Sunday, January 31, 2010

On Second Thought...

Only one team made a statement in Ithaca Saturday night.

Cornell 86
Harvard 50

Cornell may break into the Top 25 (in the ESPN/USA Today poll -- they are well out of the T-25 in AP) next week.

And in the NBA, the Celts have a made a statement of a different type this week, losing @ORL, @ATL, and to LAL at home.

With KG in the line-up.

(And with Paul Pierce (interestingly) turning down a shot to win at Crunch Time to throw a floating pass to Ray Allen.)

Saturday, January 30, 2010

Heady Days for Harvard Hoops

Tonight's Ivy League clash in Ithaca, NY may not be the most important college basketball game of the year -- but it may be the most publicized game that won't be on TV.

Harvard (14-3, 3-0) basketball -- thanks to a good loss at UConn followed by an impressive win over Boston College -- has enjoyed a boomlet of publicity in the past few weeks, beginning with a Time Magazine article on Jeremy Lin in late December. Cornell (17-3, 3-0) has been solid all year, and nearly shocked then-Number-One Kansas at Allen Field House a few weeks ago. Tonight, Cornell hosts Harvard in a game that -- with no conference tournament in the Ivies -- will put one team in the driver's seat for the League title.

Just this week, Sports Illustrated, the Wall Street Journal, and Bloomberg all previewed the Crimson-Big Red tilt. KenPom has Cornell winning by 4. With the pressure on Cornell to 'hold serve' at home, the game may be even tighter.

But Lin and the current Harvard players are not the only Crimson in the news this week. Former Crimson player and current US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan enjoyed a generally positive profile in the New Yorker. Two take-aways: Duncan, thanks to a decade of playing hoops with Obama, may be the closest Cabinet member to the POTUS. And his educational agenda is far more centrist than most Obama supporters would have imagined.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

The Dog that Didn't Bark, and other SOTU Thoughts

President Obama's first State of the Union (SOTU) was delivered last night. A few loose ends and random thoughts:

* A Return to Clinton-ism. Bill Clinton was famous for revising the text of his speeches at the last minute, even on the ride over from the White House to the Capitol. This President, who seemingly won't say "Thank You" without a teleprompter, has (heretofore) been more punctual.

But the embargoed text was not delivered to the cable networks 30 minutes before his speech (as promised, according to CNN's Wolf Blitzer.) And unlike previous years, where Members of Congress followed the speech in booklet form, no one was reading; instead they were listening -- with varying degrees of intensity.

And the length of the speech itself -- close to 75 minutes -- indicates that re-drafting was going on to the the last minute. (As Blaise Pascal once remarked, "I didn't have time to write a short letter, so I wrote a long one instead.)

The lack of a prepared text (for Members, not the POTUS, obviously) meant that the Members were not 'prepared' for when the TV cameras would be focusing on them. Nor the Republicans, in particular, seem to know how or when to react to the various portions of the speech. (For example, the GOP side of the chamber, after the initial ovations during the introductions, seemingly did not stand and cheer for a single proposal or statement by the President until he called for "safe, clean nuclear power plants", which occurred almost half-way through the speech.)

* Joe Wilson II. The South Carolina Congressman who heckled the President during September's health care speech was nowhere to be seen. But stepping into the role, or perhaps auditioning for a larger role later, was Supreme Sam Alito, who responded to Obama's criticism of a recent Court decision but mouthing "That's Not True".

BTW, Obama vs. Alito debating the merits of Citizens United would be "Must See TV."

* The Dog that Didn't Bark. Since at least the Reagan era, it has been a tradition to recognize various Americans (and on occasion foreign dignitaries) in the First Lady's box overlooking the House chamber.) In 2002, newly-installed Afghan leader Hamid Karzai appeared. In 2004, Michigan grad Tom Brady served as a "visual prop" for President Bush's call to outlaw steroids.

Last night, President Obama recognized no one except for the First Lady and Jill Biden. (The cameras did focus on the Ambassador from Haiti when POTUS was discussing the earthquake.)

Although there appeared to be a number of "special guests" in the audience -- including at least according to CNN's Wolf Blitzer, members of the response team from the Fort Hood shooting -- this SOTU was not focused on personal symbolism.

* The (Almost) Missing Bark. At the end of the preoration, it is customary to report that "The state of the Union is strong..." or similar words

(A few randomly-selected examples: Bush 43 (2008) ("The state of our union will remain strong"); (2002) ("Yet the state of our Union has never been stronger"); Clinton (2000) ("The state of our Union is the strongest it has ever been"). Interestingly, the only non-use of the "union is strong" formulation that AP could find was in Bush 41's 1992 address, at the start of his failed re-election year.)

Obama incorporated the word "Union" issue three different times in his SOTU opening (including once in a bit of wordplay: "when the Union was turned back at Bull Run"), before concluding: "I have never been more hopeful about America's future than I am tonight. Despite our hardships, our union is strong."

* Enough with Virginia Governors
. Virginia sits just south of the Washington, the locale of 90% of the nation's political reporters. Virginia's electorate, with its combination of rural conservatives in the south and west, and yuppie urbanites in the north, supposedly mimics the country's as a whole. And perhaps most important, Virginia's Constitution forbids its Governors from standing for immediate re-election.

So, every four years, when a new Governor is elected in the Old Dominion State, the pundit class declares him (or her, presumably) a "new rising star" and revs up the "could-this-Governor-be-the-next-President" bandwagon.

(Since 1982, here is the list of Virginia Governors: Chuck Robb, Gerald Baliles, Douglas Wilder, George Allen, Jim Gilmore, Mark Warner, and Tim Kaine. Of these, only Baliles (and Kaine, who left office after Obama's election) refrained from either explicitly running, or attempting to run, for President. All six ended, um, poorly.)

Here's another theory: since the VA Governor's seat is always an 'open' one (i.e., no incumbent to defeat), that means that running a successful gubernatorial campaign in VA is actually a very poor predictor of how political talent will fare in a more traditional setting: with incumbents and re-election campaigns.

Anyways, the latest "new rising star" Bob McDonnell was given the opportunity to respond to the SOTU last night. Although he bested last year's speaker, LA Governor Bobby Jindal, that was not a high bar: Jindal's performance was compared (unfavorably) to that of Kenneth the Page on 30 Rock.

But when even FNC's Charles Krauthammer described your oratorical performance as "workman-like", that may be a sign that your star is rising a bit slower than you might like.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Raiding Morgantown, continued

A little follow-up: notwithstanding John Beilein's 41-46 record since arriving in Ann Arbor, his contract was recently extended through the 2015-16 season.

(Actually, the extension seems to be a somewhat curious decision -- at least as to timing -- as a team was preseason #15, and that seems reasonably likely to lose star G Manny Harris (he was suspended(*) over the weekend although reinstated for the Michigan State game) is mired with a bubble-icious 10-10 (3-5) record.

(* - AP doesn't have the bandwidth to research the "percentage-of-preseason-All-American-candidates-who-are-suspended-by-their-coach-but-who-nonetheless-finish-out-their-eligibility." But let's just say that the odds aren't great. You know, if betting were legal.)

Back to Beilein's extension: Whatever.

After all, Notre Dame famously gave Charlie Weis an extension early in his tenure, and look how that turned out. (Of course, Weis was 5-2 and #9 in the country at the time he got his new deal.)

The best-case long-term scenario, at least for Michigan fans, is that Beilein's extension empowered him to challenge Harris, and subsequently suspend him. (Potentially) good for team discipline long-term. Not such a good sign as to how the season has gone so far, which perhaps explains the underachieving record.)

But Beilein is not the only ex-Morgantown resident who is now coaching in Ann Arbor. Wolverine football coach Rich Rodriguez has now finished his second season at Michigan, with a combined record of 8-16, and perhaps more alarmingly, won just three conference games in 16 starts.

Are fans -- or for that matter journalists, commentators, or Jay Bilas -- happy with Rich Rod?

Well, he's probably not talking to the AD about a contract extension.

Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Elite Pretenders

For the second night in a row in college basketball, a BCS-conference title contender tried to elevate itself. And for the second night in a row, the established order turned away a challenge.

Last night in upstate New York, Georgetown sprinted to a 14-0 start before letting the Syracuse Orange back into the game -- in a big way -- in being outscored by 31 the rest of the way. The Orange, behind G Andy Rautins and F Wesley Johnson, showed that they are well-deserving of their current Top-5 ranking.

A year after the Big East dreamed of sending four teams to the Final Four, it was supposed to be a down year; instead, the conference has six teams in the current AP Top-25 (five in the current KenPom Top-25, but eight (half the league) in the Top-40). The Beast is back.

And Feb. 27th -- Villanova (18-1, 7-0) at Syracuse (20-1, 7-1) -- looms large.

In the Big Ten, meanwhile, Michigan hoped to start on the road back to national prominence when it hosted #5 Michigan State. Armed with a student body seemingly hopped up on Beilein-ball, the Wolverines appeared came back in the second half to take the lead with less than a minute to go.

With 38 seconds remaining, Michigan's DeShawn Sims missed a corner jumper badly. The Spartans' Kalin Lucas drained a 15-foot jumper to take a one-point lead. Sims had a chance to redeem himself with 1.5 left, but a tough layup slipped off the front rim.

And Maize-and-Blue fans wonder if raiding Morgantown was worth it.

It was the Best of Times...

Democrats (and the chattering class) have been, to quote the President, in a "tizzy" since last Tuesday, when Martha Coakley's faltering campaign was put out of its misery by Scott Brown. But while the White House re-calibrates in advance of tomorrow's State of the Union, it is not clear that the Scott Brown victory is uniformly good news for the GOP.

According to a poll conducted shortly after the special election(*), seventy percent of Brown voters were voting "for" Brown, rather than "against" Coakley (25%); in contrast, Coakley's voters were 57% for her/40% against Brown. In the aftermath of the election, Brown voters overwhelmingly (75%) want Brown to get some Republican ideas into Democratic legislation, rather than merely work to stop the Democratic agenda (19%), although when talking about health care reform in particular Brown voters were more willing to have Brown work to 'stop' the Dems (48-50).

(*-There were no exit polls conducted for the Special Election)

Brown famously ran without party identity, and instead linked himself directly to JFK in his first TV ad. Although he campaigned as the "41st vote", he did not have the word "Republican" on his ads (including the JFK ad) or signs. In short, he branded himself as a "Scott Brown Republican," with the implication that he would be independent and moderate.

So Brown's victory should be a road map for other Republicans in this election year?

Well, maybe.

While Brown campaigned (and frankly, legislated) as a moderate, the GOP seems to still be in the throes of a ritual purification: only the most conservative candidates will be acceptable in GOP primaries and caucuses.

To wit:

* Arlen Specter, facing a conservative challenge from Pat Toomey, left the GOP last year to give the Dems their short-lived 60th vote in the Senate.

* In upstate New York's 23rd Congressional District, conservative disaffection with moderate Republican nominee, Dede Scozzafava, resulted in Scozzafava's withdrawal from the race shortly before the November special election, and a win for Democrat Bill Owens in a seat that had been Republican-controlled for close to a century.

* Finally, in Florida, Governor Charlie Crist's lead in the polls over conservative Marco Rubio has evaporated, with Rubio now up by 3 points.

If the true Scott Brown lesson is for Republicans to move to the center, it's not clear that the national GOP wants to hear it.

Monday, January 25, 2010

Head East, Young Man...

With the NBA season approaching the half-way mark, Celtic fans have been squirming as a team that once rashly promised to win 72 games has now been treading water for several weeks (5-8 since Christmas Day, when they stood an impressive 23-5).

This Friday in Atlanta has become a surprising test -- the Celtics need a win to avoid a four-game sweep at the hands of the Hawks. Although the Cs can point to absence of C Kevin Garnett as a big reason why the defense has been shaky recently, in reality, the Celts' swoon started even before Garnett went down.

Another team that has been slumping lately has been the Lakers. The defending champs looked great early, reaching a high-water record of 28-6 before slipping and losing 5 of their last 10.

But while the Celtics can point to Garnett's legs, the Lakers have a more troubling problem: going on the road. (In fairness, Ron Artest and Andrew Bynum are both "day-to-day". But then again, aren't we all, Mr. Costello?)

The Lakers have played the fewest road games in the NBA, save only the SA Spurs. (Actually, both the Spurs and Lakers have played 17 'true' road games, as the Lakers played the Clippers (as a visitor) once this season so far.) And in addition to playing few road games, the LAL have won very few as well -- just 10-8 so far.

The Lakers are at the White House this afternoon, being feted by POTUS for their championship last spring. But with five more road games on their current East Coast trip -- and coming off a statement loss in Cleveland on Thursday night, Sunday's game in the new Boston Garden will take on significance for both teams: the Lakers to prove that they can beat elite teams on the road.

The Celtics just have to show that they are still worthy -- or healthy enough -- for the 'elite' label.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Stealing Third

In (what proved to be) pivotal Game Four of the 2009 World Series, Johnny Damon pulled the rare feat of stealing two bases on a single play. In the top of the ninth with the score tied and two out, Damon fell behind 1-2, before working Brad Lidge for six more pitches and singling to left field.

Running on the first pitch to Mark Teixeira, Damon stole second, and barely pausing proceeded to take third as with the Phillies' shift, the bag was uncovered. Several Phils could have covered the bag, and Damon probably wouldn't have gone unless he was absolutely certain he could make it. Lidge proceeded to meltdown (hitting Teixeira with a pitch, and giving up an RBI double to A-Rod), and the Series was gone.

The mistake was actually made by Lidge, as it was the pitcher's responsibility to cover third with the shift on. But Phillies SS Jimmy Rollins said:

"I'm the captain of the infield," Rollins said. "It's my job. … I didn't signal to Brad to make sure he gets to third on a throw. All you've got to do is take two steps in that direction and you stop it right there. But I didn't do my part in making sure he knew the defense we were in."

Why focus on a play that happened four months ago? The same sort of mental mistake just occurred in Massachusetts. As the NYT reported today, as of December 16th, Martha Coakley was leading Scott Brown by 13 percentage points(*); but inside the numbers (or "cross-tabs"), when the respondents were limited to just those "likely" to vote, Coakley's lead shrunk to just 3 points. Scary numbers for Dems, and encouraging ones for the GOP.

(*)-The Times cites a GOP poll, but presumably other public polls (and Dem polls) would have -- or should have -- shown the same results.

As the Times shows, the GOP and Tea Partiers, used the holiday season -- when Coakley went off the trail for at least six days -- to build up momentum quietly behind Brown. By the time the public at large -- and the media -- caught up to the campaign, the "Brown-out" had broken out. Momentum and likeability -- combined with a public race that really lasted just two weeks (shortly after New Years through last Tuesday) -- spelled doom for Coakley.

No one has played the role of J-Roll in the Democratic party. Instead, we saw the incredible scene of dueling quotes on Tuesday -- before the voting booths had even closed.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Holiday Traditions

Holiday traditions take years to develop. Turkey, pumpkin pie, and the Detroit Lions have meant "Thanksgiving Day" for millions of Americans.

Christmas Day has long been the NBA's showcase, although never totally obscuring presents, tinsel, and Santa Claus. This past Christmas, the NBA upped the ante by offering almost a full day of games, including Heat/Knicks, Celtics/Magic, Clippers/Suns, and Nuggets/Blazers. And the highlight of the day was the defending champion Lakers hosting King James and the Cavs.

The NHL has taken ownership of New Years Day with its Winter Classic, played this afternoon at the historic park at the Fens. The third Classic is a regular league game played on an unusual surface - the irregular ice of an outside rink. And it seems that the NHL has found a marketing jackpot and put it's product into the national consciousness.

But another sport used to own New Years: College Football. The old Bowl system meant wall-to-wall games, and with a "mythical" national championship at stake, oftentimes three or even four games were "must-see" TV. Starting with the first BCS Championship Game in January 1999, college football has devalued its (erstwhile) signature day, and most (if not all) of the top-5 teams do not play at all on January 1st. (The most competitive game - on paper - is the Sugar Bowl featuring #5 Florida and #4 Cincy. The most compelling (non-championship game is the Fiesta Bowl with #6 Boise State vs. #3 TCU).

There are plenty of problems with the current BCS system - including 3 undefeated teams this year, including one for sure (the BSU/TCU winner) who will be unbeaten at the end of the year. But giving up "ownership" of a National holiday is another issue that the NHL - for one -isn't complaining about.