The Beginning and The End

For the Rangers, tonight marks the start of the NHL Playoffs. For the Knicks, tonight marks the first day of the offseason. Let’s delve into both.

The Rangers have won eight playoff series over the last four seasons, but they haven’t hoisted a Stanley Cup. That ties a “record’ held by the Bruins of the late 1980’s for most playoff series wins without a Cup- ugh. They absolutely can win this year, but they made it more difficult by beating Detroit on Saturday. If they had lost that game, they would have opened the playoffs in Florida and assuming a victory there, played the winner of the Detroit-Tampa series. Now they have to beat the Penguins in Round 1 and probably face the best team in the NHL, Washington, in Round 2.

It won’t be easy, but it comes down to a simple formula for them. Lundqvist, Lundqvist, and more Lundqvist. If he is on top of his game, the Rangers will be a very tough team to play. If he isn’t, if he plays like he has the past few weeks, this will be a very quick playoff appearance.

*****

Then there are the Knicks and we can actually look at their season with some good feelings. For one, they weren’t the disaster they were last year. 32-50 is nothing to brag about, but when it comes on the heels of a 17-65 season it represents progress. Two, Kristaps Porzingas looks like a cornerstone player.

They are going to need more and that’s where Phil Jackson is going to have to earn his paycheck. I think that the easiest route to respectability is trading Carmelo for a lottery pick this year, stinking next year for another lottery pick, and using your major cap room after the 2016-17 season to round out the roster. I can’t tell what the team is going to do. Part of me thinks Anthony is going to force his way out of here, but part of me suspects that the Knicks won’t part with him because he gives them the illusion of competitiveness. I hope I am wrong about that because Anthony is on the decline and by the time Porzingas is all that he can be, Anthony will be a role player at best.

Stay tuned.

Losses Ranked

After last night I tried to come up with the worst losses I have suffered as a sports fan. This is called catharsis.

1- Game 5 1995 ALDS- So many things make this the worst starting with the fact that the Yankees had the series in hand the day before when they jumped out to a 5-0 lead in Game 4. They blew that and then came into the 11th inning of this game with a one-run lead. Three batters later the game and the series were over.

2- 2002 NFL Playoffs- Start with the fact that the Giants led 38-14 with less than five minutes to go in the third quarter, but then consider this. The 49ers rally and cut the lead to 38-30 with two TD’s and two 2-point conversions. They then kick a field goal to make it 38-33, but the Giants drive deep into SF territory only to miss a field goal on a bad snap.

Then things really got nutty. The 49ers drive down and score a TD, but the 2-point conversion fails. The Giants have a minute left and get into position for a 42-yard field goal to win the game. Bad snap #2 ensues and the Giants have the heave the ball downfield in desperation. Everyone in the world sees the Giants’ receiver get tackled before the ball arrives and the flag on the play. But, the call is ineligible man down field and the game is over. The following day the NFL apologized to the Giants because the player flagged as ineligible had in fact checked in and was eligible and for missing the obvious pass interference call. <sigh>

3- Game 3 1980 ALCS- George Brett off of Goose Gossage, tears flowed.

4- Game 5 2004 ALCS- What people forget about this game, which went 14 innings, is how many times the Yankees bent, but didn’t break as the extra innings progressed. Made it that more painful when things finally ended.

5- Villanova 77 UNC 74. The cruel part of this game was the fact that it was “over” with a few minutes left. UNC trailed by 10 and had no shot. But Marcus Paige refused to accept that and hit one of the craziest three-pointers you will ever see with 4.7 seconds left. But then….

6 and 7- Games 1+2 2014 Stanley Cup- Both games see the Rangers up 2-0 early. Both games see LA storm back. Both games go to extra time. Both games end with LA winning.

8- Game 5 2011 ALDS- I saw this one in person and I will never forget the quiet after the game ended.

9- 1989 NFL Playoffs- Rams come behind in the 4th quarter to tie the game and then win the coin toss in OT. Flipper Anderson catches a pass, gets to the end zone, runs down the tunnel, and disappears.

10- Games 1 and 7 1995 NBA Semifinals- Pick your poison. Game 1 is Reggie Miller’s “8 points in 9 seconds” where the Knicks blow a 6-point lead over the final 18. Game 7 is Patrick Ewing missing a layup at the buzzer and the Knicks losing their first ever Game 7 at home.

Honorable Mention- 2002 Olympic Hockey Finals- The 1980 Men’s Team lights the torch and you can feel the gold medal finally coming back to U.S. soil. The 2002 team beats the Russians in the semis, just like 1980, and then gets bombed by Canada on home ice to lose the gold medal.

 

The Agony

There are so many things I want to say about that game, but picture the Britt household tonight. Nate Britt, Carolina’s junior guard just lost the National Championship. That’s because Britt’s adopted brother, Kris Jenkins, hit the game-winning shot for Villanova. I still can’t wrap my head around that.

I said before the game that Villanova would win if they shot 71% again. They came close- 58%. And while Jenkins’ shot will get all of the attention, Villanova’s defense has to be given the ultimate credit. They kept Carolina out of the paint and forced them to become a perimeter team. UNC rose to the challenge, and almost won a game where they shot 43% overall, because they converted 67% from behind the arc.

I will never forget the final image of Marcus Page. Page has meant so much to UNC the past four years, not only on the court, but off of it as an Academic All-American. He hit the tying shot, then watched the winner go in and burst into tears.

I know how he feels.

Finals Time

So the truth is that if Villanova shoots 71% from the field tonight like they did Saturday, they are going to win the game. That is just an amazing night from the field. But assuming they don’t match that performance, they will have their hands full.

Quite simply, UNC is very hard to stop. If you watched the Syracuse game, when was the last time before it that you saw a team playing a zone lose from the inside-out? Teams attacking a zone usually have to hit jumpers to pull the zone out and then pound it inside against a spread-out defense. Carolina flipped that script, pounding the ball inside repeatedly and easily.

That’s going to be the script tonight for Carolina. Get it inside to Meeks and Johnson, control the glass, and watch good things happen. I think they will, and I predict a sixth banner raised to the rafters of the Dean Dome this fall.

Is It Midnight?

Syracuse has shocked pretty much everyone by reaching the Final Four as a number 10 seed. This on the heels of barely squeaking into the tournament. The question now is, can they complete their Cinderella run?

I picked UNC to win it all, and I see no reason to change that prediction now. These two schools have played twice in some pretty unique circumstances and both times UNC won. Game 1 was in Syracuse on the night that Jim Boeheim returned from his 9-game suspension. The Carrier Dome was rocking and Syracuse held a six-point lead with about 8 minutes to play. That’s when UNC first flashed their ability to go on runs this season, stepping up and closing out the game on a 34-17 roll.

The second time these two met was ironically the start of the Heels’ current winning streak. On Senior Night in Chapel Hill, and with the Duke game looming, UNC played distracted basketball and let Syracuse hang around and hang around. It almost cost them at the end, but they pulled it out thanks to some nifty work by Joel Berry.

One thing that Syracuse has shown in both games is the ability to rebound fairly well against UNC- no mean feat. That could be significant, but only if UNC lets Syracuse stay in the game. If they pound the ball into Johnson, Meeks, and Hicks, they could quickly turn this into a blowout. I don’t think it will go quite that far, but I wouldn’t be surprised by a “comfortable” win.

As for the other game, I am going to pick Villanova. I saw them in person for their first two games and came away impressed by their athleticism. They made a solid team in Iowa look terrible on Sunday, dominating them by over 30 points for most of the second half. They went to their regional and upset Kansas. I have a ton of respect for Buddy Hield, and I think he is the best player in the game, but I don’t think Oklahoma has enough besides him.

So I think we have a Villanova-UNC matchup Monday Night. Two teams that have met in the tourney more than a few times, and in the Final Four just seven years ago.

Basketball in Brooklyn

I went to a four-of-the six games this weekend in Brooklyn and had a great time. A few comments and observations on the Barclays Center’s NCAA Tournament debut.

1- The entrance lines are ridiculous. I get the security, but make more lines, open more doors, get more guards screening people. It took me over half an hour to clear security and get to my seat. This isn’t an airport, fix it.

2- The upper deck is the red-headed step child of the arena. That’s ok, the views are still very good even if the concourses are too narrow. But, you have to open the stairwells and allow people to use them to get up and down. Two escalators only going in one direction and a few scattered elevators are not enough to allow fans to travel up and down.

3- I like the policy of not allowing fans to get back to their seats while the game is in progress, but you have to announce that policy and make it known. Way too many fans getting needlessly upset over a good idea.

As for the games, saw two great ones and two terrible ones. Villanova absolutely destroyed both UNC Asheville and Iowa. I still don’t buy the Big East (notice what happened to their tourney champion Seton Hall?) but Nova was really impressive this weekend. Iowa-Temple on Friday was a great game with lots of sad Temple fans after overtime. Kudos to Iowans for traveling in numbers to support their team. And the Notre Dame-SFA game today was the best of all, so close to a major upset.

Assuming Barclays can fix the entrance issues and flow between floors, I think the tourney can really succeed there. Hopefully, it will be back soon.

March Madness Picks

I am a Tar Heel and that means I am very, very biased about the upcoming tournament. My heart tells me that they are going to win it all. Problem is, my head is in agreement. So, I am going to overrule  my head and make a different pick below just to try and be objective.

“Heart” Final Four- UNC, Kansas, Michigan State, Oklahoma with UNC beating Kansas in the finals.

“Head’ Final Four- Kentucky, Kansas, UVA, Oklahoma with Kansas beating UVA in the finals.

I truly believe that UNC is the best team in the country. But Kentucky is the best 4 seed in the tourney and should have been ranked higher. They could beat them.  Kansas is right there too. UVA can beat anyone and while they are getting crushed in the press for a #1 seed, they came pretty close to beating UNC last night and Malcolm Brogdon is a joy to watch. Buddy Hield is a name you will know before March is over, watch out for him and OU, I think they are far and away the best team in the West.

Thursday and Friday are two of my favorite days of the sports calendar and I will be attending Friday’s games in person. I can’t wait.

 

Spending Spree

The Giants are going into free agency spending like drunken sailors. They started by bringing back JPP on a one-year deal. I actually think this was a smart move as it is an incentive-laden contract and JPP clearly hadn’t lost a step last year. If the doctors can figure out a way for him to play without the heavy wrap on his hand, he could become a dominant force again and a bargain.

Then the Giants went bonkers, handing out massive contracts to Olivier Vernon, Damon Harrison, and Janoris Jenkins. Let’s put Jenkins aside for a minute and talk about Vernon and Harrison, probably the two best defensive free agents outside of Von Miller available. There is no question they will help, and they will help where the Giants really need it- on the front four. But, they are paying the two of them about $25-million a season for that help. That’s crazy money and shows you how desperate Jerry Reese is to keep his job.

And they also added Jenkins, possibly a better player than the guy he replaces, Amukamura, but not necessarily, and at another huge cost- $12 million per. Add up all the spending and the Giants have doled out over $200-million (over $100-million guaranteed) for four players. We will have to see how all the cap hits play out in terms of bonuses, etc., but they still have some pressing needs- Safety, WR2, Offensive Line, and linebacker. How much is left to cover those?

All the spending is ironic because the three new guys all came from the 2012 Draft class. The Giants failed miserably in the draft. David Wilson, their first pick, had to retire from football after 114 carries. Ruben Randle was enigmatic at best in his years as the second wide receiver. Jayron Hosely was a pretty bad cornerback. Adrien Robinson never saw the field, Brandon Mosely barely saw it, and Matt McCants never did either. Markus Kuhn, their final pick, is probably their best, starting 11 games on the defensive line and recording 1.5 sacks.

And that’s the real problem this team has, way too little talent being acquired through the draft. They have done a better job recently, but this spending spree can be traced directly to the disastrous 2012 draft. To me it is also indicative of a GM who knows he needs to turn things around now or lose his job. I can’t blame ownership for making Reese feel like his job is on the line, but it is also their job to rein him in. Hopefully, his spending spree works and makes the Giants better, but with all of the guaranteed money he has handed out the Giants could have problems down the line and headaches for their next GM.

Wait Until Next Year

Last night St. Francis lost their opening game of the Northeastern Conference Tournament meaning that they will remain one of the five original D1 teams to have never made the NCAA Tournament. The other four teams- Army, Citadel, Northwestern, and William&Mary, are still in the running for a spot, though their chances are not great.

Army is ranked 4th in the Patriot League Tournament with a home game tonight against #5 Colgate. If they win that game, they probably have to go play #1 Bucknell on the road.

The Citadel is the lowest ranked team in the Southern League Tournament starting tonight. They will need to win four games in four nights to make the tourney.

Northwestern could finish as high as 9th in the Big 10, but that would mean four wins in four nights to make the tourney. If they fall to 11th, that would increase to five wins in five nights.

William&Mary is the #5 seed in the CAA meaning they will open on the road at James Madison. Assuming they win that, they will probably face the #1 seed, Hofstra to get to the conference finals.

So the odds are not good that any of the remaining four will finally make the tourney this year. But the beauty of college basketball is that they all have a chance.

Can We All Get Our Money Back?

I have to give Carmelo Anthony credit for this one, he told a heckler last night to ask Knicks owner, Jim Dolan, for his money back.  That’s both funny and bold.

Unfortunately, it is also a grim indicator of just how badly things have been going for the Knicks this century. Since the calendar hit 2000, the Knicks have finished above .500 four times, made the playoffs five times, and won a grand total of one playoff series. At this point the question should be why would anyone give the Knicks money in the first place?

I suspect we are on the verge of some more major changes. I don’t think Dolan is going to take all of this lying down. Phil Jackson will probably go, Anthony will probably be traded away, a new coach and GM will be brought in. The championship drought will continue.

 

 

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