Archive for January, 2008

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A few weeks ago, I wrote about my pretty good fortune as a sports fan over the past few years, with my various favorite teams winning a World Series and getting to the Super Bowl, Final Four and Rose Bowl in a relatively short period of time.  Well, folks, that run has officially come to an end.  The Illini basketball team wouldn’t be able to win tickets from a pop-a-shot game at Chuck E. Cheese, much less garner an NCAA Tournament berth this season.  At the same time, the Bulls are using the rules from ‘Survivor’ to figure out who they are going to play every night.  The Bears head into the offseason with the strong likelihood of losing a Pro Bowler in Lance Briggs while not gaining, you know, an NFL-level quarterback.  Finally, the White Sox technically have a chance to get to the playoffs in the same manner that Dennis Kucinich technically has a chance to win the Democratic nomination.  Essentially, none of my teams are going to be playing any games of real meaning from now until the Illinois football team suits up to play Missouri on Labor Day weekend.  So, what’s a sports fan supposed to do with nearly 9 months to go without having anything significant to cheer for?  Well, here’s a guide of how I’m coping with this period of sports oblivion:

(1) Your Archrivals Are Still Evil – The only good thing about the Packers being in the playoffs is that I have a vested interest in seeing them get spanked.  Believe me, I would rather hear two weeks of hype about the supposedly greatest football team ever in the history of the universe going for perfection (even though they would have never been able to hang with these guys) than deal with another instance of the media fellating Brett Favre’s “rekindled passion for the game”.  At the same time, as long as Satan’s Spawn is still wearing blue shirts at the helm of the Indiana basketball program, the rest of the Big Ten has found a friend in me when they’re playing the Hoosiers.

(2) The Young Guys Are the Future… Right? – As someone that is a whole-hearted believer in the teachings of Adam Smith, I completely understand that coaches have an incentive to play veterans as long as possible since they supposedly give their teams the best chances to win on a nightly basis, which means those coaches are more likely to keep their jobs.  However, there’s a certain point when bad teams need to face the facts that they aren’t going anywhere and start checking out the young guys on the squad.  The Bears mercifully started doing that by the last few weeks of this season, which resulted in the world’s greatest neckbearded alcoholic leading the team to a couple of victories.  I thought that the drafting of Joakim Noah by the Bulls was ridiculous last summer considering that they are already a team full of offensively-challenged frontcourt players, but now that he’s here and the team is going nowhere, he should be getting more playing time instead of being voted out by his lackluster teammates (and for that matter, get Tyrus Thomas some more minutes, too).  It appears as though Bruce Weber has finally realized that the Illinois basketball team is going to benefit a lot more from starting freshman Demetri McCamey at point guard as opposed to Chester Frazier (I think Illini Nation has been a bit harsh on Frazier with the booing at Assembly Hall – he should have always been a sixth man for defensive help off of the bench, but was thrust into a starting role as a result of Eric Gordon aligning himself with Satan’s Spawn).  As for the White Sox… well, they traded their entire farm system to Oakland for Nick Swisher.  Anyway, at least the others are giving us some hope that there might be something better in a year or two.

(3) The Drafts and National Signing Days! – Any yahoo can watch some regular season games and the postseason – you know, actual competition on the field of play.  If you’re a committed sports dork like me, though, the dates of the NFL Draft, NBA Draft, and the college football and basketball National Signing Days are up there with the Super Bowl and Selection Sunday in terms of importance.  The one saving grace of cheering for a bad professional sports team is that draft day beckons as a beacon of opportunity.  Sometimes, it’s a choice that alters the course of history in a spectacular way (Portland taking Sam Bowie in 1984, leaving the Bulls to pick a young pup named Michael Jordan) or, alternatively, crashes and burns to set back a franchise for years (Cade McNown, Curtis Enis, Rashaan Salaam, Cedric Benson… OK, I’ll stop now), but it’s almost always important, especially if you’re picking high.  (I haven’t included the Major League Baseball Draft in this discussion since the correlation between high draft choices and eventual long-term success is relatively low compared to the NBA and NFL.)  So, as a Bulls fan, do I want this team to stretch to grab the seventh or eight seed in the Eastern Conference so that it can be shellacked by Boston or Detroit in the playoffs, or would I rather roll the dice and see if we can get O.J. Mayo or Derrick Rose in the United Center on a full-time basis next season?  Call me crazy, but the latter option is more appealing to me at this point.  (As a sidenote, WTF do I do if Eric Gordon ends up in Bulls uniform next year, which is a real possibility the way things are going?  I’ve always taken the opinion that I will let bygones be bygones when it comes to college players that I couldn’t stand – such as Anthony Thomas on the Bears – ending up on my favorite pro teams, but Gordon would be at an entirely different level.  On the one hand, he, in conjunction with Satan’s Spawn, has done more damage to the Illini basketball program than anyone else in my lifetime.   On the other hand, he’s such a phenomenal basketball player that he would be that superstar that I’ve been begging the Bulls to get for pretty much the entire time that I’ve been blogging.  Let’s move on before my head explodes.)

The NCAA National Signing Days are the equivalents of draft days for college football and basketball programs, although unlike the pros where the bad teams get the first crack at the best players, usually the rich get richer when it comes to the college level.  You can count on USC, Ohio State, Texas and Florida to be getting the 5-star recruiting ratings every year on the football side, while UNC and Duke are always pulling their weight in basketball.  That being said, it’s when college sports fans can start getting excited again – the turnaround of the Illinois football program was based on Ron Zook’s ability to seal the deal on National Signing Day months before spring practices would start.  Fortunately, both Illini football and basketball look to be getting very good (if not quite stellar) additions to their teams next season, so at least I’ve got that going for me.

(4) No Clouded Judgment on Fantasy Sports Teams – This really isn’t much different from how I approach fantasy sports normally, but a lot of people have certains biases for or against certain players or real-life teams in terms of picking their fantasy sports teams.  I love those types of people in my leagues since I’m normally able to count on crushing them down the road.  That being said, I don’t feel quite as dirty picking a baseball team full of Red Sox and Yankees players when the White Sox aren’t very good.

(5) No Clouded Judgment on Wagering – This is where I have a little more of a problem as opposed to fantasy sports.  I’m able to compartmentalize my biases with respect to fantasy sports very easily, but it’s not quite as simple in terms of betting.  For instance, if I had done a BCS bowl picks blog post this year, I would have certainly taken Illinois +14 in the Rose Bowl against USC, not necessarily because I really thought that they were going to win, but I believed that they would have at least covered.  Fortunately, my flight to L.A. did not include a layover in Las Vegas or else the bank would be foreclosing on my house this week.  Unless you’re cheering for one of those pantheon teams such as the ’85 Bears or the ’96 Bulls (or maybe this year’s Patriots team), you probably have a bit of an inflated view of how good your team is if they’ve been playing well, so you’re not very accurate in your wagering.  If you’re team is not very good, on the other hand, you tend to look at the lines more objectively – there were only a couple of weeks where I was on the wrong end in picking a Bears game against the spread this season in a friend’s NFL pool, but I was awful at choosing Bears games during their Super Bowl run last year.

So, I’ve at least got a few things to look forward to over the coming months.  It could be worse – I don’t quite feel like this Cowboys fan.  As for quality play from my favorite teams, I’ll see you in September.

(Image from Cincinnati.com)

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It’s time to rehash my trip to Pasadena over New Year’s, which was pretty awesome with the exception of the playing of the actual Rose Bowl. The Illini simply still has a talent gap compared to a program at the caliber of USC and it showed. I really didn’t think Illinois necessarily played badly for the majority of plays, but the gravity of our mistakes was too much for any team to overcome. Two fumbles within the red zone on potential touchdown drives certainly will do that to a team. Plus, when USC can mess up a lateral that bounces on the ground and still turn it into a 65-yard gain, you know that the football gods aren’t with you.

As disappointing as it was to get seriously thumped (the hangover from this game was every bit as bad as the Bears loss in the Super Bowl last year), this season was obviously a whole lot more than any rational Illini fan could have ever hoped for. I was hoping for the Motor City Bowl berth back in August, but we ended up at the Grandaddy of Them All in an amazing turnaround story. The Rose Bowl venue itself is spectacular – stepping out of the front gate and seeing the field with the mountains in the background for a college football fan is akin to a baseball fan getting to step into Wrigley Field for the first time. Equally amazing was the Rose Parade. I’ve watched the event on television for years, but it’s difficult to understand the amount of work and detail that goes into each of the floats unless you see it in person. Finally, in the days leading up to the game, nothing was as heartwarming as seeing fellow Illini in orange all around Los Angeles, whether it was on Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills (my Hollywood celebrity moment of the trip was my wife and I sitting next to Jon Voight fresh off of his reconciliation with Angelina Jolie at Spago), up in the mountains at the Getty Center, or taking in the rides at Universal Studios. If anyone ever questions why the Rose Bowl insists on inviting Big Ten teams, one only needs to take a look at how its members’ fans simply blanket L.A. every New Year’s. Say what you will about whether we have an answer to the urban legend of “Southern Speed”, but we definitely travel en masse.

Back to the field of play, what’s especially important is that, unlike the Illinois run to the Sugar Bowl in 2001 which was mostly led by players in the their senior seasons, this team will be bringing back much of its core (save for the broad shoulders of J Leman and Rashard Mendenhall) next year. Judging by the demise of the Bears, the lackluster play of the Bulls, the offensive offense of the Illini basketball team and the fact that the White Sox just traded away its entire farm system for, um, Nick Swisher(?), the start of the 2008 Illinois football season is pretty much the next thing that I’ve got to look forward to on the sports front. Looking ahead on the calendar and assuming Chase Daniel is still at the helm at Mizzou, the Illinois-Missouri opener in St. Louis on Labor Day weekend could very well be the most significant non-conference game that the Illini have played since the days of Dick Butkus.

In the end, I got the chance to see my favorite team play in the Rose Bowl, which was very close to one of my most foremost sports dreams coming true. We’ll just need to win the game the next time around to fulfill it.

(Image from Chicago Tribune)