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The Bad (Blackmon), the Good (Kuchar) and the Ugly (Harper)

Apr 23, 2014 -- 9:42am

The bad . . .

I keep hearing Jaguar fans talk about the team’s draft, its future, and say something along the lines of, “If Justin Blackmon comes back then blab, blab, blab . . .”

Stop it! Quit including Blackmon as part of the team’s future. Quit thinking of how Blackmon’s return from substance abuse suspensions might influence the Jaguars draft.

I’m not saying Blackmon is done as a Jaguar, but he probably is. I am saying even if he’s re-instated the Jaguars can never think in terms of him playing beyond the next game – if that.

Blackmon is one more misstep from a lifetime suspension. He’s supposedly clean up his act on several occasions before only to stumble again.

He can’t be included in the team’s plans. Anything the Jaguars get from Blackmon in the future has to be seen as a bonus, not a foundation.

Sad but true.

The good . . .

It is the feel-good sports story of the year. It’s an uplifting example of a good guy finishing first.

Matt Kuchar won the PGA Tour’s Heritage Classic in Hilton Head Island, S.C. That tells very little of the story.

For you non-golf fans let me give you some background info. Kuchar is a top 10-caliber player on Tour. He’s also among the nicest pro athletes you’ll ever meet, wearing a constant smile.

For three straight weeks Kuchar played well, won a ton of money but stumbled in the final round to be denied victory.

Sunday he started 4 shots back but played beautifully and looked at a 5-foot birdie putt on No. 17 that would have practically assured him of victory. He missed the putt and then missed the short comeback putt. We’re talking a classic choke.

On the final hole, tied for the lead, he hit his approach into a bunker guarding the front of the green. The jaws of defeat must have felt like they were attached to his neck.

Then he holed his bunker shot! Defeat turned to victory. Choke turned to clutch. Despair turned to joy.

It was beautiful.

The ugly . . .

Matt Williams of the Washington Nationals gets my vote as the Major League manager of the year. I know it’s early but there’s nothing another manager can do in the next five months to change my mind. Williams may be a rookie Major League manager, but he’s already showing the leadership of a savvy veteran.

Last weekend Williams benched his star player, Bryce Harper, immediately after Harper only jogged half way to first after hitting a one-hopper back to the mound. Williams sent his message loud and clear: no hustle, no play and that includes star players, even 21-year-old phenoms such as Harper.

I hope Williams’ message resonates throughout baseball and other sports. It isn’t too much to ask athletes, particularly professional athletes, to play hard. Most fans can understand physical mistakes and will tolerate an occasional mental screw-up, but not trying is inexcusable.

Too often such lack of effort is ignored by managers and coaches, but seldom is it ignored by paying customers.

Give the NBA Playoffs a Try

Apr 21, 2014 -- 10:40am

I’m more fired up about the NBA playoffs this year than I’ve been in a long time. By my count there are eight teams – that’s half the field – that could be holding the championship trophy. Maybe nine.

Sure, many expect the Miami Heat to three-peat and that’s certainly possible, but can Dwayne Wade’s body hold up for the grueling playoff grind? And if he does hold up physically is he still night in and night out the same player he was?

Standing in front of the Heat’s bid to win the East are Indiana and Brooklyn. The Pacers are the most unpredictable team in the playoffs. For the first three months of the regular season they may have been the NBA’s best team. For the last three they were mediocre. Brooklyn has a bunch of aging stars who could have one more run in their legs. Some might argue that Chicago deserves to be in the discussion but without Derrick Rose there’s simply not enough offense.

Out West five of the eight playoff teams are talented enough to go the distance. The Warriors, no doubt, think that number is six.

I agree San Antonio and Oklahoma City are the best of the bunch. Not only do they have their Dynamic Duos – the Spurs with Tim Duncan and Tony Parker, the Thunder with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook – but they have star quality support.

But the Clippers (Chris Paul and Blake Griffin), the Rockets (James Harden and Dwight Howard) and the Trail Blazers (LaMarcus Aldridge and Damien Lillard) all also have Dynamic Duos capable of taking their teams to the title. And their supporting casts are capable.

(In case you’re not that familiar with Portland’s Aldridge and Lillard you should check out their performances in Sunday’s victory at Houston. Aldridge had 46 points and 18 rebounds and Lillard had 31 points.)

Critics say the incredible shooting Warriors lack the star big man although ex-Gator David Lee would disagree. This will be Lee’s opportunity to prove the critics wrong.

I know many of you pay little attention to the NBA. Many of us old-timers have trouble dealing with the new rules – or at least the way old rules are interpreted. When’s the last time someone was called for “palming” the ball? If a player is called for travelling these days then he must have taken at least four steps.

And the regular season does drag on too long and too many players have a habit of taking too many plays off. In other words, there’s a lot of loafing going on.

But the playoffs are different. Teams actually play defense, players actually hustle from start to finish and the stars tend to step up their incredible games a notch. Check out the playoffs. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

New Playoff Format Makes The Players Even Better

Apr 18, 2014 -- 10:20am

Two thumbs – no, make that three thumbs – up to the folks who run the Players.

Starting with this year’s tournament, which is three weeks away (May 8-11), a 3-hole playoff will be used to determine the champion if there’s a tie after 72 holes. The playoff contestants will play holes 16, 17 and 18.

Multi-hole playoff formats are now used in golf’s top five tournaments, only the Masters sticking with a sudden-death format. The U.S. Open has an 18-hole format, while the PGA Championship uses 3 holes and the British Open 4 holes.

The decision by the Players will elevate the tournament’s status even more and could become the talk of the golf world because the Stadium Course’s final three holes make up the best finishing holes in American golf. (I say American golf because I won’t pretend to know the finishing holes of all courses around the globe.)

A 3-2-4 finish on the Stadium doesn’t require any miracles. A 6-6-6 finish isn’t out of the question either.

No. 16 is a great risk-reward par-5. No. 17, the island hole, is perhaps golf’s most recognized par-3. No. 18 ranks with the most difficult par-4s in the world.

As a golf fan I’m now pulling for a playoff every year at the Players. The more players the better.

Bubba Watson is good for golf but bad for golf instructors.

No sport is more overloaded with instruction manuals and teaching gurus than golf. Most PGA Tour players have their “special” coaches and credit them for much of their success. All of the teachers have their “little secrets” but they teach basically the same things: Head down, left arm straight, shoulder turn, weight shift, etc.

As a result most our players’ swings look the basically the same.

Not Bubba’s swing. His swing in unique. Bubba Golf didn’t come from an instruction manual or some overpriced, overhyped teacher.

Bubba is a throwback to the days when golfers simply learned to hit the ball and get it in the hole. Most had their singular styles. Now Bubba and Jim Furyk are the best of a small group of world-class golfers who don’t fit any mold.

The game really is about fee and repetition and hitting thousands of balls on the range. Bubba’s swing isn’t “pretty” but it works. He has two green jackets to prove it.

Do We Need a 40th Bowl Game?

Apr 16, 2014 -- 10:52am

A couple of college football things I’m thinking about . . .

It’s no secret we love college football and tailgating in these parts. That was obvious last Saturday in Tallahassee, Gainesville and Athens.

Based on the numbers given by the schools 118,427 fans attended the spring games at FSU, Florida and Georgia. (Reportedly 70,000-plus were in Knoxville.) Who knows how accurate the number is but we know this: There were a lot of people watching glorified scrimmages on a beautiful April afternoon.

The attendance at spring games is added proof that, indeed, in these parts the most popular college sports are, in order, football, spring football, football recruiting and hunting for the preseason magazines and internet stories about football.

And to think the NFL is even more popular than college football.

For the record, there are about 140 days before the college football season begins. That’s 3,360 hours or 201,600 minutes. But I’ll bet you college football fanatics already knew that.

 **********

As expected the whiners are out and louder than ever because the NCAA has sanctioned a 40th college football bowl game starting in 2015.

Who’s going to watch? The games don’t mean anything. Those are the biggest complaints.

My question is simply: Why not play them?

Obviously whatever TV networks carry the games think somebody’s watching. Ditto for the companies that buy commercials for the telecast. If you’re not interested then don’t watch.

As for the games not meaning anything, using that criteria there’re only be a handful of games played each season. When’s the last time Tennessee-Kentucky mattered? Or N.C. State-Wake Forest? You get my point.

The bowls games are now simply an extinction of the season, providing another game and good experience for the players and more practice time for coaches.

Why does anybody have a problem with that?

No Tiger, No Problem

Apr 14, 2014 -- 10:07am

If you didn’t watch the Masters because Tiger Woods wasn’t playing that’s your loss.

If you watched the Masters, but didn’t enjoy it because Tiger wasn’t playing then you don’t like golf.

This wasn’t the greatest Masters but it was a darn good one, offering up something for everyone.

The winner was golf’s most colorful player, lefty Bubba Watson.

He swings like a man chopping down a tree and often thinks like a man who was hit by the fallen tree, but he’s got game and now he has two green jackets. No one hits it farther and higher than the self taught Bubba. He often makes head-scratching decisions, but like another lefty, Phil Mickelson, Bubba turns bogeys into birdies with grip-it-and-rip-it approach to the game.

If Bubba doesn’t go into another golfing coma – as he did after winning the 2012 Masters – golf has another must-see player in Watson.

As a sidebar to Bubba’s 3-shot victory you got a long look at the game’s next great player in 20-year-old Jordan Spieth, who tied for second. He’ll get a green jacket someday soon and, no doubt, other major trophies.

The youth movement also was on display in Ricky Fowler, who up to now has been an overhyped player because of his popsicle-colored wardrobe and his oversized caps.

You saw the next stoic Euro in Sweden’s Jonas Blixt, who now lives in Ponte Vedra. Think Germany’s Bernhard Langer, who, by the way, tied for 8th while taking a break from the Champions Tour.  

Langer wasn’t the only old-timer to shine. 50-year-old Miguel Angel Jimenez, who looks less like a golfer than everyone on Tour, finished 4th and had the tournament’s lowest round, a Saturday 66. Another senior player, Mr. Cool Fred Couples, was a factor until the backnine on Sunday.

If you’re the kind of fan who likes heart-breaking moments then Matt Kuchar, the Tour’s nicest player and one of its best putters, fulfilled your wishes. He took himself out the contention when he 4-putted the 4th green.

I’ll welcome Tiger’s return when his back heals, but in the meantime golf showed in the Masters it has lots of interesting characters to watch.

Wondering Why Jasick Took JU Job

Apr 11, 2014 -- 8:12am

There’s no doubt in my mind that Tony Jasick is a fine young college basketball coach. He has a sparkling track record. I expect him to continue to excel professionally in his new job as Jacksonville University’s head coach.

But I can’t help but wonder why he took the job.

Moving from Indiana-Purdue Fort Wayne to JU is, at best, a lateral move. Both are considered mid-majors in NCAA basketball and both play in low tier Division 1 conferences.

Jasick had IPFW on the upswing, going from 11 victories to 25 in three years. He was voted NCAA Mid-Major Coach of the Year this season. His team finished second in the Summit League, the school’s highest finish ever. IPFW had its first-ever postseason victory.

At JU he inherits a program with three straight losing seasons, a team gutted by graduation and transfers and a lousy fan base. The crowd – about 110 to 115 -- that attended Thursday’s on-campus press conference to announce his hiring was bigger than some of the crowds that attended JU games this year.

No salary was released, but I can’t imagine JU paying considerably more than IPFW. The facilities are comparable (neither is particularly good). Jasick says he and his wife have no family ties to the area.

When I asked him why he made the move he said it was because of JU President Tim Cost’s commitment to having a strong basketball program. It was the ultimate stock answer. I do believe JU wants a strong program, but I doubt JU’s resources and commitment are greater than those of IPFW.

Obviously Jasick denied seeing the JU job as a stepping stone to bigger and better things, but who believes that? Of course, IPFW was a stepping stone. But to JU?

So, again, I ask why?

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