Pauly's Point After

Wes McElroy
March 30, 2018 - 7:18 pm

My five takeaways from the show this week:

 

Monday: Villanova proved it’s the team to beat in this Final Four. It seems odd to name a “team to beat” this late in the tournament, but when the theme of this college basketball season has been parody, finding that team appeared unlikely. But on Sunday afternoon the Wildcats reminded the field just why they were at or near the top of the rankings all season.

It’s no secret that Jay Wright’s crew is built around being able to knock down the three-point shot (Villanova was top 20 in the nation in three-point percentage), but what has been on display in their latest run is the sheer volume of shooters on the floor at any given time that can make a three. Whether it’s Player of the Year candidate Jalen Brunson, potential NBA lottery pick Mikal Bridges or rising star Omari Spellman, the Cats can beat you with any number of different players. And it has been that balance that has guided them to double-digit wins in every tournament game thus far.

But what has been most impressive about this group is its ability to take a punch and stay the course. It came as no shock when they rolled through the first two rounds, beating Radford and Alabama by a combined 59 points, but West Virginia and Texas Tech tested this team’s resolve, and they passed with flying colors. When the Mountaineers’ full court press forced the Wildcats into a season-high 16 turnovers (they average 10.6 per game) and put them in a six-point second half deficit, they regrouped and attacked the press head-on, finishing with 13 three-pointers while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Against Texas Tech, Nova turned in one its worst shooting performances of the year, shooting at a 33 percent clip from the field and 16 percent from beyond the arc, but still refused to be rattled. They battled back and out-rebounded the Red Raiders 51-33 while also converting 29 of 35 free throws to stave off the upset attempt. Every three-point shooting team turns in at least one bad shooting performance, and for the Wildcats, theirs was in a game they still won by 12 points.

They will have another tough draw against the No. 1 seed from the Midwest in Kansas, but if last weekend was any indication, it’s going to be a tall task to stop the Wildcats from cutting down the nets for a second time in three seasons.

 

Tuesday: Don’t be surprised if Odell Beckham Jr. is not a Giant at the start of the season. The weeks leading up to the NFL Draft is a time filled with rumors and smoke screens as teams scheme to outwit one another and get their guy in the draft. Despite having the No. 2 overall pick in 2018, the New York Giants are not doing that with Odell Beckham. Coming off an ankle injury that sidelined him for the majority of the 2017 season, Beckham has quickly planted himself back in the spotlight, and, as usual, it’s in the worst way possible.

He may be one of the most, if not the most, talented players in the game today, but Beckham has done nothing but give his team headaches from the moment he stepped onto the field. From his little trip to Miami prior to a playoff game, to his assault of the kicking net, to his latest adventure with a “French Instagram model” and questionable substances, Beckham has made life off the field difficult for himself and the Giants organization in more ways than one. While co-owner John Mara has stated that he is “not on the trading block,” he also said in the same breath that “nobody is untouchable” at this point. Reports are that the team is asking for two first-round picks for the star wideout, and there will be calls. Although the Giants appear adamant that Beckham isn’t going anywhere, there’s a good chance that is merely a ploy to drive up demand and even the asking price, and other teams are well aware that frustration with Beckham is mounting in the Giants front office. And since the former LSU star has made it known he wants to be the highest-paid player in the league, the Giants have to decide if he’s worth the baggage, and it seems as if they’re truly considering whether he is.

Truthfully, if I were pressed, I would lean more that he won’t be moved, but if it does happen, don’t be shocked. Odell Beckham may be a transcendent talent, but sooner or later too much stupidity catches up with you, and, at the end of the day, championships aren’t won with wide receivers.   

 

Wednesday: I don’t like the NFL’s “targeting” rule, but I get it. For the record, I’m not a fan of the college rule either, but the new NFL rule will most certainly have more kinks to work out. Initially, my first thought was how this would affect defenders making a tackle, but after going back and mulling it over, the ones who should be concerned are offensive players. The rule stipulates that a player will be penalized for “lowering the helmet to initiate contact,” which encompasses any attempt at contact with any part of the helmet. Some of the obvious questions are: What does this mean for quarterbacks lowering their head on a quarterback sneak? What about a running back who tries to lean forward and run over a defender? What about a blocker running downfield?  Among others.

One also wonders what will be the progression of this rule pertaining to punishment and ejections as the league tries to place more emphasis on safety. And as the rule is enforced, the results will not be favorable and there will be no shortage of penalty flags. It won’t be pretty.

That said, I understand the rule. The NFL has long been criticized for its shortcomings on matters such as player safety, domestic violence and rules within the game, and after seeing a record number of concussions in 2017 (291), it was time the league made a move. It had no choice but to react to the results of last season and put something in place that, at the very least, discourages players from leading with their helmet when engaging an opponent. And with the increasing amount of former players claiming to suffer from CTE coupled with the increasing number of times we saw a player carted off the field, the time to act was now. The NFL also suffered a hit to its image for many reasons, one of which being the narrative that football is an awful and unsafe game that no parent would ever want their child to play, and this was the first concrete step in changing that narrative. Football is and always will be a violent game. In fact, that’s probably the main attraction to the sport, and when grown men in prime physical condition run at each other in pads and helmets, someone is bound to get hurt at some point. And while the NFL certainly cannot eliminate all head injuries, it can make moves to limit them.

The change will be anything but seamless, and players and fans everywhere will be outraged as the league tries to find the best way to enforce this new rule, which will likely be tweaked somewhere down the line, but with any change comes resistance. And while I myself do not particularly like the rule, the reason behind it is hard to argue against.

 

Thursday: Nothing gets me excited like Opening Day in baseball. I love football, and it’s probably the sport I pay the most attention to, especially working at a job where the NFL and college football are the two primary sports I cover. And I enjoy the opening weekend of the NFL season, but nothing takes me back and reminds me of my first love more than Opening Day in baseball.

It was the first sport I ever played, and one that I enjoyed playing from the time I was five up through high school. It was one that I immersed myself in from a young age and the sport from which I drew my first memories as a fan. It was all I ever wanted to do and think about, what I studied night in and night out. So much so that my mom always had to scold me to stop reading at the table as I pored over every game story and box score in the sports section, memorizing each one, especially if it involved my Phillies. It was the radio soundtrack of my childhood. It was the first sporting event I ever saw live and the one I attended the most, whether it was a minor league game or down in South Philly.

My dad is not much of a sports nut, but the sport he does hold dear is baseball, and that is something we have always shared. It was the only sport he coached me in, and it suited him well. The memories of summer evenings playing catch, him teaching me how to throw his legendary 12-6 curveball, and helping me work on my accuracy with his tried and true “don’t make the old men bend down” system are still fresh in my mind. All thanks to one sport: baseball.

Other sports have their lovable features, but baseball takes it a step further. It goes deeper than any sport we have here in America, and it moves people unlike anything else. When people go to an NFL game or an NBA game, they are excited about the game, the players, maybe even the halftime act, but when someone attends a baseball game, at whatever level, it introduces a whole new level of appreciation for sports. It becomes so much more than the game and the players. It’s the indescribable feeling of that first time you walked through the tunnel and the stadium opened up in front of you. The smell of the fresh-cut grass and the sound of the crack of the bat underneath a blue sky on a lazy Sunday afternoon that beckons you to slow down for a moment and soak in the nostalgia. It takes you back to those unforgettable moments when the world didn’t move so fast and this beautiful game was everything. It’s the reason that I do and will get excited for every Opening Day for the rest of my life. Baseball is not perfect, but it sure as heck comes close, and I don’t think anyone has described why in a more perfect way than James Earl Jones in “Field of Dreams.” And if that doesn’t get you excited about baseball, nothing ever will.

 

 

Friday: Don’t be fooled by the Yankees and Red Sox, the Astros are still the team to beat. True, when one team adds the league MVP and the other adds a guy who hit 45 home runs last year to their respective squads, the spotlight tends to follow them. But make no mistake, the defending World Series champions are still as deadly as they were a season ago. As if it wasn’t enough that the Astros won 101 games and proceeded to beat a Dodgers team that had been the best in baseball in a riveting slugfest of a World Series, they return in 2018 with possibly an even better team than last year’s crew. The core of position players that formed 2017’s formidable offense, including reigning AL MVP Jose Altuve, World Series MVP George Springer and Carlos Correa, is still intact for the most part, and adding Gerrit Cole as the team’s No. 3 starter behind Cy Young winners Justin Verlander and Dallas Keuchel gives Houston one of the best rotations in the game.

The Astros were an incredible story last season, winning the AL West and defeating the favored Dodgers to bring a city still reeling in many ways from Hurricane Harvey its first World Series title, but they were by no means a Cinderella. They dominated their division (50-26 against) and led Major League Baseball in batting average, runs scored and on-base percentage, among numerous other offensive categories. And their torrid first half in 2017 allowed them to coast to clinching home-field throughout the playoffs. And for those who think 2017 was a “one-hit wonder,” the Astros are out to show why they will be good for a long time.

Of course, there is always the concern of World Series hangover, and if you don’t believe it’s real, just ask the Chicago Cubs. There’s no quantifiable way to insure this won’t happen to the Astros in 2018, but this team is determined to avoid the letdown and solidify itself as one of the best in baseball. And it cannot be forgotten that while the Astros won their first title in franchise history, it almost pales in comparison to lifting the weight of 118-year-old curse, which can cause even the most talented teams jetlag. The Yankees and Red Sox may have made the sexier moves of this offseason, but this Astros squad is poised to remain the best in the league, and if all holds serve, don’t count out another run to the Fall Classic.