Basketball Blog: Oden, Wisconsin and a whole lot more

Caught a slew of college basketball games over the past three days (Indiana-Michigan State, Florida-LSU, Syracuse-Georgetown, Wisconsin-OSU and Kansas-Oklahoma) and toggled to catch pieces of 7-8 other games (like the Maryland-UNC ending). Some scattered thoughts …

• I've watched eight OSU games and haven't seen a dominant Greg Oden performance yet. In their biggest game on Sunday (a No. 1 vs. No. 2 battle against Wisconsin), Oden submitted the following line: 35 minutes, 11 points, 5 rebounds and 4 blocks (three of them leading to fast-break baskets). Not a bad game … but not even remotely dominant.

For the season, Oden's averaging 15.3 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.5 blocks per game (very good stats, but not eye-opening or anything). He doesn't have any low-post moves other than an ugly-but-effective jump-hook. He's an OK passer … but certainly not Walton-esque. He doesn't play with the same ferocious, intimidating fire that Alonzo Mourning displayed at Georgetown. He isn't a dominant, physical presence along the lines of Shaq at LSU, or an extraordinary athlete like Hakeem Olajuwon at Houston, or a gifted natural scorer like David Robinson at Navy. Everyone seems to think he's a mortal lock to evolve into a franchise center … and I have to say, I haven't seen it yet. If OSU ever played Texas, there's no doubt in my mind that Kevin Durant would emerge as the alpha dog on the court.

We'll give Oden the benefit of the doubt for the following things:

1. He's playing with a broken right wrist that hasn't totally healed yet. This needs to be mentioned constantly -- he's even shooting left-handed free throws like Bo Kimble. So maybe Oden has more low-post moves and a 15-foot jumper in his arsenal, but the injured wrist is preventing him from showing off those things, so we've been watching a steady diet of jump-hooks, layups and dunks. Also, when I was chatting Bill Walton's right ear off in Vegas, Oden came up and Walton made a salient point that I haven't heard anywhere else: Walton believes that Oden's injured wrist prevents him from flying up and down the court, jumping over people for rebounds and leaping into crowds to block shots because he's constantly afraid of tripping, falling and re-injuring his wrist. When Walton told me this, he specifically said: "Watch Oden and watch how under-control he is at all times. … You never see him let loose."

Well, he was right. Against Wisconsin, Oden seemed like he was driving a race car in third gear for the entire game. Anyway, Walton believes that we won't see the real Oden until next year, when he can finally let loose in the NBA with a healthy body. And you know what? He's probably right. On the other hand, what if he's not?

2. He's a freshman and he's only 18. True centers take longer to grow into their bodies, which explains some of Oden's clumsiness around the basket (at times, he almost reminds me of Nazr Mohammed … and that's not a good thing). So when you watch him this season, you have to remember that this is the worst he will ever look during the next 15 years.

3. I know he's getting killed for his lack of passion/intensity during games, but maybe he's just a mellow, thoughtful, good-hearted guy, someone quirky enough that some people actually believe he'd pass up the draft and remain at OSU simply because he enjoys college life so much. The more I watch him, the more he reminds me of Robert Parish -- not just because he's mellow like the Chief, but also because he doesn't feel the need to PRETEND he's anything other than mellow. For instance, Patrick Ewing's fatal flaw was his misguided attempt to "evolve" into a passionate leader -- which basically consisted of his (A) making jumpers and screaming at the top of his lungs, or (B) running over to a teammate who just made a big shot and screaming at the top of his lungs. It always seemed disingenuous to me, like he was trying to portray a character or something ("I'm the vocal franchise center and I can lead this team!"). In the long run, it hurt his game to some degree -- Ewing didn't have a dominant personality, he wasn't an alpha dog, and above everything else that's why the Knicks never won a championship during his era.

Oden has a self-awareness than Ewing lacked (and still lacks, as evidenced by his surreal attempt to reinvent himself as a 7-foot Ed McMahon on Ahmad Rashad's remarkably bizarre NBA TV talk show), which is why Parish's personality is a perfect comparison for Oden. The Chief never cared about stats, or touches, or showing off or any of that crap. He just wanted to win. I think Oden could be described the same way, and if you don't believe me, watch the way he blocks shots -- just like Bill Russell and Walton, he doesn't block shots as much as he deflects them and keeps them in play (so they'll lead to a potential fast break). It's the single best thing about his game, an innate skill that can't be learned.

So here's my scouting report on Oden through the third week of February: I just don't know yet. The wrist throws EVERYTHING off. There's a legitimate chance we're seeing only about 60 percent of what he could have inflicted with a healthy body … and once we get closer to the draft, any NBA team picking first will work themselves into a lather that (A) Oden's wrist hindered him more than anyone realized, and (B) if that's true, then they don't want to be the idiots who passed on Oden someday. Which means there's no way in hell that Oden will go second in the 2007 NBA draft, rendering every "Oden or Durant?" discussion meaningless unless Durant blows everyone out of the water next month like Melo did in 2003. Anything less and Oden goes first. Nobody will have the balls to pass him up. Remember, it's the No Balls Association.

• Lost in OSU's nail-biting win on Sunday: A terrific road effort by the Badgers, who survived a bad shooting day (35 percent overall, 5-for-15 from Alando Tucker) and hung around for most of the game because of their defense, then made a run in the final 10 minutes when freshman guard Jason Bohannon made some 3-pointers to get them going. From everything I've seen this season, Wisconsin and Texas A&M are the two blowout-proof top-20 teams -- in other words, they're too balanced and smart and well-coached to get blown out of a game. That's a great quality for March, right? If I had to pick a Final Four right now, I'd go with Kansas, Wisconsin, Texas A&M and a Dark Horse To Be Named Later (for instance, I want to see what Durant and the Longhorns do against the Aggies on Wednesday night).

• Speaking of dark horses, I've been enjoying the hell out of MSU lately because of Drew Neitzel, their leading scorer (18.4 per game) and, more importantly, one of those galvanizing, Adam Morrison-like presences who gets everyone going just by nailing a couple 3s. There's a lot to love: He looks like he's recovering from five months of chemo (woefully skinny, crew cut, the whole thing); he shoots every 3 at an impossible angle (usually after he comes off a pick, with his body leaning at a 20-degree angle); his fist-pumping theatrics after every big shot are almost unparalleled (he makes some of Adam Morrison's work at Gonzaga look Oden-esque); and if that's not enough, his mom looks exactly like him, if you threw a wig on him and gave him some glasses.

Anyway, I know MSU nearly blew its season with a four-game losing streak around the Super Bowl, but two of those losses were to OSU and the other two came on the road (at Purdue and Illinois). Let's see what happens in its next two road games (tonight at Michigan, Saturday at Wisconsin). I'm mildly intrigued.

(All right, fine -- the Spartans have no chance whatsoever of making any noise next month. You're right. Except for Wisconsin and OSU, the Big Ten stinks. But can you let me enjoy the Neitzel era for a few more weeks, please? Thanks.)

• In case you missed it, the Syracuse fans charged the court after toppling Georgetown on Monday night. The NCAA needs to pass a new rule: Students are only allowed to charge the court if their team (A) just won a tournament, (B) upset the No. 1 team in the nation, (C) advanced to the Final Four, or (D) beat Duke and made Coach K nearly cry during the game to the point that he looked like a quivering ninny. Under no other scenario is court-charging acceptable -- if it happens under any other circumstance, you forfeit the game. Case closed.

• Can you remember two freshman point guards coming in at the same time who were as good as D.J. Augustin and Mike Conley Jr.? I can't believe I'm about to praise Billy Packer, but he made a great point near the end of the OSU-Wisconsin game -- Conley was deferring to his teammates and ignoring the fact that he's their best creator, so Packer pointed out, "Look, Conley's the guy that needs to win this game for them" about two minutes before Conley's game-winning drive in the final few seconds. That's one of the dynamics that makes next month so hard to figure out -- both Conley AND Augustin are still learning on the job. What if everything comes together for one of them within the next few weeks? That would make each of their teams nearly unbeatable, right?

• Speaking of Conley, do yourself a favor and check out this YouTube clip of his father (the Olympic gold medalist in the triple jump) lighting it up in a celebrity slam dunk contest -- not just for Conley's dunks (which were ridiculous, especially the last one) but the Junior Griffey/Deion Sanders dunks. Can't ESPN Classic bump the 24-hour nonstop poker reruns and air the tape of this entire contest? Would that be too much to ask?

• During the Kansas-Oklahoma game, Julian Wright submitted the single best half I've seen from a college player this season -- the first half, when Kansas rolled to a 33-19 lead on the road because Wright was destroying the Sooners in every possible way. If you haven't seen him yet, he's a 6-foot-8 forward who plays the way we always wanted Tim Thomas and Billy Owens to play. In other words, he's a truly gifted passer, breaks a sweat on defense, makes 18-footers, crashes the boards, busts his butt filling the wing on fast breaks and actually seems to give a crap.

His passing separates him from everyone else. During one play last night, he was isolated on the right side, waved one of his post players (I forget which one) over to the same side, then threw him a perfect entry bounce pass that enabled the guy to immediately spin around for an easy layup. I'm putting this sentence in caps to emphasize the significance here: COLLEGE PLAYERS DO NOT NORMALLY MAKE PLAYS LIKE THIS. Assuming he enters the NBA next season (nobody knows if he's coming out), he'd join Boris Diaw, LeBron and Tim Duncan as one of the best passing forwards in the league. He has a real chance to become a significant pro. Anyway, if the Celtics finish last and guarantee themselves a top-four pick, obviously it would be catastrophic to lose out on Oden or Durant … but Joakim Noah and Julian Wright are clearly 3A and 3B in this draft, which means the Celtics would be getting a blue-chipper at any of the top four spots. Small consolation, but still.

(As for Brandan Wright, he bricked the game-tying free throws at Maryland in the final three seconds and looked terrified the entire time. … These are the things I will remember when I'm ranking my top 10 draft prospects in four months. And yes, I have him ranked a distant fifth right now behind Durant, Oden, Noah and Wright.)

• One more thing on Kansas: The Jayhawks have the highest ceiling of any college team (including Florida). They go eight-deep with four legitimate blue-chippers (Wright, Mario Chalmers, Brandon Rush and Darrell Arthur, who played only six minutes last night), they have guards who can handle the ball and run fast breaks, they have 3-point shooters, they have low-post guys … and if that's not enough, they enjoy playing with one another.

Meanwhile, Florida seems burned out to me; there's a been-there-done-that dynamic with them that none of the other teams have. Playing on the road against LSU on Saturday, the Gators submitted one of the all-time mail-ins and prompted Billy Donovan to say after the game, "They looked like a team that just won a championship, and competing maybe wasn't the most important thing on their mind here today."

Ummmmmm … that's not a good quote for a coach to be saying about his team in late-February. I know they struggled at a similar time last season and turned the jets on and ran away with the title, but the current talent level in college hoops obliterates the crapfest we collectively endured last March. Just look at last year's Final Four: Florida, George Mason, UCLA and LSU. Could those last three teams have beaten any of the top 10 teams this season? No way. (Note: I think this year's UCLA team is better than last year's UCLA team.) Hell, just look at the draft prospects from last March to this March -- Oden, Durant, Noah, the Wrights and even Al Horford are more highly regarded than anyone from last year's draft. Thanks to the historic influx of quality freshman and some of the guys who stuck around, we're looking at the deepest pool of good college players in 10 years, since the '96-'97 stretch that featured Duncan, Keith Van Horn, Allen Iverson, Ray Allen, Mike Bibby, Marcus Camby, Stephon Marbury, Kerry Kittles, all the Kentucky/Syracuse guys, Steve Nash, Brevin Knight and everyone else. You can't coast for a couple of weeks, then turn it on in the tournament. Not this season.

• Games I'll definitely be watching/TiVo-ing this week: MSU-Michigan (Tuesday, 7 p.m. ET, ESPN); Florida-Tennessee (Tuesday, 9 p.m., ESPN); Maryland-Duke and Texas A&M-Texas (Wednesday, 9 p.m. on ESPN and ESPN2 -- toggle alert!); Nevada-Utah State (Thursday, 9 p.m., Comcast West); MSU-Wisconsin (Saturday, noon, ESPN); Duke-North Carolina (Sunday, 4 p.m., CBS); and as many of the weekend conference tournament finals as possible. Now I just need to break the news to the Sports Gal without risking a divorce.

• Three announcer comments and then I'm done:

1. When ESPN builds the ErinMobile next year to make sure Erin Andrews works every relevant ESPN telecast as the sideline reporter, they need to give Dan Shulman a bedroom on the bus so he can work all the games as well. He's my favorite basketball announcer who doesn't have the first name "Marv."

2. Congrats to Gus Johnson for starting the "Jo Noah" trend. I like it.

3. ESPN keeps trying a three-man booth with Sean McDonough, Jay Bilas and Bill Raftery. … Since when did we decide we needed three guys to announce a two-hour college basketball game? After actually attempting to provide color for two games (we're running that column Wednesday on Page 2), I can't even fathom what it would have been like with a third guy in there. What's the point? I like Bilas on his own, and Raftery remains one of my favorite color guys ever (in any sport). Why team them together? So they can accidentally interrupt each other for two hours? These are the things I don't get.

Basketball Blog: The Global Icon

We're running two extended e-mails about the Global Icon (aka LeBron James) as the second half of this post ... but first, I had to respond to the Bulls fans who argued after Friday's trade deadline column that John Paxson did the right thing not overpaying for Pau Gasol. Here's an e-mail that sums everything up (the person didn't include his/her name):

"While I agree that Paxson should have made SOME deal for an interior scorer, you absolutely should not blame him for refusing to include Luol Deng in any deal. Have you watched the kid this year? 19 ppg, 7 rpg, 52 percent FG, great defense. ... And did I mention that he is 21 years old and has an incredible work ethic? Why would you ever give up a player destined to be among the best in the league for a soft player like Gasol? Do the Bulls need the inside scoring? Yes. But they shouldn't mortgage the future of the franchise for it. And you know the old adage that you never trade big for small? Disagree completely ... you NEVER, EVER trade a two-way player for a one-way player.

"A better deal would have been a straight up deal of Tyrus Thomas to the Bobcats for Sean May. Bulls give up the player with a much higher ceiling and more athleticism for a guy who perfectly suits their needs as an inside scorer. Thomas is slightly redundant as a combo forward, of which the Bulls already (sort of) have two with Andreas Nocioni and Deng. May is similarly redundant on the Cats as a low-block PF, when they already have Okafor. This trade would've been mutually beneficial and helped balance the rosters of both teams. Plus, MJ and Pax are tight and could've made this happen pretty easily. Why didn't it? Either they weren't smart enough to think of a trade so simple, or Pax was gun-shy about getting another overweight PF (since we all know how successful the Michael Fatney experiment has been). Anyway, Pax deserved at least a C just for being smart enough NOT to trade Deng. You will realize this one day."

We agree on two things: The Thomas-May trade would have made sense, and Luol Deng is going to be really, really good. Still, you're missing the big picture on a Gasol trade.

We know that ...

1. The Bulls overpaid Ben Wallace and acquired P.J. Brown's expiring deal specifically to make a bigger move this season ... and then they did nothing. Well, why not just keep Tyson Chandler then? Have you seen his numbers in New Orleans the past few weeks? He's averaging 17 rebounds a game this month. How can anyone claim the Bulls didn't botch this scenario to smithereens? Chandler makes two-thirds as much money as Wallace AND he's 10 years younger AND he's getting better (and not worse). Am I missing anything?

2. Wallace isn't the same rebounding/defensive presence that he was 3-4 years ago. For all we know, this could be his last good season. Didn't they HAVE to compete for a title this season? What's the point of getting Wallace, then? Why not keep Chandler if you're planning on stockpiling assets and young players for some nebulous Trade To Be Made?

3. Gasol would be perfect for Chicago because he commands double teams (opening the perimeter up for Kirk Hinrich, Nocioni and Ben Gordon) and could have been hidden defensively (he's not a terrible defender, just mediocre). Before you start downing his credentials, just remember that, in the past three seasons, the Grizzlies won 50, 45 and 47 games in a superior Western Conference with Gasol giving them 20-22 points a night. We know for a fact that you can build an entire offense around him and his beard.

4. Chicago's deepest position is small forward, where they have Deng, Nocioni (one of the best Glue Guys in the league) and Thabo Sefolosha (an athletic rookie with real promise). They could have replaced 80-85 percent of Deng's numbers with Nocioni/Sefolosha ... but Gasol would have quadrupled P.J. Brown's scoring numbers and surpassed his rebounding numbers as well. Statistically, that's a no-brainer upgrade.

5. Jerry West wasn't giving Gasol away, which meant Paxson had to pay full value (or even overpay a little) to pry him away. That's the only way he was getting him.

So here's my question: Regardless of the sport, the ultimate goal for any team is a championship, right? As currently constructed, the Bulls can't make the Finals without low-post scoring, a reality that can't be fixed this summer (when Brown's contract expires and kills that avenue for a trade) and can't be fixed in the 2007 draft (where they're probably picking in the 10-to-16 range with the Knicks' pick). For any Bulls fan who says, "fine, we'll keep stockpiling assets and make a move this summer or before next February's deadline" ...

Um ...

For who? Who are you getting?

Here's the complete list of effective low-post scorers in the NBA, in no particular order: Chris Bosh (untouchable); Al Jefferson (probably untouchable); Nenad Krstic (out for the season); Eddy Curry (not happening); Zydrunas Ilgauskas (plodding and overpaid); Jermaine O'Neal (semi-touchable because of his contract); Shaq (not going anywhere); Dwight Howard (untouchable); Emeka Okafor (probably untouchable); Carlos Boozer (untouchable with the Jazz playing so well); Kevin Garnett (possibly touchable down the road); Zach Randolph (semi-available and semi-crazy); Amare Stoudemire (untouchable); Elton Brand (untouchable); Chris Kaman (available and wildly overpaid); Andris Biedrins (untouchable); Tim Duncan (untouchable); Yao Ming (untouchable); Pau Gasol (available).

Look at that list again. By not doing anything last week, the Bulls announced to the entire league, "We're giving up any realistic chance of winning the East this season, biding our time for the next 6-12 months and praying that either KG or Jermaine O'Neal become available ... And if they don't, we'll have to roll the dice with Zach Randolph and hope he and Scott Skiles don't fight to the death."

If that was their ultimate objective -- KG or O'Neal -- then that's an even better reason to acquire Gasol (on the hook for $13.7 million in 2008), because they could have rented him for one season, then repackaged him somewhere else this summer. In Friday's column, I knocked the Bulls for failing to overpay for Gasol with Deng, Ty Thomas and the Knicks No. 1 pick in 2007 (throwing in expiring deals of Mike Sweetney and Malik Allen to make the numbers work). Admittedly, that's about 115 cents on the dollar -- although I'm not as high on Thomas as others (by all accounts, he's a surly dude), and the Knicks could sneak into the playoffs thanks to Wade's injury and Orlando's collapse (which puts the pick in the 15-16 range). Since Deng/Thomas for Gasol is a fair swap (you have to give up something to get something, right?), the Bulls would have sacrificed the Knicks' pick (as a trading tax) for a legitimate chance to make the 2007 Finals with Wallace, Gasol, Nocioni, Duhon and Hinrich starting and P.J. Brown, Ben Gordon, Sefolosha and Adrian Griffin coming off the bench. That's the best nine-man rotation in the East. Hands down.

Instead, they did nothing.

So let's say they're planning on making a move this summer for KG (on the books for $22 million in 2008) or O'Neal ($19.7 million). KG would cost Deng, Thomas and either Gordon or Hinrich. O'Neal would cost Thomas, the Knicks' pick and either Gordon or Deng. In other words, they'd be giving up everything they could have traded for Gasol (as well as any chance to win the title in 2007). If they acquired Gasol last week, they could have eventually made him the centerpiece of a KG/O'Neal deal this summer OR they could have gone the other way and moved him to the Celtics for Al Jefferson, a future No. 1 pick and Theo Ratliff's expiring contract (then used the Ratliff deal to acquire another blue-chipper during the season). Either way, they could have competed for the 2007 title, given Gasol a four-month test drive and had more flexibility to maneuver this summer.

And that's why I'll always believe the Bulls should have overpaid for Gasol with the Deng-Thomas-Knicks' pick package. Sometimes in sports, you have to push your chips to the middle of the table. This seemed like one of those times. Call me crazy.

Time for two e-mails about the Global Icon from longtime readers -- Matt in Long Beach and L.A.'s Brian Spaeth, who runs the Yay Sports basketball blog. Just to be clear, Matt's e-mail arrived before Wade injured his shoulder last week. But these e-mails represent both ends of the LeBron Dilemma pretty nicely:

I am writing to you with the aid of beer and Xanax, and which makes writing a coherent e-mail both challenging and ill-advised. But I'm from Cleveland, I've watched LeBron since he was a sophomore in high school, and I think I have some non-scout, non-Tim Legler based perspectives.

First off, there is NO doubt LeBron is taking the season off. And as one of the four optimistic Cleveland sports fans alive, I present this to you:

1. Last year, they were one rebound away from taking down the Pistons in six and moving on to the Heat (a very good matchup for them), but thanks to Ilgauskas, Varejao and Flip Murray, they missed three straight rebounds off Detroit free throws which would have given LeBron (virtually unstoppable at that point) one of three chances to score ONE hoop.

2. LeBron was coming off a season in which he NO doubt deserved the MVP, and put on a truly effort-based performance in the playoffs. (Remember, no one mentioned his killer instinct when he shot three consecutive daggers into Washington's hopes, and then literally bruised his way to three wins against Detroit.)

3. His team's two biggest signings in his tenure have been Larry Hughes (a complete bust) and Ilgauskas, who signed a five-year deal and realized that no matter where he is in five years, he will still be a viable big man on any team. Z's been playing with less heart and effort than you would think BECAUSE he's a 7-foot-3 slow white man with bad feet, but trust me he's still a liability on both ends of the floor, and has been starting in a "showcasing" role for two years and sitting during crunch time during the last two seasons.

4. He just watched his friend and rival D-Wade take advantage of having Shaq, Payton, Walker, Mourning, Haslem and Jason Williams (all better than their current counterparts on the Cavs), as well as silly officiating almost explicitly aimed at making a new star after Kobe's near-trial.

Now LeBron is tired and frustrated. He's waiting for Z to get a rebound. He's waiting for Marshall to make a layup. ... If LeBron had competent teammates (not good ones, competent ones), there is NO DOUBT he would be averaging eight assists per game. Watch tapes from last season, he had guys legitimately blowing 5-7 great looks a game (bunnies, dunks, layups). He has NO confidence in his teammates, so naturally his passing and shot selection dwindled. He's now in Year 4 and the best shooter he's ever played with is Damon Jones who's one trade away from setting the record for most teams played for in a career. Think about what he's had: J.R. Bremer, Eric Williams, Lucious Harris, Ricky Davis, David Wesley, Eric Snow. ... These are guys that started!!

I think he's frustrated AND exhausted. Outside of Iverson, NO ONE gets beat up like him. No one. Wade jumps aimlessly with his back to the basket into traffic, throws the ball over his head and gets a whistle five times a game. Dwyane Wade is Reggie Wayne: Fast, agile and you better not touch him. LeBron is LaDainian. Can you imagine how good LeBron would be with Lorenzo Neal setting picks at the free throw line for him? He took the WBC's off because they were the World Basketball Championships. Remember? He was regrouping. He started the season as a MORTAL lock to enter the playoffs as a top-four seed, knows he could put up 29-7-7 every night and STILL not win the MVP ... so screw it, he coasted a little (and keeps coasting).

The real issue: We crowned him the next Jordan before he played a game, forgetting that Chicago didn't give MJ a supporting cast for six years. LeBron outperformed expectations in his first three seasons; in his fourth season, even though he's been a "disappointment," the Cavs are within 2.5 games of the No. 1 seed and sitting in a better position than Kobe's Lakers and Wade's Heat. (By the way, he's 3-1 this season against Wade and Kobe.) The next two months are completely and utterly irrelevant -- LeBron is saving himself for the playoffs and a true push against a wide-open Eastern Conference.

So before we start talking about Wade passing LeBron, let's see if Wade and Miami can climb above .500, and let's see what happens in May. Assuming Wade gets that far.

When Bill e-mailed to solicit my thoughts on LeBron, I was torn. On one hand, despite RoundieGate, I like

On the other hand, I don't want LeBron to hate me.

Alas, I thought back to the 2006 playoffs, when I cried after LeBron hit that second game-winner against Washington. Cried? Yes ... because it wasn't the win. It was the whole paradigm shift that LeBron James was forcing on me. And yes, it was forced. It sounds melodramatic, but this whole scenario wasn't possible to the Clevelander in me.

It now turns out I may have been right -- the 2006 playoffs were perhaps just a moment, and not the beginning of an era.

Rehashing is bourgeois, but LeBron did everything we'd all been waiting for, and the lessons about defense, intensity and giving 100 percent were learned. 2007 was the year -- 58 wins, the one seed, and an inevitable LBJ MVP. So the Cavs started 2-0, including a legitimate road win in San Antonio. The next two games were total WTF losses to Charlotte and Atlanta, and LeBron was completely absent in both. Oh, he put up his numbers, but he just ... wasn't there. And this continued, albeit under the radar, especially since the team was in first place. LeBron was putting up 25-6-6 effortlessly, so the national media would check the box score, then rip on the lack of support for a Bobcats loss.

Everyone I talked to was like "They're in first place!" and "Stop complaining!" My response: "Do you even watch the games? This team doesn't try. They're unwatchable."

By late November, I vowed not to watch anymore, except in certain situations. (For example, I loopholed the deal by saying I'm watching "the TNT game" instead of "Cavs-Heat." Another trick I used -- lie and watch all the games anyway.) I was angry at my team, but I wasn't angry at LeBron ... yet. I blamed Coach Mike Brown. His lack of a viable offensive scheme and inability to correctly use players was/is astounding.

Here's the thing with Coach Mike, though. When LeBron plays hard, everyone follows, and the liabilities in the game plan are overcome. The schemes could be (much) better, but they are there. And so, I've come to my current stance -- the problem is LeBron. I wish it weren't, but it is. Coach as motivator is one thing, but that should only be necessary to a point, and not to one who alleges to be an all-time great. There's also no way Coach Mike is telling LeBron "drift around for awhile, then jack a jumper."

So what's going on? That's simple -- he's either exhausted/distracted from all the ancillary stuff, or ... he plain old doesn't want it.

The former choice is correctable. The latter is the unfixable/tragic one, and in a Cleveland tradition, I hereby dub this theory "The Malaise." The mere idea of it is pumped full of so much potential for emotional disaster, "The Shot" and "The Drive" could be completely forgotten in its wake.

Makes one want to cry.

Basketball Blog: Off to Vegas

Just two days away from the NBA's first All-Star weekend in Las Vegas, we're either headed for the greatest sports weekend of all time or the most disappointing sports weekend of all time. There's no in-between.

Here's what we know:

1. It's going to be one of the most crowded 72-hour stretches in Vegas history, thanks to All-Star weekend, Chinese New Year and a major fashion convention that will swallow up every taxi, hotel room and $25 blackjack table on Friday and Saturday nights. If you plan on gambling this weekend and don't have a ton of money, be prepared to re-enact Mikey's scene at the $100 table in "Swingers."

2. Every ovulating groupie within a 12-hour vicinity will be making the weekend drive to Vegas to hopefully get impregnated by an NBA player -- a list that includes every hooker, stripper and jock-sniffing female between 16 and 40 from Vegas, Reno, Sacramento, San Diego, San Francisco, Oakland, Phoenix and every city and town in the Los Angeles area. To its credit, the NBA is recommending that all players wear two condoms at once, even during the day and when they're sleeping.

3. Every celeb and wannabe celeb will descend on the city to party. (If you ever wanted to have Britney Spears puke on you, this is the weekend.) If you hope to hit the nightclub scene, you better be hanging with someone famous. And no, Marc Stein doesn't qualify. Ric Bucher ... maybe.

4. Not only is every heavy hitter with any association to the NBA (owners, minority owners, team execs, advertising and TV execs, etc.) heading to Vegas, all of them think they're attending the Slam Dunk Contest and Sunday's game ... even though the Thomas & Mack Center holds about 18,000 people and has only 30 luxury suites. As strange as this sounds, Saturday and Sunday could be two of the toughest tickets in recent sports history.

5. There are so many parties on Friday and Saturday night that it's legitimately impossible to keep track of everything. But here's the big question nobody has been able to answer ... how will everyone get around? Let's say you're at the Hard Rock on Friday night, and you want to get to the Palms. How are you getting a cab? Let's say you're a heavy hitter and hired a limo, which gives you something in common with the 25,000 other heavy hitters who thought they'd play it smart and hire a limo. Where are all these limos parking? Let's say you're one of the 100 million media members staying at the MGM Grand, and you head down to the lobby to wait in a cab line at 7 p.m. on Friday along with 100 other media members. When will you be actually getting in that cab? Tuesday? Wednesday?

I don't know the answer to any of these questions, much less how Vegas' airport (a notorious train wreck) will handle the onslaught of people coming in Thursday/Friday and leaving Monday morning. On a normal weekend, it takes 30-45 minutes to get a cab unless you can pay off a limo driver. How long will it take this weekend? Two hours? Three? On the bright side, Vegas had a year to prepare for every possible problem and desperately wants to prove its mettle as a potential NBA destination. So maybe the city figured all of this out. I am cautiously optimistic. Others are decidedly pessimistic. We will see.

Let's take a couple of Basketball Blog e-mails ...

Q: You're wrong about Chase Budinger. He's overhyped -- completely. Not to take anything away from him -- he's a nice player who plays within his limitations, good stroke when spotting up, freakish vertical leap. But he's got a ton of holes in his game, and good teams have been exploiting them all year. He's extremely slow laterally, which makes it very tough for him to create for himself and to play any semblance of defense (think Adam Morrison with even worse effort).
--Julian, Los Angeles

SG: A few people have e-mailed me similar thoughts. As I said last week, I'm throwing myself into college hoops and learning as I go along. ... In most of these cases, I'm posting my initial impressions with guys I'm seeing for the first or second time (like Alando Tucker, Mario Boggan, Budinger, etc.). So any feedback is exceedingly helpful. In Budinger's case, you're right, I was marveling at his offensive game and not concentrating on the defensive end. If he can't do anything on D, that makes him a better rebounding, more athletic version of Brent Barry as a pro. I'll throw some water on myself and watch him a few more times.

Q: What's the definition of a "whitewash"? (As in "They threw a whitewash at Gonzaga the entire second half.") Some sort of zone press? Please help. I need credibility with my kids!
--Jonathan L., Guilford, Conn.

SG: That's a running joke from my old Web site -- a "whitewash" happens when a team throws out five white players at the same time. You'll see it occasionally with smaller Division I schools but never with a big-time college and very rarely in the pros (San Antonio could make it happen this season by playing Udrih, Ginobili, Bonner, Oberto and Barry). The greatest whitewash of all time happened when the '86 Celtics played Bird, Walton, McHale, Danny Ainge and Scott Wedman at the same time -- the frontline was composed of Hall of Famers (and three members of the NBA's Top 50) while Wedman was a former All-Star and Ainge made the '88 All-Star Team. That will never be topped.

Q: The single dumbest thing you've written was about the five-foul rule in college. The pro game is 20 percent longer (48 minutes instead of 40) and hence the number of fouls to foul-out is six instead of five (also 20 percent more). If you watched more college ball, you would realize that rarely is five fouls a significant factor ... just like in the pros. But, just like the pros, on occasion people get in foul trouble and it does factor into the game. Simple solution, don't foul and you get to stay in the game.
--Ben W., Springfield, Va.

SG: Believe me, I understand the math. It's just too easy to pick up two fouls in the first few minutes of a college game. Every time I've watched OSU this season, the other team has attacked Oden and tried to get two quick fouls on him so they could knock him out of the game. Crap like that never happens in the pros -- it's a loophole that hurts the college game. If I were the commish of college hoops, I'd extend the game from 40 to 44 minutes (22-minute halves) and move to six fouls. Did we ever figure out why college games go for 40 minutes when pro games go for 48? The current setup allows for too many TV timeouts -- you could definitely pad each half with two extra minutes without losing anything. Probably makes too much sense.

Q: I was cruising through the channels last night and came across a program on Cinemax called "The Erotic Traveler." After watching for a few minutes I almost had a heart attack when I realized the naked chick dry humping was none other than Tonya Cooley, alum of the "Real World." So it seems the inevitable has happened in that Tonya was the first (but probably not last) Real Worlder to wind up in porn.
--Tyler, Greensboro, N.C.

SG: Near the end of last week, I started getting a steady stream of e-mails about this, with every reader using the same "I was cruising though the channels last night" excuse (yeah, right). It's nice to know that there's a definitive link between my readers and soft-core porn. Anyway, I did some investigating (the exact title of the show is "Erotic Traveler 2"), set my TiVo for Friday night's replay and -- wouldn't you know it? -- the reports were true! Not only does Tonya get naked and do the fake sex thing, she stars in the episode, does some acting (she's as bad as you'd think) and films multiple fake sex scenes. It's riveting and disturbing and creepy and everything else you can imagine. More importantly, the barrier has finally been busted down -- we're going to look back some day and realize that Tonya was the Jackie Robinson of the "reality stars breaking into soft-core porn" wave. So maybe her life did have some meaning.

Q: Like what you're doing with the basketball blog. Just wanted to let ya know that Steve Alford wore that outfit against Wisconsin on Saturday because it was "Coaches vs. Cancer" day in college basketball when all the coaches wear white tennis shoes. Alford and his staff didn't wear a suit on this day, so that's why they were wearing what you described.
--Kyle, Indianola, Iowa

SG: Thanks for the info. Surprised that wasn't mentioned during the game -- that seemed like relevant information, no?

Q: I grew up a Jewish Canadian kid. There are no sports heroes for Jewish Canadian kids. We have some American Jews (Shawn Green, Jay Fiedler, 2/3 of the Red Sox infield) and some Canadians (Nash, Morneau, the NHL) but I don't remember a successful Jewish Canadian athlete. The closest we ever had was Mathieu Schneider of the Montreal Canadians (who sounded Jewish but turned out to be neither Jewish nor Canadian -- his dad was Jewish and he grew up in the U.S.). That sucked. Anyway, Dan Shulman = Jew from Toronto. Love him. Thanks for giving him the props he deserves. We can all dream.
--Andy K., Toronto

SG: I just hope that e-mail inspires someone to launch a blog devoted to the greatest Jewish Canadian sports figures of all time.

Q: Will you please pass along the following message to your editors: "Nobody cares about John Amaechi! Stop shoving the story down our throats!" Thank you.
--David, Chapel Hill, N.C.

SG: Come on, you don't care that somebody played in the NBA for a few years, then announced he was gay well after the fact to make money and sell a book? I'm with LZ Granderson -- wake me up when somebody comes out while they're still playing a sport. Doing it after the fact is disingenuous. It's not 1989 anymore ... it's 2007, and like Mark Cuban said this week, any athlete who comes out while he's still playing will end up being a hero and making a ton of money from it. It's only a matter of time.

Q: I wanted to let you know that it's Brunswick School, not Brunswick Academy. Although all of us here love you, we'd appreciate it if you remembered the name of your alma mater.
--Bowen, Rye, N.Y.

SG: That may have been my greatest typo of all time. How could I screw the name up for my old high school, you ask? Well, having a little kid, losing sleep and hearing their TV shows in the background every day (Teletubbies, Elmo, etc.) slowly turns your brain to mush. It's that simple. You start screwing up names, mixing up facts, forgetting phone numbers and e-mails of your friends ... eventually, you screw up the name of your old high school in print and don't even realize what happened until somebody e-mails you. The lesson, as always: Stay single.

Q: This is what you wrote about Joakim Noah in your most recent blog: "He's a winner, he's always in the right place at the right time, he always makes the right decision on either end, he doesn't care about stats, he's immensely fun to play with and he makes 5-6 important plays per game that will not be reflected in the stats." Couldn't that exact, I mean EXACT, same thing have been said about Shane Battier in 2001? Do you still think Noah should be a top-four pick knowing that?
--Neil A. Johnson, Peoria, Ill.

SG: Hell yeah! What's wrong with Shane Battier? Is he not having a big enough impact on Houston's season for you? He's the most underrated Intangibles Guy in the entire league -- you can't measure him by stats, you can only measure him by watching the games and seeing all the little things he does from game to game. And he's a fantastic locker room guy. That's why I was such a big proponent of the Battier-for-Gay/Swift trade last summer. If you did the 2001 Draft over again (which was seriously loaded, by the way) and every team got a do-over for its pick, here's how the top 11 would go:

1. Wash -- Gilbert Arenas (No. 30 originally)
2. Clips -- Pau Gasol (3)
3. Atlanta -- Tony Parker (28)
4. Chicago -- Joe Johnson (10)
5. G-State -- Mehmet Okur (37)
6. Grizz -- Zach Randolph (19)
7. Jersey -- Eddy Curry (4)
8. Cleveland -- Shane Battier (6)
9. Detroit -- Jason Richardson (5)
10. Boston -- Gerald Wallace (25)
11. Boston -- Richard Jefferson (13)

So let's say Noah evolves into a more talented, big man's version of Battier ... why would this be a bad thing?

Q: In your recent college article, you said when "I'm running ESPN8." Well I'm reading your book right now, so it's taken me over a year and I just got halfway through, and in the book you wrote "... when I'm running ESPN6." So which is it, buddy?
--Andrew, Columbus, Ga.

SG: The joke used to be ESPN6 for years and years until I realized seven ESPN channels had quietly spawned (ESPN, ESPN2, ESPNews, Classic, ESPNU, ESPN Deportes and ESPN360). That's why I changed it to ESPN8. By the way, I'd love to know what the record is for "longest someone will take to read my book from start to finish." Andrew from Columbus has to be the leader in the clubhouse right now -- 17 months and he's only halfway through? Can anyone top that pace?

Q: Thanks for the compliments about Santa Clara hoops. I was a senior there when "Little Stevie Nash" led them to the biggest victory in the history of the program, over Arizona in the tourney. Anyway, there's one factor affecting the Broncos you didn't mention -- the Dick Davey firing/retirement/uncomfortable, hastily organized farewell tour. Davey announced his retirement at the end of the season last week and, the thing is, nobody is sure why, especially given the team's success this season. Rumor is he was forced out and is not happy about it and the players are furious. They've publicly stated they're trying to win for him. This has all the makings of a huge March Cinderella story, complete with flashbacks to Davey's first tournament game (Arizona), Nash interview, and Jim Nantz waxing poetic about Davey's impact on generations of kids. I can just picture Davey in the locker room with the team in a huddle just prior to the WCC championship game, pausing before saying, "I love you guys." Classic.
--Paul Scott, Folson, Calif.

SG: Received a number of e-mails just like this one. You're right, this Santa Clara story fits every conceivable guideline for the Generic March Madness Cinderella Story. It's a foregone conclusion. They're going to beat Gonzaga to win the WCC, they're going to shock someone in Round 1 and Round 2, we'll see guys jumping up and down on the bench, and it's all leading to Nantz's gushing speech about Dick Davey on March 21 or 22. So many memories, so many lives touched, such an impact with this tiny college ... and now, a swan song in the Sweet 16. What a moment!

Basketball Blog: Midweek roundup

I watched three college games (Gonzaga-St. Mary's, Wisconsin-Iowa and Florida-Kentucky) and most of the Oregon-Arizona game on Saturday, as well as Texas-Oklahoma State and the second half of Santa Clara-Gonzaga Monday night. Thanks to the power of TiVo, you can zoom through commercials and free throws and bang out an entire game in 40-45 minutes. Anyway, Gonzaga beat St. Mary's and lost to Santa Clara; Wisconsin pulled away from Iowa in the last 10 minutes; Florida held off Kentucky in a subpar game; Arizona snuck past Oregon in a nailbiter; and Texas won by 29 at home.

Some random thoughts ...

• The Texas-Oklahoma State rematch was marred by the fact that the Cowboys took a two-hour dive on live TV. So far they've played 14 home games, six neutral site games and just five road games ... and they're 0-5 in the road games. That's embarrassing. They have two potential second rounders -- JamesOn Curry, the troubled guard who's been in college since the mid-'80s, and Mario Boggan, an undersized, 23-year-old power forward who lacks a definable NBA position (much like Alando Tucker). I don't see Curry making it, but Boggan intrigues me because the NBA has gotten faster/sleeker/smaller and there's an established track record of undersized power forwards getting playing time (Ryan Gomes, Craig Smith, Jason Maxiell, Luke Walton, etc.). That's the single best value you're going to find in the draft -- those guys always go 15-25 spots too late and always end up getting playing time.

Neither Boggan (16 points, 3 boards) or Curry (5-for-13, 12 points, no assists) helped their causes last night -- their team got annihilated by the Longhorns, who are finally figuring out how to make opponents pay for double-teaming Kevin Durant (they shot 56 percent last night and 8-for-15 on 3-pointers). The star of the night was D.J. Augustin, the freshman PG who played an absolutely brilliant game (19 points, 8 assists, 2 steals) and validated every Texas fan who e-mailed me last week to argue that I was dead-wrong about him. (Note: I wrote that he was too out of control and too inexperienced to get Durant the ball in the right spots.) Hey, when he plays under control like he did last night, he's an absolute stud. There's no question. As crazy as this sounds, Augustin will probably determine their March Madness destiny more than Durant; if he gives them two great weeks, they can beat anybody.

As for Durant, he played a sloppy game for the first 25 minutes, had trouble getting the ball within 20 feet of the basket (in his defense, it's tough to get the ball when your coach doesn't run plays, high screens or picks) and wasn't rebounding at all ... and then, out of nowhere, he totally took over the game. With Texas leading by nine at the 13:30 mark, Durant scored 11 of the next 15 points, controlled the boards and extended the lead to 17. Ball game. Somehow, he ended up with 21 points and 12 rebounds. Over everything else, that's what makes Durant special -- great players take over games for extended stretches, almost like how players caught fire and changed colors in the old "NBA Jam" arcade games. That's what he does, and that's what makes him different than every other player in college hoops. Yes, I still have him ranked above Greg Oden.

• I have a new favorite player: Chase Budinger, the Arizona freshman best described as a taller Thunder Dan Majerle with a 45-inch vertical leap. By the way, that's an estimate -- he might have a 55-inch vertical leap. Hell, it might be 70 inches. But he shoots 3s, fills the lane, jumps over everybody, even has red hair and one of those chin goatee thingies. Just an electric player. He might be the most exciting white guy since ... I don't even know. Was Majerle even that exciting? Tom Chambers? I'd have to go all the way back to the great Paul Westphal.

Everyone made a big fuss about him in the preseason because he's also a world-class volleyball player, so it's not like I hadn't heard about him before ... but I wasn't prepared to see him tear apart Oregon (30 points, 10 boards) and carry himself with a "you guys suck, I'm the best player on the court" demeanor. He almost reminds me of one of those sneering California skateboarders who hang outside banks, ride railings of the outside staircases and terrify the customers as they're trying to head inside. In real life? I hate those kids. In basketball? I want them carrying themselves like that. Anyway, I was really impressed -- he's a sure thing. I'd rank him fourth for the draft behind Durant, Oden and Noah, assuming he comes out (which he probably won't).

• Speaking of Noah, I love how his draft stock dropped because he stuck around for an extra season and everyone started picking him apart. Um, didn't we learn from the Chris Paul debacle? Right now, he's ranked fourth behind Brandan Wright on just about everyone's board (with one notable exception: the underrated Jonathan Givony of, who has Noah ranked third AND Durant ranked above Oden); I could see him sliding to fifth or sixth as everyone talks themselves into Al Horford and Julian Wright because of the whole "upppppppside" thing. Meanwhile, he's even better than he was last season -- if you applied my Table Test to him, he's still one of those guys who brings X amount of things to the table and takes absolutely nothing off it, and he'll be better as a pro when he's playing with better teammates. He's a winner, he's always in the right place at the right time, he always makes the right decision on either end, he doesn't care about stats, he's immensely fun to play with and he makes 5-6 important plays per game that will not be reflected in the stats.

One silver lining: Because he's playing on a deep team and everyone keeps picking his game apart, he's definitely dropping out of the top three and possibly the top four. Well, Phoenix owns Atlanta's pick as long as it's not in the top three; I guarantee they're salivating over the chance that (A) that pick will be in the 4-to-6 range, and (B) Noah could fall to them. Can you imagine a better fit for Phoenix's frontcourt than Joakim Noah? Let's say they drafted him, and let's say they moved the other two first-rounders and maybe even Boris Diaw for a shooter (someone like Rashard Lewis or Mike Miller). Imagine a front seven of Nash, Stoudemire, Marion, Lewis/Miller, Bell, Noah and Barbosa? That's a 70-win team if everyone stays healthy.

(By the way, if anyone in Phoenix's front office is reading this right now, they're probably screaming, "Shut up! Shut the hell up! Dammit! He's ruining everything!")

• The Florida-Kentucky game was totally disappointing. Noah and Horford battled foul trouble the whole game; Kentucky couldn't hit anything from outside (3-for-22 from three!); and the only players who acquitted themselves well were Chris Richard (some huge minutes in Noah/Horford's place), Randolph Morris (kept Kentucky alive in the second half), Corey Brewer (Florida's slashing swingman who always seems to make 2-3 big plays down the stretch) and Ramel Bradley (Kentucky's point guard). Just an ugly game. I hate the five-foul rule because it's too much of an X-factor (especially during March Madness); for instance, Noah and Horford played 42 minutes combined against Kentucky. That's just stupid. It's the single dumbest rule in college hoops. I'd change it to a six-foul DQ with a catch -- if you commit a fifth foul, the other team gets to shoot two technical free throws as well.

Three other highlights from the game:

1. During the pregame show, they ran a pseudo-"Cribs" feature during which Andy Katz (wearing a sweater out of the Eric Mangini collection) visited the five-room suite where Florida's four juniors live (Noah, Horford, Brewer and Taurean Green). Strangely riveting, not just for the posters (Bob Marley, 2Pac, etc.), the decorations (Noah had his dad's French Rolling Stone cover on the wall) and the video game setup (a tiny room where Brewer admitted that he plays constantly), but because of the way Katz had a nervous smile on his face the whole time best interpreted as either, "I hope these guys hid everything" or "I hope we don't see any torn condom wrappers." When I'm running ESPN8, this will be a half-hour show every week: "Andy Katz's College Cribs."

2. We were blessed with the presence of Erin Andrews for this game, and if that wasn't enough, they showed footage of Erin during her days as a "Florida Dazzler" (the name for Florida's cheerleaders) from 1996-2000. I feel like you need to know these things.

3. On the "We Might Need To Throw Some Water On Him" scale, Dickie V was about an 8.5 for this game. That's when I realized that the single most underrated play-by-play guy in any sport is ESPN's Dan Shulman, who's morphed into the modern-day Pat Summerall, one of those nuts-and-bolts guys who never overpowers the game, never suffocates you with information and says everything as concisely as possible. And sure, he doesn't have much of a choice because Dickie V is talking 90 percent of the time and apparently doesn't need to breathe, but still ... it's hard to imagine anyone doing a better job announcing a game with Dickie V.

• As for the Iowa-Wisconsin game, I spent most of the time studying Alando Tucker, the "Player of the Year" candidate and divisive draft prospect who projects as a tweener for the pros and loses points because he's already 23 years old. Of course, I liked him -- he's an inside-outside scorer with a power-post game and great hands around the basket, one of those guys who will always get his 20-25 in college even if he's shooting like crap. Reminds me of Bonzi Wells, only without the police record. I'm sure he'll go about 20 spots too late in the draft, one of the smarter teams will draft him (like Phoenix, Dallas or San Antonio) and figure out how to take advantage of his offense while minimizing his defensive deficiencies (he's too small to defend 2-guards and doesn't have the height to handle forwards). Maybe he doesn't make much sense as a pro, but when you watch him in college, he doesn't make much sense either. My first impression was that he's a gamer and a winner ... but I need to see him a few more times to be sure. I was confused by Wisconsin in general. That's a 23-2 team? Really?

(By the way, as you get psychologically prepared for all the annoying March Madness subplots, make sure you're ready for the 10,000 inevitable cuts to Alando's mom in the stands. She's animated, she's loud and she can't be more than seven years older than him. Every network will make sure you will be tired of her by Round 2. We might have to kidnap her before the tournament, just to be safe.)

• As for Iowa, they have a lanky freshman named Tyler Smith that I liked. He's a little undersized for a forward but beats people off the dribble, creates shots for teammates and makes things happen on D. Plays above the rim, too. Interesting player. But the biggest shocker for me was that Steve Alford couldn't get a clothing deal this year -- he wore a dark Iowa rubgy shirt with matching sweat pants. He looked like a divorced dad who was picking up his son at his ex-wife's house and taking him to the dog track.

• Another fun running subplot this season: If you ever wanted to know what Private Pyle would have looked like 35 years later had he not taken his own life, check out Rick Majerus. When they cut to him during halftime of the Wisconsin game, I kept expecting him to refer to his play-by-play guy as "Joker."

• Only saw the highlights of the West Virginia-UCLA upset but couldn't help but notice WVU's disorienting yellow uniforms and how they blended in with the creepy yellow-and-blue court. How does any road team play well there? No wonder UCLA lost. Just watching those highlights gave me a headache -- I felt like I was shrooming with Josh Heytvelt and Theo Davis. The NCAA might have to step in there.

• Why did I watch two Gonzaga games in three days? Well, Gonzaga was the major story of the week since two of its players (Heytvelt and Davis) were suspended for getting caught in their car with pot and shrooms. (In their defense, they're going to college in the state of Washington. What else are you going to do? I think they should throw the case out.) Also, I became a WCC pseudo-junkie while preparing for my two ESPNU broadcasts (both WCC games); as I studied tape, I was shocked to discover that (A) Gonzaga wasn't that good, and (B) the conference seemed to be wide open.

Four weeks later? Not as wide open. The potential sleepers in the conference (St. Mary's and San Diego) couldn't get any momentum going, leaving Santa Clara as Gonzaga's only real threat. I wasn't sold on the Zags even before the pot/shrooms thing -- one of their best shooters (David Pendergraft) has flaming red hair, their best scorer (Derek Raivio, a skinny freelancer who makes jumpers from crazy angles) looks like Christian Bale in "The Machinist," and another starting guard (Matt Bouldin) looks like he bought Dan Dickau's old afro on eBay. I don't think they have a potential NBA player on the roster (not even Jeremy Pargo, a 6-2 athlete who does a little bit of everything). So when Santa Clara ended Gonzaga's 50-game home winning streak, it wasn't all that shocking because the Zags have no inside scoring without Heytfelt, so if they go cold for a prolonged stretch, anybody can beat them (something to remember for the WCC tournament in three weeks).

But here's what WAS shocking: Have you seen Santa Clara yet????

First of all, nobody on the team averages more than 10 points a game and they're 19-7. (Seriously. You can look it up.) Second, they threw a whitewash at Gonzaga for the entire second half. (At one point, I was half-asleep and mistakenly thought I was watching Brunswick School battling Rye Country Day in the Fairchester League playoffs.) And third, their two slash-and-kick guards (Brody Angley and Danny Pariseau) look like they're on hiatus from "Maui Fever." Still, they're one of those whole-exceeds-the-sum-of-the-parts teams that could definitely steal the WCC bid next month, then pull off one of those crazy "15-seed over the 2-seed" upsets in Round 1 of the NCAA Tournament when CBS shows their bench jumping up and down like little kids at least 200 times. Don't say I didn't warn you.

Basketball Blog: Grammys Diary

We'll tackle the extended weekend in college hoops tomorrow. In the meantime, an impromptu running diary of Sunday night's Grammys ...

8:01 -- The Police kick things off with their much-ballyhooed reunion, which would have had me 20 times more fired up if this were 1995. I can't believe it took them 23 years to forget how much they hated one another. Most bands only need five or six. Better late than never, I guess.

8:04 -- "Roxxxxxx-annne ... I can't hit the high notes anymore ... those days are over ... I'm singing everything in a much lower key ... Roxxxxxxxxxx-annnnnne ..."

8:06 -- Stevie Wonder and Tony Bennett steal the "Best Pop Duo" award from Nelly Furtado and Timbaland, followed by a meandering acceptance speech that played out exactly like an SNL sketch. In fact, it may have BEEN an SNL sketch. At one point, Tony thanked his friends at Target. No, he really did. I kept waiting for him to say, "I once made love to Barbra Streisand's Grammy for eight hours ... then the nurse came in and said, 'Mr Bennett, she's gone.'" Strong first 10 minutes for the Grammys.

8:10 -- The Dixie Chicks play a song from their hit album, "Nobody Listened To Us -- We Freaking Told You This Would Happen!" The two pretty ones are wearing black cocktail dresses; the semi-chubby one is wearing a white dress with a fluffy bottom. The Sports Gal is outraged. "It's like the two skinny ones talked her into it so they could look even thinner," she says. Um, OK.

8:17 -- Hey, has CBS killed off every stripper and hooker yet? How many more "CSI" and "Criminal Minds" episodes need to be filmed? Fifty? Seventy-five?

8:18 -- Prince introduces Beyonce like this: "One word: Beyonce." Apparently he just showed up for the Grammy gift bag.

8:22 -- The Black Eyed Peas come out to introduce "Best R&B album." I saw Fergie at the Celebrity Go-Kart Race last week and she was so unimpressive, my friends and I argued about whether she was one of the top 1,000 attractive famous females on the way home. I'm not making this up. (Note: I was in the "there are definitely 1,000 female celebs who are prettier than her" camp.) Anyway, Mary J. Blige wins for "The Breakthrough" and thanks Jesus Christ AND God. Let's hope they're watching together.

8:26 -- Sports Gal's advice for Queen Latifah: "If you're all shoulders and boobs and arms, you might not want to wear a dress that shows off your shoulders and boobs and arms." Good to know.

8:30 -- "Wednesday on CBS ... three hookers have been savagely murdered with a chain saw! Does their pimp know who did it? It's an all-new CSI Miami, Wednesday on CBS!"

8:34 -- It's a tie between Justin Timberlake and Chase Budinger for "white guy who does the best job transcending his whiteness." Justin Timberlake is performing right now, although he made the tragic decision not to sing "D*** in a Box." Hey, it's OK to think he's talented, right? Two hit albums AND he's one of the best SNL hosts ever AND he sold at the highest point possible on Britney's stock AND he wrote the best revenge song ever (the "Cry Me A River" song that pretty much murdered Britney's soul) AND he's plowing through every hot female in Hollywood right now. He's a hero, I say.

8:39 -- Pink presents for best R&B female singer as we frantically switch from CBS's HDTV channel to CBS's non-HDTV channel. As we're flicking, Mary J. Blige somehow beats Beyonce. I give up. Did anyone under 45 vote for these awards?

8:47 -- Stevie Wonder takes two minutes to introduce Corinne Bailey Rae, John Legend and John Mayer as the teleprompter guy quickly runs outside and has a smoke.

8:57 -- Big ovation for the Rae-Mayer-Legend performance. Very well done. You know the Grammys have fallen when an idea works and you're actually surprised.

8:59 -- Mayer upsets Timberlake to win the Grammy for "Best Pop Vocal Album." JT looks bummed out for a split second until remembering that he bagged Jessica Biel and Scarlett Johannson in the past three weeks.

9:06 -- Singing with Wyclef Jean, Shakira gets a begrudging, "Well, she IS a great dancer" comment from the Sports Gal. I think hell just froze over. Next thing you know, she'll be complimenting Jennifer Love Hewitt's acting in "Ghost Whisperer."

9:11 -- And the Grammy for "Song of the Year" goes to ... the Dixie Chicks. Is this an awards show or a three-hour apology with trophies?

9:18 -- You're going to be stunned to hear this, but Gnarls Barkley is singing "Crazy" right now. I can't believe it! How did they get them? These guys never do awards shows!

(Question: When is Rhino Records releasing a "Successful songs that were beaten completely to death at awards shows and sporting events" CD compilation? They could have "Hey Ya," "Let's Get Retarded," "Let's Get This Party Started," "What's My Name?" ... it might even be a double album.)

9:25 -- Ludacris wins "Best Rap Album." I wish Mike Tyson had presented that one.

9:31 -- Wait, I forget ... did ALL the guys from "How I Met Your Mother" come out of the closet, or was it just Neil Patrick Harris?

9:33 -- For some reason, Terence Howard doesn't look like Eddie Jordan anymore. I don't know what happened. He just introduced Mary J. Blige by saying, "Ladies and gentleman, we are in the presence of true musical royalty." Yeah, nothing says royalty like someone wearing a sequined full-length dress with multiple tattoos on her arms. It's just like being in Buckingham Palace.

9:36 -- "And the Grammy for 'Most Annoying Song' goes to ... John Mellencamp for 'Our Country!'"

9:39 -- Best moment of the night: LeAnn Rimes and Mandy Moore coming out to present as the camera cuts to Jamie Foxx studying them with one of those, "Wait, have I been with either of them yet?" looks on his face. Classic. He's the best. Meanwhile, the Dixie Chicks win again for "Best Country Album." We might make it through this entire show without me hearing a single song that I downloaded in 2006.

9:49 -- Reba McEntire takes two minutes to introduce a 10-minute country medley featuring Carrie Underwood and Rascal Flatts. Looks like I picked the wrong week to stop sniffing glue.

9:58 -- Sports Gal's take on Rascal Flatts: "I don't get it. I don't get it at all. I hate everything about them. I hate their name. I hate their music. I hate the lead singer's voice. I hate his hair. I hate his leather jacket. I hate everything. What are they? I wouldn't even hire them for a wedding if I only had $15,000 to spend on everything." She's not a fan.

10:02 -- Carrie Underwood wins for "Best New Artist." Meanwhile, Justin Guarini just served coffee to two policemen at a Yum Yum Donuts in Brentwood.

10:04 -- They just showed that VCast commercial for "Fergalicious," which made me think of Adam Carolla's riff about how hip-hop stars and rappers are the only people who can get away with singing songs where the chorus is their own name. Like, you'd never hear John Mayer record a song called "I'm John Mayer ... J-O-H-N John Mayer ... all the girls on the planet are digging me ... I'm so sexy and so handsome and there's plenty to see ... I'm J-O-H-N John Mayer."

10:08 -- All right, I'll ask: Can you have an awards show without Sam Jackson? Has anyone ever tried?

10:11 -- Strange medley of performances: Smokey Robinson, Lionel Richie and Chris Brown. What did they have in common? You got me. On the bright side, Lionel sang "Hello" and the performance ended with Stevie Wonder showing up in drag, holding up a plaster bust of Lionel and telling him, "This is what I see when I see you." All right, I made that up. But Lionel really did sing "Hello."

10:19 -- Hey, did you ever think you'd see the day when Christina Aguilera was much prettier, sexier AND cleaner-looking than Britney Spears? Me neither. Britney won the battle, Christina won the war. Who woulda thunk?

10:26 -- "Thursday on all-new CSI: Bloody decomposing hookers! You hear us??? Bloody decomposing hookers!"

10:30 -- Yet another disappointment: A ho-hum "Here's who died this year" montage until the James Brown money shot. I'd give it a D-plus. They should have thrown Britney in there for comedy's sake.

10:36 -- For those of you scoring at home, Rob and Amber have TWO reality shows going right now: "The Amazing Race" on CBS (we just saw an ad for it) and another show on Fox Reality where Rob becomes a professional gambler. I'm not making this up. How many more shows before they finally hunker down to film a sex tape? We've already exceeded the over/under by two years. What's the holdup?

10:39 -- Ludacris does a song. Why does it seem like every performer tonight also ends up with a Grammy? What is this, the ESPYS?

10:43 -- James Blunt surfaces to sing that "you're beautiful ... you're beautiful ..." song right now. When everything's said and done, we're going to remember that as the lamest song of this decade. And that's saying something. Do you think Steve Nash cut his hair because he was tired of the Blunt jokes? I say yes.

10:54 -- Note to the people who run the Grammys: The idea to have a contest winner perform with JT sounded cute and all, but, um ... it's the Grammys! Would the Oscars ever pull something like this? By the way, we're nearing the three-hour mark. I'm officially in hell.

10:59 -- As Quentin Tarantino and Tony Bennett announce the nominees for "Record of the Year," we see a shot of a smiling Paris Hilton in the crowd. Good God, can that girl do anything to end her own career? Sex tapes, racial slurs, drugs, hateful personality, no discernable talent at all ... and she's still chugging along. Are we sure she's not Satan? Let's chop her head off and see if it grows back.

11:00 -- The Dixie Chicks win again for "Record of the Year." I feel like the Grammy voters are speaking out against the Iraqi conflict at this point. We'll know for sure if Cindy Sheehan wins for "Best Rock Album."

11:09 -- Finally, some good music: The Chili Peppers belting out "Hey Oh." Did you ever think these guys would still be good after two full decades? I remember being stunned when "Californication" was good and that was eight years ago. They've had one of those John Stockton-type careers where you can't remember one year when they were dominant or anything, then you look back and realize they've been getting it done forever. Although I can't imagine Stockton ever walked around naked with a sock holding his junk.

11:14 -- Here's a sentence you'll never hear again: "Ladies and gentleman, Al Gore and Queen Latifah!" They present the "Best Rock Album" Grammy to a surprisingly subdued Chili Peppers. Oh, wait, they're in the mid-40s now. Forget it.

11:25 -- Our final awards tonight: Don Henley and Scarlett Johannson come out to present Scarlett's breasts, as well as the "Album of the Year" ... and the Dixie Chicks end up going 5-for-5. Now pray for me while I spend the rest of the night trying to get that "I'm not ready to make nice ... I'm not ready to back down" song out of my head. This is ouuuuuuuuuuur country.

Basketball Blog: Taking a time out

Time for a one-day shift from the Basketball Blog only because readers keep asking why I never wrote anything about last Sunday's Super Bowl. Take Dan from Chicago, who writes, "After bashing Peyton Manning for years and unashamedly praising your Patriots, I am very disappointed that you have nothing to say following Super Bowl XLI. Come on, admit it, it makes you mad that Manning has a Super Bowl ring and proved everyone (including you) wrong."

Fair point. I probably should have written something. And yes, I hate being wrong. More than anything. But did you really need a column from me on Monday? Wasn't the game crummy enough? Did you really want to endure my crummy, bitter, filled-with-backhanded compliments, sour grapes thoughts about it? The Colts had the best team, they deserved to win, and I hope that we never have to see highlights of that out-and-out affront to American football ever again. Even the S.I. commercial selling the Colts team video should blur out the highlights like they blur out breasts in those "Girls Gone Wild" ads. In all seriousness, couldn't you have made a legitimate case for Rex Grossman winning the MVP? What single player did more to affect that game for the Colts? Think about the definition of that award -- it goes to the most valuable player on the field, right? Who was more valuable to that final score than Rex?

The bigger picture: We've entered a legitimate drought for championship finals and title games. The last three Super Bowls were horrible. The last three World Series were horrible. The last two NBA Finals were horrible. The last college football and basketball championship was horrible. Other than the 2006 Rose Bowl, the most entertaining Final or Finals since 2004 was the year that the NHL cancelled their Finals because of the lockout. At least we didn't suffer. But that Colts-Bears crapfest was the worst of all of them -- not only did it make the Seahawks-Steelers game look like the climactic game in "Varsity Blues," not only did the rain kill the fun for the fans, not only did CBS forget to bring wipers for their rented HDTV cameras, not only was Phil Simms rambling to the point that someone at my party questioned his blood/alcohol level, not only did the commercials stink, not only did the Bears embarrass themselves on both sides of the ball, but Prince disappointed every FCC-hater by not ending the halftime show with "Darling Nikki." Just a slew of frustrations all the way around.

On the other hand, a win's a win. So congrats to the Colts, congrats to their fans, congrats to Manning, you guys rule, you shoved it in every Patriot fan's face, blah blah blah. Let us know when you get to three rings.

(See, this is why I didn't want to write about the Super Bowl -- you knew I'd get petty and turn into a Yankee fan. And no, I didn't attend the game. You really think I wanted to be sitting in the building thinking about Troy Brown running the wrong way on 3rd-and-4 as Manning held up the Super Bowl MVP trophy? Please. I left treadmarks getting out of Miami on Sunday morning. Now you need to do me the favor of allowing me to adjust to a world where A.) my wife is a superior football handicapper than me, and B.) the Manning Face no longer exists. Please respect my family's privacy at this time.)

Anyway, Jemele Hill did a great job of recapping Super Bowl Weekend for Page 2, even if she greatly overstated my "juice" and omitted the fact that we shared a cab ride from the ESPN party to the Maxim party in which her boyfriend and I spent 25 minutes arguing about the '80s Celtics and '80s Pistons. That's all I have as a Celtics fan anymore -- arguments about things that happened 20 years ago. There should be a show like "Pardon the Interruption" where people argue about stuff that already happened; I'd love to go on there and argue about the '87 Eastern Finals with Jemele Hill's boyfriend. (Whoops, we already had a show like that called "Classic Now." And, uh, it didn't do very well. Scratch that idea.) The ESPN party was memorable mainly because of the free booze, the athlete sightings and the sneaky humidity inside and outside -- it turned out to be a great place to see someone holding a sportscoat with damp stains underneath each armpit. Maxim's party had less body heat, more booze, more bimbos and the cooling psychological presence of the Sagamore Hotel's gigantic pool, with the added bonus that none of my bosses were staring at me in horror every time I went back to the bar for another drink.

It's also the place where I finally met Tom Brady -- not because he knew my columns, but because one of his friends knows a good friend of mine from back home. Poor Brady was trapped inside a roped-off area hiding next to the bar, with his buddies shielding him from any unexpected approaches, almost like an offensive line. He's extremely friendly and jarringly tall (a legitimate 6-foot-5). We ended up commiserating about the Pats-Colts loss for a few minutes (needless to say, he was still kicking himself about the 21-3 lead) before one of the Farrelly Brothers appeared out of nowhere and I ducked away -- if we were introduced, either he would have taken a swing at me for my "Fever Pitch" review, or I would have taken a swing at him because it was his fault that I had to see Jimmy Fallon high-fiving Curtis Leskanic 45 seconds into the greatest sporting moment of my life. So that was my brush with Brady. Much more exciting than the time I met Neil O'Donnell.

Three other belated highlights from Saturday:

1. As Jemele described in her column, they held the Playboy party at the American Airlines Arena (where the Miami Heat plays), a somewhat sterile location that made me feel like I was standing at the biggest, most elaborate wedding ever thrown. It was also an out-an-out sausage fest, and not even a sausage fest of younger guys -- I'd say 80 percent of the people there looked exactly like James Dolan. Then you'd see the Playmates walking around and think, "Wait, this isn't a wedding." I would have been much more impressed if I hadn't spent six days in South Beach -- by the end of the weekend, I was burned out on beauty. You could have trotted out the top-100 women from Maxim's hot list, in order, and I would have been standing there saying, "Yeah, she's not so bad ... yeah, she's O.K. ... yeah, she's decent ..." Basically, it was like my experience in college, only the exact opposite. And did I mention there was copious amounts of free food and drinks? I enjoyed the Playboy party.

2. Around 1:00 am that same night, I tagged along with some friends to the Versace Mansion, which is located in South Beach and known as one of the great party houses of all-time. Sure, it's a little weird that the original owner was gunned down on the front steps by a crazed stalker, but you only think about that for about three seconds before moving onto more important things like "What kind of vodkas do they have?" and "Do you think anyone will get pushed into the pool tonight?" There's a huge open courtyard that features a pool and bars on both sides (maybe 50 yards deep), and the sides of the house hug either side, so you have dozens of staircase/balcony/indoor room options for hanging out (would have made a great setting for a "Miami Vice" episode). Throw in all the celebs, football players, models, wanna-be trophy girlfriends and drunken clubbers in attendance and this could have been the Lambeau Field of party houses. What a scene. I'm starting to wonder if I hallucinated the whole thing. My favorite moment happened when the old guy with the hat who dresses strangely and goes to every Clips/Lakers home game was there, standing in the middle of a packed crowd outside, only he wasn't moving -- he was just kind of standing there like a corpse -- and one of my friends yelled out, "Look, it's Bernie!" Perfect setting, perfect timing, perfect subject ... that was the perfect storm for a joke. I enjoyed the Versace Mansion.

3. That afternoon, I was asked to participate in the Cadillac Celebrity Go-Cart Race even though I'm not a celebrity. The event was held near the American Airlines Arena and featured celebs like Nick Lachey, Fergie, Josh Duhamel, Matt Leinart, Queen Latifah and others, all of whom were infinitely more famous than me. Before the race, I was talking to one of the PR people running the race and some "Access Hollywood" anchor named Tony Potts approched us. Apparently he won the race two years ago; you might remember reading about this in Celebrity Go-Cart Illustrated. When we were introduced, the PR person said, "Tony, do you have any advice for Bill?" After all, this was my first go-cart race -- seemed like an innocent conversation starter, right?

Here's what Tony tells me: "If you feel a tap on your bumper, it's either me, Tweeden or Duhamel. That means you need to get out of the way. And if you don't get out of the way, we'll spin you right out of there."

There were a couple of things I loved about this. First, he referred to the other two celebs (LeeAnn Tweeden and Josh Duhamel) by their last names, like they were professional athletes or something. Second, this blowhard was completely, totally, 100-percent serious. I swear to God. I know it's impossible to believe that someone could be this much of a d-bag, but believe me -- I have a witness. This happened. Third, did I mention that this was a celebrity go-cart race???? It was for charity!!!!!!!!! It's not like we were racing for a new Escalade. And fourth, he completely underestimated my competitiveness and driving acumen. Hell, I once went 120 miles an hour on the Merritt Parkway in a car that was 9 years old and had 105,000 miles on it. Now I was supposed to be afraid of an anchor from "Inside Hollywood?" Er, "Access Hollywood?" Please.

I pretended not to be perturbed, waited for him to leave, confirmed with the PR person that he was completely serious -- he was -- then made plans to run him off the road like Bo Duke. Any chance of me calming down was erased during the "safety lecture" before the race started, when they went over the track and all the precautions -- including how it's not good to bump other drivers -- and Tweeden and Potts (two of the last three winners) sat in the front row cracking jokes like, "just stay out of our way and you won't get hurt" and getting a little TOO into it. They were like the too-cool-for-school kids, only the school wasn't that cool. Again, this was a celebrity f***ing go-cart race.

They broke the groups into five heats, with my heat coming last -- I was in a foursome with Leinart (who looked like death warmed over and a possible threat to puke in his helmet), Lachey (who's constantly smiling, like he can't believe he's having sex with someone who enjoys it) and some girl from "Heroes" who had a lot of letters in her last name. Normally I would have been favored but I was bordering on being legally drunk from the night before. Plus, size dictates who wins go-cart races; someone like Tweeden (40-50 pounds lighter than everyone else) or Lachey (light for a guy) possesses a distinct advantage over heavier people like Leinart, Shawne Merriman (who was allowed to race since they didn't have drug-testing) and Queen Latifah (sorry, I had to). And since the top two advanced to the semis, I knew I'd advance as long as I didn't crash ... which I didn't, finishing second behind Lachey (the weight thing again).

(Note: In the Pantheon of "Things We Don't Do With Our Buddies Nearly Enough": Driving go-karts has to rank right up there with football tailgates, bowling and miniature golf skins games for $50 per hole. Pass your mid-20's and none of these things are ever suggested or broached again -- yet it's a guaranteed afternoon of fun every time. Come on, what's better than zooming around a track trying to intentionally injure your friends? Nothing, I say.)

Now the semis roll around. As fate would have it, Potts wasn't just in my heat ... our cars were side to side in the front row, with Potts to my right. And as fate would have it, Potts's lane partially closed about 125 feet ahead, so if he didn't get out in front of me at the start, either he'd have to jump behind me as we passed through the smaller space, or he'd have to trust that I wouldn't run him into the sand bags to his right.

Of course, I planned on veering right and pushing him into the sand bags. The mere scenario had me so giddy, I could barely keep a straight face. It was like the Celebrity Go-Cart Gods had put this right on a platter for me. Right before the race, he looked over at me and I looked back blankly, with part of me wanting to make the Sprewell throat-cutting gesture (I held off). So the starter yells, "Ready..." and Tony starts revving his engine like an ass. Again, it's a f***ing go-cart. Then the starter yells "set ..." and wouldn't you know it, this sleazeball jumps the gun and takes off. By the time the starter said "Go," he had a two-second headstart on everyone, which they would never penalize him for because, again, it's a celebrity f***ing go-cart race.

(This seems like a good time to mention that the winner of this race got to give $10,000 for their favorite charity -- I was driving for the Jimmy Fund -- and this slimeball cheated to get a jumpstart in the semis. How do you cheat in a celebrity go-cart race for charity???? How does this happen??? I expected so much more from a guy who lives in Hollywood and hosts a syndicated entertainment/gossip show.)

Anyway, I took off like a bat out of hell trying to catch him. And since the race lasted for only five laps, it wasn't looking good. Three laps in, he's still about 50 feet ahead of me but coasting because he has a top-two spot locked up. I'm comfortably ahead of the two cars behind me and have the other Finals spot all but locked up -- it would have been me, Duhamel, Potts and Tweeden, ironically enough. But that wasn't cutting it. I was just close enough that it was conceivable I could catch him from behind, spin him out and possibly kill him ... which, in all honesty, would have been my happiest moment of 2007. And I'm flying around the track hitting the big 90-degree turn on Lap 4, but I'm going a little too fast, and ... skiddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd.

I spin out.

Not egregiously, but just enough that the last two cars pass me and I have to settle for fourth. The lesson, as always: Don't let your temper get the best of you during a celebrity go-cart race.

As for the finals, I couldn't even bear to watch -- Tweeden ended up winning again (remember, the weight thing) and seemed far too happy about it, spraying champagne over everyone in Winners Row like she had just won the Daytona 500. Whatever. Go shoot another calendar, honey. The good news was that she won the race by spinning out a seething Tony Potts, who was mildly furious afterwards but played it off like it was all fun and games. No way. He was definitely ticked. And frankly, so was I. You know you're sulking at a celebrity event when Queen Latifah comes over to cheer you up.

Where does this leave me and Tony, you ask? Well, I'm going to one of those four-day driving schools to learn all the tricks. No, seriously. That's how competitive I am. Maybe I have a bad back and had to retire from basketball, but I can still drive cars and go-karts, right? Next year, I'm getting revenge on Tony -- whether it happens in a go-kart race, a stoplight on Wilshire, the 405 or wherever else -- and if it leads to one of those "Days of Thunder"-type messes where we're ramming into each other's cars in public for 20 blocks, so be it.

Basketball Blog: Welcome to the blog

During Wednesday night's Duke-Carolina game, Dickie V called this year's freshman class "the best freshman class since I've ever been on television." Which dates back to 1879, if you're scoring at home. But it's been a rare double blessing for the college game, which now features two superduperstars (Greg Oden and Kevin Durant) and a number of other stud freshmen that beefed up the talent pool to its highest level since the early '90s.

Meanwhile, the NBA's main objective for the age limit has been realized -- namely, that we're getting to know future superstars before they actually enter the league. We're forming opinions on them. We're learning about them. In some cases (like myself with Durant), we're becoming fans of them. And that's a HUGE deal. The age limit wasn't about protecting these kids as much as cultivating them as properties over the long haul. For example, what would have been better for the league -- Durant getting drafted by the Raptors and playing 25 up-and-down minutes a game (like Bargnani right now), or Durant kicking butt in college and turning himself into a national phenomenon, someone who has every diehard basketball fan checking schedules to see when Texas is playing next? It's a no-brainer. Can you imagine a better scenario for the NBA than people spending the next five months arguing about Durant vs. Oden?

Well, that's exactly what will happen. Not only has "Durant vs. Oden" been the most important sports debate of 2007, that question has sucked me back into college hoops again. I give a crap. And not just because the immediate destiny of the Boston Celtics will be determined on May 22nd -- this is a whole other story -- but because it's an extraordinary sports debate. Who would you rather have? Who has a higher ceiling? Who's a safer pick? Are we overrating or underrating them? Anyway, I'm throwing myself into this thing and resurrecting the old "More Cowbell" blog as an all-basketball blog. It could last a few weeks, it could last through March Madness, it could last through the draft. I don't know.

Bill talked about fantaking, his beloved Celtics and Greg Oden and Kevin Durant on ESPN Radio. Insider

What are my ultimate goals?

1. To answer the "Durant vs. Oden?" question definitively and indisputably.

2. To figure out which college teams could win the whole shebang next month.

3. To subject you to my ongoing fantanking obsession with the Celtics, which has become unhealthy to the point that I burned out my friends and my father. None of them want to discuss it with me anymore. So now, I'm going to burn you out.

4. To watch at least one college hoops game (sometimes two) per day and post my thoughts here (when warranted).

5. To throw in some relevant NBA commentary when warranted.

And that's it. Here are my notes on three college games that I watched this week. Please note that this post is longer than the subsequent ones because it's really three posts stuffed into one. Anyway ...


Setup: Do you even need one? I like the UNC-Duke rivalry because everyone picks a side and digs in, and that's the way it is until you die whether you're a fan, player, coach, professor or whomever else. With the Yankees and Sox, they pretend it's a rivalry -- and for the fans, it definitely is -- but how much bad blood can there be when someone like Johnny Damon switches teams with no real repercussions? Imagine Coach K resigning from Duke to take over the UNC job, or Brandan Wright deciding that he hated UNC and wanted to transfer to Duke ... I mean, would that EVER happen? Duke and UNC are like the Crips and Bloods, only if everyone was driving Land Rovers and wearing hoodies.

Recap: Duke jumps out 15-6, crowd goes crazy ... UNC giving up open threes and struggling to push the pace (looking more out of control than anything) ... Tyler Hansbrough 4 points, 0 rebounds at 15-minute mark, second half ... wait, here comes UNC! ... 52-52 and UNC's athletes are taking over ... bad sign for Duke that it played out of its mind at home and is losing ... Ty Lawson with two killer crunch-time drives to clinch the game ... Duke just didn't have the horses ... final score: UNC 79, Duke 73.

Random thoughts ...

1. I don't see how anyone can call themselves sports fans and not watch these Duke-UNC games. Two standout moments in this one: A) when Duke's Brian Zoubek and UNC's Reyshawn Terry tied up a loose ball, landed on one another and both refused to let go (even after the ref called a jump ball); and B) a great replay sequence of Roy Williams exhorting his team from the UNC bench (screaming "Come on!!!!!!!" with his fists balled, almost like a boxing trainer in the 12th round or something), followed by Josh McRoberts crying into a towel because he was so frustrated that he'd picked up a fourth foul. Great energy from start to finish. And yes, you read that correctly -- McRoberts cried during the game. I blame Adam Morrison.

2. The Tar Heels could be dangerous next month because of three guys: a serviceable low-post player (Hansbrough, who had a quiet 16 points), a slithery freshman forward projected as a top-5 pick (Wright, good for a 19-9), and a raw freshman PG who can get to the rim and looks like Ray Felton 2.0 (Lawson, who had 15 points and 8 boards). So they're never out of any game and have the depth to wear weaker teams down (as Duke found out). Their main concerns are poor 3-point shooting and a lack of experience; I could see them being exposed in the tournament by a more experienced team that forces them to make 20-footers (like Texas A&M -- more on the Aggies in a second).

As for Duke, it's a bad sign when you play like that at home, get a career-high 26 points from your freshman shooting guard (Jon Scheyer, a more palatable J.J. Redick), force a bunch of bad shots and turnovers ... and at the 10-minute mark, the game's a tossup. The Blue Devils are missing one athletic scorer who can carry them for 2-3 minutes at a time, especially at the end of games. (Actually, they always seem to be missing a guy like this -- even when they recruited Corey Maggette, he fled after one season and the Duke fans realized they weren't ready for Maggette.) But this is the second time I've watched them this year (saw the Virginia Tech loss as well) and I've been underwhelmed both times. They're a year away. At least.

3. Sadly, no Erin Andrews for this one. Couldn't she be the sideline reporter for every ESPN game? What's stopping this from happening? Travel? Money? Why couldn't they emulate what CBS did with John Madden, buy her a luxury bus, call it the ErinMobile, then assign her to seven games a week so she could travel the country enriching everyone's lives?

4. A fun question for you and your friends: Who's going to suck more in the pros, Josh McRoberts or Tyler Hansbrough? I say McRoberts -- he looks like the next Billy Curley to me, and there's a decent chance they're the same age. But why hasn't Hansborough gotten even one iota better since last season? Even his stats are exactly the same. I was much higher on him last spring. How will he get his points in the pros? He would have been a top-12 pick last season; I don't see him going top-25 now.

5. Wright is a little more interesting -- one of those shaky effort guys who looks fantastic in those workouts that get Chad Ford all hot and bothered. The announcers compared him to Sam Perkins Wednesday -- young Sam Perkins, not fat/dreadlocked Sam Perkins -- but he's more talented than Sam because he's a natural scorer and has a knack for bouncing off guys and keeping his body control in the air (like Cedric Maxwell back in the day). But the effort thing ... ugh. How many times do we have to go down this road? You're either hungry or you're not.

If he's the consensus No. 3 pick right now, I'm even more frightened to hear David Stern say the words, "And the third pick goes to ... the Boston Celtics." Seriously, I might stop following sports if this happens. I can't handle even thinking about it.

6. "I'm coaching a team that's lost three straight and looks like they're a year away. My best player cried during the biggest game of the season. My biggest coaching rival has been kicking my ass for three straight years. My card is American Express."

7. Greg Paulus is Duke's Rex Grossman -- he can look good for stretches, but it's only a matter of time before he self-destructs (like this game's 5-for-17 performance). And yes, Grossman was so bad in the Super Bowl that we'll be using him in sports analogies for years and decades to come.

(Here's another example: the Gary Payton lookalike who plays President Palmer is such a lousy actor, he's turning into the Rex Grossman of "24." Has there ever been a less convincing President in a movie or TV show? They couldn't have spent a little extra money for one of the Wayans brothers?)

8. Final thought: Imagine if Durant went to Carolina over Texas? That almost happened. Yikes.


Setup: Must-win game for the 16-7 Wolverines and a must-have-a-big-game for Oden, who needs to respond with Kevin Durant stealing his thunder on a national level. Can Oden dominate one of these games on national TV? It's time, right?

Recap: Michigan handles OSU's full-court press in the first half as OSU looks bored most of the time ... Oden controls both ends (12 points, 4 blocks) but doesn't get much help ... Oden gets three fouls (41-34, OSU), by the time he comes back, OSU's only up four (56-52) ... then OSU makes some threes and pulls away down the stretch. Pretty ho-hum game. Final score: OSU 76, Michigan 63.

Random thoughts ...

1. Michigan pounded it down low to get Oden in foul trouble only it didn't have the horses to pull it off and Oden blocked/tipped/altered nearly every shot (he's one of the rare shotblockers who always remembers to contest shots with his left hand). He's the most dominant defensive player since Alonzo Mourning at Georgetown, although he doesn't have the same nose for boards that Moses had (or even KG). I've seen too many guys sneak past him to grab rebounds away. He's a good rebounder but not a great one.

Offensively, his footwork is excellent and he can spin either way with his back to the hoop. He has a weird-looking jump hook that he pushes from his shoulder (because he can't grip the ball yet); that shot needs some work. He also seems hungrier to score/dominate than he was during the first few weeks -- partly because of the broken hand, partly because all the KD hype might have lit a fire under him. And he's getting better and better with his left hand (maybe the broken wrist was a blessing). If there's a red flag other than the rebounding, it's his competitiveness -- he's a pretty passive, expressionless dude and that lack of emotion spreads to the rest of the team. He reminds me of Ewing in this way. Let's keep him away from the Gold Club to be safe.

2. There wasn't one guy who jumped out at me on the Michigan team. See you in the NIT, fellas.

3. Really like OSU's frosh point guard, Mike Conley Jr., who had the best game of his season (23 points, 6 assists, 9-for-12 shooting) and seems to be getting better and better. I can't believe how much he plays like Johnny Dawkins, right down to the jumping and the southpaw thing -- let's hope he doesn't go to the pros and blow out his knee in 45 different places like Johnny did. Definitely a future pro but I don't see the Nate Archibald comparisons. That's a little strong.

3a. Brent Musberger described Conley as so smooth "he plays basketball like Duke Ellington." Way to know your audience, Brent.

4. Congrats to Steve Lavin for successfully using the word "blowbyability" without getting fined by the FCC. He did have one great point: OSU gets bored during games and loses its focus, so opponents can have a run until it wakes up. If OSU loses in March, this will be why. I don't think the Buckeyes communicate very well or even seem to like playing together that much. Doesn't seem like a particularly close team and according to one of the guys from my Celtics message board (a poster named OSUCeltic), "The problem is the three veterans they count on (Ron Lewis, Jamar Butler and Ivan Harris -- a combined 4-for-16 against Michigan) all pout if they aren't getting shots. It has been very disappointing. Especially Butler, who may have been the Big Ten MVP last year. Conley came in and took his job, and Butler has been pouting ever since." Plus, they have ANOTHER scorer coming off the bench (Daequan Cook) who's like the Big Ten's version of Vinnie Johnson. That's a lot of balls to go around. Not sure if the pieces match up but it's a scary team on paper. It might make for a better fantasy team.

5. Hey, did we ever find out why Tommy Amaker decided to start dressing like Sean Connery? Was it a conscious decision? Was he inspired by an old "Celebrity Jeopardy" sketch on "SNL?"

6. One last Oden note: Let's all agree to stop comparing him to Bill Russell. He's no better or worse than any other stud center prospect from the past 25 years (dating back to Ralph Sampson). From a "what player does he remind me of most?" comparison, I'd go with Mourning, who received similar hype at Georgetown and had a similar impact when he was there -- as a freshman playing back when most college stars remained in school for 3-4 years, Mourning averaged 13.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.0 blocks a game (Oden averages 15 points, 9.5 rebounds and 3.6 blocks right now). I could see Oden having an Alonzo-like NBA career where he's good for a 23-12 every night and 3-4 blocks on a 50-win team, with a decent chance that his offensive game could blossom closer to Ewing or David Robinson (both of whom peaked in the high-20s as scorers).

Regardless, let's stop comparing him to Russell. There will never be another Russell. The next field producer who OKs the decision to show old Russell highlights during an OSU game should be suspended.

FEB. 5: TEXAS (#25) AT TEXAS A&M (#7)

Setup: Biggest home game in 25 years for A&M with Kevin Durant AND Dickie V coming to town. Are the Aggies for real? Can Durant continue to make everyone feel dumb for not mentioning him as a possible No. 1 pick until the legendary 37-23 game against Texas Tech? And is it sad that I get more excited for Longhorn games than Celtics games these days?

Recap: The Aggies jump to a 14-point lead (Texas looks tight), KD drags them back into the game (they always wait to start feeding him until the game is about to slip away) ... KD getting the LeBron/Wade treatment from the refs as each member of A&M's entire team has 3 fouls, including the trainer and equipment manager ... starting the second half, KD gets hot and scores 12 points in about 5 seconds, leading to Dickie V nearly losing consciousness ... the Aggies start double-teaming him and pull away ... Texas tires down the stretch because they only played six guys ... deceiving final score (Aggies 100, Longhorns 82).

Random thoughts ...

1. Everyone makes a fuss about Billy Gillispie but it's absolutely justified; sometimes you can just tell when a college team is well-prepared. A&M adjusted nicely over the course of the game, double-teamed KD and attacked him on the other end with bigger players. Come to think of it, the Gillispie-Barnes battle was a complete mismatch -- Barnes is coaching the best freshman scorer since Maravich and has no clue how to get him the ball. Why wouldn't they spread the floor and have him attack off the dribble? What's the point of posting him up when he's always double-teamed? Why do they settle for so many bad shots? Durant should be scoring 35-40 a night. Easy.

2. Really liked Acie Law IV (21 pts, 15 assists), who reminds me of Damon Stoudamire (before he started smuggling pot onto charter airplanes) and showed some crunch-time chops in the Kansas upset last weekend. You have to love any player who would put "Law IV" on his jersey, when nobody knows who the hell Laws I-III are -- and you really have to love someone who isn't ashamed to carry the first name of one of the worst Celtics draft picks ever.

(Note: You had to be there in Boston during the Acie Earl Era -- it was right when the wheels were coming off after Reggie Lewis' death and the fact that we replaced Robert Parish with a center combo of Eric Montross and Acie Earl symbolized everything. Then he left after the '94-'95 season, showed up one night playing for Toronto and dropped 40 on us to set the FleetCenter record. To put this in perspective, Acie scored 980 points in his entire CAREER. This might have been the most depressing Celtics moment that didn't involve somebody dying. I wanted to drink myself to death after the game. Anyway, I'm glad Acie redeemed the name and look forward to him getting drafted about 12 spots too late in next year's NBA draft. These teams never learn.)

3. I liked two other guys on A&M. Antanas Kavaliauskas (18 points, 11 boards) is one of those European forwards who can shoot threes, bang the boards and always seems to be in the right place at the right time. He's out of the Luke Walton/Jorge Garbajosa mold. (Note: I still feel like Luke Walton should have pretended he was European before the 2004 draft and changed his name to Lukas Waltonakis -- he would have gone 15 spots higher.) Liked Josh Carter as well (a 24-10-5), although it could have been a career night for him. Need to see him again.

4. Texas' frosh point guard, D.J. Augustin, had a good statistical game (23 pts, 9 assists, 12-13 FT) but leads the Big-12 in "No-No-Yes!" drives and plays out of control most of the time -- I think he's a five-time attendee of Nate Robinson Summer Camp. He's going to kill Texas in March because he doesn't take care of the ball. (Too bad Durant can't play with an experienced point guard like Law; his life would be much easier and he'd get to know what it's like to be thrown an entry pass.) Also, Texas is missing one of those 6-foot-7, 230-pounders who can sit picks, grab some boards, throw some elbows and push people around. They don't have a single guy who can spring Durant off a screen. It's too bad trading isn't allowed in college hoops -- those guys are easy to find. Maybe the WCC can allow trading on a trial basis to see if it works.

5. For the first time in my life, I thoroughly enjoyed a Dickie V broadcast. He was gushing about Durant (28 points, 15 boards) and shrieking dickiebabble at least 12-15 times throughout the game, but in this case, it was completely warranted. He's the only one who can capture properly how ridiculous this guy is -- and sure, he's doing it through a mixture of screams and noises, but still. That's what the Durant Era needs and requires: tons of dickiebabble. He's that good.

6. Watch out for Texas A&M next month. Looking at the March Madness checklist, the Aggies have an up-and-coming coach (Gillispie), a terrific point guard (Law), multiple three-point shooters and a specific identity (defense and speed). And they're the kind of team nobody would pick if they didn't know anything -- imagine seeing Texas A&M on a bracket as a 2-seed? If you didn't know any better, you'd pick them to get shocked in the first two rounds, right? Consider yourself warned.

7. All right, I'm only allowing myself two-and-a-half paragraphs on Durant. But along with his 15 (and counting) ready-for-the NBA moves, his underrated passing (the biggest shocker for me), the shotblocking ability (watch how many times he swats somebody from behind), his 25-foot range (legitimate), his Freddie Krueger arms and everything else, the one quality that sets Durant apart from everyone else in college is his decision making -- not the decisions themselves but how quickly he makes them. This guy knows exactly what he's doing at all times and never hesitates even for a split-second. Look for this the next time you watch Texas play. It's the rarest of qualities for a scorer.

Dickie V compared his scoring prowess to Bob McAdoo, but Durant has more range on his jumper, longer arms and more athletic ability (McAdoo got his 30 every night on jumpers and pull-up drives when that's only part of KD's arsenal). The more I'm thinking about it, we haven't seen anyone approaching Durant before -- seriously, a 6-9 shooting guard with a 7-5 wingspan who's still growing??? -- so we probably shouldn't play the "he reminds me of …" game with him. Maybe you can see pieces of various guys in his overall game, like KG (body type), McAdoo (scoring ability), T-Mac (ability to get to the rim with either hand), Plastic Man (the long arms), Hakeem (the ludicrous falling-out-of-bounds fallaway), Wade (competitiveness) and even C-Webb (the innate passing gene). But those are just pieces. He's an original prototype. It's like seeing the first Model-T car or the first Apple computer.

Anyway, when Chad Ford wrote that Oden had more upside than Durant last week, we had a lively e-mail exchange about it, with my basic point being, "Look, Oden has a chance to be one of the best five centers ever ... Durant has a chance to be one of the best FIVE PLAYERS ever" and Chad qualifying his point by discussing overall impact on a team (if you draft Oden, you're more likely to win a title because franchise centers invariably win titles … well, unless they're Patrick Ewing). We could go round and round on this, and over the next few months, we probably will. All I know is that MJ was the last guy since Wilt to crack 37 a game in the pros … and Kevin Durant will be joining him in 5-6 years if he stays healthy. That's not even hyperbole. I don't see anyone stopping him. But will his rebounding/shotblocking catch up to the rest of his game? And will his teams ultimately win? Those are the looming questions.