Production Note: Return of the Podcast!

**Due to technical difficulties, the return of the podcast has been moved to next week. My apologies.**

Back by popular demand, it’s the Podcast! After a six-month layoff, Matt and Mike will return for season two with a special NBA preview edition of the podcast. Be sure to download and listen!

Tell all your friends. It’s the podcast, and it’s back!

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The Danger of Expectations

Remember when Kobe almost left the Lakers? Me neither. It seems like ages ago—though it was just a year back—that the Lakers were a franchise in turmoil on the verge of trading away their superstar for spare parts.

But it never happened.

Instead, Bryant was named MVP. The Lakers had the best regular season record in the West and advanced to the NBA Finals before losing in six games to the Boston Celtics. It was a tough loss to swallow, but the journey made it bearable, if barely.

The Lakers weren’t expected to contend for a title heading into last season.’s Marc Stein placed ranked them 20th in the 2007-08 season opening Power Rankings, writing, “The sad reality, after all the chaos of the summer and October, is that this team is in for a real drop if Kobe leaves and a ride of countless bumps and ceaseless speculation just to grab a playoff spot if he stays.”

This season, Stein has them at number two behind Boston. After trading for Pau Gasol last season and getting a healthy Andrew Bynum back this year, Lakers’ expectations are clear: NBA championship or bust. Lakers fans feel the same way.

After falling two games short of the title last year, it’s not going to be easy to improve, but there is a lot of room to drop off.

Last year, every step along the way was fun. No one saw it coming. Watching the development of Bynum before his injury. Watching clutch performances from Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar. Delighting in the energy and antics of Ronny Turiaf.

This year’s team will be watched with a more apprehensive eye. Turiaf is the only significant departure, signing with Golden State in the offseason. But the return of Bynum crowds the front line and will likely relegate Lamar Odom into the role as sixth man.

Will Gasol, Bynum and Odom co-exist harmoniously? Will Jordan Farmar seize the starting point guard position from veteran Derek Fisher? And who will step up as the primary small forward—defensive-mined Trevor Ariza, three-point specialist Vladimir Radmanovic or the versatile Luke Walton?

There are many questions about this Lakers team. They are capable of answering them all and, if they can stay healthy, there is no doubt they’ll be a playoff team. But in a top-heavy Western Conference, the road back to the Finals won’t be easy. And with expectations in Los Angeles at their highest since the Kobe-Shaq-Malone-Payton season of ’03-’04, there’s only one result that will make this season a success for this franchise.

Check back to tomorrow for the return of the podcast, featuring a full NBA preview from Matt and Mike.

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Praise for the Rays

For six grueling months, Tampa Bay outlasted the mighty New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox to win the AL East. Then they beat the 2005 World Series Champion White Sox in the ALDS. And last night, they completed the seven-game series victory over the defending World Series champion Red Sox.

After exorcising the “Devil” in the offseason, the Rays have enjoyed ascension from the AL East cellar to the game’s ultimate throne, the World Series. They’ll host the Philadelphia Phillies.

They don’t wear pinstripes or call Fenway home, but the Rays are a great story for every small-team fan out there. If you’re a fan of the Pirates or Royals, this is the model you’re looking for.

Great scouting, drafting and player development have this young Rays team on the brink of a World Series championship. Manager Joe Maddon will have his hands full with a Phillies team that had no trouble eliminating the L.A. Dodgers in five games.

My pick is the Rays in 6 games, but after predicting just three of eight playoff teams and two of six playoff series correctly, I’m not sure how much stock you should put in my World Series pick.

So let’s put away the Hollywood storyline of Manny and Joe Torre coming back to Boston. That World Series doesn’t exist. The best two teams left in baseball are Tampa Bay and Philadelphia. And it should be a fun series where all the drama happens on the diamond.

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Streaks at Stake for the Wolverines

Michigan hasn’t lost to Penn State in 12 years. But Michigan lost to Toledo just last week, and Penn State hasn’t lost a game all season. Clearly, the streak is in jeopardy.

I can’t remember back to 1996, the last time the Nittany Lions won against the Wolverines. I also can’t remember a Michigan team this bad.

Expectations were low for the inaugural season of the Rich Rodriguez era but the come-from-behind win over Wisconsin coupled with a loss against previously 1-4 MAC squad Toledo has the maize and blue faithful upset.

After watching the Badgers stumble the past two weeks against Ohio State and Penn State, that Big Ten opener may not have been quite as big as we thought. Wisconsin still should’ve won the game, but the result told us more about Wisconsin—they aren’t very good—than it did about Michigan. (They aren’t very good either.)

The Wolverines are likely to see their nine-game winning streak against Penn State snapped on Saturday. Many are even predicting a 30+ point blowout. If that’s the case, they’re likely to see another even more impressive streak end. Michigan has played in 33 straight bowl games. At 2-4, they’re in grave danger of becoming bowl ineligible long before the season finale against rival Ohio State.

The Wolverines have no sure victories left on the schedule. Following Penn State, they will play vs. Michigan State, at Purdue, at Minnesota, vs. Northwestern and at Ohio State. It seems highly unlikely that the Wolverines will pull out a 4-2 mark down the stretch, which would require at least one victory against a team currently unbeaten in Big Ten action.

The easy thing to do is point to new coach Rich Rodriguez and his struggling offense. I say hold on. Check out what I wrote when he was hired. College football is an instant gratification sport, but the Wolverines fans need to bite their tongues this year—tough as that may be.

The difference between Michigan and my other football team, the Oakland Raiders, is that Michigan has a proven coach, and that coach has a plan. Rodriguez simply needs his players to run this system. I expect them to win the Big Ten by 2010 after he’s signed a few recruiting classes. Until then, it’s probably time to say goodbye to those streaks. They were fun while they lasted.

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Role Reversal: The New Yankees (plus my LCS picks)

Deal with it, Red Sox fans. It’s not 2004 anymore. Two World Series titles later, you are far from the lovable losers you once were. Instead you are the NEW New York Yankees.

That’s right. Ridiculous payroll. Overbearing fan base that loves to tell you how great they are. Hated by the rest of the league. Playing into October every season (five out of the past six to be exact).

As an A’s fan first and Yankees hater second, let me take this break before the LCS to officially add Red Sox hater to my baseball fan card. It seems only fitting to complete the trifecta. As a Lakers fan, my Celtics hated has never been higher. As a Raiders fan, I can’t stand the Patriots. Now, my anti-Beantown feelings are complete.

The crazy thing is, four years ago, I never would have seen it coming. I loved watching that 2004 team rally to beat the Yankees. It was a historic series, but ever since the Red Sox won that series, the psyche of the average Boston sports fan has shifted from “we’re never gonna win the big one,” to a sense of entitlement “we have to win the big one.”

Now here come the Tampa Bay Rays. Could the culture clash be any more vast? This is a small payroll team built on homegrown talent, playing in its first postseason under manager Joe Madden. I couldn’t name one player on their team aside from the guy whose name reminds me of Tony Parker’s wife, but that’s the point. No one knows wear this team came from.

Can they win a seven game series against the mighty Red Sox in the ALCS? Why not? They held onto the division in the regular season, so they’ll have home field advantage. It’s what I want, but my gut tells me that Boston’s Yankees impression isn’t over yet. My pick is Red Sox in six games.

Hopefully I’m wrong.In the National League, the Dodgers made my Cubs pick look pretty bad. As I said before, I was expecting heartache for Cubs fans, but I thought it would come in the World Series. Now, I’m convinced that the single most influential player in the National League is former Red Sox slugger Manny Ramirez. Sorry Philadelphia, my pick is Dodgers in five.

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Two Steps Forward, Three Steps Back

Rich Rodriguez’s squad played 15 minutes of football on Saturday against Illinois. Unfortunately for Rodriguez and Michigan, games last 60 minutes. Illinois spanked the Wolverines in the Big House 45-20. The loss dropped Michigan to 2-3 on the year, 1-1 in the Big Ten.

The loss wasn’t a shocker. In fact, I had predicted Michigan would start the year 1-4, so they’re ahead of pace. But following the Wolverines’ historic second-half comeback against Wisconsin the previous week, Michigan fans—myself included—were optimistic that this team had turned a corner. Their first quarter performance fueled those feelings even more as quarterback Steven Threet looked sharp, helping lead them to a 14-3 lead.

Illinois scored the final 14 points of the half to lead 17-14 and they never looked back. Michigan’s offense reverted to the team that was shutout for a half versus Wisconsin. That was not entirely surprising. The defense surrendering 45 points and 501 yards? That was not expected, even against a potent Illini offense.

So where do the Wolverines go from here? Well, it starts with a break in the Big Ten schedule as Michigan plays host to Toledo on Saturday. The Wolverines will be favored to win. They’ll have to do so if they want a bowl berth this season.

This is a chance for Michigan to grow as an offense and re-charge on defense. After last year’s Appalachian State experience, the maize and blue no better than to overlook an opponent, but Toledo should signal Hail to the Victors in Ann Arbor.

A win would even their record at 3-3 at the midseason mark. They would then have to go at least 3-3—and maybe 4-2—the rest of the way in the Big Ten to keep their 33-season bowl streak alive.

It’s hardly a given that they’ll make it. Four of the final six will be on the road where the young Wolverines have played just once, losing badly at Notre Dame. Three games are against current unbeatens: Penn State, Michigan State and Northwestern. And the season finale is at Ohio State. Don’t think the Buckeyes wouldn’t love to be the ones ultimately responsible for keeping Michigan at home during bowl season.

Michigan has shown only mild improvement on offense through six games. Steven Threet’s passing accuracy and decision-making is inconsistent. And too often they are losing yardage on first and second down. The defense has bailed them out in their win, but they proved that they’re still vulnerable against mobile quarterbacks.

Rich Rodriguez has his work cut out for him. If he can get this group of players into a bowl game, it’ll be considered a success in my eyes, even if not by Michigan’s usual standards. But if they falter down the stretch and fail to crack .500, watch out. More than anything, this team—especially on offense—needs to show progress through the final six weeks of the season.

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2008 MLB Divisional Series Picks

I’m happy to say my all-New York World Series prediction won’t come to fruition. But Chicago and L.A. remain in play for a one city World Series.

Since my regular season predictions were so far off, and I haven’t watched a full game all season, I have no real credentials to pick any series winners. But I’m a fan of playoff baseball, so I’ll give it a shot anyway.

My quick picks are below.


Tampa Bay Rays over Chicago White Sox
Rationale: The young Rays never folded under the pressure in the hotly contested AL East and held on to beat the Red Sox for the division title. The White Sox had to win a playoff just to make the playoffs.

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim over Boston Red Sox
Rationale: No one has repeated as World Series champions since the Yankees’ three-peat from 1998-2000. Boston will fall short without the likes of Manny Ramirez in the lineup.


Chicago Cubs over Los Angeles Dodgers
Rationale: But fear not Red Sox fans, Manny won’t outlast the first round either. Cubs fans can expect heartache, but not in the first round. Let the stakes build a bit first.

Philadelphia Phillies over Milwaukee Brewers
Rationale: The Phillies bounce back from last season’s quick exit. For the Brew Crew, the problem is simple: they can’t clone C.C. Sabathia.

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