Wednesday, June 28, 2006
Page 2 Quickie: June 27, 2006
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:
I'm all for expanding the NCAA Tournament, as some college hoops coaches will propose at the annual NCAA meetings this week.
My only problem is that I think the floated proposal of doubling the field from 64 to 128 teams doesn't go far enough. My plan?
I call it "Ultimate Madness": Expand the field to include all teams.
Start with this: Modestly expand the current D-1 RPI listing of teams from 334 to 336 by promoting just two teams from Division 2. That makes the rest of the numbers work.
Then the fun begins, starting with the elimination of conference tournaments, replaced by something a lot more fun, exciting and fair:
Step 1: When the regular season ends, the top 32 teams in the country are seeded and given a bye into the classic 64-team "Big Dance." Earning a bye week is the incentive to play hard in the regular season.
(And we still have the drama of the "bubble" as teams jockey for a spot in this Top 32 field.)
Step 2: The leftover 304 teams are seeded into a "Little Dance," held during the 10 days previously reserved for Championship Week:
The weakest 64 play two preliminary games to find 16 teams to join the remaining 240, rounding out the 256-team "Little Dance" bracket. (Try that in your office pool!)
The benefits are obvious: Every fan enjoys a stake; smaller schools get way more exposure; big schools can prove they belong in the ultimate field of 64; revenue for TV partners and the NCAA would be astronomical.
Step 3: Within simply 3 games played over a week, this 256-team field is narrowed to 32, then seeded with the Top 32 teams into the conventional 64-team bracket we all know and love.
The Top 32 teams might be rested, but the "Other 32" have been battle-tested by anything from 3-5 games -- gaining momentum, generating fan buzz and finding chemistry that would lead to more Big Dance parity.
Step 4: Play the 64-team Big Dance as usual.
All of a sudden, every game is up for grabs: The traditional 16-vs.-1 game isn't the lock it used to be: Not when the 16th-seeded team is truly the 64th-best team in the country.
Most of all, letting every team in creates the biggest championship meritocracy in sports:
Teams are amply rewarded for playing well during the regular season, but the final, more competitive field of 64 is represented by teams that have earned it; no more snubs -- or excuses.
Every March, we hope for the "Hoosiers" story line. Remember: That famous championship happened within the old Indiana schoolboy system that let every high school team compete in a single state tournament.
By replacing Championship Week with a "Little Dance" and opening up the NCAA Tournament to everyone, we don't just uphold the spirit of Cinderella -- we enhance it.
So as the NCAA meets this week to talk hoops, is there anyone bold enough to print out this column and pass around my plan?
"Evident progress, not just debatable progress." That was Knicks owner James Dolan's public ultimatum to Isiah Thomas. Here's the money quote, with Dolan speaking right next to Isiah:
"At this time next year, Isiah will be with us if we can all sit here and say that this team has made significant progress toward its goal of eventually becoming an NBA championship team. If we can't say that, then Isiah will not be here."
It's a double-edged sword for Knicks fans: On the one hand, that's the type of public pressure (unprecedented, if you think about it) that will improve the team one way or the other:
Either Isiah will make the team better or he will be fired. Both should be acceptable solutions to openly hostile Knicks fans (see next item).
Except that on the other hand, if Isiah actually does make "evident progress," he will be retained, and there's no way the Knicks get that good under his watch.
I have argued that Isiah will get more wins than Larry Brown simply because the Knicks can't be coached worse than a year ago -- not to mention the players' motivation to win out of spite for Brown. Will 25 wins (plus-2 over last season) be considered "progress"?
(Meanwhile, Dolan and Isiah tossed out an interesting Brown detail, saying Larry wanted the team to eat $150 million in player waivers -- including Marbury and Francis -- to start over. Dolan spun it thusly: "What he's really saying to us is, 'I'm going to make you fire me.'")
More Papi Heroics
Let's role play:You're a road team's manager at Fenway for a Monday day game; in the previous game (on Saturday, since Sunday's game was postponed), David Ortiz beat you with a 10th-inning walk-off HR
Two outs, bottom of the 12th, the Red Sox have just come back to tie the game, and runners are on 1st and 2nd. Surprise: Ortiz is at bat.
What do you do?
If it were me, I'd walk him intentionally and take my chances, figuring a game-winning single from Manny might happen, but I sure won't let Ortiz have a shot at it (for the 2nd straight game, mind you).
Phillies manager Charlie Manuel disagreed, even though you could probably hear the screams all the way from Philly:
(Pause to watch at-bat)
O's Trading Tejada?
Previous rumblings were confirmed in today's Washington Post:
Internally, the O's are serious about possibly trading superstar SS Miguel Tejada, making him by far the biggest name being tossed around in the lead-up to the trading deadline a month from now.
Can Baltimore possibly get equal value for the top slugging shortstop in the AL? (He leads in HR, RBI and runs). No chance.
That means the O's are ripe for the swindling. You can almost hear the gears at Fenway cranking as Theo Epstein and Co. try to figure out a way to get a division rival to trade the Red Sox their best player.
MLB All-Star Voting
Bay rules NL: I don't know who's voting for Jason Bay (Canadians?) or why (pity?), but he leads all NL outfielders in voting. What a testament to the sensibility of the fans.
Has Pirates SS Jack Wilson enjoyed a halo effect? He's 2nd in the final week of online voting, but pursuing the red-hot Jose Reyes, whose "New York Advantage" should prove the edge he needs to clinch the spot.
AL Ballot: When results are released today, I don't expect Jason Varitek to have been displaced as starting catcher, but "AL-ternative" Joe Mauer keeps proving he deserves it more: Monday, he had a career-best 5 RBI, collecting 4 hits to raise his MLB-leading average to .377.
Cup: Italy Wins Ugly
Teams playing 10 on 11 are not supposed to win. Tie? Sure. Win on kicks after an expanded overtime? Maybe. But win in regulation? Hmmm...
That's as sketchy a proposition as Italy, playing with 10, earning a penalty kick in injury time to edge Australia's feisty Socceroos.
In a World Cup filled with controversial (if not outright lousy) officiating, this was the worst moment yet, making Dirk Nowitzki's end-of-game touch foul on Dwyane Wade in Game 5 of the NBA Finals seem benign.
For a country embroiled in a match-fixing scandal, it's unsurprising that controversy -- or perhaps it's abbondanza -- would follow Italy along.
I'm sure the Azzurri's "luck" with officiating will continue through the quarterfinal with the Ukraine, but Italy and its fans are in for a rough karmic boomerang if they meet host Germany in the semis.
Meanwhile, forget the old "Seinfeld" jokes about the weakness of the Ukraine: After going to penalty kicks with Switzerland, the Ukraine moved on to the quarters to face those dodgy Italians. (The scouting report? Try not to breathe on the Italians late in the game; it'll cost you big.)
Picking Today's K.O. Matches:
Brazil over Ghana
Spain over France
(Knockout round record: 4-2)
NBA Draft Watch
Is it better or worse to have no clear-cut No. 1 pick?
Better: When no one knows what's going to happen at the top of the draft, that's a huge incentive to tune in to follow it.
The Raptors have been linked to as many as six players (plus there's the significant option to trade the pick); what Toronto does will impact the rest of the Top 10.
The best kind of draft week argument isn't everyone nodding in agreement over the superstar future of a LeBron or Duncan, but everyone making their case that their particular project will make the best -- if not particularly spectacular -- pro.
Worse: A draft is only as good as its star wattage at the top. Even if there's no uncertainty about which player will go No. 1, there's an enthusiasm generated at the tantalizing potential for that consensus No. 1 player to change the game. For example, most fans are already looking past this year to next year's "Oden Draft."
With 24 hours to go, I'll take the uncertainty loaded into the lead-up to this year's first pick -- even if the talent itself isn't overwhelmingly dramatic.
What kind of punishment does baseball deliver for the most flamboyant managerial explosion ever?
7 days and $1,000.
That's all? The punishment for Joe Mikulik, who earned instant national notoriety Sunday with his Web-sensation tirade, is unacceptable.
Mikulik went absolutely bonkers, layering in at least five different kinds of baseball tantrum styles into one endless, violent diatribe.
Just because he didn't actually touch the ump (or throw a bat at him or take steroids) doesn't mean Mikulik didn't embarrass the sport far more than Delmon Young or any of the substance-banished minor-leaguers. Suspending him for 50 games wouldn't have been too harsh.
Mikulik, more than any player, is supposed to be the role model, and though his freak-out was hilarious, it was also totally inappropriate.
His punishment is a slap on the wrist and an invitation for him (or any other managerial clown) to push the boundaries even further next time.
(If that's even possible.)
The '06 nominations are in: 39 categories, from the best in an individual sport to the best of the best in categories that cut across every sport.
I'll unveil my picks over the next few weeks, but scanning the ballot, one ultracompetitive category immediately stands out: Best Moment.
What could top Kobe's 81?
Well, how about George Mason's Cinderella run to the Final Four? Absolutely.
And yet, there's a moment that will beat them both:
From Jason McElwain, the autistic high school hoops team manager who hit 6 3s in the final 4 minutes of his team's season finale at home, the greatest moment of the year.