Blogs > Lions Lowdown

One thing you can count on with the Detroit Lions is that they are never, ever boring. Follow the latest news including injuries, roster moves and more here daily from Oakland Press beat writer Paula Pasche. Plus you'll find regular commentary about the team.


Michigan State manhandled

I didn't expect Michigan State's season to end like it did Friday, and neither did you. Memphis was the better team. More talented, more athletic. We knew that going in. Still, to win that easily, to lead 50-20 at halftime, there's no suitable explanation for one of the Big Ten's best programs to get beat like that in the Sweet 16.

Players denied it after the game, but I saw a scared Michigan State team Friday. Drew Neitzel passed up his first good look at the basket and only attempted eight shots for the night. Raymar Morgan wilted in the face of pressure. Kalin Lucas played like a freshman early, while his classmate counterpart Derrick Rose looked ready for the NBA (he is).

Memphis, on the other hand, was out to prove a point. The Tigers came into the weekend feeling disrespected as pundits dissected their game. They made nearly every shot they took early (free throws included), harassed MSU defensively and left an impression with three highlight-reel dunks in the first half.

Because the game ended so late, I didn't get any Tom Izzo quotes in my story, but MSU's coach was teary-eyed in defeat.

"It's hard to figure out how you feel after a damn good year and we just didn't have a very good first half, and that's probably one of the understatements of the year," Izzo said. "The better team won, they played well and hopefully we'll learn from this and move on."

As for next year, expect MSU to contend for a Big Ten title and one or two seed. The Spartans won't be Memphis-ly athletic, but they are getting young and quicker both on the perimeter and in the frontcourt (assuming Delvon Roe heals from micro-fracture knee surgery). Lucas, despite his struggles Friday, has a bright future ahead, and Chris Allen (20 points) played his best game of the year. If you're looking for an X-factor keep in mind Goran Suton, who scored 23 points on 11-of-14 shooting and grabbed nine rebounds against Memphis. Suton is the most skilled returning post player in the Big Ten, and he seemed to find something this March that could portend to a great senior season.


My Sweet 16 pick: Memphis over MSU

Before I get into why I picked Memphis over Michigan State today, I have two suggestions for the folks at Reliant Stadium next time they host a NCAA tournament regional. First, give the rodeo at least a week to leave town before welcoming in city folks for a basketball tournament. The smell walking up to the arena the last two days has been a mix of puke and horse manure. Not mood setting. Second, if circumstances occur where a traffic is out less than a mile from the arena, rather than post a cop car on the side of the road while cars come to a four-way stop, have an officer in the middle of the street directing traffic. In only makes sense to avoid a severe backup on the way into the arena.

Now that that's out of the way, I see Memphis winning a close game tonight for a couple reasons. First, the Tigers are underrated defensively and I expect their length and athleticism to give MSU problems on the perimeter. Drew Neitzel has struggled to score against longer defenders (see: Temple), and I can see Travis Walton committing about five turnovers (again, see: Pitt). MSU needs to win the transition game, not just beating Memphis down court but limiting the Tigers' fast-break opportunities, and Raymar Morgan can't afford early foul trouble trying to defend Chris Douglas-Roberts.

Despite Memphis coach John Calipari's insistance otherwise, free-throw shooting could be a huge factor. In the end though, Memphis has the two best players on the floor in Douglas-Roberts and freshman Derrick Rose and that's enough to lead the Tigers to victory, 74-69.

Greetings from Houston

Checking in from Reliant Stadium where Michigan State, Memphis, Texas and Stanford met with the media today in advance of Friday's South Regional semifinals. Outside it's 80 degrees and sunny, and inside it's starting to feel like March.

You'll read all about it in tomorrow's paper, hopefully, but Memphis coach John Calipari and his team played the disrespect card more times than I can count today. For a No. 1 seed with a 35-1 record, it sounded a little odd, though I must admit there are plenty of people picking MSU to win. A sampling:

"The greatest thing is (we) are experienced, (we) are hungry, but we are not supposed to win," Calipari said. "All of the pundits, we are losing this game and here is why. Bam, bam, bam."

And, "We are just going to play. Like I said, I believe in my team and I trust my team. I have a bunch of veterans and young players that I have faith in. And we're not supposed to win. I don't know if we are one of the better teams, but I think we are pretty good."

To its credit, MSU seemed pretty loose and relaxed, too, but a little more business-like in its approach. The Spartans had a morning shootaround and an open practice this afternoon, and were scheduled to walk-through Thursday night. They'll be back at Reliant for another shootaround Friday afternoon.

You'll have to wait until tomorrow for my pick — I've locked it in for the paper and the pre-game show — but I expect a very competitive game. Defensively, Memphis doesn't get the credit it deserves, but the Tigers should cause MSU plenty of problems with their athleticism on the perimeter. A key for MSU will be getting Drew Neitzel going from the outside — he struggled against a Temple team with similar length in the first round — and limiting Memphis' deadly dribble penetration.


Kalin Lucas and the new Fab 5

If you missed my story on Kalin Lucas in today's Oakland Press, I thought, in the context of how well he played in Saturday's 65-54 win over Pittsburgh, it was important to note that he is one of only five true freshman starters left in the NCAA tournament. There's also Memphis' Derrick Rose, who Lucas will match up against Friday in Houston, and UCLA's Kevin Love, two potential lottery picks, plus Villanova's Corey Stokes and D.J. Magley of Western Kentucky.

Of those five, Rose, Lucas and Love are the only ones who average more than 10 points or 19 minutes a night. Love (17.3 ppg) is one of four Naismith Award finalists (along with Memphis' Chris Douglas-Roberts, North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough and Kansas State's Michael Beasley) and Rose had as much hype as anyone entering the year, while Lucas has stayed mostly under the national radar (though not NBA scouts') until now. He had seven assists in MSU's first-round win over Temple, and scored 19 points (14 in the paint) against Pitt. His ability to break down defenses is Chris Paul-esque.

"I think how he was brought up, how he was coached and his own competitive instincts and nature are what's kind of separating him as truly one of the better freshmen," MSU coach Tom Izzo said. "I know there's a lot of good ones out there, but I keep telling him a lot of those great ones, they're home. And this is his time."


Regional TV times set

CBS just announced game times for this weekend's NCAA tournament action. MSU-Memphis will be the late game Friday night, an approximate 10 p.m. start. Texas-Stanford, the first game of the South Regional in Houston, tips off at 7:27 p.m.

In the Ford Field games, Wisconsin-Davidson tips at 7:10 p.m. Friday followed by Kansas-Villanova at approximately 9:40 p.m.

I lost one member of my Final Four, UConn, when guard A.J. Price tore knee ligaments and missed the second half of the Huskies' opener. My other three finalists (Kansas, North Carolina and Memphis) remain in tact. I've got to go with UCLA over Xavier in the West Regional now and it's a distinct possibility we get all four No. 1s in the Final Four for the first time in tournament history.


Predicting MSU-Pitt

Maybe it's stubbornness why I'm picking Pitt to beat Michigan State tonight for a spot in the Sweet 16. I came into the NCAA tournament thinking MSU would survive its first game against Temple and lose to Pitt when the aftereffects of the Big Ten tourney finally sunk in. To the Spartans' credit, they showed no hangover Thursday from Indy and played one of their best games of the year. Contributions came from everyone, Drew Neitzel (five points) included, and the defensive effort was impressive.

Looking at the raw numbers, today's game favors MSU. The Spartans are deeper (Pitt plays just seven men), bigger (if Marquise Gray is healthy, they have four posts to throw at 6-foot-7, 265-pound DeJuan Blair), play better defense and would more benefit from the up-tempo style both teams desire. I fully expect Neitzel to rebound from his shooting funk with a big game, and talking to fellow reporters Pitt has had trouble containing quick guards like Kalin Lucas.

Still, I'm taking Pitt in a squeaker after seeing them up close Thursday in the first-round against Oral Roberts, Blair is a vacuum for rebounds, Gilbert Brown is my X-factor off the bench, and Sam Young will be the best player on the floor. Young's got the matchup to watch early. He's too quick for Goran Suton, who'll likely start the game on him, and could get MSU's only offensive post threat in foul trouble.

Honestly, nothing that happens tonight will surprise me. MSU has the dogs to win by 10 and could just as easily lose by double digits if it gets into one of a turnover funk. In the end though, I see one of the best games of the second round. Young somehow gets 20, Ronald Ramon hits a couple big 3-pointers, and the Panthers, a 66-percent free-throw team, make just enough from the line for a 70-63 win.


Freshmen impact

Expectations for Michigan State basketball were sky high this year in part because of the influx of three talented freshmen. While Kalin Lucas has surpassed his billing as a game-changing point guard, the fastest MSU's ever seen in the open court, classmates Chris Allen and Durrell Summers haven't had quite the impact. Allen was set back by an early-season foot injury, and Summers never got enough minutes off the bench.

In Thursday's NCAA tournament opener, however, all three made huge contributions to MSU's 72-61 victory. Allen had 12 points in 22 minutes off the bench, Summers scored eight and started MSU on its game-changing 15-2 first-half run, and Lucas finished with eight points and seven assists. Without them, MSU might not have won.

"Our freshmen played extremely well for their first NCAA tournament game," guard Drew Neitzel said.

More importantly, they played with poise beyond their years. On a stage that's been known swallow up the young, Lucas, Allen and Summers never blinked. Lucas committed one turnover in 27 minutes. Allen banged home an early 3-pointer that gave MSU the lead for good, and Summers played under control, taking the extra dribble on his first jump shot instead of launching a three.

On Saturday, the Spartans will play one of the two best teams they've met all year in Pittsburgh. The Panthers destroyed Oral Roberts in their opener Thursday and present a slew of matchup problems with DeJuan Blair inside and Sam Young on the wing. One area they struggle, however, is matching up with athleticism on the perimeter. That means Lucas, Allen and Summers once again could be the key to victory.


NCAA tournament predictions

I'm sitting in the media workroom at the Pepsi Center right now waiting for the morning press conferences to get under way, and had a few minutes to finally put my NCAA tournament predictions on paper. Michigan State, the five seed in the South, tips off at 10:30 a.m. local time Thursday against No. 12 Temple.

MSU's region sets up about as good as could be expected. They have the most beatable No. 1 seed (Memphis), a No. 2 they already handled (Texas), a three they match up well against (Stanford), and a four I think already has played its best basketball (Pittsburgh). That said, I don't know emotionally how much MSU has left after its heartbreaking loss to Wisconsin in last week's Big Ten tournament semifinals.

The Spartans sunk a lot into that game and winning that tournament, they felt cheated when they lost, and down deep have some unresolved issues in big games against good teams. Since beating Texas in December, MSU is 1-4 against ranked opponents. It's a good sign that Drew Neitzel finally got going in Indianapolis last week, but I don't think this team has it in them to win twice in Denver. I see a closer-than-expected win against Temple and a grimy loss to Pittsburgh in the round of 32.

On a larger scale, there is a distinct gap between the No. 1 teams and the rest of the field but I can't go all chalk. North Carolina will come out of the East after playing four games in its home state. Kansas, the best team in the country, will win the topsy-turvy Midwest. In the West, I've got UConn taking out favorite UCLA in the Sweet 16 and beating Xavier for a Final Four bid, and Memphis is my pick in the South.

The Carolina-Kansas semifinal is essentially for the title in my mind, and I think Tyler Hansbrough is playing at too high a level to be stopped right now. The Tar Heels are my pick to cut down the nets in San Antonio.


KJ cut puzzling

I didn't have a chance to weigh in on the Kevin Jones cut yesterday as news broke when I was in the middle of my drive to Indianapolis for the Big Ten tournament. Finally settled in — after a total commute of more than eight hours; five-plus on the road, another hour or so driving around Jackson looking for a place with wireless to send, and two more writing and running up my cell-phone bill — here's my thoughts:

I don't fully understand why the Lions would part ways with a 25-year-old running back entering his contract year at a reasonable salary ($2.37 million) despite his injury history. In four years, Jones has never made it through a complete NFL season. He missed a game with an ankle injury as a rookie, three games with elbow and shoulder injuries in 2005, and finished the last two years on IR after foot and knee surgeries.

In a statement, Lions coach Rod Marinelli said the decision to cut Jones (and defensive end Kalimba Edwards) brings "clarity to our roster and also (eliminates) some uncertainty heading into the draft that would have otherwise existed." I could buy that if there was a free-agent running back worth targeting that was worried about getting a fair chance to compete with Jones still around (of course, any free agent who would worry about that wouldn't be worth pursuing), but A) there's not, and B) what happened to the need for competition at every position?

In the Lions' defense, they do need a more dependable back to highlight their new commitment to the running game and Marinelli and new offensive coordinator Jim Colletto like Tatum Bell a whole lot more than Mike Martz did. Bell's a better blocker than Jones, his vision and one-cut running style should play well in the retooled offense, and he never got a fair chance after inexplicably landing in Martz's doghouse. But it should be noted the organization thought so much of Bell they signed him to a one-year deal AFTER missing out on free agent Julius Jones.

The Lions will no doubt draft a running back in April, but they would have even if they kept Jones around. If they stay at 15, I still believe they'll end up with the best offensive or defensive lineman available and target a running back — the draft's biggest strength — in the second or third round.

As for Edwards, his release was expected since late last year. He never developed into a reliable pass rusher, and after six NFL seasons and with offseason workouts starting Monday it was time to cut bait. Safety Kenoy Kennedy is next on the chopping block, though with a weak draft class at that position the Lions might be able to trade Kennedy for a late-round pick.


Michigan State's pro day

I spent part of my afternoon Wednesday at Michigan State's pro day. Top receiver prospect Devin Thomas did 15 official reps on the bench press (a 16th was disqualified, presumably because he didn't get his arms all the way up), but neither he nor tight end Kellen Davis ran. For Thomas, who's surged into the first round, there was no reason to take part in most drills after his great workout last month at the combine.

Thomas said he has two personal visits set up so far, with the Bills and Vikings, and Davis has trips to Buffalo and New England pending. Just about every NFL team was represented at the workout, and scouts from the Giants, Steelers, Jets, Titans, Colts, Redskins, Vikings and Chargers were among those gathered around Thomas during his lift.

One of the best moments of the day, however, came from Eastern Michigan tight end Ken Bohnet (players from Grand Valley and Saginaw Valley also worked out). As he walked up to the bench, Bohnet asked MSU strength coach Ken Mannie who had the most reps on the day. Mannie said MSU defensive tackle Ogemdi Nwagbuo did 31, and Bohnet promptly ripped off 31 reps. He appeared to bounce one or two off his chest, but none were disqualified by the scout tracking the official number.

Bohnet caught 22 passes and three touchdowns for the Eagles last year, and is trying to sneak into the draft's final rounds.


Neitzel, Morgan honored

Michigan State players Raymar Morgan and Drew Neitzel were named to the United States Basketball Writers Association's all-district team Tuesday. Morgan leads MSU in scoring at 15 points per game, though he slumped through most of the Big Ten season. Neitzel is second on the team in points (13.4 ppg) and assists (129).

Notre Dame's Luke Harangody was named Player of the Year for the district that covers Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Ohio State's Jamar Butler, Purdue's Robbie Hummel, Wisconsin's Brian Butch and Indiana teammates D.J. White and Eric Gordon were the other Big Ten players on the 10-person team.

The Spartans take on Ohio State in Big Ten tournament quarterfinal action Friday in Indianapolis.


My All-America ballot

Selection Sunday is just over a week away so I'm turning my attention from the Lions for a minute. I cast my All-America and all-district ballots this morning for the United States Basketball Writers Association and here's what I had:

North Carolina's Tyler Hansbrough was my Player of the Year, narrowly edging out Kansas State freshman Michael Beasley. The rest of my team: Chris Douglas-Roberts, Memphis; Kevin Love, UCLA; Shan Foster, Vanderbilt; Luke Harangody, Notre Dame; D.J. White, Indiana, A.J. Price, UConn, Brook Lopez, Stanford; and D.J. Augustin, Texas.

For all-district (Michigan, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Minnesota and Wisconsin), I gave Harangody the nod over White as Player of the Year. My other eight: Eric Gordon, Indiana; Robbie Hummel, Purdue; Brian Roberts, Dayton; Mike Green, Butler; Jamar Butler, Ohio State; Raymar Morgan, Michigan State; Dominic James, Marquette; Drew Lavender, Xavier.

It wasn't a particularly strong district after the first seven. Wisconsin's Brian Butch, MSU's Drew Neitzel, Bradley's Jeremy Crouch, Southern Illinois' Randal Falker and Osiris Eldridge of Illinois State were among others receiving consideration. I wouldn't argue with any of them, but I thought Morgan, James and Lavender had better overall years.

For Coach of the Year, I went with Purdue's Matt Painter over Wisconsin's Bo Ryan. Ryan might win the league honor with the Badgers taking the Big Ten, but Painter did a wonderful job meshing young talent together and got his team to play lights-out defense.


Chris Brown an option at RB?

Julius Jones visited the Lions Tuesday and left without a contract. On Wednesday, he tripped to Tennessee, and according to several reports was scheduled to be in Seattle Thursday. He's the top running back left on the market and as such might be a little pricey for the Lions.

That's fine. With the draft so deep at running back, giving anything more than $2 million per season into a vet like Jones doesn't make sense unless you intend for that player to be around long term, and the ex-Cowboy sounds more like a complimentary piece.

There's plenty of similar runners still on the market, including Chris Brown, who played the last five seasons in Tennessee. The Lions talked with Brown's agent, Ryan Morgan, earlier this week and agreed to stay in touch in the near future. Brown visited Detroit last year and enjoyed his trip. He's not likely to come back again, but the Chicago native knows the potential opportunity that awaits in Detroit.

To be clear, Jones is still an option but the Lions don't appear to be in any hurry to sign a back, at least not until the prices come down. In all likelihood they'll add someone at the position, but they might not fill the need until draft day.

Defending the Lions' offseason moves

I've heard from a few e-mailers in recent days who are unhappy with the Lions' offseason. Why didn't the team go after Michael Turner? Why do they only seem to sign ex-Tampa guys? And what uninspiring free agent is next?

First thing's first, despite a gaping hole at running back, the Lions never were going to sign Turner (or other high-priced free agents like Asante Samuel or Alan Faneca). They doesn't mean they weren't interested in him or don't think he'll succeed as a feature back, just the price Atlanta paid Turner (six years, $34.5 million) doesn't mesh with coach Rod Marinelli's team-building philosophy.

So far this winter the Lions have re-signed running back Aveion Cason and cornerbacks Keith Smith and Travis Fisher, traded for corner Leigh Bodden and signed safety Dwight Smith, tight end Michael Gaines and guard Corey Hulsey as free agents. Nothing flashy, but important on several levels. First, the Lions addressed their biggest weakness in the secondary by keeping two young corners already familiar with the defense and adding two new playmakers who could start from Day 1. The signings also leave them flexibility. Kenoy Kennedy, a starter at safety last year, is now trade bait for a late-round draft pick, and the team does not have to take a corner on the first day of the draft.

Re-signing Cason was less important, but considering the holes at running back and kick returner, where Cason excelled last year, the Lions were wise to lock him up. They still have needs at running back, right tackle, linebacker and on the defensive line, but two of those should be addressed in free agency and a third might already be on the roster.

The Lions are not expected to host any free agents over the weekend. Already they've welcomed defensive tackle Chuck Darby, running back Julius Jones and right tackle L.J. Shelton. Don't be fooled by his lack of publicity, but Darby would be an ideal replacement for Shaun Rogers (who was traded to Cleveland for Bodden and a third-round pick) if he signs. He's not an all-pro, but people around the league vouch for his toughness and character, and more than anything that's what Marinelli desires.

Jones and Shelton have big asking prices right now and the Lions are right to tread wisely at those positions. First, Kevin Jones will be playing for a contract next season and hopes to return from knee surgery by the start of training camp. At tackle, no one on the market is a slam dunk, and Jonathan Scott remains under contract as a potential starter. Injuries have hurt Scott the last two seasons, but remember the Lions tabbed him ahead of Damien Woody last year. Furthermore, running back and tackle are two of the deepest positions in April's draft. The Lions should be able to land a starter at either position (or somewhere on defense) with the 15th pick and are in no rush to overspend on a stopgap free agent.

Linebacker is slightly different. There's no blue-chip talent to be had, so Ernie Sims, Paris Lenon and Alex Lewis could enter camp as starters. Dan Morgan and Al Wilson remain viable free agents — both have visited the Lions — but expect the Lions to spend a second- or third-round pick on that position in April.


Barry: Lions did 'everything' to get Vilma

Lions defensive coordinator Joe Barry stopped in the media room Monday and answered questions on new cornerback Leigh Bodden, the trade of Shaun Rogers and a few players on the Lions' free-agent radar. He also said the team "did everything humanly possible" to acquire linebacker Jonathan Vilma from the Jets.

Vilma met with the Lions last week and passed a physical, but in the end was traded to the New Orleans Saints for a conditional 2009 fourth-round draft pick. The pick could be a third-rounder depending on playing time. Barry said the Lions offered the same deal, but lost out in part because Vilma wanted to play closer to his home in Miami.

"Just so everyone knows, everything humanly possible to get that kid was exhausted," Barry said. "At the end of the day he chose to go to New Orleans and we wish him all the luck in the world. But Jonathan Vilma is an outstanding football player that we would have loved to have."

Last week, Vilma's agent Tony Fleming told The Oakland Press that Vilma enjoyed his visit to Detroit and left with a favorable impression of the organization. Barry said Vilma shared the same sentiments when they talked after the trade was completed.

"He said everything from the Detroit Lions was done to get him here," Barry said. "It didn't work out. And I mean from the other end of the hallway, Matt (Millen) and Tom (Lewand). Everybody in this building did an unbelievable job with getting him into the fold, getting him on a plane to Detroit so the recruiting process could start. It just didn't work out.

"I'm defending everyone involved here because I'm tired of everyone saying well, why wouldn't they go after Jonathan Vilma? We went full-bore after Jonathan Vilma, everybody in this building did, and it didn't work out."

Lions sign TE Gaines

The Lions made their second free-agent signing of the offseason Monday, inking tight end Michael Gaines to a four-year deal.

Gaines, who spent last season in Buffalo after three years in Carolina, will compete with Dan Campbell for the starting spot once Campbell is healthy. Campbell missed most of last season with an elbow injury and the Lions never found a suitable replacement last year.

"My mentality is I'm an old-school tight end," Gaines said. "I like to block and I like to catch the ball, too. I'm not looking to catch 100 balls a game, I'm not looking to be like a Tony Gonzalez, but I'm looking to be an old-school, just grimy, get-after-you tight end."

Last week, the Lions signed free-agent safety Dwight Smith and re-signed their own free-agent cornerback Keith Smith.


Kelly still an option?

In shipping Shaun Rogers to Cleveland instead of Cincinnati Friday, the Lions were able to address their most pressing need at cornerback.

Leigh Bodden might not have the name appeal of Asante Samuel, but he is a starter in this league and a proven playmaker. He intercepted six passes and recovered three fumbles last year, is young (26 on opening day) and relatively cheap ($3.5 million in base salaries the next two years).

The trade doesn't completely fill the Lions' need at corner. Along with Bodden, they've re-signed Keith Smith, tendered an offer to Stanley Wilson and added safety Dwight Smith (a potential nickel back) to the mix. In all likelihood, that leaves two spots in the secondary vacant, one to be filled now in free agency and one through the draft in April. They could sign two corners off the market, but unless they come cheap that's unlikely considering their other holes to fill (running back, linebacker, defensive line and right tackle, where I expect Damien Woody back).

From the rumbles I hear, re-signing Travis Fisher remains first priority. He's young (28), familiar with the system and if played correctly as a third corner will play just fine. Don't totally count out Brian Kelly, especially if he doesn't sign anywhere in the next few days, but for now the ex-Buc appears to be on the backburner.