Dave's Sports Views

Analysis, humor and opinion on the sports world

Location: Dallas, Texas, United States

Friday, April 28, 2006

Thanks, Keith Jackson

I grew up watching college football and listening to Keith Jackson and Frank Broyles -- possibly the best announcing tandem I've ever heard. And I'm glad that I was able to hear him for many years narrate college football games from places ranging from Auburn to Ann Arbor.

I'll always remember the expressions he came up with, seemingly on a whim, that really didn't make sense, but when translated to the game, made perfect sense.

Some of my favorites:
  • Once when a wide receiver got nailed by a defensive back going over the middle, Jackson said, "That'll make him a little shy the next time he goes to the cereal bowl."
  • About a punt returner who tried to spin away from the defense and was quickly snowed under, "You can't be toe dancin' or they'll put you in a tutu."
  • Commenting on one of the great Wisconsin offensive lines of the Barry Alvarez era, "If you're facin' Wisconsin, you bring yourselves a picnic lunch because you'll be there all afternoon."
  • When the Minnesota-Michigan (aka, the Little Brown Jug game) flashed across the screen, Jackson mused, "There's nothin' like a little brown jug on a cold winter's night in Michigan," then pausing, "or Minnesota."
  • And by far my favorite was when a Kansas State score flashed across, Jackson asked broadcast partner Bob Griese if he'd ever been to Manhattan, Kansas. When Griese said no, Jackson replied, "Well, if you ever go, you better put the rocks in your pocket because the wind'll be a blowin'."

Whatever those sayings really mean, they were classic Jackson -- the country boy from Georgia with the unforgettable voice. Unlike Dan Rather, whose bizarre expressions seemed to almost mock his newsreading, Jackson's sayings always fit into the flow of the game. After all, it was about college football, where traditions mean more than in any other sport.

In more recent years, Jackson's quality had slipped. The 2003 Fiesta Bowl between Miami and Ohio State was a terrific game, but Jackson made numerous errors in identifying players and spotting the ball. But he recovered nicely and called a great game in the Rose Bowl this year, blending right in with the quality of the game.

I remember thinking that I hoped he would retire now, as that game would be the perfect one to remember him by. I'm glad he has decided to do so, but I'll still miss him. That's why we have ESPN Classic.


Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Best and Worst in the First Round

It won’t be a surprise to see which teams have been the best and worst in making first-round draft picks (1995-2005). Each team, save one, listed in the “best” group either won a Super Bowl or led its conference in wins at least once during the period. The “worst” teams have been some of the weakest teams in recent memory, and only one got to a Super Bowl during the period.

The first round is both overrated and underrated in the draft. True, a team’s success often can hinge on finding players late in the draft – Terrell Davis and Tom Brady were both sixth-rounders and can honestly say they’re the reason their teams won a combined five Super Bowls. But first-rounders are the guys you have to pay big money. If you pick well, they’ll pay for themselves. If you pick poorly, even with the ability to release players quickly, you’re going to be on the hook for them for at least a while.

And teams will do anything to prove they didn’t make a big mistake with a high pick, so they’ll likely hang on to a first-rounder longer than necessary, often in vain. Tying up salary in a player who doesn’t pan out is the surest path to mediocrity in the NFL. Here are the teams that have done the best and worst with what they’ve had to work with in the first round.

Best First-Round Drafters

Baltimore – Ray Lewis, Peter Boulware, Duane Starks and Chris McAlister came in consecutive first rounds and formed a nucleus for one of the best defenses in NFL history. They’ve also picked up Jonathan Ogden, Jamal Lewis, Todd Heap, Ed Reed and Terrell Suggs. If Kyle Boller can turn it around, they might have the nucleus of another Super Bowl team.

Indianapolis – A virtual Pro Bowl team can be made from their first-round selections: Peyton Manning at QB, Edgerrin James at RB, Marvin Harrison and Reggie Wayne at WR, Dallas Clark at TE, Tarik Glenn at OT, and Dwight Freeney at DE. And until James left for Arizona a month ago, each one was still with the Colts. Nevertheless, the abundance of offensive talent reflects the team’s neglect of defense, which is why they haven’t won a championship.

Seattle – The Seahawks drafted many of the key cogs in their Super Bowl team in the first round: Walter Jones, Shaun Alexander, Steve Hutchinson, Jerramy Stevens, Marcus Trufant and Marcus Tubbs. Two of their biggest busts – Chris McIntosh and Koren Robinson – came in years when they had two first-round picks, and they got Alexander and Hutchinson with the others. They also drafted Joey Galloway in 1995 and Pete Kendall in 1996.

New York Jets– The Jets may be the only team to not have a legendary bust during this period. Check out this group: Kyle Brady, Hugh Douglas, Keyshawn Johnson, James Farrior, Shaun Ellis, John Abraham, Chad Pennington, Anthony Becht, Santana Moss, Bryan Thomas, Dewayne Robertson and Jonathan Vilma. Their faults are taking some of these players a little too high (Brady, Johnson, Robertson) and letting a few (Douglas, Farrior, Moss) get away.

Jacksonville – They nearly got to the Super Bowl with Tony Boselli, James Stewart, Kevin Hardy, Fred Taylor and Donovan Darius. They went 12-4 last year with Taylor, Darius, Marcus Stroud, John Henderson, and Byron Leftwich. Time will tell about 2004 and 2005 draftees Reggie Williams and Matt Jones.

Pittsburgh – A team that has drafted low in most first rounds but has landed Mark Bruener, Alan Faneca, Casey Hampton, Kendall Simmons, Troy Polamalu and Heath Miller. And then there was that quarterback they took with the 11th pick in 2004. If only the Steelers would stay away from wide receivers (Troy Edwards in 1999, Plaxico Burress in 2000).

Tampa Bay – A franchise that once made a laughingstock of the draft has actually righted itself nicely in the past 10 years, getting Warren Sapp and Derrick Brooks in the same first round, then picking up Warrick Dunn and Anthony McFarland in later drafts. They also scored Rookie of the Year Cadillac Williams in the first round last year.

Denver – They haven’t been perfect (Marcus Nash, Willie Middlebrooks) and often have drafted near the bottom of the first round, but all three linebackers from last season (John Mobley, Al Wilson and D.J. Williams) were first-rounders, as well as offensive starters Ashley Lelie and George Foster.

Worst First-Round Drafters

Cleveland – They had the No. 1 pick in back-to-back years and misfired bigtime on both – Tim Couch and Courtney Brown. Then there’s Gerard Warren, William Green and Kellen Winslow. All of these have come since 1999, which explains why Romeo Crennel has his work cut out for him.

Miami – The Dolphins haven’t had many first-rounders (only seven in 11 years) and used four of them on Billy Milner, Yatil Green, John Avery and Jamar Fletcher. Daryl Gardener was nothing special and Vernon Carey is just becoming a starter. There’s hope for Ronnie Brown to start a new era.

Chicago – They’ve improved in recent years, if Rex Grossman can stay healthy. But that doesn’t undo some legendary misses, including Rashaan Salaam, Curtis Enis, Cade McNown, David Terrell and Marc Colombo. Brian Urlacher is clearly the gem in this group.

Arizona – Some memorable busts, including Tom Knight, Andre Wadsworth, Wendell Bryant and Bryant Johnson. The jury is still out on Antrel Rolle. Simeon Rice and Thomas Jones have done better elsewhere. Leonard Davis hasn’t lived up to a No. 2 pick.

San Francisco – Aside from Julian Peterson in 2000, you're looking at the likes of J.J. Stokes, R.W. McQuarters, Reggie McGrew, Ahmed Plummer, Andre Carter, Mike Rumph and Rashaun Woods. Let's hope for the Niners sake that Alex Smith pans out.

Oakland – The Raiders’ sin has often been to reach for players too high, such as Rickey Dudley and Sebastian Janikowski. There was the late Darrell Russell at No. 2 in 1997 and forgettable first-rounders in Napoleon Kaufman, Matt Stinchcomb, Phillip Buchanon and Nnamdi Asomugha. One exception: 1998, when the Raiders drafted Charles Woodson and Mo Collins.

Detroit – Oh, those receivers. Roy Williams has been OK. Mike Williams was a nonfactor last year. Charles Rogers has been injured. Then you have the quarterback who was trying to get them the ball, Joey Harrington (No. 3 in 2002). Aaron Gibson was a big bust, in more ways than one. Terry Fair was fair at best and Bryant Westbrook wasn’t much better. We’ll let them off the hook for Reggie Brown, whose career was cut short by a neck injury.

Cincinnati – If this study went back further, the Bengals might be the runaway winners, er, losers, thanks to Alfred Williams, David Klingler, and Dan Wilkinson, among others. But here the Bengals only have to pay for Ki-Jana Carter, Akili Smith, and Peter Warrick, and they’ve balanced it somewhat with Willie Anderson, Takeo Spikes, Levi Jones and Carson Palmer.


Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Drafting by the numbers

The NFL Draft is four days away, and everyone is busy with their mock drafts. This prompted me to look back at the first rounds of years past and see what number pick in the first round has produced the worthiest crop of players, relative of course to where they were picked. In other words, a No. 25 pick who becomes a regular All-Pro is better value than someone picked No. 1 who goes on to similar honors. I went through the drafts since 1995, which was the first year in which at least 30 players were drafted in Round 1.

#1 overall pick
Best picks: Orlando Pace, Peyton Manning, Carson Palmer
Worst picks: Ki-Jana Carter, Tim Couch, Courtney Brown

#2 overall pick
Best picks: Tony Boselli, Donovan McNabb, Julius Peppers
Worst picks: Darrell Russell, Ryan Leaf, Charles Rogers

#3 overall pick
Best picks: Steve McNair, Simeon Rice, Larry Fitzgerald
Worst picks: Andre Wadsworth, Akili Smith, Gerard Warren, Joey Harrington

#4 overall pick
Best picks: Jonathan Ogden, Charles Woodson, Edgerrin James
Worst picks: Justin Smith, Mike Williams

#5 overall pick
Best picks: Jamal Lewis, LaDainian Tomlinson, Sean Taylor
Worst picks: Cedric Jones, Curtis Enis, Quentin Jammer

#6 overall pick
Best picks: Walter Jones, Grant Wistrom, Torry Holt, Richard Seymour
Worst picks: Lawrence Phillips, Ryan Sims, Kellen Winslow, Pacman Jones

#7 overall pick
Best picks: Terry Glenn, Champ Bailey, Byron Leftwich
Worst picks: Mike Mamula, Andre Carter, Troy Williamson

#8 overall pick
Best picks: Joey Galloway, James Farrior, Roy Williams (Dallas S), Jordan Gross
Worst picks: Tim Biakabutuka, David Terrell

#9 overall pick
Best picks: Fred Taylor, Brian Urlacher, Kevin Williams
Worst picks: Tommy Knight, Koren Robinson

#10 overall pick
Best picks: Willie Anderson, Chris McAlister
Worst picks: Travis Taylor, Jamal Reynolds

#11 overall pick
Best picks: Tra Thomas, Daunte Culpepper, Dwight Freeney, Ben Roethlisberger
Worst picks: Derrick Alexander (Minnesota DE), Michael Booker, Ron Dayne

#12 overall pick
Best picks: Warren Sapp, Warrick Dunn, Keith Brooking, Shaun Ellis, Jonathan Vilma, Shawne Merriman
Worst picks: Cade McNown, Damione Lewis, Wendell Bryant

#13 overall pick
Best picks: Tony Gonzalez, Takeo Spikes, John Abraham
Worst pick: Troy Edwards

#14 overall pick
Best picks: Eddie George, Bubba Franks
Worst picks: Jason Peter, Michael Haynes

#15 overall pick
Best picks: John Mobley, Anthony McFarland
Worst picks: Yatil Green, Rod Gardner, Jerome McDougle

#16 overall pick
Best picks: Hugh Douglas, Kevin Dyson, Jevon Kearse, Julian Peterson, Santana Moss, Troy Polamalu
Worst picks: Duane Clemons, Reidel Anthony, William Green

#17 overall pick
Best picks: Brian Simmons, Steve Hutchinson, D.J. Williams
Worst picks: Tyrone Wheatley, Sebastian Janikowski, Philip Buchanon

#18 overall pick
Best pick: Chad Pennington
Worst picks: Napoleon Kaufman, Robert Edwards, Calvin Pace

#19 overall pick
Best picks: Marvin Harrison, Tarik Glenn, Shaun Alexander, Casey Hampton
Worst pick: James Stewart, Kyle Boller

#20 overall pick
Best picks: Javon Walker, Marcus Spears
Worst picks: Dwayne Rudd, Terry Fair, Ebenezer Ekuban

#21 overall pick
Best picks: Randy Moss, Nate Clements,
Worst picks: Rashaan Salaam, Sylvester Morris

#22 overall pick
Best picks: Tyrone Poole, Bryan Thomas
Worst picks: Marcus Jones, Lamar King, Chris McIntosh

#23 overall pick
Best picks: Ty Law, Jeff Hartings, Antoine Winfield, Deuce McAllister
Worst picks: Rashard Anderson

#24 overall pick
Best picks: Eric Moulds, Ed Reed
Worst picks: Reggie McGrew, Willie Middlebrooks

#25 overall pick
Best picks: Donovan Darius, Chris Hovan
Worst picks: Billy Milner, Jon Harris, Antuan Edwards, Freddie Mitchell

#26 overall pick
Best picks: Ray Lewis, Alan Faneca
Worst picks: Jim Druckenmiller, Erik Flowers, Jamar Fletcher

#27 overall pick
Best pick: Larry Johnson
Worst picks: John Michels, Rae Carruth, Mike Rumph

#28 overall pick
Best picks: Derrick Brooks, Trevor Pryce, Chris Gamble
Worst picks: Andy Katzenmoyer

#29 overall pick
Best pick: Ryan Pickett
Worst picks: Jamain Stephens, John Avery, Dimitrius Underwood, R. Jay Soward

#30 overall pick
Best picks: Keith Bulluck, Reggie Wayne, Kevin Jones, Heath Miller
Worst picks: Craig Powell, Marcus Nash

So where have been the best and worst for the value?
Looking deep in the draft, #19 looks especially fruitful with Alexander and Harrison, two perennial MVP candidates. #16 and #23 have produced some solid players and few outright busts. And #30 has been promising in recent years with Wayne, Jones and Miller. On the flip side, picks 22, 25 and 29 haven't produced a real gem and have had their share of busts.

Near the top, it's more of a mixed bag. For every truly great player there is an equally big bust, with picks 12 and 13 having the best overall performance. Nothing in the top 10 has been especially fertile.

That speaks to two things: 1) The top 10 often includes several "workout warriors," who put on a great show at the scouting combines but don't have the ability to translate skills to the field; and 2) Teams have reached for need high in the draft, particularly when there are a multitude of good players at one position. That has been proven with the likes of Tom Knight, Travis Taylor, Troy Edwards and Jamal Reynolds, all of whom were in a pack of several players at the same position drafted high.

We'll see what happens this year.


Best and worst mascots

Sports Illustrated recently posted their list of the 10 worst mascots in college sports. I have to agree with many of them, such as that ugly Stanford tree and the shock of wheat that Wichita State uses (boy, THAT'S intimidating).

Here are my favorite college mascots (not including live animals):
1) The St. Joe's Hawk -- That thing just keeps flapping its wings, so how can you not keep cheering?
2) Big Red, the Western Kentucky mascot -- For the wonder of trying to figure out what that thing really is.
3) Bucky Badger -- The toughest-looking rodent in the Midwest.
4) Albert the Gator -- We have to find room for a mascot that's done time on the SportsCenter commercials.
5) Brutus the Buckeye -- Extra points for making a nut into a cool mascot.


Thursday, April 20, 2006

Can a QB fall again?

Before the Super Bowl, I wrote a post about the "fall" of Ben Roethlisberger to the Steelers at the No. 11 spot in the 2004 draft. Two years later, Roethlisberger helped Pittsburgh win the Super Bowl, while most of the teams that picked above the Steelers hadn't improved much.

The point was that, in drafting a quarterback with a high first-round pick, and committing the money that the position and high draft status demand, a team that already has a young quarterback in place is hesitant to take another. Plus, everyone remembers Rick Mirer, Ryan Leaf, Tim Couch and Akili Smith, among others, and knows that they were all drafted within one place of Drew Bledsoe, Peyton Manning, or Donovan McNabb. The downside of taking the wrong guy is immense.

Pittsburgh got lucky that two other highly rated quarterbacks (Eli Manning and Philip Rivers) were rated ahead of Big Ben on the board, and only two other teams were ready to take the risk of drafting a quarterback high. It wasn't the first time something like that had happened. In 1983, the Dolphins watched Dan Marino fall to them at the 27th pick, after five other quarterbacks had gone before him. One can say that Aaron Rodgers' fall to the Packers at the 24th pick last year was even more dramatic, and reminiscent of the same trend. But until we see what Rodgers can do, we can't know if that will pay off for Green Bay.

This year the draft, like in 2004, features three quarterbacks jockeying for position high in the first round -- Matt Leinart, considered the safest and most pro-ready pick of the three; Jay Cutler, a scout's darling who excelled in pre-draft workouts; and Vince Young, who made everyone's mouth drop in the Rose Bowl, went through every critic's wringer, and now seems to have comfortably settled in as a guy who needs some work but has too much upside to pass up.

Can one of these three fall this year? Let's look at the draft order and what teams might do. I'm going to stretch the scenario a little bit, but hear me out:

1) Houston -- The Texans will take Reggie Bush if they keep the pick. But if some team (the Jets?) covets Bush, they might be able to put together a package that provokes the Texans to trade down. Houston has a solid running back in Domanick Davis, and while Bush has greatness written all over him, running backs have among the shortest shelf lives in the league. The Texans desperately need help at more positions than quarterback and running back. Regardless, they're not taking a quarterback, and it's doubtful anyone would trade up to No. 1 and take someone other than Bush.
2) New Orleans -- They signed Drew Brees to a huge contract. They will either trade down or keep the pick. If they keep it, they're not taking a quarterback. If they trade it, likely a team will be drafting one of the Big Three. But, for argument's sake, let's say the Saints keep the pick and take someone like Mario Williams.
3) Tennessee -- The Titans probably will take a quarterback. Steve McNair is persona non grata at the team's practice facility, and Billy Volek isn't a long-term answer. A reunion between Leinart and Norm Chow is a virtual certainty if the USC quarterback is available. So, in this scenario, let's say one of the three quarterbacks is off the board.
4) N.Y. Jets -- Again, stay with me on this: Let's say the Jets trade up and take Bush. Houston moves down and they're probably taking D'Brickashaw Ferguson. If they don't, David Carr will officially sue the franchise for criminal negligence. If the Jets stayed at the fourth pick, a second quarterback would probably go. Again, I'm going to stretch this and say the Jets move up, Houston takes Ferguson, and two quarterbacks are still left.
5) Green Bay -- Brett Favre might or might not be back. He might or might not have lunch tomorrow either, and I sure hope he calls a press conference to tell us his decision. Regardless, the Packers now have Rodgers pegged to be their quarterback of the future, and they need help at other positions more than they need another quarterback controversy.
6) San Francisco -- Alex Smith looked lost at times as a rookie, but he was the No. 1 overall pick last year. So the Niners, who were so many levels of bad last year, have to look at other positions.
7) Oakland -- The Raiders' nature would be to take a guy like Young, though they just signed Aaron Brooks in the offseason. Al Davis loves to do things people don't expect, so could it be possible that he passes on Young and takes a player like Young's college teammate, the hard-hitting safety Michael Huff -- who fills a greater need for Oakland. Again, pushing the envelope, I'll play this out that the Raiders do so and leave two quarterbacks on the board.
8) Buffalo -- J.P. Losman is too young to give up on, having gone late in the first round in 2004. The Bills have bigger needs, like a long-term stadium deal.
9) Detroit -- Matt Millen has needed a quarterback for so long, but instead waited out Joey Harrington. Now he has signed Jon Kitna and Josh McCown, so it's hard to believe he'll cloud the issue with another quarterback. The long treadmill ride continues for Lions fans.
10) Arizona -- The Cardinals have Kurt Warner, who will likely be the starter this year as the team tries to make a run at the playoffs. Arizona means business, signing Edgerrin James in the offseason. Denny Green has always been one to take the best player available, and if both Cutler and Young are still here, he'll be hard-pressed not to take one. I'll say that he does, and this will help cover me if Oakland takes a quarterback and the Cardinals pass. Two off the board, one to go.
11) St. Louis -- The 11th pick, just where Roethlisberger went. St. Louis has a decent, but erratic and injury-prone, starting quarterback in Marc Bulger. They have a new coach in Scott Linehan who made Daunte Culpepper look great in Minnesota and Gus Frerotte credible in Miami. While the Rams have other needs, it's doubtful that Linehan would pass up a chance to draft the team's quarterback of the future. A combination of Cutler and Linehan (if Oakland took Young, for example) would give Rams fans visions of the Greatest Show on Turf again.

So I'll predict all three quarterbacks are off the board by pick #11. It's conceivable, however, that one could still be left at this point. In that case ...
12) Cleveland -- Not taking a quarterback -- Charlie Frye emerged last year and coach Romeo Crennel is a defense-minded guy.
13) Baltimore -- As long as Brian Billick still has faith in Kyle Boller, he'll keep giving him chances. They're not taking a quarterback.
14) Philadelphia -- Donovan McNabb will be healthy, and the Eagles have far greater needs.
15) Denver -- Like Linehan, Mike Shanahan would love a chance to develop a young quarterback, but my guess is that player would probably come later in the draft. Jake Plummer is likely the starter again.
16) Miami -- The Dolphins just traded for Culpepper. They're out of the quarterback picture.
17) Minnesota -- I can't see one of the top three quarterbacks falling past here. Minnesota is counting on Brad Johnson, who will be 38 in September, for this year. They need someone for the long term. If either Cutler or Young is there, Minnesota probably has to take him and keep him off Lake Minnetonka.

The draft is the ultimate gamble, as often is the case in gambling, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good. We'll see if any of these quarterbacks turns out to be another Roethlisberger -- or another Mirer or Couch.


Tuesday, April 18, 2006

Today's edition of the police blotter

It's a busy day in the hard news world that is sports:
  • Two Duke University lacrosse players were charged with first-degree rape, sexual offense and kidnapping in an incident that allegedly occurred at an off-campus party on March 13. The two players are free on bond as their attorneys rail at the local authorities and proclaim their clients' innocence.
  • Stan Conte, athletic trainer for the San Francisco Giants, was subpoenaed to appear before a grand jury investigating whether Barry Bonds lied about his possible role during the BALCO steroids investigation.
  • Washington Nationals general manager Jim Bowden was charged with DUI after he ran a stop sign in Miami Beach. His girlfriend was charged with battery and resisting arrest stemming from an incident that night as well.
  • Penn State fined women's basketball coach Rene Portland $10,000 for violation of the school's nondiscrimination policy for her treatment of a player who wasn't feminine enough for the team.
  • Arizona minor league pitcher Angel Rocha was suspended 100 games for a second violation of baseball's steroid policy. Four other minor leaguers got 50-game bans for first offenses.
None of this stuff is sudden -- the mid-April sports lull has just pushed these stories more to the forefront. At least once a day it seems we get another tale of bad behavior from the sports world.

What's the common thread among these stories? Entitlement. Sports fans are shocked (SHOCKED!) to hear that these incidents occur. But do we ever think about what we do to perpetuate them?

We plead for winning teams and winning players, we form the audience for whom sports has evolved into a billion-dollar industry. We can't be surprised at the collateral damage caused by this phenomenon. Coaches push their players to the limits. Players push their bodies to the limits. Both groups -- and others associated with sports -- find ways to blow off steam, not always the right ways. We rarely pay attention to these things that go on behind the scenes, until they blow up into headlines.

Then after we've run our heroes through the wringer, we grant them forgiveness and root for them all over again.

This is not to say that all athletes make the misguided decisions those mentioned above might have made, nor is it to excuse any of them if they did make those decisions. It's not to say all sports fans are without ethics and soul. Hell, I'm probably the biggest hypocrite of all, sitting at my computer writing this blog because I care about sports and I have enough ego to think others might care what I have to say about them.

But we all make a bit of a Faustian bargain to be sports fans, especially in this day and age. Today was a good day for the devil.


Monday, April 17, 2006

Book Review: Dave Kindred on Ali and Cosell

The praise given Dave Kindred's book "Sound and Fury: Two Powerful Lives, One Fateful Friendship" on its back cover doesn't even begin to do it justice. This "tri-biography" of Muhammad Ali, Howard Cosell, and the partnership between the two, is a wonderful book and a novel concept that only a few had the knowledge, connections and talent to write. Thankfully for all of us, Kindred has.

Two books on Ali stand out for me -- Thomas Hauser's defining "Muhammad Ali: His Life and Times," an oral history that Kindred rightly cites as generating relevance for Ali more than 10 years after his retirement, and David Remnick's majestic "King of the World: Muhammad Ali and the Rise of an American Hero," which chronicles Ali's rise in the context of the often-frightening period during which it occurred. In his acknowledgements, Kindred admits that he had wanted to do an Ali biography but was overwhelmed by all the current work, so he offered to do one on Cosell. His agent suggested a biography of both. "Great agent," is the author's comment on that suggestion.

Kindred, a longtime sportswriter for The Washington Post, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and The Sporting News, among other publications, knew both men well. How well? In his introduction, he describes a scene in which he crawls into bed with a naked Ali in order to get a list of the names in the fighter's entourage, then segues to a scene at Cosell's house on Long Island in which the broadcaster emerges from his bedroom in his underwear, sans toupee, and flexes his muscles to show off to the author. Kindred has a genuine appreciation for both men, but his book is far more than an homage to their greatness.

The author paints a balanced portrait of both as flawed human beings, who rose to fame together in the turbulent 1960s, both minorities who dealt with persecution and rose above it. Despite their most obvious differences -- age, race, religion, marital history, and looks -- they had a great deal in common.

First, they were both driven by their own insecurity. Ali (then Cassius Clay) was driven to the Black Muslims by the sense of belonging they gave him, even as the group was undergoing a philosophical split that would result in Malcolm X's murder. His proclamations of his greatness before the cameras were driven by self-motivation as much as showmanship. Cosell was a perfectionist who feared the worst before almost every broadcast but managed to deliver every time. His selection for "Monday Night Football," the gig that cemented his celebrity, came only after a series of calls to badger creator Roone Arledge, which finally drew a return call and this hilarious ensuing exchange:

Arledge: "Get over here as soon as you can. There's something I need to talk to you about."
Cosell: "Ahhhh, from the desperation of your tone, I can only conclude that the bon vivant who is Roone Pinckney Arledge is beseeching me to rescue the trifle he's devised for Monday evenings. Am I not correct?"
Arledge: "As always, Howard."
Cosell: "And you no doubt expect me to shoulder this Stygian burden without additional compensation."
Arledge: "Yes, Howard, I do."
Cosell: "I accept."

Yet for all their haughty speech and insecurity, both worked to get where they were. Ali fought his way out of the Jim Crow South, took out perhaps the most feared champion of all-time in Sonny Liston, took on the government over the Vietnam War, regained the heavyweight title twice more, and retired with five career losses -- three of which came in his final four fights, when his body had already begun deteriorating and he was going for the paycheck. He is one of the most beloved men in the world. Cosell put himself through law school, joined the Army during World War II, directed his own early work, jumped to television at precisely the moment it was taking off in the national consciousness, and had a sixth sense of where to be when a major story was breaking so that his was the first voice you heard when you needed information. Followers have called him one of the "three C's of television:" Carson, Cronkite and Cosell.

So often Cosell's path intertwined with Ali's. A political liberal, Cosell defended Ali's right to take an anti-war stance (though Cosell was careful not to adopt the same public stance himself). He read the fighter's on-air statement announcing that he had refused to enter the service. Cosell was the first to reach the new champion upon his miraculous dispatch of Liston. He attended every Ali fight thereafter except the former champ's career-ending loss to Trevor Berbick, and shared numerous interviews along the way, probing Ali's thoughts and intentions. Their exchanges were often playful, occasionally serious, always memorable.

Both fell from glory at roughly the same time. Ali's final fights were money grabs to support himself after divorces, the Black Muslims and hangers-on who had taken advantage of Ali's good nature, had drained much of the champ's bank account. He refused to train seriously and was beaten soundly by Leon Spinks, Larry Holmes and Berbick. Cosell, who helped establish "Monday Night Football" as an American tradition, left it bitter with his broadcast partners and done in by a scandal in which he had, ironically, called Washington Redskins receiver Alvin Garrett a "little monkey." The man who did as much for racial equality than anyone in sports was wrongly labelled a racist, but no one could overlook his increasingly boorish treatment of his broadcast partners and his self-serving rants directed toward the hypocrisy he now saw in sports.

Heroes are the people we wish ourselves to be, at least for a little while. And at their best, both Muhammad Ali and Howard Cosell filled the bill. We wish to see the Ali who danced around the ring as a youth, who outran Liston, outsmarted George Foreman and outlasted Joe Frazier. We wish to see Cosell on the television describing the boxer he knew best, or uncovering the story behind Tommie Smith and John Carlos' Olympic protest, or opining on Reggie Jackson's dramatic homers or Lynn Swann's acrobatic catches.

Most of all, we want to hear them. For both were masters of language. Ali's street poetry and off-kilter proclamations that somehow became reality made him more intriguing than any athlete of our lifetimes. Cosell's polysyllabic hyperbole couldn't obscure the truth or conviction from the words he spoke and brought him at least a grudging respect. We want to hear them again, at the top of their profession, perhaps together in a boxing ring or a TV studio.

But Cosell has been dead nearly 11 years, and Ali is stricken by Parkinson's disease that has rendered him mute. It has taken another man with a gift for language, Dave Kindred, to restore them to us.


Wednesday, April 12, 2006

The Case for MVP

The NBA regular season often takes on an air of inconsequence, but this year has produced one of the most compelling MVP races in recent memory. Given that many of the usual suspects have suffered through injuries (Shaquille O'Neal, Tracy McGrady), or bad seasons by their teams (Kevin Garnett), or just haven't lived up to their usual lofty standard (Tim Duncan), the battle for MVP is wide open and as many as 10 players belong in the discussion.

The philosophical issue around this award is whether it goes to the best player in the league or the one who simply is the most critical to his teams success. In sorting through the candidates, I've come to the conclusion that the player who meets both criteria is one and the same.

My top five, in reverse order:

5) Chauncey Billups, Detroit: One of the game's most underrated players for a long time now has a Finals MVP to his credit from 2004 and was in the upper echelon of this discussion when the Pistons got out of the gate quickly. His 19 points and nearly nine assists per game are five points and four assists better than his career highs. But ultimately the Pistons thrive because of how well their players complement one another. Billups is the best of the bunch and the glue, but he has more help than anyone in the league except possibly Duncan.
4) Dwyane Wade, Miami: With O'Neal limited to 57 games so far this year, Wade has become the Heat's unquestioned star. He's fifth in the NBA scoring and also ranks in the top 10 in steals and assists. But Miami has added balance and depth that was missing last year, and ultimately, Pat Riley will get the credit for molding it into the second-best team in the East. Wade's negatives are his weak 3-point shooting (.171) and the team's 11 1/2 game deficit to Detroit in the East.
3) Steve Nash, Phoenix: Last year's winner has to be in the hunt again, after taking a team that's been without three starters from last season's Western Conference finalist squad. After the trade of Quentin Richardson, the free-agent loss of Joe Johnson and the injury to Amare Stoudemire, Nash has led a Suns squad and turned players such as Raja Bell and Boris Diaw into stars. He has increased his scoring to more than 19 points a game and leads the league in assists. But the Suns have taken a back seat to the Spurs and Mavericks in the West, so the award has to go elsewhere this year.
2) Dirk Nowitzki, Dallas: Nowitzki will never be a great defender, but his leadership and willingness to expend the effort to learn coach Avery Johnson's scrappier style of play has inspired the Mavericks to nearly the best record in the West. What Nowitzki will always be is a great shooter, perhaps the game's best and certainly one of its most clutch. There's also the nine rebounds per game that his 7-foot frame affords him and his stellar free-throw percentage (.897, which is sixth in the league but only third among the people on this top-five list). He only loses out because of the caliber of the man in front of him.
1) LeBron James, Cleveland: There just aren't enough superlatives to describe this man's ascendance into basketball legend. Just three years ago James was in high school and the Cavaliers were a franchise on life support. Now the kid from nearby Akron has taken Cleveland to 47 wins (fourth in the East) and averages nearly 32 points per game. He adds seven rebounds and seven assists a game, making him a candidate for a triple-double every game, and he's doing it with the help of a solid, but certainly not imposing cast around him. He is unafraid to take -- and make -- the big shot, evidenced by his 19-for-29 shooting performance in the last two minutes of a one-possession game. James might wear out in the playoffs (averaging 43 minutes per game), but somewhere along the way he should pick up his first of what should be many MVP awards.

Not in my top five is Kobe Bryant, who leads the league in scoring and had the second-most points in a game in NBA history with 81. Along with LeBron, he's the most likely player in the sport to take a last-second shot when his team needs it. But for those who want to make the argument that without Kobe, the Lakers would be one of the league's worst teams, I rebutt with this: Without Kobe, the Lakers probably have O'Neal, and they'd be no worse off at all.


Tuesday, April 11, 2006

A Blast from the Past

While I've always been and always will be a fan of the great game of Strat-O-Matic Baseball, I spent the better part of two college years playing RBI Baseball, in its Nintendo and Arcade form.

You might remember RBI, a rudimentary video baseball game that had 16 players (eight starters, four bench players and four pitchers) per team. In particular, the arcade game was fun because the 10 teams were all-time rosters for each of 10 franchises. (They couldn't do any better for the Braves at shortstop than Rafael Ramirez.) Pitchers could throw fast and slow and make the ball curve, loosely based on their real abilities. Batters had power and speed proportional to their own in real-life. Defense was controllable, but not based on the actual caliber of the player, so there were no worries about defensive substitutions.

If you check Deadspin, you've seen this recently, but someone was able to recreate the sixth game of the 1986 World Series using the Mets and Red Sox teams from RBI Baseball and Vin Scully's play-by-play of the real game. I especially like the part where they congratulate Marty Barrett for being the player of the game with one out to go.

Lovers of RBI should also check out a great site that has reviews of all the teams from both the Nintendo and Arcade versions.


Saturday, April 08, 2006

Break 'em up

The first week of the baseball season always provides the sort of surprises that breed overreaction, so with that in mind:

Get ready for the Tigers-Brewers World Series!

Detroit and Milwaukee are the only teams yet to lose this year. Granted, they have gone 4-0 against less than overwhelming competition. The Tigers beat the lowly Royals twice and then teed off on the weak Rangers pitching staff. The Brewers swept Pittsburgh and then beat Arizona.

But nevertheless, two teams that haven't been competitive for nearly 15 years are winning games that they should. That's the first step toward climbing out of mediocrity.

The Brewers are everyone's sleeper pick this year after finishing 81-81 last year (their first .500 season since Paul Molitor left in 1992). I chose them to finish third, because it's never a baseball season in Milwaukee without major injuries. But the front office has built this team smartly. GM Doug Melvin is one of the finest in the game, and Milwaukee has a crop of young talent in Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, Prince Fielder, Corey Hart and many others. The Brewers' farm system was once a wasteland but now has the depth of talent to carry the team for many years -- critical in a market that can't afford a high-payroll team.

And here's an example of how good a GM Melvin is: Last winter he traded Brewers closer Dan Kolb, probably overvalued after posting 39 saves in 2004, to Atlanta for Jose Capellan, a young prospect with a great arm. After Kolb flamed out as the Braves' closer, he's back in Milwaukee this year setting up Derrick Turnbow. If starter Ben Sheets can recover quickly from a back injury, Milwaukee certainly will be in the hunt for the wild card in the weak National League.

Detroit is a different story, but the Tigers are benefiting from the adage about a rising tide lifting all boats. The AL Central had previously been the sport's worst division, but the three-year division run by the pitching-rich Twins, followed by the White Sox title and the Indians' emergence, have made it one of baseball's best divisions.

Now Detroit, after a year of bringing in veterans like Pudge Rodriguez, Carlos Guillen, Placido Polanco and talented but injury-prone Magglio Ordonez, has a team that can show up without getting laughed out of visiting stadiums. Case in point: The Twins can basically thank the Tigers for their three division titles, winning 41 of 56 meetings between the two teams. Last year, Detroit won eight of the 19 meetings and was only four games under .500 until collapsing with an 8-24 record beginning September 1.

But Detroit is quietly assembling young talent as well, in pitchers Jeremy Bonderman, Fernando Rodney and Justin Verlander, outfielder Curtis Granderson and first baseman Chris Shelton, who is hitting a cool .688 with five homers so far this year.

Both Detroit and Milwaukee opened new stadiums in this decade to sparse crowds who preferred winning to hope. Now, though the season is far too early to draw conclusions, both cities may finally be cashing in.

Friday, April 07, 2006

Best of the Rest

With the Masters underway in Augusta, Ga., so kicks off a season of many secondary events that are popular with certain sports fans but not all. They don't have the national cachet of baseball, football, basketball, or NASCAR, but they often provide for compelling entertainment, and many true fans wouldn't miss them.

Here are my five favorite events in the "non-major" sports:

5) The Frozen Four -- I have to admit hockey wasn't even on my radar screen when I was young. A great season by the Flyers might catch my attention but otherwise I was watching basketball instead of hockey. But going to college at Bowdoin and graduate school at the University of Minnesota turned me on to college hockey. The Frozen Four has produced some classic games -- my two favorites were the 1989 and 1991 championship games, both held in St. Paul, Minn. Harvard beat Minnesota in overtime in 1989, and Northern Michigan won an unbelievable 8-7 triple overtime game against Boston University in 1991.

4) Wimbledon -- I've heard people group golf and tennis into one column in terms of following sports, and I have to admit it's true for me. When I was younger and played a lot of tennis, I wouldn't miss one of the Grand Slams. As I've gotten older and play a little bit of golf, I appreciate that sport more. But I still make some time for Wimbledon. It doesn't get much better than waking up early on a Sunday morning in July to catch the ladies' or men's final. The points are sometimes painfully short, but the fast grass keeps the tempo of the match going and puts an advantage on the server that makes service breaks truly rare.

3) The U.S. Open (golf) -- The Masters certainly has a lure, but most of all, I appreciate watching the world's greatest golfers enduring the tough conditions on USGA courses. It makes me, for once, feel a little better about my own (bad) game. And while Augusta is probably the nation's most revered course, it's fun to see new courses every year and learn about the USGA "Openizes" them. As I mentioned with Wimbledon and service breaks, birdies at the U.S. Open are so precious that a 10-footer puts you in the edge of your seat.

2) The World Cup -- Can you see a trend developing here? Service breaks at Wimbledon: rare. Birdies at the U.S. Open: rare. Goals at the World Cup: really rare. There's a reason why Andres Cantor goes nuts about each one. While the Olympics has become an overcommercialized mess, the World Cup is now the premier international sporting event for its displays of nationalism and pride. Though soccer has risen in popularity in the United States, it will never become anything close to the national sport that it is in most countries. And by that measure, the World Cup gives us a chance to look inside other cultures and feel their own heartbeat for a while.

1) The Kentucky Derby -- The first one I ever watched came in 1977, when Seattle Slew raced to victory and then went on to win the Triple Crown. Affirmed and Alydar staged their classic battle the next year, and carried it through for two more big races. I figured winning the Triple Crown was easy. No one has won since. In '79, Spectacular Bid almost made it three straight but lost to Coastal in the Belmont Stakes. Pleasant Colony, Alysheba, Sunday Silence, Silver Charm, Real Quiet, Charismatic, War Emblem, Funny Cide and Smarty Jones couldn't finish the deal. But on Derby Sunday, we wait in anticipation for the next possible Crown winner to emerge. While there's nothing better than a Belmont Stakes when a Triple Crown is at stake, the Derby is the only of the three races where you can truly root for any horse, because they all technically have a shot at the Crown.

Those are my favorites; I'd love to hear yours.


Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Why wait until next year?

If you're already suffering from college basketball withdrawal, and who doesn't after the buildup of March Madness, here's a look at ESPN's top 10 for next year. They also have posted their 11-25, and a mock bracket for next year's tournament. Are you kidding me?

In case you're in the mood for traveling, the Final Four in 2007 will be in Atlanta, the regionals in East Rutherford, St. Louis, San Antonio and San Jose. First-round sites include Buffalo; Winston-Salem; Lexington, Ky.; New Orleans; Columbus; Chicago; Spokane, Wash.; and Sacramento.


Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Gators have bite

Not much to be said about the NCAA championship game last night, as Florida easily handled UCLA 73-57. This completed one of the most dominant runs in NCAA tournament history, certainly since the field expanded to 64 teams in 1985.

Only Georgetown challenged the Gators, falling 57-53 in the Sweet 16. Florida won its final three games by 13, 15 and 16 points. The last champ to win its final three games by double digits was Duke in 2001, but that's deceiving because the Blue Devils won by 10, 11 and 10, coming back from an early 22-point deficit in their semifinal win over Maryland and pulling away from Arizona late in the final. Florida's last three games weren't that close.

The Gators have remarkable poise for such a young team. Their play makes sense given the pedigree that Joakim Noah, Al Horford and Taurean Green have as sons of professional athletes. All three of them, as well as their teammates, play as if they've been there before. Billy Packer talked about "basketball IQ" a lot last night, and it's rare that you'll see that kind of praise heaped on sophomores (or by Packer in general). Perhaps Billy Donovan, as a young coach who played in a Final Four 19 years ago, can relate the game pressure to his players better than many coaches. Whatever the reason, Florida never let the game get too big for them.

Jim Nantz had the stat of the game last night when he mentioned that Florida was one of only two teams in Division I to have all five starters with more assists than turnovers. South Carolina (which beat the Gators twice and nearly a third time) was the other. That trait put the Gators over the top last night. Against one of the most suffocating defenses in recent tournament memory, Florida turned the ball over only six times (with 21 assists).

While the Monday night title game didn't have the cachet of last year's final between the No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the country, it did feature the two best teams in the tournament. And there's no question the best team won. Congratulations to the Gators.


Sunday, April 02, 2006

Book Review: Feinstein on the Final Four

With a long plane ride this weekend, I devoured John Feinstein's latest book: "Last Dance: Behind the Scenes at the Final Four." While the author takes some criticism for churning out books in rapid fire, often repeating topics and anecdotes, I have to say this is one of his better efforts of late. That's simply because the man loves college basketball, he's well connected in the game, and he can spin a great story even when he's on autopilot.

"Last Dance" is really a series of vignettes about people associated with the event. From Billy Packer and Dick Vitale on television, to long-time reporters Bill Brill, Dick Weiss and Jim O'Connell, to NCAA director of officiating Hank Nichols, to his favorite subjects -- the coaches, Feinstein tells the stories behind the crowning moment of the college basketball season. Yes, it's a little bit redundant; yes, it gets a little sloppy at times (in Mike Krzyzewski's introduction, he refers to Scott May's broken leg prior to the 1975 tournament, when it was a broken arm). But it still lures you in and makes you turn the page.

Feinstein is close with a number of great coaches, and he has significant material from each of the past five winners: Krzyzewski, Gary Williams, Jim Boeheim, Jim Calhoun and Roy Williams. He also sits down with two of the best ever: Dean Smith and John Wooden, to get their take on the event and the march to get there. He goes behind the scenes for the selection of the teams and the officials, particularly criticizing the team selection committee for its secrecy and its pandering to the power conferences by creating the play-in game in 2001.

Ideally, if the author simply wrote about basketball and golf, which the majority of his books are about, he'd produce enough to keep me entertained, and the paperback edition of this book should be interesting, since Feinstein usually writes a new afterword on events since the publication of the hardback edition, and he has a great story in this year's tournament with George Mason. Feinstein has demonstrated a knowledge and appreciation for the little guy in his work, and he's as well qualified to write about the Patriots' run as any journalist.

I've read the majority of Feinstein's nonfiction -- exceptions being "Play Ball," "Open" and "Let Me Tell You a Story." Here are my five favorites of his work:

5) The Punch -- These are my favorite kinds of books, where an author can take a single event and tell the stories surrounding it. Feinstein worked closely with the two main characters in an ugly NBA fight in 1977 -- Kermit Washington and Rudy Tomjanovich -- to tell the story of the incident (in which Tomjanovich suffered serious face and head injuries from a brutal Washington right-hand punch), how it changed both men's lives, and how it affected basketball.

4) A Civil War -- Most of Feinstein's work consists of his chronicle of a year in the life of some sports team, league, or group of individuals, which he is able to write by gaining complete access to his subject. Here Feinstein spends a year with the Army and Navy football teams, describing their season, the stories of the players' backgrounds, and the pageantry and challenges of playing for a service academy. This is where Feinstein shows his appreciation for all who play sports, not just the stars. Nearly all of the players featured would be more likely to fight in a war than play a down in the NFL.

3) A March to Madness -- The last three all come from Feinstein's two preferred sports -- college hoops and golf. He's done several books of going inside the college basketball season, and this one is better than "A Season Inside" or "The Last Amateurs." Feinstein, a Duke grad, had ties to the ACC and many of its coaches, and gained access to seven of the nine programs at the time (all but North Carolina and NC State). He followed the 1997 season, Dean Smith's final one at UNC and a year that also featured Mike Krzyzewski struggling to return to health at Duke, Gary Williams leading the Maryland program back from the dead, and the emergence of Clemson's Rick Barnes as a big-time coach.

2) A Good Walk Spoiled -- This book seemed to come out of nowhere in 1995 and is still the best presentation of the unique pressures of the PGA Tour. The golfers that Feinstein selects to follow run the gamut from elites like Davis Love and Greg Norman, to an aging Tom Watson, to Q-schoolers Mike Donald and Brian Henninger, to Senior PGA star-in-waiting Bruce Fleisher, to courageous Paul Azinger during his cancer fight. He explains the intensity of the major championships (perhaps better than in "The Majors", but more so he shows how difficult it is to get the chance to play on the Tour, how easily a career can rise or fall, and how golfers live with the weekly grind of having to play two solid rounds just to earn a paycheck. This is both a heart-breaking and uplifting book.

1) A Season on the Brink -- The book that launched the author's career, picking anything other than this for Feinstein's best would be saying something besides the Sistine Chapel ceiling is Michelangelo's best paint job. Feinstein got total access to Bob Knight's Indiana program, and produced a work that changed sportswriting by showing the context behind the headlines at a major college basketball program. Knight didn't speak to Feinstein for years after the book came out, but agreed to talk to him when Feinstein wrote his recent book on Knight idol Red Auerbach. That's just, because though Knight doesn't come across like a saint in "A Season on the Brink," he does come across as a man in full -- a great teacher and leader of young men with hypercompetitive instincts and stubbornness that often push he and his team over the edge. Not merely a great sports book, this is one of best nonfiction works ever.


The Final

It's the Gators and the Bruins in the NCAA championship game tomorrow night, a matchup that was unlikely when the tournament began but now makes perfect sense.

Florida has been the best team in the tournament. Mark this stat away: The last eight champions have won each of their first two tournament games by double digits. (Arizona in 1997 was the last not to do so.) The Gators opened this tournament with impressive victories over South Alabama and UW-Milwaukee, and only Georgetown lost to the Gators by single digits (57-53). It is often true what they say about championship teams getting lucky at least once in the tournament, but it is rare that the winner doesn't also get a few easy games, especially early against much lower seeds.

UCLA certainly got lucky in the Sweet 16 when Gonzaga blew a late nine-point lead. (The Bruins also squeaked past Alabama 62-59 in the second round.) But UCLA beat the Bulldogs as they have won virtually all of their games this season, with defense. Their victories over Memphis and LSU were borderline unwatchable, because of the Bruins' suffocating man-to-man. But think about what they did, knocking out two hot teams that UCLA supposedly didn't have the athletes to compete with. The Bruins are very quick, very determined, and they go to the glass as well as any team in America. They'll need those traits to beat the Gators, who have proven their own mettle much the same way.

This matchup also features two teams that won their conference tournaments, putting an end to the myth that it's better to lose early and rest before you go to the NCAAs. Florida was very impressive in the SEC tournament until the final, when they had to grind out a two-point victory over a South Carolina team that had beaten them twice during the regular season. UCLA dominated the Pac 10 tournament, beating Cal in the final 71-52. As a result, the Gators enter the game Monday on a 10-game winning streak and the Bruins on a 12-game winning streak.

Finally, Florida and UCLA represent the two of the most impressive conferences in this tournament, with the Missouri Valley likely being a third. The Gators joined SEC rival LSU in the Final Four, and the Bruins came out of a Pac 10 that nearly shocked two number one seeds -- Arizona took Villanova to the wire in the second round, and Washington would have beaten Connecticut in the Sweet 16 but not for a silly foul by Mike Jensen and a late 3-pointer by Rashad Anderson.

Meanwhile, the Big East watched all eight of its teams go down, including two number-one seeds in the Elite Eight. The Big Ten didn't even survive the tournament's first weekend. The ACC was done by the end of the Sweet 16 (while the women's Final Four has three ACC teams, all of whom have won a men's title since 2001). And the Big 12 put Texas in the Elite Eight but lost Kansas and Oklahoma in first-round upsets and Texas A&M in the second round.

Where these two teams blow the prototypes of finalists is in their makeup. Both are extremely young, especially their stars. Florida starts four sophomores and junior Lee Humphrey. UCLA has two senior starters but its top three players -- Jordan Farmar, Arron Afflalo and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute -- are two sophomores and a freshman. Also, it's rare that a team that doesn't shoot particularly well, like UCLA, or a team that relies so heavily on the 3-pointer, like Florida, wins the championship. Why they're here is that the Bruins can stay in games in which they don't shoot well, and the Gators have two great inside players to complement their shooters.

Who wins? I'm looking at it this way: The team that can stop the other from doing what it likes best will win. I think UCLA has the better chance of doing so. Florida loves to run and press, but UCLA is quick enough and deep enough to stay with them, and they have two good point guards in Farmar and freshman Darren Collison. The Bruins also pressure the perimeter and recover well on defense, making Florida's inside-outside game harder to execute. UCLA doesn't have great big guys, but the Bruins showed on Saturday that Mbah a Moute, Ryan Hollins, Lorenzo Mata, Alfred Aboya, and company can hold their own against the likes of Davis and Thomas.

Ben Howland is trying to become the first coach since Jim Calhoun in 1999 to win the championship in his first trip to the Final Four. He and the Bruins will have to win it in the city where UCLA registered its only loss in a championship game (the 1980 final to Louisville in Market Square Arena) and beat a coach who has Final Four experience and a team that is playing at an incredibly high level.

But the Bruins all tournament have shown they can do whatever it takes to win. It's rarely pretty, but the results speak for themselves. After two rather boring semifinals, this one holds our interest and goes to the wire, where the Bruins have just enough -- again. UCLA 63, Florida 60.


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