Articles By Athlon Sports
Bill Self isn’t sugarcoating the situation. After a 35–3 season and an NCAA Tournament run that ended a win shy of the Final Four, the Kansas basketball coach can’t see his 2011-12 team being any better than last year’s Big 12 championship squad. But that doesn’t mean the Jayhawks will take a step backward, either. “I think we’ll take a step sideways,” Self says.
That certainly wouldn’t be a bad thing in Lawrence, where Kansas has won seven straight Big 12 titles and averaged 33 wins over the last five seasons. Equaling that success in 2011-12 will be a bit more difficult. NBA Lottery picks Marcus and Markieff Morris are gone along with one-and-done Josh Selby and savvy veterans Brady Morningstar and Tyrel Reed.
Still, even with only one returning starter (point guard Tyshawn Taylor), the Jayhawks are confident that the emergence of forward Thomas Robinson and the offseason strides made by players such as Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford will keep them in the hunt with Baylor, Texas A&M, Missouri and Texas for the top spot in the league standings.
Key Jayhawks Stat: 4
In Bill Self's eight-year tenure, the Jayhawks haev suffered four postseason losses to teams from mid-major conferences. Bucknell (2005), Bradley (2006), Northern Iowa (2010) and VCU (2011) all defeated KU in the NCAA Tournament.
Robinson likely would’ve been a first-round pick in the NBA Draft had he chosen to leave school. Instead, the 6'9", 237-pounder will spend another season enhancing his game under Jayhawks big man coach Danny Manning, who has helped develop seven post players into draft picks in the last five years. The 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds Robinson averaged last season are underwhelming until you consider that he played only 14.6 minutes off the bench. Robinson is a chiseled, athletic specimen who uses his power game to score on worn-down opponents. He and Baylor’s Perry Jones enter the season as the top two candidates for Big 12 Player of the Year.
The problem is that, beyond Robinson, Kansas is as thin in the post as it has been in Self’s eight years in Lawrence. Jeff Withey is a 7-footer who has been limited to mop-up duty the last few seasons. Justin Wesley, the half-brother of former Jayhawks standout Keith Langford, sat out last season after transferring from Lamar, where he averaged 1.2 points as a freshman. Luckily, Self was able to sign 6'8" swingman Kevin Young during the spring. Young started for two seasons (2008-10) at Loyola Marymount before taking a year off to attend junior college. He has two seasons of eligibility remaining.
The Jayhawks aren’t as deep on the perimeter as they’ve been in the past, but they certainly tout a strong one-two punch in Taylor and Johnson. Hailed as one of the fastest guards in the country, Taylor is entering his fourth season as a starter. He averaged 9.3 points and 4.6 assists on a loaded team in 2010-11. His biggest task this season, though, will be taking over the leadership role that was left vacant by the Morris twins. Taylor has had a handful of minor off-court incidents during his time in Lawrence, but his attitude and work ethic were impressive at the end of last season and over the summer. Johnson — who was stuck behind Taylor, Reed, Morningstar and Selby as a sophomore — may have improved more than any Kansas player during the offseason. His 3-point shooting stole the show in the Jayhawks’ annual alumni games and, defensively, he’s proven to be a pest.
The 6'5" Releford was a highly touted recruit when he signed with the Jayhawks, but he’s had to wait his turn behind other talented players with more experience. Now he’ll get his chance as Kansas’ small forward. He’ll likely be pushed by incoming freshman Ben McLemore, the jewel of Self’s 2011 recruiting class. While he’s certainly a talent, McLemore is viewed as a “project player” who may take some time to adjust to the structure and X’s and O’s of Self’s system.
This will be far from one of the best teams of Self’s tenure, but KU will still be good enough to contend for a conference title in what appears will be a down year for the Big 12. Along with a lack of leadership and experience, one of Kansas’ biggest obstacles will be surviving a brutally tough non-league schedule that includes a trip to the Maui Invitational as well as tilts with Kentucky, Ohio State and USC. If Self’s players can make it through that gauntlet with their confidence intact, they’ll be more than capable of doing some damage in the NCAA Tournament.
Big 12 Prediction: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
In the spring of 2010, Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan delivered a blunt message to forward Jon Leuer: The rising senior would have to lead the 2010-11 team. With Leuer gone — he was selected by the Milwaukee Bucks in the second round of the NBA draft in June — the baton has been passed to senior guard Jordan Taylor. A second-team All-American who last season led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.83 (161 assists, 42 turnovers), finished fourth in the Big Ten in scoring (18.1 ppg) and was on the league’s all-defensive team, Taylor will be the most indispensable player on the UW roster this season.
“It is his team,” Purdue coach Matt Painter says of Taylor, who has 51 starts and 100 games played for UW. “Bo’s lead guard — whether it is Kammron Taylor or Trevon Hughes or Devin Harris — he always seems to have that key guy that understands you do not turn the ball over and get (the team) a good shot every time.”
Leuer and Taylor helped UW finish third in the Big Ten — UW was picked as low as seventh — and reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2008. Can Taylor lead UW to greater heights this season? Given the loss of three senior forwards, that appears to be a daunting task. However, there is no doubt that Ryan’s 11th UW team will be Taylor’s to lead.
Key Badgers Stat: 171
The three forwards who must be replaced — Keaton Nankivil, Jon Leuer and Tim Jarmusz — combined to start 171 games over the last two seasons.
The departure of Leuer and Keaton Nankivil means the only proven playmaker is junior Mike Bruesewitz, who can make the Energizer bunny appear lazy. Bruesewitz began to blossom last season and averaged 8.7 points and 6.3 rebounds in three NCAA Tournament games — despite playing on a painful right knee he sprained in the Big Ten Tournament. Bruesewitz has always provided instant energy on both ends of the court, but last season he became a more consistent scoring option by improving his shooting to .471 from .333 as a freshman.
Bruesewitz can’t carry the load alone, however. Junior Jared Berggren and perhaps redshirt freshman Evan Anderson will have to provide low-post scoring and physical play, two traits the Badgers lacked last season.
Berggren, like most of UW’s big men, is comfortable shooting from the 3-point line. However, he is equally at ease playing with his back to the basket and has the best post moves on the team. He must, however, stay out of foul trouble. Last season Berggren averaged one foul every 5.4 minutes.
Anderson displayed a nice mid-range jumper during practice last season. His post moves need work, but he can punish foes with his physical play.
“One thing coach looks for is … we’ve been a little too reliant on jump shots,” Berggren says. “He is always looking for a post presence.”
Senior Rob Wilson, junior Ryan Evans and sophomore Duje Dukan are wild cards. Wilson continued to struggle defensively last season and saw his playing time dip; Evans struggles because he too often tries to force plays on offense; Dukan, a prolific scorer in high school, wasn’t physically ready to compete as a freshman.
Taylor and sophomores Josh Gasser and Ben Brust should give the staff the option of using a three-guard lineup if necessary.
Taylor has improved dramatically since his freshman season and should be one of the top guards in the country. Gasser is a skilled all-around player who started 30 games as a freshman and recorded the first triple-double in program history (10 points, 12 rebounds, 10 assists) at Northwestern. His only weakness is 3-point shooting (.302).
Brust, who worked on the scout team as a freshman, could provide another scoring option. He has deep range and is tremendous coming off screens and shooting or attacking the basket.
No one was pleased with the forgettable performance in the 61–54 loss to Butler in the Sweet 16. UW had the potential to reach the Final Four for the first time ever under Ryan. For some fans, that loss overshadowed a solid regular-season run, which included handing then-No. 1 Ohio State its first loss. UW can contend for the league title and win a game or two in the NCAA Tournament, but several things need to happen: Taylor must stay healthy; Berggren and Anderson must give UW production on the interior; Bruesewitz must continue his rise; and the Badgers must get some production from an unexpected source.
Big Ten Prediction: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
The biggest issue facing Xavier this season is managing expectations. After all, Xavier has won five straight A-10 regular-season titles and made the NCAA Tournament 10 times in the last 11 years with four trips to the Sweet 16 and two to the Elite Eight. Coach Chris Mack welcomes back three starters who earned all-conference honors — including A-10 Player of the Year Tu Holloway. And the Musketeers are adding young talent to their experienced and tested upperclassmen.
“There’s a tradition the guys are well aware of,” Mack says. “It actually fuels their motivation over the summer to live up to the expectations, especially as an older player. It’s a healthy pressure on our veterans.”
Key Musketeers Stat: 5
Xavier has won five consecutive A-10 regular-season titles. Ironically, the last year they won the A-10 Tournament (2006) was also the last year they didn't win the regular season.
Xavier has the ability to run multiple bigs with varying bodies and skills at opponents — a tremendous luxury. The frontcourt is held down by massive 7'0" senior Kenny Frease. The honorable mention All-A-10 selection was among the most improved players in the league last season, and Mack believes he can get even better.
“He has to be in great shape, more mobile and athletic and impact us around the basket,” Mack says. “He’s so big other teams won’t be able to handle him if he’s more mobile. He can be a tremendous offensive rebounder if he gets on the glass instead of laying on the other guy’s back when a shot goes up.”
Two 6'7" transfers are expected to make significant contributions. Travis Taylor, who spent his first two years at Monmouth, plays hard and can score around the basket or step out to medium range. Andre Walker is a post-graduate transfer from Vanderbilt who can do a little bit of everything. He isn’t a big scorer, but he handles the ball well and is a terrific passer.
Redshirt freshman Justin Martin, also 6'7", will challenge for playing time. Mack can also turn to a pair of 6'9" players. Jeff Robinson has been productive in spurts, and Griffin McKenzie can step out and shoot the three effectively.
The discussion obviously begins with Holloway, who’s thrived in the lead role. Holloway led the team last year in scoring (19.7 ppg) and the A-10 in assists (5.4 apg). He can fill a stat sheet; so what does Mack want Holloway to do in his senior year?
“He has to be more vocal and be more of a leader,” says the third-year head coach. “He’s always been a hard worker and gotten better each and every year, but I think it’s important to improve his teammates and raise their level of play and their work ethic.”
The conversation doesn’t end there. One of the few areas in which Xavier struggled last season was behind the 3-point line. They shot just .329 and scored only 22.5 percent of their points from beyond the arc (288th nationally). That’s why Mack is particularly excited about the return of Brad Redford, who was one of the nation’s top 3-point shooters as a freshman and sophomore but sat out last season due to a knee injury.
“I tell people all the time he’s the best shooter I’ve ever been around,” Mack says. “It’s uncanny because it’s difficult for him to get his shot off sometimes. But if he’s open, there isn’t another player I’d want shooting.”
The versatile and athletic Mark Lyons earned third-team All-A-10 honors as a sophomore and is the team’s second leading returning scorer and assist man. Dezmine Wells arrives as a 6'4" freshman with a college-ready body. Mack is cautiously optimistic. “We recruited him to be an impact player,” he says, “but there’s a difference in who you are on paper and who you are on the floor.”
Mack, who signed a new contract over the summer to remain at Xavier through the 2017-18 season, feels the excitement surrounding the program. He knows expectations are high, and he embraces the infectious nature of winning.
“We are very well aware that we have a talented group of returning players and newcomers,” says Mack. “We sense the excitement from our fans.”
But Mack also knows that excitement won’t win them one single game, that a sense of entitlement could sink his team’s high aspirations. He knows the clichés of hard work, chemistry and “the little things” are the keys for a deep NCAA Tournament run.
“That’s what makes a great team,” he says. “Certainly we’re talented, and we recognize that, but we need to sacrifice some individual things to reach team goals that we set out.”
A-10 Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
Last season, Alabama became the first SEC team to win more than 10 games in league play — the Tide went 12–4 — and not make the NCAA Tournament. Anthony Grant’s club was done in by a bloated RPI (No. 80) that was a product of some bad losses in non-conference play and a very weak SEC West. This season, Alabama shouldn’t have to worry about an NCAA snub. With a strong nucleus that includes three All-SEC candidates — point guard Trevor Releford and forwards Tony Mitchell and JaMychal Green — joined by a top-flight recruiting class, the Crimson Tide figure to be among the better teams in the SEC and appear to be a safe bet to return to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006.
Key Crimson Tide Stat: 19
Alabama finished the 2010-11 season undefeated at home, winning all 19 games. The Tide haven't lost at home since February 2010.
The Tide’s front line is led by Green, a 6'8", 225-pounder from Montgomery who bypassed the NBA Draft for his senior season in Tuscaloosa. Green, a former McDonald’s All-American, led the Tide in both scoring (15.5 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 rpg). He responded to an early season suspension by playing the best basketball of his career over the final four months of the season. His size and athleticism make him a difficult cover for opposing big men.
Mitchell emerged as one of the better players in the league during his sophomore season. The 6'6" small forward averaged 16.4 points in SEC games. During one six-game stretch in February, Mitchell averaged 21.5 points while shooting .596 from the field. He has the ability to be a first-team All-SEC performer.
Bama expects an immediate contribution from freshman Nick Jacobs, a 6'9", 250-pound power forward from Atlanta. “He brings a good deal of size and physicality to our frontcourt,” Grant says. “As he continues to develop, he’ll be a guy at the power forward spot for us that brings the physicality and interior scoring that we need.”
Grant also dipped into the junior college ranks for some help, signing Moussa Gueye, a native of Senegal who spent two seasons at Lake Land (Ill.) College. The 7'0" Gueye is raw on the offensive end but should help defensively and on the boards.
Fan favorite Carl Engstrom, a native of Sweden, played in 21 games last year but averaged only 5.3 minutes and did not score against SEC competition.
The youth movement at Alabama began last season as Grant let Releford run the offense from Day 1 as a freshman. The Kansas City native started 36 of 37 games and proved to be a solid scorer (11.0 ppg) and distributor (3.4 apg). He isn’t much of a threat from outside — he hit only 19 3-pointers for the season — but he made over 50 percent of his 2-point field goals because of his ability to get to the basket. Releford also proved to be a pesky defender, ranking third in the league with 1.6 steals per game.
Releford will be flanked on the wing by two freshman shooting guards who come to Alabama with outstanding credentials. Both Trevor Lacey and Levi Randolph were top-50 national recruits who had offers from established national powers.
Lacey, a two-time Mr. Basketball in Alabama, is not a high-level athlete, but he plays with a high basketball IQ and has a nice stroke from the outside. The 6'5" Randolph can handle the ball and, like Lacey, fill it up from the perimeter. Both freshmen should play significant minutes right away.
Ben Eblen played 9.2 minutes per game backing up Releford at the point last season. He isn’t much of a threat offensively. Swingmen Charles Hankerson and Rodney Cooper will battle for time in the rotation. Hankerson played sparingly as a freshman before breaking into the rotation late in the year. He averaged 14.4 minutes in the Tide’s five NIT games.
Alabama will be young and talented — and very exciting to watch. Grant’s team lacks proven depth, but when you’ve got three of the better players in the league on your team, you’ve got a chance to be pretty good.
If the Big 3 remain healthy and one of the two freshman guards — Lacey and/or Randolph — emerges as a scorer, the Crimson Tide could be poised to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
SEC Prediction: 4th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
And the beat goes on for Marquette University. Looking for their seventh consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance, the Golden Eagles head into the 2011-12 season poised to build on last season’s surprise Sweet 16 appearance. That team relied heavily upon the versatility and experience of Jimmy Butler, who was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft by the Chicago Bulls. This year’s version of the Golden Eagles will feature a trio of similarly talented and interchangeable players in forwards Jae Crowder and Jamil Wilson and guard Darius Johnson-Odom.
Key Golden Eagles Stat: 64
Marquette received an at-large invitation to the NCAA Tournament despite an RPI of 64. Only USC (67) had a worse RPI among the at-large pool.
Coach Buzz Williams used his connections within the junior college circuit to land Crowder, a 6'6" forward who was billed coming in as a virtual clone of Lazar Hayward, an undersized but tough inside-out player who preceded Butler as a first-round pick.
Crowder lived up to the hype for the most part, averaging 11.8 points and 6.8 rebounds per game while also knocking down 42 3-pointers. He’ll need to up those numbers this year while also becoming much better on the defensive end, as his penchant for getting into early foul trouble a year ago left MU shorthanded up front on a number of occasions.
Giving Williams and MU more firepower alongside Crowder will be Wilson, a native of nearby Racine, Wis., who left Oregon after a moderately successful freshman year in 2009-10. He used his redshirt year at MU to add both toughness as well as size to his 6'7", 220-pound frame, and he enters his first competitive season with the Golden Eagles expected to play anywhere from center in a small lineup to point guard, depending upon what Williams needs at the time.
Providing depth will be sophomore shooter Jamail Jones and freshman Juan Anderson, both of whom are athletic wings.
In the pivot, MU will hope for more progress from both junior Chris Otule and sophomore Davante Gardner, both of whom have developed from major projects into a promising two-headed monster at center. The 6'11", 265-pound Otule gives MU some intimidating size and shot-blocking capability on the defensive end and on the boards. The 6'8", 290-pound Gardner, meanwhile, is a surprisingly adept scorer on the block despite both height and quickness limitations.
Getting both to play at a consistently high level will be key for an MU team that has struggled for years against the bigger, stronger teams the Big East typically has to offer.
Johnson-Odom, a second team All-Big East selection as a junior, is poised to build on his success after a productive summer that saw him turn heads at LeBron James’ Nike Skills camp. The lefthander has become almost as adept at attacking the basket as he is at pulling up from long range, and the 15.8 points per game and 71 3-pointers he made last season should jump even further as Williams now puts the offensive onus on his shoulders.
Junior Cadougan enters as the unquestioned favorite to start at point guard. He gives the Golden Eagles their first true pass-first floor general in a few seasons, a trait the team seemed to thrive upon last year when he played in a backup role. His shot is improving, but with gunners like Crowder, Johnson-Odom and incoming freshman Todd Mayo (yes, O.J. Mayo’s brother) expected to fill that role, Cadougan will do well to continue to focus on distributing while also penetrating the lane when possible.
Adding depth in the backcourt will be Vander Blue, a highly rated in-state recruit who suffered through a forgettable freshman campaign, as well as incoming freshman Derrick Wilson, an undersized yet tough combo guard. Blue should earn plenty of minutes again based on his ability to defend multiple positions.
Last season’s Sweet 16 appearance energized a fan base that hadn’t experienced that type of excitement since 2003, when Dwyane Wade led the Golden Eagles to the Final Four. It also raises the expectation level heading into Year 4 of Williams’ tenure. Once again courted in the offseason by Arkansas, Oklahoma and Texas A&M, he received a big raise to stay in Milwaukee.
Now, with as much talent as he’s had, not to mention a frontcourt that finally looks like it will be able to hold its own against the Big East’s best, the belief is that the Golden Eagles should be able to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament.
Big East Prediction: 5th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
After playing in the NCAA Tournament last year for the first time since 2005, Cincinnati is now fully healed and ready to retake its place as one of the better programs in the country. Coach Mick Cronin, who was rewarded with a new six-year contract worth $1.25 million per year, begins his sixth season with a mix of veterans — led by senior forward Yancy Gates — a top-25 recruiting class and several young players with enough experience to flourish in the Big East.
“We have great potential,” Cronin says. “The key for us is going to be can we become the same defensive team or better than we were a year ago because that’s why we won. If you’re going to try to be a highly successful program, you’ve got to be able to play defense. I love our talent and our returning guys but we’ve got to have the new guys fill some roles for us.”
The Bearcats lost five scholarship seniors and a lot of experience from last year’s 26–9 team, but only starting forward Rashad Bishop could be considered a major loss. The 2011-12 team should be more talented overall and could be a factor in the Big East if several of the incoming freshmen — most notably forwards Jermaine Sanders and Shaquille Thomas — can make an immediate impact.
Key Bearcats Stat: 26
The Bearcats won 26 games last season, their highest total since 2001-02, when Steve Logan led them to a 31-4 record.
At 6'9", 265 pounds, Gates has been an above-average player the past few years but has yet to take that next step to stardom. The Bearcats are hoping that will happen this season after he averaged 11.9 points and 6.9 rebounds a year ago. He’ll be joined on the front line by newcomer Cheikh Mbodj, a 6'9" forward with solid offensive skills from Grayson (Texas) College and Dakar, Senegal.
Kelvin Gaines, a 6'10" post player, was redshirted as a freshman last year and is not yet polished offensively, but he could provide a shot-blocking presence the Bearcats sorely need.
Sophomore Justin Jackson, a long-limbed 6'8" forward who plays with a lot of energy, finishes well around the basket, but he needs to improve his overall offensive skills. Sophomore Sean Kilpatrick, who made the Big East All-Rookie team last year, is a swing player who averaged 9.7 points last year and should assume more of the offensive burden after coming off the bench for most of last season.
Junior point guard Cashmere Wright, who arrived with great expectations, has been brilliant at times, but he’s also been inconsistent as he has struggled with a knee injury that sidelined him for his entire freshman season. When Wright is healthy, he has the quickness to get to the rim, though he needs to do a better job of finishing once he arrives there. He’s also a capable 3-point shooter and ball-handler. If he can stay healthy, he could blossom into one of the Big East’s top point guards.
“If he’s full strength, I really like our chances,” Cronin says. “To have a guy that’s in his fourth year of college, and his third year playing, and he’s a talented guy, we all saw when he was healthy and he was at his best, how good he was at times.”
Senior Dion Dixon, who averaged 11.6 points last season, has developed into a reliable 3-point shooter and a leader on offense. Junior JaQuon Parker, who played very little as a sophomore, worked hard during the offseason and could provide the Bearcats with another veteran scoring presence in the backcourt.
Last year was a breakthrough for the Bearcats, who satisfied their fans by returning to the NCAA Tournament, where they had landed for 14 straight years before Bob Huggins was fired. The key now is for the program to continue to grow. From a pure talent standpoint, this team should be better than last year’s, but with so many newcomers it will be difficult to replicate the chemistry and resiliency that served Cincinnati so well last year.
If Cronin can get the newcomers to buy into the team concept the way last year’s seniors did, and if he can teach them to play the same inspired defense that was the Bearcats’ trademark, Cincinnati could go further than the second round of the NCAA Tournament. For that to happen, Wright must stay healthy, and Gates must become a dominant player.
Big East Prediction: 6th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
Michigan State will reload with an intriguing blend of talented newcomers in the backcourt and benefit from proven warriors in the frontcourt. Look for the Spartans to extend their streak of 14 consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances and reside in the upper half of the Big Ten, but Tom Izzo will have to wait a year or two for a run at a seventh Final Four.
The Spartans lose talented but enigmatic guards Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers from last year’s team, which was a preseason top-10 squad but finished with more losses (15) than any Michigan State team since Izzo’s first season as head coach in 1996.
“I have enjoyed this team more, already,” Izzo says. “We have some talent, some young guys who want to learn, want to get better. They are going to listen. They are going to be grittier. I think we are going to have better leadership and togetherness.”
Senior power forward Draymond Green has played in a pair of Final Fours and is driven to make the Spartans a national factor again. He will need sophomore combo guard Keith Appling and sophomore post player Adreian Payne to elevate their games to star status. Both are capable of it. Major contributions are likely from freshman forward Branden Dawson and skillful guard Brandon Wood, a senior one-year transfer from Valparaiso.
Key Spartans Stat: 10
Michigan State has won at least one NCAA Tournament game in 10 of the last 14 seasons.
Green is one of the best all-around power forwards in the college game. With crafty finishing ability around the rim, and 36.6 percent accuracy from 3-point range, he causes matchup problems and can deliver the drive and dish. The two-time third-team All-Big Ten honoree has 18 career double-doubles and a pair of triple-doubles. He needs to give better effort away from the ball.
“He has to be better defensively,” Izzo says. “That’s a big key. Last year we had to play him too many minutes. He is in better shape now.”
Delvon Roe, a gifted power forward who battled injuries throughout his career in East Lansing, was forced to retire from basketball in September due to ongoing issues with his knees. Roe had 73 career starts. His toughness and experience will be sorely missed.
The Spartans need the tall and athletic Payne to tap into his immense talent. At 6'10", Payne can score in the post, or facing up with style and grace. He was slowed by a shoulder injury prior to his freshman year but is capable of a major breakthrough. With Roe no longer able to play, the pressure is on Payne to produce.
“I think Payne is going to be much improved,” Izzo says. “He has worked his tail off. He’s into it.”
Wide-bodied junior Derrick Nix started for the 2010 Final Four team but saw his role reduced as he put on bad weight. He’s tough, smart and strong, with good moves and touch when in deep, and that’s when he has been overweight. The 2011-12 version of Nix might stun people, if he maintains better physical condition.
Appling deferred to veterans last year, but he will put his combo guard gifts on display as a sophomore. He can run the point, or swing to the 2 and light it up from range. He will benefit from summer experience with Team USA’s U19 squad.
Newcomers Travis Trice and Wood will audition as point guards. If one (or both) is adept at running the team, that could enable Appling to do more on the wing.
Wood, a good leaper who can shoot from 3-point range, averaged 16.7 points last year as a first-team All-Horizon League selection at Valparaiso. Dawson, a McDonald’s All-American, might be the best rebounding wing player Izzo has ever signed.
“I think Trice and Dawson are going to help us immediately,” Izzo says.
Although the Spartans are relying on several unproven ingredients, their potential ceiling is still high, allowing Michigan State fans legitimate reasons to dream.
“I haven’t had this many questions and x-factors in a season in the last 12 or 13 years,” Izzo says. “There are a lot of unknowns. Who is going to be the point now? Is he going to adapt? If Nix keeps his weight down, if the other guys grow like I think they will — Adreian Payne especially — I think we have a chance to be real good. If they don’t, we’ll be a decent team and that will be it.”
Big Ten Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
No one would blame Leonard Hamilton and the Florida State men’s basketball team if they took some time to sit back and cherish the successes of the 2010-11 campaign. The Seminoles staked their claim as the third-best program in the ACC, behind only Duke and North Carolina, and they reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament (for the first time since 1992). Those are significant accomplishments for a Florida State program that had languished near the ACC cellar for several years before the Hamilton-led resurgence.
Yet, when talk in the Seminoles’ practice facility turns to last year, the general feeling is one of disappointment and frustration. “There was a certain amount of pain that these guys felt in the game that we lost,” Hamilton explains, referring to the Seminoles’ Sweet 16 defeat (in overtime) to VCU. “And that seems to be the driving factor.”
That motivation, combined with perhaps the most talented and experienced team he has fielded in his 10 years in Tallahassee, has Hamilton and his players believing that the coming season could be their best yet.
“Over the last six years, it’s generally accepted that we’re the third-winningest program in the ACC,” Hamilton says. “That’s fine if you are satisfied with being third. … We see no reason that we can’t be No. 1. We’re not going to be content with just being the third-winningest program in the ACC.”
Key Seminoles Stat: 51
It's been 51 years since a team in the ACC defended as well as Florida State did last season. The Seminoles led the nation in field goal percentage defense, as opponents shot 36.3 percent from the field.
There is no better indication of Hamilton’s ability to land quality big men than the fact that the Seminoles have had three frontcourt players selected in the last two NBA Drafts — forward Chris Singleton (first round, 2011), center Solomon Alabi (second round, 2010) and forward Ryan Reid (second round, 2010). And yet, this area remains the strength of the team.
Power forward Bernard James, who grabbed headlines initially because of his amazing personal story (he was a high school dropout who developed an affinity for basketball during six years in the Air Force), blossomed into a major force during the second half of the season. In only his third year of organized basketball, the junior college transfer finished the season with modest numbers (8.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.4 bpg), but he had some huge games down the stretch, including a double-double in the Seminoles’ NCAA Tournament upset of Notre Dame. And James’ teammates say he has shown even greater progress during offseason workouts and pickup games.
“His thing was never skill — it was getting to know the game,” senior shooting guard Deividas Dulkys says. “He hasn’t played a lot of competitive basketball. He’s getting so much better.”
“The leap you’re going to see in B.J. next year is gonna be tremendous,” senior guard Luke Loucks says. “It’s gonna be a whole different ballgame.”
FSU also returns 7-footer Jon Kreft and 6'11" Xavier Gibson at center, as well as several quality forwards, including emerging sophomore Okaro White.
As strange as it might sound, the Seminoles’ chances for another strong postseason could hinge upon the abilities of a point guard who will be playing for his third college in five years.
Former Iowa and Arkansas starter Jeff Peterson, who left each school after coaching changes, will be eligible to play immediately because he already has earned his bachelor’s degree. And with FSU’s uncertainties at the point — Derwin Kitchen graduated and there was no clear-cut replacement — Peterson will have an opportunity to step right in.
The Seminoles are loaded with experience in the backcourt, with Loucks, Dulkys, junior Michael Snaer and sophomore Ian Miller all returning. Miller might be the only one with star potential, though; he is an exceptional scorer but needs to improve his defense.
As experienced and talented as the Seminoles are, they clearly will have a tough time knocking North Carolina and Duke from their perch atop the ACC. The Tar Heels will be projected by many to win the 2012 national title, and the Blue Devils won’t be far behind. Yet Hamilton and his players insist they are closing the gap.
“I know a lot of our fans were excited about the Sweet 16,” Loucks says. “But we’re sitting back looking at it like, ‘Man, that could have been an NCAA championship — not a Sweet 16.’ A Sweet 16 is good, but in the end, we still haven’t won anything. We want a championship.”
ACC Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
During the summer, new Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy took his team on a 10-day trip to Switzerland and France, where the Aggies played exhibition games and toured landmarks like Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Kennedy believes the tower tour will provide some foreshadowing. He fully intends on taking A&M to unprecedented heights. “My goal here is to win national championships,” says Kennedy, who coached the previous five seasons at Murray State. “(A&M women’s coach Gary) Blair was able to get a (national) championship here (last season). We need to be the next team that gets a championship here. How do you do that? You win Big 12 championships, and you put yourself in a position to win national championships.”
Kennedy inherits a program that has advanced to six consecutive NCAA Tournaments. He also assumes control of a roster that returns three starters, including six of the top eight scorers, and a couple of potential impact newcomers.
Realistically, the Aggies don’t appear to have enough overall talent yet to duplicate what the A&M women did, but it would not be too surprising to see Kennedy and Co. scale some lofty heights during March. Just as they did last summer.
Key Aggies Stat: 51
Texas A&M has 51 Big 12 victories since 2007. Prior to that, the Aggies had totaled only 43 victories in the first 10 years of Big 12 play.
Athletic forward David Loubeau considered entering the 2011 NBA Draft before deciding to return for his senior season. It was probably a wise decision, as the Miami native had an up-and-down junior year. While he averaged 11.8 points per game — second-highest on the squad — and ranked in the top three on the team in blocks, field goal percentage, free throw percentage and rebounds, Loubeau also scored seven points or fewer in five regular-season Big 12 games. “I’d like to be a lot more consistent this year,” Loubeau says. “That’s a top priority.”
Leading scorer Khris Middleton has identical goals. In his sophomore season, the slender, smooth-shooting swingman occasionally took over games. In an overtime win against Arkansas, he scored 31 and added 28 in an overtime victory over Missouri. But physical defenders occasionally took Middleton out of his game. In a home loss to Texas, he was 0-of-9 from the floor and did not score. Middleton needs to be more assertive, and Loubeau must become a dependable go-to scorer for the Aggies to take the next step.
Likewise, the tremendously athletic Ray Turner needs to add to his offensive game. Turner, who showed flashes of brilliance as a freshman, injured an ankle last year and averaged only 4.0 points and 3.2 rebounds. Turner possesses the athleticism to be a great shot-blocker and solid scorer, while sophomore Kourtney Roberson has the frame (6'9", 235) and tenacity to be an enforcer. Roberson was the top freshman last year, averaging 5.6 points and 3.8 rebounds, while fellow freshman Keith Davis made steady progress as the season unfolded.
Starting point guard Dash Harris returns for his senior season, and the Aggies are hopeful that he will be a much better scoring threat. Harris had surgery on his right (shooting) wrist in the summer of 2010, and the injury hampered his shot, as he connected on only 26.8 percent from the floor and 16.7 percent from 3-point range. As a result, defenses sagged off him and dared Harris to shoot. If he can’t make more shots, A&M will turn to true freshman Jamal Branch, a talented playmaker who can score in a variety of ways, for more minutes.
The Aggies lose clutch shooter B.J. Holmes, but they may be more versatile with the addition of transfer Elston Turner. At 6'4", Turner provides more size than the 5'11" Holmes. Toward the end of his sophomore season (2009-10) at Washington, Turner showed he could shoot much like Holmes, draining 54.5 percent of his 3-point attempts in NCAA Tournament games. A&M is also hopeful that junior Naji Hibbert can have a breakthrough season. He’s played in 67 games but has only shown glimpses of being an impact player.
Mark Turgeon didn’t leave the cupboard bare when he departed for Maryland. In fact, this appears to be one of the more athletic teams A&M has fielded, perfectly suited for Kennedy’s more up-tempo offense and pressure-oriented defense. Plenty of questions still must be addressed, especially in the backcourt. But this is a program that has won at least 24 games five straight years. Kennedy’s first team in Aggieland is quite capable of matching that, contending for an upper-echelon spot in the Big 12 and making a nice run in March.
Big 12 Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
The mood among Missouri basketball fans was a blend of disappointment and disbelief when they learned athletic director Mike Alden had tapped Miami’s Frank Haith to succeed Mike Anderson last April. Only days earlier, they’d started dreaming about Purdue’s Matt Painter, a three-time Big Ten Coach of the Year, taking the reins, but after taking 24 hours to mull over a move to Columbia, Mo., he signed a lucrative extension to remain at his alma mater.
So Alden turned to Haith, thought to be on the hot seat with the Hurricanes after seven seasons that included one NCAA Tournament appearance and a 43–69 mark against ACC competition. Most fans wondered why they should believe he’d fare any better in the Big 12.
That still might be a reasonable question to ask long term. But Haith, a one-time understudy of Rick Barnes at Texas, is set up fairly well for success in his first season at Missouri. The Tigers feature a senior-laden nucleus, highlighted by first-team All-Big 12 guard Marcus Denmon, that reached the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season.
Key Tigers Stat: 24
With 24 more victories, seniors Marcus Denmon, Laurence Bowers, Kim English and Steve Moore will make up the winningest class in Missouri history. They have won 77 games in their first three years.
Haith prefers attacking opponents inside-out, a change from Anderson’s more wide open motion attack. The shift could benefit senior Ricardo Ratliffe, who showed an effective back-to-the-basket game last season when teammates looked to him on the low block. The 6'9" Ratliffe isn’t overly athletic, which can prove limiting against taller defenders.
The Tigers suffered a significant setback in early October when high-flying senior Laurence Bowers went down with a torn ACL in a pickup game. Bowers, a lightly recruited Memphis native, had developed into one of the top big men in the Big 12 — a force on both ends of the court.
Bowers’ absence will require senior Steve Moore to make a larger-than-expected contribution. He provides good size and is a sound, albeit slow-footed, defender. He was used primarily as a screener in his limited time (11.4 mpg) last season, but he will be asked to contribute a bit more on the offensive end in his final season.
Redshirt freshman Kadeem Green, a native of Canada who is finally healthy after rupturing his Achilles tendon as a high school senior, is raw but could prove useful off the bench because of his shot-blocking skills.
Denmon, a breakout star last season when he averaged 16.9 points, was quite simply one of the most efficient players in the country, shooting 50 percent from the field and 44.8 percent from 3-point range while committing 32 turnovers in 34 games. A Big 12 Player of the Year candidate, Denmon will be even harder to guard if he can incorporate a mid-range jumper into his game with more regularity.
Denmon is sure to see more attention, so the Tigers will need a better year from classmate Kim English, who saw his scoring average drop from 14.0 points as a sophomore to 10.0 last season. Never a high-percentage shooter, he shot a career-low 36.6 percent from the floor.
The Tigers have solid options directing the offense in junior Michael Dixon and sophomore Phil Pressey. The 6'1" Dixon was one of the Big 12’s leaders in assist-to-turnover ratio and averaged 10.3 points. The 5'10" Pressey, a crafty playmaker with exceptional quickness, showed a better than expected jumper, hitting 41.8 percent of his 3-point attempts in league play. Their lack of size can hurt defensively as they sometimes struggle to keep opposing guards out of the paint.
Senior Matt Pressey should provide depth on the wing.
Missouri appears to have plenty of offensive punch, as it did last season when the team ranked 10th nationally in scoring (80.8 ppg). But how good the Tigers can be will depend on how quickly they adjust to the slower pace Haith will have them playing and if they can do a better job rebounding and getting stops. During Big 12 play, they were outrebounded by an average of five per game and allowed opponents to shoot better than 45 percent from the field. If the new coach can shore up those weaknesses, Missouri has enough talent and experience to contend in a rebuilding Big 12. Anything less than an NCAA Tournament appearance would be a disappointment, and seniors Denmon and English — part of the Tigers’ Elite Eight team in 2009 — would really like to make a long run in their final college season.
Big 12 Prediction: 4th
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
Sean Miller restored Arizona to prominence with unexpected swiftness, requiring two seasons to turn the Wildcats into Pac-10 champions and 30-game winners. Yet the offseason was marked with uncertainty. Miller briefly pursued the coaching vacancy at Maryland; Pac-10 Player of the Year Derrick Williams left school, opting for the NBA Draft; and starting point guard Lamont “Momo” Jones transferred to Iona.
But Miller has recruited so well since moving to Tucson in the spring of 2009 that the Wildcats are unlikely to miss Jones, and they have enough depth and incoming talent to contend for the first Pac-12 title even without Williams. “We’re going to continue to win,” says junior forward Solomon Hill. “This is just the start of another long run at Arizona.”
After flirting with Maryland, Miller accepted a contract extension through 2015-16 and, in a burst of damage control, assured Arizona fans that he would remain in Tucson “unconditionally” and “for the long haul.”
This was met with great relief in Tucson, which remains edgy following a bumpy coaching transition from Lute Olson to Kevin O’Neill to Russ Pennell and finally to Miller.
“We’re not yet where we’re going to get,” says Miller. “We’re going to have more talented teams, and more experienced teams, than the one that reached the Elite Eight.”
Arizona was a failed 3-point attempt from beating eventual national champion UConn and advancing to the Final Four. Its roster is stocked at levels typical of Olson’s glory days.
Miller is not taking his foot from the accelerator. He donated $250,000 of a $3 million project to help the school add a basketball-only strength and conditioning center in its relatively new practice arena adjacent to McKale Center. By doing so, he insisted that all of his players spend the summer in Tucson to work out together. “It’s easier to work in the summer knowing what the prize is,” he says. “Once you’ve had a taste of success, as we did, you’d be surprised how eager and hungry all of our guys are to get back to that level.”
Key Wildcats Stat: 34
Since 1988, Arizona has had 34 players selected in the NBA Draft, the most in the nation in that period. Fifteen of those have been first-round choices.
Seven players will compete for three spots, including the one vacated by Williams. Juniors Kevin Parrom and Hill are interchangeable and versatile, playing on the wing and inside. Both have averaged at least 20 minutes per game in each of the past two season and seem ready to become all-conference-type players.
They will be in a mix with senior Jesse Perry, whose first season in the Pac-10 was a success. In about 20 minutes per game, Perry averaged 6.6 points and 4.4 rebounds and was a useful defensive player.
The most intriguing inside player is 6'11" junior Kyryl Natyazhko, who has now played 69 college games and will be given a chance for an expanded role as a defensive player, screen-setter and rebounder. He has a surprisingly good shooting touch from 12 to 18 feet.
Freshmen Sidiki Johnson and Angelo Chol are expected to challenge for immediate playing time, pushing Parrom, Hill, Perry and Natyazhko.
With Jones gone, Arizona loses an aggressive, vocal player who often got by as much on bravado as he did talent. It seemed to work with such a young team. But now that sophomore combo guard Jordin Mayes appears ready to take on an expanded role, challenging senior Kyle Fogg for minutes, Jones became expendable. Mayes is a skilled 3-point shooter and ball-handler. Fogg is the club’s defensive stopper and a reliable scorer who has 85 career starts. Senior Brendon Lavender, a role player, is the team’s top 3-point shooter, according to Miller
Arizona’s two marquee newcomers are point guard Josiah Turner and shooting guard Nick Johnson, a pair of top-30 national recruits who could play their way into the starting lineup.
Miller’s third Arizona team has a roster that goes 11 deep and doesn’t appear to have many holes. The most telling challenge will be how long it takes the four freshmen to become capable Pac-12 performers. But even if the process takes a bit longer than expected, Miller can lean on seven returning players with considerable NCAA Tournament experience.
Don’t look for the star-power from one player the way Williams led the team last year. This time, if Arizona has a star or two, it is likely to be a freshman guard.
Pac-12 Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
They weren’t exactly pouring champagne around Westwood last year, but after UCLA rebounded from one of its worst seasons in six decades, the bubbly might just be back on ice. And with Derrick Williams and a host of other top players in the Pac-12 off to the NBA, Ben Howland and Co. might be set to uncork another conference championship. While the Bruins weren’t immune to the latest league-wide jettison of talent — they lost junior shooting guard Malcolm Lee and sophomore small forward Tyler Honeycutt to the NBA — they return budding big man Joshua Smith, feisty power forward Reeves Nelson and steady senior point guard Lazeric Jones, while adding former North Carolina forwards David and Travis Wear.
The key will be backcourt depth, as a slew of transfers and recruiting misfortunes has landed Howland in precarious territory. If he’s able to navigate a traveling road show as Pauley Pavilion undergoes renovations, Howland could be looking at his first league championship since winning three straight from 2006-08.
Key Bruins Stat: 0
With Pauley Pavilion undergoing long-overdue rennovations, the Bruins will play precisely zero true home games as they take their show on the road.
If Smith is able to spend more time cleaning the glass and less time cleaning his plate, he could be up for conference Player of the Year honors come season’s end. After a freshman season in which he dazzled with his raw power and savvy around the basket, Smith was called upon to shed even more weight in order to boost his minutes and productivity. But he reportedly gained 10 pounds over the offseason, and it seems that the extra pounds may keep him from reaching his full potential.
Nelson, meanwhile, is one of the top physical specimens in the game and gets every last drop of production out of his 6'8", 235-pound frame. One of the more intimidating players in the conference, with an icy stare and a snarl to match, Nelson was at times a one-man wrecking crew for the Bruins, boasting 12 double-doubles. Nelson plays with a chip on his shoulder, and if he can harness his frustrations into positive energy, he’ll also be in the conference POY race.
That is, if he can fend off the Tobacco Road Twins, David and Travis Wear, the formerly highly coveted forwards who spent a year with the Tar Heels before heading back out west. The Wears grew weary of the Carolina hoops scene and longed to return home, to Howland’s delight, as they bring a pair of big bodies with fundamental skills. Their numbers weren’t overwhelming with UNC, but they are expected to make an instant impact in Howland’s deliberate system, and along with backup center Anthony Stover and power forward Brendan Lane, they’ll add crucial depth.
Hailed as one of the jewels in what was expected to be a game-changing recruiting class in 2008 — alongside Lee, Jrue Holiday, Drew Gordon and J’mison “Bobo” Morgan — Jerime Anderson was projected to play a major role for the Bruins throughout his career. Now the only one of the five to remain, Anderson will indeed determine UCLA’s fate this year, but for all the wrong reasons. Anderson was arrested on charges of grand theft after allegedly stealing a laptop on campus in late July, and his status for the season is in doubt.
Now the onus is on Jones to blossom into a top point guard in the conference, which he showed flashes of doing before numerous bumps and bruises caught up to him late in the year. The former junior college standout averaged 9.1 points and a team-high 3.6 assists but shot only 38.6 percent from the field as a nagging wrist injury altered his release. Fellow junior college transfer De’End Parker could see extended time at point guard if Howland throws the book at Anderson, but Parker is more natural at the off-guard and small forward spots.
Freshman Norman Powell is in line for major minutes at shooting guard.
If Lee and Honeycutt had returned, the Bruins could have been looking at another Final Four run for Howland; as it stands, UCLA should be projected to win the inaugural Pac-12 championship with the league’s top frontcourt, although the lack of backcourt depth will be a concern.
But after a 14–18 season in 2009-10, UCLA fans are understandably enthused that the downfall did not spiral even further, and that the Bruins appear to be heading back to the top of the conference standings.
Pac-12 Prediction: 1st
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
A year ago, after losing four senior starters from the school’s first Pac-10 championship team in a half-century, the Golden Bears were expected to finish near the bottom of the conference. They wound up tied for fourth, and with four starters back this time, no one is counting them out again. “One would assume, if we improve a little bit, we should be able to make a little stronger push,” coach Mike Montgomery says.
The Bears have tough-minded seniors in Jorge Gutierrez and Harper Kamp and a budding star in sophomore Allen Crabbe. How far they climb the Pac-12 ladder will depend on their ability to match up in the frontcourt and develop better depth than a year ago.
But the backcourt is excellent, no team in the league has more experience, and Montgomery provides an edge on the bench in almost every game. Don’t be surprised when the Golden Bears return to the NCAA Tournament for the third time in four seasons.
Key Golden Bears Stat: 82.9
The Golden Bears return 82.9 percent of their scoring from 2010-11 conference play. No team in the Pac-12 can match that number.
Kamp may not be quite 6'8" like he’s listed, but he’s smart, tough and efficient. He played all 55 minutes and scored 33 points in a triple-overtime loss to Arizona. “We ran him into the ground last year,” says Montgomery, noting that Kamp needed much of the spring to heal up. “We expect him to still have a leadership role and be a very effective player in our league.”
The Bears need a leap forward from sophomore forward Richard Solomon, who is quick and athletic but must develop a back-to-the-basket game. “Richard has got to be better,” says Montgomery. “He’s young, and he will be better.”
Junior Bak Bak has made slow progress, but he will be the first post player off the bench. He must become a player the Bears can depend on. Freshmen David Kravish and Christian Behrens will get the opportunity to show what they can do from the start. Junior walk-on Robert Thurman is the Bears’ only true center.
The Bears feature two all-conference caliber players at the wings in Gutierrez and Crabbe. Gutierrez has evolved from purely a defensive pest to an all-around talent. He plays with a fast motor, loves to disrupt the opponent’s flow and has steadily improved his offense to the point where he scored 34 points in a win over UCLA last season. “Jorge gets about all the mileage out of himself that he can,” Montgomery says. “He does so many things to help you win.”
While Gutierrez perhaps has been underrated, Crabbe earned Pac-10 Freshman of the Year honors last season after averaging 16.4 points in conference play, including 30 in a win over Washington State. He owns a great perimeter stroke and showed signs of being more effective off the dribble.
Brandon Smith took over the point after freshman Gary Franklin Jr., transferred one game into the Pac-10 schedule. Smith solidified the club, allowing everyone to settle into roles that made the offense more efficient. “Brandon really saved our bacon,” Montgomery says.
Sophomore Justin Cobbs, a transfer from Minnesota, can play either guard spot. Sophomore Emerson Murray hopes to be quicker after offseason surgery to have a plate removed from his foot. Alex Rossi, regarded as an excellent 3-point shooter, returns after sitting out last season with groin and hernia ailments.
The Bears got the chance to test-drive their new model during an August tour of Northern Europe, which afforded them 10 extra days of practice and five exhibition games. Montgomery wanted to see how the team would function without 6'7" widebody Markhuri Sanders-Frison, the club’s only departed senior. He wanted a look at Solomon’s progress, and he got his first glimpse of what he can expect from his two freshman forwards, Kravish and Behrens.
Montgomery acknowledges that there are variables that could impact how the season unfolds. “Depth was an issue for us last year,” he says. “We need Rossi to be able to play. We need Emerson to come back strong. Harper has to be 100 percent. Right now, we don’t know those things.”
Even assuming good health, Cal won’t overpower most Pac-12 foes. But there is a mix of grit, smarts, experience and skill that should keep the Bears near the top of the conference and punch their ticket for the NCAA Tournament.
Pac-12 Prediction: 2nd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out
Tony La Russa poo-poo'd the bullpen phone debacle that may have cost the St. Louis Cardinals game five of the 2011 World Series against the Texas Rangers. In his mind it was not that big of a deal, but seeing as it was the biggest game of the series (so far), it seems like kind of a huge mistake to us.
So here's how it seems like that Tony La Russa call to the bullpen went. Sounds about right.
If you haven't been to Tebowing.com, then this post probably doesn't make much sense. If you don't know, Tebowing is taking a photograph of yourself in the Tebow kneeling pose. It's sort of like planking, except with Tebow. And since it's sort of silly, we decided to take it a step further and create a gallery of something we call Teblowing (which is pretty self-explanatory.)
When Minnesota Vikings defensive end Brian Robinson launched his foot into the goods of Green Bay Packers offensive lineman T.J. Lang, NFL fans across the nation recoiled in horror. But a quick look around the sports landscape proves that attacking your opponents privates has been in practice since the dawn of competition. Don't believe us? Just check out our tribute to below the belt cheap shots.
Dave Henderson called timeout and stepped out of the batter’s box. He had just fouled off a fastball out over the plate. The Boston Red Sox center fielder grimaced.
“There’s a lot of thinking that goes into a timeout called with the pitcher on the rubber,” says Henderson, 53. “I knew that when you miss your pitch, you’re in big trouble.”
Out on the mound, California Angels closer Donnie Moore, with the count 2 and 2, was getting ready to throw his pitch, a hard-dropping forkball that knew no bottom. But Moore’s out pitch didn’t have the bite it had had the previous year, when he was sensational in relief for the Angels. Back injuries slowed Moore, and California catcher Bob Boone now primarily called for the pitch as a changeup.
One pitch. One strike. That’s all that separated California from its first-ever American League pennant in the franchise’s 26 years. The Angels were leading the 1986 American League Championship Series three games to one, and this was it. Henderson, acquired from Seattle less than two months before, eyed Moore, thinking back to a similar situation when he was with the Mariners and had faced the hurler in the ninth inning of a game. He’d homered then. It was a comforting thought as he stepped back into the box.
One strike away, thought Rich Gedman. The Red Sox catcher was on first base. He’d had a remarkable day, going 4-for-4, including an earlier home run, but had been hit by a pitch the moment before. He looked around. It was unsettling to see police on horseback beginning to rim the stadium’s perimeter in preparation for a celebration. That’s really strange, he thought. We’re not done yet!
It was happenstance that Henderson was even in the game. Out of necessity, he had replaced Tony Armas, who exited in the middle innings after crashing into the left-center field wall chasing Doug DeCinces’ second-inning double.
What few remember is that Henderson was seriously hurting as well. “The night before, I got hit by a pitch in the knee off Doug Corbett and tore my cartilage,” he remembers of his unplanned entry into the game. “My knee was swollen, and I basically was out of the series. The doctor said I needed an operation. But when Armas got hurt, I volunteered to go out there. If you look at the tape, you can actually tell I’m limping — a lot!”
Which didn’t help Henderson when, with Boston on top 2–1 in the sixth, California’s Bobby Grich sent a deep fly to center.
“Normally that’s a ball I catch routinely at the top of the wall,” says Henderson. “But when you’re limping, the ball bounces (in your field of vision) a little bit and it hit the heel of my glove and went over for a home run.”
Gedman recalls that sudden downturn: “Every day was the last day we were going to play. It was 3-1 in games. The theme for the club was: Let’s win this and go back home. So, what a tremendous downer when the ball (Grich’s home run) goes over the fence. You’re going, Aw, damn! But that’s the will of the Angels as well. They were a tremendous team.”
And there may have been other unseen assistance on the play, according to the Angels’ Bob Boone. “During the day, there was a real jet stream to the two gaps,” recalls the four-time All-Star and seven-time Gold Glove catcher, now the assistant general manager of the Washington Nationals. “In fact, Grich’s homer really carried. Although, that really had nothing to do with Dave hitting the ball really good.”
That soon became apparent. Moore checked Gedman from the stretch position. One last pitch.
“The pitch I hit was a forkball, low and away, outside,” Henderson says. “A pitcher’s pitch. It was more of a fluke than the one that I fouled off.” Henderson’s two-run blast suddenly put Boston up, 6–5, although he was not done with the heroics.
“The big part of that is that we came right back in the bottom of the inning (to tie it),” says Boone, 63, of the Angels’ own comeback. “There was no quit in our team.”
In the top of the 11th, with Don Baylor on third, Henderson delivered the Game 5-winning sacrifice fly to plate the winning run. “The home run was probably the biggest,” Henderson says of the one-strike-away-from-elimination pitch by Moore in the ninth, “but the sac fly put a bow on everything.”
A World Series for the ages
The Red Sox dispatched California in the remaining two ALCS games in Boston, before heading into the most dramatic World Series in the last 25 years. On a roll, the Red Sox took the first two games against the Mets in New York. But the scrappy National League champions, who had weathered a blockbuster championship series of their own against Houston, took Games 3 and 4 in Boston. Behind Bruce Hurst, a brilliant 1–0 victor in Game 1, Boston took Game 5, heading back to New York needing just one win to claim its first World Series in 68 years.
The now-historic Game 6 was dramatically tied 3–3, when Henderson led off the 10th. With a repeat flair for the extraordinary, the Sox center fielder lofted another critical home run to give Boston the lead.
“People talk about the Donnie Moore home run,” says Henderson, “but I like the one in the 10th inning, Game 6, with the World Series on the line. From a baseball perspective, when you’re hitting .400 in the Series and it’s a tie ball game and you could win the Series, pitching coaches and pitchers don’t really want to mess with you. I hit a home run anyway.”
In the bottom half of the inning, just like the Angels in the ALCS, Boston was one out away from destiny. One out from burying The Curse of the Bambino drought that had crushed the team’s fortunes since 1918. But Red Sox reliever Calvin Schiraldi suddenly gave up three straight singles, and the Mets, shockingly, had the tying run on third. Bob Stanley was summoned to face the left-handed-hitting Mookie Wilson.
New York reliever Jesse Orosco, in the Mets’ clubhouse with five other players and the clubhouse manager, was having difficulty watching the TV.
“We kind of had our heads down, thinking that it’s all over,” says Orosco, 54, who won three games in the NLCS against Houston and did not allow an earned run in four appearances in the World Series. “Stanley was a hard sinkerball pitcher who usually keeps the ball down. He’s trying to induce Mookie into a ground ball and had thrown some nasty pitches down and in and away. Mookie fouled them off and battled him.”
But then Stanley unleashed a pitch that “just went all the way across,” according to Orosco. “I mean Mookie jumped up and it was literally underneath him.”
With the wild pitch, Kevin Mitchell scampered in from third with the tying run, Ray Knight moving to second. “First of all, I’m disappointed that I didn’t catch the ball,” says Gedman. “I actually got back to it very quickly, but I didn’t pick it up clean. If I pick the ball up clean, I think we have a play at the plate.”
Then, on a 3-2 pitch to Wilson, one of the most famous plays in World Series history took place. Wilson’s routine ground ball to first base went through the legs of Boston’s Bill Buckner, as Knight raced in from second with the winning run.
“It was just one of those fluke things that happen where there’s no explanation for it,” recalls Gedman, 52, now a batting instructor with the Lowell Spinners, Boston’s Short Season Single-A affiliate in the New York-Pennsylvania League. “I remember our team being stunned at the moment, but really kind of rallying around — ‘Hey, we have another chance. It’s not over! That opportunity slipped through our hands, but we still have a Game 7. We’re not done!’”
This time they were done, though not without a fight. Two nights later, after seeing their early 3–0 lead disappear as the Mets went up 6–3, Boston fought back valiantly, scoring two runs in the eighth. With two on and no outs, New York brought in Orosco, who got the last six outs to close it all out.
“From Game 1 all the way through, it was electric,” says Orosco, now semi-retired in California. “Both teams are champions, but only one can walk out of it. It could’ve gone either way.”
Henderson, now a part-time commentator for the Mariners, went on to play in three more World Series with Oakland, winning the Earthquake Series in ’89 against San Francisco.
“In baseball you lose games sometimes, but the Mets beat us,” he says. “There’s a difference. We feel like we lost Game 6. They beat us in Game 7. It’s a lot easier to live with a team beating you than by giving up the World Series. But the one in ’86? It seems like the ones you lose you remember a whole lot more.”
This article originally appeared in our Athlon Sports monthly, available in newspapers nationwide.
They have celebrated one conference championship in the history of Kent State’s football program. One. Oklahoma, this ain’t. In 1972, the Golden Flashes won five of their last six, including a season-ending triumph over Toledo that clinched the title and earned a Tangerine Bowl berth.
It couldn’t have come at a more important time in school history.
Until the championship — and for many, after it still — Kent State had been known for one thing: the horrific deaths two-plus years earlier of four innocent students at the hands of National Guardsmen trying to stop a rally on campus protesting the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Today, the haunting lyrics of Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Ohio” continue to resonate, and those who were there remember.
“All that stuff that happened at Kent State united the students,” says Alabama head coach Nick Saban, a member of the ’72 title team and a student at the time of the shootings.
“They were looking for something to identify with. There was probably more interest in the football program at that time than ever before.”
We often overemphasize the restorative power of sport in times of tragedy. The Golden Flashes’ title didn’t bring back the dead. It couldn’t fill the holes in the hearts of survivors. But it was a positive at a time when the name “Kent State” stood for something catastrophic and divisive.
Saban was there, playing safety. So was head coach Don James, who would lead Washington to a national title nearly two decades later. Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel was a two-time all-conference tight end on the team, and Hall of Fame linebacker and four-time Super Bowl champion Jack Lambert patrolled the middle of the defense. It was a remarkable confluence of talent at a school not necessarily known for it at a time that absolutely needed it.
“I think everybody felt like something really good had to happen at Kent State,” James says. “The school needed positive publicity, and the community wrapped its arms around the sport.”
The four men took interesting paths to the school, but their arrivals helped shape Kent State’s history and contributed greatly to the school’s healing process. In the late 1960s, James was working as defensive coordinator at Colorado under Eddie Crowder and met Mike Lude, then a scout with the Denver Broncos. When Lude took the athletic director’s job at Kent State, he called James and offered him the head coaching position. James had grown up in Massillon — only about 35 miles from the KSU campus — and his brother had earned a degree from Kent, so the move made good sense.
Lambert wanted to go to Miami (Ohio), but coach Bill Mallory wouldn’t recruit him. Said he was too small. And, in fact, Lambert played quarterback in high school. So, the Mantua, Ohio, native ended up at Kent State. Talk about a perfect housewarming present for James. After sitting out the ’70 season (freshmen weren’t eligible until 1972), Lambert became a force as a sophomore.
“He was ideal,” James says. “He came into my office one day and said, ‘I know you’re concerned about our academic eligibility and going to class, but in my case don’t worry. Football is too important for me to mess that up.’
“What a great competitor.”
Kent State wasn’t Saban’s first choice, either. In fact, he was all set to go to the Naval Academy. But in the spring before he was to report to Annapolis, he “decided it wasn’t what I wanted to do.” Saban didn’t have too many other scholarship opportunities, so he was left to decide between Miami (Ohio), Ohio and Kent State. He chose the Golden Flashes.
“They were the absolutely worst program of the bunch,” Saban says. “But I had an uncle in Canton, which was only 30 miles away, and since I was a shy kid from (Fairmont) West Virginia, I wasn’t comfortable not knowing anybody.”
Pinkel wasn’t too keen on straying so far from home. That’s why the Akron native chose Kent State, which sits about 15 miles from his home. He arrived in ’70 and played three seasons for James. He also had the distinction of rooming with Lambert. “I like to lie and tell people that I knocked his teeth out,” Pinkel says with a laugh.
The Golden Flashes weren’t cracking too many people in the mouth during the first half of the 1972 season. They started the year 1–3–1 and looked ready to assume their historic spot near the bottom of the Mid-American Conference standings when they visited 3–0–1 Bowling Green.
“We had to beat Miami, Bowling Green and Toledo to win the league, and the other coaches were saying we could never do it, because we weren’t good enough,” James says.
But the Golden Flashes were good enough. They bumped off Bowling Green, 14–10, and despite a loss to Northern Illinois, closed the year with a 21–10 spanking of Miami (Ohio) on the road and a resounding 27–9 win at home against Toledo to conclude the season and clinch the title. The crown was worth a spot in the Tangerine Bowl, where Kent State lost to Tampa, 21–18, in the school’s second and last postseason appearance.
“We had a lot of good young players,” says Saban, who was a senior on the championship squad. “We had a good young quarterback (freshman Greg Kokal), and as the season went on, we got better and better. We were pretty good at the end.”
Because Saban was a year older than Pinkel and Lambert, he was on campus when the shootings occurred. In fact, he had an English class with Allison Krause, one of the people shot to death on May 4, 1970. He had thought about attending the rally, which included 3,000 Kent State students, but decided to eat lunch first and wasn’t present when the National Guardsmen opened fire.
The incident impacted him, and Saban has admitted that every May 4, he “really thinks about” what happened. He considers often the impact James had on him as well. After graduating with a business degree in 1973, Saban became a graduate assistant under James before joining the staff full-time.
“He was a fantastic person and class guy,” Saban says of James. “He was systematic about everything he did and defined what the expectations he had for everything in the organization were. He worked hard and did things the way I thought they should be done. He did a good job developing players there and a good job recruiting players.”
James didn’t recruit Pinkel, but he certainly benefitted from the All-MAC tight end’s accomplishments. Pinkel caught 34 passes in 1972 and 36 in ’73 at a time when the passing game was nothing like it is today. “He had great hands, ran well and was smart,” Saban says. “He was a good character guy and an outstanding player.”
Pinkel was an honorable mention All-American in 1973, when the Golden Flashes went 9–2. Even though that record was better than the ’72 edition’s accomplishment, it wasn’t good enough for another MAC championship. Still, 18 Kent State players were on the All-MAC lists, and the Golden Flashes allowed a mere 11.9 points per game. Only a 20–10 loss to undefeated Miami prevented them from repeating as league champs. “They were a much better team than the 1972 team,” Saban says.
Pinkel bounced around a couple NFL camps, but like Saban, returned to Kent State to be a graduate assistant in ’74 and ended up spending 15 years on James’ staffs at Kent and the University of Washington.
“If Pinkel gave the NFL a little more time, he could have made it,” James says. “He could block and had excellent hands.”
And then there was Lambert, the nine-time Pro Bowler and seven-time first-team All-Pro linebacker on some of the Steelers’ greatest teams.
James tells a story about coaching in a postseason all-star game after Lambert’s senior year. He warned fellow coach Dick MacPherson that the team would have to practice with at least helmets and shoulder pads, because “we have a guy who won’t let anybody go through his area.” McPherson insisted on practices in sweats only, but after seeing Lambert in action during the first workout, told the team to wear helmets and pads for the rest of the practices.
“He was one of the greatest competitors I’ve ever been around,” Pinkel says about Lambert. “He was a smart guy. He was a very dedicated football player.”
Lambert was so tough that he played a game with two hip pointers, a bruised chest and a swollen elbow. James once said that Lambert felt responsible every time the opponent gained an inch. “I came to Kent with a background of putting your game face on Thursday, not Friday,” James says. “His game face was on every day.”
For four years under James, Kent State had the right attitude, and Lambert, Pinkel and Saban were big parts of it. At a time when a wounded campus needed something around which it could rally, the Golden Flashes provided it with a championship and some great moments that allowed a healing school to be known for something more than tragedy.
“Winning that championship had a profound impact on the university as far as its attitude,” Pinkel says. “I’m proud of that.”
This article originally appeared in Athlon Sports monthly, available in newspapers nationwide.
Four years ago, Florida Gators head coach Billy Donovan felt like he was starting over. Four years later, he has lost his big guys again. But the transition to a new year should be smoother. “In 2007, we lost three lottery picks and our entire starting five,” he says. “We’ve got some good players coming back for this next season.”
Florida struggled after the back-to-back national championship teams, and it wasn’t until last season that it was able to make a deep run in the NCAA Tournament. But the frontcourt that helped UF reach the Elite Eight last season was wiped out because of graduation.
This will be a guard-heavy team that has to have some younger players develop if it is to compete for a second straight SEC Championship.
“We’ll be a better shooting team than we were a year ago,” Donovan says. “But the big question is going to be our frontcourt depth. We’ve got to find some guys who can go and get some rebounds.”
Donovan lost not only his frontcourt starters but also his entire coaching staff. Larry Shyatt, a big factor in Florida’s success over the last seven seasons, is back at Wyoming as the head coach. Rob Lanier went to Texas as an assistant, and Richard Pitino returned to Louisville to coach with his father.
Donovan brought in John Pelphrey, the former UF assistant who was let go by Arkansas; Norm Roberts, who has head coaching experience at St. John’s; and Matt McCall, a former director of operations at Florida.
“I like the guys we brought in because we have guys who have been in the fire as head coaches,” Donovan says. “John certainly gives me a comfort level having worked with him in the past.”
Gators Key Stat: 25
The Gators have enjoyed 25 NCAA Tournament wins under Billy Donovan. The school had seven NCAA wins before his arrival in Gainesville.
Vernon Macklin, Chandler Parsons and Alex Tyus are gone. They combined to average 32.0 points and 19.4 rebounds a year ago.
Now, the Gators will lean on center Patric Young and forward Erik Murphy to produce down low. Young was often the first guy off the bench for the Gators a year ago and led the team in blocked shots.
He spent the summer playing for the USA U19 team and needs to develop more moves around the basket to be effective. He also needs to stay out of foul trouble given Florida’s lack of depth. Murphy saw limited action as a sophomore — he played 10-plus minutes in only seven SEC games — but had some nice moments. He showed a nice touch from outside, shooting 40.0 percent from 3-point range.
Florida hopes that sophomores Casey Prather and Will Yeguete can provide quality minutes at small forward. The two combined to average 13.8 minutes per game a year ago. Depth may also come from Cody Larson, a 6'8" forward who redshirted last year, and incoming 6'10" freshman Walter Pitchford.
Florida returns its two leading scorers from a year ago in guards Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker. Boynton is a streaky shooter but a lock-down defender. Walker earned the nickname “Big Shot Erv” after making so many clutch shots during Florida’s run a year ago. Together they averaged 28.8 points per game, and either one could play the point or shooting guard.
The talent on the perimeter doesn’t stop with those two, however. Mike Rosario averaged 16.5 points per game at Rutgers in two seasons before transferring and sitting out last year. Scottie Wilbekin enrolled in school a year early and played an important role off the bench. And incoming freshman Brad Beal has already been projected as potential 2011 NBA Lottery pick. The Missouri native can drive it to the basket and is an excellent 3-point shooter.
“We’re going to play some three-guard sets,” Donovan says. “We’ve got some guys who can really shoot it. It’s just a matter of figuring out how to work them all in.”
This will be a different team than the one that lost in overtime to Butler in the Elite Eight a year ago. That was an inside-out team. This group will be more perimeter-oriented. Still, the Gators will go only as far as their big men take them.
In the rugged SEC, the Gators will have plenty of firepower, but if they can’t rebound or defend inside, it’s not going to matter. Young may be the answer inside. If he takes a big step forward, Florida will be back as an SEC contender.
SEC Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Sweet 16
Chris Johnson, the once speedy Tennessee Titans running back used to be a game breaker. Then, this offseason, he signed a giant new contract. And something seems different. He doesn't have that same explosiveness he used to. And he's definitely not putting up the same numbers he did in previous years, back when he was a hungry young runner, looking to establish himself in the National Football League.
So, while his decline in production has seemed to dovetail with his increased paydays, let's take a look at how much Chris is earning this year in relation to how many yards he's putting up.
While his contract with the Titans is complex, for the sake of argument, let's use the 6 year, $56 million dollar numbers used by NBC's Mike Florio that puts Johnson's earnings at $9.3 million per year.
Total Yards Rushed in 2011: 268
Dollars for Every Yard Rushed in 2011: $13,013.05
Total Receiving Yards for 2011 Season: 143
Dollars For Every Receiving Yard: $24,388.11
Total Combined Yards for 2011 Season: 411
Dollars Per Combined Yard: $8,485.40
In contrast, let's look how these numbers stack up for Adrian Peterson (a back who also signed a big contract) this year. Peterson's deal was even bigger from the Vikings, as it breaks down to 13.3 million per year over the first three years (or roughly $833,333 per game). Using those numbers, here's how much Adrian has earned this year on a per-yard basis.
Total Yards Rushing in 2011: 712
Dollars For Every Yard Rushed in 2011: 7,022.47
Total Combined Yards in 2011: 761 (AP has 49 receiving yards)
Dollars Per Combined Yard in 2011: $6,570.30
In contrast, here's what Matt Forte is earning per yard this year. Forte has not signed a new contract and is scheduled to make $600,000 in 2011, or $37,500 per game.
Total Rushing Yards in 2011: 672
Dollar For Every Rushing Yard in 2011: $390.625
Total Receiving Yards in 2011: 419
Dollars For Every Receiving Yard: $626.49
Total Combined Yards in 2011: 1,091
Dollars For Every Combined Yard: $240.60
As you can see, Johnson is making twice as much as Peterson in terms of rushing yards, and earning $2,000 more for every yard he's gotten from the line of scrimmage.
Matt Forte, who's having an MVP season and is outgaining both of them in total yards by a wide margin, is earning a tiny % of what the Johnson and Peterson are earning.
At $9.3 million a year, that means Chris Johnson earns $581,250 for every game. Not a bad payday. So let's look at how many dollars that is for every yard gained in each individual game this year.
Game 1: At Jacksonville
Rushing Yards: 24
Dollars For Every Rushing Yard: $24,218.75
Receiving Yards: 25
Dollars For Every Yard Rushed: $23,250
Total Yards: 49
Dollars For Every Combined Yard: $11,862.24
Game 2: Against Baltimore
Rushing Yards: 53
Dollars For Every Yard Rushed: $10,966.98
Receiving Yards: 12
Dollars For Every Receiving Yard: $48,437.50
Total Yards: 65
Dollars For Every Combined Yard: $8,942.30
Game 3: Against Denver
Rushing Yards: 21
Dollars For Every Yard Rushed: $27.678.57
Receiving Yards: 54
Dollars For Every Receiving Yard: $10,763.88
Total Yards: 75
Dollars For Every Combined Yard: $7,750
Game 4: At Cleveland
Rushing Yards: 101
Dollars For Every Yard Rushed: $5,754.95
Receiving Yards: 11
Dollars For Every Receiving Yard: $52,840.90
Total Yards: 112
Dollars For Every Combined Yard: $5,189.73 (A great deal!)
Game 5: At Pittsburgh
Rushing Yards: 51
Dollars For Every Yard Rushed: $11,397.05
Receiving Yards: 14
Dollars For Every Receiving Yard: $41,517.85
Total Yards: 65
Dollars For Every Combined Yard: $8,942.30
Game 6: Against Houston
Rushing Yards: 18
Dollars For Every Yard Rushed: $32,291.66
Receiving Yards: 27
Dollars For Every Receiving Yard: $21.527.77
Total Yards: 45
Dollars For Every Combined Yards: $12,916.66
Peyton Manning and the Colts: Where Did It Go Wrong?
This article originally appeared in Athlon Sports' monthly. Available in newspapers nationwide.
Of all the jobs in this country that pay six figures, it’s hard to imagine one with less responsibility over the last decade or so than backup quarterback of the Indianapolis Colts. Best anyone could tell, there were really only two requirements for the job.
The first was some level of ability to play quarterback, though the extent of that ability never really seemed to matter. Between 1998 and 2010 — a span of 208 regular-season games — the Colts’ backup threw a total of 209 passes, with virtually none of them coming in a meaningful situation. In five of those 13 years, the Colts’ second-string quarterback never saw the field.
But the second requirement, it seemed, was far more important than the first. Forget experience, talent or even price. For the Indianapolis Colts, the most important quality in a backup quarterback was to be somebody Peyton Manning liked.
Surely the Colts, for all those years, could have done better than the likes of Brock Huard, Jim Sorgi and more recently, Curtis Painter — all of whom were essentially hand-picked by Manning to be his backup. At the time those quarterbacks played for the Colts, collecting salaries ranging from $480,000 to nearly $900,00 per year, it’s doubtful they would’ve gotten jobs as good anywhere else in the NFL. But with Manning so durable and the Colts so successful, making the playoffs 11 out of the last 12 years, no “just in case” was ever necessary.
As long as Manning was happy and healthy, the Colts didn’t have to worry about any insurance policies. Drafting a quarterback prospect to develop, like the Green Bay Packers did with Aaron Rodgers at the start of Brett Favre’s twilight, was never seriously considered for the win-now Colts. Signing a capable veteran would’ve only set up a potential clash of egos with Manning, who was used to getting complete deference and friendship, not locker room tension, from his backups.
And given Manning’s impact on the organization — he made the Colts constant contenders, he won them a Super Bowl after the 2006 season and even got them a new stadium that will host next year’s Super Bowl — perhaps that deference was completely appropriate.
Manning organized the offseason workouts, he called the plays, he OK’d the personnel moves. It’s impossible to overstate Manning’s sphere of influence with the Colts. He was, quite simply, the star around which everything and everyone orbited.
But for all the wins and all the glory that Manning brought the Colts, he has now brought them this: After starting training camp with legitimate hopes of another division title, they are now quite possibly the worst team in the NFL.
How did an organization so steeped in consistency and excellence suddenly sink to the bottom of the league? Look no further than the Colts’ undying belief and unwavering trust in No. 18.
On July 30, in the immediate aftermath of the NFL lockout’s resolution, Manning agreed to a new five-year contract with the Colts worth $90 million. Presumably, it would be the last contract for the 35-year old Manning before riding off to the Hall of Fame, perhaps with the title of greatest quarterback ever. The Colts were not expected to win the Super Bowl this season, but an eighth AFC South title in nine years seemed a reasonable goal. With a healthy Manning, Indianapolis was talented enough to make the playoffs again, at least.
Manning’s health, however, had been something of a question mark recently. For much of last season, Manning struggled with issues in his back and neck, eventually leading to surgery in May — his second in the span of a year — to correct a bulging disc. Though the rehab would prevent Manning from doing much offseason training, a typical six-to-eight week recovery period would put him on track for training camp and, at worst, get him back on the field by preseason. When Manning signed his contract, he gave no public indication that his recovery might spill over into meaningful football time.
Then training camp started, and Manning wasn’t at practice. Then preseason games started, and Manning wasn’t playing. And then, as the regular season approached and Manning still wasn’t ready, it became apparent what was happening.
The Colts had been blindsided.
On the morning of Sept. 9, Manning went in for another surgery on his neck — this time a “single level anterior fusion,” a much more invasive procedure — confirming that he would miss games for the first time in his NFL career. The fact that Indianapolis kept Manning on the active roster was designed to provide some hope that he might be able to come back, perhaps in Week 10 or 11, and push the Colts back into the postseason. The reality, of course, was that Manning would likely miss the entire season and might never play again.
And it was obvious the Colts were unprepared.
So confident were the Colts that Manning would be back that they spent the entire offseason without putting a second of consideration into a Plan B. They didn’t use any of their five draft picks on a quarterback. Once the post-lockout free agency period started in September, they didn’t pursue anyone to have on the roster just in case Manning’s progress stalled. Indianapolis would open 2011 with the same quarterback depth chart as they had in 2010: Manning the starter and Painter, who took zero snaps in 2010, the backup.
Maybe Manning wasn’t realistic about the pace of his recovery or expectations for his health at age 35. Maybe, as he maintains, he felt like he was close to being ready for weeks but just couldn’t quite get over the last hurdle. Either way, the Colts take their cues from Manning when it comes to the quarterback position, and their failure to have a suitable backup plan leads directly back to him.
By the time it became apparent that Manning’s status for the regular season was in jeopardy, the best option left for the Colts was bringing 38-year old Kerry Collins out of retirement. The results have been nothing short of dreadful. In the first three weeks of the season, the tandem of Collins and Painter combined for 541 passing yards, two touchdowns and five turnovers. The Colts’ offense, typically a model of precision, is now one of the worst in the league.
And Manning isn’t coming back, not this year, and maybe not ever. With neck and back injuries, especially once they become a recurring problem, you just don’t know.
But if there’s a consolation to this mess, it’s that Manning may unwittingly give the Colts a reason to do what they should’ve been done long ago. With their franchise quarterback turning 36 in March, it’s time to start grooming Manning’s successor. Stanford’s Andrew Luck, a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, will likely be the No. 1 pick next May, and the Colts may lose just enough games this season to get him.
All those years, the Colts never worried about life after Manning. Now, suddenly, it’s staring them in the face.
By Dan Wolken. Dan is a national sports columnist at The Daily, the first daily newspaper built specifically for the iPad and soon to be available on other tablet devices.
Remember when Felix Jones was one of those fantasy football preseason draft darlings.
"He put on weight!" you said.
"Marion Barber is gone, so he's going to get the goal line carries" you said.
"The only back who could eat into his playing time is Tashard Choice." you said.
Oh, if we could only hear everything fantasy footballers said before, during and right after a draft.
Because the truth is, Felix Jones has had a poor season, even by Tashard Choice standards. He hasn't put up rushing numbers, he only has one touchdown, he only has one 100 yard rushing game. And he hasn't even put up a lot of catches, for a guy who was going to kill it in PPR leagues.
And now he's in a protective boot, and could miss another three weeks. But that's not the worst news.
When back-up to the back-up DeMarco Murray blew up for a Cowboys' record-setting 253 yards against the Rams, that sound you heard was the hot air coming out of Felix Jones owners.
Yes, the Rams are bad. But 253 yards from one guy is insane. As bad as St. Louis has been all year, no one's put up 200 yards on them.
All this points to a changing of the guard in Big D. Murray will be going up against an almost equally anemic run defense in the Eagles this weekend, before seeing the Seahawks stout defense in week 9. If Murray puts up two more solid weeks, it's almost impossible to imagine that the Cowboys would give the majority of touches back to Felix.
And now that Tashard Choice injured his shoulder against the Rams, DeMarco Murray will have the backfield all to himself. This is his chance to take the starting job and literall run away with it. Because Felix had plenty of chances to be the big dog in Big D, but DeMarco is now in the perfect position to have his day.
Beanie Wells has a knack for getting injured. And his fantasy owners are worried this week, when he took that knack to the next level when he re-injured his surgically-repaired right knee in the Cardinals game against the Pittsburgh Steelers.
So now what? Cardinals coach Ken Whisenhunt said he didn't know the severity of Wells' injury, but we're guessing it's not going to be good news for fantasy footballers.
Wells injured his knee in the second quarter and did not return. Not a good sign.
So while most fantasy owners handcuffed Beanie with LaRod Stephens-Howling, Howling got exactly zero carries filling in for Wells. He did catch two passes for 76 yards and a touchdown, but the lack of carries is very concerning.
Alfonso Smith, instead, got the replacement carries, posting 17 yards and a touchdown on five carries. Smith is the waiver wire back to get this week, as he's the guy to get the majority of carries and touches if Wells is out for an extended period of time.
LaRod Stephens-Howling looks to be the change of pace, third down back who may get a few catches here and there, but probably won't touch the ball enough to be worth a roster spot, even in PPR leagues. (But if you're desperate, I guess you could do worse.)
But before you blow a waiver wire pick on Smith, make sure Beanie is out. The Cardinals play the Ravens tough defense next week, before getting the soft Rams run defense in week 9.
A look at every game on the schedule, along with a consensus pick of Athlon’s editors.
Chargers (4-1) at Jets (3-3)
On the surface, New York’s split stats are telling — the Jets are 3–0 at home, 0–3 on the road. But this will be the first team with a winning record that Rex Ryan’s club has hosted. Their previous three wins have come against the Cowboys, Jaguars and Dolphins — teams with a combined 3–13 record. Meanwhile, their road losses were against the Raiders, Ravens and Patriots — teams with a combined 13–4 mark.
Jets by 1
Texans (3-3) at Titans (3-2)
Tennessee has the worst running game in the NFL, averaging a sinister 66.6 yards per game. Nearly everyone blames this lack of success on Chris Johnson, who has run for a measly 250 yards (3.0 ypc) and only one TD since inking a four-year, $53.5 million deal following a prolonged preseason holdout. There’s reason for hope, however; CJ2K has 622 rush yards (5.9 ypc) and four total TDs in six career games against AFC South rival Houston.
Titans by 1
Redskins (3-2) at Panthers (1-5)
The quarterback situation in Washington is so bad, the fans are actually chanting “We want John Beck.” Presumably, any passer is better than Rex Grossman on an off day. Carolina has no such problems, as Cam Newton is the face of the franchise and the motor that powers the NFL’s fifth-ranked passing attack (297.3 ypg).
Panthers by 3
Bears (3-3) vs. Buccaneers (4-2)
The NFL hits London, England, for the fifth straight season. Tampa Bay’s “home” game will be at historic Wembley Stadium, which seats 86,000 for American football games.
Bears by 1
Seahawks (2-3) at Browns (2-3)
Seattle coach and Twitter titan Pete Carroll (@PeteCarroll) has been jokingly recruiting NBA superstar LeBron James (@KingJames) to play football. The 6'8", 250-pounder won’t play. But if LBJ did, his debut would be in Cleveland.
Browns by 3
Falcons (3-3) at Lions (5-1)
Detroit must regroup following its first loss of the season and the strange postgame scene that followed. Atlanta is 0–2 vs. the NFC North this year, losing by a combined score of 55–26.
Lions by 6
Broncos (1-4) at Dolphins (0-5)
Since Dan Marino retired after the ’99 season, Miami has started 16 different quarterbacks — Moore, Thigpen, Henne, Pennington, Beck, Green, Lemon, Culpepper, Harrington, Frerotte, Rosenfels, Feeley, Griese, Lucas, Huard and Fiedler. Since John Elway retired following the ’98 campaign, Denver has started 11 different passers — Tebow, Orton, Simms, Cutler, Jackson, Kanell, Plummer, Beuerlein, Frerotte, Miller and Griese. Both teams just want Luck.
Broncos by 3
Steelers (4-2) at Cardinals (1-4)
Mike Tomlin and Ken Whisenhunt square off for the first time since Pittsburgh beat Arizona, 27–23, in Super Bowl XLIII. Unfortunately for Cards fans, Kevin Kolb is no Kurt Warner.
Steelers by 8
Chiefs (2-3) at Raiders (4-2)
Following Jason Campbell’s season-ending broken collarbone, Oakland made the bold move to trade for quarterback Carson Palmer, who had been quasi-retired as a result of his refusal to play for Cincinnati. Rather than roll the dice with Kyle Boller and Terrelle Pryor, the Raiders ponied up and paid the steep price to secure the 31-year-old two-time Pro Bowler.
Raiders by 8
Packers (6-0) at Vikings (1-5)
Aaron Rodgers has a 3–3 record vs. Minnesota — going 2–0 against Brett Favre last season, 0–2 in Favre’s first season in purple and 1–1 against the Vikes as a first-year starter in ’08.
Packers by 13
Rams (0-5) at Cowboys (2-3)
It’s a multi-sport St. Louis at Dallas weekend, as the Cardinals are also on the road to take on the Rangers in Game 4 of the World Series in prime time on Sunday night.
Cowboys by 8
Colts (0-6) at Saints (4-2)
What would normally be a Peyton Manning homecoming love fest on Sunday Night Football is now likely a Big Easy victory for the Saints.
Saints by 15
Ravens (4-1) at Jaguars (1-5)
Ray Lewis leads the NFL’s top-ranked scoring defense (14.2 ppg) on the road to take on the second-worst scoring offense (12.0 ppg).
Ravens by 9
By RALPH VACCHIANO
Donovan McNabb took a seat last week, perhaps putting an end to his stellar NFL career. He was a shell of his former self, but more importantly the Vikings are 1-5 and they have a fresh, young quarterback collecting dust on the sidelines.
Scenes like that play out all the time in the ever-changing world of the NFL, where it’s always been a young man’s game and the next great generation is always just around the corner. That’s certainly been true for quarterbacks, where it seems a new bumper crop is produced every few years. It’s been more than eight years now since the 2003 draft gave us Eli Manning, Ben Roethlisberger, Phillip Rivers and Matt Schaub.
Once the new, hot fresh faces of the NFL, now they’re all smacking hard into 30.
Even Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco are “veteran” quarterbacks now, which tells you how quickly the winds can change. The next generation is already warming up in the bullpen with players from the 25-and-under set started for nine of the 32 NFL teams. From Cam Newton, to Matthew Stafford, to Mark Sanchez, to Colt McCoy, there’s a new crop ready to be harvested.
Here’s a look at the kids – all the under-25 staring quarterbacks in the NFL at the moment -- and how they rank among themselves as they begin what they all hope will be long careers in the league:
1. Matthew Stafford, 23, Detroit – He’s shaken off two injury plagued seasons to fulfill all his promise so far. In six games he’s 5-1 with 15 touchdowns and just five interceptions. Last year he had six TDs and one interception in three games, so that mistake-free football isn’t an aberration or a surprise. He’s arrived, and as long as he’s healthy the Lions will be tough to beat.
2. Josh Freeman, 23, Tampa Bay – He finds a way to win (4-2 this year) even though he doesn’t have the most talented team around him. It’s a bit alarming that he’s only thrown five touchdowns (and six interceptions) this year, but in the last there games he only had two picks, so maybe he’s settled down. He’s big, tough and accurate. Maybe the most underrated of the bunch.
3. Cam Newton, 22, Carolina – So much for rookie quarterbacks struggling with no offseason, huh? Two 400-yard games, another at 374, a completion percentage near 60 (58.5). He still throws way too many interceptions (nine through six games), but he’s just getting started. He’s strong and confident in the pocket. He can run. He’s really on his way to erasing all doubts.
4. Sam Bradford, 23, St. Louis – He’s taken a somewhat alarming step back after last year, in part because of the dismal team around him. Still, it’s a quarterback’s job to figure out a way to win and the Rams are 0-5 and Bradford has only thrown three touchdown passes so far. The needle is still pointed up, but even though he’s taking a beating behind a porous line, he’s got to do better than a 53.1 percent completion ratio.
5. Mark Sanchez, 24, New York Jets – He may be young, but he’s in his third year which means the learning curve should be over. Yet despite two trips to the AFC championship game, he’s still shown few signs that he can carry his team. His completion percentage sits at 56.1 percent and he’s got just nine touchdown passes in six games despite some talented receivers. He was supposed to be so much better by now. So is this all there is?
6. Andy Dalton, 23, Cincinnati – Another rookie who is defying the odds, when it first looked like he might spend the season watching and learning. The Bengals are a surprising 4-2, he’s got a 62.4 completion percentage and has more touchdowns (7) than interceptions (5). Another good start for a rookie who had no time to learn.
7. Colt McCoy, 25, Cleveland – They sure are letting him throw a lot – 217 times in five games. And he’s still avoiding mistakes, which is impressive. He’s thrown only three interceptions so far, putting him way ahead of the nine he threw in eight starts last year. The competition hasn’t been the best and the Browns are only 2-3, but he’s already exceeded some expectations.
8. Blaine Gabbert, 22, Jacksonville – He looks most like a rookie, of all the rookie quarterbacks. He’s also on a bad team and got off to a late start. So don’t be alarmed by a completion percentage under 50 (48.8) or only four touchdown passes. It could be worse. He’s only thrown two interceptions, which is far ahead of the usual rookie rate.
9. Christian Ponder, 23, Minnesota – He mopped up last week, going 9 of 17 for 99 yards and gets his first start this Sunday. For now he’s at the bottom of this list only because his grade is incomplete.