2014 College Football Preview

We couldn’t have asked for a more exciting end to the BCS era. The culmination of the 2013 NCAA football season was a shootout between offensive juggernauts Auburn and Florida State, ending with Heisman winner Jameis Winston dropping a pass into Kelvin Benjamin’s arms for the game winning touchdown with seconds remaining. Still, as good as that matchup was, the introduction of the long-awaited College Football Playoff for the 2014 season is a welcome change. Four teams, selected by a panel of voters that includes Condoleezza Rice and Archie Manning, will battle it out in January in the brand new playoff. Below are our predictions for what those four teams will be, along with the rest of our preseason top 20. Enjoy our second annual College Football Preview, and let us know which schools we ranked too high and too low in the comments!

The Final Four:

1. Florida State

How beautiful 2013 was for Florida State. The ‘Noles didn’t play a single close regular season game (excluding a decent game with Boston College in Chestnut Hill), beat Duke in the ACC Championship by 38, won their 14 games by an average of 40 points, and overcame a 21-3 second quarter deficit en route to their National Championship victory over Auburn. They weren’t just elite on both sides of the ball; they arguably were the best team in the nation on both! None of that will help them this fall, but the good news in Tallahasee is that the ‘14 team has the talent to match what the ‘13 team did. QB Jameis Winston is back and, while he’s polarizing, he’s also the best player in college football. He returns with 12 other starters. Florida State will still dominate the line of scrimmage. And with their two toughest regular season games coming at home (vs. Clemson and vs. Notre Dame), FSU faces a fairly manageable route to the four team playoff.

Famous Jameis

Jameis Winston seeks another crystal football (after he inexplicably hurled the last one across the field).

2. Alabama

Alabama entered last season as the prohibitive favorites to take home the crystal ball. They started the year atop the polls and won their first 11 games, rolling into the final weekend of the regular season still No.1, despite the dominance of FSU 300 miles southeast. Then, in one of the most epic football games in recent memory, Auburn knocked off ‘Bama in the Iron Bowl. The Crimson Tide were forced to settle for the Sugar Bowl and hardly showed up, falling to Oklahoma 45-31. Redemption time? It could well be. Alabama should be a step better defensively than they were last year. They have a bit of a QB controversy, but a strong O-line and the return of guys like Amari Cooper and T.J. Yeldon suggests that they could win with Adam Sandler playing QB. They missed out on the threepeat, but four titles in six years would be far from shabby.

3. Oregon

2013 was a relative down year for the Ducks, as they failed to make a BCS bowl for the first time since 2008. The key word there is ‘relative’; Oregon still won 11 games, blasting UCLA 42-14 along the way. Not a half bad way to start off the post-Chip Kelly era. Looking at Oregon as they enter 2014, they’re certainly a favorite to make the football final four. These Ducks might not have quite the multiplicity of offensive playmakers that they’ve had in past years, but they’re more balanced than they were circa 2011 (read: better defensively), and they’re still pretty damn electric on offense. Heisman hopeful QB Marcus Mariota and dynamite CB Ifo Ekpre-Olomu are both back, and Oregon will be pretty experienced across the board. The Pac-12 is a bear–Stanford and UCLA are both strong title contenders–but we think the Ducks have the stuff to win it.

4. Ohio State

Ohio State has one regular season game against a team that enters the season ranked in the top 25 (@Michigan State on November 8th) . That’s one fewer than Florida Atlantic or East Carolina. So…we think they’ll be fine without Braxton Miller, their electrifying senior signal caller, who injured his shoulder last Monday and will miss the entire season. Sans Miller, the Buckeyes are still talented in every place you can be talented. Their D-line will be vicious, the secondary behind it should be just as good, and, even without Miller, tOSU should score plenty. Lest we forget, the Buckeyes scored 128 points in the two games Miller missed last year. Coach Urban Meyer has led Ohio State to perfect regular seasons in his first two autumns in Columbus. A third is doable and would set Ohio State up nicely for a trip to the final four.

Ohio State v Michigan State

Coach Urban Meyer will attempt to guide Ohio State to the inaugural playoff.

The Next 16:

5. Oklahoma

Trevor Knight picked quite a stage for his coming out party. The redshirt sophomore threw for 348 yards and four touchdowns against the stout defense of Alabama in the Sooners’ 45-31 Sugar Bowl victory, inspiring hope for a Big 12 championship and playoff run this season. With Knight leading the offensive charge and skilled linebackers Dominique Alexander and Eric Striker holding down the defensive end, those outcomes are certainly in play for Oklahoma. Their success will depend on the development of OU’s skill players after the loss of talented receiver Jalen Saunders to the NFL. If their playmakers can produce against Big 12 challengers Baylor and Kansas State, Oklahoma will be a favorite to reach the playoff.

6. Stanford

David Shaw is, for lack of a better word, the man (er…I guess that’s two words). A Stanford alum, Shaw took over the Cardinal in 2011 and has led them to three straight seasons of 11 or more wins. The formula has been pretty simple: control the line of scrimmage. They’ve done it and done it consistently, picking up big win after big win along the way. This year’s team might be the best one Shaw has had, with a nasty defense and an offense led by Senior QB Kevin Hogan and wideout Ty Montgomery. The concern for Stanford: their schedule is vicious. Road games against Washington, Notre Dame, Arizona State, Oregon, and UCLA loom.

7. Baylor

Bryce Petty, Baylor’s big, sturdy QB, didn’t really have a bad game last year. He tossed for at least 200 yards in every game, more than 4000 in total, and 32 touchdown passes. Along the way he hardly made any mistakes, throwing just three interceptions. Petty is a stud, and he led the most potent offense in college football; Baylor racked up more than 50 points per game. The offensive output allowed Baylor to lock up their first Big 12 title and a spot in the Fiesta Bowl. This year, Petty returns for Baylor, along with most of his favorite targets. Baylor will score at will again. Their road game at Oklahoma on November 8th could define their season.

8. Michigan State

Sparty is fresh off a special season. MSU only lost to Notre Dame last year, as they took home a Big Ten ‘ship followed by a Rose Bowl victory. They did it with outstanding defense, allowing just 13 points per game. This fall, they’ll be similarly dominant on D thanks to the returns of defensive coordinator Pat Narduzzi, defensive end Shilique Calhoun, and others. Offensively, the Spartans may be a work in progress early in the year. They’ll have to gel fast though; they head to Oregon on September 6th. A win there could portend a trip to the new final four.

Shilique-Calhoun-Michigan-State-Spartans

Second Team All-American DE Shilique Calhoun returns to East Lansing for both a degree and a shot at the national title.

9. Auburn

It took several last second miracles, the most important being Chris Davis’ unforgettable return of a missed Alabama field goal to win the Iron Bowl, but Auburn returned to the national title game for the first time since Cam Newton’s Heisman year. Guz Malzahn, Newton’s offensive coordinator, excelled in his new position as Auburn head coach, coming within a drive of the national title. Malzahn will have his work cut out for him this year, though. Auburn’s schedule is brutal, with conference matchups against LSU, South Carolina, Ole Miss, and Georgia. (Not to mention the annual season-ending showdown versus the Crimson Tide.) The Tigers will miss SEC leading rusher Tre Mason and defensive end Dee Ford, key components of last season’s run, but QB Nick Marshall’s development and a strong offensive line should keep the offense churning. Auburn will be a good team, but it’s hard to consider them playoff favorites in light of their schedule.

10. UCLA

In two years at UCLA, Jim Mora has led the Bruins to a pair of wins over USC. That he’s led them to an overall record of 19-8 is also impressive, if perhaps less significant to some Bruin fans. The challenge now: to get over the hump against Stanford and Oregon. UCLA is 0-3 against those two programs over the past two seasons and got absolutely trounced by Oregon last year (42-14 loss). They play both schools at home this year–certainly a positive sign. Equally positive is the fact that the Bruins return loads of talent and experience from their ‘13 team, including quarterback Brett Hundley. Another win over USC would be nice, but a trip to the new playoff would be even sweeter in Westwood.

11. Wisconsin

I’ll be honest. I, Tim Balk, fear Wisconsin. Maybe it’s because I’m a Northwestern fan. Last year Wisconsin rolled the Wildcats 35-6 when we still thought we were good (then ranked 19th). Back in 2011 the Badgers knocked the Cats off by a final of 70-23. Or maybe it’s because Wisconsin’s pre-4th quarter tradition of jumping around to “Jump Around” is one of the most awesome things in sports. More than likely, though, it’s because the Badgers are simply quite good. They couldn’t finish the job in close games last year, losing by two to ASU, by seven to Ohio State, and by 1o to South Carolina. But those were all excellent teams, and the Badgers still managed a respectable nine wins. This year, they should win more. Running back Melvin Gordon is back. With Andre Williams and Carlos Hyde out of the picture, there’s no question that he’s the best HB in the nation. He’ll power a potent Badger offense. Defensively, Wiscy loses a lot from last year (nine defensive starters departed), but they should continue to run their 3-4 D to perfection with new pieces in place. Their season opening battle with LSU will be huge–after that their schedule is fairly soft aside from a home November date with Nebraska.

12. Notre Dame

Last year we ranked Notre Dame right here–at 12th–and predicted “ Notre Dame will be solid, probably 10-11 win good. Like the good ole’ Brady Quinn days.” Well, that was just about right. The Fighting Irish went 9-4, picked up some pretty impressive victories along the way (including wins over Michigan State, Arizona State, USC) but stubbed their toes against a couple of decent–but far from great–opponents, Pitt and Michigan. The end result was the rare Notre Dame team that was actually a bit underrated for most of the fall. This year they should be better. Everett Golson is back at QB after missing 2013 for academic reasons. He was a near-superstar last we checked. He’ll be throwing to a talented stable of receivers. Defensively, Notre Dame should be stingy. If things break right, a repeat of ‘12 isn’t out of the question, but ND does face a dandy of a schedule. Between October 4th and November 8th, the Irish have only one game against an unranked team in the preseason polls.

Golson

Everett Golson’s return from an academic suspension will lift Notre Dame’s season.

13. South Carolina

One would think losing the Number 1 pick in the draft (Jadeveon Clowney) and a starting quarterback (Connor Shaw) would take a serious toll on a team, and it will affect the Gamecocks to an extent. To say that South Carolina will be much worse, however, would be wrong. Most of the team which came close to a spot in the SEC Championship game is returning, as is long time head coach Steve Spurrier. This experienced SC squad has a difficult schedule, as does any other SEC team, but their depth could lead them to the promised land- the sideline of the Georgia Dome for the championship game. Look for their September 13 matchup with Georgia to set the tone for the rest of the Gamecocks’ season.

14. Clemson

Losing Tajh Boyd and Sammy Watkins in one offseason isn’t fun, but Clemson fans need not cry quite yet. The Tigers will still boast one of the nation’s best D-lines, loads of skill position speed, and a senior QB who’s supposed to be pretty darn good (Cole Stoudt). This Clemson team might be a bit of a throwback to their ‘09 team (more defense-oriented), but they’ll win plenty. They face a front loaded schedule that includes a season opener against Georgia followed by a roadie against FSU two weeks later. Even if they start 1-2, a double digit win season could still be in the cards.

15. LSU

The Tigers have won double digit games each of the last four years, so there’s not a whole lot of question about whether or not they’ll be good. The question instead is how good? Last year, LSU’s defense let them down in their three losses. This year, they should realistically be better, led by Kwon Alexander and Tre’Davious (aka Tre’Mendious) White. But there are also offensive question marks as the season commences. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger and halfback Jeremy Hill have moved onto the NFL. Les Miles will need his offense to grow up fast in order for LSU to make a title push. Opening the season against Wisconsin may prove to be a baptism by fire.

16. Arizona State

Let’s turn the clocks back to 2011. Arizona State was a defense-oriented team, led by ferocious middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict. They attacked relentlessly on that side of the ball and hoped the offense would keep up. Things are a little different now in Tempe. Todd Graham arrived in the desert in 2012 and has since turned the Sun Devils into a potent offensive squad. Last year, they scored 40 points per game en route to a 10 win season. Defense might be an issue for ASU this fall, but with quarterback Taylor Kelly and wideout Jaelen Strong back, the Devils will score enough to hide the D. Between September 25th and November 8th, Arizona State will play six games. Five of those will come against teams that enter the fall ranked. Such is life in the stacked Pac-12. This ASU team is good enough to brave that stretch and still emerge with plenty of wins.

Taylor Kelly

Dual threat QB Taylor Kelly will lead the Sun Devils’ charge in the dangerous Pac-12.

17. USC

Steve Sarkisian inherits a talented team in his first year in LA. He also inherits a tough schedule, one that features road games against Stanford and UCLA. At least the Trojans don’t have to play Oregon in the regular season. The keys for USC will be milking the front-line talent they do have into wins and staying healthy–they’re not deep. Sarkisian is a proven coach, and there’s no reason to think that he won’t do well at USC right away. On the other hand, don’t expect immediate national title contention.

18. Miami

These Hurricanes are a bit under the radar (bad pun intended). The Canes won nine games last year and gave FSU a decent game…for a half (FSU dominated the second half of a 41-14 route). This year, the goal is probably incremental improvement. They’ll need to find a new QB after the departure of Stephen Morris, but a strong defense remains along with fantastic running back Duke Johnson. He missed the second half of last season, but when he’s healthy Miami is a different team. The Coastal is weak, and Al Golden is in year four in Coral Gables. The time has come for the Canes to make an ACC Championship.

19.UCF

Sticking with the Floridian theme, we head north to Orlando. UCF went 12-1 last year, rolling through the AAC and knocking off Baylor in the Fiesta Bowl. They lost mega star Blake Bortles to the NFL, but bring back loads of talent from the ‘13 team. Defensively, they should be excellent thanks to the return of CB Jacoby Glenn among others. Even if the offense takes a step back, the Golden Knights should still be the class of the AAC.

20. Georgia

Sooo, 2013 didn’t go as planned for Georgia. The Bulldogs got hit hard by injuries and struggled mightily defensively. Senior QB Aaron Murray had another monster season, but UGA’s porous defense did them in, as they finished the year 8-5. This season, the hope is that new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt will shore the defense up. Offensively, there are some question marks on the line and losing Murray is undoubtedly a tremendous blow. The good news is that running back Todd Gurley is back, and he’s filthy. A huge season from Gurley and some defensive improvements could lead to double digit wins.

NCAA Football: Tennessee at Georgia

RB Todd Gurley will try to power Georgia into the SEC championship conversation.

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Looking Ahead to the 2014-15 Eastern Conference

It may sound counterintuitive, but the season that I personally link to the sport of basketball is summer. It’s a time when just about anyone who loves hoops grabs a ball and takes to courts on cement, asphalt, blacktop, and even sand to play beneath the blue skies of summer. Basketball is an outdoor sport as much as an indoor sport, and I always find myself most obsessed with it in July and August, even with the college and pro regular seasons months away.

Instead of NBA basketball, we get the whirlwind that is the NBA offseason this time of year. This summer’s has been especially fun, highlighted by The Decision 2.0. In the background, Team USA has been preparing for the 2014 FIBA World Cup.

Today, I will take a far off look at the upcoming season in the Eastern Conference, which has been so changed over the past 10 weeks.

Of course, when the time comes for College Sports Town’s annual NBA Preview in October, many of the East’s teams may look quite different. As it stands on August 10th, here are my thoughts on each Eastern Conference team, roughly in the order I see them finishing.

Title Contenders:

Chicago Bulls 

Everything hinges on the health of Derrick Rose for Chicago. With the league’s best point guard healthy, the Bulls are probably the favorites in the East, even with the once again LeBron-led Cavs ready to light up the league. This could, and should, be the best Bulls team since the MJ days. Defensively, there’s little doubt they’ll be the class of the Association; Tom Thibodeau is a maestro and the team has stellar defensive players across the board. Offensively, they should explode with Rose initiating things and rookie wing Doug McDermott–the best offensive college player I’ve ever seen–joining the club. Joakim Noah is the league’s best all-around center in my book: he does everything well and doubles as an elite teammate. Carlos Boozer (and his awful contract) is gone, but Chicago won’t miss him much with the additions of post presences Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic. If Rose plays and plays well, the Bulls are a lock for 60+ wins and a deep playoff run.

Cleveland Cavaliers

Yes, the King is back. And the league’s best offensive 4 also appears to be headed to Ohio. Folks can argue the merits of the Wiggins-Love trade all day long, but the fact of the matter is that, in the short-term, the trade has very little potential to hurt the Cavs. K-Love is in limbo between very good player and superstar, but the Cavs won’t need him to be a superstar. With the league’s best player already in tow, adding Love was the safe route for Cleveland. The sheer force of LeBron all but guarantees the Cavs at least 50 wins. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love are both terrific players too, and, on paper, the new Big 3 is far superior to the one Bron left in Miami. There are certainly question marks though; how will the two younger stars adapt to playing with the King, and how will new coach David Blatt manage the super-team? The Cavs have the potential to be tremendous right off the bat. But not every test tube team can gel as quickly as the ’08 Celtics did.

Surefire Playoff Teams:

Toronto Raptors 

Move over Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson! DeRozan is the best player in the NBA with an alliterative name.

Move over, Paul Pierce and Joe Johnson! DeRozan is the best player in the NBA with an alliterative name.

The Raptors exploded onto the scene last year, and at the moment they have me feeling like they’re not that far from the Title Contender category. DeMar DeRozan’s emergence has been a joy to watch–he’s gone from a great athlete who put up some nice stats to a guy you could almost feel comfortable building a team around. 2013-14 was a career year for the former Trojan, and he thrived in the Raps’ first round loss to Brooklyn. The Raptors are a good, balanced team with a top 10 point guard in Kyle Lowry and a cornerstone big man in Jonas Valanciunas. The Raptors are young and the upcoming season will be a sort of litmus test to see if, as currently constructed, they can compete for titles in the coming years.

Washington Wizards 

The Wizards are a superstar away from contending for a ‘ship. Still, for a franchise that has had a miserable decade, these are happy days indeed in the nation’s capital. The Wiz inked Paul Pierce in July, and PP will slide onto the scene for a squad that apparently thinks it’s 2002 (two seven footers on their frontline). Washington is balanced and decently talented, and John Wall and Bradley Beal make up one of the more entertaining backcourts in the league. The Wizards will make the playoffs this winter, barring a disaster. But they won’t go that deep unless Wall takes a huge step forward and Pierce plays like he’s 26 instead of 36.

Miami Heat

The Heat are basically back to where they were before LeBron arrived. They’ve got star power, but modest title hopes. In addition to resigning Chris Bosh to a huge, and likely misguided contract, the Heat added Luol Deng last month. Deng’s no LeBron James, but he’s also far from a scrub. As long as Dwyane Wade and Bosh can stay healthy, the Heat look like a solid playoff team on paper.

Brooklyn Nets

The Nets barely made it into this category. The reason they made it: Lionel Hollins is the new coach in BK and he’s a good one. But it’s easy to worry about the Nets. Billy King elected not to open up their checkbook to bring back Pierce, who was their best two-way player for much, if not most, of last year. You wonder how many good years Joe Johnson has left–it feels like he could fall off the map John Salmons-style any time now. And then there’s the fact that Deron Williams manages to lose a couple of steps each year. In the playoffs last year, he even managed to lose his jump shot. Locals say it was last seen in Oceanside. Brook Lopez will return, and that will help, but the Nets likely will wind up going as far as Mirza Teletovic can take them (read: not very far).

Mediocre Fringe Playoff Teams

New York Knicks

Melo elected to stay in NYC.

Melo elected to resign with NYC this summer.

Some people say that this is the worst category to be in. I disagree. I like the low playoff seeds. Sure, they don’t have true title aspirations or a long-term plan to win a title in 2023, but at least their regular season isn’t tainted by tanking or coasting. But I digress. Let’s talk about the Knicks. In theory, Carmelo Anthony alone should get them to the playoffs, and he almost did last year in spite of the hurricane around him. Knicks president Phil Jackson has calmed the storm, brought in a new coach, and locked Anthony up long-term. The rest of the Knicks’ roster is, more or less, a farce. Jackson will be presiding over an overhaul for the next couple of seasons, but the first goal should be to restore some positive vibes*.

Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks sucked last year and shouldn’t have made the playoffs. In fairness, they had to go almost the whole year without Al Horford. And, yes, they almost beat Indiana in the first round. But Horford is never healthy, and the Hawks only nearly pulled the upset thanks to some smoke and mirrors magic from coach Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks resigned Kyle Korver in July and probably will make the playoffs again in the winter if they stay healthy. Still, if they don’t, nobody will be that surprised or upset.

Charlotte Hornets

What is there to say about the Hornets? They’re not very good…but they made the playoffs last year thanks to one of the league’s best defenses (turns out the fat Steve Clifford, AKA the fat Scott Skiles, is a pretty good coach) and a monster season from Al Jefferson. Next year, they could be even better defensively due to the addition of the erratic but talented Lance Stephenson. The Hornets might make the playoffs. They might not. Either way, at least they don’t have to call themselves the Bobcats anymore.

Boston Celtics

Rajon took a career high three treys a game last year. He made 29% of them.

Rondo shot a career-worst 40.3% from the field last year.

The Celtics are a mystery to me at the moment. They still haven’t traded Rondo and it’s hard not to wonder if they can even get much for Rajon at this point. Jeff Green has a horrible contract and has seemingly settled into the role of being the Emeka Okafor of wings. The C’s drafted a couple of studs in Marcus Smart and James Young. Smart’s game is a work in progress, but he’s got future star written all over him. They also picked up Evan Turner on the cheap, and he’s clearly got some game. If the Celtics want, they can probably make a push for that 8 spot. The question: do they want to?

Indiana Pacers

The Pacers won more regular season games than any other Eastern Conference team last year. Then they fell apart late in the year. Then the offseason arrived, Stephenson got signed by Charlotte, and their dynamite superstar suffered a truly gruesome leg injury that should keep him from playing at all next season. Which leaves them right about here. David West is probably their best player, although he’s 33 and not getting younger (or better at free throw shooting…). They’re right on the cusp between categories for me. They do have an outside shot at the playoffs, but I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised to see them tank in hopes of drafting another future star to put alongside George.

Tank Cittttyyyyyyy

Orlando Magic

This team recently signed Ben Gordon to a two-year $9 million contract. Gordon played in 19 games last year, shooting 34% from the field and 27% from three-point land. YES, MAGIC FANS, THIS IS WHY YOU CANNOT HAVE NICE THINGS.

Philadelphia 76ers

MCW's potential remains off the charts.

MCW’s potential remains off the charts.

Philly is going to be good…the question is when and how good. Reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter Williams has legitimate top-5 superstar potential in my eyes, but he’s got a loooong way to go. This winter, Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid are going to debut. The rest of the roster is fluff.

Detroit Pistons 

Chauncy Billups, Rasheed Wallace, and Richard Hamilton ain’t walking through that door, fans.

Milwaukee Bucks

Jabari is a very good basketball player. Fans in Milwaukee will get to see him do very good things on the basketball court next year.

*To be honest, I think the Knicks will probably be better than the Nets next year. Why, then, do I have them a notch below the Nets? Answer: I could see the Knicks falling apart and missing the playoffs more easily than I could see the Nets doing so. Carmelo could get injured or decide to mail the season in, Derek Fisher could struggle in year one as coach, etc.

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Happy Second Birthday…To Us!

College Sports Town turns two years old today!

Year two of College Sports Town was a great one; we published more than 100 posts and had over 20,000 views. As always, we thank you for visiting our blog, reading our entries, and dropping in the occasional comment!

We hope you continue to keep coming back to the Sports Town as we enter our third year. It should be another fun one in our little corner of cyberspace.

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Why I Love Lebron’s Return

Tim Balk may not be captivated by LeReturn, but I’m here to say that it’s a story worthy of captivation.

Let’s go back to the evening of July 8th, 2010. It was one of those seminal moments where you’ll always remember where you were. I was lying down on my living room floor, staring up at the TV. ESPN blared on the screen as I looked blankly at my surroundings, shocked by what had just occurred. LeBron James was forming a super team in South Beach along with Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade. My Knicks hat, which I had been wearing for good luck in the hopes that LBJ would bring his talents to MSG, was discarded, as my head was too full of thoughts of the Heat domination of the rest of the league for me to don it.

Four years later, I was again lying in my living room, ESPN murmurings in the background, when I heard the news of LeBron’s return. In the same way LeBron handled his free agency completely differently this time around, I reacted in the opposite manner as I had four years prior. The level of desolation I had felt in 2010 was matched by the level of excitement I felt in 2014. I leapt to my keyboard, reading LeBron’s letter about as fast as I could. It wasn’t just a matter of the best player in the game moving teams, it was a matter of the best player I’ve ever witnessed fulfilling a terrific narrative.

The romance of the story is unquestionable. The shunned prodigal son returns home, forgiven for his past sins, in exchange for optimism. LeBron’s image in Cleveland rising out of the ashes of burnt jerseys, giving the people of Ohio the opportunity to witness one of the best players in NBA history perfecting his craft, making his young teammates realize their full potential. As nasty as his return to Cleveland after The Decision was, I can’t wait for the Cavs home opener. I’ll be watching with a box of tissues handy, hopefully wearing a maroon and gold Cavs jersey with #6 emblazoned on the back. It’s not a matter of being a Cavs fan, or even a basketball fan. If you enjoy the basic narratives which have run throughout the course of human history, you can enjoy LeBron’s return. This IS more than basketball. I’m waxing poetic about a transaction. This is the beauty of sports.

He's back, baby!

He’s back, baby!

 

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Responding to LeBron’s Return

LeBron-James-1

LeBron: savior…traitor…savior again.

Forgive me for not being romantic about LeBron James’ decision to return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Because I’m not. At all.

That’s not to say that I have any problem with the King’s homecoming. His return should be fantastic for the sport and, of course, the city of Cleveland. But I don’t buy for a second the narrative, so willingly lapped up by the media, that LeBron presented in his exclusive Sports Illustrated letter. James and the press have framed the move as one eclipsing basketball motivations, a mature decision to return to one of America’s most forsaken cities out of a combination of altruism and good ol’ American hometown pride.

In his SI feature, LeBron states “this is not about the roster or the organization. I feel my calling here goes above basketball.” I’m calling BS on that one, LBJ. If the Cavaliers had the roster of, say, the Utah Jazz or Orlando Magic, I have a tough time believing James would be heading back to the shores of Lake Erie. LeBron is returning to a franchise that has a top flight point guard in Kyrie Irving and the top pick from this year’s draft: the prodigiously gifted Andrew Wiggins. The Cavaliers represent a beautiful landing pad for James while his old supporting cast in Miami has aged somewhat ungracefully in the past couple of years.

I’m not doubting that location played a role in James’ decision. It would be outrageous to suggest that it didn’t. Of course he wants to bring a ‘ship to Cleveland. And I also am willing to believe that it was, as he says, always his plan to return to the city on the Cuyahoga. By the same token, he must also have seen appeal in the sunny beaches of South Beach when he made his decision to head south in 2010.

LeBron James is a basketball player. He’s a very good one–the best one on earth and probably one of the two or three best in the history in the game. I’m here to tell you that his decision to return to Cleveland, much like his decision to leave, is motivated by one thing more than any other: basketball. The Cavs have a basketball future as sunny as the Florida coast. After the aging Heat got dominated by the Spurs in this year’s NBA Finals, their future looked as clouded as the Cuyahoga River. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are beyond their best years. The Cavs are young and talented.

I’m a fan of LeBron James. He appears intelligent, articulate, and a selfless teammate. He’s a tremendous ambassador for the game of basketball and one of the most enjoyable athletes to watch in any sport. I’m looking forward to seeing him don the maroon and mustard yellow jerseys of the team that plays their games about 40 miles north of Akron.

That being said, just as he was excessively criticized and maligned for moving to Miami, James has received more praise for returning than he deserves. The pendulum has swung the other way.

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USMNT World Cup Review

This World Cup ended the same way as the last one for the US: a hard-fought defeat in the Round of 16. Many pundits observed this fact and noted the defensive style the US used for most of the tournament. Strangely, some pundits have used these observations to criticize Jurgen Klinsmann, claiming that he didn’t provide the kind of attacking soccer that he promised when he took over from Bob Bradley. These people couldn’t be more off base.

sadjurgen

Sad Jurgen

Klinsmann made just two mistakes the entire tournament: first, he put Chris Wondolowski in the squad. Second, he used him. Wondo is a fantastic MLS player, and he excels at getting into dangerous spaces without the ball. But he lacks the physical tools and the finishing touch to succeed on the international level, as he showed by missing a sitter against Belgium, bringing back memories of his miss in the 2011 Gold Cup. The US would have been better off with Terrence Boyd, who would have been an ideal backup for Jozy Altidore as the two share similar skill sets, or Juan Agudelo, who would have brought pace and creativity to the side. The inclusion of Agudelo also would have helped the young American’s club career; his lack of international appearances prevented him from gaining a work permit, and ultimately led to his release.

Chris-Wondolowski-miss1

Déjà vu for Wondo

But enough criticism. Klinsmann was one of the best managers in the tournament. The controversial inclusions in the final squad–chiefly DeAndre Yedlin, Julian Green, and John Brooks –paid off wonderfully. He used his substitutes to perfection. And most importantly, he got the US out of a group in which no one gave them a chance. This accomplishment can’t go overlooked. And to those who claim that the US only advanced by playing defensively, I would suggest that they go back and rewatch the Portugal game. For almost an entire game, the US outpassed, outpossessed, outshot, and outplayed a team that entered the tournament ranked fourth in the world. And of course, the US did this while the team’s most creative player, Clint Dempsey, was forced to play as a lone striker due to an injury to Altidore. Even if the US didn’t play like that for the entire tournament, the fact that they played like that at all against a top team should be considered a success. And with quite a few bright young prospects (looking at you Gedion Zelalem) potentially ready to make an impact in the next cycle, it won’t be long before American fans will be seeing more performances like the one against Portugal.

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The Balk-Cooper NBA Offseason Conferences: Part Two

Tim Balk and Danny Cooper continue their conversation about the NBA offseason below. Click here for a link to the first part of their discussion, and stay tuned to College Sports Town to see further Tim-Danny discussions.

Tim Balk: Let’s start things off by delving deeper into free agency. Dallas locked Dirk Nowitzki up for another three years. Dirk is 36 years old, but he’s still an elite weapon. His numbers have remained fairly constant over the past few seasons and he has to be the league’s best player over 35. Another guy over 35–Paul Pierce–is one of the hottest commodities in this year’s free agency. Pierce is coming off the worst season of his illustrious Hall of Fame career, but the wily wing still played staunch defense and provided efficient offensive production for the inconsistent Nets. Brooklyn surely wants Pierce back, but they’ll have to compete with a horde of other suitors including the Clippers, Trail Blazers, and Bulls. If Pierce does come back to BK, he’ll rejoin a nucleus of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, and a now healthy Brook Lopez. Meanwhile, the Trail Blazers inked a deal with the oft-injured Chris Kaman and the Kings picked up Darren Collison.

Dirk Nowitzki will be a career Maverick (Photo Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports)

Dirk Nowitzki will be a career Maverick.

Danny Cooper: It’s certainly been a busy couple of days in the free agent market. Dirk has long been one of my favorite players, and I’m glad to see him basically commit to being a Maverick for life. He’s still got some gas left in the tank, and the Mavericks could only be a high-profile free agent signing away from real postseason success, being that they pushed the eventual world champions to 7 games this past spring. I’d also just like to point out the contrast between the hometown discount Dirk took to benefit his squad and the exorbitant $48.5 million 2 year extension Kobe signed last year.

The Clippers with Paul Pierce could be really dangerous next year. A reunion between The Truth and his old coach Doc Rivers could prove fruitful for the Clippers. A hard-nosed defender with a smooth jumper such as Pierce would fit in well in their sets, and he could provide valuable veteran leadership alongside Chris Paul. I know you are already emptying out your wallet to get a fresh #34 Lob City jersey, no? At this point, I’m just hoping I can wear my Carmelo Anthony Knicks jersey without it being a throwback.

TB: Los Angeles would be an interesting landing spot for Paul. Personally, I wouldn’t mind The Truth following me to Chitown. He’s not Melo, but Pierce would be an awfully solid add for Chicago…or any team really. I actually don’t see Pierce shipping off to his hometown; for #34 to land in LA a sign-and-trade deal between the Clips and Nets would likely need to go down and I have my doubts about how much interest Billy King has in a Jared Dudley or a Matt Barnes.

The hot new rumor is that the Lakers made a strong push for Carmelo Anthony, but I don’t see what the Lakers possibly can offer him beyond a 35 year old ballhog co-star whose knees are failing him, an uncertain coaching situation, and a spot in the hyper-competitive Western Conference. Not to rehash thoughts from our last post, but Chicago continues to be the clear basketball choice, and New York remains the comfortable, potentially more lucrative option. When it all shakes down, it’s probably still the best bet that Paul and Carmelo will be playing their basketball in the concrete jungle of New York in the fall.

In one of the stranger stories of the offseason, rookie Hornet P.J. Hairston punched someone in a pickup game. This is another in a line of bizarre off-court incidents for Hairston. The former Tar Heel is a fantastic talent–he’s a big, athletic, wing with an impossibly sweet stroke–but it’s getting harder to see him ever realizing his potential at the NBA level.

DC: Los Angeles is obviously an attractive location for any superstar athlete, but I agree with you. The strongest basketball decision for Melo is no doubt Chicago, and the stronger financial decision is clearly New York. I’m anxious over this decision as a Knicks fan, but I am looking forward to the drama being over.

I’m not so sure Hornets owner Michael Jordan is bothered by P.J’s behavior. Sure, he prefers that Hairston stay out of legal trouble, but MJ was no stranger to getting fired up in the heat of battle on the basketball court. If Hairston is throwing punches in the YMCA, I’d love to see his competitive fire in the NBA. Hopefully, the legal situation will blow over, and Hairston can focus his energy on improving his game and staying out of trouble.

P.J. will need to stay out of trouble as he attempts to make an impact in the NBA.

P.J. will need to stay out of trouble as he tries to break into the league.

I’m afraid we can’t complete this post without mentioning the ongoing LeBron saga. Misinformation is being fired at the general population from all sides, meaning no one really knows where the King is going. Zydrunas Ilgauskas reportedly flew to South Florida on Dan Gilbert’s private plane, supposedly in an attempt to lure LBJ back to Cleveland, a move that seems increasingly likely each passing day. Meanwhile, the Heat signed former LeBron opponents Josh McRoberts and Danny Granger, each giving their consent with the understanding LeBron would be returning, according to a tweet from Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski. Frankly, I’ll be happy when the entire ordeal is over, but, like the majority of basketball fans, I’d like to see LeBron go back home. Tim, where do you want to see the King end up?

TB: I’d like to see LeBron in Boston or Chicago. OK, maybe not THAAAAT realistic. A LeReturn (I know, I know, that’s terrible) to Cleveland would be loads of fun and they’d be quite good. At the same time, I’ll believe it when I see it. The media is clearly excited about the possibility, but as you note, it’s impossible to get a read on how legit Bron’s interest in taking his talents back to the Mistake by the Lake is. What I’m more confident about: the Heat’s championship window is closed up, barring a miracle. LeBron-Wade-Bosh is not the trio it once was and the King’s going to have a tough time chasing ‘ships in South Beach EVEN IF Chris Bosh spurns the outlandish offer the Rockets have presented him. A move to his hometown might be a win-win for the King, but it also would mean turning his back on Dwyane Wade and rest of the Heat organization.

DC: Although it would be difficult for LeBron to leave the organization he’s been to four straight Finals with, I agree that he’d have a better chance to win his third ring in most of the other potential destinations that have been listed over the past few days. Wade’s game was incomplete in the Finals, as the hobbled former superstar struggled to do what he once specialized in, finishing at the rim. If, and again, that’s a big if, Chris Bosh decides to stay in Miami, who knows how much longer he’ll be an elite big man. Bill Simmons asserted following the Finals that Bosh is already beginning to decline. LBJ would be wise to surround himself with young guns Kyrie Irving, Andrew Wiggins, and (dare I say) Anthony Bennett instead of his aging old crew. Not to mention the Nike executives already drooling over the prospect of “The Return of the King.”

TB: Anthony Bennett is terrible.

Bennett gets no love from Tim!

Bennett gets no love from Tim!

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