Behind the Mic: Recruiting – At Its Worst

The word “recruiting” in high school sports is certainly a derogatory term.  Schools who feel victimized believe another institution has invaded their territory to grab one of their finest athletes in order to make their own team stronger.  Both public and private schools have been accused of “recruiting”.  Private schools can be a bit more open with the practice because, by their very nature, they “recruit” in order to populate their institutions.  They have the advantage of bringing students in from public school territory and, often, enhancing their athletic teams at the expense of a home district.  There’s no blame here.  It’s just the way it is and the governing body of high school athletics, the PIAA, has decided it is not worth the effort or the expense to dispute these transfers in court.  It is very hard to prove allegations especially when parents choose to send their child to a private school or they find a way to establish residence in a geographical area.  “Recruiting” occurs and even though it is disdained, very little can be done to stop it.

This leads me to focus on two private schools in Philadelphia – Neumann-Goretti and Archbishop Wood.  It would not be a stretch to say these schools are two of the nation’s leaders in recruiting athletes.  Neumann-Goretti is currently ranked #1 in the nation in girls’ basketball.  Let that sink in – the very best in the nation!  They are currently beating their opponents by an average of 45 points a game.

Archbishop Wood has perennially been one of the best girls’ basketball teams in the state and in the nation.  Wood won three straight state championships from 2009-12 and has been to the state finals in three of the last four years.  They do not like the spotlight shifting to Neumann-Goretti. So the two are caught up in a recruiting firestorm!

One of the best players on the Goretti team is Christina Aborowa, a senior who came from Ondo, Nigeria.  On the day in November that Aborowa signed her letter of intent to play at the University of Texas, an email addressed to the Texas coach and athletic director arrived alleging that Aborowa was in the country illegally and that she was older than the age listed.  The email also alleged that her teammate, Felicia Aiyeotan, a 6’9” junior, was illegal and overage.  The email was sent with a fictitious name and was also supposedly sent to other colleges to discourage them from recruiting Aiyeotan.  Goretti was accused of cheating and the email implied that the FBI was looking into the case.

A Philadelphia newspaper, Philly Voice, investigated and concluded the email came from the Archbishop Wood head coach.  He had issued a “no comment” response when asked about the allegations, but has since resigned according to the Philadelphia Daily News.  The Archdiocese investigated the paperwork on the two girls and concluded that the girls are here “legitimately”.

The Bethlehem Catholic girls’ basketball team, a target in the past of recruiting allegations themselves, is in the midst of trying to win their third straight District XI basketball championship.  They are a very talented team.  State rankings have the Golden Hawks ranked as high as #2 in the state.  There is a good possibility if they are successful in the state playoffs that they could eventually meet up with Archbishop Wood, the #1 ranked team in AAA.  The Hawks could be problematic for Wood, but certainly not as problematic as the firestorm facing the Archbishop program at the moment.  Stay tuned!

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. I sat in the stands this past Sunday for the Lafayette at Lehigh game. I rarely sit in the stands, since I can usually sit at the press table, even when I am not broadcasting.  My wife and daughter wanted to attend the game, so I sat with them.  It did not take me long to realize how bad some fans can be and the vitriolic nature of their disdain for another team or player. I don’t get it.  I’ll take press row seats anytime.
  2. One of the positive developments sitting in the stands Sunday was getting to know the parents of Dan Trist, Lafayette’s outstanding center and the leading scorer in the Patriot League. Even though Dan’s a senior, I had never met his parents because they were watching Dan’s first LIVE Lafayette game.  Clive and Helga Trist live in Sydney, Australia and have only been able to watch Dan play through our broadcasts on the internet.  They were sure having fun.  Every time Dan scored, Helga waved a full-sized Australian flag!
  3. I attended Wilson High School and played football, basketball, and baseball. I grew up being exposed to some of the great feats of Wilson Warrior athletics.  An anniversary of one such feat occurred this past week. On February 24, 1955, Wilson’s Cal Vogel scored 90 points in one basketball game and tied the state single-game record of Wilt Chamberlain.  Wilson won 95-52 over Pen Argyl.  Amazing!
  4. Toot! Toot!  That’s the sound we announcers make in jest to one another when we are praising ourselves.  I am going to do just that.  I watched our District XI wrestling coverage on Saturday night.  Scott Barr and Jim Best are outstanding announcers.  They are our RCN experts and they are the best.  Toot!  Toot!
  5. I saw J. K. Simmons’ Academy Award winning performance in Whiplash recently. He plays a music teacher who abuses all of his students, and one, a young jazz drummer, even more so.  It can be uncomfortable to watch.  It reminded me of some coaches I have seen over the years.

The SportsTalk Shop: The End of the Innocence

The End of the Innocence
Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep blue sky
Didn’t have a care in the world….

But “Happily ever after” fails
And we’ve been poisoned by these fairy tales
The lawyers dwell on small details
Since daddy had to fly

We’ll sit and watch the clouds roll by
And the tall grass wave in the wind
You can lay your head back on the ground
And let your hair fall all around me
Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence

–Don Henley, “The End of the Innocence”

This song came to mind the other day following a conversation I was having with some of our RCN-TV crew members about, strangely enough, the Philadelphia 76ers. At that time, there were rumors about potential deals the Sixers could make, and one of the more prominent ones discussed included Jeremy Lin coming to Philly. During our debate, one person said that Lin might be the best available player to help the team this year—to which I quickly jumped in and said that they’re not looking to acquire him to help the team win this year. I explained the, uh hem, logic, behind the philosophy that the 76ers don’t want to improve this year. In fact, having a significant improvement this season could set the franchise back years. Let me explain…

For folks not familiar with the peculiarities of the NBA salary “cap,” the 76ers are trying to peel away as much money as possible to try to clear cap “space,” so that they have funds down the road (aka, 3-4 years from now) to acquire big name talent. The flip side of that is there is also a salary “floor” where the team must spend a certain amount of money to avoid paying a penalty. What the Sixers are trying to do is find the most expensive (overpaid?) player(s) they can find to help them get to the salary minimum, but make sure they don’t acquire enough “quality” players so that the team struggles again this season and has a better chance of a lottery pick next summer.

The benefit of acquiring Lin or an expensive option like him (he has since gone to the Lakers) is that they could pick up a player with a big enough contract so that they wouldn’t have to add additional players to get to the salary floor. The Sixers are looking to avoid bringing in additional “better” players because higher quality players mean the team would win more games—which is clearly not something they want to do. To put it another way, the team would rather bring in one slightly better player with a huge contract (like Lin), instead of having to bring in, say, three quality players making less money to avoid running the risk of winning more games.

To people who are not familiar with this new, ‘unique’ strategy, this approach to building a sports franchise may seem somewhat bizarre. Yet most Philly sports fans have accepted and even embrace the “together we build” mantra and are perfectly willing to be successfully bad for the near future (although I don’t think some fans realize just how long this may actually take). If successful, it will probably be the mold that other teams use for years to come.

In full disclosure, I have basically been on board with this strategy from the beginning. Sure, I did a double-take when the team traded away their only premium piece in Jrue Holiday last year. And I certainly had to catch my breath in last month’s NBA draft when the team selected injury-riddled Joel Embiid and Dario Saric, who, if he plays for the 76ers at all, won’t be available until 2016. But when I stopped to consider “the plan” the team adopted, it all seemed to make perfectly good sense.

Until I said it out loud.

Is this really what professional sports is turning into…and what exactly are we grooming the sports fans of the future to accept?

If my son was a Sixers or pro basketball fan—which he is not—how exactly do I explain this “anti-winning” strategy to someone under the age of 16, and have it make enough sense to get them interested in the sport? Should we encourage our young people to ignore badly played basketball for the next two to three seasons because we really don’t want to win anyway? Do we put the parental control lock on the Sixers for three years until they become something worth watching? Or do we follow another team and show examples of how well they play only to then “bandwagon-jump” over to the 76ers when (if) they start having a winning season? This is the Delaware Valley after all, and the proposition of the third idea disgusts me.

In the meantime, the young people in Eastern Pennsylvania will find some other things of interest to them…the Eagles, Flyers, video games or what have you. Hopefully, they’ll somehow find a way to get excited about the sport of basketball and learn about the excitement of the sport by watching some local high school and college teams. And IF the team is good by the 2017-18 NBA season, possibly the novelty of a winning pro basketball team will attract older kids back to the sport.

Or perhaps we need to start teaching kids about all the business aspects of sports before we tell them to work on their free throw shooting or teach them how to figure out players’ rebounds-per-game averages. Maybe it’s time to sit our young people down and say that, while winning is stressed, and sometimes, over-stressed, at the lower levels, there are certain situations when it’s OK if we don’t go all-out and try our best to succeed.

Perhaps we should be having more adult-type conversations on how the modern sports world is evolving, and cut back on teaching sports fundamentals, the histories of our favorite teams and simply, having fun with games.

Maybe it is the end of the innocence.

 

Behind the Mic: Philadelphia Sports Flops

Late Saturday afternoon, sports fans, I would think, were quite disappointed that they were unable to witness history when California Chrome finished fourth in his bid for the Triple Crown of horse racing. We now must wait for the 37th straight year to see if a 13th horse can win the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness and create, once again, the excitement generated this past Saturday for the 102,000+ in attendance at Belmont in New York and the millions and millions watching at home. The silence was deafening on Saturday when Tonalist, Commissioner and Medal Count all finished ahead of California Chrome. The empty feeling of disappointment got me to thinking about some of the high expectations and negative results for Philadelphia sports fans over the years. Much like the Belmont Stakes, Philadelphia fans have reached feverish levels of excitement only to be very disappointed in the end. Here are the top three that stick out in my mind:

The 1997 Stanley Cup Finals: The Philadelphia Flyers vs. Detroit Red Wings
The Flyers looked unbeatable throughout the season and Philly fans were ready to celebrate a Stanley Cup when they made it to the finals. Hope was squashed quickly as Detroit won the series 4-0. The Flyers scored only six goals in the entire series and their star, Eric Lindros, scored only one goal in the last thirty seconds of game 4. Even Kate Smith could not thwart this embarrassing end to such a highly anticipated season.

The 1993 World Series: The Phillies vs. Blue Jays
First, there was game 4 when the Phillies led 14-9 in the eighth inning only to lose 15-14 in the highest-scoring game ever. Larry Andersen and Mitch Williams could not hold the lead. Then they lost it all when they took a 6-5 lead into the 9th inning and Mitch Williams (again) served up a game-winning and Series-ending home run to Joe Carter. Ironically, both Mitch Williams and Larry Anderson were rewarded with announcing jobs with the Phillies!

The 2003 NFC Championship: The Eagles vs. Bucs
This was the final game in Veterans Stadium history and the Eagles sure made it “memorable”.
1. In the three previous games between the two, the Eagles outscored the Bucs 72-22.
2. It was cold – very cold – at 22 degrees. The Bucs were 1-21 in games played under 40 degrees!
3. The Bucs never won a playoff game on the road.
The Eagles scored a touchdown in the first minute of the game. A Super Bowl appearance seemed to be a sure thing.

But much like California Chrome’s bid for the Triple Crown on Saturday, the Eagles sent home a disappointed crowd by losing 27-10. At that point, the Eagles’ fans had suffered through 33 years of disappointment. Both horse racing fans and Eagles fans continue to hope that their high expectations for a Triple Crown and a Super Bowl win will eventually yield the desired result. Try not to get TOO excited for either.

 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. By the way, if you bet $2 on the trifecta (picking the first three horses correctly in order), you would have won $3,390.50. Just betting $2 on Tonalist to win would have garnered $20.40.

2. Steve Coburn, the owner of California Chrome, ranted after the race that horses should be required to race in all three legs of the Triple Crown or, as some others have suggested, allowed longer time between the three races. It’s a five-week stretch now. To me, if you want to be listed with the other twelve horses that have won all three in one year, you have to do it the way they did it – all comers, in five weeks!

3. As of Monday, the Phillies had the worst record in the National League – yes, they were worse than the Cubs. There is absolutely no sign that they will get better either. They were 11 games under .500 and had lost 13 series this season. They got their first day off this past Monday after playing 20 consecutive games. Maybe that will help. Doubt it.

4. Continuing the theme of “flops” this week, how about the Rangers? They go to LA to play the Kings, get two goal leads in both games only to lose both in overtime. The Kings never led in either game until they did and the game ended immediately. When the puck is dropped Monday night at Madison Square Garden, it will be the first time a Stanley Cup game has been played there in twenty years.

5. The baseball draft was held this past week. In an “ah” moment, the Yankees drafted Mariano Rivera’s son, Mariano, Jr., in the 29th round. At Iona this past year, he went 2-6 with a 5.40 ERA in 12 starts and 70 innings. Last year, the Yankees drafted Andy Pettitte’s son, Josh, out of high school in the 37th round. He decided to go to college first.

 

The SportsTalk Shop: The Art of the Tank

 

It’s been a curious season for the Philadelphia 76ers. New General Manager Sam Hinkie initially drew sharp criticism because of his limited amount of “media time” he presented fans when he first came to the City of Brotherly Love. That bitterness soon turned to optimism once he started his plan for the future for his NBA team, which brings us to today’s topic.

Tanking.

First of all, let me be clear about this. On a recent “RCN SportsTalk” show, a fellow disagreed with me in stating the 76ers were tanking. I don’t think the players are trying to lose, nor are they doing anything on purpose to keep the 76ers from winning games. This is not a point-shaving issue. This is about Hinkie putting the Sixers in a situation when they have very little hope of winning games, so that they improve their chances of getting a higher pick—and better players—in the draft for the next few seasons.

Hinkie unleashed his strategy with a vengeance when he traded his only All-Star caliber player, Jrue Holiday, on Draft Day 2013. He has continued his game plan by trading nearly every player making significant dollars, which not only enhances the team’s propensity to lose, but also clears cap space so that the team will be able to —one day—sign quality free agency to compliment the players the team selects in the draft.

The 76ers also seem to have handled the marketing nightmare of trying to attract fans and season ticket holders during a period in which they are unabashedly trying to lose—and lose royally. They adopted the slogan, “Together We Build”, and even the team’s announcers have done an admirable job of dismissing the monstrosity of what is happening on the court, with promoting what the future may hold DURING their game broadcasts.

This artistic strategy to reboot the franchise was fully embraced by the Delaware Valley area. Every few years, whether it’s the Sixers, Phillies, Eagles, or, to a much lesser extent, the Flyers, the call inevitably rises for a team to “blow themselves up” and start over. Phillies fans have been asking/hoping/praying/demanding for this for some time, and unless the Spring Training results are a complete aberration of what’s to come, they’ll probably be correct in assessing there will not be any postseason games played in Philly this fall. From time to time, a team–if they’ve failed miserably in their retooling effort—must start anew. Last summer, and even through the majority of the 76ers season, the fan base has celebrated this strategic approach to completely gut the team, in an effort to be good three, four, or even five years from now.

Alas, all is not cozy among basketball fans in the Delaware Valley.

Apparently, the 76ers have been too successful—at losing.

There’s now a growing minority of fans that have now seen enough of the horrific defeats. The Sixers have failed to cover even the most gargantuan of line spreads to some of the other weaker teams in the NBA. Plus, the fact that this team is setting all-time records in futility is now starting to irritate die-hard basketball fans. This past week, the team shattered a franchise record for consecutive losses and few would dispute the team has an excellent chance of breaking the league’s consecutive-loss record of 26 set by the Cavaliers in 2011.

There also seems to be some surprise when we as journalists are asked by fans if we expect the team to make the playoffs in the next two years and I, and others, say “no way.” The art of “tanking” is not a guaranteed process, and it will take time—AT LEAST three years, minimum. And even then, you need the team to draft wisely—for every draft pick. Plus, you need to find a way to entice quality free agents to come to a situation that requires a player, who only has a handful of seasons to play this game, to show patience. You need to avoid injuries, you need chemistry to magically develop among the new players, and a little bit of luck is also a requirement. And even then, there’s no guarantees the team will win a championship.

Meanwhile, blogs, websites, tweets and columnists are all having fun with the plight of the lowly Sixers, and “#Winless for Wiggins,” and “#LowSeedForEmbiid” have been trending anytime the team is in the news. Talk show hosts are beginning to hear their audience saying “enough is enough” of all the lackadaisical play, and I’ve heard more than one fan echo, “We really don’t have to be THIS bad, do we?”

My response to these people…isn’t this want you wanted? In fact, Philadelphia fans have been begging for a demolition of your sports teams for years. As soon as a team peaks, or shows very little promise for the next season, the fan base’s instinct is to call for a complete overall of the franchise. It doesn’t matter what the sport is, nor the level of recent success a general manager has had. The call for a MAJOR overall of the 76ers has been requested…and granted, and the Sixers organization has brilliantly executed that strategy. Fans, like it or not, have gotten exactly what they asked for.

Remember this, when the Phillies are eight games under .500 in mid-May.

Are you on-board with the Sixers’ “tanking” this season? Which players would you like the team to obtain via the draft and free agency? Post your comments below or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us Thursdays live at 6pm on RCN-TV as we discuss local, regional and national sports issues each week.

 

Behind the Mic: New Year’s Resolutions

 

BEHIND THE MIC:

Since this is my final blog for 2013 (Scott Barr and Jim Best will fill in for the next two weeks), I thought this would be a good time to look at New Year’s resolutions. Early research indicates that 52% of people want to lose weight; 43% want to improve their general health; 18% want to start a fitness program; and 15% want to curb stress and anxiety.

That all sounds like a great start to a healthy 2014, doesn’t it? However, only 11% of people polled thought they would actually stick to their resolution; 68% would abandon them in January; and 11% said they did not think they could even get through the first six days of the New Year.

Let me offer up 10 possibilities that you may WANT and actually BE ABLE to achieve:
1. Travel
2. Socialize more; Facebook a little less
3. Buy less expensive coffee on your way to work
4. Talk more than text
5. Watch less reality TV
6. Read a good book
7. Save more money
8. Leave work on time more often
9. Learn to use Twitter; it can be fun
10. Walk more

Trying to do the things on this list should improve both your physical and mental health (weight loss is optional). Plus, they all seem very doable. So by this time next year, you might actually get a little self-gratification, too. And that’s not a bad thing.

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)
1. Can anyone figure out the NFL? San Diego beats Denver; Miami beats New England; Minnesota beats Philadelphia; St. Louis destroys New Orleans; Pittsburgh over Cincinnati. If you need a reason NOT to bet on NFL games, this weekend should prove that to you.

2. We know that CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy) has been found in football and hockey. Now they have found it in baseball. One year after the suicide death of Cincinnati player, Ryan Freel, the Boston University School of Medicine has diagnosed Freel with Stage 2 CTE. Stage 2 CTE caused by concussions is associated with erratic behavior and memory loss. This year alone, 18 baseball players were placed on the disabled list after concussions – 10 of them were catchers.

3. Did you notice that the Eagles played Green Bay when the Packers did not have Aaron Rodgers (a win!); they played Detroit without Reggie Bush (a win!); they played Minnesota without Adrian Peterson and the Vikings only won three games with him (48-30 loss! What??).

4. Remember Liberty’s Darrun Hilliard? The junior scored 21 points this past Sunday to lead #9 Villanova to their 10th consecutive win this year without a defeat. I saw two of our best local high school players last Friday night – Central Catholic’s Muhammad Ali Abdur Rahkman and Dieruff’s Tyler Kohl. They scored 57 points – Rahkman: 32; Kohl: 25. They should both be playing major college basketball this time next year. Get out and see them play!

5. Finally, I want to thank all of you for the kind comments throughout the 2013 sports season and I want to wish you and your family a wonderful holiday and a very Happy and Healthy New Year!! See you in 2014!

NFL PICKS FOR THIS WEEK
(Last week – 9-7) (140-83-1 overall – 63%)
MIAMI
CAROLINA
CINCINNATI
DENVER
TENNESSEE
KANSAS CITY
JETS
ST. LOUIS
DALLAS
DETROIT
SEATTLE
GREEN BAY
SAN DIEGO
NEW ENGLAND
PHILADELPHIA
SAN FRANCISCO

The SportsTalk Shop: Phillies Position Player 2014 Projections

 

Phillies Position Player 2014 Projections

Back in September, I gave my annual suggestions on what moves the Phillies should make for the upcoming winter trading and free agent season. With the World Series completed and offseason moves in the works, I want to give my take on the Phillies’ projected roster for position players, given the latest news, rumors and insights.

CF Jacob Ellsbury / Curtis Granderson
SS Jimmy Rollins
2b Chase Utley
1b Ryan Howard
RF Mike Morse / Nelson Cruz
C Carlos Ruiz / Dioneer Navaro
3b Cody Asche (might alternate with the catcher depending on if a right or left-handed pitcher is starting)
LF Ben Revere
Right-handed PH — Darin Ruff; Kevin Frandsen, Mark Reynolds or Chris Young
Left-handed PH — Cesar Hernandez or a Free Agent—preferably an outfielder and a ‘power bat’
Utility IF — Freddy Galvis
Backup C — Erik Kratz or Cameron Rupp

ANALYSIS:
First of all, I know you are saying: “Wait…where’s Dom Brown?” I think it’s very possible that the Phillies look to trade Brown for a quality starting pitcher (perhaps included in a package for Tampa Bay’s David Price?). The Phillies’ needs include improving their outfield defense, adding a consistent bat and improving both their bullpen and starting rotation, all at the same time. You have to trade somebody and Brown’s stock will never be higher. I saw him play for years in the minors, and he was very inconsistent, both at the plate and in the field. With the Phillies this year, he hit over .270 with 24 HRs the first half of the year, then hit under .250 with 4 HRs the second half. His defense? Spectacular one minute, botching routine plays the next. You can’t improve this team while keeping it the same, and Brown can get you the most among the trade-able players.

Ellsbury is a guy the Phillies have coveted for some time. Although he’ll be EXTREMELY expensive to acquire, he adds power and a consistent bat to your lineup and is less likely to get resigned by his former team than some of the other free agents the Phils are looking at. Granderson is a cheaper option to play center field, and he should require a shorter deal if the Phillies want to go that route. Cruz is a question mark coming off his PED suspension and his offensive numbers in pitcher-friendly parks are dramatically lower. Morse is a quality clubhouse guy and is coming off a down year—meaning he’ll be affordable and allow you to add a right-handed power bat while allowing you to still spend money elsewhere. Young could also be a right-handed addition who is not a liability defensively. Adding any two of these players improves your outfield defense in THREE spots (moving Revere to left field helps solve his “weak arm” issue that he had in center field).

I’ve heard several other media members strongly suggesting the Phillies will trade Revere instead of Brown, but consider this: what did the Phillies give up last season to acquire Revere…and is that what you really want to have back in return? Trading Brown is not a popular move, but one that must be considered for the right value in return.

The Phillies could also kick the tires on free agent outfielders Carlos Beltran (who I suggested on RCN SportsTalk two years ago when he was available) or Corey Hart, but both have injury issues and the Phillies have enough health-questions already on the roster.

I think the Phillies will try to upgrade by adding a better left-handed bat of the bench than Roger Bernadina, although he did add speed and quality defense. The Phillies were hoping that Bernadina could rebound from his sub-Mendoza batting average in September, but weren’t exactly impressed with what they saw. Because of the lack of outfield depth, I kept Cesar Hernandez off my projected Opening Day roster for now. Major League baseball ruled that he can have an extra option and therefore be sent to Triple-A for the upcoming year. The Phillies were impressed by his bat and the way he adjusted to center field. The plan is to send him to winter ball to see if he can play shortstop. If he can adjust to another new position, he might give Galvis a run for the backup infielder spot.

Ruff still needs to learn to better handle breaking pitches at the major league level and will provide insurance at both first base and the corner outfield positions. In extended playing time, Frandsen didn’t exactly have an explosive second-half at the plate. The Phillies could look to add an extra bat if they have money available, but Ryne Sandberg did talk glowingly about Frandsen’s approach at the plate on several occasions, and his double-digit pinch-hits this year were among the best in the Majors this season.

In an upcoming blog entry, we’ll take a look at the projected Phillies pitching staff. In the meantime, send us your thoughts on the Phillies lineup and position players for the 2014 season and post your opinions on what you think of my roster projections.

 

Behind the Mic – February 19th

Another Day at the Office – Well, Not Quite

Walking into the Kirby Sports Center this past Saturday to do a basketball game seemed no different than the other hundreds of times I have made a similar trip to the many venues around the Lehigh Valley. I was there to do a game, and like all the other games I do, I anticipated a storyline that John Leone and I would develop before and during the contest.

This storyline did not have a great deal of optimism attached to it. The Lafayette men were playing the league – leading the Bucknell Bison. Lafayette was coming off an 85-68 loss to Army just three days prior, would not have their starting center for the second straight game, and had already lost to Bucknell by 14 points just a month ago.

My realistic expectation was that somehow Lafayette could keep the game close, but the storyline that I mentioned earlier gave little hope that this was going to be a competitive contest. Bucknell’s center, Mike Muscala, is the best in the Patriot League and, some propose, the second best in the country. He leads the League in scoring and rebounding. And, as noted earlier, Lafayette’s starting center was injured and unavailable.

The atmosphere was electric! Bucknell brought the most fans of any visiting team so far. The Leopard fans, student body, and pep band certainly added to the energy in the building.

The game was good right from the start, except for Muscala. He was great!! He had a double-double by the half: 21 points and 10 rebounds. Lafayette trailed by 7. A single digit deficit is still a game.

In the middle of the second half, Dan Mowdy, our sideline reporter tracked down Tony Johnson’s father. Tony is the senior point guard and co-captain of the Lafayette team and hails from Folsom, California. Suffice it to say, his father does not get to see him play LIVE very often. I believe this was his first visit to Kirby this year. Now, Tony’s mother, Karen, and his stepfather, Michael Witt, do come in from California on a number of occasions to see Tony perform. Tony, also, has a great support group of friends and relatives who make a point of making the cross-country trek to see Tony in his element. I am sure the trip is always worthwhile.

The Leopards kept it close throughout the second half. Muscala had just 8 more points and 5 rebounds, and, with 45 seconds to go, Bucknell led by one and had the ball. The Lafayette defense forced Bucknell to throw up a desperation shot before the shot clock expired. The shot missed – ten seconds left – and the ball in the hands of, you guessed it – Tony Johnson!

Tony Johnson, with his friends and family watching our telecast back in California, and his father watching in a gym that was ready to blow the roof off, dribbled the length of the court, gave the defender his now familiar crossover dribble, added a step-back and drained the 10-foot jumper!! 63-62! The Leopards win! The Leopards win!

Johnson’s Game Winner Lifts Lafayette Over Bucknell – Lafayette Leopards Official Athletic Site

Tony scored 17 points, gave out 5 assists, had 4 rebounds, and garnered 2 steals.

My pre-game storyline – worthless; the cost of that cross country ticket for his father – priceless!


 

ABOVE THE EARS (SOME MUSINGS)

  1. Besides the basketball win over Bucknell, this was a good Saturday to be a Lafayette Leopard – the Lafayette women’s basketball team beat Bucknell at Bucknell in overtime after being down by 16; the Lafayette men’s lacrosse team beat highly touted Georgetown in overtime 11-10; and the Lafayette women’s lacrosse team beat Marist 12-8. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RR2z_uvXFlE
  2. The Lafayette-Lehigh rivalry is intense, to say the least, in every sport. As an announcer, I look forward to doing any Lafayette-Lehigh matchup, particularly in football and basketball. For the third year in a row, CBS Sports Network has taken the men’s basketball game away from our production schedule. Do I sound bitter? I mean to.
  3. The Philadelphia Flyers are certainly not making the Philadelphia sports fan forget the Phillies’, the Eagles’, and the ‘76’ers’ dismal seasons. The Flyers have just added to their misery. Maybe next year?
  4. When I was a kid and went to a major league baseball game, I wanted to get my glove and ball out as soon as I came back home from the ballpark. I feel the same way now when I watch these golf tournaments from California and Hawaii. Where are my clubs?? And then, I look outside.
  5. Have you checked out the TV show, “Elementary”? It is ”House” as a crime-solver instead of a doctor? Give it a look. I like it.

The SportsTalk Shop – February 4th

“It’s always darkest before the dawn.”

That might just describe the state of Philadelphia pro sports right now. With the Flyers (as of this writing on 2/4) mired in last place in the Atlantic division, the 76ers six games under .500 and out of the top 8 playoff spots, and the Phillies coming off an off-season in which they did not acquire a “big name” power bat, following a season in which they finished out of the playoffs and a very mediocre 81-81, it’s easy to be pessimistic.

Those are the bad numbers … now, let’s check out the other side.

First, the Fly Guys are currently just 2 points behind the Rangers and 3 points away from the last playoff berth with one of the most aggressive front offices in all of sports. You know they will make moves (for better or for worse) to try to ride the ship and improve some areas in need of strengthening, especially help on the power play. They’ve also had more than their share of injuries and you can hope that would balance itself out with other teams, especially with the very aggressive four-games a week schedule teams have to endure because of the lockout. And about that condensed schedule, it does make it easier for a quicker reversal-of-fortunes than in normal years. Given continued solid performances by Ilya Bryzgalov in the net, a “hot” week or two could give the Flyers a 10 to 12 point bounce which should calm the anxiety of some of South Philly’s most loyal fan base.

The Sixers, of course, have their big man Andrew Bynam soon to make his long-awaited debut in Philly. He will certainly need time to adjust to his teammates and the new offense, but maybe the team doesn’t need him as much as fans think—at least right now. They certainly need a reliable — and consistent — presence in the paint. But even at 10 to 14 minutes a game to start will help with the team’s depth up-front. I also think his return will light a much needed fire under some other members of the frontcourt (see Spencer Hawes & Lavoy Allen) that have shown flashes of solid play, but not on any kind of regular basis. The team has been gelling better of late with all the new pieces to this year’s team. If their play improves, it will allow Bynam time to get his legs back to as-good-as-its-going-to-be condition for the playoffs, at which time he will have to step and deliver his much need his in-close to the basket skills.

And for the Phillies, who open spring training on February 13th, it is true that Ruben Amaro Jr. spent less money this offseason than the majority of other teams in baseball. He did, however, address every need the Phils had, albeit with some very questionable players. But his moves give the Phils some extra depth that he didn’t have last year at this time. For example, if Dom Brown slips again going after a routine fly ball and breaks his wrist, John Mayberry again can’t establish plate discipline until July, or Delmon Young develops an affinity for Tony Luke’s cheese steaks, the team does have a young stud in Darin Ruff, just chomping at the bit for a chance to bring his big bat to the Bank. The Phillies also have a multitude of options for the bullpen—the candidates for the remaining roster spots NOW have some big league experience. And if all of the options for the corner outfielders and third base positions fall apart and/or if health issues once again crop up for Halladay, Utley and/or Howard, Amaro still has an ace card to play. The team is roughly 7-million under the cap, and the team didn’t go over the luxury tax in 2012, meaning the team can go over in ’13 and not be penalized too harshly. With free agents-to-be like Utley, Halladay, Ruiz and others coming off the books at the end of this season, it wouldn’t surprise me if a big addition would be made during the year, if the team needs one.

Do you think any of these teams and make run for the postseason, and which teams have the most upside? Post a comment on our blog here or email us at RCNSportsTalk@rcn.com and join us for the hottest local and national sports conversations live on Thursdays at 6pm on RCN-TV. Don’t forget, Villanova and LaSalle surprised us with some rays of sunshine over nationally ranked teams a few weeks ago. It isn’t that far out of the realm of possibility that the Flyers, Sixers and Phillies all make the playoffs this season…even if optimism’s not burning brightly here on these cold February nights.

The Sports Talk Shop – January 22nd

“SportsTalk Shop: HS Basketball Parody vs. Mediocrity”

Every few years, we have a high school basketball season like the one we have this year – lots of teams with similar records and “common opponents” knocking each other off with seemingly no single team, or even a couple squads, distancing themselves from the rest of the pack. Inevitably, we, as local sports fans, start to debate. Do we have a lot of really good teams this year, or are most teams merely average?

I actually feel we have more of the former. Here are some of the reasons why: field goal percentage, defensive points allowed, average, and turnovers.

First, field goal percentage. I don’t recall so many teams in recent memory that were shooting near 50-percent as a unit (no, I’m not going to bring up the woeful free-throw shooting percentage—that’s a whole other issue). The solid “FG” numbers indicate a good deal of high percentage shots being taken, which is a direct result of good execution. We’re seeing quite a bit of quality passes, good pick & rolls (yes, it’s back in style again), solid picks and some all-around good play. You could argue that this is a result of shoddy defense, but when you look at the points allowed, most teams’ numbers are down from a year ago, indicating an improvement in defensive performance. As for teams that are giving up more points than normal, like Easton, the Rovers have played in four overtime games, including two that went into double overtime. With the extra periods, it inflates their per game averages. However, if you look at quarter by quarter numbers, you’ll find nearly every team is playing better defense.

Secondly, the turnover numbers. Local teams are bucking the trend of actually cutting down on the number of turnovers per game. This despite a few teams trying to play a more up-tempo style of basketball. Most teams over the last few years averaged in the mid-teens, but I’ve seen quite a few teams averaging ten or 11 turnovers per game, which also supports the theory that teams are taking better control of the basketball, and, therefore, the quality is up from recent years.

One other point that supports more quality basketball in both the boys and the girls basketball teams, is that of depth. We’re seeing quite a few teams, shall we say “missing” players for various reasons (let’s just say I’ve heard a number of stories why players are not available to play this winter). Injuries or otherwise, teams are having to use their bench quite a bit more. In fact, both the Bangor girls and boys teams were without key players last weekend. Yet they got outstanding efforts from their reserves & younger players, and even members of their JV squad, that stepped up and battled some very strong teams last week. With more and more teams going deeper to their bench and getting quality efforts, it’s clear that there is an upswing right now in the level of play here in the Lehigh Valley. (Bangor, by the way, will be guests on “SportsTalk” this Thursday at 6pm to talk about their season).

Do I see any one Lehigh Valley team knocking off the powerhouse programs from the Philadelphia area, or even some of the top teams from the western part of the state? Probably not. But it has made for an entertaining season thus far. Do you think high school basketball is improving, or are we continuing down a trend of playing more of a ‘playground’ style that a number of long-time local sports fans have been lamenting the last several years? Send your comments to us at rcnsportstalk@rcn.com & we’ll discuss on our upcoming shows.