Mid-summer edition

-          Whenever there is a change in regime of any kind of organization, the new leader is given both the authority and the benefit of putting in his own personnel in key positions.  The Milwaukee Bucks hiring of Jason Kidd as it new coach might have made a modicum of sense if Kidd was given complete and total control of all basketball operations, which is what he wanted at Brooklyn, was refused and thus he left.  Instead, Kidd was hired as head coach by the Bucks new owners Marc Lasry and Wes Edens and GM John Hammond had to read all about it in the news.  Hammond hasn’t been replaced, yet. But if he stays on for any period of time one wonders what possible good he can do for the Bucks other than sort the office mail since now he has about much authority as team team’s postal clerk. It is usually the GMs who hire the coaches but in this case the owners added GM to their title and purview as well, something the often-accused-of-meddling Herb Kohl never did.  Some will say at this point any publicity for the Bucks is a good thing but I don’t think it a good sign if the new owners are going to start hiring coaches they would waste their money keeping on board GM who has nothing to do.

-          Speaking of nothing to do, former Bucks’ head coach Larry Drew will not only have nothing to do for the upcoming NBA season, he also get paid for doing nothing, millions of dollars of nothing. One shouldn’t feel sorry for Drew, given all the poverty in the world, that he will be well-paid for his unemployment for the next two seasons. But still you have to feel he was unfairly made a pasty for the Bucks’ failures last season.   Drew may not be the most brilliant coach on the planet but even Dean Smith couldn’t take a garbage line-up designed to get a draft lottery pick and make something out of it. And even if he did, it would have screwed up the whole long-range plan. At least give Drew credit for making the team bad enough to draft Jabari Parker. Of that, at least, he should be remembered for.

-          And speaking of NBA franchise dysfunction, it makes a statement when a promising young coach decides to stay with the dysfunctional situation he’s well versed in rather than take a gamble on the dysfunctional situation he doesn’t know.  Thus, Memphis coach David Joerger will stay with the Memphis Grizzlies and continue to battle with owner Robert Pera instead taking over the uncertain situation surrounding the Minnesota Timberwolves. That Flip Saunders had to make himself head coach along with being GM shows how unattractive the T-Wolves job is right now with Kevin Love all but out the door after next season due to free agency and all the questions that abound as to what comes next. Saunders’s tenure will be a temporary deal as soon as the team rebuilds itself (again) after the departure of its best player. Saunders smartly didn’t trade Love away during the draft and will wait until the T-Wolves can exercise its maximum leverage, which will be at next season’s trade deadline, to get players and draft picks for the new Timberwolves. However, the new Timberwolves may not be much of an improvement if they continue to draft players with “good upside” like Zach LaVine who averaged exactly nine points per game while a freshman at UCLA last winter. There are a lot undrafted players who did better than that and Minnesota passed over Michigan State’s Adrien Payne to get the kind of player who has burned them in the past.

 -          Unbelievable the difference winning close baseball games and not having bullpen pitchers blow saves isn’t it? Thus the Milwaukee Brewers have one of the best records in the Majors because of this and they lead the NL Central as well. It also helps to have a healthy team, which the Brewers weren’t last season, and have all your players eligible to play, as Ryan Braun is currently showing. If he keeps it up, Brewer fans will be asking “what steroids?” when it comes to Braun.  Mad as they may have been about his lying, he’s also the club’s franchise player and has demonstrated his value enough not to be kicked to the curb.

-          After hovering around the .500 mark for much of the season, the Twins are showing signs of being unable to sustain it. A recent losing streak has pushed them to the bottom of the weak AL Central and with Joe Mauer on the DL until the All-Star break; the situation may get even worse. The Twins have shown themselves to be modestly improved over what they’ve offered fans for the past three seasons. The pitching is better but once again the Twins simply don’t have the sluggers to take advantage of it. And wasn’t Mauer’s move to first base designed so he could avoid long stretches on the DL?  The Twin Cities sports media can talk about front office moves or lack of them for the past few seasons Terry Ryan wasn’t around all they want. The bottom line is the Twins set aside a lot of money on Joe Mauer to be their franchise player and franchise mainstay and, unlike Ryan Braun in a similar situation; he hasn’t produced up to those kinds of expectations.

-            The Minnesota Wild picked up free agent Thomas Vanek to help improve their offense for the upcoming. The Wild are going to need a lot more goals this season given how unsettled they are with their goaltenders. Given the Vanek signing and their recent draft selections, the Wild are going to settle for either hoping young Darcy Kuempfer can handle the job for a full season or hoping Josh Harding is healthy enough to be between the pipes for a full season. If that’s the case, at least the fans will be entertained by more 5-4 and 6-5 contests at the Xcel Energy Center. 

-           If not for Tim Howard, the U.S. national men’s soccer team could have been smoked by Belgium in the World Cup. An average goalie could not have made the saves Howard did. Belgium was the better team by far. Yet many soccer experts not only appreciated the USNMT’s heart and grit, but also the fact they played more like quality World Cup team than they had in the past or at least making progress towards doing so. The difference still is having the quality forwards and strikers to play strong game on offense and until some of the U.S’s best athletes start playing soccer, as is true in the rest of the world, that difference will remain.  Soccer has established a solid sports niche in the U.S. but to me more than just that requires such a change.

Middle of spring edition

 - May 8, 2014 will be either be a day of infamy for the Minnesota Vikings or it will not be. When presented the golden opportunity to draft Johnny Manziel as their quarterback of future heading into a future new stadium, the Vikings passed and drafted a linebacker from UCLA who was a converted running back and who had only played the position for two seasons. Now, maybe Manziel will be a bust like a lot of other Heisman Trophy winners and Anthony Barr will be a steal, one of the best linebackers in the league. And yes, Minnesota did at least draft a QB in the first round and one thought to be Manziel’s equal at one time in Teddy Bridgewater. We’ll see what happens but at least we’ll know where we were the day and perhaps the hour and the minute when the Vikings had a chance to finally find a long-term quarterback, the main thing which has been holding this franchise back for years, and passed him by. 

- When you’re the Packers and aren’t forced to take chances in the drafts, you can have balanced selections like they did this season by going defense first with Ha Ha Clinton-Dix but then drafting a number of receivers to restock the team at that position. They certainly made a young boy from Wautoma’s dream come true by drafting Jared Abberderis in the fifth round.

- Before Abbrederis was drafted, there was some criticism of  Packers GM Ted Thompson for not drafting players from the University of Wisconsin. The last time the Pack took a Badger football player in the  NFL draft was lineman Bill Ferrario back in 2001 and in passing up UW players they cheated themselves out of some great ones like Tim Krumrie, Troy Vincent and Chris Chambers. But sentimentality cannot have part in Ted Thompson’s job. He has to do what’s best for the Packers and on draft taking the best players available when they’re on the board. The Packers could have had Monte Ball last year, but they liked Eddie Lacy better and he was one of the best rookies in the league (although Ball didn’t have a bad first season either). This year the pieces finally fell into place for the Packers’ need at wide receiver to match Abbrederis’s availability and the match was made.

- There was an article on Deadspin critical of the Minnesota Wild for paying tons of money to Zach Parise and Ryan Suter to try and “buy” a Stanley Cup. This came about before the Wild were eliminated from the NHL Playoffs by defending champion Chicago. Did the Miami Heat “buy” a NBA title by pairing LeBron James with Dewayne Wade and Ray Allen? It might be true, if say the Wild were like the Yankees and stockpiled overpaid free agent acquisitions year after year with nothing coming up from their farm system to build around them. But This is not true in the Wild’s case. Mikael Grandlund, Matt Cook, Charlie Coyle, Nino Niederreiter, Erik Haula and Jason Pominville are good young players. And at the time both Parise and Suter were available on the free agent market, the Wild hadn’t been to playoffs in four seasons, didn’t have much in terms of marketable stars or high-end talent and had good prospects who weren’t ready to play with the pros yet. What should have new and deep-pocketed owner Craig Leiphold had done, keep his checkbook closed? Watch Parise and Suter go other teams because you can’t “buy” a Stanley Cup?  The Wild’s previous ownership let Marian Gaborik go to the Rangers because they couldn’t afford him and put the franchise into a four-season funk. You’ve got to make the playoffs first to even have a chance at the Stanley Cup. And while the Wild lost to the Blackhawks they were hardly outclassed by them like they were a season ago. Minnesota knocked off Central Conference winner Colorado and made playoffs with room to spare this time (Gee wasn’t it just a few months ago I thought Mike Yeo was going to be fired and be replaced by John Tortorella? Sheesh!). If the Wild can stabilize their goalie situation and hopefully come up with a season-long starter (either Josh Harding is healthy enough to play or Darcy Kuemper continues to improve) then we have a team which had a good chance to competing for the Cup next season, not a flash in the pan.

– The Brewers have survived stints without Ryan Braun and Carlos Gomez. Milwaukee is still in first place in the NL Central and still has one of the best records in baseball at 25-14. Not bad for what one writer thought was a team with “fourth place talent”. While Braun’s hitting has been important to Milwaukee’s rise from fourth place, the real difference from the past couple of seasons has been the play of the bullpen. It really makes a difference in the win-loss column when saves aren’t being tossed away in the eighth and ninth innings like scraps of paper. If they can keep this up and if (knock on wood) no more starters are out for extended periods of time on the DL, the Brew Crew could be in a nice spot come summer with a big lead in what’s been a surprisingly mediocre NL Central and the ability to rest starters every three games until the fall.

- The Twins aren’t in a bad spot, considering what they have and what they don’t have (an injured Joe Mauer for example), to start the season but the problem is the Tigers are pulling away from the pack (at the Twins’ expense last weekend) and unless the Twins go on a tear or Detroit goes in the tank, Minnesota is pretty much doomed to a no better than runner-up finish. Playing .500 ball is certainly better than really sub.500 ball as the Twins have done the last three seasons. But it isn’t any more exciting. Unless some young players catch people’s imagination and give fans hope for the future, it’s going to be four straight years of nothingness at Target Field.

 - If you’re wondering how in God’s name the Milwaukee Bucks are worth $550 million on the open market, keep in mind the value of the franchise is based on getting a new arena, as all such franchises are based on the rise in their net worth by new facilities. No new arena by 2017 and the Bucks new owners, the  New York hedge fund investors Marc Lasry and Wesley Edens, will be paid $575 million for their time and trouble by the NBA and then the league owns the franchise which they will move to a city which does have an arena ready to play in. Herb Kohl may want the Bucks to stay in Milwaukee so long as he’s alive (and the league does too as a second “Chicago” franchise like Los Angeles and New York have) but by then the Bradley Center will be 30 years old and totally irrelevant to the NBA of the 21st Century.

- I didn’t think I would ever see the day the two national champions of NCAA Division I college hockey (men’s and women’s) would both come out ECAC (East Coast Athletic Conference) and would both be little private schools in little upstate New York towns that don’t give out scholarships. And yet here we are, men’s champion Union and women’s champion Clarkson, both coming at Minnesota’s expense. Now, the Gophers’ loss in the D-I women’s national title game may have been a fluke more so than a long-term trend, but Union’s win over Minnesota in the D-I men’s final (and by a 7-4 score no less) is not considering Yale won it the year before. It just goes to show the value of keeping players for four seasons instead of one or two and the value of speed negating height and size. Right now the East dominates college hockey because they have faster players who go at the net relentlessly. If teams in the West like Minnesota or Wisconsin wish to redress this situation, they’ve got to change who they’re recruiting.

– The Wisconsin-Duke game in Madison this December may well be the toughest ticket to get in college basketball next season. That’s because you’ll have two of the top five teams in the country on display, both teams having excellent chances of winning the national title along with Kentucky and Arizona and North Carolina. That Big Red finds itself among such college basketball bluebloods is due to an excellent performance in the national semifinal game against Kentucky and came within inches of winning on a last-second Trae Jackson shot. That’s what playing well on the big stage can do for your program and doesn’t get any bigger when you have an NCAA record 80,000 fans watching. Losing only Ben Brust from this past season’s team, Wisconsin can win a national championship in men’s basketball. They have the team to do so. Now they just need the good fortune to go with it.

- You may not believe this but before Donald Sterling became a caricature and a punch line, he was once an accident and divorce attorney in southern California. The big WASP law firms in Los Angeles didn’t hire Jews like one Donald Tolkowitz back in 1960, especially ones who put themselves through working class Southwestern Law School at night while spending their days working for their immigrant parents in the grocery store. They had to change their names and go work for themselves.  Yes, once upon a time Donald Sterling actually helped people instead of viewing them like a property or cattle or through racial stereotypes. That he became to resemble an aging, warped, decrepit old Hollywood movie moghul is really something when you consider the arc of his career, where it started as an idealistic young lawyer and where he’ll end up as Citizen Kane. There are any number of Bible verses one could cite about the corrupting influences of money, but in the case Donald Sterling, you could say that God has provided us with a vivid example.

- There’s nothing worse for sports fans than a bad owner. LA Clipper fans must have felt the same joy of liberation at Sterling’s departure as Parisians did back in 1944 when the Germans finally fled the city.  Not only do the Clippers have a good team but they are also a valuable property instead of neglected one, and should fetch one would think to be a good owner or owners now that they have some value. This person or they certainly can’t be any worse than Sterling was for over 30 years. It also gives hope to Washington Redskins fans that someday, Daniel Snyder will be gone too.

Finally Four

Winning a national championship might actually be second on the benefits scale of making the Final Four for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team. The first will be breaking the stereotype of Badger hoops teams being unathletic and thus playing unathletic basketball. Having already beaten such athletics teams like Arizona, Oregon, Flordia, Michigan State and Michigan this season, this stereotype should have been shattered already. But there’s nothing like the massive, world-wide stage of the Final Four with its dome football stadium crowd and millions watching on the planet to create an identity for one’s team, which UW can do if they beat Kentucky and all their NBA-ready players. After all, the stereotype for Wisconsin basketball was largely created at the last Final Four they were at in 2000.

By the way, I ought to take my crow raw for suggesting Bronson Koenig would eventually replace Trae Jackson as Wisconsin’s point guard this season. That will happen of course, but not until after Jackson graduates. His play has deserved him that much.

Minnesota is playing for the NIT championship and, like, Wisconsin, there’s a benefit too for the Golden Gophers that transcends winning and losing. For a team that wasn’t expected to do much, getting to the finals of even a secondary tournament in Rick Pitino Jr.’s very first season as head coach will be a boost for the image of the program which really hasn’t much to celebrate since their last Final Four appearance was erased from history thanks to scandal. Of course the Gophers can do this just so long as Pitino isn’t haunted by the demon of Tim Brewster and starts to whine about Wisconsin “running up the score” with walk-ons and third stringers.  There’s no need to step on what should be a good story of a first-year head coach, just 31 years old, winning a tournament.  It’s not like Jordan Hill’s three-pointer kept the U out of the Big Dance.

Wisconsin will be playing Kentucky in the Final Four, led by head coach John Calipari who has made building a team of “one-and-doners” from college to the NBA an art form. But don’t you think Don Lucia may well be the same kind of coach considering he’s taking a University of Minnesota Golden Gopher men’s hockey team made up of largely freshmen and sophomores to the Frozen Four? It will be interesting to see how many of them return to the U if the Golden Gophers win the national title. If a lot of them leave, then Lucia will once again have to put a young team on the ice season to compete. But that was true a year ago as well and the Gophers being the Gophers, they have the means to replenish their talent quite quickly as they have shown.

I think University of Wisconsin Mike Eaves is a good hockey coach. However, having said this, I recommend strongly that if Eaves gets any kind of offer to coach in the NHL, even as an assistant, he take it. Because if it’s going to be a struggle for the next two seasons to rebuild UW when the seniors from the senior laden 2014 squad (along with Nic Kerdelis) depart, then it’s better he leave now than get hounded out of town like former head coach Jeff Sauer did two seasons after the NCAA regional final debacle of 2000. He doesn’t deserve that. He’s still pretty young, unlike Sauer, and shouldn’t have his career stalled trying to rebuild UW in a completely different college hockey landscape than it was when he took over UW in 2002. I have to believe he’d a jump at a chance at coaching in the pros.
I also agree with those who are puzzled as I am as to why this team and program cannot play consistent hockey with the talent they have and when it matters to do so. And that’s been the biggest complaint against Eaves’ coaching. Joel Rumpel is a good goalie, a Hobey Baker Award candidate, but he cannot be expected to make up for every screw-up his back-line makes. This team’s defense was not good this past season and even in some of their wins, their mistakes made the scores closer than it should have been. I’m glad this group won some hardware over the past two seasons (WCHA Tournament Champion, Big Ten Tournament Champion) but it makes all the more frustrating that they couldn’t do more. And if the onus isn’t on coaching, as it usually is in this situation, then where does it go to?

A lot people think Michigan State men’s basketball head coach Tom Izzo may give coaching in the pros a shot next fall and it may well be with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Almost nobody, and that includes Sid Hartman, believes current T-Wolves head coach Rick Adelman will be back next season and the team is playing right now like he’s lame duck, both literally and figuratively. Izzo is good friends with T-Wolves GM Flip Saunders and they have far more in good personnel to work with than the Detroit Pistons do, which another possible destination for Izzo. Having Izzo on the bench in his first pro season will make things interesting for a team which really doesn’t draw a lot of interest.

After the Wild got smacked by the St. Louis Blues 5-1 last Saturday, it looked like they may not even make the playoffs they way were fading down the stretch. But two key road wins at Phoenix and Los Angeles has the seventh spot in the West secure for now. Still though, for the money owner Craig Leipold has spent (and he does put in the money, whether his or his in-laws with the SC Johnson fortune in Racine, on the bottom line to help the team) on offense, the Wild still struggle with scoring and the goalie situation is still very shakey. Head coach Mike Yeo cannot feel safe for another season, especially if the Wild have another first round playoff flame-out. If Yeo is let go, look for a veteran NHL coach to take over. Perhaps a John Tortorella if the planned Vancouver Canucks extreme make-over edition goes through. Wouldn’t that be a hoot to have Torts in the Twin Cities?

Despite snow on the ground and snow in the forecast, baseball waits for no winter to finally end in the Upper Midwest. And forecast for the Upper Midwest’s two major leagues teams is cloudy with peaks of sun. If the Brewers’ bullpen doesn’t fall apart like last season, then Milwaukee will be better than fourth place team in the NL Central, perhaps evena wild card contender. The Twins have made at least the attempt to improve their pitching, and in a wide-open AL Central, this will help them. They can do even better if they figure out who will do the hitting in their line-up which is all that apparent right now. 

In the world of women’s college hockey, Clarkson’s win over the University of Minnesota in the NCAA Division I Frozen would be on par with US beating the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics. Clarkson defeated a program which went 79-1-1 in its past 81 games and became the first team east of Appalachain Mountains to win a national championship in women’s hockey.

 

Winter’s grip edition

Why would the NHL pull the plug on letting its best players take part in the Winter Olympics every four years? You can cite injuries to players with guaranteed contracts and seeing a ton of money the NHL could earn with its own World Cup version of hockey instead of giving it to the IOC. But those reasons where were just the same in 1998 when the NHL agreed to let its stars play in the winter games? So what’s changed to the point 2014 will probably be the last Olympics the NHL participates in? Nothing. Olympic hockey just makes the NHL look bad. Olympic hockey is the way the game is supposed to be played, not the clutch and grab and goon version of the sport on smaller ice surfaces. So yeah, they’re going to pull the plug lest they get shown up every four years.

Without the NHL players the U.S., and perhaps Canada too are back in the same boat as they were pre-1998, using amateurs against nations like Russia and Finland who will continue to send pros on the ice for their national teams. To offset this, perhaps the response is for the U.S. (and even Canada) to fund and train a national team of either college players or pros languishing in the minors and put it together every two years to compete in World Championships and the Olympic A team which might still show some effort even it is the bronze medal game.

Continuing with hockey, both the University of Wisconsin and Minnesota squads each have something to prove as their respective seasons wind down to the playoffs. The Badgers have to prove they can win consistently away from the Kohl Center and Minnesota has to prove it’s talented but youthful line-up isn’t going to hit a wall and see its play trail off when it’s needed most.

If the Minnesota Wild are going to remain in the playoff portion of the Western Conference standings, then goaltending going to absolutely critical. Hopefully the time off helped Josh Harding get back to the form he was in which lifted the Wild from a slow start into a playoff contender back in December and early January.

Could Shabazz Muhammad be the catalyst for Timberwolves run at a playoff berth? It sounds like a certain NBA GM who drafted Muhammad is insisting the coach who let him languish for half the season, either on the bench or in the minors, make it so. We’ll see if works but what do the T-Wolves have to lose? At this point it’s all hands on deck, especially if Kevin Love’s career season isn’t going to go to waste.

The only thing predictable about Big Ten basketball this winter is when does losing streak stop and the winning streak start and vise-versa. Wasn’t just a month ago the Minnesota Golden Gophers were riding high after an 81-68 win over Wisconsin, which was mired in a five-game slide at the time? Yes, and then things changed. Now it’s the Badgers on their way to another NCAA Tournament bid and top four finish in the league after winning six straight while the U is playing for its NCAA tournament life once again after losing four of five before beating Iowa on Tuesday. It seems like each team in the conference has gone on an extended streak of good and play and no doubt the worm will turn again for someone. One thing about UW, if either Ben Brust or Frank Kaminsky scored in double figures per game,Wisconsin is very difficult to beat. That wasn’t true during UW’s losing streak. One thing about Minnesota, if their big men aren’t playing a constructive role in a ballgame, especially on offense, the Gophers are pretty much certain to lose.

I think this video pretty much sums up the Milwaukee Bucks right now. What more can you say?

The Brewers should be a decent team this season but they’ve already won the World Series of cutness thanks to the team’s newest acquisition.

 

Looks can be deceiving edition

It seems that with Big Ten men’s basketball teams in recent seasons, a good start is just that, a good start. It doesn’t  necessarily mean there will be a good middle or even a good ending for that matter.

Take the University of Wisconsin’s men’s basketball team for example. The Badgers were once 16-0, ranked third in the country, head coach Bo Ryan won a mid-season coaching award (Talk about a jinx, who the hell gives out a coaching award in the middle of the season?) and a team many were touting as a Final Four contender. Now they’re in the middle of a three-game losing streak not because their offense is bad (the Badgers’ traditional problem) but their defense has become so lousy. Actually, interior defense was a concern for this team was a concern at the start of the season and perhaps Ryan deserves credit for either solving or masking the problem. Not any more. Teams scout each other so well nowadays that such weaknesses will not stay hidden forever. And until they’re solves, UW will continue to struggle.

Minnesota can commiserate with UW because the Golden Gophers men’s basketball team too, has been the victim of good starts gone bad in the recent past. Right now the U is playing its best ball because they’re winning at home and because new coach Rick Pitino Jr. is not treating his big men,  Mo Walker for example, like they’re wastes of space. He’s actually figured out  how to used them to pair  with what’s turned out to be solid backcourt so far. Just remember, Minnesota beat Wisconsin 81-68 without Andre Hollins playing at all. But also just remember this time next month it could be the Gopher on a three-game losing streak and the Badgers riding high once again. That’s how topsy-turvey this league is.

It’s hard to try to manage “bad” into something positive, which is what the Bucks have been trying to do all season to pretty dismal results. The team has the worst record in the league and that’s saying something when the Eastern Conference has so many bad teams. But the Bucks might have gotten the steal of the recent NBA draft if you believe this article on the website Deadspin. Giannis Antetokounmpo is not only playing well for Milwaukee but has athletic abilities and a body one cannot coach. Obviously no one (myself included) was going to believe that a raw 18-year old with limited basketball experience playing in the Greek version of the D-League was going to make an immediate impact. But he has and one of the few things worth watching about this Bucks team. If Caron Butler and O.J. Mayo don’t like it because it cuts into their playing time, tough. Does anyone think the Bucks would be marginally better if such journeymen players had more playing time? Neither do I. Give it to the rookie with the great potential who needs it.

Oh, if only to play in Eastern Conference of the NBA. That’s what the Timberwolves are saying to themselves. The Wolves would be fine if they played an Eastern Conference schedule and certainly would make the playoffs. Instead they neither have the bench strength nor the consistent guard play to even sniff the playoffs in the Western Conference (and if they did make it they would be first round cannon fodder). And if they do fall short of making the playoffs, don’t be surprised if Rick Adelman decides to call it a career and Flip Saunders decides wants to do more with the team than just sit behind a desk.

Just when it looked like the Minnesota Wild were dead in the water and head coach Mike Yeo would be run out of town, the Wild come up with a winning streak which has them back in the playoffs, albeit only barely. What’s impressive is the team has been winning despite injuries, especially to goalie Josh Harding, and forwards Mikko Koivu and Zach Parise. The talented youngsters and the prospects are finally stepping up, especially goalie Darcy Kuemper and forward Erik Haula. If the Wild continue to get good goaltending they should make it into the playoffs.

Does it really matter who the head coach of the Minnesota Vikings is? Mike Zimmer might make the team a little better but no head coach by his lonesome is going to take a team with little or aging talent go farther than 8-8 or a Wild Card berth. Even the great coaches need good players in their prime to work with. And yet NFL owners and GM continue to insist coaches turn goatmilk into gasoline, and make up for their lousy personnel decisions. Zimmer may be a brilliant man (although being passed up so many times for open NFL jobs makes one suspicious) but unless he can somehow make Christian Ponder a better quarterback, he won’t fare any better than Leslie Frazier.

The absence that hurt the Packers the most wasn’t really Aaron Rodgers, it was Clay Matthews. He’s one of the few playmakers Green Bay has on defense and without him they had no chance of stopping the 49ers (let alone the Seahawks). Much will be made about the back up QB situation during the offseason but once again, until the Packers shore up their defense they will continue to be stuck behind San Francisco and Seattle in the NFC.

Sad thing about the University of Wisconsin senior class (especially Chris Borland, Beau Allen, Jared Abbrederis and James White), they won three Big Ten titles and won the first-ever Big Ten playoff game, were good students and generally good people and yet lost three straight bowl games (and really couldn’t get the big win during the regular season either). They were every single one of those games and could have won them all, yet for some reason could not do so. UW’s loss in the Capitol One Bowl was sort of fitting in that way. Hopefully, they can at least leave a legacy of providing a a solid foundation for new head coach Gary Anderson to build from, especially when their schedule gives the Badgers the possibility of Western Division dominance for the next two seasons.

 

 

 

 

Siesta in the second half edition

From now on I shall take naps during the second half of Packers games, as I did on Sunday, Dec. 15, 2013, stricken with and cold and fatigue and convinced the Pack, down 29-10 early in the third quarter, had no chance of coming back. I think they do their best work when I’m not watching. And one can be pleasantly surprised by outcome, like a child getting his or her most wished for present Christmas morning.

It helps, of course, to engage in the largest comeback in franchise history against a Cowboys’ squad with a bad defense and notorious for choking away games in December (Jason Garrett, the Cowboys’ latest puppet/coach will no doubt get his string cut by owner/general manager/head coach/ticket taker Jerry Jones in due course). Matt Flynn played like the Flynn who the Seahawks payed a king’s ransom to sign as a free agent and the Packer defense stopped feeling sorry for itself that Aaron Rodgers was hurt and started playing again, holding the Cowboys to just one more TD and notching two key turnovers in the second half. “Just get to the playoffs,” has been Packer fans’ mantra for the past month and a half, hoping that a healthy Aaron Rodgers could take a team many pegged for the Super Bowl when fully healthy and when the records are 0-0. But if the Pack do go all the way, more than just Rodgers coming back (and he’ll be rusty and potentially gunshy being away for so long and not completely at 100 percent) will lead them to the Promised Land. It will be the comeback they pulled off today and the heart they showed which be the crucial factor. 

Even if the Packers get to the playoffs this does not excuse GM Ted Thompson for leaving the Pack woefully inadequate when it came to back-up signal callers. With Graham Harrell flaming out in the preseason, the team took on airs that Aaron Rodgers was indestructable. Having found out no NFL QB in this day and age will be as durable as Unitas or Marino or even Brett Favre ever again and having found old QBs like Seneca Wallace don’t age like fine wine or that young QBs like Scott Tolzien don’t develop well when your team’s playoff chances are at stake every week, Thompson left the team scrambling to find a capable back-up when Rodgers went down until Flynn was luckily available. It’s an oversight which could still prove costly with two weeks left to go in the season. GB may have to start thinking about a future after Aaron Rodgers in short order and draft accordingly.

Are the Vikings really as bad as their record says they are? There have been lot of close losses in their 4-9-1 mark and if you, faithful Vikings fan turn those into wins (and ignore turning the close wins into losses) then the team is 11-3 or 10-4 (changing the tie vs. the Packers into a win). Of course, we also have to ignore the really bad losses to Carolina, New York and the first Green Bay game and realize also as well the Vikings are still playing musical chairs at quarterback. Then it goes to show the fine line between being a playoff team and an also-ran in the NFL is pretty thin. But it also means even if the Vikings were a playoff team they wouldn’t be around for much longer than they were last season and will continue to remain this way until somebody can actually stay a Vikings’ QB for longer than two seasons. 

Because Minnesota hasn’t tanked the season for the top draft pick shows the team still is willing to follow Coach Leslie Frazier’s leadership. So the answer to the Vikings’ problems may well be a change in management. Don’t be surprised if Fraizer has new GM to work with next season.

It’s a good thing the Capitol One bowl is being played New Year’s Day and not now because if it was being played now South Carolina, winners of five straight, would probably wreck Wisconsin on the gridiron, especially after the Badgers stunk up Camp Randall in their final game vs. Penn State. That’s there is a month-long delay gives UW time to rest up and plan to hopefully make for a competitive ballgame. One thing in the Badger favor is very few people think the Badgers can beat the Gamecocks. Let’s hope South Carolina and Steve Spurrier feel the same way.

I’m sure Minnesota probably would have wanted a different, better bowl game than playing in Houston again for the second time in a row. But Texas Bowl II offers a more-than-winnable game (although picking Syracuse isn’t exactly going to bring the casual Texas football fan out to Reliant Stadium), more practice time and a chance to develop more momentum for the program going into next season.

The roll the University of Wisconsin basketball team is on could well continue into the early Big Ten season. UW’s only road test will be at Northwestern in their league opener and they don’t face another road game until Indiana on Jan. 14 (although Iowa will be a tough opponent but at least that game on Jan. 5 is in Madison). The return of Josh Gasser and the rise of the “Frank the Tank” Kaminsky have been the main reasons the Badgers set modern (post-World War II) era school record for their 12-0 start (the all time record is 16 and the longest UW winning streak ever is 29, ways to go). Don’t be surprised if by middle of the conference schedule if freshman Bronson Koenig is seeing significant minutes as UW’s point guard.

The Minnesota men’s basketball team is off to a nice start but with a schedule designed to have a nice start. At least it takes the pain away from going 0-for-3 for the state’s top three basketball recruits (Tyus Jones, Rashard Vaughn and Reid Travis) who also happen to best some of the best in the nation. Losing out on such blue chippers doesn’t mean the death knell of Rick Pitino Jr.’s program (as Bo Ryan can tell you) but he certainly still has a lot to prove, as the upcoming Big Ten schedule will demonstrate. Tubby’s teams got off to nice starts too.

The Minnesota Timberwolves are 12-12 in the NBA season, far better than they have been in the past at this time. But one gets the impression fans expected better, especially when a .500 mark doesn’t cut it in the tough Western Conference when it comes to making the playoffs (T-Wolves would actually be the third seed in the Eastern Conference behind Miami and Indiana). Since the T-Wolves aren’t going to change conferences anytime soon, making the playoffs will require better play from point guard Ricky Rubio and better play off the bench to spell those starters, who have some of the longest stretch of minutes in the league.

Normally I’m sympathetic to athletes who get into spats at bars or clubs because even if one is famous he has the right, just like any other person, to have a good time and drink their beer in peace and not be accosted by some loudmouth drunk. As Charles Barkley once famously said “If you bother me, I’m gonna’ whoop ya!” after he broke a lout’s nose outside a Milwaukee bar. Usually athletes don’t get hurt in such altercations because they’re bigger and strong than most drunken fools. Unfortunately for the Milwaukee Bucks, the one good player they have, Larry Sanders, injured his thumb in altercation in a Milwaukee bar bad enough to where could not play. Whatever chances the Bucks had of being of at least being competitive this season went down with him. However this is just bad luck. More ominous for the franchise is the sentiment in MIlwaukee suburbs against extending the metro-area tax for MIller Park to fund a new arena. Without it, there’s no way the thing will get built. Something has to change to make the Bucks something fans in SE Wisconsin value enough to spend money on to keep. Perhaps the upside to Sanders injury is the Bucks falling far enough to get the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft and find that franchise player who can create such sentiment once again.

The Minnesota Wild would make the playoffs if the season ended today, but only as an No. 8 seed. Despite a 19-11-5 record their position is precarious because they play in the much tougher Western Conference (like the T-Wolves the Wild would be a No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference). Minnesota is getting outstanding goaltending from Josh Harding and getting goals from Jason Pominville and Zach Parise but the fact the Wild have struggled on the road has made their season and game-by-game adventure.  You can afford to take games off when you’re the Blackhawks, the defending NHL champs and already have 53 points. The Wild can’t do this it may well take its toll eventually. However, this being an Olympic season could become an advantage. If the Wild are still the No. 8 team in the West by February, they’re going to need that time off for the 2014 Winter Olympics to recuperate. 

The University of Minnesota men’s hockey team was much younger and less experienced than Wisconsin’s with both teams playing tough early schedules. Yet it’s the Golden Gophers at top the Big Ten standings and the national rankings while the Badgers are stuck with another medicore start. It will be interesting to see if this continues or if the Badgers, traditionally strong closers, crank it up in late January and early February and the young Gopher team hits that proverbial “wall” by that time.

 

The Vikings are outside, shut the windows

The window you hear shutting is not just the one to the house now that the weather has suddenly turned colder this mid-October. It’s the Minnesota Vikings’ window of opportunity for the Super Bowl, which opened four years ago when the team acquired not just Brett Favre for the offense but also but another big play maker in Jared Allen for the defense. Allen is still around but unfortunately like Favre, you get to a point in your career when diminishing returns becomes your fate until you retire. Thus the Vikings, filled with many such players and others not capable of having diminishing returns because they offer no returns whatsoever, have seen that Super Bowl window not just shut but slammed shut in two awful performances over the past two weeks. The only amazing thing about the Vikes’ in 2013 is how badly they play in the very next contest. Nobody thought they could do any worse than what they did against Carolina. Then they played the Giants. Maybe they shouldn’t practice.

Given this situation Pioneer Press columnist Tom Powers believes the Vikings should perform an act of mercy and trade away Adrian Peterson to another club and use such a trade to restock. Such trades are tempting (assuming one can find the sucker to give away first, second and third round draft picks for the next two drafts, is Mike Lynn or Dan Devine still out there?) but consider this point: As bad as the Chicago Bears were for much of late Walter Payton’s great career, they did not ponder trading him because he was, at the very least, the one person on the team that fans could root for, be interested in and set an example of good play for the rest of the club, much like Peterson is for the Vikings. The solution is not to get rid of such a player in the hopes you might find someone willing to sacrifice so much to get him. No, the solution is to draft and acquire better players to put around him, which is what the Bears’ did with Payton which why they won the 1985-86 Super Bowl. If the Vikings ever traded Peterson, there won’t be enough corporate dollars floating around the Twin Cities to buy all the unsold tickets to prevent TV blackouts. Not to mention all empty seats in the Metrodome from all the no-shows.The Vikings would never be seen again.

All NFL teams have injury problems to deal with throughout the regular season but for whatever reason the Packers seem to be the most unluckiest team in the league when it comes to said injuries. They usually happen in bunches and they usually happen to their best players. And they happen on both sides of the ball too. Clay Matthews out with a broken thumb and a few weeks later Jermichael Finley gets a bruised spinal column. Green Bay barely had the league minimum of players against the Browns last week. Is it the trainers? The way they condition or strengthen themselves or just plain old rotten luck? Whatever the case, the remarkable thing is Green Bay still manages to move forward despite the absence of some of their best players from week to week. From GM Ted Thompson finding capable replacements to head coach Mike McCarthy and his staff coaching them up, this is quite an achievement. Of course, it should also be pointed out, the Pack has never lost its quarterback, either Brett Favre or Aaron Rodgers, for an extended period of time either. If they did, well, look out below.

Oh, and it should also be pointed out the quality of opponents in the NFC North is also conducive to staying on top of the division. This season is no different. The Vikings are imploding, the Lions are more interested in cheap shots, fines and insulting band members and the Bears inconsistent and now also hurting without quarterback Jay Cutler.

Last week’s Minnesota-Northwestern game may have provided a preview as to how the University of Minnesota football program will proceed in the future if head coach Jerry Kill decides to step back from coaching on the sidelines and hands of some of the day-to-day duties of the program to other persons on the staff. Clearly the Golden Gopher players are inspired by Kill’s presence and will play hard for him. Simply sending him away or giving him some desk job in the administration would not be satisfying to all parties involved. He wants to be involved, but the trick will be to make such involvement less of a health risk and one which accentuates the positive qualities he brings to the program in terms of recruiting, player morale, strategic planning, fundraising, game planning, a whole host of areas a modern Division I coach is involved with while the assistants do much of the on-the-field work. Because with Kill, you’re not talking about one man but whole regime of long-time assistant coaches and others who are the backbone of the program. Take that out and the whole structure would collapse like a suit of armor in a museum would if you bumped into it. The question is not whether Kill will stay or go but how can Kill stay and be an effective leader of the Gopher program while he deals with his epilepsy.

It’s nice that some people are taking into account the awful ending to the Wisconsin-Arizona State football game in concluding the Badgers could have been a Top 10 team with it. Perhaps. But given the fact it would have taken a field goal to win the game if they could have pulled it off and that said field goal kicker for the Badgers, Kyle French, has been demoted for the rest of this season and has been told in no uncertain terms that next season (French is a redshirt junior) he’ll have the best seats in the house any spectator could hope for by being on the Badger bench, buried in the depth chart, there’s no guarantee he would have made that kick to win the game. Then you’re not talking about a Top 10 team but a team right about where the Badgers are at the moment, on the outside looking in when it comes to the BCS standings. So what happens if kicker Jack Russell isn’t much better when it comes to kicking field goals (and he hasn’t demonstrated it so far)? Call me crazy but I have a hunch we haven’t heard the last from French this season. UW’s kicking game is so inconsistent he may well get another chance just because UW has ran out of options (which would not include an injured Chris Borland). If nothing else it would make for a great story.

If the Minnesota Wild doesn’t go on a breakout winning streak in the next few weeks, don’t be surprised if management concludes that Mike Yeo just isn’t the head coach to take this talented team to the next level. The Wild may very well be in the market for a veteran head coach with playoff experience if they’re not near the top of the tough Western Conference standings between Thanksgiving and Christmas. This being an Olympic season, the Wild can’t afford to wait if they’re going to make a coaching change.

 

Less Than Sincere edition

Minneapolis Star-Tribune columnist Jim Souhan is an educated man and generally accepted as a good and skilled writer and columnist. Thus it is for these very reasons, in my opinion, that no one should believe anything he writes in the aftermath of the column he wrote for Sunday’s Star-Tribune in which he all but called University of Minnesota Head Football Coach Jerry Kill a cripple and all but said he should be fired. No, don’t believe he has any regrets or he sincerely has warm feelings for Kill after he suffered another sideline seizure in the Golden Gophers’ home contest against Western Illinois last Saturday, because he does not.

What Souhan wrote first time is the way he truly feels. Anyone who has listened to him on his radio show or have read his columns in print or blogs online knows full well of his rants and snarks against the Gopher football program, college sports in general or the NCAA. Anyone who works alongside Pat “Who Are We Going to Rip Today?” Reusse at the Strib, anyone who works in the sports media culture of the Twin Cities, which regard the U’s athletic programs as stationary targets in order to fire poison gas shells at, knows Souhan is lying through his teeth, which he no doubt was gritting and grinding when he had to write two follow up blogs trying to explain what he really meant because his bosses were tired seeing their email in-boxes filled with outraged messages and canceled subscriptions. Not to mention getting letters from epilepsy foundations expressing dismay at Souhan’s apparent attitude towards persons with this disability.

Usually when one writes an apologia one says the words “I’m sorry” in it. Souhan may well have regrets, but so do a lot of people. Saying “I’m sorry” is a lot tougher and it was not something he could bring himself to do. Because he’s not sorry. He feel’s Kill’s health is a and whether he can effectively lead the Gopher football program is a legitimate question (and it is) and the manner in which he wrote is exactly the way Twin Cities sports writers express their opinions about the University of Minnesota athletic department. Saying Kill has as many seizures as Big Ten wins is par for the course. He’s written or said plenty of other nasty things about the U over the years as have Reusse or Bob Sansevere or Tom Powers or Joe Soucheray and any other sports columnist in the Twin Cities not named Sid Hartman since the 1980s. Why would he act any different in this case? He doesn’t care about Jerry Kill or his health or how it effects the program because he doesn’t care about the program, unless it has done something he believes he can write a column against. How many Minnesota football games has he attended over the years? Or basketball games or hockey games for that matter? You could be in the Al Shaver Press Box at a Golden Gopher hockey game during the Final Five in the Xcel Energy Center and see rows of empty chairs, the ones reserved by Twin Cities media outlets who never go to the games unless something really big was happening. Let’s face it, the Twin Cities is a pro sports market and the media treat it that way. Besides, anyone who had sincere feelings towards his fellow man would not write lines such as “a middle-aged man writhing on the ground.” This ugly attitude is what Gopher coaches and players and fans have had to deal with from the Twin Cities media for many years. Unlike other big city markets whose attitudes towards local college teams is indifference with a few exceptions here and there, the Twin Cities media treats the U like one who shoots fish in a barrel. Now granted, Minnesota has provided said writers with plenty of ammunition and plenty of fish since 1967 but in this case Souhan went to the barrel, loaded his shotgun, aimed for the fish and instead hit his foot. What a bad shot.

To further show how insincere Souhan is we must look at his original column (the one in which he truly expresses his real feelings because they were the first things out his mind, not something pulled out grudgingly to save his job). First of all it’s a stupid column. Any attempt by the U to fire Kill knowing full well what his medical condition was when they hired him would be a violation of Federal law (and knowing Minnesota, state law as well). The resulting lawsuits which would then happen, not to mention the fairly sizeable buyout which would also have to be paid, would put a nice dent in the U’s athletic budget. Then of course if Kill was fired it is doubtful his incredibly loyal staff would simply step up to take his place. More than likely they would leave with him leaving the program with a China Syndrome-like meltdown which would be worse than what happened to it in the 1982 and ’83 seasons (The Gophers started the 1982 season 3-0 and went 1-18 over their next 19 games under then coach Joe Salem, including an 84-13 blasting by Nebraska in 1983, the worst loss in school history). Then you have the fact Souhan treated Kill’s condition as a medical problem one could simply solve with better diet and exercise rather than what epilepsy actually is, chemical imbalances in the brain which causes seizures that, in some cases, medication cannot control. Granted some of Kill’s seizures have come with the stress of a football game but they can also take place if he was simply playing chess too. That’s why he cannot drive a car. This is not Rick Majerus eating himself to death. As an educated man, Souhan should full well know all these things and not write them. But as I’ve stated before, when there was big game to be hunted in his crosshairs, Souhan pulled the trigger even if he forgot to aim first.

Finally, Souhan being a skilled writer by reputation, also knew he could express concerns about Kill’s health and how the U should deal with it without being a jerk. Because it is legitimate to ponder whether Kill’s health can hold up trying to turn around the football program, because Kill himself has asked the very same thing. It is reasonable to wonder whether Kill’s health is hurting recruiting. It is worth pondering whether Kill moving upstairs to coach from the pressbox would be better for his health and the image of the program. All of these things can be written about without being nasty. Souhan knows this as well anyone. He chose not to do so for the reasons I mentioned above. And in making this choice, in the words and phrases and sentences he constructed and put together in his first attempt, he condemns himself to what he really believes and no amount of “regrets” or “I didn’t mean to” are believable from him. Because for the first time there was an actual backlash by people, not just Gopher fans but ordinary people, to a poison pen column by a Twin Cities sportswriter. Without it he would have acted in the same arrogant manner he did to complainers on his Twitter feed after he wrote the column. If you really want to know if Souhan’s sincere or not ask him what he would think of his own words if they came from an athlete or coach? What would his column say about them? Would he think such words sincere or not?

And if one still wonders if Kill’s health is affecting the program negatively, one points out in a similar situation in Kill’s first season, the Gophers lost to New Mexico State. This time around, the Gophers turned around a 13-7 deficit into a 29-13 win without Kill on the sidelines (nor much of a passing game). It may not be much considering the opponent, but it is progress nonetheless.

If the University of Wisconsin football team does not play another non-conference game west of the Mississippi River, that’s fine by me. Of course then UW goes and schedules Hawaii for a trip to Honolulu down the road but maybe by then Western referees will have cleaned up their act and not be the notorious homers reputation has them being. Hopefully the Pac 12′s official reprimand of its officials for their conduct in costing UW a chance at a game-winning field goal last Saturday will begin the process. Maybe. That being said, the only thing think I could think of as the game ended was Russell Wilson trying to stop the clock against Oregon in 2012 Rose Bowl. Same thing.

At some point, maybe midway through the season, the Vikings will replace Christian Ponder at quarterback with Matt Cassel. And when this happens the Vikings will again have another drafted quarterback go to waste, which forces them to rely on aging or never-were free agents to bail them out. The Vikes’ drafted Wade Wilson in 1981 and he became the starter by 1987 and led the team to the NFC championship game. Then he got hurt and was traded to the Saints and Minnesota had to use Rich Gannon, Sean Sailsbury, Jim McMahon and Warren Moon as stopgaps. The Vikings drafted Brad Johnson in 1991 and he helped get them to the NFC title game in 1999. But then he got hurt and replaced by Randall Cunningham. Instead of keeping Johnson, they traded him away to the Buccaneers to give the starting job to Cunningham. Johnson led the Bucs to the Super Bowl and Cunningham got hurt and Minnesota needed Jeff George to save them. Minnesota then drafted Daunte Culpepper and for a time he did OK, until Randy Moss was traded and he had no one to throw to and had to run for his life most of the time. He got hurt and the Vikes’ needed Gus Ferotte, Todd Bouman and Spurgeon Wynn (notice the quality of back-ups getting worse) and even Brad Johnson again to fill in the gaps.  The Vikes’ traded Culpepper and drafted Tavaris Jackson in 2006. But Jackson fell far far short of even the second round status the Vikings tabbed him at and so Kelly Holcomb, Brooks Bollinger, Sage Rosenfels and Brett Favre were called in to save the day. Now we have Ponder, a first round pick at No. 12 and yet the Vikings have had Joe Webb and probably Cassel by Week 8 to fill-in either by injury or through bad play. Notice a pattern here? And said coaches who had to deal with these QB problems, whether Jerry Burns, Denny Green, Mike Tice and Brad Childress, either quit or were fired. Will Leslie Frazier be the next in line?

The Packers are still one of the top teams in the NFC, but they’re clearly behind the 49ers and probably the Seahawks as well given their defense cannot stop those teams from scoring at will against them. With Aaron Rodgers in his prime, it behooves Green Bay in future drafts or free agency to find those impact players on defense who can stop a Colin Kaepernick or Russell Wilson or he’ll never get back to the Super Bowl.

Make-over edition

Revelations of star athletes taking PEDs or doping themselves up for athletic competitions has obviously made over the reputations of stars like Ryan Braun and Lance Armstrong (In A-Rod’s case it only made things worse), but not in the way you might think. Most sports fans realize athletes will take such substances because the competition is doing so as well (especially in cycling) and with millions of dollars at stake the temptations to keep up with said competition is simply overwhelming. No, the issue is the athlete’s arrogance insistence of innocence or cavalier attitudes despite being caught. There are criminals who are more remorseful than messrs. Braun and Armstrong when they’re caught red handed. Just fessing up and taking your punishment will go long way to make one a fan favorite again with endorsements rather than insolence, especially to those who look like fools in defending you while you lie to them.

There were hardly any makeovers of the Brewers and Twins as the MLB’s trade deadline came and went. The problem for both clubs is that they have too many players they want to keep that other teams may want and no one they could trade someone else would want. No doubt the Brewers tried to shop Yvonne Gallardo and came up empty and the Twins? Well, it seems nobody was interested in any of the players they were willing to trade either.  Which basically means that both club’s minor league pitching prospects are supposed have better pan out before the infield stars and and the sluggers get too old to compete.


Speaking of which, there was an interesting Pat Reusse column a few weeks ago in which he all but suggested the notion that Rod Gardenhire was too good a manager to have to put up with the bad ballclub the Twins have become. Juxtapose this column with the vicious contempt he showed the University of Minnesota football team and its head coach Jerry Kill in a blog post (one he seems to write every year about this time about Gopher football and his (ahem!) lack of enthusiasm for it) and you realize Mr. Reusse isn’t quite the equal-opportunity ripper of reputation. In fact it’s true of most Twin Cities sports columnists (exception being, of course, the last homer himself Sid Hartman). Now I don’t think Gardenhire is a bad manager but I don’t think he is a brilliant one either. But to suggest he bares no responsibility for three straight lousy seasons is ludicrous. He’s not the bench coach. Even if Twins management left him not much to work with when it came to prospects a manager worth his salt would still figure out a way to develop such players to make the team at least competitive. The Twins haven’t even been close to that since 2010.  And Reusse thinks Gardenhire should be given a retirement party? What University of Minnesota coach would he give such leeway to? Did he ever write a column saying Tubby Smith should take the job Texas Tech because he’s too good to coach next season’s Gopher basketball team? Of course not! He wanted him fired just he’s wanted every basketball and football coach at the U who didn’t win a national championship in due course. Doesn’t it seem funny that pro coaches in the Twin Cities are given more leeway in the press for mediocrity than University of Minnesota coaches are? Why? What titles have Flip Saunders or Mike Tice or Jerry Burns or Todd Richards ever won? Why don’t they get the poison pens that are saved for Dan Monson, Tim Brewster and Jim Wacker? Hmm?  Nobody connected with the University of Minnesota football team is talking about making the BCS this season. All they hope for is to do better than last year, what any team hopes for. Is that deserving of not just caustic cynicism but also a nasty shot at a college athlete as well (and arguably the team’s best player in Ra’Sheed Hageman?) Again, if Reusse was equal-opportunity ripper this wouldn’t matter much but that’s simply not true. And once again it shows the hypocrisy in the way the Twin Cities media critics (as opposed to the beat writers) treat U in comparison to local pro teams, some of whose track records for success aren’t any different and some cases worse.

The Milwaukee Bucks certainly went through a make-over this offseason that’s for sure. Only five of the 15 players from last season’s roster will be back. But is a backcourt of A.J. Mayo and Brandon Knight going to be better than Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis? Probably not but that’s not the plan. The plan is to have a team of young players with small contracts who at least be entertaining and play hard even if they go 20-62 rather than being a sloppy and slovenly 38-44 and make the playoffs. If it works, the Bucks may win back fans who at least appreciate the effort and the NBA lottery pick.

The Timberwolves too have made themselves over but unlike the Bucks are doing so to be playoff team in the much tougher Western Conference. Bringing in Kevin Martin  from Oklahoma City and Corey Brewer from Denver along with the return of Kevin Love from injury to pair with a backcourt of Ricky Rubio and Alexi Shved will certainly make them an improved club on offense, which has been their problem for the past several seasons. Even with injuries to Love and head coach Rick Adelman’s absence from the bench last season the T-Wolves still played played competitive ball. And if things break just right and there are none of the crippling injuries which have hurt the past few seasons, the T-Wolves may do more than just make the playoffs.

I like Gary Andersen and I really want to get fired up for this upcoming season. But as the first UW coach brought in from the outside since Barry Alvarez was hired, I have been anxious that we’re not getting another Don Morton. Because a lot of what has been said about Andersen was also said about Morton when he was hired in late 1986 going into the 1987 season if one goes back into the Google news archives. Remember “Coach Sunshine?” Morton too, was considered one of the best up and coming coaches in the country, charismatic, author of a book, winner of two national championships at North Dakota State. If anything he has more of a pedigree than Andersen does. However, through my research, I’ve also found the times, context and circumstances much, much different in 2012-13 than they were in 1986-87. And think those differences will go a long way into making Andersen a far more successful coach than Morton was.  It simply is a much stronger program with a winning tradition which didn’t exist when Morton took over. Plus, Morton’s success was largely due to what he inherited, from Jim Wacker at NDSU and from John Cooper at Tulsa. UW was the first job he had where he had to start from scratch and it showed. He didn’t know how to do it. But Andersen knows how to build a program as he did at Utah State. And he doesn’t have to do so here at UW. Everything is in place for him to win, from talented players to a supportive AD to culture of success and winning championships which didn’t exist at UW when Morton took over. If he screws this up, it will only be because of bad decisions or bad recruiting made on his part, nothing else outside of that would be an excuse for failure at this point. But given his track record, I think he knows what he’s doing.

Patience of Job edition

Baseball is a game of patience and thus baseball executives, mangers and fans have to exercise a patience which could only try the likes Job.  Sometimes they have to endure years of failure before a long stretch of success. This was true for Twins fans for much of the 1970s and 80s and through much of the 1990s while the team was rebuilding around the stars which won Minnesota two World Series titles and whole decade worth of AL Central titles and playoff appearances. Brewers fans had to endure even more hardship, about 25 years worth of bad baseball thanks not just to market inequities but to the utter mismanagement of the Seligs and GM Sal Bando at the time before coming competitive and winning division titles again.

Both franchises are going through down periods again. Both teams have sluggers and some other talent but they have exhausted their pitching talent and have nothing left other than what can be patched together in terms of starters and bullpen. For both teams, their best prospects are still down in the minor leagues. And it is imperative for both clubs to back to winning baseball none of those prospects are rushed to the majors before they are fully ready, even if it means a 100 loss season. It also means not trading away such prospects for bust out veterans just to try and make a playoff run (especially with an additional wild card spot). Neither squad is a playoff team even they could squeak through and they could only do so if other teams ahead of them collapse (which doesn’t say much for the league they are in. Hopefully patient people are in charge in both Milwaukee and Minneapolis who will take the long view of their team’s prospects, not the short term.

If NBA coaches like George Karl and Lionel Hollins are being canned despite taking their respective teams (Denver and Memphis) deep in playoffs, then Jim Boylan wasn’t keeping his job with the Bucks either after their predicted first round flameout to the Heat. Another such successful/fired coach, Larry Drew, has taken the reigns in the Cream City after he was axed in Atlanta. Beyond coaching, there is a debate in Bucks’ circles as to what strategy should be taken with free agents Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings. Hopefully such a debate will be a short one if, as predicted, neither guard really wants to stay around no matter how much money the Bucks throw at them (for Ellis the offer was a considerable one by Bucks’ standards). Losing both guards would obviously mean another rebuilding job for the Bucks but one which could work if the club gives Drew the time and support to build a better team (which he showed he could do in Atlanta) while management finds good, young players to build around the talent they have already.

Three first round draft picks and the kind of money it takes to sign such players shows the Vikings are targeting this coming season for at least a NFC North title.  The Bears are in the decline, the Lions stalled and the Packers in a precarious spot atop the division. It’s now or never given Adrian Peterson is at his peak of performance level as is Jerad Allen and with the team stuck with Christian Ponder for the time being.Greg Jennings certainly can’t make up what Percy Harvin brought to the Vikings on the field but he can certainly make up for it off the field.

The Packers had a pretty good draft too, especially addressing the running game concerns by picking up Alabama’s Eddie Lacy and UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin and concerns on defense by drafting UCLA’s Datone Jones. Although no one should have their fingers crossed, anything Johnny Jolly can provide up front on defense should be considered a big, big bonus if he’s got his head on straight again. Its these areas which are going to determine whether the Pack can stay on top or kneel before the Vikings in 2013. We’ll see if the difference in quarterback (and considering what the Pack want to pay Aaron Rodgers it is considerable) will be enough again.

Like the Bucks, the Minnesota Wild didn’t last too long in the playoffs either (at least they won a game against the Western Conference champion Blackhawks). Some have look at offense and others have looked at defense to make changes to make the Wild a better club for next season full schedule. Perhaps the answer lies in goal. Minnesota was already at a disadvantage facing Chicago in the first round to have a revolving door at goalie. Bottom line is they need a lot better than a hurt and inconsistent Nicklas Backstrom, a back-up with MS in Josh Harding (who did an exceptional job nonetheless against a relentless ‘Hawks attack and deserves kudos for it).  Whether Darcy Kuempfer is the answer or if the Wild have to go on the market for a free-agent goalie remains to be seen but as of right now the Wild do not have the presence in goal for a deep playoff run.

Speaking of the Chicago Blackhawks, their Stanley Cup final with the Boston Bruins not just because both teams are part of the NHL’s Original Six, but because both are literally the best of their respective Conferences and will be playing for the championship. For as many problems as the league has had over the past two years, they’ve certainly have had one heck of playoff so far and now they can top it off with a seven game battle between the Originals.