Author Archives: Tim Balk

About Tim Balk

Fan of Nets/Mets/Red Sox/Northwestern. Probably listening to Billy Joel somewhere.

College Football’s Back (and so are we)

With college football season back in swing, what better time to awaken College Sports Town from its summer-long slumber? Yes, we are still kicking here at College Sports Town, and we’re pumped that the big hits of college football season are back, with the crisp air of fall well on its way. Here are a handful of notes and thoughts through four days of college football season.

-The Big Ten didn’t have a great weekend. Which should not be that surprising because, outside of Ohio State and Michigan State, the league simply isn’t very good. Penn State, Michigan, and Nebraska are all 0-1, and Penn State got drilled by Temple. All three of those schools were supposed to represent dark horses in the league. Wisconsin did not look ready for prime time against Alabama Saturday night. Bright Spots included Northwestern and Minnesota, which both looked the part of contenders in the talent-dry Big Ten West. Minnesota fell to TCU 23-17, but was hardly a pushover. NU meanwhile dominated Stanford up front in a 16-6 victory. Stanford probably is not all that great (unclear why they were ranked), but the Cats’ O-line looked vastly improved against the Cardinal’s vaunted front seven. The OSU-MSU race in the Big Ten East should keep the mediocre B1G relevant, but the soft underbelly of the conference is likely to keep dragging the conference down in 2015. It would be big for the league if somebody–anybody–emerged as a serious national player from the West division.

Connor Cook and Michigan State handled Western Michigan this weekend. Will Oregon be able to hang with them next Saturday?

Connor Cook and Michigan State handled Western Michigan this weekend. Will Oregon be able to hang with them next Saturday?

-News flash: the SEC is not going anywhere. The (relative) struggles of America’s most dominant conference made for a common storyline going into this year, with non-SEC teams winning the last two national titles, but the truth is the SEC was far and away the best and deepest conference in football last year. That’s not changing any time soon, either. The SEC flexed its muscles this weekend, with Alabama cruising by Wisconsin, Texas A&M blowing out 15th ranked Arizona State, and Auburn knocking off Louisville. Every SEC team that played won, aside from Vanderbilt…and the Commodores don’t really count anyway, do they?

-Bold Prediction: Oregon is going to fall off the face of the earth this year. Or at least out of the top 25. The Ducks showed some defensive cracks in their 61-42 win over Eastern Washington Saturday. Am I overreacting to a game that I didn’t even watch against one of best programs in the FCS? Maybe. Or maybe key personnel losses along the back line of their defense have left the Ducks vulnerable. We’ll see just how vulnerable they are when OU heads to East Lansing next week to face the potent passing attack of Michigan State. I expect the Ducks to get lit up. And I think they might be headed for their first single digit win season since ’07.

-We didn’t get a lot of compelling college football this weekend. Sure, it’s nice for the sport to be back, but I can’t remember an opening weekend with so few must-see games. Things got off to a rough start Thursday with UNC and South Carolina playing a sloppy game in prime time on ESPN. Both teams, unranked, looked mediocre at best. Michigan played Utah on Fox Sports 1, but that game also featured less than elite majors. Minnesota came to play against TCU, which was the best game of the night, but a 16 point Vegas spread for the game shows that it wasn’t exactly expected to be GameDay material. Saturday brought the typical barrage of FBS vs. FCS battles. Wisconsin vs. Alabama was the only game pitting ranked teams against each other. Sure, the Virginia Tech-Ohio State game tonight should be popcorn material, but college football fans deserve more than one game between ranked teams on opening weekend.

-Kansas State’s band’s got (wildly inappropriate) jokes!

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Hey, Red Sox, Play to Win the Game!

With two on and and two out in the bottom of the ninth inning of an eight run ball game against the Toronto Blue Jays this afternoon, a Red Sox legend strode to the plate, the powerful…Sandy Leon.

OK, maybe not a Red Sox legend. But a Red Sox legend was supposed to. David Ortiz was set to come to the plate before Red Sox manager John Farrell decided to pinch hit Leon, a backup catcher for the Sox. Big Papi has been swinging a hot bat of late and had smashed a ball into the bullpen in right in the fifth inning, but Farrell decided to take out the dude people come to the ballpark to see and sub in the guy nobody’s heard of.

David Ortiz homered, but the Red Sox struggled on a sunny Sunday at Fenway.

David Ortiz homered, but the Red Sox struggled on a sunny Sunday at Fenway.

My brother Dan turned to me and said, “that makes me want to leave.” And I said, “me too,” and we stood up and headed for the exits on Yawkey Way.

From a purely baseball perspective, it was a pretty brutal day at Fenway–starting pitcher Eddy Rodriguez’s stuff was pretty on point for a while, but E-Rod (idk if people call him that) fell victim to a brutally suck out-y fourth inning in which a series of bloop singles and misplays in the field led to a six run frame, and Rodriguez left after struggling again in the fifth; Pedroia kept losing balls in the sun; the bullpen sucked (per usual); and the Red Sox never led.

But the one thing that really stuck in my craw was the decision to pull Ortiz in the ninth.

Sure, the Red Sox weren’t going to win. Only a miracle would have erased the eight run deficit the Red Sox were facing. But sports fans’ fandom, particularly good fans–the masochistic ones who root on their teams through thick and thin–hinges on the idea that sports games (and seasons) are not over ’til they’re over. That old Yogi Berra quote cuts straight to the core of sports fan (or player, for that matter) psychology. It’s why we wear rally caps. It’s why we love a fantastic comeback. Or a huge underdog. Games must be played to the end. It’s not over until the clock strikes zero. Or until the fat lady sings. Or whatever cliche floats your boat.

When a team says, “eh, we’re done with this game,” it’s a big F you to its fans. Sure, exceptions can be made. When you’re down 25 late in the fourth quarter of a basketball game, or 35 in a football game, sure, throw in the scrubs and run down the clock. But, as a general principle, the white flagged is best waved as late as possible in sports.

Of all teams, the Red Sox should know that. After all, it was the BoSox that came back from down 3-0 to the Yankees in ’04. In fact, the Red Sox have had enough late-game comebacks in the past decade to devote an entire blog post to them. And Ortiz is Mr. Clutch. There is nothing better than Ortiz in the box with runners on in the ninth. (Actually, that’s a lie: Ortiz in the box with runners on in extras might top it.) And what possible benefit could come from bringing in Sandy Leon? Did Ortiz need the rest? Had sitting on the bench all afternoon exhausted him? Was Ferrell worried about Ortiz pulling a hamstring on the walk to the plate? Had Ortiz already retired to the clubhouse for some fried chicken and beer, John Lackey style?

The Red Sox are not a very fun team right now. They’re a fielding disaster, their pitching is horrendous, and half their lineup is underperforming. But they’re still a pro baseball team. It’s one thing for Sox fans to be treated to bad baseball. It’s something else entirely to be treated to a team that quits on games.

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Why I Won’t Be Surprised if Notre Dame Takes Down Kentucky

There was some talk that West Virginia might be able to stun Kentucky Thursday night in the Sweet 16. Shane Battier was among those picking the Mountaineers to take down the mighty Wildcats.

Can Mike Brey, and his stars Jerian Grant (left) and Pat Connaughton (right) take down the might Wildcats?

Will Mike Brey, and his stars Jerian Grant (left) and Pat Connaughton (right) take down the mighty Wildcats?

I didn’t buy West Virginia’s chances at all. The ‘Neers are a team that can’t shoot and isn’t great at handling the ball. Kentucky has been drilling teams like them since they plowed through Kansas–another talented, athletic, somewhat undisciplined team–back in November. Kentucky can outrun, outwork, and outjump any other school in the nation. They pressure teams into turnover after turnover. They get easy buckets without even breaking a sweat. They lob alley oops. They crash the boards. They swat seemingly every shot that goes up around the rim. They’re hard to score on and they’re just as tough to stop when they get out in the open court. They’re basically West Virginia on steroids. And it showed as Kentucky thrashed the ‘Neers, rolling to a 78-39 win. West Virginia shot brick after brick and failed spectacularly to stop UK in the post.

While the undefeated Wildcats have shown few flaws this year, they have shown the most cracks against teams that execute, shoot the ball well, and avoid turnovers. Columbia, of all teams, nearly pulled off an upset on Big Blue in December when the Lions rode some hot shooting, an effective 2-3 zone, and a relatively low turnover tally to a halftime lead. A few weeks later, Ole Miss shot 53% from deep and took ‘Tucky to overtime. UK escaped only thanks to hot shooting of their own (11-20 from 3). While simply shooting the lights out isn’t the only way to beat Kentucky–Texas A&M and LSU both took the Wildcats to the wire without hitting a barrage of threes, but both kept the turnover battle at least even–hitting jumpers and taking care of the ball is probably the most plausible strategy. So, what’s a team that shoots spectacularly, handles it well, and is generally unflappable? The Wildcats’ Elite 8 opponent, Notre Dame, of course!

Now, I’m not going to call for a Notre Dame upset of John Calipari’s crop of diaper dandies. Kentucky has been my national champion pick since the start of the dance, and I don’t have the chutzpah to predict anybody to stop the Wildcats’ train. But I do think that Notre Dame has a very real shot.

First of all, the 32-5 Fighting Irish are really good. They’re gritty. They fit the bill I’ve been describing: no team in the country is better, or more surgical offensively. They reflect the steady demeanor of their cool, unshakable coach Mike Brey. They don’t commit carless turnovers.

Roosevelt Jones' 23 points were not enough for Butler to halt the Irish.

Roosevelt Jones’ 23 points were not enough for Butler to halt the Irish.

The Irish are also wicked hot. They have won eight straight, taking down Louisville, Duke, and North Carolina along the way and grabbing an ACC ‘ship. Most recently, they have looked impressive in two thoroughly different NCAA Tournament games. First there was their Round of 32 overtime barfight against an excellent Butler team playing inspired basketball. It was a truly outstanding game of college hoop, with Butler star Roosevelt Jones putting forth a memorable performance. Neither team shot it well from the outside, and it was the type of defense-first game that high scoring teams like Notre Dame tend to wilt in come tourney time. The two veteran teams both left it all on the court, and nine guys logged 40+ minutes. In the end, though, it was the Irish that came out victorious, as defensive rock Steve Vasturia dropped in 20 for ND and studs Jerian Grant and Pat Connaughton shook off rough shooting nights to make big plays at both ends down the stretch. The Irish are undefeated in overtime this year, and they showed some serious toughness in their win over Butler.

Notre Dame got back to classic Notre Dame ball against Wichita State in the Sweet 16. Against an outstanding defensive Shocker squad, Notre Dame didn’t miss a beat, leading for most of the night and hitting on 55% of their shots in an 81-70 win that wasn’t even that close.

The Irish have shooters galore. Jerian Grant hits crazy shots. Pat Connaughton is as good a catch-and-shoot guy as you’ll find. Demetrius Jackson, Vasturia, and V.J. Beachem are all 40%+ three point shooters too. And they move the ball faster than Bill Raftery says “man to man.

Notre Dame’s weakness happens to matchup with a strength of Kentucky: size. Notre Dame lacks somewhat in that area, and while they defend outside decently, they’re not, well, Kentucky in the paint. That’s OK. If they get hot from the outside, and 6-10 forward Zach Auguste plays big, Notre Dame can still pull off the upset.

I’m not saying the Irish are going to get it done. But the ACC Champs are the real deal. And I’m not sure if Kentucky has faced a team as dynamic offensively as ND all year. Could Notre Dame be Kentucky’s kryptonite? Well, it is March, after all.

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Thoughts on all 68 Tournament Teams

It’s time for the Big Dance. I’m pumped. After all, you can’t dance and stay uptight. Here are my thoughts on all 68 teams that will be dancing starting this evening.

West Region: 

Dekker and Kam

Wisconsin gets buckets.

1. Wisconsin: It’s hard not to like Wiscy. They don’t make mistakes. They don’t turn it over. They don’t miss free throws. Oh, they’re pretty damn athletic too. Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker make up one of the best 1-2 punches in college hoops.

2. Arizona: Arizona’s hotter than Uptown Funk right now (OK, maybe not THAT hot). The Wildcats have not lost since February. They also have a ridiculous point differential–they outscored opponents by an average of 18 points per game this year. For counter-culture hipsters not picking Kentucky to win it all, Arizona is a popular pick.

3. Baylor: Are there still people that think that Scott Drew is bad at his job? Well, he’s not. And the coach’s team is nasty this year. The Bears are hella athletic (per usual), and shoot it well from deep.

4. UNC: The Tar Heels came up short against Notre Dame in the ACC ‘ship, but Roy Williams’ team seems to be playing their best ball of the season. The Heels are physical, athletic, and they’re playing smarter basketball than they did the past couple of years. Nobody wants to play them right now.

5. Arkansas: Meh. This is a five seed?

6. Xavier: Xavier played up and down to their competition this year, losing to Long Beach State, Auburn, DePaul, Seton Hall, and Creighton, but also notching wins over Georgetown (x3), Providence, Cincinnati, and Butler (x2). Xavier’s balanced and efficient, but their lack of consistency might concern some.

Treveon Graham

Treveon Graham and VCU are coming into the tourney hot. Will they have a repeat of 2011?

7. I’m really high on VCU. The Rams defense is as advertised this year and they shoot the lights out from deep. They looked tremendous in the A-10 Tournament (still the most underrated conference in the nation IMO). Wing Treveon Graham is the total package. VCU has overcome injuries to get to this point, and I wouldn’t be remotely shocked if they made a deep run. The potential second round matchup with Arizona was a tough draw though.

8. Oregon: The Ducks are licking their wounds from the pounding they took against Arizona in the Pac-12 championship game. Oregon really struggled against ‘Zona this year; they got steamrolled each time they faced the Wildcats. But this is still a pretty good Oregon team and they got a great draw in ice cold Oklahoma State. Joseph Young, the Ducks’ senior guard, is dynamite.

9. Oklahoma State: The Cowboys are wicked talented. But man, they look they’re over this season like Holden Caulfield’s over high school. Ok State has lost six of their last seven going into the Dance.

10. Ohio State: This has been a pretty disappointing Ohio State team. They simply don’t play that hard. On the bright side, D’Angelo Russell is a huge stud and one of the most fun players to watch in the country. Also: Greg Paulus does more on the sideline than possibly any other assistant coach in the country (the dude never sits down).

11. BYU: Everybody knows that BYU can score, and the Cougars’ ball movement is tremendous. Tyler Hawes is one of the best players in college basketball. I really dig BYU as a sleeper.

11. Ole Miss: Not really sure how the Rebels are in the Tournament. I guess it’s a testament to how weak the bubble was, but there is no way Ole Miss was more deserving than Miami, which had basically the same record in a much better conference (oh, and a win at Duke). The Rebels do happen to be an extremely good free throw shooting team (78%).

12. Wofford: Wofford. Sounds a little like onomatopoeia, does it not?

Wesley+Saunders+Harvard+Crimson+v+Spokane+3OjnqNtRVAwl

For Harvard to make any noise this year, Wes Saunders will need to explode.

13. Harvard: They’re not as good as they’ve been the past two years, when they have won first round games against New Mexico and Cincinnati. Still, they’re dancing, and they had to get through a good Yale team in the Ivy race to get here. The Crimson struggle to score, but they’re one of the better teams in the tourney defensively. They’ll need huge production from star Wesley Saunders to get to the Round of 32 for the third straight year.

14. Georgia State: These guys can score in bunches. R.J. Hunter and Ryan Harrow are both offensive machines.

15. Texas Southern: The Tigers actually beat Michigan State back in December, so that’s nice. But let’s be honest, Florida Gulf Coast they are not.

16. Coastal Carolina: I feel like they’re a really good 16 seed. I mean, they almost beat Ole Miss in December and 24-9 isn’t your usual 16 seed record.

South Region:

1. Duke: The Blue Devils were my preseason pick to win it all, and I’m still high on the Blue Devils. Jahlil Okafor is a force, and Duke’s vicious offensively and much improved defensively. They’re still not great defensively though, and Duke seems to have mad mojo in March the past few years. I think this is the best Duke team since they won the it all in 2010.

2. Gonzaga: The Bulldogs have tremendous size, shoot the ball at a ridiculously high clip, and have plenty of depth. Kyle Wiltjer and Kevin Pangos are both outstanding and long range assassins. And forward Domantas Sabonis might be Danny‘s favorite college basketball player ever.

JT3

John Thompson’s teams have struggled recently in the March. Can this year’s talented GTown outfit buck the trend?

3. Iowa State: This is another deep team. Georges Niang is of course the star for the Cyclones. Fred Hoiberg’s team scores efficiently and dominates the boards. They’re a good bet to make the Sweet 16 for the second straight year.

4. Georgetown: The Hoyas had a nice bounce back year after missing the Dance last winter. Their blowout win over Villanova remains extremely impressive. Some eyebrows rose at how high Georgetown was seeded, but I think they’re very good. The Hoyas are balanced and methodical and junior D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera is one of the toughest guards in the tournament.

5. Utah: The Utes slowed down the stretch, but they’re a really good team and an outstanding defensive squad. Stephen F. Austin was kind of a sucky draw though.

6. SMU: After getting snubbed from the selection committee last year, SMU is in this year, and they’re deserving. The Mustangs won the AAC regular season and tournament championships and have been pretty consistent after a shaky (2-3) start to the season.

7. Iowa: I thought the Hawkeyes were really good last year, and then they wound up being sort of meh. This year I didn’t think they were any good, and now here they are in the tournament. Guess it goes to show I don’t know much. But I do know this: Iowa is a much better defensive team than they were a year ago.

8. San Diego State: It’s the same story for the Aztecs as last year–they can’t really score, but damn do they defend. The Aztecs are incredibly athletic for an 8 seed.

9. St. John’s: Speaking of athleticism, the Johnnies have plenty too. St. John’s has strong guard play and plays aggressive defense. They’re a streaky team though, both from game-to-game and from possession-to-possesion. Definitely not a team anybody wants to play.

Kalinoski-GW

Star guard Tyler Kalinoski looks to lead Davidson deep into March.

1o. Davidson: The A-10 regular season champs are legit. The Wildcats have nasty guard play and shoot the lights out. I like them a lot as a 10 seed. Their style of play seems to lead to March upsets…

11. UCLA: Another how the hell did this team make the tournament team. Weak bubble blah blah blah weak bubble.

12. Stephen F. Austin: Everybody’s favorite upset pick for a reason. SFA went 29-4 this year and gets up and down the court. They also force loads of turnovers and rebound decently for a smallish team.

13. Eastern Washington: These guys beat Indiana in a defense-optional game back in November. They can score it plenty, with scintillating scorer Tyler Harvey leading the way. They also might be the worst defensive team in the bracket.

14. UAB: The Conference USA champions were 4-9 at one point this season.

15. North Dakota State: Senior Bisons guard Lawrence Alexander is a RIDICULOUS shooter.

16. North Florida Ospreys: My Northwestern Wildcats beat these guys back in November. North Florida outplayed NU, but we won so #gocats!

16. Robert Morris: Their logo is vaguely similar to the New England Patriots’.

East Region: 

Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidacono have Villanova poised for big things.

Can Darrun Hilliard and Ryan Arcidacono take ‘Nova to a title?

1. Villanova: Villanova quietly has been absurdly good this year. The Wildcats were seriously dominant at home (only Syracuse took them all the way down to the wire in Philly), didn’t lose in non-conference play, and absolutely steamrolled the rest of the Big East. Villanova doesn’t have the raw NBA talent of Kentucky or Duke, but they have an excess of offensive firepower, they’re deep, they’re experienced, and they have no glaring weaknesses. Point guard Ryan Arcidiacono is the a steady assassin who makes big shots, not mistakes.

2. Virginia: The Cavs play suffocating defense. UVA looked like a 1 seed for most of the season, but enters the tournament having lost two of three (both losses came to really good teams: Louisville and UNC). They have been playing for a while without forward Justin Anderson, who just came back from injury.  Virginia isn’t the trendiest team right now, but they’re a good bet to get fairly deep–they’re better offensively than a lot of people realize.

3. Oklahoma: The Sooners have serious game. They’re very, very hard to defend and they crash the boards hard. Guard Buddy Hield is a bigtime player.

4. Louisville: Louisville is a scary team. The Cardinals are unbelievably athletic and super well coached (per usual). They make games messy and play aggressive defense. Terry Rozier is a scary player to guard and Montrezl Harrell never gets outworked.

Seth Tuttle and UNI play precision basketball.

Seth Tuttle and UNI play precision basketball.

5. Northern Iowa: They kinda do their own thing. They play at a slow pace and control the game. There’s nothing the Panthers do that is all that flashy, but they seem to have a formula for success. They’ve got nasty shooters and they don’t make many mistakes. Seth Tuttle, the Panthers’ star, is sort of a personification of the team as a whole–he’s not a tremendous athlete or exceptionally skilled, but the numbers he puts up are nothing short of gaudy.

6. Providence: This is a really solid Providence team. Ed Cooley is as good as it gets as an in-game coach and he’s got a great mix of athleticism and shot makers to work with. LaDontae Henton and Kris Dunn do the bulk of PC’s scoring and both are ballers.

7. Michigan State: It was a down year in East Lansing, but the Spartans seem to be getting hot at the right time. The Spartans took down Maryland in the Big Ten Tournament and took Wisconsin to OT. As we know, Tom Izzo owns March.

8. NC State: A little De Ja Vu? NC State seems to win about 20 games each year and get a high-mid seed. There’s nothing that spectacular about NC State this year, and they lack the star power of past years, but they managed to beat some pretty darn good teams in the regular season (UNC, Louisville, Duke). The key for the Wolfpack has been their ability to hit the boards. They’re pretty small, and the don’t have any singular rebounding force, but they are great at team rebounding.

9. LSU: This is LSU’s first visit to the Dance since 2009. The Tigers make their living in the paint, and Jordan Mickey is one the nation’s best big men. Mickey averages nearly four blocks per game. He’s joined in the front court by Jarell Martin who scores a dash under 17 per game. Both are forces on the glass.

10. Georgia:  Much like LSU, Georgia bullies opponents with their size. They’re also pretty deep.

Derrick Marks and friends are proving that Boise isn't just a football school.

Derrick Marks and friends are proving that Boise isn’t just a football school.

11. Boise State: Derrick Marks is offensive dynamite for Boise State, which has been playing great ball for the past month.

11. Dayton: Last year’s Cinderella, Dayton has a shot at making it deep again. The Flyers lack in depth, but they play smart basketball. Forward Kendall Pollard has a great motor.

12. Wyoming: The Mountain West champions snuck by Boise State and San Diego State and into the NCAA Tournament. They’re a slow-it-down team and their first round battle with UNI should be a low scoring possesion-by-possesion battle. I wouldn’t be stunned if Wyoming pulled out an upset.

13.UC Irvine: Their center, Mamadou Ndiaye, is 7-6.

14. Albany: The Great Danes’ one point win over Stony Brook in the America East Championship was one of the ugliest basketball games I have ever watched. That being said, Albany is a pretty good 14 seed. They have lost just once since December.

15. Belmont: The Bruins robbed Murray State of a bid by knocking off the Racers in the Ohio Valley Championship. Belmont has had some pretty good teams in recent years, including their ’08 team which came a point away from beating a 2 seed Duke team.

16. Lafayette: Terrible defensive team, but the Leopards do score it at a decent rate.

Midwest Region

1. Kentucky: They’re great. And they are playing the best they have played all year.

2. Kansas: For some reason, I have yet to buy into this Kansas team. They have plenty of pro-level talent, but KU struggled all year away from Allen Fieldhouse and scoring can look surprisingly difficult at times for a Bill Self team. I think they’re good, but I honestly like the 3 seed from this region much more than the 2 seed.

Jerian Grant and Notre Dame know how to put the biscuit in the basket.

Jerian Grant and Notre Dame know how to put the biscuit in the basket.

3. Notre Dame: The ACC Champs are an offensive juggernaut. Guard Jerian Grant is one of the best guards in the country, but Notre Dame really kills opponents with the way they move the ball. They sling it around and get great shots. And they have wet shooters. Pat Connaughton is their best sniper. They’re a better defensive team than you think too.

4. Maryland: After three fairly uneventful seasons, Mark Turgeon finally delivered the goods to College Park this year, as Maryland enjoyed a hugely successful 27 win season highlighted by wins over Wisconsin and Iowa State. Dez Williams and Melo Trimble are studs.

5. West Virginia: I like West Virginia, which presses constantly, quite a bit. They make games ugly and excel at turning turnovers into points. The Mountaineers led college hoops in steals per game this year. They are the type of team that nobody wants to play, even though they’ve struggled a bit of late (three losses in their last four games).

6. Butler: The Bulldogs just play good, hardnosed basketball. Sharp shooting guard Kellen Dunham is Butler’s best player, but Roosevelt Jones, a severely undersized forward with a Draymond Green-esq game, might be their most important.

7. Wichita State: The hype from last year is gone, but the underseeded Shockers are still really good. Good enough to make some serious noise.

Octavius Ellis is Monta Ellis' cousin.

Octavius Ellis is Monta Ellis’ cousin.

8. Cincinnati: The Bearcats impressed me every time I watched them this year and play stifling defense. Their consistency is questionable, and they lack a go-to scorer, but they’ve managed to make it work with what they have, even with head coach Mick Cronin away from the team for medical reasons.

9. Purdue: Boring team.

10. Indiana: There’s nothing that bores me about Indiana, which is poorly constructed but super fun to watch. The Hoosiers lack bigs but have tremendous guards. Point man Yogi Ferrell is full speed ahead at all times, and he’s a nightmare to guard. Defensively, Indiana really gets out and guards at times. Other times…not so much.

11. Texas: Barring a surprising run, it looks like this will go down as yet another extremely talented Longhorns team that never put it all together.

12. Buffalo: The Bulls definitely can run and gun. Will they be able to keep their turnover tally low enough to take down West Virginia?

13. Valparaiso: Bryce Drew, Valpo’s fourth year coach, is the brother of Baylor’s Scott Drew.

14. Northeastern: The Boston college team in the Dance not named Harvard, Northeastern is an extremely efficient squad. They’re not very disruptive on defense though.

15. New Mexico State: The Aggies rolled through the WAC. The 13 game winning streak they’re on might make Bill Self and Kansas feel a little nervous.

16. Manhattan: Steve Masiello continues to work his magic. Manhattan gave Louisville a scare last March. Imagine if they give Kentucky a scare this year…

16. Hampton: Idk.

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Manny Tracker: Man-Ram and Kevin Youkilis Hired to Consult Cubs

The Chicago Cubs have signed two of my all time favorite pro athletes to serve as consultants for the team: former Red Sox stars Manny Ramirez and the Greek God of Walks, Kevin Youkilis. Theo Epstein continues to kill it as the Cubs’ GM.

Both Youkilis and Ramirez were awesome players in their Boston days, although the two did get into a highly publicized dugout fight in Manny’s final season in Boston. I love them both too much to hold it against either.

Obviously, this wouldn’t be a real Manny Tracker post without a Manny Youtube vid, so here’s a good one:

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On Jon Stewart’s Departure Announcement

Jon Stewart

Jon Stewart is kindofa big deal.

Editor’s Notes:
1. Yes, it has been a long time since I’ve posted. College is busy, man.
2. Yes, this entry isn’t about sports. Sometimes you gotta switch it up, right? 

As a journalism major, I am no stranger to the “Is Jon Stewart a journalist” debate. I’ve listened to the debate, along with its cousins “is Bill O’Reilly a journalist” or “is Stephen Colbert a journalist,” going back to high school. It’s a somewhat silly debate at face value. It invariably become a debate about definitions, with how you define the term ‘journalist’ becoming the key indicator of how you feel about the issue.

I don’t have a bone to pick in this fight. I think the definition of the term ‘journalist’ is as immaterial as it is subjective. But, in light of Jon Stewart’s recent revelation that his time at The Daily Show will soon come to its end, I’m ready to make  a fairly strong declaration: Jon Stewart is the greatest newsman of our generation.

Obviously, Stewart’s show has been a tremendous success, rivaling at times even Fox News’ seemingly untouchable O’Reilly Factor in viewership. His ability to challenge ostensibly more legitimate news shows from the confines of Comedy Central is unquestionably impressive. But his greatest achievement is that he has defined the media for an entire generation. Our generation.

A generation of college kids that grew up getting our news fix from a brainy, snarky, middle aged Jewish guy with slicked back hair, an almost permanently amused expression on his face, and an endearing ability to make the digestion of news as much fun as an Adam Sandler flick. (Well, pre-2003 Sandler, anyway.)

Stewart turned traditional media on its head time and time again. He made fun of it relentlessly. When Fox News, CNN, or MSNBC slipped up, Stewie was there to put them in their place. He put the news world on high alert, and became a sort of highly public watchdog for the media. He turned Crossfire into a punch line. He made Bill O’Reilly look like a fool on his own show.

Then there was also the fundamental role of The Daily Show: to mock the baffling incompetence of the American politicians of our time.

In this respect, Stewart’s success can hardly be overstated. More likable than Bill Maher and harder hitting than his former cast member, the supremely satirical Stephen Colbert, Stewart talked about front-page news. And what Stewart talked about informed what college students and high schools students across America were talking about. Even now, Stewart’s name seems to be near the top of the trending list of Facebook on a near daily basis.

Stewart has managed to blend comedy and news in such a way that he has become, simultaneously, the funniest and most trusted news voice in America for the under-30 crowd. He more or less created the funny-news broadcast, creating a blueprint that Colbert, John Oliver, Larry Wilmore, and others have followed. Still, he has showed an ability to channel a serious tone. His solemn first post-9/11 broadcast remains an important moment in American media history. More recently, his commentary on race in America has hardly been standard Comedy Central fare.

For all his success, Stewart cannot be pigeonholed. He is more than a comedian. He is more than a great debater—though he thrives magnificently in that role. He is more than simply a defender of New York pizza. And he’s more than just a liberal foil for the conservative media machine.

Jon Stewart is the voice of news in the 21st century. He’s our Walter Cronkite.

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Ranking the Top 15 Conferences in College Basketball

As conference play starts up all over America, a picture of where each conference in college basketball stands entering 2015 is emerging. Today, I’ve decided to rank the top 15 conferences in the country. It’s a tough ranking to do and weighing different factors (depth, number of elite teams, etc.) can make it even more difficult. It is certainly a totally subjective, nebulous ranking, but that’s part of why it’s so much fun to do. Ranking conferences always seems to engender emotion, discussion, and debate. So go ahead, let me know what I got wrong in the comments!

1. Big 12

big 12The easy knock on the Big 12 is that its best teams aren’t that good. At least at this point in the season, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single dominant team in the conference and the highest ranked Big 12 team, Iowa State, clocks in at number nine. But the Big 12 is freaking deep. Six out of its ten teams are ranked. 13-0 TCU was ranked too before backlash against their weak schedule dropped them out. The Big 12 is going to put a lot of teams in the Dance.

2. ACC

ACCWhen the ACC expanded, folks expected the ACC to be dominant. And the new-look ACC is undoubtedly great. But while the ACC has four teams in Kenpom‘s top 10, it also five sub-100 teams. Louisville, Duke, and Virginia are all legit national title contenders. Meanwhile, Wake Forest, Florida State, and Virginia Tech are all legitimately mediocre. The ACC is huge, so of course it has some stinkers. It also has a bunch of teams with potential for great success in March, including a surprising Notre Dame squad. It’s reasonable to think of the ACC as the opposite of the Big 12: loaded at the very top, but not super deep.

3. Big East

big eastThe new look Big East might not be quite ready to reclaim its status as the best conference in the land, but it’s certainly very healthy. Villanova is nasty and still hasn’t lost. St. John’s has emerged on the national scene. The defending conference champion Friars are again good and getting better. Georgetown appears to be back. Aside from DePaul, everybody in the Big East had at least reasonable success in non-conference play. The Big East has good top-to-bottom depth. Get ready to watch a lot of Fox Sports.

4. Big Ten

b10Maryland arrived just in time for the Big Ten, because the Terps are really tough and the conference as a whole has taken a small step back. Wisconsin and Maryland are great. The conference’s other big-time programs are all down a bit, if not out. Michigan State and Ohio State’s aren’t playing at the high level we’re used to seeing them play. They’re still searching. Iowa and Illinois have both been good but not amazing. Michigan is young and has had some bad losses (NJIT…). The Big Ten has a lot of solid teams. There’s a lot of potential there. But, aside from a strong showing in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge, the conference largely disappointed in non-conference play.

5. Pac-12

PAC-12 (edit 2)_1Everybody knows how good Arizona is. Don’t sleep on Utah though–the Utes are for real. Stanford and Washington have plenty of game as well. USC is going to be good soon; they’re young. The Pac-12 is better than it was a few years ago when it bottomed out. But there’s still more mediocrity there than Pac-12 fans would probably like. The conference isn’t overly deep. And UCLA remains a slumbering giant. Their embarrassing loss to Kentucky was a blow to the conference.

6. SEC

secKentucky, baby! The undefeated Wildcats are filthy. But after that… The conference’s next two best teams (LSU and Arkansas) both lost to Clemson so, umm, yeah. Florida’s a mess, albeit a talented mess, which leaves Kentucky without a surfeit of competition. The Gators lost to FSU yesterday by two after tipping the ball into their own hoop in the game’s waning seconds. Even if Florida figures things out (here’s guessing they will), the SEC won’t have much to brag about outside of ‘Tucky.

7. Atlantic 10

atlantic 10The A-10 has been on a high the past couple of years, but it’s taken a small step back this year. UMass has not been great. Saint Louis has not been great. St. Joe’s has not been great. But it’s not all bad news. VCU’s a terrific team. George Washington is a quality team. Davidson can score with anybody. The A-10 is still more major than mid-major.

8. AAC 

I waacas hesitant to put the AAC so low. It’s the home of the defending champs, after all. But the conference has struggled this year. UConn’s still working out the kinks following their title run. There are other solid teams in the conference:  Temple, SMU, and Cincinnati are not slouches. But no team in the conference is ranked and only two have managed double-digit wins thus far.

9. Mountain West

mwAt 13-0, Colorado State has snuck into the top 25. But the truth is the Rams probably aren’t even the Mountain West’s best team. San Diego State is an elite defensive squad and is arguably the conference’s flagship program at the moment. UNLV grabbed a huge win over Arizona. Boise State’s got game. And Wyoming is a good squad too.

10. WCC

wccGonzaga’s for real. It might be early, but they’ve looked like a final four caliber team. Gonzaga isn’t the only reason not to sleep on the WCC. Saint Mary’s, BYU, and Portland are all quality mid-majors as well.

11. Missouri Valley: UNI and Wichita State are great.

12. MAC: Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, and Western Michigan are all solid.

13. Ivy League: Harvard is supposed to be the favorite, but there’s a surprising amount of parity in the Ivy. Keep an eye on Yale.

14. Horizon League: Green Bay’s win over Miami was great for the conference.

15. Conference USA: A lot of teams here. One of them–Old Dominion–happens to be very good.

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