Philadelphia: The Home of Bandwagon Basketball.

"Palestra"--Ivy League for Gym.

There’s no denying the basketball tradition in the city of Philadelphia.  The Palestra, shown in the photo above and Penn’s home court, is the best venue I’ve ever experienced for college basketball.  The city’s high schools continuously produce top-level talent, and it’s not uncommon for a Big Five school to garner a national reputation.  Villanova has taken the torch most recently, but each of the city’s schools have had their moments of glory.  I bring up the Big Five and Philadelphia basketball because I heard the other day someone make the argument that Philadelphia is a college basketball city, and not a pro basketball city.  The same way it is a pro football town, and not interested in college football.  I’ll concede the football point.  The Eagles are always kings, but in basketball, I’m not sure if the description is accurate.  I think a lot of basketball fans in Philly might just be front-runners.

I’m not condemning the true fans.  The city’s colleges all have loyal allegiances, and the rivalries are  intense.  St. Joseph’s hates Villanova, vice-versa, their game is called the Holy War….you get the idea.  Any team, in any sport, in any town has its loyalists.  Philadelphia is the same, and perhaps the college teams in town have more share in the die-hard market than the Sixers, but there’s a lot of unaffiliated fans out there.  And, when it comes it basketball they flock to the winner.  This year and last, it was Villanova.  Maybe next year it will be Temple.  A few years back, when St. Joe’s was blitzing through the season undefeated, they had everyone’s attention.  I’ll put myself in this category.  I was pulling equally hard for St. Joe’s in 2004 and Nova in 2009.  This makes me a fraud, but I don’t think I’m alone.

The Sixers, are a sad, and completely different story.  Yes, they have their fans (more ashamed to be seen in public every day).  I would also agree that a premiere college program or two takes away from their fan base slightly, but there’s no question that if the Sixers were winning, they’d fill the building.  In times like these, though, I don’t know if the town would raise much of a stink if Comcast wanted to move the franchise to Vegas, or Cuba.

I understand that very few teams are able to consistently draw crowds when they don’t win.  That kind of loyalty exists mostly in the NFL, and in cities with fewer sporting options.  I don’t expect the Sixers to sell out every night, but there’s not even a modicum of interest in them.  They haven’t won anything since 1983, but we aren’t talking about the Clippers here.  There was Doc, and then Charles, A.I, the team has had superstars, deep playoff runs, and all the time they’ve been on the back burner.  Make the finals, and then we’ll sell out the building.  Or, bring in Pat Croce to personally hold the hands of everyone in attendance, and you’ll get a decent crowd.  Otherwise?  Eh, 13 thousand.

I stopped caring about the Sixers long ago, and I honestly think that even if they started winning again, I’d be a little hesitant to get back on board, but I know many would.  I guess, it’s just a shame to see, a town that is supposed to be a great sports town, and supports the Eagles and Flyers so unconditionally be so apathetic and fair weather.  I guess there just isn’t enough love to go around.

NCAA Tourney Expanding Out of Control?

Uh, We're Going to Need a Bigger Bracket.

On the day the Oscars unveiled their expanded Best Picture field, the word is the NCAA Tournament is also ripe for another expansion.  The 65 team field is looking at another growth spurt.  Originally, the number being thrown around was a modest 68 teams, but now reports are that a 96 team tournament is in the works.  I can’t even fathom that.  Who wants to draw up that bracket?  Not this guy.  My initial reaction is that it renders the regular season completely useless.  You let 96 teams in the show, and you might as well just make the regular season one giant quadruple elimination Beirut tournament.  We understand there’s a business side to this, but 96 teams?  That seems a little greedy.  It’s worth mentioning that CBS’s contract with the NCAA has an opt-out clause after this season.  If they expand the tournament by 31 games, they could opt-out of the deal, jack up the price and see if a couple other networks want to jump in on a bidding war.

Ninety-six sounds like a tremendous number of teams, but if you look at it a little more closely it wouldn’t add another week to the tournament or anything.  Essentially, the top 32 teams get a bye, and the other 64 play a one-round play in game.  You are probably talking about two more days of games.  It could either be the weekend before the traditional Thursday start, or Monday and Tuesday.  Also, the NCCA would just essentially be absorbing the NIT field.  Coincidentally, or not, the deal with the NIT ends after this season as well, and that tournament has lost all importance.  It should go away.

The good thing about the expansion would be the elimination of the bubble.  Obviously there is still a last team out scenario, but with this many at-large bids, that team won’t be any good.  It’d be hard to argue that a team that has missed the tournament in the 64/5 team field era could have won the tournament, but certainly there have been cases where they might have won a game or two.  And, should they be given that chance?  It looks like they will.  The pressing question on everyone’s mind, how would the NIT Champ have done in the Big Dance will now be answered.

The downside of all this is the impact on the regular season.  These schools play 30-some games during the regular season, a long grind for alleged student-athletes, and you have to question what it’d all be for.  Especially for a team in a power conference.  How many Big East teams get into a 96 team field?  10?  11?  Doesn’t put a lot of heat on the regular season, and it would also diminish the value of the conference tournaments.  You’d like to think they would trim back a little, but that’s the problem with sports, they never trim back.  The baseball season being shortened?  Forget about it.  The NCCA football season shortened by a game to accommodate a playoff system?  No chance.  Once that money goes in the pockets, it’s tough to get it back out.

I guess 96 teams doesn’t really bother me, but I think it will become a “wake me up on the second weekend of the tourney” scenario.  I think some people already feel that way, and this would only make it worse.  But, more games for TV, more games to bet, sounds like a win.

Bryce Harper Homers: The Bandwagon Update.

A little update on Bryce Harper, aka the LeBron James of Baseball. Harper has started his season for the College of Southern Nevada, and the video above is of his first college home run. Harper intends to play this spring and then enter the 2010 Major League draft. Just 17, Harper left high school, got his G.E.D., and headed to junior college all so he could enter professional baseball one year early. A phenomenon since about the first time he picked up a bat, Harper is considered one the best scholastic hitters of all-time, and maybe the best high school power prospect ever. There’s another YouTube video of him hammering home runs at Tropicana Field, and aluminum bat or not, it’s an impressive display. Harper, some baseball people would understate, has a pretty good hack.

Harper is a tantalizing prospect. A catcher, with a 95+ mph arm, and unmatched list of accolades for someone his age. In the realms of high school talent, you’re probably comparing him with Alex Rodriguez and Josh Hamilton. No one else comes to mind off the top of my head. Obviously their two careers took vastly different paths. When the Sports Illustrated article on Harper debuted this summer, there was a sense that he was a forgone conclusion to the be the first pick in the draft. I’m not entirely sure that is the case. Harper will be tough to pass up, but you have to look at how he performs this season, his maturity level, and the fact that the Nationals once again own the top pick, and just spent a bundle on Stephen Strasburg. Now best case scenario for the Nats if they draft Harper is they end up with Josh Beckett and Joe Mauer. Worst case they get Kris Benson and Ben Davis.

If the Nationals are focusing on Harper, they benefit from a little bit of a decrease in Harper hype. Bryce hasn’t peaked again since that SI article, and by his own design he’s not looking to make those kind of waves. He’s strictly quarantined at the College of Southern Nevada. He’s not doing interviews, he’s not signing autographs, he’s just playing. It sounds like an extreme approach, but remember the kid is 17, and the demands on his time would likely escalate out of control. How many autographs would he have to give? How many interviews? So, Harper will play this season in silence, and then we’ll await where he goes in the 2010 Draft.

It’ll be tempting to take Harper, no matter the price tag. He’s probably a once in a generation high school talent, and if he succeeds in the Big Leagues no GM will want to be the guy that passed up what looked like a sure thing. I think the shift to a Junior College might ultimately help. He’ll be able to play this season in relative anonymity, and then after the hype of the draft, he can go blend in a quiet Minor League setting. It’ll be a heck of an adjustment though, and the spotlight will always find him. We’ll try to keep you posted.