Articles By Athlon Sports
Going into the start of the 2014 college football season, it seemed UCLA was the trendy pick to make a run to the first College Football Playoff and maybe even win the whole thing. Back-to-back losses in the middle of the season against Utah and Oregon may have derailed those ideas, but the Bruins have become one of the hottest teams in college football at perhaps the best possible time. But what is it that has changed with the Bruins that all of a sudden have them living up to the preseason hype?
For starters, protecting the football has improved over the last four weeks. Through the first seven games of the season, UCLA had a turnover margin of -2, with just two games seeing a positive turnover margin. Though the Bruins have lost the football a handful of times over the last month, the defense has come through with forced turnovers to make up for it. UCLA has forced six turnovers in the last four games.
Before that, the Bruins defense had forced eight turnovers all season, with three coming in the opener against Virginia and four coming in a road blowout win against Arizona State. Turnovers forced often felt to be few and far between those games for the Bruins. Now they can be counted on for at least one turnover per game it seems.
The Bruins are also starting to turn up the pressure on opposing quarterbacks. UCLA is coming off its best performance of the season with six sacks of USC quarterback Cody Kessler. UCLA recorded three sacks in each of the two previous games before the USC game. UCLA had 10 sacks combined in its first eight games of the year.
UCLA has played its way into controlling the outcome of the Pac-12 South with just one week to play. The offense has been there for the Bruins throughout the season, but the defense is back to upholding its end of the bargain. All that stands in the way of UCLA and a trip back to the Pac-12 Championship Game for a third time in four seasons is Stanford. It is fitting the Bruins have a chance to wrap up the division against the two-time defending Pac-12 champions.
The Bruins also have a chance to wiggle into the College Football Playoff picture after all, with a convincing victory against Stanford and a victory over Oregon in the Pac-12 Championship Game. UCLA may need a good amount of help elsewhere to see the preseason expectations met by UCLA, but crazy things can happen in the sport of college football. And the college football gods have rewarded teams getting hot at the right time. For UCLA, now could be the perfect time to be putting all of the pieces together.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
The Big Ten is full of great rivalry games and trophies. One of them is Paul Bunyan’s Axe, which goes to the winner of the Wisconsin-Minnesota game each season. This year, the iconic axe will take a back seat to the ultimate prize to the winner of this week’s rivalry game between the Badgers and Gophers. The Big Ten West Division championship will be decided in this year’s game, with the winner advancing to the Big Ten Championship Game to take on Ohio State, the champions of the East Division.
Wisconsin was always expected to be in this position, as the Badgers have played in two Big Ten championship games and feature a Heisman Trophy caliber running back in Melvin Gordon and a solid defense. The Badgers were preseason favorites to battle for the Big Ten’s West Division. After demolishing Nebraska two weeks ago the Badgers looked to be a clear favorite in the division. That remains true, but now there is a formidable opponent in Minnesota.
The Gophers have been one of the pleasant surprises in the Big Ten and around the nation this season. There may still be some work to be done before the Gophers are a real threat in the Big Ten on a regular basis, but the ingredients appear to be there this season to give any team a run for their money in Big Ten play. This Minnesota team dominated Michigan to win the Little Brown Jug and won close calls against Northwestern and Purdue. Minnesota was upset at Illinois, letting one get away from them on the road, but the Gophers stormed back in a big way with a blowout of Iowa the following week. The question was whether or not Minnesota had run into a wall at the end of the season, ready to burst the bubble on a fun ride.
The Gophers were unable to pull the upset on Ohio State on the snow, as J.T. Barrett went off in a big way against the Minnesota defense, but Minnesota rose to the occasion on the road against Nebraska to set-up one of the biggest battles for Paul Bunyan’s Axe the rivalry series has seen in a long time.
Wisconsin has won 10 in a row against Minnesota. The Badgers appear to be the team better prepared for this situation. Wisconsin will be playing at home. Everything about this game looks to suggest Wisconsin will have the edge on Minnesota, and maybe they will. But if there is anything to be learned about Jerry Kill’s Gophers, it is they do not back down to a challenge.
After winning on the road against Nebraska and blowing away Iowa, there should be no doubt this Minnesota team will be ready to challenge Wisconsin for the Big Ten West crown on Saturday. This should be fun.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr. had the catch of a lifetime with a one-handed, diving backward, through pass interference touchdown catch.
Sit back and watch. Over and over again.
Tremendous photo via USA Today Sports of Odell Beckham Jr.'s catch. pic.twitter.com/qHWb7FExR3— Jimmy Traina (@JimmyTraina) November 24, 2014
Not bad, ODB pic.twitter.com/iQG330m5E9— Chris B. Brown (@smartfootball) November 24, 2014
That's the best catch I've ever seen— Victor Cruz (@TeamVic) November 24, 2014
OK, I saw it. Best New York Giants catch since Willie Mays at the Polo Grounds.— Steve Greenberg (@SLGreenberg) November 24, 2014
Here's a picture of a professional photographer not getting a picture of a once in a lifetime play. pic.twitter.com/mUOQ2qnO2p— Mark Ennis (@MarkEnnis) November 24, 2014
And it wasn't the first time...
The Big Ten is setting up for a wild finish in the Big Ten West with Wisconsin and Minnesota doing battle for the division championship. The winning school will lay claim to Paul Bunyan’s Axe and represent the division in the Big Ten Championship Game in Indianapolis against Big Ten East champion Ohio State. The division will also feature a game with plenty of stakes on the line. Northwestern and Illinois will play for a chance to go to a bowl game.
After losing four straight games in Big Ten play, including blowout losses to Nebraska and Iowa and a nail-biter against Michigan, it seemed Northwestern was staring right down a year without a bowl game. But then a funny thing happened. A road game at Notre Dame stirred up the echoes of a previous upset in South Bend. Northwestern’s overtime win against the Irish kept the dream of a bowl game within reach, and a win against Purdue showed the Wildcats are on a mission to get back to the postseason.
Consider how Northwestern played into this position. The Wildcats have been riddled with injuries and lost Venric Mark before the start of the season. Northwestern was nearly left for dead after an 0-2 start to the season with home losses to California and Northern Illinois. But Northwestern went on the road and scored 29 points against a Penn State defense that has allowed 20 points in regulation just two other times this season. Northwestern took out Wisconsin at home, and the Badgers are on the verge of making a potential Big Ten Championship Game appearance. With their postseason fate back against a wall, Northwestern stunned Notre Dame with a late rally and overtime victory in South Bend. This is the story of a thrilling ride, if Pat Fitzgerald and get Northwestern one more win at home.
Illinois has also played itself into a winner-goes-bowling match-up. The Illini have done it in much less impressive fashion. Illinois is coming off a close win at home against Penn State to get to five wins. After a pair of blowout losses to Ohio State and Iowa, Illinois slipped by Penn State at home this past weekend.
For Illinois head coach Tim Beckman, a win against Northwestern could be crucial. Though things still look like a massive work in progress at Illinois, getting Illinois to a bowl game could be enough to guarantee Tim Beckman’s job is safe for at least one more season. The pressure has been on Beckman to show some improvement with the program this season. The Big Ten results could still use some work, but getting to a postseason bowl game would be a clear step in the right direction or Beckman and Illinois. The Illini have already improved on the season win total each of the past two seasons under Beckman, and getting to a bowl game would be the next step in the process.
Sometimes you have to take them any way you can get them.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
Times have been rough for Oklahoma State’s offense over the course of the last month. After scoring no more than 14 points in each of the last four games, the Cowboys were in some serious trouble heading to Waco to take on Baylor. The debut of talented freshman quarterback Mason Rudolph may not have been enough to go blow for blow with Baylor’s offense, but it at least gave some reason to be optimistic about the future of the Oklahoma State offense.
Rudolph was to be redshirted this season, but head coach Mike Gundy made the call to take that off this year and throw the early-enrollee on the field to see what could happen. Aside from some typical freshman mistakes that are to be expected, Rudolph handled himself well. Rudolph completed 13 of 25 pass attempts for 281 yards and a pair of touchdowns. His first career touchdown pass came just before the half with an eight-yard pass to David Glidden to cut the Baylor lead to 14.
Baylor had control of this game form start to finish, but Rudolph helped to keep things interesting. A 68-yard touchdown pass to James Washington managed to keep the Cowboys within reach of the defending Big 12 champions, and four minutes later Rudolph tossed a 37-yard pass to Washington to set-up another touchdown to bring Oklahoma State within two scores of Baylor. On Oklahoma State's next possession, Rudolph completed a couple of passes for first downs but was intercepted just inside the 20-yard line to snap another scoring opportunity. Baylor would turn that interception into a touchdown with Bryce Petty running 21 yards for a score on the ensuing possession.
The entire Oklahoma State offense has struggled to live up to the expectations placed on it over the last few years. The Cowboys rank 60th in passing offense and 100th in rushing. Now the pressure is on just to win one more game in order to become bowl eligible. That test will come against in-state rival Oklahoma in two weeks. If Rudolph is going to be the starting quarterback for one more game to get this done, the bye week over Thanksgiving could not come at a better time. Oklahoma State quarterbacks have thrown 15 touchdowns and been intercepted 15 times. Improving on that ratio should be the primary focus.
Now that Mike Gundy and offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich have seen what Rudolph can do on the field, they can take some time to address a couple of areas to work on heading into Bedlam. Rudolph may be a candidate capable of giving Daxx Garman and J.W. Walsh a run for the starting job in 2015.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
DraftKings has released their Daily Fantasy college football salaries for the week, and the experts at CollegeFootballGeek.com have hunkered down and scoured all of the data to find the best Value Plays on the docket.
These Value Plays are comprised of players poised to out-produce their DraftKings salaries this week. These are the “diamonds in the rough” that your DFS competitors may overlook. They are the difference-makers you need in your lineup to win one of the big DFS contests!
For your convenience, we have broken the picks down by DraftKings contest game set. Best of luck this week!
(For more detailed Daily Fantasy analysis, picks, player news, player rankings, and stat breakdowns, check out CollegeFootballGeek.com. Learn how to SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE!)
VALUE PLAYS: SATURDAY (EARLY ONLY) GAME SET
1) QB Cody Thomas, Oklahoma vs. Kansas ($5800)
Thomas scored 25 DK fantasy points last week against Texas Tech and could have an even better game versus Kansas. The Jayhawks defense is nothing special and could yield plenty of big plays to Thomas this week.
2) QB Justin Holman, UCF vs SMU ($5700)
Holman threw three touchdowns last week against Tulsa and could match that total this week with SMU on the slate. The Mustangs pass defense is ranked 121st in the country.
1) RB Dalvin Cook, Florida State vs. Boston College ($4500)
Cook had 92 yards and two scores last week against Miami and appears to be taking over the Seminoles backfield. He could find the end zone again this week and looks like a solid punt option.
2) RB JC Coleman, Virginia Tech vs. Wake Forest ($4900)
Coleman had 95 yards rushing last week in relief of the injured Marshawn Williams. He could see all the carries he can handle this week against Wake Forest, as he is basically the only healthy back on the VT roster.
3) RB Akeel Lynch, Penn State vs. Illinois ($4200)
Lynch had 130 yards and a score last week against Temple and could have another big day versus Illinois. He may run all over an Illinois run defense that ranks 121st in the country. His price is very appealing this week.
1) WR Tony Lippett, Michigan State vs. Rutgers ($5500)
Lippett’s price is depressed after having two sub-par games in a row. This looks like the perfect match up for a bounce back performance from Lippett. He is a top flight fantasy wide out at a very low price.
2) WR Tyler Baker, Washington State vs. Arizona State ($4200)
Baker is averaging 21 DK fantasy points over the last three games. He looks to be a great punt option this week as long as River Cracraft remains sidelined due to injury.
3) WR D’Vario Montgomery, Iowa State vs. Texas Tech ($5100)
Montgomery is averaging almost 22 DK fantasy points over the last four games. Look for plenty of production again this week.
4) WR Deontay Greenberry, Houston vs. Tulsa ($4700)
Greenberry had 130 yards and a score last week and appears to finally be waking up. He could post a big stat line against Tulsa.
5) WR Vince Sanders, Ole Miss vs. Arkansas ($4300)
Sanders looks to be seriously underpriced this week. He looks to be the top receiving target with Laquan Treadwell out for the season. Expect him to easily hit value this week.
1) TE Bucky Hodges, Virginia Tech vs. Wake Forest ($3200)
Hodges has scored in the last two games and could make it three in a row against Wake Forest.
VALUE PLAYS: SATURDAY (LATE ONLY) GAME SET
1) QB Brad Kaaya, Miami vs. Virginia ($5800)
Kaaya threw for 316 yards and two scores last week against Florida State. He is getting better week by week and could find success against Virginia on Saturday night.
1) RB Don Jackson, Nevada vs. Fresno State ($5900)
Jackson is rolling right now with four rushing scores in the past two games. Expect another trip or two to the end zone for Jackson against a toilet paper soft Fresno defense.
2) RB Shaquille Murray-Lawrence, UNLV vs. Hawaii ($5800)
Lawrence had 143 yards and a score last week and gets a juicy matchup with Hawaii. Look for this Rebel to rack up a solid game this week.
3) RB Josh Quezada, Fresno State vs. Nevada ($4700)
Quezada could be in for a big game if Marteze Waller misses the game with Nevada. His price is nice and could easily reach value with an increased work load.
4) RB Rodriguez Moore, Cincinnati vs. UCONN ($4200)
Moore has performed well over the past few weeks and comes in at a very cheap price. He looks like a terrific punt option this week against the Huskies.
1) WR Devante Davis, UNLV vs. Hawaii ($5100)
Davis is hard to refuse at this price. He has a high ceiling against a weak Hawaii defense. Look for Davis to show why he is a stud wide out.
2) WR Jordan Payton, UCLA vs. USC ($4800)
Payton has had a very consistent season and his price never seems to rise. Look for him to see plenty of targets against USC and pay off for DFS players smart enough to use him.
3) WR Victor Bolden, Oregon State vs. Washington ($4700)
Bolden is averaging nine receptions and 105 yards receiving over the last three games. His price looks much lower than what his recent production states.
1) TE Steven Scheu, Vanderbilt vs. Miss State ($3200)
Scheu has shown decent consistency and has scored in the last two games. He could find some open seams against the Bulldogs.
By Todd DeVries & Kevin Mount, CollegeFootballGeek.com
Learn how to SUBSCRIBE to CollegeFootballGeek.com for FREE! Our members earn REAL CASH MONEY playing Daily Fantasy on DraftKings. Features include:
- Weekly Player Rankings: DraftKings
- Expert Picks: DraftKings
- Sneaky Plays: DraftKings
- Player News, Notes and Injury Updates
- 24/7 Expert Advice, strategy and rankings all season long!
- The ONLY service with personal one-on-one Fantasy Advice!
The NBA Player’s Association hasn’t exactly been a politically fearsome group in recent years. The players demonstrably lost out financially in the 2011 lockout, behind their befuddled, lazy director at the time, Billy Hunter. LeBron James and others haven’t been tight-lipped about realizing that much. James, this October, said the league’s owners claiming to be losing money on their teams is a strategy that “will not fly this time.”
The new $24 billion TV deal ensures that the union is entitled to fight for more money. And new union director Michele Roberts looks determined to wage that battle. The replacement for former do-nothing Hunter, Roberts has been on the job since just July, but she’s already made a strong impression.
“She’s serious, she is impressive,” one player agent who met with Roberts told Sporting News’ Sean Deveney. “She is coming at this from an outsider’s perspective. With Billy, he accepted that the system we have is what it is, and all we can do is try to protect as much ground as possible. Michele is a clean slate, she flat-out sees some of the things we accept as wrong. She’s itching for a fight on this stuff, because she thinks we’re right.”
Now, Roberts and the union are disputing the league’s decision to suspend Charlotte Hornets forward Jeff Taylor for 24 games without pay, citing the penalty as “excessive, without precedent and a violation of the Collective Bargaining Agreement. The CBA contemplates a minimum 10 game suspension in any case involving a conviction for a violent felony, including domestic violence. In contrast, Jeff Taylor was charged with a misdemeanor that is likely to be dismissed at the end of a probationary period. … While we appreciate the sensitivity of this societal issue, the Commissioner is not entitled to rewrite the rules or otherwise ignore precedent in disciplinary matters.”
This is merely the first example of likely more intense friction between Roberts and Silver. We’re all waiting for the atomic showdown that seems inevitable when the current collective bargaining agreement expires in 2017. If Roberts continues her hard line until then, there’s a good chance we’ll see another work stoppage in the league.
— John Wilmes
Vince Carter looked like the rightful heir to Michael Jordan for a good minute. When the 17-year veteran debuted with the Toronto Raptors in 1998-99 (the season after Jordan’s second and seemingly final retirement), he took the basketball world into his hands almost immediately. Carter’s hyper-stylistic dunking skills were the can’t-miss trend of the game. Canada, suddenly, was becoming a capital of the game on the shoulders of its surprising star.
But since Carter fled Toronto by forcing a trade to the New Jersey Nets in 2004, there hasn’t been a lot of love between him and his former city. Upon return visits, the player formerly known as “Half-Man, Half-Insanity,” “Vinsanity,” and “Air Canada” has been booed by crowds at the Air Canada Centre. It even happened as recently as last January, when Carter rolled into town as a Dallas Maverick — one of the six teams he’s played for in his career.
But now, as a 37-year-old journeyman with the Memphis Grizzlies, Carter and his his first NBA city seem to have come to terms. During the Grizzlies’ recent trip to Toronto — a 96-92 Raptors victory — a tribute video was shown. It brought Carter to tears, and the fans to a standing ovation. It was finally time, all parties seemed to agree, to bury the hatchet.
Especially now that the Raptors have finally moved from their superstar’s exodus. Boasting one of the deepest rosters in basketball, the exciting new Toronto squad is 9-2, good for first place in the Eastern Conference. The memory of Carter can now rest in the shadow of current award contenders like Kyle Lowry, DeMar Derozan, Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross. Vinsanity is no longer a symbol of the city’s basketball failure, but a ghost of warm nostalgia.
— John Wilmes
NBA Commissioner Adam Silver hasn’t been on the job for a year yet, but he’s already made a strong impression.
Most of that is due to his swift, judicial action in regards to the Donald Sterling scandal. His lifetime ban of Sterling branded Silver as a man of conviction, and now he’s extending that reputation with his harsh penalizing of Jeff Taylor, the Charlotte Hornets forward who was found guilty, last month, of misdemeanor domestic violence assault and malicious destruction of hotel property. Taylor confessed to the crimes in court by pleading guilty.
Silver hit Taylor with a 24-game, no-pay suspension for his behavior. In a press release, Silver described his decision thusly: "This suspension is necessary to protect the interests of the NBA and the public's confidence in it. Mr. Taylor's conduct violates applicable law and, in my opinion, does not conform to standards of morality and is prejudicial and detrimental to the NBA.”
The NBA, as you likely know, is not the sport most plagued by the issue of domestic violence, Ray Rice and others have made stretches of the 2014 NFL season almost unpalatable with the unsavory details of abuse. Mr. Taylor, unlike Rice, is not terribly important to his team, or to his league’s image. He’s a relative unknown, and it’s worth wondering whether the Commish would bring such a steep punishment upon someone who the common fan has actually heard of before. Such an occurrence would actually do damage to the sport’s image; hitting Taylor hard, to the contrary, is a way of making highly attentive fans aware that Silver means business. But those outside the hard core of NBA followers probably won’t ever hear about this event.
Silver hasn’t done anything to suggest he’s anything less than a progressive moral warrior, yet. His early record with touchy issues has actually been quite laudable. But his real P.R. test will come when he has to make a choice about one of the more beloved faces of his game — not an already reviled character like Sterling, or an anonymous one like Taylor.
Information from AP reports was used here.
— John Wilmes
For some teams, it’s always about next year and it’s never too early to think about the next draft. It’s not a position they particularly want to be in. It’s just the reality of where they are.
And for a handful of NFL teams, that’s the reality as the league steamrolls toward Week 12. The playoff chase is over. The race for the first overall draft pick is now all that matters to them.
So with that in mind, here’s a look at the bottom five teams in the NFL standings – the teams with the best chance at the golden ticket in the 2015 draft. It’s going to be hard to beat out the winless Oakland Raiders. But hey, you never know …
1. Oakland Raiders (0-10)
Owners of the worst offense in the NFL and scoring at a paltry clip of 15.2 points per game, they’re not a threat to beat anybody. Worse for them, five of their last six games are against playoff contenders, and the sixth is against the rapidly improving St. Louis Rams. It’s always hard to project an 0-16 record, but 1-15 certainly seems to be well within their sights.
Needs: Well, they don’t need a quarterback since they just drafted Derek Carr in the first round, which puts them in great position to trade the pick to whomever wants Oregon QB Marcus Mariota. They could use a pass rusher (USC DE Leonard Williams would be a possible pick). It might be a reach in the Top 5 to get the receiver help they need, though.
2. Jacksonville Jaguars (1-9)
The last few years they’ve seemed to live within range of the No. 1 pick. They are starting to assemble some talent, though. QB Blake Bortles looks like their future and they have talent at receiver (Allen Robinson) and (Denard Robinson). The schedule isn’t terrible down the stretch and if they come together quickly they have a shot to win a game or two, but will not likely fall out of the Top 5.
Needs: If they end up at the top they’re another team that could trade down and benefit from other teams’ desire for Mariota or Florida State QB Jameis Winston. What they need more than anything is help along the offensive line. Maybe Texas A&M’s Cedric Ogbuehi or Iowa’s Brandon Scherff. If they drop down far enough a CB could be in play.
3. Tampa Bay Buccaneers (2-8)
If the return of QB Josh McCown to a starting role gives them the lift they’re expecting, they might find themselves with a couple of unwanted wins, too. But if they can somehow sit right around 3, they could be in prime position either for the top pick or for a reasonably priced trade-up. Their best chances for wins are on the road, at Chicago and at Carolina, and neither one will be easy for this battered team.
Needs: They may be desperate to be in the Mariota/Winston range because McCown is nothing more than a stop-gap and it’s clear that new coach Lovie Smith doesn’t view Mike Glennon as his quarterback of the future. Yes, they could use help on both lines too, but without a quarterback they’ve got nothing. So they need to get to the 1 or 2 pick or be prepared to move up.
4. Tennessee Titans (2-8)
The Titans hang in a lot of games, which always makes them a threat to win. Worse for them – if getting a top pick is the goal – they have games remaining against the Giants, Jets and Jaguars. Those three alone might be enough to get them out of the race, and maybe out of the Top 5. And if QB Zach Mettenberger becomes more than they expected, they could fall even farther than that.
Needs: Well, if Mettenberger isn’t their long-term answer – and there’s no indication that the end of this season is anything more than a big audition for him – then quarterback becomes their biggest need and Mariota certainly could be in play. Maybe Winston, too. If they slip, though, they certainly need some help on defense, which puts the pass rushers in play – either an end or an LB like Clemson’s Vic Beasley. Florida State CB P.J. Williams would figure to be in play if they fall closer to pick No. 10.
5. New York Jets (2-8)
They got a surprising boost last week when they beat the Steelers and they have a few winnable games down the stretch (two vs. Miami, at Buffalo, at Minnesota, at Tennessee). Plus, there’s always the possibility this team will fight for coach Rex Ryan, who is probably on his way out regardless. The point is, for all the Jets fans counting on a Top 5 draft pick, don’t rule out an unwanted late-season run.
Needs: They benched Geno Smith, so it’s safe to assume they’re not sold on him as their future, which means that if they land in the Top 5 then Mariota has to be in play. Winston is a complicated case, though, because of all his off-field baggage. That won’t play well in New York for a team that really needs to find a way to be distraction free. If they don’t go quarterback they’d be crazy if they don’t draft an offensive lineman or a cornerback, which besides quarterback might be the two biggest of their many glaring needs.
—By Ralph Vacchiano
Making an impression as an NBA rookie is a tall task. The game gets considerably more complicated when you make the jump from college to the pros, and most first-year players — even if they’re talented — flounder for a while as they try to grasp the intricacies of NBA playbooks and psyches.
But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to wow the roundball world in a debut season. Magic Johnson, for instance, was the Finals MVP as he led his Los Angeles Lakers to a title alongside Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as a rookie. And the San Antonio Spurs’ still-active legend Tim Duncan arrived to the NBA as his team’s best player in 1997-98. It was only one season later that he led his team to their first of many championships as they defeated the New York Knicks in the 1999 NBA Finals.
We’re not going to hold the new crop of NBA first-timers up to the lofty standards set by Duncan, Magic, and the rest of the game’s greatest players. That would just be unfair. But there is plenty to be excited about in 2014-15’s new collection of stars.
5. Nikola Mirotic
Chicago Bulls fans have been twiddling their thumbs over this guy for years. Acquired in a 2011 trade after he was drafted by the Minnesota Timberwolves, Mirotic has seen his myth only grow in the years he spent playing through contracts in the Spanish League, where he was the 2013 MVP.
Mirotic finally signed with the Bulls this summer, a full three years after they got their man, and through limited time on the floor, Mirotic has made good on a lot of the hype. The 6’10” forward is shockingly mobile for his size, a deadly shooter, and incredibly clever and quick with his hands. Although his game is rough, raw, and sloppy in the expected fashion of a rookie, there appear to be very few NBA skills he doesn’t have.
“Niko,” as he prefers to be called, is not going to garner any rookie awards. The Bulls have perhaps the deepest backcourt in the league, and it will be hard for Mirotic to find minutes behind Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, and Taj Gibson. But if he were on a team without such an embarrassment of big man riches, he’d be in the running for Rookie of the Year honors.
4. Andrew Wiggins
It’s going to take Andrew Wiggins a while to outgrow the story that started his NBA career. Initially drafted No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, Wiggins was subsequently traded to Minnesota in a deal that assembled the sport’s next juggernaut by moving Kevin Love over to Ohio, alongside LeBron James.
But “Maple Jordan,” as the Canada native is fondly called, has the hops and coordination to eventually turn into one of the most devastating perimeter athletes around. Moments like this terrific block of superstar James Harden remind us of what Wiggins might become:
Wiggins doesn’t yet have the confidence, fluidity, or knowledge needed to more regularly stand up to players of Harden’s stature. In time, he could. But for now, one thing we can be sure of is that the ‘Wolves' young stud is liable to explode for can’t-miss highlight clips any night you watch him.
3. Jabari Parker
Widely touted as the most NBA-ready prospect of his class, Jabari Parker is helping to restore life to the basketball community in Milwaukee. The Duke University alum and Chicago native (he played at Simeon Academy, the same school that brought up Derrick Rose) was a first-team All American in the NCAA last year, and the consensus high school player of the year as a senior.
The peak of Parker’s upside has him looking like the next Carmelo Anthony; A beefy, creative, sweet-shooting wingman who’s an offense unto himself. Parker can get buckets with the best of them. So while he’s only averaging 10.6 points per game through ten Bucks contests, you can comfortably expect that number to rise as coach Jason Kidd figures out how to best use his 19-year-old star.
2. Marcus Smart
When it comes to defense, Marcus Smart already looks like he’s got years and years of experience under his belt. A ravenous, lockdown guard, Smart is all over the floor for his Boston Celtics, chasing ball-handlers like a bad dream that doesn’t end.
His awareness and energy have even occasionally translated to the other side of the ball in the early going, like when he made this shrewd, dazzling behind-the-back pass in an eye-catching performance against the Dallas Mavericks:
Smart’s already got the moxie and aggression of a veteran. It’s only a matter of time until he has the rest of the picture complete, and he’s one of the most fearsome guards in the game.
1. Elfrid Payton
Elfrid Payton is the undisputed champion of hairstyles in his class. What’s even more enticing than Payton’s ‘do, though, is how it’s an emblem of his unchained playing style. Payton is a hard-charging, physical point guard with speed to spare and incredible vision for the floor.
Like Smart, Payton is also a relentless pest as a defender, often approaching wrestling tactics in his coverage. His infectious energy is unlearned for now, but Payton’s already looked like a fierce leader for his young Orlando Magic team, and like a player who can spark his team into great performances down the road. Watch these highlights of Elfrid’s November 7 outing against Minnesota for a preview of one of the NBA’s most watchable point guards:
— John Wilmes
Phoenix Suns point guard Eric Bledsoe doesn’t think much of the tanking, winless Philadelphia 76ers. They’re 0-11, and they’re very bad. In a recent appearance on Sirius XM NBA Radio, Bledsoe was asked whether his NCAA team, the University of Kentucky Wildcats, could beat the Sixers, and he said: "I'll definitely take Kentucky. I think Philly would probably get maybe one game. I know they're going to be mad [in Philadelphia], but I love my Wildcats.”
One game? Hey, well … it’s hard to disagree with Mr. Bledsoe. Kentucky has a handful of studs destined to be NBA rotation players, while the Sixers are a rag-tag crew of broken contracts and bodies assembled by general manager Sam Hinkie specifically to lose. As Deadspin’s Tom Ley puts it, “They aren't so much a basketball team as a monument to the cold, dead-eyed cynicism that so often makes pro sports a huge bummer. They are the bastard children of an Excel spreadsheet, born for the purposes of minimizing risk and maximizing odds.”
It’s hard to remember an NBA tanker that’s inspired so many inspired criticisms and impassioned arguments about the nature of the sport, winning, losing, and loads of other emotional and economic concerns. Beyond being historically terrible, the Sixers’ front office is breaking ground in how blatant they are about doing it on purpose, to climb up the NBA draft boards. Hinkie is unabashed in his quest for colossal short-term failure, and it rubs a lot of people the wrong way.
The argument about whether great college teams can beat anemic pro teams is not so new, of course. It seems every year we go through this debate, and every year we’re less certain about the truth. Like the time-machine debates about current superstars versus past legends (M.J. and LeBron being the most tread-over of the lot), this conversation exists in a vacuum of impossible circumstances. What can’t be proven will always cause disagreements.
But one thing I’m sure that you, me, Eric Bledsoe, and Sam Hinkie can all agree upon is that we don’t want to watch the Sixers play basketball.
— John Wilmes
We’ve all heard about the friend of the friend who deep fries a turkey each Thanksgiving, and everyone raves about it. Well, this is your year to be that guy. Here’s our quick guide, along with some great tips from chef Darrell Breaux of Bro’s Cajun Cuisine in Nashville, Tenn., who’s been frying turkeys for 25 years. “Once you’ve had a fried turkey,” he says, “you won’t want it any other way.”
• Wash turkey thoroughly both inside and out and drain. “Your best frying size is between 12 and 14 pounds. That will feed four to six people.”
• Season turkey to taste. “I like to sprinkle seasoning, rub it in, and let it set for a couple of days.”
• Make sure it’s room temperature before putting it into your fryer. “Every year it seems like somebody tries to fry a frozen turkey. Don’t! It’ll explode.”
• Heat the oil in a large outdoor pot to 350 degrees. “I prefer peanut oil.”
• Carefully lower turkey until it’s fully submerged. (Tip: To predetermine the correct oil level, put the turkey in the empty fryer, add water, remove turkey and mark the proper level.)
• Fry for around 3 minutes per pound. “Take into account the weather. The wind can be blowing, or it could be snowing. Use a thermometer to make sure it’s cooked properly. (Remove the turkey and) stick the thermometer into the thigh. It needs to be around 185 degrees.”
• Remove from oil, drain on paper towel and carve. “If you’re planning on using the same pan you had the raw turkey in, make sure you wash the pan. You don’t want any cross contamination.”
• Breaux’s final safety tip? “Stay sober, and use common sense.”
Paul Pierce is a surefire Hall of Famer. The eighteen-year forward, who played sixteen of those years with the Boston Celtics and won a title in Beantown, has been one of the game’s most devastating scorers for well over a decade. Even in his advanced age of 37, The Truth boasts a deceptive, hypnotic form of isolation basketball that’s a death knell to the opposition in crunch time. That's why the Washington Wizards signed him for two years and about $10 million this past summer.
But in Pierce’s estimation of the league in 2014, none of what he does would particularly matter to NBA executives if he were a rookie. In fact, he thinks he’d have a hard time getting drafted. "I probably wouldn't have got drafted [this year]“ Pierce recently said on Dan Patrick’s radio show.
"A lot of stuff is based on potential, or I probably would've went later in the first round or something. I think a lot of these young talented kids are just rated on their pure length and athleticism, but really no basketball IQ, really no footwork, really can't shoot the ball. When they look at [a] guy and they say he has potential, he's fast, he has long arms, he can jump. And then he gets out there and can't throw a rock in the ocean, or he can't run a play. Or his basketball IQ is low. I think those things sometimes get overrated. A lot of kids get drafted just on that.”
Even though Pierce sounds like a grumpy old man here, he may be right to an extent. Measuring his worth has always been difficult, though — teams have always passed over those whose skills are more metaphysical than quantifiable, and it’s always created many a draft day rabbit hole. Pierce has adaptability, edge, and ethos … none of which are easily projectable qualities. Bodily dimensions and statistics often feel like a safer bet in the draft.
The ten-time All-Star even sunk to No. 10 overall in his own 1998 draft, behind inferior players (but more imposing bodies) Robert Traylor, Raef LaFrentz, Larry Hughes, and forgotten center Michael Olowokandi, who went first overall ahead of not only Pierce, but also Dirk Nowitzki, who was available to the Dallas Mavericks one slot ahead of Paul at No. 9. Yikes. NBA gems are elusive, and drafting is hard.
— John Wilmes
Lake Forest, IL (SportsNetwork.com) - The Chicago Bears signed return man Marc Mariani to a two-year contract on Tuesday.
Mariani averaged 24.8 yards on 92 kickoff returns for Tennessee in 2010 and 2011. He also returned 73 punts for an average of 11.2 yards with two touchdowns during his two years with the Titans.
He earned a Pro Bowl nod after the 2010 season.
To make room for Mariani on the roster, the team waived safety Ahmad Dixon. He had four special teams tackles and a fumble recovery in five games for the Bears this season.
Pittsburgh, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - The Pittsburgh Steelers have released running back LeGarrette Blount, who reportedly left the field before the conclusion of Monday's game against Tennessee.
Multiple media outlets reported that Blount walked off the field before the end of the Steelers' 27-24 win over the Titans, apparently upset over his lack of playing time. He did not receive carry in the contest, as Le'Veon Bell racked up a career-high 204 yards on 33 rushes.
"We believe the decision to release LeGarrette is in the best interest of the organization and wish him the best of luck," said Steelers coach Mike Tomlin in a brief statement.
Blount joined the Steelers in March on a two-year contract after a spending the 2013 season with New England. He got into immediate trouble with his new team after being cited for marijuana possession, along with Bell, in August.
In 11 games this season, Blount rushed for 266 yards with two touchdowns. He had 10 carries in Week 9 against Baltimore and just five last Sunday in the loss to the Jets prior to Monday.
The 28-year-old Oregon product spent his first three NFL seasons with Tampa Bay, rushing for 1,007 yards as a rookie in 2010.
Canton, OH (SportsNetwork.com) - Quarterback Kurt Warner and his "Greatest Show on Turf" teammates Isaac Bruce and Torry Holt were among eight first-year eligible candidates named as semifinalists for the Pro Football Hall of Fame's Class of 2015.
Late linebacker and San Diego Chargers great Junior Seau was also named as a semifinalist Tuesday night after the selection committee trimmed the list of 113 nominees down 26.
Joining the St. Louis Rams trio of Warner, Bruce and Holt among first-year hopefuls were running back Edgerrin James, offensive linemen Kevin Mawae and Orlando Pace and cornerback back Ty Law.
Tackle Mike Kenn and safety Darren Woodson were named semifinalists for the first time.
Finalists on the ballot again include running back Jerome Bettis, wide receiver Tim Brown, offensive lineman Will Shields, linebacker Kevin Greene, head coach Tony Dungy and wide receiver Marvin Harrison.
Others making the list were: kicker Morten Andersen, safety Steve Atwater, head coach Don Coryell, running backs Roger Craig and Terrell Davis, defensive end Charles Haley, tackle Joe Jacoby, safety John Lynch and linebacker Karl Mecklenburg and head coach Jimmy Johnson.
The announcement of the 15 finalists will come Jan. 8.
The contributor finalists are former longtime general managers and team executives Bill Polian and Ron Wolf. Minnesota Vikings center Mick Tingelhoff is the 2015 seniors finalist.
"Personally, I just hope they suck forever.”
That was what Mark Cuban said in an L.A. radio interview recently, when asked about the sorry state of basketball’s most famous team.
"As far as the Lakers," Cuban said, "I think there are going to be a lot of teams that are going to be focusing and saying, 'Look, I've got a ton of cap room, free agents A, B and C, why don't you guys come together and come play for me?' And L.A. has always been considered a destination, so maybe they feel there's a valid strategy. … Personally, I just hope they suck forever.”
Cuban must be feeling jolly these days. His 8-3 Mavericks have been soaring behind the league’s best offense, averaging 109.3 points per game with the additions of Chandler Parsons and Tyson Chandler. Dallas hasn’t won a playoff series since their championship in 2011 — the Western Conference has been that good — but that could easily change this spring.
The team’s roster is now clearly in the best shape its been since that title run. Chandler’s rim protection and pick-and-roll finishing have been an upgrade of nearly unspeakable proportions. Chandler is third in the league in field goal percentage at .703, and his new wingmate Chandler Parsons is helping to spread opposing defenses with his perimeter creativity. The Mavericks are a frightening foe.
That’s a far cry from the patsy Lakers, who do, indeed, suck. Nick “Swaggy P” Young returned to action last night to help L.A. win 114-109 against the struggling Atlanta Hawks, but it was only the Lakers’ second victory of the season. At 2-9, they’re currently in last place in their conference and off to their worst start in franchise history. It may not last forever, but Cuban and other Lakers haters worldwide should enjoy the waft of failure coming from Hollywood for now.
— John Wilmes
The NBA — like televised sports in general — is racing toward technological perfection. With wide-ranging replay capabilities and an off-site video review center, the league is working to make sure everything is called correctly.
That doesn’t mean they can solve the timeless issue of dissatisfaction. When you lose by a hair, you’re bound to take issue with whatever the referee’s calling — regardless of how precisely officials can zoom in and analyze that hair. That’s what the Sacramento Kings are showing us in their formal protest of a 111-110 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on November 13.
The game ended with a series of shocking plays, ultimately culminating in this game-winning shot by Courtney Lee, drawn up and executed with just 0.3 seconds left in the game:
Was the shot good, or did it come too late? It appears that Lee got the shot off before the backboard went red, and officials concurred by calling it Memphis’ way Thursday night, giving the Grizzlies the win. The Kings' organization is not content to accept this ruling, however, and they’re officially asking the league to take the eraser end of their pencil to that page of recent history.
The NBA says it will make a decision by December 2. Regardless of what they announce, the game will go down as one of the highlights of this season’s first month. The Grizzlies and Kings have been stirring up the already ridiculously difficult Western Conference, leaving contemporary powerhouses like the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers near the wrong end of playoff perspectives for now. This thrilling game was a celebration of off-the-radar brilliance.
Assuming the call from the night stands, it’s hard to recall a more scintillatingly tight buzzer-beater. One has to hearken back to Derek Fisher’s stunning shot to beat the San Antonio Spurs in a 2004 playoff game:
— John Wilmes
Alabama is back in the driver’s seat in the SEC West and has moved back into a familiar spot atop the Legends Poll Top 8.
Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide knocked off Mississippi State this weekend, 25-20, vaulting No. 2 Florida State on the way to replacing Mississippi State at No. 1.
Florida State found itself down two scores in the first half yet again — this time against Miami — but managed to come all the way back and notch another road win, 30-26.
Idle Oregon moved up a spot to No. 3.
No. 4 Mississippi State fell three spots, followed by No. 5 TCU, which struggled on the road against Kansas.
No. 6 Ohio State moved up another spot in the rankings, swapping places with Baylor.
And Georgia made its first Top 8 appearance after a resounding 34-7 win over Auburn. The Bulldogs still need a Missouri loss to find their way into the SEC championship game.
Arizona State fell out of the rankings this week following its loss at Oregon State.
|2||Florida State (2)||10-0||90||2|
To see the individual votes by coach, visit the Legends Poll.
The Denver Nuggets might be turning the page.
It hasn’t been a good start to the 2014-15 season for them. So far, the stumbling squad has looked unanchored, directionless and, well, bad. They allowed 84 points — at home — to the Portland Trail Blazers last week in the first half, and coach Brian Shaw refused to even take questions from reporters afterward. It looked like the end of an era (an era that no one would remember) in Denver. ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz had this to say about the state of malaise and failure:
“Denver is getting smoked nightly. It's a 2-7 team with no discernible identity, redundancies all over its roster and a morose, first-time coach who has expressed frustration with the fortitude of his team. Several sources around the league, a few close to the Nuggets, say the organization is ‘rudderless.’”
But now optimism suddenly seems possible again in the Rockies. The Nuggets not only took down the Indiana Pacers on Friday, but last night they startled the NBA community by taking down LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in Ohio. Nuggets general Ty Lawson led the team with 24 points and 12 assists, refusing to accept the grumbles around the league about his team’s demise.
Of course, the Cavaliers aren’t exactly unbeatable right now. Despite having James, the sport’s best player, and massive talent beside him, they’re a young team sucked into some serious growing pains. Turnovers, lack of sharing the ball, and general confusion have been the themes to a lackluster 5-4 start in Cleveland.
Silver linings come seldom for a team as down as Denver, though, and a win like this could potentially reverse the morale for the group. Snagging a victory against the NBA’s celebrity team is a good start to a winning streak — now let’s see if the Nuggets can keep up their strong play at home, Wednesday, against the Oklahoma City Thunder at 9:00 PM ET.
— John Wilmes
You may have mistaken the 38-year-old edition of Kevin Garnett for Skeletor — but the former MVP and NBA champion is still in the league. KG is on the final year of his last big NBA contract, a deal that was signed with the Boston Celtics but eventually traded to Garnett’s current squad, the Brooklyn Nets.
Garnett’s minutes and productivity have shrunk considerably since he landed in New York, but he’s still a valuable personality. Often cited as the league’s best trash talker and a prodigious defensive communicator, he makes every locker room better by his presence. The man was simply born to be around basketball teams, helping them win — and that’s why his latest sentiments come as no surprise. "I want to buy the Timberwolves. Put a group together and perhaps some day try to buy the team. That's what I want,” Garnett told Marc Spears of Yahoo! Sports.
Obviously, Garnett is a ways away from making this dream a reality. He’ll probably have to finish his playing career first. But the tiny cluster of NBA players wealthy enough to enter this discussion does include The Big Ticket. In fact, Garnett’s 20-year career has seen him earn more money than any player in league history. He’s made approximately $329 million from player contracts.
It’s hard to imagine an owner who would make the Wolves’ fanbase any happier. Garnett’s 12 years in Minnesota saw him put his team on the map in a way no one had before. And not a soul, including mega-talent Kevin Love, has matched Garnett’s impact on the franchise since. KG stayed loyal to his city much longer than many believed he should, consistently deflecting interest from other teams as he tried to lift the Wolves from mediocrity to the promised land; even as his best teammates were Ricky Davis and Wally Szczerbiak. Garnett bled T'Wolves blue like no one else.
And despite a championship, huge national exposure and an endless list of other accolades with the Boston Celtics, KG had always left a huge hunk of his heart back in Minneapolis. Now, he’s looking to reclaim it.
— John Wilmes
Rudy Gay’s reputation has been on quite the roller coaster ride. The Sacramento Kings’ 28-year-old forward has been a revered scorer and a FIBA gold medalist, but he’s also been an easy target for many analysts of the game, who eagerly underline his offensive inefficiency and bloated contract, which expires this season and pays him $19.3 million for the year.
Now, Gay looks like a bit of a bargain on his upcoming deal, reached November 16 and worth a reported $40 million over three seasons. Behind dark horse MVP candidate DeMarcus Cousins, Gay has been a sharp number two man on a surging 6-4 Kings squad, poised to make the Western Conference playoff outlook scarier yet.
Rudy has scaled back on ball-stopping and bad isolation shooting, as he’s worked smarter to get shots closer to the rim, and found his points within the potent Sacramento offense. Gay’s current 22.5 points per game, on a 22.1 player efficiency rating, come from only a 10-game sample size, but those figures are far better than any line he’s put up in recent years. It’s still early, but 2014-15 is shaping up to be Gay’s best season as a pro.
Like the rest of his Sacramento roster, the University of Connecticut alum has seen enough criticism and doubt to earn something of an underdog mentality. The Kings’ success out of the gates has been one of the most pleasant surprises of the early season, and Gay’s extension means that at least he and Cousins will be around for years more to continue making basketball — dead in Sac-town for nearly decade — a cornerstone of their city yet again.
Watch as they take on Anthony Davis and the New Orleans Pelicans at the edge of the Western postseason landscape, tomorrow night at 9 PM ET at the Sleep Train Arena.
— John Wilmes
Few players around college football have grown up as quickly and confidently as Ohio State starting quarterback J.T. Barrett this season. The Buckeyes are fortunate the maturing process has followed an accelerated path. Whatever College Football Playoff hopes may be on the table will be in the hands of the performance of Barrett.
For a moment, take a look back at the beginning of the season. Ohio State went into the season not really knowing just how things would gel after losing Braxton Miller just weeks before the start of the season. Barrett was chosen by head coach Urban Meyer to take control of the offense. It was Meyer’s best possible decision at the time, but one that left many questions to be answered. Ohio State suddenly went form playoff contender to potential Big Ten spoiler without a single game being played. It took time for things to work out. An early home loss to Virginia Tech was a difficult spot for Barrett. Virginia Tech was considered one of the best defensive teams in the ACC, and the Hokies took advantage of a young quarterback making his first big time start in front of a national audience. Since then, however, Barrett has grown up and blossomed to become one of the best players in the Big Ten.
Barrett is now coming off impressive back-to-back road performance in which he passed for 500 yards, six touchdowns and 275 rushing yards and three more rushing touchdowns. He piled up these numbers against teams ranked in the top 25 in cold conditions as well. Against Michigan State a week ago, Barrett had his best game throwing the football. There was never a doubt about whether or not the Buckeyes would go to Minnesota on a hangover. There is too much on the line this season, and Barrett lacks the experience to understand the concept of a letdown at this level. This is not a criticism, just an observation that Barrett is bringing some youthful energy to the offense and is still looking to prove something to any who watch.
Against Minnesota a week later, Barrett had his best day running the football. He did so against a Minnesota defense that has held four opponents under 100 rushing yards and was coming off a dominating performance against Iowa (84 rushing yards allowed to the Hawkeyes). Doing so in the snow is also no small feat.
Barrett’s emergence has coincided with the rise of the Ohio State Buckeyes in the playoff race, and this is not a coincidence. The play of the Ohio State quarterback has not gone unnoticed, and some are even jumping so far as to suggest he should be in the running for the Heisman Trophy. Regardless of where you fall on that debate, there is no denying Ohio State now has a quarterback more than capable of filling in for the injured Miller and Barrett keeps Ohio State one of the legitimate contenders for the College Football Playoff.
Ohio State’s next two games are at home against Indiana (10th in the Big Ten against the run) and rival Michigan (3rd against the run). Barrett and Ohio State look to be on cruise control to the Big Ten championship game, and Barrett is a huge reason why this is even possible this season.
By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)