Articles By Nathan Rush
It's never too early to grade the 2012 NFL Draft, which saw Commissioner Roger Goodell hugging and high-fiving future Pro Bowlers and potential busts. Here's a team-by-team look at the winners and losers from this year:
Pick. Player, Pos., School
13. Michael Floyd, WR, Notre Dame
80. Jamell Fleming, CB, Oklahoma
112. Bobby Massie, T, Ole Miss
151. Senio Kelemete, T, Washington
177. Justin Bethel, CB, Presbyterian
185. Ryan Lindley, QB, San Diego State
221. Nate Potter, T, Boise State
Twin Cities product Michael Floyd joins fellow Purple Rain fan Larry Fitzgerald, who practiced with Vikings' soon-to-be Hall of Famers Randy Moss and Cris Carter once upon a time. Reminds me of Nick Fairley teaming up with Ndamukong Suh in Detroit last year; even if he would've busted under different circumstances, he should be at least above-average with an All-Pro to mimic. O-line, as always, was an issue for the Cards, who brought in a trio led by fast-rising raw tackle prospect Bobby Massie.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
55. Peter Konz, C, Wisconsin
91. Lamar Holmes, T, Southern Miss
157. Bradie Ewing, FB, Wisconsin
164. Jonathan Massaquoi, DE, Troy
192. Charles Mitchell, S, Mississippi State
249. Travian Robertson, DT, South Carolina
Julio Jones has to be factored into the 2012 draft for the Dirty Birds, who traded their first- and fourth-rounders this year (along with their first-, second- and fourth-round picks in 2011) to move up from No. 27 overall to the Browns' No. 6 overall last year in order to acquire the soft-J wideout who throws hard blocks, goes over the middle and provides another deep threat across from Roddy White. Hit rewind, a vanilla draft is spiced up by a game-breaking option such as Jones.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
35. Courtney Upshaw, LB, Alabama
60. Kelechi Osemele, T, Iowa State
84. Bernard Pierce, RB, Temple
98. Gino Gradkowski, G, Delaware
130. Christian Thompson, S, South Carolina State
169. Asa Jackson, CB, Cal Poly
198. Tommy Streeter, WR, Miami
236. Deangelo Tyson, DE, Georgia
Bama's Courtney Upshaw was ready to be the fifth member of the Crimson Tide drafted in the first round on Thursday. Instead, the edge rusher had to stay the night in New York before being drafted by Alabama Hall of Fame tight end and Baltimore draft guru Ozzie Newsome. Upshaw will learn from and play next to Ray Lewis, and be protected by Haloti Ngata up front. Who needs the first round if that's your fate? As usual, Ozzie got his guy and collected picks for later; he's one of the best.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
10. Stephon Gilmore, CB, South Carolina
41. Cordy Glenn, T, Georgia
69. T.J. Graham, WR, NC State
105. Nigel Bradham, LB, Florida State
124. Ron Brooks, CB, LSU
144. Zebrie Sanders, T, Florida State
147. Tank Carder, LB, TCU
178. Mark Asper, G, Oregon
251. John Potter, K, Western Michigan
Stephon Gilmore's stock soared northbound all the way to Toronto, or at least upstate New York, in the weeks leading up to the draft. But the corner with fewer red flags than Dre Kirkpatrick and Janoris Jenkins didn't look too happy to be roaming with the Bills to Canada, or Ralph Wilson's temporary Buffalo home. FSU's Nigel Bradham and TCU's Tank Carder are underrated linebackers who should make plays in the domed Rogers Centre sooner rather than later. Seriously, the Bills are moving to Toronto, or else they wouldn't be playing ANY games there, right?
Pick. Player, Pos., School
9. Luke Kuechly, LB, Boston College
40. Amini Silatolu, T, Midwestern State
103. Frank Alexander, DE, Oklahoma
104. Joe Adams, WR, Arkansas
143. Josh Norman, CB, Coastal Carolina
207. Brad Nortman, P, Wisconsin
216. D.J. Campbell, S, California
If Luke Kuechly is Dan Morgan without the concussions, Carolina's front office will feel like Cam Newton must every day since he enrolled at Auburn. (Cam won the BCS national title and Heisman Trophy before being the NFL's No. 1 overall pick and Offensive Rookie of the Year, as well as Under Armour's face of the franchise, for those who haven't followed the "icon and entertainer.") Kuechly is now the quarterback of the Cats' defense. Amini Silatolu was a fringe-first-rounder who adds beef on the O-line.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
19. Shea McClellin, DE, Boise State
45. Alshon Jeffery, WR, South Carolina
79. Brandon Hardin, S, Oregon State
111. Evan Rodriguez, TE, Temple
184. Isaiah Frey, CB, Nevada
220. Greg McCoy, CB, TCU
Sorry, Jay Cutler. No offensive line help for you. Keep proving how tough you are. Stare down Brandon Marshall until Alshon Jeffery gets open. What do you mean he can't separate from defenders and isn't as big as he was listed during his career at South Carolina? Get that look off your face, we traded for your buddy Brandon. That's one more receiver than you've had since coming to Chicago.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
17. Dre Kirkpatrick, CB, Alabama
27. Kevin Zeitler, G, Wisconsin
53. Devon Still, DT, Penn State
83. Mohamed Sanu, WR, Rutgers
93. Brandon Thompson, DT, Clemson
116. Orson Charles, TE, Georgia
156. Shaun Prater, CB, Iowa
166. Marvin Jones, WR, California
167. George Iloka, S, Boise State
191. Dan Herron, RB, Ohio State
Mohamed Sanu was prank called prior to the No. 27 overall pick by the Bengals in the first round. Someone pulled off a cruel joke by convincing Sanu that he had been drafted by Cincy; his agent confirmed via Twitter. I wouldn't blame Sanu if he hung up on the call from Cincinnati at No. 83 overall. I also wouldn't be shocked if the Bengals discovered who Sanu was by reading a story on Deadspin about his unfortunately well-executed crank-yank.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
3. Trent Richardson, RB, Alabama
22. Brandon Weeden, QB, Oklahoma State
37. Mitchell Schwartz, T, California
87. John Hughes, DT, Cincinnati
100. Travis Benjamin, WR, Miami
120. James-Michael Johnson, LB, Nevada
160. Ryan Miller, G, Colorado
204. Emmanuel Acho, LB, Texas
205. Billy Winn, DT, Boise State
245. Trevin Wade, CB, Arizona
247. Brad Smelley, TE, Alabama
Plan A was trading the Nos. 4 and 22 picks (and whatever else it took) to move up and acquire Robert Griffin III. After that fell through, Plan B was Trent Richardson, the second first-round back (along with Mark Ingram) from Alabama's 2009 BCS national title team. There was no Plan C. So, when rumors started swirling around that the Jets were looking to trade up to No. 3 for T-Town's top runner, the Browns were forced to trade up one spot. It was the right call. Brandon Weeden, who is nearly 15 months older than LeBron James, was not the right move, however. But hey, Cleveland just added the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, no matter what an angry Jim Brown thinks. Take the Browns' paper bags off your head, Cleveland. It's okay. When Weeden grows up, he wants to be just like Colt McCoy.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
6. Morris Claiborne, CB, LSU
81. Tyrone Crawford, DE, Boise State
113. Kyle Wilber, LB, Wake Forest
135. Matt Johnson, S, Eastern Washington
152. Danny Coale, WR, Virginia Tech
186. James Hanna, TE, Oklahoma
222. Caleb McSurdy, LB, Montana
Jerry Jones might as well turn the "Palace in Dallas" (or "Jerry's House") into a year-round Scouting Combine. He did, after all, witness Morris Claiborne hurdling Ducks and shutting down Oregon receivers first-hand during the season opening 40-27 LSU win over UO in Arlington last year. Needing secondary help on their Big D, the Cowboys made a Texas-sized move up the board to get their cover man. The only question was whether it would be Claiborne or Alabama safety Mark Barron, who went one pick later to the Buccaneers. Either would have been a grade-A move.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
36. Derek Wolfe, DT, Cincinnati
57. Brock Osweiler, QB, Arizona State
67. Ronnie Hillman, RB, San Diego State
101. Omar Bolden, CB, Arizona State
108. Philip Blake, C, Baylor
137. Malik Jackson, DT, Tennessee
188. Danny Trevathan, LB, Kentucky
The Tim Tebow trade has brought out the worst in everyone, especially NFL Network's Rich Eisen and Mike Mayock, who got in a Day Three verbal slap-fest over super-agent Jimmy Sexton's favorite client and super-petty John Elway's least favorite person. Mayock, who refused to say the name "Tim Tebow," came crashing down after his three-day bender of Red Bull with a splash of 5-Hour Energy Drink cocktails. Eisen was more than happy to bring up as many Tebow references as possible, whenever the Broncos or Jets picked. Mayock exploded in a much-ado-about-nothing turn of events; Eisen basked in the meltdown. Turns out, Tebow wins again.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
23. Riley Reiff, T, Iowa
54. Ryan Broyles, WR, Oklahoma
85. Dwight Bentley, CB, UL Lafayette
125. Ronnell Lewis, LB, Oklahoma
138. Tahir Whitehead, LB, Temple
148. Chris Greenwood, CB, Albion
196. Jonte Green, CB, New Mexico State
223. Travis Lewis, LB, Oklahoma
The short arms of Riley Reiff pushed him down the board on draft night, after the latest Iowa tackle was presumed to be a top-15 pick earlier in the draft evaluation process. Ryan Broyles' 4,500 yards and 45 receiving TDs at Oklahoma meant something after all. U-La-La's Dwight Bentley looked so good on tape and at the Combine, the Lions only needed to draft an Albion and New Mexico State corner to sleep well at night. One of Oklahoma's Lewis linebackers better pan out.
Green Bay Packers
Pick. Player, Pos., School
28. Nick Perry, DE, USC
51. Jerel Worthy, DT, Michigan State
62. Casey Hayward, CB, Vanderbilt
132. Mike Daniels, DT, Iowa
133. Jerron McMillan, S, Maine
163. Terrell Manning, LB, NC State
241. Andrew Datko, T, Florida State
243. B.J. Coleman, QB, UT Chattanooga
Brett Favre's best friend (and agent Bus Cook's client) B.J. Coleman stole the headlines for no legit good reason. Favre has a better chance of starting in Green Bay than Coleman. USC end Nick Perry and Michigan State tackle Jerel Worthy were overrated, but being surrounded with Clay Matthews and B.J. Raji may help mask their deficiencies. Vandy's Casey Hayward is a ball-hawk corner with upside. Ted Thompson took a few chances but did just fine, as usual.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
26. Whitney Mercilus, DE, Illinois
68. DeVier Posey, WR, Ohio State
76. Brandon Brooks, G, Miami (Ohio)
99. Ben Jones, C, Georgia
121. Keshawn Martin, WR, Michigan State
126. Jared Crick, DT, Nebraska
161. Randy Bullock, K, Texas A&M
195. Nick Mondek, T, Purdue
After making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the Texans did what they could to replace free-agent export Mario Williams (with the bizarro-initialled Whitney Mercilus) and help protect oft-injured Andre Johnson (by selecting DeVier Posey). Nebraska D-tackle Jared Crick could be the steal, after having his draft stock plummet due to a torn pectoral injury earlier in the season.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
1. Andrew Luck, QB, Stanford
34. Coby Fleener, TE, Stanford
64. Dwayne Allen, TE, Clemson
92. T.Y. Hilton, WR, Florida International
136. Josh Chapman, DT, Alabama
170. Vick Ballard, RB, Mississippi State
206. LaVon Brazill, WR, Ohio
208. Justin Anderson, T, Georgia
214. Tim Fugger, DE, Vanderbilt
253. Chandler Harnish, QB, Northern Illinois
Stanford's Andrew Luck (2012) follows in the horseshoes of Tennessee's Peyton Manning (1998), Illinois' Jeff George (1990), Stanford's John Elway (1983) and Oregon's George Shaw (1955) as quarterbacks picked No. 1 overall in Colts history. Oliver's son, Jim Harbaugh's recruit and David Shaw's security blanket is one of the better prepared players to enter the league in some time. Surrounding Luck with his Stanford teammate, tight end Coby Fleener, was brilliant. Adding another tight end, Dwayne Allen, was a move of genius. Indy acquired the top two tight ends in the draft, giving Luck a Tom Brady-style offense with wanna-be Rob Gronkowski and Aaron Hernandez comfort zone options. That said, the Colts should still battle the Jaguars for worst team in the NFL in 2012.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
5. Justin Blackmon, WR, Oklahoma State
38. Andre Branch, DE, Clemson
70. Bryan Anger, P, California
142. Brandon Marshall, LB, Nevada
176. Mike Harris, CB, Florida State
228. Jeris Pendleton, DT, Ashland
This grade is based on Jaguars quarterback Blaine Gabbert being a clear-cut bust who is afraid to hold on to the football long enough to look downfield. It may not be Justin Blackmon's fault, but if he catches 30 passes for 400 yards, he'll catch unfair heat due to Gabbert (and who?) not being able to get him the ball. Andre Branch is a boom-or-bust. The punter pick of Bryan Anger speaks to the mindset of the organization right now. They punted this draft. And shanked it.
Kansas City Chiefs
Pick. Player, Pos., School
11. Dontari Poe, DT, Memphis
44. Jeff Allen, T, Illinois
74. Donald Stephenson, T, Oklahoma
107. Devon Wylie, WR, Fresno State
146. DeQuan Menzie, CB, Alabama
182. Cyrus Gray, RB, Texas A&M
218. Jerome Long, DT, San Diego State
238. Junior Hemingway, WR, Michigan
If Memphis' Dontari Poe is not at least a non-BCS version of Patriots All-Pro nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who went No. 21 to the Patriots in the epic 2004 draft, than the ex-Patriots running the Chiefs (namely Scott Pioli) will be very disappointed. At 6'4", 346 pounds, Poe ran a 4.98 in the 40 and ripped off 44 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press at the Combine. That will play. Or will it? He played piss-Poe against mediocre competition at Memphis. Still, the Bill Belichick and Bill Parcells coaching tree has branched out to KC; there are only so many men on Earth with Poe's measurable size, strength and speed.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
8. Ryan Tannehill, QB, Texas A&M
42. Jonathan Martin, T, Stanford
72. Oliver Vernon, DE, Miami
78. Michael Egnew, TE, Missouri
97. Lamar Miller, RB, Miami
155. Josh Kaddu, LB, Oregon
183. B.J. Cunningham, WR, Michigan State
215. Kheeston Randall, DT, Texas
227. Rishard Matthews, WR, Nevada
There's another beautiful woman moving to Miami. Ryan Tannehill's wife, Lauren (not pictured), lit up the green room at Radio City Music Hall. This pick was essentially made by first-year Dolphins offensive coordinator Mike Sherman, who hired Joe Philbin (his new boss in Miami) with the Packers way back in 2003 and coached Tannehill at Texas A&M just yesterday (or last year, 2011). Anyone who thinks this is the "next Dan Marino" must have only watched the first half of Aggie games this year. Stanford tackle Jonathan Martin played next to guard David DeCastro and blocked for quarterback Andrew Luck, but he is a notch below both in terms of both toughness and talent.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
4. Matt Kalil, T, USC
29. Harrison Smith, S, Notre Dame
66. Josh Robinson, CB, Central Florida
118. Jarius Wright, WR, Arkansas
128. Rhett Ellison, FB, USC
134. Greg Childs, WR, Arkansas
139. Robert Blanton, CB, Notre Dame
175. Blair Walsh, K, Georgia
210. Audie Cole, LB, NC State
219. Trevor Guyton, DE, California
Matt Kalil is a left tackle prodigy carrying on a rich USC tradition that includes Anthony Munoz and Tony Boselli. He also has an older brother, Ryan Kalil, who is a Pro Bowl center for the Panthers. His father, Frank, played ball in the USFL and is a big talking NFL breeder at this point. But it was the ladies of the Kalil family, mom in a red dress and sister in an orange skirt who took home top prospect honors. High jumping back into the first round and taking underrated, athletic Notre Dame safety Harrison Smith was a savvy movve.
New England Patriots
Pick. Player, Pos., School
21. Chandler Jones, DE, Syracuse
25. Dont’a Hightower, LB, Alabama
48. Tavon Wilson, S, Illinois
90. Jake Bequette, DE, Arkansas
197. Nate Ebner, S, Ohio State
224. Alfonzo Dennard, CB, Nebraska
235. Jeremy Ebert, WR, Northwestern
Bill Belichick bounced around early to get both Alabama middle linebacker and part-time sledgehammer Dont'a Hightower and Syracuse edge rusher Chandler Jones (brother of MMA champ light heavyweight champ Jon "Bones" Jones). New England also added a fringe second-third-round-type in the seventh round in Nebraska corner Alfonzo Dennard. Make your Jeremy Ebert, Wes Welker comparisons in the privacy of your own home, lest ye be judged.
New Orleans Saints
Pick. Player, Pos., School
89. Akiem Hicks, DE, Regina
122. Nick Toon, WR, Wisconsin
162. Corey White, S, Samford
179. Andrew Tiller, G, Syracuse
234. Marcel Jones, T, Nebraska
This is what Commissioner Roger Goodell's death penalty (lost second round) plus trading up to take Alabama back Mark Ingram last year (traded first round) looks like. Also, Gregg Williams may have told the Saints to "kill the head"; after all, the draft did die. That's not a funny joke to anyone who is familiar with Al Toon's concussion history.
New York Giants
Pick. Player, Pos., School
32. David Wilson, RB, Virginia Tech
63. Rueben Randle, WR, LSU
94. Jayron Hosley, CB, Virginia Tech
127. Adrien Robinson, TE, Cincinnati
131. Brandon Mosley, T, Auburn
201. Matt McCants, T, UAB
239. Markus Kuhn, DT, NC State
The defending Super Bowl champs made up for Eli Manning being the third most talked about quarterback in his own city. Tim Tebow and Mark Sanchez got nothing on Eli, who has two Super Bowl rings to go along with his new fast running back (Virginia Tech's David Wilson) and new big receiver (LSU's Rueben Randle). Jerry Reese has Big Blue well under control.
New York Jets
Pick. Player, Pos., School
16. Quinton Coples, DE, North Carolina
43. Stephen Hill, WR, Georgia Tech
77. Demario Davis, LB, Arkansas State
187. Josh Bush, S, Wake Forest
202. Terrance Ganaway, RB, Baylor
203. Robert T. Griffin, G, Baylor
242. Antonio Allen, S, South Carolina
244. Jordan White, WR, Western Michigan
Vernon Ghoston Jr., a.k.a. Quinton Coples, is not the safest bet after showing "very indifferent tape" yet "Julius Peppers type ability" according to NFL Network's Mike Mayock. Stephen Hill is fast, and drafting behind Georgia Tech products Demaryius Thomas and Calvin Johnson, but he's not the prospect either Rambin' Wreck wideouts were. Baylor's Robert T. Griffin has a name grade fit for a king, but his socks don't match.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
95. Tony Bergstrom, T, Utah
129. Miles Burris, LB, San Diego State
158. Jack Crawford, DE, Penn State
168. Juron Criner, WR, Arizona
189. Christo Bilukidi, DE, Georgia State
230. Nathan Stupar, LB, Penn State
The first draft since the late, great Al Davis (July 4, 1929 - Oct. 8, 2011). "Just win, baby," was a motto that set the tone for an organization that won three Super Bowls under Al Davis, the draft day architect for 50 years in Oakland and Los Angeles, in the AFL and NFL. The Raiders have not yet properly replaced Mr. Davis, and it showed in this year's draft results.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
12. Fletcher Cox, DT, Mississippi State
46. Mychal Kendricks, LB, California
59. Vinny Curry, DE, Marshall
88. Nick Foles, QB, Arizona
123. Brandon Boykin, CB, Georgia
153. Dennis Kelly, T, Purdue
194. Marvin McNutt, WR, Iowa
200. Brandon Washington, G, Miami
229. Bryce Brown, RB, Kansas State
Philly fans boo Andy Reid for being too predictable on game day. Well, it's just as easy to guess what Reid will do on draft day. The Eagles took D-line early (Mississippi State's Fletcher Cox, Marshall's Vinny Curry) and a project quarterback (Arizona's Nick Foles) for the QB professor, and a linebacker (California's Mychal Kendricks) to keep the faithful from rioting.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
24. David DeCastro, G, Stanford
56. Mike Adams, T, Ohio State
86. Sean Spence, LB, Miami
109. Alameda Ta’amu, DT, Washington
159. Chris Rainey, RB, Florida
231. Toney Clemons, WR, Colorado
240. David Paulson, TE, Oregon
246. Terrence Frederick, CB, Texas A&M
248. Kelvin Beachum, T, SMU
The best overall draft of 2012. Pittsburgh added two plug-and-play offensive linemen, with Stanford's "can't miss" guard David DeCastro in the first round and Ohio State's "problem child" tackle Mike Adams in the second round. Both were value picks, at Nos. 24 and 56, respectively. Then, Blitz-burgh added a sideline-to-sideline linebacker in Miami's Sean Spence, a zero-technique nose tackle in Washington's Alameda Ta'amu and a triple-threat track star in Florida's Chris Rainey, who new offensive coordinator (and former Chiefs coach) Todd Haley sees in a Dexter McCluster-type role.
San Diego Chargers
Pick. Player, Pos., School
18. Melvin Ingram, DE, South Carolina
49. Kendall Reyes, DT, Connecticut
73. Brandon Taylor, S, LSU
110. Ladarius Green, TE, UL Lafayette
149. Johnnie Troutman, G, Penn State
226. David Molk, C, Michigan
250. Edwin Baker, RB, Michigan State
The best high-five of Thursday night, South Carolina tweener Melvin Ingram hyped upped Commissioner Roger Goodell's perceived street cred with a choreographed greeting on stage, shortly after Ingram was drafted much later than he intended. The Commish hugs and has special handshakes on draft night. It's impressive. Meanwhile, the "Lord of No Rings" A.J. Smith did a solid though not spectacular job. It's doubtful that Smith or coach Norv Turner had a special high-five planned the first time they met Ingram.
San Francisco 49ers
Pick. Player, Pos., School
30. A.J. Jenkins, WR, Illinois
61. LaMichael James, RB, Oregon
117. Joe Looney, G, Wake Forest
165. Darius Fleming, LB, Notre Dame
180. Trent Robinson, S, Michigan State
199. Jason Slowey, C, Western Oregon
237. Cam Johnson, DE, Virginia
Why didn't Jim Harbaugh just draft his old Stanford players? Everyone in the Bay Area would have been happier. Illinois wideout A.J. Jenkins and Oregon running back LaMichael James add much-needed speed to the Niners offense. But both were over-drafted and are likely candidates to under-perform.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
15. Bruce Irvin, DE, West Virginia
47. Bobby Wagner, LB, Utah State
75. Russell Wilson, QB, NC State
106. Robert Turbin, RB, Utah State
114. Jaye Howard, DT, Florida
154. Korey Toomer, LB, Idaho
172. Jeremy Lane, CB, Northwestern State
181. Winston Guy, S, Kentucky
225. JR Sweezy, DE, NC State
232. Greg Scruggs, DE, Louisville
Speaking of former Pac-10, BCS bowl-winning coaches who over-drafted prospects likely to under-perform, former USC beach boy Pete Carroll recruited a junior college pass rusher in Bruce Irvin. A couch-burner from West Virginia, Irvin has plenty of red flags waving but enough strip-sack potential to roll the dice on. NC State and Wisconsin quarterback Russell Wilson (along with his very-TV-aware blonde fiance and her purse dog) had more face time on day two of ESPN's draft coverage than Seattle's second-round pick, Utah State linebacker Bobby Wagner, did during his entire college career.
St. Louis Rams
Pick. Player, Pos., School
14. Michael Brockers, DT, LSU
33. Brian Quick, WR, Appalachian State
39. Janoris Jenkins, CB, North Alabama
50. Isaiah Pead, RB, Cincinnati
65. Trumaine Johnson, CB, Montana
96. Chris Givens, WR, Wake Forest
150. Rokevious Watkins, T, South Carolina
171. Greg Zuerlein, K, Missouri Western
209. Aaron Brown, LB, Hawaii
252. Daryl Richardson, RB, Abilene Christian
Jeff Fisher impression starts now: The Rams got the Redskins 2012, 2013 and 2014 first-rounders in the RG3 trade; beast LSU defensive tackle Michael Brockers, who has a LeBron James beard; Pacman Jones 2.0 in Florida and North Alabama corner-returner Janoris Jenkins; and Montana product Trumaine Johnson. FYI, Johnson, Fisher's son and Fisher's son's friend, Titans Pro Bowl return specialist Marc Mariani, all played ball at Montana and were drafted by Fisher in some capacity. The RG3 trade riches will buy the Rams high-priced talent over the next couple drafts. It's up to Fisher and Co. to make those picks continue to count.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Pick. Player, Pos., School
7. Mark Barron, S, Alabama
31. Doug Martin, RB, Boise State
58. Lavonte David, LB, Nebraska
140. Najee Goode, LB, West Virginia
174. Keith Tandy, CB, West Virginia
212. Michael Smith, RB, Utah State
233. Drake Dunsmore, TE, Northwestern
Team Tampa 2 played press coverage in the first round, moving down to pick Alabama safety Mark Barron and moving up to grab Boise State running back Doug Martin. Both players should make an immediate impact. Barron was a two-time national champ and defensive leader for Nick Saban's Crimson Tide. Nebraska blackshirt backer Lavonte David and the West Virginia duo of linebacker Najee Goode and corner Keith Tandy rounded out a solid defensive draft for first-year coach Greg Schiano.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
20. Kendall Wright, WR, Baylor
52. Zach Brown, LB, North Carolina
82. Mike Martin, DT, Michigan
115. Coty Sensabaugh, CB, Clemson
145. Taylor Thompson, TE, SMU
190. Markelle Martin, S, Oklahoma State
211. Scott Solomon, DE, Rice
The Zach Brown Band is playing Music City. Problem is, NFL Network's Mike Mayock called the North Carolina linebacker "allergic to contact," to which Rich Eisen cracked, "can't you take Claritin for that?" Michigan defensive tackle Mike Martin and Clemson cornerback Coty Sensabaugh are excellent value picks. The surprise selection of Baylor receiver Kendall Wright may say more about the organization's lack of trust in Kenny Britt, whose injuries and off-field issues continue to mount.
Pick. Player, Pos., School
2. Robert Griffin III, QB, Baylor
71. Josh LeRibeus, G, SMU
102. Kirk Cousins, QB, Michigan State
119. Keenan Robinson, LB, Texas
141. Adam Gettis, G, Iowa
173. Alfred Morris, RB, Florida Atlantic
193. Tom Compton, T, South Dakota
213. Richard Crawford, CB, SMU
217. Jordan Bernstine, CB, Iowa
Robert Griffin III's old school Redskins color scheme "Go Catch Your Dreams" socks were a nice touch for the adidas spokesman who wore Superman socks to his victorious Heisman Trophy ceremony. A true dual-threat, RG3 is a seemingly a perfect fit for Mike Shanahan's version of the West Coast offense, which Steve Young, John Elway and Jay Cutler all thrived in since the early 1990s. The selection of Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins is a fascinating but logical one. RG3 and Cousins can compete and grow together, while giving Washington two potential leaders for the future. RG3 better be able to beat out Cousins for the top spot.
by Nathan Rush
The biggest busts in recent NFL Draft history — from Tony Mandarich to JaMarcus Russell, and the infamous Mike Mamula, Ryan Leaf, Akili Smith and Charles Rogers swings-and-misses in between.
1989 – 2. Green Bay Packers
Tony Mandarich, LT, Michigan State
Sports Illustrated cursed the roided-up man-child by featuring a shirtless Mandarich on the magazine’s draft issue cover and declaring “The Incredible Bulk” as “the best offensive line prospect ever.”
The larger-than-life 6’6”, 315-pound Mandarich idolized Arnold Schwarzenegger, rocked out with Axl Rose and told David Letterman that he wanted to fight Mike Tyson. And after inking a four-year, $4.4 million rookie deal, Mandarich did become the first $1 million-per-year O-lineman.
But the Mandarich tall tale quickly came crashing down. He has since admitted to a career built on anabolic steroids — Dianabol, Winstrol and Anavar — and demolished by painkillers — Vicodin, Valium, Percocet and Percodan.
It doesn’t help that Mandarich was surrounded by future Hall of Famers — UCLA quarterback Troy Aikman (1. Dallas Cowboys), Oklahoma State running back Barry Sanders (3. Detroit Lions), Alabama edge rusher Derrick Thomas (4. Kansas City Chiefs) and Florida State cornerback Deion Sanders (5. Atlanta Falcons) — in the 1989 NFL Draft. The Packers belly-flopped with a “can’t miss” left tackle.
1994 – 5. Indianapolis Colts
Trev Alberts, LB, Nebraska
“Who the hell is Mel Kiper?” Colts GM Bill Tobin infamously asked, after being called out by ESPN’s helmet-hair-gelled draft expert as a result of his selection of Alberts.
Kiper thought Indianapolis should have drafted Fresno State quarterback Trent Dilfer rather than Alberts, going so far as to say moves like this were why the Colts were “the laughingstock of the league year-in and year-out.”
“I think it’s a typical Colts move. I mean, here’s a team that needs a franchise quarterback. There are two (Tennessee’s Heath Shuler and Dilfer) out there. They have a chance at two; they don’t take them,” said Kiper, on the draft day telecast in 1994.
“They take an outside linebacker. And not even a true outside linebacker, somebody that has to learn coverage in Trev Alberts. … To pass up a Trent Dilfer, when all you have is Jim Harbaugh. Give me a break. That’s why the Colts are picking second every year in the draft and not battling for the Super Bowl like other clubs in the National Football League.”
Alberts was indeed a bust during his short three-year career in Indy. Meanwhile, Dilfer went on to lead the Baltimore Ravens to a win in Super Bowl XXXV — although some have given him the oxymoronic label as “worst quarterback ever to win a Super Bowl.” In fairness, the Colts did draft San Diego State running back Marshall Faulk, a Hall of Famer, with the No. 2 overall pick in 1994.
1995 – 7. Philadelphia Eagles
Mike Mamula, DE, Boston College
The original workout warrior weighed in at 6’4”, 250 pounds, ran a 4.58 in the 40-yard dash, skied 38.5 inches in the vertical leap, ripped off 26 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press and reportedly aced the Wonderlic test with a score of 49 out of a possible 50 at the annual Scouting Combine. As a result, the screaming Eagle soared up draft boards, while future stars like Miami defensive tackle Warren Sapp fell farther than expected once Commissioner Paul Tagliabue began mispronouncing names on draft day.
Mamula was mediocre for five seasons, but never lived up to the massive expectations that his massive biceps and calves caused at the Combine. To this day, self-loathing Philly fans claim Sapp was the guy they wanted over Mamula, while the beefed-up BC ‘tweener has become the poster boy for the potential dangers of relying too much on numbers at the Combine, a.k.a. the underwear Olympics.
1996 – 6. St. Louis Rams
Lawrence Phillips, RB, Nebraska
The Rams front office — led by Georgia Frontiere, the only female owner in the NFL —fell in love with Phillips, who was reportedly the No. 1 player on the team’s draft board despite a high-profile domestic assault case for which he was still serving probation.
To make matters worse, Phillips’ predecessor in St. Louis, Jerome Bettis, was traded to the Pittsburgh Steelers to make room for the Cornhusker star. “The Bus” went on to win Super Bowl XL in his hometown of Detroit; Phillips went on to play four seasons in the NFL, before bouncing around the Arena Football League, Canadian Football League and ultimately landing in the Los Angeles prison system — receiving a 31-year sentence for several felonies, notably multiple assault charges against his girlfriend and for running down three teens with his car following a sandlot football game gone wrong.
1998 – 2. San Diego Chargers
Ryan Leaf, QB, Washington State
People forget how heated the “Peyton Manning vs. Ryan Leaf” debate was back in 1998. Many so-called experts thought Leaf had a superior arm to Manning and an intangible swagger Archie’s boy did not have. The Chargers traded up from No. 3 overall to acquire the Cardinals’ No. 2 overall pick in order to ensure a shot at either Manning or Leaf. That year, ESPN: The Magazine concluded that Leaf “possesses an ‘I don’t give a crap’ attitude that has proven essential to Super Bowl quarterbacks from Stabler to McMahon to Favre. Come 2018, Ryan Leaf, not Manning, will be strutting up to a podium in Canton.”
Manning’s bust will certainly be on display at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio, five years after his retirement. Leaf is just a bust — having posted a 4–17 record with 3,666 yards, 14 TDs and 36 INTs over 25 games with the Chargers and Cowboys. Leaf was a team cancer on and off the field, alienating San Diego veterans such as Junior Seau and Rodney Harrison, and getting caught on tape threatening local reporters.
The story has only gotten worse since Leaf left the NFL. He is currently accused of breaking into homes and stealing prescription painkillers; he faces four felony counts in Montana, including burglary and criminal possession of a dangerous drug. In 2010, Leaf faced similar accusations as a golf coach at West Texas A&M; he was given 10 years probation as part of a plea bargain, a deal which is now in jeopardy pending the outcome of his new case in Montana.
1999 – 3. Cincinnati Bengals
Akili Smith, QB, Oregon
After only 11 college starts at Oregon, the athletic Smith — who was also a minor league baseball prospect — was selected behind Kentucky’s Tim Couch (No. 1 Cleveland Browns) and Syracuse’s Donovan McNabb (No. 2 Philadelphia Eagles), as the third quarterback taken in a class that was set to rival the 1983 crew that included John Elway, Jim Kelly and Dan Marino. The Class of 1999 had five quarterbacks taken in the first dozen picks — Couch, McNabb, Smith, UCF’s Daunte Culpepper (11. Minnesota Vikings) and UCLA’s Cade McNown (12. Chicago Bears).
The Bungles missed the mark yet again, as Smith reportedly struggled to learn the playbook and partied his way out of the league — posting a 3–14 record with 2,212 yards, five TDs and 13 INTs over 22 games in Cincinnati.
2000 – 1. Cleveland Browns
Courtney Brown, DE, Penn State
The original Jim Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Ravens in 1996. The expansion Courtney Browns were dropped in Cleveland by Paul Tagliabue in 1999. Mistakes by the lake have followed ever since.
With back-to-back No. 1 overall picks to start the franchise over from scratch, the Browns selected Kentucky quarterback Tim Couch in 1999 and Penn State defensive end Courtney Brown in 2000. Injuries kept Brown off the field and a sputtering motor kept him from making plays when he was on the field. Brown’s surname grade and Combine measurables were off-the-charts, but it was obvious to every brown-paper-bag wearing fan in the Dawg Pound that Brown was a classic case of “look like Tarzan, play like Jane.”
2003 – 2. Detroit Lions
Charles Rogers, WR, Michigan State
The local product was the first of four first-round receivers selected over a five-year span by Matt Millen — who picked Rogers at No. 2 overall (one spot ahead of Miami receiver Andre Johnson) in 2003, Texas’ Roy Williams at No. 7 in 2004, USC’s Mike Williams at No. 10 in 2005 and Georgia Tech’s Calvin Johnson at No. 2 in 2007.
Rogers suffered back-to-back broken collarbones to miss the majority of his first two seasons. Then, a failed drug test and coaching regime change in Detroit effectively ended the lanky wideout’s career after only 15 games, 36 catches for 440 yards and four TDs. Rogers was also forced to return much of his salary, since a failed drug test violated the terms of his rookie contract.
Recent run-ins with the law have included a DUI arrest, possession charge, driving with an open container, conspiring to commit a crime and making malicious phone calls.
2007 – 1. Oakland Raiders
JaMarcus Russell, QB, LSU
After the longest holdout since Bo Jackson chose baseball over the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1986, Russell broke the bank with a six-year, $61 million contract with $29 million guaranteed. It was all down hill after that. The theory that money makes a person more of whatever they already were was never more true that with Russell — who lived up to his reputation as lazy and out of shape, but failed to live up to his undeniably enormous potential.
Al Davis’ dreams of revitalizing the Raiders’ vertical passing attack were based on a mountain of a man (6’6”, 260) who could throw a football over 60 yards from his knees. The problem was, Russell couldn’t throw the ball from the pocket while on his feet. He also couldn’t stay awake in meetings or keep his weight in check. After going 25–4 as a starter at LSU, Russell struggled to a 7–18 record in the NFL with 4,083 yards, 18 TDs and 23 INTs in three seasons.
Sleep-walking through his highly paid NFL career, Russell was implicated in a codeine syrup drug bust in his native Mobile, Ala., but was not indicted by a grand jury for possession of the main ingredient in “purple drank” — a club concoction Russell unintentionally took from the Southern rap scene and introduced into mainstream sports talk. Russell has also faced six-figure tax debt and the foreclosure of his six-bedroom, $3 million Oakland mansion.
Other NFL Draft-Related Content
NFL Draft: A Look at First-Round Trades
2012 NFL Draft First-Round Primer
2012 NFL Draft: Ranking the Positions
2012 NFL Draft Sleepers and Steals
2012 NFL Draft Busts: Ryan Tannehill and Dontari Poe
NFL Draft History: Busts, Sleepers and Solid Picks - Part 1
NFL Draft History: Busts, Sleepers and Solid Picks - Part 2
2012 NFL Mock Draft: Our First-Round Projection
2012 NFL Draft Stock Watch
2012 NFL Draft: Andrew Luck vs. Robert Griffin III
Stanford’s Andrew Luck and Baylor’s Robert Griffin III are poised to become just the fifth pair of quarterbacks to be selected No. 1 and 2 overall in the draft since the NFL-AFL merger in 1970. Luck and RG3 are set to join Tim Couch and Donovan McNabb (1999), Peyton Manning and Ryan Leaf (1998), Drew Bledsoe and Rick Mirer (1993), and Jim Plunkett and Archie Manning (1971) in history.
Indianapolis Colts fans have been preparing for Luck’s arrival since the once proud franchise staggered to an 0–13 start with Peyton Manning sidelined due to multiple neck surgeries. Meanwhile, the Washington Redskins’ faithful have only recently locked in on RG3 — following a bold trade that sent the Skins’ first- and second-round picks in 2012 (Nos. 6 and 39 overall), as well as their first-rounders in 2013 and 2014 to the St. Louis Rams in exchange for the No. 2 overall pick.
Athlon Sports takes a look at the tale of the tape, pitting Luck vs. RG3 in every measurable and intangible attribute necessary to be a franchise quarterback at the next level.
LUCK: Born Sept. 12, 1989 in Washington, D.C., to Oliver and Kathy Luck. Father played quarterback at West Virginia and in the NFL for five years with the Houston Oilers, and is currently the athletic director at WVU.
RG3: Born Feb. 12, 1990 in Japan, where Robert Jr. and Jacqueline Griffin were stationed. Both parents are retired sergeants in the U.S. Army. Griffin is also recently engaged to Baylor’s Rebecca Liddicoat.
EDGE: Both have stable, two-parent homes and are essentially the same age. But LUCK comes from NFL bloodlines, which is always an advantage.
LUCK: 6’4”, 234 pounds, 32 5/8” arms
RG3: 6’2”, 223 pounds, 32 1/4” arms
EDGE: Both have the frame necessary to play quarterback in the NFL, where quarterbacks range from defensive end-sized Cam Newton (6’5”, 248 pounds, 33 3/4” arms) to barely big enough Drew Brees (6’0”, 209 pounds, 31 1/4” arms). LUCK has prototypical size.
LUCK: Raised by a former quarterback father and coached by 15-year NFL veteran signal-caller Jim Harbaugh. The NFL Coach of the Year and current San Francisco 49ers boss, “Captain Comeback” was instrumental in Luck’s development at Stanford, where Harbaugh coached from 2007-10.
In his final season at Stanford, Luck did his best Peyton Manning impression at the line of scrimmage. “We put the formation out there and let Andrew call the play. It’s 100 percent up to him to get us in the right play,” explained Cardinal coach David Shaw, who was Luck’s offensive coordinator prior to taking over the top spot.
RG3: Orchestrated Art Briles’ spread offense to perfection. Not to imply RG3 is a “system quarterback,” but Kevin Kolb (2003-06) and Case Keenum (2007) also put up video game gaudy numbers in Briles’ quick-strike attack when he coached at Houston.
EDGE: LUCK ran a pro-style offense in which he was the centerpiece play-caller and playmaker, a la Manning.
LUCK: Showed the heart of a champion in 2011 during a triple-overtime win over USC (56–48). Luck threw a costly pick-six to give the Trojans the lead with 3:08 remaining in regulation before marching the Cardinal downfield to tie the game with 38 ticks on the clock — before leading three TD drives in the overtime win. In 2010, Luck led a nine-play, 62-yard drive in the final 1:08 to set up a game-winning FG to beat USC (37–35) as time expired, and had a fourth-quarter comeback to take down Arizona State (17–14).
RG3: Proved to be a winner of the highest order in 2011, pulling off four come-from-behind wins in the fourth quarter or overtime — against TCU (50–48) in the season’s Friday night opener; at Kansas (31–30) after a three-TD fourth-quarter rally to force overtime; against No. 5 Oklahoma (45–38) on a thrilling 34-yard TD pass with eight seconds to play, resulting in Baylor’s highest-ranked upset win since 1985; and in his final collegiate contest in the Alamo Bowl against Washington (67–56). In 2010, Griffin came from behind at Texas (30–22) for Baylor’s first win in Austin since 1991.
EDGE: Both have had late-game heroics. Luck had fewer shining moments in the fourth quarter — due in large part to the talented BCS bowl (Orange in 2010, Fiesta in 2011) teams he played on. At times, RG3 seemingly was a one-man show, willing the Bears to victory.
LUCK: Owns the Pac-12 records for both single-season (71.3 percent) and career (67.0 percent) completion percentage.
RG3: Ranks third all-time in single-season (72.4 percent) and sixth all-time in career completion percentage (67.1 percent) in Big 12 history.
EDGE: Both LUCK and RG3 have shown touch on short and intermediate routes; the difference is negligible.
LUCK: Was famously criticized by Super Bowl-winning quarterback and CBS analyst Phil Simms. “The one thing I don’t see, I just don’t see big-time NFL throws. I don’t care what anybody says. I’ve watched a lot of him. He never takes it and rips it in there. And you can say what you want but, man, you’ve got to be able to crease that ball every once in a while,” said Simms. “There’s not a lot of rotation on the ball and there’s not a tremendous amount of power.”
RG3: Was able to utilize vertical deep threat — and likely NFL first-round pick — receiver Kendall Wright, who had at least one catch of 40 or more yards in six games and nine scoring grabs covering 30 or more yards last year.
EDGE: RG3 showed the ability and willingness to grip-it and rip-it downfield on a consistent basis. In fairness, Luck might have done the same if he had been fortunate enough to play with an NFL-caliber wideout with high-end speed.
RG3: 9 1/2”
EDGE: Protecting the football in the NFL can never be undervalued. It only helps to have big mits when trying to hold on to the ball in sloppy conditions or when being blindsided by a 300-pounder. LUCK has hands in the Drew Brees (10 1/4”) or Brett Favre (10 3/8”) range, while RG3 is in fringy Daunte Culpepper (9 1/2”) or Alex Smith (9 3/8”) territory.
LUCK: Missed a Sun Bowl loss to Oklahoma (31–27) as a redshirt freshman following the 2009 season due to surgery on his broken right index finger.
RG3: Granted medical redshirt after suffering a season-ending knee injury in the third game of his true sophomore season in 2009.
EDGE: LUCK only missed one game during his Stanford career; RG3 missed most of the 2009 season.
LUCK: Ran a 4.67 in the 40-yard dash, had a 36” vertical leap and a 10’4” broad jump at the Scouting Combine.
RG3: Ran a quarterback-record 4.41 in the 40, had a 39” vertical and 10’ broad jump at the Scouting Combine.
EDGE: Although Luck’s numbers were eerily similar to Cam Newton’s (4.59 in the 40, 35” vertical, 10’6” broad), RG3 dazzled the crowd in Indianapolis. Both are elite athletes compared to the majority of their quarterback peers.
LUCK: Passed for 9,430 yards, 82 TDs and 22 INTs. Rushed for 957 yards and seven TDs. Posted a 31–7 career record (1–1 in bowls). Won Walter Camp Foundation Player of the Year, Maxwell Trophy, Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year.
RG3: Passed for 10,366 yards, 78 TDs and 17 INTs. Rushed for 2,254 yards and 33 TDs. Posted a 23–18 career record (1–1 in bowls). Won Heisman Trophy, Davey O’Brien Award, Manning Award and Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year. Graduated with degree in political science.
EDGE: RG3 barely edges Luck in terms of complete body of work; the Heisman Trophy poses as a powerful tiebreaker.
LUCK: Signed with Nike; first ad explains that Andrew’s hard work “Makes His Luck.” Since shaving his 2011 offseason neck beard, Luck has been as clean cut as any college kid in the country.
RG3: Signed with adidas; wore gold adizero 5-Star shoes at the Combine and a “No Pressure, No Diamonds” adidas t-shirt while working out at his Pro Day and as a spectacled fan at the Baylor-Kentucky NCAA Tournament matchup in Atlanta. Also famously wore Superman socks to the Heisman Trophy ceremony in New York.
EDGE: LUCK probably has a higher Q Score due to his extended time in the spotlight, but RG3 has quickly established himself as a stylish brand to be reckoned with.
Both are extremely polished dealing with media and fans, understand exactly what is expected of them on and off the field, and appear to be mature enough to handle the responsibility of being the face of a nine-figure franchise.
Although the race to No. 1 is closer than anyone would have predicted at this time last year, LUCK remains the top quarterback in the 2012 NFL Draft. In the areas where RG3 has a clear edge, the gap is not significant enough to surpass Luck as the top passer available. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts where Luck is concerned; he is a worthy heir to Manning and deserves to be the No. 1 pick of the Indianapolis Colts on April 26.
by Nathan Rush
Other NFL Draft-Related Content
2012 NFL Draft First-Round Primer
2012 NFL Draft: Ranking the Positions
2012 NFL Draft Sleepers and Steals
2012 NFL Draft Busts: Ryan Tannehill and Dontari Poe
NFL Draft History: Busts, Sleepers and Solid Picks - Part 1
Biggest Busts in NFL Draft History
2012 NFL Mock Draft: Our First-Round Projection
2012 NFL Draft Stock Watch
John Calipari’s Kentucky Wildcats play Rick Pitino’s Louisville Cardinals in the Final Four on Saturday in a game that will determine the best team in the Commonwealth this season. But even if UK crushes the U of L, as expected, will Pitino still have bragging rights over Calipari?
This UK team appears to have transcended contemporary comparisons, moving on to the ranks of the all-time greats. But where do Calipari’s 2012 Cats stack up against Pitino’s national championship winning 1996 Untouchables?
Which is the best Kentucky basketball team ever? There are seven national champions — 1998, 1996, 1978, 1958, 1951, 1949 and 1948 — with an eighth (2012) possibly on the way.
2012: 36–2 overall, 16–0 SEC; suffered losses at Indiana and to Vanderbilt in the SEC title game. Advanced to the Final Four, where Louisville awaits.
1996: 34–2 overall, 16–0 SEC; suffered losses to No. 1 UMass, a team coached by Calipari and led by Marcus Camby, and Mississippi State in the SEC title game. Defeated Syracuse in the national championship game.
Edge: 1996. Both losses came against teams that ultimately made the Final Four, with Pitino’s Wildcats getting revenge against Calipari’s Minutemen in the national semifinals of the NCAA Tournament. The 1996 squad cut down the nets; only time will tell whether the 2012 team will win it all.
2012: The National Player of the Year, freshman Anthony Davis, averages 14.3 points on 63.3 percent shooting from the field and 71.2 percent from the free throw line, while adding 10.1 rebounds, 4.6 blocked shots and 1.3 steals per game. With a wingspan that seemingly stretches from end line to end line, Davis is the most intimidating defensive presence the college game has seen since Patrick Ewing. Eloy Vargas is essentially an emergency option with five free fouls to give.
1996: Senior Mark Pope played his role on a loaded roster, averaging 7.6 points, 5.1 rebounds and 1.2 blocked shots. Freshman big man Nazr Mohammed played a major role on Tubby Smith’s 1998 title team, but was a raw backup for Pitino in 1996.
Edge: 2012. Davis has been historically great, as the Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year and likely No. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.
2012: Freshman phenom Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and enigmatic sophomore Terrence Jones provide Coach Cal with a pair of versatile NBA talents capable of overpowering the opposition in the paint or dribble-driving from the perimeter. Kidd-Gilchrist averages 12 points and 7.6 rebounds per game and is generally perceived as the No. 2 prospect in the 2012 NBA Draft — behind only teammate Davis. Jones adds 12.6 points, 7.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots to the mix; his ability to man up and take over stretches of games is undercut by his oft-immature nature and semi-frequent run-ins with Calipari. Off the bench, senior Darius Miller brings defensive intensity and veteran leadership, while underrated freshman Kyle Wiltjer — who was a McDonald’s All-American out of high school — has a high basketball IQ dangerous outside shot.
1996: Antoine Walker was in his prime as a sophomore. The athletic point-forward who was a terror in the full court press — kicking balls on inbounds plays and trapping ball-handlers in corners with his lateral quickness — in no way resembled the overweight 3-point-happy ‘Toine from late in his NBA career. Walker averaged 15.2 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game as UK’s top all-around player since Jamal Mashburn. Senior Walter McCarty averaged 11.3 points, 5.7 boards, 2.6 assists and 1.4 blocked shots per game while teaming with Walker to give Pitino a dynamic duo capable of taking over at either end of the court. Freshman Ron Mercer was the consensus third-best prospect in his high school senior class, behind Chicago’s Kevin Garnett and New York’s Stephon Marbury. Mercer exemplifies the Cats’ otherworldly depth, averaging 8 points and 2.9 rebounds as an open court terror with a polished mid-range halfcourt game.
Edge: 1996. The length and skill set of Walker, McCarty and Mercer was amplified by the trio’s reliability, compared to the home run or strikeout quartet of Kidd-Gilchrist, Jones, Miller and Wiltjer.
2012: Sophomore combo guard Doron Lamb is the stabilizing influence on this year’s UK crew. A natural shooter with an instinctual feel for the game, Lamb averages 13.6 points while shooting an eye-popping 47.1 percent from the field, 47.1 percent (73-of-155) from 3-point range and 82.9 percent from the free throw line. The New York native is also a suffocating perimeter defender and capable point guard when the situation calls for him to become the primary ball-handler. Freshman Marquis Teague may be the X-factor where the 2012 squad’s national title hopes are concerned. A streak shooter with a ball hog streak, Teague averages 10 points and 4.8 assists; but tends to freelance at inopportune times more than any other player in blue.
1996: Senior bomber Tony Delk as named the NCAA Tournament’s Most Outstanding Player after hitting a record-tying seven 3-pointers against Syracuse in the national title game. A long-armed, pressing menace, Delk averaged 17.8 points while shooting 44.3 percent (93-of-210) from long range. Athletic junior wing Derek Anderson played his role to smooth perfection, averaging 9.4 points, 3.4 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.7 steals as a coast-to-coast fast break finisher and athletic defender. Junior Jeff Sheppard, freshman Wayne Turner and junior Anthony Epps were bit players off the bench in 1996 but played larger roles in the 1997 runner-up team that lost to Arizona in overtime of the national title game in Pitino’s last game as coach of Kentucky.
Edge: 1996. Delk and Anderson have the edge in experience, production and athleticism over Lamb and Teague. Depth also is in favor of 1996, with Sheppard, Turner and Epps all capable of producing in big game minutes.
2012: John Calipari is in his coaching prime. No one in the country is better.
1996: Rick Pitino was in his coaching prime. No one in the country was better.
Tie: The 2012 Calipari and 1996 Pitino are nearly mirror images of each other — a fact that fuels the pair’s ongoing personal and professional feud.
The 2012 Kentucky Wildcats may be better at the very top, but the 1996 Kentucky Wildcats were undeniably deep and had a habit of wearing down their opponents with a suffocating full court press on defense and a wide open, bombs away offense that was nearly unstoppable in the open court. Nine players from the 1996 roster went on to play in the NBA; seven saw action in the title game victory.
This year’s UK team is one of the best in the history of college basketball; it’s just not the No. 1 team in the rich history of Kentucky basketball.
NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: West Region
Top Dog — Michigan State (1)
Coach Tom Izzo punched the ticket to his 10th Sweet 16, thanks in no small part to his all-everything point forward Draymond Green. No insult intended Steve Smith, but Sparty has not seen a super-sized talent like Green since Magic was still Earvin Johnson in East Lansing. When times got tough in a hard-fought 65-61 win over Saint Louis, Green took control on both ends of the floor, handling the ball, scoring and play-making on the perimeter on offense while rebounding and intimidating in the paint on defense. Green, who went for 16 points, 13 rebounds and six assists against the Billikens, is joined by talented guard Keith Appling on a balanced squad capable of cutting down the nets in New Orleans.
Underdog – Florida (7)
On paper, Florida had a favorable Round of 32 matchup against similarly undersized No. 2 seed Missouri. But as fate would have it, Mizzou was ousted early by No. 15 seed Norfolk State. Two-time national champion coach Billy Donovan would have no such problem, however, as UF toppled the Spartans 84-50. A streaky hot team with too many guards (Erving Walker, Kenny Boyton, Bradley Beal) to guard, Florida shot lights out against Norfolk State, hitting 28-of-53 from the field (52.8 percent) and 10-of-28 from downtown (35.7 percent). Billy the Kid's team will be tough to beat if they keep their hot hand and big men Patric Young and Erik Murphy stay out of foul trouble.
Player to Watch – Darius Johnson-Odom, Marquette (3)
Numero Uno in Marquette's all-out athletic attack, Darius Johnson-Odom is hoping to lead the Golden Eagles to their first Final Four since D-Wade carried the club on his back in 2003. Unlike Tom Crean's crew, however, coach Buzz Williams' team will not rely solely on a singular talent to stay alive. Instead, Marquette's duo of Johnson-Odom and forward Jae Crowder will do the damage. The tag team combined for 34 of MU's 62 points and 15 of the Eagles' 36 rebounds during a 62-53 win over Murray State to advance to the Sweet 16.
Opening Weekend Upset – Norfolk State (15) over Missouri (2)
Heading into the Big Dance, the knock on Mizzou was its lack of size. And Norfolk State center Kyle O'Quinn couldn't have come up bigger in a David vs. Goliath matchup where David outweighed Goliath down low. The 6'10", 240-pound O'Quinn recorded 26 points, 14 rebounds and two blocked shots in an historic 86-84 victory for the Spartans.
Irish Bracket Bomb
“I got a lot of those clovers, texting me, ‘Good luck, good luck, Kyle O’Quinn win!’ I had to leave my phone at the hotel because I was getting too many of those kinds of messages.” — Norfolk State’s Kyle O’Quinn, whose Irish surname and green-and-gold Spartan teammates proved to be good luck on St. Patrick’s Day weekend.
NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: Midwest Region
Top Dog — North Carolina (1)
After getting shot-swatting forward John Henson back from a wrist injury suffered in the ACC Tournament, the Tar Heels suffered an even worse blow when ambidextrous assist man Kendall Marshall went down with a wrist injury of his own in the Round of 32 against overmatched Creighton. Fortunately, two-time national champion coach Roy Williams has one of the deepest rosters in the land. Harrison Barnes (17 points, five rebounds) was outscored and outrebounded by his Ames (Iowa) High School teammate, Creighton's Doug McDermott (20 points, nine rebounds), in their head-to-head reunion. The superb sophomore will be counted on to raise his game to another level, as will senior center Tyler Zeller, if the Tar Heels have any hopes of reaching the Final Four in New Orleans without a full strength effort from either Marshall or Henson.
Underdog – Ohio (13)
The Bobcats are moving on to their first Sweet 16 in school history after emotional wins over No. 4 seed Michigan, 65-60, and No. 12 "First Four" play-in South Florida, 62-56. Ohio hit 9-of-18 from 3-point range against USF after going 15-of-17 from the free throw line against the Maize and Blue. A combination of both hot streaks might be necessary in order to pull off an upset of heavily favored North Carolina in St. Louis.
Player to Watch – Lorenzo Brown, NC State (11)
The Wolfpack guard has been a statsheet stuffer in upset wins over San Diego State (6) and Georgetown (3). The 6'5" sophomore averaged 14.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 7.5 assists and 1.5 steals over his first two games in the Dance. There was little Brown could not do for NC State when it mattered most against the Hoyas, as the clutch playmaker hit three crucial free throws in the final 10.6 seconds of a thrilling 66-63 victory.
Injury Update – Kendall Marshall, North Carolina (1)
First Syracuse's Fab Melo and now UNC's Kendall Marshall; Kentucky's Anthony Davis and Michigan State's Draymond Green better watch out, because the most indispensable players on the No. 1 seeds in this year's NCAA Tournament are dropping like flies. While Melo is done, Marshall is holding out hope after breaking a bone in his right (non-shooting) wrist. The pass-first sophomore point guard is the conductor of Carolina's offensive orchestra. NBA Lottery talents Harrison Barnes and Tyler Zeller will have a tough time without Marshall, who is nearly irreplaceable following the season-ending ACL injury to backup point guard Dexter Strickland earlier this year.
Lefty Still Loose
"Luckily it's my right hand. If it was my left hand, then we'd probably have some problems. But we'll take it day-by-day and figure it out." - North Carolina point guard Kendall Marshall, a southpaw who suffered a broken bone in his right wrist during an 87-73 win over Creighton to advance to the Sweet 16.
NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: East Region
Top Dog — Syracuse (1)
The Syracuse Orange continued their strange season — which has included the Bernie Fine sex abuse scandal, failed drug test rumors and multiple academic suspensions of center Fab Melo — on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. The Orange advanced to the Sweet 16, but it wasn’t as easy as expected for a No. 1 seed. Coach Jim Boeheim’s club struggled to a 72–65 victory over UNC-Asheville (16) in a game that included multiple controversial calls, including a late lane violation and tipped ball out of bounds that both went against Asheville. Cuse played better in a 75–59 win over Kansas State (8), but were far from the terrifying team that went 33–2 overall and 17–1 in the Big East this year. Up next, Wisconsin (4) is playing with confidence and has no problem with winning ugly, a tactic Syracuse has only recently discovered.
Underdog – Cincinnati (6)
The Bearcats are battle-tested. Cincy ran through the Big East Tournament, until falling short against Louisville in the conference's first title game featuring two teams that were not original members. Then, Mick Cronin's No. 6-seeded club scrapped past No. 11 Texas, 65-59, and No. 3 Florida State, 62-56, all the way to the Sweet 16. Two of the four teams from Ohio square off when Cincinnati tips off against Ohio State in Boston on Thursday night. The big brother Buckeyes will have their hands full, especially OSU's five-star sophomore "Big Sully" Jared Sullinger, who will go toe-to-toe with 6'9", 260-pound senior tough guy Yancy Gates.
Missing in Action – Fab Melo, Syracuse (1)
Jim Boeheim's signature 2-3 zone in no way resembles the suffocating matchup nightmare it did when 7-foot Brazilian shot-blocker Fab Melo patrolled the Orange paint. The heart of SU's defense has been ripped out of the middle, in the middle of the heart of the season due to ongoing academic issues. Syracuse still has leaders like guards Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine; but at this point in the year, there is no replacement for the type of impact Melo provided defensively. Amazing, considering Melo was thought to be a "bust" by many knee-jerks reacting at this point during his freshman season last year. Don't be shocked if Wisconsin pulls off an upset against the Fab-less five of Syracuse.
“It was more a matter of the ball not going in. All of my shots pretty much felt good. They just were a little bit short or a little bit too long. Things like that happen in basketball. The ball isn’t always going to bounce your way.” – Vanderbilt senior Jeffery Taylor (4-of-12), who combined with SEC scoring leader John Jenkins (3-of-13) to shoot 7-of-25 from the field and 3-of-14 from 3-point range in a loss to Wisconsin.
NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 Preview: South Region
Top Dog — Kentucky (1)
As expected, the Kentucky Wildcats dominated their first two opponents, averaging 84 points per game and a 15.5-point margin of victory en route to wins over in-state rival Western Kentucky (16) and Iowa State (8). National Player of the Year candidate Anthony Davis averaged 15.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, 4.5 blocked shots and four assists in the first two NCAA Tournament games of his career, while sophomore Terrence Jones (22 points, 10 rebounds vs. WKU) and freshman Marquis Teaque (24 points, 7 assists vs. ISU) each had shining moments over the weekend. In the Sweet 16, coach John Calipari’s crew will have a chance to avenge its 73-72 loss at Indiana on Dec. 10, 2011 — one of only two losses UK has suffered this season.
Underdog – Xavier (10)
The Musketeers relied on center Kenny Frease (25 points, 12 rebounds) and point guard Tu Holloway (21 points) to advance past No. 15 seed Lehigh, 70-58, holding Duke-slayer C.J. McCollum to 14 points on just 5-of-22 shooting. One of four teams from the state of Ohio in the Sweet 16, Xavier will face Baylor in a 3-10 pairing of athletic clubs that push the pace and know how to put a highlight reel together. The Bears surely expected a showdown with Duke at this point; the X-Men from Cincy present a mutant matchup with upset written all over it.
Blue State, Red State Rematch – Kentucky (1) vs. Indiana (4)
Earlier this year, Big Blue Nation had illusions of grandeur, thoughts of the first undefeated season since Indiana went 32-0 to win the 1976 national title. That is, until IU's Christian Watford hit a game-winning 3-pointer at the buzzer to hand the Wildcats their first of two losses this season. Coach Cal's team lost to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament title game three months after the Indiana defeat; but the Cats are 2-1 against the Dores, they are 0-1 vs. the Hoosiers. Kentucky fans are eager to face Indiana coach Tom Crean, since the former Marquette leader lacks 2003 Elite Eight Cat-killer Dwyane Wade this time around.
Opening Weekend Upset – Lehigh (15) over Duke (2)
The Patriot League champions from Lehigh shocked the traditional ACC powerhouse of Duke, as a No. 15 seed upset a No. 2 seed for the second time in the tournament — after No. 15 Norfolk State defeated No. 2 Missouri earlier in the evening — and for the first time since Hampton took down Iowa State on March 16, 2001. For at least one night, Mountain Hawks junior C.J. McCollum was every bit as good as any player residing on Tobacco Road — with 30 points, six rebounds, six assists and two steals in 39 minutes. Fitting, McCollum’s two made free throws clinched the 75–70 victory with 0.4 second remaining.
Fortune Favors the Bold
“They were very bold. They were very bold the entire game. We started the game tentative and at different times, we seemed very tentative on the offensive end and they were bold throughout.” – Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski, following a shocking upset to No. 15 seed Lehigh.
“Straight gold, homey?”
Randy Moss has agreed to a one-year deal with the San Francisco 49ers following a workout with coach Jim Harbaugh — who threw passes to Moss after picking up the 35-year-old future Hall of Famer from the airport.
“I was very appreciative of him doing that,” said Moss, regarding Harbaugh’s chauffer service. “I mean, the head coach picking a guy up — think about that.”
Not only did Harbaugh shuttle Moss from the airport to the 49ers’ team facilities, the 15-year NFL veteran signal-caller-turned-coach showed that Captain Comeback has a few bullets left in his 48-year-old right arm, serving as Moss’ personal combine quarterback.
“We had a lot of fun,” said Moss. “It’s just a pleasure to be able to get back in the league, and really get back to what I want to do and that’s play football.”
The previously retired Moss sat out the 2011 season following a disastrous 2010 campaign in which he recorded a combined 28 catches for 393 yards and five TDs for the Patriots (4 games), Vikings (4) and Titans (8). Now, the greatest deep threat in history — a wideout who has amassed 954 catches for 14,858 yards and 153 TDs since exploding onto the scene in 1998 — is set to run a few more go-routes, after taking a year off.
“I’m not a free agent. I’m a guy straight off the couch, straight off the street,” said Moss. “They’ve done their homework on me or they wouldn’t have brought me in here.”
After posting a 13-3 regular season record and advancing to overtime of the NFC Championship Game before losing to the eventual Super Bowl XLVI champion Giants last year, San Francisco hopes Moss adds a vertical, over-the-top threat to the passing attack without bringing an over-the-top distraction into the locker room.
The 49ers are in a no-lose situation, however. Their one-year commitment is risk-free. If any problems arise, Harbaugh will slap Moss on the back like he’s Jim Schwartz and tell him to take a hike like he’s Braylon Edwards. But if everything works out as planned, a motivated Moss could be the missing piece in San Fran’s solid gold Super Bowl puzzle.
“I know this organization wants the Super Bowl,” said Moss. “With all the success they’ve had (in 2011), hopefully we can keep it going and give these 49ers fans something to keep screaming about.”
Moss gives the 49ers flexibility in the draft and free agency. With tight end Vernon Davis fresh off of a Jerry Rice effort in the playoffs — with 10 catches for 292 yards and four TDs in two games — and fourth-year wide receiver Michael Crabtree struggling to get downfield separation, Moss will give quarterback Alex Smith a legitimate deep target that (in theory) will open up the field and keep defenses from stacking the box to stop Pro Bowl running back Frank Gore. The 6’4”, 210-pound Moss also brings his springs, as a legendary leaper capable of dominating in the red zone and capitalizing on jump ball opportunities in the end zone — no matter how old he may be.
“I’ll hurry up and know what my role’s going to be and hopefully that’s catching touchdowns,” said Moss.
“I’m here to play some football. I know there’s a great core of guys here and they’re young. By me being 35 years old, hopefully they don’t buy a wheelchair, or no rocker or no old man stuff, because I’m still young. I feel it.”
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Kentucky (1), Duke (2)
The Kentucky Wildcats (32–2, 16–0 SEC) enter the Big Dance as the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament, despite suffering their second loss of the season to Vanderbilt in the SEC Tournament title game. In his third season at UK, coach John Calipari has assembled the most talented team in the country. The Cats are anchored by shot-swatting freshman center Anthony Davis (14.3 ppg, 10.0 rpg, 4.7 bpg) — the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft — whose talented supporting cast includes freshman wing Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (12.0 ppg, 7.8 rpg), sophomore shooter Doron Lamb (13.3 ppg, 47.4 3PT%), sophomore forward Terrence Jones (12.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg), freshman point guard Marquis Teaque (9.7 ppg, 4.7 apg) and senior glue guy Darius Miller (9.4 ppg). After making the Elite Eight and Final Four in Coach Cal’s first two seasons, Kentucky fans are hoping the third time is the charm; anything less than a net-cutting ceremony in New Orleans on Monday night, April 2, will be a disappointment in Big Blue Nation.
The Duke Blue Devils (27–6, 13–3 ACC) have been a different team since freshman scorer Austin Rivers (15.4 ppg) hit the shot heard ‘round the world to beat North Carolina on a deep 3-pointer over 7-footer Tyler Zeller as time expired in Chapel Hill. Doc Rivers’ son secured his place in Duke-Carolina lore while also establishing himself as the go-to guy on this year’s Duke squad. Coach Mike Krzyzewski has won four national championships (1991, 1992, 2001, 2010), played in eight national title games and made 11 trips to the Final Four. But Coach K has never had a team quite like this one. The Devils are an inside-outside bunch with no Grant Hill or Shane Battier type on the wing. Duke lives by the 3-point shot — where Rivers, Seth Curry (13.4 ppg), Ryan Kelly (11.8 ppg) and Andre Dawkins (8.5 ppg) have combined to hit 39.1 percent (225-of-576) from long range. The Plumlee brothers (Mason and Miles) and Kelly can clean up the glass down low, but Duke will likely live by the three or die by the three in the Tourney.
Player to Watch – Perry Jones III, Baylor (3)
This season, Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin III morphed into the iconic, Heisman Trophy-winning superhero now known simply as “RG3” among NFL Draft watchers and Redskins fans. NBA scouts are eager to see if Jones will become “PJ3” by making a splash in the NCAA Tournament. After returning to school despite his reputation as a sure one-and-done recruit, the 6’11”, 235-pound sophomore averaged a respectable 14.0 points and 7.7 rebounds. But more was expected from the skillful forward, who will have his chance to make a new name for himself on the national stage.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – UNLV (6)
These may not be Jerry Tarkanian’s Runnin’ Rebels, but first-year coach Dave Rice was a player on the 1990 national championship squad led by Larry Johnson, so these Rebels certainly have a Vegas edge to them. A pair of UCLA transfers — Mike Moser (14.1 ppg, 10.6 rpg) and Chase Stanback (12.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg) — are joined by the unselfish backcourt duo of local legend Anthony Marshall (12.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 4.6 apg) and senior Oscar Bellfield (9.8 ppg, 5.3 apg), giving UNLV a chance to run to the second weekend of the Big Dance, where a potential rematch of the 1991 title game with Duke awaits.
Upset Pick – VCU (12) over Wichita State (5)
Coach Shaka Smart led VCU to the Final Four as one of the inaugural “First Four” play-in teams last season. Now the CAA Tournament champions will square off with the Missouri Valley regular season champs from Wichita State in a battle of the mid-majors. Senior slasher Bradford Burgess (13.3 ppg, 4.9 rpg) was a key contributor during last year’s run and will be counted on to take over if the Rams hope to Shaka the Shockers.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – North Carolina (1), Kansas (2)
The North Carolina Tar Heels (29–5, 14–2 ACC) were the preseason No. 1 team in the country in nearly every poll, including Athlon Sports’ preseason top 25. And although UNC is still stacked — with all-world sophomore wingman Harrison Barnes (17.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg), 7-foot senior center Tyler Zeller (16.4 ppg, 9.2 rpg), shot-blocking junior forward John Henson (13.8 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 2.9 bpg) and pass-first point guard Kendall Marshall (7.5 ppg, 9.7 apg) — there are more questions circling the Tar Heels in March than there were in November, when Carolina opened the year with a win over Michigan State on the flight deck of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier. The Tar Heels’ toughness and end-game finishing ability are issues of concern in Chapel Hill. Coach Roy Williams has won two national titles (2005, 2009) at North Carolina and been to a combined seven Final Fours (at UNC and Kansas). The question is whether or not this year’s team can win it all in New Orleans — the city in which Dean Smith won his two national championships, in 1982 and 1993.
The Kansas Jayhawks (27–6, 16–2 Big 12) are led by a national player of the year candidate in 6’10” junior Thomas Robinson (17.9 ppg, 11.8 rpg) and a senior point guard in Tyshawn Taylor (17.3 ppg, 4.8 apg). But KU is far from a two-man team; junior combo guard Elijah Johnson (9.6 ppg, 3.8 apg), 7-foot junior Jeff Withey (9.3 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.3 bpg) and junior slasher Travis Releford (8.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) give coach Bill Self the type of veteran experience and leadership most powerhouse programs have not seen in decades. The Jayhawks have no bad losses on their resume — with all six defeats coming against NCAA Tournament teams (Kentucky, Duke, Davidson, Iowa State, Missouri, Baylor) — and will be a tough out once the ball is tipped on this year’s Tourney. Still, doubters will continue to point to Self’s back-to-back first round exits in 2005 and 2006, when Kansas was a No. 3 and No. 4 seed, respectively.
Player to Watch – Tim Hardaway Jr., Michigan (4)
The heir to the UTEP two-step fortune, Hardaway Jr. (14.6 ppg, 3.9 rpg) does not have the same killer crossover as his old man but he does have the same killer instinct in big games. The 6’6” sophomore from Miami has become the centerpiece of the Wolverines’ attack. Michigan had a 4–5 record in games the remarkably consistent Hardaway scored 10 or fewer points; the Maize-and-Blue’s other four losses were against Duke, Indiana and Ohio State twice — big time competition Hardaway averaged 16.5 points per game against.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Temple (5)
A veteran backcourt trio consisting of senior Philly native Ramone Moore (17.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.5 apg), junior combo guard Khalif Wyatt (17.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 3.4 apg) and senior Argentine point guard Juan Fernandez (11.4 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 3.9 apg) — all of whom are 6’4” matchup nightmares — lead an Owls club that has a high basketball IQ collectively. As a team, Temple shoots 47.2 percent from the field, 71.8 percent from the free throw line and 40.2 percent from 3-point range, all while averaging 23 assists-plus-steals compared to 13 turnovers per game.
Upset Pick – Belmont (14) over Georgetown (3)
Coach Rick Byrd has over 500 wins at Belmont, but has yet to notch his first victory in the NCAA Tournament — despite coming painfully close against Duke (71–70) in 2008. This could be the year that changes. Bruins are making their fifth trip to the NCAA Tournament in seven seasons with a team that has six players who average between 8.5 and 14.1 points per game. Junior point guard Kerron Johnson (14.1 ppg, 5.2 apg) runs the show and will need to be a difference maker against Georgetown — the school that beat Belmont 80–55 in 2007.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Syracuse (1), Ohio State (2)
The Syracuse Orange (31–2, 17–1 Big East) are a No. 1 seed for the third time in program history. Coach Jim Boeheim has a deep and talented roster capable of locking down the opposition on defense, with the Orange’s signature stingy 2-3 zone. Brazilian big man Fab Melo (7.8 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 2.9 bpg) patrols the paint with authority, blocking and altering shots near the rim. Syracuse is a different team with a focused Melo on the floor, but the 7-footer has a tendency to lose his cool and will need to avoid foul trouble if he hopes to follow in the footsteps of the original Melo, Carmelo Anthony, who led SU to its only national title in 2003. Offensively, 6’7” senior Kris Joseph (13.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and sophomore guard Dion Waiters (12.6 ppg) reliably carry the bulk of the scoring load; junior Brandon Triche (9.3 ppg), 6’8” sophomore C.J. Fair (8.6 ppg, 5.5 apg) and senior point guard Scoop Jardine (8.3 ppg, 4.7 apg) are each capable of turning in big numbers on any given night.
The Ohio State Buckeyes (27–7, 13–5 Big Ten) lost a hard-fought Big Ten title game to Michigan State but enter the Big Dance with a team capable of making a run to New Orleans. The Buckeyes orbit around sophomore center Jared Sullinger (17.5 ppg, 9.3 rpg), a physical force on both ends of the floor. “Big Sully” is playing his best ball when it matters most, averaging 24 points, nine boards and two blocked shots per game during the Big Ten Tourney. Sullinger is flanked by a pair of sweet-shooting, versatile forwards in sophomore Deshaun Thomas (15.5 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and senior William Buford (14.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg), while sophomore Aaron Craft (8.6 ppg, 4.6 apg, 2.4 spg) competently mans the point. Coach Thad Matta has led OSU to back-to-back Sweet 16 appearances; yet despite bringing some of the nation’s top talent to Columbus, Matta has only one Final Four berth — as national runners-up with Greg Oden in 2007 — since taking over in 2004.
Player to Watch – Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin (4)
The success of coach Bo Ryan’s deliberate tempo is predicated on his senior point guard’s ability to make plays with the shot clock winding down. Taylor (14.7 ppg, 4.0 apg, 3.7 rpg) is a tough-as-nails floor general who personifies the Badgers’ brand of ball. Wisconsin lacks the athleticism to run with the majority of the field of 68, but few teams have the caliber of coach on the floor that Taylor provides UW.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Vanderbilt (5)
Can a team that started the year ranked in the top 10 nationally and ended the season by beating Kentucky in the SEC title game even be considered a Sweet 16 sleeper? Vanderbilt has NBA-caliber, veteran talent on every level — with junior sharpshooter John Jenkins (20.0 ppg, 45.3 3PT%), senior lockdown defender Jeffery Taylor (16.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and 6’11” senior center Festus Ezeli (9.7 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 2.0 bpg). But coach Kevin Stallings’ squad is also on a three-Tourney run of first-round losses and fresh off an emotional SEC Tournament title — VU’s first since 1951.
Upset Pick – West Virginia (10) over Gonzaga (7)
Say what you will about the man’s personality, but Bob Huggins is a proven NCAA Tournament tactician. “Huggy Bear” has only missed the Big Dance twice (2007 at Kansas State and 2006, when he was not coaching) and failed to advance to the second round just once (2009 at West Virginia) since Cincinnati joined Conference USA in 1995; Huggins is 13–1 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament during that time. Senior forward Kevin Jones (20.1 ppg, 11.1 rpg) and senior guard Truck Bryant (17.2 ppg) don’t want to end their careers as outliers in Huggins’ math madness of March.
2012 NCAA Tournament
Top Two – Michigan State (1), Missouri (2)
The Michigan State Spartans (27–7, 13–5 Big Ten) locked up the fourth No. 1 seed by beating Ohio State in the Big Ten Tournament title game — after sharing the conference’s regular season crown with the Buckeyes. Coach Tom Izzo seems to be in the Iz-zone in March; MSU’s main man has led the Spartans to six Final Four appearances, and is aiming for his third trip in four years. Senior “dancing bear” point forward Draymond Green (16.2 ppg, 10.4 rpg, 3.6 apg) does it all for Sparty, presenting a 6’7”, 230-plus-pound matchup nightmare for opponents due to his rare combination of interior size and perimeter skills. Sophomore sensation Keith Appling (11.5 ppg, 3.9 apg) and senior Valparaiso transfer Brandon Wood (8.3 ppg) provide steady backcourt play, while junior heavyweight Derrick Nix (7.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and 6’10” sophomore Adreian Payne (6.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) bring the signature toughness of Izzo’s teams to the paint.
The Missouri Tigers (30–4, 14–4 Big 12) are the biggest surprise of the 2011-12 college basketball season. After going 23–11 (8–8 Big 12) and losing in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in Mike Anderson’s final year, the Tigers have been on a tear in Frank Haith’s first season on the job — and Mizzou’s final year in the Big 12, before jumping to the SEC next season. The Tigers’ three primary ball-handlers — senior Marcus Denmon (17.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg), junior Michael Dixon (13.3 ppg) and sophomore Phil Pressey (10.0 ppg, 6.3 apg) — combined to shoot 85.2 percent (317-of-372) from the free-throw line this year. But Mizzou is undeniably undersized. Wingman Kim English is 6’6” but prefers to hang out downtown (14.9 ppg, 47.3 3PT%). That leaves the onus on 6’8”, 240-pound senior Ricardo Ratliffe (13.9 ppg, 7.5 rpg) and 6’9”, 270-pound senior Steve Moore to do the dirty work.
Player to Watch – Bradley Beal, Florida (7)
The Gators are a guard-heavy, 3-point shooting squad led by diminutive dynamos Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker, who combined to shoot UF all the way to the Elite Eight last year. Florida really only has two big men, Patric Young and Erik Murphy. But coach Billy Donovan has Beal, a 6’3” freshman who can score (14.6 ppg), rebound (6.5 rpg) and pass (2.2 apg). If the Gators are able to survive a tough 7-10 draw against Virginia, they match up well against size-challenged Missouri — if Beal can maintain his recent SEC Tournament statline of 18 points, 7.5 boards and five assists per game.
Sweet 16 Sleeper – Murray State (6)
The Racers are the Rodney Dangerfield of the bracket, getting no respect from the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee despite posting a 30–1 record that included a 23–0 start to the season and wins over Memphis and Saint Mary’s. Underrated junior guard Isaiah Canaan (19.2 ppg) will have his chance on the hardcourt, however. Murray State should be given a home team’s welcome during the opening weekend in Louisville, which is an easy four-hour drive from Murray, Ky.
Upset Pick – Long Beach State (12) over New Mexico (5)
The 49ers started the year with a 4–5 record — following losses to NCAA Tournament competition from North Carolina, Kansas, Louisville, San Diego State and Montana — but ended on a 21–3 run, locking up both the Big West regular season and postseason crowns. Steve Alford’s New Mexico club is everyone’s darling heading into the Dance, but the senior trio of point guard Casper Ware (17.4), wing Larry Anderson (14.0 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and big man T.J. Robinson (12.0 ppg, 10.1 rpg) will play the role of Cinderella when the clock strikes zero.
After Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III wowed scouts over the weekend, Memphis nose tackle Dontari Poe stole the show at the NFL Scouting Combine when the defensive prospects took to the field-turf at Lucas Oil Stadium on Monday and Tuesday.
Poe weighed in at 6’4” and 346 pounds, as the fourth heaviest prospect since 2000 — just eight pounds lighter than the 354 pounds that Alabama’s Terrence Cody shamefully tipped the scales at in 2010. Unlike Cody, however, Poe was in tip-top shape, ready to run, jump and lift.
Before Daytona International Speedway caught fire on Monday night, there was a jet-fueled nose tackle torching the track in Indianapolis on Monday morning. Despite being just under 350 pounds, Poe ran a scorching 4.98 in the 40 yard dash. The time was nearly a full second faster than Cody’s 5.71 two years ago and a hair quicker than the 5.03 run by Ndamukong Suh, who worked out at 307 pounds and was drafted No. 2 overall that same year.
Along with a fast 40, Poe posted a 1.70 in his 10-yard split, showing the type of short-distance explosion more common to a hybrid end-linebacker edge rusher than for a zero-technique nose tackle. But Poe isn’t just a 350-pound track star; he also ripped off a Combine-best 44 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, an eye-popping 29.5-inch vertical leap and an 8’9” broad jump.
Several of Poe’s defensive tackle peers and first-round candidates looked good, but not nearly as good — including Mississippi State’s Fletcher Cox (4.79 in the 40, 30 reps on bench press), Connecticut’s Kendall Reyes (36 reps on bench press, 34.5-inch vertical) and Clemson’s Brandon Thompson (35 reps on bench press, 31-inch vertical).
From head to toe, this year’s defensive end class was more impressive. South Carolina stud Melvin Ingram — who worked out with the D-linemen but will likely be a 3-4 outside backer at the next level — continued his ascension up draft boards. Ingram ran a 4.79 in the 40, 4.18 in the 20-yard shuttle, 6.83 in the 3-cone drill and posted a 34.5-inch vertical at 264 pounds, while also lifting 225 pounds 28 times on the bench press.
Ingram’s close friend, North Carolina’s Quinton Coples, won the weight in — at 6’6”, 284 pounds and 33 1/4” arm length, compared to Ingram’s 6’1”, 264 pounds and 31 1/2” arms. A classic 4-3 end, Coples also performed well in drills, running a 4.78 in the 40, lifting 25 reps of 225 and skying for a 31.5-inch vertical.
USC’s Nick Perry, another likely stand up guy in a 3-4 scheme, was a workout warrior — with a 4.64 in the 40, 35 reps of 225, a 38.5-inch vertical and 10’4” broad jump at 271 pounds. Those totals stack up favorably to 2006 No. 1 overall pick Mario Williams, who ran a 4.66, lifted 35 reps and had a 40.5-inch vertical at 295 pounds.
Illinois’ Whitney Mercilus is a 4-3 end who led the nation with 16 sacks and nine forced fumbles in 2011, then had a respectable showing at the Combine — with a 4.68 in the 40, 27 reps on the bench and a 32-inch vertical. Clemson’s Andre Branch, likely a 3-4 outside backer, ran a 4.70, had a 32.5-inch vertical and an impressive 10’ broad jump.
Among linebackers, Boston College tackling machine Luke Kuechly stood out — running a 4.58 in the 40, a 4.12 in the 20-yard shuttle, lifting 27 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, posting a 38-inch vertical leap and a 10’3” broad jump. NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock — a B.C. alum — gave the 6’3”, 242-pound backer the Matt Ryan treatment and it was well deserved.
The Alabama slammer duo of Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw did not go through a complete workout. But Hightower impressed with a 4.68 in the 40 at 6’2” and 265 pounds, and Upshaw weighed in at an imposing 6’2” and 272 pounds. Expect the entire NFL scouting community to be in attendance at Alabama’s Pro Day on March 7. After all, this year’s Crimson Tide draft class just won Nick Saban two BCS national titles in three seasons.
Arizona State head case Vontaze Burfict entered Indy with question marks swirling around and did little to answer them on the field. Burfict seemed unprepared for Combine combat, running a sluggish 5.09 in the 40 — slower than Poe despite the Sun Devil being nearly 100 pounds lighter.
On Tuesday, the defensive backs held their track meet, with Central Florida’s Josh Robinson winning the foot race by posting a Combine-best 4.33 in the 40-yard dash — to go along with a stellar 38.5-inch vertical and 11’1” broad jump. LSU gunner Ron Brooks ran 4.37 and South Carolina’s Stephon Gilmore posted a 4.40 in shorts.
The top two cornerbacks were clearly LSU’s Jim Thorpe award-winner Morris Claiborne and North Alabama’s talented but troubled Florida transfer Janoris Jenkins — both of whom received plenty of attention from Prime Time, or Neon Deion as it were. Dressed in the same highlighter-yellow Under Armor shirt as prospects, Sanders was quick to chime in with advice for a group of twentysomethings that aren’t old enough to have seen Prime in his prime.
“Open those hands up,” Sanders shouted at Claiborne, who ran a 4.50 with fists balled up.
Claiborne measured in at 5’11”, 188 pounds, with long 33 1/4” arms. Like Patrick Peterson — his LSU teammate who went No. 5 overall last year — Claiborne excelled in position drills, catching the ball at its highest point and showing the turn-and-go balance and agility of the excellent return man he is.
A compact yet fluid 5’10” and 193 pounds, Jenkins has an airport full of baggage off the field but looked the part of an All-Pro on the field turf. After starting his career under Urban Meyer at Florida, Jenkins — who ran a 4.46 in the 40 and posted a 10’1” broad jump — was kicked off the team by new coach Will Muschamp before transferring to North Alabama to play for Terry Bowden.
“I’m going to talk to him,” reassured Sanders.
“You should,” said NFL Network analyst Charles Davis, “because he is tal-en-ted.”
Alabama’s Dre Kirkpatrick is still a first-round lock, but was nowhere near as impressive as Claiborne and Jenkins in football-related drills. But Kirkpatrick has a rare size-speed combo — running a 4.51 in the 40 (and posting a 35-inch vertical and 10’ broad jump) at 6’2” and 186 pounds. Plus, the Saban product has held his own against the SEC’s best during his days in Tuscaloosa.
Another member of the Crimson Tide secondary was noticeably absent, as consensus top safety Mark Barron sat out the Combine while rehabbing from hernia surgery; and Barron is also likely to miss Alabama’s Pro Day. Due to a phenomenal career at Bama, Barron will likely be the first safety off the board even without working out. But that didn’t stop Notre Dame’s Harrison Smith from doing all he could to close the gap between the Nos. 1 and 2 safeties. Smith ran a 4.57 in the 40, had a 34-inch vertical and a 10’2” broad jump after measuring in at 6’2” and 213 pounds with 32 5/8” arms.
In the end, however, all anyone wanted to see was NFL Network’s face of the franchise Rich Eisen run the 40-yard dash in full suit and tie. This year, Eisen wore colorfully customized Under Armor cleats, rather than dress shoes, and ran a personal-best 6.03 in the 40 — coming closer and closer to the 4.27 his broadcast partner Deion famously ran en route to his limo waiting outside in 1989.
by Nathan Rush
Andrew Luck is still the No. 1 prospect in the draft, but Robert Griffin III and Matt Kalil made their case at the 2012 NFL Scouting Combine at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis on Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 25-26.
Last year's No. 1 pick, the Carolina Panthers' record-breaking Pro Bowl "icon and entertainer" Cam Newton dominated commercial breaks while Luck, Griffin, Kalil and Co. torched the turf running the 40-yard dash, lifting 225 pounds on the bench press, jumping (vertical and broad), and doing various position drills in what some have dubbed the “Underwear Olympics.”
RGIII is so fast, "He would get pulled over in a school zone," according to the NFL Network crew led by Rich Eisen and Mike Mayock. A decorated track star at Baylor, Griffin topped out at 25 MPH — running a 4.41 in the 40. RGIII also reassured teams by measuring in at a solid 6’2 3/8”. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner posted an explosive 39-inch vertical leap and 10-foot broad jump.
Griffin was also caught on tape politicking, talking with Cleveland Browns quarterbacks coach Mark Whipple. With pick Nos. 4 and 22, Cleveland is the team with the best chances of landing RGIII.
Luck’s workout was not as impressive as Griffin’s off-the-charts effort — which included quarterback-best numbers in the 40 and vertical leap. But Luck did stack up well compared to Newton’s performance at last year’s combine. Luck weighed in at 6’4” and 234 pounds, ran a 4.67 in the 40-yard dash, posted a 36-inch vertical leap and a better-than-Griffin 10’4” broad jump; Newton was 6’5” and 248, running a 4.59 in the 40, with a 35-inch vertical leap and 10’6” broad jump in 2011. Unlike Newton, however, neither Luck nor Griffin chose to throw at the Combine.
Texas A&M’s Ryan Tannehill was unable to work out, due to a broken right foot suffered in January. In his absence, Michigan State’s Kirk Cousins showed off his complete arsenal, with solid footwork, excellent accuracy and enough athleticism (4.93 in the 40). Meanwhile, LSU’s Jordan Jefferson proved he can “rip it,” as Mayock says, with a cannon for a right arm and impressive numbers in the drills — running a 4.65 in the 40, posting a 36.5-inch vertical leap and lifting 225 pounds 14 times on the bench press.
As good as Griffin and Luck were on Sunday, however, it was Georgia Tech receiver Stephen Hill who made the most money. The 6’4”, 215-pounder tied for the fastest 40 time of the weekend with a 4.36 — a time also recorded by Miami’s Travis Benjamin and Stanford’s Chris Owusu. Hill also had a 39.5-inch vertical leap and had sure hands — including one highlight reel diving catch during position drills.
The consensus top-rated wideout, Oklahoma State’s Justin Blackmon, did not run the 40-yard dash but did display strong, sure hands and the elite body control expected of a top-10 prospect. Notre Dame’s Michael Floyd ran a 4.47 in the 40 but had trouble catching the ball across in the middle (with no defense on the field); Floyd also has lingering injury and character concerns. In a head-scratching move, South Carolina’s Alshon Jeffery chose not to run — after already measuring in shorter (6’2 7/8”) and nearly 20 pounds lighter than advertised.
Among running backs, Alabama’s Trent Richardson has established himself as clearly the top ball-carrier. Unfortunately, minor left knee surgery prevented the Bama bowling ball from working out at the Combine.
As a result, Miami’s Lamar Miller (4.40 in the 40) and Virginia Tech’s David Wilson (4.49 in the 40, RB-best 41-inch vertical, RB-best 11-foot broad jump) maintained their status as the next-best backs, while San Diego State’s Ronnie Hillman (4.45 in the 40, 37-inch vertical), Oregon’s LaMichael James (4.45 in the 40, 10’3” broad jump), Texas A&M’s Cyrus Gray (4.47 in the 40, 21 reps on bench press) and Ohio State’s Dan “Boom” Herron (35-inch vertical, 22 reps on bench press) improved their stock with impressive workouts.
On Saturday, two of the top tight ends did not run the 40-yard dash. Stanford’s Coby Fleener sat out with an ankle injury after posting 27 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press. Georgia’s Orson Charles was a controversial healthy scratch in the 40 and both the vertical and broad jumps, but did rip off a position-best 35 reps on the bench press, looked great running routes and had a strong showing running the gauntlet. Clemson’s Dwayne Allen ran a 4.89 in the 40 and had 27 reps on the bench press.
This year’s offensive line class is one of the more impressive in recent memory, with USC’s Matt Kalil — the younger brother of Pro Bowl Panthers center Ryan Kalil — looking like the West Coast version of Joe Thomas or Jake Long. The younger Kalil weighed in at 6’6 1/2” and 306 pounds before running a smooth-as-silk 4.99 in the 40 and slamming out 30 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press despite having 34 1/2” long arms. The franchise left tackle has cemented himself as the best non-QB prospect in 2012.
After Kalil, tackle prospects such as Iowa’s Riley Reiff, Stanford’s Jonathan Martin and Ohio State’s Mike Adams did nothing to hurt their stock, although they did not have Kalil-like standout performances in shorts.
Stanford guard David DeCastro showed his phonebooth strength with 34 reps on the bench press, as did Wisconsin guard Kevin Zeitler (32 reps) and Georgia guard-tackle Cordy Glenn (31 reps). But no one could touch Michigan man David Molk, whose 41 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press were the most among all offensive players. The Rimington Trophy winning center was disappointed, however, that he was unable to reach his goal of 50 reps.
Iowa guard Adam Gettis had the best overall day among O-linemen, with a 5.00 in the 40, a 31.5-inch vertical and 9’4” broad jump. And Midwestern State fast riser Amini Silatolu continued to help himself in the draft process, with 28 reps on the bench press, a 31.5-inch vertical and an 8’11” broad jump.
by Nathan Rush
Athlon Sports sat down with Kenny Smith, who covers the NBA on TNT — along with Charles Barkley, Shaquille O’Neal, Ernie Johnson and Co. as a member of the Emmy award-winning Inside the NBA — as well as the NCAA Tournament on CBS. “The Jet” was a first-team All-American point guard under Dean Smith at North Carolina and a two-time NBA Finals champion with the Houston Rockets in 1994 and 1995.
With this weekend’s NBA All-Star festivities — where Smith’s daughter, Kayla Brianna, will perform — and the March Madness of the NCAA Tournament around the corner, we get Smith’s take on weverything that’s happening in the world of basketball.
Athlon Sports: Kenny, how are you?
Kenny Smith: I can’t complain, any better I’d be kissing myself all over.
First off, tell me a little about the Coke Zero School Shoutout?
Oh man, this is great. It is giving college basketball fans a chance to enjoy more madness, where you show your school spirit for the NCAA Tournament by starting with texting to win. Up until March 10, you text “0” plus your team’s name to “2653” and you can have a chance to win free access to March Madness Live, which now you have to pay for, you can view games on your iPhone or your Android phone. Then you can go to EnjoyMoreMadness.com and you can have a chance to win tickets to the Final Four. A lot of prizes, a lot of giveaways, go to EnjoyMoreMadness.com, enter to win.
Sounds fun. The Final Four is in New Orleans this year, which happens to be the same place Dean Smith won both his titles. What do you think about these Tar Heels? Think they’re going to New Orleans?
I really do. Every year I think we’re going to win, but this year I think more. We have great guard play, we have great inside play and we have a great coach. Those are the three things that you need. So that puts us in the mix, man. That puts us really in the mix to win it all.
Do you think Harrison Barnes can take it up to the next level and carry a team to the title?
I think Harrison is right on track. He defends well, he rebounds well, he handles the ball and he takes big shots. He does all the things that you need a great player to do, so I’m excited to see what happens.
What do you think about Tyler Zeller’s NBA prospects?
I think Zeller has a great opportunity. He catches the ball well, he can shoot with either hand, he has great jump hooks, he runs the floor, and he can defend and block shots. How well he’s able to do it and of what magnitude is going to tell what kind of player he’s going to be in the NBA. But he’s an NBA prospect and player, for sure.
Kendall Marshall is the latest in a long line of great North Carolina point guards — you’re familiar with that. Where do you think he stands right now among some of the great Carolina point guards?
It’s tough to rank players. Everyone has their own era and what they’re doing. I think for this team, last year when he took the helm he showed the value of what Kendall Marshall brings to a team. Is that more valuable than what Kenny Smith brought to it? Or Jimmy Black? Or anyone else who played the point? Who knows? But he showed his value last year on what he was able to do and how we turned our season around in less than, what, five games.
Who else besides North Carolina would be your Final Four picks?
It’s tough to pick the Final Four, only because you don’t know where everyone is going to be seeded. … But Kentucky’s been the most consistent basketball team throughout the year. And everyone else has been good at times or great at times, but not as consistent. Even teams like Murray State have played great basketball at times, but they haven’t been consistent, losing games against teams they should beat. I think we have to play out this week or two to know where everyone’s seeded.
Speaking of consistency, this year’s Duke team is about as inconsistent as any Coach K team has been in recent years. What do you think the limit is for Duke this year?
They have a lot of talent but they’re young at certain spots. And I think that’s why you see the inconsistencies at times. But look at Florida State. Florida State beat both Duke and North Carolina. But you’re not going to say that they’re a better basketball team than either one of those schools. What Coach K is able to do — which I hate to say, hate to give him credit — and what we’re able to do at North Carolina, they’ve proven that they can win five games in a row, six big games in a row. That’s what you need for the NCAA Tournament. Not always that you’ve lost six games in the regular season. But can you win big game after big game?
Speak on Austin Rivers’ game-winner against North Carolina. That was a brutal blow. What were your thoughts?
I thought we had won the game. I was leaving the room because I had to go film NBA TV. Greg Anthony comes in and said, what did he say, he kind of said it like, ‘A shot at the buzzer!’ But leading me to think that North Carolina had won. So I’m thinking on the air that North Carolina wins and they were like, ‘No. No dude.’ Yeah, it broke my heart.
That was a heartbreaker. On the other end of the spectrum, how great has Jeremy Lin and Linsanity been?
He’s a great story; encompasses what we’ve all felt in our time. We’ve all thought that our talent was misevaluated. There it is. That’s Jeremy Lin. And at the same time, the fact that he’s Asian-American, so his ethnicity might not have gotten him where he needed to be. Oh, I can relate to that. He didn’t go to a powerhouse school. Oh, a lot of people can relate to that. He was in the D-League and got cut. Oh, people can relate to being cut from their job. So he encompasses a lot of underdog stories of a lot of Americans. And that’s what makes it fun.
People are making a big deal about Carmelo Anthony’s return. How do you think these new-look Knicks will play out in the next weeks and months?
First of all, let’s remember that Jeremy (Lin) is a point guard. And a point guard’s job is to make sure that great players and great scorers will be able to score. That’s your first job. Your second job is scoring and all those other things. I think that he will be able to do that and it will lessen the burden for Carmelo.
With a healthy Carmelo, the addition of J.R. Smith, the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Tyson Chandler, Amare Stoudemire — do you think these Knicks can contend in the East?
It puts them in the top five teams (in the East) now, where before they were in the next five. They were 5-through-10, whereas this could put them 1-through-5, leaning more towards four or five.
LeBron James and Dwyane Wade seem to have clicked. Will the Heat dominate in the playoffs? Or will it be a struggle as it was last year?
The playoffs are a different animal. You’re not crushing through the Chicago Bulls. I think that those two teams have clearly shown that they’re the best in the East and we just have to wait and see how it develops.
As of today, who do you think plays in the NBA Finals?
Miami, Oklahoma City.
Now that Shaquille O’Neal is in the studio, do you ever give Shaq a hard time about your Rockets sweeping his Magic in the NBA Finals?
You don’t give him as hard a time; he’s got four championships now. But at the time, when it was happening, he had none. When I used to see him in the summers, I used to give him a hard time then. But now, he’s got two more championships than I ever dreamed of thinking about. So I can’t go at him anymore like I used to.
Going back to your days with the Rockets, where do you put Hakeem Olajuwon all-time?
Dream is in the top five centers of all time. And then once you get in the top five, it’s like picking oranges and apples. It’s just a personal preference.
Robert Horry’s Hall of Fame debate is a unique one, since he has more championships (7) than any player in history who was not a teammate of Bill Russell. Do you think Robert Horry has a substantial case to make the Hall of Fame?
I believe so. I don’t think that you can be on that many championship teams by accident, and be a key contributor. He was a key contributor on every team. He wasn’t like, ‘Oh, let me find the right team this year.’ He was a key contributor on teams that at times weren’t the favorite.
The 1983-84 North Carolina team, with Michael Jordan, Sam Perkins, Brad Daugherty, yourself. If that team had fielded an NBA roster, how do you think that team would have fared?
That’s an NBA championship lineup, I believe. That’s the same type of talent that Michael had around him — if not better at certain positions — than he had with the Bulls.
What are your thoughts on Michael Jordan as an owner?
When he was in Washington as a general manager, part owner, I think there were a lot of players — we think about Kwame Brown — but I think there were a lot of players, Gilbert Arenas, bringing (Antawn) Jamison in and those guys. He was part of that. And they were actually a good team, and then he left. And then now, he hasn’t really come around and gotten the break that he needed in Charlotte.
It’s about longevity as an owner. I remember Danny Ainge, when people were ready to get rid of him in Boston and then all the sudden he makes a trade for Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen, and then they become the “Big Three” and become this great franchise again. It’s just being around long enough to make the right deal.
After the lockout — and Charles Barkley has touched on this — it seems like the NBA has too many teams. With Commissioner David Stern controlling the Hornets and the Bobcats struggling to put something together, do you think the NBA should consider contracting one team, maybe two teams? At least the Hornets, if they can’t find an owner?
No. There’s always been terrible teams (laughing) and there’s always been great teams. I remember the Clippers used to be terrible, they’ve been in the league a long time, and now they’re a good team. Everyone can’t be a CEO. Someone has to be getting the mail. And then you work your way up. That’s how business is, that’s how sports are.
Speaking of the Clippers, do you think with Chris Paul and Blake Griffin that they team can contend for a title this year and in the future?
Yeah. They have all the pieces now, they just don’t have experience, but they have all the pieces.
Can the Clippers make an Oklahoma City-style run this year? The Thunder were young last year.
They were young but they’d been together at least one year. But the Clippers have all of the pieces you need. They have guys who can make big plays. They have great players. The only thing is that they’re small in the backcourt, that’s the only thing that could hinder them — especially since Chauncey (Billups) went down. They were small before, but when he goes down they’re even smaller.
What about the other L.A. team? What are the Lakers up to right now?
We have to wait and see if there’s going to be any trades. But when you have Kobe Bryant and those two giants, with (Pau) Gasol and (Andrew) Bynum, that’s going to put you in contention without even hesitation.
Do you think Dwight Howard is eventually an L.A. Laker? Whether it’s this year or as a free agent?
That’s a tough call. The only one who knows that question is Dwight. And I would guarantee that even he doesn’t know that right now, because there are multiple suitors and multiple situations that are appealing to him. And if the Orlando Magic make one great trade, the best situation would be to stay home — if they make one great acquisition before the trade deadline.
It’s All-Star Weekend and I have to thank you, as the Commissioner of the NBA Rising Stars draft, for adding Jeremy Lin. Was that a unilateral decision by Kenny Smith?
That’s what I wanted to see, so I made it happen.
Did you talk to Commissioner Stern? How did that work?
I put in a request and the request was met.
Who do you think had the edge in the Rising Stars draft, Charles Barkley or Shaquille O’Neal?
On paper, Shaq’s team is probably more appealing. But I don’t think Blake Griffin is going to play a lot of minutes. That’s why I would lean to Charles’ team.
How do you think Charles Barkley would fare as an NBA general manager?
Charles knows the game. You can’t hide it and be on television 12 years. You can say outlandish things but you’ve got to know what you’re talking about. Charles would make great decisions as a general manager. The only problem is, his tongue would get him in trouble, telling people how he feels throughout the year. He’d get fined a lot.
All right. EnjoyMoreMadness.com is the website for the Coke Zero School Shout Out?
Thanks, Kenny. Good luck to your Tar Heels.
Brady Quinn will need Tim Tebow’s forgiveness now that Yahoo! Sports’ NFL columnist Michael Silver has finished his controversial article, “The Year of Magical Stinking: An Oral History of Tebow Time” for GQ magazine.
In the piece, Silver assembles a Tebowmania timeline of quotations from Denver Broncos executive vice president John Elway, Broncos coach John Fox, Broncos linebacker Von Miller, Detroit Lions coach Jim Schwartz, Minnesota Vikings defensive end Jared Allen, Baltimore Ravens linebacker Terrell Suggs, Cleveland Browns linebacker D’Qwell Jackson, Buffalo Bills linebacker Nick Barnett, Bills linebacker Shawne Merriman, Atlanta Falcons general manager Thomas Dimitroff, former Kansas City Chiefs coach Todd Haley, ESPN analyst and Super Bowl winning quarterback Trent Dilfer, and NFL Network analyst and Super Bowl winning quarterback Kurt Warner — who gets the final word, calling Tebow “a biblical story” whose moral is “that regardless of our limitations, we can still accomplish great things.”
But it is Quinn who steals the show and sets a bitter, jealous tone with four quick quotes in three separate sections of the story.
Quinn, along with Dilfer and Fox, set the stage with comments on the atmosphere surrounding the months, weeks and days leading up to Tebow’s first NFL start at Miami in Week 7.
Quinn: “Early in the season, there was a game when Kyle (Orton) got hurt and the coaches were calling for me to go in, but Kyle got up and finished the game out. So I was the second-string guy. Then, a few weeks later, they decided to put Tim in. I felt like the fans had a lot to do with that. Just ‘cause they were chanting his name. There was a big calling for him. No, I didn’t have any billboards. That would have been nice.”
From there, the story is divided into weeks, with reaction from around the league.
Weeks 9 and 10: The Streak Begins
Quinn: “The entire game, the defensive line is chasing the quarterback around, and that wears down the pass rush. Meanwhile, the defensive backs are chasing receivers, but you only throw eight passes, so they start to feel lazy. It only takes that one play, that one big pass, for a touchdown.”
This is where Quinn — who has been a polarizing figure since his golden boy days at Notre Dame under coaches Tyrone Willingham and Charlie Weis — gets himself in trouble, questioning Tebow’s humility and prayer technique (Tebow’s “Tebowing” ability, as it were).
Week 14: Broncos 13, Bears 10
Quinn: “We’ve had a lot of, I guess, luck, to put it simply.”
Quinn: “If you look at it as a whole, there’s a lot of things that just don’t seem very humble to me. When I get that opportunity, I’ll continue to lead not necessarily by trying to get in front of the camera and praying but by praying with my teammates, you know?”
Obviously, Tebow is the most popular headline maker in the world of sports this side of Jeremy Lin. Tebowmania is Linsane. Questioning Tebow’s religion is like making a racially charged Lin joke. Don’t do it.
He was a little late, but Quinn took to Twitter with a defensive five-tweet explanation of his comments:
The comments attributed to me in a recent magazine article are in NO WAY reflective of my opinion of Tim and the Broncos. Tim deserves a
lot of credit for our success and I’m happy for him and what he accomplished. Most importantly, he is a great teammate. That interview was
conducted three months ago, and the resulting story was a completely inaccurate portrayal of my comments. I have addressed my disappointment
with the writer and have reached out to Tim to clear this up. I apologize to anyone who feels I was trying to take anything away from our
Team’s or Tim’s success this season
Granted, Silver comes across as a snake, or at least snake oil salesman, pushing controversy as a product and riding the Tebow wave of momentum to maximize magazine sales and SEO online.
The intro is over-the-top — “Not even Jesus can save his passing game, and yet Tim Tebow somehow dominated the league last season…” And the AP photo by Julie Jacobson wraps a halo around Tebow, who is kneeling and presumably praying (by himself, as Quinn may or may not point out).
But Quinn’s quotes prove that he is not and will never be what Tebow is — masterfully and effortlessly, by the way. To this point, Tebow has not been “tricked” or “trapped” into a regrettable quote, and he did more interviews (and was more accommodating to fans and media, alike) than anyone in sports this year. Quinn fumbled and bumbled through his only meaningful conversation on record last year.
There are many job requirements of an NFL quarterback. Tebow excels in areas Quinn does not comprehend. Tebow will forgive Quinn, who will blame others for his own ignorance regarding one of a quarterback’s most important tasks — talking.
by Nathan Rush
Yesterday everyone was asking, “When will Mariano Rivera arrive?” Today the question has become, “When will Mariano Rivera leave?”
Apparently, the iconic Panamanian closer whose entrance music is Metallica’s “Enter Sandman” has been working on his exit strategy.
After showing up to Spring Training in Tampa, Fla., one day after all other New York Yankees pitchers and catchers, Rivera hinted that the 2012 season could be his last. The seemingly ageless 42-year-old is aiming to avoid a rocking chair tour, however, and isn’t ready to let the rest of the world in on his retirement plans — at least no time soon.
“I know now,” said Rivera. “I just don’t want to tell you. I know now. I will let you guys know when I think I should tell you.”
Rivera broke into the big leagues as a 25-year-old starting pitcher in 1995 before transitioning to the bullpen as the setup man for All-Star closer John Wetteland on the 1996 World Series champions — a team that had current manager Joe Girardi at catcher and 22-year-old Rookie of the Year Derek Jeter at shortstop.
In 1997, Rivera became the Yankees’ closer, a job he has held onto with a cutter grip for 15 seasons, redefining what it means to be a ninth-inning man. In the process, Rivera set the all-time saves record — which stands at 603 and counting. But just how many more 27th final game-winning outs does MLB’s last remaining No. 42 have left in his right arm?
Fresh off another unbelievably productive season — Rivera had a 1.91 ERA, 0.897 WHIP, 44 saves and 60 strikeouts in 61.1 innings in 2011 — there are no signs of slippage. But Super Mariano is in the final season of a two-year, $30 million deal and, even if his staggeringly consistent results remain at the usual All-Star level in 2012, Rivera can’t pitch forever — nor does he want to.
“I have my church, my family,” said Rivera. “I’ve been blessed in amazing ways. I’ve had a great career, but at the same time, there’s other things to do.”
The regal Rivera has already established himself as a first ballot Hall of Famer — compiling a 75–57 record, 603 saves, a 2.21 ERA, 0.998 WHIP and 1,111 strikeouts in 1,211.1 innings over 1,042 regular season games. The Sandman is a 12-time All-Star who has received MVP votes nine years and Cy Young votes in six seasons.
But Rivera’s legacy in pinstripes will be defined by his seemingly effortless dominance when the lights were brightest, in clutch situations in the playoffs.
Arguably the most important member of the “Core Four” — along with Jeter, retired catcher Jorge Posada, and retired lefty starter and Game 2 specialist Andy Pettitte — Mo has an 8–1 record, 42 saves, 0.70 ERA, 0.759 WHIP and 110 strikeouts in 141.0 innings in 32 playoff series over 16 seasons. He’s played in seven World Series, winning five world championships (2009, 2000, 1999, 1998 and 1996) and the World Series MVP in 1999.
Nothing lasts forever. It’s closing time for Rivera, whose megawatt, million-dollar smile in the bullpen is contrasted by his intimidating, laser-focus death glare on the mound. The best closer there is or ever was wants to slam the door on his brilliant career before Father Time has a chance to catch up with his cut fastball and take it the other way.
“It is important for me to leave the game on top if God allows me to do that,” said Rivera. “I won’t be dragging my arm to pitch. I’m not going to start pitching with my left arm. I want to be able to compete.”
by Nathan Rush
NBA All-Star Weekend is taking it back to the playground this year, with Shaquille O’Neal and Charles Barkley picking sides for the Rising Stars Challenge — formerly the Rookies vs. Sophomores Game (2000-11) and the Rookie Game (1994-98) — on Thursday, Feb. 16, on NBA TV. The actual game will be played on Friday, Feb. 24, in Orlando.
The Big Aristotle and Sir Charles will have their choice of 18 rookies and sophomores (nine apiece). Unfortunately, barring injury, there will be no Linsanity in the Rising Stars Challenge. New York Knicks star Jeremy Lin had not taken over Google and Twitter prior to the Feb. 8 deadline for all 30 teams to submit their ballot.
MarShon Brooks, G-F, Nets
Kyrie Irving, PG, Cavaliers
Brandon Knight, PG, Pistons
Kawhi Leonard, G-F, Spurs
Markieff Morris, PF, Suns
Ricky Rubio, PG, Timberwolves
Tristan Thompson, F, Cavaliers
Kemba Walker, PG, Bobcats
Derrick Williams, F, Timberwolves
DeMarcus Cousins, C, Kings
Landry Fields, G, Knicks
Paul George, G-F, Pacers
Blake Griffin, PF, Clippers
Gordon Hayward, G-F, Jazz
Greg Monroe, C, Pistons
Tiago Splitter, C, Spurs
Evan Turner, G-F, 76ers
John Wall, PG, Wizards
NBA Rising Stars Challenge Rookie-Sophomore Mock Draft
Rather than Team Shaq and Team Chuck, Athlon Sports’ editors Mitch Light and Nathan Rush decided to do a mock draft. Here are the results of our draft along with a breakdown of Team Light and Team Rush:
1. Blake Griffin, PF, Clippers
Mitch Light: This was like winning the Lottery in 1985, when the Knicks grabbed Patrick Ewing. Griffin was the clear-cut No. 1 pick.
2. John Wall, PG, Wizards
Nathan Rush: The No. 1 overall pick in 2010, Wall was the MVP of the rookie-sophomore game last year, with a record 22 assists in victory.
3. Ricky Rubio, PG, Timberwolves
Light: Who better to throw alley-oops to Blake Griffin than Rubio, who is the best young passing point guard in the NBA.
4. DeMarcus Cousins, C, Kings
Rush: Wall’s college teammate at Kentucky had 33 points and 14 rebounds in this game last season, and the volatile big man is primed for a repeat.
5. Greg Monroe, C, Pistons
Light: The second-year product from Georgetown will be a nice complement to Blake Griffin on my front line.
6. Paul George, G-F, Pacers
Rush: An electric open floor dunker who can run with Wall and a 3-point bomber to balance out DMC in the post.
7. MarShon Brooks, G-F, Nets
Light: I needed a scorer on the perimeter, and the Nets’ first-round pick out of Providence has proven that he can put the ball in the basket — when healthy.
8. Kemba Walker, PG, Bobcats
Rush: A slight reach, maybe. But Walker will bring a spark off the bench and can score or create from either guard spot.
9. Evan Turner, G-F, 76ers
Light: I needed a jack-of-all-trades to round out my starting five. Hopefully, Turner can be that guy.
10. Gordon Hayward, G-F, Jazz
Rush: Versatile and unselfish, Jimmy Chitwood has the high basketball IQ and passing skills to thrive in this All-Star environment.
11. Kyrie Irving, PG, Cavaliers
Light: The No. 1 pick in the 2011 NBA Draft is scoring at a higher clip than expected (18.0 ppg) and will provide this club with some offensive punch off the bench.
12. Tristan Thompson, PF, Cavaliers
Rush: Someone has to guard Blake Griffin and the Canadian rookie thrives on defense and dirty work — even on All-Star Weekend.
13. Derrick Williams, F, Timberwolves
Light: This hard-working rookie could get the starting assignment for this team if I wanted to go big up front and pair him with Griffin and Monroe.
14. Kawhi Leonard, G-F, Spurs
Rush: Another above the rim athlete to run with Wall and catch alley-oops on fast breaks.
15. Landry Fields, SG, Knicks
Light: Jeremy Lin wasn’t available, so I went with the next smartest New York Knick.
16. Tiago Splitter, C, Spurs
Rush: Brazilian big man is an underrated passer and a solid backup for foul-prone Cousins.
17. Brandon Knight, PG, Pistons
Light: Not bad for a third-string point guard.
18. Markieff Morris, PF, Suns
Rush: Last man standing adds depth in the post.
C – Greg Monroe, Pistons
PF – Blake Griffin, Clippers
SF – Evan Turner, 76ers
SG – MarShon Brooks, Nets
PG – Ricky Rubio, Timberwolves
SF – Derrick Williams, Timberwolves
SG – Landry Fields, Knicks
PG – Kyrie Irving, Cavaliers
PG – Brandon Knight, Pistons
C – DeMarcus Cousins, Kings
PF – Tristan Thompson, Cavaliers
SF – Paul George, Pacers
SG – Gordon Hayward, Jazz
PG – John Wall, Wizards
C – Tiago Splitter, Spurs
PF – Markieff Morris, Suns
SF – Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
PG – Kemba Walker, Bobcats
The Marlins appear to be starting from scratch in 2012. But the reality is that the 15-year-old team with two World Series titles has a flashy new, eye-catching paintjob but will be powered by the same engine once again this year.
Owner Jeffrey Loria’s club has a new name (officially changing from the Florida Marlins to the Miami Marlins), new state-of-the-art $515 million ballpark, new South Beach style colors, new art deco logo, new eccentric manager in Ozzie Guillen and a wave of new All-Star players led by shortstop Jose Reyes and closer Heath Bell.
But, more than anything, Miami hopes what was old is new again, that Hanley Ramirez will return to his status as an MVP candidate and fantasy baseball statistical stud.
Granted, Han-Ram is central to the new age Miami movement. The 6’3”, 230-pound 28-year-old is pulling a Cal Ripken and Alex Rodriguez, taking his talents to third base after playing his entire career at shortstop. Ramirez was the National League Rookie of the Year in 2006, a three-time All-Star from 2008-10, and the NL batting champ (.342) and MVP runner-up in 2009 while manning short.
In a year of transition, Miami needs the face of the Fish franchise to seamlessly slide over to a new position, while also bouncing back from an injury-plagued 2011 season that resulted in career-low production at the plate.
Last season, Ramirez struggled to hit .243 with a .712 OPS, 10 HRs, 45 RBIs, 20 stolen bases and 55 runs in 92 games, battling through a nagging left shoulder injury that sent him to the disabled list after Aug. 2 and required season-ending surgery on Sept. 15.
Prior to 2011, Han-Ram was one of the most dynamic players in the game during the five-season stretch from 2006-10:
Single-season highs (2006-10)
Single-season lows (2006-10)
Five-season averages (2006-10)
The Marlins have added a table setter in Ramirez’s speedy shortstop replacement Reyes; and emerging 22-year-old right fielder Mike Stanton — a 6’5” action hero with off the charts power on the 20-80 scouting scale — provides more than enough protection in the cleanup spot behind Ramirez, who bats third. The pieces are in place for Han-Ram to reestablish himself as one of the premier players in the big leagues.
“Hanley Ramirez can be one of the best players in the National League,” said Guillen, who arrives in the NL after managing the AL’s Chicago White Sox from 2004-11. “That’s a lot to say, because there are a lot of good players here.
“But he has to want to be.”
Obviously, Ramirez’s attitude is key. Ramirez is no longer the only good player on a bad team, he is now surrounded by a talented roster on a franchise willing to put its money where its mouth is in order to contend. Fair or not, Ramirez has earned a reputation as an uber-talented prima donna who isn’t above sulking when things don’t go his way — or jogging to a booted ball if he feels the outcome of a game has already been decided.
“You can be the best player in the game, but when you’re losing, it’s not fun coming to the ballpark. That happened to Hanley a lot,” explained Guillen. “I hope this year, when he is driving to the new park, with his new teammates and a new attitude, he just gets out of the car and has a big smile on his face.”
The obvious cause for concern is Ramirez’s bruised ego following a forced position change from shortstop — arguably the most glamorous position in sports other than quarterback — to the hot corner of third base, a position he has never played. But Ramirez isn’t the first All-Star who has changed positions during his prime.
“A lot of good players move,” said Guillen. “Bad players, they get released or traded, or they play in Mexico. Good players, they move to another position.
“Look at the players being moved. Good players. Michael Young. Miguel Cabrera. A-Rod. Robin Yount. Cal Ripken. You’re not talking about Pedro Perez. You’re talking about good ones. That is for a reason.”
All eyes will be on Ramirez when the Marlins’ position players report for spring training on Feb. 26. Guillen cautioned, nearly pleading, that media and fans alike should “let him be” while Ramirez adjusts to his new position and continues to work his way back to 100 percent physically.
And although Ramirez has not made any public comments during the offseason, he has gone on the offensive with a new Powerade commercial that has been running (en Espanol) in Latin America.
“To all those who sent messages criticizing me, I want to apologize for not having replied yet. I was busy with this bat and this marker, writing your names. The response is on its way. Sincerely, Hanley Ramirez,” he says via voiceover, while writing names on the wood bat he uses while training.
Ramirez’s talent has always been there — since he was signed by the Boston Red Sox out of the Dominican Republic in 2000 and traded to the Marlins for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell in 2005. And by all accounts, health is no longer an issue. The supporting cast is clearly in place. If Ramirez is as motivated as a player on the diamond as he is as a pitchman over the airwaves, look out.
“Powerade, they may know something that we don’t know,” said Guillen. “You invest money in people you think are going to be good.”
When it comes time for your fantasy baseball draft, follow Powerade’s lead — invest money in Hanley Ramirez, who will bounce back in a big way in 2012.
by Nathan Rush
By winning the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, Phil Mickelson earned his 40th career PGA Tour victory and proved he still has the mojo to win another major championship — having already won three times at The Masters (2004, ’06, ’10) and once at the PGA Championship (2005).
Final round playing partner Tiger Woods was helplessly unable to stay stride-for-stride with Lefty on Sunday; wife Amy watched beaming beautifully just behind the rope greenside at No. 18; and even tournament host Clint Eastwood lightened his mood in the booth with CBS’s Jim Nantz one week after making news with his shadowy somber Chrysler “It’s halftime, America” Super Bowl commercial.
The rest of the golf world sat back and marveled as Phil the Thrill dismantled Pebble Beach and Tiger disintegrated, uncharacteristically yipping his way through the round, turning short par putts into bogeys while displaying the type of body language only Jay Cutler could appreciate.
Although Woods wore enough of his signature Sunday red — with a Nike polo under a black vest — to indicate he believed himself to be a contender in California, Sunday’s version of Tiger in no way resembled the cutthroat 14-time major champion fans were hoping to see go toe-to-toe with Mickelson.
But no one told Phil that the Michael Jordan of golf faded away after Tiger limped to the 2008 U.S. Open (and may have been crushed completely when Woods’ gated-community life ran off the road Thanksgiving weekend 2009).
Mickelson played as if he were up against a roaring No. 1-ranked twentysomething wunderkind with Steve Williams bullying on the bag — not the player he was actually facing, a currently middling doppelganger wearing a TW hat and old man golf shoes with average Joe LaCava caddying.
“I just feel very inspired when I play with (Tiger),” said Mickelson, after shooting 8-under 64 on Sunday to overcome a six-shot deficit against 54-hole leader Charlie Wi.
“I love playing with (Tiger), and he brings out some of my best golf. I hope that he continues to play better and better. And I hope that he and I have a chance to play together more in the final rounds.”
While Mickelson basked in the afterglow of victory following the only bogey-free round Pebble Beach saw all day, Tiger could only stew in his second straight Sunday slide from contention, after a similar — albeit lower profile — slip at Abu Dhabi on the European Tour last week.
“I putted awful,” said Woods, who missed five putts from within five feet, with 31 total putts en route to posting a disappointing 3-over 75 final round.
“Anything I tried to do wasn’t working. Consequently, I made a ton of mistakes on the green.”
With Tiger headed back to the driving range (or better yet, the practice green) to tweak his game, Phil offered insight from his unique perspective. Yet, Mickelson’s vantage point is the same sightline as those fans bellied up to the bar or reclining on the couch.
As much or more than anyone, Phil is hopefully optimistic — bordering on wishfully thinking — that Tiger is in the process of turning the proverbial corner.
“I know the score wasn’t what (Tiger) wanted and I know he didn’t putt the way he wanted to,” said Mickelson.
“But you could tell that he’s really close.”
by Nathan Rush
Like it or not, Eli’s “Manning face” will be immortalized in bronze when his bust is unveiled at the Pro Football Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. And it will only take five years after he retires — Manning is not only a Hall of Famer, he’s a first-ballot lock.
The No. 1 overall pick in the 2004 NFL Draft — a class that also included Ben Roethlisberger and Philip Rivers — Manning has quickly established himself as one of the most durable signal-callers and one of the most dependable passers under fourth-quarter and playoff pressure. That combination has made Manning one of the most productive quarterbacks the game has ever seen.
Manning has played 119 consecutive regular season games, the longest active streak in the post-Peyton and really-retired-Favre era. Manning has thrown for 27,579 yards, which is good for 51st all-time — with 14 of the names ahead of him already in the Hall and a few more (Peyton Manning, Brett Favre and Tom Brady) waiting their turn. Manning’s 185 career TD passes rank 42nd all-time — with 17 ahead in the Hall and the aforementioned usual suspects already writing their speeches for Canton.
But Manning doesn’t need to compile stats; he’s already punched his ticket with his fourth-quarter and playoff heroics. Manning has an 8–3 record in the playoffs, with two Super Bowl MVP awards and a pair of Vince Lombardi Trophies. In Super Bowl XLII, Manning led a 12-play, 83-yard game-winning drive; in Super Bowl XLVI, Manning led a nine-play, 88-yard game-winning drive.
And Manning doesn’t just produce in crunch time on Super Sunday; Eli threw an NFL record 15 fourth-quarter TDs in 2011. When it matters most, Manning is at his best. And his best ranks among the best of all time.
Manning may not be the smoothest New Yorker living in Manhattan, but it doesn’t take Joe Namath to guarantee Eli’s place among history’s elite.
– Nathan Rush
God bless you, Pro-Football-Reference.com. You make the case against Eli Manning’s Hall of Fame candidacy better than I ever could. On each individual player’s page, the good folks at PFR provide similarity scores, listing those players whose careers are most similar to the player in question. Here are the players to whom Eli Manning is most analogous: David Garrard, Jake Delhomme, Carson Palmer, Ben Roethlisberger, Chad Pennington, Stan Humphries, Tony Romo, Aaron Brooks, Daryle Lamonica and Doug Williams. Not exactly Unitas, Montana and Marino, is it?
Statistically, Manning doesn’t even compare very favorably to his peers, much less the all-time greats. His career passer rating of 82.1 ranks 21st among active quarterbacks. His career completion percentage is 58.4 in an era when anything below 60 is unacceptable. His record as a starting quarterback is a rather pedestrian 69–50 in the regular season, a winning percentage of .579 that ranks below Delhomme’s .583.
I can anticipate the protests: Eli’s won two Super Bowls. Well, so has Jim Plunkett, and no one’s clamoring for a Plunkett bust in Canton.
Manning’s eight career postseason wins have been compressed into two bursts. In six of Eli's eight seasons in the league, his teams either failed to make the playoffs (2004, 2009, 2010) or were one and done when they did (2005, 2006, 2008). And let’s not forget the considerable contributions of his teammates to his success; in his two Super Bowl campaigns, his receivers saw to it that his frequent prayers were answered.
As with all New York athletes, Manning’s highs are inflated, and his lows are magnified. Coming off a Super Bowl win, it’s natural for fans and media to blow his career accomplishments far out of proportion. Once the dust settles, the perception of Eli will nestle in where it should: as a very good quarterback. But there is no Hall of Very Good.
– Rob Doster
The Pro Football Hall of Fame’s Selection Committee will meet in Indianapolis on Feb. 4, the day before Super Bowl XLVI, to debate and vote on the 2012 Hall of Fame class — which will be the 50th class honored in Canton, Ohio. This year’s field has been narrowed down to 15 modern-era finalists and two senior nominees.
In order to be elected, a finalist must receive 80 percent of the vote from the 44-member panel. According to Hall of Fame rules, “no more than five modern-era nominees may be elected in a given year and a class of six or seven can only be achieved if one or both senior nominees are elected.”
This year’s 15 modern-era finalists are:
- Jerome Bettis, RB, Rams (1993-95), Steelers (1996-2005)
- Tim Brown, WR, Raiders (1988-2003), Buccaneers (2004)
- Cris Carter, WR, Eagles (1987-89), Vikings (1990-2001), Dolphins (2002)
- Dermontti Dawson, C, Steelers (1988-2000)
- Edward DeBartolo Jr., Owner, 49ers (1977-2000)
- Chris Doleman, DE, Vikings (1985-93, ’99); Falcons (1994-95), 49ers (1996-98)
- Kevin Greene, OLB, Rams (1985-92), Steelers (1993-95), Panthers (1996, ’98-99), 49ers (1997)
- Charles Haley, DE, 49ers (1986-91, ’99), Cowboys (1992-96)
- Cortez Kennedy, DT, Seahawks (1990-2000)
- Curtis Martin, RB, Patriots (1995-97), Jets (1998-2005)
- Bill Parcells, Coach, Giants (1983-90), Patriots (1993-96), Jets (1997-99), Cowboys (2003-06)
- Andre Reed, WR, Bills (1985-99), Redskins (2000)
- Willie Roaf, T, Saints (1993-2001), Chiefs (2002-05)
- Will Shields, G, Chiefs (1993-2006)
- Aeneas Williams, CB, Cardinals (1991-2000), Rams (2001-04)
Of the 15 modern-era finalists, only Parcells and Shields are new additions to the ballot, on which a player may not appear until he is five years removed from his playing career.
The two senior nominees are Jack Butler, CB, Steelers (1951-59) and Dick Stanfel, G, Lions (1952-55), Redskins (1956-58).
But the question is, how many future Hall of Famers are the New England Patriots and New York Giants bringing to Super Bowl XLVI in Indianapolis?
The following is a tiered rundown of where the best of the best teams in football stand in proximity to Canton:
Tier 1 – Tickets to Canton punched
Tom Brady, QB, Patriots
A win in Super Bowl XLVI would tie Brady with Joe Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most titles ever, with four; he’s already tied with John Elway for most big game appearances, with five. Brady has thrown for 39,979 yards and 300 TDs in essentially 10 seasons — technically 12, but he played just one game apiece in 2000 and ’08. The three-time Super Bowl champ, two-time Super Bowl MVP and two-time league MVP also posted the greatest single season in ’07, tossing 50 TDs en route to the only 16–0 regular season in history. The only debate with Brady is how long will the locks be on his bronze bust in Canton?
Bill Belichick, Coach, Patriots
Since winning two Super Bowls as Bill Parcells’ defensive coordinator with the Giants, Belichick has gone on to win three more rings (in four years, from 2001-04) as coach of the Patriots. The hoodied genius has nine AFC East titles in 12 years, five Super Bowl appearances, a 175–97 regular season record and 17–6 mark in the postseason. At this point, no one even remembers Belichick’s 36–44 run with the Browns from 1991-95 or his surreal one-day stint as the “coach” of the Jets in 2000. At this point, Belichick has surpassed even Parcells on the list of all-time great coaches.
Tier 2 – Win again and you’re in
Eli Manning, QB, Giants
A second Super Bowl win in five years would make Manning the 11th quarterback in history with multiple rings. Of the previous 10, only Jim Plunkett and Ben Roethlisberger are not in the Hall of Fame — and Big Ben, a 2004 draft classmate of Eli’s, isn’t eligible yet. Manning has thrown for 27,579 yards and 185 TDs in eight years, playing in all 16 games in each of the last seven seasons.
Tom Coughlin, Coach, Giants
Once a grumpy old man on the verge of being run out of town, Coughlin has aged like a fine wine in New York and is on the verge of joining Parcells as a two-time Super Bowl champ. Prior to his days with the Giants, Coughlin was the first coach in Jaguars history. Overall, Coughlin has nine playoff trips in 16 seasons, a 142–114 regular season record and 11–7 mark in the playoffs.
Tier 3 – On the bubble for a bust
Vince Wilfork, DT, Patriots
The 325-plus-pounder is the anchor of the Patriots defense, with the versatility to dominate as a zero-technique nose tackle in a 3-4 scheme, a three-technique tackle in a 4-3 or anywhere in between. Numbers don’t tell the whole story of the impact Wilfork has on a game, collapsing the pocket and drawing double- and triple-teams. With one Super Bowl win (as a rookie) and one loss on Super Sunday, Wilfork is hoping the third time’s a charm.
Tier 4 – Fast start, but miles to go
Rob Gronkowski, TE, Patriots
The Gronk had the greatest single season a tight end has ever produced — with 90 catches for 1,327 yards and 17 TDs (and one rush TD) in 2011. Through two seasons, the 6’6”, 265-pound superfreak has 27 receiving scores; Tony Gonzalez has a tight end record 95 TDs over 15 seasons.
Jason Pierre-Paul, DE, Giants
Another physical marvel, JPP has Gronk-like size (6’6”, 278), speed and agility. But his upside may be even greater. Pierre-Paul is just scratching the surface, becoming a legit Defensive Player of the Year candidate in just his second season (16.5 sacks, 86 tackles).
Tier 5 – Hall of very good
Osi Umenyiora, DE, Giants
Michael Strahan’s former partner in crime has notched 69 sacks and 30 forced fumbles in eight years.
Chad Ochocinco, WR, Patriots
A six-time Pro Bowler, the wideout formerly known as Chad Johnson has 11,059 yards and 67 TDs.
Wes Welker, WR, Patriots
Brady’s go-to slot receiver on underneath routes has 7,226 yards and 32 TDs but no Super Bowl rings.
Justin Tuck, DE, Giants
A beast when healthy, Tuck has 45.5 sacks, 18 forced fumbles and a 41-yard pick six in seven seasons.
The greatest battles in sports often produce the greatest rematches. Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. All are classic rivalries with multiple spellbinding chapters.
And now, the New England Patriots and New York Giants — the last two teams left standing, as champions of the AFC and NFC, respectively — look to join those historic ranks.
The Patriots defeated the Baltimore Ravens, 23–20, in a game that ended with Baltimore kicker Billy Cundiff missing a 32-yard chip shot field goal that would have sent the contest into overtime.
“It’s a kick I’ve kicked a thousand times in my career,” Cundiff said, in disbelief with watery eyes following the game. “You know that Ray Lewis has poured his heart out, and you don’t know how many years he has left. To let him down is pretty tough.”
On the other side, the Giants eaked out a 20–17 overtime win on the road and in the rain against the San Francisco 49ers, following a fumbled punt by Kyle Williams, who was subbing for an injured Ted Ginn Jr. Williams’ second turnover of the game put the Giants in field goal range, allowing Lawrence Tynes the opportunity to hit the second sudden-death, game-winning, NFC title-clinching field goal of his career.
“You hate to be the last guy that had the ball, to give it away in that fashion and to lose a game of this magnitude,” said Williams, who sat dazed with cameras and microphones surrounding his usually vacant locker space after the game.
As a result of the costly mistakes made by Cundiff and Williams, Super Bowl XLVI at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis will be a rematch of Super Bowl XLII at University of Phoenix Stadium in Arizona, where the Giants upset the previously unbeaten Patriots, 17–14, in one of the most exciting Super Bowls of all time.
Although there are many new faces, both head coaches (New England’s Bill Belichick and New York’s Tom Coughlin) and high-profile quarterbacks (Tom Brady and Eli Manning) are back for another showdown on Super Sunday.
Brady and Manning are only the third pair of quarterbacks to play each other in multiple Super Bowls. Pittsburgh’s Terry Bradshaw beat Dallas’ Roger Staubach in Super Bowls X and XIII, while Dallas’ Troy Aikman bested Buffalo’s Jim Kelly in Super Bowls XXVII and XXVIII.
Obviously, Brady will look to buck that trend by becoming the first losing QB to win his Super Bowl rematch. Manning, however, will aim to recreate the magic he had on the Giants’ epic 12-play, 83-yard game-winning drive that featured three clutch third-down conversions — including the miraculous 32-yard “helmet catch” by David Tyree on 3rd-and-5 — and was capped by a 13-yard scoring strike to a wide open Plaxico Burress with 35 seconds remaining.
“You can’t write a better script,” said Manning, after winning his first Super Bowl in dramatic fashion. “There were so many big plays on that drive.”
This will also be a rematch of the Week 9 matchup between the Pats and G-Men. The Giants also won that meeting, 24–20, with Manning hitting tight end Jake Ballard for a one-yard touchdown with 15 seconds remaining — in a play reminiscent of Manning’s Super Bowl-winning touchdown pass to Burress as well as the incredible Tyree grab four plays earlier on the final drive.
“I’d rather be down by three with a minute-thirty than up by four with a minute-thirty with Tom Brady, with their offense on the field,” Manning echoed, with an eerily similar reaction after the Week 9 victory. “You like those situations where you have an opportunity to go win the game.”
New England has won 10 straight games since losing to New York, a team riding a five-game win streak of its own.
“We’ve had five straight single-elimination games,” said Coughlin. “Somehow, some way, we’ve found a way to scratch our way to a win.”
During that five-game winning streak, Manning has been arguably the best quarterback in football — passing for 1,494 yards, 12 TDs and two INTs in wins over the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons, Packers and 49ers. Meanwhile, the Big Blue Wrecking Crew defense has been running on all cylinders, allowing an average of 13.4 points per game, notching 20 sacks and forcing 11 turnovers along the way.
In Super Bowl XLII, Brady was dogged by the Giants’ defensive line, taking five sacks and losing a fumble. In this year’s postseason, Brady has posted day and night performances, with 363 yards and a record six TDs in a blowout of the Broncos before tossing two INTs and failing to throw a TD for the first time in 36 games in a nailbiter against the Ravens.
“I sucked pretty bad,” Brady said after the AFC Championship Game. “I’m gonna go out and try to do a better job in (the Super Bowl).”
The three-time Super Bowl champ and two-time Super Bowl MVP even went so far as to make a promise to Patriots owner Robert Kraft.
“He said to me, ‘I promise you I’m going to play a lot better,’” said Kraft, whose wife Myra passed away this season and whose team has worn tribute patches with her initials, “MHK,” since her death.
“He’s still pretty good in my book. I’ll take him over any quarterback. I’ve been watching the NFL for a long time, and there’s no quarterback I’d rather have.”
History backs up Kraft’s opinion. Brady tied Joe Montana’s all-time playoff wins record, with 16. Just by going to the big game again Brady has tied John Elway for most Super Bowl appearances by a starting quarterback, with five. A victory over the Giants would give Brady the all-time playoff wins mark outright and tie him with Montana and Terry Bradshaw for most Super Bowl wins all-time by a starting quarterback, with four.
“It’s incredible,” said Brady. “You pinch yourself to get this opportunity. It’s really a privilege.”
by Nathan Rush
Super Bowl XLVI
Lucas Oil Stadium, Indianapolis, Ind.
New England Patriots vs. New York Giants
Sunday, Feb. 5, 6:30 p.m. EST on NBC
New England Patriots
Tom Brady opened this postseason with his finest playoff performance ever — throwing for 363 yards and a record six TDs in a 45–10 blowout of the Broncos. But the three-time Super Bowl champ followed that up with one of his worst outings ever — with 239 yards, zero TDs and two INTs for a 57.5 rating in a 23–20 nailbiter over the Ravens in the AFC title game. Brady was mediocre in the Patriots’ loss to the Giants in Super Bowl XLII, passing for 266 yards, one TD and zero INTs. He did, however, take five costly sacks.
Record-breaking touchdown machine tight end Rob Gronkowski is coming off an ugly ankle injury and will need to be full strength come Super Sunday. Tight end Aaron Hernandez has been used more as a change-of-pace running back during the playoffs and slot receiver Wes Welker is Brady’s security blanket across the middle.
The man in the middle is 325-plus-pound nose tackle Vince Wilfork, who has easily been the most disruptive player in this year’s playoffs. Wilfork commands constant double-teams, which he has been able to fight through for 2.5 sacks and several key tackles for a loss in wins over the Broncos and Ravens.
With Wilfork pushing the pocket and attracting attention, young linebackers Jerod Mayo and Brandon Spikes are free to make plays. Spikes has proven to be a difference-maker during the playoffs — with 15 tackles, one sack and one INT returned 19 yards.
The New England secondary is a patchwork unit pieced together with smoke, mirrors and position changes — such as cornerback Devin McCourty moving to safety and wide receiver Julian Edelman playing nickel corner. Pass coverage is the elephant in the room.
Although Adam Vinatieri no longer kicks for the Pats, Stephen Gostkowski has proven to be a reliable weapon. But he doesn’t have the Super Bowl-winning kicks on his resume that Vinatieri does. Punter Zoltan Mesko is a booming left-footer who can change a game by flipping the field.
Bill Belichick is viewed by most as the best coach in the game and arguably the greatest of all time. Belichick has won five Super Bowls — three as a head coach and two under Bill Parcells.
New York Giants
Eli Manning has been the best quarterback in football over the past five weeks — all of which have been elimination games for the Giants. The Super Bowl XLII MVP has passed for 1,494 yards, 12 TDs and two INTs in victories over the Jets, Cowboys, Falcons, Packers and 49ers. Manning’s top targets have been Hakeem Nicks and Victor Cruz, two wideouts with the size to win a jump ball battle — as Nicks famously did at the end of the first half at Green Bay — and the speed to win a footrace down the sideline.
A sturdy O-line is anchored by center David Baas, left tackle David Diehl and coach Tom Coughlin’s son-in-law, guard Chris Snee. That group paves the way for a running game featuring a one-two punch of 264-pound power back Brandon Jacobs and Ahmad Bradshaw, who have combined to rush for 327 yards in three playoff wins.
The Big Blue stop-unit starts up front with arguably the deepest and most talented defensive line in the game. Veteran Osi Umenyiora, freak athlete Jason Pierre-Paul, versatile Justin Tuck and hybrid end-linebacker Mathias Kiwanuka headline a pass rush that specializes in collapsing pockets and sacking quarterbacks.
The secondary is led by outspoken safety Antrel Rolle, who played in Super Bowl XLIII three years ago as a member of the Cardinals. Rolle, safety Kenny Phillips and cornerbacks Aaron Ross and Corey Webster will have their hands full with the Patriots’ pass-catchers.
During the playoffs, coordinator Perry Fewell’s crew has allowed just 13 points per game — with nine sacks, four turnovers forced and a safety. Big Blue will be looking for a repeat of Super Bowl XLII, when they held the Patriots to just 14 points.
The third side of the ball was the difference against the 49ers. Jacquian Williams’ forced fumble put the Giants in position for Lawrence Tynes to kick the second NFC title-winning FG of his career. Tynes has proven to be a cool customer with the game on the line. Ross and Cruz are capable return men.
Coughlin is a proven, Super Bowl-winning coach. The 65-year-old has mellowed with age, relying more on a solid staff led by playcaller Kevin Gilbride and rising star Fewell.
Giants by 1
Brady and Manning won’t be the only stars in Indy. Kelly Clarkson will sing the “Star Spangled Banner,” Miranda Lambert and Blake Shelton will perform a duet of “America the Beautiful,” and Lenny Kravitz and The Fray will rock out the pregame festivities.
At halftime, Madonna will be joined by special guests Nicki Minaj and M.I.A. in a highly anticipated mini-concert. And, as always, the commercials — which reportedly cost $3.5 million for a 30-second spot — will be just as talked about as the game itself.