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Much like a superhero movie franchise, March Madness is producing a sequel to one of the better NCAA Tournament games from last season. When Providence and USC met in the Round of 64 a year ago, it came down to the final possession. The Friars edged the Trojans 70-69 on Rodney Bullock's backdoor layup off an inbounds pass with 1.5 seconds remaining.
Can the encore deliver an equally dramatic finish in 2017? A dramatic finish may not be in the script this time around.
Providence and USC enter the First Four traveling in different directions. The Friars overcame a ragged 4-8 start in Big East play and ripped off six wins over their final seven games to lock down an at-large bid. The Trojans backed into the field. USC opened the season with 14 straight wins, but haven't beaten a team with a winning record since January.
First Four: No. 11 USC Trojans (24-9) vs. No. 11 Providence Friars (20-12)
When: 9:10 p.m. ET (Wednesday, approximate tip time)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
Line: USC -2.5
Keys for Providence
Rodney Bullock came up with a big performance when Providence and USC met a year ago. Including his game-winning layup, Bullock totaled 16 points and 10 rebounds. The Friars will need more of the same from the junior forward to make it out of Dayton.
Bullock can deliver. He is the team leader in both scoring (15.7 ppg) and rebounding (6.4 rpg). The junior forward posted three consecutive double-doubles against Xavier, Creighton and Marquette during Providence's six game winning streak to close out the regular season.
Keeping USC's offense in check also is critical for the Friars. Providence has won just twice when teams have scored 70 or more points this season.
Keys for USC
Turning the game into a track meet may be the best course of action for the Trojans. USC functions best when its offense can run and gun. The Trojans score 78.7 points per game, ranking fourth among Pac-12 teams. Four players average double figures in scoring, led by Bennie Boatwright (14.6 ppg). Chimezie Metu also is a force in scoring (14.5 ppg) and on the boards (7.8 rpg).
The most effective way for USC to get things free flowing is to force Providence into playing sloppy. The Trojans average a Pac-12-best 7.2 steals per game, so pressuring the Friars is well within their capabilities. If USC can get its transition offense going early off turnovers, keeping pace will be tough for Providence.
USC struggled to beat any team outside of the Pac-12 cellar as the season wore down. Providence, on the other hand, rediscovered its winning ways in a deep and rugged Big East down the stretch. The Friars are capable of holding their own on offense and are a much better team defensively than the Trojans. It likely won't come down to a last-second layup this time for Providence, but the Friars won't need one against a USC team staggering to the finish line.
Prediction: Providence 74, USC 68
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
A magical three-season run of postseason appearances ended with a thud last year. The Pirates went 78–83, finishing 25 games behind the eventual World Series champion Chicago Cubs in the National League Central. In 2015, the Pirates won 98 games, one more than the Cubs.
Righthander Gerrit Cole is the ace of a young rotation, and questions surround the 26-year-old after he went 7–10 with a 3.88 ERA in 21 starts last year while bothered by elbow problems. He is one of the most talented young pitchers in the game, as evidenced by his 19-win season in 2015, and the Pirates desperately need him to return to form. Righthander Ivan Nova was re-signed to a three-year, $26-million contract. He had a fine 11-start run after being acquired from the Yankees in a trade on Aug. 1. Righthanders Jameson Taillon, Chad Kuhl and Tyler Glasnow and lefthander Steven Brault figure to round out the rotation. They are talented but young and inexperienced (none will be older than 25 on Opening Day), and they have pitched a combined 233.1 innings in the major leagues. Taillon impressed as a rookie last year, going 5–4 with a 3.38 ERA in 18 starts after missing the previous two seasons while recovering from Tommy John surgery and a sports hernia operation.
Second baseman Josh Harrison received a four-year, $27.3 million contract after hitting .315 with 13 home runs in 2014. While he has batted a combined .285 in the two seasons since, he also has just eight homers. Jordy Mercer is a steady if unspectacular shortstop. He is a decent hitter with some power and makes all the routine plays in the field along with the occasional highlight-reel one.
Switch-hitting rookie Josh Bell will take over at first base after hitting .273 with three homers in 45 games last season. While he has struggled to make the conversion from right field, he has an advanced approach to the plate and the chance to add more power to his game. Third baseman Jung Ho Kang’s status is cloudy as he could be facing a suspension after being arrested for drunk driving in his native South Korea during the offseason and being accused of sexually assaulting a woman in a Chicago hotel room last June. He has hit .273 with 36 home runs in his first two major-league seasons after starring in the Korea Baseball Organization.
The Pirates have one of the best trios in the game, but the question is what is to become of center fielder Andrew McCutchen. The 2013 National League MVP is coming off a season in which he hit a career-low .256 with 24 home runs while playing awful defense. McCutchen will make $14 million this season, which would be the highest salary in franchise history, in the final guaranteed year of his six-year, $51.5 million contract that includes a $14.5 million club option for 2018 that can be bought out for $1 million. History shows that the Pirates almost always trade their star players before they reach free agency, so it seems likely he will be dealt by the July 31 non-waiver deadline. Starling Marte has won Gold Gloves in left field in each of the last two seasons but will be moving to center this season wtih McCutchen shifting over to right. Marte is also a dynamic offensive player with power and speed who stole 47 bases last season but hit a disappointing nine homers. Right fielder Gregory Polanco is a five-tool talent who has the chance to be a star. The 25-year-old hit a career-high 22 home runs last year in his third season and is still tapping into his potential. Austin Meadows will be waiting for an opportunity at Triple-A Indianapolis. The 21-year-old, who was the first of the Pirates’ two first-round draft picks in 2013, would likely be ready to slide into the lineup in place of McCutchen by July.
Francisco Cervelli has proven to be a quality starter behind the plate during his two seasons with the Pirates after spending seven years as a backup with the Yankees. While he has an outstanding .373 on-base percentage since coming to Pittsburgh, the Pirates place an even greater value on his rapport with the pitching staff and pitch-framing ability.
Chris Stewart is a solid backup catcher, pretty much a Cervelli Lite with his strong defense and leadership ability. John Jaso began last season as the starting first baseman after being signed to a two-year, $8 million contract in free agency. The Pirates are counting on him to be a solid backup at both corner infield and outfield spots this season while providing left-handed production on a roster filled with right-handed hitters. Veteran third baseman David Freese was signed midway through spring training last year to serve as protection while Kang recovered from knee surgery. Freese played so well in a part-time role that the Pirates gave him a two-year, $11 million contract extension during the season. He could be a pivotal figure if Kang’s legal troubles threaten his availability this season. A couple of homegrown products, Adam Frazier and Alen Hanson, will serve as super utility players as they can play all over the infield and outfield. Hanson’s outstanding speed could make him a factor as a pinch-runner.
General manager Neal Huntington and manager Clint Hurdle have done an outstanding job of turning around a moribund franchise. However, both have begun showing subtle signs of frustration about working under the payroll constraints of owner Bob Nutting, perhaps a sign that they could show wanderlust when their contracts expire at the end of this season.
The Pirates seemingly have little chance of overtaking the Cubs in the NL Central this season, though they plan to give it a shot. However, if they fall too far behind in the standings, they are likely to shift into rebuilding mode and sort out which young players — especially starting pitchers — fit into their long-term plans and try to add more prospects by trading McCutchen.
2017 NL CENTRAL PREDICTION: 3rd
The North Carolina Central Eagles and UC Davis Aggies will start Wednesday’s First Four games at UD Arena in Dayton, Ohio. Both the Eagles and Aggies will be going for their first NCAA Tournament victory.
The winner of this game will meet the No.1 seed in the Midwest, the Kansas Jayhawks on Friday in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That team also will have a shot at making history by becoming the first No. 16 seed to take down a top seed in the Tournament.
NC Central was last in the Big Dance in 2014 when the No. 14 Eagles lost to 93-75 to No. 3 Iowa State. This is UC Davis’ first NCAA Tournament games since joining Division I in 2004.
First Four: No. 16 North Carolina Central Eagles (25-8) vs. No. 16 UC Davis Aggies (22-12)
Time: 6:40 p.m. ET (Wednesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, Ohio)
Line: North Carolina Central -4
Keys for North Carolina Central
North Carolina Central’s offense pretty much runs through senior Patrick Cole. The 6-foot-5 guard leads the team in scoring (19.5 ppg) and assists (5.7 apg), to along with 7.0 rebounds per game. If the Eagles are going to win on Wednesday, they also will need a big game from fellow guard Dajuan Graf, who is shooting 39.2 percent on three-pointers and is the team’s second-leading scorer (14.3 ppg).
One area the Eagles have been great at this season is limiting the damage opponents do from beyond the arc. NC Central is holding teams to just 29 percent shooting on three-point attempts, the second-best mark in the nation. The Eagles will need to continue their tough perimeter defense against a UC Davis team that shoots 34.5 percent from that range.
Keys for UC Davis
Some of the most successful teams in the NCAA Tournament are usually the ones that have excellent guard play. UC Davis typically has three guards on the floor in Brynton Lemar, Siler Schneider and Lawrence White.
Lemar leads the Aggies with 16.1 points per game and is shooting 38.1 percent on threes. Forward Chima Moneke also plays a significant role on both ends of the floor, averaging 14.4 points and 9.4 rebounds per game. UC Davis only averages 70.5 points per game, but the Aggies’ small lineup could pose matchup problems for North Carolina Central.
Neither team has a lot of NCAA Tournament experience, so that won’t play a role in deciding Wednesday’s game. It will likely come down to if UC Davis can score against North Carolina Central’s defense.
The Eagles are ranked 22nd in scoring defense in the country, limiting teams to just 63.4 points per game. They don’t put up a ton of points themselves (75.1 ppg) and could be in trouble if they can’t dial it up from long distance (34 percent shooting on three-pointers) against the Aggies.
For UC Davis to have any chance to defeat North Carolina Central, the Aggies must contain Patrick Cole, the Eagles’ top offensive threat. UC Davis will certainly need to score more than the 50 points it put up in its Big West Tournament championship win to beat North Carolina Central and advance to play No. 1 seed Kansas on Friday.
Prediction: North Carolina Central 70, UC Davis 59
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
The departures of Marcus Paige and Brice Johnson led many to believe that North Carolina would take a step backwards in 2016-17. Fortunately, that has not been the case. The Tar Heels won their second consecutive outright ACC regular season championship, and once again find themselves well positioned as a No. 1 seed in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
The stage is set for the Tar Heels to begin their quest through the gauntlet that is March Madness, in search of redemption following last year’s heart-wrenching loss to Villanova in the championship game. In the immortal words of the greatest Tar Heel of them all, “The ceiling is the roof” for a North Carolina team that appears to have everything in place to make another run at a national championship in 2017. Here are five reasons why the Tar Heels will be cutting down the nets in Glendale, Arizona.
5 Reasons Why North Carolina Will Win the 2017 NCAA Tournament
1. Talent and Balance
The 2016-17 North Carolina roster may not be chock-full of future NBA lottery picks. But the Tar Heels do feature six former McDonald’s High School All-Americans. And collectively, boast one of the most dangerous and balanced lineups in the NCAA Tournament. A roster full of highly skilled athletes that can run the floor as well as anyone in the nation and score points at a breakneck pace, which is evident by the 85 points per game they are averaging entering Friday’s first round game against Texas Southern.
A ineup that features four players averaging 12 points or more per game is led by ACC Player of the Year Justin Jackson (18 ppg). Jackson can put up points in bunches when fully engaged and may be the most dynamic player in the country in transition. He has developed into a true weapon from three-point range as well, improving to 38 percent this season from beyond the arc.
Jackson may have the most impressive resume, but combo guard Joel Berry II is the engine that makes this team run. Berry is rock-solid in every facet of the game and provides UNC with its best option on the perimeter (42 percent from 3-point range). Junior Theo Pinson and senior Nate Britt round out a star-studded backcourt. Both Pinson and Britt struggle shooting the basketball at times, but typically make up for it with stellar play on the defensive end.
North Carolina may actually shine brightest down low. In fact, there may not be a better corps of collective post players in the entire Tournament than Kennedy Meeks, Isaiah Hicks, Tony Bradley and Luke Maye. Meeks and Hicks are seasoned big men that can compete with anyone down on the block. Freshman Tony Bradley has shown flashes of greatness coming off of the bench. And sophomore Luke Maye also provides solid re-enforcement in a reserve role with the ability to make shots from anywhere on the floor.
Experience wins championships, and North Carolina has plenty of it. The Tar Heels are one of just a small group of contenders in this year’s tournament to feature five (two seniors, three juniors) in their starting five. And there is not another team competing in March that can match the wealth of actual game and Tournament experience accumulated by this group. In total, the North Carolina starting five has 576 career games under its collective belt – 334 of those games have come in a starting capacity.
Meeks, a senior, and Jackson, a junior, have both been fixtures in the starting lineup since their freshman year. Junior Joel Berry II is in his second season as a full-time starter. Senior big man Isaiah Hicks, senior Nate Britt and junior Theo Pinson all have starting experience and have been significant contributors since first setting foot in Chapel Hill. Experience helped the Tar Heels to the national title game last year, and they have even more this time around. It should pay big dividends, as Carolina will be well prepared for anything that comes its way.
3. Rebounds, Rebounds, Rebounds
Rebounding is one of the most critical components to a team’s success. And no other team in this year’s Tournament attacks the glass better than North Carolina. The Tar Heels led the nation in total rebounds (1,479) and rebounding margin (12.7 per game). Perhaps more importantly, UNC led the nation in offensive rebounding (15.8 per game), consistently making the most of second-chance scoring opportunities as a result.
While Meeks leads the way with 9.1 rebounds per game, this is not a team that relies solely on one or two players to clean up on the glass. It is truly a collective effort that allows the Tar Heels to dominate on the boards. Rebounding should provide North Carolina with a significant advantage over its opposition throughout March Madness.
4. Roy Williams
It never hurts to have a Hall of Fame coach roaming the sidelines in March, and the Tar Heels have exactly that. This will be Williams’ 27th NCAA Tournament appearance, a time of year when he has enjoyed considerable success. The 66-year-old head coach certainly knows exactly what it takes to lead a team to a national title.
Between his time at Kansas and now North Carolina, Williams has led his teams to 70 Tournament wins, eight Final Fours, five championship game appearances and two national championships (both with the Tar Heels). He also won a national title in 1982 as an assistant at UNC under the legendary Dean Smith. Mike Krzyzewski aside, there isn’t another coach in the 2017 Tournament better equipped to lead his team through the rigors of March Madness than Williams.
One of the biggest reasons North Carolina was able to successfully navigate its way through a rigorous schedule, in the most competitive conference in the nation, is its versatility. While the Tar Heels tend to thrive in an up-tempo format, they have proven that they are well equipped to adapt to any style of basketball. Fast or slow, zone or man-to-man, it really doesn’t matter. The Tar Heels can beat you inside with their outstanding front court, they can beat you outside on the perimeter. And slashers Jackson, Berry and Pinson can beat you from anywhere on the floor.
Most teams will struggle with matchup issues at some point during this Tournament. That should not be the case for a North Carolina team that can excel in a variety of ways against any style of basketball. There are certainly teams with enough talent to beat them, particularly if the Tar Heels have one of their rare meltdown games like we saw against Duke in the ACC Tournament semifinals. However, as long as the shots are falling, North Carolina has the flexibility and firepower to beat any team in the 2017 NCAA Tournament.
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS.
(Justin Jackson photo courtesy of Getty Images)
The countdown to the 2017 college football season is already underway, as spring practices and position battles for spots on the depth chart for all 130 teams across the nation are already in progress in offseason workouts. And one of the biggest storylines of any offseason rests with the quarterback position. Last season, Louisville's Lamar Jackson emerged as a breakout candidate in the spring to one of the nation's top quarterbacks and the reigning Heisman Trophy winner. Quarterback play is always under the microscope and could be the difference between winning a conference title or national championship or finishing with a disappointing record. Recruiting establishes the foundation for any program, but finding and developing quarterbacks is a challenging and essential task for any coach. While the 2017 season is still five months away, it’s never too early to take a look at the returning talent and project some of the players due for a breakout season.
Quarterbacks are the highest-profile and most-important position on the field. With that in mind, let’s take a look at 25 quarterbacks on the rise for next season, as well as a handful of names to watch. With spring practice coming up and some of the battles set to be decided, this list will look a tad different by the fall. If possible, we tried to avoid quarterbacks that already earned all-conference honors during their career. Defining what is a "quarterback on the rise" isn't easy, but we tried to pick quarterbacks that had an under-the-radar 2016 season or ones we believe are in for a huge 2017 campaign.
College Football's Top 25 QBs on the Rise for 2017
Kyle Allen, Houston
Dynamic quarterback Greg Ward expired his eligibility after the Las Vegas Bowl, but new coach Major Applewhite has some promising options battling to take over in 2017. Allen is eligible after sitting out the 2016 season as a transfer from Texas A&M and is slated to take on Kyle Postma for the starting job this offseason. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, Houston should have one of the American Athletic Conference’s top receiving duos, as Linell Bonner (98 catches) and Steven Dunbar (53) return. Allen ranked as a five-star prospect in the 2014 signing class and threw for 3,532 yards and 33 scores during his two years with the Aggies.
Jake Bentley, South Carolina
After a unique path to the starting job last season, Bentley is firmly entrenched as South Carolina’s No. 1 quarterback entering spring workouts and is a big reason for optimism under second-year coach Will Muschamp. Bentley graduated high school following his junior year and enrolled over the summer to compete for the starting job with the Gamecocks. After not playing through the first six games, Bentley appeared to be in line for a redshirt year. However, Bentley was inserted as South Carolina’s No. 1 quarterback in late October and led the Gamecocks to a 4-3 record over the final seven games. During that span, Bentley threw for 1,420 yards and nine scores and completed 65.8 percent of his throws. With a full offseason to work under play-caller Kurt Roper, Bentley should take a significant step forward in his development for 2017.
David Blough, Purdue
With J.T. Barrett (Ohio State), Trace McSorley (Penn State), Tommy Armstrong (Nebraska) and Wilton Speight (Michigan) garnering most of the attention among Big Ten quarterbacks, Blough’s 2016 season was largely overlooked. However, Blough led all Big Ten quarterbacks by averaging 279.3 yards per game and finished last year with 3,352 yards and 25 scores. The junior certainly has room to improve after tossing 21 picks and posting a completion percentage of 57.1. However, new coach Jeff Brohm developed some of the nation’s best offenses over the last three seasons at WKU, which included huge seasons by Mike White (4,363 yards and 37 scores) and Brandon Doughty (5,055 yards and 48 scores). Purdue’s receiving corps needs some work with the top four statistical receivers from 2016 departing West Lafayette. But with Brohm (and Blough) at the controls, the Boilermakers are going to put up their share of points and yards in 2017.
Dru Brown, Hawaii
The Rainbow Warriors improved their win total by four games in coach Nick Rolovich’s first season and capped the year with a victory over MTSU in the Hawaii Bowl. A big reason for the seven-win season and late-season surge? Brown’s development as the team’s starting quarterback. The junior college product finished with 2,488 passing yards and 19 touchdown passes, with nine of those coming over Hawaii’s last two contests. Brown also showed he was more than a pocket passer by adding 306 yards and one score on the ground. He should be one of the Mountain West’s top quarterbacks in 2017.
Kelly Bryant/Zerrick Cooper/Hunter Johnson, Clemson
Make no mistake: Deshaun Watson leaves big shoes to fill at Clemson. Simply replacing Watson with another Heisman Trophy contender and quarterback capable of keeping the Tigers in the hunt to win it all isn’t going to be easy. However, coach Dabo Swinney has recruited well at this position, with three talented options slated to battle for the starting job this spring. Bryant has completed 13 of 18 passes for 75 yards and one score in reserve work over the last two years, while Cooper (a four-star recruit in the 2016 signing used a redshirt season last fall. Johnson – the No. 30 overall prospect by the 247Sports Composite in the 2017 class – enrolled in time to compete in spring practice. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, Clemson should be in good shape under center.
Eric Dungey, Syracuse
As expected under new coach Dino Babers, Dungey was poised for a huge statistical season in 2016. Dungey was a good fit for Babers’ spread, no-huddle attack and threw for 2,679 yards and 15 scores through Syracuse’s first nine games. However, Dungey’s season ended due to an injury suffered against Clemson on Nov. 5. Top receiver Amba Etta-Tawo (94 grabs) has expired his eligibility, but Dungey’s return to full strength and the lineup should keep Syracuse in the mix for a bowl.
Jacob Eason, Georgia
Eason was mentioned in this space last season and even bigger things are expected from him in 2017. The Washington native is a key cog in coach Kirby Smart’s plan to elevate Georgia into the national title mix and showcased his skills in an impressive stint as a true freshman last fall. Eason played in all 13 games and finished 2016 with 2,430 passing yards and 16 touchdowns. He should benefit from a full offseason of work with the No. 1 offense but also needs more help from his receiving corps and offensive line to challenge for All-SEC honors in 2017.
Jesse Ertz, Kansas State
After a 2015 season filled with bad luck, Ertz returned to the starting lineup in 2016 and emerged as the catalyst for coach Bill Snyder’s offense. Ertz opened 2015 as the No. 1 quarterback but suffered a season-ending leg injury in the first game of the year. However, Ertz showed no ill-effects from the injury last season, as he guided Kansas State to a 9-4 record and led the team with 1,012 rushing yards and 12 scores. Ertz also added 1,755 yards and nine touchdowns through the air, which included 195 in the Texas Bowl victory over Texas A&M. The senior isn’t going to post huge totals through the air, but his ability to churn out 80-90 rushing yards a game and keep the offense performing at a high level is more than enough to push for a spot on the All-Big 12 team this December.
Riley Ferguson, Memphis
Paxton Lynch’s early departure to the NFL left a significant void under center for coach Mike Norvell last season, but the Tigers quickly rallied around Ferguson. The former Tennessee quarterback threw for 3,698 yards and 32 scores and finished the year ranked third among American Athletic Conference passers with a 63.2 completion percentage. Ferguson’s return should have Memphis in contention for the AAC’s West Division title this fall, and he also has one of the nation’s top returning receivers at his disposal in Anthony Miller (95 catches for 1,434 yards and 14 scores in 2016).
Nick Fitzgerald, Mississippi State
Replacing arguably the best player in school history (Dak Prescott) left big shoes for Fitzgerald to fill last offseason. One year later, Fitzgerald is poised to earn a spot among the SEC’s top quarterbacks in 2017. The Georgia native started all 13 games for coach Dan Mullen and guided Mississippi State to wins in four out of its final six contests, including a 55-20 victory over rival Ole Miss. While Fitzgerald’s passing totals (2,423 yards and 21 touchdowns) are solid, his rushing ability is a difference maker for this offense. Fitzgerald accumulated 1,375 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns last year, averaging a healthy 7.1 yards per rush. With a full offseason to work under Mullen, look for Fitzgerald to improve as a passer and maintain his dynamic playmaking ability on the ground.
Deondre Francois, Florida State
The development of Francois is a big reason why Florida State should be in the mix to win the national title in 2017. As a redshirt freshman last season, Francois started all 13 games for the Seminoles and guided coach Jimbo Fisher’s team to a 10-3 record, including a 33-32 victory over Michigan in the Orange Bowl. Francois connected on 58.8 percent of his throws for 3,350 yards and 20 scores and added five rushing touchdowns and 196 yards. While Francois showcased his toughness and willingness to hang in the pocket last year, coach Jimbo Fisher wants him to get rid of the ball quicker in order to avoid the big hits suffered in 2016 and work on his completion percentage this offseason. Francois is one of the ACC's top returning quarterbacks for 2017.
Related: Early Top 25 for 2017
Will Grier, West Virginia
Grier showed flashes of promise in a short stint at Florida during the 2015 campaign and is one of the nation’s top impact transfers for the 2017 season. In his six-game run as the starter in Gainesville, Grier threw for 1,204 yards and 10 scores and completed 65.8 percent of his throws. A suspension ended his 2015 season prematurely, and the absence of Grier under center was certainly noticeable on Florida’s offense. The Gators averaged only 16.5 points over their final eight games and scored just 24 points in the last three contests. The North Carolina native ranked as the No. 48 overall prospect in the 2014 247Sports Composite and should be one of the Big 12’s top quarterbacks in 2017.
Justin Herbert, Oregon
New coach Willie Taggart ran an offense similar to the up-tempo, spread attack Oregon has utilized in recent seasons, so the overall transition between schemes should be minimal. That’s good news for Herbert, as the sophomore is poised to rank among the Pac-12’s top quarterbacks after an impressive stint as a true freshman in 2016. After not registering a pass attempt through the first four games, Herbert eventually took over the starting job in October and finished the year with 1,936 passing yards and 19 scores. Herbert tossed only four picks, completed 63.5 percent of his throws and chipped in 161 yards and two touchdowns on the ground. Herbert will also have more help in his supporting cast this year, as running back Royce Freeman is back at full strength, and tackle Tyrell Crosby returns after missing nearly all of 2016 due to injury.
Alex Hornibrook, Wisconsin
With a talented group of running backs slated to replace Corey Clement and a standout defense in place, Wisconsin doesn’t need Hornibrook to throw for 300 yards every week to win the Big Ten West. However, as he showed in 2016, the sophomore is a promising option for coach Paul Chryst to develop over the next couple of seasons. Hornibrook played in 12 games last fall and started nine of those contests, throwing for 1,262 yards and nine touchdowns. Hornibrook set a career high with 214 passing yards against Ohio State and also threw for 195 yards and a score in Wisconsin’s road win over Michigan State.
Daniel Jones, Duke
Duke coach David Cutcliffe is one of the nation’s best quarterback coaches, so it was no surprise Jones turned in a solid all-around freshman season after an injury sidelined starting quarterback Thomas Sirk in 2016. Jones was originally a grayshirt commit to Duke’s 2015 class and used his first year on campus as a redshirt season. The Charlotte native started all 12 games for the Blue Devils last season and threw for 2,836 yards and 16 scores, while adding 486 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground. Additionally, his 62.8 completion percentage ranks second among returning starting quarterbacks in the ACC.
Steven Montez, Colorado
Replacing a four-year starter (Sefo Liufau) under center is never easy, but Colorado’s offense shouldn’t miss a beat with Montez. Liufau suffered an ankle injury against Michigan in mid-September and missed the next two games before returning versus USC on Oct. 8. In his first opportunity for snaps, Montez guided Colorado to a 2-1 record over three starts and finished the 2016 campaign with 1,078 passing yards and nine scores on 83 completions. He also added 231 yards and one touchdown on the ground. The Texas native inherits a receiving corps that returns its top three options and is poised to build off last year’s experience to a successful season in his first as Colorado’s starter. Montez is a good fit for the up-tempo attack coordinators Brian Lindgren and Darrin Chiaverini want to utilize.
Shea Patterson, Ole Miss
After a season-ending injury to starter Chad Kelly, coach Hugh Freeze decided to remove the redshirt from Patterson and allow the true freshman an opportunity for extended action over the last three games. The five-star freshman impressed in the limited stint, throwing for 880 yards and six touchdowns and adding 169 yards on the ground. The Rebels must replace tight end Evan Engram but still return one of the SEC’s top receiving corps in 2017 for new coordinator Phil Longo. Patterson should have a huge season in his first full year as the starter.
Gus Ragland, Miami (Ohio)
Ragland’s return from an offseason knee injury was a big reason why Miami won its last six regular season games after an 0-6 start and lost by just one point to Mississippi State in the St. Petersburg Bowl. The Cincinnati native passed for 196 yards and three scores in a limited role in 2015 and was slated to push Billy Bahl for the starting job in the spring before a knee injury. After returning to the lineup in mid-October, Ragland threw for 1,537 yards and 17 scores and tossed only one pick on 179 attempts. He also rushed for 202 yards and three touchdowns – numbers that can only increase with more playing time and a healthy knee in 2017.
Nic Shimonek, Texas Tech
Patrick Mahomes won’t be easy to replace, but Texas Tech has a strong track record of developing productive Big 12 quarterbacks. Don’t expect that to change with Shimonek at the controls, as the Iowa transfer gained valuable experience in a reserve role last year. In four appearances, Shimonek threw for 464 yards and six scores and completed 38 of 58 passes. The senior doesn’t have Mahomes’ running ability, but he’s a classic pocket passer built to thrive in coach Kliff Kingsbury’s offense.
Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt
Shurmur’s performance in November was a big reason why Vanderbilt finished with six regular season wins and the first bowl bid under coach Derek Mason. In a 38-17 victory against Ole Miss on Nov. 19, Shurmur threw for 273 yards and two touchdowns. A week later, Shurmur threw for a career-best 416 yards and added two scores in a 45-34 victory over Tennessee. After finishing 2016 with 2,409 yards and nine touchdown passes, hopes are high on West End for Shurmur to take a step forward in his development and build off a solid close to the 2016 season.
J’Mar Smith, Louisiana Tech
Louisiana Tech has ranked among Conference USA’s top three in scoring offense in each season since 2014. The Bulldogs lose quarterback Ryan Higgins and receivers Carlos Henderson and Trent Taylor, but there are reasons to be optimistic for coach Skip Holtz. Smith is slated to replace Higgins under center and already has one career start under his belt. Smith threw for 212 yards and rushed for 10 yards and a score in Louisiana Tech’s 21-20 loss to Arkansas in the 2016 opener. The Mississippi native only has 43 career pass attempts, but Holtz’s track record on offense in Ruston and Smith’s talent (three-star recruit in 2015 signing class) should equal another explosive season for the Bulldogs’ offense.
Jarrett Stidham, Auburn
Stidham returns to the Power 5 level after sitting out the 2016 season at a junior college. The Texas native was regarded as one of the top quarterback recruits in the 2015 signing class and signed to Baylor to play for former coach Art Briles. Stidham was pressed into action after Seth Russell suffered a season-ending neck injury and appeared in 10 games (with three starts), throwing for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns. Following the dismissal of Briles, Stidham left Baylor and spent last year at McLennan Community College. Stidham did not take a snap for any team last season but rust shouldn’t be an issue in 2017. With new coordinator Chip Lindsey calling the plays and a talented group of young receivers at his disposal, Stidham is going to provide a needed spark for Auburn’s passing game this fall.
Clayton Thorson, Northwestern
Thorson was arguably one of the Big Ten’s most-improved quarterbacks last season. After throwing for 1,522 yards and seven scores as a redshirt freshman in 2015, Thorson passed for 3,182 yards and 22 touchdowns last year. Additionally, Thorson improved his completion percentage to 58.6 in 2016 – up from 50.8 in 2015. The departure of top receiver Austin Carr (90 receptions) is a big concern for the Wildcats, but the addition of Oregon graduate transfer Jalen Brown helps fill the void on the outside. Thorson should be one of the Big Ten’s top quarterbacks in 2017.
Brandon Wimbush, Notre Dame
DeShone Kizer departed for the NFL after two standout seasons in South Bend. While Kizer could be one of the first quarterbacks off the board in the 2017 NFL Draft, the Fighting Irish are in good shape under center. Wimbush – the No. 45 overall prospect in the 2015 signing class – is set to take over after a redshirt year. The New Jersey native doesn't have a start under his belt but does have some limited experience. In 2015, Wimbush played in two games and completed three of five passes for 17 yards and added 96 rushing yards and a score on seven attempts. The development of Wimbush under new coordinator Chip Long and coach Brian Kelly is essential for the Fighting Irish to return to a top 25 ranking in 2017.
Arion Worthman, Air Force
Worthman was pressed into duty after an injury to starter Nate Romine in Air Force’s win over Fresno State in late October. The Illinois native proceeded to rush for 102 yards and two scores over the Bulldogs and handled the starting duties for the final five games. Worthman recorded at least 63 rushing yards in every contest during that span, including 215 against San Jose State. In addition to Worthman’s totals on the ground (674 yards and six scores), he also completed 23 of 39 passes for 546 yards and four touchdowns. Air Force has a few voids to fill on offense, but coach Troy Calhoun’s group should perform at a high level once again with Worthman at the controls.
Others to Watch
Zach Abey, Navy
Injuries took a toll on Navy’s quarterback situation last season, as three different players made a start in 2016. Abey finished the year as the No. 1 quarterback and rushed for 114 yards and two touchdowns and threw for 159 yards and a score in the 48-45 bowl loss to Louisiana Tech. He’s slated to guide the Midshipmen attack in 2017.
Blake Barnett, Arizona State
Arizona State’s quarterback depth chart was hit hard by injuries last season, but help is on the way in the form of Barnett. The California native played in three games with Alabama in 2016, including a start against USC in the opener. Barnett finished the season with 219 yards and two touchdowns on 11 completions and transferred to Arizona State in search of more playing time after Jalen Hurts emerged as the clear No. 1 quarterback for the Crimson Tide in 2016. Barnett should be an upgrade at quarterback for coach Todd Graham.
Mason Fine, North Texas
Second-year coach Seth Littrell has engineered standout offenses from previous stops as a coordinator at North Carolina, Arizona and Indiana. Fine was thrown into the mix as a true freshman last season and threw for 1,572 yards and six scores. How much of a step forward will he take in 2017?
Andrew Ford, UMass
Ford – a former Virginia Tech signal-caller – quietly posted 2,665 yards and 26 scores for the Minutemen last fall. He also finished 2016 by tossing at least three touchdown passes in five out of the last six games.
Kwadra Griggs/Keon Howard, USM
Griggs and Howard are talented options for coordinator Shannon Dawson, but former starter Nick Mullens leaves big shoes to fill this offseason.
Ben Hicks, SMU
Pencil in the winner of SMU’s quarterback battle in this spot. Hicks is the frontrunner after throwing for 2,930 yards and 19 touchdowns last season, but Arkansas transfer Rafe Peavey is a name to watch in spring ball. With a loaded group of receivers in place, SMU’s quarterback is going to post huge totals under coach Chad Morris this fall.
Josh Jackson, Virginia Tech
Justin Fuente developed Andy Dalton at TCU, Paxton Lynch at Memphis and transformed Jerod Evans into one of the ACC’s top quarterbacks just a year removed from the junior college ranks. Is Jackson his next star pupil? The redshirt freshman opens spring ball at the top of the depth chart in Blacksburg.
De’Andre Johnson, FAU
Former Florida State quarterback lands at FAU after a stint at East Mississippi Community College. Will Johnson emerge as the starter over Jason Driskel and Daniel Parr for new coach Lane Kiffin?
James Morgan, Bowling Green
The Falcons had an up-and-down debut under coach Mike Jinks last season but closed 2016 with three consecutive victories. A resurgent ground game propelled Bowling Green late in the year, and the offense benefitted from the emergence of Morgan as the team’s starting quarterback. The freshman threw for 2,082 yards and 16 scores and gained valuable experience within the offense for 2017. Can Morgan cut down on the interceptions (15) in 2017?
Jacob Park, Iowa State
Joel Lanning could move to an all-purpose role in 2017, leaving Park as Iowa State’s clear No. 1 quarterback. Park threw for 1,791 yards and 12 touchdowns in 10 appearances last season, which was his first game action since his senior year in high school (2013).
Chad President, Tulsa
Dane Evans (32 TDs and 3,348 yards in 2016) expired his eligibility after the Miami Beach Bowl. President – the No. 358 recruit in the 2015 signing class – is the early frontrunner to start for the Golden Hurricane and coach Philip Montgomery's high-powered offense. The Texas native threw for 2,391 yards as a high school senior but also brings more mobility than Evans to the position.
Brogan Roback, Eastern Michigan
A strong case could be made for Roback to rank as one of the top 25 options on this list. He didn’t play in the first three games of 2016 but later reclaimed the starting job and threw for 2,694 yards and 18 scores to help Eastern Michigan earn the program’s first bowl trip since 1987.
Zach Smith, Baylor
Smith took over the starting job after a season-ending leg injury to Seth Russell in early November and showed flashes of promise. While Smith is the frontrunner to start under new coach Matt Rhule, Arizona graduate transfer Anu Solomon is expected to push for snaps.
Johnny Stanton/Armani Rogers, UNLV
Stanton – a former Nebraska signal-caller – was a popular breakout pick at quarterback last year, but his 2016 campaign never got on track after a season-ending injury in September. Rogers – a promising redshirt freshman from Los Angeles – is slated to push for the No. 1 job this spring.
The Wisconsin Badgers exceeded the expectations of most college football fans and media members in 2016. Despite beginning the season as an afterthought, the Badgers became a mainstay at the top of the polls, riding their always dependable running game and a surprisingly dominant defense to a Big Ten West title.
As the 2017 spring football season gets rolling in Madison, there are a lot of questions to be answered and holes to be filled – mostly on defense. Can Paul Chryst and his staff overcome key changes and losses in personnel to win another division crown? The spring session may give us a sneak peek at the answer to that question.
5 Storylines to Watch During Wisconsin's Spring Practice
1. How will the defense respond to its third coordinator in as many years?
Yes, for the third spring in a row, Wisconsin will be working in a new defensive coordinator. Softening the blow of this change is the fact that new coordinator Jim Leonard spent 2016 as the team's defensive backs coach. He excelled in the role – his first real coaching stint of any kind. He understands the scheme that helped the Badgers field an elite defensive unit last season. He's also an alumnus, so he understands both the culture and expectations. On paper, it appears to be a seamless transition. There shouldn't be any visible effects of a transition schematically during the spring.
2. Can the Badgers replace lost star power at outside linebacker?
You'd be hard-pressed to find another defense in the nation that lost two linebackers as good as T.J. Watt and Vince Biegel from a season ago. Those two played instrumental roles in Wisconsin's defensive domination a season ago and leave behind some large shoes to fill. The Badgers have depth to replace the two, but it's star power that is the question. Zach Baun, Tyler Johnson and Garret Dooley all bring valuable experience, but it could be junior college transfer Andrew Van Ginkel who emerges as the dominant star at the position.
3. Can the secondary grow up quickly?
Leonard's success in 2016 was aided by the fact that he had a veteran defensive backfield to work with. The group was led by hard-hitting safety Leo Musso and corner Sojourn Shelton. Patrick Johnson appears to be the lead candidate to replace Musso, while the task of replacing Shelton appears slightly more muddied. Caesar Williams, Natrell Jamerson and Hawaii transfer Nick Nelson should all compete for the job. Regardless of who starts, the raw talent should be there. It's just a matter of replacing the intangibles from a leadership perspective that Musso and Shelton brought to the table.
4. Look for the offensive line to continue to dominate
Wisconsin has become the gold standard in the Big Ten in terms of offensive line play. Despite losing Ryan Ramczyk – the top rated tackle in the 2017 NFL Draft by most accounts – the Badger line should still be one of the better units in the conference. Wisconsin returns four starters, all of whom have all-conference potential. Redshirt freshmen Cole Van Lanen – a highly recruited tackle out of Green Bay two years ago – looks to have all of the tools to become Wisconsin's next great offensive tackle. He's a strong candidate to win the left tackle job, subsequently holding on to it until he leaves Madison. Bottom line: if this unit shows any signs of being anything other than a well-oiled machine in the spring, that could spell trouble.
5. Quarterback Alex Hornibrook's transition into the full-time starter
The sophomore signal-caller had shown promise since arriving in Madison. Last season, the Badgers had the luxury of a savvy vet like Bart Houston to fall back on. That allowed Hornibrook to share time and grow into the role slowly. Now, Houston is gone and Hornibrook is the "big man on campus." Badger fans will want to see him take better care of the football through the air compared to 2016. If he can focus on short, high-percentage throws, Wisconsin's offense should be as efficient as it has been in recent years. They'll never be a program that lights up the scoreboard every weekend as long as head coach Paul Chryst is calling the shots, but ball security is the key to winning on the back of a strong running game and a stout defense. It's Hornibrook's job to manage that task.
Pre-Spring Outlook for Wisconsin in the Big Ten
When it comes to Wisconsin football, success is all in the system. The Badgers lost plenty of talent from 2016, but return an experienced depth chart full of players who know how to execute and win games. The 2017 schedule is not as daunting as the ‘16 slate was at first glance. But there are still plenty of challenges that await this fall. The month of November in particular could make or break Wisconsin's season. Home games against Michigan and Iowa are sandwiched between road trips to Indiana and Minnesota to close out the year. If the Badgers can come out of that stretch with three wins, they'll likely have a good shot at a second consecutive trip to the Big Ten Championship Game.
— Written by J.P. Scott, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. His work has appeared on SI.com, FoxSports.com, Yahoo! and Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter @TheJPScott.
The NCAA Tournament always features some teams that have a great story and go farther than they are projected to. The key is to find out which double-digit seeds are going to be the ones that either bust your bracket or make things a whole lot better for you because you read this article and picked it right.
What do these double-digit seeded teams have in common? They have a player capable of taking over games, a path conducive to a run and a head coach that is under the radar.
13 East Tennessee State Buccaneers (East Region)
Record: 27-7, Southern regular season (tied) and tournament champions
Notable Regular Season Games: L at UNC Wilmington (68-59), W vs. South Dakota State (71-59), L at Dayton (75-61)
First Round Opponent: No. 4 Florida (Thursday, March 16)
Guard play is the name of the game for the Bucs who are led by T.J. Cromer and AJ Meriweather. Hanner Mosquera-Perea, an transfer by way of Indiana, is one of four guys in the regular rotation who shoots better than 50 percent from the field. Yes, they did struggle in their early non-conference tests, but Steve Forbes is a solid head coach and this team has a winning pedigree. Eight times this season, ETSU has scored 90 points or more.
14 Florida Gulf Coast Eagles (West Region)
Record: 26-7, Atlantic Sun regular season and tournament champions
Notable Regular Season Games: L vs. Florida (80-59), L at Baylor (81-72), L at Michigan State (78-77)
First Round Opponent: No. 3 Florida State (Thursday, March 16)
As if Dunk City needed any more motivation, they get an in-state opponent in Florida State. The Eagles have five players who shoot better than 50 percent from the field including Demetris Morant (75.7 percent). They are as athletic as the Seminoles and probably just as deep. FGCU didn't have Marc-Eddy Norelia for two stretches of the season including all three of the losses mentioned above. He makes a big difference and you'll see it when the Eagles take the court. It should be noted that they would definitely match up well with Maryland or Xavier should they beat FSU.
11 Rhode Island Rams (Midwest Region)
Record: 24-9, Atlantic 10 Tournament champions
Notable Regular Season Games: W vs. Cincinnati (76-71), L vs. Duke (75-65), L at Providence (63-60), L at Dayton (67-64), L vs. Dayton (75-74), W vs VCU (69-59), W vs. VCU (70-63, A-10 Tournament final)
First Round Opponent: No. 6 Creighton (Friday, March 17)
There's something to coming into this thing with momentum and Rhode Island has won eight straight after being on the outside of the bubble looking in. The Rams lost two straight at home including a 53-43 defeat at the hands of Fordham back on Feb. 15. They haven’t lost since, capped off by Sunday’s Atlantic 10 Tournament championship victory over VCU. Much was expected from URI before the season, but injuries hurt this team early on. Now that everyone's healthy, the Rams are a deep team led by EC Matthews, Hassan Martin and Jared Terrell. My one issue is that they are a little loose with the ball at times so they are vulnerable to teams that can pressure and create turnovers.
10 Oklahoma State Cowboys (Midwest Region)
Notable Regular Season Games: L vs. North Carolina (101-75), L at Maryland (71-70), W at Wichita State (93-76), W vs. Arkansas (99-71), L at Kansas (87-80), W at West Virginia (82-75)
First Round Opponent: No. 7 Michigan (Friday, March 17)
Usually this is a space just for mid-majors, but I think the Cowboys from the Big 12 are an intriguing team. Obviously coming out of a Power Five conference means you are tournament-tested and that’s especially the case when you consider the strength of the Big 12 this year. Oklahoma State is getting a Michigan team that played four games in four days to win the Big Ten Tournament, so the Wolverines could be tired. I really like OSU’s backcourt of Jawun Evans and Phil Forte III as well as Jeffrey Carroll. Sometimes you just need a few scorers and a good matchup to move on in this thing. Head coach Brad Underwood also did good things with Stephen F. Austin in the Tournament.
12 Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (South Region)
Record: 30-4, Conference USA regular season and tournament champions
Notable Regular Season Games: W vs. UNC Wilmington (68-63), W vs. Vanderbilt (71-48), L at VCU (80-77)
First Round Opponent: No. 5 Minnesota (Thursday, March 16)
I wish I could take credit for listing MTSU in this same space last year, but I l overlooked the Blue Raiders. I won’t make the same mistake again with the majority of last year’s team back as well as the addition of Conference USA Player of the Year JaCorey Williams. Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw are dynamic players in their own right, so this team should be able to compete with Minnesota, a younger and less experienced team. Kermit Davis should be able to out-coach Richard Pitino as well. Middle Tennessee is one of the few teams listed here with a winning record against other Tournament teams.
10 Wichita State Shockers (South Region)
Record: 30-4, Missouri Valley Conference regular season (tied) and tournament champions
Notable Regular Season Games: L vs. Louisville (62-52), L vs. Michigan State (77-72), L vs. Oklahoma State (93-76), W vs. South Dakota State (89-67)
First Round Opponent: No. 7 Dayton (Friday, March 17)
This is going to be one of the most fascinating cases in the Tournament. The Shockers have great numbers in terms of the RPI, but not a lot of believers. Clearly the committee doesn't think they are that good considering they are a No. 10 seed that will face Kentucky should both teams win in the first round. The Missouri Valley Conference was down this year outside of Illinois State so the lack of competition was probably a factor in Wichita Strate’s seeding. The players aren't bad as Shaq Morris is a good big man while Landry Shamet and Conner Frankamp are pretty good guards. These Shockers are young in spots, but with this disrespect from the committee, they will be playing with a chip on their shoulder. We shall see how far that takes them.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
March Madness is here and as much as the next few weeks is about crowning a new men’s basketball champion, NCAA Tournament upsets are what we live for this time of year. This year’s Tournament may be ripe for a ton of bracket turnover considering there are plenty of good teams and only a handful — if that — of great ones.
With so much parity involved, that can make filling out your bracket a tricky task. One type of team to avoid however is an easy one to single out: those entering March in a slump. Whether it’s because of injuries or just downright sub-par play, here are eight teams you should avoid picking to go too far in the tournament.
No. 3 Florida State (West Region)
The Seminoles enter the Tournament with one of their best teams ever when you consider the amount of talent on the roster but have seen a potential ACC title-winning season turn into a late slump. FSU is just 7-6 since mid-January and have not played super well on the road either. While the depth of the ACC played a role, recent losses to Pitt, Syracuse and Georgia Tech show this is a squad that could be ripe for an upset if it’s not focused.
No. 6 Maryland (West Region)
Talent? Yes, the Terrapins have enough of that to make a run in the tourney but recent history of underachieving says be cautious. As star guard Melo Trimble goes, typically so does this team. Lately however, he hasn’t been as hot as he was at the beginning of Big Ten play so Maryland enters on a bit of uneven ground, beating just three Tournament teams since the calendar turned to 2017. Losses down the stretch to Penn State and NIT-bound Iowa make it tough to trust Mark Turgeon’s squad.
No. 6 Creighton (Midwest Region)
There was a point early in the year where the Bluejays looked like a potential top-three seed and a strong challenger to Villanova for the Big East crown. That all seemed to change when point guard Maurice Watson Jr. went down with a torn ACL in mid-January and then saw him back in the news a month later as a result of an alleged sexual assault. After an 18-1 start to the season (only loss to the overall No. 1 Wildcats), Creighton is just 7-8 since. While they did impress with a nice run during the conference tourney, their only win of note down the stretch came at Butler but this is otherwise a team that beat up on the bottom of the Big East to sneak in.
No. 7 South Carolina (East Region)
The Gamecocks being seeded at the seven line (and No. 26 on the overall seed list) was one of the more interesting surprises on Selection Sunday considering just how mediocre the team has been the past two months in an average-at-best league. Frank Martin’s squad has just three wins over Tournament teams all season long and is just 4-6 in the past 10 games. Because it is playing down the road in Greenville, this is a South Carolina team that could be a trendy pick to advance in a lot of brackets. The Gamecocks’ play recently suggests otherwise though.
No. 8 Wisconsin (East Region)
The Badgers looked like they did early in the year when they went on an impressive streak to make it to the Big Ten title game. Unfortunately, that’s one of the few signs of life the team has shown since the calendar turned over. For a while, it looked like they were the class of a middling league but slowly and surely they were reeled back to the pack. Prior to their three wins in at the conference tourney in Washington D.C., Wisconsin was just 2-5 and one of those wins came in overtime. The senior-laden group could still thrive in the Tournament setting but it’s still hard to say this team is peaking at the right time.
No. 8 Miami (Midwest Region)
The Hurricanes have some big time wins on their resume coming in and sport plenty of good guard play and a top-notch head coach. Despite that, they fell to a No. 8 seed as a result of a late slump that included three losses in four games since topping Duke and Virginia back-to-back last month. If you’ve got a good defense, chances are you can clamp down on Miami and keep its slide going with an early exit.
No. 9 Michigan State (Midwest Region)
On paper, there’s a lot going for the Spartans. They have one of the best head coaches in the country when it comes to the tourney in Tom Izzo and they sport a great mix of veterans with a talented freshman class. Shockingly, things just haven’t come together in East Lansing with the team on a bit of a roller coaster coming into the opening weekend. MSU is just 6-5 since February began and doesn’t have a single road win over a team in the field since December. Could Miles Bridges take over a game and lead an improbable run? Sure, but it seems more likely that a quick trip like last season is in store based on how Sparty has trended lately.
No. 11 Xavier (West Region)
Early in the season it appeared as though Xavier could have been a sleeper to make things interesting in the Big East but that line of thinking was quickly thrown out the door when Edmond Sumner went out for the season with a knee injury. The Musketeers lost six straight games in February and haven’t really recovered since. All told, the group is just 3-7 in its last 10 games and two of those wins came over lowly DePaul. While Xavier did upset Butler last week, the Musketeers haven’t particularly been all that competitive lately.
— Written by Matt Fortuna, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and spent six seasons covering college football for ESPN.com. Fortuna’s work has been honored by the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and U.S. Basketball Writers Association (USBWA) seven times. Follow him on Twitter @Matt_Fortuna and like his Facebook page.
League bowling has long been one of America’s favorite leisure sports. It brings together a sense of community, nostalgia and competitiveness that goes unmatched by most other American pastimes. The one thing that separates league bowling from other competitive leisure sports is its unique sense of humor, as well as its broad range of personalities. Something that is often reflected in many of the team names. So, with that in mind, we decided to scour the internet for the top 100 funny, clever, crazy, outrageous, and unique bowling league team names. If you are in search of a name for your bowling team, there is a good chance that you will find it on this list. Enjoy!
2 Blonde 2 Bowl
4 Guys 12 Balls
3 Balls and a Split
7-10 Crack Kills
All 3 Holes
All Balls No Glory
Balls of Fury
Balls to the Wall
Body by Bowling
Bowl You Over
Dolls with Balls
Here 4 Da Beer
I Can’t Believe It’s Not Gutter!
Irritable Bowl Syndrome
Knocking Down Pin(t)s
Livin’ on a Spare
Mark it Zero!
Minds in the Gutter
My Drinking Team has a Bowling Problem
No “F” in Strikes
Pins Up Balls Down
Roll Drink Repeat
Rollin’ Wit Da Homies
Shock ‘n’ Awe
Shut Up and Roll
Snakes on a Lane
Splits for Brains
Strikes R Us
That’s How We Roll
The Bowl Jobs
The Glory Bowls
The Lane Changers
The Pin Pricks
The Three-Holed Wonders
These Ain’t My Shoes
Time to Spare
Triple X Club
Two Left Thumbs
We Don’t Give a Split
We’ve Got Balls
Who Gives a Split?
Will Bowl for Alcohol
— Written by Rob McVey, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @Rob_UTVOLS
Some must-see March Madness moments are off the court.
Samuel L. Jackson, Spike Lee, and Charles Barkley are back with another round of their famous Capital One "Road to the Final Four" commercials and they do not disappoint. Here's hoping these commercials dominate the airways as March Madness action tips off.
In fantasy baseball, relief pitching is one of the most difficult positions to rank each and every season. There are always your elite options, those closers who rack up the saves (and usually the strikeouts) that have no worries about losing the job aside from an injury.
However more and more teams either have closers with shorter leashes or will be using more than one pitcher to finish games. These factors make getting one of the elite options helpful, but that doesn’t mean you are out of luck in terms of finding another pitcher that is line to get saves later in the draft.
Another possible strategy when it comes to your relievers is to draft those with high K/9 numbers, a low WHIP and ERA whether they are getting save opportunities or not. I have employed this approach before and the main benefit is that while you may not get many saves, your other pitching numbers should benefit.
Needless to say this will be the one position that can literally change each and every week. Be ready.
ADP - Average Draft Position
— Rankings by Chris Meyers, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the FSWA. Meyers' work appears on many other sites, including socalledfantasyexperts.com. Follow him on Twitter @FantsyChillpony.
(Zach Birtton photo courtesy of @EddieInTheYard)
Young, controllable talent. It’s a phrase Milwaukee Brewers fans have heard plenty of times from general manager David Stearns, who kicked the team’s massive rebuild into overdrive in 2016, and one they’re going to hear plenty more of from the 32-year-old as they move into Year 2 of the project.
The 2016 Brewers weren’t nearly as bad as they were projected to be, finishing 73–89 under second-year manager Craig Counsell despite trading away key veterans in All-Star catcher Jonathan Lucroy, reliever Will Smith and closer Jeremy Jeffress at the deadline. The haul for that trio combined with the talent the Brewers already had in the minor leagues wound up giving the organization the top farm system in all of baseball in the eyes of many talent evaluators, including an MLB-best eight top-100 prospects.
While the long-term goal is a sustained run of postseason appearances once the prospects come of age, the focus at the major-league level in the here and now is to identify the keepers moving forward while likely trading off the few established veterans — such as franchise cornerstone Ryan Braun — for even more of that young, controllable talent.
Milwaukee’s two top starters coming into 2017 weren’t even on the Opening Day roster in 2016. Baby-faced Zach Davies led the Brewers with 11 wins in his first major-league season, and well-traveled Junior Guerra used his terrific split-finger fastball to post a 2.81 ERA. Competing to round out the rotation will be Jimmy Nelson, Matt Garza, Chase Anderson and Wily Peralta — all of whom had inconsistent 2016 seasons. Nelson went 3–13 with a 5.79 ERA over his final 21 starts in a year in which he was expected to develop into the Brewers’ top starter, although he was at least reliable by turning in a team-best 32 starts, 179.1 innings and 140 strikeouts. He’ll be expected to improve significantly in 2017. Garza, who muddled through another injury-riddled, subpar season, is the Brewers’ second-highest-paid player with $12.5 million remaining on the final year of his contract. Anderson finished 2016 strong, going 5–1 with a 2.56 ERA over his final 12 starts, and wound up posting career highs with nine wins, 120 strikeouts and 30 starts. Peralta, Milwaukee’s Opening Day starter, faltered badly early and was sent down to Triple-A Colorado Springs but was recalled in early August and went 3–4 with a 2.92 ERA in his final 10 starts. Taylor Jungmann, prospects Josh Hader, Jorge Lopez and Brent Suter and veteran Tommy Milone will get looks in the spring.
Jonathan Villar, acquired from the Houston Astros in November 2015 for a minor leaguer, was a revelation. Playing shortstop, third and second, the switch-hitter batted .285 with 19 homers while stealing an MLB-best 62 bases. He made his share of mistakes (29 errors, including 12 in 42 games at third) but was a catalyst atop the order. With super prospect Orlando Arcia entrenched at shortstop, Villar becomes the primary second baseman, leaving incumbent Scooter Gennett without a clear-cut role. Gennett had a career year at the plate in 2016, posting career highs in almost every major category, but his lack of versatility — he only plays second base — is a drawback.
The Brewers remade themselves at both corner spots, first signing relative unknown Eric Thames to a three-year, $16 million free-agent contract and then acquiring Travis Shaw in a trade with Boston to play third. Thames, a former Toronto prospect, is coming off several monster years in the Korean League, while Shaw hit .242 with 16 home runs and 71 RBIs in 145 games with the Red Sox in 2016. Both are also left-handed hitters, a quality the Brewers have been sorely lacking in recent years.
Braun re-established himself as a premier offensive threat in the National League while also moving back to left field. His surgically repaired back held up just fine, but various other nagging injuries limited him to 135 games and 511 at-bats. In center, Keon Broxton turned himself into the starter over the final few months thanks to some tweaks to his stance he made in the minor leagues around midseason. He hit .294 with 16 stolen bases in his final 46 games and enters camp as the incumbent. Domingo Santana is hoping a strong close to 2016 (.301, seven homers over his final 24 games) helps keep him as the starter in right. He played in just 77 games overall after suffering right shoulder and elbow injuries.
For the first time since 2009, the Brewers won’t have either Lucroy or Martin Maldonado behind the plate, as both were traded. Taking their places are two former backups — Andrew Susac (Giants) and Jett Bandy (Angels). Both are younger, ascending players, with Susac known more for his offense and Bandy for his defense. Manny Piña, who showed well in 33 games last season, will also get a shot.
One of the great finds in 2016 was Hernan Perez, who morphed into one of the most versatile players in the game. He hit .272 with 13 homers and also stole 34 bases in 123 games split between right and center field and all four infield positions. Perez is likely to remain in his role of “super sub” moving forward. Kirk Nieuwenhuis hit just .209 overall, but his 13 homers and 44 RBIs (11 and 31 at Miller Park), solid defense in center and left-handed bat make him valuable. If the Brewers don’t trade Gennett, he’ll be a $2.5 million sub/pinch-hitter.
Stearns signed Counsell to a three-year contract extension that will take the hometown product through the 2020 season. His competitiveness and bent for player development make him a perfect fit for the rebuild. Stearns, in addition to remaking the organization on the field, continues to lead the Brewers’ shift toward the use of advanced technology and analytics in the front office.
With the Central Division-rival Cubs expected to run roughshod for the foreseeable future, the Brewers’ plan to rebuild from the ground up comes at a good time. As a small-market team, their best chance for sustained success is stockpiling as many young high-ceiling players as possible, letting them develop and then rolling them out in the major leagues. It’s an approach that takes remarkable patience, but one that can bear real fruit if done correctly.
2017 NL CENTRAL PREDICTION: 5th
The 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket is almost set in stone but before the field is made into a tidy 64-team affair, the First Four must whittle eight March hopefuls into four. Among a host of interesting matchups, Tuesday’s second game in Dayton promises to draw plenty of eyeballs as former Kansas star turned Wake Forest head coach Danny Manning gets to face his old in-state rival Kansas State for a chance to upset No. 6 seed Cincinnati later in the week.
While both programs have had their fair share of success when it comes to the Tournament historically, this is the first time in a few years that the pair has seen their name called on Selection Sunday. The Demon Deacons’ last appearance came all the way back in 2010 but they survived a tough ACC slate this season to make it into the field. On the flip side, the Wildcats were the final at-large selection — period — this year and return to March Madness for the first time in three seasons after being a mainstay in the event before that.
Which one has what it takes to make it out of Dayton and head out to Sacramento and face the Bearcats? We’ll find out soon enough which team has the chops to survive and advance.
First Four: No. 11 Wake Forest Demon Deacons vs. No. 11 Kansas State Wildcats
Time: Approximately 9:10 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, OH)
Keys for Wake Forest
The Deacs got knocked out of the ACC Tournament a little earlier than expected last week but they still enter the month of March on a bit of a hot streak. The team is led by the stellar play of sophomore John Collins, a 6-foot-10 playmaker who is one of the best shooters in the country from anywhere on the floor. He took home All-ACC first-team honors as a result this season but is far from the only scoring threat on the team. Collins forms a deadly offensive combo with attacking guard Bryant Crawford, who is comfortable taking the ball into the lane as well as dishing it off to an array of three-point shooters. Defense isn’t Wake’s strong suit so keeping the game flowing and knocking down baskets to win a shootout is no doubt what the team will be looking to do in its first tourney game.
Keys for Kansas State
The Wildcats just barely made it into the NCAA Tournament (and possibly saved their head coach’s job at the same time), but they are plenty capable of making some noise this year after making it through the grueling Big 12 slate. This isn’t a deep squad by any stretch but veteran head coach Bruce Weber might use that short bench to his advantage given that four starters average double figures. Senior forward Wesley Iwundu really makes things tick on both ends of the floor but it’s guard Barry Brown’s shooting that will be key to snatching a win in Dayton. Rebounding is a major concern for KSU but if these Wildcats are grabbing boards and getting good transition shots, the team is more than capable of moving onto the next round.
This is a fitting First Four game as it’s pretty much a toss-up, pitting the KenPom No. 29 team in Kansas State against No. 30 Wake Forest. While they may have been two of the last teams in the field, each has shown they can beat good teams on the road and they are certainly battle tested after running through the two best Power Five leagues in the country. Both squads feature pretty good offenses that are capable of scoring in bunches and this might be one of the higher-scoring games of the first week of the NCAA Tournament as a result.
The Wildcats do have the better defense coming into this one but the Demon Deacons feature a bit more size inside that could be a problem. It wouldn’t be at all surprising to see the talented John Collins go off in a big way and put on a show but the bottom line is this game should wind up being a close one in order to get to the main draw.
Prediction: Wake Forest 86, Kansas State 81
— Written by Bryan Fischer, an award-winning college football columnist and member of the Athlon Contributor Network. You can follow him from coast-to-coast on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat at @BryanDFischer.
Since 2001, Dayton serves as the launch point for every NCAA Tournament. The opening round became the "First Four" games of the Big Dance with the field's expansion to 68 teams in 2011, but in the previous decade, Dayton hosted the last two teams to make the bracket.
Were the 2017 First Four under the previous "first one" format, Mount St. Mary's and New Orleans would still converge on UD Arena in Dayton. The NEC champion Mountaineers and Southland champion Privateers are the unofficial No. 67 and No. 68 seeds, as dictated by an impending first round matchup with No. 1 overall seed and defending national champion, Villanova.
They may unofficially be the last two in the Dance, but Mount St. Mary's and New Orleans have an opportunity to etch their names into NCAA Tournament history.
Mount St. Mary's returns to the field for the fourth time in nine years, and the first since 2014. The Mountaineers played in and won the 2008 Dayton game against Coppin State.
Five of the NEC representative's six all-time Tournament bids came since New Orleans scored its last. The Privateers danced in 1996, and in the two decades since, the university considered dropping its athletic department to non-scholarship Div. III.
New Orleans' return is already one of the greater Cinderella stories in this NCAA Tournament, and the Privateers aren't ready for midnight to strike just yet. A win in the First Four and showdown with the defending national champions would be a fitting glass slipper for this program.
Mount St. Mary's and New Orleans come into the NCAA Tournament as two of its most noteworthy underdogs. It's fitting, then, that each team features one of the field's most explosive players under 6-foot: UNO's 5-foot-8 Christavious Gill averages 11.6 points and 2.7 assists per game, while Mount St. Mary's 5-foot-5 Junior Robinson – shortest player in the Tournament – posts team-highs of 14.1 points and 2.9 assists per game.
First Four: No. 16 Mount St. Mary's Mountaineers vs. No. 16 New Orleans Privateers
Time: 6:40 p.m. ET (Tuesday)
Where: University of Dayton Arena (Dayton, OH)
Keys for Mount St. Mary's
The Mountaineers thrive on turnover generation. Head coach Jamion Christian is a former colleague of Shaka Smart from his time at VCU, where the Rams employed the Havoc defense to stifle opponents.
Mount St. Mary's version of the defensive strategy produces the 22nd-highest rate of opponent turnovers in all of college basketball, per KenPom.com. Conversely, New Orleans struggles with ball security, ranking No. 349 nationally in turnover percentage.
New Orleans can expect to see pressure all over the court. Should the Mountaineers parlay that pressure into takeaways, they could cruise into the Round of 64 for a date with Villanova.
Keys for New Orleans
Few teams in college basketball attack the glass quite as effectively as New Orleans. The Privateers enjoy a plus-3.9 per game rebound advantage, and haul in more than 12 offensive rebounds per game.
New Orleans' ability to control the boards could be the equalizer against the oppressive Mount St. Mary's defense.
The Privateers must also establish Erik Thomas as the scoring threat. He's an efficient scorer who hits at a better than 58 percent clip from inside the 3-point arc.
Aggressive defensive styles could make for a low-scoring affair in this introduction to March Madness. Both New Orleans and Mount St. Mary's can make life difficult for their opponents' offenses, so this isn't likely to conjure memories of Loyola Marymount vs. UNLV.
However, the even matchup should make for an appropriate start to the NCAA Tournament. Expect a tight, competitive game, with the Privateers leveraging its athletic advantage to wear down the Mountaineers' Havoc defense.
Prediction: New Orleans 61, Mount St. Mary's 54
The 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket is out and instantly everyone wants to pick upsets. For the common college basketball fan, this is the first time you've heard of East Tennessee State or Winthrop so I'm here to educate you on which of the higher seeds I think will be able to move on in their matchups.
The worst seeds in the Tournament are 0-for-128 against the top seeds, so don't look here for the prediction that history will be made this year. I will say this though... South Dakota State’s Mike Daum is one of the best players you've never heard of. The Jackrabbits won’t beat No. 1 Gonzaga, but if he goes off, it'll at least be interesting for a little.
No. 15 seeds has won just eight games in the history of the Tournament. I don't see any of them adding to that total this year. The 14th seed has been a little popular the last few seasons with four upsets in the last three years. West Virginia, Baylor, Iowa State and Duke have all fallen as a No. 3 seed in the first round.
14 Florida Gulf Coast over 3 FSU (West Region)
The Eagles are deep with six guys who average at least seven points per game. They like to get up and down the court and will be extra motivated for an in-state rival. The Seminoles are deep and athletic too, but we've seen them struggle some times when adversity hits. Leonard Hamilton-coached teams have made the NCAA Tournament seven times and have a total of six wins. I don't trust Hamilton and think FSU is ripe for an upset here.
14 Iona over 3 Oregon (Midwest Region)
This one is a little less likely than FGCU over FSU, but when an injury hits so close to the end of the season, who knows how a team will react. Chris Boucher (torn ACL) was a shot blocker who also could step out and hit the three-pointer. Now the Ducks have plenty of other firepower, but Iona has the offense to keep up. Jordan Washington leads a potent Gaels offense with 17.9 points per game. Their problem is their defense has been absolutely hideous all year long.
No. 13-seeded teams have 26 victories in the NCAA Tournament, but just once since 2013 when Hawaii knocked off Cal last year. This year though, you can make a case for every single No. 13.
13 East Tennessee State vs. 4 Florida (East Region)
The Gators play some incredible defense, but their depth took a hit when John Egbunu went down with an injury. They also lost three of their last four against Tournament teams Kentucky and Vanderbilt. East Tennessee State has a very good backcourt in TJ Cromer and AJ Merriweather as well as Hanner Mosquera-Perea, transfer from Indiana. The Buccaneers beat South Dakota State earlier in the season and lost close games to CAA Tournament champion UNC Wilmington and Atlantic 10 representative Dayton. ETSU won’t be afraid of the Gators.
13 Bucknell vs. 4 West Virginia (West Region)
The Mountaineers have been very mediocre down the stretch, including losses to Baylor and Iowa State. They've also had some close victories and rely on turning opponents over with their press and frenetic style. Bucknell averages only 13 turnovers per game and is very careful with the basketball. The Bison have some size in Nana Foulland, their second-leading scorer. Foulland shoots over 60 percent from the field. Bucknell has a win at Vanderbilt and previously played Wake Forest and Butler so these Bison are ready for anyone.
13 Winthrop vs. 4 Butler (South Region)
Butler enters the Tournament having lost two straight and is 5-5 in its last 10 games. I like the Bulldogs’ depth, but they are prone to some struggles on the offense. Winthrop won the Big South Tournament and enter with a 26-6 record overall. The Eagles have the dynamic duo of Keon Johnson and Xavier Cooks, who combined for nearly 40 points per game. Winthrop won in overtime at Illinois and has played Dayton and Florida State. As you can tell, I like teams that have played tougher competition and feature battle-tested veteran players.
13 Vermont over 4 Purdue (Midwest Region)
TJ Sorrentine isn't walking through those doors, but the Catamounts are back. This year's version played against Providence and South Carolina so they've already faced a few Tournament-level teams. They are more defensive-oriented, but have a group of veterans with postseason experience. My concern in this one is how they will handle Purdue’s big man combo of Isaac Haas and Caleb Swanigan. Still, this is one of those matchups you look at the underdog and think they've got a chance.
My last two upsets that I want to alert you to are on the 5/12 and 6/11 lines on the right side of the bracket.
11 Rhode Island over 6 Creighton (Midwest Region)
Rhode Island took the decision out of the selection committee's hands by winning the Atlantic 10 Tournament. The Rams feature the potent trio of Hassan Martin, EC Matthews and Jared Terrell. There was a lot expected from this team and it took them a little longer to get there. Now healthy, Rhode Island has the makeup to go to the Sweet 16 if it can maintain its recent level of play. Creighton is a good, solid team, but hasn’t been the same without injured Mo Watson Jr. (torn ACL) at point guard. Marcus Foster is averaging 18.3 points per game for the Blue Jays while Justin Patton is shooting nearly 70 percent from the field.
12 Middle Tennessee over 5 Minnesota (South Region)
Minnesota's seeding perplexes me, but it lines up nicely for MTSU to pick up another Tournament victory. JaCorey Williams, Giddy Potts and Reggie Upshaw lead a Blue Raiders team with 30 wins and a taste for more upsets after beating Michigan State last year. The Golden Gophers are your prototypical Big Ten team with some size and girth and decent guard play. This team was left for dead in mid-January following a five-game losing streak, but then ran off eight straight wins. Minnesota is without its only true senior in Akeem Springs, so youth and inexperience could be an issue.
Overall, you should see a trend above for the higher seeds. They are veteran teams that have played good competition and have players capable of taking over some games. Their opponents are major-level opponents with a big flaw, injury issues or a head coach that is hard to trust. The upsets are out there, you just have to find them.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.
(Top photo courtesy of www.goblueraiders.com)
Once the 68-team field for the 2017 NCAA Tournament was announced on Sunday night, there were millions of people filling out brackets for office pools, web sites or just for fun. Each year there is a favorite to cut down the nets in April, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that team will win it all.
For example, many expected the North Carolina Tar Heels to win it all last year, but it was the Villanova Wildcats that hoisted the title in one of the best championship games of all time. North Carolina and Villanova will both be favorites to win this year, but they aren’t the only possibilities in what is considered a fairly wide-open tournament.
In fact, sometimes it comes down to which teams are peaking at the right time. Along those lines, here are eight teams that enter March Madness playing extremely well. One or more of these could make a deep run and worth paying attention to as you fill out your bracket.
(Seeding and first round matchup listed in italics)
Iowa State Cyclones (23-10)
No. 5 in Midwest Region, vs. No. 12 Nevada
On Saturday, Iowa State won its third Big 12 Tournament championship in four seasons by defeating West Virginia 80-74 in Kansas City. While the Cyclones are 9-1 in their conference tournament over the last four years, they haven’t been as successful in the Big Dance.
This will be Iowa State’s sixth straight NCAA Tournament appearances, but it is just 6-5 since 2012. The Cyclones haven’t advanced past the Sweet 16 since 2000, losing in the regional semifinals in 2014 and ’16. This could be the year they break through, however, behind four experienced guards in Deonte Burton, Matt Thomas, Naz-Mitrou-Long and Big 12 Tournament MVP Monte Morris, who averaged 17.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and five assists over the three games.
Middle Tennessee Blue Raiders (30-4)
No. 12 in South Region, vs. No. 5 Minnesota
Last year, Middle Tennessee pulled off one of the biggest upsets in NCAA Tournament history by shocking No. 2 seed Michigan State 90-81 in the first round. It was just the eighth time in tournament history that a No. 15 seed took down a No. 2. This season, the Blue Raiders won’t be sneaking up on anyone.
Last week, Middle Tennessee was in the USA Today Coaches Poll for the first time in school history and is fresh off of its second Conference USA Tournament championship, beating Marshall 83-72 in the final. This Blue Raiders team is led by a pair of senior forwards in Reggie Upshaw and JaCorey Williams, the conference player of the year. Middle Tennessee won’t be a No. 15 seed this year, but is definitely a team to keep an eye on.
Wichita State Shockers (30-4)
No. 10 in South Region, vs. No. 7 Dayton
Wichita State under head coach Gregg Marshall is no stranger to success in the NCAA Tournament. In 2013, the Shockers made it all the way to the Final Four and then two years later followed that up with a Sweet 16 appearance. Wichita State has advanced past the first round four years running.
The Shockers will look to stretch that streak to five after wrapping up their automatic bid by winning the Missouri Valley Conference Tournament title with a convincing 71-51 victory over Illinois State. This version of Wichita State is balanced on offense and one of the best in the nation on defense, giving up just 62.4 points per game (14th).
UNC Wilmington Seahawks (29-5)
No. 12 seed in East Region, vs. No. 5 Virginia
For the second straight season, UNC Wilmington will get out its dancing shoes after winning the CAA Tournament. And with an RPI of No. 27 in the country, it’s entirely possible that the Seahawks would have gotten an at-large bid if they hadn’t beaten Charleston 78-69 for the CAA title.
Head coach Kevin Keatts has a run and press style of a team, which can give opponents fits. Last season, UNC Wilmington hung with Duke in the first round, including leading by three points at halftime, before eventually falling 93-85. This year’s Seahawks may be able to pull off an upset (or two) thanks to the presence of players like C.J. Bryce (17.6 ppg) and Chris Flemmings (15.8 ppg). Virginia, you've been warned.
Winthrop Eagles (26-6)
No. 13 seed in South Region, vs. No. 4 Butler
For the first time since 2010, Winthrop qualified for the NCAA Tournament after winning the Big South Tournament title over Campbell. This will be the Eagles’ 10th appearance in the Big Dance. Winthrop is just 1-9 in the NCAA Tournament, the win coming in 2007 against Notre Dame.
These Eagles enter the Big Dance on an eight-game winning streak and are led by top scorer Keon Johnson (22.5 ppg).
Vermont Catamounts (29-5)
No. 13 seed in Midwest Region, vs. No. 4 Purdue
Vermont has the nation’s longest active winning streak at 21 games, including the three in the America East Tournament to finish 19-0 in conference play. The Catamounts know what it takes to pull off the big upset in the NCAA Tournament, having beaten Syracuse back in 2005.
Vermont is led by freshman Anthony Lamb, the America East Tournament MVP after posting a double-double (12, points, 10 assists) in the championship game victory over Albany.
SMU Mustangs (30-4)
No. 6 seed in East Region, vs. winner of Providence/USC First Four matchup
SMU has been flying under the radar pretty much the entire season, mainly since the Mustangs play in the American Athletic Conference. But after winning its conference tournament to get its 30th win, SMU will have a chance to make some noise in the NCAA Tournament.
The Mustangs are led by national coach of the year candidate Tim Jankovich and Duke transfer Semi Ojeleye. A junior, Ojeleye is averaging 19 points and 6.7 rebounds per game. SMU also has senior guard Sterling Brown (13.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 3.1 apg) to provide leadership and steady production.
Kentucky Wildcats (29-5)
No. 2 seed in South Region, vs. No. 15 Northern Kentucky
On Sunday, Kentucky celebrated its 30th SEC Tournament championship after beating Arkansas 82-65. It was the 11th straight win for the Wildcats overall, who may be peaking at the right time.
Freshman Malik Monk has been Kentucky’s top scoring threat all season and poured a total of 37 in the victories over the Razorbacks and Alabama in the SEC Tournament. If the Wildcats continue to get steady contributions from fellow freshmen De’Aaron Fox (22 ppg over last three games and Edrice Adebayo (13.3 ppg, 9.9 rpg), they have as good of a chance as any team to cut down the nets at the Final Four in Glendale, Arizona.
— Written by Antwan Staley, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and has extensive experience covering Florida sports teams. Staley has written for Bleacher Report, Pro Player Insiders and is a reporter for Sports Talk Florida. Follow him on Twitter @antwanstaley.
(Iowa State photo courtesy of @CycloneMBB)
Getting every pick right in your NCAA Tournament bracket offers much worse odds than successfully navigating an asteroid field in a galaxy far far away. Underdogs always rise up and leave countless brackets in tatters by the tournament's second weekend. Those upsets are what makes March so much fun.
Filling out a bracket isn't an exact science. Luck plays a significant factor in correctly forecasting which teams will win and which ones will lose. Still, that doesn't mean you can't craft a winning strategy to vanquish family, friends or coworkers in your NCAA Tournament pool.
Here are some useful tips to give your 2017 NCAA Tournament bracket a longer life:
Never pick a No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed
Memorable upsets define March Madness. A No. 16 seed knocking off a No. 1 seed is not among those moments. Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams in 1985, No. 16 seeds have gone 0-128 against top seeds.
Close calls do occur from time to time. In 1989, Georgetown held off Princeton 50-49 and Oklahoma edged East Tennessee State 72-71. Murray State took Michigan State to overtime in 1990, before falling 75-71 to the Spartans. Purdue survived a 73-71 thriller against Western Carolina in 1996 only after the Catamounts missed a potential game-winning basket in the final seconds.
Only 15 games pitting a No. 16 seed against a No. 1 seed have even been decided by single digits. Will a No. 16 beat a No. 1 eventually? Maybe. It's not worth sabotaging your own bracket based on a minuscule chance you could correctly guess an historic upset.
Pick at least one No. 1 or a No. 2 seed to lose before the Sweet 16
Going chalk with every No. 1 and No. 2 seed isn't a wise idea. One or two teams in this group typically don't make it to the second weekend. In fact, the top two seeds lose games during the first weekend of the Tournament more frequently than you think.
At least two of the top eight seeds failed to reach the Sweet 16 each of the last seven years. Last season, No. 15 seed Middle Tennessee defeated No. 2 seed Michigan State 90-81 in the first round and No. 7 seed Wisconsin edged No. 2 seed Xavier 66-63 in the second round. The last time all No. 1 and No. 2 seeds made it to the second weekend occurred during the 2009 NCAA Tournament.
Striking a balance is crucial when advancing top teams. Since the NCAA began seeding teams in 1979, all four No. 1 seeds made it to a Final Four just once – in 2008. On the other hand, you should always include at least one No. 1 seed in your Final Four. Only two tournaments since 1985 have featured a Final Four without a top seed – 2006 and ‘11.
Don't go overboard advancing underdogs in your bracket
We all love seeing a double-digit seed rise up and bust a bracket to put themselves on the basketball map. It makes for great drama to see these underdog runs to the Sweet 16, Elite Eight or, on rare occasions, the Final Four. VCU and George Mason reached the Final Four as No. 11 seeds in 2006 and ’11, respectively. Davidson made the Elite Eight as a No. 10 seed in 2008. Florida Gulf Coast reached the Sweet 16 as a No. 15 in 2013.
It's a good idea to remain cautious in projecting a double-digit seed to make this sort of run. They are truly rare. Only three No. 11 seeds have reached a Final Four since 1985 and three others reached the Elite Eight. Eight No. 10 seeds have reached the Elite Eight and only one has reached the Final Four. Only one No. 12 seed, Missouri in 2002, has made it to the Elite Eight.
Advance at least one First Four team past the Round of 64
Since the field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, the First Four has injected drama and excitement into every NCAA Tournament since that time. This opening round features two games pitting No. 16 seeds against one another and a pair of games matching the last four at-large teams head-to-head.
At least one at-large First Four team has won multiple games every season. Two First Four winners, La Salle and Tennessee, reached the Sweet 16 in 2013 and ’14, respectively. VCU became the first team to go from the First Four to the Final Four in 2011. It's a safe bet at least one First Four team will advance past the first round again in 2017.
Pick against vulnerable No. 3, No. 4, No. 5 and No. 6 seeds
Once you get past the top two seeds in a region, odds for an early upset see a dramatic increase. With a strong crop of regular season champions claiming a large percentage of the double-digit seeds in the 2017 NCAA Tournament, potential for bracket carnage has never been better.
Ignore potential upsets in the 3 to 6 seed range at your own peril. Vulnerable teams can be found in these seed lines that are dealing with key injuries or suspensions, have inflated their seed with a better than expected conference tournament run or piled up a few losses to drop their seeding.
Since the field expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 3 seeds have become much more vulnerable. At least one No. 14 seed has upset a No. 3 seed in each of the last four years. Last year it was Stephen F. Austin taking down West Virginia 70-56.
No. 13 seeds have knocked out No. 4 seeds 14 times going back to 2001. Hawaii was the most recent to pull this off, sending California home with a 77-66 loss last season.
All four No. 5 seeds have advanced to the Round of 32 just four times since 1985. This occurred in 1988, 2000, ‘07 and ‘15. Three of the four No. 5 seeds lost to a No. 12 seed in 2013 and ‘14. Last year, two No. 12 seeds advanced to the second round with Yale beating Baylor 79-75 and Arkansas-Little Rock outlasting Purdue 85-83 in double overtime.
At least one No. 11 seed has beaten a No. 6 seed in 12 straight tournaments. Three No. 11 seeds triumphed a year ago. Northern Iowa beat Texas on a buzzer beater while Gonzaga dominated Seton Hall and Wichita State did the same to Arizona.
Since the NCAA Tournament expanded to 68 teams in 2011, No. 5 seeds are 13-11 against No. 12 seeds. No. 6 seeds are 11-13 against No. 11 seeds in that same span.
Vulnerable seeds in the 3 to 6 range this year: Florida State, Virginia, Maryland, Creighton, Minnesota, Baylor, Oregon, Florida, West Virginia, Cincinnati, SMU.
Potential giant killers in the 11 to 14 range: Providence, Wake Forest, Rhode Island, Middle Tennessee, UNC Wilmington, Bucknell, East Tennessee State, Florida Gulf Coast, Winthrop, New Mexico State.
Watch out for homecourt heroes
Some teams will pile up shiny regular season records because they dominate opponents inside their home arena. Send them away from that friendly environment and the story takes a 180 degree turn.
Be careful about advancing homecourt heroes deep into your bracket. Always pay close attention to a team's win/loss record on the road and at neutral venues. It is often a good indicator for how they play under pressure. If a team frequently loses to good or average opponents outside their own arena and possesses a sub-.500 record in road and neutral site games, that's a major red flag. Teams who fit this profile are usually ripe for a quick NCAA Tournament exit.
Homecourt heroes to avoid in 2017: Florida State, Duke, Iowa State, Michigan, Miami, Vanderbilt, Virginia Tech, Michigan State, Xavier, Seton Hall, Marquette, Providence, Wake Forest, Troy, South Dakota State, UC Davis, New Orleans.
Free-throw shooting separates contenders from pretenders
NCAA Tournament games are often closer contests than a typical regular season contest. Surviving these pressure-packed situations can spell doom for a team that can't get it done at the free throw line.
Free-throw shooting is a useful measuring stick for separating contenders from pretenders. Teams who struggle with low free-throw shooting percentages eventually shoot themselves out of a game. Such a scenario unfolds sooner rather than later.
Top 50 free-throw shooting percentage teams in the field: Notre Dame, Villanova, Oklahoma State, Marquette, Vanderbilt, South Dakota State, Michigan, Wake Forest, Purdue, Arkansas, Duke, Arizona, Northwestern, St. Mary's, UCLA.
Bottom 50 free-throw shooting percentage teams: Wisconsin, Seton Hall, Rhode Island.
Beware of extremely hot or cold teams
Every year, a few at-large teams earn an NCAA bid even though they ended the regular season in a tailspin. They back into the Tournament after suffering several losses in their final few games.
There is another group that gets unusually hot down the stretch after a rough start in conference play or during the non-conference portion of their schedule. These winning streaks often mask weaknesses that contributed to the initial turbulent patch.
Both types of teams are ripe for an early exit from your bracket. Finding consistent winners is key. Too many losses down the stretch might mean injuries, chemistry problems or some other issues are at play. A lengthy winning streak peppered with multiple blowouts, on the other hand, can make a team ill-prepared to handle close games in the NCAA Tournament.
Extremely hot teams in the field: Wichita State, Marquette, Oklahoma State, Vermont, Princeton, Minnesota, SMU, Iowa State.
Extremely cold teams: Xavier, Wisconsin, Kansas State, Virginia, Baylor, Maryland, Creighton.
Offensive and defensive balance wins championships
Everyone has heard how defense wins championships. That's only partially correct. The most successful NCAA Tournament teams strike a balance between strong defense and productive offense. A team significantly weaker in one area versus the other usually makes an early exit.
Advanced metrics are useful in identifying balanced teams versus unbalanced teams. A large percentage of Final Four and Elite Eight teams each season will rank in the top 30 in both offensive and defensive efficiency heading into the NCAA Tournament. Upset victims, on the other hand, usually sport glaring deficiencies on at least one end of the court.
Top 30 teams in the field in both offensive and defensive efficiency in 2017: Villanova, North Carolina, Kansas, Gonzaga, SMU, Wichita State, Kentucky, St. Mary's, Oregon, Arizona, Baylor, Louisville, Purdue, Florida State, West Virginia.
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.
The Kobalt 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway ended today with Martin Truex Jr. taking the checkered flag. Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski rounded out the top 5.
Below are the final results from today's Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race for all 39 drivers.
As NASCAR and sports suffer through a set of modern-day challenges, from attendance to rights fees to relevance, the next chapter of growth has centered on Las Vegas. Sin City has been forgiven for its role as the center of gambling in America; the shift has been so pronounced that now, most major organizations think they need to support such an activity in order to keep thriving. It’s put an NHL expansion team in the region this coming season, the Raiders have expressed an interest in relocating while the NFL powers that be explore the possibilities, while both MLB and the NBA look on with interest.
No wonder NASCAR put a gamble on a second date.
After holding just one race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval north of the city, for 20 years starting in 2018 stock car racing will add a second date during the fall, held smack in the middle of their 10-race playoff run. Rumors persist that the Las Vegas event will eventually become the season finale each year, a weekend tripleheader of Trucks, XFINITY, and Cup competition NASCAR hopes will attract upwards of 100,000 fans each November.
That may come as a shock to those who love Homestead, the current November landing spot for stock car racing’s championship festivities. But a sport is a business, money talks, and admission revenues dropped 7.4 percent last season. That’s the ninth straight year NASCAR has faced declines, increasingly dependent on a bloated television contract to stay solvent.
Faced with those trends, a sold-out crowd of 46,000 an hour south of Miami pales in comparison to a potential sellout of 123,000 out west (plus the infield). The larger seating capacity of Las Vegas, however, doesn’t match up to arguably weaker competition this track has given us over the years. Despite this, people are still coming – to the tune of 115,000 last season, as one of the track’s better events historically was won by Brad Keselowski.
Forgotten in this transition is New Hampshire Motor Speedway, dropping from two dates to one for 2018 while losing its spot in the playoffs. But NHMS, a flat one-mile oval, was suffering from competition and attendance issues as well. The loss comes more from a shift away from the Northeast, perhaps the most difficult market historically for the sport, in favor of expanding elsewhere. Now, a fan in the region has just the summer NHMS date next year and perhaps the two races in Pocono, Pennsylvania, within driving distance.
But NASCAR, despite its continued push to involve Fortune 500 companies, has struggled to gain a foothold in both the New York City and Boston markets. So in 2017, the choice is to go where the money and fan bases already are. The clock is already ticking on a rights fee bubble that already burst; add in just a two-year deal with title sponsor Monster Energy and there’s pressure to show this sport is starting to turn around.
So NASCAR joins many others in taking a risk on Sin City, a place where fans view events as part of a larger vacation destination and may potentially ignore the higher costs of attendance. It’s all about the experience, it seems these days, tradition and competition be damned.
Will that gamble pay off?
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Sure, he didn’t win Atlanta, the final victim of the pit road speeding penalty police. But the No. 4 car dominated the race, leading 292 of 325 laps and leads the points despite a ninth-place finish. How? He’s won three of the six “stages” in NASCAR’s new points format and finished second in a fourth, accumulating a bonus of 39 points. That’s made the difference for him in a year where Harvick’s average finish is just 15.5 thus far.
Who’s at the Back: Toyota
It’s far too early to panic for a manufacturer that ended Chevy’s run of titles in Cup. But there are just eight full-time Camrys on the circuit, two of which come from underfunded BK Racing, and early returns have left them a step behind. Joe Gibbs Racing, their top organization, failed to lead a lap at Atlanta while struggling through handling issues all afternoon. JGR has just one top-five finish, courtesy of Matt Kenseth through the season’s first two weeks.
Toyota’s satellite program Furniture Row Racing, despite employing promising rookie Erik Jones, looks a bit overmatched after expanding to a two-car program. Another set of poor results at Las Vegas, one of the cookie-cutter tracks that comprise most of the sport’s 2017 schedule, and there’s reason to be concerned here.
See above for the biggest news of the week, Las Vegas earning a second date on the 2018 NASCAR schedule. Next year will see New Hampshire slip back to one spot on the schedule for the first time since 1996.
Three loose lug nuts proved costly for AJ Allmendinger. The violation cost him 35 driver points while crew chief Randall Burnett has been fined $65,000 and suspended from the next three Monster Energy Cup Series races.
The momentum from the Daytona 500 came to a screeching halt in Atlanta, an event dominated (but not won) by Kevin Harvick. The 3.6 rating for that Atlanta race was another year-to-year decrease for NASCAR in the Nielsens, the lowest for the season’s second event since the TV contract went fully national in 2001.
Charlotte Motor Speedway may be making both left and right turns for NASCAR in 2018. Rumors persist the 1.5-mile oval, which has struggled with attendance lately despite being in the sport’s home market, may use their road course for the sport’s playoff event in the fall of 2018. The Coca-Cola 600 May race would be unaffected, still using the layout that’s been the subject of frustration and weakened competition over the last decade.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Number of Cup cars that failed to finish last weekend’s race at Atlanta due to wrecks. Fifteen cars crashed out of the Daytona 500 a week earlier.
Laps led by Kevin Harvick in his last four Atlanta starts. He has failed to win any of those events.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Brad Keselowski, coming off a win at Atlanta, is a good bet for two in a row. In the last four years at Las Vegas, he’s won twice, never run worse than seventh and earned an average starting spot of 4.5. That number, of course, is before he won the pole for Sunday’s race. I’d call him a pretty safe bet.
Stay away from Jimmie Johnson here. He’s won at Vegas as recently as 2010 but has three duds of 24th or worse in his last nine starts. There’s too much risk here that gets your fantasy season off to a rocky start.
I like what I’m seeing from Kasey Kahne so far this season. It’s the first time in nearly a decade he’s started off with two top-10 finishes as the pressure ramps up for him to succeed at Hendrick Motorsports. A strong start is imperative with young William Byron waiting in the wings; should Dale Earnhardt Jr. sign a contract extension this season, Kahne becomes that much more disposable.
Las Vegas is a great place to build on this start, a track in his 1.5-mile wheelhouse where he’s finished no worse than 19th in his five years driving the No. 5 Chevy. Consider he was 10th last year in what was arguably the worst season of his career; Kahne is a dark horse for a top-five finish Sunday.
Rookie Erik Jones, despite the struggles of Toyota expansion reference above, seemed to have his act together at Atlanta last week. A 14th-place finish bodes well for the future, heading to a track where new employer Furniture Row Racing ran 11th with Martin Truex Jr. last year. He’s worth a flyer although I expect the growing pains at FRR to continue for the next few months.
How about young Trevor Bayne? He’s quietly inside the top 10 in points this season as the Roush Fenway Racing consolidation down to two cars is paying dividends. He’s got four top 20s in six Las Vegas starts, including a top-10 finish in 2012 and was 17th here last season.
What Vegas Thinks
Odds Shark has Kevin Harvick leading the way at Vegas, posting 4/1 odds. Brad Keselowski is next with 6/1 odds with Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch not far behind.
What I Think
After seeing the weekend thus far, I think Team Penske has themselves on point. While Keselowski is the favorite for two in a row I’m going to go with Joey Logano, starting sixth for Sunday’s race. This two-car team wants to lock both their men inside the playoffs as soon as possible and I expect them to do just that.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
-Braden Gall and Mitch Light breakdown the latest in college football. Don't forget to subscribe here and rate us if you like (or don't like) what you hear!
Today, we begin our 2017 spring primer series and it has nothing to do with spring practice. We start with the Big 12.
- Is the Pac-12 the easiest league to predict from a championship game standpoint?
- What makes this USC team any different from the Trojan teams of the past? Is this a top 10 team nationally?
- Is Washington recession proof? (And why is this a thing?)
- Utah has identity, UCLA has the quarterback and Colorado is the defending champ. So who is equipped to challenge USC in the South?
- What has happened to the state of Arizona and, more importantly, its head coaches?
- In the North, Stanford has the identity, Oregon has the flashy new coaching staff and Washington State returns the QB. Who can push Washington?
- Does Cal want to win? Is Oregon State actually improving?
Send any ideas, questions or comments to @BradenGall or @AthlonMitch or email firstname.lastname@example.org. The podcast can be found on athlonsports.com/podcast, iTunes, Stitcher and our podcast RSS feed.
Sometimes it's hard to bury the hatchet.
Former Indiana University basketball coach Bob Knight recently called into The Dan Patrick Show and was asked about a possible return. His answer is probably not what some fans were hoping. Although the infamous coach will never forget the fans, he had less pleasant words for the higher ups working there.
"I hope they're all dead," Knight said.
Knight was never one to sugarcoat things.
Looking over the 2017 starting pitcher rankings in fantasy baseball and it is hard not to feel terribly sad about the loss of two of the best young pitchers in the game over the past year in Jose Fernandez and Yordano Ventura. Pitching talent continues to run strong and it is hard to imagine a stronger top 10 than we have this season. Much like outfield though if you leave your draft without a top-30 arm you may be in deep trouble.
There are plenty of questions as always with pitchers, mostly circling around their health, or ability to return to form following an injury or surgery. Players like Matt Harvey, Stephen Strasburg, Yu Darvish, even Clayton Kershaw (and now David Price it appears), all have an injury cloud around them, and once a pitcher has that it rarely goes away. Talent is undeniable with most elite pitchers, but health is never a certainty in baseball.
I would suggest snagging a few pitchers early if price is right, and then load up on younger high-potential arms later in the draft. That’s one of my favorite strategies in re-draft leagues. These rankings should help you get started. But remember they are subject to change.
ADP - Average Draft Position
— Rankings by Chris Meyers, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a member of the FSWA. Meyers' work appears on many other sites, including socalledfantasyexperts.com. Follow him on Twitter @FantsyChillpony.
The 2017 NFL Draft is still more than a month away but now that the Scouting Combine is over, April 27 will be here before you know it. There is still much to be determined between now and when the first round commences in Philadelphia, but parts of the picture are starting to come into focus.
Related: 12 Players Who Improved Their Stock at the NFL Scouting Combine
Texas A&M defensive end Myles Garrett continues to do what is asked or expected of him, increasing his chances of becoming the No. 1 overall pick when Cleveland officially goes on the clock. The rest of the order behind him is where the fun starts, as free agency and trades could impact who goes where and which team is a particular spot.
This much we know for certain: 253 former college players will hear their named called from April 27-29. While the list below is not an exhaustive one by any means, chances are these are the names you can expect to go earlier rather than later.
*Denotes early entry
Athlon Sports' Top 100 Prospects for 2017 NFL Draft
|58||Anthony Walker Jr.*||ILB||6-1||235|
|99||Patrick Mahomes II*||QB||6-3||230|
With NFL free agency in full swing and trades happening, fantasy owners have reason to start looking ahead to 2017. Many players are changing teams (and will continue to do so), and therefore changing their respective fantasy values. While it is still too early to really tell how a player on a new team will fare, here are the ones of note (as of March 9) that will be in a different uniform come Week 1.
Alshon Jeffery, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
2016: Jeffery played in 12 games (missing four for suspension, although playing injured through many) for the Bears, and finished with 52 receptions for 821 yards and two touchdowns.
2017: With the Eagles, Jeffery has a chance to regain solid fantasy value. He'll become Carson Wentz’ No. 1 target, and as long as he can stay healthy, will be a solid WR2.
Brandon Marshall, WR, New York Giants
2016: This was arguably Marshall's worst season, with 59 receptions (a career low) and 788 yards. He had three touchdowns, which was the fewest he had since 2010. The Jets’ poor quarterback play and the loss of running mate Eric Decker assisted in the poor totals.
2017: Marshall – and his fantasy owners – know that he will defer to Odell Beckham, Jr. on the Giants. Sterling Shepard is still in the picture and Eli Manning isn't throwing the ball as often. It will be interesting to see if Marshall is able to handle playing second fiddle to ODB. Marshall is a WR2.
DeSean Jackson, WR, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
2016: D-Jax was hit or miss in 2016 as he's been for most of his career. He had 56 receptions for 1,005 yards and four touchdowns for the Redskins. He had five games with more than 100 yards and six games with fewer than 50.
2017: With the Bucs, D-Jax is poised for success. He'll play opposite Mike Evans, and that's a role that suits him. He will be with a quarterback that can get him the ball down the field, but he's still going to have games where he's a fantasy disappointment. It's a positive outlook for him, but he's still a WR3.
Danny Woodhead, RB, Baltimore Ravens
2016: Woodhead played in two games in 2016 before tearing his ACL and missing the rest of the season. His 2014 season also was cut short, but he's not necessarily injury-prone.
2017: Woodhead will handle the passing downs for the Ravens. Kenneth Dixon is suspended for four games, but even once Dixon is back, Woodhead will still have a role. He's a RB2 in PPR formats.
Pierre Garcon, WR, San Francisco 49ers
2016: Garcon quietly had a solid season with the Redskins in 2016. He had 79 receptions for 1,041 yards and three touchdowns.
2017: Joining Kyle Shanahan is a boost for Garcon, but he has never been a top-tier wide receiver. His success is dependent on the quarterback, and Brian Hoyer isn't exactly going to boost Garcon into fantasy brilliance, although everyone expects the 49ers aren’t done at the position. For now, Garcon is a WR3 with upside.
Torrey Smith, WR, Philadelphia Eagles
2016: In 12 games, Smith had 20 receptions for 267 yards and three touchdowns. He's a deep threat who was not utilized in San Francisco.
2017: In Philadelphia, Smith can be used the way he has been successful in the past. He will, however, be competing with Alshon Jeffery, Zach Ertz and Jordan Matthews for targets. He's likely only going to be drafted in deep leagues.
Mike Glennon, QB, Chicago Bears
2016: Glennon completed 10 passes in 2016, which are actually 10 more than he completed in ‘15. However, the Bears saw something in him that they were willing to outbid the other teams for Glennon’s services.
2017: Glennon will likely be the starter for 2017, and hopefully the Bears will be able to either develop plays for him or find a way to make him usable. For fantasy purposes, however, he can still be left alone in most formats.
Julius Thomas, TE, Miami Dolphins
2016: Thomas has had a hard time staying healthy, but when he plays, he's productive. He had 30 receptions for 281 yards and four touchdowns in nine games with the Jaguars.
2017: The Dolphins needed a tight end that could be more than another blocker. With Ryan Tannehill at quarterback, having a big player in the end zone should benefit both. Thomas is a risky TE2.
Dwayne Allen, TE, New England Patriots
2016: In 14 games, he had 35 receptions and 406 yards. He added six touchdowns, but never broke out as a solid player while he was with the Colts.
2017: The New England Patriots have a reputation for developing tight ends. While they did cut ties with Martellus Bennett, they are likely looking to fill that role with Allen. Rob Gronkowski's health is a perpetual question mark, and Allen just may end up having fantasy value in 2017.
Robert Woods, WR, Los Angeles Rams
2016: In 13 games for the Bills, he had 51 receptions for 613 receiving yards and a touchdown.
2017: Woods steps into a role alongside Tavon Austin, on a team that isn't exactly primed for fantasy success. He becomes a passing option for Jared Goff, but shouldn't be on fantasy rosters.
Brian Hoyer, QB, San Francisco 49ers
2016: Hoyer played six games for Chicago (and looked serviceable) but his season ended with a broken leg. He ended up with 1,445 passing yards, six touchdowns and no interceptions.
2017: Hoyer, at 31, isn't a viable starter for a team, but he's a solid veteran backup. He likely won't end up playing 16 games for the 49ers, and he's not worth fantasy consideration at this point.
— Written by Sarah Lewis, who is part of the Athlon Contributor network and lives, eats, and breathes fantasy football. She also writes for SoCalledFantasyExperts.com among other sites. Have a fantasy football question? Send it to her on Twitter @Sarah_Lewis32.
(DeSean Jackson photo courtesy of www.redskins.com)
The Reds are hoping the heavy lifting of the rebuilding is over and that the team can start winning again after three straight losing seasons. By winning, we’re talking about flirting with .500, not contending in the National League Central with the World Champion Chicago Cubs.
The optimism is based on the way the club played the second half — the Reds were one game under .500 after the All-Star break — and the hope that all the youthful talent will continue to improve.
The Reds did very little before the first of the year as far as adding players, with the notable transaction being the selection of catcher Stuart Turner in the Rule 5 Draft.
However, business picked up after the calendar turned to 2017. Dan Straily was traded to Miami in January for three prospects, and then right before pitchers and catchers reported to Goodyear, Arizona, for spring training, Brandon Phillips was sent to Atlanta for two pitchers. While the first move may have been more of a surprise (especially given the return for a pitcher with a career 4.24 ERA), the latter was primarily done to open a spot for top talent Jose Peraza.
Entering January, four spots in the rotation were seemingly set – Homer Bailey, Anthony DeSclafani, Brandon Finnegan and Straily. Straily was traded and then right before the start of spring training, the Reds announced that Bailey had undergone arthroscopic surgery on his throwing elbow to remove bone spurs. Bailey will obviously not be ready to start the season, as he has probably spent more time on the operating table than a major-league mound over the past two seasons. With the two subtractions, Cincinnati needs someone else to step up, but its two top prospects, Robert Stephenson (2–3, 6.08 ERA) and Cody Reed (0–7, 7.36), are coming off disappointing seasons. Lefthander Amir Garrett, a former college basketball player, has supplanted Stephenson and Reed as a top pitching prospect on some lists. Veteran Scott Feldman, who was signed as a free agent, and rookie rightly Tim Adleman will get their chances to claim one of the open spots. The Reds also invited former All-Star Bronson Arroyo to spring training. Arroyo, 40, seems like a long shot as he hasn’t pitched in the majors since 2014 (14 starts for Arizona) because of his own elbow issues. At the front of the rotation, Cincinnati is hoping that Finnegan and DeSclafani can build off what they accomplished last season. Finnegan, a lefthander, proved that he could be a starter by going 10-11 with a 3.98 ERA over 172 innings. DeSclafani missed the first two months with an oblique strain. He was good after returning — 9-5, 3.28 ERA in 20 starts.
The Phillips trade means Peraza will get the chance to play every day. The 22-year-old hit .324 overall and .355 after the All-Star break and should get plenty of opportunities to use his speed (21 SB in 72 games with the Reds). His double-play partner will be shortstop Zack Cozart, who like Phillips was on the trade market during the offseason and could be one of the next veterans to go. Cozart is always solid with the glove and hit a career-high 16 home runs last season.
It’s hard to say what was more surprising about Joey Votto’s year: The fact that he was hitting .200 through May or that he hit .409 in the second half. Votto remains a major offensive threat, and he says he’s happy to stay in Cincinnati throughout the rebuild. Votto also says he’s disappointed in his defense and vowed to work on it in the offseason. Eugenio Suarez put up solid power numbers at third (21 home runs, 70 RBIs), but he hit only .248. The Reds would like to see him hit for more of an average.
Left fielder Adam Duvall was the most pleasant surprise on the team, hitting 33 home runs and driving in 103 runs. He also played left field well enough to be a Gold Glove finalist. Scott Schebler, obtained from the Dodgers in the three-way Todd Frazier trade, hit .290 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs in 55 games as the right fielder after the Reds traded away Jay Bruce. Billy Hamilton put up good offensive numbers after a slow start. He hit .293 with a .369 on-base percentage after the All-Star break. If he could put up those types of numbers and stay healthy, the Reds would have one of the most dynamic leadoff hitters in the game. Hamilton also was a Gold Glove finalist.
Starter Devin Mesoraco is coming off left shoulder and right hip surgery after having left hip surgery a year ago. The Reds are hoping that he can play the bulk of the games, but there’s no guarantee. Tucker Barnhart had a solid year filling in for Mesoraco. Defense was never a question with Barnhart, but his offensive numbers (.257, seven home runs and 51 RBIs in 377 at-bats) were reassuring. The Reds took Turner from Minnesota in the Rule 5 Draft to add to the catching depth.
The Reds haven’t spent much to supplement the bench, choosing to pick up players off waivers. Dilson Herrera, obtained in the Bruce trade, is all but guaranteed a spot, while former Cub and Oakland utility player Arismendy Alcantara will have another shot at making a major league roster. Outfielders Desmond Jennings and Ryan Raburn also will get their shots in spring training.
Williams takes over as president of baseball operations/GM, and Walt Jocketty moves into a consulting role. Williams hasn’t had much of a chance to put his stamp on the club. The trades to shed salaries and add youth were all done before he took over. Price was given a one-year extension. The Reds probably have to win this year for him to get a fourth year. The pitching improved greatly after Mack Jenkins took over for Mark Riggins as pitching coach last season.
The Reds would be happy to get back over .500. That’s going to depend largely on the bullpen, which was so bad early last year that the team was out of it by May. The hope is Iglesias and Lorenzen, converted starters with top-shelf stuff, can fix the pen. The club goes to spring training with no defined closer, although Iglesias saved six games in eight tries down the stretch. The rotation has some depth if the young pitchers step up. The Reds have added quantity — trading for nine starters since the deadline in 2014. They need some quality to compete this year. The offense was eighth in the National League in runs last year, so with better pitching, the record should improve. Still, there are far too many ifs — if Bailey is healthy (not off to a good start), if Mesoraco is healthy, if Peraza and Hamilton continue to progress as hitters, if Schebler and Duvall continue to play well — to expect the Reds to contend.