The Magic’s Closeout Of The Raptors Is More Than a Just Series Win

April 30, 2008

With a 102-92 win, the Orlando Magic closed out the Toronto Raptors to win their first playoff series since 1996.

On the face of it, that’s only a somewhat remarkable statement. Most franchises have gone that long without winning a playoff series. It’s also not the case that the Magic have been terrible all those years; they made the playoffs six times in those 12 seasons. They even finished a just one game out of the playoffs in the Heart and Hustle caimpaign of 1999-00, which has to be the best rebuilding year ever.

It means an awful lot to the team and the city though. There are still hard feelings about the way Shaq left, and it didn’t seem fair to watch him collect ring after ring. The city and community also made a huge investment in the team this year by agreeing to build a new arena, despite Orlando being one of the hardest hit areas in the country by the real estate bust.

Everyone needed this. The Magic organization needed it to confirm its new direction and the investment in the new arena. Orlando needed it to give the community a rallying point in the midst of tough days. Dwight Howard needed this to solidify his standing among the new crop of stars in the league, as true validation comes in the postseason.

It no doubt felt good for Stan van Gundy, who was robbed of the chance of winning a title when Pat Riley forced him out of Miami. It’s only sweeter that the win happened on the same day that Riley once again resigning from coaching duties. Stan is a good man and an excellent coach, and he deserves this.

It is also fitting that the win came on the same day that Hedo Turkoglu was named the NBA’s most improved player. The story of his career so far has been one of unfulfilled promise, destined never to be bigger than the routine salary cap exception pickup that he was for Orlando. Something finally clicked this year, and he nearly capped it off with a triple double in the series clinching game.

The player that has benefited the most is perhaps Jameer Nelson. After the NBA changed its hand check rules a few years back, the league became more and more point guard-driven. There have been concerns that Nelson is not the long term answer for the Magic, and rightfully so with his tendency for over-dribbling and turning it over a few too many times.

Nelson had a superb series however, averaging just over 17 points and shooting over 50% from the field and from three. He keyed fourth quarter runs in multiple games, and the one game he was hampered by back spasms was the game that the Magic lost. Dwight Howard is undoubtedly the straw that stirs the Magic’s drink, but Nelson showed something this series. The Magic wouldn’t be close to the playoffs without Howard, but they would not have won the series without Nelson.

Speaking of Howard, what more can he do? He became the only the third player ever to average 22 points, 18 rebounds, and 3 blocks in a playoff series. The other two guys? Moses and Kareem.

Of course, blocks only became an official stat in the 1972-73 season, but surely one day he will be known as just “Dwight,” since all the greats go by just their first name. He will need to keep it up, though, as Toronto has the least physical frontcourt of any of the playoff teams. Howard has plenty of years left to make his name and build his legacy, but continued success this year will show that he’s ahead of schedule.

The Magic have now won the series that received the least attention of them all this postseason. More of the games were locked away on NBA TV than were not, and the prevailing wisdom was that the winner got the right to lose to Detroit in the second round. But with the way the Pistons have been playing as of late, is it really that unreasonable to think that Orlando couldn’t beat them too? As old as the Pistons are, a win by the Magic could signal a passing of the torch in the Eastern Conference.

Sure, the Magic aren’t a perfect team. They need a real power forward, and for that matter, a backup power forward while they’re at it. They still play a lot like a college team, with one good rebounder surrounded by three-point bombers. Overpaying Rashard Lewis handicaps them in free agency.

None of that matters at the moment. That’s offseason stuff.

Right now, the Magic are playoff winners, and it feels wonderful to be able to say that again.


No One Drafted From Alabama? Really?

April 29, 2008

Mike Shula was the head coach at Alabama from 2003 to 2006. He had one good year, a 10-2 season in 2005, but was fired for the mediocrity of the other three. Most people around the country saw the hiring as a bad move, and the truth in that could not have been clearer this weekend.

Not one single player from Alabama was drafted. That fact boggles the mind, because it’s Alabama. The program is not what it once was, but the Tide being shut out on draft weekend is inconceivable. For comparison, Florida hasn’t been shut out of the draft since 1951, and only once since then (1977) has a Gator not been selected in one of the first seven rounds of a draft.

It really is.

The fourth and fifth year seniors on that 2005 team were recruited by Dennis Franchione in 2002 and 2001. The real leaders on that team weren’t Shula’s recruits. The fourth and fifth year seniors on this year’s team were Shula’s recruits, having come to campus in 2003 and 2004. I’m going to give those years a look to see how it’s possible that Bama could have no one drafted this year.

His first class in 2003 (numbering 19) had only one player drafted: DT Le’Ron McClain in the fourth round last year. Granted, Tyrone Prothro probably would have been drafted if not for the nasty string of injuries he went through. It is worth mentioning though that the injury that started it all was sustained in the fourth quarter of a blowout (in 2005 over Florida), and he should not have been playing that late in the game in the first place. Well done, Mike.

I’ll give him a pass in 2003 though, since Coach Fran left unexpectedly and classes during transitional years tend to be rough anyway. If you want a comparison, though, Florida’s 2002 class, despite Steve Spurrier leaving a month before signing day, had four of its 23 players drafted from it. I’ll now look at Alabama’s 2004 class.

Of the 27 recruits, nine are listed on Alabama’s spring football roster. Four were listed as potential draftees on ESPN. None were listed as potential draftees in 2007. That means of the 18 that are gone, 14 weren’t even serious candidates to be drafted. Those 18 players had an average star rating of 2.79 (according to Rivals), with just two 4-star prospects among them.

Wake up, Mike. It’s time for good football.

The nine remaining players are a mixed bag. Antoine Caldwell became a permanent captain, an honor that got his name misspelled in cement but is still prestigious at the school. John Parker Wilson has played a lot of games, but “infuriating” doesn’t come close to describing his inconsistency. Beyond them, only DL Lorenzo Washington (3 sacks) and TE Nick Walker (2 TD receptions) made any significant plays last season.

It’s just astonishing that Alabama could have had such a bad class. Even that 2002 Florida class had a decent number of players considered draftable in 2006 and 2007. With all of the financial and tradition-based advantages the school has, it makes no sense for Alabama not to have anyone drafted in a particular year. Since Derrick Harvey and Andre Caldwell could have left last year, Florida almost had no one drafted this year. However, that would have been caused by extreme amounts of early entries not two consecutive bad recruiting classes.

In 2008 Appalachian State, Bentley, Coastal Carolina, Delaware, Eastern Kentucky, Furman, Gardner-Webb, Grand Valley State, Hampton, Idaho, Jackson State, McNeese State, Middle Tennessee State, Montana, Mount Union, North Dakota State, Northwest Missouri State, San Diego, Washburn, Weber State, and Winston Salem State all had at least one player drafted. Alabama did not.

Wow.


The Draft: How Did the Bucs Do?

April 28, 2008

First Round: Aqib Talib, CB Kansas

The Bucs definitely had a need at corner, and on the field Talib fits in well with Monte Kiffin’s Tampa 2 scheme. He tends to take some chances, but the safeties will be there to erase mistakes. He has the potential to be a playmaker and really rack up interceptions.

So why was he still around at 20? The all important character concerns. He’s failed drug tests, been late to meetings, and shown an all around lack of maturity. The Bucs once upon a time took a chance on a guy like that, and Warren Sapp turned out all right.

If the organization can get his head screwed on straight, Talib could be a mainstay of the defense for many years. If not, he’ll be a total headache, and the fans will probably complain about them not taking CB Mike Jenkins from USF.

Second Round: Dexter Jackson, WR Appalachian State

The last Dexter Jackson to play for Tampa Bay went on to become the Super Bowl MVP. This one has a long way to go before he gets close to that, but he’ll get a shot at playing since the team had a need at wide out.

He comes into the NFL with two strikes against him – he went to a smaller school and he played in a read option spread offense. The former is not as big a concern since App State was better than a lot of I-A teams. The second is more significant. The pure West Coast Offense that Jon Gruden runs is incredibly complex, whereas the read option is a very simple offense.

Jackson has the speed to become a productive slot receiver, but I would not expect him to become that yet in just his rookie season.

Third Round: Jeremy Zuttah, OG Rutgers

You can never have too much depth on your offensive line, and you could do a lot worse than a guy who’s been opening lanes for Ray Rice the past couple years. He played both guard and tackle in school, showing some versatility. As I understand it, he’ll need to bulk up and get stronger to become a starter.

It probably would have been better to take a higher quality lineman in the second round and pick up a receiver in the third. It was clear that receivers were undervalued in this draft since none went in the first round. The team should have realized that a future slot receiver like Mario Manningham, Early Doucet, or Andre Caldwell would be available with this pick. All but Doucet were still there when the Bucs made this selection.

Fourth Round: Dre Moore, DT Maryland

I don’t know much about this guy. He’s big, but apparently he’s got no consistency, technique, or instincts. But hey, he’s got a burst!

Defensive line depth can always help, especially when blitzes are so infrequent in the Tampa 2. Kiffin has a good track record on drafting linemen, so I’ll trust him on this one for now.

Fifth Round: Josh Johnson, QB San Diego

I know there needs to be a long term plan for succession of Jeff Garcia. Chris Simms is not the answer; neither is a McCown brother. I also suspect neither is a guy from San Diego taken in the fifth round. I’m sure he’s a nice guy, but I have no idea what this pick was for.

Maybe Gruden saw that he’s a mobile quarterback and decided to take a flier on him. The whole point of my satirical piece about his secret draft card, though, was to make fun of his habit of stockpiling QBs. I never expected him to actually take one. Looks like the joke is on me.

Sixth Round: Geno Hayes, LB Florida State

You can call me a homer for not liking this pick, and that’s fine. I don’t care. I just don’t want a guy who antagonizes his biggest rival’s quarterback and then forgets to show up for the game. He had only one tackle against Florida, and he got to watch the guy he talked trash about account for 5 TDs in an easy 45-12 win.

I’m sure he played well over his career, and the Neanderthal offenses he saw in the ACC are what he’ll see in the pros. Still, he’s an idiot. I don’t want idiots on the Bucs.

Seventh Round: Cory Boyd, RB South Carolina

He’s a tough guy, and he can play. He won’t be a lead running back, but he’ll probably play a part in the committee that will end up at the position when Cadillac Williams inevitably gets hurt.

What I don’t get is this: if you wanted a backup running back, why not draft Mike Hart in the sixth round? He’s a tough runner, a class act, and he fumbled once in his entire college career (not counting the Citrus Bowl against Florida). He’s also not an idiot, which Geno Hayes most certainly is.


Gators in the Draft

April 25, 2008

The NFL draft begins tomorrow, and if you believe the folks at NFL.com, the only guys who are likely to be drafted from Florida are Derrick Harvey and Andre Caldwell. That certainly says something, considering both guys could have gone in last year’s draft. Only 12 Gators are even eligible for the draft, and 3 of them never played any significant time.

Kudos to the NFL for using a PNG image with an alpha channel on its website.

The NFL’s website only lists 5 Gators in its draft section: Harvey, Caldwell, Tony Joiner, Carlton Medder, and Drew Miller. The scouting reports for Joiner, Medder, and Miller seem to think that they’ll get an invite to training camps. I can see Medder and Miller getting a shot if they want it, but not Joiner as much. He had a rough senior year on the field and has “character problem” written all over him. The moment he slips up at anything, he’s cut.

If there are only two guys drafted, it would be the lowest count since the 1993 draft. That makes for great symmetry since last year, 9 guys were drafted. That’s tied for highest Gator draft count ever with the 9 guys drafted in 1992, though 4 of the ’92 draftees were taken in the 8th – 12th rounds. It’s really a testament to how deep the 2006 team was, and how thin at the top the 2007 team was.

It’s too early to speculate who would leave early to go in next year’s draft. Percy Harvin seems like the logical place to start, but who knows? If his heel never heals up right, he could end up here for four years after all.

Just remember: the fact that only two Gators are going to be drafted tomorrow isn’t a knock on the program, since there’s only 5 players worth mentioning who are in the draft anyway. It’s a sign that next year’s team could be back on top of the conference thanks to depth and experience.


Jon Gruden’s Secret Draft Card

April 24, 2008

Thanks to a little birdie I know down in Tampa, I have obtained a copy of Jon Gruden’s secret draft card. These are the guys he’s targeting in each round, with his commentary edited to add coherence and reduce profanity. It was a bigger task than you’d think.

Round 1 – Joe Flacco, QB Delaware

Man, what a cannon of an arm this guy has. He’ll be a heck of a lot better than that noodle-armed wuss Chris Simms. When does he come off the cap again? I need to ask [Tampa Bay GM] Bruce [Allen] about that.

Round 2 – Andre’ Woodson, QB Kentucky

He’s a big dude from the SEC, kind of like JaMarcus Russell. I can’t believe we could get in the second round what Oakland got with the first overall pick last year! Good thing I left those losers behind.

Round 3 – Erik Ainge, QB Tennessee

He’s tall and looked great in the Senior Bowl. He’s got to be a winner since his uncle won a couple championships. That reminds me, we need to lock up Chris Simms for another couple years. He comes from winning stock, and you can’t let that get away.

Round 4 – Colt Brennan, QB Hawaii

This guy put up incredible numbers out there in a pro-style offense rather than that new age spread garbage. Plus he took a pounding in the Sugar Bowl and kept on going. We need some more toughness around here from the backup quarterbacks, instead that weakling Simms who couldn’t even keep his spleen in one piece.

Maybe I can pawn Chrissy off on Al for another third or fourth rounder. That Booty kid from USC looks pretty sharp.

Round 5 – Dennis Dixon, QB Oregon

He’s electric, and he showed some real grit trying to play on a half-torn ACL. We could do some real damage playing him as a change up for a drop back passer like Chris Simms.

If we could put receivers on the field from sideline to sideline, it would open up some great running lanes for him. We could even give him the option to run or throw from the same set… this is getting good. I need to call up Bruce and see what he thinks about this.


Congress and the BCS, Part 2

April 23, 2008

Part 1 here.

Three members of the House of Representatives – Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, Lynn Westmoreland, R-Georgia, and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho – have proposed a resolution that would require the Justice Department to investigate whether the BCS is an illegal restriction on trade. I’ve already looked at the financial side of that argument in part 1, and the gist of it is that it’s possible, but not probable, that they could win that part of their case.

Mike Simpson

If the question of money was the only issue that they’re bringing up, then there would be no need for this part 2. However, they’ve also included in the resolution a clause about the BCS unfairly restricting access to the title of “champion.” This resolution would make Congress officially in favor of a playoff for Division I-A college football.

Let me first say that you will not find a larger playoff proponent than me. Despite that, there are some problems with them including language about unfair restriction of the championship in their document.

Problem 1: There is no championship

The NCAA does not award a Division I-A football championship. The BCS system of determining one is set up and run by the conferences, not the NCAA. Plus, what really is a champion? I explored the topic back in December, and you’re welcome to read what I wrote. I will not rehash any of it, other than to say that defining what it means to be champion is more complex than you think it is.

Problem 2: Representative Abercrombie

Neil Abercrombie

I don’t know Mr. Abercrombie, but he clearly has no idea how college football works. Just witness this quote from the article:

“Who elected these NCAA people? Who are they to decide who competes for the championship?” Abercrombie said at a press conference Thursday on Capitol Hill, gripping a souvenir University of Hawaii football.

The NCAA is an association set up and run by its member schools, including the University of Hawaii, for the purpose of administering and regulating college sports. As I pointed out above, it does not have any hand in determining who plays for a championship in I-A football. The BCS determines that, and it’s a system agreed to by all of the conferences including the WAC, Hawaii’s conference.

He’s clearly just grandstanding here, and I hope for the resolution’s sake that he had no hand in writing it. There’s no quicker or more effective way to torpedo your case against something than lacking a fundamental understanding of how it works.

Problem 3: Determining the value of being “champion”

A study will need to be done to determine just how much schools benefit monetarily, beyond the bowl payout, and intangibly (in terms of prestige, exposure, goodwill, etc) by being named champion. That’s a Sisyphean task since the teams that generally win championships are the ones that already have prestige and move ungodly amounts of merchandise.

How do they plan on determining precisely what a title would mean for a team that’s not a traditional power? And will they account for the fact that being in a Big Six conference doesn’t guarantee wealth and prestige? Just ask Vanderbilt, Wake Forest, or UConn about that point.

Problem 4: The AP Poll

In the public view, being #1 in the AP Poll is just as legitimate as being the BCS champion. Not winning the BCS title in 2003 didn’t prevent USC from claiming the title of national champion and all the benefits that go with it. The BCS may control entry into the top bowl games, but it doesn’t have a monopoly on the ability to name a nationally recognized champion.

* * *

It’s a nice thought, but regulating championships is not the government’s business. That’s beyond its scope as defined by the Constitution. If the government wants to look into the BCS over financial concerns or the fact that state-run institutions are involved, then it makes sense. Regulating commerce is one of the roles the Constitution gives the government, as is the power to resolve disputes between states.

I want a playoff in Division I-A football as much as anyone, but it’s simply not the role of Congress, the Justice Department, or any other faction of the federal government to mandate that one happen.


Congress and the BCS, Part 1

April 22, 2008

By now, you’ve probably seen that three representatives – Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, Lynn Westmoreland, R-Georgia, and Mike Simpson, R-Idaho – are asking the Justice Department to investigate to see whether the BCS is illegal. The charge is that only the largest universities get to play in most of the largest bowl games, making the BCS an illegal restriction on trade.

Lynn Westmoreland.

It’s a tricky issue to tackle because the BCS, after all, is not an organization but rather a selection system managed by the 11 Division I-A conference commissioners plus the Notre Dame athletics director. It is not a legal entity, unlike the NCAA or the conferences. The issue is made more complicated by the fact that the bowls are separate entities from the NCAA.

Since the payout for each of the five BCS bowls is the same, the only financial argument that can be made is about the selection process for the games as a whole. Arguing that the system is too restrictive against the smaller schools is somewhat of a troublesome argument nowadays, with Utah in 2004, Boise State in 2006, and Hawaii in 2007 making appearances in BCS games. Plus, a new system goes into effect this season that requires conferences to earn their auto bids via performance over a running 4 year period, and paves the way for a non-Big Six conference to earn an automatic bid.

The only window of opportunity I can see here is the fact that all of the Big Six conferences except the Big East have contracts with the bowl games, and the auto bid earning process mentioned above cannot override them. Those conferences will always get at least one team into the games no matter what, and that violates the principle of merit-based access to the system. Those contracts with the bowls are the restrictive part, and show that the system is a lot like the US under the Articles of Confederation where the collective goal is overridden by individual interests.

Your tax dollars at, ahem, “work.”

To get change, the congressmen would have to argue that that the bowls lost the right to make those contracts when they entered the BCS agreement. They will need to show that by banding together, the bowls have gone above and beyond their stated purpose of driving tourism for their local communities. That could be doable, since the four BCS sites are in completely separate locations and I don’t believe the local communities get a larger cut of the TV revenue that they’d get if the bowls were completely separate. The next step is showing that all Division I-A schools have a right to a fair chance at participating, which again could be doable since the NCAA regulates member schools’ participation in bowl games. That official recognition of the bowls by the NCAA could imply that point.

All I can see Congress saying (if it decides the current BCS is unfair) is that the conferences will have to pick either the BCS with no conference-to-bowl contracts, or no more pooling of the prize money and going back to the old ways of every bowl being completely independent. Should that come to pass, it would mark the end of the BCS because I truly believe the Big Ten, Pac 10, and Rose Bowl would bail on any system that doesn’t keep the three of them contractually together.

Well, that would be that, except that Abercrombie, Westmoreland, and Simpson used the C word – championship.