Sports

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Pitarresi: It's a don't care Final Four

So, now we have Villanova against North Carolina and Connecticut against Michigan State.

 

That finished me in both of my NCAA basketball tournament pools. I had Pitt defeating Louisville in the title game, and they’re both out of it.

 

Now, I don’t even care, almost. Well, I do care. I just can’t win any money, so I can relax. I’d like to see Villanova go all the way. I’ve had several friends play football there, and I think Jay Wright is a great coach and a very good guy besides.

 

I don’t dislike UConn at all, and I kind of like Jim Calhoun even if he can a bully, so if the Huskies win, fine. Not much to dislike about MSU or UNC, either.

 

The fact is, I don’t dislike any team in the Final Four. Again, I’d like to see Nova win, but if not, that’s okay.

 

Let the best team win. I like it that way.

Saturday, March 28, 2009

Pitarresi: Oops. SU prediction blows up

Well, so much for that good feeling I had about the Syracuse basketball team yesterday.

That idea blew up in my face after Oklahoma’s 84-71 South Regional victory over the Orange. Really, it splattered all over the place about five minutes into the game, and my whole theory was obliterated about the time Blake Griffin ran over Jonny Flynn like a freight train with a minute to go in the first half.

I did say that the Orange would have trouble with Griffin – trouble wasn’t the right word, I guess – and that the Sooners weren’t a one-man team and that the Orange would need a good game from their guards. They didn’t get that good game for the most part.

Jim Boeheim said afterward his teams wasn’t going to be able to control Griffin and needed to play well offensively to win and didn’t. Boeheim breaks down a game as well as any coach, and that is about as succinct and correct an analysis as you’re going to get.

I had to laugh the day before the game when a national columnist wrote that Griffin might have trouble with SU’s 2-3 zone and hadn’t played against defensive players like Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson. What? First of all, few defenses of any kind have stopped Griffin this season. Secondly, truly outstanding defensive players are rare in college basketball. Onuaku and Jackson are getting better all the time as finishers around the basket, and they block shots and rebound pretty well, but they are not at this point outstanding defensive players. Neither of them individually is going to stop Griffin, and, no insult intended because I like both of those kids and they have some big-time skills, the two of them together probably aren’t, either.

Boeheim has taken a little bit of heat for using the word “idiot” in referring to sports writers asking about Jonny Flynn’s possible departure to the NBA, something like “anybody who asks him that right now is an idiot. An absolute idiot. Not a journalist. He’s an absolute idiot.”

Three things:

One, the guy was bushed and downcast after watching his team get hammered.

Two, he said it in a mild tone with a smile on his face.

Three, he followed the comment by adding something like, “but that’s okay. There are some players and coaches who are idiots, too.”

So, that’s Boeheim. His bark mostly is worse than his bite, and I think he can be forgiven for venting a little, especially after that loss.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Pitarresi: SU the pick over Sooners

 I have a real good feeling about Syracuse tonight.

 

The Orange will have trouble with Oklahoma’s Blake Griffin, to be sure. The guy is an absolute beast, averaging 22.5 points and 14.4 rebounds. However, SU has played so well the last 10 games, I don’t doubt the Orange's to beat anyone in the NCAA tournament.

 

If Griffin has a big night, SU can make up for it with big performances from Jonny Flynn, Eric Devendort and Andy Rautins, and they have been delivering them. Paul Harris hasn’t been scoring, but he will rebound and he will get about all the loose balls on the court. So Kristof Ongenaet will get the rest. Any offense they get from Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson – and they’ve both put in some very good minutes in the tourney – will be a bonus.

 

The sticking point might be if the Orange believe Oklahoma really is a one-man team. Griffin is head and shoulders above his teammates – and a lot of other players around the country – but Willie Warren and Austin Johnson both can score, Tony Crocker is a big guard who can score, and Taylor Griffin can rebound and pick up points. The Sooners are a decent 3-point team – as good or better than SU - rebound well, they do a good job taking care of the ball, and they’ve beaten a lot of tournament teams.

 

Oklahoma supposedly is a one-point favorite. That amounts to zero. It’s a toss-up game, and while a possible Griffin explosion makes this scary, but the Orange are playing by far their best basketball of the season. I’m picking SU.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Pitarresi: Williams, Chestnut look for redemption

 

One of my favorite books is Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.”

 

Why? It is one of the great tales of redemption. That miserly old son of a dog Ebenezer Scrooge finally sees the light and becomes a real human being.

 

I love redemption.

 

I’m hoping that Mike Williams and Nick Chestnut are redeemed. They already seem well on the road.

 

I saw Williams and Chestnut after SU’s first spring football practice today. Williams, a super talent, and, I’m betting, a future NFL wide receiver, was bounced out of school last June because of “an academic issue.” What that issue was is open to question, but it sure wasn’t anything he wants to brag about. Whatever. Chestnut, a starting cornerback, flunked out of school after the 2007 season.

 

Both are back, both are capable of making major contributions to the Orange, and both seem genuinely humble and grateful for another chance. Both said they’ve matured, and they really do seem much wiser and much more at ease.

 

I’m looking for big things from both players, and I’m happy for them. If they are as grown up as they appear to be, they’ll add a lot to the team.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Pitarresi: Orange near-perfect vs. ASU

Syracuse University didn’t play quite a perfect game against Arizona State.

 

Just almost.

 

If there were flaws in the Orange’s 78-67 NCAA basketball tournament victory over the Sun Devils today, they weren’t easy to find.

 

SU did let ASU back into the game, yielding eight straight points as the Sun Devils made it 61-57 with 6:35 left, but the Orange response was swift and sure. Andy Rautins bombed a 3-pointer, Eric Devendorf canned two more, the lead shot up to 13 points with four minutes to play, and it was all over.

 

The Orange did a lot of things right in this one, and their confidence has to be boiling over as they head to Memphis for a date with Oklahoma in the South Regional.

 

They got solid contributions from all seven guys who played, and improved dramatically over their shabby second-half effort in Friday’s first-round victory over Stephen F. Austin. SU played very good defense, except for losing ASU sharpshooter Rihards Kuksiks too many times, shot the ball well overall and from 3-point range (26 of 47 and 9 of 20), had a modest 10 turnovers, and won the rebounding battle (30-23). And they played smart.

 

You have to wonder about ASU, though.

 

It was stunning how the Sun Devils didn’t have a clue on how to attack SU’s 2-3 zone, but it seems the teams that do, like Villanova, Pitt and Louisville, are the ones who play SU all the time. ASU rarely got the ball inside, had very few easy baskets, and got only 24 minutes out of star forward Jeff Pendergraph before he fouled out with more than 10 minutes to play. They also received a perplexingly mediocre game from first-team All-American and Pac-10 player of the year James Harden, who made just two of 10 shots, scored 10 points, and had six rebounds and five assists.

 

Harden’s performance wasn’t anywhere near as bad as what UNLV’s Stacey Augmon manufactured in the 1991 NCAA semifinals against Duke – perhaps the worst effort or maybe non-effort by a great player in tournament history - but he didn’t deliver when his team needed him badly against a superior opponent, and didn’t look capable of delivering except for a flash here and there. If Kuksiks hadn’t been on early, this game would have been a 30-point blowout.

 

Also, Herb’s Sendek’s match-up zone didn’t bother SU at all. The Sun Devils looked more confused by it than the Orange did.

 

SU won without Jonny Flynn having a great game, just a very good one.  Rautins and Devendorf were deadly, Arinze Onuaku and Rick Jackson were very effective inside early, Paul Harris had only one basket but grabbed seven rebounds, and Kristof Ongenaet came in and did his usual dirty work and had five rebounds.

 

SU will have its hands full with Blake Griffin and Oklahoma, but, again, the confidence level has to be tremendous going into that game.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Pitarresi: SU win raises some questions

 

If you’re a Syracuse fan, are you supposed to be impressed?

Or a little depressed?

SU’s 59-44 first-round NCAA tournament basketball victory over Stephen F. Austin today raised as many questions as it answered.

The first half, obviously, was an SU bonanza. The Orange shot extremely well – 11 of their 15 made baskets were layups and dunks, which helps – played tremendous defense out of their 2-3 zone, and forced Matt Kingsley, Stephen F. Austin’s leading scorer and the Southland Conference player of the year, to the bench in total befuddlement. Josh Alexander, SFA’s other big star and a former conference player of the year, wasn’t much of a factor, either, making just four of 20 shots and scoring eight points.

Part of SU’s success was the result of the Lumberjacks’ seeming awe at even being in the NCAA tournament, which they were for the first time. They didn’t make a field goal until more than seven minutes into the game, and they shot an astoundingly bad 25 percent for the 40 minutes. Not all of that was a credit to the SU defense. The Lumberjacks missed many uncontested shots, shots that looked off from the moment they left the shooters’ hands.

SU’s Jonny Flynn, meanwhile, continued his sensational play of the last nine games, hitting pull-up jumpers, driving the lane and either scoring or dumping off for easy baskets. Again, as many guys as the Orange have who can score, Flynn is the quarterback of that team, and it is increasingly obvious that the Orange are as good as he is in any given game.

And, in that first half, he was very, very good.

The second half was a different story. Yes, the Orange had a 38-22 lead at the half, and it sure didn’t look as if they were going to be threatened, but you still have to play your best. The Orange didn’t. That probably was more the result of mental fatigue from their big effort in the Big East tournament. That’s speculation, to be sure, but that’s the way it looked. Flynn lost the ball five times in the second half. Why do you think that happened?

SU shot made just 10 of 31 shots in the second half, turned the ball over 16 times – SFA turned it over just six times in the game - and scored just 21 points in the last 20 minutes. The Orange, normally a pretty good 3-point shooting team, also made just two of 16 shots from long range in the game. Orange coach Jim Boeheim said afterward it’s all about winning the game and moving on, but you know he was not happy with what he saw in the second half.

It’s that second half that might leave you a little depressed. Will the Orange get past that, or will there be a carryover? SU will play either Arizona State or Temple Sunday, and no matter how good or bad either team is, they will not be wet-behind-the-ears newcomers to the NCAA tourney.

SU did miss Kristof Ongenaet’s energy and competitiveness a bit – he was on the bench with a stomach ailment – but got great work on the boards from Paul Harris and Rick Jackson to thoroughly dominate in that area. The Orange will need that kind of work again Sunday, plus better shooting and much better control of the ball.

The Orange are very talented, and a win is a win, but they can’t afford 20 minutes of sub-par basketball in any game from here on in. Every game is different. SU has to make sure its second 20 minutes Sunday are different, and different in a better way, than they were today.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Pitarresi: No idea on NCAA pool

 

I’m sitting here trying to do my tournament bracket, and I’ve got no idea.

 

This one is for work. I made out one yesterday for another pool, didn’t bring a copy with me, and now I can’t remember who I picked to win or many of the picks in the early rounds. It doesn’t make any difference, I guess. I’m just going with my gut pretty much. The tourney is so wide open, but I still think the top seeds will go a long way.

 

I the pool I have Syracuse winning its first two games, but if the Orange face Oklahoma in the South semifinal, I think they’ll run into a wall. I don’t think they can deal with Blake Griffin. They’d have to play very well offensively to balance whatever he does. I wrote a column today saying SU has Final Four potential, and I do think so, but they have to play their very best. With money on the line – my money – I prefer Oklahoma or North Carolina in the South (I think I’ll go with UNC), Pittsburgh in the East, Memphis in the West, nipping UConn, and Louisville in the Midwest. I have Pitt and Louisville in the final, with Pitt winning 79-71. I think DeJuan Blair and Levance Fields give them the edge. I like both coaches, Jamie Dixon at Pitt at Rick Pitino at Louisville, except now I just remembered that the Cardinals lost to Notre Dame by 33, so maybe I’m making a big mistake.

 

The only time I’ve won an NCAA tournament pool outright was more than 25 years ago. A guy ran up to me after a game I’d just covered, told me to give him $10, and handed me a sheet. I scribbled out the teams as fast as I could so I could get back to the office and write my story, really hadn’t a clue as to what I was doing, and won something like $280.

 

This is kind of like betting on horses. You can try to dope them out – I can’t, but a lot of people think they can – but you might be better off doing what I do when I go to Saratoga. I bet on gray horses, horses with names you like, and horses with girl jockeys, if there are any around anymore.

 

Sometimes it works. Good luck with your pool.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Pitarresi: Cunningham deserving of high praise

 

There were a lot of expectations for the New Hartford High School hockey team this season.

 

And the Spartans certainly lived up to them in storming to the New York State Public High School Athletic Association Division II hockey championship this weekend. With a pair of one-sided victories over Kenmore East and Pelham, they did exactly what they set out to do back four months ago.

 

The players did a great job, but I’d also like to give a tip of the hat to coach John CunninghamThis is his second state title in hockey, and he’s won a bunch games and league and sectional titles in softball, too, in his more than two decades of coaching.

 

Cunningham is not a loud guy, so he doesn’t stand out as much as he should. I've known him for nearly 40 years, so perhaps I'm biased, but I think he’s been an exemplary coach in terms of wins and losses and how he runs his teams. He’s also been a positive force as Section III’s hockey chairman and in organizing the state tournament.

 

In short, he’s quietly put together a standout resume. Before his career is over, he really should be thought of as of the Mohawk Valley’s all-time great coaches, if he isn’t already.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Pitarresi: Anything possible for Orange now

Just a few weeks ago, Syracuse University’s basketball team looked dead in the water.

 

Whatever Jim Boeheim says now about his very resilient, tough team, he indeed was very worried with the way the Orange were playing through January and into February.

 

Now, after that phenomenal six-overtime win over Connecticut and tonight’s overtime win over West Virginia, anything can happen.

 

Again, this is a very talented offensive team that has some flaws, but what team doesn’t? I was on Jonny Flynn for a lack of generalship when the team was in the doldrums. I guess I can't say anything bad about him now ... or anybody else on the team ... especially not my hero, Kristof Ongenaet.

 

I’m not betting on SU to win over Louisville Saturday night, or to go deep into the NCAA tourney, but I’m not betting against them, either. After the last couple of nights, they believe they can do anything, and they just might.

Pitarresi:SU's classic win proves tourney is wide open

 

Syracuse’s dramatic, marathon, six-overtime, three-hour and 46-minute, 127-117, Big East Tournament victory over Connecticut Thursday night – and Friday morning – proved a lot of things.

 

Like, I don’t know much. I didn’t think SU could beat Connecticut, even though I usually think anybody can beat anybody. I think the Orange are very physically talented. I don’t think they are a mature team that plays situations well, although they’ve obviously played well the last couple of weeks.

 

The upshot is, SU has proved it has the heart to beat anyone. Can they win the Big East Tourney? Yes, although I’m not sure that is a good thing, because it means four days in four nights. Really, with the six overtimes, it means more than four and half games in four nights. There might be a fatigue carryover to the NCAA tournament. I think that is very real.

 

The other thing is that the game, besides being a stunning piece of basketball history, underlined the unpredictability of this basketball season. We’ve had top team after top team lose this season. Will that carry over to the NCAA tournament? I’d say yes. If you are a 4 seed or better, you’re a solid favorite. After that, I’d expect a lot of volatility. That’s bad for the so-called experts, but it will make for an exciting tourney.

 

The SU-UConn game reminded me that Niagara and Siena played a six-overtime game on Feb. 21, 1953 at the Albany Armory.

 

Niagara, one of the better teams in the country at the time, won 88-81. One of the Niagara stars, Eddie Fleming, played all 70 minutes. Larry Costello, later an NBA champion as a player and a coach and then the coach at Utica College, played 69 minutes. Fleming wore number 70 for the rest of his career and Costello wore 69. Those numbers are illegal today.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Pitarresi: I watched it all1

I didn’t think Syracuse could beat Connecticut in the Big East tournament Thursday.

 

It’s 12:50 a.m. Friday, and I still don’t know as the teams start the fifth overtime of an epic battle.

 

It’s a wildly exciting, crazy game, but a sloppy one that is getting sloppier as the teams stumble in exhaustion. It is simply a battle of wills now, and you almost have to feel sorry for whoever wins, because what can they have left to play West Virginia later today?

 

Now we’re in the sixth OT, it appears as if SU will win – they’re up six with a little over two minutes to play – but I’m not counting on anything.

 

And I am totally exhausted, and I haven’t played a minute!

 

Now it’s over – SU wins 127-117 in six overtimes!

 

Great, great, memorable stuff in any case. Who is going to forget this game?

 

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Pitarresi: Hamilton women will be tough again

The Hamilton College women’s lacrosse team lost some important players off its 2008 NCAA Division III national championship squad.

 

The Continentals still will be very good this year.

 

Another championship? Who knows? You have to be good to win a national title, and a little lucky, too.

 

One thing is for sure. The Continentals aren’t going to sneak up on anyone. Everyone knows they are very good, and everyone will be as prepared as possible for them. But then, they were last year, at least after the Continentals’ early season, one-goal loss to perennial power Franklin & Marshall. They put everyone on notice right then.

 

This team will miss the fast and talented Nicole Tetreault, defenders Katie White and Tara Eckberg, and “The General,” sparkplug midfielder Jen McGowan. However, there is plenty of talent left, starting with All-American attack Kaillie Briscoe, who can control the offense pace against most teams with her stick skills and savvy. Midfielder Liz Rave is big – we hesitate to say that when talking about women – and fast and capable of being a one-woman clearing machine, goalie Kate Fowler is outstanding, and sophomore midfielder Sarah Bray is a speed demon.

 

Once the Continentals get middie Kate Marek back from a concussion, they will be formidable.

 

Another title? Don’t even think about it yet, but this team will have an exciting run this spring.

Pitarresi: Mills tradition continues

Another championship for New York Mills.

 

There might be more on the way.

 

The Marauders won their ninth Section III championship since 1972 with a 70-62 victory over Otselic Valley at Manley Field House Saturday, getting a big effort and some key baskets from rugged sophomore Fred Russ.

 

New York Mills has a great basketball tradition, and it’s likely going to continue.  All of coach Mike Adey’s key players are freshmen, sophomores and juniors, and they’re pretty good, and they tend to be bigger and stronger than other Class D squads. The future - which could include another run to the state tournament if the Marauders can beat Sackets Harbor Tuesday - looks very bright.

 

As a postscript, it’s too bad this was the last year for sectional championships at Manley. The 48-year-old building is an excellent venue, bright and spacey with great sight lines, and it provides a big-time atmosphere the players seem to love.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Pitarresi: SUNYIT establishes a landmark

Congratulations to the SUNYIT Wildcats and coach Kevin Grimmer for making their first NCAA Division III tournament appearance a winning one, defeating 26-1 Elms College in the first round tonight.

 

The Wildcats’ move from the tough State University of New York Athletic Conference to the milder North Eastern Athletic Conference coincided with SUNYIT coming up with one of its best teams ever. Now, whatever happens Saturday in the second round against a very good St. Lawrence, Grimmer has a solid base to build on. Winning breeds more winning. Good players want to play for winning teams, teams that make the NCAA tourney. And this is a young team that might be even better next season.

 

This is a landmark for SUNYIT basketball, and Wildcat athletics in general.

Thursday, March 5, 2009

Pitarresi: Nebulous future for Flynn, Harris

There is a lot of talk about Syracuse University basketball players and former Niagara Falls High School teammates Jonny Flynn and Paul Harris going to the NBA after this season.

 

Well, let me tell you:

 

I talked to NBA scouts who had Flynn going to the NBA after last season, so you know there are at least a few pro people who think he can play at that level right now. I’m not an NBA scout, but I have watched a lot of basketball in the last 50 years. I think Jonny Flynn is a tremendously talented player with a lot to learn in terms of judgment on the court. He is fast and strong and a leaper, and is an adequate, not great, shooter. I do not believe he is as tall as his listed height of 6 feet, but there have been a lot of very successful NBA players who were shorter. Calvin Murphy was a Hall of Famer at 5-9. He is a very good passer most of the time, but he needs to learn how to better command a team, and he needs to know when to go inside and when not to. I really don’t know if Flynn can be successful in the NBA, and I think his stock has gone down the second half of this season, but clearly there are NBA people who think he can play. If he is told he will be drafted in the first or second round this year, I’m sure he’ll be gone. It would be difficult to turn down the money. It might not be the right decision, but …

 

Harris is another story. He’s a terrific athlete with speed, strength and jumping ability, and he has a physique second to none. He’s also very competitive, and a ball magnet. In the air or on the floor, if he is anywhere near it, he’ll get it. He has a lot of pluses at the college level, but he is inconsistent and he is not a reliable long-distance shooter. He shines in the open court, but his half-court game is far more ordinary, even if he has one of the quickest crossovers and baseline drives you’ll see. Also, he is listed at 6-5, but I’m pretty sure he is at least an inch shorter. As strong as he is, he has a tough time scoring inside against the big trees in the Big East, so it’s logical to suppose he’ll have an even tougher time at the next level. He doesn’t handle well enough to play the point, he doesn’t shoot well enough to play 2-guard, and he isn’t big enough and doesn’t shoot well enough to play small forward. In other words, he has no position in the NBA, but he wouldn’t be the first with that problem. He’s already said he will be back next year, which is good for him and good for SU, but he would have to improve his handle and his long-distance shooting considerably to have a shot at the NBA. Too bad the kid didn’t take up football. He has the body and the mentality. I think his basketball future is overseas.

 

 

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Pitarresi: Three local teams left standing

 

I’m just about sure we’ve never had more local college teams make the post-season than we had this year.

 

Hockey, basketball … our schools were all over the map in league playoffs.

 

And, wouldn’t you know it, very quickly, just three are left: SUNYIT men’s basketball, Colgate men’s basketball, and Colgate men’s hockey, which opens the ECAC Hockey playoffs Friday.

 

Congratulations to SUNYIT for its first-ever NCAA Division III tourney berth. The Wildcats are not big, but they are fast, they shoot well, and they compete hard.

 

The Colgate basketball team has had a tough year, but they knocked off Navy tonight, and will advance to the Patriot League semifinals at Holy Cross Sunday. Great stuff.

 

And the Raider hockey team, which has played 16 overtime games this season, has gotten hot at the right time. They’ll open a best-of-three-game series at Quinnipiac Friday.

 

Good luck to all the teams.