Articles By Athlon Sports
The SEC West intra-division carnage continued this past weekend as Ole Miss fell to LSU in Baton Rouge Saturday night.
The loss dropped the Rebels five spots to No. 8 in the Legends Poll. And their consolation prize? Auburn comes to town next week.
Rival Mississippi State passed another test at Kentucky this weekend, 38-24, and retained its No. 1 ranking.
No. 2 Florida State was idle.
Third-ranked Alabama picked up two first-place votes, gaining ground on both Mississippi State and Florida State, following its win at Tennessee.
Auburn and Oregon rounded out the top 5.
No. 6 Michigan State knocked off archival Michigan and moved up two spots.
Notre Dame remained at No. 7, followed by Ole Miss.
|1||Mississippi State (10)||7-0||101||1|
|2||Florida State (1)||7-0||86||2|
To see the individual votes by coach, visit the Legends Poll.
The NBA season is here. Well, tomorrow it will be, anyway — and we’re here to guide you through the year’s most exciting appetizer contests.
Houston Rockets @ Los Angeles Lakers - Tuesday, October 28, 10:30 PM ET, TNT
There’ll be no shortage of grudges at play when the Rockets stroll into Tinseltown tomorrow night. Kobe Bryant — the subject of much recent scrutiny — and Dwight Howard never got along as fellow Lakers, and many fans of the purple-and-gold took it as a sign of their franchise turning the page and starting over when Howard took his talents to Texas. Bryant has always been one to make statement performances, and he never got the chance to do so against Howard last season, when he missed all but six games with injury.
Now, Kobe’s back, and he’s got Rockets castoff Jeremy Lin as his backcourt partner. The two should be looking for redemptive blood on opening night.
Chicago Bulls @ New York Knicks - Wednesday, October 29, 8:00 PM ET, ESPN
The basketball world, outside of New York, all wanted to see Carmelo Anthony leave the Knicks to fight for titles with the Bulls in Chicago this summer. He didn’t.
But with the resurgence of point guard Derrick Rose, the Bulls look like a fiery team on a mission nonetheless. They’ll roll into Madison Square Garden with their trademark intensity Wednesday, eager to show Anthony and the new-look Knicks (now managed by Phil Jackson and coached by Derek Fisher) just what he walked away from.
Oklahoma City Thunder @ Los Angeles Clippers - Thursday, October 30, 10:30 PM ET, TNT
Perhaps the most exciting series of the 2014 postseason took place between these two teams. With both the Clippers and Thunder (maybe the two most stylistically thrilling teams in basketball) facing the fork in the road between championship contention and mere playoff relevance, the stakes never felt higher.
Behind the overwhelming combination of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, the Thunder won that series four games to two. But after Durant was sidelined for up to two months with a Jones fracture this month, the Clippers may have an edge in the standings on OKC through the winter. Not if the ferocious Westbrook has his way, though — Thursday marks the beginning of the mercurial guard’s compelling quest to prove his winning skills without the world’s best scorer next to him.
Cleveland Cavaliers @ Chicago Bulls - Friday, October 31, 8:00 PM ET, ESPN
And we arrive at the main event. LeBron James’ home city team versus Rose’s. The two titans of the East square off in Chicago for what many see as a preview of the 2015 Conference Finals.
The Bulls have consistently held the league’s most impenetrable defense since coach Tom Thibodeau came to town in 2010. But Cleveland’s offense — featuring James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and a slew of deadly shooters — just might be the best the NBA has seen this millenium. Tune in Friday to see who gives first in this epic, season-long tug of war.
— John Wilmes
Numbers and statistics are a huge part of college football. Every Sunday, reading updated box scores and stats is like Christmas for fans and media members. Some stats like total offense and total defense are overrated but each help paint a picture for a team or particular game.
Whether the stats are historic, advanced or just an observation from a box score, Athlon Sports brings the most intriguing, important, historic and bizarre stats from around the weekend of Atlantic Coast Conference football action:
Miami running back Duke Johnson ran for 249 yards in a 30-6 win over Virginia Tech. That is the first time a Hurricane running back surpassed 200 yards since Willis McGahee's 205 against Virginia Tech on Dec. 7, 2002. Johnson became just the fourth player in school history to run for 200+ yards.
While Johnson was running all over the Hokies, Virginia Tech needed nearly the entire 60 minutes to extend its streak of games without being shut out. A 14-yard touchdown pass on a fourth-and-10 with 1:30 remaining in the fourth quarter extended VT's streak to 251 games without being shutout.
Georgia Tech played its first game in the state of Pennsylvania since 1931 and posted its first-ever win in the Keystone State after a 56-28 rout of Pittsburgh. Georgia Tech set a Heinz Field record for points by an opponent, besting Rutgers' old mark of 54 (Oct. 25, 2008). It was the Yellow Jackets' first game at Pitt since 1920 when they suffered a three-year losing streak to the host Panthers (1918, 1919, 1920).
Pittsburgh's six lost fumbles tied the most by a Georgia Tech opponent. The Panthers' five lost fumbles in the first quarter tied the FBS record for most in a single quarter.
When Georgia Tech rushed for 465 yards in the win against a Pitt team allowing 112 yards per game on the ground the Yellow Jackets recorded the seventh-best team rushing total in a game between ACC teams in league history and the 11th-highest total by an ACC team overall.
North Carolina scored a 28-27 win over Virginia, marking just the second time in series history that the Tar Heels defeated Virginia by a single point. The only other one-point win in the series for UNC came in 1927 when it won 14-13 in the first-ever game played in Kenan Stadium.
The 24 points Virginia scored in the first half against UNC tied a season high (Oct. 4 vs. Pittsburgh), but the 21 points allowed by the Cavaliers also tied a season high (Aug. 30 vs. UCLA). This was the first time an opponent trailed UVa after three quarters but rallied to win since Maryland did so in 2010.
Clemson posted a 16-6 victory against Syracuse, scoring just one touchdown in the win. It was the first time since 2009 that the Tigers won a game scoring only one touchdown. They defeated Boston College 25-7 on six Richard Jackson field goals and a C.J. Spiller punt return for a touchdown.
Boston College posted a 23-17 win against Wake Forest, holding the Demon Deacons to 19 yards on the ground. In the Eagles' five wins this season they have outgained their opponents on the ground 1,715-153, a differential of 1,562 yards.
Boston College limited Wake Forest to just six yards of total offense in the first half. The Demon Deacons ran 19 plays to get those six yards — nine through the air and minus-3 on the ground. They finished with 261 yards.
- Corby A. Yarbrough
@Corby_Yarbrough on Twitter
All of the offseason’s hullabaloo about the landing spots of free agents LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and other ubiquitous, TV-friendly stars was tempered by a nagging reminder: None of the league’s buzziest names won the most recent NBA title. That claim belongs to the San Antonio Spurs, and their 23-year-old Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard.
Leonard, like all Spurs, got through the regular season without turning too many heads. He missed 16 games despite being largely healthy, and averaged less than 30 minutes per contest. Coach Gregg Popovich and Co. are chiefly concerned with bodily maintenance before they reach the playoffs, going deep into the bench and relying on team efforts as they preserve top talent more than they exploit it.
It’s a principles-first program that works — the team has been a title contender every year since Tim Duncan was drafted in 1997. But now Leonard, the most valuable piece of San Antonio’s future, wants to be paid like a centerpiece. And why wouldn’t he? The relentless, lengthy, hugely skilled forward went toe-to-toe with LeBron two summers in a row and came out shining. He’s every bit the superstar.
But talks about a new Leonard deal, between his agent Brian Elfus and Spurs’ general manager R.C. Buford, have not gained traction, as reported by NBA insider Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. If the two sides don’t reach an agreement by the first of November, Leonard will become a restricted free agent in July 2015. The Spurs will be able to match any offer other teams give him, so it’s not as if Leonard’s exodus is a foregone conclusion. Far from it.
But if San Antonio wanted to give him max money, wouldn’t they have paid up already? There’s a ton of merit to the team’s no-star ethos, but when Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker retire within a few years, they’ll need a new leader. Will Leonard not be the man for that job?
— John Wilmes
When Illinois hired Tim Beckman, the administration did so taking a bit on a gamble on a head coach who managed to take Toledo to one bowl game (which the Rockets lost) and never won more than eight games in a season. Now in year three of the Beckman Era, the Illini have gone 10-22. Yes, Beckman finally hit double digits in the win column at Illinois after his Illini managed to upset Minnesota on Saturday afternoon. It was just the second conference win under Beckman since he was hired. Is it warm in here, or is that just the coaching hot seat?
Success of a college football coach can be evaluated and judged in different ways. In Beckman’s case, it is difficult to see many bright spots anywhere you look. Illinois is ranked 14th in the 14-team Big Ten in total defense and the offensive numbers have slipped a bit this season as well. Despite those minor trends, Illinois sits in a decent position to make a run for a potential bowl trip. That became much more of a realistic opportunity after Illinois overcame nearly blowing a game against Minnesota to get a win.
Listen to the Week 9 recap podcast:
Just how did Illinois win that game? The offense was outgained 411-263 and converted just four of 14 third-down conversions. The difference turned out to be turnovers, which have tended to go the other way for Illinois this season. Illinois forced three Minnesota turnovers, a feat in itself considering the Gophers have protected the football well this season. V’Angelo Bentley’s 12-yard fumble return for a touchdown proved to be the game-winning score midway through the fourth quarter.
With the win, Illinois evened its record at 4-4, which is already equal to last season’s win total. Is this a sign of progress being made at Illinois? Beckman took over a program that had plenty of young talent that was quickly victimized by a rash of injuries, and keeping key players on the field has been a struggle beyond Beckman’s control. But this excuse will only have so many legs to stand on for any coach, especially when the program let go of a coach that led it to a Rose Bowl trip and two bowl victories to hire that new coach.
When it comes to the Big Ten coaching hot seat, none may be hotter than Brady Hoke’s at Michigan. Beckman’s seat is not quite as hot following a home victory over the Gophers, who had been undefeated in Big Ten play coming into the week. The question now is whether Beckman can find a way to coach his team to two more victories to become eligible for postseason play. Right now, it may be a toss-up.
Illinois visits Ohio State next weekend. Catching the Buckeyes looking ahead to a road game at Michigan State the following week will likely be off the table after Ohio State escaped Happy Valley with a double overtime victory over Penn State Saturday night. That may have been the worst thing to happen for Illinois, because Ohio State may be in a position to answer back with vigor next weekend. That spells bad news for Illinois, which ranks last in the 14-team Big Ten in total defense.
Illinois may very well fall shy of postseason eligibility in the end. If that proves to be the case, Beckman will have to prove he is making progress some other way and empty seats in the stadium on Saturday tend to speak pretty loudly.
-By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
Casual fans may be forgiven for assuming Arizona State is winning games just with its offense. Todd Graham’s up-tempo coaching style is his calling card and the numbers show it. Arizona State ranks 19th in passing offense and 25th in scoring offense. Oh, but have you noticed the Sun Devils are playing defense as well? If not, now is as good a time as any to start paying close attention to what Arizona State is doing on defense, because they will be facing a pair of quality defensive teams in the next couple of weeks.
Arizona State has allowed just 10 points in each of its past two games, against Stanford and on the road at Washington. In those two games, Arizona State’s defense has done a really good job of getting off the field on third down situations. In the past two games, Arizona State has held Stanford and Washington to eight successful third-down conversions out of 30. That’s a pretty good way to go on defense. The defense has also held the Cardinal and Huskies to fewer than 300 yards of total offense. Stanford may not be an offensive juggernaut, and Washington will see better days ahead of it under Chris Petersen, but considering Arizona State gave up nearly 500 yards to USC and 62 points and 580 yards the previous game against UCLA, it seems as though Arizona State has turned something around on defense.
Listen to the Week 9 recap podcast:
Arizona State also seems to be finding a way to buckle down earlier. Arizona State led Washington 10-0 at the halftime break. This is important, because Arizona State has now won 21 straight games when leading at the half. In the first four games of the season, Arizona State had allowed 62 first-half points. In the last three games, Arizona State has allowed just 17 first-half points.
After USC and UCLA were a perfect 10-for-10 inside the red zone against Arizona State, the Sun Devils have tightened up when the opponent reaches inside the 20-yard line the past two weeks. Stanford and Washington combined for four total trips to the red zone against Arizona State, and they combined for just 10 points. This is a trend that will have to continue if Arizona State is going to come out on top of what looks to be a competitive and wide-open Pac-12 South Division.
Time will tell if this is the new way to play defense at Arizona State or if this is just a blip on the radar in a conference more commonly known for its offense. The Pac-12 does have plenty of offensive talent stretching up and down the west coast, but Arizona State is making players like Damarious Randall and Jordan Simone and Laiu Moeakiola names worth staying up late to watch.
Arizona State is going to continue to prosper on the strength of its offense under Todd Graham. It is the ability of the defense to rise to the occasion that will help elevate Arizona State from Pac-12 South contender to Pac-12 contender, and perhaps even more after that.
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
Ohio State’s winning streak since losing at home to Virginia Tech has been fueled by the offense. This has overshadowed the work being done with the Buckeyes on defense this season. On Saturday night in Happy Valley, the defense carried Ohio State in the first half and was a big reason why Ohio State left State College with a double overtime victory over Penn State instead of a loss.
In what turned out to be a tough battle, Ohio State’s defense set the tone early on. It also benefitted from a controversial video review upholding an interception by defensive back Vonn Bell on the opening drive of the game. Regardless of the video replay questions surrounding it, Ohio State took advantage of a turnover just under two minutes into the game. Bell’s interception gave Ohio State’s offense the football on the Penn State 39-yard line. Seven plays later Ohio State was in the end zone. Ohio State’s defense forced Penn State to punt on each of its next five possessions, and followed that with a fumble recovery and another interception in the third quarter.
Listen to the Week 9 recap podcast:
While attention may be given to J.T. Barrett’s performance in place of Braxton Miller this season, defensive lineman Joey Bosa has had a coming of age stretch as well. Bosa has been difficult to slow down this season and he had 2.5 sacks Saturday night. The most important one came on the final play of the game when Bosa drove Penn State running back Akeel Lynch into quarterback Christian Hackenberg on fourth down of the second overtime. As Bosa shoved Lynch back into Hackenberg, the Penn State quarterback fell to the ground to seal the victory for the Buckeyes. If Ohio State continues to get more of that level of play on defense moving forward, Ohio State will continue to remain in the Big Ten and College Football Playoff mix moving forward. Michigan State looms in two weeks.
Of course, Penn State’s struggles on offense should not go without comment. Ohio State was not exactly facing Kerry Collins and Ki-Jana Carter behind a massive offensive line. Ohio State was expected to have its way on defense against a Penn State team that managed just 13 points against Michigan two weeks ago.
Penn State managed to get Ohio State’s defense to bend in the second half, but Ohio State proved to be deep enough and strong enough on defense to set a tone and finish on a high note on defense.
By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
Months before the start of the college football season kicked off there was one specific game every college football fan following the Big Ten knew to circle on the calendar. Michigan State will host Ohio State in a rematch of the 2013 Big Ten Championship Game on November 8. This season, as a result of Big Ten expansion and division realignment, the Spartans and Buckeyes are now in the same division. This sets up the November 8 match-up as a potential Big Ten semifinal, because it looks as clear as ever the two best teams in the Big Ten’s East division play in Columbus, Ohio and East Lansing, Michigan.
Michigan State will benefit by getting a week off to rest up and prepare for the game that figures to still carry some significant weight in the College Football Playoff discussion. The Spartans, fresh off a pounding of in-state rival Michigan, has done just about everything it can to make this game as important as it will likely be. Aside from a fourth-quarter collapse at Oregon, Michigan State has pretty much been able to do whatever it has wanted this season. Nebraska made things interesting earlier in October and Purdue offered a minor scare, but Michigan State has responded very well for the most part.
Against Michigan, Michigan State delivered a loud message to their in-state opponents who drove a stake into the turf in East Lansing before the game got started. Michigan State has grown to be a program that can do its talking on the scoreboard rather than in the pregame antics. Michigan State held Michigan to just 186 yards of offense and forced three turnovers. Three drives by Michigan ended in negative yardage and the only touchdown allowed by the Spartans came in the final minutes of the game, with everything pretty much decided. Michigan was celebrating moral victories. Michigan State was staying focused on a larger picture.
Ohio State went on the road to play Penn State this weekend, and the escaped with a double overtime victory. One must wonder how much Michigan State head coach Mark Dantonio and defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi will take from the Penn State game plan, as well as Virginia Tech’s performance from earlier in the season.
Ohio State appears to be a much better team now than when they faced Virginia Tech back in week two. Buckeyes quarterback J.T. Barrett has taken big strides since his first significant test against the Hokies. He faced a challenge form Penn State but he managed to gut through an injury to lead Ohio State to a win in overtime as well. Having been on the road in Big Ten play, these Buckeyes look ready to take on whatever atmosphere Michigan State packs Spartan Stadium with in a couple of weeks.
Can we get to November 8 already?
- By Kevin McGuire (@KevinonCFB)
Jason Kidd is already earning a reputation as the league’s craftiest coach. The ten-time All-Star and former NBA champion now holds the clipboard for the Milwaukee Bucks after a strange, dramatic exit from his job on the Brooklyn Nets’ bench. And even though it’s still only the preseason, he’s already up to no good. At 1:38 of this clip, watch Bucks’ point guard Nate Wolters get an easy layup against the Minnesota Timberwolves, capitalizing on the misdirection created by Kidd’s fake timeout:
Kidd made his mark in this category with last year’s infamous spilled Coke incident. With the Nets trailing the Los Angeles Lakers late in a November game and Kidd having no timeouts to spare, he instructed one of his players, Tyshawn Taylor, to “hit (him)” while he held a cup of soda. The ensuing spill stopped the game, giving the coach enough time to draw up a play. Instant karma stole Kidd’s moment, though — Paul Pierce got a wide-open look at a three that rimmed out, and the Lakers won 99-95.
It’s going to take much more than sleight of hand for Kidd to thrive in Wisconsin, of course. With Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker on board, he’s got perhaps the most talented young duo in the league — but also a buttload of developmental work to do. It’s fitting that Kidd, at a ripe 41, is coaching these baby Bucks, who have nine players age 23 or younger. His coaching will have to mature as these men come of age under him; Kidd needs to be more of a molder of men than a trickster to do this job right.
— John Wilmes
DraftKings has released their Daily Fantasy college football salaries for the week, and the experts at CollegeFootballGeek.com have hunkered down and scoured all of the data to find the best Value Plays on the docket.
These Value Plays are comprised of players poised to out-produce their DraftKings salaries this week. These are the “diamonds in the rough” that your DFS competitors may overlook. They are the difference-makers you need in your lineup to win one of the big DFS contests!
For your convenience, we have broken the picks down by DraftKings contest game set. Best of luck this week!
(For more detailed Daily Fantasy analysis, picks, player news, player rankings, and stat breakdowns, check out CollegeFootballGeek.com. Learn how to SUBSCRIBE FOR FREE!)
VALUE PLAYS: SATURDAY (EARLY ONLY) GAME SET
1) QB Connor Cook, Michigan State vs. Michigan ($5600)
Cook has posted consistent numbers this season and still comes in at a lower price. He looks to be a good bet for a couple of scores and a decent yardage total this week.
2) QB Jaquez Johnson, FAU vs. Marshall ($6000)
Johnson recorded five total touchdowns last week and could put up big numbers versus Marshall. Johnson will have to play his best to keep pace with the Marshall offense. He has a high ceiling this week.
1) RB Nick Hill, Michigan State vs. Michigan ($3400)
Hill has scored three times in the past two games and comes in at a bargain price this week. He could reach value easily and looks to be a solid punt option.
2) RB Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia vs. Oklahoma State ($4400)
Smallwood played well in relief of Rushel Shell last week and could see a big workload if Shell is unable to go this week. His price is solid and he could hit value pretty easily this week.
3) RB Corey Clement, Wisconsin vs. Maryland ($4600)
Clement could see plenty of action this week against Maryland. The Terrapins rush defense is ranked 102nd in the country and could allow huge rushing totals to the Badgers RB’s.
1) WR De’Runnya Wilson, Miss State vs. Kentucky ($4800)
Wilson has developed into the top receiving target of Dak Prescott. He could do some damage this week against Kentucky.
2) WR John Harris, Texas vs. Kansas State ($5000)
Harris has quietly been putting up solid fantasy numbers this season for Texas. He could continue that trend against Kansas State.
3) WR Jordan Payton, UCLA vs. Colorado ($5700)
Payton could have a big day against a Colorado team that allowed seven passing touchdowns to USC last week. He appears to be slightly under priced this week.
4) WR Stefon Diggs, Maryland vs. Wisconsin ($5500)
Diggs has scored in each of his last three games and is finally starting to live up to his fantasy hype. Look for Diggs to see plenty of targets this week against the Badgers.
1) TE Josiah Price, Michigan State vs. Michigan ($2900)
Price has a nose for the end zone and may find it against versus Michigan.
VALUE PLAYS: SATURDAY (LATE ONLY) GAME SET
1) QB Garrett Grayson, Colorado State vs. Wyoming ($6100)
Grayson could post big passing numbers against Wyoming and easily pay off on his price.
1) RB TJ Yeldon, Alabama vs. Tennessee ($5400)
Yeldon had a huge game last week against Texas A&M and looked spectacular in doing so. That game may have been the springboard to a big second half of the season. Look for TJ to reach value this week.
2) RB Shaun Wick, Wyoming vs. Colorado State ($6000)
Wick looks to be a good bet to cross the 100-yard mark this week against Colorado State. His price is nice and he has a high ceiling this week. Ride this Cowboy in Week Nine.
1) WR Ajalen Holley, La Monroe vs. Texas State ($5200)
Holley has scored four touchdowns in the last three games and could find plenty of open space to operate against Texas State. There could be plenty of points in this contest and Holley could have a big hand in all the fun.
2) WR Richy Turner, Nevada vs. Hawaii ($4100)
Turner is on fire over the past two games and comes in at a cheap price this week. Look for him to post another big stat line and more than pay off on his price.
By Todd DeVries & Kevin Mount, CollegeFootballGeek.com
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Michael Jordan’s gotten his fair share of grief as an NBA owner. He hasn’t run his Charlotte squad all that well, and fans and the media have let him hear about it — a series of criticisms dating back to when he was an executive (and player!) with the Washington Wizards. The greatest to ever play the game has been a real stinker at drafting players, using top-ten picks on the likes of Adam Morrison, Raymond Felton, D.J. Augustin and Kwame Brown. And he hasn’t been able to use his clout and legend to pull free agents to North Carolina, either.
It’s been fun for the basketball world to engage in a little schadenfreude, too. Michael’s 2010-11 Bobcats had a winning percentage of .106 — the worst in NBA history — and everyone got to feel a little better about themselves. Nobody’s perfect, and that’s comforting. Jordan’s old golfing buddy Charles Barkley even slathered the ridicule on so thick that it reportedly ruined their friendship. Post-playing perception about MJ has been a downward-trending game.
But Jordan isn’t bad at his job anymore. He’s turned the Bobcats back into the Hornets and made them a respectable basketball team in the process too. Last year’s squad (then still the ‘Cats) finished 43-39, led by the defense-first ethos of coach Steve Clifford and big man Al Jefferson’s hypnotic scoring presence in the paint. They cracked the playoffs for the first time in a long time.
This summer Jordan added Lance Stephenson to the mix, one of the best young guards in the game. His rebranded young team — the makeover featuring a beautiful new honeycomb court — is potent and fun. He’s a good owner now. If you want to make fun of His Airness these days, you’re going to have to turn to his questionable sense of fashion.
— John Wilmes
For Athlon Sports, any offseason is one of our favorite times of the year.
Of course, we enjoy the season and March Madness as much as any college basketball fan, but the bread-and-butter for Athlon since 1967 has been helping readers prepare for the season, helping them get to know the teams and players they need to watch.
This is the time of year we get to share our preseason college basketball annuals. Countless hours of study and work from dozens of individuals went into the 2014-15 edition, and we still have room for debate on the outlook for every team.
Of course, Athlon isn’t the only publication out there. And just like anyone we like to compare how everyone evaluates the season ahead. Here’s how the top 25 and conference champions shook out in the various publications.
We’ll continue to update the grid as more rankings are released through the offseason.
|2014-15 College Basketball Preseason Top 25|
|2014-15 Conference Champion Predictions|
In case you missed Team USA’s excursion to Spain for the FIBA World Cup of basketball this past summer, there’s just one piece of news you really need to know: Paul George’s leg almost fell off.
No, this is not hyperbole. The rising Indiana Pacers superstar — arguably the very best perimeter defender in the game, and certainly a most majestic dunker — landed at an awkward angle while contesting a shot in a pre-tournament scrimmage between USA players in Las Vegas this August. His sudden, gruesome, existentially jarring injury made for one of the most disturbing live television sights of recent memory.
George, most assumed, would miss a season or more while he waited, essentially, for his body to reintegrate one of its limbs. But it’s not yet been three months since that horrific accident, and George is somehow already back shooting jumpers in the gym. Look:
He’s even playing some with his doggy, showing some mobility with that leg:
Fortunately for the rest of the league, there’s no shortage of ballers who can stick a man better than Paul’s pup. But it’s clear that the star is back on the rise a lot quicker than we expected. He's recovering rapidly, eager to keep disrupting the power balance of LeBron James’ Eastern Conference.
While injured, George has fully adopted his occasional nickname “PG-13,” changing his jersey number from 24 to 13 — an idea previously floated by ESPN and Grantland’s Bill Simmons. George explained the decision to Vigilant Sports: “The whole thing behind PG-13 is just coming into my own. I feel like I’m at that stage where I’m ready to embrace everything that comes with being one of the young stars in this league. Everyone knows PG-13 is related to television, so the whole thing is being able to enjoy the show and being fun to watch.”
— John Wilmes
There’s a certain gasp of annoyed disbelief when you go to the movies, and it’s an action film, and just one man is making like Achilles, effortlessly bashing the brains out of the dozens of hulky villains attacking him. It’s fun to watch, but it’s certainly not realistic. Neither is what New York Knicks legend Willis Reed did to the Los Angeles Lakers in an October 1966 game.
ESPN’s latest edition of their “30 for 30” documentary series — “When the Garden was Eden,” about the Knicks boys of yore — features previously lost footage of Reed maniacally plowing through most of the Lakers roster with a sequence of impressively rageful haymakers. It’s the stuff of cinema, and you won’t believe it unless you see it:
As the scene’s narrator Phil Jackson (once Reed’s teammate, now a Knicks executive) tells it, Lakers players Rudy LaRusso and Henry Finkel both sustained broken jaws from Reed’s outburst. The league, apparently, was only able to fine him $50.00 for his breach of the rules. The NBA’s come a long way since then; now, you’d likely go a season without salary for that kind of behavior.
Reed’s most indelible moment, of course, was his heroic performance in Game 7 of the 1970 NBA Finals. Reed made a surprise appearance despite having recently torn a muscle in his right thigh. He delighted Manhattan by limping through the tunnel just moments before the game began, having just received a large dose of cortisone to dull the pain and make one last push toward New York’s first ever pro basketball championship.
He only scored twice, but they were the game’s first two baskets, and his immediate impact electrified the crowd. The Knicks went on to grab an emotional 113-99 victory and the Larry O’Brien trophy. As indelible as that moment is, though, it’ll be hard for anyone to scrub their mind of the image of Reed as a mercilessly punching tornado after watching this clip.
— John Wilmes
There’s more than half a season still to go, and a lot can obviously change, but the NFL MVP race is shaping up to be an interesting one so far. Peyton Manning is clearly vying for his sixth MVP award and second straight. Meanwhile there’s already a groundswell of support for J.J. Watt to become the first defensive player to win the award in 28 seasons.
Chances are that in the end the award chase will settle out as it always does, with an offensive player taking home the hardware – and likely a quarterback for the seventh time in the last eight seasons. But at the moment, not even two months in, it’s a wide open race.
Here’s an early look at some of the contenders.
QB Peyton Manning, Denver
His numbers are ridiculous for everyone, but when you factor in that he’s 38 years old, the neck surgeries, the fact that he’s with his second team, they become other-worldly. He’s thrown for 19 touchdowns already with just three interceptions. That puts him on pace for a second straight 50-touchdown season (last year he threw 55). If he hits that mark, he’ll win this going away.
QB Aaron Rodgers, Green Bay
His yards are down a little, which is the only thing keeping him behind the leaders in this chase, because he’s also thrown 18 touchdowns and just one interception. It’s a different type of offense than Manning runs, but some scouts say he’s playing his position as well as anyone in the game right now.
QB Philip Rivers, San Diego
His numbers are right up there with Manning and Rodgers, including the 17 touchdowns and three interceptions. Most importantly, he’s the clear driving force behind the revival of a Chargers team that could give the Broncos a run for their money in the AFC West. He’s on pace for a lot of career-best numbers. But his fate might be tied to that of his team, and whether they can upend the Broncos as division champs.
QB Andrew Luck, Indianapolis
His interceptions are a little high for this race (seven) but he also throws the ball more than anyone and arguably has the least to work with around him. If the Colts go on a run, he could become the favorite since he’s clearly the most talented player on that roster. A slow start (0-2) didn’t help, but he’s in a weak division and will have a lot of opportunities to pile up points and yards.
RB DeMarco Murray
Why are the Cowboys suddenly good? Because they’ve rediscovered their rushing attack. Much of that is because of their strong offensive line, but don’t ignore the impact of Murray. It will help his cause if he makes a run at the NFL’s rushing record. There’s a long way to go, but he’s currently on pace after becoming the first back in NFL history to open a season with seven straight 100-yard rushing games.
DE J.J. Watt, Houston
He became a fan favorite with what was viewed as a dominant prime-time performance against the Indianapolis Colts a few weeks ago. And he was terrific. But here’s what hurt his candidacy: The Texans lost anyway, and Luck was clearly the best player on the field that night. With three touchdowns and a lot of attention, Watt may be the runaway leader for Defensive Player of the Year. But he'll need better numbers to really hang in the MVP chase. Right now, he has just five sacks – good for 12th in the NFL.
by Ralph Vacchiano
We’re used to watching Vines of Kevin Durant for doing something devastating on the basketball court; flying around like a terrible dream, dropping jumpers like mortar bombs in his steely “Slim Reaper” way. The latest Durant clip circulating, though, is quite different:
There’s something undeniably comic about seeing one of the world’s most majestic movers get around like I do on my wheely desk chair, across the apartment for more peanut butter toast. But Durant’s earned himself a little bit of leisure — he’s missed just 32 games over his five-season career, or less than five per season. And he’s carried the Oklahoma City Thunder for long stretches of each of those years.
"I'm not going to rush it all. That's the one thing I don't want to do," Durant recently said to reporters. "I'm sure I'll feel better in two or three weeks, but definitely don't want to rush it and wind up hurting it even more. I'm taking my time with it. I'm just blessed it happened early in the season where I can get past it, and hopefully by December I'll be ready to play.”
A lot is on the line for the Thunder this season. Any time a market as small as OKC has a player of Durant’s stature on contract for just two more seasons, every moment is precious — the window to convince the four-time scoring champion to stay is shrinking. And next season (the last on KD’s current deal) may see the squad weakened by the loss of impending free agent Reggie Jackson, an integral piece of the Thunder’s 2014 playoff run, who shoots his price further out of the Thunder's wallet every time he plays well.
A fully regenerated Durant is the only way OKC can compete for a title, though. Regardless of how quickly the clock’s ticking on the Thunder’s championship dreams, the best course for everyone involved is to let the man rest his invaluable bones good and long. Because when he returns, they'll need to be strong enough to hold a franchise’s hopes again.
— John Wilmes
New York, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - Tampa Bay Buccaneers defensive end Da'Quan Bowers has been suspended two games for violating the NFL's policy on performance-enhancing substances, the league announced Tuesday.
Bowers will be forced to miss upcoming games with Minnesota and Cleveland before being eligible to return for Tampa Bay's home tilt against Atlanta on Nov. 9.
The 2011 second-round pick started a pair of games earlier this season and has recorded six tackles and one sack over five overall contests in 2014.
St. Louis, MO (SportsNetwork.com) - The St. Louis Rams have released wide receiver Austin Pettis.
Head coach Jeff Fisher confirmed the news on Monday, adding: "We appreciate Austin Pettis' contribution to us."
Multiple reports, including one from FoxSports.com, indicate one of the reasons for the move was his lateness for a team meeting on Saturday. Pettis was inactive for the Rams' 28-26 win over Seattle on Sunday. In addition, the Post-Dispatch revealed that a glut of players at the position could have been a contributing factor.
The fourth-year pro out of Boise State totaled 12 receptions for 118 yards and one touchdown in five games. Since arriving in the Gateway City in 2011, Pettis has compiled 107 catches for 1,034 yards and nine scores.
Irving, TX (SportsNetwork.com) - The Dallas Cowboys waived defensive end Michael Sam from the practice squad on Tuesday to make room for a linebacker who recently worked out for the team.
Sam, the first openly gay player in the NFL, was signed on Sept. 3 after being waived by the St. Louis Rams, who drafted him in the seventh round.
The former SEC Defensive Player of the Year at Missouri spent the first seven weeks of the season on the Cowboys' 10-man practice squad without making the 53-man roster.
"I want to thank the (family of team owner Jerry Jones) and the entire Cowboys organization for this opportunity, as well as my friends, family, teammates, and fans for their support," Sam wrote on Twitter.
"While this is disappointing, I will take the lessons I learned here in Dallas and continue to fight for an opportunity to prove that I can play every Sunday."
The move opened a spot for Troy Davis, who appeared in four games for the New York Jets as a rookie last season and who worked out for the Cowboys on Monday.
Before he was waived by St. Louis, Sam had 11 tackles and three sacks in four preseason games, including a team-high six stops in the finale against Miami.
Sam publicly declared his homosexuality prior to February's scouting combine.
Orchard Park, NY (SportsNetwork.com) - The Buffalo Bills placed running back C.J. Spiller on injured reserve/designated for return Tuesday.
In a corresponding move, the team signed running back Phillip Tanner.
Spiller underwent surgery Monday to repair a broken clavicle.
He got hurt in the second quarter of Sunday's 17-16 win over Minnesota. Spiller came down hard on his left shoulder at the end of a 53-yard run, his lone carry of the game.
Fellow running back Fred Jackson could miss up to four weeks with a groin injury.
Tanner spent the past three seasons with the Dallas Cowboys, compiling just 56 carries for 149 yards and two touchdowns.
A tanking epidemic has been the bogeyman of the NBA’s draft lottery system for the last year or so. The Philadelphia 76ers’ committment to losing worse than any team has ever lost before — a bottoming-out led by general manager Sam Hinkie, who has the backing of Sixers ownership — has turned heads, and upset many of the minds around the game. But it’s not representative of anything new, or particularly infectious to the league’s competitive spirit.
As a team-building strategy, tanking doesn’t generally work. Not even with the draft structure favoring the teams with the worst records every June. Hinkie is a gambler of sorts; There’s no telling whether his strategy will work or not. Most GMs find it safer and wiser to develop talent continuously, waiting for the luck of a big trade opportunity or having a diamond in the rough on hand. This campaign of intentional losing is not the plague it seems to be — Philly’s an outlier.
But that’s not stopping the league from voting on a system that will change the odds configuation which determines the draft order. The new draft — believed to be an almost sure thing to pass — will level out the probabilities of draft luck a bit. From Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
“Gone will be a weighted system where the worst team has 25 percent of the pingpong balls for the No. 1 overall pick and a guarantee it'll drop no lower than fourth in the draft order. Now, the worst four teams have a 12 percent chance at the first pick, No. 5 has an 11.5 percent chance, No. 6, 10 percent, and on down. What's more, the worst team can drop as far as seventh in the draft order, the second worst can drop to No. 8, and so on.
“Now, the bottom three teams have 64 percent, 56 percent and 47 percent chances of getting top-three picks, and that'll change to 35 percent, virtually the same as the fourth- (35 percent) and fifth-worst (34 percent) teams.”
Thus far, only Hinkie and Oklahoma City Thunder GM Sam Presti seem to be fighting, at the very least, for a plan that implements the new draft rules slowly — not all at once. Presti’s concern is that too much is made of the 76ers’ situation, and that large markets will benefit disproportionately from the new arrangement. The draft is the last refuge for a city as small as OKC, and when the micro-market hits its inevitable post-Kevin Durant nadir, they’ll need a sure path back to superstar acquisition. Geography’s never going to be in their favor.
— John Wilmes
NC State can’t replace T.J. Warren — the ACC Player of the Year and the school’s first NBA Lottery pick since 1996 — with just one player. So the Wolfpack, coming off of a third straight NCAA Tournament appearance, won’t try to. Instead, fourth-year coach Mark Gottfried will attempt to build another NCAA team from of a mix of solid veterans and exciting newcomers.
“I like our team,” Gottfried says. “I like the talent level that we have.”
The Wolfpack, who went 22–14 last season, will have more balance, Gottfried says. Warren (at 24.9 ppg) accounted for 34 percent of State’s scoring last season. Gottfried expects this team to be more like his first two in Raleigh, with four or five players sharing the scoring load.
Senior Ralston Turner, the team’s top returning scorer, understands the challenge in replacing Warren. “We’re going to have to do it as a group,” Turner says. “As a team, collectively we can get that done.”
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The Wolfpack had to break in several new parts in the frontcourt last season and did so with varying degrees of success. Gottfried believes a trio of sophomore forwards — Kyle Washington, BeeJay Anya and Lennard Freeman — will show improvement and more consistency with a year of experience. Washington, in particular, flashed a scoring touch (he had a season-best 14 points against a formidable Syracuse frontcourt on the road), and he could flourish with more touches.
Anya is already ahead of the curve from last season when he started the season at 348 pounds. He was down to 300 pounds over the summer, and his improved mobility and stamina should make a noticeable difference.
Freeman developed ahead of schedule and was one of the big surprises on the roster. He played 30 minutes or more in all three of the Pack’s postseason games.
Newcomer Abdul-Malik Abu, a 6-8, 230-pound freshman, is the most talented of the big men. His defensive ability will be a major plus; it will just be a question of how quickly he can make the adjustment to the college game.
“Malik has a chance to be a great player,” Gottfried says. “He’s like all young players, physically very gifted, unbelievably coachable … (but) he looks a little bit lost at times.”
NC State Wolfpack Facts & Figures
Last season: 22-14, 9-9 ACC
Postseason: NCAA round of 64
Consecutive NCAAs: 3
Coach: Mark Gottfried (70-38 at NC State, 29-23 ACC)
ACC Projection: Eighth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
After sharing the point guard job with Tyler Lewis last season, Cat Barber will have all the minutes and responsibilities to himself with Lewis’ transfer to Butler.
At his best, Barber (who averaged 8.5 points per game) was a complementary scorer to Warren last season. At his worst, his decision-making was a huge detriment in ACC play. He finished the season strong, though, and is expected to take another step with a bigger role this season.
Turner gives the Wolfpack a reliable scoring option on the wing. The LSU transfer led the team with 77 3-pointers and averaged 12.1 points over the last 18 games. He scored 17 points in State’s NCAA win over Xavier.
Gottfried is counting on junior Trevor Lacey, who sat out last season after transferring from Alabama, to have an impact similar to Turner’s. Lacey, who averaged 11.3 points in his final season at Alabama, can support Barber in running the offense but can also help Turner from behind the 3-point line.
“Trevor is an off guard who has a point guard mentality,” Gottfried says. “He’s a big, strong guard that can get into the paint and make contact and doesn’t get knocked off balance.”
Freshmen twins Cody and Caleb Martin begin the season behind Turner and Lacey for playing time but both could carve out roles, as could senior Desmond Lee.
Gottfried didn’t get enough credit for cajoling an NCAA Tournament win out of last year’s group. Juggling personalities and creating a hierarchy were Gottfried’s two biggest problems in a disappointing 2012-13 season. He adroitly managed both tasks last season in his best work at NC State.
There are parts in place for another NCAA run this season, especially if Lacey can be as good as expected. It will require more consistency from Barber and Washington, but the ingredients are there for the program to continue its forward momentum under Gottfried.
Junior Trevor Lacey, a transfer from Alabama, will be counted on to step into the lineup and help fill the scoring void left by T.J. Warren. All three freshmen signees finished the year ranked in ESPN’s top 100. Forward Abdul-Malik Abu has the highest ceiling and is expected to help immediately, especially with his post defense. Twins Caleb and Cody Martin will have to work to find playing time, but the coaching staff believes in their long-term potential.
Two straight trips to the NIT have certainly dampened some of the momentum Florida State had built by rattling off four straight NCAA Tournament appearances from 2009-12. However, expectations surrounding Leonard Hamilton’s club remain high, and for good reason.
Seven players with significant ACC minutes on their resumes are back, and six of them are either juniors or seniors. That group includes athletic guard Aaron Thomas, who emerged as the Seminoles’ best player in the later half of 2013-14. Add in highly touted recruit Xavier Rathan-Mayes and 7-footer Kiel Turpin, who each missed all of last season, and Hamilton’s roster suddenly boasts experience and depth.
“Last year we were closer than it looked,” Hamilton says. “We lost to Florida by one point and to Michigan in overtime, but we didn’t have a complete team. There’s not as much drop-off in the rotation now. We have the talent. I think we can get back to where we were.”
That’s not to say FSU doesn’t have some substantial voids to fill. Losing veterans Ian Miller and Okaro White takes away a pair of double-digit scorers. White was also the best rebounder for a team that struggled mightily on the glass.
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Thanks to the NCAA granting the 7-0 Turpin a sixth year of eligibility (he missed all of last season with a leg injury), FSU will once again boast three 7-footers — Boris Bojanovsky stands 7-3 and Michael Ojo is 7-1.
While that trio will undoubtedly make for some intimidating shot-blockers, whether they can be inside scoring threats remains the major concern. None has averaged more than six points per game, but Bojanovsky and Ojo both arrived as particularly raw recruits and appear ready to contribute more after two years in Hamilton’s system.
“Getting Turpin back is huge,” Hamilton says. “I don’t know many more big men who are as skilled as Boris either. He is a smart player, and the key is that he has gained weight and gotten much stronger.”
Hamilton also has faith that sophomore power forward Jarquez Smith will make big strides. The 6-9 Smith will compete for White’s vacant starting spot after raising his weight to 230 pounds in the offseason.
“I’m extremely confident in Smith,” Hamilton says. “He played behind two seniors last year. He’s also extremely skilled.”
Junior college transfer Kedar Edwards, a small forward, will also battle for playing time.
Florida State Seminoles Facts & Figures
Last season: 22-14, 9-9 ACC
Last NCAA Tournament: 2012
Coach: Leonard Hamilton (241-157 at Florida State, 98-98 ACC)
ACC Projection: Sixth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
After a breakout year, Thomas gives FSU a two-way player to build its team around. The 6-5 wing averaged 18 points in four NIT games and had 57 steals on the season — and Hamilton believes he be more productive at both ends of the court.
“Aaron loves to play defense. He enjoys the best part of the game,” Hamilton says. “I expect him to have an All-ACC type of year. He has All-American type of potential.”
Fellow junior Devon Bookert gives FSU a veteran point guard to lean on. A dependable ball-handler and a remarkably accurate 3-point shooter — he shot 43.1 percent from 3 last year — Bookert enters his second year as a full-time starter.
The versatile 6-7 Montay Brandon, who can play point or on the wing, started all 36 games last season. Rathan-Mayes, a prototypical shooting guard who played alongside No. 1 draft pick Andrew Wiggins in high school, should bolster the offense instantly after sitting out 2013-14 due to academic issues.
Junior college transfer Dayshawn Watkins and freshman Robbie Berwick will add depth at point guard.
Losing Miller and White won’t hurt as much as it might appear on paper. Thomas has all the makings of a go-to scorer and will be one of the best players in the ACC. More important, the Seminoles are now much deeper (Hamilton’s rotation could include as many as 10 players), making it possible to withstand the injuries and losses it couldn’t last year.
Provided the big men progress as well as expected, Florida State should be back in the NCAA Tournament. Rebounding is the biggest key — the Seminoles were particularly bad on the defensive glass, grabbing only 64.2 percent of their opponents’ missed shots. In order to make any kind of postseason run, that will have to change dramatically.
Phil Cofer may be the biggest find of the bunch. The powerful big man’s father (Michael) played in the NFL for 10 seasons. Kedar Edwards and Dayshawn Watkins were both brought in from junior colleges to add some immediate depth. Norbertas Giga, who is from Lithuania, continues Leonard Hamilton’s tradition of going overseas to find recruits.
After compiling a 38–16 record in its last three seasons in the Big East, Notre Dame had a rocky initial foray into the ACC. A conference-opening victory over Duke quickly spiraled into a 6–12 league record, due in large part to an inconsistent defensive effort, the inability to control the backboards without the graduated Jack Cooley and the loss of Jerian Grant to “an academic issue” in December.
Head coach Mike Brey, who likes to rely on older players to carry the load, was forced to play young, which should benefit the Irish in 2014-15.
“The young guys played too much for how this program is built,” says Brey, who begins his 15th season with the Irish. “We racked our brains with changing personnel to changing style of play. We simplified our offense, and that made us more efficient the second half of the ACC season. We bled while they were playing, but it will help them be better prepared this season.”
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The Irish will miss Garrick Sherman’s 13.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, but the bulk of the talent returns up front. Pat Connaughton, a 6-5 leaper, was a fourth-round pick of the Baltimore Orioles in the June amateur baseball draft, but he will return to Notre Dame for his final season of basketball. Connaughton averaged 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game last season, and Brey calls him the team’s “only real, true captain.”
Notre Dame needs 6-10 junior Zach Auguste to emerge as a consistent presence. And 6-9 junior Austin Burgett must become the “stretch-4” player who has thrived in Brey’s free-flowing offensive system in the past. Burgett was just beginning to emerge last season when heart issues, which were corrected by a surgical procedure, derailed his progress.
Auguste and Burgett will be aided by sophomore V.J. Beachem, a willowy swingman who showed flashes of shooting prowess as a freshman. Bruising 6-9 freshman Martin Geben, originally from Lithuania, will push Auguste. Geben draws favorable comparisons to Cooley, a former first-team All-Big East selection. Bonzie Colson, also a freshman, is a physical 6-5 forward with shooting range and a 7-footer’s wingspan.
Notre Dame Fighting Irish Facts & Figures
Last season: 15-17, 6-12 ACC
Last NCAA Tournament: 2013
Coach: Mike Brey (300-159 at Notre Dame, 141-88 Big East/ACC)
ACC Projection: Ninth
Postseason Projection: NCAA Round of 64
The loss of the stabilizing presence of point guard Eric Atkins is significant, but athleticism abounds with the return of Grant and additional playing time for sophomore point Demetrius Jackson, a former McDonald’s All-American.
The 6-5 Grant was playing outstanding basketball through 12 games last season, leading the Irish in scoring (19.0 ppg) and assists (6.2 apg) while shooting over 50 percent from the field and over 40 percent from three.
“(Grant’s) stats when he left us were the best of his career, and he was a focused defender for the first time,” Brey says. “I fully expect him to pick up there and have an added chip on his shoulder to show people he’s back.”
Jackson started 15 games but never found the consistency he’ll need to show as a full-time player. Brey would like to see Jackson take on a more assertive approach. Sophomore Steve Vasturia could get the starting nod over Jackson following his strong rookie season.
“In the midst of a year that was disappointing as a team, (Vasturia) had a great year,” Brey says. “He’s reliable. He may be our best perimeter defender.”
Expectations for the Irish in Year 2 of the ACC will be low, which is a starting point from which Notre Dame thrived at times in the Big East.
Brey believes he has two of the top 15 players in the league in Grant and Connaughton, but they’ll need unproven, inconsistent players from 2013-14 such as Auguste, Burgett, Beachem and Jackson to patch the holes from a year ago, plus contributions from freshmen Geben and Colson.
If that happens, Notre Dame could push for an upper division finish. At the very least, a .500 mark in conference play is a reasonable goal.
“It’s very similar to when I got the job (at Notre Dame) in 2000,” Brey says. “At the time, Notre Dame was 30 games under .500 in the Big East, and the question was, ‘Can you develop an identity in the Big East?’ That’s where we are now. We’re fighting and scratching to create an identity in this league, and it ain’t going to be easy.”
Martin Geben, a 6-9, 230-pounder from Hagerstown, Md., via Lithuania, is expected to push for heavy minutes as a true freshman. “He will be needed and he will be ready,” Brey says. “He’s a great position defender and rebounder.” Bonzie Colson is a small forward who also had offers form UConn and Pittsburgh.
Last spring, Brad Brownell surely felt some vindication. Entering the 2013-14 season, little to nothing was expected of Clemson. A Tiger team with no seniors on its roster coming off a miserable 13–18 season was picked to finish 14th in the ACC, and Brownell landed on several national “hot seat” lists.
Brownell responded with perhaps his best coaching job yet: The Tigers won 23 games, narrowly missed the NCAA Tournament and made the NIT Final Four. Clemson officials rewarded him with a new six-year contract that averages $1.55 million per year.
Now comes the hard part: repeating and building on that success without his best player. Athletic forward K.J. McDaniels declared for the NBA Draft after a first-team All-ACC season in which he led the Tigers in scoring, rebounds, blocked shots and steals. McDaniels is the only major loss from a 23–13 team, but in an ever-improving ACC that welcomes national power Louisville, breaking through to the NCAA Tournament won’t be easy.
“We’re in a monster league. We have got IBM and Coca-Cola and all those people in our league and they are not going away,” Brownell says. “They reload with McDonald’s All Americans every year, and we have got to continue to take the guys that we recruit and build them up and get them to play hard and get stronger.”
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Even with McDaniels and 6-10 forward Ibrahim Djambo (transfer) gone, Clemson’s frontcourt is far from bare. Junior center Landry Nnoko was one of the ACC’s most improved players last season, averaging 6.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Sophomore forward Jaron Blossomgame showed flashes while continuing to recover from a compound leg fracture that forced him to miss the 2013-14 season, averaging nearly five points and five rebounds per game while showing athleticism and versatility.
Djambo’s transfer clears room for 6’8” freshman forward Donte Grantham — a versatile top-100 recruit — to see significant time this winter. Junior Josh Smith and sophomore Sidy Djitte are big bodies who’ll have reserve roles.
Clemson Tigers Facts & Figures
Last season: 23-10, 10-8 ACC
Last NCAA Tournament: 2011
Coach: Brad Brownell (74-58 at Clemson, 32-36 ACC)
ACC Projection: 11th
Postseason Projection: NIT
Last winter, Clemson won games with defense; the Tigers held opponents to 58.4 points per game. Such stinginess was crucial, because even with McDaniels’ presence, Brownell’s bunch struggled to score. Clemson ranked 13th in the league in scoring (63.5 ppg), 13th in field goal shooting (.424) and 14th in 3-point shooting (.310).
“We have to improve our shooting,” Brownell says. “At the end of the day, we can’t continue to be one of the worst 3-point shooting teams in the ACC and expect to finish in the top six or seven in the league.”
That said, the Tigers return plenty of experience in the backcourt while also adding firepower from several sources. Senior point guard Rod Hall has proven himself as a capable, gritty leader trusted with running the team in key situations. He averaged 9.7 points and 4.0 assists per game as a junior. Senior swingman Damarcus Harrison originally planned on leaving for a Mormon mission before last season, but Clemson is glad he stuck around. He emerged during the ACC season as a talented shooter, averaging 7.8 points while sinking 35 percent of his 3-pointers. Junior guard Jordan Roper was up-and-down but is also capable of burning teams from 3-point range.
Sophomore Austin Ajukwa averaged just 2.3 points per game as a freshman but showed flashes of becoming an athletic shooter during the Tigers’ postseason push. Coaches are very excited about redshirt freshman guard Patrick Rooks, a talented shooter who was forced to miss last season following a hip injury. And expect a significant contribution from freshman Gabe DeVoe, a Parade All-American who averaged 34.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game as a Shelby (N.C.) senior.
Basketball will never be the marquee sport at football-crazy Clemson. This is one of the toughest jobs in the ACC, and the additions of Louisville, Notre Dame, Pitt and Syracuse have only made it harder. Brownell took a team full of Oliver Purnell recruits to the NCAA Tournament in his first season, but last season’s NIT run, keyed by McDaniels and gritty defense, won back some supporters who had strayed from the program.
The Tigers likely won’t sink all the way to the bottom of the ACC, but minus the electric McDaniels, Brownell will have to wring even more out of his players to get back to remain in the hunt for an NCAA bid.
Clemson has only two eligible newcomers, but both should contribute. Freshman forward Donte Grantham is a top-100 recruit who chose Clemson over a number of high-major schools and will play major minutes with versatility. Guard Gabe DeVoe, a big-time scorer from North Carolina, adds much-needed shooting to the backcourt.