Archive for December, 2005

There are few things more idiotic in sports than the refusal of the powers-that-be in college football to go to a playoff system.  However, I’ve got to admit that the BCS bowl matchups this year are pretty compelling.  Here are my picks against the spread:

1) Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State (-4) over Notre Dame – The national media continues to fawn over Charlie Weis’ turnaround of the Irish program, but they seem to forget that the most impressive game they played this year was a loss to USC (granted, the Trojans cheated to pull out that win), they needed a miracle to beat Stanford (who lost to Division 1-AA school UC-Davis this season), and they got lit up by a pretty bad Michigan State offense.  Meanwhile, Ohio State’s only blemishes were at the hands of fellow BCS participants Texas and Penn State.  The relatively unheralded Buckeye defense is going to stifle the Irish.  OSU backers can easily give the 4-point spread because this game isn’t going to be close – the Buckeyes are winning big.

2) Sugar Bowl: Georgia (-7.5) over West Virginia – The Sugar Bowl is in Hot-lanta this year, so this is going to be a virtual home game for the Bulldogs.  Also, the fact that Georgia had to survive a gauntlet run in the SEC to make it here while West Virginia faced a bunch of Big East basketball schools means UGA is quite a bit more battle tested.

3) Orange Bowl: Florida State (+7.5) over Penn State – In the JoePa – Bobby Bowden septuagenarian matchup, Penn State will win the game but won’t cover the spread.  I love the skills of Nittany Lions QB Michael Robinson and his team was a couple of seconds away in their game with Michigan from being undefeated.  However, despite some bad losses by the ‘Noles, Free Shoe U is still talented and the game is being played within driving distance of campus.  The score is going to be tight here.

4) Rose Bowl/National Championship Game: Texas (+7) over USC – The two-week SportsCenter exercise of matching up the 2005 USC team with the best college football teams of the past 50 years is way premature considering that Texas is not only going to beat the spread, but also beat the Trojans straight up for the national title.  Reggie Bush is spectacular (I actually hope the Packers win one more game just so they have no chance of picking this guy in the NFL draft) and Matt Leinart is a great field general for the Trojans.  However, isn’t there a little saying that defense wins championships?  Remember Ohio State shutting down the all-world Miami offense in 2002?  Texas has a good defense while USC struggled to stop Fresno State.  Plus, the Longhorns aren’t a one-trick pony, either – Vince Young can lead scoring drives as well as anyone.  This is going to be billed as a big upset even though it really shouldn’t be if you take two seconds to think about what types of teams win championships over the years.  The Longhorns are going to devastate the Trojan faithful in L.A. in a classic Rose Bowl game.

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Merry Christmas Everyone!

Posted: December 23, 2005 in Random Thoughts

May your days be merry and bright when the Bears cream the Packers in Lambeau.  Merry Christmas!

A slow day in the office for me means a busy day of reading for all of you.  Here are the links to prep you for this Christmas weekend:

1) School District Housing for California Teachers – If you’ve followed the real estate prices at all over the past few years, you know that there’s no more expensive housing market in the country than tech-haven Silicon Valley.  I know a whole lot of teachers, which means that I also know that their salaries wouldn’t go very far in a region where the median housing price is above $700,000.  So, the Santa Clara School District has started buying apartment buildings and offering units to their teachers at below-market rates.  This isn’t the product of left coast naivete – the economic justification is that the costs saved from reducing the massive turnover of the district’s teacher workforce caused by the high fixed costs of housing make the below-market apartment offers a sound investment.

2) Lost Star Melts Down After Drunk Driving Arrest – I appreciate the irony of the actress who plays a former LAPD officer on Lost getting belligerent with the Hawaii Five-O.

3) Passion of the Spaghetti Monster – Following up on Wednesday’s link, Matt sent in a great Wired interview with the creator of the Spaghetti Monster.

4) City News Bureau Closing Down (audio story from NPR) – Marshall Field’s isn’t the only Chicago institution going away after this holiday season.  The Chicago Tribune announced earlier this month that it was closing down the legendary City News Bureau, where young and hungry reporters have been trained to hunt for stories on the street since 1890.  Any institution that introduced writers like Mike Royko, Kurt Vonnegut, and Seymour Hersh to the world had to be doing something right.

We Be Braggin’

Posted: December 22, 2005 in Big Ten, College Basketball, Sports

The Illini destroyed border rival Missouri last night in the biggest blowout in the history of the Braggin’ Rights series.  The combination of the Illini moving the ball with authority on the offensive end of the floor, a complete shutdown of the Tigers by the orange-clad defense, and the youth and inexperience of Mizzou created the 6th straight win for Illinois in the annual neutral site matchup in St. Louis.  Last night’s game highlighted a few items I’ve observed so far this season:

bragginrightslogo2005pic.gif                brag155mu05ill122205.jpg

1) Dee Brown Can Play the Point – Whether Dee could adjust to moving from 2 to 1 was probably the biggest question mark for the Illini coming into the season.  Now, after a 12-0 start and #6 ranking, we hardly even remember that this ever was an issue in the first place.  I’m not sure if Dee will become the NBA-level point guard that he wants to be and this year’s offense isn’t as polished as last year’s offense yet (and may never be), but the way he has handled this huge role change in running the show is a tribute to his effort and talent.  If the national media ever stops going ga-ga over whether J.J. Redick or Adam Morrison ought to be national player of the year, I hope they overcome their collective A.D.D. to bring last year’s Sporting News Player of the Year into the discussion.

2) Jamar Smith will be a Star – Bruce Weber said before the season that Smith was a better shooter than even Dee and the coach has been proven right.  Just as important, however, is that Smith brings as much spark to the defensive end of the floor as he does beyond the arc on the offensive end.  Speaking of defense…

3) Defense Still Rules – For all of the talk about the backcourt play and passing game of last year’s Final Four team, that club propelled itself to a 37-2 record because they brought defensive intensity to the floor every single game.  Likewise, as inconsistent as the scoring has been for this season’s Illini, they are still bringing on the heat defensively on a nightly basis.  The Illini aren’t going to shoot like last night every game or even in a majority of games, but they know that they always have a chance to win as long as they keep up the defensive intensity no matter who their opponent is.

4) Charity Stripe Ain’t That Charitable – If there’s one glaring weakness with the Illini this year, it’s the performance at the free throw line.  Last night, the Illini made 16 out of 24 free throws.  Only making 2 out of every 3 free throws isn’t going to cut it against upper echelon teams like Michigan State.  This needs to be improved or else it’s going to be the team’s Achilles heel all season.

5) Big Men Are Key – When James Augustine, Marcus Arnold, and Shaun Pruitt have games like last night when they combine for 30 points, the Illini are a Final Four-caliber team.  However, when Arnold and Pruitt only combine for one field goal attempt as they did against the City of Coppin (State) on Sunday, the Illini struggle to beat guarantee game opponents.  The degree of success of the Illini this year ultimately hinges upon the guys in the frontcourt getting touches almost every time down the floor.  Even if they don’t ultimately score, this allows the Illini to spread out the offense and get guys like Dee, Jamar, and Brian Randle to spring free for open shots or easy buckets.

All in all, it was a fantastic game last night and an equally fantastic season so far for the Illini.  There’s no easing into Big Ten play, though – the conference opener is at home against Michigan State, a team who’s way underrated because of their blips in Hawaii.  Nonetheless, if we play like we did last night, we can wipe the floor with anyone.

P.S.  I might be the only person in the world that believes this, but every time I see (soon to be ex) Mizzou coach Quin Snyder, I always think he’s the long-lost son of Christopher Walken.  Maybe it’s the coach’s piercing eyes or the way he barks out at players on the floor – I really can’t explain it.  All I know is that I’m positive that every time Snyder takes a 20-second timeout, he’s telling his team that the key to the game is more cowbell.

My Beef with the WB

Posted: December 21, 2005 in Business, Pop Culture, Television

With apologies to my readers that are fans of its shows, but I’m perversely gleeful about the problems and shake-ups at the WB Network.  My beef with the network is pretty simple and hard-headed: when the WB was launched in 1995, its Chicago affiliate WGN had to cut the number of the station’s Cubs and White Sox baseball telecasts in half in order to make room for inane shows by the Wayans brothers.

For most of Western Civilization and the developed world, this wasn’t a problem because they could simply switch the approriate cable television channel to watch those games.  However, at the time of the WB launch, I lived in a mud hut with parents who to this day have never paid a dime in their lives for cable.  If you don’t know me already, you’ll find out soon enough that I am a baseball freak, so after being accustomed to watching baseball on a daily basis for seriously as long as I could remember watching TV, finding an episode of “Sister, Sister” on WGN rather than a meaningless mid-September Sox-Royals game spurred me to initiate a personal boycott.  Even though I now have a DirecTV account that gives me access to hundreds of more baseball games than I could ever possibly watch, I still can’t evaluate any show on the WB objectively because of this deep-seeded bias against anything that appears on the network.

Of course, since the WB has banked its entire existence on attracting an audience of teenage girls (not my biased words – that’s the linked New York Times article’s analysis), it hasn’t been hard for me to avoid its shows.  I’m glad the WB’s executives paid $100,000 for their Ivy League MBAs and blew literally hundreds of millions of dollars in television production costs before figuring out that (surprise!) teenage girls are a pretty fickle audience, meaning that they had a shaky foundation for an over-the-air TV network.  I could have told them that when I was a high school kid who just wanted to watch some baseball in 1995.

Happy Braggin’ Rights Day!  I’ll have comments on the Illini-Mizzou game and Quin Snyder’s celebrity look-a-like after tonight.  Until then, here is the first installment of recommended reading on the web in Land-o-Links (I was going to call this recurring section the more clever “Land of Linkin'”, but then I realized that people might mistake me for some advocate of the band Linkin Park – which I certainly don’t want to happen, and Eric Zorn from the Chicago Tribune uses this title for his links):

1) Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster – The water cooler talk around the nation today is centering around the case ruling that rejects Intelligent Design (I thought we resolved the debate on Evolution in public schools 80 years ago, but I digress).  Any random talking head blowhard can critique Intelligent Design, but the Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster has taken this issue to a spectacular level.

2) Oracle of Baseball – This is the baseball version of the Kevin Bacon game.  Plug in any two baseball players in history and the program will show you how they’re linked by teammates and teammates’ teammates over time.  For a baseball junkie such as myself, this is like crack with an angel dust chaser (if you’re a movie buff, the classic Oracle of Bacon is here).

3) Stricken Genius (click on “Read the stories”) – On a different note, if you haven’t seen this powerful front-page series on pianist Alexei Sultanov in the Chicago Tribune over the past few days, I urge you to take a few moments out of your day to do so.  Sultanov was a musical prodigy that won the Van Cliburn International Piano Competition as a 19-year-old.  At the age of 30, he suddenly suffered 5 successive strokes that left him completely paralyzed and unable to walk or talk.  While Sultanov wasn’t able to move any other part of his body, he eventually was able to get his fingers to move enough to play the piano once again.  The greater point is that he was born with musical gifts that few had ever seen, yet the pressure of living up to his own high expectations of himself made him curse those gifts when he was healthy.  It took the loss of Sultanov’s gifts to get him focus back on why he had loved music in the first place.  With all of the stress and anxiety that we have in our personal and professional lives, taking the time to appreciate what we have is an old adage that never gets old.

Well, there’s no longer a quarterback controversy in Chicago.  The Bears mauled the Frozen Dirty Birds 16-3 at Soldier Field last night as Kyle Orton got yanked for Rex Grossman in the second half.  Like a cowboy gunslinging back into town (by cowboy, I mean the Clint Eastwood-type as opposed to the Jake Gyllenhaal-type), Grossman’s return to action showed the potential of the Bears having some semblance of a passing game.  Kudos to Lovie Smith and Ron Turner for calling the long pass play from Grossman to Mushin Muhammad right out of the gate – the bold move to change the QB midstream would not have meant anything if wasn’t backed up with aggressive play-calling.  Of course, Grossman still had to channel the spirit of A.J. Pierzynski after throwing a goal line pick that was fumbled right back by the Falcons on the same play.  The Bears offense did look like it changed attitudes after the QB change, but as excited as I am with these developments, this was only one half of a football game and Grossman still threw a pretty bad interception.  We should hold off drinking the Kool-Aid of how great this offense is going to be for the rest of the season and postseason.  Let’s just call it a positive step for now.

For all of the headlines Rex is receiving in today’s papers (Rick Morrissey, Mike Downey, and Jay Mariotti are all predictably gushing), the Bears defense once again won the game last night in what was probably their best performance of the season to date.  In addition to 2 interceptions, they held Michael Vick to 122 yards passing, 35 yards rushing, and, most amazingly, ZERO “Are you kidding me?!” calls from Mike Patrick.  When the average NFL QB, much less Vick, receives about 5 “Are you kidding me?!” calls from Mike Patrick for routine passing plays on any given Sunday night game and your defense holds the opposing QB to zero, that defense has done its job not only for your team but also the ears of every ESPN viewer in the country.

We should also take a moment to reflect on Kyle Orton since it seems that a lot of Bears fans are just piling on him right now.  This guy was drafted in the 4th round this year with the intent of him being #3 on the Bears depth chart.  After Rex broke his ankle in the preseason and the Bears finally figured out that Chad Hutchinson is a much better surfer than passer, the team, without any other viable alternative, threw Orton in there.

At the beginning of the year, most sane Bears fans thought we would be lucky to do a repeat of the 5-11 record from the 2004 season with a rookie QB at the helm.  Instead, we’re now looking at the Bears possibly clinching the NFC North division title on Christmas Day against, of all teams, the Packers on the Frozen Tundra (I can’t tell you how beautiful that sounds).  While Orton may never be a player that an NFL team could build an offense around, he largely has played mistake-free football for 13 weeks, which can’t be said of guys like Brett Favre.  Let’s all thank him for making a huge contribution for what’s been an incredible season so far.

Other Weekend Sports Tidbits:

1) The Vikings Not Currently Incarcerated Finally LoseThe Steelers continued their romp through the NFC North by pasting the Vikings in the Hump Dome.  This thankfully gives the Bears a 2-game cushion in the division with 2 games to go.  At the same time, the Vikings’ inexplicable 6-game winning streak before yesterday practically guarantees us to see another year of the coaching train wreck formerly known as Mike Tice.  Man, this season has gone so well for the Bears on so many levels.

2) Don’t Be Fooled Again: Pats Will Win the AFC – After witnessing the Patriots’ deconstruction of the Bucs on Saturday, I became convinced that New England is heading to the Super Bowl yet again (and this was before the Colts’ quest for perfection was stomped out by San Diego).  I don’t care how the Colts spanked the Pats in Foxboro a few Monday nights ago or if the AFC Championship will be played on the carpet of the RCA/Hoosier/firemikedavis.com Dome – Bill Belicheck has adjusted his defense to compensate for that unit’s rash of injuries and the offense is humming along.  I’m calling it right now – the Patriots will beat the Colts in the playoffs.

3) Illini Sloppily Roll Over the City of Coppin (State) – From all accounts I’ve seen of this game, the 19-point margin of victory by the Illini last night over Coppin State was illusory.  16 turnovers and trouble against yet another zone defense doesn’t sound very pleasing.  Maybe our guys were, uh, a little groggy from studying for finals all week.  Still, for all of the game-to-game inconsistencies in terms of quality of play, the Illini continue to be extremely consistent in grabbing victories by pushing their record to 11-0 and have vaulted to #6 in the latest AP and Coaches’ Polls.

4) Ol’ Dirty Wants DePaul’s Money – Jeez, any complaints about the inconsistency of the Illini are quashed by the bipolar performances of DePaul.  Literally moments after a triumphant upset of #16 Wake Forest in Winston-Salem, the Blue Demons suffered the worst defeat in their program’s entire history on Saturday in a road game against Colonial Athletic Association power Ol’ Dirty University.  ODU more than doubled up on DePaul in a ridiculous 87-43 game.  I really have no clue on what to expect from the Demons when they get initiated into the Big East in a couple of weeks.

5) Detroit Roadblock Part II and a Coach Dale Whuppin’ – It’s starting to feel like the world prior to 1991 again, when a young Bulls team kept making strides until getting slapped back to Earth by the Detroit Pistons.  The only difference is that the old Bad Boy Pistons teams were dirty and evil thugs (I have never hated nor will I ever hate an athlete more than Bill Laimbeer.  Larry Bird once said “God was disguised as Michael Jordan” when His Airness was on the basketball court.  By that same token, Satan’s Spawn was disguised as Bill Laimbeer) while the current Pistons play brilliant lock-down defense while passing the ball on offense as well as any team in the NBA.  So, it wasn’t a shock that the Bulls were pulverised by the Detroit by 28 points on Friday evening.  Fortunately, Scott Skiles went Norman Dale on the team by running them through a full 2-hour practice right before their Saturday evening game against the Celtics.  Coach Skiles might need to do this more often – the Bulls went out and trounced Boston by 32 points while hitting 14 out of 17 from the 3-point arc.

Anyway, any weekend with victories by the Bears, Illini, and Bulls is a great sports weekend.  I’ll have much more on the Illini following Wednesday night’s Braggin’ Rights Game against Mizzou.  Plus, I’ll reveal the celebrity that Mizzou coach Quin Snyder spookily reminds me of.