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At the same time, maybe not enough of the focus goes to the other half of the upset, the losing team heading back from the NCAA Tournament with its championship dreams shattered.
Certainly, plenty of lower seeded teams are talented enough and good enough on a particular day to win, but a handful of major programs are courting an upset. With the way some of these teams finished the season, they’re practically begging to lose early.
For the teams we’re breaking down as potential upset targets, we’re looking primarily at teams seeded seventh or higher that could lose their first game or teams seeded fourth or higher that could lose in the round of 32. Why not the No. 8 seeds? The 8-9 game is practically a toss up anyway, and No. 9 seeds historically have the advantage at 56-48 all time against the No. 8s.
A quick reaction to the exercise: The South region topped by Florida may be the most chaotic, starting with the injury to Kansas’ Joel Embiid and the slump to finish the season.
Meanwhile, the West region topped by Arizona appears to have the most chalk with only one team (Baylor) on our list for an early loss.
In true NCAA Tournament fashion, then, the favorites will rule the South and the West will destroy your bracket.
SOUTH REGION (No. 1 seed Florida)
Round of 64 opponent: Eastern Kentucky
Without Joel Embiid around the rim, Kansas’ defense has been a problem, allowing 92 points to West Virginia (1.26 points per possession) and 94 to Iowa State (1.2 per possession). Eastern Kentucky is one of the better 3-point shooting teams in the field, and upsets by No. 15 seeds are far less rare than they used to be. If EKU can’t pull the mammoth upset, then the inside-out duo of Alex Kirk and Kendall Williams at New Mexico could give KU trouble.
No. 3 Syracuse
Round of 64 opponent: Western Michigan
Even before Syracuse’s first loss of the season, that shocker to Boston College, the offense for the Orange had started to slip. Since Feb. 15, Syracuse averaged less than a point per possession (95 per 100). Only Virginia Tech averaged worse during that span in the ACC. The Syracuse slump helped Virginia get a No. 1 seed and NC State claim a bid, while serving as the season highlights for Boston College and Georgia Tech. Western Michigan and either Ohio State or Dayton are plenty capable knocking out Syracuse.
No. 4 UCLA
Round of 64 opponent: Tulsa
This is perhaps the top-four seed that has received the least amount of attention this season despite Kyle Anderson’s phenomenal close to the year. Maybe it’s East Coast bias, but maybe it’s because UCLA’s most recent loss was by 18 to a Washington State team that just fired its coach. UCLA didn’t win the second leg of a Pac-12 road game this season, so the round of 32 game is just as problematic. At New Mexico and Iowa, UCLA coach Steve Alford has presided over three losses to double-digit seeds in his last four trips to the Tourney.
No. 5 VCU
Round of 64 opponent: Stephen F. Austin
In one of the most fascinating first round games, VCU faces the hottest team in the country not named Wichita State. Regardless of opponent, VCU may not be the team you remember making NCAA Tournament runs in years past. Even though the Havoc defense is still creating problems, the Rams have the lowest-rated team in offensive efficiency of the Shaka Smart era. Stephen F. Austin forces turnovers at a rate similar to VCU.
No. 6 Ohio State
Round of 64 opponent: Dayton
Ohio State finished the season with a pair of encouraging wins over Michigan State and Nebraska before a 72-69 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten Tournament. But this is also a team that lost five of six in January and dropped back-to-back games to Penn State and Indiana. The Buckeyes lack shooters, which is something Dayton has in Jordan Sibert. Incidentally, Sibert started his career at Ohio State in a signing class with Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas and Aaron Craft.
EAST REGION (No. 1 seed Virginia)
No. 5 Cincinnati
Round of 64 opponent: Harvard
Harvard was the upset few people pegged last season when the Crimson defeated No. 3 seed New Mexico. Now, Harvard, with nearly every key player back, is one of the most trendy upset picks. If Harvard can shut down Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati has few other options to score.
No. 6 North Carolina
Round of 64 opponent: Providence
Providence is a classic case of a team that either has all the momentum after winning the Big East tournament or spent all its energy trying to get into the NCAA Tournament in the first place. The Friars have their offensive issues, but you won’t find a game with a greater disparity at the free throw line: Providence is second nationally at 78.1 percent while North Carolina is 344th at 62.5 percent.
No. 7 Connecticut
Round of 64 opponent: Saint Joseph’s
UConn is a flawed enough team to lose to the Atlantic 10 Tournament champions. Shabazz Napier can be wild with his shot, and the Huskies have been at a size disadvantage all season. St. Joe’s counters with a pair of senior 6-8 forwards in Ronald Roberts and Halil Kanacevic.
WEST REGION (No. 1 seed Arizona)
No. 6 Baylor
Round of 64 opponent: Nebraska
This may not be the time to start picking against Baylor, given that the Bears have reached the Elite Eight in the last two Tournaments in even-numbered years (while missing the Tournament in the last three odd-numbered years). But Baylor is notoriously streaky and will be facing a Nebraska team with plenty of big wins on its ledger this season. The Bears can’t neither afford center Isaiah Austin to return to one of his funks nor poor free throw shooting.
MIDWEST (No. 1 Wichita State)
No. 1 Wichita State
Round of 64 opponent: Cal Poly or Texas Southern
First off, there’s no way Wichita State will lost its game against the No. 16 seed. How the Shockers will hold up against the winner of the No. 8-9 game is another matter. Kentucky would be the more talented team on the floor if the Shockers face Big Blue in the second game, but Kansas State is a tough opponent, too, especially in the defensive end.
No. 5 Saint Louis
Round of 64 opponent: NC State
The offense has been a liability for Saint Louis all season, even as the Billikens won their first 12 games in the A-10. Saint Louis averages 1.01 points per possession and less than a point per possession in conference play. That didn’t start to bite the Billikens until late in the season when they lost four of their last four, including the A-10 tourney opener against St. Bonaventure.
No. 6 UMass
Round of 64 opponent: Iowa or Tennessee
UMass is seeded here largely because of a non-conference resume that included wins over Nebraska, New Mexico, BYU and Providence. While that’s impressive, consider UMass was inconsistent in A-10 play, going 11-7. This is a team that often struggles to find its shot, which could spell trouble against Iowa or Tennessee.
Welcome to the Athlon Rookie Report, where each week David Smith will evaluate the deepest crop of new NASCAR Sprint Cup Series talent since 2006. The Report will include twice-monthly rankings, in-depth analysis, Q&A sessions with the drivers, and more.
Today, David openly questions how the title of “Rookie of the Year” is awarded.
Do you know who Luke Willson is? No, he’s not an actor — that’s Luke Wilson, with one “L.” Willson was a rookie tight end on the Super Bowl-winning Seattle Seahawks who ranked sixth on the team in receiving yards and was a mere bit player on a perennial playoff team loaded with talent. Needless to say, his name wasn’t bandied about as a potential recipient of the NFL’s Rookie of the Year award.
True story: If NASCAR rules applied to the NFL, Willson would be the Rookie of the Year.
I often avoid bemoaning the rules and procedures of a sanctioning body whose actions are polarizing. This, though, is egregious. How NASCAR’s Rookie of the Year is awarded is through a bizarre point system that allocates 10 points for the best finishing rookie, nine points for the second best, eight points for the third best, et al. Then it omits all results not among a candidate’s best 17 races (it’s 16 for the NASCAR Nationwide Series and 14 for the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series).
In essence, NASCAR has done two things. First, it’s rewarding an individual for what a team accomplishes. Then, it’s suggesting only the best 50 percent of their season matters.
According to Jayski.com, Austin Dillon is the current leader in the Rookie of the Year standings following Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, by six points over Kyle Larson. Dillon’s finishes relative to other rookies (15th-place average finish) is vastly superior; however, Dillon is the only driver among this year’s crop that climbed into a car tailor-made for making the Chase. In three of the last four seasons, Dillon’s team with Kevin Harvick as the driver finished third in the overall point standings. Last year, Harvick averaged an 11.2-place finish. Currently 13th in overall points, Dillon’s addition has made his race team roughly four positions worse per race and 10 positions worse in the standings.
Is Dillon just benefiting from pre-existing strength? If he is, as of today, the deserving ROTY recipient, then NASCAR isn’t allowing anyone to make that distinction. That’s something that should change.
How a Rookie of the Year winner is decided in other sports is based on a media vote. It allows accredited media members a chance to think, debate, converse and make observations that a bad point system cannot. I’m Athlon’s resident stat analyst and by the unwritten code of statisticians, I’m supposed to be steadfast in my opposition to the human element; however, I have more faith in letting Bob Pockrass, Nate Ryan, Jeff Gluck and Jenna Fryer anoint a Rookie of the Year than I do in a decision based on an arcane point standing.
Two weeks ago I interviewed Parker Kligerman in this column and he spoke of his goal to help bring his No. 30 Swan Racing team to a top-25 points finish. That’d be an admirable leap, considering the team that fielded its entry primarily for David Stremme last season finished 33rd in the standings. In modern day NASCAR, an eight-point jump in the standings represents a gigantic step forward. Per the current rookie standing rules, Kligerman’s effort in this regard likely will go unnoticed. A more talented team can score a better points finish — a product of better results — and gift-wrap its rookie a career-defining accolade. If there were an official vote, Kligerman would at least receive consideration and probably be the subject of some well-written, finely researched articles.
The same goes for the likes of Justin Allgaier, Alex Bowman, Cole Whitt, Michael Annett and Ryan Truex, who with 32 races left on the 2014 schedule, still have a chance to perform better than their predecessors in previous seasons. Such an impact on an organization deserves to be considered for recognition, for which voters would be responsible.
Human vote and voice would have also prevented some of the sport’s most dubious ROTY recipients.
In 2000, Dale Earnhardt Jr. scored the first Cup Series win in the history of Dale Earnhardt, Inc. and went on to score two more victories, including a win in the All-Star Race, but lost in the Rookie of the Year standings to Matt Kenseth, who notched six more top-10 finishes for established power Roush Fenway Racing.
In 2002, Jimmie Johnson joined a startup Hendrick Motorsports team and scored three wins, ranked fourth in laps led, fourth in average finish (13.5) and finished fifth in the point standings, just one position better than Rookie of the Year Ryan Newman, who scored two less wins (though he did win the All-Star Race) for Team Penske. This, if anything, should have led to a Co-Rookie of the Year decision, something familiar to fans of other sports.
Questions pertaining to eligibility would have likely been raised in 2005 when Carl Edwards, in his first full Cup Series season, scored four victories and finished within sniffing distance of a Cup Series championship in what was statistically the most impressive season by a newcomer in the Chase era. Because he competed in 13 Cup races the prior season, he was ineligible to receive the Rookie of the Year award, of which Kyle Busch took home in a runaway. If the eligibility requirements today were retroactively applied, Edwards would be the winner, both by the NASCAR rookie standing and, likely, a vote.
A movement not to vote — or the Richard Pryor stance — would have been appreciated in 2012 when Stephen Leicht started and parked his way to winning the award. Even NASCAR quietly realized that his “win” was a joke and didn’t ask Leicht to speak at any of the year-end award banquets.
Understanding how results came to be is arguably more important than the results themselves. The human element is prone to error, yes, but it’s also able to decipher the impact of race results better than a point system built with flawed logic.
Luke Willson’s team won the Super Bowl and for that, he and his teammates will receive rings. Willson’s impact on the team, minimal compared to the work of other more established players, does not deserve to be recognized, so it isn't. That’s the way it should be.
The Rookie of the Year should be awarded to the best rookie, not the rookie with the best team.
Photo by Action Sports, Inc.
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. 20: Zach Johnson
Born: Feb. 24, 1976, Cedar Rapids, Iowa | Career PGA Tour Wins: 11 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $4,044,509 (9th) | World Ranking: 10
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Zach Johnson finished in the top 10 in seven of his last eight events on Tour in 2013. In addition, he won Tiger’s event in December (the Northwestern Mutual World Challenge) with a dramatic holed wedge at 18 to get into a playoff with the host and then won on the first extra hole, making the end of 2013 one of the highlights of Zach’s career. He then won the Hyundai Tournament of Champions in early January. Always consistent, he seemed to find even a new level and for the first time had back-to-back top tens in majors, finishing sixth and eighth in the British Open and PGA Championship. Perhaps he found a way around his low ball flight in the game’s biggest events; in his entire career, he’s only twice been in the top 10 in greens in regulation in a major, winning one of them at the 2007 Masters. If that’s the case, 2014 might be his best year ever.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - T35
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - T6
PGA Championship - T8
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - 1 (2007)
U.S. Open - T30 (2011)
British Open - T6 (2013)
PGA Championship - T3 (2010)
Top-10 Finishes: 6
Top-25 Finishes: 10
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.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 18.
• This, my friends, is what a $25 corn dog looks like. It's a foot and a half long, and it can be yours at D-backs games this season.
• Vegas is not impressed with the work of this year's Selection Committee. And Vegas would know.
• When underachieving has-beens collide: Vince Vaughn bought Lane Kiffin's Manhattan Beach house.
• Dikembe Mutombo punked Rocky, the Denver Nuggets mascot, and even added a finger wag. Things continue to go poorly for Rocky, last seen here being lowered lifeless from the ceiling to the horror of children in the arena.
• Enjoy this Gerald Green double-clutch dunk. I know I did.
• Watch the Tennessee baseball team clean off their home field in 30 seconds. All that's missing is the Benny Hill music.
• Watch an MMA fighter get knocked out in less than two seconds.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Florida State closed out the BCS era with an impressive run to the national title. The Seminoles finished 14-0 and rallied from a halftime deficit to defeat Auburn in the championship game.
Not only did Florida State take home the crystal ball trophy, the players, coaches and support staff will receive three rings for their successful 2013 season.
The picture below tweeted by assistant coach Tim Brewster showcases the rings, which includes one from winning the ACC title and one from the BCS to celebrate the team’s national title.
Check out Florida State’s national championship rings:
The Pac-12 has long been considered an offensive football conference.
With a rich history of elite quarterbacks, offensive playmakers and innovative coaching staffs, it’s not too difficult to back that claim up with facts. Bill Walsh, Don James, Jim Harbaugh and Pete Carroll set the bar for offensive advancement over the years while new faces like Rich Rodriguez, Mike Leach and Todd Graham continue to elevate this league’s standing nationally.
During the BCS Era, the Pac-12 boasts three Heisman Trophy winners, four Biletnikoff winners, three Doak Walker winners, four Johnny Unitas Golden Arm winners, three Walter Camp winners and three John Mackey winners. And that’s just the offensive skill players in this league.
The Pac-12 has developed into one of the nation’s best leagues, and, with excellent new leadership at the conference and school level, should be around for decades to come as one of the preeminent leagues in college football.
Trying to narrow this list down to 25 names was nearly impossible but here are Athlon Sports' Top 25 Pac-12 players of the BCS Era. The only stipulation is that you must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
Stats: 433 att., 3,169 yds, 25 TDs, 95 rec., 1,301 yds, 13 TDs, 2,081 ret. yds, 3 TDs
The superstar recruit from La Mesa (Calif.) Helix brought a unique skill set to the evolving running back position. Sort of a first of his kind, the all-purpose talent was unstoppable with the ball in his hands. He played a prominent role on the 2003 national championship team before providing 908 yards rushing, 509 yards receiving, nearly 1,000 return yards and 15 total touchdowns during USC’s 2004 romp to a second national title. He exploded as a junior, rushing for 1,740 yards on a ridiculous 8.7 yards per carry and scoring 19 total touchdowns, coming up just short of his third national title. He earned his second consecutive Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year award as well as the Doak Walker, Walter Camp and Heisman Trophy. His career 7.3 per carry average is fourth all-time and his legacy is only somewhat tarnished by the scandal that put USC on probation and caused him to "return" his Heisman.
7. Sam Baker, OT, USC (2004-07)
The stud left tackle charged with protecting Matt Leinart and Reggie Bush was a three-time, first-team All-American and three-time, first-team All-Pac-10 selection. Baker helped lead the way on teams that played in back-to-back national championship games and won four straight Pac-10 titles. USC was 47-5 during his time and he went on to be a first-round pick of the Atlanta Falcons in the 2008 NFL Draft.
8. Carson Palmer, QB, USC (1998-02)
Stats: 11,668 yds, 72 TDs, 49 INTs, 9 rush TDs
Pete Carroll has always said that if he could design a quarterback from scratch that it would have the physical tools of Palmer. After two middle-of-the-pack seasons as the starter in L.A., Palmer won the Heisman Trophy, Unitas Award and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2002. That year, Palmer threw for 3,942 yards and 33 touchdowns while leading USC to a conference championship and Orange Bowl win over Iowa. He is No. 2 all-time in league history in total offense (11,621) and yards passing (11,818). His 72 touchdown passes rank 10th all-time in Pac-12 history and he is one of nine players to throw for at least 2,500 yards in three seasons. Palmer was the No. 1 overall pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
9. Aaron Rodgers, QB, Cal (2003-04)
Stats: 5,469 yds, 43 TDs, 13 INTs, 63.8%, 336 yds, 8 TDs
Clearly one of the greatest players to ever come through the league, Rodgers led Cal back to relevance, finishing 18-8 in two years as the starter and posting 10 wins in a season for the first time since 1991. He scored 51 times in just 25 games with only 13 interceptions, finished ninth in the Heisman voting in 2004, led the NCAA in completion percentage (66.1) and yards-per-attempt in his final season (8.1). Rodgers was a first-round pick of the Packers in the 2005 NFL Draft and is widely considered the best active quarterback on the planet today.
10. Rey Maualuga, LB, USC (2005-08)
The hard-hitting tackler was a freshman All-American on the 2005 USC team that barely lost to Texas in the national title game. He then started the next three seasons for the Trojans, earning consensus All-American honors, the Chuck Bednarik Award and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year honors in 2008. The Men of Troy went 46-6 during his time on campus and few players were as feared nationally as Maualuga. He posted 272 career tackles, 22.5 for loss, 9.0 sacks and five interceptions before being taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
Arkansas had the worst football season in its existence in 2013.
And that was after firing an extremely popular and successful coach for getting caught illegally hiring his young mistress into the athletic department and finishing 4-8 under John L. Smith.
Needless to say, it’s been a rough few years for Razorbacks fans. In the toughest division in football, the uphill climb back to SEC respectability - much less the Sugar Bowl - appears to be extremely treacherous.
Arkansas was outgained by its opponents last season by an average of 138.3 yards per game — trailing only Kentucky in the SEC. It means Bret Bielema has his work cut out for him on both sides of the ball. The entire two-deep returns one player who got any All-SEC mention a year ago (Hunter Henry), and the running back position is in good hands with rising star sophomore Alex Collins.
However, other than that, the Razorbacks have major question marks all over the depth chart heading into spring camp.
|Sept. 6||Nicholls State|
|Oct. 4||Bye Week|
|Nov. 8||Bye Week|
Arkansas Razorbacks 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 16
Spring Game: April 26
Three Things to Watch in Arkansas' 2014 Spring Practice
Find balance on offense
Bielema made his living in the Big Ten pounding the football (unless Russell Wilson was under center) and that won’t change too dramatically at Arkansas. But after finishing 114th in passing offense and 21st in rushing offense, finding balance will be imperative for the Hogs moving forward. Does this mean that Brandon Allen is the final answer under center? He has the experience edge but after completing just 49.6-percent of his passes and dealing with a shoulder injury, Bielema has decided to open up the QB competition this spring. Redshirt freshmen Austin Allen and Damon Mitchell will both get tons of reps, and early enrollee Rafe Peavey enters campus with loads of recruiting hype and expectations. This team must find balance on offense if the Bielema regime expects to reach the postseason in its second year in town. This also includes finding a playmaking wide receiver as well as the top three returning receivers combined for 34 catches last fall.
Get to know the new defensive staff
After allowing 475.3 yards per game in SEC play (105th nationally), Bielema overhauled the defensive coaching staff. Robb Smith is now the defensive coordinator, Rory Segrest is the new defensive line coach and Clay Jennings in the new defensive backs coach. This group needs to get to know their roster and organize the depth chart as they show up from Rutgers, Samford and TCU, respectively. Arkansas ranked 104th nationally in pass efficiency defense and was 102nd nationally yards per play allowed at 6.1, which can’t continue if the Hogs expect to reach a bowl game in 2014. Specifically, filling the gaps left by end Chris Smith, linebacker Jarrett Lake and safety Eric Bennett will be critical this spring. Names like Trey Flowers, Braylon Mitchell and Alan Turner may be prepared to take starring roles but getting the nomenclature, signage and general rapport with the new coaching staff will be essential if this unit is going to improve.
Replace Travis Swanson...
And to a lesser extent, tackle David Hurd. The running game will always be the foundation of Bielema’s offensive attack and there is some nice talent for line coach Sam Pittman to work with in ’14. However, Swanson was arguably the best player on the team and was the only first-team All-SEC selection last fall. Finding a new pivot to manage the offense line, developing young talent like Denver Kirkland and stabilizing the pecking order at the tackle position is huge for a team that did only one thing well in 2013 — run the ball and protect the quarterback. Luke Charpentier is a senior and possibly the top candidate to replace Swanson but sophomore Cordale Boyd will press him for time this spring. Additionally, keep Frank Ragnow on the back burner as he will arrive on campus this summer and could be the long-term solution to replace Swanson.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 3-5
Arkansas should be able to run the football on offense again in 2014 with seven starters returning, including one of the best backfields in the SEC. But this coaching staff doesn’t really know what it has at either quarterback or wide receiver and is replacing its top offensive lineman. Finding balance on offense will be crucial because it doesn’t appear that the defense will be all that improved. Only four starters are back and the star power is gone (Smith, Bennett). Even the schedule is nasty for Bielema, as things get started with road trips to Auburn and Texas Tech in the first three weeks. Three wins in the non-conference would be a great step and an upset (or two) at home against an SEC power — Alabama, Georgia, LSU or Ole Miss — will be mandatory if the Razorbacks are going to be bowling at season’s end.
The concept of a mid-major may be out of date thanks to the last few seasons.
Think about it: Butler and VCU have routinely put up high-major program results. Wichita State invests in its program in ways some programs in major conferences do not. Creighton and Xavier now share the Big East banner.
Even the pool of potential Cinderellas this season even seemed to take a hit. A dozen regular season champions in one-bid leagues lost in the conference tournaments. That either means the hottest teams from the low-majors are in the field or the most capable teams are playing in the NIT.
We’ll find out soon enough, but there’s still no shortage of teams that look like they can make a run in the NCAA Tournament even if they’re not household names. Here’s what we like about some of the best candidates.
SOUTH REGION (No. 1 seed Florida)
Record: 23-10, 10-6 Atlantic 10
Round of 64 opponent: Ohio State
Is Dayton too good a program to be considered a potential Cinderella? Perhaps. The Flyers play in a first-class arena and claimed one of the Atlantic 10’s six NCAA bids. But Dayton also has one NCAA Tournament win since 2004. The Flyers started the season in fine form, beating Gonzaga in the Maui Invitational and taking Baylor to the wire, and then won 10 of the final 12. This is a team that can hang with major programs. Dayton’s not a great defensive team, but the Flyers’ pod includes Ohio State and Syracuse, teams that haven’t exactly lit up the scoreboard during the final stretch of the season.
Stephen F. Austin
Record: 31-2, 18-0 Southland
Round of 64 opponent: VCU
The Lumberjacks rolled through the Southland Conference for a second consecutive season, this time under a first-year coach. Former Kansas State assistant Brad Underwood took over for the successful Danny Kaspar to lead Stephen F. Austin to 28 consecutive wins to finish the season. The Lumberjacks were rarely tested in the Southland, where they won their conference games by an average of 15.7 points per contest. The drawback to this 31-2 record: SFA’s best win all season was over Towson. Look for the round of 64 game against VCU to be a wild one: Both rank in the top three nationally in defensive turnover rate.
Record: 21-12, 13-3 Conference USA
Round of 64 opponent: UCLA
Tulsa didn’t make much noise in Conference USA until late in the season, but there’s plenty to like about the Golden Hurricane. Tulsa is the home of eventual national championship coaches Bill Self, Tubby Smith and Nolan Richardson and has another intriguing name on the bench in Kansas legend Danny Manning. This season’s team has been tested plenty. Even if the Golden Hurricane didn’t win many games against big-time competition early, Tulsa has been tested against top-five seeded teams Wichita State, Creighton and Oklahoma.
Record: 23-9, 14-4 MAC
Round of 64 opponent: Syracuse
The Broncos won 12 of their last 13 games, the only loss coming in overtime on the road to the next best team in the MAC in Toledo. Western Michigan has a pair of potential pros in 6-11 center Shayne Whittington and 6-3, 210-point guard David Brown. Throw in a first-round matchup against a Syracuse team that has fallen apart since the 25-0 start, and Western Michigan will be a popular pick for a 14-3 upset.
EAST REGION (No. 1 seed Virginia)
Record: 24-8, 11-5 Atlantic 10
Round of 64 opponent: Memphis
Like some of the other A-10 teams, George Washington may or may not qualify as a Cinderella. The Colonials are seeded ninth and defeated Creighton early in the season in a tournament in Anaheim. They also defeated high-majors Georgia and Maryland, for what that’s worth. Affable coach Mike Lonergan has two players recruited by major powers. Maurice Creek has flourished at G-Dub after his career at Indiana was cut short by multiple injuries, and Isaiah Armwood has been a double-double machine since transferring from Villanova.
Record: 26-4, 13-1 Ivy
Round of 64 opponent: Cincinnati
Harvard returns nearly every key player from the team that upset No. 3 seed New Mexico last season. The Crimson are a solid enough team to take advantage of a Cincinnati team that struggles to score. The Bearcats are one of the best teams in the defensive end, but they ranked worse than 200th nationally in shooting from 2-point and 3-point range.
North Carolina Central
Record: 28-5, 15-1 MEAC
Round of 64 opponent: Iowa State
North Carolina Central enters the NCAA Tournament on a 20-game winning streak, but the Eagles have a more impressive non-conference profile than previous MEAC champions. North Carolina Central defeated NC State on the road and faced Cincinnati, Wichita State and Maryland in guarantee games.
WEST REGION (No. 1 seed Arizona)
North Dakota State
Record: 25-6, 12-2 Summit League
Round of 64 opponent: Oklahoma
North Dakota State on paper has an offense that can hang with Oklahoma. The veteran Bison are 20th in adjusted offensive efficiency and 11th in effective field goal percentage. North Dakota State isn’t a great 3-point shooting team, but the Bison don’t need to be, shooting 56 percent from inside the arc.
Record: 23-11, 11-7 Sun Belt
Round of 64 opponent: Creighton
Few players are more valuable to their teams than Creighton’s Doug McDermott. Louisiana-Lafayette’s Elfrid Payton may be one of them. The Ragin’ Cajuns’ guard averages 19.1 points per game, 5.9 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 2.2 steals. Throw in a forward averaging a double-double (Shawn Long) and UL Lafayette has a twosome that maybe able to counter McDermott.
MIDWEST REGION (No. 1 seed Wichita State)
Record: 26-9, 14-4 Atlantic Sun
Round of 64 opponent: Duke
Looking for another example of a Cinderella team that can get hot from 3-point range? Try Mercer. The Bears made an average of 8.1 3-point attempts per game. Mercer won the Atlantic Sun regular season title last season and tied for the crown this season. If Duke’s defensive lapses from early this season return, Mercer could be a team to watch.
March Madness is supposed to apply to this week’s NCAA Basketball Tournament, not NASCAR, which endured an eight-hour, marathon of a race for the second time in less than a month Sunday. Mother Nature wreaked havoc at Bristol Motor Speedway, causing two rain delays and finally ending the event prematurely when caution lights malfunctioned for inexplicable reasons.
According to NASCAR’s Robin Pemberton, a person in the flag stand leaned on the manual override switch, turning on the caution lights on lap 499. Six seconds after the lights were turned on, the flagman — seeing the lights on — waved the yellow flag. Pemberton said that the flagman can wave the caution flag without a call from series officials in the tower if they see a proper reason. A raging downpour then ensued, and NASCAR called the race for Carl Edwards instead of forcing an ugly, final restart.
No rain tires leaves NASCAR with no option in these situations, so the officials err on the side of safety at first sight of a sprinkle. But you wonder, with its two best races ruined by rain, whether it’s time to pour some research into alternatives. Baseball is the only modern sport where rain delays still apply; even there, if a team has to endure a rough day there’s 80 other home dates to make back the profit. Not so in NASCAR, with its individual tracks having two dates max to justify their existence. That meant one of its best facilities, the rugged, half-mile Bristol, lost millions based on a wet weather forecast. Thousands of fans stayed home, knowing with the 100 percent chance of precipitation that they would be waiting around for hours, if not forced to come back on Monday.
The sport isn’t what it used to be, meaning there was a small window Sunday for Bristol to take center stage before the true meaning of March Madness took over. For hardcore fans that hung in there into the late evening, their reward was that some couldn’t even see it on television (FOX moved the finish to its sports channel, FOX Sports 1 after hanging on most of the day). That’s not the way to keep viewers sticking around, right? Good racing — like after the Daytona rain delay — was the hallmark of this Bristol stop, but fans had to jump through hoops to be a part of it.
Twenty years ago, in the midst of major growth, millions obsessed with this sport would put up with it. But 2014 is a different era, not just in NASCAR, but life in general. People are busy, faced with more distractions in this information age and waiting around for 10 hours just isn’t in the cards. While the Air Titan, which dries tracks faster, is a major step in the right direction, a better option is to eliminate the delay altogether, preemptively calling a race based on a 100 percent chance of rain or simply finding a way to keep cars on-track.
Normal people drive in the rain all the time, as do other racing series. In a sport driven by strategy, now more than ever, the sport would be wise to work towards a long-term solution because long-term fans will only put up with so much — even when Mother Nature is the culprit.
“Through the Gears” we go …
FIRST GEAR: Surprising Edwards leads Ford’s fight to fix problems
How ironic that one of NASCAR’s healthiest, fittest drivers was the one standing atop Bristol’s marathon. Edwards, like in Las Vegas the week before, benefited from the pit calls of crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Choosing to keep old tires during a late caution with 75 laps to go, track position was enough to keep the No. 99 car in position to win.
“Our car was just fast or faster than it had been all night after that,” Edwards said. “So there was no detriment to our performance. It didn't hurt us in any way.”
Edwards also benefited from NASCAR’s insistence to end the race off that final caution. A restart would have seen Edwards’ teammate, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., alongside and Aric Almirola right behind, both longshots for wins this season and in position to use their bumpers for a Chase bid. Mayhem would have likely ensued, ruining a banner night for the Blue Oval crowd.
Instead, Ford came home with a second straight win, the first time the manufacturer has done that on the Cup level since Watkins Glen and Michigan in August 2012. A 1-2-3 finish, with Edwards-Stenhouse-Almirola, is their first since Talladega last May. Brad Keselowski, driving a Fusion for Penske Racing, is leading the point standings. What’s spurred the changes?
“Ford has given us more resources,” claimed owner Jack Roush. “They've expanded their engineering involvement one more notch and given us some more. Of course, the thing that it comes down to, as it always has with people in stock car racing is you can have talented people, but if you don't work on the right things, you won't get the results you're looking for.”
My take is the minds on top of the pit box are making a difference. Paul Wolfe and Keselowski came out of the gate clicking on all cylinders. Fennig won the race Sunday for Edwards, earning him a top-5 finish at Las Vegas the week before with a bad car. Penske Racing and Roush Fenway Racing have more brainstorming sessions than ever.
While RFR as a whole still has a ways to go (Greg Biffle, in particular, is struggling mightily) Sunday’s race can make a big difference in momentum. They may all still be chasing Hendrick’s Chevy crowd in the long run, but consecutive wins in Las Vegas, an intermediate track, and Bristol, a short track, are notable in this early season.
SECOND GEAR: Richard Petty Motorsports on Cloud Nine
Third for Almirola was a career best, joining teammate Marcos Ambrose in the top 5 for Richard Petty Motorsports. It’s the first time since scaling back to a two-car operation with new investors in late 2010, that RPM has accomplished the feat.
“This is how we expect to run,” said Almirola, who claims new crew chief Trent Owens has made a difference with the Petty Blue No. 43. “We thought when we brought Trent over he would come with some new ideas … everybody has been working really hard, and that hard work pays off.”
Still, the runs were surprising, as neither team has sniffed the top 10 this season until Sunday. Why the sudden step up in performance? RPM could be funneling its funding (limited compared to the big teams) on improving at short tracks and road courses. All it takes is one victory to make the field, and Ambrose has shown an affinity at both those types of facilities. Almirola himself is strong at the short tracks (along with Kansas) which makes one wonder whether that’s where RPM will test and take some sort of large-scale gamble to cash in.
Fellow middle-class owner Harry Scott, whose No. 51 was a season-best 18th with Justin Allgaier at Bristol, confirmed that type of strategy on Friday.
“It gives the smaller teams some incentive and changes our allocation of resources a little bit,” he said of the new Chase format. “For us to spend more time on those races where we think we have the best shot at pulling an upset.”
No wonder Almirola, whose team is a step below at Ford, was more upset than he should be with third after the race.
THIRD GEAR: Big teams suffer big problems
Joe Gibbs Racing was a favorite coming into Bristol before suffering through bad luck. Matt Kenseth arguably had the best car before getting drilled by an ignorant Timmy Hill midway through the race. When a caution flew for Danica Patrick and Cole Whitt, Hill didn’t see the yellow come out and damaged the back of Kenseth’s No. 20 at well over 70 miles an hour.
Kenseth actually recovered from that, driving back to the lead, but inevitably made the wrong pit call for tires late to keep him stuck in traffic. He was a disappointing 13th, while teammate Kyle Busch crashed and wound up seven laps down in 29th. Denny Hamlin, while winning the pole, slumped to sixth, meaning JGR remains 0-for-Victory Lane this season.
Hendrick Motorsports had its troubles, too with Jimmie Johnson having a flat tire under green and Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffering mechanical problems. Junior’s top-2 streak is over, dropping him to second in points, while Johnson’s Bristol nightmares continue. He’s won just once at the non-Chase track in 25 career starts and now has three consecutive finishes outside the top 10 at Thunder Valley.
FOURTH GEAR: Rookies look towards the front
There’s been a lot of talk over rookies struggling these first few weeks of the season. But this weekend at Bristol was Kyle Larson’s introduction to millions. Fighting for the lead at times early in the race, Larson never led a lap officially, but kept the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevy at or near the front all night. A 10th at Bristol was his best of the season and followed a runner-up performance in the Nationwide Series the day before.
“It's crazy to think it's kind of a disappointing finish for the way we ran for most of the race, but all in all it was a good race,” Larson said. “It was a lot of fun racing with Austin Dillon there at the end. We must have ran side by side or so for the last 20 laps.”
Dillon, the other main contender for Rookie of the Year honors, came home 11th, signifying a battle they’ll likely wage most of the year. It’s a nice recovery for two youngsters who have started off on a bit of a rollercoaster.
Tony Stewart, after a season-best fourth, had a message for fans weary over Bristol’s many changes through recent years. “The closing rates weren’t quite as big, but if people don’t like the racing here tonight I don’t know what they want,” he said. “Unless they just want a wreckfest I thought the racing was pretty good. Like I said, you run mid 15 second laps on a half mile track and run three wide, that is pretty impressive.” Smoke is right, as while the crashes at Bristol were down the actual competition was among the best we’ve ever seen at the half-mile facility. … NASCAR called not one but two “competition” cautions to check tire wear during the race. Why can’t they trust Goodyear that things will be fine when it rains? And why call these “competition” yellows but then call “debris” yellows later in the race for pieces of metal we never see? Call a spade a spade. … What appeared to be toilet paper littered the track during one of the early cautions, catching onto the back of Landon Cassill’s No. 40 Chevy while making a mangled mess of the speedway. NASCAR truly has seen everything these past few years.
First, our sincere condolences for anyone who isn’t able to sneak away from work on Thursday or Friday to take in one of the greatest days in the sports calendar.
With 16 games, 32 teams to follow in one day is tough enough with multiple screens but perhaps impossible with the boss looking over your shoulder.
Athlon Sports will do what it can to help you follow each team in the field with these Twitter accounts for every team in the NCAA Tournament.
For a bird’s-eye view, we’ve also included 16 must-follow national accounts to aid your viewing experience.
And of course, even if you did call in sick, we’d urge you follow these accounts for insight on every team.
The Sweet 16
@MarchMadnessTV: CBS’ official account with video of every key play
@SethDavisHoops: CBS, “Sharpie” czar
@GoodmanESPN: Jeff Goodman, ESPN
@GaryParrishCBS: Gary Parrish, CBSSports.com
@RobDauster: Rob Dauster, NBCSports.com
@MattNorlander: Matt Norlander, CBSSports.com
@NicoleAuerbach: Nicole Auerbach, USA Today
@KenPomeroy: Ken Pomeroy, kenpom.com
@JayBilas: Jay Bilas, ESPN
@PacerCK: Clark Kellogg, CBS
@bubbaprog: Tim Burke, Deadspin, GIFs and screen grabs
@BrianHamiltonSI: Brian Hamilton, SI.com
@FranFraschilla: Fran Fraschilla, ESPN
@JasonKingBR: Jason King, Bleacher Report
@ESPNDanaOneil: Dana O’Neil, ESPN.com
@DickieV: Dick Vitale, ESPN
|1. Florida: @Goldkamp247, Thomas Goldkamp, 247Sports.com|
16. Albany: @tjwilkin, Albany (N.Y.) Times Union
16. Mount St. Mary’s: @mounthoops
|1. Arizona: @ghansen711, Greg Hansen, Arizona Daily Star|
16. Weber State: @bigskybball, Jonathan Reed, bigskybball.com
|8. Colorado: @tomkensler, Tom Kensler, Denver Post|
9. Pittsburgh: @PantherLair, Chris Peak, PantherLair.com
|8. Gonzaga: @SRJimm, Jim Meehan, Spokane (Wash.) Spokesman Review|
9. Oklahoma State: @jjhelsley, John Helsley, The Oklahoman
|5. VCU: @timpearrelltd, Tim Pearrell, Richmond (Va.) Times Dispatch|
12. Stephen F. Austin: @CoachBradSFA, Brad Underwood, head coach
|5. Oklahoma: @ryaber, Ryan Aber, The Oklahoman|
12. North Dakota State: @NDSUmbb
|4. UCLA: @DufresneLATimes, Chris Dufresne, Los Angeles Times|
13. Tulsa: @CoachDManning, Danny Manning, head coach
|4. San Diego State: @sdutzeigler, Mark Zeigler, San Diego Union Tribune|
13. New Mexico State: @SimBhullar2, Sim Bhullar, 7-5 center
|6. Ohio State: @CRAFTRoomies, Aaron Craft’s roommates|
11. Dayton: @KevinKuwik, Dayton assistant
|6. Baylor: @OurDailyBears, SB Nation|
11. Nebraska: @HuskerExtraBR, Brian Rosenthal, Lincoln (Neb.) Journal-Star
|3. Syracuse: @NunesMagician, Sean Keeley, SBNation|
14. Western Michigan: @Drew_on_WMU, David Drew, Kalamazoo Gazette
|3. Creighton: @PivOWH, Steve Pivovar, Omaha (Neb.) World-World Herald|
14. UL Lafayette: @TDARaginCajuns, Tim Buckley, The Lafayette (La.) Daily Advertiser
|7. New Mexico: @GeoffGrammer, Geoff Grammer, Albuquerque (N.M.) Tribune|
10. Stanford: @wilnerhotline, Jon Wilner, San Jose Mercury News
|7. Oregon: @TheOregonDuck, mascot|
10. BYU: @drewjay, Jay Drew, Salt Lake Tribune
|2. Kansas: @RustinDodd, Rustin Dodd, Kansas City Star|
15. Eastern Kentucky: @EKUHoops
|2. Wisconsin: @JimPolzinWSJ, Jim Polzin, Wisconsin State Journal|
15. American: @auhoops, “American University Basketball. In Blog Form”
|1. Virginia: @WhiteysWorld365, Whitelaw Reid, Charlottesville (Va.) Daily Progress|
16. Coastal Carolina: @CCUHoops
|1. Wichita State: @Clearly_BallLyf, Cleanthony Early, Wichita State forward|
16. Cal Poly: @SLOcollegebeat, Josh Scroggin, SanLuisObispo.com
16. Texas Southern: @TSUMBB
|8. Memphis: @TheCAJasonSmith, L. Jason Smith, The Memphis Commercial Appeal|
9. George Washington: @MikeLonergan, Mike Lonergan, GW head coach
|8. Kentucky: @KyleTucker_CJ, Kyle Tucker, Louisville (Ky.) Courier-Journal|
9. Kansas State: @DScottFritchen, D. Scott Fritchen, gopowercat.com
|5. Cincinnati: @SeanKilpatrick_, Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati guard|
12. Harvard: @THCSports, The Harvard Crimson
|5. Saint Louis: @TomTimm, Tom Timmermann, St. Louis Post-Dispatch|
12. Xavier: @slrussell, Shannon Russell, Cincinnati Enquirer
12. NC State: @RyanTice, Ryan Tice, The Wolfpacker
|4. Michigan State: @joerexrode, Joe Rexrode, Lansing (Mich.) State Journal|
13. Delaware: @kevintresolini, DelawareOnline.com
|4. Louisville: @mengus22, Mark Ennis, cardchronicle.com|
13. Manhattan: @nybuckets, John Templon, nycbuckets.com
|6. North Carolina: @_andrewcarter, Andrew Carter, Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer|
11. Providence: @friarblog, FriarBlog.com
|6. UMass: @steve_hewitt, Steve Hewitt, UMass Daily Collegian|
11. Iowa: @PatHarty, Pat Harty, Iowa Press Citizen
11. Tennessee: @Ben_Fred, Ben Frederickson, Knoxville (Tenn.) News-Sentinel
|3. Iowa State: @TravisHines21, Travis Hines, Ames (Iowa) Daily Tribune|
14. North Carolina Central: @NCCUAthletics
|3. Duke: @LauraKeeley, Laura Keeley, Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer|
14. Mercer: @MercerMBB
|7. UConn: @NeillOstrout, Neill Ostrout, Manchester (Conn.) Journal Inquirer|
10. Saint Joseph’s: @HHHardwood, HawkHillHardwood.com
|7. Texas: @kbohls, Kirk Bohls, Austin American-Statesman|
10. Arizona State: @DougHaller, Doug Haller, Arizona Republic
|2. Villanova: @Brian_Ewart, VUHoops.com|
15. Milwaukee: @CoachJeterUWM, Rob Jeter, Milwaukee coach
|2. Michigan: @daycheck3, Andrew Dakich, Michigan walk on/bench mob|
15. Wofford: @WoffordMBB
The 2013 Nationals were built to win the World Series — then-manager Davey Johnson’s infamous boast, “World Series or bust,” became their de facto motto, and later their epitaph — which makes their flame-out all the more puzzling. Now, after getting younger in the manager’s office (with the hiring of Matt Williams to replace the retired Johnson), deeper in the rotation (a trade for Doug Fister that didn’t cost them any essential parts) and a year older and wiser across the board, it would be easy to sit back and say the 2014 Nationals appear on paper to be a championship-caliber squad. But we all know how that worked out for them last year.
The December trade that brought Fister from Detroit to Washington may go down as one of GM Mike Rizzo’s finest moments. While everyone expected the Nats to acquire a fifth starter to replace the departed Dan Haren, Rizzo went out and nabbed a No. 2 starter — although thanks to the Nationals’ enviable depth, Fister is more realistically a No. 4 in D.C. In any case, a front four of Gio Gonzalez, Stephen Strasburg, Jordan Zimmermann and Fister (not necessarily in that order) is as good or better than any in the game. The fifth spot could be either Tanner Roark or Taylor Jordan; most likely Roark, who was impressive in four of his five September starts in 2013. Lefthander Ross Detwiler moves to the bullpen.
What was expected to be a strength for the Nats in 2013, after the free-agent signing of closer Rafael Soriano, instead became a liability. Soriano was fine, but Drew Storen regressed all the way to Triple-A, and the lack of a reliable lefty specialist cost the Nationals in the first months of the season. For now, most of their top horses — Soriano, Storen, Tyler Clippard, Ross Ohlendorf — return to the pen in 2014, and a trade with Oakland brought them situational lefty Jerry Blevins. Detwiler will pitch out of the pen — at least to start the season — and could be extremely valuable. But Storen, who lost the closer’s job in 2012, remains a candidate to be traded, and a cynic might point out that Clippard’s declining strikeout rate (from 11.1 per nine innings in 2010 to 9.3 last season) portends trouble for their top eighth-inning man. In other words, as with all bullpens, the Nationals’ is a bit of a crapshoot. But there are many major league managers who would love to have a Storen-Clippard-Soriano trio in the seventh, eighth and ninth innings.
Fourth-year second baseman Danny Espinosa was hit by the perfect storm of adversity in 2013 — a nagging shoulder injury, a precipitous drop in performance (.158/.193/.272 in 167 plate appearances) and the looming presence of a younger replacement (Anthony Rendon) — and fell all the way to Triple-A Syracuse, where he spent the rest of the season after his June demotion. Rendon, meantime, more than held his own, hitting .265/.329/.396 as a 23-year-old and validating his status as the sixth overall pick of the 2011 draft. A natural third baseman, he also made a mostly flawless switch to the middle of the infield. It remains to be seen what Espinosa’s future with the Nats looks like, but the departure of utility infielder Steve Lombardozzi in the Fister trade makes that one possibility. As for shortstop, it is the most iron-clad position on the entire field for the Nationals, with veteran Ian Desmond coming off a second straight Silver Slugger award. The only question with him is how much it will cost the Nationals to extend him when the time comes.
At the beginning of 2013, third baseman Ryan Zimmerman and first baseman Adam LaRoche were two of the surest things on the Nats’ roster. By the end of the season folks were questioning if either would be back in 2014 — at least at their incumbent positions. Zimmerman’s problems throwing the ball across the diamond, at times, were bad enough that a move to first base appeared on the near horizon. And LaRoche, after a dazzling 2012 at the plate, dropped more than 100 points of OPS in 2013. But both showed enough improvement late in the season to restore some faith, at least for now, and they return in 2014 to their usual spots. Zimmerman remains a consistent .280/25-homer/90-RBI, middle-of-the-order bat, and when his throwing motion is smooth, one of the top glove men in the game at his position. And LaRoche is still just a year removed from a 33-homer, 100-RBI year. Given the salary commitments ($12 million for LaRoche, $14 million for Zimmerman), the Nationals can only hope they stay healthy and produce.
Center fielder Denard Span was the Nationals’ biggest acquisition of last offseason — a speedy center fielder, acquired in a trade with Minnesota, who was supposed to shore up the leadoff spot and allow Bryce Harper and Jayson Werth to man the corners. Span, though, was a disappointment offensively, posting a .327 on-base percentage that was the worst of his career and was 30 points below his career average. By July, he had lost his everyday leadoff job and was often benched against lefties. Nonetheless, the entire Nationals’ outfield returns intact. With Span, the team must hope he gets on base at a higher clip. Washington signed free agent Nate McLouth away from Baltimore and he should push Span. And with Harper and Werth, the only hope is that they stay healthy. Harper, the 2012 NL Rookie of the Year, put up impressive numbers last year for a 20-year-old (.274/.368/.486) but was never the same after running into the wall at Dodger Stadium in May. Werth, too, had a resurgent season that saw him post the highest OPS (.931) of his career, but he also missed 33 games due to a variety of injuries.
All that you need to know about Wilson Ramos’ impact on the Nationals is the fact that they went 48–29 when he was in the starting lineup last season, and 38–47 when he wasn’t. The problem is the number of games in the latter category. He missed most of 2012 following knee surgery and lost huge chunks of time in 2013 due to hamstring issues, with the Nationals relying on Kurt Suzuki in his place. But once Ramos returned for good, on July 4, the team’s fortunes began to change. He posted a .784 OPS the rest of the way, and the Nats got hot enough to make a run — which ultimately fell short — at the playoffs. If Ramos stays healthy all season in 2014, he will be among the best catchers in the game.
The Nationals had what they thought was a versatile, functional bench in 2013, except that almost everyone — Lombardozzi, Chad Tracy, Tyler Moore, Roger Bernadina, et al. — underperformed. All but Moore are gone now, and the Nationals seem prepared to go into 2014 with a bench anchored by right-handed corner types Moore and Scott Hairston, and the lefty hitting McLouth. There isn’t a strong utility infielder candidate, although Espinosa could wind up in that role if he doesn’t re-claim the second base job from Rendon. The backup catching duties will be handled by Jose Lobaton, who was acquired from Tampa Bay.
It was clear by the end of 2013 that the Nationals needed a fresh direction and a fresh voice in the manager’s office, and Rizzo tapped into his own past to make it happen, hiring the 48-year-old Williams — whom Rizzo had come to respect years ago when both were in the Diamondbacks organization — to replace the 70-year-old Johnson. Williams brings a fiery demeanor and an appreciation for sabermetrics to the job, but perhaps the biggest takeaway from the Williams hire was how firmly Rizzo controls the reins of the Nationals’ baseball operations after five years on the job.
The Nationals spent most of 2013 stagnating. In hindsight, much of the blame can be placed at the feet of Johnson, whose “World Series or bust” decree was an albatross in the clubhouse and who never managed to motivate his talented team. Fister was the shiniest addition to the Nats’ 2014 roster, but the biggest move may have been the hiring of Williams as manager. What the Nationals needed even more than innings pitched was a culture change, and if Williams’ approach works, 2014 may see the Nationals fulfill Johnson’s 2013 boast.
CF Denard Span (L)
He owns a career .351 OBP, but dropped to career-worst .327 in 2013.
SS Ian Desmond (R)
Third-round pick in 2004 is Nats’ final link to franchise’s Montreal days.
LF Bryce Harper (L)
Most important stat in 2014? Games played. If he’s on the field, he’ll produce.
3B Ryan Zimmerman (R)
Finished strong in 2013, with 11 of his 26 homers coming after Aug. 31.
RF Jayson Werth (R)
He was one of game’s best hitters in second half of 2013, but turns 35 in May.
1B Adam LaRoche (L)
Could find himself sitting against lefties if production doesn’t improve over 2013.
2B Anthony Rendon (R)
Only seven homers as rookie in 2013, but Nats believe he will develop more power.
C Wilson Ramos (R)
If he’s healthy, he’ll hit — but played only 103 games in 2012-13 combined.
OF Nate McLouth (L)
Free-agent signee plays all three outfield positions and is one of top baserunners in the game.
OF Scott Hairston (R)
Production slipped in 2013, but still only two years removed from 20-homer season for Mets.
1B/OF Tyler Moore (R)
Never got untracked in 2013, but was crucial part of Nats’ vaunted 2012 bench.
INF Danny Espinosa (S)
Nats still believe he’s an MLB-level starter, but lost his job ast second base to Rendon early last season.
C Jose Lobaton (S)
Not much of a hitter, but Nats like his defense and intangibles behind the plate.
RH Stephen Strasburg
Pivotal year ahead: Nats want him to make leap to unquestioned ace, workhorse.
LH Gio Gonzalez
Gave up nearly twice as many homers in 2013 as year before, in similar number of innings.
RH Jordan Zimmermann
His 19–9, 3.25 season in 2013 announced his arrival as co-ace of Nationals’ staff.
RH Doug Fister
With no DH and a better defensive infield behind him, he should thrive in Washington.
RH Tanner Roark
Nats believe he's ready after posting a 0.913 WHIP in 53.2 innings last season.
RH Rafael Soriano (Closer)
Strikeouts per nine innings pitched fell from 9.2 in 2012 to 6.9 in 2013.
RH Tyler Clippard
Made 30 multiple-inning appearances in 2010, but only four the past two seasons combined.
RH Drew Storen
Midseason demotion to Triple-A was controversial, but he was better pitcher when he returned.
LH Jerry Blevins
Effectiveness against both lefties and righties means Nats will use for full inning on occasion.
LH Ross Detwiler
Has front-line stuff, but took step back in 2013 amid injuries, inconsistency.
RH Craig Stammen
Underappreciated piece, he has two straight years of sub-3.00 ERA and 80-plus innings pitched.
RH Ross Ohlendorf
Invaluable in 2013 as swing man, with seven starts (3–1, 3.52 ERA) and nine relief appearances.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Jake Johansen, RHP
Having lost their first-round pick to the Yankees as compensation for the signing of Rafael Soriano, the Nationals had to wait until the 68th overall pick to make a selection in the June amateur draft. But their choice of Dallas Baptist University righthander Jake Johansen already looks like a coup. Johansen, a 6'6" flamethrower, signed within 24 hours of the draft and breezed through the short-season New York-Penn League, posting a 1.06 ERA in 10 starts while holding opposing batters to a .147 average — good enough that the Nationals decided to challenge him with a promotion to Low-A Hagerstown, where he struggled initially but also threw five scoreless innings in a playoff victory. With a fastball that tops out at 99 mph and a full arsenal of complementary pitches, he has a bright future — beginning, one suspects, with a return to Hagerstown in April and a possible move to High-A Potomac by midseason.
RHP Lucas Giolito (19)
The Nats’ top pick in 2012 returned from elbow surgery to post fine 2013, with 1.96 ERA combined in rookie ball/short-season A.
RHP A.J. Cole (22)
Traded to Oakland in Gio Gonzalez deal, reacquired in Michael Morse trade; could arrive in D.C. in 2014.
OF Brian Goodwin (23)
Good athlete, also has great strike-zone awareness; played 2013 at Double-A (.252/.355/.407).
1B/3B Matt Skole (24)
Freak elbow injury cost him nearly all of 2013, but returned to play in Arizona Fall League.
OF Steven Souza (24)
Big numbers at Double-A (.300/.396/.557), strong showing in Arizona Fall League have him poised for big leagues in 2014.
OF Michael Taylor (23)
Speedster repeated High-A in 2013 and hit .263/.340/.426 with 51 stolen bases in 58 attempts.
B eyond the Box Score
Balance of power It isn’t difficult to see where Bryce Harper must improve in 2014 if he is to progress from phenom to perennial MVP candidate, as his talent suggests he should. In 2013, he posted a .947 OPS against right-handed pitching, but just a .648 mark against lefties — a difference of nearly .300 points. He was actually better against lefties as a 19-year-old rookie in 2012, which suggests that the regression may have been a result of his nagging injuries.
Elbow issues Stephen Strasburg pitched through discomfort in his right elbow and forearm throughout much of 2013, according to agent Scott Boras, the result of bone chips that were removed over the winter. Strasburg still managed a fine season, posting a 3.00 ERA, but was plagued by chronic lack of run support in finishing with an 8–9 record.
On Board The Nationals decided to keep their coaching staff largely intact, including retaining bench coach Randy Knorr. This held the potential for an awkward situation, since Knorr also interviewed for the managing job that ultimately went to Matt Williams. In an effort to cut through the awkwardness, Knorr flew to Williams’ home in Phoenix in November and spent four days with him discussing baseball and watching Arizona Fall League games.
Werth the money At the 2013 All-Star break, Jayson Werth had posted numbers (.297/.363./.466) that were roughly in line with his career norms. The Nationals’ highest-paid player, Werth was nearly three years removed from the breakout 2010 season that earned him the seven-year $126 million contract. But then, Werth got hot and never cooled off. He hit .339/.432/.600 in the second half, winning NL Player of the Month for July and placing 13th in MVP voting.
Big Money The Nationals’ payroll has risen significantly, from around $68 million in 2011 to around $93 million in 2012 to around $118 million in 2013, and it is likely to rise again in 2014, given the contractual and arbitration-based raises of some of their core players, as well as the addition of Doug Fister. But the Nationals are also coming off a large attendance bump in 2013, and despite an ongoing dispute with the Orioles over right fees from their shared MASN deal, the Nationals will also receive higher fees in future years.
The Phillies had a bleak winter. Coming off their first losing season since 2002, they made only modest additions to a team that had trouble scoring runs — and preventing them — in 2013. The framework of the club that won five NL East titles and a World Series from 2007 to 2011 remains, but age and poor health have taken the shine off what was once a star-laden group. On the hot seat, general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. hopes that a high-mileage core — five of the team’s eight starting position players are 34 or older — can turn back the odometer and return the team to contention in its first full season under manager Ryne Sandberg. It won’t be easy. This club still looks closer to the breakdown lane than the high-speed lane.
The team’s strength sits atop the starting rotation, where lefties Cole Hamels and Cliff Lee form one of the elite tandems in the game. No other set of teammates in the majors combined for more innings than the 442.2 that Hamels and Lee delivered in 2013. But these guys aren’t just workhorses; they’re thoroughbreds who can dominate opposing lineups with command, smarts and pure stuff. Both reached 200 strikeouts in 2013, and they combined for 49 quality starts. If run support hadn’t been such a problem, they certainly would have combined for more than 22 wins. Hamels, the younger of the two, has dealt with a balky shoulder all spring. He will likely start the season on the disabled list, but shouldn’t miss more than two starts. Even with Hamels and Lee combining for a 2.97 ERA after the All-Star Break, Phillies starters finished with a 4.41 ERA, second-worst in the NL. There remains a huge drop after Hamels and Lee, and this team could struggle to get enough innings from the back end of its rotation. A.J. Burnett, who enjoyed somewhat of a resurgence in Pittsburgh the last two seasons, is slotted in the No. 3 hole. Burnett has made at least 30 starts for the past six seasons, but at age 37 doesn’t make the rotation any longer. Kyle Kendrick, who profiles as a No. 5 starter, had a wobbly second half in 2013 that does not instill confidence. The Phils spent $12 million on power-armed Cuban defector Miguel Alfredo Gonzalez, but he has pitched just a handful of competitive innings the last two years because of a suspension in his homeland, and has also had elbow issues. Nonetheless, the Phillies hope he can be in the starting five. In recent offseasons, the Phils acquired Lee and Roy Halladay. Wary of more long-term, big-dollar commitments, the team opted for less pricey Burnett and Roberto Hernandez (formerly Fausto Carmona), who has a 5.03 ERA the last six seasons.
Less than two seasons after signing Jonathan Papelbon to the largest contract ever for a reliever — four years, $50 million — the Phillies began shopping their closer last July. There were no takers then and none this offseason, so the Phillies hope Papelbon, age 33 and owed $26 million through 2015, can rebound from a season in which he blew seven saves and aired his frustrations about the direction of the team. Papelbon’s fastball sagged from the mid- to the low-90s in 2013, and his strikeout rate dipped to a career-low 8.3 per nine innings. Papelbon wasn’t the only Phillies reliever to struggle in 2013. The bullpen’s ERA of 4.19 ranked 27th in the majors. The Phils need more than just Papelbon to rebound in 2014. Lefty Antonio Bastardo missed the final 50 games of 2013 on a PED suspension, and veteran Mike Adams is a huge question mark as he tries to come back from shoulder surgery at 35. Veteran Brad Lincoln, added in a trade with Toronto, should help, while three homegrown power arms offer reason for hope. Lefty Jake Diekman and righthanders B.J. Rosenberg and Justin De Fratus all gained valuable experience last season. They need to build on that and become strong contributors to a unit that needs help. The side-arming Diekman is particularly promising. He averaged 95 mph in 2013 and hit 99 several times.
Over the last decade, Jimmy Rollins and Chase Utley have started 1,072 games together, the most by a current middle-infield tandem. Rollins is reaching some rarified statistical air; he needs only 60 hits to pass Mike Schmidt as the franchise’s all-time leader. Utley, a blue-collar reflection of the town he plays in, is one of the most popular players in team history. While both players are club icons, the reality is they have gotten old. Both are 35 and past the apex of their careers. Rollins had the lowest OPS of his career in 2013 but did play in 160 games and remains a top defender. Utley rebounded from two years of degenerative knee problems and was productive offensively and defensively in 131 games, his most since 2009. Utley must stay healthy and productive and Rollins must improve offensively for this team to have a chance.
Is Ryan Howard ready to rock after two injury-plagued seasons? This might be the most important question facing this fragile club. Howard has missed more than half of the Phillies’ games the last two seasons, and the offense has sputtered badly. If he’s on the field — and all signs point to him being healthy — he’s a threat for 30 homers and 100 RBIs. If he’s not, the Phillies are looking at another rough season. Across the diamond, the Phils haven’t produced a homegrown regular at third base since Scott Rolen. Cody Asche showed promise in the field and at the plate in a two-month cameo in 2013 and might end up being the guy.
Desperate for some youth, the Phils received positive offensive contributions from left fielder Domonic Brown and center fielder Ben Revere in 2013. Brown, 26, was an All-Star and led the team in homers and RBIs but tailed off in the second half. Revere, 25, survived a rough April and slapped his way to .300 before suffering a season-ending broken ankle in mid-July. Neither player is strong defensively, and that’s a concern. Unwilling to pursue top free agents, the Phils signed 36-year-old Marlon Byrd to play right field. His production has ranged from poor to very good in recent seasons. The Phillies hope to see Byrd’s best as his right-handed bat balances out a lefty-heavy lineup.
Amaro raised eyebrows when he re-signed 35-year-old Carlos Ruiz for three years and $26 million. Amaro wanted a top game-caller and receiver to handle the pitching staff, and with no one ready in the minors, paid the price for Ruiz. The Phillies hope they are not paying for a lot of past performance. Ruiz had a career year in 2012 but tested positive for a banned stimulant. He struggled at the plate in the first half of 2013 but came alive in the second half, fueling hopes that he could be a solid contributor for the bulk of his contract. Pitchers love throwing to Ruiz, so they are happy he’s back. At this stage of his career, Ruiz is about a 110-game guy, so backup Wil Nieves will be important.
Sandberg, devoted to the ways of the NL, has vowed to use his bench and will have to as he tries to get the most from a well-worn roster. The problem is, this isn’t a high-quality bench. Freddy Galvis, a premium defender at three infield positions, is the best of a group that includes Kevin Frandsen, John Mayberry Jr. and Darin Ruf. Former Philadelphia All-Star Bobby Abreu is in camp, with a good chance to make the team.
Amaro has admitted to being embarrassed by the team’s decline, and his popularity in his hometown has sunk along with the club’s place in the standings. With Charlie Manuel gone, the bull’s-eye is on the GM, and he knows it. “I put myself under the gun,” Amaro said after last season’s fourth-place finish. “I’m accountable for the things that have happened.” The Phillies went 20–22 after Sandberg took over last August. He will run a tighter ship than Manuel, and with a three-year deal, has more job security than Amaro.
This club doesn’t appear to be much improved from the 73-win clunker of 2013. But with perfect health, continued excellence from Hamels and Lee at the top of the rotation, strong contributions from Utley, Brown, Revere, Ruiz and Byrd, and big rebounds from Rollins, Howard and Papelbon, the Phillies might be able to hang around long enough to make it an interesting summer. If not, Lee could be gone by the trade deadline, and management could finally commit to rebuilding.
CF Ben Revere (L)
Hit .347 in his final 65 games before season-ending broken ankle last July.
SS Jimmy Rollins (S)
He made just three errors in his final 101 games in 2013.
2B Chase Utley (L)
His .823 OPS ranked third among MLB second basemen in 2013.
1B Ryan Howard (L)
Thirty-two percent of his plate appearances the last two seasons have ended with a strikeout.
RF Marlon Byrd (R)
Career year in 2013 included .511 slugging percentage, fifth-best in the NL.
LF Domonic Brown (L)
Twelve of 27 homers and 25 of 83 RBIs last season came in torrid May.
C Carlos Ruiz (R)
Leads Phillies in batting average (.295) and on-base percentage (.374) since 2010.
3B Cody Asche (L)
Had 43 extra-base hits in 404 at-bats at Triple-A prior to July 30 promotion.
INF Freddy Galvis (S)
Valuable glove man will see time at second base and shortstop.
INF Kevin Frandsen (R)
Had 14 pinch-hits in 2013, but hit just .192 after the All-Star break.
OF/1B Darin Ruf (R)
Made 70 starts in 2013 and led club with 12 homers after the All-Star break.
OF John Mayberry Jr. (R)
Hit just .237 with .687 OPS in 863 plate appearances last two seasons.
C Wil Nieves (R)
Hit .299 in 278 at-bats for Colorado and Arizona last two seasons.
LH Cole Hamels
Received ninth-worst average run support (3.36) in MLB en route to career-high 14 losses in 2013.
LH Cliff Lee
Has 1.049 WHIP, third-best in MLB, in 666.1 innings during last three seasons.
RH A.J. Burnett
Phils need his 30-start streak to continue as well as his sub-4.00 ERA trend.
RH Kyle Kendrick
After solid start to the season, had 6.48 ERA in his final 14 starts in 2013.
RH Roberto Hernandez
Left-handed hitters feasted to .305 batting average and .905 OPS in 2013.
RH Jonathan Papelbon (Closer)
Converted just 81 percent of save chances in 2013, a career low.
RH Mike Adams
Once a top setup man, he’s a big unknown as he comes back from shoulder surgery.
LH Antonio Bastardo
A valuable contributor, but what will he be after 2013 PED suspension?
LH Jake Diekman
Hard-throwing sidearmer improved control, had 1.82 ERA in final 34 games in 2013.
RH B.J. Rosenberg
Gained confidence while striking out 17 over final 14.2 innings in 2013.
RH Justin De Fratus
Finished the season with a scoreless streak of 8.2 innings.
RH Brad Lincoln
Former first-round pick could be ready to blossom with third team.
2013 Top Draft Pic k
J.P. Crawford, SS
As Phillies scouts studied pitcher Shane Watson, their eventual top pick, before the 2012 draft, they became smitten with the smooth-fielding shortstop behind him. For a year, the Phillies targeted Crawford, and they got him with the 16th overall pick in 2013. Lakewood (Calif.) High School is a favorite of the Phillies. Before Crawford and Watson, they landed catcher Travis d’Arnaud, now a Met, from the school. Crawford, a left-handed hitter with long limbs, has the athleticism Phillies scouts love, but he’s no project. He has advanced baseball skills and projects to be a difference-maker offensively and defensively. Crawford dazzled in the Gulf Coast League last summer, hitting .345 with a .908 OPS in 39 games. He finished in the South Atlantic League, a nice jump for an 18-year-old. Moments after being drafted, Crawford said he wanted to take Jimmy Rollins’ job. In time, that should happen.
LHP Jesse Biddle (22)
The 6'4" lefty projects as a big-league starter, but might need to return to Double-A to hone control.
OF Kelly Dugan (23)
Hard-working corner outfielder has hit his way onto the 40-man roster.
3B Maikel Franco (21)
Corner infielder projects as the middle-of-the-order right-handed bat Phils have long sought.
RHP Severino Gonzalez (21)
Panamanian came out of nowhere in 2013 and dazzled with control and pitching savvy.
C Tommy Joseph (22)
Still highly regarded even though concussion at Triple-A hurt his development in 2013.
OF Carlos Tocci (18)
Batted just .209 at Single-A last season, but the Phillies love his upside and expect him in Philadelphia in 2017.
Beyond the Box Score
Back to his roots Ryne Sandberg made his name and Hall of Fame playing career with the Cubs, but don’t forget that he was originally a Phillie. He was drafted by the Phillies in 1978, made a cameo with the club in 1981 and was traded to the Cubs as a “throw-in” in the Larry Bowa-Ivan DeJesus swap that offseason. Passed over for the Cubs’ manager job in 2010, Sandberg managed the Phils’ Triple-A team for two years and now has the top job. At Sandberg’s insistence, Bowa is back with the club (he’s been a player, coach and manager) for a fourth time.
To rebuild or not Phillies management has been reluctant to rebuild, but a third straight season of no playoffs might give it no choice. “At some point we might have to do that, but not right now,” GM Ruben Amaro Jr. said in December. The comment was the first time a club official had acknowledged that rebuilding was a possibility.
Right here, kid Chase Utley took a liking to Cody Asche during spring training 2013. When Asche was promoted from Triple-A in late July, he was assigned the locker next to Utley’s. It was no accident; Utley arranged it. “I know when you’re a young guy, it’s nice to have someone who has been around to help navigate you in the right direction,” Utley says.
At the turnstiles Though the Phillies have drawn three million for seven straight seasons, attendance has dropped as the team has slipped. The Phils had drawn at least 3.5 million four straight seasons before slipping to 3,012,403 in 2013. The average attendance dropped from 44,021 in 2012 to 37,190 in 2013.
Hello, 21st century The Phillies have long been a scouting-based organization. In fact, the team’s two World Series-winning clubs were led by scouts, Paul Owens and Dallas Green in 1980 and Pat Gillick in 2008. But the Phils have added analytics to player evaluations. They added Scott Freedman, on loan from the commissioner’s office, to help institute more analytical practices during the offseason. Before you knew it, GM Ruben Amaro Jr. was citing Roberto Hernandez’ ground-ball rate as a reason for signing the righthander. “We’re going to continue to be a scouting organization,” Amaro says. “That said, I think we owe it to ourselves to look at some other ways to evaluate.”
The Mets have had five losing seasons in a row, tied with the Astros for the longest such streak in baseball. The streak coincides with the 2009 opening of Citi Field, where attendance has dropped every year. The Mets do not seem ready to contend, but with reinforcements from the free-agent market, they could challenge .500 as they wait for their breakout ace, Matt Harvey, to return from Tommy John surgery in 2015.
Even without Harvey, the Mets have a respectable rotation. They signed Bartolo Colon to a two-year, $20 million contract, hoping that Colon, who turns 41 in May and has a 2012 PED suspension on his résumé, can maintain the All-Star form he showed for the A’s last season, when his 2.65 ERA was the best of his career. Jon Niese withstood a partial rotator cuff tear to return near the end of the season, but he’s had some arm issues this spring that bear watching. He is a solid middle-of-the rotation guy, essentially a left-handed version of Dillon Gee. The healthy starter with the most upside is Zack Wheeler, who made an impressive debut last season with a 3.42 ERA in 17 starts. Wheeler, who turns 24 in May, worked 168.2 innings between Class AAA and the majors, meaning that he should be ready to cross the 200-inning threshold this season. Daisuke Matsuaka appears likely to make the rotation as a non-roster player this spring. He made seven starts for the Mets at the end of last season. In his final outing, he threw 7.2 shutout innings in a 1-0 win at Cincinnati. Elbow tendinitis cost Jeurys Familia much of the season, but he enters camp as a leading candidate for spot starts should Niese not be ready by Opening Day. One factor to watch: Colon and Gee both ranked in the top 25 last season in fly ball percentage — not as much of an advantage as it once was at Citi Field, where the walls are closer than they originally were, but still a source of strength that the Mets can exploit.
The Mets finally gave the closer’s job to hard-throwing Bobby Parnell last season, and he responded with 22 saves in 26 chances and a 1.00 WHIP, the best of his career. At 95 miles per hour, Parnell’s fastball remains his best pitch. But he threw it less often last season and utilized his curveball on more than a quarter of his pitches. The Mets lost veteran LaTroy Hawkins, who had 13 saves, to the Colorado Rockies as a free agent, but they like what they have in righty Vic Black, a former first-round pick by the Pirates, who traded him to the Mets last August in a deal for Marlon Byrd and John Buck. Black had 217 strikeouts in fewer than 180 innings in the minors. Scott Rice emerged from the shadows of a long minor-league career to establish himself as a dependable lefty from the pen. But the rest of the unit is suspect, with largely unproven Josh Edgin and Gonzalez Germen getting a chance to make the team. The Mets brought veterans Jose Valverde and Kyle Farnsworth to camp to compete for spots in spring training. Both have experience as closers, but are viewed as stopgap material at this point.
The Mets’ second baseman, Daniel Murphy, had 188 hits and 92 runs scored last season, but his on-base percentage was only .319. Murphy had some pop, with a team-leading 55 extra-base hits, but advanced metrics showed that his defense was among the worst in the majors, ranking 17th of 19 qualified second basemen in Ultimate Zone Rating, according to Fangraphs. The likely shortstop, Ruben Tejada, is a better defender but backslid badly at the plate last season, hitting just .202 in 208 at-bats, and general manager Sandy Alderson called his dedication into question. Naturally, the Mets explored options to upgrade and likely will continue to look. But Tejada is only 24 and did hit .289 as a regular in 2012.
David Wright injured his hamstring on Aug. 2, missed a month and a half, and when he returned in late September, homered in his first two games to lead the Mets to victories. Even with the downtime, Wright had a fantastic season, with a .904 OPS that was his best since 2008, the Mets’ last season at Shea Stadium. He is easily the team’s best player, and the Mets must win with him while he is still in his prime. Across the diamond, the team has options at first in Ike Davis and Lucas Duda, two lefty hitters with power who struggle against left-handed pitching. Davis is a much better fielder, while Duda reaches base more reliably. The presence of somewhat redundant players means that the Mets may trade one before the season.
The Mets’ outfield was such a shambles last offseason that Alderson cracked, “What outfield?” when reporters asked about it. He’s not joking anymore, after making three moves to put legitimate major leaguers in each position. Eric Young Jr. led the NL in steals with 46 and made 84 starts in left field for the Mets after a giveaway trade from Colorado. Center fielder Chris Young was an All-Star for Arizona in 2010, and the Mets hope he can restore his power and timing in an everyday role after slumping in part-time duty with Oakland last season. Right fielder Curtis Granderson, signed for $60 million over four years, will be counted on to have the biggest impact, with his power complementing Wright and Young in the middle of the order. Granderson is also polished and fan-friendly, an important value for the Mets as they seek to restore a tattered brand. “He brings a tremendous amount of professionalism,” Alderson said while introducing Granderson at the winter meetings in December. “He brings a personality. He brings credibility. He brings experience, and he brings talent.” That last aspect, of course, matters most of all, and after losing most of 2013 to broken bones, Granderson is eager to prove he still has it. At 33, it’s safe to expect that he does.
Travis d’Arnaud was traded for two Cy Young Award winners, Roy Halladay and R.A. Dickey, before turning 24. Injuries have restricted his playing time, but not his advancement up the professional ladder. He fractured his left foot when it was hit by a foul ball last April and played only 32 games in the minors before making his major-league debut in August. The results were inconclusive (20-for-99 with a home run), but d’Arnaud hit .286 with solid power in the minors, and there is every reason to believe he will soon be among the better hitting catchers in the game.
The Mets have some positional flexibility in Young, who can play the outfield and second base, and Duda, who can play first and a corner outfield spot, although not especially well. Josh Satin can back up at first and third, with a knack for reaching base. Juan Lagares offers superior outfield defense, while Anthony Recker is a capable backup to d’Arnaud behind the plate. Omar Quintanilla, who can play second, third and short, is a reliable backup infielder.
The financial problems plaguing Fred Wilpon, whose son Jeff runs the team, severely impacted the Mets in recent seasons. They still do not operate like a big-market behemoth, but with the burdensome contracts of Johan Santana and Jason Bay finally off their books, the Mets did spend nearly $90 million in free-agent deals. That gives Alderson and his talented assistants a better chance to build the roster as they see fit, adding the right pieces to the Mets’ exciting young talent. Manager Terry Collins, a good soldier through three years of rebuilding, has more to work with in the first season of his two-year contract extension. Collins comes from the Jim Leyland mold — neither of them played in the majors, but both command respect from their teams for the way they treat players and for keeping open lines of communication. Collins even wears No. 10 as a tribute to Leyland, who gave him his first major-league coaching job with Pittsburgh in 1992. The feisty Collins turns 65 in May, but his energy for the job has never been in question.
It feels like another bridge season for the Mets, with their ace on the disabled list all season. But it is safe to say that the team is transitioning, not merely rebuilding, and with more pricey veterans on the roster, expectations should tick upward. The Mets could surprise this season — Granderson, at his introductory press conference, noted that the Red Sox went from last place to a championship, while the Mets just finished third. But the first winning season of the Citi Field era would represent real progress, and without much star power besides Wright, that is probably the most realistic ambition to have.
LF Eric Young Jr. (S)
Credit GM Sandy Alderson with a steal (38 to be exact) in getting Young from the Rockies for Collin McHugh.
2B Daniel Murphy (L)
Set career highs in games, at-bats, hits, runs, homers, RBIs and steals last season.
3B David Wright (R)
Mets’ ongoing struggles make him the rare New York player who is probably underrated nationally.
RF Curtis Granderson (L)
Brings credibility and power, but lots of strikeouts, to a needy lineup.
CF Chris Young (R)
Mets are betting $7.25 million that his .200 average last season was an aberration.
1B Ike Davis (L)
Hit .267 in July and August before oblique injury cost him all of September.
C Travis d’Arnaud (R)
At 25, he will have the chance to start delivering on his potential, if he stays healthy.
SS Ruben Tejada (R)
Alderson said it was like “pulling teeth” to get Tejada to do extra work, but the Mets have limited options.
INF Josh Satin (R)
His .398 OBP in minors supports the notion that his .376 mark with the Mets last season was no fluke.
OF Juan Lagares (R)
Standout defender must improve .281 OBP to become an everyday player.
1B/OF Lucas Duda (L)
Big power, but similarity to Davis gives the Mets an attractive trade chip.
C Anthony Recker (R)
The team will look to improve this spot, given d’Arnaud’s youth and health history.
INF Omar Quintanilla (R)
Made 89 starts at shortstop for the Mets last season.
RH Bartolo Colon
Made 30 starts last season for the first time since 2005. Turns 41 in May.
LH Jon Niese
Partially tore rotator cuff in June but returned after seven weeks to finish strong.
RH Zack Wheeler
Won seven games in impressive debut season, with fastball averaging 94.3 miles per hour.
RH Dillon Gee
Lowered walk rate while leading staff with 199 innings. Has a 33–26 career record.
RH Daisuke Matsuzaka
In his seven starts for the Mets last season, Dice-K had a better WHIP (1.271) than in any of his years with Boston.
RH Bobby Parnell (Closer)
Lowered WHIP to 1.00 with career-best 2.16 ERA in his first full year as closer.
LH Scott Rice
Six years ago, had a 15.68 ERA for the Long Island Ducks. Now, he’s cemented a spot in the bullpen.
RH Vic Black
Came to the Mets from Pittsburgh in Marlon Byrd/John Buck trade last August.
RH Jeurys Familia
Healthy and still only 24, he gets a chance to reestablish himself in rotation.
RH Kyle Farnsworth
Had 25 saves for the Rays in 2011, but only one save and a 4.41 ERA and 1.362 WHIP in 82 games since then.
RH Carlos Torres
Rotation option is 4–8 with a 5.61 ERA in 15 career starts for White Sox and Mets.
RH Jose Valverde
Averaged 38 saves between 2007-12, but seems much older than 36 now.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Dominic Smith, 1B
After years of chasing veterans, the Mets have stubbornly held to a plan that offers no quick fixes. They have underscored that philosophy in the draft, selecting high school position players with their top picks in each of the last three years, willing to wait for the talent to blossom. Last June it was Smith’s turn to become a Met, signing for $2.6 million out of Serra High School in Gardena, Calif.; it was the most the Mets have ever given a high school prospect. Smith, who attended the draft in New Jersey, rewarded them with a strong first impression, hitting .287 with a .384 on-base percentage in the Gulf Coast League and swatting four doubles in six at-bats at rookie-level Kingsport in the Appalachian League playoffs. Smith, who attended an MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., while growing up near Los Angeles, has a mature approach at the plate, with a smooth swing, solid power potential and a slick glove at first base.
SS Gavin Cecchini (20)
Has one home run and .256 average in 390 pro at-bats; Cardinals took Michael Wacha seven picks later.
OF Brandon Nimmo (20)
Had .397 OBP at Low-A Savannah, but fanned once every three at-bats.
RHP Noah Syndergaard (21)
Husky power starter could advance to majors this season. Former first-round pick of the Blue Jays.
RHP Rafael Montero (23)
Breakout season puts him on verge of big-league rotation, perhaps before Syndergaard.
C/1B Kevin Plawecki (23)
On-base machine who devours left-handed pitching.
RHP Jacob deGrom (25)
Lanky righty has overcome Tommy John surgery to become a rotation option for 2014.
SS Amed Rosario (18)
Received Mets’ largest international bonus ($1.75 million) in 2012; scouts love overall tools.
INF Wilmer Flores (22)
Can’t quite settle on a position, but is a three-time top-100 prospect on Baseball America lists.
Beyond the Box Score
Seizing the opportunity Lefty reliever Scott Rice was leading the majors in appearances, with 73, before sports-hernia surgery ended his season in early September. He allowed just one homer and at the time of his injury had the sixth-best ground-ball percentage among relievers. It was a feel-good story for Rice, who spent 14 seasons in the minors with five organizations and three independent teams.
Veterans Stadium The Mets will institute “Military Mondays” in 2014, saluting veterans by wearing beige-and-brown camouflage jerseys and caps for every Monday home game. On April 21, July 7, July 28, Sept. 8 and Sept. 15, the Mets will give complimentary tickets to active and retired military members and up to three guests. Staff, players and former Mets will visit VA hospitals on those dates, when the team will also honor a “Veteran of the Game.”
Two more for Terry Despite three losing seasons as Mets manager, Terry Collins earned a three-year contract extension just after the regular season. Collins, who turns 65 in May, has shown boundless enthusiasm and energy with an often undermanned roster. “To have a chance to take those pieces and move on absolutely is pretty exciting for me,” Collins says. “So I was thrilled when (GM Sandy Alderson) said, 'Hey, we want you to come back.' You know what? Maybe we can finish what we started.”
Lead recruiter After tying himself to the Mets through 2020, David Wright embraces the role of cheerleader and headhunter for the organization. Wright sent a text message to Curtis Granderson urging him to sign and acknowledged that bringing players to Flushing was not easy after five losing seasons. “Sometimes that first move is the hardest one, to convince a player of that caliber to come here, and maybe we get things turned around,” Wright told Newsday.
Jerry From Queens Jerry Seinfeld, who has a suite on the lower level behind home plate at Citi Field, joined the SNY broadcast booth in September for a few innings behind the mic with Gary Cohen, Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez. He said he enjoyed watching young players break in. “When you want to rebuild the team, you want to see some light on the horizon,” Seinfeld said, “and that’s what young players are.”
Asked about his offseason priorities, new Miami Marlins president of baseball operations Michael Hill didn’t have trouble prioritizing. “Offense, offense, offense,” he said. Formerly the club’s general manager under long-time president of baseball operations Larry Beinfest, Hill and his revamped front office went free-agent shopping. The mission: Improve the 13th team in the modern era to score 513 runs or fewer in a 162-game season. By complementing the club’s strength — a promising, young starting rotation — with more run support, the Marlins hope to achieve vastly better results in 2014. What ensued by Marlins’ standards was a spending spree. In no way did it resemble the reckless expenditures that preceded the organization’s opening of Marlins Park in 2012, when it committed $191 million to free agents Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Heath Bell. All were traded after a disastrous campaign, leaving the Marlins with a prospect-rich farm system and at times an unwatchable major-league product. The Marlins, in their trudge back toward respectability, reverted to their cost-conscious spending blueprint. The additions of catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia on a three-year deal, first baseman Garrett Jones for two years, and third baseman Casey McGehee and middle infielder Rafael Furcal on one-year commitments required a modest $32.85 million outlay. What’s to keep the Marlins from a fourth consecutive last-place finish in the National League East? Start with NL Rookie of the Year Jose Fernandez, who arguably had the best age-20 season since Dwight Gooden in 1985. Three of the Marlins’ four other projected starters — Nathan Eovaldi, Jacob Turner and Henderson Alvarez — all will be under age 25 when the regular season opens March 31. How much the club improves hinges on the progress of young position players. Outfielders Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna both had promising rookie campaigns in 2013. Shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria is an athletic, gifted defender with a developing bat, and few in the game rival right fielder Giancarlo Stanton’s raw power.
On a 170-inning limit in 2013, Fernandez will have the reins loosened in 2014. He should be on everybody’s preseason Cy Young watch list. Mature beyond his 21 years due in part to a harrowing escape from Cuba as a 15-year-old, Fernandez has to transition from a nothing-to-lose scenario to shouldering big time expectations. In Eovaldi, whom the Marlins acquired from the Dodgers for Hanley Ramirez, the team has another power arm looking for a breakthrough season. He has yet to total more than 22 starts in any of his three big-league campaigns. Like Eovaldi, Alvarez could not complete a full season in 2013. He showed just how dominant he could be in the regular-season finale, when he no-hit the Detroit Tigers. That was his 17th start of 2013 and 58th of his major-league career. Turner is a former Tigers’ first-round pick who opened last season in Triple-A after a horrid spring. He was fantastic during stretches after his promotion, but like the rest of his young counterparts, he needs experience and consistency. Tom Koehler, if he doesn’t open in the rotation, likely will pitch out of the bullpen.
In non-tendering Ryan Webb and opting not to re-sign free agent Chad Qualls, the Marlins lost 142.1 innings from last season’s relief corps. The team believes they have enough in-house options to cover it. Back to handle ninth-inning duties is Steve Cishek, who in 2014 can join Juan Carlos Oviedo and Robb Nen as the only closers in club history with back-to-back 30-save seasons. As a rookie in 2013, A.J. Ramos pitched in every conceivable bullpen role and racked up 80 innings. He should vie for the club’s primary right-handed setup role. Mike Dunn will handle late-inning lefty duties, pairing with fellow southpaw Dan Jennings. Two interesting right-handed arms are Brad Hand and long-time Cubs’ closer Carlos Marmol. The Marlins acquired another promising, hard-throwing righthander in Carter Capps from the Mariners, who with a little more polish could be outstanding. Arquimedes Caminero features another power arm. He can fill Webb’s multi-purpose role of a year ago.
A rocket-armed shortstop, Furcal missed all of 2013 with the Cardinals after Tommy John surgery. The Marlins approached Furcal, 36, about starting at second, and the idea appealed to him. Conceivably, he could add a couple more years to his career on the right side of the bag. The Marlins believe Furcal paired with Hechavarria at short gives them iron-clad up-the-middle defense. Offensively, the switch-hitting Furcal is a seasoned top-of-the-order table-setter, allowing the club to move Yelich down into a run-producing spot. A glove-first shortstop, Hechavarria rivals Braves Gold Glove winner Andrelton Simmons in athleticism. Manager Mike Redmond sees a future No. 2 hitter in Hechavarria, but last season’s .227/.267/.298 slash line won’t keep him there consistently.
Although the Marlins weren’t averse to tapping into their pitching depth to acquire a third baseman via trade, they settled on McGehee, who re-discovered his swing during a championship-winning season in Japan with the Rakuten Golden Eagles. He hopes to duplicate those results with the Marlins as he keeps the position warm for top position player prospect and 2013 first-round pick Colin Moran. Across the diamond at first is Jones, an ex-Pirates teammate of McGehee’s. When the Marlins signed the left-handed-hitting Jones, it became apparent that they had given up on the oft-injured Logan Morrison. Though Jones hasn’t shown the ability to hit left-handed pitching consistently, the Marlins at least initially don’t plan to platoon him.
The general consensus is that Stanton’s days in South Florida are numbered, but the Marlins hope to build around the power-hitting right fielder. With a better supporting cast, the idea is that he’ll see more pitches and become the 40-homer, 120-RBI force the club envisions. Homegrown prospects Yelich and Ozuna both had encouraging starts to their major-league careers in 2013. Yelich is the club’s best pure hitter, and Ozuna, before going down with a fractured hand, showed much-improved plate discipline. Should Ozuna falter, the Marlins have another well-regarded prospect at the ready in Jake Marisnick.
The Marlins thought they had a cornerstone piece in Rob Brantly, but he regressed both defensively and offensively. That prompted the Saltalamacchia signing. The concern is that spacious Marlins Park might negate Saltalamacchia’s power, but the Marlins like his ability to put balls in the gap. Though the Marlins love the way Jeff Mathis works with the young staff, he hits like a backup catcher and should be limited to 50-60 games.
The Marlins signed utility man Jeff Baker, who started games at left, right, first, second, third and DH for the Rangers last season. Not only does he give the club lineup flexibility, but he batted .279 and slugged .545 with a .905 OPS in 2013. He could be a nice right-handed complement to Jones at first. Greg Dobbs will reprise his role as the club’s primary left-handed pinch-hitting option. The Marlins swapped fourth outfielders with the Cubs, sacrificing Justin Ruggiano’s power for Brian Bogusevic’s contact. Donovan Solano is the primary candidate for the remaining backup infielder spot.
The Marlins dumped Beinfest and promoted Hill and Dan Jennings (no relation to the reliever) to the top two spots in baseball operations. The front office also brought in well-respected talent evaluators Craig Weissmann, Mike Berger and Jeff McAvoy. On the field, Redmond returns for his second season as manager.
Taking a wrecking ball to last year’s lineup was a start, but don’t look for the Marlins to contend just yet. With the possible exception of Saltalamacchia, the club’s moves are stopgaps. The hope is that an injection of somewhat flawed yet battle-tested veterans not only spurs a more dynamic offense, but also enhances the development of young, cornerstone players.
2B Rafael Furcal (S)
Three-time All-Star shortstop transitioning to second after missing ’13 recovering from Tommy John surgery.
LF Christian Yelich (L)
Marlins’ first-round pick in 2010 hit .288/.370/.396 in first 273 major-league plate appearances last season.
RF Giancarlo Stanton (R)
Increased walk rate from 9.2 percent in 2012 to 14.7, but isolated power plummeted from .318 to .231.
C Jarrod Saltalamacchia (S)
Coming off career year with World Series champion Red Sox, hitting 40 doubles and knocking in 65.
1B Garrett Jones (L)
Over last two seasons has a combined .266 AVG vs. righties (783 at-bats), .168 (95 at-bats) off lefties.
CF Marcell Ozuna (R)
Promoted to fill in for an injured Stanton in right field, hit .331/.371/.472 over first 142 big-league at-bats.
3B Casey McGehee (R)
Offensive catalyst for Japan Series champion Rakuten, hitting .292-28-93 with 30 doubles in 144 games.
SS Adeiny Hechavarria (R)
11 of 42 RBIs came on three HR swings, including grand slams off Jeff Samardzija and Roy Halladay.
C Jeff Mathis (R)
Started 70 games and had multiple RBIs in five straight (June 26-July 3), tying Hanley Ramirez’s club record.
1B/3B Greg Dobbs (L)
Active major-league leader as a pinch-hitter with 95 hits (including 10 in 2013), 21 doubles and 75 RBIs.
OF Bryan Bogusevic (L)
.273 hitter in 143 at-bats with Cubs last season; acquired in trade for Justin Ruggiano.
INF Donovan Solano (R)
Supplanted as projected starter at second after Furcal signing; has played four different positions since 2012.
UT Jeff Baker (R)
Batted .314 with a 1.073 vs. lefties last season and just .204/,536 against righthanders.
RH Jose Fernandez
Garnered 26 of 30 first-place votes in winning National League Rookie of the Year Award at age 20.
RH Nathan Eovaldi
According to PITCHf/x, 96.1 mph average fastball would have led all qualifying starters in the majors.
RH Henderson Alvarez
Alvarez no-hit Tigers in regular-season finale, and allowed only five hits and no walks to first 24 batters faced in the spring.
RH Jacob Turner
Brutal spring led to start in minors, but returned and logged 3.74 ERA in 20 starts.
RH Tom Koehler
In five September starts went 2–1 with 3.14 ERA and held opponents to a .225/.307/.333 slash line.
RH Steve Cishek (Closer)
After a June 4 blown save in Philadelphia, converted 29 straight opportunities to set franchise mark.
RH A.J. Ramos
Totaled 80 innings and struck out 9.7 batters per nine innings as a rookie in 2013.
LH Mike Dunn
Fourth pitcher in franchise history to total 60 or more appearances in three or more consecutive seasons.
LH Dan Jennings
Logged a reverse split, holding right-handed hitters to a .221 average while lefties hit .282 against him.
RH Carter Capps
In first two seasons with Mariners (2012-13), average fastball velocity per PITCHf/x was 96.4 mph.
RH Arquimedes Caminero
Back on track after ascent through minors slowed in 2011 due to elbow issues.
RH Carlos Marmol
Trying to rediscover some semblance of control and resurrect his once-promising career.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Colin Moran, 3B
With the sixth overall pick, the Marlins selected third baseman Colin Moran out of North Carolina. Considered an advanced college bat, Moran began his pro career with Greensboro of the Low-A South Atlantic League. He hit .299/.354/.442 in 42 games (154 at-bats) with eight doubles, four homers and 23 RBIs. What already was a long season that included a trip to the College World Series with the Tar Heels concluded in the Arizona Fall League. A spent Moran went 20-for-87 (.230) with just three doubles, no homers and 10 RBIs. Moran likely will open 2014 at Double-A Jacksonville and could make his major-league debut by season’s end in preparation for a shot at the everyday third base job in 2015.
LHP Andrew Heaney (22)
Organization’s top prospect after stellar 2013 between High-A Jupiter and Double-A Jacksonville. Should make major-league debut in 2014.
OF Jake Marisnick (23)
Center fielder with great range made major-league debut in 2013. Bat developed nicely at Double-A (.294/.358/.502).
LHP Justin Nicolino (22)
Marlins’ second-best starting pitching prospect behind Heaney went combined 8–4, 3.11 for Jupiter and Jacksonville.
RHP Anthony DeSclafani (23)
The Marlins’ Minor League Pitcher of the Year split 2013 between Jupiter and Jacksonville and went a combined 9–6 with 2.65 ERA, 23 walks and 115 K’s in 129 IP.
RHP Jose Urena (22)
At Jupiter in 2013, he went 10–7 with a 3.73 ERA and a 3.7-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.
2B Avery Romero (20)
Returned to the short season Class-A New York Penn League, where he hit .297/.357/.411 in 209 at-bats with Batavia.
Beyond the Box Score
Revolving door Since Miguel Cabrera manned third base for Marlins in 2007, the club has used five different primary third basemen — Jorge Cantu, Emilio Bonifacio, Greg Dobbs, Hanley Ramirez and Placido Polanco. Last season alone, five different players started at least one game at third. Casey McGehee in 2014 stands to become the ninth player since 2008 to start at least 20 games in a season at third for the Marlins, joining: Cantu, Wes Helms, Bonifacio, Dobbs, Chad Tracy, Ramirez, Polanco and Ed Lucas.
Love the gloves The Marlins couldn’t hit in 2013, but they caught the ball surprisingly well for a 100-loss team. The 69 teams that have lost 100 or more games since the advent of the 162-game schedule (1961 in the AL and 1962 in the NL) averaged 144 errors. The Marlins committed 88.
Running low If last season wasn’t rock bottom for the Miami offense, the Marlins are in trouble this season. They scored two runs or fewer in 46.9 percent of their 162 games and went 13–63 in those contests. The Marlins will try to avoid becoming the third team ever to play at least 162 games and score 513 runs or fewer in back-to-back seasons; they would join the 1963-64 Houston Colt .45s and the 1967-68 New York Mets.
Strange superlatives The Marlins in 2013 had the tallest player in major league history (6'11" Jon Rauch). In 2014 they’ll field the major-leaguer with the longest last name. Jarrod Saltalamacchia claimed that distinction when he made his debut in 2007. Long surnames don’t faze the Marlins’ equipment staff. Remember, Tim Spooneybarger and Todd Hollandsworth both were members of the 2003 team.
Power shortage Marlins Park in its two years of existence has seen many frustrated hitters jog back to their dugout. According to Baseball Info Solutions, the venue in 2012 had a home run index of 73, meaning the ballpark reduced the number of homers by 27 percent. That was the fourth-lowest in the majors. It got worse in 2013. Marlins Park had a major-league-low home run index of 64. Giancarlo Stanton accounted for 15 of his team’s 36 Marlins Park home runs. Unlike several other teams, the Marlins have not given any indication that they’re inclined to move in the fences.
The Braves, who reeled off 14 consecutive division titles starting in 1991, captured their first since 2005 by going 96–66 to outlast the favored Nationals. They did it despite awful seasons from B.J. Upton and Dan Uggla. Those players can’t be any worse — can they? — so a very young Braves team expects to repeat as division champions, or at least contend with the Nationals, who have bigger-name stars and should get all the hype again. The Braves, who lost their NLDS to the Dodgers, still have not won a playoff series since 2001. And a couple of ill-timed injuries to pitchers Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy have tempered hopes somewhat. But the Braves’ talented core group should keep providing postseason chances in the foreseeable future.
The legacy of the 1990s Braves will be celebrated at the Hall of Fame this summer, as a team built on consistently dominant starting pitching begins to take its place in bronze in the hallowed halls of Cooperstown. It’s asking a lot for any team to replicate the era of Maddux-Glavine-Smoltz & Co., but the Braves are at least in the ballpark, ranking sixth in the majors last season in starters’ ERA, at 3.51. The Braves were one of only two teams in the majors to have three starters with at least 13 victories and an ERA under 3.30: Medlen, Mike Minor and Julio Teheran. But Medlen’s 2014 season is already over, before it began. The talented righthander is having his second Tommy John surgery. The news on Beachy is similarly dismal. After receiving the bad injury news in early March, the Braves jumped quickly to sign free agent Ervin Santana, a victim of the rule regarding draft pick compensation. Santana had gone the entire winter without finding any serious suitors. Due to his abbreviated spring training, Santana, who won nine games each of the last two seasons, will likely not be with the team when it breaks camp. The righthander has averaged 187 innings over his nine-year career — all spent in the American League — and had a career-best 3.24 ERA last season with Kansas City. Veteran Freddy Garcia will take one of the available spots in the rotation. Lefty Alex Wood, who made 11 starts among his 31 appearances last season will join the group as well. Minor’s shoulder was balking a bit in spring training and may cost him a start or two. Youngster David Hale will fill the void until Minor is healthy, which shouldn’t be later than mid-April. Veteran Gavin Floyd, formerly of the White Sox, will return from Tommy John surgery at some point around midseason. Expect the Braves to bring him along slowly.
The Braves had the majors’ second-best bullpen ERA in 2012, and when injuries robbed them of some of their best arms last season, it somehow got even better. Atlanta’s relievers posted a 2.46 ERA, the best mark in the majors last season, led again by the indomitable Craig Kimbrel, who had 50 saves, an 0.881 WHIP and fanned 13.2 batters per nine innings. Two of his better setup men, Anthony Varvaro and David Carpenter, came to the Braves off waivers, and another, Luis Avilan, seamlessly replaced the injured Eric O’Flaherty and Jonny Venters as the resident dominant lefty. Venters, a 2011 All-Star, had Tommy John surgery last May; he could be an option, although the procedure was his second, which is always trickier to return from. Jordan Walden, the former Angels closer, made a nice impression in his first season with the Braves. David Hale is another option out of the pen if his services aren’t needed in the injury-riddled rotation.
How does a player with a .296 on-base percentage rank fourth in the league in overall Wins Above Replacement? He has to play a premium position, shortstop, and field like Andrelton Simmons. His bat had some pop, with 17 homers and 59 runs batted in, but the vast majority of Simmons’ value comes from his glove. Going strictly by fielding performance, Baseball-Reference.com credited Simmons with 5.4 defensive wins above replacement — the highest single-season total in baseball history. Simmons tends to play deep to utilize his outstanding arm and has otherworldly range in all directions. His middle infield partner, Uggla, is a below-average fielder who makes a living with his bat. Uggla led the league in walks in 2012, has made three All-Star teams and has also hit as many as 36 homers in a season. Everything fell apart last year, though, as he batted just .179, with a .122 mark in September that kept him off the playoff roster.
This was a major strength for the Braves last season, with Chris Johnson leading the National League batting race for much of the summer and Freddie Freeman putting it all together with a .319 average, 23 homers and 109 RBIs. Freeman, who turned 24 in September, improves at the plate every season and ranked fourth among NL first basemen in range factor per game, after leading the league in the category in 2012. Johnson hit .321 (second in the NL) with 46 extra-base hits and played well defensively at third. He kept on going in the playoffs, batting .438 (7-for-16) against the Dodgers.
The Upton brothers realized a dream of playing together in the same major-league outfield last season, and while it ended with a playoff appearance — and a joint Sports Illustrated cover with supermodel Kate Upton — neither player had a memorable season. Justin started hot, winning Player of the Month honors in April with a mind-bending .734 slugging percentage. After that, though, he slugged just .409, and wound up with an .818 OPS that was a bit below his career average. B.J., signed to the richest free-agent deal in Braves history (five years, $75.25 million) the winter before, would have gladly taken that season over the one he posted: a .184 average, nine homers, 26 RBIs and 151 strikeouts. Right fielder Jason Heyward endured a beaning against the Mets that cost him a month late in the season. Heyward is only 24 and has power, some speed and a good eye at the plate. He could still develop into a superstar. The Braves seemed to take off last season when manager Fredi Gonzalez inserted Heyward at the top of the batting order.
The Braves lost one of their leaders — and a local favorite — in catcher Brian McCann, who signed with the Yankees without his hometown team putting up much of a fight. His departure clears the way for Evan Gattis, 27, who clubbed 21 homers in 354 at-bats but, like a lot of his teammates, had a meager on-base percentage (.291). Gattis was respectable defensively, but McCann was a master at guiding a staff and framing borderline pitches. The Braves have a top catching prospect in Christian Bethancourt, but he has played only one career game above Class AA and has a career .299 OBP in the minors.
The Braves love the versatility that Ryan Doumit provides as a switch-hitter who can back up at catcher, first base and the corner outfield spots, and he gives them a power threat off the bench. The athletic Jordan Schafer started at all three outfield spots last season and is young enough, at 27, to warrant decent playing time in case of injury or underperformance from a starter. Veteran Gerald Laird, who hit .281 last season, is among the more reliable backup catchers in the game, while Ramiro Pena can play second, short and third. Pena missed more than half the season after surgery to repair a torn labrum, but the Braves liked him enough to quickly re-sign him for another year.
Locked into a bad local cable deal for years, the Braves took a step toward generating greater revenues by securing a deal for a stadium in Cobb County that will open in 2017. For now, general manager Frank Wren has maintained a payroll below $100 million with a young but talented roster that reached the postseason in 2010, ’12 and ’13. That success has been undercut by repeated playoff failures, and manager Gonzalez is unsigned beyond this season. He has provided a smooth transition from his Cooperstown-bound predecessor, Bobby Cox, but sooner or later, the Braves must take the next step.
Pitching carried the Braves’ boom-or-bust offense, which led the NL in both homers and strikeouts (tied). The front office did little to remedy that in the offseason, but the formula did produce 96 wins. However, given the injuries to Medlen and Beachy, it will take significant improvement from a few hitters to keep the Braves in position to win again. Repeated early playoff exits have grown tiresome for all concerned.
RF Jason Heyward (L)
Unconventional leadoff man, but the Braves like giving him extra turns at bat.
3B Chris Johnson (R)
Unlikely to repeat near-batting crown, but a verystrong hitter with pop.
LF Justin Upton (R )
Braves saw his impact early, but need more consistency throughout season.
1B Freddie Freeman (L)
Knocked in a career-high 109 runs; no other Brave topped 70 RBIs.
C Evan Gattis (R)
One of four in this order with OBP below .310; that’s a huge risk for the Braves.
CF B.J. Upton (R)
After signing biggest contract in Braves history, must avoid becoming biggest bust.
2B Dan Uggla (R)
Led team with 77 walks; opposing pitchers’ fear of him was a mystery (.179 average).
SS Andrelton Simmons (R)
Surprising power, disappointing OBP, superlative glove work.
C Gerald Laird (R)
Has been backup for three different playoff teams in three years (’11 Cardinals, ’12 Tigers, ’13 Braves).
OF Jordan Schafer (L)
Led the Braves in stolen bases (22) while playing only 94 games.
INF Ramiro Pena (S)
Earned a return trip to roster as solid utility man despite injury-shortened season.
C/OF Ryan Doumit (S)
Has hit 81 of his 99 career homers as a left-handed hitter, including 12 of 14 last year.
OF Jose Canstanza (L)
Offers both speed and a handy lefty bat off the bench.
LH Mike Minor
Quietly establishing himself as one of the premier starters in the NL. May begin this season on the DL with shoulder issues.
RH Julio Teheran
Would have won Rookie of the Year Award in a runaway if he pitched in AL.
RH Ervin Santana
Royals won two of Santana’s three starts against the Braves’ NL East rivals last season.
LH Alex Wood
Delivery evokes White Sox ace Chris Sale; 3.13 ERA gives Braves hope for future.
RH Freddy Garcia
Yep, he’s still in the league and going strong. In three starts in late September for the Braves last season, he allowed just four runs in 19.2 innings.
RH Craig Kimbrel (Closer)
With Mariano Rivera retired, there’s no doubt: He’s the game’s best closer.
LH Luis Avilan
Flummoxed lefty hitters as he took over for Eric O’Flaherty.
RH David Carpenter
One of three regular Braves relievers to have ERA under 2.00 and WHIP under 1.00.
RH Jordan Walden
Defies all convention while literally jumping, both feet in air, as he delivers a pitch.
RH Anthony Varvaro
Pitches to contact, with good results (2.82 ERA last season).
LH Jonny Venters
Former All-Star eases back in after Tommy John surgery. He should be available by the All-Star break.
RH David Hale
First two starts were good enough to earn a place on playoff roster.
2013 Top Draft Pick
Jason Hursh, RHP
The Braves lost their draft position in the first round last season by signing free-agent outfielder B.J. Upton, but chose Hursh with the 31st overall pick as compensation for the departure of Michael Bourn. They liked Hursh in high school and stayed on him through his tenure at Oklahoma State, where he missed the 2012 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery. A strong performance as a redshirt sophomore earned him a $1.7 million bonus from the Braves. With good action on a fastball that has touched 98 mph, Hursh reliably generates ground balls. He posted an 0.67 ERA in nine starts for Low-A Rome, although he was limited to 27 innings. The Braves want to keep Hursh as a starter and are hopeful he can advance quickly if he masters his changeup and slider, but don’t expect to see him in Atlanta this season.
RHP Lucas Sims (19)
The 21st pick in the ’12 draft, Sims went 8–0, 1.59 in his last eight starts, with 57 strikeouts in 45.1 innings for Low-A Rome.
C Christian Bethancourt (22)
Outstanding defensive catcher who could soon challenge Evan Gattis for starting role.
RHP J.R. Graham (24)
Shoulder trouble slowed his path last season, but he has shown promise since converting to pitching in the pros.
2B Tommy La Stella (25)
Dark horse to unseat Dan Uggla at second after .422 OBP at Class AA Mississippi.
RHP Mauricio Cabrera (20)
Fastball touches 100, but had control issues in Low-A (71 walks in 131 innings).
Beyond the Box Score
On the move The Braves, who have played in downtown Atlanta since moving from Milwaukee for the 1966 season, are headed 10 miles northwest of the city, to Cobb County, for the 2017 season. The team announced plans in November for a 42,000-seat stadium that will cost $672 million and replace Turner Field, which was built for the 1996 Olympics and remodeled for baseball in 1997. The Braves cited improved transportation options and the migration of their fans as a reason for the move, and Atlanta mayor Kasim Reed said Turner Field would be razed. Reed said Cobb County was contributing $450 million to the stadium project and that the city would not match.
Uggly Average Dan Uggla came to bat 537 times for the Braves last season and batted .179. Historically, that’s really tough to do. Only one other player in the division-play era (since 1969, that is) has qualified for the batting title with an average that low: Rob Deer of the Detroit Tigers in 1991. Both Deer and Uggla had exactly 80 hits in 448 at-bats and stayed in the lineup for their power; Deer hit 25 homers, Uggla 22. Good news for Uggla: Deer bounced back the next season and hit 32 homers while batting a respectable .247.
Not just a throw-in It was easy to overlook infielder Chris Johnson in last year’s blockbuster deal for Justin Upton, but the Braves knew what they were getting. The Braves and Astros are spring-training neighbors, and they had seen a lot of Johnson when he played for Houst von. Johnson also had a champion in Chipper Jones, whose godfather, Pete Dunn, had coached Johnson at Stetson. Johnson led the NL in hitting for much of the season and finished at .321.
Detour to Atlanta Reliever David Carpenter finished the 2012 season with the Toronto Blue Jays, then migrated to Atlanta with a peculiar stopover in Boston. The Red Sox needed to compensate the Blue Jays for hiring manager John Farrell, so they sent infielder Mike Aviles. But because managers cannot be directly traded for managers, the Blue Jays had to send a player to the Red Sox. That player was Carpenter, who was designated for assignment by Boston, claimed by Atlanta and in the Braves’ bullpen for good by the end of April. He posted a 1.78 ERA in 56 games but took the loss in the playoff finale in Los Angeles.
Feeling the breeze Of the 14 players in the majors last season who fanned at least 150 times, three played for Atlanta: Dan Uggla (171), Justin Upton (161) and B.J. Upton (151). The only others on the list who spent the full season in the NL were Pedro Alvarez of Pittsburgh and Jay Bruce of Cincinnati.
Top Craig Kimbrell photo from Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Craig_Kimbrel_2013_Spring_Training.jpg
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. 21: Ian Poulter
Born: Jan. 10, 1976, Stevenage, England | Career PGA Tour Wins: 2 (12 on European Tour) | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,723,463 (49th) | World Ranking: 18
Brandel Chamblee's Take
Ian Poulter has been as high as fifth in the world rankings, although he's never reached the height he predicted in 2008 when he said, if he played to his potential, it would be just Tiger and him. As I write this he is 18th in the world, so while his peers may have snarled at the comment, the fact is that he is not far off from his boast. It is said that belief matters more than anything in sport, and that is certainly evidenced by the success of Ian. Year after year, he is one of the worst ball-strikers in the game, and yet he plays at a high level and especially so in match play, where his brusque manner and hot putter drive opponents to distraction. This being a Ryder Cup year, Ian will make a lot of noise, I have no doubt.
Major Championship Résumé
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - T21
British Open - T3
PGA Championship - T61
Best Career Finishes:
Masters - 7 (2012)
U.S. Open - T12 (2006)
British Open - 2 (2008)
PGA Championship - T3 (2012)
Top-10 Finishes: 7
Top-25 Finishes: 17
Missed Cuts: 7
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.
Now that Selection Sunday is over, it's time for March Madness to kick into high gear. It's that time of year when everyone—even the guy in the cubicle next to you who still plays Dungeons & Dragons—starts caring about college basketball. Most of the excitement comes from NCAA Tournament bracket games, where anyone can fill out a March Madness bracket in hopes winning cash — even Warren Buffett wants to give away a billion dollars — and bragging rights among friends and co-workers. Of course, the majority of people have no clue which teams to pick.
This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 17.
• Reese Witherspoon is launching her own Southern lifestyle company, providing an excuse to look at old Reese Witherspoon photos.
• The best story of championship weekend: Ed Cooley and Providence win the Big East.
• The weekend's other big winner: Phil Martelli's adorable grandson.
• Get some expert advice on filling out your bracket. Or, be like me and humiliate yourself with your own hunches.
• The 10 worst people in your office NCAA pool. I'm always the "My bracket is dead" guy.
• Speaking of idiots, here are nine buffoons you'll bump into on St. Patrick's Day. I particularly hate the pinching bandit.
• World Top 10 golfer Justin Rose hit one of the worst shots a pro has ever hit. Or, as I call it, a typical wedge.
• This morning's LA earthquake produced this priceless live reaction from a couple of newscasters.
-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at [email protected]
Texas A&M was supposed to be the team that could step into the SEC and compete right away. And after a Heisman Trophy for the Aggies and seven losses for Missouri in their first trip through the league, it appeared that basic sentiment was correct.
That all changed last season, however, as Mizzou won the SEC East and 12 games in impressive fashion in just their second year in the SEC. Many will point to a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude that permeated Tigers camp last spring as the foundation for the run at an SEC championship.
Now, Gary Pinkel, Missouri's all-time winningest coach, must rebuild without his star quarterback, his cult hero tailback, a host of veteran leaders on defense and a load of lofty new expectations. There is a ton of talent left on this roster and Pinkel has proven his ability to quickly reload, so Missouri won't take too big of a step back this fall and should be right in the thick of the SEC East race again. But it all starts in spring camp.
|Aug. 30||South Dakota State|
|Oct. 4||Bye Week|
|Nov. 8||Bye Week|
Missouri Tigers 2014 Spring Preview
2013 Record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)
Spring Practice Opens: March 11
Spring Game: April 19
Three Things to Watch in Missouri's 2014 Spring Practice
Find leadership on defense
Andrew Wilson, Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and E.J. Gaines will go down in Mizzou history as one of the great defensive classes to ever come through Columbia. Replacing their statistical production, especially in the front seven, will be nearly impossible but so too will be replacing their veteran leadership. Guys like nose guard Lucas Vincent and end Markus Golden will need to step up their play this spring to replace the massive voids left by SEC Defensive Player of the Year Sam and potential first round pick Ealy. Others like rising juniors Kentrell Brothers (70 tackles) and Shane Ray have a chance to step into playmaking roles at linebacker and defensive end, respectively. How Pinkel and defensive coordinator Dave Steckel fill these leadership gaps on defense will be a huge focus this spring for the Tigers.
Plug holes on the left side of the offensive line
First-team All-SEC left tackle Justin Britt and left guard Max Copeland have expired their eligibility, and Pinkel is left with a large void on the left side of his offensive line. Evan Boehm and Conner McGovern are talented players who have experience and will have to be leaders for this group because replacing Britt at the most important offensive line position won't be easy. That said, Mizzou has plenty of options and this unit shouldn't take a huge step back. Mitch Morse figures to be one of the better blockers at left tackle while others like Anthony Gatti, Ole Miss transfer Mitch Hall and a host of quality newcomers will compete for starting time up front for the Tigers. The running backs have talent despite the loss of Henry Josey, and the quarterback position is in good hands despite the loss of James Franklin, so if the offensive line comes together quickly this spring like many expect, then this offense could be as good if not better in 2014.
Get Maty Mauk ready to shine
In a league where Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, James Franklin and Connor Shaw departed, there are some (me included) who think Mauk has a chance to be the best signal caller in the SEC in 2014. And with his collection of elite wide receivers and his track record of elite success — both in the prep ranks and last year in spot duty for Mizzou — there is no reason to think Mauk won't press for All-SEC honors in just his first season. But getting comfortable as the leader of the program and face of the franchise isn't something that just happens. Big-time college football is loaded with tales of elite recruits and heir apparents falling well short of expectations — See John Brantley or Garrett Gilbert — so making sure Mauk is grounded, focused and maybe not speeding through campus on a scooter is just as important as getting him comfortable with his route progressions and new-look running game.
2014 Early Projected Win Range: 8-10
Despite losing a ton on both sides of the ball, Pinkel has Mizzou pointed in the right direction. This program won't win 12 games again but will be back in the thick of the SEC East title race. The crossover schedule is excellent as Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Ole Miss (the likely top four picks in the West) are absent from the schedule. The key will be surviving critical road tests within the division against South Carolina in the other Columbia, Tennessee in Knoxville and Florida in The Swamp. Should the Tigers navigate an interesting non-conference slate that includes the reigning Fiesta Bowl champs and improving Indiana squad, Missouri should be in position to compete at a high level once again.
FAU will be under the direction of a new coach in 2014, as former Arkansas assistant Charlie Partridge takes control in Boca Raton this year.
The Owls have unveiled a couple of different jersey and helmet tweaks in recent years, and it appears they will have a new red helmet in 2014.
This photo was tweeted by @UniformSwag, showing FAU’s new red design:
March Madness allows for a handful of programs each season to enjoy their moment in the sun for the teams making the field for the first time, ending a long drought or continuing a tradition.
And thanks to another expansion in 2011, the NCAA Tournament gives us 68 data points each season.
One season the Big Ten has bragging rights, the next the Big 12. One season, California has plenty of state representation in the field. In others, even a state like Indiana can be shut out.
That’s part of the beauty of the first Thursday and Friday of the NCAA Tournament, where 64 programs from coast to coast have a chance to be the major sports story of the day.
As usual, Selection Sunday gave us another set of superlatives to watch for this year's NCAA Tournament.
COMPLETE REGION PREVIEWS
East | Midwest | South | West
The 2014 NCAA Tournament By the Numbers
4. Teams in the top 20 of offensive and defensive efficiency
Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive efficiency ratings have been kingmakers of sorts for the national title. Every champion since 2003 has ranked in the top 20 nationally in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Four teams are in that category this season: Florida, Louisville, Villanova and Wichita State.
8. Coaches with Final Four experience in Wichita State’s region
Wichita State earned the No. 1 seed in the Midwest region, which may be the toughest as far as coaching goes. The 17 teams in the region feature eight coaches with a combined 27 Final Four appearances and seven national champions. The tally includes Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (11), Louisville’s Rick Pitino (7), Kentucky’s John Calipari (4) and Wichita State’s Gregg Marshall, Texas’ Rick Barnes, Michigan’s John Beilein, Texas Southern’s Mike Davis and Kansas State’s Bruce Weber (1). No other region has more than 14 Final Fours among its coaches.
7. Bids for the Big 12, the most represented conference
The Big 12 had the look all season as the nation’s most balanced conference through the top nine. TCU, which finished without a conference win, was the only easy out in the league. The Big 12 sent seven of its 10 teams to the NCAA Tournament in Baylor, Iowa State, Kansas, Kansas State, Oklahoma, Oklahoma State and Texas. It’s the most for the league since 2010 when the Big 12 had 12 members.
Three NCAA Tournament regulars left the Atlantic 10 before this season (Butler, Temple and Xavier), and only the Musketeers, now in the Big East, are in the field. The A-10, though, got the better end of conference expansion as far as the NCAA Tournament was concerned. The A-10 garnered more bids than the the Big East and the SEC and as many as the ACC and Pac-12. The conference tournament was a major boon for the league as St. Joseph’s, a bubble team entering championship week, won the league’s automatic bid. Meanwhile, Dayton and George Washington completed their at-large resumes to join Saint Louis, VCU and UMass.
4. Bids from California and Ohio, the most represented states.
UCLA and San Diego State were locks entering the final weekend. Stanford played its way in during the Pac-12 Tournament. But the most surprising bid out of the delegation from California was Cal Poly. The seventh-seeded Mustangs won the tournament in the Big West, a league with eight teams from the Golden State. Ohio also had its own bubble teams play their way in with Dayton and Xavier earning two of the final bids to join Ohio State and Cincinnati from the Buckeye State.
0. Teams from the state of Indiana
No Indiana. No Purdue. No Notre Dame. Not even Valparaiso. The Hoosier State is without an NCAA team for only the second time since the field expanded in 1985. The only other year Indiana was shut out was 2005.
1. Team with a losing record in the field
Speaking of Cal Poly, the Mustangs erased a lackluster season with a hot streak in the Big West Tournament. After going 13-19 overall and 6-10 in the Big West, Cal Poly defeated No. 2 seed UC Santa Barbara, No. 1 seed UC Irvine and No. 5 seed Cal State Northridge to become the only team with a losing record in the field. This marks three seasons in a row a team with a losing record made the field as an automatic bid (Western Kentucky in 2012, Liberty in 2013). Northeast Conference champion Mount St. Mary’s needed to win its league tournament to achieve a .500 record at 16-16.
2. Teams making their first appearance in the NCAA Tournament
Cal Poly is one. The other is MEAC champion North Carolina Central, which shares Durham, N.C., with Duke.
5. Teams with the nickname Wildcats
So this wasn’t a great year for Kentucky, but it was a great season to be the Wildcats. Five teams with the nickname are in Tournament: Arizona, Kansas State, Kentucky, Villanova and Weber State. Other mascots with strong representation include the Bears (Baylor and Mercer), Eagles (American and North Carolina Central), Panthers (Milwaukee and Pittsburgh) and Tigers (Memphis and Texas Southern).
25. Consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances for Kansas, the active record
Maybe it’s easy to take an NCAA Tournament bid for granted. Something that shouldn’t be overlooked is going year in and year out. Kansas has played in every NCAA Tournament since 1990 making the Jayhawks the active leader for most consecutive appearances. Make the field in 2015 and 2016, and Kansas will tie North Carolina for the all-time record. Only eight teams have played in the last six Tournaments with streaks for Marquette (since 2006), Temple (since 2008) and Missouri (since 2009) snapped this season.
Most consecutive NCAA appearances, active streaks only:
Michigan State, 17
Ohio State, 6
1985. Last NCAA appearance for Mercer, the longest drought ended in 2014
Mercer was the first upset victim of Florida Gulf Coast’s postseason run last season as the Bears won the Atlantic Sun regular season title only to lose to FGCU in the league tournament. That didn’t happen this time around as Mercer captured the league’s automatic bid.
1998. Last NCAA appearance for Nebraska, the longest drought ended by a power conference team in 2014
Nebraska’s celebration after defeating Wisconsin to cap the regular season was not in vain. Coach Tim Miles led Nebraska to its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998. Nebraska’s absence has included three coaching changes and two conference affiliations.
Longest droughts ended in the 2014 NCAA Tournament
Mercer, last appeared in 1985
Coastal Carolina, 1993
25. AP rank last week for NIT-bound SMU
The Mustangs spent four of the last five weeks of the season ranked in the AP top 25, but SMU was not able to end an NCAA Tournament drought that dated back to 1993. SMU is the first ranked team not to make the field since Utah State in 2004.
12. No. 1 seeds from conference tournaments playing in the NIT
Even the NIT bubble was tough this season for at-large teams. The glut of upsets in the conference tournaments created a crunch for NIT spots. Regular season conference champions that don’t receive NCAA bids are guaranteed a berth in the NIT. That means 12 teams received automatic bids for the NIT, leaving only 20 spots for at-larges.
The day after Selection Sunday is not a great time to get caught up on the college basketball season.
As you start to fill out NCAA Tournament brackets for your pools, Athlon Sports did some of the homework for your basketball cram session. March Madness is unpredictable, and we expect it to be again.
But there are some tried and true trends in the Tournament, and we’ll break them down here.
These are our favorite rules for picking our brackets, along with some of the examples from this year’s field.
COMPLETE REGION PREVIEWS
East | Midwest | South | West
Advance all the No. 1 seeds (and probably all of the No. 2 seeds)
A No. 1 seed has never lost in the round of 64. We have little doubt it will happen one day, but you’re more likely to wreck your bracket by advancing a No. 16 seed. The No. 2 seeds have been more vulnerable in the last two seasons than ever before. Two No. 2 seeds lost in 2012 and No. 15 seed Florida Gulf Coast advanced all the way to the Sweet 16. If you must drop a No. 2 before the Sweet 16, do your homework. Find a vulnerable No. 2 and a No. 15 that either dominated its low-major conference or scored an upset over a major team earlier in the season. None of this year's No. 15 seeds fit that profile.
Consider dropping a No. 1 or a No. 2 in the round of 32
In the last four Tournaments, eight of the 32 No. 1 or No. 2 seeds lost before the Sweet 16. The teams in seeds 7-10 are talented but streaky, capable of knocking off a top seed on a quick turnaround. Take a look at the names in the 8-9 games alone: Kentucky, Oklahoma State, Memphis, Pittsburgh and Gonzaga.
Our picks for vulnerable top-two seeds: Arizona, Villanova, Wisconsin
Wichita State, Butler, VCU and George Mason in the Final Four are all memorable. So is Florida Gulf Coast’s run to the Sweet 16 last year. Still, don’t get too caught up trying to look smart by advancing a double-digit seed to the Final Four. Of the last 52 Final Four teams, 44 were top-four seeds, and four of the seven who were not top-four seeds were No. 5 seeds. Butler, VCU and George Mason (and last year’s ninth-seeded Wichita State) are memorable because they're outliers.
Don’t go chalk all way the Final Four
Statistically, advancing every higher seed every round might not be a bad idea, but what’s the fun in that? Only once have all four No. 1 seed advanced to the Final Four. Want to know if your Final Four is risky or too safe? Add up the seeds of your Final Four. The median for the last 20 Final Fours is 14. If the seeds for your Final Four add up to 10 or fewer, you’ve picked a safe Final Four. If the Final Four seeds add up to 20 or more, you’re picking the kind of Final Four that has happened only three times in 20 years.
The real upset potential starts at the No. 5 seeds
Since the field expanded in 1985, the No. 4 seed wins 78 percent of the time. That drops to 64.7 percent for the No. 5 seed, 66.4 percent for the No. 6 and 60.3 percent for the No. 7
12-5 Upsets We Like: Stephen F. Austin over VCU, Xavier/NC State over Saint Louis, Harvard over Cincinnati
11-6 Upsets We Like: Nebraska over Baylor, Tennessee over UMass, Providence over North Carolina
10-7 Upset We Like: Arizona State over Texas
Related: March Madness by the numbers
Pay attention to extreme free throw numbers
Expect closer games in the NCAA Tournament. That means free throws will play a critical role. If you’re on the fence about a team, give free throw numbers a look. Avoid falling in love with teams that can’t hit free throws.
Key teams with high free throw percentages: Connecticut, Creighton, Michigan, Oklahoma, Oregon, UCLA
Key teams with low free throw percentages: Arizona, Kansas State, Louisville, Memphis, North Carolina
All that talk about bubble teams, forget it
We spent the last six weeks talking about bubble teams. Time to stop paying them any mind, especially bubble teams from major conferences. Teams had trouble clinching a Tourney bid because they couldn’t win consistently. Teams from major conferences had chances all year to prove they were Tourney teams and didn’t do it until the last week of the season. Knock them out early. The exception: Bubble teams from mid-major conferences. The inclusion of VCU and George Mason in recent years were criticized ... until they reached the Final Four.
Bubble teams to avoid beyond round of 32: Arizona State, BYU, NC State, Providence, St. Joseph’s, Xavier
When picking a mid-major to advance, do your homework
Look beyond the record. We like mid- and low-major teams that tested themselves against major competition, whether or not they won games. In this space last year, we told you to watch Florida Gulf Coast and Wichita State based on regular season schedules. Also make sure to look at a mid-major team's conference record. Did a team play well during its conference season, or did it wait until the conference tournament to get hot?
Teams that challenged themselves in the non-conference: Dayton, George Washington, Mercer, New Mexico State, Tulsa, UMass
Teams that didn’t: American, Manhattan, Stephen F. Austin, Texas Southern, Western Michigan
Use caution with teams that faded since February and early March
Are teams tired? Was there a major personnel change? Was there an injury? Did opponents catch up? In any case, we don’t like teams limping into the Tournament, no matter what they did from November through January. On the flip side, give credit to teams that got better as the season went along.
Teams that faded: Arizona State, Iowa, Saint Louis, Syracuse, Texas, UMass
Teams that improved through the season: Baylor, Dayton, Louisville, Nebraska, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia
Find balance on offense and defense
Defense wins championship is a football saying. Don't let it take over your bracket. The key to winning in March is balance on both sides of the court, especially for teams that can play multiple tempos and styles. The last 10 national champions ranked in the top 20 in both of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted offensive and defensive rankings. Steer clear from advancing teams to the Elite Eight or Final Four if they have a great offense and questionable defense or vice versa.
The teams in the top 20 in both this season are: Florida, Louisville, Villanova, Wichita State
Good offense, bad defense: Baylor, BYU, Creighton, Iowa, Michigan
Good defense, bad offense: Kansas State, Ohio State, San Diego State, Saint Louis
For the Big Ten, the BCS Era was marred with lackluster BCS national championship game performances. The league as a whole won just one national title during the 16-year BCS Era and that title came all the way back in 2002.
But from a national awards standpoint, the Big Ten matches up with the best college football has to offer. During the BCS Era alone, the Big Ten's trophy case looks like this: Two Heisman Trophies, six Rimington Trophies, five Doak Walker Awards, five Outland Trophies, five Thorpe Awards, four Bednarik Awards, four Butkus Awards, three John Mackey Awards, three Maxwell Awards, three Ray Guy Awards, three Walter Camp Awards, two Biletnikoff Awards, two Davey O’Brien Awards, two Lombardi Awards, two Lott IMPACT Trophies, two Lou Groza Awards, two Ted Hendrick Awards, and one Nagurski Award.
Trying to narrow this list down to 25 names was nearly impossible but here are Athlon Sports' Top 25 Big Ten players of the BCS Era. The only stipulation is that you must have played at least one season between 1998-13 in the conference.
1. Drew Brees, QB, Purdue (1997-2000)
Stats: 11,792 yds, 90 TDs, 45 INTs, 61.2%, 925 yds, 14 TDs
The two-time Big Ten Player of the Year led Purdue back to the Rose Bowl and finished among the top four in Heisman voting twice (1999, 2000). He set the NCAA record for passes attempted in a game with 83 against Wisconsin in 1998 (broken in 2013) and is the Big Ten's all-time leader in completions (1,026), passing yards, passing touchdowns, total offense (12,692) and total touchdowns (104). His 39 touchdown passes in 1998 are still a single-season Big Ten record by a wide margin. He was a second-round pick of the Chargers in 2001, has posted four of the eight 5,000-yard passing seasons in NFL history and is a Super Bowl champion.
2. LaVar Arrington, LB, Penn State (1997-99)
Few college players were as intimidating as the rabid Nittany Lions linebacker. Arrington was an elite leader who helped Penn State to a 28-9 record during his three-year tenure in Happy Valley. He was named as the Butkus and Lambert Award winner as the nation’s top linebacker and was the recipient of the Chuck Bednarik Award as the nation’s top defensive player after 72 tackles, 20 for a loss, nine sacks and two blocked kicks in 1999. He was a consensus All-American and is credited with arguably the signature defensive play of the BCS Era when he leapt over the Illinois offensive line on 4th-and-1 to secure the win. Arrington consistently delivered crushing blows and wound up as the No. 2 overall pick in the 2000 NFL Draft by the Redskins.
3. Ron Dayne, RB, Wisconsin (1996-99)
Stats: 1,220 att., 7,125 yds, 71 TDs, 31 rec., 304 yds
Ricky Williams’ NCAA rushing record didn’t last for very long as the New Jersey native came along the very next year and put everyone in the history of the sport in his rearview mirror. Dayne is the only player in history with 7,000 yards rushing and is one of four players to score at least 70 rushing touchdowns. He carried the ball more than any player in NCAA history (1,220) and he owns multiple BCS bowl rushing records with his two Rose Bowl MVP performances. He capped his illustrious career with a magical 2,000-yard Heisman Trophy and Big Ten championship season. The consensus All-American won Big Ten Player of the Year, Maxwell, Walter Camp and Doak Walker recognition in his final season in Madison. His 2,109 yards in 1996 are still a Big Ten single-season record. His career 7,429 yards from scrimmage may never be broken.
4. Joe Thomas, OT, Wisconsin (2004-06)
One of the few big-time recruits from the state of Wisconsin, Thomas was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy winner for a team that went 31-7 during his three seasons as the starting left tackle. He has rare foot speed, agility and overall athletic ability — and it’s why he has been to the Pro Bowl in all seven of his NFL seasons. He was taken No. 3 overall in 2007 by the Cleveland Browns and is the best Big Ten offensive lineman of the BCS Era.
5. James Laurinaitis, LB, Ohio State (2005-08)
Few players in the nation were as decorated, productive, talented and successful as the Minneapolis native. Laurinaitis won the Butkus, Nagurski, two Lambert Awards and two Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year awards while being a three-time All-American. He posted three straight seasons of at least 115 tackles and helped Ohio State win a share of four Big Ten titles, including two trips to the BCS National Championship Game. The Buckeyes' tackler was taken in the second round of the 2009 NFL Draft.
6. Antoine Winfield, CB, Ohio State (1995-98)
Winfield might be the most underrated defensive back in the history of all levels of football. The consensus All-American helped Ohio State win 43 games in four years and nearly (or should have) played in the first BCS National Championship Game in 1998. He was given the Thorpe and Tatum honors as a senior as the nation’s top defensive back before being selected 23rd overall in the 1999 NFL Draft.
7. Paul Posluszny, LB, Penn State (2003-06)
As a junior, the Nittany Lions tackler was recognized as the nation’s top LB when he posted 116 tackles (11.0 TFL) en route to a Big Ten championship, consensus All-American honors and both the Butkus and Bednarik Awards. He followed that up as a senior with a second Bednarik Award and second consensus All-American nod. The in-state Aliquippa (Pa.) Hopewell product was a second-round pick by the Bills in 2007. He left school as Penn State's all-time leading tackler with 372 total stops.
8. Braylon Edwards, WR, Michigan (2001-04)
Stats: 252 rec., 3,541 yds, 39 TDs
Not many players have three consecutive seasons with at least 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns but that is what the Detroit native did at Michigan. He was uncoverable during his time at Ann Arbor, setting school records in every major receiving category. His 39 career touchdowns remain a Big Ten record. Edwards claimed Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors and the Biletnikoff Award as a senior in 2004. The consensus All-American finished 10th in the Heisman voting that season as well.
9. Greg Eslinger, C, Minnesota (2002-05)
Not many centers have an Outland Trophy on their mantle at home but Eslinger has one when he was named the best lineman in America in 2005. He was a freshman All-American in 2002, a third-team All-American as a sophomore, a first-teamer in '04 and earned consensus All-American honors as a senior. He won the Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center and earned Big Ten Lineman of the Year honors in ’05 as well. The best stat for Eslinger, however, is that Minnesota never had a losing record during his four-year career and he helped lead the Gophers to their first 10-win campaign since 1905.
10. Andy Katzenmoyer, LB, Ohio State (1996-98)
His pro career notwithstanding, this Buckeye was one of college football’s greatest tacklers during his time in Columbus. He was the first true freshman to ever start at linebacker for the Buckeyes, won the Butkus and Lambert Awards as just a sophomore and nearly led OSU to the inaugural BCS title game in 1998. He started all 37 games of his college career and finished with 18 sacks and 50.0 tackles for a loss. He was a first-round pick by the Patriots in 1999.
11. Russell Wilson, QB, NC State/Wisconsin (2008-11)
Stats: 11,720 yds, 109 TDs, 30 INTs, 60.9%, 1,421 yds, 23 TDs
Not many players own school records for two different programs but Wilson excelled in both the ACC and Big Ten. He posted the single greatest season by a Wisconsin quarterback in history en route to a league crown and near national title berth. He owns the NCAA record for consecutive games with a touchdown pass (38) and the single-season mark for passing efficiency at 191.8. His 33 touchdown passes in 2011 are second all-time in B1G history to only Brees' 39. He was elite at NC State, elite at Wisconsin and has already led Seattle to its first Super Bowl championship. Needless to say, he is one of the greatest college quarterbacks in history.
12. Jamar Fletcher, CB, Wisconsin (1998-2000)
The Badgers’ coverman has as complete a resume as any during the BCS Era. He was a two-time, first-team All-American and three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection. He helped Wisconsin to back-to-back Big Ten and Rose Bowl championships and was the only Big Ten defensive back of the BCS Era to be named the outright Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He holds UW’s all-time record with 21 interceptions and was named the nation’s top defensive back with the Thorpe and Tatum Trophies as a senior in 2000. He was a first-round pick in 2001.
13. Jake Long, OT, Michigan (2004-07)
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2007 NFL Draft by the Miami Dolphins was a two-time All-American and Outland Trophy finalist. He was a Freshman All-American in his first year and was named Big Ten Lineman of the Year twice (junior and senior seasons) — one of just two players to accomplish this feat during the BCS Era. The 6-foot-7, 320-pounder won a Big Ten championship as a freshman and has been to four Pro Bowls in his six-year NFL career.
14. Steve Hutchinson, OG, Michigan (1997-2000)
Starting for four seasons for the Wolverines, Hutchinson helped the Maize and Blue win the 1997 national championship. He capped his career with consensus All-American honors, was an Outland Trophy finalist and didn’t allow a sack in his final two seasons at Michigan. He was a first-round pick by the Seahawks in 2001 and earned seven Pro Bowl invites during his 12-year NFL career.
15. Charles Rogers, WR, Michigan State (2001-02)
Stats: 135 rec., 2,821 yds, 27 TDs, 110 rush, TD, 177 ret. yds, TD
The in-state product from Saginaw played just two seasons for the Spartans but was an All-Big Ten performer both years. He posted back-to-back seasons with at least 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns, earning consensus All-American and Biletnikoff honors in 2002. He set an NCAA record with 13 straight games with a TD catch (since broken) and owns just about every Michigan State receiving record. His 1,470 yards in 2001 trail only one player in Big Ten history…
16. Mike Doss, S, Ohio State (1999-2002)
The Buckeyes safety was a rare three-time All-American, three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick and was named co-Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2002 for the BCS National Champions. Doss started 40 of 50 possible career games and was named the 2002 Fiesta Bowl MVP. He finished his career with 331 career tackles, eight interceptions, eight fumbles recovered and 6.0 sacks. He was a second-round pick in the 2003 NFL Draft.
17. Montee Ball, RB, Wisconsin (2009-12)
Stats: 924 att., 5,140 yds, 77 TDs, 59 rec., 598 yds, 6 TDs
Ball won’t ever be confused with the most talented running backs of the BCS Era but few have been as successful and productive. No one player in the history of the sport has scored as many touchdowns (77 rushing, 83 total) as the Missouri native. He also finished fourth in the Heisman balloting as a junior and won the Doak Walker Award as a senior while leading the Badgers to three straight Big Ten championships. His 39 touchdowns in 2011 tied Barry Sanders for the all-time single-season record and Ball earned consensus All-American honors in both seasons. He is fourth all-time in Big Ten history in rushing and is one of just five players in league history to top 5,000 yards in a career.
18. Larry Johnson, RB, Penn State (1999-02)
Stats: 460 att., 2,953 yds, 26 TDs, 65 rec., 681 yds, 7 TDs, 1,181 ret. yds, 3 TDs
The State College local prospect was starter for just one season, but it was special. He rushed for 2,087 yards (second all-time only to Dayne) and 20 touchdowns on 7.7 yards per carry in 2002, earning consensus All-American honors as well as the Doak Walker, Maxwell and Walter Camp Awards. He finished third in the Heisman Trophy race and brought elite size and speed to the backfield. His 327 yards against Indiana in '02 is the sixth-best single-game total in Big Ten history and his 2,655 all-purpose yards that year are still a single-season Big Ten record. He was a first-round pick of the Chiefs in 2002.
19. A.J. Hawk, LB, Ohio State (2002-05)
Yet another Buckeyes great, Hawk started 38 of his 51 career college games for Ohio State. He contributed to the 2002 BCS National Championship squad as a freshman before earning two-time consensus All-American honors in 2004-05. As a senior, Hawk earned the Lombardi and Lambert Trophies for his play and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. He finished his career with 394 tackles, 41.0 for a loss, 15.5 sacks and seven interceptions. He was the fifth overall pick in the 2006 NFL Draft by the Packers.
20. Dallas Clark, TE, Iowa (2000-02)
Stats: 77 rec., 1,251 yds, 8 TDs
The walk-on began his career as a linebacker but quickly developed into a star at tight end. He earned All-Big Ten recognition as a sophomore and then became the nation’s top tight end as a junior in 2002. The John Mackey Award winner caught 43 passes for 742 yards and four touchdowns while helping Iowa (11-2) to a Big Ten co-championship and Orange Bowl berth. The dynamic in-state talent was a first-round pick and proved in the NFL that his college career was no fluke.
21. Gabe Carimi, OT, Wisconsin (2007-10)
Carimi perpetuated the run of elite Badgers blockers by stepping in for the departed Joe Thomas and starting all 13 games as a freshman. By his senior season, Carimi was the Big Ten Offensive Lineman of the Year, the Outland Trophy winner as the best blocker in the nation, and was a consensus All-American. He started 49 games in his career, capping it with a Rose Bowl appearance and Big Ten championship in 2010. Carimi was a first-round pick by the Bears in 2011.
22. LaMarr Woodley, DE, Michigan (2003-06)
The Wolverines' terror off the edge posted 12 sacks as a senior en route to the Lombardi and Hendricks Awards as the nation’s best lineman and defensive end respectively. He was a unanimous All-American before being drafted in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft by the Steelers. His 10 career forced fumbles are seventh all-time in Big Ten history and his work on the ’06 Michigan team that started 11-0 before losing to Ohio State in memorable fashion earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year honors. Woodley also was a finalist for the Bednarik, Lott, Outland and Nagurski awards as well.
23. Malcolm Jenkins, DB, Ohio State (2005-08)
The Ohio State Buckeyes have a long tradition of great defensive backs and Jenkins is one of the most decorated. He was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick, including twice as a starter for two unbeaten regular-season teams that made it to the BCS National Championship Game in both 2006 and ’07. He was a two-time All-American, Jim Thorpe winner and was the 14th overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft.
24. Bob Sanders, S, Iowa (2000-03)
One of the hardest hitting players to ever suit up, Sanders made big plays all over the field during his time in Iowa City. He helped lead Iowa to the Orange Bowl in 2002 and was an All-American as a senior in '03. He finished his career with 348 tackles, 16.0 for loss, four sacks, seven interceptions and 13 forced fumbles (he led the nation in FF with six as a senior). The Colts took him in the second round of the 2004 NFL Draft and he went on to two Pro Bowls and also won a Super Bowl.
25. Troy Smith, QB, Ohio State (2003-06)
Stats: 5,720 yds, 54 TDs, 13 INTs, 62.7%, 1,168 yds, 14 TDs
Smith won the AP Player of the Year, Davey O'Brien, Walter Camp awards and is the only Big Ten quarterback to win the Heisman Trophy since Les Horvath won the award at OSU in 1944. Only Smith and Wisconsin's Ron Dayne won a Heisman for the Big Ten during the BCS Era. Additionally, his Heisman Trophy in 2006 was en route to a perfect season, Big Ten championship and BCS Championship Game berth against Florida. The consensus All-American was the first Buckeyes quarterback to go 3-0 against Michigan since the 1930s and is one of just four players in league history to throw at least 30 touchdowns in a single season. His career QB rating of 157.1 is the best in league history. The 2006 Fiesta Bowl MVP was a part of three BCS bowl teams and was a fifth-round pick in the '07 NFL Draft.
The Next 10:
26. Lee Evans, WR, Wisconsin (1999-2003)
Stats: 175 rec., 3,468 yds, 27 TDs
Despite missing extended time with a torn ACL, Evans is the best wide receiver to play at Wisconsin since Al Toon. His two-year run was as good as any in Big Ten history, posting a league-record 1,545 yards in 2001. He came back after the knee injury and nearly duplicated his numbers with 1,213 yards and 13 TDs in 2003. His 10-catch, 258-yard, 5-TD game against Michigan State might have been the best single performance by any Badger. Evans is one of two B1G players to ever catch five TDs in one game (Omar Douglas) and he is fifth all-time in Big Ten history in receiving yards.
27. Greg Jones, LB, Michigan State (2007-10)
The stabilizing force for four years in East Lansing, Jones was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and a two-time consensus All-American. In both of those seasons, Jones led the Big Ten in tackles and no one since 2005 has made more stops than Jones. He was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2009. The star playmaker finished third in school history in tackles (465), second in tackles for a loss (46.5) and sixth in sacks (16.5). He started 46 of 52 career games for the Spartans.
28. Dan Connor, LB, Penn State (2004-07)
The Nittany Lions know something about playing linebacker and Connor is yet another elite tackler. He was a two-time All-American and won the Bednarik Award in 2007 as the nation's top defensive player. He was a leader and was huge part of the '05 Big Ten/Orange Bowl championship team before posting back-to-back 100-tackle seasons. He broke Posluszny's all-time school record with 419 career stops when he graduated in '07.
29. Tamba Hali, DE, Penn State (2002-05)
A unanimous All-American and Big Ten Defensive Lineman of the Year, Hali pushed Penn State to its last Big Ten championship as well as a win in the Orange Bowl following the 2005 season. He led the Big Ten with 17.0 tackles for a loss and 11 sacks and added 65 total tackles for a team that lost just once (in the final second) all season. The undersized end was picked 20th overall in the 2006 NFL Draft and has blossomed into one of the league’s top edge players.
30. Chris Borland, LB, Wisconsin (2009-13)
Few players have been as productive and as successful as the Original Honey Badger. He finished his career with 420 tackles, second most in the Big Ten since 2005, 17.0 sacks, 50.0 tackles for a loss and an NCAA-record 14 forced fumbles. He helped lead his team to three consecutive Big Ten championships and did just about everything for the Badgers, including fake punts, blocked kicks and returning kicks. He was a consummate hard worker and leader for Wisconsin and it earned him Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year and the Butkus-Fitzgerald Big Ten Linebacker of the Year award in 2013.
31. Antwaan Randle El, QB, Indiana (1998-2001)
Stats: 7,469 yds, 42 TDs, 37 INTs, 49.8%, 3,895 yds, 44 TDs
The electric athlete sparked the glory years of Indiana football. Well ahead of his time as one of the original dual-threat quarterbacks, Randle El had the top three rushing seasons in Big Ten history, including the only 1,000-yard season, by a quarterback until the likes Denard Robinson and Braxton Miller came along and topped his 1,270-yard season of 2000. The Hoosiers star is fifth all-time in Big Ten history with 11,364 total yards of offense and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year in 2001, finishing sixth in the Heisman voting. He was a second-round pick and is the only wide receiver to ever throw a touchdown pass in a Super Bowl.
32. J.J. Watt, DE, Wisconsin (2009-10)
The NFL Defensive Player of the Year in 2012 was dominant in his short stint in Madison. After originally signing with Central Michigan as a tight end, Watt emerged as a hidden gem for the Badgers. He posted an absurd 106 tackles, 36.5 tackles for a loss, 11.5 sacks, four forced fumbles and a number of big blocked kicks (see Arizona State). He won the Lott Trophy given to the most impactful defensive player in college football in 2010 before being picked with the 11th overall selection in the 2011 NFL Draft. He is arguably the best defensive end on the planet right now.
33. Tyrone Carter, S, Minnesota (1996-99)
The Florida native was a tackling machine for the Golden Gophers, finishing his career with an NCAA-record 584 total tackles and 414 solo stops He was a two-time, first-team All-American and won the 1999 Thorpe Award and Tatum Trophy as the nation’s top defensive back. Carter also was a return specialist, totaling over 1,800 combined punt and kick return yards. He was a fourth-round pick in the 2000 NFL Draft. The Gophers increased their win total every year of his four-year, 46-game career.
34. Jim Leonhard, S, Wisconsin (2001-04)
A cult hero walk-on in Madison, Leonhard was a two-time, first-team All-Big Ten pick before even earning his first collegiate scholarship before his senior season. He went on to a third first-team All-Big Ten selection and All-American honors in his final season. He led the nation with a Big Ten single-season record 11 interceptions as a sophomore and broke the Big Ten record for punt return yardage with 1,347 yards (since broken). He played every game of his career, starting 39 times and registering 281 tackles and a Wisconsin-record 21 career interceptions (tied with Fletcher) — which is good for fourth all-time in Big Ten history and the most by any B1G player during the BCS Era.
35. David Baas, C, Michigan (2001-04)
The interior blocker was a three-time, first-team All-Big Ten selection and capped his career with a Rimington Trophy as the nation’s top center. He also earned consensus All-American honors, was named the Big Ten’s top lineman and was an Outland Trophy finalist. Baas was a second-round pick by the San Francisco 49ers in the 2005 NFL Draft.
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Florida (1)
The Florida Gators (32–2, 18–0 SEC) are fresh off a perfect 18–0 SEC regular season followed by the SEC Tournament title. Florida is the top No. 1 seed in the Big Dance, their first No. 1 seed since 2007 — when the Gators chomped their way to a second straight national championship with Joakim Noah and Co. This year’s team has just two losses — at UConn (on a fluke finish) and at Wiconsin (in the season’s second game). The Gators have not tasted defeat since Dec. 2, 2013 — beating Kansas, Memphis and every team in the SEC since then. In this one-and-done era, UF has the rare star-studded senior class led by point guard Scottie Wilbekin (13.0 ppg, 3.7 apg), leading scorer Casey Prather (14.3 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and monster in the middle Patric Young (11.0 ppg, 6.2 rpg). Oh yeah, and the Gators are coached by two-time NCAA champion Billy Donovan. Florida is clearly the team to beat.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Ohio State (6)
The Buckeyes have a tough in-state Round of 64 matchup with Daytona in a 6-11 potential trap game. But if Ohio State can avoid the fate of Goliath, it will face the winner of Syracuse and Western Michigan. On one hand, Cuse has gone 2–5 since opening the season with a 25–0 record. On the other hand, WMU is a No. 14 seed for a reason. The Buckeyes would have to feel good about their chances, either way. The next loss will be the last for OSU senior point guard Aaron Craft. Don’t be surprised if the overly scrappy guard hustles his way to the second weekend of the Big Dance.
Upset Alert – Stephen F. Austin (12) over VCU (5)
Wait a minute, isn’t VCU the underdog that could? Not this time. Southland champion Stephen F. Austin is on a 28-game winning streak that dates back to Nov. 23, 2013. The Lumberjacks have five players who average 9.6 points or more, including a pair of wings — Jacob Parker (14.2 ppg, 7.1 rpg) and Thomas Walkup (12.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg) — who both shoot over 54 percent from the field. Obviously, Shaka Smart and VCU will bring the havoc. But SFA will be ready to keep chopping wood.
South Region Preview
East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Midwest Region Preview
A region-by-region preview of this year's NCAA Tournament, complete with a rundown of March Madness' top teams, Sweet 16 sleepers to watch out for, potential first-round upsets and Cinderella stories from this year's Big Dance.
Top Team – Arizona (1)
The Arizona Wildcats (30–4, 15–3 Pac-12) opened the season with a 21–0 mark, including impressive wins over Duke, Michigan and UCLA. Although the Wildcats went 9–4 to close out the season — losing to UCLA in the Pac-12 Tournament title game — this is still a team to be reckoned with. Junior guard Nick Johnson (16.2 ppg), freshman phenom forward Aaron Gordon (12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg), and sophomore big men Kaleb Tarczewski (10.1 ppg, 6.6 rpg) and Brandon Ashley (11.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg) make UA a matchup nightmare. Coach Sean Miller has yet to lead a team to the Final Four, despite coming painfully close in Elite Eight losses at Xavier (2008) and Arizona (2011). This could be the year Miller finally breaks through for Zona’s first Final Four since Lute Olson’s Cats cut down the nets in 1997.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Oklahoma State (9)
The Pokes will have to outlast Gonzaga in the 8-9 game and take down the best out West in Arizona. But that is doable. O-State has been a different team since Marcus Smart returned from his three-game suspension following a run-in with a fan at Texas Tech. The Cowboys are 5–2, with both losses coming in overtime, to Iowa State and Kansas, respectively. Along with Smart (17.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.7 apg, 2.8 spg), OSU features senior Markel Brown (17.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and junior Le’Bryan Nash (14.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg), giving coach Travis Ford’s team three players capable of taking over offensively. Then again, the Cowboys have looked good on paper all year, but that hasn’t translated on the court most of the season.
Upset Alert – Nebraska (11) over Baylor (6)
Warren Buffett’s billion-dollar perfect bracket may be a 1-in-128 billion longshot. But the Oracle of Omaha could get a priceless matchup in the Round of 32 if Nebraska can take down former Big 12 rival Baylor and No. 3 seed Creighton can hold serve against No. 14 seed Louisiana-Lafayette. The Cornhuskers played solid basketball since hitting rock bottom on a five-game losing streak from Dec. 28 until Jan. 12. The Huskers have wins over Michigan State, Ohio State and Wisconsin since those dark days and appear capable of upsetting Baylor.
South Region Preview
East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Midwest Region Preview