Friday, November 21, 2014

2K Classic (NCAA Basketball) - November 20, 2014

Madison Square Garden has become my favourite venue because it lies midway between my office and home, allowing me to occasionally stop by on my evening commute. Even better, the StubHub office is just a few blocks away, which means that I can pop in there and perhaps find a bargain for the game that evening. Years ago, I criticized StubHub and other resellers for being overpriced, but that is no longer the case. Still, Rangers tickets rarely fall into my acceptable price range (and I'm not even bothering with the Knicks this season), but on occasion there is another event that catches my attention but not that of other sports fans.

Such was the case on Thursday when the 2K Classic was held, featuring two top-25 teams in Texas and Syracuse as well as Iowa and Cal. Tip off for the first matchup featuring the Longhorns and Hawkeyes was scheduled for 7, and at 6:30, tickets were down to $4 on StubHub. Yes, four dollars for two games. New Yorkers don't seem interested in college hoops when a local team is not playing, all the better for me. Despite the nearly free prices, I decided upon a ticket in the Club Platinum area for $27 (face was a ridiculous $170) as it would be the only chance I would ever have to sit in this area.

I was able to enter via the special club entrance, a once-in-a-lifetime experience that saved me about ten seconds. Again, crowds were not fighting to get in here. The above shot is from the special club area above the main lobby. You might ask why this is the best I could do. Turns out the "Club" in Club Platinum is pretty meaningless, I took another escalator up and wound up on the lower concourse with the rest of the hoi-polloi. Well, at least my seat was pretty good.

Texas came in ranked 10th in the nation but were flat in the first half, allowing a poor-shooting Iowa team to take a 27-15 lead late in the period. Aaron White (with the ball above, running past Myles Turner, the #2 high school prospect this past off-season) was the top scorer with 11, but Turner turned the tide with this three-pointer and the half ended with the Longhorns down 30-24.

That was as close as Iowa would get. Well, not really, but they were out of it just three minutes into the second half as Texas senior Jonathan Holmes potted 11 points as the Longhorns outscored the Hawkeyes 18-7 before the first media timeout. Iowa never really threatened again as Texas ran away with the game 71-57. The big news was an injury to Isaiah Taylor, Texas' sophomore guard who was taken out by a flagrant foul on a drive in the lane late in the game. As a scout near me said "10 points up, 2 minutes to go, no reason to do that." In other words, Taylor was trying to showoff on national TV. He is out 4-6 weeks, so he should be back in time for conference play.

The second game featured #23 Syracuse against Cal, another orange vs white battle. I don't have any true allegiance in college basketball, but growing up in Ottawa, Syracuse was the nearest big school and so I was kind of pulling for them. It was certainly cool to see Jim Boeheim (above) in the flesh for the first time. The Orange were led by Raheem Christmas (#25 naturally, below), who completed his degree in 3 years. Yes, some are students before athletes.

The game was close through the first half, tied at 17 with five minutes left. Unfortunately, my lifelong jinx continues as Cal ended the half on a 17-5 run that pretty much ended the game. At his point, I decided to leave. College basketball is a great game but having media timeouts every four minutes just kills the flow and makes the games last so much longer. Despite a 7:00 pm scheduled tip for the first game, it was well past 10:30 when the first half of the second contest ended. Still not sure how those who work can stay up so late for these games. I got home around 11:15 and saw the last few minutes on ESPN2 as Cal held on for a 73-59 upset.


Both games ended with 14 point differentials.

Texas beat Cal 71-55 on Friday to win the 2K Classic "title".



Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Toronto Marlies 2 at Lehigh Valley Phantoms 3 (AHL) - November 15, 2014

After watching a bad football game, Eddie and I zoomed over to Allentown to catch the second game of our two-sport, two-state doubleheader. The Toronto Marlies were visiting the Lehigh Valley Phantoms, a new entrant in the AHL this season. The peripatetic Phantoms, affiliate of the Flyers, are in their third city, having started in Philadelphia (I saw a playoff tilt there in 2008) before moving to Glens Falls to play as the Adirondack Phantoms from 2009-2014. Glens Falls is not particularly convenient to Philadelphia, so the team moved to Allentown to play in the brand new PPL Center starting this season. Adirondack still has a team, however, as the Abbotsford Heat moved there to become the Flames.

The arena was opened in September of this year and is located in the southeast quadrant of downtown at the corner of 7th Street and Hamilton. There is street parking available if you get there early enough, otherwise $6 will get you a spot in a nearby elevated parking structure. The area surrounding the rink is already built up with several bars and restaurants, including a Chickie's and Pete's in the building itself, and local brewer Fegley's Allentown Brewworks across the street. Try to stop in there before or after the game; it is one of the better spots I have seen on my travels.

We arrived about 20 minutes before puck drop and bought the cheapest available tickets which were standing room at $19. I heard there were cheaper options available earlier in the day, but have seen no proof of that on the Phantoms website. There are several standing areas along the lower concourse, and although they announced a sellout, there were a few empty seats in some of the end sections such as 119 and 120. The shot below (taken during the intermission) shows the two levels of suites along with a club area that is completely closed to non-ticket holders, so you cannot tour the entire lower concourse. I saw several people turned back, quite annoyed as they had to walk back through the narrow concourse to reach their seats that are just on the other side of the club section. I hate it when minor league sports try to act like they belong to the major leagues; I hope that when the novelty wears off, the club area will become open to all fans.

As you can see below, the concourse is not that wide as a result of the small footprint and during intermissions, it gets crowded in areas. As well, they seem to have neglected to put in enough toilets as the lineups for the men's were ridiculous. Considering this is the most expensive minor league rink ever built, it seems like they spent the money on looking nice rather than being practical.

After spending the first period standing in a few different areas, we moved upstairs to meet Gary and King from Royalty Tours. Gary told me he was in section 210, row 10, right behind the net. These are actually folding chairs above the seating bowl with a lot of room and are a good place to spend the game away from the rest of the crowd, with a good view of the entire ice surface (below). Turns out Gary had mistyped and was actually in section 201, so Eddie and I spent most of the rest of the game sitting there, a bit of good luck.

Right behind us were several banners, including this one from their championship ten years ago.

Overall, the new arena is very impressive and a great addition to the league. But they made a few mistakes along the way, and I hope that those get rectified over the next couple of seasons to make PPL Center a top destination in the AHL.

The Game

This was my first Marlies road game, and I was pretty excited to see them. Both teams came in at 5-6-1 and well out of the early playoff picture (Lehigh Valley is in the Eastern Conference while Toronto remains in the West). Christopher Gibson (below), a feisty Finn in only his second pro year, got the start for the Marlies while Rob Zepp, a veteran returning from eight seasons in Berlin, manned the cage for the Phantoms.

The Marlies scored just five minutes in when Troy Bodie, who spent 47 games with the Maple Leafs last season, came out from behind the net and beat Zepp from a sharp angle. The Phantoms replied with two goals in under a minute, the first from Scott Laughton who converted a beautiful backhand pass from Taylor Leier just 5 seconds before the midpoint of the period, and then Nick Cousins finished a two-on-one that was the result of some great checking by Steven Delisle.

That was all the scoring until the third. With the Phantoms shorthanded, Greg McKegg (#9 above, who spent all of one game with the big club last season) tied the game on a wicked rising shot from the slot. With overtime looming, the referees realized that they had a hot date or something, as they quickly sentenced the Marlies to two penalties within 18 seconds of each other. It took Lehigh Valley 47 seconds on the 5-on-3 to take the lead as a shot from the point by Brandon Manning snuck through Gibson (below).

The Marlies killed off the rest of the penalty, and were then rewarded with a 5-on-3 of their own, though the second penalty came with just 93 seconds left in the game. With Gibson on the bench, Toronto enjoyed a 6-on-3 advantage in skaters, but still spent most of the time passing the puck around in the Phantoms zone, unable or unwilling to take a shot. Despite my repeated calls to "Shoooooooooooooot", they played hot potato until it was too late. Zepp stopped the only meaningful chance they had as the game ended 3-2 in favour of the home team. The players scuffled after the final whistle and former Leaf Jay Rosehill, now toiling for Lehigh Valley, was awarded a misconduct, which means nothing after the game is over.

This was a decent game, some good chances for both clubs and it went down to the wire. I get depressed when I attend Leafs and Jays games on the road and they lose, but no such emotions spoil a Marlies loss; I am just happy I added venue 513 to my count. I hope to be back for a weekend set sometime, the AHL has a lot of Friday-Saturday games and Allentown has a couple of attractions that make is a worthwhile weekend destination.



Monday, November 17, 2014

Davidson Wildcats 7 at Marist Red Foxes 38 (NCAA Football, Pioneer League) - November 15, 2014

Now that hockey season is well underway, I hope to make a dent in my AHL venue count over the next couple of years. I am within a few hours of several rinks here in the Northeast but that requires a rental car, not always a cheap option in New York City. This past weekend though, my friend Eddie told me he would driving to Allentown, home of the Lehigh Valley Phantoms. I was interested as the Toronto Marlies would be visiting. There was one catch. I would have to go to Marist football in the afternoon first.

Marist College is in Poughkeepsie, NY, about two hours north of NYC. It can take time to get there as there is no direct highway route, but the drive is quite pleasant in the fall, with the leaves turning and some quiet towns along the way. The campus lies along the Hudson River, providing a lovely backdrop should you have time to tour. Get there early though, as the parking lot near the stadium fills up and you'll be sent to the far reaches of the campus to find a spot.

The Red Foxes are part of the Pioneer Football League in the FCS and play in Tenney Stadium at Leonidoff Field, a small facility with a single seating area that you can see above. All seats here have chair backs and cost $10, but they sell $8 lawn seats as general admission, which allow you to wander around the field and stand quite close to the action, as you can see below.

A single concession stand offers hot dogs and sausages with peppers, while the band keeps a selection of food behind the south end zone that fans are probably not supposed to pilfer, but that didn't stop Eddie and me from grabbing a couple of donuts. After all, we needed to rejuvenate for the long walk back to the car.

The visitors were Davidson, most famous as a basketball school (Steph Curry starred here from 2006-09), but they are terrible at football, coming in at 1-9 with their only win over the College of Faith, an independent institution that isn't even part of the NAIA, not to mention the NCAA.  Davidson were ranked 124th of the 124 teams in the FCS, making them the worst team in Division I. Marist were 3-7 (tanked 102nd), so a battle of titans was not on the cards. Marist led 14-0 after one quarter on two touchdown runs by Wale Onakoya, and then put the game away in the second with a 47-yard pass from Ed Achziger (#12 below) to Armani Martin (above, appearing to pray in the end zone).

Two more touchdowns made it 35-0 at the half, and I really didn't pay much attention the rest of the way, but Marist held on for the 38-7 win.

There were 18 punts in the game, which is all you really need to know about this one. Ah, the things I endure to see a Toronto team on the road.



Sunday, November 16, 2014

NFL Playoff Picture after 10 Games

Week 11 was crazy, with Denver and Seattle both losing on the road in Missouri, and Atlanta taking over the NFC South lead with a 4-6 record, making me look foolish for ignoring them the last two weeks. Only Pittsburgh and Carolina have played 11 games, which doesn't impact the schedule now as Pittsburgh plays on Monday night and Carolina are 3-7-1. Here are the playoff standings after 10 games:


Ari 7-1     Ari 8-1    Ari 9-1
Det 6-2     Det 7-2    Det 7-3
Phi 6-2     Phi 7-2    Phi 7-3
NO  4-4     NO  4-5    Atl 4-6
Dal 6-2     Sea 6-3    GB  7-3
Sea 5-3     Dal 6-3    Dal 7-3
--------    --------   --------
GB  5-3     GB  6-3    SF  6-4
SF  4-4     SF  5-4    Sea 6-4
Car 3-4-1              NO  4-6

Detroit beat Green Bay in Week 3 to take the title (they meet again at Lambeau in the final week) and get the second overall seed due to a better conference record than the Eagles. Philadelphia has a better divisional record than Dallas so they get the NFC East. Atlanta beat New Orleans in overtime back in Week 1 to claim the NFC South (they play at the SuperDome in Week 16).  The Cowboys lose to Green Bay because of a poorer conference record. San Francisco and Seattle still have to play each other twice; if they split, both could be on the outside of the playoffs at the end of the season.


NE  6-2     NE  7-2    NE  8-2 
Den 6-2     Den 7-2    Den 7-3
Cin 5-2-1   Pit 6-3    Cin 6-3-1
Ind 5-3     Ind 6-3    Ind 6-4
KC  5-3     KC  6-3    KC  7-3
SD  5-3     Cle 6-3    Mia 6-4
--------    --------   ---------
Buf 5-3     Cin 5-3-1  SD  6-4
Mia 5-3     SD  5-4    Bal 6-4
Bal 5-3     Buf 5-4    Pit 6-4
Pit 5-3     Mia 5-4    Cle 6-4
Cle 5-3     Bal 5-4    Hou 5-5
Hou 4-4     Hou 4-5    Buf 5-5

Denver beat KC back in Week 3 so they are the AFC West leaders. Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland are all 6-4 for second place in the AFC North, but Baltimore is 2-1 head-to-head versus the other two, so the Ravens enter the running for the sixth and final seed with Miami and San Diego. The Dolphins win with a better conference record (5-2, Chargers at 5-3, Baltimore at 3-4). A really crazy final six weeks is coming up.



Thursday, November 13, 2014

NFL Playoff Picture after 9 Games

Week 10 is in the books, so it is time to look at the playoff picture after 9 games. I'm including the records after 8 games for comparison:


Ari 7-1     Ari 8-1
Det 6-2     Det 7-2
Phi 6-2     Phi 7-2 
NO  4-4     NO  4-5
Dal 6-2     Sea 6-3
Sea 5-3     Dal 6-3
--------    --------
GB  5-3     GB  6-3
SF  4-4     SF  5-4
Car 3-4-1

Detroit gets the second seed due to a better conference record, the same reason that Seattle (4-2) beats Dallas and Green Bay at 4-3. The Cowboys take the final spot because their strength of victory is better than the Packers. The six playoff teams should come from these eight clubs, although Carolina (3-5-1 after 9 games) still has an outside shot at beating New Orleans for the NFL South title.


NE  6-2     NE  7-2 
Den 6-2     Den 7-2
Cin 5-2-1   Pit 6-3
Ind 5-3     Ind 6-3
KC  5-3     KC  6-3
SD  5-3     Cle 6-3
--------    --------
Buf 5-3     Cin 5-3-1
Mia 5-3     SD  5-4
Bal 5-3     Buf 5-4
Pit 5-3     Mia 5-4
Cle 5-3     Bal 5-4
Hou 4-4     Hou 4-5

Pittsburgh takes the AFC Central over Cleveland based on record in common games (they split the season series and both have 2-2 divisional records). New England takes top seed as they defeated Denver in Week 9, while Pittsburgh hammered Indy in Week 8 so they get the third seed. Kansas City's conference record is better than the Browns′ so the Chiefs get a playoff rematch with the Colts while Cleveland sneaks into the playoffs by a half-game in front of Cincinnati.

Only 6 teams are left with byes: Dallas, Jacksonville, New York, and Baltimore this weekend, and Pittsburgh and Carolina next. After that, I will return to using ESPN's playoff picture for the rest of the season.

Seeded Playoff?

Note that the Saints are 4-5 yet a playoff team. This led Gregg Easterbrook, ESPN's TMQ, to write his annual "The NFL needs to have a seeded playoff" column. Ignoring the fact that the season has just passed the halfway point making the timing of his column a bit silly, Easterbrook's contention that divisions are OK for scheduling but not for seeding is misguided. If you want a seeded playoff, then you should have a perfectly balanced schedule. The NFL has a mostly balanced schedule within each division (14 of 16 common games) so a division championship is meaningful, even if the top club is weak.

Of course, a balanced schedule is not possible within each conference, which leads to situations that we see now (and in 2008, when New England at 11-5 missed the playoffs while the 8-8 Chargers got in - check). Yes, the NFC South is weak this year, getting beaten up by the other NFC divisions (4-12) and the AFC North (1-7-1). But this doesn't mean that they should not be represented in the playoffs. Other teams have easier schedules: Easterbrook notes that the all four AFC North teams are at least two games above .500, partially because they are pounding the NFC South (not to mention the anemic AFC South). According to him, at least one good team from the AFC North will miss the playoffs, but then again, other good teams in the AFC will miss the playoffs because they play stronger conferences! With such a short season and unbalanced schedules, the teams with the top six win-loss records in each conference are not necessarily the six "best" teams. Are all four AFC North clubs truly strong or just beneficiaries of fortunate scheduling? None of them have impressed on a regular basis (Cleveland lost to Jacksonville, Pittsburgh lost to the Jets, Cincinnati could not beat Carolina, and Baltimore is in last place), so I'll go with the latter theory. In general, any playoff system with an unbalanced schedule is unfair but punishing division champions for being in a weak division is not the solution.

One potential fix: add a team to each conference, eliminate interconference games, and have each club play 16 games, one against each team in their conference. Perfectly balanced schedule, and the top six clubs in each conference make the playoffs, with the Super Bowl the only AFC vs. NFC meeting of the season. Would that appeal to anyone? Probably not, so the NFL will fix the situation by adding a 7th playoff team in each conference.



Wednesday, November 12, 2014

ATP World Finals - November 10, 2014

My last day in England was spent catching up on sleep before I headed over to the O2 Arena, where the ATP Finals were underway. This is the tournament where the top eight men in the world rankings play in a round robin (two groups of four) for six days with the top two in each group making the semifinals. A doubles tournament is also held at the same time and each day during the round robin features two separate admission sessions with one doubles and one singles match. Tickets are not cheap, with the least expensive at the door costing 42 quid.

The O2 Arena is inside a large entertainment complex on the site of the Millennium Dome, now known as The O2. It is more of a concert facility than a sports arena, but it has held the ATP final since 2009. Located next to the North Greenwich tube station in east London, The O2 has its own neighborhood, with dozens of restaurants including TGI Fridays and Five Guys for those who miss American food.

On this day, the doubles match featured top seeds Bob and Mike Bryan (USA) vs. Łukasz Kubot of Poland and Robert Lindstedt from Sweden, 8th in the world. In a minor upset, the underdogs won in straight sets. I really didn't care much as the rules are slightly different (there is no advantage at deuce; the next point wins) and really, who watches doubles tennis?

After a short break, it was time for the singles match, with top-ranked Novak Djokovic (above) taking on 9th overall Marin Cilic (below), the US Open winner who was added to the program when third-ranked Rafael Nadal withdrew.

I had missed Djokovic when I attended the US Open last year so was happy to get the chance to see him here. Although in the end, I barely saw him as he dominated Cilic, who held serve in the first game of the match before losing six in a row. The second set was more of the same as Djokovic needed just 56 minutes to dispense of the ninth-best player in the world 6-1, 6-1. Amazing to watch just how much better Djokovic is; he played nearly flawless tennis while Cilic made several unforced errors.

In all my years of attending sport, I don't think I've ever attended a match with such little value for the price paid. I don't mean that I didn't enjoy it; certainly seeing the best player in the world at his peak is unforgettable, but at $65, it was a lot of money for just 56 minutes. Yes, there was that doubles match, but I wouldn't have gone if that was the only thing on offer. A day pass in the early days at the US Open is about the same and gives you twelve hours of tennis, a bargain compared to this event.


The entire tournament saw mostly one-sided matches in the round robin. Djokovic and #2 Roger Federer and Djokovic advanced to the finals with three-set wins in their respective semi-finals, but Federer withdrew from the final due to injury, giving Djokovic the title in a walkover. The Bryan brothers also overcame their early loss to win the doubles championship in a match that required a tiebreak after they split the first two sets with 7th-seeded Ivan Dodig and Marcelo Melo.