Monday, March 26, 2012

St. Louis sends UNC home empty

I had to recall a conversation I had with our very own Brad Broders after UNC's exit from the NCAA Tournament in 2011, and I told him these exact words:

"If UNC can stay healthy, they will be a Final Four team in 2012."

Sadly, prophetic.

UNC's guards were decimated by injuries with Leslie McDonald out before the season even started, Dexter Strickland's knee injury, and then Kendall Marshall's wrist. Then add in John Henson dealing with a wrist issue, and then an ankle issue against Kansas. That's a lot to overcome.

Before you start saying I am making excuses, I am not. UNC had to go with the bodies they had, and while Stilman White performed very well, the vibe with Marshall at the point is just different. In the end, injuries cost UNC their Final Four shot, and leaves many to wonder "what if."

They will also wonder "what's next?" The only senior Carolina loses of substance is Tyler Zeller (which is a major loss), but Marshall, Henson, and Harrison Barnes are all able to come back. Will they try to do it one more time? I think this group enjoys playing together, but the NBA beckons. All three would be selected, but would they be lottery picks? I am always an advocate for staying in school, but I also understand the reality that a pro sports career window is not guaranteed to be a big one. Personally, I would love to see the underclassmen all return, and watch this team play one more year together. Even if they don't win it all, their NBA stock would be through the roof. If they decide to go pro, I wish them well.

Austin Rivers has decided to head to the NBA, he will hire an agent, and thus end his college career. How ready for the next level is Rivers? Between now and the draft, the word "upside" will be (over)used to describe every underclassman worth anything heading to the Draft. I am not sure Rivers body is ready for the rigors, but he won't be thrust into a starters role right out of the box (at least that is my guess). He needs to add some muscle to his frame, but if you ask his father, Doc Rivers, Austin's game is ready. Doc telling our cameras on Monday night that the decision could have gone either way, and that he is proud of his son. He should be.

Back to the NCAA Tourney, as for the remaining teams, I had Kentucky winning it all before the dance started, and after watching them blitz through their first four games, I see no reason to think they won't be cutting down the nets next Monday in New Orleans.

Hope to see you contribute to our new segment on Ford Sports Night. We call it point and shoot, and here's how you do it!

Mike Solarte

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Saints apparently have dirty halos

The NFL came down on the New Orleans Saints on Wednesday, penalizing them for running a "bounty" program. Defenders were paid for hits that knocked players out of games, or had them carted off the field.

Those are the crimes. The punishment was stiff:

-Head Coach Sean Payton suspended without pay for a year (beginning April 1).
-GM Mickey Loomis suspended for the first 8 weeks of the season, also without pay.
-The Saints were fined $500,000 dollars.
-Former defensive coordinator Gregg Williams, the alleged architect of the program, was suspended from all NFL activities indefinitely.
-The Saints had 2nd round draft picks in 2012, and 2013 taken away from them.

Steep sanctions to say the least.

Good for the NFL.

I say that, because the idea of placing a bounty on the head of another player in pro sports is ridiculous. The same players that know full well they are one play away from possible death are going to put money in a pot to see who can injure another player? The mere notion of that is disgusting.

Football is a violent enough game when players are simply trying to play the game hard. Reading posts from players and former coaches on Twitter made me scratch my head. Former Head Coach Jimmy Johnson tweeted (through his verified account): "Bounties have been around for years throughout the league on a much smaller basis...lot of hypocrites out there." So that makes it ok?

The players that I have been in contact with in my days covering the NFL seem to be the kind of guys that would not take part in a program like that. I may be wrong, and if I am, then so be it, but the guys I have spoken to are players that value their careers, and respect the careers of others. Sure, they play hard, and they play tough, but they play fairly. Injuries occur on their own, and do not need to be helped by guys trying to be RoboCop on the football field.

Again, good for the NFL.

Elsewhere, the Charlotte Bobcats finally parted ways with forward Boris Diaw, after he and the team agreed to terms on a buy-out of his contract. It had been a rather stormy 2 weeks for the two sides in this. Nuts and bolts of it, Diaw wasn't playing hard enough for Head Coach Paul Silas' liking, Silas benched him (eventually deactivating him). Diaw is loaded with talent and ability, but it means nothing if it isn't applied. I liked Diaw, and wish him well, but the ending of this marriage was messy, to say the least.

In the end, everyone is happy. The Bobcats are out from under a big contract, Diaw will likely sign with a playoff-bound team for a bargain price, and the drama is removed from a locker room that needs to focus on hoops, and nothing else.

Mike Solarte

Monday, March 19, 2012

52 down, just 16 remain

Yep, already torched my brackets, much like the free world, considering Norfolk State and Lehigh blew up plenty of prognostications. Wait, all prognostications. While I bemoan my failed attempts at a perfect bracket, I re-emphasize my absolute love of the tourney.

This is why we watch. We watch for the little guy slugging it out with the big programs. Syracuse almost made dubious history with their opener against UNC-Asheville (yes, UNCA outplayed Syracuse all the way, just had some bad breaks late). That history, of course, would have been the first 1 seed to lose to a 16 seed in their opening round game. The gap, by the way, is beginning to narrow a bit.

Hats off to UNC and NC State on making the Sweet 16. First the Heels. They are deep enough to get by Ohio in their game on Friday, should Kendall Marshall be ruled out. Marshall underwent successful wrist surgery on Monday. Will he play? Anybody's guess on a Monday night. If he is doing ANYTHING basketball related on Wednesday or Thursday, I don't know how Roy Williams doesn't play him. Mind you, I am speaking from the outsider perspective. I would say this: If Marshall can play Friday, he will,but in limited minutes. If UNC wins that one, and plays for a Regional title, that experience will help him there. It's not an easy spot to be in, but UNC is equipped to handle it. To a point.

As for NC State, I am proud to say I had them through to the Sweet 16 in my brackets. If State was playing with house money when they beat San Diego, they are on a high-roller's weekend in the Gateway City. No one, and I mean NO ONE, expected NC State to be a Sweet 16 team this year, with a new coach, ideas,etc. Yet, down the stretch, they played their best basketball, and got the attention of the selection committee. All they needed was a chance. They got it, and have taken full advantage of it. They are confident, and facing Kansas may seem like a horrible assignment, but the Jayhawks barely got to St. Louis. The Pack have a legit chance to beat the Jayhawks.

Duke going down may seem like a bad loss, but factor in the great guard play of CJ McCollum, and the absence of Ryan Kelly in the Duke lineup. Right there are two key factors in a five point defeat. Not making excuses, as Lehigh played great, but Duke was not themselves, and simply couldn't overcome Kelly's loss, along with stop McCollum. In the end, Lehigh was the better team on that night. End of story, and Duke will be just fine going forward.

I won't make any predictions regarding the Sweet 16, as I am already down two of my Final Four picks, but I will say that my National Championship teams are still alive.

Kentucky and North Carolina.

More in the days ahead.

Mike Solarte

Thursday, March 15, 2012

NCAA Tourney - Day 1

Rather than throw out my region-by-region selections, I'll just provide some recap thoughts for the tourney.

But since you asked, Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Carolina, and Missouri. Kentucky wins it all.

OK, Day 1:

Tough day for Davidson to go cold from the field, shooting 35% against a Louisville team that could be had. I shouldn't completely discredit Louisville, the Cardinals did a nice job of denying Davidson their preference of running after made buckets. Louisville played good defense, and did what they needed to. Davidson will be back in this field next year, losing 3 seniors, but returning their top eight scorers.

VCU continues to turn heads, the 12 seed knocks out Gregg Marshall and Wichita State in the 5-12 game. I saw this coming, and yet failed to pick it correctly. I know better than to trust a Marshall coached team, and I am pretty sure the South Carolina Gamecocks learned a little something too. South Carolina looking for a new Head Coach after firing Darin Horn. Not sure that Marshall tops their list after this one.

I still don't believe Murray State is THAT good, but I give them credit for holding serve against Colorado State. The Racers have just one loss this season, and I still maintain they haven't played anybody of substance, save for UAB, Memphis and Dayton. Sure they won those games, but I am not convinced. If they make the Sweet 16, I might be, but they have to knock out Marquette to do it.

I'd be remiss if I left out the brutal knife-job UNC-Asheville got against Syracuse. Yes, the Orange are more talented, but the Bulldogs were the better team, played better, and deserved a better fate. Head Coach Eddie Biedenbach wouldn't say it, so I will say it for him. The officials denied UNC-Asheville a chance to write their names in the history books. A lane violation whistle, which when you watch it, is mind-boggling, and then the in-bounds alleged foul call in the dying seconds of a three-point game. It's horrible to see a team have their chance denied by the stripes. Alas, it's part of the game, but I don't let that crew work another game in this tournament. That's just me.

Waiting in the wings, NC State, who feels nothing like an 11 seed, takes on San Diego State on Friday in Columbus. North Carolina meets Vermont and Duke takes on Lehigh, both games in Greensboro. I like the NC teams to move through to the next round, and I actually think NC State gets through pretty handily. If any team is playing with "house money," in this thing, it's the Wolfpack. The final team placed in a region (via the Selection Show), this team felt like the last one in (even though they weren't). They are returning to the tourney after a 6 year hiatus, and playing much better of late. Credit the players and Head Coach Mark Gottfried for finishing strong, because without that, they are NIT bound.

Mike Solarte

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Big Dance Breakdown with a chance of Raining 3's

It is slowly becoming a tradition here at the Sports Night Blog, and who am I to change tradition?

Well, I run this blog, so I guess I could, but I won't.

News 14 Meteorologist Josh McKinney has laid out his thoughts about the upcoming NCAA Tournament. These are his thoughts and predictions, so they should be taken with the same degree of certainty as his 7-day forecast (had to get at least one zinger in there, J-Mac!)

Here now, the Hoop Thoughts of a Weatherman.....

Forecasting the Road to the Final Four…

First and foremost, I want to thank the News 14 Carolina Sports team for allowing a weather nerd the chance to weigh in on the 2012 NCAA tournament. It’s not often the guy on the far end of the bench gets the nod to sub in.

From top to bottom, this is an outstanding field assembled by the selection committee. There’s a tremendous amount of depth and skill from each conference, but it wouldn’t be a shock if higher seeds fly into Louie Armstrong International before getting ready to hit the floor at the Superdome. Only 3 teams passed the baton at the top of the AP poll throughout the entire season and all three earned number one seeds: North Carolina, Syracuse and Kentucky. The final number one seed is a pretty tough squad and a team UNC defeated at the Carrier Classic on Veterans Day last November in San Diego.

Must See Game, Second Round:

The last team to hear their name called to the Big Dance was NC State. San Diego State is a great draw for the Wolfpack and it’s a winnable game for ‘em. Momentum from the ACC tournament should carry over, leading to a great game. The deciding factor here will be free throws and foul trouble! I believe the tournament committee rewards a team with a decent third round if they can get past the first game. This is a perfect example of this ideology. If Mark Gottfried and his team can capitalize on a game one win, I see NC State making it to the second weekend and the Sweet 16.

Lucky #7: Florida

After a couple looks at the bottom half of the west, Florida jumps off the screen as a team ready to make a run. Why? Virginia is beatable; Missouri and Murray State have great shooting guards, but lack size in the interior. Florida has a lot of balance when compared to other teams in that half of the draw. Billy Donovan and the Gators have all the ingredients to reach the Elite 8, and maybe the Final Four.

That’s a lot to take in and I’ve still got to get my picks on the blog… So we’ll take a tour of the South, West, Midwest and East.

South: Committee message to UK, if you’re the best- prove it!
Second Round Winners: Kentucky, UConn, Wichita St., Indiana, UNLV, Baylor, Xavier, Duke
Third Round Winners: Kentucky, Wichita St., Baylor, Duke
Regional Finals: Kentucky, Baylor (No rematch with Duke, 20 years after “the shot”)
South Regional Champion: Kentucky

West: Higher seeds on upset alert?
Second Round Winners: Michigan St., Memphis, New Mexico, Louisville, Murray St., Marquette, Florida, Missouri
Third Round Winners: Michigan St., Louisville, Murray St., Florida
Regional Finals: Michigan State, Florida
West Regional Champion: Michigan State

Midwest: A few early upsets…
Second Round Winners: North Carolina, Creighton, Temple, Michigan, NC State, Belmont, St. Mary’s, Kansas
Third Round Winners: North Carolina, Michigan, NC State, Kansas
Regional Finals: North Carolina, Kansas
Midwest Regional Champion: North Carolina

East: Chalk of all regions early on.
Second Round Winners: Syracuse, Kansas St., Vanderbilt, Wisconsin, Cincinnati, Florida State, Gonzaga, Ohio State
Third Round Winners: Syracuse, Wisconsin, Florida State, Ohio State
Regional Finals: Syracuse, Ohio State
Regional Champion: Ohio State

Final Four: Kentucky vs. Michigan State / Ohio State vs. North Carolina

National title game: Kentucky vs. North Carolina

National Champion: University of Kentucky

Monday, March 12, 2012

Before Tourney Talk...

We interrupt March Madness with these statements from UNC brass in the wake of the NCAA handing down penalties to the Tar Heel football program. Sanctions which include a 2012 post-season ban (including the ACC title game), a reduction of scholarships (15) over a three-year probation period, which began today (March 12, 2012) and ends on Mach 11, 2015. The following statements were sent out by the University.

Chancellor Holden Thorp:

“It’s been almost two years since this investigation began, so getting the NCAA ruling is a big step in moving forward. We approached this investigation the way that you would expect of Carolina – thoughtfully, thoroughly and with full cooperation – and that was the right thing to do.

We self-imposed a number of penalties in the fall that we thought were appropriate based on the facts in our case. The NCAA has given us additional penalties, and the sanctions are more severe than we expected. The ruling is disappointing for our new coaching staff and our student-athletes.

We considered an appeal. But given the timing and the record that other schools have had with appeals, as well as the fact that penalties are suspended during an appeal, we’ve decided it’s best to accept our sanctions and move forward.”

Director of Athletics Bubba Cunningham:

“North Carolina has always represented so much that is good about college athletics. The last year and a half has been difficult for everyone who loves UNC from both an academic and athletic perspective. It’s time for us to move Carolina Athletics forward to help restore that reputation of integrity and respect for which the University has been known.

We can’t guarantee people won’t make mistakes in the future, but we can give our collective best effort to prevent a repeat of what brought us to this day. College athletics evolves daily and the high profile nature of intercollegiate athletics demands that we remain vigilant and accountable for the coaches, student-athletes and staff who represent our great university.

It is our aspiration that Carolina will be better in the future as aresult of what we have gone through and everyone associated with our program will strive each day to make our students, faculty, alumni, fans and staff proud to be Tar Heels.”

Former Director of Athletics Dick Baddour:

“From the first day that we began to learn the facts of this case, we set out to do a thorough review, and that is what we did. Every step we took throughout the investigation was to get to the facts, be fair to the people involved in the process and preserve the integrity of the University.

Carolina is well positioned to move forward and be an even better athletics program in all areas. I have great faith that Bubba Cunningham and Larry Fedora and their staffs are committed to maintaining a football program and athletics program that we all can be proud of.

I do want to thank our fans for their continued support. This has been a long and difficult time and our fans have stood with us and been extremely patient. I know the University is appreciative of that enduring support.”

Head Football Coach Larry Fedora:

“Now, more than ever, we need the entire Carolina fan base to come together and support our current student-athletes as we embark on a new era of Tar Heel football. We will face this adversity head on and work to be a better football program.

I was aware of the NCAA case at the time I was named head coach. Bubba Cunningham and Holden Thorp were forthright and honest with me throughout the hiring process as I made the decision to take the job.

I chose Carolina because this is one of the best schools in the country with high standards of academic and athletic excellence. In so many ways, Carolina has exceeded my expectations.

My only regret is for the current players, especially the seniors, who will not have the opportunity to compete for an ACC championship and go through the experience of a bowl game in 2012.

We will do all we can to make every game this year a special experience for our seniors and fans.”

UNC President Tom Ross:

“The NCAA’s investigation of the football program at UNC-Chapel Hill began nearly two years ago. This has been a long and arduous process. The Chapel Hill campuscooperated fully with the NCAA from the beginning of this matter and has accepted responsibility for mistakes made. While I believe that the self-imposed penalties announced by the campus in September 2011 are fair and reasonable and am personally disappointed bytoday’s decision, the NCAA had complete discretion to impose additional sanctions and saw fit to do so. Nonetheless, we can now close this chapter and move forward.”

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Touch 'em all

Sorry, baseball fans, but "touch 'em all," is referring to me hitting a variety of topics. Here we go.
I can't wait to see what the NFL does to the New Orleans Saints, based on the investigation that turned up a "bounty" system for the defense. Nuts and bolts of it: if a Saints defender caused an injury to an opposing player, the Saints player collected cash, depending on the severity of the hit and injury.
Despicable? Yes. Are the Saints the only ones? I highly doubt it. The Saints just got caught. The bigger problem is that this type of thing goes on at all. The NFL has bent over backwards in order to try and make the game safer for its players. Introduction of new rules, fines for dangerous plays, you name it, the NFL has tried to implement it. Some of their measures go too far, in my opinion. Grazing a quarterback's head should not be a roughing the passer penalty, but I suppose there has to be a line somewhere. Still, the league has tried to make things better for the players, and then we hear that the self-appointed new version of America's Team is engaging in tese typoes of behaviors?
Head Coach Sean Payton and GM Mickey Loomis apologized for having this going on "under their watch." While I want to give them the benefit of the doubt, I just can't. loomis, maybe, but not Payton. How does a Head Coach not know these things are happening? Based on what I know about the Carolina Panthers team schedules (and no, Carolina is not involved in a "bounty" system, at last that I know of), it nwould be IMPOSSIBLE for a defensive coordinator to not mention something like that to the Head Coach. They meet far too often. They watch films and evaluate game video. I don't buy for a second that this went on without Payton's knowledge. The fact that they have apologized for it changes nothing. The NFL will (and should) hand down some enormous penalties to the Saints, Payton, and any player they confirm took part in it the scheme. Football is a dangerous enough game without adding the "intent to injure" element.
The Indianapolis Colts are parting ways with Peyton Manning, and while it is the unpopular thing to do, it is the right thing to do. There are too many questions surrounding Manning and his health (a neck injury forced him to miss the entire 2011 season), and the price of keeping him is way too high with so much uncertainty. Manning is due to collect a $28 million dollar roster bonus by the end of the week, should he remain with the team. Too pricey for a player that, while he has proven to be among the best in the game, has too many unknowns about him playing this season, or even again for that matter.
Me? I think Manning will play somewhere in 2012. If he is physically cleared, he'll be on an NFL roster. NO, CAROLINA, IT WON'T BE AS CAM NEWTON'S BACKUP. If he isn't cleared and has to retire, then football fans should be glad they got to see one of the game's greats work his magic for so long.
NASCAR rolls the dice in Las Vegas this weekend, and with two races in the books, it's hard to figure anything out just yet. The one thing I have noticed is that Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) is causing teams a little trouble. I won't even being to try and say I understand it all, but I do know this: introducing EFI to the teams this season created a whole new world of problems for crew chiefs and drivers in NASCAR's series. Maybe problems is too extreme. How about a whole new world of unknowns. Tony Stewart had trouble with fuel pick-up in Phoenix, and finished 22nd. Teams will figure it out, but until they do, I would guess that there will be plenty of reason to keep an eye on who wins each week. Teams that find victory lane on a consistent basis may have the EFI figured out, along with the other normal race day issues that can pop up.
Finally, the ACC Tournament tips of in Atlanta on Thursday. I know I am going out on a limb here, but it would be hard for me to pick anyone to win it other than UNC. Carolina got such a confidence jolt by running Duke out of Cameron Indoor last Saturday, that they look to be a steamroller now. Duke will likely face UNC in the title game on Sunday, and stopping UNC won't be easy with Ryan Kelly out for the event due to a sprained right foot. Kelly suffered the injury in practice on Tuesday. Don't get me wrong, Duke is a solid club, but UNC just appears to be more talented at every position than everyone else in the league.
We'll get into NCAA Tournament talk next week!
Mike Solarte