Monday, March 19, 2018

UCL: A Monologue To PSG Manager Unai Emery

This was originally meant to be published by The Stoppage Time. Since this was not published, I am posting it here and also on Tumblr. 

The fans depart, the teams depart, and the only ones in the stadium are the janitors cleaning the stands and the lights still being on. I enter the Parc des Princes pitch, still strewn with debris from the rage of the home fans, and in my hands is a bottle of Normandy cider. No wine or champagne tonight, the outcome dictates none of those drinks. Just cider. And a young local, a PSG youth academy product of 14 years, accompanies me on the field like youngsters accompany the heroes on the pitch during classic battles.

I tell the young lad, hold my cider, and he does. With this, I begin addressing the audience of a few grounds staff in practice but in reality, a certain fallen individual.

So the full time score reads, to my right: Paris 4, Real Madrid 2. Aggregate scoreline 5-5, Real Madrid advance to the UEFA Champions League quarterfinals on away goals 2-1. Based on this result, Unai Emery Etxegoien of Hondarribia, Spain, I, Jo-Ryan Salazar of Los Angeles, California and The Stoppage Time, welcome you with open arms, open hearts and open the beginning of the end of your managerial career with the Paris Saint-Germain Football Club of the 16th Arrondissement of Paris, France, with its administrative center based in Saint-Germain-en-Laye, Yvelines.

I know, I know, you only saw me once, and that was at a prematch press conference for the International Champions Cup at StubHub Center in Carson, ahead of a 4-0 hammering of the Cinderellas of the Premier League, Leicester City Football Club, who are still hanging around (thankfully) in England's top flight. But that was two years ago. Ages ago. An eternity ago. Times have changed. And so I shall slowly walk the perimeter of this recovering pitch in my own pseudo-lap of honor to continue this spiel.

So why do I cover this team? Why do I follow, as my main European club, Paris Saint-Germain, a club that has never been relegated from Ligue 1 for nearly a half century and has won more trophies than any other club in French club football? I could be scrutinizing other clubs, like Chelsea (my main team in the Premier League), Juventus (the gold standard of Serie A), Bayern Munich (my main team in the Bundesliga)...heck, I could be ripping apart Brendan Rogers's tenure at Celtic in what is a similarly future European exercise. Celtic are my main team in Scotland.

First off, as mentioned, they have more silverware across all competitions than any other team in French club football. Secondly, PSG are meant to be an extension of one of the most influential cities in the world, Paris, a beacon of hope for the world's finest people, the French. PSG is the Finest People's Ally and it is up to the Rouge et Bleu to win not just for Paris but for all of France. A defeat of this magnitude to Paris Saint-Germain is a defeat for Ligue 1 and the entire French Republic. It is not meant to be trivialized.

Finally, Paris is a city built by skilled workers who honestly mastered their craft and leave an indelible impression. Like any self-respecting city, Paris demands that it hires reputable established employees. There are no fakers or fake news meant to be milling about in a genuine metropole like Paris, at least one would imagine.

Unai, I have been monitoring your body of work these past two seasons. You came into the 2016-17 campaign as a passenger and a hack with an unproven reputation, and you will exit the 2017-18 campaign the same way you came. A passenger. A hack. One who misused and mismanaged the big money signings, the talent, the names, and have actually allowed PSG to regress from their quarterfinal exits in the UEFA Champions League under Laurent Blanc. The French have a term for this: honteaux. Disgrace. In Spanish, that's verguenza or fracaso.

The handling of Kylian Mbappe's injury against Toulouse FC was scandalous in its own right, but nothing can compare to the way you treated Hatem Ben Arfa. Here was a player that could only do training and was ready to be called up but never got to play a minute in this last year of his contract because you did not let him. Hatem is Parisian through and through, like Lassana Diarra and Kylian Mbappe and others on PSG's first team. To only allow Hatem to take part in training and nothing else is damaging to his career. You forced him to be a passenger and by not allowing everyone to play this season, it has added to the case that you are not qualified to manage this group of playes.

As an aside, Neymar Santos Jr. realized that the pitch of Le Parc des Princes has a soul, and it chose to keep him in line as it was tired of the Brazilian king not respecting French club football. And so he is out for the remainder of the season, recovering from a broken foot after landing awkwardly on one of his ankles in a Ligue 1 duel against Marseille, who PSG dismissed on back-to-back 3-0 scorelines. That was not your fault, Unai, but just so you know, this stadium does have a soul, vibes, an aura, and it must be respected and paid hommage to.

That leads us to the next point, where does Paris Saint-Germain go from here as the endgame is now in full swing in the City of Light? Nasser Al-Khelaifi will undoubtedly allow you to finish the season, granted that no future cup ties end in defeat and very few draws or losses are incurred in Ligue 1. The only other opposition that stands a chance of defeating you is AS Monaco and they're already been out of European competition since Christmas. But even if Paris run the tables the rest of the way and win out, it does not change a single thing.

Unai Emery, Paris Saint-Germain is not to be managed by passengers or hacks. It needs proven names to keep the vein of silverwear going while getting over the Champions League hump that is the knockout rounds. Perhaps a future job awaits you in the lower leagues of Spain, or maybe a job analyzing or commenting on the game fits your fancy. But I cannot vouch for you anymore as the Parisians have regressed in European competition and you have wasted your oppotunity to harness the power of Edinson Cavani, Neymar and Kylian Mbappe. This club is a  straightforward club to play for as a player, but a documented challenge as a manager, and you failed in this challenge.

I now complete my pseudo-lap of honor. This is where we have to say goodbye, Unai Emery, even though you will still undoubtedly be the gaffer, at least in name only, for the rest of the season. Your only legacy will have been the domestic trophies won at Paris Saint-Germain Football Club. But the true legacy are your eliminations to La Liga's power duo of FC Barcelona and the masters, the European and World Champions, the gold standard of the Real Madrid Club de Futbol of Madrid, Spain.

Adieu, addio, adios amigo. And make sure the door smacks you hard in the derriere on the way out. You will not be missed. Because even through these darkest of days, this is Paris, and Paris will always be magical. And with that, I retrieve my cider and make my exit from Le Parc des Princes into the cold, dark Parisian night.

Sunday, March 11, 2018

Cincinnati: 2017-18 American Men's Basketball Champions

ORLANDO, Fla. -- Gary Clark put Cincinnati ahead for good with a free throw with 4.3 seconds remaining and the eight-ranked Bearcats held on Sunday for a 56-55 victory over No. 21 Houston in the American Athletic Conference championship.

Clark finished with 20 points and the league regular-season champions rescued themselves for the second straight day with a stellar second-half performance, limiting Houston to 20 percent shooting and 18 points after halftime.

Cincinnati (30-4) earned the AAC's automatic berth in the NCAA Tournament with its first conference tournament championship since the Bearcats won Conference USA in 2004.

Houston (26-7), which split a pair of games against Cincinnati during the regular season, lost for just the third time in its last 15 games and is headed to the NCAA Tournament, too.

Rob Gray led the Cougars with 17 points but missed a long 3-pointer in the closing seconds, then had a turnover that cost Houston a chance to try to win the game after Clark made one of two free throws after rebounding Gray's miss.

Corey Davis Jr., who had 15 points for Houston, went scoreless after helping the Cougars to a 37-35 halftime lead. Devin Davis added 13, including a jumper and layup that turned a one-point deficit into a 55-52 lead with 1:34 remaining.

Kyle Washington's 3-pointer tied the game for the final time, setting the stage for a suspenseful finish.

Houston made just 6 of 30 shots in the second half. Gray finished six of 22 from the field after scoring 33 in the Cougars' victory over Wichita State in the semifinals. His unforced error, a wild pass behind teammate Galen Robinson Jr., sailed out of bounds with 1 second left.

Cincinnati didn't shoot the ball much better after halftime, going six for 18. That didn't stop the Bearcats from getting it done on the other end, though.

The Bearcats rallied from a 13-point halftime deficit to beat Memphis 70-60 in Saturday's semifinals, outscoring the Tigers 41-18 in the final 20 minutes.

Houston becomes the fourth team coach Kelvin Sampson has led to the NCAA Tournament, joining Washington State, Oklahoma and Indiana. The Cougars appeared in the NIT the past two seasons.

Cincinnati, meanwhile, will receive its eighth straight NCAA berth under coach Mick Cronin, who is in his 12th season with the Bearcats.


Houston: The Cougars, who have won 12 of 15 following a 2-2 start to January, are one of the hottest teams in the country. That could make them dangerous entering the NCAA Tournament.

Cincinnati: The Bearcats have been projected to be as high as a No. 2 or 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. That would be a first for the AAC, which has never had a team seeded higher than fourth (Louisville, 2014).


Houston: Cougars await NCAA Tournament bid.

Cincinnati: Bearcats also await word on who they'll face in their opening game.

Kentucky: 2017-18 Southeastern Men's Basketball Champions

ST. LOUIS -- John Calipari kept telling anyone who would listen that this group of Kentucky freshmen just needed a little more time than most to figure things out.

That faith was shaken when the Wildcats lost four straight games last month. But they delivered on their coach's optimism on Sunday.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored 29 points, and Kentucky beat No. 13 Tennessee 77-72 for its fourth straight Southeastern Conference Tournament championship.

It's the 31st title in tournament history for the Wildcats, whose No. 4 seed in the event was the lowest in Calipari's nine seasons at the school. The Wildcats (24-10) were one defeat away last month from what would have been the longest losing streak in the Calipari era, but they have won seven of eight since -- including their first in three tries this season against the No. 2 seed Volunteers.

All in all, it's a Kentucky group that appears primed for next week's NCAA Tournament.

"A month ago, I wasn't sure we'd be in the tournament," Calipari said. "And then I had to ask ... `Does everybody get to go to the SEC tournament?' I wasn't even sure we'd get here. But I come back to this: We needed to lose those games. We needed to lose four in a row."

Despite racing to a 17-point lead in the first half Sunday, the Wildcats' seemingly annual SEC Tournament coronation was delayed by a Tennessee team trying to win its first title in almost 40 years.

But Gilgeous-Alexander capped his tournament Most Valuable Player performance by hitting the clinching free throws with 2.4 seconds remaining, sending the overwhelmingly Kentucky crowd of 18,974 into a wild celebration. The freshman guard finished 10 of 16 from the field with seven rebounds and a pair of steals.

Kevin Knox had 18 points for the Wildcats, and Quade Green finished with 10.

"Shai has the ball in his hands a lot during the game, and he's really grown over the year and be able to get his points and get other people involved," Knox said. "I think right now he's playing his best basketball because he's one of our leaders."

Admiral Schofield had 22 points and 10 rebounds for Tennessee (25-8), which was attempting to win its first tournament championship since 1979. Grant Williams added 15 points, while Jordan Bone scored 12 and Lamonte Turner had 10.


A night after hitting 11 of their first 12 shots and 76 percent (19 of 25) in the first half of a semifinal win over Arkansas , the Volunteers didn't fare nearly as well early on Sunday. They made only five of their first 25 shots and fell behind 33-16 midway through the first half. Schofield, however, responded by scoring Tennessee's final 13 points of the half, capping a 15-3 run that pulled the Volunteers within 36-31 at halftime.

"We started the game and dug ourselves a hole and, obviously, they were making some shots," Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. "We weren't playing the way we were capable of; we just weren't locked in."


Kentucky: The championship game appearance was the fifth straight for the Wildcats and their eighth in nine seasons under Calipari. Kentucky is 22-3 in the SEC Tournament under Calipari.

Tennessee: The Volunteers were picked to finish 13th in the SEC during the preseason, but they finished as the co-regular-season champions with No. 16 Auburn. Regardless of Sunday's result, Tennessee already had a spot in next week's NCAA Tournament. The trip will make Tennessee the fourth school Barnes has taken to the tournament, joining Providence, Clemson and Texas.


Both teams wait on their NCAA Tournament opponents.

Georgia State: 2017-18 Sun Bel Men's Basketball Champions

NEW ORLEANS -- D'Marcus Simonds didn't play like the Sun Belt Conference Player of the Year in Georgia State's semifinal victory against Georgia Southern.

He had six points and five turnovers in 28 minutes before fouling out of the Panthers victory Saturday. But he was back in form Sunday, scoring 27 points as GSU defeated Texas Arlington 74-61 to win the Sun Belt Tournament championship.

The second-seeded Panthers (24-10) will be making their fourth NCAA Tournament appearance and first since 2015. Fourth-seeded UT Arlington, which upset Sun Belt regular-season champion Louisiana-Lafayette in the semifinals, fell to 21-13.

"He played probably the worst game of his life yesterday," GSU coach Ron Hunter said of Simonds. "I didn't say anything to him. I knew he would come back and dominate."

Simonds, who set the Panthers' single-season scoring record in the otherwise poor performance Saturday, was chosen the tournament's Most Outstanding Player.

Devin Mitchell added 13 points before fouling out, and Malik Benlevi scored 11 for GSU.

"I was kind of lackadaisical (in the semifinals)," Simonds said. "I could have done better. I put the weight on my shoulders to play better and I did."

The Panthers, who set school records for 3-point percentage and 3-pointers made this season, connected on 8 of 17 from beyond the arc. The Mavericks made 4 of 25 3-pointers and shot 29.8 percent (17 of 57) from the floor.

"We said before the game that if they shot 25 to 30 3-pointers we would win," Hunter said. "That would play into our hands by making it a perimeter game."

The Panthers held Troy to 31.1 percent (14 of 45) in the quarterfinals and Georgia Southern to 39.6 percent (21 of 53).

"We set a goal of holding every team that we played in the tournament to under 40 percent shooting, and we did that," Hunter said. "We said if we did that we'd be able to win."

Johnny Hamilton led the Mavericks with 23 points and 14 rebounds, Erick Neal scored 12, Kevin Hervey had 11 and Kaelon Williams 10. Neal, who had averaged a tournament-best 27.5 points in the previous two games, made 2 of 15 shots, including 1 of 9 3-pointers.

"We needed to be aggressive and get the ball to the basket and we weren't able to do that the way we needed to," UTA coach Scott Cross said. "We didn't have the type of energy that we needed. If you are not bouncing around or flying around defensively, it is going to be hard to win any basketball game. We forced shots and that led to easy baskets for them."

GSU led by three at halftime, but UTA twice cut the lead to one early in the second half. Simonds scored four points during an 11-1 run that gave the Panthers a 46-35 lead.

After Hamilton made a free throw, Benlevi scored five points to start an 11-2 run that put the Panthers in command.

"Basketball is a game of runs," Neal said, "and we didn't have enough runs today."

Simonds scored 10 points as GSU opened a 22-15 lead midway through the first half. Hevery made a 3-pointer for UTA before the Panthers scored eight consecutive points to take a 30-18 lead. Wilson's three-point play ended the run and Hervey and Neal each made a 3-pointer to get the Mavericks within 33-30 at halftime.


UTA: In its first appearance in the Sun Belt title game since joining the league in 2013-14, UTA fell short of what would have been its second trip to the NCAA Tournament.

GSU: After winning its second Sun Belt tournament title in four years, GSU takes a four-game winning streak into the NCAA Tournament.


UTA: Its season is over.

GSU: Waits to hear its destination in the NCAA Tournament.