Archive for March 2009

WINE OF THE MONTH- MARCH

March 25, 2009

In between all of this basketball, I nearly forgot to feature a wine for this month. Luckily, this time around it wasn’t a difficult choice, as this wine blew away everything I tried in this price range in March. I’m even featuring it at my next tasting Saturday night, along with some other impressive California Syrahs, Pinot Noirs and Zinfandels, where it will be a sure highlight.  Anyone mind if I venture back to Syrah before winter leaves us and we begin focusing on whites and fruitier reds? This wine was incredibly complex and deep for its youth; can you believe we’re drinking ready wines from the vintage 2007 already? Where has the time gone?

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NEYERS SYRAH OLD LAKEVILLE ROAD SONOMA COAST 2007, 93 Points, $30, 989 cases made

Beautiful aromas of ripe, elegant blackberry fruit and hints of vanilla bean and leather. Deep, velvety body of blackberry, huckleberry and licorice, ripe and substantial fruit here. Undertones of leather lead into an explosion of black pepper spice and exotic nutmeg/allspice notes that carry through the long, long finish with understated oak tones in the background. Lots of delicious fruit and impressive spice character keep pumping and linger long.

NCAA Tournament Predictions

March 17, 2009

Sadly, I once again failed to correctly predict all 65 teams in this year’s tournament, as I fell two teams short for the second straight year, and still have never nailed them all. I truly felt that St. Mary’s and Penn State deserved the last two spots in the field based on their entire body of work, but the committee disagreed, and opted instead for Maryland and Arizona, two very talented basketball teams that have had trouble with consistency, but also have strong out-of-conference victories. And that was the message that this year’s selection committee sent–schedule strong opponents out of conference. That’s really all there is to say about that. As Arizona and Maryland were my last two teams out among many that I looked at, I can see many reasons why they deserve to be included, and won’t waste any more time on that. We have 65 teams, and those are the teams that are going to play.

I like the East/South side of the bracket a bit more, as most of my “sleeper teams” ended up on that side along with the two teams that I like most in this tournament. It kind of reminds me 2004, when Duke and UConn were on the same side of the bracket in the Final Four and everyone knew that the winner of that game would easily win the championship on Monday. In any event, I’ve got to fill out a bracket, and here are my best guesses. I don’t think I’ve ever liked less teams seeded under #1, and this may be the most conservative bracket I’ve ever filled out. I don’t think that four number one seeds making last year’s Final Four was a coincidence, I think it was a sign that the parity between these teams isn’t what most people think it is.

MIDWEST

BEast Syracuse Louisville Basketball

To me, this is the toughest region, although I’d argue that the four regions are about as balanced as we’ve seen in quite a while. The strength comes in the talent of the lower seeded teams, such as Arizona and West Virginia, as well as Louisville, the top-seeded team in the tournament, and of course, the defending champion Kansas Jayhawks. That list doesn’t even include regular season Big Ten champions Michigan State and former number one Wake Forest. Suffice to say, there is a lot of potential for chaos here.

I like the way that Arizona matches up size-wise against Utah in the 5-12 matchup, and like their chances even better in the next round to knock off a fading Wake Forest team that lacks experience and could be susceptible to the Arizona zone defense, as they struggle mightily from beyond the arc. The bottom half of this bracket is absolutely stacked both with experience (Michigan State, Kansas) and athleticism (West Virginia, USC). I could see the inconsistent Spartans anywhere from winning this region to losing second round, so from a risk/reward perspective I’ve got them losing in the Sweet 16 to a rapidly improving West Virginia team that has both offensive and defensive efficiency ratings that are off the charts and a style of play that could cause trouble for the Spartans.

Of course, WV will have to get past Kansas first, but I have a feeling that these Big 12 teams are going to be exposed in a big way once this tournament starts. Louisville’s defense is arguably the nation’s toughest, and they showed in the Big East tournament how they wear teams down. The 30-point loss at Notre Dame still has me a bit worried and confused, but if you look at that game as an apparition, their two previous wins over West Virginia make Louisville my best bet to win this region.

First round upsets: #12 Arizona over #5 Utah (best bet), #10 USC over #7 Boston College (good bet) #13 Cleveland State over #4 Wake Forest (longshot)

Regional Final: Louisville vs. West Virginia

Champion: Louisville

WEST

Connecticut Pittsburgh Basketball

If the Midwest is the toughest, this region immediately stuck out to me as the weakest. There simply isn’t a single team here outside of the top two seeds that I can get excited about picking to the Final Four, and I’m not exactly crazy about a Jerome Dyson-less UConn squad or a watered down Memphis team that plays great defense but hasn’t won a meaningful game in almost two months.

Purdue and Washington should meet for a second round matchup that at least adds intrigue to this region. I like the Boilers to prevail despite having to play in Portland, but don’t really like their chances against UConn’s size. Marquette was my sleeper Final Four team all year and I would have been all over them here, but they’ve been a different team since the loss of senior point guard Dominic James to injury, and I just don’t see them getting it together at this point. That leaves a mysterious Missouri team, who is probably the best of a vastly overrated slew of Big 12 teams. Their pressure defense could pose serious problems for Memphis and make that game one of the second weekend’s most interesting if the seeds hold. Still, even if they win that game, they won’t be able to handle UConn’s size. So I guess I am forced to take the Huskies to the Final Four in what will probably be a less popular pick nationwide than Memphis despite the fact that UConn is the higher seed.

And as far as Memphis goes, I’ve faded them hard the last two years and got burnt both times, and considering this team is younger and that Tyreke Evans, while impressive, isn’t exactly Derrick Rose, I’d be beside myself if I took them further this time with a team I feel is inferior and was wrong again. Early losses to Syracuse and Georgetown don’t make me feel like this is a team that could could compete in the top tier of the Big East. Remember, Memphis was a borderline top-20 team before they rolled off sixteen straight wins in the incredibly weak Conference USA.

First round upsets: #11 Utah State over #6 Marquette (longshot)

Regional Final: UConn vs. Memphis

Champion: UConn

EAST

Connecticut Pittsburgh Basketball

There is certainly potential for chaos here as well, but I think things set up quite nicely for the top seeded Pittsburgh Panthers. If seeds hold into the regional final, there might not be a worse matchup in the country for Duke, who probably had a good claim to snag the final #1 seed in the west from UConn. Instead, they get a tough regional where they will likely meet either UCLA or Villanova in the regional semifinal before meeting a Pittsburgh team that will be way too big and physical for them.

Of all the teams here, Villanova arguably got the biggest break by getting their opening weekend games in Philadelphia. Some people are very high on these Wildcats, but I still think they need one more year to reach the status of the elite. In Philly or not, UCLA has experience after making it to the last three Final Fours, and the leadership of Darren Collison will make the difference here. UCLA has struggled defensively this season, but has been one of the most efficient offenses and has flown somewhat under the radar in a very underrated Pac-10. Look for the Bruins to finally gel and get to the Sweet 16, but the road likely ends there, as a better-shooting, better-passing, and much better-defending Duke team awaits.

I don’t see any teams on the top that can really challenge Pittsburgh as long as DeJuan Blair stays out of foul trouble. Underneath them is arguably the best of the 8-9 games, where I predict Tennessee’s size and athleticism will be just enough to beat an improving Oklahoma State team. Wisconsin plays tough defense, and by singling in on one-man scoring show Toney Douglas and shutting him down, I think they have a great shot to pull the upset over Florida State, who is still riding high after upsetting a Lawson-less North Carolina. Xavier has been struggling of late, but a week off and a wake-up call might be just what they need to regain their earlier form and advance to the Sweet 16. Remember, this team beat Memphis earlier this year. They won’t be any match for a Pitt team at full strength though.

First round upsets: #12 Wisconsin over #5 Florida State (best bet), #9 Tennessee over #8 Oklahoma State (good bet)

Regional Final: Pittsburgh vs. Duke

Champion: Pittsburgh

SOUTH

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I’ve said all year that if North Carolina is healthy, there’s no reason to even play this tournament, and I still feel that way. What throws a bit of unanticipated handicapping back into the event is the chance that Ty Lawson won’t be able to play at some point. Having Lawson in the lineup is the difference between the Tarheels winning their fifth National Championship and losing in the regional final. Luckily, not much stands in the way of getting at least that far, as neither Butler, LSU, Illinois or Gonzaga has the firepower to keep up with even an undermanned North Carolina squad. The real power of this bracket is underneath.

Syracuse was the team of the week during Championship Week, as an unconscionable seven overtimes over a two night span left the Orange’s legs a bit tired for the championship game against Louisville. Syracuse likely gained a lot of confidence from such tough contests, and if they are able to rest up this week and come in fresh, this will be a dangerous team. I love all of the #6 seeds in this year’s tournament, and the potential for an Arizona State- Syracuse second round matchup might be most exciting of the possible 3-6 games. I favor the Orange to win that one narrowly if they contain the explosive James Harden, but either way I like the winner to knock off Oklahoma, the #2 seed in the region that seems to have lost its way down the stretch. Likely player of the year and NBA #1 pick Blake Griffin is truly something to behold, but as a whole the Sooners will suffer from their shortcomings defensively against either of these two dynamic offenses.

If I’m right about Wisconsin beating Florida State, why not parlay it into some more Big 10-ACC Challenge revenge and look for Michigan to knock off a Clemson team that I think is overrated year after year. The Tigers are admittedly dangerous from behind the arc and Michigan has been all over the place from game to game, but if both teams play to their fullest potential and Michigan is hitting shots, I like the Wolverines here. A lot of people will be picking Illinois to lose to Western Kentucky, but as Chester Frazier is looking more and more likely to play, I’ll use my 5-12 upset picks elsewhere. In any event, I’m banking on Lawson being healthy and a hungry North Carolina team to pretty much wipe up the floor with the rest of this region.

First round upsets: #10 Michigan over #7 Clemson (good bet)

Regional Final: North Carolina vs. Syracuse

Champion: North Carolina

So, there you have it, I’m officially picking four #1 seeds for the first time in my life. It certainly takes some of the fun out of it, but last year proved that such a thing can happen when four teams are head and shoulders better than the rest of the country, and I believe that to be the case again this year. I’m also picking five Big East teams to the Elite Eight, and am pretty confident I will get at least four of those correct, which is a great start. As for my Final Four, I like North Carolina to squeeze by Pittsburgh in a tough, physical game and for Connecticut’s size and shooting ability, even without Dyson, to trump Louisville’s tough defense. I like the winner of the North Carolina-Pittsburgh game to cut down the nets and win the championship game with relative ease. In this case, that’s the Tarheels, although I’d probably rather see Pitt gets its first ever title than have to watch UNC tie my Hoosiers for championship number five.

National Championship: North Carolina vs. Connecticut

CHAMPION: North Carolina

Let the games begin!

FINAL BRACKETOLOGY

March 15, 2009

A wild championship week continued through the weekend, as teams like Temple, USC and Mississippi State stole at-large bids from teams that thought they had a good chance to be in. As we come down to the wire here, I feel that there are 63 teams that can rest easy that they will be in the tournament, and that there are six teams with legitimate claims to the final two spots. Here are my thoughts on what is a very difficult decision for the comittee.

LAST TWO IN:

1. Saint Mary’s (24-6, 47 RPI, 2-2 against RPI top 50)- This probably comes down to whether or not the committee disregards three unsightly losses by the Gaels while star point guard Patty Mills was injured (UTEP, Santa Clara ands Portland). With Mills, the team is 20-3, and has important wins over fellow bubblers San Diego State and Providence, as well as a blowout win over tourney-bound Utah State. They didn’t put up much of a fight against Gonzaga in the West Coast final, which may linger with the committee, but I think they’ve done enough while healthy, and the win over San Diego State is a huge separator.

2. Penn State (22-11/ 10-8, 70 RPI, 6-9 against RPI top 50)- Something tells me I am going to be wrong about this one, and if that’s true, it is a shame. The main gripe against Penn State is that they didn’t beat anyone out of conference, although did win their ACC/Big Ten Challenge game on the road against Georgia Tech; it’s not Penn State’s fault that the Yellow Jackets ended up having a rough season. It’s tough to overlook the winning conference record, including wins at Michigan State and a sweep if Illinois. It would be tough to put teams like Minnesota and Michigan ahead of Penn State when the Nittany Lions finished a game better in conference and split the season series with both teams. Compared to the other bubble teams, I think the number of wins over the RPI top 50 and the winning conference record will be the separator. Also, the loss that put Penn State in this precarious position to begin with, a double overtime loss at Iowa, renders some sympathy.

LAST FOUR OUT:

1. Maryland (20-13/ 7-9, RPI 55, 4-8 against RPI top 50) – It’s tough to leave Maryland out, but like Penn State, they lost a big game to close the season at Virginia that could have locked up a tourney bid. I had the Terrapins in until Mississippi State gobbled up a bid. In the end, while Maryland has four wins over the RPI top 50 including a victory at North Carolina and Wake Forest and over Big Ten teams Michigan State and Michigan, but thirteen losses (including a couple of ugly ones to Morgan State and Virginia) and a losing conference record are tough to look past, and 55 RPI doesn’t provide much separation between the rest of the hopefuls.

2. Arizona (19-13/ 8-8, 62 RPI, 5-10 against RPI top 50) When USC won the Pac-10 tourney yesterday, something had to give, and Arizona’s spot is the most likely casualty. The inconsistent Wildcats have impressive wins over Kansas and Gonzaga out of the conference as well as UCLA and Washington in conference, but losses to UAB, Stanford, UNLV and a three game-sweep at the hands of rival Arizona State. A win over San Diego State will likely keep that team out of the tournament, but isn’t enough to propel them past the other hopefuls. A 2-9 record in road games combined with a 1-5 finish to the season doesn’t bode well after the three bids were snatched over the weekend. My prediction ushers in sadly, the end of an era, as Arizona’s 24 game streak of NCAA tourney appearances should come to an end in a couple of hours.

3. San Diego State (21-9/11-5, 34 RPI, 2-6 against RPI top 50) It breaks my heart to do it, because I really thought that the Aztecs would be in if they made it to the Mountain West championship game. Alas, too many spots were gobbled up, and SDSU takes a backseat here to teams they lost to, Arizona and St. Mary’s. Their main credit is a three-game sweep of UNLV, which doesn’t look as good anymore in spite of itself (the third win pushed the Rebels out of the RPI top 50). Wins over Utah and BYU in conference are respectable, but don’t hold the same power as the teams above.

4. Creighton (26-7, 14-4, 41 RPI, 1-2 against RPI top 50)- The Blue Jays probably just needed to advance to the Missouri Valley conference championship, but getting blown out in the semifinals won’t sit well with the committee. That loss was its second to Illinois State, and looks worse combined with pretty bad losses to Arkansas Little-Rock, Nebraska, Drake and Witchita State which are in a league of their own compared to the company here. Out of conference wins against Dayton and New Mexico keep Creighton in the conversation, but I think they fall just short here. You just can’t lose in the semifinals by 25 in a mid-major conference and expect to get in.

NEXT 4 OUT:

Auburn (21-11/ 10-6, 64 RPI, 3-6 against RPI top 50)

Providence (19-13, 10-8, 71 RPI, 3-8 against RPI top 50)

New Mexico (21-10, 12-4, 58 RPI, 4-5 against RPI top 50)

South Carolina (21-10, 10-6,  57 RPI, 1-5 against RPI top 50)

PRETTY FAR OUT OF IT:

Florida

UNLV

Virginia Tech

Kansas State

Tulsa

Davidson

Kentucky

Northwestern

UAB

I’ve never picked all 65, and don’t expect to this time either, but I’m confident that these are the teams that deserve to be here. Here’s how my bracket looks:

SEED    WEST    MIDWEST    EAST    SOUTH
1    Memphis    Louisville    Pittsburgh    North Carolina
2    Duke    Michigan State    Oklahoma    UConn
3    Villanova    Kansas    Wake Forest    Missouri
4    UCLA    Syracuse    Purdue    Washington
5    Xavier    Illinois    Florida State    Marquette
6    LSU    Gonzaga    Arizona State    West Virginia
7    Tennessee    Clemson    Utah    California
8    Butler    BYU    Oklahoma State    Ohio State
9    Texas    Michigan    Utah State    Boston College
10    Dayton    Wisconsin    Siena    USC
11    Texas A&M    Minnesota    Penn State    St. Mary’s
12    Mississippi State    Temple    Northern Iowa    VCU
13    Akron    American    Cleveland State    Western Kentucky
14    Morgan State    Stephen F. Austin    North Dakota State    Robert Morris
15    Portland State    ETSU    Cornell    Binghamton
16    Alabama State    Chattanooga    Radford    Morehead State
Cal State Northridge

Bracketology 3/13

March 14, 2009

A seemingly tame week led into a wild early Friday morning and actual waking Friday of hoops. As it sits, it’s actually Saturday for me, but I have to stay up because suddenly USC is pulling into the picture.

Among other things, both Dayton and Xavier are out of the Atlantic-10 tournament. Temple and Duquense will play for an automatic berth tomorrow. Along with Butler getting bounced from the automatic pool, these stories are not good for bubble teams.

San Diego State has now beaten UNLV three times– this almost certainly puts the Rebels out of the at-large picture. And while New Mexico finished a game ahead of SDSU, they only managed to split with the Aztecs, and those guys beat a very good BYU team tonight to advance to the conference finals. Creighton beat New Mexico, who lost early in the conference tourney and doesn’t have a signature victory, and Illinois State beat Creighton by what seemed like 100 in the Missouri Valley semifinals, and that was after splitting with them in the regular season. If you can’t take Illinois State as an at-large, then you can’t take Creighton, who beat New Mexico, so you probably can’t take them either.

This leaves San Diego State as probably the best of a very weak mid-major pool. Of course, they lost to Arizona and St. Mary’s. But UNLV, the team that SDSU beat a whopping three times, beat Arizona. This is all so confusing! And for heaven’s sake and the sake of my sanity, let’s assume Utah State wins the WAC. They don’t deserve an at-large bid otherwise in my opinion, but the committee has done crazier things (Air Force…Air Force!!!?? in 2006). Let’s also assume Temple wins the A-10, for the love of God! But what a story it will be if Duquense gets into this thing. I don’t think either team has a shot as an at-large.

By the way, Maryland got a giant victory tonight over Wake Forest. They beat Michigan State early in the year, which doesn’t hurt either. And two SEC teams that probably just needed to win one game, Florida and South Carolina, couldn’t get the job done. Could the Mountain West really get more teams into this thing than the SEC? At this hour, gun to my head, I say yes.

My Bracketology heading into Saturday’s games (last 4 in are in bold)

SEED    WEST    MIDWEST    EAST    SOUTH
1    Louisville    UConn    Pittsburgh    North Carolina
2    Duke    Michigan State    Memphis    Oklahoma
3    Villanova    Kansas    Wake Forest    Washington
4    UCLA    Syracuse    Marquette    Missouri
5    Xavier    Illinois    Florida State    Purdue
6    LSU    Gonzaga    Arizona State    West Virginia
7    Butler    Clemson    Utah    California
8    Tennessee    BYU    Oklahoma State    Ohio State
9    Texas    Michigan    Wisconsin    Boston College
10    Minnesota    Texas A&M    Siena    Dayton
11    Arizona    San Diego State    Penn State    St. Mary’s
12    Utah State/ WAC    Temple/ Duquense    Northern Iowa    VCU
13    Portland State    American    Cleveland State    Western Kentucky/ Sun Belt
14    Morgan St/ MEAC    Stephen F Austin/ Southland    North Dakota State    Robert Morris
15    Buffalo/ MAC    ETSU    Cornell    Binghamton/ America East
16    Alabama St/ SWAC    Chattanooga    Radford    Morehead State
Cal St Northridge/ Big Sky

Last 5 Out:

1) Maryland- Will leapfrog into the tourney with a win tomorrow, SDSU is the last team in; however if they win the MW then Maryland likely knocks Arizona out if they win tomorrow. Stated more simply, if Maryland wins tomorrow, Arizona is toast, and the 24 year streak ends.

2) Providence

3) Creighton

4) New Mexico

5) Auburn

Really, anybody else has to win their conference tourney to get in; I’m done dealing with it. USC just won; beat UCLA. Still think they need to win the tourney to get in. Goodnight!

Get Ready For March Madness with Chicago's Best Sports Bars!

March 14, 2009

For those of you living in the Windy City with me, I wanted to make a very informative post regarding what I believe are the best places to watch games in Chi-town. We’ll keep it to the two neighborhoods closest to my living quarters: River North/Gold Coast and Lincoln Park/Wrigleyville.

To begin, I have to clarify a few things. In order to be even considered a “sports bar”, an establishment must meet two very important criteria:

1) The focus of the establishment in question must be sports. This means that there is capability to have a game’s audio on if you so desire, that you can watch any game that is being televised on any station regionally anywhere in the country, that the people in the establishment are watching the game actively, and that music is used more as filler than as the main source of background noise (read: the game audio is on unless it is a commercial or halftime). Places like Rockit, English and Lux Bar are great scenes and can be good places to watch a game passively, but they don’t meet this criteria and therefore can’t be considered sports bars. ESPNZone is widely considered a sports bar, but I don’t feel like anyone in the place is ever actually watching sports, and you’ll never catch me in that tourist trap unless I’m in the VIP room upstairs.

2) There must be a focus on beer as the beverage of choice. As much as I love wine and allow it to dominate my life, I rarely consume it while watching a football or basketball game. Real sports bars have beer specials, and have a wide selection of options on draft and in bottles (bonus points for lesser known microbrewery choices). There should always be at least one hoppy pale ale available.

After these criteria are met, establishments can separate themselves in regard to how well they excel at the following distinguishing attributes:

1) The television situation. Obviously, it goes without saying that you need to have a television to be a sports bar. At this point in time, it helps to have flat screens, lots of them, with HD capabilities. How easy are the televisions to see from the seating options? Are there enough televisions to watch three or four games at the same time actively without getting a stiff neck? Major bonus points here for having little TVs in the booths that give the sports fan maximum control.

2) The quality of the food. This isn’t a deal breaker, and I’m not looking for four star cuisine when I’m watching sports and pounding beers, but it helps to have some options besides pizza, nachos and burgers if I’m going to be inside a bar for up to 12 hours and drinking.

3) Intangibles, like atmosphere and lighting, go a long way with me.  Is the place warm and cozy on a snowy Saturday in November while I’m watching college football? Or is it bright and sterile? Are there other people there? Are they watching the game or out for dinner with the kids? Fireplaces are a huge plus in this department. If there are white tablecloths, that probably isn’t good. Bottom line- does it feel like a sports bar?

So, without further adieu, these are my five favorite sports bars in both areas, starting with the region closest to where I live:

RIVER NORTH/ GOLD COAST:

#5: Rock Bottom Brewery, Grand and State Street

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I have my complaints about this place, namely that it is quit “chainy” and therefore touristy, and that the food isn’t spectacular. However, you can’t deny the quantity of televisions in the bar, even if it is tough to get a table. I still feel like the televisions aren’t arranged very intelligently for viewing purposes, although they have added some flat screen HD sets recently. The main selling point here is the wide selection of delicious homebrew for a reasonable price. Combine that with the lucky few that score a decent spot to watch the game, and you have a solid sports bar combination. In addition, the rooftop beer garden is one of the city’s finest, and has televisions at the bar, creating one of the few places in the city where you can watch a game outside. A lot of people have forgotten about this place due to the ridiculous construction around that has been going on for what seems like two years, so I’m here to remind you to show them some love this March Madness season.

#4: Mother Hubbard’s, Hubbard and State Street

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Mother Hubbard’s makes no attempt to be anything besides what it is– a neighborhood sports bar–and gets major points for that. The dark atmosphere is almost like a dive bar, but they serve impressively good food here and have a great selection of draft beer all for reasonable prices. There are televisions aplenty, although they are scattered about a bit haphazardly and not all of them are up to date. Generally you can expect to hear sports audio when you walk past it, and the focus here is all about the games, probably more so than anywhere else in the area, and it’s generally very busy on game days. Only negatives here are a slightly run down feel and the difficult task of positioning around the bizarre alignment of television sets. Hint: Go to the back of the bar. I always have a good time here.

#3: Jake Melnick’s: Wabash and Superior Street

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I’m slightly biased here as this is my go-to spot in the neighborhood to watch games, but you simply can’t deny the warm, cozy feel of this place. The beer selection is vast; they have a monthly beer special and drink specials every day. The food is typical American bar food but the burgers are among the best in the whole city and the barbeque beef brisket is out of this world, all for incredibly reasonable prices for this area. The staff is generally very understanding and will seat you near a television of a game that you want to watch, or will simply change the channel, and have no trouble turning up the volume if need be. There are several flat screens and it is easy to find a table with multiple televisions in view, and going to the bar is never a bad option either. Jake’s is usually busy but not overcrowded, and remains one of my favorite places to watch games, which is convenient since it is a block from my apartment.

#2: Theory Bar and Grill, Hubbard and State Street

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Bars are going up all over the place on Hubbard right now. While my war cry of  “What recession?” is neither well received nor wisely stated, I walked into this place at 5:45 tonight only to find a bar filled with crazed Illini fans. I hate Illinois basketball as long as Bruce Weber is coach (not as much as Kentucky basketball though- welcome to the NIT bitches! Nice Hire!) , but I chose to live and work in the great city of Chicago, so this is what I deal with on a Friday afternoon after a long week of work. No problem, I gave my name to the friendly hostess, who assured me it would be 2.5 hours before they could seat my party, which I told her could be anywhere from “six to fourteen people.” Stay with me people, this is good work. When she called me twenty minutes later to tell me that a six top was available if I arrived in the next fifteen minutes, being across the street I alerted my party to pound drinks and head out. After braving a birth canal bar stretch (reminded me of Upstairs Pub, for you Bloomington folks), we were led back to the tables. Ours was insanely well placed. And this was without the booth tables that have their own private flat screens, a huge plus in my book.  Aside from the friendly service and the three flat screens directly in front of me, the beer selection was impressive, and the menu was what I would describe as somewhat experimental for bar food. They take their beer seriously here as well; I drank Three Floyds Alpha King all night. Above all, what separated this place from the trendy wanna-be “sports bars” next door (i.e. Social Club, Bull and Bear), Theory paid very close attention to the audio. Even late into the night, music was played during commercials, and game audio was the main priority after the commercials ended- this even involved switching from game to game based on relevance. That’s what I’m talking about. My only complaint would be the difficulty in getting into this place, but once you are in, Theory succeeds because it knows exactly what it is (an upscale sports bar, but not a trendy club), and doesn’t mess around with anything else.

#1 Stretch Run, Ohio and LaSalle Street

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When I heard that a bar was being built on LaSalle Street that was going to serve as an off-track-betting facility and a sports bar all at the same time, I figured this was one of those things that was too good to be true. I was wrong. Stretch Run combines all of the best elements of a true sports bar and even adds horse racing to the equation in what is one of the best recent additions to the neighborhood. There is no shortage of flat screen televisions at the bar or in the adjacent rooms, and the trump card here is that each table has its own personal television while as many as six other screens are in plain view. This is sports heaven for people who like to watch multiple games at once and throw in a bet on the ponies to boot. They could use some improvement on their beer selection, especially on draft, but they do have Sierra Nevada bottles, and that is good enough for me. As far as the food goes, it’s fair to say that it is slightly above average, and I’m partial to the steak chili. The atmosphere is modern and clean, especially if you stay downstairs and avoid the angry, degenerate gamblers upstairs (I jest). The only negative here is that for some reason they decided not to have regular bathrooms downstairs, and instead have two unisex stalls that understandably can get quite backed up at inopprotune times. If it’s an emergency, you can run upstairs to the main bathroom. It’s all horsies up there, and it’s worth checking out as well now that I’m being honest.

LINCOLN PARK/ LAKEVIEW

#5: Varsity Club, Clybourn and Webster

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In the old Jack Sullivan’s space, this is arguably a slight step down overall, although the television situation has improven vastly. Large flat screens line the entire back of the bar, easily visible from every vantage point, and game audio is generally on at important times. The space is modern and clean, very darkly lit and decorated but usually energetic. However, there are two big problems here. The beer selection is poor at best. I was here at a company party with free beer and could hardly even figure out what to drink because my choices were essentially Miller Lite, Guinness and Sam Adams. You can make due (snob that I am), but other places offer far better selection. The food options here are even worse, as there aren’t really any main courses, just greasy appetizers. Having said that, if you come here on a full stomach and want to do shots the whole game, you’ll have quite a good time I imagine.

#4: McGee’s, Webster and Sheffield Avenue

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I don’t think that McGee’s is completely sure what its purpose should be. On the one hand, it offers one of the best television setups in the city, with individual flat screens at each table in the main room and the back room, and more screens spread across the entiretly of the walls. The back room can get especially crowded, but is worth the hassle for all of the television options. The burgers here are generally a crowd pleaser, and the beer selection is about average. The problem here is the clientele, which is so young and party-hearty that McGee’s just barely passes my first criteria for being a “sports bar.” I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt because of the great viewing capacity, but suffice to say I haven’t been here for a few years.

#3: Kincaid’s, Armitage and Sheffield Avenue

I haven’t been here for ages, but I’ve always had a great time when I’ve been. The back room offers the most concentrated viewing experience, with lots of televisions in a dark, square room. Beer selection and food is average here, but the clientele is usually pretty energetic. The place is huge and therefore it is usually pretty easy to find a table, whether you prefer the bar, the upstairs loft, the more crowded downstairs area or the somewhat secret back room. Game audio pumps through the whole bar during big games. Televisions are, of course, abundant, and while Kincaid’s tends to cater to the college crowd a bit like the rest of the bars in this area, it seems to be a step up in maturity compared to places like McGee’s.

#2: Kirkwood, Sheffield and Wellington Avenue

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An Indiana-themed bar named after the most famous strip of bars in Bloomington, my alma mater, this relatively new establishment creates a warm feel with its dark wood and close quarters. The place is usually packed, but if you plan accordingly and get here early, there isn’t a much better viewing experience in the city. The flipside to that is that in the event that you arrive late and can’t get a table, being forced to stand borders on misery, as the main drawback to this place is that it tends to cater to a crowd that isn’t always completely focused on the game. Still, as sports bars go, Kirkwood takes the cake with its bar food, especially the filet mignon sliders, which rival those of Lux Bar and Gibson’s for half the cost. The beer selection is also impressive, although they have scaled it back a bit, presumably because most of its clientele is of the Miller Lite drinking persuasion. The televisions are brand new and spread throughout the place; you won’t have any trouble watching all four of the first round games here at 12:00 pm on Friday after you call in sick to work. Just get here early.

#1 Joe’s on Weed Street, Sheffield Avenue and Weed Street (near North Avenue)

This is the monster of all Chicago sports bars. The warehouse feel borders on dive-bar status, but there simply isn’t a larger venue for game viewing in the Chicago area. Seating is abundant, and there are more television screens here than anywhere else in the city. In the main room, projector screens spread the stage, and while they don’t offer the intimate HD that other sports bars do, they allow viewers to watch many games at once from far away without any strain. At the bar, the flat screen televisions offer HD, and in the front room, each table is equipped with its own personal television, which pretty much seals the deal for me. Joe’s isn’t the poster child for cleanliness, and I usually drink Coors light pitchers here, but the sheer quantity of televisions combined with the vast size of the place makes it tough to beat. In the food department, pizza is a staple here, and so is the chili. Make no mistake, while the games are on, everyone here is involved, and if you’re going to watch a big game in Chicago, this is usually the first place that comes to mind. It also rivals Stretch Run in that there is an OTB across the street with a window, so you can bet the ponies there, then run across the street to watch them back at Joe’s. I’ve spent many a Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Day here doing just that, but it is just as good during football season and in March for the hoops.

There you go, that’s all you need to know. Get out there and enjoy the basketball!

Bracketology 3/8- Yes, It's March!

March 9, 2009

We’re only a week away from Selection Sunday, and after a tumultous week in which it appeared no one wanted in this thing, some teams made giant strides over the weekend. With a week to go, you want to know who’s in and who’s out? You’ve come to the right place; trust the Matty. I’ve never correctly picked all 64 or 65 teams, but never done worse than 62/64// 63/65 and many years have missed only one team. I’m going for the gold this year.

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AUTOMATIC BIDS- This is the easy part, even a monkey could do it- will be a total of 31.

Cornell- Ivy League

Radford- Big South

East Tennessee State- Atlantic Sun

Morehead State- Ohio Valley Conference

Northern Iowa- Missouri Valley

AT LARGE TEAMS THAT HAVE CLINCHED A BID

ACC (5)- North Carolina, Duke, Wake Forest, Florida State, Clemson

Atlantic 10 (2)- Xavier, Dayton

Big 12 (4)- Oklahoma, Kansas, Missouri, Texas

Big East (7)- Pitt, UConn, Marquette, Louisville, Villanova, Syracuse, West Virginia

Big Ten (3)- Michigan State, Purdue, Illinois

Pacific Ten (4)- Washington, Arizona State, UCLA, California

SEC (2)- LSU, Tennessee

Conference USA (1)- Memphis

Horizon (1)- Butler

Mountain West (2)- Utah, BYU

West Coast (1)- Gonzaga

That gives us 32 teams that have clinched at-large berths from 11 conferences, which means that if one of the teams that are listed here clinches the automatic bid by winning their respective conference tourney, then 21 of the 34 at-large bids have already been claimed. Any other teams than those listed above that win their conference tourneys will shrink the remaining amount of at-large bids available, like Georgia did last year by coming out of nowhere to win the SEC. But for now, we’ll assume best case scenario if your team is on the bubble, and that is that all of the 11 conferences above are represented by one of the teams I’ve already listed. This leaves 13 spots in the field.

TEAMS THAT SHOULD BE IN- This is a group of teams that probably should feel fairly comfortable about their chances even if they don’t win again. Winning even one game in their conference tournament should propel them into “lock” status, and they’ll probably be fine even if they lose:

ACC (1)- Boston College

Big 12 (2)- Oklahoma State, Texas A & M

Big Ten (1)- Wisconsin

This eats up another four at-large spots, leaving only nine more. By my count, there are still 16 teams with realistic expectations/ convincing arguments that they deserve these spots. Here are the nine that I think would be there IF THE SEASON ENDED TODAY. Remember, we still have a week of hoops to play, and a lot can happen. And of course, all of these teams still have the ability to play their way in by winning their conference tournament.

The Long Jam in the Big Ten (5 teams): It’s becoming close to impossible to separate the teams in the middle of the Big Ten from one another. Penn State finished tied for fourth place, but is only a combined 3-5 against the teams that finished fifth through ninth, lost some rough preseason games to Temple and Rhode Island, and just dropped a big one in double overtime against Big Ten bottom dweller Iowa. They have by far the weakest out-of-conference schedule, but also boast the most impressive in-conference wins, having won on the road against regular season champion Michigan State, sweeping Illinois and beating Purdue. It’s tough to overlook those wins, and all in all, the Nittany Lions are 6-9 against the RPI top 50. Michigan got a big win over the weekend on the road against Minnesota to complete a sweep of the Gophers. They played the teams in the log jam even at 5-5, and have big non-conference wins over Duke (split) and UCLA. They are 6-10 against the RPI top 50 and I think they’ll get a lot of credit for scheduling such difficult competition and going into places like UConn and playing so tough. The only blemishes are a loss against Iowa and a loss to fellow bubble sitter Maryland, but there aren’t many other bubble teams with wins over two top 25 RPI teams.  Minnesota didn’t help itself by losing to Michigan again, but does have a season sweep of Wisconsin, a team that seems to be safe going into the Big Ten tourney. They’re 5-5 against the teams in the log jam, 5-7 against the RPI top 50 and have a big win over Louisville on a neutral court. Ohio State has a win over Butler in non-conference play, and while it doesn’t have the luster of the Duke, Louisville and UCLA wins above, it’s better than anything Penn State has out of conference. The Buckeyes also beat Penn State in their only meeting, are 5-3 against the log jam and 5-8 against the RPI top 50. Northwestern actually boasts the most RPI top 50 wins of any of these, with a 7-9 record that includes a win over Florida State as well as road wins at Purdue and Michigan State. However, they are only 3-6 against the log jam and are the only team to finish below .500 here. Outside of the Florida State win, there isn’t much to the non-conference schedule.

Verdict: While it may seem hard to believe that the Big Ten deserves eight teams in what seemed to be such a down year for the conference overall, there simply aren’t other bubble teams with 5 or 6 wins over RPI top 50 opponents, let alone over top 10 oppenents like many of these teams have. Look for Michigan, Minnesota, Ohio State and Penn State (probably in that order) to be in the dance barring first round losses in the Big Ten tourney (yes, I realize that two of these teams could potentially play one another). Northwestern probably falls a game or two short here, but is closer than it has ever been.

That leaves five spots and 17 teams battling for them. Man, this is a tough call.

LAST FIVE IN:

Arizona (9-9, 19-12, 52 RPI, 5-9 against RPI Top 50) The Wildcats pulled out an important win Saturday night over Stanford to reach the .500 mark in conference. With a strong non-conference profile, including wins over Kansas, Washington, UCLA and Gonzaga, Arizona should be okay as long as they don’t lose their first round game in the Pac-10 tourney.

St. Mary’s (10-4, 24-5, 50 RPI, 2-2 against RPI Top 50) The committee should take into consideration some of the games the Gaels’ lost without star guard Patty Mills, who will return for the West Coast tourney. Outside of losses to Santa Clara, Portland and UTEP in his absence, St. Mary’s has wins over fellow bubble teams Utah State, Providence, and San Diego State. As long as they don’t lose before the championship game, St. Mary’s should squeek in.

South Carolina (10-6, 21-9, 48 RPI, 0-4 against RPI top 50) The Gamecocks don’t have much going for them besides a strong conference record and a split with Florida,  but with ten conference wins and the potential to win a couple more in the SEC tourney, there will probably be room for them in the dance.

Florida (9-7, 22-9, 49 RPI, 2-6 against RPI top 50) It will be interesting if the final spot comes down to a choice between Florida and South Carolina. The two split regular season games. South Carolina finished with a better conference record, but Florida undoubtedly has a better non-conference profile, with a win on the road against Washington. They look about equal to me and would be a tough call for the final spot, and the eventual separation will probably come down to who goes further in the conference tourney. Both would be wise to win at least a couple of games.

Providence (10-8, 18-12, 71 RPI, 3-8 against RPI top 50) The Friars are my last team in for now, and definitely need to win a couple of games in the Big East tourney to solidify their status. They boast two big wins over Pittsburgh and Syracuse, which certainly trumps anything that the bubble teams in the Mountain West can argue. A non-conference win over Rhode Island doesn’t look as good as it did before the weekend, but could still be potentially meaningful. Even with a lighter conference schedule, it is hard to imagine the committee not giving Providence a bid with ten wins in the nation’s toughest conference–that is, if they can take care of business next week.

LAST FIVE OUT:

Creighton (14-4, 26-7, 39 RPI, 1-2 against RPI top 50) The Blue Jays were probably safely in the field if they advanced to the MVC championship game. Instead, they got blown out in the semifinal by Illinois State. It’s hard to imagine the committee being able to see past that performance, but Creighton does have two important non-conference victories over Dayton and New Mexico, so I have them slotted ahead of the Mountain West bubble teams for the time being. The difference is, those teams still have an opportunity to accomplish more.

New Mexico (12-4, 21-10, 57 RPI, 4-5 against RPI top 50) All of the Lobos’ signature wins come in conference, and the loss to Creighton could loom large here. They seem to be the best positioned among the conference’s bubble teams at the moment, finishing tied for first place and splitting games against each of the other four teams with tournament aspirations. Still, out of conference losses to UCF, Drake, VCU and Texas Tech will pile up on their resume, and they probably need to advance to the championship game to have a solid argument to be in the field.

San Diego State (11-5, 21-8, 44 RPI, 3-6 against RPI top 50) The story with the Aztecs is similar to that of New Mexico, except they have a sweep of UNLV to their credit and one extra conference loss. Losses to St. Mary’s and Arizona keep them behind those teams in the pecking order, and they don’t have any non-conference victories of note. They’ll need to make the championship game to get in.

UNLV (9-7, 21-9, 50 RPI, 5-4 against RPI top 50) This is easily the strangest case of all the bubble teams this season. UNLV has one of the strongest non-conference profiles of all, with a massive win at Louisville and a win over Arizona. They even have a sweep of BYU which should have been enough to clinch a spot in the field. But finishing fifth in the conference a full two games behind SDSU and suffering a sweep to that team makes it tough to justify putting them any higher than fifth in the pecking order despite their non-conference success. Puzzling losses to TCU and Colorado State will likely seal the Rebel’s NIT fate, barring a long run in the conference tournament and first round losses by SDSU and New Mexico.

Maryland (7-9, 18-12, 56 RPI, 3-8 against RPI top 50) For the second straight year, a loss to Virginia likely ended the tournament hopes for the Terrapins. Getting back to .500 in conference was crucial when comparing the resume to teams like Florida, Providence and UNLV. Maryland has big wins over Michigan State and at North Carolina, but bad losses against Morgan State and Virginia nearly nullify these. They’ll need at least two wins in the ACC tournament to get back into the picture.

BEHIND THE BUBBLE:

Kansas State (9-7, 21-10, 77 RPI, 3-7 against RPI Top 50, Best Win at home against Missouri)

Virginia Tech (7-9, 17-13, 62 RPI, 2-7 against RPI Top 50, Best Win on the road against Wake Forest)

Auburn (10-6, 21-10, 2-5 against RPI Top 50, Best Win at home against LSU)

Rhode Island (11-5, 22-9, 47 RPI, 2-5 against RPI Top 50, Best Win at home against Dayton)

TEAMS THAT HOPEFULLY WILL WIN THEIR CONFERENCE TITLE, BECAUSE I DON’T THINK THEY’VE DONE ENOUGH TO MAKE IT AS AT-LARGE TEAMS:

Siena (16-2, 24-7, 27 RPI, 0-4 against RPI top 50): Only twice has a team in the RPI top 30 not made the tournament, but if Siena doesn’t win the MAAC title, it’s going to have a tough time making a case for an at-large bid without having beaten a top 50 team and suffering losses to Rider, Witchita State and Niagara.

Utah State (14-2, 27-4, 30 RPI, 1-1 against RPI top 50): 27 wins is nice, but it doesn’t mean much when you’ve only played two teams in the top 50. The Aggies do have a win over Utah, but not much else to hang their hat on. Losses to Boise State and Nevada, as well as bubble comrade St. Mary’s, could prove costly if Utah State doesn’t take care of business in the WAC tourney.

TEAMS THAT ARE PROBABLY OUT OF CONSIDERATION, NEED TO WIN THEIR CONFERENCE TOURNEY (OR AT LEAST MAKE THE FINAL GAME AND HAVE SOME THINGS FALL INTO PLACE):

Miami, Fl (7-9, 18-11, RPI 51)

Kentucky (8-8, 19-12, 79 RPI)

Cincinnati (8-10, 18-13, 63 RPI)

Notre Dame (8-10, 17-13, 71 RPI)

UAB (11-5, 21-10, 42 RPI)

Temple (11-5, 19-11, 41 RPI)

Georgetown (7-11, 17-13, 43 RPI)

Virginia Tech (7-9, 17-13, 62 RPI)

Davidson (18-2, 26-7, 67 RPI)

Now, for the seedings:

SEED    WEST    MIDWEST    EAST    SOUTH
1    Oklahoma    UConn    Pittsburgh    North Carolina
2    Duke    Michigan State    Memphis    Louisville
3    Villanova    Kansas    Wake Forest    Washington
4    UCLA    Xavier    Marquette    Missouri
5    Syracuse    Illinois    Florida State    Purdue
6    Butler    Gonzaga    Arizona State    Clemson
7    LSU    West Virginia    Utah    California
8    Tennessee    BYU    Texas A & M    Dayton
9    Texas    Michigan    Wisconsin    Boston College
10    Minnesota    Oklahoma State    Penn State    Ohio State
11    South Carolina    Florida    Arizona    St. Mary’s
12    Utah State/ WAC    Siena/ MAAC    Davidson/ Southern    Providence
13    Northern Iowa    American/ Patriot    VCU/ Colonial    Western Kentucky/ Sun Belt
14    Morgan St/ MEAC    Stephen F Austin/ Southland    North Dakota St/ Summit    Weber St/ Big Sky
15    Buffalo/ MAC    Robert Morris/ NE     Cornell    Binghamton/ America East
16    Alabama St/ SWAC    ETSU    Radford    Morehead State
Cal St Northridge/ Big Sky