Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Are the Clippers Playoff Chokers?

Twice in this tight series with the Spurs, the Clippers have been on the offensive end with a chance to win the game with a score. In the first instance in Game 2, Chris Paul had a good look at a jumper to win and give the Clippers a 2-0 series lead but instead missed and the teams headed to overtime, where Blake had several turnovers and the Clips lost by four (111-107). Last night, after blowing two leads, they had a chance to end the game and go up 3-2 for the series. The Clippers inbounded the ball down a point with 6 seconds to play. The ball came to Blake, who drove to the hoop and sent a floater that bounced around the rim, before DeAndre Jordan tapped it in while it was still in the cylinder, to take away the go ahead score. Two plays that will probably define another playoff failure, but what do they tell us about the spine of the team?

Blake Griffin was 1 of 9 last night in the fourth quarter with a couple of turnovers and has now shot just 4 of 21 in the fourth quarter in the series as the Clippers blew their second lead of the night. He had a shot to tie it with 58 second left, but got blocked by Duncan, when he drove into three Spurs rather than take a ten footer, and somehow lost the ball as it came right back to him. Crawford missed a three that would have evened things up and then there was the chance to win it with 4.9 seconds left (though it might well have fallen in without DE André’s inference). The Clippers as a team missed 16 free throws and were terrible from behind the arc (1 for 14), arguably blowing a chance to blow the game open toward the end of the first quarter when they allowed the Spurs to go on a 22-3 run. And poor defending and decision-making at key points of the game also played a role, as when Blake snatched a ball going out of bounds and then threw it right to Duncan, ultimately resulting in two points for the Spurs.

So are the Clippers chokers? Chris Paul has been up and down in the series, but has had only one off night (Game 3). He brought the Clippers back in the fourth quarter and one wonders why he wasn’t the man with the ball in his hand at the end, particularly after the poor fourth quarter from Griffin – though we should remember that he too had a chance to win a game with a last second shot. Crawford had an open three that would have tied things and blew it. DeAndre Jordan continued to struggle at the free throw line, as the hack-a-Jordan strategy helped the Spurs take a lead. And, after making a couple of clutch shots, J. J. Reddick fouled out, though it might have been on a questionable call. In fact, as Doc Rivers decried last night, the refereeing has been pretty one-sided in a very tight series. In this game, we could mention an inexplicable technical foul on Chris Paul with under 5 minutes to go to give the Spurs an extra point (after what looked like an over the back on Griffin going for the rebound) and Paul simply throwing the ball to the side ref. So both those calls mattered, as did a rather absurd foul call against Tony Parker when he appeared to have his right arm around the defender and pushing off of him. I’m not saying the refereeing decided the game, but it is hard to ignore the relatively one-sided nature of all of the close calls across the five games and the late ones in Game 5 that gave the Spurs an advantage they still almost relinquished but for the tip of DeAndre Jordan’s index finger. On the other hand, a few more free throws, a better fourth quarter from Blake and one or two more threes and the Clippers would be up 3-2 and probably on their way to winning this series.

So back to the question: are the Clippers chokers? I’m not just talking about this tough first round matchup alone but the past four years, with losses to the Spurs in the Conference Semifinals (0-4) in 2011-12, the Grizzlies in the first Round (4-2, after winning the first two) the next year, the Thunder in the Conference Semis 4-2 last year (after winning Game 1) and now a likely loss to the Spurs in the First Round. And based on that data set, it's hard to argue the answer is not yes. Chris Paul is one of the best point guards in the game, but will not be called one of the greatest in history unless he wins a title. Blake Griffin has improved every year since he entered the league, but needs to now add the will to win, as the Spurs have shown for most of the Duncan era. Two games to change the narrative, let's see if the Clippers can embark on a new epoch. 

Sunday, April 26, 2015

That Voodoo that You Do So Well: Mourinho Holds Off Wenger Again

Chelsea visited the Emirates today a mere two wins away from raising the league trophy for the sixth time. There was little doubt they would get those six points in their final six games, but there’s the little business of Wenger finally getting off the snide and beating his “rival” in their 13th encounter. Arsenal started the game with more of the ball, but without the ability to do much with it, surrounded by sheets of blue shirts that unfortunately had legs, arms and heads attached to them. One head in particular would be their undoing, that of the imperious Chelsea captain John Terry, who Mourinho claimed had his best game of their successful six years together. Few would disagree.

After an early Arsenal attack without any finished product, which was becoming the norm, a Chelsea counter almost opened the scoring on 16 minutes, when a lovely ball over the top from Fabergas freed Oscar to charge into the box and clip it over Ospina before the two clashed violently. But for a header clearance on the line by Bellerin, Chelsea would have been up 1-0. There were real questions about whether it was a penalty, but Michael Oliver wasn’t convinced and the resulting corner went for naught. There were also questions of whether Oscar should have been allowed to return, exhibiting clear signs of a concussion after the hard hit he took from Ospina. He was back on the pitch two minutes later and when Fabergas fell in the box in the 22nd minute and was shown a quick yellow for diving, Chelsea might have felt aggrieved yet again as replays showed his knee was clipped by Cazorla. The game started to open up from there, with Chelsea creating more pressure in the Arsenal final third, but the Gunners certainly holding their own with some fine tackling and interceptions and keeping John Terry and the Chelsea defense on their toes with a number of crosses and passes into the box.

As the clock passed 30 minutes, Terry had another important header clearance, just ahead of Giroud, who was poised to put a shot on goal from a Monreal cross. From here, Arsenal started to dominate possession and had their own penalty appeal in the 34th minute, when Cahill handled a Cazorla shot headed toward goal with his hand extended far beyond a natural position. Chelsea attacked after the missed call and a Coquelin foul on an attacking Hazard led to the first Arsenal yellow of the day. Arsenal got on the counter themselves a moment later before yet another poor pass from Sanchez, who was having a tough first half. Emblematic of his day, he gave the ball away 30 seconds later by merely backing into Ivanovic and waiting for a foul call that never came as the ball drifted slowly out of bounds. On 37 minutes, Ramirez was sent in on goal from a fine William pass, but his toe poke across goal from eight yards out was well collected by Ospina.

Sanchez continued his rather poor performance with a shot 10 yards wide from 15 yards out, after a nice cutback pass from Cazorla on the heels of Ramsey snatching the ball from Fabergas, who was being booed relentlessly by the Emirates crowd. A decent cross by Ramsey on 41 minutes was again cleared by Terry, who appeared to be the most important player on the pitch by a fair margin. Another bad pass from Sanchez inside the box on 42 minutes added some groans from the crowd to those his teammates had been voicing most of the half. Monreal showed why he was starting over Gibbs with a speedy recovery to stop a Chelsea attack down the right channel before Arsenal increased the pressure with a minute of regulation time left in the half, Ozil finally getting a shot away, though right at Courtois, followed by yet another Terry clearance in the box. Two minutes of extra time went by with a final Chelsea attack coming to nothing in the end.

The second half began with the 37-year-old Arsenal killer Didier Drogba coming on for Oscar, who was rushed to the hospital with a suspected concussion as Drogba took off his jumper. Sanchez continued his uneven performance giving the ball away within a minute of the restart, with Chelsea then settling into a spell of possession. On 51 minutes, Fabergas clanged into Ospina after the Columbian came out to collect a ball right at the edge of the box, but it was otherwise still Chelsea passing the ball around with Arsenal unable to get anything going offensively. Sanchez was fouled by Fabergas in the 55th minute, as the Gunners finally grabbed possession though the resulting free kick was again headed out and Chelsea were soon on the attack, with Azpilicueta shooting wildly over from just outside 18 yards.

Arsenal were having trouble putting together more than a few passes at a time as the clock moved toward the hour mark, when Giroud backheeled the ball in the box toward Bellerin, with Terry again coming to the rescue by outmuscling the Spaniard as the ball rolled harmlessly out of bounds. A third potential concussion followed almost immediately, as Coquelin and Drogba had a head-to-head clash in competition for a header, just as Fabergas threw away his face mask. Ozil was having trouble keeping possession, giving the ball away on several occasions before a careless handball on a cross field pass from Sanchez gave the impetus back to Chelsea on 63 minutes. A Monreal cross on 64 minutes was just clipped out by Terry ahead of a charging Sanchez, leading to a corner, collected amidst congested traffic by a strong Courtois. Drogba shot on goal with the next possession, but weakly, as the game began to open up again.

Ozil got in on goal with some clever Gunner passing, before a heavy touch led to yet another Terry intervention. Arsenal had a corner soon after, headed out by Matic with ease. William kicked Koscielny in the face on a challenge just outside the box, earning the third yellow of the game and Arsenal a free kick, that ended up at Mertesacker’s feet 17 yards out. The big German sent it horribly wide with a real chance to open the scoring. Terry headed out a forward ball to Ozil two minutes later killing forward momentum for the umpteenth time. Arsenal needed to change tactics, as they were playing too much through the middle, as Ivanovic became the fourth Chelsea player to get a booking on 72 minutes. The Blues soon earned their second corner of the game after a Drogba shot was blocked out by Monreal, but Arsenal headed clear. Sloppiness was really hurting Arsenal, as Koscielny ended a spell of possession by sending a wild pass out of bounds.

On 75 minutes, Koscielny intercepted a Chelsea pass in his own half, sent it across to an open Cazorla, who shot wide with plenty of time to do better. Welbeck then came on for Coquelin as Wenger pushed for the winner. Ramsey pounded a hard shot from far out, but it slammed into Giroud just on the cusp of 80 minutes. Welbeck was set free on 82 minutes, but took his time before shooting and was only able to earn a corner. Ozil sent the ball in but Courtois was adjudged to be fouled, when he was barely touched, and Arsenal lost a decent chance to score. Walcott came on for Giroud as Courtois finally rose to his feet (83’). Within a minute, Cazorla sent in a decent cross toward a charging Walcott, but Courtois was easily out to grab it. The calls were starting to go against the Gunners as a nice Monreal tackle garnered a whistle and a Chelsea free kick.

With five minutes left in regulation, Arsenal were pushing for the goal that would earn all three points, but Chelsea were using the dark art to slow momentum with every free kick followed by a player rolling around in ersatz pain. Sanchez led a counter on 88 minutes but his lofted pass to Ozil was a couple of feet too far. Ramsey earned a smart yellow card a minute later, stopping Hazard from running free toward goal. Fabergas came off on 90 minutes, booed by most of the Arsenal fans before they actually stood up and began to applaud in unison as he neared the sideline. Four more minutes stood between Chelsea and another point, when Sanchez sent a clever ball to Monreal, who crossed wonderfully in front of the face of goal. Ozil lined up a shot, but missed and then Welbeck, free to tap it in decided to try a backheel and missed the ball completely. Another cross a minute later just missed Welbeck’s head and then could have been finished by Walcott, but he inexplicably had his back turned. And that was the last real chance of the game as Chelsea effectively managed the four minutes of extra time for the 0-0 draw. Arsenal really should have scored in the last six minutes, but the search for a first Wenger win against Mourinho still goes on, with a sense time is running out on the French manager.

One thing fans might ask of Mourinho and Chelsea is whether lining up in two banks of four like Stoke City on the road is really the behavior of a Champion-elect. Wenger would certainly say no and while Mourinho will point to the league titles and other trophies, I do believe the aesthetics of the game matter and that the league will miss the French philosopher when he finally hangs up his zipper-challenged tube jacket for the last time. Mourinho might respond that Chelsea could easily have had two penalties and a third goal in a first half where they did get forward with real menace at times and they controlled the second half with long spells of possession football, even as there was little push for the winner. There is no question that Terry was the man of the match, as Arsenal only had only one shot on goal all game and Ozil or Welbeck really should have scored with two minutes left in extra time. It is the latter, besides his goal at United in the FA Cup, that questions should start to be asked of, as he just doesn’t seem to have the finishing mentality one needs from their forwards.

Regardless, Wenger can take both positives and negatives from the game. United were beaten 3-0 earlier in the day by Everton, meaning Arsenal picked up a point on one of their two rivals for second place, and the only mark against the top 5 Arsenal have this calendar year is the 2-1 loss at Tottenham. They were tough defensively and did have a few chances to win the game. On the other hand, Wenger now has zero wins in 13 chances against Mourinho and the title race, already a long shot, is now run. Arsenal should concentrate on finishing strongly and beating United in the penultimate match, to secure that second (or third, if City continue their recovery) spot and prepare themselves to finish the year with silverware in the FA Cup final for the second year running. Winning can become a habit as easily as losing can and Wenger’s Arsenal seem to be on the up the past two seasons. The right signings this summer could augur a real chance for the title next season. But it will be Mourinho who leaves the Emirates the happier man, knowing another domestic title is now his, the only question remaining when they will officially cross the line. Are the two even rivals at the moment? Not until Wenger finally secures three points. His next chance will come in the Fall.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A Teacher Resignation Letter to Remember

Teachers are increasingly speaking out against school reforms that they believe are demeaning their profession, and far too many quality ones are quitting. Below is a resignation letter from a veteran teacher, Gerald J. Conti that is worth reading in whole:

Mr. Casey Barduhn, Superintendent
Westhill Central School District
400 Walberta Park Road
Syracuse, New York 13219

Dear Mr. Barduhn and Board of Education Members:

It is with the deepest regret that I must retire at the close of this school year, ending my more than twenty-seven years of service at Westhill on June 30, under the provisions of the 2012-15 contract. I assume that I will be eligible for any local or state incentives that may be offered prior to my date of actual retirement and I trust that I may return to the high school at some point as a substitute teacher.

As with Lincoln and Springfield, I have grown from a young to an old man here; my brother died while we were both employed here; my daughter was educated here, and I have been touched by and hope that I have touched hundreds of lives in my time here. I know that I have been fortunate to work with a small core of some of the finest students and educators on the planet.
I came to teaching forty years ago this month and have been lucky enough to work at a small liberal arts college, a major university and this superior secondary school. To me, history has been so very much more than a mere job, it has truly been my life, always driving my travel, guiding all of my reading and even dictating my television and movie viewing. 

Rarely have I engaged in any of these activities without an eye to my classroom and what I might employ in a lesson, a lecture or a presentation. With regard to my profession, I have truly attempted to live John Dewey’s famous quotation (now likely cliché with me, I’ve used it so very often) that “Education is not preparation for life, education is life itself.” 

This type of total immersion is what I have always referred to as teaching “heavy,” working hard, spending time, researching, attending to details and never feeling satisfied that I knew enough on any topic. I now find that this approach to my profession is not only devalued, but denigrated and perhaps, in some quarters despised. STEM rules the day and “data driven” education seeks only conformity, standardization, testing and a zombie-like adherence to the shallow and generic Common Core, along with a lockstep of oversimplified so-called Essential Learnings. Creativity, academic freedom, teacher autonomy, experimentation and innovation are being stifled in a misguided effort to fix what is not broken in our system of public education and particularly not at Westhill.
A long train of failures has brought us to this unfortunate pass. In their pursuit of Federal tax dollars, our legislators have failed us by selling children out to private industries such as Pearson Education. The New York State United 

Teachers union has let down its membership by failing to mount a much more effective and vigorous campaign against this same costly and dangerous debacle. Finally, it is with sad reluctance that I say our own administration has been both uncommunicative and unresponsive to the concerns and needs of our staff and students by establishing testing and evaluation systems that are Byzantine at best and at worst, draconian. This situation has been exacerbated by other actions of the administration, in either refusing to call open forum meetings to discuss these pressing issues, or by so constraining the time limits of such meetings that little more than a conveying of information could take place. This lack of leadership at every level has only served to produce confusion, a loss of confidence and a dramatic and rapid decaying of morale. The repercussions of these ill-conceived policies will be telling and shall resound to the detriment of education for years to come. The analogy that this process is like building the airplane while we are flying would strike terror in the heart of anyone should it be applied to an actual airplane flight, a medical procedure, or even a home repair. Why should it be acceptable in our careers and in the education of our children?

My profession is being demeaned by a pervasive atmosphere of distrust, dictating that teachers cannot be permitted to develop and administer their own quizzes and tests (now titled as generic “assessments”) or grade their own students’ examinations. The development of plans, choice of lessons and the materials to be employed are increasingly expected to be common to all teachers in a given subject. This approach not only strangles creativity, it smothers the development of critical thinking in our students and assumes a one-size-fits-all mentality more appropriate to the assembly line than to the classroom. Teacher planning time has also now been so greatly eroded by a constant need to “prove up” our worth to the tyranny of APPR (through the submission of plans, materials and “artifacts” from our teaching) that there is little time for us to carefully critique student work, engage in informal intellectual discussions with our students and colleagues, or conduct research and seek personal improvement through independent study. We have become increasingly evaluation and not knowledge driven. Process has become our most important product, to twist a phrase from corporate America, which seems doubly appropriate to this case.

After writing all of this I realize that I am not leaving my profession, in truth, it has left me. It no longer exists. I feel as though I have played some game halfway through its fourth quarter, a timeout has been called, my teammates’ hands have all been tied, the goal posts moved, all previously scored points and honors expunged and all of the rules altered.

For the last decade or so, I have had two signs hanging above the blackboard at the front of my classroom, they read, “Words Matter” and “Ideas Matter”. While I still believe these simple statements to be true, I don’t feel that those currently driving public education have any inkling of what they mean.

Sincerely and with regret,

Gerald J. Conti
Social Studies Department Leader
Cc: Doreen Bronchetti, Lee Roscoe
My little Zu.

Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Week in Conservative Crazy

As I’ve argued on this blog before, conservative crazy is not as crazy as it might seem, serving deeper ideological and political purposes by galvanizing a base of rabid followers, keeping many from focusing on the issues that actually affect their lives and creating an us-them narrative that allows their attacks on the middle class and poor to go on largely unabated. They already have developed economic policies that many in the upper and middle class support, but the bonus of the radical wing brings in a larger demographic that is particularly effective in the South and more conservative states like Arizona. But it is worth looking at the most vitriolic and absurd of these attacks on occasion, to see what is happening in the coocoosphere.

At the NRA annual conference, conservative firebrand Ted Nugent claimed that Minority Leader Harry Reid was a “lying prick” and that if the opportunity arose he would “shoot him.” (Salon) One “journalist” then asked him “How and why did the NRA ever endorse Harry Reid to serve as the front man of Osama Obama?” Nugent responded to this question about the minion of “Osama Obama” by calling this “possibly the most important question we could confront here because it is so confusing and, on the surface, so diabolical.” Glad to see the fourth estate is keeping on top of the key issues of our time.

Talking of guns, even with all the recent gun violence, by troubled loners and the police, the Texas legislature is about to make it a lot easier to openly carry a weapon around (The Guardian). The Texas House voted 96-35 to provisionally approve a bill that would allow “open carry” in Austin on Friday night. It will allow firearms owners in Texas who have concealed handgun permits – some 850,000 people – to openly carry their weapons in public in a hip or shoulder holster. Who said the wild west was dead?

Moving on to the war on the poor, the always-beneficent Paul Ryan claimed that deprived kids should go hungry to guarantee to them that their parents cared, back at the CPAC meeting last month. He told the following story: “... a young boy from a very poor family, and every day at school he would get a free lunch from a government program. He told Eloise he didn’t want a free lunch. He wanted his own lunch, one in a brown paper bag, just like the other kids. He wanted one, he said, because he knew a kid with a brown paper bag had someone who cared for him. This is what the left does not understand.” Ryan went on to claim that: “the left is offering people a full stomach and an empty soul." (Daily Kos) “Let them eat … nothing,” appears to be the new GOP response to growing hunger and poverty!
Earlier this week, the affable Real Estate mogul and talking hair piece Donald Trump shared a fan’s tweet that said, “If Hillary Clinton can’t satisfy her husband what makes you think she can satisfy America?” Trump went over the deep end several years ago, but the fact he is running for President again excites me, if only to hear more of his brilliant insight into American politics today and keep me updated on all the latest rightwing conspiracy theories.

Finally, a New Jersey deli owner was forced to shut down his deli a month after posing a sign outside his store that said, “Celebrate Your White Heritage in March, White History Month." The owner, Boggess told the Hunderdon County Democrat, “No matter what you are -- Muslim, Jewish, black, white, gay, straight -- you should be proud of what you are. I shouldn't have to feel bad about being white." After closing, Boggess took to to raise money: “"It was only supposed to be a white thing but people read more into it than that," Boggess wrote on his GoFundMe page about his sign. "I did get tons of supporting letters from all across the USA. Which was very comforting during such a stressful time. Then the bottom dropped out and customers were no longer coming into my deli, and now I am forced to close down my Deli and lose my American dream. I have become heavily in debt and getting shut off notices from everywhere for both business and home," Burgess continued in his note. "I don't think I deserve this just because I wanted to be proud of being white and be able to celebrate my heritage like everyone else does." As of early Friday morning, Boggess had raised $215. (TPM) Maybe there are even limits for conservatives … though I’m not sure I would bet on that just yet.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

FA Cup: Arsenal Through to Final After Tough Reading Challenge

Arsenal started slowly against a Reading team clearly not cowed by a trip to Wembley, even as the two teams were separated by 36 places in the table, with the Gunners second in the EPL and Reading languishing in 18th in the Championship. But that doesn’t matter in elimination games, particularly if you can score that all-important first goal. Arsenal almost found it in the 8th minute, when only a fine save by Reading GK Federici kept a strong Mertesacker header from an Ozil corner from nestling into goal. Three minutes later it was Reading with a decent chance, as a shot from the edge of the box was hit with real power, though right at Szczesny, surprisingly finding himself in goal ahead of Ospina for the FA Cup (though Wenger usually does stick with his cup GKs throughout). Arsenal came close again in the 18th minute, when a curling Ozil free kick went just wide of the near post.

Reading were creating a few half chances, but more importantly keeping the Arsenal attack at bay, pressing whomever had the ball and forcing some poor passes and lost possession by the Gunners. Then in the 39th minute, Arsenal finally broke through, with the help of their two big money men. Ozil, given too much space from about 30 yards out, sent in a lovely looping pass to Sanchez, who brought the ball down beautifully, beat his defender with a clever touch and then rifled it between Federici’s legs (for his 21st in all competitions). Sanchez showed his hunger throughout the first half, though it wasn’t amounting to much until the goal, and Ozil demonstrated the class that is returning him to the form we witnessed at Real and with Germany. A valiant effort from Reading had kept it close, but they still found themselves down 1-0 when the halftime whistle sounded.

Halftime allowed us fans to check the other marginally important game going on at the same time as the first semifinal, that team from London named after a girl playing one with a pretty decent history, led until recently by a pop star singer who oddly also dates a Barcelona defender. The game was Chelsea versus United and the result could all but end the fledgling hopes of Arsenal and United to steal the trophy away from the Blues. Why these two games were going on at the same time is, of course, a pretty good question for the FA, particularly as it only seems to reinforce the notion that the FA Cup just isn’t that important. The score at halftime, for those who actually care about games between the first and third placed teams in the EPL, was Chelsea 1 United 0.

The second half began largely as the first half had ended, with Arsenal in the ascendancy and playing with a comfort and poise that has so often been missing from this team over the past decade. Maybe it was the FA Cup victory last year to end the trophy drought, the Community Shield victory against City that commenced this season or the fact they have won 8 on the bounce for the first time in a decade, but even as Reading made some good runs and displayed their at times blistering pace, the Gunners continued to deal with their attacks without too much trouble, looking fluid on the counter. And then things suddenly changed, as goal line technology and Szczesny’s talent for making mistakes in big games came to Reading’s rescue, drawing them even on 54 minutes. If Arsenal didn’t go through, an inquest about why the error-prone Pole (who, of course, has already cost us a Carling Cup a few years back, with an assist from Koscielny) was even out on the pitch would begin, just as many clamor for the now “single” Klopp to be courted to replace Wenger.

As the game entered the final 30 minutes, it started to become more stretched, and Arsenal put together some good buildups, only to give the ball away before a chance could be created. In the 63rd minute, Mertesacker pulled up limp and was replaced by Gabriel and two minutes later a call that Reading fans will probably be talking about for years went against them as Debuchy clearly handled the ball in the box, with his arm pulled away from his body. One thing hard not to notice as the Gunners pushed for a winner, was the relative anonymity of Welbeck, who was largely invisible throughout the game after an early toe clip on a through ball almost gave Arsenal an early lead. In the 67th minute, Mackey fought through two Gunner defenders and got the ball to Williams in a dangerous position, though he sent his volleyed shot wide.

Arsenal seemed to settle a little from there, earning a corner in the 68th minute that Gabriel’s clever header sent toward the roof of the goal, before Federici again came to the rescue, parrying it into the crossbar. Giroud came on for the ineffective Welbeck in the 72nd minute and they should have scored within a minute, as a perfectly hit Ozil free kick found its way to the Brazilian’s head again, though this time he missed what should have been the go ahead goal. Reading earned a chance of their own in the 75th, with a corner kick that led to a blocked shot, before being cleared. The game was back and forth from here, with both teams creating half chances as the game entered its final 10 minutes.

Szczesny’s shakiness almost cost the Gunners in the 83rd minute, and then Ramsey had a good chance to score the winner again on the resultant counter, but somehow missed a gaping goal from four yards, after a nice run and rounding of the Reading keeper (while being fouled in the box, one might mention). In the 87th minute, Reading ended up with a 2 on 1, but the aging Russian Pogrebnyak couldn’t make up his mind and ultimately shot meekly from the top of the box. The game was back and forth at a blistering pace, with both teams more interested in ending it in 90 than playing on for another 30. Ramsey missed another half chance when a hard Gibbs cross found him a few yards out, though he had to react quickly with a left-footed volley and sent it over. Somehow only two minutes of extra time were added. Arsenal were able to garner a corner within the first of the two, though it came to nothing.

As with last year against Wigan, Arsenal found themselves tied 1-1 heading into 30 minutes of extra time with a chance to get back to the final – though this time with the opportunity to defend their trophy. They started the extra time with a nice run of possession, but with Cazorla sending his shot from the edge of the box over on 93 minutes. A weak shot from Gibbs ended their next attack and it appeared the Gunners were playing at a slower pace than earlier, though Coquelin continued to impress with his tackles and interceptions. Giroud was adjudged marginally offsides as he got behind the Reading two banks on 100 minutes, even as he appeared to time his run perfectly and a minute later Walcott came on for the French enforcer as the Gunners tried to end things before a second semifinal penalty shoot-out in two years.

Ramsey sent a powerful shot from 25 yards out, saved well by Federici though he was relieved to see the parry fly over the bar rather than into his net. Pogrebnyak burst forward with a chance to give Reading the lead, but his shot was well blocked and the counter ended with Sanchez shooting from the left channel. He shot weakly, but Federici, who had had an exceptional game, saw the ball go through his legs and crawl into the net. Sanchez had two and the Gunners were on the edge of getting through to the finals again, with only 15 minutes to play.

Mackey made a fine run as Reading looked to equalize things again, but his shot was high. Ozil then had a shot on the other end after some nice pressing by Giroud and the forwards, though he sent it wide. In the 108th minute, a foul by Gabriel earned him a yellow and Reading a free kick in a dangerous area, though Szczesny was able to punch out the resultant effort. Reading manager Steve Clark made his final move, sending the veteran Yokubu on for Robson-Kanu, with Giroud almost sealing it a moment later, hitting the post after a lovely sliding pass from the rampant Ozil. Williams found a small opening for Reading and shot with real power, though high and wide as the game neared the last five minutes of extra time.

Arsenal were managing the lead well until Sanchez inexplicably decided to dribble in on three Reading defenders, in search of his hat trick. But his pressing a minute later made up for the error, as Reading were having a hard time getting out of their own half and us mere mortals having a hard time understanding where the Chilean gets his insane energy level from. At 120 minutes, Walcott just about earned a penalty after one of his signature charges, with the foul adjudged to have occurred just outside the line (probably correctly). And that was it, as Arsenal squeaked through to the final 2-1 on a shocking error by Adam Federici.

As has been the case of late, Arsenal find ways to win even when they are not at their best and it was the same today, though it could have been an easier game with some better finishing. The match did advertise why the FA Cup is still such a great competition over 140 years after its birth in 1871, even if the FA and NBC fail to recognize it, with Reading pushing the second place team in the EPL to the brink of elimination. As to that other middling game going on at the same time, Chelsea essentially wrapped up the title with five games to play, holding on to beat an injury-decimated United side 1-0.

Looking at what we learned from the Arsenal-Reading game, a few very quick points: 1. Welbeck got Arsenal to this point with the winner against United, but he was largely invisible in this one and really needs to up his game if he is to compete for a starting 11 spot, 2. Ramsey can never be criticized for his effort, but after a player-of-the-match performance last weekend, looked more like the guy struggling too hard to rediscover the purple patch of Fall 2013. He needs to settle down and find that finishing touch again, 4. Ozil is a wonder to watch and his assist was a thing of beauty. He could have scored a goal and created almost all of the Gunner’s chances, controlling the game through the middle and showing the new strength in challenges, 5. Two of the less discussed signings by Wenger this year both showed their quality in this game, with Gabriel coming on for the injured Mertesacker and playing relatively well and Ospina on the bench showing why he is so important to the latest run, leading to my final point … 6. Szczesny should never play for Arsenal again. It is too bad, as he was really coming into form last season before a clear dip this fall that finally culminating in his being replaced by Ospina. Giving up such a soft goal when Arsenal were essentially cruising is unforgivable and too common an occurrence for the Polish international. It looks like the answer to a slightly modified old riddle might be no Poles to win a title, if we do the right thing and get rid of him this summer and then go on to finally capture that elusive title next term. Wembley, we’ll see you again in May!

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ann Coulter Sums Up Skewed Conservative Worldview on Democracy

Ann Coulter has always been a conservative firebrand saying absurd things that any sensible person should question. But when she started talking about voting rights on Fox News yesterday, the American public might want to listen a little more carefully, as conservatives across the country continue to push an agenda to disenfranchise million of voters, generally those less susceptible to their absurdist rhetoric. In the segment, Coulter actually advocated including a literacy test with voting, a policy once used to disenfranchise black voters (the test was impossible to finish in the time allotted and was given only to black voters). The common Southern strategy, along with poll taxes to keep the poor from voting, was outlawed with the 1965 Voting Rights Act, leading to a dramatic increase in the number of African Americans who voted in subsequent elections.

When asked by Fox News host Brian Kilmeade whether it bothered her that her vote counted just as much as someone who knew nothing about politics, she responded: "More than I can say. I just think it should be, well for one thing, a little more difficult to vote. There's nothing unconstitutional about literacy tests." Of course this is untrue, given the 1965 Voting Rights Act, but facts are just stupid things to Coulter and most of the talking heads over at Fox. Coulter went on to say she was fine with letting "Democrats do all of the vote theft they can get away with," but she was adamant that voting day should be limited to "one 24-hour period."

Finally, she was asked about more civics education in schools to address the issue. Her response: “"Maybe we can check to see if they can name the vice president before letting them vote. As for more civic education, that usually means the 12 years of Chinese-style propaganda in public schools, which only means you are dumber than someone who has not gone to school.” So just to sum up: 1. A literacy test should be given to voters, but don’t look to education to address any lack of literacy among the public, 2. Voting should only be done over one 24-hour period for no apparent reason other than it will allow less poor people to vote, 3. Democrats are involved in “vote theft” (of course, no evidence is forthcoming) and 4. Our schools have apparently been taken over my Maoist Communists who have infiltrated the civics education curriculum (somehow I missed the news on this one).

Coulter is, of course, a radical voice who sells books based on saying outlandish things that enough people believe to keep the millions rolling in. But what’s troubling about a segment like this is this is where the absurdity meets policy, as is too often the case on the right today. Coulter, with her unsubstantiated claims and rather ridiculous rhetorical flourishes is actually advocating for many of the disenfranchisement strategies being pushed by conservative legislators across the country including: 1. Ending early and absentee ballot voting (which, by the way, helped George Bush “win” the Presidency in 2000), 2. Instituting outdated and unconstitutional deterrents to voting like poll and literacy tests, 3. Ending voter registration programs at DMVs across the country; one of the most effective ways to increase registration and voting participation and 4. Claiming massive voter fraud when there is little evidence to support it. This is what passes for sensible dialogue in the U.S. today and why the public needs to demand a more critical and reflexive mainstream media.

While we’re on the topic of conservative attempts to turn the clock back on the progress of the last 100 years or so, the Tennessee House voted on Wednesday to make the bible the official state book and a day earlier, in Oklahoma, the OK attorney general defended the schools giving out bibles, claiming that religious freedom is under attack in America. Of course, one could argue that sanity is under attack in America as well, but that sounds a little too rational and thus liberal, nay socialist, for these debates.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

ND Coffee Shop Chimes in On Gay Rights

Fargo, North Dakota, coffee shop owner Joe Curry did not appreciate the 56 North Dakota legislators who voted against a bill that would have protected LGBT people from discrimination and decided to do something about it. He put up the following sign …

"Ban effective immediately. The listed Men & Women are now banned from entering this establishment.* This is based solely on age, gender, race, beliefs, color, religion & disability." The asterisk points to the following statement: "* Unless accompanied by a Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual, Queer, Intersex or Asexual person."

After getting some criticism for replicating the behavior of the very people he was criticizing, he clarified that the entire stunt was merely satirical and that he would allow anyone to enter his coffee shop, even the 56 anti-equality voters, posting on Facebook the following message: “The Red Raven Espresso Parlor wants to clarify that all are welcome in our space. We do not attempt to discriminate. The intent of our 'ban' was to satirize the environment that the legislation created for the LGBTQ+ community by voting against SB 2279. Here at the Raven we have workers and patrons who are included in this community who are directly impacted by this stringent and detached ruling. We stand by these individuals, as they are our families and friends. Its time the legislation affirms what the majority believes to be a fair, human practice of non-discrimination.”

A local newspaper, The Forum, chimed in as well with a front page article with the faces of each of the lawmakers. Even as this hate mongering continues to go on largely unabated, it’s nice to see more and more people standing up to it.

Another Tax Cut for the Rich ...

I'm not sure this is what the American people had in mind when they voted in GOP majorities in both houses of Congress. The latest move is a bill H.R. 1105 to repeal the estate tax for millionaires and billionaires. This only affects households with $5.4 million or more in savings, the top 0.2%. Glad to see their answer to increasing inequality in the most unequal advanced economy in the world is to increase that inequality even more. The bill would cost the country $270 billion over the next ten years alone, providing more money for the scions of the wealthy, while cutting funding for programs that could give millions access to the fading American Dream. The good news is it should further undermine democracy as well, so we can ensure that the monied elite keep their power for the foreseeable future. Luckily it appears Obama will veto the bill, but one wonders if anyone in the GOP actually cares about the constituents they are elected to represent.  

Monday, April 13, 2015

And Then There Were Four (the Nominees so Far)

Rand Paul and Hillary Clinton have added their names to the Presidential slate alongside Ted Cruz in the past week and now another crazy has added his name to the fray in Florida’s Marco Rubio. More will follow, including almost certainly Jeb Bush, but let’s take a brief look at those who have declared so far.

I have already discussed the crazy that is Ted Cruz, but Rand Paul is not far behind, even as many in the mainstream media attempt to paint him as a GOP outsider who offers sensible solutions to our problems. What does he propose along that path? Well first is the tired mantra of “taking our country back,” though it is unclear from who other than non-whites, non-Christians, non-conservatives, anyone crazy enough to support the policies of our sitting President and those that are not terribly sanguine about returning to the values of the Middle Ages. Paul is also among those who attacks Obama relentlessly and is essentially a Tea Party supporter of small government with radical ideas unsupported by data or reason. Alongside many libertarians, he believes the Federal Reserve should be closed forever, that we should shrink the government, cut taxes and balance the budget. He doesn’t want government regulation, even over the environment or drugs, but does think abortion should be illegal (though he is okay with birth control and the day after pill) and that gays should be allowed to form civil unions (though not marriage at the moment). He has troubling perspectives on race and any form of affirmative action, to some extent like his father, though he does support civil liberties and repeal of the Patriot Act and other attempts to spy on Americans. He also has a troubling stand on the “anti-vaccine” movement, opposes gun control of any kind and wants stronger border control.

Hillary Clinton is a more reasonable option, I suppose, and one who could finally add a women’s name to the most coveted office in the world. But I worry about her age, the vitriol she elicits in some circles and her more conservative political platform of the past. I might take some hope from the more populist stance she has taken to launch her latest campaign, but I’m not sure I really believe it, worry that the lack of competition for the nomination will leave her too comfortable heading into the post-convention political cauldron and fear that the GOP and its Fox News conduit will pound her endlessly with the latest email scandal and probably even drudge up the old baseless scandals from the 90s.

And now the fourth, Marco Rubio, who does offer a compelling narrative as the son of a bartender and maid, both Cuban immigrants, who rose for those humble beginnings through the Florida GOP to become a Senator at a relatively young age (he is only 43 now). Rubio, for his part, has already attacked Clinton backhand with one of the concerns many of us have, as “a leader from yesterday.” Yet what does he stand for? Early indications include the following hints from his website: 1. Rubio has worked hard to burnish his national-security credentials, so it's no surprise he apparently has a slew of pages dedicated to topics like Cuba, support for veterans, standing with Israel (presumably opposing Iran), stopping the Islamic State (also known as ISIS), and having a "strong military." Additionally, there is another website URL— "worst negotiator" — that suggests Rubio will release a video going after President Barack Obama's nuclear negotiations with Iran. 2. Rubio appears set to go big on his controversial tax plan, as another video URL is dedicated to it. According to Politico, Rubio "would use the tax code to reward families with children while slashing levies on business and investment income but keeping a top rate personal income rate of 35 percent, far higher than many Republicans would like." 3. Additionally, Rubio's site seems to indicate he will focus on net neutrality, the Obama administration's push to regulate the Internet as a utility. One URL states, "Government is crashing the internet party" while another declares, "No net neutrality." So the early signs are tax policies that hurt too many Americans, allowing the terrorists in Iran to get closer to a nuclear weapon and ensuring that business interests trump those of an open, democratic Internet. Maybe not at the same level of blustering insanity as either Cruz or Paul, but not my idea of a great future for the country.

Thus at the moment, it appears to be a battle between a scary firebrand reactionary band of GOP upstarts or a return to the past (either yet another Bush or yet another Clinton). Ugh!

Sunday, April 12, 2015

EPL Season on the Brink: What We’ve Learned

With a mere six games left in the season for most of the 20 teams that make up the English Premier League, there is still a lot to play for. Chelsea may well have all but secured the title over the past 8 days, but a late collapse is still possible and teams at the top and bottom are still jockeying for positions and places in Europe. So with about a month and a half left, I thought I would highlight some of the most important stories for the run-in. Here they are …

1. Arsenal Hottest Team of 2015 (Learning to Win Ugly): Arsenal won their eighth straight game yesterday, the longest streak by any team this year and their best since the days of the Invincibles. The game at Burnley was largely dominated by Arsenals slick passing, but just as importantly by their stout defending. Coquelin was arguably the man of the match, continuing his renaissance into the DM the Gunners have lacked since Viera left and Silva was hurt in 2008. Equally important has been the return to form of Ramsey, who led the Gunners to the league summit last year before being injured and watching his team unravel in blowout losses to Chelsea, Liverpool, City and Everton. His Johnny-on-the-Spot goal in the 12th minute yesterday was the difference in a game that lacked real chances for either team, finishing off a nice exchange that began with one of the countless interceptions (along with tackles) from Coquelin.

It was the sort of resilient display that Wenger’s squad have suddenly developed a taste for, with victories over the two Manchester teams in January setting the stage for a more refined approach to tactics that allows them to sit back and absorb pressure, press up the pitch or play with the offensive abandon that makes them sumptuous to watch. If we look at recent Arsenal seasons, it is far too often the case that they either start strong and fade or drop too many points early before a late run to save their Top 4 place. At the heart of those previous collapses has been an inability to beat teams in the Top 4, and while that trend continued in the first half of this season, Arsenal have beaten City and Liverpool this term, though they did lose to bitter rivals Tottenham 2-1 and to Southampton 1-0 on New Years Day. After the win yesterday, however, some were even starting to dream of an improbable late run to the title, but Chelsea more or less quashed that dream less than 24 hours later when, ironically, Cesc Fabergas scored in the 88th minute to take all three points from a resilient QPR.

2. Chelsea Will Win the Title (Already Old Veterans at Winning Ugly): For the second week in a row, a goalkeeping error helped the Blues secure a win in a game where they looked pretty abject. In the game against Stoke, it was Lois Remy coming on who ultimately slotted in the gift from Begovich, today it was Fabergas, who has seen a second half drop in form that seemed to justify Barcelona’s claim that he is a first half player, who sent the ball past Rob Green and pushed Chelsea 7 points above Arsenal with yet another game in hand to come. Both of those games could have easily ended in a draw, which would have cost them four points and made it a manageable 3 point gap. But Chelsea under Mourinho find ways to win, often with ugly defensive football. That this approach cost them against PSG in the Champions League shouldn’t really detract from Mourinho’s achievement. Yet another domestic title in only his second year back in England. It is too bad that Chelsea play so ugly that many will take little pleasure in that achievement.

3. City Collapse is Startling: Man City looked rampant early against United, and their pressure paid off with a seventh minute goal by Aguero after an excellent Silva cross. 21 minutes later they were behind 2-1 on the way to losing 4-2, a microcosm of the worst 2015 anyone could have ever imagined. The year actually started positively, with a 3-2 win over Sunderland and a 2-1 win over Sheffield in the FA Cup. But both showed a team whose defensive deficiencies were putting them under pressure. Their next game was a 1-1 draw at Goodison followed by the impressive Arsenal 2-0 victory at the Etihad. And things started to really unravel. They lost 2-0 at home again, this time to Middlesboro in the FA Cup. They then drew with Chelsea at Stamford Bridge before drawing with Hull at home. Two big wins on the bounce led some to wonder if they could beat a slightly reeling Barcelona. The 2-1 loss in that game started a complete downward spiral where they have lost 6 of their last 8 games (6W, 8L, 3D in 2015). The startling reality now is that Liverpool is back in the race for a Champions League spot and could find themselves only four points behind last year’s champion if they beat Newcastle tomorrow evening.

It’s hard to believe this is the same team that was tied for the lead with Chelsea at the turn of the New Year. Incredibly, City have not won a game on the road they were losing at half time since 1995 and that streak didn’t end today. Instead serious questions must be asked of a squad that seems to be aging from week to week and who too often take long stretches of games off. There is no longer the siege mentality and stalwart defending that saw them raise the winner’s trophy two of the past three seasons. Rebuilding is in the offing this summer; the question remains whether it will include Pellegrini and whether it will include champions league football next term.

4. United Renaissance Continues: Seventh Place last year was enough for the United board to abandon their traditional Fergie era style of promoting from within and buying quality English players (and foreigners for reasonable fees). This summer they spent 150 million pounds to build a team to again compete for titles along with a manager with a proven International pedigree. Early on, it looked as if the money might have been wasted, blowing a lead against Leicester and looking pretty average week in and out before they went on a long unbeaten streak that few were impressed by but that saw them rise up the table to regain their top four place. A loss at Old Trafford to bitter rival Arsenal in the FA Cup, however, renewed doubts about the team and whether Liverpool would pip them to that lucrative fourth place. Then United transformed their play, ironically in the absence of their most expensive signing ever (Angel di Maria), and with their 4-2 win today have essentially wrapped up the goal for the season – getting back to the UCL.

Among the key players in the recent dramatic improvement have been some unlikely ones, including the reemergence of Juan Mata (who has more combined goals and assists in the last four seasons than anyone else), Fellaini (who many argued was one of the biggest disappointments last season) and most surprising of all, Ashley Young, who Van Gaal seemed poised to leave languishing on the bench all season. The rest of the league will be concerned by the improvement in the perennial champion contenders of the past and the fact they will probably spend big again this summer to add a world class central defender (Hummels probably), defensive midfielder (Gundogan or Carvalho) and striker (unclear who they will go for here, though Bale should be considered a possibility).

5. Tottenham Blow it Again: the annual late fade from Tottenham is on yet again, after they looked poised at the turn of the year to mount a challenge for a coveted Top 4 spot. After a 5-3 win over Chelsea on New Years Day and a 2-1 derby victory over Arsenal on February 7 (with a disappointing loss to Crystal Palace in between), they had a real chance. But as seems to be the case year in and out, with the 2009-10 Redknapp season as an outlier, they consistently drop points down the stretch. The next game after the Arsenal victory, they lost to Liverpool 3-2, drew with West Ham, were dumped out of Europe by Fiorentina over two legs, lost to Chelsea (2-0), to Man United (3-0), drew 0-0 with Burnley and then lost to Aston Villa 1-0 at home. It has been a sad collapse after a promising start to the season and begs the question of whether they are yet prepared to take the next step up the league table in the near future.

6. Pardew’s Revenge: Alan Pardew never seemed to inspire the fans at Newcastle during his four years in charge, particularly after they got scrapped into the relegation battle last term (after overperforming two years before). Yet leaving a job at a mid-table team to take a position at one that was steeped in a relegation battle seemed like an odd choice indeed. A few months later it is starting to look like genius, as returning to the team he played for for years seems to have inspired him and his players into raising their collective games impressively, while Newcastle has dropped down the standings. When he took over, Palace was stuck in the relegation zone and hadn’t won in 8 matches. Since then he has led them to 9 wins (including scalping of Tottenham and Man City), with only 4 losses and 2 draws, in all competitions. Pardew is unlikely to win manager of the year, but he might have my vote after righting the ship at Newcastle after a terrible start and pervasive fan revolt and then taking over a floundering Crystal Palace and raising them to impressive mid-table heights.

7. Languishing Liverpool and Gerrard’s Departure: Steven Gerrard is one of the greatest Liverpool players of all time, and certainly the iconic player of his generation. He is beloved by fans, by pundits and even by followers of other teams that respect his talent and work ethic. Yet as his Meyerside career rushes toward its tearful conclusion, it is hard to ignore the unfortunate role he has played in their fortunes the past two seasons. The slip from last year that probably cost them the title he so coveted (and never won) will be an indelible mark left in the memories of so many. His red card in less than a minute after coming on at halftime in the game against United might well have cost Liverpool securing Champions League football for next year. What an irony that would be from the player who singularly drew them back even with Milan in the 2005 Istanbul final, securing his legacy and more European glory for the Reds.

Liverpool are back in the hunt for the Top 4 now though, possibly at the expense of the most expensive English team ever assembled. What role Gerrard will play in that chase will be interesting, as the Reds have appeared to play better at times with him on the bench this season, particularly with the rise of Jordan Henderson. Even if they fail to sneak into the Top 4, Gerrard will have the chance to add one last trophy to his cabinet, assuming they get past Aston Villa to a probable final against the red hot Gunners. No matter how this season ends, Gerrard is a class act that I have not a bad word to say about, and I think Liverpool and the league will miss him.

8. Relegation Battle is Hotting Up: it still looks likely that the three promoted teams from last season might go right back down at the end of the year, but two wins on the bounce for Leicester City, the startling Burnley win over City a couple of weeks ago and some better recent results from QPR before today, mean that the abject form of Sunderland and the incredible march down the table of Aston Villa puts both long-time EPL regulars in danger of the drop. Hull City, as well, after looking comfortable a month ago, now stand on the precipice of the drop themselves. With many of the teams in the bottom 6 playing each other over the coming weeks, it should be a great finish at the bottom, with one of the newbies looking to procure the latest great escape.

After two tight wins, Chelsea look likely to win the title they seemed destined to before the season even began. Arsenal have improved dramatically after an up and down start, Manchester United have matched them blow for blow over the past few weeks and City have disappointed, as have Liverpool and Everton. With only weeks left in the season, there is still much to play for, and unlike many of the other leagues in the world, you really never do know what will happen from game to game.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Duke Win 5th Title Under Coach K with an Assist from Lopsided Officiating

Duke came back from nine points down in the second half to win Coach Krzyzewski’s fifth national title, with two freshman leading the way on the road to a 68-63 victory. It was not the freshman most would have predicted, though, as Tyrus Jones and Grayson Allen made the difference, with Allen helping Duke close the gap and then Jones pushing the Blue Devils ahead. Over the final 13 minutes, they helped Duke outscored Wisconsin by an incredible 13 points. And while Wisconsin’s player of the year Kaminsky outperformed Okafor for much of the game (21 to 10 points overall), that “other” freshman won the battle down the stretch, scoring two straight baskets over the seven footer that all but sealed the win.

It was a back and forth game from beginning to end, with Duke jumping out to an early lead, Wisconsin climbing back ahead and then the two teams slugging it out to a 31-31 halftime score. The Badgers shot only 39 percent from the field in that first half, but had 8 offensive and 19 overall rebounds, creating 11 second chance points (to Duke’s 4), while Duke had an impressive 5 blocked shots. The second half started as the first half had ended with the teams exchanging blows and the lead until Okafor picked up his third and then fourth foul and Wisconsin went on a run to take that nine point lead with about 11 minutes left. They looked like they were on their way to the national title that has eluded Bo Ryan his entire career, with Okafor on the bench, when the wheels began to unravel and Duke mounted their momentous comeback. It started with the freshman Grayson Allen, who scored eight straight points for the Blue Devils, starting with a three from the corner and then two straight powerful drives to the basket – the first a plus one and the second sending him to the line for two made free throws. The lead was suddenly down to one and Wisconsin began to panic, leading the Blue Devils to pull ahead and finish out the game with some timely threes and clutch free throws.

The Badgers, who only registered two measly fouls in the first half piled them up in the second, giving Duke more old school three-point plays then I’ve seen in a long time, including a key one by Okafor down the stretch that defied physics as he released from a Kaminsky hug foul to somehow hook the ball in (though he actually missed the resultant free throw). On the other end, Wisconsin’s top ranked offense suddenly became passive and began giving the ball away and taking poor shots, trying to create from the dribble rather than the quick passing game that had worked so effectively throughout the season and tournament. Kaminsky was keeping it close, but probably not getting enough touches and the Badgers passed up shots in close to swing it back out. The swarming Duke defense had a lot to do with it, coming into the game with the top ranked D in the tournament, against the best offense. In basketball, offense is supposed to trump defense, but the Badgers went cold at the wrong time, blowing a game that was well within their grasp. It was helped by the 16 point effort from Allen, who has averaged four points a game coming into the final, and the scintillating second half from Jones (who scored 23 in the game, but 19 of the 37 Duke second half points).

It was an impressive performance by Duke, particularly on defense, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that this is one of the most one-sided officiating performances I’ve ever seen in a final. After Bo Ryan pointed this out in his post-game interview, the pundits claimed the calls were bad on both sides, but I would like one example of a call that went against Duke beyond the arguably light fourth foul on Okafor. Too many touch fouls were being called on Wisconsin in the second half, as if the refs noticed that the Badgers had only committed two in the entire first half. In the first 4:24 of the second half, they were whistled four times, with two very questionable calls in the mix and by the 11:43 mark, things had been evened up completely (interesting given that Wisconsin had the lowest foul per game average in the nation at 12.5). By the 9:07 mark, Wisconsin had an incredible 9 (yes 9) team fouls in the second half alone, with the last two equally questionable – as Jones appeared to lean into a well positioned Bronson Koenig before winning his Oscar for the night with a wild flail for the eighth and then an out-of-control Winslow drive somehow leading to the ninth.

But let’s forgo those subjective calls and get to three that really decided the game in the end. The first were two straight potential charges on Justise Winslow that were not called, where either would have given him his fourth foul and sent him to the bench, while giving the ball to the Badgers. The second (or third, if you like) call was when Winslow clearly stepped out of bounds but no call was made. The replay showed he was clearly out and it is the ref’s job to see that. A third crucial call came when the game was still poised with a five-point deficit and a little less than a minute left, when the ball was clearly touched out of bounds, again by Winslow, but after looking at the replay, the refs still gave it to Duke. The announcers looked at the touch from three different angles and each showed the same thing – Winslow had nicked the ball last. That call gave Duke the ball and all but ended Wisconsin’s chances of a comeback that could very well still have been in the cards.
Don’t get me wrong here, Duke came back from a nine-point second half deficit with some incredible play from their four freshman and then closed out the most efficient offense in the nation by shutting them down and forcing them into a dribble and drive game when passing is their real strength. Coach K made the halftime changes that ultimately paid off, even as foul trouble saw them on the edge of disaster eight minutes in. And the collapse of that Wisconsin offense down the stretch played a part as well, as they went through a four-minute patch without a single point. But in a game decided by five points, those calls matter and clearly aided the Duke victory, continuing the narrative many of us are growing increasingly weary of.

The most disappointed players on the floor have to be Kaminsky and Decker, with the former missing shots on a couple of key possessions as the game was slipping away and Decker abject from distance throughout the game (he finished with a quiet 13 points after starring against Arizona and Kentucky), aptly missing the long three that ended any chance of a miracle comeback. But for Coach K, he now stakes his claim as the greatest coach of all times, having matched the five national championships won by Adolph Rupp and standing only five behind the dynastic Wooden, who coached in an entirely different era with dominant centers who were ahead of the game in that era. Coach K might be boring, he might be overly deified by the mainstream sports media, but it’s hard to argue with five titles and over 1,000 Division I wins (the first coach to accomplish that feat), together with Olympic Gold. At some point in the future he will walk away from the game and the legacy debate can begin, but he might want to consider Indianapolis for a second or third vacation home, having won three of those five titles right here in the birthplace of the game.

Monday, April 06, 2015

Final Four Wrap Up: Kentucky KO’d; Coach K’s Drive for Five Alive

And then there were two, and not necessarily the two most people expected. Sure, many had Duke ending the Cinderella story of Michigan State but how many thought Wisconsin would win their rematch with Kentucky? More than you might think, but with 5:30 left in the game, after coming back from two large deficits (by their standards), Kentucky was up four with the ball, poised to register their 39th win of the season and one away from becoming the eighth team in history to go undefeated. Then something funny happened on the way to coronation – they went cold, going five possessions without a point as Wisconsin’s stuttering offense came back to life. Wisconsin finished the game on a 13 to 4 run, ultimately winning a tight game by an unrepresentative seven points. It was heartbreaking for the Wildcats who sacrificed the NBA draft to return for another chance at the title that eluded them last year by seven points (to a Connecticut team that won two in four years). Now they head to the NBA draft and millions of dollars knowing they were a few made shots, a few questionable calls going the other way and a quality effort against Duke from realizing their dreams.

Let’s start with the first semifinal though, a game that probably should have been much closer than the twenty-point 81-61 Duke victory. In fact, Michigan State started their game against Duke strongly, rolling to an early 14-6 lead. And then they forgot how to shoot the ball, how to make layups or free throws or how to play interior defense. Duke steamrolled them as they failed to convert possession after possession until they found themselves down 11 points at halftime. A couple of second half runs brought them within striking distance, but an efficient Duke offense led by Winslow’s 19 points (together with Okafor’s 18 and Quinn Cook’s 17) was unwilling to let that lead fall back to single digits and the game was soon beyond the Spartan’s reach. It was an impressive display by a Duke team playing its best basketball at the right end of the season, but purely abject from a surprisingly inept Tom Izzo team. The Blue Devils will now seek to build on the dynasty their iconic coach has been building for 30 years now.

They will face a Wisconsin team that came into their game yesterday with the best offense in the nation against Kentucky’s best defense. Kentucky was in their fourth final four in five years, tied for the most wins in NCAA history at 38, had the coach of the year in Calipari and were two games from perfection and matching the 1976 Indiana Hoosiers. Wisconsin, on the other hand, is a team with a coach who is a certainty for the Hall of Fame but who lacks the championship most think one needs to enter the pantheon of “greatness.” Many thought he would have to wait another year for a shot, but the stars seemed to align in just the right way, including a few questionable foul calls against Kentucky, a clear shot clock violation that gave Wisconsin an important two points in the final three minutes and a Kentucky team that suddenly went ice cold, failing to score on six of seven possessions as their lead became a deficit too far. In the end, as the old adage goes, great offense great beat defense down the stretch as Kentucky flailed and Wisconsin did just enough to erase a late first half surge by the Wildcats that tied the game at 36 and a six-minute scoreless patch of their own that gave the Wildcats their slender four-point lead. Yet the statistics tell the real story, as a Wisconsin team that ranked 262nd in the country in offense rebounds outpaced Kentucky 12-6. They shot 47.6 percent from the field, 13 points higher than the Kentucky average this season, and went 10 of 20 from the three-point line. And when it counted most, they made 7 of 8 from the line to ice the game after Dekker came up huge with a bucket to end the scoreless streak, a tip in when the shot clock was clearly at 0 to tie the game and then a three that gave the Badgers a lead at 1:42 they would build on until the final whistle. Kentucky follows the 1991 UNLV team that came into their semifinal game against Duke undefeated as well, only to see their dreams left in tatters. Now Ryan will have a shot against the man who beat that unbeatable Rebel’s team and who many consider the greatest coach in the history of the sport, recognizing the changes in the game since Wooden built his 10-title dynasty. 

A day after the heartbreaking loss, Calipari was ironically elected into the basketball Hall of Fame, but one has to assume it is little solace to a coach that thought this was the year to match Bobby Knight’s improbably run. It is also little solace to merchandisers, who are in line to lose millions with Kentucky ousted a game too soon. Instead we face the prospect of a first title for Bo Ryan or a fifth for the coach many, including me, love to hate. Game on!

Sunday, April 05, 2015

The World Gone Wild 2015

As neoliberalism moved toward unfettered dominance in the wake of the collapse of communism, the promise was the raising of all ships and a more peaceful future. Has that happened in the past 25 years? Of course not! From the Iraq War to the global financial crisis of 2007-08 to continuing troubles in Ukraine, Africa, Iraq, Israel and the like, we have seen a world of increased financial instability, increased inequality, increased poverty, global climate calamity and general insecurity and decline in the average standard of living. Just looking at the news over the past few days shows us how far we are from the utopian promise once offered by liberal democracy and a liberated global market. In Kenya, Islamic militants slaughtered 148 people on a college campus while screaming “God is great,” but one of the increasing terrorist incidents on the continent. Across Europe, racial discord continues to boil over along with anti-Semitism, anti-Islamic rhetoric and ethnic battles. Back in the U.S., newly released racist emails between officers and city officials in Ferguson, MO only amplify the ongoing discord. Over in Indiana, a family-run pizzeria, Memories Pizza, has received $840,000 in donations after claiming they would refuse to provide food to a gay marriage, continuing the ongoing partisan divide on equal rights for the LGBT community. In Alabama, yet another death row inmate was released, after having 28 years of his life robbed by a racist legal system. Meanwhile, Fox News is calling for Missouri officials to demand that food stamp recipients be banned from buying steak or seafood. Looking at the economic climate, Europe and Asia continues to suffer through instability, Russia’s economic growth is in serious jeopardy, Africa remains mired in poverty and the U.S. middle class continues to be strained by seemingly boundless one percent greed (Guardian). The one piece of good news, of Iran agreeing to curb its nuclear program if economic sanctions are lifted, might be undermined by the insanity of the GOP. It’s a mad mad world, indeed!