April 27, 2011

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NBA Playoffs: Lessons Learned So Far

By: Rick Jarrell

With less than a quarter of the NBA playoffs complete, it may be too early to rush to judgment. There’s a lot of competitive basketball to be played, and as we’ve seen so far in the Memphis/San Antonio series, anything can happen. But a few of the first round match ups have made for some fairly concrete, if not obvious, conclusions.

Hold on D-Rose, CP3 is Still Here

The second half of the regular season brought the rise of Derrick Rose. As I’ve said before, Rose took his game to a whole other level the first half of the season. Then with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer back from early injuries, Rose took his game to yet ANOTHER level to lead the Chicago Bullsto the best overall record. His performance was tantalizing to casual and diehard basketball fans alike. A lot of people, including myself, saw him as the best point guard in the league – with good reason. But with the regular season over, and the playoffs underway, a lot of people are watching with their foot in their mouths as Chris Paul makes professionals look like amateurs.

Despite playing at a high level all season, Paul’s serious knee injury seasons ago left him without his quick first step, and caused many to question the longevity of his career. Still hands down the best pure point guard in the league, it was amazing to watch him adjusting his game accordingly after the injury. But something was still missing. Apparently, that something was stored away for the playoffs.

CP3 has led the New Orleans Hornets against the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, currently down 3-2, all without star power forward David West, lost to injury. His ability to manage the game, draw defenders just far enough toward him to seed the pass into the lane for an easy bucket, or nail the mid range jumper if left open, is magical. As for the knee? This video of Paul crossing up Andrew Bynum shows as visual proof CP3 can still break your ankles. If he’s on his game, New Orleans will win the series. Let’s see what he can do with his team facing elimination for Game 6 back in New Orleans.

Brandon Roy is Still Here, Too

The Portland Blazers, perhaps the most trendy upset pick this year, were on the verge of going down 3-1 to the Dallas Mavericks. That is, until Brandon Roy came to life. In the process of being blown out, the Blazers began to slowly pick away at the lead after halftime. Then, in the fourth, Roy took over, hitting shot after shot for the otherwise anemic Portland offense, carrying his team to victory. Impressive for a franchise player, but Roy’s story is different.

Coming out of Washington, he had two severely injured knees. No one knew how long his career would be able to go. After early success, more knee issues emerged, and Roy was forced to miss a ton of time, including the majority of this season. He can’t even play in back to back games in some cases. His knee is essentially a series of bone-on-bone connections. I can’t imagine living with that, let alone running up and down a court and colliding with physical specimens. But Roy was able to get past his problems, and rise above them to a truly inspiring performance. I don’t usually gush over comebacks like this, because he making millions of dollars a year, but Brandon Roy is a classy guy and great teammate. Makes me feel like I should take my fully function knees to the gym immediately. The Portland crowd was ecstatic for their hobbled superstar. The city deserves their first playoff series this decade, and hopefully Roy’s performance will provide momentum toward an upset over the Mavs, who now hold the series lead at 3-2.

Grizzlies Rewrite the Rules

Speaking of unexpected performances, the Memphis Grizzlies are on the verge of upsetting the Western Conference’s top seed, the San Antonio Spurs. A playoff mainstay and three time champion over the past decade, the Spurs usually make lunch meat out of inexperienced, young teams like the Grizzlies. But inspired play from Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and OJ Mayo has fueled the athletic Griz past the veteran Spurs to a 3-1 series lead.

Memphis has managed to make the Spurs look inept. Usually a well oil machine, turnovers and lack of defensive presence have so far doomed the powerhouse. There’s still a small chance the Spurs can come back, and if there’s a team out there with that drive in them, it’s definitely San Antonio, but the Griz still hold the reigns. Not only is a first round upset a possibility for Z-Bo and the gang, but a favorable match up with Oklahoma City in the second may wait, depending on the outcome of that series. Memphis has a serious opportunity for the Grizzlies to make some noise.

Big Three Non-existent in NYC

That was fast. All of the media fire surrounding the so-called revival of the Celtic-Knicksrivalry was extinguished before it even had a chance to spread. For the second year in a row, Boston stumbled into the playoffs only to show us, again, that a veteran team doesn’t necessarily have to perform at the highest level during the regular season. And the optimism for New York fans that the Carmelo Anthony trade would finally bring playoff success after a decade of dismal play was squashed, just like that.

In all fairness, this should have been a better series. New York could have won the first game, and probably would have if not for a questionable offensive foul call on Carmelo. If that outcome had come to fruition, the Knicks could have used that momentum towards an upset. But instead, we saw Boston adjust to the Knicks game plan and cause them to panic into late game Carmelo isolations rather than go to Amare Stoudemirein the post. The injuries to Stoudemire and Chauncey Billups weren’t exactly catalysts, either – the downfall of assembly a “big three” surrounded by veterans and minimum contract players.

But is the Carmelo-Amere-Billups combination even really a “big three?” The trifecta do not complement each other like Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allendo, nor are they individually as talented as LeBron James, Dwyane Wade, and Chris Bosh. It’s clear the Knicks have a lot of work to do, and even more clear the “big three” euphemism is being thrown around WAY too much. Toward the end of the regular season, my local media outlets began referring to John Wall, Jordan Crawford, and Andray Blatche as a “big three.” The NYC application of the term is nowhere near as presumptuous as the Washington Wizards, and may be slightly off topic, but you get the point.

Look on the bright side, Knicks fans. The NBA draft is quickly approaching us. Oh wait, no draft picks… let the Dwight Howard watch begin!

Demise of the Orlando Magic

Speaking of which, look how far the Orlando Magic have fallen. From a surprise Eastern Conference powerhouse to an athletic superhuman surrounded by shooters who can’t seem to shoot. The team has only seemed to decline since their surprise domination of the Cleveland Cavaliersa couple years ago. From letting Hedo Turkoglu leave, the Vince Carterexperiment, reacquiring Turkoglu, and trading away Rashard Lewis for once upon a time Agent Zero in Gilbert Arenas, General Manager Otis Smith appears to be chasing Howard out of town on purpose.

The Atlanta Hawks, a team that Orlando has historically man handled, largely in part due to Howard’s dominance in the paint, have taken control of the series. Journeyman Jason Collins, Atlanta’s cure for Howard, has kept the big man from taking over. Aside from Howard’s 46 point, 20 rebound performance in Game 2, which Orlando lost anyway, Collins and the Hawks have held their own in the paint. And when Howard does kick the ball to the wings, Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, and Jameer Nelson are unable to knock down open jumpers. Sharpe contrast to what we’ve seen in the past.

Some highs, some lows, but an exciting beginning to the 2011 NBA playoffs for sure. Non-NBA fans point to the long post season as one of the negatives of the league, but I’m thankful we get two months of the highest level of competitive basketball. Honestly, it’s hard to get anything productive done during this time frame, unless you count watching the playoffs as productive. Which I do…

April 27, 2011

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NFL Mock Draft

By: Joe Williams

The NFL Draft is just a couple days away. It seems like everyone is doing mock drafts these days so I decided to join the party. I’ve made sure to include some trades to ensure that I don’t go 32 for 32. I’d feel bad if all these picks are correct. I’m not doing this to take Mel Kiper’s job.

1. Carolina Panthers

Marcell Dareus – DT – Alabama  

The Panthers have a ton of holes to fill. They cannot afford to miss on this pick so they go with a safe pick in Dareus to be an anchor for the defense. This gives Jimmy Clausen one more year to develop and if he doesn’t, Carolina could get “Lucky” in 2012.

2. Cincinnati Bengals

Cam Newton – QB – Auburn

Things are uglier than usual in Cincinnati. Carson Palmer says he will not play in a Bengal uniform again. The Bengals say they aren’t trading him. Someone has to play quarterback and Newton’s controversial history seems to fit the Cincinnati mold. When the Panthers pass on Newton, the Bengals trade up two spots to grab him.

3. Buffalo Bills

Blaine Gabbert – QB – Missouri

Some say Gabbert is the best quarterback in the draft. The Bills are going to have to find a great quarterback to compete with the Patriots and Jets. They hope Gabbert is their guy.

4. Denver Broncos

Von Miller – OLB – Texas A&M

Miller could be the best player in the draft. The return of Elvis Dumerville and the addition of Miller will go a long way toward fixing the Denver defense. They move back two spots to pick up an extra pick from the Bengals.

5. Arizona Cardinals

A.J. Green – WR Georgia

Arizona nearly won the Super Bowl with a high-flying passing attack. If the Cardinals can pull off a trade for Kevin Kolb and pair A.J. Green with Larry Fitzgerald they can be dangerous in the weak NFC West.

6. Cleveland Browns

Robert Quinn – DE – North Carolina

Cleveland needs to rebuild its defense. Dick Jauron is taking over the defense and could use a pass-rushing end. 

7. San Fransisco 49ers

Patrick Peterson – CB – LSU

Peterson has been compared to Champ Bailey and Deion Sanders. The 49ers are thrilled he is still on the board.

8. Tennessee Titans

Nick Fairley – DT – Auburn

Tennessee needs a quarterback but Newton and Gabbert are off the board so the Titans go after their next Albert Haynesworth.

9. Dallas Cowboys

Tyron Smith – OT – USC

The Cowboys have to protect Tony Romo. Smith will help them do that.

10. Washington Redskins

Julio Jones – WR – Alabama

Whoever ends up playing quarterback for the Redskins in 2011 is going to need someone to throw to. Jones would give him a big, physical target.

11. Houston Texans

Prince Amukamara – CB – Nebraska

The Texans have the offense to keep up with Peyton Manning but they don’t have the defense to slow him down. Adding a Prince to the secondary should give Houston a better shot at taking down the king of the AFC South.

12. Minnesota Vikings

Jake Locker – QB – Washington

Minnesota can finally move on from the Brett Frave era. The Vikings hope Locker will be their quarterback of the future.

13. Detroit Lions

Anthony Castonzo – OT – Boston College

Detroit’s future is riding on Matthew Stafford. The top priority is to keep Stafford on the field.

14. New England Patriots

Mike Pouncey – OL – Florida

New England usually trades down for more picks. This time the Patriots move up to add some youth to the aging offensive line.

15. Tampa Bay Buccaneers

J.J. Watt – DE – Wisconsin

The Buccaneers move up to get the pass-rushing defensive end before San Diego can.

16. Jacksonville Jaguars

Ryan Kerrigan – DE – Purdue

Aaron Kampman has been injury-prone. Kerrigan could be his replacement.

17. St. Louis Rams

Kyle Rudolf – TE – Notre Dame

St. Louis has the foundation in place. It’s time to give Sam Bradford some weapons.

18. San Diego Chargers

Cameron Jordan – DE – Cal

The Chargers add one of the top pass rushers in the draft.

19. New York Giants

Gabe Carimi – OT – Wisconsin

Carimi is a solid tackle that fills the Giants biggest need.

20. Miami Dolphins

Andy Dalton – QB – TCU

Miami has not gotten good enough play at the most important position on the field so they take a shot on Dalton.

21. Kansas City Chiefs

Corey Liuget – DT – Illinois

Liuget will be a big, physical presence in the middle of the Kansas City defense.

22. Indianapolis Colts

Nate Solder – OT – Colorado

The Colts take the best offensive lineman left on the board.

23. Philadelphia Eagles

Jimmy Smith – CB- Colorado

The Eagles need a solid corner to play opposite Asante Samuel.

24. New Orleans Saints

Da’Quan Bowers – DE – Clemson

The Saints get one of the better players in the draft, but he comes with injury concerns.

25. Seattle Seahawks

Danny Watkins – OL – Baylor

Seattle will try to upgrade its interior offensive line.

26. Baltimore Ravens

Torrey Smith – WR – Maryland

The Ravens could use another speedy receiver.

27. Atlanta Falcons

Aldon Smith – DE – Missouri

Atlanta scores a pass-rusher to pair with John Abraham.

28. New England Patriots

Akeem Ayers – OLB – UCLA

The Patriots would like another outside pass-rusher.

29. Chicago Bears

Derek Sherrod – OT – Mississippi

Jay Cutler was hit a lot in 2010. The Bears need to find someone to prevent some of those hits.

30. New York Jets

Cameron Heyward – DE – Ohio State

Rex Ryan loves his defense. He loves it even more when Heyward is still on the board.

31. Pittsburgh Steelers

Brandon Harris – CB – Miami

Aaron Rodgers and the Packers exploited the Steelers’ secondary in the Super Bowl. Pittsburgh gets some reinforcements in Harris.

32. Green Bay Packers

Mark Ingram – RB – Alabama

The Super Bowl champions have a lot of help returning from injury so they make a luxury pick.

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April 25, 2011

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Biggest Surprises of 2011 MLB Season

By: Anson Whaley

I know, I get it – the MLB seasonis really just getting underway, and many fans aren’t even paying attention yet with the NBA and NHL playoffs dominating the sports world. But some early season surprises are still worth noting – here are a few:

The Boston Red Sox

What’s going on in Beantown? The Sox were picked by many prognosticators to not only reach the playoffs, but win the World Series. Until this recent hot stretch, though, Boston’s lineup of All Star MLB players hasn’t translated into a lot of wins. So why the early struggles? Offseason acquisition Carl Crawford is batting around .150 – about ½ the production at the plate most expected. Another player picked up, Adrian Gonzalez, has only one home run to date after hitting 31 last year. And Jacoby Ellsbury and Kevin Youkilis, both near .300 career hitters, are batting a little over .200. In a nutshell, too few players are contributing far too less.

The verdict: All of the aforementioned MLB players are veterans and likely just off to slow starts. I expect the current hot streak to continue; the Red Sox will turn things around and sneak into the MLB playoffs. 

AL Central

Over in the AL Central, things have been literally upside down. On the bottom of the standings, there are perennial contenders, the Chicago White Sox and Minnesota Twins. The Cleveland Indians and Kansas City Royalsare sitting on top and are doing it with offense – both MLB teams are tied for first-place in the league in scoring runs. Neither was expected to do much, but each squad has some young players stepping up, including Indians’ pitchers Justin Masterson and Josh Tomlin (a combined 7-0) and the Royals’ Alex Gordon, who looks to be finally cashing in some of his enormous potential, hitting over .350.

The verdict: Neither MLB team has had much trouble scoring runs to date, but the Indians have had some of the best pitching in baseball. Because of that, Cleveland should be able to contend throughout the duration of the season, but I expect the Royals to drop off a bit at some point…especially without former ace Zach Greinke, who went to Milwaukee in the offseason.

Jose Bautista

After doing little in five seasons in Pittsburgh, Tampa Bay, Baltimore, and Kansas City, Bautista slugged a league-leading 54 home runs last year for the Toronto Blue Jays. While his past track record didn’t indicate he was capable of such a year, he proved everyone wrong with a highly-publicized alteration to his swing. Many have been anxious to claim that last year was a mere fluke (a la Brady Anderson circa 1996), but that doesn’t appear to be the case. Bautista is again leading the AL with seven home runs and is batting .360 – more than .100 points over his career average. Jose’s on pace for another 50+ home run season and doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon.

The verdict: Pitchers are starting to catch on to the fact that Bautista is a real threat, as evidenced by his league-leading 19 walks. Because of that, his home runs should dip a bit, but I’m not betting against him for another big year.

The Mediocrity that is the NL Central

It’s early, but the NL Central is looking like it will produce a .500-ish champion. Heading into the Sunday night matchup between the Cincinnati Reds and St. Louis Cardinals, both were tied for the Division lead at 11-10 with the Milwaukee Brewers. The 10-11 Cubs were only a game back, while the Pirates (9-12) and Astros(8-14) weren’t far behind. With only 3.5 games separating the first- and last-place teams, this is the tightest division in all of baseball. The NL Central appears to be wide open and could be reminiscent of 1997, when the race went right down to the wire with the Astros taking the title with only 84 wins.

The verdict: Predicting a winner in this Division would be akin to predicting when Charlie Sheen will utter another iconic phrase or when Donald Trump will call out another celebrity, but I’ll go with the Reds.  I also think that by the MLB season’s end, there will be a clear separation of the top three teams (Reds, Cardinals, and Brewers) and the bottom three (Cubs, Pirates, Astros). There’s also not much pitching in the NL Central, so there will be some big numbers offensively by some of the individual MLB players in the division.

The New York Mets

When you look at the Mets’ lineup, consisting of great MLB players like Jose Reyes, David Wright, Carlos Beltran, and Jason Bay, you expect great things. But so far, this season has looked like the past two when the club finished under .500, despite the big payroll. In all fairness, though, New York has had to deal with some major injury issues. The team is missing staff ace Johan Santana, who is on the disabled list with an elbow injury and not expected to return until June or July. And the aforementioned Bay just began his season, coming off of a DL stint of his own.

The verdict: With so much talent, it’s hard to see the Mets finishing below .500 again. While they don’t have the horses to compete with the Phillies (few teams do), a second-place or even Wild Card chase isn’t out of the question if they can stay healthy and add a pitcher down the stretch.

April 22, 2011

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Top Trends in Sports This Week

By: Lionel

For a long time it was Carmelo, and the past few weeks it’s been Kobe.  But there’s a new sheriff in Fatheadtown.  The best selling Fathead of the past week?  The guy that LeBron called the leading MVP candidate

The top selling Fatheads of the last 7 days (Apr. 15 – Apr. 21):

1.  Derrick Rose

2.  Troy Polamalu

3.  Kobe Bryant

4.  Alex Ovechkin

5.  Derrick Rose Rookie of the Year

6.  New York Yankees Logo

7.  Derek Jeter

8.  Dwyane Wade Drives

9.  Carmelo Anthony

10.  Dallas Cowboys Logo

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April 20, 2011

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NBA Stars Poised to Rise

By: Rick Jarrell

The NBA Playoffs are a proving ground for young NBA players. The new kids on the block can look great at times during the regular season, showing flashes of greatness, but the greats show what they’re made of in the postseason. Aside from Wilt Chamberlain type stat lines, fans don’t remember your regular season performance. In the grand scheme, it doesn’t matter. The playoffs do. It’s where great NBA players become Hall of Famers, and great teams become dynasties.

A fantastically exciting regular season has led us to high expectations for these 2011 NBA Playoffs, sure not to disappoint, with a few rising stars you need to keep an eye on. Of course, we have Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, but their thrones may be in jeopardy if these NBA players live up to their hype.

Derrick Rose

It’s hard to put into words how much Derrick Rose progressed through the season, but I will. Picked as one of the top three NBA teams in the Eastern Conference early on, the Chicago Bulls suffered various injuries to their frontline. Carlos Boozer, their prize free agent signing, was lost for six weeks with a broken thumb before the first game. Then, defensive stalwart Joakim Noah tore a ligament in his thumb and was lost for six weeks.

Not a problem for Rose. He carried the team through the rough patch nearly single handedly (not to diminish the performance of the rest of the team, a series of perfect role players for Coach Tom Thibodeau’s system). And when Boozer and Noah came back, the Bulls went full steam ahead to the number one overall seed. It’s laughable to think that NBA experts suggested Michael Beasley be drafted number one overall instead of Rose.

But as I said, his regular season performance pales in comparison to what he needs to do in the playoffs to begin his legacy. Rose has big shoes to fill in Chicago, where a guy name Michael Jordan dominated the league for the better part of the 1990s. While there will never be another MJ, Rose has shown he’s more than ready to take the Bulls back to dynasty status. Rose scored 39 points in Game 1 against the Indiana Pacers, with a key drive and kick out to Kyle Korver to ice the game, and another 36 points in Game 2. The first round is supposed to be a warm up for the top seeds. If tradition remains true, I can’t wait to see what D-Rose does the rest of the NBA Playoffs.

Kevin Durant

Touted as an amazing pure scorer coming out of Texas, Durant has lived up to the hype. A wet jump shot, ability to twist his way to the rim, and a great system have helped propel KD to NBA superstardom. But playoff success has eluded him so far.

Last season, Durant’s Oklahoma City Thunder pushed the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers to the sixth game of the first round. A correct box out by Serge Ibaka would have most likely sent the series to seven. That’s an incredible leap for such a young team. But although Durant’s team had a good series, his performance was not up to his regular season numbers.

Fast forward to this year, and OKC has secured a fourth seed and become a trendy pick to make it to, and even win, the NBA Championship. Durant knows his performance the previous postseason was not acceptable for legacy building and is making up for it by starting with 41 points and 9 rebounds in a win over the Denver Nuggets.

Russell Westbrook

As a sophomore, Westbrook’s performances mostly fell into the shadow of Kevin Durant. There were flashes of what would be – a diesel train into the paint, much like Derrick Rose – but it took the 2011 NBA season for fans to see what Westbrook is capable of. The UCLA product has become a solid second option behind Durant and one of the top five point guards in the league. Some analysts say Westbrook still has a lot of room to improve, that he still makes a lot of “rookie mistakes” a Hall of Fame point guard shouldn’t make (true), but he’s only in his third year. I’d argue that Westbrook is nearly as important to the Thunder as Durant, and Durant’s star would not be shining as bright with another point running the offense. Batman’s Robin added 31 points and 7 assists to help push the team to a Game 1 win. In all likelihood, Durant and Westbrook will rise together – each as important as the other.

So while you’re watching the NBA Playoffs and marveling at Kobe Bryant’s campaign for a sixth championship, or the Miami Heat’s big three’s attempt to justify their offseason decisions, remember the young guys. I’ve heard stories of fans watching MJ, Magic Johnson, and Larry Bird rise from stars to legends. Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant, and Russell Westbrook offer the younger fans a chance to enjoy the transformation themselves.