Saturday, February 04, 2006

Illinois debacle follow up

If I had a vote, I would not put Illinois in the top 25. If you can't beat Penn State at home, you are not one of the best 25 teams in the country. If you cannot beat Penn State at home, you do not deserve an at large bid to the NCAA tournament.

Illinois will get one, certainly. They'll be in the field of 65. I'm just saying, if I were on the committee, I would not have them in *my* field of 65. There are 35 at large bids to the NCAA tournament. If you cannot beat crappy teams on your home court, you do not belong in that top group of 35 teams.


Alright, now that I've had a night to sleep on it, I realize the above is hyperbole. But this loss still really stings. There were no mitigating factors. There were no injuries to key players, no horrible calls that fouled key players out. There was just one team that decided to play for the last ten minutes, and one team that didn't.

All good things must come to an end, but you'd like to see them end under more acceptable circumstances.

Worst game I've ever seen. Illinois loses.

My Illinois life started in the 1998-1999 season. That's when I moved back to Champaign to go to law school. There have been more than a few losses by the Illini in that time. This is the most dissapointing of those losses. A game at home against arguably the worst the team in the conferences, and the Illini failed to come out and answer the bell for the second half. The zone defense played by the Nittany Lions kept the Illini offense in check, and on the defensive end, the Illini were unable to keep their opponent under control the way they have for most of the season. Honestly, I'm completely distraught right now.

In the end, it will look like the Illini lost a game because they couldn't get a rebound of a three pointer against a team that they are much taller than, a team that they controlled on the boards virtually all night long. But they couldn't do it, and they not only lost the board, but they gave up a bucket that cost them the game.

Let's face it folks, they won a game this season the same way they lost this one. They beat Wichita State by a tenth of a second, but they lost this one by a horrible twenty minutes, where they blew a huge second half lead. There are no refs to blame. They have no one to blame but themselves.

I can't write anymore about this game right now.

Arizona 73; UCLA 84

First of all, let me start by saying that someone at Fox deserves to be shot. Repeatedly. Not only do they cut into the game because of freaking women's basketball games that have already been decided, but they also feel the need to take us through all of the post-game handshakes, then we need to see about five minutes of commercials, during which THEY RUN A PROMO FOR THE GAME THEY ARE CURRENTLY PRE-EMPTING!! Then, when they finally get us to the game, it's ONLY three minutes old at that time. Absolutely pathetic. Of course, this is only true for those of us outside of Southern California.

Some times, you don't have to do it with defense. Tale of two halves, really, as the Bruins opened a big lead in the first half before lackluster play in the closing minutes gave the Wildcats some life. The Bruins came out flying in the second half, stretching the lead to a game high 24 points before they decided to sit back and watch Arizona claw their way back into the game, as they trimmed a 24 point lead to 12 in less than five minutes. They didn't stop, trimming the lead all the way to seven points with less than eight minutes to play. But the Bruins finally put on a bandage on the wound and the Wildcats never got that close again. Honestly, after Arizona called a timeout with 18 minutes to go, it looked like the teams switched jerseys. UCLA mirrored Arizona's first half by turning the ball over possession after possession in the second half, which allowed Arizona to get back into the game. But in the end, the Bruins had too much, and the big lead they built was too much for Arizona to overcome. The Bruins improved to 19-4 on the season, 9-2 in the Pac 10. Their resume right now is tournament worthy, and they have seven regular season games plus the Pac 10 tournament left.

Aaron Afflalo has apparently shaken his slump. He netted a career high 27 points on 5-12 shooting, while going 13-16 from the free throw line. Good to see him taking the ball to the basket again. Farmar and Hollins also finished in double figures. But the most interesting line of the night belonged to LRMAM, with 11 points and 6 rebounds. On the surface, it's nothing special, but when you consider that he did it in 19 minutes, it becomes more impressive. Still, I question why the hell he was in the game with two fouls and a 19 point lead in the first half, where he promptly picked up his third.

The Bruins really struggled with Arizona's zone defense. They almost looked confused at times, content to pass the ball back and forth up top until they either turned it over, or the clock ran down, where they had to force something. A couple of times, Farmar was able to get the ball into a position for a kick out, twice leading to three pointers, one from Afflalo and one from Bozeman, his only three points on one of the two shots he took all night. Still, I thought Bozeman made a big contribution. He's arguably their best defender, and he moves the ball well on offense without getting in the way. He seems to be just about all the way back. Still, their disappointing play against the zone is the type of thing that other coaches can sniff out. Let's hope they work on that to the extent that they know how to deal with it a little better the next time, because I can guarantee you that they're going to see zone defense again before the season is over.

I've also noticed another trend I'm not to happy about. I don't like the way the Bruins respond to big leads. Last season they made big comebacks against Washington and U$C to win games in which they trailed by large amounts. This year they almost did the same against West Virginia. But their response to big leads that they hold has been a little disconcerting. Today marked the at least the third time they opened doors and let their opponent back into a game that should have not been in doubt. They already lost to Washington in a game where they held a big lead. they almost did the same against Washington State. They have a tendency to play to the level of their opponent, and that spells doom in a first or second round tournament game when they have a high seed target on their back. That's an intensity issue that Coach Howland will have to address.

Don't worry, Arizona fans. The last time you were swept by UCLA, you went on to win the National Championship. For some reason, I don't see that happening this year. But you could win the NIT. That's something, right?

Friday, February 03, 2006

High Comedy

Nothing gets a Friday started like hearing a hilarious joke first thing in the morning. According to this morning's LA Times, the Red Sox are apparently working on sceduling a gig at the Laff Shack if their recent offer of Manny Ramirez to the Angels is any indication. Get this. The Angels would get Manny AND ALL of his $57MM salary in exchange for the paltry sum of Ervin Santana, Chone Figgins, and two or three of the Angels top four prospects, which includes Brandon Wood, Howie Kendrick, and I'm guessing Kendry Morales and another one of the middle infield guys, or maybe Jeff Mathis.

That is fucking HI-larious. Apparently Theo spent his pouting period working on his stand up act.

The Angels are also interested in Jeff Weaver if he'll sign a one or two year deal. I could live with that. Put Carrasco back in the pen. Not a bad replacement for Paul Byrd. Gotta be kind of weird though when the team says "we don't want to sign you to a long term deal, because we need that spot for your younger brother."

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Winning Ugly - ASU 60; UCLA 69

If you recorded this one with plans to watch it again, erase it. It was not pretty. It felt like the Bruins scored about half of their final total despite shooting almost 50%. It was just a very ragged game against an opponent that they should have beaten by about 20. But every time they had a chance to really close the door, they'd give up a three, turn the ball over, foul a guy, and the next thing you knew, it was back down to four. The only statistical category of any consequence that the Bruins didn't have the advantage was rebounding. Each team finished with 23. But still, the game was in a little bit of doubt with a minute to go until Jordan Farmar found Ced Bozeman for a three pointer from the baseline as the shot clock expired.

Farmar was unquestionably the Bruins' best player tonight, throwing in 18 points on 7-12 shooting. But he only had three assists, negated by three turnovers. LRMAM did not have what I consider to be one of his better nights, netting 8 points and grabbing 9 rebounds. He either needs to start hitting a three every now and then, or he needs to stop taking them when there's time on the shot clock. Aboya and Wright really didn't contribute very much, just two points and 2 rebounds between them. Aboya fouled out after only 8 minutes. Of course, those guys are freshmen, and they're going to have their ups and downs. Mike Roll also hit a couple of three pointers. Ryan Hollins added 6 and 4 while playing only 15 minutes, and Michael Fey got into the game for a couple minutes, scoring on a put back of an offensive rebound.

The slack was made up by Aaron Afflalo and Ced Bozeman, who were both terrific on the defensive end. Afflalo finally showed signs of emerging from his slump, hitting a nice jumper in the lane on a broken play, and draining a late three, followed by a turn-around jumper from the baseline. Bozeman added 10 points of his own, including the aforementioned three pointer. He did it on 4-5 shooting, and added three assists.

This was a bit of a trap game with Arizona upcoming (which is turning into a bit of trap game itself the way Arizona is playing). While there were bursts of energy at times, from what I saw, the Bruins never really got into a good flow. But another win is another win. The Bruins are now 8-2 in the conference, and 18-4 overall. They travel to Washington next week, which makes the Arizona game that much more important. Drop that one, and they could see the beginning of a three game skid. Let's hope the game is a little more attractive than tonight's. But if they need to get ugly to get another W, I can live with that too.

A quick answer

I was going to write a brief post about this in relation to the Kings game tonight, but Anonymous asked the question, so I might as well answer it here. A asks:

where is the coverage of the anaheim angels of los angeles and orange county in california angels trial?
My answer? Check the LA Times and OC Register.

I'm sorry, that's snarky, but honestly, that's where it is. I'm not attending the trial, so really anything I write would be just commenting on what they're writing, which isn't very exciting. My position is pretty clear. I'm on Arte's side. I've talked about in a few different places, and I'm not sure I've done a post on it here, but the lease says what it says. I honestly don't think that legally Anaheim has much of a case. I know the judge is allowing evidence of intent, but the key will be the jury instructions. He can instruct the jury that the lease isn't sufficiently vague and that they should give no weight to that testimony or something thereabouts. We'll see, I guess. I'll probably write up some personal thoughts on the matter when the whole thing is over, depending on what happense.

That leads me to tonight's Kings game. I won't be posting a recap because it's not on TV for some reason. I don't really feel like I can comment on what I can't see. I'll listen to some of it while watching the UCLA game, but I can't really come up with any personal commentary on something I can't witness. This happened during the baseball season as well. Hell, I can't see EVERY game, unless someone wants to start paying me. So I watch what I can, and I write about it most of the time.

Anyway, that covers that.

Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Illinois 66; Wisconsin 51

They might as well just call the place Assembly Hall North. After breaking Wisconsin's 38 game Kohl Center win streak last season, the Illini returned to the scene of the crime and did it all over again, this time with a stifling defense, timely shooting, and excellent rebounding. The numbers don't lie. A plus 14 rebounding edge, a plus five turnover edge, and a shooting percentage six points better than their hosts. Those numbers are a recipe for success, and you don't seem a team put those numbers up very often on the road.

Balance was a key for the Illini, as four player finished the game in double figures with Dee and McBride leading the way (16 each). In case any potential guard recruits out there are wondering if if they can flourish in Bruce Weber's offense (as if last year wasn't enough), take note that Jamar Smith threw in 12 points as well, six coming on clutch three pointers, one near the end of the first half which pushed the Illini lead to five points, and the second of which pushed the lead back to seven points not long after the Badgers had cut it down to two. Wisconsin was really never in the game after that.

Shortly thereafter, the teams exchanged free throws, and the Illini shut the door for good. Following an offensive rebound on a missed free throw, Dee fed James Augustine for crowd deflating (at least, whatever air was left) dunk, followed by a McBride three that stretched advantage to 12. Wisconsin would not get closer than nine the rest of the way. About that dunk, note to Bo Ryan, you got your sh** worked on that Augustine slip screen TWICE last year in your gym. You really ought to have been prepared for it this time. It wasn't quite as perfectly exceuted as the Deron to Augie play that sunk Wiscy last year, but that's mostly because Krabbenhoft wasn't as dog tired as Wilkinson was last sesaon when Bruce Weber unveiled it. But it's still a thing of beauty when done correctly.

Speaking of Bruce Weber, how good is he? I mean, seriously. He simply outcoached Bo Ryan in this game. Illinois ran the right sets at the right time, and Weber subbed beautifully considering the foul situation. He got Augie back in the game when the Illini were struggling, and protected him well enough to keep him out of heavy foul trouble the rest of the way. No lllinois player fouled out, which is kind of surprising at Wisconsin. Give some credit to the officials as well. I thought they were way too quick to call fouls on anyone within breathing room of Alando Tucker in the first half, but they let the teams play in the second half. When an out of control Jason Chappell bulled his way into Augustine three times early in the second half as Wisconsin tried to pick up that third foul, the refs swallowed their whistles and recognized the ploy for what it was.

A couple of other quick points: 1) Does Bo Ryan ever look happy? I mean, EVER? It must be awful being that guy. Bo, you're coaching at a major university in one of the best conferences in the country. You have a good team. Lighten the hell up. 2) Hey, did any of you know that today was Super Bowl Media Day? I was a little unclear after the first 78 promos, but around promo number 83, it started to sink in.

The good things from tonight? Dee continues to be a major factor even when he's not shooting well, as he added seven assists, grabbed four rebounds, and had two steals. The shooters (McBride and Smith) shot the ball very well, especially Smith (4-4), which is rare on the road. I liked that McBride took 10 shots, as he continues to assert himself. Brian Randle was a monster on the glass with 13 rebounds and three tip in baskets in the first half. More importantly, he continued to attack the basket on numerous occasions. McBride, Smith, and Randle are the weapons for next year's offense, so to see them take steps and make major contributions this year is very important and very encouraging.

The bad? Well, the free throw shooting is still awful. They missed their first five, and although they made nine of their next eleven, six of those came after the game was out of reach, with four coming from Smith and McBride, who don't shoot them all that often. At some point, that's going to be a big problem, and I don't know if they have the time to really do the volume shooting that they need to make some improvement in that area. They've already lost one game thanks in no small part to bad free throw shooting, so keep on eye on that area.

Aside from that, this was a near perfect performance from this team. This would not have been near perfect for last year's team, but this team plays better defense, so they can afford to be a little more ragged on the offensive end. It makes the Illini the true front runner for another conference championship, but there are still pitfalls along the way. Hold serve at home, steal another big road win, and they'll be hanging another banner in the Assembly Hall. Or rather, Assembly Hall South.

Sucks 4; Kings 3 (OT)

I've really lost the heart to write anything about this team until they start winning again. Lest I be considered a bandwagoner, keep in mind that I still watch virtually every minute of every game. It's just so disappointing to see them play so poorly night after night. When you know that almost every penalty is going to inevitably lead to a goal by the opposition, it's very frustrating.

In the last two weeks they've been outplayed in every facet of the game. They're being outshot, they're being outworked, they're being outskilled, and it looks like they're skating uphill on every single shift. I fear that we're seeing yet another late season decline in which a team in good position plays its way right out of the playoffs, and it's worse this year with the unbalanced schedule. There is very little scoreboard watching. When you're losing, it's almost always against a team chasing you or that you're chasing.

Of course, I'll be back in front of the TV for the next game, suffering yet again. This was easier when it was the Angels. They play every day. It's tougher when every game means twice as much, and there's a longer period in between opportunities to rebound.

Monday, January 30, 2006

Thought for an off day

My favorite commenter, Anonymous, asks "Do you think the Illini can make a legitimate run in the tourney this year?" I might as well cover UCLA here, too.

For the Illini, the answer, I think, depends on what you mean by legitimate. Do I think they have a shot at the title? Sure, insofar as any team that's probably a four seed or better has a shot, albeit an outside one. In the tournament, the teams that usually win are the teams that really have a lot of talent, and I'm not sure that across the board, the Illini have enough talent to take it all the way this year. I do think that they can get to the elite 8, and maybe even the final four, but they're going to have to have some guys make big improvements (Pruitt, Randle offensively, Chet Frazier), or they're going to need a couple of guys get really hot during the tourney, and that pretty much means Dee. He's been hot and cold this season, and if he can stay hot over a couple of weeks (not necessarily Michigan State hot, but 45% from three hot), he and Augustine can carry the offense. The defense is going to remain extremely solid, I think, and assuming they don't run into the foul trouble that has doomed them in the past (like against Arizona, Duke, and UNC), I think the defense might be enough to get them through a bad shooting game. The deeper you get into the tourney, though, the more likely you are to run into teams that are too talented to be completely shut down by good defense. Eventually, the great players are going to get theirs, no matter how good the defense is.

I think anything short of sweet 16 will be a disappointment, an elite 8 would be a good accomplishment, and final four would be fantastic. From there, anything more would be gravy. I put them at about 70% to reach the sweet 16, 30% to reach the elite 8, and 10% to reach the final four.

As for the Bruins, I'm starting to sound like a broken record, but their window is next year. They remind me a great deal (in terms of talent if not style) of the 2003-2004 Illini, who reached the sweet sixteen before losing to Chris Duhon's magic rib. The Bruins are young, talented, and maybe a little untested, and probably still need those few rounds of tournament experience before they're ready to go really deep into the tournament.

UCLA also needs an inside presence, and while they're getting production from a resurgent Ryan Hollins, he's not someone who will be the focus of an opposing defense. Hollins' problem is that he doesn't play strong. He doesn't hold the ball tight, and he can't catch well. The latter problem leads to obvious results, but the former is just as damaging in that he gets stripped, A LOT, when taking the ball to the basket. That's something he needs to work on, but they're running out of time. Ryan Wright, Alfred Aboya, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute can all be effective inside, but not for long stretches. They lack the post moves and confidence right now to really draw more than one defender, and that means that teams can focus their efforts on Farmar and Afflalo. It's taking its toll on Afflalo, who has struggled a bit at the offensive end during conference season. Some of that is due to the tremendous defense he's played at the other end of the floor. A real key for them will probably be the health and effectiveness of Ced Bozeman. If he can give them big minutes and be a force around the basket at the small forward spot, that could free up some room for the guards. But to do that, he needs to produce offensively, and for the next couple of weeks, that means he'll have to step up and take advantage of the extra room created by the attention being paid to the guards. I think they're sweet sixteen team this year, but they'll struggle to get any farther, which wouldn't be inconsistent with the path that Ben Howland teams have taken under his watch.

What both of these teams have in their favor is depth. The Illini go five deep at the first two spots (Augie, Pruitt, Arnold, Carter, and Randle), and Randle's versatility allows him to play the small forward, while Jamar Smith and Rich Mcbride can operate at the two, or go small at the three, leaving Dee Brown and Chet Frazier to handle the point (Dee can also slide to the off-guard spot when Frazier is in the game). Randle also possesses the athletic ability to play shut down defense on either a power forward, small forward, or shooting guard as the situation dictates. That's nine guys who can give them significant minutes, with five of those at the big man spots in case of foul trouble.

UCLA on the other hand, has found something of a silver lining to their dark cloud of injuries, as coach Howland has had ample opportunity to give playing time to his five impressive freshmen. Farmar and Afflalo are entrenched at the guard spots, but Afflalo has the size and strength to play small forward, while Farmar has the scoring ability to contribute at the two guard when Darren Collison is in the game. Mike roll can play the three in a three guard scheme, or play the off guard when giving Afflalo a breather. Aboya, Wright, and Hollins will all spend time at center, with Aboya sliding to power forward when LRMAM is on the bench. LRMAM will spend most of his time at the four, but some time at the three in a big lineup. Ced Bozeman also provides some versatility, with the ability to play anywhere from point guard to power forward if called upon. So like the Illini, they can go nine deep, and they can mix and match as the matchup dictates. And if they're able to get Michael Fey back to any semblance of himself, that makes 10. They could also have Lorenzo Mata back for a tournament run depending on how quickly he heals.

So I see both teams acquitting themselves pretty well in March. The Illini have a little more experience, and that could make the difference in a longer run. But there's still a month and a half to go before tournament time, and both clubs still have room for improvement. I'd be content with both teams in the sweet 16, and I'd be thrilled if they each made the elite 8, but that's asking for a lot.