Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Inconsistency Rules the Day in the NHL

Last night, the Chicago Blackhawks and Detroit Red Wings played a hockey game. A good one, in fact.

But it was marred by this Todd Bertuzzi elbow to the head of Blackhawks' forward Ryan Johnson.

The on-ice officials got it right. They gave him Bertuzzi game misconduct. Good for them. Oh the times, they are a changing. However slowly.

But today, after reviewing the hit, the NHL decided not to suspend Bertuzzi for even one single game. What the ....??? This, after they suspended Matt Cooke for 10 games, plus one round of the playoffs, so potentially 17 games.

Apparently, the league feels that Bertuzzi doesn't have a history of recidivist head hunting a'la Matt Cooke, somehow overlooking Bertuzzi's 2004 sucker punch of Steve Moore. And I strongly disagree with that. I think you do, in fact, have to factor in the sum total of Bertuzzi's career.

But even if I am to grant the NHL that Bertuzzi's cheap shot on Moore was a long time ago, even if I'm going to buy into the notion that Bertuzzi is a 'clean' player now, I still believe a suspension would be in order. If you want to send a message to players and coaches that dangerous shots to the head -- particularly involving elbows being thrown -- will not be tolerated. Were I hockey's discipline czar, I would have suspended Bertuzzi for the remainder of the regular season. Perhaps longer.

The hit is dangerous. The elbow up high was unnecessary. Bertuzzi is just lucky that Johnson is okay. That was luck. Nothing more. One of these days, the league's luck is going to run out.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Top 5 Craziest Final Fours Ever

Last year, when Northern Iowa took out Kansas in the second round of the tourney, it forced me to revisit the top 10 upsets in NCAA tourney history. I'm not sure who I take off that list, but I have to include VCU's run very near the top, particularly as nobody was more beat upon than VCU heading into the tourney: they had to play a 'play in' game, they were likely the 68th and last team selected for the tournament and every talking head within ear-shot of a microphone cried foul, opining that VCU didn't deserve the last bid, they generally sucked and so on; then they went out and beat Georgetown, Purdue, Florida State and Kansas.

If VCU is a complete fall over and get the smelling salts kind of shock, the return of last year's runner-up Butler is less of a shock. Still the Bulldogs were an 8 seed (which pretty much tells you where the selection committee thought they'd end up) and Butler is the only team from a mid-major to play into the Final Four in back to back years since the 1990 and 1991 UNLV teams (since the tourney expanded to 64, that is.) Pretty impressive on Butler's part, no?

If 2008 was the most predictable, chalk Final Four of all time, with four No. 1 seeds meeting (yawn, big, big yawn), 2011 is the antidote to the chalk. If you think this is the nuttiest Final Four ever, you would be right.

What Final Fours fill out the remaining Top 5 Most unlikely? To determine that, I've used the very scientific method of relying on my prodigious memory plus google, and starting with the Bird-Magic Final Four (1979).

1. 2011 -- UConn (3), Kentucky (4), Butler (8) and VCU (12*). There has never been a year like this, not even one that comes close. To have two mid-major teams in the Final Four is stunning. Most years, we don't even get one. But to have the Colonial Athletic Conference and and the Horizon League represented makes this THE most unlikely Final Four of All-Time. By a ton, in fact. VCU, a 12* seed (don't you think that a 12 seed that had to 'play in' deserves an asterisk?) and Butler, an 8 seed, have outlasted all four No. 1 seeds, all four No. 2 seeds and all but one of the No. 3 seeds. No way on God's green earth did anybody see that coming. You have to go the whole way back to 1980 to find a Final Four sans a single No. 1 seed (bear in mind, that was when the tourney field was only 48 teams.) Amazing. 31 straight years with at least one No. 1 seed in the Final Four.

2. 2006 -- LSU (4), UCLA (2) George Mason (11), and Florida (3). I still marvel at George Mason's run to the Final Four. There's always an upset in every tournament, but for GM to run through the field to the Final Four ... well, we hadn't seen anything like it in a long time. And I didn't expect that we'd see anything like it for many years to come. Plus, in 2006, we had no clue how good that Florida team was yet.

3. 1980 -- Iowa (5), Louisville (2), Purdue (6), and UCLA (8). Okay, this is a collection of household names (Iowa less so, unless you're counting football and wrestling), but notice the complete lack of No. 1 seeds. 1980 was the last time we had a Final Four notable for the absence of 1 seeds.

4. 1979 -- Indiana State (1), Depaul (2), Michigan State (2), Penn (9). From a field of 40. Yeah, yeah. Indiana State was a 1 seed, but really, this is way before expanded cable and light-years before the internet. Had anybody outside of Terre Haute seen Indiana State play prior to the tournament? Penn was in the Final Four? Penn? As in the University of Pennsylvania of the Ivy League. Yup. Bird. Magic. Everybody paid attention. Nobody saw this coming, but it fixated a nation. And we haven't stopped watching since.

5. 1985 -- Georgetown (1), St. John's (1), Villanova (8) and Memphis State (2). I went back and forth on this one (plus the two bonuses below.) Two No. 1 seeds? Power conference? But, what are the odds that one conference would send three teams to the Final Four? It hasn't been done since. Then there is the whole giant upset of Georgetown. In fact, I think that I penciled them into my bracket as the winner of the whole thing back on Valentine's Day, 1985, that's how good they were. So, for the unlikely upset, plus the Big Beast having three teams advance, I'm including this as No. 5 on the list.

Honorable Mention: 1983 -- Houston (1), Louisville (1), Georgia (4), N.C. State (6). (from a field of 52.) I'm including this because Houston Phi Slamma Jamma was, indeed, a power team, but not from a power conference. Then, you consider the amazing upset in the final by Jimmy V's N.C. State team, and I had to include 1983.

Honorable Mention. 1991 - UNC (1), Kansas (2), Duke (2), and UNLV (1). I thought I should mention this Final Four because this is ONLY other time (since the tourney expanded to 64 teams) that a team from a mid-major conference made it through to the Final Four two years in a row. I know that UNLV was a powerhouse and I know that a Final Four rounded out by UNC, Duke, an Kansas is hardly a line up of obscure underdogs, but Tarkanian's Runnin' Rebs deserve at least a cursory nod.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Orchiette with Broccoli Rabe and Chick Peas

To my mind, there are a couple of ways you can go with pasta. I love thin spaghettis -- capellinis and angel hairs. Then there are the tubes -- penne, ziti and rigatoni. For the record, I hate rigatoni. Always have. I cannot eat them, even to this day. Then there are the other toothsome varieties and of those, I am partial to orchiette and troffie. For this recipe, I like to use orchiette, little thumb-print type pastas that we called 'flying saucers' when I was a kid.

I pair my flying saucers with dark greens and chick peas. This may, in fact, be my favorite application for broccoli rabe. I admit that I am partial to dark greens -- I could eat kale or swiss chard or broccoli rabe every day of the week, but don't let the fact that broccoli rabe possesses many health benefits fool you. I eat this because it is delicious and, even if you don't generally like dark greens, this is a treatment that even you less adventurous food friends will enjoy.

You will need:
1 large bundle of broccoli rabe
1 can of chick peas (drained and rinsed)
1/4 pancetta
4 cloves of garlic -- very finely diced
pinch of crushed red pepper flakes
1 pound of orchiette pasta

The prep:
Bring a large pot of water to a boil while you clean the broccoli rabe by cutting away the thick woody stems; then coarsely chop. When the water comes to a boil, salt it and add the broccoli rabe. Broccoli rabe, or rapini, can be very bitter. I find that boiling it for just a minute or two before sauteeing mellows out the bitterness. After you've boiled the broccoli rabe, drain it and set it aside.

Put on a pot of water for your orchiette.

Finely dice the garlic and also dice the pancetta into small cubes. Heat a sautee pan, add a tablespoon or so of olive oil and toss in the pancetta and garlic. Reduce the heat, because you want the garlic and pancetta to cook pretty well, but you don't want to scorch them. After about 5 to 7 minutes, add the rinsed chick peas and the broccoli rabe. At this point, you just need to sautee this for a few more minutes.

By now, your pasta water should be at a rolling boil. Add a healthy pinch of kosher salt and the orchiette. When the pasta is about halfway done, add a pinch of crushed red pepper to the broccoli rabe and chick pea sautee pan, along with about a ladle full of the pasta water. As with all pasta preparations, remove the orchiette about one minute before they are al dente and cook them for a minute or two in the sautee pan with the broccoli rabe mixture.

Serve with freshly grated pecorino romano cheese.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Penguins Clinch Playoff Spot

With this magical shoot out goal last night, James Neal undressed the magnificent Martin Broudeur. And, clinched a playoff spot for our Penguins.

I'm starting to like that trade to get Neal more and more.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain -- Or How on Earth Do the Penguins Keep Winning?

By this point in the NHL season, every team has missed players for several hundred games. But the Penguins, the Penguins are:

-- without Brooks Orpik, their best defender

-- without sharp-shooting Evgeni Malkin (although not without his parents at the Consol from time to time)

-- without, of course, the best all-around player in the game, Sidney Crosby.

Just how on earth are they only 5 points behind the Atlantic Division Leading Flyers and the fourth-seed in the playoffs, heading into tonight's game in Philadelphia?

1. The Ham and Eggers.
I wanted to say 'ham and eggers' because it's one of my favorite hockey cliches, but also because the Pens would be hanging onto a playoff spot by their skin of their bills (or possibly on the outside looking in) without contributions from guys like Craig Adams. Oh, to sing the praises of Craig Adams, the guy who was literally signed off the scrap heap by Ray Shero in 2008 has turned into a penalty killing god. It's a good thing, too, because your Pittsburgh Penguins are the most penalized team in the entire league. (You know, if they'd stop taking so many stupid penalties, Adams wouldn't have to take 75 mile an hour pucks to the mid-section so often.) Think Adams is just an ordinary fourth liner? Think again. He's a huge part of the Penguins playoff push this year, one of the smartest players on the ice at all times. And I'm not just saying that because he's a Harvard guy.

2. The Wilkes-Barre effect.
Testy, Conner, Jeffrey, Eggo, Lovejoy.
It's not just Geno and Brooks and Sid missing from the Pens line up. Don't forget, they started the season without Jordan Staal for an extended stretch, and early on, they lost Mike Comrie (who was brought in to be Sid's wingman) and Arron Asham, who was supposed to score some dirty goals for them. Those two have missed a combined 93 games. The Pens have survived, thrived really, because they were able to call up guys from the Baby Pens like Mark Letestu, Chris Connor, and Dustin Jeffrey. Shero was able to pull the trigger on the Goligoski trade to bring in James Neal because Ben Lovejoy and Deryk Engelland have been so effective. I'd like to take a moment to point out that Lovejoy is +9, pretty darned impressive for such a young defenseman.

3. Flower Power.
Yeah, yeah, he started out slow. Okay, he started out worse than slow. He started the season seemingly thinking about pie. Or maybe he was thinking about Bastille Day. Or maybe he was thinking about his grandmother's traditional Bastille Day pie. Because he sure as hell wasn't focused on goaltending in the NHL. Merde. But he worked through it and turned himself back into the kind of net-minder who wins Stanley Cups. He has kept the team in games when the offense just can't get it going. I'll grant you that when he lays a stinker, it is a bad stinky stinker. But, on the flip side of that, when he is good, he is great.

4. Shero-Vision.
And by this, I mean, adding Paul Martin and Zybenek Michalek about 30 seconds after Sergei Gonchar left town. Shero seems to make all the right moves, but perhaps none have been bigger than shoring up the defense with Martin and Michalek. The Pens never did properly replace Rob Scuderi after the 2008-2009 season, then last summer, they lost Gonchar and a very steady defenseman in Mark Eaton. Martin and Michalek are both defensive upgrades over Gonchar, the steady defensive presence that the Penguins were really in need of last year. Michalek has blocked over 1,200 shots this year and Martin is responsible for at least 2,019 clears. Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the point. Both of them are always in the right position and, now that they've played a whole season together, they move like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers out there. It's a beautiful thing.

5. Bylsmagic.
I have to admit to having a hockey crush on coach Bylsma. I love his businesslike approach. I love how articulate he is. I love that he never panics. I love the fact that he is the anti-Bruce Boudreau. It's pretty easy to forget that when Shero fired Michel Therrien in February of 2008, the Pens were on out of the playoff standings and that nobody really expected much from Bylsma. But his smart, calm approach is the perfect fit for this team and the rest is such a crazy story that I still shake my head in wonderment. Also, big ups to Bylsma's coaching staff, particularly assistant coach Tony Granato, who is responsible for the penalty killing unit, first in the league in percentage of penalty kills (85.9%) and second with short-handed goals (12).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Matt Cooke Out. For a Long, Long Time

After Matt Cooke stupidly threw his elbow at the head of Rangers Ryan McDonagh on Sunday, the NHL wisely suspended him for the rest of the regular season (10 games), plus the first round of the playoffs.

The sad thing is that Cookie doesn't have to play like that. He's got enough game that he doesn't need to be head-hunting, throwing dangerous cheap shots and putting his team behind the eight-ball. It's frustrating to see and, frankly, kinda embarrassing for Pens fans. He vows to come back a smarter player and I hope that he does. Come back smarter, that is.

Ironically, this is the kind of 'get tough on crime punishment' Penguins owner Mario the Magnificent has been calling for since, well since his playing days.

But does it mean a permanent sea change in the way the NHL is officiated on ice and the kinds of reprimands we will see coming out of HQ in Toronto?

After the GM's meetings last week, the NHL said that they would not put an out-right ban on all head-shots; but rather they would simply begin strictly enforcing the rules that already exist pertaining to player safety and unnecessarily dangerous hits. [It's pretty much what the NFL said after one Sunday that saw four players concussed into stupors in a matter of hours.]

Per Shelly Anderson at the PG, some GM's have no interest in changing the game at all,
"'I don't think it's realistic,' he said [NHL VP Brendan Shanahan]. 'I think defenders defend standing up and forwards attack bent over.

'There are other things we can do first. It's healthy that every few years we have to re-evaluate the game and make tweaks and adjustments. The game will never stop evolving.'

[NHL Commissioner Gary] Bettman said the lack of support for penalizing all head shots stems to some extent from data the GMs received Monday that show most concussions this season are not from head shots, and that 44 percent are the result of legal hits."
[I call shenanigans. I just love when people toss out hard percentages. I want to see the data on this 44% that Bettman referred to. Maybe he's right, but I get the feeling he pulled that number out of thin air.]

It is true that the NHL can call games much tighter, that rules already exist on the books which would protect players more, which on-ice officials eschew calling. Heck, when was the last time you watched a game and they actually sent somebody to the box for charging? They could call that twice per game on Ovie. They turn a blind eye to a whole crapton of cross-checks that occur and almost never call obstruction or interference. They have started calling boarding more which is great. And I also understand that hockey is fast, so maybe the on-ice zebras just can't see everything.

Which is where Colin Campbell comes in. If the officials miss something in live action (easy enough to do), he can issue fines and suspensions from his NHL lair in Toronto to address egregious, unnecessary and dangerous shots. His shot across Cooke's bow would seem to be the opening salvo.

But ... I've been led down the garden path by the NHL before. They will tire of policing the game like this, because the NHL does this from time to time. It's a dance they do every couple of years. "We're going to open the game up," they say, and the fans are happy, the sun shines and skill players flourish. Then over the course of a season (or two or three), without noticing it, they just slide back to the old clutch and grab tactics.

Eventually, the NHL again says, "Oh, yes, we're going to start calling obstruction and interference" and again there is much rejoicing everywhere. Then they revert back. The cycle repeats. Over and over again.

So I worry that they will tire of this new, more enlightened thinking on cheap shots, head-hunting and general goonery, and revert to their old, comfortable, well-worn neanderthal thinking.

But the cost is too great. This change from the league itself has to be permanent because if the league doesn't police this stuff, then the players and coaches do. You just know that one of the Canadiens is going to take a run at Zdeno Chara the next time the Habs and B's meet, right? I mean, I'd make a large bet on that eventuality.

It is precisely because of those types of situations that NHL has to be the Sheriff. It has to police head-hunting and other forms of general goonery, so that the players and coaches, many of whom live with their heads in the dark ages, won't mete out justice themselves.

There's a new Sheriff in town. I only hope he sticks around this time.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Putting the Pitt Loss to Butler in Perspective

For Pitt fans, we've been here before -- bounced from the tournament. Bitterly. Devastatingly. Even prematurely, some would say.

Every year, there's a reason, some phenom who decides to explode on the scene at the exact moment he takes the court against Pitt, or a bad match up, or just dumb luck. There's always a reason, isn't there?

Let's take a stroll through the last decade of painful losses.

2002: As a 3 seed, Pitt made it to the Sweet 16, beating 14-seed Central Connecticut State and 6th-seeded Cal along the way before going down to Kent State (10 seed.)

Reason: A Golden Flash player named Antonio Gates. Maybe you've heard of him. He's gone on to be the fame and fortune in the NFL as a tight end for the San Diego Chargers and has been selected to the Pro Bowl seven times.

2003: As a 2 seed, Pitt made it to the Sweet 16, beating 15th seed Wagner and 7th seed Indiana, before losing to 3rd seed Marquette, by a score of 77-74.

Reason: D-Wade. Was named the Midwest Regional Outstanding Player after compiling 51 points, 14 boards and 15 assists in two games -- taking out Pitt, then Kain'tuck.

2004: As a 3 seed, Pitt made it to the Sweet 16, beating Central Fla. (14) and Wisconsin (6) before losing to Oklahoma State, 63-51.

Reason: Okla. St. was smoking hot coming into this game, having won 19 of their last 20.

2005: Pitt (9 seed) lost a depressing game to Pacific in the first round, 79-71.

Reason: Who cares, really?

2006: Pitt won their first round game versus a D-Wade-less Marquette, then dropped in the 2nd round to Bradley (out of the Missouri Valley Conference)

Reason: Two Braves went completely bananas in this game, as Patrick O'Bryant had 28 points and 7 rebounds, while Marcellus Sommerville added 18 points and 6 boards. To think, this was supposed to be the Panthers' bounce-back year.

2007: Pitt earned a 3-seed and advanced to the Sweet 16 before losing to UCLA.

Reason: UCLA did advance to the Final Four. And they proved to be a much tougher team. Probably Ben Howland's best team.

2008: Lost in the second round to Michigan State.

Reason: There's never really any shame in losing to Tom Izzo's Michigan State program. When the game was on the line, Drew Neitzel and Kalin Lucas took over, putting on a late shooting-and-ballhandling show. Of note: This win over Pitt gave Spartie five wins in five NCAA tournament games against Big East teams, which tied the longest winning streak against Big East teams in NCAA tournament play, set by Duke (won five straight against the Big East from 1990 to 1992.)

2009: Lost in the Elite 8 on a last second bucket by Villanova's Scottie Reynolds.

Reason: They were one great play away from going to OT and possibly advancing to the Final Four, when Reynolds made the best, most clutch play of the night. Still, this loss was a move in the right direction -- as Pitt finally got past the Sweet 16. Still, it was disappointing, given that this was probably Pitt's best team ever, and certainly the best team in the Jamie Dixon era. This one hurt. A lot.

2010: Lost in the 2nd round to Xavier.

Reason: This was a team figuring out who they were in the absence of Dejuan Blair, Sam Young and Levance Fields.

2011: Do we have to relive this second round loss to Butler?

Reason: Facing Butler which should never have had a seed as low as 8 with four starters returning from last year's Butler team. Plus Shelvin Mack going bananas and hitting 7 of 12 three-point shots. Plus Matt Howard flopping like an Italian futbol player. Plus Pitt's shot clock violation. And their sheer stupidity. That about sums that up, right?

I had this wonderful principal in high school -- Sister Regina Clare. She used to tell us that there was a world of difference between an excuse and a reason. But I wonder, if I could ask her now, if even valid reasons cannot turn into excuses when they are heaped upon each other, layer after layer, over and over again?

Sure, there's really no shame in losing to Dwyane Wade. Or losing to last year's finalist, a team that came within 2-points of knocking off Duke.

And in a vacuum, either of those loses is perfectly acceptable to all but the most rabid Pitt fans, no?

But at some point, if you want to actually be deserving of elite status, actually be deserving of a 1-seed in the tourney, don't you have to win one of those games every once in a while? Not all of them. Just one or two of them. Because elite teams do sometimes win these kinds of games. Elite teams sometimes rise up and pull off the big win in the toughest setting.

After a while, don't legit reasons take on another shape and morph into excuses?

None of which is to say that I'm ready to make crazy changes at Pitt, like firing coach Dixon or something else equally extreme. But ... Dixon et al do have to examine some things this off-season. There are chinks in the armor that simply have to be mended. Pitt was badly out-coached by Jim Calhoun in the Big East tournament, and other weaknesses were painfully apparent against Butler, such as Pitt's inability to adjust to and/or cool off a hot 3-point shooter. Frankly, that's something that has been a problem for the Panthers over the years. So there are things for Dixon and his staff to work on, starting today; areas that they simply have to improve upon. Have. To.

Meanwhile, the NCAA men's basketball selection committee should cease and desist from ever conferring a No. 1 seed upon Pitt until the Panthers actually win one of these things tough games in March, because I'm sure the white hairs at the committee are just as sick of seeing this as Pitt fans are:

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Sunday Recipe: Chicken Romano with Linguini in Lemon Sauce

The food cognoscenti, for many years, have looked down their noses at Italian-American cooking, versus 'authentic' Italian cooking, but I would argue that there's a difference between authentic Italian-American and over-cooked, mushy, disgusting Italian-American. It is not accurate or fair to judge Italian-American cuisine by a can of Chef Boyardee. That's a pretty unfair criticism. It would be like me disparaging all the food in Tuscany because I got food poisoning there. Oh wait ...

Of recent note, there has a been a bit of come to Jesus recognition of good Italian-American food. Spaghetti and meatballs is a distinctly American iteration, but it's a delicious one that I will defend. Along those same lines, I have no idea of the actual origin of chicken romano, but it strikes me as a particularly Italian-American dish. When done well, it can give you a right mouth-gasm.

You will need:
3 or 4 boneless, skinless chicken breasts halves (depending on how many you are serving)
2 c. flour
3 eggs
3 c. Pecorino Romano cheese (plus some Romano for your pasta)
1 shallot - finely diced
2 cloves garlic - smashed
1 pat of butter
1 lemon (juiced)
1 c. white wine
pinch of crushed red pepper
1 lb. of dried thin linguini

The prep:
Clean up each of the chicken breast halves, then pound each half thoroughly. If you don't have one of these:just put the chicken between some plastic wrap and use one of these:
Once the chicken is pounded out, cut each half breast into about three cutlets.

Make a dredging station. (I know, I know. This sounds complicated, but it's not. Really. Trust me.) Moving from right to left, put the flour in a shallow bowl. In the next bowl, whip the three eggs. In the last bowl, you should have several cups of romano cheese. I find it's easiest if I can go right from the dredging to the skillet, so once I set up the dredging station, I heat a tablespoon or so of olive oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat/medium-low heat.

Dredge each chicken cutlet in the flour first, then into the egg wash, then in the romano cheese. Place immediately in the skillet, and dredge the next cutlet. When one side of the cutlet gets golden (about 5-7 minutes), flip it. Because the chicken is thin, it cooks quickly. I can usually fit about five cutlets in my skillet at a time. Salt the chicken lightly in the skillet. As each cutlet is done, remove it to a plate and keep on cooking assembly-line style.

After you've cooked all the chicken, in the same non-stick skillet (so that you can scrape up any little bits of residual goodness from the chicken cutlets), add the pat of butter, the garlic and the shallots and sautee those for about 5 minutes until they're soft. Then add the lemon juice and white wine. Bring to a boil, reduce to simmer.

Put on a large pot of water when you are dredging the chicken. As to the pasta, unless I'm posting a recipe for fresh cut pasta, dried is always appropriate. I am going to link to the world's greatest post defending dried pasta. If you're not a pasta wizard, please refer to this post. For this dish, I really like thin linguini.

When the linguini is nearly cooked, remove the garlic cloves from the sautee pan, add the linguini to the sautee pan with about 1/2 c. of pasta water, and give it all a toss with the pinch of crushed red pepper. After you remove the pasta to a large serving bowl, top it with the chicken cutlets and drizzle the left over lemon-wine sauce over the whole thing. Serve with grated pecorino romano cheese.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

Last Chance, Last Dance -- Ten Players to Watch in the Women's NCAA Basketball Tourney

One of the most satisfying things about watching women's college hoops is that you get a chance to know the players over a long period of time. Nobody leaves early for the WNBA. [To paraphrase a radio jock I once heard, if a WNBA game broke out in my back yard, I'd pull the blinds and go to bed.] And despite the fact that a new young player or two grabs my attention every year (hello Aaryn Ellenberg and Stefanie Dolson), there are those players who I feel like I've gotten to know over their careers. I know their strengths and weaknesses, I've seen them develop different parts of their games. In fact, it feels strange to sit down and watch the tourney without Jayne Appel and Tina Charles this year. In short, this is my last chance to see the players who I have enjoyed watching for several years, players who are dancing for the last time in their wonderful college careers. In no particular order,


1. Deveraux Peters, Forward - Notre Dame. I've written about it many times before, but basketball in the Big East is like a prize fight. Last team standing wins. To win defensive player of the year in this conference, you have to play like a pissed off Dick Butkus. No doubt Peters' 60 steals and 58 blocks helped her win this award, you have to see her to see how disruptive she is on the defensive end of the floor. Plus, she's got the best shooting percentage (.583) on the team.

2. Courtney Vandersloot, Guard -- Gonzaga. I don't get to see as many of the 'Zags games as I would like, but when I do, it is a real treat to watch Vandersloot. She has extraordinary vision. It seems like she has eyes in the back of her head. She moves, ball fakes, dribble-drives and then, as they say in football, she throws her teammates open. I've never seen a better passer in the women's game. She is an assists machine.

3. Jantel Lavendar, Center -- Ohio State. Last year, the Buckeyes were bounced in the second round by Mississippi State, continuing a disturbing trend wherein OSU has lost to a team with a worse seed in the first or second round in four of the last five seasons. I know coach Jim Foster is fed up and I expect Lavendar is, too. She plays nearly every minute of every game and averages a double-double (22.7 points and 10.8 rebounds.) This is her last shot to make a deep run in the tourney.

4. Maya Moore, Forward -- UConn. What can I say about Maya Moore that hasn't been said before? She is a force of nature and while every player at this level is competitive, Moore's competitive drive 'goes to eleven.' Georgetown held her to 6 points in the Big East tourney, so the next day, she took it out on Rutgers. She couldn't be stopped. She has a great chance at going out on top, and the Huskies have been pretty near unbeatable as long as Moore has been in residence in Storrs.

5. Danielle Adams, Forward/Center -- Texas A & M. The thing about Adams is that she is quicker than she looks. Combine that with her tremendously soft hands and she rarely misses chances in the paint. She's really blossomed and grown into her game under Gary Blair. I love watching a player who appears to be having fun, which is another reason I like watching Adams so much.

6. Danielle Robinson, Guard -- Oklahoma. The team that used to belong to the Paris sisters is now totally and completely D-Rob's. She leads her team in scoring, in steals, in assists. Plus, she's silky smooth. Much as I enjoy watching her, she'll need help from Whitney Hand and freshman phenom Aaryn Ellenberg if the Sooners are going to make a run to another Final Four appearance.

7. Angie Bjorklund, Guard/Forward -- Tennessee. Bjorklund lived through the 2009 first round loss and lived to tell. Since then, the Summitt has rebuilt her Vols program back to her usual standards. Bjorklund played the SEC title game with big-time intensity, like she really wanted that number one seed in the Big Dance. Big Time. The big question on Rockytop is, can she and junior Shekinna Stricklen get Tennessee back to the Final Four?

8. Jeanette Pohlen, Guard -- Stanford. Is shooting nearly 42% from three-point range and leads her team in assists. Last year, it was Pohlen's last second heroics that propelled the Cardinal into the Final Four. This year, in handing UConn their first loss since Stanford beat them in the Final Four in 2008, Pohlen was en fuego, draining five three-point shots to lead her team. She played the game of her life. The way the brackets are set up, Pohlen and Stanford could meet UConn again in the final (thank you committee) and if that happens, can she do it again, can she play the best game of her career?

9. Ta’Shia Phillips, Center -- Xavier. The player who's heart was broken because of Pohlen's last minute heroics last year, Phillips is the all-time leading rebounder in the history of the Atlantic 10 conference (and second in the nation with rebounds per game this season.) She's also third in shooting percentage (60.8%). Watch a Musketeers game and you'll lose count of how many put-backs Phillips gets.

10. Victoria Dunlap, Forward -- Kentucky. She's such a smart player and has a beautiful burst of speed. Though they list her at only 6' 1" (only in women's basketball do I ever write things like, 'only 6' 1"'), she can really sky. Can Dunlap and the 'Cats bounce back from the whupping the Vols laid on them? Dunlap has to stay out of foul trouble, has to be on the floor, if they even want to get past the second round this year.


The Juniors
-- Keisha Hampton, Forward -- DePaul; Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Forward -- Stanford; Shekinna Stricklen, Guard/Forward -- Tennessee; Jasmine Dixon, Forward -- UCLA.

The Sophomores -- Brittney Griner, Center -- Baylor; Morgan Stroman, Forward -- Miami (Fl.); Sugar Rodgers, Guard -- Georgetown; Skylar Diggins, Guard -- Notre Dame.

The Freshmen -- Aaryn Ellenburg, Guard -- Oklahoma; Stefanie Dolson, Center -- UConn; Odyssey Sims, Guard -- Baylor.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

8 Easy Steps to Blow Up Your March Madness Brackets

If you want to win your pool, your best chance is to leave it to chance. Enlarge your bracket sheet, dip your cat's paws in paint and let him walk on it to make the picks. Or, have your addled great-uncle make your picks for you after you've plyed him with several whiskey sours at the VFW or American Legion.

But if you're like me, you revel in being out of the running before Vitale's dome turns that very unique, distinct shade of dark umber that he gets in the Sweet Sixteen. I like to make extra copies of my picks to throw at the television. It makes watching my picks go down one by one more fun. Here are some easy steps to royally screwing up your picks.

1. Pick your favorite team to advance to the final. This step is much less effective if you are a fan of Duke or Kansas, because you have somewhat decent odds with those teams. But, if like me, you root for a program that has never won a title, nay, even made it to the Final Four, be sure to pencil your team in to the National Championship game. Oh, and while we're here, if you are a fan of Duke or Kansas, from the bottom of my heart, kindly piss off.

2. Listen to the 'experts.' Were I a younger person, the kind who could stay up for many hours on end, I could have I been watching, listening to and reading bracket breakdowns, bracket busters and upset specials non-stop for the last 40-some odd hours. Too. Much. Information. And really, if you hear Doug Gottlieb say one thing, you'll hear Jay Bilas say another, then read Andy Katz saying something else, and have Dick Vitale shouting about something, baaabeeeeee! By then you're like a dog chasing his tail. Be sure to inundate yourself with information if you want your bracket sheet to be FUBAR.

3. Factor in Venue. Along those lines, everybody's looking for an edge and what better than pseudo-home court advantage? Oh, lookie! Gonzaga's playing St. John's IN DENVER. That will give them a huge advantage. Not.

4. Pick a huge underdog. For every George Mason and Butler, there are hundreds of other mid-major teams that fall in the early rounds. Everybody wants to be the smart guy who picks the big underdog winner -- the one jerk you knew who crowed about picking Vermont to win over Syracuse in the first round in 2005. (And yeah, I did know that guy and my phone blew up the second that clock hit 0:00.) But if you try it, more likely than not, woe be unto your bracket sheets. However, if you do make that pick, even though your brackets are otherwise as lovely as a rusted, mangled, twisted hunk of sheet metal, you get to crow about your prescience in picking the big upset that everybody's talking about. So you've got that going for you.

5. Pick just the favorites. The history of the tourney is rife with upsets and if you don't pick one or two, you will surely be screwed when some Goliath goes down. One year I tried to pick against all the lower seeds and just picked the favorites. I was bitter and spiteful, so I changed tacts. Still, I was out of the running before I even started to feel my first hangover of March Madness.

6. Pick all the 12 seeds over 5 seeds in the first round. Every year, there's a 12 over a 5, right? The trick is -- which one? Richmond over Vandy? Utah St. over Kansas St.? Memphis over Zona? TBA (seriously, I don't know who it is yet, so really how I am expected to make this kind of a pick?) over WVU? Screw it. Pick them all!

7. Pick Gonzaga to make a deep run. They seem to be poised, almost all the time. And every time I pick them to advance past the Sweet Sixteen I get hosed. So get hosed. Pick the Zags!

8. Make your picks based on deep-seated antipathy. No doubt I have screwed myself in the past by picking against the entire ACC, picking against a coach who I find irksome (hey, there, Mr. Pitino) or picking against a fanbase (yes, UNC, I am looking at you.) It doesn't work. If you want to give yourself a fighting chance, repeat Michael Corleone's mantra -- it's not personal, it's just business. However, if you want to flame out spectacularly, pick the teams you hate to go down in the first round. You may even get lucky. You never know when little Weber State is going to smite UNC.

Off to make one last go-around with my Bracket Sheet of Crap. Enjoy the tourney.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

Back from the Boot: Spaghetti with a Traditional Bolognese Sauce

I am back from my "gone fishing," trip, which was really traveling through northern Italy, including a too brief but extremely delicious stop in Bologna. Bologna is a fascinating place, with a history that is progressive beyond progressive (the first to free the feudal serfs, home to the first university, which allowed women to study there and pursue careers in the Renaissance) and it remains a college town to this day.

Bologna was kind of an unplanned visit, so we mostly just wandered around aimlessly, enjoying the gorgeous architecture, then took a wonderful, vigorous walk up to the San Luca Sanctuary. Word is that you can see the Apennines from that vantage point high above the city, but there was fog of old testament proportions on this day and we couldn't see more than four feet in front of our faces, so I'll have to trust that the Apennines were, in fact, where they are supposed to be. It's around two miles up to the church, mostly a pretty steep incline throughout. It was misty and rainy all morning. Hardly ideal conditions for a walk, but one of the amazing things about Bologna is that there are miles and miles of sidewalks (paved with either huge paving stones or marble) covered with porticos or colonnades -- glorious, arched porticos, stretching miles in every direction all over the city. In sum, if you want to take a long walk in the rain, Bologna is the place to do it.

Also, and perhaps most importantly for my purposes here, Bologna is an eater's paradise. There are cheese and ham shops on top of produce markets, and more cheese shops, and pastry shops and gelato shops, and more fruit stands, and pasta shops, more cheese shops, and more cafes. I could get seriously fat in Bologna. If I lived there (and I'd consider it), I'd need to climb that hill to San Luca three times daily. At least.

Most importantly, it is the birthplace of bolognese sauce, the subject of this particular post, so on with the recipe. The sauce is not at all hard to make. It takes no special skills or special tools. What it does take is time and patience; you need to complete each step really well to let the flavors develop, so time is the most important ingredient in a good Bolognese. (WARNING: This recipe makes enough to feed a full army battalion, but it does freeze really well.)

You will need:
1 large onion or 2 small, coarsely diced
2 large carrots, coarsely diced
3 or 4 cloves garlic
2 shallots, coarsely diced
2 pounds ground chuck, ground brisket or ground round (or combination thereof)
1 large can of tomato paste
2-3 cups hearty red wine (more on this below)
1 bay leaves
1 bunch thyme
pinch of crushed red pepper

The prep, meet Mr. Time:
In a food processor, puree onion, carrots, shallots and garlic into a coarse paste. Really run these through because you don't want any big chunks -- the vegetables flavor the sauce, but you don't want to be biting into them. Heat a large, deep sautee pan over medium heat and coat with olive oil. Add the pureed veggies; season liberally with kosher salt. Cook on medium or medium-high heat until all the moisture has evaporated and the veggies turn nice and brown. It takes about 20 minutes and you have to stir frequently. This is a key step. Don't try to hurry through it. Let the veg cook. Don't worry if they stick to the pan a little.

Add the ground beef and season again with salt (you want to layer the seasoning throughout.) The beef will release a lot of moisture and you can use this to really scrape up any brown bits from the veg, then proceed to really brown the beef -- about another 20 minutes or so.

Add the tomato paste. Again, brown this - you can brown tomato paste. I usually let it brown for about 10 minutes.

Add the red wine. At this point, you can really deglaze the pan from any sticking, browned bits of beef or veg that have accumulated along your way.

A word about the wine. Some people say you shouldn't use wine to cook that you wouldn't drink. Fiddlesticks. First off, if you have really expensive taste in wine, that's just an untenable way to run a kitchen. Moreover, you can get a perfectly good wine for cooking purposes for under $10 (often under $8, depending on what's on special). Beyond which, I often cook with chardonnays and I wouldn't drink one of those with a gun to my head. Just saying. As to this wine, the wine most often served as the house wine in Bologna trattorias is a valpolicella, so I prefer to use a valpolicella to cook a bolognese sauce; but really, any hearty red will do. Reduce the wine by half, about 5 minutes or so.

Add the bay leaves, crushed red pepper, and the thyme, plus a couple of cups of water to the pan (just covering the meat by 1/2 inch to an inch.) Bring to a boil, then reduce to simmer. Then break out a book or the paper, but give the sauce an occasional stir. It will cook down and then you add more water - about two cups. You repeat that process a ton - adding water and letting it cook down. But this is where the flavor really explodes and you keep doing this for about four hours - adding water, stirring, reducing, then adding more water and on and on. And yes, you did read that correctly -- you do this for about four hours. Remember I said time was the most important ingredient? As you do this, give it a taste to see if you need more salt (or anything else.) At this point, after four or five hours, the meat in the sauce should be like silk. Remove the bay leaves and the thyme (if you used a bundle). Take about half the sauce out and put it in another bowl or another saucepot.

In Bologna, this sauce is often paired with fresh, hand-cut tagliatelle, but you needn't roll out your own pasta to enjoy it. I like it with dried pasta and generally use a thicker cut of spaghetti (i.e., not an angel hair), cooked al dente, of course. When the pasta is just near al dente, finish it in the sauce pot with the bolognese sauce. You can use the extra sauce on your pasta, should you need it. Or, you have a second batch on hand for another night.

I serve it with pecorino romano, but you can use parmigiano-reggiano if you prefer that flavor. Mangia.