April 11, 2011

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Who Will Bring Home the 2010-11 Hart Trophy?

By: Anson Whaley

The NHL 2010-11 regular season is winding down, and it’s time to take a look at some of the leading candidates to take home the league’s Most Valuable Player award – the Hart Trophy.

Last year’s honoree, Henrik Sedin, is a candidate to become a repeat winner. With a second consecutive trophy, Sedin would join an exclusive club consisting of only 11 players including greats such as Wayne Gretzky, Dominik Hasek, Bobby Orr, Bobby Hull, Gordie Howe. Sure, he doesn’t score much (Sedin has a modest 19 goals this year and has never scored 30 during any season in his career), but he sets up other scoring plays as few others can and has more than 150 assists over the past two years.

Sedin’s stiffest challenge for the award could ironically come from twin brother and Vancouver Canucks teammate, Daniel Sedin. Despite a spectacular 2009-10 season in which he tallied 85 points in only 63 games, Daniel didn’t figure into the Hart Trophy voting. A foot injury that cost him several weeks of playing time last season wiped out any chance he had of gathering any votes for the award in 2010. But fully healthy this year, Daniel has put up the best numbers of his career. He led the league in scoring and set career highs in goals and assists. The Sedin brothers may be competing with each other, though, since they’re on the same team and could end up splitting some votes as voters try to decide just who is Vancouver’s MVP.

Another pair of teammates are also right there for a chance at the Hart. Martin St. Louis and Steven Stamkos of the Tampa Bay Lightningare another duo putting up a lot of points this season. St. Louis has been the model of consistency over his career, scoring at least 25 goals over the past eight seasons. As one of the top three scorers in the league, he’s sure to get at least some consideration for the trophy. Unfortunately for him, teammate Steven Stamkos is having quite a year himself, scoring 40 goals and also putting up nearly 100 points. St. Louis and Stamkos may have a similar problem as the Sedins in that they may cost each other some votes.

While the Canucks and Lightning made the playoffs comfortably, another candidate comes from a team that had to fight its way in, clinching a spot late in the season. Corey Perry of the Anaheim Ducks should garner quite a bit of consideration for leading his team to the playoffs. The Ducks finished near the bottom of the conference, but an argument could be made that they’re not a postseason team without the 50-goal scorer. He’s always been a reliable goal scorer, but this season went from good to great, finishing with close to 100 points. That could be the difference in him winning the award for the first time in his career.

One player a bit under the radar for the first time in a while is the CapitalsAlex Ovechkin.  Ovechkin may be the league’s most talented player, and, even though his point totals are the lowest of his career, he still led Washington to the top of the Eastern Conference. That alone should be enough to keep him in contention for some votes.

And even though the award typically goes to an offensive talent, goalies and defensemen do occasionally win the trophy. A few goalies to keep an eye on are Boston’s Tim Thomas and Vancouver’s Roberto Luongo. Thomas is the better goalie statistically, leading the league in goals against average and save percentage. The Bruins also won the Division title and he was obviously a big reason for that. Luongo, however, plays for the NHL’s top team, the only team to win 50 games. His nearly 40 wins led the league this season. And a dark horse candidate to steal a few votes may be the PenguinsMarc Andre Fleury. The Pens have played much of the season without their two best players in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and Fleury’s goaltending is the sole reason they are still standing. Pittsburgh has not only finished as a playoff team, but they were near the top of the entire conference. Take away a team’s two best players, and many teams would not win as much as the Penguins have this season.

April 5, 2011

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Finding Fun in a Lost Season

By: Rick Jarrell

A losing season doesn’t have to be a complete loss for the fans

Being an NBA fan can be a fun and exciting experience, especially if your favorite team has a chance to make a run at a title. Recent draft picks, player acquisitions, or a new coaching regime can turn a team around in the blink of an eye. But sometimes these triumphed moves don’t pay dividends as expected, and the season becomes a long, drawn out exhibition. It doesn’t mean you have to suffer, though! There’s still value to be gained from a lost season if you follow these guidelines.

Take Advantage Early

One of the benefits of professional sports is the new slate every team gets at the outset of each season. No matter the previous season’s outcome, a new season brings optimism that this could be the year. What if all the offseason moves come together like a puzzle and bring the city a title? That rejuvenating feeling, though, is often temporary. Chances are your team’s hopes and dreams of a championship will not come true – but all is not lost!

Take advantage of the new season before it sours. Attend a few games early on. Catch the games on TV while they’re still competitive. Buy merchandise while it doesn’t feel like a waste of money. Support the team while it’s more pleasurable than grueling. Because we all know those waning months of a season going nowhere can be torture to a fan, as well as to the players and organization. Look at the Cleveland Cavaliers this year:  after LeBron James’ departure, experts predicted this season to be abysmal for the Cavs. Those experts were right, but the team had their moment in the sun with a surprising 4-4 record in the first eight games of the season. Enjoy the early blast off before the season is forced down to Earth.

Rebuilding Doesn’t Mean Quitting

When the season does begin to take a turn for the worse, instead jumping ship, try to accept it. The rebuilding phase is an inevitable part of a professional sports organization (unless you’re the Lakers or Celtics, that is). Instead of grading the team on wins and losses, assess the development of the individual players. Pretend you’re part of the front office. Analyze the potential of the current players and make decisions on who should be part of the future, and who should be shipped out. The group assembled may not be great at the moment, but there are pieces on every team that could become superstars or major role players with the right surroundings.

Have you ever spoken to someone who remembers seeing Michael Jordan play as a rookie? And how cool it sounds? And how jealous it makes you (and by you, I mean me)? While there will probably never be another Jordan, a superstar in the making may be developing right in front of your eyes. Don’t miss the opportunity to see players like John Wall, Blake Griffin and Kevin Love mature into their full potential. And if there isn’t a future superstar on the current squad, there could be another Luc Longley, Steve Kerr, or Robert Horry in the making.

Promotions and Giveaways

It’s natural for a fan to lose interest once the losses pile up. The opening game sellout can turn into a comparatively vacant area if the team doesn’t start performing quickly. At the end of the day, however, the NBA is a business. The unsold seats represent lost revenue for a league struggling financially as it is, so they create various promotions and giveaways to re-entice fans.

Check to see what your local team has to offer and put together an outing. This year alone, the Washington Wizards have done ticket giveaways, family fun packs, pregame theme parties inside sections of the Verizon Center, and pregame bar-hops around the arena, to name only a few promotions. And similar promotions exist all around the league. Even if the game doesn’t go as pleased, the surrounding events make it for a solid group outing.

When Stars Comes to Town…

Although your favorite team may be wasting away like rotten vegetables, that doesn’t mean there isn’t good basketball to be seen. Every team in the NBA plays each other at least twice a season. When the schedule comes out, make a note of when the top teams and players are coming to town. Get tickets early or wait for a deal later in the season. Snag some last minute promotional giveaways.

The Wizards have been in rebuilding mode for a few years now, and it hasn’t been the most fun for the fan base, but I’ve been able to see Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, Dirk Nowitzki, and Derrick Rose in person without breaking the bank. I’ll admit those three games weren’t exactly competitive, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t a hell of a lot of fun to watch.

There’s Always Next Year

The misery will only last so long. It sounds cliché, but there’s always next year (or the year after that for those teams in serious disarray). Two years ago, the Oklahoma City Thunder were a lowly 23-59 – another lost season for the franchise formerly known as the Seattle Supersonics. But last season, they surprised the NBA by making the Western Conference playoffs and pushing the Los Angeles Lakers, in between their two back to back titles at the time, to the 6th game of the first round – a series widely accepted to be a cakewalk for the best team in the league. The Thunder had a solid young core, not unlike many others around the NBA. Next year your team could make a similar jump.

Plus, the way the NBA is currently arranged, the more losses a team accrues, the higher the odds they’ll earn a top draft pick. A deep playoff run is favorable, but the consolation prize of a potential star isn’t bad.

Transform your anger and frustration from seasons past into excitement for your new draft pick, offseason acquisitions, or coach. Because this could be the year that your “what if?” comes true in the form of a championship – a truly just reward for the years of misery.

April 4, 2011

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2011 Masters Preview

By: Anson Whaley

It’s the time of the sports calendar that signals Spring. The Final Four, the start of baseball season, and the ends of the NBA and NHL regular seasons all mean that the weather is getting warmer. But the Masters is, perhaps, the biggest sporting event of the season. The weather forecast for this week is favorable with temperatures in the 70’s and 80’s and plenty of sun, so we should be all set for four days of excellent golf.

Here are a few players that will be ready to claim the green jacket.

2011 may mark the first time that Tiger Woodsisn’t declared as a heavy favorite by fans. Not only is he winless so far this season, he failed to record a single victory in 2010. It used to feel like a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ Woods would regain his previous form, but the longer he goes without winning, the harder it might be for him. Still, with four Masters titles under his belt, Tiger can’t be counted out as he continues to pursue Jack Nicklaus‘ record of 18 major championships. Woods knows the course well having competed on it for nearly 15 years and is still one of the game’s biggest drivers. That plays perfectly into his hands, despite the club’s attempt to ‘Tiger-proof’ the course in recent years.

Then there’s Phil Mickelson– the defending champion. Lefty isn’t only a favorite because he won the green jacket last season, but because he’s been wildly successful at Augusta throughout his entire career. He also has two prior Masters victories and an astounding six additional top five finishes. Even more impressive than that, Mickelson is almost always in the thick of things as he’s finished in the top ten every year since 1999 with the exception of 2007 when he came in 24th place. Few, if any, golfers have had that kind of success at any tournament, let alone the Masters.

Martin Kaymer, the current No. 1 player in the World Golf Rankings, mightbe a contender. He won the PGA Championship last year for his first major and finished in second place in this season’s WGC Accenture Match Play Championship in February. But Kaymer has yet to even get past the cut at the Masters over the past three years and with a strong field, he will have his work cut out for him. He has the talent, but the lack of experience in playing past Friday may be a factor in his ability to close the deal on Sunday even if he does make the cut in 2011.

One player to watch in my opinion is Luke Donald. Donald, the third-ranked player in the world is off to a great start this season. He’s finished in the top ten in three of his four PGA Tour events and won the WGC Accenture Match Play Championship. Donald had to defeat two top ten golfers in Kaymer and ninth-ranked Matt Kuchar on his way to the title and is playing some of the best golf of his career. He will be overlooked by many, despite his No. 3 World Golf Ranking, because he’s never won a major. But Donald has finished in the top ten in the Masters twice over the past five seasons, including a third place finish in 2005. He has all the tools to break through and potentially capture his first Masters victory.

Young guns like Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson will try to make their mark and other top-ranked players Lee Westwood, Graeme McDowell, and Paul Casey could also be right there in the end. But some older golfers will also be looking to make history, too.

25 years ago in 1986, a past-his-prime Jack Nicklaus laid claim to his 18thand final major. Not many gave him a chance as he hadn’t won a major since 1980, but Nicklaus found a way to win. In 2009 the age of 59, Tom Watsonbecame the oldest golfer to lead a major as he looked to win the British Open. Watson not only held a lead, but topped the leaderboard heading into Sunday. He eventually lost in a playoff to Stewart Cink, but proved that golfers into their 50’s can still be competitive in major championships. Experience counts for so much in golf and while players such as Fred Couples and Vijay Singhshouldn’t be expected to contend this weekend, well… you never know.

March 23, 2011

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Chad Ochocinco and the Pursuit of Multi-Sport Excellence

By: Lionel

I’m sure you’ve heard by now that Chad Ochocinco is trying out for Major League Soccer’s Sporting KC.  Ochocinco has never shied away from publicity, and MLS needs all the publicity it can get, so the tryout itself can’t be looked at as anything but positive.  The potential for controversy really comes down to the decision the team will have to make at the end of the tryout.

Maybe he’ll legitimately earn his way onto the team.  There’s no denying that he, like so many pros in any sport, is an exceptional athlete.  He’s faster, stronger, more agile, more fit, and has better hand-eye coordination than 99.99% of the athletes in this country (when you include amateurs), so there’s no doubt in my mind that he has an infinitely better chance of making the Sporting KC team than I or any of the guys on my softball team would have.  But is freaky athleticism enough to secure a spot on a professional soccer team when you haven’t played organized soccer in a decade?

Michael Jordan was one of the greatest athletes the world has ever witnessed.  But even “His Greatness” wasn’t able to successfully make the switch from basketball to baseball.  Recently retired pitcher John Smoltz was one of the best hurlers in baseball of the past three decades.  His outstanding skills, however, have not yet been enough to launch a second career in golf.  Had either of them given the same time and focus to their “second” sports that they gave to their “first” sports, is it possible that Jordan would today be mentioned in the same breath as Cal Ripken, Wade Boggs, and Ken Griffey, Jr., and that Smoltz would have spent the last two decades competing with the likes of Ernie Els, Vijay Singh, Phil Mickelson, and Tiger Woods?

Multi-sport athletes are certainly not new.  Jim Thorpe, who competed well before the time of anyone reading this, is a legend in baseball, football, basketball, and many track and field events.  In more recent history, Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders put up very respectable baseball numbers while also playing professional football.  But few have been able to truly excel at more than one professional sport.  Even for the extremely gifted, it takes so much time and effort to compete at the highest level in one sport that there just aren’t enough hours in the day or energy in the body to be similarly elite at another game.

Did you know that Tom Brady was drafted by the Expos?  Daunte Culpepper was drafted by the YankeesJohn Elway played in both the Yankees’ and the Royals’ minor league system.  Pat Riley was drafted by the Dallas Cowboys, Danny Ainge played a few seasons for the Blue Jays, Tony Gwynn was drafted by the Clippers, Dan Marino was drafted by the Royals, and Randy “Macho Man” Savage played minor league ball for the Cardinals and Reds (Oh, yeah!).  Each of these guys made a choice to concentrate on a single sport in an endeavor to excel, recognizing, I’m sure, that he couldn’t reach the level of greatness that he eventually reached if his efforts were divided between two sports.

Is it completely a matter of divided efforts, though?  Or are some elite athletes just better suited for certain sports?  Did Dan Marino turn down the opportunity to play baseball because it was clear to him that his skills gave him a much better shot at being a stand-out football player than a stand-out baseball player?  A former college football playing buddy of mine often questions the choices he’s made.  “For all I know,” he’ll say, “I could be the greatest pickle ball player, buffalo chip tosser, or Marco Poloist in the world, but I haven’t ever attempted any of them.”  Maybe every elite athlete is built specifically for a certain game—athleticism can make him/her very good at many things, but only truly exceptional at one.

Whatever the case may be, the Ochocinco soccer tryout makes a great story.  Can he achieve greatness in a second professional sport?  I highly doubt it.  But I marvel at his athleticism, and I don’t think I’m alone in saying that I can’t wait to watch the story unfold.

March 15, 2011

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The NCAA Tournament Is Unpredictable

By: Joe Williams

As we speak, millions of people across the nation are frantically trying to find the formula to create a perfect NCAA tournament bracket so they can win the office pool or online contests. They are wasting their time. Odds are their pools will be won by someone whose picks are based on jersey colors or mascot names.

Some top seeds will make a deep run in the tournament. Some won’t. Some underdogs will pull off shocking upsets. Some will get blown-out. How do we know which will be which? We don’t. There is a reason they call it March Madness.

Here are a few things to think about as you fill out your bracket:

First No. 1 seed to go down

All four No. 1 seeds will not make the Final Four. So who will be the first to lose? Duke. The Blue Devils come in as the defending champions. They won’t leave that way. They rely on the long ball and sooner or later the 3’s will stop falling.

No. 1 seed to reach Final Four

At least one of them will make it. Kansas is that team. They are 32-2 and looking for redemption after going down early last year.

Big East dominance

11 teams from the Big East Conference are in the field. With possible Cincinnati vs. Connecticut and Syracuse vs. Marquette in the second round, nine Big East teams are the most that could be in the Sweet 16. Just five will make it.

Cinderella 2011

Gonzaga used to have a death-grip on the Cinderella title but they have outgrown it. This year it could be Utah State. The Aggies are a veteran team that knows how to win. They’ve already won 30 times this season. Don’t be surprised if they pick up wins 31 and 32.

There’s room on the bandwagon

A couple weeks ago, BYUwas in the conversation for a No. 1 seed. The Cougars haven’t played as well after the suspension of their biggest inside threat Brandon Davies and people have been jumping off the Cougar bandwagon. They will have matchup problems with some teams, but BYU has the nation’s leading scorer in Jimmer Fredette and they make free throws. They are still a dangerous team.

BYU Cougars Basketball Logo

Player to watch

Kemba Walker. He carried the Connecticut Huskies to a Big East Tournament championship, leading his team to five wins in five days. How much does Walker have left in the tank? If he and the Huskies aren’t out of gas they can beat anybody. If they are running on fumes they can lose to anybody.

Something to prove

Nobody likes being told they don’t belong. When the brackets were revealed on Sunday that is just what happened to UAB and VCU. Experts across the nation said they should not be in the field of 68. Did they deserve a bid more than Colorado and Virginia Tech? Maybe. Maybe not. But I think they will both come out determined to prove they belong and win a game.