A little something to put you in the mood...
With the kickoff of college football season exactly 1 month from today (for the majority of D-I schools), a heart-pumping, head-banging, goosebump-inducing video montage just felt appropriate. If you have 4 minutes to kill today, I suggest this as a wise use of that time. The following are just some of the best plays, moments, and images from the last decade of college football. I dare you to watch this and NOT feel like grabbing a ball and running somone over. Enjoy... And bring on the season!!
Reason #0 for loving Oklahoma City Thunder basketball:
Seriously, that's your point guard?
Unorthodox as they come, Russell Westbrook became an All-Star in his 3rd NBA season, forming a more than formidable 1-2 tandem along 2X league scoring champ, Kevin Durant. At 6'3", with a neck-breaking speed, explosive hops, and an ever expanding offensive repertoire, Westbrook averaged 21.9 points, 8.2 assists, and 4.6 rebounds per game last season. He was named All-NBA 2nd team after helping guide OKC to the Western Conference Finals. Oh yeah, and he's 22 years old.
Late into the playoffs, as Oklahoma City gained national visibility, Westbrook became a media whipping boy, particularly after Thunder losses. Because of his propensity to try to score just as much, if not more, at times, than superstar teammate Durant, Westbrook drew wide criticism for shooting too much, instead of looking to facilitate. At times, Westbrook appeared almost bullishly defiant in his insistence to create his own shots. Despite it, coaches and teammates -- most particularly Durant -- stood by their PG. This dynamic will be the most intriguing to watch, whenever the next NBA season is, because of the perception Oklahoma City is close to championship caliber, while Westbrook plays out the final year of his rookie deal. Will the young star's play be geared towards his team's success. or will he play to suit his personal potential in order to attract a maximum salary that would make his departure from Oklahoma nearly imminent?
Regardless, young Russell Westbrook will be a big star to watch for the foreseeable future. For copious RussyWest highlights, here's the link.
College Football in June: A Preview with "The Guru" Phil Steele
One of the great pleasures of living and working within the sports broadcasting world is some of the really terrific people you meet and make contacts with. For the past few weeks, I've enjoyed sitting in and "co-hosting", if you can call it that, a local sports radio talk show -- WRUF 850's "The Blitz" -- in Gainesville, FL. Joe Girvan, a staple of the sports media scene in Gator Country, and a past mentor and good friend, is the host of the show which runs year-round from 1-3 pm. As I've re-discovered these past few weeks, crossing over from TV to radio is no simple transition, no matter how effortless Girvan makes it seem. Nonetheless, it's a fun challenge to take on, and I've always been a strong believer in the more you can do... the better.
It was a pretty good afternoon on "The Blitz". We had 1 guest cancel, but the other more than made up for it. Phil Steele; he of college football guru fame, and his volumes of pre-season publications that annually fly off shelves, joined us for -- what else? -- a preview of this coming season. No surprise to my southern brethren, but for those reading elsewhere-- yes, college football is always a relevant topic of discussion in SEC land, even on June 21st. Even in spite of his reputation as a guru of the sport, Phil Steele is an impressive machine of college football knowledge. The following is a run down of some of the thoughts Phil shared with us for 2011:
Phil likes them to finish 3rd in the SEC East. This is where most have the Gators finishing, behind both Georgia and South Carolina. The lack of dependable talent at certain key positions (wide receiver, secondary, and even quarterback) is one reason for a middle-of-the-pack placement, but maybe even more so, Steele cited the Gators schedule:
"It's another one of these brutal SEC schedules that every team inevitably faces every few seasons. Florida plays just 3 home conference games, and 1 of those is Alabama who I think can go 13-0 and make it 2 national titles in 3 years," Steele said. "I think the talent Florida has coming into this season is very similar to the level we've grown accustomed to seeing in Gainesville, but how the defense responds to switching to a 3-4, and how some of these new guys take to this new, pro-style attack under Charlie Weis are a couple of the biggest questions that need to be answered before I can place Florida any higher."
A couple other notes: Steele does have the Gators linebacker group rated 8th best in the nation. Anchored outside by Jelani Jenkins and inside by Jon Bostic, Florida should have depth throughout the second tier, albeit lacking some experience. Also, regarding the senior QB Brantley, Steele lists him on his Preseason 4th-Team All-SEC. He mentioned he thinks Brantley will "without question be better suited with this year's offense, even despite a spring that was, by all reports, only so-so".
On National Championship Contenders:
As mentioned, "The Guru" is picking Alabama to ring in 2012 with another title. Steele reminded us that last year he predicted Auburn to be 12-0 heading into the BCS bowl season and, of course, that stood as true. He did go on to name some other teams that could be in the mix.
No one should be surprised to learn Oklahoma is a favorite. Steele said while Stanford QB Andrew Luck is thought to be the Heisman favorite, he won't be surprised if the Sooners' Landry Jones passes for as much as 1,000 yards more (somewhere beyond 5,000 yds), and Oklahoma, if they can beat Florida State in Tallahassee on Sept. 17th, ought to go into the bowl season with no more than 1 loss, if they don't manage to run the Big 12 table.
Next, Steele likes Boise State to go undefeated contingent upon their Week 1 opener... a very big "IF" taking on SEC East favorite Georgia between the hedges in Athens. He lists Broncos senior QB Kellen Moore a Heisman favorite, and credits Boise's already-proven ability to handle opening night BCS competition as a reason why if they can get past the Bulldogs, the Broncos should be in the thick of the BCS title game conversation.
Not to be overlooked, Oregon should be considered a serious candidate to return to the title game. Despite some minor off season trouble involving some reckless driving from, and subsequent 1-game suspension for cornerback Cliff Harris, the Ducks return the bulk of a squad that flat wore opponents out last season. Like Boise State, Oregon starts off the year with a banger against LSU (projected 2nd in SEC West) in Dallas, TX. If they can tame the Tigers, Oregon should probably go un-tested until a November 12 visit to Stanford. In Steele's thoughts, "the cavalry is there; it will just come down to a couple of crucial games".
Finally, we all like dark horses, don't we? Phil Steele has an intriguing pick for his potential title team, labeling them as a potential "Auburn of the 2011 season". The Virginia Tech Hokies. The Hokies have a relatively favorable pre-conference schedule (assuming they don't get bit by East Carolina again), then appear to have everything going their way in the ACC. Clemson and Miami at home back-to-back weeks to open the conference, with the toughest road game potentially be at Georgia Tech (6-7 in 2010). Despite losing QB Tyrod Taylor, Steele thinks Tech can find its stride by ACC play -- leaning heavily on a superior defense anchored by junior CB Jayron Hosley (9 INT's last year) -- to go on to face Florida State in the ACC title game. If the Hokies win that game, they may just be in position to stake claim to BCS Championship contention.
On Heisman hopefuls:
When asked about Heisman candidates, Steele immediately said this:
"We all know Andrew Luck of Stanford would've been the #1 pick in the NFL Draft this year, and we all know he will be next year, but that doesn't mean he's the automatic Heisman front runner. A guy I like, who I think has more going for him, in terms of contributing factors to gaining Heisman votes, is Landry Jones of Oklahoma. Again, I think Jones, by the end of the season could have as many as 1,000 more passing yards than Luck, due in large part to a superior cast of wide receivers, and his team will at least be quite a bit better than Stanford, if not undefeated at the time the trophy is awarded. We all know how voters tend to go more with the guy who's led his team to an undefeated season and the brink of the title game."
Aside from OU's Jones, Luck is a consensus front-runner entering the season and should remain one barring something catastrophic. Steele quickly mentioned Kellen Moore, specifically if Boise is unbeaten into December. Alabama running back Trent Richardson should gain a lot more attention this year carrying more of the load with the departure of Mark Ingram. Finally, a pair of receivers -- South Carolina's big target Alshon Jeffery, Oklahoma's speedy one, Ryan Broyles -- could be dark horse, somewhat unconventional positioned candidates of their own to haul in the hardware.
On defending champ Auburn, Florida State, & Miami:
Steele described the undefeated, championship season of Auburn's last year simply as "the perfect storm". He says this year there's just so much to replace, it's completely reasonable to expect Auburn to struggle (in relative terms to last year), and perhaps fall into the "just beyond the Top 25" range. Steele picks the Tigers to finish 6th in the SEC West. "You just can't expect to lose the best offensive player in the league (Cam Newton) and the best defensive player in the league (Nick Fairley) and stay right among the top tier teams," Steele added.
By all accounts, Florida State is a program with a lot of momentum building. We posed the question, "How good can we reasonably expect Florida State to be this year?" and Steele was pretty spot on with our shared opinions:
"I think Florida State has a lot to work with, a great deal of talent being put together by Jimbo Fisher, and I project the Seminoles to play for the ACC Championship. I've heard some recent talk about them possibly being a national title contender, and while I find the optimism exciting, I think that's putting the cart before the horse a bit. Let's see how they perform this year, what they achieve, and with the recruiting job Fisher's staff is doing, it may be fair to address those projections next year."
Finally, for a Miami team that disappointed most in 2010, Steele thinks there's a lot of potential for Al Golden's 1st year in Coral Gables. He stated the biggest question mark -- by far -- is at quarterback. If Jacory Harris, who's had successive seasons of greatness followed by mediocrity, can play a little more sound at the position; a bit more technical and fundamental and rely less on his athleticism, the Hurricanes should be a lot stronger. Combine a more steady QB with a stable of speed and skill that's a year older, and Steele believes Golden could have a team with the potential to be dangerous with some momentum behind them and crash the ACC party in a major way.
One last note about Phil Steele and what REALLY amazed me about this guy. We figured he had prepped a bit ahead of time knowing he was going on radio in a Gator market, so when he rattled off layer after layer of Florida football information, neither Joe nor I was shocked. Switching conferences and teams, to players and team schedules, it just became amazing. This guy, whose name is perennially attached to the sport of college football is like a walking encyclopedia. Or an ENTIRE wikipedia. When I jumped in and asked him about projections for Auburn and Oregon this season, and Steele proceeded to go through each team's schedule, position players, and perceived strengths/weaknesses, I'd heard enough. When you deal with a professional, you know it. Call it obsessive, call it 1-dimensional, call it consumed by relative minutiae, but when you deal with a person who's a master of his/her trade, it's tough not to respect it. Phil Steele... a total pro.
Florida's Donovan, Weis aid Gators passage to Omaha
Kevin O'Sullivan was stunned. A double play from Omaha, Mississippi State slugger Nick Vickerson shocked the Florida coach, along with the rest of his team, with a 2-run blast to steal Game 2 of the NCAA Super Regional, 4-2. Deflated and defeated, the 4th-year skipper conceded Sunday afternoon he thought "things were lined up for us to lose" Game 3 on Sunday. Dispirited, O'Sullivan needed someone to reach out to for a pick-me-up. Turns out, he didn't have to reach very far.
Billy Donovan, the 15-year head coach of the neighboring Florida basketball program provided more than just words of wisdom. He prescribed a plan.
"We never meet as a team after a loss," O'Sullivan said. "Billy thought it would be a good idea to get my team together last night, just to see my face for 10 minutes. I rolled the dice, because you're doing something that you don't normlly do all year, but I took his advice. It was short and sweet, and I thought it helped to let them know that yesterday is gone, and we've got to move forward."
Thanks to junior Preston Tucker's 7th inning, 3-run home run, the Gators took Game 3, 8-6 and are moving forward; to Omaha and the College World Series. After Sunday's sealing win, some of the first words out of O'Sullivan's mouth were a "thanks" to Donovan, as well as new football offensive coordinator, Charlie Weis.
"I think (Donovan) wanted to help. I think he enjoyed being able to offer help, and I'm very, very appreciative of it," O'Sullivan added. "In retrospect, I wish I had done it earlier because there are so many good coaches here. I think if you don't take advantage of talking to coaches who have been there and done that, you're missing the boat."
It wasn't just O'Sullivan who felt the Gators' 10-minute huddle at 7:30 pm Saturday -- some 4-plus hours after Vickerson's bomb left Perry Field -- made a difference. Sophomore catcher Mike Zunino, the 2011 SEC Player of the Year, shared in his coach's belief.
"It definitely helped me," Zunino said. "When you lose a game like that, and get left on your field, you feel down-- You almost feel like you've lost the series right there. But to just go over (to the clubhouse), and know the coaches think the same way you are, and everybody be in there and just kind of squash everything you might be thinking of, and get refocused on the next game, I thought it helped a lot."
In addition to Donovan, O'Sullivan revealed he had also received some "similar advice" from a phone call with Weis. Between the input from the 2, it amounted to a profoundly productive last day.
"I probably learned more about coaching in the last 24 hours than I had in the past 4 years," he said.
Florida v. Mississippi State
Gators 2 wins away from back-to-back trips to Omaha
GAINESVILLE, FL (TAKE 2 SPORTS) - It has come down to this. The University of Florida (48-16) plays host to fellow SEC foe Mississippi State (37-23) in a best-of-3 Super Regional beginning Friday for the road to Omaha. Two wins is all that stands between back-to-back College World Series appearances for the Gators, a team that will be overwhelmingly expected to traverse on to college baseball's final 8.
There is a sense here in Gainesville that the conclusion to this Super has already been written. That the Gators, by way of their league-tying SEC regular season title and first SEC Tournament championship in 20 years, are rightfully destined for Omaha, and beyond. You can feel it in the crawl around campus. You can hear it on the local airwaves. You can sense it in the press-- The intimation that this series against a weaker Bulldog squad is perhaps as much as a foregone conclusion. This is very dangerous thinking.
Two crucial points stand to be decided about this powerful and dynamic Florida baseball team as early as Saturday afternoon, or perhaps as late as Sunday evening. Those who follow the orange and blue will learn whether their team actually has the discipline absolutely neccessary to belong in the conversation of a national championship. Secondly, and don't you dare scoff or turn your head at this-- we will find out whether or not the University of Florida suffers for its pedestrian baseball fan base (I could argue this for any other UF sport not known as "football", but that's for another day).
To the first point, nearly everyone believes Florida is a heavy favorite to advance out of its Super Regional. It only stands to reason. Again, the Gators not only won a share of the regular season conference title, but they claimed the tournament championship as well, beating Mississippi State 7-5 in the process. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs played below .500 in league play at 14-16. However, as well-respected Jackson Clarion Ledger columnist Rick Cleveland wrote yesterday, strange things can happen in the game of baseball. Lack of discipline has the ability to keep any team with the talent to win a title from getting there. For the Gators to advance to the CWS, and indeed compete for the championship there, coach Kevin O'Sullivan's team will have to block out all the praise and expectations, and just play good, sound, winning baseball. If they can do that cleanly, it will bode well for Florida's chances among the last 8 playing.
Secondly, and perhaps somewhat embarrasingly, the lack of proper fan support should be addressed and ought to have been many, many times before this. Last weekend, in a Regional tournament playing critical, deciding games against traditional power Miami, Florida's McKethan Stadium was glaringly devoid of fans. Too many people called, texted, or tweeted me about it. It's been this way for years. This weekend it could catch up to Gator Nation. With the possible exception of LSU, there are few -- if any -- fans in college baseball like those in the State of Mississippi. Mississippi State, in particular, draws an average of 10-12,000 fans per game at Dudy Noble Stadium in Starkville. Florida's McKethan Stadium isn't built to hold two-thirds of that. If UF fans don't come out to fill their home seats (and with back-to-back noon start times in the summer heat on national television), they can expect to surrender their sea of orange-and-blue to waves of maroon. Mississippi State fans will arrive in droves, and if the Dogs bats get hot, or their pitching cools off those of Florida, a noisy, obtrusive, perhaps even cow bell-clanging group of visitors may turn Perry Field into a hostile environment for the home boys.
Two significant questions to be answered if this group of Gators is to achieve what so many believe is well within their capability. First pitch Friday will be noon eastern on ESPN. Game 2 has the same start time, and Game 3, if neccessary, will begin Sunday at 1 pm. The road to Omaha rolls on...
***For info and updates on this weekend's Super Regional and beyond, follow Scott on Twitter at www.twitter.com/SLAPEER***
TOUCHDOWN OF THE YEAR?
A 61-yard touchdown pass may not always immediately grab headlines, or the attention of the average football fan, but what Green Bay WR Donald Driver did to convert the play for 6 points Sunday is truly remarkable. Driver's score, which invloved 38 yards AFTER the catch, eluded 6 would-be 49'ers tacklers, before barreling into the end zone. So... is it the touchdown of the season? How about play of the year?
At 35 years old, Driver is still in the upper echelon of the NFL's most productive wide receivers. While his numbers are dipping slightly this season, he's still one of Aaron Rodgers' go-to guys and a rock on the field, and even more so, in the locker room. A 3-time Pro Bowl'er, Take 2 will take a closer look at Driver in the coming days, and profile one of the more underrated wide outs in recent NFL history.
Fines for Fighting, College Hoops Pyramid, and other passing thoughts...
Tuesday, Nov. 30th
- It's interesting to note how the NFL doles out punishment when it's own backside is potentially on the line. The league handed down a mere $25,000 fine to both Houston's Andre Johnson and Tennessee's Cortland Finnegan for exchanging blows Sunday, mostly those being landed by Johnson. Not coincidentally, the NFL Network's Thursday night game this coming week: Eagles vs. Texans. Translation: the NFL -- owner of the NFL Network -- isn't going to risk viewers ignoring the game minus one of it's biggest stars. FYI: Richard Seymour was fined $25K 1 week prior for slapping Ben Roethlisberger's helmet.
- Watching the random assortment of college hoops games televised this early in the year, it appears the power pyramid is shaped like this: Duke at the top, about 5-6 teams not quite on Duke's level underneath, followed by about 16 more teams with potential, but still a long way to go to get there. A few among the 5-6 group: Kansas State, Ohio State, Washington. A few from the 16-team tier: Florida, San Diego State, Illinois, UConn.
- This is an idea that needs serious consideration- Would it make too much sense for Denny Hamlin to be sponsored by restaurant chain "Denny's"? Think about it: he's one of the sport's best, and there would never be any confusing his car for someone else's. A giant, shining "Denny's" logo on the hood is more meaningful than his current sponsor, FedEx. Something tells me FedEx has just a few more dollars...
- With Boise State biting the dust, it looks very much like an Oregon/Auburn BCS title game is aligning. That being said, over a month ago I said I was rock-solid confident Oregon would win the national championship. Not changing now. Auburn's Gene Chizik is a defensive master, which is about what it's going to take to stop Oregon's unprecedented attack. However, I said it then and I'll say it again... There isn't a defense in the country conditioned well enough to keep up with the Ducks attack. Quack quack, Oregon will be #1.
Gators Rebound Big for 50 point Win
GAINESVILLE, FL (TAKE 2 SPORTS) - With only a single day spacing an 18-point drubbing at the hands of Ohio State and its next home game, Florida put to rest, early, any concern of a hangover effect. The Gators outscored North Carolina A&T 2-to-1 in the game's first 10 minutes, opening up a 26-13 lead that would only increase to an eventual 105-55 win.
With senior Alex Tyus out due to a mild concussion, sophomore forward Erik Murphy got his first career start. Proving worthy of the extra minutes, Murphy went 4-6 from the floor, and perfect from the free throw line to finish with 11 points, 4 rebounds, and a pair of blocks. The double digit scoring total was just a part of one of the most prolific scoring night's of the Billy Donovan era.
Eight Gators finished in double figures. Sophomore Kenny Boynton and senior Chandler Parsons led the way with 16 apiece. The 8 players registering double figure scoring was the most since Florida did it on December 10, 2000 against Florida A&M. Beside Parsons, freshman Casey Prather (12 points) and junior Erving Walker (11 points) each shot 2-4 from three-point range, while freshmen Scottie WIlbekin and Patric Young also had 11, and senior Vernon Macklin added 10 points and 6 rebounds in just 16 minutes.
Aside from the offensive out pour, Florida gave the visiting Aggies fits on defense, causing panic and confusion in transition, and effectively cutting off passing lanes all night. North Carolina A&T turned the ball over 23 times (14 at the half), and shot just 20-58 for 34.5%. Conversely, the orange-and-blue was 57.5% from the field, 40% from three, while spreading the fun around to the tune of 26 total assists.
“It was just important for us to bounce back after the loss we suffered to Ohio State,’’ Parsons said. “It was a good opportunity for us to come and play a team like them, really disruptive, pressing us, flying everywhere."
“Our discipline was a lot better. Our defense was more solid. On the other end, we had a lot less turnovers.’’
While the prolific scoring night grabs the headline, the sidebar from the win would definitely be the official debut of the freshman class. With such a comfortable lead in the 2nd half, Billy Donovan allowed his core of freshmen -- WIlbekin, Young, Prather, and Will Yeguete -- to play a majority of the final 20 minutes, getting plenty of reps running the offense together.
Young, the McDonald's All-American from Jacksonville and most highly touted of the newbies, made his presence felt on the defensive end, using his great size and length to block 2 shots and come away with 4 steals.
But it's Wilbekin, the 17-year old Gainesville native who graduated high school early to begin college this year, who looks to have the most trust from Donovan early on. The 6'2" guard logged more minutes than any Gator Thursday night with 31, and is already essentially the back-up point guard and first or second player off the bench. He also dished out 6 assists and grabbed 3 rebounds.
Meanwhile, and maybe even more important to Florida's success this year, was the arrival of Prather and Yeguete. You could literally see the 2 get more comfortable, and thus better, with each trip down the court. Prather scored 12 points in the game's final half, displaying a nice catch-and-shoot ability, plus the skill to move in transition and convert on the run. What Yeguete did was maybe most impressive. At 6'8", Yeguete flashed a knack for the loose ball, and a penchant for doing the dirty work. He finished the game with 7 points and 15 rebounds (most rebounds in a game from a UF freshman since Al Horford's 18 vs. Alabama in 2005), with 9 of those boards coming on the offensive end.
An easy bounce back win certainly helps Florida's psyche, however, the extended time and experience for the 4 freshmen is invaluable if the Gators hope to have the kind of depth late in the season needed to make various title runs.
Florida (2-1) next hosts Morehead State on Sunday at 3:30 pm in the O'Connell Center.
For all Florida basketball updates and info, follow Scott at www.twitter.com/SLAPEER
Buckeyes Buck Up in Gainesville, Trounce Gators
GAINESVILLE, FL (Take 2 Sports) - In an early season battle between #4 Ohio State and #9 Florida, the Buckeyes showed not just the Gators, but everyone, there's a much bigger difference between the 5 spots in the AP Poll that separated the two.
Trailing by 3 at halftime, Ohio State made 24 of 34 field goals in the final 20 minutes, including 5 straight 3's in one stretch, en route to an early decision blowout at the O'Connell Center.
In just his second collegiate game, highly touted freshman Jared Sullinger lived up his billing, and then some. The 6'9" big man was dominant down low, scoring 26 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Last year Ohio State All-American Evan Turner said Sullinger might not just be this year's Big 10 Freshman of the Year, he could be the conference Player of the Year. Turner could be right.
The Gators tried nearly everyone, but a combination of Alex Tyus, Vernon Macklin, Patric Young, and Erik Murphy did little to combat Sullinger's sheer size and strength. Sullinger shot 13-17 from the floor, with many of those buckets coming on easy 2nd half dunks and layups after the Buckeyes continuously shredded the Florida press.
After ending up on the wrong end of a 21-point swing in the game's final 20 minutes, Florida coach Billy Donovan had no shortage of praise for his opponents.
"Ohio State has a better chance of being a better team this year than they did a year ago," Donovan said. "Evan Turner's a great player, the player of the year in the country and they won 29 games and did a great job." "But when you have that kind of player, you really kind of become a little more one-dimensional. They are a complete team that probably has a chance to do a little more this season because there's going to be a lot more balance to their team."
Redshirt senior David Lighty was equal the assassin as Sullinger, repeatedly beating the smaller Gator guards off the dribble to finish near the rim. Lighty went 9-11 from the field (6-7 from the free throw line) to also add 26 points.
After a red-hot 1st half, Florida fell flat in the 2nd, with only sophomore guard Kenny Boynton providing substantial offense. Boynton went 5-8 from beyond the arc to finish with a team-high 21 points.
Florida (1-1) will re-coup before facing North Carolina A&T on Thursday night. Ohio State (2-0) moves on to next play UNC-Wilmington Saturday back in Columbus.
Scott's Thoughts: (A mixed bag of thoughts, comments, observations, etc.)
* First and foremost, Sullinger answered all questions about whether or not the freshman is "The Real Deal". He is. If he so chooses, Sullinger will easily be a 1st round NBA Draft pick next June, if not a lottery selection.
* The biggest difference in the game, at least to these trained eyes, was the complete failure of the full court press in the 2nd half. Donovan, perhaps against his own good sense, insisted on applying pressure from the inbound, while the Buckeyes had little, to no trouble at all breaking it, then whipping the ball around until they found the wide open man for an easy jumper, layup, or dunk. Because of the relative ease with which they broke the press, Florida was always 1 man out of place defending its own hoop, and left, more often than not, with its collective head spinning, followed by a "swish".
* While the Gators may be improved in size this year, they still lack a "true" big man, ala Sullinger. Vernon Macklin, in particular, displayed an improved presence around the hoop, but even as Florida's starting center, he's not enough to bang with a dominant big. Same goes for Tyus, Murphy, and Young.
* Speaking of Young, the McDonald's All-American from Jacksonville is an impressive specimen at first sight. For those who can recall, he reminds a lot of Donnell Harvey, when Harvey arrived on campus in 1999-2000. Incredible physical tools, but very, very raw offensively. At this exact point however, Harvey had a greater impact on each game than Young is.
* You might call it nit-picking, but there was an evident lack of passion down the stretch from Florida. Sounds like a small thing, but trust me, to a coaching staff it can be instances such as these (not fighting through screens and surrendering easy baskets, pulling up while chasing down a fast-breaking opponent instead of contesting a shot or committing a hard foul) that can be most disconcerting.
* While you will never hear me question the heart of point guard Erving Walker, the brain is a different matter. Walker can be electric offensively, particularly from distance (5-7 fgs, 15 pts), but he often plays as though he's too stubborn to accept he's only 5'8". His 7 turnovers is a perfect example of instances in which he ought to play it smart and safe, but instead drives the lane where he has a tendency to get stuck below the timber, sometimes leaving his feet even to pass with no sure outlet.
* It's pretty amazing to realize freshman point guard Scottie Wilbekin is only 17 and should be a high school senior this year. He's definitely serviceable and will get quality minutes backing up Walker and Boynton, but much like Young, he's still very much a work in progress.
* Just my opinion, but you can't tell me the Buckeyes' David Lighty wasn't playing with a little more spite and passion than any other night. The lone player left on either roster from the 2007 national championship game between the 2 schools, Lighty clapped and gestured emphatically down the stretch when the Rowdy Reptiles directed some less than flattering chanting at him. Considering how poorly he played in the Georgia Dome against UF as a freshman, torching the Gators for 26, and pretty much scoring at will had to be pretty gratifying.
* Before the season began I privately predicted a minimum Sweet 16 finish for Florida this year, with a Final 4 ceiling. There's a lot of basketball to be played, but right now I'm awfully tempted to lower that ceiling to Sweet 16.
Reminder: You can follow Scott on twitter all season long (www.twitter.com/SLAPEER) for all things Gators hoops including live, in-game updates.
Nashville Mourns McNair as Hero, Son
The history of the Tennessee Titans is neither especially long, nor storied.
They arrived by way of Houston, as the "Oilers", in 1997. The Tennessee Oilers played their first season in the Volunteer State in Memphis. The next year, they relocated to Nashville, and actually played in a college stadium for 1 year, at Vanderbilt. Finally, in 1999, the Oilers became the "Titans", and moved into their present day 68,798 seat stadium. Through all the changes in cities, stadiums, team names, logos, players, and records, 1 thing was constant-- #9.
Steve McNair was drafted 3rd overall by the Houston Oilers in 1995. Much to the blessing and good fortune of all Tennessee, the Oilers, and their blossoming quarterback, fell into the valley of the Smokie Mountains just years later. It was love at first sight.
Last week, I was in Nashville, at LP Field, home of the Titans. It was the 2nd of a 2-day public memorial for Steve McNair, who was found murdered not a week earlier in a condo just a 3-minute drive from the stadium. The state capitol may be known as the "Music City", but from a sports perspective, it's all Titans, all the time. You have to realize, in Tennessee there are 3 professional sports franchises-- the Grizzlies, Predators, and Titans. Of the 3, only 1 - the Titans - have done anything to pull folks together from Chattanooga to Memphis. The Titans are the state's 1st pro team, and their quarterback... Oh, that Steve McNair... he was their 1st love.
For 2 days, folks from all over the state and even beyond its borders shuffled in and out of LP Field. Over 4,500 on Wednesday. Over 6,000 on Thursday. Their love, respect, and deep appreciation for a quiet but strong young man from the dirt-poor farms of South Mississippi evident in the numbers. Women cried as they admired the mosaic that encapsulated Steve's career. I saw an elderly man's eyes well momentarily while viewing the near 30-minute video tribute that was looped for 2 days on the stadium's giant scoreboards. Talking with so many people for hours that day, it became clear-- Steve McNair was that city's, and even that state's, athletic pride and joy. Their beacon of NFL relevance.
Also, it should be noted (because it struck me while spending a 9-7 day in and around the stadium) that McNair held a special significance within Nashville, and Tennessee's, black population. We should never forget that Steve McNair, to this point, has done as much or more than any other single player in the history of the NFL in shaping the way the general public views a black quarterback. Before he was a pro, "Air II" was a southern sensation at Alcorn State, a historically black NCAA D-I AA college. Because black folks saw him win games and an MVP award on the field, and fans and respect from all races off it, he was a very special man. The majority of tears I saw in Nashville fell from the eyes of African-Americans, and this is no coincidence. McNair was a man they should have been made proud by, and they have every right to feel the special connection to them they did, and still do.
Jama Richardson drove over an hour from Kentucky to, as she put it, "Just pay my respects to Steve".
"With Steve, yeah, he might have had to do his thing from time-to-time in the last 2 minutes to pull us out of a bind, but it was never about him. It was always about the team. He pulled this team together. Because of the way he played and all the wonderful things he gave and did in the community, he will be missed. He will be sadly missed," Richardson said while struggling to hold back tears.
From one side of the city to the other, its loss was evident. A sign with the message "WE WILL ALWAYS LOVE YOU STEVE!" hung just outside the fence of Sylvan Park Elementary School on Knob Rd. The local Community Bank just off the west bank of the Cumberland River flashed "R.I.P. # 9.... Thanks For The Memories". And of course, "Steve McNair's Gridiron9", the ex-QB's newly opened restaurant, remained a make-shift public memorial site.
As a 26-year old, McNair took the Titans to the Super Bowl and single-handedly drove them to within 1 yard of a championship. Many forget, but the Titans would never have even reached that excruciating length if not for McNair completing what has to be one of the most incredible scramble-and-completions in Super Bowl history. Despite falling short, Nashville fell head-over-heels in love with its franchise, and McNair - the first FACE of the franchise - tightly embracing him with its collective arms. Just a decade later, at 36, its son suddenly laid dead, in those same arms, while a wounded city unexpectedly, yet ultimately, was forced to let him go.
PLAYING THROUGH PAIN... IN THE NAME OF STANLEY
Every year while watching the Stanley Cup Finals, I think back to 1983. Not because I was cognizant enough to remember those playoffs, (I was 2) but because of something I read a long time ago that holds true to the NHL playoffs no matter what era of hockey we'll ever be in. After getting swept from the Cup Finals, 4-0, Wayne Gretzky, years later would recall this moment as a crucial turning point in his career, and the franchise of the Edmonton Oilers...
Gretzky's story went as such: Leaving the arena, The Great One and teammate Kevin Lowe were forced to exit past the victorious New York Islanders' dressing room. The door was wide open. Gretz, just as he did his entire career, saw what was developing ahead of time and reacted accordingly. He braced himself emotionally, expecting to hear loud celebrating, and witness champagne shooting across the room as Mike Bossy and Co. sloshed bubbly from the Cup. Instead, while walking past, he rubbernecked out of morbid curiosity, and what he saw shocked him-- Islanders players slumped in their stalls, some lying on the floor, fatigue draped over their worn, exhausted faces. He saw players with wraps and casts in places he never knew they were ailing. Right then and there, Gretzky said, he realized what it took to become a Stanley Cup champion: Perseverance, mental toughness, and a whole lot of pain.
Fast forward to 2009, and the same is true, and always will be. With all respect to every other team sport, no post-season is as physically and mentally demanding as professional hockey's. It's not even close. A team can potentially play a max of 28 games in order to hoist Lord Stanley. That's roughly a third of a regular season, before you figure in multiple overtimes that don't end until somebody scores. In a game as physically taxing as hockey, battling through that type of grind, injury WILL happen.
Every year following the playoff's end, teams reveal their post-season injury report. It often reads like a comprehensive list from a hospital's emergency room patients on a busy night. During the playoffs, teams are purposely vague on player's injuries, normally relegating each under 1 of 2 laughable categories: Upper body or lower body injury. When you find out what some of these actually are, the reaction is similar to stepping on a rusty nail (definitely a lower body injury).
Of the multitude of injuries players endured throughout the playoffs, (concussions, sprained and partially torn knees, sprained or fractured wrists, broken nose, separated shoulders, the list goes on...) 2 in particular nearly triggered my gag reflex.
Detroit captain Nicklas Lidstrom missed the final 3 games of the Western Conference Finals with an undisclosed injury. Turns out what ailed the 6-time Norris Trophy winner was, well, a "private" issue. Lidstrom had been speared in the testicles in Game 3, PRACTICED THE NEXT DAY!!, but on May 24th, underwent emergency surgery on his testes to relieve swelling and hemorrhaging. According to Lidstrom, the doctor asked him ahead of time if he had any kids or planned on having anymore. He couldn't guarantee him there wouldn't be 1 of something where 2 used to be. A lot of young people commonly use the expression, "I'd give my left nut to (fill in the blank)!!". Lidstrom almost literally did for a shot a shot at his 5th Cup.
Not quite as gruesome, forward Dan Cleary toughed through something I have a hard time wrapping my brain around. It was revealed the Newfoundland native had been playing with 2 partial tears in his groin. I merely pulled my groin once and could hardly walk to the toilet! I can't imagine skating, stride after powerful stride, with that kind of pain. Cleary skated every game of the playoffs and finished with 15 points.
And yet neither of these guys, nor Pavel Datsyuk (fractured foot), Brian Rafalski (herniated disc and separated shoulder), or Kris Draper (stick to the throat, groin) got to raise the Cup. Pittsburgh, amid a gutsy, resilient Finals surge, swooped in and, undoubtedly, limped off with the prize. While their details weren't disclosed, rest assured the Pens' battle toll, testicles aside, was of similar length.
Saying it takes "sacrifice" to win the Stanley Cup somehow just doesn't say enough.
University of Florida Spring Football Game
Reporting locally for the moment, I got an opportunity to roam the sidelines Saturday at Florida Field for the Gators annual Orange & Blue Spring game. Always a thrill for me anyway, as fate would have it, it was a great chance to gather some insight into the defending national champions huddle. Below, now, some sights and sounds from Gainesville--
- First and foremost, coach Urban Meyer made a move out of caution-- Meyer gave his 11 returning defensive starters the day off. Headlined by All-American LB Brandon Spikes, the Gators 1st-team D didn't even touch the field for a single series.
- Backing that move was the fact that Florida -- thankful it was Spring rather than Fall -- experienced a fairly injury-riddled Spring session. Center Maurkice Pouncey was ruled out after undergoing surgery on an injured shoulder. Twin brother, Mike, also missed the game with a shoulder injury. Defensive linemen Carlos Dunlap and Lawrence Marsh both underwent abdominal surgery in the days preceding the game. Freshman cornerback Janoris Jenkins was inactive (sprained finger).9 other Gators were held out including guard James Wilson ( foot), return specialist Brandon James (ankle), linebacker Brandon Hicks (shoulder), freshman tight end Desmond Parks (sprained knee), D-lineman Justin Trattou (shoulder), receiver David Nelson (ankle), and running back Emmanuel Moody (hand). Receiver Riley Cooper (baseball) and running back Jeff Demps (track) also missed most of Spring playing other sports. That's the bad news...
- The good news, if you're a Gator, is Florida appears to be loaded with up-coming talent at some of the primary "speed" positions. This appears especially true at WR, where the departure of playmaker Percy Harvin and senior Louis Murphy may have been cause for some concern. 3 young receivers stood out, and may be making a push for playing time. Redshirt freshmen Frankie Hammond, Jr. and T.J. Lawrence enjoyed big days. Hammond, Jr. led all wideouts with 4 catches for 131 and 2 TD's, including a 50-yd snag and scamper on the 2nd play of the 2nd half. Lawrence showed solid hands grabbing 5 balls for 59 yds. In addition, Deonte Thompson, a rising sophomore who dressed with the starters (Blue Team), made 4 catches for 44 yds.
- 2 national titles in 3 years will do this-- Florida enjoyed the presence of a Spring game-record 65,000 fans at Ben Hill Griffin. They even teamed up for a pretty solid "Orange!...... Blue!" chant from opposing sides of the stadium early in the 2nd half.
- With Moody sidelined, a running back who took advantage of extra touches was redshirt-junior Christopher Scott. Carrying in roles for both teams, Scott led all Gator backs with 80 yds and showed a capable push after first impact.
- Tim Tebow was Tim Tebow. He did a little bit of everything, as per usual. He ran 3 times for 21 yds, completed 7 of 9 throws for 83 yds and a TD, and basically enjoyed a casual walk-through in The Swamp. I may be wrong, but I believe he only played a series in the 3rd qtr before taking the rest of the afternoon off.
- The afternoon, however, belonged to Tebow's understudy, John Brantley. Now, without question, Florida's 2nd QB, Brantley showcased a lot. He passed for 265 yds and 3 TD's, and ran for another 2 scores. One TD run, in particular, was for 15 yds to close out the 2nd qtr, and looked most "game-relevant". The Ocala native did much to further his coaches' confidence in his ability to manage a game should the unthinkable (and unmentionable!) ever happen.
- Jonathan Phillips will return to kick field goals, and kick them well, as he did last season. When he departs, the job may be sophomore Caleb Sturgis' to lose. Sturgis kicked the game's only recorded FG from 44 yds. He also went 2-4 on attempts from 52 yds. Phillips drilled his lone attempt from 52. For fun, Sturgis went for a 62-yarder in the 2nd qtr, falling short by about 8 yds.
- Redhsirt-freshman linebacker Brendan Beal had a game-high 13 tackles and an interception off a tipped Tebow pass.
The Power of Sports...
Right now in our country, people are jobless, homeless, and hurting.
Pride is wounded. Spirits, battered. Hope hangs its head in a distant oasis.
A lot of people out there simply need something -- anything -- to smile about.
But I digress...
Randomly, and spur-of-the-moment, I decided to drive up to a softball game last night between Florida and Florida State. Pardon me-- that's your "# 1-in-the-country Florida" vs. 21st-ranked Florida State. A girl I've known for quite a while, but in recent years haven't had the opportunity to spend a whole lot of quality time with, decided to come along. She's my younger sister, Meggie.
But on Wednesday night, if only for a few hours even, all of that "stuff" was gone and forgotten. All because of a single game of fast-pitch softball.
The thing about last night's game was this-- A 4-3 boxscore does it absolutely ZERO justice. Even a front-page recap from the most skilled of sports scribes could never capture what happened in that ball park.
With Florida leading 2-0 in the top of the 6th, Florida State catcher Kaleigh Rafter slapped a 2-run bomb about 202 feet out of left field. That would be precisely 2 feet farther than the fence. Just like that, the Lady 'Noles snagged all the momentum, and doubled Florida in hits shortly after (6 to 3).
Next inning, a solo homer put FSU on top 3-2. Tomahawk chop chants began to take over the crowd of roughly 2,500. Folk was gettin' restless! But in the bottom half of the 7th, with 2 outs and nobody on, Megan Bush changed all that with 1 sweet swing of aluminum. A solo bomb that cleared the deepest part of the yard pelted the Pepsi sign on the center field scoreboard. "You dropped a bomb on me... Baby... You dropped a bomb on me!" (Insert awesome bomb-dropping sound affect here)
The game stayed deadlocked at 3 apiece all the way through the top of the 9th. With the sun already set, and temps in the high 50's, senior lead off hitter Franscesca Enea walked up to home plate as cool as the late-evening air. She couldn't have known...
And I'll tell you what... Very first pitch of that "do-something-or-we're-going-to extra-frames-inning"... Enea swings... AND CONNECTS!
Meggs and I, seated 1 row back behind home plate staring down the 3rd base line, jumped to our feet along with a couple thousand others. The bright yellow ball took off like a comet into the night sky. Sailing directly over the left field foul line I immediately thought of Carlton Fisk. Hell, I WAS Carlton Fisk!
I waved that sucker fair like an airport landing marshal guiding in a plane. As the ball approached the bright orange foul pole... IT WAS STAYING STRAIGHT! It's flight path still ascending, I immediately became a field-goal judge... "IT'S GOOD!", I signaled, taking foolish pride in believing I was the first person in the park to call it a game.
The ball soared on. And would you believe -- like magic -- that softball-on-a-string never strayed from its path! Right up and OVER the foul pole! Walk-off home run... LADY GATORS WIN!
The park exploded like the 4th of July. Strangers high-fiving. Girls from age 6 to 66 cheering. People dancing in the aisles. A guy (27 years old named Scott) stood up on his seat and took pictures of a joyful pile-on at home plate like an awe-struck 9 year-old. It was incredible.
But here's the kicker...
Often times, we sports fans fail to appreciate the simple wonders of our sports world. We think only multi-million dollar professionals who occasionally defy gravity, or laws of speed, merit the term "amazing", or the expression "worth the price of admission".
I didn't pay a penny to enter the park last night. Admission was free. But you cannot put a price on the simple thrill and pure joy my little sister and I shared that unassuming evening in Gainesville. It was a moment I won't soon forget, and one we marveled at long after our dollar drafts went dry.
It's been said sport has a unique ability to move you. A power to bring people together in ways few other things can. I have a group of college girls age 18-22 to thank for reaffirming that magnificent truth.
A 4-3 win will eventually appear as just another game on the collective season schedule. This one, much to my good fortune, was anything but that. It was one of the very best moments I've ever experienced inside any sporting venue... With one of my very best friends.
A tie-up off the opening tip resulting in a second jump ball was about as close as Michigan State got to the national title all night. North Carolina simply put on a 1st-half clinic in "Basketball 101".
The Tar Heels jumped all over the visibly nervous Spartans-- forcing turnovers and bad shots, while feasting on transition buckets, and jumpers inside and out, to take 36-13 lead not quite 11 minutes into the championship. It was never a game after that. During that same fateful stretch, UNC sunk 12 of 17 shot attempts, and beat the nation's best rebounding team 11-7 on the boards. From then on, the Heels pretty much forced Michigan State back on theirs the rest of the night.
The 89-72 final was decided well before North Carolina set a record for most points in a title game's 1st half. Facing a record half-time deficit (21 points), a record crowd (72,922), mostly rooting for the home-state school, couldn't bring the Spartans back.
You can call it boring or anti-climactic, but before you do, think about this... For North Carolina, and their tradition-rich program, it was anything but that. True, we fans didn't feel much tension or drama, but ultimately, ISN'T THAT THE POINT?
Fact is, North Carolina was more focused, better prepared, and had greater confidence in their ability. They executed to a "T", and landed a deciding knock out punch well before Raymar Morgan ever knew what him (I'm not sure he still knows). And THAT, my friends, is EXACTLY the point. You go out, kick butt from the jump, and leave no doubt who the best team in the final game was.
For that -- love them or hate them -- the Tar Heels earned your respect.
If you live and die with Sparty, you're clearly disappointed. And you should be. It makes sense. Aside from senior center Goran Suton (who, individually, had a terrific NCAA Tournament), no other Spartan really showed up. The good news is, other than Suton and Travis Walton, your whole nucleus should return.
And if you love Carolina blue and, if only in spirit, are partying at Top of the Hill on Franklin Street-- Congrats. The 2009 Heels are a worthy champion.
Much to the delight of the Chicago Bears, the Jay Cutler saga in Denver really WAS busted beyond repair.
If there were any teams stalling with possible trade packages for the Broncos Pro Bowl quarterback, Chicago certainly wasn't one of them. The Bears were methodical, judicious, and maybe most important of all, efficient in their pursuit of the 25-year old former 11th overall draft pick. The kickback for their swift work-- a franchise quarterback the Windy City can celebrate.
We all know the Bears biggest blemish for years has been a reliable quarterback. They gave up the closest thing they had to one this past season -- Kyle Orton -- to land Cutler. Chicago also handed over their 1st round picks in this year's draft (18th overall), and in 2010. The Bears will also get Denver's 5th round selection in roughly 3 weeks.
But the up-side is that Cutler is widely perceived as a QB with loads more, errr... "up-side" than Orton. Rex Grossman can logically be relegated to full-time back up.
The most interesting dynamic in this whole "blockbuster" is Cutler's perceived potential. He's made a Pro Bowl (which, let's be honest, doesn't always mean you're one of your conference's best... it's one-half popularity contest, one-half statistics based), but he's got a 17-20 record as a starter in 3 seasons. If the former Vanderbilt star is the rocket-armed golden boy most NFL analysts believe him to be, the Bears would appear to be in great shape. If he struggles, or his development stagnates, losing those 2 first-rounders could come back to bite.
So what do you think about the deal?
Did Chicago give up too much? Is Cutler too unproven still? Do the Broncos stand to fare better with Orton and the 12th and 18th picks this year?
Sound off below and give YOUR take on this, and any other issue!