Sunday, March 27, 2011

SPORTS: Come Fall, What May The Raptors Look Like?

Well, the easiest answer is ... like too many of us, unemployed. Certainly a work stoppage does threaten the NBA. Which might or might not be a bad thing for the Toronto Raptors.

The new landscape come fall (or whenever) might turn Toronto's pending salary landfall into a bonanza. The Raps will be under the cap and have some pieces that might combine with just the right incoming talent to become a middle of the Eastern Conference pack team. Or it could be the start of another long year in T.O.

Mitch Lawrence in the New York Daily news opined that the Raptors could very well be open to dealing Andrea Bargnani this off-season, would replace head coach Jay Triano with Mike D'Antoni if given the opportunity and will eventually build around DeMar DeRozan and rookie Ed Davis. Well, to all of that, I say 'Yuck!'

I'm pretty disappointed in Bargnani. He's shown the offence I knew he had. He's 15th in the league in scoring, basically replacing Chris Bosh as the scorer on a losing team that gets numbers, not all of which are important to the central task of winning. I've never been ticked off at his rebounding numbers. He plays outside and when you are 25 feet away from the basket offensively, you're going to struggle to get offensive rebounds. I'd like his defensive rebounding to be stronger, but it's not egregiously bad. But the guy who spent his first season doing a half-decent job of trying to defend small forwards (back in the day of the experimental O'Neal-Bosh-Bargnani front line), doesn't  give much of an effort on D these days. Aside from the odd charge, which involves standing still, Bargnani has regressed and doesn't seem inclined to give effort. Well, enough effort. And he's lost me as a supporter because of it. You can't teach effort and effort is a talent because not everybody does it, as Jack Armstrong frequently points out. I would have thought 10M bucks might prompt that effort, but I've been wrong before.

IF the Raptors were to trade Bargnani, and got good return for him, I could live with the move. The fact is, Bargnani might be the perfect sixth man, instant offence and all. He's a nightmare matchup for the opposition defence on most nights. Up against second stringers, he'd be a seven-foot tall Microwave. But Bargnani really struggled in the sixth man role as a young player, and given his lack of progression defensively, it's quite possible he couldn't adapt to the role. At least in Toronto. So, let some other team have the opportunity to get the potential out of the Son of the Adriatic.

On the other hand, if the Raptors are going to build around Davis and DeRozan, I say keep Bargnani. I don't have a lot of hope for either of the two kids either. Let's deal with DeRozan first. The high-flying athletic shooting guard suffers from a few deficiencies. He's no better on D than Bargnani, he has no handle whatsoever and I might be a better three-point shooter than he is right now. He's got the Richard Hamilton shot down fairly pat, a consistent 17 footer that has become deadly. He has that 360 spinarama that teams have now come to expect and by bumping him out another five feet has reduced its effectiveness. Still, a pretty move. And he alley-oops with the best in the league. But my REAL problem with the kid is his reaction to not getting calls. He's become Jamario Moon and early Matt Bonner, always going running over to Triano (or at least in the general direction), seeming to plead "Daddy, he HITTTTT MMMEEEEEE!" Yes, he's getting the raw end of the ref's whistle too much, and he's not crossing the line vis a vis the refs. But you can see his willingness to blame something gone wrong ON the refs. There's hope for him and a LOT of people like his progression from caught in the headlights deer to young stag this year, having developed that 17-footer. But I hate that he skates on the poor defence.

Now, Ed Davis. I hated, truly despised, this draft pick last summer. He was EXACTLY the wrong guy for the team, despite being higher rated. Patrick Patterson, who didn't exactly bloom in Houston, but who I believe would have in Toronto, was my pick. And I stand by that selection order even now. And that's despite acknowledging that Davis has a long NBA career ahead of him. I will bet dollars, not always hard-earned, but dollars nonetheless, that Davis ends up developing into a 6-10/6-11 Reggie Evans. And, as any Toronto fan will tell you, that's plenty high praise. Davis has a nose for the ball, soft hands and can do Evans one better by being a shot blocker. Unfortunately, like Evans, he's nightmarish on the foul line and, while I've seen him take and make 15-footers, his shooting range and arm length are one and the same. Still, rebounding, especially on the Raptors, has been a position of need for so long, it's hard to really hate on the kid for doing that one thing oh-so-well. And he'll get better at it, which is a bit scary as he packs on some pounds and gets some of that experience that makes Evans a marvel. Plus, there's a chance Davis can improve his shooting. I mean, Amir Johnson has had a shooting renaissance this year and is actually one of the better free throw guys on the team.

But there's the rub. Toronto already had an Ed Davis. His name is Amir. And, like Bargnani, he's got a long-term contract. Plus, Reggie was going to be back. He won't be back next year because Davis is essentially a younger, cheaper him. Which will sadden the heart of all Raptor fans. Now, imagine if Patterson had been selected (or better yet, let somebody move up to grab Davis and then trade part of that something to Houston to get Patterson one draft pick later). Reggie would have reason to return (about 5M reasons). And Patterson would have fit into the Raptors pretty well. A decent shooting small forward with rebounding tendancies. He's lost amongst a plethora of guys that fit that description in Texas. What Houston needed was Davis. What Toronto needed was Patterson. 

I no more want to build around Davis and DeRozan than I want extensive dental surgery. These guys COULD be pieces on a good team. But the foundation? Nah, I don't think so.

As for D'Antoni, I think I've come around to the conclusion that Triano is a good coach. A good assistant coach. I'm very, very troubled with the lack of a public putdown of Julian Wright. At the very least, when he refused to go into the game against Golden State, he should have been publicly told to get off the bench and hit the showers (although why, given his total lack of playing time). As likable as Wright and Triano are, as good a man as Triano is, I think you have to have a bit of a bully's willingness to be the boss. And I don't think Triano's got that. Plus I hate the Raptor offence and have for about 16 years. I know Triano does a great job of running plays coming out of timeouts. But where the heck are the picks, double-picks and rotation during much of the game otherwise. Pick and Roll bores me to tears. My favourite play in the whole world is an uncontested gimme layup at the bucket. Love that even more than an alley-oop. Cuz it means the flow of the offence created a basket. We see stagnate offensive sets waaaaaaay too often in T.O. I do think it's time for a change. And, while D'Antoni has coaching warts too, why not give it a try?

The draft will be the first step in determining the new Raptor outlook. Depending on the vagaries of the dropping balls, the Raptors could draft anywhere from first to seventh. The top pick will be Kyrie Irving out of Duke. If he comes to Toronto, Jose Calderon will almost certainly have to exit stage right. Ideally, the Spaniard would stick around as mentor, but his trade value and Jerryd Bayless's lack of same and potential would make Calederon the packer. Still, I'd worry about Bayless once the future path to starting would be snatched away from him. He's been as advertised, a young Jarret Jack. Tantalizing, but bull-headed and I question his ability ultimately to be a floor general. Calederon would be worth his weight in gold in Miami and I wouldn't rule him out as a key contributor to next year's Anaheim Royals either.  But Irving would have to be the Toronto starter from day one.

On the other hand, the Raptors could end up with Kemba Walker. More or less the same story as with Irving, although Bayless would get more playing time paired with Walker and as his backup.

Moving on, what if Derrick Williams becomes a Raptor. Better than Walker, less good than Irving. But plenty good nonetheless. Williams becomes the athletic, decent-shooting wing they've been looking for, for a long time. He and Linus Kleiza would be an effective tandem. It would leave James Johnson a bit in limbo, but that would only occur after Kleiza comes back. At that point, either he or Kleiza would have to be traded. And hopefully, he would have found enough of a shooting stroke to bring back something good. Williams' defence is still an unknown at this point. But there's nothing else about his game that brings me fear.

Who else on the draft board interests me? Enes Kanter, the would-be Kentucky Wildcat? No. Not without dealing Bargnani first and probably not even then. Canada's Tristan Thompson? Not even close. Should stay at Texas, although the rumour is he's jumping in with both feet, having reputedly hired an agent. A BIG mistake. Perry Jones out of Baylor? Didn't see enough, but when you hear mercurial applied to a college kid, let somebody else take him. Terrence Jones of Kentucky? Too raw. I DO like the Carolina kids, John Henson and Harrison Barnes. My gut tells me Barnes is better long-term, but that Henson is a quicker helper. There's a bunch of Euros, led by Jan Vesely. But I think a big, good shooting Euro with suspect defensive talents is exactly NOT what Toronto needs moving forward.

To my way of thinking, the Raptors end up with one of the point guards, who will start ahead of Bayless this fall. DeRozan, Bargnani and Davis will all be back, as will Amir and James Johnson. Kleiza comes back mid-season. That's eight guys. Project Solomon Alabi, currently lost in the wilds of Erie PA makes it nine. And I think Joey Dorsey finds a Raptor contract available to him too. The rest will be new guys. Calderon, Evans and Sonny Weems will be elsewhere in the NBA. Wright and Alexis Ajinca will be in Europe. I don't know about Leandro Barbosa. I think he opts out, but the new CBA will play a big part in that decision. I'd like to see him back.

Now, given Bryan Colangelo's ability to divest Toronto of that dog of a player Hedo what's his name last year, maybe there's a franchise-transforming trade out there. How 'bout stiffing the Golden State Warriors for Stephen Curry and oft-injured one-dimensional Andris Biedrins for Bargnani and Calderon? It'd be an interesting move. You'd have three big men who could all rebound and score between 10 and 15 points a game, but that would mean getting consistent scoring from the wings. Plus some defence, because Curry's no improvement on Calderon there. But that's what free agent money's for. Unfortunately, Don Nelson doesn't run the Warriors any more. So THAT's not going to happen.

Generally speaking, I'd deal off DeRozan while the dealing's good. I think he's already reached his top level. In my opinion, the kid guard draftee, the two Johnsons and Davis would be the only sure-fire Raptors come fall. And, to be honest, I'm a bigger Alabi fan that just about anybody in the world not directly related to him. I'd keep Calderon around too, but there isn't much worth trading on this team and he's amongst the better pieces. Reggie could come back. And I've already said I'd like to see Barbosa in Raptor red and black. Everybody else could (and should) go. 

The draft will bring its own intrigues and then we will have to settle in to await the results of the new CBA. Depending on what lies within the new agreement, the Raptors could be in major rebuilding mode next fall, back into lower playoff spot contention or a surprisingly solid fourth-place team. My bet? Well, the first, obviously. But time will tell.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

INTERNET: And Strike Another From The List

I visit a lot of sites daily. Right now the total is 130. Add in links on those pages, the total goes to maybe 175. Google Reader checks another 80 or so sites, multiple times a day. While I scan over the Google Reader headlines, I click on maybe another 80 a day in total (George Strombolopoulos accounts for a good half-dozen a day himself). So, rounding off, maybe I look at 250 sites a day.

Every one of those sites is planning an upgrade some time in the future. And the number of upgraded or redesigned sites I like better than what was there before? ZERO. Some sites have gone from useful to incredibly unuseful bad memories no longer on my daily visit list (My YEARLY visit list is up to 21 right now). There is a monthly and a weekly list too. Just to see if common sense prevailed and the website returned to the earlier useful design. It's never happened. Some people can't admit their mistakes. Me? Well, I can, it's just that I don't make any.

Some sites DO roll back parts of re-designs. Oddly enough some very famous ones. Ones that I don't visit. So my perfect record of imperfect redesigns remains pristinely at 100 per cent.

Latest to fall from grace is Rotoworld. And I have to tell you, this one hurts. I've depended less and less on the site as my interest in Roto Sports has declined. I'm going to win the OOPS hockey league this year, but that was a draft and no trade league this season. Soooo, no need for regular information acquisition. The Ed Jovanovski Memorial Stanley Cup Pool and the Chris Bosh (Just Another Guy) Memorial NBA Playoff Pool are each draft and hope things. I'm probably not even going to have a BBL Baseball league this summer. So, I hang on to Rotoworld more out of curiosity than need. But no more. It's been stricken from the daily rolls.

It used to be that I could directly go to Rotoworld's American League Player News. With their new redesign, not so much. Nope, actually. You have to click on a drop down menu to American League and then click on a go button. And getting there is a lot of fun. If you're at the TOP of the page, you know, the place my mouse cursor is MOST OF THE TIME, getting to the drop down menu means passing over the site menu, which AUTOMATICALLY EXPANDS, OBSCURING THE TARGET DROP-DOWN MENU. Which means mousing down half the page and then coming back up to the drop-down menu. Blechh!!! (Actually, I use stronger language than Blechh!!!, but I've promised myself and my blood pressure that I would stop my recent descent into perpetual cursing).

And it gets worse. The site auto-refreshes as soon as I click on its tab. Remember, I load all my sports sites at once through middle clicking on a folder of such bookmarks. Gawd, it's annoying to arrive at the just loaded site and then watch it reload. THEN, I discovered another little fly in the ointment. I left the site on my screen and did something else somewhere else. I returned to my computer and noticed the data had refreshed and, once again, I was looking at the data from ALL major league baseball teams, not just the American League player news. Honestly, as much as I like Lyle Overbay, I have NO INTEREST whatsoever in Pittsburgh Pirate player notes. None. Zero. Zilch.

So, for the second time, I write Customer Support. The first time, was right after the re-design when I told them I really, really needed a direct to American League link capability. They said, "Noted." No action, just noted. Sooooo, it was with less than a little hope that I wrote to their support team about this refresh idiocy even AFTER using their go button thing. Mentioned I was using Firefox 3.6.15 (And NO, I'm not switching to FF4 yet. See earlier posts). Oh, and that I was talking about auto-refresh.

The reply? Linda wrote me saying she couldn't reproduce the issue. Clicking the refresh button in her Firefox 4.0 didn't cause the reload to over-ride the American League choice. The ticket is now closed.

Notice anything vaguely STUPID about that response? Different version of Firefox. Actively clicking the reload button rather than waiting for the unwanted automatic refresh. That's what passes for customer support now from Rotoworld. I HAD moved the links to the baseball and hockey pages from the daily folders to the weekly folder. And truth be told, other sites were already giving me better information. But I've decided to just delete the links completely. Not move them to weekly permanently, not even to the monthly check-in and not even to the ultimate garbage can for the guy who keeps EVERY LINK EVER. Rotoworld doesn't even deserve a spot on the yearly list.

Maybe I CAN beat this packrat compulsion. Maybe the first step is a site that's been redesigned into less usefulness with a support team who can't read and cares less than nought about legitmate user bug info. Maybe Rotoworld is doing me a favour by being the straw that broke the back of my resolve to continue hoping once great sites will return to their former glory.

Think I should thank Linda for that little wake-me-up? Nah, I don't think so either.

Monday, March 21, 2011

LIFE: And I THOUGHT I Hated Bell!!

I got rid of Bell Canada last week, the culmination of about a month of maneuvering to get that carbuncle off my back-side. I despise Ma Bell to the point that the unremitting villianess of the book I am writing is called Belle Rogers. (That Rogers is the last name is no coincidence, but in the battle between the ultimately unlikeable and the astounding awful, I've chosen to keep Rogers rather than the phone company).

Now, before I go on about this changeover, the why's, wherefore's and good-riddance's, let me point you to the current John C. Dvorak column at I point out that AT&T is not Ma Bell, just kissin' cousins with a virtual identical record of customer abuse. But, boy, does John write a first-rate rant. I could stop here and just say, "What he said." Basically it all applies. But where's the fun in that.

Bell used to be a company with a face. That face was Hugh Fisher, the father of a high school chum. Mr. Fisher, I was too young and too courteous to ever call him something else, was a phone repairer at the Bell store at the Bramalea City Centre. I'd drop in to pay my bill, look over what was new in phones and chat. He always had time for me. I'm sure he caught heck from his (younger) supervisor for wasting time with me, but he didn't care. He loved talking about sports. He was a director of the Bramalea Blues Junior B hockey team and he and his wife attended just about all of Mark's hockey and basketball teams. A little less loud than Mark's mother, but he could work up a sweat excoriating officials as well as the next fan.

He retired and Bell became a faceless entity almost at the same time. First, the store wouldn't take my money any more. Just cheques (I was cheap, I wanted to save the cost of the cheque and the stamp. And I WAS in the vicinity ... frequently). Then, even the store facade went away. Bell was something you mailed cheques to and occasionally sent around repairmen when their legendary five nines of service up-time met the proverbial 0.001 per cent. Oh, and the company found political license to add just about any phony charge they could think of. I finally asked about one oddly-named charge and discovered I had been paying five bucks a month for a phone rental, for a phone I'd returned to Bell more than a decade earlier. Closer to two decades actually.

Caught stealing money from me thanks to my stupidity, they returned $65, 13 months of pilfering. Citing statue of limitations or some such folderal, I decided to keep the money and be happy they weren't in my pocket for the five bucks monthly anymore. Now, once you've been caught with your hand in my pants pocket, I should be excused for looking at every bill you send me with a discerning eye. Which I did, for about a decade. Then, I got sloppy. It's easy to just pay the bill if it's in the ball park. So, I stopped even looking at the bill. I sent the cheque or just used the trusty credit card to make the accounts receivable department go away.

Course, Bell hated me just as much as I hated it. I wouldn't pay the blackmailer's fee to upgrade from pulse dialing to tone dialing when tone dialing came in (I did mention I was old, right?). Didn't do it when the price got cut in half, nor when it was offered for free. I turned down an offer of $25 bucks to make the transition and told them what it would cost them: $500. They turned me down. I was OK with that. Fact is, I would have had to spend a day re-arranging things in my bedroom and office to get AT the jacks. AND I was plenty okay with not having all the digital features. I always answer the phone when I'm at home and don't when I'm not ... although I've virtually always had an answering machine. I don't need Caller ID, as a result. Don't need call waiting, because I agree with my friend Irwin. It's rude. It's always a case of telling one party that I value the other party over them. Nope, I was happy for a long time with my old dial phone system. And yes, that included an old black rotary dial telephone that worked even during the great blackout of 2005.

But, last September, I stopped making any long-distance calls through my phone. I used Google Voice in GMail to do those. And when Bell got around to demanding their money last month, I paid by credit card and said I wanted to change my plan to the most basic plan possible. I THEN discovered two things. I was paying almost 50 bucks a month and that I had been paying 13 of those dollars for up to two hours of national long distance calling per month. And I'd been doing it since last spring.  The bright light you saw in the sky that Monday night was me erupting. I'd certainly never okayed THAT chaarge. I don't phone people all that much and when I DO talk to Mom and Dad, it's usually on their nickel (Free for them) or via Google Voice. Same with my brother Wayne. Everybody else I talk is a local phone call. So, I got the plan that I had been on for about 38 years changed. Basic would cost me $27 a month and I'd have to pay through the nose for any long distance. I got the confirmation email within 24 hours. I also told them that I'd shop that price around and wouldn't get back to them if I found a better price elsewhere. They didn't deserve that courtesy. I also noticed I was now going to get charged 65 cents a month for using my pulse line, the penny-thieving so-and-so's. They also didn't offer to refund the money from the unauthorized added long-distance plan I'd been placed on.

Over the next couple of days, I DID check out alternatives with Rogers and with Vonage for VOIP-based solutions. There were enough doubts that I didn't go any further. Besides, Patrick (who I swear HAS Bell stock, given his refusal to badmouth the company's dependability), talked me down from the anger mountain. I'd won and was going to start saving money immediately.

On the Friday (if you are counting, that's four days after I paid off my Bell bill and three days after I'd been emailed confirmation of my new plan), I got a bill. For more than 54 dollars.

On the Saturday, I was told by the hapless clerk at the end of the line that she'd checked, re-checked and then checked again. My bill was 54 bucks and some change. I bellowed at her for about a minute longer, then slammed down the phone. A half-hour later, I was a Vonage customer.

It's taken most of the three weeks or so since this all went down to get effectively moved over to Vonage, using the same number. And for Bell to become nothing but a bad memory and a listing on my banned list of phone numbers my phone system will let through (Yes, I went out and pre-spent my savings on a new set of Panasonic phones that have blacklist capability).

The last day of Bell service was supposed to be a Friday. Naturally, something behind the scenes happened, which I will bet will cost me money in my final separation from this magpie company. Service was eventually severed on the Monday three days later, very early in the morning. It was supposed to continue to midnight, but this is Bell we are talking about. I wasn't surprised or even upset. I had some growing pains in the Vonage move, but I'm happy to report that mostly the transition is working and I have all the capabilities and THEN some. I'll blog about the whole Vonage thing some other day.

But Bell had one more kick at my can. Before buying the new phones (and don't think this wasn't the full impetus of that move), I got a call from somebody reputed to be from Bell's head offices. I'm a little suspect, and it isn't because of his foreign accent. He didn't seem to know WHICH service provider I had switched to. So, I suspect I wasn't talking to anybody with any power, but another $#(*%&W)$#*U# Bell salesman, who are universally reviled for their ability to time their unwanted phone calls for the most inopportune time. He told me I was his customer (NOT ANYMORE) and that Bell would love to do what it would take to keep me as a customer. I yelled my litany of complaints at him. His response? "You've had your say, it's my time to talk."

Well, THAT was one way of waving good bye to the red bull. He then compounded his error by informing me I was in violation of my contract with Bell. STOP. Read that sentence again. Try to wrap your head around it. I was apparently legally required to give Bell 30 days notice of my intent to get out from their money-grubbing hands in my pockets. I can't be completely sure, but I've had nightmares my anger explosion at that might have caused the earthquake in Japan. I was so mad, some of my fingertips turned blue. My arms tingled. "Charge me for the $$%(*%*$ month and don't ever call here again. I'll pay whatever bill you send me you cretin. And just so you get it, if Vonage doesn't work out, I'll try Rogers. If that doesn't workout, I'll pay somebody for cell telephones. And if it costs me a thousand bucks a month, I'll never send Bell one bleepin' red cent again for as long as I live."

Bang went the phone. Two days later I had the Panasonic beauties that allow me to wipe out all my memories of Bell. How's that for a rant? Compared with John's? Yeah, I thought so.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

SPORTS: It's A Regular Repeat March Madness

Stop me if you've heard this before ... Duke will win the NCAA Men's Basketball Championship early in April. And they'll beat my perennial final four pick Kansas in the final. And Ohio State, a past champion, and the good-this-century Pittsburgh Panthers will also be in Houston for the Final Four. All four teams enter the tournament as number one seeds, which was a curse ... until last year. So round by round we go, with the defending champions being the last one with a seat in this game of dosey do.

All season long, we've heard a familiar refrain from these last year ... parity. No undefeated teams, no once-beaten teams. One of the twice-beaten teams, San Diego State, plays midnight (Eastern time) games and nobody, but nobody watched them play. Except for in their two losses. To the only other good team in Mountain West. So, how good are Kawhi Leonard and title-winning Steve Fisher's Aztecs? Don't know. All I've got are reports that the mini-Dwight Howard is a beast. And either that the 'myth' of SDSU will be exposed or, in fact, we are headed for a meeting of the twice-beatens in the semis.

My gut tells me that if things go really kerplooey, Ohio State will stumble before Houston. I am a Kendall Marshall believer in North Carolina (and yeah, it doesn't hurt to have John Henson and Harrison Barnes), so I think Ohio State can be tripped up right there by the baby Tarheels. Or, maybe last year's designated stumblee, Kentucky, returns the favour this year, with the even younger Wildcats getting a measure of revenge for being ousted short of the Final Four a year ago. Good teams and a seven-man rotation for the top-ranked Buckeyes HAS to have Ohio State fans fretting. As some analyst pointed out, all it takes is one whistle-happy ref to land the oh-so-thin front court of Ohio State, led by player of the year contender Jarred Sullinger on the bench for important minutes.

Duke gets my nod because they have most of the factors I'm looking at this year (depending on others' research, I've been stuck working more than I would like for this time of the year). The only thing missing is proximity since they got sent out West. But other than a third-rounder against Texas' Toronto Boys, it's not like the other team's are going to have home area advantage. The Blue Devils can shoot and defend. Rebounding's a bit soft, but this seems to be the time of the year that the Plumlees get serious about being as good as they can be. And ultimately, I honestly believe that Kyrie Irving will be on the court when needed. Won't be for a lot of minutes, but I think he'll be there to add that little oomph Duke needs to defend.

Kansas is Kansas. 'Nuff said. I pick 'em every year. They win often enough to get me the odd computer or T-Shirt prize. It's built into my genes. So I like them to win the Pittsburgh-Kansas game, which, ironically enough, will NOT be held in Pittsburg, Kansas. I'd actually like them to win the whole thing, but I think the Duke guards are better than whatever group Bill Self decides to go with for the Jayhawks. So Rock, Chalk Jayhawk comes up one win short.

Winning pools is all about picking the surprise Sweet 16 team and getting about two thirds of the upsets in the first two rounds correct. Read another stat that MOST pools are won by somebody picking between 49 and 53 of the 63 games correctly. That's a LOT of misguesses still to succeed. Too many people pick too many upsets, and then watch as their disregarded favourite wins a round or two or even three more than they thought, propigating their one bad idea into a full-blown, knock me out of competition, disaster.

So, assuming the selection committee knows a thing or three about basketball, here's my list of upsets. It's not as long as it will be, but I hope the ones I miss lose on the first weekend, limiting my exposure. I like Gonzaga over St. John's for two reasons. Gonzaga's been dismissed most of the year while  over-acheiving St. John's recently lost D.J. Kennedy, who will be missed. A third general reason? I think people see so much of the Big East which enjoyed a fine non-conference sked, that the polls skew eastward. And freshmen grow up fast these days. Those kiddies who blew up in front of the largely experienced Big East teams in December, are ready for payback. Soooo, I think MOST Big East teams will underperform their seeds (except Pittsburgh, of course). And here's a kicker, I think Gonzaga then goes on to knock out everybody's second favourite team, Brigham Young, in the second round. You can't take Brandon Davies out of the BYU line-up and have the same team. Sure, Jimmer Fredette will go out in a blaze of glory, whenever he goes out, but I like Gonzaga in this game a lot.

BRIEF SEGUE BEFORE RETURNING to our regularly-scheduled prognostications. In high school, my best friend (and frequent bridge partner) was the son of a high ranking church official. He was also a very good basketball player and earned a scholarship to attend a religious Division II school down in the deep south. Now, my pal was your prototypical rebellious son of a reverand (who I actually quite liked and got along with, despite my agnosticism). He didn't last his whole first year. He got thrown out for having a case of beer AND two (not one, TWO) copies of Playboy in his room. Religious schools take things most of you or I would fob off as unimportant VERY seriously. I feel for Davies. But having other friends who attended that school on athletic scholarship, EVERYBODY knows the rules. It's just too bad that it will limit BYU's run in this year's event. WE NOW RETURN YOU TO OUR REGULARLY-SCHEDULED BLOG.

The same poor under-rated western team serves as a rationale for picking Utah State over Kansas State. KS is riding the back of Jacob Pullen and I like US to smother the scoring machine. Last year's wunderkinds, Butler, will get more respect and worse results this year. Look for the Bulldogs to go down in an 8-9 matchup with Old Dominion. Later in the tournament, I like #2 seeds Notre Dame and Florida to meet their Waterloo's short of the Sweet 16. I REALLY like Purdue as a surprise team, which means curtains for the Fightin' Irish. I have all the respect in the world for Michigan State coach Tom Izzo when it comes to the NCAA's. You'd be a fool not to. If he beats UCLA, then Florida will follow. On the other hand, my western bias yells UCLA over Florida too, if they overcome The Izzo Factor. I THINK it will be UCLA doing the deed, but how do you go against Izzo and sleep at night?

There are two REALLY interesting first rounders featuring centres of attraction and one game that will be a chore not to snore through. I very much give Morehead State a chance against Louisville, given Kenneth Faried, an NBA draftee this summer. It's about a one in four shot, but it's there. And Texas could stumble against Oakland, which is a really good team, if the Longhorns look past the Detroit school to a match against potential top draft pick Derrick Williams and his Arizona Wildcats. It's not like Texas HASN'T had concentration problems. And we've been hearing (and occasionally seeing) Oakland centre Keith Benson for most of the last three years. Make the upset a one in five chance. And the basketball purist might look forward to the Wisconsin-Belmont game a lot. But Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan, he of the defensive bent, won't. Belmont's good for being an NCAA runt. Disciplined AND March Madness-tested. Coming off that horrendous loss to Penn State in the Big Ten playoffs (NEITHER team topped 40 points!!!), Ryan has to wonder where his offence disappeared to. And will it come back? I believe so, and think Wisconsin is a Sweet 16 team with a decent hope of going further. But the opener will stress the Badgers out. A LOT! Oh, and those Nittany Lions of Penn State are just a little less than a 50-50 shot against Temple.

The tournament starts tonight and then kicks into high gear two days hence. It is simply the most wonderful time of the year, Christmas and Birthdays NOT excepted. Four days of glorious noon-to-midnight roundball (well, almost til midnight on Sunday).

Go Duke Go!!

Monday, March 14, 2011

SPORTS: Safety SHOULD Be The By-Word

Last week, the Toronto Star's website ran a story about a new soft helmet to be worn by baseball pitchers. It was modeled by a young lad who fractured his skull when a pitch he threw came back at him courtesy of a line drive off a metal bat. This helmet is a prototype and will be available sooner or later, although sooner equates to about two, maybe three years.

Sooner than sooner would be better still.

I never fractured my skull, but I came perilously close to skulling my brother Wayne. I was swinging away during a game of batter up when, unbeknownst to me, Wayne came up to me to say something. I swung at the ball, missed and hit Wayne on the follow-through. To this day, he doesn't remember a thing about the incident. Bat/ball-skull meetings rarely work out well. The kid in the Star story survived. So did Wayne. Occasionally, things don't work out that well.

Pitching in these days of metal bats is far more of a heroic job than it once was. Metal bats send out line drives faster than the pitches coming in. They are like metal trampolines. Steps have been taken to slow them down and again, sooner than sooner would be better.

Back in my softball coaching days, I was coaching the Bramalea peewee reps and we were having a practice at Earnscliffe School Park. I was throwing batting practice, sans a net (a device unheard of in those days for softball teams) and no helmet. Just my thick head with its shaggy haircut inside the normal dilapidated cap. I was throwing fairly hard and pitching from between the peewee rubber and second base to give the kids a bit of pace. We had an important tournament coming up and we expected to see some of the best fastballers in the province.

Robert Jansen was at the plate. Now Robert might have been peewee-aged, but he was already bigger than me by two inches and probably outweighed me by 10-15 pounds. He was a big moon-faced kid with one of the most pleasant personalities of anybody I ever coached. Not a mean bone in his body. And certainly he had no bone to pick with me. I windmilled in a fastball down the middle and he swung as hard as he could.

From there, everything went into slow motion. I saw the ball clearly and reached to catch it. Unfortunately for me, while everything was going in slow motion, so was my body. The glove wouldn't giddy up and get up in front of me to snare the ball. In fact, I barely saw the glove enter my field of vision when the ball arrived and hit me square on the heart (yes cynics, I do have a heart). The ball bounced off my chest and went straight up in the air. I reached for the ball with both arms and managed to make a big circle the ball dropped through and hit the ground. At that point, I hit the ground too and blacked out.

I threw batting practice from BEHIND second base, after that.

With talk of concussions aplenty, I do remind all that hockey and all sports engender some danger. Steps SHOULD be taken to minimize things that LEAD to bodily injury unreasonably. But that said, some people are going to get hurt, often in innocous ways. But where there IS a chance to use equipment to make playing sports safer, it should not be a question of IF to implement. But of how soon.