Friday, January 26, 2007

This Weekend In Lehigh Sports 1/26/2007

Although football recruiting is going fast and furious - with rumors of the latest commits hitting our program just this past week - I'm going to refrain from talking about who's in and who's out until next Monday, and instead talk about the basketball and wrestling teams' big matches this weekend.

The biggest game of all, undoubtedly, is Lehigh's appearance on ESPNU tonight at 9:00PM when they travel to Worcester, MA to take on the Crusaders (6-0, 15-6). The second leg on our "Theater of Pain" tour, we travel to Hart Center (where we haven't won since 1998) following our drubbing by Bucknell at Sojka Arena 62-44 last Tuesday. If we have any hope of getting higher than a #2 seed in the Patriot League tournament, it would be a massive help to get over the hump by beating a team we haven't beaten on the road in ten years - not to mention it would be our most impressive road win of the season. Although beating Lafayette at home was an expected step, we need more to make the next step, including better consistency from senior G Jose Olivero and F Kyle Neptune.

The Bucknell game didn't so much as expose Lehigh as show how far Lehigh needs to go in order to consider ourselves an elite team in this league, even with senior C Jason Mgebroff out with injury. The Bison showed us how to contest every shot, play defense, and make fewer mental errors. Olivero and Neptune forced bad, contested shots all night -and didn't show up well on the score sheet as a result. Our defense was also nowhere near the task of slowing down the Bison, as they consistently set picks to get easy underneath baskets and screens to get easy uncontested threes. If we have any hope of scratching out a win tonight, we'll have to improve on almost every phase of the game. (It gives me no pleasure to type this, but it's my honest opinion of the situation.)

Unlike the men, the Lady Hawks have a less daunting task on Saturday as they face the Lady Crusaders (7-13, 2-4) in Worcester. After an impressive win 62-50 at home versus Lafayette but a disastrous 64-37 drubbing at Bucknell, if Lehigh can string big road wins here against Holy Cross this week and next week at American the Lady Hawks will be in good shape entering the Patriot League tournament. That would mean getting more consistent play from senior G Sara Ellis and senior F Adrienne Blount, who were a non-factor in the Bucknell game.

For the wrestling team, it's back-to-back Ivy pins against struggling Harvard and Brown at Grace Hall this Saturday. After last week's clutch win over #14 ranked Cornell (punctuated by a big pin by senior heavyweight Paul Weibel), Lehigh hopes to keep the momentum going this Saturday and build off their big win last week in Ithaca. In the 184 lb weight class, freshman grappler David Craig has been a revelation and one of the big reasons we're looking brightly to the EIWAs this year. He's been rewarded for his good play with a NWCA ranking (#19) to go with his 11-4 dual record.

Recruiting news for football will wait. Only until Friday, but it will wait.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Duquesne, Nuclear Scientists, and the Patriot League

My wife and I are old movie buffs, and Turner Classic Movies is one of our favorite TV channels. As we were watching The Heroes of Telemark last night, we saw a classic campy 1965 tale of how playboy nuclear scientist and part-time Norwegian spy for the British Kirk Douglas basically singlehandedly thwarted the Nazi's attempt to create a nuclear bomb. Douglas played a character who could ski like Jean-Claude Killy (complete with Jean-Claude's choice in sweaters), could expertly sabotage the Nazi nuclear program like a Navy SEAL, could decimate half the Nazi empire with perfect marksmanship (must be all that biathlon training), and for good measure could save a bunch of Norwegian kids from sinking on a ferryboat. Basically, he's the perfect candidate for thwarting the nuclear aspirations of the Nazis.

Richard Harris, playing the Norwegian underground resistance leader Knut Straud, certainly looked like someone who could probably have wiped out a battallion of Nazis himself. But, strangely, in order to get the job done he had to hunt down ol' Kirk Douglas, who on top of his anti-fascist credentials, marksmanship, spying skills, and his ability to be an agent saboteur, he also was a nuclear scientist.

Don't worry, there is a point to all of this. As Patriot League fans, too often we're like Knut Straud when it comes to schools wanting to join the Patriot League. It's not enough that they're interested in our league, offering grants-in-aid, and willing to upgrade their programs to get in line with some of the spending on football. They have to be nuclear scientists too, with academic indexes in the top-half of one percent, small private schools, and top-notch research facilities.

Duquesne made an announcement this week that they are leaving the five-team MAAC football conference in 2008 to join the limited-scholarship NEC. The move doesn't come as a huge surprise - representatives from Duquesne had been making noises last year about the fact that they were looking to perhaps increase their competition in football, and with Stony Brook leaving the NEC this year, it seemed like a natural fit for a school that has acheived just about all it could in the non-scholarship MAAC with six straight championship years. Add to that the high-profile Patriot League and A-10 scalps last year captured by NEC members Albany, Central Connecticut State and Monmouth, the timing couldn't be better for the Dukes to join the NEC in football.

As the Duquesne domino falls, the members of the MAAC find themselves looking at themselves in the mirror. Unless they can get a former member to sponsor football again (Fairfield, Siena, Canisius, St. John's) or unless they can get a different affiliate to play non-scholarship football in their league (Campbell), these members are likely to have to face the prospect of competing non-scholarship as an independent, joining the non-scholarship Pioneer League (comprised of non-scholarship schools from Florida to California), or "upgrading" and joining a league like the Patriot League.

Of the four remaining MAAC members that may be scrambling for a home, there is one school that looks like a much better candidate for football than the others. Not only have the Marist Red Foxes made a great effort in scheduling Patriot League football opponents (they've played Holy Cross, Lafayette, Georgetown, Bucknell, and Fordham in the past two years alone), they have also upgraded their stadium and secured a MAAC football co-championship in 2006 as well.

Adding kerosene to the speculation is the fact that Marist's AD and head coach recently went on record as saying that the Patriot League would be a "terrific option for us", as close to a formal request to the Patriot League office as far as I can figure. They have shown they are willing to spend money on football. They're a private school. Their football record at the non-scholarship level, especially recently, isn't too bad. Best of all, they seem to really want to join, maybe even abandoning the MAAC altogether to join the Patriot League in men's basketball as well. In men's basketball, the MAAC is in decline; the Patriot League is on the rise.

But are they nuclear scientists? Folks who think Marist shouldn't be a part of the Patriot League fall in the Knut Straud category. They're not a Top 20 University... what's their endowment? Are their academics good enough to be Patriot material? Some folks seem downright elitist on their membership, as if Marist is Podunk State and Lehigh, Lafayette and Colgate are Harvard, Yale and Princeton. Some are still smarting from the Towson (State) experiment. But Marist is no Towson.

Marist's academics are solid, and improving. Their athletics are solid, and improving. Geographically, they fit perfectly in that "empty area" between Holy Cross and Colgate (and Fordham, for football). It's my feeling that if we wait for a nuclear scientist, we could miss out on a solid school that is willing to play ball on so many levels for our league. We should be trying to get Marist on board in the Patriot League right away, and welcoming them with open arms.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Fantsy Press Conference: Gary Payton, Saints

I've decided to start a new feature, "Press Conferences I'd Like To See". I'm not ashamed to admit that the inspiration for this new addition to my blog was my viewing of the entire Saints/Bears mugging... I mean game. I have no idea why I put myself through things like this - maybe it's because I read too much of the ESPN Sports Guy - but maybe it's a sort of cathartic experience, where I simply spill my frustrations from last night and just pour them into the press conference I'd love to see, just once, in real life.

"This will be brief. First of all, congratulations to Lovie Smith, the Bears for playing a good game. And I'd also like to thank the officials for basically making the outcome of this game a foregone conclusion before Rex Grossman threw his first incompletion of many to start this day. Next time, why don't we just not suit up any players, and give it to the Bears straight out? I know a Super Bowl involving the big-TV market of the Bears stands to generate a lot more revenue for the NFL than the feel-good story (and small TV market) of the Saints, but it simply would have been easier on everyone in and around New Orleans to just tell us we were going to be screwed upfront.

Let's start by taking a look and the stat line, shall we? (Grabs postgame stats from table) Okay, Saints: 7 penalties for 47 yards, Bears, 1 penalty for 5 yards. Remember, this is the NFC championship game, where I've led a suspect defense all year while the Bears have one of the toughest defenses in the NFL. You're telling me that the Bears committed only one penalty? You believe that? I'd like to sell you some riverfront property in the Ninth Ward, then. I can personally count more than four times that meathead Brian Ulracher alone mugged my receivers on the way to catching passes. No, seriously, did somebody check him for knives before or after the game?

But wait, let's not just stop there. Let's take a couple of serious momentum-killers on special teams as well. What about that forty yard kick return by Michael Lewis called back by some incidental contact upfield? This was following a couple of Bear returns where the special teams units simply manhandled our guys downfield. The second timeout that Grossman called on the 4th-and-1 that was conveniently ignored by the officials. I'm not the sort of guy to call for an investigation into improper officiating, but this is ridiculous.

There was the safety. Now, Drew Brees didn't really throw it to anybody, I grant you. But when Rex Grossman did the same thing later in the game, all you gave him was an "illegal man downfield" penalty that was declined. Surely in a NFC Championship game you could give us the same benefit?

Then, of course, there were the fumbles. Of course, the call on the "fumble" on the kickoff return at the end of the first quarter when both of Michael Lewis' legs were clearly down was just an abject abomination, but seeing as Aikman and the rest of the nation saw that so clearly on replay (as did I), I'll leave that one to the court of public opinion. I'm seriously considering a movement to set up an "American Idol" deal for replay challenges where fans can dial in to overrule the referees on the field. If these jokers can't get something right that's so abjectly obvious, the fans out there certainly could do no worse.

I'm not saying we would have won the game. My team folded like a cheap tent at the end, and that's my fault. But the NFL has to do something about games like this where it seems so clear that there is impropriety and bias towards one team. Come on now, would you really be surprised to learn that the Sopranos paid each referee a boatload of money to ensure that a QB whose 42.3 completion percentage would make it to the Super Bowl? I certainly don't think so - but there are an awful lot of people out there who do. And looking at the result of this game, who can really blame them?

That is all. My team was not ready for "17-vs. 11" football today, and that's my fault. I'm not saying we would have won, but it's games like this that makes be want to coach Eastern Illinois instead of an NFL team. All I ask is you make the right calls on the field. And when my former boss Bill Parcells retires tomorrow, you might want to ask him about this too.

By the way Simmons, the NFL wants the Saints in the Super Bowl and will do anything to make it happen? Are you kidding me? How do you feel now?"
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