Articles By Nathan Rush
Kevin Kolb, Cardinals
Arizona traded away 2008 first-round pick (No. 16 overall) and 25-year-old Pro Bowl cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie along with its 2012 second-round pick to acquire the young gun with seven career starts under his belt.
Since being selected out of Houston with the No. 36 overall pick in 2007, Kolb has completed 60.8 percent of his passes for 2,082 yards, 11 TDs and 14 INTs for a 73.2 passer rating, while posting a 3–4 record as a starter with the Eagles. That was enough for the Cards, who immediately offered a five-year, $64 million deal with $21 million guaranteed to Mike Vick’s backup.
The last Vick backup to be traded and signed it worked out well. Matt Schaub had completed 52.2 percent of his passes for 1,033 yards, six TDs and six INTs, carrying an 0–2 record as a starter, when he was traded from the Falcons to the Texans when he was traded for two second-round picks and a two-slot swap (from No. 10 to 8) of first-rounders. Schaub then signed a six-year, $48 million deal and was handed the keys to the franchise.
This was by far the boldest (and most expensive) quarterback move of the offseason. The future of coach Ken Whisenhunt, the entire Cardinals organization and Larry Fitzgerald fantasy owners rides on the right arm of the 26-year-old Kolb.
Donovan McNabb, Vikings
A move that had been years in the making finally happened once McNabb’s old Eagles offensive coordinator, Brad Childress, was no longer the Vikings head coach. But the new boss in Minnesota, Leslie Frazier, was on Philly’s staff as a defensive backs coach from 1999-2002, so he and McNabb know what to expect from each other.
After watching an over-the-hill Brett Favre struggle last season, many Vikes fans have to be concerned that the 34-year-old McNabb — who was benched in favor of Rex Grossman last year in Washington — is running on fumes, after completing 58.3 percent of his passes for 3,377 yards, 14 TDs and 15 INTs for a 77.1 passer and 5–8 record as a starter.
Regardless, McNabb should provide a good example for rookie Christian Ponder, while allowing the No. 12 overall pick time to learn and work his way into the starting job.
Matt Hasselbeck, Titans
The second high-profile quarterback moving from Seattle to Nashville, the soon-to-be 36-year-old former Seahawk Hasselbeck follows No. 8 overall pick and former UW star Jake Locker to the Titans.
The bald man from the soup commercials had his worst season as a pro last year, completing 59.9 percent of his passes for 3,001 yards, 12 TDs and 17 INTs for a 73.2 rating. But Hasselbeck could be primed to succeed in Music City. He has already worked with Tennessee GM (and former Seattle exec.) Mike Reinfeldt, has been friends with new coordinator Chris Palmer since the mid-1980s and is cool with Locker from their days in the Pacific Northwest.
Oh, and Hasselbeck hasn’t shared a backfield with a playmaker like Chris Johnson since Shaun Alexander was in his MVP heyday.
Vince Young, Eagles
The No. 3 overall pick of the Titans in 2006 will be backing up the No. 1 overall pick of the Falcons in 2001; V.Y. hopes to follow Michael Vick’s road to redemption with the Eagles. And there is reason to think the 28-year-old can bounce back in Philly.
Young has completed 57.9 percent of his passes for 8,098 yards, 42 TDs and 42 INTs for a 75.7 passer rating, along with 1,380 rush yards and 12 rush TDs, while posting a 30–17 record as a starter. But over his past 16 starts, V.Y. has a 10–6 record, completing 58.9 percent of his passes for 2,745 yards, 18 TDs and eight INTs, along with 343 rush yards and one TD on the ground.
With quarterback gurus Andy Reid and Marty Mornhinweg teaching, and Vick mentoring, Young will have every opportunity to take the next step in his maturation as both a quarterback and man.
Tarvaris Jackson, Seahawks
Look out, “Clipboard Jesus” Charlie Whitehurst, the Hawks have brought in Jackson to challenge for the starting job. The “12th Man” fans can’t be too happy, but Jackson has potential — not to mention more experience than Whitehurst, whose eight games, two starts and 99 career pass attempts don’t inspire confidence.
Jackson has completed 58.7 percent of his passes for 3,984 yards, 24 TDs and 22 INTs for a 76.6 passer rating. The Alabama State product has a 10–11 record as a starter, but did go 8–4 en route to leading the Vikings to the playoffs back in 2007.
Kyle Orton, Dolphins or Broncos?
King Neck Beard has been taking first-team snaps for the Broncos and is almost certainly a better option — in 2011, at least — than Tim Tebow. The Dolphins make sense, but Dan Marino’s old team hasn’t made a splash in the QB market yet.
Carson Palmer, Bengals or Retire?
Bungles owner Mike Brown claims, “Carson signed a contract. He made a commitment. He gave his word.” As a result, Cincy would rather let Palmer retire than give in and trade him to another team. A classic Bengals debacle.
Brett Favre, To Be or Not To Be?
It’s looking more and more like the only passes Favre will throw this year will be in Wrangler backyard football games. But there’s always a chance the 41-year-old with 508 TD passes, three MVPs and a Super Bowl ring makes one last stop before Canton, right?
Bill Belichick has done it again, acquiring former $100-million man Albert Haynesworth for pennies on the dollar.
The Patriots will send a 2013 fifth-rounder to the Redskins in exchange for Washington’s once-prized free-agent defensive tackle, who coach Mike Shanahan infamously attempted to switch from the three-technique 4-3 tackle spot at which Haynesworth earned two All-Pro nods playing in Tennessee to a zero-technique 3-4 nose tackle.
After signing a seven-year, $100-million deal — which included a record $41 million in guaranteed money — on the first day of free agency in 2009, Haynesworth quickly fell out of favor with the Redskins organization and fan base. And after only 20 games and 6.5 sacks over two seasons, Haynesworth leaves the nation’s capital with a legacy as one of the worst cases of wasteful spending in D.C. history.
The 6’6”, 335-pounder hit rock bottom in Washington and his toxic reputation spans coast-to-coast. Recently, Haynesworth was described as “nearly 400 pounds of self-absorbed entitlement” in a New York Times blog.
That’s what makes this such a brilliant Belichick move. There’s nowhere to go but up in New England. The plan is to play Haynesworth along a D-line that also includes All-Pro nose tackle Vince Wilfork and former Pro Bowler Ty Warren, who missed last season with a hip injury.
This move is reminiscent of the 2007 trade for Randy Moss, a former All-Pro who had also bottomed out after admitting to quitting on the Raiders the year before. With a change of scenery, Moss went from catching 42 passes for 553 yards and three TDs in ’06 to 98 catches for 1,493 yards and 23 TDs for the 16–0 Patriots in ’07. There's no guarantee Haynesworth will experience that type of renaissance, but no one should be shocked if the pocket-collapsing mauler regains the walking double-team status he had not so long ago in Tennessee.
By comparison, however, the Moss trade was expensive. New England shipped a fourth-rounder to Oakland to start draft day two that year. This time around, Belichick only moves a 2013 fifth-rounder. And since the general rule is that a pick loses one round’s value for every year in the future, it could be argued that the Pats are acquiring Haynesworth for a seventh-round price.
In just two seasons, Haynesworth went from being the most valuable defensive player in history (in terms of dollars) to being nearly worthless. But smart money says Haynesworth’s stock is about to soar once again, as Belichick continues his reign as the Warren Buffett of the NFL.
Eighty-five set the standard for player activity during the lockout — riding a bull for 1.5 seconds, playing 30 minutes in a scrimmage for the MLS’s Sporting Kansas City and giving radio-TV interview updates on the status of Carson Palmer, Terrell Owens and Terrelle Pryor. Oh, and he “threatened” to “whoop (Marvin Lewis’) ass.”
Bayonne’s own Jersey boy had too much time on his hands and, as a result, had too many encounters with handcuffs — following a high speed car chase in his Porsche; after resisting arrest, obstructing justice and tampering with evidence at a Hoboken car wash; and with a pink feather boa around his neck at a Britney Spears concert.
Dallas Cowboys and Marvel Entertainment
The formation of “Captain America’s team” should provide additional revenue streams and untapped marketing opportunities for both Jerry Jones’ club and the comic book company behind recent blockbusters like Iron Man, X-Men and, of course, Captain America.
Mr. and Mrs. Brandon Marshall
The Dolphins receiver was (allegedly) stabbed in the stomach by his wife, Michi Nogami-Marshall, in late April. Marshall originally told police that he had fallen and cut himself on a broken piece of a glass vase — which brought back memories of his infamous tale of a slip-and-slide through a TV to cut his arm in 2008.
Best Steeler quotes:
James Harrison in Men’s Journal
The “Hitman” poured kerosene on the blazing fire that is Harrison’s relationship with Roger Goodell, saying (among other things):
“My rep is James Harrison, mean son of a bitch who loves hitting the hell out of people. But up until last year, there was no word of me being dirty — till Roger Goodell, who’s a crook and a puppet, said I was the dirtiest player in the league. If that man was on fire and I had to piss to put him out, I wouldn’t do it. I hate him and will never respect him.”
Not the wisest words from the NFL’s Darth Vader villain, but definitely the most provocative and polarizing interview of the lockout.
Worst Steeler quotes:
Rashard Mendenhall on Twitter
The Steelers running back didn’t make many friends and ultimately lost millions of dollars with his truther tweeting following Osama bin Laden’s assassination:
“What kind of person celebrates death? It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side…”
“I just have a hard time believing a plane could take a skyscraper down demolition style.”
Best Cowboy and beauty queen duo:
Tony Romo and Miss Missouri Candice Crawford
The quarterback who broke up with Carrie Underwood the day before her 29th birthday and may or may not have inspired the country-pop starlet’s “Cowboy Casanova” finally tied the knot, marrying TV personality and former Miss Missouri Candice Crawford in late May.
Worst Cowboy and beauty queen duo:
Roy Williams and Miss Texas Brooke Daniels
The underachieving ex-Cowboy wideout made the smooth move of proposing to former Miss Texas Brooke Daniels through the snail mail and he was surprised when she not only said “no” but also decided to keep the $76,000 engagement ring.
Peyton and Eli Manning, DirecTV
The Manning Bros. did their best Crockett and Tubbs or Starsky and Hutch or whatever buddy cop duo there is impression. But unlike most, Peyton and Eli have sweet fake mustaches. DirecTV’s “Football Cops” are pure genius. If only Jeff George and Jeff Hostetler were still around, DirecTV could have had awesome quarterbacks with real ‘staches. Probably not as marketable; kind of like replacing Don Johnson with Colin Farrell — just a bad idea all the way around.
Peyton Hillis, Madden ’12 cover
Derek Jeter was more deserving of his starting AL shortstop All-Star vote than the “other Peyton” was of his Madden cover. Come to think of it, the original Peyton has never been on the cover of the NFL’s signature video game. EA Sports may not realize it, but the fan voting for Hillis started off as a joke. Then it went too far, as Hillis edged out Mike Vick in the final round. “Boom! Where’d that cover come from?”
The Patriots’ three-time Super Bowl-winning check-writer made all the right moves during the lockout. But that should be expected from an owner whose only coaching hires have been Pete Carroll, Bill Parcells and Bill Belichick. Kraft was not only a level-headed middle man who was respected on both sides of the aisle, but he was also a man whose wife, Myra, was fighting a battle with cancer (that was ultimately lost on July 20). Kraft continues to be the personification of dignity and class. Jeff Saturday was right to “hug it out” after the ugly 130-day negotiations.
Born on the Fourth of July; you gotta love an 82-year-old who still wears jump suits and black leather jackets. So, it should come as no shock that Davis abstained from voting on the lockout resolution. Sure, the other 31 owners were ready to pressure the players into voting. But Davis does what Davis wants — Raiders, fellow owners or NFL be damned. On second thought, maybe he’s not the worst owner after all.
“Fore right!” Phil Mickelson yelled after sailing his second shot long and right at the 72nd hole of the British Open Championship at Royal St. Georges.
“Who did it hit? Who did it hit?” Lefty asked upon reaching the grandstands behind the green, smiling at the crowd as he autographed a golf ball to throw to his victim.
Mickelson has always been quick to sign autographs or give $100 handshakes to fans that have been struck by one of his errant drives or misguided iron shots. He’s also just as likely to tip his visor or slap fives while moving through the gallery, and hang around to sign memorabilia after giving the media as much time as he can, within reason.
And while it is great to keep fans, media members and corporate sponsors happy, Mickelson’s real selling point is his “Phil the Thrill” persona.
Lefty is as American as they come on the increasingly international PGA Tour. Not only does he live a perceived champagne and caviar lifestyle with his beautiful blonde wife and kids, but Mickelson plays the game of golf with a stars-and-stripes swagger, power, creativity and — for better or worse — unpredictability.
It’s hard to be surprised by anything Mickelson does. Even when he’s going low to card 6-under thru 10 holes — birdying Nos. 2, 4, 6 and 10, while making eagle at No. 7 — like he did at Royal St. Georges, fans can only laugh along as Lefty flashes a goofy grin and fist-bumps longtime caddy Jim “Bones” Mackay.
Like any good roller coaster, the highs of watching and rooting for “Phil the Thrill” can descend just as rapidly into the lows of missed opportunity, regret, if only and what if? He may miss a two-foot putt at No. 11 to derail one of the most exciting final rounds in recent memory, like he did on Sunday. It happens.
Even after his misstep, Mickelson played to win — all the while Dustin Johnson was shanking crucial shots out of bounds and eventual Champion Golfer Darren Clarke was bouncing balls over bunkers.
Rather than playing safe for a solo second finish, Lefty kept his typical “if you ain’t first, you’re last” attitude — going for greens and not leaving any putts short. The strategy likely cost him at least one, probably two strokes. But it was the only way to play for a four-time major champ seeking his first British Open Championship. And, in the end, Mickelson still finished with T2 with fellow American Johnson (who took a decidedly different path to the same 278 strokes).
Clearly, Sunday at Royal St. Georges was the Northern Irish gentleman’s day; Clarke was the fan favorite and a deserving recipient of the Claret Jug. But long before the trophy presentation, for anyone watching stateside, “Phil the Thrill” had already stolen the show.
Kenny Britt may not want the cops to keep putting handcuffs on him, but the third-year Tennessee Titans wideout had no problem submitting to Britney Spears during her Femme Fatale Tour’s stop in Nashville on Monday night.
The pop princess pulled the troubled third-year receiver out of the audience, placed a pink boa around his neck, handcuffed the 6’3”, 215-pound New Jersey native to a pole and then proceeded to dance on and around him as she performed “Lace and Leather” in front of a raucous crowd at Bridgestone Arena.
This is at least the third time Britt has been in handcuffs during the lockout — with the first time coming following a car chase with police and the second coming after resisting arrest (and tampering with evidence) at a New Jersey car wash.
Britt was also the “victim” of a Facebook hacker in June, when @KennyBritt8818 posted:
“Retiring From the NFL. F*** You Goddell.”
Luckily, Britt’s run-in with Britney didn’t end in an arrest, retirement or cursing of Commissioner Roger Goodell.
Golden Tate runs a 4.42 in the 40-yard dash; but even he can’t keep up with the nearly-900 horsepower of a NASCAR Sprint Cup stock car.
The second-year Seahawks receiver inadvertently threw down the green flag on a head-to-head Twitter war shootout with NASCAR nation. Following the nominations for Male Athlete of the Year at the ESPY Awards, @ShowtimeTate tweeted:
Jimmy Johnson up for best athlete???? Um nooo .. Driving a car does not show athleticism.
The former Notre Dame star and Biletnikoff Award winner was then blitzed from all angles by fans of NASCAR, stock car racing and five-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson — who ultimately lost the Male Athlete ESPY to sweet-shooting Dallas Deutschman Dirk Nowitzki.
And as fast as Tate had angered the racing Twitter world, he attempted to backpedal from the opinion expressed in his original tweet:
Apologies for my offensive comment to NASCAR fans. I actually read up on it and NO I couldn’t race a car 150 mph.
But that didn’t stop an angry Twitter mob tired of the age-old “drivers aren’t athletes” stereotype that was further perpetuated by Tate — who, in turn, called out to the Seahawks’ rabid “12th Man” fanbase to save him:
12th man get these rednecks off me.
By the end of the Twitter war, the Nashville native changed his tune in favor of a sport — or at least a fanbase — whose roots run deep in the South:
I will say my respect for NASCAR has gone up tremendously yalls fans r hard nose and passionate #respect!
Tate went so far as to appear on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio in an attempt to clear the air — or find clean air at the front of the pack, in race-speak.
“I will say this: NASCAR fans, do not mess with them,” Tate told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.
“Do not mess with them. They will eat you alive. …
“I wasn’t really too familiar with Jimmie Johnson. I didn’t mean it to be any disrespect, although it might have come across that way.”
In the end, Tate proved fast enough on his feet and tweet to earn a comment from the five-time reigning Cup king himself — the man behind the wheel of the 48 Lowe’s Chevy and the nominee for the Male Athlete ESPY.
A few years ago, Vince Young was at a nightclub hitting on the younger sister of a friend of mine — no surprise there, since this girl is some sort of heavenly combination of Beyonce and Stacey Dash.
After a few minutes, VY laughs and says, “You don’t know who I am, do you?”
“Sure I do. You’re LeBron James’ friend,” she says bubbly.
In a way, she was right; VY is indeed LBJ’s friend. But that definitely is not how Young defines himself. For better or worse, Vince thinks he is a peer of LeBron, that the two are one-name icons with the potential to revolutionize their respective sports.
And on that night, VY was still on top of the world — with a Reebok endorsement deal and the starting quarterback job for the Tennessee Titans, not to mention a Rookie of the Year trophy and game-worn Pro Bowl jersey hanging on the wall. Oh, and he was more popular than BBQ sauce in Texas after carrying the Longhorns to the national championship.
Much like LeBron, however, Vince has taken a hard fall in recent months due primarily to a lack of self-awareness and media savvy.
Unlike James — who was wined and dined by the entire NBA when he was a free agent last summer — Young will likely have to lobby for a job in the NFL once the lockout is finally over. The 26-year-old James and recently turned 28-year-old Young were once universally beloved — LBJ was the “King” and VY was “In-Vince-ible” — but both are now seen as spoiled prima donnas, a fact neither seems able to come to grips with.
Once the inevitable happens and the Titans cut ties with Young, he has made it clear that he would like to follow James and “take his talents to South Beach.” Young has been hanging around Miami this summer in hopes of getting some “face time” with the Dolphins’ decision-makers.
And upon further review, Young’s dream scheme scenario may make more sense than the “Heatles” supergroup produced by Pat Riley.
Lame Duck Coach, One-Year Rental QB
The marine mammals coach, Tony Sparano, is entering a season that at-best is make-or-break and at-worst a lame duck campaign. Inking VY to what would be essentially a one-year rental contract is perfect. The coach-QB tandem can fight for their lives and if it doesn’t work out, Miami can cut bait at the end of the season with a fresh start at coach and quarterback in 2012.
Young will certainly accept a low-ball, incentive-laden deal with team-friendly options. Taking VY for a test drive seems to have relatively little risk but tremendous reward if he has any gas left in the tank as a winning quarterback. And the move could save Sparano's job — or at least give him a good excuse if he gets canned.
More Star Power, Upside Than Chad Henne
Young has shown flashes of greatness since being drafted No. 3 overall in 2006. His results infamously outweighed his statistics in Tennessee; VY had a 30–17 record as a starter, while the Titans went 15–18 without him under center during that same time.
But recently Young’s stats have been catching up with his win total. Over his past 16 starts, VY has a 10–6 record, completing 209-of-355 passes (58.9 percent) for 2,745 yards, 18 TDs and eight INTs, along with 58 rushes for 343 yards (5.9 ypc) and one trip to the end zone.
He does, however, also have six lost fumbles and three DNFs — one coach’s decision against the Steelers, one sprained knee against the Jaguars and one season-ending thumb injury against the Redskins, which was followed by the meltdown with then-coach Jeff Fisher that sealed his fate in the Music City.
Current Phins starter Chad Henne is a solid professional, but no one seems convinced that he’s a franchise quarterback — let alone the heir to Dan Marino, which Miami has been starved for since Ace Ventura’s detective buddy retired in 1999.
Henne’s been the definition of mediocrity, going 13–14 as a starter, with 27 TDs and 33 INTs — recording six multi-TD games and eight multi-turnover games — during that stretch.
Direct Snaps From Wildcat
Imagine the 6’5”, 232-pound VY taking direct snaps from the shotgun in the Wildcat formation? In all seriousness, Young is a dual-threat playmaker at quarterback — with 264 carries for 1,380 yards (5.2 ypc) and 12 TDs (including a 39-yard overtime “walk off” in his Houston homecoming) over 54 career games.
Although he’s no Mike Vick, VY has an exciting edge to his game that fits the city of Miami’s style more than Henne’s.
LeBron James’ Friend
The hottest girl in the room is rarely wrong. Vince is LeBron’s friend — and peer, in a warped way. The Dolphins will be doing the Heat a favor by signing Young. After having their likenesses torn down in Nashville and Cleveland, VY and LBJ could become twin towers on the sports scene in Miami — a.k.a. Dwyane Wade’s town.
“I couldn’t ask for much more, and I’m just so happy to be holding this trophy. I know how good Tiger was in 2000 to win by 15 in Pebble. I was trying to go out there and emulate him in some way. I played great for four days, and I couldn’t be happier.” – Rory McIlroy
“Congrats to Rory. What a performance from start to finish. Enjoy the win. Well done.” – Tiger Woods
“He’s the best player I’ve ever seen. I didn’t have a chance to play with Tiger when he was in his real pump, and this guy is the best I’ve ever seen, simple as that. He’s great for golf. He’s a breath of fresh air for the game and perhaps we’re ready for golf’s next superstar and maybe Rory is it.” – Northern Irishman and 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell
“If you are going to talk about someone challenging Jack’s record, there’s your man. Winning majors at 22 with his talent — he would have 20 more years, so probably 100 more majors in him where he could be competitive. It would give him a great chance.” – Ireland’s three-time major winner Padraig Harrington
“He will be and already is a celebrity, but he is a golfer first. In this day and age, it’s very difficult. He needs to make certain golf is the first thing, as well as his motivation and desire to be great. My motivation was that I wanted to be the best I could be in the sport, and once I got close to Bob Jones’ record, that became my motivation. I think Rory has got his head screwed on pretty well and I think he’ll keep it there. It was obviously an unbelievable performance.” – Iconic 18-time major winner Jack Nicklaus
“I think this kid’s going to have a great career. I don’t think there’s any question about it. He’s got all the components. He’s got a lot of people rooting for him. He’s a nice kid. He’s got a pleasant personality. He’s humble when he needs to be humble, he’s confident when he needs to be confidenct.” – Nicklaus
“It feels good, it feels great. It’s nice to be able to call myself a major champion. I’ve got three weeks off and then the British Open, so I want to take it easy and let it sink in.” – McIlroy
The story of Bubba Starling has evolved into a Midwestern myth over the course of his high school career at Edgerton (Kan.). To hear it told, the lanky 6’5”, 195-pound two-sport star was Paul Bunyan with a wood bat in his hands at the plate and a blue ox in pads bulldozing defenders on the gridiron for the Blazers.
But Starling is not an ordinary small town tall tale; he is arguably the most accomplished high school athlete of the past decade. In a YouTube world where little goes unseen and even less is never-before-seen, Starling stands out as a human highlight reel with off-the-charts potential in both baseball and football.
Starling was selected No. 5 overall in the MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals — a club located just over 30 minutes from his hometown of Gardner, Kan. He was also the Gatorade Kansas Player of the Year and U.S. Army All-American as a quarterback, and has signed a Letter of Intent to play for the Nebraska Cornhuskers this fall.
Now, the 18-year-old is left with a decision that will send shockwaves from Kansas City, Mo., to Lincoln, Neb. Everyone wants to know what Derek “Bubba” Starling’s next move is.
Baseball America’s top-ranked high school prospect has a chance to become the face of a Royals franchise that infamously passed over K.C.-area product Albert Pujols back in 1999.
And as the No. 5 overall pick, Starling is in line for a big payday. The MLB-suggested slot-value bonus for the pick is roughly $2.5 million. However, three years ago Buster Posey received a $6.2-million bonus after the Giants took him at No. 5 overall.
Factoring in the local politics, other options and high profile of the situation, Bubba will be closer to Buster money than slot value — which would be hard for anyone to pass up. But money can’t buy what Starling would be signing away by turning pro in 2011 — rather than, say, 2014.
“Bubba” has a chance to become a one-name icon in Nebraska, like “Tebow” is in Florida or “Vince” is in Texas. He can follow in the footsteps of Frazier, Crouch, Frost and Gill; bask in B.M.O.C. status and cornfed coeds; and still play baseball for new coach Darin Erstad in the spring, after he’s done going all out for Bo Pelini in the fall.
No college baseball coach in the country is better prepared to mentor Starling than Erstad, himself a two-sport star in Lincoln not so long ago.
Erstad was the starting punter on Tom Osborne’s 1994 national title-winning Huskers squad before being named the 1995 Golden Spikes Award winner as an outfielder on NU’s baseball team.
After a successful ironman stint in Cornhusker country, Erstad was the No. 1 overall pick of the California Angels in the 1995 MLB Draft. Over his 14-year career in the bigs, Erstad was a three-time Gold Glove outfielder, a two-time All-Star and a World Series champion in 2002.
If anyone can give Starling insight on how juggle two sports at the highest collegiate level — as well as the benefits and potential pitfalls of doing so — it is Erstad.
Osborne and Pelini will pull out all of the recruiting stops, no doubt. But it is Erstad who shares the most in common with Starling and whose opinion should carry the most credibility.
Starling went 33–4 as a starting quarterback in high school — rushing for 2,377 yards (on 13.2 ypc) and 31 TDs, while passing for 790 yards and eight TDs as a senior; and rushing for 1,381 yards and 19 TDs, while passing for 1,433 yards, 18 TDs and six INTs as a junior — and has the potential to be a fan favorite at Memorial Stadium.
However, the tools-iest outfielder in the draft is represented by diabolical uber-agent Scott Boras, who will look to set a new Royals’ record for signing bonus — which currently sits at a cool $6 million, given to No. 2 overall pick Eric Hosmer in 2008. But this is not news; K.C. general manager Dayton Moore knew he was signing a $6-plus-million check when he wrote Starling’s name down and turned it in to Commissioner Bud Selig on Monday night.
Starling has until 11:59 p.m. August 15 to decide whether he wants to be the next Bo Jackson — who won the 1985 Heisman Trophy after hitting .401 with 17 HRs for Auburn the previous spring — or the next Carl Crawford — who chose minor league baseball and big-league riches over Nebraska athletics in 1999.
The ball(s) is in Bubba’s court — and field, and diamond. It’s Starling’s decision to make; fans wearing Royal blue or Big Red can only hope their dream prospect comes true.
Click here for all our college football team previews, rankings and predictions.
Less than one year after LeBron James’ decision to quit heavy lifting on the docks of Lake Erie and go hang out with his friends on the strip in South Beach, the Cleveland Cavaliers have seemingly come full circle.
Not only did Dan Gilbert’s club hit the jackpot with the No. 1 overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but the Cavs did so via the rights to the Clippers’ pick — which had a 2.8 percent chance of ping pong powerball. Cleveland’s own 19.9 percent chance — second only to the Timberwolves’ 25 percent odds — was a swing and miss, but still netted the “best of the rest” No. 4 overall pick once all the envelopes had been opened by Deputy Commissioner Adam Silver.
With the Nos. 1 and 4 overall picks, Gilbert’s personal “guarantee that the Cleveland Cavaliers will win an NBA Championship before the self-titled former ‘King’ wins one” — which he infamously penned in an open letter on the night of James’ ESPN “Decision” special — takes one step closer to innocent-enough fantasy and one step farther away from rage-fueled insanity.
But this year’s Lottery was not about a petty feud between a spoiled golden goose who went south for basketball season and a spoiled owner who lost his golden egg layer-upper.
What’s Not To Like?
The star of the show Tuesday was Dan’s 14-year-old son Nick, who represented the Cavaliers onstage at the half-hour envelope-opening ceremony. Suffering from Neurofibromatosis — an inherited disease in which nerve tissue grows tumors without warning — Nick sat patiently, wearing glasses and a bow tie, as ESPN’s Heather Cox introduced the other Lottery reps.
Then, this exchange took place:
“Nick, you’re the ambassador for the National Children’s Tumor Foundation and you’ve been dealing with a nerve disorder since you were born. Your dad called you his own personal hero. How’d that make you feel?” asked Cox.
“Well, I mean, what’s not to like?” said Nick, who smiled and paused for laughter after uttering a line that is sure to live on in Cleveland for many years to come.
“I’m the oldest of five. I mean, I have a good life. I’ve been going through this disease but I’m going through it well. I’m getting better. Research is, all the money people are donating. Yeah, everything’s going good, I guess.”
And everything is going even better since Nick’s big night, which drew attention to the cause and raised over $22,000 for the Children’s Tumor Foundation — an amount that Dan Gilbert has promised to match dollar-for-dollar.
While viewers and fans were donating to charity, the gift that keeps on giving — T-Wolves GM and Lottery rep David Kahn — did his usual foot-in-mouth routine.
“I also felt, very strongly, that once the 14-year-old hit the dais with us we were dead. We were just dead. There was no way,” joked Kahn.
“This league has a habit. I’m just going to say ‘a habit’ of producing some pretty incredible storylines. Last year it was Abe Pollin’s widow and this year it’s a 14-year-old boy — who I only had one thing in common with; we’ve both been bar mitzvahed. We were done.
“I told Kevin, ‘We’re toast. This is not happening for us.’ And I was right about that. We were done. As soon as the 14-year-old came up there it was lights out.”
Who’s No. 1?
The last time the Cavaliers had the No. 1 overall pick was in 2003, when Akron, Ohio’s own LeBron James wore an all-white suit to his draft day coronation.
This time around, Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving — who averaged 17.5 points (on 52.9 FG%, 90.1 FT% and 46.2 3PT%), 4.3 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 1.5 steals per game over only 11 collegiate contests due to a right toe injury — is the favorite to go with the top spot.
If not Irving, then Arizona sophomore combo forward Derrick Williams — who averaged 19.5 points (on 59.5 FG%, 74.6 FT% and 56.8 3PT%), 8.3 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 38 games — looks to be 1b. to Irving’s 1a. in what many consider to be a two-man tier at the top of one of the weaker draft classes in recent memory.
Either way, the Nos. 1 and 4 overall picks — along with the good will brought about by Nick Gilbert — gives the Cavs a strong foundation to rebuild on after the LeBron LeBacle of last summer. And everyone, including the man whose jersey has been burned and reputation has been permanently altered, is glad to see that.
“I’m happy for the franchise and happy for the fans,” said James, following the Heat’s Wednesday shootaround.
“I think it is a good step for them.”
Tiger Woods, Lee Westwood and Rory McIlroy won’t be teeing off this weekend at golf’s so-called “fifth major” championship, The Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.
The tomcat 14-time major champion, the Brit who’s ranked No. 1 in the world and the 22-year-old Northern Irishman who held the 54-hole lead at this year’s Masters will be M.I.A. at Ponte Vedra Beach, near Jacksonville, Fla., shanking the tournament’s potential star-power into the water before anyone has even tuned in to watch the tee box disaster area on the “Island Green” of No. 17 at the Stadium Course.
To his credit, Tiger did at least attempt to limp his way to victory, as he heroically did in the 2008 U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. But after shooting a 6-over 42 on the front nine on Thursday — including a triple-bogey on No. 4 and ugly bogeys on Nos. 1, 5 and 9 — Woods said adios to playing partners Martin Kaymer and Matt Kuchar at the turn.
“The knee acted up and then the Achilles followed after that and then the calf started cramping up. Everything started getting tight, so it’s just a whole chain reaction,” explained Woods, whose left knee has been surgically repaired four times and whose Achilles has also been an ongoing issue.
“I’m having a hard time walking.”
Meanwhile, both Westwood and McIlroy have no injury and obvious excuse to miss The Players Championship — although Lee may be celebrating the Royal Wedding and Rory still could be in mourning after his final-round 80 at Augusta. Instead, the two European headliners have decided to skip the “Island Green” and stay on the other side of the pond.
“It’s an affront to the championship,” said NBC analyst Johnny Miller, during a Wednesday conference call.
“It’s a statement. I’m not sure what the statement is.”
Statement or not, The Players Championship will be without three of the top eight players in the world this weekend, when a field led by Phil Mickelson and… other golfers attempt to conquer a brutally difficult 7,220-yard course — with a $9.5 million purse and $1.71 winner’s share on the line — at TPC Sawgrass.
With a 53–41 victory over Butler in the national title game, Kemba Walker joined Richard Hamilton (1999) and Ben Gordon (2004) among the pantheon of Connecticut champions. In the process, the 6'1" junior from the Bronx helped define what it means to be a scoring guard at UConn more than anyone since Ray Allen.
Although he went just 5-of-19 from the floor for 16 points on the final Monday in Houston, it was Walker who led the way for the Huskies — in every tournament (and game) they played in this season.
Jim Calhoun’s go-to guy first made a splash in the Maui Invitational, then won five games in five nights in the Big East Tournament and ultimately carried UConn on his back — past Bucknell (81–52), Cincinnati (69–58), San Diego State (74–67), Arizona (65–63), Kentucky (56–55) and finally Butler (53–41) — all the way up the ladder to cut down the nets, capping a 14–0 three-tournament record this year.
Walker averaged 23.5 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 1.9 steals over 41 games this season, including 23.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.7 assists and 1.5 steals over six games in the NCAA Tournament. But it was his never-say-die attitude that mattered most in Coach Calhoun’s third national championship run.
With his third national title, Calhoun joins UCLA’s John Wooden (10), Kentucky’s Adolph Rupp (4), Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski (4) and Indiana’s Bob Knight (3) as the only coaches in NCAA history to win three or more national championships.
“It may be the happiest moment of my life,” said Calhoun, who at 68 became the oldest coach in history to win it all.
Unlike previous champs Hamilton — who had Khalid El-Amin, Jake Voskuhl and Co. — and Gordon — whose right-hand man was Emeka Okafor — Walker was a one-man show for much of the season, averaging 32.5 percent of the team’s points on the year and 35.4 percent during the NCAA Tournament.
But it was Connecticut’s defense — or possibly the lack of a Butler offense — that decided the national title game.
Despite playing in the final for the second straight season, the Bulldogs showed the nerves of a first-time contender — making just 12-of-64 shots (18.8 percent), including 9-of-33 from 3-point range, and scoring only 41 points, which was the lowest championship-game total of the shot clock era. Worse, Butler cornerstones Matt Howard and Shelvin Mack combined to shoot 5-for-28 in their second title game appearance.
“Without question, 41 points and 12-of-64 is not good enough to win any game, let alone the national championship,” said coach Brad Stevens, who carries a 117–25 record over four seasons at Butler, including a 11–4 mark and two national runner-up finishes in the NCAA Tournament.
But Walker, freshman wing Jeremy Lamb (12 points, seven rebounds) and sophomore center Alex Oriakhi (11 points, 11 boards, four blocks) made just enough shots to lead UConn to a title. The Huskies survived a dismal 19-of-55 shooting night from the field, which included 1-of-11 from 3-point range and a terrible 6-to-11 assist-to-turnover ratio.
But no one will remember the clanked threes or low score. All that matters is the result. Connecticut is the last team standing and a deserving national champion — as the best team, with the best player, in the country.
After a season dominated by Jimmer mania and freshman sensations, and a Big Dance full of Shaka-ing upsets — including No. 11 seed VCU making the Final Four after barely making the bracket as one of the original “First Four” — and Cinderella stories, the No. 3-seed Huskies took down the No. 8-seed Bulldogs in the final.
“It’s unreal. It’s surreal,” said Walker after the game. “I’m so happy right now.”
2010-11 Record: 30–9 (9–9 Big East)
Head Coach: Jim Calhoun (4th Final Four)
Projected Starters: G – Kemba Walker (23.9 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg), G – Shabazz Napier (8.0 ppg, 3.0 apg, 2.4 rpg), G/F – Jeremy Lamb (11.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg), F – Roscoe Smith (6.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.2 bpg), C – Alex Oriakhi (9.6 ppg, 8.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg)
Will win the national title if… Kemba Walker keeps producing the way he has in every tournament he has played in this season. First, Walker dominated the Maui Invitational, then he took over the Big East Tourney (carrying UConn to five wins in five nights). Walker — who is averaging 26.8 points, 6.8 assists and 5.3 boards in the NCAA Tournament — must rise to the occasion once again.
Will lose to Kentucky on Saturday if… coach Jim Calhoun’s club doesn’t play the type of perimeter defense it did against the Wildcats earlier this year, when the Huskies held Brandon Knight to six points (on 3-of-15 shooting). Josh Harrellson and Terrence Jones are dangerous down low, but Knight is the leader of the “dribble drive offense” — like Derrick Rose and John Wall were.
Best Team: Connecticut
Biggest Upset: Arizona over Duke
Most Surprising Team: Arizona
Most Disappointing Team: Duke
Best Player: Derrick Williams, Arizona. Although he was unable to lead the U of A to the Final Four, Williams did everything he could — including a game-saving block and game-winning 3-point play.
Honorable Mention: Kemba Walker, Connecticut; Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut; Nolan Smith, Duke; Solomon Hill, Arizona; Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State; Darius Morris, Michigan
Best Game: Arizona 70, Texas 69, Second Round — A tough five-second violation by Texas freshman Corey Joseph resulted in a highlight reel old-fashioned 3-point play by Arizona superstar Derrick Williams in a thrilling finish.
Most Disappointing Game: Connecticut 74, San Diego State 67, Sweet 16 — The Aztecs were not ready for Kemba Walker and the Huskies. And, as many expected, poor free-throw shooting (46.2 percent vs. UConn) hurt SDSU in the loss.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
“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.
“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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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
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 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.
“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.
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:
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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.
Top Team — Duke (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 Duo — Tristan 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 Reunion — Arizona (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).
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.
BMOC — Kenneth 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.