Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Pac-12 Football Preview: USC's Identity Crisis

To say USC’s 2012 season was a failure is being nice. Preseason No. 1 to unranked at season’s end due to a freefall I’ve never seen at the House of Troy. The fall was best symbolized by Matt Barkley ending his career with a shoulder injury at the hands of UCLA’s Anthony Barr.

Lane Kiffin deserved the lion’s share of the criticism for his arrogance and questionable playcalling. I called his coaching into question several times. and there’s no doubt that he’s on the hot seat this year.

With Barkley and Robert Woods in the NFL, the big question entering 2013 is who is USC now? The 2nd best team in Los Angeles? 3rd best in the Pac-12 South? Will they still rely on their passing game or finally trust their backfield?

They still have the country’s best wide receiver in Marqise Lee and a surefire NFL prospect in Morgan Breslin, who’s switching to linebacker after playing defensive end in 2012. They still have Silas Redd, who Kiffin said would be a more prominent factor in the offense. But they have a few kinks to work out so let's break down what they're working with.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Pac-12 Football Preview: UCLA's Encore

UCLA and USC will be opening up fall camps this week to get ready for the 2013 season. To get ready, I'm doing a two-part preview of both schools assessing strengths and weaknesses, key players to watch and my outlook this year. I'll also do a brief follow-up before the season kicks off on August 31. First up, UCLA.

UCLA's 2012 season was one to remember. It wasn't just the best season the school had since 2005, it was a renewed optimism that the program was headed in a positive direction and could stay there. What Jim Mora Jr. did last year was more than wins and losses as he created an identity and attitude that programs could build upon for years to come.

Last year, they finished 9-5 and won the Pac-12 South Division. For the first time since 1998, they had a better record than USC, who they defeated 38-28 for the first time since 2006. While they lost three straight to end the season, including twice to Stanford, there was reason to be optimistic about the road ahead.

Four Bruins were drafted, including first round selection Datone Jones and second rounder Johnathan Franklin, both to Green Bay. So what's next for Year 2 under Mora? Improvement and more of the same to get even better. High expectations as they were the media pick to win the Pac-12 South division.

"We're not where we want to be but we have a vision of where we want to be," Mora said at Pac-12 Media Day.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Confidence in Canada (Dodgers Keep Rolling)

Just when I think I keep running out of things to say about the Dodgers' incredible play, this team keeps on finding ways to stretch my creativity. Consider what they did last night.

Down to their last strike against Toronto, Andre Ethier - who's been resembling his Captain Clutch days lately - ties the game in the 9th inning. Then in the 10th, Mark Ellis and Yasiel Puig hit home runs to spark a five-run explosion and finish off the Blue Jays in a sweep.

To recap, three straight wins in Toronto, the last two via comeback. 41 runs scored the last four games. Six straight road wins coming off the All-Star break (10 in a row overall). First place in the National League West. At this point, the question isn't how hot this team can stay but who's going to catch fire next.

Even maligned reliever Brandon League has rediscovered his mojo, earning a win the last two games. His two scoreless innings of work Wednesday were crucial in putting the Dodgers in position to tie and take the lead. For a guy who's earned groans this year after losing his job as the closer, he's starting to redeem himself quite nicely.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Carlos Hyde: A Victim of OSU's Preemptive Strike?

In the latest case of a college program jumping the gun, Ohio State running back Carlos Hyde was suspended from the program because he was named a person of interest in an alleged assault. Despite the fact Hyde was not named in the police report or formally arrested, his time at Ohio State hung in limbo.

Yet as this report by Yahoo's Charles Robinson claims, Hyde may not be there for long. A source claims that video proves Hyde did not assault the woman in question. Suddenly, my concerns about his suspension in advance of any proof of guilt were realized.

Forget for a minute that his coach is Urban Meyer, who's been known for two things: Winning and players being arrested often. Forget that Meyer is trying to prove himself a disciplinarian in the wake of his Florida resume and former Gator Aaron Hernandez being tried for murder.

Many schools are guilty of punishing players for merely being near trouble instead of actually committing trouble. It's a sign of coaching being tough on crime and being a dictator when his "wayward players" don't represent the university right. Being arrested is usually followed by discipline regardless of the circumstances of said arrest.

But what about here with Hyde? He may not be guilty of anything except a false accusation and being near the woman in question. He actually conducted himself in a manner befitting his status as a high-profile player if this report is confirmed.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Ryan Braun, Matt Kemp and the 2011 MVP

For me, the biggest deal with Ryan Braun being suspended for the rest of the season is how quickly he owned up to it compared to what happened last year. He found a loophole in the process and exploited it well. Now he couldn't outrun lightning striking near him twice.

I'm not shocked when somebody cheats anymore. I also don't assume everyone is cheating either. I'm at that weird in-between where I just watch the game, trust my eyes more than my ears and let the process play out. I'm not about to call somebody a total fraud without considering the totality of their career.

Yet as a Dodgers fan, I'm not about to say Braun's MVP should be given to Matt Kemp. Why? Because I already argued a few times in 2011 why Kemp should've won and that argument hasn't changed in two years. In a close race, Braun won because his team went to the postseason.

MLB wisely doesn't strip folks of winning awards (for the record - I'm fine with it in the Olympics to a point). Doing that would insult what our eyes saw and pretend it didn't exist. PED-enhanced numbers existed on MLB's watch and it wasn't until the game became a cartoon that they stepped in to clean it up.

That all said, I've believed for a while that Barry Bonds got cheated out of an MVP (1991) as did Pedro Martinez (1999) and Albert Belle (1995). I'd rather argue that Kemp deserved it in 2011 and should've won it on his own merit regardless of what Braun did.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Why I'm Letting Johnny Manziel Be: Because He's 20

I don't care much about the moral handwringing over Johnny Manziel, the current prince of Texas enjoying his football fame. The same way I didn't care about what my friends did when I was in college as long as they were having fun, living it up and not hurting anybody.

Manziel's 20 years old. I'm still not that far removed from college to know how 20 year old kids act. Heisman or not, he's still growing up in front of us and you can't place adult expectations on a college kid. Those who say the Heisman means you flip a switch and carry yourself with grace and professionalism obviously put too much faith in a statue.

Whatever happened at the Manning Academy was unfortunate. Hat tip to the folks at RumorsAndRants getting more info on this story and to Manziel's credit, he owned up to his mistakes. Part of growing up means you screw up, let people down and learn how to handle it/do better later.

But for me, I don't have a problem with Manziel being himself long as it doesn't involve letting others down when it counts (and I don't mean on the field). Why should he be held to a higher standard? Because he's a better football player than most? Just because you're a star doesn't mean you should be Mr. Perfect or Mr. "Wholesome All-American" and clinging to that myth says more about you than him.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

A Moment of Respect for Mariano Rivera

I missed most of the All-Star Game due to Youth Group. It's something I've come to expect most of my life and the only times I actually watched most of the game was from 2007-2010 when I spent Tuesday nights at my newspaper proofreading stories and finishing up things before we went to press.

I happened to check Twitter after we wrapped up and I saw Rob Parker send this tweet.
Soon as I got home, I watched the footage. "Enter Sandman" blaring loud and Mariano Rivera coming out to do his job like he's done every year. Except he was alone. No teammates. Just him on that mound and soaking up the praise of his last All-Star game from the fans, both teams and many viewers.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Athletes and Their Power (A Sports Take on Trayvon Martin)

Amidst my many moods regarding George Zimmerman being acquitted of murdering Trayvon Martin, one thing did brighten my face. The slew of athletes who were outraged and disappointed at the verdict.

I save all of my non-sports thoughts at Virgo Gumbo so I'll direct you for my full thoughts on this latest miscarriage of justice. Here, I want to speak to the athletes who were like many of us over the weekend.

As angry as you are, you men and women have great power in your hands. Not just to be retweeted for any old reason but you have influence over your followers to do more than just promote yourselves, your craft or your league. Your reactions made national news and deservedly so.

One look at the Miami Heat posting a picture in their hoodies is a reminder that when you do something noteworthy, it will be celebrated. I know that folks like Rashard Mendenhall, Etan Thomas and a few others have carried the mantle of athlete-activists and folks like Donte Stallworth are thought-provoking as they are fun.

They say sports and politics don't mix. As Howard Bryant reminded us, they always do. They mix when the sport dictates what politics are acceptable. It's time for you to take the anger from the verdict and use it wisely for future causes you find acceptable to rally behind.
I'm not saying you need to be Muhammad Ali, Curt Flood, Spencer Haywood, Bill Russell or more from the 1960's and 70's who joined with movements that shook up this country. I only hope you realize that your voice has weight and when the time is right, you'll raise it again along with action and support.

If there is a sports positive from this is that I hope it inspires athletes professional and "amateur" to realize that no matter how good they are in sports, there's a world bigger than them and sometimes, they can feel free to speak up more often.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Peace Go With You, Metta

As expected, the Lakers waived Metta World Peace using their amnesty provision, ending his four-year tenure with the team. His impact is simple. Much as I didn't like losing Trevor Ariza in 2009, the Lakers don't win the 2010 NBA championship without MWP's contributions in the playoffs.

Many of us remember this. Game 7 of the 2010 Finals. I watched at my house with several of my close friends after failing to get a spot at Buffalo Wild Wings.  I remember talking to my man Keith about the game beforehand and he predicted that MWP would play huge to seal it. It was a vintage performance that I celebrated the following day.

Which led to this classic press conference that will live forever in NBA history. Not just for the comedy and pure joy, but the honesty - esp. when he acknowledged his Pacers days.

But I also remember this. His buzzer beater to beat the Suns in Game 5 in the 2010 Western Conference Finals. Right place, right time, basketball IQ to follow Kobe's shot, fight for the rebound and put it up.

I feel glad that we got to see Ron Artest mature in Los Angeles and grow into Metta World Peace, a funny character who was still fiery on the court. A fierce advocate for mental health awareness. A reminder to be yourself and be free. A winner of the NBA's Citizenship Award and a reminder that anybody can change if we allow ourselves to see them grow up instead of what they used to be.

It's been a fun four years. Metta may not be the dominant two-way threat he was 10 years ago but he's still a solid player. He'll be fondly remembered here like many other Lakers who won a title and endeared themselves to Los Angeles. I'll miss his antics, his passion, his fierce defense, those Metta moments that only he could do.

I'll leave it with words from the legendary Gil Scott Heron that inspired this title. Thank you, Metta World Peace.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

Back From the Dead, the Dodgers Keep Rolling

A month ago, I was ready to consider this Dodgers season a wash. On the morning of June 3, they were nine games under .500. Between injuries and lackluster hitting, nothing was going right. By June 19, they were 29-40 after losing Game 1 of a doubleheader to the Yankees.

Fast forward to today. The team just finished a 14th inning game to sweep the Diamondbacks. They're 1.5 games out of first place. They're 45-45 and all a sudden they look like a different team and I'm watching games with more interest than just as a loyal fan.

Instead of worrying where the Dodgers offense comes from, I see timely hitting coming from AJ Ellis, Hanley Ramirez, Adrian Gonzalez and yes, Yasiel Puig. 

A lot of credit goes to Puig, your reigning National League rookie/player of the month. I've still yet to come up with a non-pitching rookie who's impacted the team like this right away and if he makes the All-Star team, I'll be happy. But I want to give props to Ramirez, who looks more and more like the player he was from 2008-2010.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

What's Next for the Lakers (Apocalypse Now)

Now that Dwight Howard is gone and we've all dealt with the aftermath, I want to look deeper in what faces the Lakers in 2013-14.  In short, it's basically "Apocalypse Now". The result of two seasons that have left the this team without an identity and wondering what's going on.

Folks wondered when the Lakers' recent good stretch would end and the downfall has come. It's true they made the playoffs the last two years but we've known that the flaws of this team have been evident. The lack of perimeter defense, players getting older, an inconsistent bench...all of it showed at times and it really showed during the playoffs.

At this point, I and a few other Laker fans have accepted that this season is probably a lost one. Let's look at why.

The best five now? Pau Gasol, Chris Kaman, Steve Nash, Jodie Meeks and Jordan Hill. It looks good but consider that Nash will be 40 next February and Kaman, while still only 31, had a career-low in rebounds last year while struggling in Dallas. Nash's health was a problem last year so the hope is that he can play at least 60-70 games.

Gasol will probably be the team's best offensive weapon. At 33, he's still an effective power forward despite being misused as a jump shooter. I'm not worried about his game as much as I'm worried about Mike D'Antoni keeping him away from the post where he can do just as much damage. In the last year of his contract, Gasol needs to be able to show all he can to convince the Lakers to resign him if they so choose.

Meeks and Hill aren't bad but Meeks/Hill are role players. Hill also plays the same position as Gasol so chances are they won't start. So who will be the Lakers' small forward until Kobe Bryant comes back?

Monday, July 8, 2013

Analyzing the Dwightmare (D12, The Media and the Lakers)

So Dwight Howard is a Houston Rocket. Just as I expected in May. No real surprise so allow me to break down this whole thing a bit, starting with how this impacts D12. I'll quickly add that I hate calling this a Dwightmare so apologies for the title when really Dwight handled this quite well.

Howard goes to a team where he'll be loved and get what he wants. I don't have a problem with that. He earned the right to decide where he was going and what was a great fit. He earned the right to pick his future at his own pace and with careful thought. It's never easy to make a decision involving that much money and the prime of his career.

If the last three years have taught us anything, Howard's biggest issue is that he wants to be loved and being unaware of how it makes him look. He's a gifted player on the court but offensively, he's not as refined as he is defensively or as a rebounder.

Injured or not, he didn't adjust to a town where he wasn't coddled and had high expectations from Day One. It's not about rings, it's about embracing a mentality of toughness and going all out. I didn't see him as a true Laker because I didn't see that desire all the time.

I feel he wanted the love without the criticism. It's not easy playing with Kobe Bryant or surrounded by hungry veterans who don't have time to clown. Not to mention losing left a sour taste on things. That's why most of the vibe here is good riddance and good luck. Besides it wasn't as if Dwight gave folks a great glimpse of what he can do.

Friday, July 5, 2013

You Don't Know Me And You Never Did (On Aaron Hernandez and the Media Cliches)

I’ve been watching the coverage on Aaron Hernandez and his impending trial for murder for the past week. Haven’t had much to say but in light of the evidence, it appears Hernandez was involved deeply in the murder of Odin Lloyd and perhaps more.

Right on cue, I’ve seen some folks in the media turn it into inaccurate soapbox preaching. Many are blaming the Patriots for not doing due diligence on checking him out. Some are blaming the culture of violence and street cred. Some are saying the cliché of “we really don’t know these athletes.”

I’m trying to avoid being shocked when an athlete does something major and replace it with other emotions. Granted it's hard when murder is involved. I’m more sad that Hernandez threw away all that money and a promising career because he had to keep it real. I’m angry that he wasted an opportunity many would take advantage of.

All the handwringing and pointing the blame are nice but it doesn’t get to the point. So let me say something to for my media brethren as well as us sports fans in the words of that fine rapper Clifford Harris.

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

My Love/Hate Relationship with Fan Voting

MLB wraps up another year of fan voting for the All-Star Game on Thursday. I haven't even bothered to check the numbers closely, which is something I used to do for every sport back in the day. But it reminds me why the older I get, the more ambivalent I feel on fan voting.

It's great because it's the ultimate sign of fans being involved. But at what cost? Since we know that fans don't always get it right, it's just going to become a biased decision where guys who aren't deserving start because they happen to be on the right team.

It's great because the fans decide who they get to see in All-Star Games. But if the game is supposed to honor those who had great first halves, can we trust fans to get it right besides a popularity contest.

To be honest, I'm not one of those old school folks who think the All-Star Game should mean more than it does. I love the entertainment and relaxation of it (although the Home Run Derby is basically like the Slam Dunk Competition - a dog on Old Yeller status). It shouldn't be any more pressure than it needs to be.