Wednesday, March 31, 2010

AL East Preview: Yanks, Rays reign supreme

If I actually find the time to write each of the next 6 days, I will be able to get in previews for every division before the season starts on Monday. I know the Yankees and Red Sox play Sunday night, but I'm doing the AL East today so it doesn't matter! Here goes nothing.

Division Champion: New York Yankees

Did you think I was going to put Boston here? Or even Tampa Bay? The Yankees won their 27th title last season and are arguably a better team on paper heading into 2010. Losing veteran World Series heroes Hideki Matsui and Johnny Damon will be the major blow to this squad, but the addition of Curtis Granderson should help soften the blow in the outfield.

Granderson is much better defensively than Damon and should use the short porch in right field even more effectively. Nick Johnson will DH in Matsui's stead and, while lacking the power of Godzilla, is an on-base machine slated to hit second and score lots of runs on extra-base hits by Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira. The Yankees infield remains untouched and one of the better defensive infields in baseball.

The Yankees also bolstered their pitching staff, adding Javier Vazquez in a trade with Atlanta. Vazquez crumbled in the second half in his last stint with New York, but he's six years older and a much better pitcher now than he was in 2004. He will be a welcome addition as New York's third or fourth starter and Phil Hughes brings plenty of potential to the fifth starter's role. Joba Chamberlain will move back to the bullpen to set up Mariano Rivera and groom himself for the closer role in the future, while Alfredo Aceves, David Robertson, Damaso Marte and Sergio Mitre will handle work in the middle innings.

Their bullpen is far from awesome, but the Yankees have starters that can go deep into games and create a bridge straight to Chamberlain and Rivera on most nights. And we've all seen how nasty Joba can be out of the pen.

Division Runner-up (Wild Card winner): Tampa Bay Rays

From the team that won last year's World Series against the Phillies to the team that lost the previous year's World Series against the Phillies. Sorry Boston fans, but this Rays team is on the rise. After a 23-27 record in the first 50 games of the season, Tampa finished 61-51 the rest of the way. That projects to 90 wins or so and they won 97 the year before, so this team has definite 100-win potential and could even win the division.

This team is filled with young talent like Evan Longoria, Ben Zobrist, Carl Crawford and B.J. Upton. To make the playoffs this season, they will need continued MVP-caliber play at the plate and in the field from Longoria and solid seasons from both Zobrist and Upton, who cannot possibly hit .241 again (or can he?). Their infield defense with Longoria, Zobrist, Jason Bartlett and Carlos Pena is also excellent and should help their pitching staff.

Speaking of pitching, this is the one area where Tampa most likely cannot compete with New York and Boston. James Shields should bounce back from a subpar season by his standards and I look for Matt Garza and Jeff Niemann to take steps forward this season as well. Youngsters David Price and Wade Davis fill out the rotation's final two spots, and the difference between 85 and 95 wins for this team may rest solely on their shoulders.

Boston Red Sox

When your division includes three of the American League's top four teams (and arguably three of the MLB's top five), they all can't make the playoffs. No one is saying the Red Sox are bad team; hard to say that about a squad that has won 190 games in the past two seasons. They will surely win 90 this year, but that may not be good enough in the AL East.

One thing I love about Boston this season is their pitching staff. Jon Lester should emerge as their ace this season, leaving Josh Beckett as one of the league's better second starters. John Lackey gives them a top three that can compete with any team in the big leagues but just like the Rays, they have question marks after their top three. Will this be the year that Clay Buchholz breaks out? Can Daisuke Matsuzaka stay healthy and regain his top form? Will Tim Wakefield's knuckeball ever stop knuckling?

Their lineup is still good, but losing Jason Bay and his tendency to pull high fly balls over the short Green Monster in left will hurt. My apologies to David Ortiz, Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis but the Red Sox lack that big home run threat in the middle of their lineup that both the Yankees (A-Rod, Teixeira) and Rays (Longoria) have. Ortiz could hit 30, but he's the only one in this lineup who can. The top of their lineup is excellent with those three, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia, but it's hard to rely on players like Adrian Beltre, Mike Cameron, J.D. Drew and Marco Scutaro for consistent contributions. And this year, that's exactly what the Red Sox are doing.

The Red Sox are still an excellent baseball team, but their lineup is not quite as menacing as it usually is. The Yankees and Rays both have pitching staffs that can neutralize the Red Sox hitters (outside of A.J. Burnett at Fenway), which is why I have those teams ahead of Boston this year. I expect to take some heat for this pick (noting my obvious anti-Boston bias), but I'm ready.

Baltimore Orioles

The O's are no threat to the division's top three teams, but they could be in 2-3 years, much like the Rays came up from the cellar. This team has loads of young talent with catcher Matt Wieters and outfielders Adam Jones and Nolan Reimold. Mix that in with veterans such as Nick Markakis, Brian Roberts and Miguel Tejada and this Baltimore lineup isn't as bad as most people think.

Their pitching staff, on the other hand, is still a way away from contention. Kevin Millwood is no Opening Day starter, but it looks like that's who Baltimore will send to the mound for their first game this year. The real intriguing pitcher to watch on this squad is Brian Matusz. A 38:14 K:BB ratio in 44 innings last season is cause for excitement and along with Brad Bergesen, David Hernandez and Chris Tillman, the Orioles have some potential in their staff for the future. They could win 70 games this season, which would be a step in the right direction after winning just 64 in 2009.

Toronto Blue Jays

Yes, they won 75 games last season. No, they won't do it again, not without Roy Halladay winning games by himself. This team will drop into the mid-60s in victories; it's just hard to overcome the dropoff from Halladay to Ricky Romero as your staff ace. Romero tailed off in the second half last season and the rest of their staff is also full of question marks. Can Shawn Marcum return to his 2008 performance level? Can Brandon Morrow become a successful starting pitcher? How do you spell Mark Rzepczynski?

Their lineup stinks too, outside of 2009 breakout stars Adam Lind and Aaron Hill. Vernon Wells is washed up as evidence by his measly three RBI in July and the Jays will need Lind/Hill-type breakout years from Edwin Encarnacion, Travis Snider or both to pose any sort of offensive threat against the deep, talented pitching staffs that reside in the AL East.

Monday, March 29, 2010

The Final Four that nobody predicted

Two #5 seeds, Michigan St. and Butler. A #2 seed that should've been a #1, West Virginia. And the #1 that everybody said was the least deserving despite having the easiest road, Duke. No wonder I predicted just one of the four participants (that's somewhat of an accomplishment, considering all the people who didn't have any).

I don't know a single person who had Butler or Michigan St. in the Final Four, but it's hard to deny that these teams earned their spots. Butler showed why they were one of the best defensive teams in the country, forcing 18 turnovers in their upset over Syracuse and shutting down Denis Clemente and Jacob Pullen in the first half against Kansas St. Clemente and Pullen finished with 32 combined points on the game, but needed 30 shots to get there.

Michigan St. has the best tournament coach in the country, but didn't have to face a top three seed on their way to Indianapolis. But they beat Northern Iowa who knocked off #1 Kansas and Tennessee who took care of #2 Ohio St. And then the Spartans took care of the Volunteers, one of the more talented teams in a stacked region despite being a #6 seed. Yes, they beat Maryland and Tennessee in the final five seconds, but you have to win games like that in the tournament.

As for West Virginia and Duke, some people may have actually predicted that. Kentucky's lack of experience and three-point shooting came back to haunt them (like I had been saying since January) and an experienced Mountaineer team took advantage. Baylor didn't box out late in the game and gave Duke way too many second-chance opportunities, which proved to be the difference (and the extra points that killed my Baylor +5 bet). If the Bears won, I would've had two of the Final Four right, no small feat this season.

But now the real question is who wins? I do think West Virginia is the best team remaining and a team I had in the title game from the start. Duke was able to get the best of a weak region and didn't have to face a tough opponent until the Elite 8, since a Hummel-less Purdue team barely counts. I'm going to stick with my West Virginia in the title game pick not just because I made it, but because they're a better team than Duke. They just can't expect the Blue Devils to be as pathetic from distance as Kentucky was.

As for the other side, defense wins championships and my guess is that the loss of Kalin Lucas has to catch up with the Spartans sometime. And against a top-10 caliber team (people forget Butler was highly ranked at the season's start) that has great hands and feet on defense, the loss of Lucas at the point might hurt even more. You would think Butler's run has to end soon, but I think they can make it to the final against West Virginia.

Kudos to anybody who has this championship game right (or any combination of it). As much as I love West Virginia, the best team from the country's best conference if you still consider the Big East top dog, I think Butler (not Da'Sean) is on a mission. They are completely healthy, something you can't say about the Mountaineers, and they have enough inside-outside balance to be dangerous on offense. I'm curious to see how they will match up with Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks down low and on the boards, as they haven't yet seen a team with a frontcourt that deep, having dodged Arinze Onuaku in the Syracuse game.

So my thoughts are Butler over West Virginia. Meaning you should probably take Michigan St. and Duke, with Duke winning. Don't mess this one up people!

Friday, March 26, 2010

Hard Knocks: Good for the Jets?

So what does a new coach, a new attitude and an AFC Championship game appearance get you? Well if you're the New York Jets, it gets you on the HBO series "Hard Knocks."

The Jets received an inordinate amount of media attention last season due to boastful head coach Rex Ryan and the league's top-ranked defense, even before their run to within a game of the Super Bowl. Anybody who thinks this series won't be entertaining is out of their mind.

Beyond entertainment, this should help the Jets in their preparation for the upcoming season. Not that I'm doubting Ryan's ability to keep this team motivated to reach the Super Bowl, but there's something about cameras and bright lights at training camp that should make for an extremely productive training camp.

Just look at the Bengals last season. The subject of "Hard Knocks," Cincinnati wasn't expected to be a good team in 2009. One NFC North title and playoff appearance later, the team has a solid foundation to build on for the 2010 season.

Can part of their 2009 success be attributed to the pressure to perform starting early in camp thanks to HBO's camera crews? Maybe. The only other team to make the playoffs after being chronicled in the series was the 2001 Ravens, who won the Super Bowl the year before and then lost in the divisional round.

Either way, I do think "Hard Knocks" will be a good thing for the Jets season. It should also make for good entertainment with Ryan, who will do what he can to hog the camera. That should keep the focus on him and allow the players to concentrate on the task at hand: Preparing for what should be a successful season in 2010.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Who Makes the Final Four? Take Two

How things change in four days. I only lost one Final Four team, but when you're only in the Sweet 16 that's not something to boast about. The attack of the killer underdogs circa 2006 has returned with a vengeance in 2010, with #12 Cornell, #11 Washington, #10 St. Mary's and #9 Northern Iowa all crashing the Sweet 16 party.

Could we see an Elite 8 that includes all four of these teams? It's possible, though highly improbable. At this point, nobody should doubt that the Big Red from Cornell can play with anybody in the country including Kentucky after demolishing Temple and Wisconsin, not to mention a near-victory early in the season at Kansas. This will be a great game and I'll be rooting for the boys from central New York, but in the end the first-round NBA talent will take over. Jeff Foote's presence will be slightly negated by DeMarcus Cousins and unless Ryan Wittman hits 6 or 7 three-pointers, I think it's Wildcats by single digits.

Washington gets a talented West Virginia squad that just lost its starting point guard and second-best three-point shooter. For a team that struggles to score, especially from the outside, Darryl Bryant's injury could be a death blow to a squad with legitimate title hopes. Washington loves to push the pace and score lots of points, with defense falling by the wayside. If they light up the scoreboard an upset isn't out of the realm of possiblity, but the Mountaineers have too much talent even without Bryant to let that happen, right?

St. Mary's and Baylor might be the best game of this weekend. Omar Samhan is a definite NBA prospect whose stock has soared in the past week, but Baylor's Ekpe Udoh has the goods down low to at least contain Samhan. I like Udoh's supporting cast more than I like Samhan's and I picked Baylor to go to the Final Four from the start so I can't look back now, but this game is a toss-up.

Northern Iowa will beat Michigan St. I said it and it's not that unbelievable, particularly after Kalin Lucas' season-ending injury. The Panthers might as well be favored in this game now and I don't think even Tom Izzo can outcoach momentum and hot shooting from Ali Farokmanesh. The Panthers will be the lowest seed to crash the Elite 8.

As for the other games, I'm boring. I picked a lot of upsets early (and got a bunch right!) but my bracket is still garbage. I originally said upsets early and chalk late and I will stick to that. Ohio St. will ride Evan Turner over Bruce Pearl's well-coached Tennessee squad, Syracuse will take out Butler as long as the Bulldogs don't scorch the nets from long range and Duke will finally land the death blow to Purdue in the battle of "who is more overseeded."

As for Xavier-Kansas St., maybe I'm not so boring. I'm choosing Jordan Crawford and the Musketeers despite the fact that I have been thoroughly impressed by the way the Wildcats have played through two rounds. Jacob Pullen won't go for 30 points again and if it wasn't for this pick, I'd be throwing out all chalk except for Northern Iowa, which might as well be chalk. I doubted K-State against Jimmer Fredette and BYU and you know how the saying goes...burn me once, shame on you, burn me twice, shame on me.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

NFL overtime changes don't change much

The NFL has adopted an adjustment to their overtime rules for playoff games only. Any team that kicks a field goal on their first possession will no longer win the game, as the other team will get the ball with a chance to tie (in which case sudden death would apply starting on the next possession) or win with a touchdown. If the team with the ball first scores a touchdown, the game is over.

The vote passed 28-4 among NFL owners with just the Vikings, Bills, Ravens and Bengals voting against it. That's pretty ironic, considering the Vikings lost last season's NFC Championship game on a New Orleans field goal on the first possession of overtime. Under these new rules, Brett Favre and the Vikings would've had a chance to tie or win after that kick, something they did not receive last season.

Sure, this change will affect strategies some coaches will implement in overtime. Jets head coach Rex Ryan said he may kick off if he wins the toss to gain the advantage of knowing what his offense needs on their first possession. He also might be pretty confident in his top ranked defense.

Bengals coach Marvin Lewis said this may influence teams to go for it on short fourth downs rather than trying long fields goals, since the game would go on regardless. While the rule does add some more strategy to playoff games and increase the importance of good coaching and defense, does it really change that much?

Three of the last 27 overtime playoff games would have been affected by this rule. I know the stats say that almost 60% of teams who win the coin toss win the game, but as a general rule teams who make the playoffs are better defensively and can actually stop their opponents when they need to. As evidence, there have been 14 overtime games in the playoffs in the last 16 seasons, with the team winning the coin toss going 7-7. I'm pretty sure all those teams didn't win on the first possession, either.

This isn't to say I don't like the rule change, because I do. It will bring more strategy and excitement to overtime playoff games and I will always be for that. But if you're implementing it for the playoffs, I think you need to do it in the regular season as well. Does it seem strange that teams will be preparing for regular-season overtime games the same way as always, but will have to adopt a different strategy come the playoffs?

In the end, this rule change MIGHT affect one or two games every season, possibly even none. And while I don't disagree with the change (and neither do 28 of the 32 NFL teams), what's the point of changing a rule that affects just 1 or 2 (or even 0) out of 523 NFL regular-season and playoff games? Do it for the whole season, or don't do it at all.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A March to remember! And a bracket to forget...

The tournament cooled off a bit from a scorching first day on Friday, but it picked up right where it left off on Saturday. Northern Iowa's shocking upset over tournament favorite Kansas came a few hours after a less surprising upset when Omar Samhan and St. Mary's beat a Villanova team that was lucky to make the round of 32. Washington capped the night with an 18-point win over New Mexico, the same margin of victory for fellow Cinderella Cornell the next day against Wisconsin.

Looking back at my busted bracket (which I predicted on this very blog), there were a few things I would change in hindsight. Losses by Georgetown and Kansas are ones you can't really kick yourselves over because nobody saw that coming, but losing the Jayhawks as champions already was unfortunate. I always eliminate a #2 before the Sweet 16, but Kansas St. was the wrong choice, particularly with the way their backcourt was able to shut down Jimmer Fredette and BYU's offense. My gut after the selection show told me Villanova was the weakest #2 and while I almost chose St. Mary's to beat them, I didn't.

I knew New Mexico was an overseeded #3, but I chose Marquette to knock them off. And considering Washington needed a buzzer beater (none of which went my way in this tournament), I don't regret that pick too much. UTEP and Utah St. were definitely the wrong #12 seeds to put in the Sweet 16 and while I liked Cornell, I figured so many people would pick them to upset Temple that it wouldn't be much of an upset in pool terms. But hindsight is 20/20 and they were obviously the strongest #12 with a great second-round matchup (they did win by 18!).

I think Purdue shocked everybody by playing like the Boilermakers did when they actually had Robbie Hummel in the lineup and it's hard to regret picking Siena in the upset, all things considered. Murray St. was the #13 to pull the upset, but needed a buzzer beater to do it.

For anybody who wants to start a new bracket from here on out because theirs is ruined, join my second chance pool. Details are on my Facebook profile page. Tomorrow, I'll talk about what I expect from this weekend's set of games. Don't worry, I expect to be wrong about everything again.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Thursday was the best first day I've ever seen

Three overtime games, one that went 2 OT and seven that were decided by a three-pointer or less were the story on Thursday. I sat there watching games all day and it's hard for me to say I was ever bored, except when there wasn't a game for a few minutes. I've only been watching the whole first weekend for six years or so (thanks to high school classes), but I can't say the other five were anywhere near the sixth.

First, props to Lehigh and Robert Morris for keeping 1-16 and 2-15 games close. Robert Morris deserved to win that game against Villanova as Scottie Reynolds was out of rhythm from the start coming off the bench. If not for him getting bailed out on a few real tough foul calls late, the Wildcats might not be the only Big East team that won on Opening Day. Once that game went to overtime, Villanova had it wrapped up against a foul-laden Robert Morris squad.

Which leads me to my other point about the best conference in college basketball. Where were Georgetown, Marquette and Notre Dame yesterday? I wasn't surprised by the Irish if you look at my bracket, but I had the Golden Eagles and Hoyas pegged for the Sweet 16. While Marquette lost at the buzzer to a good team from a bad conference, Georgetown got smashed by an average team from a bad conference. The Hoyas were as inconsistent all season as they are talented, but I can't say anyone thought Ohio would be their downfall.

BYU needed two overtimes and a terrible Florida possession at the end of the first extra period to beat the Gators, and Jimmer Fredette showed how he can put a team on his back with 37 points. He'll need a repeat performance along with Michael Loyd's 26 to combat the Kansas St. backcourt of Danny Clemente and Jacob Pullen. In the other overtime game, Ismail Smith hit a game-winner for Wake Forest, who was slightly less terrible than Texas in one of the day's worst-played games.

But the highlight of the day may have come from the Murray St. Racers, who upset #4 Vanderbilt with a buzzer beater in the day's first set of games. Out of the day's first four games, two went to overtime and the other two were decided by one point. It was a great start to a great day, and Friday will definitely have trouble matching the excitement of yesterday.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Who wins this year's NCAA title?

After my last two posts, we've found our way to the Final Four with Kansas, Syracuse, West Virginia and Baylor. It's not too far-fetched in my eyes but not too chalky and it includes four of the top 10 teams in college basketball (no, I don't care that Baylor is ranked 17th, look at the Big 12 this season). And yes, I have two Big East-Big 12 matchups picked, since they were hands down the two best conferences this season.

It's a shame that the committee gave Syracuse the last #1 seed because I think the Orange and the Jayhawks are the two best teams in this Final Four, with a slight consolation prize going to West Virginia. Assuming Arinze Onuaku is at full strength by the Final Four, Kansas-Syracuse will pit the two deepest teams in the nation against each other.

Syracuse plays just seven players, but all seven could find their way into almost any starting five in the country. The Jayhawks go eight deep and both teams have great talent at the top. Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry and Marcus Morris all score in double figures for Kansas, while Syraucse has Wes Johnson, Andy Rautins, Kris Joseph, Rick Jackson and Onuaku putting up over 10 points per game.

Everyone wonders how Kansas will match up with Syracuse's 2-3 zone and the answer is with great guard play from Collins. He can penetrate the top of that zone and kick it out to open shooters like Henry, Brady Morningstar and Tyshawn Taylor for open threes, which Kansas hits at an impressive 41% clip. And when the defense doesn't collapse on Collins, he's bound to pull up for an elbow jumper or take it to the hoop and finish or dump it to Aldrich for an open dunk. Offensively for the Jayhawks, everything will run through Collins like it has all season.

If Syracuse wants to win this game, they will need to feed the post and try to get the aggressive Aldrich (3.5 BPG) in foul trouble early. Kansas can match Syracuse's depth on the low block but attacking the basket would be much easier without Aldrich, as the Jayhawks have no other players who average more than a block per game.

This rematch of the 2003 national championship should be a great game but I think Kansas will be too much for Syracuse in the end. Call it 73-68, Jayhawks.

A West Virginia-Baylor matchup may have less star power than Syracuse-Kansas...or so you think. LaceDarius Dunn leads Baylor with 19.4 PPG while Tweety Carter and Ekpe Udoh average almost 30 points combined themselves. For the Mountaineers, Da'Sean Butler and his 17.4 scoring average has proven his clutch play and leadership throughout the season and especially in the Big East tournament, beating Cincinnati and Georgetown in the final moments.

I do love how the matchups have shaped up in my Final Four, as both games will pit teams with similar styles and strengths against each other. Butler and Dunn should both have big games, but I can envision Butler with the ball at the end of a close game and we all saw what he could do in those situations. Give me a Mountaineer victory with a Butler basket at the buzzer, 69-67.

That leaves Kansas and West Virginia to battle it out for the title. Not the two best teams in country, but two of the top five for sure. But only one can be the best and it will be the team that started and finished at the top.

The Kansas Jayhawks are the best team in the nation this season with the inside-outside punch of Collins and Aldrich, not to mention a wing player like Henry, interior depth with the Morris twins and ball-moving guards like Morningstar and Taylor who can knock down open shots. West Virginia is an excellent basketball team but not quite on Syracuse's level in terms of depth and that will show against the Jayhawks, who already disposed of the aforementioned Orange.

Butler will get his, as will Kevin Jones and Devin Ebanks down low. If West Virginia can shoot well and crash the offensive glass hard when they miss, they might pick up a few extra baskets that could make the difference. But in the end superior guard play and depth will make Kansas into this year's national champion, 76-69.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

More Madness: Who Makes the Final Four?

Anybody who has ever been in a bracket with me knows that I never get the Final Four right. Ever. I never really even get three of the teams right. For whatever reason, my basketball knowledge doesn't seem to extend past the first two or three rounds. My Final Four sleeper never makes it and I always sleep on one of the top seeds. That being said, nobody should put Baylor in the Final Four and I'm sure since I don't have Kentucky in, they'll win the title. But here goes:

Only the East in my bracket includes all the top four seeds in the Sweet 16. Kansas is way too talented and way too deep for Maryland, but Ohio St.-Georgetown will be an awesome game. If Chris Wright is on his game, which he has been lately with seven straight double-digit scoring games and 36 assists in those seven games, I think Georgetown will win. But if he goes back to the inconsistent ways (seven single-digit scoring games in Big East play), Ohio State will. I've never been one to trust Wright and without a big game from him, Evan Turner will find a way to win it for the Buckeyes.

Kansas is a different story. Ohio State does not have the supporting cast around Turner to match the likes of Sherron Collins, Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry and the Morris'. Ohio St. was the first time off the 1-line I thought could make it, but they needed to see Duke or even Kentucky. Jayhawks to the Final Four.

This is where my bracket will be made or broken. I don't think many people have UTEP, Xavier and BYU joining Syracuse in the Sweet 16, but all three of those squads have 18+ point scorers (UTEP's Randy Culpepper, Xavier's Jordan Crawford and BYU's Jimmer Fredette) who can put a team on their back. There's usually at least one #2 that falls in the second round and this year, I think it's Kansas State.

UTEP's run will end against Syracuse, especially if Arinze Onuaku returns for the third round in Salt Lake City. BYU will use their geographical advantage to beat Xavier and Jordan Crawford's major claim to fame will remain his dunk over LeBron James over the summer. That geographical advantage won't be enough for the Cougars to down the Orange though, as Syracuse becomes the second #1 in the Final Four.

All chalk except for #6 Marquette over #3 New Mexico, and chalk will win again. As the fifth best team in the tournament and a team that would've been deserving of a top seed, West Virginia will take care of conference foe Marquette, who they beat 63-62 at home in their only regular season meeting. Kentucky is way too good to lose to Wisconsin and their toughest Sweet 16 matchup could come from Cornell if the Big Red can pull a few upsets.

Why does Duke have what seems like the easiest road to the Final Four? Outside of the bracket's weakest #2 in Villanova and an underrated #3 in Baylor, no one else has a chance here. Purdue without Robbie Hummel? Texas A&M? An overseeded Notre Dame team? Richmond? Please.

What's even sadder is that even with this gift, I don't see Duke moving beyond the Elite 8. And if Louisville can beat Cal, they may miss the Sweet 16 altogether. They are the top seed most likely to play a double-digit seed in Sweet 16 and that's exactly what I have, with them able to take care of Utah St. Baylor should've been #2 in this bracket and they will prove that with a win against Villanova.

Duke should be intimidated by these Bears, who are long and athletic and a very tough matchup for the Blue Devils. I think Duke would have a better chance at being Villanova, but Baylor has all the ingredients to take them out and reach the Final Four.

Kansas, Syracuse, West Virginia, Baylor. With my luck, you can be sure at least one or two will be knocked out by the end of this weekend.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Let the Madness ensue!

In the first of a three-part series culminating on Wednesday, I will break down my thought on the first two rounds of this year's NCAA Tournament. It's the most wonderful time of the year...

-Expect all the #1 seeds to make the Sweet 16
Over the last five years, all 20 top seeds have won two games in the tournament. Now that's not the only reason I'm picking Kansas, Syracuse, Kentucky and Duke to make the Sweet 16, but it sure helps. Neither UNLV nor Northern Iowa stands a chance against Kansas and the same can be said for Texas and Wake Forest against Kentucky. I have Florida State beating Gonzaga in the West and while Gonzaga could be a difficult matchup for Syracuse, I don't see that game happening. The only real chance for an upset here is Louisville beating Duke. Rick Pitino's squad beat Syracuse twice this season but in their other six games against top 25 teams, they were 0-6. Advantage Blue Devils.

-Pick chalk in the West and you may be surprised
Say what you want about UTEP being one of the final at-large teams in the tournament, but don't count them out as a Sweet 16 sleeper. They match up well with Butler while Vanderbilt is overseeded and could lose to Murray State, one of two 13 seeds who stand a chance in the first round (Siena being the other). At the bottom of the bracket, I think BYU is the most underseeded team in this tournament and could surprise with a Sweet 16 or Elite 8 appearance, especially with the Salt Lake City advantage once they reach the third round. Xavier also has what it takes to make a Sweet 16 and the only top four seed I have in the Sweet 16 here is Syracuse. It's ballsy, but not as far out as most people would think.

-As many as three double-digit seeds could crash the Sweet 16 party
I already talked about how well the bracket sets up for UTEP, but fellow 12 seeds Cornell and Utah State have similar Sweet 16 aspirations. The Temple-Cornell matchup has the potential to be one of the tournament's best first-round games and Wisconsin, while talented, is no lock for the Sweet 16 (although they should have no trouble with Wofford). If Utah State finds their way past Texas A&M they could very easily face 13th-seeded Siena, who faces a Purdue team that has struggled mightily without Robbie Hummel. A Utah State-Siena matchup isn't too far-fetched and would guarantee at least one double-digit seed in the Sweet 16. Don't forget it's happened in 13 of the past 14 years.

-Expect upsets
Yes, the last three years have been very chalky. Everyone has heard all the analysts talking about how there is no dominant team this season and that should lead to upsets. I think there is an upper echelon limited to 10-15 teams with Elite 8 potential limiting late-round upsets a la George Mason in 2006, but early on I expect a lot of shocking results. I would not be surprised to see two 13 seeds, three 12 seeds and two 11 seeds win in the first two days of the tournament. And that's really what March Madness is all about: The underdogs.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Cheering injuries: How to define scumbag fans

After his release from the Browns, quarterback Derek Anderson had some choice words for Cleveland fans. "The fans are ruthless and don't deserve a winner," he said. "I will never forget getting cheered when I was injured."

As somebody who played multiple sports (albeit only through high school), I understand Anderson's frustration. The last thing you want to hear when you're lying on the turf in pain is cheers from fans who are so disgusted with your play that they are desperate to see what the backup quarterback can do. Talk about adding insult to injury.

The worst part is that a good majority of these fans have probably never played a competitive sport in their life. They don't understand what it's like to be injured in a middle school game, let alone a game played at the speed of the NFL. The small possibility always exists of players being paralyzed or even killed on the field and to me, that is no laughing (or cheering) matter.

Anderson apologized for his comments saying they came out of frustration, but that's not to say he doesn't still mean them or that he was wrong. He meant them, and he was dead on.

Any fan who cheers an injury to their own player really isn't a fan, just a frontrunner (or an a-hole). I know these players get paid millions of dollars (in Anderson's case, $7.45M to compile a 42.1 passer rating in 2009) but they are out there giving it their all on every down and anybody who thinks otherwise is ignorant. When you take a play off in the NFL, someone is liable to get seriously injured and there's a great chance it's going to be you.

I'll admit there have been times when I was "happy" a player was injured. When Jets linebacker Mo Lewis knocked Patriots quarterback Drew Bledsoe out of a 2001 game, I surely was not disappointed to see a sixth-round pick out of Michigan by the name of Tom Brady enter and try to lead the Patriots to victory.

Fast forward to 2010, where I am a full believer in karma and this scenario was one of the first that led me to my beliefs. My "happiness" turned to distress when I had to watch Brady win Super Bowl MVP honors and lead New England to a championship, one that I doubt Bledsoe could have won himself.

I wasn't cheering Bledsoe's injury by any means, as anybody who saw the hit Lewis laid on him knew that was an extremely painful injury. But we've all been in the spot where a key opponent loses a player to injury, and it's difficult to feel too bad for your rival.

But I digress. Regardless of how badly Browns fans wanted to see Brady Quinn at the helm, cheering Anderson's injury was not the way to get what they wanted. I hate to wish injury on any of the fans who were cheering at that game but maybe then they would know what it felt like, especially if there was somebody on the sidelines pointing and laughing at them for being injured or clapping because they got to replace them on the field.

That's about the only way I can think of for fans like that to truly understand how it feels to be on the other side. And I can guarantee it would not be a very good feeling. It's time for fans around the NFL and other professional sports league to get their acts together.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Interest in women's basketball still nonexistant despite UConn's record streak

I hate to say that I would rather watch the North Carolina men's team lose 11 out of 16 conference games and go 16-15 this year than watch the Connecticut women roll off 71 straight wins but I would; women's basketball just isn't entertaining. To me, it's the equivalent of Division III men's basketball and I'm talking about the WNBA here. Women's college basketball is more akin to 14-17 year-old boys playing in high school.

I'm not debating that these girls have talent. Some can shoot, some have handle, and occasionally one can dunk. Basketball at its best is a fast-paced, high-flying game and no offense, but women just can't provide anywhere near the level of entertainment that men can.

Which brings me to this year's UConn women. They are awesome. They beat teams handily every time out and haven't won any of their past 71 games by less than 10 points. I think that stat more than any other proves how pathetic women's basketball really is.

You're telling me that not one of the 71 teams they've beaten has gotten lucky enough to even keep a game close. The Huskies have played plenty of top-10 teams throughout this streak, and none of those teams were good enough to lose by single digits?

A SportsCenter poll showed that 68.5 percent of people's interest in women's basketball didn't change as a result of UConn streak and 19.4 percent were actually LESS INTERESTED. How can an awesome streak like this make you less interested in a sport?!? (Note: only 12.1 percent were more interested)

My guess is because it takes up five minutes on SportsCenter whenever the ladies play. And in those five minutes, I'm sure everybody would rather see an NBA or men's college basketball highlight. Hell, put hockey on and I'm sure people would care more. And this is America!

The bottom line is that no matter how great Tina Charles, Maya Moore and the rest of the UConn team are, nobody will ever really care. I'd rather watch PBA bowling on a Sunday afternoon than any women's basketball game. I compared it to high school basketball, but I have definitely watched more televised men's high school games than women's games at any level. Sorry ladies, but there's a reason the WNBA won't exist in 10 years.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Jets use free agency to bolster secondary

As the league's top pass defense, you would think that one of the New York Jets' strengths would be their secondary. Outside of All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis, you wouldn't have been any more wrong.

The Jets struggled all season to find a cornerback to play opposite Revis, something everybody in the NFL saw in the AFC Championship game against Indianapolis. Enter Antonio Cromartie. The ex-Chargers playmaker will now don a Jets uniform at the small price of a third-round pick in this year's draft.

Cromartie represents a significant upgrade over the recently-released Lito Sheppard and Dwight Lowery, who seems better suited as a nickel back at this point in his career. The Jets top pass defense was a result of their aggressive, blitzing style that forced opposing quarterbacks out of rhythm and the addition of Cromartie should allow the Jets to create even more pressure up front and rely more heavily on man coverage in the secondary.

The second move the Jets made was trading safety Kerry Rhodes to the Cardinals for a fourth-round pick and a 2011 seventh-rounder. Rhodes was a big disappointment this season, as many expected him to thrive in new coach Rex Ryan's aggressive defense. Instead, Rhodes seemed uncomfortable and was eventually benched in favor of Eric Smith.

Last season was the first of Rhodes' career where he did not record a sack and his second straight without forcing a fumble, a far cry from his first three seasons in the league where he registered 10 interceptions, 8 sacks and 6 forced fumbles. Once regarded as one of the NFL's best playmaking safeties, the reason many thought he would thrive under Ryan, Rhodes will now try to take advantage of a fresh start in Arizona.

Rhodes hasn't always had the reputation of being a hard worker and it might be no coincidence that his play has fallen off since signing a huge contract before the 2008 season. Two disappointing seasons later, he will now be asked to fill the impressive shoes of Antrel Rolle, who left for New York's other team.

Many thought the Jets would be targeting a cornerback in the draft this season, but the trade for Cromartie changes that dynamic drastically. The Jets will definitely be looking to upgrade the free safety position to complement Revis, Cromartie and Jim Leonhard.

If they are able to shore up the final hole in their secondary, their defense could be even better than it was last season. With another year under the belt of Mark Sanchez and the potential addition of a big-name wide receiver, it would be a mistake to think the Jets can't soar to new heights in 2010.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

The Ultimate 1-on-1 Basketball Tournament: Round 1

I know it has been a while since I initially seeded the NBA's top players for this tournament, but this is just filler material for when I have no other good ideas for posts anyway...but on to the games!

#1 - Kobe Bryant vs. #16 Joe Johnson - The only advantage to Johnson in this matchup is that he starts with the ball. He scores a couple of points to take an early 4-0 lead on Bryant, but once Kobe gets the ball he goes on a tear. Johnson struggles to stay in front of Bryant defensively and Kobe gets to the hoop for a couple of impressive dunks. When Johnson gives him a little space, he buries a few jumpers in his face to go ahead 7-4 before missing another shot. Johnson never sees the lead again and Bryant moves on after an 11-6 win.

#2 - LeBron James vs. #15 Paul Pierce - One of Pierce's biggest assets is his strength, which is negated by James and his 6'8'', 260-pound frame. Pierce also cannot match the quickness of James and struggles to get anything going offensively, scoring just 3 points against The King. LeBron moves on.

#3 - Dwayne Wade vs. #14 Deron Williams - In the third game of the first round, Williams poses the most serious threat to the higher seed so far. He may lack the quickness of Wade or the ability to create space for his own shot, but Williams uses his strength to drive to the hoop and outmuscle Wade for a few early baskets to go up 3-0. Wade comes out cold and gives Williams the ball right back, while Williams extends his lead to 7-0.

Being the clutch performer he is, Wade recognizes his dire situation and turns it on, running off eight straight points to go up 8-7. Williams scores just twice the next time he has the ball to retake the lead, but Wade's quickness get him around Williams to the basket to tie it at nine. A missed three gives Williams hope, but Wade races around him for the putback dunk and hits a pull-up jumper at the elbow to seal the win, 11-9.

#4 - Kevin Durant vs. #13 Steve Nash - Both players present difficult matchups for each other, as Durant cannot stay in front of Nash or block his shot due to Nash's quickness and creativity around the hoop. Nash takes an early 5-0 lead but once Durant gets the ball, the six-inch height difference gives him uncontested shots at the hoop and unlimited post-up opportunities. Durant is so pure with his jumper that he runs off eight straight points, giving the ball back to Nash up 8-5. Nash pulls it back to 8-7, but misses a three-pointer that represents his final shot of the game. Durant seals up an 11-7 win a few minutes later.

#5 - Carmelo Anthony vs. #12 Amar'e Stoudemire - A definite mismatch in favor of Carmelo, as Stoudemire finds it difficult to drive around Anthony or post him up due to Melo's strength. Without his pick-and-roll partner Nash, Stoudemire musters just two points on mid-range jumpers (an improving area of his game) before bowing out in the biggest blowout so far.

#6 - Chris Paul vs. #11 Brandon Roy - This is where 1-on-1 differs from 5-on-5. Most anybody would take Paul over Roy if they were building a team, but Roy is the more impressive individual scorer and shows that against Paul. Roy runs off the game's first four points before getting his pocket picked by the quick hands of Paul, who find his way to the hoop for a few baskets. But Roy is just too prolific on offense, even against an excellent defender like Paul. No player reels off more than two consecutive points the rest of the way, but it's Roy who comes out on top in the end, 11-8, for the tournament's first upset.

#7 - Dirk Nowitzki vs. #10 Danny Granger - An awesome matchup between two of the league's top scorers, both over 6'9''. Granger takes advantage of receiving the ball first by toying with Dirk's lackluster defense, taking him to the basket multiple times before pulling back for jumpers. Before you know it, Granger is up 7-0. But Nowitzki storms back, using his height to drain three straight long-distance jumpers over Granger to cut the lead to 7-6.

Granger gets the ball back and scores twice before missing, giving Nowitzki an opportunity to win outright. Two three-pointers later, it's game point in favor of Nowitzki. But he takes it inside the three-point line and gets it stolen by Granger, who ties the game at 10 and takes this game into the tournament's first overtime. The players trade baskets until the game is 14-14, but Granger is the one who picks up consecutive baskets first as Dirk fatigues and goes cold from the three-point line. Upset number two in favor of Granger, 16-14.

#8 - Chris Bosh vs. #9 Dwight Howard - If people thought Nowitzki-Granger was a good matchup, they didn't see Bosh-Howard on the docket. Howard gets to the hoop for a few dunks and hits two baby hooks in the post to take a 4-0 lead. On the next possession, Bosh shows off his complete offensive arsenal, creating space with his quickness advantage for a few jumpers and getting to the hoop and reversing underneath the hoop to protect himself from the shotblocking of Howard. Howard finally denies Bosh at the rim after going down 6-4.

Howard gets back to 6-6, but his extremely limited offensive game is exposed as the matchup rolls on. They say great defense beats great offense, but bad offense beats itself and Bosh is long enough to affect Howard's game in the post. Bosh eventually takes this one, 11-8.

Round two coming soon...

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Knicks can't coerce LeBron with performances like THAT

I know the Knicks were without Wilson Chandler last night for personal reasons, but I doubt he would have made much difference. A 101-59 deficit at the end of the third quarter is not just because of one person.

It sounds extremely weird to say this, but the Knicks (at least right now) miss Jared Jeffries. I never thought I would utter such a statement, but they play even less defense now than they did before, which is saying something. Cleveland was able to get to the basket with ease last night and exploit the Knicks' complete lack of size and defensive presence in the post.

Next year, the Knicks will not miss Jeffries' contract. Everybody knows they're going nowhere this year anyway so I'm not bashing the trade, especially since Tracy McGrady has played well. Sergio Rodriguez shows flashes of being able to handle the point guard position in the NBA despite being LeBron James' latest transition block victim, and watching him you can see why he was more highly rated than Jose Calderon a few years back. He just needs some seasoning.

Bill Walker has been a revelation after scoring 21 points last night and proving the Knicks did get something back for Nate Robinson that could be useful in the future, since Eddie House will likely be wearing a different uniform next season. But I digress.

In all honesty, why would James come to New York next season when the Cavs have beaten New York by 47 points combined in their three meetings this season? I understand the first two games were close, but the team that lost by 31 last night is more representative of the supporting cast James would be playing with for the Knicks next year.

They play no defense, particularly on the low block, and have more holes than possibly any team in the NBA. They are set at ONE position assuming they don't re-sign David Lee, and that position is small forward with Chandler and Danilo Gallinari both expected to continue their development. What position does James play again?

The sole allure for James to come to New York outside of it being New York is playing with another max-level player. But does a core of Rodriguez, Toney Douglas, Chandler, Gallinari, Walker, James and say Chris Bosh sound like a championship squad? The Knicks would need more than just Bosh to solve their woes in the post, but James has taken teams deep in the playoffs with less of a supporting cast (and no teammate with the pedigree of Bosh).

Even still, James must be laughing at the Knicks right now. Last night was plain embarrassing and the least the Knicks could have done was shown up, defended their basket and shown James that were worth his time and effort next season. They didn't, and since these teams don't meet again this season, this game will be the last taste of the New York Knicks that James has in his mouth.

If you were him, I'd be spitting out that taste of New York and I don't know if I'd ever try their food again. I definitely wouldn't leave a tip.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Be proud of the U.S.A. hockey team

Yes, I know, they only got second place. And second place is the first loser. But a silver medal in the Olympics is nothing to shake a stick at, especially considering nobody thought the Americans would even medal before the tournament started.

This is pretty similar to what I wrote about the Jets losing the AFC championship game. While the ultimate goal in any tournament is to be the last man standing, sometimes you have to accept failure when you've already exceeded expectations. I can't believe I just wrote that.

But honestly, what American isn't proud of how their boys competed in the Olympics? They shocked Canada and the rest of the hockey world with their 5-3 win in the qualifying round and showed that wasn't a fluke the second time around.

Down 2-0 in the second period, lots of fans were thinking this game was headed to blowout status. But the only people that mattered, the ones on the ice, were thinking they had over a period to at least send this game to overtime. And while it took them almost the whole 60 minutes, they were able to do just that.

My Facebook news feed was flooded with pro-American sentiment and "I <3 Zach Parise" status updates after his goal with under 30 seconds left tied the game for the U.S. They had all the momentum heading into overtime and Patrick Kane even said he thought they were going to win the gold after Parise's goal.

Although Sidney Crosby's goal early in overtime took all the wind out of the American sails, nobody can say that they were disappointed by the effort the U.S. put forth. That was by far the worst goal Ryan Miller had allowed in the whole tournament; anytime you get beat five-hole it's somewhat embarrassing. But considering Miller was the major reason behind the first-round upset of Canada and the Americans performance throughout the Olympics, it's hard to place the blame on him.

I watched almost every minute of each American game in this tournament, despite the fact that I don't watch hockey. I will always support the country that has given me so much, especially when athletes represent it as well as the U.S. hockey team was able to.

The 2010 olympic hockey team will go down as winners in my book, despite falling short of the ultimate prize. And coming from somebody as ultra-competitive as I am, that's an extremely high compliment.