Archive for March, 2008

It’s Spring Again (part 5)

March 29, 2008
  1. What will the line be for the August opener vs. Southern California?

Obviously it’s a bit early to prognosticate on a single game, but this may be the most interesting question of the five so let’s give it a shot.  Southern Cal finished the season ranked #3 in the AP poll and #2 in the USA Today poll.  If you believe history matters, this marks the sixth consecutive season in the top 4 of both polls.  Combined record: 70-8.  During the same stretch, Virginia was 46-30 and finished in the top 25 of both polls just three times.

 

Over the past six years, the 70 USC wins by an average margin of 24 points.  On the road, the average margin drops to… 23.  The past three openers have been 28-, 36-, and 46-point victories for USC.  Virginia will likely have a record crowd on hand cheering for the underdog in Charlottesville, but even that may not help keep the score close.  VPI kept it within 11 in 2004, losing 24-13 before 91,665 mostly pro-Tech fans at FedEx Field.  To open the 2004 season, USC beat an Arkansas team that went 10-4 by 36 points – 50-14 – in front of a record crowd of 76,564.  In the 2003 opener, USC shut out an 8-5 Auburn team 23-0 in front of a sellout crowd of 86,063.

 

USC opened last year at home against Idaho and was a 45-point favorite.  The last time we saw USC, they were 14-point favorites in the Rose Bowl against Illinois – the largest spread among all 32 bowls.  Southern Cal squeaked by 49-17.  Their biggest game before that?  A 44-24 pasting of then-#7 Arizona State in Tempe.  USC was leading by 27 heading into the 4th quarter, and clearly proved the single-digit line to be too small.  Back in 2005, somewhat funny Maryland grad Norman Chad, detailed USC’s record at the time against the spread:

Eight times in the last two seasons, the Trojans have covered spreads of 24 points or more. Last year, minus-37 against Washington, USC won, 38-0; minus-35 against Arizona, USC won, 49-9. This season, minus-35 at Hawaii, USC won, 63-17; minus-29 against Arkansas, USC won 70-17.

You may recall in last season’s BCS title game — pick ’em versus Oklahoma — USC won by, uh, 55-19 or thereabouts.

At this point, if I were a betting man, I would have to take USC minus 23 1/2 against a UFO.

While it is true USC will likely not be the clear national favorite heading into the season that they have been in 3 of the last 4 years, there will be plenty of talent on the flight East.  There is a stud playmaker in the backfield in Joe McKnight and two former high school All-Americans with experience (Mark Sanchez and Arkansas transfer Mitch Mustain) competing for the QB job.  Onetime Virginia recruiting target Vidal Hazelton will lead the always dangerous receiving corps.  On defense, the losses are smaller for a unit that was ranked #2 nationally in total defense and scoring defense.  And of course, head coach Pete Carroll is back after declining mega-millions in the NFL yet again.

Look for the August 30th line to be in the neighborhood of 20 points.  But even that would be less than half of what USC was favored to win by against Stanford last year at home… when the lost 24-23.

It’s Spring Again (part 4)

March 29, 2008
  1. How much will the kicking game fall off with new starters in all facets?

One thing is certain going into the 2008 season: an untested rookie will be handling kickoffs, placekicks, and punts for the Virginia football squad.  At placekicker, Chris Hinkebein is the heir apparent to Chris Gould.  Gould will certainly not be remembered in the same light as his predecessor Conor Hughes, a first team all-ACC selection as a senior.  However, he did provide some stability last year and was a known commodity especially valuable with so many close games after an up and down 2006 campaign.  Gould made 80% of his field goals last year and while no Kurt Smith, he proved decent off the tee on kickoffs (7 touchbacks, average starting position of 25).  He made all 5 FGs of 40+ yards as a senior after going 4-12 from that distance as a junior, and credited a change in kicking style with at least some of his improvement.  Hinkebein has followed suit in terms of style, but has no track record other than his high school numbers which came in Charlotte in late 2006.

     

At punter, Virginia made the switch to the tag-team approach in late 2006, and it proved to be at least adequate, if not effective.  Without having the short kicks to bring down his punting average, Weigand ranked 4th nationally last season at 45.2 and was voted second-team all-ACC despite being left of Groh’s nomination list.  Gould was solid as well, notching 19 punts inside the 20 with only 3 touchbacks in his 26 attempts.  Combined, the team had three blocks and was outside the top 50 nationally in both punting average and net punting average.  The singular replacement is Jimmy Howell, a freshman from South Carolina who originally committed to Northwestern, won’t have the benefit of a redshirt year.

     

I would love to speculate on the potential strengths and weakness of Hinkebein’s and Howell’s kicking legs, but there just isn’t anything to go off.  We do know this: experience will not be a strength, and there may not be any other options.  For what it’s worth, the Daily Progress did report in January that Howell was encouraged to work on placement kicks in his offseason workouts, but I would be shocked if he were given more than a single responsibly as a true freshman.  Look for some walk-ons to be in the mix…

It’s Spring Again (part 3)

March 29, 2008
  1. Can Clint Sintim take the next step?

Along with the two other returning starters at LB – Antonio Appleby and John Copper – Sintim is essentially the face of the defense and by far the biggest playmaker coming back on that side of the ball.  With a new starter guaranteed at the other OLB spot and questions both on the D-line and in the secondary, Sintim’s production will go a long way toward keeping the defense a strength of this ballclub.  Each of the past two seasons, Virginia has been ranked in the top 25 nationally in terms of total defense (measured in yards allowed per game), and Sintim has been a big factor.

  

After averaging just below 4.4 and 3.8 tackles per game as a starter in both his freshman and junior campaigns, the Woodbridge native and former SuperPrep All-American increased that figure to 5.9 last year.  He has had 9+ tackles for loss (TFL) total each season and last year increased his sack total to 9 as well after posting 7 in the previous two seasons combined.  Sintim’s best and most infamous game came in the regular-season finale at home against VPI last year.  He had 3 sacks in the first half and totaled 10 tackles before being ejected at the end of the game for pushing Sean Glennon over after a fake kneel-down.

Can Sintim have the senior season that Ahmad Brooks, Kai Parham, and Daryl Blackstock never had?  Will the loss of all two immensely-talented defensive ends, Sintim may actually have a hard time producing at the levels he did in the past, at least from his upright OLB position.  Will we see more of Sintim with his hand on the ground?  He has often played what is essentially a DE position in nickel, passing situation 3rd-downs, but can Groh and new DC Bob Pruett find other creative ways to get him into the opposing backfield?  Let’s hope so.

It’s Spring Again (part 2)

March 29, 2008

  1. How will the carries be split among the running back corps?

It seems like this is a question every year, or at least every other year, and it’s definitely not a bad one to have.  First it was Wali Lundy and Alvin Pearman and now it’s Mikell Simpson and Cedric Peerman.  With more talent buried on the roster and several running back commitments from the high school class of 2009 already, this is no doubt a position of strength for Al Groh’s program. 

Groh is fond of quoting Bill Parcells on this issue, saying who gets the carries is “their problem, not my problem.”  He has shown the tendency to ride the hot hand and go with whomever is the most productive at the time (see Jason Snelling in ’06, Simpson at the end of ‘07), often banishing others to the sideline for months (see Michael Johnson, although his fumbling did not help).  Last year was a bit unique in the fact that Simpson may not have even burst on the scene had Cedric Peerman not gone down in the Middle Tennessee game.  Interestingly enough, both Peerman and Simpson had exactly 113 carries last season for 585 and 570 yards, respectively.  The latter obviously provides a pass-catching dynamic (team-leading 43 receptions to Peerman’s 12) that may makes him additionally valuable in a Lalich-led offense.  The former, well, he’s hard to argue with when the tough yards are needed.  Would have loved to have seen him on that 3rd-and-1 against Tech when Simpson was on the sideline battling cramps.  Simpson’s heroics at Maryland are now legendary, but it was Peerman who racked up 130+ yards in three straight wins early last year. 

Barring the unforeseen, it’s hard to imagine many carries available for over-hyped Keith Payne or Gator Bowl-starter Rashawn Jackson, at least at tailback.  To the ignorant fan, Jackson seems like he would be quite a weapon at fullback, catching passes out of the backfield and getting an occasional carry a la Snelling in ’05.  Not to mention providing an additional blocker between the tackles for both running and passing plays.  Andrew Pearman is gone, but for all his hype he only produced one game of more than 50 offensive yards – subbing for Peerman on the road in Murfreesboro last season – and shouldn’t be missed much.

It’s Spring Again

March 28, 2008

This subject is not a reference to the seasonal tune by Biz Markie, although did recently perform at Caron Butler’s birthday bash in DC… The focus here is on football.  Not a game, mind you, but practice.  Good Friday marked the first of 15 for the Virginia football program and there are many questions that need to be answered after a disastrous end to last season and an even worse offseason.  The run-of-the-mill questions are asked in the cookie-cutter articles in Friday’s Daily Progress, Times-Dispatch, and Daily Press.  Chief among them are: (1) Is Peter Lalich ready to be the man at QB? and (2) Who will fill the open three slots on the DL and interior OL with all six starters gone?  Digging a bit deeper, I have five slightly more intriguing questions.  Here is #1: 

  1. How will the play-calling and offensive style change without Sewell in the game or even in the QB rotation?

We definitely saw a different brand of offense when Lalich was in the ballgame last year.  He operated almost exclusively out of the shotgun and threw mostly quick-hitters to his first or second read.  The design looked more like the Bill Musgrave-orchestrated West Coast offense of the Matt Schaub era than the rollouts we saw with Hagans and Sewell under center.  It will be interesting to see if Father & Son Groh focus on this style, to both play to Lalich’s strengths and perhaps buy some time for him and the new interior OL.  I for one, would like to see some two-back sets mixed in to utilize the depth at running back (more on that later), with runs behind a fullback and one of the two starting tackles who return.  This formation might keep defenses honest against Lalich, but it has been a rarity in recent years, seen on the field perhaps less than jersey #44 in the post-Kai Parham era.

With no foreseeable QB controversy, Lalich should get the benefit of entire schemes and gameplans designed for him.  He should have a legitimate receiver in Kevin Ogletree, assuming he is back at 100%.  Ogletree’s return may also have an impact on the play-calling as well, as getting someone open off the end was clearly a struggle last season.  Santi and Stupar are gone, but their loss in terms of receptions (76) is actually less of a reduction than last year when Ogletree, Fontel Mines, Deyon Williams (89 combined receptions) were unavailable.  Even Ogletree may not scare too many defensive coordinators, but he did catch at least two passes in all 12 games his sophomore year. 

Lalich has at least some experience going into the season (thanks to Al Groh’s fortuitous burning of his red-shirt in Laramie, WY), which may allow for a bit more of an open playbook and perhaps more offensive creativity than if he were a true freshman.  Then again, Lalich’s “experience” only includes 8 completions in the last 9 games of the season, and has perhaps more lowlights (critical turnovers against both Georgia Tech and Texas Tech) than highlights (touchdown drive against Duke).  The pressure will be on both Lalich and offensive coordinator Mike Groh to improve a passing offense that was ranked 90th and 102nd nationally each of the past two seasons.

ACC in NCAA: Staying In

March 27, 2008

For the second year in a row, UNC is the sole ACC participant in the Sweet Sixteen.  This comes after 27 consecutive seasons with 2 or more conference representatives making it out of the NCAA Tournament’s first weekend.  In fact, it would be three years without multiple teams if expansion had not brought in BC a few years back:

    

2008: UNC  2007: UNC  2006: BC, Duke, 2005: Duke, UNC, NCSU  2004: Duke, GT, Wake  2003: Duke, Maryland  2002: Duke, Maryland  2001: Duke, Maryland  2000: Duke, UNC  1999: Duke, Maryland  1998: Duke, Maryland, UNC  1997: Clemson, UNC  1996: GT, Wake  1995: Maryland, UNC, Virginia, Wake  1994: Duke, Maryland  1993: FSU, UNC, Virginia, Wake  1992: Duke, FSU, GT, UNC  1991: Duke, UNC  1990: Clemson, Duke, GT, UNC  1989: Duke, UNC, NCSU, Virginia  1988: Duke, UNC  1987: Duke, UNC  1986: Duke, GT, UNC, NCSU  1985: GT, Maryland, UNC, NCSU  1984: Maryland, UNC, Virginia, Wake  1983: UNC, NCSU, Virginia  1982: UNC, Virginia  1981: UNC, Virginia  1980: Clemson, Duke, Maryland

Naturally, the media has lined up to take shots at the conferences and its fall from grace.  David Teel takes his shots at the conference in Wednesday’s Daily Press, arguing the problem is more individual than collective: 

Maryland has earned one NCAA bid in the last four years as Gary Williams struggles with rampant staff turnover; Georgia Tech has failed to gain traction under Paul Hewitt, and North Carolina State ran off a quality coach in Herb Sendek.

Clemson progressed this season, but coach Oliver Purnell never has won an NCAA tournament game; Virginia regressed and faces an iffy future without Sean Singletary; Virginia Tech has a two-time ACC coach of the year in Greenberg but hasn’t made consecutive NCAA appearances since 1985 and ’86.

If Dino Gaudio coaches as well as he recruits, Wake Forest has a chance to rebuild; Boston College enjoyed seven straight postseason bids, six of them NCAA, before this year’s decline; Florida State is mired in mediocrity, while Miami fights institutional apathy.

Which leaves the most curious case: Duke.

Since winning the 2001 national championship, the Blue Devils have not defeated a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. Moreover, Duke has lost to a lower seed in six of the last seven years.

Once the masters of March, the Blue Devils dropped five of their final 11 games this year, eight of their final 12 last year.

Duke desperately needs a serviceable big man, and its fans are entitled to question whether coach Mike Krzyzewski’s three-year involvement with the 2008 Olympic team has compromised the Blue Devils.

ACC in NCAA: Getting In

March 27, 2008

Much has been made about the ACC only receiving 4 bids to this year’s NCAA Tournament, and VPI coach Seth Greenberg certainly attempted to make the case for his team being included as the fifth.  As Virginia fans everywhere pointed out, he erroneously politicked on the grounds of top 65 (total number of bids including guaranteed) status, rather than top 34 (at-large bids) status.

     

VPI finished the season with an RPI ranking of #52 and a regular-season ACC record of 9-7.  8-8 Miami (#34 RPI) received a bid, while 8-8 Maryland (#85) did not.  Greenberg had to have felt his victory over Miami and near-miss against top overall seed UNC in the ACC Tournament strengthened his case.

History suggests that the 9-7 in-conference may have been enough.  Last year, when the ACC had the top RPI rankings among conferences (as they did again this year), 7 bids were extended.  All teams with double-digit regular-season ACC win totals (5) received bids, just as they did this year (3).  Both 8-8 Duke (#15 RPI) and 8-8 Georgia Tech (#52) received invitations, despite neither winning an ACC Tournament game.

One area that certainly didn’t help Greenberg’s cause was VPI’s nonconference schedule.  In Saturday’s Washington Post, John Feinstein brought this to light in his column entitled “If You’re Not 1 of 65, Please Don’t Whine”:

Check out some of Virginia Tech’s nonconference games: Elon, Eastern Washington, UNC Asheville (a decent team but the game was, of course, at Cassell Coliseum), UNC Greensboro, Liberty, Charleston Southern. Heck, maybe Greenberg should have demanded a bid as the Big South champion. Take out those games and Virginia Tech was 13-13.

Virginia Tech’s non-conference strength of schedule is ranked 137th nationally using the RPI methodology, but that is still higher than Miami (143), Clemson (183), NC State (202), Virginia (216), Wake Forest (264).  Wake’s OOC slate included home games with Fairfield, NC Central, Winston Salem State, South Carolina Upstate, Bucknell, South Florida, Air Force, and Presbyterian.  Feinstein also points this out about Duke:

Here’s another stat for you: Duke, which clearly wasn’t a bubble team, played zero nonconference games on an opponent’s true home court. It did play Temple at Wachovia Center and Davidson at Charlotte Bobcats Arena, but true nonconference road games? Zero.

Maryland is Maryland

March 26, 2008

With Duke in DC for the NCAA Tournament, the Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg broached the topic of Maryland fans with some of the Duke players in his blog.  Here are a few of the responses he received:

  • Steve Johnson (walk-on) on the toughest venue to play in: “Definitely Maryland. They were loud before the game, during the game, after the game. You’ve got guys sitting on the baseline yelling. Just a crazy crowd. Some stuff was pretty offensive, but you could just tell they hated us. You could easily tell. And UNC was kind of like that. Not as vulgar language, though.”
  • Gerald Henderson: “Probably Maryland. I don’t know, they must just really hate us over there, because whenever we get on the court, it’s like the devil’s coming in there. Well, the Devils are coming in there. It’s just, I don’t know, they really hate us over there, get on us from shootaround till the end of the game. I don’t know what it is. I guess we beat them enough in the past that they come with this hatred for us, but it’s pretty intense.”
  • Kyle Singler: “I’d say Maryland’s probably the most hostile place. The fans are into it, and there’s just so many of them. I think that’s just the main part of it, And they’ve got posters with pictures of you. The fans are nasty, and there’s so many of em.”
  • DeMarcus Nelson: “I’d probably say Maryland. Their fans, there isn’t anything they won’t say. It’s a great environment for us to play in.”

Duke fans have for years chanted “we’re not rivals” or “not our rivals” during home Maryland games for years, but actually add a bit more creativity this year, when they held sings stating the following:

Maryland B-Ball Graduation Rate… 0%

Fear the Classroom

Singletary’s jersey

March 26, 2008

Just when you thought the discussion about the place of Sean Singletary in Virginia basketball history was over, some interesting quotes from associate AD Jon Oliver pop up in the Cavalier Daily:

“We do not publish our specific criteria for retiring numbers and jerseys. But it is correct that retiring a number is a higher honor.”

“Sean has reached the criteria for having his number retired with the exception of one category. His number will be retired in the future if the category requirement is satisfied.”

I must admit that my initial reaction upon seeing the black curtain over the “retired jerseys” banner (and not the “retired numbers” banner) in JPJ prior to the tip on the Maryland game was that of disappointment.  I realize this program is not UCLA, Kentucky or Carolina, and that the lesser of the two is still an honor, but prior to SS the only name on that list was Curtis Staples.  As a three-time first-team all-ACC selection, SS deserves to be on the same list as the only other two Virginia players to achieve that honor – Bryant Stith and Ralph Sampson.  End of story.  Staples had a nice career and of course held the NCAA career 3-point field goal record until it was broken by fellow Roanoke-native J.J. Redick.  He made all-ACC honorable mention as a sophomore and junior and all-ACC third team as a senior.  Staples didn’t even get the distinction of having his jersey retired until the JPJ opener in 2006, nearly a decade after completing his eligibility.  At the time, it seemed clear that the jersey retirement was an honor for the second-tier of program greats, a category SS certainly does not fall in.

While Oliver refused to specify the aforementioned criteria, he did indicate that SS was likely to meet them all.  Certainly no program wants players striving solely for individual goals, and this is what Oliver cited as the basis for the secrecy.  Still, does it make sense to give SS a second-tier honor at one point and then up it to top-tier when he achieves the last of the criteria, likely graduation?  And, if graduation is the only difference between number retirement and jersey retirement, why not state at least that?  Doesn’t Oliver want all his student-athletes striving for a diploma?

Bitter Spiders

March 20, 2008

In addition to attendance, officiating may also prove to be an issue with future CBI tourneys, should there be any.  At least, that is, if anyone nationally is paying attention to the comments from the University of Richmond:

“It’s a shame to see a game where the [Spiders] played so hard, and gave all they had, to lose that way,” said Jim Miller, Richmond’s athletic director.

He referred, Miller emphasized, to the officiating. Virginia shot 11 free throws (six made) in the final 7:57, during which UR tried two foul shots (one made). In the second half, U.Va. attempted 17 free throws to Richmond’s four. After committing 11 fouls in the first half, Virginia was called for three personals in the second half. One came in the last few seconds. Its purpose: break UR’s offensive rhythm. U.Va. was at no risk of putting Richmond on the line.

At the buzzer, UR coach Chris Mooney didn’t go directly to the hand-shaking line. First, he walked onto the court to unleash an earful on one of the officials from the Midwest-based crew. Mooney became so agitated that he needed to be restrained by two of his assistants after Spider Kevin Smith drove to the basket with UR down 65-64 and 10 seconds remained.

Smith penetrated from the left side and while trying a layup appeared to be bumped. His shot missed badly. No whistle. “I thought I got hit, but it really doesn’t matter what I think,” Smith said. “The officials didn’t call it, and that’s the way it stood.”

Miller is an ODU grad who might have been anticipating a matchup with the Monarchs in the second round.