Thursday, March 8, 2018

Houston Rockets: This team is REALLY good. (How good remains to be seen)

First all of the caveats:

 - It's regular season NBA, which means next to nothing except for actually making the playoffs.
 - Many in Houston aren't paying attention, at all, to the team in the NBA that currently has the best record.
 - Even IF they win they'll still be 3rd fiddle to the Astros and a mediocre Texans franchise.

Given all of that, the Rockets just won their 17th straight game which left them with the best record in the NBA and a narrow 1/2 game lead over the Golden State Warriors for home-field advantage throughout the playoffs.

Chris Paul has been amazing, James Harden has been even better.  Unanimous MVP better.  In fact, if Harden doesn't win the MVP this year the award is a farce.  And I say that as someone who's not traditionally been a fan of "the Beard" in the past.

For all of the concern surrounding his hiring head coach Mike D'Antoni has done a masterful job crafting this deep roster, built by GM Daryl Morey, into a currently unstoppable force.

The only question remaining now is whether or not they can continue this charge when the games really matter, in the playoffs against quality teams when something is actually on the line.

James Harden doesn't have that bullet point on his resume yet, none of these players do.

It has to be frustrating though to realize that, no matter how good you're doing, the bulk of sports interest in Houston is going to be focused on the worst team in the city.  A brief listen to Houston sports talk radio this morning revealed the bozos at 610 talking about JJ Watt's trade value, and 790 (The Rockets flagship station) airing Josh Innes who only talks about himself while making borderline racist comments to try and drive controversy, and listeners.

As good of a time as it is to be an Astros or Rockets fan it's equally as frustrating because of the 800 lb gorilla in the room.

In even a mediocre sports town coverage of the Astros in Spring Training and the Rockets beating all comers would dominate the sports news landscape. In Houston we get talk about whether or not the Texans will pursue free agents who might have knelt during the National Anthem or not.


To the credit of the Houston Chronicle and the TV stations, at least they're covering Houston's two best teams. Although there's precious little coverage of the Houston Cougars men's basketball team, who is a shoo-in to make the NCAA dance and my dark horse team to win the AAC tournament.

But, I digress.....

As the regular season winds down the playoffs in Houston have the potential to be really, really fun. IF the Rockets and Warriors take care of business (and they should) their match-up in the Western Conference Finals might be looked back on as the REAL NBA Finals. The Raptors and Celtics might have something to say about that bur, for right now, it appears that the Rockets and Warriors are the class of the league.

It's just too bad that few in Houston realize this.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

March Madness: The good thing is, there's no clear favorite.

Outside of Villanova and (possibly) Virginia I'm having a hard time finding a team that I like to go deep into the tournament and win the championship.  That doesn't mean there aren't good teams, only that there is not one great team in this year's crop where you look at them and say "wow, they could win this thing".

That said, let's take a preview look at some of the key players....

Villanova. Consistently, over the last few years, one of the best teams in the nation. Yes, I know that Xavier won the "regular season" Big East title and they're plenty good, but 'Nova has shown under Jay Wright that they understand how to peak at the "right time" and they have talent to spare. They're also early betting line favorites to win so if you're filling out a bracket I don't think you can go wrong there.  One thing to look at with the Wildcats is back court play. The Wildcats are lead by all-world PG Jalen Brunson and have SIX players who average double digits for the season. In short, they're deep, and talented. They also have a points differential of +16.0 for the year.  They did have some injury concerns with Phil Booth and Eric Paschall both struggling and because of this they have zero depth once you get past that front six. Earlier in the year they lost rising Freshman Jermaine Samuels and have yet to replace his production in the rotation.  Still, their first-six is among the best in basketball.  But that lack of depth might hurt in the quick-turnaround environment of tournament play.  (Early Odds: 9/2)

Virginia. The Hoos nearly lapped the field in the ACC regular season and are currently a unanimous number one selection. Head coach Tony Bennett has them firing on all cylinders right now although they did receive a scare against a discombobulated Louisville team in Kentucky. For Virginia, it's all about defense.  They only have three players averaging double-digits for the season and there's a legitimate question of how they are going to score enough points to beat a team that eventually will get hot and score on them. Still, Devon Hall and Ty Jerome shoot better than 40% from behind the arc and Kyle Guy makes the offense go. Because they are so long and athletic in the interior they cause opponents fits on the defensive end and even with sub-par offensive numbers are outscoring their opponents by almost 15 points per game this year. My biggest concern with the Cavaliers however is their youth, and the fact that they're not used to the crucible that is the NCAA tournament. If they can win the ACC tournament I might be more inclined to view them better, but that's not a given. (Early Odds: 6-1)

Duke. The Blue Devils will always be somewhat of a threat because they are coached by perhaps the best in the business in one Coach K.  They have a star in Grayson Allen, who is also one of the biggest villains in college basketball for good reason. While Allen is their best player, he can also be their biggest liability when he loses his cool. For all of the attention given to Allen by the media however, it's Freshman Forward Marvin Bagley III that provides Duke with the bulk of their offensive talent. Bagley, at 6'11" is a force, both inside and out. He's long, athletic, and is a danger on both ends of the court.  Duke might have the best six-man rotation in the league this year, but after that things get REALLY dodgy. To me their inside play, outside of Bagley is a huge concern, as is finding someone coming off the bench to provide meaningful minutes which will be needed in the round of 32 games for sure. Duke is another team who MIGHT convince me otherwise should they win the ACC Tournament, but right now I'm hard pressed to put them past the Sweet 16 depending on their draw of course. (Early Odds: 5-1)

Michigan State. It looked, for a while, like Michigan State and Purdue were going to be the two best teams in the B1G and it wasn't going to be all that close.  This was before all of the scandal hit college basketball and Miles Bridges' name dominated the headlines which obviously caused somewhat of a distraction. Fast forward to the oddly-timed B1G tournament and Bridges was still on the floor, but Sparty's mind was not when they lost to Michigan in the semis. Michigan State has so much length on the inside it's ridiculous, and, like many other top teams they have five players who average double digits in points. They also play tough defense and are well coached by Larry Izzo.  Continuing a theme is lack of depth. Sparty has almost none. I also think they have concentration issues at key points in games. My thought is Bridges is a "one and done" player so how much will that factor into their tournament play?  I think this team is overrated and it's best basketball of the season is firmly in it's rearview mirror.  (Early Odds: 8-1)

North Carolina. There seems to be some debate whether Duke or North Carolina will receive the one seed that inevitably seems to go to the 2nd ACC team every year despite evidence to the contrary. Given that Duke beat UNC 74-64 just a few days ago unless the Blue Devils falter badly in the ACC tournament I think UNC is looking solidly at a 2.  Even then I think that the Blue Devils are looking at a 2 because I think Kansas gets the 1 should they win the Big XII tournament.   Joel Barry II and Luke May drive this car and are possibly the best 2-man combination in college basketball this year. After that NC have 3 other players that average as close to double digits as not to matter, and a couple of guys on the bench that can provide minutes with only minimal fall-off. My biggest concern for the Tarheels is on the interior. They have some athletes inside, but they haven't been playing especially great basketball of late and I don't really think they have the manpower defensively to stop several other teams. (Early Odds: 12-1)

Kansas. Here's what you need to know about Kansas. By beating Texas Tech two weekends ago they salted away their 14th consecutive Big XII regular season championship. This year's version of the team is led by Big XII Player of the Year Devonte Graham.  Graham, a Senior Point Guard is the swizzle-stick in KU's cocktail. Graham averages over 17 points per game, is a defensive stopper at PG and also has over 200 assists for the year. He's a Senior who had his best season ever right when the Jayhawks needed him. Offensively, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk has been a huge contributor for the Jayhawks, as has 7 foot center Udoka Azubuike.  Kansas is tall and long, although not especially athletic at certain positions which I think might ding them in the tournament long run. They also, insert broken record here, have depth issues. The fall-off after the top five scorers for Bill Self's team is ridiculously large.  That said, I think Kansas is the prohibitive favorite to win the Big XII tournament and snag the last top seed. (Early Odds: 10-1)

In my mind the one seeds, currently, stand as follows:

#1 Overall: Virginia
Other #1 Seeds: Duke, Villanova, Kansas

2-Seeds:  North Carolina, Michigan, Purdue, Xavier

3-Seeds: Michigan State, Wichita State, Auburn

4-Seeds: Cincinnati, West Virginia, Tennessee, Texas Tech

Teams no one wants to play in the first 2 rounds:

Michigan. I have a sneaking suspicion that Wolverine basketball head coach John Beilein could take your rec-league team and make them league champions after a month of coaching them.  That's how improved this Wolverine team is playing right now from where they appeared at the beginning of the year. If the curious timing of the B1G tournament this year doesn't trip them up, this hot-shooting Michigan team will spell trouble for anyone who draws them in their group. If you're one of the number ones and see Michigan in your bracket, look out. (Early Odds: 9-1)

Houston. Houston should be the favorite to win the AAC tournament based on the way they've been playing of late. Head Coach Kelvin Sampson has them playing hard, shooting well and causing teams such as Cincinnati and Wichita State fits.  Minus a win in the conference tourney, I think Houston gets one of those low at-large bids and pulls off an upset or three in a possible Sweet 16 run. (Early Odds: 100-1)

Creighton. Pretty simple, they just beat Villanova which is no small task.  This is a team that I think might be the "Butler" of 2018 if the draw falls right. They finished tied for 3rd with Seton Hall in a very competitive Big East trailing only Xavier and Villanova. (Early Odds: 80-1)

Rhode Island. The knock against the class of the Atlantic 10 is that they've lost their last two.  But they really had nothing to play for as they locked away the conference and are gearing up for the tournament. I expect Dan Hurley's Rams to be an-handful as the tournament gears up. (Early Odds: 50-1)

I'll have some thoughts on the other conference tournaments and some insights on possible upsets as the bracket gets filled.

For now, enjoy the agony and ecstasy of Championship time.

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Steve Wynn: A Self-Identified Titan of Las Vegas Falls.

Steve Wynn is out of the company bearing his name.

He resigned as Chairman and CEO of Wynn Resorts (as well as Wynn Macau, something potentially a much bigger deal for his company) under a wave of sexual assault allegations, detailed in the Wall Street Journal, that spanned decades.

The easy take is "good riddance".  The long answer is a little bit more nuanced.

Like him or not, and many don't, the fact is that a LOT of modern Vegas, both good and bad, is the result of things Wynn did in the 80's and 90's when he changed the face of the city by building the Mirage and Bellagio respectively.

Prior to that the prevailing idea in the city was that casinos were going to be grind joints, with people throwing quarters into slot machines, buses pulling in, dumping off people with money and taking them away without money.

Steve Wynn changed that by re-introducing the concept of the luxury resort, ushering in the modern age.

The reality of late however has not been one of Steve Wynn the innovator, but Steve Wynn the copier. From resort fees, to paid parking to cutting back on gambling odds and envisioning non-gambling outdoor spaces and even to beefing up his high-end retail offerings Wynn has been on the tailing end of innovations brought about by Caesar's Entertainment Group and MGM.

Of all the casinos on the Strip his had the biggest decline in gaming last year as he decided to basically punt most gamblers to other locations and increase charges for everyone except his highest margin players.  He also nixed his golf course in favor of the still unrealized Paradise Park and made a big gamble that paid off in Macau.

Fast forward to today and all of that seems to be in a little bit of trouble.  The Macau deal is due to be renegotiated and it's increasingly clear that China will not be willing to ink something as favorable to Wynn.  This puts in danger the big cash cow that has floated his stock in the past.  With Wynn out of the picture, and his influence with Republican lawmakers, it's unclear what type of deal the company can reasonably hope to receive. 

While Steve made his company a Macau interest, the declines at Wynn and Encore should be most disturbing, because they're trailing all of the other companies on the Strip.  For a while the stock price was propped up to to investor's belief in the power of The Steve, that seems gone now.

And it should be gone.

Because what we have in Steve Wynn are allegations of a man who abused his power and influence over workers for decades.  This is not an isolated incident that occurred years ago from which he repented and never turned back. If the allegations are true then Steve Wynn never progressed as a man past the "Boys will be boys" sixties and that's a problem.

We all have things in our past that we've done wrong.  In most cases we learn from them, get punished for them, and move on a wiser, usually better person.  The problem in Wynn's case is apparently that there was an entire infrastructure built up around him to provide cover for indiscretions, and sweep them under the rug.

You saw the same thing with Harvey Wienstein, and from a host of other powerful figures who are finding themselves in the same mess.  If you're a bad guy and continue to be a bad guy society has lost the inclination to 'let boys be boys' and are (rightly) demanding some comeuppance.

As a society we need to ensure this continues, but guard against flogging good people who did a bad thing once many years ago, and have repented and changed. Also, we need to be mature enough to realize that disliking a person AND respecting the contributions that they've made to their industry, society, humanity are not mutually exclusive things.

Most very successful people have jerk streaks a mile-wide. It's how they became successful in the first place.  The ones that need to get knocked down a peg are the ones who develop God complexes. If the allegations are true then Wynn did just that.

His legacy may still stand, but his reputation is in tatters.

Monday, February 5, 2018

"Bettor X" Who cleaned up on World Series, wins again.

Remember the unnamed bettor who made Millions on the World Series?

He (or she) is back, and they've won again on the Super Bowl

As near as I can tell from the reports Bettor X laid $5.2 MM on the Eagles M/L and came away a winner, bets that will pay him (or her, but likely him based on reports) somewhere around $8MM and is almost sure to swing most Vegas sports books to only their 3rd loss in the last 38 years on the big game.

So far William Hill as reported a loss, as has CG Technologies. The Westgate Superbook says that they did "fair" on the game but horrible on props, and are relying on advance wagering to pull them into the black.

The Las Vegas Review-Journal has more details in this story.

Either way this is a pretty epic run by a mystery man who will either fade away a legend in the sports betting world, emerge as the biggest tout in history, or will eventually watch the vig catch up to him (or her) and come crashing down. 

Either way it's been a fun story to watch.

Given the mysterious nature of all of this I'm surprised Floyd Mayweather hasn't claimed to be Bettor X as of yet.

Super Bowl LII: The Good, the Bad, and the Horrific

First off, America got to see yet another entertaining NFL Football game in Minnesota. Part of the reason for this is because it played like a college football game.

 - A lot of offense
 - Creative play calling
 - Risk Taking
 - Poor kicking
 - Bad Defense
 - Good Offense.

In the end the Eagles pulled the upset over the Patriots 41-33 and in Philadelphia there was much rejoicing, climbing greased poles, flipping over cars, lighting things on fire and (go look it up) eating horse manure.

Imagine if the Eagles would have lost.

The problem for most people with this game was that you had arguably the two worst NFL fan-bases going head to head to see who could out-douche the other. It's also a problem that you either love these two teams, or don't really care all that much about them. (although, to be fair, you can say that about almost any NFL team)

I was so "meh" on this game initially that I really didn't care who won. I tuned in for three reasons.

1. It was the Super Bowl and, by extension, pretty much the only thing on.
2. Commercials
3. The halftime show.

So, the game didn't disappoint, I thought the halftime show was entertaining (some didn't though, but cracking on the halftime show is now more of a National pastime than actual criticism) and the commercials were generally awful.

Seriously.  Super Bowl commercials have gotten so bad we're down to arguing whether a dual rap or a clever twist by Tide was the best of the night.  Even the Bud Light commercial was underwhelming.

I thought Tide was the clear winner, with Alexa losing her voice providing some comic relief. Toyota, T-Mobile and Dodge Ram made me want to actively avoid their products (Please, don't preach at me)

Most of the other commercials were just not very memorable, as I've pretty much forgotten them already.

The horrific part of the night was NBC's broadcast.  From the creepy animation to Al Michaels having an off night to Cris Collinsworth's public display of affection toward Tom Brady the entire thing was a mess.  You knew it was going to be rough when Michaels kept confusing play-action passes with "RPO's" (which they then provided an on-screen definition for) and overusing the term all night long.

Cris Collinsworth is devolving as an announcer before our eyes each and ever game. When he wasn't trying to proposition Tom Brady he was obsessing over minutia in a veiled attempt to cause some controversy that wasn't there. 

Yes, the NFL catch-rule sucks, but both plays were reviewed, and the calls are the calls. 30 minutes after the fact and Collinsworth was STILL droning on and on and on and on and on.

All of this and I haven't even the creepy CGI quarterbacks they kept showing.....

All in all however it was a good end for an NFL season that was largely underwhelming in terms of quality of play on the field.  Ignoring the social activist stuff for a moment, the biggest reason to stop watching the NFL is that the play is usually BORING.  In many cases watching paint dry is preferable to spending your Saturday watching tired offenses run the same 10 plays.

The Super Bowl was exciting because the two teams didn't do that. They both ran creative offenses that confused the opposing defenses.

Oh, and Tom Brady is a wimpy putz, a bad sport and a sore loser.  My biggest regret is that he went to Michigan.  Honestly, given how he underwhelmed as a QB there they should just write him out of the history books and refuse to acknowledge his presence.

Fortunately we won't have to pay much attention to the NFL until the draft, which is fun at least.

On to college basketball, hockey and rugby.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

College Basketball: Catching you up if you haven't been paying attention.

I get it, you live in Houston and you don't really follow College Basketball.  You love your Texans and all forms of football, you've been (correctly) paying attention the the Astros and you understand the Rockets might be pretty good this year but you just can't get into round ball.

But you WANT to understand the game a little.  So you turn on Houston sports talk radio and you get, conversations about who the Texans back-up QB will be next year and two low-functioning idiots arguing on the air.  Or so-called "man-talk" which doesn't resemble any conversations that males actually have.

Houston, in short, is a sports media wasteland. It's a bad sports town that really only celebrates it's worst professional franchise.

That's OK however, because we're here to provide you with some simple talking points that will place you well out in front of your fellow coffee-klatch conversation mates....

1. Trae Young (G-Oklahoma) is really (really) good.

He's averaging 30.3 pts per game and is shooting 40% from 3 point range. He's the best player in college basketball right now and it's not close.  If you've paid any attention the the NBA of late the player to whom he gets the most comparisons to is Steph Curry. His school is not too bad either, currently sitting at 16-5, 2nd place in the conference and 1 game behind perennial conference champion Kansas.

2. Speaking of the Big XII, they're really good this year.

The conference has 4 of ten teams in the top 25, with Texas, Oklahoma State, TCU and Kansas State having shots at the big dance. (granted, OSU is a stretch and will need a strong close). The best team, at the moment, is Kansas, who are ranked number 7 in the country, seem to be on track to win the conference championship yet again and should slide in as a solid #2 seed in the tournament, with a real shot at winding up a one.  Bob Huggins has West Virginia playing well, and Texas Tech is a contender in the tournament, and for the regular season title.

3. The American could be a 3-bid conference.

Since Houston is in your town, you might want to say that they're really pretty good this year. They sit at 16-5 and have good wins over Wichita State, Providence and a 34 point demolition of Arkansas. Cincinnati is ranked #5, is 20-2 and just beat the Cougars by 10.  Wichita State is a shoo-in for the tournament, but they're finding life much harder in the American than the Missouri Valley Conference, something that should make them much better come tournament time.

4. Virginia is the best team in the ACC. Not Duke or North Carolina.

If you only pay scant attention to college basketball, you might want to know this come tournament time. Because the Hoos are real, they're long, athletic and should make a deep run in the tournament.  Duke is 2nd best, but they're three games back from Virginia and just got beat (at Duke) on National television. They are also the team in college basketball that is the easiest to dislike. It's not beyond reason to think that the ACC could be a 10 bid league this year. Granted, some teams will need to finish strong, but I put them at at least 8.

5. Remember the Big East?

After they accepted a bunch of Conference USA teams to member ship the basketball only Catholic schools broke-off, kept the name and have played one of the more entertaining brands of basketball. Villanova, Creighton, Seton Hall, Xavier and Butler will be in the Tournament, with Providence having an outside chance with a strong finish. Marquette and Georgetown will be contenders in the NIT. (But you won't watch the NIT because you're in Houston).  Villanova is the best team in college basketball right now but injuries are a huge concern.

6. Arizona is good, again.

At the beginning of the season I picked the Wildcats as the eventual National Champions, they then proceeded to start off slowly and make me look a little silly, but they've righted the ship, currently stand atop the Pac-12 and are in serious contention for a number one seed.  Behind them is a good USC team, followed by Washington and UCLA.  When the season first started Arizona State looked like they couldn't lose, but they've cooled off, losing five games in conference play and while they should make the tournament that could be in jeopardy if they continue to slide.

7. The top four are.....

Here's where I see it today, with the number one seeds going to these teams:


For last four in/out and other bracketology I recommend reading Joe Lunardi of ESPN He and I are pretty much in agreement except that he has Kansas with the 4th 1-seed and I still have Arizona. (which he has as a 3-seed, I disagree with that).

So, there you go. A primer to college basketball so you don't sound totally clueless when speaking to your co-workers, friends or random people at a sports bar.

You're welcome.

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