Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Five observations heading into March Madness

The field of 68 is set and First Four games in Dayton are underway. Here are five observations I made about the field heading into the big dance.

Bubble decisions: Before getting into who is in the field, it’s worth mentioning who is not. Notre Dame was the most obvious exclusion this year with Oklahoma State being another team that belonged in the field. The Irish went to Syracuse, a bubble team that made the field, without Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell and won, yet Syracuse is playing in the big dance while Notre Dame was sent to the NIT. Oklahoma State also has two wins over Kansas while Arizona State finished eighth in an average Pac 12 and Oklahoma played nothing like an NCAA Tournament team down the stretch. The committee had more decisions to make regarding the bubble this year than it did last year, and it’s hard to agree with what they settled on.

Seeding mistakes: On top of some poor bubble calls, there were some clear seeding errors within the four regions. Arizona is entering the tourney off winning the Pac 12 tournament and has the best player in the country on its roster in DeAndre Ayton so coming in as a four seed in the South region was surprising for sure. On top of that, we could be in for an all-Wildcats matchup in the round of 32 with Kentucky falling on the five line and being sent to the same region as Arizona. John Calipari’s squad finished the regular season strong and won the SEC Tournament and that momentum figured to have Kentucky as a top four seed in its region but that wasn’t meant to be. It’s hard to sell me on Purdue having a better season than Michigan State yet the Boilermakers found themselves on the two line while Michigan State is a three seed in the Midwest region and could see Duke in the Sweet 16. In the West, North Carolina seemed to draw a two seed largely off its pedigree. The Tar Heels finished sixth in the regular season in the ACC and while they did make it to the final of the ACC Tournament, they’re another team that Michigan State had a better resume than.

Beware of the 5-12: The more you think about the way the committee seeds, the easier it gets to see why a 12 seed beats a five seed almost every year. This year the four teams on the 12 line are Davidson, South Dakota State, New Mexico State and Murray State. All four teams are automatic bids from mid-major conferences. Davidson stole a bid by beating Rhode Island in the A-10 championship game on Sunday and South Dakota State, New Mexico State and Murray State enter the big dance having all won at least 26 games. These are good teams that could all wind playing into the second weekend. When you win that many games, regardless of your schedule or your conference, winning a game or two in the tournament isn’t an unrealistic goal. Most of the time, 12 seeds profile the way these four do and they’re a dangerous draw for the five seed from the high-major league. To be honest, I’d be mildly surprised if New Mexico State didn’t beat Clemson in its first tournament game and like Murray State’s chances against West Virginia as well as South Dakota State’s odds to take down Ohio State.

Finding this year’s South Carolina: It wouldn’t be March without trying to take a stab at who might be the surprise team to get to the Elite Eight or Final Four. For five straight seasons, a team seeded seventh or lower has won its respective region and advanced to the final four. Last year it was Frank Martin’s South Carolina Gamecocks that shocked the world. South Carolina’s region opened in a big way when top-seeded Villanova lost in the round of 32 to Wisconsin.  So really what this comes down to each year is which region has some high seeds that are vulnerable and which lower seed will take advantage. Predicting the latter is nearly impossible which is the beauty of this tournament, but every year there is a region or two that is a little more open than the others and could lend itself to chaos. This year, the East and the West regions could be set up that way. I already mentioned how Purdue’s slightly over-seeded as a two in the East and Texas Tech is the three seed in the East and is making just its second tournament appearance in the last 10 years.  Out West, the consensus seems to be that Xavier is the softest number one seed and I also mentioned I thought North Carolina was over-seeded as the two in that region. If we get a surprise regional finalist or national semifinalist this year, my guess is it’s a result of chaos in the East or West.

The upset of all upsets: Hear me out. There was next to no consistency at the top of college basketball this year. Penn is the automatic bid out of the Ivy League and won 24 games this year and usually the Ivy League representative is shown a little more respect. I’m not going to pretend to be an expert on the 16 seeds this year, or necessarily say that Penn beating Kansas is the one, but throughout the regular season, as more teams ranked in the top five continued to lose, I felt like it might be possible to see a 16 seed pull it off this year. Of course, I may not be at all close here, but let’s just say I’ll be watching the 1-16 games a little closer this year.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

A month unlike any other in Philadelphia sports

The Eagles winning the Super Bowl would have been enough for quite a while. After the Super Bowl, there’s not much on the sports calendar for the rest of February. But, when your team wins the Super Bowl, then who cares about the rest of the month? I’m sure that’s how plenty of Philadelphia sports fans felt following the evening of February 4.

But, what has followed with the two teams that reside at Wells Fargo Center lends credence to the old cliché “Winning is contagious.” After each team won today, the Flyers and Sixers are a combined 16-0-1 since that memorable Sunday night for the Eagles in Minneapolis.  When you think about where all three of these teams were at the beginning of February in 2017 and look at where they are now, it’s night and day.

The Eagles had finished last in the NFC East and both the short-term and long-term futures of the organization were difficult to decipher. Granted, it was the first year of a new regime, but there was much more unknown than known when it came to Philadelphia’s football team last February. The Flyers were on their way to becoming the first team in NHL history to miss the playoffs in a season in which they had a 10-game winning streak. There were many more questions than answers surrounding head coach Dave Hakstol, whose team had clearly regressed after making the playoffs in his first season.

                                                     Mitchell Leff/Getty Images
Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid have the current and future
states of the Sixers looking very fruitful.
The Sixers had just lost Joel Embiid for the rest of the year to a torn meniscus after it was later revealed he played with the bad knee in what would be his final game of 2016-17. The game was televised on ESPN and the optics of the situation were that the ownership group wanted their best player in front of the national audience despite his injury. Only a couple weeks after Embiid’s final game of the season, the Sixers announced the first overall pick of the 2016 NBA Draft, Ben Simmons, would be held out for the rest of the year with a foot injury. Fans would have to wait until the fall to see the two prized possessions of “The Process” take the floor together. 

Fast forward to the end of February one year later and the Eagles have won the Super Bowl, the Flyers may well win the NHL’s Metropolitan division and the Sixers could host a playoff series in the first round. The writing was on the wall for all the professional teams in Philadelphia to improve, but certainly not this quickly. In one year, the Eagles went from last place to Super Bowl Champions, the Flyers went from out of the playoffs to perhaps winning the NHL’s deepest division and the Sixers went from non-playoff team to potential top four seed in the Eastern Conference. If this month has been any indication of what the rest of 2018 may hold for Philadelphia sports, the Phillies are due for a sharp increase in wins in what figures to be a wide-open NL East after the preseason favorite Washington Nationals.

                                               Bill Streicher/USA Today Sports
Young defensemen Shayne Gostisbehere and Ivan Provorov
are at the forefront of the Flyers' success this season.
The most encouraging thing about all of this is that none of it appears to be a fluke and the teams in Philadelphia are positioned well for the long-term future. All four teams are rife with young talent. While there’s never a guarantee that bad teams are going to be able to stockpile draft picks and prospects and turn things around, the futures for all four teams in the City of Brotherly Love are bright. Before this year, the Eagles had not won a playoff game in nine years. The Flyers had missed the playoffs in three of the previous five seasons. The Sixers were trapped in the middle of the NBA for a decade and the Phillies lost the most games out of any team in Major League Baseball since the start of 2013. All four teams went through coaching changes and front office makeovers. It’s nice to have those last five years for all four teams in the rear-view mirror now. Time to enjoy a new era. A
winning era.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Basking in the glory of a Super Bowl championship

It’s been difficult to come up with words to describe what the last five days have been like since the Philadelphia Eagles became Super Bowl champions. I grew up in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, about 10 miles east of the City of Brotherly Love and have been a huge Philadelphia sports fan ever since I laid foot in Veterans Stadium. I followed all four professional teams like it was my job. I fell in love with the city’s college basketball tradition. But, it didn’t take long to know there was one team that mattered more to everyone in the Delaware Valley. Even if football wasn’t your favorite sport, you knew that team was the Eagles.

The North Jersey transplants that had migrated down the turnpike were insufferable during the two Super Bowls the New York Giants won in the 2007 and 2011 seasons. Of course, there’s annoying Cowboys fans everywhere.  So even when things were going well for the Birds, and every diehard says Birds, not Eagles, all it took was one person to say “Yeah, but the Eagles still have never won the Super Bowl.”

I remember where I was when St. Louis Rams safety Aeneas Williams picked off Donovan McNabb ending an upset bid for the Eagles after a strong 2001 regular season and big playoff wins over Tampa Bay and Chicago had them in the NFC Championship game. They were ahead of schedule after three years of the Andy Reid era. I also remember where I was the next year, when Tampa’s Ronde Barber intercepted McNabb in the NFC title game in what was the final football game at The Vet. It was a different defensive back the next year but same story as Carolina’s Ricky Manning Jr. had three picks against the Birds, to again deny them of a trip to the Super Bowl. Then, they finally got over the hump. A victory over the Atlanta Falcons in the franchise’s fourth consecutive trip to the NFC Championship game sent the Eagles to Jacksonville for Super Bowl XXXIX. But, all that meant was the disappointment came two weeks later as New England defeated the Eagles 24-21 for its third Super Bowl in four years. I was 10 years old during Super Bowl XXXIX, so what I had been through was nothing in comparison to the older generations of Philly fans. But, even at that young age, I was already becoming numb to disappointment.

During my childhood, the other Philly teams weren’t even good enough to disappoint you. Aside from a magical run by the Sixers to the NBA Finals in 2001, when they never had a shot against the Lakers, the Sixers, Phillies and Flyers were never even close to a title. Fortunately, I have no recollection of the Flyers getting swept by Detroit in the 1997 Stanley Cup Final, and was barely a thought when Joe Carter ended the 1993 World Series against the Phillies.

It all changed in 2008 though. An up-and-coming Phillies team stacked with homegrown talent ended a 14-year playoff drought in 2007 and ended the city’s 25-year championship drought in 2008. Between the four teams, Philadelphia fans that were old enough had gone through 100 seasons without a championship. As a 14-year-old, I figured my waiting was over. This was the beginning of a dynasty for the Phillies. Ryan Howard was the 2005 National League Rookie of the Year and the 2006 NL Most Valuable Player. Jimmy Rollins won the NL MVP award in 2007 and the team erased a seven-game deficit in the NL East with 17 games left in the regular season to stun the hated New York Mets. The Phillies were ready for a championship and they delivered in 2008. Bring on 2009, time to repeat. Not quite. They got back to the World Series, but the Yankees halted their title defense. It’s no fun losing to the Yankees, but surely, they’d be back. The team’s roster improved in 2010 and 2011, but they exited the playoffs earlier each year and haven’t returned since. After tasting one championship from my four teams, I figured they would start coming faster. After all, during the Phillies’ run of five straight NL East titles from 2007-2011, the Eagles returned to the NFC Championship game after the 2008 season and the Flyers got to the Stanley Cup Final in 2010 and erased an 0-3 series deficit earlier in the playoffs against the Boston Bruins. But, the World Series title in 2008 was still the only thing I had to hitch my wagon to and I learned that I didn’t enjoy it long enough.

                                                     Mitchell Leff/Getty Images

Then, all the teams got bad again. From 2012 until a couple weeks ago, Philadelphia professional sports teams had not advanced at least one round in the playoffs. As a Temple student, Villanova’s men’s basketball team winning the National Championship in 2016 wasn’t that much fun. Then, this Eagles season happened. After a 7-9 season last year, the Eagles looked like the best team in the NFL and were cruising right along. However, as the injuries piled up, there was a sense of “Here we go again” amongst many Philly fans, especially after quarterback Carson Wentz went down for the year with a knee injury late in the regular season. But, this team was different. Several analysts, media members and fans all looked past the Eagles once Nick Foles took over under center. But, they embraced the underdog role in the postseason and rallied behind the home crowds at Lincoln Financial Field to earn a trip to Super Bowl LII. I’m now 23 and didn’t know many of my best friends when the Birds were last in the Super Bowl. It was fitting that it was the same opponent and even more fitting that it was a different result, given the way this team’s season was unfolding.

Rather than discuss all the great stories involving the Eagles this year, as many journalists have told them much better than I would, I wanted to express some of my feelings. Getting calls and text messages on Sunday night when it was over was just as good as the game itself. Working 1500 miles from Philly meant I couldn’t attend yesterday’s parade. But that wasn’t minimizing my emotions at all. To so many people, myself included, the Eagles are more than a football team. They’re family. Now, they’re Super Bowl champions and nobody can ever say “Eagles have no Super Bowls” again.