‘Cuse Weathers the Abuse/ Yanks Shuffle the Deck/ Giants/ Ali

It’s been joked that the best team in the country is Syracuse, and the second best is their bench. But if the games of last week are any gauge, it may not be a stretch at all to assert that the Orange’s top five reserves could play tough or beat the rest of the Big East and many of the top 25.

Admittedly, it’s shaping up that there are few exceptional teams. In the past several days, top teams have been dropping like flies to lesser foes. North Carolina was pounded by Florida State 90-57. Ohio State lost to Illinois. Duke was upended by Temple, Michigan State by Northwestern. In the Big East, Villanova stinks, UConn has lost to Seton Hall, Rutgers, and Cincinnati; and most surprisingly, perennial power Pitt lost its sixth straight Big East game Monday to Syracuse, which marched to 20-0 for the first time in its celebrated hoops history.

Syracuse has previously suffered from early departures, but not this year. They return four starters and four experienced reserves from last year’s 27-victory squad. Add freshmen Rakeem Christmas and Michael Carter-Williams, and you’ve got a 10-man rotation, ten players averaging ten minutes or more. Check it out folks – no other team in the top 25 plays nine.

They are not just deep and talented – they are balanced, with several interchangeable parts. Scoop Jardine, Howard Triche and Dion Waiters can all play the point or shooting guard. 7 footer Fab Melo ( Fabricio De Melo), after re-structuring his body, has emerged as a dominating shot-blocker; and his replacement, Baye Moussa Keita, is easily the best back-up center in the country. Kris Joseph and C.J. Fair fill the lane with gusto. Fair can also play the power forward. G-F James Southerland, in limited playing time, has scored 14 pts or more five times this season Freshman Christmas adds bulk up front. It’s been speculated that Syracuse has nine potential NBA players on its roster.

Waiters lays it in against Villanova

And almost everybody got in the act against Pitt. Five players scored between 10 and 16 points in the 71-63 triumph. Coach Jim Boeheim has so much depth that he could afford to yank Christmas after one minute of the second half for failing to prevent an offensive rebound. The youngster did not return.

In winning, the Orange cemented their hold on the No. 1 ranking for the sixth straight week. Their strength of schedule is 2nd in the country; but of the eleven games left, only road affairs at Louisville and UConn loom as threats to the first undefeated regular season in Division One play since St Joseph’s ran the table in 2004.

Unlike their counterparts at Penn State, the Orange have not been derailed by the sexual abuse allegations hurled at a member of their staff, long-time assistant Bernie Fine. When Fine was named as a youth predator, fresh on the heels of the Penn State situation, it was feared that Syracuse would suffer comparably to Penn State; but Boeheim’s keeping his job, no administrative heads have rolled, and Fine himself will probably avoid indictment.

There is no such calm at Penn State. The Board of Trustees has come under attack for its heartless dismissal of Paterno by late evening phone call. The selection of Pats assistant Bill O’Brien as Paterno’s successor has been widely derided. And administration officials, with knowledge of the pending grand jury investigation of Jerry Sandusky, allowed him to watch Joe Pa’s 409th victory from the presidential box just one week before Sandusky’s indictment on 50 counts of sexual assault.

Sally Jenkins’ interview of Joe Paterno for the Washington Post published this week did little to alter the negative view of Penn State or the dismay over Paterno’s inaction. It provided a sensitive portrait of the ailing ex-coach but little in the way of new facts or explanations for his decade-long failure to stop Sandusky.

Joe said that he was unaware of the 1998 police investigation of Sandusky, and had no suspicion prior to 2002 that Sandusky was a sexual deviant. He did not follow-up, he said, because he did not want to “exert influence for or against Sandusky.” Though the interview did not provide much new information, it did muddle the government’s pending perjury case against Penn State administrators Tim Curley and Gary Schultz.

Curley and Schultz were indicted for telling the Grand Jury last year that Assistant Coach Mike McQueary in 2002 did not tell them that he saw Sandusky committing sex in the shower on a 10-year old, but rather described “inappropriate behavior or fondling” in the shower. That is substantially the same as what Paterno says McQueary told him. But McQueary told the grand jury that he described Sandusky’s behavior to Curley and Schultz in more graphic detail than he did to Paterno, specifically describing sodomy on a 10 year old in the shower.

The case against Curley and Schultz will rely almost exclusively on the testimony of McQueary, who admits giving two different versions of what he saw. Curley and Schultz will certainly be consistent in their accounts of what McQueary told them. That’s two against one, and the one has already been trapped in an inconsistency. It looks like an uphill climb for the government.

Yanks Shuffle the Deck ….The Yankees’ recent trade of top prospect Jesus Montero for young stud pitcher Michael Pineda and their signing of free agent pitcher Hiroki Kuroda on the same day signal changes to come throughout the Yankee roster.

Montero, a powerful hitter but a defensive liability at catcher, was projected to catch 30-40 games and serve as the right-handed DH. But Yank GM Brian Cashman must have recognized that DH was no place for a developing player and that he could not trust Montero behind the plate. By trading Montero for a top of the rotation pitcher, the Yankees undid a logjam at catcher and DH, strengthened their staff, and opened up a number of intriguing lineup possibilities.

First, the right-handed DH slot is freed up for more than occasional occupancy by Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez. Eduardo Nunez started over eighty games last year at third and can be counted on to spell Jeter and A-Rod in the field when these aging veterans need rest. When Nunez starts and A-Rod DH’s, the Yankees can come at you with speed (Granderson, Gardner, Nunez) and power (A-Rod, Teixeira, Cano, Swisher). Look for a change in the batting order with Cano batting third and Teixeira fifth. Jorge Posada’s retirement leaves an opening for a left-handed DH. Ex-Yank Hideki Matsui, a free agent, would be perfect.

But the trade may have its most dramatic impact on the pitching staff. The arrival of Pineda and Kuroda marks the downgrading of AJ Burnett and Phil Hughes. Pineda and Kuroda will be slotted second and fourth in the rotation, respectively. Ivan Nova should be number three. That leaves Burnett, Hughes and Garcia to duke it for fifth starter. Expect Burnett as a number 5 to equal or exceed reduced expectations, Hughes to go to the bullpen or be traded, and Garcia to spot start and do long relief.

Under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams will be more sharply penalized for exceeding the luxury tax threshold. In anticipation of the new rules, and with exception for the 1-year deal to Kuroda, the Yankees steered clear of this year’s free agent pitcher class and have instead chosen to stockpile young hurlers under contract by trade (Penada) and through their farm system (Dellin Betances, Manny Banuelo)

These are not the free-spending Yankees of the George Steinbrenner era, who wasted tens of millions on multi-year contracts to free agent pitchers Kevin Brown, Jared Wright, Kei Igawa, and yes, Burnett. Mistakes on pitchers may be made in the future; but if so, they will be made one year at a time.

Giants….. In an NFL season filled with more story lines than a Dickens novel, the late-season run of the Giants continues to be a page-turner

There’s been no shortage of heroes during the Giants’ four-game march to Sunday’s NFC Conference title game against San Francisco: Eli, the defensive line, the resurgent backfields, offensive and defensive, the wide receiver corps. Improvement in each of these areas has contributed to consecutive victories against the Jets, Dallas, Atlanta, and Green Bay altering the course of a season which just a few weeks ago was heading south.

Now, as Giant fans evoke parallels to the 2007 Super Bowl run, they are poised to win it all.

But ask yourself what if Victor Cruz does not make that 99 yard catch and run against the Jets in week 16. Here’s the scenario – Fresh off an abysmal defeat to the Redskins, the Giants were 7-7 and on the brink of a lost season. They needed to win out to make the playoffs. The Jets, at 8-6, had been modestly successful, but had the inside track to a playoff berth. Before the game, Jets coach Rex Ryan stoked the fires by claiming that the Jets were the better team.

The Jets dominated the early going, and led 7-3 with 2:12 left in the half and the Giants pinned back on their own one yard line with a 3rd and 10. If the Jets stopped the Giants and got the ball back at midfield, they had a good chance to take a potentially crippling 14-3 lead into halftime.

Instead, Eli completed a short toss to Cruz over the middle. Cruz eluded one tackler, dashed to the sideline, leaped over another defender and cruised 99 yards for the score. It was the play that sent the Giants soaring, and the Jets reeling.

Since Cruz’ touchdown, the Giants have out-scored their opponents by 118-43, and have registered four touchdowns of sixty five yards or more in four blow-out victories. Since Cruz’ touchdown, the Jets lost their last game of the season to miss the playoffs, fired coaches, and have been riddled with dissension. The franchises have been heading in opposite direction at warp speed.

On the Giants’ march to a Super Bowl victory, there may be many more big plays, perhaps even a game-winning one. But of all the plays in all the games, the one that changed the course of the season, the one Giant fans will most cherish will be Victor Cruz’ gift of a 99-yard catch and run against the Jets on Christmas Eve.

Ali …… Muhammad Ali, nee Cassius Clay, turned 70 Tuesday. Incredibly to men of a certain age, it’s more than 50 years since The Mouth that Roared won a gold medal in the 1960 Olympics; and it’s just under 48 years since he toppled Sonny Liston in the sixth round in Miami Beach in February, 1964 in what many consider to be the greatest sports upset ever.

Clay entered the fray as a 7-1 underdog. An examining doctor, shocked at Clay’s heart rate, expressed concern for his safety against ex-mob enforcer Liston, who had destroyed Floyd Patterson twice with his savage right hand and was considered unbeatable.

After achieving Olympic Gold, Clay plowed through a slew of pretenders and contenders, boldly predicting the final round by rhyme. When he narrowly edged Doug Jones in an elimination bout at the Garden in 1963, he became 18-0 and in line to fight Liston for the title.

The fight was much anticipated, but by today’s standards, it was conducted in secret. There was no home TV and only limited closed circuit availability. Some early cable systems carried the fight, and this writer drove 75 miles to Ithaca, New York to watch the bout in grainy black and white.

Clay surprised the world by dashing and slashing and jabbing Liston for six rounds, so befuddling the Big Ugly Bear that he didn’t come out for the seventh. Clay bounced hysterically around the ring shouting “I am the Greatest.”

Shortly thereafter, Clay announced his conversion to the Muslim faith and his new name, Muhammad Ali. Three years later, he was stripped of his crown for resisting induction to the armed forces. While in exile, he embarked on a speaking tour of liberal-leaning colleges, including the University of Michigan, where he conducted an hilarious monologue of black-white jokes. He was handsome, witty, and gracious.

Ali was the most polarizing athlete of his generation, but he transcended sports. He had a world championship game and a world championship personality. That is a package we may never see again.

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