Greg M. Cooper/USA Today Sports

Thinking out loud: Biggest stories of 2018

John Rooke
December 28, 2018 - 2:49 pm

Thinking out loud…while deciding the biggest sports story of the year has little to do with sports at all…

  • It might be an over-simplification.  But in this corner, there are three significant sports stories within Rhode Island and southern New England that affected most of us in 2018 – and in some ways, maybe all of us.  And yet, not one of them had anything to do with our one, true, national pastime – football.


  • Oh sure, there are big football stories to consider.  The Patriots losing the Super Bowl to Philadelphia qualifies.  The alleged “end” to New England’s dynasty – which hasn’t yet defined itself – is also a story worth considering. 


  • We can all see that one coming, can’t we?


  • Malcolm Butler sitting out that Super Bowl game – and we still don’t know exactly why he sat – that was a big story.  And one where we may never get the definitive answer.


  • Rob Gronkowski’s bizarro-world off-season is a story that also doesn’t have an answer.  Or an end.  But we see that end coming, too.


  • TB12?  ‘Nuff said on that one.  But his story is also TBD, even if it did launch itself in 2018.


  • Just who should shoulder the responsibility for the downward turn in productivity under center?  Brady, for skipping out on OTA’s last spring?  Or his receivers for under-performing?  Or management, for not re-signing Danny Playoffs?


  • How about a little of each of the above?  Name a great quarterback who didn’t have a downward turn to his career at the end.  I’ll wait.


  • Two names I can come up with – Peyton Manning and John Elway – managed to go out on top.  But their skills had diminished, considerably, when they decided to hang up the cleats.


  • The year Sony Michel (He sucks! He blows!) has had has been remarkable.  Michel has run for more yards than any other rookie back under Bill Belichick.  He’s missed three games.  And he’s only 119 yards shy of 1000, with the J-E-T-S still to play this Sunday.


  • Michel is also a prime example of (some of) our sports media-run-amok losing their senses and their credibility just to gain listeners or viewers.  But if we can’t criticize or hate, what’s left?  Root, root, root for the home team?


  • The Patriots just aren’t good any more.  Remember when Trent Dilfer said that four years ago?  Is he finally right?  Nah, not really.  These Patriots are still in the mix within the current universe.  That’s all you/we/they really need in these days of parity. 


  • Or is it p-a-r-o-d-y? 


  • Brown poaching Bryant’s head coach, who was a former Brown all-Ivy QB.  That’s a story.  Phil Estes departing the Bears’ football program after 20 years – the most successful 20-year period, ever – is also a big story in Rhode Island.


  • Speaking of Rhode Island, what about the resurrection of the state university football program?  The Rams produced their first winning season since 2001.  They’ve had only four of those since the Air Ehrhardt halcyon days of 1985.


  • The Rams also had their largest home crowd in 27 years, 7300 fans, at Meade Stadium for their game against eventual NCAA FCS semi-finalist Maine.


  • Rhode Island high school football games moving and rescheduling due to weather is a story.  A weak one, too.  At least they played theirs, unlike Boston College this week.


  • Not for nuthin’, but the cancellation of the First Responders Bowl at the Cotton Bowl in Dallas is just the 2nd bowl game EVER to be cancelled.  The only other time this has happened in the 149-year history of the sport came in 1941, when Hawaii’s planned second postseason game against San Jose State was canceled because of the attack on Pearl Harbor.


  • Still, the decision to cancel is lame.  I know there’s the safety issue with lightning, blah-blah-blah.  A convenient excuse.


  • The real reason the game was cancelled?  Television.  As in, ESPN (the game’s primary owner/sponsor) didn’t want to move it or postpone it because it would conflict with the rest of their made-for-TV events on the schedule.


  • Tweet of the Week, from @darrenrovell: “Trademark of sponsor of bowl (SERVPRO) that was canceled before the first quarter ended? LIKE IT NEVER EVEN HAPPENED.”


  • You just can’t make this stuff up.


  • It also screams “end the madness, now!” when it comes to the plethora of bowl games dominating our December.  A little bad weather?  Meh.  Just cancel it, there’s always another Cheez-It/Camping World/RedBox/TaxSlayer Bowl coming up.


  • Coming in at #3 on the countdown of 2018’s significant sports stories – both Providence and URI basketball programs – one-half of the state’s Division I contingent – reached the NCAA Tournament together for a second-straight season.  Boston, we know, is a pro sports city. 


  • But college hoops belong to Lil’ Rhody.  It matters here.  Just ask the politicians and lobbyists in the State House about that. 


  • The Rams won the Atlantic-10 regular season crown for the first time, won a game in the NCAA’s, then lost their head coach to neighbor and one-time rival UConn.  A thrilling, and yet crushing few months for URI.


  • The Friars reached the NCAA Tournament for a school-record 5th straight season, after reaching the finals of the Big East Tournament for just the 3rd time in 39 years.  And they lost in the finals to the eventual national champions from Villanova, in overtime.


  • In 2018, PC also received a commitment from Providence-native and ex-Classical star David Duke, a first for the program since Abdul Abdullah (Central HS) played the point for the Friars 25 years ago.


  • Got an update on more than a few Friars earning a paycheck in the pro ranks – in addition to Kris Dunn (Chicago) and MarShon Brooks (Memphis) in the NBA, Bryce Cotton is killing it in Australia as the reigning NBL MVP.


  • 18 more former Friars (21 total) are currently playing professionally somewhere on the planet, including LaDontae Henton (G League/Spain), Ben Bentil (Greece) and Kyron Cartwright and Rodney Bullock (on the same team in Hungary). 


  • Ex-St. Raphael star Jeff Xavier (Spain), Tuukka Kotti (Finland) and Marcus Douthit (Thailand) might take you back a bit, but how about Erron Maxey?  Maxey (Taiwan) is the oldest Friar still playing, as he just turned 40 (!) this month.


  • Some momentum gained by Rhody with their win over West Virginia at Mohegan Sun, no question.  Then came the sun and not-so-much fun in Hawaii, with two losses in three games at the Diamond Head Classic in Honolulu. 


  • Cold shooting down the stretch hurt the Rams in a 68-60 loss to Hawaii – on the Rainbow Warriors’ home floor, no less.  The Rams have been one of the worst deep-shooting teams in the country this season.  URI gets its first home game Sunday in more than a month when they play Middle Tennessee State – no pushover – at the Ryan Center. 


  • Following a 10-day layoff after the big win at Texas last week, the Friars open Big East play against Creighton at the Dunk Monday afternoon.  If you follow the old RPI, the win over the Longhorns was badly needed, and was only PC’s 2nd game against a Top 50 team.


  • From this point forward, 12 of the remaining 18 games are against Top 50 teams, starting with the Blue Jays.  That’s the good news.  The new “NET” ranking has Providence at 72, a middling number and 7th out of 10 Big East teams through non-league play. 


  • That’s the bad news.  There’s still work to do here for a 6th straight NCAA appearance.


  • Handicapping the Big East heading into conference play – I like Marquette.  When they defend, I like them a lot.  They also have the league’s most dangerous, dynamic shooter in Markus Howard – or do you not remember the half-a-hunnerd he sank on the Friars a year ago?


  • Villanova is still the champ, and the Big East title goes through Philly.  KenPom says the Cats are still a 50-50 shot to win it, even though the league is incredibly balanced.  St. John’s hasn’t had injured big man Sedee Keita yet, but plenty of talent.  Have the Johnnies been pushed enough, even though they’re 12-0 through non-league play? 


  • Shamorie Ponds, the preseason fave for Player of the Year, leads Big East players in assists and steals, scoring just under 20 points per game and shooting 38% from three – 13% better than he did a year ago.


  • Providence falls in just after the above three, with every chance to move up.  The depth may be better than previously advertised after Roxbury’s A.J. Reeves went down with an injured foot.  He could be back sooner than originally anticipated.


  • Alpha Diallo – mark it down – will be a Player of the Year candidate.  But he needs to be 75% or better from the free throw line to help him get there.  He’ll get plenty of shots, as he’s just out of the Top 20 nationally in attempted free throws.


  • Creighton, Butler, Seton Hall, Xavier, Georgetown, DePaul.  And not necessarily in that order.  Throw ‘em in a hat and pick one, it’s that wide open this year.  Buckle up, should be a fun ride.


  • Seems like I should mention the Brown Bears basketball team here, so I will.  The eight non-league wins for Brown (8-4 overall) as they head to San Diego State are one shy of the school record of nine wins by Brown teams in 2001-03, 2014-15 and 2016-17.  


  • The Bears lead the Ivy League in field goal defense (.389) and 3-point field goal defense (.262). URI owns a win over Brown, but the Ivy is also higher rated this season than the Atlantic-10, if you still believe in the RPI.


  • Big story #2 for 2018 – the Red Sox win an incredible 119 games, including the postseason, and a 4th World Series title in the new century.  How can that NOT be a big deal, especially with the tradition/curse hanging over all of us prior to 2004? 


  • Good grief.  So many sub-plots and big stories of their own within the Sox’ season…from Mookie Betts’ MVP, to J.D. Martinez being the “real” MVP, to the resurrection of David Price and his Fortnite habits, to Craig Kimbrel, Matt Barnes and Joe Kelly’s wild bullpen rides.   We could go on, amiright?


  • And how can we forget Steve Pearce, the World Series MVP, with his familial roots in Rehoboth, MA?  His father Steve is responsible for Pearce’s life-long Red Sox fandom.  Thanks, Dad.


  • The team we love to hate, gripe and complain so much about – won it all.  They beat the Yankees, then dispatched the defending World Series champs from Houston before dumping on the Dodgers.  That’s a helluva year.  Just sayin.’


  • My buddy “Big E” sez that in life there are two things to worry about: either you are well, or you are sick.  If you are well then there is nothing to worry about, but if you are sick there are only two things to worry about – either you get well, or you die.


  • If you get well then there is nothing to worry about.  But if you die there are only two things to worry about – either you will go to heaven or to hell.  If you go to heaven, then there is nothing to worry about.  But if you go to hell, you’ll be so damn busy shaking hands with friends you won’t have time to worry about it.


  • The #1 story for this region in 2018 involves more than just sports.  It involves half-a-century of Rhode Island tradition – family tradition – being tossed aside like so much highway trash.  It involves the systematic, fiscal destruction of a city and the community around it, so desperate to regain a long-ago lost status symbol of wealth and prosperity.


  • This story also involves greed and avarice, and crooked politicos only looking out for their own backsides – which is as much a Rhode Island tradition as anything else.


  • It is so astounding, that the authors of this story saw fit to cross state lines, to a place where they said they were “wanted, not where there is controversy and opposition.” 


  • And yet, the place they chose has a long, l-o-n-g history of failure itself in economic and professional athletic endeavors.  So how bad is it, really, around here?


  • The Paw Sox move to Worcester is more than a minor league baseball team relocating to another city.  It is a move that rips at the very fiber of a generation of Rhode Islanders, from families taking kids to see the baseball stars of the future at McCoy Stadium, at non-Fenway prices…to those same people (and others) who became frequent visitors and patrons of nearby city services and amenities.


  • I mean, who is going to go to Pawtucket without the baseball team there? 


  • The number of fans in recent years has dwindled, sure.  Some of that is baseball’s fault, in and out of the Red Sox organization.  But some is also Rhode Island’s fault, for failing to come up with a plan that not only would save a beloved team, but also re-energize a community and a city sinking in economic quick-sand.  And no rope or lifeline is coming anytime soon, either.


  • Watch out for Hasbro.  The vaunted toy company may be the next rat to jump ship, and Rhode Island is undoubtedly standing by ready to finish off the extermination. 


  • Will fans turn out for two years of nuclear winter in Pawtucket, starting this spring?  The lease on McCoy doesn’t run out until after the 2020 season has completed.  The new stadium in Worcester will start its’ build next summer.  Best guess – if it’s baseball and/or affordable entertainment you seek, and maybe another dose of nostalgia you and your family long for – get to the ballpark before the end of 2019.


  • That just might be a big story for this time, next year.


  • Bobby from Clearwater, FL posted on Facebook: “Gonna be a great year in the Big East. St. John's may be 11-0, but not a lot of quality and for what it's worth, are still unranked. Given that, I still see them as a middle of the pack Big East team...Keep an eye on DePaul, who will be no pushover.”


  • Bobby – I agree with your assessment. VERY wide open.  St. John’s will be a factor, and I’d be surprised if they didn’t reach the NCAA’s.  DePaul is definitely improved, and Max Strus is 1st team caliber.  13 victories might win it, 12 could put you in the hunt.  The Friars could be right there in that mix, if they can get on a roll.  NCAA picks – Marquette, Nova, SJU, PC, Creighton. Bubble – Butler, Georgetown.  NIT – SHU, Xavier, DePaul, if they finish +.500.


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