Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Feet of Clay: Federer Falls Again to Nadal in a Clay Court Final

Many people consider Roger Federer to be the greatest tennis player of all-time but the number one player in the world fell to a very pedestrian 7-8 in clay court finals after his nemesis Rafael Nadal beat him 7-5, 7-5 in the Monte Carlo Masters. Nadal is 19-1 in clay court finals and has captured this title four years in a row. Federer led 4-3 in the first set and 4-0 in the second set but he committed 44 unforced errors as Nadal won for the 98th time in his last 99 clay court matches.

Federer has held the number one ranking since February 2, 2004, the longest such reign in the sport's history, and he has won 12 Grand Slam titles, just two short of Pete Sampras' all-time record. It seemed like Federer was a lock to easily break Sampras' mark but there have been some signs of slippage this year: Federer's record run of 10 straight Grand Slam finals appearances ended when he lost to Novak Djokovic in straight sets in the semifinals of the Australian Open. Federer then lost in the first round of the Dubai Tennis Championships. He later admitted that he had been suffering from mononucleosis early in the year, so that may very well explain the chinks that seemingly started to show in Federer's armor but there is no denying two things: (1) Federer's two top rivals (Nadal and Djokovic) are younger than he is and are not intimidated by him at all because they have beaten him more than once; (2) Federer is not likely to master clay courts at this stage of his career. In other words, it does not look likely that he will add a French Open title to his resume and one wonders how many more Wimbledon, U.S. Open and Australian Open titles are in his future. That may seem like an odd thing to say about a player who has been so dominant and who will not turn 27 until August but, as I pointed out earlier this year, elite level tennis is generally a young man's game.

Confidence and hunger are hugely important elements in any form of competition. Federer's two rivals have certainly gained confidence based not only on their recent results but also because Federer no longer has an air of invincibility about him. Federer is a great champion, so his confidence has probably not been shaken much, if at all, by recent events but once one's rivals smell blood they will play harder longer; that genie is difficult, if not impossible, to put back in the bottle once it has been released. Nadal and Djokovic clearly hunger to win Grand Slams and attain the number one ranking in the world. Federer surely wants to maintain his spot on top of the heap as well as break Sampras' career Grand Slam record but it will be interesting to see if his hunger to keep his crown is as great as his rivals' hunger to take it.

Last year, Federer matched Bjorn Borg's record by winning his fifth straight Wimbledon title and Nadal broke some of Borg's clay court marks but neither player has demonstrated the incredible versatility that Borg showcased when he won both Wimbledon and the French Open for three straight years (1978-80); he won six French Opens overall in addition to his five Wimbledons. Borg retired at age 26 and he eschewed playing in the Australian Open because he thought that the tennis season was too long and grueling, so his 11 Grand Slam titles on two completely different surfaces are a remarkable accomplishment. "Greatest ever" is a subjective title in most fields but--as I mentioned in a couple earlier posts--until Federer wins at least one French Open title it is premature to elevate him past Borg.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

Quick Thoughts on Three Headlines From This Week

Most of you probably know that I have been busy with the NBA playoffs, which is why I have been posting less frequently here. Three non-NBA stories caught my eye recently but I have not had a chance to write about them until now:

1) Tiger Woods has knee surgery right after finishing second in the Masters.

As Christine Brennan pointed out in her USA Today column, Woods did an impeccable job of not using his knee injury as an excuse for his performance and of making sure that the timing of the announcement about his surgery did not overshadow or diminish the attention that Trevor Immelman received for winning his first major. The Cleveland Cavaliers pride themselves on being a "no excuses" team and that is an attitude that all champions (and aspiring champions) should take. Woods clearly understands this.

2) Toronto Blue Jays waive slugger Frank Thomas

Frank Thomas finished fourth in the AL MVP voting in 2006 as an Oakland A and last year as Toronto Blue Jay he hit .277 with 26 home runs and 81 RBI. Thomas, who often is a slow starter, hit just .167 in the first 16 games of this season, though he did slug three home runs and 11 RBI. Thomas did not react well when word came out of Toronto that the Blue Jays planned to bench him in favor of some younger players and then all of a sudden the team announced that it had reached a "mutual" agreement with Thomas to release him. ESPN's Buster Olney reports that the A's may sign Thomas soon. Thomas has been one of the most remarkably consistent and disciplined sluggers in MLB history, a great home run hitter (516 and counting) who also hit for average (.302 lifetime, including a .347 average in 1997 that earned him the batting title). For five straight seasons in the 1990s Thomas produced at least 30 home runs, 100 RBI, 100 runs scored and 100 walks. Neither his physique nor his numbers changed during baseball's "steroids era" and he has always been at the forefront in calling for more drug testing and harsher punishment of drug cheaters. He is not popular with some members of the media, which leads to him being portrayed poorly at times, but overall Thomas has not only been a great player but a class act. Here's hoping that his career ends on a positive note.

3) Danica Patrick becomes the first woman to win a major open-wheel auto racing event

Danica Patrick took the checkered flag in the Japan Indy 300 last weekend, holding off two-time Indy 500 champion Helio Castroneves to become the first woman to win a major open-wheel auto race. Some people are comparing Patrick's triumph to Billie Jean King's famous victory over Bobby Riggs but Patrick's is much more significant from a competitive standpoint even if it does not have as much impact culturally and socially. Riggs was an over the hill (55 years old at the time) tennis hustler who may very well have even bet against himself when he played King; he had previously claimed an easy 6-1, 6-2 victory over Margaret Court, the top ranked female tennis player in the world at that time. Patrick's win came in serious competition against some of the very best drivers in the world. Success in the auto racing world is heavily dependent on having the right team backing you with the best equipment but the driver still has to have the skills to get the job done. Some people were beginning to compare Patrick to tennis player Anna Kournikova, which is actually unfair to both athletes. Kournikova has been wrongly characterized as simply a stunningly beautiful woman who never won anything but the latter charge is not true. Although she never won a singles title, she was ranked as highly as eighth in the world at one time; also, she won 13 career doubles titles--including two Grand Slams--and achieved the number one ranking in the world in that discipline. Whether or not Kournikova fully maximized her potential is a separate issue but she achieved more in the world of tennis than 99% of her critics ever achieved in anything. Patrick is a young racer who had already enjoyed some success even before her win in Japan, so it was very premature for anyone to assume that she would never win a race.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

No Grand Slam for Tiger in 2008

One of the greatest testaments to Tiger Woods' greatness is that a second place finish in the Masters is considered to be a disappointment for him--not that he would disagree at all with that perception or resent the added pressure that it places on him. I remember one time when racing legend Mario Andretti finished second at the Indy 500, a track where he suffered more than his share of bad breaks. Someone asked him what it felt like to do well there in light of his history at the event and the 1969 Indy 500 champion replied with disgust that second place is just "first loser." Woods would certainly understand and echo that sentiment. As the four-time champion who has now finished second two years in a row put it, he did not come to the Masters with the idea of settling for anything less winning the tournament.

Woods never got his putting game going in this year's Masters but he is so talented that he finished second anyway, three strokes behind Trevor Immelman. Woods had been on such a roll recently that he did not discourage talk that he could become the first player to win all four of golf's Grand Slam events in one calendar year. After all, he captured the "Tiger Slam" by winning the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship in 2000 and then capturing the 2001 Masters. Woods will be much more reticent about openly speaking about such things in the future, telling reporters after the Masters, "I learned my lesson there with the press. I'm not going to say anything."

Winning one Grand Slam event would be the highlight of most golfers' careers and only 13 players have won at least six of them, a list topped by Jack Nicklaus' 18 titles. Remarkably, Nicklaus also finished second a record 19 times. Woods is second on the career list with 13 Grand Slam wins and he now has five second place finishes. I think that Woods will eventually eclipse Nicklaus' 18 titles but I don't expect him to make much of a run at the 19 second place finishes. The reason I say that is that when Woods has his "A" game--as he likes to call it--he generally leads from start to finish (or comes pretty close to doing that). Every time he has won a Grand Slam event he was leading or tied for the lead going into the last round. The flip side of that, of course, is that he has never come from behind after 54 holes to win a major title. Some commentators act like this is some kind of hole in Woods' resume but I disagree. ESPN.com ran a graphic detailing Woods' final round performances when he did not hold the lead after 54 holes and what I immediately noticed is that in most of those cases he trailed by a significant number of strokes and in virtually every instance he gained ground in the final 18 holes. What that tells me is that in those events he did not have his "A" game--that is why he was out of contention in the first place--but he is so mentally tough and so focused that he moved up in the standings and obtained the best finish that he could under those circumstances. It is much more significant that he has never lost after holding the lead after 54 holes in a Grand Slam; that tells you that when he has his "A" game he is unaffected by pressure and he always seals the deal. This is why I believe that Woods will not rack up a lot of second place finishes; when he has his "A" game he wins tournaments with ruthless precision and when he does not have his "A" game he usually is too far back to move into second place. I am not taking a shot at Nicklaus for having so many second place finishes; that is truly remarkable and it may be an indication that he was battling against a more talent rich field of competitors than Woods is. All I'm saying is that based on Woods' track record I would not expect that finishing second will ever become a trend for him.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

C(h)alm in the Clutch: Kansas Defeats Memphis in OT, 75-68

Add one more name--and one more highlight--to NCAA Championship game lore: Mario Chalmers' three pointer with 2.1 seconds left enabled Kansas to force overtime and ultimately emerge with a 75-68 victory over Memphis. Chalmers, who finished with 18 points, three rebounds, three assists and four steals, was named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four. Darrell Arthur (20 points, 10 rebounds) helped Kansas to control the paint, while Brandon Rush (12 points, six rebounds) and Sherron Collins (11 points, six assists, four rebounds, three steals) also made major contributions. Memphis stars Chris Douglas-Roberts (22 points, one rebound, one assist) and Derrick Rose (18 points, eight assists, six rebounds) played well overall but they both missed late free throws that could have iced the win. Joey Dorsey scored the first basket of the game on a strong post move but he produced just six points and two rebounds before fouling out near the end of regulation.

Memphis jumped out to a 9-3 lead but the Jayhawks used their superior inside game to go up 24-18; Kansas shot 12-18 in the paint during the first half. Rose converted a three point play at the 16:39 mark but did not score again for the rest of the first half. Douglas-Roberts scored 13 first half points, accounting for nearly half of Memphis' offense as Kansas enjoyed a 33-28 halftime advantage.

The Tigers scored on their first possession of the second half, then forced a turnover that led to an Antonio Anderson three pointer, tying the score before the Jayhawks even had a chance to attempt a shot. Neither team led by more than three points until Rose's jumper at the 7:35 mark put Memphis up 51-47. Prior to that point, CBS' Billy Packer repeatedly criticized Rose for not being more aggressive, at one point declaring, "Rose is being too easy to guard by giving up the ball when there is no pressure on him." Packer later conceded that perhaps he should give the Kansas defenders some credit for how well they guarded Rose. Douglas-Roberts caused so many problems for Kansas that the Jayhawks resorted to a box and one defense with Chalmers hawking him wherever he went. That strategic shift quieted Douglas-Roberts but gave Rose room to operate and he responded by scoring 10 straight Memphis points in a four minute stretch, helping the Tigers to take a 56-49 lead; for a moment Rose was credited with 11 points in that run but a tough fadeaway jumper that he hit to beat the shot clock was reviewed and correctly ruled to be a two pointer. Kansas Coach Bill Self responded to Rose's heroics by switching to a 1-2-2 zone that focused on containing Rose at the top of the key. It seemed like these adjustments would be in vain, though, because Memphis led 60-51 with just 2:12 remaining.

Arthur made a jumper to cut the margin to 60-53. After a Kansas timeout, Collins stole Memphis' inbounds pass, fed the ball inside, received a kickout pass and drained a three pointer. After the game, the ESPN talking heads mentioned a lot of things that happened down the stretch but left out that sequence; of course, that was a huge play because now it was only a two possession game instead of a three possession game and therefore the upcoming free throws would be even more pressure packed. The one Achilles' Heel for Memphis during the season was free throw shooting. The Tigers seemed to solve that problem during the NCAA Tournament but, as Packer pointed out, it is a lot different to make free throws when you are up 20 than when the game is close. At first, this did not seem to be a problem; Douglas-Roberts sank both ends of a one and one to make the score 62-56. Then Dorsey committed a foolish foul on Chalmers 20 feet from the basket. Not only did this allow Kansas to creep closer with the clock stopped but Dorsey fouled out on that play. Chalmers made both free throws and from that point on things went south for Memphis. Douglas-Roberts missed the front end of a one and one and an Arthur jumper cut the Memphis lead to 62-60 with 1:00 left. In a little over a minute Kansas had gone from the brink of death--down nine--to not even having to foul to get the ball back. After Douglas-Roberts missed a shot, Collins went coast to coast but was unable to convert the potentially tying layup. Now Kansas had to foul. Rose went to the free throw line with 10 seconds left and a chance to all but ensure victory. Instead he missed the first shot and made the second, leaving the door open for Kansas.

What happened next led to a heated debate between Bobby Knight, Digger Phelps, Dick Vitale and Jay Bilas on ESPN after the game. Memphis did not call a timeout, Collins raced down court with the ball, almost lost it and then passed to Chalmers, who drained the tying three pointer with 2.1 seconds left. Memphis again eschewed calling a timeout and Robert Dozier missed a shot from half court as time expired. Bilas adamantly insisted that Memphis Coach John Calipari should have called a timeout after the second free throw to make sure that his players committed a foul once the clock got below five seconds; Bilas added that Calipari should have called a timeout after Chalmers' shot to try to set up a good inbounds play. No one disputed what Bilas said about calling a timeout after Chalmers' shot but Phelps maintained that no timeout was necessary after the free throws because teams work on late game fouling situations in practice all the time. Vitale said that with a championship on the line you can't take a chance about whether or not the players know what they are supposed to do. Knight agreed with Vitale and Bilas, adding that he would have called a timeout and told each player exactly who he was going to guard and what his responsibilities were in different situations. Phelps reiterated his original argument but Knight answered that they could sit there until Christmas and he would not change his mind, which pretty much ended the discussion.

In his postgame remarks, Calipari maintained that his players knew that they were supposed to foul and that they tried to foul but one player slipped and another player made some contact but the referees did not deem it to be a foul. Looking at replays of those fateful 10 seconds, Bilas contended that Rose made a point of avoiding making any contact with Collins as he dribbled the ball up the court, which of course contradicts what Calipari said. At first I agreed with Bilas in this regard but looking at the play a few more times it seems like Rose tried to foul Collins at first but only when the referee did not call it and Collins stumbled did Rose put his hands up in the universal "I did not foul him" gesture; Rose perhaps felt that time would run out and with Collins losing his balance there was no need to foul him. When CBS' cameras cut to Calipari at the end of regulation he very clearly indicated that Rose had fouled Collins and Calipari asked why the foul was not called.

As Hubie Brown often says during NBA telecasts, the decision whether or not to foul when you are up three with only seconds remaining depends on a coach's philosophy; some coaches believe in forcing the opponent to make a free throw, miss a free throw, control the offensive rebound and score, while other coaches simply believe in playing good defense. Fouling sounds like a good strategy but it can backfire, too, if the foul is committed too late, while the player is in the act of shooting. I think that deciding whether or not to foul depends a lot on the kind of team you have and the kind of team your opponents have; if your players are experienced enough and savvy enough to deliver the foul in the right way and at the right time so that it is not committed in the act of shooting then that is a good way to go. However, if your players may commit the foul too soon--enabling the opponent to also foul and get the ball back--or too late (resulting in a three point play or even, a la Larry Johnson versus the Pacers years ago, a four point play) then it is better to just play good defense. Also, if the opposing team does not have a lot of good three point shooters then straight up defense may be the best way to go.

The added wrinkle in the Memphis-Kansas game is the issue of whether or not Calipari should have called a timeout. It is really not fair to judge that from the outside; only he and his players know what the team has practiced all season long regarding such situations, though I tend to agree with Knight, Vitale and Bilas that in such an important game it makes sense to remind the players what to do even if they have practiced it previously. I would expect an NBA team to know its coach's philosophy in this situation but when you are dealing with college kids it is probably better to be safe than sorry.

Bilas' point that Memphis should have called a timeout with 2.1 seconds left rather than inbounding the ball is certainly correct. Of course, Bilas knows a lot about what can happen in such situations because he was an assistant at Duke when Grant Hill threw the long baseball pass that Christian Laettner caught and converted into a game-winning jumper versus Kentucky in one of the most famous plays in NCAA history.

Not surprisingly, after squandering so many chances to win in regulation, Memphis came out flat in overtime and never led. Collins got a steal and fed Rush for a layup to open the scoring in the extra period, a Chalmers lob to Arthur for a dunk made the score 67-63 and then a Darnell Jackson layup put Kansas up 69-63 at the 2:38 mark. Douglas-Roberts sandwiched a pair of free throws and a three pointer around a Rush layup but it was too little, too late. Chalmers and Collins each made a pair of free throws to close out the scoring and it was time to hand out the trophy and cue up "One Shining Moment."

The thin margin between winning and losing is almost painful to watch, let alone experience; as Calipari described it after the game, he and his team thought that they were 10 seconds away from celebrating a championship. Instead, Chalmers makes a great shot, a shot that literally altered many people's lives forever. It is easy to search for simple explanations and to criticize Calipari's coaching or the performance of certain players but would Calipari really have been any smarter or would his players really have been any more clutch if Chalmers' shot had rolled out or if Collins had lost control of the ball and not been able to pass it to Chalmers? There is no simple answer, no sound bite to adequately explain or summarize this game. All that can be said is that two great teams fought down to the wire and it took an overtime to decide the outcome. It is a cliche to say that it is a shame that one team had to lose but unless you are a diehard fan of one of these teams you certainly understood the full meaning of that sentiment when the final buzzer sounded.

Sunday, April 6, 2008

New Blood Versus Blue Blood: Memphis Faces Kansas on Championship Monday

So much for this being the greatest, most competitive Final Four ever. One would think that four number one seeds who had only lost nine games collectively in the regular season could combine to produce two closely contested National Semifinal games but that did not prove to be the case: UCLA stayed close for a half before Memphis ran over, around and through the Bruins in a 78-63 win, while Kansas hit North Carolina with a 40-12 run to start their game and then let the Tar Heels creep to within four points before delivering the knockout blow in an 84-66 victory.

What did we learn from these two lopsided contests? First and foremost, speed kills--particularly when the fast guys are also big. UCLA simply could not contain Derrick Rose (25 points, nine rebounds, four assists, 7-16 field goal shooting) and Chris Douglas-Roberts (28 points, 9-17 field goal shooting), who went wherever they wanted to go and did whatever they wanted to do. As CBS' Billy Packer put it, Rose "plays under control but with speed and power." Packer also noted that Russell Westbrook (22 points on 10-19 field goal shooting) looked like he would fit in nicely in Memphis colors but the rest of the UCLA team simply could not match up with Memphis' big, fast guards. The Bruins wanted to play a slow paced game but they could not get defensive stops or control the boards and therefore could not impose their tempo on Memphis. Call this the "38 special game," because Memphis set an all-time NCAA single-season record by notching win number 38. Curiously, the three previous teams that won 37 games did not win championships in their record-setting seasons.

For most of the first half of the Kansas-North Carolina game it looked like the Tar Heels were running around in cement shoes while the Jayhawks were on roller skates--or that Kansas was actually played seven on five. North Carolina, the top seeded team in the entire tournament, trailed 38-12 at the 7:32 mark of the first half and Packer flatly declared, "It's over." It seemed a bit early for such a definitive statement but his sentiment was quite understandable considering how completely inept North Carolina looked. Kansas pushed the lead to 40-12 but then, as Jayhawks Coach Bill Self put it after the game, they "went brain dead." Inexplicably, Kansas players started jacking up shots from all angles and their defensive intensity noticeably dropped off. Part of this undoubtedly stemmed from fatigue but it also seemed like they thought that the game was over and they could just do whatever they wanted to do. The Tar Heels closed to within a very workable 15 point margin before a last second Sherron Collins jumper made the halftime score 44-27.

Packer said that the first three minutes of the second half would prove to be vital. Kansas certainly looked sharp on the first possession, crisply executing a play that resulted in a Mario Chalmers layup. After three minutes, Kansas still led 52-36. The Tar Heels had finally figured out how to score but they still were not getting many stops and, as Jim Nantz helpfully noted, North Carolina could not afford to trade baskets. Then, all of a sudden, the next five minutes turned into the Danny Green/Wayne Ellington show. Green nailed a three, then he made a two point jumper, then Ellington made a jumper and Kansas' lead had shrunk to 54-44 with 14:10 left. Neither team scored for nearly two minutes, as players from both squads took ill advised shots. Packer observed, "Both teams are not making good judgments when they've got an advantage on the break." Earlier in the game, he repeatedly mentioned that North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough is not a shotblocker but that he is good at taking charges; Hansbrough took three charges in the first half and Packer was mystified that Kansas' players did not understand that they should simply stop crashing into him and instead shoot pullup jumpers that Hansbrough would not be able to block.

After the brief lull by both teams, Ellington sandwiched a couple baskets around a Hansbrough putback and North Carolina only trailed by four, 54-50. The Tar Heels had answered Kansas' 40-12 opening salvo with a 38-14 bombardment of their own. This looked like it had all the makings of the greatest comeback (or greatest choke, depending on your perspective) in Final Four history but Brandon Rush--who scored a game-high 25 points--made a nifty driving layup and North Carolina never got closer than five points the rest of the way. When the Tar Heels tried a half court trap in an attempt to force turnovers or goad Kansas into shooting long jumpers, the Jayhawks patiently broke the trap with one pass and then--following the classic dictum that Hubie Brown always preaches--found the open man under the basket with the second pass out of the trap. Ellington cooled off and the rout was again on for Kansas.

What we are left with now could be called "New blood versus blue blood": the Memphis program has a limited Final Four history but is undergoing a revival under John Calipari, while the Kansas program has a rich, deep tradition that dates all the back to James Naismith. I expected North Carolina to win the championship, so you can take this prediction with a grain of salt, but now I think that this is Memphis' year.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Stephen Curry is a Joy to Watch

You don't have to be a basketball analyst to appreciate Stephen Curry's shooting talent: he has great range and a quick release. Fans can relate to what he does better than they can relate to high flying dunkers because most everyone has gone into a gym and made a three pointer at some time but most of us will never dunk a basketball (at least not on a regulation 10 foot goal); that makes Curry's shooting performances simultaneously understandable and amazing: while most of us can make a three pointer, few people can shoot the percentage that Curry does, let alone do so in NCAA Tournament games while facing intense defensive pressure.

Curry averaged 32 ppg in four NCAA Tournament games, shooting 42-90 from the field (.467), including 23-51 (.451) from three point range. He also contributed 3.3 rpg, 3.5 apg and 3.3 spg. While the average fan simply marvels at the way Curry makes the nets ripple, the more sophisticated observer appreciates the subtle features of his game. Curry is listed at 6-3, 185, though he looks shorter and smaller than that. He does not display great jumping ability or blazing foot speed but he is quick for a step and that--plus knowing how to play--is more important in basketball than just having the ability to run really fast.

In his great book Those Who Love the Game, Doc Rivers called Chris Mullin the king of tempo and said that the ability to play at different speeds is much more important than simply playing fast all the time. A defender can adjust to a player who always moves fast but a player who changes tempo can keep defenders off balance. Curry is a master of this. He'll stand at the three point line seemingly uninvolved in the play and then he will take a couple slow steps in one direction before quickly reversing field, darting behind a screen, catching the ball and shooting before the defense can recover. Sometimes he will do the opposite, backing his defender up with a quick step one way and then stepping back slowly; the defender tries to recover too quickly and goes flying past Curry, who is then free to either shoot or drive. Curry also uses different tempos when he has the ball; he artfully employs shot fakes, jab steps, pass fakes and other maneuvers to force the defender to react and commit. Good offensive players constantly put their defenders in a "recovery" position, as George Gervin once told me while explaining why Roger Brown was so great. Depending on how his defender reacts to his fakes, Curry can either shoot right over him, pass to an open cutter or drive to the hoop. Curry made some wonderful passes during the NCAA Tournament and he did them in an effortless-looking fashion that shows that this is a normal part of his game, not a fluke occurrence.

Although Curry is a great shooter, he is not limited to just being a catch and shoot player. He played point guard in high school and he has the ballhandling chops and toughness to drive into the lane and get off a good shot amidst the trees. This differentiates him from previous collegiate shooters like Trajan Langdon and J.J. Redick. Langdon washed out of the NBA after a brief career because he could neither handle the ball nor guard anybody and Redick appears to be on the same career path. Curry can handle the ball and he has the willingness and moxie to play defense, even against bigger and stronger players. He also has quick hands and the ability to anticipate and react to plays, as shown by his spg average.

The bottom line is that Curry is obviously a well-schooled, well-coached basketball player. He knows the fundamentals of the game--including shooting, passing, dribbling and faking--and he has spent a lot of time honing each one of them. That is a credit not only to him but also to his coaches over the years, a group that surely includes his father Dell, who scored 12,370 points in a 16 year NBA career, winning the 1994 Sixth Man Award and ranking 22nd in league history in three point field goal percentage.

For the 2007-08 season, Stephen Curry--who is only a sophomore--averaged 25.9 ppg, 4.6 rpg and 2.9 apg, numbers that are similar to what Dell posted as a Virginia Tech senior in 1985-86 (24.1 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 3.8 apg). Stephen not only resembles his father physically but his shooting motion and even the way that he runs are eerily reminiscent of his father. Dell's trademark move was the step back jumper: he would take one dribble going forward to make his defender retreat and then he would step back behind the three point line and bury a trey. Stephen does not use that move as often at this point as his father did in the NBA, perhaps because he is able to get open against collegiate defenders without doing so.

He has already announced that he plans to come back for his junior season, so it will be interesting to observe both how his game continues to develop and how teams try to defend against him.