Saturday, April 30, 2011

Women's Football Back at Cupples Field This Saturday

The Pittsburgh Passion are back in their old home, Cupples Field on the South Side. I, for one, couldn't be happier. I'm not much of a suburban girl and schlepping to five miles past where God kissed the hoot owls goodbye to the North Allegheny H.S. Field was not really my cup of tea, so the return to the South Side is an occasion for raucous rejoicing.

Currently, the team is 3-0, having opened the season with three successive road games, all victories. They christen their return to Cupples, appropriately enough, by hosting the Columbus Comets, a team they haven't played since beating them in the 2007 National Women's Football Association (NWFA) Championship game in Nashville.

That game was played at Whites Creek High School, just outside of Nashville and, despite its proximity to Nashville's downtown, the school's setting was more rural. In fact, I'm fairly certain that I made a right turn after the third cow pasture, but it could have been the right after the second cow pasture.

It was an old-timey setting, too. The field was nice, but the bleachers and booth and lights were old and worn. It all looked like something from another era, the kind of setting typical to a time when football players still wore leather helmets.

The Passion were up 26-0 at halftime when they jogged down to the locker room. On their way back up to start the second half, the lights went out. I mean, all the lights went out. We never did figure out how, but a circuit was overloaded, taking out all the field lights and sound. Everything was out. Except, ironically enough, the lights in the parking lot. Everybody started finding their way around by the light of their cellphones. The delay dragged on for an hour. Some people suggested they postpone and finish the game the next day, a Sunday. Somehow, T. Conn, the owner of the Passion, stuck to her guns and even though they didn't finish until well after 11:00 that night, finish they did.

Since then, there have been lots of changes. The Passion left the NWFA for the IWFL (Independent Women's Football League), while the Comets stayed with the NWFA. Eventually the NWFA sort of just faded away and the Passion and Comets are reunited under the umbrella of the Women's Football Alliance (WFA). Everybody up to speed?

In addition to the leagues shifts, there have been so many changes for the Passion. Conn has owned the team since 2005 but Franco Harris (yes, the Franco Harris), a long-time booster of the Passion, came on board as part of the ownership over this past winter. Pretty exciting stuff.

Many players from the 2007 championship team have retired, but many still remain, including three of the current team captains -- Sarah Young, Sharon Vasquez and Michelle Brevard -- as well as the defensive MVP from that game, Olivia Griswold.

I haven't seen the Passion play this year, so it'll be interesting for me. And I haven't seen the Comets since that summer night in 2007.

Tonight's game will air live on ESPN3. Viewers can tune into for details, but don't let that keep you away. Kickoff is at 7:00 at Cupples Field at 9th and Carson Streets in the South Side. Parking and other gameday information can be found here.

Friday, April 29, 2011

15 Things to Love about the 2010-2011 Pittsburgh Penguins

With the season at a close, the bitter disappointment of losing in the playoffs lingering on our pierogi-loving palates, there is still so much to be thankful for. Its pretty easy to be a Penguins fan and I was thinking about that when I ran across Michael Farber's 20 Things to Love about Hockey at Sports Illustrated.

Here are 15 Things I loved about this past season (of course, I could make a long list of things not to love about this season, leading off with the inconsistency of the disciplinary action of the NHL, but that's for another day perhaps.)

1. 24/7. If you say you didn't love every bleeping second of '24/7' I'll dispatch Steve Downie to make a dangerous run at you (not that that would cause the NHL to suspend him, mind you.)

The HBO crews did an incredible job of filming and putting together a cohesive narrative in zero time flat. I know Pittsburgh fans hate Alex Ovechkin, but I found that he had a certain, strangely appealing rakish quality. He's really the guy I love to hate, unlike guys who I hate-hate (say Zdeno Chara or Steve Downie.) No, the hockey world is a much more entertaining one with Ovie in it. How wonderful for us that the Penguins and Capitals set up so beautifully as diametrically opposed teams. On the one hand, you've got Dan Bylsma's business cool demeanor juxtaposed against Bruce Boudreau; Ovie, with his tattooed, Eurotrash badboy thing contrasted with Sidney Crosby. The Pens franchise with three Stanley Cups and the Caps with their history as choking dogs (per Tony Kornheiser.) Thank you, hockey gods. Thank you.

2. The Build-Up to the Winter Classic. With the Winter Classic upon us, I was dispatched to the Strip District to get some 'wedding' kielbassi from S & D Polish Deli. (If you haven't had it, the wedding kielbassi is twice smoked and the best damned kielbassi I've ever had in my life. Hands down. Go. Get some. Now!) It was the usual Strip day -- T-shirt vendors all cranked up with a myriad of Winter Classic and Penguins T's available (plus lots of riffs on 'Obitchkin' and what have you), bodies jammed into PennMac, lines out the door at DeLuca's. The best part was, as Dickie Dunn might say, the spirit of the thing.

3. Sid's scoring streak. Cheesy mustache notwithstanding, that was one helluva ride. 25 games with at least one point and 26 goals in that time period. As we used to say about Mario -- Magnificent. We are lucky bunch of yinzers to get to watch this guy on a regular basis.

4. Flower Power. No question Marc-Andre Fleury struggled early. No question he lays an occasional stink bomb from time to time. But there is no single player more responsible for their heroic run to the post-season than Fleury. At times, he makes it look effortless. At other times, you marvel at his ability to change directions, get from one side of the crease to the other. The guy keeps getting better and was frankly hosed that he wasn't even a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. At least the fans got it, after the Game 7 loss to Tampa, with chants of "Fleury! Fleury!" raining down on the ice. Thanks, Pittsburgh. Thanks for getting it.

5. The win streak. Twelve is better than Eleven. I view that as a hockey koan for the ages.

6. The Penalty Kill from Hell. None were better than the Penguins penalty kill, effective 86.1% of the time in the regular season. They were so good at it that there were times, sick as I am, I was actually excited for the Pens to go on the kill. (Good thing, too, because the Pens were short-handed 324 times -- second in the NHL right behind Montreal.) Still, it was a strange thing of beauty to watch, that penalty kill -- bodies flying, men taking pucks in their faces and shoulders and feet, Fleury making impossible stops. It was like watching a two-minute version of "300." Only with more plot and better dialogue.

7. The Kids Are All Right. Testy, Conner, Jeffrey, Lovejoy and Tangradi. For a while there, the Penguins had to run a daily shuttle bus to Wilkes-Barre to replenish the troops. And the young guys, all of them, performed admirably. The best of the bunch, I think, was Ben Lovejoy. He also gave me one of my favorite moments of '24/7' with his, "we're going to find the guys who did this and, probably do nothing about it" comment.

8. Eggo laying out Colton Orr. Hypocrite much? Me? Guilty as charged. I'm not a fan of hockey fights. I think the league can and should do away with them, as well as ALL shots to the head. (I'm actually getting tired of writing about the league's need to consistently, seriously clamp down on head shots.) But I have to admit, my inner Ulf Sammuelson came out in full-throated appreciation when Deryk Engelland dropped Colton Orr like a side of beef. Night, night, Colton.

9. The Killer M's, Martin and Michalek. Ray Shero always does a good job in the off-season, but the additions of Paul Martin and Zbynek Michalek were two of his very finest signings. No way on earth do the Pens finish the season with 106 points and just miss winning their division by an eyelash without these guys.

10. The New Barn. Okay, I fess up. I like old stuff. I am a proper Pittsburgher, always suspicious of change. So I worried that the new place would be too nice, encourage too many suits, and be quieter than the old place where we could be ourselves in the rough and ramshackle, dingy but comfy atmosphere of the Igloo. But Consol is awesome. It is really loud and bright, with great sight lines and, though it is new and shiny, we're still all packed in there. And the fans are still the same fans as before. It feels broken in already -- a good thing. Plus, there's a Tim Horton's on the 200 level. Mmmmm ... donuts.

11. Mario's TV. Chicago has their hockey song (great), and Detroit has the squid (bizarre but great), but Pittsburgh has Mario's TV. I love that fans pack in to sit outside, in the shadow of the old barn, to watch the game. I love that we call it 'Mario's TV.' I love that it is representative of what Pittsburghers have long understood intuitively -- sports are no good if they are not shared experiences. If you meet somebody who doesn't love Mario's TV, tell them, "It's a Pittsburgh thing. You wouldn't understand."

12. The maturation of TK. Tyler Kennedy skates hard every shift. He has always done that. After Sid and Geno went down, it looked to me like he tried to do more. Not that he tried to do too much, but that he was doing more. He is a player who has really come into his game, understands what he can do, what he needs to do, and what his line-mates can do. It's a joy to watch a player like that.

13. Disco Dan. If this guy doesn't win the Jack Adams' Trophy, I'm going to demand on a congressional investigation. I always feel confident with Bylsma behind the bench. I'll take my chances with him any day.

14. James Neal's OT. Sure, the euphoria was short-lived, but tell me you weren't up, jumping up and down and shouting in pure, unadulterated joy when Neal sent that puck in over Dwayne Roloson's right shoulder in the second overtime of Game 4 in Tampa?
15. 2011-2012 Season. It's my thinking that the Penguins -- the guys who were able to suit up and play in the absence of Crosby and Malkin -- will be that much better next year. I think they learned about themselves and how to win without two of the best players on the planet. Assuming Sid and Geno are healthy and ready to go next year, the Penguins should be that much better, poised to make a serious run at Sir Stanley. Also, it should be fun to watch. Perhaps Timbuk 3 said it best.

See you in the fall, Puckheads.

[24/7 image from; Fleury image and Engelland & Orr image both from Justin K. Aller/Getty Images; Sid & Geno from Yahoo Sports.]

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Penguins Go Down Valiantly in Game 7

At various times through this playoff series, I was elated, anxious, irritated, amazed, disgusted, depressed, joyful, angry, delighted and even perplexed.

If the Penguins collective performance in Game 5 was adismal (abysmal + dismal), Game 7 was the opposite.

I was in awe.

Marc-Andre Fleury was magnificent. The penalty killers were just as good, finally shutting down the dynamic Tampa power play.

They generated rushes, they transitioned, they fought for every puck along the boards. They outhit the Lightning by a mile.

It was gutty and gritty and it reminded me of why I like this team so much.

But it wasn't enough.

The Lightning are loaded with goal scorers -- Steven Stamkos, Simon Gagne, Vincent Lecavalier, and, of course, Martin St. Louis. The Penguins were without their best goal-scorers and even though they managed to win more often than not in the regular season, that inability to score in bunches became a deep, life-sucking crevasse in the post-season.

With a full-compliment of skaters and scorers, offensively speaking, the Lightning were shooting with uzis. The Penguins could only counter with flintlock muskets. (Frankly, it should have been more like .38's, and if anybody's seen Kris Letang's shot, I'm sure he'd like it back. You can turn it in at the Lost & Found at Consol Energy Center. Just through the Trib Total Media Gate -- the one opposite the old barn.)

Imagine what Tampa Bay might have looked like without their leader (Martin St. Louis) and one of their best snipers (Steven Stamkos) on the ice? Think they would have been able to bounce back from 3-1?

Me neither.

The other issue with the Penguins and I think this is the real crux of the matter -- was a pronounced leadership void. The Penguins are all good soldiers. Perhaps there are none better than guys like Tyler Kennedy, Mike Rupp, Craig Adams and Max Talbot -- if I were in a foxhole, I'd want those guys with me, for a fact. But Sidney Crosby is the leader of this team, not just in points, not just in goals scored, not just in stick skills. He is their leader in the intangible ways. His heart, his drive, his bravura all power this team. And like good soldiers, they follow him. He doesn't wear that captain's "C" solely because he's a goal scorer. He wears it because he's their unquestioned leader.

Some guys disappeared for much of this series (yes, Letang and Jordan Staal, I am looking at you), but not last night. Game 7, it was all hands on deck and it looked to me like they tried their best, gave their best, most complete effort, ironically enough, in a loss.

Like good soldiers, the Penguins did everything they knew to do, but without General Omar Bradley out there wearing #87, it was a valiant effort in a losing cause.

I'm sad to see the season end, but I never thought they could seriously make a run at the Cup without Sid. Or Geno, for that matter. Some day, the sting of this loss will fade and we'll remember the many good things from this season, but not right now. Today is a good day to mourn.

[Image from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.]

Monday, April 25, 2011

Pirates Pitching, Jeff Karstens Reconsidered

I had this job once. Over time, it became more and more frustrating. Looking back, I think I was too easy to get along with, I didn't complain much and I didn't mind doing any tasks that others avoided or refused. It's just not a big deal, I thought. I have perspective, you know? It's just a job and, moreover, I'm a good team player. But it never paid off in ways that were beneficial to me. I'm sure that my easy-breezy style benefited other people, but not actually me. It didn't mean more money. It didn't mean better assignments. It didn't mean better treatment. No it meant that I always got stuck with unpleasant, boring, or otherwise unfulfilling assignments.

Because I was willing to do the shit work, I was always stuck with the shit work. And once you establish yourself as the person who will shovel shit, nobody else is going to offer to shovel the shit. The lesson to be learned is what I like to call the Shit Shoveling Syndrome (tm) -- if you offer to shovel shit, you had best love shoveling shit because nobody is going to relieve you of the shoveling of the shit out of sense of fair play or kindness. You are always going to be the one doing it. So get used to it.

On Saturday night, in attempt to wash the bitter taste of the Penguins performance out of my mouth, I turned on the Pirates game. Good god -- Jeff Karstens was masterful. He limited the Washington Nationals (or, Natinals, depending on which jerseys they wear) to just two runs through six innings and left his team with a comfortable five-run lead, having thrown just 87 pitches, 51 of them strikes. It was an homage to Ray Miller's mantra: Work fast, throw strikes, change speeds. It was a joy to watch Karstens on the mound. (I can't believe I just typed that, but it's true.)

I don't think you can reasonably expect much more from your fourth or fifth starting pitcher, even on teams with top-price, top-flight pitching.

I hope that Karstens is rewarded for his efforts, that he doesn't fall prey to the Shit Shoveling Syndrome, too.

On April 13, Colin Dunlap wrote this for the Post-Gazette:
'Such is the life of the swingman of the staff, a function Karstens has mastered brilliantly. ...

Manager Clint Hurdle views Karstens as the perfect guy to have the responsibility of sometimes-reliever, sometimes-starter, all-the-time competitor.

"He doesn't have an agenda," Hurdle said of Karstens, who hasn't allowed an earned run in 52/3 innings of work this season. "Most players have an agenda.

"His dream is to be on a good ballclub and be a part of it. And that is refreshing. And then to back that up with action is more impressive."'

When Ohlendorf suffered an injury in just his second start of the year, Karstens stepped into the starting rotation. He has performed quite well in his two starts, and frankly better than anything we've seen from Ohlendorf since the 2009 season.

Point being, just because Karstens would likely be willing to go back to the bullpen, I think he's earned his spot, which is to say, far away from the shit shoveling detail.

Ohlendorf is on the 15 day disabled list, but it's likely he'll be out for an entire month. He was wildly ineffective before the injury. When/if he comes back, Karstens has shown (so far) that he deserves a spot in the starting rotation and he shouldn't be punished because he would be 'willing to take one for the team' as it were. He looks to be at least as good as Ohlendorf and, I think, a better option for the team. Here's hoping that Karstens continues the way he has been, and also that Hurdle breaks the Shit Shoveling Syndrome by keeping Karstens in the starting rotation.

[photo courtesy of Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Conspiracy Theory: Penguins Drop Game 5 in Historic Fashion

Tormented at the Consol Energy Center yesterday, I had just one thought. Okay, I had several thoughts, but one very disturbing one which was this -- the Penguins must hate Pittsburgh fans. They simply refuse to clinch a series on home ice, depriving the 18,000-plus on hand of witnessing in person the magnificence of the NHL playoff hand-shake line.

The atmosphere at the drop of the puck was electric, as loud as I've ever heard a sports facility. I don't mean all the electronic gagetry or the airhorn -- just the organic noise generated by the fans, no vuvuzelas or drums or thundersticks, just the din generated by the throats and feet and hands was ear-splitting.

The Pens got off to a good start, matching the intensity of the crowd for the first 10 minutes of the game, allowing the Bolts only one legitimate attempt on Fleury. Then it was all pissed away. It's hard to put a finger on where it went wrong, terribly, horribly wrong and there were so many problems, I could be here all day enumerating them, but here are a few ideas.

With about four minutes left in the first period, I was thinking that if the Penguins could keep the Lightning off the scoreboard and go into the first intermission 0-0, that would be a good thing. Why? Well because Marc-Andre Fleury can be a slow starter. And the team as a whole is not a great early game team. The earlier the game, the greater the chance you're going to see a stinker. I don't know if it's just the routine of night games or some other weirdness, but they're often better at night. And while it would certainly have been nice to have scored in the first period, I thought that holding the Lightning scoreless for a full period might dampen the Lightnings' spirits a bit, and allow the Penguins to just lean on them, wear them down, the way they did in the first game.

They couldn't close out the first period. In fact, it was so bad, that they let in two goals inside of the final three minutes (or thereabouts).

The first Lightning goal was scored by Simon Gagne, a long time pain in the balls to Penguins fans. They had kept him quiet so far in this series, pretty much limiting the Tampa offense to Marty St. Louis exclusively. With Gagne emboldened, the second goal that got behind Flower just 46 seconds later was scored by Steven Stamkos. My great fear was that if Stamkos got going, the whole team would rise up.

I really think that is what happened. Tampa's whole bench loves when Stamkos gets going; they all get a lift from it. It's like a shot of emotional Red Bull for Stamkos to score. And it turned out to be a portent of things to come later in the game. It snowballed from there. Eventually Dan Bylsma pulled Fleury, but Johnson wasn't really any better. The goal differential was the worst playoff differential in the history of the franchise. It was literally: The. Worst. Playoff. Game. Ever.

I don't know that the team can linger on this loss. In fact, I suspect they have to just toss this one out. When Fleury is bad, he is often epically bad. This was one of those days, for a fact. Of course, his usually stalwart defense didn't help him much. Nor did the wingers or anybody else, for that matter.

There are three things that they need to do on Monday:

1. Flower has to have a bounce-back. And I think he will. He often follows up his worst performances with stellar ones. I think we'll get the Game 4 Marc-Andre Fleury on Monday night, not the Game 2 version.

2. Penalty Kill. Through the first four games, the Pens had allowed four power play goals on 15 opportunities. That penalty kill percentage of 73% is nowhere near as good as the regular season killer percentage of 86%, but still, against a power play unit like Tampa's, it's not bad, all things considered. Yesterday, the Pens allowed goals on four of seven power plays. That's just unacceptable. They have to get the kill back down in the neighborhood of 75% effectiveness, if they want to advance to the second round. It's just that simple.

3. Power Play. The Penguins power play is so putrid, so miserable, that I wish hockey were like football and the Pens could just decline the penalty. They have scored one power play goal on 25, opportunities, a scoring percentage so low the folks at the Carnegie-Mellon are studying it to see if they can learn anything new about absolute zero. The biggest problem with this, of course, is that the Lightning have no fear of taking a penalty. The power play won't punish them for the occasional board or cross-check or slash, so why should they give a rat's ass if they get caught administering one? Heck, it just gives that offending player a chance to rest in the penalty box and come out refreshed after watching the Penguins muck about ineffectively for two minutes.

The power play has been a problem for most of the season, frankly, so this is not a new development. The Pens do not establish possession well. And when they do establish position, they don't get enough traffic in front of the net. I know it's radical, but I wonder if Bylsma shouldn't start Eric Tangradi in place of Chris Conner for this game? I like Conner a ton, but he hasn't done much this series. Also, he's small. Tangradi's a big body. He has shown a willingness to plant himself next to the net. I don't think it's an accident that the Penguins one and only power play goal of the entire series came when Tangradi shielded Dwayne Roloson, preventing him from getting a bead on Tyler Kennedy's shot. Just saying.

If this thing goes to seven games, I may have to get one of those medic alert monitor things, because I'm sure I'll stroke out before the end of the first period.

(Photos from the Pittsburgh-Tribune Review)

Thursday, April 21, 2011

James Neal, Useless No Longer -- Penguins Win OT Thriller in Tampa

One of my best friends dubbed James Neal "useless" about 10 games into his career with the Penguins. As in James Useless Neal. I, too, was disappointed in the guy. At first he seemed weak, easily taken off his line and he checked with utter indifference. Plus, he didn't score. In fact, he seemed to get flustered around the net, to hesitate a moment too long before shooting, to just not have the quick hands and killer instinct you want from a goal scorer.

Over time, he developed the other parts of his game -- he uses his size to his advantage, finishes his checks, and establishes position. In short, he has become a great overall player and through the first four games of the post-season, he has been the most physical presence on the ice not named Brooks Orpik.

But fans, myself included, want Neal to score. And I'm fairly certain that Ray Shero traded Alex Goligoski to the Stars to get Neal (and Matt Niskanen), because Neal is a scoring winger. Heck, the Penguins -- in the absence of Sid and Geno -- have a ton of guys who are great role players, but not pure scorers. I believe Neal has been pressing around the net, gripping his stick with a vulcan death grip and his desire to score has been counter-productive. The other parts of his game are nice, but we want goals -- big, fat, juicy, game winning goals. And he knows that.

Last night's wrister from the boards that whizzed past an unsuspecting Dwayne Roloson might be just the medicine Neal needs to go on a tear. I actually believe that the dam has burst and we'll see more production from him in terms of points. He is a man who looks like the weight of the world has just been lifted from his shoulders. That's got to be good for his game.

Other random thoughts about this playoff series:

At this time of year, in fact at all times of the year, the outcome of games seems to come down to Marc-Andre Fleury. The team feeds off Fleury, particularly without Sid out there leading the way. When Flower gets off to a good start, makes a great save early, they all feed off of it and get stronger as a result. When he has a shaky start (like Friday night), instead of rising up to give their goalie a lift, they all falter. You can pretty much tell how a game is going to go within the first five minutes of the first period, just by watching Flower. Here's hoping he's a brick wall in net at noon on Saturday, so the Pens can put these guys away and move on.

I saw a stat on FoxSports, er, excuse me Root Sports the other night that Brooks Orpik averages about 2.7 hits per game in the regular season, but he averages somewhere in the neighborhood of 4.8 hits per game in the post-season. How fantastic is that?

Dear Tampa Bay,
Get as loud as you want. We love it.
Max Talbot

Max is a big time player. The Penguins, I would point out, are 11-1 in the post-season when Max has a goal. The guy has the Midas touch.

Has anybody had a bigger series than Arron Asham? Like Talbot, he has a freaky ability to raise his game in the post-season. I think this is precisely why Shero brought him on board. He has three huge goals in this series and constantly goes to net with authority.

Oh wait, I thought of somebody who has had a bigger series than Asham -- Martin St. Louis. He has six points in four games and has single-handedly kept the Lightning in games. Every time I see #26 on the ice for Tampa, my blood pressure spikes. Even though everybody in the building knows that St. Louis is the Bolts best chance to win, he still gets loose around the net. He's got amazing speed, tremendous hands and is maybe the most elusive player in the NHL. If that guy wasn't playing in Tampa, if he played for a Canadian team or in a city like Pittsburgh or Detroit, he'd be a rock star, mentioned in the same breath with Sid and Ovie, Pavel Datsyuk and Daniel Sedin.

At some point today, I will write several love sonnets to Zbynek Michalek. What rhymes with 'cleaner?' Does anybody remember the rules of iambic pentameter?

Steven Stamkos' stat line for this series -- 4 games, 5 shots on goal, 0 goals, 1 assist, and a minus-1 rating. Last night, he didn't even get a single shot on Fleury, that's how much the Pens defense has taken him out of this series. Welcome to the post-season, kid.

Was it just me or did those little drums they passed out to the fans in Tampa Bay on Monday night sound like vuvuzelas? Man, that is a sound I so did not miss. Perhaps there were rogue FIFA vuvuzelas in the house? In addition to the silly drums, that is.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Yinz Call That Hockey?

Like I said, when Flower lays a stinker, he lays a bad stinky stinker. Not all his fault. Duper was retrieving his stick and Letang got caught pinching back on the first goal. Not a good effort by anybody by any stretch. In the words of the great Theodor Geisel:




[Photos from the Pittsburgh Tribune Review and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette]

Friday, April 15, 2011

The Pittsburgh Pirates: Playing Baseball Like They Care

But still -- it's not enough.

It would be nice to believe that grit and effort will get you through to the promised land with a bunch of has-beens, never-weres, and never-shoulda-beens because they just want it more than the other guys. What a wonderful world it would be if you could simply 'Braveheart' your way into the MLB playoffs.It would be grand if it were actually possible to just "win the whole fucking thing," as Tom Berenger says in 'Major League,' out of spite and sheer bull-headedness. But those are movies and it's a fantasy to believe that you can win a World Series (or even your division), just because you want it more. Sure, you need desire, will and resilience. You need guys who believe and who put in the effort necessary to win.

But you also need starting pitching, relief pitching and a shut-down closer. You need speed on the basepaths and power in the batters box. You need a bunch of guys who can actually, you know, hit a curveball.

And you need a skipper to pull it all together.

The Pirates have the last element, I believe. I believe Hurdle is a good manager. I believe he might even be a great one. At the very least, he's interesting, awake, seems to give a shit, is willing to take some chances and, also, is a guy who stressed fundamentals in spring training. These are all good things. Hurdle is a monumental improvement over John Russell. Hurdle is both engaged and engaging; Russell was comatose. On his best days.

But, really, without a significant improvement in on-field talent, how many wins can a manager account for? I'm saying seven, maybe 10 at the outside. If you put Hurdle in the Pirates dugout last year, that roster might could have won 64 games (maybe 67) rather than 57. They were a bad team. That fact was exacerbated by the presence of a bad manager.

But, aside from the coaching improvement how much different, how much better are these guys? Let's look at the bats first, then the arms.

This is last season's opening day line up: 1. Aki Iwamura (2B), 2. Andrew McCutchen (CF), 3. Garrett Jones (RF), 4. Ryan Doumit (C), 5. Lastings Milledge (LF), 6. Jeff Clement (1B), 7. Andy LaRoche (3B), 8. Pitcher (in this case, Zach Duke and yes, Russell had so little confidence in his short-stop that he had him batting 9th), 9. Ronnie Cedeno (SS).

Of course, even the inert Russell had the sense to sit Iwamura (and his knee-brace, and his .182 batting average. Face of futility = Iwamura) after a while and bring up guys like Alvarez and Tabata. But even with those mid-season moves, the Pirates ranked 29th in runs, 29th in batting average, 28th in on-base percentage, and 27th in slugging percentage.

This year's batting order is much improved if for no other reason than the absence of Iwamura. The 2011 opening day batting order looked like this: 1. Jose Tabata (LF), 2. Neil Walker (2B), 3. McCutchen (CF), 4. Lyle Overbay (1B), 5. Pedro Alvarez, 6. Doumit (C), 7. Jones (RF), 8. Cedeno (SS), 9. Pitcher (in this case, Kevin Correia).

This year's line up should rank much higher in all categories. But even though they are better, are they that much better? Today, they are 29th in run, 25th in batting average, 26th in slugging percentage, and 24th in on-base percentage (that increase might be due solely to the great play of Tabata in the lead-off spot.) Hurdle thought they'd be better than those stats. Heck, we all did. Not that we expected the 1933 Pittsburgh Crawfords mind you, but we did expect to see more lively bats and more runs. The bats may yet turn a corner, crack into the middle percentages for runs scored and on-base percentages. Let's hope so.

Even if the bats wake up, even if Alvarez can actually hit a breaking ball once in a lunar cycle, will it make that much of a difference in terms of record? Unless Clint Hurdle can go out and pitch, how many more wins can we expect him to generate?

Kevin Correia, with his career 4.52 era is expected to anchor the Bucco rotation. Well, he's an improvement over having Zach Duke as your staff 'ace,' and, except for his last outing against the Brewers, he's looked pretty good, which is to say, he'd be a great acquisition if he were your #3 or #4 pitcher. That would be fantastic. That he is the staff ace, tells you something about the rest of the rotation.

Paul Maholm. Well, enough said, enough seen, enough. Enough of Paul Maholm.

The best thing that may have happened to the Pirates is an injury to Ross Ohlendorf. Journos who were at spring training report that Karstens looked better than Ohlendorf anyway, so Ohlendorf v. Karstens in the line-up? What's the difference? It's just an arm to put out there every five days and probably not an arm that should be in an MLB uniform, other than as a long-reliever anyway.

The interesting guys are the four and five pitchers: Charlie Morton and James McDonald. Folks seem to be excited about the potential of both of these guys. And even though I haven't quite seen what those folks are seeing, I'm going to reserve judgment on both of Morton and McDonald until I see more from them.

So, to break down the starting pitching: we have two guys we know are pretty bad but show just enough that the team doesn't quite want to give up on them (Maholm and Ohlendorf); one guy we know is pretty good -- not great, but good (Correia); two guys who are question marks (McDonald and Morton); and one guy who is a long-reliever dressed up as a starter (Karstens).

I think Hurdle will get everything he can from these guys. I love the way his staff handles base-running. I love the aggressive attitude. But when you have to rely on guys like Maholm and Meek, Crotta and Karstens (I assume he'll pitch in Ohlendorf's absence?), the team would have to score upwards of eight runs every night.

On opening day, I predicted 64 wins, which would be a seven game improvement over last year's finish. Even though they've hit a pretty rough patch in the past week, I'm going to upgrade that to 66 wins, just based on my opinion of Hurdle and what I've seen from Tabata as a lead off man. Is that enough improvement for Pittsburgh fans? What kind of record would satisfy you?

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Fleury Leads the Way in Game 1, Pens Best Lightning

A handful of years ago, before the Penguins 2008-2009 Stanley Cup Victory, fans were whining and carping about Marc-Andre Fleury -- that he wasn't any good, that he'd never be any good and that the organization should ship away the overall No. 1 pick from the 2003 draft. Okay, not all fans, but there was a vocal group, a minority I hoped, who were foolishly impatient and virulently anti-Fleury. I still hear grumbles from time to time from some fringe wing-nuts about Fleury, but mostly I ignore them because you can never try to bring reason to a sports argument with an idiot.

I have this theory about hockey and I may be just as full of it as the Flower-bashers, but the theory goes: the closer you play to the net, the longer it takes to mature, the longer it takes to get to your game, as it were. A winger or centerman can come in and be good right away. Not that he'll have a complete game, mind you, but the positives he brings to the ice are so apparent that everybody forgives a couple of holes in his game. This is especially true with hockey-savants like Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Jordan Staal, but even for ordinary talents, you can see their upside more readily than you can in a defenseman or goalie.

As to the defensemen, again, I'm going to stick with a Pittsburgh example -- Rob Scuderi. There was a season (2005-2006, I think) when I actually audibly groaned whenever Scuds took the ice. I had very few nice things to say about him. His game was painful to watch sometimes, but he kept chipping away at his game, kept improving in little ways, ways that probably only he and his teammates and coaches could see at first. He learned how to play his position, how to position his body to best help Fleury, how to maneuver incoming snipers off of their preferred lines of approach, how to work in tandem with the other defender, how to time throwing his body in front of pucks. By the time the Penguins made it to their first Stanley Cup Finals appearance following the 2007-2008 season, Scuds and Brooks Orpik were the team's best pure defensemen. A year later, when the team actually won the Stanley Cup, nobody was bigger on the back end than Rob Scuderi.

And if it felt like we had to be patient with Scuds, even more patience is needed with a brilliant net-minder. As good as Fleury was when the Penguins won the Stanley Cup, he's been even better this year. Last night, through a first period when the Lightning tilted the ice in his direction (at a pretty steep slope mind you), Flower stood tall and withstood the marauding hordes.

There were so many Tampa players in Fleury's personal space, it looked like the Lightning called a team meeting in the crease. But he denied them time and again, managing to swat pucks away that he couldn't get a bead on, blocking pucks with his ass, blocking them with the back of his knee, pulling pucks out of the air like a left-fielder, smiting all 14 shots on net that came his way in the first period.

That's not to say he didn't play a brilliant game for all 60 minutes, but the Penguins got to their game in the second period (as coach Bylsma likes to say), putting the pressure on Roloson, getting out in transition quickly, not allowing multiple rushes at Fleury, but limiting the chances per possession.

So many players contributed. Brooks Orpik, I believe, got in Steven Stamkos' head when he crushed him on the very first shift of the game. Stamkos only got one shot on net and only attempted four shots total. Call it the Orpik Effect.

James Neal was likewise finishing people off all over the ice, then made a spectacular pass to Alex Kovalev to finally break the scoreless tie.

Seconds later, Arron Asham got a great goal that was the fruit of sticking to the puck like white on rice.

You don't win a playoff game without a holistic team effort, but nobody stood taller than the Flower in Game 1.

[All photos courtesy of the Pittsburgh Tribune Review]

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Playoff Preview: Penguins Versus Lightning

How will the series break down? What are the keys for the Penguins if they hope to advance to the second round? How can the Lightning derail this Pittsburgh team? Will I, personally, survive the heightened anxiety of the NHL playoffs?

1. Offense. Even though Steven Stamkos has slowed down considerably from his prolific first-half scoring, he still put 45 pucks in the back of the net (2nd in the NHL) and had 91 points (5th in the NHL). I expect Tampa will try to get him going early in the series, try to feed him opportunities early in the first game, but even if Stamkos doesn't score, the man I most fear is the diminutive Martin St. Louis. I love this guy. I love watching him play. I love how he skates through defenses to create opportunities. Appropriately enough for a guy who plays on the Lightning, the guy is electric. If this Tampa Bay team were playing any other team, I'd be rooting for them, based on my fondness for St. Louis. Which is why he and his 99 points (2nd in the league) and 68 assists (also 2nd) scare the beejesus out of me. He's the offensive engine that really drives the Lightning. Plus Vincent Lecavalier looks resurgent -- and that's quite a one-two-three offensive punch for the Bolts.

Sidney Crosby has been out for three and one-half months and he still leads Pittsburgh in goals (32) and points (66) and while the Penguins have done a noble job of manufacturing points, these are the playoffs and Chris Kunitz, Mark Letestu and Tyler Kennedy are going to be facing top defensive units -- goals are going to be even harder to come by. Even before Evgeni Malkin blew out his knee, Pittsburgh fans were disappointed in his production, but you cannot tell me that now, in the playoffs, you wouldn't kill to have an explosive scorer like Geno back on the ice? In their time together in Pittsburgh, Sid and Geno have combined to account for 30.7 percent of the team's playoff goals since 2007 -- nearly a third of their goals, fer cryin' out loud.
ADVANTAGE: LIGHTNING (huge advantage, editorially speaking)

2. Defense. This may be the Penguins best and most improved unit. Despite the marked paucity of defensive stats available, I decided to beat my head against a wall and try to crunch defensive numbers anyway. That's just how I roll. I used the top seven defensemen for each team -- for the Pens: Kris Letang, Brooks Orpik, Paul Martin, Zbynek Michalek, Ben Lovejoy, Matt Niskanen and Deryk Engelland -- for the Lightning: Victor Hedman, Mike Lundin, Pavel Kubina, Brett Clark, Mattias Ohlund, Randy Jones and Matt Smaby.

The Pittsburgh defensemen are a combined plus 40. Tampa's corresponding crew are a combined minus 7. That's just a shocking disparity. Shocking. Meanwhile, the Pens defensemen have scored 137 points and the Lightning 110. And, in another nice little stat, the Pens defensemen have netted five game winners, versus the Lightnings' two.

It's more than numbers, though. In the off-season, Ray Shero went out and got shot-blocking savants, Zbynek Michalek (146 blocks) and Paul Martin (129 blocks). Then, Coach Dan Bylsma installed a defense meant to protect the net-minder, but also to turn it around and head the other way -- Pittsburgh transitions from defense to offense as well as any team in the league, creating opportunities on the other end. And they are used to winning tight games, ranking third in the league in winning percentage in one-goal games. The playoffs are tight games more often than not.

3. Goaltending. It is true that to start the season, Marc-Andre Fleury had his head lodged up his fetching little behind and I don't think I will ever figure out just what was wrong with him in the fall as he absent-mindedly watched pucks whiz by from time to time. When Bylsma started Brent Johnson for a stretch until Fleury got some things figured out, there were the nay-sayers who worried that Flower's ego would be permanently damaged or, at the very least, that his relationship with Disco Dan would be forever ruined. Pah-tooey. I did not believe and still do not believe for one hot second that Fleury, a Stanley Cup winning goalie, is so fragile that a couple of benchings when he playing like ass will cause him to fall apart. He's tougher than that and it's ridiculous that anybody thinks that about him. I believe that he is the main reason they are in the playoffs and hosting this round.

On the other side, Dwayne Roloson is a cagey old net-minder, a steady presence in net that Tampa Bay was needing. He's been great for the Lightning and, like St. Louis, were he matched up against any other team, I'd be rooting for him. That said, he's not the kind of stopper that Fleury can be. He just doesn't have it in him.

The Penguins allow just 2.39 goals per game on average and the Lightning 2.85. Much of the burden of getting the Penguins through the first round is squarely on Flower's shoulders who is often magnificent, but I'd be foolish to ignore the fact that he does lay an occasional stinker (and when he does play a stinker of a game, it is bad stinky). Even given that, 'll take Fleury with all the pressure any day of the week.

4. Special Teams. The Lightning rank sixth in the league in power play efficiency, scoring 20.5 percent of the time they have the man advantage.

The Penguins rank first in penalty kill (even without Matt Cooke because of his idiocy), killing off the man advantage 86.1 percent of the time.

My friends, something has got to give.

I have to wonder if it might be the Pens penalty killing unit actually scoring a goal, particularly given that the Lightning have given up 16 short-handed goals, more than any other team in the league and we know how the Penguins love to get in transition on the kill unit.
ADVANTAGE: PENGUINS (ever so slight)

How is it all going to shake out?
This is a tight series. The Lightning can be explosive. Roloson can pitch an occasional shut out. It's always harder to score in the playoffs and the Pens are already offensively challenged. As good as Fleury and the defense are, there's no way they're going to be able to shut out St. Louis, Lacavalier, and Stamkos, not to mention Simon Gagne and a very motivated Ryan Malone.

Even so, there is something special about this Penguins team. They keep winning against all odds. If they want to continue to do so, they will have to manufacture goals from somewhere. With Staal, Kennedy, et al facing the toughest defensive pairings, they need a boost from their third and fourth line guys and their defensemen. Craig Adams and Mike Rupp, Michalek and Ben Lovejoy: come! on! down!

If you were a mad scientist and you went into a lab to create perfect fourth line guys, what you might come out with would be Adams and Rupp. They just do everything so well, all the little things. And no, they don't have the speed of Chris Conner, or the vision of Sid, or the hands of Malkin. This is why they are fourth line guys. But they are smart, they crash the net, and they lean on teams. In the last five games of the season, Rupp had three goals and an assist, while Adams had one goal and two assists. The defensive guys chipped in down the stretch too, with young Mr. Lovejoy contributing four assists and Michalek adding two goals and one assist.

The other place I would look for an offensive surge is none other than Max Talbot. Talbot has been a big game player in the past (I need not remind Pens fans of his two goals in Game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals versus the Red Wings). Could we be so lucky as to see a return of Super Max?

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Sunday Recipe: Spring Pea Soup

photo:  Waterbury Farms
Mother Nature is a fickle wench in the spring, particularly in Pittsburgh, but just because it is as likely to snow or sleet as be gardening weather, that doesn't mean that I'm not craving spring foods. Given the cold, damp weather I was wanting soup, but not some heavy winter stew kind of soup. Something showcasing spring veggies that would also warm me up.

The perfect solution? Fresh pea soup. Although, since it's so hard to come across fresh peas, I often use frozen and this soup still satisfies that springtime craving. This recipe is a riff on the Barefoot Contessa's. I love Ina Garten, but she never met a fat source she didn't like, so I've made it a bit healthier, without losing any of the delicious factor. This is a great soup -- delicious and rich and also fast and easy.

You will need:
6 cups of freshly shelled peas or about 25 ounces of frozen peas
1 quart of chicken stock
2 leeks or 1 jumbo one (finely diced)
1 shallot (finely diced)
1 large yellow onion (finely diced)
1/4 cup half-n-half
2 tablespoons of parmesan cheese

The prep:

Heat some olive oil in a large soup pot and add the leeks, onion, shallots and a big pinch of kosher salt. Sautee until the onions, et al until they are soft. Really cook the heck out of them, because you won't be cooking the peas for that long. When they are good and soft/carmelized, add the chicken stock. Bring it to a boil and add the peas. (If you're using fresh, you'll need to cook them about 5-7 minutes; frozen will only take about 3-4 minutes.)

Once the peas are cooked, puree the soup in a blender. You will have to do this in batches. Puree this until it's smooth. And I mean, really, really smooth. Chunky pea soup just ruins the flavor somehow, so puree and puree and puree.

Return the pureed soup to the soup pot, and cook on low heat. Add the half-n-half and the parmesan cheese. Add a couple of grinds of fresh black pepper and taste for salt.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Top 10 Players of the Women's NCAA Tournament

It was another great spring and, even with my Pitt Panthers suffering a down season, this was as compelling a tournament as I've seen. We saw the end of an era in Connecticut and perhaps the dawning of new ones in South Bend and College Station. There were surprise upsets, awesome performances from stars and unexpected players stepping up in the biggest moments. On with the annual top 10 favorite performers of the tournament, 2011 edition:

1. Skylar Diggins, Sophomore, Notre Dame. Diggins is a complete player, with speed, vision and daring. Diggins is also charismatic, which is to say, there is charisma to her game, she has that elusive but electrifying star quality on the court. She runs point, but she's a shooting guard. She can hit from outside, but she go to the post. Heck, she's so good, even Lil Wayne is on the Diggins bandwagon. [82,168 Twitter followers as of this posting.] Diggins is perfect marriage of style and substance, and, playing at Notre Dame, she's on the perfect stage to perform.

2. Danielle Adams, Senior, Texas A&M. Adams was nothing short of spectacular in the title game, leading A&M to it's first basketball title, which also, by the way, was the first national championship in any sport for A&M since the 1939 football team. Adams got some miserable defensive assignments through the tournament -- to shut down Griner in the Elite 8, to shut down Ogwumike in the semi-final -- and she paid a physical price in doing so. Tuesday night, though, she stole the offensive spotlight, abandoned her outside shot (which is really pretty good), and took the ball to the hoop, over and over and over again. If the Sydneys (Colson and Carter) weren't feeding her the ball directly, she viewed any outside shot taken by her teammates as a pass, muscled up in the paint, pulled in the rebound and put in the put back. Adams' post performance was one for the ages. Also, it was cool to see four generations of women there, with Adam's mom, grandmother and great-grandmother in the stands.

3. Maya Moore, Senior, UConn. What can I say about Moore that I haven't already said? What can you write about one of the greatest players in college basketball history? Moore always struck me as mentally indomitable, that you might shut her down for a stretch, or a half, but she would find a way to gut out a win. When I think about watching Moore, this is the quality that comes to the fore, every time -- a completely driven player. No question, she has been the most dominant figure in the game for the last several years, the number one reason that the Huskies have been actually scary good at times. Whether it's a steal when her team needs a defensive stop or that beautiful little pull-up jumper, I am going to miss watching her play.

4. Nnemkadi Ogwumike, Junior, Stanford. When the Cardinal is at their best, they run their offense through Ogwumike. She is all kinds of strong, but it's sneaky and catches you unawares. At first you don't even notice it, but then you see teams just wear down under her strength and perseverance as she leans on them, contests everything in the paint, and the opposition buckles. Even against A&M's stifling defense in the Final Four, Ogwumike nearly won the game for Stanford, driving inside, banging, hanging up and putting in a nifty under-handed lay-up. (Video here.)

5. Courtney Vandersloot, Senior, Gonzaga. Is it just me, or should Vandersloot, the only college basketball player ever to score over 2,000 points and have 1,000 assists (men or women, she's the only one to ever have done that), be getting more national love? Yeah, yeah, I know she plays for the little Catholic school that could way out there in the pacific northwest, but, even given the locale and, even given the conference, Vandersloot is a marvel of vision and quickness. Always an assists machine, she learned to shoot more this year, and not just from the outside. (It didn't hurt that she was being mentored by none other than John Stockton.) In the 'Zags Sweet 16 game against Louisville, Vandersloot had seven assists which brought her total for the season to 358 -- an NCAA record, breaking the mark set by Penn State's Suzie McConnell (now Suzie McConnell-Serio) in 1986-87 of 355. Vandersloot notched nine more assists in the 'Zags Elite 8 loss to Stanford, setting the single season record at 367, a record that may last as long as McConnell's did.

6. Tyra White, Junior, Texas A&M. After the Aggies victory in the Championship game, Kara Lawson called her 'The Closer.' How perfect. In the semi-final game against Stanford, it was White who lifted her team down the stretch, scoring nine points in the last 4:30 of the game, leading the way in their comeback. Then, in the waning moments, she went to the basket twice, the last time for the last second lay-up winner. In the final game, even given the magnificence that was Adams, there was no single shot bigger than White's three-pointer with about one minute left in the game and the shot-clock hitting zero. Ice in her veins, man. (That shot comes around 4:10 on this ESPN video.)

7. Natalie Novosel, Junior, ND. Diggins gets all the spotlight, Peters is a post-presence and a defensive cleaner, but Novosel's quite a player too. She's got a sweet shot and came up huge for the Irish, game in and game out. She played perhaps her best game of the tournament against UConn, when the Irish really did need all hands on deck, often running the point to free up Diggins. She plays shut down defense and can do so a little too enthusiastically sometimes, but I love the energy she brings the Irish on the floor. I am really looking forward to seeing the backcourt of Novosel and Diggins together for one more year.

8. Brittney Griner, Sophomore, Baylor. Demeanor-wise, she's more Angel McCoughtry than Danielle Adams or Tina Charles, which is to say, you don't get a warm fuzzy watching Griner play. But I'm going to take a second to defend Griner here. She has been attacked, sometimes viciously so, and not just by anonymous internet commenters (i.e. cowards), or bloggers, but even by some members of the mainstream media. You can see where a person might get pissed off after years of that kind of talk. At the very least, you can understand why Griner might be reticent to open up in interviews and why she might be emotionally guarded, even on the basketball court. As to her game, she has so many gifts and I think she's still growing into basketball self. She's got great length, is a shot-blocking tour-de-force, plays in the paint with the ball high and goes right to the basket. The kid put up 40 points in the Sweet 16. Forty! In Kim Mulkey, I think she's found the perfect coach to guide her through some rough waters.

9. Sugar Rodgers, Sophomore, Georgetown. Another Big East guard who is lightning fast, pushes tempo, and will dribble-drive. The Hoyas stormed passed Maryland and into the Sweet Sixteen behind Rodgers' 34 points and 9 boards. For those who don't follow the Big East, this was Rodgers' coming out party.

And now, time for my shameless beg to the programmers at ESPN: As ND and G'Town are Big East teams, and as that means they will play each other at least once next year, please, please, please broadcast the ND-G'Town game next year. For the love of all that's right and holy, I want to see Diggins v. Rogers.

10. Kayla Tetschlag, Senior, Wisconsin-Green Bay. I really went back and forth on this last spot. A&M's Sydney Colson? ND's Becca Bruszewski for gutting out the tournament on a gamey leg? Tennessee's Shekinna Stricklen? Griner's teammate Melissa Jones? But I think that if any mid-major is going to really break through, I wonder if it might not be the Phoenix? Up until their Sweet 16 loss to Baylor, W-GB was riding a 25 game win streak, largely thanks to Tetschlag. Even in that loss to Baylor, Tetschlag played all 40 minutes and put up a double-double (27 pts and 10 reb.) It makes me wish I had seen her more throughout her career.

For Vandersloot, Adams, Moore and Tetschlag, so long, thanks for all the memories. For the returning players -- Diggins and White, Ogwumike and Rogers, Griner and Novosel -- I'm expecting great things from you next year.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Skylar Diggins Will Save the World

Just one tweet, that's all it took. If Shakespeare were alive, he himself might tweet in response, "Oh brave new world that has such social media in it."

The tweet that sent Skylar Diggins from a great basketball player with a twitter account to a social media supernova came the day before the women's NCAA championship game when Li'l Wayne tweeted to Diggins,

"Kongrats to @skydigg4,my wife. Now bring it home baby."

Her twitter account blew up. As of this posting, she now has 68,640 followers and is nothing short of a cultural phenomenon, likely to break into Justin Bieber or Jersey Shore territory for recognizability. Only, unlike Bieber and Snookie, Skylar Diggins might actually have something to say worth paying attention to.

Based on her performance throughout the NCAA tournament, including Notre Dame's losing effort in the final game last night (76-70 to Texas A&M), she is ready to assume the mantle of the best player in the game.

Through six games in the tournament, she averaged nearly 20 points per game and she's on the floor constantly, rarely sitting down for more than a minute. When her team needs her to score, she drops 28, as she did against UConn. When they need her to distribute the ball, she has 12 assists, as she did against Tennessee. And while her stats are impressive, she's more than that. She's explosive, compelling, a charismatic person, but also a charismatic player.

Though a point guard, she's not content to just sit outside the stripe and try to hit three-pointers. She is both fast and quick, will put the ball on the floor, dribble-drive to the bucket, and lay in a beauty of an underhanded shot. Or she'll pull up and hit three. Or, she'll make a great pass to somebody in the paint. She can do it all, and because she can do it all, you don't know what Diggins is going to do next.

She also has model good looks -- accept it, Diggins is a stunner. But unlike other female athletes who were long on looks and short on game, Diggins can flat out play.

And you know what? If people tune in to see Notre Dame women's basketball because Li'l Wayne tweets to Diggins and calls her wifey, or if they tune in because they think she's hot, they have just tuned into a women's basketball game wherein they will see a great basketball player.

And what's wrong with that?

Skylar Diggins will save the world.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Of Leviathans and Cinderellas, the Women's Final Tips Tonight

For the last several years, I've heard it said that the problem with women's basketball is the hegemony of UConn (and Tennessee and Stanford, to a lesser degree.) Suddenly, yesterday, after Texas A&M knocked off Stanford and Notre Dame took down mighty UConn (you know what they say -- fourth time's a charm), I heard it said that nobody will watch tonight's final because, wait for it -- UConn and Stanford aren't playing.

Huh? Too much UConn? Too little UConn? I'm confused. So now David felling Goliath is a bad thing? Are dynasties good? Or bad? Are we supposed to want a visit from Cinderella or not, for crying out loud?!

We need UConn (and Tennessee and Stanford) because Cinderella is just another obscure, unknown housewench without the evil step-mother. And make no mistake, the Huskies and the Vols and the Cardinal are the evil stepmothers in this tale. We need them because underdogs don't exist in a vacuum. They require opposition, are reliant on tyranny (or at least overwhelming odds.)

David disappears into the vapor without Goliath.

But it's also no fun if Goliath always wins. Who wants to tune in if David never ever notches a victory? We watch because of the possibility of Cinderella dancing with Prince Charming. So we need UConn (and Tennessee and Stanford). And we also need them to get knocked down every now and again because what compels us, what grabs our attention is the push-pull, the tug of war between big and little, the battle of expected against unexpected, the dynastic and the scrappy.

Without the diametrical opposition of the underdog versus leviathan paradigm laying over it, the 1985 Villanova men's team is just another champion. Which is my high-falutin' way of saying, had 'Nova beaten any team other than Georgetown, nobody remembers that game. But given what Georgetown was, Villanova's victory is considered one of the greatest upsets in men's tournament history. Everybody remembers it, everybody refers to it; heck, 25 years have passed and that game is as relevant, as present, as though it happened yesterday.

So what does this women's final mean, given that the titans have already been toppled, knocked from their exalted perches on high?

It means that this is a Final Four we'll be talking about for a long time to come because it's a harbinger of the development of the game.

It means that depth of field is developing over time. These things don't happen overnight. What we are watching, and I find it fascinating to have a front row seat for this, is a sport mid-stride in a massive growth spurt. For now, the underdogs are teams from power conferences (the Big East and Big 12 are the two best in the women's game, by far), but we're on the road to seeing a team from a lesser conference or a mid-major break through.

It means that there is no substitute for good basketball, which is what all four teams gave us Sunday night. That the outcomes of both Final Four match-ups turned out differently than most anticipated is of little consequence. Those were great games and both Notre Dame and Texas A&M made their way to this stage the hard way.

And isn't that a good thing for any sport?

Notre Dame v. Texas A&M, a Cursory Introduction

Both these teams are physical, tough and used to beating their opposition by large margins -- Notre Dame and Texas A&M rank six and seven in that stat nationally, respectively. Both are predicated on playing shut-down defense first, so even if their shots aren't dropping, they can keep the game tonight close. Both knocked off two No. 1 seeds to get here (ND took down Tennessee, then UConn; A&M took out Baylor, then Stanford.) Both have shown remarkable resilience.

While it is hard to portray Notre Dame as an underdog, ever, in any sport, I do believe that Jesus, Mary, Joseph and all the saints above are still shaking their heads in disbelief at their victory over UConn Sunday night.

Guard Skylar Diggins, in her second year, arrived in South Bend under a ridiculous amount of hype, which generally predisposes me to raise eyebrow, at the very least, but what she did Sunday night leading her team to victory from a 6-point halftime deficit and under the burden of three previous losses to UConn on their backs, convinced me that she is as good as promised, all that and a shot of Patron.

In the tourney this year, she's played more than 37 minutes per game, averaging 18.6 points, 6 rebounds, and 6.4 assists, plus throw in some steals and blocked shots here and there. In the biggest games of her career (so far), she scored 24 points (v. Tennessee in the Elite Eight) and 28 points (v. UConn.) If you're looking for a superstar, a player who will hold your attention a'la Maya Moore, look no further than Diggins.

And thus endeth the Maya Moore era in women's college hoops. Are we ushering in the Skylar Diggins era? As Shakespeare once said, the king is dead, long live the king!

ND is more than just one player, though. Deveraux Peters is one of my favorite players to watch, because she plays defense like a member of the Pittsburgh Steelers, and guard Natalie Novosel had a hot hand against the Huskies on Sunday night, dropping 22 points. Inside, Becca Bruszewski has battled through injuries throughout the tournament and her gutsy play was a big part of the reason the Irish advanced to the final.

On the other side of the court, I have a soft spot for the Texas A&M Aggies. I fell in love -- hard -- with the Aggies last year. It's hard not to like a coach like Gary Blair, who has one of those great, warm, uniquely southern senses of humor and a drawl that makes me want to just pour myself a big ole glass of iced tea and listen to him talk. I feel like he stepped right off the pages of a Harper Lee or Carson McCullers novel.

First team All-American, senior forward/center Danielle Adams has been the face of this team for a couple of years now and I'm expecting a great heavy-weight slobber-knocker bout between Adams and Bruszewski in the paint all night long, but as gutsy as Adams' play was on Sunday, some of her teammates emerged from her shadow in this tourney as stars in their own rights.

Both Sydneys came up big down the stretch, as did Tyra White as A&M came back from a 10-point deficit in the last six minutes. Sydney Carter hit three of her four 3-point shots in the second half, draining one of the biggest buckets of the night with about 90 seconds left to pull A&M within one-point.

Then, after Nnemkadi Ogwumike put Stanford up with nine seconds on the clock, Sydney Colson drove the length of the floor, with no time outs, and passed the ball to White with authority under the rim. If you didn't see the winning bucket, watch the ESPN video of Colson's drive and pass. White had an awesome game, too, providing much of the offense as A&M clawed their way back.

Can Colson equal Diggins as a field general?

Can Bruszewski withstand the physical assault of Adams?

Tip off in about five hours. Long ice baths needed for both squads three hours after that.