Friday, April 19, 2013

Gone Fishing

Or to buy some fish from people who actually, you know, know how to fish. 

Tuesday, April 9, 2013

David and Goliath, Elsewhere Known as UConn and Louisville: Women's Final Tips Tonight

Uh Oh. Looks who is baaack:

UConn, losers of the previous three matches with Skylar Diggins and Notre Dame, lit the Irish's offensive sets on fire and made s'mores. On the offensive end, freshman Breeana Stewart bombed them with shots from every spot on the court. Yup. UConn is back. And playing their best basketball of the year. The Huskies look positively UConnian.

photo:  Lee Michaelson
Their opponent tonight in the final is about as much fun as you can have, short of a can of silly string and finger paints. Shoni Schimmel does crazy things on the court. She drives into Brittney Griner. She gets in the face of Odessey Sims. She makes ridiculous no-look behind the back bounce passes to her sister. She drains tres. But mostly, I think, she inspires her team. Even so, I haven't seen Louisville do what UConn just did -- put together a complete 40 minute game.

And somehow, even when having lapses and lulls, the Cardinals have gone on this run, taking out Baylor, Tennessee and Cal. It is nothing short of miraculous. It's not always pretty but it is always, always fun. With Shoni Schimmel held in check offensively on Sunday night, the Cards played shut down defense in the second half, holding Cal to just 20 points in 20 minutes. That's just crazy. Then the rest of the Cards -- Antonita Slaughter, Shoni's sister Jude, and  the rest of the Cards stepped up, erased a 10 point deficit, then set to work to build their own lead. Every time I count them out, the rise to the occasion.

But as fun and magical and incredible as this run has been, they can't be UConn, can they? Can they?

Let's take a quick look through the numbers.

First, there's the history. UConn is, well, UConn, the most storied women's team the history of women's sports not named Tennessee. Coach Geno Auriemma is looking for his eighth national title (which would tie the great Pat Summitt.) But that's history, right? There's no Sue Bird on this UConn team, no Diana Taurasi, no Maya Moore.

Still, they're UConn. Their average scoring margin advantage this season? 33.2 points per game, best in the nation. (This includes beating up on very good teams in the regular season by wide margins -- Duke by 30 points, Texas A & M by 31 points, Stanford by 26 points, South Florida by 34, lest you think the stat is padded with a bunch of 'Little Sisters of the Poor and Meek' type teams.) In the tournament, their average margin of victory is 35 points.

On the other hand, Louisville's average is not quite in that rarified air, but it is a very respectable 14.8 point per game advantage. And the games in the tourney have been nail-biters, nearly all of them but the first round.

What about the players? UConn has a huge height advantage, with four players over 6' 2" tall -- Stephanie Dolson (6' 5"), Morgan Tuck (6' 2"), Breeana Stewart (6' 4") and the little used (due to injury) Kiah Stokes (6' 3").

The Cards counter with freshman Sarah Hammond (6' 2") and ... okay, Sarah Hammond. Okey-Doke. I guess this is a literal David v. Goliath situation then.

And then there's that UConn defense, capable of discombobulating even the best offenses. Consider what they did to Skylar Diggins, the best point guard I've ever seen in the womens' game, just this past Sunday night? Notre Dame's offense was hinky and out of joint. They were forcing bad shots and each player was trying to win the game on her own -- which is completely unlike them. Did Notre Dame just fall apart out of nowhere? Not bloody likely. No. UConn's defense did that to them.

It seems impossible an impossible task for Louisville to take down this team, doesn't it? But the Cards have two things going for them.

photo:  Gerald Herbert, AP
One is that the Schimmel sisters play fearlessly. They play 'Rez Ball' as it is affectionately known. Shoni is a firey player and Jude is much more cerebral, but their teammates feed off of both of them, I think. This team team ain't skeered. They ain't skeered of anybody. And as they play UConn every year in the Big East, they are less intimidated than other teams might be. (Not that that helped the Irish much on Sunday night.)

The other thing the Cards have going for them is that defense. Since taking over at Louisville in 2007, Jeff Walz has taken the Cards to two NCAA Championship games (this year and in 2008-2009, when the Cards lost to UConn.) If you're reading this post, chances are you know a good bit about UConn's Geno Auriemma, but you may not remember that Walz was an assistant coach for Brenda Frese at Maryland when the Terps won the championship in 2006 versus Duke. Walz has been so good at Louisville, such a defensive master, that I have started to believe that he was one of the biggest reasons for that national championship in Maryland. In the last week or so, he has created defenses to shut down Baylor and Tennessee and Cal. If anybody can think of a way to shut down Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Breeana Stewart, this is the guy to do it.

Given all the above givens -- the history, the size advantage, the records -- by any measure this is UConn's game to lose. I don't think that Louisville has an answer to Stewart, who came to life in the Elite 8 and has been unconscious ever since. I haven't seen Louisville play a complete 40 minute game yet. Can they? Can they match UConn for 40 minutes? Can they find a way to curb Stewart and Mosqueda-Lewis and Dolson and Bria Hartley? It's a tall task. 

There is the very real possibility of a UConn blow out. 

But there is also the possibility of history being made. 

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Ray Shero, Trade Master, Gets Jussi Jokinen at Trade Deadline

When a player is in a zone, we sometimes say he's en fuego. Or unconscious. Ray Shero is in the GM zone. The guy is unconscious. He is en fuego. After nabbing Brenden Morrow, Douglas 'Crankshaft' Murray and Jarome Iglina, everybody thought the Pens GM was done. Nope. Not so quick. Today, he pulled the trigger on a trade to get Jussi Jokinen from the Carolina Hurricanes. All he had to give up was a conditional draft sixth- or seventh-round pick in 2013 NHL Entry Draft. The injury bug has hit the Penguins -- Sidney Crosby is out with a broken face; Kris Letang out with a broken toe and other unspecified 'lower body injury'; Paul Martin is out with a broken wrist -- proving the old adage that you cannot have too much depth at playoff time.
photo:  Chris Seward, News Observer
Welcome to Pittsburgh, Jussi. Let's got get us a Cup. I think I will buy a case of beer for Mr. Shero. Perhaps he'd like this brew, from Full Pint:

Louisville Cardinals: Giant Killers Extraordinaire

Thank you Louisville Cardinals, for loading up your slingshot and taking down one Goliath after another.

photo:  AP
Shoni Schimmel interviewed after the Baylor game: "She's great, but she's human. I mean, she's Brittney Griner. But I'm Shoni Schimmel."

The Vols learned that the hard way last night.

Louisville 86, Tennessee 78

Fear the Cardinals!

After their historic take-down of Baylor on Sunday night, I wondered how much the Cardinals had left in the tank? Would they be able to put the Baylor game behind them and prepare for the Lady Vols? Would they have the mental strength and mental stamina for this Elite Eight game? Would they have dead legs? Those were legit questions.

Louisville came out and smoked Tennessee in the first half, but after building their lead to 20 points in the early moments of the second half, things fell apart for Jeff Walz' merry band. They looked discombobulated. Tennessee tightened the screws on defense and had a hand in just about every passing lane. Whereas in the first half, Louisville owned the offensive boards, the Vols shut that down. And mighty Tennessee started chipping away at the lead, going on an 18-6 rally that closed the gap to 68-65 with 4:28 remaining.

photo:  Sue Ogrocki, AP
Louisville looked tired. All the momentum was flowing to Tennessee. It looked like the magic might be over.

Then Shoni Schimmel woke up and energized her team. She drove the lane and put in a pair of spectacular lay ups. Her sister, Jude, drained a huge 3-point bucket.

The moment Shoni Schimmel put in that first lay up, it was all over for the Vols. As goes Shoni Schimmel, so go the Louisville Cardinals. There is a lot of playground superstar in that kid, is there not?

What they have done is nothing short of remarkable, slaying dragons right and left, making it to the Final Four after being seeded as a #6. After dispatching the great Brittney Griner and Baylor (the best team in the country and that's not my opinion:  that was everybody's opinion), they had to face the Tennessee Lady Vols, the program which is women's basketball as Coke is to soda. Beyond question, Tennessee is most recognized, original brand in hoops. So thanks Shoni and thanks coach Jeff Walz and thanks to all the other players who have pulled some more magic to keep this run going.

Before I get carried away here, I should point out that while the Cardinals were 'dogs in both of these games, they are not a bad team that simply caught lightning in a bottle. All of the talking heads keep opining, "This team finished THIRD in the Big East." As though finishing third in the BE was a mark of shame or indicated mediocrity. Finishing third in the BE simply means that they finished behind two of best teams in the country in Notre Dame and UConn. Ain't no shame in that.

So let me take a moment to eulogize the Big East ... 

From 2000 to 2013, 73 Big East Teams have been invited to the tourney, with nine teams going in 2011. Maybe another conference tops that, but I really doubt it.

photo:  AP
In that same time span, four different Big East teams (UConn, Rutgers, L'Ville and Notre Dame) have played in the Final Four with 16 total appearances by those teams. Those same programs have all advanced to the championship at least once and there have been 11 appearances by Big East teams in the championship game. Seven times the championship has been won by a Big East team. [Okay, six of those were UConn, with Notre Dame winning the other championship in 2001. But still.]

Here is a tiny sampling of some of the great players we've seen in that time:   Maya Moore,  Renee Montgomery, Niele Ivey, Kia Vaughn, Angel McCoughtry, and the great Diana Taurasi.

Two Big East coaches have been inducted into the Naismith Basketball Hall of Fame, Geno Auriemma and C. Vivian Stringer of Rutgers.

This year, the conference gives us the gifts of Skylar Diggins, Shoni Schimmel and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, just to name a few. It is the conference that keeps on giving.

Next year, the party breaks up and it will be worse than the post-party aftermath than Ryan's house in Sixteen Candles. Notre Dame and Louisville (plus Syracuse and Pitt) are heading to the ACC. Rutgers is joining the Big 10. Poor UConn is simply left adrift. It is the end of an era. Hopefully, these coaches -- all of them -- will schedule each other in their non-conference games. Geno Auriemma and Muffet McGraw have both shown a real willingness to do just that, so I am hopeful, but it won't quite be the same without the simmering inner-conference bad blood. The Big East Conference final between UConn and Notre Dame was epic. And it was the last of it's kind.

This year, at least one Big East team will play in the final, with the possibility of two (if Louisville can beat Cal in the Final Four.) It is a fitting swan song for this great conference.

There never has been, and may never be again, a women's basketball collection as great as this one.