2017 White Sox Season Preview

Last year’s White Sox had all of the talent to contend for a play-off place.  As the season drew on, though, inconsistent performances and clubhouse turmoil cost manager Robin Ventura his job and saw Rick Hahn undertake a major re-evaluation of the team’s future.  Now, this year’s team not will not only have a new manager in Rick Renteria, but a new ace and a new lead-off hitter, as Hahn flipped Chris Sale and Adam Eaton to the Red Sox and Nationals, respectively, for prospects.  With all the new talent coming up the youth pipeline, there’s a lot to be excited about for the future of the team.  However, the future might look a little bit different.  Here’s my preview of the upcoming 2017 season for the White Sox:

 

Outfield:

LF- Melky Cabrera

CF- Charlie Tilson

RF- Avisail Garcia

On a team that could soon be full of youngsters, the current corner outfielders for the Sox are among the most veteran members of the team.  Cabrera is the oldest player on the team, and Garcia is one of their longest-tenured players.  In addition to being among the team’s older players, they have consistently been amongst the most frustrating—Cabrera has consistently hit for a decent average in Chicago, but his power numbers and play in the field have always left something to be desired, and injuries, combined with an inconsistent work ethic, have doomed Garcia to a fate of being a bit-part player instead of the guy with the potential to jack 30 bombs a season.  With both of them only one year away from free agency, I’m sure that they’ll perform well, but it’ll certainly be too little, too late from many fans’ perspectives.

The revolving door at the team’s center field position will continue this year, with the Wilmette native Tilson, who was acquired for Zach Duke in a trade with the Cardinals this past July, figuring to be the main man.  Tilson was once rated as one of the top ten prospects in the deep St. Louis system, and has consistently demonstrated great skills on the field and on the bases.  However, he struggled at the plate after reaching the higher levels of the minors and has had a couple of injury issues since joining the tram.  He’ll need to improve his skills at the plate to have a chance of cementing down a spot that’s been filled with uncertainty since Aaron Rowand manned the positon back in 2005.

 

Infield:

3B- Todd Frazier

SS- Tim Anderson

2B- Tyler Saladino

1B- Jose Abreu

C- Omar Navarez

DH- Cody Asche

The players that started last year at the corners—Frazier and Abreu—remain in place from last year’s team, but everything other position has a drastically different person in place.  The former Cincinnati Red had a decent first year in Chicago, becoming a fan favorite while hitting lots of home runs and striking out a bunch; he figures to perform roughly the same this year.  Abreu, meanwhile, has seemingly slowed down a little bit since his phenomenal rookie year.  Major league pitchers have begun targeting his weaknesses, and as the focal point of an offense that doesn’t have a lot of pop, he figures to see less good pitches than he has in previous years.  He’ll have to make some adjustments to stay among the upper echelon of power-hitting first basemen in the league.

Up the middle, the Pale Hose have two youngsters that may not be very good with the bat, but are excellent athletes and should both be key contributors on any future teams.  The more highly touted of the pair, Anderson, has long been slated to be a solid pro.  He showed his skills on the base paths and started to utilize his speed and power towards the end of last season, showing why he was considered the team’s top prospect last year, and figures to continue his solid play into this year.  Saladino, meanwhile, has come out of seemingly nowhere to be a fairly productive role player for the Sox.  He’ll eventually have his place taken by Yoan Moncada, but is an adequate placeholder, and a good future reserve, for the team.

The other two projected starters here, Navarez and Asche, don’t jump off the page at you; that’s probably because there’s not a whole lot about their games that really stand out.  Navarez will get playing time by virtue of his good pitch-framing skills, but hasn’t demonstrated much ability to hit major league pitching, while a guy who has 33 career home runs is slated to start at a position that is largely known for gaudy power numbers.

 

Bench:

C- Kevan Smith

2B- Yolmer Sanchez

OF- Jacob May

I recognize that Smith is probably a guarantee to start the season in Charlotte, especially because of his weaknesses at the plate.  He’s a good defender, though, and his familiarity with the pitching staff holdovers, as well as with manager Rick Renteria, should, in my opinion, earn him a roster spot for Opening Day.

Sanchez, formerly known as Carlos, is another guy that isn’t all that great at the bat, but whose defense should earn him a spot on the team.  He won’t see much playing time, since the guys in front of him figure to play a part of the team’s future, but will be a valuable reserve, and left-handed bat, to have around.

I didn’t expect May, a former third round draft pick in 2013 that hasn’t exactly excelled in the minors, to play a role on this year’s team.  But in a year in which there are lots of available roster spots and where we should expect the unexpected, the versatile outfielder has had a great spring and has essentially played himself onto the roster.  He could see a lot of time, too, especially with Tilson’s foot issues and Garcia’s frustrating inconsistencies.

 

Rotation:

Jose Quintana- LHP

Carlos Rodon- LHP

James Shields- RHP

Miguel Gonzalez- RHP

Derek Holland- LHP

Now that former ace Chris Sale is in Boston, it’s Jose Quintana’s show now.  There’s still a pretty decent chance that the lefty gets shipped somewhere this year, whether it be before the season starts or towards the trade deadline, but assuming he’s on the team to start the year, he’ll finally get a chance at being “the man” in a big-league rotation.  Behind him, Rodon is probably the only guy that showed any real type of consistency last year; he’s got some control issues to work out, but still has one of the most underrated fastballs in the game and is a good compliment to Q at the top.

The other three guys in the rotation are… shaky, to say the least.  James Shields was acquired mid-season last year in hopes that he would recover the form that made him elite in Tampa Bay and Kansas City; he ended up being worse after the trade than before it, and that’s saying something.  Miguel Gonzalez was picked up after being released by the Orioles last year and was incredibly inconsistent.  Derek Holland is coming off of major shoulder surgery.  All of these guys have the potential to be as good as #2 pitchers, but the issues that they’ve had—control problems, injury issues, and lots and lots of homers allowed—won’t go away fast; I expect them to have a pretty tough year.

 

Bullpen:

Zach Burdi- RHP

Zach Putnam- RHP

Michael Ynoa- RHP

Cory Luebke- LHP

Dan Jennings- LHP

Nate Jones- RHP

Jake Petricka- RHP

David Robertson- RHP (closer)

The Sox bullpen is going to see a lot of action this year, especially if Quintana is traded away.  That much is incredibly clear.  Outside of Nate Jones, Dan Jennings, and David Robertson, though, there aren’t many guys to be overly confident about.  There’s a couple of guys punching above their weight (Putnam and Ynoa), a couple guys trying to rebuild their careers after some injury issues (Luebke and Petricka), and a youngster (Burdi).  They have some good potential, but if you’re looking for a big area of concern on this team, both in the present and the future, this is it.

I’m also a little bit concerned that Burdi, who was drafted last year after throwing some impressive innings as a starter/closer hybrid at Louisville but profiles more as a closer in the pros, is a good fit for this roster at the moment—Jones and Robertson have the back end of the ‘pen locked down—but if Robertson, who was heavily involved in trade rumors this off-season, gets moved, it’ll have been a good choice to choose the local kid for the major league roster as opposed to some of the more highly-touted starters that the team recently acquired (more on them later).  For now, I don’t think he’s a great fit, and hope that if he does make the roster that it isn’t a detriment to his career.

 

Possible Call-Ups:

3B- Matt Davidson

IF- Yoan Moncada

OF- Peter Bourjos

That Davidson is currently in consideration for a roster spot this season is a testament to the hard work that he’s put in over the last 3 years in Charlotte.  He batted .268 last season, which wasn’t brilliant, but he flashed some of the power and fielding ability that inspired the Sox to trade for him in exchange for Addison Reed.  If Cody Asche or Carlos Sanchez struggle at all, expect to see Davidson get an extensive shot in the big leagues this season.

Moncada is well-known to be the team’s top prospect, but since he has the most big-league experience of all the team’s up-and-comers, I’m putting him here so we can talk about all of the incredible youngsters coming up in the team’s system.  Moncada is a freak athlete that is already exceptional in the field, and once he figures out some holes in his swing, he has the potential to grow into a player very similar to what Astros star Carlos Correa is now.  He’ll see the bigs at some time this year, and he’ll make an immediate impact.

Bourjos, who came up with the Angels, is not a fantastic hitter, but he’s shown enough competence at the plate, and enough excellence in the field, to stick around in the majors for a while.  His bat will (theoretically) keep him behind a couple other players, but with Tilson’s injury history and Jacob May’s rawness, Bourjos could see some time—he might even start the season with the Sox if Tilson starts the season on the DL.

 

Top Prospects:

Reynaldo Lopez- RHP

Michael Kopech- RHP

Lucas Giolito- RHP

C- Zack Collins

Carson Fulmer- RHP

Lopez certainly looks the most polished out of any of the prospects that the Sox acquired after trading away Sale and Eaton.  In fact, were Lopez not sent down to AAA the other day, I’d have thought he’d stayed with the big club, in a role similar to the one that Sale had when he was initially called up.  He’ll get some time to polish his stuff for a little while, and I bet that he’ll be called up within a couple months; he doesn’t have the ceiling as some of his fellow youngsters, but he’s sure to be a consistent fixture before we know it.

Kopech is one of the freakiest pitchers at any level—his fastball has touched 103 in-game, and he has the potential to eclipse 105 one day if he keeps up his unorthodox workout routines.  He struggled with his control and attitude when in Boston’s system, so he’ll start in either A or AA, but if he lessens his focus on speed and puts a little more effort into locating his pitches, he’s got the chance of being a bigger, stronger version of Justin Verlander.

Giolito was the biggest name that the Sox got in the deal for Adam Eaton.  Out of anyone, the former high school draft pick has the best stuff—mid 90’s heat, a big breaking curve, and a sneaky good changeup—but has gotten hammered in his limited big league action, as his effectiveness fluctuates like a roller coaster.  Personally, I see him turning into more of a Jon Adkins than a Stephen Strasburg, but if he can fulfill his potential, he’ll be a frontline starter for many years to come.

Collins is one of two homegrown prospects that profiles as one of the 100 best in baseball.  His college career actually very closely mirrors Kyle Schwarber’s- both were bigger, solid-hitting catchers that many viewed to be reaches as draft picks, but ended up raking in rookie ball.  The former Miami man hit a bit of a wall in Single A, so he might take a bit longer than Schwarber to develop, but he certainly has the potential to reach the Cubs star’s level.

Fulmer has been overshadowed by Collins and the profiles of the bigger-named prospects the team has acquired in trades, but we can’t ignore the former Vanderbilt star’s ability.  He struggled in his limited time in the majors last year, and he certainly needs some adjustments in the minor leagues, but there’s a reason Rick Hahn made him a first round draft pick.  I don’t expect him to see any time in Chicago this year, but if he does, it’ll be because he’s flashing the ability that makes him a potential future ace.

 

Possible Surprises:

C- Geovany Soto

UT- Leury Garcia

SP- Chris Volstad

Catcher is probably the weakest position of the current major league roster, and Soto has a fantastic opportunity to eke another year or two in the big leagues.  His bat has really fallen off a cliff these past couple seasons, but he’s always been pretty solid against lefties, and his veteran experience could be valuable to a team that’s sure to be filled with young faces.

Leury Garcia doesn’t fit the traditional profile of a utility player—he’s a little on the small side but he is capable of playing in both the infield and the outfield, and showed that he is a very capable backup while filling in for Adam Eaton when he was injured back in 2013.  His best spot now is probably in the infield, though, and I think he’ll see the big club if either Sanchez, Saladino, or even Asche (Frazier moves to DH) struggle to get going.

On the pitching side of things, Volstad is another veteran that has a chance to make a difference for the Sox this season.  The 6’8” starter last pitched for an MLB team back in 2015, but in a league that greatly values hurlers that have one exceptional pitch, Volstad’s sinker has always been a good out pitch.  It has the potential to boost him into spot starter role if the team’s young guns struggle, or if they’re searching for an innings-eater at the back of the rotation.

 

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

SS    Anderson

2B   Saladino

1B   Abreu

3B   Frazier

LF    Cabrera

DH   Asche

RF    Garcia

C     Navarez

CF   Tilson

I recognize that I’ve been fairly negative in my outlook for many aspects of this year’s team for the Sox, and rightly so—they’ve got some pretty glaring weaknesses, and they don’t really have much of a chance to contend for the play-offs, much less make them.  Assuming that Frazier and Abreu stick around for the season, they’ll have a somewhat competent offense, and if Quintana stays, then they might even have a chance of being better than the Twins this year.  The way this rebuild is going, though, I can’t see Rick Hahn keeping Q around for the whole year.  The Sox offense will end up around league average, but after the team’s ace is traded, their pitching staff will merely be adequate, and in a league where the talent level is rapidly growing, that won’t be good enough.  They won’t be too terrible, though; that adequate offense will allow them to top the Twins and stay out of the cellar in the AL Central.  That doesn’t mean that they won’t end up as one of the worst five teams in baseball, because they certainly will be; but they’ve got some pieces of a future core that will surely lift the Sox back into the national spotlight real soon.

Please note that rosters have not yet been finalized, and that the 25-man roster, and the other sections listed, are just predictions.

2017 Cubs Season Preview

The 2016 Chicago Cubs will forever be remembered as the team that finally broke the longest championship drought in professional sports history, coming back from a 3-1 deficit to topple the Cleveland Indians.  During last year’s run to victory, stars were born and legends were made; the big guns performed when it mattered, and role players stepped up to bring the team their first title in 108 years.  Now, the “Lovable Losers” have to prepare to defend their title.  Their core is still in place, but some little changes around the edges could ultimately make or break how successful they are in accomplishing their goal.  Will they be able to reign supreme for a second straight season, or will another club manage to topple them from their throne?  Here’s my outlook for what the Cubs will look like in this coming year:

 

Outfield:

LF- Kyle Schwarber

CF- Jason Heyward

RF- Ben Zobrist

In this roster configuration, I’m attempting to maximize the line-up potential that Joe Maddon has at his disposal.  It’ll be interesting to see what the manager ultimately does with Zobrist, the hero of Game 7 of the World Series; he started at second base for most of last season, but if we’re trying to maximize offense here, it’ll be tough to keep a guy with as much firepower as Javy Baez out of the line-up (more on that later).  So Zobrist will have to find his way to right, a position that will force the team’s most expensive player, Heyward, over to center, at what could be a defensive detriment to the team.  The former Cardinal’s contract looks more and more like an albatross every time he steps into a batter’s box—he still seems to be struggling mightily with his swing, and moving him to center is not only a misuse of his talents, but prevents one of the team’s best remaining prospects, Albert Almora, from getting reasonable playing time.  There’s a high chance, though, that Maddon looks at how Baez’s production fell off in the World Series and sticks Zobrist back in the infield, allowing Heyward to play his regular spot; there’s really no certainty in that regard.  The only thing that is certain is that Heyward, despite his huge contract, really needs to pick it up if he wants to assure himself of regular playing time on this incredibly deep and talented roster.

The only outfield spot that’s really locked down is one that, six months ago, nobody could have ever anticipated.  Kyle Schwarber’s remarkable comeback from his knee injury early last season, his presence in the World Series, and the impact that he made in his limited time made it clear that he deserves a spot in this line-up.  With a full off-season to continue his rehab, and to prepare for what could be his first full season as a full-time starter in both the majors and the outfield, the former Indiana man should continue his development into a power-hitting superstar.

  

Infield:

3B- Kris Bryant

SS- Addison Russell

2B- Javier Baez

1B- Anthony Rizzo

C- Willson Contreras

Arguably the two biggest position players in the entire National League will man the corners for the Cubs this year.  Bryant, who won the NL MVP award last year, didn’t have incredibly mind-blowing statistics, but the third baseman’s combination of solid contact, strong power, and nifty fielding make him one of the most valuable players in the game.  Rizzo, meanwhile, had himself a career year at the dish last season, batting .292 and knocking in 109 runs, and while his performance in the post-season wasn’t exactly up to scratch, it was his leadership abilities that really took center stage, as his enthusiasm helped buoy his team, especially when they seemed down-and-out following the Cleveland Indians’ win in Game 4 of the Series.  Both men will be essential if the Cubs are to have any chance of repeating.

The two youngsters up the middle are models of consistency and inconsistency, steadiness and streakiness.  The consistent one, Russell, might never be a star at the bat—he batted .238 last season, and he struck out (135) more times than he got a hit (125)—but he still managed to come up big when it mattered, as he knocked in 95 runs from a spot low in the batting order, and his defense saved many a base hit for the team’s pitching staff.  He’ll never be elite, but you know what you’ll get from him.  His double play partner, Baez, has the potential to be one of the greatest hitters at his position in baseball history.  He’s a freaky athlete with quick hands and top-level power, as evidenced by his many moonshots, but his aggressiveness has made him even more prone to strikeouts than Russell, and he’s fairly error-prone, having not fully mastered playing second base yet.  He should put up enough power numbers to hold down most of the playing time at second, but if Albert Almora or prospect Ian Happ find their strokes, and the back end of the rotation proves to be a problem for the team, expect Baez’s name to be floated in some trade rumors.

The man behind the plate, Contreras, was a mid-season call-up that caught fire as the regular season came to a close and essentially won the starting role based on that performance.  I worry about his transition to being a true full-time guy, especially with David Ross no longer present to give day-to-day guidance, so I don’t think he’ll see as much time as many expect, but in a couple years I reckon he’ll be one of the most complete catchers in baseball.

 

Bench:

C- Miguel Montero

2B- Tommy La Stella

OF- Jon Jay

OF- Matt Szczur

Montero won’t be happy playing in a reserve role for another season—he made that abundantly clear—but with David Ross retired and the man in front of him, Contreras, preparing to play in his first full he’s guaranteed to get more playing time than last season.  Playing for what could be his last good contract, I actually expect Montero to get the most playing time behind the dish this year.

There’s actually a pretty high chance that La Stella doesn’t end up on the roster—as I mentioned earlier, it’s likely that Jason Heyward will start the season in right, which would force Ben Zobrist to second base, Javier Baez to the bench, and…  La Stella to the minors.  In this scenario, though, the versatile infielder is kept around to provide a veteran presence off the bench.

Jay was signed to help fill the void left when Dexter Fowler departed for St. Louis, and he’ll do just that—help fill the void.  A lefty, he actually hit better against lefthanders last year, so he’s capable of taking at-bats in any situation.  For that reason, he figures to have an important role somewhere down the line.

There’s a chance that Szczur could end up not being on the big club this spring, but there’s a couple reasons that I see him beating out Almora for a roster spot—the former multi-sport star at Villanova is out of options, and since Almora hasn’t quite demonstrated that he’s capable of hitting major league pitching yet, I think that the gritty veteran makes the team.  If he struggles, though, or if Almora rakes in the minors, expect the team to gauge what interest there would be in him on the trade market.

 

 

Rotation:

Jon Lester- LHP

Jake Arrieta- RHP

Kyle Hendricks- RHP

John Lackey- RHP

Brett Anderson- LHP

You know that your team has a strong rotation if a guy that figures to be the long-term third starter, Hendricks, led the league in ERA last season (Hendricks will open the season as the 5th starter, due to the team’s desire to thrown John Lackey against his old team, St. Louis).  Jon Lester recovered his mojo in his second year in Chicago, finishing with a career-low 2.44 ERA, and earning the right to be the ace of this deep staff.  Arrieta, the bearded warrior, struggled in the second half of last season, but on a contract year, I expect the big righty to try to pick it up a notch in search of a big new deal.  Then there’s Hendricks, a man whose pinpoint control brought him to new heights last season.  I’m sure that he’s due to fall off a little bit, but if it’s only a little, the 27-year-old has a chance to be the future ace in Chicago in the vein of what the legendary Greg Maddux once was.

The back end of the rotation will be filled out by a couple of veterans looking to show that they’re still worthy of being members of a championship team.  Lackey is known to be a great leader (not to mention incredibly fiery) for this squad, and his 3.36 ERA last year proves he’s still got it, but I’m a tad worried about how long he can continue to be effective, especially as his innings decrease.  The best older pitchers rely on their ability to control their pitches and eat innings, and his 188.1 innings last year were his least since his horrendous 2011 season in Boston.  Behind him will be Anderson, who is coming off an injury-filled season with the Dodgers but has the stuff to be a solid mid-rotation option.  At this point, though, I can’t see him making it through the whole season unscathed; he’ll pitch well when he’s available, but if he tops 20 starts I’ll be incredibly surprised.

 

Bullpen:

Carl Edwards Jr.- RHP

Justin Grimm- RHP

Mike Montgomery- LHP

Brian Duensing- LHP

Pedro Strop- RHP

Hector Rondon- RHP

Koji Uehara- RHP

Wade Davis- RHP (closer)

When it became clear that the Cubs weren’t front-runners to bring back Aroldis Chapman, and that it was unlikely they could sign the other two big-name free agent closers, Kenley Jansen and Mark Melancon, the team’s front office worked fast.  They flipped Jorge Soler, who has star potential but has struggled for consistency in his two full years with the big club, to Kansas City in exchange for Davis, who was the best closer on the trade market.  He may not have the power pitch that Chapman had, but the former Royal might actually be more consistent, and his presence will keep the 9th inning in good hands for this year’s team.

Jed Hoyer also made a couple of shrewd free agent pick-ups to fill some needs.  With former closer Hector Rondon figuring to move back to his hybrid set-up/middle relief role, a true set-up man was needed, so Hoyer signed former Red Sox reliever Koji Uehara, who, at 42, is still capable of being incredibly effective.  Travis Wood’s departure also left a hole for a left-handed reliever in the ‘pen, so Hoyer inked veteran Brian Duensing, who has great splits against lefties, to a deal.  He won’t see as much action as Wood, but he could yet prove to be a useful piece.

The hold-overs from last year’s roster will complete what could be one of the most underrated bullpens in all of baseball.  There’s a couple fire-ballers (Edwards Jr. and Grimm), a couple of guys with great control (Montgomery and Strop), and Rondon, whose arsenal doesn’t have anything that particularly stands out but is very effective in high-leverage situations.  The best of the bunch is probably the man who finished off last year’s championship victory, Montgomery, who could see some time as a starter if Brett Anderson struggles.

 

Possible Call-Ups:

3B- Jeimer Candelario

CF- Albert Almora

LHP- Zac Rosscup

Candelario didn’t get much playing time after being added to the 40-man roster this past July, and while it’s evident that he still needs to work on figuring out major league pitching, he’s fared well in the minors, as he hit .333 in Iowa before being called up.  His versatility—he can play any infield spot except first—and speed could also make him a valuable reserve at some point during the year.

Almora is certainly talented enough to start the season in Chicago, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he did, but I still think that he needs to have better control of the strike zone before I think he really deserves to get real playing time for the duration of the season.  He’ll get called up at the first sign of injury or struggles for any of the outfielders, and he’ll surely be an important part of the team down the stretch, but I just feel he should start the year in Iowa.

Rosscup hasn’t pitched in the big leagues since 2015, owing to the poor spring he had last year that caused him to start the year in Iowa and the shoulder surgery he had last May that forced him to miss the season.  As a lefty specialist that has pitched in parts of three seasons in the Show, though, Rosscup could find a role at the back end of the team’s ‘pen, especially if Brian Duensing struggles.

 

Top Prospects:

Dylan Cease- RHP

2B- Ian Happ

OF- Eloy Jimenez

Most of the Cubs’ big prospects have cracked the big leagues, but that doesn’t mean that the cupboard is bare; far from it.  We’ll start with Cease, a flame-throwing righty that can hit triple digits with every pitch.  As with all high-speed pitchers, though, he’s had some issues with locating his pitches, and the organization is still working out if he would be better suited as a starter or reliever.  Either way, as long as he can figure out how to reign in his heater, he’ll be a big arm to have when he finally makes it to the Show.

Happ has been absolutely on fire in spring training, batting a robust .407 as of this writing, but has yet to play a single professional game above AA.  That being said, his progress at the plate is really turning heads, and his ability to play multiple positions—he played mostly outfield in college, but spent most of his time last season at second—makes him a very valuable asset.  If he continues to see the ball well, he could well work his way into playing time with the big club, especially if Matt Szczur ends up leaving the organization, before many could have anticipated he would.

Of course, his path to outfield playing time might be slowed a little bit by Jimenez, the team’s top prospect.  Jimenez seems to be what many people hoped Jorge Soler would be—a big, solid athlete with impressive defensive instincts and upper-deck power.  Jimenez is still a little bit too aggressive at the plate, and breaking pitches seem to give him a decent amount of trouble, but the talent is there, and if he can continue to improve—his average in the minors went from .227 in his first season to .329 last year—the 20-year-old outfielder is sure to have a great career in Cubbie blue.

 

Possible Surprises:

IF- Jemile Weeks

OF- Jacob Hannemann

Weeks, the younger brother of former Brewer, and Cub tormenter, Rickie Weeks, is a do-it-all type player that can play virtually every position on the field and has some speed to burn.  There’s still a lot of good prospects that should see the bigs before Weeks ever would, but everyone knows how much Joe Maddon values guys that are able to fill gaps all over the field, and Weeks fits that bill.

Hannemann doesn’t rate among the team’s top 15 prospects—perhaps because the 25-year-old former third round pick has really struggled with minor league pitching, still not proving that he can handle moving to a level above AA.  That being said, there’s a reason that the Hawaiian was such a highly regarded draft pick.  He’s a good athlete and has shown that, despite his general struggles at the plate, he’s not all that bad at putting the bat on the ball.  If he’s able to figure out his swing, he could end up being a Shane Victorino-lite, a late-bloomer from the Island State that’s quick and makes good contact.

 

Season Prediction:

Projected Order

CF    Heyward

LF    Schwarber

3B   Bryant

1B   Rizzo

2B   Baez

RF   Zobrist

SS    Russell

C     Contreras

P     Lester

The Cubs have what is arguably the most talented team in all of baseball, and coming off their first title in a very, very long time, they’ll be anxious to prove that they can go above and beyond last year’s miracle.  Ultimately, though, I don’t think they’ll win it all this year.  I’m worried about the drop-off that Kyle Hendricks will almost certainly face, as well struggles Jake Arrieta had last year, and what could happen to the team if both aren’t always on their groove.  I worry about the back of the rotation and their ability to maintain consistency.  I worry about the outfield, and the uncertainty about who is going to get playing time, and if those players are going to be deserving of that time.  Besides, with the parity that baseball has, it’s near impossible to repeat.  This team is excellent, and they’ll certainly challenge for the World Series, but I think that the small weaknesses that the roster does have will compound on themselves just enough to prevent the Cubbies from repeating as champions.

Please note that rosters have not yet been finalized, and that the 25-man roster, and the other sections listed, are just predictions.

The Week that Was: 2017 NFL Free Agency

This past Thursday marked one week since the start of this year’s free agency period in the NFL.  While the debate over whether building through the draft or free agency is the better move, teams across the country dropped hundreds of millions of dollars on players that they hope will make their teams better in the coming seasons.  Whether the signings pan out or not, of course, remains to be seen; here, I attempt to bring some semblance of organization to a week filled with transactions and unexpected drama while analyzing some of the most impactful moves so far this off-season.

 

CB AJ Bouye to Jaguars- 5 years, $67.5 million, $26 million guaranteed

CB Stephon Gilmore to Patriots- 5 years, $65million, $40 million guaranteed

The two biggest contracts that have been shelled out this week both went to cornerbacks, showing how valuable teams feel that potential number one cornerbacks can be.  Both Bouye and Gilmore come with some decent-sized question marks—Bouye has really only been a sure-fire starter for a year, and Gilmore has never quite lived up to his considerable physical gifts—but in the end, I think that the Jaguars and Patriots both got good value here.  The Jags have no real direction on the offensive side of the ball, so building a strong defense is the best way to get in the play-off hunt, and sticking Bouye across from Jalen Ramsey gives the team a terrific cornerback pair.  As for Gilmore, having him around to team up with Malcolm Butler at corner gives the Pats a deeper secondary—Gilmore, at 6’0″, would allow the smaller Butler to shift into the slot whenever it is required, and the new signing’s speed makes him a slot candidate, as well. Gilmore’s presence also gives Bill Belichick a nice “back-up plan” if the former Super Bowl hero leaves New England due to his current contract stalemate.

 

DL Calais Campbell to Jaguars- 4 years, $60 million, $30 million guaranteed

RG Kevin Zeitler to Browns- 5 years, $60 million, $31.5 million guaranteed

Both of these guys are really exceptional players that are opting to go from contenders (Cardinals, Bengals) to rebuilders (Jaguars, Browns).  Of course, the money certainly helps a little bit—considering the lack of depth along both lines in this year’s draft class, linemen were going at a premium, and these guys are probably the best of the best.  Even though he is almost 31 and is being paid more in base salary than the majority of players in this post, I think that Campbell is one of the better signings in this free agency.  He is extraordinarily versatile, able to shift back and forth between playing end and tackle, and doesn’t rely on any one particular move to beat his blocker, so I think he’ll be able to make an impact along the Jags’ defensive line for the duration of his contract.  As for Zeitler, how good of a signing this is for the Browns determine how well they build up their offense around their newly re-built offensive line, which also has stalwart Joe Thomas and new center JC Tretter.  They’re following an approach similar to Oakland’s—making a great offensive line and allowing the skill players around them to develop—but if Cleveland can’t get the right players to develop, they’ll be sinking a lot of money into a vicious, but ultimately useless, blocker.

 

LT Riley Reiff to Vikings- 5 years, $58.75 million, $26.3 million guaranteed

LT Matt Kalil to Panthers- 5 years, $55 million, $25 million guaranteed

LT Russell Okung to Chargers- 4 years, $53 million, $25 million guaranteed

Like I said earlier, linemen are really at a premium in this draft.  The contracts for these three men really prove that.  Don’t get me wrong—every one of these players is extraordinarily talented, all of them having been first round picks, and would be elite tackles if they were able to play to their potential—but the thing is, they have never really proven that they are capable of doing so.  We’ll start with Reiff, whose deal is probably the best of the aforementioned players, simply because the guaranteed money that Reiff was afforded is somewhat commensurate with how Reiff performed during his career in Detroit.  Because of that, the former Lion is effectively only on a two-year deal with Minnesota, which makes the huge contract a little bit more palatable, but the fact that he’s even getting that much money, considering his inconsistencies at both tackle positions, is a little but baffling.  That being said, his better days have been significantly better than those of the man of who he is basically replacing, Kalil, who is headed to Carolina to team up with his brother, center Matt, among concerns about Michael Oher’s concussion issues.  Kalil has had injury issues of his own, which have, admittedly, played a role in his up-and-down performances for Minnesota, but the fact of the matter is that the former Viking has never really learned to leverage his incredible physical gifts to turn into a competent blocker.  His contract will most likely end up as some type of disaster for the Panthers, which is certainly not a good thing, especially considering how cap struggles have negatively affected the team in recent years.  Okung’s deal falls somewhere in the middle of his two fellow tackles.  On one hand, he has shown that his ceiling is far higher than almost any tackle in the league, having performed at an elite level for the team that drafted him, Seattle.  On the other, though, he signed a disastrous contract with Denver last year that saw him released to the open market this year after what was an incredibly steep drop in performance.  Okung should bounce back, but he’ll never be able to reach the heights that he did with the Seahawks, even though the Chargers are paying him like he’s already there.

 

WR Pierre Garcon to 49ers- 5 years, $47.5 million, $17 million guaranteed

WR Robert Woods to Rams- 5 years, $39 million, $15 million guaranteed

The funny thing about these two deals is that they were both handed out to guys who were de-facto #2 receivers with their old teams– Garçon with Washington and Woods with Buffalo, respectively.  On account of that, both of these contracts strike me as slightly more expensive than they needed to be, but in the long run, I think that San Fran is getting a far better deal here.  I recognize that Garçon is 6 years older than his new NFC West rival, but the former Redskin very much fits the mold of an Anquan Boldin-type receiver, a veteran that is a great route runner with good hands, and Boldin was a key cog in the 49er offense the last time the team was good.  Woods, on the other hand, has struggled with consistency, despite getting a lot of single coverage opposite Sammy Watkins in Buffalo.  Rumor has it that the team wanted Woods because he’s both fast and strong, allowing him to be an exceptional edge blocker for what figures to be an offense predicated on running the ball with Todd Gurley, but a receiver’s main job is catching the ball, and if the Rams were looking for a good blocker, they surely could have found a player that they could have committed less money, and time, to than the former Bill.

 

QB Mike Glennon to Bears- 3 years, $45 million, $18.5 million guaranteed

There have been some very divided opinions about this signing for my hometown Bears.  Those that view this deal as a good one note Glennon’s decent performances as a starter with limited options in Tampa Bay, the former Buccaneer’s arm strength, and the fact that this contract is basically a one year one that is paying Glennon what is essentially league average for a starting quarterback.  Those that critique it wonder why a man that hasn’t started a game in over 2 years is suddenly worth market-value for Chicago, and question who else was bidding up the QB’s price that he deserved to get so much money.  In general, I think this is a decent signing for Chicago—yes, the deal is a bit pricy, but as I said, based on his guarantees, it’s basically a one year deal, and his presence will allow the team to develop whoever they (should) pick up in the draft to come along slowly instead of being thrown right into the fire.

 

Other Big Signings:

S Tony Jefferson to Ravens- 4 years, $36 million, $14 million guaranteed

My Grade: B-

RG Ronald Leary to Broncos- 4 years, $36 million, $24 million guaranteed

My Grade: B+

G Larry Warford to Saints- 4 years, $34 million, $17 million guaranteed

My Grade: C

LT Andrew Whitworth to Rams- 3 years, $33.75 million, $15 million guaranteed

My Grade: A

WR DeSean Jackson to Buccaneers- 3 years, $33.5 million, $20 million guaranteed

My Grade: A

 

Underrated Signings:

CB Captain Munnerlyn to Panthers- 4 years, $21 million, $10.5 million guaranteed

A somewhat-redeeming signing for Carolina.  It’s well-known that the Panthers were a bit of a mess at cornerback last year—their decision to call former star Josh Norman’s bluff backfired, and the lack of consistency in the defensive backfield was a big reason why they struggled on defense last year (and that, in turn, was probably the biggest reason why they missed the play-offs).  Enter Munnerlyn, who is return to the team that drafted him after spending the last 3 seasons in Minnesota.  He isn’t a very tall cornerback—he’s only 5’9”—but he’s used his speed and improved ball skills to cause problems for receivers, and he provides a veteran presence at a position that was devoid of it after Norman’s departure.  He’s a solid pick-up for Dave Gettleman, especially at an AAV of just over $5 million a year.

 

QB Brian Hoyer to 49ers- 2 years, $12 million, $10 million guaranteed

Brian Hoyer has had an up-and-down career—one that started with him being part of the revolving door of back-ups behind Tom Brady New England and has seen him undergo multiple renaissances after stepping in for injured starters (Houston, Chicago).  During times when he’s gotten extended playing time—and has had halfway decent weapons to work with—he has proven himself to be, at the very least, an average quarterback.  In today’s market, as showcased by Mike Glennon’s deal, an average quarterback might get anywhere from $10-15 million a year.  That he is only getting $6 million a year in a QB-friendly system that will surely enhance his what talent he already has makes him a good deal for San Fran.

 

FB Patrick DiMarco to Bills- 4 years, $8.4 million, $4.8 million guaranteed

DiMarco was a largely unnoticeable, but extremely crucial component to one of best offenses in recent memory.  He’s always been known as a fairly solid run blocker, but he improved his blitz recognition to become an adequate pass protector, and he’s also capable of being a weapon out of the backfield, having shown some decent speed and field awareness after catching passes.  That the Bills were able to get him for the price of a decent kicker is pretty impressive, considering how valuable he will be to LeSean McCoy and how little money he got in comparison to the other top fullback on the market (there’ll be more on him later).

 

WR Terrelle Pryor to Redskins- 1 year, $6 million, $6 million guaranteed

I recognize that another receiver that signed a similar deal to this one, Alshon Jeffery, got a contract that was just as good, if not better, than the one that Pryor got.  But the need for a receiver in Washington was much more pressing after the ‘Skins lost their top two targets from last season, seeing both DeSean Jackson and Pierre Garcon get big contracts elsewhere.  Getting Pryor on what is essentially #2 receiver money, on a “prove-it” length deal, was greatly beneficial for the team and the player, especially since the former Ohio State star will (probably) be hauling in passes from a far better quarterback than anyone he had in Cleveland while offering the team an explosive option as a pass-catcher.

 

Overrated Signings:

WR Kenny Stills, Dolphins- 4 years, $31.9 million, $19.95 million guaranteed

Yes, I recognize that this is technically a re-signing, but we’re going to roll with it anyway.  I’m a big Stills fan—I think that New Orleans made a big mistake in trading him to Miami—but inking the receiver to a deal that will see him get paid like a low-end #1 is an even larger error from Miami.  The large touchdown numbers that he put up last season were largely a fluke (that’s probably what propelled him to such a large deal in the first place), and on top of that, he isn’t even the third best receiver on the team.  His presence, both on the field and on the salary cap, will almost certainly hamper DeVante Parker’s future with the team, which isn’t a great thing for the franchise.  A real questionable move here.

 

ILB Malcolm Smith to 49ers- 5 years, $26.5 million, $11.5 million guaranteed

Smith had his moment in the sun with the Seahawks after intercepting Peyton Manning and returning the pick for a touchdown back in Super Bowl .  Even then, though, teams recognized his limitations, and the Raiders gave him a two-year deal worth about $3.5 million a year.  He didn’t impress during his time in Oakland, being poor against the run and not flashing the coverage skills that earned him a role in Seattle.  Now, though?  Smith gets a deal worth over $5 million a year for a position that’s already fairly solidified due to the presence of NaVarro Bowman.  Another iffy decision by the new regime in San Fran.

 

FB Kyle Juszczyk to 49ers- 4 years, $21 million, $10.5 million guaranteed

Look, I get that there probably aren’t that many players that are going to want to sign for a team that’s been a doormat over the past couple seasons, no matter how much money you throw at them.  I get the there’s a reason that the former Raven fullback is considered an elite player at his position.  But let’s be real here—a rebuilding team dropping almost $11 million in guarantees on a fullback?  There had to be some other way that John Lynch could have put this money to better use in restocking the Niners.  I just don’t understand this one at all.

 

TE Dion Sims to Bears- 3 years, $18 million, $10 million guaranteed

Don’t get me wrong here—the Bears need a tight end or two.  Outside of incumbent starter Zach Miller, there isn’t really much depth.  But if you’re going to give a tight end this much money in guarantees, they better be pretty versatile.  Unfortunately, the Michigan State product has not proven himself to be anything of the sort so far.  In fact, he’s barely managed to start a third of his professional games, being held back by the oft-injured, and recently retired, Jordan Cameron.  That isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement for a player that Chicago is paying like a bona-fide starter.

 

Key Re-Signings:

S Eric Berry, Chiefs- 6 years, $78 million, $38.7 million guaranteed

Kansas City made it clear that, when it came to whether Berry or Dontari Poe was more important to the performance of their defense, that the former Tennessee safety was “the man.”  The contract length itself may be a bit long, even for a guy with as much spring in his step as Berry—it’s increasingly rare to see anything beyond one or two years being guaranteed in the NFL anymore, unless you’re an elite quarterback— but making an exception for Berry was a smart move by KC.  It was essential that the Chiefs keep the face of their franchise around as long as they could.  So, in that sense, this a great deal for both sides, and a great story for Berry, who is getting rewarded handsomely after his phenomenal comeback from Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

 

ILB Dont’a Hightower, Patriots- 4 years, $43.5 million, $19 million guaranteed

Hightower’s status as the “unsung hero” of New England’s Super Bowl victory—his strip sack of Matt Ryan got the momentum going the Pats’ way—devalues the massive impact he had in Matt Petricia’s defense during the regular season, especially after fellow ‘backer Jaime Collins was shipped to Cleveland.  Without the tackle machine wreaking havoc in both the run and pass defenses, the Patriots wouldn’t have had anywhere near the defense required to make the run that they did to the Super Bowl.  The former Alabama linebacker was probably slightly disappointed in his market—in all honesty, I was surprised that the Chiefs didn’t try to find a way to move Jeremy Maclin and go after Hightower—so for him, this deal isn’t exactly ideal.  But he’s playing on a team where he has the best chance to succeed, and for an organization that values him.  Solid deal all-around.

 

RB Le’Veon Bell, Steelers- 1 year, $12.12 million (franchise tag)

As far as running backs go, this deal is a little bit on the expensive side.  But this isn’t just any running back we’re talking about; this is Bell, who, along with Antonio Brown, forms the most explosive 1-2 punch in all of football.  Tagging Bell allowed them to work out a long-term extension for Brown, who re-upped with the Steelers for another four years.  As the team works its way out of financial hardship, this is sure to be a simple segway to some big bucks for Bell in Pittsburgh.  His deal might be a little but below value for the back for this year, though it should work out for him and the team in the long run, which, if anyone has seen how explosive the Bell-Brown combination can be, is most certainly a great thing for Mike Tomlin and company.

 

DT Brandon Williams, Ravens- 5 years, $54 million, $27.5 million guaranteed

When you think of great Ravens defenses, you probably think of the vicious tackling machine Ray Lewis, or the ball-hawking safety Ed Reed.  However, a big man up front, Haloti Ngata, was pretty important to the best Ravens’ defenses of the past decade or so.  The similarities between those defenses and Baltimore’s defense this year, which finished 7th in yards allowed per game, are fairly obvious, then—most of the attention goes to CJ Mosley and Eric Weddle, and rightfully so.  But Williams played a crucial part in making the Ravens virtually impossible to run on in the second half of the season, and his ability to manage two blockers was crucial to the team’s pass rush.  The extension is a little steep, considering the deal that a player in a very similar mold, Damon Harrison, got in free agency last year, but if he can keep up his run-stuffing ways, GM Ozzie Newsome won’t have to worry about building up the defensive line anytime soon.

 

Other Important Re-Signings/Franchise Tags

OLB Chandler Jones, Cardinals- 5 years, $83 million, $53 million guaranteed

QB Kirk Cousins, Redskins- 1 year, $23.943 million (franchise tag)

WR Terrence Williams, Cowbots- 4 years, $17 million, $9.5 million guaranteed

DT Kawann Short, Panthers- 1 year, $13.648 million (franchise tag)

 

Best Still Available:

Jonathan Hankins, DT

Possible Suitors: Giants, Eagles, Dolphins

Hankins is a pretty versatile player—he’s good against the run, as all defensive tackles need to be in today’s game, and was one of the Giants’ better pass rushers last year.  That being said, he’s not at an elite level, even though he wants to be paid like he is.  That’s why he has yet to return to New York, where he is very much coveted, just at a lower price.  If the two sides can’t come to terms, there’s a threat that the rival Eagles, who lost Bennie Logan to the Chiefs, and Dolphins, who have been linked with Hankins for a while now, might be able to steal him away.  There’s no real frontrunner in his race so long as Hankins maintains his demands, so we’ll just have to wait and see how this one turns out.

 

Adrian Peterson, RB

Possible Suitors: Raiders, Packers, Cowboys

It’s somewhat understandable that the best back of his generation is still on the open market—he turns 32 in 2 days, he’s coming off a major knee injury, and is also coming off a huge contract with Minnesota that may give him and his agent an inflated sense of his value.  Again though: this guy is the best back of his generation, and produced for years behind iffy offensive lines.  Age is a major concern for the Raiders to take into account with Peterson, considering the youth of their core, but would otherwise be a great fit behind their excellent linemen.  The rival Packers would also be an interesting fit for his services, considering their inconsistencies in the running game since Ahman Green’s departure, and the Cowboys have also kicked the tires on using Peterson as a complement to their incredible second year man, Ezekiel Elliott.  In the end, though, expect the former Viking to wind up in Oakland.

 

Darrelle Revis, CB

Possible Suitors: Steelers, Patriots, Cowboys

The veteran corner struggled mightily in New York last season, and at 31, it looks like age might be catching up to the “Revis Island.”  That doesn’t mean that there aren’t any teams that might be interested in eking out whatever Revis has left in the tank.  At the top of the list are the Steelers, who always seem to be interested in secondary help.  A reunion with the Patriots, especially considering the uncertainty around Malcolm Butler, and a contract with Dallas, who lost both Morris Claiborne and Brandon Carr to free agency, are also possible.  The most likely outcome at this point seems to be retirement for Revis, but until he makes a definitive decision, there will be teams interested in his services.

 

Jay Cutler, QB

Possible Suitors: Jets, Browns

The strong-armed slinger, who was recently released by the Bears after spending 8 up-and-down years in Chicago, is the best veteran quarterback that’s still on the market.  The Jets really look like an idea fit for him, considering that the only two QB’s currently on their roster are still incredibly raw, but the team has yet to strike a balance on a deal that has good enough terms, especially duration wise, to please Cutler.  Meanwhile, the Browns could also be an option, but they would probably have to move on from the recently-acquired Brock Osweiler for that to become reality.

 

Other Transactions:

Browns trade for Brock Osweiler

The trade: Texans trade 2nd round pick in 2018 and Brock Osweiler to Browns for 4th round pick

This deal looked a lot like one that an NBA team would make—trading a somewhat valuable asset along with a player with a huge salary in what can effectively be termed a salary dump.  A lot of people are, for some reason, questioning Cleveland’s logic on this one, saying that the draft pick they got for the former Texan isn’t valuable enough to warrant taking on the QB’s exorbitant salary.  From a strictly present value standpoint, they’re entirely correct—paying Osweiler $16 million a season just to get a pick is very steep—but considering how much cap space the Browns had before this move, it makes total sense to me.  Cleveland gets a 2nd rounder and a quarterback that can compete with Kevin Hogan and Cody Kessler for the starter’s job and a player that they can move on from with little repercussions in 2018, while Houston gets a 4th rounder that’s slightly higher than what they had before.  This is a huge W for the Browns, and if the Texans are able to get Tony Romo, it might be for them, too.

 

Patriots trade for Brandin Cooks

The trade: Saints trade 4th round pick and Brandin Cooks to Patriots for 1st and 3rd round picks

It was no secret that the former Oregon State receiver was upset with his role in the New Orleans offense last season, and that New England was an interested party.  That didn’t mean I thought this deal was going to happen—Cooks is still cost-controlled for another season, and even though rookie Mike Thomas seemed to emerge as Drew Brees’s top target, having a player as explosive as Cooks certainly couldn’t hurt; I’m also a lot higher on Danny Amendola, the man that Cooks will (probably) effectively replacing, than most.  That being said, though, this is a pretty good deal for both sides.  The Saints get the first round pick that they were craving, even though it is low, and upgraded the 4th that the gave to New England to a 3rd.  Bill Belichick’s team gets a speed threat that they haven’t had since Deion Branch was in his prime, and allows the Patriots to have the most dynamic, and possibly most dangerous, set in the whole league (Cooks and Julian Edelman at receiver, Rob Gronkowski and the newly-acquired Dwayne Allen at tight end, and either James White or Dion Lewis at running back), certainly giving Tom Brady a shot at another championship without giving up too much for a player that could effectively be a #1 receiver.  This is a deal that really benefits both teams.

2017 NCAA Tournament Preview

It’s that time of year again—March Madness has begun!  This year’s tournament field is as balanced as ever, as there are tons of teams that seem to have the potential to have the potential to make it all the way to cut down the nets in Glendale.  No one team stood out in the regular season, but many teams flashed their mettle and owned their respective schedules, while conference tournaments saw many teams that underwhelmed during the regular season crash the Dance, and they come in hungry to continue their unlikely run towards a national championship.  The unpredictability generated by this year’s match-ups will surely make for a very intriguing, and very dramatic, tournament this year—here’s my detailed outlook on how I think it’ll play out:

 

East Region

First Round

#1 Villanova def. #16 Mount Saint Mary’s

The number one overall seed will not lose in the first round.  Moving on.

 

#8 Wisconsin def. #9 Virginia Tech

In this bloggers humbled opinion, both of these teams are woefully under-seeded, but it is their inconsistencies that put them both in this position.  The Badgers have a really good team, led by Nigel Hayes, which thrives in high-leverage situations, but their shooting problems saw them lose five in a stretch of six games.  The Hokies, meanwhile, have established themselves as an offensive power under the creative mind of Buzz Williams, but their defensive struggles in a very talented ACC caused them to falter in a lot of games that they should have won.  So which team overcomes its liabilities to move on?    Personally, I feel that the trio of star Badgers—Hayes, Ethan Happ, and Bronson Koenig—will provide Greg Gard’s group enough points to overcome the potent Hokies.  Wisco wins.

 

#5 Virginia def. #12 UNC Wilmington

UNC Wilmington gave Duke a huge scare at last year’s tournament, and the Seahawks will get another shot at knocking off an ACC power in this match-up against the Wahoos.  Both teams have strengths that match their opponents—Tony Bennett’s team is known for its stifling defense, whereas Kevin Keatts’s team runs one of the most efficient offenses in Division One—so I expect this one to be a very grinding, taxing game for both sets of players, in the vein of how traditional 5-12 match-ups are.  In the end, though, I think it’ll actually be Virginia’s underappreciated offense, which, though maddeningly slow and inconsistent, has some decent potential, that’ll allow them to sidestep an upset and advance to the next round.

 

#4 Florida def. #13 Eastern Tennessee State

The Gators seem to be one of the more low-key high seeds in the past decade—they aren’t nearly as flashy as their conference brethren, Kentucky, but they’ve overcome some injuries and streaky shooting to establish themselves as the best team in the SEC after the Wildcats while being incredibly efficient on both ends of the court.  Their opponent, the Buccaneers, are very much opportunists.  They thrive on aggressive defense and quick possessions, forcing lots of turnovers and committing many of their own.  Tournament play is more suited to teams that are more balanced and composed, so that in and of itself favors the Gators, and that’s not even counting the talent gap that Mike White’s team has over his opponents.  Florida moves on.

 

#6 Southern Methodist def. #11 Southern California

From a scoring perspective, these teams are both pretty similar—they have great balance throughout their line-up, and when their shots are falling from deep, they’re almost impossible to stop.  That’s where the similarities end, though.  The Mustangs have been incredibly consistent all season long, and in addition to their efficient scoring, they’ve proven to be a great rebounding team that also has a very disciplined defense.  The Trojans played well enough towards the beginning of the season deserve a spot in the final 68, but they are also incredibly streaky— they lost five of their last eight regular season games, with their only victories coming at down-and-out Washington and Washington State— and if they aren’t hitting their shots from outside, they don’t really have any tried and true way to beat their opponents.  After beating Providence, they should suffer a pretty big loss against Tim Jankovich’s sqaud.

 

#3 Baylor def. #14 New Mexico State

The Bears started the season without any votes in pre-seasons polls, which made some sense, considering they lost their two best players to graduation.  Even without them, though, Scott Drew’s crew managed to maintain a top-20 defense in the notoriously high-scoring Big 12, and with the versatile Jonathan Motley leading the offense, they’ve been inconsistent, but they’ve managed to put up enough points to put up a fight against some of the better teams in the country.  The Aggies, meanwhile, have been the model of consistency—they’ve made the tournament in five of the last six years—and have a solid trio of guards, headlined by point guard Ian Baker, that propelled them into the tournament.  NMSU’s shooting ability might give Baylor some trouble, and for that, this one might actually be pretty close, as far as 3-14 games go, but I think that the physicality that the Bears have will be too much to overcome, and that they escape with a W.

 

#7 South Carolina def. #10 Marquette

This is going to be a really good game.  On one side we have the Gamecocks, a team with one of the best defenses in the country, yet has lots of trouble scoring.  They are led by their vociferous coach, Frank Martin, and their star forward, Sindarius Thornwell.  On the other we have the Golden Eagles, which are the best 3-point shooting team in the nation and have an incredible transition game, but their defense can be… pretty atrocious.  Each team’s strength corresponds with the others—so who will win?  In the end, I think Martin’s tournament experience, and the fact that this is basically a home game from the Gamecocks, will allow them to advance.

 

#2 Duke def. #15 Troy

The Trojans are not a bad team, by any means—there’s no place for bad here in the tournament, and besides, with leading scorer Jordon Varnado (16.8 PPG, 53.5 FG%), the Sun Belt team actually has a decent offense—but they finished in the middle of the pack in a middling conference and are coming up against a Blue Devil team that is heating up at the right time, having just won the ACC Tournament in relatively convincing fashion.  This one should be somewhat high scoring, but I don’t expect Mike Krzyzewski’s crew to have much trouble.

 

Second Round

#1 Villanova def. #8 Wisconsin

Both of these teams have core players that excel in the big time and coaches that understand what it takes to get big wins in the NCAA tournament, having both been coaches for teams that made it to a national championship game.  So in virtually every facet of the game on paper, neither team has an advantage, meaning it will all come down to execution, and, if this season’s results mean anything (they do), that means that there’ll be one clear winner.  Josh Hart leads the Wildcats on to the Sweet 16.

 

#5 Virginia def. #4 Florida

Neither of these teams come into the tournament with any sort of momentum—the Gators struggled to put away Mississippi State before losing three of their last five regular season games, and Virginia was 5-5 in its last ten.  The problem with both squad’s was their ability to put the ball in the basket.  The thing is, though, is that Virginia was, with the exception of Virginia Tech, playing some decent defenses in their games, whereas the Gators were not.  And now they have to play the best D in all of basketball.  I can’t see them having much success.  Tony Bennett’s team takes this one.

 

#6 SMU def. #3 Baylor

Both of these teams are really similar in a lot of ways—they’re both from Texas, they’re both incredibly physical, and they both have ferocious defenses.  The difference maker in this one for me will be the match-up between Baylor’s star, Motley, and former Duke transfer, and SMU’s leading scorer, Semi Ojeleye; whichever one can provide his team with more of a spark on the offense will allow his team to pull this one out.  I think the victor of that battle will be Ojeleye, and SMU advances to claim the title of the best college team in Texas.

 

#2 Duke def. #7 South Carolina

South Carolina will definitely have deserved their victory in the previous round, but the reasons that I felt they had an advantage over Marquette are virtually gone in this game—the Blue Devils have a far better defense than the Golden Eagles, and their offense is more balanced, and explosive, than anything the Big East school could offer.  Besides that, having the game in South Carolina doesn’t give the Gamecocks much of a “home court” advantage over a team from North Carolina.  The Dukies advance.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Villanova def. #5 Virginia

This is a game where I think that the Wahoos lack of an offense will really come back to bite them—‘Nova doesn’t have an elite defense, but they are a model of consistency on the offensive side of the ball, and I think that Jay Wright and his coaching staff will have a game plan that helps neutralize some of Virginia’s ferocity.  At least, enough to propel the defending champs into the next round without having to sweat too much.

 

#2 Duke def. #6 SMU

Both of these teams entered the tournament on a high note, having both won their respective conference tournaments, and it’ll be exciting to see the rhythm that each team will surely be in after reaching this point.  The Mustangs defense is very good—good enough to lead them to an upset—but I ultimately think that their offense relies a bit too much on their shooting.  If they’re not 100% on, the Blue Devils will be able to capitalize, through their own star shooters or the interior presence that is Amile Jefferson.  In the end, I just can’t see the Mustangs being consistent enough from behind the arc to win this game.  Duke advances.

 

Elite 8

#2 Duke def. #1 Villanova

A game between two elite teams with great coaches, incredible offensive firepower, and decent defenses, I think this one will come down to who can get a couple of stops when time is of the essence.  Villanova has much better defensive statistics, but they’ve struggled a bit with teams that are willing to be more physical with them, and Duke has proven that they are more than adept at shutting down offenses that revolve around efficient guard play (Notre Dame twice, Virginia, North Carolina).  For that reason, I see the Blue Devils moving on to Arizona.

 

Midwest Region

First Round

#1 Kansas def. #16 University of California, Davis

The Aggies really aren’t all that strong on the offensive end of the court, but they really figured out how to play some solid defense as the season wound down, and that which allowed them to win their conference tournament should allow them to win their First Four game.  That’s really all there is to say here, though.  Bill Self’s Jayhawks are too tall, too strong, and too deep for the the California school.  Kansas moves on.

 

#8 Miami (FL) def. #9 Michigan State

By name only, both of these teams underwhelmed a little bit—Miami had the talent to make a push for the top 4 in the ACC, but they fell to 8th and only won one tournament game before being shellacked by North Carolina, while the young Spartans were uncharacteristically sloppy with the ball and sometimes had some difficulties executing Tom Izzo’s trademark defense.  I see the Hurricanes, who are led by senior guard Davon Reed, will leverage their experience to force the Sparty into enough mistakes to allow Jim Larranaga and company to move on.

 

#5 Iowa State def. #12 Nevada

The Wolf Pack were by far the class of the Mountain West Conference, putting up lots of points in a very pro-style offensive game-plan put in place by former Sacramento Kings coach.  They have the firepower to pull off what would be a traditional upset, but their opponents, the Cyclones, have an even better one, led by senior point guard Monte Morris.  Steve Prohm’s team is also on a bit of a hot streak, coming into the tourney having won the Big 12 tournament.  For those reasons, I believe that ISU will be able to avoid the upset in this high-scoring affair.

 

#4 Purdue def. #13 Vermont

I was really tempted to pick upset here—outside of Caleb Swanigan, nobody on the Big Ten champion’s roster has really been all that impressive, and the Catamounts have the longest win streak in the country at 21 games.  There’s just one problem for them- Swanigan.  One of two human double-double’s, the big man’s strength and versatility will draw a lot of attention from Vermont’s defense, which will open up a lot of easy shots for his teammates, and even then, they still might not be able to stop the big Boilermaker.  Purdue squeaks through to the next round.

 

#11 Rhode Island def. #6 Creighton

It’s unfortunate that the committee had to pair a decent amount of the better, smaller schools together—this game is one of those cases, and Dayton playing Wichita State is another example.  The teams have had different trajectories as the season played out—the Rams were ranked in the pre-season but started incredibly slow before recovering to win the Atlantic 10 tournament, whereas the Bluejays started fast before stuttering after point guard Maurice Watson’s injury.  Ultimately, I think that injury will be too much for Greg McDermott’s team to overcome, and Rhody’s strong guard play will carry them to a first round upset.

 

#3 Oregon def. #14 Iona

Iona are actually a sneaky good 14 seed—they played Florida State tough for a half early in their season, beat MWC champion Nevada, and prevented the infamous Monmouth bench mob from making the tournament for the second year running.  They also score a lot of points, with their offense ranking 30th in the nation.  Their big issue is that they also give up a lot of points; that’s definitely not something that they’re going to be able to overcome against the Ducks, who have at least three guys that can score consistently on the Gaels small line-up, even with senior Chris Boucher.  Expect Dana Altman’s team to have an easy time here.

 

#7 Michigan def. #10 Oklahoma State

These are two of the streakiest teams of the season—both started remarkably poorly, but managed to turn up the heat as the season came to a close, with the Wolverines snagging an automatic bid by winning the Big Ten tournament and OSU winning big games against…  well…  bottom-feeding Big 12 teams.  That’s the difference between them here.  Michigan has managed to stop, and score on, teams that have more talent than them, whereas the Cowboys plateaued the Big 12’s best, losing its last three regular season games.  I expect this one to be high scoring, but also for Michigan to have a fairly easy time of moving on.

 

#2 Louisville def. #15 Jacksonville State

I disagree with the committee’s seeding of Louisville hear, but nobody can deny that the Cardinals are a force to be reckon with.  They have a vicious defense—it’s shown some leaks lately, but is the 6th best in the country, as rated by KenPom.com—and a balanced offense led by guard Donovan Mitchell.  The Gamecocks have a halfway decent offense, but they were inconsistent in the Ohio Valley Conference, and their offense is not good enough to put a scare into a team as strong and lengthy as Rick Pitino’s is.  Louisville locks up a second round place.

 

Second Round

#1 Kansas def. #8 Miami (FL)

Miami had an advantage over a young, turnover-prone Michigan State team in their first game; they’ll have no such advantage in this one.  They’ll have to work extra hard to try and get points against the disciplined Jayhawks defense, and then work even harder to prevent the electric freshman Josh Jackson from putting up 40.  In the end, I just think that Bill Self has too deep of a team for the Hurricanes to overcome them.  Kansas advances.

 

#5 Iowa State def. #4 Purdue

This game will see a clash of teams with contrasting styles—Iowa State has been fast-paced since Fred Hoiberg was head coach, and the Boilermakers concentrate more on a more methodical, inside-out type offense.  Typically, in tournament games like this, the team that is able to take better care of the basketball will pull it out.  Purdue’s turnovers allowed Arkansas-Little Rock to upset them last season, and their issues with keeping possession remain in this year’s squad, and the Cyclones’ fast pace will give them even more trouble than most teams.  ISU moves on.

 

#11 Rhode Island def. #3 Oregon

There are two reasons why this is my only real major upset—the first is that I want to see how far down my roommate, who is a die-hard Oregon fan, scrolls down on this post—and the second is that I actually think that the Rams have a shot at pulling this off.  Boucher was an integral part of Oregon’s interior presence, and while his absence doesn’t mean that the Ducks don’t have an advantage in the paint (they still do), it lessens the burden on the Rhody’s interior players and allows their guards, especially senior EC Matthews, to get penetration.  Dillon Brooks will probably have a huge game here, but I think that the Rams, who were very highly ranked as this season began, really found out how to play as a unit as the season drew to a close, and that camaraderie, and the efficient offense that they’ve morphed into, will be enough to see them pull off the win over the Ducks.

 

#7 Michigan def. #2 Louisville

For me, this one is all about momentum.  Louisville had a fantastic regular season, but they struggled towards the end of their regular season, especially against teams that had a good interior game.  Michigan’s frontcourt duo, Moritz Wagner and DJ Wilson, were a major part of why the Wolverines were able to knock off bigger, more talented teams en route to the Big 10 tournament championship.  Big Blue will still need a bit of luck from their perimeter players to get an upset here, but with the attention focused on Wagner and Wilson, I feel that they can do it.  Michigan advances.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Kansas def. #5 Iowa State

In a match-up that will surely have fans around the country salivating, the Jayhawks will have a chance to avenge their loss to the Cyclones that snapped their record-setting home winning streak.  I think that it will be a chance they take—Bill Self will have his team fired up for this one, and I think that the experience of Mason, combined with the flashiness of Jackson, should provide enough of a spark to get a victory.  If ISU can keep their turnovers low and drain around 40-45% of their shots from deep, they might have a chance, but otherwise, you can bet on the Jayhawks to overcome their conference rivals.

 

#7 Michigan def. #11 Rhode Island

This is the lowest seed pairing I have in the Sweet 16, and it’ll come in a game where the participants will have knocked off two giants of the game.  Both teams will have some distinct similarities coming into this one—they’ll both be tired from what are sure to be marathon victories, and they both have solid guard play.  The difference-maker, then, will be each team’s post presence.  In that area, the Wolverines have a distinct advantage—the pair of Wagner and Wilson both average over 10 points per game, and I think the Rams might have trouble slowing them down.  Michigan wins.

 

Elite 8

#1 Kansas def. #7 Michigan

Michigan will have made it this far on the virtue of their interior presence, and they actually have an advantage in the paint in this one, too.  The problem is that they don’t have enough wing players to contain the Jayhawks—Kansas’s top four scorers are all guards, and if any of them are afforded even a split second for an open look, they’ll tear the Wolverines apart (the four average 41% behind the arc, which is… pretty good).  John Belein has some good guards, but not enough to stop Kansas.  They’ll get into the Final Four without too much stress.

 

South Region

First Round

#1 North Carolina def. #16 Texas Southern

No offense to Texas Southern, but they are probably the least consistent of all of the 16 seeds in this tournament.  They’re squaring off against a North Carolina that was consistent enough to win the regular season title in perhaps the best league in college basketball, the ACC.  This will be no contest—the Tar Heels cruise on.

 

#8 Arkansas def. #9 Seton Hall

Both of these teams have been overshadowed by the big guns in their respective conferences—Kentucky and Villanova—but each bring something special to the table.  The Razorbacks are a force with the ball, averaging a touch over 80 points per game, while the Pirates are great at crashing the boards, finishing at 20th best in the nation in rebounds per game.  Unfortunately for Seton Hall, they tend to get sloppy a bit on both ends of the floor, as demonstrated in the fact that they allow more points per possession than they score, and that’s not something conducive to tournament wins.  The Pigs pip the Pirates to party on.

 

#12 Middle Tennessee State def. #5 Minnesota

I actually feel bad for Minnesota—Richard Pitino’s team staged a remarkable turnaround from last season to develop into one of the Big Ten’s better teams, but they ended up getting over-seeded, leading to some national criticism, and get matched up with a Blue Raiders team that has demonstrated it knows exactly how to counter the style of play that’s prevalent in the Big Ten.  This year’s MTSU team has been even more consistent than last year’s, and they definitely have the talent, and the know-how, to knock off the Golden Gophers in this one, something that I feel they’ll be able to pull off.

 

#4 Butler def. #13 Winthrop

The Eagles can certainly pull off an upset here—they’re really good at perimeter defense, and their dynamite guard, Keon Johnson, can go off at any moment.  On the other hand, while I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bulldogs this year, but it’s hard to deny the balance that they have in both aspects of the game, and they’ve managed to put things together in big games, as they’ve beaten both Arizona and Villanova.  Chris Holtmann’s team will have a tough time in this one, but I still expect Butler to bounce their opponents.

 

#6 Cincinnati def. #11 Kansas State

The Wildcats will make it through to this match-up by virtue of their balanced offensive approach and the coaching nous of former Illinois head man Bruce Weber.  The issue with Weber’s team, though, is that there isn’t really anybody that can scare the Bearcats on defense, and you can rest assured that Mick Cronin and his team’s fourth-ranked defense will find a way to nip any potential momentum in the bud.  This should be a low-scoring game that Cincy pulls out to move to the next round.

 

#3 UCLA def. #14 Kent State

If this were simply a one-on-one between stars, the Golden Flashes might have a chance in this one, as Jimmy Hall certainly has the all-around talent to match-up against famous frosh Lonzo Ball.  Unfortunately for the MAC representative, the Bruins are a whole hell of a lot deeper than that.  Outside of Ball, they have the coach’s son, Bryce Alford, and a host of frontcourt players that allowed the team to average a national-best 90.4 points per game.  This should be an easy one—UCLA won’t have any problems here.

 

#10 Wichita State def. #7 Dayton

It’s a true tragedy that these two teams are slated to play each other in the first round—they have two of the better stories in basketball.  Gregg Marshall’s Shockers are proving to be a tournament regular now, walloping team after team in the Missouri Valley Conference and thriving as a strong shooting and defensive team, while Archie Miller’s Flyers have are a jack-of-all-trades type team that is good at everything and bad at nothing.  In the end, though, I think that Wichita State’s defense is energetic enough to get stops to pull off an “upset” in this one—they’ll move on.

 

#2 Kentucky def. #15 Northern Kentucky

In a logistical sense, this is probably a dream match-up for the Norse—they get a chance to show off their incredible nickname on a national stage while squaring off against an in-state opponent.  Other than that, though, there really isn’t much to be enthused about if you’re an NKU fan.  John Calipari’s team is loaded with future lottery picks that will be way too much for their smaller neighbors to handle.  The Wildcats win in a landslide.

 

Second Round

#1 North Carolina def. #8 Arkansas

The Razorback offense is really something—they can beat you inside, outside, in a half-court set or in transition—and they’ve really been finding their rhythm as we come into tourney time.  Unfortunately for them, they’re coming up against one of the few teams that gets more offensive possessions per game than they do and scores more points per game, the Tar Heels.  That’s not even factoring in the fact that UNC has put up those numbers in what is arguably the country’s strongest conference, while Arkansas played in the meh SEC.  Roy Williams and company move on.

 

#12 Middle Tennessee State def. #4 Butler

Like I said earlier, I haven’t been overly impressed with the Bulldogs this year—they’re really good, but there isn’t one particular thing that they’re really good it.  The Blue Raiders, however, play some incredible lockdown defense—they rank 21st in the nation in points allowed per game—and they should be able to limit enough of Butler’s offense to give them a fighting chance.  If they can get some contributions from some players outside of leading scorer JaCorey Williams, I think they’re good enough to pull off this upset, and, in my opinion, they will.

 

#3 UCLA def. #6 Cincinnati

This is a quintessential offense-versus-defense match-up, and in a tournament environment, which typically favors more slow-paced, balanced teams, it would actually make sense to take the Bearcats in this one.  However, Cincy hasn’t faced a team all season that comes anywhere close to matching the amount of firepower that UCLA has on their roster.  Will the Bruins be at their high-flying best?  No, they will not.  But they’ll certainly put up enough points to get this one out of the reach of their opponents and move on to the next round.

 

#2 Kentucky def. #10 Wichita State

The Shockers have long been known as a giant-killer—in recent years, they’ve knocked off highly-ranked Gonzaga, Ohio State, Kansas, and Arizona in the tournament, usually by forcing a high amount of turnovers and relying on their battle-tested backcourt to lead them to victory.  However, with this year’s team not retaining much from those past years, and having lost all their games against so-called “elite” teams, the deck is stacked against them this season.  Kentucky will find a way to take care of the ball enough to avoid an upset and move on to the next round.

 

Sweet 16

#1 North Carolina def. #12 Middle Tennessee State

The Blue Raiders will have gotten here by relying on their excellent defense to prevent two teams that don’t really have any super-dependable scoring options from getting in a good rhythm.  The same thing cannot be said for North Carolina; Justin Jackson, Joel Berry II, and Isiah Hicks are bound to go off on any given night, and as good as MTSU are on defense, they haven’t faced a team with as many true scorers as this Tar Heels team.  UNC will move on.

 

#3 UCLA def. #2 Kentucky

This might be the best Sweet 16 game in recent memory—a battle between two of the country’s most endowed programs, both headlined by star freshmen (Ball and Malik Monk).  I was originally tempted to pick the Wildcats in this one—as much as I touted UCLA’s balance in the last round, I think that Coach Cal’s team has enough athleticism to contain most of their scorers—but the ‘Cats have had the most trouble this season with teams that push the pace, and we all know that Steve Alford’s crew will want to do that.  Besides, the Bruins have already proven that they can beat Kentucky, having done so earlier this year, in Lexington.  UCLA will win in a shoot-out.

 

Elite 8

#3 UCLA def. #1 North Carolina

Both teams have exceptional coaches, really great guard play, and some shaky defenses, especially in the paint.  That would seem to favor the Tar Heels, who could plant Jackson in the paint and pound the ball down low all day.  However, in the Tar Heels’ most significant losses—against Georgia Tech, Miami, and Duke—their opponents went non-stop on both ends of the court, forcing them into uncharacteristic mistakes that they turned into points, allowing them to overcome the onslaught of offensive options the Chapel Hill school is blessed with.  That’s an approach that I think that the Bruins can pull off well enough to carry them into their first Final Four since 2008.

 

West Region

First Round

#1 Gonzaga def. #16 South Dakota State

The Jackrabbits have been one of the better mid-major tournament teams recently—over the past five years, they’ve given big scares to Baylor (2012), Vanderbilt (2015 NIT), and Maryland (2016).  This year, however, they’re facing a Bulldog team that is simply too big, too strong, and too deep to have much of a chance.  They’ll keep it closer than the other 16 seeds, but not by much; the Zags will advance with ease.

 

#8 Northwestern def. #9 Vanderbilt

A battle of the nerds!  The Wildcats are making their first tournament appearance in history, riding on the backs of juniors Bryant McIntosh and Scottie Lindsey.  The Commodores, meanwhile, used their exceptional three-point shooting, and two clutch victories over Florida, to sneak their way into the Dance.  Bryce Drew’s team are, however, somewhat streaky with their shooting—that’s why they have 15 losses, the most ever for an at-large tournament team—and Northwestern’s defense is actually pretty damn good, ranking 34th in the nation.  For that reason, I think that the Wildcats not only make their first tournament this year, but win their first game.  Chris Collins’s club moves on.

 

#5 Notre Dame def. #12 Princeton

A battle of the lesser nerds!  Princeton had one of the greater Ivy League seasons in recent memory, going undefeated in conference play before sweeping through the conference tournament.  They’re actually pretty similar to the Irish, too—they possess the ball well, score a lot of points from three-point land, and play decent defense.  They’ve got a really good shot at a win here.  The reason that I feel Notre Dame avoids the upset, though, is Bonzie Colson.  The Tigers haven’t seen anybody like him this season, and I think that he’ll have enough of an impact to force the Irish through to the second round.

 

#4 West Virginia def. #13 Bucknell

The Bison are one of the most accurate shooting teams in the entire country, and they actually have a victory over one of the major tournament teams, Vanderbilt.  They also have a pretty decent defense that is among the best 20% in the country.  Unfortunately, they’re not only playing a defense that is better than theirs, that will be able to limit their scoring opportunities with a full-court press, but an offense that is as proficient as it is balanced, averaging 82 points per game with no one player above 14.  Expect Bob Huggins’s team to push on to the next round.

 

#6 Maryland def. #11 Xavier

Both of these teams have underachieved this year—the Musketeers, despite a great coach in Chris Mack and a solid leading scorer in Trevon Bluiett, had some troubles after sophomore Edward Sumner tore his ACL, whereas the Terrapins had issues getting scoring from anybody outside of Melo Trimble.  Ultimately, I think who wins this game will come down to a battle between those two guards, Bluiett and Trimble, and based on his performances in last year’s tournament, I have more confidence in the Maryland man to elevate his game enough to take his team to the next round.  Maryland wins.

 

#3 Florida State def. #14 Florida Gulf Coast

This one must be a real treat for Florida fans, to get to see two in-state teams duke it out in Orlando.  “Dunk City” is still in force for FGCU, and their athleticism would cause a lot of problems for teams that rely on strong defense and rebounding in the paint.  Unfortunately for them, Leonard Hamilton has built himself a team of incredibly versatile players, led by leading scorer Dwayne Bacon, that is perhaps the most athletic team in the country.  That negates any real advantage that the Eagles have on offense, and they don’t have enough skill on defense to contain Bacon and his teammates.  The Seminoles win with ease.

 

#7 Saint Mary’s def. #10 Virginia Commonwealth

It’s unfortunate that one of these mid-majors has to say goodbye in the first round of the tournament—both of them are underrated, and execute their own unique styles to absolute perfection.  That being said, the Gaels are by far the more balanced team—headlined by center Jock Landale, Randy Bennett’s team would have been a bona-fide power in the West Coast Conference were it not for Gonzaga.  Will Wade’s bunch have a chance if they can find a shooting rhythm and use their trademark press effectively, but I simply think that St. Mary’s is too deep here.  They’ll win this one.

 

#2 Arizona def. #15 North Dakota

The Fighting Hawks were the class of the Big Sky, and senior guard Quinton Hooker, who averages almost 20 points per game, is really talented.  The only problem is that he is really the only player than can match up with the Wildcats—in every other way, Sean Miller’s team are better shooters, better defenders, and generally more athletic than their opponents.  They should be able to breeze through to the next round.

 

Second Round

#1 Gonzaga def. #8 Northwestern

The Wildcats and their fans will surely be ecstatic that they’ll have made it to the second round, but I fear that it’ll be quickly dampened by the Zags.  Northwestern’s strength is on the perimeter, and the Bulldogs have proven themselves to be pretty adept at containing good guards (their wins against Saint Mary’s prove that), and I don’t think that anybody really matches up to Mark Few’s big center, Przemek Karnowski, on Northwestern’s roster.  I expect Gonzaga to ride his shoulders in a game that should be an easy victory for the top seed.

 

#5 Notre Dame def. #4 West Virginia

The Mountaineers have given really good teams fits with their “Press Virginia” defense; their biggest wins, at home against Kansas and Baylor, saw them force more than two times the amount of turnovers as their opponents.  The issue with their opportunistic style is that when they come up against teams that take relatively good care of the basketball and are good free throw shooters, they have to rely more on their inconsistent offense.  Unfortunately for Bob Huggins, the Irish team he’ll square off against is exactly that; it’ll be close, but I expect Mike Brey’s team to win here.

 

#3 Florida State def. #6 Maryland

The Seminoles have, in my opinion, been fairly inconsistent in the second half of their season, but if there is any “elite” team that epitomizes that for the whole year, it’s the Terps.  Trimble has struggled to find his shot because of how often he is double-teamed, and in big games, his supporting cast hasn’t been able to pick up the slack.  FSU has enough athleticism to contain the high-scoring Trimble, and I just can’t see the rest of the Terrapins scoring on, or stopping, any of Leonard Hamilton’s players enough to really give them a chance in this one.  Florida State wins, and it won’t be close.

 

#2 Arizona def. #7 Saint Mary’s

This one should be a really exciting game.  In the Gaels’ four losses this season, they’ve shot a combined 38% from the field, which is… not very good.  Arizona’s defense allows teams to average about 41.5% from the field, which is good, but not good enough to avoid a good day from Saint Mary’s shooters to gift them a win.  So how does Arizona avoid an upset?  By driving the lane.  That’s where they were most effective in their biggest wins, and if Landale has any weakness, it’s that he’s not quick enough to stop quick, penetrating guards.  Sean Miller has plenty of those, and I expect the Wildcats to space out their offense and take down the Gaels with speed.

 

Sweet 16

#1 Gonzaga def. #5 Notre Dame

In my heart, I feel that my Irish can pull off a victory in this game; in reality, though, I just can’t see it happening.  Mike Brey’s team will need to have a lights out shooting night to counter the absolute dominance that the Zags are sure to wreak in the paint against ND’s small frontcourt, and considering that Mark Few’s best all-around player, Nigel Williams-Goss, is a point guard, I expect at least one of the Irish shooters to struggle.  Expect Williams-Goss and the duo of Karnowski and Zach Collins to wreak enough havoc in Notre Dame’s ranks for the top seed to advance.

 

#2 Arizona def. #3 Florida State

Florida State has been significantly more talented than each of the last two teams that it’s faced; that’s not the case here.  As the Wildcats demonstrated in their Pac 12 tournament championship victory over Oregon, the Wildcats have four or five players that can both put the ball in the basket or play lock-down defense.  That isn’t to say that the Seminoles can’t do the same—they certainly can—but I think that the inconsistencies that flared up late in FSU’s season, especially on defense, will be their downfall in this one.  Arizona moves on.

 

Elite 8

#2 Arizona def. #1 Gonzaga

Yes, I recognize that the Bulldogs have already beaten Arizona this year, on a neutral floor, nonetheless.  But loss came during one of the worst 5-game stretches of the season for the Wildcats, who also lost to Butler and struggled with Santa Clara during that period.  Now, Sean Miller’s team has seen freshman star Lauri Markkanen mature into Dirk Nowtizki-lite and has also regained star guard Allonzo Trier from suspension.  Both players will give the team an offensive boost that they didn’t have in their first game against Mark Few and company, and in their recent win against UCLA, Arizona proved they can shut down a dynamic guard like Williams-Goss.  Karnowski won’t have enough offense in him to see this team on; Arizona goes home with a win.

 

Final Four

#2 Duke def. #2 Arizona

Trier versus Kennard.  Markkanen versus Jefferson.  Those match-ups are pretty much scratches in this battle of East versus West.  Guess who’s unaccounted for, though?  Yup—Grayson Allen.  The controversial star doesn’t really seem to have anybody that matches up very well with him on the Arizona roster, so he should be able to do his thing without getting in any skirmishes.  I expect him, along with youngster Jayson Tatum, to carry his team on to the championship.

 

#3 UCLA def. #1 Kansas

I could almost copy and paste my reasoning for why I think the Bruins will beat Kentucky here, but I’ll change a couple things around, just for the sake of it—Kansas is a really balanced team with a really good offense and a meh defense, but their worst games came against teams, such as Iowa State and West Virginia, pushed the ball hard on both ends of the court.  The Jayhawks will keep it a little bit closer than the Wildcats did, because I feel Frank Mason may have a couple tricks up his… shorts?  But in the end, I think UCLA will move on to the title game.

 

National Championship

#2 Duke def. #3 UCLA

Up to this point, my rationale for why UCLA has been able to win its games is because it has the athletes, and the scorers, to execute a style of play that gave its opponents the most trouble during the regular season.  Here, though, they come up against a Duke team who has actually been undone more by stronger, more physical teams— their biggest losses, for example, came against Louisville and Florida State, who both have more length than the Blue Devils.  That isn’t to say that they won’t have an issue with the Bruins— the teams that beat Duke also have shot extraordinarily well, and Steve Alford’s team led Division One in field goal percentage this year— but UCLA’s pace won’t be as big of a problem as it was for their past opponents.  They also have a more balanced attack, with Jefferson and Tatum capable of getting inside the paint to score.  That’s a major weakness for the Bruins, and that’s the reason I feel they’ll ultimately fall— this will be an exciting, high-scoring game, and one that will, I believe, end with Duke hoisting the 6th national title in program history.

Have any questions, comments, or debates about any of my picks?  Contact me here, or tweet me at here.

 

Rapid Reaction: March Madness 2017

March Madness has now officially begun, as the Tournament Committee has finally announced the full 68-team bracket for the upcoming 2017 Division One basketball championship.  Here are my initial thoughts on this year’s competition:

Of the four teams named as #1 seeds—number one overall Villanova, Kansas, North Carolina, and Gonzaga– I think the Jayhawks have the easiest road to the Final Four.  Led by Frank Jackson, they really picked it up as the season came to a close, their conference tournament loss to TCU notwithstanding, and the top seeds in their region, Louisville and the Chris Boucher-less Oregon, don’t really strike me as very intimidating.  I think that the top seed with the hardest path is probably North Carolina, because the number two seed in their region, Kentucky, is a team that was probably in competition for a top spot, and a lot of the mid-range teams—UCLA, Cincinnati, and Wichita State—have the physicality to knock the Tar Heels off their game.

In terms of at-large teams, the fabled “Last Teams In” went to Providence, USC, Kansas State, Wake Forest, and Xavier.  Of those teams, I feel like the Wildcats were the most deserving and the Musketeers the least.  Cal and Syracuse were perhaps the most notable teams to miss out.  In my home state of Illinois, there were some mixed feelings over bids.  Northwestern finally got the monkey off their back, earning an eight seed in their first tournament appearance ever, while Illinois State missed out, despite a strong resume that saw them win the regular season title in the Missouri Valley Conference.

Now, time for the good stuff: the actual games themselves.  In the East region, I can’t wait to watch the two Texas schools, Baylor and SMU, fight it out to see who gets to square off against Duke.  The winner of that game will, I think, determine the Final Four participant, and I see the Dukies pulling it out.  In the Midwest, I believe Kansas will have a fairly smooth road to the Final Four, but I think that double-digit seeds Oklahoma State and Rhode Island have the ability to make some trouble for the big boys in that region, so watch out for them.  In the South, I think that Middle Tennessee State and Wichita State were criminally under-seeded, and they have a shot to pull off some big upsets, but in the end, I feel that the top three teams will all have a fairly easy time of it here, and that Kentucky will be the one to prevail there.  In the west, I see two ACC teams, Notre Dame and Vanderbilt, as potential troublemakers for top seed Gonzaga, but the team that will eventually topple the Bulldogs will be the Wildcats of Arizona, which will give the Final Four 3-number two seeds.  In the championship, I think it’ll be match-up of Kansas and Duke, with Jayson Tatum overcoming Frank Jackson to lead the Blue Devils to their 6th national title.

These are just my initial thoughts about the bracket immediately after it was released.  Check out my full preview of the tournament on Tuesday!

2017 MLS Season Preview

The 2017 MLS season kicks off in two days, when expansion team Minnesota United FC travel to Portland to take on the Timbers.  Last season was a phenomenal one, capped off by a dramatic penalty shoot-out that saw the Seattle Sounders spoil the party for host Toronto FC.  This year looks like it will be an exciting one, as well—the addition of two new teams, Minnesota and Atlanta United FC, along with all of the new, and incredibly talented, faces that found their way to MLS this season will make the competition for the MLS Cup higher than ever.  So how will the season play out?  Here are my thoughts about what will occur in the coming year:

 

Western Conference

  1. Minnesota United FC

One of two expansion teams entering the league this season, the Loons will be spearheaded by the underappreciated duo that helped ease Orlando’s transition from the USL to MLS—midfielder Kevin Molino and manager Adrian Heath.  They also reacquired the two players that made the club a NASL powerhouse, Christian Ramirez and Miguel Ibarra.  The problem is that… well, that’s about it.  This team doesn’t have a lot of money in compared to some of their rivals, and while they have certainly made countless shrewd moves that will pay off in the near future, this team just won’t be that good this year.

  1. Vancouver Whitecaps

Carl Robinson is a fairly solid manager that gets more heat than he deserves, and the addition of Fredy Montero to partner with Kekuta Manneh in attack will give the ‘Caps arguably the best, if not the most versatile, attacking duo outside of Toronto.  The issue is that behind them, outside of goalie and captain David Ousted, there aren’t many players that are consistent enough to really consider Vancouver to be much more than a bottom feeder this season, particularly in midfield, which is especially important in a league that is quickly increasing its talent pool.  They need to fill those massive holes in the middle of the park before they can really get back into contention.

  1. Houston Dynamo

Houston seems to be in kind of a weird place.  The man widely tipped to become their permanent manager this year, last year’s interim, Wade Barrett, was let go and replaced by former Chivas USA man Wilmer Cabrera.  They have a solid back line, anchored by captain DeMarcus Beasley and new acquisition AJ DeLaGarza, but everyone on that defense except for DeLaGarza is on the wrong side of 30.  They have a lot of young Latin talent, headlined by Mexican youth star Erik “Cubo” Torres, but none of them, Torres especially, have proven that they can perform at the MLS level.  For that reason, I expect it to take a couple years before the Dynamo get back into the play-off race.

  1. Real Salt Lake

This past offseason the Royals parted with one of the greatest players in their club’s history in Javier Morales, but with Kyle Beckerman and Nick Rimando still performing at high levels, they still have a solid core in place.  Jeff Cassar and his staff actually managed to bolster the depth and talent of the midfield after Morales’s departure, signing a new DP in Albert Rusnak, securing a midfielder on loan from Liverpool, Brooks Lennon, and bringing back former youth product Luis Silva.  None of those midfielders are real scorers, though, and that’s where I think this team is the most deficient; they lack true scoring threats.  That’s the reason I can’t see them cracking the post-season this year.

  1. Colorado Rapids

The Rapids were one of the best stories of last season, a team that rose from one of the league’s bottom dwellers to one of the most electric teams in the league.  Their defense will remain as solid as ever, even in the absence of Tim Howard—back-up Zac MacMath is good enough to start in a lot of other cities—but the reason they’ll stay below the line this year is because of their attack.  Colorado scored the second-fewest goals in the league last season, and with the departure of Jermaine Jones and no real major additions, it doesn’t seem like their attack will have enough to allow them to keep up with the teams in front of them.  A year after being among the best, they’ll fall just short this year.

  1. San Jose Earthquakes

Dom Kinnear will be under a lot of pressure this season—his ‘Quakes haven’t made the play-offs in 4 seasons—and I think that the roster additions that he and his staff made to give Chris Wondolowski a bit of a helping hand will push them over the line.  The most important part about the newbies, headlined by Florian Jungwirth and Jahmir Hyka, is that they filled holes from back to front in the San Jose squad and that they’re proven in highly competitive professional leagues.  For those reasons, count on the ‘Quakes to top the Rapids and save Kinnear’s job.

  1. Sporting Kansas City

Sporting didn’t make many changes to its well-established group this past off-season—they’ll still be marshalled by Matt Besler at the back, fronted by Dom Dwyer, and operated in the midfield by the trio of Roger Espinoza, Graham Zusi, and Benny Feilhaber.  That group alone is enough to boost Peter Vermes’s team into the play-offs, but Zusi has started to fade off as a scoring threat from his favored left flank, and so KC may struggle to get the goal-scoring they’ll need to really compete for the top.  Until they get somebody that can truly ease some of the burden off of Dwyer, they’ll be stuck in the middle of the conference.

  1. Portland Timbers

Portland is set up to be one of the league’s highest goal scorers, with speedsters Darlington Nagbe and Fernando Adi leading a very versatile attack; they certainly won’t lack for offense.  However, they might have some problems on defense—stalwart Nat Borchers is retired, captain Liam Ridgewell has struggled with some injuries, and the team never really replaced Jorge Villefana after his departure for Mexico.  If Caleb Porter can sort out this team’s back line, watch out; until then, the Timbers will have to hope that their offense can hold up their defense, and come October, that’ll be a tough ask.

  1. Los Angeles Galaxy

The biggest names from last year’s squad—Steven Gerrard, Robbie Keane, and manager Bruce Arena—are all starting new phases of their lives, but the Galaxy will be just fine, re-tooling around their remaining star, Giovanni dos Santos.  They re-upped Jelle van Damme to hold down the fort in back and added Romain Alessandrini to support dos Santos in attack.  The Galaxy aren’t as deep, and don’t have as much talent from top to bottom, as their great teams of years past, but Curt Onalfo and crew are still among the top five teams in the league.

  1. FC Dallas

Oscar Pareja’s squad won the Supporters’ Shield last season, and even though Seattle’s off-season additions give them a slight edge to win it this year, Dallas will still be a force to be reckoned with.  Javier Morales was signed away from Real Salt Lake and will deputize for Mauro Diaz until the star returns from injury, providing the team with a great veteran midfielder to keep the attack ticking.  The team also bulked up at the back by adding Hernan Grana and Anibal Chala, which allows young up-and-comer Kellyn Acosta to play his natural position in the center of midfield.  A dangerous attack headlined by newcomer Cristian Coleman completes the team.

  1. Seattle Sounders

The fact that the Sounders managed to gel so fast with mid-season signing Nicolas Lodeiro last year was impressive; that they were able to pull out a championship without their captain, Clint Dempsey, was even better.  Seattle lost a couple of important role players this off-season in Eric Friberg, Andreas Ivanschitz, and Zach Scott, but having signed younger, and arguably more talented, depth players in the forms of Harry Shipp, Will Bruin, and Gustav Svensson, Brian Schmetzer should have no problem leading this team back to the top of the conference, especially if Dempsey comes back and plays anything like he is capable of.

 

Eastern Conference

  1. Philadelphia Union

I would love to move the Union up the standings—their manager, Jim Curtin, was a stud as a center back for my hometown Fire.  Andre Blake is a future USMNT starter, Alejandro Bedoya is one of the most underrated players in the current US setup, and Kegan Roseberry has shown potential to be a steady force from right back for years to come.  Outside of those guys, though, there isn’t much that the Union can rely on, whether it’s due to age (Oguchi Onyewu, Chris Pontius), injury (Maurice Edu, Joshua Yaro), or a simple lack of talent—the team doesn’t really have a ton of proven depth, either.  Expect the Union to struggle mightily this season.

  1. New England Revolution

New England has some incredible creativity in its team—their attack could theoretically feature Kei Kamara, Juan Agudelo, Kelyn Rowe, Lee Nguyen, and Diago Fagundez, all extraordinarily talented players.  The problem is that all of those players are extraordinarily inconsistent, and if last season is anything to go by, they don’t gel well together at all.  The defense is also a bit of a question mark—the only truly reliable performer that they have is Chris Tierney, and it’s uncertain how the re-tooled backline, which sees former right back Andrew Farrell move in to center back, will function.  In what could be a make-or-break year for former Revs great, solid coach and solid man, Jay Heaps, I, unfortunately, see a break in their future.

  1. Orlando City

I loved Orlando’s hiring of Jason Kreis last season—Adrian Heath is a good manager, but Kreis is a great one with an incredible track record.  Every other move that the team has made since then, though, has been a little curious.  Putting faith in Will Johnson to man the center of midfield, despite the former Toronto FC man struggling a bit last season, and not getting him a back-up will cost them.  Trading Brek Shea for Gilles Barnes was good value, but left a hole in their defense.  All in all, this team has some decent talent, but their roster is a mish mosh of borderline starters and guys that might be better served playing in Heath’s old system.  I just don’t think the Lions will be able to find enough consistency to be good this year.

  1. Chicago Fire

The Fire have been struggling for years, but this season they should be competitive enough to make some noise in the play-off race.  They added striker Nemanja Nikolic to give speedster David Accam some help in attack and acquired midfielders Dax McCarty and Juninho to shore up the center of the park.  The Fire attack is still missing a playmaker, and there’s some questions about their defense—they have potential building blocks in Brandon Vincent and Jonathan Campbell, but the unit as a whole doesn’t inspire much confidence at the moment—so they won’t end their playoff draught, but manager Veljko Paunovic and general manager Nelson Rodriguez have this team moving in the right direction.

  1. Montreal Impact

The Impact attack will be incredibly dynamic, led by the creative force of Ignacio Piatti, who will be joined by the undervalued pair of speedster Dominic Oduro and Matteo Moncosu.  The team also has Belgian international Laurent Ciman manning central defense, so they should be fine there, as well.  I’m extremely worried about their midfield, though—captain Patrice Bernier is 37, and there really isn’t anybody that stands out on either side of the ball that I think can step up and make a real difference.  Montreal were part of one of the most incredible pair of games in play-off history against their Canadian rivals in Toronto, but that lack of real presences in midfield will see them miss out on the post-season this year.

  1. Atlanta United FC

There’s a lot of factors working against Atlanta this season—they’re an expansion team.  Their manager is new to MLS.  They don’t have an established goalkeeper.  Many of their new acquisitions haven’t played much recently as they waited for the new club to launch.  However, the attacking talent that Tata Martino and company have accumulated, headlined by striker Kenwyne Jones and attacking midfielder Miguel Almiron, makes it impossible for me to keep the ATL out of the play-offs.  Their defense, marshalled by Greg Garza and Michael Parkhurst, will be decent, as well, but not having a stable partner for Parkhurst, and the lack of a holding presence in front of the D, will keep them from the conference’s upper reaches.

  1. New York Red Bulls

Ali Curtis and Dax McCarty have both left the club, so the ball is squarely in manager Jesse Marsch’s court this season—he’ll have to really deliver to assure that he keeps his job next year.  Having Bradley Wright-Phillips and Sacha Kljestan in your team is a good start, and if his performance in Monday’s USA U-20 victory is any indication, Tyler Adams has the potential to fill, and possibly exceed, McCarty’s contribution to the team.  However, the Red Bulls didn’t really add anybody that can ease some of Wright-Phillips’s scoring burden or help steady their inconsistent defense—Aurélien Collin isn’t getting any younger—and for those reasons, I think the Red Bulls will be good, but not good enough to crack the conference’s upper echelon.

  1. Columbus Crew

Columbus was really, really bad last year—they never were able to recover from their early season drama, performing poorly at home and only picking up more points than two other teams.  Now that Kei Kamara is gone for good, though, the Crew can re-establish their efficient style and make a run at the conference’s big guns.  Ola Kamara and Federico Higuain will keep the attack ticking, Ethan Finlay will provide speed on the flanks, Wil Trapp and the underrated Tony Tchani will hold down the middle of the field, and new additions John Mensah and Zach Steffan will solidify a shaky defense.  Expect Gregg Berhalter’s crew to rebound and make the play-offs this year.

  1. DC United

United has built its brand on being solid, but not spectacular, and while this team was constructed in the same vain, it is certainly the most talented team that they’ve had in former star Ben Olsen’s tenure as manager.  Patrick Mullins and Lloyd Sam went on a tear at the end of last year, and assuming that they can regain at least most of their scoring touch from last season, the rest of the roster is all set—Bill Hamid and Bobby Boswell make a fantastic goalkeeper-center back pairing, and the midfield was bolstered by the addition of former USMNT star John Harkes’s son, Ian.  United won’t be flashy, but they’ll get the job done more often than not and crack the top three in the conference.

  1. New York City FC

Patrick Vieira’s squad definitely has some issues—there isn’t a ton of depth, and the defense will probably not win any awards anytime soon—but there’s a lot to like about this team.  They upgraded at goalie by trading for former Fire shot-stopper Sean Johnson while getting younger around maestro Andrea Pirlo in midfield.  They also added former Portland winger Rodney Wallace to an attack that already boasts one of the best strikers (David Villa) and young wide players (Jack Harrison) in the game.  Their D won’t be steady enough to see them topple Toronto at the top of the conference, but you can certainly expect that the Blues to make some noise in their attempt to do so.

  1. Toronto FC

Almost nothing has changed from the team that lost last year’s MLS Cup, a game they arguably deserved to win—squad member Will Johnson is the only loss—and that’s certainly a great thing for Greg Vanney and company.  If anything, this squad is slightly stronger, with new signings Chris Mavinga and Victor Vazquez pushing the 11 returning starters for playing time.  Of course, it also doesn’t hurt when you have three of the league’s best, and biggest, players in Sebastian Giovinco, Joy Altidore, and captain Michael Bradley.  With little turnover and lots of talent and motivation, Toronto will certainly be the team to beat in the East.

 

Playoffs

Eastern Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

LA Galaxy over San Jose

Portland over Sporting KC

Conference Semifinals

Seattle over Portland

FC Dallas over LA Galaxy

Conference Final

FC Dallas over Seattle

 

Western Conference

Conference Quarterfinals

Atlanta over DC United

Columbus over New York Red Bulls

Conference Semifinals

Toronto over Atlanta

NYCFC over Columbus

Conference Final

Toronto over NYCFC

 

MLS Cup

FC Dallas over Toronto

 

Awards

MVP: Sebastian Giovinco, Toronto FC

Coach of the Year: Gerardo Martino, Atlanta United FC

Rookie of the Year: Ian Harkes, DC United

Newcomer of the Year: Hector “Tito” Villalba, Atlanta United FC

Surprise of the Year: Javier Morales, FC Dallas

 

Rapid Reaction: Super Bowl LI

What started as a bland, boring match-up turned into a game for the history books, as the New England Patriots completed the biggest comeback in Super Bowl history with a 34-28 overtime victory over the Atlanta Falcons.

Things started off incredibly slow—there was no scoring in the entire first quarter—but things got going quickly in the second.  New England was driving, but Patriots running back LeGarrette Blount had the ball stripped by Atlanta rookie linebacker Deion Jones, and when Atlanta recovered, the Falcons went on an incredible run.  Falcons stars Devonta Freeman, who scored the team’s first touchdown, and Julio Jones had their way with the Patriots defense, and while the legendary Tom Brady was effective, he wasn’t quite able to crack the young Atlanta D.  That D was able to crack him, though, as on the team’s deepest first half drive outside of the one that culminated in Blount’s fumble, Brady was picked off by cornerback Robert Alford, who returned the ball 82 yards for a touchdown.  While the Pats were able to tack on a field goal before the half, they still found themselves down 18 points, which, even at that time, would have been the biggest lead ever overcome in the history of the Big Game.

The hole got bigger in the third quarter, when Tevin Coleman plunged in to give the Falcons a 28-3 lead.  It seemed as if the Falcons were left for dead.  But Brady, who wound up finishing with a Super Bowl-record 466 yards passing, was having none of it—he led his team down the field to get a score in before the end of the quarter, and then kept up the momentum by getting a field goal on the first drive of the fourth quarter.  The Patriots defense came up big, forcing the league’s MVP, Matt Ryan, to fumble the ball and give it ball to Brady, who responded by quickly tossing a touchdown to Danny Amendola and calling a gutsy play for a two-point conversion.  The Falcons had a chance to put the Patriots away on their next drive, as they were still up 8, and an incredible sideline catch by Jones seemed to do just that.  However, after a sack and a costly holding penalty, Brady and company got the ball back.  They drove swiftly and efficiently down the field, capping their drive with a one yard plunge by running back James White, who had a Big Game-record 14 catches on the day, and a two-pointer by Amendola to tie the game.

The game went to overtime for the first time in Super Bowl history, and when the Patriots won the toss, they elected to receive.  The Falcons wouldn’t see the ball again.  Brady, who was named MVP for the fourth time in his five Super Bowl wins, marched his team down the field, and when White dove past the goal line to secure the victory, all of New England went bananas.  The Patriots were champions again.

Angels in the outfield? YES indeed!

just1mike's Blog

…Michael’s 17th birthday at Wrigley and the Cubs are going

to the World Series…

It’s happening and Michael wrote about it in his April 10th post after returning from Arizona where he took in two spring training games,

Growing up a Cubs fan, I have been used to heartbreaking baseball. It seemed like every year I would always say, “there’s always next year.” Well, I am glad to say that next year is NOW.

You are so right Michael, NOW is here and your Cubbies are headed to the World Series after a Game 6 impressive win at Wrigley Field.

Cubs postseason play kicked off on a very special day, and that was Michael’s 17th birthday on October 7th. That night was the first playoff game at Wrigley against the San Francisco Giants and Michael’s family was there to honor him and cheer on his beloved team. It was an emotional night…

View original post 279 more words

2016-17 NBA Preview

Last year’s NBA season was one for the ages- the game’s transition from a big man’s game to a perimeter player’s game continued, as shooting records fell left and right.  We said goodbye to three legends of the game in Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant, and Tim Duncan.  We watched the Warriors break the record for the most wins in a season and roll through the play-offs, only to fall apart in the Finals and give LeBron James and his Cleveland Cavaliers a very unexpected title victory.  So what will this season have in store?  Here are my predictions for the upcoming season:

 

Eastern Conference

Atlantic

Celtics (#1)

Raptors (#3)

Knicks (#7)

76ers

Nets

The Warriors were the clear winners of this past off-season, having convinced Kevin Durant to come to the Bay Area, but I think that the Celtics came in a close second.  They had two departures from their roster last season- Jared Sullinger and Evan Turner- and replaced them with guys that I feel are better for the team in Al Horford and Jaylen Brown.  They also added Demetrius Jackson to an already loaded backcourt, cementing their status as the deepest team, and the best team, in the Eastern Conference.  That depth will be key to keeping the division title away from the Raptors, who have a very talented team themselves and pushed the Cavaliers in the conference finals last season, but have question marks at power forward and back-up point guard.  As for the Knicks, I don’t think they’ll be the super team that somebody envisions, but they have enough talent spread around their roster to snag a play-off spot in a conference that has a lot of talent, but not a lot of consistency.  The bottom of the division will see the Nets and the 76ers battle for the honor of being the worst team in the conference- the Nets have Brook Lopez and a bunch of role players, and Philly has a bunch of young, unproven guys and a frontcourt that doesn’t have enough minutes to accommodate all of their big men.  I have a little but more faith in the potential, so I think the Nets finish last, but neither team will be very good.


Southeast

Hawks (#5)

Magic (#6)

Wizards

Hornets

Heat

Both the Hawks and the Magic made some curious moves this past off-season; Atlanta signed Dwight Howard after seeing Al Horford leave for Boston, then traded away Jeff Teague for a draft pick in Baylor forward Taurean Prince.  The Magic, meanwhile, got fleeced by Oklahoma City- though they acquired a good player in Serge Ibaka, they gave up a potential scorer in Victor Oladipo and two versatile big men in the forms of Domantas Sabonis and Ersan Ilyasova.  Nonetheless, these two teams are the best in their division- despite the strange transactions, they have some really good talent, decent depth, and fantastic coaches- and I expect both of them to be hovering around the middle of the pack when the middle of the season arrives.  The Wizards have the stars to be a middle-of-the-pack team in this year’s Eastern Conference, and Scott Brooks is a vastly underrated coach, but the discontent surrounding John Wall and Bradley Beal seems a bit more serious than what everybody is letting on, and I think that that will be enough to derail a team that was once on the verge of being counted among the elite.  Moving downward, the Hornets proved last season that they were basically just Kemba Walker, Nicholas Batum, and a bunch of adequate role players.  Both of those guys are good, but they would need all the role players to have great seasons for the team to even think about a post-season berth, and I just can’t see that happening.  As for the Heat, they seem like a team prime for a re-build: they lost their franchise player in Dwayne Wade, decided not to risk playing Chris Bosh, overpaid Wade’s back-up, and have a roster that centers around Hassan Whiteside, a seemingly disgruntled point guard, and a few versatile small forwards.  They have little depth and little top-flight talent, and I expect them to struggle.

 

Central

Cavaliers (#2)

Pacers (#4)

Pistons (#8)

Bulls

Bucks

The defending champions don’t really look all that different from what they did last season- if anything, they’re better, having added the wily veteran Mike Dunleavy Jr. from the rival Bulls.  Their older roster isn’t as tailor-made for the regular season as Boston’s, but I think that they have more than enough talent to snag the #2 seed.  The Pacers, though, have a pretty good chance to give them a run for their money.  Firing their coach aside, I think they made some very smart moves in acquiring Jeff Teague and Al Jefferson, and getting Thaddeus Young and Kevin Seraphin ain’t half bad, either.  It gives them a more experienced, and more versatile (Jefferson’s signing means increased responsibilities for Myles Turner), roster, and the idea of Teague and Paul George running things in Indiana is a scary thought indeed.  Detroit doesn’t have quite enough firepower to match the two big-guns in the division, but with Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson at the center of a very nuanced offensive game-plan, there will be enough offensive efficiency, and defensive strength, to push the Pistons into the post-season.  As for my Bulls, I think that the Wade-Butler-Rondo trio has potential, and I think that each of those guys will put up good numbers this season.  However, as a whole, this roster isn’t assembled to play coach Fred Hoiberg’s system, and after a while, other teams will figure that out and shut Chicago down enough to send them home early for a second straight season.  At the bottom, the Bucks are a team that has a very bright future, as Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker will be stars one day.  However, this league is very backcourt, and shooting, oriented, and that is where Milwaukee struggles the most, and unlike the Bulls, they don’t have enough team-wide talent to (somewhat compensate) for it.

 

Western Conference

Southwest

Spurs (#2)

Rockets (#3)

Mavericks (#8)

Pelicans

Grizzlies             

It will sure be strange to see the Spurs without Tim Duncan on the court with them, but this team has been Kawhi Leonard’s team since he won the NBA Finals MVP, and while Duncan’s defense and leadership will certainly be missed, Pau Gasol is one of the most ideal replacements for the legendary forward, and the rest of the Spurs’ core remains the same, so they’ll still be a dominant force in the West.  Houston was a relative mess last year, but without Dwight Howard around to provide a major distraction, James Harden should be able to function fairly freely, and that means lots of high scoring games.  And with the way that the Rockets are built, without Howard and with Mike D’Antoni as the head coach, high scoring is a good thing; expect the Rockets to get back into the conference’s elite.  The Mavericks were major beneficiaries of the Warriors signing Kevin Durant- it allowed them to acquire their new star, Harrison Barnes, and a center in Andrew Bogut that will allow Dirk to play the perimeter game he is more suited to without subtracting the team’s only paint presence.  These moves will allow the Mavs to sneak into the final seed.  Anthony Davis and the Pelicans have a chance at making the post-season if they can get some solid play from their guards, but with Jrue Holiday out as Lauren Holiday prepares for brain surgery, they’ll have to depend on an inexperienced Buddy Hield and the underwhelming duo of Tyreke Evans and Lance Stephenson, and that just won’t be enough.  The Grizzlies are kind of in the same boat as the Wizards- they have the talent to make it to the play-offs.  But instead of conflict bringing the Griz down, their style of play will- they depend too much on their frontcourt, which includes the injury-prone Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons and the slowing Zach Randolph, and that just won’t fly in a league that focuses so much on shooting and perimeter play.

 

Pacific

Warriors (#1)

Clippers (#3)

Suns

Lakers

Kings

It’s hard to imagine how anybody is going to stop the Warriors this season- their 4th option is one of the most versatile players in the game, and despite having a ton of money tied up in their best players, they still have some phenomenal depth, with David West and JaVale McGee being among the team’s more savvy signings.  They should be able to win the conference’s weakest division with ease.  The Clippers, too, shouldn’t really have a terribly hard time in winning a lot of games in this division- for all the claims of Blake Griffin’s inconsistency, Chris Paul’s decline, and the lack of bench depth, this team have one of the league’s best starting 5’s, and with one of the era’s best coaches at the helm, they’ll certainly be able to get the most out of their limited bench options and cruise to a high seed for the post-season.  I loved what Jeff Hornacek was able to pull off with the Suns in his first season, and I’ve had very high hopes for them up until this season.  They definitely have a good mix of young and veteran talent, but the type of talent that they have is very strong in specific areas- slashing guards that can’t shoot very well and big, strong frontcourt players- and very weak in others, such as shooting and small forward.  On other words, they aren’t very balanced, and in the West, you aren’t going to make it very far if your talent isn’t evenly balanced, and sadly, that just isn’t the case in Phoenix.  They still should be a significant amount better than the Lakers, though- the Lake Show will be playing without Kobe Bryant for the first time in forever, and they’ll have to adjust for so many things to compensate for his absence.  However, they are definitely a team on the rise, considering their bright coach and plentiful young talent.  That’s more than the Kings can say- outside of DeMarcus Cousins, there really isn’t much to look forward to.  They’ll be incredibly bad, and perhaps even worse than that if Cousins ends up leaving Sacramento.

 

Northwest

Trailblazers (#4)

Thunder (#5)

Jazz (#6)

Nuggets (#8)

Timberwolves

This is the best division in basketball, by a long shot.  I considered who to put in the play-offs for a few days, trying to find any way I could to put every team here into them, but I just couldn’t find a place for the T-Wolves.  Bringing in Tom Thibodeau will pay off in the long run, as he will help their very young and talented team develop into a very dangerous, well-rounded one, but that youth will come back to bite them just enough to keep them on the outside looking in for this season.  They’ll be held off by the Nuggets, who have seemed to be one piece away from being a solid play-off team since they acquired Danilo Gallinari and co. for Carmelo Anthony.  I’m a little worried about their backcourt, because a lot of pressure will be on 20 year-old Emmanuel Mudiay and 19 year-old Jamal Murray, but I feel like their veteran coach, Mike Malone, will help ease any fears of those guys failing to excel, and the team’s versatile forward crop, headlined by Gallinari and Kenneth Faried, will help Denver reach the post-season for the first time since 2013.  At the top of the division, I expect Portland and Oklahoma City to battle it out for the lead.  Ultimately, I think Portland will prevail- while I feel that OKC is slightly more talented, even after Kevin Durant’s departure (that Ibaka trade did them wonders), Portland is essentially keeping the same team it did last year and replacing Gerald Henderson with a better version of him in Evan Turner, and I think that consistency will be the difference in the regular season.  Sandwiched in the middle will be the Jazz, who added some veterans in the forms of George Hill and Boris Diaw, guys that not only improve the roster’s quality, but give their young players, like Derrick Favors and Dante Exum, guys to look up to in order to figure out how to get over the proverbial play-off hump, something I feel that team is capable of this year.

 

Playoffs

Eastern Conference

First Round

Celtics def. Pistons

Cavaliers def. Knicks

Raptors def. Magic

Pacers def. Hawks

The Celtics should be able to make fairly short work of the Pistons- Andre Drummond will cause them some problems, but I think a combination of Al Horford and Kelly Olynyk will do enough to allow Boston’s backcourt to get going, and Detroit will have no answer for that.  The Cavaliers are in a smilar boat- Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis will get theirs, but a strong defensive effort from LeBron, Iman Shumpert and Tristan Thompson will be enough to allow guys like Kyrie Irving and JR Smith to get going and win the series.  The Raptors are simply too good, and have too much play-off experience, for the Magic to have any chance of beating them; that series could be the most lopsided one out of all the first round match-ups.  In the final series, I think things will get very competitive, especially with Jeff Teague going up against his old team, and I think that Teague still has enough in him to lead his new club past his old protégé and into the next round.

 

Conference Semifinal

Celtics def. Pacers

Cavaliers def. Raptors

The Pacers will give the Celtics a lot of trouble, because the C’s strength, in relation to many other teams, is depth, and Indiana is probably the best equipped to handle the different match-ups that Brad Stevens can throw at them.  That being said, Boston has four guards that are capable of being game-changers at any time, and I think that each of them has themselves a game, and those “games” will allow Boston to move on.  In the other series, a match-up of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals, I see the result being perfectly similar to last year’s, as well- the Raptors use their explosiveness to give Cleveland some trouble, but in the end,      the talent of LeBron and Kyrie win out in the end.  The Cavs will move on.

 

Conference Final

Celtics def. Cavaliers

This will be the more competitive of the two conference finals, and could be one of the best pre-Finals match-ups in recent memory.  The Celtics have a talented array of guards, but the Cavaliers can counter with their strong batch of forwards.  The Cavs arguably have more star power, whereas the C’s have more depth.  Both teams have young, forward-thinking coaches at the helm.  It’ll be a back-and-forth series throughout, and for this one I’m going to lean against the way I have, and will, for rest of the play-offs, which is towards the depth.  Boston has just enough talent to negate Cleveland’s, and it’ll be the match-up issues caused by their versatile roster that will see them through to the Finals.

 

Western Conference

First Round

Warriors def. Mavericks

Spurs def. Nuggets

Jazz def. Clippers

Thunder def. Trailblazers

As much as I respect Dirk Nowitzki, I think that the Warriors will obliterate the Mavs- they’ll target Nowitzki on defense, and the team will either have to suffer watching the big German getting beat up on defense or pull him and sacrifice offensive efficiency.  A simple series for Steve Kerr’s men.  In contrast, the Spurs may have somewhat of a tough time with Denver- San Antonio plays a more controlled, methodical game, whereas Denver tries to utilize more of its athleticism, which could hurt San Antonio’s older team.  In the end, though, I think the Spurs have enough to pull it out.  The next series will see the first of two wins by lower seeds in the first round, as I expect the Clippers to continue their play-off woes and drop out early to the Jazz.  Utah has a nice mix of talent and athleticism, youngsters and veterans, and the different things they can throw up at a surprisingly defensive-challenged team will boost them into the next round.  The other first round upset will see the Thunder topple the Clippers.  As I’ve said countless times, talent (mostly) trumps depth come play-off time, so while the Blazers may have more players that they can throw at Russell Westbrook and company, OKC’s new face of the franchise will blow by Damian Lillard and lead his team on to the next round.

 

Conference Semifinal

Warriors def. Thunder

Jazz def. Spurs

Of course, it just makes perfect sense that there be a Kevin Durant Series in the play-offs, and I think that’s exactly what will happen (I didn’t mean to plan it this way, I swear!).  Even though the Thunder have more depth than they did when Durant was on the team, depth doesn’t matter as much as talent in the play-offs, and well, Durant, Stephen Curry, and their buddies definitely trump any of the depth that the Thunder added this year, and they should be enough to get the Warriors on to the next round in an emotionally-charged series.  In the other conference semi-final, the Spurs are going to run into a more talented version of the team that they played in the last round, a team that will ultimately be their play-off downfall.  However, I don’t necessarily think it will be Utah’s athleticism that will propel it to the next round- rather, it will be the shooting ability and veteran savvy of two of its most experienced players, Gordon Hayward and Joe Johnson, that will allow the Jazz to pull off the upset.

 

Conference Final

Warriors def. Jazz

I feel bad for the Jazz.  They’ll have done so well to get this far, exceeding anybody’s expectations and giving off a very exciting vibe, only to meet a team that is just so loaded with ability from top to bottom that no amount of athleticism, or shooting, can outdo what Golden State has to offer.  Sure, Utah will give it their best shot, as they should, but this series may not be all that competitive, as far as conference finals go- the Dubs will move on to their third straight Finals.

 

NBA Finals

Warriors def. Celtics

Depth will have gotten the Celtics this far- of course, they are incredibly talented, arguably the best team, on paper, in the Eastern Conference- but the versatility of their roster, not their talent, will earn them a match-up with the vaunted Warriors.  The problem for the C’s, though, is that the Finals are a different animal than the rest of the post-season.  Golden State themselves are a perfect example of that- the Warriors steamed easily through their own conference and took an early lead in the Finals last season, but then the Cavaliers’ stars took over the series, the Warriors’ own big names faltered, and the Larry O’Brien Trophy was headed to Cleveland.  The Cavs did a phenomenal job of shutting down Stephen Curry and continuing Klay Thompson’s rough streak of games, but now with Durant in the mix, they’ll become even harder to stop than they were last year.  And remember, they set the NBA record for wins last year, and were only one win away from back-to-back titles.  Boston is good, but they aren’t on Golden State’s level- the Warriors will take it in 5, and all of the super-team haters can commence their groveling.

 

Individual Awards

MVP: LeBron James, SF, Cleveland Cavaliers

Rookie of the Year: Kris Dunn, PG, Minnesota Timberwolves

Defensive Player of the Year: Anthony Davis, C/PF, New Orleans Pelicans

6th Man of the Year: Dante Exum, Utah Jazz

Coach of the Year: Nate McMillan, Pacers

Derrick Rose and Abuse in Sports

I am a proud Chicago sports fan.  In many years, that is a quite disappointing fandom, this one included.  The White Sox drastically under-performed expectations.  The Blackhawks got knocked out of the play-offs in the first round for the first time in forever, and they’ve started this season very poorly.  The Cubs have been perennially bad for a very, very long time (though are good this year, which is a major conflict in my White Sox-leaning heart).  The Bears had a horrible 2015 season, and have started off this new-year on a bad note by losing in very ugly fashion.  The Bulls missed the play-offs this past season, too, but initiated a roster turnover this off-season to help improve, and the featured move of that turnover was the trade point guard Derrick Rose.

Back when the Rose trade was announced, I wrote a post honoring his time in his hometown uniform, about how great he was for the city, both on and off the court.  Now, I am starting to regret some of my words.  Part of that regret can be tied back to Rose’s comments about the city not “appreciating” him, or on how the New York team that he finds himself on now is the most talented one he’s ever been on.  But most of it stems from the current rape accusations that Rose and two of his friends are facing in Los Angeles.

For those of you unfamiliar with the case, a woman filed a civil suit against Derrick Rose about a year or so ago, with the complaint being that the point guard and two of his close friends drugged her, trespassed into her apartment and gang raped her while she was unconscious on Aug. 27, 2013.  The case has been in the trial phase for about a week and a half, and has garnered much national media attention for the drama that seems to be unfolding within the courtroom.  (For more in-depth information on the case, please click here).

Rape is one of the biggest problems in our society.  7% percent of all rapists are convicted, which is a very, very small number considering the seriousness of the crimes.  Many of those rapes go unreported, for a variety of different reasons from the understandable embarrassment that a victim might feel to the truly horrifying reason of being afraid of victim shaming (which, sadly, happens all too often).  Other cases are thrown out due to “lack of evidence,” or some other preposterous rationale that gets the criminals out of punishment.  Some stories are genuinely made up, sure, but jumping to the conclusion that the person accusing someone of rape isn’t telling the truth is a horrible, horrible mistake to make, considering how many of them are real cases and how many rapists do not end up with proper punishment.

When it comes to sports, many athletes, unless they are strangely reviled, are often given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to making a major mistake.  People assume that because they are athletes, because they frequently in the public eye, that they can do no wrong.  When athletes are accused of committing a crime, no matter how heinous, many thousands of loyal fans will often leap right in to defend the athletes, and some continue to defend them for a long period of time, regardless of what evidence has been presented.  For all that I know, Rose may completely innocent of rape.  His accuser may be someone attracted to Rose who didn’t get her way but still wants to be in the spotlight.  However, I can’t find myself believing that that is the case.  There have been some very viable attempts by Rose’s defense team to discredit Jane Doe’s reason for accusing the point guard of rape, but considering the negative publicity that she is sure to be getting from many of Rose’s most vocal supporters, I feel that she is probably not in it for money or fame, but for justice.  Rose’s vagueness in answering questions concerning the night being brought into question is also pretty telling for me- he created more questions about the turmoil surrounding him.  Rumors about an out-of-court settlement of been floating around, as have rumors of when the grand jury in his case will actually convene; regardless, it really hurts to think that one of my hometown’s biggest stars may have just thrown away his career, especially deciding to engage in something is terrible as sexual abuse.

Sadly, many athletes besides Rose have been accused of some form of abuse in recent years.  Among them, former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was filmed on tape hitting his wife in an elevator before dragging her out of it.  In December of 2014, professional basketball player Jeffery Taylor was suspended by NBA Commissioner Adam Silver for 24 games after being convicted of domestic assault.  The following month, former pro baseball player Milton Bradley’s appeal of his sexual assault charges was dropped, meaning that he had to serve jail time.  In June 2015, retired NFL safety Darren Sharper pleaded guilty to drugging and raping three women in different cities across the country.  Los Angeles Kings defenseman Slava Voynov faced deportation to Russia after being convicted of a misdemeanor violence charge against his wife last fall.  These cases, along with Rose’s, have received a lot of media attention.  Some people have complained that they have received too much attention, that the focus on the athletes takes away from attention that should be being paid to the people getting abused that won’t make the headlines.  While they are right, I think that there is something else that these people should be complaining about- why professional leagues, and their teams, are not going above and beyond to combat this abuse.

Professional athletes are some of the most prominent role models in the entire world.  For that, they are held to a higher standard when it comes to personal conduct.  To me, that means that the leagues that these athletes are a part of, and, as an extension, the teams in that league, must also commit to a higher standard of conduct.  Pro sports are a vehicle for many, many great things- the NFL is relatively racially sensitive.  Both the NFL and MLB have been big promoters of breast cancer research.  The NBA has NBA Cares, which runs many local programs for underprivileged kids.  The NHL is working hard at improving the safety of hockey players, from youth levels on up.  However, when many of these professional leagues have been faced with crimes involving abuse, many of them have not done the right thing.  Some leagues have made mistakes with punishment- NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has made comments denouncing the acts of Voynov and the (supposed) acts of Patrick Kane, the Chicago Blackhawks star who was accused of rape before last season, but Bettman permitted Kane to attend the Blackhawk training camp and allowed Voynov to practice with his team while being investigated (the fact that the Kings were open to Voynov practicing in the first place is bad in its own right).  NFL commissioner Roger Goddell’s punishment of Ray Rice was not properly considered and was eventually overturned.  A problem faced by all pro sports leagues, though, particularly the MLB, which has had many former players convicted of crimes involving abuse, is that, just like most major media/advertising entities today, they done poorly with condoning crimes involving abuse, and making awareness of abuse and abuse a major talking point.

That isn’t to say that sports leagues and teams have done nothing to combat the problem of abuse, but considering the seriousness of abuse, it’s one that hasn’t been addressed enough.  Chicago sportswriter Jon Greenberg made a fantastic point in his article on the situation surrounding Kane and his rape controversy last year.  He wrote, “The Blackhawks could help combat sexual assault before it begins by funding workshops, clinics and speeches for this age group. They can help talk to the kids about sexual assault when they’ll still listen.”  Obviously, with Kane’s case being sex related, Greenberg’s thought is a little more specific than targeting all forms of abuse, but, in the grand scheme of things, it’s a great idea.  D.A.R.E programs are instituted in elementary and middle schools across the country- including my hometown, a suburb of Chicago- to teach kids about the dangers of drugs.  So why can’t there be a more widespread, and more impactful, curriculum on abuse, better than the Robert Crown programs that have such limited influence?  And why does it have to be just one pro organization, a team that may happen to have a player under investigation for sexual assault- all professional sports leagues can make a point to prove that this is a major issue.  And shouldn’t adults be targets of a similar message, too?  Just like there are major campaigns involving not drinking or texting while driving, there should be more commercials, and more athlete spokespeople, speaking up about the terrors of abuse, and encouraging victims to seek help, and providing information on how victims’ friends can assist in efforts to make sure the victim recovers and the abuser gets his/her proper punishment.  Considering how big of an issue abuse is, and considering how high profile athletes are, bringing light to this issue will make people more vigilant, and more informed, about abuse, which is something that our culture, in or out of athletics sorely needs.

10 Bold Predictions for the 2016-17 NHL Season

The 2016-17 NHL season gets underway later tonight, with four games on the slate.  This season promises to be an exciting one, with tons of players on new teams and lots of young talent flooding the league.  For that reason, I felt I’d do my first ever NHL post.  I feel like I need to preface this before I start: I am not a super duper hardcore hockey fan.  When my dad, a former college hockey player, screams at the TV screen at players, one third of the time I have absolutely no idea what he’s talking about.  But I know enough about hockey to know what a good team looks like and what a bad team looks like, which players are on the verge of superstardom and which players are over the hill.  So, without further adieu, here are my 10 bold predictions for the upcoming season:

 

  1. Neither the Penguins nor the Sharks will make this year’s finals

Of course, part of the reason that I can’t see this happening is because of how incredibly difficult it is to repeat great success the year after a Stanley Cup appearance.  There are other reasons, though, why last year’s two best teams won’t be duking it out come June 2017.  The Penguins got phenomenal goaltending from Matt Murray last post-season, and while I think he’s the real deal, his clutch play, along with that of Trevor Daley and Bryan Rust, are things I don’t think will carry over to this year.  As for San Jose, their aging core put together a phenomenal year, but with all the extra miles on their legs, from both their postseason run and the World Cup of Hockey, I see them fading out a little earlier this season.

 

  1. The Nashville Predators will win the Stanley Cup

This isn’t exactly all that bold, but considering that this is a team that has never won a division championship, and has never made a conference final, it kind of is.  Pekka Rinne is no longer elite, but he is still pretty good, and the strong defense in front of him got even better by replacing outgoing captain Shea Weber with PK Subban.  Ryan Johansen is a young, impressive number one center, with wily vets Mike Fischer and Mike Ribiero manning the lower lines.  James Neal is in his prime, and Filip Forsberg is about to enter his.  They have a coach in Peter Laviolette that has taken a team on the verge of greatness to a Stanley Cup final.  In short, I think the Preds are ready to finally break their play-off jinx and win their first Cup in franchise history.

 

  1. Max Pacioretty will win NHL MVP

This is where things really start to get… well, bold.  The Canadiens missed the play-offs last season, with Carey Price out injured for much of the season and controversy surrounding PK Subban’s place in the locker room.  With Price healthy and Shea Weber in for Price, things should be (relatively) back to normal, and Montreal will want to prove that last year was just a fluke.  Both Price and Weber will have something to do with that, of course, but it’ll start with the team’s captain, Pacioretty, to set the tone for the rest of the team.  The shifty left winger played in all 82 games last year for the first time in his career, and with improvements around him on multiple fronts, I expect Pacioretty to have a career year and help lead his club back where they belong.

 

  1. Todd McClellan will win Coach of the Year

The Oilers were the second-worst team in all of hockey last season.  They finished only one point above the lowly Maple Leafs, and that’s saying something.  However, it also doesn’t tell the full story- they were a young, rebuilding team missing its best player for most of the season.  Now, while they aren’t exactly going to be elite this year, they do seem to have a nice, balanced roster.  They have a couple solid defenders in Adam Larsson and Oscar Klefbom, some great veteran wingers in Milan Lucic and Jordan Eberle, some young up-and-comers headlined by Jesse Puljujarvi, and perhaps the best 1-2 center punch in the league in Connor McDavid and Ryan Nugent-Hopkins.  It will be up to McClellan to put it all together, and considering his savvy at handling all the chaos in San Jose, I expect him to be up to the task.

 

  1. Dylan Strome wins Rookie of the Year

Patrick Laine and Auston Matthews are going to be the popular picks for this award- and why not?  They’re both going to be battling McDavid for the mantle of the best young player in the game over the next few years.  But picking them wouldn’t exactly be bold.  So I’m going to go with Strome, who will be getting some great advice from veterans Martin Hanzal and Shane Doan on how to make it in the NHL.  I realize that he didn’t exactly have the best pre-season in the world, but with the Coyotes not expected to do a whole lot, the young center will have time to develop his game and perhaps make the ‘Yotes slightly more dangerous than what they currently appear to be.

 

  1. The Devils will make the playoffs

The major news that the Devils were involved in this off-season saw them win one of the summer’s major blockbusters, picking up star scorer Taylor Hall in exchange for Adam Larsson.  Despite that, not many people have high hopes for this team making the post-season, especially because trading Larsson does leave them a little bare on the back end.  I understand those fears, but I also think that Corey Schneider is an underrated, and incredible, goalie that can make up for some of the defense’s shortcomings, and that adding Hall to a top-six forward group that includes Adam Henrique, Kyle Palmieri, and Adam Zajac will make New Jersey a true offensive threat for the first time since Ilya Kovalchuk went back to Russia.  The Devils will make the play-offs as the number one wild card in the East and give the Lightning all they can handle.

 

  1. The Kings will not make the playoffs

I’m a Blackhawks fan, so perhaps I’m a little bit biased here, because the Kings have been the ‘Hawks biggest threat to establishing a true dynasty.  But there’s something that just feels off about this year’s Kings.  Their offensive core is aging, so much so that the team captain, Dustin Brown, was effectively stripped of his job because of his ineffectiveness.  It doesn’t help that Marian Gaborik is out for a while, either, or that their bottom two lines don’t seem to be all that good.  Drew Doughty and Jake Muzzin form a very good top defensive pairing, but the people behind them are either aging or generally ineffective.  Jonathan Quick is starting to show a little bit of the reality that he is human.  Throw this team into a division with the best team in its conference, the defending conference champs, and an up-and-coming Edmonton team, and you’ll see that the Kings will have to fight with the Central teams for a wild card spot, and that’s a battle they cannot, and will not, win.

 

  1. The Wild will end up with a top-5 pick

The Wild have seemingly always had the talent to be a very good team in the extremely competitive Central division, but always seemed to be missing something, whether it be a definitive style of play, an elite goaltender, or a true number one center.  This year, they seem to have a lot of holes.  They signed Erik Staal to be their number one center, but he proved last year in New York that he might be better suited for a number three role at this point in his career.  Their number two center, captain Mikko Koivu, is aging, and was unproductive relative to his ability last year.  So was Jason Pomenville.  So was Ryan Suter.  So was Devan Dubnyk.  Their bottom two lines and defensive pairings are made up of relatively inexperienced or ineffective players.  I think that Zach Parise and Charlie Coyle are two of the most underrated wingers in the game, but two wingers alone aren’t enough to make a team, especially when they’re in a division that is beyond loaded.  They’ll have a steep drop-off this year.

 

  1. The Stars will not trade for a goalie; the Flyers will

Dallas has been in the market for a goalie since around 2009, when they ditched former starter Marty Turco in favor of Kari Lehtonen.  Lehtonen is a perfectly capable goalie, but he can be extremely inconsistent, and he isn’t at the elite level that recent Stanley Cup-winning goalies have been at.  The team brought in former Sharks and Blackhawks goalie Antti Niemi to give Lehtonen some competition, but he seems over the hill.  Despite the position being the only glaring hole on an otherwise solid roster, the Stars don’t have as many young assets to flip as the Flyers do, and while I think that Steve Mason is better than Lehtonen, he, too, is inconsistent, and I can see Philly trying to grab Brian Elliott from the Flames or Tuukka Rask from the Bruins to help bolster their team’s defense-first mentality.

 

  1. Jonathan Drouin will lead the league in points

I felt that Drouin was being a little bit pretentious when he and Lightning GM Steve Yzerman engaged in a semi-public battle over the young winger’s place on the big club- I didn’t know much about him, but didn’t think that his game warranted his confidence.  While I still think his actions last year were stupid, he does have a phenomenal scoring touch, as he caught fire in the play-offs, helping carry the team in the absence of star man Steven Stamkos.  With Stamkos healthy again, the prospect of Drouin pairing up with him, or Tyler Johnson, or Nikita Kucherov, or a combination of those men, for a full season, is truly frightening.  As such, I predict that Drouin takes a huge leap forward and out-duels Joe Pavelski for the league-lead in total points.

 

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlantic

Lightning (#2)

Canadiens (#5)

Panthers (#6)

Red Wings (WC #2)

Bruins

Senators

Sabres

Maple Leafs

 

Metropolitan

Capitals (#1)

Islanders (#3)

Penguins (#4)

Devils (WC #1)

Hurricanes

Rangers

Flyers

Blue Jackets

 

Western Conference

Central

Predators (#3)

Stars (#4)

Blackhawks (#5)

Blues (WC #1)

Jets (WC #2)

Avalanche

Wild

 

Pacific

Ducks (#1)

Sharks (#2)

Oilers (#6)

Flames

Kings

Coyotes

Canucks

 

PLAYOFFS

Eastern Conference

First Round

Capitals def. Red Wings

Penguins def. Islanders

Lightning def. Devils

Canadiens def. Panthers

 

Conference Semifinal

Capitals def. Penguins

Lightning def. Canadiens

 

Conference Final

Capitals def. Canadiens

 

Western Conference

First Round

Ducks def. Jets

Sharks def. Oilers

Predators def. Blues

Blackhawks def. Stars

 

Conference Semifinals

Sharks def. Ducks

Predators def. Blackhawks

 

Conference Finals

Predators def. Sharks

 

Stanley Cup

Predators def. Capitals

 

 

 

On Colin Kaepernick and the National Anthem Protests

Today marks the start of Week 2 of the NFL season.  In a few hours, the Bills and Jets will start off a week which I expect to have a lot of exciting, competitive games, just like last week.  I also expect there to be some pre-game protests of the National Anthem, just as there was last week.  The man that started the protests, who has been at the forefront of the controversy surrounding them, is San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick.  This has become a polarizing topic of conversation throughout the country, and as a dedicated sports fan, I figured that this would be a conversation worth entering.

So I’m just going to come right out and say it: in the moments after I first heard about Kaepernick’s protests, I thought that I disagreed with them.  I thought that the initial explanation that he gave for his actions was shallow.  I felt that the movement that developed from Kaepernick’s actions did so in poor taste–protesting the flag and song of our country, especially on, and so close to, the anniversary of 9/11, felt like an insult to me.  I felt that Kaepernick, and the other players that followed his lead, should be suspended, or fined, or something- anything to convey the idea that disrespecting the Anthem and the flag would be deemed unacceptable.

The thing about this, though, is that who I am does not give me a real right to determine whether these protests are “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad.”  I am not a minority in this country.  I have never had to worry about to worry about being discriminated against based on the color of my skin.  I have never had to fight against drastic economic and social disadvantages.  I have never been called anything derogatory.  I have never had to face unwanted, and unwarranted, stereotypes of thugishness or violence.  I don’t have any fear of any type of interaction with a law enforcement officer.  There are many other struggles that I do not have to deal with on a daily basis, just because I was born white.  In short- my race, and my life experiences, do not make me qualified to judge Kaepernick and his colleagues for what they’re choosing to do.  The large majority of people that are lambasting Kaepernick for his actions- either publicly or privately- also have no rationale to go off of when they insult the quarterback.

If anything, I feel like I, and more people like me, should be showing Kaepernick some more respect for what he is trying to do: what he feels is necessary to start a conversation on the systemic racism that permeates our society.  And, if I’m going to be honest, he’s probably doing it in the most effective way that he, in his position as a major public figure, possibly could- demonstrating during the National Anthem is having a much deeper effect than any statement he could make ever would.  For that, Kaepernick deserves recognition–even if he is trying to gain some personal attention for himself, which many of his critics claim he is, his willingness to stand up to the inequalities in our country, despite some very vicious backlash, deserves to be commended for the attention that he is trying to bring to such a major problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong here: there is a part of me that is still uneasy about the method of protest Kaepernick is pursuing.  I find some irony in the fact that the fact that he says that this country, as a whole, represses the minority population while the President is a minority himself.  I wholeheartedly believe that the majority of police across the country are benevolent people, doing their best to serve and protect the people of this great nation, and to disrespect them in pursuit of a goal when it doesn’t seem to be necessary doesn’t strike me as very smart.

Ultimately, though, I know that I need to work to get past my unease, because the reality is this: I know that there is a serious problem in our country in that people of color have to worry about so many different issues that white people like myself have never taken the time to consider.  I know that, despite measures put in place to prevent it, that racism is still a major problem, and that in many instances of interactions between authority figures, from the more obvious ones of police officers to the less obvious ones of prosecutors who push for longer sentences for people of color, judges that refuse to acknowledge such blatant displays of discrimination, and business professionals who prefer the “old white boys’ club” to hiring any minorities, even if they are more talented or qualified.  I know are problems that minorities face that I will never fully understand, problems that have a much deeper meaning to those that actually have to experience them.

So please: even if you disagree with what Kaepernick is doing, do not lose track of what he is saying; do not ignore it or brush it off, either, because what he’s saying is the most important part of his protest.  The problems that he is discussing cannot be denied.  Minorities in this country are too often shafted in nearly every facet of their lives.  So while I, personally, will stand and proudly sing the National Anthem whenever I hear it, for all that it embodies for this great country, we need some serious change to make sure that everyone can have a chance to feel that pride.

My opinion here doesn’t necessarily condone what Kaepernick is doing, but I think (I hope) that it doesn’t give much credence to his detractors, either.  Whether that makes this a thoughtful opinion or a weak one for being “indecisive,” I don’t know.  I also don’t know what I, myself, or anybody, really, can do to effectively initiate the change that I called for above- that’s why I didn’t specify what exactly can be, or needs to be, done to combat the issues Kaepernick presents.  So: if anyone has any opinion on this piece, any background on the protests or on the injustices that minorities face, constructive thoughts on how to address the issues at hand, or any other information to give relative to the situation, please, comment below or contact me here.  I’d love to have a conversation with you.

2016 Champions League Preview

On August 25th, the draw for the 24th edition of the modern Champions League took place.  As usual, it was a drab affair, filled with smartly-dressed coaches, players, and executives closely scrutinizing little plastic soccer balls stuffed with the names of some of the biggest, and most ambitious, clubs in all of Europe.  Of course, it was just a precursor to what is the most competitive club soccer tournament in the world, in which victory is sweeter than every tournament except for the World Cup, that starts in just a couple hours.  So which team will pull off a victory in this year’s tournament?  Will Real Madrid be the first repeat champions since 1990, or will rivals FC Barcelona knock them off?  Will English giants Arsenal finally find some European success, or will their kryptonite, Bayern Munich, hoist the trophy?  Will PSG make their breakthrough, or will Juventus prevail?  Or will it be one of the underdogs that comes out a winner?  Here’s my prediction of what will happen in this year’s UCL:

 

Group A

PSG

Arsenal

Basel

Ludogorets

As much as I would love to see my beloved Arsenal place first in the group to avoid another round-of-16 loss, I have a lot of respect for PSG manager Unai Emery, and think that his astuteness in-game, combined with the dearth of talent he has at his disposal in the midfield, will allow the Parisians to trump the Gunners for first place in the group.  Arsene Wenger’s team should feel relatively safe in second place, though- Basel is still the toast of Switzerland, but doesn’t have the game-changers (Mohamed Salah, Breel Embolo) that it used to, and Ludogorets will have to overcome some unbelievable odds to make some real noise in this tournament.

 

Group B

Napol

Benfica

Besiktas

Dynamo Kyiv

Napoli lost its best player, Gonzalo Higuain, to Italian rivals Juventus, and that will greatly damage their prospects of being a true contender.  But the Blues, who are led by Lorenzo Insigne and Dries Mertens, have enough firepower to stay ahead of their Portugese rivals, who have a fantastic team spirit but lost their stars Renato Sanchez and Nicolas Gaitan.  Besiktas are fronted by the wily Ricardo Quaresma and the underrated Oğuzhan Özyakup- their tough style of play could cause some problems for Benfica, but ultimately, I think that the Black Eagles don’t have enough depth to move on.  Kyiv have one true stud in Andriy Yarmolenko but not much else- they’ll work hard, but will drop out of European competition without much of a whimper.

 

Group C

FC Barcelona

Manchester City

Borussia Monchengladbach

Celtic

This will be the best group, by far.  Celtic have bulked up by adding Brendan Rodgers and long striker Moussa Dembele to the fold, but they still won’t come close to matching the talent that is in the group.  Barca and Man City are pretty evenly matched on paper, and they both have strikers that have been on fire (Luis Suarez and Sergio Aguero), fleet wingers (Neymar and Raheem Sterling), and some stars capable of producing magic (Lionel Messi and David Silva).  In the end, though, I think that Barca’s depth, combined with what I believe will be a strong desire from Luis Enrique to upstage his mentor’s return to Catalonia, will allow the Blaugrana to top the group with the Citizens tight on their tails.  ‘Gladbach is a dangerous team- I wouldn’t be surprised if they upset one of the top two teams and moved on to the knock-out stages, but on paper, I don’t think it’s super plausible.

 

Group D

Bayern Munich

Atletico Madrid

PSV

Rostov

Bayern are blessed with the deepest squad in all of football- any player that is from Germany, has played in Germany, or is an elite superstar has the potential to be reeled in by the Bavarian giants- and the immense talent that comes from this depth will propel them to the top of the group.  Atletico is in the midst of a slight change in its roster makeup and hasn’t looked super sharp to start the season, but Diego Simeone and Antoine Griezmann should pick them team up enough to avoid the Russian champs, Rostov, and move on to the knockout round.  As for the Dutch giants PSV, led by two De Jongs (Siem and Luuk), as well as Mexican star Andres Guardado, they are a good team, but better suited for the Europa League than this group.  Seeing Rostov move on would be a great treat for the country, and fans of the underdog, but their European inexperience will see them out quietly.

 

Group E

Tottenham

Bayern Leverkusen

CSKA Moscow

AS Monaco

Spurs landed themselves in a fairly tricky group- Leverkusen are a better team than people realize, CSKA is perhaps the most talented team in Russia, and AS Monaco add a rejuvenated Radamel Falcao to a team that knocked North London rivals Arsenal out of the knockout stages a mere two years ago.  That being said, Mauricio Pochettino has built a deep and dynamic squad which should have enough within them to top the group.  I see the Germans, led by Mexican striker Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez, placing second on goal differential over CSKA, who have a solid team headlined by captain Igor Akinfeev, but the Russians have struggled in virtually every European competition as of late, and while this squad is exceptionally talented, I expect them to blow at least one game to cost them a place in the knockout round.  As for Monaco, I really like them, but outside of Joao Moutinho, I don’t think that anyone in their midfield can really match up to the other teams in their group.

 

Group F

Real Madrid

Borussia Dortmund

Sporting CP

Legia Warsaw

Los Blancos will be looking to defend their title, and with their two stars, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, flying high after leading their teams to extraordinary performances in the European Championships, I expect them to be one of the major contenders.  Ronaldo’s old club, Sporting, and the German giants Dortmund will be left two fight it out for the second spot.  Both teams underwent some serious change in the transfer market- Sporting has upgraded their frontline by adding Joel Campbell and Bas Dost, but they lost their player of the year, Joao Maria, to Inter; Dortmund, meanwhile, have lost key cogs Mats Hummels and Henrikh Mkhitaryan while adding Ousmane Dembele and resigning Mario Gotze.  In the end, I think that Dortmund’s fast paced style while be enough the Portuguese, and they’ll move on.  Warsaw are far and away the best team in Poland, but they don’t have the talent or the depth to match up with some of the continent’s biggest teams.

 

Group G

FC Porto

Leicester City

Club Brugge

FC Copenhagen

The Portuguese giants lucked into having a fairly easy group, where their closest competitor is defending Premier League champions Leicester, who are making their debut in the tournament.  The Hector Herrera-led squad should make it to the next round with ease.  In my opinion, the Foxes should, too- a counterattacking style is perfect for the early stages of the Champions League, and I think that Claudio Ranieri’s team has more talent than Brugge, and therefore should be able to hold them off for the second spot in the group.  Copenhagen, who seemingly make the tournament every year but never make much noise, won’t simply be placeholders this year- in an easy group, they have a chance to move on- but I can’t see them really taking advantage of that chance.

 

Group H

Juventus

Sevilla

Lyon

Dinamo Zagreb

Despite losing one of their biggest names, midfielder Paul Pogba, the Old Lady has still managed to upgrade their squad, signing Miralem Pjanic and Gonzalo Higuain from rivals Roma and Napoli, respectively, while also managing to snag young Croatian phenom Marko Pjaca.  They will certainly be the toast of this group.  Next up should be Sevilla, who have been better performers in the Europa League in recent years, but will manage to overcome the losses of Grzegorz Krychowiak and manager Unai Emery by relying on new signing Ganso and loanees Samir Nasri and Salvatore Sirigu to make it to the knockout stages.  Lyon, led by the fleet Alexandre Lacazette, have struggled in Europe in recent years, so while they have the potential to top their Spanish rivals, I don’t see them doing it.  Zagreb have a chance to advance if they can continue to make their home ground a fortress, but the rest of the group has too much talent for that to be a reality.

 

Strongest Group: Group C

I think that this is a tighter contest than people realize between Group C, which features Pep Guardiola’s return to his Catalan roots in Barcelona, and Group E, which is arguably deeper from top to bottom.  That being said, overlooking a group that has two of the giants from Europe’s two biggest leagues, an up-and-coming  German team, and the legendary Scottish champions, for the honor of being named strongest group would be just plain wrong.

 

Weakest Group: Group B

No offense to Benfica, who won the Portuguese championship last year over their arguably more talented rivals, Porto, but they are probably the weakest group winner there will be.  Combine that with the facts that Napoli aren’t really a force to be reckoned with outside of Italy (and sometimes that isn’t even the case), Dynamo Kyiv aren’t as strong as they used to be, and Besiktas has never really performed in Europe… well, let’s just say this isn’t the best collection of teams in the tournament.  Very impressive in their respective countries, but typically unable to translate that to European success; at least now they’ll all have a chance.

 

Dark Horse: Borussia Monchengladbach

They got placed in the toughest group of the draw, and will have to overcome the teams that I think are the champions-elect of the two toughest domestic leagues in the world in Barcelona and Manchester City, so their progression is unlikely.  But if Andre Schubert’s team is able to pull an upset over one of those two giants, watch out.  The Foals found form at the end of last season and seemed to have carried it over to this year, if their destruction of Young Boys is any indication, and their deep squad, led by the electric Thorgan Hazard, will be buzzing with confidence if they are able to move on.  This confidence could enable them to knock off one of the game’s giants.

 

Champion: Bayern Munich

Having already picked Manchester City as the Premier League champion in my preview of the EPL, I was tempted to pick them to cast off their European burdens and when The Trophy with the Big Ears; their form thus far has been delectable, and Pep Guardiola has vast amounts of experience in the legendary championship.  However, I expect Guardiola’s old club, Bayern, to walk away as champions- it seems like the German giants have a squad that is better suited for new manager Carlo Ancelotti’s style than it was for Guardiola’s, and they’ll have time to work out the kinks in the group stage, where only Atleti will give them problems.  Once they figure it out, I expect Ancelotti to use all of Bayern’s incredibly deep and talented team to pull out the 6th Champions League title in club history.

2016 NFL Preview

In less than an hour, the 2016/17 NFL season will kick off in a rematch of last year’s phenomenal Super Bowl match-up between the champion Denver Broncos and runner-up Carolina Panthers.  Each team was arguably the best in their conference the whole year through, and were that they played for the championship was very fitting.  However, some major defections from both teams- Peyton Manning, Brock Osweiler, and Danny Trevathan for Denver and Josh Norman for Carolina- has, perhaps, made it easier for some challengers to snatch the conference titles from the holders and battle for the big prize: a Super Bowl.  Who’s going to win that big prize this season?  Here’s my thoughts on how it will all play out:

 

Regular Season Standings

NFC

NFC West:

Cardinals (#2)

Seahawks (WC #1)

Rams

49ers

Last year, the Cardinals were only one game away from the Super Bowl, on their deepest play-off run since Kurt Warner was the quarterback, before running into the rampaging Panthers.  However, it seems like Bruce Arians and his staff seem to get the most out of his squad than anyone not named Belichick, and I expect them to do so again this season, holding off the rival Seahawks for first place.  The ‘Hawks will be pretty good themselves, but the uncertainty in the running game, and the corresponding increase in pressure on Russell Wilson, will cause Seattle to end up as a wild card team for the second straight season.  The Rams and 49ers, meanwhile, will again be two of the worst teams in the league- they both have star running backs and a couple of good defensive players, but also have limited talent throughout the roster and very inconsistent coaching staffs.  Los Angeles’s defense is a little better, so I give them the edge, but I don’t expect much from either of those two teams.

 

NFC North:

Packers (#1)

Vikings

Bears

Lions

The Vikings gave the Pack a real run for their money last season- second year quarterback Teddy Bridgewater and rookie Stefon Diggs provided nice compliments to star running back to Adrian Peterson, and Aaron Rodgers struggled without Jordy Nelson on the field.  Now, however, with Nelson back on the field and Bridgewater out for the year, and maybe longer, with a gruesome knee injury, Green Bay doesn’t have a team in the division that can compete with them on either side of the ball, which is why I think that they’ll claim the division, and the number one overall seed, with relative ease.  Minnesota will still fight for a play-off spot, but without Bridgewater, I just don’t see it happening.  As for the Bears and Lions, they are teams in the midst of transition.  The Bears massively upgraded their offensive line and front seven, while the Lions seem like they are still reeling after the sudden retirement of star receiver Calvin Johnson.  The Bears are on the up and the Lions are headed down, which is what I reflect in my standings.

 

NFC South:

Panthers (#4)

Buccaneers (WC #2)

Falcons

Saints

The Panthers were last year’s NFC champions by virtue of their explosive offense, helmed by MVP Cam Newton, and their ferocious defense.  Losing All-Pro cornerback Josh Norman will certainly sting, but Luke Kuechly and co. have enough talent to offset Norman’s departure fairly well, and with the offense gaining a new dimension with the return of the lanky Kelvin Benjamin, the Panthers should be able to wrap up their third straight division title.  Beneath them, everything is a little bit muddled- every team has some positives and some negatives.  The Buccaneers have an up-and-coming quarterback and a solid front seven, but their secondary and running game aren’t very consistent.  Atlanta has an explosive offense and a very inconsistent defense.  New Orleans has Drew Brees and Mark Ingram, and the less that is said about their defense, the better.  I think that Tampa has the most talent, and that Jameis Winston will be good enough to lead the Bucs to their first play-off appearance since 2007, but the other teams will be hot on their heels until the regular season comes to an end.  Probably the deepest division top to bottom this year (in comparison to last year, when it was Carolina and under .500 teams).

 

NFC East:

Giants (#3)

Redskins

Eagles

Cowboys

Were Tony Romo healthy, I could see this division playing out to be a really interesting one- the Cowboys would be competitive and give every team a legit shot of making the play-offs if they could simply overcome their rivals.  However, as much as I like Dak Prescott, he’s no Romo, and knowing that, I think that this division is the Giants’ to lose.  They’ve bulked up their leaky defense by signing Oliver Vernon and Janoris Jenkins while drafting the dangerous Sterling Shepard to line up opposite Odell Beckham at receiver.  While the team’s closest competitor, and last year’s division champs, the Redskins, also improved their roster by jettisoning Alfred Morris and signing Josh Norman, I simply cannot see Kirk Cousins maintaining the pace, or big-play ability, that he flashed last year.  That isn’t to say that he’s a bad quarterback- far from it- but even a slight drop off from him, combined with the team’s relatively weak linebacking core, should keep them out of the top spot and out of the play-offs.  The bottom two teams in this division will both be starting rookie quarterbacks- Prescott for the Cowboys and Carson Wentz for the Eagles- and that’s pretty much the main reason that I can see both of these teams finishing in the bottom 4 teams in the conference.  I have slightly more confidence in Wentz than I do in Prescott, though, and that fact, combined with Philadelphia’s somewhat decent defense, gives them the edge over the ‘Boys, who will finish last for a second straight season.

             

AFC

AFC West:

Raiders (#3)

Broncos

Chiefs

Chargers

The defending Super Bowl champion has missed the play-offs the year after their victory only four times in the past ten years.  Of course, not every defending champion loses the two quarterbacks that have started every game for the team since the start of the 2012 season (Peyton Manning and Brock Osweiler) and the anchor of their defensive line (Malik Jackson).  Of course, it doesn’t hurt that the Raiders drastically improved under Jack Del Rio, and seem poised for even bigger and better things this year- they bulked up the offensive line to better protect budding star Derek Carr and block for speedy running backs Latavius Murray and DeAndre Washington while also adding linebacker Bruce Irvin to make the front seven even more ferocious than it already is.  Oakland will make the play-offs for the first time since their Super Bowl loss back in 2003 (!), leaving Denver’s ferocious defense and my boy Trevor Siemian, Denver’s new and unproven starting QB (who’s from Northwestern, which is about an hour from where I live), on the outside looking in.  The Chiefs have the potential to be pretty good, too, but I don’t have a lot of confidence in an aging Alex Smith, or in a defense that will be missing the pass-rushing monster that is Justin Houston for six weeks.  Oakland and Denver are just too good for them to overcome.  As for San Diego, I think that they are the laughingstock of the NFL- yes, worse than the Browns.  Spurned by Los Angeles, having engaged in fights with Eric Weddle and Joey Bosa’s representatives while throwing money at a receiver, with only one good year, that doesn’t fit Philip Rivers’s playing style.  As much as I don’t want to see it, for their quarterback’s sake, I expect to see them struggle mightily this season.

 

AFC North

Steelers (#1)

Bengals (WC #1)

Ravens

Browns

Even though Pittsburgh won’t have Le’Veon Bell and Ladarius Green to start the season, or Martavis Bryant for the whole season, the Steelers have perhaps the easiest schedule in the division to start the season, and once they get Bell back, Ben Roethlisberger will have an embarrassment of speedy riches to utilize on offense, and I think he’ll be able to do so well enough to claim the division and the conference’s number one overall seed.  Cincinnati will give them a run for their money, though- I feel the losses of Marvin Jones and Mohamed Sanu will hurt them more than I think many people realize, but with a healthy Andy Dalton and AJ Green pairing, along with a gritty, hard-working defense, the Bengals will make the play-offs as the number one wild card.  Baltimore will be the best AFC team to not make the post-season- the return of Steve Smith and signing of Eric Weddle give them veteran leadership on both sides of the ball, and I have enough faith in Joe Flacco’s arm to get them to the play-offs.  However, against better run defending teams, I think the Ravens will struggle, and that will ultimately be their downfall.  Cleveland will continue to languish at the bottom of the division, but all hope is not lost- the front office seems like they’re on the right track now, and they should be in good shape for the future.

 

AFC South

Texans (#4)

Jaguars (WC #2)

Texans

Titans

The Houston Texans won the AFC South last year, but after an offensive implosion against the Bengals in the play-offs, they made it their off-season priority to get star receiver DeAndre Hopkins some new companions.  They largely succeeded in that quest, adding Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller in free agency and Will Fuller through the draft.  Now, the team feels like their offense is on par with their excellent defense, which should allow them to take the division without much trouble.  The battle for second place in the division should be interesting, though.  The Colts, long the division’s top dog, return Andrew Luck from injury but still have a suspect defense.  The Jaguars added a power runner and some studs on defense, but are still relatively inexperienced.  In the end, though, I feel like the Jags have more overall talent, and that talent will help them overcome said inexperience to make the playoffs.  At the bottom, while I don’t think that the Titans will be very competitive this year, the team is certainly on the rise; any team that is being built around exceptional talents like Marcus Mariota and Derrick Henry definitely should be.

 

AFC East:

Patriots (#2)

Bills

Jets

Dolphins

The Patriots lucked out a little bit in terms of their schedule difficulty while Tom Brady is serving his suspension- only the opener against Arizona looks remotely tricky for Jimmy Garopolo, and even so, I have a lot of faith in the former Eastern Illinois quarterback to adequately hold down the fort.  After Brady’s return, though, I expect the Pats to click into another gear, pulling away to easily win their division.  All the other teams in the division are capable of bigger and better things, and perhaps even a play-off win or two, but each of them has a very inconsistent aspect of their team that I think will hold them back from making the play-offs.  For the Bills, it’s the offense- there’s a lot of good players in Buffalo, but the offense is mainly boom-or-bust, and that’s hard to maintain at a rate that’ll get you into the post-season.  For the Jets, it’s their defense- it alternated between being very good and very bad, but with nobody getting any younger, I don’t see them getting any better than they were last year.  And in Miami, it’s quarterback Ryan Tannehill- he has all the attributes to be a star, but just hasn’t put it together yet.  If any of these aspects of any of those teams finds consistency, they can make a play-off push- otherwise, they’ll be left out again.

 

 

Awards/Individual Predictions

NFL MVP: Carson Palmer, QB, Arizona Cardinals

While Palmer is certainly not getting any younger, he still has his mind and phenomenal accuracy, and the supporting cast he has this year is better than ever- David Johnson is an up-and-coming star at running back, and the receiver trio of John Brown, Michael Floyd, and the ageless Larry Fitzgerald is the best in the league.  That gives Palmer, who is completely healthy to start the season for the first time in three years, a great opportunity to win the MVP while leading the Cards deep into the play-offs.

 

Offensive Rookie of the Year: Ezekiel Elliott, RB, Dallas Cowboys

This is a fairly straightforward pick.  It’s not “sexy,” so to speak, but nobody will be getting the type of usage, especially with Tony Romo out, that Elliott will, and no running back is fortunate enough to run behind the best offensive line in the entire league.  I wouldn’t be surprised if this one was unanimous.

 

Defensive Rookie of the Year: Noah Spence, DE/OLB, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Jaguars rookies Jaelen Ramsey and Myles Jack are more talented players than Spence, and probably more common picks for Defensive Rookie of the Year, but I think that Spence is the best pass rusher in the draft, and since most teams will seek to beat Tampa Bay through the air, I think that the former Eastern Kentucky man will get a lot of chances to show off his skills.

 

Best Acquisition: Eric Weddle, FS, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens secondary simply hasn’t been the same since Ed Reed’s departure.  Ladarius Webb hasn’t ever really seemed himself, and Jimmy Smith hasn’t exactly developed into the elite corner that everyone said he would be.  Enter Weddle, a wily All-Pro safety that will be hungry for wins after being stuck in turmoil in San Diego.  His presence and leadership should improve Webb and Smith’s performance as he continues his trend of dominating games, with all of this coming at a reasonable AAV of $6.5 million.

 

Worst Acquisition: Chris Ivory, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars

Look: I get that the Jaguars needed to spend their cap space this off-season.  I get that the free agent market wasn’t really all that plentiful in compared to previous years.  But signing a guy like Ivory, a running back that will steal carries for the young and underrated TJ Yeldon, a running back that isn’t much of a pass catcher, a running back that will cost over $6 million a year in a league that doesn’t value the run game as high as it used to, doesn’t seem like a bright move.

 

Coach of the Year: Gus Bradley, Jacksonville Jaguars

After all the put downs I’ve been giving Jacksonville, here’s a light in the dark- after many years of futility, GM Dave Caldwell and Bradley have done a good job of shaping this team into a kind of Seattle-lite through the free agent market (Malik Jackson, Tashaun Gipson) and the draft (Jaelen Ramsey, Myles Jack, Blake Bortles, Allen Robinson).  Bradley’s handling of Bortles has been especially admirable, and after he and Bortles lead the team to the play-offs for the first time since 2007, Bradley will be duly rewarded.

             

Biggest Surprise: Markus Wheaton, WR, Pittsburgh Steelers

Le’Veon Bell has struggled with injuries in recent seasons.  So has Ladarius Green.  DeAngelo Williams is aging, and Heath Miller retired.  Martavis Bryant is suspended for the year.  Somebody needs to step up to draw some attention away from star receiver Antonio Brown, and while Bell and Williams will still be important, I expect that all the uncertainty in Pittsburgh will give the speedy Wheaton ample opportunity to have a breakout season, and I’ll think he’ll take that opportunity and run with it.

 

 

Playoffs:

NFC

Wildcard

Giants defeat Buccaneers

Seahawks defeat Panthers

This is probably the most unheralded of all the play-off matchups, but I think it will be a pretty good one.  Neither team has a really good secondary, so I believe that it’ll be a relative shootout, but when it comes down to it, as good as I think Jameis Winston can be, he is still not at the level, in terms of both experience (duh) and ability (not so duh), as Eli Manning.  Manning and Odell Beckham will help the G-Men move on to the next round.

In a rematch of last year’s divisional matchup, the defending NFC champs take on the team from which they took their crown.  Seattle’s loss last year was down to uncharacteristic turnovers, but when they found their groove in the second half, they were nearly unstoppable, coming within a touchdown of the host Panthers.  As good as Carolina is, the Seahawks are better overall, and will be anxious to avenge their loss from last season.  Seattle moves on.

 

Divisional

Giants defeat Packers

Cardinals defeat Seahawks

The Giants-Packers match-up is a battle between two of the best play-off quarterbacks in the game, Aaron Rodgers and Eli Manning.  Both have the weapons and the know-how to pull this one out, so I think it will come down to who is able to limit the other team’s star receivers the best.  Unfortunately for Green Bay, I think that the trio of Janoris Jenkins, Eli Apple, and Leon Hall is good enough to prevent Jordy Nelson from really getting into the game, and we saw how much of a problem that was for Rodgers last year.  The Giants move on in an upset.

This game was so tough to call- I think that the Seahawks have more talent, but the Cardinals get more from their players.  Both coaching staffs are evenly matched.  Last year’s games saw each team win the game where they were the visitors.  In the end, though, I think that Bruce Arians and his staff will be better prepared than they were for last season’s finale, and without the threat of Marshawn Lynch, they can throw pass rushers at Russell Wilson and force him to make plays, which is a hit-or-miss type of thing.  I think he’ll miss just enough for the Cardinals to move on.

 

Conference

Cardinals defeat Giants

East meets West in a game to determine the NFC champ.  Both teams will come into this game coming off of relative upset victories, and emotions will be running high.  Because of that, I expect this game to be a very fast-paced one, and the team that can control the ball, and the clock, better will be able to move on.  In this case, I think that means that the Cardinals will win, since their tandem of David Johnson and Chris Johnson is better anything than the Giants can throw at them.  Bruce Arians and his squad advance to The Big Game.

 

AFC

Wild Card

Raiders defeat Jaguars

Texans defeat Bengals

I really wish that these teams wouldn’t meet in the first round of the play-offs, because it means that a team that has been in the dumps in recent years gets to make it to the post-season, only to lose their first game.  Unfortunately for Jacksonville, I think it will be them going home- the Raiders monstrous front seven will be able to limit the Jags’ running game and force Blake Bortles to beat him on their own, and while Bortles is very talented, it would be hard for any young quarterback to stand up to such a task, especially in the play-offs.  Jacksonville moves on.

Last year the Bengals absolutely tore apart the Texans, and it was mainly because Brian Hoyer could get absolutely nothing going on offense for Houston.  This year, the Texans are back and reloaded, and the offense they’ve formed is now on par with Cincinnati’s.  In the end, I think it’ll all come down to defense, and I believe that the JJ Watt-led Texans have a slight advantage in that department.  Houston moves on in a squeaker.            

 

Divisional

Raiders defeat Steelers

Patriots defeat Texans

When Derek Carr was drafted, I felt that Ben Roethlisberger was the NFL quarterback he should look up to- they are very similar physically (big, strong arms) and came into the league to very similar situations (mediocre team with great tradition, not necessarily expected to play right away but did anyways).  Now, Carr has a chance to top Big Ben.  While Roethlisberger is certainly a better quarterback at this stage of his career, Oakland’s strong defense and Pittsburgh’s weak one are the difference makers- the Raiders advance.

Bill Belichick comes up against his old protégé, Bill O’Brien, in a game to determine who makes it to the AFC championship.  I really feel like Houston can keep this one pretty close- Brock Osweiler and Lamar Miller are dynamic enough to give the Patriot defense some trouble, and the uncertainty around New England’s offensive line situation is music to JJ Watt and Whitney Mercilus’s ears.  However, this is the Patriots we’re talking about, and as competitive as the Texans can be, I just don’t think that their secondary has enough skill to truly limit Tom Brady.  The Pats will win in a low-scoring game.

 

Conference

Patriots defeat Raiders

A rematch of the infamous “Tuck Rule” game back in 2002, Derek Carr and the Raiders will have a chance to avenge the controversial win that the Patriots picked up en route to their first ever Super Bowl victory.  Alas, it just isn’t meant to be- Bill Belichick has Jack Del Rio’s number, having beaten him when he was the Jaguars head coach and Denver’s defensive coordinator, and if there’s any place where the Raiders aren’t excellent, it’s in the secondary.  That’s not a good thing when you’re facing Tom Brady.  The Patriots move on, perhaps with ease.

 

Super Bowl

Cardinals defeat Patriots

A battle between the oldest projected starting quarterbacks in the league (Brady and Palmer will be 39 and 37, respectively, at the time of the Super Bowl) and a Week One rematch.  While it’s hard to bet against Brady, especially coming off of his suspension and shocking loss to Denver last season, the Cardinal offense should have little problem picking apart New England’s secondary, and while Arizona’s defense isn’t of Denver quality, it was 5th overall in total yards allowed last season, and should be able to do enough to limit Tom Terrific to allow their offense to build a lead.  There’ll be a lot of points, and it’ll be close, but ultimately, I think Arizona will prevail, 34-27.

 

EPL Season Preview- Part 1

After a dramatic off-season that included two major tournaments (three, if you count the Olympic tournament, which is currently in progress) and many big-named players switching clubs, the 2016 Premier League Season is finally upon us.  While the EPL is arguably the deepest league in the entire world, there have to be some teams that don’t get to experience finishing up at the higher end of the table, teams that have the guts but just simply don’t have what it takes to get the glory. Here is Part 1 of my projection for the upcoming season, starting at the bottom of the table:

 

  1. Hull City

Hull City have bounced back and forth between the Premier League and the Championship over the past few years, and you would think that they would have an advantage over the two other teams promoted with them because of their previous experience in staying up.  However, the club is currently in a state of disarray- they do not have a manager, with caretaker Mike Phelan set to start the season in charge after the resignation of Steve Bruce.  One of the team’s best players, Mo Diame, left for Newcastle in the Championship, citing the possibility of a better future.  They haven’t made any major signings, and their squad is woefully thin.  I just don’t see any way that they can stay up.

 

  1. Burnley

Sean Dyche is a fantastic manager, and his disciplined style of play, and his players’ typically flawless execution of it, will give the Clarets a chance to hang around the top flight next season.  However, outside of fleet striker Andre Gray and goalie Tom Heaton, the team just doesn’t have many Premier League-level talents, and like relegation rivals Hull, have not been able to secure any signings to help bolster their campaign to stay up.  The team will enjoy the money that the EPL will give them, and the experience of playing top-flight football, then they will drop back down to the second division.

 

  1. Sunderland

It seems like Sunderland ends up in a relegation battle every season, and I don’t expect this one to be any different.  The current players have shown that they are fully capable of stepping up their game to maintain their Premier League status, but I just don’t see it happening this year.  The club is transition between managers, and while both Sam Allardyce and David Moyes are fantastic coaches, the old manager, Allardyce, has a coaching style that is better suited to a relegation right than his replacement, Moyes.  Also, the squad is woefully thin- there are only 20 first-team players on the current roster.  The defense looks very weak after the departure of Wes Brown (released) and DeAndre Yedlin (returned to Tottenham), and could get weaker if Lamine Kone completes his move to Everton.  There hasn’t been anyone signed to help ease the burden on the aging Jermain Defoe.  I just don’t think the Black Cats have what it takes to survive another season.

 

  1. Swansea

Swansea have been very popular since their arrival in the Premier League back in 2011, when Brendan Rodgers was at the helm.  Their attractive, possession-based game won them a League Cup in 2012 and has helped them maintain their longest top-flight stay in club history.  However, teams started to figure out how to overcome the Swans’ possession domination last season, and the club struggled throughout the season.  They have made moves to upgrade last year’s faltering attack, but their defense will be sorely lacking after captain Ashley Williams inevitably departs for Everton.  The team is good, but they’ll be in for a season even tougher than the one they had last year.  They’ll have just enough to stay up, but they’ll need some serious improvements if they expect to recapture the success they had when they first arrived in the Premier League.

 

  1. West Brom

The Baggies are not blessed with overwhelming talent, but are blessed with hard-working players, embodied by the aptly-named vice-captain Chris Brunt, and a manager, Tony Pulis, whose direct style is well-suited to this roster and to a relegation battle.  The team could use a couple more signings to help settle fears over the possible departures of mainstays Jonny Evans and Sadio Berahino, but with or without them, I feel that the team has what it takes to hover above Sunderland and Swansea while staying in the league for next season.

 

  1. Bournemouth

The Cherries, like their promoted counterparts, Watford, weren’t expected to do anything last season; in fact, they were favored by many to drop back down to the Championship, especially after star striker Callum Wilson went down with an injury early in the season.  However, some great managing by the young Eddie Howe, and a few brilliant results mid-season, including back-to-back wins over Chelsea and Manchester United, secured them a place in the EPL this season.  The club knew it needed to add more pieces to stay up this season, and it did so wisely by investing in solid youngsters Brad Smith, Emerson Hyndman and Jordan Ibe.  With a strengthened squad and a full season of Wilson up ahead, I expect Bournemouth to take a (small) step forward from last season.

 

  1. Crystal Palace

Alan Pardew’s Eagles got off to a flying start last season, and it looked like they may turn into real European contenders.  That was before the offense dried up, and the Eagles slumped so badly that they were close to getting really deep into a relegation battle.  The team has made some good signings- they inked Andros Townsend and Steve Mandanda to bolster a core that already includes Yannick Bolasie and Yohan Cabaye, but Bolasie might depart for Everton, and the team still doesn’t have a truly dependable striker to put an end to their scoring woes.  Palace won’t be relegated, but their year won’t be particularly exciting, either.

 

  1. Watford

Last year, the Hornets were promoted to England’s top league for the first time since 2007, and they weren’t expected to do all that much.  However, the Pozzo family had built this team up to be the crown jewel of their portfolio of three pro teams, and the club ended the season in an impressive 13th place.  The team has managed to hang on to its biggest names- forwards Troy Deeney and Odion Ighalo- and have a deep roster, with numerous players capable of filling multiple different roles and playing in different formations.  I worry slightly about overall defensive talent, and also about new manager Walter Mazzarri, who has a style of coaching that is more defensive than pragmatic.  This is why I feel that Watford will finish slightly lower than they did last year.

 

  1. Middlesbrough

Middlesbrough have been on the verge of regaining their place in the Premier League since manager Aitor Karanka took over back in 2013, and this past season finally saw the former Jose Mourinho confidant lift his team to the big show.  The team had a decent, but seemingly below Premier League quality core upon coming up to the first division, but Karanka invested wisely in some players to bolster his squad.  He got Victor Valdes and Brad Guzan to fight for the #1 goalkeeper spot, Marten de Roon and Gaston Ramirez to upgrade the midfield, and Alvaro Negredo to join the underrated Jordan Rhodes up top.  I still think they could add another defender or two to bolster their back line, but otherwise, I feel this team has enough to stick around for another season.

 

  1. Southampton

The last three years, the Southampton team has been purged of its core.  2014 saw Nathan Clyne and Rickie Lambert leave, while last summer, Luke Shaw and Morgan Schneiderlin left for Manchester United.  Both of the corresponding seasons, though the Saints responded with a fantastic finish in the league.  This year, though, with manager Ronald Koeman leaving along with Sadio Mane, Graziano Pelle, and Victor Wanyama, I think the team from St. Mary’s will finally drop off a little.  They’ll still be good enough to hang with the big boys in some games- Claude Puel is a very good manager, and his top players, defender Jose Fonte, midfielder Jordy Clasie, and striker Shane Long, are no slouches, but they don’t have the true game-changers, or the depth, to finish as high as they have the last two years.

 

  1. Everton

The Toffees are an interesting team.  They have a solid core to build off of with Romelu Lukaku and Ross Barkley, with some solid veterans like Gareth Barry and Leighton Baines in support of them.  However, over the past couple seasons, they have played below the overall sum of their parts.  They have a new owner, Farhad Moshiri, that is ready to spend, and a new manager, Ronald Koeman, that seems perfectly suited to this kind of team.  The defense seems a little shaky after the departure of John Stones (enforcements are expected, but they won’t come close to matching Stones’s talent), and I think it will take a while for Koeman to get the squad to play his style instead of the more possession-based game of his predecessor, Roberto Martinez, and because of that, I feel the blue side of Liverpool will have to slog through another mediocre season before things change around.

 

  1. Stoke City

This season will be Mark Hughes’s 4th season at the helm of the Potters, and he has drastically reshaped the team’s image from what it was under Tony Pulis.  Led by Swiss dynamo Xherdan Shaqiri, the team is incisive and attack-focused, yet disciplined at the back.  The have the talent to make a run at a spot in Europe, but sometimes too much is forced on either Shaqiri or fellow winger Morgan Arnautovic, and that makes Stoke a one man team that is easy to stop.  They need to discover cohesiveness as a team in order to really make a push towards the top, and while Hughes has assembled a very solid squad from top to bottom, with their current team balance, I just don’t think they have that yet.

 

You can check out Part 2 of this preview on my new soccer website, gunnerupdates.com