Archive | March, 2013

Something to Prove: Re-Energized Phils Hope to Take Back NL East

30 Mar
Phillies left-fielder Domonic Brown is coming off a hot spring training. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Phillies left-fielder Domonic Brown is coming off a hot spring training, but can he be consistent during the regular season. Photo by Webster Riddick.

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report and the Philadelphia Sunday Sun

PHILADELPHIA—While every team around baseball is excited about the opening of the new season, the Phillies seem to be approaching the 2013 season with a new sense of energy and a determination to get back to the top of the National League East standings.

“It feels like to me there’s more intensity and focus this spring because of the failure from last year,” said left-handed starter Cliff Lee. “Everybody knows we had a lot of injuries, so guys are more focused on getting ready and a ‘we’ll show everyone mentality.’ To me that’s a good thing. It’s just go matter of going out there and executing and staying healthy.”

For one thing, the Phillies will have their best run producers—Ryan Howard and Chase Utley at the beginning of the season, something they didn’t have last season until shortly before the All-Star break when the team was in too deep of a hole to get back into the pennant race.

Both Howard and Utley played well in spring training and will come into the season with a clean bill of health.  Howard batted .338 down in Florida, hit seven homeruns and had 17 runs batted in.  Utley had a .273 batting average, but hit five home runs while driving in 16.

“I think it’s very big for the fact that they are the two biggest run producers for our team,” said Phillies manager Charlie Manager. “I think having them back is very important. It always has been. The acquisitions that we made this year with Ben (Revere) and (third baseman) Michael Young makes us better and when we get Carlos Ruiz and (right fielder) Delmon Young our offense should really pick up.”

Coming into Friday’s exhibition game against the Toronto Blue Jays at Citizen’s Bank, Manuel hadn’t announced his decision if Revere or shortstop Jimmy Rollins would be batting at the lead-off spot. In the last few weeks of spring training, Manuel has rotated Rollins at the No. 1 and the No.2 spot.

“I would feel comfortable hitting (Revere) at leadoff or second or anywhere else in the lineup even if I have to put him down (in the lineup), I feel very comfortable with him,” Manuel said. “I like Jimmy Rollins leading off basically for a couple of things. One of them is the runs he produces in the lead-off hole. He’s knocking seventh, eighth and ninth hole hitters and that’s pretty big.

“How he does it? He hits triples, doubles and homers. That’s how he does it.”

Another huge story line for the Phils is their starting rotation, namely Roy Halladay. With talk of his velocity diminishing and his struggles during the course of spring training, Manuel said he expects Halladay to be okay when the regular season starts.

“I have some concerns about it, but at the same time in the last three times, he’s gotten better,” Manuel said. “I think he’s ready to go. In talking to (pitching coach) Rich Dubee and Roy, he’s ready to start the season and he’s ready to pitch.”

Even as strong as the Washington Nationals starting rotation is projected to be, Lee said the Phillies rotation with himself, Halladay, Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick and John Lannan are equally as good.

“I think the track record speaks for itself,” Lee said. “It’s a pretty solid rotation. If we stay healthy and give the team a chance every time we go out there. I like our chances.”

With veteran Mike Adams as the setup man in the back end of the bullpen with closer Jonathan Papelbon, Manuel said he likes his bullpen and he is expecting some of his younger pitchers to come through as well.

“I think (Antonio) Bastardo is going to pitch better this year because we can get him away from pitching against three right-handed hitters,” Manuel said. “I think with Adams back there that gives us more consistency in the back end.”

Manuel said he’s expecting some of the pitchers the team sent to the minors to be good as well.

One of the big questions for the Phillies offense is can leftfielder Domonic Brown duplicate his outstanding performance during spring training in the regular season? The often maligned Brown raised eyebrows this spring with a .376 batting average, seven homeruns and 17 runs batted in.

“I think mentally he’s a lot different,” Manuel said. “He has a direction now in like who he is and where he wants to go. He’s made some adjustments in his hitting. The biggest thing I saw is that he had good balance and rhythm when he caught ball out front. He has a strong, active bottom hand that’s what creates angles for the ball.”

Perhaps the biggest thing for the 25-year-old Brown is that he got through spring training healthy and did not sustain any injuries, something that has bothered him throughout his brief career.

“The big thing for me was just to stay healthy and put in the work that I’ve always have,” Brown said. “I’m just going out there and having fun. I’m preparing the right way every day and trying to do my part to help this team.”

One Shining Moment: Florida Gulf Coast’s Unlikely Run Through the 2013 NCAA Tournament

27 Mar

As the first No. 15 seed to advance to the Sweet 16, Florida Gulf Coast University is the Cinderella story of the Tournament

In this video report, our intrepid reporter and fearless leader, Chris Murray talks about FGCU’s magical weekend in Philly.

Dunk City: Florida Gulf Coast Runs and Guns its Way to the Sweet 16

25 Mar
Florida Gulf Coast guard Bernard Thompson is about unleash a vicious dunk during a 17-0 run in the Eagles win over San Diego State in the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. Photo by Webster Riddick

Florida Gulf Coast guard Bernard Thompson is about unleash a vicious dunk during a 17-0 run in the Eagles win over San Diego State in the Third Round of the NCAA Tournament. Photo by Webster Riddick

High-Flying Eagles Become the First No. 15  Seed to Advance to the Regional Semifinals

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report

PHILADELPHIA—If you actually had Florida Gulf Coast University advancing to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament, you are either a psychic, some lucky little old lady who just likes the color of their uniforms or you’re just a damned liar.

With the Wells Fargo Center crowd behind them, Florida Gulf Coast University Eagles continued their improbable run through the 2013 NCAA Tournament by knocking off San Diego State Aztecs 81-71 or a trip to the South Region Semifinals in Arlington, Texas.

“We’re going to the Sweet 16,” said a smiling FGCU head coach Andy Enfield. “I haven’t cried yet. I might cry tomorrow. But it’s just a great feeling, so proud of these players, what we’ve been through for the last two years only the second year of eligibility. It really speaks volumes.”

After their stunning upset of Georgetown on Friday night, which included an Eagles chant normally reserved for the city’s football team, Florida Gulf Coast became “America’s Team” with another win over a higher-seeded team.

“It’s indescribable, we’re all on such a high right now,” Eagles sophomore point guard Brett Comer. “We feel like we can beat anybody the way we’re playing right now. It seemed like a home game for us. The whole arena was behind us.”

The Eagles (26-10) will take on No. 3 seed and in-state rival Florida for a chance to go to the Elite Eight.  Florida Gulf Coast University, based in Fort Myers, Fla., is the first No. 15 seed since tournament seeding began back in 1979 to earn a trip to the regional semifinals.

“It’s real big, it’s good for our program, our school, it’s good for the whole city of Fort Myers,” said sophomore guard Bernard Thompson, who scored a game-high 23 points. “We’re on the map now. It was an emotional win for the coaches as well as their players. For a 15th seed to go the Sweet 16, it’s just an amazing feeling.”

San Diego State, champions of the Mountain West Conference, saw its season end at 23-11.

If you’ve learned anything from this weekend about FGCU, you now know that this team is for real and then some.  Leading 54-52 with 11: 30 left in the game, The Eagles broke open a close game with a 17-0 scoring spurt with a dazzling transition game with dunks and easy layups that ran the Aztecs out of the gym and into the off-season.

“We turned up our intensity,” said Comer, who finished the game 10 points and 14 assists. “We want to push the ball down the court and we want to attack, attack, and that’s what coach wants us to do and we do a great job of doing that, so we’re going to be in attack mode for the entire game.”

San Diego State head coach Steve Fisher said the Eagles run took them out of their rhythm on both sides of the floor.

“You miss two or three shots in a row and give them two or three straight baskets,” Fisher said. “The whole way you approach it, if you’re not careful, can cause you to be not as thoughtful in how you play. Give them angles to drive, gamble a little bit and every time we did that, they took advantage.”

The Eagles second half scoring-spurt reminded veteran reporters of Houston’s 16-0 run against Louisville in the 1983 Final Four because of all the easy dunks and layups that Florida Gulf Coast used to put the Aztecs away.

Granted, the kids from Florida Gulf Coast University may not know anything about Clyde Drexler and Phi Slamma Jamma, but they have their own sense of swag and have even come up with their own nickname.

“Dunk City is coming to Arlington, so everybody be ready,” Thompson said at the end of the postgame press conference.  “It’s FGCU basketball if you don’t know, now you know,”

Thompson and teammate Sherwood Brown, who scored 17 points and pulled down eight rebounds, both said when Florida Gulf Coast has their transition game going at home; they like to get the crowd involved. That was something that they did throughout the weekend.

“We’re all about having fun and also playing really hard,” Brown said. “We like to get the crowd involved and you saw that over the course of the game. The whole crowd got behind us even if they’re not from Fort Myers or as we like to say, “Dunk City.”

2013 NCAA Tournament: Exposing the Myth of Power Conferences

24 Mar

Commentary

By Chris Murray

Florida Gulf Coast University men's basketball team, in its second year of NCAA Tournament eligibility pulls off the biggest upset of the tourney by beating No. 2 seed Georgetown. Photo by Webster Riddick.

Florida Gulf Coast University men’s basketball team, in its second year of NCAA Tournament eligibility pulls off the biggest upset of the tourney by beating No. 2 seed Georgetown. Photo by Webster Riddick.

For the Chris Murray Report

PHILADELPHIA—In the more than 24 hours since little Florida Gulf Coast University pulled off the biggest upset of the 2013 NCAA Tournament by knocking off No.2-seed Georgetown,  I hope sports fans will have learned one thing from these first few days of the NCAA Tournament.

All the stuff that your ESPN pundits say about players and teams from all the so-called power conferences being better than the kids from the mid-majors in college basketball in its current form is just a bunch of malarkey.

I guess people weren’t convinced by this when George Mason went to the Final Four in 2006 or when both Virginia Commonwealth and Butler went to the Final Four in 2010. Of course, Lehigh upending Duke in the second round of last year’s tournament was just a lucky thing.

So far in this year’s tournament in addition to Florida Gulf Coast University’s stunning win over No. 2 seed Georgetown, No. 14 seed Harvard sent No. 3 New Mexico on that right turn back to Albuquerque.  Another bracket buster was LaSalle sending Kansas State home early. How many times will your brackets be thrown into the waste paper basket or deleted from your computer because you buy into the same old myths?

“I would say once you get out on that open floor, anything can happen,” said Florida Gulf Coast senior guard Sherwood Brown, who scored 24 points in the win over Georgetown. “Everyone puts their shoes on the same way as everyone else, everyone breathes the same air. If you go out there and work hard, anything can happen.”

During this first weekend of the NCAA Tournament at the Wells Fargo Center, I spoke to coaches and players from programs big and small and they told me in no uncertain terms that those things that fans and the media talk about regarding power conferences versus small conferences is just not true.

“You know in basketball, we, as basketball coaches, don’t look at any conference as a mid-major because we have 300 schools that are all Division I,” said Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski. “So how we look at things and how it is reported isn’t always the way that it is.

“I’m sure when John (Thompson III) was preparing for Florida Gulf Coast, he wasn’t saying ‘well, they’re from a bad conference and we should win.’ They were saying, this kid is good and could start for us, this kid can play …So I think basketball people respect basketball people. I know we do.”

I think you also have to take into consideration that in the current landscape of basketball, you have the summer leagues, AAU and various basketball camps where the players have all played against each other and aren’t fazed by one another.

“This basketball thing that we’ve been going through since the seventh grade is basically a network,” said San Diego State junior swing guard Jamaal Franklin. “Like me and my teammate Jeremy Castleberry, a walk-on on this team, me and him have been playing together on the same AAU team since the seventh grade. You see each other from seventh grade all the way up to college.”

A good example of that was Florida Gulf Coast’s win over Georgetown. Senior Forward Eddie Murray, who had a couple spectacular put back dunks in the win over the Hoyas, said his teammates played against some of the Georgetown players in AAU.

“They knew a lot about them and played well against them before and they knew they would play well against them,” Murray said. “It’s the same thing with Miami and Duke, we played against some of those players in AAU. It gives you confidence that you can play with them and they’re not that much better than us.”

Another reason that the smaller schools are hanging with the big schools is that the superstars of the major programs play for one or two years before jumping to the NBA.

Meanwhile, the players at the mid-majors are staying for the full four years and getting the benefit of refining their games and gelling with their teammates. And so when you make your brackets for next year take those things into consideration.

“There’s a lot of talent in the game of basketball right now,” said Duke forward Ryan Kelly. “On top of that with guys leaving early and staying for a year or two and that changes the landscape a little bit. There’s a lot of great coaches. All those things contributes to the parity, but once you get into the tournament, anything can happen.”

Who are These Guys? 15th Seed Florida Gulf Coast Shocks No. 2 Georgetown in NCAA Second Round

23 Mar

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report

Florida Gulf Coast senior forward slams home a putback in the Eagles upset of No. 2 seed Georgetown. Photo by Webster Riddick

Florida Gulf Coast senior forward slams home a put back in the Eagles upset of No. 2 seed Georgetown at the Wells Fargo Center. Photo by Webster Riddick

PHILADELPHIA—If you’ve been wondering who the heck is Florida Gulf Coast, the Georgetown Hoyas can tell you a whole lot about them as they make their way back down I-95 toward the Capital Beltway.

“If you don’t know us by now, I don’t know what’s wrong with y’all,” said Florida Gulf sophomore guard Bernard Thompson, who scored 23 points.

In what is by far the biggest upset of the 2013 NCAA Tournament, No. 15 Florida Gulf Coast using an uptempo brand of offense eliminated the No. 2 seeded Georgetown Hoyas with a thrilling 78-68 win in front of a crowd at the Wells Fargo Center who haven’t cheered quite as loud for a team bearing the name “Eagles” in quite some time.

For the school, whose address is Fort Myers, Fla., but actually borders Naples, it was the biggest win in the history of the Florida Gulf Coast University basketball program.

“This is the NCAA Tournament (second) round game we’re the 15 seed, nobody picked us a win, it meant a lot,” said sophomore point guard Brett Comer.

With the score tied at 31-31 with 17:27 left in the second half, Florida Gulf Coast turned the game up a notch and went a 21-2 scoring spurt that gave them a 19-point lead. The Eagles proved to be too quick for what turned out to be a slower Georgetown squad.

“They got out in transition and that started their run,” said Hoyas sophomore forward Otto Porter, who finished the game with 13 points and 11 rebounds. “They started knocking shots. It’s hard when a team is knocking down shots like that.”

Florida Gulf Coast charged out front by taking advantage of missed shots and scoring on the fast-break. Comer got his teammates involved in a lightning fast offensive attack that included a crowd-pleasing oop to junior forward Chase Fieler.

“I saw Otto Porter trailing me, I knew he was going to try and contest my shot, I saw Fieler out the corner of my eye,” said Comer, who finished the game with 12 points and 10 assists.

After the Eagles took a two-point lead into the locker room, head coach Andy Enfield told his team to push up the tempo and play their style of basketball.

“Throw some ally-oops, kick the ball out to the three and whether it makes or misses, we wanted to push the ball in transition and play our style in the second half,” Enfield said. “And I think our guys did a tremendous job early on and we went on a run.”

With a 19-point lead with 12:30, the Eagles had to withstand several Georgetown runs. The Hoyas actually cut the Florida Gulf Coast margin to four with 53 seconds left, but would come no closer. The Eagles hit their free throws to put the game away.

“We showed a lot of maturity in the fact that we were able to then go on a second run and extend our lead. I thought that was the key to the game,” Enfield said.

Meanwhile, Georgetown just could not find a rhythm on offense. They only scored one basket in the last 10 minutes of the first half.  When Florida Gulf Coast went on their scoring spurt, the Hoyas kept rushing their shots and taking ill-advised threes.

“In looking back in succession we did take too many threes, too many long shots instead of going to the basket,” said Georgetown head coach John Thompson III. “I think we became discombobulated at the defensive end more than the offensive end to tell the truth.”

For the Florida Gulf Coast University basketball program their visit to Philadelphia and their win over Georgetown has definitely put them on the map.

“It’s definitely a coming out party,” Fieler said. “A lot of people didn’t know about us before we got here. The entire stadium was on our side and we got a lot of fans. It was a coming out party for our team and our program. A lot of people thought we were a junior college, so it good that we won a game like this, but we can’t be satisfied.”

Speaking of NCAA Tournament coming out parties and historical footnotes,  it was an upstart Georgetown program, under then head coach John Thompson II, that had its own coming out party in Philadelphia back in 1980 when the Hoyas beat a favored No.2 seeded Maryland squad in the semifinals of the East Regionals played at the old Spectrum about 100 yards away from the Wells Fargo Center.

2013 NCAA Tournament: Mid-Majors Give Under Recruited Players A Chance to Grow and Shine

22 Mar

By Chris Murray

For the Chris Murray Report

Creighton's 6-8 forward Doug McDermott averages 23 points per game coming into Friday's Second Round NCAA Tournament matchup against Cincinnati.

Creighton’s 6-8 forward Doug McDermott averages 23 points per game coming into Friday’s Second Round NCAA Tournament matchup against Cincinnati.

PHILADELPHIA—If you’re basketball playing son has ambitions of being an NBA lottery pick or being recruited by the big name brand schools like Duke, Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas, or any of the schools from the big conferences and he is not even on their radar, he shouldn’t despair.

If you have been watching the NCAA Tournament the last few years, not being recruited by the big-time programs is definitely not the end of the world. Your kid can be a star at a mid-major that school ends up beating one of those schools in the NCAA Tournament.

Georgetown head coach John Thompson III said the success of the mid-majors over the last few years means that there is true parity in college basketball.

“I think as fans, writers and reporters we’ve been forced to categorize teams…this is a power six,  this is a high major, this is a mid-major,” Thompson III said.  “And so just because of how we’ve always done things, we want to assume that a team from this conference is not as good, as talented, as tough as a team from that conference and that’s just not the case anymore.”

The successful tournament runs of Virginia Commonwealth (2010 Final Four), Butler (2010 Final Four) and George Mason (2006 Final Four) has athletes from those schools believing  they are just as good as the players from the big schools.

“Those teams set the bar set the bar for us mid-majors, especially this year in college basketball where anything can happen,” said Creighton junior forward Doug McDermott, whose team will play 10th –seeded Cincinnati in Friday’s second-rround NCAA Tournament game at the Wells Fargo Center.  “Teams we played in the Missouri Valley Conference were really well-coached.”

Oddly enough, Creighton is leaving the Missouri Valley Conference for the new edition of the Big East Conference and they will cease being a mid-major school.

Still, some of the tournament’s most compelling moments have occur when players playing for a mid-major school become superstars for those teams. Often times, mid-major star is a player who was not heavily recruited by the schools from the BCS conferences.

“It’s an opportunity to show that maybe we did get missed or something like that,” said Florida Gulf Coast guard Eddie Murray before his team’s second-round match up against No. 2-seed Georgetown. “It’s an opportunity to show what we can do and see what happens.”

A case in point is Stephen Curry, who is now an NBA star with the Golden State Warriors.  Even as the son of former NBA star Dell Curry, Stephen was not highly recruited at all. The only visit to a major conference school for Stephen was when Dell arranged a visit to his alma mater at Virginia Tech.

In 2006, Curry accepted a scholarship to Davidson, a team that had not been to the NCAA Tournament since 1969.

As a sophomore, he led Davidson on an incredible run through the NCAA Tournament knocking off teams like No. 2 seed Georgetown en route to leading his team to the Elite Eight. That season he was fifth in the nation in scoring and led the Southern Conference in that category as well.

It helps that schools like Florida Gulf Coast, champions of the Atlantic Sun Conference, also play a tough non-conference schedule. The Eagles biggest win of the non-conference schedule was a win over ACC champion Miami, the no. 2 seed in the East Region.

“That definitely gives us a lot of confidence,” said Florida Gulf Coast guard Sherwood Brown. “It makes us realize that even though they may by bigger than us, if you just play hard and play good defense, no matter what you can win.”

Perhaps the main draw that the mid-majors have is that the coaches get to work with the players for four years to develop their skills and they get to gel with their teams. That’s also a reason why those mid-level programs end up beating the bigger schools in the tournament because good players at the major programs end up jumping to the pros after a year or two.

“We have a very specific player development program that we’ve done and that’s why our players have made jumps,” said Florida Gulf Coast head coach Andy Enfield. “Players want to get better. They want to be big-time college players and a lot them want to make money when they get out.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Improving the Secondary Highlights the Eagles First Week of Free Agent Signings

19 Mar