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March 30, 2008

Sports Beat, 3-30-08

I was at the Coliseum last night for the historic Dodgers-Red Sox matchup that set a world record for attendance at a baseball game. When it was first reported that this game might happen, I originally wrote that it was "super cool!" Well, last night definitely didn't disappoint.

Whoever thought of this idea should be given a promotion and a raise. The Coliseum was energetic, excited, and everyone was having a great time. The tribute to Vin Scully before the game was phenomenal, and it was great to see Kareem Abdul-Jabbar skyhook a pitch. Yes, it was a very strange setup for a baseball game, but that was precisely the point. Baseball parks are famous for their quirks, and for a night, the Coliseum was the most fun place to be at in the baseball world.

There are rumors circulating through the baseball community that the Dodgers are considering playing an exhibition game at the Coliseum game every year as a fundraiser for ThinkCure, the charity that benefited from last night's game. If they do it again, then hopefully the Dodgers will learn from a few of the glitches that happened last night. For one, more than 35,000 people took a shuttle from Dodger Stadium to the Coliseum, far more than expected. Some waited as long as two hours to get from Chavez Ravine to Exposition Park, and the line going back up north was the most brutal I've ever seen. It looked far longer than the long lines I've stood in at Giants Stadium to get back to Manhattan, and this one stretched the full length of the Coliseum and well into Figueroa Boulevard. I used my USC parking pass, parked in a USC garage, and found far less trouble both entering and exiting than I've had at most Trojan football games.

Also, there was a bit of a problem with alcohol and security. One person in our group said that they didn't enforce the standard 2-beers per person rule, and he went and bought four. They also didn't appear to stop beer sales at some concessions in the 7th inning, which is also a baseball standard. Additionally, it seemed like there was less security at this game than for a typical USC football game. The result was that the last 2 innings of the game were absolutely nuts in the stands. So many fights broke out that I thought I was at a Raiders game, circa 1994. And then, hilariously in the 8th inning, the video board showed someone stealing one of the blue and white flags that were lined around the top of the stadium. The man simply pulled the rope and took it down. The board showed this image and had the words "Put the flag back please!" At that moment, we looked around, and realized that most of the flags at the top of the Coliseum, which we saw before the game, were gone. At least 30 flags must have been stolen that night. And then a half-inning later, the videoboard showed another man stealing one of the few remaining flags and the text on screen read "I said, put the flag back!"

As for the game, the Dodgers tried to play without a leftfielder due to the shallow left field wall. They moved Andre Eithier to center, had Andruw Jones play a rover position near second base, and usually had shortstop Rafael Furcal play a bit back. Joe Torre continued this defensive alignment into the later innings with Delwyn Young taking on the rover spot. It was a nice idea, and one that immediately came to mind we saw just how short the fence in left field really was. But it didn't appear to be effective. The ball still managed to get through the infield a few times, and there were a handful of occasions where the ball got stuck in a no-man's land of sorts by the 60-foot screen. If the Dodgers play here again, they may want to go with the alignment Terry Francona used for the Red Sox and employ a traditional infield while covering right, right-center, and left-center. Still, the Dodgers lost the game in part because Kevin Cash and Kevin Youkilis hit two of the cheapest home runs you'll ever see over the left field screen. James Loney also got a solo shot above the screen, and props to Blake DeWitt for hitting a legitimate bomb in the 9th inning.

One other note: Did the Dodgers really need to play Sweet Caroline in the 8th inning? This isn't Fenway Park, yet Boston fans were cheering and singing along gleefully. Dodger fans sitting near us booed.

Overall, it was a special night for baseball, and this game certainly ranks as one of the highlights of Frank McCourt's time as owner of the team.

--The next question for the Dodgers revolves around their left field situation. Juan Pierre is beginning to sound resigned to being the odd-man out. While he's upset about what might happen to him in the 2nd year of a 5-year deal, the reality is that Andre Ethier and Matt Kemp are two terrific young players who have earned the right to be in the lineup every day. Pierre continues to be a defensive liability and his on-base skills just aren't what they should be for a man whose game relies on speed.

With Opening Day coming up tomorrow, this season promises to be a very exciting one. The NL West is the most competitive division in baseball, and it might be the game's best. Only the Giants appear to have no shot, and any one of the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, Rockies, or Padres could win be in the World Series. I'm going to make the bold prediction on this site right here and say that the Dodgers will win the NL. I think prognosticators are underestimating the skill of their talented young players like Russell Martin, James Loney, Matt Kemp, Andre Ethier, Chad Billingsley, and Jonathan Broxton. These are the Dodger stars for the next generation and they've all gotten some significant MLB experience by now. I expect Rafael Furcal to have a much improved season and Andruw Jones should bring a nice power boost to the table. Brad Penny and Derek Lowe have both proven themselves to be reliable and consistent starters, most scouts I've heard from like the addition of Hiroki Kuroda, and the bullpen is pretty solid. We don't know what will happen at third base, where Blake DeWitt is the leading candidate to start on Monday, but Jeff Kent is back in the lineup at second base which will also help.

I see the Dodgers winning the West, the Brewers winning the Central, the Mets taking the East, and then the Diamondbacks edging out the Rockies and Padres for the Wild Card. In the American League, I see the Mariners edging past the Angels in the West, the Indians winning the Central, the Red Sox repeating in the East, and the Tigers blowing past the Yankees for the Wild Card. In the end, I think the Indians will win that one extra game they missed out on last year, taking the American League and then beating the Dodgers in the World Series. I've been wrong before, but that's how I see MLB shaping up in 2008.

--Congratulations to Ben Howland and UCLA for reaching the Final Four for the third year in a row. In this day and age in college basketball, where players are often one-and-done, where parity in the game is as great as its been, and where the Pac-10 is as strong as its been in years, it's hard to imagine any team making the Final Four in three consecutive seasons. The Bruins certainly had an easier road this year than in the past, but they did everything necessary to get to San Antonio.

Next up for UCLA is Memphis, whom Bruins fans remember from their tight Elite 8 contest in 2006. I'd argue that both teams are better in 2008. Memphis is the most exciting team to watch in college basketball, utilizing Derrick Rose and the Dribble-Drive Motion to race past opponents. If one team can slow down the Tigers though, it's UCLA, whose stifling defensive play should make things very tough on the Tigers. Memphis is also one of the worst free throw shooting teams in the country, and that will hurt them in a slugfest. I see UCLA winning another tight contest against John Calipari's crew and then playing an epic title game against North Carolina.

--The Lakers are hurting. After beating Dallas and Utah on the road, it looked like they'd be able to handle life without Pau Gasol. But home losses to Charlotte and Memphis have changed that view. Now we learn that Derek Fisher is playing with a partially torn tendon in his foot, and we're wondering just how the Lakers will defend the pick-and-roll. Still, good news might be on the horizon. Gasol won't be playing tonight against Washington, but he should come back for Wednesday's game against Portland. Andrew Bynum is also nearing a return.

--Once again, you can hear me on the radio this Tuesday from noon to 1 PM on KSCR 1560 AM and KSCR.org.

March 26, 2008

Brit not impressed by Staples Center

U.K. journalist Ian Winwood, an actual British hockey fan, attended a Kings game at Staples Center for the first time last week. He came away bored and filled with disdain for the arena, the Los Angeles fans and the brand of unexciting hockey they pay high prices to see. It's a brutal review, but also mostly right on and kind of funny in spots. He writes at the sports blog of the Guardian:

For reasons that I am largely at a loss to explain, I find myself obsessed by hockey. I can't skate, I live in London (England, not Ontario) and my nearest NHL team play 3,000 miles away. But without reaching for a book I can tell you the name of the first goalie ever to wear a facemask (Jacques Plante) and the name of the player who scored the winning goal for Canada against the Soviet Union in 1972's Summit Series (Paul Henderson). It doesn't stop there; I wish it did. I can tell you all sorts of stuff that is of no use to me whatsoever.

So please allow me to be honest, because this is the truth. If I lived in Los Angeles, I'm not sure how much live hockey I'd go and watch. Not because the NHL is in terminal decline (I don't believe it is), but simply because in some places, and at some times, it just doesn't seem worth it.

With just 30 wins this season, the LA Kings have been playing meaningless hockey since before the onset of winter. This in itself is not necessarily a problem; the Toronto Maple Leafs have been playing meaningless hockey for about 41 years and people still care about them. Of course, Kings fans care about their team too, and it would be wrong to suggest that they don't. A total of 16,784 people travelled to the Staples Center on Tuesday night to watch a late-season game which for the home side held no promise at all.

But it's in the wider community that this team is in trouble. If a franchise survives on the oxygen of publicity, then this is an organisation gasping for air. It would be wrong to say that Los Angeles hates a loser, simply because it takes effort to hate. If you are a loser, LA will just ignore you to death....

The atmosphere in section 117 was like being at the pictures, only here the tickets had a face value of $95 and the beer was more than 10 bucks a pint. And while this isn't the time or place to examine the broad differences between the crowd at an English football match and an American hockey game (by which I mean, the difference between believing oneself a participant or merely a consumer), the level of disinterest from people who had paid a good deal of money to attend the game amazed me...

The Staples Center, the team's home since 1999, is impressive in an architectural kind of a way, but somehow unwelcoming to the kind of person who might slosh beer on the floor. Its design seems unnecessarily complicated, with nooks and crannies, boxes and booths. Tickets range from $29 to more than $400; closer to the ice the crowd is thin, although up in the gods the sections are busy. But the top tier is higher than in any arena I've visited, a vertiginous distance in the air. There's more chance of being hit by a drop of blood from the nose of a spectator in the cheap seats than there is of hearing anything they might shout down to the players on the ice.

Kings fans used to rock the building with noise and passion, but a perenially bad team in a league that has legislated out the threat of unexpected chaos has diluted the energy that made fans like Winwood.

March 21, 2008

Sports Beat, 3-21-08

--USC's season came to a fitting conclusion last night, as their first round loss to Kansas State exemplified the unfulfilled promise that has been a constant theme this year. Simply stated, Kansas State destroyed USC on the boards, and the Trojans never got into an offensive flow. The Wildcats were probably better than their No. 11 seed indicated, and a healthy Bill Walker did them a world of good.

If this is the end of the OJ Mayo era, then it will go down as a disappointment. One might argue that it's not Mayo's fault that he was overhyped, but he was every bit as responsible for building up the Mayo PR machine as anyone. If Mayo goes to the NBA, then he'll probably be a late-lottery pick, and his time at USC will be remembered for a 4th place Pac-10 finish and a first round exit in the Big Dance. On the bright side though, Mayo did elevate the status of the program, and it's hard to imagine the Trojans recruiting a stud like Demar DeRozan without OJ coming here first. Hopefully, the two will have a chance to play together.

--UCLA needs to be careful not to let its dominating 70-29 victory over Mississippi Valley State get to its head. Yes, 29 points represents the greatest defensive effort in NCAA Tournament history, but the Delta Devils didn't belong in the Big Dance and were lucky to win their conference tournament to get in. I think all UCLA fans remember 1995, when the No. 1 seeded Bruins breezed past a sub-.500 Florida International team in the first round, only to need a Tyus Edney miracle to beat Missouri in the second round.

Texas A&M has a great team, and they're probably better than their seed indicates. They've had some struggles recently, but they're capable of playing a great game with a tough front line of Joseph Jones and DeAndre Jordan. I'm assuming though that Ben Howland won't let his team be over-confident though. Looking ahead, the Bruins caught a bit of break with both UConn and Drake being upset by San Diego and Western Kentucky, respectively. Should UCLA beat Texas A&M, then they would face either a No. 12 or a No. 13 seed in Phoenix. And looking even further ahead, No. 2 seed Duke looks very weak after squeaking past Belmont yesterday, so it's very possible that a team like Xavier could wind up playing in the Elite 8.

--The Lakers have signed Ira Newble as they make their push for the playoffs. Admittedly, I've never been a big Newble fan, but with Trevor Ariza likely out into the playoffs, having another body to play defense will help. The Lakers aren't expecting much from Newble, and they're not paying him much either. So it can't hurt to have him around.

In the meantime, the Lakers are coming off of two of their best wins of the season. Dallas and Utah are two of the toughest places in the NBA to play in, and without Pau Gasol the Purple and Gold found a way to win in both. Lamar Odom in particular had a nice game at Utah last night. With Gasol getting better quickly, and the Lakers leading the West again, things are looking bright in Lakerland.

--The Dodgers are wondering who will be their Opening Day second baseman and third baseman. Jeff Kent hasn't played since March 4 because of a strained hamstring, and may not have enough spring training at-bats to be ready by the time the season starts. Nomar Garciaparra has a microfracture in his hand, and he will likely need to go on a rehab assignment.

There is some speculation that the Dodgers will make a trade to fill these holes, but I don't think that's necessary. The team already has a stacked farm system, and there's no need to give up any of their top prospects to take care of a 2-week problem. Tony Abreu is an excellent young player, and he was probably slated to be the Opening Day third baseman before news came through on Kent today, Abreu is a natural second baseman and would probably fit in better there. Chin-lung Hu, who I think is a terrific young player might force sports writers and commentators alike to say "Hu's on third" come March 31 against the Giants. Blake DeWitt and Ramon Martinez are other options at third, and Delwyn Young is an outside possibility at second base. Hu can also play second.

March 17, 2008

Sports Beat, 3-17-08

--UCLA won the Pac-10 Tournament and got the bracket it wanted, seeded first in the West and going through Anaheim and Phoenix. I filled out my brackets this morning and have UCLA winning the national championship. They have a very nice path to the Final Four.

In the first round, Mississippi Valley State doesn't belong in the tournament. In the second round, Texas A&M has really struggled down the stretch and BYU just doesn't have the horses to compete with the Bruins. UConn might be a tricky opponent in the Sweet 16 (admittedly, I haven't seen Drake this year), but this isn't your Emeka Okafor or Richard Hamilton UConn team. I think Duke is a very weak No. 2 seed, and Xavier is somewhat unpredictable as a No. 3. I see Texas coming out of the South Region, and even though the game would be in San Antonio, I think Ben Howland will make the proper adjustments with a healthy Darren Collison to win a rematch with the Longhorns. I have North Carolina beating Georgetown in the other Final Four game, and call it a hunch that UCLA would beat UNC for their first title since 1995. We shall see.

Still, UCLA has to be somewhat concerned about the health of both Kevin Love and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. This is another example of why conference tournaments are a bad idea, as two Bruins stars were injured in an effort to win a meaningless event. Love shouldn't miss a game, but UCLA better hope his back doesn't spasm. Mbah a Moute expects to miss the first round game against Mississippi Valley State, but claims he'll be better by round 2. In truth, UCLA can probably survive without him until the Sweet 16.

--USC got a No. 6 seed and a very tough first round matchup with Kansas State. CBS executives are probably licking their chops at the OJ Mayo-Michael Beasley matchup, and it should be an exciting game. Personally, I feel that Kansas State is better than an 11-seed, and it's not completely fair that this game is in Omaha, closer to the lower-seeded team. Still, I see USC prevailing. Kansas State has struggled down the stretch and Tim Floyd will probably devise an excellent defensive game plan to contain both Beasley and Bill Walker. I also suspect that OJ Mayo will be motivated to play one his best games.

In the second round, I think USC will get by Wisconsin (assuming they get by Cal State Fullerton). That may seem like a bold upset prediction, but the Big Ten had a terrible year and the Trojans can play the Badgers rough-and-tumble defensive style. I don't see USC getting past Georgetown in the Sweet 16, unless the Hoyas are shocked and upset in rounds 1 or 2.

In other Trojan basketball news, Tom Floyd reiterated his intent to stay at USC even though the LSU job is open. Maybe I'm naive, but I'd be shocked if Floyd left LA for Baton Rouge. While he is a Louisiana native, and he does have family nearby, LSU simply can't pay Floyd as much as USC can. LSU is a public school, and most of their coaching salary dollars are going to Les Miles. Additionally, Floyd sounds sincere in saying that he wants to keep his word to Mike Garrett. Expect VCU's Anthony Grant to be offered the LSU job soon.

--The Lakers lost to the Rockets 104-92 yesterday, and lost the top spot in the West as well. Mark my words here today: the Rockets will cool off soon without Yao Ming. Yes, they've won 22 in a row, but they won't win forever, and I'd still be surprised if they can win the West. They're going to need an inside presence to contend in the playoffs.

The Lakers are a different team without Pau Gasol, and it's unfortunate that a sprained ankle will keep him out for the remainder of this important road trip. Still, Gasol is said to be a fast-healer, and when he returns, all will be right in Lakerland. I wouldn't expect much out of Andrew Bynum the rest of the way though, as it's just going to take a ton of time and rehab to strengthen his knee and then get in game shape.

--The Dodgers played their last game in Dodgertown today, losing 12-10 to the Astros in Vero Beach. It's sad to see them leave their spring home for 50 years, but the reality is that it's right thing to do. They will be a stronger organization by training in a first-class facility in Arizona, closer to home and closer to their fans. It's been fun to see Tommy Lasorda manage again though.

Meanwhile, Joe Torre and the other half of the Dodgers were in Beijing this past weekend, playing a two-game set with the Padres. It's great that the Dodgers got to play in the first MLB game in China, and helped spread the sport abroad. But would it have killed someone in the MLB offices, the cable networks, or the teams to do something about the TV coverage? I cut my Friday night plans early to watch the game, only to find out through Josh Rawitch's blog that the game would not be televised as originally reported in the newspaper. Instead, I had to go to MLB.com to listen to the Padres announcers calling the game from a studio in San Diego off a video feed. The next day, Steve Lyons and Kevin Kennedy broadcast the game together on FSN Prime from a studio in LA by watching a similar video feed from Beijing. With all due respect to Lyons and Kennedy, couldn't FSN or the Dodgers have mixed in a play-by-play announcer? Originally, the first game was supposed to be a simulcast with Charley Steiner and Rick Monday actually on site. That would have been preferable. The pair did broadcast the game on KABC 790 AM.

I understand that these games were designed to promote the sport in China, and perhaps it didn't matter who watched in the US. But they were historic games, and they deserved to be televised in a professional way, even if there was a time difference. I don't know if MLB is responsible, or its broadcast partners in ESPN, TBS, or Fox are responsible, but I have to believe that there would have been a decent broadcast audience in the US for this series.

Now the Dodgers will finish up spring training in Phoenix at the Oakland A's facility. .

--The Angels pitching staff is in terrible shape after it was announced that John Lackey will be on the DL until at least Mid-May with a triceps strain. With Kelvim Escobar also out until May, the Angels will start the season without their two best starting pitchers. Add their misfortune to the putrid spring that Ervin Santana is having, and there is cause for serious concern in Anaheim. John Garland is a solid starting pitcher, but he's had his bouts with consistency. Jered Weaver is an excellent talent, but he's still young and developing. Young Joe Saunders will be in the rotation along with either Nick Adenhart or Dustin Moseley. The Angels may want to explore trading one of their surplus outfielders for another pitcher, but that's easier said than done. Reliable arms don't grow on trees, and few teams are willing to give them up. The Halos will need to rely on their offense and bullpen to carry them through the first part of the season.

--Loyola Marymount fired its men's basketball coach Rodney Tention after he went 30-61 in three years. It's disappointing to see the program fall so far since their remarkable run to the Elite 8 in 1990, when the Paul Westhead-coached Lions had a lineup of Bo Kimble and Jeff Fryer, and rallied together after the tragic death of Hank Gathers. Hopefully the next LMU coach can bring some magic back to Gersten Pavilion.

March 10, 2008

Sports Beat, 3-10-08

--UCLA has played like garbage lately, and probably should have lost three in a row. Instead, they held off Arizona, had a miracle comeback OT win over Stanford, and then shocked Cal thanks to Josh Shipp making the shot of the year. The Bruins need to take advantage of the Pac-10 Tournament to get on a roll and into a flow before the NCAA Tournament. Right now, they're not playing well enough to go far. But even if UCLA loses early this week at STAPLES Center, they're virtually assured of a No. 1 seed.

--According to ESPN.com's Andy Glockner, USC is now a lock for the NCAA Tournament. That designation comes thanks to an impressive 77-64 win over Stanford in which the Trojans employed a full-court press to stifle the Cardinal. Now, OJ Mayo is sending signals that he might actually stay in school, but I'll believe it when I see it. USC still projects as a 7-seed, but if a few more teams like San Diego win their conference tournaments, then USC could move up to the six line.

--The Pac-10 Tournament is this week at STAPLES Center. I'm about to write something that I know is extremely unpopular: I don't think the Pac-10 should hold a conference tournament. I've never been a fan of conference tournaments in general. In smaller conferences, I think they can prevent a conference from being represented by its best team. In the large conferences, I think they unnecessarily wear teams down.

For years, the Pac-10 didn't have a tournament, and UCLA and Arizona won national titles in 1995 and 1997 respectively. But now, the Pac-10 has its top teams playing up to three games in three consecutive days, less than a week before their first tournament game. Pac-10 teams play 18 regular season conference games, more than any other conference except the Big East which also plays 18. This a time when teams should be conserving energy for the Big Dance, not expending more of it on a tournament that does not matter for UCLA, Stanford, Washington State, and USC.

I know it brings some money to the city, and I know it's a fun event to attend, but let the ACC, Big Ten, and SEC teams batter and bruise themselves this weekend over meaningless titles, while our top teams can prepare for what really matters... the field of 65.

--The Lakers forgot to play defense last night in a loss to the Sacramento Kings, but they still have the best record in the Western Conference. The Lakers fortunes are looking pretty good these days compared to other teams. Phoenix is 4-6 since the Shaq trade, and Dallas is 5-5 since they acquired Jason Kidd. It seems like both players are having difficulty adjusting to new systems. In the meantime, the Houston Rockets have won 19 in a row, but there's no way the can continue winning without Yao Ming (right?!). New Orleans has a great up-and-coming team, but they don't seem to have quite enough experience to stay on top for long. That leaves San Antonio as the Lakers main challenge for the top seed. The Spurs may very well take it, but if you're a Laker fan, then you have to be feeling pretty good about your standing right now, even if Andrew Bynum is out for another month.

--The Clippers continue to struggle, but at least Donald Sterling and Mike Dunleavy are speaking again. Sterling reaffirmed his commitment to Dunleavy last week, and now the team can focus on praying that Elton Brand and Corey Maggette choose to stay.

--It's been a very perplexing season for the LA Kings. With a proven general manager in Dean Lombardi, a Stanley Cup-winning head coach in Marc Crawford, and a talented young lineup that includes the likes of Anze Kopitar, it was widely believed that the Kings would take a big step forward in their rebuilding process. Instead, the Kings currently have the worst record in the NHL and Lombardi answered some tough questions from season ticket holders yesterday. Lombardi is the right man to lead the Kings, and I'm sure he'll turn the franchise around in due time. However, there are rumors circulating that Crawford's job is in jeopardy.

--Andy LaRoche underwent surgery today to repair a torn thumb ligament that effectively handed the starting third base job to Nomar Garciaparra. LA loves Nomar and Nomar loves LA. But relationships in sports can be fleeting, and he's going to need to hit more than seven home runs this year to stay in the fans' good graces. He's fortunate to have been given the opportunity after his lackluster play last season.

In the meantime, Clayton Kershaw is the talk of spring training as video of him befuddling Sean Casey is making its way around the internet. There are some who want Kershaw to open the season in the rotation, but the Dodgers would be smart to make him wait. He turns only 20 next week, and the history of players called up to the majors at that young age is littered with stories of high pressures, immature behaviors, and unmet expectations. I don't know Kershaw personally, and I don't know if he is quite ready to handle the rigors and pressures that come with being a major leaguer. But I do know that most players his age aren't, and they need to be developed properly in the minor leagues. I've always felt that a minor leaguer should experience and overcome some degree of adversity in his baseball career before he can be effective in the majors.

--It was a tough week to be a Long Beach State fan, as the men's basketball program has been hit with sanctions stemming from NCAA rules violations that occurred under former coach Larry Reynolds. The 49ers will lose scholarships, be restricted in recruiting, and be placed on probation. New head coach Dan Monson is charged with trying to rebuild the program, and there's no reason why he can't. Monson built Gonzaga into the nation's premier mid-major program, and while he couldn't replicate that success at Minnesota, Long Beach State is a program that you can win at. Seth Greenberg proved that in the early-mid 1990s. There's a ton of top basketball talent in Southern California, and not everyone can play at USC and UCLA.

March 3, 2008

Sports Beat, 3-3-08

**Tomorrow I'll be hosting "The Zone" sports show on KSCR 1560 AM from 12 to 1 PM. You can also hear it on KSCR.org.**

--After a thrilling 108-104 grind-it-out overtime victory over the Dallas Mavericks, Lakers spirits are high. While they showed against Portland that they're a little thin up front without Andrew Bynum, Kobe Bryant might be having his best season in Purple and Gold. At this point, he's the favorite to win the MVP Award. Kevin Garnett had a good case for a while, but he's missed too many games with an injury. And LeBron James has played well too, but you can't help but think the voters will reward Bryant for his work against Western Conference competition while playing with only 9 fingers.

--The Sam Cassell era with the Clippers is over. The team bought out his contract, allowing the point guard to sign with the Celtics soon. It was awfully nice of the Clippers to do that, considering they didn't have to, but this highlights one of the worst rules in the NBA.

Ideally, the Clippers would have loved to trade Cassell for a decent young player or a draft pick. He's in the final year of his contract, wants to win now, and obviously wasn't going to re-sign. The problem is that the NBA requires salaries to be within 15% of each other in every trade, and there's no contending team that would want to send roughly $6 million in usable talent back to the Clippers for Cassell. The rule is in place so that teams don't engage in shameless fire-sales, but at the same point in time, the rule also prevents the Clippers from taking advantage of an asset to help build and improve their roster.

In the meantime, all is not well in Clippertown. Mark Heisler has gone back to writing hilarious open letters to Donald Sterling in the LA Times, and apparently Sterling hasn't spoken to his coach Mike Dunleavy in weeks. There's still tensions from their public feud a few weeks ago. But on the bright side, this is one of the deepest drafts in the NBA in recent years, and if a ping-pong ball falls the right way, the Clippers could wind up with Michael Beasley or Derrick Rose.

--UCLA escaped with a 68-66 victory over Arizona yesterday, and they're now ranked No. 2 in the country. The Bruins play amazing defense that always keeps them in games, but they need to be more consistent on offense. If they want to go deep in the NCAA Tournament, or even win it, they're going to need some of their guys to make big offensive plays. Right now, I'm not convinced that they have the firepower to keep pace with a team like Memphis.

--Across town, USC continues to take one step forward, and then one step back. After a terrific win over Arizona, the Trojans laid an egg against Arizona State, and have yet to seal up an NCAA Tournament bid. No matter how you slice it, the Trojans are a worse team than they were last year. While OJ Mayo has certainly had his moments, he clearly hasn't live up to expectations and is fairly obviously in a tier below Beasley, Rose, Eric Gordon, and a few other top freshmen.

At this point, USC needs to win at least one of their next two games against Stanford and Cal, and then it would help if they could tack on a win in the Pac-10 Tournament. If they accomplish that, then USC should expect to get about a 7 or 8-seed in the Big Dance. If they're able to sweep Stanford and Cal, and then make the finals of the conference tournament, then they might be seeded as high as 5. Right now, Bracketologist Joe Lunardi (yes, that's a real job), has them getting a 7-seed.

--Tatiana Aryasova and Laban Moiben are the two winners of the LA Marathon. Congratulations to them... whoever they are. For years, LA has tried valiantly to get top marathoners in its race, and they haven't been too successful. The problem is that LA is too hilly of a city, and marathoners like flatter courses in which they have a better shot of breaking records. While I'd love for LA to have a world-class marathon, I think we should all be satisfied with a great race involving 25,000 runners, who are all doing something extraordinary. No one here really cares if someone like Paula Radcliffe or Haile Gebrselassie enters. Most people don't really know who they are.

--Spring training has started for the Dodgers, and after tying the Orioles today, the Blue Crew are 1-3-1. There are a few questions for the Dodgers heading into the regular season. First off, it's unclear how Juan Pierre will play in left field, and how much playing time Andre Ethier takes away from him. Secondly, there's an open question at third base, where Nomar Garciaparra is the present and Andy La Roche is the future. And third, no one is quite sure who the fifth starter will be. Ideally it would be Jason Schmidt, but he's taking his sweet time in getting ready for the season. Esteban Loaiza is an option, albeit not an attractive one. For what it's worth, back-from-the-dead pitcher Chan Ho Park pitched two scoreless innings on Saturday, and after some strange medical problems, he appears to be healthy. Hong-Chih Kuo may also be in the mix.

--In case you weren't aware, the LA Galaxy are on a tour of Hawaii and Asia. Last Saturday, they lost to FC Seoul 2-1 on penalty kicks.