What I'm Watching this Week (and why)

Monday/January 25:

Georgetown at Syracuse (College Basketball on ESPN, 7:00) - Featuring two of the Big East's best, this showdown in the Carrier Dome shouldn't disappoint. Syracuse could be a contender for a number one seed come March, but don't expect Georgetown to back down from this contest. The Hoyas became the first Big East team to be Pittsburgh and gave Villanova all they wanted on the road. They're a tough out for any team.

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2, 9:00) - Getting down to the nitty gritty now in the Happy Slam. Men's quarterfinals begins today (this day actually being Tuesday in Australia at time of airing in the United States). Lone American Andy Roddick takes on the up and coming Marin Cilic. Assuming a sometimes troubling knee is not bothering him, Roddick's experience might just be enough to see him through against the more talented Croatian. The other quarterfinal is a mouth watering one as Rafa Nadal and Andy Murray square off. Murray has played nearly flawless tennis thus far while Rafa is struggling a bit for form and confidence. Murray might bring the best out of him, though.

Tuesday/January 26:

Catania at Roma in the Coppa Italia (Italian Soccer on GolTV, 3:00) - Roma has been on a massive unbeaten streak and is coming off a dramatic stoppage time victory over Juve in Turin. They'll be flying high regardless of whether Ranieri tinkers with the squad for this cup match. We're in the quarterfinals now, however, and I expect a strong team. Nobody wants to get this far in the cup and not take it seriously from here on out.

Kentucky at South Carolina (College Basketball on ESPN) - Heavy has been the head that wears the crown so far this year in college basketball. Kansas had a pretty solid run at number one before finally being toppled by Tennessee. Texas lasted only a matter of weeks and now has two losses. How will Kentucky handle the pressure of being ranked number one now? A trip to Columbia to face the Gamecocks is often tricky for any team, but a true number one shouldn't have any problems with this one.

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2, 9:00) - Men's quarterfinals action continues as Roger Federer takes on Nikolay Davydenko while Novak Djokovic will meet Muhammad Ali's doppelganger, Jo Wilfried Tsonga, in a rematch of the 2008 Australian Open Final. Davydenko has been on quite a run the last few months, which includes two wins over Federer, but matches in a Grand Slam are a different thing altogether. Djokovic-Tsonga could be an absolute classic.

Wednesday/January 27:

Manchester City at Manchester United in a Carling Cup Semi-final (English Soccer on ESPN360, 3:00) - After a heated affair in the first leg, a trip to Wembley is on the line in the return leg at Old Trafford. It was apparently in the stars (with the help of some questionable decisions from the ref) for Carlos Tevez to give his new Manchester team (Man City) a slim 2-1 lead over his old one (Man United) heading over to the red half of Manchester and everything has revolved around the Argentine since, especially his ongoing feud with Gary Neville. United still have a wonderful chance to advance to the final and put one over on their city rivals, though. The atmosphere should be incandescent.

Vanderbilt at Tennessee (College Basketball on ESPNU, 7:00) - Lost in the shuffle of Kentucky's unbeaten start to the season and Tennessee's recent short-handed heroics (up until they met a Georgia buzzsaw this last weekend anyway) is a Vanderbilt team that may just be one of the best teams in the conference. They've started SEC play with a 4-0 record, including two on the road. The competition hasn't been the best, but an unbeaten start still warrants mention. With a brand new top 25 ranking, they'll head into Knoxville with a chance to win over further doubters and establish themselves as Kentucky's main contenders in the East. Likewise for Tennessee as they look to bounce back from their rough outing in Athens.

Florida State at Duke (College Basketball on ESPN, 9:00) - Duke may have finally found some swagger this past weekend with a big road win over Clemson. They'll look to continue that momentum with a streaky Seminoles team coming to town. Florida State's two conference losses against N.C. State and Maryland sort flatter to deceive, but two wins over a ranked Georgia Tech team look nice. Plus, Florida State's athleticism usually gives Duke fits, both home and away. This could be an awkward matchup for the Blue Devils.

Thursday/January 28:

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2, 3:30) - That's 3:30 in the A.M. as the men's semi-finals get under way. This match will feature the Roddick-Cilic winner versus the Nadal-Murray winner. It's easy to envision either of the possible matchups (Roddick-Nadal, Cilic-Nadal, Roddick-Murray, or Cilic-Murray), such is the depth of balance in the men's game these days.

Juventus at Inter in the Coppa Italia (Italian Soccer on GolTV, 2:45) - These two teams enter this quarterfinal matchup in completely different moods. Juve is coming off of yet another loss, this time at home to Roma, and are sinking fast. Inter, meanwhile, after a shaky run of form, righted the ship with a comprehensive win over city rivals Milan in the Derby della Madonnina, despite being down to nine men by the end. The Nerazzurri (Inter) may finally put a nail in the coffin of Juve coach Ciro Ferrara.

Ole Miss at Auburn (College Basketball on ESPNU, 9:00) -  A top 20 team visiting Auburn usually means another loss for my Tigers, but Auburn has at least been playing somewhat adequately as of late. They followed up a tough loss to top ranked Kentucky with a road win in Baton Rouge. An eight point loss against Vandy followed on Saturday after having built up a sixteen point lead in Nashville. Granted, they did blow that lead and eventually lost by eight points, but they were good enough to build up a sixteen point lead to begin with. That's progress for this team. Probably won't bring a win against the Rebels, but they should play them close.

Friday/January 29:

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2, 3:30) - That's once again 3:30 in the A.M. as the men's semi-finals continue in Melbourne. This match will feature the Federer/Davydenko winner against the Djokovic/Tsonga winner. I think Davydenko has a shot againt Fed, but it's more likely that we'll see Roger versus one of the other two contenders. I'm tempted to say Djokovic for his Grand Slam experience and his form this tournament, but Tsonga has won the last four against the Djoker.


What I'm Watching this Weekend (and why)

Saturday/January 23:

Barcelona at Valladolid in La Liga (Spanish Soccer on GolTV, 2:00)  - This shouldn't be much of a match, but Barca are always fun to watch, especially when they start kicking into a high gear like they are right now. They're starting to find their rhythm now and should have no problem in this one, even on the road.

Roma at Juventus in Serie A (Italian Soccer on FSC, 2:30) - It's a mouth watering weekend of soccer in Italy with the Milan Derby on Sunday. Roma at Juventus is no mere appetizer, though. Roma has ridden a rich vein of form to third position in the table while Juve continue to slide in the wrong direction. Champions League spots are up for grabs in this one. Should be a cracking atmosphere. FORZA ROMA!!

Texas at UConn (College Basketball on CBS, 4:00) - Texas has already ceded its short lived grip on the number one ranking after their loss to Kansas State on Monday, but things won't get a whole lot easier at UConn. The Huskies have been well below their best most of the year, but Jim Calhoun's temporary departure may have a galvanizing affect on the team, especially with a top five caliber Texas team visiting.  The Longhorns could use a victory here to announce themselves as a true contender. Everybody loses (usually) in college basketball. It's about how a team bounces back from those defeats that often define them.

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel, 7:00) - This is when the tournament really starts to heat up, literally and figuratively. The courts may well be baking while all the top contenders begin to run into their stiffest competition yet. It's the Round of 16. Today, we'll see Rafa Nadal and Juan Martin Del Potro in action while the two remaining Americans in the draw will also be fighting for the pride of the red, white, and blue. Andy Roddick takes on hard hitting Fernando Gonzalez while Georgia Bulldog and huge underdog John Isner takes on Andy Murray. Should be fun to watch.

Honduras vs USA in an International Friendly (Soccer on FSC, 9:00) - Final Preparations for South Africa and the 2010 World Cup get underway at the Home Depot Center in Los Angeles for the United States and Honduras. Both teams will be understrength, but there will be several players on the field for both teams with a legit chance of making the final squad for the World Cup. In fact, more than a few are sure bets barring fitness problems. The result doesn't matter here. It's all about the future and getting ready for June.

Duke at Clemson (College Basketball on ESPN, 9:00) - This one lost a little bit of its luster when both teams lost on the road in midweek, but it's still a top twenty showdown (for now). Clemson has asserted itself since their whooping at Cameron and were a little unlucky to lose against ranked Georgia Tech on the road earlier this week. They should still be plenty confident for this showdown. Duke, meanwhile...who knows what to think. Duke just isn't what they were five to six years ago. They're still a top ten team, but I think that's down mainly to their name. They're too inconsistent right now. A win here would help sort that out.

Sunday/January 24:

Milan at Inter in Serie A (Italian Soccer on FSC, 2:30) - Easily the soccer match of the weekend in Europe (and the world), this may just be the best sporting event to watch all weekend. There's arguably no city derby in the world that is as high profile as the Derby della Madonnina. Residents of Glasgow and Buenos Aires may differ, but in terms of prestige, Boca Juniors, River Plate, Celtic, and Rangers can't touch the two Milan clubs. This derby may not be as ferocious as those others, but it will be intense and the level of play will be very high. On top of that, these are the two best teams in Italy right now. Hard to believe after the way Inter ran circles around Milan way back in August, but it's the truth. While Inter has stumbled a little as of late, Milan may be the hottest team in Europe right now. They can really prove it here. A win by either team will make them a clear favorite in the race for the Scudetto. A draw may be more likely.

Malaga at Real Madrid in La Liga (Spanish Soccer on ESPN, 3:00) - Simply put, this is Spanish soccer in HD. That's really the biggest reason I want to watch this game. Despite a tough loss last weekend in Bilbao, Real should have no trouble in here, but I don't care. Seeing the likes of Ronaldo and Kaka in crystal clear HD at the Bernebeu is all the reason in the world that I need to watch this one.

AFC and NFC Championship games (NFL Playoffs on CBS at 3:00 and Fox at 6:30) - To be perfectly honest, I'm not a huge NFL fan at all. I enjoy watching my Titans play a bit and I'll watch some certain teams here and there, but I generally only watch NFL football because it's all that's on or because I'm keeping up with a former Auburn player. But it is that time of the year where I finally start to pay attention to see who I'll be watching in the Super Bowl. Both games look intriguing at least. The Colts-Jets game brings back memories of that famous Super Bowl where Joe Namath guaranteed victory. The Saints-Vikings should be fun to watch as a gunslinger matchup between Brees and Favre.

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2, 7:00) - Men's Round of 16 action continues Down Under. At time of writing, we don't know all the participants as matches are still going on, but we know for sure we'll see the likes of Federer, Djokovic, Davydenko, and Verdasco. That's some big boy tennis there.


O Pac-10, Where Art Thou?

Has anybody been keeping up with college basketball?


Still too busy with football happenings, college and pro?

Well, when your mind finally begins to wander away from the pigskin, you might be surprised by what you see in college basketball this season. Or more accurately, by what you don't see.

Take a look here at the current rankings. Notice anything missing?

Okay, so I probably killed the suspense in that question with the title of this post, but that's right, you won't find any Pac-10 teams ranked in the top 25 of either poll. Arizona State is the only Pac-10 team receiving votes in both polls. An 11-6 California team coming off a fifteen point loss on the road to Washington is also receiving a solitary vote in the Coaches poll. Good to know somebody really believes in the Golden Bears. Maybe it's Cal Coach Mike Montgomery.

Regardless, it's going to be a while before a Pac-10 team sees the light of day of a top 25 poll. Meanwhile, some other conferences that have top 25 teams? Outside of the other power conferences and of course the West Coast Conference with its perennially ranked Gonzaga team, the Mountain West, A-10, Horizon, and Missouri Valley conferences are all host to a top 25 team.

Meanwhile, the Pac-10, home to four separate programs with a national championship banner hanging from its rafters, will do well to get two teams into the NCAA tournament. Two! UCLA, home to Wooden and holders of a record eleven NCAA championships, are now (at 7-10) the whipping boys of the conference just two years removed from a run of three straight appearances in the Final Four.

They're not even reeling from recruiting violations either. That would be crosstown rivals USC. With a winning record early on in conference play and a double digit dismantling of eighth ranked Tennessee, the Trojans may just be best team in the league. Too bad it doesn't count. In a bid to beat the NCAA to the punch, USC has already suspended itself from post-season play this year, including participation in the Pac-10 Conference Tournament.

Okay, you say. You're thinking, "Didn't this USC team win the conference tourney last year and punch its ticket to the Big Dance, making it to the second round before narrowly falling to eventual NCAA Championship runner-up Michigan State?"

Well...yes, they did, and that was a relatively young team. But once Tim Floyd resigned and the writing was on the wall concerning possible NCAA rules violations, much of last year's team bolted.

Credit to much maligned Kevin O'Neill for rallying his undermanned team, but it does not reflect well upon the Pac-10 that such an understrength team with nothing to play for is holding its own. Both Cal and Washington began the season with some expectations, but have been inconsistent at best. The whole league has. Each team has lost at least six times overall (bar Arizona State who has five losses) and twice in conference play.

So where did this sudden decline come from? Generally speaking, the Pac-10 hasn't been at its best the past few years anyway, but it could still hang its hat on UCLA's run of three straight Final Four appearances. Even that was deceiving, though. UCLA did make it to the Championship game in 2006, but was run off the court by Florida. Same thing happened the next year when they met the Gators in the Final Four. A year later, it was Memphis having its way with the Bruins in a national semi-final game. Throw in Lute Olsen's drawn out departure at Arizona and the Pac-10's power base has been in some flux since.

Beyond that, the Pac-10 has been crippled by early departures. Over the past couple of years, the Pac-10 has had fourteen underclassmen taken in the NBA draft, more than any other conference including the ACC, SEC, and Big Ten combined.

But not only are Pac-10 teams having trouble keeping their talent enrolled, they're having trouble getting it there in the first place. The region, especially California, is a hotbed of basketball talent, but more than a few of its best players have left the area to play their collegiate ball. Some of those players this year are suiting up for the likes of Florida State, North Carolina, and Texas.


Over the long term, a season this bad for the Pac-10 is probably just a blip. After all, the SEC only sent three teams to the NCAA Tournament last year, and one of those was a Mississippi State team that had only got in by virtue of winning the SEC Tournament. Yet in just a few days, Kentucky will be the number one ranked team in the country if they beat Arkansas in Lexington this weekend. Then there is a top ten Tennessee team that just knocked off the top ranked Kansas Jayhawks a couple of weeks ago. What a difference  year makes.

But it's hard to see that dramatic of a renaissance coming for the Pac-10 next year. Kentucky went from a non-tourney team to a top five program in the blink of an eye. You might think that UCLA, a program of a similar ilk to Kentucky, might be capable of the same thing, but I have trouble seeing it with Ben Howland there. And I'm not sure there's a Calipari type hire waiting in the wings if the Bruins decide that one terrible season is enough to fire Howland.

Maybe it's just a question of style over substance, though. How much has the SEC actually improved from last year? In the West, Mississippi State and Ole Miss look like Tourney teams, but the division's two best teams a year ago, Auburn and LSU, are now arguably its two worst. Alabama and Arkansas aren't much better. Things do look a bit better in the East with Kentucky, Tennessee, and Vandy, but Florida continues its post-championship haze of mediocrity while for Georgia and South Carolina, better days are in the future, not the present.

But the SEC is perceived to be a stronger conference this year because Kentucky, with one recruiting class and an unbeaten start to the season, has already reestablished itself under Calipari as one of the preeminent programs in the country. And when Kentucky is perceived to be strong, the SEC generally benefits perception wise, right or wrong.

The parallels for UCLA and Arizona and the Pac-10 are similar to that of Kentucky and the SEC. Both of these schools need to be competing at a high level for the Pac-10 to maximize its credibility. Failing that, the Pac-10 would expect at least one of them to be one of its upper tier teams, but UCLA is 7-10 and coming off a double digit home loss to USC while Zona is the epitome of mediocrity at 9-9. That's not what the Pac-10 needs.

Besides losing its players to the NBA, to other conferences, and having its two historically power programs struggle at the moment, something else that works against the Pac-10 is the media, and I'm not just talking about the East Coast bias. The Pac-10 is the only power conference that doesn't have a contract with ESPN to show conference games. The ACC, Big 12, Big East, Big Ten, and SEC all have games shown throughout the week on the ESPN family of networks. Even the West Coast Conference is good for a game or two, and not all them exclusively showing the Zags.

The Pac-10, meanwhile, has its weeknight games shown on Fox Sports. The time difference will always work against the Pac-10, and only hardcore college basketball fans like myself are going to stay up late in the East to watch these games.

But that's only if I can find them on my television. It's hard for the Pac-10 and Fox to market the midweek games because nobody is watching Fox Sports on a consistent enough basis to see the games being built up. That's not even getting into the issue of the broadcast being regional. For instance, there are Pac-10 games this week being televised by Fox Sports, but my local cable company will not be showing them on any of my standard Fox Sports channels. You have to subscribe to a special cable package to be able to watch them.

Sorry Pac-10, I think I'll just watch college basketball where I know I can find it: ESPN. Might want to sign a television contract with them soon. In the meantime, you better hope that UCLA and Arizona turn it around in soon before the Pac-10 slides further into the abyss of irrelevance. Even the Big Ten is laughing at you.

To be clear. I hope that the Pac-10 does turn it around so that people will care about it. Having already mentioned the fact the Pac-10 has sent more underclassmen to the NBA in the last couple of years than the ACC, Big Ten, and SEC combined, it's clear there has been some talent in the league. But the conference has always been fighting a losing battle in the arena of perception, and this year the hits just keep on coming with its on-court play and off-court issues (I'm looking at you USC).

Even if this year is a blip of mediocrity, there's no denying that the Pac-10 has its work cut out for it in trying to level out the playing field with the other power conferences.


What I'm Watching this Week (and why)

Monday/January 18:

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel, 7:00) - I'll be watching early round play in the Australian Open all week long on both the Deuce and the Tennis Channel. TTC will have an early two hour window of coverage just about every day, starting at 7:00, but the bulk of the action will be shown on the Deuce starting at 9:00 and going pretty much through the night into the morning given the time difference. This year's tournament on the men's sidewill be as wide open as it's been in a long time. Should mean some chaotic, exciting tennis.

Texas at Kansas St. (College Basketball on ESPN, 9:00) - Texas seemed to wilt a little under the pressure of being ranked number one on Saturday, needing overtime to beat little fancied Texas A&M in Austin. They may have just been caught looking ahead to an awkward trip up to Manhattan, Kansas, to face a top ten Kansas St. team. The Octagon of Doom is not a very hospitable place for visitors, less so when it actually houses a good team. If Texas plays with the same complacency it did against the Aggies, then we'll have a new number one in a week's time.

Tuesday/January 19:

Manchester City-Manchester United in a Carling Cup Semifinal (English Soccer on ESPN360, 3:00) - This match was suppose to take a place a couple of weeks ago, but bad weather postponed it until now. But a Carling Cup Semifinal featuring city rivals? Yes please. United appears as inconsistent as ever, but a cup tie may just bring out the best in them. Roberto Mancini has now had time to acclimatize to his surroundings in Man City, but he's coming off of his first loss and the honeymoon may well and truly be over. I hope so.

Clemson at Georgia Tech (College Basketball on ESPN2, 7:00) - Is a new power base being established in the ACC? In the long term, probably not. Duke and UNC should continue to be the class of the conference year in and year out, but Clemson, Georgia Tech, and Virgina all have made some noise early on this year in conference play, and the former two face off in this top 25 matchup. Clemson has rebounded well form its blowout loss to Duke with three straight wins, including a blowout of their own against UNC on Wednesday. Tech has been a little less consistent, but does hold wins over both Duke and UNC. Even if a win over UNC isn't what it was a year ago, the Tar Heels were previously unbeaten in Chapel Hill until the Yellow Jackets rolled into town. This should be a good game.

Wednesday/January 20:

Auburn at LSU (College Basketball on the SEC Network, 8:00) - My self-masochist ways came to an end on Saturday when my Auburn Tigers actually manned up and gave #2 Kentucky all they wanted on the Plains. After being down by nineteen in the first half with the Wildcats about to deliver the knockout blow, Auburn rallied twice to tie the game and had another shot to tie with under twenty seconds to go, but alas the shot didn't go down. It remains to be seen if the same effort can be sustained in Baton Rouge, where Auburn rarely has success, but this team has earned my respect at least. Can they keep it?

Baylor at Kansas (College Basketball on ESPN2, 9:00) - This game might be interesting. It might not. With the game in Lawrence, all signs point to a decisive Jayhawk victory, but we will at least learn more about this little known top 25 Baylor squad. Same goes for Kansas who may still be trying to find itself after losing to Tennessee over a week ago.

Thursday/January 21:

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel, 7:00)

Friday/January 22:

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel, 7:00)


What I'm Watching this Weekend (and why)

Saturday/January 16:

Syracuse at West Virginia (College Basketball on ESPN, 12:00) - This top ten showdown provides an early bird special for college basketball fans. Syracuse had gotten off to maybe the hottest start in the country before falling at home to a now even hotter Pittsburgh team. No shame there. No team goes unbeaten in college basketball and the Orange have been outstanding otherwise. West Virginia is a good team as well, and they're even better in Morgantown. Should be a classic.

Manchester City at Everton in the EPL (English Soccer on FSC, 12:30) - Emerging Man City visit an Everton team that is slowly gaining steam. This one has caught my attention mainly for the opportunity of seeing America's best player, Landon Donovan, in action across the pond. So often his spells in Europe have disappointed, but his time in England got off to an auspicious start in London last weekend against Arsenal. Hopefully he can build on that performance here and derail City's title charge.

Ole Miss at Tennessee (College Basketball on the SEC Network, 1:30) - Fresh off of a bludgeoning of my Auburn Tigers on Thursday, the Vols look to continue the momentum against a talented, but inconsistent Ole Miss. Shame on ESPN for more or less relegating this top 25 matchup to regional television, meaning I'll be watching in standard def given Comcast Chattanooga's peculiar decision making.

Georgia Tech at North Carolina (College Basketball on ESPN, 2:00) - These two ACC teams come limping into this top 20 contest. Georgia Tech failed to build on its win over Duke and lost on the road to suddenly resurgent Virginia. North Carolina got demolished in Clemson on Wednesday and just continues to lose games. Despite all their talent (young thought it is), the Tar Heels have already lost more games than all of last year. Even if that team did win the national title, they were hoping for better in Chapel Hill. Both teams need this win, but Georgia Tech has not traveled well so far in conference play.

Real Madrid at Athletic Bilbao in La Liga (Spanish Soccer on GolTV, 4:00) - Political and cultural undertones abound in this match between the Spanish giants from the capital and the flagship of Basque nationalism, Athletic Bilbao. Athletic's home stadium, San Mames, is intimidating to all Spanish teams, but there is always extra spice reserved for the visit of Real. Of all the autonomous and provincial regions of Spain, no region is more singularly so than the Basque country. This is highlighted by a team in Athletic Bilbao that only uses players with Basque bloodlines. There is no love lost for what Real Madrid represents to them: Franco and his brutal regime trying to inject a broader Spanish culture into the region. This should be a feisty affair.

Kentucky at Auburn (College Basketball on the SEC Network, 4:00) - My self-masochist ways continue by watching this bloodletting. Kentucky fans should enjoy this game. Auburn fans...not so much. Auburn played well for about fifteen minutes on Thursday against the Vols, building a twelve point lead with about five minutes left in the half on the back of some good shooting and toughness on the glass. Then Tennessee woke up and realized Auburn had no inside game and started to guard the perimeter and began to box out. After that, Tennessee outscored my Auburn Tigers 59-21. Barf. Home court advantage should count for little here. We might be able to partly contain Wall and Bledsoe, but Patterson and Cousins will destroy us down low. Poor Brandon Knox.

Sevilla at Barcelona in La Liga (Spanish Soccer on ESPN360, 4:00) - Why ESPN is not choosing to broadcast this game on one of their prime channels (and thus in HD) is beyond me. These two teams have played two hugely entertaining Copa Del Rey matchups in the last couple of weeks, with Sevilla coming out on top on aggregate, knocking Barca out of their first competition in almost two years. These two teams are probably sick of facing one another, but soccer fans aren't. Barca will want revenge and the Camp Nou should provide the perfect platform to get it. It's the match of the weekend in Europe, yet ESPN has relegated this one to the computer. Well done.

Sunday/January 17:

Australian Open (Tennis on ESPN2, 7:00) - After knocking ESPN just a second ago, I will now praise them. Tennis doesn't get a lot of play in this country, especially if it's being played at weird hours of the day, but ESPN2 begins two weeks of expansive coverage of the year's first grand slam on Sunday. Sure, the Tennis Channel will cut into some of its coverage, but there should be at least ten hours of coverage a day on ESPN2 every day of the tournament. I can handle that. This is the year's first big sporting event and it's one of my favorites. I'll slowly develop into a pod person over the coming weeks as I watch a bright television screen in the dark of night, but it will be well worth it in the end. We don't even know yet who is playing on Sunday, but I don't care. I'm watching some big boy tennis this weekend. Can't wait.


What I'm Watching this Week (and why)

Monday/January 11:

Blackburn at Manchester City in the EPL (English Soccer on ESPN2, 2:55) - On many occasions, this match would not catch my fancy, but it's on ESPN2, which means it will be broadcast in HD. I usually don't pass up such an opportunity, so rare is the commodity of high level soccer in HD.

Villanova at Louisville (College Basketball on ESPN, 7:00)
- 2009 was a banner year in Villanova athletics. After the basketball team made the Final Four in March, its football team followed that up by winning the national championship in FCS. Euphoria abounds. While the basketball team has backed up last year's success with a 14-1 start and a (soon to be) top five ranking, something seems to be missing. Louisville hasn't been world beaters, but they played Kentucky tough, they're 3-0 in Big East play (not to mention defending conference champs), and with the backing of Freedom Hall, we may see yet another top five team go down after a weekend filled with such upsets.

Tuesday/January 12:

Triestina at Roma in the Coppa Italia (Italian Soccer on GolTV, 3:00) - Full disclosure. Unquestionably, my favorite club teams in soccer are Manchester United and SK Rapid Wien (random I know, but I'll explain in a future post). Beyond these two, there are a host of others that I more than neutral towards and like to see do well. One such club is Roma in Italy. As such, I'll be sure to check out this match against lower division side Triestina, a team Roma should have little trouble dispatching en route to the next round of the Coppa Italia.

Kentucky at Florida (College Basketball on ESPN, 9:00) - Since Billy Donovan's arrival at Florida, this divisional rivalry has often had the feel of a nouveau riche vs old money battle, giving each a game a white hot atmosphere. Tennessee and Vanderbilt often have just as much of a say in what happens in this division, but there is something about this matchup that grabs the imagination like no others in the SEC East. After following up back to back national titles with only a back to back NIT run, Florida started this season as if they were ready to end their big boy college basketball subbatical. They still may, but they have meandered as of late. The visit of an inconsistent (but unbeaten) Kentucky team ranked second in the nation may just give them the impetus to emerge from their slump. Kentucky, if not all the way back yet, is certainly revitalized under Calipari after a strong non-conference showing, but league play is where a team really establishes itself, and this will be a test of Kentucky's true potential.

Wednesday/January 13:

Barcelona at Sevilla in the Copa Del Ray (Spanish Soccer on GolTV, 4:00) - The first leg of this cup tie threw up an entertaining game and a surprising Sevilla win in the Camp Nou, leaving Barca on the brink of elimination with the away leg of the tie still to come. The good news is that Sevilla continues to struggle at home and Barca tuned up nicely with a 5-0 pasting of Tenerife, even if the first half hour was all Tenerife. After an indifferent run of form, I think Barca will want  to prove it is well and truly back on course and will put out a very strong lineup. Either way, there should be no shortage of enterprising play between these two teams, which should be fun to watch.

Pittsburgh at UConn (College Basketball on ESPN2, 7:00) - After blowing a fifteen point halftime lead on the road against Georgetown on Saturday, UConn's next game against Pittsburgh can't come soon enough. Only 2-2 in conference play, UConn needs to assert itself against the currently unbeaten (in conference play) Panthers, who face their third consecutive Big East road trip, having already knocked off Syracuse and Cincinnati. A nine day layoff may have taken them out of their rhythm, but either way, I expect UConn to come out on top with a backs to the wall sort of performance.

North Carolina at Clemson (College Basketball on ESPN, 9:00) -Every year, Clemson seems to run through its non-conference schedule impressively, only to have the rigors of ACC play dent its pride and record. Already, the Tigers have been waylaid by Duke at Cameron. Now the Tar Heels come to town in a top 25 showdown after building some confidence with a strong finish in their fourteen point victory over Virginia Tech. Playing at home, Clemson needs this victory. A loss won't affect their Tourney chances, but in a league where validation only comes with wins over Duke and UNC, you have to wonder about their viability as an ACC contender if they lose.

Thursday/January 14:

Auburn at Tennessee (College Basketball on ESPN2, 7:00) - Auburn heads into Thompson Boling Arena in Knoxville on the back end of a nine point loss at home to South Carolina, one of its competitors for weakest team in the SEC. Awesome. Should be fun. Doubly so since Tennessee is coming off a huge upset of top ranked Kansas featuring a bevy of walk-ons. Here's hoping that the Vols have a letdown and mess up their team chemistry by reinstating their suspended players. Could be ugly otherwise.

Gonzaga at Saint Mary's (College Basketball on ESPN2, 11:00) - This Big West showdown between the Zags and their biggest contenders should be fun. It's unfair to these two programs that such a high profile regional matchup will barely register throughout the rest of the country with such a late start time though. The Zags look to be the class of the conference once again, but Saint Mary's have a chance to take away the upper hand early in the season with this home game. Always fun when you have a high (ish) profile all mid-major matchup.


What I'm Watching this Weekend (and why)

Saturday/January 9:

UConn at Georgetown (College Basketball on ESPN, 12:00*) - Will a true Big East contender emerge from this matchup? UConn, without having any truly bad losses, has sort of limped out of the starting gate this year. A win at Georgetown may just be the tonic they desire to jump start their season. The Hoyas, for their part, have some nice wins over Butler, Temple, and Washington. The losses to Old Dominion and Marquette (on Wednesday), however, are less impressive. Something has to give between these two teams.

Florida at Vanderbilt (College Basketball on ESPN2, 12:00) - SEC conference games have yet to be played, but Kentucky already looks like a clear favorite in the East. With Tennessee experiencing some, um, internal issues, the winner of this game could give themselves some early leverage in the divisional race.

Manchester United at Birmingham in the EPL (English Soccer on FSC, 12:30) - Birmingham is in the middle of an historic unbeaten run while Man United is coming off of an embarrassing home defeat in the F.A. Cup to old rivals Leeds United. Hopefully my Red Devils can bounce back with a much needed away win to keep up the pressure on title rivals Arsenal and Chelsea. United has bounced back well from losses thus far this season. Will it continue tomorrow?

South Carolina at Auburn (College Basketball on SEC Network, 1:30) - There is no logical reason to watch this game as it features possibly the two worst teams in the SEC, but I love College Basketball, and I love my Auburn Tigers. Obviously, I am something of a self-masochist. So it goes. This showdown at the Beave will at least give Auburn a chance to get its probably doomed conference run off to a winning start. The game you really should be watching at this time, however, will be on ESPN360 and features rivals Mississippi State and Ole Miss in a showdown between the Western Division's two best teams.

Duke at Georgia Tech (College Basketball on ESPN, 2:00) - The Blue Devils have gotten off to a quiet (by their standards) start this year, yet they are 13-1 and fifth in the nation. Wins over Clemson, UConn, and the Zags give them some pretty solid legs to stand on, but an early conference visit to Georgia Tech will probably teach us a lot more about this team. With a loss earlier this week to rivals Georgia and little else on their resume (besides a mighty beat down of my hometown Chattanooga Mocs) to distinguish themselves as the seventeenth ranked team in the nation, the Georgia Tech may be nothing more than a paper tiger. This game should tell us.

Sunday/January 10:

Mallorca at Real Madrid in La Liga (Spanish Soccer on GolTV, 1:00) - High flying islanders Mallorca visit high spending Real Madrid in the matchup of the weekend in Spain. Mallorca, with only a fraction of the resources at the behest of Real, have ridden some good early season form to fourth place and a Champions League spot, but the reality of a visit to the Bernabéu and its expensively assorted squad may prove too harsh.

Milan at Juventus in Serie A (Italian Soccer on FSC, 2:45) - Probably the match of the weekend throughout Europe, this game features two Italian giants trying to consolidate their position as main title contenders to reigning champs Inter. After a stuttering start to the season, Milan have come on as of late, backed up by a five star performance against Genoa on Wednesday for Beckham's return to the club. Juve, meanwhile, have been adrift in a sea of mediocrity lately with only a fortuitous victory at Parma on Wednesday to show for it.

Barcelona at Tenerife in La Liga (Spanish Soccer on ESPN, 3:00) - There shouldn't be much to this match as a hungry Barca look to bounce back from a couple of indifferent performances with a thrashing of a heretofore weak Tenerife team. The hope in watching this game is that ESPN decides to broadcast the match in HD. Barca in HD will make any soccer fan happy.

Kansas at Tennessee (College Basketball on CBS, 4:00) - Both these ranked teams put their conference seasons on hold for one more high profile non-conference game. Top ranked Kansas comes into Knoxville on the back of a surprisingly difficult home win over mighty Cornell. I'd expect a much more focused Jayhawks team this time around. For Tennessee, it's all about how they respond to the distractions of their off court troubles (former starting forward Tyler Smith has now been kicked off the team). They seemed to respond well enough on Wednesday night against Charlotte, but this is Kansas. I expect Tennessee to play well in an emotionally charged Thompson Boling Arena, but their current depth issues (the other three accused players remain suspended) should give Kansas the edge.

Virginia Tech at North Carolina (College Basketball on Fox Sports, 7:45) - Defending National Champions North Carolina have gotten off to a roller coaster start this season.with a bevy of impressive wins and tough losses, capped by the shocker against the College of Charleston on Monday. Basically, it's the kind of season you'd expect from such a young, but talented team. UNC will once again be without star Marcus Ginyard for the visit of Virginia Tech. The Hokies come with a lot of unknowns. They have compiled a 13-1 record to start the season, but that's against an RPI strength of schedule ranking of 293. This is what the conference season does. It separates the contenders from the pretenders.

* As always. All times Eastern.


The Happy Slam

Less than a month ago, Rafa Nadal and his countrymen brought down the curtain on a momentous 2009 tennis season by cruising past the Czech Republic in the Davis Cup Final.

Fast forward just a few weeks and the 2010 tennis season is already about to heat up in a big way. After the shortest of off seasons, play on the tour has already begun and the first grand slam of the season is less than two weeks away.

Yep. That is correct. The Australian Open begins in less than two weeks. Can you believe it? Do you even care? Tennis is a sport that flies under the radar anyway, but more so for these these two weeks in late January. It's the only grand slam that has no exposure on network television (it is exclusively shown on ESPN2 and the Tennis Channel). Globally, it's accepted as the least prestigious of the grand slam events. Despite all this, it's easily one of my favorite sporting events to follow on an annual basis.

Dubbed the Happy Slam by Roger Federer as a testament to the eternally relaxed and jovial atmosphere surrounding the event, there is something strangely hypnotic about the this slam down under. Maybe it's because watching tennis in Australia during January seems not like a world away, but an entire universe.

Think about it. If you're watching the Australian Open in most places inside the United States, Australia looks like some kind of oasis. While sitting in your dark man (or woman) cave during the middle of the night (Melbourne is 16 hours ahead of Eastern Time) with freezing temps outside, ESPN transports a signal to your television that conveys a completely different image, for Australia is a month into summer at this point in the year and the temp often climbs into triple digits over the course of the tournament. While you are bundled up in scarves, sweaters, and toboggans, ESPN correspondents are trying to shield themselves from the sun via some shade or sunscreen. The heat seems almost to radiate from the television while the projected sunlight momentarily whisks you away from your dark, isolated existence. With the cold spell we are enduring right now, the complete contradiction in weather and time is always alluring.

Then there is the tennis action itself. Given that players were spending their off season celebrating Christmas and New Years less than a month before, it's understandable that the players aren't in absolute top form at the beginning of the tournament. But that doesn't mean players don't eventually round into form by tournament's end. Last year's semi-final classic between Rafa Nadal and countryman Fernando Verdasco was probably the highest quality match played all year, including the Federer-Roddick epic from Wimbledon. The Federer-Safin semi-final from 2005 probably ranks second only to the 2008 Wimbledon Final as far as matches of the decade go. Late night drama usually abounds for these two weeks in Melbourne.

So let the countdown begin. On January 18 (actually January 17 as far as Americans are concerned with the time difference), one of the year's most surreal sporting events will get underway. Grab a blanket, set your alarm, and put on a pot of coffee. Another world awaits.


What I'm Watching this Week (and why)

Monday/January 4:

Pittsburgh at Cincinnati (College Basketball on ESPN, 7:00*) - This Big East matchup features two teams coming off big conference wins.  Cincy beat UConn last Wednesday and backed that up with a comfortable road win over Rutgers this past weekend. Meanwhile, Pittsburgh beat a heretofore world beating (and unbeaten) Syracuse team in the Carrier Dome. Both teams should be ranked come tip-off.

North Carolina at College of Charleston (College Basketball on ESPNU, 7:00) - There is no reason to suggest that this will be a good game, but it's always fun when a power program like North Carolina visits a mid-major. The College of Charleston has gotten off to a 3-0 start in South Conference play, but UNC should be too much for the Cougars to handle.

Boise State vs TCU in the Fiesta Bowl (College Football on FOX, 8:15) - While it's unfair that the BCS didn't pit either of these teams against BCS schools to show that they can play with the big boys, this should be a compelling game to watch. Both teams can move the ball and score points in bunches, but TCU's swarming defense should give the Horned Frogs an edge.

Tuesday/January 5:

Barcelona-Sevilla in the Copa Del Ray (Spanish Soccer on ESPN360, 3:55) - Perhaps Spain's two most attacking teams, this should be an open and entertaining match to watch. Sevilla has hit a bit of a rough patch in their form recently and a trip to the Camp Nou may be what they need to jump start their season once again.

Texas at Arkansas (College Basketball on ESPN2, 7:00) - Arkansas appears to be one of the weaker teams in the SEC, but that was the case last year and they still beat Texas. They get the Longhorns at home again this season, and though Texas will bring a #2 ranking into Fayetteville this time around, an uninspiring Longhorn win over Texas A&M-CC on Saturday means a much improved performance will be needed to beat the Razorbacks.

Iowa vs Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl (College Football on FOX, 8:15) - Despite being the least appealing BCS Bowl, it's always fun to watch opposing defenses try and stop Georgia Tech's triple-option spread attack. Iowa's offense and defense match up well with the Yellow Jackets, but look for Tech's athletic ability to be the difference.

Wednesday/January 6:

Manchester City-Manchester United in a Carling Cup Semifinal (English Soccer on ESPN360, 2:45) - A Carling Cup Semifinal featuring city rivals? Yes please. As if the challenge of nouveau riche Man City to the prestige of Man United wasn't intriguing enough, there is the added flavor of United trying to bounce back from a humiliating F.A. Cup defeat to Leeds United as well as this being Roberto Mancini's first Manchester Derby at the helm with Man City. Quite the baptism of fire.

Milan-Genoa in Serie A (Italian Soccer on FSC, 2:45) - A match at Milan's San Siro is always worth checking out, and Genoa will bring an attacking ethos to this match, as will Milan of course. This could also mark the 2010 Serie A debut for David Beckham as he tries to keep up his fitness ahead of this summer's World Cup and help Milan challenge Inter for the Scudetto.

Central Michigan vs Troy in the GMAC Bowl (College Football on ESPN, 7:00) - Crammed in between this week's BCS Bowls, it would be easy to overlook this mid-major matchup, but this is a game featuring two teams that move the ball at will and score points in bunches. Could be one of the more explosive games of the bowl season, though it remains to be seen how CMU will respond to the loss of their head coach to Cincinatti.

Thursday/January 7:

Alabama vs Texas in the BCS Title Game in Pasadena (College Football on ABC, 8:30) - No description is really needed here I think. As an SEC fan, it might behoove me to pull for Alabama and have the SEC win its fourth consecutive national championship, but I'm an Auburn fan and that just ain't gonna happen. I don't wanna see Alabama add to their mythical count of thirteen national championships. Go Bevo! Hook 'em Horns!

* All times are Eastern


Auburn Survives the Great Northwest-ern

As former Auburn Defensive Coordinator Will Muschamp once so eloquently put it:


That's how Auburn and Northwestern broke in the New Year yesterday, setting a standard that the following decade (if you are one of those who think 2010 is the start of a new decade) of college football would do well to live up to. Time will tell.

In a game as wild as you will see anywhere, Auburn survived countless moments of self-destruction. Twice in the second half, Auburn had a fourteen point lead, only to squander its chances to put away the game and let Northwestern come back and tie the game up on both occasions and have a chance to win the game in regulation on the last snap of the game. Auburn deserves a bit of criticism for the way it managed the game at separate times, but the players also deserve more credit for the perseverance they showed. Twice in overtime they thought they had won the game, only for an official's flag or an official review to give Northwestern another lifeline. After one more miracle attempt from Northwestern, this time in the form of a fake field goal fumblerooskie, the game was over and Auburn wrapped up its 2009 season with an Outback Bowl victory and an 8-5 record.

So whoopty doo. What does it all mean?

In the long run, probably not a great deal. The trajectory of Auburn's program under Gene Chizik was never going to rest on a few hours spent in a Tampa drizzle. What this victory does is put an exclamation point on the groundwork that has already been laid for the future in the form of a solid (if at times uneven) 2009 season and what looks to be a phenomenal 2010 recruiting class. Bowl games are fun, and of course you want to win them (especially since 8-5 looks much better than 7-6), but aside from BCS Bowl Games, they act more as a bridge between the present and the future. Aside from BCS Title games, I'm not sure how often a bowl performance has really dictated the course of a program.

Mark Richt lost his first bowl game to Boston College and won the SEC Championship the very next year. Urban Meyer staved off a furious Iowa rally in his first bowl game after leading 31-7 for a narrow victory and won the National Championship a year later. Nick Saban jumped out on Colorado 27-0 his first year at Alabama and held on for a 30-24 victory. The next year, his team was playing in Atlanta for the SEC Championship a chance at a National Championship.

So for anybody who thought Auburn and Coach Chizik needed to win this game against Northwestern as some sort of validation or that the manner of the victory is indicative of anything (positive or negative) that will happen in the future; they merely do not understand college football. Outside of any BCS Bowl, a team's objective heading into a bowl game is to win for the seniors and get plenty of practice for the young guys as the team begins to cast its gaze towards the future. Often times, an emphasis is placed on the latter.

With that in mind, Auburn's trip to the Outback Bowl has to be considered a resounding success. A resilient senior class that has seen and been through much over the last four or five years got to cap off their time at Auburn a win and an eight win season, expounding on the solid foundation they had already laid in the first twelve games of the Gene Chizik Era.

So it's time to thank the seniors and start looking towards the future. No doubt, the coaches have already begun to put the younger guys through their paces to help them get ahead of the learning curve before Spring practice begins. In the coming weeks, I'll have a more in depth look at the 2010 Auburn Tigers. I'll also have a more direct analysis of Friday's game later on next week, talking about continuing trends from the regular season as well as new trends that were uncharacteristic of the team during the first twelve games. I'll glean what I can from them and discuss what, if any, bearing they will have on the future.

So please check back in the coming days. In the meantime, thanks for reading. War Eagle!