We predicted last year that the 2007 Cardinals would have their best season in modern times (with 8 wins and 8 losses). Damned if we weren't on the money! And we said this success would be inspired by new head coach Ken Whisenhunt, he of Pittsburgh Steelers grit and grime as offensive coordinator of that team's championship in Super Bowl XL. Now, Whisenhunt is a shrewd operator. He used sleight of hand (trick plays) and an aged quarterback to have a respectable first season with the Cards, but do it he did! Thing is, except for incredibly bad luck (sometimes you think the team is, indeed, jinxed), the Cards would have been 10-6; Whisenhunt's boys in red and white lost to lowly San Francisco twice.

The reason the new coach had to use dinosaur QB Kurt Warner was that star-of-the future Matt Leinart suffered a broken collarbone in the fifth game of the season. But Warner played admirably (and he's played admirably in the early-going this season). This year, our prediction's that the wily Whisenhunt — with the help of a stellar defense he's put together — will take the team to that 10-6 season and a playoff berth.

Disappointed? Yeah, we know all you long-suffering fans want the team to not just get in (but win!) the Super Bowl, but who're we kidding?! The former X's & O's whiz for the Steel Curtain, no-bullshit and turf smart though he certainly is, can work only a minor miracle for this team. After all, they're the Cardinals, and there's good evidence that they're, indeed, jinxed, all the way back back to the time when they were the Pottsville Cards in 1925 and grasped tightly to a championship that wasn't won on the field ("Here's Why the Cardinals have Sucked Forever," Robert Nelson, January 11). Their dismalness over the years got the superstitious fans among us conjuring up the Pottsville Curse bugaboo. Though not up there with the Curse of the Bambino (Boston Red Sox) or the Curse of the Billy Goat (Chicago Cubs), the P-Ville Curse certainly would explain why our Red Birds have often resembled Dead Birds.

Female coaches, along with women's sports, so often get overlooked, even by us. And we're supposed to be an "alternative" publication. Not this year, baby: We're giving our Best College Coach nod to the incredible Charli Turner Thorne, the winningest coach in Arizona State University history. Yeah, you heard that right, in freakin' Sun Devil history, with a record of 225-145! In addition to that, she's fourth in the Pac-10 in most career wins. That all means that Turner Thorne has taken the team to the NCAA tournament six times. The 22-11 record for 2007-08 was the fourth consecutive 20-win season for Turner Thorne's squads. And if that weren't enough, she led the team to a school-record 31 victories, 16 Pac-10 wins, an Elite 8 berth and a ranking of 10th in the Associated Press national poll a year earlier. Turner Thorne is known worldwide for her round-ball prowess; she was assistant coach of USA Basketball's U21 World Championship team that won the gold medal in Moscow last year. With accomplishments like these, which bring in top recruits, we predict that it won't be long until the Stanford graduate and former Northern Arizona coach brings a national championship to Tempe.

Not long ago, the question was, would the ASU women's fast-pitch team ever beat archrival Arizona in a regular-season game, much less win the conference championship and, gasp, the 2008 NCAA College World Series? After all, it was the Wildcats who were two-time defending national champs going into this year's Division I playoffs in Oklahoma City. Even after ASU had swept Arizona in its three-game season series this season, most fast-pitch pundits still viewed the Sun Devils as pretenders to the crown worn so often by their hated opponents to the south. But come next season, ASU will be the defenders, not the pretenders, after sweeping through the field (which included Arizona) and winning the whole enchilada, thanks in large part to the remarkable, five-win pitching performance of senior southpaw Katie Burkhart. Head coach Clint Myers deserves huge kudos for taking a program that famously underachieved again and again under his predecessor and climbing with his young charges to the very top of the women's fast-pitch ladder.

Best Reason to Believe the Suns Are Still a Contender

Suns GM Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr has long been one of the best minds in basketball, even if he did sign ancient center Shaquille O'Neal to a run-and-gun team last year. We thought that was a bad move from the start, but we realize that the Suns were never going to win a championship with the small-ball Shawn Marion squad. And, frankly, Marion was an overrated pain in the ass. Good riddance!

Kerr knows that one thing the charismatic Shaq will do is put fannies in the seats at U.S. Airways Center. But we digress . . . Kerr's putting together what may be the best Suns team in a long time. He's added crucial elements, like a big man, in Robin Lopez, who can come off the bench to spell both O'Neal and Amaré Stoudemire. Did we mention that Lopez, out of Stanford, is a defensive specialist? And Kerr's added a point guard of the future, Goran Dragic. The 6-foot-4 Slovenian, the second-best point guard in the '08 NBA draft, will actually be able to replace Nash some day. Kerr also grabbed swingman Matt Barnes from the Golden State Warriors.

These are major moves, along with the hiring of coach Terry Porter, who will stress D — unlike his predecessor, whose system was a flashy failure. We want a championship, dammit, before a couple of Suns become AARP members! Last year, with the aforementioned stubborn Mike D'Antoni around, Kerr couldn't shine. But his off-season moves will make the Suns, with aging stars like Nash and Shaq, shine again. We smell a championship trophy — or is that Amaré's jock strap?

The great hopes for the Diamondbacks this year have been a couple of pitchers: Brandon Webb and Dan Haren, the team's All-Stars in 2008. After winning the 2006 Cy Young Award with a 16-8 record and 3.20 ERA in 33 starts, Webb has gone on to be arguably the best pitcher in the National League. At press time, he had a 21-7 record (the NL's first 20-game winner, he started the season with nine wins in a row).

Haren, acquired from the Oakland A's last December, had a 15-8 record at press time, and in the 2007 season with the A's, he was one of the top 10 pitchers in the American League — winning 15 games, striking out 192 and sporting an ERA of 3.07.

The two pitchers provide the best one-two punch of any pitching staff in baseball. In the All-Star game, they combined for three scoreless innings. Webb might have started if he hadn't pitched a tough game a few days before and needed the rest. In the 2007 All-Star Game, Haren did start for the American League (because of his incredible performance in the first half of the season) and led it to a win. The Diamondbacks offense, despite occasional spurts, has continued to be a disappointment this season (and not just because of injuries to key players like left fielder Eric Byrnes), but the team's best two pitchers have been stellar.

Best Reason to Believe the Diamondbacks Will Someday Win It All

Manager Bob Melvin

Bob Melvin toiled for eight major-league franchises as a player, including the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, and the San Francisco Giants, but was never much of an offensive player. A backup catcher during his career, he finished his playing days with a batting average of .233 and 35 home runs. But he has been a hell of a manager in his still-young career. He won 93 games as manager of the Seattle Mariners in 2003 but was let go after the next season, when the team lost 99 games. Shit happens!

He returned to the Diamondbacks, where he'd been bench coach, in 2005 and led the team to the National League West Championship last year, going on to manage the D-Backs to a sweep over the Chicago Cubs in the National League Division Series, only to see his team swept by the Colorado Rockies in the NLCS. But it was a marvelous journey, one that earned Melvin National League Manager of the Year. The poorest offensive team in the National League would never have gone as far as it did without "The Mad Scientist," which is what broadcaster and former D-Back Mark Grace dubbed Melvin because of his frequent juggling of winning lineups.

He did a whole lot last year with a team of promising youngsters and only one real star, Cy Young Award-winning pitcher Brandon Webb.

This year, he had a few more stars but (at press time) was seemingly less successful. Melvin has a quiet intensity on the field that inspires the confidence of players and fans. We pray (as we always do when in comes to the D-Backs) that the Mad Scientist can connive a way to get us into the World Series — someday. Bob, go back into the lab and conjure up a potion.

We know, we know . . . Shaquille O'Neal is over the hill, or certainly he's crested the top of it and is heading down. Still, he's got a lot of gas left in the ol' tank, and he proved it during the 2007-08 season, producing double-figure points and rebounds in most games. What do you naysayers expect the Big Aristotle to do? He's not going to be the high-scoring, stellar-rebounding monster he was back in his L.A. Lakers championship days. He's not even at the level he was when he and Dwyane Wade brought an unexpected championship to the Miami Heat. But he's a boost to the team, not only because he's a great role player but because he's a great role model. Not to the kids (that genie movie aside) but to his Suns teammates. They desperately need a champion in their midst — a guy who knows how it feels to be at the top and win rings and championship trophies (four of them).

But Shaq's more than just an inspiration; he's a celebrity. Look at that big grin; look at his antics on and off the court. He's strictly showbiz, from his sprinting ahead of his speedy teammates to prove that he's fit, to diving for balls in the stands (and having impromptu conversations with fans) to refusing to accept Spurs star Tim Duncan's help off the floor after a hard foul. Shaq's out in the community doing charity work, and he's volunteering with the Tempe Police Department to keep his law enforcement chops current.

Whether he's acting (and we use the term loosely), clowning around with teammates and fans or just grinning at the camera after reciting one of his raps (remember this one after the Lakers were pulverized by the Celtics in this year's championship: "You know how I be/Last week Kobe couldn't do without me/I call myself big, but I'm not as good as Biggie/I call myself big 'cause I live next to Diddy/Excuse me, Diddy lives next to me/So in the hood, dog, I feel like B.I.G."), the man now called the Big Cactus is just a pleasure to have in Sand Land. And now that dunderheaded Coach Mike D'Antoni and his failed fast-paced offense are no more, we may be very glad to have an entertaining veteran on the floor. Another thing we desperately want to believe is that he means it when he says he will win another NBA title with the Suns.

We love Grant Hill. He's cool; he's friendly. But he's too gimpy to play major minutes as the Suns' small forward. He definitely shouldn't be the starter anymore. Coming off the bench would be this gimp's speed nowadays, and hopefully new coach Terry Porter will use him effectively in this role this season. Hill adds character and leadership to the team. He's the kind of guy that young players look up to. Plus, he had his moments during the regular season. He injured himself at the end of last season because coach Mike D'Antoni gave regular playing time to just eight team members. There are 12 active players on the team, and other more successful teams (say, the San Antonio Spurs) rotate 11 players into the game. This is the way you develop players, and the way you preserve the bodies of your veterans. Duh, he was worthless to the Suns in the playoffs because D'Antoni had used him until he used him up!

Here's why Hill must be used sparingly: He's been in the NBA since 1994, six years with the Detroit Pistons and seven with the Orlando Magic, and he's been injured much of that time. Hill's had everything from ankle injuries to a life-threatening staph infection to a sports hernia that allowed him to play in only 30 percent of the Orlando Magic's regular-season games when he was there. Last year, we said Hill was a valuable addition to the team, and we still think that. But as a bench player!

Last year, we thought the Suns would, at the most, start him and play him maybe half a game. That way, he could've given the team quality minutes and stayed healthy. If Porter is wise (we know GM Steve Kerr is, and we know he understands that there's only so much life left in veteran players), he will use Hill as a sparkplug. He will keep the slasher fresh so he has some spring in those gimpy legs of his.

Dustin Pedroia may be the best major-leaguer to come out of Arizona State University since (dare we say!) Barry Bonds — and he hasn't resorted to steroids (we think). Consider these stats from the Woodland, California native, former Sun Devil, and current second baseman for the defending champion Boston Red Sox: a .317 batting average in his first full season with the Red Sox in 2007 and .327 through 147 games of the 2008 season. After winning American League Rookie of the Year in 2007, his performance this year earned him his first spot on the American League All-Star team. In last year's League Championship Series against the Cleveland Indians, Pedroia batted .345. In the seventh game, he hit a two-run homer at Fenway Park and had five runs batted in to lead his team into the World Series.

Along with fellow rookie Jacoby Ellsbury, Pedroia got the Red Sox off to a tremendous start in the fall classic. On the first pitch of his first World Series at-bat, Pedroia homered over Fenway Park's Green Monster. In helping Boston take the first three games of the series, Ellsbury and Pedroia, batting first and second in the Red Sox lineup, combined for seven hits and seven runs. Boston took game four and swept the Colorado Rockies to give the team its second World Series title in four years (before 2004, it hadn't won an MLB championship since 1918).

It was predictible that Pedroia would do so well in the majors. During his ASU career, he hit .384, with 71 doubles, 14 homers and 146 RBI — phenomenal stats for a college player. But he wasn't just an offensive marvel; Pedroia was named 2003 National Defensive Player of the Year while at ASU, and has been a stellar infielder as a pro.

Chuck, run for governor of Arizona instead of Alabama. Please! We need you in this state, where all but a handful of Democrats are Democrats in name only. We know you used to be a Republican, but then you denounced that party for its B.S. You would inject some life into the political scene here, just as you have into the NBA sportscasting. Frankly, we don't know what we would do without you on TNT. Ernie Johnson and Kenny "The Jet" Smith would be nothing without you. Even Magic or Reggie can't match your spunk. You crack us up.

Sometimes we figure you're drunk or stoned when you pontificate perversely from the right-hand corner of the screen, but we love it. We loved it when you said that Nellie Ball, which Mike D'Antoni persisted in reinventing, has never worked and never will. You were talking about the proverbial Don Nelson, lately coach of the Golden State Warriors, who invented the small-ball, run-and-gun system that D'Antoni's Suns employed to not enough avail. Somebody needed to freakin' say it, especially when D'Antoni was so badly botching it after the arrival of Shaquille O'Neal. Entertaining honesty!

Sir Charles has got to be the most quotable SOB in sports:

• "I don't care what people think, people are stupid"

• "I love New York City; I've got a gun"

• "Just because I dunk a basketball doesn't mean I should raise your kids"

• "My initial response was to sue her for defamation of character, but then I realized that I had no character"

• "We don't need refs, but I guess white guys need something to do"

• "Somebody hits me, I'm going to hit him back. Even if it does look like he hasn't eaten in a while."

The former Round Mound of Rebound has been entertaining us in Phoenix for going on 20 years; his 1993 Suns team was the last to play in an NBA Finals. When he retired eight years ago as the fourth player in history to rack up 20,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 4,000 assists, we knew we hadn't seen the last of him. We in Phoenix knew more than anybody what a hoot he was; now he's the most entertaining guy on sports television.

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