Illini Roll Over Pur-don’t and the Over/Under Teams in College Basketball

Three straight Illini victories that didn’t put me into the vicinity of a heart-attack – that’s a cause for celebration!  More importantly, Illinois’ 76-58 win over Purdue on Saturday, coupled with Michigan’s victory over Wisconsin, vaulted the Illini into a 4-way tie for first place in the Big Ten with Wisconsin, Michigan, and Iowa.  Indiana messed up its chance to be part of this discussion by getting thoroughly demolished at previously winless-in-conference Minnesota yesterday.

The way that no one can win a key game on the road in the Big Ten has reached epidemic proportions.  That makes the Illini’s Super Tuesday game at Wisconsin tomorrow night a critical point in the season.  A victory would give Illinois the upperhand in the Big Ten race with a road win at one of the toughest arenas in college basketball, not to mention knocking Wisky out of that first-place tie.  Just as important for Illinois is another signature win that builds the case for at least a #2 seed for the NCAA Tournament.  This is a huge game for the Illini (and for that matter, the Badgers, too).

The Over/Under Teams in College Basketball:

An argument about a team’s rank in the college basketball polls is usually an argument in semantics since it’s a pretty useless indicator of success when it comes to the NCAA Tournament.  However, I’ve got to comment on two egregious mistakes that I hope will be rectified when the new polls come out today as we recognize the most overrated and underrated teams in the nation:

1) Most Overrated Team in the Country – It’s unfathomable to me how Louisville is still in the top 25.  Maybe the nation’s sportswriters and coaches continue to be mesmerized by Rick Pitino’s wardrobe.  Hopefully, in the wake of the Cardinals getting pounded by Rutgers (?!) on Saturday, they’ll stop drinking the Kool-Aid and finally realize what the average college basketball fan has known for weeks: this year’s Louisville team is not only the most overrated team in the country this year, but they are probably one of the most underachieving college basketball teams of all-time.

It’s going to get far worse for Louisville since their remaining Big East road games are at Villanova, Cincinnati, Syracuse, West Virginia, and UConn.  Has there been any preseason national top 5 team in history that ended up not making its own conference tournament, much less the NCAA Tournament?  That’s a very real possibility.  This season has been an awful return to the Big East for Rick Pitino.

2) Most Underrated Team in the Country – This feels as good as a root canal to say this as an Illini man, but even before Iowa handled Indiana and Ohio State in successive victories this past week, the Hawkeyes have deserved some love from the national scene.  In addition to the aforementioned wins from this past week, Iowa has beaten Illinois, N.C. State, and Kentucky.  Sure, the Hawkeyes have suffered a couple of bad losses, but it seems as though the poll voters are as averse to cutting the team some slack for the great wins they’ve had so far as they are to punishing Louisville for their horrible performances this season.  No Big Ten team is looking forward at all to traveling to Carver-Hawkeye Arena for the next few weeks while no other team in country is going to want to face this Hawkeye club in March.


Land-o-Links – 1/30/2006

Every once in awhile, a link is so incredible and awesome that it deserves a Land-o-Links all for itself.  Courtesy of Dan the Man, the following page deserves such an honor:

Back with more on the Illini and Big Ten basketball soon.

Big Hurt Feelings

During my teenage years, my room was plastered with posters and memorabilia of mainly two different Chicago athletes: Michael Jordan and Frank Thomas.  During much of the 1990s, it wasn’t that far-fetched to believe that Thomas and his contemporary Ken Griffey Jr. would redefine baseball for a generation in the same way that Jordan redefined basketball.

Indeed, Frank Thomas put up a ridiculous array of across-the-board offensive numbers at the plate for the first decade of his career with a rare combination of power and patience at the plate that could only be compared to Ted Williams.  In the 105-year history of the Chicago White Sox, Thomas holds the club career records for home runs, RBI, runs scored, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, walks, doubles, and total bases (along with the highest career batting average of any Sox player who played after 1950).

Even if he didn’t end up redefining baseball, judging by his statistics and physical dominance at the plate during the 1990s, Frank Thomas is the best player in White Sox history.  No other player in the American League in 2005 had been with the same team longer than him.  Yet, Sox fans seem to be more relieved than in angst over Thomas’ recent signing with the Oakland A’s.  It was as if what felt like a drawn-out divorce finally came to its conclusion.

From a team blueprint standpoint, not re-signing Thomas was the correct decision.  He had been injury-prone for the past several seasons and it would have been difficult for Kenny Williams to depend on the designated hitter coming back, particularly when the Sox clearly needed take steps to improve their lineup.  Jim Thome is the better risk in terms of being able to come back from a serious injury.

I don’t feel good, however, about two things.  First, as delirious as I’ve been about the White Sox world championship, it was tough to not see Frank Thomas as an integral part of that team.  Imagine if the ’85 Bears had gone through their romp to the championship but Walter Payton was injured on the sidelines the whole season (of course, the next worst thing actually did happen when the Fridge got a rushing touchdown in Super Bowl XX while Payton didn’t).  This is essentially what happened with Frank Thomas and the Sox last season.  It would have been nice to see if Thomas could be a major contributor to the White Sox bid to repeat in 2006.

Second, Jerry Reinsdorf has parted ways with yet another star athlete on negative terms.  Thomas said yesterday that he was most hurt by the fact that Reinsdorf never called him once in the offseason to let him know the direction the Sox were heading.  The City of Chicago could create a veritable hall of fame stocked with players that have had messy breakups with the Bulls and White Sox during the Reinsdorf era: Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, Carlton Fisk, Jack McDowell, Robin Ventura, and Ozzie Guillen to name a few.  The only saving grace is that most of those guys have ended up mending their relationships with Reinsdorf over time (and in the cases of Pippen and Guillen, they actually returned to their teams as a player and a manager respectively).  I just wish Reinsdorf could find a better way not to have an acrimonious relationship with almost every talented player he’s ever had on his two teams.

As for the Big Hurt, there might be no place in baseball that he’ll be more appreciated than in Oakland.  Frank Thomas is the perfect portrait of the “Moneyball” player that A’s GM Billy Beane lusts for – a guy with a high on-base percentage that draws a lot of walks and hits for a lot of power.  Beane is the one person in the majors that truly doesn’t care whatsoever that Thomas has no speed and can’t play defense.  The A’s GM has finally been able to sign a player who arguably fits his Moneyball profile better than anyone in the history of baseball, much less just the players that are active today.  Beane has got to be ecstatic to have Frank Thomas, so at the very least the slugger will get some love from his new organization.

Hopefully, Frank Thomas will be able to return to Chicago within the next five to ten years and be able to look back positively on the greatest career in White Sox history.  On a personal level, he was my favorite baseball player for most of my life and it will be disheartening to see him in another uniform.  Mentally, I’ve blocked out the fact that Michael Jordan ever played for a team other than the Bulls (from my perspective, the NBA didn’t exist from 2001 to 2003).  I’m going to have to do the same for Frank Thomas – he’ll always be a member of the White Sox to me.

Mick and Keith in the House that Jordan Built

A few quick thoughts on my first-ever Rolling Stones concert at the United Center last night:

1) Mick Jagger has an insane amount of energy for any rock star at any age, much less someone who’s 62 years old.  I’ve seen a good number of bands and I’d be hardpressed to think of anyone who ran around stage and put as much into a performance as Mick.  This is all from a guy who once said he’d rather be dead than still be playing “Satisfaction” at age 45.

2) The Chicago indoor smoking ban does not apply to Keith Richards.

3) While most of the show was accompanied by a dazzling light and video display on a huge stage, my favorite part was when a portion of the stage actually moved out to the center of the arena for several songs.  All of the background displays were then turned off at that time so it was just purely the band playing on a tiny stage surrounded by fans on all sides.  It was a great effect since it almost felt like I was watching them in a small club for those songs rather than a large sports stadium.

4) Whatever you may think of the Stones’ songs, they are certainly spectacular entertainers.  Even my wife, who isn’t a big Rolling Stones fan, thought the show was awesome.  All in all, it was an incredible experience.

Meanwhile, there’s a lot of sports to talk about – I’ll be back soon.

Land-o-Links – 1/25/2006

I just got some tickets to tonight’s Rolling Stones concert at the United Center, which should be awesome, but that also means that I’ll be missing tonight’s Illinois game against Minnesota.  As a result, I’ll have to retract my statement from last week that I wouldn’t be missing any more Illini games this season (the only 2 games I’ve missed so far happen to be the only 2 games they’ve lost).  I think we’ll be fine against the Gophers, though: we’re at home and Minnesota has yet to win a Big Ten contest.  Anyway, here are the links for the day:

1) Trick My Truck (submitted by Matt) – Hmmm… West Coast Customs just ended its relationship with “Pimp My Ride” on MTV and now this show pops up on CMT?  Oliver Stone’s head is turning.

2) Epstein Back as Red Sox GM – Theo seems to be a graduate of the Roger Clemens school of leaving the game.

3) WB and UPN Merge – Score one for Frank the Tank in my personal war against the WB.

And in honor of the Rolling Stones…

4) On Tour, Rolling Stones Pack Perks, Quirks – It seems that the Rolling Stones have some unusual riders in their tour contracts, particularly the need to feed their cricket holliganism.  The best, though, is the list of contract riders for other musicians – needless to say, Busta Rhymes has his own needs.

Land-o-Links – 1/23/2006

Quick hits today:

1) Emily’s Reasons for a Cancelled Show – After running just short of a billion promos for this show during Monday Night Football and the BCS bowl games, ABC proceeded to cancel “Emily’s Reasons Why Not?” roughly ten minutes before the first episode even concluded.  Unfortunately, it looks like the president of ABC still has a scary man-crush on (turn on your Keith Jackson voice here) John Stah-mos.

2) Supreme Court Rejects Blackberry Appeal – I literally just received a Blackberry from my employer last week – great timing.

3) Nas to Join Label Led by Former Rival Jay-Z – If Wal-Mart and Microsoft merged to form one intergalactic conglomerate, that company might be about half as powerful as this pairing in this thing called rap.

And finally…

4) Amy Fisher, Buttafuocos Plan TV Reunion – It’s about damn time.

Big Ben Wins the Beard Bowl and Other Weekend Sports Tidbits

Despite the worst two conference championship games in recent memory (although I at least didn’t repeat the debacle known as my divisional playoff predictions), there was a lot going on in the world of sports this past weekend, particularly on the basketball court:

1) AFC Championship Game: Beard Bowl is a Big Ben Beatdown – The Steelers are the gold standard of where the Bears want to be.  Pittsburgh has a stifling defense coupled with a powerful running game, much like the Bears did this past season.  However, as Rick Morrissey aptly pointed out in today’s Chicago Tribune, the biggest reason why the Steelers are heading to Motown while the Bears are staying home is that Ben Roethlisberger can do a whole lot more than just “manage” a game – he brings a ton to the quarterback position in terms of passing accuracy, mobility, and poise.  Plus, Bill Cowher has completely shocked everyone by turning his QB loose and stretching the field out with aggressive passing plays over the last two games.  The Steelers have been completely in rythm on offense.

At the same time, Jesus H. Unabomber, er, I mean Jake Plummer finally showed his true colors and imploded as predicted here and elsewhere.  The interception he threw five seconds after the Broncos got decent field position for the first time all day was about as predictable as Jason going on a killing spree in a Friday the 13th movie.  Plummer’s fantastic beard couldn’t hide the fact that he just isn’t a guy you can depend on in crunch time.

2) NFC Championship Game: Holmgren Climbs Hasselback Mountain – Watching this game was essentially 3 hours of “what if” questions going through my mind, as in, “What if the Bears had double-teamed Steve Smith?”  The Panthers offense was clueless yesterday with the Seahawks draping two or more defenders over Smith the entire game.  Troy Aikman appropriately called the Bears “arrogant” for believing that they could stick to single coverage on Smith last week.  The Seahawks weren’t stupid and cocky on defense regarding the Panther wide receiver and made the needed adjustments, which is why Seattle is headed to their first Super Bowl this season while we here in Chicago continue to buy books about the ’85 Bears.

Meanwhile, Matt Hasselback has come a long way from his “We want the ball and we’re going to score” comment against the Packers after the overtime coinflip in a 2004 playoff game at Lambeau.  This guy looks like a Super Bowl quarterback.  Mike Holmgren has probably cemented his standing as the best teacher of quarterbacks in history, with Joe Montana, Steve Young, Brett Favre, and now Hasselback under his belt.

3) Two More Weeks??? – Other than the fact that the games themselves were terrible this year, the worst thing about conference championship weekend is that we all have to wait two friggin’ weeks until the Super Bowl.  The Super Bowl should actually feature a pretty good matchup this year, but I don’t know how many human-interest stories can be milked from the Pittsburgh – Seattle pairing for two whole weeks.

4) Here Comes McBride – Richard McBride, it’s a pleasure to see you again.  Hitting four three-pointers was a very good thing on Saturday.  It was an even better thing to see the Illini notch their first Big Ten road victory, even if it was against Northwestern.  In addition to McBride, Dee Brown and James Augustine got back on track in the victory.  The only thing that troubles me is that Illinois didn’t completely shut the door on the Wildcats in the second half.  Northwestern never really got back into the game, but it’s disheartening to see a 20-plus point lead dwindle to 10-points in a matter of minutes.  We still need to improve on closing out games if we want to win another Big Ten title and make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.

5) DePaul is Done – Unfortunately, this is probably going to be the last time I write about DePaul in the near future since the Blue Demons have gone in the past week from an NCAA Tournament bubble team to a club that is unlikely to even make the Big East Conference Tournament.  After losing to Providence on Saturday, DePaul has dropped to 1-5 in Big East play and 8-9 overall.  With the toughest games of the season remaining on their schedule (i.e. Georgetown, Villanova, at St. John’s, at Louisville, and Syracuse) the Blue Demons are pretty much out of it when it comes to any type of postseason play.  DePaul freshman forward Wilson Chandler looks like a stud, but the team is at least a year away from making the NCAA Tournament.

6) Kobe’s 81 – On the one hand, Kobe Bryant’s 81-point performance on Sunday evening might be the greatest individual performance in a regular season NBA game ever.  It is certainly a whole lot tougher for a perimeter player such as Kobe to drop that many points compared to a big man like Wilt Chamberlain (whose size compared to the rest of the league was even more of a factor in the NBA of the ’60s).

On the other hand, Kobe’s career seems to be the inverse of Michael Jordan’s and that’s a very bad thing for the Lakers.  The highest individual numbers for Jordan came in the first few seasons of his career – it wasn’t until he figured out that he needed to get the rest of his team involved that he started to win championships.  Kobe found great success as a team player at the beginning of his career in winning three rings with the Lakers.  Now, as Kobe gets older, he seems to be taking more shots and getting higher individual marks even though his team gets worse.

So, as amazing as Kobe’s non-Wilt record 81-point game was last night, the trajectory of his basketball career is headed in the completely wrong direction.

Beard Bowl XL

I usually get a steady stream of people on my site who are searching for information on “Frank the Tank.”  This past week, however, the top search engine terms that sent visitors to Frank the Tank’s Slant were all variations of “Jake Plummer + beard + hair.”  Best ones so far: “beard battle jake plummer vs ben roethlisberger,” “jake the snake plummer needs a haircut,” and “JAKE PLUMMER HAS A CAMARO” (it should be noted that the caps were not added by me for emphasis).

Clearly, America has found the real storyline to the conference championship weekend: the playoff beard showdown between Jake the Snake and Big Ben.  On this front, I’ve got to give the edge to Plummer – as I said earlier this week, he looks like a cross between Jesus and the Unabomber.  Roethlisberger has an impressive beard, but Jake the Snake takes the cake with his simultaneous disregard for the hair on his head, as well.

As for the games on the field, though, here are my picks against the spread and in no particular order (home team in CAPS):

1) AFC Championship: Pittsburgh Steelers (+3) over DENVER BRONCOS – The dominance of Jake Plummer’s beard won’t be enough to propel the Broncos to victory on Sunday.  The two things I look at before analyzing a game are the defenses and the quarterbacks.  If a team has both the edge on defense and at the quarterback position, I’d be hardpressed to pick against that team.  In this case, the Steelers have a top tier defense that shut down one of the best offensive units in NFL history in the Colts last week and on the road, no less.  The Broncos have a good defense, but they aren’t a shutdown-type of unit comparable to Pittsburgh.

At the same time, Big Ben Roethlisberger is the more accurate and efficient passer of the two quarterbacks.  I still don’t believe that Jake Plummer has all of the sudden turned into a steady championship-caliber QB after being one of the most inconsistent passers in the NFL of the past decade.  If Peyton Manning was rattled by the Steelers, Jake the Snake is way overdue for a meltdown.  Since both teams employ similar running philosophies (run-first offenses using multiple running backs), I foresee this game coming down to a mistake by one of the QBs.  My bet’s on Plummer making the mistake rather than Big Ben.  Of course, I said this last week when comparing Tom Brady and Plummer and look what happened.  Still…

Prediction: Steelers 24, Broncos 20

2) NFC Championship: SEATTLE SEAHAWKS (-3 1/2) over Carolina Panthers – This game is all about health.  Carolina running back DeShaun Foster being out with a broken leg is a big deal since it will allow Seattle to put multiple defenders on Steve Smith (which is what the Bears should have done last week) without worrying as much about being burned by the Panthers running game.  At the same time, Panthers defensive end Julius Peppers will be hampered with a shoulder injury.

Matt Hasselback was able to take apart a solid Redskins defense last week after his NFL MVP running back Shaun Alexander got knocked out with a concussion.  Now, Alexander will be back and going up against a Panther defense unit whose best player, Peppers, is wobbly.  Also, remember that the Panthers gave up 21 points to the inept Bears offense before Peppers got injured, which isn’t a good sign.

Prediction: Seahawks 31, Panthers 21

Enjoy the football games and what will be an Illini romp over Northwestern.  Have a great weekend!

Land-o-Links: 1/19/2006

Wacky stuff today:

1) Bulls/Knicks Recap – One of the most bizarre sporting events I’ve ever seen.  It was Eddy Curry’s first game in Chicago since getting traded by the Bulls, Chris Duhon got into a fight and was ejected, Ben Gordon hit a game-winning jumper at the buzzer in overtime, and, oh yeah, Antonio Davis charged into the stands to protect his wife’s honor (personally, Davis should have been given the right to put the smackdown on that idiot fan without any recourse from the NBA).

2) Blago’s State of the State Address – Governor Rod Blagojevich delivered the shortest State of the State Address in Illinois history, with this being the full text: “Keno.  Done and done.”

3) X’s and O’s U – A public university located in a central Illinois town that begins with “Ch” is tied with USC as being the top producer of NFL coaches… and you know it’s not Illinois.  Congratulations Keith on your alma mater being the new cradle of pro coaching!

4) When Bad People Are Punished, Men Smile (but Women Don’t) – Scientific study showing that men get a kick out of revenge while women feel empathy for pain felt by both good and bad people.

5) The Secret Lives of Rats – I once saw a city rat in Chinatown eat a chihuahua.  If this article is true, that rat wasn’t interested in the dog’s meat.

I’ll be back with NFL predictions tomorrow (just don’t use my picks for gambling purposes if you want to keep your money).  Have a great day!

Land-o-Links – 1/18/2006

For those of us who are still drowning in the sorrows of the Illini/Bears double whammy of losses, here are some links to take your mind elsewhere:

1) Cannes Seeks More Hip-Hop – It seems as though the world’s preeminent film festival is getting tired of all those French films.

2) Dogs Excel on Smell Test to Find Cancer – Incredible…

3) Loophole in Lobbying Bill Leaves Wiggle Room – Once again, our politicians talk a great game regarding campaign finance reform when a scandal hits (i.e. Republicans and Jack Abramoff right now, Democrats and Chinese business donations to the DNC during the Clinton era) but don’t really want the status quo to change in reality.

4) Muck Fichigan – At least the Illini beat Michigan on Saturday.  Meanwhile, here’s the byproduct of some entreprenurial Ohio State fans.

And finally…

5) Casino Coughs Up $25,000 for Shatner’s Kidney Stone – I thought the headline was crazy.  Then I found out how much Star Trek fans were willing to pay for this piece of Captain Kirk.