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Some of the best storylines in the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament will be settled in the final day before the Sweet 16.
Wichita State’s first game of the season against a national power will be a big one as the Shockers face the preseason No. 1 team in Kentucky.
Mercer took out Duke on Friday and gets to face a No. 11 see for a chance to reach the second weekend. But that No. 11 seed happens to be one of the most impressive statistical teams in the country. Mercer isn’t alone among small schools trying to reach the Sweet 16 when Stephen F. Austin faces UCLA.
Injuries, though, also will be a key factor in the day as Kansas tries to advance despite the absence of Joel Embiid. Meanwhile, Iowa State will need to recalibrate in a major way with a tournament-ending foot injury to Georges Niang.
NCAA Tournament Sunday Viewer’s Guide
All times Eastern
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 10 Stanford
TV: 12:15 p.m., CBS
Site: St. Louis
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Kansas weathered the absence of Joel Embiid in the round of 64 game against Eastern Kentucky, but it wasn’t easy. The Jayhawks didn’t begin to pull away until the final seven minutes. KU won 80-69 thanks in part to major contributions from role players — guard Conner Frankamp scored 10 points and forwards Tarik Black and Jamari Traylor combined for 29 points and 19 rebounds.
No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 8 Kentucky
TV: 2:45 p.m., CBS
Site: St. Louis
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
On Selection Sunday, this was one of the top potential matchups of the first weekend ... provided Kentucky could make it past Kansas State. Kentucky handled K-State, and now the Wildcats draw the 35-0 Shockers. Wichita State gets its shot against a traditional power program and one filled with plenty of pro talent, even if Kentucky underachieved this season. The Wildcats have been more efficient in the defensive end in the postseason, but Wichita State point guard Fred VanVleet is one of the best floor generals in the country.
No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 6 North Carolina
Site: San Antonio
Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr
Iowa State’s Final Four chances took a major hit when one of the Cyclones’ top three players was lost for the remainder of the tournament with a broken foot. Sophomore forward Georges Niang gave Iowa State versatility with his ability to play around the basket and shoot from the perimeter, leading Iowa State in overall shots from the field and 3-point attempts. Fred Hoiberg is one of the nation’s top offensive coaches, but he’ll have to adjust on the fly. North Carolina struggled in the defensive end against Providence, winning the game thanks to 17 offensive rebounds and 26 second chance points.
No. 11 Tennessee vs. No. 14 Mercer
TV: 6:10 p.m., TNT
Site: Raleigh, N.C.
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller
The stakes are quite different from the last time these two teams met in an NIT game in Knoxville after last season. Mercer won that meeting 75-67. The Bears are trying to become the second Atlantic Sun team to reach the Sweet 16 in the last two seasons, joining Florida Gulf Coast. Tennessee is looking to prove its own point. The Volunteers were a top-20 team according to Ken Pomeroy’s analytics, but Tennessee was an up-and-down team all season. With two wins in this Tournament already (UT beat Iowa in the First Four), Tennessee is performing closer to the analytics than its checkered regular season resume.
No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin
TV: 7:10 p.m, TBS
Site: San Diego
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, Mike Gminski
A coach who has struggled to defeat underdogs in the NCAA Tournament now faces the hottest mid-major in the country. Defensive-minded Stephen F. Austin defeated VCU in overtime despite losing the turnover battle (VCU turned the ball over 17 times, SFA lost the ball 11 times). The Lumberjacks won instead by 60 percent inside the 3-point line. Stephen F. Austin will try to carry that over against UCLA team that ranked 133th in 2-point defense.
No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 6 Baylor
TV: 7:45 p.m., truTV
Site: San Antonio
Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr
This matchup has the potential to be the best offensive showcase of the first weekend. Both Baylor and Creighton rank in the top 10 nationally in offensive efficiency, and neither are known as defensive stalwarts. Creighton has stalled in this round in both NCAA trips during the Greg/Doug McDermott era, but both times, Creighton was the lower-seeded team against Duke in 2013 and North Carolina in 2012.
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 8 Memphis
TV: 8:40 p.m., TNT
Site: Raleigh, N.C.
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller
Virginia trailed by 5 at the half against No. 16 seed Coastal Carolina in the round of 64, in part because the Chanticleers shot 9 of 19 from 3-point range. Virginia won 70-59, but the early stumbles set up an intriguing game against Memphis. The Cavaliers play stingy defense by forcing opponents to work deep into the shot clock, but Memphis likes to score in transition.
No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 8 Gonzaga
TV: 9:40 p.m., TBS
Site: San Diego
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, Mike Gminski
While the main storyline Friday was how dangerous a No. 9 seed Oklahoma State would be, Gonzaga snuck in and defeated the Cowboys 85-77. Maybe flying under the radar is a good thing for the Bulldogs, which earned a No. 1 seed last season before losing in the round of 32. Arizona leads the nation in defensive efficiency on KenPom, but Gonzaga may have the inside-outside balance to cause problems.
Jordan Sibert and Dayton had more to conquer that defeating Ohio State.
After a nail-biting finish, Dayton defeated Syracuse 55-53 to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1984.
A bubble team entering the Atlantic 10 Tournament, 11th-seeded Dayton took its biggest win of the season down to the wire, giving Syracuse several opportunities to tie or take a lead late.
Sibert, an Ohio State transfer, had the dagger 3-pointer, but a few possessions later, he stepped out of bounds under pressure in the baseline corner after an in bounds pass. Dayton also went 10 of 18 from the free throw line.
Down by 1, Syracuse’s Tyler Ennis missed the long 2-point jumper with 11 seconds left. After Dayton made 1 of 2 free throws, Ennis’ final 3-point attempt bounced off the rim as Dayton sealed its win.
The loss ends a dismal final five weeks of the season for Syracuse. The Orange started 25-0 but lost six of their final nine games, including losses to Boston College, Georgia Tech, NC State and now Dayton.
Syracuse’s struggles on offense persisted until the end of the season. The Orange went 0 for 10 from 3-point range in their final game of the season.
Louisville handled the best shot from a coach who knew what the Cardinals were going to do before they did it. In the next game, Louisville handed the champions of the Atlantic 10, a league with six NCAA bids, its worst loss of the season.
Louisville had one of the most stifling defensive performances of the NCAA Tournament so far, holding Saint Louis to 16 points in the first half and 0 of 15 from 3-point range.
Then why does Rick Pitino seem so frustrated?
That defensive performance wasn’t enough. His star player is still struggling to adjust to how opponents guard him. His team is too turnover happy.
“The past three years have been one of the more wonderful experiences of my life in terms of the quality young men I'm coaching, but this is a difficult team to coach, very difficult.”
Louisville will head into the Sweet 16, a stage of the NCAA Tournament where Pitino is 11-0, with a handful of questions exposed by the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament.
“The past three years have been one of the more wonderful experiences of my life in terms of the quality young men I'm coaching, but this is a difficult team to coach, very difficult.”
-Louisville coach Rick Pitino
Russ Smith also had his moments, but the tug of war between Louisville’s star player and the Cardinals’ coach has resurfaced at the worst time.
“Russ Smith has grown so much as a basketball player, but he still has one thing left,” Pitino said. “I tried to explain this to him at halftime, but he has a very difficult time. He's a distracted young man, understanding this. ...
“He doesn't understand the scouting of the other teams. He's all Michael (Jordan), all Kobe (Bryant). But he doesn't get that those guys in the other locker room are a lot smarter than me. He doesn't get it."
Smith shot 6 of 19 from the field and turned the ball over 16 times during the weekend. Louisville’s 31 team turnovers in two games kept Manhattan and Saint Louis in striking distance.
The concerns didn’t end with the Cardinals enigmatic guard. Louisville shot 36 percent from the field against Manhattan, including a mere 38 percent from 2-point range. The ratios were better against Saint Louis, but turnovers meant Louisville averaged less that a point per possession for the first time since a March 1 loss to Memphis.
“Every team can play defense at this stage,” Pitino said. “So you've got to have great offense to win, and you've got to really execute and make free throws, do smart things.”
For a team that entered the NCAA Tournament with legitimate aspirations of repeating as national champions, those are major concerns.
If Thursday brought chaos, Saturday is the aftermath.
The first full day of the NCAA Tournament brought four overtime games, three double-digit seeds advancing and two title teams in trouble.
Saturday is what’s left, starting with a Florida team that stumbled through a win against Albany and then a Louisville team that survived Manhattan.
In the later games, a trio of mid-majors will try to reach the second weekend of the Tournament as Dayton, North Dakota State and Harvard continue to embrace their underdog roles.
Here’s your guide through the round of 32 with most of the action taking place in the evening.
NCAA Tournament Saturday Viewer’s Guide
All times Eastern.
No. 3 Syracuse vs. No. 11 Dayton
TV: 7 p.m., TBS
Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery
Dayton did not need a great offensive performance to defeat Ohio State, averaging 0.91 points per possession and shooting 23 percent from 3. The same might not be true against Syracuse. The Orange closed the season with a host of problems scoring, but Syracuse in the round of 64 against Western Michigan had its best offensive game in terms of efficiency since the Feb. 1 win over Duke. A big reason: Trevor Cooney found his outside shot (4 of 8 from 3-point range).
No. 2 Wisconsin vs. No. 7 Oregon
TV: 7:30 p.m., CBS
Announcers: Ian Eagle, Jim Spanarkel
Two of the more streaky regular seasons meet in Milwaukee for a chance to go to the Sweet 16. Oregon started 13-0, dropped eight of 11 and is now riding a 9-1 streak. Wisconsin started 16-0, lost five of six and finished 10-2. Oregon was the most efficient offensive teams in the Pac-12, but slumped because it couldn’t defend. This season’s Wisconsin team is not the typical Bo Ryan team — the balance and athleticism for the Badgers will cause Oregon problems.
No. 4 Michigan State vs. No. 12 Harvard
TV: 8:30 p.m., TNT
Site: Spokane, Wash.
Announcers: Spero Dedes, Doug Gottlieb
Michigan State is surging, no doubt. Big man Adreian Payne is coming off the best scoring performance in the NCAA Tournament in a decade by scoring 41 points against Delaware. Harvard, though, is chasing its own history. The Crimson are seeking to become only the second Ivy League team to reach the Sweet 16 since Penn went to the Final Four in 1989.
No. 1 Villanova vs. No. 7 Connecticut
TV: 9:30 p.m., TBS
Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery
The Big East has been reconfigured for less than a year, and already we’re getting some nostalgia for the old league. The game will be guard heavy with Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright facing Villanova’s big guards James Bell and Darrun Hilliard.
Dunk City may have only been an appetizer.
The same league that sent Florida Gulf Coast to the NCAA Tournament last year also provided the biggest upset so far when 14th-seeded Mercer took out Duke in the round of 64.
Mercer joined Lehigh, VCU and Eastern Michigan as the only teams in the last 20 years to hand Duke a one-and-done exit from the NCAA Tournament with a 78-71 win in the round of 64 Thursday.
The Bears, though, are not a fluke. Mercer has won back-to-back Atlantic Sun championships and won 78 games the last three seasons. Though the Bears haven’t been able to get to the Tournament until 2014, they have been a dangerous team to programs from major programs, including wins over Ole Miss, Seton Hall, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida State and Georgia Tech in the last three seasons.
None of which compares to Duke, so now, Mercer dances.
The best part of Kevin Canevari’s dance? He’s a senior who has averaged a point per game in his career. He attempted one shot against Duke.
Now, he’s the face of Mercer’s upset. And he’s not the only one excited.
After the upset, Florida Gulf Coast and Lehigh, the No. 15 seed that defeated Duke two years ago, welcomed Mercer to the club of Cinderellas.
Well played, @MercerMBB.— FGCU Men's Hoops (@FGCU_MBB) March 21, 2014
Although Mike Krzyzewski’s team endured one of the biggest flops of the postseason — star wings Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker combined to go 6 of 24 from the field and the Duke defense fell apart — the Blue Devils coach offered his own congratulations.
Mercer locker room stunned into silence as Coach K pops in and congratulates them. "We had to be beaten." Mercer player: "Oh. My. God."— Brian McNally (@bmcnally14) March 21, 2014
Watching Dustin Johnson hit soaring drives is like watching Picasso paint. It’s what he was born to do, an act of effortless genius. And now, the rest of his game — including the part that resides between the ears — seems to be catching up with Johnson’s prodigious talents off the tee.
Johnson is building an enviable resume. He enters the meat of the 2013-14 schedule as the PGA Tour’s biggest winner still in his 20s, a distinction he’ll hold until his 30th birthday on June 22. With eight career wins, the Columbia, S.C., native is one of only three players under the age of 30 with four or more PGA Tour wins; Rory McIlroy (six) and Webb Simpson (four) are the others. Johnson now has at least one PGA Tour victory in seven consecutive seasons (2008-current); only Phil Mickelson (10 consecutive years) has a longer active streak. (Tiger Woods had a 14-year winning streak from 1996-2009.) Johnson is the first player since Tiger (1996-2002) to win in his first seven consecutive seasons straight out of college (2008-current).
Johnson plans to fill the one remaining gap in his career ledger — a major championship — very soon. Athlon sat down with the Tour’s top power hitter to talk majors, Cups (Ryder and FedEx) and playing golf with The Great One.
You’re known as one of the real athletes on Tour. What role does athleticism play in the game today?
For me, I think golf is becoming more athletic. If you see the generations coming out now, both my generation and all the younger guys who are coming out, they’re all tall and big and strong. The breed of golfer now is just a lot bigger and stronger. Golf has definitely become a lot cooler for high school athletes to take up. Over the last 15-20 years, even the last five years, golf has become a cool sport to play.
Did Tiger play the key role in that?
For sure. There’s not one golfer who can’t thank Tiger for everything he’s done. He’s really made the game popular, and he’s made the game cool to play.
Clearly, the next step in your career is winning a major. You’ve had some painful near-misses. Have those left any scar tissue, or will you be better prepared for the moment next time?
When you fail, or something doesn’t go right, you learn a lot more about yourself than when it does go right. You always learn more from your mistakes. Those situations have helped me in my career. Majors are tough, and if you’re not spot-on, you’re not going to play very well. You’ve got to put four good rounds together. In China (at the WGC-HSBC in November) was one of the first times I played good four days. Got off to a bad start the first day, but turned it around and played really well the rest of the way, and then played really good on Friday and Saturday. I made a couple mistakes on Saturday, but played really good golf. And then on Sunday, I got off to a bad start, but then played exceptionally well after that. It was really the first time where I felt like I played well the whole time.
So you know what it takes now for a major.
Right. To win a major, you’ve got to do that. You’ve got to play four good days of golf.
You’d take any of them, but is there one major you’d value over the others?
For me, it’ll always be Augusta. I grew up an hour away from there. As a little kid on the putting green, it was never putts to win the U.S. Open. Living so close to Augusta, it was always putting on the putting green to win The Masters.
Do you feel like The Masters sets up well for your game?
I think it does. I like putting on fast greens, and the greens at Augusta are always fast. It’s a big golf course, and you have to drive it well there. It’s crucial to control your distance. It’s one of those courses, the more you play it, the more you learn. You learn something new every time you play at Augusta. There are just certain spots you cannot hit it. I think it definitely sets up well for me. I definitely think I’ll contend there.
It’s a Ryder Cup year, and the Ryder Cup obviously means a lot to you.
It’s just so different than what we’re used to, and so much fun. We enjoy everything about it — the dinners, the camaraderie, the team room. For me, being on the last two Ryder Cup teams, we lost both of them, and I did play well in the last one — I was 3–0 — but it’s a team event. It doesn’t matter how well I played, the team has to play well. I could have gone 5–0, and it doesn’t matter, and we lost. It sucks, especially going into singles with the lead we had. You can ask anybody who was on that team — it still stings.
Is the pressure a different kind of pressure?
It’s a completely different kind of pressure. But it’s so much fun. You’ve got your whole country rooting for you. It’s really a cool feeling. It’s really intense. You can’t describe it.
You called the WGC-HSBC in November 2013 the biggest win of your career thus far. The leaderboard on Sunday at the HSBC was basically you and half the European Ryder Cup team. It had to feel pretty good to stand up to those guys.
In that moment, I wasn’t really thinking about that, but obviously, I could see the leaderboard, and every player that was on it was a top-25 golfer in the world. It was a who’s who of a leaderboard on Sunday. For me to play that well coming down the stretch to win was very important to me, very important for my confidence, just to know and believe in myself that I can do that. It’s special.
That day, you got off to kind of a slow start while the guys you were playing with (Ian Poulter and Graeme McDowell) were on fire out of the chute, erasing your three-shot lead.
At that moment, there’s all kinds of thoughts going through your head. "Oh, no. Am I really going to do this?" I’m like, alright, we’re starting over. It’s Sunday, I’m one back and have 14 holes to play. Let’s see how good I can play. Let’s show these guys how good I am. I had to change my mindset.
Any opinion on the Brandel Chamblee-Tiger Woods controversy?
Honestly, I haven’t even seen it (Chamblee’s article insinuating that Woods was guilty of cheating in his brushes with the Rules of Golf in 2013). I’ve heard from guys what happened, but I don’t really pay attention.
Do guys care what analysts say about them?
It obviously depends on the person. I don’t watch the Golf Channel. It doesn’t bother me. People are entitled to their own opinion, I’ve got mine, they’ve got theirs. My opinion matters more than theirs.
How important is the FedExCup?
It’s really important. There’s 10 million reasons why it’s important. I think the first year, it’s like anything, guys were like, what is this? But now I think everyone really likes it. They’ve got it to a system that works. I think it’s great for the PGA Tour and the game of golf. You get a lot more interest, and you’re starting to see a lot more of the top Europeans playing the U.S. Tour because they want to play the FedExCup.
That brings up the global nature of the game. Do you anticipate playing more overseas?
That’s hard to say. I’m playing more overseas than I used to. My first few years out, I don’t think I played overseas at all, but the game’s definitely gotten more global. I definitely will be playing overseas, but you can only play so much. A few times a year.
When you really cut loose, how far can you hit a drive?
When I’m on the launch monitor, when I’m swinging really hard, which I never do on a golf course, I can get one 330-335 in the air. A normal swing when I’m on the golf course, it’s going to fly maybe 300. Anywhere between 290 and 300. Obviously, I can step it up once in a while and maybe fly one 310. But I never like swinging with that mindset. I don’t want to hit it hard. Maybe when I’m on the driving range and just goofing around I’ll smash ‘em sometimes for fun. But on a golf course, I might swing 85 to 90 percent at the highest.
Other than the driver, what’s your favorite club in the bag?
That’s a tough one. I like all my clubs. When I was growing up, you’d have a club like a 7-iron, or a 9-iron, that you hit better, where even if it was an 8-iron shot, I’d hit 7, or if it was a 6-iron, I’d hammer a 7 because I liked it. But now, there’s not one club I like more. My putter, maybe my 60 degree, my 3-wood. But I like them all. TaylorMade does a great job. I’ve got zero complaints. They’ve been very good to me, and they make the best equipment. I only need 10 or 11 clubs, I don’t need to play 13, but I have 13 of them. Every one of my professional wins has come with the same putter (a Scotty Cameron for Titleist Newport 2 Prototype). Every once in a while it’s got to sit in time-out, though (laughs). I bring out that white TaylorMade to get its attention and let it know who’s boss.
You played college golf at Coastal Carolina, not a traditional golf powerhouse. What role did that experience with coach Allen Terrell have in making you the player you are?
When I was looking at colleges, I remember it was the first week of summer, and I was going to the beach, and I passed by Coastal Carolina. I thought, that looks like it would be a fun school to go to. I called up the coach and sent him a resume. He called me back the next day and said, “Can we meet?” I went and met him. It was definitely a lifestyle change, but Coach Terrell has played a big part in my success, as a person and as a golfer. I don’t know what we were ranked my freshman year, but it wasn’t very good, maybe 100. Then I think by the end of my freshman year we were maybe in the 70s, then my sophomore year we got into the top 25, and my junior and senior year were top 10. So we became a powerhouse. He was really disciplined. Obviously, I tried to bend the rules as much as possible, so the whole time I was in school, we knocked heads. But I understood. It was what I needed — someone that wouldn’t put up with the BS. He helped me tremendously. Going to Coastal was the best thing I ever did — the best decision I ever made.
What first got you interested in the game?
My dad was a head pro at a golf course when I was little. Me and my brother would go to the golf course with him. Especially in the summer, we’d go every day. We had a swimming pool there, so we’d go play 18 holes, go to the pool, then go back out and play 18 more. Since my brother played too, it was fun for us to play together. Also, there was a driving range right by my house that my dad’s buddy owned. I’d be there until 10 o’clock at night.
Have you gotten Paulina (fiancée Paulina Gretzky) interested in golf?
No. She’ll go hit a ball or two every once in a while, but it’s not her thing.
Your future father-in-law (hockey legend Wayne Gretzky) can play, though.
Yeah, he’s a pretty good stick. He can shoot 74, or he can shoot 85. We’ve played a lot of golf together. He’s got game, for sure, and he’s fun to play with. We have a good time.
You’re joining the family of somebody who’s considered the greatest ever to play his sport. Is that inspiring? Intimidating? Does he still have the "Great One" aura?
Yeah, he does. I think just being around him and seeing how he handles everything and how he conducts himself and the way he treats people. He’s the greatest hockey player to ever play, and he probably will always be. Just to see the way he carries himself, and how nice he is to people. It takes a special person to be that way, and he does it better than anyone I’ve ever seen. He couldn’t be a nicer, more down-to-earth guy. When I’m out there we go play golf almost every day, and we’ll go the club and have a beer. It’s just fun.
Goals for 2014?
Definitely be more consistent. Contend more. I just want in 2014 to try to get better each week. Just put myself in position to try to win on Sundays. The more times you do that, the more you win. I need to contend in the majors, too. The majors are definitely something I’m looking forward to in 2014.
You’re known for your skills on the basketball court. If you were picking the Tour basketball team, who are some of the other athletes out there?
I’d have Gary Woodland on my team. Probably Kooch (Matt Kuchar). Me. We’re going tall; Gary can run point. There are just so many guys coming out now who are athletic and can play other sports. Keegan (Bradley) is pretty athletic. Even Sergio (Garcia) — you know, Sergio doesn’t play basketball, but he’s a really good soccer player and loves to play. It’s just a different breed of golfers today. Keegan can shoot a little bit. I don’t get to play that much any more. Ever since I had my knee surgery, I’ve stayed off the court. I love it, and I want to play, and I’ll go shoot around some. I used to play pick-up games, but I just don’t do it anymore.
How do guys typically unwind and recreate?
It depends on the person. For me, I like going on the boat, whether I’m going fishing or just going out and having a beer, cruising around and listening to music. That’s something I really enjoy doing. On Saturdays and Sundays, watching football.
Looking way ahead, 20 years from now, what kind of career numbers would you want to look back at and say, I’ve had the kind of career I envisioned?
I’ve never really thought about it. I want to look back and know that I helped grow the game of golf and had a career that people respect. One of my ultimate goals is to get to that 20-win mark. Once you get there, then you can look past that, but right now, getting there means you’re a lifetime member, and it does a lot of things for you. If I do get there, once I get there, then I’ll re-evaluate.
Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, Denny Hamlin’s return to Fontana, a sport’s continued — and inexplicable — lack of SAFER Barriers, Auto Club Speedway’s surprising raciness and Jimmie Johnson’s SoCal dominance highlight the major topics leading us into Sunday’s 400-mile race at Auto Club Speedway.
1. Hamlin returns to scene of 2013 accident
Denny Hamlin has only made four starts in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series since his latest win, and he’s coming off a weekend at Bristol that included a pole position and a sixth-place finish. He’s nabbed two top-10 finishes so far in 2014 and ranks seventh in the point standings. A year ago at this point — before the season’s fifth race at Auto Club Speedway — he was 10th in the standings.
For as much that looks the same for Hamlin, so much from the past year is so different.
Hamlin suffered significant back injuries in a last lap crash a year ago at ACS — injuries that knocked him out of four races and most of a fifth. A valiant attempt to get back into Chase contention quickly faded, and Hamlin soon went into obscurity as his finishes grew increasingly more disappointing. He won at Homestead-Miami Speedway to close the year 23rd in points.
His story will undoubtedly be the focus of the weekend and Hamlin likely has retribution in mind. Winning, though, won’t be the cure to it all. Hamlin basically lost a season of his career at his prime, and it’s forever valid to wonder if a driver is ever the same — physically or mentally — after a serious crash.
2. NASCAR remains too slow to SAFER response
Hamlin’s crash was a violent one at a horrible angle. He slid off the track at corner exit of Turn 4 and caught a perpendicular wall head-on in a brutal impact. The worst part? The wall — a poorly designed one, at best — wasn’t protected by the tried-and-true SAFER Barrier system used in so many other areas of today’s racetracks.
That fact undoubtedly contributed to the severity of Hamlin’s crash and resulting injuries.
The wall, according to track officials, is now covered by the SAFER system for this weekend’s on-track activities. Obviously that’s the right move. But is it enough?
The California track still has entire swaths of the frontstretch and backstretch outside walls unprotected. Other tracks, too, share similar gaps in safety all because NASCAR remains apathetic about the issue despite numerous examples of race cars hitting those dangerous barriers.
Hamlin being able to hit a solid concrete barrier was simply unacceptable. A year later, it’s unacceptable that a universal approach from NASCAR to wall safety doesn’t even seem to be on the horizon.
3. Will Sunday continue the vindication of California track’s racing prowess?
One the most loathed track on the season schedule — both for the snoozer shows of racing and its unfortunate role as the original substitute for NASCAR’s absent-minded removal of the Labor Day weekend Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway — Auto Club Speedway surprised an entire industry last season with an unexpected gem.
The racing was a welcome respite from years of single-file racing with limited passing. Drivers instead showed new abilities to roam the whole track and saw greater tire wear that substantially affected handling during the course of a run.
The last lap — despite Hamlin’s resulting injury — was a terrific battle between Hamlin and Joey Logano and the perfect on-track escalation of a simmering feud. Kyle Busch then surprised everyone by slipping by for the win.
The change is largely due to Auto Club Speedway not having to replace the track surface some 17 years after opening. It’s finally reached the perfect age where it’s abrasive and virtually the same speed in every lane. As a result, car handling is a forever moving target — forcing drivers to manage tires and seek new lines as a run progresses.
We can only hope to see more on Sunday.
4. Track surface could make for interesting qualifying session
Sprint Cup teams hit the track Friday at 4:30 p.m. local time (7:30 p.m. ET) for the three-round qualifying session to set the field for Sunday’s race. The previously-mentioned abrasiveness of ACS’ surface could lead to some varied strategies, ranging from boring to exciting.
Tire falloff is nearly immediate now at the track, meaning every lap a driver runs will typically get slower than the prior. By rule, teams get just one set of tires for use during the entirety of the qualifying session.
The result could be two rounds largely void of drama as teams who get a top lap in on their first go opt to stand on that time, believing it’s the best they could do and hoping to save rubber for the last run. However, the teams that make it in to the final round may have their hands full with worn tires — leading to lots of late action as drivers slip and slide around the two-mile oval in search of speed.
Frontstretch Foto Funnies: Maybe that was a Bad Idea …
5. Jimmie Johnson seeks return to California dominance
Native Californian Jimmie Johnson is six races removed from his last race win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series — hardly a streak worth worrying about. Johnson, however, may be a bit anxious about his recent runs at ACS.
It is his home track, after all.
It’s not that Johnson’s finishes have been particularly bad in Fontana, it’s just that Johnson simply hasn’t been as dominant. The No. 48 has finished 10th and 12th in his last two starts, leading just two laps in the process. Those finishes stand out because Johnson finished worse than third just once (ninth, 2009) in eight consecutive races at ACS from 2007 to 2011. He nabbed a .500 winning average in that span with four victories.
Johnson leads nearly every statistical category available in NASCAR’s loop data at the track. He has the best average running position, best average start, best average finish, best average mid-race running position, the most fastest laps, most laps led, highest driver rating and the highest percentage of quality passes. He only trails in passing categories because, well, when you race up front, you don’t pass a whole lot.
Johnson will try for his sixth win in his 20th ACS start on Sunday.
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. 17: Steve Stricker
Born: Feb. 23, 1967, Edgerton, Wis. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 12 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $4,440,532 (7th) | World Ranking: 14
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Steve Stricker played the best golf of his life in 2013, yet he didn't win a PGA Tour event and played in only 13 events, stating early in the year that he was going to be semi-retired from now on. In those 13 events, he had eight top 10s, led the tour in scoring average, finished third in driving accuracy, second in greens in regulation, second in strokes gained-putting and was second in scrambling. If I knew how much and where he was going to play, I would put him near the top of this list. He hasn't had a top-five finish in a major since 1999, but it looks like Steve is better late than ever.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T20
U.S. Open - T8
British Open - DNP
PGA Championship - T12
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - T6 (2009)
U.S. Open - 5/T5 (1998, 1999)
British Open - T7 (2008)
PGA Championship - 2 (1998)
Top-10 Finishes: 11
Top-25 Finishes: 28
Missed Cuts: 14
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.
Last fall in the visiting clubhouse at Fenway Park, as jubilation swirled outside, the Cardinals quietly came to grips with a sudden October ending. Several luminaries, like Carlos Beltran and retiring star Chris Carpenter, would not be returning, but general manager John Mozeliak surveyed the room and wanted the players to see past the disappointment and recognize a chance for continuation. “We’ve got a good team,” he said. “We’ve got a young team.” The Cardinals, who won a league-best 97 games, claimed their fourth National League pennant in 10 years. They reached the Fall Classic with the youngest roster in the playoffs after a season that featured 11 major-league debuts. And the Cardinals have outfitted a ring-bearing core of Matt Holliday (three World Series), Adam Wainwright (three World Series), and Yadier Molina (four World Series) with young, hotshot pitchers set to carry the club through many autumns to come.
Young and talented are the two words to describe the Cardinals’ rotation. A pitcher 26 or younger started 109 of the Cardinals’ 162 games, and rookies threw 50 percent of the innings in the World Series. In September, Joe Kelly (25) and Lance Lynn (26) combined for a 2.11 ERA, and Michael Wacha (22) had a 1.72 ERA. Shelby Miller (23) won 15 games total. All four cram into a crowded competition for starting spots after Wainwright (32), who tied for the NL lead in wins (19) and led in innings pitched (241.2). “We haven’t seen (their) ceiling,” manager Mike Matheny says. Lefty Jaime Garcia (27) was expected to return from shoulder surgery to arm the Cardinals with a rotation that could go eight deep with sky-high potential, but his shoulder did not respond well in spring training. He’s out indefinitely…again.
Matheny started the 2013 offseason with a pronouncement about 2014: Trevor Rosenthal will be the closer. The flamethrowing righty claimed the ninth inning in September and blazed through four saves and a scoreless 11.2 innings in October. An infusion of power jolted the bullpen for the postseason and will mark the late innings again. Former closer Jason Motte (elbow surgery) is back, giving the Cardinals at least five relievers who throw 98 mph or better. Lefty Randy Choate and Motte will serve as sages for a green group that could include lefty Kevin Siegrist, Seth Maness, and rookie Carlos Martinez. With Rosenthal at the end, Matheny can bridge leads from starter to closer with a familiar late-inning recipe: fast, faster and then fastest. Righties Keith Butler and Pat Neshek will cover any innings that might be available until Motte is completely sound.
When newcomer Jhonny Peralta debuts at shortstop on Opening Day, he’ll continue a Cardinals trend before trying to end it. Peralta, 31, will be the eighth different starting shortstop in eight consecutive Opening Days for the Cardinals. That instability is surpassed to Peralta’s left. Veteran Mark Ellis or rookie Kolten Wong will be the ninth different Opening Day second baseman in 12 years. The Cardinals moved All-Star Matt Carpenter back to third base to allow for Wong, a former first-round pick who brings speed, solid defense and high-average potential. With a .774 OPS vs. lefties since 2011, Ellis offers a right-handed-hitting complement to Wong and alternative starter if he falters. Peralta brings offense that the Cardinals haven’t seen at short in years. The position has averaged a .336 slugging percentage the past four seasons and provided 11 homers total since 2012. Peralta had that many in 2013. The Cardinals crave his production to stop their middle infield merry-go-round. The Redbirds will lose some defense, but Peralta is sure-handed and makes all the routine plays.
The first major move of the offseason was a farewell. The Cardinals packaged favorite son, St. Louis native and former World Series MVP David Freese in a deal with the Angels. The third baseman’s production drifted in 2013, and, due a raise through arbitration, he was in enough demand for the Cardinals to reshape the look of the infield and team defense with a trade. After leading the league in hits, runs and doubles, leadoff hitter Carpenter offers a defensive upgrade at third, and coaches believe he’ll flex more power to offset the loss of Freese and Beltran. Increased thump must come from first base, where Matt Adams takes over full-time. The left-handed-hitting slugger had 17 home runs in 108 games — a pace that would yield 29 homers given 500 at-bats. However, should top prospect Oscar Taveras prove he’s ready for a promotion this season, Allen Craig will move back to first and Adams will resume his roll off the bench.
In exchange for Freese, the Cardinals received center fielder Peter Bourjos, who is in position to win the starting job, or at least share it with incumbent Jon Jay. Bourjos’ 2013 season was hampered by a wrist injury that eventually required surgery, but he is a dynamic fielder with flashes of offensive upside. Jay, who fought fits of inconsistency, did post a .311 second-half average. Bourjos and Wong will add a new speed dimension to the lineup, one built on OBP and timely damage. The pillars of the Cardinals’ lineup bookend Bourjos — Holliday in left and Allen Craig in right. Relocated from first, cleanup hitter Craig would have two consecutive 100-RBI seasons if not for fluke injuries. He’s primed to challenge for an MVP. Annually, Holliday is one of the most productive (and underrated) outfielders — a metronome good for 90 RBIs, 20 homers and .490 slugging. On the horizon looms Taveras, the wunderkind whom the Cardinals call the best hitting prospect they’ve had since Albert Pujols. He missed much of 2013 with an ankle injury that eventually required surgery. He’ll need at least three months at Triple-A this year.
The meteoric arc of his career, from defensive whiz to arguably the best catcher of his generation, can be mapped on Molina’s arms, where he has tattoos for each of the achievements, like Gold Glove awards and championships. Molina’s average climbed to a career high (.319) for the third consecutive season in 2013, and he shepherded a rookie-rich rotation to a career-low catcher’s ERA (3.16). Recurring knee troubles for Molina reinforced the Cardinals’ need to get trustworthy backup Tony Cruz more starts. Molina is one of only two NL catchers with at least 1,000 innings behind the plate for three consecutive seasons, and in that time the discussion of his career has accelerated from MVP candidate to one of the best all-around players in the game.
In two seasons with Matheny as manager, the Cardinals have tried different approaches with the bench. First they went young and then spent $5 million to add seasoning in the second summer. Neither plan worked. Diminished by injury and lacking power, the bench faded by October. The team moved to correct that by constructing a blended bench for 2014 — part veteran, part prospect. Ellis offers seasoning, and Taveras, if he makes the team, could be a power source. Matheny does not let his backups gather rust, but he should now get more production in exchange for the playing time. There will basically be two spots for holdovers Daniel Descalso, Pete Kozma and Shane Robinson.
To lead their team in a direction reliant on homegrown talent and on-the-job development, Cardinals chairman Bill DeWitt Jr. and Mozeliak identified a manager who, like the coming players, was more prospect than proven. The payoff has been obvious. In two years, Matheny has nurtured the shift without any lag in the standings. A players-first motivator, Matheny, 43, has a mentor’s touch with young players as he refines his managerial skills. The Cardinals’ commitment to growing with him came with a new three-year extension through 2017. Mozeliak’s fingerprints are all over an organization that remains the envy of the industry. In three swift offseason moves, Mozeliak added a new shortstop, extra right-handed offense and improved defense, all without reaching into his purse of cost-controlled pitching or raising payroll. He has been described by his staff as the organization’s compass, pointing it toward contention.
During their third consecutive run deep into the postseason, the Cardinals spoke frequently about their organizational philosophy, “The Cardinal Way.” The form-fitting phrase was applied to their fundamentals, how prospects are cultivated, and the club’s championship expectations. With a returning core, blossoming pitchers, and additions grafted to the roster’s weak spots, the Cardinals enter 2014 set to prove that “The Cardinal Way” isn’t just a style of play but a direction — one always steering them back to October. Says Matheny: “Let’s see if we can be the best team for a long time.”
3B Matt Carpenter (L)
Returns to third after season at second surpassed in club history only by Hall of Famers like Rogers Hornsby.
CF Peter Bourjos (R)
Had a .333 average and .392 on-base percentage when hit by pitch that led to wrist surgery.
LF Matt Holliday (R)
Holliday surged to finish at .300, his 10th consecutive season with .290 average or higher.
RF Allen Craig (R)
With runners in scoring position, he’s batted .427 (109-for-255) the past two seasons.
1B Matt Adams (L)
Set club rookie record with eight homers in September, batting .315 with a .609 slugging that month.
C Yadier Molina (R)
Is the first catcher since Mike Piazza in the 1990s to have two consecutive top-five finishes in NL MVP vote.
SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
Hit .344 with a .563 slugging percentage in nine postseason starts for Tigers.
2B Kolten Wong (L)
Breakout season with Class AAA Memphis included .303 average, 10 HRs, 20-for-21 in stolen base attempts.
INF Mark Ellis (R)
Slick-fielding veteran offers needed right-handed complement and challenger to rookie Wong.
OF Jon Jay (L)
Sluggish start cost him job as leadoff hitter, though he took advantage of lower spot for a career-best 67 RBIs.
INF Daniel Descalso (L)
.199 average and .237 OBP in second half contributed to club’s search at shortstop.
INF Pete Kozma (R)
Best fielder at short on the team could lose roster spot if Cards go with another outfielder.
C Tony Cruz (R)
Reliable backup who has maintained his edge despite increasingly scarce playing time behind Molina.
OF Shane Robinson (R)
Not likely to get the 170 or so at-bats in 2014 that he has the past two years.
RH Adam Wainwright
In his second season back from elbow surgery, led majors in innings, (276.2, including playoffs).
RH Michael Wacha
Rookie won four postseason games; first pitcher born in 1990s to win World Series game.
RH Shelby Miller
First Cardinals rookie with 15 wins and 169 strikeouts since Hall of Famer Dizzy Dean had 18 and 191 in 1932.
RH Joe Kelly
Versatility could cast him in long relief, but 3.03 ERA as starter gives him claim to rotation spot.
RH Lance Lynn
His spot threatened by August struggles, Lynn finished first 200-inning season with a 2.12 ERA in September.
RH Trevor Rosenthal (Closer)
With 108 strikeouts, hard-throwing righty became first full-time reliever with 100 Ks in Cardinals history.
RH Jason Motte
Flamethrower missed all of last season recovering from a ruptured ligament in his pitching elbow.
RH Carlos Martinez
Will vie for a starting job, but electric stuff — 100 mph heat, biting sinker, darting slider — also fits setup role.
RH Seth Maness
Sinkerballer carved out role with runners on base with uncanny ability to coax double plays — 16 in 62 innings.
LH Randy Choate
Hired to serve as neutralizer for Joey Votto (and others), veteran served also as sage for young bullpen.
LH Kevin Siegrist
Riding a power fastball, sported 0.45 ERA, lowest since at least 1901 for reliever with 35 or more appearances.
RH Pat Neshek
For his career, right-handed batters have hit .181, lefties .237.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Marco Gonzales, LHP
With the 19th overall pick for the second consecutive season, the Cardinals returned to many of their familiar draft archetypes — college pitcher, athletic delivery, record of success, and steady, reliable statistics. Gonzales, a two-way player at Gonzaga, is a left-handed mirror-image of the previous year’s pick, Michael Wacha. His fastball hits around 91 mph, but it’s his command, cutter and elite changeup that made him a first-round pick. Gonzales had his innings carefully monitored during his debut and threw only 23.1 innings in eight games at two different levels. He did well and, more important, finished healthy. Gonzales is earmarked for the High-A rotation, though he’s expected to move swiftly up the system, like, well, other college picks before him.
OF Oscar Taveras (21)
Uncommonly gifted hitter poised to swing into majors this season, a year late because of ankle surgery.
OF Stephen Piscotty (23)
Made a claim for the Arizona Fall League’s MVP award with .371 average and .506 slugging, vaulting him toward majors.
LHP Tim Cooney (23)
Tall lefty downshifts from his above-average fastball to unnerve hitters, an approach he used for 148 strikeouts in 154.1 innings.
RHP Alex Reyes (19)
Power righty with 97-mph fastball relocated from New Jersey to the Dominican Republic and signed $950,000 bonus as amateur free agent.
SS Aledmys Diaz (23)
The young Cuban was signed in March to a four-year, major league deal.
Beyond the Box Score
By the book The Cardinals have done more than talk about “The Cardinal Way.” They put it in writing. Officials spent recent years organizing teachings from luminaries like longtime coach George Kissell, catching guru Dave Ricketts and pitching coach Dave Duncan into a handbook for managers, coaches and players. Manager Mike Matheny penned the chapter on attributes of a Cardinals catcher. The book isn’t for sale, but every draft pick receives a copy when he first reports.
Draft status Five players drafted in 2009 — leadoff hitter Matt Carpenter, 15-game winner Shelby Miller, starter Joe Kelly, closer Trevor Rosenthal, and cleanup slugger Matt Adams — had prominent late-season roles, and 18 of the 25 players on the World Series roster were homegrown. The Cardinals’ draft emphasis peaked in recent years by hoarding picks and speeding promotions. NLCS MVP Michael Wacha and leading prospect Stephen Piscotty were both drafted in 2012 with compensation picks acquired when Albert Pujols signed with the L.A. Angels.
Wacha mania In his final start of September, Wacha came one out shy of a no-hitter when an infield single tipped off his glove. He was just getting started. An ascendant young ace, Wacha, at 22, won four games in October and became a fall sensation. Fozzie Bear references proliferated. (Wacha is pronounced “wocka” as in the Muppet’s “Wocka, wocka, wocka!”) An area sandwich shop named a milkshake for Wacha. And St. Louis native Andy Cohen, host of Bravo’s “Watch What Happens Live,” adopted a beagle and named him Wacha.
Peralta backlash The Cardinals took a prominent role in baseball’s new morality when they became the first team to sign a player suspended due to the Biogenesis probe. Shortstop Jhonny Peralta served his 50-game suspension, but his new contract was met with criticism and howls on Twitter, some of them from players. Pitcher Brad Ziegler jabbed owners for “encouraging PED use.” Manager Mike Matheny understood the critical questions. “There are people out there that may not like our stances, (that) think of us as hypocritical,” he said. “So be it. We see a guy who made a decision that he regrets. Now we’re part of his future.”
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 21.
• I normally find sideline reporters utterly useless. I'll make an exception for CBS' Allie LaForce (pictured).
• Another highlight of Day One: North Dakota State's locker room celebration.
• The lasting image of Thursday: the Arizona State bench after Texas' buzzer-beater.
• The breakout star of March Madness: Phil Martelli's grandson.
• Not to be outdone, the Red Wings had a buzzer-beater of their own last night.
• Michigan and other teams have turned to an old-fashioned energy drink: chocolate milk.
• Tiger Woods has a bulging disc. Sportscasters everywhere woke up all night in cold sweats at the thought of mispronouncing that diagnosis.
• In the market for a new home? Oscar Pistorius' murder house is for sale.
• One-time March legend Steph Curry has taken his game to another level.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
The Pirates want to prove themselves again in 2014. Last year, they ended a string of 20 consecutive losing seasons — the longest in major North American professional team sports history — and also reached the postseason for the first time since 1992. The goal is now to sustain that success rather than be dismissed as a one-year wonder. “Our focus from the start has been to put an organization in place that has a chance to be successful year in and year out,” general manager Neal Huntington says. “It’s a very difficult thing to do.” The Pirates have been building toward being a perennial contender since Huntington was hired late in the 2007 season. Those efforts started moving in the right direction when manager Clint Hurdle was hired, as the Pirates’ win totals have jumped from 57 to 72 to 79 to 94 in his three seasons. Despite last year’s success and the second-highest attendance in club history, Huntington has still been given a mandate by ownership to keep the payroll among the lowest in the game. Thus, the Pirates are going to do things the Tampa Bay Rays way and try to build a winner on the cheap.
Lefthander Francisco Liriano takes over for righty A.J. Burnett as the No. 1 starter after winning 16 games last season and one more in the postseason while capturing the National League Comeback Player of the Year Award. Liriano seems to have found a home in Pittsburgh after spending his entire career in the American League. Righthander Gerrit Cole had a solid rookie season after being called up in June and excelled in the final month. It is realistic to believe he could be the staff ace by the end of this season. Veteran lefthander Wandy Rodriguez is a big question mark. Rodriguez, who did not make a start after June 5 last season because of elbow problems, did not need surgery, but he was found to have arthritis in the joint. Righty Charlie Morton made a strong comeback from Tommy John surgery and signed a three-year, $21 million contract extension with a club option that could keep him with the Pirates through the 2017 season. Pitching coach Ray Searage has developed a reputation for being able to fix broken pitchers — Liriano being a case in point — and his pet project this year will be righthander Edinson Volquez, who was signed to a one-year, $5-million contract as a free agent. The Pirates have built good organizational depth with their starting pitching — lefthanders Jeff Locke and Andy Oliver and righthanders Jeanmar Gomez, Brandon Cumpton and Phil Irwin are options at some point in the season, along with top prospect Jameson Taillon, a 22-year-old righty.
Former journeyman Jason Grilli was a revelation last year in his first season as a closer, converting 33-of-35 save opportunities despite missing a month late in the season with a strained forearm. Grilli was impressive in the postseason, and there is no reason to believe he won’t have another big year in 2014. Righthander Mark Melancon teams with Grilli to give the Pirates a dynamic late-inning tandem. Both were All-Stars a year ago, when Melancon had a 1.39 ERA in 72 games while notching 16 saves as the backup closer. Lefthander Tony Watson has developed into a key member of the bullpen; he is both effective and durable. The Pirates have a number of other big relief arms, including lefty Justin Wilson and righthanders Stolmy Pimentel, Vin Mazzaro and Jared Hughes.
Jordy Mercer will be the starting shortstop after gradually taking playing time away from veteran Clint Barmes last season. Mercer’s offense is ahead of his defense at this stage of his career, although he did make strides with his glove in 2013. Switch-hitting second baseman Neil Walker is a dependable player who is solid in all phases of the game. His one drawback, though, is a lack of power from the right side.
Third baseman Pedro Alvarez took a step toward stardom last season when he hit 36 home runs to tie for the NL lead with Arizona’s Paul Goldschmidt. Alvarez would likely increase the homer total even more by exercising better plate discipline. Most of right-handed-hitting first baseman Gaby Sanchez’s starts have come against lefthanders since the Pirates acquired him in 2012 in a trade with Miami, but they believe he can handle righthanders if given the chance. Veteran Travis Ishikawa has made strides this spring toward making the team, and could be a nice complement to Sanchez at first base. Rookie Andrew Lambo, a lefty who hit 32 home runs between Triple-A Indianapolis and Double-A Altoona last season, could wind up platooning with Sanchez or at least starting against tough righties. But the club may want to give Lambo a full season at Triple-A.
Center fielder Andrew McCutchen affirmed his spot among the best players in the game as he won the NL Most Valuable Player award last season, getting 28 of 30 first-place votes. He is the face of the franchise, and the Pirates will go as far as he can take them. Left fielder Starling Marte had a fine season in his first full year in the bigs. He has the tools to earn his way into the MVP race, too, with power, speed and a strong arm. Jose Tabata will likely be the Opening Day right fielder after finishing last season strong. However, inconsistency has been Tabata’s problem throughout his career, which is why the door could be open for Lambo or Travis Snider to gain playing time.
Russell Martin turned out to be the perfect fit for the Pirates last season after he was signed as a free agent. He provides outstanding defense, power hitting and credibility as someone who has played in All-Star games and won a Gold Glove and a Silver Slugger.
Chris Stewart was acquired from the Yankees in a trade to serve as the backup catcher, but a knee injury in mid-March sent him to the operating room. Tony Sanchez, the Bucs’ first-round pick in 2009, will fill that role. With Martin approaching free agency at the end of this season, the Pirates may be inclined to give Sanchez some additional starts to groom him for 2015. Barmes agreed to come back on a one-year, $2-million contract, taking a $3.5-million pay cut, to back up the middle infield positions and continue to mentor Mercer. Utility player Josh Harrison could be the top right-handed pinch-hitting option despite a .250 batting average and .282 on-base percentage in his three-year career. Assuming that Gaby Sanchez and Tabata play regularly, Snider could be the primary left-handed bench bat.
It took Huntington six years to rebuild the major-league club, the farm system and the scouting department, but the payoff came last season when the Pirates reached the postseason. Many fans and some media members called for Huntington’s firing following the 2012 season when the Pirates collapsed during the season’s final two months for the second consecutive season. To Huntington’s credit, he never deviated from the plan he put in place after being hired away from Cleveland’s front office. Hurdle has proven to be the perfect fit for the Pirates and won NL Manager of the Year honors last season. The most important thing Hurdle has done is change the mindset of everyone in the organization, making them believe the Pirates could be winners from the day he was hired in November 2010. He also has become an integral part of the Pittsburgh community with his charitable work and willingness to connect with the fans.
A lot of things went right for the Pirates to reach the postseason last year, and for a team that will have one of the lowest payrolls in the game — they were 26th among the 30 major-league teams last season — there is little margin for error. A solid core group of players is in place for at least the next few years, headlined by McCutchen but also including Alvarez, Marte, Walker, Cole and Morton. The Pirates also have a strong farm system. However, the team failed to make any splashy moves over the winter, declining to build on the momentum it gained last season and improve a roster weakened by the free-agent losses of first baseman Justin Morneau and right fielder Marlon Byrd. While that doesn’t mean the Pirates will return to mediocrity (or worse), it is tough to envision them winning 94 games again or reaching the postseason, especially playing in the NL Central, which includes two other 2013 postseason participants in St. Louis and Cincinnati.
LF Starling Marte (R)
Third player in Pirates history to have 10 triples, 12 home runs, 40 stolen bases in a season.
2B Neil Walker (S)
First Pirates second baseman to have four straight double-digit home run seasons.
CF Andrew McCutchen (R)
Was NL MVP last season, becoming first Pirates player to win the award since Barry Bonds in 1992.
3B Pedro Alvarez (L)
Former No. 2 overall pick led the NL in home runs (36) and strikeouts (186) last year.
C Russell Martin (R)
Was responsible for four of the nine walk-off wins at PNC Park in 2013.
1B Gaby Sanchez (R)
Former Miami Hurricane hit .325 in his final 50 games last season.
SS Jordy Mercer (R)
Hit .347 in September last season to seize control of the starting job.
RF Jose Tabata (R)
Venezuelan is a career .296 hitter at PNC Park, .252 on the road.
C Tony Sanchez (R)
After hitting .288 in 76 games at Triple-A last season, he hit .233 with two homers in 60 at-bats for the Pirates.
INF Clint Barmes (R)
Opening Day starter at shortstop each of the past two seasons but will now serve as a reserve.
UT Josh Harrison (R)
Two of his three home runs last season were as a pinch-hitter.
1B Travis Ishikawa (L)
Career .262 average vs. righthanders is not exactly overwhelming.
OF Travis Snider (L)
Former first-round pick of the Blue Jays underwent left foot surgery in October.
LH Francisco Liriano
3.02 ERA last season was his lowest since posting a 2.16 mark for Minnesota as a rookie in 2006.
RH Gerrit Cole
Went 4–0 with a 1.69 ERA in five September starts last year to win NL Rookie of the Month.
LH Wandy Rodriguez
Missed final 15 weeks of the 2013 season with an elbow injury.
RH Charlie Morton
Was 4–1 with a 2.67 ERA over his last 11 starts of the season.
RH Edinson Volquez
Gave up an NL-worst 108 earned runs with San Diego and the Dodgers last season.
RH Jason Grilli (Closer)
Was leading the NL with 30 saves on July 22 when he strained his forearm.
RH Mark Melancon
His 1.39 ERA last year was a team record for a pitcher who worked at least 50 innings exclusively in relief.
LH Tony Watson
Made 21 consecutive scoreless appearances, covering 20.1 innings, to end last season.
RH Jeanmar Gomez
Bucs were 8-0 in his eight starts last May and June.
LH Justin Wilson
Reverse platoon splits in 2013 as righthanders hit .189 and lefthanders batted .200.
RH Vin Mazzaro
Was “The Magnificent Mazzaro” last season, stranding 28 of 32 inherited runners in the regular season.
RH Stolmy Pimentel
Likely to make the team as a long reliever/spot starter as a rookie since he is out of minor-league options.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Austin Meadows, OF
The Pirates had two top-15 picks for the first time in their history and used the first one, at No. 9 overall, to take the multi-talented Meadows, a high school outfielder from Grayson, Ga. He is often compared to another left-handed-hitting outfielder, Cincinnati right fielder Jay Bruce, and the Pirates would love if Meadows turned into a player who regularly hit 30 home runs and drove in 100 runs. He got off to a good start, hitting .294 with five home runs in 43 games with the Rookie-level Gulf Coast League Pirates, then going 9-for-17 in a five-game stint with short-season Jamestown. Meadows comes from athletic stock; his father played baseball and was a punter at Morehead State, and his mother played softball at Georgia Southern and Georgia State.
OF Barrett Barnes (22)
The Pirates top pick in 2012 has speed and power but has been unable to stay healthy as a pro. Former Texas Tech Red Raider has 308 at-bats in two seasons in the minors.
RHP Jameson Taillon (22)
Tall Texan has a good fastball/curveball mix and figures to make his major-league debut this season.
OF Josh Bell (21)
Switch-hitter who was the Pirates’ second-round pick in 2011 is starting to gain his footing in pro ball after an early knee injury set him back.
RHP Tyler Glasnow (20)
The tall, thin righthander had 164 strikeouts in 111.1 innings last season at Low-A.
SS Alen Hanson (21)
A dynamic player with speed and moderate power but may have to move to second base.
RHP Luis Heredia (19)
Conditioning issues contributed to something of a lost season in 2013, but he is still very talented.
OF Gregory Polanco (22)
A five-tool talent who played at three minor-league levels last year and will make his major-league debut this season.
Beyond the Box Score
Silver screen Rinku Singh has won just 10 games in the Pirates’ farm system and has yet to get past the Low-A level. Yet the left-handed reliever will be the subject of a major feature film along with former Pirates minor-league pitcher Dinesh Patel. “Million Dollar Arm”, scheduled to reach theaters May 16, tells the story of how Singh and Patel were signed to minor-league contracts by the Pirates after appearing on the reality show of the same name in their native India. Jon Hamm stars as agent J.B. Bernstein, who came up with the idea for a contest to find the hardest thrower in India. More than 37,000 tried out for the show before the pool was cut to 30 contestants. Singh won the contest and the $100,000 grand prize, while Patel, who was released by the Pirates following the 2010 season, was second. Neither had ever played baseball; they were training to be javelin throwers.
Professing his love Center fielder Andrew McCutchen and girlfriend Maria Hanslovan got engaged in December after dating for four years. The 2013 NL MVP popped the question on national television while appearing on the talk show “Ellen.”
Dapper Dans In addition to winning NL Manager of the Year, Clint Hurdle was honored during the offseason with the Dapper Dan Sportsman of the Year award, which is presented annually to the year’s top Pittsburgh sports figure. McCutchen won the award for 2012. The Pirates hadn’t won in back-to-back years since Willie Stargell followed Dave Parker, who was honored in 1978.
Bought-in Buc Righthander Charlie Morton did not hesitate to take below market value when he signed a three-year, $21-million contract, which bought out his last year of salary arbitration and first two years of free agency. “The way I looked at it was, I wanted to be a Pirate,” Morton says. “The only way I'm going to be a Pirate is if I sign with the Pirates.”
Despite coming off their worst season in nearly a decade, the Milwaukee Brewers largely stood pat heading into 2014. While on the surface that might seem crazy, there was a method behind the madness for general manager Doug Melvin. He’s banking on his team not being hammered by injuries, the starting pitching showing up for the first half and Ryan Braun returning to his 2011 National League MVP form after being suspended for the final 65 games of 2013 for his role in the Biogenesis scandal. It’s an awfully fine line to walk for the Brewers if they want to compete in what was the toughest division in baseball a year ago. But the belief is that there’s more than enough talent returning to catch lightning in a bottle and get back into the mix with the Cardinals, Reds and Pirates.
Milwaukee forfeited its first-round draft choice by signing free agent Kyle Lohse at the end of spring training in 2013. And while the reasoning was solid, it took the veteran righthander and the rest of the Brewers’ starters half a season to get up to speed. By then, the team was well out of the race. So, this winter, the Brewers acted a bit more quickly to bring Matt Garza into the fold, the only significant addition over the winter. The former Twin, Ray, Cub and Ranger signed a four-year, $50 million deal with Milwaukee. He isn’t a superstar by any means, but he should fit nicely into this established rotation. Last season, Lohse & Co. rebounded in the second half in a big way, posting one of the best staff ERAs in the majors at 3.31 over the final 81 games. The belief is that Lohse, Yovani Gallardo, Garza, Wily Peralta and Marco Estrada can build off the momentum from that and hit the ground running in 2014. The biggest question will be whether Gallardo can return to form. His velocity was down and his pitch counts up last season, leading to a 12–10 record — and trade rumors. Gallardo has lots of mileage on his right arm but is still only 28, which works in his favor. With a full winter off, he should be rested up and looking at a bounce-back campaign. Peralta is the future ace of the staff with a high-90s fastball and devastating sinker that produces lots of ground balls. If he can continue to keep his emotions in check when facing adversity, he could become the team’s next 20-game winner. Estrada racks up big strikeout numbers with a deceptive fastball and effective changeup but hasn’t been able to be counted on for a full season since becoming a full-time starter. That needs to change this year.
The Brewers’ relief corps was one of the only areas of the team that actually surpassed expectations last season. Two of the most pleasant surprises — Jim Henderson and Brandon Kintzler — return to the closer and setup roles, respectively. Henderson is still relatively new to the job, however, and relying almost exclusively on his fastball can be dangerous. Kintzler pitched his way into the setup role after beginning 2013 as something of an unknown quantity, and it’s possible he might even get a chance to close games at some point. The Brewers brought Francisco Rodriguez back for another tour. Rodriguez had 10 saves in 25 games with Brew Crew last season prior to a trade to Baltimore. At the time of the trade, Rodriguez had a 1.09 ERA and 1.054 WHIP. He wasn’t as effective with the Orioles, but both strikeout and walk ratios improved. Tom Gorzelanny and Will Smith figure to be the team’s two left-handed relievers, and both can provide length as long men as well. The rest of the bullpen could feature youngsters Donovan Hand and Rob Wooten who made their debuts with the Brewers in 2013. The hope is the starting pitching won’t place as big of a burden on the relievers as it did early on a year ago.
The Brewers are excited about their projected starting middle infield, and rightly so. Jean Segura is coming off his first All-Star nod, and second baseman Scooter Gennett blossomed as the team’s starter after Rickie Weeks was lost to injury early last August. Both are only 24 years old. Segura showed in 2013 that he could do it all. A late-season slump left him just short of .300, but he flashed some decent power with 12 homers while also banging out 12 triples, finished second in the NL with 44 stolen bases and also played a strong shortstop. Gennett, meanwhile, seized his opportunity when Weeks went down and led the NL by hitting .358 from Aug. 5 through the end of the season. Gennett hit .324 overall with a surprising six homers while playing a better-than-advertised second base. Weeks could earn the opportunity to play against lefthanders. His $11 million salary, age, injury history and declining skills make him tough to trade, and the Brewers aren’t likely to release him. Either Segura or Gennett will fill the leadoff role left vacant by the trade of Norichika Aoki.
The Brewers need major bounce-backs at both first and third base a year after injuries to Corey Hart and Aramis Ramirez killed their lineup. First base figures to be a work in progress. Hart signed a free-agent deal with Seattle, leaving Melvin to work with a group that included Juan Francisco, Mark Reynolds and Lyle Overbay. Prospects Sean Halton, Taylor Green and former minor-league Player of the Year Hunter Morris may see some action there before the summer is over, but for now it’s likely a platoon between Reynolds and Francisco. Both players feature terrific raw power, prodigious strikeout totals and shaky defense. It’s not likely that the club will keep both Francisco and Overbay — both left-handed hitters — on the roster. Ramirez, meanwhile, is aiming to return to his normal productive self after appearing in just 92 games due to a left knee injury he suffered in spring training. The Brewers need him back in the cleanup spot and driving in runs, and the 35-year-old Ramirez needs a healthy, productive season if he has any hopes of securing another long-term contract.
While Carlos Gomez will continue to man center and look to build on a career year both offensively and defensively, there will be major changes in the corners as Braun moves from left field to right to make room for up-and-comer Khris Davis in left. The thinking in the moves is that Davis’ substandard throwing arm makes him only a candidate for left, while Braun is athletic enough and has enough of an arm to make the switch to right. The Brewers thought enough of Davis, who hit 11 home runs in 136 at-bats with Milwaukee last season, to trade the popular Aoki to clear space for him as a starter. Now he’ll need to deliver.
Jonathan Lucroy enjoyed the best season of his young career in 2013, with his 18 homers and 82 RBIs ranking him among the league leaders at his position. He was also durable, avoiding injury for the first time and playing 147 games. Lucroy’s next challenge is to continue to improve defensively while also continuing to hone his game-calling. He has become one of the team leaders.
Manager Ron Roenicke hasn’t had the veteran pinch-hitters he prefers since his initial season in Milwaukee in 2011. He probably won’t have any again this season, although outfielder Logan Schafer has shown the ability to succeed in the role. The non-starting half of the Reynolds-Francisco combo will also be available, as well as Weeks. Schafer is also terrific defensively and will likely be a frequent late-inning substitute in left field. Jeff Bianchi can play every position in the infield, making him a valuable piece if he can avoid injury. Catcher Martin Maldonado doesn’t hit much, but he adds so much defensively and in the clubhouse that he’ll remain the backup.
Melvin is hamstrung by the Brewers’ small-market status. And while team principal owner Mark Attanasio has shown a willingness to spend on a case-by-case basis — see the Lohse signing last spring — it’s not expected that Milwaukee’s payroll will deviate much from the mid-$80 million mark. So Melvin will continue to scour the bargain bins looking for ways to buy low and catch lightning in a bottle. The minor-league system has been bereft of impact talent at the top levels since Melvin traded much of it away in an attempt to make a run in 2011. Just about anyone deemed close to major-league ready got a shot with the Brewers in 2013. The majority of high-ceiling talent has yet to make it above Class A in the organization. Roenicke is well-regarded by his players and within baseball. He’s done a nice job under some difficult circumstances.
Melvin resisted a complete tear-down and rebuild, believing his team can compete if it stays healthy and performs up to its capabilities. Those are big ifs, however. The top of the NL Central will be tough to crack with St. Louis, Pittsburgh and Cincinnati all expected to be strong once again, meaning that even if everything goes according to plan it still might not be enough for the Brewers to get back to the playoffs for the first time since 2011.
SS Jean Segura (R)
Coming off first All-Star Game appearance, but hit leadoff only twice in ’13. Needs more plate discipline.
2B Scooter Gennett (L)
Possesses surprising pop, and his left-handed bat is a nice piece for a righty-heavy lineup.
RF Ryan Braun (R)
Returns to his customary No. 3 spot, where he hit .298 with nine HRs and 38 RBIs over 61 games in 2013.
3B Aramis Ramirez (R)
His left knee wasn’t right all season, and his 12 homers were his fewest as a full-time player in the majors.
C Jonathan Lucroy (R)
Became a run-producer by default last year, and he delivered career highs in homers (18) and RBIs (82).
CF Carlos Gomez (R)
Hit in every spot in the lineup in 2013, and responded with career highs in virtually every offensive category.
LF Khris Davis (R)
Averaged a homer every 12.4 at-bats in 153 plate appearances, finishing with 11 and 27 RBIs.
1B Juan Francisco (L)
Big power, but 138 strikeouts in 385 plate appearances in 2013 don’t suggest that he’s a viable everyday player.
INF Jeff Bianchi (R)
Singles hitter whose greatest value lies in the fact he can play any infield position, as well as in the outfield.
OF Logan Schafer (L)
Tremendous outfielder. Has proven he can deliver as a pinch-hitter, which will likely be his role once again.
C Martin Maldonado (R)
Great defensive catcher whose rapport with Wily Peralta has made him a valuable piece of the puzzle.
1B-3B Mark Reynolds (R)
Batting average hasn’t touched .225 since his 44-homer season in 2009.
2B Rickie Weeks (R)
Three-year batting average decline (.269-.230-.209) has Brewers concerned his career is approaching an end.
RH Kyle Lohse
His 11–10 record in 2013 was deceiving. His bulldog mentality and veteran leadership are much needed.
RH Yovani Gallardo
Took a big step back last season as his velocity dropped and his numbers suffered.
RH Matt Garza
The veteran is 5-6 with a 4.62 ERA in his career against the Reds, Pirates and Cardinals.
RH Wily Peralta
Big righthander has ace-type stuff and began to show his tremendous promise in the second half last year.
RH Marco Estrada
Has been dominating in stretches, but just can’t stay healthy. Has also performed well in long relief.
RH Jim Henderson (Closer)
The big Canadian became Brewers’ regular closer in 2013, when he converted 28-of-32 save opportunities.
RH Brandon Kintzler
Came out of nowhere to become Brewers’ setup man with a decent fastball and great slider.
RH Francisco Rodriguez
Held left-handed hitters to a .156 average last season; curiously, righties hit a robust .342.
LH Tom Gorzelanny
Coming off shoulder surgery. Can both start and relieve but was more consistent out of the bullpen in 2013.
RH Alfredo Figaro
Fireballer had his moments as both starter and long man, but couldn’t get his breaking balls over regularly.
RH Rob Wooten
Pitched like a savvy veteran rather than the rookie he was in some tough late-inning situations last season.
LH Will Smith
Gave up 24 hits and struck out 43 in 33.1 innings with the Royals last season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Devin Williams, RHP
The Brewers lost their first-round pick for signing free-agent pitcher Kyle Lohse toward the end of spring training in 2013. They were delighted when Williams fell to them in the second round, where they snapped him up with the 54th overall pick. Milwaukee went 33 percent over slot in giving Williams a $1.35 million signing bonus, but needed to in order to persuade him to pass on a scholarship to the University of Missouri. The 6'3" fireballer already has team officials excited with his power arm and high ceiling. In 34.2 innings of Rookie ball, he gave up 28 hits and struck out 39. Williams, only 19, is still a long way away from the big leagues, but the future appears bright for the Hazelwood, Mo., native.
CF Tyrone Taylor (20)
Considered the team’s best overall prospect, he dominated the Rookie League as an 18 year old in 2012. His progressed continued last season at Low-A.
OF Victor Roache (22)
Taken 28th overall in 2012 by the Brewers, the slugger hit 22 bombs and drove in 74 at Low-A Wisconsin last summer.
RHP Johnny Hellweg (25)
Pacific Coast League Pitcher of the Year in 2013 who struggled mightily in two separate major league stints. Still shows promise.
1B Hunter Morris (25)
Morris hit 24 homers in Triple-A in 2013, but the Brewers don’t feel he’s a finished product. Needs improvement defensively.
1B Jason Rogers (26)
Former 32nd-round pick who was named Brewers’ Minor League Player of the Year in 2013. Being tried at third base and in the outfield as well.
OF Mitch Haniger (23)
Advanced former college player who stood out in the Arizona Fall League. Should debut in Double-A some time this season.
RHP David Goforth (25)
Went 4–3 with 3.28 ERA and 1.07 WHIP after call-up to Class AA last season.
C Clint Coulter (20)
He was drafted in the first round in 2012 as a potential impact bat, but he has played only 33 games above rookie level heading into 2014 and is quickly falling out of favor.
RHP Taylor Jungmann (24)
Former college star who’s likely ticketed for Triple-A. Lacks electric stuff. Projects as a No. 4 or 5 starter in the majors.
Beyond the Box Score
Day-zed and confused Among the more confounding issues for the Brewers in 2013 was their inability to compete when the lights weren’t on. Milwaukee finished the season with an 18–35 record in day games, including an 8–20 record in day games played at Miller Park. Shadows creeping across the playing surface under the afternoon sun have been an issue at home since Miller Park opened in 2001, and the Brewers hit just .234 during the day compared to .261 at night.
Golden once again Carlos Gomez ended a 31-year streak for the Brewers by winning the Rawlings Gold Glove in center field in 2013. The last Milwaukee player to be so honored was Robin Yount at shortstop in 1982, when the Brewers were still in the American League. Gomez was dynamic, being credited with 38 defensive runs saved — tops among all MLB centerfielders — to go along with 12 assists. Gomez also made five home run-saving catches, far and away the most for a single season in that category.
Miserable May The Brewers knocked themselves out of contention almost from the get-go in 2013, tying a franchise record for futility in a single month by going 6–22 in May. That left them 15 games behind the pace in the NL Central — far too big of a deficit in the best division in baseball. Poor starting pitching was mostly to blame for the Brewers’ struggles, and an injury-riddled offense missing some of its big bats just couldn’t make up the frequent early deficits.
Worst at first With Corey Hart, Mat Gamel and Taylor Green all out for the season with injuries, the Brewers had no choice but to fill the void at first base with stopgaps. That left seven different players — none of whom had ever started a game at first previously in the majors — to split the position. The result: an MLB-low combined .629 OPS and spotty defense.
Youth was served All the injuries and inconsistency allowed the Brewers to get a good look at their top advanced prospects. In all, 10 different players from Class AAA Nashville — five pitchers and five position players — made their debuts. One, leftfielder Khris Davis, played himself into a starting spot for 2014, while others like pitchers Donovan Hand and Rob Wooten and outfielder Caleb Gindl proved they could at least contribute in the bigs.
It’s amazing how much perspectives can change in one year. The Reds were expected to win the NL Central in 2013 and challenge for the league pennant but fell short, settling for a spot in the wild card game against Pittsburgh. Winning 90 games and reaching the playoffs three of the last four seasons weren’t enough for Dusty Baker to keep his job, so former pitching coach Bryan Price takes over with the challenge of turning a talent-laden team into a legitimate postseason threat. It’s not as if the Reds are trying to climb out of the cellar, but when the defending NL champions (St. Louis) and an up-and-coming team with momentum (Pittsburgh) are playing in the same division, it can feel that way. The Reds have legitimate star power in first baseman Joey Votto, second baseman Brandon Phillips and right fielder Jay Bruce, but their lineup got exposed last season for having too many holes over the 162-game schedule. One guy who wasn’t a hole was leadoff hitter Shin-Soo Choo, now gone to Texas as a free agent. Speedy phenom Billy Hamilton will be the starting center fielder and leadoff hitter whether he’s fully ready for those jobs or not.
The Reds can win with this group. Mat Latos turned a corner in 2013 when he took the mantle of the No. 1 starter from an injured Johnny Cueto. Latos is more consistent, and the Reds generally win games he starts (43–22). Cueto must show he’s healthy — not just physically, but also psychologically. He had three stints on the DL last season because of a strained lat and was shelled in the wild card loss at Pittsburgh. Homer Bailey had a career-high 199 strikeouts last season in a career-high 209 innings, while Mike Leake set career highs for starts, wins, innings pitched and strikeouts. They all learned from Bronson Arroyo in the past but will not have his veteran presence in the clubhouse this season. Lefty Tony Cingrani should earn the final spot. He’s got a power arm but needs to show more consistency and confidence in his off-speed pitches to become truly effective as a starter.
Forget about the thought of Aroldis Chapman becoming a starter; he’s realized that he enjoys closing games. But a scary moment late in spring when Chapman was hit in the face by a line drive off the bat of Royals catcher Sal Perez had everyone in Reds camp holding their breath. He had surgery to repair some broken bones, but should heal completely and is expected to return to the mound at some point this season, perhaps before the All-Star break. That leaves a huge hole in the Reds’ bullpen heading into the season. J.J. Hoover, Sam LeCure and Manny Parra all stepped into bigger roles in 2013, and now must step into even larger roles in 2014. Hoover is probably the best candidate to close until Chapman returns. Parra became the lead left-handed setup pitcher — because of left shoulder injuries to Sean Marshall — and he stranded 24 of the last 28 runners he inherited. A healthy Marshall this season would give Price more options out of the bullpen. The same could be said for the healthy return of Jonathan Broxton from a torn flexor muscle in his right arm. Alfredo Simon has grown into this role as the long arm out of the bullpen, but he’s not exclusive to mop-up situations. Pedro Beato could log a few innings while the Reds wait for Broxton to heal surgery last August.
There was talk about trading Phillips in the offseason in part because of some of his words and actions last season that didn’t sit well with upper management. But he’s owed $50 million over the next four seasons, so the Reds will have to settle for a Gold Glove, 100-RBI second baseman who is popular with fans. Phillips will likely start the season hitting in the No. 2 hole in the lineup, but you can put him anywhere in the batting order, and he is adaptable to any role. While unlikely, he could be flipped with Votto into the No. 3 spot. Shortstop Zack Cozart had a solid final two months with an OPS of more than .700 after Aug. 1. He’s an above-average fielder (.977 fielding percentage, 83 double plays turned) with good range.
All Votto did in 2013 was get on base more than anyone else in the history of the Reds, appropriate for a player who signed a contract worth $263 million over 13 years. Opposing pitchers will do just about anything not to let Votto beat them, and he’s not about to help them. He has the most discerning eye for the strike zone in baseball — maybe too discerning at times — and he’s led the NL in on-base percentage the last four seasons and is the active career leader at .419. The Reds will need more production out of Todd Frazier at third base. He had a solid .407 slugging percentage in his first full season as a starter, but he’s prone to hot and cold streaks.
Much of the focus this spring and early summer will be on Hamilton. He spent last season at Triple-A Louisville learning to play center field after starting his career as a shortstop. The Reds aren’t concerned about his defense. He will cover any ground Bruce and Ryan Ludwick don’t in the corners. Hamilton has made his name from his work on the basepaths. He stole 13 of 14 bases as a September call-up, but that was mostly as a pinch-runner. Now he’s being asked to be the team’s leadoff hitter and get on base at the MLB level. Bruce continues to improve each season. He was top 10 in the NL in home runs, RBIs, total bases, doubles, extra-base hits and outfield assists in 2013. He earned a second consecutive Silver Slugger award last season, and he’ll be just 27 years old this season. His continued development gives the Reds a consistent threat in the middle of the lineup. Ludwick played in only 38 games because of a torn right shoulder labrum. He spent the last month of the season getting into playing shape and finding his swing. The Reds would like to keep him penciled in as their cleanup hitter, batting in between Votto and Bruce. He also is a strong clubhouse presence, something that was missed in 2013.
Veteran Ryan Hanigan was traded to Tampa Bay in the offseason to make room for Devin Mesoraco. A former first-round pick, Mesoraco showed greater command calling games behind the plate in 2013 when Hanigan was out with injury. He hit nine homers last season, and his power numbers should increase this year, but he will be in the lineup because of his defense. The Reds signed former Detroit backup Brayan Pena to fill the same role in Cincinnati this season.
Skip Schumaker, formerly with the Cardinals and Dodgers, can play just about anywhere on the field. He’ll be able to spell Hamilton in center at times, but if he’s playing there too much because Hamilton struggles at the plate, then the Reds are in trouble. There isn’t much power off of the bench, although Chris Heisey has shown that capability at times. Jack Hannahan is solid defensively as a corner infielder and gives the Reds a left-handed bat. Veteran infielder Ramon Santiago, a switch-hitter, will most likely be given the 25th spot on the roster.
The Reds have a commitment to winning from the front office of owner Bob Castellini on down. They are proactive in the community and at the stadium, all with an eye on being a championship-caliber organization. General manager Walt Jocketty and Baker had a contentious relationship that finally came to a head after the Wild Card loss at Pittsburgh. Naming Price as the new manager was a no-brainer; he built the pitching staff into one of MLB’s best the past four seasons and is respected in the clubhouse.
The Reds will again be in contention for the NL Central title and the postseason if for no other reason than their starting pitching. They have to get better production offensively from the shortstop, third base, left field and catcher positions this season, and figure out the back end of the bullpen in Chapman’s absence. Too often last season there wasn’t enough balance in the order, with the back end not contributing enough on a consistent basis. Hamilton can’t be expected to be as good as Choo leading off, but if he continues to improve throughout the season, the Reds should be fine. Another 90 wins and a postseason berth are hardly guaranteed, but this is a club capable of much more than it showed at the end of 2013.
CF Billy Hamilton (S)
Stole 13 of 14 bases in September call-up. Trick this season will be getting on base consistently.
2B Brandon Phillips (R)
Tied for MLB lead with 19 game-winning RBIs and was third with 35 go-ahead RBIs.
1B Joey Votto (L)
Has led NL in walks in three straight seasons and on-base percentage in four straight seasons.
LF Ryan Ludwick (R)
Tore labrum in shoulder on Opening Day but returned to play 37 more games. Will start 2014 healthy.
RF Jay Bruce (L)
Joined Dave Parker and Frank Robinson as only Reds with 40 doubles, 30 HRs, 100 RBIs in a season.
3B Todd Frazier (R)
Was fourth on the team with .407 slugging and .721 OPS despite just a .234 batting average.
C Devin Mesoraco (R )
Had .874 OPS vs. lefthanders but just .576 vs. righthanders last season.
SS Zack Cozart (R)
Hit .304 in final 31 appearances last season and had a career-high 15-game hitting streak in second half.
INF Jack Hannahan (L)
Had nine pinch hits to tie for the team lead and started games at three different positions.
OF Chris Heisey (R)
Injuries limited him to career-low 87 games, including 42 as the starter in left field after Ludwick injury.
C Brayan Pena (S)
Hit .297 in a career-high 243 plate appearances as backup in Detroit in 2013.
INF Ramon Santiago (S)
Batted just .215 in 433 at-bats over the past two seasons as the Tigers’ primary backup infielder.
UT Skip Schumaker (R)
Started at least eight games at four different positions for the Dodgers in 2013.
RH Johnny Cueto
Has a 2.92 ERA over last four seasons but poor start in playoffs at Pittsburgh haunted offseason.
RH Mat Latos
Went at least six innings in 28 of 32 starts, including last 12 while pitching career-high 210.2 innings.
RH Homer Bailey
Has lowered his ERA every season since 2009, including 3.49 in career-high 209 innings last season.
RH Mike Leake
Showing signs of getting physically stronger, including scoreless streak of 20.1 innings in September.
LH Tony Cingrani
Made 18 starts out of 23 appearances, allowing more than three runs in just one of those starts.
LH Aroldis Chapman (Closer)
Had 38 saves in 43 opportunities but didn’t have save chance in final nine games, including playoffs. After taking a liner to his face in a spring game, he’ll probably miss the first half of the season.
RH Jonathan Broxton
Veteran reliever is making his way back from torn flexor muscle in right arm.
RH J.J. Hoover
Led the pitching staff with 69 appearances, including scoreless streak of 26.1 innings over 23 appearances. The closing job probably falls to him.
LH Sean Marshall
Shoulder issues limited him to only 16 appearances in 2013 after averaging 77 games previous three seasons.
RH Sam LeCure
Only gave up 50 hits and had 66 strikeouts in 61 innings pitched last season.
LH Manny Parra
Revived career in 2013, stranding 30 of 35 inherited runners for the season.
RH Alfredo Simon
Long reliever tossed at least two innings in 20 of his 63 appearances last season.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Phillip Ervin, OF
Ervin had a successful first season in pro ball after the Reds selected him 27th overall in the draft. Ervin, a centerfielder from Samford University in Alabama, played in 46 games between Rookie League Billings and Class A Dayton of the Midwest League. He hit .331 with nine home runs, 35 RBIs, with a .425 on-base percentage and 14 stolen bases while getting thrown out just once. If he starts at Dayton this year, don’t expect him there too long. The Reds really like Ervin — a former MVP of the wood bat Cape Cod League while in college — and are going to give him every chance to move up through the organization quickly. He is already rated as their No. 4 prospect by MLB.com.
RHP Nick Travieso (20)
The Reds’ top pick in 2012 pitched in 17 games at Low-A Dayton with 4.63 ERA in 81.2 innings last season.
RHP Robert Stephenson (21)
Progressed from Low-A to Class AA last season. Went a combined 7–7 with a 2.99 ERA and 1.111 WHIP in his three stops in the minors.
OF Yorman Rodriguez (21)
The slender outfielder is still developing power. Last season he hit .259 with 35 doubles combined at High-A and Double-A.
OF Jesse Winker (20)
Played full season at Class A Dayton and finished with .281/.379/.463 line with 76 RBIs in 112 games.
RHP Michael Lorenzen (22)
Was second of two picks Reds had in 2013 first round. Reds like his arm enough to move him quickly from Arizona League to Double-A Pensacola last season.
RHP Daniel Corcino (23)
Struggled at Class AAA Louisville last season, giving up 141 hits in 129 IP and finishing 7–14 with 5.86 ERA. Still just 23.
LHP David Holmberg (22 )
Acquired in three-team offseason trade that sent Ryan Hanigan to Tampa Bay. Former second-round pick (2009) of the Chicago White Sox.
2B Ryan Wright (24)
Solid season at Class A Bakersfield, playing in 100 games with eight home runs, 23 doubles and 52 RBIs.
Beyond the Box Score
Left out The Reds were counting on Ryan Ludwick to provide a big bat in the middle of the lineup, but when he tore his right shoulder labrum on Opening Day sliding head-first into third base, it put a crimp in the lineup. Even with Ludwick’s return in the middle of August, Cincinnati left fielders hit just .250 with a .313 on-base percentage and .374 slugging percentage. They had a combined 14 home runs and 65 RBIs.
Inspiring fear Joey Votto has led the National League in walks three straight seasons, making him the first Reds player to do so and just the ninth player in the NL ever to accomplish the feat. Barry Bonds (2000-04) was the last player on that list. Votto’s power numbers were down last season (24 home runs, 30 doubles, 73 RBIs), but there was concern he hadn’t fully healed from two knee procedures in 2012. Let’s see how much his approach changes this season.
Stability at short Zack Cozart is expected to make his third straight Opening Day start at shortstop this year. It’s not an extraordinary streak except that he will become the first Reds shortstop to do so since Barry Larkin retired in 2004. From 1970-2004, Dave Concepcion and Larkin started 32 of 35 Opening Day games at shortstop for Cincinnati. Since Larkin’s retirement, the Reds have had seven different shortstops start on Opening Day. Only Alex Gonzalez (2007, ’09) started more than once before Cozart.
Superstar For the first time in his career, Jay Bruce didn’t increase his home run totals. He still hit 30 homers last season, and his all-around game improved. He had a career-high 43 doubles and 109 RBIs, allowing him to join Frank Robinson (1962) and Dave Parker (1985) as the only Reds players to have 30 homers, 40 doubles and 100 RBIs in a season.
Lost leader The Reds allowed Bronson Arroyo to become a free agent without offering him a qualifying contract this offseason. This was a tough move for the team but one in keeping with their player development philosophy. They’ve got young arms in Tony Cingrani and Robert Stephenson ready to push for time with at the MLB level, but Arroyo’s contributions the past eight seasons can’t be underestimated. He led the National League with 105 wins, 265 starts and 1,690.1 innings in that span. His 265 starts also led all of MLB.
At this point, mediocrity would be considered a major upgrade. The Theo Epstein era is heading into its third year, and the results from the first two are some of the most hideous in team history. The Cubs lost 197 games over this stretch, which represents the worst two-year period ever experienced by the North Side club. Epstein, the savior credited for Boston’s success, has a long-range plan, but Cubs fans seem to have short-term expectations. The fact that current management signed manager Dale Sveum to a three-year deal and then axed him after the second season caused some to wonder how well this plan is working. Most fans are willing to give Epstein and his staff time to get things turned around, but there is no denying that the product on the field has been uninspiring, and there don’t appear to be many reinforcements on the way in the very near future. There aren’t many players on the 2014 roster to get excited about other than befuddling shortstop Starlin Castro and first baseman Anthony Rizzo, whose first full season in the majors produced decent-but-not-great numbers. Outfielder Junior Lake could command some buzz judging by a 64-game dress rehearsal last year. But most of the other players on the roster are cost-effective patchwork pieces who could end up elsewhere at any time in order to keep feeding the beast in the minors. When new manager Rick Renteria was hired in November, he had so much pain in his hips — following October surgery — that he couldn’t make a trip to Chicago to be introduced to the media. He may be in for some equally painful moments this season.
There was some speculation that Jeff Samardzija would be a guy the Cubs would build their pitching staff around, but now it appears he is on the trade market. They didn’t deal him during the winter meetings, but he could be on the block during the season. The former Notre Dame two-sport athlete leads a staff that had moments of brilliance last year but not enough to guide the Cubs to a winning mark. He threw 213.2 innings and struck out 214 hitters but also had a 4.34 ERA to go with an 8–13 record. Travis Wood will battle Samardzija for the job as the No. 1 starter. Wood had a 3.11 ERA and made the All-Star team in 2013 but also had a losing record (9–12). He could be the subject of trade talks during the season if he continues to give up runs at a stingy pace — and if the Cubs, as expected, are out of contention early. The first year of Edwin Jackson’s surprising four-year deal resulted in 18 losses and a 4.98 ERA. Because there are three years left on the contract, it’s likely he’ll be sticking around this season since he would be difficult to move. Jake Arrieta entered spring training as a favorite for a spot in the rotation, but shoulder soreness has delayed his progress. James McDonald and Jason Hammel will likely complete the quintet, although lefthander Chris Rusin, a former fourth-round pick, gave up just 66 hits in 66.1 innings last season.
Up-and-down closer Carlos Marmol finally departed last year, and his successor Kevin Gregg (33 saves) is also gone. The Cubs signed well-traveled Jose Veras initially for the closer’s role, but there could be a couple of other candidates. The Cubs also inked a deal with lefthander Wesley Wright, who has 51 career holds. Righthander Hector Rondon concluded the 2013 season on a high note, allowing no runs and one hit over nine innings in his final nine appearances in September. Southpaw James Russell and righthander Pedro Strop will settle into roles in the bullpen as well. Strop, who struck out 42 in 35 innings after joining the Cubs last season, was considered a serious candidate for the closer’s job before Veras’ signing.
Castro went from a .307 hitter with 207 hits in 674 at-bats in his first full season in 2011 to a .245 hitter with 163 hits in 666 at-bats in 2013. He has frustrated his previous managers, but Cubs officials believe that Renteria might be able to get through to the enigmatic shortstop. Castro’s fielding remains inconsistent; he’s brilliant at times but is prone to concentration lapses. Second baseman Darwin Barney is one of the best defensive players the Cubs have had in years. He has committed only seven errors in two seasons and won a Gold Glove Award in 2012. But his .208 batting average in 2013 could find him scrambling to keep his starting job if any of the young infield prospects are ready to break into the majors.
Rizzo’s first full season in Chicago was slightly disappointing since expectations were so high. He hit 23 home runs with 80 RBIs but only hit .233 with a .419 slugging percentage. General manager Jed Hoyer is still high on the former sixth-round pick of the Red Sox, so look for Rizzo to get every opportunity to succeed in Chicago. Luis Valbuena, who hit only .218 in 331 at-bats last season, likely will be the Opening Day starter at third base, but he is simply a stopgap. If top shortstop prospect Javier Baez is ready to break into the majors anytime soon, the Cubs may toy with moving Castro to third. The Cubs also haven’t ruled out prospect Mike Olt at third this season. He struggled a Triple-A Iowa last summer after his trade from Texas, but this spring he appears completely rid of lingering concussion issues that plagued him in 2013.
The brightest spot on the team is the outfield. Lake, the left fielder, played well in his 64-game tryout last year. The 24-year-old Dominican hit .295 with 14 stolen bases in Class AAA before his call-up on July 19 and proceeded to hit .284 with the big club. Lake was known for having one of the strongest arms in the minor leagues. Center field will likely be divvied up between right-handed hitting Justin Ruggiano and left-handed hitting Ryan Sweeney. Sweeney was the Cubs’ top hitter at .295 until a rib injury suffered in June sidelined him for two months. Ruggiano showed some pop last year for Miami, hitting 18 home runs in 424 at-bats, but he struck out 114 times with a .298 on-base percentage. Nate Schierholtz hit 21 homers in 137 games playing right field last year in his first season with the team. He will be expected to be a top run-producer in 2014.
Welington Castillo had a solid season at the plate, hitting .274, and he continues to show significant improvement defensively. He missed the final two weeks after undergoing arthroscopic surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee. Castillo is one of the few current players likely in the team’s long-range plans.
Veteran infielder Donnie Murphy could challenge for time at third base, or maybe even second if Barney’s bat continues to go soft. Olt will likely stick on the major league roster, even if he isn’t the everyday third baseman. Renteria believes he can get him enough at-bats to warrant keeping him in the bigs. George Kottaras, who has never played more than 85 games in a major-league season, will be Castillo’s backup behind the plate. Non-roster invitee Emilo Bonifacio apparently has earned a roster spot. His blazing speed and ability to play all over the field make him a valuable reserve.
The brass signed Renteria, who has no major-league managing experience, for three years with two one-year club options, which indicates that the Cubs are not just looking at him to be a caretaker over a rebuilding club. Expectations will remain low this season — and probably in 2015 — but the team is confident that Renteria will be the right man to take them to high places after the team starts to resemble a contender. For the most part, just about everyone from the old regime is out of the front office — as well as off the field — and it is pretty much full speed ahead with Epstein’s people. The Cubs owners, the Ricketts family, might be getting a little impatient about the losing, the lack of buzz and the declining attendance. Look for the team to market its MVP — Wrigley Field — heavily during the team’s 100th year at the park this season.
The Cubs’ roster has a lot of moveable — and removable — parts, and like in the past two seasons, there could be a lot of players coming and going as Epstein and his staff continue to strengthen the farm system. Renteria, a rookie manager, will have an opportunity to learn on the job in his inaugural season with the team. A run at .500 may still be an unrealistic goal for a team still working its way through a lengthy rebuild.
SS Starlin Castro (R)
He’s hit just about everywhere in the Cubs’ lineup, but leadoff might be his best option.
3B Luis Valbuena (L)
Light hitter can make himself valuable by bunting Castro to second when he reaches base.
RF Nate Schierholtz (L)
Supplied decent power last year with 21 home runs and 68 RBIs in 462 at-bats. Was it a fluke?
1B Anthony Rizzo (L)
Led the team in homers (23) and RBIs (80) last year, but that wasn’t a spectacular accomplishment.
LF Junior Lake (R)
Had a 27.8 line-drive rate in his 64-game debut. Will be dangerous if he continues at that pace.
C Welington Castillo (R)
Hit .295 in day games last year, and the Cubs still play more day games than anyone else in the majors.
CF Ryan Sweeney (L)
Veteran was leading the team in hitting (.295) before crashing into a wall in late June.
2B Darwin Barney (R)
Ace defender, but he needs to step up his offense or he could be riding the bench.
OF Justin Ruggiano (R)
Hit 18 HRs in 128 games with Miami in 2013. Should get plenty of starts against left-handed pitching.
C George Kottaras (L)
Career backup is on his fifth team in six seasons. Has solid power but strikes out a ton.
INF Donnie Murphy (R)
Broke into the majors in 2004, but has played in only 290 games, including 46 with the Cubs last year.
UT Emilio Bonifacio (S)
The switch-hitter who turns 29 in April has started as many as 20 games at six different positions in his seven-year career.
3B Mike Olt (R)
Has shown decent power in the minors, but struggled to keep his average propped up.
RH Jeff Samardzija
Ace? Trade bait? Maybe a little of both on a team that isn’t picked to do much this season.
LH Travis Wood
Won only nine games in 32 starts, but his ERA was 3.11 with a 1.145 WHIP.
RH Edwin Jackson
Opponents hit .281 off of him last year, and he was 1–7 in his final 10 starts.
RH Jake Arrieta
Went 4–2 with a 3.66 ERA and a 1.123 WHIP in nine starts after trade from Baltimore on July 2.
RH Jason Hammel
Began 2012 8-2 over first 14 starts for Baltimore with a 2.61 ERA and 1.115 WHIP. But injuries cost him about a dozen starts.
RH James McDonald
Could make a few spot starts until Arrieta is completely healthy.
RH Jose Veras (Closer)
The biggest acquisition the Cubs made at the winter meetings, Veras is the favorite to win the closer’s spot.
RH Pedro Strop
Pegged as the main setup man but could be used as a closer if Veras falters.
LH Wesley Wright
Had a 3.69 ERA in 70 appearances with Houston and Tampa Bay in 2013; will serve as a setup man in ’14.
LH James Russell
After a 7–1 mark in 2012, fell to 1–6 last year but his WHIP dropped from 1.298 to 1.215.
RH Hector Rondon
Righty reliever who held left-handed batters to a .192 average but struggled against righties (.306).
RH Blake Parker
A sparkling 2.72 ERA in 49 games got the attention of the Cubs’ brass.
RH Carlos Villanueva
Has started 44 games over last three seasons with the Blue Jays and Cubs.
LH Chris Rusin
Former Kentucky Wildcat had a 2–6 record in 13 starts but was able to keep his ERA under 4.00.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Kris Bryant, 3B
Bryant is two degrees separated from Ted Williams. Bryant learned a lot about hitting from his father, Mike. Mike Bryant was a Boston Red Sox farmhand in the 1980s and was coached by Williams. That alone won’t get a lot of notice, but slamming 31 homers in 62 college games will, and that’s what Bryant did as a junior at the University of San Diego. The Cubs snapped up the 6'5" third baseman with the No. 2 overall pick in the draft. Bryant hit well last summer — a combined .336 with nine home runs in stops in Rookie ball and Low-A and High-A — but was even more impressive in the fall. He hit .364 with six homers and 17 RBIs in the Arizona Fall League and was named the league MVP. He’ll probably start in Class AA this year, and if he does well, the Cubs could be tempted to bring him up in September.
OF Albert Almora (19)
Shelved with an injury after hitting .329 and slugging .466 in 61 games for Class A Kane County. Former No. 6 overall pick is a career .326 hitter in the minors.
SS Javier Baez (21)
Top prospect could be called up to the bigs this season. Hit a combined 37 home runs last year and slugged .638 in 54 games with Class AA Tennessee. Still considered a top shortstop, he’s expected to play some second base this season in the minors.
OF Jorge Soler (22)
A left tibia injury slowed his progress, but the Cuban star still has a high ceiling as a power hitter.
3B Mike Olt (25)
He struggled at Class AAA Iowa after the Cubs acquired him in a trade, but he was dealing with issues related to a concussion.
RHP Pierce Johnson (22)
Quickly moved up the Class A ladder and is ready for bigger challenges.
RHP C.J. Edwards (22)
Had a 1.96 ERA in six starts with Class A Daytona.
1B Dan Vogelbach (21)
Has slammed 37 HRs and driven in 144 runs in first 198 minor-league games.
2B-SS Arismendy Alcantara (22)
The switch-hitter may be blocked by both Baez and Castro, but he had 36 doubles and 31 steals at Double-A last summer, splitting time between second and short.
Beyond the Box Score
100 years at Wrigley In honor of the team’s 100th season at Wrigley Field, the Cubs began to unveil 100 Great Times at Wrigley Field at their convention in January. During spring training and every regular-season home game, the team will unveil another memorable moment. Fans will also be able to follow the tributes via social media.
Back where he started Eric Hinske, who recently retired after 12 years in the big leagues, has been named the Cubs’ new first base coach. Hinske played five seasons with Toronto and also played with Boston, Tampa Bay, Pittsburgh, the Yankees, Atlanta and Arizona. He won World Series titles with Boston in 2007 and the Yankees in 2009. But few remember that Hinske was selected by the Cubs in the 17th round of the 1998 draft out of the University of Arkansas. He never played with the parent club and was traded to Oakland for Miguel Cairo in 2001.
Legal issues Shortstop Starlin Castro hit just .245 last year, and he may be blaming some of his struggles on a lawsuit filed in his native Dominican Republic. He is being sued by a baseball school for $3.6 million because of a contract his father signed when Castro was 16. Castro’s camp countersued, and his attorneys maintain that the original suit had a “direct impact on his duties as a professional ballplayer, leading to one of his worst-ever statistical performances.”
Walk this way First baseman Anthony Rizzo helped raise $100,000 in Parkland, Fla., in his second “Walk Off For Cancer” event in December. Rizzo, diagnosed with Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May 2008, has been cancer free for five years. The money will go to the Joe DiMaggio Children’s Hospital Foundation.
Does this add up? The Cubs ranked second in the National League in home runs (172) and first in extra-base hits (487) yet finished next-to-last in the league with only 602 runs scored. It was the fewest runs scored by the Cubs in a full season since the 1992 team only scored 593. The Cubs also ranked 27th in the majors in batting with a .238 team average.
Walk this way The Cubs’ pitchers issued 540 walks last season, the most in the NL and the third-most in the majors. Jeff Samardzija led the team and ranked seventh in MLB with 78 walks.
Other than the SEC, the Big 12 is the only league in the nation that brags two different national champions during the BCS Era.
Texas and Oklahoma dominate this league unlike two teams in any other league in the nation. Fifteen of the top 25 players hail from either Austin or Norman. But the rise of other programs like Oklahoma State, Baylor, Texas Tech and Kansas State during the last 16 years has made this league incredibly balanced and particularly deep — despite the turnover created by realignment.
The Big 12 also was the place to be during the BCS Era for quarterbacks. Four Heisman Trophy winners, seven BCS National Championship Game appearances from six different signal-callers, two national titles and a guy who set the record for most wins by a college quarterback say as much. Another one set the NCAA record for passing touchdowns, another topped 16,000 yards passing and 21 separate times someone threw for at least 4,000 yards.
The SEC has two 4,000-yard passing seasons in its eight-decade history. The SEC has perfected the "super quarterback" (Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, Johnny Manziel) but the Big 12 invented it.
Needless to say, trying to narrow this list down to 25 names was nearly impossible but here are Athlon Sports' Top 25 Big 12 players of the BCS Era. Frankly, it's a testament to the depth of the Big 12 that names like Earl Thomas, Quentin Griffin, Tavon Austin and Jeremy Maclin just missed the cut. The only stipulation is that you must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Vince Young, QB, Texas (2003-05)
Stats: 6,040 yds, 44 TDs, 28 INTs, 61.8%, 3,127 yds, 37 TDs
The Texas quarterback was the most unstoppable single force of the BCS Era. Just ask Kansas. Or Colorado. Or USC even. He earned Rose Bowl MVP honors following his ridiculous performance against Michigan to finish his sophomore season. It was a sign of things to come as he was named Big 12 Player of the Year in 2005. The Longhorns' offense averaged more than 50 points per game, he was a consensus All-American, led the Big 12 in passing efficiency, won the Davey O'Brien, Manning and Maxwell Awards while finishing second on the Heisman ballot. His smooth running skills led to an all-time Big 12 career record 6.8 yards per carry. And no one will ever forget his second Rose Bowl MVP performance against USC in the greatest game of the BCS Era, returning the national championship to Austin.
2. Adrian Peterson, RB, Oklahoma (2004-06)
Stats: 747 att., 4,045 yds, 41 TDs, 24 rec., 198 yds, TD
The BCS version of Herschel Walker or Bo Jackson was the three-year star from Palestine (Texas) High. A three-time, first-team All-Big 12 runner finished No. 2 in the Heisman Trophy voting as a true freshman in 2004. His 1,925 yards was an NCAA record for a true freshman and it earned him unanimous All-American honors. Despite missing chunks of time with injuries in each of his next two seasons, “All Day” Peterson still topped 1,000 yards and 12 touchdowns. His natural blend of power, speed, size and balance has never been duplicated during the BCS era. He rushed for 970 yards for the Vikings in 2011 in a season shortened by a torn ACL, the only time since high school that A.D. hasn’t rushed for at least 1,000 yards. He is the Sooners' No. 3 all-time leading rusher.
3. Ndamukong Suh, DT, Nebraska (2005-09)
That one name that stands above the rest is the Boy Named Suh. The star defensive tackle from Portland, Ore., won the 2009 Outland and Nagurski Trophies as well as the Lombardi, Bednarik and Willis Awards. He was the first defensive player to win AP Player of the Year honors since its inception in 1998 and finished fourth in the Heisman Trophy voting in ’09. That year Suh claimed the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award and he came just seconds shy of leading the Huskers to their first conference championship since 1999. He finished his career with 215 tackles, 57.0 for a loss, 24.0 sacks and six blocked kicks.
4. Ricky Williams, RB, Texas (1995-98)
Stats: 1,011 att., 6,279 yds, 72 TDs, 85 rec., 927 yds, 3 TDs
The power back from San Diego gave fans in Austin a preview of things to come when he rushed for 990 yards as a true freshman fullback. His two-year run as an upperclassman may never be matched, as he posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,800 yards and 25 rushing touchdowns. Williams was a two-time consensus All-American, a two-time Doak Walker Award winner, a two-time Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year and claimed the Maxwell Award, Walter Camp Award and Heisman Trophy as a senior. He left school as the NCAA’s all-time leading rusher (since broken) and he is one of four players to ever score at least 70 rushing touchdowns.
5. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor (2008-11)
Stats: 10,366 yds, 78 TDs, 17 INTs, 67.1%, 2,254 yds, 33 TDs
Right alongside Andrew Luck will always be RG3, as the duo will forever be linked in football history. Griffin III beat out the Cardinal signal-caller to win the 2011 Heisman Trophy while leading Baylor to back-to-back bowl games. He led the NCAA in passing efficiency (189.5) — a Big 12 single-season record — and posted the fourth-best season in terms of total offense in conference history (4,992 yards, the most by any non-Texas Tech quarterback). He was a consensus All-American and won the Davey O'Brien and Manning Awards to go with his stiff-armed trophy. In fact, few players at any position in any league have meant more to their school than Griffin III. His impact on Baylor Bears football is immeasurable and could continue for decades. Had he been healthy for his entire career — he missed nine games in 2009 — his numbers might have been the best the BCS Era has ever seen.
6. Roy Williams, S, Oklahoma (1999-2001)
7. Sam Bradford, QB, Oklahoma (2007-09)
Stats: 8,403 yds, 88 TDs, 16 INTs, 67.6%, 5 rush TDs
It didn't take long for the three-star recruit to establish himself as one of Oklahoma's best of all-time. He set a school record for yards in a half in the first half of his career and broke another school record for consecutive completions the next game (22) — still a Big 12 record and two shy of the NCAA mark (Tee Martin). By season's end, Bradford owned the NCAA's all-time freshman passing touchdowns record (since broken) with 36. He also won the Big 12 championship. The following season, Bradford led the Sooners to the BCS title game against Florida and beat out Tim Tebow and Colt McCoy for the Heisman Trophy. He won Sammy Baugh and Davey O'Brien honors as well. Bradford owns the NCAA record for career quarterback efficiency at 175.6 making him the most efficient quarterback in the history of the game. He also owns the NCAA mark for yards per play (8.7) and 86 of his 88 career touchdown passes came in just two seasons.
8. Michael Crabtree, WR, Texas Tech (2007-08)
Stats: 231 rec., 3,127 yds, 41 TDs
No player has been as productive in just two seasons as the Dallas, Texas native. As a redshirt freshman, Crabtree set NCAA records for receptions (134), yards (1,962) and touchdowns (22) and won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wideout. He also won Big 12 Newcomer and Offensive Player of the Year honors and still owns the single-season league record for receptions and yards as just a freshman. He became the first player in NCAA history to win a second Biletnikoff Award when he caught 97 passes for 1,165 yards and 19 touchdowns for the 11-2 Red Raiders the next year. He finished fifth in the Heisman balloting in ’08 — one of just four wide receivers to finish in the top five during the BCS Era. Certainly, Mike Leach’s system inflated the two-time consensus All-American’s numbers, but the 6-foot-2, 215-pound wideout was — and still is — easily the most talented Texas Tech receiver in program history.
9. Colt McCoy, QB, Texas (2006-09)
Stats: 13,253 yds, 112 TDs, 45 INTs, 70.3%, 1,571 yds, 20 TDs
Few players got more out of their abilities than McCoy. He was a two-time consensus All-American as a junior and senior, finishing second in the Heisman as a junior and third as a senior. McCoy was the 2009 Big 12 Player of the Year and claimed the Walter Camp, Maxwell, Manning, Unitas and Davey O'Brien Awards over his last two seasons. En route to the 2009 BCS National Championship Game, he produced 30 touchdowns and over 3,900 yards of total offense on the unbeaten Big 12 champs. He left school with more wins than any quarterback in NCAA history (since broken), owns the NCAA single-season record for completion percentage (76.7) and is the most efficient passer in Big 12 history (70.3 percent).
10. Terence Newman, CB, Kansas State (1999-2002)
Newman did a little bit of everything for Bill Snyder and Kansas State. He returned kicks and punts and even played some wide receiver. The lockdown cornerback was a two-time All-Big 12 pick, a unanimous All-American, the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top DB and a first-round pick by the Cowboys in 2003. The 2002 Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year also was a two-time Big 12 outdoor track champion in the 100 meters and the league champ in the indoor 60 meters.
11. Derrick Johnson, LB, Texas (2002-04)
The big-play machine from Waco, Texas, was one of the greatest linebackers in Longhorns program history. He finished his career with 458 tackles, 65.0 tackles for loss, 10.5 sacks, nine interceptions and 11 forced fumbles. Johnson was a three-time All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American. He capped his career with the Butkus, Lambert and Nagurski national awards as well as Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors before being taken 15th overall by the Chiefs in the 2005 NFL Draft. He helped build a team that went on to win the national title the year after he departed and was a part of a Cotton and Rose Bowl championship teams.
12. Rocky Calmus, LB, Oklahoma (1998-01)
A three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and a two-time All-American, Calmus is one of the most important Sooners of all-time. As a senior in 2001 he won the Butkus and Lambert Awards for the nation's top linebacker, but his play in '00 will go down in Oklahoma history. He led the vaunted Sooners defense to a perfect record and spearheaded arguably the greatest defensive performance of the BCS Era by holding Florida State to zero offensive points in the BCS National Championship Game. Calmus was a third-round pick in the 2002 NFL Draft.
13. Darren Sproles, RB, Kansas State (2001-04)
Stats: 815 att., 4,979 yds, 45 TDs, 66 rec., 609 yds, 2 TDs, 1,224 ret yds, TD
Few players have ever been as valuable to their school as the diminutive Sproles was to Kansas State. The all-purpose dynamo rushed for at least 1,300 yards in three straight seasons and he helped lead the Wildcats to an improbable Big 12 championship in 2003. His 323 yards from scrimmage and four total touchdowns against Oklahoma in the title game will go down in history as arguably the greatest single-game performance by any Wildcat in history. The Sunflower State native finished fifth in the Heisman voting that year as his 2,735 all-purpose yards is the best single-season performance by any Big 12 running back during the BCS Era (fourth all-time). Sproles has proven himself by carving out an extremely productive niche in the NFL as an all-purpose talent.
14. Brian Orakpo, DE, Texas (2005-08)
The trophy case for the former Longhorn defensive end is packed with a Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year, Nagurski, Lombardi, and Hendricks trophies. He was an All-American who played in 47 career games in Austin, posting 132 tackles, 38.0 tackles for a loss, 22.0 sacks and six forced fumbles in his tenure. The Big 12 Freshman of the Year and Freshman All-American saw his career slowed by a knee injury in 2007 or else his totals would be even higher. He was a contributing member in all 13 games of the 2005 BCS national championship run and was taken 13th overall in the 2009 NFL Draft.
15. Tommie Harris, DT, Oklahoma (2001-03)
Harris was a dominant interior lineman for three of the better Sooners teams of the BCS Era. He helped lead his team to the BCS championship game in 2003 while claiming the Lombardi and Willis Trophies. He was a two-time consensus All-American selection as the Sooners went 35-6 during his three-year tenure. Oklahoma won the Cotton and Rose Bowls before losing in the Sugar Bowl in his final season. Harris was downright unblockable in Norman and was the 14th overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft.
16. Cedric Benson, RB, Texas (2001-04)
Stats: 1,112 att., 5,540 yds, 64 TDs, 69 rec., 621 yds, 3 TDs
The Longhorns' running back is one of the most productive in history. He finished sixth in the Heisman Trophy voting two separate times and is one of only six players to score at least 60 rushing touchdowns. The Midland (Texas) Lee star posted four seasons of at least 1,050 yards and 12 touchdowns while in Austin — one of just eight players in NCAA history to post four 1,000-yard seasons. He won the ’04 Doak Walker and carried more times (1,112) than any Big 12 back in history.
17. Derrick Strait, DB, Oklahoma (2000-03)
As the Big 12 Defensive Newcomer of the Year, Strait helped lead an undefeated (13-0) Sooners team to the BCS National Championship as a freshman. By his senior season, Strait had led Oklahoma back to the BCS national title game and was recognized nationally with the Thorpe and Nagurski Trophies as the nation’s top defensive player and top defensive back. Strait also was the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2003 and finished his career with 14 interceptions returned for a Big 12-record 417 yards and three touchdowns. Strait was selected in the third round of the 2004 NFL Draft.
18. Jammal Brown, OL, Oklahoma (2001-04)
Starting his career as a defensive tackle, Brown exploded onto the national scene as a blocker as a sophomore. He helped lead the Sooners to the BCS National Championship Game twice and was recognized as the nation’s top offensive lineman in 2004 when he was awarded the Outland Trophy. The consensus All-American paved the way for Adrian Peterson’s NCAA record-setting freshman season. Brown was the 13th overall pick by the Saints in the 2005 NFL Draft and also was awarded the Jim Parker Trophy as the nation’s top offensive lineman before he left college.
19. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State (2009-11)
Stats: 252 rec., 3,564 yds, 40 TDs, 136 rush, TD
Similarly to Crabtree, Blackmon’s numbers are inflated due to an elite offensive system. But make no mistake, he is the one of the greatest pass-catchers to ever play. He posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,500 yards and 18 touchdowns, earning consensus All-American honors twice. The Ardmore (Okla.) Plainview product also became just the second player in NCAA history to claim two Biletnikoff Awards. Blackmon won Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2010 and capped his illustrious career with a Big 12 championship and Fiesta Bowl MVP performance against Stanford. At a program with a long track record of elite wideouts, Blackmon has to be considered the best. He is one of just four wide receivers to finish in the top five for the Heisman Trophy (5th, 2010) during the BCS Era.
20. Chase Coffman, TE, Missouri (2005-08)
Stats: 247 rec., 2,659 yds, 30 TDs
It didn’t take long for Tigers fans to see what they had in Coffman as he earned first-team Freshman All-American honors in 2005. He then broke Mizzou tight end receiving records with 58 receptions, 638 yards and nine touchdowns as just a sophomore. After two straight All-Big 12 seasons, Coffman claimed the John Mackey Award as a senior as the nation’s top tight end after posting 90 receptions, 987 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2008. Missouri went 22-6 over his final two seasons in what many believe to be the best two-year run in program history. And the 6-foot-6, 250-pound Coffman was a huge part of that success.
21. Dat Nguyen, LB, Texas A&M (1995-98)
Arguably the most decorated Texas A&M defender, Nguyen was a three-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and his 517 career tackles are an Aggies record. His career in College Station culminated in 1998 with a historic and adorned senior season. Nguyen was named the Bednarik, Lombardi and Lambert trophy winner and earned Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year honors as well. He led Texas A&M to the only Big 12 championship it would ever win that year as well — its last conference crown of any kind. The unanimous All-American was a third-round pick of the Dallas Cowboys in 2004.
22. Dominic Raiola, C, Nebraska (1998-00)
At a school known for its big uglies, Raiola is the Huskers’ best of the BCS Era. He was the first freshman O-lineman to start since 1991 when he took the field in '98. The following two seasons he set school records for knockdowns. As a junior, Raiola was the Rimington Trophy winner as the nation’s top center, was an Outland Finalist and earned consensus All-American honors before leaving school early for the NFL. The Huskers were 31-7 during his three seasons and won their last conference championship with Raiola leading the way in ‘99.
23. Josh Heupel, QB, Oklahoma (1999-2000)
Stats: 7,242 yds, 53 TDs, 30 INTs, 63.8%, 43 yds, 12 TDs
He wasn't the most talented quarterback to play in Norman but he might have the best understanding of the position. He won AP Player of the Year and Big 12 Player of the Year honors, was a consensus All-American, earned the Walter Camp Trophy, finished second in the Heisman and led the NCAA in completion percentage (64.7) in 2000. More importantly, he led Oklahoma to arguably the biggest win in program history over Florida State in the BCS championship game in 2000. He posted back-to-back seasons of at least 3,400 yards passing and 27 total touchdowns.
24. Brad Smith, QB, Missouri (2002-05)
Stats: 8,799 yds, 56 TDs, 33 INTs, 56.3%, 4,289 yds, 45 TDs
Smith is one of only five players in the 6,000-4,000 club after becoming the first player to accomplish the feat back in 2005. He is arguably the most dynamic playmaker in the history of the program and was nearly unstoppable in the backfield. His 799 rushing attempts are fifth all-time in Big 12 history and his 4,289 yards rushing are fourth while his 45 touchdowns rank ninth all-time. All of this on the ground from a guy who also ranks ninth all-time in passing yards, sixth in attempts (1,484) and seventh in completions (835)..
25. Justin Blalock, OT, Texas (2003-06)
The star blocker for the Horns helped return Texas to the promised land by paving the way for Vince Young on the 2005 BCS title team. He was an absurd four-time, first-team All-Big 12 selection and earned Big 12 Lineman of the Year honors in 2006 as a senior. He was a consensus All-American that year and was a second-round pick of the Falcons in 2007. He led the way for some of the greatest offenses in Texas and Big 12 history.
The Next 10:
The Tulsa, Okla., native played in all 12 games for the 2000 BCS National Champions as a freshman. He was a three-year starter for the Sooners after that, posting 117 tackles and 19.0 TFL and earning the Butkus and Bednarik Awards while leading Oklahoma back to the BCS national title game in 2003. He was a two-time All-American and Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year and was a second-round pick of the Lions in the 2004 NFL Draft. Oklahoma was 48-6 during Lehman’s four years and won two Big 12 titles.
27. Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State (2008-11)
Stats: 9,260 yds, 75 TDs, 27 INTs, 69.5%, 1 rush TD
The Pokes quarterback set all the important school passing records in 2011 and then returned to Stillwater in '12 and surpassed his previous benchmarks. His 4,742 yards passing in 2011 is the best single-season by a Big 12 quarterback not from Texas Tech. He led Oklahoma State to its first-ever Big 12 title and first-ever BCS bowl win. His 69.5 percent completion rate is third all-time in Big 12 history and he ranks eighth in league history in passing yards and ninth in touchdowns in just two seasons as a starter. Weeden went on to be a first-round draft pick of the Browns in the 2012 NFL Draft.
28. Casey Hampton, DL, Texas (1996, 98-00)
From 1997-2000, Hampton started 37 straight games for the Horns and finished with 54 tackles for a loss — fifth all-time in Big 12 history. He posted an absurd 329 tackles from his line position and forced nine fumbles. He was a consensus All-American, two-time, first-team All-Big 12 pick and the Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year in 2000. The All-Pro Super Bowl champion was taken in the first round of the 2001 NFL Draft with the 19th overall pick.
29. Jermaine Greshman, TE, Oklahoma (2006-09)
Stats: 111 rec., 1,629 yds, 26 TDs
Had the 6-foot-6, 260-pound star tight end stayed healthy and played his fourth season at Oklahoma, Gresham likely would have been the best player at his position during the BCS era. He scored 25 touchdowns in two seasons as the starter from 2007-08 — just eight shy of the NCAA tight end record (33). His All-American junior season features Sooners' tight end records for yards (950) and touchdowns (14) — one shy of Mark Clayton’s all-time single-season record regardless of position. He was arguably the top playmaker for a Big 12 champion and BCS National Championship runner-up that year as well. His season-ending knee injury prior to the start of his 2009 campaign left those in Norman wondering what could have been.
30. Cyril Richardson, OL, Baylor (2010-13)
31. Michael Huff, S, Texas (2002-05)
The superstar safety from Texas was a Freshman All-American in 2002 before earning back-to-back first-team All-Big 12 honors as a junior and senior. Huff was a unanimous All-American on the 2005 BCS National Championship team and was named the Jim Thorpe Award winner as the nation’s top defensive back. He posted 87 tackles, 9.0 for loss, two sacks, two interceptions and three forced fumbles on the historic ’05 squad. Huff was the seventh overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft.
34. Von Miller, LB, Texas A&M (2007-10)
After an up and down but promising first two seasons, Miller exploded onto the scene as a junior in 2009. He led the nation in sacks with 17.0 and posted 21.0 tackles for loss for a team that lost seven games. As a senior, despite being slowed by an ankle injury, Miller posted 10.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss en route to the Butkus Award as the nation’s best linebacker for a team that won nine games. Miller was a two-time, first-team All-American and All-Big 12 pick and was the No. 2 overall pick in the 2011 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos.
35. Ryan Broyles, WR, Oklahoma (2008-11)
Gus Malzahn had quite a first year at Auburn.
Not only did he become just the third first-year coach to win the SEC championship, he also produced the greatest turnaround in SEC history. From winless to within seconds of a BCS national championship doesn't happen every day.
Essentially, Malzahn is now a victim of his own success as anything less than a repeat will appear lackluster to a rabid fan base like Auburn. Nick Marshall returns with a talented set of receivers around him as he enters spring as a seasoned veteran under center. And the defensive depth chart is stacked with rising stars, in particular, all over the front seven.
But this team almost has to take a step back in 2014. Offensive superstars Tre Mason and Greg Robinson have moved on to the NFL while cult heroes Dee Ford and Chris Davis are gone from the defense. Other holes at defensive line, in the secondary and fullback are concerning as well.
Auburn could be the top challenger to Alabama in the SEC West this fall but before Malzahn leads his team into what appears to be a brutal schedule, the Tigers must address some needs in spring camp.
|Sept. 13||Bye Week|
|Oct. 18||Bye Week|
Auburn Tigers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 18
Spring Game: April 19
Three Things to Watch in Auburn's 2014 Spring Practice
Establish balance on offense
Running backs Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne were excellent backups to Tre Mason a year ago and should be able to carry the offensive load this fall. And no, Malzahn will never throw the ball 50 times per game. But developing quarterback Nick Marshall as a passer in an effort to find some balance could make this team virtually unstoppable on offense. There are a lot of names in the receiving corps but no elite playmakers other than possibly Sammie Coates — which is why newcomers like D'haquille Williams and Stanton Truitt are already drawing first-team reps. Williams has the ability to stretch the field with his big frame while Truitt provides speed and elusiveness from the slot. Of course, replacing uber-athlete Greg Robinson at left tackle to protect Marshall's blindside would go a long way in helping to create this desired offensive balance.
Develop the youth up front on defense
Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae, Kenneth Carter and Craig Sanders are all gone from the defensive line. While losing four contributors, including a first-team All-SEC playmaker, would hurt any defense, Malzahn and coordinator Ellis Johnson shouldn't be too worried about the front seven. Gabe Wright anchors the line but also will be asked to provide an example for his younger peers this spring. Rising true sophomores Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel have elite ability and upside but need to be groomed as starters in their first full offseason. Filling a hole left by the steady Jake Holland at linebacker will also be critical but most of the last season's depth chart returns — including Cassanova McKinzy and Kris Frost. This unit may take some lumps this spring and into the fall as some of these players develop, but there's no disputing their talent and potential. Should they become all-league players this fall, Auburn could actually be improved on defense by season's end.
Organize the secondary
Two safeties, Ryan White (54 tackles) and Ryan Smith (68 tackles), have moved on and star cornerback Chris Davis graduated as well. The Tigers' secondary is arguably the biggest area of concern for Auburn this spring and after injuries moved the depth chart around last fall, Malzahn is likely looking to settle on a rotation. Jonathon Mincy returns to one corner spot but depth needs to be developed around him. Robenson Therezie and Jermaine Whitehead got plenty of experience a year ago and ideally will become one of the SEC's better safety tandems. Elsewhere, look for former running back Johnathan Ford and early enrollee Derrick Moncrief to get looks while both Joshua Holsey and Jonathan Jones recover from injuries. There were a lot of moving parts in this department for Auburn last year and organizing the depth chart is key this spring.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 9-11
The Tigers literally went from worst to first and won't sneak up on anyone in 2014. Teams will be more focused on stopping Marshall and the Auburn defensive front is going to be very young. This roster's talent is much closer to the 12-2 record of last year than the 0-8 team from two years ago so optimism should fill Jordan-Hare Stadium. This team is an SEC contender without a doubt, but the Tigers face a nasty schedule this fall befitting a former conference champion. Road games at Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are brutal, as is a trip to The Little Apple to face Kansas State in non-conference action. Toss in home games with LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M and Auburn will be hard-pressed to win the West once again. However, as we all learned last season, strange things can happen down on The Plains.
There is no secret what is wrong with the Florida Gators. The offense has been horrendous.
Florida scored 14 rushing touchdowns and 11 passing touchdowns a year ago en route to what is arguably the worst season in school history on the football field. During the 2008 national title season, the Gators scored 75 offensive touchdowns — 42 of which came from Tim Tebow alone. In fact, Florida scored 204 offensive touchdowns from 2007-09.
Certainly, injuries ravaged this unit along both the offensive line and among the skill players. It began before the season and continued for six painful months of ineptitude. But a change had to made and Will Muschamp hired his third offensive coordinator in four years.
Enter Kurt Roper.
The former Duke coordinator has plenty of SEC experience but no one on this current Gators roster resembles anyone named Manning. The new-look coaching staff's first order of business is to energize the offense and create a more balanced team overall.
The Gators have plenty of talent — the No. 2-ranked roster in the nation — and will be nasty on defense once again. But if this offense doesn't take major strides in 2014, not only will Florida not compete for an SEC title but Muschamp could find himself out of work.
|Sept. 27||Bye Week|
|Oct. 25||Bye Week|
|Nov. 22||Eastern Kentucky|
Florida Gators 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 19
Spring Game: April 12
Three Things to Watch in Florida's 2014 Spring Practice
Complete a forward pass
It helps when all of your quarterbacks are healthy, of course, but Roper has his work cut out for him in terms of developing a quarterback. A big reason why Roper was hired as the Gators' new coordinator is because he honed his knowledge of signal-callers and the passing game under QB-guru David Cutcliffe for many years. Jeff Driskel is back and appears to be healthy but will have to take it easy while young gun true freshman Will Grier has been drawing a lot of ink from those who follow the team closely. Driskel is the odds-on favorite to start out of the gate but fans can bet that Roper won't have any loyalty to the incumbent. At wide receiver, the return of Andre Debose, the maturation of Demarcus Robinson and the continued development of players like Quinton Dunbar also will help as Roper installs his up-tempo shotgun passing attack. The new coordinator has brought a renewed energy to the Florida offense but there is still a lot of work left to be done before this team can brag about any sort of offensive prowess.
Rebuild the offensive line
Injuries tend to be relatively fluky and no position on this team was more impacted by that in 2013 than the O-line. Two of the only stable names along the line last year, Jonotthan Harrison and Jon Halapio, have both moved on as well as other contributors Ian Silberman and Kyle Koehne. There is a lot returning in terms of overall talent but this unit needs to stabilize and, more importantly, stay healthy. Star left tackle D.J. Humphries played six games, fellow tackle Chaz Green missed the entire season, Tyler Moore played in just six games, and Trenton Brown made just five starts. Max Garcia played both guard and tackle last year and is the only returning player with more than six starts from a year ago. If Roper wants to develop a passing game and keep his quarterbacks healthy, this unit must grow together quickly this spring.
Reload at the back end of the defense
Jaylen Watkins (52 tackles) and Cody Riggs (51) were veteran players who had a lot of SEC snaps under their belts. Both are gone and that leaves a void at the back end of what should still be a very talented secondary. The cornerback unit on this team is among the best in the nation despite the loss of Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson, but someone needs to develop in center field. Brian Poole got plenty of playing time last year (32 tackles) and Keanu Neal, Jabari Gorman and Marcus Maye will step into bigger roles as well. There really isn't any glaring weakness on the Gators' defense but replacing two veteran leaders on the back end might be the top order of business for a unit that is loaded with elite prospects on every level.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 6-8
More so than most teams in the nation, Florida fans can't wait to forget about 2013 and are welcoming the Playoff Era with open arms. Ideally, Kurt Roper will be the saving grace for embattled head coach Will Muschamp. The current Gators regime has proven it can recruit in a big way and has proven it can get to a BCS bowl but it also lost to an FCS team that didn't complete a pass. And Muschamp doesn't get any favors with Alabama and LSU on the crossover slate this fall. But this team is entirely too talented not to return to the postseason and the rest of the SEC East — Mizzou, Georgia, South Carolina — could be taking small steps back in '14. This team will be in games and have lots of chances to win but will need to stay healthy, find balance on offense and finish games with a killer instinct if it wants to compete in the East.
Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory, especially in sports — and politics and entertainment and mysteriously lost Malaysian Airlines flights. When Michael Jordan unexpectedly retires? Conspiracy. When Dale Earnhardt Jr. wins a race after his daddy died? Conspiracy. When Louisville and Michigan State both get a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament? Double-dog conspiracy. But none of those tongue-in-cheek cheats made this list. These are the top five conspiracy theories in sports history:
1. 1919 World Series — Chicago Black Sox Scandal
“Say it ain’t so, Joe.”
Eight members of the Chicago White Sox — “Shoeless” Joe Jackson, Eddie Cicotte, Claude “Lefty” Williams, Buck Weaver, Arnold “Chick” Gandil, Fred McMullin, Charles “Swede” Risberg and Oscar “Happy” Felsch — were banned from baseball for conspiring with gamblers and gangsters (notably New York’s Arnold Rothstein) to throw the 1919 World Series against the Cincinnati Reds.
The plan worked, as the heavily favored White Sox — one of the era’s highest profile teams and arguably one of the most talented squads of all time — fell to the Reds, 5-to-3, in the best-of-nine series.
Strangely, “Shoeless Joe” hit the 1919 World Series’ only home run and led all batters with a .375 average (12-for-32), six RBIs and five runs scores. But Jackson’s implication in the scandal ended his career at only 32 years old, with a .356 career average and three top-5 finishes in AL MVP voting.
As a result of what would become known as the “Black Sox Scandal,” Kenesaw Mountain Landis was named the first “Commissioner of Baseball” in 1920.
2. Super Bowl III — New York Jets upset Baltimore Colts
“We’re going to win Sunday. I guarantee it.”
Joe Namath backed up his famous guarantee with the New York Jets upsetting the Baltimore Colts, 16–7, in Super Bowl III. But since “Broadway Joe” trotted off the field pointing No. 1 to the sky, there have been more than a few rumblings that the Colts took a dive against the Jets.
The legitimacy of the NFL-AFL merger of 1970 was greatly aided by the AFL’s win in Super Bowl III on Jan. 12, 1969. The fact that the game was won by New York — a massive media market with a coverboy quarterback — was icing on the cake. In hindsight, it could be argued that the Jets’ win over the Colts was a triumph worth not just millions but billions of dollars for the league.
“That Super Bowl game, which we lost by nine points, was the critical year (for the AFL),” Colts defensive end Bubba Smith famously told Playboy. “The game just seemed odd to me. Everything was out of place. I tried to rationalize that our coach, Don Shula, got out-coached, but that wasn’t the case. I don’t know if any of my teammates were in on the fix.”
Baltimore had a 13–1 record in 1968 and dominated the Cleveland Browns, 34–0, in the NFL title game. Meanwhile, New York went 11–3 and barely escaped with a 27–23 win over the Oakland Raiders in the AFL title game — thanks in large part to a fluke play late in the fourth quarter, when the Jets recovered a lateral fumble that the Raiders thought was an incomplete pass.
The Colts committed five costly turnovers, including three interceptions by quarterback Earl Morrall. One interception was particularly suspicious. With Colts receiver Jimmy Orr wide open near the end zone, Morrall checked down to running back Jerry Hill only to throw an errant pass intercepted by Jets safety Jim Hudson.
“I’m just a linesman but I looked up and saw Jimmy (Orr) wide open,” said Colts center Bill Curry, currently the head coach at Georgia State.
Baltimore coach Don Sula — who would later coach Morrall with the Miami Dolphins — may have the most damning non-quote of all. Smith wrote in his autobiography, “Kill, Bubba, Kill,” that he believed the fix was in at Super Bowl III. Shula’s response was the classic husband-caught-cheating reply.
“I think it’s too ridiculous for me to comment on,” said Shula.
3. Muhammad Ali vs. Sonny Liston — “Phantom Punch”
“Get up and fight, sucker!”
Muhammad Ali stood over Sonny Liston shouting at him to get up, while ringside photographer Neil Leifer captured the iconic moment in what many have called the greatest sports photograph in history.
Ali-Liston II was originally scheduled for Nov. 16, 1964 at the Boston Garden. But the fight was postponed after a pre-fight injury suffered by Ali. Rumors of organized crime connections to the fight promotion caused the city of Boston to reject the fight. Then, amid continued fixed fight talk, the city of Cleveland followed suit and also denied the fight.
Finally, on May 25, 1965, the heavyweight championship bout took place at St. Dominic’s Hall in Lewiston, Maine, and was refereed by former heavyweight champ Jersey Joe Walcott. The fight did not last long, however. Liston went down in the first round — as rumors swirled that Liston owed money to the mafia and/or had been threatened by the Nation of Islam.
Worst of all, Ali was reportedly overheard asking his corner crew a crucial question about the so-called “phantom punch.”
“Did I hit him?”
4. 1985 NBA Draft Lottery — Patrick Ewing to the New York Knicks
In 1985, Georgetown center Patrick Ewing was a “can’t miss” NBA prospect. Ewing lived up to his advanced billing, as an 11-time NBA All-Star and member of the Basketball Hall of Fame. He never won an NBA championship, primarily due to the greatness of Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. But Ewing was the centerpiece of 13 playoff teams for the New York Knicks — a team that acquired the 7-footer via the first-ever NBA Draft Lottery.
After watching the footage, several oddities stand out. When putting the seven envelopes into the drum, the fourth envelope is noticeably thrown against the side of the clear sphere — bending one corner of the envelope — while the other six are simply dropped into the bottom of the drum. Then, Commissioner David Stern lets out a stressful deep breath before diving his hand into the drum, passing over several envelopes and drawing what turned out to be the New York Knicks — Stern’s self-proclaimed favorite team. Along with the bent-corner theory, many have speculated that the Knicks’ envelope had been frozen prior to the drawing.
Since the Ewing scandal, the NBA Draft Lottery has cleaned up its act. The ping-pong ball lottery takes place in a room with no cameras, then the “results” are announced by opening the envelopes on television. Stern is nowhere near the event. Who has been involved? The trustworthy employees of Ernst & Young, whose honest oversight experience also includes the fraudulent accounting practices of Lehman Brothers.
It’s all on the up and up. The Bulls received the right to draft Chicago native Derrick Rose, despite only a 1.7 percent chance of “winning” the Lottery. The Orlando Magic won back-to-back No. 1 picks, including Shaquille O’Neal. The New Jersey Nets won the No. 1 pick in Rod Thorn’s first draft running the Nets, after 15 years of Thorn being Stern’s right-hand man in the league office. The Cleveland Cavaliers got the top pick the year the best player in state history (LeBron James) was available and the year after King James left town. The most recent Lottery was won by the New Orleans Hornets — a team owned by the NBA during the 2011-12 season, before being sold to Tom Benson.
If the real lottery were run the way Stern runs the NBA Draft Lottery, no one would buy a ticket. And the right to draft Ewing, Shaq, LeBron, etc., is worth more than the PowerBall.
5. 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals, Game 6 — Sacramento Kings at L.A. Lakers
Tim Donaghy was an NBA referee from 1994 to 2007, officiating in 772 regular season games and 20 playoff contests. But rumors of fixing games caused Donaghy to resign in July 2007. Concrete evidence presented by the FBI resulted in Donaghy pleading guilty to federal charges and being sentenced to 15 months in federal prison.
After being released, Donaghy began telling tales of NBA officiating, gambling and controlling the outcome of games. His legal team even filed loosely veiled allegations against the NBA in U.S. District Court.
Although he does not name team or referee names, it is clear that Donaghy’s attorney is referring to Game 6 of the 2002 NBA Western Conference Finals between the Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers.
“Referees A, F and G were officiating a playoff series between Teams 5 and 6 in May of 2002. It was the sixth game of a seven-game series, and a Team 5 victory that night would have ended the series.
“However, Tim learned from Referee A that Referees A and F wanted to extend the series to seven games. Tim knew Referees A and F to be ‘company men,’ always acting in the interest of the NBA, and that night, it was in the NBA’s interest to add another game to the series. Referees A and F heavily favored Team 6.
“Personal fouls (resulting in obviously injured players) were ignored even when they occurred in full view of the Referees. Conversely, the Referees called made-up fouls on Team 5 in order to give additional free throw opportunities for Team 6. Their foul-calling also led to the ejection of two Team 5 players.
“The referees’ favoring of Team 6 led to that team’s victory that night, and Team 6 came back from behind to win that series.”
The referees that May 31, 2002 night were Dick Bavetta, Bob Delaney and Steve Javie. The Kings led the Lakers, 3–2, in the best-of-seven series. A Kings win would send Sacramento to the NBA Finals, where it would face the New Jersey Nets. A Lakers win would force a Game 7 and keep alive the dynasty dreams of the two-time defending champions.
Kings centers Vlade Divac and Scot Pollard both fouled out of the game. Pollard picked up two fouls in 14 seconds, fouling out with 11:34 remaining in the fourth quarter; Divac fouled out with 2:56 remaining. Kings forward Chris Webber picked up three fouls in the fourth quarter, his fifth foul coming with 3:07 to play.
The Lakers led the Kings in free throw attempts, 40-to-25. In the fourth quarter, L.A. went 21-of-27 from the free throw line, while Sacramento was 7-of-9 in the final period. And in a symbolic display of unfairness, Kings guard Mike Bibby was called for a foul after being elbowed in the nose by Kobe Bryant.
After the game, Ralph Nader called for investigation. But Lakers fans smiled all the way to a 106–102 Game 6 win, a 112–106 Game 7 victory and a four-game sweep of the overmatched Nets in the NBA Finals, en route to a star-studded three-peat led by Shaq, Kobe and Phil Jackson.
“I’m not going to say there was a conspiracy,” said Pollard. “I just think something wasn’t right. It was unfair. We didn’t have a chance to win that game.”
The NCAA Tournament began in earnest Thursday with three double-digit seeds advancing, four overtime games and two national championship contenders looking mighty vulnerable.
All in all, a fairly eventful day.
Maybe Friday’s games will be just as interesting, starting when Duke opens against Mercer, a team hoping to replicate Florida Gulf Coast’s run out of the Atlantic Sun.
The day that starts with one team hungry for an upset will end the same way when UCLA faces Conference USA champion Tulsa in the nightcap.
Navigating the whole day can be tough with games crossing four different networks. We’ll help you get through it here.
NCAA Tournament Friday Viewer’s Guide
All times Eastern
No. 3 Duke vs. No. 14 Mercer
TV: Noon, CBS
Site: Raleigh, N.C.
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller
The first matchup of Friday pairs two of the most prolific 3-point teams in the field. Both Duke and Mercer are in the top 10 in the NCAA Tournament in terms of 3-pointers per game. Mercer hails from the same conference as Florida Gulf Coast, which reached the Sweet 16 last season, but the Bears may have trouble getting a shot from long range. Duke allowed the fewest 3-pointers this season.
No. 6 Baylor vs. No. 11 Nebraska
TV: 12:30 p.m., truTV
Site: San Antonio
Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr
Nebraska is in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998, and many fans might pick the Huskers just because of Baylor’s unpredictability. The Bears, though, closed the season on a hot streak at 10-2. The 7-foot-1 center Isaiah Austin, an NBA Draft hopeful, may be the key here after averaging 14 points, 5.3 rebounds and 4.5 blocks in the final three games.
No. 7 New Mexico vs. No. 10 Stanford
TV: 1:30 p.m., CBS
Site: St. Louis
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Stanford is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in six seasons under Johnny Dawkins, and the prize is the Mountain West Tournament champions. New Mexico will find out if it has a better chance to advance with Steve Alford’s right-hand man, Craig Neal, than with Alford himself.
No. 1 Arizona vs. No. 16 Weber State
TV: 2 p.m., TNT
Site: San Diego
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, Mike Gminski
Weber State can shoot the 3, but this has the look of a typical No. 1 vs. No. 16 mismatch.
No. 6 UMass vs. No. 11 Tennessee
TV: 2:30 p.m., CBS
Site: Raleigh, N.C.
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller
Tennessee may be the most underrated team in the bracket, at least as far as seeding and the RPI go. The Volunteers are 11th in KenPom, yet needed to enter the proper bracket via an overtime win over Iowa in Dayton. In UMass, Tennessee will face a team similar to Iowa, one that likes to push the tempo and didn’t finish the season nearly as well as the Minutemen started it.
No. 3 Creighton vs. No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette
TV: 3 p.m., truTV
Site: San Antonio
Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr
Doug McDermott has 3,105 career points and 1,074 career rebounds. He’ll be a three-time consensus All-American and the national player of the year. And all through his career, he has only two NCAA Tournament wins. He can start to chip away at that barring an upset against the Ragin’ Cajuns, who are led by their own superstar in Elfrid Payton.
No. 2 Kansas vs. No. 15 Eastern Kentucky
TV: 4 p.m., TBS
Site: St. Louis
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Kansas will try to weather the weekend without center Joel Embiid. The Jayhawks will miss his defense around the rim. Eastern Kentucky prefers to play on the perimeter, but the Colonels shoot 56.2 percent from 2-point range, second in the nation.
No. 8 Gonzaga vs. No. 9 Oklahoma State
TV: 4:30 p.m., TNT
Site: San Diego
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, Mike Gminski
Oklahoma State could be the most dangerous No. 9 seed in the field — and we say that knowing what Pittsburgh did to Colorado on Thursday. Marcus Smart is averaging 18.7 points per game, 6.0 assists and 5.7 rebounds in seven games since returning from his suspension.
No. 8 Memphis vs. No. 9 George Washington
TV: 6:45 p.m., TBS
Site: Raleigh, N.C.
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller
Memphis is more or less a known quantity with coach Josh Pastner in his fifth season, Joe Jackson and Chris Crawford seniors and Shaq Goodwin and Geron Johnson sophomores. George Washington is back in the Tournament for the first time since 2007 thanks to a third-year coach (Mike Lonergan) and two transfers (Maurice Creek from Oregon and Isaiah Armwood from Villanova).
No. 1 Wichita State vs. No. 16 Cal Poly
TV: 7 p.m., CBS
Site: St. Louis
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Enjoy this for what it is: An NCAA Tournament game between a 34-0 team and another with 19 losses. Only in college basketball can the same teams compete for a national title.
No. 6 North Carolina vs. No. 11 Providence
TV: 7:15 p.m., TNT
Site: San Antonio
Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr
North Carolina’s Roy Williams and Providence’s Ed Cooley put together two of the better coaching jobs this season to meet in the round of 64. Williams rallied a North Carolina team that's less talented than most to a 12-2 finish after a wildly inconsistent start. Meanwhile, the Providence native Cooley has rebuilt his hometown program into Big East Tournament champions.
No. 5 VCU vs. No. 12 Stephen F. Austin
TV: 7:30 p.m., truTV
Site: San Diego
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, Mike Gminski
This is perhaps the best round of 64 games, even if it doesn’t involve classic power programs. VCU continues to be one of the best teams in the country at forcing turnovers while Stephen F. Austin is right behind the Rams at No. 3 in turnover rate. VCU is used to being the spoiler, but Stephen F. Austin, which hasn’t lost since Nov. 23, could be the giant killer in this case.
No. 1 Virginia vs. No. 16 Coastal Carolina
TV: 9:15 p.m., TBS
Site: Raleigh, N.C.
Announcers: Kevin Harlan, Len Elmore and Reggie Miller
Virginia coach Tony Bennett was 6 years old when Coastal Carolina coach Cliff Ellis took his first Division I head coaching job at South Alabama. Youth will have the upper hand Friday.
No. 8 Kentucky vs. No. 9 Kansas State
TV: 9:30 p.m., CBS
Site: St. Louis
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
The round of 32 game in this pod will be much more interesting, considering Wichita State likely will draw a team full of NBA talent (Kentucky) or an in-state foe from the Big 12 (Kansas State). For now, this will be one of the most surprising freshman guards in the country in Marcus Foster to face two of the more disappointing in Kentucky’s Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
No. 3 Iowa State vs. No. 14 North Carolina Central
TV: 9:45 p.m., TNT
Site: San Antonio
Announcers: Marv Albert, Steve Kerr
Iowa State has become a trendy Final Four team, but North Carolina Central shouldn’t be overlooked. Riding a 20-game win streak, the Eagles are one of the strongest MEAC teams in the field in several years. They’re in the top 75 on KenPom and the top 100 of the RPI. Iowa State will run into a team that ranks fifth nationally in defensive turnover rate.
No. 4 UCLA vs. No. 13 Tulsa
TV: 10 p.m., truTV
Site: San Diego
Announcers: Andrew Catalon, Mike Gminski
It’s 80s night in the final game of the round of 64 when a two-time All-American from 1986-87, Steve Alford, coaches against the 1988 national player of the year, Danny Manning. Alford will be hard-pressed to shake his reputation as a coach who struggles in March when he faces a team that had a losing record as recently as Feb. 8
The first night of the NCAA Tournament brought one of the biggest upsets of the day, the biggest collapse and an upset avoided.
Here’s what you may have missed.
Most clutch performance: Luke Hancock, Louisville
Luke Hancock was the NCAA Tournament's Most Outstanding Player during the Cardinals' title run last season. He's apparently going for another award. Hancock finished with 16 points including the go-ahead free throws and two 3-point baskets to hold off Manhattan. The Jaspers, led by Pitino's former ball boy/walk on/assistant Steve Masiello, led the Cardinals by 3 with less than four minutes to go.
Best finish: Cameron Ridley’s garbage basket
As far as buzzer-beating game-winners go, Cameron Ridley did not have one of the most graceful, but it was effective enough. Texas beat Arizona State 87-85 when Ridley cleaned up a Jonathan Holmes’ missed 3 for the Longhorns to advance to play Michigan.
Image of the Night: Arizona State's bench
Arizona State's bench, immediately following the Ridley game-winner:
Arizona State bench in complete disbelief pic.twitter.com/KO4fklxf6w— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) March 21, 2014
Upset of the night: North Dakota State
Another sport, another Big 12 team to fall to North Dakota State.
The Bison picked up their first NCAA Tournament win in a wild 80-75 win over Oklahoma. The football program, which won the FCS tittle, opened the 2013 season with a win over Kansas State.
With Tyler Braun the face of the team for the day — a face that was kicked in the forehead by OU’s Cameron Clark in a scrum at the baseline — North Dakota State led by 8 at half, gave up a tie game with 11:40 to go and then traded leads until Lawrence Alexander hit the game-tying 3 with 12 seconds left.
The win set off the celebration of the evening:
Collapse of the night: NC State
NC State, seemingly looking for a way to lose, achieved its goal.
The Wolfpack took on a postseason collapse that will loom over the program and coach Mark Gottfried at least for the offseason but probably longer.
Trailing by 16 with 8:13 to go, Saint Louis fouled NC State ... again and again and again. NC State led the Billikens chip away thanks to 20-of-37 free throw shooting, but it would get worse.
First, the Wolfpack could not find a way to get ACC leading scorer T.J. Warren the ball in overtime. Then, a lane violation on a free throw negated a a shot that would have cut NC State’s deficit to two in the final minute.
And Warren, for some reason, was on the floor in a fouling situation in the final seconds with four fouls. He did his job, but the disqualification meant NC State would take the final shot without its best player.
Upset avoided: UConn
Saint Joseph’s led from the tipoff until the final 9:14 of the second half against Connecticut before the Huskies went 15 of 16 from the free throw line in the final 9:37 of regulation and overtime.
UConn’s perfection from the line was ruthless. The lone miss didn’t come until the final nine seconds of overtime in the 89-81 win.
Most disappointing departure: Phil Martelli’s grandson
The early session in Orlando displayed two scores not uncommon for a No. 1 seed against a No. 16 and a No. 8 against a No. 9.
Pittsburgh, though, looked like the top seed in the region while No. 1 Florida looked more like a team that slogged through a win against similarly matched team.
While there may be little reason to recalibrate expectations of Florida’s ability to advance deep in the NCAA Tournament, the results in Orlando suddenly make Saturday’s round of 32 game that much more interesting.
"Our margin for error as a team is not great."
-Florida coach Billy Donovan
“I've always said this: Our margin for error as a team is not great,” Florida coach Billy Donovan said. “So when you see what you see today, we were able to overcome it and win the game, but we were not the same defensive team I think that we've been in the past.”
Florida’s halfcourt defense was an issue, especially early. Albany made 12 of its first 20 shots, but the Great Danes finished 20 of 51 from the field.
Also troubling for Florida’s championship prospects was the Gators’ struggles from 3-point range. Michael Frazier II, Scott Wilbekin and Dorian Finney-Smith were a combined 3 of 11 from 3-point range against an opponent ranked 208th defending the 3-point line.
Waiting for Florida on Saturday is a Pittsburgh team that just played its best game of the year. The Panthers beat Colorado 77-48 in a game that rarely seemed even that close.
The bottom fell out for a Colorado team that’s been playing for more than a month without its best player in Spencer Dinwiddie, but Pitt played a major role in embarrassing the ninth-seeded Buffaloes.
In Talib Zanna, Pitt has a big body on the glass who can go head-to-head with Florida’s Patric Young.
By the start of March, Pittsburgh had the look of a bubble team with few precious wins. Since the regular season finale against Clemson, the Panthers defeated North Carolina in the ACC Tournament and topped 80 points three times in the last five games.
That kind of momentum may spell trouble for a Florida team whose defensive performance Thursday baffled its head coach.
“Last week was kind of the eye‑opener for us,” Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “We didn't win the tournament, but we played well. We felt we should have won it, and we came out of there feeling that we should have won the tournament, so I think our confidence has built up.”
Tommy Amaker’s remake of Harvard basketball continued as the Crimson defeated No. 6 seed Cincinnati 61-57 for Harvard’s second NCAA Tournament win in two seasons.
Harvard upset No. 3 seed New Mexico last season in the Crimson’s first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1946.
Amaker’s team, which returned nearly every key player from last season, controlled most of the game against Cincinnati, but the Bearcats had a chance in the final minutes when Harvard’s Laurent Rivard missed a 3-point shot that could have put the game out of reach.
In one of many Cincinnati misses around the rim, Titus Rubles missed a layup that would have narrowed the game to 1.
Harvard is the first Ivy League team since the field expanded in 1985 to win NCAA Tournament games in back-to-back seasons.
|NCAA Wins by Ivy League teams since 1984-85|
|2014||Harvard||Upset No. 6 Cincinnati||Tommy Amaker|
|2013||Harvard||Upset No. 3 New Mexico||Tommy Amaker|
|2010||Cornell||Reached Sweet 16||Steve Donahue|
|1998||Princeton||Defeated UNLV||Bill Carmody|
|1996||Princeton||Upset No. 4 UNLV||Pete Carril|
|1994||Penn||Upset No. 6 Nebraska||Fran Dunphy|
Only one game into Thursday and the amount of people crowing about a billion dollar bracket has been slashed to a minimum.
Dayton defeated Ohio State 60-59 for the first upset of the NCAA Tournament, sending off a deluge of people disappointed, apparently, to have lost out on a 1 in 9,223,372,036,854,775,808 to win a billion dollars as part of a Quicken Loans promotion backed by Warren Buffett.
80% of America just lost their shot at a billion dollars from a perfect bracket -- after a single game.— Dan Shanoff (@danshanoff) March 20, 2014
The wild finish in Buffalo — an Aaron Craft reverse layup, the game-winning drive by Vee Sanford and Craft’s miss as time expired — ended Ohio State’s season, Craft’s college career and a ton of billion dollar bracket talk.
Let’s all take a moment to be thankful that we got Tweets like these out of the way before 3 p.m. on day one of the round of 64.
So much for the billion dollar Warren Buffet bracket challenge. First game and I'm out. Why did I ever pick the Buckeyes???— Jay Feely (@jayfeely) March 20, 2014
Welp there goes tht billion dollar bracket— Hakim Warrick (@hdubb21) March 20, 2014
Welp. There goes a billion dollars. Ugh.— Charissa Thompson (@CharissaT) March 20, 2014
Well darn...there goes my billion dollars— Thomas Buell (@ThomasBuellMTV) March 20, 2014
Well there goes a billion dollars— Matt Jones (@KySportsRadio) March 20, 2014
And there goes 1 billion dollars....— LostLettermen.com (@LostLettermen) March 20, 2014
NCAA officiating is infuriatingly inconsistent. especially when you've got a billion on the line.— maurice (@tallmaurice) March 20, 2014
Dam Buckeyes cost me a billion dollars— Marc Jackson (@mjaxx23) March 20, 2014
Y'all had a better chance of winning the lottery and getting struck by lighting twice than winning that billion dollar bracket— #MacMadness (@iamkingkent) March 20, 2014
Florida State closed out the BCS era with a dominant 14-0 final record and a victory over Auburn in the national championship game. Not only was the win over the Tigers the Seminoles’ first title since 2000, it finally put to rest whether this program was truly back or not.
As the Seminoles open spring practice for 2014, the quest to become only the second team to earn back-to-back national titles since the BCS era began in 1998 is officially underway. Make no mistake: Repeating as college football’s national champion is challenging. But if there’s a team capable of winning back-to-back titles, the Seminoles would be a safe selection in 2014.
Florida State coach Jimbo Fisher has signed five recruiting classes that ranked among the top 15 nationally and has assembled one of the nation’s best rosters. Quarterback Jameis Winston is back for another run at the Heisman, and in a scary thought for the rest of the ACC, he will only get better as a sophomore.
The Seminoles only have a few concerns on the depth chart for 2014, but the biggest issue might be something that doesn’t relate to a roster or replacing a starter. Complacency is always something national championship teams have to battle the next year. Expect Fisher and his staff to work hard on keeping the player’s focus on what is ahead in 2014 – not what transpired in 2013.
Florida State Seminoles 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 14-0 (8-0 ACC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 19
Spring Game: April 12
|Sept. 6||The Citadel|
Four Things to Watch in Florida State's 2014 Spring Practice
1. New Weapons for Jameis Winston: History suggests Jameis Winston won’t repeat as the Heisman winner, but even if the sophomore doesn’t hoist the trophy again, he is still poised to have a monster season. Winston’s supporting cast is going through an overhaul this spring, as wide receiver Kelvin Benjamin and running backs Devonta Freeman and James Wilder Jr. left early for the NFL. Wide receiver Kenny Shaw also expired his eligibility, which leaves Rashad Greene as the top returning option in the passing game, followed by a cast of unproven, but talented receivers. Seniors Christian Green and Jarred Haggins will be counted on to fill the voids from Benjamin and Shaw, while Kermit Whitfield, Jesus Wilson and Isaiah Jones are three promising sophomores to watch. Florida State also reeled in one of the nation’s top freshman classes at receiver, headlined by Ermon Lane and Travis Rudolph. Lost in the transition at receiver is one of the nation’s top tight ends in Nick O’Leary. Talent certainly isn’t an issue here, but it may take Winston some time to find his rhythm with a new group of receivers. However, by the end of September, the Florida State passing attack should be hitting on all cylinders. This spring is all about determining a pecking order, while Green and Haggins try to lock down a job before Lane and Rudolph arrive on campus.
2. Austin Barron steps in at center: With four starters back, Florida State should have one of the nation’s top offensive lines in 2014. Left tackle Cameron Erving and guard Tre Jackson both earned first-team All-ACC honors last year, while guard Josue Matias was a third-team all-conference selection. Bryan Stork won the Rimington Trophy for the nation’s best center last season, but he expired his eligibility after the national championship. While Stork was a key piece in Florida State’s line, the drop-off in production at center should be very minimal. Austin Barron has five career starts and is slated to replace Stork at center. If there’s a concern on Florida State’s line, it has to be the depth behind the starters. The Seminoles avoided any significant injuries last season, which was a good thing considering the lack of proven options behind the starters. Fisher took steps to address the lack of depth by adding seven linemen in the 2014 signing class.
3. Who steps up at defensive tackle?: This position is easily the biggest concern for the Seminoles in 2014. New coordinator Charles Kelly has to replace standout tackle Timmy Jernigan, as well Jacobbi McDaniel and Demonte McAllister – two players who were crucial to the depth up front. The situation is better at end, as Mario Edwards Jr. is one of the best in the nation, and the Seminoles return Chris Casher and DeMarcus Walker. Thanks to some of the nation’s top recruiting classes, there is talent available for Kelly at tackle. Nile Lawrence-Stample returns after starting six games and recording 15 tackles last season. Eddie Goldman is expected to anchor the tackle position after recording 19 stops in 13 games. Goldman can play at end or tackle, which is a product of Florida State’s multiple looks up front. Lawrence-Stample and Goldman are a solid combination, but the depth at tackle is largely unproven. Redshirt freshman Keith Bryant and senior Desmond Hollin need to step up this spring, while incoming freshmen Derrick Nnadi and Demarcus Christmas could push for time in the fall. Florida State probably won’t have a difference maker like Jernigan this season. However, assuming names like Lawrence-Stample, Bryant and Hollin emerge, the run defense shouldn’t suffer too much. This spring is the first chance for Kelly to put his stamp on the defense, while finding answers on the interior of the line.
4. Shuffling in the secondary: With Jeremy Pruitt taking the defensive coordinator position at Georgia, new play-caller Charles Kelly will shift from coaching the linebackers to the defensive backs. Much of the focus for Florida State’s defense is finding new faces in the trenches this spring, but don’t overlook the secondary. Lamarcus Joyner and Terrence Brooks depart after standout 2013 campaigns. However, the cupboard is far from bare. Jalen Ramsey was one of the nation’s top freshmen last year and should be in the mix for All-American honors in 2014. P.J. Williams and Ronald Darby didn’t get much national recognition last season, but both players are shutdown corners. Safety Nate Andrews was overshadowed by Ramsey, and he returns looking to build off a freshman season that earned him third-team All-ACC honors. This unit will receive a boost with the return of Tyler Hunter, who missed nearly all of 2013 due to a neck injury. Even though Joyner and Brooks were outstanding, Kelly has to be confident in his defensive backfield for 2014. But how will the Seminoles mix and match the personnel to replace those two players? This spring should give us the first indication of who fills the spots left behind by Joyner and Brooks, along with any tweaks Kelly makes with the secondary.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 11-12
Keep in mind this projection is just for the regular season. Florida State could stumble once during the regular season, but there’s not much on the schedule to suggest a loss is likely. Oklahoma State is rebuilding, and Clemson visits Tallahassee in early September. Notre Dame should be a top-25 team, but will the Fighting Irish find enough answers on the defensive line by then? At Miami could be Florida State’s toughest road game, and Florida should be improved, adding some spice to both rivalry contests. Barring any major injuries, the Seminoles appear to be a lock for one of the four spots in college football’s playoff.