Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Cramming for Finals: Can San Diego State Really Win a National Championship This Spring?

SDSU point guard Xavier Thames (right) - AP
The San Diego State Aztecs, who passed a tough road test at Utah State University Saturday night with a 74-69 overtime win, are headed toward the top of the 2014 class. Now ranked #5 in both major national college basketball polls, the 18-1 Aztecs, winners of 17 straight, are cramming for the Final Four in April and a possible national championship.

The national buzz is building for this squad, which is probably the best defensive group in the nation. The Aztecs take the ball away from opponents nearly 9 times a game and give up an average of just 56 points. This group stifles opponents, they chew 'em up and spit 'em out. That message resonated throughout the hallowed Allen Fieldhouse at the University of Kansas earlier this month when SDSU held the Jayhawks to just 20 percent shooting in the first half and went on to beat Kansas 60-57. Kansas almost never loses at home.

Of course, Coach Steve Fisher, who won a national championship at Michigan, has put San Diego State's basketball program on the national map and made this team a perennial power. But that's old news. Even myopic East Coast sportswriters have finally, reluctantly conceded that point.

What is news is the fact that these Aztecs are The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight. Yes, as good as they are on defense, they're almost that bad on offense. This team is long and athletic, and can rebound, but other than point guard Xavier Thames, who's making a strong argument for National Player of the Year, SDSU just can't put the rock in the basket -- especially from outside the paint. It's the darndest thing.

Remarkably, this team that almost everyone including me believes could win the national championship in a couple months has a .438 field goal percentage, which is a dismal 207th in the nation, right behind the vaunted 6-12 UTSA Roadrunners! SDSU's free throw shooting blows, too.

As Sports Illustrated basketball writer Pete Thamel said last week, San Diego State is "talented enough to end up in the Final Four, but flawed enough to be home in the second round." Another SI writer, Luke Winn, said recently that SDSU has "great D, but I have reservations that they can score well enough to go on a six-game streak in the tourney."

Nevertheless, you probably don't want to bet against these guys. Yes, I know, it's almost inconceivable that a team that struggles this much to hit its shots could be considered a potential national champion. But these Aztecs are a resolute lot. They're probably the best team in recent college hoops history that can't shoot.

Here's the thing: San Diego State has a phenomenal point guard in Thames who makes everyone around him better, and they're a very hard-working group that gets it done on the court by any means necessary. This team practices as hard as it plays. I think they can overcome this glaring flaw. 

If SDSU can improve its outside shooting just a smidge, and Thames can focus a little more on playing an inside-outside game with senior forward Josh Davis, who's third in the nation in rebounding but has the ability to be more of a go-to scorer, and if Thames can just slightly hone his penetrate-and-dish skills, this team will win its first national title.

Granted, those are a lot of Ifs. And, too, there are a handful of teams out there that do have the ability to expose SDSU, especially if no one finds his shooting touch. The Aztecs were in fact very lucky to win against Utah State Saturday. Thames had to score 31 points, including 10 in overtime, to get it done. 

Fisher, who is a good man and a tremendous basketball coach, sometimes relies a little too much on his players' natural talent. If he gets credit for the way this team plays on defense, and he should, he must also shoulder some of the blame for the way this team plays on offense. Moving toward March Madness, he needs to maintain this team's defensive intensity but also focus in practice on outside shooting. Anyone who doesn't think shooting is coachable doesn't know basketball. It is.

The Aztecs simply don't get enough good looks, they don't run offensive plays very effectively. Thames and the rest too often look like they're just winging it out there and relying on their instincts instead of set plays. There's so much more they could to improve their half-court offense, including getting Thames and Davis to really play off each other. 

Despite the shooting woes, San Diego State is passing every other test. But there are a lot of conference games left, including challenging road contests against New Mexico, UNLV and Boise State, who almost beat the Aztecs in San Diego. 

Is this team really ready for finals? I'm confident that SDSU will be clutching its Scantrons and number two pencils come March and will make a deep NCAA Tournament run. The biggest threat will be teams like Arizona that have highly ranked defenses like SDSU, but have more potent offenses. Is San Diego State up for this challenge? Can they ace the biggest test of this basketball program's life? I think yes. But we shall see.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

New Senate Legislation for Veterans "Unprecedented" in Its Scope

The U.S. Senate is expected to very soon take up historic veterans' legislation first covered by The Reno Dispatch last week that, among other things, restores pensions for military retirees. That's just one piece of what is being called the most comprehensive veterans’ legislation to come before the Senate in decades.

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, told reporters today that the measure would rescind a 1 percent point cut in the annual adjustment for benefits for military retirees under age 62. As we reported here last week, veterans groups have been vociferously urging Congress to do away with that cynical provision of the bipartisan budget deal Congress approved late last year.

But the measure doesn't stop there. It also addresses a variety of other programs for veterans. For that reason it appears to have earned the support of just about every major veterans’ group in the nation.

In a letter to Sanders, Paul Rieckhoff, CEO and founder of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), said this legislation would achieve “many of the goals for which veterans and military service organizations have been advocating for years, including strengthening the Post-9/11 GI Bill, expanding advance appropriations for more of the VA’s budget, expanding dental care coverage for veterans, expanding benefits for surviving spouses, expanding care related to military sexual trauma, instituting new rules for VA’s claims processing reports, and much more.”

The legislation includes provisions that would:

• Improve the Department of Veterans Affairs' (VA) embattled claims system in part by requiring quarterly reports to Congress on efforts to eliminate the notorious backlog of benefits claims by 2015. VA would have to detail both the projected and actual number of claims received, pending, completed and on appeal.

• Ensure veterans receive consistent access to the benefits they have earned by establishing advanced appropriations for the mandatory accounts at VA.

• Improve veterans’ healthcare through increased access to complementary and alternative medicine, chiropractic care and transportation services.
• Expand access to education benefits for veterans and their survivors, including making recently separated veterans eligible for tuition at the in-state rate and improving the level of benefits offered to survivors of certain service members killed on active duty.
• Assist veterans suffering from reproductive issues, largely related to the widespread use of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq and Afghanistan.

• Renew provisions from the VOW to Hire Heroes Act of 2011, including a two-year extension for the Veterans Retraining Assistance Program.

Joseph W. Johnston, national commander of the Disabled American Veterans (DAV), said in a statement this week that the bill is “unprecedented in our modern experience,” and that it would “create, expand, advance, and extend a number of VA benefits, services and programs that are important to DAV and to our members.”

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Did This Legendarily Inert Congress Really Just Get Off the Floor And Do Something Right for Our Troops & Veterans?

Senate Veterans Affairs Chairman Bernie Sanders
It’s been a pretty positive week in Washington for our troops and veterans. As you've probably heard, Congressional negotiators have shockingly agreed on a $1.1 trillion spending package that almost everyone says is a pretty good deal. Go figure! And one of the real positives of this whopping budget agreement is that it gives active-duty military a one percent pay raise. 

But wait, there's been even more surprising action from this historically do-nothing Congress. New legislation being filed tonight in the Senate would get rid of the one-percent cut in cost-of-living adjustments (COLA) for working-age military retirees that was a particularly disagreeable part of the Bipartisan Budget Act of 2013

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt), chairman of the Senate Veterans Affairs Committee (SVAC), told his fellow Senators this evening that the Comprehensive Veterans' Health and Benefits and Military Retiree Pay Restoration Act of 2014 will rescind that highly controversial provision and keep these benefits intact for military retirees under age 62.

Wisconsin Rep. Paul Ryan wanted to cut military pay
One of the architects of that 2013 budget deal, Rep. Paul Ryan, who was the 2012 Republican vice presidential candidate, defended the cuts to military retirement pay, saying in a USA Today op-ed that there was "simply no choice between responsible reforms of military compensation and making what our military leadership has called ‘disproportionate cuts to military readiness and modernization'."

But veterans organizations and many others strongly disagreed with Ryan's assertion and have been urging Congress to restore these cuts. And it appears Congress got the message.

Sanders, who told his fellow Senators tonight that this legislation "completely eliminates" the military retirement cuts, also said on a positive note that "at a time when there is an enormous amount of divisiveness and partisanship here in the Senate, there has been a great deal of bipartisan effort in the SVAC."

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

San Diego Chargers Playoff Postmortem: Tough Loss, But the Future Looks Bright

The future looks bright for Philip Rivers & the Chargers  -  SD Chargers
As many of you regular Reno Dispatch readers undoubtedly anticipated, here's my postmortem on the Denver Broncos' 24-17 victory over the San Diego Chargers in the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. First and foremost, congrats to the Broncos for a hard-fought win. While San Diego fell behind early and got pushed around for much of the game, the team characteristically did not quit and made a hell of an effort to get back in it late in the fourth quarter. But Denver prevailed.

Denver's offense played about as well as expected, scoring 24 points. But the Broncos' defense played better than expected, holding the Chargers to 17. That was the game's biggest surprise. Credit must be given to that group, especially given the fact that it was playing without Bronco Pro Bowl linebacker Von Miller. Denver had its aging but still gifted cornerback Champ Bailey back from injury, and that helped some. But the Broncos' somewhat maligned defense was clearly playing with a chip on its shoulder. 

Denver was able to pressure Charger Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers more than most teams have this year. San Diego's overachieving offensive line, which as usual was banged up, had arguably its worst game of the season.

No excuses for the Bolts' loss, Denver played pretty well, but this game was close without the Chargers' best running back contributing much. San Diego, which evolved into a very solid running team this season, missed Ryan Mathews, whose bad ankle prevented him from playing after the first few drives. That was the deciding factor in the game. Mathews had a hell of a year, finishing second in the AFC in rushing. He was, besides Rivers, the team's most valuable player this season. Without him, the Chargers just could not run the football effectively.

Despite Mathews' absence, this team was still just a dropped pass or defensive third-and-long stop or easy interception away from beating Denver again at Denver. Some of the drops by San Diego's receivers were absolute killers. Future-hall-of-fame tight end Antonio Gates dropped a perfect Rivers throw across the middle, and Gates' understudy, Ladarius Green, also dropped a perfect pass in stride that would have put the Chargers deep in enemy territory. 

Having said that, it is also true that San Diego's cornerbacks were exposed in this game for the mediocre players they are. This group played better the last five games of the season, but Shareece Wright had an impossibly easy pic opportunity that he just flat-out dropped. And no one could really hang with Denver's all-world slot receiver Wes Welker, which I predicted before the game started. The Bolts' pass rushers also didn't put enough pressure on Manning, obviously.

Adding to that insult, Charger kicker Nick Novak, who had a great year, missed a field goal that he usually makes. But what hurts the most is the fact that San Diego's defense could not stop Denver on a crucial 3rd and 17 late in the game. If the D had made that seemingly routine stop, Denver would have punted and it was pretty evident that San Diego's offense, which had found its rhythm, would have scored to tie the game. Credit to Denver for picking up that crucial first down.

While San Diego also had too many encroachment penalties (five), the referees in this game were a joke. Peyton's jumpy hard count could have easily been penalized, several times. It is very subjective, that call, but the zebras also called a pick (illegal screen by a receiver) against San Diego but curiously overlooked several even more obvious picks by Denver's receivers. No sour grapes, just a fact as plain as day.

Rivers, who had one of his best years, did his best on Sunday with pretty relentless pressure. He never quits. Rivers made some brilliant passes, including two for touchdowns, and he had no pics on a windy afternoon. Yes, Manning outplayed him, but Manning had a lot more time to work. 

Chargers receiver Keenan Allen also shined in the fourth quarter with two TD catches and nearly 150 yards receiving overall. The offense was gaining confidence quickly, Denver did not have an answer for Allen, but again, the defense could not give the team the one stop it really needed. That inability to make a third-and-long stop will haunt this team - especially defensive coordinator John Pagano - for a while, and it should.

By the way, as an aside mostly for you Charger fans, it was interesting to see former Charger cornerback Quentin Jammer come in for injured Bronco cornerback Chris Harris and subsequently get burned repeatedly, and badly, by the Bolts' sensational rookie wide receiver Allen. It was both amusing and painful to see Jammer get toasted again. It brought back some painful memories. 

As mediocre as San Diego's corners are this year, and with all respect to Jammer, who had some great years in San Diego, it was the right move sending him on his way. He's lost more than a step.

Bottom line? There is much room for optimism in Chargerland. The team, which won a playoff game on the road against a heavily favored Bengals club that had not lost at home all season, has a smart and indefatigable new coach in Mike McCoy and one of the finest quarterbacks in the league in Rivers, who was unfairly maligned the past two years. He showed this year that he is an elite quarterback who only needs an average offensive line to do his thing. In the entire league, only Peyton's numbers were better this season. 

Beyond Rivers, San Diego is not known for its talent the way it was a few short years ago, but the team does have some solid veterans and good young players. And what this Charger squad lacked this year in skill it often made up for with heart and a never-say-die attitude. It's a cliche', but it's true: this is a scrappy group that is far easier to root for than, say, the Kansas City Chiefs, who are loaded with Pro Bowlers but lack heart and at times choke on their collective resume'.

The young Charger stars to keep an eye on next season include pass rusher Melvin Ingram (if he can stay healthy), and of course Allen, who is the best offensive rookie in the NFL this year. And Green, too, despite his monumental drop on Sunday, is going to be in the Pro Bowl, soon. 

San Diego also has a rebuilt offensive line that was coached well and played well most of the year, even with a bunch of untimely injuries and players that will never make any Pro Bowls. 

What do the Bolts need to win a Super Bowl? A little more luck (no, not Andrew), a little better pass rush, a little more explosiveness in the kickoff and punt return games, and, mostly, better cornerbacks. But San Diego may have both starting wide receivers - Danario Alexander and Malcolm Floyd - when camp opens next summer. That is, if Malcolm doesn't choose to retire with that nagging neck injury. Neither will beat out Allen for the starting job now, though. Not a chance. 

Keenan is this team's newest and brightest star. He and Rivers have a chemistry that will produce huge numbers, and perhaps more and deeper playoff runs, in the next few years. A Super Bowl is now a much more realistic expectation. This team has most of the pieces to make that happen, and the right front office to complete the puzzle.

Friday, January 3, 2014

NFL Playoffs: Has Ron Jaworski Replaced Eli Manning as the Guy San Diego Charger Fans Most Love to Hate?

ESPN blowhard Ron "Jaws" Jaworski
Rumor has it that, right about now, an impassioned group of San Diego Charger fans have gathered up their torches and pitchforks and are headed to ESPN analyst Ron Jaworski's New Jersey home for a friendly little confab. Jaworski, the former Philadelphia Eagles quarterback who now offers loud, long-winded and sometimes painfully off-the-mark takes on the National Football League, has made a proper fool of himself this week in his hyperbolic and disrespectful analysis of the Chargers, who play the Cincinnati Bengals in a first-round playoff game on Sunday at Paul Brown Stadium in Cincinnati.

No big surprise, really. Since last summer, Jaworski, whose nickname appropriately is “Jaws” - he never knows when to shut his mouth - has consistently dismissed the Chargers and their five-time Pro Bowl quarterback Philip Rivers. Jaworski said in July that Rivers was the 17th best QB in the league, and this morning he twisted the dagger in the Charger nation's back by saying that Sunday's game will be turnover-prone Cincy quarterback Andy Dalton's "coming out party.”

Philip Rivers (right) and Andy Dalton - AP/Denis Poroy
Jaworski went on to say today that the Chargers-Bengals game would "not be close" and that Cincinnati would win "in a rout." Jaworski, who also absurdly once said that Chargers' legendary Hall of Famer Dan Fouts will never be considered a great quarterback, made no mention today of Rivers in his game preview. Not a word. 

Jaworski didn't acknowledge how wrong he was about the San Diego quarterback last summer, or the fact that what Rivers accomplished this year at the quarterback position was only bettered by the Denver Broncos’ Peyton Manning, who had far more weapons, a better offensive line, and a better defense. Rivers is of course having a phenomenal year and is, by any measure, a better player than Dalton, who threw 20 interceptions this year compared to Rivers’ 11. 

It's one thing to predict the game's outcome. But in his one-sided prediction, Jaworski rightly praised the Bengals’ defense but inexplicably said nothing about what the Bolts have done offensively. He ignored not only Rivers' stellar year, but also the fact that Chargers' running back Ryan Mathews has had a dominant season and finished second in the AFC in rushing with 1,254 yards. Only Jamaal Charles of the Kansas City Chiefs was better.

Jaworski obviously knows he was wrong about Rivers but evidently doesn't have the maturity to admit it on the air. Like a spoiled child who did something stupid but won't own up, he's clearly grown a gnarly chip on his shoulder about San Diego. Which begs the question: Has Jaworski now replaced Eli Manning as the person Charger fans most love to hate?

Ron "Jaws" Jaworski stopping pain cold
Jaworski, a pretty good player in his day and a onetime Pro Bowler (1980) whose career numbers aren't nearly as impressive as Rivers, fails to understand that Rivers played last year and the year before behind arguably the worst pass-blocking offensive line in the NFL -- and still managed to throw 26 TD passes vs. just 15 interceptions. This year he threw 32 TD passes and just 11 pics.

Rivers was pressured every single snap the last two years. He had absolutely no time to work in the pocket. He was rattled. It was tough to watch. And yet former Chargers coach Norv Turner inexplicably kept trying to throw the deep passes. 

Astute football analysts like ESPN's Trent Dilfer know that Rivers has always been better than the 17th best QB in the league. This season, he lost both Danario Alexander and Malcolm Floyd, his two starting wide receivers, at the beginning of the season, but new Chargers Coach Mike McCoy and offensive coordinator Mike Whisenhunt changed the scheme just enough and the O line improved just enough to allow him to do his thing and return to his elite, Pro Bowl form.

Seeing the effort the team was making to upgrade the O line, I predicted this would happen back in July. Here's the thing: You just don’t go from allegedly 17th to second best QB in the NFL in one season after playing in the league this long. Rivers didn’t get that much better in one season, he already was that good. It is a team sport. 

Rivers "improved" because his line is actually blocking for him now and he's working in a smarter offensive scheme that stresses crossing patterns and other quick routes than don’t require as much time to develop. Philip’s accuracy this year is off the charts. He leads the NFL with a nearly 70 percent completion percentage. 

And despite what Jaworski and some other shallow pundits have suggested, Rivers was not that bad last year. Bad QBs don’t throw 26 TD passes and just 15 pics. Yep, he fumbled too many times, thanks to the constant pressure. But he still managed to play pretty well on a what was a pretty bad team.

To compare, look at Eli Manning this year. Eli, a two-time Super Bowl winner, was on a pretty bad Giants team this year and his numbers were far worse than Rivers has ever put up. This year, Eli had 18 TD passes and TWENTY SEVEN interceptions. Are you kidding me? Now THAT is a bad year for a quarterback.

I never said that the Chargers will absolutely win on Sunday. It will be a tough game, probably in the snow. The Bengals have arguably the best wide receiver in the league right now in A.J. Green. And they have a solid defense, perhaps the league’s best. But Jaworski needs to either shut up or pay Rivers and the Chargers the respect they've earned this year.