Kristaps Puts Zing in Knicks

December 1st, 2015 sendarama Posted in pro basketball 1 Comment »

He’s the name on the lips of every New York sports fan, even if they’re not quite sure how to pronounce it.

Following his surprise selection by the Knicks as the fourth pick overall in last May’s draft, a choice which was greeted by Knicks fans in attendance with a loud chorus of boos, Kristaps Porzingis, a 20 year old 7’3” Latvian, who played the last two seasons in the Spanish League, has taken several months to acclimate himself to life in New York and to the NBA. He played for the Knicks rookie team during the summer, and bought a home in Westchester where he lives with his father, mother and two brothers and retreats every night to ma’s cooking. Porzingis speaks four languages, is polite and respectful to everybody, and by all accounts, is a hard worker and a quick learner. He is tattooless.

Just your typical NBA player.

While Porzingis was breaking himself in over the summer, Knicks fans took that long to get his name straight. Recently I asked a group of six serious local sports fans around a poker table if they knew the name of the Knicks’ 7’ rookie, and not one of them got it exactly right.

But after watching Porzingis play, you must spell his name correctly. Displaying a variety of skills which bring to mind the best of Dirk Nowitzki, Larry Bird, and Kevin Garnett, Zinger fills up a stat sheet with a plethora of points, rebounds and blocks. He has the offensive variety of Nowitzki, shoots fouls w/ Bird-type accuracy (85%), and rebounds and blocks shots like Garnett. In wins against Charlotte 11/17 and Houston 11/21, his lines were 29 points, 11 rebounds, and 1 block, and 24, 14, and 7, respectively. Here are his numbers over the last five games: 17.0 pts, 11.6 reb, 4.0 blocks, 85% FT, 35% FG3.

Porzingis starts at power forward with 7’ Robin Lopez at center. His range from the 3-point line is without limits. He gives new meaning to the term “stretch forward.” When Lopez sits, he’ll slide over to center, where he has displayed a lefty hook, a nifty drop step move, and several commanding put-back dunks.

Nowitzki has seen Porzingis develop as a youth in Europe. He pulls no punches:

“He is long. He is athletic. He’s got a touch. He can put it on the floor. He is for real. Sky’s the limit.”

Less than a quarter into the season, Porzingis has already spurred a mini Knick resurgence, on the court and among their fans, who are among the most loyal and passionate in sports. A New York sports fan in the 50’s and 60’s could follow up to three baseball teams and two NFL teams but only one NBA outfit. Most of them will tell you that the 1969-1970 and 1972-1973 Knicks, both NBA champs, were their most beloved sports team ever. The 90’s Knicks of Ewing, Oakley, Starks, Mason, and Sprewell were inspiring but not champions. After 15 years of bad basketball and 43 years without an NBA title, veteran Knicks fans, and the sons of Knicks fans, are ready to explode at a playoffs run.

And New Yorkers waste no time in anointing talented newcomers as superstars. Remember Linsanity? After a string of 20-point games off the bench and then as a starter in early 2012, Jeremy Lin became a cult hero. His jersey retailed for $250 and he appeared twice on the cover of Sports Illustrated. His luster dimmed by a season-ending leg injury and by a lack of support from Carmelo Anthony, Lin left as a free agent in the off-season.

Porzingis will be more lasting. Barring injury, he is going to be a franchise cornerstone for years to come, like Ewing. But New Yorkers need a catchword, a hashtag, to provide a short form identification for their hero. Early contenders are Zinger (my choice, which Porzingis has rejected), Godzingis, Porzilla, and KP. Bland though it may be, KP is the leader in the clubhouse, and has been adopted by teammates and by Knick announcer Walt Frazier.

Porzingis in dunk mode.

Porzingis is not the only reason for the Knicks’ fast start.

The Knicks started 8-6, including back to back road wins at Oklahoma City and Houston. A recent four game losing streak has not diminished their obvious upgrade over last year’s 17-65 team, which was far too reliant on Anthony. Porzingis accounts for much of the betterment, and his presence permits Anthony to shoot less, and more discreetly; but there are other new pieces.

Off their lousy 2014-2015 record, the Knicks were not attractive to top free agents, such as Greg Monroe, LaMarcus Aldridge, and DeAndre Jordan. Having drafted Porzingis and point guard Jerian Grant in the first round, Boss Phil Jackson went shopping among lesser free agents to achieve value and team symmetry. He found both.

He re-signed undrafted free agents Langston Galloway (PG) and Lance Thomas (PF) from last year’s squad for a total of 2.2 million. Galloway came from their D league team. Thomas originally came in trade from Oklahoma City, but was not signed past 2015. A 2010 Duke alum, he was cut three times by New Orleans and played in China for a year. Galloway and Thomas are now key players, averaging 25 and 19 minutes a game, respectively.

Jackson then opened the wallet to sign free agents Lopez, sharp shooting 2-guard Arron Afflalo, and the No. 2 pick in the 2011 draft, Derrick Williams, who languished for four years in Minnesota and Sacramento. Collectively, they earn less per annum than Anthony. Cheap free agents Kyle O’Quinn, Sasha Vujacik, and Lance Amundson round out the roster. On average, 10-12 Knicks get playing time every night. There are exactly two holdovers from last year’s opening night roster – Anthony and starting point guard Jose Calderon.

Unable to sign an elite free agent, Jackson employed other tactics to improve his team – second tier free agency, the draft, and trades. The fourth path to a better record, improvement from within, is now in the works, led by the man they call KP.

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Dolan to Knicks Fans: You Dont Matter (SIC)

February 11th, 2015 sendarama Posted in pro basketball No Comments »

For years, I’ve been preaching the benefits of good grammar to an unreceptive audience.

Linguistic markers, I call them, can brand you as a bright, communicative individual with an attention to detail or as a second-tier intellect who may be careless in other matters.

My obsession with grammar has won few converts, and a lot of negative feedback; but it came in handy recently when my e-mail was hacked. The hacker, in a grammatically flawed e-mail, requested that money be sent immediately to bail me out of a tight spot in the Philippines. My good friend Karen replied , “I was about to cut you a check, but when I noted the bad grammar, I knew it was bogus.”

But James N. Dolan, the embattled owner of the New York Knicks, has given new life to my position.

Dolan is universally regarded as the worst owner in the NBA, and is high on the list of most polls of the Worst Owner in Sports (move over, Dan Snyder). Since he was handed stewardship of the Knicks in 1999 by his father Charles P. Dolan, owner of Cablevision, the once-proud franchise has suffered a series of indignities, culminating in its current 10-42 win-loss record.

When 74 year old Irving Bierman, a Knicks fan since 1952, suggested in a recent e-mail that Dolan had done “a lot of utterly stupid business things with the franchise,” and should resign, Dolan responded with this typo-laden e-mail, which Bierman’s son made public:

“You are a sad person. Why would anybody write such a hateful letter. I am just guessing, but ill bet your life is a mess and you are a hateful mess. What have you done that anyone would consider positive or nice. I am betting nothing. In fact ill bet you are negative force in everyone who comes in contact with you. You most likely have made your family miserable. Alcoholic maybe. I just celebrated my 21 year anniversary of sobriety. You should try it. Maybe it will help you become a person that folks would like to have around. In the mean while, start rooting for the Nets because the Knicks don’t want you.”

Knicks owner James N. Dolan

My initial reactions were the following. First, where was Dolan when his third-grade teacher was discussing punctuation? Second, if Dolan is a model of sobriety, then please pass the tequila. And third, this is what happens when you don’t practice good grammar as a youth—you grow up to be a fat, mindless, ill-tempered ex-drunk who just happens to own one of sport’s most historic franchises.

Upon further reflection, I wondered whether NBA commissioner Adam Silver would sanction Dolan for his vituperative response to the legitimate complaint of a life-long fan. Even a liberal-leaning expert on the First Amendment, if a Knicks fan, would have taken no offense if Silver had handed down a suspension or at least a verbal reprimand. And why not? Silver booted Donald Sterling out of the league for private comments made to a self-promoting ex-lover, and recently fined Chris Paul for suggesting that female referee Lauren Holtkamp should consider a new career.

But Silver responded meekly, “Jim is a consummate New Yorker. Jim got an unkind e-mail and responded with an unkind e-mail.”

One possible explanation for Silver’s lame response is that he was mindful of Dolan’s lead role as host of the NBA all-star game, which will be played in New York this weekend. But in avoiding that embarrassment, he has exposed himself to the charge that he is administering uneven treatment, and is insensitive to the plight of long-suffering fans.

But that is the price you pay when you hold yourself out as an arbiter of people’s thoughts and words. Take it from a member of the grammar police.

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Mob Rule in the NBA

April 30th, 2014 sendarama Posted in pro basketball No Comments »

Midst the near universal acclaim for NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s decision to suspend Donald Sterling “for life” for the racist comments attributed to him in a taped conversation which went viral, it has been overlooked, or at least disregarded, that Sterling’s comments were made in a conversation intended to be private occurring several months ago to a girlfriend who may have been trying to set him up. The taping, without Sterling’s consent, was illegal under California law. You can be sure that at TMZ Sports, the smut-dispensing web site which broke the story, they were exchanging high fives at the water cooler when Silver announced The Decision II.

In the absence of social media, the firestorm which greeted the disclosure of Sterling’s comments last Saturday would have amounted to little more than a campfire. A close reading of Sterling’s comments reveals that they made little sense. Were they the calculated expression of a dedicated racist’s antipathy to blacks, or were they merely the rantings of a delusional octogenarian to an opportunistic ex-lover with an ax to grind? Did GF Vi Stiviano plan to catch Sterling on tape? Did she sell the tape to TMZ? Silver didn’t wait to find the answers before hitting Sterling with the nuclear option.

There were sound reasons for Silver’s rush to judgment, but none of them had to do with fairness. You can find more offensive language than Sterling’s in any country club steam room or Thursday night poker game. Sterling has been a rogue owner for 33 years, combining enough negative personality traits to make Charles Manson blush; but is he any worse a person than Cleveland owner Dan Gilbert (abusive mortgage loan practices), Knicks owner James Dolan (gross incompetence, permitted executive harassment and sexual exploitation), or the Maloof brothers, who ran the Sacramento franchise to the ground?

It’s not as if Sterling was broadcasting his animosity towards blacks in a public forum. In fact, his public face was to be supportive of blacks. He retained Elgin Baylor as his GM for 23 years, hired Doc Rivers as coach, and was the recipient of an NAACP lifetime achievement award for (gulp) humanitarianism. Can you punish a man for his private thoughts? Should we not consider that an 80 year old man who grew up when anti-semitism was rampant and blacks would not be served at lunch counters may lack the sensitivity to be discreet in the age of social media?

Indeed, under the collective bargaining agreement, NBA players may be better protected from disproportionate punishment for indiscretions than was owner Sterling. Kobe Bryant made a public slur against gays, and received a mere slap in the wrist. How many NBA players have committed felonies, failed to make paternity payments, or been charged with DWI’s, and resumed their careers with little or no interruption?

No, Silver trumped any concerns about fairness to preserve league stability, retain sponsorships, and return attention to the playoffs, all of which were in jeopardy after the defections of several Clipper sponsors and very real player threats to walk off the court unless Sterling was severely punished.

Mark Jackson, Golden State coach, encouraged his team not to play last night if the punishment was not sufficient. So many current and former NBA stars chimed that “there was no room for Sterling in the NBA,” you’d think they’d worked in hotel management. The Players Association engaged Sacramento mayor and former NBA great Kevin Johnson to be its lead spokesman on the matter, and Johnson did not miss a sound bite. He appeared before a group which included Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Steve Nash, and other dignitaries to applaud Silver’s decision.

But it took a while for the players to rally around Sterling’s punishment. Only after Silver announced that he would hold a press conference on the Sterling matter did the players bring forth the heavy artillery. Until then, they were content to turn their shirts inside out in protest. From Shaq to JR Smith, the Twitter network buzzed with kudos to Silver for showing Sterling the door. By extending the punishment from the anticipated “indefinite suspension” to “suspension for life,” Silver quieted the crowd and diffused the situation.

While Silver’s power to suspend Sterling for statements “prejudicial or detrimental to the best interests of the league” is clear, he may be on shakier grounds when he attempts to drum up the required three-fourths of owners’ support for a termination of Sterling’s ownership of the Clippers. If widespread scorn over a misdeed or misstatement is the measure for expulsion, rather than the character of the conduct , some of the more rebellious owners may envision themselves in Sterling’s place. Many Knicks fans, for sure, would have voted to terminate Dolan’s Knicks ownership after the 2011 Carmelo Anthony trade.

Silver has been hailed for making a decision consistent with the “cultural diversity“ of the NBA. And cultural diversity is a good thing. But when in obeisance to cultural diversity, a man’s right to be comfortable with his own thoughts is trampled by a social media stampede, that’s a bad thing.

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Big Apple Blues

December 29th, 2013 sendarama Posted in pro basketball 1 Comment »

Carmelo Anthony is disappointed

“My bad,” mouthed Andrea Bargnani in the direction of his Knicks teammates who, like Jack Buck, could not believe what they just saw.

As if choreographed for a New York version of the Wave, many of the 19,500 spectators on hand, Knicks players, and countless TV viewers (including this writer), raised their arms to the sky in reaction to Bargnani’s three-point attempt with his team up by 2 points, ten seconds left in overtime, and a fresh shot clock, on December 18th against the Bucks at the Garden.

Naturally, Bargnani missed, and the Bucks sent the game into a second overtime. The Knicks won it but the victory offered little consolation to any Knick fan with a view to the future.

First, there’s Bargnani. Touted as the next Dirk Nowitzki, Bargnani was drafted first overall by Toronto in 2006 out of the Italian League. He loves to hoist the three-ball, and is pretty good at it. But he plays awful defense, and in 2012-2013, became the first 7-footer in NBA history to average more than 28 minutes and fewer than 4 rebounds per game. He’s what you’d call a soft player.

When the Knicks last summer traded their first pick in 2016 and two second rounders to the Raptors to get him, the move was greeted with mass consternation. Why Bargnani? Last year’s Knicks went 54-28, but there was a fool’s gold quality to it. They became over-dependent on prolific scoring by Carmelo Anthony and the 3-point accuracy of the combustible JR Smith. The regular season success felt more like a one-off than a glimpse of glory to come.

The Knicks’ limitations were exposed in the playoffs against Indiana, which out rebounded the New Yorkers by nine boards a game, and dominated the paint. Going into 2013-2014, the Knicks needed additional front court strength and depth to support the injury-prone Tyson Chandler and Amare Stoudamire. They needed to make more defensive stops. They needed to be tougher. The last thing the Knicks needed was another three-point gunner who didn’t rebound or play defense.

The second reason for our dismay over the Bargnani trade was that the Knicks were back to their old tricks of trading first round picks for aging veterans at a time when recent draft picks are turning other teams into contenders.

Now there’s a third reason for not liking the deal – Bargnani’s an idiot.

We knew Bargnani was soft, and that he was not a good fit; but until the Shot, we were not aware of his weak mental component. English is a second language to Bargnani so you can’t blame him for resorting to hip-hop to admit responsibility. A well-rendered “my bad” often results in complete exoneration. But not in the NBA, and not before the smart New York crowd, which did not need Bargnani’s plea to know that it had witnessed a bonehead of epic proportions. The “stupidest shot of the season,” said USA Today.

Bench Reacts to Bargnani Shot

The Bargnani episode came in the midst of a horrible start to the season by the Orange and Blue and on the heels of a brainlock by Coach Mike Woodson just two nights before against the Wizards. Woodson failed to call a time out with seven seconds left and the Knicks trailing by one with the ball under their own basket. Predictably, the possession broke down early and ended with an off-balance 40’ heave by Anthony at the buzzer.

Woodson’s failure to act can be written off as a rare mistake by an otherwise competent coach. But the Bargnani Blunder spotlighted the Knicks’ longstanding but shortsighted policy of trading future number one picks for veteran scorers.

When was the last time the Knicks drafted, nurtured, and retained a good, young player?

Since 2002, the Knicks have traded draft picks which became Nene (2002), LeMarcus Aldridge (2006), Joaquin Noah (2007), and Gordon Hayward (2010). In exchange, they got Antonio McDyess, Stephon Marbury, and Eddy Curry. Enough said. Their first pick in the 2014 draft, which is likely to be a high lottery pick in a very talented draft class, was pledged to Denver in the 2011 deal to get Anthony. Toronto owns their 2016 pick for Bargnani. The only reason the Knicks held onto their 2011 and 2013 picks, which became Iman Shumpert and Tim Hardaway, is an NBA rule which prohibits teams from trading away future number one picks in successive years.

David Lee, whom the Knicks drafted number one in 2005, would be the answer to today’s trivia question, but the Knicks let Lee go in 2010 for negligible consideration to clear cap space to pursue Lebron James. Now, Lee averages 18.3 points and 9.8 rebounds/game for ascendant Golden State.

In February 2011, the Knicks traded three of their starting five, promising back-up center Timofey Mosgov, plus the 2014 pick, to Denver for Anthony. How’s that working out? As this columnizer predicted nearly three years ago at the time of the trade, the Knicks are not going to achieve anything during the Anthony reign. Anthony remains a marvelous scorer and is having a good season, but he is not a team leader. When the team languishes, so does he. His public comments are less than inspirational. It was a bad sign before the start of the season when Anthony gratuitously declared his intention to opt out of his contract after this year to test free agency. If he were concerned with team morale, he would have remained silent on the topic. In light of his self-absorption, what chance is there of the championship-less Anthony re-upping with a 30-52 Knick team with a fatally flawed roster and no draft pick?… He’s gone, baby.

The author and executioner of the Knicks’ misguided attempts to build a winner by acquiring big names rather than drafting and developing young talent is their owner, James Dolan. Dolan, 58, is the son of cable czar Charles Dolan. James spent his early adult life battling drug and alcohol problems and an allegedly volatile temper. In 1999, Charles Dolan acquired the Knicks, Rangers, Madison Square Garden, and the MSG network and handed over the entire enterprise to his entirely unqualified son.

Dolan’s reign has been a disaster. He is ill-equipped to make the management decisions that successful franchises require. The Knicks are in the tank and likely to stay there. But across the river Russian billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov, who acquired the New Jersey Nets in 2010 and moved them to Brooklyn, was drinking Dolan’s Kool-Aid.

Perhaps Prokhorov, an accomplished banker, businessman, and politician in Russia, and a self-made man, just could not stand to play second fiddle to the dorky Dolan. Prokhorov seemed more obsessed with surpassing the Knicks than in building a balanced roster. One of his first acts after determining to move to Brooklyn was to take out a 225′ by 99′ billboard directly across from the Garden. He promised a championship within five years.

In his dogged pursuit of big stars, Prokhorov has doled out more draft picks than Dolan.

When Prokhorov missed on getting Carmelo Anthony in 2011, he quickly regrouped and overpaid to get Deron Williams from the Jazz, sacrificing number one picks in 2011 and 2012 for the oft-injured point guard, who was signed only through 2012. Last year, the Nets assumed the bloated contract of fading Joe Johnson in an effort to induce Williams to re-sign. Williams re-upped, but the Nets are paying Johnson 21.5 million in 2013-2014, and are on the hook for another 45 million for the next two years. The Johnson deal is widely considered to be the worst contract in the game. Finally, just prior to the start of this season, the Nets sent their number one picks for 2014, 2016 and 2018 to Boston for Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce.

The Nets thought they had assembled a championship team built around a Big Three of Williams, Garnett and Pierce and a supporting cast of Johnson and Center Brook Lopez. But the trade is beginning to look like the Big Swindle, and not in the Nets’ favor. At 37 and 36, respectively, Garnett and Pierce are slipping. Their numbers are down close to 50% off their career levels. Lopez is out for the season with a foot injury. Williams is batting chronic leg problems. It’s wait ’til next year already for the Brooklyn Bums, I mean Nets.

Pierce and Garnett fail to deliver

The Nets have the biggest payroll in the NBA at 102 million, and the Knicks are second at 89 million. At this writing, their records are 10-20, and 9-21, respectively. It was projected that the teams would contest for Atlantic Division supremacy, not basement occupancy. With both rosters lacking in young talent, no cap room, and not much to be expected from the draft, their futures look as bleak as the present. Sadly for Dolan and Prokhorov, in the NBA, money does not buy happiness.

Dolan and Prokhorov would do well to adopt some of the techniques of their small market competitors,

Where does it say in the NBA by-laws that the owner of a major-market team has to be trigger-happy? Or that patience, character-building, player development, and shrewd trades, are exclusively the province of small or mid-market teams, where there is less pressure to win now and more opportunity to adopt a game plan and stick with it.

It certainly seems that way. Indiana, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, and now Portland and Golden State have relied primarily on home grown talent and draft picks to fuel their hot starts. The Pacers, headed by Larry Bird for most of the past ten years, set the standard for small market success.

The Pacer Way

The Pacers have generally operated out of the lottery but have drafted well in the first round and been patient with their young talent. Recent middle and late first round picks Paul George and Roy Hibbert have improved year to year. George, just 23 but in his fourth year, is an MVP candidate, and 7’3″ Hibbert is the league’s best defensive stopper. Lance Stephenson, branded as a trouble-maker out of college, slipped to the second-round in 2010, but is on the verge of becoming one of the league’s best all-around guards. He’s had three triple doubles already this season.

David West , the lone starter acquired through free agency, is a fierce rebounder and low-post presence. Off the bench is former leading scorer Danny Granger, their number one pick in 2005, who missed last season because of injury. George Hill is a fine, complimentary point guard who was acquired by trade from San Antonio for Kawhi Leonard, the Pacers’ number one pick in 2011. During the off-season, the Pacers reinforced their bench, acquiring inexpensive free agents Luis Scola, Earl Watson, and Chris Copeland.

Shrewd draft picks, strategic trades, patient player development. Nine-deep. Those are the ingredients to Indiana’s team cake. When have we used any of these words to describe the Knicks or Nets?

The Pacers exhibit a character and cohesion which is foreign to the Knicks and the Nets. Hardly any tattoos. No twitter accounts. No bickering among teammates. Perhaps it derives from Bird, who demonstrated a fierce competitiveness as a player and looks for the same qualities in his legions. With a grand vision, he has constructed a team which is built for the long haul.

The paradox is that nobody appreciates a team like the Pacers more than New York fans, who care more for teamwork, team character and balanced scoring than the glitz associated with superstars. They would be willing to wait for the big payoff if there was a reason to be hopeful.

But so long as James Dolan and Mikhail Prokhorov are running the show, hope is as scarce as a number one draft pick.

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Mannings Cede Center Stage to Hoops/Lin Spurs Knicks

February 10th, 2012 sendarama Posted in college basketball, pro basketball No Comments »

In the aftermath of the most exciting NFL season in years, culminating in the Giants’ stirring Super Bowl victory, there remains one piece of unfinished business before we put the pigskin in wraps – the future of Peyton Manning.

In the run-up to the Super Bowl, Peyton’s uncertain status almost, but not quite, obscured the on-field exploits of younger brother Eli. The press spent almost as much time dissecting Peyton’s recovery from neck surgery and his tit for tat with Indianapolis Colts owner Bob Irsay as it did analyzing the upcoming game. Now, with the game in the books, Peyton’s status is front and center.

Peyton’s contract with the Colts requires them to pay him $28 million by March 8th or lose him to free agency. It is unclear whether the parties may mutually extend the drop dead date, but it is perfectly clear that Peyton’s future lies elsewhere. What seemed unimaginable a short several months ago will become a reality in a few weeks. The Colts will release Peyton, and he will be free to cut a new deal with any of several suitors – most likely including Arizona, Miami, Seattle, and yes, the Redskins. When it happens, the pursuit of Peyton in free agency will dominate the headlines.

With an appropriate nod to the Maras and the Rooneys – and to their progeny academy award nominee Rooney Mara – is there any doubt that the Mannings are the First Family of Football? Father Archie was a wonderful college quarterback in the early ‘70′s and a solid pro. Peyton has arguably been the best pro quarterback ever. Brother Eli, a two-time Super Bowl winner, has cemented his status as a top-five quarterback and probable Hall of Famer. In an appropriate twist, the key play in the Bowl was Eli Manning’s 38-yard sideline pass late to Mario Manning-ham.

The fact is, both Mannings are so likable and so smart and so good that the discussion about them could continue indefinitely without much complaint from this writer; but it’s time to move on…. to basketball. Fittingly, the college basketball season is heating up at just the right time. Wednesday’s encounters between Duke and North Carolina, Georgetown and Syracuse, and Kansas and Baylor provided high drama; and the torrid pace continues Saturday with Baylor at Missouri, Michigan State at Ohio State, and Kentucky at Vanderbilt.

Duke – North Carolina It was the best of times. It was the worst of times, for North Carolina center Tyler Zeller. For thirty nine minutes and forty five seconds, Zeller was at his best, registering 23 points and 11 rebounds in guiding the Tarheels to an apparently insurmountable lead. And then came fifteen seconds of hell.

First, with 14.2 seconds left and Carolina up by three, Zeller inadvertently deflected a rebound into his own basket. If he takes it down cleanly, the game is probably over. Then, he missed the second of two foul shots which would have taken the lead back to three. To cap this trifecta of failure, Zeller, 7′ tall and with a wingspan from here to there, failed to adequately contest Austin Rivers’ long jumper, which nestled through the nets at the buzzer for the Duke victory.

After bad losses to Temple, Florida State, and at home to Miami, Duke is back in the hunt for a number one seed, despite a talent deficiency in the front line. If they succeed, it will be at the expense of North Carolina, which was the pre-season pick for the national championship. The Tarheels can reclaim their edge by winning at Duke March 3rd and sweeping the ACC tournament, but their 33-point loss to Florida State Jan 21st and their collapse against Duke suggest they are not as dominant as forecasted.

Georgetown – Syracuse Despite being out-rebounded 52-35 and relinquishing 23 offensive rebounds, Syracuse held off over achieving Georgetown 64-61 in overtime on the strength of Kris Joseph’s 29 points, including a 3-pointer with 29 seconds left. Considering the rebounding differential and that Joseph averages just 14 ppg, the Orangemen were fortunate to escape.

But this tight struggle does not dampen the prospects for the Orange. Georgetown,of all their opponents, is best-equipped to handle Syracuse’s 2-3 zone; and the teams will not meet again this season. Syracuse might lose one more time in the regular season, which includes road affairs at Louisville and UConn, but with an at-worst 16-2, they will likely sew up a number one seed even if they fare poorly in the Big East tournament. To prosper in the NCAA tournament, however, they must shore up their rebounding, which has been a recurring problem.

Kansas – Baylor Kansas, the perennial Big 12 champ, was projected to take a back seat to Missouri and Baylor this season; but after the Jayhawks’ convincing 68-54 repeat triumph over the sixth-ranked Bears, in which Baylor again betrayed its lack of physicality up front, Kansas again has the inside track to the Big 12 regular season title. The decider will be its Feb. 25th home encounter with Missouri, which defeated Kansas 74-71 at Columbia with an 11-0 run to close the game.

Baylor – Missouri The season is on the line for Baylor. With two losses to Kansas and a home loss to Missouri 88-89 Jan 21, they must win tomorrow to be taken seriously in the national picture. But it’s unlikely to happen. Missouri, with four seniors among its top seven, and a relentless pressure offense spearheaded by 5’8″ whippet Phil Pressey, the son of former pro Paul Pressey, is unbeatable at home. The Tigers would certainly benefit by another talented body up front, but their tenacity and toughness is likely to be too much for talented but fragile Baylor.

Michigan State – Ohio State The thought of MSU’s Draymond Green and the Buckeye’s Jared Sullinger battling in the low post brings to mind two Sumo wrestlers rolling around in the pits. But Sullinger is backed by sharpshooter William Buford and crafty Aaron Craft at the point, while Michigan State struggles to find scoring elsewhere. Ohio State enlarges its lead in the Big Ten standings and enhances its claim to a number one seed with a comfortable victory in Columbus.

Kentucky – Vanderbilt Over the years, Vanderbilt has maintained a formidable home-court advantage at its 60-year old Memorial Gym. At the friendly confines, Vandy has defeated the last four number one’s it has faced, and Kentucky five of the last six, the lone loss being a one-point defeat to John Wall-led Kentucky two years ago. But it will take all the Commodores can muster to hold off number one ranked Kentucky tomorrow.

Vandy gets all of its scoring from three players – center Festus Ezeli, wing Jeffery Taylor,and sharpshooting two-guard John Jenkins. But the Wildcats have stifling defenders at each of these positions, including all-time SEC shotblocker Anthony Davis, long-armed point guard Marcus Teague, and the relentless Michael Kidd-Gilchrist at the two. To have a chance, Vandy must shoot at least 40% from 3-point land and receive some scoring from its bench, which has been mostly unproductive.

Here are our projected number one and two seeds, in order:

Number ones: Kentucky, Syracuse, Ohio State, North Carolina
Number twos: Missouri, Kansas, Duke, Florida

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Lin Spurs Knicks The impact of Harvard educated, Chinese-American Jeremy Lin as the new point guard for the Knicks has not been limited to the three straight victories the previously woeful Knicks have accomplished under Lin’s leadership.

Lin has, for the moment, a) saved coach Mike D’Antoni’s job; b) energized the fan base; c) instigated a sharp rise in the secondary market for Knick tickets; and c) most importantly, brought into the mix several underutilized Knicks.

From the moment the Knicks acquired Carmelo Anthony last February, the Knick offense stagnated. When the ball goes to Anthony, which is most of the time, ball movement grinds to a halt. On a typical possession, Anthony fiddles and faddles with the dribble, backs in his defender, and hoists an ill-advised shot. Because he is such a talented offensive performer, he scores enough to average about 25 ppg, but the effect on the rest of the team is demoralizing. And the Knicks’ record since they got Anthony provides no vindication of his efforts. They are well under .500 since his arrival.

Now, with Anthony injured, and Lin taking over the point, the Knicks have begun to resemble the fast-moving, free-flowing team they were before the trade. The results were noticable on Wednesday when the Knicks invaded Verizon Center to face the Wizards.

With his perpetual penetration, bounce passes to cutters, and hook passes to the corner for open three’s, Lin brings to mind Steve Nash, who enjoyed great success with D’Antoni at Phoenix. On Wednesday, he found Steve Novak wide open for five three’s; Tyler Chandler for several alley-oops; and Landry Fields on the bounce for a couple of lay-ups. Novak and Chandler erupted for season-highs in points, and Fields, averaging 9.9, scored 16. On Monday, against Utah, even back-up center and part-time author (“50 ways to Miss a Lay-up”) Jared Jeffries got involved, registering a season-high 13 points.

Helped by the Wizards’ pitiful interior defense, Lin was also effective on his own. Several times he raced to the hoop with the ease of a speeder on E-Z pass. On consecutive possessions in the fourth quarter, he made a beautiful reverse left-handed lay-up followed by an emphatic driving dunk.

When Amar’e Stoudemire returns to the Knicks next week, following a bereavement leave for the death of his brother, the Knick offense is likely to accelerate since Stoudemire loves to receive the ball on the run for a driving dunk. And Lin is sure to get it to him. The greater difficulty lies when Anthony returns from injury in about two weeks. In light of Lin’s production, and the Knicks’ recent success, the issue should be whether Anthony can adjust to Lin rather than if the team can adjust to Anthony. The self-centered superstar is ripe for an attitude adjustment.

In the short run, the Garden will be rocking tonight for the annual visit of the Lakers. This is the match-up we’ve been waiting for – Kobe Bryant vs. Jeremy Lin.

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