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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

That changed Saturday night.
 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Best of the Rest:

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

Old-School Honorable Mention:

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Teaser:
Elite Eight Preview and Picks: Florida Gators vs. Dayton Flyers
Post date: Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/harrison-3-pointer-dawson-dunk-send-kentucky-michigan-state-elite-eight
Body:

You may exhale now.

In a wild night of Sweet 16 games, Kentucky and Michigan State advanced to the regional finals when both games came down to the final possessions and final possessions.

First, Kentucky defeated rival Louisville 74-69 on a go-ahead basket by guard Aaron Harrison with 40 seconds remaining. Kentucky made its last four free throws to seal the win. Kentucky led 2-0 and never again until Harrison’s basket.

Here’s a look at Harrison’s big-time corner 3:
 

Meanwhile, Michigan State weathered a Virginia comeback to win 61-59. Branden Dawson had the dunk that turned out to be the difference in the final minute.

 

Teaser:
Harrison 3-pointer, Dawson dunk send Kentucky, Michigan State to Elite Eight
Post date: Saturday, March 29, 2014 - 00:51
Path: /college-basketball/russ-smiths-dunk-shocks-kentucky
Body:

Russ Smith played the role of rally killer early against Kentucky with a ridiculous dunk over Wildcats star freshman Julius Randle.

Louisville pulled away early before Kentucky went on an 11-3 run. Smith halted any momentum for the Wildcats with a wild dunk, splitting Wildcats defenders to re-open a seven-point lead.

Take a look:

Teaser:
Russ Smith's dunk shocks Kentucky
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 22:50
All taxonomy terms: Rory McIlroy, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2014-majors-no-12-rory-mcilroy
Body:

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

No. 12: Rory McIlroy

Born: May 4, 1989, Holywood, Northern Ireland | Career PGA Tour Wins: 6 (5 on European Tour) | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 1 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $1,802,443 (41st) World Ranking: 7

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Rory McIlroy had a lot of distractions in 2013. In changing equipment, it is best to change one thing at a time so that one can control the variables and can point the finger at the exact cause for any fall-off or gain in form. Rory changed clubs and balls, and while his ball-striking only fell off negligibly from the year before, his game fell off sharply. Perhaps it was the equipment adjustment, or perhaps it was the lawsuit brought on by a management change; regardless of the cause, he wasn't the player who won two majors by eight shots. However, towards the end of the year, he showed signs that he was more settled in his life and his game. The one thing he didn't change was his swing. Good thing. In grace and power there is no equal to Rory’s move, and with the equipment changes behind him and the lawsuit winding down, he can go back to building what may well be, when he is through playing, one of the great careers in history.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 21
Wins: 2

2013 Performance:
Masters - T25
U.S. Open - T41
British Open - Cut
PGA Championship - T8

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T15 (2011)
U.S. Open - 1 (2011)
British Open - T3 (2010)
PGA Championship - 1 (2012)
Top-10 Finishes: 7
Top-25 Finishes: 11
Missed Cuts: 4

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

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 10:42
Path: /nascar/martinsville-danica-patricks-opportunity-show-progress
Body:

Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, NASCAR’s officiating errors, the return of the Truck Series, Danica’s progress, Hendrick’s dominance and Matt Kenseth’s Martinsville improvement highlight the major topics leading us into Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.


1. Will Martinsville end consecutive weeks of NASCAR officiating issues?
An old theory says bad things happen in threes. NASCAR’s competition department would be fine if that theory proved to be bunk this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

For two consecutive weeks, drivers in the Sprint Cup Series have been affected by officiating blunders relating to the technology in use at the track. First it was Bristol when an official working in the flag stand was said to have bumped a switch that activated the track’s caution light system. The error came with two laps left and nearly set up a dramatic but unnecessary green-white-checker finish. A rain storm soon pelted the track, however, ending the race and dampening the controversy before it could flare further.

Then last week in California, NASCAR’s official working at the front entrance of pit road allegedly had a piece of uniform get stuck in the track’s fencing while reaching for the light switch that signals the opening of pit road. The official managed to still wave the traditional green flag, but at least three drivers — Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Gordon — altered pit strategy because they felt pit road was still closed.

While the issues are hardly a trend of significant concern for the sanctioning body, they do need to get fixed. Both incidents are entirely preventable through improved processes. NASCAR is lucky that they ultimately played limited roles in the outcome of both races.

Hopefully Martinsville — and the rest of the season that is set to have so many moments that could hinge so drastically on officiating aptitude — can go without a hitch.


2. Welcoming the Truck Series back to the limelight
Remember the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series?

It’s been five weeks since NASCAR’s third-tier national series opened the 2014 campaign with the 250-miler at Daytona International Speedway. Thirty-six days after that green flag — let the record show it was on Friday, Feb. 21 — the trucks will start just their second race of 2014 Saturday at Martinsville.

But don’t get too comfortable with the tailgates. They won’t race again after Saturday until May 9 at Kansas Speedway. From there, the 22-race schedule gets more regular and runs through Homestead in November.

Most stories about the return of the trucks at Martinsville will likely center around Darrell Wallace Jr.’ s return to defend his win last fall. With the victory, Wallace became the first black driver to win a NASCAR national series race since Wendell Scott won a Cup series race in 1963.

The 20-year-old returned to the seat of the No. 54 Toyota for Kyle Busch Motorsports this season.


3. Patrick has opportunity to show progress  Danica Patrick
Putting the words “progress” and “Danica Patrick” near each other is, for now, a risky proposition.

That’s not just because Patrick has become a polarizing figure in the sport. She has also been the epitome of inconsistency during her first few seasons at NASCAR’s top level. Nowhere is that more evident than in this simple fact: Patrick has finished inside the top 20 for two straight races (18th at Bristol, 14th at Fontana) for just the second time in 54 races.

It’s not amazing or jaw-dropping. It’s not yet an opinion-shifter.

But Patrick’s biggest problem to date in NASCAR has been an inability to put together consistent races — both lap-to-lap and race-to-race. She heads to Martinsville riding at least a small wave of positivity and with the confidence that she can perform at one of NASCAR’s tougher venues. Last year, Patrick turned in finishes of 12th and 17th at the short track.

A top 20 at Martinsville is a fair expectation at this point. Earning it would be a good sign amongst an otherwise questionable beginning.


3. A dominant 30 years at Martinsville for Hendrick
For some veterans of the NASCAR garage, it’s probably pretty hard to believe that Rick Hendrick has owned teams in the sport for 30 years. For others, his ownership and recent dominance has probably felt more like 300 years.

Regardless, Sunday marks an important milestone for the best NASCAR owner of the last two decades and his ever-growing team. Hendrick scored his first win as a Cup car owner 30 years ago at Martinsville with Geoff Bodine. With Harry Hyde has crew chief, Bodine drove to an improbable victory in Hendrick’s All-Star Racing No. 5 car on April 29, 1984, in the team’s eighth race of existence.

Since then, many of Hendrick’s drivers have seen Martinsville as a personal playground. Hendrick-owned teams have won 21 of the 60 races at the .526-mile oval and scored 110 total top 10s. With Jeff Gordon (October 2013) and Jimmie Johnson (April 2013, October 2012) holding court on the field in the last three races at the track, the tougher decision this weekend may be finding out who can beat HMS.


Frontstretch Foto Funnies: Yes, I am Cool


4. Matt Kenseth: Martinsville Ace?  Matt Kenseth
Matt Kenseth has a list of six current tracks on the Cup schedule where he has never won. Martinsville Speedway is one of them — and also the one where he’s traditionally struggled the most. He’s failed to finish on the lead lap nine times in 28 attempts at the short track.

The tide, however, seems to be shifting.

Thanks to his move last season to Joe Gibbs Racing, Kenseth has drastically improved at Martinsville. He notched a runner-up finish last fall and led a total of 298 laps in both races last season — quite the gain when you consider he had led just 73 laps there in 26 previous starts.

It’s a product largely of JGR having an extremely solid setup package at the Virginia track. The setup is largely refined from Denny Hamlin’s success when from 2008 to 2010, Hamlin scored four Martinsville wins in six attempts.

Kenseth nearly unseated the Hendrick reign last fall. He might just be the guy to do it Sunday.


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

 

Teaser:
Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, NASCAR’s officiating errors, the return of the Truck Series, Danica’s progress, Hendrick’s dominance and Matt Kenseth’s Martinsville improvement highlight the major topics leading us into Sunday’s STP 500 at Martinsville Speedway.
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 10:34
All taxonomy terms: Essential 11, Overtime
Path: /overtime/athlons-essential-11-links-day-march-28-2014
Body:

This is your daily link roundup of our favorite sports and entertainment posts on the web for March 28.

• The photo's grainy, but Britney Spears showed off a rockin' bod in Hawaii.

Condi Rice and Richard Sherman shot a selfie at last night's Stanford game. Sports, bringing people together.

There was a mini-riot after Dayton's Sweet 16 win last night. Imagine if the Flyers go on to win the title. In other Dayton news, CBS helpfully informed us that a Dayton alum invented Control+alt+delete. Good to know.

The Bruins honored Boston's fallen firefighters.

The Philly Daily News gave the hometown Sixers the New York Post treatment.

Bill Murray wore PBR pants to a golf tournament. Never change, Bill.

• Memory lane: A year ago today, Dufnering happened. Relive the magic here.

• This is fun: A dad turned boring videos of his toddler into action movies.

Here are some photos of famous Americans wearing Kim Jong-Un's iconic hairstyle.

Kareem administered a gentle smack to LeBron's wrist over recent NBA Mt. Rushmore musings.

• Sometimes I'll share videos of fans snatching foul balls away from kids. For something completely different: A fan caught a ball autographed by Hakeem, and gave it to a kid.

 

-- Email us with any compelling sports-related links at links@athlonsports.com

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 10:29
Path: /college-football/notre-dame-football-2014-schedule-analysis
Body:

Brian Kelly is entering his fifth season as the Notre Dame head coach after winning 21 games over the last two years.

His fifth season will be a fascinating tour de force for a variety of reasons. First, he had to rebuild his staff after both coordinators left to take head coaching jobs. Mike Denbrock takes over as offensive coordinator after Chuck Martin left for Miami (Ohio) and Brian VanGorder is calling the shots on defense as Bob Diaco accepted the UConn head coaching gig.

And quarterback Everett Golson is back under center. Four other starters return on offense and five return to the defense with a host of elite youngsters ready to step into bigger roles. On a team one year removed from playing in the national championship game, Kelly knows that expectations are sky high at a program that demands excellence.

Just like 2012, should the Irish return to the national championship picture in ‘14, they will have earned it. Notre Dame’s schedule is once again one of the toughest in the nation and will feature marquee national showdowns against bowl teams nearly every weekend.

Buckle up, South Bend.

WkDateOpp.Location
1.Aug. 30South Bend, IN
2.Sept. 6South Bend, IN
3.Sept. 13Indianapolis, IN
4.Sept. 20Bye 
5.Sept. 27East Rutherford, NJ
6.Oct. 4South Bend, IN
7.Oct. 11South Bend, IN
8.Oct. 18atTallahassee, FL
9.Oct. 25Bye 
10.Nov. 1Landover, MD
11.Nov. 8atTempe, AZ
12.Nov. 15South Bend, IN
13.Nov. 22South Bend, IN
14.Nov. 29atLos Angeles, CA

2014 Notre Dame Schedule Analysis


Home away from home
One of the most noticeable aspects to the Fighting Irish's ’14 slate is where the games will be played. Notre Dame has only three true road games all season but all three will be absolute battles. The Irish visit Florida State on Oct. 18, Arizona State on Nov. 8 and USC in the season finale. Otherwise, the Irish will play Purdue in Indianapolis (Lucas Oil Stadium), Syracuse in New Jersey (MetLife Stadium) and Navy in Maryland (FedEx Field). That leaves six true home games for Brian Kelly’s bunch — all of which are winnable and should feature a point spread in the Irish’s favor with the possible exception of Stanford.

Get work done early
The great news for the Irish is that the first four games of the year appear to be very manageable. In fact, the first month of the season will feature three of the easiest games on the slate, a home date with Michigan and a bye weekend. All of this should help ease Golson, a potentially reworked offensive line and a new D-line into the starting lineup. Kelly and his team need to make headway in the first month of the season because once Stanford comes to town on Oct. 4, there isn’t really a break to be had with the exception of the off weekend at the end of October.

First romp through the ACC
Gone are traditional rivals Michigan State, Army and Pitt form the schedule. While the Panthers will eventually return to the slate through the ACC rotation, the Spartans (and soon the Wolverines as well) had to take a back seat to the Notre Dame's new conference partnership. Syracuse, North Carolina, Florida State and Louisville will be the first four ACC bouts this fall and commissioner John Swofford didn’t do the Irish any favors. A visit to the defending champs comes on the (ahem) Heels of playing North Carolina at home and will be as high profile and difficult a game the Irish have had since facing Alabama for the national title. Louisville welcomes back head coach  Bobby Petrino and could be the top challenger to FSU in the ACC Atlantic Division. It will be an interesting first trip through ACC country this fall for the Irish.

Pac-12 round robin
The Fighting Irish will play three of the top five teams from the Pac-12. Notre Dame has long played West Coast rivals USC and Stanford. But Stanford is better today than it has ever been in program history and the Trojans are welcoming a new head coach in Steve Sarkisian. In addition to two of the best programs from the Pac-12, Notre Dame also will have to play Arizona State, the defending South Division champs, in Tempe. Two of those — Arizona State and USC — will take place on the road. When projecting win totals for the Irish, it is likely Notre Dame will lose two of three in the three-game set with the Pac-12. Should Notre Dame win two of those, a “BCS” bowl or playoff spot may be an outside possibility.

Enjoy the down time
The off weekends come at solid times. The first comes two weeks before Stanford and the week before Notre Dame has to leave the state of Indiana for the time. The first off weekend will be critical as the Irish will play four straight following the extra week, including the defending ACC and Pac-12 champions. The second off weekend comes right after a brutal road trip to Tallahassee. Having two weeks to lick their potential wounds after facing the Seminoles and to prepare for the always difficult Navy triple option could be a huge benefit for Kelly’s squad. Especially, considering the final month of the season is loaded with elite coaches and talented offenses.

Teaser:
Notre Dame Football 2014 Schedule Analysis
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 07:15
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-16-preview-and-picks-virginia-cavaliers-vs-michigan-state-spartans
Body:

For Michigan State, reaching the Final Four is almost a birthright.

For Virginia, reaching the Final Four has been a long time coming.

Of course, neither can seal a trip in Friday’s Sweet 16 game, but that’s just an illustration of the different pressures for the two teams meeting in New York City.

Adreian Payne and Keith Appling don’t want to be the first seniors to play every year for Tom Izzo and miss the Final Four. Meanwhile, Virginia, once a Tournament regular, hasn’t been to the national semifinals since 1984.

With both Tom Izzo and Tony Bennett taking veteran teams into Madison Square Garden for the regional, the sense of history isn’t lost on either group.

“I'm going to have a chance to get to another one unless I get fired this week, but some of the seniors don't have a chance,” Izzo said. “I really believe that's their ownership in it.”

Virginia vs. Michigan State
Time: 10 p.m. Eastern
TV: TBS
Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery
Region: East (New York)

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox:
Virginia 58-54
Braden Gall: Michigan State 68-66
Mitch Light: Virginia 55-50
Nathan Rush: Michigan State 74-64
How Virginia got here:
If Virginia was seemed like an easy upset pick, either due to the Cavaliers’ lack of recent NCAA Tournament success or the slow pace of play, they didn’t show it in the first week. The Cavaliers demolished Memphis in the round of 32 with a balanced offensive attack that yielded five double-digit scorers.

How Michigan State got here:
Remember all that injury talk from February and early March? Other than Keith Appling’s wrist, that’s not an issue. Adreian Payne scored 41 against Delaware and Branden Dawson scored 26 against Harvard. Michigan State is in as good a shape as it has been in months. Even if that’s not perfect — Appling's injury is no small matter — the Spartans have been good enough to get this far with an opportunity advance deeper into the Tournament.

Sweet 16 Previews
Michigan-Tennessee | Iowa State-UConn | Louisville-Kentucky

Key for Virginia to get to the Elite Eight: Joe Harris in the clutch
One of the great stories for Virginia this season is how the Cavaliers were able to win the ACC even though Joe Harris hasn’t been their top player (that would be Malcolm Brogdon). Harris, though, has averaged 14.8 points in the last five games thanks to timely 3-pointers. If Virginia is indeed a Final Four contender, Harris and Brogdon need to be a 1-2 punch.

Key for Michigan State to get to the Elite Eight: Adreian Payne’s game
Does anyone have an answer for what Adreian Payne can do? The 6-11 senior can post up and hit 3-point shots. Virginia is an elite offensive team, but the Cavaliers and forward Akil Mitchell haven’t faced many mismatches like this. If Payne is anywhere close to his 41-point form from the round of 64, Virginia is going to have trouble.

Player to watch: Keith Appling, Michigan State
Appling’s wrist remains an issue. The point guard attempted two shots against Harvard, four against Delaware and four in the Big Ten championship game against Michigan. Even if his wrist isn’t full healthy at any point during the NCAA Tournament, his limitations might limit Michigan State’s ability to advance.

Teaser:
Sweet 16 Preview and Picks: Virginia Cavaliers vs. Michigan State Spartans
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-16-preview-and-picks-louisville-cardinals-vs-kentucky-wildcats
Body:

Take note, college football, this is what you were missing from your postseason before the playoff took over.

The state of Kentucky is a state of Alabama of sorts for college basketball. Just as Alabama and Auburn accounted for every national title from 2009-12, Louisville and Kentucky have enjoyed a similar, but shorter, streak with the Bluegrass State claiming the last two national championships.

But along the way, Kentucky defeated Louisville in a Final Four game in 2012, and now the two will meet in the Sweet 16. That’s two postseason meetings in the last three seasons. Just ask anyone in Kentucky if that’s diminished the regular season meeting.

“People grieve for a year after the game,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said. “People celebrate for a year after the game. I've tried to not make it bigger than it is. But it doesn't work.”

Not now, when the stakes have been higher in the last three seasons, with both teams capable of winning national championships.

“There's no way around it,” Louisville guard Russ Smith said. “But at the end of the day they're right, it's much bigger than a rivalry. It's a Sweet 16 game.”

Louisville vs. Kentucky
Time: 9:30 p.m. Eastern
TV: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Region: Midwest (Indianapolis)

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: Louisville 68-62
Braden Gall: Louisville 70-64
Mitch Light: Louisville 68-61
Nathan Rush: Louisville 73-70
How Louisville got here:
Louisville’s two games in the NCAA Tournament haven’t been pretty for a team that has look of the national title contender. Manhattan, coached by Rick Pitino disciple Steve Masiello, was able to counter Louisville possession by possession. The Saint Louis win in the round of 32 was a sloppy, offense-optional 66-51 win.

How Kentucky got here here:
Kentucky is finally starting to look like the kind of team projected as a national title contender in the preseason. James Young started hitting shots, and Andrew and Aaron Harrison played their best game of the season against Wichita State in the round of 32. Continue that, and Kentucky can keep playing in the Tournament.

Sweet 16 Previews
Michigan-Tennessee | Iowa State-UConn | Virginia-Michigan State

Key for Louisville to get to the Elite Eight: Russ Smith getting his game together
Rick Pitino was frustrated with his star guard after the first weekend of the Tournament with good reason. Smith turned the ball over 13 times in two games while shooting 6 of 19 from the floor. The senior is only four games removed from scoring 42 points in a game against Houston and six games from 13 assists against UConn. If anyone can turn things around in a matter of days, it’s Smith.

Key for Kentucky to get to the Elite Eight: Prove the Wichita State game wasn’t a fluke
Kentucky underachieved for most of the season before facing an undefeated Wichita State team in the round of 32. The game was as hotly contested as any Elite Eight or Final Four game for most of the second half, and Kentucky was able to escape with the 78-76 win thanks to a handful of non-Julius Randle freshmen playing their best game of the year. Perhaps the best thing to sustain this momentum is to face a rival in the Sweet 16.

Player to watch: Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
The Cardinals forward has been on a hot streak since late February, but he’s faced few frontcourts like that of Kentucky. If Harrell can be a double-double type player against Julius Randle and Willie Cauley-Stein — Harrell had only six points and four rebounds in the first meeting — Louisville will have a good chance to win.

Teaser:
Sweet 16 Preview and Picks: Louisville Cardinals vs. Kentucky Wildcats
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-16-preview-and-picks-iowa-state-cyclones-vs-uconn-huskies
Body:

The careers of Fred Hoiberg and Kevin Ollie have been connected nearly from the start.

On Friday, they’ll meet in the Sweet 16, the first trip to the regional semifinal for both coaches.

The pair met in high school when they took a visit to Arizona. Then-coach Lute Olson offered a one scholarship to the first of the pair who would take it. Neither did. Hoiberg went to Iowa State while Ollie went to Connecticut. After their careers, they carved out niches in the NBA as bench players, playing on the same Chicago Bulls team in 2001-02.

When Hoiberg retired and joined the Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office, Minnesota signed Ollie in his second-to-last season.

Now, both returned to their alma maters to meet in the NCAA Tournament.

“Listen, Kevin and I weren't very good players, but to stick around, me for 10, him for 13 years, you have to have some of those qualities to stick, a work ethic, good teammate, and that's what Kevin was,” Hoiberg said. “That's what allowed him to play as long as he did. And he probably could have played a few more years, but I think he was in his mind ready to move on to the next step.”

Ollie was just as complimentary, but the two coaches will have to wait until Friday to root for each other again.

“It's always tough coaching against one of your great friends,” Ollie said. “But at the end of the day we are both competitors, we both love our university, and once we get in those lines, you pretty much don't have any friends.”

Iowa State vs. Connecticut
Time: 7:30 p.m. Eastern
TV: TBS
Announcers: Verne Lundquist, Bill Raftery
Region: East (New York)

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox: I
owa State 82-77
Braden Gall: Iowa State 77-69
Mitch Light: Iowa State 82-77
Nathan Rush: UConn 70-69
What Iowa State did to get here:
North Carolina collapsed late to help Iowa State to an 85-83 win. Without Georges Niang in the lineup, DeAndre Kane took over to score 24 points against the Tar Heels. Iowa State is generally a versatile offensive team, with guards able to play close to the basket and forwards able to take shots from the perimeter. Niang was a valuable piece in that attack.

What Connecticut did to get here:
Shabazz Napier can take over, earning more Kemba Walker comparisons every time UConn wins another postseason game. He scored 24 points against Saint Joseph’s and 25 against Villanova to power UConn to the Sweet 16.

Sweet 16 Previews
Michigan-Tennessee | Louisville-Kentucky | Virginia-Michigan State

Key for Iowa State to get to the Elite Eight: Rely on DeAndre Kane
The senior who transferred for his senior year at Iowa State has carried the Cyclones for stretches this season. He’s a stat-sheet stuffer who has also proven to be a key performer in tight moments in the postseason. With Niang out, more is on Kane’s shoulders.

Key for Connecticut to get to the Elite Eight: Rely on Shabazz Napier
Perhaps it’s too easy to distill this game to the two superstar point guards, but that matchup is even more pronounced for UConn. While Melvin Ejim can take charge for Iowa State if Kane’s not the guy, UConn has no such option. It’s Napier or bust in the postseason.

Player to watch: Monte Morris, Iowa State
The Cyclones freshman point guard is one of the most sure-handed players in the Sweet 16 with the ball in his hands. His 5.2-to-1 mark is one of the national leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio, and he’s also learned how to score in recent games with 11 points per game in his last four.
 

Teaser:
Sweet 16 Preview and Picks: Iowa State Cyclones vs. UConn Huskies
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 07:00
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-16-preview-and-picks-michigan-wolverines-vs-tennessee-volunteers
Body:

Transformation is one of the key words for both Michigan and Tennessee as they reached the Sweet 16.

The top players for both teams have transformed themselves from last season. Michigan's Nik Stauskas added muscle to make him much more than a spot-up jump shooter. Meanwhile, Tennessee’s Jarnell Stokes lost 10 pounds to become a more mobile and versatile big man.

But beyond individuals, both teams had to transform through the course of the season.

Michigan expected to have forward Mitch McGary, a breakout player during last year’s run to the national championship game, but back injuries knocked him out for the season before Big Ten play began. And Tennessee was one of the most inconsistent teams in the SEC before finally putting up results that reflected the Volunteers’ statistical production on both sides of the court.

“That's the great thing about a long season, anything can happen, trying to gel lineups and personnel, getting guys to play better and strengthen your bench,” Tennessee coach Cuonzo Martin said. “There are a lot of things that go on through the course of a season.”

And for Michigan and Tennessee, two teams that started the New Year in different places, those changes mean both are on the same footing for a regional final.

Michigan vs. Tennessee
Time: 7 p.m. Eastern
TV: CBS
Announcers: Jim Nantz, Greg Anthony
Region: Midwest (Indianapolis)

Athlon Editor Picks
David Fox:
Michigan 78-71
Braden Gall: Tennessee 65-62
Mitch Light: Michigan 77-69
Nathan Rush: Michigan 80-75
How Michigan got here here:
Michigan hasn’t been tested in two NCAA Tournament games against Wofford and Texas. The Wolverines have been most impressive from the 3-point line, shooting a combined 21 of 45 from long range in two games.

How Tennessee got here:
Tennessee closed the regular season playing its best basketball, a trait that has continued from the First Four into the Sweet 16. Jarnell Stokes is averaging 20.3 points and 15 rebounds since the start of the Tournament, giving Tennessee the most dominant big man of the first week.

Sweet 16 Previews

Iowa State-UConn | Louisville-Kentucky | Virginia-Michigan State

Key for Michigan to get to the Elite Eight: Lights out shooting
Michigan is a strong perimeter team with Nik Stauskas and Caris LeVert. The Wolverines ranked sixth nationally by shooting 39.8 percent while taking a high volume of long-range shots. Beating Tennessee around the rim will be tough, so the outside shots will need to fall.

Key for Tennessee to get to the Elite Eight: Let Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon take over
Jon Horford and Jordan Morgan have been solid since Michigan lost Mitch McGary early in the season with a back injury, but they’ll have to take on the top frontcourt duo in the Sweet 16 in Stokes and Jeronne Maymon. The pair is a force in the paint that will be tough to contain by Michigan’s smaller lineup.

Player to watch: Josh Richardson, Tennessee
Richardson has emerged to average 19.3 points per game in the NCAA Tournament. The 6-6 guard can also play standout defense, which will be key against Michigan’s guards.
 

Teaser:
Sweet 16 Preview and Picks: Michigan Wolverines vs. Tennessee Volunteers
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 07:00
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/arizona-overcomes-slow-start-reach-elite-eight
Body:

All year, it seems Arizona has been waiting for one thing or another to catch up to the Wildcats to prevent them from making a deep run in the postseason.

First, the injury to veteran forward Brandon Ashley was supposed to hamper Arizona. Then, the Wildcats’ poor free throw shooting was going to be the liability.

If Thursday’s 70-64 win over San Diego State proved anything, Arizona can continue to win under less than perfect conditions all the way to the Elite Eight.

The Aztecs opened the first half in a drastic reversal of the first meeting between these two Western powers, when San Diego State lost 69-60 on Nov. 14.

Dwayne Polee, whom coach Steve Fisher left on the bench in that first game,   scored 13 points. Led by Josh Davis, San Diego State dominated the glass early. The Aztecs had nine offensive rebounds through the entirety of their first meeting, but 10 in the first half of the Sweet 16.

On Arizona’s side, Wildcats star guard Nick Johnson missed his first 10 shots from the field, and Kaleb Tarczewski picked up his fourth foul early in the second half. San Diego State led by 4 at the half and by as much as 6 early in the second half.

San Diego State played one of its best games of the year, but Arizona found a way.

An athletic dunk by Aaron Gordon, one of the top freshmen still playing in the Tournament, was part of an Arizona rally that brought the Wildcats back to a 2-point deficit.

Johnson capped the game by making his final two shots, including a 3-pointer. More important, for a team that struggles at the line, Johnson was 10 of 10 on free throws.

Johnson’s free throw prowess was one of the few perfect performances in the Sweet 16 for Arizona, but it was enough.

Teaser:
Arizona Overcomes Slow Start to Reach Elite Eight
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 01:27
Path: /college-basketball/arizonas-aaron-gordon-has-ridiculous-dunk-against-san-diego-state
Body:

Arizona's athletic freshman forward Aaron Gordon brought the Wildcats back to a 2-point deficit against San Diego State with this ridiculous alley oop and dunk.

 

 

If the video isn't enough, check the still frames.

 

 

Teaser:
Post date: Friday, March 28, 2014 - 00:10
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/4-things-we-wish-happened-johnny-manziels-pro-day
Body:

Johnny Manziel’s Pro Day at Texas A&M was easily the most-watched in NFL history, thanks to NFL Network’s live coverage and America’s insatiable appetite for all things Johnny Football. College Station hosted a who’s who of Lone Star State dignitaries — including former President George H.W. Bush, First Lady Barbara Bush and Governor Rick Perry (an A&M alum) — as well as representatives from 30 of 32 NFL franchises. But it could have been so much more entertaining. Here are four things we wish had happened at Johnny Pro Day’s big day.

1. Johnny Manziel had worn a Houston Texans helmet
Unlike most prospects who work out in a tee-shirt and shorts on their Pro Day, Manziel wore a matte black helmet and black No. 2 jersey with pads on underneath — because, as he told Gil Brandt, “Isn’t the game played with them on?” Instead of generic gear, the Kerrville, Texas, native should have broken out a Houston Texans helmet. His fans would have loved it, he would have put the spotlight back on himself as a candidate for the No. 1 overall pick and he could have trolled the internet trolls who love to bash him. Plus, he’s already threatened the Texans:

“It would be the worst decision they ever made,” Manziel told The Houston Chronicle, of the Texans not selecting him with the No. 1 overall pick. “I want them to say absolutely, without a doubt, with 100 percent certainty, that I’m who they want. I want everybody from the janitor at Reliant Stadium to the front office executive assistant all the way up to (owner) Bob McNair to say, ‘This kid is 100 percent, can’t miss. This is who we want being the face of our program. We want the Texas kid staying in Texas and leading the Texans.’”

 

2. Jacksonville Jaguars WRs replaced Mike Evans
As usual, the Heisman Trophy winner shined as the main event in the three-ring circus, completing 61-of-64 passes in the scripted workout, including two dropped “catchable” balls and one caught pass out of bounds. But he was completing passes to his own guys, which included stud Aggie wideout Mike Evans — a 6’5”, 231-pounder with 4.5 speed and the potential to be a top-10 pick in his own right. But that’s unrealistic. What if Johnny Jaguar goes No. 3 overall to Jacksonville and has to play pitch-and-catch with London’s favorite receivers? Manziel probably wouldn’t have completed 95 percent of his Pro Day passes with Jaguars as targets, even against a defense of thin air. 

 

3. Cleveland Browns sent LeBron James to scout
The Chicago Bears and Cleveland Browns were reportedly the only two teams in the NFL that did not send a scout, assistant, coach or executive to take a first-hand look at A&M’s Pro Day. Obviously, Chicago has big money locked up at QB and WR. But Cleveland? Not only do the Browns own the Nos. 4 and 26 overall picks, but one of Johnny Famous’ celebrity friends is a former (fictional) member of the Dawg Pound. LeBron James could have represented Ohio. After all, the Heat had an off day on Thursday and King James was obviously watching (and Tweeting) about all the action.

 

4. Barbara Bush’s dogs were pit bulls, not Maltipoos
First Lady (and First Mother?) Barbara Bush took her family dogs for a high-profile walk on the field at the Pro Day. The two Maltipoos — light brown Bibi and white Mini Me — also sat with President Bush and the First Lady in their golf cart on the sidelines during the on-field drills. But how much more intimidating would it have been had Mrs. Bush’s dogs been pit bulls? Or bulldogs? Or Doberman Pinschers? Barbara Bush’s tenacity is legendary. Will Ferrell as George W. Bush told us all about her toughness during the HBO special “You’re Welcome, America.” Don’t let the Maltipoos mislead you. There’s a reason both her husband and son rose to President of the United States. With Barbara Bush on his side, Johnny Football too could go all the way to the top.

Teaser:
Johnny Manziel’s Pro Day at Texas A&M was easily the most-watched in NFL history, thanks to NFL Network’s live coverage and America’s insatiable appetite for all things Johnny Football.
Post date: Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 22:22
Path: /college-basketball/wisconsin-bucking-history-offensive-showcase-sweet-16
Body:

The best way for Wisconsin to prove this Badgers team is different was the kind of game that encouraged viewers to tune out.

Wisconsin has struggled to advance in the NCAA Tournament in the past thanks in part to a methodical offense that hit a snag in the second round or Sweet 16.

Wisconsin in the NCAA Tournament
YearUW SeedLost in..To..
20142----
20135Round of 6412 Ole Miss
20124Sweet 161 Syracuse
20114Sweet 168 Butler
20104Round of 3212 Cornell
200912Round of 324 Xavier
20083Sweet 1610 Davidson
20072Round of 327 UNLV
20068Round of 648 Arizona
20056Elite Eight1 North Carolina
20046Round of 323 Pittsburgh
20035Sweet 161 Kentucky

Not this time. Wisconsin demolished Baylor from beginning to end in a 69-52 win to send the Badgers to their first Elite Eight since 2005. Wisconsin led 18-8 early and led by at least 10 for the rest of the game.

Wisconsin hinted at it for most of the season, but the Sweet 16 win was further proof of this year’s Wisconsin team isn’t the same as the ones that stalled in the NCAA Tournament during most of Bo Ryan’s tenure.

Wisconsin picked apart the Baylor zone, the same that stymied Creighton and eventual national player of the year Doug McDermott in the round of 64. When Baylor finally switched to man-to-man in the first half, it made little difference.

Wisconsin’s ball movement was crisp as the Badgers picked up 18 assists on 26 field goals. The Badgers shot 52 percent from the floor, including 8 of 11 by Frank Kaminsky in his matchup against pro prospect Isaiah Austin.

That’s only part of the big picture of the best offensive team of the Ryan era. Wisconsin has topped 70 points per game for the first time since 2007 and hitting its top scoring average since 1994-95.

Entering Thursday, Wisconsin’s 37.6 percent shooting from 3 is the Badgers best since 2005. Wisconsin’s 51.5 percent shooting from 2-point range is its best since 2003. Ryan’s teams rarely turn the ball over, but the Badgers have their lowest turnover rate of the Ryan era.

The next game will be against a strong defensive team — either Arizona or San Diego State — but Wisconsin’s turnaround may lead to something else the Badgers haven’t done in a long time, reach the FInal Four.
 

Teaser:
Wisconsin Bucking History with Offensive Showcase in Sweet 16
Post date: Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 22:12
All taxonomy terms: College Football, Overtime
Path: /10-most-shocking-confessions-sports-history
Body:

Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll dominate the most shocking confessions in sports history — which range from life-or-death to too much information to inconsequential yet unnerving.



1. Magic Johnson’s HIV announcement
The 32-year-old smiling face of the “Showtime” Los Angeles Lakers, Magic was a larger-than-life, five-time NBA champion and 11-time All-Star when he held a press conference on Nov. 7, 1991 to announce his intentions to leave the NBA after discovering that he had contracted HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). The subsequent shockwaves of the news reverberated throughout the world — not just the world of sports — as the seemingly invincible superhero Magic Johnson became the exceedingly vulnerable human Earvin Johnson. Thankfully, Johnson remains healthy at age 54 and has a reported net worth of $500 million.

2. O.J. Simpson’s “If I Did It” book
The O.J. Simpson murder “Trial of the Century” captivated the nation from the Ford Bronco chase on June 17, 1994, until the not-guilty verdict was read on Oct. 3, 1995. As lead defense attorney Johnnie Cochran famously (infamously?) said, “If the glove doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” But that didn’t stop the Juice from penning a 2006 novel depicting a “fictional” account of the murders ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and Ronald Goldman. Rightfully infuriated, the Goldman family took O.J. to court and were awarded the rights to the book as part of their wrongful death civil trial settlement.

3. Tiger Woods’ apology press conference
“Hey, it’s Tiger. I need you to do a huge favor. Can you please take your name off your phone? My wife went through my phone and may be calling you. So if you can, please take your name off that. Just have it as a number on the voicemail. You got to do this for me. Huge. Quickly. Bye.” That was a voicemail that could have been received by any porn star or Perkins waitress across the country following Tiger’s Thanksgiving weekend 2009 car wreck, when his web of lies and mistresses unraveled. Tiger overly scripted apology press conference was tame compared to the shock value provided by leaked voicemails and text messages — not to mention the parade of bleached out bimbos.

4. Lance Armstrong’s Oprah interview
Anyone who follows cycling could not have been shocked by Armstrong’s admission of blood doping en route to his champagne reign of seven consecutive victories (1999-2005) in the Tour de France. But since almost no one stateside follows the sport and Armstrong had been so steadfast in his denial — following a well-publicized battle with cancer and an extremely popular charitable “Livestrong” campaign, complete with trendy yellow bracelets (which happen to be the same color as the yellow jersey awarded the Tour de France leader and/or champion) — many Americans felt cheated and betrayed when Lance gave an unapologetic confession to Oprah in Jan. 2013.

5. Tim Tebow’s SEC Media Day sermon
Through both hype and hyperbole, Southeastern Conference football has been described as a religion by many who worship the greatest college football league the universe has ever been blessed enough to witness. But take a three-step drop back for perspective’s sake and there is actual religion, a subject which Tebow — a devout Christian unafraid to spread the gospel — has never been shied away from. Tebow’s beliefs and values were thrust into the spotlight during the circus of SEC Media Days in 2009, when shock jock Clay Travis asked the Heisman Trophy winner if he was indeed a virgin. Yes he is/was. He is/was waiting until marriage. Given the talent in the Gator Nation, that’s a shocker.



6. Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend Deadspin exposé
“Never has there been a tale of more woe, than this of Lennay Kekua and her Te’o.” Shakespeare wrote that, I think. Tragically, Te’o’s girlfriend, Kekua, was a catfish story created by Ronaiah Tuiasosopo. She never existed. She didn’t go to Stanford. She didn’t die of cancer. And Notre Dame’s Heisman Trophy runner-up middle linebacker did not honor her through his play on the gridiron. The narrative told and retold by news outlets of note such as Sports Illustrated and The New York Times, was exposed by Brett Favre’s favorite blog Deadspin, in a mind-blowing piece of well-written, in-depth, actually researched journalism.

7. Michael Sam’s Sports Illustrated story
The SEC Defensive Player of the Year isn’t a BMOC self-proclaimed virgin and doesn’t have an AWOL imaginary girlfriend. Nope. Sam is just an ordinary gay man who happens to play football. That’s not so shocking, at least not to most iPhone-carrying, Netflix-watching modern Americans. But Peter King was freaked out. What would Bill Parcells have thought in 1989? King quoted unnamed knuckle-dragging league sources when SI and MMQB broke the news in February 2014, jumping the gun on a story that was groundbreaking but not nearly as shocking as Sam’s slow-motion 4.91 in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine.

8. Hollywood Henderson’s Super Bowl party
Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson co-authored, along with Peter Knobler, an autobiography appropriately entitled “Out of Control.” The highlight (lowlight?) of the book is Hollywood’s admission of using a cocaine-laced inhaler on the Dallas Cowboys sideline at the Orange Bowl during a Super Bowl XIII loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers. “I pulled out my inhaler. The Orange Bowl holds about 80,000 screaming fans, plus there were about 200 million watching worldwide on TV, and there I was on the sideline taking a couple of major snorts in front of them all,” Henderson said. “We lost that day. I lost that day. I was out of control.”

9. Andre Agassi’s phony ponytail tell-all
Another autobiographical tale, so to speak, was told in Agassi’s book, “Open.” The eight-time Grand Slam champion tennis star, Nike spokesman and Canon camera shooter discussed the dark days of meth use and dating Barbara Streisand. But the most disturbing admission of the rebel from Las Vegas was that his famed punk ponytail was actually a fake attachment to whatever baseball cap he was wearing. He wore wigs during the 1990s while simultaneously being known for his long, crazy hair. Double-fault. No soft tennis clapping for this shocking confession. Hopefully it’s a lie about a lie used as a marketing ploy just to sell books.

10. Will Muschamp’s love of Nickelback
“I listen to Nickelback. Although I couldn’t name a song,” Muschamp said during a Monday press conference on Sept. 30, 2013. This news came after the Florida Gators coach was accused of just such musical treason on ESPN’s College GameDay, when a Tennessee Volunteers fan held up a sign that simply declared: “Will Muschamp Listens To Nickelback.” At the time, we all laughed. That’s funny. Of course no self-respecting, Gator-chomping, jorts-wearing, domestic beer-drinking HEAD FOOTBALL COACH would ever listen to the Canadian band that has sold more than 50 million albums to the lowest common denominator. So what’s worse? Posting a 22–16 record at one of the best jobs in the nation — or listening to Nickelback?

Teaser:
Sex, drugs and rock n’ roll dominate athletes’ controversial confessions
Post date: Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 17:00
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball, News
Path: /college-basketball/star-studded-freshman-class-feeling-incomplete-sweet-16
Body:

After Mercer got the best of Duke and Jabari Parker, the Blue Devils’ star freshman told reporters he his college career was “incomplete.”

Parker, who could be the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft, could have picked few words more loaded than “incomplete.”

Beyond Parker, though, incomplete would be the best way to grade the performance of a  class of freshmen that’s the best since at least 2008, and perhaps the best of the one-and-done era.

A senior forward from the state of Montana got the best of Andrew Wiggins. Parker couldn’t find a way to score consistently against the Atlantic Sun champions from Macon, Ga. And Tyler Ennis never found his shot against one of the last teams in the field from the Atlantic 10.

If this was to be the year of superstar freshmen, it sure found an interesting way to stage its endgame.

Fred VanVleet’s 3-point attempt ensured the rookies from Kentucky would continue to advance. Otherwise, the major freshman contributions in this year’s Sweet 16 would be led by Arizona’s Aaron Gordon and a handful of freshmen who aren’t their team’s best two, three or four best players.

One of the major storylines of the season was the cast of talented freshmen across the country — from Duke to Kentucky to Kansas to Arizona. This year’s freshman class occupies the top four spots on DraftExpress’ top 100 and six of the top seven for ESPN’s Chad Ford.

Beyond Kentucky and Arizona, the freshman class didn’t translate draft prospects to postseason success. If this was the Year of Freshmen, the results may not be borne out in the Final Four.

No more Jabari Parker. No Andrew Wiggins. No Tyler Ennis. With a back injury, Joel Embiid didn’t make it to the conference tournament, and his team didn’t last long enough to see if he’d return in time for the Sweet 16. Embiid declared for the NBA Draft before the second weekend of the Tourney even began.

Indeed, if freshmen are to lead teams to the Final Four, it’s more than likely going to be in a secondary role ... unless Kentucky reaches Monday night.
 

Top Freshmen in Sweet 16 (by minutes played)
FreshmanSchoolMinutesPointsOther
1. Aaron HarrisonKentucky32.414.12 apg
2. James YoungKentucky32.314.24.3 apg
3. Andrew HarrisonKentucky31.410.93.8 apg
4. Aaron GordonArizona30.812.47.8 rpg
5. Julius RandleKentucky30.614.810.5 rpg
6. London PerrantesVirginia29.95.53.8 apg
7. Monte MorrisIowa State27.96.63.7 apg
8. Derrick WaltonMichigan26.68.12.8 apg
9. Rondae Hollis-JeffersonArizona25.08.95.7 rpg
10. Zach LaVineUCLA24.49.92.6 rpg

 

Teaser:
Star-Studded Freshman Class Feeling Incomplete in Sweet 16
Post date: Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 16:51
Path: /mlb/5-mlb-teams-could-surprise-2014
Body:

The 2013 MLB season included the Boston Red Sox going from worst in the AL East in 2012 to World Series champions, the Pittsburgh Pirates breaking their record streak of 20 straight losing seasons and the Cleveland Indians improving their win total by 24 games.

Every season there always seems to be a few teams that defy expectations, so there’s no reason to expect anything different in 2014. While there’s no guarantee that said improvement will result in a World Series appearance, let alone a postseason berth, here are some teams that could be a part of the playoff discussion come August and September.

Los Angeles Angels
Take out the Angels’ horrendous start (9-17 in April) to last season and a rough beginning to the second half of their slate (4-9 in first 13 games after All-Star break) and the end result is a 65-58 record. What’s more, other than April and July, the Angels outscored their opposition by 50 runs (527 scored, 477 allowed) the other four months. Only six American League teams finished the season with a better run differential.

So what’s the reason for optimism when it comes to the other team that calls Los Angeles home you ask? For starters, there’s Mike Trout, arguably the best player in the game at the ripe age of just 22 years old. But Trout can’t do it alone, which is why it’s critical that former MVPs Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton do their part at the plate. Age isn’t on the side of this duo, but provided Pujols and Hamilton can stay healthy they should be able to surpass last season’s combined totals of 122 runs, 38 home runs and 143 RBIs fairly easily.

While the offense had its issues in 2013, pitching was more of the problem, as the team’s starters posted a collective ERA of 4.30. Jered Weaver, who missed time due to a fractured elbow, and C.J. Wilson are back to front the rotation and have been joined by young lefthanders Tyler Skaggs and Hector Santiago. This duo was part of the three-team trade in December that saw slugger Mark Trumbo wind up in Arizona with outfielder Adam Eaton going to the Chicago White Sox.

And while the Angels will certainly need to stay healthy in order to have their best product on the field, the team has already benefitted to a degree from the misfortune that has struck division rivals Oakland and Texas. The A’s have lost ace Jarrod Parker to Tommy John surgery while the Rangers have been beset by a slew of injuries during spring training – ranging from Derek Holland’s freak accident that led to microfracture surgery on his knee to Jurickson Profar’s torn shoulder muscle (out 10-12 weeks) to ace Yu Darvish’s stiff neck, which will cause him to miss his Opening Day start, at minimum. Sometimes it’s better to be lucky than good, and the Angels have already gotten a decent dose of the former.

Related: Los Angeles Angels 2014 Preview

Kansas City Royals
The Royals went 86-76 last season, thanks to a strong 43-27 second half. This team is young, headlined by several rising stars at different positions and has a chance to be even better on the mound in 2014. That’s saying something considering Kansas City led the AL with a 3.45 team ERA last season.

On offense, first baseman Eric Hosmer, left fielder Alex Gordon, catcher Salvador Perez and designated hitter Bully Butler form the core of a lineup that could end up being one of deepest and most productive in the majors. During the offseason, the team added right fielder and leadoff man Norichika Aoki via trade and signed free agent second baseman Omar Infante. Couple their production with any sort of improvement from the likes of shortstop Alcides Escobar, third baseman Mike Moustakas and center fielder Lorenzo Cain and this has the makings of a lineup that should score plenty of runs a variety of ways.

James Shields headlines a starting rotation that swapped Ervin Santana (9-10, 3.24 ERA in 2013) for lefty Jason Vargas and also includes reliable innings eater Jeremy Guthrie, veteran Bruce Chen and young fireballer Yordano Ventura. The bullpen (2.55 ERA) was second only to Atlanta’s in the majors with closer Greg Holland (47 saves, 1.21 ERA) leaving little doubt at the end of games. While the pen will miss Luke Hochevar (Tommy John surgery), there are no lack of options to take his place with setup guys Kelvin Herrera, Tim Collins, Aaron Crow and young lefty Danny Duffy waiting in the wings.

The Royals went 44-32 against AL Central foes last season. Provided the pitching doesn’t take a major step back, the offense could improve enough to produce a few more wins, which could find this young team in the thick of the playoff chase come September.

Related: Kansas City Royals 2014 Preview

Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers finished 14 games below .500 last season, but also were missing 2011 MVP Ryan Braun for nearly two thirds of the campaign while third baseman Aramis Ramirez played in just 92 games. Both will be back this season and even though right fielder and leadoff man Norichika Aoki was traded to Kansas City, the team is high on young left fielder Khris Davis, who hit 11 home runs in just 136 at-bats in his first taste of major-league action. With Braun and Ramirez teaming up with center fielder Carlos Gomez, shortstop Jean Segura and catcher Jonathan Lucroy, the Brewers’ offense should be much more dangerous than last year’s lineup that finished eighth in the National League in runs and sixth in home runs.

The key to Milwaukee’s fortunes in 2014 is its starting rotation. Last year, the Brewers’ starters posted a 4.20 ERA, but this group has been bolstered by the addition of Matt Garza via free agency. Garza went 21-18 with a 3.45 ERA in two-plus seasons with the Chicago Cubs and the 30-year-old should get even more offensive support as a Brewer in his return to the NL. If Yovani Gallardo can prove that last season’s disappointing campaign is the exception and not the norm and youngster Wily Peralta can continue his development, Milwaukee’s rotation could end up being quite deep with veteran Kyle Lohse and promising Marco Estrada rounding out the staff.

If Braun can prove that he’s the same MVP-caliber hitter he was before his embarrassing 100-game Biogenesis-related suspension, then the Brewers’ lineup has the pieces to make some noise at the plate. If the rotation can step up and take advantage of this run support and the bullpen maintains its level of performance, then the Brewers could fill the same role that Pittsburgh did in 2013 and be the surprise team in the NL Central this season.

Related: Milwaukee Brewers 2014 Preview

Toronto Blue Jays
The Blue Jays finished last in the AL East in 2013 with a 74-88 record. Injuries and pitching were largely to blame, as Toronto’s 4.81 ERA from its starting rotation was next to last in the majors (Minnesota). While there are still certainly question marks in this area, the hope is that 2012 National League Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey will fare better in his second season in the AL while Brandon Morrow looks to show he’s healthy and recovered from a forearm issue that limited him to just 54 innings last season. The Jays also are hoping that righties Dustin McGowan and Drew Hutchinson can help stabilize the back end of the rotation, something that was a major weakness in 2013.

The real reason I am somewhat bullish on Toronto’s chances in 2014, however, is because of what this team has the potential to do at the plate. As bad as the pitching was last season, the Jays finished with a run differential of just minus-44. Even though the pitchers surrendered 756 runs, the fourth-most in MLB, the offense plated 712 (ninth).

What’s even more impressive about this number is the fact that slugger Jose Bautista played in just 118 games, while leadoff man Jose Reyes saw action in only 93. The Jays also got little production from catcher and second base, as the two positions combined for a .230 batting average. Entering Opening Day, Bautista appears healthy and has been hitting the cover off of the ball in spring training, although Reyes has been slowed by a nagging hamstring injury.

Still with Bautista raking, he and fellow slugger Edwin Encarnacion (.272.-36-104 in 2013) should form a formidable heart of the order, which also will hopefully include a healthy Reyes as the catalyst, reliable Adam Lind (.288, 23 HRs) and Colby Rasmus’ power (22 HRs, .501 SLG) at the bottom and the breakthrough season from Brett Lawrie that everyone has been waiting for these past few seasons.

A lot of things will have to break just right for Toronto to maximize its potential in 2014, but there also are a lot of pieces in place to like, especially in a division with so much uncertainty once you get past the Red Sox and Rays.

Related: Toronto Blue Jays 2014 Preview

San Diego Padres
I must admit that I am not as keen on the Padres as I was when spring training started, as a rash of injuries have impacted their makeup. However, only one of these is of the season-ending variety to this point, so I will still make my case as to why I think San Diego could be a factor in the NL West all season long.

In 2013 the Padres finished 76-86 for the second straight season despite ranking 24th in the majors in runs scored. The primary reasons for this were twofold – they had a solid pitching staff (3.98 ERA, 20th in MLB) and thrived at Petco Park (45-36). The moves the team made in the offseason were relatively minor, but all with an eye towards shoring up weaknesses.

Pitcher Josh Johnson was signed to a one-year deal to help bolster a starting rotation that already included Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, lefty Eric Stults and the surprising Tyson Ross, who really came on late in the season. Joaquin Benoit was added to replace primary setup man Luke Gregerson, who was traded to Oakland for left-handed hitting outfielder Seth Smith.

With Johnson in tow and lefty Cory Luebke expected to return from Tommy John surgery, the Padres were putting together what could have been one of the deepest starting rotations in all of baseball. Unfortunately, Luebke reinjured his surgically repaired elbow and had to undergo a second Tommy John procedure in February, while Johnson is expected to miss between four to five weeks with a flexor strain in his right forearm.

San Diego still has some arms, but now it’s even more imperative for the offense to pick up the slack. Shortstop Everth Cabrera was an All-Star before missing 50 games because of his connection to the Biogenesis scandal, which also claimed catcher Yasmani Grandal as one of the punished participants. Both players need to put this embarrassment behind them and show they are still capable of being solid contributors at both the plate and in the field.

The key to the Padres’ offense is a bounce-back season from third baseman Chase Headley, who already has been limited in spring training by a calf injury, along with the continued emergence of versatile outfielder Will Venable (22 HRs, 22 SBs) and the development of second-year slugging second baseman Jedd Gyorko (23 HRs in 486 AB). First baseman Yonder Alonso also needs to stay healthy and show no ill effects from a nagging hand injury that limited him to just 97 games in 2013.

No one is going to mistake this Padres team for the Dodgers, the clear-cut division favorites. However, if San Diego can catch a few breaks on the injury front, their young players continue to emerge, and a few of the veterans do their part, there’s no reason to think that the Padres can’t at least improve on last season’s showing. It’s not the like the Diamondbacks, Giants or Rockies don’t have their own injury-related issues or weaknesses of their own.

Related: San Diego Padres 2014 Preview

Teaser:
5 MLB Teams That Could Surprise in 2014
Post date: Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 12:00
All taxonomy terms: Webb Simpson, Golf
Path: /golf/top-30-golfers-2014-majors-no-13-webb-simpson
Body:

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

No. 13: Webb Simpson

Born: Aug. 8, 1985, Raleigh, N.C. | Career PGA Tour Wins: 4 | 2013 Wins (Worldwide): 0 | 2013 Earnings (PGA Tour): $2,957,582 (20th) World Ranking: 21

Brandel Chamblee's Take

Webb Simpson had a very poor year on the greens in the majors in 2013, averaging almost 33 putts per round at both the U.S. and British Opens, but otherwise it was another solid campaign as Simpson finished 20th on the money list. Despite not having great length, Webb in his last three years has finished 17th, 16th and 1st in the All-Around statistic on tour, which is a good indicator of one's potential — although Webb still has a ways to go to live up to his.

Major Championship Résumé
Starts: 10
Wins: 1

2013 Performance:
Masters - Cut
U.S. Open - T32
British Open - T64
PGA Championship - T25

Best Career Finishes: 
Masters - T44 (2012)
U.S. Open - 1 (2012)
British Open - T16 (2011)
PGA Championship - T25 (2013)
Top-10 Finishes: 1
Top-25 Finishes: 4
Missed Cuts: 3

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

 

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

Teaser:
Post date: Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 10:56

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