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Path: /mlb/kansas-city-royals-2012-preview

Kansas City Royals

The growing feeling in Kansas City is that it’s time to expect more. Last year’s transition season saw 12 players make their big league debuts from a well-stocked and much-praised farm system. More are on the way. Playing .500 now seems a reasonable goal after reaching that plateau just once in the previous 17 years. Doing so would mark a 10-game improvement over last year’s 91 losses — no small thing, right? — but the Royals are aiming higher. Manager Ned Yost set the tone in December by declaring, “I think we’re going to play much better than .500. … I think we’re at a stage in our development as an organization that these kids are ready for (increased expectations).” Maybe so. These young Royals showed numerous positive signs a year ago and now appear good enough to dream. They just might, with a little luck, be good enough to make some serious noise in the American League Central.

Nearly all hopes for a breakthrough summer hinge on a rotation that lacks a proven No. 1- or No. 2-caliber starter. While an early spring trade remains possible, the unit, as currently projected, should still be better than a year ago — particularly if lefthander Jonathan Sanchez, the club’s biggest offseason addition, marshals his high-grade gifts. He battled injuries last year in San Francisco and has been an enigma throughout his six previous seasons. But Sanchez helped the Giants reach the postseason in 2010 by posting a 2.61 ERA after the All-Star break, including a 1.04 mark in his last seven starts. If the Royals get that guy, this rotation suddenly looks a whole lot saltier. The same goes for righthander Luke Hochevar, who hopes to build on a solid second half (6–3 and 3.52) that marked the best sustained stretch of his career. Veteran lefty Bruce Chen returns after signing a two-year deal as a free agent. He garners little respect for reinventing himself after Tommy John surgery despite going 23–15 with a 4.00 ERA in 48 starts since entering the rotation in late May 2010. Those are the rotation’s three certainties. Then it gets interesting. Righthander Felipe Paulino and rookie lefty Danny Duffy closed last season with jobs but face stiff spring competition. Two to watch: lefty Mike Montgomery and righthander Aaron Crow. Montgomery was inconsistent last season at Class AAA Omaha but has legitimate No. 1 potential and will get a long look. Crow made the All-Star team last year as a rookie reliever, but he was drafted (No. 12 overall in 2009) as a starter and will get a chance to win a job. Another possibility is righthander Luis Mendoza, who resuscitated his career at Omaha before pitching well in two late-season starts. Righthanders Vin Mazzaro and Sean O’Sullivan are still around. Lefty Everett Teaford showed potential last season as a rookie swingman.

The Royals strengthened an already strong bullpen by signing free agents Jonathan Broxton and Jose Mijares to one-year deals. Broxton is a former closer and a two-time All-Star but will serve as a setup man for Joakim Soria. Mijares fills the need for a situational lefty. Broxton and Greg Holland also provide the Royals with alternative closers if Soria can’t rebound from an inconsistent 2011. Sidearmer Louis Coleman seems certain to hold a job; the same goes for Crow, if he fails to win a spot in the rotation. Adding Mijares means durable lefty Tim Collins must show better command to keep his spot. Paulino will switch to the bullpen if he fails to make the rotation. The same is likely true for Mendoza, who is out of options. Teaford and Mazzaro could also make the club as long relievers but could easily get squeezed out. The crowded competition makes it even harder to find room for Blake Wood, Kelvin Herrera and Jeremy Jeffress. All five have options.

Middle Infield
Defensively, shortstop Alcides Escobar was everything the Royals envisioned after he arrived in December 2010 from Milwaukee in the Zack Greinke deal. Escobar proved to be a durable, acrobatic playmaker and perked up at the plate after a dreadful first two months. He ended the season with a .254 average after hitting .324 in the final month of the season. Second base, meanwhile, looms as the only real spring battle among position players. It’s Johnny Giavotella’s job to lose, but he needs to show sufficient offensive production to offset severe defensive limitations and mediocre speed. Giavotella, the Royals’ second-round pick in 2008, hit .247 in 46 games as a rookie in 2011. The alternative is Chris Getz, who offers no pop (nine extra-base hits in 380 at-bats) but steady defense and plus speed. Since both have options, the loser probably heads to Omaha.

It is on the corners, more than anywhere else, where the future is on display. First baseman Eric Hosmer, the third overall pick in 2008, arrived May 6 and often resembled an MVP in waiting. Third baseman Mike Moustakas, the second overall pick in 2007, got the call June 10 and, after a miserable start, showed every indication of becoming a productive middle-of-the-order hitter for years to come. Fans in Kansas City are already fretting at how long either will hang around. Since neither will be eligible for free agency until after the 2017 season, that effectively sets the timetable for the Royals’ current window of opportunity.

Alex Gordon’s emergence last season as a reliable run-producer and Gold Glove leftfielder was a measurable reward for the organization’s patience. He was a can’t-miss prospect as the No. 2 overall pick in 2005 who, prior to last season, came to be widely viewed as a bust. Gordon admits that the question now is whether he can validate his turnaround with another big season. Rightfielder Jeff Francoeur similarly revitalized his career after arriving as a free agent and earned a two-year contract extension. Melky Cabrera was another free agent reclamation project who had a career year, and the Royals responded by selling high and sending him to the Giants for Sanchez. Cabrera’s departure creates an opening for Lorenzo Cain, who offers a defensive upgrade. Cain batted .312 last season at Omaha but will be hard-pressed to match the offense that Cabrera provided.

Sal Perez was a huge surprise last season, playing just 39 and batting .331. His advanced defensive skills got him to the majors last August at age 21, but his rapid growth as a hitter has been little short of phenomenal. However, he will miss several weeks after recovering from a torn meniscus that required surgery. In his stead will be Brayan Pena, a tremendous attitude guy who started 72 games last season.

Billy Butler grumbled a bit last year at making the switch from first base to designated hitter in order to accommodate Hosmer. (It was, of course, a move that had to be made given Hosmer’s defensive superiority.) Nevertheless, Butler still finished with a career-high and club-leading 95 RBIs. He also provides a potent right-handed bat in a lefty-heavy lineup. Yost appears likely to again operate, as he did much of last year, with a three-man bench (in order to carry an eight-man bullpen). That means a backup catcher (probably Max Ramirez until Perez is healthy), a backup outfielder (almost certainly Mitch Maier) and a utility infielder (a reacquired Yuniesky Betancourt). If the Royals keep four non-pitching reserves, the final spot should go to outfielder Jarrod Dyson, a pinch-running dynamo.

Last year produced good marks. General manager Dayton Moore and his staff deserve credit for putting together a farm system that shows signs of extracting the franchise from its extended malaise. Yost displayed the same patience in dealing with young players that he used several years ago in helping turn around the once-moribund Brewers. Now it’s time to win.

Final Analysis
Everything suggests that the Royals are heading in the right direction, but expectations are ramping up. Anything less than .500 this season will be a disappointment, and another 90-loss season could force major reevaluations. But if a few things go right — i.e., if the rotation proves steady — it could be a fun summer in the Heartland for the first time in ages.




Batting Order
LF Alex Gordon (L)
Not a prototypical leadoff hitter, but his club-leading .376 on-base percentage makes him the best fit.
2B Johnny Giavotella (R)
His minor league numbers suggest he could be Dustin Pedroia-light; the Royals would take that in a heartbeat.
DH Billy Butler (R)
One of the game’s best pure hitters; doesn’t hit enough homers, but has 140 doubles over the last three years.
1B Eric Hosmer (L)
He was good last year as a rookie, and there is no reason to suspect he won’t continue to get better.
3B Mike Moustakas (L)
Didn’t cut it during extended slump — and then produced big closing kick.
RF Jeff Francoeur (R)
The club’s de facto captain; will be interesting to see if he regresses after a career-renaissance year.
CF Lorenzo Cain (R)
Will show what he can do with an everyday opportunity; should be a defensive upgrade in center.
C Brayan Pena (S)
With upbeat attitude Pena will assume catching duties until Sal Perez is healthy.
SS Alcides Escobar (R)
His slick play solidified the infield after years of suspect predecessors.

C Max Ramirez
Is the short-term answer as the backup catcher until Sal Perez returns from knee surgery.
INF Yuniesky Betancourt (R)
Former starting shortstop returns as utility player after failing to draw interest in free agent market as starter.
OF Mitch Maier (L)
Should draw increased playing time this season as an occasional left-handed alternative to Cain in center.
INF Chris Getz (L)
Stole 21 bases in limited action last season.
C Sal Perez (R)
His defense and game-calling skills always drew raves; but he really turned the corner offensively last season. Will miss several weeks after tearing his meniscus.

RH Luke Hochevar
Showed signs in second half of harnessing tools that made him the first overall pick in the 2006 draft.
LH Jonathan Sanchez
Maybe a change of scenery will finally unlock the power lefty’s tremendous potential.
LH Bruce Chen
A veteran finesse lefty who appears to have figured it out; could be this generation’s Jamie Moyer.
RH Felipe Paulino
Shows tantalizing arsenal but needs to deliver; will shift to bullpen if he fails to hold spot in rotation.
LH Danny Duffy
Flashed potential last year in nearly all of his 20 starts but still posted a 5.64 ERA. Needs strong spring.

RH Joakim Soria (Closer)
Struggled last season for the first time in his career but still posted a 2.58 ERA over his final 37 appearances.
RH Jonathan Broxton
Seeking a bounce-back year after an elbow injury limited him last year to just 14 games for the Dodgers.
RH Greg Holland
Blossomed last season into a potential closer by posting a 1.80 ERA while striking out 74 in 60 innings.
LH Jose Mijares
A good fit as a situational guy; has limited lefties to .212 career average.
RH Louis Coleman
Another young reliever with closer potential; sidearm delivery makes him tough against righthanders.
RH Aaron Crow
Will get a look as starter but appears likely to return to bullpen, where he made the All-Star team as a rookie.
LH Tim Collins
Has plus stuff and a durable arm but will be in the minors if walk rate fails to improve.
RH Luis Mendoza
Could win a job in the rotation but, failing that, seems a likely fit in the bullpen as a long reliever.


Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals

<p> Everything suggests that the Royals are heading in the right direction, but expectations are ramping up. Anything less than .500 this season will be a disappointment.</p>
Post date: Sunday, March 18, 2012 - 20:39
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-west-region

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: West Region

Top Dog — Michigan State (1)

Coach Tom Izzo punched the ticket to his 10th Sweet 16, thanks in no small part to his all-everything point forward Draymond Green. No insult intended Steve Smith, but Sparty has not seen a super-sized talent like Green since Magic was still Earvin Johnson in East Lansing. When times got tough in a hard-fought 65-61 win over Saint Louis, Green took control on both ends of the floor, handling the ball, scoring and play-making on the perimeter on offense while rebounding and intimidating in the paint on defense. Green, who went for 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against the Billikens, is joined by talented guard Keith Appling on a balanced squad capable of cutting down the nets in New Orleans.

Underdog – Florida (7)

On paper, Florida had a favorable Round of 32 matchup against similarly undersized No. 2 seed Missouri. But as fate would have it, Mizzou was ousted early by No. 15 seed Norfolk State. Two-time national champion coach Billy Donovan would have no such problem, however, as UF toppled the Spartans 84-50. A streaky hot team with too many guards (Erving Walker, Kenny Boyton, Bradley Beal) to guard, Florida shot lights out against Norfolk State, hitting 28-of-53 from the field (52.8 percent) and 10-of-28 from downtown (35.7 percent). Billy the Kid's team will be tough to beat if they keep their hot hand and big men Patric Young and Erik Murphy stay out of foul trouble.

Player to Watch – Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette (3)

Numero Uno in Marquette's all-out athletic attack, Darius Johnson-Odom is hoping to lead the Golden Eagles to their first Final Four since D-Wade carried the club on his back in 2003. Unlike Tom Crean's crew, however, coach Buzz Williams' team will not rely solely on a singular talent to stay alive. Instead, Marquette's duo of Johnson-Odom and forward Jae Crowder will do the damage. The tag team combined for 34 of MU's 62 points and 15 of the Eagles' 36 rebounds during a 62-53 win over Murray State to advance to the Sweet 16.

Opening Weekend Upset – Norfolk State (15) over Missouri (2)

Heading into the Big Dance, the knock on Mizzou was its lack of size. And Norfolk State center Kyle O'Quinn couldn't have come up bigger in a David vs. Goliath matchup where David outweighed Goliath down low. The 6'10", 240-pound O'Quinn recorded 26 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots in an historic 86-84 victory for the Spartans.

Irish Bracket Bomb

“I got a lot of those clovers, texting me, ‘Good luck, good luck, Kyle O’Quinn win!’ I had to leave my phone at the hotel because I was getting too many of those kinds of messages.” — Norfolk State’s Kyle O’Quinn, whose Irish surname and green-and-gold Spartan teammates proved to be good luck on St. Patrick’s Day weekend.

<p> Michigan State held on, while Florida chomped along thanks to Norfolk State's upset of Missouri.</p>
Post date: Sunday, March 18, 2012 - 20:06
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-midwest-region

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: Midwest Region

Top Dog — North Carolina (1)

After getting shot-swatting forward John Henson back from a wrist injury suffered in the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels suffered an even worse blow when ambidextrous assist man Kendall Marshall went down with a wrist injury of his own in the Round of 32 against overmatched Creighton. Fortunately, two-time national champion coach Roy Williams has one of the deepest rosters in the land. Harrison Barnes (17 points, five rebounds) was outscored and outrebounded by his Ames (Iowa) High School teammate, Creighton's Doug McDermott (20 points, nine rebounds), in their head-to-head reunion. The superb sophomore will be counted on to raise his game to another level, as will senior center Tyler Zeller, if the Tar Heels have any hopes of reaching the Final Four in New Orleans without a full strength effort from either Marshall or Henson.

Underdog – Ohio (13)

The Bobcats are moving on to their first Sweet 16 in school history after emotional wins over No. 4 seed Michigan, 65-60, and No. 12 "First Four" play-in South Florida, 62-56. Ohio hit 9-of-18 from 3-point range against USF after going 15-of-17 from the free throw line against the Maize and Blue. A combination of both hot streaks might be necessary in order to pull off an upset of heavily favored North Carolina in St. Louis.

Player to Watch – Lorenzo Brown, NC State (11)

The Wolfpack guard has been a statsheet stuffer in upset wins over San Diego State (6) and Georgetown (3). The 6'5" sophomore averaged 14.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 1.5 steals over his first two games in the Dance. There was little Brown could not do for NC State when it mattered most against the Hoyas, as the clutch playmaker hit three crucial free throws in the final 10.6 seconds of a thrilling 66-63 victory.

Injury Update – Kendall Marshall, North Carolina (1)

First Syracuse's Fab Melo and now UNC's Kendall Marshall; Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Michigan State's Draymond Green better watch out, because the most indispensable players on the No. 1 seeds in this year's NCAA Tournament are dropping like flies. While Melo is done, Marshall is holding out hope after breaking a bone in his right (non-shooting) wrist. The pass-first sophomore point guard is the conductor of Carolina's offensive orchestra. NBA Lottery talents Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller will have a tough time without Marshall, who is nearly irreplaceable following the season-ending ACL injury to backup point guard Dexter Strickland earlier this year.

Lefty Still Loose

"Luckily it's my right hand. If it was my left hand, then we'd probably have some problems. But we'll take it day-by-day and figure it out." - North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, a southpaw who suffered a broken bone in his right wrist during an 87-73 win over Creighton to advance to the Sweet 16.

<p> Everyone had No. 1 North Carolina in the Sweet 16, but No. 11 NC State was a bracket buster.</p>
Post date: Sunday, March 18, 2012 - 20:01
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-east-region

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: East Region

Top Dog — Syracuse (1)

The Syracuse Orange continued their strange season — which has included the Bernie Fine sex abuse scandal, failed drug test rumors and multiple academic suspensions of center Fab Melo — on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Orange advanced to the Sweet 16, but it wasn’t as easy as expected for a No. 1 seed. Coach Jim Boeheim’s club struggled to a 72–65 victory over UNC-Asheville (16) in a game that included multiple controversial calls, including a late lane violation and tipped ball out of bounds that both went against Asheville. Cuse played better in a 75–59 win over Kansas State (8), but were far from the terrifying team that went 33–2 overall and 17–1 in the Big East this year. Up next, Wisconsin (4) is playing with confidence and has no problem with winning ugly, a tactic Syracuse has only recently discovered.

Underdog – Cincinnati (6)

The Bearcats are battle-tested. Cincy ran through the Big East Tournament, until falling short against Louisville in the conference's first title game featuring two teams that were not original members. Then, Mick Cronin's No. 6-seeded club scrapped past No. 11 Texas, 65-59, and No. 3 Florida State, 62-56, all the way to the Sweet 16. Two of the four teams from Ohio square off when Cincinnati tips off against Ohio State in Boston on Thursday night. The big brother Buckeyes will have their hands full, especially OSU's five-star sophomore "Big Sully" Jared Sullinger, who will go toe-to-toe with 6'9", 260-pound senior tough guy Yancy Gates.

Missing in Action – Fab Melo, Syracuse (1)

Jim Boeheim's signature 2-3 zone in no way resembles the suffocating matchup nightmare it did when 7-foot Brazilian shot-blocker Fab Melo patrolled the Orange paint. The heart of SU's defense has been ripped out of the middle, in the middle of the heart of the season due to ongoing academic issues. Syracuse still has leaders like guards Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine; but at this point in the year, there is no replacement for the type of impact Melo provided defensively. Amazing, considering Melo was thought to be a "bust" by many knee-jerks reacting at this point during his freshman season last year. Don't be shocked if Wisconsin pulls off an upset against the Fab-less five of Syracuse.

Iron Unkind

“It was more a matter of the ball not going in. All of my shots pretty much felt good. They just were a little bit short or a little bit too long. Things like that happen in basketball. The ball isn’t always going to bounce your way.” – Vanderbilt senior Jeffery Taylor (4-of-12), who combined with SEC scoring leader John Jenkins (3-of-13) to shoot 7-of-25 from the field and 3-of-14 from 3-point range in a loss to Wisconsin.

<p> Top seed Syracuse survived, but Ohio State and Wisconsin looked better en route to the Sweet 16.</p>
Post date: Sunday, March 18, 2012 - 19:55
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-sweet-16-preview-south-region

NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: South Region

Top Dog — Kentucky (1)

As expected, the Kentucky Wildcats dominated their first two opponents, averaging 84 points per game and a 15.5-point margin of victory en route to wins over in-state rival Western Kentucky (16) and Iowa State (8). National Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis averaged 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.5 blocked shots and four assists in the first two NCAA Tournament games of his career, while sophomore Terrence Jones (22 points, 10 rebounds vs. WKU) and freshman Marquis Teaque (24 points, 7 assists vs. ISU) each had shining moments over the weekend. In the Sweet 16, coach John Calipari’s crew will have a chance to avenge its 73-72 loss at Indiana on Dec. 10, 2011 — one of only two losses UK has suffered this season.

Underdog – Xavier (10)

The Musketeers relied on center Kenny Frease (25 points, 12 rebounds) and point guard Tu Holloway (21 points) to advance past No. 15 seed Lehigh, 70-58, holding Duke-slayer C.J. McCollum to 14 points on just 5-of-22 shooting. One of four teams from the state of Ohio in the Sweet 16, Xavier will face Baylor in a 3-10 pairing of athletic clubs that push the pace and know how to put a highlight reel together. The Bears surely expected a showdown with Duke at this point; the X-Men from Cincy present a mutant matchup with upset written all over it.

Blue State, Red State Rematch – Kentucky (1) vs. Indiana (4)

Earlier this year, Big Blue Nation had illusions of grandeur, thoughts of the first undefeated season since Indiana went 32-0 to win the 1976 national title. That is, until IU's Christian Watford hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to hand the Wildcats their first of two losses this season. Coach Cal's team lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament title game three months after the Indiana defeat; but the Cats are 2-1 against the Dores, they are 0-1 vs. the Hoosiers. Kentucky fans are eager to face Indiana coach Tom Crean, since the former Marquette leader lacks 2003 Elite Eight Cat-killer Dwyane Wade this time around.

Opening Weekend Upset – Lehigh (15) over Duke (2)

The Patriot League champions from Lehigh shocked the traditional ACC powerhouse of Duke, as a No. 15 seed upset a No. 2 seed for the second time in the tournament — after No. 15 Norfolk State defeated No. 2 Missouri earlier in the evening — and for the first time since Hampton took down Iowa State on March 16, 2001. For at least one night, Mountain Hawks junior C.J. McCollum was every bit as good as any player residing on Tobacco Road — with 30 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals in 39 minutes. Fitting, McCollum’s two made free throws clinched the 75–70 victory with 0.4 second remaining.

Fortune Favors the Bold

“They were very bold. They were very bold the entire game. We started the game tentative and at different times, we seemed very tentative on the offensive end and they were bold throughout.” – Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, following a shocking upset to No. 15 seed Lehigh.

<p> Anthony Davis and No. 1 Kentucky cruised to the Sweet 16, while No. 2 Duke was upset by No. 15 Lehigh.</p>
Post date: Sunday, March 18, 2012 - 19:50
Path: /mlb/detroit-tigers-2012-preview-0

Detroit Tigers

After winning the AL Central by a whopping 15 games in 2011 for their first division title in 24 years, the Tigers appeared undermanned and overmatched against the Rangers in the ALCS. With a few days of the news that DH Victor Martinez would miss the 2012 season after surgery to repair a torn ACL, the Tigers signed Prince Fielder and immediately created DH/1B/3B questions. But manager Jim Leyland is confidant he will find a spot in the lineup for his prized free agent, perennial MVP candidate Miguel Cabrera and the defensively challenged Delmon Young. With Fielder and Cabrera in the middle of the lineup, the Tigers are quite certainly the best team yet again in the Central — where there is not even an obvious challenger to their supremacy.

One big consideration for the Tigers’ offseason budget was the fact that Verlander’s salary jumps from $13 million to $20 million — not that anyone could argue that he isn’t worth it, following a historic season that culminated in his winning both the AL Cy Young and MVP awards. Over the course of the past three seasons, Verlander leads the majors in wins (61) and strikeouts (738), while ranking third in innings pitched (715.1) and opponents’ batting average (.221). There is, however, some question as to whether Verlander’s heavy usage in 2011 (272.1 innings, regular and postseason combined) will take a toll in 2012. With righthanders Doug Fister, Max Scherzer and Rick Porcello (most likely in that order) entrenched at Nos. 2, 3 and 4, the fifth starter spot is the only one that remains up for grabs, with prospects Jacob Turner, Drew Smyly and lefty Andy Oliver among the top contenders. Fister, who went 8–1 with a 1.79 ERA after his trade-deadline acquisition, was the unsung hero of the Tigers’ surge, and the team can’t wait to see what he can do with a full season in Comerica Park. Scherzer, a former first-round pick of the Diamondbacks, is 27–20 in two seasons with Detroit since coming from Arizona in a three-team blockbuster. Porcello, who has started 89 games since breaking into the rotation in 2009, went 14–9 for the second time in his three seasons in the big leagues.

The Tigers’ bullpen, anchored by the flawless performance of closer Valverde (49-for-49 in save opportunities), was a strength of the team all season, until it collapsed in the postseason (8.01 ERA). It turned out that Al Alburquerque’s transformation from shut-down setup man to October arsonist was injury related; he had surgery over the winter and will miss the first part of the season. Picking up Valverde’s $9 million option for 2012 was a no-brainer, and the offseason acquisition of Octavio Dotel will help with depth until Alburquerque returns. Righthander Joaquin Benoit (63 strikeouts in 61 innings in 2011) returns as the top eighth-inning man, while Phil Coke and Daniel Schlereth fill out the pen from the left side. An odd reliever-for-reliever trade sent Ryan Perry packing for Washington and brought swingman Collin Balester to Detroit.

Middle Infield
The Tigers appeared poised to make an upgrade up the middle this winter, but despite plenty of speculation linking them to Jose Reyes, they never made a serious run at the free agent shortstop. That leaves Jhonny Peralta — prior to the Fielder acquisition, a candidate to move to third — back at shortstop, coming off a career-high .299 batting average in 2011. Meanwhile, the Tigers re-signed Ramon Santiago to a two-year deal, meaning that he will likely platoon with Ryan Raburn at second base, with Santiago also filling in occasionally for Peralta at shortstop. As platoons go, Santiago/Raburn is a good one, with Raburn providing some pop at the plate, and Santiago offering a top-notch glove (along with the added bonus of being a switch-hitter).

Every year, Cabrera seems to reveal some new aspect of his game — a sign of his sheer brilliance as a hitter. In 2011, he cut down on his strikeouts, drew 19 more walks, posted career-highs in batting average (.344) and on-base percentage (.448). His dominant performance in the postseason (four homers, 1.261 OPS) only underscored the fact he is as fearsome a hitter as there is in the game. Now Cabrera must rediscover his ability to play the left side of the infield. As the Marlins’ full-time third baseman in 2007, Cabrera made 23 errors. In 2008, his first with Detroit, he made 14 starts at the hot corner and made five errors, prompting the Tigers to keep him at first base. But with Fielder on board, Cabrera will move across the diamond. Fielder brings a large presence both physically and figuratively to the cleanup spot. Detroit has the best offensive tandem at the corners in all of baseball. Defensively, now that’s another story. But something that Leyland is prepared to handle.

Stats-savvy fans understood that Austin Jackson’s remarkable production as a rookie in 2010 (.293/.345/.400) was largely due to an unsustainable .396 BAbip (batting average on balls in play), but few could have foreseen the extent of his precipitous drop in 2011 (.249/.317/.374). He still provides Gold Glove-caliber defense, but the Tigers could use some more offense — even if Jackson is no longer the clear-cut leadoff man. With Magglio Ordoñez gone, Brennan Boesch gets the full-time right field job; he hit a solid .283/.341/.458 until suffering a thumb injury that ended his season in late August. In left field, the Tigers’ first option will be Andy Dirks. The 26-year-old batted .303 from mid-June to mid-August to earn a shot at the job this spring. The team is excited to get a full season of Delmon Young, who was huge down the stretch (and in October) following the August trade that imported him from Minnesota. Young will see some time in left, but is the primary DH.

Avila emerged as a force in 2011, winning the Silver Slugger award and leading all catchers with an .887 OPS. He also endeared himself to management (one member of which, assistant GM Al Avila, is his father) and the fan base by playing through multiple nagging injuries in the playoffs. Still, it is fair to wonder whether the long campaign and a heavy usage pattern (he started 130 games at catcher) will have an adverse effect on him in 2012. The Tigers are counting on his bat to provide length to their lineup beyond the star-filled heart of the order. They brought back veteran Gerald Laird to serve as his backup, but this is the year Avila must prove that his 2011 breakthrough was no fluke.

Martinez hit a sparkling .330 with 103 RBIs last year even though he only hit 12 home runs. Young will inherit the job until V-Mart returns in 2013. Laird was with the Tigers in 2009 and 2010, as Avila was beginning to emerge as the starter, so he knows most of the team’s pitchers. Perhaps manager Jim Leyland, in the interest of giving Avila more regular rest, will trust Laird more than he did Omir Santos. Don Kelly’s versatility (he saw action at seven positions in 2011, including pitcher and catcher) makes him a tremendous asset off the bench. Raburn, when he isn’t playing second base, can fill in at the corner outfield spots.

Both general manager Dave Dombrowksi and Leyland entered 2011 as lame ducks, but emerged with contract extensions by mid-August — Dombrowski through 2015, and Leyland (by his own choice) through 2012. Dombrowski wound up sharing the Executive of the Year award with Milwaukee’s Doug Melvin, and indeed the GM had a tremendous year — beginning with his choosing Martinez over Adam Dunn as the Tigers’ DH, and continuing with his summer acquisitions of Fister and Young. Leyland, meanwhile, was runner-up to Tampa Bay’s Joe Maddon for AL Manager of the Year, and the Tigers’ 2011 playoff run reaffirmed his status as one of the best in the game.

Final Analysis
With the White Sox rebuilding, the Twins reloading and the Indians trying to sustain the progress they made in 2011, the up-and-coming Royals may be Detroit’s chief challenger in 2012. But the Tigers don’t appear overly worried.




Batting Order
CF Austin Jackson (R)
Fell 44 points in BA and 55 points in OPS from stellar 2010 rookie season.
RF Brennan Boesch (L)
Thumb injury derailed promising breakthrough in 2011 (.283/.341/.458).
3B Miguel Cabrera (R)
Arguably the most feared hitter in AL, he posted career highs in 2011 in BA and OBP.
1B Prince Fielder (L)
The hefty hitter has averaged 160 games, 40 home runs and 113 RBIs over the last five seasons.
DH Delmon Young (R)
Came up huge for Tigers after August trade, hitting six homers in September and five in October.
C Alex Avila (L)
Breakthrough 2011 season included All-Star Game appearance, .295 average and an .895 OPS.
SS Jhonny Peralta (R)
Batted career-best .299 in 2011 and became first-time All-Star at age 29.
LF Andy Dirks (L)
Solid contribution in 2011 — seven HRs and 28 RBIs in 219 at-bats — was rewarded with spot on playoff roster.
2B Ramon Santiago (S)
Platoon man became everyday starter late in the 2011 season, with solid results. Will share time with Ryan Raburn.

UT Don Kelly (L)
Versatile enough to play anywhere on the infield.
INF Brandon Inge (R)
Jim Leyland has extraordinary faith in 12th-year veteran despite anemic 2011 numbers. Learning to play second and is a valuable defensive sub for Cabrera.
C Gerald Laird (R)
Veteran returns after winning World Series ring in 2011 as a backup for the Cardinals.
2B Ryan Raburn (R)
Plays the part of the offensive platoon partner with Santiago.
OF Clete Thomas (L)
Will have to battle for a roster spot in the spring; hit .351 with 12 HRs in Toledo last season.

RH Justin Verlander
Historic season included pitching “Triple Crown,” MVP award and Cy Young.
RH Doug Fister
After July trade from Seattle, served as Verlander’s co-ace down the stretch.
RH Max Scherzer
Flamethrower won 15 games in 2011, but needs more consistency to fulfill his vast potential.
RH Rick Porcello
Crucial season for the former first-round pick and 2009 rookie sensation.
RH Jacob Turner
Team may prefer veteran lefty in this spot, but former top prospect Turner is next in line.

RH Jose Valverde (Closer)
Despite nightly high-wire act, finished a perfect 49 for 49 in save opportunities in 2011.
RH Joaquin Benoit
Though not as dominant as in 2010, he remained one of best setup men in the game in 2011.
RH Octavio Dotel
Free agent signee will provide late-inning depth while Al Alburquerque (elbow) recovers.
LH Daniel Schlereth
Succeeds in shutting down left-handed batters (.174/.273/.256 in 2011).
LH Phil Coke
After failed rotation experiment in April and May, had solid season out of pen.
RH Collin Balester
Former Nationals top pitching prospect arrived in November trade.


Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals
<p> With Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera in the middle of the lineup, the Tigers are quite certainly the best team yet again in the Central — where there is not even an obvious challenger to their supremacy.</p>
Post date: Saturday, March 17, 2012 - 22:01
Path: /mlb/cleveland-indians-2012-preview

Cleveland Indians

If the Indians are going to contend in the AL Central this season, they’ll need to make another double-digit leap in victories. They went from 69 to 80 wins last year for an 11-game improvement and a second-place finish. How hard will it be to jump from 80 to 90-plus victories this year? Remember Evel Knievel’s attempt to clear the Snake River Canyon on a rocket-powered motorcycle? Not to say that it can’t be done, but the Indians will need to make significant improvements on offense this season. Cleveland re-signed Grady Sizemore and sprinkled him with magic dust to keep him healthy after five surgeries in the last three years. The magic dust must have been an off-brand because Sizemore didn’t make it out of spring training before succumbing to back surgery. He’ll mist the first half at least. The Indians, one of MLB’s youngest teams, believe improvement by young position players such as Carlos Santana, Jason Kipnis and Lonnie Chisenhall will help. They also need their starting outfield of Michael Brantley, Shin-Soo Choo and a committee in left field not only to return to full health, but also produce.

Pitching drives the Indians. It carried them into September in a gutsy but futile chase of Detroit last year, and it will make or break them this year. While Justin Masterson established himself as a No.1 starter in 2011, all eyes will be on Ubaldo Jimenez, a July deadline acquisition from Colorado. Is he the ace he looked like with the Rockies in 2010 when he started the All-Star Game, or the enigma the Indians acquired? Masterson, Jimenez, Josh Tomlin, Derek Lowe and hopefully Roberto Hernandez Heredia — a.k.a. Fausto Carmona — will open the year as manager Manny Acta’s all-right-handed starting five. Heredia, who is three years older (31) than previously thought, was arrested in January for using a false identity to secure a U.S. visa and will most certainly not be with the team with the Tribe breaks camp. Lowe was acquired from Atlanta right after the World Series because the team’s deep well of starters ran dry. Drew Pomeranz and Alex White, former No. 1 picks, were traded for Jimenez, and Carlos Carrasco will miss this season because of right elbow surgery. Masterson and Tomlin are in position to build on their 12-victory seasons in 2011. New pitching coach Scott Radinsky needs some big market corrections from Jimenez, Lowe and Heredia. Jimenez is a mechanical mess, and Lowe and Heredia combined to lose 32 games last year. Kevin Slowey, Jeanmar Gomez, David Huff, Zach McAllister, Corey Kluber and Scott Barnes provide depth. Slowey and Gomez will get the first trials.

The bullpen, led by closer Chris Perez, has been excellent for the last one-and-a-half seasons and should continue to prosper. Well, once Perez recovers from an oblique injury. He should be back by May, but it’s always difficult to know with injuries of this kind. A fan nicknamed the relievers the “Bullpen Mafia.” This is a talented group that forms the core of the team. Perez converted 90 percent (36-for-40) of his saves last season, but he is a high-wire act who can induce panic among fans. Perez is surrounded by setup men who provide various looks, from lefties Rafael Perez and Tony Sipp to side-arming righties Joe Smith and Vinnie Pestano to hard-throwing righthander Frank Herrmann. Pestano will be the first option to fill in as closer, but Rafael Perez, Sipp and Smith may all get save opportunities. Veteran righthander Robinson Tejeda, if healthy, along with lefty Nick Hagadone will compete for the last spot.

Middle Infield
Shortstop Asdrubal Cabrera is the Indians’ best all-around player, but they need a full season from him. He hit .293 in the first half of the season but only .244 (60-for-246) in the second half. Cabrera doesn’t have to hit 25 homers as he did last year, but he must be more consistent both offensively and defensively from Opening Day to the end of the season. Kipnis, who has had a strong spring, will start at second base. He showed power and production in his brief big league debut last year but had a hard time staying healthy. The converted center fielder is still raw defensively, which could mean trouble with a starting rotation dominated by ground-ball pitchers. Jason Donald can back up at both positions.

Cleveland signed Casey Kotchman to play first base after Matt LaPorta has failed to take control of the job. LaPorta was the key player in the 2008 deal that sent CC Sabathia to Milwaukee, but the former first-round pick out of Florida has not shown consistent production. Kotchman is clearly an improvement defensively and hit .306 for Tampa Bay last season. Santana, a switch-hitting catcher, made 63 starts at first last year and could make even more this year. Chisenhall will get every chance to be the Opening Day third baseman. He’s raw defensively but showed flashes of power. He was protected against lefties, but still hit .260 in 50 at-bats vs. southpaws. If Chisenhall isn’t ready, Jack Hannahan would be in line for significant playing time. He displayed Gold Glove defense last year.

Last year Brantley led the Indians’ starting outfielders in games played with 114. Choo, on the disabled list twice, played 85. Sizemore, on the disabled list three times, played 71. Brantley missed all of September with a broken hamate bone in his right hand. If healthy, Choo has demonstrated in the past that he can produce offensively. Brantley is still trying to establish himself offensively, but he appears to be more of a top-of-the-order hitter. A DUI and a broken left thumb wrecked Choo’s 2011 season, but in 2009 and 2010 he hit .300 and was a 20-20 man. Sizemore, a member of the 30-30 club in 2008, underwent back surgery this spring after rebounding from microfracture surgery on his left knee in 2010 and arthroscopic surgery on his right knee at the end of the 2011 season. Ezequiel Carerra and Shelley Duncan will compete for an extra outfield spot after seeing plenty of playing time last year. Aaron Cunningham, out of options, was acquired in a trade with San Diego, and Felix Pie was signed to a minor league deal for depth.

The Indians want Santana to get most of his playing time at catcher. They believe his offense (27 HRs, 79 RBIs, 97 walks, .457 slugging percentage) helps the team more at a premium defensive position rather than having him play exclusively at first base. The problem is that when they do move Santana to first, usually against a lefthander, the offense suffers, because backup Lou Marson hit just .230 with 19 RBIs in 79 games last season. The Indians did sign veteran Matt Pagnozzi to a minor league deal to push Marson for playing time.

This is the final year of Travis Hafner’s four-year $57 million deal, and the Indians probably started counting it down on Jan. 1, 2012. It’s not only the biggest contract in team history, but it’s also probably the worst, given Hafner’s lack of production over the last four years because of a damaged right shoulder that required surgery in 2008. Hafner hasn’t played more than 118 games or driven in more than 57 runs in any of the last four seasons, appearing in 94 games in 2011. The leading candidates for bench jobs include Marson at catcher, Duncan at first and the outfield, Donald, Hannahan and Jose Lopez as utility infielders and Carrera, Cunningham and Pie in the outfield.

The front office was impressed enough with Acta following the 2011 season to exercise his 2013 option. The Indians were 30–15 on May 23, saw a significant uptick at the turnstiles and still owned a piece of first place in the AL Central on July 20 before fading. GM Chris Antonetti was aggressive in his second year. He mortgaged the future in the Jimenez trade by trading former No.1 picks Pomeranz and White. In the offseason he struck early by trading for Lowe and re-signing Sizemore, two moves that may not pan out. The Kotchman signing could be one of the shrewdest in baseball.

Final Analysis
The Indians have the talent to be a factor in the AL Central. They will need another solid season from their starters, and their key offensive players must perform at a high level. If Choo and Hafner spend more time on the disabled list than on the active roster, this team is going to have a tough time making another significant leap in the win column.





Batting Order
CF Michael Brantley (L)

He hit .289 (90-for-311) against righties, but just .214 (30-for-140) against lefties.
SS Asdrubal Cabrera (S)
Won the Silver Slugger last year, but lost the Gold Glove because he ran out of gas in second half.
RF Shin-Soo Choo (L)
Must hit better than .205 (17-for-83) with runners in scoring position to stay in No. 3 spot.
C Carlos Santana (S)
He hit just .239, but slugged .457 because of 64 extra base hits; also had 97 walks.
DH Travis Hafner (L)
Is there a big season bubbling inside Hafner in his walk year, or will it be more of the same?
2B Jason Kipnis (L)
He hit six homers last year in his first 16 big league games.
1B Casey Kotchman (L)
The Indians believe they have the 2011 version (.306 avg.) rather than the 2012 model (.217).
3B Lonnie Chisenhall (L)
He hit five of his seven big-league homers last year against lefties.
LF Aaron Cunningham (R)
Journeyman is with fifth organization in six years, but has a chance to play every day with injury to Grady Sizemore.

C Lou Marson (R)
Threw out 38.5 percent (30-of-78) of the basestealers he faced.
INF Jack Hannahan (L)
Provides stellar defense at third and first and hit .296 (32-for-108) against lefties.
UT Jason Donald (R)
Hit .377 (23-for-61) against lefties and can play second, short, third and the outfield.
UT Shelley Duncan (R)
Ranked third in the American League with 23 RBIs in September.
OF Grady Sizemore (L)
Indians re-signed him for $5 million, but back surgery is latest medical issue. He’ll miss at least half the season.

RH Justin Masterson
Allowed the second-fewest homers per nine innings (11 in 216) in the American League.
RH Ubaldo Jimenez
Averaged 8.6 strikeouts per nine innings last year, but AL batters slugged .448 against him.
RH Josh Tomlin
Finished first in the AL in fewest batters walked per nine innings with an average of 1.143 walks.
RH Derek Lowe
He’s durable, but can he bounce back from 17-loss season with the Braves against AL lineups?
RH Kevin Slowey
Winless in eight decisions with Minnesota last season with a 6.67 ERA. Heredia’s legal troubles open the door for Slowey to resurrect career.
RH Roberto Hernandez Heredia
Pitcher formerly known as Fausto Carmona is 33–48 since going 19–8 in ’07 — and he’s 31 years old, not 28. Still trying to sort through legal issues to join team.

RH Chris Perez (Closer)

Strikeouts dropped from 61 in 2010 to 39 last year, but finished fourth in AL with 36 saves. An oblique injury will likely land him on the DL for the first month.
RH Vinnie Pestano
Righthanders hit just .115 (15-for-130) against him with four extra base hits. Will share closing duties with Sipp, Rafael Perez and Smith until Chris Perez returns.
LH Tony Sipp
Allowed 10 homers in 62.1 innings, but overall the opposition hit just .201 (45-for-224) against him.
LH Rafael Perez
His ERA was 1.91 in the first half of the season compared to 4.62 in the second half.
RH Joe Smith
Lefties hit .342 (13-for-38) against him in 2010, but .152 (12-for-79) in 2011.
RH Frank Herrmann
Long-relief man who does well against righties, not so well against lefties.
LH Nick Hagadone
He has a big arm, but he also has control issues that could be a concern.
RH Dan Wheeler
Cagey veteran could earn a spot on the roster this spring.


Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals
<p> The Indians have the talent to be a factor in the AL Central. They will need another solid season from their starters, and their key offensive players must perform at a high level.</p>
Post date: Saturday, March 17, 2012 - 17:10
Path: /mlb/chicago-white-sox-2012-preview

Chicago White Sox

Having done more spending than winning in recent years, the White Sox enter 2012 with a new manager and without their familiar expectations. They lost free agent lefthander Mark Buehrle, one of their two long-term cornerstones, to free agency, because the investments in Jake Peavy, Alex Rios and Adam Dunn have not paid off. General manager Ken Williams is overseeing an awkward rebuilding project that is hindered by both the veterans with oversized contracts and a weak farm system. Robin Ventura, who takes the helm after Ozzie Guillen asked out of the last year of his contract to manage the Miami Marlins, will add Dayan Viciedo to the lineup, platoon Tyler Flowers at catcher and create a major role in the bullpen for Addison Reed. But there is no major wave of talent coming up through the team’s farm system, like the ones in Kansas City and Tampa Bay.

Disappointing last season, the White Sox starting pitching could be a mess in 2012. Peavy, healthy after 2010 surgery to reattach the lat muscle below his shoulder, hopes to be back to full strength in the third full season since he was acquired from San Diego. This is the last guaranteed season on his contract, and he’s being counted on heavily with the Sox needing to replace 327 innings from Buehrle and Edwin Jackson, who was traded at the deadline a year ago. The White Sox are also counting heavily on lefthander Chris Sale, who moves into the rotation after being used as a reliever last season. Sale and John Danks, who was signed to a five-year extension after a down season in 2011, appear to be the cornerstones of future rotations. Gavin Floyd, under Chicago’s control through 2013, is a likely trade candidate. Philip Humber, claimed on waivers from Oakland, and Zach Stewart, who was acquired for Jackson (whose acquisition in 2010 cost the White Sox Daniel Hudson), get chances to prove themselves. Humber had a strong first half as Peavy’s fill-in but had a 5.01 ERA in 10 second-half starts.

For the second year in a row, the White Sox head toward the season not knowing who will be the closer. Sergio Santos had established himself in that role but was surprisingly traded after signing a contract that placed him under the team’s control through 2017. Reed, who closed games for Stephen Strasburg at San Diego State, is viewed as a future closer but has only six games of experience. Veterans Matt Thornton, Jesse Crain and Will Ohman will be counted on to help Reed and a cast of other youngsters get acclimated to the big leagues. The job seekers include lefties Hector Santiago and Charles Leesman and righthanders Dylan Axelrod, Jhan Marinez and Deunte Heath. Thornton, who has two years and $12 million on his contract, will be a candidate for a midseason trade if the Sox are not in contention.

Middle Infield 
Gordon Beckham has not developed into the run-producing second baseman the White Sox expected after he hit .270 with an .808 OPS as a rookie. His numbers have dropped two years in a row — his OPS fell to .633 in 2011 — and even though he’s only 25, this is a critical season, as he’s testing the patience of the organization. Beckham gives up too many at-bats, with his ability to put the ball in play no longer a given. He’s a solid enough fielder, but it was his bat that made him the eighth player taken overall in the 2008 draft. Alexei Ramirez is one of the few White Sox players who is a standout at his position. He has led AL shortstops in homers and extra-base hits over the last three seasons and was third among AL shortstops in defensive runs saved last year.

With Buehrle gone, first baseman Paul Konerko will carry a huge load as far as leadership. He made his fifth trip to the All-Star game last season, and while he’s 36, there’s no reason to expect him to slow down. The cast around him will determine if he can have his seventh 100-RBI season. Brent Morel returns for his second season as the third baseman. He’s a gifted fielder but was a disappointment at the plate in his rookie season. He did go on a late tear, hitting eight home runs in September to give him some momentum heading into this season.

With Carlos Quentin now in San Diego, there’s a lot of heat on Viciedo in left field and Rios in right. Quentin, a 2011 All-Star, provided some protection for Konerko. Viciedo, signed to a four-year, $10-million contract before 2009, has been patiently preparing for the 500-plus plate appearances that should be coming his way, but he had only a .641 OPS after being promoted late last August. Rios, surprisingly, is just as big of a question mark. The White Sox claimed him on waivers in 2009 and owe him $38 million over the next three seasons. The Sox understand why Toronto allowed him to leave with no compensation, as he’s been highly inconsistent. Rios was a plus in every way in 2010 but last year hit .227 with his fewest home runs since 2005 while allowing balls to fall all around him. Alejandro de Aza is a late bloomer who emerged as a fourth outfielder in 2011 but could hit his way into a much bigger role, possibly even taking over for Juan Pierre as a left fielder/leadoff man. He adds both speed and balance to the lineup, and he hit .324 for the Sox in 73 games over the last two seasons.

A.J. Pierzynski is the only catcher who has worked 1,000-plus innings in each of the last 10 seasons, but the streak could end in 2012. He’s 35 with his only real weakness being a sub-par arm that has contributed to opponents’ succeeding on more than 75 percent of their stolen base attempts over his career, including an 80 percent success rate last season. This could be Pierzynski’s last season with the White Sox — we’ve thought that before — depending on the play of Flowers, who has an .876 career OPS in the minors but has hit .197 in limited big league duty.

Can Dunn recover after being a flop of historic proportions? He lost his bat speed, his strike zone judgment and his confidence after signing a four-year, $56-million contract. He had averaged 40 homers over the previous seven seasons but hit .159 with 11 home runs, including an .064 average against left-handed pitchers. He’s likely to be used in a platoon with Viciedo and Brent Lillibridge until he shows he’s a force again. Dunn is owed $44 million, so he’ll have a long leash. Lillibridge can be an excellent role player, starting all over the field and hitting for power. Ozzie Martinez, acquired from Florida with Marinez as Guillen compensation, replaces Omar Vizquel as the backup middle infielder. Flowers has established himself everywhere except the big leagues.

Ventura was highly respected for his skills and his leadership during 10 seasons playing for the White Sox. He’ll need every bit of his intellect and character as he replaces Guillen in the manager’s office. Ventura retired as a player after 2004 and didn’t return to the game until last summer, when he took a job as an advisor to farm director Buddy Bell. Inexperience is a major issue for the coaching staff too, with pitching coach Don Cooper and first base coach Harold Baines the key holdovers from the Guillen era. Williams, the long-time GM, was under heat last season, but chairman Jerry Reinsdorf stuck with him rather than promoting assistant Rick Hahn or creating a position for Tony La Russa. Williams wears a World Series ring from 2005 but allowed the farm system to deteriorate and painted himself into a corner with unproductive acquisitions. The Sox did make a significant hire in the offseason, adding former Blue Jays Latin American operations director Marco Paddy as an assistant to Williams. Paddy faces a big job trying to help the Sox sign more prospects from the Dominican Republic and elsewhere.

Final Analysis
Despite a record payroll of nearly $128 million, the White Sox suffered a losing season and enter a year that could expose the organization’s lack of young talent. Ventura should win Manager of the Year honors if he can help them avoid their fourth losing season in the last six. Bounce-back seasons from Dunn and Rios could provide some thump for a team that was 11th in scoring in the AL a year ago, but Buehrle’s loss will be heavily felt by a pitching staff that looked to him for leadership. If the Sox aren’t contending at midseason, Williams will almost certainly continue to jettison veterans. It’s possible Williams himself could be a casualty if there are not strong signs of internal growth.




Batting Order
CF Alejandro de Aza (L)
11th pro season could provide big league breakthrough if he continues to hit.
SS Alexei Ramirez (R)
Did his best hitting after overdue promotion from down in the order in midseason.
1B Paul Konerko (R)
Coming off his best back-to-back seasons, he’ll carry a bigger load than ever.
DH Adam Dunn (L)
Struck out 177 times in only 496 plate appearances in first season with the Sox.
LF Dayan Viciedo (R)
Bad-ball hitter with questionable plate discipline; compared to Vlad Guerrero by one minors manager.
3B Brent Morel (R)
Good hands in field earned him patient handling when he had two homers, 22 RBIs through August.
C A.J. Pierzynski (L)
He’s the anti-Dunn, striking out once every 15.2 plate appearances last season.
RF Alex Rios (R)
In the last three years, he’s experienced BA swings of minus-44, plus-37 and minus-57 points.
2B Gordon Beckham (R)
White Sox wouldn’t give him up in Adrian Gonzalez trade talk after 2010.

UT Brent Lillibridge (R)
Fifth big league season could be the first time he gets 200-plus at-bats, with frequent outfield starts.
SS Eduardo Escobar (S)
Got his first big league hit off Cy Young winner Justin Verlander; could be trade chip.
INF Ozzie Martinez (R)
Promoted to majors by Florida in 2010 but hasn’t hit; will get a look at second base in the spring.
C Tyler Flowers (R)
King-sized (6'4", 245) receiver handled Sox pitchers well (3.96 catchers’ ERA).
OF Kosuke Fukudome (L)
Former Cub should be much better bargain on the South Side.

LH John Danks
Looking to bounce back after season that included 0–8 start and first career stint on DL.
RH Gavin Floyd
Since 17-win season in 2008, has gone 33–37 with a 4.17 ERA; averaging 30 starts and 191 innings.
RH Jake Peavy
Candidate for midseason trade to NL (career ERA 3.29 in NL) if he is finally healthy and effective.
RH Philip Humber
2011 All-Star candidate faded badly after the break; needs to re-establish himself.
LH Chris Sale
Moves from bullpen with hope he’ll grow into staff ace in post-Mark Buehrle era.

LH Matt Thornton (Closer)
Only bullpen holdover from before 2011, he failed as closer but could get a mulligan.
RH Jesse Crain
Solid set-up man could get chances to close at the start of the season.
RH Addison Reed
After holding minor leaguers to a .158 average, will play a big role filling hole left by Sergio Santos trade.
LH Will Ohman
This will be first time he’s spent back-to-back seasons with the same team since leaving the Cubs in 2007.
RH Zach Stewart
Made eight starts for White Sox in 2011 and figures to be a spot starter and long man.
RH Dylan Axelrod
Former Padre is a strike-thrower who could start if needed.


Other teams' 2012 Previews:

American League National League
Baltimore Orioles Arizona Diamondbacks
Boston Red Sox Atlanta Braves
Chicago White Sox Chicago Cubs
Cleveland Indians Cincinnati Reds
Detroit Tigers Colorado Rockies
Kansas City Royals Houston Astros
Los Angeles Angels Los Angeles Dodgers
Minnesota Twins Miami Marlins
New York Yankees Milwaukee Brewers
Oakland A's New York Mets
Seattle Mariners Philadelphia Phillies
Tampa Bay Rays Pittsburgh Pirates
Texas Rangers San Diego Padres
Toronto Blue Jays San Francisco Giants
  St. Louis Cardinals
  Washington Nationals
<p> General manager Ken Williams is overseeing an awkward rebuilding project that is hindered by both the veterans with oversized contracts and a weak farm system.Manager Robin Ventura should win Manager of the Year honors if he can help them avoid their fourth losing season in the last six.</p>
Post date: Saturday, March 17, 2012 - 16:23
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/10-candidates-replace-doc-sadler-nebraska

Doc Sadler was fired after six seasons at Nebraska. He went 101–89 overall but only 34–63 in league play (five in the Big 12, one in the Big Ten). Here is a list of 10 possible replacements.

Gregg Marshall, head coach, Wichita State
Marshall has a 303–142 record in 14 seasons as a head coach. He took Winthrop to the NCAA Tournament seven times in nine seasons and will have Wichita State in the field this year (as a high seed) for the first time in his five seasons.

John Groce, head coach, Ohio
The former aide to Thad Matta at Butler, Xavier and Ohio State is in his fourth season at Ohio. He has the Bobcats in the NCAA Tournament for the second time and has an overall record of 83–55. Groce is an Ohio native who has spent most of his time in the Midwest.

Danny Manning, assistant coach, Kansas
The former All-American at Kansas and No. 1 overall NBA Draft pick has been on Bill Self’s staff for the first nine seasons, the first four as in an administrative role and the last five as a full-time assistant. He has been praised for his work with the KU big men.

Ben Jacobson, head coach, Northern Iowa
Jacobson has an overall mark of 126–67 and a 64–42 record in the Missouri Valley Conference in six seasons at Northern Iowa. The Panthers have two NCAA Tournament appearance during his tenure with one trip the Sweet 16.

Steve Prohm, head coach, Murray State
Prohm is in his first season as the head coach at Murray State. He guided the Racers to a 27–1 regular-season record and then added three more wins in the OVC Tournament. Murray, a No. 6 seed, beat Colorado State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.

Johnny Jones, head coach, North Texas
Jones recently completed his 11th season as the head coach at North Texas. He has taken the Mean Green to the NCAA Tournament twice (in 2007, ’10) and lost in the Sun Belt Tournament finals in each of the past two seasons. A former player and assistant coach at LSU, Jones served as the interim head coach at Memphis in 1999-2000.

Ron Hunter, head coach, Georgia State
Hunter did a great job in his first season at Georgia State, improving the Panthers from 6–12 in the Colonial in 2011 to 11–7 in ’12. Previously, he served as the head coach at IUPUI for 17 seasons, overseeing the school’s move from the NAIA ranks to Division I Independent to member of the Summit League. IUPUI went 98–56 in its 10 years in the Summit during Hunter’s tenure.

Tim Jankovich, head coach, Illinois State
Jankovich has nine years of head coaching experience, four at North Texas in the mid-1990s and the last five at Illinois State. His teams at ISU have been solid (48–42 in the MVC), but the Redbirds have yet to break through and reach the NCAA Tournament. Jankovich has worked for Bill Self at Illinois and Kansas and Kevin Stallings at Vanderbilt.

Tim Miles, head coach, Colorado State
Miles, believed to be the first coach to ever tweet during halftime of an NCAA Tournament game, had Colorado State in the NCAAs for the first time since 2003. He has 17 years of head coaching experience, two at Maryville (N.D.) State, four at NW Minnesota State, six at North Dakota State and five at Colorado State.

Scott Sutton, head coach, Oral Roberts
The son of former Oklahoma State coach Eddie Sutton has put up gaudy numbers in 13 years at Oral Roberts. His record in the Summit League is 163—59, including a 17–1 record this season. ORU has made three trips to the NCAA Tournament on Sutton’s watch.

<p> Doc Sadler was fired at Nebraska. Who are some candidates to replace him?</p>
Post date: Friday, March 16, 2012 - 11:01
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-11-jason-day


They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 20 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: 1 | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $3,962,647 World Ranking: 9


Brandel Chamblee's Take:

Jason Day is the reincarnation of Phil Mickelson, except that he plays right-handed and speaks with an Australian accent. Everything about this 24-year-old screams future superstar. He has overpowering length to go with a great putting stroke, and the poise he possesses was on full display when he birdied the final two holes of The Masters, losing only to the heroic efforts of Charl Schwartzel. Still, his 12-under par at Augusta is the lowest ever total for a first-time player, and he continued his superlative play in the game’s next major, the U.S. Open, where he garnered another second-place finish. 
His talent and his demeanor on the course remind me of a young Phil, who took more than a decade to finally win a major, but I don’t think it will take Jason as long, because he will not be playing against a young Tiger Woods as Phil was.


Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 6
Wins: 0

2011 Performance:
Masters - T2
U.S. Open - 2
British Open - T30
PGA Championship - Cut

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T2 (2011)
U.S. Open - 2 (2011)
British Open - T30 (2011)
PGA Championship - T10 (2010)
Top-10 Finishes: 3
Top-25 Finishes: 3
Missed Cuts: 1

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

<br />
Post date: Friday, March 16, 2012 - 10:05
Path: /college-football/vanderbilt-commodores-2012-spring-preview

By Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Vanderbilt Commodores 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 6-7, 2-6 SEC

Spring Practice: March 16-April 14

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 7

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Jordan Rodgers, 108 of 216, 1,524 yds, 9 TDs, 10 INTs
Rushing: Zac Stacy, 201 car., 1,193 yds., 14 TDs
Receiving: Jordan Matthews, 41 rec., 778 yds, 5 TDs
Tackles: Archibald Barnes, 59
Sacks: Rob Lohr, 5
Interceptions: Trey Wilson, 3

Redshirts to Watch: CB Derek King, OT James Lewis, WR Josh Grady, WR Jacquese Kirk, TE Darien Bryant 

Early Enrollees: LB Daerreon Herring, QB Patton Robinette

2012 Schedule

Aug. 30 South Carolina
Sept. 8 at Northwestern
Sept. 15 Presbyterian
Sept. 22 at Georgia
Oct. 6 at Missouri
Oct. 13 Florida
Oct. 20 Auburn
Oct. 27 UMass
Nov. 3 at Kentucky
Nov. 10 at Ole Miss
Nov. 17 Tennessee
Nov. 24 at Wake Forest

Offensive Strength: The Commodores made dramatic improvement on offense as the 2011 season progressed due in large part to the emergence of Zac Stacy as an elite SEC tailback. Running behind a vastly improved offensive line, Stacy rushed for a single-season school record 1,193 yards on a healthy 5.9-yard average. The passing attack was also quite a bit more potent in the latter half of the ’11 season, but the Commodores’ offense this fall will rely heavily on its rushing attack.

Offensive Weakness: The offensive line was arguably the most improved unit on the team last season, but this is still a group that has trouble with big, physical defensive lines. Herb Hand feels pretty good about his starters — most notably Wesley Johnson — but the veteran O-Line coach will be looking to develop some depth this spring and into preseason camp. Vanderbilt would prefer to play Johnson at left tackle, but might have to move him back to center if no one emerges as that position.

Defensive Strength: Despite losing two starters to the NFL in cornerback Casey Heyward and safety Sean Richardson, the secondary remains the strength of the Vanderbilt defense. Andre Hal, the nickel back for much of the 2011 season, likely will step in and join Trey Wilson as a starting cornerback. Eric Samuels, Javon Marshall and Kenny Ladler will battle for starts at safety.

Defensive Weakness: Vanderbilt is dangerously thin at linebacker. The Commodores were forced to play more nickel coverages than they might have preferred last year to mask their deficiencies at linebacker. That will likely be the case once again unless some young, untested players emerge over the next six months.

Spring Storylines Facing the Commodores:

1. Who will be the quarterback? Jordan Rodgers, the starter for the final seven games last season, had some great moments directing the Vanderbilt offense in 2011. But don’t assume that Rodgers will be the starter on opening day. Austyn Carta-Samuels, a transfer from Wyoming who was the 2009 Mountain West Freshman of the Year, impressed the coaching staff while running the scout team last fall. He is an outstanding athlete who will be given an opportunity to win the job.

2. The return of tailback Warren Norman. One of the few playmakers on the Vanderbilt offense in 2009 and ’10, Norman missed all of last season with a knee injury. He is expected back this fall, but he has clearly been passed on the depth chart by Zac Stacy, a second-team All-SEC pick in 2011. Norman will no doubt be involved in the offense — if healthy — but his greatest contributions might be on special teams. He returned three kick-offs for touchdowns as a freshman in 2009 and has averaged 25.9 yards on 62 career returns.

3. The linebacker position. Finding some capable bodies to man the three linebacker positions will be a primary focus this spring. There are basically only two healthy linebackers with significant experience going through spring practice — Chase Garnham and Archibald Barnes. Tristan Strong, who tore his ACL early last season, is expected back in the fall. After that? Who knows. Don’t be surprised if some true freshmen like Darreon Herring (early enrollee), Jake Sealand and Harding Harper get a long look.

4. The kicking game. There are no concerns with punter Richard Kent, but the Commodores simply must get more consistency from their placekickers. Carey Spear and Ryan Fowler each made 4-of-7 attempts last year, and neither made a kick over 40 yards. It’s not likely that either one will win the job during spring practice, but coach James Franklin would love to see both kick with more confidence. Colby Cooke, a true freshman, will join the competition in the fall. 

Related Content Links

College Football's Top Spring Quarterback Battles for 2012
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
2012 Very Early SEC Predictions
Athlon's Very Early Top 25 for 2012

<p> Can Jordan Rodgers lead Vanderbilt back to a bowl in 2012?</p>
Post date: Friday, March 16, 2012 - 07:47
Path: /college-football/michigan-wolverines-2012-spring-preview

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Michigan Wolverines 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 11-2, 6-2  Big Ten

Spring practice: March 17-April 14

Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 7, K/P — 2

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Denard Robinson, 142 of 258, 2,173 yards, 20 TD, 15 INT
Rushing: Fitzgerald Toussaint, 187 att., 1,041 yards, 9 TD*
Receiving: Jeremy Gallon, 31 rec., 453 yards, 3 TD
Tackles: Kenny Demens, 94
Sacks: Craig Roh and Jordan Kovacs, 4
Interceptions: J.T. Floyd and Courtney Avery, 2

* - Robinson actually led the team in rushing with 1,176 yards. Toussaint led all running backs in rushing.

Redshirts to watch: RB Justice Hayes, DE Chris Rock, LB Antonio Poole, OL Chris Bryant

Early Enrollees:

Joe Bolden, LB (6-3, 230), Cincinnati (Ohio) Colerain
Kaleb Ringer, LB (6-1, 225), Clayton (Ohio) Northmont
Jarrod Wilson, DB (6-2, 190), Akron (Ohio) Buchtel

2012 Schedule

Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis

Sept. 1 Alabama (Cowboys Stadium, Arlington, Texas)
Sept. 8 Air Force
Sept. 15 UMass
Sept. 22 at Notre Dame
Sept. 29 Bye Week
Oct. 6 at Purdue
Oct. 13 Illinois
Oct. 20 Michigan State
Oct. 27 at Nebraska
Nov. 3 at Minnesota
Nov. 10 Northwestern
Nov. 17 Iowa
Nov. 24 at Ohio State

Offensive Strength: One word: Quarterback. Denard Robinson is entering his third full season as the starter after back-to-back 2,000-yard/1,000-yard seasons and a BCS Bowl win over Virginia Tech. He is the most explosive athlete playing quarterback in the entire nation. While his efficiency could still use some work, his leadership and production are virtually unmatched nationally.

Offensive Weakness: There really isn't a major area of concern for this unit, but without Rimington Award winner David Molk at center, Kevin Koger at tight end and Mark Huyge at right tackle, the offensive line will need to rebuild this spring. With Taylor Lewan back, however, this isn't a position that will keep Michigan from winning a Big Ten title.

Defensive Strength: The back seven returns entirely intact minus Troy Woolfolk, so this has to be considered the muscle of the defense. Every contributing linebacker returns and has added two early enrollee freshman, including future star Joe Bolden. The secondary returns two all-conference performers and plenty of depth as well.

Defensive Weakness: The defensive line lost two all-conference players and has to be completely reworked. How well Michigan fills the holes left by leading sackmaster Ryan Van Bergen and interior stud Mike Martin could determine if this is a Big Ten title team or perhaps even more than that.

Spring Storylines Facing the Maize and Blue:

1. Rebuilding the defensive line this spring might determine just how high this team can go in 2012. Without Martin, Van Bergen and Will Heininger, the group lacks experience outside of Craig Roh. The D-Line was easily the most improved unit from 2010 to 2011 and was the main factor in Michigan being able to land in a BCS bowl in Brady Hoke's first season. Jibreel Black, Quinton Washington and Frank Clark have some ability, but uber-recruit William Campbell needs to show fans what recruiting scouts saw in him back when he was the Big Ten's No. 2-rated overall recruit in 2009. Fans are eagerly awaiting the arrival of potential freshman contributor Ondre Pipkins this summer. His addition will be that much more effective if Roh, Campbell and company can solidify the rotation up front. With expectations sky high in Ann Arbor this season, the defensive line will likely be the difference between a great Michigan season and a truly special one — also known as the BCS National Championship game.

2. Developing the receiving corps. Hoke has to replace his top receiver in Junior Hemingway and dependable tight end in Kevin Koger. Roy Roundtree (355 yards) and Jeremy Gallon (453 yards) return as the top targets for Robinson and should step into bigger roles with relative ease.  Beyond that, names like Jeremy Jackson, Drew Dileo and Jerald Robinson must develop into consistent play-making threats. There is little experience at tight end but lots of bodies. Tight ends Brandon Moore and Ricardo Miller will be the starters in spring practice with the addition of AJ Williams and Devin Funchess looming this summer. Developing a reliable rotation of pass-catchers at both wideout and tight end has to be near the top of Shoelace's spring wish list.

3. Shoelace also needs to stay healthy, and to do so, Hoke will need to find replacements for some key losses along the offensive line, most notably the center position. Rimington Trophy winner David Molk isn't around any longer to lead the hog mollies, so redshirt freshman Jack Miller, senior converted guard Ricky Barnum and veteran reserve Rocko Khoury will likely fight it out for the starting spot. With star left tackle Taylor Lewan protecting Robinson's blindside and two experienced guards, Michael Schofield and Patrick Omameh, returning to the starting line-up, the center position will take center stage this spring.

4. Dealing with expectations. This Michigan team will likely be picked by Athlon Sports to win the Legends Division and probably the Big Ten title. With a chance to knock off the defending champion Crimson Tide — and their completely rebuilt defense — on the fast track of Jerry's World in Week 1 could also have Maize and Blue faithful thinking South Beach in January. After a tremendous first season under Hoke, the players need to remain grounded, work as hard as ever and stay healthy this spring. This falls to the team leaders Robinson and Lewan on offense and Jordan Kovacs, J.T. Floyd, Kenny Demens and Roh on defense.

Related Content Links

Athlon Sports No. 6 Recruiting Class: Michigan Wolverines
College Football's Top Spring Quarterback Battles for 2012

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

Big Ten 2012 Schedule Analysis
2012 Very Early Big Ten Predictions
Athlon's Very Early Top 25 for 2012

<p> Michigan Wolverines 2012 Spring Preview</p>
Post date: Friday, March 16, 2012 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: crossword, Monthly
Path: /college-basketball/march-2012-crossword-solution

Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 15:56
Path: /college-basketball/candidates-replace-rick-stansbury-mississippi-state

Rick Stansbury stepped down Thursday afternoon after 14 seasons as the head coach at Mississippi State. Here is a list of possible replacements.

Johnny Jones, head coach, North Texas
Jones recently completed his 11th season as the head coach at North Texas. He has taken the Mean Green to the NCAA Tournament twice (in 2007, ’10) and lost in the Sun Belt Tournament finals in each of the past two seasons. A former player and assistant coach at LSU, Jones served as the interim head coach at Memphis in 1999-2000.

Sean Woods, head coach, Mississippi Valley State
Woods completed his fourth season as the boss at Mississippi Valley State on Tuesday night with a loss to Western Kentucky in the First Four. Woods is a Kentucky graduate who played for Rick Pitino in the early 1990s.


Phil Cunningham, assistant coach, Mississippi State
Cunningham has served on Rick Stansbury’s staff at Mississippi State for the past 11 seasons. He has also spent time at Georgia State and James Madison, and had as a previous stint at Mississippi State (1991-92) when he worked for Richard Williams.

Marcus Grant, assistant coach, Mississippi State
A Mississippi State alum and a three-year starter under former MSU coach Richard Williams, Grant has been on the Bulldogs’ staff since 2004. He is regarded as an outstanding recruiter.

Gregg Marshall, head coach, Wichita State
Marshall has a 303–142 record in 14 seasons as a head coach. He took Winthrop to the NCAA Tournament seven times in nine seasons and will have Wichita State in the field this year (as a high seed) for the first time in his five seasons.

Steve Prohm, head coach, Murray State
Prohm is in his first season as the head coach at Murray State. He guided the Racers to a 27–1 regular-season record and then added three more wins in the OVC Tournament. Murray, a No. 6 seed, beat Colorado State in the first round of the NCAA Tournament on Thursday.

John Cooper, head coach, Tennessee State
Cooper recently completed his third season as a head coach at Tennessee State. The Tigers finished the year with an 18–12 record and lost to Murray State in the finals of the OVC Tournament. He spent six seasons as an assistant at South Carolina on Eddie Fogler’s staff from 1995-2001 and later worked at Oregon and Auburn.

Orlando Antigua, assistant coach, Kentucky
Antigua joined John Calipari’s staff in 2008-09 at Memphis and made the move to Kentucky, where is he is completing his third season. He has no experience as a head coach, but his status as one of Calipari’s top recruiters will make him a candidate for some head coaching positions in the near future.

Robert Kirby, assistant coach, Georgetown
Kirby joined the Georgetown staff in June 2010 after a 12-year stint as an assistant at Mississippi State. He also served as an assistant at State, working for Richard Williams, from 1990-93.

—by Mitch Light

<p> Mississippi State needs to replace Rick Stansbury, who retired after 14 seasons as the head coach in Starkville.&nbsp;</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 15:13
All taxonomy terms: March Madness, College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/no-need-expand-ncaa-tournament

--By Patrick Snow (@AthlonSnowman)

The NCAA currently tries to insult America’s intelligence each March by telling us that the NCAA Tournament starts on a Tuesday in Dayton. Sorry guys, I don’t care that you call the four contests in Ohio “the first round” or that those teams are paid a full tourney share. March Madness starts at 12:15pm EST on Thursday when there are 64 teams in the bracket. Period.

After watching the “first four”, it is painfully obvious that there are barely 64 quality teams this season that deserve to compete for the national title. Technically, every team (with the exception of the Ivy League) has a chance to get in the Big Dance by winning an automatic bid in a league tournament. It’s just silly to cheapen a great event and screw up brackets with the Tuesday/Wednesday “introduce sports fans to TruTV” games.

College basketball coaches, and maybe a few TV executives, are the only ones who want to see the tourney expanded. A 96- or 128-team field would only water down March Madness and would make the regular season even more irrelevant. It would also eliminate the excitement of the bubble, deplete the country’s love affair with the opening rounds on Thursday and Friday, and destroy office pools as everyone loves them. When it was recently suggested that the tourney might double, Missouri guard Kim English tweeted the following:

128 NCAA tournament teams would be a complete joke! Oregon State vs Nebraska in the 1st round. On the Food network. Jimmy Dykes on the call

Well said Kim. Even the players realize how silly 128 teams would be; now we just need coaches to realize it. When the Mountain West was formed and needed an auto bid, the NCAA should have just cut one at-large invitation. Instead, it gave in to pressure and created a convoluted 65-team field which has now led to the ignored “first four”. I know it won’t happen, but college basketball would be better if the NCAA would correct that mistake.

Sixty-four is the perfect field size. Just ask America.

<p> No Need to Expand the NCAA Tournament</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 13:47
Path: /columns/garage-talk/pennell%E2%80%99s-picks-fantasy-nascar-trends-bristol

by Jay Pennell

It's Bristol, baby!

This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the hills of East Tennessee for the Food City 500 at Bristol Motor Speedway. NASCAR’s modern day Colosseum has been home to some of the most dramatic moments in the sport’s history, and always produces great racing.

Once known for its rough-and-tumble ways, Bristol now has multiple grooves that allows for two, and at times, three-wide racing. The action is non-stop, fast-paced and full of action.

When it comes to Bristol, one name has stood out above the rest in recent years: Kyle Busch.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has a total of five Sprint Cup Series victories at the World's Fastest Half Mile, including four out of the last six events. When taking the Nationwide and Camping World Truck Series events into consideration, Busch has simply owned the place. All told, Busch has five Sprint Cup wins, four Nationwide Series wins (including the last three consecutively), and three straight Camping World Truck Series wins.

So, after a frustrating 23rd-place finish in front of his hometown crowd last week in Las Vegas, Busch is eager to get back to one of his best tracks on the schedule.

“It’s just a fun racetrack no matter what series I’m running there,” Busch said of Bristol. “You really have to be on your game because you make one mistake, or someone else makes one mistake — like what happened in the fall Nationwide Series race there in 2009 when a car with a flat tire came down the track and essentially ended our day — that’s it.”

After a lackluster start to the season — with only one top 5 in three starts — Busch and his Dave Rogers-led team should be at the top of their game this weekend. This bunch struggled during last year’s night race in August, relying too heavily on the Nationwide setup and fighting the changes throughout the Sprint Cup race. With that lesson learned and a proven history of success, Busch is this week's fantasy favorite.

Five Favorites: Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski

Yet Kyle is not the only Busch to have success on the half-mile concrete oval. Older brother Kurt Busch also has five Sprint Cup Series wins at Bristol, the last of which came in 2006.

While the Busch brothers are tied with Jeff Gordon and NASCAR Hall of Famer David Pearson for third on the all-time Bristol wins list, younger brother Kyle is the only one of that group to have a victory on the new configuration.

As for older brother Kurt, this weekend is a monumental moment in his career. Returning to one of his most successful tracks, Busch is doing so with a humbled attitude and quite the hole to climb from. After the first three races with team owner James Finch’s Phoenix Racing, the ’04 series champion has a best finish of 15th (Phoenix International Raceway) and sits 30th in the standings. Since joining Phoenix Racing, Busch has said he believes this team can compete for wins — especially at a track like Bristol.

However, the season has not gotten off to the kind of start this group was looking for and Busch heads to Bristol with his eye on climbing back into contending for wins. That has the older Busch brother as my driver to watch this weekend. With this marking the 10th anniversary of his first career Sprint Cup Series victory, perhaps there is no better time to get back to his winning ways.

The former champion has the ability to give Finch his second career Cup win, but he’s also just as likely to bring home yet another wrecked race car.

Five Undervalued Picks: Kurt Busch, Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman, Marcos Ambrose, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 

<p> Fantasy NASCAR predictions for the Food City 500 from Bristol Motor Speedway.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 12:38
Path: /college-football/florida-gators-2012-spring-preview

By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Florida Gators 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 7-6, 3-5 SEC

Spring practice: March 14-April 7

Returning Starters: Offense – 7, Defense – 11

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Jacoby Brissett, 18 of 39, 206 yards, 2 TD, 4 INT
Rushing: Mike Gillislee, 56 att., 328 yards, 2 TD
Receiving: Andre Debose, 16 rec., 432 yards, 4 TD
Tackles: Jon Bostic, 94
Sacks: Ronald Powell, 6
Interceptions: Matt Elam and De'Ante Saunders, 2

Redshirts to watch: WR JaJuan Story, S Valdez Showers

Early Enrollees:

Willie Bailey, DB (6-1, 167), Hallandale (Fla.) High
Jessamen Dunker, OL (6-4, 320), Boynton Beach (Fla.) High
D.J. Humphries, OL (6-6, 271), Charlotte (N.C.) Mallard Creek
Damien Jacobs, DL (6-3, 310), Scooba (Miss.) East Miss. C.C.
Antonio Morrison, LB (6-1, 209), Bollingbrook (Ill.) High

JUCO Transfers to watch: DT Damien Jacobs

2012 Schedule

SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis

Sept. 1 Bowling Green
Sept. 8 at Texas A&M
Sept. 15 at Tennessee
Sept. 22 Kentucky
Sept. 27 Bye Week
Oct. 6 LSU
Oct. 13 at Vanderbilt
Oct. 20 South Carolina
Oct. 27 Georgia
Nov. 3 Missouri
Nov. 10 UL-Lafayette
Nov. 17 Jacksonville State
Nov. 24 at Florida State

Offensive Strength: On a unit that has struggled ever since Urban Meyer left town, is it okay to say none? There is still plenty of offensive skill depth and versatility, but none of those hefty recruiting rankings have panned out. It's not to say that there is loads of potential, especially in the receiving corps. There is plenty of speed with Andre Debose, Quinton Dunbar and Frankie Hammond on the outside while Jordan Reed and A.C. Leonard were two of the most highly-touted tight ends in the nation. This group can only improve.

Offensive Weakness: Since this entire offense was "highly-touted" and has yet to stabilize in any sense of the word, really every position could be listed as a weakness. However, the offensive line could feature two true freshman this fall and therefore gets the nod as the biggest area of concern. But make no mistake, the quarterbacks or running game (or receivers for that matter) aren't in much better shape.

Defensive Strength: All areas of this defense are supremely talented and return intact, but if one area is the strength it would have to be the defensive line. Fourteen players registered a sack last fall for Florida and 12 of them are returning, including six of the top seven D-Linemen. This is an active, explosive, versatile and extremely talented front line. Fans have high expectations for uber-recruits Ronald Powell, Dominique Easley, Omar Hunter and Sharrif Floyd.

Defensive Weakness: This unit is quite the opposite of the offense. With 11 starters returning, there really isn't a glaring weakness. Finding tall corners that fit Wil Muschamp's scheme might be an area of focus for the spring. Developing a physical Alabama-esque edge in the extremely athletic linebacking corps is important. And adding bulk up front are small areas of development for a defense that could be the SEC East's most talented unit.

Spring Storylines Facing the Gators

1. Stablizing the offensive coaching staff had to be Muschamp's top priority this offseason. With the hiring of former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease to call plays, the Gators will be featuring its fourth OC in four seasons. Hardly stable. Yet, Pease helped develop one of the most prolific offensive attacks in the nation in Boise and is charged with the continued shift from Meyer spread to Muschamp pro-style. There are a lot of moving parts on the offense and figuring out how they all fit together needs to be done quickly if Pease expects to complete the transition to the more traditional power offense.

2. Finding a quarterback will be Pease's main focus this spring. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Gators truly have no clue who will be the starting quarterback on September 1. Both Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel are dripping with talent, arm strength and size. Yet, both are young, inexperienced and need development. Additionally, Pease has no loyalty to either as he didn't recruit them to Gainesville. It is a quarterback competition in its truest form and the winner of the job will get the keys to one of the most prolific offensive programs in the modern history of college football.

3. Does there seem to be a developing theme with Florida football this spring? With a new coordinator and new quarterback, the next step for the Gators is to develop the offensive line. Both in pass pro and the running game, the Gators front line struggled mightily a year ago. So even though 50 starts return to the O-Line, Pease knows he needs an influx of young talent to advance this bunch. Look for incoming freshmen and early enrollees D.J. Humphries, who was the No. 1 offensive lineman recruit in the nation, and Jessamen Dunker to push for starting spots in the trenches. These two big-time recruits cannot be asked to step in and be stars right away, but if they can simply play effective football, it should press the incumbents to improve. For a team that finished 73rd in the nation in rushing and 105th nationally in total offense, it all starts up front.

4. Last but not least is the running game. If the new coordinator can design an effective game plan, the quarterback can protect the football and the offensive line can develop, it will fall to the undistinguished ball carriers to pick up the tough yards in SEC play. Ironing out who will be will get the lion's share of the touches is completely up in the air. Mike Gillislee is likely the most dependable. Trey Burton might be the most physical (and best suited for a pro-style attack) but is more of a fullback and H-Back than tailback. And sophomore Mack Brown might have the most upside. Someone in the backfield has to step up after the loss of Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps — who didn't really fit Muschamp's desired power scheme anyway despite their success. All three should be pressing in spring camp as they may simply be keeping the seat warm for 6-foot-2, 213-pound star recruit Matt Jones (who is definitely keeping the seat warm for 2013 superstar Kelvin Taylor).

Related Content Links

Athlon Sports No. 3 Recruiting Class: Florida Gators
College Football's Top Spring Quarterback Battles for 2012

Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012

College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
2012 Very Early SEC Predictions
Athlon's Very Early Top 25 for 2012

<p> Florida Gators 2012 Spring Preview</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 06:43
Path: /college-football/north-carolina-tar-heels-2012-spring-preview

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

North Carolina Tar Heels 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 7-6, 3-5 ACC

Spring practice: March 15-April 14

Returning Starters: Offense – 8, Defense – 6

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Bryn Renner, 239 of 350, 3,086 yards, 26 TDs, 13 INTs
Rushing: Giovani Bernard: 239 car., 1,253 yds., 13 TDs
Receiving: Erik Highsmith: 51 rec., 726 yds., 5 TDs
Tackles: Kevin Reddick, 71
Sacks: Kareem Martin, 4
Interceptions: Tre Boston, 3

Redshirts to watch: DL Devonte Brown, OL Kiaro Holts, QB Marquise Williams, S Darien Rankin, OL Jarrod James

Early Enrollees: TE Terrance Knox, LB Shakeel Rashad

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Elon
Sept. 8 at Wake Forest
Sept. 15 at Louisville
Sept. 22 East Carolina
Sept. 29 Idaho
Oct. 6 Virginia Tech
Oct. 13 at Miami (Fla.)
Oct. 20 at Duke
Oct. 27 vs. NC State
Nov. 10 Georgia Tech
Nov. 15 at Virginia
Nov. 24 Maryland

Offensive Strength: North Carolina has two of the ACC’s top returning offensive players in quarterback Bryn Renner and running back Giovani Bernard. Renner led the ACC in passing efficiency last season as a sophomore, while Bernard, who will be just a sophomore in 2012, is the conference’s leading returning rusher. The Tar Heels also return four starters on the offensive line, which is anchored on the left side by Jonathan Cooper and James Hurst. Both earned 2nd team All-ACC honors in 2011.

Offensive Weakness: There’s no question the Tar Heels will miss wide receiver Dwight Jones. Last year he led the ACC with 85 catches, was third in receiving yards (1,196) and fifth in the conference in touchdowns (12). The focus now shifts to who will step up and help senior Erik Highsmith (51 receptions in 2011) and become a reliable receiver for Renner. There’s also the matter of making the switch to new head coach Larry Fedora’s spread offense from the pro style scheme used last year by interim head coach Everett Withers and his staff.

Defensive Strength: The Tar Heels return six starters on defense, headlined by linebacker Kevin Reddick, cornerback Tre Boston and defensive end Kareem Martin. They also return several experienced players from last year’s two-deep who are ready for the opportunity to become starters. This year’s defense will be under the direction of new co-coordinators Vic Koenning and Dan Disch. Koenning had been the defensive coordinator at Illinois the past two seasons, during which time the Fighting Illini’s defense improved from 91st in the country in total defense in 2009 to seventh in 2011. Disch follows Fedora from Southern Miss where he successfully implemented his brand of a 4-2-5 defensive scheme.

Defensive Weakness: Although the defense returns six starters, it still lost a lot of talent and production in the departures of the other. Defensive end Quinton Coples is projected as a first-round pick in the upcoming NFL Draft and linebacker Zach Brown will more than likely hear his name called in the early rounds as well. Defensive lineman Donte Paige-Moss and Tydreke Powell and cornerback Charles Brown could also get drafted or eventually end up on a NFL roster too. Just like the offense, the defense will be switching schemes as Koenning and Kisch are expected to implement a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 style.

Spring Storylines Facing the Tar Heels

1. On Monday, the NCAA announced that the North Carolina football program had been banned from postseason play in 2012 and other additional penalties stemming from numerous violations committed under former head coach Butch Davis. The program was also placed on three years’ probation and increased the reduction of scholarships from nine to 15 over the same period. The school was well aware that this announcement was forthcoming, but it’s still not the way new head coach Larry Fedora wanted to start his first season as head coach. Davis and all the other key figures associated with the violations, which included academic fraud, impermissible agent benefits, participation by ineligible players and a failure to monitor the football program, are all gone so at least now the focus can switch back to the product on the field.

2. Fedora will be working hard to teach his spread offense to his new team this spring and it will be interesting to watch how quickly they pick it up. In his four seasons at Southern Miss, the Golden Eagles finished in the top 20 in the nation in total offense three times. The best North Carolina did in that same time span was 51st in 2010. Tar Heel fans shouldn’t expect to see instant results, as Renner isn’t the prototypical quarterback to run a spread offense, but should like and enjoy the new scheme more and more as the season progresses. Don’t be surprised to see Fedora and offensive coordinator Blake Anderson, who was with Fedora at Southern Miss, tailor the offense more this season to better fit the strengths of both Renner and Bernard, two of the ACC’s premier playmakers.

3. Another reason to temper expectations with the offense is the lack of returning experience and production in the receiving corps. Highsmith is the Tar Heels’ leading returning receiver with 51 catches for 726 yards and five touchdowns. Bernard is next with 45 receptions out of the backfield. After the remaining returning wide receivers combined for 20 catches last year. The returning tight ends had more, but regardless someone will have to step up in the spring if North Carolina wants to develop any sort of consistent passing attack. Senior Jheraine Boyd and sophomore T.J. Thorpe are two receivers to watch, along with senior tight end Nelson Hurst and sophomore Eric Ebron. Two freshmen to keep an eye on are receiver Quinshad Davis, one of the key pieces to Fedora’s first recruiting class, and tight end Terrance Knox.

4. Although the offense will be changing, the defense is undergoing an even more extensive makeover, switching from a 4-3 to a hybrid 4-2-5/3-3-5 scheme. Six starters return, but besides learning all the concepts of the new defense, some of them also may be changing positions as Koenning and Disch figure out where each player fits best. The defensive line lost three standouts in Coples, Paige-Moss and Powell, but linebacker is the position that has the biggest question marks headed into spring practice. Tackle machine Brown is gone and although Reddick is more than capable of assuming the leadership role in the linebacker corps, who will line up beside him remains to be seen. Two players to watch here are junior Darius Lipford and sophomore Travis Hughes. The secondary will play an even more important role in the new scheme putting pressure on returnees like Tre Boston, Jabari Price, Gene Robinson and Tim Scott. Don’t be surprised to see breakdowns in coverage and execution early in the season as the players adapt to and get comfortable in the new system.

5. Fedora and his coaching staff already had enough to deal with in their first season in Chapel Hill, including getting settled in their new surroundings, putting together a recruiting class in a short amount of time and start the process of teaching the players the new offense and defense. Now following the NCAA’s announcement of the additional penalties levied on the football program, they have a new challenge – keeping the team motivated throughout a season that will not include a bowl game. Because of the postseason ban, seniors will be able to transfer to another school and play right away. It remains to be seen if any Tar Heel seniors will go this route, but the success of the North Carolina football program moving forward could very well depend on how the younger players approach this season. Will it be the first step in laying a foundation for the future or will they just go through the motions and not take the opportunity to learn what Fedora and the coaching staff are trying to teach as he works to transform the football program into what he envisions. Only time will tell, but given all the circumstances you could argue no one has a tougher job in college football right now than Fedora and his staff.

Related College Football Content

Athlon's Early Top 25 for 2012
Grading College Football's New Coaching Hires for 2012

ollege Football Coaches on the Hot Seat: Spring Practice Edition
College Football's Top 10 Spring Storylines to Watch

2012 ACC Schedule Analysis

<p> Larry Fedora looks to rebuild the North Carolina football program from the ground up while dealing with NCAA penalties that he inherited from the previous coaching regime.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 06:42
Path: /college-football/pittsburgh-panthers-2012-spring-preview

By Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven on Twitter)

The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.

Pittsburgh Panthers 2012 Spring Preview

2011 Record: 6-7, 4-3 Big East

Spring practice: March 15-April 14

Returning Starters: Offense – 9, Defense – 5

Returning Leaders:

Passing: Tino Sunseri, 247 of 385, 2,616 yds., 10 TDs, 11 INTs
Rushing: Ray Graham, 164 car., 958 yds., 9 TDs
Receiving: Devin Street, 53 rec., 754 yds., 2 TDs
Tackles: Jarred Holley, 67
Sacks: Aaron Donald, 11
Interceptions: Six players tied with 1

Redshirts to watch: TE Sam Collura, RB Malcolm Crockett, LB Nicholas Grigsby, DB Roderick Ryles

Transfers to watch: OL Tom Ricketts (Penn State), WR Brendon Felder (North Carolina), DB Cullen Christian (Michigan), DB E.J. Banks (Notre Dame), DB Ray Vinopal (Michigan)

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Youngstown State
Sept. 15 Virginia Tech
Sept. 22 Gardner-Webb
Oct. 6 at Buffalo
Nov. 3 at Notre Dame
TBD at Cincinnati
TBD at Connecticut
TBD Louisville
TBD Rutgers
TBD at Syracuse
TBD Temple

Offensive Strength: Ray Graham was well on his way to rushing for 1,000 yards, but a torn ACL ended his season in the victory over Connecticut. All signs point to Graham returning for the 2012 opener, but if he is slowed early on, there’s solid depth at running back with Isaac Bennett and true freshman Rushel Shell.

Offensive Weakness: Quarterback Tino Sunseri had a disappointing junior year, throwing 11 picks to only 10 touchdowns and often held the ball too long in the pocket. Sunseri struggled, but the offensive line deserves its share of the blame. The front five never found its rhythm, largely due to injuries and the struggles of adapting to a new scheme.

Defensive Strength: End/tackle Aaron Donald had a breakout season last year, collecting 47 tackles and 11 sacks. Donald will need to anchor the line with three key contributors departing. The secondary ranked 72nd nationally in pass defense last season, but cornerback K’Waun Williams and safeties Jared Holley and Andrew Taglianetti are back.

Defensive Weakness: With six starters departing, there are several holes for new coordinator Dave Huxtable to fill this spring. Up front, the Panthers suffered huge losses, as Brandon Lindsey, Chas Alecxih and Myles Caragein have expired their eligibility. The linebacking corps must also be rebuilt thanks to the departures of Greg Williams, Max Gruder and Tristan Roberts.

Spring Storylines Facing the Panthers

1. For a team that has had four head coaches since December 2010, this spring is all about building stability. After Todd Graham decided to bolt for Arizona State after one season, the Panthers brought in Wisconsin offensive coordinator Paul Chryst as the new head coach. This will be Chryst’s first head coaching gig, but he was one of the top coordinators in college football and should be a terrific fit in Pittsburgh. The Panthers aren’t far off from contending in a wide-open Big East race. However, how quickly the team adapts to Chryst will determine how high Pittsburgh can climb in the Big East standings this year.

2. Quarterback Tino Sunseri was a lighting rod for criticism last year, as the Panthers offense slumped to a disappointing 83rd nationally in scoring. Graham promised a high-octane offense, but Pittsburgh was stuck in neutral most of last year. Sunseri had a few bright spots, including a 419-yard passing performance in the 35-20 win over Connecticut. However, Sunseri had some awful games, throwing for only 38 yards in a loss to Utah and tossing three picks in a 34-10 defeat to Rutgers. The senior enters spring with a fresh start and a system that should be more suited to his strengths. The Panthers really need Sunseri to improve this year, especially when there are no proven backups on the roster. Sophomores Trey Anderson, Anthony Gonzalez and Mark Myers will compete with incoming freshman Chad Voytik for the backup role. If Sunseri fails to show much progress early on, expect Chryst to get an extended look at the other quarterbacks on the roster.

3. Although Sunseri deserved a good chunk of the blame for last season’s offensive struggles, the offensive line also deserves its share of criticism. The front five ranked last in the nation with 64 sacks allowed or around 4.9 per game. Coming from Wisconsin, Chryst is well-aware of the importance of a solid offensive line. Outside of the quarterback play, this group has to make the biggest strides for Pittsburgh to compete for the Big East title in 2012. The Panthers lose three starters up front, but return six with starting experience. Guard Chris Jacobson was limited last year due to injuries, but his return should help solidify a line that cannot be any worse than it was last year. The switch from a spread to pro-style scheme should also benefit this group and prevent another disastrous sack total at the end of 2012.

4. Running back Ray Graham is expected to sit out spring practice as he continues to recover from a torn ACL. Although Graham needs as much work as possible in the new offense, the Panthers need him at 100 percent and can’t afford to rush his recovery. With Graham sidelined this spring, look for Isaac Bennett and Corey Davis to shoulder the workload in the backfield. All signs point to Graham returning at full strength in the fall, and his recovery will be one of the top injuries to monitor before the 2012 Big East gets underway. 

5. Defense was usually a strength under former coach Dave Wannstedt and overall, this group wasn’t bad last year. The Panthers finished 21st nationally against the run, allowed 22.9 points a game and generated 3.3 sacks a game. There’s some key voids to fill this preseason, as Pittsburgh must replace six starters. The front seven will be the biggest area of focus, as end Brandon Lindsey is gone after collecting 8.5 sacks last year and two solid contributors are gone at linebacker. The secondary ranked 72nd nationally in passing yards allowed per game, but should be improved with three starters returning for 2012. Although there are some pieces to work with, new defensive coordinator Dave Huxtable has to rebuild the front seven and find players that can replace Lindsey’s production off the edge.  

Related Content Links:

College Football's Top Quarterback Battles to Watch
Top Transfers to Watch in 2012
Early Top 25 for 2012
College Football's Top Spring Storylines for 2012
College Football's Coaches on the Hot Seat

<p> Athlon previews spring practice for the Pittsburgh Panthers.</p>
Post date: Thursday, March 15, 2012 - 06:40
Path: /columns/garage-talk/oh-say-can-you-c-post

by Vito Pugliese

You could forgive team owner Rick Hendrick if he now believes NASCAR really is an acronym standing for “Never Appeal Suspensions for Chad And Ron”.

Following Tuesday’s initial appeal before the National Stock Car Appeals Panel, the suspensions of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec were upheld, one-upping five-time Jimmie Johnson becoming six-time — as in, out of commission for six straight races. While Hendrick was diplomatic and conciliatory, recognizing NASCAR for providing the opportunity to state his case, he was nonetheless steadfast in his commitment to further escalate the appeals process. When asked if he accepted the outcome of the board’s review, he was unusually stern in his response:

“I don’t accept it. Period.”

So what of the perpetual appeal process for unapproved C-post modifications that has gone on since the Daytona 500? Are Hendrick and Knaus fighting a battle they cannot win, simply delaying the inevitable? Or is it a bit of formulated “strateegery” in an effort to help maximize the first few races of the season and build some much-needed momentum in the likelihood that the brain trust of race-weekend preparation will be out for the same time it takes a broken leg to heal?

As we have come to recognize since 2004, it is never too early to start thinking about The Chase.

Think back two weeks ago to the race at Phoenix. If not for an uncharacteristic mid-race loose wheel pit miscue, the No. 48 team would have checked out, standing in Victory Lane, and nothing would have been written about Denny Hamlin’s newfound confidence or Darian Grubb being a war wagon Zen master.

Last weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in their sponsor’s Kobalt Tool’s 400, Johnson was snookered by quasi-teammate Tony Stewart on a restart with four laps to go, finishing second. Those two near-wins have catapulted Johnson — who was at –23 points just a couple of weeks ago — up to 23rd in the standings. While not exactly something the dynasty of the decade usually would rally around, it has brought the team to within 36 points of 10th-place driver Mark Martin.

This is significant for a few reasons. First, Martin is driving a part-time schedule and is taking this weekend off — which heading into the concrete mixing bowl of retaliation that is Bristol, is probably good news for Dale Earnhardt Jr. following their dust up in the closing laps in Vegas. The 10th-place position in points is of utmost importance, of course, as that is the cut off for marking the Chase after race No. 26 at Richmond.

Finally, 36 points is what is paid for finishing in eighth place. In the last six races at Bristol, Johnson has lead 694 laps and posted an average finish of 9.0. Factor in a bonus point for leading a lap, and you have eighth-place points for the 48 nearly guaranteed this weekend. The one anomaly during those last six Bristol races was a 35th-place finish at the night race in 2010. Even then, Johnson had led 175 of 263 laps before being turned into the backstretch wall by Juan Pablo Montoya.

A strong run at Bristol will provide much-needed momentum that will overcome the 25-point fine levied at Daytona, and should the final appeal be heard next Tuesday, Knaus and Malec will begin serving their suspensions during the weekend of Fontana when the series heads to the Auto Club Speedway. How has Johnson faired at what is essentially his home track in Southern California?

In the last eight races he’s won four times, posted two second-place finishes, a third and a downright shameful result of ninth in 2009. Safe to say, I could clamber up atop the box in Fontucky and engineer a top 10 for J.J. at Michigan International Speedway’s illegitimate sister track.

The schedule then winds back east to Martinsville, where the results are similar. Two wins in eight races with an average finish of 4.4. If he keeps the fenders on it and the curbs off it, a top 10 is a virtual certainty. Intermediate tracks Kansas and Texas follow where Johnson enjoys lifetime average finishes of 8.4 and 10.2.

Richmond would be the fifth race of the Knaus/Malec suspension, and may prove to be a stumbling block. The last eight races at the three-quarter mile track have produced an average finish of 16.3, although there is a 2008 win mixed in, and three of the last four visits producing top-10 runs. I know, “Oh the humanity!” Sub-par days for the 48 have most other teams buying a case of beer and fist-pumping into the wee hours of the morning. That said, if there is one race to write off in the final six, it just might end up being Richmond.

Or the next week at Talladega.

Always a crapshoot — and an even larger roll of the restrictor-plate dice than Daytona — Johnson traditionally finds himself involved in or triggering the requisite 30-car Alabama junkyard. No reason to throw in the towel though, as he is the defending race champion, Hendrick Motorsports doesn’t hurt for horsepower at the big tracks, and as long as he doesn’t get wiped out in two laps like at Daytona — and there are no shenanigans with the C-posts or calls to crack the back of the car — things should be fine.

That is, of course, if the big one doesn’t crack up the front of the car for him.

The six-week vacation for Knaus and Malec would wrap up following Talladega. In the meantime the duo will be able to spend a few extra days a week in their little shop of horrors, preparing new cars for the next races at Darlington for the Southern 500 and perhaps the most important event in the first third of the schedule, the Coca-Cola 600.

These two tracks are significant for a number of reasons. The Southern 500 has long been considered the second-most prestigious race on the schedule (until the advent of the big-money Brickyard 400), and while the Daytona 500 was the race the drivers wanted to win, crew chiefs and mechanics always longed to beat “The Track Too Tough To Tame.” After a month and a half off, Knaus and Malec will likely be itching to get back into pitched battle with The Lady In Black.

The Coca-Cola 600 run on Memorial Day weekend is the longest race of the year and puts the cap on two weeks spent at the epicenter of the NASCAR industry in Charlotte. It was the track that Knaus and Johnson once deemed “Our House” in reference to team sponsor Lowe’s, which once owned naming rights to the facility (and because the 48 won five of six races, as well as two wins in the All-Star Race). Going green just hours after the Indianapolis 500, it rivals the greatest spectacle in racing as the most important motorsports day in America, and is also the kickoff to the famed “Summer Stretch” of NASCAR: an eight-week grind that sees the series go north, west and south, comprised of intermediate tracks, a road course and the second restrictor plate race at Daytona.

It is during this time when teams find out if their latest generation of cars are up to snuff, provides an indication of who is top 10 material, and who will have to rely on pulling out a win to make the 12-driver Chase come September. If early-season performance has been any indication, the No. 48 team will easily qualify, as it has every season since the championship format was introduced in 2004.

If Knaus, Malec, Johnson and company should get their noses bloodied during Knaus’ and Malec’s absence, unable to overcome the 25-point penalty, they can still qualify for the playoffs on wins as a wild card. However, it is unlikely that will be necessary, and even if it is, is there any doubt this team could crank out a few wins if the entire might of Hendrick Motorsports was brought to bear?

As always, it is never too early to start thinking about the Chase. If the appeal strategy and timeline being followed by Hendrick and Knaus is any indication, they began thinking ahead as soon as they were pulled out of the inspection line nearly a month ago.

Follow Vito on Twitter: @VitoPugliese

<p> Athlon Sports contributor Vito Pugliese believes that not even a six-week suspension to team principles Chad Knaus and Ron Malec can derail the machine that is Team 48.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 16:45
All taxonomy terms: Kentucky Wildcats, SEC, College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-kentucky-or-field

The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.

If you had a choice, would you take Kentucky or the field to win the title?

Mitch Light: I’d take the field. Kentucky is, in my opinion, clearly the best team in the nation, but it’s tough to win six straight games even if you have the best players. Two years ago, the Wildcats featured the most talented roster in the nation, but lost to West Virginia in the Elite Eight. A year ago, the Cats weren’t as talented yet advanced to the Final Four for the first time since 1998. The point? Talent alone doesn’t guarantee a trip to the Final Four, let alone a national title. If you have to take one team to win it, Kentucky is the obvious pick. But if given a choice, take the field.

Mark Ross: I have become more and more of a believer in Kentucky as the season has progressed, but I will still take the field. Kentucky is immensely talented, and any team that has Anthony Davis anchoring the middle is a threat to win it all, but I think they are too young and not deep enough to do it this year. John Calipari has gone with a seven-man rotation for the most part this season, so foul trouble could be a real issue, especially if it happens to Davis or Terrence Jones. Only one player in the rotation is an upperclassman, and that’s senior guard Darius Miller, who went 7-of-17 from the field and just 2-of-9 from 3-point range in the Wildcats’ 71-64 loss to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament championship game on Sunday. This is the first taste of NCAA Tournament play for the rest of the young ‘Cats, and I am one who believes experience is a crucial component to having success in March. The talent’s clearly there, but you need more than that to win these next six games. Just ask the 2009-10 Kentucky team.

Nathan Rush: Kentucky has no weakness. Coach John Calipari is a master motivator who has seen it all — coming within a Derrick Rose made free throw of winning the national title at Memphis in 2008. Center Anthony Davis is the best defensive player in the nation and the likely No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Terrence Jones are inside-out threats who attack the rim off the dribble and can also hit open jump shots. Darius Miller is a senior leader and athletic defender. The Wildcats one “flaw” is the lack of a Rose or John Wall caliber point guard. Marquis Teaque is a ball hog, but Doron Lamb picks up the slack with his high IQ and unselfish brand of basketball. UK even has spare parts like Kyle Wiltjer and Eloy Vargas on the bench. This is the best Kentucky team since Rick Pitino left the Big Blue Nation. I’ll take the Wildcats over the 67 other teams in the field.

Patrick Snow: I feel like it’s almost crazy to take one team over the field in any NCAA Tournament, but it also feels crazy to pick against Kentucky. The Wildcats are the most talented and complete team in the tourney, and this year’s squad has been amazingly consistent. John Calipari is very controversial with his recruiting methods and powerful basketball-insider friends, but he does have this UK team playing quality defense. That may seem easy with a presence like Anthony Davis in the post, but the Cats still deserve some credit for stopping opponents. Kentucky has lost past NCAA Tournament (and the SEC Tourney title) games when it goes cold on offense, especially from 3-point range. However this UK team can win even when not shooting well because of its defensive ability. I would take the field in most years, but the gap in talent between Kentucky and the rest of the field is just too immense not to pick the Wildcats.

Braden Gall: Absolutely the field. I like Kentucky to make a deep run and play in the championship game, but if I am gambling (which, of course, we do not condone at Athlon Sports), it’s hard to not to take the 67 other basketball teams in the brackets. Vanderbilt showed the nation that Kentucky can be stopped with excellent defense and timely shooting. The Cats are the most talented team in the nation with the best player in the nation, but they can be beat if you force them to shoot from the outside, get them into early foul trouble and out-work them, which is much easier said than done.

<p> We asked Athlon Sports' editors if they would choose Kentucky or the field in the NCAA Tournament.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 16:38
Path: /columns/garage-talk/backseat-drivers-fan-council-1

by Dustin Long

Does qualifying matter? Are fans watching? Is there a better way? Those were among some of the questions members of the Backseat Drivers Fan Council debated this week, along with rating last weekend’s Cup race at Las Vegas and if what is happening in the Nationwide Series is leading them to watch more of that series.

Here’s what Fan Council members had to say this week:

Cup qualifying: When should it be held?

58.0 percent said they like Cup qualifying on Friday
27.8 percent said they like Cup qualifying on Saturday
14.2 percent said Other

Here’s what Fan Council members said:
• It's nice to sit after a long week and watch the cars go around the track on Friday nights. I know it sounds very simplistic, but I find it a good way to wind down.

• I prefer the Friday qualifying. It gives the teams more chance to work on the cars and more of a chance to qualify if weather becomes an issue.

• I like it when the tracks can get most of the action on two days. I think I could go to more races if the weekends were more compact. I like to see EVERYTHING when I go so when they do quals and practices on Friday, it is a little more expensive.

• Qualifying on Friday with one practice, gives the drivers two practices on Saturday. This always gives the drivers and crew chiefs the time necessary to adjust their cars properly and makes for a better race.

• I hate qualifying on Saturday. When I show up to the track Saturday I enjoy watching 2 hours of Cup practice. It’s cool to see your driver making runs and listening to them on the scanner. When they just do quals on Saturday you see your driver for about a minute. Then its over. Plus the track changes so much from Friday to Sunday. I think it makes it harder for guys to hit on setups. While one guy can hit on it and just kill everyone.

• Qualifying is easier to "watch" on Twitter and at work on Fridays. More fun to watch practice on Saturday, plus I think it gives a better opportunity to fine tune cars after qualifying.

• Qualify before the Nationwide race makes for a better Saturday. May even bring more people for the Nationwide race.

Are you watching qualifying?
54.2 percent
said they watch as much of qualifying as they can
27.3 percent said they’ll watch it if they have nothing else to do
13.1 percent said they don’t care for qualifying except to see where their driver starts
5.4 percent said qualifying is boring and they don’t watch it.

What Fan Council members said:
• I'm watching and trying to mine the commentary for little nuggets of information that will help my fantasy team picks.

• I'm not a fan of seeing single cars on track making circles, I would love to see some kind of format with multiple cars on track but understand that could skew the times on tracks where drafting could come into play.

• I enjoy watching/listening to the discussions and interviews. However, I hate when they don't actually show the cars qualifying. Let the interview audio run over the qualifying video. I don't need to see the people talking.

• I DVR it every week and try to replay as much as I can.

• I don't watch qualifying. I would be a lot more interested if there were points awarded for the pole.

• My stance on watching qualifying has changed recently ever since I switched my cell phone to Sprint. Thank goodness for Sprint because I can watch all practices and qualifying on my phone, and I watch every chance I get.

• Let's be honest, nothing exciting here. Only curious to know how my drivers are doing.

• I not only watch it, but follow it on PitCommand.

<p> The Backseat Drivers Fan Council gives its input on qualifying, the Las Vegas race and watching the Nationwide Series.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 16:15
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-underseeded-teams

The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.

Which team do you believe was the most under-seeded?

Mark Ross: Half of Florida’s losses this season came to three teams that are either seeded No. 1 or 2 in the bracket. Florida lost three times to No. 1 overall seed Kentucky, lost by four points on the road to Syracuse (No. 1 in the East) and by seven on the road to Ohio State (No. 2 in the East). The Gators split their season series against SEC Tournament champion Vanderbilt, who’s the No. 5 seed in the East, and with the exception of a home loss to Tennessee, their other three losses came on the road. Florida also beat ACC Tournament champion Florida State (No. 3 in the East) by 18 points in late December. The Gators got the No. 7 seed in the West region, and I think you could make a strong argument that they should be as high as No. 5 in the bracket period, but especially ahead of both Murray State (No. 6) and New Mexico (No. 5) in their region.

Mitch Light: Memphis seems to be a bit low as a No. 8 seed. The Tigers don’t have many quality wins, but they played great down the stretch, winning their final seven games by an average margin of 22.7 points. The computers also really like this team; the Tigers’ RPI is 15, and they are No. 19 in the efficiency ratings. It wouldn’t surprise me at all to see this team knock off Michigan State in the second round (or, to be politically correct, the third round).

Nathan Rush: Murray State was given a No. 6 seed despite a 30–1 record that included wins over Memphis and Saint Mary’s. The Racers have the talent, experience and swagger to prove they were “under-seeded” by the Selection Committee. In the backcourt, junior Isaiah Canaan, senior Donte Poole and Jewuan Long control the fast-paced tempo. Down low, senior Ivan Aska (6’7", 230) and junior Edward Daniel (6’7", 220) are physical enough to defend the rim but athletic enough to keep up in the open court. First-year coach Steve Prohm has a dangerous team heading into the friendly confines of Louisville — which is roughly four hours away from Murray, Ky.

Patrick Snow: I was surprised to see Memphis with an 8-seed. The Tigers won the regular-season championship in Conference USA, as well as the league tournament title. Josh Pastner scheduled tough opponents, and Memphis’ RPI was in the top 20. The Tigers did have some early losses to tourney teams like Louisville, Georgetown and Michigan, but still finished 26–8 while winning 20 of their last 23 games.

Braden Gall: I will vote Murray State as the most under-seeded team in the nation. The Racers get my nod also because of what the selection committee did to them in terms of match-ups. As the No. 23 overall seed, this makes them the No. 3 six-seed in the tourney. But the committee clearly wanted to make their path to the Final Four as difficult as possible. Games with Marquette and Mizzou loom large and are terrible guard-heavy match-ups for the Racers. For a team that won both its regular-season and tourney title with technically the best record in the nation? A four or five would have been more appropriate. 

<p> Which teams deserved a better seed from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee?</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 14:27
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/top-20-golfers-2012-majors-no-13-nick-watney


They’re the cream of the major championship crop, circa 2012 — the Athlon Major Championship Dream Team. Throughout the month of March, we'll be unveiling Athlon Sports’ 20 players to watch for majors season, with commentary on each from the Golf Channel’s Brandel Chamblee.


No. 13: Nick Watney

Born: April 25, 1981, Sacramento, Calif.  | Career PGA Tour Wins: 4 | 2011 Wins (Worldwide): 2 | 2011 Earnings (PGA Tour): $5,290,673 World Ranking: 19


Brandel Chamblee's Take:

Even though Watney finished fourth on the 2011 money list, I think he suffered somewhat from the expectations that the world of golf has heaped on his shoulders. That pressure was most evident in the majors, where he twice finished seventh in 2010 but struggled in 2011. Aside from the lackluster year in the majors, Nick won two of the biggest events on tour in 2011 against some of the strongest fields of the year at the WGC Cadillac Championship and the AT&T National. He puts the club in a great position at the top of the swing, and that position gives his shots height and gives him the versatility to hit any shot. If he could find one shot shape off the tee, and replace the burden of expectations with determination, Nick could become a great player.


Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 17
Wins: 0

2011 Performance:
Masters - 46
U.S. Open - Cut
British Open - Cut
PGA Championship - T12

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - 7th (2010)
U.S. Open - T60 (2008)
British Open - T7 (2010)
PGA Championship - T12 (2011)
Top-10 Finishes: 2
Top-25 Finishes: 6
Missed Cuts: 6

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

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Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 14:04
Path: /college-basketball/ncaa-tournament-overseeded-teams

The brackets are out, and the NCAA Tournament begins in just days. The editors at Athlon Sports are debating some of the hot topics regarding the Field of 68.

Which team do you believe was the most over-seeded?

Mark Ross: Alabama at No. 9 seems a little high to me. The Crimson Tide went 9–7 in the SEC, but only one of those wins came against a team that finished better than .500 in the league and that was against Tennessee, which didn’t even make the NCAA Tournament. Alabama has also been a team in turmoil, as several key players have been suspended at different points this season, including Tony Mitchell, the team’s second-leading scorer and rebounder, who won’t be back at all. Alabama had some quality non-conference wins against teams in the field, including Wichita State, Purdue and VCU, but the last of those came in November. Since then, Bama is just 1–6 against tournament teams, and that lone win was against Detroit, who’s a No. 15 seed. Put it all together and I see a team that should be at the least a double-digit seed.

Mitch Light: I thought Virginia was in danger of not making the field of 68, but the Cavs received a No. 10 seed in the West. Virginia limped to the finish line, losing three of its last four games and five of its last eight. The Cavs only had two top-50 RPI wins — vs. Michigan in November and NC State in January — and lost three games vs. teams ranked 100 or lower. It will be nice to see senior Mike Scott, one of the more underrated players in the nation, end his career in the NCAA Tournament, but Virginia is fortunate not to have been seeded in the No. 12 or 13 range.

Nathan Rush: Baylor was gifted a No. 3 seed despite finishing the season on a 10–7 run, following a 17–0 start to the year. The Bears’ roster looks good on paper, when matched up against recruiting rankings, but the sum of the team is less than its parts. The star of the show, Perry Jones III, is overrated and unable to take over when it matters most. Coach Scott Drew lacks the Tournament resume to instill confidence, earning just his third NCAA Tournament berth since taking over BU in 2004. Several teams seeded No. 4 or 5 are better suited for March Madness than is Baylor, a team I expect to be exposed once the ball is in the air.

Patrick Snow: I’ll go with the Cincinnati Bearcats, who spiked up the bracket big time with a couple of wins in the Big East Tournament. Mick Cronin’s crew entered the conference tourney with the resume of a 9 or 10 seed, with an RPI outside of the top 40. The Bearcats did well in league play but had a very weak non-conference schedule, including early losses to Presbyterian and Marshall. The NCAA committee usually does not factor league tourney results very heavily, but that was not the case here. Cincinnati had a nice showing in the Big Apple, defeating Georgetown and Syracuse before losing in the final to Louisville. That late boost should have maybe earned Cincy an 8-seed at best, but to jump all the way to the 6-line was very surprising.

Braden Gall: It is tough to pick on the little guy here, but I will go with Colorado State. As the No. 41 overall seed, the Rams were ranked ahead of seven other at-large teams, and I am not sure they even belonged in the tournament at all. Their best non-conference win was over Colorado (which had to win its way into the tourney) by one point. They lost six games in a strong Mountain West, including a loss to three-win Boise State. Wins in the league at home against New Mexico and UNLV are nice, but teams like Drexel, Miami (Fla.), Washington, Tennessee and Northwestern strike me as more deserving. Honorable Mention in this category goes to UConn as the No. 34 overall seed.

<p> Athlon editors debate which teams received a favorable seed from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.</p>
Post date: Wednesday, March 14, 2012 - 10:05