Articles By All

Path: /nascar/exclusive-qa-nascar-rookie-justin-allgaier

Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers, and more.

Following the race last Sunday at Martinsville Speedway, rookie Justin Allgaier, driver of the No. 51 Brandt Chevrolet SS for HScott Motorsports sat down with David for an extended interview. What follows is an edited transcript of their chat.

Justin Allgaier: Hey, just to let you know I’m on dad duty today, so I might have to tend to Harper as this goes on.

David Smith: I’m good with it, and actually that’s a good starting point. You’re a relatively new father (daughter Harper was born last August), and there’s an adage in racing that suggests you lose a little of your aggression whenever a child enters the picture. Do you feel as if you have experienced this?

I think the best example of that is Jimmie Johnson. I don’t see that guy slowing down too much after having kids. For me, the way I look at is that I feel my drive and my hunger got even more focused now that I have a daughter. I’m still trying to make my way in the sport and I want to be here for a long time. I want her to grow up knowing her dad is a race car driver, and a successful one.

Focusing on aggression, in recent years, you’ve had some rather colorful post-race chats with the likes of Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick. When another race car driver points to you and says ‘Justin Allgaier races me hard’ or ‘is very aggressive,’ what, in your opinion, prompts them to say that?

I won’t deny that there are times when I’m more aggressive than most, but I wouldn’t say you hear my name associated with driving against someone and wrecking them or retaliating or anything like that. When I was younger I was in a lot of 20- and 25-lap features where you fought for every position. Obviously my job is to go out and win races. I’m not going to say that there aren't times when I should probably give up a spot or two, but at the same time, I would say the people that have a problem with me have raced me a certain way in the past. I tend to race people the same way that they race me. Kurt and I had our differences, but now we’re on the same page and we race each other really well. Danica and I had our discussion earlier this year, and I feel like we race each other well now. A lot of times these conversations end with going back on the track and racing each other with respect.

I track passing statistics, and you’re what is called a ‘positive value passer,’ which is to say you’re passing more efficiently than expected for a driver with your average running position (a plus-3.27 percent surplus passing value through Martinsville). Are you finding that it’s as easy to pass in your neighborhood of the running order in the Cup Series as it was in the NASCAR Nationwide Series?

We started out this year with our share of problems — bad luck, or whatever you want to call it — that hindered us from running where we should be running. When we get into the race, I don’t always feel like we start where we should be and if we have a good race and we’re running well, I feel like we can pass to where we should be. In the Nationwide Series we were qualifying around 12th and finishing somewhere around eighth to 10th. I wasn’t moving around a whole lot and I felt like I raced where I should have been. There were times when we had good races and won or finished second or third and there were times we had bad races and we finished 15th to 20th. I definitely feel like we have more to show on the Cup side — and we’ll get there eventually — to where we’re starting and finishing better.

What’s been the primary difference for you between racing in the Nationwide Series and racing in the Cup Series?

I think the biggest difference is that in the Nationwide Series, there are 15 to 20 good cars and if you have a bad day you finish 20th. And that’s frustrating, right? But on the Cup side, if you have a bad day you finish 41st. It’s crazy … (at Martinsville) we finished 23rd and that was the hardest-fought 23rd-place finish of my entire career. We were running better than that at one point and got moved out of the way. The competition level and the quality of cars are absolutely insane to me.

What about the competition level – Restarts? Pitting? Closing? – is harder than outside observers think it would be?

Probably qualifying. You get out there and your first lap on the racetrack is usually going to be your fastest. When you qualify, you’re on such an edge. Once the race starts, you can kind of calm down. Restarts tend to get a little bit crazy, but to me, qualifying is the thing that’s harder than it looks, just based on how hard you have to go.


NASCAR Mailbox: Are rivalries all they're cracked up to be?

Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and Kasey Kahne are all former Dirt Sprint Car and Midget racers, as are you. They also happen to be adept at road course racing. You have a road course win in the Nationwide Series (Circuit Gilles Villeneuve, 2012) to your credit. Is there causation behind this correlation? Is there something about road courses that just clicks with you dirt kids? Or is having a dirt background a giant coincidence?

I think it’s multi-fold. Number one, in dirt you learn car control that you just don’t find developing on asphalt. The other thing is that in dirt racing you’re constantly searching for a line that allows you to go faster. It’s entering fast, slowing down in the middle and accelerating off the corner or carrying speed through the center; whatever the track calls for, you do it. On asphalt, a lot of times especially in oval racing, you’re going to want to carry center corner speed. That’s the goal, to carry center corner speed. On a road course, that’s not always the key. I feel like dirt racers tend to search around a lot more and maybe that’s why it clicks easier.

You took part in the Roush Fenway Racing gong show tryout (in 2005) and you weren’t picked as the winner. You also were with Team Penske and parted ways with them after two years. By making it to the Cup Series, do you feel a little bit of redemption over teams and decision makers that might not have thought of you as Cup material?

What I’ve felt lately is satisfaction in myself. Back then, I thought I could do it and had the talent to do it. But there are a lot of people that think they have the talent do it, and probably do. I’m very blessed in the situations I’ve been put in and it’s taken every one of those opportunities to get me to where I am now. Had I not been a part of those, there’s no way I would have made it to the Cup Series. I understand that this sport is a business probably more than I want to. I don’t blame anybody for what happened to me. I’m glad everything worked out and that I’m still blessed enough to be in the sport.

David Smith is the founder of Motorsports Analytics LLC and the creator of NASCAR statistics for projection, analysis and scouting. Follow him on Twitter at @DavidSmithMA.

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

An exclusive Q&A session with NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie Justin Allgaier.
Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 23:31
All taxonomy terms: Dustin Johnson, Golf
Path: /golf/wedge-shots-dustin-johnson

Given his 300-plus-yard bombs off the tee, Dustin Johnson has a wedge in his hands quite often, so improving the accuracy of his wedge game has been an important factor in his success. As Butch Harmon says, "He has tremendous self confidence with the driver — he just needed to clean up the looseness with the short irons." That "cleaning up" started with shortening the swing. Here, Dustin explains his thought process with a wedge in his hands.

My swing on my wedge shots has definitely gotten a lot shorter, a little more compact. Forme, the wedge game is really important, I hit a lot of wedges, so if I'm wedging it well, I'm playing well.

It all starts with driving it in the fairway, of course.

Once I'm in the fairway with a wedge in my hands, controlling the flight really helps me with my distance and helps me get the ball close to the hole. I like to hit wedges with a lower trajectory; I don't like to hit it way up in the air. Obviously there are certain situations where you have to hit it up in the air, but for a normal shot, I hit it lower, because I feel like I have more control.
Most of the time I want to draw it two or three yards. My natural swing produces a draw, but you do have to hit it a little bit from the inside so that it will start just right of your target. Hitting a little draw is a good way for amateurs to learn to hit the ball and picture the golf swing, because it gives you better distance control and corrects some common flaws.


Butch Harmon says:

DJ's wedge game was inconsistent because his swing was too long. We've worked to make it a wider, shorter swing that accelerates through the ball. In other words, we've made it a mini version of the full swing. He's worked very hard on it.



This article appears in the 2014 issue of Athlon's Golf Annual. Order your copy today.

Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 18:03
All taxonomy terms: Tiger Woods, Tiger Woods, Golf
Path: /golf/tiger-woods-miss-masters-following-back-surgery

Even while winning 79 PGA Tour events and 14 majors, Tiger Woods has suffered an alarming litany of injuries, to the point that we have to wonder whether he’ll ever be truly healthy again. Tiger announced today that he would miss The Masters, where he's a four-time champion, after surgery to correct a pinched nerve in his back.

"After attempting to get ready for The Masters, and failing to make the necessary progress, I decided, in consultation with my doctors, to have this procedure done," Woods said in a statement.
The statement went on to add that he would be undergoing "intensive rehabilitation and soft-tissue treatment" within a week, and that he hopes to return to competition "sometime this summer."

On the occasion of his latest malady, we present a breakdown of many (but not all) of the well-known injuries that have befallen Woods — and this doesn’t include anything that may or may not have happened to his face on that fateful Thanksgiving night in 2009. Not to mention the injuries to his pride, reputation and self-esteem.

<p> Tiger Woods' Injury History: A Visual Breakdown</p>
Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 12:17
All taxonomy terms: Jason Dufner, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2014-majors-no-11-jason-dufner

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2014 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

No. 11: Jason Dufner

Born: March 24, 1977, Cleveland, Ohio | Career PGA Tour Wins: 3 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $3,132,268 (16th) World Ranking: 16

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Jason Dufner would have a greater chance to win more tournaments if course set-ups weren't biased toward television ratings. Giving in to the excitement of the slash-and-gouge world that golf has drifted towards, courses are more democratic, and so Jason’s genius for finding fairways and greens is underappreciated — except for major weeks, where, for the most part, severe penalties still exist for tee-to-green inconsistencies. Look for him at The Open Championship and to offer a good defense of his PGA Championship title.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 19
Wins: 1

2013 Performance:
Masters - T20
U.S. Open - T4
British Open - T26
PGA Championship - 1

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T20 (2013)
U.S. Open - T4 (2012, '13)
British Open - T26 (2013)
PGA Championship - 1 (2013)
Top-10 Finishes: 5
Top-25 Finishes: 7
Missed Cuts: 5

—Brandel Chamblee is lead analyst for the Golf Channel. Be sure to follow him @ChambleeBrandel on Twitter.


Athlon's 2014 Golf annual provides in-depth previews of this year's four majors, including the top 30 players to watch this season. One of these elite players, Dustin Johnson, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.

Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 11:30
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-april-1-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for April 1.

• It's only Tuesday, but it's not too early to celebrate the cheerleaders of the Final Four.

• Check the calendar before believing anything you read today. And in the spirit of April 1, here are 17 pranks you can play on your friends.

• Apparently not a prank: The U.S. World Cup team's popsicle-flavored second jerseys.

• It was a rough Opening Day all around. Don Baylor broke his femur on the ceremonial first pitch at the Angels game. An Orioles dad was left hanging on both a high-five and a fist bump by his kid. Cubs catcher Welington Castro took a foul tip to the giblets. And the mayor of New York got booed as he threw out the first pitch at the Mets game.

Awkwardly worded headline of the day. Looks like they're trying new strategies to attract fans to Citi Field.

• Conversely, lying juicer Ryan Braun got a standing ovation. Sometimes there's no justice.

Orson Charles of the Bengals was arrested for first degree wanton endangerment. Translation: He pulled a gun on a dude during a case of road rage.

• Sure signs of spring: warmer temps, blooming flowers and Nick Saban nuking a reporter for a carelessly worded question.

• The Falcons tried their hand at an April Fool's Day prank. Judge the results for yourself.


-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 11:19
All taxonomy terms: NFL Free agency, NFL, News
Path: /nfl/2014-nfl-free-agency-winners

The new NFL league year is not even a month old, but teams have been plenty busy with free agency ongoing while also getting ready for the draft in May. While hundreds of players are still on the market, plenty have already found their new homes.

A division title, conference championship or even Super Bowl ring won’t necessarily be won or lost based solely on what a team accomplishes in free agency, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t some teams that clearly look like “winners” at this point either.

AFC contenders Denver and New England both addressed areas of weakness, while teams like Arizona, Chicago, Detroit and Miami targeted and signed players that were atop their wish list. Even lowly Jacksonville got into the act, as the Jaguars really beefed up their defense in hopes of turning things around.

However, no team was as aggressive and intentional in remaking their roster than Tampa Bay, something that has to bring a smile to new head coach Lovie Smith’s face.

2014 NFL Free Agency Winners (in alphabetical order)

Arizona Cardinals
The Cardinals have signed 13 free agents to this point, including seven of their own. Of the other six, two should have a significant impact this season. Left tackle Jared Veldheer, arguably Oakland’s best player, fills a significant need, as offensive line has been a major issue for Arizona the past few seasons. The Cardinals were just 23rd in rushing offense in 2013 and the line gave up 41 sacks.

With Veldheer and last year’s first-round pick guard Jonathan Cooper returning from injury, Arizona’s offensive line is in considerably better shape headed into training camp. Even better, the Cardinals got Veldheer for a reasonable price (five years, $35 million, $10.5 fully guaranteed), especially compared to the deals that peers Branden Albert (Miami) and Eugene Monroe (Baltimore) signed.

Arizona also caught a break when Jets cornerback Antonio Cromartie got cut right before the start of free agency. Although clearly interested, and in the end the team got their man. Cromartie will pair with Patrick Peterson and it’s possible this duo could end up being the best cornerback tandem in the NFC West. This would be no small feat considering the division also houses the defending Super Bowl champion Seahawks.

Although not as significant as the Veldheer and Cromartie signings, adding former Pittsburgh running back Jonathan Dwyer, Carolina wide receiver/return specialist Ted Ginn and veteran tight end John Carlson gives Cardinals head coach Bruce Arians even more pieces to work with on offense.

Chicago Bears
After giving up a franchise-record 478 points last season, Bears general manager Phil Emery and head coach Marc Trestman were intent on making over their defense. Besides bidding farewell to defensive end Julius Peppers, fellow defensive linemen Henry Melton and Corey Wootton also have departed, along with defensive backs Zack Bowman and Major Wright.

In their place, Chicago signed Oakland defensive end Lamarr Houston and two former Lions in Willie Young and Israel Idonije, who played for the Bears from 2004-12, to overhaul the line. The team also re-signed linebacker D.J. Williams and All-Pro cornerback Charles Tillman along with safeties Ryan Mundy (Pittsburgh) and M.D. Jennings (Green Bay).

Emery made a major push towards signing highly sought-after defensive ends Michael Bennett and Michael Johnson as soon as free agency began, but he was rebuffed on both fronts. However, the GM kept plugging away and he was rewarded when former Minnesota All-Pro Jared Allen declined a chance to join Seattle and signed a four-year deal with his former division rival instead. Two years younger and more productive (11.5 sacks in 2013) than Peppers (7.5 sacks), Allen should not only spark an unproductive Bears pass rush (30 sacks last season), but also serve as a vocal leader in the locker room. Whether or not these new faces produce better results on defense this season remains to be seen, but you certainly can’t say that Emery and Trestman didn’t try.

Denver Broncos
There’s little doubt that the 43-8 Super Bowl XLVIII shellacking by Seattle still stings, which is why general manager John Elway did what he thought was necessary to keep the Broncos’ championship window open. While the team did watch wide receiver Eric Decker leave for the Big Apple and allowed leading rusher Knowshon Moreno sign with Miami among several other key departures, Elway also wasted neither time nor money in addressing his team’s biggest holes.

The first salvo fired by the defending AFC champs was signing Pro Bowl cornerback Aqib Talib (top) away from the New England Patriots, just like Denver did last year with wide receiver Wes Welker. Even though Talib has a history for both injuries and his share of off-the-field issues, there’s no disputing his talent and ability to shut down a team’s best receiver. Talib won’t be the only new face in Denver’s secondary either, as he will team with former Cleveland safety T.J. Ward to try and replace the departed Dominque-Rodgers Cromartie (signed with the Giants) and Champ Bailey (still unsigned).

The loudest shot, however, came when Elway got DeMarcus Ware, after he was released by Dallas, to come to the Mile High City. Even though he’ll be 32 years old this season, Ware’s pass-rushing ability is something Denver desperately needs, especially with linebacker Von Miller coming back from a torn ACL. And while Elway certainly recognizes the need to improve the defense to take some of the pressure off of his MVP quarterback, he also made a shrewd move by signing former Pittsburgh wide receiver Emmanuel Sanders to replace Decker as one of Peyton Manning’s preferred targets. As bad as the Broncos looked in the Super Bowl, they still have to be considered one of the favorites to represent the AFC in Glendale, Ariz., in Super Bowl XLIX.

Detroit Lions
The Lions weren’t particularly active, but still made two important moves that could go a long ways towards determining how head coach Jim Caldwell’s first season in the Motor City goes. The biggest one was singing wide receiver Golden Tate away from the Super Bowl champion Seahawks. The five-year, $31 million ($13.25 million guaranteed) deal gives All-Pro Calvin Johnson a legitimate sidekick for the first time, as Tate will replace the departed Nate Burleson. Quarterback Matthew Stafford also had to be happy when tight end Brandon Pettigrew re-signed with the Lions, as these two moves now means general manager Martin Mayhew can now focus his attention on beefing up the defense through the draft.

Jacksonville Jaguars
Can it be? The Jaguars are considered “winners” for a change? That’s what happens when owner Shad Khan opens up his checkbook, allowing general manager David Caldwell and head coach Gus Bradley the opportunity to get aggressive in molding this roster. While cornerstone running back Maurice Jones-Drew is no longer a Jaguar, Bradley tapped his Seattle roots to beef up a defense that ranked near the bottom in every major category in 2013.

The Seahawks’ defensive coordinator from 2009-12, Bradley convinced defensive ends Red Bryant and Chris Clemons to join him in Jacksonville. Those two along with former Pittsburgh end Ziggy Hood and the re-signed Jason Babin will allow Bradley the opportunity to constantly bring pressure by rotating fresh, able bodies in. Cornerback Will Blackmon also should step right in and be an immediate contributor in the secondary.

All the attention wasn’t paid to the defense, however, as former Denver guard Zane Beadles fills a major need and Toby Gerhart, Adrian Peterson’s backup in Minnesota, should get his chance to shoulder the backfield load for the Jaguars. Caldwell also was able to trade former first-round pick Blaine Gabbert to San Francisco for a sixth-rounder in the upcoming draft. The Jaguars still have a long ways to go as they work their way back to competing on a consistent basis, but this offseason was a positive step in that direction.

Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins were one of the more aggressive teams in free agency last season, adding wide receiver Mike Wallace, linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and cornerback Brent Grimes, among others. The ‘Fins didn’t stay on the sidelines this time around either, as the biggest fish they reeled in was former Kansas City left tackle Branden Albert. The 6-5, 316-pound blocker didn’t come cheap (five years, $47 million, $20 million guaranteed), but he was considered by many the best tackle available and he’s clearly an upgrade over what the Dolphins had (and had to deal with) last season.

New general manager Dennis Hickey and head coach Joe Philbin also decided to address their struggling running game, which ranked 26th last season, by bringing in Knowshon Moreno. The oft-injured running back is coming off his best season, rushing for 1,038 yards and adding another 548 on 60 catches while scoring 13 total touchdowns for Denver. Signed for one year at just $3 million, Moreno will try and build on last season’s success, as he will compete with incumbents Lamar Miller and Daniel Thomas for touches.

Miami took care of important business on defense by re-signing defensive tackle Randy Starks and cornerback Brent Grimes, while also inking St. Louis Ram castoff Cortland Finnegan to further bolster its secondary. Most off all, the Dolphins are “winners” in that they made sure to rid themselves of offensive linemen Richie Incognito and Jonathan Martin, the two central figures in the bullying scandal that overshadowed and sullied their 2013 season.

New England Patriots
It was almost déjà vu for the Patriots in free agency. After watching wide receiver Wes Welker leave for Denver last season, it looked like the Broncos had stuck it to their rivals again when they signed cornerback Aqib Talib. This time, however, Bill Belichick and the front office did not just sit idly by, instead pouncing on All-Pro cornerback Darrelle Revis as soon as he was released by Tampa Bay. Unlike Talib’s lengthy, expensive contract (six years, $57 million, $26 million guaranteed), Revis signed a one-year, $12 million pact with the Patriots that gives him a chance to prove to everyone (especially the New York Jets, his former employer and now division rival) that he’s fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered in 2012.

And the hooded one wasn’t done there either. The team added a second physical corner in Brandon Browner, despite the drug-related suspension that still looms over the former Seahawk. But perhaps most importantly, the Patriots also made sure that their current top wide receiver, Julian Edelman, didn’t leave the nest like Welker did last March. New England still has other holes and needs to address, but Belichick is doing all that he can in hopes of building a supporting cast that can hopefully get him and Tom Brady back to the Super Bowl.

Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Talk about your housewarming gifts. All Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer and new general manager Jason Licht have done to welcome new head coach Lovie Smith is gift wrap one of the top defensive ends (Michael Johnson) and cornerbacks (Alterraun Verner) on the market. They along with tackle Clinton McDonald and corner Mike Jenkins should team with the pieces already in place (defensive linemen Gerald McCoy and Adrian Clayborn, linebacker Lavonte David, safeties Mark Barron and Dashon Goldson) to form one of the nastier defenses in the NFL.

On the other side of the ball, new additions include center Evan Dietrich-Smith, tight end Brandon Myers and quarterback Josh McCown, the former Bear who has familiarity with Smith and will challenge second-year pro Mike Glennon for the starting job. It’s early, but if Tampa Bay can maximize its draft picks, settle on a starting quarterback and make the transition to Smith’s preferred Tampa-2 defensive scheme, the Buccaneers could mimic what division rival Carolina did last season – go from worst to first in the NFC South.

2014 NFL Free Agency Winners
Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 11:00
All taxonomy terms: Akron Zips, College Football, MAC, News
Path: /college-football/akron-unveils-shiny-gold-helmets-2014

New helmets and jerseys are a big part of every college football season, and Akron appears to have unveiled a new gold (and rather shiny) helmet for 2014. The Zips have made considerable progress in Terry Bowden’s first two years and improved to 5-7 last year.

The new gold helmets resemble Baylor or Notre Dame’s recent shiny designs, with one having a blue facemask, while the other has a gold front.

Overall, this is a pretty sharp look for Akron. And who knows, maybe it’s just what the Zips need to make a bowl in 2014.


Akron Unveils New Gold Helmets for 2014
Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 09:00
Path: /college-football/ranking-secs-college-football-coaches-2014

Ranking college football coaches is no easy task. Similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.

While it’s difficult to rank coaches, this aspect of college football is arguably the most important to winning a national or conference title. No matter how much talent a program has, winning a national title is difficult if the coaching is questionable.

Wins are a telling and important statistic, but they don’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. A good coach can elevate a program. However, it’s easier for programs like Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Texas with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.

A couple of other factors to consider when ranking assistant coaches: How well are the assistants paid? A good program is willing to spend big to keep its assistants. And a staff with two of the nation’s top coordinators could be a sign the head coach is better as a CEO and may not be as strong in terms of developing gameplans. How is the coach in the X’s and O’s? Can the coach recruit? Are the program’s facilities on par with the rest of the conference? Much like assistants, a program needs good facilities to win big. If a team is winning at a high level with poor facilities and a small budget, it’s reflects positively on the head coach. Is the coach successful at only one stop? Or has that coach built a solid resume from different jobs?

Again, wins are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire?

Considering how important coaches are to teams or even making preseason predictions, Athlon is taking a look at how all 128 college football coaches rank nationally and by conference.

Ranking the SEC’s College Football Coaches for 2014

1. Nick Saban, Alabama
Record at Alabama: 79-15 (7 years)
Career Record: 170-57-1 (18 years)
Alabama’s Program Rank: (No. 2 in the SEC, No. 3 nationally)

Ranking coaches in any conference or nationally is a tough assignment, but there’s little doubt about which one ranks as the best in college football. Saban is at the top of his game and is easily the No. 1 coach in the nation. In seven years at Alabama, Saban is 79-15 and has claimed three national championships. The Crimson Tide has finished in the top 10 of the final Associated Press poll in each of the last six years and only one of Saban’s seasons resulted in less than 10 victories. And as many around the SEC already know, Saban’s success isn’t limited to just Alabama. He recorded a 48-16 mark in five years at LSU, a 34-24-1 record in five seasons at Michigan State and a 9-2 mark in one year at Toledo. Saban is one of the nation’s top defensive minds, an excellent recruiter and also one of the best - if not the No. 1 coach - in college football at developing talent. As long as Saban is on the sidelines in Tuscaloosa, Alabama will be factor every season in the national championship picture.

2. Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Record at South Carolina: 77-39 (9 years)
Career Record: 219-79-2 (24 years)
South Carolina’s Program Rank: (No. 8 in the SEC, No. 19 nationally)

Spurrier needed a few years to build the talent level at South Carolina, but heading into his 10th season in Columbia, the Gamecocks are a consistent East Division title contender. Through his first five years at South Carolina, Spurrier posted a 35-28 record with zero appearances in the final Associated Press poll. But since 2010, the Gamecocks are 42-11 and finished No. 4 in the final Associated Press poll last year. Spurrier was successful at Florida from 1990-2001 using the pass-first Fun ‘n’ Gun offense. However, the veteran coach has adapted at South Carolina and has been winning with a strong defense and a balanced offense. With successful stops at Florida and South Carolina in the SEC, along with a 20-13-1 three-year stint at Duke, Spurrier is without question one of the top coaches in college football. And even though Spurrier will be 69 years old when the season starts, he doesn’t show any signs of slowing down.

3. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
Record at Auburn: 12-2 (1 year)
Career Record: 21-5 (3 years)
Auburn’s Program Rank: (No. 6 in the SEC, No. 15 nationally)

Malzahn has only been a head coach for two years on the FBS level, but he is already ranks near the top of coaches in the SEC. The Texas native was a successful high school coach before making the jump to coordinate Arkansas’ offense in 2006. Malzahn left the Razorbacks to be the offensive coordinator at Tulsa from 2007-08, before returning to the SEC as Gene Chizik’s play-caller from 2009-11. Malzahn was one of the key pieces in Auburn’s national championship season in 2010 and landed his first chance to be a head coach in 2012 at Arkansas State. The Red Wolves went 9-3 in his only year, as Malzahn was hired by Auburn to replace Chizik at the end of the 2012 season. The Tigers went 3-9 in 2012, but Malzahn provided a quick fix, leading Auburn to a 12-2 final record with an appearance in the national championship. Prior to last season, Malzahn was already regarded as one of the top offensive minds in college football. And after guiding the Tigers to a No. 2 finish in the final Associated Press poll, Malzahn deserves to be ranked among the top 10-15 coaches nationally.

4. Mark Richt, Georgia
Record at Georgia: 126-45 (13 years)
Career Record: 126-45 (13 years)
Georgia’s Program Rank: (No. 3 in the SEC, No. 8 nationally)

Richt has experienced his share of ups and downs in Athens, but he has been one of the nation’s most consistent coaches since his hire in 2001. Over the last 13 years, Georgia has averaged 9.7 wins a season under Richt. Additionally, the Bulldogs have recorded three top-five finishes in the final Associated Press poll and claimed at least a share of the East Division title six times. The only thing missing on Richt’s resume is a national championship. The Bulldogs have not played in a BCS bowl since the 2007 season, but the new playoff format should help this team, especially with more spots in elite bowls open to the SEC. Also, the addition of former Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is an upgrade over previous defensive play-caller Todd Grantham, which should bolster Richt's chances of winning a SEC title in the next few years.

5. Les Miles, LSU
Record at LSU: 95-24 (9 years)
Career Record: 123-45 (13 years)
LSU’s Program Rank: (No. 4 in the SEC, No. 9 nationally)

The Mad Hatter is a bit of a gambler when it comes to making on-the-field decisions, and is always a good sound byte for the media, but let’s not overlook the Ohio native’s on-field success in recent years. In nine years at LSU, Miles is 95-24 and has won at least 10 games in each of the last four years. The Tigers had a slight dip in wins from 2008-09, finishing just 17-9 during that span. However, Miles returned LSU back to SEC and national prominence, and the Tigers finished No. 2 in the final Associated Press poll in 2011. Miles’ success isn’t just limited to LSU, as he recorded a 28-21 mark in four years at Oklahoma State from 2001-04. There’s no doubt regarding Miles’ ability to recruit (four top-10 classes over the last five years), and he has one of the SEC’s top staffs with proven coordinators in John Chavis and Cam Cameron, along with regarded assistants in Jeff Grimes, Frank Wilson and Brick Haley. 

6. Gary Pinkel, Missouri
Record at Missouri: 102-63 (13 years)
Career Record: 175-100-3 (23 years)
Missouri’s Program Rank: (No. 11 in the SEC, No. 31 nationally)

Much like Mark Richt at Georgia, Pinkel has been a consistent winner during his career at Missouri. The Tigers slipped to 5-7 in their SEC debut in 2012, but injuries – especially to quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey – were the driving factors behind the disappointing season. However, one year later, Missouri won the East Division and finished No. 5 in the final Associated Press poll. Under Pinkel, the Tigers have winning records in eight out of the last nine years, with four double-digit win totals since 2007. Prior to Missouri, Pinkel was a successful coach at Toledo, recording a 73-37-3 record in 10 years with the Rockets. It was easy for some in the SEC to write off Pinkel after the 5-7 record in 2012. But heading into 2014, Missouri looks like a contender for the East Division title once again, and Pinkel has the program on stable ground entering its third year in the SEC.

7. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
Record at Texas A&M: 20-6 (2 years)
Career Record: 55-23 (6 years)
Texas A&M’s Program Rank: (No. 5 in the SEC, No. 13 nationally)

Armed with the SEC logo, facility renovations and Sumlin’s coaching, Texas A&M is poised to be a factor on the national scene for the foreseeable future. The Aggies went 11-2 and finished No. 5 nationally in the final Associated Press poll in 2012 but slipped to 9-4 and just .500 (4-4) in SEC play last year. Prior to his stint at Texas A&M, Sumlin went 35-17 in four years at Houston. Building a program into a consistent national title contender will take time. And sometimes it's necessary to take a step back before moving forward. Through two years in College Station, Sumlin guided Texas A&M through a difficult conference transition, produced a Heisman Trophy winner (Johnny Manziel) and has recruited back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes. Without Manziel and standout receiver Mike Evans, the Aggies may take a step back in 2014. However, with all of the young talent on the roster, the future looks bright in Aggieland.

8. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Record at Ole Miss: 15-11 (2 years)
Career Record: 45-18 (5 years)
Ole Miss’ Program Rank: (No. 10 in the SEC, No. 30 nationally)

Freeze still has plenty to prove within the SEC, but there’s also a lot of potential. The Mississippi native has brought instant success to each of his three college coaching jobs, starting at Lambuth in 2008. The Eagles won seven games in the two seasons prior to Freeze’s arrival, but he went 8-4 in 2008 and 12-1 in 2009. Freeze served as the offensive coordinator at Arkansas State in 2010 and was promoted to head coach in 2011. The Red Wolves won the Sun Belt title in Freeze’s only season, finishing 10-2 with a trip to the GoDaddy Bowl. In two years at Ole Miss, Freeze is 15-11 and 6-10 in SEC play. Those totals aren’t particularly overwhelming, but the Rebels finished 6-18 in the two years prior to his arrival. With two top-15 recruiting classes, the talent level is on the rise in Oxford. Freeze needs time to match the depth at Alabama, Auburn and LSU, but the gap is slowly starting to close.

9. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State
Record at Mississippi State: 36-28 (5 years)
Career Record: 36-28 (5 years)
Mississippi State’s Program Rank: (No. 13 in the SEC, No. 48 nationally)

Winning at Mississippi State is no easy task. Just how difficult? Counting Mullen, the last seven coaches in Starkville had a losing record in SEC play. Jackie Sherrill guided the Bulldogs to an appearance in the SEC Championship, but his final record in SEC contests was just 43-59-1. Considering how difficult it is to win at a high level at Mississippi State, it’s unrealistic for Mullen to compete for SEC titles every year. In five years with the Bulldogs, Mullen is 36-28 and has guided the program to four consecutive bowl appearances. Additionally, Mullen is 4-1 against rival Ole Miss. Closing the gap on the rest of the West Division will be challenging, but Mullen clearly has the program going on the right direction. Considering the challenge of winning at Mississippi State, a strong case could be made Mullen needs to rank higher on this list of SEC coaches. 

10. Butch Jones, Tennessee
Record at Tennessee: 5-7 (1 year)
Career Record: 55-34 (7 years)
Tennessee’s Program Rank: (No. 7 in the SEC, No. 16 nationally)

In his first year at Tennessee, Jones had a similar overall record to his predecessor (Derek Dooley), but the Volunteers appeared to take a step forward in 2013. Tennessee lost to Georgia by three points in overtime and fell to Vanderbilt 14-10 in late November. The signs of progress were small, but Jones is recruiting at a high level and has a track record of success. From 2007-09 at Central Michigan, Jones went 27-13 and won two MAC titles. At Cincinnati, Jones recorded a 23-14 mark and finished with a 10-4 mark in the Big East over the final two years. Jones is unproven in the SEC, but all signs point to progress on Rocky Top heading into 2014.

11. Will Muschamp, Florida
Record at Florida: 22-16 (3 years)
Career Record: 22-16 (3 years)
Florida’s Program Rank: (No. 1 in the SEC, No. 2 nationally)

What a difference a year makes. At this time last season, Muschamp could have ranked in the top half of the coach rankings in the SEC. After 2013, he deserves to be ranked in the bottom four. In his debut with the Gators in 2011, Muschamp went 7-6 and defeated Ohio State in the Gator Bowl. Florida went 11-2 in Muschamp’s second year and finished No. 9 in the final Associated Press poll. The Gators may have caught a few lucky breaks in 2012, especially with a turnover margin that was a +15 and an offense that averaged only 334 yards per game. Even if Florida was a tad lucky in 2012, it’s hard to understand why this team went 4-8 in 2013. Yes, there were injuries and the offense had its share of struggles. However, the Gators recruit at a high level and own one of college football’s best rosters. Simply, going 4-8 at Florida should not happen. But Muschamp has another chance to guide the program back in the right direction, and staff changes to the offense should help. Muschamp is still a bit of a mystery heading into his fourth season, and it’s clear he needs a winning season to avoid hot seat talk in November.

12. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
Record at Arkansas: 3-9 (1 year)
Career Record: 71-33 (8 years)
Arkansas’ Program Rank: (No. 9 in the SEC, No. 25 nationally)

Bielema’s debut at Arkansas did not go well. The Razorbacks finished 3-9 and winless in SEC play. However, there were signs of improvement late in the year. Arkansas seemed to play better over the final three games of the season, taking Mississippi State to overtime and losing to LSU by just four points in Baton Rouge. While the final record was ugly, the late-season improvement is a good sign for 2014. Also, Bielema deserves some time to build the program, as he inherited a team that went 4-8 in 2012 and played that year with an interim coach. Bielema was a successful coach at Wisconsin, winning 68 games in seven years and leading the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowl appearances. It’s easy to panic after one bad year of a coaching tenure. However, Bielema has a solid track record and should help Arkansas take a step forward in 2014.

13. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Record at Kentucky: 2-10 (1 year)
Career Record: 2-10 (1 year)
Kentucky’s Program Rank: (No. 12 in the SEC, No. 47 nationally)

Considering Stoops inherited a Kentucky team that had just four SEC wins in the three years prior to his arrival, it’s tough to judge him based on 2013. The Wildcats went 2-10 and winless in conference play in Stoops’ first season, but there were signs of progress. Kentucky lost two conference games by seven points or less, and Stoops signed another signing class filled with talent. The Wildcats ranked No. 34 nationally in the 247Sports Composite rankings in 2013, but Stoops inked the No. 22 class in 2014. Prior to taking over at Kentucky, Stoops was a successful defensive coordinator at Florida State, and he also had prior stops at Arizona, Miami, Houston and Wyoming. It’s going to take Stoops some time to get the program on track. However, recruiting is going well, and the Wildcats showed signs of improvement last season. If Kentucky takes another step forward in 2014, it’s a good sign for Stoops’ long-term outlook in Lexington.

14. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Record at Vanderbilt: First Season
Career Record: First Season
Vanderbilt’s Program Rank: (No. 14 in the SEC, No. 49 nationally)

Mason takes over for James Franklin after a successful stint as Stanford’s defensive coordinator. The Arizona native has been on a steady climb through the ranks as an assistant, spending time at Weber State, Idaho State, Bucknell, Utah, New Mexico State and Ohio. In 2007, Mason joined the Vikings staff and spent three years as a defensive backs assistant in the NFL. Jim Harbaugh hired Mason at Stanford in 2010, and he was promoted to the co-defensive coordinator role in 2011, before taking over the sole play-calling abilities in 2012. Under Mason, the Cardinal finished first in the Pac-12 in total defense in 2012 and second in 2013. Additionally, Stanford’s defenses allowed less than five yards per play from 2012-13. As evidenced by his work under Harbaugh and David Shaw, Mason is a rising star in the coaching ranks and one of the top defensive minds in the nation. However, without any experience as a head coach, it’s hard to place Mason higher in the SEC coach ranks.

Ranking the SEC's College Football Coaches for 2014
Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Oregon Ducks, Pac 12, News
Path: /college-football/oregon-ducks-2014-spring-football-preview

The first eight games of the Mark Helfrich era were nearly perfect. Oregon was undefeated, ranked in the top five of the polls and had scored at least 50 points six times. Marcus Mariota was the leading Heisman Trophy candidate and was on the verge of setting a Pac-12 record for consecutive passes without an interception.

Then Oregon went to Stanford and completely melted down — due in large part to a mysterious injury to Mariota’s knee. Two weeks later, with control of its own Pac-12 championship destiny, in Tucson against Arizona, Mariota threw an interception for the first time in over a year and the Ducks got run out of the building in hideous fashion against a team that finished with a losing record in league play.

Needless to say, Helfrich took over a Rolls Royce program with massive expectations and had chances to deliver. But he didn't.

With Mariota back and, more importantly, healthy, expectations for Oregon are sky high (no pun intended) once again in Eugene. Nine starters are back on offense and five return on defense while the most critical game of the year (Stanford) will take place in the not-so-friendly confines of Autzen Stadium.

Before all of that can happen, however, Helfrich needs to execute the second spring camp of his tenure.  Replacing key departures at defensive tackle, safety and wide receiver as well as all-purpose weapon De’Anthony Thomas must be addressed this spring.

2014 Schedule
Aug. 28South Dakota
Sept. 6
Sept. 13
Sept. 20at 
Sept. 27Bye Week
Oct. 2
Oct. 11at 
Oct. 18
Oct. 24at 
Nov. 1
Nov. 8at 
Nov. 15Bye Week
Nov. 22
Nov. 29at 

Oregon Ducks 2014 Spring Preview

2013 Record: 11-2 (7-2 Pac-12)

Spring Practice Opens: April 1

Spring Game: May 3

Returning Starters

Offense: 9

Defense: 5

Three Things to Watch in Oregon's 2014 Spring Practice

Life without Nick Aliotti
On a team loaded with elite offensive weapons at quarterback and running back, not to mention the entire offensive line returning, spring practice should be focused on the defense. First and foremost, the team must get acclimated to Don Pellum now running the defense after spending the last 15 years under the guidance of Nick Aliotti. Pellum has been with Oregon since 1988 in some capacity and has been the linebackers coach and recruiting coordinator since 2000. He will need to fill voids at defensive tackle and safety in particular while trying to work in a host of extremely young, highly touted prospects. Additionally, Pellum needs to establish himself as the leader in an effort to make the transition a smooth one.
Plug up the middle of the D-line
Taylor Hart was a second-team All-Pac-12 pick, Wade Keliikipi was honorable mention All-Pac-12 and Ricky Havili-Heimuli played critical minutes in 12 games. All three defensive tackles have moved on from this roster and Pellum's first order of business is to find some run stuffers up front. Arik Armstead was a five-star prospect who has shown loads of potential while getting snaps in 13 out of 14 games a year ago. It is time for him to make his mark along the D-line. The same goes for Alex Balducci and Sam Kamp, both of whom should figure heavily in the rotation in the trenches.

Build around IEO
The good news in the secondary is that All-American Ifo Ekpre-Olomu decided to come back to Eugene and that means Pellum can largely ignore one half of the field. And it should make replacing both Avery Patterson and Brian Jackson at safety and Terrance Mitchell at corner a little bit easier. The safety duo combined for 151 tackles a year ago and both Patterson and Mitchell constantly found himself around the ball. Much like Armstead, safety Erick Dargan and cornerback Dior Mathis have loads of talent and will be asked to step into starring roles. Others like Issac Dixon and Reggie Daniels will have an opportunity to prove their mettle this spring as well. In a league stacked with elite signal-callers and relentless offensive coaches, stabilizing the back end of the Ducks' defense around one of the best corners in the nation should be a key this offseason.

2014 Early Projected Win Range: 10-12
The Ducks have one of the best rosters in the nation and arguably the best quarterback in college football. The backfield is stacked, the offensive line is loaded and the young talent on defense should develop quickly despite the loss of Aliotti. So targeting a Pac-12 title, Rose Bowl and/or a playoff spot should be the expectation level for Oregon. The schedule is fascinating, however, as the Ducks will host one of the most intriguing non-conference games when Big Ten and Rose Bowl champ Michigan State comes to town early in the year. The Ducks ease their way into conference play and, frankly, get a nice crossover draw from the South. A trip to UCLA on Oct. 11 is tough but both Arizona State and USC are noticeably absent from the slate. Additionally, getting both Stanford and Washington at home could be the difference between another Alamo Bowl berth or a trip to the national championship game. 

Oregon Ducks 2014 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-basketball/10-amazing-stats-teams-final-four

Not that we really needed it, but the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight weekend showcased why the NCAA Tournament is one of sports’ greatest events.

And not just because six games of the 12 came down to the final seconds.

Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan, one of the game’s most consistent coaches for 30 years, reached his first Final Four. A day later, UConn’s Kevin Ollie, in only his second season has a head coach anywhere, did the same.

And while Kentucky played in three of the best games of the Tournament against Wichita State, Louisville and Michigan, the Wildcats managed to surprise by unleashing a seldom-used five-star forward to beat the Wolverines.

With the field whittled from 68 teams to four, here are some other numerical superlatives and surprises.

18. Seed total of the Final Four teams, making this the fourth-most “upsetting” Final Four since seeding began
The sum of the seed numbers for Final Four teams is one of a handful of odd data kept by the NCAA. In essence, it’s a shorthand way to figure how many upsets occurred (or didn’t) on the way to the Final Four. The sum of the seed numbers for Florida, UConn, Wisconsin and Kentucky comes to 18 for the fourth-highest total since the NCAA started seeding the Tournament in 1979. Here are the others:

Sum of the seed numbers in the Final Four since 1979
YearSumTeams (champion in bold)
200022No. 1 Michigan State, No. 5 Florida, No. 8 North Carolina, No. 8 Wisconsin
198021No. 2 Louisville, No. 5 Iowa, No. 6 Purdue, No. 8 UCLA
200620No. 2 UCLA, No. 3 Florida, No. 4 LSU, No. 11 George Mason
201418No. 1 Florida, No. 2 Wisconsin, No. 7 UConn, No. 8 Kentucky

25. Years separating Bo Ryan’s and Kevin Ollie’s ages at the time of their first Final Four
Perhaps the best illustration of the random and cruel nature of the NCAA Tournament was watching Wisconsin’s Bo Ryan and UConn’s Kevin Ollie reaching the Final Four in the same weekend. Ryan, 66, has been coaching college basketball since 1984 and at Wisconsin since 2001 and waiting 30 years to reach his first NCAA Final Four. Ollie, 41, earned his first trip in only his second year as a head coach. If Ollie seems young to reach the precipice of college basketball, he’s not compared to the other two coaches in North Texas. Both Billy Donovan and John Calipari reached their first Final Four in their 30s.

Coaches' ages at the time of their first Final Four
Billy Donovan34Florida, 2000
John Calipari35UMass, 1996
Kevin Ollie41UConn, 2014
Bo Ryan66Wisconsin, 2014

5. Coaches to reach the Final Four in their first or second season as a head coach
Speaking of Ollie, he’s in an exclusive group of coaches who reached the Final Four in either their first or second season of their career as a head coach. Steve Fisher at Michigan in 1989 and Bill Guthridge at North Carolina in 1998 both reached the Final Four in their first seasons as head coaches. Mike Davis at Indiana in 2002 and Shaka Smart at VCU in 2011 reached the Final Four in only their second seasons as head coaches. Two of the five coaches were handpicked successors for legendary coaches — Guthridge for Dean Smith and Ollie for Jim Calhoun. Davis was an assistant for Bob Knight when he was fired in 2000.

16. Top 100 NBA Draft prospects in the Final Four
The Final Four will feature 16 top 100 NBA Draft prospects, according to rankings by ESPN’s Chad Ford. Not surprisingly, Kentucky leads the way with seven top 100 players. Here is the full list and their rank in the top 100:

5. Julius Randle, Kentucky
15. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
17. James Young, Kentucky
28. Chris Walker, Florida
31. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
33. Aaron Harrison, Kentucky
35. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
36. Patric Young, Florida
42. Shabazz Napier, UConn
51. DeAndre Daniels, UConn
52. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin
61. Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
62. Alex Poythress, Kentucky
82. Kasey Hill, Florida
89. Michael Frazier II, Florida
91. Scottie Wilbekin, Florida

1. Team in the top 20 in both offensive and defensive efficiency on
Ken Pomeroy’s ratings have been a predictor of sorts for the national championship, but that may be put to the test this season. Every national champion since 2003 has ranked in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency, in other words, points per possession weighted against the schedule. Five teams are ranked in the top 20 in both, but Florida is the only one remaining in the Final Four. the other four are Arizona, Louisville, Tennessee and Wichita State. Here’s a look at how the Final Four teams rank in Pomeroy’s ratings:

Final Four teams in rankings
 Offensive efficiencyDefensive efficiency

108 minutes, 49 seconds. Game time since Scottie Wilbekin’s last turnover
Wilbekin has been Florida’s top scorer in the NCAA Tournament at 16.8 points per game, but he’s perhaps more impressive as a ball handler. Wilbekin didn’t turn the ball over in the regional against UCLA or Dayton and hasn’t lost the ball since 8:49 remaining in the first half against Pittsburgh in the round of 32.

3-2 Florida’s record against teams in the Final Four
Florida will be familiar with any opponent in the Final Four, starting with UConn on Saturday. The Gators’ only two losses this season have come against two teams in the Final Four — Florida lost 59-53 to Wisconsin on Nov. 12 and 65-64 to UConn on Dec. 2. The Gators swept the series with Kentucky, whom Florida could meet in the national title game, by defeating the Wildcats in Lexington, Gainesville and in Atlanta in the SEC Tournament.

74. Points scored by Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky in the NCAA Tournament, 11 more than his entire freshman season
Wisconsin’s 7-foot center has been one of the top surprises this season, continuing with a 28-point performance against Arizona, one of the top defensive teams in the country. In just four games in the Tournament, Kaminsky eclipsed is scoring output from his freshman season (63 points). Kaminsky’s 74 points in four Tournament games is more than half of his total scoring output as a sophomore (133).

5. Field goals by Marcus Lee in the Elite Eight, doubling his output since Nov. 27
This is what happens when you sign the classes John Calipari has over the last few seasons. McDonald’s All-Americans will sit on the bench, and sometimes in one of the last seats on the bench. With Willie Cauley-Stein out with an ankle injury, Kentucky turned to Marcus Lee to fill some of the minutes. Lee did that and more buy grabbing offensive rebounds and scoring at the basket. Lee finished with 10 points on 5-of-7 shooting against Michigan. Lee was 5 of 14 from the field in Kentucky’s previous 27 games, of which Lee played in only 14. Against Michigan, Lee added eight rebounds

3. Players returning to the Final Four
Wisconsin is in its first Final Four since 2000. Florida’s veterans came up short in three consecutive Elite Eights. And Kentucky’s team is loaded with freshmen and sophomores. All the Final Four experience resides with perhaps the unlikeliest team to reach the Final Four this season. UConn’s Shabazz Napier, Niels Giffey and Tyler Olander played on the Huskies’ 2011 national title team. It’s worth noting that senior Jarrod Polson was a member of the 2012 title-winning team, but he didn’t play in the NCAA Tournament.

10 Amazing Stats for Teams in the Final Four
Post date: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /nascar/keselowski-feuds-race-winner-kurt-busch-martinsville

Four years ago, Brad Keselowski was young and unproven, a newbie on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit trying to build a winning reputation at Team Penske. Kurt Busch served as incumbent, wheeling the No. 2 Miller Lite car Keselowski would one day inherit, paired with the cache of a series title and one of the few drivers to openly joust with Jimmie Johnson. The two — Keselowski and Busch — formed a bond as teammates built on mutual respect for their independent styles that lasted even after Busch was canned in late 2011.

“Kurt has been a great teammate and friend to me,” Keselowski said then, after Busch’s release. “I truly do wish him the best, wherever and whatever he does.”

How ironic then that the latest chapter in Busch’s comeback — a win at Martinsville after two-plus years in racing purgatory — went through his former teammate. After a wreck on pit road, Keselowski slammed square into Busch’s Chevy — a classic “if I can’t win, neither can you” short track move. Initially forced behind the wall after contact, the goal of the No. 2 car after returning was simple: superglue to the No. 41 and not let go.

“I just barely got in the back of him and Kurt (Busch) just accelerated and drove through us, absolutely drove through us,” Keselowski said before setting his target. “I tell you what, I’m about tired of his recklessness.”

So Keselowski went out and seemingly tried to wreck him, at times driving one-handed, his middle finger of his other extended out the window. For Busch, still fighting old temperamental demons, it came very close to sending both over the edge.

“Welp, guess we get to get in a fight afterwards,” he said on the radio. “Because I'm going to **** that dude's ****ing face!”

That moment hasn’t happened ... yet. The “new” Kurt Busch found a way to calm down, regain his focus and start a drive to Victory Lane. Keselowski, despite sending multiple verbal jabs Busch’s way, had backed off, tweeting he wasn’t trying to wreck anyone and the rivalry won’t continue into Texas.

Yet his words, uttered while Busch was still celebrating, should be enough to keep the fire going.

“I still [respect him],” said Keselowski. “He does awesome things for charity and he’s probably the most talented race car driver, but he’s also one of the dumbest, so put those three together … tell him come here (if he wants to fight). He knows where I’m at.”

“That was a punk-ass move,” Busch responded, finally breaking down during a second round of media interviews after the FOX TV cameras switched off. “He will get what he gets back when I decide to give it back.”

It’s a fight that overshadowed another week of incredible racing. But it’s also important to mention, right at the top, because that’s the type of news that transcends. This sport was built on personalities — names like Earnhardt, Wallace and Gordon — who would slam each other senseless and throw helmets only to put it behind them and go at it the following week. It’s what turned a “can’t miss” at-track product into “can’t miss” television for an extra few million fans.

So far, Nielsen ratings show a new Chase format, record-setting lead changes and Dale Earnhardt Jr. running up front haven’t attracted new eyeballs. Ratings are the lowest they’ve been, across the board in over a decade. But now we’ve got a burning rivalry with two edgy personalities that could erupt at any time. If that can’t finally shake the funk of empty stands and people turning away I’m tempted to ask a very sobering question: What will?

Back to the nuts and bolts of the race with no punches thrown as we go “Through The Gears” on what we learned at Martinsville …

FIRST GEAR: Busch is back and better than ever! Well, sort of.  Kurt Busch
Anyone that bet on Kurt Busch in Victory Lane just 26 months after becoming NASCAR’s national embarrassment is busy buying their house in St. Martin right now. Gene Haas’ choice to believe in the driver paid off rather quickly as Busch jumped into the winner’s circle just six races into the season. That he did amidst controversy was impressive enough; beating Jimmie Johnson, the six-time champ and master of Martinsville, was icing on the cake.

“That was the hardest 30 laps I ever drove not to slip a tire in my life,” he said. “That’s an epic-type battle at a short track.”

It’s also the culmination of an epic comeback, one that saw Busch battle through underfunded rides at Phoenix Racing and Furniture Row Racing before getting offered an A-level opportunity with Stewart-Haas Racing. It’s a second (third?) chance Busch doesn’t take lightly, as evidenced by him keeping focused surrounding the Keselowski incident, responding to the cheerleading of crew chief Daniel Knost rather than completely melting into a blubbering mess on the radio for three-plus hours.

“We have obviously found a solution for Kurt Busch,” joked Haas. “When he is in the winner’s circle, he doesn’t bitch about anything so that is where we need to keep him.”

On the surface, the win tells us good things about the Busch-SHR relationship; it’s the first organization to score two Sprint Cup wins this season. But even Busch, whose chemistry with Knost has been key despite several bad-luck moments, knows there’s plenty of work to do with the program. Kevin Harvick and even Tony Stewart himself have been a rollercoaster of highs and lows on-track thus far. Busch also serves as a prime example, as his win merely lifted him to 20th in points. Compare that to quasi-teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose four top-3 finishes are more than all of SHR combined.

So is Busch back? Sort of, as his 83-race winless drought has been erased. But this team, perhaps more than any other, needs the five-months of pre-Chase “testing” to dial itself in.

SECOND GEAR: All it took was one mistake
Martinsville is typically a one-groove racetrack. But Sunday, that theme rang true more than most visits despite plenty of side-by-side, old-school racing action. The outside line was no place to be on restarts, as teams lost four-to-six spots almost instantly with a dirty track making it difficult for drivers to hold their own.

“The track conditions today were extremely challenging with the marbles,” said Matt Kenseth, who ran sixth. “They just wouldn’t clean them up — I don’t know why. If you had warm tires and you got pushed up in there, then you were going to lose 15 spots sometimes — it was that bad.”

Old tires also left drivers scrambling to keep track position. Kenseth stayed out on one caution and wound up losing 20-plus spots to newer rubber. It took a Lucky Dog to wind his way into the top 10. AJ Allmendinger wasn’t so lucky. A top-5 run was dashed by staying out on old tires and getting stuck in traffic as a result (he ran 11th).

Meanwhile, Jeff Gordon had the opposite problem: getting fresh rubber when everyone else stayed out. Dropping to 25th early on in the race, his potential winning Chevy got slammed around like a bumper car in heavy traffic. Bent and bruised, the No. 24 was never the same; it took all he could to climb back to 12th. 

Finally, there was Clint Bowyer, who was in position to win until the last caution brought everyone to the pits. Losing nine spots due to a poor stop, the No. 15 Toyota got trapped back in 10th and lined up in that tricky outside line. By the time Bowyer settled after the green flag he was 13th and nearly three seconds back. Sensing a theme? One boo-boo is all it took on the series’ shortest track where the consequences took drivers right out of contention.


Bowles: NASCAR’s Career-Death Experience: A Road To (Almost) Recovery

THIRD GEAR: So close, yet so far for Johnson  Jimmie Johnson
Jimmie Johnson, who led a race-high 296 laps, was forced to settle for second. That brings his laps-led total this season to 493, the series’ best, yet he has no wins to show for it.

“I’ve got to figure something out,” he joked when asked if the supposed drought was bothering him. “Hopefully, I’ll win a race soon … or a championship.”

“To be truthful, I felt like today, I couldn’t have done anymore. I just got beat.”

Still, it’s another notch of “so close, yet so far” as Johnson watches everyone else lock up Chase bids. That gives them an extra week of testing, relaxation, getting aggressive — all the things the No. 48 typically enjoys throughout the regular season. Think teams aren’t already planning for September? Kyle Busch’s crew chief, Dave Rogers, fully admitted post-race they whiffed at Martinsville (14th, after winning the pole) based on a hyper-aggressive setup. He said there was no way they’d swing for the fences, that hard without the “safety” of what they think is a guaranteed Chase bid.

Right now, although it’s a near-certainty the No. 48 will get that win, Johnson and Co. can’t fully relax until they have it. Every week they give up in that department makes their bid for a seventh championship that much harder.

FOURTH GEAR: A trio of tough disappearing acts
Three drivers stand out leaving Martinsville, the sixth race of 2014, with work to do. Greg Biffle, still without a career top 5 at this track, actually led the race for a while Sunday only to lose the handle on his car. Eighteenth on Sunday, he’s now a lowly 18th in points, sitting winless and without the speed seemingly enjoyed by teammate Carl Edwards at Roush Fenway Racing. A few big names have to miss the Chase this year, even with a 16-driver field. Will Biffle be one of those on the outside looking in?

Next, there’s Denny Hamlin, returning from the odd sinus infection/ metal-in-eye development from the prior week. After a feisty news conference Friday in which Hamlin denounced rumors of drug use, he set his sights on winning at a track where he’s typically excelled. In fact, he guaranteed it. Instead? A faulty ignition, combined with a setup he called “a football field away” from being right left him 19th. Still winless, dropping to 12th in points, could the controversy surrounding that missed race send this emotional driver into a mental tailspin?

Last but not least, there’s Danica Patrick, who started 10th at what was one of her best tracks last season. Except this time, the car was a roadblock, slow and unsturdy the second the green flag flew. Her 32nd was a major disappointment, considering the unusually high expectations and she sits 29th in points. It’s a critical time for crew chief Tony Gibson, whose team was making progress with back-to-back top 20s. Can Patrick step it up under the current leadership or is she destined to slip back into the sophomore slump?

Quietly, Landon Cassill continues to do a yeoman’s job. With a team simply struggling to survive on patchwork sponsorship he’s notched back-to-back top-25 finishes with Hillman Racing. Could he emerge as a longshot candidate to earn a well-funded ride for 2015? … Parker Kligerman’s team started fighting internally on the radio after a first-lap wreck sent their rookie right to the garage. "How can we be the last guy and still hit somebody,” “I told you guys to lay back. Every ****ing week we wreck a race car." So far this season, the No. 30 car has three DNFs, crashing four times while Kligerman remains without a top 25. ... Jamie McMurray was frustrated at Dale Earnhardt Jr. after the two made contact, sending the McDonald’s car hard into the outside wall and ruining a potential top 10. “He (Earnhardt) barely got into me,” said McMurray. “You hope that wouldn’t happen and he would get off of you, but he didn’t.” For his part, Earnhardt apologized but crew chief Steve Letarte maintained the No. 88 was pinched to the bottom of the track.

Follow Tom Bowles on Twitter: @NASCARBowles
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.


NASCAR drivers Brad Keselowski and eventual race-winner Kurt Busch feuded in a physical STP 400 at Martinsville Speedway.
Post date: Monday, March 31, 2014 - 13:58
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/2014-final-four-glance
The 2014 Final Four: What You Need to Know
FloridaConnecticut WisconsinKentucky
Albany 67-55
Pittsburgh 61-45
UCLA 79-68
Dayton 62-52
St. Joe's 89-81 (OT)
Villanova 77-65
Iowa State 81-67
Michigan State 60-54
Path to the Final FourAmerican 75-35
Oregon 85-77
Baylor 69-52
Arizona 64-63 (OT)
Kansas State 56-49
Wichita State 78-76
Louisville 74-69
Michigan 75-72
20072011Last Final Four20002012
2006, 20071999, 2004, 2011National titles19411948, 1949, 1951, 1958, 1978, 1996, 1998, 2012
DefenseShabazzTeam in a word"Buzzcuts"Freshmen
Scottie WilbekinShabazz NapierBest college playerFrank KaminskyJulius Randle
Chris WalkerShabazz NapierBest pro prospectFrank KaminskyJulius Randle
Lexx EdwardsLeon TolksdorfBest nameDuje DukanSam Malone
1212Active NBA players321
Billy DonovanKevin OllieCoachBo RyanJohn Calipari
Rockville Center, N.Y.DallasCoach's hometownChester, Pa.Strickly, Pa.
ProvidenceUConnCoach's alma materWilkes (Pa.)Clarion (Pa.)
Rick PitinoJim CalhounCoach's mentorRob RaineyVance Walberg
Shaka Smart, VCUNone yetCoach's discipleTony Bennett, VirginiaDerek Kellogg, UMass
Vintage logo
18531881School founded18481865
4957US News & World Report Rank41119
6NRPrinceton Review Party School Rank13NR
The Independent Florida AlligatorThe UConn Daily CampusStudent newspaperThe Badger HeraldKentucky Kernel
Albert E. GatorJonathan the Husky XIIIMascot's full nameBuckingham U. BadgerScratch
Joakim NoahRay AllenBest basketball alumMichael FinleyDan Issel
Not at the momentNoIs this a football school?SometimesHuh?
Emmitt SmithCharles NagyBest non-basketball athleteChris CheliosGeorge Blanda
Abby Wambach, soccerDiana Taurasi, basketballBest female athleteNicole Joraanstad, curlingJenny Hansen, gymnastics
Marco RubioRobert DiamondNotable public figureDick CheneyMitch McConnell
Faye DunawayMeg RyanActressJoan CusackAshley Judd
Darrell HammondBobby MoynihanFunny PersonJane KaczmarekJared Lorenzen
John Atanasoff (inventor of first digital electronic computer)David Lee (1996 Nobel Prize winner for physics)Smart PersonFrank Lloyd WrightJohn T. Scopes (defendant in Scopes Monkey Trial)
Cris CollinsworthRebecca LoboSports Media PersonAndy KatzTom Hammond


Post date: Monday, March 31, 2014 - 11:16
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-march-31-2014

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 31.

• March is ending, but the memories remain. Here are the sports ladies who wowed this month, including Jeter ex Hannah Davis.

• Happy Opening Day. There was a game last night, in which a Padres ball girl posted a web gem.

At least Brian Wilson cleaned up for his Dodgers debut.

• The Final Four is set. Kentucky's back in, younger than ever; deal with it. And give them credit for the toughest slog to the Final Four in tournament history.

Could we be headed for an all-SEC title game?  A football conference suffering through a down year for hoops has dominated the tournament. Go figure.

This Dickie V GIF defies description. Just click.

• Love this: A Gainesville TV station found a creative way around the NCAA's highlight embargo.

• Remember Bill Murray's lounge singer sketch on the old SNL? Here he is warbling cover tunes at the Caddyshack Restaurant in Florida.

Dennis Rodman played in drag in a basketball game in Argentina. That's the most Dennis Rodman sentence ever.

• Stephon Marbury won a title. It was in China, but it still obviously meant something to him, given his facial contortions.

• One last look at the shot of the tournament, Aaron Harrison's trey that put Kentucky in the Final Four.


-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]

Post date: Monday, March 31, 2014 - 10:45
Path: /college-football/ranking-big-tens-college-football-coaches-2014

Ranking college football coaches is no easy task. Similar to any position on the field, statistics may not tell the full story when judging a coaching tenure.

While it’s difficult to rank coaches, this aspect of college football is arguably the most important to winning a national or conference title. No matter how much talent a program has, winning a national title is difficult if the coaching is questionable.

Wins are a telling and important statistic, but they don’t provide a complete picture of how successful coaches are. Winning 10 games at Alabama is different than winning 10 games at Kentucky. Also, every program has a different amount of resources available. Hierarchy in college football also plays a vital role in how successful programs are. A good coach can elevate a program. However, it’s easier for programs like Alabama, Florida, Ohio State and Texas with more built-in advantages to contend for a national title on a more consistent basis.

A couple of other factors to consider when ranking assistant coaches: How well are the assistants paid? A good program is willing to spend big to keep its assistants. And a staff with two of the nation’s top coordinators could be a sign the head coach is better as a CEO and may not be as strong in terms of developing gameplans. How is the coach in the X’s and O’s? Can the coach recruit? Are the program’s facilities on par with the rest of the conference? Much like assistants, a program needs good facilities to win big. If a team is winning at a high level with poor facilities and a small budget, it’s reflects positively on the head coach. Is the coach successful at only one stop? Or has that coach built a solid resume from different jobs?

Again, wins are important. But our rankings also take into account a blank slate. If you start a program from scratch, which coach would you hire?

Considering how important coaches are to teams or even making preseason predictions, Athlon is taking a look at how all 128 college football coaches rank nationally and by conference.

Ranking the Big Ten’s College Football Coaches for 2014

1. Urban Meyer, Ohio State
Record at Ohio State: 24-2 (2 years)
Career Record: 128-22 (12 years)
Ohio State’s Program Rank: (No. 1 in Big Ten, No. 5 nationally)

Meyer has been a head coach at four different jobs and has won at a high level at each program. A hallmark of Meyer’s tenures has been a quick turnaround or immediate improvement in the first season. Bowling Green went 2-9 in the year prior to Meyer’s arrival, and the Falcons recorded a 17-6 mark under his watch. At Utah, Meyer inherited a team that won five games in 2002. However, the Utes went 22-2 under Meyer and finished No. 4 nationally in the final Associated Press poll in 2004. Meyer was hired at Florida prior to the 2005 season and guided the Gators to a 65-15 record. Florida won two BCS titles under Meyer and finished No. 3 nationally in 2009. After stepping away in 2011, Meyer returned to the sidelines at Ohio State in 2012 and won the first 24 games in his tenure. The Buckeyes closed 2013 on a two-game losing streak but have won all 16 regular season Big Ten games under Meyer’s watch. With elite recruiting, combined with a top-five program like Ohio State, it’s only a matter of time before the Buckeyes win the national title under Meyer.

2. Mark Dantonio, Michigan State
Record at Michigan State: 64-29 (7 years)
Career Record: 82-46 (10 years)
Michigan State’s Program Rank: (No. 6 in Big Ten, No. 26 nationally)

Under Dantonio’s watch, Michigan State has emerged as one of the top programs in the Big Ten. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in three out of the last four years and went 25-7 in Big Ten play during that span. Dantonio guided Michigan State to a 13-1 finish last season, including a Rose Bowl victory over Stanford. The Spartans also finished No. 3 in the final Associated Press poll, which was the highest finish in program history since 1966. Prior to taking over at Michigan State, Dantonio went 18-17 in three years at Cincinnati. Dantonio recruited only one top-25 recruiting class from 2010-13, yet the Spartans rank No. 2 in the Big Ten during that span in conference victories. And with a hefty contract extension, Dantonio is poised to continue his success at Michigan State for the foreseeable future.

3. James Franklin, Penn State
Record at Penn State: First Season
Career Record: 24-15 (3 years)
Penn State’s Program Rank: (No. 3 in Big Ten, No. 14 nationally)

Franklin comes to Penn State after a successful three-year stint at Vanderbilt. The Pennsylvania native is one of the top coaching hires for 2014 and should win big with the Nittany Lions. Franklin won 24 games with the Commodores, which tied the best three-year stretch in program history. Vanderbilt also recorded back-to-back nine-win seasons, finished in the Associated Press poll twice and claimed two bowl victories under Franklin. Prior to taking over with the Commodores, Franklin worked as the offensive coordinator at Kansas State and Maryland and served as an assistant with the Packers in 2005. After winning at one of the toughest programs in the BCS, Franklin is now at a job where he can consistently compete for titles. Franklin is also regarded as an excellent recruiter. With the resources available at Penn State, Franklin will have the Nittany Lions in contention for Big Ten titles and a spot in college football’s playoff in the near future.

4. Pat Fitzgerald, Northwestern
Record at Northwestern: 55-46 (8 years)
Career Record: 55-46 (8 years)
Northwestern’s Program Rank: (No. 13 in Big Ten, No. 59 nationally)

Fitzgerald’s career record doesn’t compare to Urban Meyer or Mark Dantonio, but let’s keep in mind he’s also coaching at one of the Big Ten’s toughest jobs. One way to look at Fitzgerald’s ranking is this: If he was at a program at the top of college football’s food chain with more resources, we think he would win at a higher level. In eight years at Northwestern, Fitzgerald has been outstanding. The Wildcats are 55-46 under his watch and played in five consecutive bowl games from 2008-12. Northwestern also won the 2013 Gator Bowl, which was the program’s first postseason win since 1949. The 1-7 mark in Big Ten play last season was Northwestern’s worst conference record under Fitzgerald, but the Wildcats were hit hard by injuries. Under Fitzgerald, Northwestern will always be a factor in the bowl picture and should be a tough out for the rest of the Big Ten.

5. Gary Andersen, Wisconsin
Record at Wisconsin: 9-4 (1 year)
Career Record: 39-35 (5 years)
Wisconsin’s Program Rank: (No. 5 in Big Ten, No. 24 nationally)

Andersen isn’t as experienced in the Big Ten as Ferentz, Kill, Hoke or Pelini, but he has a strong resume in just six years as a head coach. Andersen’s first head coaching job came at Southern Utah in 2003. The Thunderbirds went 4-7 Andersen's debut, which represented a three-game improvement from 2002. After one season at Southern Utah, Andersen worked at Utah from 2004-08 as an assistant, including the final three years as the defensive coordinator. In 2009, he was hired as Utah State’s head coach. Andersen went 8-16 in the first two years but recorded an 18-8 mark over the final two seasons. Utah State’s 11-win campaign in 2012 was the most victories in school history. Andersen went 9-4 in his Wisconsin debut and all four losses were by 10 points or less.

6. Kirk Ferentz, Iowa
Record at Iowa: 108-79 (15 years)
Career Record: 120-100 (18 years)
Iowa’s Program Rank: (No. 7 in Big Ten, No. 32 nationally)

Ferentz may not be the flashiest coach, but he is easily one of the top-six coaches in the Big Ten. Iowa is a solid job, but it also has its drawbacks. There’s not a ton of in-state talent to build a team, but the Hawkeyes are 15-17 in conference play over the last four years, which is almost equal to Michigan during that span (18-14). Ferentz went 4-19 in his first two years at Iowa, but the Hawkeyes recorded six consecutive bowl appearances from 2001-06, including an Orange Bowl trip after the 2002 season. After missing out on a bowl in 2007, Iowa earned four straight postseason trips from 2008-11, and Ferentz got the program back on track after a 4-8 mark in 2012. With a favorable schedule and 12 starters back, Ferentz should have Iowa in contention for the West Division title in 2014.

7. Jerry Kill, Minnesota
Record at Minnesota: 17-21 (3 years)
Career Record: 144-94 (20 years)
Minnesota’s Program Rank: (No. 11 in Big Ten, No. 56 nationally)

Kill was a successful coach prior to taking over at Minnesota and has guided the Golden Gophers to back-to-back bowl games for the first time sine 2008-09. In five years at Saginaw Valley State (1994-98), Kill went 38-14 and followed that stint with a two-year stop at Emporia State (11-11). From 2001-07, Kill recorded a 55-32 mark at Southern Illinois, which included five consecutive appearances in the FCS playoffs. And in three years at Northern Illinois, Kill went 23-16 with three bowl trips. After a 3-9 mark at Minnesota in 2011, Kill is 14-12 and clearly has the program on the right track. Also, last year’s 4-4 Big Ten mark is the first record of .500 or better in Big Ten play by Minnesota since 2005.

8. Brady Hoke, Michigan
Record at Michigan: 26-13 (3 years)
Career Record: 73-63 (11 years)
Michigan’s Program Rank: (No. 2 in Big Ten, No. 10 nationally)

A few years ago, Hoke would have ranked higher on this list. However, Hoke’s stock has been on the decline after finishing 8-5 in 2012 and 7-6 in 2013. Prior to taking over at Michigan, Hoke recorded a 34-38 record in six seasons at Ball State, which included a 12-1 mark in 2008. He went 13-12 in two years at San Diego State and helped the program break an 11-year bowl drought with an appearance in the 2010 Poinsettia Bowl. Hoke went 11-2 in his Michigan debut in 2011 and led the Wolverines to a victory over Virginia Tech in the Sugar Bowl. However, despite back-to-back top-10 recruiting classes, the Wolverines are just 15-11 from 2012-13. Considering the expectations at Michigan, Hoke needs to show the program is headed in the right direction in 2014 to avoid the hot seat.

9. Bo Pelini, Nebraska
Record at Nebraska: 58-24 (6 years)
Career Record: 58-24 (6 years)
Nebraska’s Program Rank: (No. 4 in Big Ten, No. 17 nationally)

Pelini is still looking for his first conference title or an appearance in a BCS bowl, but he has won at least nine games in each of his six seasons at Nebraska. While nine or ten victories a year works at most programs, is that an acceptable benchmark in Lincoln? Winning at Nebraska in 2014 is probably more challenging than it was in 1995, but according to recruiting rankings, the Cornhuskers have the No. 3 roster in the Big Ten. Although Pelini’s win total has been consistent and has five consecutive finishes in the final Associated Press poll, the expectations are huge at Nebraska. Would a 7-5 or 8-4 record in 2014 force athletic director Shawn Eichorst to rethink the direction of the program?

10. Randy Edsall, Maryland
Record at Maryland: 13-24 (3 years)
Career Record: 87-94 (15 years)
Maryland’s Program Rank: (No. 8 in Big Ten, No. 40 nationally)

Maryland has made steady progress in each of Edsall’s first three seasons and are in good position to make a bowl in 2014. Edsall was hired at Maryland in 2011 after 12 seasons at Connecticut. Under Edsall’s direction, the Huskies went 74-70 and claimed the Big East title in 2010. Edsall never recorded more than nine wins in a season at Connecticut, but he overachieved considering the program hierarchy in the Big East at the time. The Terrapins finished 2-10 in Edsall’s debut but improved their win total to four in 2012 and then seven in 2013. Maryland needs time to transition to the Big Ten, but Edsall is making gains in the right direction.

11. Kevin Wilson, Indiana
Record at Indiana: 10-26 (3 years)
Career Record: 10-26 (3 years)
Indiana’s Program Rank: (No. 14 in Big Ten, No. 69 nationally)

Wilson was a highly regarded assistant prior to his hire at Indiana, and he has made a difference in three years with the Hoosiers. After a 1-11 mark in 2011, Wilson won four games in 2012 and five last season. Indiana was just a couple of plays away from a bowl, as it lost to Minnesota by three points and Navy by six last year. There’s no question Wilson is one of the Big Ten’s top offensive coaches, but the Hoosiers have struggled mightily on defense. Indiana has ranked last in the Big Ten for three consecutive years in yards allowed, and Wilson hired former Wake Forest coordinator Brian Knorr to call the plays in 2014. If Knorr can fix the defense, Indiana has plenty of firepower on offense to reach six wins. However, the Hoosiers drew a tough schedule in realignment, as they will play Michigan, Michigan State, Ohio State and Penn State every season.

12. Darrell Hazell, Purdue
Record at Purdue: 1-11 (1 year)
Career Record: 17-21 (3 years)
Purdue’s Program Rank: (No. 12 in Big Ten, No. 57 nationally)

Hazell’s debut at Purdue was a disappointment. The Boilermakers finished 1-11 and were largely uncompetitive in Big Ten games. However, Hazell’s long-term outlook is positive after a successful two-year stint at Kent State from 2011-12. The Golden Flashes won 16 games in Hazell’s two years, which was the most by a Kent State coach since Don James won 16 from 1973-74. And in a good sign for the Boilermakers in 2014, Hazell’s second team at Kent State improved by six victories. There’s not much that separates the bottom three coaches in the Big Ten, but Hazell’s success at a tough job (Kent State) is enough to give him somewhat of a pass on what transpired in 2013.

13. Tim Beckman, Illinois
Record at Illinois: 6-18 (2 years)
Career Record: 27-34 (5 years)
Illinois’ Program Rank: (No. 10 in Big Ten, No. 52 nationally)

Beckman has struggled in two years at Illinois, which comes as a surprise after a successful three-year stint at Toledo. In three seasons with the Rockets, Beckman went 21-16 and lost just two conference games over the last two years. The Fighting Illini went 2-10 in Beckman’s debut and improved to only 4-8 last season. Hiring Bill Cubit paid dividends for Illinois’ offense in 2013, but the defense has been dreadful, allowing at least 5.8 yards per play in back-to-back years. Another reason for concern is recruiting. Illinois ranked 70th nationally in the 247Sports Composite in 2013, which ranked 13th in the Big Ten.

14. Kyle Flood, Rutgers
Record at Rutgers: 15-11 (2 years)
Career Record: 15-11 (2 years)
Rutgers’ Program Rank: (No. 9 in Big Ten, No. 50 nationally)

Flood was promoted to head coach after Greg Schiano left for Tampa Bay in 2012. Although he has guided Rutgers to back-to-back bowl games, Flood is still largely unproven. The Scarlet Knights won nine games in 2012, yet lost their final three contests and a chance to win the Big East title. In 2013, Rutgers slipped to 6-7 in a weaker conference (American Athletic) and finished with losses in four out of its last five games. Flood overhauled his coaching staff this offseason, which included the hire of former coach Maryland coach Ralph Friedgen as the team’s offensive coordinator. The week-to-week grind in the Big Ten will be a challenge for Rutgers, but adding Friedgen and changing defensive coordinators should help Flood in 2014.

Ranking the Big Ten's College Football Coaches for 2014
Post date: Monday, March 31, 2014 - 07:15
All taxonomy terms: Kentucky Wildcats, SEC, College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/aaron-harrisons-game-winner-sends-kentucky-wildcats-final-four

Nothing has come easy for Kentucky this season, especially not in the NCAA Tournament.

Sunday featured another Wildcats Tournament game, another thrilling finish.

Aaron Harrison’s game-winning 3-pointer with 2.3 seconds sent Kentucky to the Final Four with a 75-72 win over Michigan. Despite slipping to the NIT last season Kentucky has played in the Final Four in three of the last four seasons, including the 2012 national title.

The turnaround for the Harrison twins has allowed Kentucky to transform for a team that lost three of four games in the lackluster SEC from Feb. 27 to March 8, the most egregious being a loss to 14-20 South Carolina that saw John Calipari ejected.

Since the SEC Tournament, Kentucky has looked more and more like a team ready to contend for the national title. The Harrison twins have turned around their seasons, with Aaron averaging 16 points per game in the Tournament and Andrew averaging 12.3.

The same team that appeared to have chemistry issues and problems playing to its potential now has answered the call in three hotly contested Tournament games against an undefeated team (Wichita State), its top rival (Louisville) and the Big Ten champions (Michigan).

All of that led to this:

Aaron Harrison's game-winner sends Kentucky Wildcats to Final Four
Post date: Sunday, March 30, 2014 - 19:45
Path: /college-basketball/how-does-shabazz-napiers-final-four-run-compare-kemba-walkers

The shadow of Kemba Walker continues to follow Shabazz Napier at Connecticut.

The Huskies senior guard has been primed to step into Walker’s shoes since his sophomore season, a year after Walker led UConn to the national title.

Like Walker, Napier is a guard who can carry the Huskies night in and night out. He can create his own shot to an acrobatic degree, at the end of the shot clock or at the buzzer. And Napier is indispensable when he’s not taking shots, leading his team in rebounds and assists.

With a 60-54 win over Michigan State to lead UConn to the Final Four, Napier will continue to be mentioned along with Walker, who led UConn to the 2011 national championship.

Walker, though, was willing to put Napier in a class on his own.


Napier’s run might need to finish with a national championship for it to stand side by side with Walker's in the hearts of UConn fans, but the younger guard may have had a tougher road to the Final Four.

True, Walker’s hot streak started in the Big East Tournament when the Huskies won five games in five days for the automatic bid. Napier’s team lost by 10 to Louisville in the American Athletic Conference final, but the 2014 Huskies had similar difficulties through the regular season.

UConn started AAC play with back-to-back losses to Houston and SMU on the road and lost all three meetings with Louisville. In other words, UConn didn’t look much like a team capable of a deep NCAA Tournament run.

Unless Napier started to look more like Walker.

UConn started in the NCAA Tournament as a No. 7 seed — the 2011 Huskies were a No. 3 — and defeated the Big East regular season champion (Villanova) and the Big 12 and Big Ten Tournament champions (Iowa State and Michigan State) on the way to the national semifinal.

Napier has been the focal point, averaging 23.3 points per game, but how does his run stack up with Walker game-by-game, here’s a look:

Kemba Walker, 2011 Shabazz Napier, 2014
Points-Rebounds-Assists (FGM/FGA)
Points-Rebounds-Assists (FGM/FGA)
No. 14 Bucknell
18-8-12 (5/11)
FirstNo. 10 Saint Joseph’s
24-8-6 (7/22)
No. 6 Cincinnati
33-6-5 (8/20)
SecondNo. 1 Villanova
25-5-3 (9/13)
No. 2 San Diego State
36-3-3 (12/25)
Sweet 16No. 3 Iowa State
19-5-5 (5/11)
No. 5 Arizona
20-4-7 (7/17)
Elite EightNo. 4 Michigan State
25-6-4 (6/14)
No. 4 Kentucky
18-6-7 (6/15)
Final FourNo. 1 Florida
No. 8 Butler
16-9-0 (5/19)
National championship 


How Does Shabazz Napier's Final Four Run Compare to Kemba Walker's?
Post date: Sunday, March 30, 2014 - 18:15
Path: /mlb/2014-al-predictions

AL East
1. Tampa Bay
2. Boston*
3. New York
4. Baltimore
5. Toronto

It has been traditionally baseball’s toughest division, but the AL East appears to have weakened heading into 2014. Still, it may be the deepest of the six divisions, with at least four of the teams capable of winning the crown. The defending World Series champs from Boston may take a step back with the loss of center fielder and offensive catalyst Jacoby Ellsbury. And with all the dollars spent by the Yankees, their infield could be atrocious. With ace David Price still on the roster and Evan Longoria anchoring the lineup, the Rays can beat anyone. And we believe the Rays will win a tight, dramatic race. Baltimore landed outfielder/DH Nelson Cruz and starting pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez late in free agency to add to a talented core. But pitching will likely be the Orioles’ downfall. Toronto looks like the odd team out in this race.

AL Central
1. Detroit
2. Kansas City
3. Cleveland
4. Chicago
5. Minnesota

The Tigers appeared to be sleepwalking through much of last season, winning the division by a game over Cleveland. The Tigers tinkered with their lineup, trading Prince Fielder to Texas and moving two-time MVP Miguel Cabrera back to first. Rookie third baseman Nick Castellanos will be under the gun to produce. Detroit’s starting rotation and bullpen, featuring new closer Joe Nathan, should be enough to win another AL Central title. While Cleveland remains a threat, the stiffest competition for the Tigers will come from Kansas City. The Royals will finally see the fruits of a long, tedious rebuilding process. Ace James Shields and closer Greg Holland lead a young and talented staff. The Indians closed 2013 with a 10-game winning streak to earn the first wild card spot.  It may take another similar streak to repeat. Chicago and Minnesota are still in the also-ran category.

AL West
1. Texas
2. Oakland*
3. Seattle
4. Los Angeles
5. Houston

Much like the East this season, there are four teams capable of winning the West. The Rangers have deep pitching and added Prince Fielder to the middle of an already talented lineup anchored by third baseman Adrian Beltre. Newcomer Shin-Soo Choo gives Texas one of the best leadoff men in the game. But a troublesome back ailment of ace Yu Darvish could derail the season. A quick study of Oakland’s everyday lineup doesn’t exactly scare anyone. But somehow the group manages to score, and more importantly, win with back-to-back division titles. This season, the A’s will lean on rookie Sonny Gray to lead the rotation. Seattle invested heavily in prized free agent Robinson Cano. The Mariners have the pitching to compete with any team. The Angels still have a star-studded lineup, but pitching could prevent a serious run.


*Wild card teams

Detroit over Tampa Bay

World Series
St. Louis over Detroit

1. Mike Trout, OF, Los Angeles
We know it’s bound to happen soon. There’s been a strong contingent of Trout supporters who believe he should have already won an MVP. The scary thought for AL West rivals is that the fleet outfielder continues to improve. The MVP runner-up the past two seasons will likely see better pitches to hit with the expectation that teammate Albert Pujols should have a bounce-back season.
2. Miguel Cabrera, Detroit
3. Evan Longoria, Tampa Bay
4. Prince Fielder, Texas
5. Dustin Pedroia, Boston

AL Cy Young
1. Justin Verlander, Detroit
The Tigers’ ace is not exactly an automatic choice for AL Cy Young, although it seems that way. David Price of the Rays, pitching in a contract year, and Yu Darvish of Texas, if back problems don’t delay his season too long, are equally viable candidates. But Verlander may be as healthy and strong as we’ve seen him.
2. Yu Darvish, Texas
3. James Shields, Kansas City
4. David Price, Tampa Bay
5. Felix Hernandez, Seattle

Rookies to Watch
Jose Abreu, 1B, Chicago White Sox
The Cuban import had dominated in his homeland and turned heads at the 2013 World Baseball Classic. At age 27, he should be in his prime.
Xander Bogaerts, SS, Boston
The shortstop became the youngest postseason starter in Red Sox history last fall when he played his way onto the postseason roster.
Nick Castellanos, 3B, Detroit
The Tigers’ willingness to part with first baseman Prince Fielder to open a spot for Castellanos speaks volumes as to his potential.
George Springer, OF, Houston
At age 23 he posted 37 homers, 45 steals, 106 runs and 108 RBIs in 135 games across Single-A and Double-A. The Astros believe he’s ready.
Taijuan Walker, SP, Seattle
The athletic Walker is still learning to pitch. He held big league hitters to a .204 average in three starts last season.

Rays, Rangers and Tigers are favorites in the American League. Who will reign victorious?
Post date: Sunday, March 30, 2014 - 16:45
Path: /mlb/2014-nl-predictons

NL East
1. Washington
2. Atlanta
3. Philadelphia
4. New York
5. Miami

Heading into spring training this looked like a two-team race. But a couple of key injuries to Atlanta starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy handed the advantage to Washington. The Nationals have a tremendous rotation, deep bullpen and talented lineup. Keeping outfielders Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth healthy for a full season is key. They are the anchors of the batting order. Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez and Jordan Zimmermann form a tough 1-2-3 combo. Already suffering the loss of catcher Brian McCann to free agency, Atlanta acted quickly to sign starter Ervin Santana in the wake of the pitchers’ injuries. Philadelphia is another year older and this surely is the final run for Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard et al. The Mets are an up-and-coming team. Miami has some enviable talent that is not quite ready for prime time.

NL Central
1. St. Louis
2. Pittsburgh*
3. Cincinnati
4. Milwaukee
5. Chicago

The strongest division in the National League had three playoff teams last season and could again in 2014. The defending NL champion Cardinals added speed and athleticism to their lineup without sacrificing any pitching. There are five dependable starters in St. Louis led by Adam Wainwright, NLCS MVP Michael Wacha and Shelby Miller. Outfielders Matt Holliday, Allen Craig and catcher Yadier Molina could be in the MVP discussion. The Pirates are out to prove that 2013 wasn’t a one-year wonder. The talent is still developing, an indication that the club will be in the hunt for years to come. Cincinnati did very little to strengthen its lineup, and with the loss of leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo, the Reds may struggle to score. Rookie Billy Hamilton will be fun to watch on the bases. Milwaukee has a respectable rotation and could have a potent lineup if the embattled Ryan Braun can return to form. The Cubs appear headed in the right direction, but the destination is still in the distance.

NL West
1. Los Angeles
2. San Francisco*
3. Arizona
4. Colorado
5. San Diego

The Los Angeles Dodgers have officially become the West Coast version of the so-called evil empire once known as the New York Yankees. No contract is beyond the Dodgers’ reach. Money alone can’t win division titles, but Los Angeles has put together a talented roster, especially the pitching staff. Ace Clayton Kershaw is the best in the game right now. Hyun-Jin Ryu and Zack Greinke could be No. 1 starters for most teams. The Giants have assembled a pretty good staff as well, but the G-Men may have trouble producing runs at the same clip as the Dodgers. Arizona has MVP candidate Paul Goldschmidt in the heart of the batting order, but he may be pitched around. A season-ending injury to ace Patrick Corbin was a huge blow to the D-backs. Colorado and San Diego will once again sit this race out.

*Wild card teams

St. Louis over Washington

World Series
St. Louis over Detroit

1. Carlos Gonzalez, OF, Colorado
There isn’t a shortage of MVP candidates in the National League. Gonzalez won a batting title and led the NL in total bases back in 2010. He was on a similar pace last season when injuries limited him to 110 games. If he stays on the field for 145 starts, he’ll win this award. We believe he’s in for a healthy season.
2. Bryce Harper, Washington
3. Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh
4. Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona
5. Allen Craig, St. Louis

NL Cy Young
1. Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles
Forget about the back stiffness that has knocked the Dodgers’ lefthander out of the club’s second Opening Day. He will be fine now that the team isn’t flying all over the world, interrupting his training routine. Kershaw is the best pitcher in the game with the added benefit of pitching in a friendly ballpark for a winning team.
2. Jordan Zimmermann, Washington
3. Adam Wainwright, St. Louis
4. Madison Bumgarner, San Francisco
5. Jose Fernandez, Miami

Rookies to Watch
Travis d’Arnaud, C, New York Mets
Traded for multiple Cy Young winners while still in the minors, the Mets believe injuries are behind him and he’s ready to blossom.
Alex Guerrero, 2B, Los Angeles Dodgers
It may take him a few months to acclimate himself with the American game, but the Dodgers believe they have another Cuban star.
Billy Hamilton, CF, Cincinnati
Much has been made over his base-stealing prowess — and rightfully so — but will a .350 career OBP in minors translate to majors?

Cardinals, Nationals and Dodgers will rise above the rest of the National League in 2014.
Post date: Sunday, March 30, 2014 - 16:30
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/baseballs-greatest-opening-day-moments

Opening Day. These two words are so synonymous with baseball that more than 100,000 Americans signed a petition on the White House Web site imploring the Obama administration to declare the first day of the MLB season a national holiday. Whether this movement results in any government action remains to be seen, but it won’t change the attachment, emotions and memories fans of America’s pastime have when it comes to Opening Day.

Besides signaling the start of a new season and the opportunity to cheer on their favorite team and/or player, Opening Day also has been the catalyst for some of baseball’s most historic moments and impressive achievements.

The Day Baseball Changed Forever
On April 15, 1947, Jackie Robinson, 28, played first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers, becoming the first African American to play in MLB’s modern era in the process. By breaking the color barrier, Robinson forever changed America’s pastime and this also represented the start to his eventual Hall of Fame career. Even though he went hitless (0-for-3) in his first game, Robinson’s impact on the game is unmistakable, as evidenced by the fact his No. 42 has been retired permanently.

“The Judge” Holds Court in the Dugout and at the Plate
Similar to Jackie Robinson, Frank Robinson was a trailblazer in his own right. A Hall of Fame player with 586 career home runs, two MVP awards and a Triple Crown, Robinson debuted as player-manager of the Cleveland Indians back on April 8, 1975, becoming the first African American manager in major league history.

Facing the New York Yankees at home, Robinson batted second as the team’s DH and gave the fans at Cleveland Stadium something to cheer about early when he homered off of Doc Medich in the bottom of the first. The Indians would go on to win 5-3, giving Robinson the first of the 1,065 wins he would amass in his 16 seasons as a manager. Robinson also was no stranger to going deep on Opening Day. His eight career Opening Day home runs are the most in history, a mark he shares with Ken Griffey Jr.

Presidential First Pitch
Twelve U.S. presidents have thrown out the ceremonial first pitch of the MLB season. The first to do so was William Howard Taft back on April 14, 1910. A noted baseball fan, Taft attended the Washington Senators’ opener at Griffith Stadium. While several other presidents, including Woodrow Wilson (pictured above in 1916), preceded Ronald Reagan in fulfilling this duty, he is the first Commander-in-Chief credited with throwing out the first pitch from the mound rather than the stands. Reagan did so in 1984 as part of an unscheduled appearance at Baltimore’s Memorial Stadium.

Since Reagan, each of the sitting presidents have participated in at least one Opening Day, the most recent being President Obama’s appearance at the Washington Nationals’ season-opener in 2010 – the 100th anniversary of the presidential first pitch.

The Bambino Christens His House
It was known as “The House That Ruth Built” and if there was every any doubt as to why, just go back to what happened on April 18, 1923. On the first Opening Day in Yankee Stadium (the original, not the one that opened in 2009), Ruth fittingly produced the first home run – a three-run shot into the right field bleachers. This blast helped the Yankees defeat the Red Sox, Ruth’s former team, and was the first of 259 home runs Ruth would hit at his house.

The Hammer Ties the Bambino
On April 4, 1974, Hank Aaron forever etched his name into the record books when he hit a three-run home run off of Cincinnati’s Jack Billingham in the top of the first inning at Riverfront Stadium. Besides staking his Atlanta Braves to an early 3-0 lead, it represented the 714th home run in Aaron’s career, tying Babe Ruth for the most in MLB history. Aaron finished his Hall of Fame career with 755 home runs, a mark that many still acknowledge as the all-time record.

Feller’s No-No
Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Feller threw three no-hitters in his career, including one on April 16, 1940. Taking the mound for the Cleveland Indians against the Chicago White Sox at the original Comiskey Park, Feller made one run stand, holding the home team hitless while allowing five walks and striking out eight. This remains as the only no-hitter thrown on Opening Day.

Going the Distance
On April 13, 1926, the Washington Senators and Philadelphia A’s opened their season by needing 15 innings to decide the winner. While on the surface that may not seem that impressive, consider that the two starting pitchers – Walter Johnson and Eddie Rommel – were on the mound for the entire game!

Johnson, the Hall of Fame righty who is considered one of the greatest pitchers of all-time, allowed just six hits and struck out 12 in his 15 innings of work for the Senators. Opposing him was the knuckleballer Rommel, who surrendered nine hits and walked five. The Senators broke through in the bottom of the 15th, giving Johnson a 1-0 win in a pitching matchup for the ages.

In fact, Johnson owned Opening Day in many ways, as the man known as “The Big Train” took the mound for 14 season-opening starts. In those starts, he went 9-5 with 12 complete games, including three that went to extra innings. Seven of his nine victories were shutouts, and he struck out more batters (82) than hits allowed (81) in 124 innings pitched.

Opening Day Power
Toronto’s George Bell hit three home runs off of Kansas City starter Bret Saberhagen on April 4, 1988 to become the first player to do so in his team’s opener. Chicago Cubs outfielder Tuffy Rhodes was the next to accomplish this feat when he took New York Mets ace Dwight Gooden out of Wrigley Field three times exactly six years later. Rhodes’ power display was certainly unexpected, as he entered that game with just five home runs in four seasons and wound up with a total of 13 in 590 career at-bats.

The most recent to go yard three times on Opening Day was Detroit’s Dimitri Young, who tamed Comerica Park with three home runs on April 4, 2005. Two of Young’s taters came off of Kansas City starter Jose Lima, while he victimized reliever Mike MacDougal with two outs in the bottom of the eighth for his third round-tripper.

Giving Fans Their Money’s Worth
Those in attendance at Progressive Field on April 5, 2012 got to see plenty of baseball action. The Cleveland Indians and Toronto Blue Jays battled for 16 innings, the longest Opening Day game in MLB history. Although the home team lost, 7-4, those that stuck around for the entire game basically got a two-for-one deal with their ticket.

Saving Their Best For Last
In 1901, the Detroit Tigers, playing their first-ever game, trailed the Milwaukee Brewers 13-4 headed into the bottom of the ninth. The home team mounted a monumental rally, tallying 10 runs to beat the Brewers, 14-13. More than 110 years later it remains the greatest Opening Day rally in major league history.

Baseball's Greatest Opening Day Moments
Post date: Sunday, March 30, 2014 - 16:00
Path: /college-basketball/elite-eight-preview-and-picks-michigan-state-spartans-vs-uconn-huskies

Connecticut and Michigan State are proof that patience is a virtue.

The outlook for the Huskies and Spartans, who will meet in the East regional final, could have changed drastically if not key players learning how to recover from disappointments.

Two years ago, UConn was the defending national champion and starting No. 4 in the preseason. Shabazz Napier was expected to take over a team filled with talent — Jeremy Lamb, Andre Drumond and Alex Oriakhi — but that never materialized in a 20-14 season.

Napier could have transferred after that season, given that the coach who build the program, Jim Calhoun, retired. Napier decided to stay for his junior season, saying he owed it to the university.

“I didn't know how to be a leader out there at that point,” Napier said. “I was doing things that I wasn't definitely happy about. I isolated myself a lot when things were down. I didn't learn how to be a leader, even though I had one of the greatest leaders in front of me my freshman year (Kemba Walker).”

Now a senior, Napier is the unquestioned focal point on a team a game away from the Final Four.

Michigan State’s adversity wasn’t quite as drawn out, but nearly as devastating. A series of injuries contributed to a 5-7 finish to the regular season. Not until the Big Ten Tournament did the veteran Spartans return to their early season potential.

At one point this season, Adreian Payne and Branden Dawson came to blows over a forgotten practice before a game against Penn State.

“It is funny (they are playing well now) because I think at times they were more adversarial,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “We had the big Penn State incident, which really wasn't nearly as big as it seemed, but that really started the turnaround. So it's kind of funny how they're having success together, when it all started out they both probably had one of their best games over a little scuffle.”

Michigan State vs. Connecticut
2:10 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery
Region: East (New York)

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox:
Michigan State 72-65
Braden Gall: Michigan State 82-69
Mitch Light: Michigan State 68-66
Nathan Rush: Michigan State 75-70
How Michigan State got here:
Adreian Payne was one of the stories of the round of 64 with 41 points against Delaware, but Branden Dawson has been the key in the last two games. Dawson missed nine games midseason after he suffered a broken hand punching a desk in frustration. He came back for 26 points and nine rebounds against Harvard and 25 points and 10 rebounds against Virginia.

How Connecticut got here:
The Huskies have played solid defense in the NCAA Tournament, forcing 16 turnovers against Villanova and rendering Iowa State’s stars DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim ineffective. While Shabazz Napier is perhaps the most indispensable players in the country, others have taken a bigger role in the Tournament. Napier still accounts for 27.5 percent of UConn’s scoring in the last three games, but Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels have been more involved.

Key for Michigan State to get to the Final Four: Slow down Shabazz Napier
Expect Michigan State to study Louisville’s games against UConn’s superstar guard. The Cardinals held Napier in check (3 of 17 from 3) in the Huskies’ last two losses of the season. Even if UConn has been more than the Shabazz Show in the NCAA Tournament, he’s the focal point of the offense. Limit him, and the Huskies are in a world of trouble.

Key for Connecticut to get to the Final Four: Own everything from the free throw line out
Despite the win over Iowa State, this is still a team that struggles to score around the basket. For the Huskies to beat Michigan State, UConn needs to continue to stay hot from the 3-point line (39.4 percent this season) and free throw line (76.9 percent). Both of these are the territory of Napier.

Player to watch: DeAndre Daniels, Connecticut
Perhaps the absence of Georges Niang for Iowa State played a major role in Daniels’ breakout in the Sweet 16, but he’ll be worth watching again. Daniels erupted for 27 points and nine rebounds against the Cyclones.

Elite Eight Preview and Picks: Michigan State Spartans vs. UConn Huskies
Post date: Sunday, March 30, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/elite-eight-preview-and-picks-michigan-wolverines-vs-kentucky-wildcats

On Selection Sunday, so much of the chatter involves the matchups, seeding and statistical trends that will be key in advancing through the NCAA Tournament.

Those are all at play, but Sunday’s Midwest regional final is a test on the intangibles.

Kentucky has been through one of the most hotly contested games of the Tournament against Wichita State and then a foul-filled game against Louisville that wasn’t settled until the final minutes.

“Everybody says that game was the best game ever played and this game was also a classic,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “We're so tired, we don't know. We have no idea if it was a good game, bad game. We just know we won. Let's get something to eat and go to bed.”

Michigan has had its own grind, albeit not over the course of two weeks like Kentucky. The Wolverines jumped to a substantial lead against Tennessee before four consecutive turnovers allowed the Volunteers to narrow the deficit to one point in the final 13 seconds.

On Sunday, all that resets to zero with a Final Four on the line.

Michigan vs. Kentucky
Time: 4:55 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Region: Midwest (Indianapolis)

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Michigan 78-71
Braden Gall: Michigan 78-72
Mitch Light: Michigan 83-80
Nathan Rush: Kentucky 80-78
How Michigan got here:
A year ago, Mitch McGary’s size gave Michigan an element it had been lacking, enabling the Wolverines to reach the national title game. Michigan doesn’t have quite the impact presence of McGary in the frontcourt — though Jordan Morgan and Jon Horford have played well. Michigan, though, has been on fire from 3-point range shooting 49.2 percent (32 of 65) from beyond the arc in the Tournament.

How Kentucky got here:
Aaron Harrison has taken the next step in his game. Kentucky’s freshman guard is averaging 17.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, tops for the Wildcats. Aaron Harrison has been solid as well, averaging 13.7 points. The development of Kentucky’s backcourt has transformed the Wildcats from the team that played its way into a No. 8 seed into a title contender.

Key for Michigan to get to the Final Four: Overwhelm Kentucky on offense
John Beilein knows how to coach an offensive basketball game. His team neutralized Tennessee’s size advantage in the Sweet 16 by shooting 11 of 20 from 3-point range. Michigan also can get to the rim, but 3-point shooting is the Wolverines’ bread-and-butter. Kentucky ranks 52nd nationally (31.8 percent) in defending the 3-point line.

Key for Kentucky to get to the Final Four: Own the offensive glass
Kentucky is second in the nation in offensive rebound rate while Michigan ranks  259th. There’s an opportunity for the Wildcats to own the offensive glass on both ends. The only catch: Willie Cauley-Stein likely will not play. He is Kentucky’s best offensive rebounder after Julius Randle.

Player to watch: Dakari Johnson, Kentucky
One of the more anonymous members of Kentucky’s star-studded freshman class, Johnson will be in focus in the Elite Eight. With Cauley-Stein, Johnson’s workload likely will increase. He showed he’s capable of making the most of it with 15 points on 7-of-10 shooting against Louisville.

Elite Eight Preview and Picks: Michigan Wolverines vs. Kentucky Wildcats
Post date: Sunday, March 30, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/frank-kaminsky-becomes-household-name-wisconsin-reaches-final-four

When Frank Kaminsky scored 43 points in a November game against North Dakota, the outburst was something for the college basketball hardcores to ponder for a bit.

Kaminsky was a non-factor for the first two seasons of his career, so it certainly came as a surprise. But November games involving Big Sky Conference teams don’t necessarily capture the imagination.

That changed Saturday night.

Kaminsky scored 28 points and 11 rebounds against one of the best defensive teams in the country to send Wisconsin to the Final Four and to become the latest star in college basketball.

The 7-foot junior who had only one other Big Ten scholarship offer out of high school (from Northwestern) was an all-conference performer, but never the star he was against Arizona.

Against an NBA lottery prospect (Aaron Gordon) and the Pac-12’s career leader in blocks (Kaleb Tarczewski), Kaminsky flourished in a 64-63 overtime win even if it didn’t start that way.

This is what TBS analyst Charles Barkley stressed as his points of emphasis for Wisconsin’s offense in the second half:

From there, Kaminsky all the tools that make him a matchup nightmare: He beat Tarczewski and Gordon with his moves around the basket, and he stepped out to make 3 of 5 3-pointers. He made 11 of 20 shots from the field while his team shot 31.7 percent. And he added seven offensive rebounds.

His 43-point performance early in the season may have been the most prolific, but Saturday night made sure he’d be a hero in Madison.

Frank Kaminsky becomes household name as Wisconsin reaches Final Four
Post date: Sunday, March 30, 2014 - 00:25
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/top-10-arena-nicknames-college-basketball

Madison Square Garden is hosting the East Regional Sweet 16 and Elite 8 games in this NCAA Tournament.

But most everyone knows exactly what you mean when you say “The Garden.” Mark Messier, Willis Reed and Kemba Walker have helped make MSG the most famous arena in all of sports and why we all affectionately call it “The Garden.”

Now, a nickname like The Garden isn’t all that creative or unique or funny or interesting since the actual name of the building is… the Garden. So the home of the St. John's Red Storm doesn’t exactly have one of the greatest nicknames, per se, but there other college basketball arenas and stadiums that have some of the best and most beloved nicknames in all of sports.

Since this is a totally subjective exercise, here are Athlon Sports' favorite college hoops arena nicknames from 2014:

1. The Pit, New Mexico (University Arena)
New Mexico’s famous basketball-only arena opened in 1966 as University Arena and was renamed officially as “The Pit” in 2009. It got its nickname from how the building was constructed, as the floor of the arena is 37 feet below “ground level,” meaning the court is actually built inside of a pit. Because it was built into such a small space with steep grading and relatively tight quarters for 15,411 capacity seating, the Lobos have enjoyed one of the loudest home quarter settings in all of college hoops. It cost a relatively affordable $1.4 million to build and the building itself reminds fans and opposing players that it sits a mile above sea level as well.

2. The Phog, Kansas (Allen Fieldhouse)
Named in honor of former head coach Dr. Forrest C. Allen, who led the Jayhawks program for 39 years and was nicknamed “Phog” for his distinct booming fog-horn voice. Allen Fieldhouse was opened in 1955 following four years of construction, the building currently seats 16,300 and originally cost just $2.5 million to build. The Phog is widely regarded as one of the loudest building in college basketball, and thanks to decades of great teams, is arguably the toughest place to win in all of sports. At home, Kansas is 123-3 since 2007, 279-15 since 1994 (the last renovation) and 715-109 all-time, so all who enter clearly must “Pay Heed.”

3. The Barn, Minnesota (Williams Arena)
One of the older buildings in the nation, Williams Arena was opened in 1928 and cost just $650,000 to build. Its 14,625 rowdy Golden Gophers fans and rounded ceiling shape give it a raucous barnyard feel — which is how the student section (The Barnyard) and building got their of their nicknames. The most unusual characteristic of the building, however, might be the raised floor design. The court is roughly two feet above player benches, press row and the first rows of seats. The Barn has hosted both The NCAA basketball finals (1951) and a pair of Frozen Fours (1958, 1966).

4. The Kennel, Gonzaga (McCarthey Athletic Center)
McCarthey Athletic Center was opened in 2004 and goes by The New Kennel or K2 to fans in the know, however, The Kennel is the best and most fitting. The nickname has carried over from the previous facility in Spokane, the Charlotte Y. Martin Center, and couldn’t be more appropriately named. The Bulldogs play extremely well at home and the boisterous fans pack the tight 6,000-person arena each and every home game. The Kennel cost Gonzaga $25 million to build.

5. The RAC, Rutgers (Louis Brown Athletic Center)
Rutgers’ basketball arena was originally titled the Rutgers Athletic Center (RAC) when it opened in 1977. It was renamed in 1986 as the Louis Brown Athletic Center but the nickname stuck through the name change. The 8,000-seat building hosted the New Jersey Nets from 1977-81 as well as the Scarlet Knights basketball and volleyball teams. The home team hasn’t been a championship contender, but Rutgers plays great at home and the fans are intimidating close to the action. The RAC just sounds like a great place to play hoops.

6. The Slim Gym, San Diego (Jenny Craig Pavilion)
Jenny Craig Pavilion, or the JCP, was opened in 2000 on the beautiful Toreros campus in San Diego, Calif. Named after famous weight loss guru Jenny Craig, the building quickly became known as the Slim Gym for obvious reasons. The punny nickname is one of the most creative and original nicknames in college hoops. JCP seats 5,100 patrons and cost $17.5 million to build.

7. Octagon of Doom, Kansas State (Bramlage Coliseum)
Kansas State plays all of its men’s and women’s basketball games in a place known as The Octagon of Doom. It seats 12,528, was opened in 1988 and cost $17.5 million to build. The nickname comes from the building’s eight-sided shape and was started by fans who would bring octagonal shaped signs with “Doom” written them due to reputation of tenacious defense. The Manhattan arena’s nickname has quickly (2007) become one of the best pseudonyms in college sports.

8. The Tad Pad, Ole Miss (C. M. Smith Coliseum)
The Ole Miss Rebels have called C. M. Smith Coliseum home since 1965-66 when the building was originally called Rebel Coliseum. Smith was a three-sport star at Ole Miss, a coach and eventually became the Athletic Director in Oxford. The important Mississippi personality went by “Tad” and so the 9,061-seat building is now referred to as The Tad Pad.

9. Dome of Doom, Wyoming (Arena-Auditorium)
With a formal name like Arena-Auditorium, its no wonder the fans in Laramie came up with a nickname for their basketball arena. The 15,028-seat building was built in 1982 for $15 million and is officially the highest arena in NCAA Division I basketball. Situated at 7,220 feet above sea level, the Dome of Doom, or “Double-A,” literally causes headaches to opposing teams and fans.

10. The Rock, Seton Hall/NJIT (Prudential Center)
165 Mulberry Street in Newark, N.J., is home to one of the most well-used buildings in college sports. Named affectionately for the Rock of Gibraltar corporate logo of Prudential Financial, The Rock is home to three different hockey teams, namely the New Jersey Devils, and has hosted both the New Jersey Nets and New York Liberty of the professional basketball ranks in the past. But why it makes this list is famed Seton Hall basketball — as well as NJIT — calls The PC home. The 18,711-seat building (for basketball) cost an astronomical $375 million to build back in 2007. 

The Best of the Rest:

11. The Thriller Dome, Georgia Tech (Alexander Memorial Coliseum)
12. Dean Dome, North Carolina (Dean Smith Center)
13. The Hump, Mississippi State (Humphrey Coliseum)
14. The Dunk, Providence (Dunkin Donuts Arena)
15. The O-Dome, Florida (Stephen O’Connell Center)
16. The Pete, Pitt (Petersen Events Center)

Old-School Honorable Mention:

Big Brown Box that Rocks, Loyola-Chicago (Alumni Gym) 
From 1924 to 1996, Loyola-Chicago called Alumni Gym home. The 2,000-seat building was known for its crazy fans and eventually became known as the Big Brown Box That Rocks.

Chamber of Horrors, New Orleans (Human Performance Center)
New Orleans began playing Division I basketball in 1969 and called the Human Performance Center home until 1983 and then again following Hurricane Katrina from 2005-08. It seated just 1,200 fans was known as The Chamber of Horrors.


The Top 10 Arena Nicknames in College Basketball
Post date: Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 14:30
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/elite-eight-preview-and-picks-arizona-wildcats-vs-wisconsin-badgers

After Saturday, the debate for the top active coach without a Final Four appearance likely will be settled.

It’s one neither Bo Ryan nor Sean Miller want to win.

The coaches at Wisconsin and Arizona have accomplished much in their careers, and both are considered among the best in the game. Yet neither has checked off one box in their careers: A Final Four appearance.

Ryan and Miller are a combined 0-3 in the Elite Eight. That will change Saturday in the West regional final.

"It would mean a lot (to reach the Final Four)," Miller said. "Probably it would mean no more or no less for me than any coach who is coaching in this round. Everybody knows the two words Final Four mean a great deal to programs, universities. I follow like everybody does, the reaction of our fans and fans of other programs, and it's just amazing to see the outpour on campuses when you see a team get closer and closer to a Final Four."

Arizona vs. Wisconsin
Time: 8:30 p.m. Eastern
Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr
Region: West (Anaheim)

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox:
Wisconsin 68-65
Braden Gall: Arizona 69-65
Mitch Light: Arizona 78-77
Nathan Rush: Arizona 68-66
How Arizona got here:
Little went right for Arizona early in its Sweet 16 matchup against San Diego State. Nick Johnson missed his first 10 shots, and San Diego State owned the boards early in the game. Arizona chipped away before Johnson made his final two shots and 10 of 10 free throws to win 70-64.

How Wisconsin got here:
The Badgers have proven to be one of the most versatile offensive teams left in the Tournament. Consider this: The Badgers have two players averaging 14 points per game in the tournament. One is the 7-foot center Frank Kaminsky and the other is jump shooter Ben Brust.

Key for Arizona to get to the Final Four: Crack the Wisconsin offense
Wisconsin has assisted on 46 of 81 field goals in the NCAA Tournament, highlighted by Thursday's showcase against Baylor. Arizona's Nick Johnson is one of the nation’s top perimeter defenders, and Aaron Gordon is an elite athlete. Shutting down the passing lanes will be key to slowing down this Wisconsin attack.

Key for Wisconsin to get to the Final Four: Crack the Arizona defense
Wisconsin picked apart Baylor’s zone with crisp ball movement along with Frank Kaminsky’s moves around the basket. That’s going to be much more different against Arizona’s defense, which prefers man-to-man defense. Wisconsin is fourth nationally in offensive efficiency on, but Arizona is first in defensive efficiency.

Player to watch: Aaron Gordon, Arizona
Why was Arizona able to comeback from six points down early in the second half despite a cold shooting night from Johnson? The answer is Gordon. He helped Arizona stay in the game despite opportunities for the Aztecs to pull away late. His highlight reel dunk narrowed the game to 40-38 and Arizona never looked back.

Elite Eight Preview and Picks: Arizona Wildcats vs. Wisconsin Badgers
Post date: Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/elite-eight-preview-and-picks-florida-gators-vs-dayton-flyers

A team can’t reach six regional finals in nine seasons, including four in a row, without being either the dream crusher or dream maker.

Consider the teams the Gators have faced in the NCAA Tournament since the year of Florida’s first title in 2006: Florida defeated George Mason in the Final Four in 2006 and Florida Gulf Coast in the Sweet 16 in 2013. But the Gators also were one of the victims of Butler on the Bulldogs’ second run to the national title game in 2011.

Now, here comes No. 11 seed Dayton in the Elite Eight. Will the Flyers meet the same fate as George Mason or Dunk City? Or will they following the same path as Butler?

Florida, though, has its own history to make. The Gators have reached four consecutive Elite Eights, coming up short of the Final Four in each of the last three seasons.

“At the beginning of the year, it's our goal to make it here, and the fact that we have this opportunity, we're not going to let the moment get bigger than us, staying locked in and focused on what we need to do,” said Florida center Patric Young, who has been a member of all four Elite Eight teams. “We're just very blessed and fortunate to be a team that can put themselves in this opportunity to play for a Final Four again.”

Florida vs. Dayton
Time: 6 p.m., Eastern
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller
Region: Memphis (South)

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox:
Florida 67-52
Braden Gall: Florida 73-56
Mitch Light: Florida 73-62
Nathan Rush: Florida 80-70
How Florida got here:
The Gators held UCLA to 0.943 points per possession, the Bruins’ second lowest average since Feb. 2. Florida’s defensive prowess has been well-established but deserves to be reinforced: No team has averaged better than a point per possession against the Gators since Feb. 22 against Ole Miss.

How Dayton got here:
Dayton defeated Ohio State and Syracuse in the first weekend with stout defense, but the Flyers proved they could score enough to advance in the field with an 82-72 win over Stanford, a team with a significant size advantage.

Key for Florida to get to the Final Four: Crack Dayton’s perimeter defense
The Flyers held Stanford’s Chasson Randle to 2 of 10 from the field, Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis to 0 of 5 from 3-point range and Ohio State to 3 of 12 from beyond the arc. The Flyers will try to do the same to Florida’s Michael Frazier II, who hit five 3-pointers against UCLA.

Key for Dayton to get to the Final Four: Match Florida’s versatility and balance
One of Florida’s best strengths is the Gators' balance and depth. Dayton may be one of the few teams that can match Florida’s numbers. A dozen players attempted a shot in the Sweet 16 win over Stanford, and nine Flyers are averaging more than 11 minutes per game in the NCAA Tournament. Meanwhile, no one averages more than 30 minutes. Dayton will try to stay fresh against a more talented team.

Players to watch: Scottie Wilbekin and Kasey Young, Florida
Perhaps the most interesting storyline in Florida’s run to another Elite Eight has been the play of the Gators’ point guards. Wilbekin has been the go-to scorer, putting up 21 points against Pittsburgh and picking up the key buckets to pull away from UCLA. The freshman Young also has become more involved with 10 assists against the Bruins. Together, they have 21 assists to five turnovers in the NCAA Tournament.

Elite Eight Preview and Picks: Florida Gators vs. Dayton Flyers
Post date: Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 07:00