 1996 and Illinois State’s Doug Collins in 1973. Iverson took the Sixers to the finals in 2001 (a loss to the Lakers) and Collins led the 1977 Sixers to a finals loss to the Trail Blazers. Collins was on the 1980 team that lost to the Lakers but injuries kept him from the playoffs.

The Phillies had only Burrell. And the Flyers’ choice? Not Eric Lindros. He was taken first overall by Quebec and eventually traded to the Flyers, so that doesn’t count.

The Flyers’ No. 1 overall choice was Mel Bridgman in 1975, who played on the 1976 and 1980 teams that reached the Stanley Cup finals. The team lost to Montreal in ’76 and the Rangers in ’80.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Philly Firsts

Donovan McNabb’s 1-4 NFC championship game record is common knowledge. But his failure to advance to this year’s Super Bowl kept McNabb from perhaps joining an exclusive club of Philadelphia athletes.

In the entire history of Philadelphia sports, just nine athletes were chosen in the top five of their sport’s draft by a Philly team that then went on to win their sport’s title. If McNabb (second overall in 1999) had taken the Eagles to a Super Bowl win this year, he would have been the tenth member of the club.

The group includes four Eagles, three Phillies, two 76ers, and, surprisingly, no Flyers.

The most recent addition to the club, of course, is Pat Burrell, taken first overall in the 1998 draft, who started the Game 5-winning rally that led to the 2008 World Series title. The other Phillies: Lonnie Smith (third in 1974) and Larry Christenson (third in 1972), both of whom played for the 1980 champs.

The Eagles among the group are all-time greats Chuck Bednarik (first in 1949; titles in ’49 and ’60) and Steve Van Buren (fifth in ’44; titles in ’48 and ’49), as well as Joe Muha (second in ’43; titles in ’48, ’49), and Bob Pellegrini (fourth in ’56, ’60 title).

And rounding out the nine are 76ers Luke Jackson (fourth in ’64) and Billy Cunningham (fifth in ’65), both of whom played on the 1967 world champs. The only Flyer close to the top five to play for either the ’74 or ’75 Stanley Cup champions was Bill Barber, taken seventh overall in 1972.

With the 2008 title, Burrell joined Bednarik as the only first overall picks by Philly to win a title for a Philadelphia team.

The number of first-round Philly draft picks—not just top five—to play on a Philly world champion is slightly larger: 21. Four Phillies joined the group as a result of the 2008 title: Burrell, Brett Myers, Chase Utley, and Cole Hamels.

Here’s the entire list of Philly No. 1 draft picks who played on a Philly champion:

Pat Burrell
Cole Hamels
Brett Myers
Chase Utley
Larry Christenson
Greg Luzinski
Lonnie Smith

Chuck Bednarik
Clarence Peaks
Bob Pellegrini
Neil Armstrong
Joe Muha
Clyde Scott
Steve Van Buren

Franklin Edwards
Mark McNamara
Andrew Toney
Billy Cunningham
Matt Goukas
Luke Jackson

Bill Barber

Friday, January 16, 2009

Who Are The Super Men?

Congrats to all—everyone at .500 or better for the season with their picks! Anyone up for two more this weekend? — John

Eagles v. Cardinals (The “What the?!?! Bowl”)
Which team is hotter right now? Tough to say, which makes me think this game is a toss-up. I’m going to have to go with the home team with their outstanding wide receiver from THE University of Pittsburgh (the same university with the nation’s top ranked men’s basketball team, by the way.) Cardinals 28 – Eagles 24.

Ravens v. Steelers (part III)
Much like the first two parts, it’ll be a tight game. The Steelers, with a healthy Willie Parker, will be able to get the running game going, and be able to fluster Flacco a bit. Steelers 20 – Ravens 13. — Kurt

Kurt, I think your inner writer geek was sooooo excited to be able to write "fluster Flacco." Let your writer geek banner wave proudly!!!! — John

This has got to be the strangest, and therefore toughest, weekend of football coming up this weekend. I'm referring to the NFC — what happened to football that we've had so many playoff upsets? The 9-7 Arizona Cardinals host the 9-6-1 Philadelphia Eagles. Playoff football at its finest.

I can't help but think that I wasted my football viewing life in 2008 to have the NFC represented by teams that are barely above .500. Exciting that "any team can make the Super Bowl?" Yes. Depressing that the season meant absolutely nothing? You got it.

So, now on to picking from two just-above-average teams for the NFC Championship. Both have picked up their game for the playoffs. This one is hard to choose. Both teams can play strong on defense — a must for playoff football. I can pick strengths and weaknesses for each, and yet I am left with one difference: the game is in Arizona. I am going to have to go with the home team Arizona Cardinals to win in a close game.

Conversely, the 12-4 Pittsburgh Steelers face off against the 11-5 Baltimore Ravens — records that are deserving of an AFC Championship appearance. Both teams are playing tough playoff football. They faced off twice this year in close games, both of which the Steelers won.

Again, I am going with the home team on this one, as the weather, and the worst field in the NFL, will be a factor. I don't see the Ravens’ rookie quarterback being able to complement the Raven defense enough to win this one. — Troy V. of Yardley

How could you not be excited that the NFC's Super Bowl representative will be either:
— a team that tied the lowly Bengals, or
— a team that lost by 40 to non-playoff New England.

Ahhh, the wacky NFC! — John

Thank you for understanding... — Troy V. of Yardley

Baltimore at Pittsburgh: This will be the better of the two games. Two bitter rivals with strong defenses battling in the cold. Unless this Flacco kid is pulling off a "Tom Brady" before our eyes, the Steelers should control the game. Steelers 17, Ravens 13

Philadelphia at Arizona: Buddy Ryan never made the playoffs as head coach of the Cards. Eagles 28, Cardinals 20

By the way, the Birds have ALWAYS made it to the Super Bowl (OK one time) when BOTH McNabb and Westbrook were healthy in January (look it up)!

The question is: how is Westbrook's knee? — Carnac the Magnificent

First, let's get the Bruiser Bowl out of the way. Pittsburgh and Baltimore will pound on each other like wildebeests in a stampede. I can't see any way a rookie QB like Flacco goes 3-0 in the playoffs and from being a Blue Hen to the Super Bowl in one year, so I'm going with the Steelers. If the NFC winner rubs its lucky rabbit's foot, these two teams will rough each other up so much they'll be as soft as lamb's wool come Super Sunday. Steelers 3, Ravens 2.

As for the Battle of the Birds, the Cardinals have scored 30 points in each of their playoff wins. I don't see them reaching 20 against the Eagles; but I'm not sure the Eagles get to 20, either. I'm feeling as frisky as a cat and going with my gut: the Eagles score either a defensive or special teams TD, and that makes all the difference. Eagles 17, Cardinals 10.

This prediction brought to you by Animal Planet. I also predict one very happy Ed Rendell on Sunday as the Eagles and Steelers set up a Pennsylvania Super Bowl. — John

Let's consider the games in order.

First (Wake is undefeated!), is the NFC Championship which begs the question (were they SERIOUS when they predicted UNC would go undefeated?!?) if two mediocre teams play in the desert, will anyone care?

The answer of course is (Jeff Teague!), no. No one other than most of Philadelphia and friends/family in Phoenix will care. But the TV cameras will be there and John asked. So here is my prediction: The overlooked (Demon Deacons) Cardinals will advance to the (Final Four) Super Bowl.

Second is the AFC Championship. Let's not kid ourselves (Clemson is overrated). 2009 is the year for teams wearing (Old Gold & Black) Black and Gold. Having the strongest (frontcourt & bench) defense in the nation and steadily improving (point guard and freshmen) running game translates to (the best start in Wake's history) a third Steelers victory over the Ravens. — Phil

Brilliant (delusional)! — John

Eagles at the Cards: This is a much better Cardinals team than the Eagles destroyed on Thanksgiving night. Healthier and more aggressive on defense, healthier and running the ball more on offense. Eagles have had 2 very physical games and now have to travel West, which isn't easy. I believe this game boils down to the Eagles’ defense against the Cardinals’ offense. They must put pressure on Warner. A late field goal from Akers wins it, 24-23.

Ravens at Steelers: BLOW OUT CITY. I was wrong on the Steelers last week and I’m jumping on the bandwagon. They looked awesome against the Chargers, they are at home, going against a rookie QB and the Ravens’ defense is banged up. Steelers 23 - Ravens 3.

All PA Super Bowl.

I agree with Phil. Wake Forest is going to make up for losing the National Championship in soccer with a National Championship in basketball. They are the best team I have seen. — Dave

"I agree with Phil. Wake Forest is going to make up for losing the National Championship in soccer with a National Championship in basketball. They are the best team I have seen."

Tears in my eyes. Honest to goodness tears in my eyes!! — Phil

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Playoff Predictions

It's pickin' time again. The challenge, at least for this first time: you have to pick an NFL playoff game. Sorry all you Premier League-lovin', Colorado girls' HS ice hockey-rootin', Albright wrestling-supportin' fans. It's NFL playoff time--time to separate the men from the men who drive gray Honda Civics and know the words to "How Deep Is Your Love." — John

Playoff time!

Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans – A surging shut down Baltimore defense meets a Tennessee team that has been stuttering/coasting through the month of December. It should be interesting to see whether Tennessee has the ability to throw it back into gear – and what gear will it be? Although Tennessee was able to beat the Ravens in Baltimore earlier in the season, I am going to have to go with the Baltimore Ravens this round, as defense wins playoff games, and Baltimore has exhibited its share in the month of December into early January.

San Diego Chargers at Pittsburgh Steelers – San Diego had to come from behind in their wildcard playoff game at home against the Indianapolis Colts last weekend. The steamrolling Colts were certainly on a roll having won 9 games straight prior to losing to San Diego. This was quite a test for the Chargers coming into the playoffs with a less than stellar 8-8 record. However, the Pittsburgh Steelers are no pushovers. They know how to win in the playoffs, and should not have any problem disposing of the visiting Chargers to advance to the AFC championship game.

Arizona at Carolina - Once considered a sleeper pick for the playoffs, Carolina looks very strong. Certainly a contender for a Super Bowl appearance. Arizona did not finish as strongly as they had started this season. However, they were able to advance last week at home against the Atlanta Falcons. I am going to have to go with Carolina Panthers in this game. Their performance will be an indicator for whether they will make it to the final dance.

Philadelphia at New York – The New York Giants haven’t looked as dominant in December as one would expect for a Super Bowl repeat attempt. However, they were going through a run of injuries, and have now had the opportunity to rest some key players during the playoff bye, including Brandon Jacobs, a key ingredient to the Giants running game. Add that to Brian Westbrook not able to practice this week but expected to play, and the porous Eagles run defense, and this starts to turn into a fowl meal for a giant.

But wait!! How can you pick against a Philadelphia Eagles team that needed every star in the sky to line up perfectly for them to make the playoffs? Burdened with a tie (kissing the sister)? Needing Tampa Bay to lose to Oakland (never happen!)? …and Chicago lose to Houston (possible, but asking too much)? And then pull off a dominating win over the archrival Dallas Cowboys? A great finale for a team that was not able to control its own destiny, but had it controlled by the football gods. It wasn’t until 4 p.m. on Sunday, December 28, 2008, one of the last games played in the NFL regular season, when the Eagles found out that if they won, they were in. Keep the beards growing – sorry, can’t pick against the Philadelphia Eagles. — Troy V. of Yardley

Well, thanks to having a lot of unexpected free time in a hotel room due to wildfire evacuations, I actually had time to read all of that. And Brian, being a gov’t employee on lunch break, had 2 hours to write it. (Brian, are you sure you’re not the sports writer amongst us?)

Me, being a Math/Econ major and a big fan of “say it in 3 sentences or don’t say it at all,” projects…

Tennessee over Baltimore; Pittsburgh over SD; Arizona over Carolina (upset alert); Giants over Eagles — Kurt

I will take these games in the order that they are being played. Interesting that for the first time ever each game matches teams who have already played against one another this year.

4:30 Saturday: Tennessee at home against Baltimore. First team to score may win. Turnovers will decide this game. I am going with Tennessee at home to win a low scoring game. I will go 13-10, which is the same result as earlier this year.

8:00 Saturday: Carolina at home against Arizona. Arizona has gotten waxed every time they have flown East this year. Lost at Washington 24-17, at Jets 56-35, at Carolina 27-23, at Phila 48-20, at Patriots 47-7. That’s 202-102 for an average loss of 20 pts a game.

HOWEVER, everyone is falling in love with Carolina despite the fact that they have a below avg quarterback who turns the ball over. I think Carolina will win but it will be much closer than people expect. Take Arizona and the 10 points.

Now to Sunday and a BIG day for the state of Pennsylvania.

1:00 Sunday: Giants at home to the Eagles. Game time temp 29 degrees. Game will be decided by a field goal but am concerned that David Akers’ career in Giant stadium is only 10 makes in 20 attempts. Eagles’ defense has been awesome. I am going with the Eagles in a low-scoring game if McNabb doesn't have any stupid turnovers which is a big IF.

4:30 Sunday: Steelers at home to the Chargers. I have to say I was surprised, and a little puzzled, when I heard that Ladanian Tomlinson has a torn tendon in his groin and Phil (a BIG STEELERS FAN) is in San Diego this week.

Anyway on to the game and I believe the Chargers come to Pittsburgh and win the game. This is my upset special.

Ben Roethlisberger is coming off a concussion and he can't even fit into his helmet because his head is still swollen. HUH? Earlier game between these teams was won by Pittsburgh 11-10 but I think the Chargers turn the table and win by a touchdown. Let’s say 20-13.

Have a great weekend and enjoy the games. — Dave

I'll go by conferences:
AFC: Two nail-biters. Baltimore is THE hot team in the playoffs. Defense wins. Prediction: Baltimore.

San Diego is playing with house money after their upset over the Colts. Big pressure for Pittsburgh. Prediction: Chargers.

NFC: Arizona is playing with house money. They'll be loose and giddy at the coin flip. They'll still be loose and giddy when John Fox pulls his starters at the start of the fourth quarter so they can rest up for next week. Prediction: Carolina.

No one's loose and giddy in the Philly/New York match-up. But Philly's receivers will not drop passes like they did in D.C. a few weeks ago. Prediction: Philly, in a nail-biter. — Carnac the Magnificent

You guys come through with the big research and the compelling angles to your picks! I actually only expected you to make ONE playoff pick, not each game. Way to step it up come playoff time!

Me? I’m resting the starters (my brain) for bigger games next week. So I’ll make picks for the two Pennsylvania games.

The Steelers move on; the Eagles move out. But I’ll make one exception to my Eagles pick: if Andy Reid realizes he has a unique talent in DeSean Jackson and throws plays his way, the Eagles could steal it. So the Eagles will lose unless Jackson has 150 combined yards (rushing/receiving/kicks). If he hits that number, the Eagles win. — John

Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Best of Villanova Basketball

Next up in my rundown of all-time Big Five teams: Villanova, which has produced more All-America-caliber talent than any other Philly team. La Salle has had more national Player of the Year candidates, but Nova’s depth of stars is remarkable. All-Americans like Hubie White and Randy Foye—plus NBAers Chris Ford, Alvin Williams, Tim Thomas, and Doug West—couldn't crack the top 10.

The first team:

1. Paul Arizin (1947-50)
Arizin, a 6-3 forward, was a consensus first-team All American who led the country in scoring in 1950 (25.3 ppg.) and directed the Wildcats’ national-best scoring offense (72.8 ppg.). He was also a local legend and was the school’s first 1,000-point scorer, finishing with 1,648. He went on to become a 10-time NBA All Star, Hall of Famer, and chosen as one of the NBA’s top 50 of all time.

2. Howard Porter (1968-71)
Porter was an overwhelming force as a 6-8 center, taking the Wildcats to the Elite Eight in 1970 and the national title game in 1971 (a 68-62 loss to UCLA). A three-time AP All-American he finished with 2,026 points (22.8 ppg.) and a school-record 1,317 rebounds (14.8 rpg).

3. Kerry Kittles (1992-96)
Kittles, the school’s all-time leader in scoring (2,243 points) and steals (277), is the only Wildcat with more than 2,000 points, 700 rebounds, 400 assists, and 200 steals. He was a first-team All-American guard in 1996 and a second-teamer in 1995.

4. Wali Jones (1961-64)
An All-American guard in ’64, Jones was twice the Big Five MVP and led the Wilcats to the 1962 Elite Eight. He finished with 1,428 career points and played in the NBA from 1964-73.

5. Larry Hennessy (1950-53)
A prolific scorer, Hennessy finished in the top 10 nationally in scoring twice (second in ’53 with 29.2 ppg.; seventh in ’51 with 22.0 ppg.). He totaled 1,737 points (23.2 ppg.) during a three-year career.

The second team:
Keith Herron (1974-78)
Bob Schafer (1951-55)
John Pinone (1980-84)
Ed Pinckney (1981-85)
Tom Ingelsby (1970-73)

The best team: 1984-85
One of just two Big Five teams to win the NCAA Tournament, Rollie Massimino’s ’85 Wildcats (25-10) had a roller-coaster season. They snuck into the tourney thanks to its expansion to 64 teams and barely eked out a 51-49 first-round win over host Dayton. But Pinckney, Dwayne McClain, Gary McLain, Harold Pressley, Harold Jensen, and Dwight Wilbur caught fire the rest of the tourney and stunned the nation with a 66-64 championship upset for the ages over defending champ Georgetown and Patrick Ewing.

This was one of Nova’s three Final Four appearances (1971, 1939); the Wildcats also reached the Elite Eight eight times (2006, 1988, ’83, ’82, ’78, ’70, ’62, and ’49).

Other top teams:
1970-71: Coach Jack Kraft’s 23-6 team reached the national championship behind an iron man lineup of Porter, Ford, Tom Ingelsby, Hank Siemiontkowski and Clarence Smith.

2005-06: Randy Foye, Kyle Lowry, Allan Ray, and Mike Nardi led the Wildcats’ guard-oriented 28-5 team (the most wins in school history). Jay Wright’s team earned Nova’s first No. 1 NCAA tourney seed and reached the Elite Eight, before losing to eventual champ Florida.

1963-64: Jones, Bill Melchionni, and rebounding machine Jim Washington led Kraft’s 24-4 team, which finished the year ranked seventh nationally. They lost to eventual runner-up Duke in the second round of the NCAA tourney.

1982-83: Massimino’s overlapping collection of Wildcat greats finished 24-8 and ranked 11th nationally: vets Pinone and Stewart Granger were joined by youngsters Pinckney, McClain, Pressley, and McLain.

1949-50: Arizin’s Wildcats went 25-4 in his senior year, with one of those losses a one-pointer to defending champ Kentucky. Tom Brennan, Leo Wolf, and Joe Hannan helped Nova finish second nationally in scoring margin (17.1) and ranked 11th in the country for coach Alex Severance.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Winter Wonderin'

Nothing like a new year and a resolution to get me back into making the time for blogging about all things Philly sports….

Sooooo, let’s see what I missed over the last three weeks. Only that the Eagles rose from the dead to become the fourth straight Philadelphia team to make the postseason. The last time all four Philly teams made the playoffs was 1981, which followed the magical 1980 season when all four reached their sport’s championship game.

How unlikely was the Eagles flight to a Wild Card game against the Vikings Sunday? Who didn’t laugh when coach Andy Reid said after the Cincinnati game that a tie would help them more than a loss would with their playoff chances? To quote Jim Mora: “Playoffs?????”

No one gave the Eagles a shot at the postseason after that game or the next, a 36-7 beatdown by Baltimore that put the Eagles at 5-5-1 and McNabb on the bench for the second half. But the NFL has been crazy this year, which helped the Eagles’ cause, sometimes more than their own play.

Here’s an example of just how topsy-turvy it’s been: Before the season, the two teams with the longest odds to win the Super Bowl were the Miami Dolphins (250-1) and the Atlanta Falcons (200-1). The preseason favorites were the New England Patriots (2-1) and the Dallas Cowboys (7-1). The Dolphins and Falcons are in the playoffs, the Patriots and Cowboys are out.

Some overly hopeful Eagle optimists are comparing the Eagles’ stretch run to the Phillies’ own hot ride, and forecasting great things in the playoffs. Not me.

The only similarity to this point: both teams won 80 percent of their last games. The Phillies went 24-6 down the stretch, including the playoffs, while the Eagles have won four of their last five.

But in doing so, the Phillies won their division and benefited by having home-field advantage through the first two rounds of the playoffs. The wild-card-winning Eagles have to hit the road against the Vikings, with two more potential road games ahead.

This Eagles team also isn’t like last year’s Giants, who won 11 straight road games on the way to the title. The Eagles this year are a measly 3-4-1—on merit.

One other not-so-minor detail about the Phillies/Eagles comparison that doesn’t work. When Cole Hamels was on the mound, four of the nine Phillies starters were legitimate MVP/Cy Young candidates (Hamels, Jimmy Rollins, Ryan Howard, Chase Utley).

The Eagles have one possible MVP-caliber player, if he’s healthy (Brian Westbrook) and a few others among the best at their positions (Asante Samuel, Brian Dawkins, Trent Cole). With just four of 22 starters among the best at their position, this is not a team stacked with superstars.

Actually, if there’s any hope for the Eagles—and any team that optimists can hope the Eagles will resemble—it rests with the Eagles’ defense, which makes the team look a little bit like the Super Bowl champion 2000 Baltimore Ravens (if you squint and don’t look too hard).

During the Eagles’ 4-1 streak, the defense has scored more touchdowns (3) than it has allowed (2). The Eagles’ defense led the NFC in points allowed, total yards, and passing yards, and is second in rushing yards, and receiving yards.

The 2000 Ravens’ defense was a monster, led by AP defensive player of the year linebacker Ray Lewis. They set NFL records for fewest points allowed in a 16-game season (165; the 2008 Eagles have allowed 289), and fewest rushing yards allowed (970; the Eagles have given up 1,476).

What makes the comparison to those Ravens a little more fitting are the oddities. The Ravens, like the Eagles were 5-4 at one point, and both starting quarterbacks were benched mid-season. (The Ravens sat Tony Banks for Trent Dilfer and didn’t go back to Banks.) The Ravens also were a wild-card team, though at 12-4, they got to host a first-round game.

The bottom line: The Eagles defense will probably lead the team to a first-round win and will help keep things close in the second round against the Giants. But that’s about it—and even that is more than this inconsistent team deserves.