Saturday, March 31, 2012

Catlanta to N'Awlins

ELITE EIGHT

1. Kentucky Wildcats beat 3. Baylor Bears 82-70
I watched this game thinking I would be in for a tightly contested game of basketball. However, I was soon to realize just how good the Wildcats really are. This a team I saw live when they faced the Volunteers in Knoxville early in the season but even the couple months since that game, this team has really improved and are undoubtably the favorites to win it all in New Orleans this weekend after crushing the Baylor Bears 82-70.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Kentucky burst out of the gates and were leading by 20 at halftime. Kentucky were scoring points all over the floor as they had a 20-12 lead in points in the paint, 13-7 lead in fastbreak points and a 10-2 lead in points off turnovers. Baylor, on the other hand, couldn't get anything going as they were 7-24 (29%) from the field in the half court in the first half, the lowest half-court FG pct in a half for Baylor in last 3 tourneys. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist led the way in scoring for the Wildcats as he put up 19-points to go along with 5 rebounds. Forward Anthony Davis had 6 blocks which was enough to break the single season blocks record in the SEC, previously held by Jarvis Varnado. He also added 18 points and 11 rebounds. UK also saw Terrence Jones step up with a big performance that included 12 points, 9 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 blocks and 2 steals. The Bears did have two players score 20+ points, forward Quincy Acy with 22 points and guard Pierre Jackson with 21. Acy also had 8 rebounds and Jackson dished out 5 assists.

Disappointment for Baylor
Ultimately, the Wildcats finished with 53% field goal shooting compared to Baylor's 39% and didn't have too much difficulty in adding to their record for most all-time tournament wins, 109 victories, and advanced to their 15th Final Four, tied for 3rd most all-time with Duke. They will face cross-state rivals Louisville in the Final Four on Saturday. Kentucky leads the Battle of the Bluegrass 29-14 all-time. It will be the 4th meeting in Final Four of teams from same state, first since Ohio State-Cincinnati in 1962 National Championship. UK Coach Calipari is looking for his 1st title. Guy Lewis (5) is the only coach with more Final Four appearances than Calipari's four without winning a title. They would also become just the second top-overall seed to win national title ('04 Selection Committee began awarding top overall seed), joining Florida who won as the top seed in 2007. As for Anthony Davis, he became the 3rd player from the SEC to win AP Player of the Year, joining a pair of LSU Tigers: Shaquille O'Neal, Pete Maravich. He also joins Kevin Durant (2006-07) as only the second player ever to win the AP Player of the Year award as a freshman.




Sunday, March 25, 2012

It's A Game Of Inches

Leinster 22-23 Ospreys

If you didn't see the game on Friday night, you might be wondering how Al Pacino's famous inspirational speech in the hit movie 'Any Given Sunday' relates to Leinster's loss to the Ospreys in the RaboDirect Pro12 but if you were watching, you can surely understand the reference. In the clip, Al Pacino is talking to his team, an American football team, just minutes before they take the field in a big playoff game. He emphasizes the importance of every inch which add up and ultimately 'make the difference between winning and losing'. This became evident at the RDS on Friday night where Leinster saw their 20-match unbeaten streak end at the ends of the resilient Ospreys.

Richard Hibbard's try
The Welsh side were six points down with under three minutes to play. They refused to give up and their determination paid off when hooker Richard Hibbard bulldozed his way over for a try in the corner for the Ospreys, their second of the game following George Stowers' twenty minutes earlier. The referee decided to take it upstairs to TMO Alan Rogan for confirmation. After a couple minutes of pure tension in the 'D4tress', the 18,300 fans in attendance were left in a state of shock as Rogan declared that the ball was, in fact, grounded. They played it back in super slow-mo and it appeared that the tip of the ball grazed the line for a slight millisecond but thats all it takes to score a try in rugby. The try put the Ospreys one point back with a conversion to follow from an obscure angle right on the touchline. Fly-half Dan Biggar was the man to take the kick having already slotted over three penalties and a conversion. It was an extremely difficult task for even the best in the business. Biggar, himself, had bad memories of the Dublin ground after a previous visit saw him take this shocking attempt.
Dan Biggar
Nonetheless, Biggar's right foot made solid contact with the ball and it sailed through the air in the direction of the posts. In fact, it did hit the posts, the very top of the right upright and the ball was hurled up into the air. It left the sideline officials with a decision to make and they did not hesitate in awarding the conversion as successful. Talk about drama! There was still time on the clock, however, and Leinster, down by merely one point, needed just a drop goal or try to come away with the win. Unfortunately, they were only able to muster nine phases before giving up a penalty which would close out the game and leave Leinster furious, losing for the first time since September and consequently seeing the longest unbeaten streak in European end.

Ian Madigan en route to Leinster's only try
Ian Madigan scored Leinster's only try of the game, picking up a loose ball following an errant lineout exchange between hooker Richardt Strauss and flanker Rhys Ruddock. The defending Heineken Cup champions thought they heard another when Heinke van der Merwe crossed over but Ospreys centre Dan Beck did brilliantly to hold it up and force a five-metre scrum. Speaking of scrums, Leinster had a tumultuous time at the set piece, which continues to concern Irish rugby fans after the disaster last weekend in Twickenham.
Disappointment for O'Driscoll in his return
It was a disappointing way for Irish captain Brian O'Driscoll to return following his absence due a shoulder and neck injury he suffered in Ireland's loss to Wales in the World Cup. He played for 58 minutes at his usual outside centre position before being replaced by youngster Eoin O'Malley. The loss was Leinster's second this year to the Welsh side as they lost 27-3 earlier in the season on the road. Ospreys moved up to second place in the competition as a result, only to be surpassed by Munster yesterday who came away from Galway with a vital 20-16 win at the Sportsground. Leinster will head to Thomond Park this coming Saturday for a crucial clash with their rivals and defending Pro12 champions Munster. You can watch the game on RTE2 at 7:30pm GMT.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

The Orange dance into the Elite Eight

CJ Faires with the slam
The 4th seeded Wisconsin Badgers faced off against the Syracuse Orange, the top seed of the eastern region, at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts in the Sweet Sixteen of the 2012 NCAA tourney and what a thrilling game it was. Heading into Thursday’s game, analysts were going back and forth with who would come away with the win and much like the pregame debate, the game was seesaw affair. The two sides were contrasting in styles, similar to the Euroleague game I also watched on the night. Syracuse is famous for their 2-3 zone defense and their ability to score in transition. They averaged 17.3 points per game in transition, ranked 6th among teams in the big six conferences, and 20.3 points per game off turnovers, ranked 1st in the big six conferences, during the regular. However, the 2-3 zone D has its flaws. Syracuse are sometimes prone to being victims of a 3-point barrage and allowing offensive rebounds. These shortcomings were especially magnified on the night as they faced a Wisconsin team that shoots 47.1% from downtown, 1st in the field for the tourney. As for Wisconsin, they are a team that is comfortable allowing the shot clock to get down to single digits as they utilize great ball movement to get good looks. This allowed them to stretch the Syracuse defense and it showed on the statistics after the game as the Badgers totaled 15 assists compared to Syracuse’s 5.

They were two big runs that really changed the course of the game. Wisconsin’s big men Jared Berggren, who was hot at the time after scoring 10 points in 8 minutes, and Mike Bruesewitz were forced to sit out after picking up two fouls early in the first. This was done to avoid the two getting into foul trouble later in the game. Syracuse made full advantage of the absence of the Badger’s bigs as they went on an 11-0 run to take a 10 point lead, the largest of the night. Crucially, however, Wisconsin was able to respond with two points at the foul line and two more coming off a turnover right before half time to reduce the deficit to six with Syracuse up 33-27 at the break. The next game defining run came early in the second and what a remarkable run it was. The Badgers hit an astounding six 3-pointers in a row as part of an 18-8 run, which gave them the lead. It set up for close, exciting finish with the two sides exchanging baskets. Kris Joseph of Syracuse had a one-and-one opportunity at the charity stripe with 15 seconds remaining and the Orange holding onto a one-point lead but Joseph was unable to hold his nerve and missed the first free throw giving Wisconsin a chance to come away with a huge win. Badger senior guard Jordan Taylor, who had put forward a terrific performance with 17 points, 4 rebounds, 6 assists, one steal and one block, stepped up and shot a potential game winning three which fell short. That was it, Syracuse came away with the narrow 64-63 win.

Syracuse will face Ohio State on Saturday night in the Elite Eight
A number of players impressed for the Orange. The star of the night for the victors was CJ Fair who finished with 15 points, 7 rebounds and 4 steals. He showed great ability to drive the lane and finish with running floaters. The senior from Philly Scoop Jardine also had a big impact, adding 14 points and 4 dimes (assists). Finally, with the absence of Fab Melo, who was declared ineligible before the tourney, Syracuse has really relied on others to step up their game. That was exactly what happened Thursday, especially Dion Waiters who came in off the bench to score 13 points.

It was yet another thriller, between two extremely well coached teams, in what has been a crazy couple of weeks in college basketball. Wisconsin made 14 3-pointers on the night, the most Syracuse has given up all season but it wasn’t enough as Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim passed John Wooden for 5th most career tournament wins of all time with 48 victories.

The Other Games in the Sweet Sixteen:


4. Louisville Cardinals beat 1. Michigan State Spartans 57-44
The Spartans only connected on 14 shots from the field, the fewest for a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament in the shot clock era. The only player to perform well in an otherwise sloppy performance by the Spartans was Draymond Green who had 13 points and 16 rebounds. Cardinal center Gorgui Dieng became the 4th player to have at least 7 blocks and at least 3 steals in an NCAA tournament game. Louisville's freshman forward Chane Behanan was another key performer as he had a near double-double performance with 15 points and 9 rebounds.



2. Ohio State Buckeyes beat 6. Cincinnati Bearcats 81-66
The Buckeye faithful were surely breaking a sweat when they saw their side go behind after holding a 12 point lead in the second half. It was then that Ohio State showed their resilience and came through with a big 17-1 run. The Buckeyes dominated in the paint, with 30 points, and on the boards, out rebounding the Bearcats, 33 to 26. The dominant Buckeye forward Jared Sullinger scored 23 points with 11 rebounds, while his teammate Deshaun Thomas led the side with 26 points. 18 points from Cincy's guard Cashmere Wright was not enough as the Cincinnati fell to my favorite to take it all, Ohio State.





7. Florida Gators beat 3. Marquette Golden Eagles 68-58
The Gators continued to display great effort on defense as they are hitting the stride at just the right time. After losing 4 of their last 5 games to close out the regular season, Florida have come out to play in the Big Dance. They are being led by guard Bradley Beal who last year was named national high school player of the year. He had another superb game against the Golden Eagles as he scored 21 points to go along with 6 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks. The Gators are now just one win away from being back in the Final Four where coach Donovan led the school in 2006 and 2007.

3. Baylor Bears beat 10. Xavier Musketeers 75-70
Baylor advanced to the Elite Eight for the second time in the past three seasons. This came largely thanks to big performances from two players in particular, senior forward Quincy Acy and junior guard Pierre Jackson. Acy had a double-double with a team high 20 points and 15 rebounds. Jackson's double-double was comprised of 16 points and 10 assists. A strong all-around performance by Xavier's Tu Holloway, 22 points, 4 rebounds, 3 assists and steals, was not enough as the Musketeers never took the lead throughout the 40 minutes of play. Baylor commanded the game from the get-go as they led by 18 points less than 8 minutes into the game.




1. Kentucky Wildcats beat 4. Indiana Hoosiers 102-90
The number one team in the nation came away with the win in this extremely high scoring game. The Wildcats were able to get easy baskets, scoring 24 points in transition and shooting 35 of 37 at the free throw line. Kentucky had two players score 20+ points with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist getting 24 points to go along with 10 rebounds and Doron Lamb had 21 points. The freshman phenom Anthony Davis grabbed 12 boards and stuffed (blocked) 3 shots. Hoosier junior forward Christian Watford had a game high 27 points in a valiant effort but there would be no repeat for Indiana of their shock upset win early in the year over Kentucky as UK felt at home at 'Catlanta'. Nonetheless, it is assuring to say that Indiana is back after a horrible lack of success under the regime of Kelvin Sampson.

1. North Carolina Tar Heels beat 13. Ohio Bobcats 73-65(OT)
Another NCAA tournament, another cinderella story! This year that team was the 13th seeded Ohio Bobcats who held their own against the powerhouse UNC Tar Heels and forced the game into overtime, the first OT of this years tourney. The Bobcats trailed by as much as 15 in the first half but came back after getting hot from downtown, they made 12 3-pointers on the night. Unfortunately, they shot 0 for 6 from the field in OT and failed to become the first team seeded 13th or worse to make the Elite Eight since the NCAA tournament expanded in 1985. Three Tar Heels had double-doubles in the win as Tyler Zeller had 20 points and an incredible 22 rebounds, John Henson scored 14 points with 10 rebounds and Reggie Bullock accumulated 17 points and 10 rebounds. Walter Offutt led the charge for the underdogs with 26 points.

2. Kansas Jayhawks beat 11. NC State Wolfpack 60-57
The Jayhawks were relieved to hear the buzzer sound at the end of this wild one. Kansas was able to send the Wolfpack home despite shooting 1-14 from 3-point range. They did, however, outscore NC State 44-22 in the paint. On top of that, Jayhawk center Jeff Withey had a great game on the defensive end as he amazed a whooping 10 blocks, second only to Shaquille O'Neal in tournament history. More records were shattered as Thomas Taylor recorded his 26th double-double of the year, 18 points and 15 rebounds, which breaks the previous mark of 25 double-doubles in a season held by Drew Gooden. 18 points from North Carolina State's CJ Leslie just proved not to be enough in the end as Kansas continues on their quest for a 4th national championship, their last coming in 2008.


Elite Eight Predictions:


4. Louisville will beat 7. Florida
2. Ohio State will beat 1. Syracuse
1. Kentucky will beat 3. Baylor
1. UNC will beat 2. Kansas

Friday, March 23, 2012

The Road to Istanbul

It’s been a long time since I’ve updated this blog, too long! However, I’m back now and excited to give you my thoughts and analysis on all the major events in the sports world as well as providing reviews on sports books, TV shows, movies and video games. I thought a fitting way to return to blogging would be to show my appreciation of the vast world of sports and in doing so, I am here today to talk about Euroleague basketball and in particular, Game Two of the Quarterfinal series between Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona Regal and Russian newcomers UNICS Kazan.

Around this time of year, the sporting world’s attention is focused on who will be advancing to the Final Four of the NCAA basketball tournament. However, there is another Final Four in men’s basketball, which receives much less media attention and worldwide interest, and that is the Euroleague Final Four, which will be hosted in Istanbul, Turkey in the coming months. This somewhat low-key sporting event on the worldwide radar is essentially basketball at its purest. The energy and passion of the fans is unmatched in basketball, at the collegiate or pro level. You think the Cameron Crazies at Duke are rowdy? They are nothing in comparison to the fans over here in Europe, particularly in Eastern Europe. Just take a look at this YouTube video!



Onto the game I was fortunate enough to have watched, Thursday’s quarterfinal game at the Palau Blaugrana arena in Barcelona. Normally when you think of Barcelona, you have images in your head of Lionel Messi making opponents look stupid at the Camp Nou and rightly so, in my opinion, he is the best player to ever grace a football pitch and is playing with one of the greatest club sides of all time. Be that as it may, there is also a strong basketball tradition in Catalonian roots. If you have any interest in the NBA, you have surely heard of the Gasol brothers, Pau and Marc, or maybe the Timberwolves point guard Rick Rubio has dazzled you with his skillful passing. They all played for FC Barcelona Regal, a team that has won two Euroleague Championships. In the quarterfinals of this year’s Euroleague playoffs, they are facing off against UNICS Kazan from Kazan, Russia. You may remember UNICS from a book I reviewed, ‘Can I Keep My Jersey?’, by Paul Shirley who had a brief 9-game stint with the team.

It was the first Euroleague game I had watched all season but I quickly realized that it was a battle of opposing gameplans and styles. Barcelona is a team that looks to compete in a shootout; they want quick possessions and easy points on fast breaks. UNICS, on the other hand, is a team that likes to control the tempo and play a half court game, which emphasizes efficiency in making the most of every possession. Barcelona shot out of the gates and went on an 11-2 run to start the game as UNICS couldn’t get anything going. Their offense was stagnant and had poor motion. However, despite being an up-and-coming team, they still have good leadership and experience, which showed as they stuck to the gameplan and showed great patience in doing so. They gradually began to give Australian center Nathan Jawai the ball in the low post as they spread the floor and let him go to work. In spite of sitting out the entire 2nd Quarter, Jawai led all scorers with 21 points and added 10 rebounds in a dominant performance. The 6 ft 10, 280lb specimen was fascinating to watch and subsequently, fascinating to learn about. Jawai is an Indigenous Australian grew up playing rugby league and although he isn’t fundamentally sound, he has a terrific motor and is he work ethic shows on the boards where he was able to collect 6 offensive rebounds. Unfortunately, the “Outback Shaq” had trouble holding onto the ball and his five turnovers really proved costly. He said after the game,
Nathan Jawai
"We made a lot of turnovers. Myself, at the end in the last couple of minutes. It was the chance to get this win on the road. We have another game coming up and we cannot worry about this loss anymore. We will go home, try to get better and get some rest to come out and fight in Game 3. It was a close game, we just didn't take care of the ball. If we had done that, I believe it would have been a different outcome."
He was not the only player for the Russian side to impress. Slovenian forward ‪BoĊĦtjan Nachbar had a great performance, coming in off the bench to score 16 points, most of which came from his deadly stepback jumper. He did this after scoring 0 points in a 78-66 Game One loss to the defending Liga ACB champions.

The game remained close throughout but Barcelona always seemed in control and UNICS rarely took the lead. Nonetheless with a minute and a half remaining, UNICS tied the game at 61-61 after a Jawai layup. UNICS had a chance to take the lead with under a minute left but they forced a pass to Jawai in the paint which resulted in a turnover and Barcelona scoring two free throws on the ensuing possession. Another Kazan turnover later, and Barca had the ball with two seconds separating the game clock and the play clock. This is when the poor clock management began. UNICS would wait until 8 seconds left in the game to finally foul. Huertas would prove not to be clutch for Barcelona by making just one free throw, thus it was a 3-point game. Not surprisingly, Barcelona sent Kazan to the free throw line where American Henry Domercant, the 4th leading scorer, would score his first points of the game, connecting on both shots from the charity stripe. Barcelona’s Pete Mikael, who turned in an MVP performance with 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 steals and 3 assists, made both his attempts and once again it was a 3-point game but with just 4 seconds remaining. Then the poor end of game execution continued as Domercant received the inbounds pass far too deep in his own territory and was only able to throw up a half court prayer which wasn’t answered by the powers above. The final score showed Barcelona winning 66-63. I guess you could say it was an anti-climatic ending to a cracking game of basketball

Juan Carlos Navarro, the leading points scorer in Euroleague history, led the Catalonians with 18 points. He is the heart and soul of this team and it was clear as he was the go to guy when the team hit obstacles along the way to victory. Navarro had this to say after the game,
"Our goal was to go up 2-0; we lost Game 2 of the playoffs in each of the last two seasons. It was a low-scoring game and we had to be really focused to win it. They didn't allow us to feel comfortable on offense, but being focused and free throw accuracy allowed us to reach our goal. We made 23 of 25 free throws and that was the key. We knew it would be a tough game. We had the game under control, but
Nachbar came off the bench and changed everything. Even with that, we managed to get the win."
UNICS fall to 2-0 down in the series
Erazem Lorbek of Slovenia added 14 points in the victory, which puts Barca one win away from sweeping the 5-game series and clinching a place in the Final Four. The series heads to Russia for Game Three on the 27th March.

Also on this night in the Euroleague, there was a rematch in Athens of the 2011 Euroleague championship game between Panathinaikos of Greece and Maccabi Electra Tel Aviv of Israel. The defending champions Panathinaikos won Game One 93-73. Game Two was a much closer affair and was sent into overtime after Kostas Kaimakoglou tied the game for the Greek side with 13.2 second left in regulation. In OT, Maccabi’s David Blu connected on two clutch three-pointers in the final couple minutes of overtime which helped Maccabi to a 94-92 upset win to tie the series at one apiece

Hopefully, this article gives an idea of what a great competition the Euroleague truly is. The Quarterfinal action continues tonight as CSKA Moscow (Russia) host Gescrap Bilbao (Spain). CSKA won Game One 98-71. Also, Montepaschi Siena (Italy) are looking for revenge at home versus Olympiacos (Greece) following an 82-75 loss.