Thursday, March 29, 2012

Calipari vs. Pitino Defines Intense, Bloody Bluegrass Showdown

They are not best friends, but enemies in one of the best rivalries in all of sports. They’re not at each other’s throats in the 2012 Final Four that features a war between in-state rivals. As often is seen, the Kentucky and Louisville engagement is so intense, it becomes a lust for spectators to witness such an exaggerated, compelling rivalry with two clashing schools battling in the Bluegrass showdown, while much animosity is between Rick Pitino and John Calipari.

It’s felt tremendously, a mutual sense of bitterness and jealousy among two elite coaches, and apparently Pitino and Calipari loathes one another. The rest of the basketball world might recall the moment when Calipari alluded to Kentucky being the only major college basketball program in the state — speaking ill of Louisville as if the university and its exquisite basketball program never existed. The folks might even recall the moment, which happened just recently, when Pitino responded by speaking in defense of the Cardinals and admittedly suggested that Calipari was jealous, resentful and ignorant.

In a state predominately known for its college hoops, annual horse racing, fried chicken and distilleries, as crazy as it sounds, Pitino and Calipari are known for trading punches, verbal jabs as to which team is more fitting to withstand a cold war. It’s impossible to specify when the Calipari-Pitino relationship turned bitter. Whatever it is, somebody pissed off somebody, and now the rivalry is a watchful display Saturday evening. For decades now, Pitino has said he opened the door for Calipari’s career, recommending his nemesis for the coaching job at UMass and wrote a check for $5,000 to cover expenses when Calipari was hired in 1988.

Things happen, and for the worse, they have a broken relationship after a growing feud has recurred for much of this week, now that Louisville and UK will meet in the semifinals of the NCAA tournament in New Orleans. So here’s what we know in all of this – Calipari comments ensued greatly that inflamed bad blood last fall.

“There’s no other state, none, that’s as connected to their basketball program as this one because those other states have other programs,” Calipari told KSTV. “Michigan has Michigan State, California has UCLA, North Carolina has Duke. It’s Kentucky throughout this whole state, and that’s what makes us unique.”

Those remarks didn’t go over well with Pitino. The real petulance for Pitino, it seemed, was from Calipari’s theory of the non-existence for one of the best college basketball programs on the face of this earth. In days following, he responded.

“Four things I’ve learned in my 59 years about people,” Pitino told “I ignore the jealous, I ignore the malicious, I ignore the ignorant and I ignore the paranoid. If the shoe fits anyone, wear it.”

It’s hard to believe anything from Pitino and Calipari, whether they are trying to avoid distractions or repair a rocky relationship by discussing their differences. Right now, as much has been made about an overblown story that has generated puffery all week, who knows if Calipari and Pitino are friends? It’s a strange state of affairs when Pitino said, “there’s no animosity” between he and Calipari. And as this week has shown, in the history of a longstanding coaches’ feud, there’s plenty of emotion and disruptions with two coaches in the middle of hysteria, dominating all conversations leading up to this weekend’s Final Four.

“I’m as close to John Calipari as I am to (Kansas coach) Bill Self and (Ohio State coach) Thad Matta,” Pitino told reporters two days before the Louisville-Kentucky battle. “But they don’t coach at Louisville or Kentucky, so you’re not going to write or listen to it.”

In this case, while Pitino is modifying his team for one of the most talented teams in the nation, he’s downplaying the truth and refuses to reveal what the relationship really is like. And however, he’s a competitor chipping away at a good friend for all we know.

“We’re cordial,” Pitino said. “If we were at the Marriott in Las Vegas and we were recruiting, we’d have lunch together and a beer together. That’s our relationship. There’s no animosity. It’s just we’re competitors, and we want to win. We want to beat each other out for recruits. That’s the truth.”

Perhaps we should consider it a wonderful comeback for Pitino, who reached the Final Four for his sixth appearance — now with a chance to knock off Kentucky, a program he once led to a national championship back in 1996. It’s a gratifying moment, and maybe even one of the proudest moments Pitino, 59, has ever seen in his noteworthy career. For once, the most spectacular event is happening, which is the first Final Four between Louisville and Kentucky — representing a basketball-infatuated region. Our infatuation for basketball, which is unparalleled across the nation, steals our consciousness and ultimately satisfies viewers. This is a bloodier rivalry than if North Carolina and Duke played in the Final Four for the heavyweight title in a sense.

It’s the equivalent of Alabama and Auburn meeting in college football’s national championship game. This rivalry — beautiful though the contest may be — is what entices fans to keep an eye on an eventful NCAA men’s basketball tournament with our love of basketball absorbing our minds. Once again, Pitino has returned to basketball grandest stage, and no one ever imagined Louisville advancing to the Final Four. He knows he has been fortunate to have much success after a sex scandal poured forth two years ago when a woman was seeking to extort millions from him, and overcame adversity and public humiliation — keeping his coaching job at Louisville.

As tired as Pitino was hearing he couldn’t emulate and keep pace with his rival down the road in Lexington, he arrives to New Orleans as Calipari’s adversary with Louisville meeting Kentucky for what could be an instant classic. The hat is nodding to Calipari for recruiting the best talent available, as Pitino isn’t bringing in enough talent to jockey for a position on Kentucky’s level. For sheer bragging rights, with Pitino’s superlative pedigree, he’s looking to win his second national title and first with the Cardinals — and he’ll have to beat in-state rivals Kentucky to make it possible.

Evidently peeved, Pitino, who was UK’s head coach from 1989-1997, is not deify in Lexington but an enemy, a traitor — and during his tenure at Kentucky, he brought the Wildcats back to the top, escaping a recruiting scandal that defaced the program. He took the Wildcats to the Final Four in 1993, and won a championship three years later, defeating Syracuse to raise the trophy. In those days, Kentucky was one of the top teams in the country as they are now, after Pitino had coaxed the best players in the nation to verbally commit and sign with the school, visiting homes and sitting in living rooms to woo kids to play for him. Then he left for the NBA, only to return at the college level on the other side of town, the wrong side of town, to stir plenty of resentment. He failed ever so miserably in over three seasons with the Boston Celtics and had been censured by the local media and fans, after lacking the ability to rejuvenate a mediocre franchise.

Let’s not kid ourselves about the latest beef of this ever-present rivalry, or even the high-stakes and history between two programs relentlessly in disfavor to each other. In a few days, Calipari could be the savior at Kentucky or vice versa if Pitino can fare well against the Wildcats and come through in the jaws of defeat for one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history. The argument is now over whether this is one of the well-anticipated, heated college basketball games ever, the type of epic theater we’ll reminisce about for many years, with a pair of villainous coaches who are identified as heroes on their side of town and with a brand of talented, athletic superstars on each team of this intense rivalry.

The storyline of Calipari’s recent effectuation is the one-and-done formula he has adopted, a knack to align stars and turn freshmen into explosive superstars. It’s clearly the Calipari Way, a strategy in which he relies solely on one-and-done, NBA-ready players to produce enough wins to qualify for the Final Four, and then is bereaved of mind-blowing talent and replenishes Kentucky’s roster. Very rare does Calipari foster and discipline veterans, but has recruited the best players in the nation in the past three years. Now is a good time for him to win, with all this talent.

Years ago, the Pitino-Calipari relationship crumbled and their personalities have drastically changed, and most likely they don’t have dinner together, don’t have long conversations over the phone — they are not as close as they once were. And therefore, Pitino and Calipari only deal with each other from a professional standpoint. As for Pitino, dressed faddishly in his disco-style, tailor-made suits with his hair combed neatly, he’s racked up more feats than Calipari, masterfully building an image based on his craft and victories, greater than what Coach Cal has stockpiled.

This was not an absolute surprise -- for like many -- Calipari, the blue-collar Pittsburgh native, has battled with Pitino but never come close to matching his share of workmanship. It’s becoming clear that — given that he’s envy and dislikes Pitino in some way — he’s been waiting for such a moment like this, meeting him on the biggest stage for an intense fight. It’s a curious sight as Louisville and Pitino are the underdogs, even after he’s taken the Cardinals to the Final Four and has a bloated resume of victories and unbreakable history.

The difference is that now — with all the talent it has — Kentucky is unbeatable. They are too loaded, too talented, too explosive and too fundamentally sound to stop — and quite frankly — no one believe the Wildcats will fold at this point. He is, however, optimistic and slightly suspects that he can rob Kentucky of its dream to become national champs by Monday night, undeterred by the Wildcats as favorites to cut down the nets and travel home to Lexington with the trophy. It’s not a strange place for Calipari, reaching his second straight Final Four appearance and hoping not to fall short of a national title this year.

He hasn’t lived a perfect life, and before he accepted his dream job at Kentucky, he ran into trouble at previous schools and left behind a mess. The revelations of NCAA violations weren’t worse than Pitino’s tasteless allegations of an extortion trial. As a way to punish Calipari of his wrongdoings, he had one Final Four vacated for the Marcus Camby scandal and had another stripped at Memphis on academic fraud charges on Derrick Rose. In a time when Calipari runs the program Pitino once directed, he is spearheading the most talented team we’ve witnessed in years, with plenty of first-round picks such as Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist.

This is finally a chance for Calipari to beat Pitino. This is finally a shot for Calipari to soar to new heights by knocking off a rival.

The year might have finally come for Calipari, just as much as it has come for Pitino.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dodgers Can Believe in Magic Touch

The national Mega Millions lottery jackpot is worth $363 million, and Southern California is a state in the drawing, including former owner of the Los Angeles Dodgers, Frank McCourt, who hit his own jackpot Tuesday. He had announced an agreement to sell the team for $2 billion to a group that includes legend Lakers star Earvin "Magic" Johnson.

He's the son of the city, the fruitful businessman who built T.G.I Friday's restaurants, who has served Starbucks coffee as residents order Grande-size cups, who built theaters to bring cinemas into poverty-stricken neighborhoods. Now, as one of the well-respected inner-city developers, Johnson has invested into a baseball franchise, buying and lifting the Dodgers out of financial troubles. A seemingly perfect fit to restore a once storied franchise, erasing all the nightmares that dismantled the ballclub, is the Magic touch and, in truth, he ended the horror and gave long-awaited Dodgers fans something proudly to cheer.

There is no questioning that he has wealthy pockets and credibility to operate a franchise, the arriving owner whose dream eventually was to own a sports team. When he called it a career in the league, Johnson knew he had the gumption and will to make a big difference in the lives of generations to come. Only he knew he had a plan after basketball, a largely ideal plan to enhance the growth of employment and change the landscape of a city by becoming a likable paragon and businessman since he retired.

And that was fine, even if he only founded non-profit charity organizations to pander to kids and teens. The word for years, after he sold his interest in the Lakers a few years ago, was that he had expressed interest in pursuing a sports team, and now Johnson can admittedly say he owns a franchise as an admirable businessman with a mind of his own. There's been a month-long guess of who'd buy the team to end the turbulence that ruined a franchise while McCourt settled a wrenching divorce from ex-wife Jamie McCourt, with too much tumult, too much belligerence, too much hullabaloo.

It was too much to deal with for one fan base, one ballclub, one city -- and now here comes a group headed by Johnson to stabilize a sense of belief and hope for the Dodgers. After two years of hell, it's now fine to THINK BLUE again, pull out the Dodgers cap from the closet where it has collected dust, buy tickets to see a few ballgames at the Chavez Ravine and gulp down Dodger Dogs and eat ice cream in cone. It seemed, all along, as if he had an ambition to change from his purple and gold attire to wear Dodger Blue.

He's not a playmaker, he's now a negotiator, an entrepreneur. He's now throwing the fastball, seemingly turning away from the swooshed shots and dunks, leaving behind the Showtime Era trying to build a championship on the baseball field. So there -- absolutely -- is life in Los Angeles, a time to cheer on the Magic touch. Ever since he arrived to L.A. years ago, Johnson has enriched the community in the glow of his proudest achievements in the sports and business world for the well-being of kids and unmoneyed families in a diverse environment.

This is Johnson's chance of resurrecting the Dodgers' image, similar to what he had delivered while he was wearing a Lakers' uniform, beating the Celtics and now hoping to outdo the Yankees. The most loathed, greediest owner in Los Angeles ever sold the team not only to a coveted billionaire but the pillar of one of the largest communities in Southern California. The man had no choice but to sell the team. So as of now, we should thank him for one thing, and one thing only: We must praise him, applaud him for making the smartest move as an evanescent wheeler-dealer. Thank him for selling the team to one of the most hallowed sports stars this town has ever seen.

That's just about the only good thing McCourt has done for this city. He cared only about profiting and never really built a winning product or assembled the right pieces to make a run at the pennant. The real challenge for Johnson, as one of the most highly adorable businessman, is finding a way to revitalize the elusive ballclub. The Magic number was indeed $2 billion, the largest bid ever paid for a sports franchise. There were already whispers that Magic's group would be favorites and, sure enough, they won the bid in the U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Looking back a few weeks, it almost figured that billionaires Steve Cohen and Patrick Soon-Shiong -- including St. Louis Rams owner Stan Kronke were all probable winners for the ownership.

The morning before the announcement, with all the swirling rumors heard throughout L.A., there were good vibes Magic's group would win the bid. Much of the money is coming from Mark Walter, the CEO of financial services firm Guggenheim Partners, in which he will be the controlling owner. Meanwhile, Stan Kasten, former president and GM of the Atlanta Braves, Atlanta Hawks and Washington Nationals will possibly run the baseball operations. It's weird the group agreed to create a joint venture with McCourt for the land around the stadium, but nonetheless, he's not in control of the club and finally is on his way out the door.

It's almost April, and the calendar reads that baseball is upon us with the Dodgers under new management, which is a way to shake off all the misfortune and unhappiness. The perception of this ownership is fittingly perfect for a man who led the Lakers to five NBA championships during the Showtime days, before the stunning announcement that he had HIV, which forced him to retire in 1991.

With all the publicity four years ago, he contemplated a possible run for mayor, staying active and serviceable in the community. The culture wasn't very good, and documents manifested that most of the money earned was spent by the McCourts on a troubled marriage with financial issues becoming so horrendous Major League Baseball had to move in and seized control of the franchise.

This is a significant feel-good story for baseball and, as an African-American owner who broke the color barrier, he can change the dynamics of the sport by reaching out to the community and inspiring more blacks to immerse into baseball. Perhaps the most amazing thing he's ever done for the city Magic is engaged, overjoyed and grateful, with an idea in mind to repair the Dodgers brand that has been demolished under previous ownership -- thanks to McCorrupted.

There will now be Magic. And if you believe, the grisly destruction could dematerialize quickly. The long-suffering is over, and now with Magic, it's safe to believe in blue.

Sunday, March 25, 2012

Bill Self Built Kansas into Winner

He isn’t such a bad coach, after all. He shook the hand of North Carolina’s Roy Williams and, with a smile, celebrated on the floor with his players. For once, Kansas head coach Bill Self had something to be proud of — overjoyed with his team’s accomplishments amid all the adversity and scares.

So ecstatic, and deservingly so, he climbed the ladder to cut the final three strands of the net, following an impressive 80-67 win over North Carolina on Sunday. He was thrilled, grinning, exactly what he needed, and when it ended, the victory sent Self to a second Final Four in nine years with Kansas. The emotions were tangible, the victory cured souls and Self’s players jumped around like fidgety kids at the end, erasing the horrifying memories of tough losses, battling through hard times and overcoming so many bad breaks to make amends. It was a moment of redemption, and more importantly, a real test for Self and the Jayhawks.

Given the program’s history, while the winner is on its way to college basketball’s biggest stage, Self can easily be considered the most decorated coach with eight consecutive Big 12 titles, the 2008 national title and the craft to beat Williams twice in the NCAA tournament at Kansas. So now, it’s all right to make an assumption he’ll win it again someday, if not this year. But he’s only two wins away from the reward, joining the big dance in the Big Easy with eyes on the trophy.

It’s been nine years ago since Williams fled Kansas, and by the time Self accepted one of the hardest jobs in America, he was right away in the shadows of one of the finest coaches ever in Kansas’ basketball program. By any measure, beyond all the doubts that he is extremely overrated after only winning one championship in his nine-year period at Kansas, Self is almost in the company of basketball’s elite coaches, especially if and when the Jayhawks dreams of another championship becomes a reality.

The Jayhawks, favored to raise another championship banner and party wildly in New Orleans once it’s all said and done, will meet East Region champion Ohio State in the semifinals. For much of the game, Kansas engaged in a tight contest to stay alive in likely its most hard fought and dominant game in this year’s NCAA tournament, for once not frightening the hearts and souls of crazed Jayhawks’ fans or believers with busted brackets, no doubt. It was a very fulfilling win, but at the same time, it was also a sign of relief for a team that had already been through it all, from the ups and downs to the good times and the bad times.

And, in a sense, Self has fueled and shaped the Jayhawks into fierce competitors overnight, and Self-motivated his players to have Self-assurance, Self-belief and Self-discipline. That’s sure to draw much attention, with all the heavy talk surrounding Kansas and Self. For now on, he probably won’t have to answer questions about Williams during press conferences, and could strictly focus on his team’s improvement.

This is the most battled-test team to ride to the Final Four, and again, will be relentlessly challenged by Ohio State next Saturday, even if Kansas is not within realm of possibility as exposed to danger as the Jayhawks have been in the past, relying on comebacks and luck to avoid potential letdowns. It is, however, no matter if the Jayhawks struggled and teetered constantly in the tourney, Self’s most remarkable season at KU. In light of the well-accomplished run with Kansas, close to capturing his second championship, Self’s Jayhawks beat a No. 1 seed for the school’s 14th Final Four appearance.

In short, he’s made Kansas even more relevant and has reestablished a storied program with his stubborn, soft attitude. Self’s mighty Jayhawks, now considered the most dangerous program behind Kentucky of course, is finding a basketball identity. Prior to this year’s extraordinary run, each year ended ever so miserably — early exits to low-seeded teams before abruptly leaving for home empty handed and with teardrops slowly draining down the faces of saddened Kansas’ players.

But now, there is reason for hope — and even Self knows that — nurturing and breeding the boys for a chance at a title. It was one of those games that Kansas’ defense stifled and trapped North Carolina, holding the Tar Heels to 22.6 percent shooting in the second half, the lowest percentage in a half for a school in an NCAA tournament game. That’s impressive, given that Self’s players play the most deadly and relentless brand of defense. And simply, it’s what defines a team with some of the best talent in the nation.

They are winners — rightfully so — by playing solidly on offense, for once, and dominating as aggressors defensively. It’s all enough to manipulate every opponent it face, enough to hinder the opposing team from turning into tenacious scorers. The star in the middle of it all is Kansas’ All-American Thomas Robinson, yes, the 6-foot-9 junior forward whose dream turned into a reality on D.C. playgrounds before arising into a physical athlete to be one of the top five picks in this year’s NBA draft.

Two years ago, Robinson wasn’t nearly as proficient as he is now and possibly is the national player of the year, dealing with disheartening tragedies and family issues that have truly been inspirational. So it’s amazing what Kansas has accomplished, and with all the joy and confidence, Self told his players that he’s enjoyed coaching this team more than anyone he’s ever directed. And with that said, this Kansas team has exceeded all expectations. The story of this contest was the reemergence of Tyshawn Taylor, who had 22 points in an eye-opening spectacle, helping Kansas to a 12-0 run in the closing minutes.

He developed into the kind of scoring guard that had been missing in this tournament, ending a scoring drought, such as thoughts of any struggles. Midway in the second half, it was a one-point game and the pressure was on for Kansas — with a chance at the Final Four. Along the way, they gained momentum and it brought fans to their feet as the crowd roared louder and louder in a neutral site that felt as if it was a homecoming for the Jayhawks, with the vast majority of their supporters in the stands.

It took exactly a second half for Kansas to realize it could outperform, outsmart and outplay North Carolina. And on the court, Taylor was the man who couldn’t be stopped, the player the Tar Heels couldn’t close in on -- stealing the ball from John Henson, one of North Carolina’s superstars, and racing down the floor for a dunk.

It was all Jayhawks from there, and so Jeff Withey, who was the blocking machine at the basket, tipped in a shot, off Taylor’s ill-advised three-point attempt. Within that span, the Tar Heels just had six points during eight minutes. The rest of the night Taylor forced turnovers and the highlight play came on Elijah Johnson’s three-point shot.

But the bigger story here is Self, of course, in search of a second championship. And yet that’s exactly why he chose to coach Kansas, hoping to be crowned. With Self’s incredible feats as opposed to his recent achievements in March, he can move into the company of top college basketball coaches.

By now, Self is more proud of a team than he’s ever been.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Tim Tebow Resident In Big Apple Is Not Home

It’s not easy being an athlete in New York. It is somewhat a misunderstanding when it comes to the Tim Tebow trade and, as bizarre as it is, he is relocating to a city of drama and craziness. Never is there a dull moment in New York, and with Tebow claiming his citizenship, the media circus has only gotten more berserk.

There is no bigger distraction, even spiritually, in sports other than Tebow simply for shoving his religious beliefs in our faces. It’s all probably for the overexposed Christianity flap-doodle, or for Tebow’s inability to throw with anticipation and only produce enough magic to pull off the miracle. Even though, he’s a charismatic superhero, the holy son of optimism and natural powers, resplendent on the field, he’s the most polarizing human being in sports.

It is, however, awkwardly strange that he ends up in an environment where he will, no doubt, feature extensively on the front page of local newspapers vilified for playing the quarterback position non-traditionally with the type of style not seen too often from a peerless NFL quarterback. If you haven’t been staying on top of things, the flawed quarterback was traded from Denver to the Jets in exchanged for fourth and sixth round picks, including an additional $2.5 million.

The addition of Tebow absolutely creates a plethora of fame, but with all the swirling controversy in an uproarious locker room as players are committed to the blame game, he can either be useful or ineffectual. What happened to the hearsay of him potentially returning home to Florida as Tebow could have polished his career with one of those mediocre franchises in the state where he once was a college legend? What happened to the sensible predictions of him ending up in Miami or even Jacksonville, a pair of NFL teams in desperate need of a quarterback, though the Jaguars are committed to breeding quarterback Blaine Gabbert?

The soon arrival of Tebow, as a situational quarterback and maybe even an inspirational, charismatic voice that motivates and drives starter Mark Sanchez to finally produce in the quarterback role, makes sense to some degree with new offensive coordinator Tony Sparano. It’s a move that seems to be the right fit for an offensive system catering perfectly to Tebow’s singular running style. With Sparano, the creator of the Wildcat formation, Tebow could benefit the Jets. This all may not be such a bad combination when Tebow’s running style complements the Wildcat offense, designed to create a mismatch with a speedy runner against an unprepared defense.

But, then again, he’s in a town where criticism is heavy, in a town where fans and the media can be aggressively finicky and belittling of his mistakes and flaws, such as Tebow’s inability to transform into an elite passer. It’s what Jets GM Mike Tannenbaum and coach Rex Ryan desired and decided to obtain him in a trade to serve as the second-string behind Sanchez, whose paltry performance last season toppled much promise and heated up an ongoing rift in the Jets organization. It’s confusing to see what the Jets saw in Tebow and why the front office felt they needed him, after giving Sanchez a three-year contract extension, which increasingly raised his guaranteed money to $20.5, due to him over the next two seasons.

This isn’t the strangest deal ever, and even if this seems like a perfect fit — in many ways — it makes no sense whatsoever. The more we talk about Tebow, the more he becomes famous to America pop culture, a role model, a pious figure who many admire simply for his good character, dignity and humility. The more we doubt him, the more he’s willing to put time and effort in improving his poor throwing motion. This is what fascinates those who truly eulogize Tebow – either the most likable or polarizing athlete in sports.

It’s notable that he has good work ethic and tremendous appreciation for the game he plays, especially after he was named the Broncos starting quarterback a year ago to replace a struggling Kyle Orton, which resulted in a seven-game winning streak and playoff berth. This has been, no doubt, an interesting offseason – even greater — an intriguing spring for Tebow and the Jets. If this team is trying to develop Sanchez and assure that he turns into a reliable passer, anticipating for him to play skillfully for every penny he’s worth, then bringing in Tebow could initiate disturbance and even reduce his confidence and pride.

In every way, Tebow is moving on to New York and competing for the starting job, in the saddle to take the place of Sanchez if all hell breaks loose next season. If this Tebow trade foils, Ryan is indeed out of a job, as the circus hasn’t left the town since his arrival, known for guaranteeing Super Bowl victories and constant failures. By making this deal, the Jets created unnecessary quarterback controversy, pairing two aspiring quarterbacks all on one franchise in one town.

The Big Apple just became the Circus Big Top.

Trading for Tebow, who had led the Broncos on an incredible run last season, was an insult to Sanchez and it gives us every reason to believe that the Jets are moving in a new direction and could shut the door on him in favor of Timothy Richard Tebow. That’s not only disrespectful — that’s also being disloyal to Sanchez, who the Jets said they deeply love and want as their everyday quarterback. It’s almost like seeing an ex-boyfriend secretly flirting with an unnamed chick while still in a relationship with the girlfriend. The drama exists in New York — it really does — and sadly, the Jets have no trust in Sanchez with a superstar like Tebow waiting in the wings.

As insane as this week has been, regarding the trade talks surrounding Tebow that eventually turned out to be true, these were all sights for which he’ll be used on third and fourth-down plays in most series. The dumbest thing of all of this — even though he can arrive to New York and exemplify a superhero — is that he’s pampered, ennobled and treated like he’s the greatest quarterback on the planet, when in all, he’s nothing more than only a backup to Sanchez at least for the beginning of the season. It almost comes across as if the Jets traded so much talent to receive Tebow when, in reality, they gave the Broncos nothing. The arrival has brought another circus to town, rightfully so.

And, as always, the New York Giants are laughing at the Jets, having all the bragging rights in the world after their recent Super Bowl win. This wasn’t such an intellectual deal, after all. Worse of all it could delay the development of Sanchez, who once was known as Sanchise long before he sputtered and degenerated. Please forgive me if I’m paying no mind about his storybook run with the Broncos. It’s not an overreaction to refresh our memories on what a success he was last season, mastering the role as a quarterback perfectly and had won seven of eight games after the Broncos placed him into the lineup following a 1-4 start.

He’s not your average quarterback. As we all know, his mechanics are bad and he has a slow release. As we all know, he has potential, much of it, but is still a work in progress and not quite ready. This is all bad for a franchise with enough problems as it is. Sanchez was named the team captain, but couldn’t bring the team together as a unified squad. The other troubling issue is a moody Santonio Holmes, surrendering on his teammates at the end of the season. And, well, Ryan admittedly said he had lost his locker room.

So what does that tell you?

Sometimes it’s hard to understand the Jets. And, in this case, nobody knows the team’s intent. This is what it takes to win games?

I’m not even sure the Jets have the answer to that one.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Broncos Divorce Tebow After Manning Arrives

Suddenly, Tebowmania vanished into darkness, much insanity that swept the nation as Denver fans were awed by Tim Tebow’s miracles to lead the Broncos each week to spine-tingling, heart-stopping, magical finishes that ended happily with victory after victory.

If there were ever an opportunity for John Elway to negotiate and satisfy a football savant, once an iconic figure for the Denver Broncos succeeding with the most clutch performances in sports and NFL history -- now the team's vice president -- it was a perfect time to give Peyton Manning a contract. The proud fans of the Denver Broncos welcome in a 4-time MVP with enough left to possibly direct the unit to a championship, which means he might be the right choice for a team that's maybe a quarterback away from reaching an incredible exploit.

So with that in mind, it’s time we say goodbye Tebowmania. And hello Manning-palooza.

As Elway reminded us Tuesday, like the rest of untrustworthy team executives, the NFL is a cruel business. It’s as if he alienated promise to Tebow Tremendous, when in all, he’s looking at it from a professional aspect. And so it ends, sadly and unbelievably, without even giving Tebow a chance to prove he’s worthy of the hardest assignment in football. After a full season, the most endearing and powerful man in Denver divorced him. It’s quite certain Elway has produced Denver’s biggest victory since he led the Broncos to the Super Bowl two decades ago. In all, it’s a relationship of alliance as Denver, among two other cities that Manning had limited himself to specifically, is where he truly had interest in extending his outstanding career at quarterback.

But of all cities, he chose to play in a frigid and unfamiliar environment, not used to delivering passes in bone-chilling temperatures or high altitude. In change of scenery, he is compelled to adjust to the low humidity and thin air for which the breathing and heart rate increase and levels of glucose reduce the energy as the body slowly enervates. And with Manning’s health issues, the signing is considered a high-risk reward for a man who had four procedures to surgically repair damage to his neck.

The best-case scenario is that Manning comes in and lead the Broncos to championship victories during his term in Denver — or worse — he can sustain a career or life-threatening injury the next time he takes a brutal hit. I’m not a doctor or someone who study the concepts of medical, but I do know he’s putting himself at risk. It was apparent — and occasionally understandable — Denver was a suitable home, more less a comfort zone for Manning, judging from the way he already developed a bond with owner Pat Bowlen and coach John Fox.

The flirtation for a few days with Manning paid off and Elway, as a nimble manipulator and negotiator, persuaded the franchise quarterback to relocate to his new address in Denver, where Manning likes the people and the environment. It’s going to be strange, seeing Manning in orange after spending quality years in blue with the jersey No. 18, and he’s set to embark on a new adventure with an entirely new organization that believes in him. He couldn’t pass on an offer to join a franchise that has a tradition of breeding first-rate quarterbacks, couldn’t pass on a franchise’s mystique, couldn’t pass on a stadium where he hasn’t lost in three appearances and couldn’t turn down Elway.

It turns out the Broncos are desperate, so headstrong to take a gigantic risk, knowing Manning’s health status remains in much uncertainty. The decision, from a grand scheme of things, wasn’t so hard and Elway never had to deliberate on whether Manning was worth the gamble. By getting Manning, he is striving to build an unbeatable team around him to compete and finally dominate the AFC West. And so, Elway’s presence certainly had odds on Manning choosing to play in Denver, daringly making the veteran quarterback richer by signing him to five-year, $96 million deal and dumping Tebow like a disloyal boyfriend would after dating a chick.

Now we all know Tebow wasn’t Elway’s guy, separated from a rocky marriage with the club president having the last word that led to an unsettled divorce. It’s all because the Broncos have made the transition from the running game to the old-school passing style, with the services of Manning, a shotgun quarterback who could actually pass the ball perfectly. It was almost as if the Broncos had just won the Super Bowl — it really was — when Manning arrived and Tebow had been asked to leave, not even welcomed as a second-string to be mentored by a veteran with the proper intangibles. The nature of the passing game under Manning certainly makes the Broncos offense that much effective, and they could become one of the most dangerous units in the league.

The state of his health is what remains unknown, but realizing that he brings much aspiration and excitement to Denver with an amalgam of accuracy and arm strength, operating mostly out of the shotgun and mastering the art of accurately throwing the ball downfield, he’s a perfect fit. Again, Tebow, for all his flaws and inconsistencies, wasn’t Elway’s quarterback in the future. As good as he was last season, creating a miracle run for the Broncos, he never really was sold on Tebow – seeing what he had in the miracle-worker.

In the new regime of the experimenting age, the Hall of Fame quarterback, Elway, coaxed someone who desperately and badly wanted to play and continue his career. He never once pondered retirement, and so just like that, Manning will try to implement the same style in Denver with one objective: Win, baby!

What does all this mean for Elway? In truth, rebuilding around a talented unit with a sturdy receiving core and monstrous defensive stars, he is pushing to hold up the Vince Lombardi Trophy. An avid quarterback in his day and age, Elway has been down the same path late in his career years ago. He, on the other hand, had a less serious injury. It was a shoulder injury from tearing his biceps tendon and Elway thought he’d call it a career, but he recovered after rehabbing to regain good health. The thinking of it all is that Manning is walking in Elway’s shoes, willing to exit on his own terms as a winner. He wants to achieve, go out with a bang by raising another trophy.

And it is certainly possible. Also, Manning decided to visit Denver, having good vibes after working out with the team. While Elway told Manning he was deeply interested in his services — Manning never was pressured to make a decision or given an ultimatum; Elway is the savior as an executive, just as he had been as a player. At the beginning of Manning Watch, the Broncos weren’t projected or even in the mix for Peyton — cities such as Miami, Arizona, Washington, Seattle, New York and San Francisco were in the bidding war.

Weeks later, a number of teams pulled out and the Broncos were one of the three teams involved — 49ers and Titans — to obtain Manning. The entire week, Elway stayed mum and downplayed any gossip and had hoped for the very best, and indeed, Manning authorized his agent to open negotiations to join the Broncos. Few thought he’d end up in San Francisco with coach Jim Harbaugh, but he was reluctant to play on the West Coast, though he could have began with a new team in warm climate. It wouldn’t have been such a bad environment, but even more so than the weather, he wanted control of the offense like when he had all the power in Indianapolis.

There is a possibility he succeeds in the crafty offense with offensive coordinator Mike McCoy, who might even be more creative now that Manning is taking the snaps. Remember, too, doctors have cleared Manning to play again, and as a result, he is throwing the ball rather remarkably and effectively. But Elway may want to keep Tebow as a backup and not foolishly trade the most polarizing athlete in football. Since those ties are broken in Denver, and while he’s still a popular athlete to many, the Dolphins or Jaguars — two teams in his home state, Florida — could be his next destination.

Denver’s house is cleaned out.

It’s Manning’s Place now. It’s Elway’s call.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Kentucky, Calipari Can Finally Win Whole Enchilada

What makes the Wildcats so good, besides the fact the school has the shrewdest recruiter in college basketball, is their ability to push inside the paint, masterfully dominate at will and pose as a fundamentally sound unit with the necessities to beat anyone in their path.

And after watching the most talented and completed team in the tournament at which Anthony Davis was dangerously terrorizing underneath the basket, as if he's a beast-like animal on the prowl, the feeling here is that he's the most relentless player not only for Kentucky but in the country. He drove to the basket aggressively, finishing it with an empathic dunk to posterize Iowa State players that erupted a frenzy as Wildcats' fans roared for much of the second half. He swatted shots tenaciously, stopping dribble-penetration and forcing Iowa State to fire three-point shots for much of the second half, though Royce White used his strength to drive the ball and score at the basket.

As the Wildcats increasingly raises fear, Saturday night was Kentucky's biggest test so far in the tournament, and indeed, they prevailed and advanced to the Sweet 16 for a rematch with Indiana. Believe me, if Kentucky is after all the best squad in the nation, they've proved it with an 87-71 rout over a fearless Iowa State team.

“I’ve got a good basketball team,” Calipari said after the game. “You won’t believe this. I’ve got good players, too. But they’re a good team. They’re efficient. They play hard. They are skilled. They’re all skilled."

It's all part of Calipari's way of preparing his team for any disappointment that could stop Kentucky's run to the Final Four and winning its eighth championship. Calipari, at least in perceptive, has disciplined and fortified a talented army of youngsters for one of the most demanding programs in college sports, acting in a tough role by signing the best players in the country to play for the Wildcats and attend the prestigious university for a higher education. The intent is ultimately for Calipari to guide the most talented team he's ever coached to his first NCAA championship, but also he is seeking to achieve larger goals.

He won't be satisfied until he brings life and revives Kentucky, and with the players he has now, Calipari is well on his way to reaching a fulfilled accomplishment. In keeping with tradition, Calipari's purpose is simply to restore a tenor of aspiration for the winningest school in college basketball. It's more about solidifying excellence for a basketball program committed to good fortune in attempt to validate a principle and blueprint for manufacturing multiple championships.

The criticisms toward Calipari, the most polarizing coach in college basketball after the UMass scandal involving Marcus Camby who received improper benefits from an agent, is from his half-knowledge and denial. The bashing toward Calipari, the most hated coach in the game after Memphis was stricken for violations of NCAA rules during his watch regarding Derrick Rose's fraudulent SAT scores, is from him sadly leaving behind a darkened cloud that cast a gloom over two schools for his negligence and blindness.

If the Wildcats raise the trophy and cut down the nets in New Orleans this year, believed to be the most completed team in the tourney, then it figures that Calipari will finally escape dreadful, haunted episodes from prior schools he once coached -- joining Louisville's Rick Pitino as the only coaches to lead three different schools to the Final Four a year ago.

Maybe this is the year he finally reaches a pinnacle and wins his first ever title in his 20 years of coaching, with the eye-catching talent he possess now -- fully entrusting one-and-done superstars every season -- developing NBA-ready players after recruiting, signing and having a part in top prospects verbally committing to play for the program. It has become common to see Calipari fully reload the UK roster with the know-how to string together the best recruiting class every season, and then watch one-and-done players leave after freshman season without polishing three-and-four year stars for a possible championship run.

By now, you know he and the Wildcats benefit nicely from two returning sophomores with NBA capabilities -- enough experience and confidence to instill the importance of staying composed and engaged in what it takes to earn the prize. And now, after this season comes to an end, Terence Jones and Doron Lamb are likely to leave for the NBA, and they are both projected to be selected late in the first round or early in the second round. If there were two players worth crediting, Jones and Lamb were those well-deserving following an awesome performance.

It was surprising to see Jones come back to Kentucky after his freshman season, but now he has a chance perhaps to end his college career with much gratification. He should be, since he had eight points and 11 rebounds Saturday, increasingly raising his draft stock if he decides to leave after this season is over. Just like last season, Lamb is being a difference-maker and playing with much energy and hunger -- scoring 16 points to absolutely slaughter Iowa State and spoil White's tremendous night against the terror of Kentucky's size and physique, a slew of foreboding NBA players. The unique aspect to the Wildcats, after playing deliciously good at the Yum! Center this weekend, is the way Calipari's phenomenal freshmen dominate at will every season, and then he recruits again to sign almost every best player in the nation.

What's a stake is a national title, and senior Darius Miller, who had 19 points Saturday for the Wildcats, knows the significance of playing splendidly. The secret ingredient to rule as a powerhouse is by putting superstars together in order to align, which defines Calipari -- a recruiting virtuoso. This is how the No. 1 Wildcats earned the top seed overall in the NCAA tournament. This is how the 'Cats marvels of near-perfection. For a while there, it looked as if an upset was brewing but Marquis Teague came through and poured in 24 points and had seven assists, and eventually Kentucky pulled away. A lead that was only four ballooned to 18 and, from there, the Wildcats held a large lead.

"Take your hats off to them," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "They hit tough shots, they hit shots with the shot clock running down. They were very good in transition I thought."

It's amazingly a craft and cleverness to turn youth quickly into natural, powerful stars -- a standard for running a top-level program. So now, Kentucky is going to the Sweet 16, which was expected all along. And make no mistake, Iowa State was a very good team but was no match for Kentucky, well, maybe for the first half. If he continues to recruit the best and breed superstars for the NBA, players constantly will leave for the league.

If Calipari can really win this year, with the most dangerous team, he can persist in signing the top players in the country, as he does so well. Seniors are not necessary in his program, simply because he has the knack of recruiting and relies on very young, talented athletes. It doesn't matter whether they are underclassmen or upperclassmen, but what matters is whether he can win it all.

This would now be a perfect time.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

John Calipari's Wildcats Are Most Talented Squad In Country

What if I told you John Calipari is a premier coach with one of the best coaching jobs in the nation, a university known greatly for its basketball? What if I told you Calipari, 53, has an ability for getting his point across to players, grooming one-and-done players and turning diaper dandies into NBA products?

What if I told you Kentucky's Anthony Davis, an all-round forward projected to potentially declare for the 2012 NBA Draft, is the best player in college hoops? What if I told you Kentucky Wildcats are the scariest and most dangerous men's basketball team in the nation?

Wouldn't you buy into what I think is valid?

If you were smart and had a sense of knowledge about college hoops, then you might have penciled in the Wildcats for the Final Four or even the national championship game on your elusive brackets, to raise the trophy and cut down the nets in New Orleans. Generally, Davis is a surefire No. 1 pick in this year's NBA draft, will forgo sophomore season and plans to establish a foundation at the professional ranks. He's the strongest and best player on the floor, a freshman standout, a shot-swatter with a knack and size to pose as a dominant force in the interior to intimidate opponents -- largely putting fear in the minds of his opposition.

If this is the beginning to an extraordinary joyride for the Kentucky Wildcats, the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament, then fans all over are revering the most compelling and eventful unit. They've never disappointed, not once, this year in a well-accomplished season, in chase for the national title to amass much more trophies as the winningest school in college basketball history. It's time for Kentucky to dance, which is just another chance for Calipari, who is, simultaneously, one of the most despised coaches to prove he's one of the stellar coaches all-time. For the first time in his 20-year coaching career, he's never had the deepest unit in the nation with plenty of weapons predicted to go home with a title.

With solid recruiting during his tenure at Kentucky -- since his arrival to Lexington two years ago -- Calipari has built an inferior program from the bottom and lured some of the best prospects from high school. Calipari, in particular, had an extremely touted recruiting class and brought in the top players in all three years, in which he has been the head coach for Kentucky. There is no doubting Calipari's diligence to recruit -- and he's been conspicuously a mentor molding point guards with much potential. Ask Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans and John Wall -- among those skilled point guards he coached.

But this year, Calipari clearly has the most talented team in the nation, more talented than prior classes he masterfully honed and prepared for Elite Eights and Final Fours. It would be an upset surely enough after the Wildcats were given the No. 1 overall seed and were ranked as the most powerful team in the country with first-rate studs and athletic figures, if they are beaten in the most unpredictable tournament. For once, it seems at least, Calipari has a team with parity, experience, heart, hunger and better depth.

Any team is vulnerable and nothing is ever promising in a tourney of single elimination -- nothing, not even advancing past the first round. The Wildcats have flaws, no doubt, but they look more unbeatable and remarkably are the most dominant team Calipari has ever coached, believe it or not, after bringing in the proper ingredients to make a bold statement this March.

He's finally on top of the world, six games away from a national championship, and with the current roster he has now, it's feasible to have faith in the Wildcats. Whether you like him or not, Calipari installed relevance in a storied program that ailed for many years. Whether you like him or not, he accepted the most demanding coaching job in college basketball and, shortly after the hiring, he lifted the program into primary conversations for Final Fours.

What Calipari is doing at Kentucky is turning players into stars, just as he reshaped UMass, Memphis and now Kentucky. The most improved team in the nation is Kentucky, with a seven-men rotation of NBA prospects, including one of the tallest forwards in the game in Davis, a dominant defensive player startling a number of teams because of his shot blocking and fierce toughness in the paint. Without him, Kentucky's run to the NCAA tournament wouldn't be so foretelling. The healthiest team of the tournament is Kentucky -- the amount of depth it requires to win a national championship.

The Wildcats clearly won't be satisfied, until they complete a triumphant quest and continue to play dominantly in each round of the tournament. There's no celebrating, well, at least not for Calipari, who wants his team to stay focus solely on the task at hand and certainly his players have a winning mentality just as much as reality has set in to remind each of them of vulnerability in a competition with surprises and where anything is possible. There is something for Blue Nation to cheer and hopefully the agony of defeat won't reduce crazed fans to tears. This would be the time for Calipari and the Wildcats to win a title with the usual roster of one-and-done superstars.

This would be the time for Calipari to finally become the conqueror of his first championship in such a long coaching tenure with Davis being the ripple effect. If he leaves, which he will likely end a sensational college career to arise as a star in the NBA, the Wildcats won't nearly be dominant. It's not hard to judge that Kentucky is well on its way to New Orleans to play for the prize, and pretty soon if they continue to overpower and beat opponents, Davis and company will celebrate and cut down the nets. The stakes are high and now is the perfect time for Kentucky to capitalize on pride and prestige. My inclination is, when it is all said and done, there will be Kodak moments of Calipari hoisting the trophy and exchanging an extended bear hug with Davis.

And then, Ashley Judd would blow kisses from the stands.

On Thursday, Davis will be the best player on the floor, a primary factor, a menacing threat, a shot-swatter, a penetration-stopper in the lane that would make it rather difficult for No. 16 seed Western Kentucky. He'll be the top superstar respectively for weeks to come, an aggressor and a beast-like specimen with an appetite for wins and a visit to the Final Four in a couple of weeks from now. My bracket says there's no way, and there's just no way in hell, a team can figure out a way to beat an army of superstars with much equilibrium and athleticism.

The excitement created by the Wildcats, starving to taste the glory of winning for putting in effort and exertion to be rewarded, should be even more telling if Kentucky succeeds in the end. Having Davis, the popular athlete who is a top 5 NBA prospect -- without any doubt -- is a boon for a program on track to master total domination in NCAA basketball, a common program filled with much merit years ago. The emergence of freshmen Marquis Teague and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, both expected to enter the NBA draft, are scoring options as they play hard and hustle to attract attention, quickly evolving into flowering supplements offensively. Then it could be useful to have Doron Lamb be a threat from beyond three-point range, scoring from long distance all season. And Terrence Jones is unstoppable on the baseline.

Once again, Calipari, a recruiting expert obviously, may have a better class than John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Brandon Knight -- all his players who potentially had enough to win a national championship. Only the Wildcats can beat themselves, already showing they can defeat anybody they face, despite an inexcusable loss to talented Vanderbilt for the SEC championship Sunday. It won't hurt Kentucky's chances, not as long as Calipari motivates and has the attention of his determined players.

This is what Calipari has waited for, an opportunity, a conceivable opportunity to finally win the prize he's heavily had his eyes on for many years, and now Kentucky is the obvious favorite, finishing 52-0 in home games since taking over the 'Cats 30-win seasons. It is fun to watch players fresh out of high school with tremendous talent each season, to see Calipari produce All-American athletes -- preparing and cultivating all his players. Other than winning, his intentions is to develop superstars send them off as one-and-dones. He's not to blame for that, either. Find fault in the flawed NCAA system for not enforcing college athletes to stay in school longer than a year.

If you weren't aware, the Wildcats have won seven national championships. As it stands, Calipari, who probably can accumulate the number of titles in school history for the winningest program, is honored to join the acclaimed group of coaches from Adolph Rupp to Joe B. Hall to Rick Pitino to Tubby Smith.

With Calipari around, he can recruit and sign the best players in the country. Thank him for Davis. Thank him for putting together the most invincible basketball program in the nation.

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Syracuse Will Hurt In Fab Melo's Absence

For what we know -- officially, openly, indisputably, is that he can only sit and watch and miss out on all the madness. There's not much Fab Melo, the shot-blocking sophomore, can do actively to facilitate and help No. 1 Syracuse in the NCAA tournament.

And so, suddenly, upon hearing the latest news, Melo will not play in the tournament due to eligibility issues, a non-factor at the worst possible time. It's been a season of adversity and ignominy for the Syracuse men's basketball team -- longtime assistant coach Bernie Fine was fired after former two ball boys accused him of sexually abuse. And just recently, Yahoo Sports! learned that at least 10 players failed a banned substance test.

With that in mind, Melo's absence will be felt and, because he won't be taking part in activity of the most unpredictable tournament, bracketologist and casual fans should be skeptical about penciling Syracuse in the Final Four on brackets. Besides, the real fun of Syracuse was watching Melo, who not only had a flashy name but the intangibles of size and incredible wingspan. It would be an upset, not to mention an absolute failure, if Syracuse can't make it to New Orleans. But without the 7-foot Brazilian, logic is, the Orange can't survive, can't easily thrash their opposition and can't perform at best.

Projected to at least qualify for the national title to some, now it appears Syracuse is in serious trouble, as the status remains unknown on whether they can play effectively minus the services of Melo. The spate of distractions from a star player's ineligibility looks painfully bad for a basketball program striving in bringing home the gold trophy and cutting down the nets in New Orleans, but the Orange has depth and tremendous talent with sustainably the best sixth-man in the nation, Dion Waiters. He is a legitimate guard, an athletic sophomore coming off the bench after he was almost released from the team, blooming into a star in his role as a reserve. There are plenty of weapons, from senior point guard Scoop Jardine to Kris Joseph, who leads Syracuse in scoring, piling on 13.8 points and collecting merely five rebounds and has abundantly stolen the ball with his quick hands, tied for the team's second most steals with Jardine.

If Syracuse wants a chance to compete, by all means, it will take contributions from all of them, specifically without Melo having an impact at a time when his presence will deeply be missed. In what will probably be the toughest, stiffest run for Syracuse in the upcoming weeks, beginning with North Carolina-Asheville on Thursday afternoon, it's now conceivably to envision a No. 16 seed having the better chance of becoming the first to defeat a No. 1 seed. It wouldn't be so surprising -- trust me -- if UNC Asheville startled our consciousness and extremely annihilated our brackets as giant killers in the tourney after the greatest upset in NCAA history.

Now, imagine if this were to happen?

If this game becomes an instant classic, replays of the biggest upset will forever reappear on ESPN Classic to remember a fantastic contest of thrills and shocking outcomes. It's not the first time Melo was declared ineligible by the school. The last time he was disqualified by the school was for academic issues, and now comes Melo's second suspension. Worse of all, after penalizing its best player for an unspecific purpose, the NCAA could impose a sanction against the program if the seven-footer was mistakenly cleared to return after the first punishment. His earlier suspension proved costly, he was the missing domino effect and Syracuse -- believe it or not -- diminished in areas of offense, and although you are optimistic the Orange can definitely win without Melo, there is a possibility they might be an early ouster.

It essentially, whether a person buys into it or not, ends Syracuse's national title hopes, putting a scare on the hearts of Syracuse faithful -- starving for a championship and much happiness with all the adversity giving the university a bad name. Through it all, Syracuse has come together as a unified team and immensely overcame adversity, enough to amass a 31-2 record and claim a No. 1 seed, but will have to play without Melo after the announcement that one of the tallest starting centers is ineligible. All season, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim has dealt with off-court distractions on numerous occasions, but it has not caused the Orange to teeter and break down fundamentally.

Melo's absence would be enough, even though he had a disappointing freshman season, to demolish the basketball season, wastefully ending a run of achievements and dreams by missing a key component. It's necessarily a problem without Melo, who was named Big East defensive player of the year, especially if he averaged 7.8 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.9 blocks per game in which he dominated perfectly in Boeheim's acclaimed 2-3-zone defense.

Upset, anyone?

The school is deprived of their superstar in essence of a severe punishment, but in likelihood they could be upset bait. Then again, perhaps this traditionally may be the year we see 'Cuse basketball. It's not believable at this very moment, though.

Monday, March 12, 2012

March Figures to Have Much Parity, Thrills -- Let Madness Begin

The madness is essentially part of our sports culture, which could start an interesting conversation at the water cooler where co-workers all week will discuss their tournament brackets and devote much time away from the workplace to secretly engage in a gambling pool. Each year, we have fun penciling in schools in a field of 68 teams -- watching the unthinkable unfold in arguably the most enthralling tournament in sports. This has been the most exciting season for college hoops. It's always fun to witness the tourney because of underdogs, upsets, breathtaking finishes and thrills.

March Madness is, after all, the time of year when fans fill out brackets, which are busted by the second round to only define a crazy month of March Sadness as no one's bracket is never perfect and usually is obliterated before the Sweet 16. There is nothing new about the majority being at work all week, focusing on brackets, checking the scores and rooting for the underdog -- a tradition we have culturally braced for years. It's a moment in time for a field of 68 teams to ultimately advance to the Final Four in a tourney of single elimination by having the drive, willpower, character, determination and ammunition at the right possible time.

With all due respect Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina all earned No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament Sunday despite stunning conference losses. A team that solely ruled the Big Ten was Michigan State after beating Ohio State, now the only school to earn No. 1 seed after winning its conference tournament. But in truth, all season, the schools worthy of top seeding dominated and were well deserving of largely earning the top spot. The road to the 2012 Final Four -- which is played in New Orleans two weeks from now -- is elusive in which anything is possible.

Like the rest us, President Obama, who has shown enthusiasm for sports, will likely fill out a bracket even if there are more important issues on his to-do list such as restoring a nation financially battered by a long-suffering recession. He is, without a doubt, enamored with college hoops, perhaps maybe even too much. But what sports fan isn't in love with March? The most interesting, fun three weeks on the calendar looms ever so closer, a tournament of dreams, miracles, ecstasy and agony. Even though Kansas are favorites to win all to some, that is, the Jayhawks were given a No. 2 seed.

It's almost as if the deepest teams in the nation exist in the Big 12 with the likes of Missouri and Baylor, two teams that may actually be stronger and more efficient than Kansas. Truth is, every region is competitive and the least expected team, as the NCAA tournament begins -- would wear the class slipper -- like George Mason and Villanova as giant killers in the past. So let the Madness begin.

Where exactly does Kansas stand? You can't ever tell with the Jayhawks.

For whatever reason, as people are so fascinated by Kansas because its considered one of the most talented and deepest teams in the country, the Jayhawks are marked to advance to the Final Four -- but tends to stunningly fall against sleepers in a game of chillers and thrillers. It's hard to believe that Kansas will survive the madness, with far too many people sold on a program that is the most vulnerable team in March. Bill Self, head coach for Kansas, doesn't get much sleep these days, incapable of winning the big ones when it counts. Remember when Ali Farokhhmanesh hit a big three-point shot to help Northern Iowa stun Kansas for one of the biggest upsets in NCAA history? Remember when eleven-seeded VCU beat Kansas that ended in a stunning collapse last season?

Once again, Self, who has won one national championship in eight seasons, is one of the nation's best offensive set coaches and has recruited brilliantly throughout his tenure, but Kansas hasn't had the Big 12's top recruiting class in four years. This is the man who made Kansas relevant after the Roy Williams regime, bringing in Brandon Rush, Julian Wright, and Mario Chalmers -- in the same class. This class has Thomas Robinson -- college basketball's MVP, if not national player of the year, averaging 11.8 boards per game and scoring 17.9 points on 53 percent shooting.

It can't be denied that Kansas is talented and loaded with offensive weapons, but relatively speaking it's always unknown how far they'll go in the tourney, a basketball program that can never, ever be trusted -- even with third-year starter Tyshawn Taylor, who is indispensable if the Jayhawks are playing to get through the first two rounds of their hardest challenge. And the big man, Jeff Withey, a seven-foot center, couldn't disrupt more in the middle as a solid defender.

This team is so equipped with talent of all sizes and athleticism, for which a loss is considered a failure. There's a reason this team is bigger and advertised more than any other team in contention, why Kansas' expectations are immense following a dominant, remarkable 27-6 season and why it's quite a shock when the Jayhawks have tourney misfortune. And if Kansas doesn't watch it and let its guard down, it's feasible that Belmont or Saint Mary's could painfully strike them by surprise. Is this the nation's best offensive team? That remains to be seen.

The nation's second-best teams, such as Duke, Missouri and Ohio State, all earned two seeds and may have felt they should have been ranked higher. One can argue that they all deserved No. 1 seeds, just as much as a person can argue that Drexel and Washington, winner of the Pac-12 title, should have been given at-large bids. It amazes me to see that, of all teams, Iona secured a bid for the tourney, and as it turns out, it seems like an absolute joke come to think of all the craziness. Iona over Oral Roberts and Drexel? Iona over Washington? Are you kidding me?

Sixty-eight teams qualified and, as always, there is much controversy over snubs and seeding for which you can't please everyone, even if you tried. The outcry of snubbed teams is nothing more but bickering on whether a school was legitimately good enough to compete in the NCAA tournament and, from the scheme of things, the committee apparently thought those schools were undeserving.

It's my inclination that the real jockeying for the big dance comes this week in a tourney of much parity, mystic and excitement. Now that we've established the brackets, rightfully so, we can predict a winner and digest the beauty of the big dance, comprised of sixty-eight teams, four regions, three weeks of intense drama.

1. Potential Cinderella

Not many college basketball games have been played lately without George Masons or even an unexpected Cinderella in existence, coming alive to stun the world. And this year alone, Belmont, Detroit and Memphis are a trilogy of dark horses on the road to the Final Four. It wouldn't be smart to ignore Belmont. This is the week Harvard, yes, an Ivy League school, can possibly survive early on with a win over No. 5 Vanderbilt, who convincingly beat unbeatable Kentucky in the SEC championship game. If any upsets happen, Belmont, a well-coached, experienced and powerful team, should be the favorites to pull off the stunner over third-ranked Georgetown, particularly after thrashing North Florida in the Atlantic Sun championship Saturday.

Just so you know, the Bruins finished 19-1-conference play and 30-4 overall. Watch out for Belmont. The annual notion of all the madness is that we should witness another George Mason, as we have each year, becoming obsessed with a suspenseful, compelling contest, which has grown into a popular sports event every spring -- from March Madness gatherings to brackets to online streaming at the workplaces. If you like upsets, then you may fall in love with No. 9 Southern Miss over No. 8 Kansas State or No. 12 Long Beach State over No. 5 New Mexico. This is all seemingly possible.

2. Kentucky Wildcats

The feeling of cutting down the nets in New Orleans is very possible for the Wildcats. And in the big dance, at least for what it is, Kentucky is the most dominant team in the nation and might be crowned champs in three more weeks. The feeling is, once the winner is decided, folks might be partying in Lexington. When he was hired as Kentucky's basketball coach, John Calipari described the University of Kentucky coaching position as his "dream job." It's more than just an illusion and, in reality, he's finally coaching a group of players projected to hold the gold trophy and travel back to the Blue Nation with a sense of joy.

The development of Kentucky is partly from the rise of freshman Marquis Teague and Anthony Davis, the diaper dandy as Dickie V calls them -- a surefire Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and top pick in the NBA draft, scoring 15 points a game, dominating in the middle and blocking shots. And with the likes of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb, the Wildcats are the clear favorites. Among the things for which he has developed the toughest program in the nation, Calipari has influenced his driven players to contend for a national title, chasing the ultimate goal. The best team loses sometimes, and Calipari is advising his considerably talented young players to not beat themselves.

2. North Carolina Tar Heels

The toughest region is the Midwest in which the Nos. 1 and 2 seeds, such as North Carolina and Kansas -- seem probable to meet in the Elite Eight. The Tar Heels are obviously one of the best teams in the nation, after their opposition beat them in the ACC tournament -- which was No. 3 Florida State -- to win its first conference title in school history. Aside from the Tar Heels' loss over the weekend, the team is led by Tyler Zeller, who became the 13th Tar Heel and third in the last five seasons to be named the ACC Player of the Year. Most of North Carolina's flaws are from the inability to shoot the ball -- they don't shoot the ball consistently and depend greatly on Zeller to lead the way. For a team who potentially has enough depth to win a national title, Kendall Marshall, Harrison Barnes and junior forward John Henson are brutal in a transition offense.

3. Syracuse Orange

Jim Boeheim is one of America's premier college basketball coaches, and generally is considered to be an expert of the zone defense. What is a major concern is the way the Orange let their guard down in the Big East tournament, to stumble shockingly in a defeat to Cincinnati. They can't afford to duplicate a shortage of success in a win-or-go-home situation, and if Syracuse struggles, the odds is that they can unravel in the Elite Eight if they meet third-seeded Florida State, a team with enough talent to carry out the upset. By all means, the Orange must get contributions from a disappearing Kris Joseph and Scoop Jardine, two players who will have to recover from woes if Syracuse is angling to overrule.

It's the time of year we die for.

Let the madness begin.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Peyton Manning's Graceful Exit Could Be Good or Bad

They say all good things must end.

Those were the words of the late voice of sports commentator Don Meredith. The strangest ending Peyton Manning ever saw happened after spending 14 seasons as the Colts starting quarterback. Maybe, just maybe it makes sense to part ways with Manning. It comes as no surprise that Colts owner Jim Irsay released the iconic quarterback, uncertain about Manning's short-term and long-term health, and instead has chosen to move forward with QB sensation Andrew Luck, who is potentially his replacement.

That's the advantage of having the first overall pick in the 2012 NFL Draft and, if the Colts weren't fortunate to have sole possession of the No. 1 overall pick, then they probably would have decided to keep Manning as a centerpiece in Indianapolis. The decision to divorce Manning was about health, not money. The concern was whether he was healthy enough and, obviously, Irsay had an assumption that he may not have been in good health to play in 2012.

Manning is not a boy wonder, a sensational star, say, as he was maybe 14 years ago when the Indianapolis Colts selected him first overall in the 1998 NFL Draft. He is not a phenomenon rookie, he is a veteran well past his prime. Better yet, he's free to move around the country as of now and could sign elsewhere, with another NFL franchise for a chance to contend for his second Super Bowl ring. A tale of an iconic figure, once the son of the city who brought a sense of euphoria for an organization and community where fans admiringly glorified football and were amazed by Manning, who became the Colts greatest player ever, the ultimate skilled passer -- was enthusiastic about the toughest position in team sports.

There is a children's hospital named after him -- Peyton Manning Children's Hospital at St. Vincent, and Manning is depicted virtually as a role model to children. There are the creations of the $720 million Lucas Oil Stadium, the house he had built and the place that will honor Manning's name, rightfully so, in which fans will always remember the triumphant memories. On this day, Irsay was saddened, like a toddler who had his candy snatched from him, during a news conference that Manning announced farewell and ended a long relationship. The man he employed for over a decade was teary-eyed standing at the lectern before a crowd of reporters and gave an emotional goodbye speech. He had a smile, while he tried with difficulty to hold back tears, while he tried to speak in clarity without mumbling words.

"We both wanted to be together," Irsay said. "It's been very difficult, just tearing at our hearts, to try to look at the best solution."

This in no way usual was personal, but strictly business. If anything, the two men were close friends and had bonded a friendship that was contiguous, but when it comes to running a business, Irsay feels he has to move in a new direction. This might have been, as a team owner, the toughest choice for Irsay, parting ways with the 4-time MVP -- all with the Colts. This was the only team Manning has ever known, and indeed, it was a somber and downcast day. It must have painfully been tough for both men to announce an unsurprising departure.

"Nobody has had it better than I've had it playing for the Indianapolis Colts the last 14 years," Manning said disheartened after such longevity and playing for one team all his career.

The next step for Manning is getting interesting, and much as Colts fans hate to see him depart, Indianapolis is a rebuilding team and the veteran is not in its future plans. Not once did he look disappointed or angry. And it is quite knowing, determined to continue playing elsewhere though he's coming off four neck surgeries, that Manning is considered to be one of the best quarterbacks of all-time. Little by little, he's recovering from his neck and arm injuries but truly wants to win another Super Bowl before his career ends.

He was the star of the Colts, and Irsay said Manning's No. 18 jersey would be retired eventually. It's not surprising that he parted ways with his franchise quarterback. The word was out weeks ago. It figured the Colts would move on and roll the dice with Luck or Robert Griffin III.

"The circumstances," Manning said. "It was the third guy in the talks with us all the time. It wasn't his decision. It wasn't my decision. The circumstances kind of dictated that. It's not what either of us wanted."

This may have been the most classy sports divorce ever, and they each announced it with civility. Maybe Manning will end up in South Beach, as a member of the Miami Dolphins, potentially the next great commodity since the great Dan Marino. It's a goodbye no one ever saw coming, but Manning's release wasn't surprising when it was rumored in recent weeks.

There is now debate and heavy talk over his next destination, awkwardly relieved of his duties after he was the symbol of Indianapolis sports, an iconic athlete everyone adored roughly for laying the foundation of relevance and carrying the Colts essentially to success -- and then, in the end, he gets cut. This has been coming for weeks, an ongoing saga the two sides increasingly gave rise to shortly before Indianapolis welcomed in Super Bowl XLVI. The news is not so surprising, but his exit from Indianapolis was unprecedented and directed professionally with tremendous grace.

"We had good, healthy talks about where everything was, what the circumstances were. It was kind of that circumstances was the third guy in the talks with us all the time," Manning said of their compromise as Friday deadline quickly approached for the Colts to cut him loose or pay a $28-millon bonus.

"It wasn't his decision. It wasn't my decision. Circumstances kind of dictated that. It's not what either of us wanted. It's just kind of the way it worked out to be."

No one knows what can happen, now that he's not a Colt. And no one knows what can happen for the Colts, now that Irsay made it real clear that Manning is done. Goodbye. Thank you. Best of luck. The harsh reality is, Irsay felt his services weren't necessary moving on in the future, focused on rebuilding his team with youth and a robust, rookie quarterback by selecting Luck or Griffin come April. It turns out he was disillusioned to grapple with a miserable 2-14 season and painfully witnessed his Colts, without the injured Manning last season, struggle in a dismal season.

So now, he can rebuild with surefire No. 1 draft pick Andrew Luck of Stanford, who has a self-disciplined, challenging effort in replacing a legend of 14 years. At 36 years of age -- his birthday on March 24 -- it's uncertain whether Manning still will be his usual self, a prolific quarterback we all became attached to, embracing and cheering on an American profile, the symbol of pro football. As a general sense, with Manning recovering from ailments that forced Irsay to release his star player, it's not distinguished whether he's the Manning we all know so well. The best-case scenario is that he returns to normalcy and good health to lead a team, call the plays on the field, compile double-digit wins and earn a trip to the playoffs with his new team.

He exposed all of that as a member of the Colts, just achieving more than the average pro quarterback in a league of longstanding publicity and in one community to sell tickets and market its product. Manning is newsworthy of excellence and is an appealing star that fans die to witness. And, although, he's not a Colt, he probably will still, and should be lauded as one of the brightest athletes in American sports.

"There will be no other Peyton Manning. That's something that in a special place and a special time over the last decade and a half we've been so blessed to have him," Irsay sad sadly.

"The good times that we've had together, the laughs we've shared together," Irsay also alluded to, and then somberly broke down in tears. "You know, growing up together in the organization. You know, when a 37-year-old owner met a 22-year-old player coming out of Tennessee and the dreams that we had and experienced are beyond my imagination."

But now, after all of this, he's the most attractive free agent on the market and teams have already expressed interest in the veteran. Though the love and affection were genuine and exquisitely was the most amiable love affair between any player and owner in sports, he now can find a new home potentially in Miami, Kansas City, Arizona, Denver, Cleveland, Seattle or New York Jets, among them.

For reference, it's a factual indicator that a legion of teams are rifling through Manning's resume of 141 win total, a sweeping 399 in career passing touchdowns and 208 career regular-season starts. Couple it all with Manning amazingly reaching 54,828 in passing yards and winning eight division titles. He can put on the kind of exhibit an inferior team without a quarterback has been longing for. We are officially on Manning Watch, weeks of long-lasting debates and, trust me, all the speculations of which team he possibly will end up with won't dematerialize anytime soon until he agrees to a deal with a team.

It would be smart, willing to put his life on the line and take a chance of possibly suffering a life-threatening injury to play the game he truly loves, for him to seek a team in contention. And with his extreme competitiveness, he can likely turn a substandard team into a consistent winner. It's not only much of a business solution, it's having the rights to possess Manning on your team. It's profoundly plausible he'll be loved as much as he was in the Midwest. Maybe there are no midwestern values, but he certainly has earned the nod to a level of recognition and consciousness. Wherever he plays next season, Manning will definitely be a fool not to choose a team built for the playoffs.

The teams, flirting with one of the sharpest passers in the game today -- if he does stay healthy, would like to aggressively negotiate and remain in the bidding sweepstakes for Manning. It's conceivable to feel the magnitude behind a stud with perhaps enough left to play for a few more years, if any. But any team desperately willing to sign him wants to win now, and will be taking a risk by bringing in a star quarterback with health concerns. What we have here is the latest version of Brett Favre and Joe Montana -- Manning getting released as an aging and unhealthy gunslinger.

He's not the lone pass thrower to finish his career elsewhere. It's commonplace, nowadays, to see a top player have an exceptional career with one team, and then end it elsewhere. It feels strange, sure. But it's not unusual. And in this case, it's not bizarre to see Manning and the Colts part ways, with a medical history of neck troubles that could put his career in harms way. This is actually a new journey in Manning's lifetime, for which he might be greater than when Joe Montana was the starting quarterback for the Kansas City Chiefs later in his career, only leading them to the playoffs but not one championship.

This is actually a person of morals and professionalism, unlike a few years ago when a selfish, egomaniacal Farve annoyed populace as a nuisance in pro sports with his un-retiring, retiring drama that almost damaged a well-accomplished career -- wounding up playing for the New York Jets briefly before signing with Green Bay rivals the Minnesota Vikings for retribution over Packers GM Ted Thompson. Before his career came to a halt, Wayne Gretzky, an all-time hockey great, played for the Los Angeles Kings after his days spent in Edmonton. Marcus Allen left the Los Angeles Raiders and bound the Chiefs in 1993 remember? Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player of all time, netted 40 points for the Wizards, after he had already retired from the Chicago Bulls remember?

Put it this way, whether he plays in Miami or Arizona, there's nothing abnormal about him extending his career with an organization other than the Colts. What we've all seen from Manning in his farewell conference is the type of exit we like to see from a popular superstar. He summed it no better -- with dignity, humbleness and sincerity, Manning departed with class and thanked Colts fans, as everyone should understand the perception of graceful and charming adieus.

If only Favre and LeBron James weren't narcissistic and instead classy.

At the end of the day, Manning is that guy -- the classy, humbled, thankful athlete.

And sooner than later, he'll be welcomed to his new home.