Author Archives: Tim Balk & Danny Cooper

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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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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The Balk-Cooper NBA Offseason Conferences: Part One

Below, College Sports Town editors Tim Balk and Danny Cooper electronically conference to discuss the happenings of  two crazy weeks in the NBA. This is the first in what will be a series of back-and-forth conversations about the NBA.

Editor’s note: After this post was written, the Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks agreed on a deal that sent Jason Kidd to Milwaukee in exchange for two second round draft picks. The Bucks fired coach Larry Drew.

Danny Cooper: The last few weeks have been a time of turmoil in the NBA. While the NBA Draft and impending free agency usually brings about radical changes, this offseason has been the craziest in recent memory. The draft had a fair amount of drama itself, with promising but injured prospect Joel Embiid falling to the Sixers at the third pick, after the Cavs and Bucks drafted the safer options of Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker with the first and second picks. The rumor mill has been churning at an alarming rate, with rampant speculation about the eventual destinations of superstars such as LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, and Kevin Love. Front office drama has been prevalent as well, with the impending exile of Jason Kidd from the Brooklyn Nets and the ongoing controversy of the Donald Sterling fiasco. Tim, have you ever seen a wilder offseason?

Flip Saunders is back in Minneapolis.

Flip Saunders is back in Minneapolis.

Tim Balk: They’re all pretty wild. I still haven’t gotten over the Timberwolves inexplicably ceding almost total control of their franchise to Flip Saunders. I mean, I love Flip. Remember when he spent like a month as an assistant on the C’s bench and came to every game looking bored and shabbily dressed? Seriously though, this is a guy with a long history of being a marginal coach–he never got over the hump the first time in Minnesota, he never got over the hump with some extremely talented teams in Detroit, and his time in Washington was a trainwreck. I’m not sure what qualifies a guy who lost in the first round SEVEN years in a row with Minny the first time (and we make fun of the Hawks now…) to now take over the team for a second time as coach/GM/part owner. Even funnier, the Flip deal seems to have Jason Kidd, who, honestly, did a terrible job with Brooklyn this year, thinking he should get a similar deal in Brooklyn.

DC: It’s despicable when Flip Saunders has a job coaching an NBA team and Lionel Hollins is waiting for a call back from the Rockets front office. Head coaching moves this offseason have been bizarre. Steve Kerr, Derek Fisher, and David Blatt have been handed the reigns of franchises at major turning points despite no previous NBA head coaching experience. On the bright side, Quin Snyder couldn’t possibly do a worse job than Tyrone Corbin in Utah, and Stan Van Gundy is a sight for sore eyes in Detroit, but there’s a limit to how much they can improve their poor teams. There’s a clear upper echelon of coaches, there’s a hundred yards of crap, then there’s the rest of them. Outside of Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, Doc Rivers, Tom Thibodeau, and Frank Vogel, I’m not sure which coaches are worth the money blown on them each offseason.

TB: I’m not sure I totally agree with your stance on there not being a middle of the pack when it comes to coaching. I’d point to guys like Larry Drew (who may be out of a job quite soon)  and Kevin McHale as fairly average NBA coaches. And there are a lot of other guys I like outside of those four or five. I thought Terry Stotts did a fantastic job in Portland this year. Jeff Hornacek had a great first year in Phoenix. I think we both agree that Spoelstra is an extremely capable coach. Moving back to Kidd, news just broke that the Bucks and Nets are trying to hash out a trade to send him to Milwaukee. First there was the Doc Rivers trade last offseason and now…this? We might be taking the whole coaching carousel to a new level. The weirdest thing to me is that the Bucks are apparently only willing to part with a second round draft pick. If you have enough confidence in a coach to want him leading your team, you’d think you would be willing to give up more than a meager second round pick.  Personally, I’d give up a second round pick NOT to have Kidd coach my team.

DC: Your point is taken. There are some extremely talented coaches out there who performed fantastically last year but aren’t quite at the Poppovic- Rivers- Carlisle level yet. That is not meant as a slight to those coaches but as a testament to the skill of the elite coaches of the league. In any case, dealing coaches is certainly one of the weirder developments of the past few years. I’m not sure that I like it, especially when there is an incumbent in place already, as there is in Milwaukee with Larry Drew. It does make you wonder how much teams would be willing to give up for a great coach like Poppovic.

Where will Melo land?

Where will Melo land?

TB: Shifting the subject from coaches to the draft, I love what the Chicago did. The offensively starved Bulls got a legit offensive weapon in Doug McDermott. Anyone who reads the blog knows I love Dougie. The dude’s got a diverse offensive game and I think he’ll thrive in the Chi. Getting him at 11 smells like a steal, even if they had to flip the 16th and 19th picks to Denver in order to get him. Bringing this thing back to the subject of coaches, Thibodeau was apparently very happy about the acquisition. Given the guys he’s had on his roster the past few years, it isn’t hard to see why he’d be glad to pick up a guy who can put the biscuit in the basket.

DC: No wonder you love McBuckets, you look just like him! In all seriousness, the Bulls are primed to control the East for a long time if the front office can snag highly-sought after free agent Carmelo Anthony. Playing with DPOY Joakim Noah, excellent sixth man Taj Gibson, and perhaps a resurgent Derrick Rose, Melo would prosper, and the Bulls would certainly be perennial favorites in the weak Eastern Conference. Chicago has to sign Melo first, though, and it faces stiff competition to do so. The Rockets and Mavs both have meetings set up with Melo next week, along with the Bulls, and the Knicks won’t let him get away so easy. Tim, what do you think Melo should do? To be honest, I would probably leave New York to create a superteam in Chicago and try to finally get a ring, but as a Knicks fan, that scenario depresses me.

TB: From a purely basketball perspective, Chicago is the clear choice. The Bulls already have a superstar, a proven coach, and a solid supporting ensemble. However, there are other factors at play. New York can pay him more than anybody else. He’s also a New York guy and his family is in the city. Then there’s always the allure of playing in MSG. So I’m not sure what Melo should do. I’ll be going to college outside of Chicago next year, so I’d like to see him take his talents to the United Center for selfish reasons. Even without Anthony, the Bulls should be the class of the East next winter if Rose can stay healthy. By the way, I’m also happy with the draft moves of my hometown C’s; by drafting Marcus Smart and James Young they’ve added some great young talent. Smart’s presence could pave the way for the Celtics to deal Rondo.

We think the C's made a smart move in taking Marcus Smart. (The Smart puns never get old, do they?)

Marcus Smart will be suiting up in Celtic green next season.

DC: The Celtics ended up with two of the better prospects in the draft (thanks Billy King!) in Smart and Young. Smart can let his emotions get the best of him, but if that’s the worst thing there is to say about him, that’s a good sign. Young is a solid sharpshooter who should benefit from playing in a system with Smart and/or Rondo. My issue with the Smart pick is Rondo’s presence on the team. The Celtics need to decide whether they want to deal him to garner more picks in what should be another deep draft in 2015 or if they want to keep him in Beantown for a while. Knowing Rondo’s competitive nature, I’m not so sure he’ll be a great mentor to Smart. Would it be possible for Danny Ainge to finagle a deal with the Timberwolves to exchange Rondo and picks or an expiring contract for Kevin Love? That’s the dream, isn’t it?

TB: That’s the dream.

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2014 NBA Playoffs Picks: Western Conference Finals

Today, we turn our attention to the Western Conference Finals. Picking this series was tough, and it took a while for us to come to a decision on our pick. We finally arrived at one, and we present it here:

No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 2 seed Oklahoma City Thunder

K_D

Will KD and the Thunder get by the cagey Spurs?

Led by Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan, the San Antonio Spurs have made it to the Western Conference Finals. The preceding sentence could have been lifted from a preview from so many Conference Finals previews since the Spurs’ Big 3 came together. The run the Spurs have had is simply incredible, and much of the credit for their success should go to Coach Gregg Popovich, their ornery long-time commander. Although this year’s squad faced a tougher-than-expected challenge from Dirk Nowitzki and the resilient Dallas Mavericks in the first round, they breezed through the talented Portland Trail Blazers in the Conference Semis. The Spurs are looking to win their 6th conference title with The Big Fundamental, but will face a tough challenge from regular season MVP Kevin Durant and Oklahoma City.

The Thunder moved past the Clippers in the second round after edging out the Grizzlies in a crazy first round series. The team hasn’t looked very dominant thus far in the playoffs, but the Thunder have talent like no other team in the Association, with the incomparable 1-2 scoring punch of Durant and his partner in crime, Russell Westbrook. Westbrook, who missed most of last year’s playoffs due to injury, is playing the best basketball of his career. An unguardable blur, Russ is averaging a ridiculous 27/8/8 in the playoffs. The Thunder will be playing without injured Serge Ibaka, and they’ll miss both his shot blocking services and his mid range J. In his absence, OKC will likely look to backup forward Nick Collison to play big minutes. Meanwhile, gifted slasher Reggie Jackson will have to contribute in a major way on the offensive end. The Spurs will likely stick Kawhi Leonard, a formidable defender with great length, on the sweet shooting Durant. At the top, the matchup of the point guards–Parker vs. Westbrook–should be awesome.

This series should be a good one. These teams last faced off in the playoffs during the 2012 Western Conference Finals; the Thunder took the series and made their first NBA Finals (they went on to lose to Miami in six games). We expect a ferocious battle once again, but the Durant the Spurs saw in 2012 has only gotten better, and the combination of Iceberg Slim and Russell Westbrook is pure unadulterated filth. Losing Ibaka hurts, but look for Oklahoma City’s big guns to come to play.

Pick: Thunder in 6

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2014 NBA Playoff Picks: Eastern Conference Finals

After an absurdly entertaining first round that saw five out of eight series go the full seven games, the Conference Semis were a bit less stormy–no series went beyond six games. Now we’re moving onto the penultimate round of the NBA postseason, and College Sports Town is providing previews for both the Eastern and Western Conference. We’re going to begin with a look at the Eastern Conference Finals, which, for the second straight year, is between the Miami Heat and the Indiana Pacers. Even though Indiana has struggled in the past few months, the matchup that everyone has eagerly anticipated since October is finally here. Last year, the series went seven brutal, heart-stopping games, and we expect no less exhilarating action this time around. With that being said, let’s dive in.

No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers vs. No. 2 seed Miami Heat

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Who doesn’t love some LBJ-PG action?

The two teams the Indiana Pacers beat to get to this point–the Atlanta Hawks and the Washington Wizards–were polar opposites. The gimmicky Hawks tried to shoot their way past Indiana (and almost did), while the youthful Wizards tried to take down the Pacers playing a traditional style at both ends. They rarely made it look easy, but the resurgent Pacers, who were slumping in a huge way entering the playoffs, dispatched both of their disparate opponents. As they enter the Conference Finals, the Pacers seem to have rediscovered some of the magic that made them the team to beat in the East for much of the regular season and, of course, the eventual top seed. There may be occasional questions about Indy’s chemistry and togetherness, but there is no doubt about the Pacers’ talent. Paul George is without question the Pacers’ superstar, an elite swingman with a nasty offensive game who doubles as arguably the league’s best defender. PG has been blazing hot in the playoffs, notably shredding the Wizards’ defense in Game 4 of the Quarterfinals, finishing with 39 points. But Indiana’s strength lies in their depth; they’ve got the excellent David West, a bruiser on both ends fresh off a 29 point performance in the decisive Game 6 against Washington, electrifying guard Lance Stephenson, and trusty point man George Hill. Then there’s the wild card that is Roy Hibbert. Hibbert had a nightmare first round against the Hawks, but played well against Washington. When he’s in a good place, the seven (plus) footer is a rock at both ends for the Pacers. Hibbert and Indiana seem to have rediscovered their footing, which is a scary proposition for Miami.

The Heat have been, to this point, mostly untested. They steamrolled Charlotte in the first round and didn’t have much trouble with the Brooklyn Seniors Club in the second round, rolling by the feisty Nets in five games. Lebron James- perhaps you’ve heard of him- is the driving force on this Heat squad. The rest of Bron Bron’s supporting cast is older and worse than it has been in their past couple of playoff runs, but the King is at the top of his game. He netted 49 in a spectacular Game 4 performance against the Nets. Lebron has been on fire, and he’ll look to remain that way against this dangerous Pacers team.

These two teams have met each of the last two postseasons, last year in the Conference Finals, with Miami winning both years. Each series has been tremendous, with the James-George matchup highlighting the battles between the two beasts of the East. It should be more of the same this time around. As for the pick, we’re going to put our faith in LeBron. Because we’re original like that. The Heat are headed towards their fourth straight NBA Finals appearance.

Pick: Heat in 7

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2014 NBA Playoff Picks: Western Conference Semifinals

Yesterday, we presented our picks for the second round in the Eastern Conference. Today, we shift our attention to the West, where four excellent teams remain.

No. 1 seed San Antonio Spurs vs. No. 5 seed Portland Trail Blazers

You may have heard that Damian Lillard was clutch prior to Friday night, but he provided yet another example when he hit a game-winning trey with 0.9 seconds left in Game Six of Portland’s first round series to send the Blazers to the Conference Semifinals. Most players on Portland played outstanding basketball against the talented Houston Rockets, but the team’s two All-Stars really shined. Lillard hit the aforementioned shot to seal the series victory, but it was LaMarcus Aldridge who powered Portland initially, with consecutive games of 46 and 43 points to open up the round. Dame and LA will need to show up strong once again in order to take down the top seeded Spurs. Coach Pop’s squad struggled more than expected against Dirk Nowitzki and the crafty Mavericks in their opening round matchup, but Tony Parker’s 32 point Game Seven performance brought the Spurs into the second round. This has the potential to be a fantastic series. The teams matchup intriguingly at several spots on the floor: all-time great Tim Duncan against Aldridge, Lillard against Parker, Nicolas Batum against Kawhi Leonard, even Robin Lopez against Tiago Splitter. It’s possible that the Spurs’ experience could be enough to power them into the conference finals, but we’re taking the youthful Trail Blazers. The Warriors of last year gave the Spurs a second round scare, gashing San Antonio’s defense with their long ranging gunning. Terry Stotts’ Portland squad is more skilled and better defensively than that Golden State team and should have enough in the tank to take down the perpetual powerhouse Spurs.

Pick: Trail Blazers in 6

Lillard averaged 25.5 points per game and shot 49% on threes in the first round.

Lillard averaged 25.5 points per game and shot 49% on threes in the first round.

No. 2 seed Oklahoma City Thunder vs. No. 3 seed Los Angeles Clippers

The Thunder played a remarkable first round series against the Memphis Grizzlies, as Memphis pushed the Thunder to the limit. The Grizz took a 3-2 series lead on OKC, winning all their games in overtime fashion, and Kevin Durant looked vexed and out of sync for most of the series, faced with the stifling defense of Tony Allen. Fortunately for the Thunder, Durant came up huge in each of the final two games, and a Zach Randolph suspension in Game Seven didn’t hurt either. The Thunder are beyond talented, with the league’s most gifted scorer (Durant), most explosive guard (Russell Westbrook), a tremendous spark plug sixth man (Reggie Jackson), and a dynamic power forward (Serge Ibaka). Still, they struggled in the opening round, turning the ball over far too often and scuffling late in games. The uneven play led to murmurs about coach Scott Brooks’ job security, which likely will persist throughout the playoffs. But the Thunder did turn on the jets late in the Memphis series, and they remain a more than viable title contender. As for the Clippers, their on-court play has been a bit overshadowed by off-court drama regarding owner Donald Sterling. On the hardwood, though, LA played a helluva first round series against Golden State. It took them seven games to do it, but the Clips were able to dispatch the Dubs, scoring 126 points in the closing game of the series. Coach Doc Rivers came to the west coast with a title in mind, and Blake Griffin is a monster (when he avoids foul trouble). The combination of Griffin, Chris Paul, and role players like Jamal Crawford and J.J. Redick allowed the Clippers to field the best scoring offense in the NBA during the regular season. This series should be superb, with two extremely talented squads going at it. The Thunder are the more balanced team, and if they can maintain an offensive rhythm and avoid turnovers, they should take it.

Pick: Thunder in 7

Kevin Durant and the Thunder had to scratch and claw to escape the first round.

Kevin Durant and the Thunder had to scratch and claw to escape the first round.

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2014 NBA Playoff Picks: Eastern Conference Semifinals

Following a fabulous first round that featured a ridiculous FIVE series which went the full seven games, we’re moving on. If the second round even approaches the first round in quality, few will be disappointed. Here are our picks for the Eastern Conference Semis (as always, let us know where we’re wrong in the comments!):

No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers vs. No. 5 seed Washington Wizards

The Indiana Pacers were tested in all sorts of ways against the Atlanta Hawks in the first round. Jeff Teague and the three-happy Hawks soared out to a 3-2 series lead and had the Pacers on the ropes in Game Six, but Indiana rallied back, winning the penultimate matchup before taking Game Seven at home. Roy Hibbert has been awful of late, and Frank Vogel was forced to bench the struggling All-Star for long stretches against perimeter-oriented Atlanta. But Hibbert came to play in Game Seven, finishing with 13 points, seven rebounds, and five blocks. Paul George had a stellar first round for Indiana, averaging a double-double and scoring an efficient 24 points per game. Meanwhile, Washington was extremely impressive in their five game series with the Chicago Bulls, as the athletic Wizards were able to put up enough points against Tom Thibodeau’s vaunted defense. Sweet shooting guard Bradley Beal had a monster first round series for the Wiz and Nene Hilario played fantastically as well, bullying DPOY Joakim Noah in the paint. The Wizards are legit, with a great balance between strong frontcourt and backcourt play. At the same time,  the ultra-talented Pacers will be happy to face a more traditional team after their near disaster in the first round against a Hawks team that launched over 30 treys per game. They also found their legs late against Atlanta, and that might be bad news for Washington. But it’s hard to have all that much faith in Indiana at the moment. The Wizards strike us as similar to the Grizzlies team of last year, and we expect them to take down this struggling behemoth.

Pick: Wizards in 6

John Wall and the Wizards  were impressive against Chicago. Now will they knock off Indiana?

John Wall and the Wizards were impressive against Chicago. Now will they knock off Indiana?

No. 2 seed Miami Heat vs. No. 6 Brooklyn Nets

Certain members of the Nets had occasionally seemed ancient during the past week, especially during Game 5, when Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett sat for most of a ferocious but eventually futile Nets comeback against the Raptors. However, it was the seemingly-Jurassic Pierce who stuffed Kyle Lowry’s last second layup attempt at the end of the seventh game in the tumultuous series today, sending the Nets into a second-round matchup against LeBron James and the defending champs. Miami was dominant in the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, sweeping a youthful Charlotte Bobcats team that was playing without their best player, Al Jefferson, at full strength. The Heat coasted through the regular season, finishing with a relatively unimpressive 54-28 record, but they’ve turned it back on for the playoffs. Regardless of MVP award nonsense, LeBron is unquestionably the league’s best player. Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh are the King’s dependable sidekicks, and both are healthy at the moment. Miami’s clearly the favorite to win it all. The good news for the Nets: they’ve been the thorn in Miami’s side this season. The wily old Nets swept the season series and their off-season acquisitions–Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett–were brought to the Big Apple with the idea that they could help bring down the big bad Heat. But perhaps more important than the presence of Pierce and Garnett is the recent play of Joe Johnson. Johnson, who was not 100% in BK’s first round loss to Chicago last spring, is healthy and hot. He averaged 22 points per game on a scorching 52% from the field against Toronto. When he’s in a groove, the Nets are tough. Brooklyn has plenty of weapons and the Heat are not the team they were a couple of years ago. The guys from New York will give Miami a tough time, but LeBron should knock the senior citizen Nets out eventually.

Pick: Heat in 7

Will Paul Pierce and the Nets shock Miami?

Will Paul Pierce and the Nets shock Miami?

 

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