Maize and Blue Madness 2013: Watching the Wolverines Magical Run From inside ESPN’s walls

How do you make March Madness madder? View it from inside these walls!

For the uninitiated: two years ago, I had the opportunity of a lifetime, and took part in my dream internship as a Studio Production Intern with ESPN in Bristol, Connecticut. 10 weeks at the sprawling campus of the network that had made me want to get into sports, and where I hoped to work one day in the future. After a weekend at home for Saint Patrick’s Day, I was gearing up for the stretch run in Bristol, which would end the same weekend as the Final Four.

Sadly, my consecutive games attended streak at Crisler was snapped, but for a very good reason.

Sadly, my consecutive games attended streak at Crisler was snapped, but for a very good reason.

For perspective, 2012-13 was the first (and turned out to be the only) year that I was a Michigan Basketball season ticket holder. The hype of the fresh five (Albrecht, Stauskus, LeVert, McGary, Robinson III) joining Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr had me sipping the maize Kool-Aid despite the team’s inexplicable loss to Ohio in their opening game of the 2012 NCAA Tournament. I had attended every home game possible, sitting in the Maize Rage along the sideline, cheering on the team. My last game came the night before I left for Bristol, when the team beat Purdue 68-53 (pictured left). I waived bon voyage to Ann Arbor and took off for Bristol.

Seven Weeks Later (In Spongebob Narrator Voice)

Championship Week: The Big Ten Tournament

Before the tournament even started, I had the joy of casually meeting former Fab Five member and Michigan legend Jalen Rose in Bristol. When he found out I went to Michigan his eyes lit up at meeting a fellow Wolverine and Michigan native. During Championship week, it was the opening day of the Big Ten Tournament. Michigan had inexplicably lost to a woeful Penn State team in Happy Valley two weeks before, blowing a 15 point lead giving the Nittany Lions their only conference win of the season. As I was walking down the hallway, I ran into Jalen and the following exchange ensued:

I got to know JR before he was relocated to Los Angeles, and before he always carried around his trusty bat.

Me: Yo Jalen, you ready for the Big Ten Tourney?

JR: MICHIGAN INTERN! Have you met Tim yet? (He motioned to Tim McCormick, a former Michgan Center in the 1980’s who works as an analyst at ESPN, was manning the screening room mini set for championship week coverage on ESPNNEWS.) Seeing it was a commercial, Jalen tapped his fist to the glass.

JR: Tim – Current Wolverine over here! Just making sure he pays homage to his elders! (He motioned to me and I waved, Tim politely waved back)

JR: but yeah I think Coach B has them ready for the tourney

Me: there’s no way they lose to this Penn State team twice in one year

JR: If they do, you me, and Tim will head to Ann Arbor and knock some damn sense into their heads before next week.

Thankfully, Michigan took care of business, beating Penn State 83-59 before falling in the next round to 4th seeded Wisconsin 68-59. While I knew it would hurt NCAA seedings, it was kind of nice to go to Ann Arbor not having to worry about balancing watching the Big Ten Tournament games with St. Paddy’s Day shenanigans.

*My run in with Jalen happened a mere 8 days before the epic clip above*

Weekend #1: Round of 64: Michigan 71, South Dakota State 56, Round of 32: Michigan 78, VCU 53

Tim Hardaway Jr. emphasizing Michigan’s Round of 32 win over VCU

My view from the VO room, the tourney of course took precedence.

One short week after my run in with Jalen Rose, March Madness kicked off. The entire campus was abuzz, from the SportsCenter pods discussing their brackets casually off-air to the endless on air coverage.  Anchors and analysts running between studios all day, a lot of the buzz that you felt from the tournament, you could see personified behind the scenes. It also was the time of year for “fan days” an annual tradition where talent and staff are invited to wear their favorite teams colors – of course I wore as much maize and blue as possible across the four days. I was sitting at my desk in the screening room on opening day, every tv along the wall had games playing, in addition to the TV at my desk having access to the feed channel – It divided the screen into four boxes and showed me four games being played at once simultaneously. Luckily, working feed room (pulling up archive footage from the basement and ingesting the files to the servers) I had done most of my work for shows that morning, giving me a chance to fully engross myself in the Madness of the afternoon. My bracket destroyed itself early, as it does every year, but being in this new environment being surrounded by fans, experts, and even guys who had played in March Madness themselves, created a melting pot like nothing I had ever seen.

The first Sunday of opening weekend, March 24, I had to work the AM SportsCenter. This was the day after Michigan soundly beat the 5th seeded VCU Rams 78-53, securing their position in the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 1994 tournament. They also had done so in nearby Auburn Hills, which meant there were hundreds, if not thousands of Michigan students in attendance. Working this particular sunday was the face of the franchise himself, a then beardless Bob Ley. I hadn’t had the chance to meet ESPN’s godfather, so as I introduced myself while handing him scripts, naturally he asked what school I attended, being an intern and all. I replied that I was Michigan born and bred. With a slight grimace, he said, I’m a Seton Hall alum myself, Michigan won that final over them when you were a baby. I had to inform him I actually was born 21 months AFTER Michigan won that 1989 National Championship. With a slight look of horror and amusement, he muttered “they keep getting younger and younger” as I gleefully returned to my spot prompting. Being able to fire a shot without even trying at one of the best in the business gave me a good laugh.

Weekend Number 2: Sweet 16 Michigan 87, Kansas 85 (OT) Elite 8 Michigan 79, Florida 59 

Do you remember exactly where you were when Trey sank the shot heard 'round the world?

Do you remember exactly where you were when Trey sank the shot heard ’round the world?

The next Friday, I had the chance to watch the Michigan’s Sweet 16 matchup vs Kansas from the comfort of my couch in Hartford. While I wish I had the ability to be in Ann Arbor, or better yet, Arlington to see the game in person, it was a game I would never forget. When Trey Burke rose up and nailed that 3 pointer, my celebrating led to my elbow leaving a decent size dent in the drywall behind me (whoops.) I didn’t care, my team had forced overtime off a moment that is forever sealed into my memory. Michigan of course went on to win, setting up an elite eight date with Florida.

The Sunday morning of the Gators game (which just so happened to be Easter Sunday) I had two interesting run ins involving my team. Working on The Sports Reporters, Burke and Michigan’s heroics from Friday dominated the tournament conversation. I distinctly remember Bob Ryan of the The Boston Globe (he is frequently on Around The Horn) mentioning that every tournament, he finds a player he wishes he could “adopt” as a son. Due to his breakout performance, he chose then freshman forward Mitch McGary. I held back a few stifled laughs having seen McGary around campus and met him a few times, knowing he was a bit of a goon, but was happy to see him finally breaking out on the court during the tournament. My friends and I also had a running joke that McGary had rode the pine the earlier parts of the season due to weight issues. While I was grabbing my post-show coffee, the reporters walked by on their way back to the green room so I dished to Bob Ryan the facts on man now known as MMG.

Mitch McGary made a name for himself during March 2013

Me: Hey Bob, you may not want to adopt Mitch McGary so quickly.

Bob: Why is that?

Me: I’ve seen the kid eat in the dining halls, you’re going to go broke trying to keep him fed!

That was met by some raucous laughter as the reporters continued down the hall. I had to work the mid-morning SportsCenter which meant running scripts and getting to chat with the basketball analysts as they came in to breakdown the day’s games. Former Tennessee and current Auburn coach Bruce Pearl was a real character, he is just as boisterous as he seems. I got a chance to get to know him and current ESPN analyst Seth Greenberg fairly well, and always picked their brain about Michigan hoops and their chances. Even they didn’t believe the team would go on the run they did. Most notably, I remember asking Coach Pearl about Michigan’s chances of making the Final Four. He said that he saw Michigan winning in a come from behind fashion. Michigan instead opened with a 13-0 run and led 41-17 at one point. I caught Coach Pearl walking out of the studio and before I could even say anything he haughtily replied “Jesus Christ! I expected them to beat Florida, not put them six feet under! Your boys ate their Wheaties this morning!” I high fived the coach and returned to my desk, knowing that a trip to the Final Four was in hand, and I would be back in Ann Arbor to watch my team try and earn a berth in the National Championship against Syracuse.

Final Four Weekend: Michigan 61, Syracuse 56

Making it back to Ann Arbor in time for the Final Four created one of the most memorable nights of my Michigan experience

Making it back to Ann Arbor in time for the Final Four created one of the most memorable nights of my Michigan experience

An insane thought ran across my mind. Could I pack up all my belongings in Connecticut, leave my last day of work, drive down to Atlanta to meet up with friends and spend the weekend in Georgia even without a ticket to the game? It would’ve required me pulling an all nighter Friday to Saturday and driving 20 hours to Georgia. Sadly, my folks didn’t think it was the brightest idea, so I digressed, but made my dad promise me we would be home Saturday night before the big game. Sitting in the car, driving through Pennsylvania on I-80, I was receiving dozens of Snapchats, and seeing plenty of Tweets and Facebook posts of people enjoying the festivities in Georgia. We made it back to Ann Arbor by 8:15

My Mom briefly confused Ann Arbor for East Lansing - the couch burning capital of Michigan.

My Mom briefly confused Ann Arbor for East Lansing – the couch burning capital of Michigan.

where my best friend and roommate had already assembled our closest friends for a watch party for the Syracuse game. Returning home, seeing everyone, and watching my team win brought me so many emotions and so much happiness, it was a night I would never forget. As we cheered on Michigan in their eventual win over the Orange, we then bolted out the door, and did not walk, but sprinted to Rick’s, our favorite bar, to grab a spot in line to celebrate. I even had the hilarious text conversation with my mother as seen on the right. It was a night I would never forget, leading into a Monday that was unmatched.

Championship Monday: Louisville 82, Michigan 76

Being in a college town when the school’s team is in the championship creates an atmosphere unlike any other. The hype around Ann Arbor that day was palpable. As I spent my day catching up with friends, I even had the chance to be interviewed by the local ABC affiliate at Charley’s while hanging out with friends who were saving a table for the game later that night. I was going with a different group to the watch party at the Crisler Center. The game was fantastic. Spike Albrecht had the game of his life. And all was well, until it wasn’t. Hope was extinguished when Michigan lost by six to Louisville. I obviously can’t imagine what the players were feeling, but the fans left Crisler in a somber mood, happy about the season that was, but sad that it fell just short of Championship glory. Even though Michigan hockey had just lost in the National Championship game two short years before, this one stung a bit more. If Michigan had won, it would have been the culmination of a program that spent most of this millenium under scrutiny for the Ed Martin scandal, and was returning to prominence under John Beilein. Like everyone else, I recovered from it, and still love Michigan Basketball through and through (despite my up and down attitude about the past campaign.)

It ended in sadness, but Michigan Basketball’s March Madness of 2013 gave every Wolverine fan the ride of a lifetime

While I may not have had the traditional student experience during Michigan’s run to the national title game, I had my own unique one that I will never forget that spanned Bristol and Ann Arbor. I laughed, I cried, and I cheered on my team with unrivaled passion. While I still wonder what could’ve been had Michigan won that title, it was a ride that I’ll never forget, and an experience I am thankful for.

Jam of the Week:

 

Ndamukong Who? The Lions Offseason Plan One Week into Free Agency

What purpose does this serve?

Why do jilted fans burn jerseys? As a collector in possession of between 175-200 pieces of polyester representing various sports, teams and players, the last thing I would do is burn a shirt I spent my own, hard-earned money on. Lions fans, one of the most eternally screwed over fan bases  have spent their week lamenting the loss of Ndamukong Suh to the Miami Dolphins. I saw this coming after the wild-card loss in January and came to terms with his impending departure. What I don’t understand is why my fellow fans of the Motor City Kitties don’t understand it. Some are demanding explanations from the team, others are vocalizing complaints on sports radio. At the end of the day, it was a business decision.

Lions fans can take solace in the fact that Suh’s contract is a nightmare for Miami’s cap after this year

Despite some of his on the field actions, Ndamukong Suh is a smart man, now while Miami may not provide his best chance to win (FWIW: The Lions and Dolphins are both at 33-1 odds for Super Bowl 50.) He knows that not only will he make his money, but he will be able to build his #Brand in the warm sand of South Beach. As a Michigan native, I carry the torch for the state and Detroit as proudly as anyone, but even as someone with carrying his state pride on his back (literally,) I would never turn down $60 million dollars guaranteed to move from Detroit to Miami – anyone would be insane to, let alone an NFL player giving up his body and putting himself at huge risk every time he steps on the field.

With Suh walking, the pressure is now greater on Stafford and Johnson to lead Detroit to unseen heights

From a Lions management perspective, they were put between a rock and a hard place. Of the Lions trio of stars in Calvin Johnson, Matthew Stafford and Suh, Suh was brought in last (Drafted in 2010,) which means his extension would get done last. Megatron and Mafford both were inked to huge $100 million plus deals, giving them cap numbers of 20.5 and 17.7 million dollars respectively, making up 26% of the team’s $140 million dollar salary cap for last season. If Suh were franchised, his hit would have been 26.9 million dollars this year. Superstars status regardless, it is terrible business to have nearly half your salary cap tied up in three players, the Lions saw that, and it was easier to let Suh walk then tie up more cap space in a new deal. Suh decided to take the money and uproot to Miami. Best of luck to him, but contracts like this rarely finish in a successful manner. Suh will be 28 this season, but expecting him to play at an All Pro level through 33 is a tall order, even for a man of his talents.

Nick Fairley was never able to live up to his full potential during his four season stay in the Motor City

Now, why the team let Nick Fairley leave is more contentious. Unlike Suh, Fairley was the team’s first draft pick in under the new collective bargaining agreement, which created the rookie wage scale. Picking up Fairley’s fifth year option would not have cost as much, but GM Martin Mayhew says the team has no regrets about letting the five year veteran walk. Considering he missed the final nine games last year, the team still finished first in rush defense. Obviously, Suh deserves credit for this, but the team also may have been assuming they would get Suh back when they declined Fairley’s option before the season. What is interesting is that Fairley signed a one year, incentive-laden “prove it” deal with the Rams. He will join Robert Quinn, Chris Long, Michael Brockers and Aaron Donald in St. Louis on what is already a stacked defensive line, so it will be curious to see his playing time and performance up against his healthiest year in Detroit.

The losses of Suh and Fairley mean that since 2001 (when Mayhew first joined the Lions front office) the team has watched 9 first round draft picks either move on in free agency, be traded, or cut. The notorious list includes:

Known as an eternal optimist, even Joey Harrington was broken (physically) by his tenure in Detroit

Known as an eternal optimist, even Joey Harrington was broken (physically) by his tenure in Detroit

2002 3rd Overall Pick QB Joey Harrington: traded before final year of rookie deal to Miami for draft picks

2003 2nd Overall Pick WR Charles Rogers: Cut after 14 total games over 3 seasons.

2004 7th Overall Pick WR Roy Williams: Traded to Dallas for draft picks in 2008. The first rounder turned into Tight End Brandon Pettigrew

Mike Williams (88) and Charles Rogers (80) played a total of 36 games after being selected ahead of Roddy White and Andre Johnson respectively.

2004 30th Overall Pick RB Kevin Jones: Released after 4 years due to declining production

2005 10th Overall Pick WR Mike Williams: Traded to Oakland after 22 games over two years for draft picks.

2006 9th Overall Pick Ernie Sims: Traded to Philadelphia before final year of rookie deal for TE Tony Scheffler and a 7th round draft pick in three way deal with Denver.

2008 17th Overall Pick Gosder Cherilus: Not re-signed after rookie deal, signed with Indianapolis Colts before 2013 season.

2010 2nd Overall Pick: Ndamukong Suh – Not re-signed after rookie deal, signed with Miami Dolphins for 2015 season.

2010 30th Overall Pick Jahvid Best: Played 22 games in two years, missed final 10 games of 2011 season and entire 2012 season before being released and retiring due to concussion problems.

2011 12th Overall Pick Nick Fairley: Had fifth-year option declined and currently a free agent. Has indicated he will not return to Detroit.

Even the Rams only gave Nick Fairley a 1 year “prove it” deal.

Without diving into a full dissertation on the Lions woefully misguided draft history, the above list is unacceptable. The Lions now have NONE of their 2010 or 2011 draft selections on the roster. Look at the best, most consistent teams in the league: Green Bay, Seattle, Pittsburgh and New England all build from the draft and rarely make noise in free agency. Now occasionally they will acquire one big name piece, like the Patriots signing Darrelle Revis and the Seahawks recent acquisition of Jimmy Graham, to try and find the final championship puzzle piece, but many of their best players were groomed in house. The Lions, Cleveland, Jacksonville and other cellar dwellers hope that signing a gaggle of average players to bad contracts will save their bacon and lead them to the playoffs. The Lions were 11-5 last year, but they won the games they were supposed to, and lost (badly) the games they were expected to.

Entering free agency last Tuesday, Caruan Reid and Andre Fluellen were the only DT’s on the roster who played in a game last year, so the Lions knew they had gaps to plug in the position group that was the team’s biggest asset last year. The Lions made their move as soon as free agency’s opening bell officially tolled. They acquired another future Hall of Fame defensive lineman in Haloti Ngata from Baltimore for their fourth and fifth round picks. While 3 years older, Ngata has been one of the best defensive lineman of the last decade (5 time All Pro) in Baltimore as a nose tackle and defensive end in a 3-4 hybrid defense. In his first press conference, he cited his familiarity with coaches Jim Caldwell and Teryl Austin and former teammates James Ihedigbo and Josh Byrne. While he was suspended 4 games for PEDs last year, Ngata was rated as having his most efficient season by Football Outsiders last year.

When I found out the Lions acquired Haloti Ngata at a minimal cost, it was like a choir of angels began singing hallelujah

In addition to Ngata, the Lions signed young defensive tackle Tyrunn Walker last Thursday after he was non-tendered by the Saints. While not the biggest name, According to Ian Rapoport, Walker was an interesting prospect to many personnel people around the league, and some say he was the Saints best interior pass rusher last year, even though he only played on a rotational basis.

So with Suh and Fairley’s replacements seemingly taken care of, what do the Lions do with the rest of the money they have to play around with in Free Agency?

Tahir Whitehead’s 2 INT performance at Minnesota stood out amongst his great season

Lions insider Tim Twentyman published an article about which players outperformed their contracts, the good news: Recent draft picks from the mid and later rounds were near the top of the list. G Larry Warford, a 2013 3rd round pick and LB Tahir Whitehead, a 2012 5th round pick both played admirably last year. Warford is touted as one of the best young guards in football, and Whitehead filled in seamlessly after Stephen Tulloch tore his ACL. However, the man at the top of the list was Rashean Mathis. The 34 year-old 2003 first rounder started all seventeen games for Detroit and became the leader of the secondary and mentor to young corner Darius Slay.

Looking forward, here is the rest of the Lions off-season strategy with Ngata in, and more holes to plug before kickoff in September.

 

At 34, Rashean Mathis redefined “old man strength” in his first year as a Lion

Re-sign Last Year’s Key Contributors

CB Rashean Mathis – Stated above, Mathis was a key cog to a formerly leaky secondary. His age means few other teams will be interested in taking a flyer on him, but the Lions must do everything in their power to retain their best corner from last year.

DT CJ Mosley – at 31, Mosley would most likely be a rotational player, but he stepped in for Nick Fairley last year and didn’t miss a beat. It would be easier to re-sign a player who knows the defensive scheme rather than replace him with a new player like Randy Starks from the Dolphins. He could also rotate in and out with the newly-signed Tyrunn Walker.

Target Low Risk, High Reward Players

Justin Blalock was rated as the 9th best guard in football by Pro Football Focus last year, but left Detroit without a deal.

G Justin Blalock – Atlanta Falcons

Blalock already visited Allen Park this week. The 31 year old guard has been a starter for the Falcons since he was drafted in the 2nd round in 2007, including a streak of 125 consecutive games. While only 14 days younger than outgoing guard Rob Sims (still a free agent.) Blalock would be a necessary veteran presence along a young line that will feature Larry Warford (23) Travis Swanson (24) and Reilly Reiff (26). If Blalock signs elsewhere, the Lions should concentrate their efforts on re-signing Rob Sims.

 

Focus on the Draft

First Round: Offensive Tackle or Running Back?

The addition of a rookie running back like Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley could finally fix the Lions often terrible rushing attack

Both could be seen as positions of need. LaAdrian Waddle missed the last few games of last season when he tore his ACL Week 15 vs Minnesota, but should be ready by training camp. Considering I just went through the Lions inauspicious draft history, including picking the same position group multiple years in a row –  I would prefer they take a running back like Melvin Gordon or Todd Gurley. Both are home-run threats and could represent the Lions best running threat since Barry Sanders. While some have argued that the position is being devalued, this offseason has flipped that script. Look at the contracts that LeSean McCoy and DeMarco Murray received. There hasn’t been a running back drafted in the first round since 2012, but these two players will change that. The position may be undergoing a renaissance, and the Lions could use a purebred talent to pair with Joique Bell and Theo Riddick as change of pace backs.

Second Round – Cornerback

Jalen Collins still has some developing to do, but could pair nicely with Darius Slay if available when the Lions pick in the second round.

Thanks to savvy free agency signings two years in a row, the Lions had arguably the best safety tandem in football East of the L.O.B in Glover Quin and James Ihedigbo. Cornerback was another story, while having Rashean Mathis step in and outperform his deal was great, he is also 35 years old. Darius Slay, when healthy, is a great player, but besides them, Cassius Vaughn is serviceable at best and it’s increasingly looking like Bill Bentley is a bust. The two players who seem enticing are Jalen Collins (RS JR – LSU) and Alex Carter (JR – Stanford) Collins is 6-1, 203 with 4.4 speed. His athleticism is incredible and he has the ability to get physical when needed. He did get jammed at the line vs better receivers like Amari Cooper, but practicing against Johnson and Tate will help him improve. Carter, at 6-0. 196 with 4.5 speed is a more physical specimen. He has the ball skills but had a tendency to get too physical downfield and draw penalties. Again, a bit of a project, but Teryl Austin can mold him into a starting corner to pair with Slay.

Mid-Late Rounds: Wide Receiver, Defensive End, Inside Linebacker

With the team’s fourth and fifth round picks now in Baltimore, the Lions will be drafting in the 3rd, 6th and 7th Round (twice)

Michigan State WR Tony Lippett could fit nicely into Detroit’s offense and would be coming back to his hometown to do so.

That third round pick will be crucial barring Mayhew swinging a trade for more picks. I think the Lions should favor a wide receiver, despite their checkered history of drafting at that position. Behind Tate and Johnson, the Lions are short of options – Jeremy Ross is a return specialist, Corey Fuller is not an NFL slot reciever, and the running backs caught most of Stafford’s passes that weren’t to Johnson/Tate. The target who piques my interest the most is former Michigan State WR Tony Lippett. At 6-2. 192 pounds, he brings the size and speed of a slot receiver that could play well with no pressure behind Calvin Johnson and Golden Tate. Lippett was a late bloomer, underwhelming as a Spartan until his senior year, when he had 42 catches for 889 yards and 11 touchdowns. I think he could develop well in Detroit’s offense, and being a local kid from Detroit who played his college ball in-state could bode well for his transition from college to the professional ranks.

Baylor ILB Bryce Hager: Could he eventually replace Stephen Tulloch inside?

For the 6th and 7th round picks, grabbing project players that can contribute will be important. Depending if he falls, ILB Bryce Hager of Baylor could be a good selection to develop behind and perhaps eventually supplant 30 year old Stephen Tulloch. Coming off a torn ACL, Tulloch isn’t getting any younger, so grabbing another young ILB to learn under him and Teryl Austin can only benefit the team.

In the 7th, grab what’s left in terms of best player available – another DE, maybe a secondary piece, an offensive guard. The team could go any direction, I just hope that said players can contribute as rookies.

Suh is gone. There is nothing that can be done, but that doesn’t mean that Detroit has to go into a jersey burning frenzy. Lions fans, embrace his replacement in Haloti Ngata, and hope and pray that Mayhew can nail the rest of the offseason. The Lions were in a prime position late last year until things fell apart in Green Bay (expected) and the Dallas screwjob (unexpected but not surprising). The Lions missed out on winning the division by one game, and most of us easily forget that fact. The Bears and Vikings will both remain in the divisional cellar until they figure out how to play complete games (and the Bears sever ties with Jay Cutler), meaning the Lions can overtake Green Bay and try to win the division for the first time since 1993. Now as Lions fans, we will still have to endure mind-boggling decisions like drafting Eric Ebron over Odell Beckham Jr. (I will never let that go) but maybe, one division title can change all that in 2015. It’s gonna be an interesting run up to the draft and beyond, and I can’t wait for the season to kick off in September.

Things, Stuff, Etc.

New podcast coming this week. I will be joined by SI Writer, former roommate, and most importantly, my friend, Ryan Krasnoo, as we discuss all things March Madness. You can catch up on old episodes under the podcasts tab, or by clicking here.

Matt Phillips of Queens Park Raisins (erm, Rangers) scored a goal of the year contender for his potentially relegation bound club

Four years later, Christian Laettner is still upset about the Fab Five documentary. His 30 for 30, entitled “I Hate Christian Laettner” debuted Sunday and merits watching if you’re a fan of college hoops.

Funny flashback read on the most comical moments involving food from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air.

Continuing my passion for my other love, food, I have started a new twitter account where you can follow my wizardry in the kitchen as I attempt to reach cooking enlightenment (or diabetes and coronary heart disease, whichever comes first.) Give @ChefSnapBack a follow on the tweets.

Jam of the Week

In honor of March Madness kicking off, here’s the song they promoted the tourney with when Michigan made the National Championship two years ago.

 

 

Looking for Maize Linings in a Blue Place: A Requiem for Michigan Basketball 2014-15

“We Gon’ Shock The World” – Juwan Howard.

Shock Ann Arbor to its core is indeed what this year’s basketball season did. The departures of Mitch McGary, Nik Stauskus and Glenn Robinson III to the draft, Jon Horford’s transfer and Jordan Morgan’s graduation led to lowered expectations for Michigan Basketball coming into this season, but what could have been a decent campaign was derailed by injuries, poor performances, and to a certain extent – bad luck. A team that was supposed to be led by Caris LeVert, Derrick Walton Jr. and Zak Irvin finished with all except the latter sitting out the last ten games of the regular season (LeVert missed the final 12). Underclassmen who were expected to contribute occasionally were forced to lead the charge in the thick of the conference season, and the results were predictable after seeing Michigan’s uneasy run of form in non-conference play. A season that started with promise and all the hope in the world from a fan base that had watched its football program implode was optimistic their hoop dreams would come true.

From Warm Beginnings To A Cold Winter.

Only two seasons removed from their National Championship loss to Louisville and months since Aaron Harrison’s shot heard round the world denied them a second straight Final Four, this Michigan team was hungry to continue the era of success unseen since The Fab Five twenty-plus years ago. The season even tipped off with a heart warming moment everyone could rally around – Austin Hatch, who had gone through such a difficult, heart breaking journey on his way to Ann Arbor, made his Michigan debut against Wayne State to a standing ovation from a Crisler Center crowd. A great moment to start the season, and the team even started 6-1, courtesy of a 60-55 loss to #12 Villanova in the Legends Classic Tournament in Brooklyn. After that, the team’s slow climb up the mountain turned into a free fall.

The NJIT loss was more foreboding than it initially seemed

It’s crazy to think it was just over three months ago and most people have blocked it out of their memories, but the loss to NJIT was the basketball team’s Appalachian State moment. It was the biggest loss in program history. However, it wasn’t the perplexing loss to NJIT that spelled doom during the non-conference season, it was the ensuing losing streak including home losses to Eastern Michigan and SMU sandwiching a blowout loss in Tuscon to Arizona. Michigan showed characteristics in these games that would follow them all year – long scoring droughts, turnovers, and a creeping sense of desperation surrounding the team. Games that the Wolverines would have lucked into winning in the past became losses.  Despite a valiant effort in a “what could’ve been” season finale against Rutgers, there were a variety of factors that mounted against Michigan, but turned from blue moments into maize linings over the grueling four month campaign.

The Losses.

That derpy look on Albrecht’s face said it all after the loss to Eastern Michigan in December.

Some were to be expected. (@ Arizona) Some had snatched defeat from the jaws of victory (Wisconsin). Some were just mind-boggling (NJIT, Eastern Michigan, @ Northwestern.) The thing I disliked the most about this season was that despite all the adversity, there were so many games where even as a die hard fan and alum, I felt my attention turning elsewhere. I made less of a commitment to watching every minute of every game. The flames of hope were extinguished because for every stroke of brilliance (MAAR scoring in buckets) would be countered by a scoring drought that was inexplicable (Overtime @ Illinois.) It was so frustrating to watch that there was a span where I even prioritized watching regular television programming instead of games because I feared what could or could not have been happening to my Wolverines.

The Injuries.

Hopefully the home game vs Northwestern wasn’t LeVert’s last in Maize and Blue

Spike Albrecht had an undisclosed injury during non-conference play, Derrick Walton Jr and Caris LeVert were both lost for the season within a week. D.J Wilson ended up out for the season and received a medical red-shirt. This led to Beilein taking his squad to road games with only ten healthy players. The backcourt became so depleted that Andrew Dakich had to burn through his previously announced redshirt and began playing plenty of meaningful minutes during conference play. This season had the most adversity that John Belein faced in terms of injured players, but he managed to keep his soldiers focused on the goal and playing hard every single night, and while the standings did not reflect that, these players went through much character building over the last four months.

The Weight of Expectations.

Michigan spent most of the year with target on their back due to the successes of the past two campaigns.

Even if McGary hadn’t been suspended (and decided to come back) and GRIII had returned, there is no telling that Michigan still wouldn’t have succumbed to the giant expectations placed upon them. Two straight Elite Eight’s, reigning Big Ten Champions, and a year removed from playing for the National Championship. These are all kids between 18-22, and when football season went down the drain early, Michigan fans entrusted their hopes and dreams to these dozen or so young men. They gave it their all, and played like true Michigan Men, but in the end, it was a season that wasn’t meant to be. That happens in college basketball sometimes. It can just be jarring to watch a team go from such highs to the lowest of lows in under the course of a season.

The Kids: MOAR MAAR, MOAR AUBREY

How did the Maize Rage not start an ‘Ali Bomaye’ chant every time this kid scored? Philistines.

While the injuries mounted, players who were not expected to play a bulk of the minutes ended up leading the line. Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman, Aubrey Dawkins and Ricky Doyle all stood out at times. MAAR and Dawkins filled in at guard well, and Doyle ended up being Michigan’s best post presence (and also is the sweatiest man alive.) While it was frustrating that the wins didn’t ‘rahk’ up, these players made huge contributions and will be factors next season as sophomores. Add in Kam Chatman’s flashes of brilliance when not in Beilein’s doghouse, a healthy D.J Wilson and another year for Mark Donnal, and the roster is looking good from top to bottom before the new crop of freshman even step foot on campus.

Looking Towards November. 

Aubrey Dawkins did his family name proud with his 31 point effort and 8 3’s to wrap up his freshman campaign.

In an alternate universe, the Rutgers game would’ve been Trey Burke’s Senior Day as McGary, Robinson and Stauskus looked on. However, that is not the world we live in, despite how tantalizingly awesome that sounds. Instead, the depleted Michigan squad took the court one final time at home on Max Bielfeldt’s Senior Day and put on a performance against a woeful Rutgers team that fans will enjoy remembering until next season. Aubrey Dawkins had 31 points, the final two of which were an alley-oop from Spike Albrecht that was lobbed before Dawk had reached the free throw line. He also had 8 threes, the last player to have that many was Glen Rice in 1989. The team also had a season record for threes and Bielfeldt had his first career double-double. Coach Beilein was even quoted at his presser saying it was a unique final game for a unique year. (He also didn’t realize the Scarlet Knights had a 19-0 run to end the game, but a win is a win.) Michigan capped their regular season by walking tall and carrying a big stick against Rutgers, and that was the exact kind of home finale all fans needed to feel better about what the future holds for this new generation of Wolverines.

Coach B’s Big Rebuild.

John Beilein was a few wins shy of earning the right to be named Big Ten Coach of the Year, but he put in a valiant effort to save the season at every turn.

As a kid, I watched Bob the Builder, and Bob always asked “Can we fix it” with a resounding “yes we can” in response. Can coach Beilein fix Michigan? Of course he can, this season was the year where the magic ran out from the first part of the decade. Michigan lost to better teams and even had a few losses to worse teams – a trait that is uncharacteristic of a Beilein squad, but was bound to happen at some point. I do think Michigan now has a chance to recruit players who will stay for longer periods of time than the Fresh Five did. However, that is the cost of success, players know they need to cash in on their potential NBA careers immediately, which led to the departures and roster depletion headed into this year. There is still a lingering possibility that Caris LeVert may ditch school for the NBA even while missing half the season. Personally, I think that with an injury history like his, NBA scouts and teams may be wary to see if he can hold up for an entire college basketball season. He also should look at what happened to his former teammate Robinson III, an unpolished product who left early and was waived by the Timberwolves last week after being drafted in the second round this past June. If LeVert stays, here is your potential starting five for Michigan next year:

It’ll be a welcome sight for Michigan fans to see these two off crutches.

G Derrick Walton Jr (Jr.) – Returning from an injured toe and with another summer of conditioning under his belt, Walton should return to his starting position as the Wolverines floor general with Spike Albrecht spelling him as a spark off the bench.

G Caris LeVert (Sr.) – Assuming he returns, LeVert should enjoy the breakout year everyone expected from him this season before breaking his foot in the waning seconds of the Northwestern game. If he leaves for greener pa$ture$, expect MAAR to step in at the 2.

G Aubrey Dawkins (So.) – Dawkins minutes were spoaradic until LeVert got hurt, then he played more than 30 minutes in 10 of the final 12 games. His scoring was sporadic, but he did reach double figuers six times in that stretch

F Zak Irvin (Jr.) – While spotty, Irvin showed flashes of brilliance. If he can become more consistent, there is no reason to think he can’t hold down a stretch-4 position for the Wolverines.

F Ricky Doyle (So.) – Doyle had a strong freshman year, proving that like his predecessor, Mitch McGary, he is not afraid to get physical down low. He should develop into a solid starting big man for the next few years.

Key Bench Players:

G Spike Albrecht (Sr.) – from cult hero to starting point guard, Spike did well in a leadership position for the first time in his career, and should continue next year as a spark plug off the bench as the team’s 6th man.

G Muhammad Ali Abdur-Rahkman (So.) – as mentioned above, if LeVert leaves, MAAR should get a long look at replacing him. The unheralded recruit became a folk hero for Michigan fans this year, and he shut down D’Angelo Russell in the win over Ohio State. He has a bright future in front of him in Ann Arbor.

G/F Kameron Chatman (So.) – A spotty freshman campaign soured a few people on Chatman, but starting next year anew should allow him to contribute major minutes and play in the role Beilein and staff envisioned for him when he was recruited.

Image courtesy: Maize 'N Brew.

Look at that roster and tell me Michigan can’t contend for the Big Ten next year. This team will be back in a big way for 2015-16. The schedule is even favorable (above). I’m excited for basketball season to tip off again next year, for the Crisler Center to be rocking, and for the Maize and Blue to be dancing their way to March Madness once again. Now yes, the season isn’t quite over with the Big Ten Tournament, but barring an improbable miracle, at best Michigan finds themselves in the NIT. I would much rather look forward to next year than the equivalent of playing in the Buffalo Wild Wings Bowl. So until next season may I say: For today: Hail, for tomorrow: Good Luck, and forever: Go Blue.

Until next season, so long to Crisler.

 

Jam of the Week

 

 

 

 

Houses of Cards: Who are the most Underwood-ian Figures in Football?

WARNING: SPOILERS FROM SEASONS 1 AND 2 AHEAD. 

I spent my weekend like many Netflix subscribers – Bingewatching Season 3 of House of Cards (and partaking in Frank Underwood’s favorite meal while doing so.) While I missed Season 1 in 2013 initially, I watched it around Christmastime of that year and instantly became hooked. I bingewatched Season 2 in just one weekend last year. It is bar none one of my favorite TV shows, I aspire to be as venomously ambitious as Francis J. Underwood. The question is, which prominent figures of America’s game resemble that of the fictional silver tongued South Carolinian politician? Here’s a shortlist of who comes to mind.

House of Crimson – Alabama Coach Nick Saban

“Money is the McMansion in Sarasota that starts falling apart after 10 years. Power is the old stone building that stands for centuries. I cannot respect someone who doesn’t see the difference. – Season 1

Nick Saban and Frank Underwood share plenty in common, including the fact both may have sold their souls to the devil to attain the power and achievements they have. House of Cards Season 1 kicks off with Frank being passed over for the Secretary of State position, so in turn, he begins plotting his revenge on DC’s elite, manipulating them to his every whim. Saban got the job at ‘Bama after not living up to expectations after a two year stint in the NFL. Alabama was a sleeping giant that was down in the dumps during the decade prior to Saban’s arrival. Much like Frank Underwood, Saban was able to use his southern charm, and knowledge of his own assets and liabilities to bring the best recruits, and eventually, multiple National Championships, back to Tuscaloosa. Hence the quote above, while everyone knew Alabama was a sleeping giant, college football prognosticators were more excited about the Oregon’s, the Boise State’s, and other “McMansion”-type teams that lack the tradition of the old guard. Much like Frank’s position at the end of season two, Saban is the king of the mountain until someone can match his dominant run. Even more fittingly, Saban now has his very own Doug Stamper in Lane Kiffin. A loyal second in command, Kiffin’s reputation speaks for itself, but as the Doug to Saban’s Underwood, it’s almost as if the H.O.C writers room is also making decisions for Alabama’s football staffing…

House of Scandals – New England Patriots Owner Robert Kraft

“Proximity to power deludes some into thinking they wield it. – Season 1

The man behind all of the Patriots success this millennium, Robert Kraft, has some Underwood undertones. He even dresses like a politician when not shimmying to Meek Mill at parties. While Belichick and Brady did most of the work on the field to get the Patriots to their four Super Bowl titles in 13 years, Kraft calmly watched from the luxury box, knocking his ring against an end table. Robert Kraft purchase the New England Patriots in 1994, and by 1997, coach Bill Parcells had led the team to a Super Bowl appearance in 1997. It wasn’t until Kraft hired Bill Belichick, and by fate, Tom Brady began starting, that the Patriots dynasty began their rise to power. Four Super Bowl rings later, and Kraft recognizes, much like Frank Underwood, that fame and notoriety are not power, power is keeping stability within your practices. Brady, Belichick, and hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue, yet the Patriots never break the bank in free agency – they draft, sign young players and mold them in “The Patriot Way.” Like any politician, there are the scandals. Kraft has always come off remarkably scott-free in these incidents. As Frank once said “Of all the things I hold in high regards, rules are not one of them.” – Sure, Spygate cost the Patriots draft picks, but the team still stayed dominant. Deflategate has turned into something making the accusers look worse than the Patriots themselves. Considering the Wells report will find nothing that will take away the shine of the Patriots latest Lombardi trophy, Kraft will rest easy knowing he runs the most successful franchise in professional football this century. Along the way, some other AFC East divisional rivals have tried to give the Pats a run for their money – the Jets won the division on a tiebreaker in 2002 and the early Rex Ryan-era teams even pulled a few upsets. The Dolphins also won the division on a tiebreaker in 2008 and the Patriots missed the playoffs. Both times however, the Patriots rebounded to win the division the following five years. As Frank said in the quote above, just because you’re near power,doesn’t mean you wield it. Robert Kraft and his house of Patriots certainly wield all the NFL power, and will continue to for the foreseeable future.

House of Twelves - Seattle Seahawks Head Coach Pete Carroll

The road to power is paved with hypocrisy, and casualties. – Season 2

Pete Carroll is known as one of the more positive, happy-go-lucky coaches in the NFL. He also has left a trail of terror and scorched earth in his wake prior to his arrival in Seattle. When he was fired from his job with the Patriots, he landed on his feet at USC. Much like when Frank was the Democratic Whip in the House of Representatives, Carroll was handed tasks that he was more than capable of handling while still allowing for a few devious things to happen behind the scenes. The Reggie Bush situation comes to mind – now yes, there is a chance Carroll knew nothing about it, but there also is a chance he did know, but wanted to keep his star tailback happy. Why let breaking a few NCAA rules (which ten years later in hindsight, are appearing more and more asinine) impede your success? By the end of his tenure, rumor has it Carroll may have gotten a peek at what NCAA violations were coming down the pike for USC regarding the Bush situation. Carroll, being a man of action, promptly took off for Seattle to build his new empire. Five years, two Super Bowls, and one championship later, and Carroll is highly regarded among his fellow NFL coaches. Think of the end of his USC tenure like how Frank manipulated Congressman Peter Russo in season one. Carroll got USC out of their rut, used them until they were effective, and as soon as the situation stopped benefiting him, he moved on. Flash forward to Seattle, it took Carroll and GM John Schneider a few years, but by 2012, the Seahawks became the wrecking ball of team that they are today. That was catalyzed when Carroll found his Manchurian Candidate (what, I can’t mix up my political fiction references?), I mean starting quarterback, in Russell Wilson. Wilson has a halo surrounding him as one of the nicest, most stand up guys in the NFL. That takes some of the heat off Carroll for his past transgressions. Some also blamed the coach for a lack of discipline during the PED scandal that followed the team during the 2012 and 2013 seasons, but Carroll stood by his soldiers, specifically the heart and soul of the team in Richard Sherman. Carroll uses his smile and knowledge of the game to take the Seahawks to success, when really, like Frank, behind that smile are devious thoughts of how he can squeeze the most juice out of the situation.

In Conclusion

Do you agree that these three men could sit atop the throne in Frank Underwood’s Washington D.C?

Well what do you think? I think Saban, Craft and Carroll would all make Frank Underwood proud with the success that they have achieved, even if they haven’t used the most ethical methods or routes to get there. They all have faced their lows, but risen above them to find themselves in even greater standing. Much like Frank’s ascent to the presidency by the end of season two, all three went through pitfalls before their greatest success. Saban had his middling years with the Dolphins before building Alabama into the king of the hill. The Patriots lost a Super Bowl, a franchise quarterback, two head coaches and a lot of games before their current run of success under the Brady and Belichick regime. Pete Carroll rebuilt USC, left before the hammer came down, then built the Seahawks into champions. These three men could thrive in Beau Willimon’s twisted version of Washington. For those of you who didn’t get to knock out the entire series this weekend, enjoy the ride.

Things, Stuff, Etc.

New podcast will be up this week, I will post a link under the website tab.

While we’re on a House of Cards kick, the Sesame Street parody is brilliant.

February, the slowest month of the year, is finally over! Here’s to March Madness, Cawlidge Hawkey, and a gaggle of NBA and NHL games.

Jam of the Week

I mean House of Cards is all about Power.

 

Party Like It’s 2004: Stan Van Gundy has the Pistons Charging Back to Relevance

Led by the Twin Towers of Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe down low, the Pistons are zeroing in on their first playoff berth since 2009

2004 was a wild time. Usher dominated the music charts, Dave Chappelle owned the comedy world, Mean Girls was the most fetch movie of the year, and the Detroit Pistons were NBA champions. Under first year head coach Larry Brown and the (then) savvy moves of Joe Dumars, the Pistons had a titanic trade deadline day that year that springboarded them to 4-1 victory over the heavily favored Lakers in the finals, bringing the team their first championship since 1990. The Pistons shipped out plenty of spare parts – Point Guards Chucky Atkins and Lindsey Hunter, Guard Bob Sura, Center Zeljiko Rebraca and their first round pick to acquire ‘Sheed and reserve point guard Mike James. This set up the team for their dominant run of 5 straight Eastern Conference Championship appearances until 2009, when everything imploded.

‘Sheed sums up Pistons’ fans feelings about the last six seasons.

Positivity and the Pistons haven’t been words often heard in the same sentence in the last half decade plus. 5 coaches, multiple player moves and bungled free agent signings, Detroit went from being an Eastern Conference powerhouse to an irrelevant franchise in under three years. The team resorted to getting good half time acts like Vanilla Ice, Gladys Knight, M.C Hammer and plenty of others to play the Palace and try to fill seats. When some friends and I went to a Pistons game in 2012, it was more to see Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook rather than actually see our hometown team. The signing of Josh Smith and the hiring/firing of Maurice Cheeks proved to be the death knell for former President of Basketball Operations Joe Dumars.

Flash forward from Deadline Day 2004 to Deadline Day 2015, and the Pistons are on the brink of making the playoffs for the first time in six years. It all began when Stan Van Gundy was brought on board last summer. Instead of hiring unproven commodities like Michael Curry and John Kuester or washouts like Lawrence Frank and Maurice Cheeks, owner Tom Gores broke the bank for the best available coach. Van Gundy was named basketball czar (coach and president of basketball operations) and handed the responsibility of reshaping the team and putting the Pistons back among the Eastern Conference elites. His dual role meant he would be able to “buy the groceries and cook the meal”. We’re just past the halfway point of his first season at the helm and the Pistons have become a completely different team than they were this time one year ago.

Power Moves Only

SVG was brought in and decided that during last year’s free agency class, he would rather spend money on players that fit his team, instead of chasing after high priced free agents who may create schematic and locker room conflicts. The Pistons acquired Jodie Meeks, D.J Augustin, and Caron Butler via free agency, and used their lone draft pick (second round) on Colorado PG Spencer Dinwiddie. Predictably, the team got off to an atrocious 5-23 start and were staring into the abyss, but then, a Festivus miracle occurred. The team waived Josh Smith, one of the worst free agent acquisitions in Detroit sports history. After 105 games, shooting 42% from the floor and 26% (!) from 3 point range, Van Gundy elected to kick Smith and his albatross of a contract (4 years, $54 million) to the curb, rebuilding the team around Andre Drummond and Greg “Moose” Monroe rather than try to have them split minutes with Smith any longer. The team instantly improved, firing off a seven game win streak and playing much better basketball than they did with Smith aimlessly chucking up threes.

A New Rallying Cry

Those immortal words uttered by SVG in early January became the rallying cry around the Pistons “Waive Josh Smith” winning streak. The team ripped off seven straight wins, including one in San Antonio over the defending champion Spurs. While the streak ended January 9 to the conference leading Hawks, something had changed. 18,859 fans packed the Palace that night to watch the team lose the game 106-104. The Pistons haven’t had fan turn out like that since the heyday of Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace in the mid-2000’s. Excitement was back in the Motor City as the team began their surge to the current state – being on the cusp of a playoff berth.

Next Man Up

Unfortunately, like any good underdog story, adversity came in the form of a torn ACL for Brandon Jennings on January 25th. However, like with Bill Belichick’s coaching method that has worked so well for the New England Patriots, Van Gundy utilized the next man up strategy, inserting D.J Augustin into the lineup with great success. Augustin had been spotty off the bench, but as a starter – he did his finest Chauncey Billups impression. In games when Augustin had at least 10 assists, the Pistons went 5-0. He was playing at an All-Star level and keeping the Pistons afloat in the crowded lower half of the East. Which leads us to the next chapter in Van Gundy’s playbook.

The Great Trade Robbery?

February 19, 2015. Eleven years to the day since the Pistons acquired James and Wallace, and Van Gundy made pair of trades that could benefit the team in both the short, and long term. SVG elected to cash in on Augustin’s hot play, shipping him, Kyle Singler, and a pair of second round picks to Utah and Oklahoma City to acquire PG Reggie Jackson. Jackson had filled in admirably for Russell Westbrook during his injury spells, but became frustrated with his lack of minutes behind Westbrook in OKC. Jackson’s acquisition, according to Van Gundy, is for him to be the point guard for now, and the future. However, the team wasn’t done. They sent the Euro Duo of Jonas Jerebko and Luigi Datome to Boston to reacquire Tayshaun Prince. The long time Piston returned home after a two year absence and will likely finish his career here, despite recent claims suggesting he expected a buyout and would be able to join a title contender. The nostalgia vibe was enough to get fans buzzing, but Prince can be a serviceable wing defender even though his scoring numbers are far from what they used to be.

Now of course, these trades aren’t going to catapult the team to an NBA Championship this year (although with how unpredictable the East has been, maybe this team has some of the 2006-07 giant-killing Golden State Warriors in them.) but it should be enough to push the team into the playoffs as a 7 or 8 seed. There are currently six teams (Charlotte, Miami, Brooklyn, Boston, Indiana, and Detroit) who all will battle it out down the stretch for those final two spots, and it really is anyone’s game. Charlotte has been somewhat unpredictable in terms of form, Miami may have lost Chris Bosh for the rest of the season, putting more pressure on Hassan Whiteside and Luol Deng in the velocirapter’s absence. Indiana could get Paul George back from injury soon, and Brooklyn/Boston are the wild cards. If the Pistons slip into the playoffs in one of those last positions, they will face the Cavaliers, Raptors or Bulls. The Cavaliers would be a difficult matchup, but a Pistons team firing on all cylinders could at least provide a challenge to Chicago or Toronto. Making the playoffs is the main objective for this team.

The Final Countdown

Spencer Dinwiddie dominated D-Rose in his first start vs the Bulls on Feb. 20

Going into Friday night’s game, I was a bit nervous. The Chicago Bulls are one of the league’s best road teams, and came in at 19-9. The Pistons did not feature Reggie Jackson or Tayshaun Prince, as Jackson had to complete his physical, and Prince had a travel issue from Boston. What did Detroit do? They perservered, and thanks to outscoring Chicago 32-15 in the third quarter, walked out of the Palace with a 100-91 win. Who led the team in Jackson/Jennings/Augustin’s absence? Why none other than Spencer Dinwiddie, who was supposed to be starting for the team’s D-League affiliate, the Grand Rapids Drive. Instead, Dinwiddie dropped 12 points to go with 3 assists in 30 minutes of play. Quite impressive opposite Derrick Rose’s 8 points and 2 assists. Both Dinwiddie and John Lucas III will man the point until Reggie Jackson makes his debut. The wild part is, if the Pistons can beat the third best team in the conference with Dinwiddie/JLIII running the offense, fans should eagerly anticipate what Jackson can do. The stretch run will be the true litmus test for such a young team. As previously stated, it’s most important that they MAKE the playoffs above all.

Summer 2015 – A Pivotal Piston Moment. 

Could Draymond Green return home to Michigan? Fans can only hope.

Looking forward, this coming summer could be what defines Van Gundy’s tenure as Czar and the current crop of Pistons. The team will have money to spend ($28 million in cap space) and is ready to, because in 2016, many more teams will have similar amounts of money. While the free agents aren’t headliners, there will be some players of note. First off the team must re-sign Greg Monroe and Reggie Jackson. They can offer Moose more money than other teams and he and Drummond seem to complement each other well with Smith gone. Jackson wasn’t acquired as a rental player, so it’s clear that he will be signed to a long-term deal.

Once Monroe and Jackson are taken care of, the team will deal Brandon Jennings. It may be difficult to trade a player coming off a torn Achilles tendon, but Jennings will be only 26 when he takes the court next fall, which means one team will take a flyer on him and send either a player or valuable draft picks in return.

The biggest free agent coup the Pistons could make is signing a restricted free agent in Michigan native and former Michigan State Spartan Draymond Green. It was reported that Green would consider signing an offer sheet with the team, and return to a state where he won two high school state championships with Saginaw, and was one of the best players Michigan State had in the last decade. If Green joins up with Monroe and Drummond, that gives the Pistons a very formidable front court, and while Green cannot shoot the 3 as well as many small forwards, the fact he is not a “chucker” like Josh Smith was, means he could fruitfully coexist with Monroe and Drummond.

If the Pistons enter 2015-16 with a starting 5 of Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Draymond Green, Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond, they will be contenders in the Central Division. The team also has their first round draft pick for the first time since 2013, which could provide a good developmental player to play a role as the season progresses.

In Stan Detroit Trusts.

For the first time in years (read: since the 2007-08 season) I am excited to be a Pistons fan. Under SVG’s stewardship, the team looks like they are making the right moves and acquisitions to build a team that can contend in the playoffs. While it may still be a few years until they are even remotely close to being deemed title contenders, it certainly is exciting times in the Motor City. In conclusion. allow me to quote John Mason, the team’s famed P.A Announcer.

 

Jam of the Week

It’s an article about the Pistons, of course your JOTW is going to be the team’s theme song.

 

Stuff, Things, Etc.

My personal website has been redesigned, take a look at it and my latest reel here.

The United States of Sports podcast is up and alive! We have our own podomatic page. Next week’s topic will be unpopular Detroit sports opinions and I will be bringing in our first guest, so stay tuned for that!

The T.V show that was my brainchild has been handed off to the next generation, and it’s still pretty damn funny. Check out Ultimate Sports Show season 4 on vimeo.

 

 

Live and Let ‘Em Fly: New Look Red Wings Ready to Challenge for a Stanley Cup

Like any regular human being – I bleed red, but as a Detroit-area native raised on Detroit Red Wings hockey. I. bleed. red.

I live for this building and the team that calls it home.

I live and die by my hockey team. From the highest of highs, watching the ’97, ’98, and ’02 Hall of Famer-laden squads win Cups. Then in high school, the first time they won the cup since I started watching games every chance I got in 2008. I also remember the lows, like being at a friend’s high school graduation party during the soul-crushing game 7 loss to Pittsburgh in 2009. Ever since that fateful June night nearly six years ago, the Red Wings have not even sniffed the Conference Finals.

For the last five-plus seasons, the Red Wings have been a team in transition. Under the stewardship of Pavel Datsyuk, Hank Zetterberg and Coach Mike Babcock (In his 10th season behind the boards,) the team has continued their franchise record playoff appearances streak, yet have been searching for an identity. Gone are the smash and grab teams of the early 2000’s that piled on goals early and often, and the defensive-minded 2008 squad’s blue-line reliant scheme has also gone by the wayside. This is a team that can score, and can also wear down other team’s defensively to those 1-0, 2-1 wins. Most importantly, the transition to the Eastern Conference is complete. The Wings struggled in their new division last year, but this year, they have shown immense knowledge of how to match the styles of Eastern teams. There are a few key reasons that the Wings finally look like a Cup Contender again as opposed to a team trying to scrape it’s way into the playoffs come April.

The Kids Are Alright, Actually, They’re Really Good.

Tatar (21) and Nyquist (14) are just entering their primes, and are poised to lead the next generation of Hockeytown Heroes.

Besides that splurge for future Hall of Famers Hull and Robataille, and a few other free agents, Red Wings GM Ken Holland’s modus operandi is to build the team in house – “Draft, Develop, Detroit” has been the “Red Wing Way” for about twenty years now (Holland took over in 1997). Last summer, rather than try to acquire a Top-6 forward like James Neal via trade, or splash the cash for a much needed right handed defenseman like Matt Niskanen  – Holland elected to stand pat. He believed rather than drain much needed cap flexibility or sacrifice young players, to stay the course. That has worked out this season for the best, young contributors like Gustav Nyquist and Tomas Tatar are leading the team in scoring. Danny DeKeyser and Luke Glendening, both local products (Western Michigan and Michigan respectively) have played important minutes all season long. 22 year old Petr Mrazek has played so well in relief of Jimmy Howard, he has kept Jonas ‘Monster” Gustavsson in Grand Rapids for the entire season. For all the pain and suffering, and injury woes the team endured over the first half of the decade, the development process is paying off, and these young guns are the new core that will keep the Red Wings as Atlantic Division contenders for years to come.

Crease Consistency

Petr Mrazek has performed admirably in spot starts and as an injury replacement for Jimmy Howard

Jimmy Howard has been polarizing to say the least since he took over the goaltending reigns from Chris Osgood permanently in 2009-10 season. Howard was a model of consistency in his first two years, starting 63 games and collecting 37 wins in each. After dealing with a few injury riddled campaigns, Howard is now showing that he can be one of the best goalies in hockey(in regulation that is.) Howard is 0-7 in shootouts this season after Saturday’s loss to Winnipeg. While that is a frustrating statistic for fans and the coaching staff, the Red Wings still earn a point for each game that goes to a shootout, and playoff games aren’t decided by them. If it were this time last year, I would have more gripes with Howard shootout woes, but the fact the team is comfortably in a playoff position lessens the blow. When Howard missed five weeks in January and into February with a groin injury, Mrazek began to perform his best Dominik Hasek impression. He emulated his elder countryman this year with a 13-5-1 record and has looked stellar in net during many games. Now of course, he has had some poor performances, but that comes with the territory of being a young 23 year old net-minder. As the season kicks into high gear with just under thirty games left to play, the Howard/Mrazek combination gives the Wings the most stable pair of goalies they’ve had since Osgood and Hasek backstopped the team to that 2008 Stanley Cup victory.

The Grand Rapids Factor – The Golden Griffins

Teemu Pulkinnen has looked like a young Teemu Selanne, scoring at will for the Griffins

Did you know that the Grand Rapids Griffins were AHL Champions during the 2012-13 season? One of the most competitive clubs in the AHL is also where Detroit is storing some of their younger talent that isn’t quite ready for the bright lights of Joe Louis Arena. One such player is the Red Wings best prospect – Finnish forward Teemu Pulkinnen. Pulkinnen leads the AHL in goals and points this season (27 goals, 53 points, in just 41 games) and while he is not ready to play every night in a Red Wing uniform, (he has a powerful shot but struggles to find and create the space needed for it) He certainly has the look of a Top 6 forward with 40 goal/season potential. He just turned 23, so there is a chance he may be in Detroit permanently next year if he can refine his game. Defensively, the X-Man, Xavier Ouellet, has split his season as a Griffin and a Red Wing – playing 20+ games with each squad. What’s important is his boss in Detroit likes him” “Good player,” coach Mike Babcock said. “He knows how to play and he competes hard. He moves the puck and has good hockey sense.” Ouellet has a chance to join Brendan Smith and Danny DeKeyser as a young, permanent fixture along the blue line if he can perform consistently at the level he has. Players like Pulkinnen and Ouellet are not only great as injury fill-ins, but make it easier for Holland to allow players to walk in free agency or when older players retire – readymade replacements are waiting in Grand Rapids.

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With these three factors put together, there is no reason to think the Red Wings won’t wrap up this season as they started it – playing good, consistent (for the most part) team hockey. If the season were to end today, the Wings would face the Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. Is that a difficult matchup? Certainly, considering the Bolts ran roughshod over Detroit during their last meeting on January 29th. However, unlike last year, when the Wings eked their way into the postseason and were wiped out quickly by Boston; This year, the team will put up a fight against whoever their opponent is. Unlike years past since the 2009 Stanley Cup Finals, I could see this Wings team gel and be consistent enough to grind their way to a few playoff series wins. There’s a new team in Hockeytown, and they are looking to create some happy memories for fans before the Joe is retired within the next few years and the team moves to the new Olympia Stadium project. The road to the postseason is coming, and Hockeytown is ready for their 24th straight postseason appearance. It’s gonna be one hell of a ride. LGRW.

Jam of the Week

Surviving February: Three Things to Look Forward to During the Slowest Month of the Sports Calendar

Your first question may be: what are you talking about? – Hockey, NBA, College Basketball, there is plenty to watch!

Lies. All Lies.

Football is over, it’s cold out. That little rodent in Pennsylvania saw his shadow, which means those of us in colder climes get to freeze until St. Patrick’s Day, (then freeze a little longer for good measure.) The NBA is in the dog days of its regular season (although this past Friday night would say otherwise), as is the NHL (I personally believe both leagues could have higher quality of play with 60 games instead of 82.) Sure, the games matter, but playoff positioning doesn’t become relevant until March. College Basketball is in the midst of the regular season, but other than a few big conference games, they all kind of blend together into one big mishmash of conference tournament and March Madness preparations.

With that, we sports fans are left to spend these cold winter nights indoors, bingewatching Friends on Netflix while weeping that football doesn’t come back for seven months. HOWEVER, there is some hope! Here are three big events worth looking forward to during the shortest month of the year before March comes to save us from this frozen hellscape.

NBA All Star Weekend: Feb 13th-15th

The NBA All Star Game: Where Defense is Optional

The NBA All Star Game: Where Defense is Optional

While I think that All-Star games in general are a massive joke that allows the players, picked by fans, to bloviate for a long weekend, NBA All-Star weekend shenanigans hold a special place in my heart. This season the game takes place in New York City and Brooklyn, meaning the league will stump up the pomp & circumstance even more for the fans. The Celebrity Game, The Rising Stars Game, The Skills competition, Dunk Contest, and 3 Point Contest all provide entertainment even in years when they don’t necessarily feature the best participants. FWIW, this year’s field consists of Giannis Antetokounempo (The Greek Freak!) Victor Oladipo, Zach LaVine and Mason Plumlee. After fiddling with the format for a few years, the league went young this year and returned to the traditional format. Oladipo and Greek Freak should provide some entertainment. The 3 Point Contest consists of the Splash Brothers (Golden State’s Steph Curry and Klay Thompson) the Hawks Kyle Korver, and former Duke and current Clips marksman J.J Redick. Both these events should give you at least a night’s escape from missing football. More importantly, if you’re chronically single like myself, you can distract yourself with the Dunk and 3 Point Contests from the fact it’s Valentines Day! HOORAY SPORTS!

Return of the FIFA Champions League – Feb 17 & 18

The biggest, most watched tournament on the planet returns after a long winter’s nap, and the fixtures above are enough to make any footy fan froth at the mouth. The last time the world’s best clubs took the pitch in the biggest club competition on the planet, it was December 10. Two months and plenty of league play later, the teams ready to retake the pitch, marching down the road to Berlin, where this year’s final will be contested on June 6, 2015. Some of the highlights of the upcoming round of 16 include: Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s PSG vs EPL-leading Chelsea. Manchester City taking on Barcelona for the second consecutive year, as well as a gaggle of other good matchups on paper like Juve vs Dortmund, Arsenal vs Monaco, and Schalke vs Real Madrid. The two-legged ties may be played 3 weeks apart, but this is when the cream begins to rise to the top. The triumph, the downfall, and everything in between are all captured in the UEFA Champions League. If you haven’t been watching this season, the Tuesday after President’s Day is the perfect time to start. (Also, if listening to the hymn below doesn’t get you excited as hell, wake up.)

Pitchers and Catchers Report – Starting Feb. 18 – Feb. 25

I am a fair-weather baseball fan, but not in that way. I have supported the Detroit Tigers my entire life, even through the tragicomedy of the 43-119 season when I was in middle school. By fair-weather, I mean I watch baseball the most when the weather is starting to get nice. But then, when the weather is too nice, the last thing I do is stay inside and watch baseball when I can be enjoying my time outside. With that, pitchers and catchers reporting to spring training is a promising sign that warmer times are on the way. Sure, in Detroit, it can be a cold baseball season until mid-may, but just the sign of hope that opening day, and in turn, Spring, are growing nearer, is enough to excite any Tiger fan. That plus David Price and Justin Verlander will be starting their first full season as Detroit’s 1-2 punch. Now of course, we’ll all be wanting anything BUT baseball when it’s the only sport on in the dead of summer, but the renewed hope of a new season, and the snow finally melting, is enough to rouse any sports fan from their February hibernation.

Go read a book or start a new hobby, I don’t know.

Yeah I’m talking to you, when you gave up on your New Year’s Resolution on January 8th, why not use this Football-Free period of the calendar to better yourself? Take up knitting or something, if you ain’t gettin’ better, you’re gettin’ worse.

Things, Stuff, Etc.

As I have mentioned before, I’m hoping to expand Sark’s Barks in 2015 by starting off a bi-weekly (as in every two weeks) podcast. I have the equipment and hope to record my first episode this week and drop it sometime next week. Much like the blog, it’ll focus on sports, pop culture, life, and everything in between. I’ll take any and all feedback you have for me – if you love it – Great! If you don’t – I’m still gonna keep doing it!

Jam of the Week