Sunday, January 13, 2013

The Biggest "Loser"--USC Football or Lakers Basketball?

It was just a few months ago when the Los Angeles  Times wrote an article on how this was the golden era for sports in the city of Los Angeles.  And the crowning jewels according to the article were the USC football team and the Los Angeles Lakers, both poised for championship seasons.  And indeed, the assessment seemed perfectly logical.  Yet moving forward just a few months, it is clear that we have two stunning episodes of underachievement, with each being more unbelievable than the other.

Certainly no one could quarrel with the preseason expectations for the USC Trojans.  At the end of the 2011 season, the Trojans were playing as well as anybody in the country, though losses to Arizona State and Stanford eliminated them from national championship contention in 2011.  Initially the prospects for equaling or bettering that record were not bright given that star quarterback Matt Barkley was NFL draft eligible and projected as a top 10 pick.  But USC received an early Christmas present when Barkley stunned the football world by announcing he would return for the 2012 season to complete "unfinished business" which everybody understood to mean a national championship for USC and a Heisman Trophy for Barkley.  With Barkley and 17 other returning starters, and a roster full of four and five star players out of high school, USC rocketed to the top of the 2012 national championship race. 

Winning the Pac 12 south division was a foregone conclusion, USC being made a 1-6 favorite (i.e., the other five Pac 12 south schools were given a combined probability of winning the division of about 15 percent), and 2-5 favorites to win the Pac 12 championship itself.  Armed with a preseason #1 ranking, the season itself seemed like a mere formality.  USC did start of the season with six wins in their first seven games, good enough to still be in the national championship hunt past midseason.  But there were strong hints from the very beginning that something might be amiss.  Yes, they won their first game over Hawaii 49-10, but some observers already started to question if USC was that good given how poor of a team Hawaii was.  A 42-29 win over Syracuse the next week added to the doubts, and the third week's 21-14 loss to a Stanford team which was eventually to have been shown to be playing the wrong quarterback at that time.  But USC finished the season with five losses in its last six games, including an ignominious 21-7 loss to a Georgia Tech team that came into the game with a losing 6-7 record, setting the record for most losses in a season by a preseason #1 ranked squad. 

Likewise, the Los Angeles Lakers were everybody's favorites to win the 2013 NBA championship.  Las Vegas oddsmakers reported that money was being poured in buckets on the Lakers to win it all.  2012's decent Lakers team was fortified by the addition of Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, giving the Lakers not just an all star lineup, but a Hall of Fame one.   Yes, the Miami Heat were formidable competition too, but it was going to be a two team race all the way. 

While there were early signs of trouble, they were initially dismissed.  Yes, the Lakers did lose all eight of their preseason games, but as everybody knows, preseason games whether in the NFL, NBA or MLB are fairly meaningless.  Coach Mike Brown said he was playing not to win these exhibition games, but to get the players used to each other, a perfectly reasonable explanation.   It wasn't until the Lakers started the regular season off 1-4 that the alarm bells went off.  Nevertheless it was surprising that the Lakers fired Coach Brown at that time, and equally surprising that they did not hire Phil Jackson, who was ready to come out of retirement.  Rather, they hired Mike D'Antoni instead, and while he has sort of turned the team around, they are still under .500 at this time.   Indeed, things are so bad that the Los Angeles Times just carried an article indicating the unlikelihood of the Lakers even making the playoff this year.

Obviously there has been lots of speculation as to what went wrong for USC and the Lakers.  USC's performance is more headscratching since their team was made up of veteran talent that had proved itself in the past.  Most of the fingerpointing goes to Coach Lane Kiffin, whose hiring was highly criticized by many alumni, who appeared pacified after 2011's closing performance, but may have been right after all.  Still there's no explanation why Matt Barkley seems to have regressed so much from 2011.  The Laker problem seems a little more explainable, a combination of injuries, lack of defense, and poor chemistry, since two new key players have been added to the team.  In any event, the experience of USC and the Lakers merely proves the old saying "That's why they play the games."

And interestingly, despite the tank jobs by USC football and the Lakers, the sports scene in Los Angeles isn't that gloomy.  As thing turn out, the Los Angeles Clippers are playing as well as people had expected the Lakers to play, if not better.  And while USC did not win the Pac 12 south football title, that honor did go to UCLA.

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