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Path: /college-football/louisville-cardinals-2015-spring-football-preview
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Louisville’s first season in the ACC was a successful one. The Cardinals finished 9-4, with two of their losses coming by six points or less. 2014 also brought the return of Bobby Petrino to the Louisville sidelines, and despite a revolving door at quarterback and a struggling offensive line, the Cardinals still averaged 31.2 points per game. Petrino and his staff will be busy this spring, as Louisville returns only seven starters and five All-ACC performers are gone from last year’s 9-4 squad.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Louisville’s Spring Practice

 

1. The Quarterback Battle

Three quarterbacks started a game for Louisville last season, and there’s no shortage of uncertainty here as spring practice begins. Kyle Bolin, Reggie Bonnafon and Penn State transfer Tyler Ferguson will get the first opportunity to claim the job this offseason, as Will Gardner is recovering from a knee injury suffered in early October. Will a clear leader emerge this spring? Or will the battle continue into fall when Gardner is healthy?

 

2. Reloading at Receiver

There’s no doubt Louisville is going to miss DeVante Parker’s production at receiver in 2014. Parker played in only six games last season but ranked among the best in the ACC after catching 43 passes for 855 yards and five scores. Not only must the Cardinals find a replacement for Parker, the receiving corps also loses Eli Rogers (45 catches in 2014), Kai De La Cruz (26) and tight end Gerald Christian (32). James Quick (36 catches) should see a bigger role in 2015, but transfers Ja’Quay Williams (Texas A&M) and Jamari Staples (UAB) are two names to watch. Junior college recruit Paul Harris is also expected to push for time this offseason.

 

3. Finding Answers on the Offensive Line

Even though Louisville has a quarterback battle and loses some of its top skill players, the biggest concern for the offense has to be in the trenches. This unit loses three starters, including left tackle Jamon Brown (second-team All-ACC) and both starting guards (John Miller and Jake Smith). Center Tobijah Hughley (11 starts) and right tackle Aaron Epps (six starts) are the only returning starters from 2014. How quickly will the Cardinals restock the trenches?

 

4. Revamped Secondary

The Cardinals were one of the nation’s stingiest defensive backfields in 2014. In 13 contests, Louisville’s secondary limited opposing quarterbacks to just 14 passing scores and a 53.9 completion percentage. That’s the good news. The bad news? All four starters are gone. Georgia transfers Shaq Wiggins (CB) and Josh Harvey-Clemons (S) are expected to claim two of the starting spots, while safety Chucky Williams (six tackles in 2014) and redshirt freshman cornerback Cornelius Sturghill enter spring with an early edge. Wiggins and Harvey-Clemons have instant-impact talent, and the Cardinals should have a good pass rush to help alleviate some of the concerns about coverage. How quickly can coordinator Todd Grantham get this group performing at a high level?

 

5. Restocking the Defensive Front

The strength of the defense should be the line and the linebacking corps, but Grantham has a few holes to fill this spring. End B.J. Dubose and linebackers Lorenzo Mauldin and Deiontrez Mount have expired their eligibility after all three players turned in productive 2014 campaigns. Sheldon Rankins, DeAngelo Brown and Pio Vatuvei are penciled in as the starters on the line, while James Burgess, Keith Kelsey and Keith Brown are listed at linebacker. Will Grantham find a few players behind the starters to build depth in the front seven?

 

Pre-Spring Outlook on Louisville in the ACC:

 

Florida State and Clemson are considered the favorites in the Atlantic Division, while Louisville and NC State are the two teams fighting for the No. 3 and No. 4 spots in 2015. Although it’s possible the Seminoles or Tigers regress more than anticipated, the Cardinals also have their share of personnel concerns to address before moving up in the Atlantic. Will a quarterback claim the starting job? And how quickly will the offensive line jell? The secondary is the biggest concern on defense, but this unit could quickly settle if Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins emerge as key contributors. The September slate features games against Auburn and Clemson, and a road trip to Florida State awaits in October. Considering the heavy personnel losses, a realistic goal for Petrino’s second year should be 8-4 or 9-3. 

Teaser:
Louisville Cardinals 2015 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 11:00
Path: /college-football/michigan-state-spartans-2015-spring-football-preview
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Michigan State has emerged as a national power under coach Mark Dantonio. The Spartans have won at least 11 games in each of the last four seasons and have claimed back-to-back finishes inside of the top five in the last Associated Press poll. Michigan State has a few personnel concerns heading into spring ball, and Dantonio has to replace coordinator Pat Narduzzi on the defensive side. While there’s a few new faces coming to East Lansing in 2015, the Spartans will contend once again for a top-10 finish.  

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Michigan State’s Spring Practice

 

1. New Faces at Running Back

The Spartans enter spring with uncertainty at running back. Jeremy Langford expired his eligibility after rushing for 1,522 yards and 22 scores last season, while second-leading rusher Nick Hill also departs after finishing 2014 with 622 yards. Delton Williams was the team’s third-leading rusher in 2014, but his status with the team is in question after an off-field incident. Talented freshman L.J. Scott won’t arrive until this summer, which leaves Madre London and Gerald Holmes as the team’s top options this spring. Can London or Holmes stake a clear edge in the battle for carries?

 

2. Connor Cook’s Passing Targets

The uncertainty of Michigan State’s skill players continues at receiver. Tony Lippett was the team’s clear No. 1 target last season, catching 65 passes for 1,198 yards and 11 scores. Lippett has expired his eligibility, and Keith Mumphery also departs East Lansing after ranking second on the team with 495 yards. Macgarrett Kings Jr. caught 29 passes for 404 yards last year and was expected to be a bigger piece of the receiving corps in 2015. However, his status with the team is also uncertain after an off-field incident. Who steps up here this spring? It’s up to Aaron Burbridge, Monty Madaris and R.J. Shelton to develop a better rapport with Cook this offseason.

 

3. Post-Pat Narduzzi Era

This spring marks Michigan State’s first offseason under Mark Dantonio without Pat Narduzzi coordinating the defense. Continuity was important for the program, and Dantonio promoted assistants Harlon Barnett and Mike Tressel into the co-coordinator role. What tweaks or changes will Barnett and Tressel install this spring?

 

4. Rebuilding the No Fly Zone

The Spartans have ranked inside of the top 25 nationally in pass efficiency defense in four consecutive seasons. Continuing the recent success will depend on how quick Barnett and Tressel can restock the secondary after the departures of cornerback Trae Waynes and safety Kurtis Drummond. Waynes and Drummond both earned first-team All-Big Ten honors last season and leave big shoes to fill. The spring depth chart lists Darian Hicks or Vayante Copeland at one corner spot, with junior Demetrious Cox at the other. The safety positions appear to be more defined, as Montae Nicholson is a player to watch after recording 31 tackles in 2014, and RJ Williamson returns for his senior year.

 

5. New Faces in the Defensive Line, Linebacker Corps

Even with the departures of Marcus Rush (7.5 sacks) and linebacker Taiwan Jones, Michigan State is in good shape in its front seven. But the Spartans will spend this spring focusing on settling a few starting jobs, as well as developing depth up front. There’s no question Shilique Calhoun is one of the Big Ten’s top defensive players, and Barnett and Tressel will spend the spring sorting out whether Lawrence Thomas fits better opposite of Calhoun at end or on the inside at tackle. Sophomore tackle Malik McDowell is also expected to have a breakout year.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook on Michigan State in the Big Ten:

 

Ohio State is the clear favorite in the Big Ten East Division, and the Spartans are just a step behind entering 2015. Michigan State will miss Narduzzi’s defensive acumen, as well as Lippett at receiver and defensive standouts like Waynes (CB), Drummond (S) and Jones (LB). However, there’s little reason to expect a big drop in wins this year. Michigan State returns one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks in Connor Cook, as well as four starters from an offensive line that allowed only 11 sacks in 2014. Another 10-win season is within reach for the Spartans.

Teaser:
Michigan State Spartans 2015 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: Jason Day, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-11-jason-day
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They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Leading up to The Masters, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 30 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.

 

No. 11: Jason Day

 

Born: Nov. 12, 1987, Beaudesert, Queensland, Australia | Career PGA Tour Wins: 3 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $3,789,574 (16th) World Ranking: 4

2014 Key Stats

      Scrambling: 64.95% (5th)

      Approaches from 75-100 yards: 12’11” (2nd)

      Putting from Inside 5 Feet: 98.93% (1st)

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Day would be higher on this list if he hadn’t spent much of 2014 on the sidelines due to injuries to his left thumb and his back, with his left wrist also causing him some concern at The Open Championship. If he can stay healthy, he has every chance of having a spectacular year. In the 17 majors he has played, he has finished in the top five a handful of times. He has power off the tee and great touch around the greens, and he holes more than his share of putts. At 27 years of age and given his obvious talents, he should've won more than three times on the PGA Tour by now, but his inability to hit his scoring irons close to the hole has plagued him at critical times in tournaments, something he appears to have worked on last year by softening the transition move from backswing to downswing and is hitting more partial shots, both of which led to him leading the PGA Championship in greens in regulation. If his scoring irons become a strength, he could become the best player in the world.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 17
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - T20
U.S. Open - T4
British Open - T58
PGA Championship - T15

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T2 (2011)
U.S. Open - 2/T2 (2011, '13)
British Open - T30 (2011)
PGA Championship - T8 (2013)
Top-10 Finishes: 7
Top-25 Finishes: 9
Missed Cuts: 3

 

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

 

Athlon's 2015 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, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.

Teaser:
Post date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 10:05
All taxonomy terms: College Football, LSU Tigers, SEC, News
Path: /college-football/lsu-tigers-2015-spring-football-preview
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LSU went unbeaten in the 2011 regular season and won the SEC crown.

 

Since then the Tigers have dropped from first to second (2012) to third (2013) to fifth (2014) in the SEC West standings.

 

The coaching in the division has gotten significantly more competitive and LSU has struggled at key positions — like, say, the quarterback.

 

There is loads of talent on this roster and a head coach who has led his team to two national championship games. But make no mistake, this spring is critical for Les Miles to answer key questions about his roster.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in LSU’s Spring Practice:

 

1. Wide-open QB competition

Improving the passing game is a must this offseason for Miles. This unit was awful in 2014, averaging just 140.6 yards passing per game in SEC tilts. With that in mind, Miles has opened up the competition this spring. Both Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris struggled mightily last year and both know that they could be the key to an LSU resurgence. Jennings completed less than half of his passes, as the Tigers finished dead last in the SEC in passing offense. Competition can be very healthy and Miles is hoping an open battle will fix his signal-caller woes.

 

2. Create a pass rush

The defensive end position is one of pride for most LSU faithful, as the track record for elite-level playmakers rushing the QB in Baton Rouge is impressive. Except, that wasn’t the case last year as LSU finished 103rd nationally with just 19.0 sacks. Both Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter are gone, so establishing a pass rush might be new defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s first order of business — with the help of D-line guru Ed Orgeron. Per usual, there are plenty of talented bodies but someone in the law firm of Bower, Clark, Teuhema, Patterson and Neal needs to step up and become a star. Of course, depending on the scheme, a pass rusher could be found in the form of a linebacker.

 

3. New-look defense

After two years at Alabama, Steele now has full control of one of the best defensive units in the nation. The biggest question surrounding his arrival is concerning the scheme he will implement this spring. Steele has a 3-4 background, but LSU has been a very traditional 4-3 for as long as Miles has been in charge. The tealeaves indicate that the Tigers will use multiple fronts this fall but there is no reason for Steele to tip his hand until the season begins. Steele has a star in the making with the emergence of Kendall Beckwith as well as a solid collection of potential breakout players at linebacker. How many can Steele get on the field and in what down-and-distance situations remains to be seen.     

 

4. Playmaker depth

There’s no doubt running back Leonard Fournette will be one of the nation’s leading rushers in 2015. But with the departure of Kenny Hilliard and Terrence Magee, offensive coordinator Cam Cameron needs to restock the depth behind Fournette this spring. At receiver, Travin Dural produced plenty of big plays a year ago but LSU needs to develop a consistent No. 2 and No. 3 pass-catching option. This is a big spring for Trey Quinn, Malachi Dupre and John Diarse at receiver. Lastly, no tight end on the roster caught more than seven passes and the one who did is gone.

 

5. Find the five best blockers

Miles wants to get the best five blockers on the field and that potentially could mean playing some guys at new/different positions. All-SEC guard Vadal Alexander will move to tackle and take on a bigger role this fall. Ethan Pocic, who might be better suited at tackle, looks like he will stay put at center because of team need. Jerald Hawkins will man the other tackle spot. That leaves Josh Boutte, K.J. Malone, William Clapp and Garrett Brumfield vying for the two guard positions and key reserve roles.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook on LSU:

 

As long as Miles is in charge, LSU will enter every season stacked with talent at most positions. But this team is trending in the wrong direction as the rest of the division continues to improve. The Tigers have issues at quarterback and have swapped SEC vet John Chavis for Steele and Orgeron on defense. The talent is still there to challenge in the West but the schedule is downright nasty. This staff will need to get work done this spring to move up the standings. 

Teaser:
LSU Tigers 2015 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 09:30
Path: /top-10-arena-nicknames-college-basketball
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There are many reasons why fans gravitate to the college ranks over the professional ones. 

 

While the level of athlete isn’t comparable in the college game, there are many other reasons why college basketball is more enjoyable than the NBA. Student sections, campus life, small towns, deeply connected alumni bases, dramatic game play, cheerleaders, defensive effort and kids playing for the love of the game are at the top of that list. But college arenas and stadiums are more intimate and interwoven into the history of a school unlike the NBA buildings (minus maybe Madison Square Garden or the Boston Gardens).

 

And the traditions of the college game — like arena nicknames — are priceless. Here are college hoops best arena nicknames:

 

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

 

2. The Phog, Kansas (Allen Fieldhouse)
Named in honor of former head coach Dr. Forrest C. Allen, who led the Jayhawks program for 39 years and was nicknamed “Phog” for his distinct booming fog-horn voice. Allen Fieldhouse was opened in 1955 following four years of construction, the building currently seats 16,300 and originally cost just $2.5 million to build. The Phog is widely regarded as one of the loudest building in college basketball, and thanks to decades of great teams, is arguably the toughest place to win in all of sports.

 

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

 

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

 

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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

The Best of the Rest:

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


Old-School Honorable Mention:

 

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

 

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

 

Teaser:
<p> College Basketball's Top 10 Arena Nicknames</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL, NBA, MLB, Overtime
Path: /overtime/what-most-popular-throwback-jersey-each-state
Body:

Sports fans across the country love their Kobe Bryant throwback jerseys. Just not the state where he plays basketball.

 

Last week, TicketCity shared a map of the most popular college basketball teams in every state, and now we get this map of throwback jerseys from Mitchell & Ness.

 

The Philadelphia-based throwback and replica specialists posted this look at the most popular throwback jerseys in each state, regardless of sport.

 

It’s a fascinating bit of state-by-state nostalgia, and we suspect it's by no means definitive since it represents the sales only one company. Mitchell & Ness doesn't carry a Michael Jordan throwback, which would probably be a staple in a handful of states. Still, it's a fun excercise.

 

Check the key on the site for a few of the jerseys you don’t recognize. A few of our thoughts are below the map.

 

 

• The 1997-97 Kobe Bryant throwback carries Delaware, Oregon, Nevada, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Tennessee and Ohio but not California (that belongs to Joe Montana’s ’89 49ers jersey). 

 

It’s shocking that that Steve McNair, Eddie George or even a Colts’ Peyton Manning didn’t carry Tennessee and no Green Bay Packer carried Wisconsin. Presumably, there are too many Brett Favre or Bart Starr throwbacks splitting votes in the Dairy State.

 

• Ray Nitschke’s ’66 Packers throwback is the top jersey in ... Kansas.

 

• Bryant is the pick in Ohio, again presumably because Cleveland and Cincinnati are splitting purchases in the Buckeye State. Big Red Machine shortstop Dave Concepcion is the top jersey across the river in Kentucky.

 

• Check the representation of Dallas Cowboys: Troy Aikman in Texas, Deion Sanders for Oklahoma and a real throwback in Roger Staubach in Montana.

 

• Deion Sanders is the top jersey in three states with three jerseys: Georgia as an Atlanta Falcon, Oklahoma as a Cowboy and Hawaii as a 49er.

 

• The no-brainers: John Elway (Colorado), Walter Payton (Illinois), Cal Ripken Jr. (Maryland), Larry Bird (Massachusetts), Barry Sanders (Michigan), Ozzie Smith (Missouri), Steve Largent (Washington)

 

We also love some of the picks in the flyover states or states without a pro team Ryne Sandberg (Alabama), Bo Jackson (Arkansas — NOT Alabama), Mickey Mantle (Idaho), Joe Namath (Iowa), Larry Bird (Mississippi), Steve Carlton (Nebraska), Ernie Banks (New Mexico), Fred Biletnikoff (North Dakota), Walter Payton (South Dakota), Lou Gehrig (Wyoming).

Teaser:
What is the Most Popular Throwback Jersey in Each State?
Post date: Wednesday, March 25, 2015 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: Boston Celtics, NBA
Path: /nba/boston-celtics-are-surprise-playoff-team-0
Body:

Brad Stevens needs more props in the Coach of the Year race.

 

He doesn’t deserve to win it. No one leading a sub-.500 team should be able to claim that award, and likely never will. At 31-39 at time of publication, Stevens' Boston Celtics are likely to end up on the wrong side of that line.

 

But Boston would also be set to enter the Eastern Conference playoffs, and face the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, if the postseason started today. That’s pretty surprising.

 

General manager Danny Ainge might not be exactly thrilled about how many wins Stevens has been able to manufacture out of this roster. Ainge, since ending the Big Three era, signed Stevens to a five-year deal that made it clear that a long rebuilding stretch was expected. Ainge has shuffled the Celtics’ deck over and over again since, collecting draft picks and middling talent in the name of tomorrow. At a glance, Ainge could be seen as trying to tank.

 

The Celtics, as constituted, don’t have any players even particularly close to All-Star status. Their leading scorer in recent games has been Evan Turner — a forward who was considered an empty stats guy with the Philadelphia 76ers, and a cancer with the Indiana Pacers.

 

In Boston, though, he’s been productive and efficient. He tallied a triple-double in a recent win over the Brooklyn Nets. His skills are maximized amidst a nucleus of role players whose talents have been organized into something greater than their sum. Jae Crowder, Luigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko were all afterthoughts in midseason trades, but in Celtics green they’re all quite useful.

 

Add in the emergence of young center Tyler Zeller, the exciting arrival of rookie guard Marcus Smart and the recently acquired scoring machine Isaiah Thomas (who may have finally found an NBA home) and this motley Celtics team looks like one of the year’s most endearing, surprising stories.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 16:18
All taxonomy terms: Boston Celtics, NBA
Path: /nba/boston-celtics-are-surprise-playoff-team
Body:

Brad Stevens needs more props in the Coach of the Year race.

 

He doesn’t deserve to win it. No one leading a sub-.500 team should be able to claim that award, and likely never will. At 31-39 at time of publication, Stevens' Boston Celtics are likely to end up on the wrong side of that line.

 

But Boston would also be set to enter the Eastern Conference playoffs, and face the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks, if the postseason started today. That’s pretty surprising.

 

General manager Danny Ainge might not be exactly thrilled about how many wins Stevens has been able to manufacture out of this roster. Ainge, since ending the Big Three era, signed Stevens to a five-year deal that made it clear that a long rebuilding stretch was expected. Ainge has shuffled the Celtics’ deck over and over again since, collecting draft picks and middling talent in the name of tomorrow. At a glance, Ainge could be seen as trying to tank.

 

The Celtics, as constituted, don’t have any players even particularly close to All-Star status. Their leading scorer in recent games has been Evan Turner — a forward who was considered an empty stats guy with the Philadelphia 76ers, and a cancer with the Indiana Pacers.

 

In Boston, though, he’s been productive and efficient. He tallied a triple-double in a recent win over the Brooklyn Nets. His skills are maximized amidst a nucleus of role players whose talents have been organized into something greater than their sum. Jae Crowder, Luigi Datome and Jonas Jerebko were all afterthoughts in midseason trades, but in Celtics green they’re all quite useful.

 

Add in the emergence of young center Tyler Zeller, the exciting arrival of rookie guard Marcus Smart and the recently acquired scoring machine Isaiah Thomas (who may have finally found an NBA home) and this motley Celtics team looks like one of the year’s most endearing, surprising stories.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 16:18
All taxonomy terms: NFL, News
Path: /nfl/nfl-proposed-rule-changes-winners-and-losers
Body:

The annual NFL owners meeting is taking place in Phoenix this week and 23 new rules have been proposed.

 

The NFL adopted six new rules a year ago and most will not get passed. Additionally, it appears that NFL will eliminate the blackout rule and is on the verge of announcing how the league will venture into the Los Angeles market.

 

Here are the winners and losers from a very eventful week in the NFL:

 

Winners:

 

TV viewers

The NFL will eliminate television blackouts in 2015. There wasn’t a single blackout in 2014 and the league had only two in 2013. Long been in place to encourage sell outs, the blackout rule used to routinely enrage local fans who couldn’t get to the game (or afford the ridiculously priced tickets). Every game on every TV? Sounds good for my couch (and is conveniently timed for the Los Angeles market…).

 

City of Los Angeles

It appears that not just one, but two teams are moving to Los Angeles, possibly as early as 2016. If that were to happen, there are two options in place: San Diego and St. Louis moving to Inglewood in Rams’ owner Stan Kroenke’s dream stadium or San Diego and Oakland moving to Carson. Either way, Los Angeles wins. Whether or not they care is another matter. In the short term — aka, 2016 — the teams would likely be housed in USC's Coliseum or UCLA's Rose Bowl (which would leave a lot of empty seats).

 

Protection of the brain

There is too much replay in general. But adding a better system of checks and balances for head injuries is probably a good thing. Not only will more head-to-head hits be reviewable, but also one proposal adds a certified athletic trainer to each stadium who has the power to stop the game if a player appears disoriented.

 

The playoffs

One personal favorite rule change isn’t a rule change at all. The NFL has floated the idea of expanding the playoffs — which appears like a win-win for the owners and league. The equation is simple: More playoff inventory, more money. Apparently, there is plenty of resistance to this idea, however, so it appears that any changes, should they happen, will take longer than originally anticipated. More than one-third of the league already makes the playoffs and expanding to 14 teams would put nearly half of the league into the postseason. Reaching the NFL playoffs needs to be a big deal and needs to be exclusive.

 

Losers:

 

Officials

Instant replay appears to be ready to expand — be it on subjective plays like pass interference or helmet-to-helmet contact. Reducing the risk of concussions is a smart move we can all get behind but adding subjective penalties to the reviewable process seems like way too much. No league in the history of sport has ever reduced instant replay (only added to it) so the officials can expect their jobs to get even tougher. Especially, if Bill Belichick gets his way where every aspect of every play would be reviewable.

 

Additionally, there are proposals to add a third coach’s challenge and a review of the play clock. Both would make the officials' job that much tougher.

 

Dez Bryant

Bryant represents all pass catchers here. While the league has continually tweaked rules to help the passing game, changes to how players complete a catch won’t help the receivers. Bryant’s controversial catch in the playoffs looked to be a reception by common sense but was deemed an incompletion by the letter of the law (correctly, by the way). The language will go from “making a football move” to “establishing themselves as a runner.” Losing the ball while going to the ground is still not going to be a completion. Vague? Yes. Difficult to interpret consistently? Yes. Bryant’s play under the new rules? Still no.

 

Point After TD

Tweaks will be made to the extra point. Some want it moved to the one-yard line, which would add excitement. The Colts want to offer some bizarre, backyard 50-yard PAT following a successful two-point play — which also would be exciting. If either of those proposals happen, then I’d move the extra point to the “winners” category. However, the most likely option is moving the extra point to the 15-yard line. And that’s just boring — since kickers made 272-of-301 field goals between 30-39 yards.

 

Raiders fans

Either way the Los Angeles expansion goes, it sounds like the Raiders are leaving the Bay Area. The attire is strange, there is no doubt, but the fans in Oakland are among the most passionate in the league. It sounds like they will be without a team very soon. If the team lands in St. Louis, would the name change? Can you imagine an NFL without the Raiders?

 

City of St. Louis

Best-case scenario for St. Louis is a brand-new stadium on the Mississippi with the Rams staying put. But this city could be out of an NFL franchise all together or it could be swapping 20 years worth of Jerome Bettis, Kurt Warner, Marshall Faulk and Torry Holt for the spiked dog-collars and shoulder pads of Raider Nation? It seems like an odd swap to me.

Teaser:
NFL Proposed Rule Changes: Winners and Losers
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 13:30
All taxonomy terms: Billy Horschel, Golf
Path: /golf/billy-horschel-golf-tip-long-and-straight
Body:

Reigning FedExCup champion Billy Horschel has worked his way onto the short list of players to watch in the 2015 major championships. He’s also a viable candidate to do something no one else has done — successfully defend the FedExCup. In the pages of Athlon's 2015 Golf Annual, Horschel shares the tee-to-green points of emphasis that he and respected instructor Todd Anderson have focused on during his ascension to the top 15 in the World Golf Ranking.

 

Long and Straight

by Billy Horschel

 

With a lot of amateurs, even when they have good width in their backswing, they lose it by having the right arm come in too close to the body. They lose all the stored power they have. When you maintain the width on your downswing that you had on your backswing, it allows you to create that same power (above). When your hands come closer to your body, you lose that width in your right arm (below), and it becomes a handsy golf swing.

However far away your hands are on the backswing, maintain that same distance with the hands. That way, the right arm stays long, and you create that stored power to unleash on the golf ball.

 

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 13:29
All taxonomy terms: NASCAR, News
Path: /nascar/brad-keselowski-saves-best-last-fontana
Body:

Officials in sports constantly find themselves in a “no-win” situation. At best, they’re invisible while making the right calls that don’t affect the game. At worst, they’re the center of attention, causing a controversy that detracts from the final outcome. The last thing you want as a sport is to be constantly talking about subjective calls.

 

Somehow, NASCAR has failed to understand this philosophy, a black cloud of uncertainty following too many finishes the last few years. Fontana was the latest example, a caution thrown with two laps left because of a piece of debris on the racetrack. It’s like calling a foul on a half-court, desperation shot as time expires in basketball, or pass interference on a Hail Mary to end an NFL game.

 

Some would argue driver safety was compromised without some sort of caution. Well, then how do you explain another call two minutes later? During a green-white-checkered finish, Greg Biffle spun and smashed the wall hard on the frontstretch. Easily, a caution could have been thrown in the interests of driver safety, similar to the last lap of February’s Daytona 500. Instead? The race finished under the green flag.

 

Let’s review: a shiny piece of metal barely visible was allowed to change the outcome of a race with two laps left. A car slamming into a SAFER Barrier wasn’t. It’s the type of confusion that results from those calls which left driver Kurt Busch saying “WWE” on the radio to his crew in the closing laps. These calls cost Busch the race, one where he led a race-high 65 circuits.

 

But there’s also one other important place it costs NASCAR: credibility. When fans can’t understand the direction or reasoning behind different calls, they get frustrated. If they don’t see the debris that caused a yellow flag, they claim conspiracy. They’re not talking about who won the race; they’re talking about what caused others to lose.

 

That’s a dangerous cliff, but it’s one NASCAR doesn’t mind walking down. Let’s hope it doesn’t bite them in the end.

 

Through The Gears we go…

 

FIRST GEAR: Keselowski Steals One

 

Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 Penske team has been a step behind for the first part of 2015. While teammate Joey Logano won the Daytona 500, Keselowski went without a top-5 finish during the season’s first four races. For most of Sunday, it was much of the same, leaving him far from the battles up front between Kevin Harvick, Busch, and Matt Kenseth.

 

But a series of late cautions bunched the field and gave him an opportunity. Pitting for fresh tires, a series of green-white-checkered finishes put the No. 2 car in perfect position to blow by the competition on restarts, deftly maneuvering through traffic to lead his only lap all day – the last one.

 

“You don't know how these things are going to work out,” Keselowski said of the frantic finish. “Sometimes you can restart fifth or sixth with four tires, you know, get caught up behind someone who doesn't have tires, end up 10th. You just don't know. It's picking the right lane and hoping that it comes together. For us it did at the end.”

 

Now, the Chase has come together for all of Team Penske in just five races. With Keselowski and Logano both locked in, they can spend the next five months preparing for another run at the title.

 

SECOND GEAR: Busch’s Bad Break

 

Make no mistake, Kurt Busch had the car to beat on Sunday. He was headed toward victory before two straight debris cautions caused green-white-checkered chaos that stole it away. But there’s plenty for Busch to take away from during a quality performance where he was the class of the field just two weeks into his return to the racetrack.

 

“I don’t know what we could have done different,” he said. “We just got pinned in by the yellows and the sequence at the end on which tires we needed to have to optimize how many laps were left. We had two tires; (Brad) Keselowski had four. We didn’t need that extra yellow at the end and I just got out muscled by Keselowski.”

 

Busch now sits inside the top 30 in points, already which means he’ll be Chase- eligible should the team snag a victory. In fact, he’s just 38 points behind 16th-place Carl Edwards, meaning it’s not inconceivable he could make the playoffs on points alone. Considering how much parts of Stewart-Haas Racing has struggled this season, that’s a great accomplishment.

 

THIRD GEAR: Joe Gibbs Racing Stumbles

 

Joe Gibbs Racing, if the season ended today would place all four of its racecars in the Chase. However, it’s small consolation when their drivers sit 13th through 16th in the point standings.

 

Some of that is due to poor luck. Matt Kenseth was a contender at Fontana until a broken axle sabotaged his chances late. Denny Hamlin was also running up front until a penalty for an uncontrolled tire left him fighting from the back of the pack. David Ragan spun out with a top-10 car. Carl Edwards got caught with a speeding penalty. And so on… but the bottom line is, they haven’t been getting the finishes, putting Toyota’s top team in a far more vulnerable position than they should be.

 

“There ain’t nobody in the field with a fast enough car to come back from any penalties,” Hamlin said. “We had one at the inopportune time and it just led to a bad finish.”

 

Hopefully for JGR, Lady Luck will swing their way soon.

 

FOURTH GEAR: Harvick Keeps On Humming

 

When the smoke cleared Sunday, Kevin Harvick was sitting second, his eighth straight top-2 finish. That leaves him three short of tying the modern era record of 11 straight set by Richard Petty in the mid-1970s.

 

Harvick’s been so consistent his lead in the standings is a whopping 28 points after just five events. Only Joey Logano and Martin Truex, Jr. sit within striking distance of the point lead. While the regular season title is meaningless under NASCAR’s new system, the way in which the defending champ has come out swinging is admirable.

 

OVERDRIVE

 

The racing at Fontana, fantastic in recent years was disappointing Sunday. There were just 19 lead changes and the field under green was much more spread out. However, the fans’ enthusiasm hasn’t dampened as the track once again sold out their only Cup date… Dale Earnhardt Jr. rebounded for sixth one week after running dead last at Phoenix. He now has four top-10 finishes in the first five races with new crew chief Greg Ives… Martin Truex, Jr. has five top-10 finishes in a row to start the season. That equals the number of top 10s he got in a full schedule of 36 races driving for FRR last season.

 

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.

 

Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

Teaser:
Brad Keselowski Saves Best For Last at Fontana
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 13:00
Path: /college-football/south-carolina-gamecocks-2015-spring-football-preview
Body:

The last time South Carolina lost six games in a season was back in 2009.

 

After unprecedented success and 42 wins from 2010-13, the Gamecocks came crashing back down to earth with six losses — five in the SEC — in 2014.

 

Steve Spurrier’s resume speaks for itself and South Carolina isn’t devoid of talent, but there is plenty of work to be done this spring in Columbia.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in South Carolina’s Spring Practice:

 

1. Find a pass rush

It’s no secret how bad South Carolina’s pass rush was last season. Spurrier has spoken openly about it all offseason, so something must be done to improve the SEC’s worst pass rush (14.0 total sacks). No one on the team posted more than 2.0 sacks a year ago and new co-defensive coordinator (along with Lorenzo Ward) Jon Hoke’s first job is to find a way to get after opposing quarterbacks.

 

2. Is Connor Mitch the guy?

Dylan Thompson needed a bowl win over Miami to give South Carolina a winning record in his only season under center. He’s gone and Spurrier is looking to break in another starting quarterback for a second straight season. Sophomore Connor Mitch (6-3, 210), who has thrown six career passes, will have the inside track on the job but will be pressed by Perry Orth (6-1, 212) and Michael Scarnecchia (6-4, 201) this spring.

 

3. Rebuild the offensive line

A big part of the preseason hype for South Carolina entering last season was the stable and veteran offensive line. But with Corey Robinson and A.J. Cann now gone, this offense needs to rebuild its front heading into the summer. Brandon Shell is back and is a good piece to build around, but names like Clayton Stadnik, Alan Knott, Cody Waldrop and Will Sport need to step into bigger roles.

 

4. Stop the pass

The Gamecocks were 11th in the SEC in giving up pass plays or 10 yards or more (118) and 10th in pass plays of at least 20 yards or more (42). This secondary was filled with young players last year and it ranked 70th nationally in passes intercepted (11). Of the top six returning defensive backs, five were underclassmen last year and it’s Hoke's job to develop this group.

 

5. Develop star power

South Carolina has claimed some of the biggest stars in the SEC in recent years. With Alshon Jeffery, Marcus Lattimore, Jadeveon Clowney or Connor Shaw, the Cocks had star power. With Thompson, tailback Mike Davis and tight end Rory Anderson gone on offense, only Pharoh Cooper returns with any fanfare on either side of the ball. Cooper is the only returning member of the roster with any All-SEC recognition of any kind. 

 

Pre-Spring Outlook on South Carolina:

 

Spurrier has proven to be a magician in the past and he will need to work some minor miracles with old buddy Hoke if South Carolina wants to get back into the SEC title race. This team has lots of young talent that was forced into action early last year and it falls to the coaching staff to develop it. The SEC East is improving rapidly around Spurrier, so his squad needs to do the same. 

Teaser:
South Carolina 2015 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 12:30
All taxonomy terms: College Football, News
Path: /college-football/college-footballs-top-20-wide-receivers-rise-2015
Body:

College Football’s spring practice session is underway, and all 128 teams and coaches are getting their first glimpse at how their depth chart is shaping up for the 2015 season. And with teams hitting the practice fields, it’s the first chance to take a look at which players are ready to take the next step in their development and emerge as a key contributor.

 

After taking a look at the quarterbacks and running backs on the rise for 2015, let’s finish the offensive side of the ball with the wide receiver position. There’s no shortage of receivers or breakout candidates at this position, but the list is headlined by USC’s JuJu Smith, Florida State’s Travis Rudolph, Virginia Tech’s Isaiah Ford and Ohio State’s Jalin Marshall.

 

Note: Players considered for the on the rise designation had less than 1,000 receiving yards in 2014.

 

College Football’s Top 20 Wide Receivers on the Rise for 2015

 

Malachi Dupre, LSU

If LSU gets any consistency from its quarterbacks in 2015, then it’s safe to assume Dupre will have a breakout campaign. The Louisiana native was the No. 17 overall recruit in the 2014 247Sports Composite and showed his big-play ability as a freshman by averaging 22.7 yards per catch on 14 receptions. Additionally, five of Dupre’s catches went for touchdowns.

 

Isaiah Ford, Virginia Tech

In his true freshman campaign, Ford emerged as Virginia Tech’s top receiver. In 13 contests, Ford grabbed 56 receptions for 709 yards and six scores. He recorded only one performance of 100 yards (Georgia Tech) but averaged 4.3 receptions per game, which ranked ninth among receivers in the ACC. With more consistency from quarterback Michael Brewer and another year to work in the offensive scheme, Ford should only improve on his totals in 2015.

 

DaeSean Hamilton/Geno Lewis, Penn State

The Nittany Lions are loaded with promising young talent at receiver, with Hamilton and Lewis the group’s leading statistical options last season. Hamilton led the team with 82 catches for 899 yards, while Lewis ranked second with 55 receptions for 751 yards. Assuming Penn State can protect quarterback Christian Hackenberg in 2015, the passing attack should take a step forward, allowing Hamilton and Lewis to increase their production and opportunities.

 

Kenny Lawler/Stephen Anderson/Bryce Treggs, California

Let’s group all three of California’s top returning receivers here, as the Golden Bears should have one of the nation’s top passing attacks in 2015. Quarterback Jared Goff returns after throwing for 3,973 yards last season, and the talented trio of Lawler, Anderson and Treggs is due for an increase in opportunities after Chris Harper left for the NFL. With a defense that is still rebuilding, California will have to win with its offense in 2015. Keep an eye on this receiving trio, as it’s a safe bet at least one player will earn All-Pac-12 honors this year.

 

Jalin Marshall, Ohio State

Marshall and Dontre Wilson manned Ohio State’s H-Back position last season, and with the departure of Devin Smith, Evan Spencer and tight end Jeff Heuerman, both players should see an increased role in the offense in 2015. Marshall finished 2014 with 38 receptions for 499 yards and six scores and added 145 yards and one touchdown on the ground. Three of Marshall’s touchdowns came in one game, but he grabbed 24 of his 38 receptions over the final six contests.

 

Deon-Tay McManus, Marshall

The Thundering Herd enters spring with a few holes to fill on offense, as quarterback Rakeem Cato and top receiver Tommy Shuler expired their eligibility after the Boca Raton Bowl. While the quarterback battle could extend into the fall, the receiving corps could find its next go-to receiver in McManus this spring. As a redshirt freshman last year, the Maryland native caught 26 passes for 422 yards and six scores.

 

Speedy Noil, Texas A&M

The Aggies have one of the nation’s top receiving corps in 2015, and this group could get even deeper if Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones take the next step in their development. Noil caught 46 passes for 583 yards and five scores in his first season in College Station. In addition to his receiving totals, Noil averaged nearly 24 yards per kickoff return and 12 yards on punt returns. The sophomore should be one of the SEC’s top all-around playmakers in 2015.

 

Robbie Rhodes, Bowling Green

Bowling Green coach Dino Babers is a former Baylor assistant, and his “Falcon Fast” offense is similar to the one he learned under coach Art Briles in Waco. Rhodes is eligible in 2015 after sitting out 2014 due to NCAA transfer rules, and the sophomore should be an instant-impact performer for the Falcons. As a freshman at Baylor in 2013, Rhodes caught 10 passes for 157 yards (15.7 ypc). The Texas native ranked as the No. 28 recruit in the 2013 247Sports Composite.

 

Demarcus Robinson, Florida

Florida’s offense isn’t going to take a huge step forward in 2015, but new coach Jim McElwain will make a difference with this group. Robinson was the go-to target in the Gators’ passing offense last year, grabbing 53 receptions for 810 yards and seven scores. McElwain’s offense at Colorado State was instrumental in receiver Rashard Higgins (96 catches for 1,750 yards and 17 scores) pushing for All-America honors last season. Robinson won’t make that big of a jump in receiving totals, but he should benefit from the head coaching change this year.

 

Travis Rudolph, Florida State

With the departure of quarterback Jameis Winston, four starters on the offensive line and receiving targets Rashad Greene (WR) and Nick O’Leary (TE), there are a handful of new faces in key roles for Florida State’s offense this spring. Regardless of who takes the snaps under center for the Seminoles, Rudolph should be one of the team’s top playmakers in 2015. He caught 38 passes for 555 yards and four scores as a true freshman last season. Rudolph, Ermon Lane and incoming freshmen George Campbell and Da’Vante Phillips give Florida State one of the nation’s most talented groups of receivers for the next couple of seasons.

 

Artavis Scott, Clemson

As a true freshman last season, Scott led the team with 76 catches (including eight for scores) and recorded 965 receiving yards in 13 games. Scott capped the season on a high note by torching rival South Carolina for 185 yards and two scores, while also posting eight catches for 114 yards against Oklahoma. Scott should easily eclipse the 1,000-yard mark in 2015, especially if rising star quarterback Deshaun Watson stays healthy.

 

Hunter Sharp, Utah State

Despite injuries to Utah State’s top three quarterbacks, the Aggies still finished 10-4 and claimed victories in six out of their last seven games. Sharp was a key junior college find on the recruiting trail for coach Matt Wells, as the California native led the team with 66 catches for 939 yards and seven scores. Assuming Utah State has better luck in the injury department this year, Sharp should easily eclipse 1,000 yards and rank among the Mountain West’s best at receiver.

 

Brandon Sheperd, Oklahoma State

Sheperd entered 2014 with just 15 career receptions, but the Missouri native emerged as one of the top big-play threats in the Big 12. In 13 games, he grabbed 39 receptions for 737 yards and five scores. Sheperd developed a good rapport with quarterback Mason Rudolph late in the season, catching 12 passes for 254 yards and three scores in the final two games of 2014. With Rudolph under center for a full season, Sheperd is expected to be an even bigger piece of the offense in 2015.

 

Cam Sims/Robert Foster, Alabama

With the departure of Amari Cooper, DeAndrew White and Christion Jones, Alabama is essentially starting over at receiver in 2015. Go ahead and pencil in a name from the Crimson Tide roster in this space, the only question is which player will emerge as a go-to target for the quarterback in 2015? Sims and Foster are the two most likely breakout players on the roster, as the duo combined for 13 catches for 106 yards and one score last season. True freshman Calvin Ridley is another name to watch in Tuscaloosa.

 

JuJu Smith, USC

The biggest void on USC’s offense heading into 2015 is at receiver with the departure of Nelson Agholor. Last season, Agholor led the Trojans with 104 catches for 1,313 yards and 12 scores. Coach Steve Sarkisian isn’t hurting for options at receiver with the emergence of Smith, along with the addition of a talented recruiting class for 2015. Smith ranked second on the team with 54 catches for 724 yards and five scores last season and is expected to emerge as quarterback Cody Kessler’s go-to target in 2015.

 

Thomas Sperbeck, Boise State

The Broncos lost top receiver Matt Miller early in 2014 due to injury, but the receiving corps didn’t miss a beat with the emergence of Sperbeck. The California native caught 51 passes and led the team with 877 yards (17.2 ypc). He also delivered in the Fiesta Bowl with his best performance of 2014 (12 receptions for 199 yards) and caught six passes for 148 yards in a 55-30 win over BYU. Even with a new quarterback taking over at Boise State, Sperbeck should be a lock for All-Mountain West honors in 2015.

 

Taywan Taylor, Western Kentucky

The Hilltoppers averaged 374.3 passing yards per game last season and should rank near the top of the nation once again with quarterback Brandon Doughty back under center. Taylor ranked second on the team with 797 yards (17 yards per catch) and third on the stat sheet with seven touchdown catches. Taylor is the team’s top big-play threat and should be an even bigger piece of Western Kentucky’s offense in 2015.

 

Jordan Westerkamp, Nebraska

New coach Mike Riley and coordinator Danny Langsdorf produced their share of prolific passing attacks at Oregon State and a few tweaks are coming to Nebraska’s offense in 2015. The Cornhuskers need quarterback Tommy Armstrong to take the next step in his development this season, but the passing game has all of the necessary pieces in place at receiver. Westerkamp was second on the team in 2014 in catches, yards and receiving touchdowns. With Kenny Bell out of eligibility, Westerkamp should slide into the No. 1 receiving role for Armstrong.

 

D’haquille Williams, Auburn

Williams ranked as one of the top junior college prospects in the nation going into the 2014 season. The Louisiana native didn’t disappoint in his Auburn debut, catching 45 passes for 730 yards and five scores. With Sammie Coates off to the NFL, and Jeremy Johnson – a better passer than Nick Marshall – taking over at quarterback, Williams will see more opportunities in his direction this year.

 

De’Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State

The Bulldogs have several new faces stepping into the lineup with just seven returning starters in 2015. However, there’s little doubt about the strength of this team next season with the return of quarterback Dak Prescott. The senior should be one of the top quarterbacks in the nation and has a talented group of receivers at his disposal. Wilson is a nightmare matchup for opposing defensive backs at 6-foot-5 and 225 pounds. The Birmingham native finished 2014 on a tear, catching at least eight passes in each of his final three games.

 

Other Receivers to Watch in 2015

 

Power 5 Conferences

 

Devon Allen, Oregon

Allen showed plenty of promise as a redshirt freshman in 2014 before a knee injury in the Rose Bowl ended his season. If healthy, Allen should build off his 2014 totals: 41 receptions, 16.7 yards per catch, seven scores.

 

Victor Bolden/Jordan Villamin, Oregon State

The Beavers enter spring with uncertainty at quarterback, but there’s a promising group of receivers returning in 2015. Bolden and Villamin combined for 107 of Oregon State’s 290 catches in 2014.

 

Bra’Lon Cherry, NC State

Cherry is the Wolfpack’s top returning receiver after Bo Hines transferred to Yale. He caught 27 passes for 354 yards and three scores in 2014.

 

Stacy Coley, Miami

Can Coley regain his 2013 form (33 catches, 591 yards) after only grabbing 23 receptions in 2014?

 

Armanti Foreman, Texas

Upgrading the passing attack is coach Charlie Strong’s top priority this spring. The quarterback battle between Jerrod Heard and Tyrone Swoopes could extend into the fall, but the receiving corps is also under the spotlight with the departure of John Harris and Jaxon Shipley. Foreman – the No. 110 recruit in the 247Sports Composite last year – is ready for a bigger role in the offense.

 

J-Shun Harris II, Indiana

The Hoosiers must replace Shane Wynn (56 catches) this offseason. Will Harris emerge in 2015?

 

Levern Jacobs, Maryland

Jacobs missed 2014 due to suspension but he led the team with 47 catches for 640 yards in 2013. He should move into the No. 1 role with Stefon Diggs and Deon Long exiting College Park.

 

Devin Lauderdale, Texas Tech

Lauderdale averaged a healthy 19 yards per catch in 2014 and should see more passes his way in 2015 with the departure of Bradley Marquez.

 

Eric Lauderdale, Arizona State

Lauderdale ranked as a four-star prospect in the 2014 signing class and used a redshirt season in his first year in Tempe. The junior college prospect will be counted on to help replace the production lost by Jaelen Strong (NFL Draft) and Cameron Smith (knee injury).

 

Allen Lazard, Iowa State

Lazard did not disappoint in his true freshman campaign, catching 45 passes for 593 yards and three scores.

 

Gabe Marks, Washington State

Marks led Washington State with 74 receptions and 807 yards in 2013 but sat out 2014 as a redshirt. With the Cougars replacing leading receivers Vince Mayle and Isiah Myers, the door is open for Marks and River Cracraft to become the top receivers in coach Mike Leach’s offense in 2015.

 

Marquez North, Tennessee

North missed three games and battled injuries late in the season but still finished with 30 catches and four scores. He should benefit from a full season of Joshua Dobbs at quarterback.

 

Dante Pettis, Washington

Washington is looking for more playmakers in its receiving corps this offseason. Pettis is a name to watch after catching 17 passes for 259 yards and a touchdown in 2014.

 

Daikiel Shorts/Jordan Thompson, West Virginia

The Mountaineers lose top receivers Kevin White and Mario Alford. Can Shorts (24 catches in 2014) or Thompson (49) emerge as the No. 1 target this year?

 

Damore’ea Stringfellow, Ole Miss

Stringfellow transferred to Ole Miss after catching 20 passes for 259 yards at Washington in 2013. The California native was regarded as a top 100 recruit in the 2013 signing class.

 

Ja’Quay Williams, Louisville

Williams – a Texas A&M transfer – will be counted on for a major role in Louisville’s receiving corps in 2015, as the Cardinals lose standout DeVante Parker, Eli Rogers and tight end Gerald Christian expired their eligibility after the Belk Bowl. James Quick also deserves a mention in this article after catching 36 passes as a sophomore in 2014.

 

Group of 5

 

Devonte Boyd, UNLV

Boyd was one of the nation’s top freshman receivers last season, catching 64 passes for 973 yards and four touchdowns. He should see even more passes in his direction in 2015.

 

Trevon Brown, East Carolina

Brown is a talented playmaker that averaged 18.9 yards per catch (as a true freshman) before a knee injury limited him over the second half of 2014.

 

Steven Dunbar, Houston

Dunbar impressed as a true freshman last season by catching 20 passes for 286 yards. He will be one of the top targets in coach Tom Herman’s offense.

 

Donovan Harden, Georgia State

Illinois State transfer led Georgia State with 60 catches in 2014. With quarterback Nick Arbuckle returning, the Panthers should be one of the Sun Belt’s top passing offenses.

 

Carlos Henderson, Louisiana Tech

Henderson was a big-play threat for the Bulldogs as a redshirt freshman last season. In 12 games, he grabbed 29 receptions for 569 yards and four scores. Henderson’s 19.6 yards per catch ranked second among receivers in Conference USA in 2014.

 

Eric Judge, San Diego State

San Diego State has a new play-caller (Jeff Horton), and a likely transfer under center (Maxwell Smith), but Judge is a name to watch this spring. He caught 24 passes for 471 yards (and two scores) in 12 games last year.

 

Jesse Kroll, Central Michigan

Kroll ranked second on the team last season with 36 receptions for 582 yards and four scores. With Titus Davis expiring his eligibility, Kroll should emerge as the No. 1 target for quarterback Cooper Rush.

 

Mekale McKay, Cincinnati

The Bearcats return a loaded group of weapons for quarterback Gunner Kiel. McKay tied for the team lead with eight touchdown catches last season and ranked second on the team with 44 receptions. He could be primed for an even bigger role in 2015.

 

Dijon Paschal, Arkansas State

Paschal had a breakout year in 2014, catching 37 passes for 642 yards as a redshirt freshman. Arkansas State’s offense is only going to get better in 2015 with quarterback Fredi Knighten returning.

 

Zach Pascal/Blair Roberts, Old Dominion

The Monarchs lose quarterback Taylor Heinicke and top receiver Antonio Vaughan. But the offense should remain potent with coach Bobby Wilder and coordinator Brian Scott at the controls. Roberts missed 2014 due to injury, while Pascal caught 59 passes for 743 yards.

 

Alonzo Russell, Toledo

Russell ranked fourth in the MAC with eight touchdown catches in 2014. A healthy Phillip Ely at quarterback for the Rockets will only help Russell’s numbers in 2015.

 

Rokeem Williams, Miami (Ohio)

The RedHawks must replace quarterback Andrew Hendrix, but there’s a promising trio of young receivers returning in 2015. Williams caught 35 passes and averaged 19.5 yards per reception last year.

 

Ron Willoughby, Buffalo

Willoughby entered 2014 with just three career receptions. He caught 50 passes for 771 yards and nine scores last season. Look for Willoughby and Buffalo’s offense to improve under new coach Lance Leipold.

Teaser:
College Football's Top 20 Wide Receivers on the Rise for 2015
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-march-24-2015
Body:

This is your daily links roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 24: 

 

The cheerleader matchups of the Sweet 16.

 

Dirk Nowitzki's classic Tweet about Steve Nash provides an excuse to use the classic photo you see above.

 

Crying Villanova piccolo girl's 15 minutes included appearing on Fallon and sitting in with the Roots. That's a productive 15 minutes.

 

Ron Hunter made a graceful Twitter exit from this year's tournament.

 

A couple of soccer teammates had a shoving match over who should take a penalty kick.

 

• This is an amazing story: Michael Graham went from feared and hated mid-'80s Hoya, to hoops washout, to troubled loser, to lottery-winning restauranteur. Only in America.

 

Watch Jon Gruden break down the Battle Royal field.

 

Greg Maddux once solicited advice from an ump during an at-bat.

 

Old Dominion's NIT game provided this fat guy a perfect excuse to take off his shirt.

 

Things are getting chippy in the John Chavis-LSU lawsuit.

 

A Dolphins beat writer accidentally tweeted out a porn link.

 

• Watch Bubba Watson get a pie in the face from January Jones on Fallon. That's a random assortment of people.

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 11:34
All taxonomy terms: MLB, News
Path: /mlb/5-mlb-teams-rise-2015
Body:

Half of the MLB teams finished with a losing record in 2014. Of these 15 teams, which are in the best position to experience better results on the diamond this season? Preseason hope is never a guarantee of success once the games that count begin, but fans of these five teams have plenty of reasons to be excited with Opening Day just around the corner.

 

Boston Red Sox

(71-91, 5th in AL East in 2014)

 

If any team knows what it’s like and takes to go from worst to first, it’s the Red Sox. Boston pulled off the feat in 2013, improving from 69-93 to 97-65 and eventually winning the World Series. While it’s premature at this point to paint the Red Sox as a legitimate championship contender, it’s also pretty clear that general manager Ben Cherington is focused on getting back to the postseason.

 

Following a flurry of offseason moves, the only aspect of the team that remains relatively unchanged is the bullpen. Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval were both signed to bolster the heart of the Red Sox lineup to give stalwarts David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia some much-needed support. Boston also hopes it has budding superstars in Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Cuban import Rusney Castillo.

 

The rotation is pretty much brand new too, as Clay Buchholz is all that remains from the quintet that Boston opened 2014 with. Rick Porcello (Detroit) and Wade Miley (Arizona) were both acquired in trades and Justin Masterson was signed to a one-year deal. Joe Kelly, who came over as part of the John Lackey trade with St. Louis last summer, is expected to round out this young and relatively unproven group. Scoring runs shouldn’t be a problem for this Red Sox team. If the new-look rotation comes together and the bullpen gels, Boston could find itself back atop the AL East standings.

 

Chicago White Sox

(73-89, 4th in AL Central)

 

Whether you are a Cubs or White Sox fan, the Windy City is abuzz and eagerly anticipating the start of this season. Despite the additions the Cubs (see below) made, the White Sox were even more aggressive this offseason. General manager Rick Hahn took care of every item on his to-do list, adding a front-of-the-rotation starter (Jeff Samardzija) via trade, while signing a closer (David Robertson), a left-handed bullpen specialist (Zach Duke), a No. 2 hitter (Melky Cabrera) and a new DH (Adam LaRoche) in free agency.

 

These significant new pieces will join cornerstones Chris Sale (the ace) and Jose Abreu (the slugging first baseman from Cuba, pictured above right), as the White Sox look to join the Royals and Indians in the pursuit of ending the Tigers’ four-year reign in the division. There’s no question the White Sox have improved their roster, but this is not a team without flaws (back end of the rotation, lineup depth). That said, the front office and ownership were intent on getting better, and they put their money where their mouth was in hopes of accomplishing this. It’s now up to manager Robin Ventura and the players to make the moves pay off in the win-loss column.

 

Chicago Cubs

(73-89, 5th in NL Central)

 

Is THIS the year the Cubs break their century-long World Series drought? Probably not, but expectations are definitely on the rise, as Theo Epstein and company’s comprehensive rebuilding plan should finally start bearing tangible fruit. Not only is the organization’s farm system ripe with impact talent, headlined by uber-prospect Kris Bryant, but Joe Maddon also appears to be the right manager to lead this team to the next stage – becoming a consistent contender.

 

While much of the focus in the first three years of the Epstein regime has been to strengthen and develop the farm system (mission accomplished), the franchise also showed its commitment to winning by signing ace Jon Lester in free agency, while also acquiring leadoff man/centerfielder Dexter Fowler, catchers Miguel Montero and David Ross, and bringing back reliable righty Jason Hammel. They beef up a roster that already featured All-Stars Anthony Rizzo and Starlin Castro, along with an underrated bullpen.

 

Things are looking up for the North Siders, but this team may still be a year or two away from being a legitimate contender. However, things could change, especially if Bryant (when he arrives) and fellow highly regarded prospects Jorge Soler, Javier Baez and Arismendy Alcantara end up being as good as advertised. The Wrigley Field renovations won’t be finished for the April 5 season opener against archrival St. Louis, but it will be the team on the field, not the empty bleachers, that will have everyone’s attention.

 

Miami Marlins

(77-85, 4th in NL East)

 

The Marlins improved by 15 wins from 2013 to ’14, and while it may be too much to expect them to pull off an encore, Miami could make a serious push for a Wild Card spot. First off, any team that boasts NL home run leader Giancarlo Stanton has to be considered a threat, but it appears the lineup is starting to come together around him. Not only do the Marlins boast one of the majors’ best outfield trios in Stanton, Christian Yelich and Marcell Ozuna, but speedy Dee Gordon and the versatile Martin Prado were acquired via trades and Mike Morse was signed in free agency.

 

The rotation got some help too in the additions of veterans Mat Latos and Dan Haren, but it’s the eventual return of ace Jose Fernandez that could hold the key to this season. The 2013 NL Rookie of the Year made just eight starts last season before undergoing Tommy John surgery. He probably won’t be back on the mound until the summer, but Fernandez has the potential to be a difference-maker down the stretch.

 

Miami also benefits from the company it keeps in that once you get past Washington in the NL East, the other three teams all enter with plenty of question marks, especially Atlanta and Philadelphia. Whether the Marlins can take advantage of this remains to be seen, but don’t be surprised if Mike Redmond’s club is still in the postseason discussion come September.

 

Houston Astros

(70-92, 4th in AL West)

 

Don’t look now, but it may be time to start taking the Astros seriously. Yes, this team is just a season removed from going 51-111, but last year saw a 19-game turnaround. Playoff contention is probably a bit too much to expect for 2015, but things appear to be headed in the right direction

 

Similar to the Cubs, Houston has a pretty stocked farm system that offered a glimpse of the future last season. George Springer made his much-anticipated debut last April and he didn’t disappoint, swatting 20 home runs in just 78 games before a quad injury ended his season in the middle of July. Springer and All-Star second baseman Jose Altuve, who led the majors in 2014 with a .341 average and set a franchise record for hits (225), are the centerpieces to a lineup that now includes former Brave Evan Gattis and some other former top prospects (catcher Jason Castro, first baseman Jon Singleton) who need to take the next step in their development.

 

The rotation could surprise, especially if Dallas Kuechel and Collin McHugh can match last season’s success. The key will be if the other starters — expected to be veteran Scott Feldman, lefty Brett Oberholtzer and trade acquisition Dan Straily — can hold their own. If the starters can make it through five or six innings, the bullpen should be able to close things out, as Luke Gregerson and Pat Neshek were both signed in free agency to bolster a group that has blown 74 saves the past three seasons.

 

Among the five teams on this list, Houston is definitely the one that has the most question marks entering 2015. The Astros are probably the farthest away from playoff contention, but that doesn’t mean new manager A.J. Hinch’s team won’t make some noise of its own this season either. Houston still has problems, but it finally has some hope for the future too.

Teaser:
5 MLB Teams on the Rise in 2015
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 11:30
Path: /college-football/tennessee-volunteers-2015-spring-football-preview
Body:

Expectations are starting to soar in Knoxville for a reason.

 

Butch Jones has quickly rebuilt the Tennessee depth chart with two incredibly talented recruiting classes. The results on the field were tangible as well, as the Vols got back to the postseason and were extremely impressive against quality competition like Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and Iowa.

 

However, there are major strides this program still needs to take before it can become an SEC title contender.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in Tennessee’s Spring Practice:

 

1. Handle the training room

Butch Jones has implemented a unique day-on, day-off strategy for spring practice due in large part to his lack of healthy starters. There are big-time names on both sides of the ball — like Jalen Hurd, Curt Maggitt and Derek Barnett, for example — who will not be going through much contact this spring, if at all. With nine players off the depth chart this spring, Tennessee needs to win in the rehab room as much as it does on the field. 

 

2. Build the D-line

Nowhere is the lack of starting bodies more obvious than along the defensive line. Barnett, Maggitt as well as Danny O’Brien and incoming star freshman Kyle Phillips are considered “out” while other D-line contributors will be limited. This leaves the Vols with five defensive linemen in spring camp — which not only hurts the much-needed development of the defensive line but also the progress the offensive line could make as well.

 

3. Stop opposing pass rushers

Speaking of the offensive line, the Vols allowed 43 sacks last year. That number ranks 122nd nationally and dead last in the SEC by a large margin. The good news is this unit should be improved in 2015. Jones’ offensive line returns four starters and the depth behind the starters has gotten better as well. Marcus Jackson won’t be available this spring but that may only aid in the development of younger prospects. 

 

4. The DeBord-Dobbs marriage

Baring some unforeseen circumstances, Joshua Dobbs is the starting quarterback in Knoxville. The rising junior will now be under the tutelage of new coordinator Mike DeBord. How does DeBord’s tweaks to the offense (if any) mesh with Dobbs’ skill set? Building the young playmaker's repertoire and keeping him healthy could lead to an All-SEC type breakout season from the Vols' signal-caller. And it could put the Big Orange in contention in the East.

 

5. Temper expectations

Jones constantly talks about raising a football team and keeping this group grounded will be a big part of his offseason duties this year. The bowl win was almost too impressive and has led to many experts touting the Vols as a potential division front-runner. The depth chart isn’t there yet and both sides of the ball have a long way to go before an SEC crown is within reach. How this extremely talented, but extremely young roster handles rising expectations will be imperative this spring and summer.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook on Tennessee:

 

The anticipation growing in East Tennessee will only continue to boil over until Week 1 of the 2015 season. There are plenty of reasons for optimism with a depth chart getting better by the day and a playmaker finally developing under center. But issues in the trenches and on the training table should keep this group grounded and focused. If Jones and company keep grinding, this team will begin to push for SEC East supremacy. The question is whether or not it happens in '15 or ’16. 

Teaser:
Tennessee Volunteers 2015 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 11:00
Path: /nba/ranking-nba%E2%80%99s-best-nicknames
Body:

6. Chris Andersen, Miami Heat: “Birdman”

Superhero, rapper, Oscar winner… and Miami Heat role player. The frequently used “Birdman” moniker works so well for Chris Andersen because his outrageously tattooed body and surprisingly vertical style do not seem exactly human. Even the most casual NBA fans have taken notice of Andersen in recent years, as he jumps off the screen like a raptor in a chicken coop. His rim protection and ability to rebound and finish near the hoop often made him a closer for the Miami squads who saw the Finals for four straight years. Now 36 and near the end of his road, Birdman won’t soon be forgotten in annals of postseason goonery.

 

5. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: “The Greek Freak”

Like the titanic men populating the mythology of his homeland centuries and centuries before him, Giannis Antetokounmpo is larger and more powerful than life. The 20-year-old has a body that’s freakish in most ways, standing at 6’11” and seemingly still growing. And, like Anthony Davis, Antetokounmpo has an uncanny knack for actually being able to use his ridiculous frame. He’s mobile, skilled, and has the instincts of a hunter. Once he matures and plays through more of his raw mistakes, this oversized utility man may earn a nickname that refers to more than just his unusual physical features.

 

4. Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies: “Z-Bo”

You know a nickname’s good when you start using it so casually that it seems like an actual name. The way Randolph tells it, this tag doesn’t mean too much of anything — it’s just something he was called in middle school, and it’s stuck ever since. But in these two syllables there is, somehow, an evocation of the force that Zach brings to the court. Say “Z-Bo” out loud, and you’ll start to feel fear of getting clobbered in the paint, trying to hold your ground as the Memphis Grizzlies’ workhorse lowers his shoulder and breaks you down, over and over again.

 

3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz: “The Stifle Tower”

The Utah Jazz are much further along in their rebuilding process than they previously anticipated, and it has a lot to do with the emergence of this 22-year-old. The French-born Gobert has been the fourth-most effective defensive center in the NBA through his sophomore season, earning a starting role and a quickly rising reputation in Salt Lake City. One might even say he stands as tall as one famous Parisian tower by the rim, stifling each and every penetration with a calm moxie that’s rare for such a youngster.

 

2. DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: “Boogie”

Cousins, like the genre of his nickname, doesn’t proceed at a typical beat. The outspoken, emotionally volatile center is extremely talented, and extremely entertaining. And while the always tumultuous state of his franchise hasn’t always made for the best display case for his immense skills, it has been an appropriate backdrop for his iconoclastic mentality. Boogie is a joy, albeit a difficult one, and it’s almost hard to imagine how he’d fit in with an organization that provided him with less shaky ground. DeMarcus is the undisputed king of unlevel NBA territory, for now.

 

1. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors: “The Splash Brothers”

It’s fun to say, and it’s damn accurate. Steph Curry and Klay Thompson are well on their way to proving themselves as the best shooting backcourt in league history, if they haven’t already. What else can you say about a pairing that’s got someone who scored 37 points in one quarter (Thompson) but who isn’t even the MVP candidate of the two? That’s Curry, whose playmaking and world-class handles and vision open the way for the endless long-range assault that the two produce together. The Splash Brothers hold the NBA’s most appropriate, and most fun, informal title.

 

— John Wilmes

@johnwilmesNBA

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 10:32
Path: /college-football/west-virginia-mountaineers-2015-spring-football-preview
Body:

West Virginia rebounded from a 4-8 mark in 2013 to finish 7-6 and earn its first winning record (5-4) in Big 12 action since joining the league. The Mountaineers return 16 starters for 2015, including talented running back Rushel Shell and defensive backs Daryl Worley (CB) and Karl Joseph (S). Coach Dana Holgorsen has this program trending in the right direction, but his 2015 team has a few holes to address this spring, including a quarterback battle and question marks on both lines of scrimmage.

 

5 Storylines to Watch in West Virginia’s Spring Practice

 

1. The Quarterbacks

West Virginia already has a good idea of what it has in its two quarterbacks vying for the starting role. Skyler Howard started the final two games of 2014 and finished the year with 829 passing yards and eight passing scores. Howard’s accuracy (50.9 percent) is one area to watch in 2015. William Crest was slated to work in the backup role last year. However, a shoulder injury sidelined the talented freshman in September after he rushed for 27 yards and completed three of four passes against Towson. The upside is clearly with Crest. Can he exit spring with a clear hold on the No. 1 job?

 

2. New Targets at WR

While the quarterback battle is expected to draw most of the offseason attention in Morgantown, West Virginia also has to find replacements for its top two receivers. Kevin White was one of the nation’s top receiving threats last year, catching 109 passes for 1,447 yards and 10 scores. Mario Alford also departs after recording 65 receptions for 945 yards and 11 touchdowns. This is a big spring for Jordan Thompson and Daikiel Shorts to emerge as the go-to targets for the quarterback. Shelton Gibson, freshman Jovon Durante and junior college recruit Ka’Raun White are also names to watch this offseason.

 

3. Stabilizing the Offensive Line

The Mountaineers must replace arguably their best offensive linemen from last year’s group in guards Quinton Spain and Mark Glowinski. Some shuffling is already underway for line coach Ron Crook, as Adam Pankey (13 starts in 2014) is moving to guard after playing at left tackle last year. Marquis Lucas and Tyler Orlosky also return as starters, but which positions will they play? Could Lucas flip to left tackle? This spring is the first opportunity to sort out this unit.

 

4. Restock the Defensive Line

Under Tony Gibson’s direction last season, West Virginia limited conference opponents to 27.1 points per game. And with nine starters back, the Mountaineers could improve on that total in 2015. The biggest concern for Gibson has to be the depth in the trenches with the departure of Shaquille Riddick and Dontrill Hyman. Riddick earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors after recording seven sacks in 2014. Kyle Rose and Noble Nwachukwu are back after productive 2014 campaigns, but Gibson still needs to find a third starter, as well as develop the depth needed to stop opposing offenses in the Big 12.

 

5. Replacements at Linebacker

Gibson’s busy spring continues with a few new faces stepping into starting roles at linebacker. Brandon Golson and Wes Tonkery have expired their eligibility, which leaves Shaq Petteway, Nick Kwiatkoski and Edward Muldrow as the unit’s top returners. Jared Barber also returns from a torn ACL, while Isaiah Bruce hopes to find the form that helped him rank second on the team in tackles in 2012.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook on West Virginia in the Big 12:

 

West Virginia has a few key voids to fill this offseason, but the middle of the Big 12 is open. The Mountaineers defeated Baylor in Morgantown and lost to TCU by just a point. This team has made progress since joining the Big 12 under coach Dana Holgorsen and should easily make a bowl in 2015. How high this team climbs in the standings revolves around solving quarterback battle and the new faces on the offensive and defensive lines. Surpassing last year’s win total wouldn’t be a surprise. 

Teaser:
West Virginia Mountaineers 2015 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 10:30
All taxonomy terms: Jimmy Walker, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2015-majors-no-12-jimmy-walker
Body:

They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2015 — 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. 12: Jimmy Walker

 

Born: Jan. 16, 1979, Oklahoma City, Okla. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 4 | 2014 Wins (Worldwide): 3 | 2014 Earnings (PGA Tour): $5,787,016 (4th) World Ranking: 13

2014 Key Stats

      Total Driving: 78 (2nd)

      Greens in Regulation Percentage: 69.03% (8th)

      Final Round Scoring Average: 68.92 (3rd)

 

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Walker has improved his position on the money list every year since 2005, climbing from 207th to fourth in 2014. He is among the longest players off the tee and is now one of the best wedge players, and yet his greatest strength is in his flawless putting technique and ability to handle big moments. These are the attributes that made Tiger, Phil, Ernie and Vijay so dominant, and although Jimmy is a little late coming to the party, he still has four or five years to make up for the time he spent toiling among the middle class on Tour. In addition to winning three times last year, he finished eighth at The Masters, sixth at the Players Championship, ninth at the U.S. Open and seventh at the PGA Championship. To continue his climb up the world rankings, he likely has to win one of these events this year — and it would surprise no one if he did.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 35
Wins: 0

2014 Performance:
Masters - T8
U.S. Open - T9
British Open - T26
PGA Championship - T7

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T8 (2014)
U.S. Open - T9 (2014)
British Open - T26 (2014)
PGA Championship - T7 (2014)
Top-10 Finishes: 3
Top-25 Finishes: 4
Missed Cuts: 4

 

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

 

Athlon's 2015 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, Billy Horschel, also takes you tee to green with full-swing instruction and short game essentials. BUY IT NOW.

Teaser:
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 10:19
All taxonomy terms: ACC, Clemson Tigers, College Football, News
Path: /college-football/clemson-tigers-2015-schedule-and-analysis
Body:

Clemson has won 42 games in the last four seasons.

 

However, all of the talent — both on the field and calling the plays on the sideline — that helped Dabo Swinney reach that number has moved on. There is plenty left in the cupboard, namely star quarterback Deshaun Watson and the second-most talented roster in the ACC, but another brutal schedule will make getting to the ACC title game a tall order.

 

The Tigers' slate in 2015 is dotted with landmines. Two tricky road trips in the Atlantic Division to Louisville and NC State won’t be easy. Crossover play against Georgia Tech (home) and Miami (road) could feature the top two teams in the Coastal. The non-conference schedule is just as brutal with Notre Dame and South Carolina on tap.

 

And then there is that little meeting on Nov. 7 in Death Valley against the Florida State Seminoles.

 

The Tigers will likely enter the summer a top-25 team but will have to earn their way through a tough schedule to win its first ACC title since 2011. Here is a game-by-game breakdown of what Clemson faces in 2015:

 

2015 Clemson Tigers Schedule

 

Bye: Week 4, Sept. 26; * - Thursday 

 

WkOpp.DateLocation
1.Sept. 5Clemson, SC
In-state tune up with Wofford in the season opener should be extremely one-sided. Terriers haven't beaten big brother since 1933 and has faced Clemson just three times since World War II.
2.Sept. 12Clemson, SC
The Tigers are 4-0 all-time against Appalachian State. The Mountaineers could be the preseason front-runners in the Sun Belt Conference.
3.Sept. 17*Louisville, KY
First-ever meeting took place last year, a 23-17 Tigers win in Death Valley. This early Thursday night game sets stage for someone to become top challenger to Florida State.
5.Oct. 3Clemson, SC
Historic Meeting The third-ever meeting between the Midwestern powerhouse and the Southern staple should be a fan favorite for both programs. And is likely to feature two top-20 teams — possibly, top 10.
6.Oct. 10Clemson, SC
ACC Championship Game Preview? Star freshman DeShaun Watson's knee issues began in the ugly 28-6 loss to Georgia Tech late last season in Atlanta. The Tigers have won three straight in Death Valley over the Coastal Division defending champs.
7.Oct. 17Clemson, SC
Clemson has beaten BC four straight years and six of the last seven, even though the last matchup was the closest score since 2010. The Eagles' power-rushing attack will challenge the rebuilt Tigers D-line following a game against a triple-option offense.
8.Oct. 24Miami, FL
Leaving Death Valley for only the second time in the first eight weeks, Clemson has to go on the road in crossover play after facing two physical running games. These two haven't met since 2010 and Miami holds a 6-3 edge in the series.
9.Oct. 31Raleigh, NC
Trap Game A clear look-ahead moment for the Tigers with Florida State coming to town the following week. Clemson is 10-1 in its last 11 against Wolfpack but three of last four losses in the series have come in Raleigh.
10.Nov. 7Clemson, SC
Division Showdown The top game in the Atlantic Division each season should once again feature these two teams. The Noles have won three straight overall but the Tigers have won five of six against FSU in Clemson. The Tigers will be looking for revenge after the painful six-point overtime loss in Tallahassee a year ago.
11.Nov. 14Syracuse, NY
Will be just the fourth meeting all-time, as Clemson has won the first two ACC matchups relatively easy by a combined score of 65-20.
12.Nov. 21Clemson, SC
Back-to-back games with bottom feeders (Cuse) should finally allow Clemson to exhale after a brutal heart of the schedule. The Tigers have topped the Deacs in six straight by an average of 25 points.
13.Nov. 28Columbia, SC
Rivalry Game Snapped five-game losing streak to hated Gamecocks with impressive 35-17 showing last year. The Tigers are 3-3 in last six trips to Columbia.

 

Listen to the Cover 2 Podcast: Early 2015 ACC Preview



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Teaser:
Clemson Tigers 2015 Schedule and Analysis
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 10:00
Path: /college-football/north-carolina-tar-heels-2015-spring-football-preview
Body:

This spring marks Year 4 of the Larry Fedora era at North Carolina and unfortunately, things have been trending in the wrong direction for the Tar Heels’ football program. Despite playing in a second straight bowl game (ineligible in Fedora’s first season), UNC’s win total has decreased each of the past two seasons since going 8-4 in 2012. While Fedora has been successful in implementing his fast-paced offense, the Tar Heels’ defense has steadily declined. Fedora brought in former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik to overhaul the defense, while the offense returns all but one starter. In a seemingly wide-open ACC Coastal Division, can the Tar Heels find a way to put it all together and break through in 2015?

 

5 Storylines to Watch in North Carolina’s Spring Practice

 

1. Starting Over on Defense

There’s no way to sugarcoat it – North Carolina’s defense was abysmal last season. The Tar Heels finished 120th in FBS in total defense (497.8 ypg) and tied for 119th in scoring defense (39.0 ppg). Their woes on defense can pretty much be summed up in the 70 points and 789 yards East Carolina piled up in its Sept. 20 win in Chapel Hill. Not surprisingly, Fedora is basically starting over; hiring former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik as defensive coordinator to oversee the implementation of a new scheme. This process begins in earnest, as Chizik and his staff will use spring practice to introduce the new system, while getting a better idea of the personnel they have to work with. Six starters are returning on that side of the ball, but given all of the issues last season, it may as well be viewed as a blank slate.

 

2. Quarterback Controversy?

Marquise Williams was named third-team All-ACC after accounting for 3,856 yards of total offense and 35 total touchdowns in 2014. A senior, Williams has to be considered the favorite for the starting job, but he will miss spring practice due to a hip injury. Williams’ absence presents third-year sophomore Mitch Trubisky with a chance to impress the coaching staff. Trubisky threw five touchdown passes and four interceptions last season and he was recruited by Fedora for this offense while Williams came to UNC the year before Fedora was hired. Williams has proven himself capable of orchestrating Fedora’s system, but can Trubisky show enough this spring to create a viable QB competition come fall camp?

 

3. Sorting Out the Backfield

The seventh-ranked rushing offense in the ACC last season, North Carolina returns every player who ran the ball, including Joey Mangili, the punter. The key returnees are Williams, who led the team in attempts, yards and rushing touchdowns, along with a quintet of running backs in T.J. Logan, Romar Morris, Elijah Hood, Charles Brunson and Khris Francis. Logan, a junior, and Morris, a senior, have the most experience, while Hood was the top recruit of the 2014 signing class. The Tar Heels don’t lack for options and Fedora isn’t shy to use them. All five backs had at least 27 carries last season. The question is, will one or more of them emerge in the spring to the point a running back and not the quarterback will lead the team in carries this fall?

 

4. Development of the Offensive Line

North Carolina not only returns just about every key offensive weapon from last season, but also any lineman who started a game. Nine different Tar Heels started up front, a group that’s led by third-team All-ACC right guard Landon Turner and the junior trio of left tackle John Ferranto, left guard Caleb Peterson and center Lucas Crowley. The returnees will be joined this spring by early enrollees Mason Veal and William Sweet with Tommy Hatton scheduled to arrive in the summer. Similar to the running backs, Fedora doesn’t lack for options along the offensive line. It’s figuring out which pieces fit best, as UNC looks to improve upon both its rushing production (151.4 ypg, 83rd in FBS, 4.0 ypc) and pass protection (28 sacks allowed, tied for 71st) this season.

 

5. Identifying Defensive Linchpins

The Tar Heels’ issues on defense are well documented, but one of the benefits of breaking in a new scheme and coaching staff is that the players can basically put the past behind them too. Competition in the spring should be pretty spirited, as everyone gets a chance to show the new coaches what they bring to the table. It would help both the coaches and the players if some leaders and/or building blocks emerge sooner than later, such as junior cornerback Brian Walker, junior defensive end Junior Gnonkonde or senior linebacker Jeff Schoettmer. The new guys, like early enrollees Jalen Dalton and Andre Smith and redshirt freshman Jeremiah Clarke, also will get their chances this spring.

 

Pre-Spring Outlook on North Carolina in the ACC:

 

The Tar Heels played in a bowl game in 2014, but won just six games and were one of the worst defenses in the entire nation. Every starter but one returns on offense, while former Auburn head coach Gene Chizik has come to Chapel Hill to overhaul the defense. Offense shouldn’t be an issue for Larry Fedora’s team, but the defense must improve if North Carolina wants to be viewed as a legitimate contender in what appears to be a fairly wide-open ACC Coastal Division in 2015.

Teaser:
North Carolina Tar Heels 2015 Spring Football Preview
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 09:30
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-16-east-region-preview-top-players-and-tv-schedule
Body:

The East region will have an ACC flavor even though the ACC regular season champion is at home. Louisville and NC State will meet in the Sweet 16 on an ACC floor for a rare conference game in the NCAA Tournament.

 

At the same time, Oklahoma will try to save face for a beleaguered Big 12, but the Sooners will have to go through Tom Izzo, who as usual has his Michigan State squad peaking in March.

 

Here’s a look at the East Regional in Syracuse at a glance.

 

Friday’s Schedule

No. 8 NC State vs. No. 4 Louisville (7:37 pm., TBS)

No. 7 Michigan State vs. No. 3 Oklahoma (approx. 10:07 p.m., TBS)

 

Top Five Players

1. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville

2. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma

3. Terry Rozier, Louisville

4. Branden Dawson, Michigan State

5. Trevor Lacey, NC State

 

Top Dog — Oklahoma

For the first time since 2004, a regional will begin with the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds eliminated in the first weekend. That leaves No. 3 Oklahoma as the top-seeded team in the East region. The Sooners held off Dayton in the round of 32 thanks to some late heroics by Buddy Hield. He’s usually a big-time shotmaker, but a block helped seal the win over the Flyers. Oklahoma coach Lon Kruger is taking his fourth team to the Sweet 16, but he hasn’t taken a team beyond that since the 1994 Final Four at Florida.

 

Underdog — NC State

NC State was one of the most frustrating teams during the regular season, a team with the talent to be a top team in the ACC, but also a team capable of losing to Clemson, Boston College and Wake Forest. LSU collapsed down the stretch in the round of 64, and Villanova’s offense went cold for an entire game as NC State went to the Sweet 16. Cat Barber, Trevor Lacey and Abdul-Malik Abu are a talented trio, and the Wolfpack can’t be dismissed simply because it is a No. 8 seed in the Sweet 16.

 

An All-ACC Sweet 16 game

With memberships ballooning in the major conferences, the selection committee is having a tougher and tougher time of making sure that conference teams don’t play each other until the Elite Eight. The ACC sent six of its 15 members to the field and two of them — Louisville and NC State — will meet in the Sweet 16. On an ACC court in the Carrier Dome, no less. The Louisville-NC State meeting in the regional semifinal was permissible since the two teams played only once during the regular season. NC State won 74-65 on Feb. 14.

 

The Quote

“(Former Michigan State All-American) Draymond Green actually this morning said ‘Don't let this be your last game,’ and I texted him back and said, ‘I won't.’ But that was our mindset coming in. We knew they were a great team, we had to jump out on them early.”

-Michigan State guard Travis Trice on his hot start against Virginia

Teaser:
Sweet 16 East Region: Preview, Top Players and TV Schedule
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-16-south-region-preview-top-players-and-tv-schedule
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The first weekend of the NCAA Tournament wiped away notion of Cinderellas, but if you’re looking for an underdog, perhaps you can find one in the South Region.

 

Going up against Duke is the lowest seed remaining in the Tournament, a team that won six games just four years ago and a team that’s been very good for a long time but never reached the Final Four. Of course, we’re talking about UCLA, Utah and Gonzaga, so Cinderella fits this crew about as much as “South” region does.

 

Here’s a look at the South Regional in Houston at a glance.

 

Friday’s Schedule

No. 11 UCLA vs. No. 2 Gonzaga (8:15 p.m., CBS)

No. 5 Utah vs. No. 1 Duke (approx. 9:45 p.m., CBS)

 

Top Five Players

1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke

2. Delon Wright, Utah

3. Justise Winslow, Duke

4. Tyus Jones, Duke

5. Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga

 

Top Dog — Duke

Even before the Tournament, Duke looked like the easy favorite in the South region. The first two games made the pick look even more easy. The Blue Devils made easy work of Robert Morris and then had no trouble with the length of San Diego State in the round of 32. The Blue Devils averaged 1.11 points per possession against San Diego State, the third-highest average against the Aztecs this season. Jahlil Okafor was 12-of-16 from the field for 26 points, but the most impressive player may have been Justise Winslow. The freshman had 13 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks in a highlight-reel day.

 

Underdog — UCLA

Go ahead and debate if UCLA should be in the field in the first place, but it’s no question the Bruins have taken advantage of the selection committee’s vote of confidence. A goaltending call late in the round of 64 gave UCLA a leg up on SMU, and the Bruins thrashed No. 11 seed UAB in 92-75 to go to the Sweet 16. UCLA isn’t a deep team, but the Bruins can score. UCLA’s starting five scored 88 points against the Blazers.

 

Gonzaga’s redemption

The Bulldogs have been snakebit in the NCAA Tournament, reaching the Sweet 16 on once since 2006. The program hasn’t won in the Sweet 16 since 1999, the year before Mark Few became the head coach. This is one of Few’s best teams in 16 seasons in Spokane, but Gonzaga will need to conquer one demon to reach the regional final. The Sweet 16 matchup with UCLA is a rematch of the 2006 regional semifinal that ended with National Player of the Year Adam Morrison in tears after a 73-71 Bruins win.

 

The Quote

“Now we look around and it's like, Pinch me. Here we are. It's been a fun run with a lot of these guys that have been a part of it.”

-Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak, whose first team at Utah in 2011-12 went 6-25 in 2011-12

Teaser:
Sweet 16 South Region: Preview, Top Players and TV Schedule
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 08:30
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-16-midwest-region-preview-top-players-and-tv-schedule
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Kentucky’s bid for an undefeated season will have to go through West Virginia, the team that in 2010 beat what was arguably John Calipari’s best team in Lexington.

 

In the other regional semifinal, Wichita State and Notre Dame will try to re-orient themselves for an emotional — for very different reasons — Sweet 16 game.

 

Here’s a look at the Midwest Regional in Cleveland at a glance.

 

Thursday’s Schedule

No. 7 Wichita State vs. No. 3 Notre Dame (7:15 p.m., CBS)

No. 5 West Virginia vs. No. 1 Kentucky (approx. 9:45 p.m., CBS)

 

Top Five Players

1. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

2. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky

3. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame

4. Fred VanVleet, Wichita State

5. Ron Baker. Wichita State

 

Top Dog — Kentucky

Kentucky has done nothing to change the perception that it is the top dog of the entire Tournament. In the round of 32, Cincinnati gave the Wildcats some difficulty early on, but Kentucky’s depth and length was too much to handle. The Bearcats tried to get under Kentucky’s skin with a physical game to no avail. If anything was an issue, Kentucky’s guards had an off game against Cincinnati. Aaron Harrison, Andrew Harrison, Devin Booker and Tyler Ulis combined to shoot 12-of-34 from the field overall and 4-of-15 from 3.

 

Underdog — Wichita State

A disclaimer: the underdog label is not appropriate for Wichita State. In the last three years, Wichita State has gone to the Final Four, started a season 35-0 and conquered Kansas in the round of 32. The Shockers have accomplished more in recent years than its Sweet 16 opponent, Notre Dame. But No. 7 Wichita State is the lowest-seeded team remaining in the region. After the build-up to the anticipated matchup with the Jayhawks, the Shockers’ energy levels will be a storyline to watch.

 

Kentucky vs. West Virginia again

Kentucky and West Virginia have met in the NCAA Tournament three times since John Calipari and Bob Huggins have been at their current posts. The most recent was a 71-63 Kentucky win in the round of 32 in 2011. The most memorable was in the 2010 Elite Eight when fourth-seeded West Virginia upset a top-seeded Kentucky team led by John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. This year’s meeting will be just as compelling when undefeated Kentucky faces West Virginia’s relentless pressure. The Wildcats will face back-to-back physical opponents in Cincinnati and West Virginia before they get to the Elite Eight.

 

The Quote

“I'd talk to her during the season and very rarely did I get ‘hey, Mike, how you doing?’ It's like, ‘Have you got them ready? Are they ready? I think we can beat Duke, Mike.’ It's unbelievable. She was intense.”

Notre Dame coach Mike Brey, who revealed Saturday his mother, Betty Brey, died the morning of the Notre Dame’s 67-64 overtime win over Butler.

Teaser:
Sweet 16 Midwest Region: Preview, Top Players and TV Schedule
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 08:00
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-16-west-region-preview-top-players-and-tv-schedule
Body:

The West region will be full of familiar faces on a number of fronts. For starters, each team in the Sweet 16 is no stranger to this stage. In the last five seasons alone, these four teams have been to the regional semifinal 12 times.

 

But if the region goes chalk and sends top two seeds Wisconsin and Arizona to Saturday, the game will be a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight that sent Bo Ryan to his first Final Four.

 

Here’s a look at the West Regional in Los Angeles at a glance.

 

Thursday’s Schedule

No. 4 North Carolina vs. No. 1 Wisconsin (7:47 p.m., TBS)

No. 6 Xavier vs. No. 2 Arizona (approx. 10:17 p.m., TBS)

 

Top Five Players

1. Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

2. T.J. McConnell, Arizona

3. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin

4. Marcus Paige, North Carolina

5. Stanley Johnson, Arizona

 

Top Dog — Wisconsin

The Badgers are making their fourth Sweet 16 appearance in the last five seasons, but the goals are far more grand than they once were for Wisconsin. To reach the Final Four for the second consecutive season, the Badgers have to get through North Carolina. The Tar Heels are generally regarded as a dynamic offensive team because of their up-and-down style, but Wisconsin ranks first in the nation in offensive efficiency. The battle for tempo will be the most interesting matchup of the game.

 

Underdog — Xavier

Xavier is no stranger to this stage. The Musketeers are in the Sweet 16 for the fifth time in the last eight years. But they’re also a No. 6 seed among Wisconsin, Arizona and North Carolina. With freshman Trevon Bluiett and sophomore Jalen Reynolds emerging, this Xavier team is peaking at the right time.

 

Familiar Faces for Sean Miller

The selection committee made sure Sean Miller’s path to his first Final Four was an emotional one. To get to the Sweet 16, the Arizona coach had to go head to head with Ohio State coach Thad Matta, his predecessor and former boss at Xavier. Miller’s Sweet 16 matchup will be a against Xavier, a team he coached for five seasons. On the Xavier bench is Chris Mack, who spent all five of those seasons on Miller’s staff before succeeding him with the Mountaineers.

 

The Quote

“It's been a hard year, it really has. I probably acted sillier in the locker room after this game than I have in quite a while. I'm going to try to enjoy the dickens out of this one for a while.”

-North Carolina coach Roy Williams after the 87-78 win over Arkansas, referring to the passing of mentor and UNC legend Dean Smith earlier this year.

Teaser:
Sweet 16 West Region: Preview, Top Players and TV Schedule
Post date: Tuesday, March 24, 2015 - 07:30

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