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March 2007

In front of a packed HSBC Arena, in Buffalo, NY, the Duke Blue Devils faced off against the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) Rams in the first round of the 2007 NCAA Basketball Tournament. Duke was coming off of 9 straight years of reaching at least the sweet sixteen, while this was only VCU’s third trip to the tournament in team history.

Duke gained possession of the ball, down 2, with about 15 seconds remaining. Rather than calling a timeout and setting up a play in the final seconds to either tie the game, sending into overtime, or winning it with a 3-pointer, junior guard DeMarcus Nelson went to the net, making a layup, and tying the game at 77-77 still with about 10 seconds left on the clock. This left VCU with plenty of time to setup a final possession to win the game.

Sophomore guard, Eric Maynor, hit a jump shot from the top of the key with only 1.8 seconds remaining to pull VCU ahead by 2, and giving VCU the win over Duke, 79-77, breaking the Blue Devils’ streak and giving them their first loss in the opening round of the tournament since 1996. HSBC Arena, full of both closet Duke fans & closet Duke haters, erupted in cheers of celebration and moans of agony as Maynor’s shot hit nothing but net. Sophomore guard Greg Paulus put up a desperation heave from half court as time expired, but the ball fell harmlessly to the floor after banking high off of the backboard.

The game was well played by both teams and it seemed like Duke had the advantage several times. Paulus finished with a career high of 25 points.

VCU will face third-seeded Pittsburgh, a 79-58 winner over Wright State, on Saturday.

The NCAA tournament selection committee wrapped up the field of 65 teams Sunday evening and many teams waited anxiously to find out what draw they selected and who they would be playing in the first round, or in some cases, whether they made the field at all. Among those team was the Niagara Purple Eagles, who finished their season with their longest win streak since the 1992-1993 season by winning their final 11 games to win the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference tournament and earn an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament, their 2nd bid in the last 3 years and only their third in school history.

Niagara players, coaches, and fans sat glued in front of their televisions Sunday evening, anxiously anticipating who they would get to play in the first round. Early projections had Niagara drawing a 15th seed and playing either the Georgetown Hoyas or the Memphis Tigers. Instead the NCAA selection committee choose Niagara to play in the play-in game against the Florida A&M Rattlers for the right to play the Kansas Jayhawks in Thursday’s opening round.

Niagara supporters were furious with the decision. A camera in the Gallagher Center during the live CBS broadcast of the NCAA Selection Show showed players’ & fans’ discontent with the selection, many boos being heard over any celebration.

Over a month before Niagara’s season began athletics director Ed McLaughlin announced the suspension of 6 players ranging from one to eight games as a result in their involvement in an off-campus incident that occurred on August 31st. Among the suspensions, Niagara’s junior forward Charron Fisher was suspended for 8 games as the Purple Eagles started the season 2-6 without him.

Buffalo News sports commentator, Jerry Sullivan, said it best, “So this is what you get for taking the high road. This is what Niagara gets for taking a firm stand and suspending six players for their roles in a fight, before the case was resolved in court. This is Joe Mihalich’s reward for getting his players to understand they’re being held to a higher standard: The play-in game.” Sullivan goes on to say, “Niagara got jobbed, pure and simple. The Purple Eagles have won 11 games in a row. Their power rating is higher than five other teams. They’re 20-5 since Charron Fisher came back from an eight-game suspension. They’re 15-3 with Fisher and Tyrone Lewis active, with two losses in overtime. This is a kick in the teeth of the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, which is hosting a subregional in Buffalo for the third time in eight years. The MAAC is down, but it’s rated above eight other leagues. Siena went to the play-in in 2002, but it was 16-18.” Read the original article.

The important thing is that they made it to the tournament. Hopefully they will prove the NCAA selection committee wrong by soundly beating Florida A&M and giving Kansas a good run for their money.

This off-season has been a volatile year for running backs. Four big name backs have switched teams already, but this year’s draft class isn’t the strongest its been in most recent years. Outside of Adrian Peterson, former Oklahoma Sooner and known as the draft’s best running backs in most team’s opinion, there is very few options that will make a team impact.

Former 2,000-yard rusher Jamal Lewis was basically run out of Baltimore as they offered him what amounted to a backup’s contract, a 1-year $2 million deal. Lewis settled in Cleveland for a 1-year, 3.5 million dollar deal that could earn him up to 5 million with incentives. He hasn’t been truly healthy since earning 429 touches in the 2003 season which allowed him to reach 2,000 yards. Lewis claims he can still run a forty-yard dash in the high 4.3’s, which seems highly unlikely to me, though Cleveland will give him the opportunity to revitalize his career.

Former Bills’ running back, Willis McGahee, was disappointing in Buffalo especially with rumors of his lackluster work ethic and study habits running rampant. McGahee reportedly didn’t know the plays and didn’t even know what down it was on a famous key fourth down stop during the 2006 season. The Ravens still see him as a great replacement for Lewis and acquired him through a trade which sent two third-round and a seventh round draft picks in exchange for him. They then rewarded him with a 7-year $40.12 million contract with $15 million being guaranteed.

Buffalo’s starting back hasn’t been decided yet, though last year’s backup, Anthony Thomas, hasn’t been completely ruled out. The Bills, in my opinion, have much more pressing needs than just a starting running back. Hopefully they decide to fill these needs before worrying about a new starting back.

Former Bills’ running back Travis Henry will also find solace in a new home. After returning to form for the Tennessee Titans in 2006 after two disappointing seasons (one in Tennessee, one in Buffalo), Henry was rewarded with a 5-year $22.5 million contract from the Denver Broncos. In past years, Broncos running backs have enjoyed lots of success under head coach Mike Shanahan and former offensive coordinator Gary Kubiak. Henry should flourish as a Bronco.

Former Green Bay Packer, Ahman Green will also see a change of scenery this season. After spending the last 7 years as Green Bay’s primary running back, Green went to free agency and signed a 4-year $23 million deal to become a Houston Texan.

Buffalo Sabres’ general manager Darcy Regier had his hands full right up until Thursday’s NHL trade deadline. Earlier in the season it seemed as if they would be ok to stand pat going into the playoffs. But a string of unexpected injuries has pushed Regier’s hand a bit.

Tim Connolly’s concussion from a clean, open-ice check from Ottawa Senators forward Peter Schaeferinin in Game 2 of last year’s 2nd round playoff series against Ottawa put him on the long-term reserve injured list and his timetable for return has been delayed several times due to post-concussion symptoms and a stress fracture just below his knee.

The injury bug began this season on February 8th in a game against the Ottawa Senators when Sabres’ center Paul Gaustad was cut on his upper right ankle by a skate blade. Gaustad ‘s injury required surgery and he will miss the remainder of the season for Buffalo. On February 10th, Jaroslav Spacek broke his left hand in a game against the Calgary Flames. Spacek’s injury will put him out for a few weeks. Maxim Afinogenov fell on his wrist in a game on February 15th against the Edmonton Oilers, breaking his scaphoid bone in his shooting wrist. He underwent successful surgery to insert a screw into his broken left wrist and will be out of action for between 6-8 weeks. The Sabres are hoping that Afinogenov will be back in their lineup for the playoffs. In the same game as the Afinogenov injury, young prospect Jiri Novotny rolled his ankle attempting to check an Edmonton player. Novotny was playing his fourth game after coming back from an earlier ankle sprain which cost him six games. Ales Kotalik left February 17th shootout loss to the Boston Bruins in the second period due to a sprained right MCL and will miss four-six weeks with the injury. Daniel Paille broke a finger in a game against the Philadelphia Flyers on February 20th and will be out for two-to-three weeks. On February 22nd, Buffalo Sabres’ co-captain Chris Drury was the recipient of a questionable hit from Ottawa’s Chris Neil which left his head in bandages. Drury suffered a concussion on the play, but is now feeling better and is likely to return for the Sabres’ game Wednesday March 7th against the Colorado Avalanche.

Regier was looking to make a move, but because most of his injured players will be returning by the playoffs, he was restricted with what he could do because of salary cap restrictions. One salary which was weighing down Buffalo’s flexibility was backup goaltender Marty Biron. Biron was to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of this season and was unlikely to remain a Sabre in 2008 and was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers for a second round draft pick in 2007. Expect Philadelphia to offer him an extension higher than the $2.2 million he is currently earning to be sure not to lose him to free agency in this offseason. The Biron deal freed up some cap money so Buffalo could acquire some talent which they did in trading for Dainius Zubrus from the Washington Capitals for Jiri Novotny and Buffalo’s first round draft pick. Zubrus figures to be used in many different roles on the Sabres. Coach Lindy Ruff said that Zubrus is best down the middle, but he will not hesitate to use him in other positions as he sees fit.

Hopefully, these moves put Buffalo in the best position possible to make a run at the Stanley Cup championship this year.

Well with the loom of the upcoming baseball season, I am anxious to start talking about baseball, but there hasn’t been any news worth writing about as of yet. So in preparation for the season I would like to highlight my life as a baseball fan and how I came to where I am today.

My father was a huge baseball fan and a huge New York Yankee fan. Was I simply to follow in his footsteps? Anybody who knows the relationship between me and my father would tell you no. Either way it turned out I was most likely to have a small rivalry between our two favorite teams, but my favorite team was to be decided by fate, not by genes.

It started way back in 1986. My first baseball memory wasn’t a game, but a single play. It happened in Game 6 of the World Series in the bottom of the 10th inning. With Met’s left fielder Mookie Wilson at the plate and Boston was 1 out away from breaking the “Curse of the Bambino” and becoming World Series champions for the first time since 1918, Boston pitcher Bob Stanley threw a wild pitch that allowed the tying run to score blowing Boston’s 2-run extra innings lead and moving third baseman Ray Knight into scoring position with the winning run. Wilson hit a slow rolling ground ball up the first base line that appeared to be easy to field. In the few seconds that the ball rolled down the line, the most important question was whether the heavy-footer Bill Buckner, with his chronic bad ankles and knees, would be able to beat the speedy Wilson to first base to move on to the 11th inning. That question would never be answered as the ball somehow rolled between his legs, under his glove, and slowly rolled into right field. Shea Stadium erupted and the Mets’ players and fans couldn’t contain themselves. Knight tried to hold his helmet on while jumping up and down towards home plate with the winning run in a scene that many Mets fans (this one included) would never forget.

To this day I couldn’t tell you how I came to see or even hear about it. Did I watch the game with my father? Possibly, neither of us would be able to remember, but let’s face it, probably not, I was 5 years old. Did I watch it on SportsCenter? Did ESPN even exist yet? Or did I overhear my Uncle Tom muttering under his breath (yes folks, he is a Red Sox fan) of how close the Red Sox came to winning the Series? This is the most likely the scenario.

Though this only brought the series to a 3 game to 3 game tie, forcing Game 7 in Shea Stadium, this was the only memory that stuck with me. Even so, Game 7 of the series went according to plan. The Mets won and I became a Mets fan for life … or did I?

Over the next few years, I was still a die hard Mets fan and my favorite players included Darryl Strawberry, Dwight Gooden, & David Cone. Since I was such a die hard Mets fan, my father decided to take me on a weekend trip to Pittsburgh to catch a series between the Mets and division rival Pittsburgh Pirates at Three Rivers Stadium in Pittsburgh. Pittsburgh top players were a young Barry Bonds, a similarly young Bobby Bonilla, Golden Glover & speedy Andy Van Slyke, and young aces Doug Drabek & John Smiley. My father & I made this same trip several years in a row. Being the young starry eyed kid that I was, I just wanted to be as close to these stars as possible, trying to get autographs as I did so. This became my downfall as a Mets fan. After being ignored by one two players, I became enraged with my favorite team (yea, I was enraged & no older than 9). At this point I ceased to be a Met’s fan. I was officially a free agent.

The next few years of my life I consider to be the “bandwagon years” of my life as a baseball fan because my interest in baseball teams was more determined by the success of that team than just picking a team and sticking by them. In 1989, I became fascinated with the Bash Brothers of the Oakland Athletics, Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco, who also won back-to-back American League Rookie of the Year awards in 1987 & 1988. Later in life, I realized that most of their homers were due to steroids. While I don’t condone this activity and think it needs to be cleaned up in baseball, I commend Canseco on his honesty (not on his self-proclaimed role as “The Godfather of Steroids”) and I despise McGuire for his holier than thou attitude until he was in front of the Supreme Court and refused to answer any questions.

After jumping off of the Oakland bandwagon, I promptly jumped on the Toronto Blue Jays winning efforts. These were the first years I recall staying up for the entire World Series night games, despite not being allowed to stay up for the game. I remember staying awake in bed listening to Game 6 of the 1992 World Series on my Sony Walkman radio right down to the final play when Joe Carter hit a walk-off 3-run homer, with Rickey Henderson & Paul Molitor on base, to win back-to-back World Series Championships for Toronto.

After realizing what a bandwagon jumper I had become, I was steadfast to pick a team and stick with them to the end. Again fate played a part. It was the winter before the expansion of the Florida Marlins and the Colorado Rockies, and after a vacation to Florida, I decided my new favorite team would be the Florida Marlins. Gary Sheffield quickly became my favorite player, right up until the Marlins beat the Cleveland Indians in the 1997 World Series. Promptly after winning the World Series, team owner Wayne Huizenga claimed massive financial losses and dismantled the team by trading away most of the team’s most talented players that had won them the Series to lower the team payroll. This began a few short months after the World Series victory when he traded Moises Alou to the Houston Astros for a player to be named later, Manuel Barrios, and Oscar Henriquez. The Astros later sent Mark J. Johnson to the Marlins to complete the deal. Team ace, Kevin Brown was traded to the San Diego Padres for Derrek Lee, Rafael Medina, and Steve Hoff. A week after the Alou deal, the Marlins traded team closer Robb Nen to the San Francisco Giants for Joe Fontenot, Mike Pageler, & Mike Villano and dealt outfielder Devon White to the Arizona Diamondbacks for Jesus Martinez. Jeff Conine, who was drafted in the expansion draft from the Kansas City Royals in 1992, was traded back to his original team for Blaine Mull. Al Leiter was packaged with Ralph Milliard to the New York Mets for A.J. Burnett, Jesus Sanchez, and Robert Stratton. Shortly into the 1998 season, Sheffield, with catcher Charles Johnson, Manuel Barrios, Bobby Bonilla, and Jim Eisenreich were all sent to the Los Angeles Dodgers for Mike Piazza & Todd Zeile. After only 5 games, Piazza was traded to the New York Mets for Preston Wilson, Ed Yarnel, & Geoff Goetz. Later in the season Todd Zeile was sent to the Texas Rangers for Daniel DeYoung and Jose Santo. Edgar Renteria was traded to the St. Louis Cardinals mid-season for Armando Almanza, Braden Looper, and Pablo Ozuna. After all was said and done the only positional starter from the 1997 World Series Championship that remained on the team was second baseman Luis Castillo. At this point, I could no longer be a fan of the Florida Marlins and again became a free agent. I decided to settle back on my original team, the New York Mets. I’ve been a strong supporter of the Mets ever since.