Mannings Cede Center Stage to Hoops/Lin Spurs Knicks

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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