Monday, March 16, 2009

Vols Got What They Deserved, Mocs Didn't

I’ll admit I was surprised on Sunday when they announced that Tennessee would face Oklahoma State in the dreaded #8 vs. #9 game on Friday afternoon.

We had been led to believe that with a win in the SEC championship game the Vols might nab a #4 seed and even with a loss they would still get a #6 seed or possibly a #5 seed. What we had forgotten was that this year’s Tennessee team never lived up to the hype for more than a game at a time.

It was easy to be hoodwinked by these long, athletic Vols, who are seemingly unstoppable on paper, but the product on the court has been inconsistent all season. The word on the street was that Pearl’s boys were peaking a couple weeks ago after road wins over Florida and South Carolina, even though neither of those teams was tournament bound.

Regardless, the Vols choked on their home court in the regular season finale against Alabama. Fans seem to have discredited that loss based on a “lucky” shot, but the fact was that the Vols had gone 3-3 to finish the regular season with blowout losses to Kentucky and Ole Miss, both teams that failed to make the NCAA tournament.

The great misnomer about this Volunteer squad was that they deserved a high seed because they played the 2nd most difficult schedule in the country and thus had a high RPI rating. The problem was the Vols played a lot of good teams, but they also got beat by most of them.

Step back and look at it this way, the Vols were 1-5 against teams that finished the season ranked in the top-25 with that lone victory coming in December against #23 Marquette on a neutral court. In other words, when the dust settled the Vols’ marquee victory was over a team that finished 5th in its own conference.

And the Vols’ second best win? At this point that looks like it came against Siena, in November. Heck, Cleveland State had better signature wins than the Vols.

There also appeared to be a problem with the Vols paltry total of 19 regular season wins and 21 total wins. That is the lowest amount of total wins for any single digit seed in this year’s tournament.

In that sense, the selection committee actually smiled on the Vols.

Overall there were two things that worked against the Vols as the selection committee deliberated.

First, the selection committee knew the SEC was no good this year. As a result, instead of rewarding the Vols for winning 10 conference games, they punished them for losing six SEC games in the league’s least competitive season in almost 20 years.

Second, the selection committee was watching the SEC championship game and took note of the Vols’ shooting woes, lack of leadership and most of all their inability to inbound the ball at the end of the game.

My gut tells me that the Vols dropped a seed or two instantly when J.P. Prince played “hot potato” with the basketball after Tyler Smith inbounded it to him with seconds remaining.
With that said, for all the Vols’ liabilities, they are freakishly athletic and I believe capable of playing as good as a championship contender or as bad as, well, Alabama.

If the Vols can survive their first round slugfest with the Cowboys then I wouldn’t want to be Pittsburgh because they will have a #9 seed on their hands that has a lot more talent and a deeper bench than any other #9 seed.

The Vols’ wild inconsistency could work to their advantage if they can channel their frustration from their embarrassing SEC Championship loss and play up to their potential this weekend.

Chattanooga Deserved Better

I breathed a sigh of relief when the Mocs avoided the “play-in” game that some “bracketologists” had them slotted for. However, even with a guaranteed game, I think the Mocs deserved better.

First of all, the Southern conference has proven over the last few years to be simply too good for a #16 seed. #16 seeds should be reserved for the MEACs and the SWACs of the basketball world.

Davidson and College of Charleston both had legitimate arguments for at-large bids to the NCAA tournament and after scraping and clawing to the SoCon tournament final, the Mocs didn’t just beat the Cougars, they pounded them into submission. They put up 20 unanswered points coming out of a halftime tie, something I think I can assume none of us had ever seen before.
UTC played their best basketball at the end of the season and that’s all that matters in small conference basketball.

Coach Shulman admitted that his early season schedule, which included UT, Memphis, Missouri and Southern Cal, was unnecessarily difficult, but the selection committee shouldn’t have punished him for it.

Simply put, if the Mocs had played and beat four Division II opponents instead of playing and losing to four future NCAA tournament teams they would have been a #14 or #15 seed with a 22-12 record instead of a #16 seed with an 18-16 record. And that's not right.

Then again, maybe the Mocs wouldn’t have been as resilient come tournament time if they hadn’t faced that kind of adversity out of the gates. Any way you slice it, it’s just good to have our hometown Mocs dancing again.

Saturday, January 31, 2009

Better Than Advertised Super Bowl

It’s been awhile, so I apologize for the four week hiatus, but my dad is running for governor which means my priorities have changed lately.

But, I couldn’t let the Super Bowl get away without having a few words about a matchup that is better than it’s cracked up to be in our part of the country.

I’ve heard a lot of locals complain about the fact that both the Titans and Falcons were ousted early on, as well as East Tennessee’s favorite son Peyton Manning. Some hardcore Manning fans even pinned their hopes on younger brother Eli, but his Giants faltered in their first round game as well.

And just up the road in Knoxville others were anxious to see hometown hero Chad Pennington’s Cinderella story continue into the postseason. That didn’t happen either.

But for all of you southern sports fans who feel like there is nothing to see and no one worth rooting for, I suggest otherwise.

You’ve got on the one hand a great sports franchise on the brink of winning its record sixth Super Bowl. And on the other hand you’ve got the oldest, continuously run football team in America with tradition dating back to the 19th century, yet they haven’t won squat in 62 years.

The Cardinals may be steeped in tradition, but it’s a losing tradition.

After they won that 1947 NFL Championship who would have guessed that the proud Chicago Cardinals wouldn’t land on their feet again for 62 years and by that time they would have been shunned to play their football in the Arizona desert.

The story gets better.

The Cardinals have landed on their feet with a 37 year old quarterback named Kurt Warner who
was deemed “over the hill” and no longer good enough to start in the NFL just two years ago. Not to mention Warner is one of the all-time “good guys” in the professional sports world, an outspoken Christian and devoted family man.

His supporting cast includes the NFL’s most talented wide receiver duo in Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald and former Colts’ running back Edgerrin James, whose comeback season rivals Warner’s. Those are guys who have seen their fair share of tough breaks.

Boldin had part of his face shattered in a collision earlier in the year that caused his quarterback, Warner, to consider retirement. Fitzgerald left the University of Pittsburgh with the potential to be one of the greatest receivers ever, and has performed as such, but has never had a significant stage to display his talents. Until now that is. And James, who starred alongside Peyton Manning for all those years but never won a ring, temporarily lost his starting job this season to a rookie.

Then the story gets even a little better because those long forgotten Cardinals played their hearts out all the way to a Super Bowl showdown with the legendary Pittsburgh Steelers. The Steelers are known to have one of the country’s largest fan bases, a loyal bunch of black and yellow clad, Terrible Towel waving football fans that supposedly spread far and wide.

Yet, national polls showed that 60% of the country favored the underdog Cardinals in the Super Bowl.

However, Vegas still crowned the Steelers the heavy favorite.

Almost the same exact thing happened last year when the New York Giants had to play the odds on favorite New England Patriots. America’s heart was with the underdog Giants, but Vegas’ brain was with the juggernaut Patriots.

The Giants played harder and tougher with grit and determination, and won Super Bowl XLII. The Cardinals seem primed for a repeat performance.

Don’t bet against the heart of America’s underdog. That’s my prediction.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

NFL Playoffs Preview

What may have been the greatest regular season for the underdog in NFL history is about to get even better as the NFL playoffs get underway this weekend.

Four of the eight teams in action this weekend finished the 2007 season in last place in their division, and better yet, the two most highly touted teams coming into the season, the Patriots and the Cowboys, will be at home watching the playoffs on TV.

You can forget about what was supposed to be one of Jerry Jones’ finest engineered teams ever. Terrell Owens pouted their way out of the playoffs, and Tony Romo chipped in with plenty of untimely interceptions of his own to help send the Cowboys’ much anticipated season down the tubes.

Instead you get to enjoy watching the scrappy “last-to-first” Baltimore Ravens led by rookie quarterback Joe Flacco, who was playing here in Chattanooga just last year for Delaware in the National Championship game.

Also, go ahead forget that Matt Cassell filled in admirably for Tom Brady and kept the Patriots in the playoff picture all season. Even with an 11-5 record the Pats’ season has already ended at the hands of the unlikeliest of foes, last year’s cellar dweller Miami Dolphins.

 Instead of the Patriots you get the reinvented Miami Dolphins, just one year removed from a 1-15 season and currently thriving under the leadership of nine-year NFL veteran and Knoxville native Chad Pennington, who was dumped by the Jets before the season started to make room for Brett Farve.

However, no team contributed to this year’s upside down regular season quite like the Atlanta Falcons, who were once thought to be most dreadful team in the NFL this season, yet turned out to be one of the league’s most exciting attractions as the season progressed.

Rookie quarterback Matt Ryan, MVP runner-up Michael Turner and breakout receiver Roddy White made Michael Vick’s troubles a distant memory for Falcons fans and they’ll look to add another chapter to their storybook season with a win today against the Cardinals.

  • Atlanta Falcons (11-5) at Arizona Cardinals (9-7)

The Falcons seem to be peaking at just the right time, whereas the Cardinals more or less stumbled to the finish line during the regular season. Cardinals’ receivers Anquan Boldin and Larry Fitzgerald test cornerbacks like no other duo in the NFL can, but consistency has been an issue in Arizona all season long. There is always a possibility that quarterback Kurt Warner finds his rhythm with Boldin and Fitzgerald and the Cards put points on the board in a hurry, but I expect the Falcons to come out on top with an inspired effort defensively.

Unlike the other three games this weekend, this came could turn out to be a blow out either way if one of the offenses starts clicking.

Falcons 27, Cardinals 21                     

  • Indianapolis Colts (12-4) at San Diego Chargers (8-8)

First of all, you’ve got a poor home field advantage system when a 12-4 team is traveling halfway across the country to play an 8-8 team. Earlier in the season the Colts edged the Chargers by a field goal in San Diego, but that was before the Chargers hit stride and this time the result could easily be different.

This one is tricky because both teams are on a roll, but still have areas of weakness that can be exploited. The game should go down to the wire where NFL MVP Peyton Manning will have an opportunity to be the difference maker for his team once again.

Colts 24, Chargers 20

  • Baltimore Ravens (11-5) at Miami Dolphins (11-5)

This game has the potential to be one of the most exciting of the playoff season because both teams play hardnosed defense and conservative game management offense. The team that scores a touchdown will likely win the game. Because of their playmaking defense and much improved offense, I expect the Ravens to have a better chance at putting a touchdown or two on the board in this one.

Ravens 13, Dolphins 9

  • Philadelphia Eagles (9-6) at Minnesota Vikings (10-6)

The resurgent Eagles are coming off of one of the most impressive wins in the NFL this season after thumping the Cowboys 44-6, but the Vikings have yet to go down without a fight this season. The Vikings masterfully control the flow of every game by running the ball hard on offense and stopping the run on defense as evidenced by the fact that Adrian Petersen has been the leading rusher in all 16 of the Vikings games this season. Five of the Vikings six losses this season were by a touchdown or less and they have won five games by four points or less, so it’s safe to assume that this one will be close all the way

The Eagles can match the Vikings defensive toughness, but have more versatility on offense.

Eagles 21, Vikings 17