Sunday, March 31, 2013

Milwaukee Bucks lose to Oklahoma City Thunder

Thanks to Mama Cheese for getting a luxury box for us to see the Milwaukee Bucks play the Oklahoma City Thunder on "90's Night". Correct me if I wrong but isn't it crazy that the 90's are now retro?  Coincidentally we were a couple boxes down from Milwaukee Bucks general manager John Hammond.  I felt compelled after any significant play in the game to see how Hammond reacted but in most instances he showed little to no emotion.

I've never been lucky enough to sit in the front row but I imagine that would lose its luster whereas sitting in a luxury box never loses its luster because you have all the food and drink you want at your finger tips.  Plus, as silly as it sounds, having a bathroom in the box might be the best part since you can get in and out without waiting in the long lines and missing the action.

After a fairly uneventful first half, the halftime show was Vanilla Ice.  After singing a few of his lesser known tunes, Vanilla Ice brought down the house with "Ice Ice Baby".  Cheesehead Chick sang all the words, that is right, all the words right along with Vanilla Ice.  With all due respect to the guys playing on the court, keeping in mind that the Thunder have two (Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook) of the ten (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant, Chris Paul, Tony Parker, Dwayne Wade, and James Harden) best players in the NBA, Cheesehead Chick singing "Ice Ice Baby" was the best thing I saw all night.

After an entertaining third quarter and start to the fourth quarter, the Bucks actually lead 92-87 with just over eight minutes to play.  Sadly the Bucks wilted down the stretch to lose.  Here are five random thoughts from watching the Bucks fall to the Thunder:

#1) If Monta Ellis agreed to never shoot outside 20 feet I would actually support signing him long-term.

#2) J.J. Redick looks much more like a Steve Kerr long distance sharp shooter than a regular starting shooting guard.

#3) Brandon Jennings is NOT worth what he is going to be overpaid this off-season but if the Bucks can convince Jennings to be more of slasher then they should be the team that overpays him.

#4) Larry Sanders is the most freakish athlete on the roster but unless he embraces the mental side of the game, the Bucks might not be able to commit to him long-term.

#5) Not sure why Marquis Daniels got 32 minutes while Mike Dunleavy only played seven minutes.  Even more puzzling, why didn't John Henson play a single minute?

There is a 99% chance that the Bucks end up as the last playoff team in the Eastern Conference, which makes them the sacrificial lamb for the Miami Heat so best case scenario they steal a game or two at home to make the series go longer than four games.

That is all a precursor to the biggest off-season in recent memory for the franchise because the Bucks have to determine how to shape their back court going forward since there is a chance, albeit very remote, but a chance that the Bucks could lose their three best guards (Ellis, Jennings, and Redick) before next season.

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Cardinal Stritch University Wolves Win the 2013 NAIA Division II National Championship

The 2013 NAIA Division II National Championship Game in Point Lookout, MO pitted the 2nd ranked Cardinal Stritch Wolves against the 1st ranked William Penn University Statesmen.  The Wolves and Statesmen were riding quite a pair of winnings streaks en route to the championship game.

The Wolves won 14 straight to make their first NAIA Division II National Championship Game appearance.  The Wolves last loss came at home to Saint Xavier University on January 19th.  Since then the Wolves reeled off 14 straight wins, including a win over Saint Xavier University in the Chicagoland Collegiate Athletic Conference Championship game, to improve their record to 34-3.

A record of 34-3 seems almost impossible to match until you look at the Statemen's record heading into the championship game.  The Statesmen were riding a 20 game winning streak with their only loss of the season coming on the road to Bellevue on December 7th.  That meant the Statesmen took a 34-1 record into the championship game.

You might ask why I would cover the NAIA Division II National Championship Game in this this space.  Cardinal Stritch holds a very special place in my heart for a number of reasons.  One, Mama Cheese (my Mom) has worked tirelessly in a number of roles for Cardinal Stritch throughout her professional career and is currently Executive Vice President for Academic Affairs.

I have a million fond memories of visiting Stritch as a kid, with some of the most memorable being basketball related.  The Milwaukee Bucks practiced at Cardinal Stritch when the Padre Sierra forced them out of their regular practice facilities at the Cousins Center.  I remember watching Big Dog and Todd Day knock down jumpers on what is now known as Pinella Court, which was named after the long time former Stritch women's basketball coach in 2010 shortly after he was diagnosed .with ALS.

If that isn't enough of a reason, the former President and current Chancellor of Cardinal Stritch, Sister Camille Kliebhan, is one of my favorite people in the world.  Sister Camille is a regular at all family events with a martini in hand (yes, you read that correctly).

Back to the game.  My buddy Gaber, who currently works for Cardinal Stritch, texted me midway through the second half to give me the heads up that the Wolves were playing on the CBS Sports Network.  Luckily I tuned in time to see the Wolves defeat the Statesmen by a score of 73-59 to notch their first NAIA Division II National Championship.

Kudos to Tony Smit (played the most minutes this season), Derek Semenas (lead the team in scoring this season), Darren Moore (lead the team in rebounding this season), Nick Ford (lead the team in assists this season), and all the other players on roster on winning the 2013 NAIA Division II National Championship.

The Wolves were lead by head coach Drew Diener, who is in his 4th season at the helm.  There were two other very notable members of Diener's staff that helped immensely: assistant coach Dick Diener and manager Tyler Stacey.

Dick was one of the most successful high school basketball coaches in Wisconsin in the last 25 years and is also the father of head coach Drew.  About a month ago Lori Nickel of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel wrote a great story on Stacey.  Although Stacey is forced to get around mostly via a scooter because he has spastic cerebral palsy that does not prevent him from carrying out a multitude of roles for the team while also serving as their inspirational leader.

Congrats to everyone associated with the 2012-13 Cardinal Stritch University men's basketball team on putting together arguably the most impressive season of any team in school history.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Building The 53 - 2013 Free Agent Shopping Guide for Ted Thompson

The Green Bay Packers have played in three Super Bowls (XXXI, XXXII, and XLV) and won two (XXXI and XLV) of them in my lifetime.  That means that almost every season ends in disappointment.  One of the ways that I've dealt with that disappointment is to rank the final 53-man roster as my final look at that specific Packer team, which allows me to take stock of how each of the guys that finished the season on the 53-man roster contributed.

After completing my final 53-man rankings, I put the previous season in the rear view mirror and look towards next season.  My first look towards next season involves giving Packers general manager Ted Thompson specific advice for how to approach the off-season.  Although there is still time for some of my 10 point plan to be implemented by Thompson, so far my advice has been largely ignored.

Thanks to drafting well, Thompson has largely passed on signing players in free agency.  That makes my 3rd annual (2011 and 2012) free agent shopping guide for Thompson a mostly academic but necessary exercise because despite winning the competitive NFC North in 2012, the Packers have some question marks at a number of positions: RB, OT, DL, and S.
Since the Packers look set at a number of positions (QB, WR, TE, G, C, MLB, OLB, and CB), I am going to focus my advice for Thompson mainly on the need areas. As I've said in the past, I know the chances of Thompson signing any of the players below are equal to the chance I have of leveraging this blog into a job running a professional sports team, but I still hope you enjoy my 2013 Free Agent Shopping Guide for Ted Thompson:

#5) Resist the urge to make a "big splash" by signing any of the top-end guys.  Don't get me wrong, if there wasn't a salary cap I would love to see guys like Cliff Avril (DE/OLB), Michael Bennett (DE/OLB), Jermon Bushrod (OT), Paul Kruger (OLB), or Jake Long (OT) playing for the Packers in 2013.  Signing any of those guys would solidify an important position on the roster but the math just doesn't work out since the Packers have roughly $18 million in salary cap space right now without factoring in the long list (James Jones, Clay Matthews, Aaron Rodgers, and B.J. Raji just to name a few) of extensions  they need to sort out before the end of 2013.

#4) Beef up the defensive line. After the Packers got physically manhandled by the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs, the entire off-season has been focused on the Packers being a more physical team.  That starts in the trenches on the offensive and defensive lines.  Most of the free agent offensive tackles are too pricey for the Packers but that is not the case along the defensive line. There are some guys that I like such as Jason Jones, William Hayes, Matt Shaughnessy, and Lawrence Jackson but those guys do not project well as defensive lineman in the 3-4 scheme unless the Packers want to mix in some 4-3 next season.  Leaving aside the defensive lineman just mentioned, there are a number of young, big, and physical defensive lineman that would be great at either defensive end or defensive tackle in Green Bay.  Here is a list of bigger guys that project well as defensive lineman in the 3-4 (guys I like the most to guys I like the least): Desmond Bryant, Alan Branch, Terrance Knighton, Sen'Derrick Marks, Ricky Jean Francois, Sammie Lee Hill, and Mike DeVito

#3) Bottom feed after the initial flurry of free agent signing. We all know Thompson rarely makes a splash in the free agent market, although when he does (think Charles Woodson and Ryan Pickett) they turn out to be great signings.  It is much more likely that Thompson will let teams over spend early in free agency and then go bottom feeding after the NFL Draft.  After Thompson let's the market play out, he should remind the free agents leftover that signing with the Packers means they get to play for a Super Bowl contender thanks to having arguably the best quarterback (Aaron Rodgers) and young defender (Clay Matthews) in the NFL on the roster.  There are a few tantalizing young offensive guys under 30 that I would target later in free agency: Reggie Bush (RB) and Delanie Walker (TE) but my guess is that both those guys will receive long-term offers on the open market early on.  There are a number of guys over 30 that I would consider signing to short-term deals once the market settles out (in alphabetical order): Nick Barnett (MLB), Chris Canty (DL), Dwan Edwards (DL), Dwight Freeney (DE/OLB), Ed Reed (S), Richard Seymour (DL), Isaac Sopoaga (DL), Osi Umenyiora (DE/OLB), and Kevin Vickerson (DL).

#2) Add another starting safety. After cutting Charles Woodson the Packers have one legitimate NFL safety on the roster in Morgan Burnett to go along with a number of young, promising question marks in M.D. Jennings, Jerron McMillian, Chaz Powell, and Sean Richardson.  This off-season there are a number of quality safeties available in free agency.  Safeties are paid much less than pass rushers and corners so despite what I said above in #5 there are two guys that I would "break the bank" for (aka sign to a four or five year deal with a bunch of up front guaranteed money): Dashon Goldson and Kenny Phillips.  On a tier below Goldson and Phillps there are a number of other very talented safeties that I would consider signing to more than just one-year, veteran minimum contracts as well (guys I like most to guys I like the least): Louis Delmas, Glover Quin, LaRon Landry, Chris Clemons, and Patrick Chung.

#1) Add Steven Jackson. Despite DuJuan Harris performing well towards the end of last season, I am not convinced he can be the three-down back that head coach Mike McCarthy desperately needs.  After Harris there are a ton of question marks with every other running back: Cedric Benson (free agent that is coming off a serious injury so he shouldn't get anything more than a one-year deal for the league minimum even if he can prove he is healthy at the start of training camp), Ryan Grant (free agent that shouldn't be resigned), Alex Green (will be in season two next year of recovering from a torn ACL but did nothing last year to show he can be an every down back despite getting numerous opportunities), Brandon Saine (coming off a season ending injury so he looks like a long-shot to even make the PUP list to start next season), and James Starks (perpetually injured in college and living up to that reputation in the NFL).  The one way the Packers can erase all those question marks at running back is to sign Steven Jackson to a three-year contract with all the guaranteed money in the first two years so the last year can be voided by either side.  Running backs often fall victim to the curse of turning 30, which Jackson is set to turn before next season but adding a versatile workhorse running back like Jackson is exactly what the Packers need.  Since Ahman Green left Green Bay the first time the Packers have not had a workhorse running back (relax with calling Grant a workhorse because he did most of his damage once Favre or Rodgers put the game out of reach through the air) yet have still been one of the most effective passing teams in the NFL.  Adding a guy like Jackson could push not only the rushing attack but the passing attack to a whole new level.

Look for most if not all of my advice for Thompson to end up on the cutting room floor so absent a big splash in free agency, check back as we get closer to the 2013 NFL Draft for more in-depth Packers coverage.