Articles By Nathan Rush

All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/kentucky-dribble-drives-final-four
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Kentucky Wildcats

2010-11 Record: 29–8 (10–6 SEC)
Head Coach: John Calipari (3rd Final Four)

Projected Starters: G – Brandon Knight (17.2 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.8 rpg), G – Darius Miller (11.1 ppg, 4.6 rpg), F – DeAndre Liggins (8.7 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 2.5 apg), F- Terrence Jones (15.9 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 1.9 bpg), C – Josh Harrellson (7.5 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 61.2 FG%)

Will win the national title if… Josh “Jorts” Harrellson continues to play like an All-American and Brandon Knight — who already has two game-winning shots in the Wildcats’ tournament run — keeps playing his best ball when the game is on the line. Also, some combination of Knight, Doron Lamb, Darius Miller and DeAndre Liggins must slow down UConn star Kemba Walker.

Will lose to Connecticut on Saturday if… coach John Calipari’s team allows Walker to control the tempo of the game, as he did during an 84–67 Kentucky loss to then-unranked Connecticut in late November at the Maui Invitational. The Cats also need to continue to play with poise beyond their years. Terrence Jones, in particular, must monitor his shot selection and stay out of foul trouble.

East Region

Best Team: Kentucky
Biggest Upset: Kentucky over Ohio State
Most Surprising Team: Marquette
Most Disappointing Team: Syracuse

Best Player: Brandon Knight, Kentucky. The freshman point guard hit two game-winners — against Princeton and Ohio State — en route to leading the Cats to the Final Four.

Honorable Mention: Josh Harrellson, Kentucky; Harrison Barnes, North Carolina; Tyler Zeller, North Carolina; Jared Sullinger, Ohio State; Isaiah Thomas, Washington

Best Game: Kentucky 59, Princeton 57, First Round — In an extreme contrast of styles, the Wildcats outlasted the Tigers thanks to a driving layup by Brandon Knight — his only basket of the game — with just two ticks remaining on the clock.

Most Disappointing Game: North Carolina 81, Marquette 63, Sweet 16 — Dwyane Wade wasn’t walking through that door for the Golden Eagles, who scored only 15 points in the first half on their way to an embarrassing 18-point loss to the Tar Heels.

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>UK upsets OSU and UNC in East Region, ready for UConn in Houston.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 28, 2011 - 00:45
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/butler-underdogs-back-final-four
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Butler Bulldogs

2010-11 Record: 27–9 (13–5 Horizon)
Head Coach: Brad Stevens (2nd Final Four)

Projected Starters: G – Shelvin Mack (15.9 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 3.6 apg), G – Ronald Nored (5.3 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 2.5 apg, 1.2 spg), G – Shawn Vanzant (8.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg), F – Matt Howard (16.7 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.1 spg), C – Andrew Smith (8.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 62.1 FG%)

Will win the national title if… Matt Howard, Shelvin Mack and the rest of the Bulldogs who were on the floor against Duke in last year’s national title game use their experience to their advantage against an inexperienced VCU club that is probably “just happy to be here.” After making its second straight Final Four — this time, without Gordon Hayward — Butler has something more to prove.

Will lose to VCU on Saturday if… coach Brad Stevens’ squad overlooks VCU. As crazy as it sounds, the Bulldogs could be overconfident playing as arguably the biggest favorite of the weekend. Kentucky and UConn is a coin toss; nearly everyone will be picking Butler to knock off VCU. The Bulldogs must keep their underdog mentality in order to advance to another national title game.

Southeast Region

Best Team: Butler
Biggest Upset: Butler over Florida
Most Surprising Team: Butler
Most Disappointing Team: Pittsburgh

Best Player: Shelvin Mack, Butler. The return of the Mack to the NCAA Tournament included a 30-point night against top seed Pitt and a 27-point outing in an overtime win over No. 2 seed Florida.

Honorable Mention: Matt Howard, Butler; Jimmer Fredette, BYU; Alex Tyus, Florida; Erving Walker, Florida; Jordan Taylor, Wisconsin; Jacob Pullen, Kansas State.

Best Game: Butler 74, Florida 71 (ot), Elite Eight — Just when it looked like the Bulldogs had gone about as far as they could, coach Brad Stevens’ team rallied from an 11-point deficit to pull off an amazing overtime victory over Billy Donovan’s Gators.

Most Disappointing Game: Florida 83, BYU 74, Sweet 16 — The end of the Jimmer Fredette era was more whimper than bang. Sure, Jimmer scored 32 points. But it took 29 shots, including an awful 3-of-15 night from 3-point range.

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Butler owns Southeast Region, advances to second straight Final Four.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 28, 2011 - 00:40
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/shaka-ing-rams-run-final-four
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VCU Rams

2010-11 Record: 28–11 (11–6 Colonial)
Head Coach: Shaka Smart (1st Final Four)

Projected Starters: G – Joey Rodriguez (10.6 ppg, 5.1 apg, 3.2 rpg, 1.5 spg), G – Brandon Rozzell (11.8 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 1.4 spg), G – Ed Nixon (7.2 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 1.2 spg), G/F – Bradford Burgess (14.4 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 1.1 spg), F/C – Jamie Skeen (15.1 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 1.1 bpg)

Will win the national title if… Joey Rodriguez continues to push the pace and Jamie Skeen — a transfer from Wake Forest — keeps owning the paint. “Havoc Ball” has worked thus far and the Rams must maintain their fullcourt pressure defense and uptempo offense. Also, draining 12-of-25 from 3-point range — as VCU did against Kansas — would be a huge help.

Will lose to Butler on Saturday if… coach Shaka Smart’s team isn’t ready for the big stage in Houston. After making it into the Big Dance as a debatable “First Four” at-large bid, the Rams are in the Final Four. The team on the other side of the floor, Butler, has been there and done that. Smart must make sure “havoc” doesn’t turn into “panic” if VCU gets off to a slow start.

Southwest Region

Best Team: VCU
Biggest Upset: VCU over Kansas
Most Surprising Team: VCU
Most Disappointing Team: Notre Dame

Best Player: Joey Rodriguez, VCU. Not everything that J-Rod does shows up in the box score, but the energetic play of the Rams’ point guard has powered VCU to its first ever Final Four.

Honorable Mention: Marcus Morris, Kansas; Markieff Morris, Kansas; Jamie Skeen, VCU; Bradford Burgess, VCU; Kevin Anderson, Richmond; Demonte Harper, Morehead State

Best Game: VCU 72, Florida State 71 (ot), Sweet 16 — The Rams’ closest call of their unbelievable Final Four run came against the Seminoles. VCU pulled out the win thanks to Bradley Burgess’ go-ahead layup and Rob Brandenberg’s blocked shot at the buzzer.

Most Disappointing Game: Florida State 71, Notre Dame 57 Second Round — The Fighting Irish were fight-less against the Seminoles, who led by as much as 23 points during an unexpectedly lopsided second round rout.

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>VCU takes down Kansas to win the Southwest Region.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 28, 2011 - 00:36
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/sweet-success
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EAST
Newark

Degrees of Success
Thad Matta’s Buckeyes, led by Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year Award finalist Jared Sullinger, continue to bully their opponents — knocking out an overmatched Texas-San Antonio squad, 75–46, in the opener before slamming the little guy George Mason, 98–66, to advance to the Sweet 16. But prior to the dominant effort on the court, four Ohio State players — just enough to spell out O-H-I-O for a cap and sash photo op — received their bachelor’s degrees. Jon Diebler (Marketing), David Lighty (Family Resource Management), Dallas Lauderdale (Communication) and Nikola Kecman (Aviation) had their own private party since they were unable to attend Sunday’s winter commencement ceremonies in Columbus.

Fashion Statement
A cult hero known simply as “Jorts” by fans in the Big Blue Nation, Josh Harrellson and his jean shorts were styling in the first two rounds of the Big Dance. The senior transfer from Southwestern Illinois College had 15 points on 7-of-8 shooting, 10 rebounds and four steals during a 59–57 cliffhanger against Princeton in the opener before going for 15 points and eight rebounds — carrying the Wildcats on his back for much of the first half — in a 71–63 victory over West Virginia. Harrellson played just 12 minutes of SEC action sitting on the bench behind first-round picks DeMarcus Cousins, Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton last season. This year, he was supposed to be Turkish five-star center Enes Kanter’s backup. But now, Ashley Judd is the only one in UK blue looking better than “Jorts.”

Marshall Plan
Larry Drew II’s abrupt midseason abandonment of UNC was a bailout in more ways than one. The move proved to be addition by subtraction in its purest point guard form, as freshman Kendall Marshall has stepped into Drew’s starting spot and the Tar Heels have never looked back. North Carolina has a 16–2 record — with losses at Duke and to Duke in the ACC Tournament title game — with Marshall in the starting lineup. Most recently, the pass-first floor general from Virginia had 13 points and 14 assists during an 86–83 win over Washington — breaking Kenny Smith’s NCAA Tournament team assists record (12 vs. Notre Dame in 1987) and recording the Heels’ first points-assists double-double in the Tourney since Ed Cota went for 20 and 10 against Weber State in 1999.

McDonald’s All-Americans
“It’s four junior college guys up here — D.J. (Odom), Jae (Crowder), Jimmy (Butler) and Buzz (Williams). Four jucos. We were trying to figure out if we could eat at McDonald’s or Burger King. We weren’t sure what Sweet 16 meant other than it was our 16th birthday.” — Marquette coach Buzz Williams, when asked to express his feelings on going to the Sweet 16 in a region that also includes basketball royalty Ohio State, Kentucky and North Carolina.

Math Magicians
“I think this: ‘Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted.’ And I know Einstein said it, and he’s a lot smarter than I am … if you had lived what (the Marquette players) have lived through, not just the games that the media saw, but the practices, the film sessions, the things that they endure for me, I can’t think of a better quote than that.” – Buzz Williams

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger headlines a star-studded East Region.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 21, 2011 - 04:54
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/clutch-cat
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WEST
Anaheim

From Nine to 900
The Blue Devils had an eventful weekend whose impact spanned the generations — as 18-year-old freshman sensation Kyrie Irving returned from a toe injury to play the ninth and 10th games of his Duke career, while Mike Krzyzewski earned his 900th all-time victory en route to his 20th Sweet 16 berth. Irving saw his first game action since Dec. 4, scoring 14 points in 20 minutes during an 87–45 blowout of Hampton and 11 points — none more important than his only field goal of the game, a running go-ahead jumper off the glass with 32 seconds left — in 21 minutes during a 73–71 nail-biter over Michigan. Along the way, Coach K joined his mentor and coach at Army, Bob Knight, as the only members of the 900-win club, reaching the milestone in a rematch of the 1992 national title game against the Wolverines, who suffered the same fate this year as they did with the Fab Five.

Clutch Cat
Wildcats coach Sean Miller compared Derrick Williams to Yankees closer Mariano Rivera following the second straight game-winning play made by the Pac-10 Player of the Year. After coming up with a game-clinching blocked shot in the final seconds of a 77–75 win over Memphis, Williams did it again — this time, making an acrobatic shot off the backboard while drawing a blocking foul from Texas’ Jordan Hamilton with 9.6 seconds remaining. The 6’8” sophomore sunk the go-ahead free throw to cap off an old-fashioned three-point play, giving the Cats a 70–69 lead they would not relinquish. Now the SoCal kid is headed to Anaheim, which is roughly 20 minutes from Williams’ native La Mirada.

Finalist Four
On Saturday, Kemba Walker celebrated the Huskies’ 69–58 win over Big East rival Cincinnati. Then, on Sunday, the 6’1” junior from the Bronx enjoyed being named one of the four finalists for the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year Award — along with BYU senior Jimmer Fredette, Duke senior Nolan Smith and Ohio State freshman Jared Sullinger. After leading UConn to five wins in five days en route to the Big East Tournament title, Walker has brought his A-game to the NCAA Tournament — with 18 points, a career-high 12 assists and eight rebounds in an 81–52 win over Bucknell, and 33 points, six rebounds and five assists in the Sweet 16 clincher against Cincy.

Sweet 16, Going on 17
“It’s been 17 years. Been 17 years since I’ve been part of a team that hasn’t gone home — if they’ve gone (to the NCAA Tournament) — after game one.” — San Diego State coach Steve Fisher, who has a 22–9 all-time record in the NCAA Tournament, including three trips to the national title game and the 1989 championship, but had not won a game in the Big Dance prior to this weekend since advancing to the Elite Eight at Michigan in 1994.

Teaser:
<p> <span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: arial,helvetica,sans-serif;">Arizona's Derrick Williams has been the late-game closer in the West Region. </span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 21, 2011 - 04:45
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/underdog-bite
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SOUTHEAST
New Orleans

Little Big Man
Florida’s fearless guard Erving Walker is listed at 5’8” but probably stands closer to 5’6” in sneakers. But, as the saying goes, it isn’t the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. And no one showed more heart than Walker during UF’s 73–65 victory over UCLA. The Brooklyn native scored 10 of the Gators’ final 12 points — including a playground circus shot off the glass after bouncing off of 300-plus-pound Bruin bear Josh Smith, a deep 3-pointer from the other side of Tampa Bay at the St. Pete Times Forum with 1:14 to play and four free throws in the final 32 seconds of the well-deserved win.

Hoosiers, the Sequel
Last season, Butler’s Cinderella run through the Big Dance ended when Gordon Hayward’s last-second halfcourt heave fell to the ground as time expired on a 61–59 loss to Duke in the national title game. Jimmy Chitwood may have moved on to the NBA — where Hayward was the No. 9 overall pick of the Utah Jazz — but the Bulldogs are in the process of filming a sequel to their Hoosiers-inspired story. Matt Howard has shaved the popular mustache he sported in last year’s Tourney, but the senior big man has already made two game-winning shots — a put back as the clock struck zero in a 60–58 win over Old Dominion and the final free-throw of a 71–70 David vs. Goliath upset over No. 1 seed Pittsburgh.

Thirtysomething
Jimmer Fredette has scored 30 or more points in seven of his last nine games, including 32 points in a 74–66 win over Wofford in BYU’s opener and 34 points (on 7-of-12 shooting from 3-point range) during a lopsided 89–67 victory over Gonzaga. The Jimmer — one of four finalists for the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year Award — has also used the additional attention to create opportunities for his Cougar teammates, dishing out a combined 13 assists in his first two NCAA Tournament games. Against the Zags, however, passing the ball to anyone in BYU blue should have resulted in an assist; the Cougars shot 52.5 percent (31-of-59) from the field and 50 percent (14-of-28) from beyond the arc.

Badger Ball
“If people think we’re boring, there are a lot of channels on TV they can watch. We’re just coming out trying to win games and playing hard and trying to play the right way.” — Wisconsin guard Jordan Taylor, who led the Badgers to a surprisingly lopsided 72–58 win over Belmont in the opener and a 70–65 victory against Kansas State to advance to the Sweet 16.

“I just don’t understand when people always refer to ‘Wisconsin basketball.’ We score. We’ll push. … I’m sure there’s a manual out there that says if you don’t turn the ball over a lot, you get to the free-throw line, you make your free throws, and you work hard on defense, and you take good shots, if you want to call that ‘Wisconsin basketball,’ amen. That is us.” – Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan
 

Teaser:
<p> <span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: arial,helvetica,sans-serif;">In the Southeast Region, Brad Stevens has the Bulldogs back in the Sweet 16.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 21, 2011 - 04:35
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/flying-solo
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SOUTHWEST
San Antonio

Flying Solo
The Jayhawks are not only the No. 1 seed in San Antonio, they are the last remaining single-digit seed still standing in the Southwest Region. Seeds 2-9 (Notre Dame, Purdue, Louisville, Vanderbilt, Georgetown, Texas A&M, UNLV and Illinois, respectively) were all bounced from the bracket, leaving Kansas to face No. 12 seed Richmond in the Sweet 16 before, Rock Chalk prevailing, the winner of No. 10 Florida State and No. 11 VCU in the Elite Eight, with a trip to the Final Four in Houston on the line for Bill Self's squad.

Back to the FSU-ture
The Seminoles are headed to the Sweet 16 for the first time since 1993, when Heisman Trophy and national title-winning quarterback Charlie Ward teamed with Sam Cassel and Bob Sura to give FSU a three-headed backcourt of future NBA guards. Fittingly, Florida State upset Big East Player of the Year Ben Hansbrough and Southwest Region No. 2 seed Notre Dame, 71–57, to punch its ticket to San Antonio. The classic gridiron rivalry — the Fighting Irish were the only team to defeat the Seminoles during their title run in ’93 — took a turn on the hardwood, with Leonard Hamilton’s crew winning what many Nole b-ball fans may just call the new “Game of the Century.”

Shaka-ing Results
Shaka Smart’s Rams have wreaked “havoc” throughout this year's NCAA Tournament — just as the 33-year-old coach promised when he took over for Anthony Grant at Virginia Commonwealth in 2009. As a debatable at-large team, VCU fought its way past USC, 59–46, as one of the original “First Four” teams in the new-look field of 68. Then, the Rams battered No. 6 seed Georgetown, 74–56, before running laps around No. 3 seed Purdue, 94–76, to advance to the first Sweet 16 in school history. Led by fiery point guard Joey Rodriguez — who was a high school teammate of Florida forward and SEC Player of the Year Chandler Parsons — VCU will take on FSU in the first-ever matchup between No. 10 and 11 seeds.

Spider Web
“We just switch our men, and we have a bunch of players who can defend the perimeter. It makes it look like a man-to-man, and that’s why it’s so hard for teams to figure it out. When we see something on the court that the other team is doing, we know how to adjust. We like to make the other team think, ‘Is it a man? Or is it a zone?’” — Richmond guard Kevin Anderson, discussing the Spiders’ flexible matchup zone defense, which held Morehead State to 37.5 percent shooting (18-of-48) from the field and 14.3 percent (2-of-14) from 3-point range during a 65–48 win.

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>The Jayhawks are the last single-digit seed still standing in the Southwest Region.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 21, 2011 - 04:26
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/million-bracket-march
Body:

Apparently, $1 million and a weeklong trip for two to Jamaica will attract attention like nothing this side of a Maserati and a bikini model.

With their eye on the prize(s), NCAA Tournament pick ‘em game participants submitted over 100,000 brackets for Athlon Sports’ Bracket Breakdown contest.

Here’s a split-stat rundown of who picked who this year:

National Champion
According to the numbers, it’s a three-team race to cut down the nets in Houston this year — with No. 1 seeds Ohio State, Kansas and Duke combining for 71.1 percent of the vote, while the field took 28.9 percent thanks to Pitt, UNC, Notre Dame, UConn and UK.

32.4 % - Ohio State (1)
21.8 % - Kansas (1)
16.9 % - Duke (1)
5.4 % - Pittsburgh (1)
4.1 % - North Carolina (2)
3.2 % - Notre Dame (2)
2.5 % - Connecticut (3)
2.4 % - Kentucky (4)
1.8 % - Florida (2)
1.3 % - Syracuse (3)

East Region
The Buckeyes bullied the East Region, while the always-popular Tar Heels received their fair share of the vote. The Orange and Big Blue split leftover piece of pie.

63.7 % - Ohio State (1)
16.5 % - North Carolina (2)
8.5 % - Syracuse (3)
8.2 % - Kentucky (4)

West Region
The only region where the No. 2 seed did not finish second in the voting. Did seeing current San Diego State and former Michigan coach Steve Fisher in the “Fab Five” documentary turn the tide? Or did only watching two Aztec games — most likely two losses to BYU — do the trick? No. It’s probably more pro-UConn than it is anti-SDSU. Watching Kemba Walker and Co. win five games in five days en route to the Big East Tournament title won over the crowd.

59.5 % - Duke (1)
17.6 % - Connecticut (3)
9.6 % - San Diego State (2)
8.3 % - Texas (4)

Southwest Region
Although Ohio State received more national champion votes, Kansas chalked up the highest percentage of Final Four berths in our brackets. Rick Pitino’s U of L squad also jumped over Purdue in a 4-3 flip.

64.3 % - Kansas (1)
17.3 % - Notre Dame (2)
7.2 % - Louisville (4)
6.4 % - Purdue (3)

Southeast Region
A one-two-three-four finish, with the second-seed Gators chomping nearly 20 percent of the numbers. Pitt is the top seed with the least confidence, barely getting half of the vote to advance from the region.

50.7 % - Pittsburgh (1)
18.9 % - Florida (2)
9.0 % - BYU (3)
6.2 % - Wisconsin (4)

Most Popular No. 1 Seed in Final Four
The Jayhawks and Buckeyes will either fast break to the Final Four or destroy brackets from coast-to-coast.

64.3 % - Kansas (1)
63.7 % - Ohio State (1)
59.5 % - Duke (1)
50.7 % - Pittsburgh (1)

Most Popular Double-Digit First-Round Upset
Despite a rough year from the Spartans, the people still have faith in Tom Izzo to lead MSU past UCLA in the first round — funny how making back-to-back Final Fours will inspire confidence. As expected, 7-10 games provided the most popular upset picks.

54.6 % - Michigan State (10) over UCLA (7)
48.2 % - Florida State (10) over Texas A&M (7)
46.9 % - Penn State (10) over Temple (7)
37.5 % - Missouri (11) over Cincinnati (6)
36.4 % - Gonzaga (11) over St. John's (6)
34.4 % - Marquette (11) over Xavier (6)
33.8 % - Georgia (10) over Washington (7)
31.5 % - Richmond (12) over Vanderbilt (5)
22.8 % - Utah State (12) over Kansas State (5)
19.5 % - Memphis (12) over Arizona (5)

 

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>A split-stat breakdown of the 100,000 brackets submitted for our NCAA Tournament game.</span></span></p>
Post date: Thursday, March 17, 2011 - 11:59
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/numero-uno
Body:

EAST
Newark

East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Southwest Region Preview
Southeast Region Preview

Top Team Ohio State (1)
The Buckeyes (32-2, 16–2 Big Ten) enter the Tourney as the top overall seed and Vegas’ pick to cut down the nets at the national title game in Houston on Monday, April 4. Coach Thad Matta’s club has a balanced attack anchored by freshman enforcer Jared Sullinger (17.3 ppg, 10.1 rpg). “Big Sully” is flanked by a pair of athletic wings in junior William Buford (14.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 3.0 apg) and fifth-year senior David Lighty (11.9 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 3.2 apg), as well as senior sharpshooter Jon “Threebler” Diebler (12.4 ppg, 49.7 percent from 3). The last time Matta had this type of talent, the Greg Oden-led Buckeyes were national runner-ups to Florida in 2007. This year, OSU expects Sullinger to win one more Tournament game than Oden was able to.

Shooting Star Harrison Barnes, North Carolina (2)
The first freshman ever named to the AP’s preseason All-American team, Barnes staggered out of the gate as the Tar Heels stumbled to a 12–5 start. But since scoring 11 points on 3-for-13 shooting during an embarrassing 78–58 loss at Georgia Tech on Jan. 16, Barnes has become the type of leader and winner every recruiting guru, draft mocker and college b-ball beatnik predicted he would be. The 6’8”, 210-pounder from Ames, Iowa, led UNC to a 14–2 finish (with two losses to Duke) and set an ACC Tournament freshman record with 40 points — going 6-for-8 from 3-point range — in the semifinals against Clemson.

Sweet 16 Sleeper Xavier (6)
The Musketeers are going from Cincinnati to Cleveland for the first two rounds, against No. 11-seed Marquette and, with a win, No. 3-seed Syracuse (barring a Larry Legend-style upset of the Orange by Indiana State). Six-foot-flat superhero Tu Holloway (20.2 ppg, 5.5 apg, 5.1 rpg) is capable of carrying the X-Men to the second weekend of the Dance if he heats up and gets the Ohio crowd on his side.

Basketball Blue Bloods Kentucky (4) vs. Princeton (13)
The dribble drive and backdoor cut will be on display in this speed vs. patience matchup between the SEC Tournament champs and the Ivy League one-game playoff play-in victors. Coach John Calipari’s Wildcats feature a trio of five-star freshmen — Brandon Knight, Terrence Jones and Doron Lamb — while Sydney Johnson’s Tigers are a veteran bunch led by senior big man Kareem Maddox (13.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 1.8 bpg). This is the third time that Princeton has been a No. 13 seed; the last time was in 1996, when Johnson (then the captain of Pete Carril’s team) guided the Tigers to a 43–41 upset of reigning champ UCLA.

East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Southwest Region Preview
Southeast Region Preview

 

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Ohio State is No. 1 in the East Region and overall in the field of 68.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 14, 2011 - 03:22
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/drive-five
Body:

WEST
Anaheim

East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Southwest Region Preview
Southeast Region Preview

Top TeamDuke (1)
The defending national champion Blue Devils (30–4, 13–3 ACC) appeared to be in tip-top shape en route to a 75–58 whipping of rival North Carolina in the ACC Tournament title game. Coach Mike Krzyzewski is one of two active coaches who has won back-to-back national championships — doing so in 1991 and ’92 with a core of Laettner, Hurley and Hill. Coach K has four rings, eight title game appearances, 11 trips to the Final Four and 19 Sweet Sixteens in 26 prior NCAA Tournament berths. With seniors Nolan Smith (21.3 ppg, 5.1 apg, 4.6 rpg) and Kyle Singler (17.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg) setting the tone, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins providing an outside threat, and the Plumlee brothers (Mason and Miles) and Ryan Kelly banging down low, Coach K could pass mentor Bob Knight (902 career wins) on the all-time wins list and win a ring for his thumb in the same postseason.

Dynamic DuoTristan Thompson, Cory Joseph, Texas (4)
The Longhorns lean heavily on a pair of freshmen in Thompson (13.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 2.2 bpg) and Joseph (10.5 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 3.0 apg). Although each has only 34 games of collegiate experience under their belt, the inside-out duo has a Texas-sized winning resume. Thompson and Joseph play together on the Canadian Junior National Team and were teammates on a Findlay Prep (Nev.) team that won back-to-back ESPN RISE national titles and ended the 2010 season ranked No. 1 in the USA Today poll. Thompson and Joseph team with streak scorer Jordan Hamilton (18.6 ppg, 7.6 rpg) to make the Longhorns a longshot Final Four candidate.

Tournament Tested Connecticut (3)
The Huskies have won every tournament they’ve entered this season — taking the Maui Invitational by winning three games in three days in November before winning five games in five days en route to a Big East Tournament crown on Saturday at Madison Square Garden. Now, Kemba Walker’s crew is aiming to win six games in 19 days. But in order to pull that off, two-time champion coach Jim Calhoun will need his star guard to fill up the stat sheet like he did in Maui (30.0 ppg on 53.8 percent shooting) and the Mecca (26.0 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 4.2 apg, 2.8 spg).

Emotional ReunionArizona (5) vs. Memphis (12)
Second-year Tigers coach Josh Pastner was a walk-on player on Arizona’s 1997 national title winning team before coaching under Lute Olson in Tucson from 2000-08. Now, the 33-year-old who replaced John Calipari at Memphis must face his alma mater in a difficult 5-12 matchup — a seeding that has historically been ripe for upsets. But taking down Zona will be a tough task, as second-year UA coach Sean Miller has a talent-laden roster led by bruiser Derrick Williams (19.1 ppg, 8.1 rpg).

East Region Preview
West Region Preview
Southwest Region Preview
Southeast Region Preview

 

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>In the West Region, Coach K is aiming for his fifth national title.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 14, 2011 - 03:16
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/rock-chalk
Body:

SOUTHWEST
San Antonio

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Top Team Kansas (1)
The Jayhawks (32–2, 14–2 Big 12) lost twice this season, but there wasn’t a team on the schedule that KU didn’t defeat this season — losing the rematch with in-state rival Kansas State (84–68) on Valentine’s Day after taking down the Cats (90–66) on Jan. 29, and falling to Texas (74–63) on Jan. 22 before more than making up for it in a Big 12 title game blowout victory (85–73) on Saturday. Coach Bill Self’s team is powered by the Morris twins — Marcus (17.3 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and Markieff (13.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg) — in the paint and a slew of capable guards — namely Tyrel Reed, Tyshawn Taylor and Josh Selby — on the perimeter. Three years after Mario Chalmers’ miracle against Memphis in 2008, Kansas is in position to win its fourth NCAA title.

BMOCKenneth Faried, Morehead State (13)
The 6’8”, 225-pound terror owns the paint, regardless of who his competition is. A legit first-round NBA prospect, Faried (17.6 ppg, 14.5 rpg, 2.4 bpg) had 20 points and 18 rebounds at Florida and 15 points, 12 rebounds and five steals two nights later at Ohio State — two of the top eight teams (according to seeding) in this year’s Dance. Louisville will have its hands full with this one-man wrecking crew, who may be strong enough to take down an inconsistent Cards club.

Rolling Boil Purdue (3)
The Boilermakers’ senior class of JaJuan Johnson, E’Twaun Moore and Robbie Hummel came back to make a run at the Final Four. Unfortunately, Hummel (torn ACL) can only watch from the bench; but Johnson (20.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg) and Moore (18.2 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 3.2 apg) still have a chance to cement their legacy as arguably the greatest class in Purdue history. The Boilers notched wins over NCAA squads Ohio State, Wisconsin, Illinois, Michigan State, Penn State, Michigan and Oakland, as well as bubble teams Alabama and Virginia Tech; coach Matt Painter’s club is dangerous.

Solid Gold or Fool’s Gold?Vanderbilt (5) vs. Richmond (12)
One of the trendiest upset picks in the first round of this year’s NCAA Tournament is Richmond over Vanderbilt, which at first glance appears to be a classic 5-12 trap matchup. But just because everyone else is scared of Spiders doesn’t mean they are capable of poisoning the Commodores — a team with a three-headed monster of sharpshooter John Jenkins (19.5 ppg), lockdown defender Jeffery Taylor (15.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg) and improving big man Festus Eveli (12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 2.6 bpg). However, coach Kevin Stallings has been boom or bust on the Dance floor, with two Sweet Sixteens and two one-and-dones in his four trips at VU.

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Teaser:
<p> <span><span>The Jayhawks hope chalk rules Tourney like it did in 2008.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 14, 2011 - 03:12
All taxonomy terms: College Basketball
Path: /college-basketball/big-easy-bracket
Body:

SOUTHEAST
New Orleans

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Top Team Pittsburgh (1)
The Panthers (27–5, 15–3 Big East) were TKO’d by Connecticut in the first round of the Big East Tournament, but that didn’t stop point guard Ashton Gibbs or center Gary McGhee from making national title predictions for this year’s team. Coach Jamie Dixon has made the NCAA Tournament in every season of his tenure at Pitt. But the former Naismith, USA Basketball and Big East Coach of the Year has never gotten over the hump, going 0-for-7 thus far in his quest to reach the Final Four — advancing to one Elite Eight in three trips to the Sweet Sixteen, while failing to make the second weekend four times. Will this be the year Dixon rips the monkey off his back? His players think so.

James Taft FeverJimmer Fredette, BYU (3)
James Taft “Jimmer” Fredette (28.5 ppg, 4.2 apg, 3.5 rpg) has scored 20 or more points in 30-of-34 games this season, at least 30 points in 13 contests, topped 40 four times and put up a career-high 52 points against New Mexico in the Mountain West Tournament semifinals on Friday — breaking Danny Ainge’s career scoring record at BYU in the process. But without suspended center Brandon Davies (11.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), the 6’2” senior from New York will have carry even more of the load if the Cougars hope to live up to their lofty expectations — and keep “Jimmer-mania” going.

Iz-zone DefenseMichigan State (10)
The Spartans struggled all season, bouncing in and out of midseason NCAA Tournament projections before finishing with a 19–13 record (9–9 Big Ten) and the short end of a 7-10 NCAA first-round matchup with UCLA. Murphy’s Law has been in effect up until now, but the Iz-zone Defense may be the perfect counter now that the single-elimination cross-examination is here. Remember, point guard Kalin Lucas (17.2 ppg, 3.3 apg), point forward Draymond Green (12.3 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 4.0 apg) and uber-athlete Durrell Summers (11.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg) were the nucleus of last year’s Final Four team and the national runner-up in 2009.

Unlucky BuckyWisconsin (4) vs. Belmont (13)
Before brackets were even announced on Selection Sunday, many were predicting that this year’s Belmont team would win its first-round matchup — regardless of opponent. Then, Rick Byrd’s disciplined, well-coached team of shooters (46.4 percent from the field, 73.7 percent from the free-throw line and 38.1 percent from 3-point range) were paired with Wisconsin, a similarly disciplined, well-coached squad (with shooting lines of 44.5, 82.4 and 37.1). Bo Ryan’s Badgers are chronic overachievers, but after losing 36–33 to Penn State in the Big Ten Tournament, they look awfully vulnerable to the Bruins — who nearly upset Duke in 2008.

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Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Pitt and Jimmer Fredette headline the Southeast Region.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, March 14, 2011 - 03:07
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/combine-convoy
Body:

This year’s D-line class is arguably the best in NFL Draft history, and the 300-pound trench-warriors could take up space like no group ever — with half of the first round potentially suffocated by D-linemen.

The heavyweights have weighed in, lifted, run, jumped and explained themselves at the podium and in individual team meetings. But whose draft stock is on the fast track now that Indy is over?

Da’Quan Bowers (6’3”, 280)
4-3 DE, Clemson

The Bronko Nagurski Award winner and ACC Defensive Player of the Year did not work out at the Combine due to arthroscopic knee surgery performed in January. But the big man did speak — and he spoke well. He’s been the top cat since high school and the South Carolina should slide right in to “replace” Julius Peppers on the edge in Charlotte.

“It’s definitely a goal. I don’t think anybody here doesn’t have a goal to be the No. 1 pick,” said Bowers, during his media session at the Combine in Indy.

Marcell Dareus (6’3”, 319)
3-4 DE, 4-3 DT or 3-4 NT, Alabama

There is not a more versatile lineman in the draft; Dareus played 5-technique end and some nose tackle in Nick Saban’s 3-4 scheme at Bama and clearly has the quick feet, strong hands and overall athleticism to play 3-technique tackle in a 4-3 defense.

The Defensive MVP of the Crimson Tide’s national title game victory over Texas — who TKO’d Colt McCoy and scored a defensive TD at the Rose Bowl that night — should be one of the first two of three names called by Commissioner Roger Goodell.

Nick Fairley (6’4”, 291)
4-3 DT, Auburn

Not as physically impressive in shorts during drills at the Combine as many would have liked. But, as they say, “the eye in the sky don’t lie” and the big man was 1b. to Cam Newton’s 1a. on the list of reasons Auburn won it all this season.

Work ethic is a concern but on-field decision-making and reckless dirty play are also potential red flags for a player who was once rumored to be in the mix at No. 1 overall but has since settled in as “only” a top 10 pick.

Robert Quinn (6’4”, 265)
4-3 DE or 3-4 OLB, North Carolina

Missed the entire 2010 season due to NCAA suspension for accepting illegal benefits. Quinn ripped off a 4.73 in the 40-yard dash while looking as cut and quick as any prospect in Indy. Already viewed as a top-10 talent, NFL Network draft guru Mike Mayock thinks Quinn is “as good a natural pass rusher as I’ve ever seen.”

Marvin Austin (6’2”, 309)
4-3 DT, North Carolina

The tweeting tackle also fell into the UNC tar trap and was suspended for the entire 2010 season after taking trips — including a high profile visit to South Beach — that were paid for by an agent.

“I messed up a great situation,” said Austin, at the East-West Shrine Game. “It was my fault.”

Austin showed off his rare blend of power (38 reps of 225 pounds on the bench press, the second-best effort on the bench this year), speed (4.8 in the 40-yard dash) and explosiveness (1.63 10-yard split in the 40) in Indy. The “Anchorman” was in tip-top shape at the Combine and could bull rush his way into the first round.

Ryan Kerrigan (6’4”, 267)
3-4 OLB or 4-3 DE, Purdue

A proven hand-down end who showed off enough fluidity in his backpedal, hips and lateral moves to play outside linebacker in a 3-4 — possibly making a Mike Vrabel-type position switch at the next level. Kerrigan also posted the second-best broad jump (10’2”) among D-linemen and looked faster than his 4.67 in the 40, thanks to his apparently Packer-approved long locks.

J.J. Watt (6’5”, 290)
3-4 DE, Wisconsin

Already seen as arguably the top 5-technique 3-4 end in the draft, the big Badger was a workout warrior at the Combine — with a 37” vertical leap (second best among D-linemen), a 10’ broad jump and 34 reps on the bench. That cha-ching sound will echo from Indy to Madison to whatever city Watt ultimately pays the high first-rounder.

Cameron Jordan (6’4”, 287)
3-4 DE or 4-3 DE, California

The son of six-time Pro Bowl tight end Steve Jordan ran out of the shadow of his father — if he hadn’t already long before arriving in Indy. With a big frame, long arms (35”) and huge hands (11 1/8”), Jordan has all the makings of a 3-4 end but showed enough speed (4.85 in the 40) to possibly play 4-3 end as well.

Stephen Paea (6’1”, 303)
4-3 DT or 3-4 NT, Oregon State

Paea broke the NFL Scouting Combine record on the bench press, with 49 reps of 225 pounds — breaking the previous record of 45. Unfortunately, lifting and interviewing were all Paea was up for following offseason knee surgery. Born in New Zealand and raised in Tonga before moving stateside at 16, Paea’s bench press prowess in the weight room translates to a powerful punch “in a phone booth” against opposing O-linemen.

Cameron Heyward (6’5”, 294)
3-4 DE, Ohio State

The son of Saints power back Craig “Ironhead” Heyward has some of his old man’s moves — albeit as a pass-rusher, not a running back. Heyward is a classic “high floor” guy whose “ceiling” is about where it’s going to be. That said, Heyward is a hard-working, blue-collar professional who should be able to slide right into a championship-caliber defensive line rotation and absorb a playbook quicker than the average rookie. Hard to imagine this Buckeye did anything other than wow coaches and executives during Combine interviews.


 

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>The best D-line class in history burned rubber in Indy at the Combine.</span></span><br />  </p>
Post date: Thursday, March 3, 2011 - 22:22
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/february-madness
Body:

The World Golf Championships-Accenture Match Play — the PGA Tour’s answer to NCAA March Madness — teed off Wednesday morning and die-hard golf fans from around the country have already seen their brackets busted thanks to a few unexpected upsets at the Ritz-Carlton Golf Club’s Dove Mountain Course in Marana, Arizona.

In the Sam Snead Bracket, No. 16 seed Thomas Bjorn pulled a Peter O’Malley and sent No. 1 seed and three-time Match Play champ Tiger Woods packing after a 19-hole showdown.

Bjorn and O’Malley (2002) are the only two golfers to knock out Tiger in the first round of the WGC event he won in 2003, 2004 and 2008.

“I had the momentum going into the 19th hole and I blew it,” said Woods, who shanked his drive into the desert and needed four shots to get on the green before missing his first putt and conceding the match to Bjorn.

Woods’ meltdown was easily the biggest upset of the day, but Tiger wasn’t the only big name to fall to a Cinderella story in the first round of the tournament.

In the Bobby Jones Bracket, No. 2 seed Steve Stricker lost 2-and-1 to 17-year-old No. 15 seed Matteo Manassero; in the Ben Hogan Bracket, No. 3 seed Ian Poulter fell to No. 14 seed Stewart Cink in 19 holes; and in the Gary Player Bracket, No. 3 seed Jim Furyk fell to No. 14 seed Ryan Palmer, who won 2-up.

There was some chalk in play, however, as Ben Hogan Bracket No. 1 seed Phil Mickelson (6-and-5 over Brendan Jones), Gary Player No. 2 seed Rory McIlroy (4-and-2 over Jonathan Byrd) and Bobby Jones No. 3 seed Luke Donald (6-and-5 over Charley Hoffman) all cruised to easy first-round victories.

“I love playing here in Tucson, it’s a special place for my heart,” said Mickelson, an Arizona State grad who spent part of his childhood in Scottsdale and played his first PGA Tour event in Tucson.

“The key for me winning this match was driving it. I drove the ball well and kept it in play and didn’t give any holes away. My opponent is a heck of a player, but he hit two or three into the desert and ended up giving me a few holes, which ultimately was the difference. …

“I’m very pleased with how I’m striking the ball and chipping and putting and so forth.”

The WGC-Accenture Match Play will be televised on Golf Channel on Thursday and Friday, before NBC takes over the weekend coverage.

 


 

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Brackets are in the process of being busted at the WGC-Accenture Match Play.</span></span></p>
Post date: Wednesday, February 23, 2011 - 20:23
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/boom-boom-now
Body:

Boom Boom, Now Cue the Black Eyed Peas’ PGA remix of “Boom Boom, Now” — Fred Couples is tied for second — at 9-under 204 through 54 holes, one shot behind leader Aaron Baddeley — heading into the final round of the Northern Trust Open at Riviera Country Club.

The 51-year-old has a history of making the SoCal crowd scream, having won the tournament formerly known as the Nissan Los Angeles Open in 1990 and ’92, while carding second-place finishes in ’93, ’94 and ’96.

“This week I’m playing because it’s my favorite course,” Couples said, during a post-round press conference. “I’ve played this tournament, this is my 30th year, so I kind of feel like I can get the ball around (Riviera).”

Making his 29th appearance at the L.A. event, Couples is in contention for his 16th career PGA Tour title. The last time Freddie was in the hunt in the big leagues was last year’s Masters, when his quest for a second green jacket (1992) resulted in a solo sixth-place finish (and $270K).

But the PGA part-timer was a terror as a rookie on the Champions Tour last season — posting four wins, four runner-ups, one third and 13 top-10 finishes in 17 events. Couples has proven he can still close out a tournament; and the roar of the crowd is no stranger to a longtime Sunday fan favorite.

With $6.5 million total purse and $1.17 million winner’s share on the line in Pacific Palisades, Calif., expect “Boom Boom” to give the crowd their money’s worth in the final round of the Northern Trust Open.


 

Teaser:
<p> <span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: arial,helvetica,sans-serif;">"Boom Boom" Freddie Couples is in contention at the Northern Trust Open.</span></span></p>
Post date: Saturday, February 19, 2011 - 20:10
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/amateur-hour
Body:

Most stops on the PGA Tour are relatively buttoned-down. Other than a few notable exceptions — say, the coed keg party that is No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale — there is a routine etiquette expected, if not required, at each stop on the PGA Tour schedule.

But when Bill Murray is high-fiving fans and galloping down the fairway riding on his driver like it’s a horse, the golf clap loses out to roars of laughter from the gallery. The Caddyshack star is just one of the big names who will lighten the mood at this week’s AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.

Although Murray’s good buddy the Dalai Lama — big hitter, the Lama — won’t be teeing it up at Pebble Beach Golf Links, Monterey Peninsula CC or Spyglass Hill GC, there will be plenty of other athletes, actors and musicians on the course, which is nice.

Along with Cinderella stories like Carl Spackler, the Pro-Am will feature other fringe players from the world of golf, including U.S. Open hopeful and Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo and Tin Cup star Kevin Costner, along with duffers like Bill Belichick, Drew Brees, Kelly Slater, Oscar de la Hoya, Kenny G, Michael Bolton, Maur Povich and Ray Romano.

The idea for the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am was Bing Crosby’s brainchild back in 1937, when Sam Snead won at Rancho Santa Fe, near Del Mar in the San Diego area.

When “Slammin’ Sammy” was presented with a $500 winner’s check in front of a small gathering of Crosby’s friends, the legendary golfer famously told the host, “If you don’t mind, Mr. Crosby, I’d rather have cash.”

This year, Dustin Johnson aims to become first to win player to win three straight AT&Ts at Pebble Beach. Last year, the big-hitter held on for a one-shot win — despite a 2-over-74 final round — over David Duval and J.B. Holmes.

Johnson became the first back-to-back winner since Mark O’Meara in 1990, joining Hall of Famers Sam Snead, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson and Cary Middlecoff as the only repeat winners in Pebble Beach history. No one has ever won three straight.

Unfortunately, the last time the 26-year-old Johnson played at Pebble, he collapsed to shoot an 82 on Sunday at the U.S. Open — the worst final-round score posted by a 54-hole leader in almost 100 years.

But this is a new year, and Johnson is looking forward to returning to a course he has been dominant on.

“I’m always going to love this golf course, no matter what. I’m just ready to get back out and play,” said Johnson. “Get a little redemption for the last round of the Open.”


 

Teaser:
<p> <span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: arial,helvetica,sans-serif;">The stars come out for the AT&amp;T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am.</span></span></p>
Post date: Friday, February 11, 2011 - 20:13
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/lombardi-leap
Body:

Aaron Rodgers is driving away from Cowboys Stadium in the Super Bowl MVP’s Chevy Camaro convertible, but the entire Green Bay defense deserves permanent joyride privileges following a hard-fought 31–25 win over Pittsburgh in Super Bowl XLV.

“Gotta give credit to our defense,” said Rodgers, after being presented with the Vince Lombardi Trophy and the MVP’s keys by none other than four-time Super Bowl champion Steelers quarterback-turned-FOX pregame personality Terry Bradshaw.

“This is a great group of men that we put together here. Lot of character; been through a lot together. It’s just great to be able to share it with them.”

The Packers’ aggressive 3-4 defense forced three turnovers that were converted into 21 points — including a 37-yard pick-six from safety Nick Collins, who dove across the goal line to give Green Bay a 14–0 first-quarter lead it refused to relinquish to a relentless Pittsburgh club that never could get over the hump.

Along with Collins’ highlight reel INT for a TD, linebacker Clay Matthews forced a fumble from Rashard Mendenhall which was recovered by linebacker Desmond Bishop, and cornerback Jarrett Bush hauled in a second INT of Ben Roethlisberger — as Bush's namesake, former President of the United States and Governor of Texas George W. Bush, watched on in a star-studded luxury suite that also included Cowboys owner Jerry Jones and “Boom!” John Madden.

In a total team effort, the defense set ‘em up and Rodgers knocked ‘em down. A-Rodg completed 24-of-39 passes for 304 yards, three TDs and zero INTs for a 111.5 passer rating — all while A-Rod was being fed popcorn by Cameron Diaz as part of a near-record Super Bowl crowd of 103,219 at the “Palace in Dallas.”

Once and for all, Rodgers and Ted Thompson — the GM who hand-picked the California kid with the No. 24 selection in the 2005 draft — have stepped out from the shadow cast by Brett Favre.

This postseason, Rodgers completed 68.2 percent of his passes for 1,094 yards, nine TDs and two INTs for a 109.8 passer rating, while scrambling for another two scores and leading the Packers to the franchise’s fourth Super Bowl victory (I, II, XXXI and XLV).

Following road wins at Philadelphia (21–16), at Atlanta (48–21), at Chicago (21–14) and against Pittsburgh (31–25) at Super Bowl XLV in Dallas, there is no denying that Thompson’s decision to go with Rodgers over Favre was the right one back in 2008.

“I’m just so very, very proud of these guys on this team. They stood up when everybody thought they were down. They never quit trying. They never quit believing,” said Thompson, during the trophy presentation. “This is a tough business. But I’m very, very proud of this team.”

Several Packer leaders were not only knocked down, but knocked out of Super Bowl XLV. Versatile cornerback Charles Woodson and veteran receiver Donald Driver both limped to the locker room — with Woodson returning to the field wearing street clothes and a sling, and Driver hobbling back in a walking boot.

But Green Bay fought through, just as it has since Week 16 of the regular season, when each game became a must-win. Six straight wins later, the Packers are going back to Titletown as the world champs.

“Coach Lombardi’s Trophy,
” declared Packers coach Mike McCarthy, is finally going back home!”

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>The Vince Lombardi Trophy is headed back to Titletown.</span></span></p>
Post date: Monday, February 7, 2011 - 00:38
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/sweet-sixteen
Body:

Of all the legendary holes on the PGA Tour schedule — the island green, No. 17, at TPC Sawgrass and the final hole of Amen Corner, No. 13 Azalea, at Augusta National are the first that come to my mind — there is absolutely (or is it Absolut-ly?) nothing like No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale, where drinks mix, coeds mingle and the crowd is rowdier than anywhere else on Tour.

The 162-yard, par-3 amphitheatre packs a 20,000-plus crowd into a stadium setting more reminiscent of a Florida-Georgia college football "cocktail party" than a golf-clapping PGA event. A crisp 8- or 9-iron on the green is rewarded by a high-fiving, rowdy uproar. A chunker off line will be booed, heckled and harassed by young and old Phoenicians alike. But that is all part of the Mojito-fueled mystique of the sweet 16.

On Saturday, Arizona State alum and two-time Phoenix Open champ Phil Mickelson went through the routine roller coaster from the crowd — drawing "We want Phil!" chants before his tee shot landed in the fat of the green, causing "Safe-ty! Safe-ty!" heckles from the crowd.

But that only set the stage for "Phil the Thrill" to delight the masses, which he did — getting arguably the loudest cheers of the day after draining a 30-foot birdie putt.

"It was great. It’s Saturday of the Phoenix Open. It’s always fun. There’s a lot of people out here. I don’t think there’s a shot I wanted to make more — other than a major championship — than that putt on 16. I wanted to make that so bad," said Mickelson.

"Sixteen is great, it is really great. The players love it, and the fans are so much fun. It’s the hole that I want to hit my best shot of the day on. It’s the hold that I want to make a two badly. And today I hit just an okay iron shot to about 35 feet. But that putt went in. And it was an awesome feeling. It’s so much fun to see the crowd erupt there."

Lefty sits at 10-under through 36 holes, just four shots behind leader Tommy Gainey. Despite oddly cold conditions that have forced frost delays, the crowd has still congregated at TPC Scottsdale on Sunday Bowl weekend. Saturday’s attendance was an estimated 131,627 — up roughly 10,000 fans from last season.

Although the crowd for Super Sunday is usually not as large as the Saturday swell, there will be plenty of fans pregaming at the Phoenix Open before heading home to catch the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XLV at Cowboys Stadium. Everyone has an opinion on the big game, including Mickelson — who is a well-known gambler on and off the course.

"It’s going to be a great game. I like both teams. They’re both great teams," explained Mickelson, who provided insightful Super Bowl pregame commentary following his round on Saturday.

"But I think Green Bay is going to win. I think they’re going to dominate. Aaron Rodgers is playing so good and Pittsburgh has always struggled against a spread offense. And I also think that Green Bay’s defensive line is going to own them (without injured Pittsburgh center Maurkice Pouncey)."


 

Teaser:
<p> <span style="font-size: 14px;"><span style="font-family: arial,helvetica,sans-serif;">The party doesn't stop on No. 16 at TPC Scottsdale.</span></span></p>
Post date: Saturday, February 5, 2011 - 23:08
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/prop-comedy
Body:

Sharks and suckers alike will be throwing cash around on Super Bowl prop bets — banking on Christina Aguilera’s National Anthem, the opening coin toss, the Black Eyed Peas’ halftime show, the Gatorade shower, the MVP and everything in between.

Here’s a quick look at the best Super Bowl party prop bets, along with advice on where the smart money should play. For consistency’s sake, all odds and lines are courtesy of Bodog.com.

(For the average Joe who doesn’t speak in Vegas tongues — when the odds are -150, you must wager $150 to win $100; when the odds are +150, you win $150 on a bet of $100. Just FYI.)

NATIONAL ANTHEM

How long will it take Christina Aguilera to sing the National Anthem?

Over 1:54 (-160)
Under 1:54 (+120)


Christina is a platinum blonde songbird known for her love of the vocal scales, while alter-ego Xtina is known for her penchant for leather chaps.
Aguilera's most recent renditions of Francis Scott Key’s “Star-Spangled Banner” came in at 1:52 and 1:54 prior to Games 6 and 7 of the 2010 NBA Finals between the Boston Celtics and L.A. Lakers.

The overwhelming bet will be the Over; but upon video replay review of her Game 7 performance in Hollywood on June 17, 2010, it may not be possible for her to top 1:54 without remixing the song — which Whitney Houston did with her 1:55 effort (which featured an 11-second “Brave” finale) before Super Bowl XXV.

How long will Christina Aguilera hold the note “Brave” at the end of the National Anthem?

Over 6 seconds (–140)
Under 6 seconds (EVEN)


Once again, unless Xtina goes Whitney on us — which is an outside possibility for a recently 30-year-old mother on the heels of a divorce who is looking to prove that she’s still got it on a global stage — holding “Brave” for longer than 6 seconds is a stretch. Her Game 7 Celtics-Lakers “Brave” finale was 5 seconds.

There are also a few sucker bets — on whether Aguilera will wear a cowboy hat (+300) or have a hair color other than completely blonde (+175). The only betting option is “Yes.” Even if she comes out dressed as a brunette cowgirl, these are toilet bowl bets.

COIN TOSS

What will be the result of the Super Bowl XLV coin toss?

Heads (-105)
Tails (-105)


Heads and Tails are tied at 22–22 all-time. So, the “visiting” Steelers can’t use the split stats to decide which side of the coin to call. Either bet is just as savvy and/or ridiculous. But history has shown that “tails never fails” — unless you are the old man at the gas station in No Country For Old Men, he was right to call “heads.”

Team to win the opening coin toss?

Pittsburgh Steelers (-105)
Green Bay Packers (-105)


The NFC has won twice as many coin tosses as the AFC, with a 30–14 edge all-time. The NFC is also on a 13-year streak of winning the Super Bowl coin toss.

However, teams that have “won” the toss carry a 21–23 record in the Super Bowl. Case in point, the Steelers have won six Super Bowls but only one coin toss (1–6 all-time). On the other side, the Packers are 3–1 in Super Bowls and 2–2 in coin tosses.

TV COVERAGE

The pregame focus will be on former Packers quarterback Brett Favre and Cowboys owner (and the $1.1 billion “Palace at Dallas” party host) Jerry Jones. But after kickoff, neither Favre nor Jones should be much of a topic of conversation for FOX’s Joe Buck and Troy Aikman.

Unless this game is a blowout, there will be no reason for Buck and Aikman to drop F-Bombs or keep up with the Joneses. The Under is the play on both fronts.

How many times will FOX mention “Brett Favre” on TV during the game? (From kickoff until final whistle, live commentary only, must say “Brett Favre” exactly)

Over 2.5 (-150)
Under 2.5 (+110)

How many times will FOX show Jerry Jones on TV during the game? (From kickoff until final whistle, live pictures only)

Over 2.5 (-135)
Under 2.5 (-105)


HALFTIME

What will Fergie be wearing when she first appears on stage during the Super Bowl halftime show?

Skirt/Dress (EVEN)
Pants (Below Knees) (EVEN)
Shorts (Above Knees) (+350)
Thong/G-String/Bikini Bottom (+1000)


The 35-year-old Dutchess has still got it, no doubt — her new Dr. Pepper Cherry commercial proves that. But after the “Breast Super Bowl Ever” with Janet Jackson, don’t expect the NFL to allow a spring break Super Bowl halftime show with any thong, th-thong, thong, thong action.

There’s a chance for a skirt, dress or shorts. But expect Fergie to go with the tight pants, skimpy top look that Miss Jackson (Super Bowl XXXVIII), Gwen Stefani (XXXVII) and Britney Spears (XXXV) rocked in three separate Super Bowl shows.

Regardless, Fergie will be the first woman on stage at halftime since Janet’s “wardrobe malfunction” — snapping the Social Security streak of Paul McCartney, The Rolling Stones, Prince, Tom Petty, Bruce Springsteen and The Who.

Much like Xtina’s sucker bets, Fergie Ferg has a dud, on whether she will be dressed as a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader at any point during the halftime show. The only betting option is “Yes” (+500). But if you’re throwing away money, thong (+1000) is a better bet.

GATORADE BATH

What color will the Gatorade be that is dumped on the head coach of the winning Super Bowl team?

Yellow (3/2)
Clear/Water (2/1)
Orange (3/1)
Lime Green (5/1)
Red (15/2)
Blue (10/1)


In the Steelers’ previous two Super Bowl wins, Mike Tomlin was doused in yellow Gatorade and Bill Cowher was soaked in ice water.

Over the past 10 Super Bowls, four coaches have been lucky enough to get water, two had yellow, one had purple, one had orange and Bill Belichick avoided the tradition twice — before getting a melted ice bath to cool off after Janet decided to heat up his third Super Bowl win in four years.

If Tomlin wins again, it has to be water — the ultimate sign of respect, since H2O isn’t sticky, is stainless and relatively painless. However, if Mike McCarthy wins his first Super Bowl, Cheesehead-yellow Gatorade is in order for the leader of the No. 6 seed road warriors.

MOST VALUABLE PLAYER

Odds to win Super Bowl XLV MVP.

Aaron Rodgers, QB, GB (3/2)
Ben Roethlisberger, QB, PIT (7/2)
Rashard Mendenhall, RB, PIT (15/2)
Greg Jennings, WR, GB (12/1)
Troy Polamalu, S, PIT (15/1)
James Starks, RB, GB (15/1)
Field (16/1)
Mike Wallace, WR, PIT (16/1)
Clay Matthews, LB, GB (18/1)
Charles Woodson, CB, GB (18/1)
15 other players (25/1 to 60/1)


With 44-of-45 Super Bowl MVPs (Dallas’ Randy White and Harvey Martin were co-MVPs of Super Bowl XII) coming from the winning team (Dallas’ Chuck Howley refused the award after losing Super Bowl V), this prop bet is dependent on picking the Super Bowl champs.

Quarterbacks have won 23-of-45 all-time, defensive players have been honored eight times, running backs have seven, receivers hauled in six and one kick returner took MVP to the house on Super Sunday.

The third time will be a charm for Ben Roethlisberger if the Steelers win. Big Ben is on the Terry Bradshaw MVP plan, having watched receivers Hines Ward (XL) and Santonio Holmes (XLIII) take home the award. In his day, Bradshaw took a backseat to running back Franco Harris (IX) and contortionist Lynn Swann (X) before earning back-to-back in Super Bowls XIII and XIV.

If the Packers raise the Vince Lombardi Trophy, only odds-on favorite Aaron Rodgers should be considered an MVP candidate. A-Rod is nearly in Peyton Manning no-brainer territory. Although Peyton needed nine seasons to rip the Super Bowl monkey off his back, Rodgers’ six seasons to date have arguably been more trying — after aging in dog years behind Favre for three seasons.

Put it this way, unless one of the Packers pulls a Desmond Howard (XXXI) and makes it impossible to vote for anyone else, Rodgers will make like Bart Starr (I and II), who earned a political MVP victory in Super Bowl I over the late, great wild child Max McGee — who had seven catches for 138 yards and two TDs, including the first points in Super Bowl history.

 

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Super Bowl XLV prop bet advice for both sharks and suckers.</span></span></p>
Post date: Friday, February 4, 2011 - 23:00
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/executive-decisions
Body:

Every day, in every office around the country, difficult decisions are made. Choices that impact the fate of a franchise rest on the shoulders of certain individuals.

“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” Shakespeare wrote, way back in 1597. Sounds about right, heading into Super Bowl XLV at the $1.1 billion ‘Palace in Dallas’ some 400 years later.

Arguably the most publicized and criticized figures are those who control an NFL front office — an owner or GM who decides the hiring or firing of a coach or quarterback. That is the nature of the beast, after all.

In hindsight, the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers went “all in” when Mike Tomlin surprisingly succeeded Bill Cowher, and Aaron Rodgers was essentially forced into forcing out the “retiring” Brett Favre — in 2007 and ’08, respectively.

Steelers’ Certainty

Tomlin was by no means a popular hire, when Dan Rooney and the Steeler family — or is it the Steelers and the Rooney family? — decided to hire the 34-year-old Vikings defensive coordinator in 2007.

In fact, the most “popular” question following the announcement of Tomlin was “Who?” And rightly so. Having served as the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ defensive backs coach from 2001-05 under Tony Dungy and Jon Gruden before just one season as the Vikings defensive coordinator to Brad Childress, the jury was still out on the man who Omar Epps wishes he was as cool as.

But Tomlin beat out longtime Steelers assistants Russ Grimm and Ken Whisenhunt (whose Cardinals lost to Tomlin’s Steelers in Super Bowl XLIII), as well as former Chargers-turner-Bears D-coordinator and recently-named Panthers coach Ron Rivera, in a hotly contested race to replace Cowher.

Following four-time Super Bowl champion coach Chuck Noll (1969-91) and Super Bowl XL winner Cowher (1992-2006), Tomlin put on his shades and stepped into the Steelers’ spotlight as just the third coach in nearly 40 years.

Since then, Tomlin has made the Rooneys look brilliant, becoming the youngest Super Bowl winning coach in history. He’s now one game away from being the youngest to take two titles — in stride, for those keeping score.

Tomlin has one Super Bowl win (XLIII), a 43–21 regular season record and 4–1 mark in the playoffs — starting 0–1, missing the playoffs once and surviving until Super Sunday twice in his first four seasons.

By comparison, Cowher’s best four-year stretch was one Super Bowl loss (XXX), a 44–20 regular season record and 5–4 postseason mark from 1994-97. The “Jaw” won it all in year 14-of-15, following the 2005 season in Super Bowl XL.

Noll’s tip-top four-year form — granted, not as a “first-term” coach like Tomlin — was two Super Bowl wins (IX and X), a 43–12–1 record (during 14-game regular seasons) and 7–2 playoff run from 1972-75, before two more Super Bowl wins (XIII and XIV), a 45–15 regular season record and 7–2 playoff mark from 1976-79.

Decisiveness was paramount in Rooney's hiring of Tomlin. The coach, in turn, has rewarded his boss with success that lives up to the family franchise's standard.

Packers’ Patience

Titletown was not quite in Cairo-mode three years ago, but no one was quite sure how to take Brett Favre’s first “real” retirement — especially when it was quickly followed by an un-retirement trade to the Jets.

Green Bay GM Ted Thompson was vilified by many — both local and national — for pulling the trigger on the California kid set to enter his fourth NFL season, rather than riding it out with the 16-year starter with two Super Bowl appearances and one Reggie White-sized ring (won with Ron Wolf pulling the strings, not Thompson).

At the time, Rodgers had played in exactly seven games, throwing for 329 yards, one TD and one INT, while taking nine sacks for 70 lost yards and three lost fumbles. Granted, it’s not fair to recall Favre’s individual accomplishments; but No. 4 had swaggered his way to a then-record three MVP awards (1995-97) and was fresh off of an overtime loss to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants in the NFC Championship Game.

But, for Thompson, Rodgers’ time was “now” — way back then. Favre was 38 years old and debating retirement (again). Rodgers was 25 years old and champing at the bit to get under center and begin his run as a franchise quarterback.

After all, Rodgers had been patient. The Cal product and Chico, Calif., native had watched Utah’s Alex Smith go first overall to A-Rodg’s hometown 49ers in the 2005 NFL Draft. Then, Rodgers sat restlessly in the draft-day green room, until Thompson put him out of his misery — or dragged him into an even worse Favre fire, depending on your vantage point — at No. 24 overall.

Since then, Rodgers has thrown for 12,394 yards, 86 TDs and 31 INTs through the air, with 879 yards and 13 TDs on the ground. And while it’s not technically a head-to-head competition, Favre has aired it out for only 10,183 yards, 66 TDs and 48 INTs (plus 58 rush yards and one TD) over those three seasons (albeit two fewer games).

Rodgers has been nearly flawless while leading Green Bay to wins at Philadelphia (21–16), at Atlanta (48–21) and at Chicago (21–14) — completing 71.0 percent of his passes for 790 yards, six TDs and two INTs for a 109.2 passer rating and two rushing TDs.

A win over the Steelers in Super Bowl XLV would prove that both Rodgers’ and Thompson’s patience was a championship virtue.

Teaser:
<p> <span><span>Two clutch calls decided Super Bowl XLV prior to kickoff.</span></span></p>
Post date: Friday, February 4, 2011 - 02:00
All taxonomy terms: Golf
Path: /golf/san-diego-debut
Body:

The PGA Tour schedule may have officially teed off in Hawaii several weeks ago. But it doesn’t take a farmer to know that televised golf without Tiger Woods isn’t exactly a cash crop.

So, this week’s Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines has become the de facto start of the 2011 season. Tiger returns to the site of his epic 91-hole U.S. Open playoff victory over Rocco Mediate, who “coincidentally” will be paired with Woods — along with Anthony Kim — on Thursday and Friday.

“Playing with Rocco won’t be like playing with Ben Hogan,” Tiger joked, during his Wednesday press conference. “There might be a few words said. …

“Rocco and I obviously have a little history here. But I’ve known him since my rookie year and he’s been great to me. It’s going to be a lot of fun.”

There have been 10 major championships played since Tiger limped to that one-legged U.S. Open win in 2008, tying the longest major-less drought of Woods’ career. This week will also mark the first time Woods has played the San Diego-area course in two years — missing the 2009 stop while rehabbing his surgically repaired knee and opting to skip last year’s event (and instead make his season debut at The Masters) following his infamous wrecked car and marriage.

After spending 281 straight weeks as the world’s No. 1-ranked golfer — and 623 total weeks during a stellar career that also includes 14 major titles — Woods lost his grip on the top spot to England’s Lee Westwood on Halloween last year. Ranked No. 3 worldwide, behind Westwood and Germany’s reigning PGA Champion Martin Kaymer, Woods has plenty to prove at Torrey Pines this week.

The good news is that Tiger has tamed Torrey Pines during his career — winning eight career titles, including five straight, while carding just one round over par. In his last 12 events at Torrey, Tiger has seven wins and no finish worse than 10th.

“I’m very excited about returning,” said the 35-year-old Woods. “My swing is getting better and I feel much more at ease. But I haven’t done it under the gun yet, so we’ll see what happens.”

 

Teaser:
<p> Tiger Woods makes his 2011 PGA debut at Torrey Pines</p>
Post date: Sunday, January 30, 2011 - 19:24
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /nfl/americas-game
Body:

After 256 NFL regular season games and 10 playoff contests, Super Sunday is nearly here. It’s time to break out the Terrible Towels and Cheeseheads, because the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers are set to square off in Super Bowl XLV at the “Palace in Dallas” — Cowboys Stadium in Arlington — on Feb. 6.

Joe Buck and Troy Aikman will call what is arguably the most American Super Bowl ever, during a FOX broadcast that will open with Christina Aguilera singing the National Anthem, break with the Black Eyed Peas performing at halftime and end with the world champions hoisting the Vince Lombardi Trophy.

The question is, will Blitz-burgh earn its record seventh Super Bowl title — after winning IX, X, XIII and XIV under Chuck Noll and Terry Bradshaw; XL with Bill Cowher and Ben Roethlisberger; and XLIII with current coach Mike Tomlin and clutch quarterback Big Ben? Or will Title Town celebrate its fourth win — after taking I and II with the silver symbol’s namesake, Lombardi, and Bart Starr; and XXXI under Mike Holmgren and Brett Favre?

The Steelers advance to the Super Bowl after clinching the AFC North crown with a 12–4 record, earning a first-round bye as the No. 2 seed in the AFC, beating the division-rival Baltimore Ravens (31–24) in the Divisional Round and the New York Jets (24–19) in the AFC Championship Game.

Pittsburgh jumped out to a 24–0 first-half lead over New York, as big-talking Jets coach Rex Ryan stood speechless on the sideline. But Gang Green fought back, scoring 19 unanswered points before the clock struck zero on what was a statement season for the J-E-T-S. Now, Troy Polamalu, James Harrison and the Steel Curtain stop-unit will fittingly head to Big D for one last fight.

"We overcame a lot more obstacles this year than we have in the past," said Polamalu, who was injured during the Steelers' Week 15 loss to the Jets but was a difference-maker in the rematch victory.

"But we still got one more to go."

On the other side of the coin, the Packers have been in must-win mode since Week 16 of the regular season, Lambeau Leap-ing into the playoffs as a 10–6 Wild Card berth, following home wins over the New York Giants (45–17) and Chicago Bears (10–3). Green Bay has since become the NFC’s first No. 6 seed to make the Super Bowl, after road warrior wins against the Philadelphia Eagles (21–16) in the Wild Card Round, the Atlanta Falcons (48–21) in the Divisional Round and the NFC North-rival Chicago Bears (21–14) in the NFC title game.

The 182nd meeting between the Packers and Bears was a black-and-blue brawl that saw Green Bay's Aaron Rodgers with a bloody mouth and Chicago's Jay Cutler get knocked out of the game with an injured knee after bleeding through his shirt early in the game. The Packers had a 14–0 lead at the half, but needed one last stand late to hold off a charging Bears squad led by third-string quarterback Caleb Hanie.

"We felt we had them on the ropes there for a while. We just couldn't get the game to a three-score game. I think that says a lot about them as a football team. But it also says a lot about us as a team. Defense, special teams, people making plays down the stretch," said Packers coach Mike McCarthy, who lost his only other NFC title game appearance three seasons ago to the eventual Super Bowl champion Giants.

"It was the typical Green Bay-Chicago game, with everything on the line."

The Steelers and Packers will have two weeks to rest, rehab, prep and rep for Super Bowl XLV — which will feature two of the most historic franchises in all of sports in what should be one of the highest-rated games of all-time.

Hyperbole beware; the bandwagons may not be big enough for this year's big game.

Teaser:
The Steelers and Packers bring their bandwagons to Super Bowl XLV.
Post date: Monday, January 24, 2011 - 01:10
All taxonomy terms: NFL
Path: /columns/monday-recap/rex-roars-jets-soar
Body:

The guy will just not shut up, but maybe that’s part of the master plan. Rex Ryan spent the week leading up to Jets-Patriots sucking up all of the media oxygen, leaving his players free to focus on a gameplan that had the Patriots frustrated for the first time in what seems like years.

The Jets’ 28–21 win in Foxboro was shocking to everyone but the Gang Green, who strutted into Gillette Stadium like they were the favorites, reflecting the brashness of their boss.

It was a day chock full of shocking developments — Tom Brady threw his first interception since Week 6; the inconsistent Mark Sanchez became only the third player to throw three TD passes against Bill Belichick’s Patriots in a playoff game; the P-men left the field riding a two-game home playoff losing streak; the Jets became only the second team in history to beat Brady and Peyton Manning in consecutive weeks (both on the road).

But if you listen to Ryan, it all unfolded according to plan.

“Maybe everybody else never believed, but we believed,” Ryan said. “We’re moving on. Same old Jets, back to the AFC championship. The only difference is this time we plan on winning.”

Da Bears Dominate


Did anyone sincerely believe that a Seattle Seahawks team that went 2–6 on the road this season had the remotest of chances to beat the Bears at Solider Field amid Bear temperatures and lake effect snow? Okay, full disclosure — I did. After all, one of the Seahawks’ two road wins came at Chicago in Week 6. Plus, the Bears always seem to be a Jay Cutler pick-six away from collapsing.

On Sunday, that didn’t happen, although it could have, as Seattle’s Jordan Babineaux dropped a sure interception at the goal line three plays prior to a touchdown that made it 14–0 and essentially ended any suspense as the Bears cruised 35–24.

I’ve been a persistent Cutler-basher, and he was lucky not to throw a couple of picks, but credit where it’s due: In his first postseason start, Cutler became the second player in NFL postseason history to have two rushing and two passing touchdowns in the same game. Of course, those touchdowns did come against what was probably the worst playoff team in NFL history. But we can thank the inept Seahawks for meekly stepping aside and giving us a Bears-Packers showdown for all the NFC marbles. Doesn’t get much better than that.

Big Ben Has Ravens Eating Crow


The Ravens felt pretty good about themselves at halftime of their AFC Divisional encounter with the Steelers at Heinz Field. Turnovers led to a 21–7 lead for the bullying birds, who had silenced the towel-wavers and were doing plenty of chirping of their own. They should have remembered who they were playing, and where. The Steelers’ second-half comeback and ultimate 31–24 triumph was no surprise given Pittsburgh’s playoff dominance over this team, this division and this conference. Here’s a sample:

• The Steelers are now 12–1 at home in the divisional round since 1970.

• Pittsburgh is 3–0 in the postseason against the Ravens, holding them to averages of 16 points and 158 yards in those three games.

• Quarterback Ben Roethlisberger is 9–2 as a postseason starter and possesses the second-best winning percentage (.818) among quarterbacks with at least 10 postseason starts, behind only Bart Starr.

“He may not be Brady or all those other guys, but when I see him in the huddle I know we've got a chance to win,” said Hines Ward, who scored a touchdown. “He's a proven winner. And history shows he's a proven winner against Baltimore.”

That win was in doubt until Big Ben found rookie receiver Antonio Brown streaking down the right sidelines, hitting him for a 58-yard gain to set up the winning touchdown, a two-yard run by Rashard Mendenhall. The Steeler defense then closed out the win to set up an AFC Championship matchup with the Jets in Heinz Field.


“What better way to put the Ravens out of the tournament,” Ward said after a defensive effort that held the Ravens to 126 total yards, 28 in the second half. “They keep asking for us and we keep putting them out of the tournament. They’re going to be ticked about this for a long time.”

Matty Iced out of the Postseason


Much has been made of Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan’s home success, and his proficiency indoors. This game could have been held in Ryan’s rec room and it would have been just as embarrassing.

The Packers marched into Atlanta like Sherman, torching the Falcons 48–21 in a game that wasn’t even as close as the lopsided score. Ryan performed miserably in falling to 0–2 in the playoffs with six turnovers and a safety in those two losses. His counterpart, Aaron Rodgers, was unstoppable, completing 31-of-36 passes for 366 yards and three touchdowns and posting the second-best postseason completion percentage in a 300-yard passing game in NFL history.

“This probably was my best performance — the stage we were on, the importance of this game,” Rodgers said. “It was a good night.” If he can replicate it next week in Chicago, it will be even better for Packer Nation.

Teaser:
Rex Ryan and the Jets backed up their big talk with a big win over the Patriots.
Post date: Monday, January 17, 2011 - 13:04
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /columns/5-burning-questions/fighter
Body:

When LeGarrette Blount threw the "punch heard 'round the world" following Chip Kelly's debut as Oregon's head coach, Boise State's Byron Hout wasn't the only one who hit the deck. Kelly's reputation also took a serious shot after the 19–8 loss on the season-opening Thursday night kickoff.

In his first game on the national stage, Kelly's team appeared to be undisciplined and unprepared - committing eight penalties for 70 lost yards, accounting for only 152 total yards and losing the time-of-possession battle by a staggering 42:32-to-17:28. 
 
Then, Blount added insult to injury - or maybe serious injury to embarrassing insult - when he boiled over after a game in which he failed to back up his tough talk between the lines. Eight carries for a loss of five yards sent Blount over the edge and his reckless reaction to Hout's postgame heckling nearly took Kelly down with him.
 
Many questioned whether Mike Bellotti's former offensive coordinator and right-hand man was capable of leading his own team. Some even called for Kelly's immediate dismissal. 
 
But the 47-year-old Ducks coach survived his inauspicious 0–1 start and has thrived in Eugene ever since - earning back-to-back Pac-10 titles as well as a pair of conference Coach of the Year awards while going 22–2 (with losses at Stanford and to Ohio State in the Rose Bowl last year).
 
Now, Kelly is one game away from claiming Oregon's first BCS National Championship. The Ducks are a perfect 12–0 with the nation's highest scoring offense (49.3 ppg), thanks in large part to Kelly's system. Although, the quick-talking New Englander - who coached at Columbia, Johns Hopkins and his alma mater New Hampshire before arriving in the Pacific Northwest in 2007 - is quick to deflect any credit.
 
"It's all players. If it was the system, then everybody would run it. There's so much blown into that stuff. 'Well it's the system they run.' I would say that every coach in the country is stupid for not running that system then. If it's a system that's going to get you to score 50 points a game, then you should all run it," said Kelly, during a press briefing the week before heading to Glendale, Ariz., to take on Auburn.
 
"This game is played by players and won by players. It's not surprising that the four guys that were Heisman Trophy finalists (Auburn's Cam Newton, Oregon's LaMichael James, Stanford's Andrew Luck and Boise State's Kellen Moore), their team records was 47–2. One team lost on a field goal (Boise State) and the other team lost to the other guy that was in it (Stanford's 52–31 loss at Oregon). 
 
"College football's always been about the players. And the teams with the best players, usually, are the teams competing for the championships."
 
Kelly not only has a loaded roster of Ducks ready to compete for the BCS crystal, he also has played a role in Blount's redemption story. After suspending Blount following the Boise State brawl, Kelly brought his 6'0", 245-pound power runner back into the fold for the Civil War with Oregon State and the Rose Bowl against Ohio State. 
 
Rather than abandoning a player whose selfish actions potentially put Kelly's job in jeopardy, the tough-love coach stayed with the 24-year-old he affectionately calls "L.G." And this season, Blount rushed for 1,007 yards and six TDs as an NFL rookie with the Buccaneers.
 
"I talk to L.G. a couple times a month," said Kelly. "He's doing great and I'm really proud of him. What he's doing doesn't really surprise me."
 
And after watching Kelly get up off the mat and continue to fight following the negative impact of Blount's sucker punch to the UO program, no one should be surprised if the coach who pulls no punches of his own is able to lead Oregon to a BCS title on Jan 10.
Teaser:
Kelly has a loaded roster of Ducks ready to compete for the BCS crystal.
Post date: Saturday, January 8, 2011 - 09:00
All taxonomy terms: College Football
Path: /columns/tap/champ-newton
Body:

For the third straight year, Cam Newton's team is playing for a national title. And while this time around is a little different, Auburn's Heisman Trophy winner hopes the end result is exactly the same.

Two years ago, Newton watched Tim Tebow's Superman effort - 231 passing yards, two TDs and two INTs, with 109 rushing yards - lead Florida to a 24–14 win over Oklahoma in the BCS National Championship Game in Miami. 
 
Although Newton was sitting out with an ankle injury (for which he was ultimately granted a medical redshirt) and in the process of transferring (due to legal issues and playing time concerns behind Tebow), he was most certainly a member of the Gators' 2008 national title team.
 
"Cam had a great experience at Florida," said Cam's father, Cecil, following the transfer. "We just feel Cam has all the tools to play at a major college level. He's going to start this new chapter of his life."
 
Newton turned his attention to junior college powerhouse Blinn (Texas) College, a team coached by Brad Franchione, the son of former TCU, Alabama and Texas A&M coach Dennis Franchione.
 
"They had a plan in place and when Tebow announced he was staying, (Newton) said he was coming here," Franchione told VYPE Magazine. "He wanted to get to a place where he could become a better passer. He felt he could run the ball in the SEC and he's proven that."
 
In his only season at Blinn, Newton led the Buccaneers to an 11–1 record, while passing for 2,833 yards, 22 TDs and five INTs, and scrambling for 655 rushing yards and 16 TDs. 
 
Newton capped his 2009 season with a 31–26 win over No. 1-ranked Fort Smith (Kan.) CC in the NJCAA National Championship Game. The dangerous dual-threat signal-caller passed for 111 yards and one INT, and rushed for 110 yards and one TD en route to Blinn's fourth NJCAA national title.
 
"He's just so gifted and we were blessed to have him in our program," said Franchione. "He has that ‘it' quality. When he enters a room, you know it."
 
The 6'6", 250-pound junior from College Park, Ga., has certainly made his presence known since arriving at Auburn - leading the Tigers to a perfect 13–0 record, an SEC title and a spot in the BCS National Championship Game against Oregon.
 
Newton has completed 67.1 percent of his passes for 2,589 yards, 28 TDs and six INTs, while tucking the ball to run for 1,409 yards and 20 TDs on the ground, and hauling in two catches for 42 yards and another score through the air. 
 
Although Newton's obvious physical gifts stand out, his intangible qualities have been the difference this season. Newton has kept a Magic Johnson-like smile on his face despite constant, unparalleled media scrutiny and fan speculation surrounding his recruitment, his father and a potential play-for-pay scenario.
 
Through it all, Newton has held his head high and played with the type of seemingly-invincible swagger necessary to lead Auburn back from a 24–0 deficit against Alabama and pull off a 28–27 win on the road at Bryant-Denny Stadium in the Iron Bowl. 
 
"He's a great leader. He's got the ability, once he gets in the huddle, that all eyes are on him, and whatever he says, they're going to do. They really believe in him," said Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, during a BCS title game press conference.
 
"His leadership is definitely a big reason we're here."
 
The Tigers will rely on Newton's poise under pressure as well as the championship game experience he gained last year at Blinn. Granted, the lights will be brighter and the audience will be larger when Auburn takes on Oregon. But Newton has the same goal this year as he did last season - win a national championship. 
 
"(The NJCAA title game) was a great atmosphere to be in. That's something I will take to my grave, just being around something that we worked very hard for. And, you know, this season kind of resembles that," said Newton, who has a combined 24–1 record as a starter at Blinn and Auburn.
 
"Hard work pays off."
Teaser:
For the third straight year, Cam Newton's team is playing for a national title.
Post date: Saturday, January 8, 2011 - 08:50

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