March 29, 2013

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Welcoming the Houston Astros to the AL West

By: Matt Bowen

Opening Day is only a few days away and Major League Baseball will have a slightly new look this year for the first time since 1998, when the Milwaukee Brewers switched from the American League to the National league because of expansion teams Tampa Bay and Arizona.

The Astros will be moving from the NL Central to the AL West in 2013.

Now, for the first time in league history, each league will have 15 teams. Also, each division will have five teams. The Astros are set to join the AL West amongst the likes of the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, Oakland Athletics, Seattle Mariners and their in-state and now divisional rival Texas Rangers.

Baseball is so excited for the move that the MLB decided that the very first game of 2013 will be the Astros hosting the Rangers. Houston righty Bud Norris gets the Opening Day nod against Texas lefty Matt Harrison.

One man to keep your eye on during the broadcast is Rangers CEO Nolan Ryan, who spent some of his best days of his Hall of Fame career in an Astros uniform, which will look strikingly familiar.

The Astros needed a new look, so they turned back the clock and mimicked their jerseys first introduced in 1975. Sure, they’re not quite as vibrant as the multiple shades of orange, but they definitely have that vibe. Don’t be surprised when the team goes full throwback a few times this season.

After all, the Astros have a new lease on their baseball life in the AL West. Yes, they lost 107 games last season, but a new chapter in their history is about to commence. Thanks to swapping leagues and the new look, Astros fans should have a new outlook.

The organization may have a ways to go before they reach glory, but they are beginning to put the right pieces in place. New manager Bo Porter is a great start. In his recent past, Porter was the third base coach for the Washington Nationals, who made the playoffs last year with an NL-best 98 wins last season. Knowing how to win is invaluable in sports and Porter has tasted victory. Now, his No. 1 job is to change the mindset in Houston.  Porter is doing just that as he’s prepping his men to be champions. Fans can’t argue with Porter’s passion.

Another thing to look forward to as an Astros fan is young players Jose Altuve and Matt Dominguez. Altuve hit .290 in 2012 with 33 stolen bases as a second baseman. He may be small in size (5’5”), but he has a big game. Last year was his first full season in the majors and he may have run out of gas down the stretch. Expect him to be ready to go for 162 games this season.

Dominguez is a 23-year-old prospect that’s been champing at the bit to make an impact at the major league level. After being dealt to the Astros last season from the Miami Marlins, he hit five homers in just 109 at-bats and hit .284. He’ll be a welcomed star for the Astros by season’s end.

Just like the team’s motto on their webpage this season, “It’s a whole new ballgame” in Houston.

March 27, 2013

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NFL Free Agency Winners

By: Joe Williams

There are just a couple weeks left until the NFL Draft so you know what that means…it’s time to judge who “won” and “lost” in free agency. And we’re going to do it only about nine months before we really know how good these teams are and what signings were actually good.

Tom Brady and the Patriots will be moving forward without Wes Welker in the 2013 season.

Tom Brady and the Patriots will be moving forward without Wes Welker in the 2013 season.

New England Patriots

Yeah they lost Wes Welker to Denver, but signing Danny Amendola is a nice replacement. But that’s not why the Patriots are on the list. It’s because Bernard (Patriot-killer) Pollard has joined the Tennessee Titans. You may remember that it was Pollard who sacked Tom Brady on the play where Brady tore his ACL in 2008. He was also involved in the play when Wes Welker got a torn ACL in 2009 and when Rob Gronkowski got hurt and missed the Super Bowl. And just a couple months ago it was a ferocious hit from Pollard that knocked Stevan Ridley out and forced a crucial fumble in the AFC Championship Game that Baltimore went on to win. But this year, the Patriots don’t have to worry about Pollard because they don’t play the Titans. (I reserve the right to change this opinion if the NFL schedules the Patriots and Titans to play in the preseason.)

Seattle Seahawks

Seattle started the offseason with a bang by trading for one of the most dangerous weapons in the league in Percy Harvin. Then they added Cliff Avril and Michael Bennett to an already stellar defense.

Kyle Arrington

The New England defensive back (and new father) just scored a year’s worth of diapers from new Patriot Adrian Wilson for giving up the number 24 jersey, allowing Wilson to keep his number from his days in Arizona.

Elvis Dumervil

In one of the strangest free agent developments I can remember, Dumervil was cut from Denver because his agent didn’t get a signed agreement faxed to the team seven minutes earlier. Instead, Elvis was cut by the Broncos even though he wanted to stay and they wanted to keep him. It was an embarrassing situation for everyone involved, but signing a 5-year, $35 million contract with the defending Super Bowl champs is a nice recovery for Dumervil.

Denver Broncos

If not for the previously mention Dumervil debacle, the Broncos would have an almost perfect off season so far. Adding Wes Welker, Louis Vasquez, Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie and Terrance Knighton fills just about every hole on the roster. If they can bring in Dwight Freeney or John Abraham to replace Dumervil, they will be in great shape heading into the draft.

Tim Tebow

Even though he isn’t a free agent, Tebow makes the list because there is finally a team that has come forward and said they actually want him on the roster. Yeah it is the Orlando Predators and yeah it is the Arena Football League. But at least he’d get a shot to play quarterback.

Miami Dolphins

The Dolphins landed the biggest fish in free agency when they signed WR Mike Wallace. They have also made a splash by signing WR Brandon Gibson, TE Dustin Keller, and linebackers Philip Wheeler and Dannell Ellerbe. If all goes well, they could challenge the Patriots in the AFC East. If not, at least they have given their fans some hope and shown that they are going for it.

March 26, 2013

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The Week In Sports

By: Anson Whaley

Sweet 16 set in the NCAA Tournament: The first week of the NCAA Tournament is complete and, as usual, there were a fair share of big upsets. The big ones in the first round were tiny Florida Gulf Coast shocking the world by beating No. 2 seeded Georgetown and No. 3 seed New Mexico being ousted by Harvard. Lots will be made about some of those weaker teams being underseeded, but the fact is that if you played the tournament a dozen times, you might have a dozen different champions. Any team is capable of losing on any given night and if a team like Florida Gulf Coast played Georgetown ten times, it’s difficult to believe they’d win the majority of those games. But that’s the beauty of March.

Brian Urlacher appears to be on his way out of Chicago.

Brian Urlacher leaving Chicago: A bit of a surprise in NFL free agency was that the Chicago Bears didn’t re-sign longtime linebacker Brian Urlacher. Urlacher, a mainstay on the team for the past 13 years, couldn’t come to terms with the team. He had come down considerably from his initial asking price for the 2013 season, but that still wasn’t enough to get the Bears to move from their $2 million offer, as reported by ESPN. Reportedly, his agent has already talked with the Dallas Cowboys, Minnesota Vikings, and Arizona Cardinals. Now at 35, Urlacher is surely slowing down – his tackles have dropped each of the past two seasons. But the bet here is that some team will take a chance on him. With no other options, his asking price may have to come down, though.

Denver Nuggets dominating with 15-game winning streak: With everyone focused on the Miami Heat’s remarkable streak, the Denver Nuggets have gone under the radar. The Nuggets won their 15th straight game this past weekend, beating Sacramento on Saturday. As a result, Denver has soared up to the No. 3 seed in the Western Conference, passing the Los Angeles Clippers and Memphis Grizzlies in the process. The Nuggets have been winning this year on youth and depth. The team has only three players over the age of 25 and only one of those, Andre Miller, is over 30. Also, nine players average more than eight points a game, but none average more than 17. With so much youth and balance, if the Nuggets keep their core together, this is a franchise that could compete for years to come.

Hanley Ramirez out for two months: The Dodgers got some bad news with Opening Day just around the corner. Star shortstop Hanley Ramirez had a torn ligament in his thumb and required surgery last week. Because of it, Ramirez will miss about eight weeks recovering. That’s a tough break for the Dodgers, who picked him up in a trade last season. In 2012 splitting time with the Dodgers and Marlins, Ramirez hit 24 home runs and drove in 92 runs, having one of his best offensive seasons of his career. Not having him until close to May could mean the Dodgers get off to a slow start.

Sergio Garcia hits golf ball … from tree: The final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational was on Sunday. You might assume that the real news was that the event was suspended due to weather, but you’d be wrong. The big highlight came from Sergio Garcia hitting a golf ball while atop a tree branch. Don’t believe me? Here’s the video. Whatever your interest level is in golf, there’s no denying that shots like these make it interesting. Still, I’m not sure Garcia’s move was all that wise. A slip of the foot could have meant a nasty fall and possibly even an end to his season. Not to mention that Garcia double-bogeyed the hole anyway and later withdrew. Still, if we’re going by entertainment value, this one’s a ten all the way. And as a spectator, I’d much rather see Garcia take a gamble like that.

U.S. Soccer wins match over Costa Rica despite snow protest: You read that right. The U.S. Soccer team defeated Costa Rica 1-0 in the qualifying for the FIFA World Cup in the snow in Denver. Costa Rica protested during the match and also filed a formal protest immediately afterwards. Typically, this is where I’d say that both teams had equal playing conditions so Costa Rica should suck it up. But I also understand the point in protesting. Soccer isn’t like, pardon the pun, (American) football where snow is considered as a part of the playing conditions. When you think of soccer, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? For most of us, it’s not white stuff falling to the ground. I don’t mind a match being played if it’s a little bit of snow, but the field was covered to the point where Costa Rican players were complaining that they couldn’t even adequately see the lines. Keep in mind, this is also the qualifying for the World Cup – it’s not a meaningless preseason MLB game. With so much at stake, postponing the game would have made more sense. Similarly hilarious is the fact that a qualifying match was even scheduled in Denver when there’s always a chance of spring snow.

March 20, 2013

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Let The Madness Begin

By: Joe Williams

The best tournament of the year is under way. I’ve already filled out my NCAA Tournament bracket – thrown it away – and filled out a new one. But I don’t like this one either. Time to start over and make a final attempt. But before I do, there are a few things I’m going to keep in mind.

There are many factors to keep in mind when filling out your NCAA Tournament bracket.

A No. 5 seed is going down. You can take that to the bank. The hard part is figuring out which one it will be. UNLV looks like the obvious choice because they have a rematch with Cal and it’s only about an hour away from the Bears’ campus. VCU could be in trouble if Akron wasn’t going to play without their star point guard. So the Oklahoma State Cowboys better be on upset alert because they have to play an Oregon team that is better than its 12 seed.

We also know that there is probably going to be a double-digit seed in the Sweet 16. Some of the best candidates are Colorado, Bucknell, Oregon, Middle Tennessee St., Minnesota, and Iowa St. Look for two of these teams to make it to the second weekend. It’s Bucknell and Iowa St. in my bracket.

The Mountain West Conference will have a good showing. Five teams got in (New Mexico, UNLV, San Diego St., Colorado St. and Boise St.) and all five will win at least one game..starting with the Broncos on Wednesday night. The SEC, on the other hand, will struggle to find a W. Florida should get one but that could be it.

The key to a successful bracket is to avoid picking teams to make a deep run and then they fall to an early-round upset. That’s going to be tough this year with how even the field appears to be. Here’s one team to avoid in each region…Florida, Syracuse, Ohio State and Duke.

All four No. 1 seeds have reached the Final Four just one time in history. Don’t expect it to happen again this year. Which top team will make it to Atlanta? The last nine national champs have had blue for a school color so I will take Gonzaga and Kansas to win their regions. I’ll take St. Louis to shock the top-seeded Louisville Cardinals and win the Midwest. And if I’m sticking with blue then I guess its Marquette out of the East Region. And I better be right. I can’t afford another finish at the bottom of the office pool or I’m the one that’s going to be blue.

March 19, 2013

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Highlighting This Year’s Biggest Cinderellas

By: Matt Bowen

NCAA March Madness is officially upon us as our minds, and our desks, are now cluttered with a plethora of brackets.

With bragging rights on the line for the next year, selecting the perfect upsets along the way play a huge factor in the end result.

Should #1 seed Louisville fear a matchup with the Saint Louis Billikens?

Everyone loves an underdog and this year the field of 68 is as wide open as it’s ever been. Say what you want in regards to the way the NCAA governs college athletics, the NCAA basketball tournament is the cat’s meow.

The parity in men’s college basketball is gorgeous and the look of Cinderella has now changed. No longer does a Cinderella have to have a lower seed or be from a small conference.  In fact, it’s just the opposite.

This article highlights one Cinderella in each region and the results may surprise. No, as a No. 1 seed Gonzaga is not one of them. They have graduated from the Cinderella ranks over the past decade. So too has Butler, so don’t be confused when they don’t make the list. These two schools are the exemplary models of what is right in college basketball.

With that being said, let’s find out just which schools look to become the darlings of the college basketball world.

The South Region: Minnesota Golden Gophers

Surprise, surprise, a team from the Big Ten, which was the best conference in the country, ends up as a Cinderella in the tournament. Don’t be.

After a strong start to their season and a favorable ranking in the national polls, the Minnesota Golden Gophers stumbled to a 20-12 record. Their biggest win of the season against then No. 1 Indiana is what punched their ticket to the dance.

Even with an 11 seed, the Golden Gophers aren’t to be taken lightly in the tournament. They have a skilled big man in Trevor Mbakwe, a talented point guard in Andre Hollins and an all-world flyer in Rodney Williams. When they are focused on the task at hand, they are as difficult to beat as any team in the country.

Their first game is up against UCLA, and with a victory they would most likely face the Florida Gators. This isn’t putting the horse before the cart, but the Golden Gophers are capable of beating both of these teams.

Remember, a trip to the Sweet 16 and a Cinderella is born. Think twice before you write-off Minnesota.

The East Region: UNLV Runnin’ Rebels

Yes, the UNLV Rebels are ranked a No. 5 seed, but everyone will be rooting for them in less than a week.

They finished the season third in a Mountain West Conference that received five nods from the committee this March. The conference is a prime example of why college basketball is tough across the board. The respect earned by the Mountain West this season is phenomenal.

UNLV is a scrappy team that has one of the best freshmen in the land. Anthony Bennett is a name that fans from sea to shining sea will be talking about soon enough. He averaged 16.1 points/game this season to go along with 8.1 rebounds.

UNLV has already beaten their first opponent California this year and will burst into the limelight by beating a topsy-turvy Syracuse squad in the round of 32.

Long forgotten on the college hoops scene no more, UNLV will be rolling.

The West Region: Wichita State Shockers

Coming in as a No. 9 seed, the Wichita State Shockers look to make quick work of the Pitt Panthers before a third-round match-up puts them up against No. 1 seed Gonzaga.

The Shockers have wins against tournament teams like Virginia Commonwealth and Creighton this season. They’re a team that has 11 players, yes 11 that averaged more than 10 minutes a game this season.

That means that they’ll be the most rested team in the tournament. Another bonus, foul trouble doesn’t affect them like it would many others. That kind of depth gives the advantage to the Shockers, especially in a situation where overtime may occur.

They’re a true team where every kid on the team is an intricate piece to the puzzle. They’re a team that outsiders can easily become fond of quickly.

The Midwest Region: St. Louis Billikens

Though they may be a No. 4 seed, the St. Louis Billikens are a real Cinderella. They took the A-10 Conference over the likes of Virginia Commonwealth and Butler this season.

How did they do so when it seems they just came into the national spotlight?

Well, for starters they won 15-of-16 to end the season, which earned them such a pleasant seed. They beat ranked VCU and Butler all four times they played them this season.

They also beat New Mexico, who just so happens to be the No. 3 seed in the West Region this season.

To put it lightly—they fear none. A Sweet 16 victory over the No. 1 overall seed Louisville Cardinals would prove that last statement. Don’t be surprised when that happens.

Enjoy!