Wednesday, August 24, 2016

10 College Football Games To Watch in Week 1.

The heat won't break properly for a while yet, at least not down south.  Summer will carry itself into mid-September, taunting us with the occasional cool evening only to ramp the heat and humidity back up.  The sticky, horrid monsoon cake God is baking in our geographical oven is not quite done.  But fall will be here Friday, forecast be damned.  And the reason I can say that with certainty and a song in my heart is this: college football is back.  The tinkering with depth charts and playbook install schedules, tailgate menus and marching band halftime routines is wrapping up.  Soon, delightfully soon, we can spend our Saturdays (and hell, our Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights) reveling in the inanity and beauty of this stupid, fantastic game.  In anticipation of our long, football-less offseason's imminent demise, here are my 10 picks for games you should watch on opening weekend. (All times EST.)

10. Hawaii vs. University of California - Friday August 26th, ANZ Satdium: Sydney, Australia.  10:00PM Many, many people think these Week 1 global neutral site games are a joke and a shameless money grab and to those people I say: You are correct, and I don't care.  Gimme a game in Dubai or Luxembourg or wherever, I'm here for it.  Sure, even a newly Jared Goff-less Cal will beat the brakes off the Rainbow Warriors, but y'all ... THIS IS THE OPENING GAME OF THE SEASON!!!!!!  For the simple benevolent act of being the first guest to arrive at the party, we can forgive this game showing up early and under-dressed with nothing but a bag of Lays and a shitty $4.00 bottle of wine it purchased at a convenience store on the way over.

9.  Appalachian State @ #9 Tennessee - Thursday September 1st, Neyland Stadium: Knoxville, TN 7:30PM You're looking at this and wondering why the presumptive SEC East favorites playing a Sun Belt team rates a slot on the list, aren't you?  Let me explain.  For untold eons, Vols fans have spent every summer convincing themselves that "This is gonna be the year!" only to wallow in disappointment once they drop a few big games.  Good news for them: this may actually be that year.  The talent and experience on the roster, the coaching staff (hi, Bob Shoop!), and the whole operation may finally be commensurate with the preseason hype.  That being said, App State are feisty and physical and they will absolutely wreck your shit if you're not careful.  Even a win, if it's ugly and not utterly dominant, would set Tennessee's rabid fan base on edge and prompt another round of torches and pitchforks aimed at Butch Jones.  The potential schadenfreude is simply too enticing to pass up.

8. Georgia Tech vs. Boston College - Saturday September 3rd, Aviva Stadium: Dublin, Ireland 7:30AM Let me be very clear: This game will be trash, and there is nothing of football nutritional value to be had here.  The triple option is nifty and great, and Paul Johnson's Jackets teams have run it as beautifully as anyone ever has.  This won't matter one bit, because Steve Addazio and BC's defense can and will take the most well-calibrated and efficiently executed offenses on earth and drag them into the muck.  Of course, BC can't score any points either, so.  I put it here for one reason and one reason only: it's the Cibola game.  This is the moment in "The Stand" when Trashcan Man, having traversed half of America on foot, finally arrives in Vegas and sees a public fountain.  Parched and sun-scarred and incoherent, he plunges in and drinks and drinks and drinks the water.  Then he pukes it all back up.  That 7:30AM kickoff is there so we can replicate that moment.  We've been so deprived of college football that mainlining the stuff, even of a dubious quality, sounds just perfect. This game will maximize your opening Saturday viewing time up to a robust eighteen consecutive hours or so, if you can stay awake through the end of Northern Arizona @ Arizona State.  Glorious. 

7. #5 LSU vs. Wisconsin - Saturday September 3rd, Lambeau Field: Green Bay, WI 3:30PM Whether or not Leonard Fournette will be completely healthy by the time this one kicks off makes it iffy in this slot, but there's a lot to enjoy here nonetheless.  LSU poached the Badgers' excellent D.C. Dave Aranda this offseason which, give that man some SEC-caliber defensive talent to work with and good lord!  Also, Wisconsin has made a living as a pretty good team the past several seasons, but we all saw what happened when they opened last year against 'Bama.  The carnage will be similar although probably more entertaining simply because games that involve Les Miles are by default more entertaining than other games that do not.  Especially if Fournette isn't 100%, I'll be interested to see if the Tigers have finally put together an offense capable of matching their defensive ferocity.  Also, Lambeau Field is a pretty cool and storied place to play and/or watch football, so there's that.

6. #10 Notre Dame @ Texas - Sunday September 4th, Royal Texas Memorial Stadium: Austin, TX 7:30PM This will be more for answering a few salient questions than about an actual enjoyable football experience. 1. Can Notre Dame keep their QBs healthy and will they have success without Big Bill Fuller to throw it to?  2. Can Texas find a QB at all?  Like, one competent human who is better equipped than Tyrone Swoopes (still reportedly in the mix for a Week 1 start!).  Charlie Strong salvaged his 5-7 2015 season by beating Oklahoma and Baylor, but if they get rolled by the Irish like in last year's 38-3 opening debacle, his hindquarters are gonna start feeling mighty toasty mighty quick.  Tune in to see how it all shakes out.

5. Western Michigan @ Northwestern - Saturday September 3rd, Ryan Field: Evanston, IL 12:00PM I deeply considered Arizona vs. BYU in Glendale for this spot, but WMU playing the 'Cats has just slightly more potential for complete and outright chaos.  (Ags concurs with this decision, so you know it's correct.)  Northwestern won 10 games last year!  Their only two regular-season losses were against Michigan and the UNDEFEATED (never forget) Iowa Hawkeyes.  They were and are a pretty damn good football team, and they are welcoming the Western Michigan Broncos, who are coached by a legitimately and delightfully insane human being in P.J. Fleck. (ROW THE BOAT!!!)  By the way, WMU had the gumption to play Michigan State, GA Southern, and Ohio State last season, and didn't look as over-matched as you'd think, no matter what the final scores say.  They also won by two touchdowns over a decent Middle Tennessee State team in the Popeyes Bahamas Bowl.  I have no idea what will happen in this game, but it's going to be joyfully anarchic and I will enjoy it and you should too.

4. #20 USC vs. #1 Alabama - Saturday September 3rd, AT&T Stadium: Arlington, TX 8:00PM Poor Clay Helton, he didn't ask for this.  USC is still loaded with NFL talent in the likes of JuJu Smith-Schuster and Adoree' Jackson, but a first-time (first-time full-time, anyway) head coach trying to put on a good Week 1 showing against 'Bama will likely result in tragedy.  Nonetheless, this is a marquee brawl between blue-blood programs, and well worth your attention, if only to witness how inexorably Nick Saban can continue reloading and recalibrating the Crimson Tide into the behemoths they always are.

3. #18 Georgia vs. #22 North Carolina - Saturday September 3rd, Georgia Dome: Atlanta, GA 5:30PM Kirby Smart's debut leading the Dawgs is already a little more interesting than we UGA fans might like.  It's unclear whether RBs Nick Chubb or Sony Michel will be fully healthy for this game, and equally uncertain whether Governor Kirby will opt to let true freshman QB Jacob Eason off the chain to start.  On the other side of the ball, Georgia lost a lot of their defensive front this year, which is going to make stopping UNC's stupendous RB Elijah Hood a problem.  Point in UGA's favor: Carolina gave up roughly 1 trillion rushing yards to a depleted Baylor team running an archaic offense in their bowl game last year.  Counterpoint: The Heels were very, very good in 2015, and came within one botched officiating call of a last-minute drive shot at knocking off Clemson in the ACC Championship Game.  I believe this game will ultimately come down to whether UNC's Mitch Trubisky can make good on the promise he showed in garbage time last year at QB.  If so, Carolina will open up the season in a more dignified fashion than last year's loss to South Carolina.  If not, the Dawgs will kick off yet another year with a promising win on the way to a perfectly cromulent 9-3.

2. #3 Oklahoma vs. #15 Houston - Saturday September 3rd, NRG Stadium: Houston, TX 12:00PM Remember that WMU/Northwestern game from earlier?  You'll want to put that in a split-screen with this if you don't have access to multiple TVs at noon.  Houston burned everyone's houses down last year as the best Group of Five team by a considerable margin.  They're squaring off against the Sooners in a "neutral site" game that will probably determine the trajectories of both teams this season.  If Oklahoma loses, well, you lost to a Mid-Major, and your repeat playoff chances are already dusted.  If Houston loses, well, you couldn't beat an elite program from a Power Five conference, maybe you're not as great as we thought.  First off, the Cougars lost a lot of skill talent from their vicious 2015 ground game, which would be a problem for any program.  However, I'm not prepared to bet against Tom Herman after the miracles he's already performed.  On the flip side, Oklahoma has Baker Mayfield back at QB, one of the most dynamic and exuberant play makers in the game last year.  They also return Samaje Perine at running back to create a very problematic backfield for opposing defenses.  This is probably the Week 1 game with the most far-reaching and interesting ramifications.  However ...

1. #11 Ole Miss vs. # 4 FSU - Monday, September 5th, Florida Citrus Bowl: Orlando, FL 8:00PM AAAAAAAGGGHHHHHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOOHOO BARN F***** BURNER, Y'ALL.  CHAD KELLY! QUINCY ADEBOYEJO! DAMORE'EA STRINGFELLOW! ... VS. ... DALVIN COOK!  DERWIN JAMES! WHOEVERTHEHELLFSUSTARTSATQUARTERBACK!.  HUGH VS. JIMBO!  This is going to be a hootenanny powered by cheap grain booze and pure psychosis and fans going "WOOHOO Y'ALL WE GOIN' TO DISNEYLAND TO START THE YEAR!"  Over/Under on fights between these two fanbases started in a fast-food or casual-dining establishment in Orlando that weekend: 10.5.  In all seriousness, though, this is going to be a really great game between two excellent yet slightly erratic top-flight teams.  Gawd, I can't wait.   ***

Happy Week 1, Y'all. 

***Honorable Mention:*** #2 Clemson @ Auburn - Saturday, September 3rd, Jordan-Hare Stadium: Auburn, AL 9:00PM.  Just because Clemson is a blast to watch and this is gonna be a tremendous, incalculable ass-whoopin'.

Saturday, July 30, 2016

More Things In Heaven And Earth ...

The NBA offseason always feels like a race to drop the first and most incisive hot takes on every new development.  We get buried in a deluge of trades, free agency signings, and retirements, and we immediately dissect it all on a granular level.  There are endless internet symposiums on cap space and new rotations and team dynamics and legacies.  This summer has been no different.  All the conceivable digital ink in the world has already been spilled on a wide range of subjects and characters.  We've parsed the minutiae of every decision, speculated on the ramifications, and screamed at each other about who got paid too much for too many years.  We've sorted and catalogued and analyzed it all to death on a case-by-case basis.  But step back with me for a second, here.  Zoom way, way out and contemplate everything that's happened from a league-wide vantage point.  Then ask yourself: have you ever seen an NBA landscape as totally alien as what we'll be looking at when the 2016-17 season tips off? 

It's just utterly surreal.  All the tectonic-shift-level, paradigm-shattering occurrences ... man, this isn't even staring back at Earth after accidentally waking up on Mars.  Nah, B.  We just went down a wormhole to a quadrant and temporal pocket of the universe that is recognizable to our tiny, pathetic consciousness only because we've seen stars before and we know we're on a rock somewhere in space.   

Let's start with the absentees.  Tim Duncan and Kobe Bryant began their NBA careers before I took the PSATs, and each played for (and to a large extent defined) a single franchise for his entire career.  They are arguably the two most accomplished and important post-Jordan players in NBA history.  (LeBron: pending.)  Amar'e Stoudemire has been around since before I graduated college, and has been a vibrant and important figure in the league for most of his very laudable tenure.  For the first time in ages, none of them will be in uniform next year.  And while I suspect he has one more year in his pathologically competitive tank, Kevin Garnett is on the fence about joining them.  Hell, even if KG sticks around for another season, that's a proportionally insane amount of transcendence that won't be on the court this fall.  It's an actual, honest-to-god end of an era. 

Couple those momentous departures with all the players whose new uniforms will require some viewer processing time before they even begin to look normal.  In terms of on-court impact, KD signing with the Dubs is the obvious "HOLY F***?!?!?!" example, but far from the only out-sized bafflement we'll see.  Flash and Rondo will be coming out of the home tunnel in Chicago next season; about which: 1. how is that team even going to function on either end of the floor? and 2. Wade wearing anything other than a Heat jersey seems completely crazy even if he did "go home."  And speaking of the Bulls, former franchise lifers D-Rose and Jo Noah WON'T be coming out of that same tunnel because they're both on the friggin' Knicks now, yet another team whose basketball identity is going to be a mystery until we see it in real time. 

On a somewhat lesser scale, we'll watch Pau Gasol fulfill what seems like an inevitable destiny in hindsight as he dons a Spurs jersey.  And, please let me indulge some personal heartbreak here: Jeff Teague is on the Pacers and Alfred Joel Horford, my most beloved of all Hawks since 'Nique (no offense intended to Mutombo, Steve Smith, etc.) will be wearing Celtics green, which just ... goddamnit everything is terrible.  Compounding the misery: in Al's place will be Dwight Howard, another big name who changed teams, and whose fit in Atlanta's motion-predicated offense and team culture makes zero sense.   (Though, as a very faint silver lining, the Hawks stunk at rebounding last year, and Howard will probably bolster that shortcoming.) 

Then, there are the salaries being dished out to every other free agent.  We can talk Mozgov's Lakers deal, or Mike Conley now being the highest-paid player in history, but the bottom line is: shit got weird with NBA money this year.  It seems like front offices around the league have lost their minds, but this is actually the most "normal" aspect of the offseason insanity.  Right now, there are the deals which were signed under the prior cap limitations and those signed under the new, TV-revenue-augmented structure.  As the old ones cycle out, this will all rejigger itself back to a world in which the salaries are relatively commensurate with the talent.  You can know that, and understand why it happened and project the long-term recalibrations, but it doesn't make the current situation feel much less ridiculous when you're checking the numbers, right? 

Lastly, there are the teams who look ready, finally, to turn some kind of corner and/or forge new identites.  Hoo boy, are the Wolves and Jazz gonna be entertaining next year!  Raise your hand if you're enthralled by the concept of Buddy Hield and a (hopefully) healthy Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday in New Orleans!  Stand up for a fury-driven Westbrook to lead the new and fascinating OKC roster! 

Everything is different now.  Well, almost everything.  The game is still the beautiful, amorphous symphony it always has been.  The participants will just be coming at it from wildly different vectors than last year, is all.  Good Gawd, this is going to be such a strange, delightful fever dream of a season.  I can't wait for October 25th. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Change It.

Baylor Univeristy head football coach Art Briles was fired on Thursday, amid a scandal whose details are becoming more horrifying than they already were as further information becomes public. The recently-released key findings pdf of the Pepper Hamilton report details an institutional culture that repeatedly ignored, marginalized, and/or directly threatened victims of rape, sexual assault and domestic violence while shielding and covering up for those responsible, many of them football players.  According to reports from a variety of outlets including ESPN, Deadspin, and SBNation, this behavior extended to every conceivable level, from Briles to AD Ian McCaw to Baylor President Kenneth Starr to the Waco Police Department.  (McCaw and Starr have been penalized but not dismissed from the university at the time of this writing.)  All of this, sadly, sounds very familiar in the context of sports, sexual and domestic violence, and misogyny at large. 

Purely talking about college football in recent memory, we have similar cases involving Jameis Winston at FSU and (still-waiting-for-the-other-shoe) Peyton Manning and other athletes at Tennessee.  As for pro athletes, we need look no further than Ben Rothlisberger, Aroldis Chapman, Ray Rice, Greg Hardy, and Kobe Bryant.

A few words on the latter two: We just watched Kobe play a farewell-tour season in which he was showered in accolades and boatloads of florid prose were heaped upon his accomplishments on the court.  Scant mention was ever made during all this of what happened in Eagle, Colorado.  When Hardy was released by the Panthers, pundits speculating on where he might resume his career talked in terms of "bad optics" or "a public relations problem", ignoring entirely the fact that the real problem was a man who more or less skated on his inability to behave like a human being.

All of these people, from Baylor to Bryant, have a few salient things in common. 1. They're men.  2. They were accused of sexual assault or domestic violence against women. 3. Their status as notable athletes allowed them, through varying channels and to varying degrees, to circumvent the consequences of their alleged actions. 

Young women were subjected to awful, tragic, life-altering events.  They were then systematically shamed and ignored by the various academic and league institutions and law enforcement agencies ostensibly designed to protect them.  These are the most visceral examples, but far from the only ones.  This is the worst of it, but far from the totality of heinousness that women endure in sports. 

Consider the recent ESPNW PSA in which men read aloud and on camera some of the truly despicable invective hurled at female sports media personalities on Twitter.  Or you could look to Seattle, Washington, where a recent city council vote led to a similar rash of garbage aimed at the councilwomen who voted against the building of a new arena designed to lure an NBA or NHL team to the city.

Look, too, at the US Women's Soccer Team having to boycott matches because they were not afforded safe, decent playing surfaces.  Look at them having to wage a legal battle for an equal pay scale. 

The names and specifics change, but it's always the same dismal cycle, time and time again.  Male athletes do unspeakable things to the women around them and go scot-free because they are staggering revenue generators for their schools, teams, leagues, etc.  Female athletes and female sports journalists are harassed, threatened, demeaned, marginalized and belittled; denied equal respect, remuneration, and acclaim, constantly in a 24/7 churn of institutional prejudice and misogynistic social-media bile.

All of this, the assaults and violence, the harassment and marginalization, stems from a single abomination in our society: the ethos that says "women are less."  Less capable.  Less deserving of our admiration and respect.  Less knowledgeable.  Less than human.  Obviously, this is sickeningly pervasive in all aspects of our lives, but nowhere does this fundamental problem scream more loudly than in sports. 

This is all clearly utter fucking crap, so here are a few things I would like to see happen:

1. If you're a lawyer or government official reading this: I know there's a whole mess of Constitutional and legal wrangling here, but: we need the Laws of the Land amended in such a way that violent crimes committed by men against women can be prosecuted as hate crimes.  Because often, that's exactly what they are.  We also need a legal system that functions as intended and doesn't NOT slap cuffs on someone just because he had 100 rushing yards or tossed up a triple double last week.

2. If you're a male reading this: police your friends.  Derisive comments, jokes, et al aimed at women are symptomatic of the deeper issue here, and we can start changing that mentality only if we speak up.  So please, explain to those around you who say those kinds of things, who think and feel that way, why they're wrong.  Tell them, in no uncertain terms, to knock that shit off.  If they can alter their behavior and perceptions, that's a start.  If they won't listen, they are garbage excuses for human beings and you should punt them into the sun at your earliest convenience.   

3. If you're a parent reading this: parent your sons.  Teach them why damn near everything they are being told to think and feel regarding women by the media and society is, to varying degrees, completely wrong.  Teach them to be not only respectful, but active in supporting and encouraging the girls and women in their lives.  Teach them to value everyone equally, and to never do anything that would lessen that value. 

4. If you're reading this: engage positively with women in sports.  Check out a WNBA or women's college hoops game, and I promise you'll enjoy the experience.  The NCAA Women's College World Series is starting soon, and if your alma mater isn't in the field, there are a bunch of really enjoyable teams out there, so pick a bandwagon and hop on.  Follow the NWSL, or get into women's hockey.  Read female sports columnists and listen to their podcasts and commentary in other outlets.  If you agree with their positions and takes and think they're doing good work, let them know.  There is a wealth of fantastic stuff out there in the sports world revolving around women, and you should seek it out, partly because it's a proactive way to help, but mostly because it's really excellent shit and if you're not getting in on it then you're missing out.  

5. Most of all, just stop.  Stop and think about how awful, how pervasive and persistent all of this is. 

Then, do your best, as much and as often as you can, to change it. 

Saturday, April 2, 2016

The Braves Go To Art Class

When I was a little kid, art class was definitely the highlight of my school day.  This was mostly because I spent a lot of time in my own head growing up, and it was the one opportunity throughout the grind of elementary school where you weren't required to focus on anyone or anything other than your own task.  Sure, occasionally you had to work with other students on a project, but it was mostly everyone making their own Thingy Of The Day.  No listening to the teachers, no interacting with the other horrible little shits that many 1st-5th graders so often are.  It was a blissful, brief period of isolation, and I loved it.

 I was, roughly speaking, a little above average at art.  My clay pots were admittedly just as lumpy and misshapen as the next kid's, but I was really good at drawing and painting, and better than most at building stuff with wood and/or metal.  But oh, I had a nemesis in the art room, a tool whose very existence seemed to mock me every time we were compelled to utilize it.  That's right: your garden-variety, crappy art class pair of scissors.  This was partly due to the era in which I grew up.  I'm a lefty, and our other-handed needs just weren't seen as important back then, so every pair of scissors was a battle from jump with their inherent righty prejudice.  The other thing is that the motor skills necessary to wield scissors with precision and effectiveness are simply not in my DNA.  (Feel free to verify this with anyone who's ever opened a gift from me and seen the sad, jagged tatters of wrapping paper on the bottom of the box.)  As a result, every project that involved cutting shapes out of construction paper or making picture collages came out as pretty much a complete disaster.  Sure, if you squinted hard, you could make out a vague resemblance to what the thing was SUPPOSED to be, but it was mostly just a mess.

The Atlanta Braves' front office is second-grade me with a pair of scissors.

Just look at this heap of garbage:

That's our Opening Day roster for the 2016 season.  Much like my scissors-based art output, it sorta-kinda resembles the thing it's supposed to be (i.e. a major league roster), but is mostly a poorly-constructed, nonsensical approximation thereof.  There is no logic or forethought, no skill or smarts or vision,  evident anywhere in that list. 

The Braves went to art class.  They snipped and snipped away the soul of the team, took the mangled remains, pasted some other raggedy cutouts on a moldy piece of poster board they found in the very back of the supply cabinet, and now we all have to live with the result.  Sigh.  Happy almost-Opening Day, y'all.  Don't let me near the scissors.  I've been drinking.  

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Backdoor Cut

Just before the trade deadline, there was talk of starting a rebuild.  The Hawks were having a middling season, nestled in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff race and playing largely uninspired basketball.  Rumors had longtime franchise cornerstones Jeff Teague and Al Horford on the block.  Moving either or both would have altered the immediate trajectory of the team and the season for the worse, but the thinking was understandable.  It was easy to feel that this current iteration had reached its ceiling.  It was also reasonable to look at the Cavs and Raptors (possibly even the Celtics) and see too-long odds going forward.  Maybe it was time to take a step back and retool.

Or maybe not.  Other than a negligible move that sent Shelvin Mack to Utah and brought Kirk Hinrich back to Atlanta, the Hawks ultimately chose to stand pat.  They stumbled through the end of February, going 2-3 after the deadline, and looked pretty much resigned to a .500-ish end of the season.  Then, quietly, something started happening on a west-coast road trip.  It began with a loss.

For a team that was one of the NBA's surprise darlings just last year, scant mention has been of Atlanta this season.  The focus has, quite understandably, been on the Cavs in the East and the Spurs and Warriors in the West.  As you may have heard, neither of the latter two have lost at home yet this year, and it's an easy narrative to fit the Hawks' loss to Golden State on March 1st into that framework.  But I believe that defeat galvanized the team.  They walked into the impregnable fortress that Oracle Arena has been for the Dubs, traded punches with a juggernaut of literally historical proportions, and juuuust came out on the wrong end of a measly four-point margin in overtime, 109-105.  Granted, Steph Curry was in street clothes nursing an injured ankle, but it was still an affirmation that Atlanta could contend with the best team in the league.  The script has flipped for the Hawks ever since.

They've won eight of their last nine games, including four against playoff teams (Clips, Griz, Rockets and Pacers) and two more against squads that could easily make the postseason (Utah and Detroit, both sitting just out of the 8-seeds in their respective conferences.)  Last night's win over Houston, their 5th in a row, gave them the third best record in the East.

Over that 5-game win streak, Al Horford and Paul Millsap have combined to average 34 points and 16 rebounds per game.  Kyle Korver, who has struggled at times to regain his torrid marksmanship from last year, has shot 53.8% from deep.  Jeff Teague has put up 13 points and 8 assists a night, and backup point guard Dennis Schroder has notched 10 and 4 in just under 17 minutes per game.  Recent acquisition Kris Humphries has made solid contributions off the bench and given the team some interior depth.  And hoo boy, let's talk about Tim Hardaway Jr.  The much-maligned Draft Day maneuver that brought Hardaway to Atlanta is finally paying some dividends, and he's been absolutely blistering in his last two games: 59.05 FG%, 60.7(!!!) 3FG%, 93.75 FT%, and 20.5 PPG.  Good gawd.

As a team over that five-game stretch, the Hawks have outscored opponents 108-93 on average.  They're +10 in turnover margin, and playing the same hellacious defense that's had them ranked second only to the Spurs in Defensive Efficiency for most of the season.  They're still atrocious on the glass, particularly on the offensive end (dead last in the league in ORR with a paltry 19.4), but otherwise they're playing superb all-around basketball and cohering at precisely the right moment.  Which raises an interesting question: what of the Hawks' postseason chances?

Look, just hear me out on this for a second.  Last year was lightning in a bottle.  60 wins, the top seed in the East, four All Star selections, a COY for Bud, and the team's first ever trip to the Eastern Conference Finals.  Then LeBron and the Cavs decimated us in a clean sweep, and everyone remembered that all that sublime team basketball doesn't usually pay off without at least one elite-caliber player to take on the onus come playoff time.  But there was so, so much pressure and scrutiny on that team.  They had the weight of unfair expectations pressing down on them, and they folded.  This year, no one is talking about Atlanta.  The pressure is elsewhere, on the Warriors chasing 73 and the Cavs' myriad chemistry issues both on and off the court.  The Hawks are in a position they're much more accustomed to: flying under the radar.  Barring a massive shakeup in the standings, they'll likely face either the Hornets or Celtics in Round 1, both very winnable series with a home court advantage.  If they can survive a second-round matchup with someone (Miami? Indy?) and get back to the ECF, what then?

Everyone's been saying for months now that the Raptors are the sole legitimate threat to Cleveland in the East, but the way they're playing right now, couldn't Atlanta beat either of those teams?  They're deeper than Toronto, and have none of the dysfunction that's been threatening to implode the Cavs all season.  They've also been through the crucible of a Conference Finals now, a year older and wiser and more battle-tested than they were.  Could they ride hot shooting and lockdown defense through seven games with the Raps?  Could they beat a Cavs team whose internal struggles may overwhelm or at least hamper LeBron's individual brilliance?  You wanna bet Mike Budenholzer can't outcoach the bejesus out of Ty Lue in that series?  We'll get a decent preview of both possible matchups before the end of the season, as the Hawks have two games apiece left against Toronto and Cleveland, one home and one away for each.  If they can show up strong in those four contests, I'll be ready to believe.  For now, Atlanta can continue to play carefree basketball, oblivious to the noise of the league, knowing exactly how dangerous they are and how few people are acknowledging that fact.  Sometimes it's better to be sneaky good; to let the league keep their collective eyes on the titans holding the ball while you make a backdoor cut. 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Notes From Carmichael 1.9 and 1.10

The end of the season did not go well for our beloved Heels.  After topping BC on the road and Virginia Tech at home, we dropped the final five games to finish the year at 14-17, going 4-12 in conference play.  Ags and I caught the final two home contests, last Sunday against NC State, and this afternoon against Duke.  Here's the postmortem. 

1.9 - NC State, Feb 21.  We watched an incredibly janky video feed of Carolina "at" State a few weeks ago.  (While they renovate Reynolds Coliseum, the Wolfpack are playing their home games in a Raleigh high school gym, and the tape looked exactly like a junior AV club production of a sporting event.)  In retrospect, it was just as well the contrast was fuzzy and the camera didn't always track correctly.  State crushed the Heels 78-49, completely dismantling them in the second half.  We were hopeful a rematch at home might turn the tables, but despite Steph cranking out 30 points and 13 rebounds and Des and Jamie each scoring 13, the Wolfpack overwhelmed Carolina again.  They out-shot us 43.8% to 32.1% from the field and killed us on the glass at both ends.  Besides Steph's bonkers outing, the one other flashing moment of brightness in the gloom came from 'Dea, who made one of the most freakishly athletic plays I've seen all season.  She went airborne to block a shot in the paint, came down for a fraction of an instant, and then somehow sprang right back up again to block a second attempt.  I mean, she didn't even need to bend her knees on the second block, she just pinged off the floor like it was a trampoline.  It was incredible.  That lady is a goddess, y'all. 

1.10 - Duke, February 28.  It was Senior Day today, and the reality of not watching 'Dea and Erika next season hit me hard during the pregame ceremony.  (It got a little dusty in Carmichael for a second, is all I'm saying.)  It was also Sylvia Hatchell's 64th birthday, and it pains me to say she did not have a happy one.  I don't even really want to write about it.  Duke has had a fairly mediocre season, but they are huge and athletic and they shot the holy hell out of the ball today.  The first half, and particularly the second quarter, was nearly flawless for the Blue Devils.  They moved the ball, forced turnovers, essentially doubled the Heels' FG%, and went 7-14 from deep.  By contrast, Carolina couldn't buy a bucket or a stop all afternoon.  The game was over at halftime and the indignity only worsened as the margin blew out down the stretch.  The game, and the season, came to an end 93-57.  It was a rough year. 

There's still the ACC Tournament, and a chance to maybe tilt the scales of that aforementioned 4-12 conference record back to a more favorable ratio.  We'll be watching.  Go Heels.  

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Notes From Carmichael 1.7 And 1.8

Guh.  On January 7th, we watched the Heels play a whirlwind game against Syracuse, capping a six-game win streak with a phenomenal second half performance.  In retrospect, that moment resembled nothing so much as Wile E. Coyote running off a cliff into open space and continuing to sprint on thin air.  He can make it, the silly creature, if he just keeps pumping those scrawny cartoon legs and remains blissfully ignorant to the reality of the situation.

Everything that's happened to Carolina since has been the moment where he looks down.  A forlorn glance at the camera, a poink poink eye blink, and he vanishes from the frame.  Cut to an overhead shot of him, all four limbs splayed out, sound-tracked by a cheesy "bombs away" slide whistle as he recedes at terminal velocity toward the canyon floor.  There is a puff of smoke on impact.  Then he's clawing his way out of a crater that is a perfect silhouette of his person, walking all scrunched up and mangled while accordion music plays.  His brow is comically furrowed as he slinks off screen.  The shot fades out.

That Syracuse game, almost a month ago, is the most recent victory the Heels have notched this season.  They've now lost seven straight, all except one (Georgia Tech) by double digits.  Sylvia Hatchell earned a two-game suspension, and Xylina McDaniel is out for the season with yet another soul-crushing injury in a career that's already seen far too many.  I've seen two of those bleak outings in person. 

1.7: Miami, January 17th.  Aggie's parents were in town, so we traded our usual season tickets for a four-pack one section over and went to the game with them.  I've been ranting all year about our short bench being the eventual death of us, and losing Xylina really was the nail in the coffin.  The first time Sylvia subbed in Erika Johnson, I looked at Ags' father and said "well, you've just seen the entire bench rotation."  (This is not entirely the coaches' fault.  Four of the kiddos on that bench are either injured or sitting out a season because of transfers.  I just think they should be giving the ones that can play more burn, partly to get them some in-game run, but mostly to give the starters a break.  The cumulative effect of that many minutes can linger, and I worry about what happens down the road.)  Anyway, the Miami was not a good showing.  Steph had 9 boards and a team-high 19 points, but she did so on an inefficient 8-23 from the floor.  Both 'Dea and Hill tossed up double-doubles, but for naught.  Corlina hung close in the first half and clawed back to several ties, but never led again after a 14-13 edge late in the opening quarter.  Miami didn't blow us off the floor, they just outplayed us consistently all game long.  When the buzzer sounded, it felt like a much worse loss than the 76-61 final would indicate.

1.8: Louisville, February 4.  Tonight's game was rough viewing.  We started by spotting the Cardinals two points before opening tip on a pregame administrative technical foul which, whatever. The refs were garbage all night and I continue to believe that ACC officials are the most incompetent humans walking the earth.  Once again, the ladies came out strong and played an excellent first half.  Then, as in every game since 'Cuse, the second half went dismal as our legs went out from under us.  The 10-point lead the Heels had with just under eight minutes left in the third quarter evaporated in a wash of bricks and turnovers and overall haphazard play.  They never recovered because recovery can't happen without rest, and their is none to give with our current rotational dearth.  Carolina gamely plugged away, but all of 'Dea's heart and truly astounding athleticism, all of Des and Steph's dynamism, couldn't do it at half-speed.  Their legs are gone, and they won't be back this season.  And Jamie, poor Jamie Cherry.  Pumpkin looks exhausted.  Leading the team, playing damn near nonstop every game because there simply is no one else.  She has the weight of the world on her right now, and it's taking a toll.

The starters (plus Erika) can hang with anyone in the country.  I really believe that.  South Carolina, UConn, anyone.  They're that good.  Jamie is turning into a superb floor general.  'Dea is a goddess of the hybrid wing/post.  Des is a freaking offensive wizard.  Steph can do everything, including ridiculous chase-down blocks like the one she had tonight.  Hill throws up double-doubles with ease.  Erika is the perfect sixth player off the bench.  But right now every contest is a crash site somewhere in the third quarter because they have literally zero help.  That's unsustainable no matter how great the talent, how exacting and refined the fitness and conditioning regimen.  Dead legs can't win games, and this is a team full of them right now.

And you know what?  They don't care.  They will fight and scrap and be brilliant even unto the point of exhaustion.  Given the totality of the variables stacked against them, this was maybe always going to be a lost season, but they damn sure aren't going to quit.  And we will love them for it and be there for the whole glorious experience.   

Go Heels.  

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Warriors Remake A Beloved Childhood Movie.

About four minutes into the first quarter of last night's biggest game, I looked at Ags and said: "I think Golden State's gonna lose this one."  Given the season so far, I was aware of how impetuous and incredibly stupid that sounded, but just hear me out.  The Warriors were on the second night of a road back-to-back, fresh off a game that should never have required a Harrison Barnes buzzer beater to win it.  On Saturday night they had Philadelphia, running joke of the NBA for the past few seasons, smoked by 24 points midway through the 3rd quarter.  The starters were sitting down, waiting as they've done so often this season to watch the bench mop up a fourth quarter composed entirely of garbage time.  Then the Sixers started doing stuff. 

And while they were doing that stuff, Golden State couldn't buy a bucket, couldn't play much defense either, and coughed up a genuinely perplexing array of turnovers.  Philly went on the kind of scoring spree no one is supposed to have against the Dubs, first winnowing the deficit back under twenty, then down to ten.  At some point during this insane run of David sling-shotting pebbles at Goliath and connecting on most of them, Steve Kerr realized they couldn't just ride it out.  Back on the floor went the starters, having to uncoil their muscles and psyches from the relaxation of watching a blowout from the bench and extend themselves again.  (Draymond Green admitted in a post-game interview that he felt responsible for chasing a triple double at the expense of the team.  This was a commendably honest attempt to shoulder the onus for the Warriors' second-half problems, but let's be real: the whole team had a messy hand in that skid.)  

Somehow Philly managed to tie the game up at 105-105 with 22 seconds to play.  Then, for the first time in a completely listless quarter-and-a-half of basketball, Golden State remembered who they are and what they do for one crucial, final posession.  Steph Curry dribbled to the right side of the arc and whipped a pass to inside to Draymond Green just below the free throw line while Harrison Barnes stood in the right corner.  Sixers forward Jerami Grant left Barnes to help on Green, I mean ... just collapsed to the inside and left a dude shooting nearly 40% from deep this season very, very wide open.  Green immediately pinged it to Barnes before Philly could even start to recover.  He canned the trey and walked off for a 108-105 victory.  It was a beautiful play; precisely the sort of whirring, pick-your-poison ball movement that makes the Warriors so dangerous.  It absolutely should not have been necessary, except the Warriors looked and played like tired, fallible humans for once, so it was. 

Anyway, that's why I stupidly thought last night would be a loss for Golden State.  They'd been forced to lurch out of their accustomed easy confidence and push themselves to a win against a vastly inferior team they thought they'd already beaten.  They had looked despondent for most of Saturday's second half, and they were now traveling directly into the maw of Madison Square Garden, no days off, no recovery.  The Garden atmosphere was, predictably, that of a denser and infinitely louder Wagnerian opera for the biggest game of the season. (Barring a playoff appearance that is still very much a possibility.) 

The first quarter looked like my intuition might be worth something.  The Warriors once again couldn't hit shots, played poor defense, and turned the ball over too much.  Steph had a sub-pedestrian game overall, going 5-17 from the field for just 13 points with 4 dimes and 4 boards.  Fortunately for Golden State, Draymond tossed up a 20-10-10, Klay Thompson poured in 34 points, and Shaun Livingston kicked in 11 off the bench.  Conversely for the Kincks, Aaron Afflalo, Langston Galloway, and Derrick Williams pretty much shot their own team out of the game, combining for an abysmal 9-37 from the floor. 

The Warriors were up six at the half, opened the 3rd quarter with a blitzkrieg, and ended up winning 116-95.  Even with that cruddy opening frame and Curry playing fairly atrocious basketball by his standards, they made sort, brutal work of the Knicks once they shook that tired doofishness out of their collective game.

Look, I figured they were due is all.  Golden State won't lose very many games this season, but last night seemed like it had a decent chance to be one of those anomalies.  I swear, at the time, it really did.  I doubted them, but I've learned my lesson.  Right now, I am Buttercup having just tumbled down that hill in the Princess Bride, and the Warriors are Wesley.  This without the True Love overtones, of course.  My heart already belongs to another.  (Go Hawks.)  But still, I know how she felt.  "I will never doubt again." 

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Conflicted: Rooting For Carolina In The Superbowl.

Everyone always talks about Cleveland as Exhibit A in tortured sports history.  Earnest Byner, The Drive, 10-Cent Beer Night, The Decision, etc.  It's a long list and it's all very sad and I sometimes have to fight the urge to give a consoling hug to any stranger I see wearing a Cleveland team's regalia out in public.  Growing up an Atlanta sports fan hasn't been quite that bad, but it's been damned close. 

Yes, yes, I know.  Because of the Braves in 1995, we can't profess to have that same totality of anguish.  Also, I am grateful to have been born somewhere that doesn't have that peculiar Midwestern Rust Belt thing where you take a perverse sort of pride in all that suffering and futility.  We deal with the misery, we don't celebrate it.  We do occasionally wish Cleveland would quit bitching about it, though, because we have a different and more insidious sports problem that we don't talk about much.  Let's call it The Curse of the Divisional Younger Sibling.  To wit:

The Braves came to Atlanta in 1966, and have only that aforementioned '95 World Series.  The Marlins entered the NL East in 1993 and have since won two championships. 

The Hawks migrated south from St. Louis in 1968.  They made their first ever Eastern Conference Finals last season, and promptly got swept by the Cavs in disastrous fashion.  The Miami Heat came into the Southeast Division in 1988 and have three banners in the rafters of the Triple-A. 

This is the life of Atlanta sports fans: watching expansion franchises with a fraction of our history and heritage outstrip our teams' greatest accomplishments in exceedingly short order.  And even within that staggeringly dreary context, the Falcons have somehow distinguished themselves as our most wretched team. 

They played their first NFL season in 1966, the same season as the first Super Bowl.  It took them 33 tortured, dog-ass years to finally make it to one of their own.  Two notable occurrences in the interim:

1. The Bird-'Nique duel in game seven of the 1988 Eastern Conference Semifinals.  This is one of my clearest childhood memories, watching two absolute gods trade buckets on the hardwood, with my guy and my team coming up just short.

2. Here's how starved for any measure of success Atlanta sports fans were and mostly still are: The worst-to-first Braves lost a heartbreaking pitcher's duel because Bobby Cox stupidly wouldn't trust John Smoltz for one more inning in the final game of the 1991 World Series.  When they came home, we threw them a parade.  That's how grateful Atlanta was for any brief flash of hope; we feted the losing team like kings just for getting that far. 

(You could make a plausible argument that Bird/Nique was the greatest NBA game ever played and that the '91 World Series was the best of all time.  This is another hallmark of Atlanta sports: coming out on the wrong end of historically transcendent moments.) 

Back to the Falcons and their lone Super Bowl appearance.  We started the season 9-0 and finished 14-2, birthing the Dirty Bird and its accompanying ethos along the way.  'Nique, Deion and (later) Mike Vick notwithstanding, swagger is not something Atlanta is accustomed to with its sports teams, but the 1998 Falcons had it in spades.  The whole city was turnt to a preposterous degree.  When Morton Anderson put one through the uprights in overtime to win the NFC Championship game, it was difficult not to feel that our perpetually beleaguered football team was destined to bring the whole thing off.

You know what happened next.  First there was the ill omen of Pro Bowl free safety Eugene Robinson getting popped for solicitation by an undercover vice cop on the eve of the game.  Everything that followed was of a piece with that ignominious beginning, and was pretty much what you'd expect if your team has Chris Chandler under center and the opposition has John Elway.  Denver obliterated us wholesale.  By the way, in the most Atlanta-sports-y moment ever, a power outage caused a swath of residents north of town to miss the halftime show and opening minutes of the third quarter.  When this happened, the group of friends I was watching with pulled out our boxy late-90s cell phones and started calling until we found someone whose lights were still on.  Then we piled into cars and hauled ass over there well in excess of the speed limit.  In retrospect, we'd have been better off just sitting in the dark. 

That game took place fourteen years ago, and still stands as the historical apex of Falcons football.  In the meanwhile, expansion and divisional realignment have created the NFC South, and the fates of the four teams therein include Super Bowl wins for the Bucs (2002) and Saints (2009) and two Super Bowl appearances for the Panthers (2003 and, obviously, about a week from now.)  The Falcons are the oldest extant team in the division; the Panthers are by far the youngest.  Yet, having played football since only 1995, Carolina already has one more Super Bowl appearance than us.  If they win next weekend, not only will they be another wee-baby expansion team throwing egg on Atlanta's face, they'll make the Falcons, who hold seniority by varying degrees over their brethren, the only ring-less team in the division.  So, you know, I should be rooting with every fiber of my being for the Panthers to face plant on February 7th.  I should be rooting for Peyton Manning to hang up his cleats after another championship, because he's been spectacular his entire career and probably should retire with more than one ring in a just world.  I should want those things.  And yet.

Cam Newton in 2015 is the most fun I've had watching NFL football in forever.  There has never been a quarterback like him at this level, and what he's done this season has been breathtaking to witness.  He's Steve Young on four cans of Red Bull with Michael Jackson-caliber entertainment value.  The man literally broke his back a year ago and has hardly lost a game since.  That's some Batman-level shit right there.  He's slotting throws into microscopic windows when his receivers are even marginally open and running over everything in his path if they're covered.  Denver's front seven is terrifying, and I still think he's going to render them mostly irrelevant next weekend.  Watching how that plays out is going to be tremendous. 

Also this: I want Cam to shut every "play the game the right way" rhetoric-spewing pundit right the hell up.  I want every idiot who somehow finds his exuberance to be morally objectionable silenced by something like four TDs and 305 yards through the air with an ungodly completion percentage and 80 rushing yards and another score thrown in just because he can.  There are a small handful of truly reprehensible humans playing professional football, and every other sport at every other level, and many more who are not playing sports at all, everywhere.  Cam Newton is not one of those people.  By all accounts, he's a really good dude who cares deeply about his community and the fans and also just so happens to very much enjoy what he does for a living and likes to let us know about it with some dabbing or a cheesy sideline team picture a few times a game.  God bless him for it. 

What I'm saying is I despise stuck-up haters infinitely more than I loathe the division-rival Panthers.  If we were talking about the Saints, this would be a very different post.  I love watching greatness reach its pinnacle more than I cherish whatever shred of the Falcons' dignity might be salvaged by a Carolina loss.  And let's be real: there's not much left there to save.

Lastly, selfishly, stupidly, absurdly, totally nonsensically, a Carolina victory would be a sort of bleak, hazy validation for the Falcons and all their tortured history.  Not only would it flip that painful script from January 31, 1999, the first time an old-man legendary Broncos QB rode of into the sunset after beating an NFC South team, but as the only ones who beat the Panthers this year, it would  also transitively hand us a share of the Lombardi Trophy, sorta-kinda-not-really-but-still ... right?  Atlanta sports: where the smallest, most elaborately fabricated moral victories are all you have to cling to sometimes.  

Happy Super Bowl week, y'all.  Go Panthers. 

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Happy 10th Anniversary, TBJ/Starters. Or: Thanks For Teaching Me How To Internet.

The impact of improbabilities can be slight.  You pull the last ace in the deck to somehow get that twenty bucks back from your buddy on the final hand of Friday night poker.  You wander into the right bar on the right evening and wind up with a memorable story or two.  That same impact can also be life-altering.  Some kids in England discover a deep affinity for music from half a world away, befriend each other at art school, and wind up becoming the Rolling Stones.  A real life meet-cute turns into a truly wonderful love story. 

A passel of Canadians, a Chicago native, and an Australian all somehow collide in Toronto and create one of the most beloved entities in the NBA internet universe.

The Starters, nee The Basketball Jones, celebrate their 10-year anniversary this week.  AAAAYYOOOO!!!

If you listened to Monday's epic aural history podcast, then you know precisely how crazy and specific the circumstances were that brought this cast of characters together.  In short: there were all the hallmarks of the artistic triumph and/or Joseph Campbell narrative.  They faltered, they doubted themselves and their enterprise; they fought and laughed and questioned and quested and discovered their collective identity.  They flung their best, zaniest vision out into the wind and caught an updraft.  They risked their relationships and literal livelihoods over and over again.  Most importantly, they kept fucking going no matter what.  That they're still out here a decade later giving us their unique brand of passionate and humorous NBA meta-commentary is a minor miracle for which basketball heads everywhere should be deeply grateful.

SOMETIME IN LATE 2006 OR EARLY 2007: I am a life-long NBA junkie a few years out of college and living in Minneapolis.  I am also a semi-luddite woefully behind on major technological developments of the past 10 years or so.  (Computer camp one summer as a kid: failed miserably at everything; sorta didn't mess with tech much after that beyond the minimum academic necessities of projects and paper writing.)  I didn't get an email account or a cell phone until after I graduated, didn't really understand the internet, and didn't particularly care to.  One day I'm hanging out at a coffee shop having an inane conversation about who-knows-what? and I analogize something in the discussion to a random NBA player.  I don't remember the specifics, but I do know a buddy of mine said "Oh, you copped that from The Basketball Jones."

Pause.  "The what?"

"The Basketball Jones.  You don't know about these guys?  You'd love 'em!"

So back inside I went, fired up my laptop, and Googled that noise.  What hit me was unlike anything I'd ever heard.  I used the internet to keep up with sports, and specifically the NBA, but it was all run-of-the-mill, Sports Illustrated, etc.  You know, typically serious sports writing stuff.  I didn't know you were allowed to have a sense of humor about it all.  I didn't know you could be wry and smart and ridiculous and deeply in love with a game in a public forum.  Not like that.  They were incredibly entertaining and wonderfully eccentric and ultimately they probably directly contributed as much as anything else I've absorbed to me writing this here blog.

I listened and then watched every day once they went to video.  I discovered Ball Don't Lie, Hardwood Paroxysm, and a billion other hoops websites because they let me know these things were out there.  For lack of a better phraseology, The Jones taught me how to internet. 

By the time they got to Grantland, they were an integral part of my day-to-day basketball life, maybe THE integral part outside of the league itself.  The recurring segments and runners came and went, evolving over time, but always, the soul of the show remained the brilliant, off-kilter jubilee it always has been. 

I remember standing in a Sports Authority store off Northpoint Parkway in Alpharetta, looking for a replacement for a worn-through Braves T-shirt and listening to the last Jones podcast, when they promised a new iteration was coming but couldn't reveal exactly what or where.  I had no idea what it all meant, I just knew I didn't want them to be done.  When the popped up on NBATV some months later, I was so very happy.  Not just because it meant they were still around, but because all those years and all that work and all the joy they'd put out into the world had brought them to the source, and no one deserved that success and gratification more.

Throughout that retrospective podcast on Monday, they were reading and paraphrasing emails and tweets from fans.  One  such missive talked about walking into bars, seeing The Starters on one of the TVs, and feeling a tremendous sense of pride.  This could not possibly be more true.  Those dudes have been grinding it out for years, and now they're on in every freaking sports bar in America.  That's pretty spectacular.  

A very personal final note: My girlfriend and I live together in Chapel Hill, and we're both longtime devotees of the Jones/Starters.  We've been with them for a long time now, and we know two things.

One: they are the very best at what they do and we will keep watching and listening and deeply enjoying everything about this glorious, ragtag contingent of genius NBA lovers and satirists until they decide to call it quits.

And two: We're pretty sure we could flat-out smoke them in a round of Pun Gun.  Us verses you, gentlemen, whenever you want to throw down. 

Thanks for being you, you random amalgamation of glorious inanity.  You perfect improbability.  Happy 10th Anniversary, and here's to many more years.  Good morning, sweet world. 

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Notes From Carmichael 1.6

Photo by Agatha Donkar @brandnewkindof
Hold on ... *several deep breaths* ... *loooong sip of beer* ... *more deep breaths* ... 

OK, we can talk about that one now.

Tonight's game against Syracuse was a careening hootenanny and maybe the most fun I've ever had in Carmichael.  The Orange came in fresh off a 36-point stomping of #12 Duke, and everyone in the arena was terrified that they might stage an encore performance in Chapel Hill.  For most of the first half, those fears appeared to be well founded.  'Cuse raced out to a 10-0 lead in the first two minutes, powered by some excellent offensive movement and a murderous and unrelenting press.  That stifling defense threw Carolina utterly out of sorts.  There was a flurry of turnovers, a rash of bad decisions, and a sense of rhythm so poor it'd make my father blush.  (Hi, Dad.)

The Heels eventually settled and started breaking that press a little more fluidly.  They got some jumpers to fall and started finding each other with smart passes inside for points at the rim.  Stephanie Watts uncorked a barrage of shots and assists that juuust kept UNC from going off the rails.  Slowly, doggedly, they nudged themselves to within hailing distance.  Syracuse lead 24-19 at the end of the first quarter, though it felt like it shouldn't have been that close.  Carolina had too many turnovers and got murdered on the glass; how were they only down five?  In the second quarter, the deficit fluctuated like a stock price based upon two market trends: hilariously disparate shooting percentages, and the efficacy of that press.  It widened to twelve and shrunk back to six at the half, hitting seemingly every numerical point in between.   The Heels were within arm's length, but Syracuse has some very tall, very wiry players, and those are some long damn arms.

The third quarter opened much like the first.  It took Carolina nearly two minutes to score as they were once again beset by the hellish press.  (Syracuse has a preposterously deep bench, which meant they could keep throwing fresh legs out there to maintain the pressure.  This would be rough on any opponent, but particularly so on the Heels' short rotation.)  And yet, Carolina simply refused to go away.  Destinee Walker carried us through the middle of the third with some dazzling forays to the rim and a nice assist on a Steph trey.  Finally, Syracuse ran out of gas and stopped running the press.  With the court opened up, the Heels got some spring back in their collective step and started to look dialed in for the first time all night.  It was 58-52 'Cuse at the end of the quarter.

And good lord, what a barn burner the 4th wound up being; everybody just doin' work, y'all.  Steph sunk a layup to cut the Orange lead to four, and Syracuse missed the potential answering shot.  The dynamics of the game were finally tilting in Carolina's favor, and the crowd's internal dial was moving towards turnt.  As she has been all season, Jamie Cherry was the engine down the stretch.  She snagged a rebound, then drew a foul and canned both freebies.  58-56.  A few traded baskets, then Steph grabbed a board and fed Des for a layup to tie the game at 62.  Carmichael absolutely exploded.  This game had felt so impossible since the opening tip; somehow the ladies had fought back to even and they were all swagger and focus now.  Syracuse pushed their lead back to three; Jamie sank two more at the stripe.  Finally, Des took it to the rack to give the Heels their first lead at 66-65 with four minutes left.  Both teams played some chaotic but inspired basketball for a stretch and wound up tied at 69.  Then, with 1:40 to play, Jamie buried a jumper to give us the lead for good. She dished to Hillary Summers to widen the lead to four, then sank two more free throws to keep it there.  A late jumper from Syracuse's Alexis Peterson cut it back to two, but with too little left on the clock.  Steph iced the thing down with a pair from the line to cement the final: 77-73 Carolina.  This was an insane, nerve-wracking jangle of a game, but absolutely worth it for that beautiful finish.

Other Observations:

1. There's a lady somewhere in our section who screams "GET OFF THE COURT, COACH!!!" or some variation thereon every time an opposing coach dares set foot outside of the blue sideline box in Carmichael.  Every time.  At peak volume.  I am convinced that the only thing this person knows about basketball is that coaches are not allowed to be on the court during play, and it gets very annoying to hear her devout adherence to that rule signified very loudly several times a game.  That said, I was completely on her side tonight.  Look, I'm sure Syracuse coach Quentin Hillsman is a perfectly nice human, but dude was on the floor virtually the entire game.  Very visibly and obviously in a way that should've gotten him T'd up or at least a stern warning from the refs.  Like, if you brought him out a Barcalounger and set it on the court, he'd be perfectly content to kick back and bark play calls and rotations at his team and never move even if he were actually disrupting the game play.  Sir, please keep your ass off the court when the ball is live.

2. ACC officiating is terrible.  This was the second game in a row, and the fourth this season, where way too many stupid, awful calls have gone against both teams at Carmichael.  Seriously, y'all can do better than this.

3. Whoever was running the P.A. tonight clearly thought it was my junior prom all over again.  Heard over the course of the game: "Tubthumping", "Mambo Number Five", and "Macarena."  The latter was responsible for the funniest thing I saw all evening.  The track played during half time, and there were a few Carolina cheerleaders over by the bleachers gamely trying to suss out the correct order of the choreography of that stupid dance.  Please keep in mind, "Macarena" was released in 1993, meaning the kids attempting those dance moves were maybe not born and definitely not potty trained when it was popular.  Why is this a phenomenon that has insidiously found its way to a younger generation?  We have failed as a species, that's why.

4. Steph was your player of the game.  22 points, 8 assists, 10 rebounds, and a block.  Get it, girl.

Next up: Saturday @ #3 Notre Dame.  Go Heels.   

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Notes From Carmichael 1.5

Photo by Agatha Donkar @brandnewkindof
Sylvia Hatchell's 700th victory as North Carolina's head coach came today with the Heels' ACC season opener: a home tilt against Clemson this afternoon.  Carolina came out smokin' at the tip, racing out to an 18-7 lead by the end of the first quarter on the strength of some excellent defense and a few gorgeous tic-tac-toe passing displays on the other end.  (There was one particular whirling inside-out flurry of touch passes and smart, quick cuts culminating in an open corner jumper that made me wonder why they don't institute more such concepts into their offensive sets.  Carolina is great at tilting defenses with swing passes and dribble handoffs, and they're murder on opponents in transition.  I just think they've got enough smart passing talent to get a few more of those bang-bang sequences into the flow of the offense, is all.)  They also uncorked a stretch of aggressive perimeter trapping on defense that completely baffled the Tigers, something we haven't seen much of this year but that could be a very effective short-burst tactic in the future. 

Clemson firmed up a bit and outscored the Heels by a point in the 2nd quarter, running one of the few backcourt rotations I've seen this year capable of keeping up with Carolina's speed.   Nonetheless, we carried a commanding 32-22 advantage into halftime.

The second half wasn't quite so pretty.  Part of it was just plain bad luck.  The Heels had some bad bounces on the rim that normally fall for our shooters, and there was some terrible officiating that went the wrong way.  Also, though, they've shown an alarming inability to close out games this season; they get sloppy and listless when they're up big, and aren't always as focused as they ought to be.  Despite having led by as many as 20 late in the third quarter, the allowed Clemson to go on a run that cut it to 50-37 at the start of the 4th.

"Turnover" pops up way to often in Carolina's column of the final frame's play-by-play.  Nine times to Clemson's three, to be exact.  (The Heels had 24 on the game to Clemson's 20.)  Clemson deployed a brutally trapping full-court press in an effort to get back in it, and took Carolina completely out of rhythm.  They'd flail and skitter, break the press, and barrel up court totally out of control.  Drag racers with no breaks and shoddy suspension.  Ultimately, though, the talent disparity was too heavily on Carolina's side.  Four of our five starters finished with double-digit point totals, and the bench duo of N'Dea Bryant and Erica Johnson came up with a monstrous 16 boards and 5 blocks.  (N'Dea in particular was absolutely fierce in the paint today!)  Xylina McDaniel just keeps getting stronger every game, as she showed with her 9-7-2 performance today, and I loved how furious and fiery she got over that terrible (and eventually amended) foul call late.  As Ags pointed out: she's usually got a pretty staid equilibrium on the court, so when she goes off about something, there's likely a just cause for it.  Stephanie Watts was probably the player of the game, notching 14 points, 5 rebounds, and 8 dimes.  Hillary Summers tossed up a 14-10 double-double, and Jamie, despite looking somewhat out of sorts today, still poured in 16.  Even with the team's late-game difficulties, this was still a dominant 72-56 win to open conference play. 

This is such a young team overall.  They're still feeling things out: each other, the game, their own considerable talents and corresponding limits.  I keep wondering if they can put it all together against top-flight competition in time to make some noise in March.  But every game, the proverbial magic 8 ball keeps saying "all signs point to yes."  Next up: an 11-3 Syracuse squad who just decimated 12th-ranked Duke by 36 points.  This should be good.  Go Heels. 

Friday, January 1, 2016

Roll Damn Ti ... gers.

Sorry for the lengthy absence.  Holidays and work and being sick destroyed me down the stretch in December.  I'm back, though.  Happy 2016!!!

There's a weightlessness that comes from knowing your college football season is dead early on.  The plummet in the rankings beyond recovery is a path to freedom.  It means your emotional investment can scale back, that you can bask in the panoramic joys of the game without actually giving a damn about results.  Resignation is the only sane response.  But you can't quite let go entirely, right? 

No, you need something to care about.  So you sit back and survey the landscape and then you hitch your wagon to some tertiary oxen just for funzies.  For me this season, that meant Iowa and UNC.  The Hawkeyes were flat-out enjoyable to follow, a good story in the mold of the 2010 Milwaukee Bucks or the recent Mighty Bengals of Cincinnati.  You kind of knew deep down they were a mirage in the desert, but you kept enjoying the view anyway right up until they faded into the heatstroke of the B1G Championship game.  (Still hoping they can notch a Rose Bowl win, though.)  North Carolina was a little different.  I live in Chapel Hill with a 3rd-generation Tar Heel girlfriend who hales from a rabid UNC family.  After they beat Secretly Decent Pitt (shoutout to @SolidVerbal), we realized the ACC Coastal was pretty wide open and that 2015 Heels Football might be sneaky great.  Then an insanely horrific onside kick penalty cost them a last-ditch shot at the playoff in the ACC Title Game, and they got steamrolled by a depleted Baylor in their consolation bowl.  It was an ignominious way to end the best season in UNC football history.  Ags, by the way, is secretly happy and relieved that we no longer have to pretend that Carolina football is a thing, while simultaneously indignant and just plain pissed off that they landed such a crappy bowl bid.  Football feelings at a basketball school are complicated that way, I guess. 

So what's left to root for?  Well look, SEC pride is cute and all, but dammit, the concept of Alabama raising another championship trophy just makes me nauseous.  What they did to Michigan State last night was evil and horrible and not even a tiny bit fun to watch.  'Bama's whole ethos is just so bland and unsavory.  Implacable and faceless, plugging five-star cogs into the endlessly grinding machine.  They go out every game and lower the welding hood and fire up the acetylene torch because that T-joint ain't gonna fit itself together, now, is it?  The Crimson Tide are highly skilled mundanity personified.  Stale and utterly joyless.  Conference loyalty be damned, I can't root for this garbage.

You know what I can get behind?  A team whose coach is basically a slightly more restrained and cordial P.J. Fleck.  Seriously, God bless Dabo and his sweet sweet awkward dance moves and his unfettered jubilation and his brilliant decimation of the entire "Clemsoning" meme.  How can you not love this man?  How can you not love watching this team?  Clemson utilizes their multifarious talents in entertaining and beautiful ways on both sides of the ball.  The entire coaching staff are lovable misfits, and they have the team playing with controlled glee in all phases.  Hell, this is a team that called a (wildly successful and glorious) fake punt in the semis partially because it was tactically brilliant but also just to let the punter know his freelancing in the ACC Championship game is something we can all laugh about now.  Clemson is the Hammond B-3 wailin', two-beat rhythm section stompin' gospel choir to Nick Saban's stoic, silent football Catholicism.  Perhaps most importantly from an X-and-O standpoint, they're a team with a sound but dynamic defense, and they run the type of versatile, chaotic offense that pisses Saban right the hell off because god forbid we have a little fun playing football at the expense of the #process. 

So if you have a soul and like fun things, you should root for the Tigers on January 11th, no matter what your basic fan proclivities might tell you.  If you don't bleed houndstooth, this is your team.  Or at least, because hell I can't tell you what to do it's a free country, it's mine.  Dear Clemson, I love you, at least for the rest of the season.