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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2015 MLB Preview: AL East

Hello, baseball fans, and welcome to the first College Sports Town divisional preview for the 2015 MLB season. I’m going to take a look at every team in the league, analyze each one’s offseason moves, and offer my prediction for what their respective seasons will look like. As always, I’m going to begin with the AL East. It has been a year of turnover for several teams in this division. The Tampa Bay Rays lost manager Joe Maddon and GM Andrew Friedman along with several promising young players, the Boston Red Sox could not bring back ace Jon Lester, and the New York Yankees said goodbye to a little-known shortstop named Derek Jeter (perhaps you heard something about his retirement?). Will any of these teams be able to adjust to these changes well enough to challenge the Baltimore Orioles for the division crown?

Divisional Breakdown

  1. Baltimore Orioles
  2. Boston Red Sox
  3. Toronto Blue Jays
  4. Tampa Bay Rays
  5. New York Yankees

Team Breakdown

  1. Baltimore Orioles

Powered by Nelson Cruz’ league-leading 40 home runs and the stellar play of Adam Jones, the Orioles had a terrific 2014, winning 96 games before falling to the Kansas City Royals in the ALCS. This season, the Orioles will return a fairly familiar roster. Though Nelson Cruz will be missed in the middle of the lineup, new acquisition Delmon Young aims to provide production in the DH role. And though someone other than Nick Markakis patrolling right field at Camden Yards seems strange, Travis Snider is a promising replacement. The most important acquisitions of the offseason for the Orioles were the returns from injury for Manny Machado, Chris Davis, and Matt Wieters. If these star players can return to form, the Orioles will be a formidable offensive threat once again in 2015. With a rotation that remains fairly solid yet unremarkable, and a serviceable bullpen, Baltimore will once again depend on the core of their lineup to power the team to victory.

Verdict

Best Case- Jones is stellar yet again, Machado, Davis, and Wieters are All-Stars once more, and the Orioles win the AL East for the second straight year.

Worst Case- Cruz’ production cannot be replaced, Baltimore’s core of stars is injury-riddled once again, and Baltimore falls short of a playoff spot.

If Chris Davis can return to his 2013 form, the Orioles will take flight once again.

  1. Boston Red Sox

The Red Sox have for several years been the bane of my prognosticating career, as the squad has bounced from last place in the AL East in 2012 to a World Series championship in 2013, then back to last place in 2014. However, I have confidence that I have finally pegged them accurately as a wild card team in this upcoming season. Just like their division rivals the Orioles, the highlight of this Red Sox team is the lineup. Joining Boston mainstays David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia are Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, who both signed massive contracts this past November, and my Rookie of the Year pick Rusney Castillo. The Red Sox should score plenty of runs, especially if young players like Castillo, Mookie Betts, and Xander Bogaerts produce adequately. The concern for this squad lies with the pitching staff. Jon Lester chose to go to Chicago rather than headline this bunch of solid yet unspectacular starters. Presumptive ace Clay Buchholz is wildly inconsistent and oft-injured, and it remains to be seen if solid pitchers Wade Miley, Rick Porcello, and Justin Masterson can maintain a higher level of success. The bullpen is decent, with Koji Uehara closing, but is filled with question marks like Craig Breslow and and Edward Mujica. The pitching staff has the potential to be quite good, but it might also be a disaster.

Verdict

Best Case- The offense fires on all cylinders, the staff impresses, and the Red Sox win the AL East.

Worst Case- Ortiz shows his age, the offense can’t score enough to make up for lackluster pitching, and the Red Sox miss out on the playoffs again.

Pablo Sandoval, pictured here with his brother, will be a key component of the Red Sox lineup.

  1. Toronto Blue Jays

The 2014 Blue Jays performed decently, finishing third in the AL East after falling behind in a tight AL Wild Card race. Toronto followed that performance with perhaps the splashiest offseason in the AL East. In addition to acquiring Michael Saunders and Russell Martin, the Blue Jays traded Brett Lawrie and prospects to the Oakland A’s for All-Star Josh Donaldson. Though Melky Cabrera will be missed at the top of the lineup and Colby Rasmus will be missed in center, Toronto’s offensive production should be similar to last year, when the Jays scored the fifth most runs in the league. In what is seemingly a trend in the AL East, the weakest part of this team is the pitching staff. R.A. Dickey and Mark Buehrle are solid but old, and the loss of the promising Marcus Stroman to an ACL tear will hurt. Toronto will have to hope Aaron Sanchez and Daniel Norris can live up to their potential and fill the voids in this rotation. In the bullpen, Brett Cecil will take over closing duties from the departed Casey Janssen. Toronto had one of the worst bullpen ERAs in the MLB last year, so hopefully this shakeup will improve things.

Verdict

Best Case- The offense is imposing, Sanchez and Norris pitch well, and the Jays return to the postseason for the first time since 1993.

Worst Case- Martin is injured, the staff shows its age, and Toronto finishes last in the AL East.

Josh Donaldson, attempting to taste the Canadian air, is a welcome addition to the Jays.

  1. Tampa Bay Rays

After finishing under .500 for the first time since 2007, Tampa Bay overhauled their roster and front office. In addition to the aforementioned departures of Maddon and Friedman, the Rays traded away or let walk key players including Ben Zobrist, Yunel Escobar, and Wil Myers. The new Rays lineup might not be worse than that of last year, when the Rays scored the fewest runs in the AL, but it is not that impressive. New manager Kevin Cash will have to hope for bounceback years from Evan Longoria and James Loney if he wants to be competitive in 2015. John Jaso should provide power in the DH spot and highly-touted prospect Steven Souza will, at the very least, provide stellar defense in the outfield. The Rays might have the best rotation in the AL East, which is impressive considering the youth of their starters. Chris Archer, Alex Cobb, and Jake Odorizzi all performed quite well last year, and Drew Smyly, acquired in the David Price trade with Detroit, has looked tremendous in his brief Rays stint. It will be up to them to keep games close for this relatively weak offense. Tampa’s bullpen is a bit of a mess at the moment, and it will be up to Brad Boxberger, Jake Mcgee, and new acquisition Kevin Jepsen to keep things relatively under control.

Verdict

Best Case- Longoria has an MVP-caliber year, the rotation is stellar, and the Rays sneak into a wild card spot.

Worst Case- The offense sputters, the inexperience of the rotation is on full display, and the Rays finish in the AL East cellar.

Evan Longoria, after realizing Maddon, Zobrist, and Price are gone.

  1. New York Yankees

Now, I’m not predicting that the Yankees will finish dead last in the AL East because it gives me great pleasure to do so (even if that may be true). The fact is, the Yankees overachieved during the 2014 Derek Jeter farewell tour- sorry, the 2014 season. The difference between their actual win-loss record and their expected (Pythagorean) win-loss record was 7 games, as the Yankees led the American League in luck. Even though the Yankees did make some quality moves this offseason, I do not think that the 2015 team will be as competitive as last year’s. The lineup can be solid when everyone is healthy, but health could definitely be an issue for a team that depends on so many older players. Jacoby Ellsbury, Brett Gardner, and Chase Headley are all fairly good and should provide good production, but Carlos Beltran and Brian McCann had disappointing debut seasons in the Bronx and it will be up to them to turn things around, which can be tough when one is on the wrong side of 30. Also, Brian Cashman is presumably counting the days until he can replace Stephen Drew with Rob Refsnyder at second base. This is not to mention the return of Alex Rodriguez, likely to the DH spot from which he should provide a lot of drama, if not production. The rotation, like the lineup, can be pretty good when healthy, but that is a dubious assumption to make. Masahiro Tanaka was outstanding in his debut season, but his decision against Tommy John surgery for his partial UCL tear could come back to haunt him. Michael Pineda and C.C. Sabathia both have long injury histories, and both Chris Capuano and Ivan Nova will start the season on the DL. I’m a fan of Nate Eovaldi, whom the Yankees acquired from the Marlins, but there is a concerning lack of starting pitching depth for such an injury-filled rotation. The bullpen is the brightest spot on the team, with new acquisition Andrew Miller and Dellin Betances serving as a vicious end of game combo.

Verdict

Best Case- Tanaka’s arm holds up and he is a Cy Young candidate, the lineup stays healthy and productive, and the Yankees win a wild card spot.

Worst Case- Tanaka needs Tommy John, the rotation and lineup is filled with casualties, and the Yankees finish last in their division for the first time since 1990.

A-Rod, seen here attempting to bat with no hands, will bring even more drama into the Bronx this year.

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2015 MLB Preview: Playoff Picture and World Series

It’s time once again for my predictions for which teams will make the playoffs, and which team will come away from 2015 immortalized with a World Series trophy. As always, I expect to look back at some of these picks in October and wonder what I was thinking, but here are my best guesses as to which teams we will see playing this fall.

Divisional and Wild Card Winners

AL East– Baltimore Orioles

AL Central– Chicago White Sox

AL West– Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

AL Wild Card #1– Boston Red Sox

AL Wild Card #2– Seattle Mariners

NL East- Washington Nationals

NL Central– St. Louis Cardinals

NL West– Los Angeles Dodgers

NL Wild Card #1– New York Mets

NL Wild Card #2– Chicago Cubs

Wild Card Matches

AL- Seattle Mariners defeat Boston Red Sox

NL- New York Mets defeat Chicago Cubs

Divisional Round

AL- Los Angeles Angels defeat Seattle Mariners in 5 games, Chicago White Sox defeat Baltimore Orioles in 4 games

NL- Washington Nationals defeat New York Mets in 4 games, Los Angeles Dodgers defeat St. Louis Cardinals in 5 games

Championship Round

AL- Los Angeles Angels defeat Chicago White Sox in 6 games

NL- Washington Nationals defeat Los Angeles Dodgers in 7 games

World Series

Washington Nationals defeat Los Angeles Angels in 5 games

Harper and the Nationals will finally taste postseason success in 2015.

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2015 MLB Preview: NL Awards

Hello, baseball fans, and welcome back to College Sports Town’s 2015 MLB Preview. I apologize for not posting since my AL Awards preview as I have been separated from my laptop, but, now that I’m back, let’s get right to it. Here are my picks for NL MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year in 2015.

NL MVP- Andrew McCutchen, Pittsburgh Pirates

McCutchen’s sweet stroke should keep him at the top of the MVP race.

Two years ago, I predicted Cutch would win his first MVP award, and he validated my prognosis. This year, I expect more of the same excellence from McCutchen, who led the NL in OBP and OPS last season. His candidacy will be aided by an improved Pirates lineup. Though catcher Russell Martin will be missed, new additions Corey Hart and Korean import Jung-ho Kang, not to mention an entire year from young outfielder Gregory Polanco, will solidify an already potent offense and make McCutchen’s life easier. McCutchen’s MVP odds will be further helped by the difficulties several other top candidates will have to deal with this season. Clayton Kershaw is unlikely to win another MVP even if he were somehow able to duplicate last year’s numbers, Troy Tulowitzki can’t seem to play enough games to be considered, and I still don’t know how long it will take Giancarlo Stanton to readjust after that terrible beaning last September. Thanks to these roadblocks, Cutch’s path to the 2015 NL MVP might just be as simple as producing numbers consistent with those of the past few years, which I believe he is more than capable of.

NL Cy Young- Clayton Kershaw, Los Angeles Dodgers

Last year, I tried to not select him. I predicted Jose Fernandez would win the Cy Young, not a ridiculous selection but one that proved to be inaccurate when Fernandez became yet another victim of the Tommy John epidemic. But I’ve come to the conclusion that I can’t reasonably predict anyone else but Kershaw to win this award. Kershaw, who came into 2014 already having won two Cy Youngs and arguably deserving a third, delivered a season for the ages, leading the league in wins, ERA, WHIP and several other categories. He tossed his first no-hitter, won his third Cy Young, and became the first pitcher since Justin Verlander in 2011 to win an MVP award. Oh, and he’s still only 27 years old. There are other outstanding pitchers in the National League, of course. Johnny Cueto, Adam Wainwright, and postseason hero Madison Bumgarner all deserve tremendous respect. However, when someone comes along and not only inspires comparisons to Sandy Koufax but validates them, it is difficult to expect anything less than greatness from him.

Kershaw should be dealing as always in 2015.

Kershaw should be dealing as always in 2015.

NL Rookie of the Year- Kris Bryant, Chicago Cubs

One of the prized cornerstones of the future for the Chicago Cubs, Kris Bryant has displayed in Spring Training the prestigious power that produced 43 home runs at the minor league level in 2014 and earned him the status of Baseball America’s #1 prospect. His six  home runs would normally be enough to earn him a spot on the opening day roster, but issues over long-term contract control will likely leave him in the minors for the few first weeks of the season. Still, Bryant has shown that the hype surrounding him is well-deserved. I expect him to rake from the moment he gets called up, and to become yet another reason for folks around the league to be afraid of the quickly improving Chicago Cubs.

Bryant thanking his bat for all it’s done for him.

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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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The Madness of March

(Disclaimer: I am currently sitting in the Bryan Center on Duke’s West Campus as I write this)

It’s good to be the king. Just ask LeBron. Or Kendrick Lamar (he just dropped an album a week early and does what he wants). I would argue that this is a year of kings in college basketball. A year in which the blue bloods are shining. Kentucky, Duke, Arizona, and Wisconsin were each ranked in the top 4 preseason, and here we are come tournament time and three of them are number one seeds and one, Arizona, deserved a number one seed but there simply wasn’t enough room for them. The top has been dominant this year, and I believe that will largely continue in this year’s Big Dance. (Side note: did you know it’s illegal to use the Star Spangled Banner as dance music in Massachusetts?) Let’s break down the most wonderful time of the year.

We begin in the Midwest region, Kentucky’s domain. To be honest, I really don’t need to name any other teams because, who are we kidding, Kentucky will get to the final four either way. But, let’s give credit to the other teams in their bracket. Kansas sits at #2, Notre Dame, fresh off its ACC tourney win, at #3, and Maryland at #4. The first round here may produce some memorable upset bids: I think the 4, 5, and 6 seeds better watch out: Maryland vs Valparaiso, West Virginia vs Buffalo, and Butler vs Texas. In the end, I think Maryland eeks out a victory over Valparaiso, but I think Buffalo can take down West Virginia and that Texas’ size will overwhelm Butler. But Texas is too undisciplined and too up and down to make a deep run. I see them losing to Notre Dame in the second round. A potential second round matchup would pit Kansas vs Wichita State and may very well produce Bleeding Kansas round 2. I think Wichita State’s veteran guards will get the better of Kansas and advance. Ultimately, I think Notre Dame will match up against Kentucky in the Elite 8, but the luck of the Irish will be no match for the fighting hyphens of Lexington (Willie Cauley-Stein and Karl-Anthony Towns).

Heading down to the West region opposite the Midwest, Wisconsin’s Big 10 Tourney run convinced the committee that they were worthy of a number one seed even though Joey Brackets (love the hair) had Virginia as a 1 seed for the longest time this year. In an interesting repeat of history, Wisconsin’s main challenge will come from a terrific all-around Arizona team, perhaps a rematch of last year’s terrific elite 8 matchup, but this time Wisconsin is the 1 and Arizona is the 2. In terms of potential first round matchups, I like the play-in winner, likely BYU over Ole Miss, to take care of Butler. BYU is an impressive club with a number of potent scorers that pose problems from everywhere on the court. Additionally, I think D’Angelo Russell and Ohio State will get past a VCU team that has been up and down this year in spite of claiming the A-10 championship. Can Harvard play spoiler again this year? I think not. They draw a UNC team that looked particularly inspired in the ACC tournament in spite of losing in the final to Notre Dame, and the Heels will outrebound and outrun them. The Crimson fall. Let’s advance to the Sweet 16. I like Wisconsin vs UNC and Baylor vs Arizona to be the matchups. It may be a bold pick, but I think that if UNC gets past the first weekend, they can beat Wisconsin. They have athletic bigs, notably Brice Johnson, that can match up with Frank Kaminsky, and terrific wing defenders like JP Tokoto that can shut down some of Wisconsin’s athletic wings. UNC also offensive rebounds tremendously and they pound the paint. I think UNC (if they get to the Sweet 16) will beat Wisconsin simply because they match up well with Wisconsin. Arizona will get the better of Baylor, and I think the Wildcats will advance to the Final 4 as their poise will overcome a determined Carolina team that will outperform most Roy Williams clubs in the postseason. Arizona goes to the Final 4.

Moving on to the chaos that is the East region, headlined by Villanova, we meet more Wildcats. Nova has the likes of Virginia as a 2 seed to be concerned with and Oklahoma and hot-shooting Buddy Hield as the 3 seed. The first round of this bracket smells quite chalky, but I think another play-in team could get the better of another 6 seed when the winner of Dayton and Boise State (a home game for Dayton, come on now committee. What are you doing?) will take on Providence. Dayton is a strong club and I like them to advance past Boise State in the play in and then win another against Providence. Louisville seems vulnerable to an upset but I just have no idea how solid this UC Irvine club is. All I’ve heard about them is that their mascot is the Anteaters and they have a 7’6” center. Let me reevaluate that one but I think Louisville may make that game closer than it should be. Villanova will get a test from either of their potential second round opponents (NC State or LSU), but I think those teams won’t execute well enough to complete the upset over a strong Villanova team. I think we’ll get a Northern Iowa vs Villanova Sweet 16. It’s funny how the committee seemed to put a couple repeats from last year on a collision course again this year. If Michigan State wins its first game, it will face the Virginia Cavaliers (Wahoos? Pick a mascot jeez) in a rematch of last year’s Sweet 16 game in which the Spartans advanced. I don’t think this Michigan State team is as talented as last year’s but I think Virginia is vulnerable in this matchup because this looks like a classic Tom Izzo team that is extremely tough, has big wings, and rebounds well. It looks like it won’t shoot itself in the foot and Virginia’s slow style keeps teams in the game. I think the Spartans can get the better of Virginia, especially if Justin Anderson’s hand doesn’t magically improve since his ho hum performance against UNC in which he looked like he was playing with 1 ½ hands. I guess my surprise here is that Michigan State, because of matchups, could make an elite 8 run and get past an Oklahoma team that has been up and down this year. I like Villanova and Michigan State in the elite 8, and I think we’ll be seeing more Wildcats in the Final 4. Villanova moves on.

Finally, the South. The Duke Blue Devils (sorry, they actually are the Blue Devils and not the Dukies) are the number one seed in spite of not winning the regular season or ACC tournament championship. They face competition from two good offensive clubs in Gonzaga and Iowa State potentially in the Elite 8, but I think Duke has an easy road to the Elite 8. They face a play-in winner (potentially the dancing band members of Northern Florida) and will get the winner of St John’s and San Diego St in the second round. The Blue Devils defeated St John’s on the road this year for Coach K’s 1000th win, and San Diego State doesn’t scare me as a Duke fan at all because they lack the offensive firepower to compete with the Blue Devils. The team that can beat Duke will do it because they can put up points with the Blue Devils and do enough to confuse them on offense that the game becomes close. In terms of potential Sweet 16 opponents, I think both the 4 and 5 seeds, Georgetown (overseeded in my opinion) and Utah are susceptible to losses to the 13 seeded Eastern Washington (with the nation’s highest scorer and owners of a 20 point road victory over Miami) and 12th seeded Stephen F Austin. There’s almost always one of those chaos groups in which two double digit seeds end up playing each other. I think this is where it will occur this year. I like Stephen F Austin to get the better of EWU and get a Sweet 16 matchup with Duke. I also like Davidson’s chances to beat an extremely Jekyll and Hyde Iowa team due to the strong guard play and motion principle offense of Bob McKillop. In a Sweet 16 matchup of two incredibly potent teams, I like Gonzaga to get the better of Iowa State due to the inside play of those eastern European guys. (Don’t ask me to try to spell or pronounce their names). In a terrific Elite 8 matchup, I think Duke will face Gonzaga. Here’s my take on Duke: they are their own enemy. The biggest factor in deciding whether they win or lose is their mindset. If you watched the game against Notre Dame in the ACC tournament, they were asleep and slow in the first half and looked like Notre Dame should roll over because it said Duke on the front of their jerseys. I actually think that loss will be beneficial and a good motivational tool for Coach K. If Duke advances past the first weekend, they will have the right attitude and will be playing better defense because they want to play better defense and their effort is there. If that happens, I think they will get past Gonzaga, and they will be a scary team that can send wings to run zone trapping schemes and get transition points and win big games like they did all year on the road (see Wisconsin, Louisville, Virginia). They get by and head to Indianapolis.

So: the Final Four is set. Three Wildcats and some Blue Devils. Although I think Arizona will give Kentucky a good game, I think the fighting hyphens get by and go to the national championship. I think Duke will take care of Villanova in the other semifinal to set up a classic final.

The year was 1991. The Final 4 was in Indianapolis. Duke faced a club coming in undefeated and highly favored over the Blue Devils. What happened? Duke won in suprising fashion and went on to win the National Championship. I like how the stars seem to align again. Where is this year’s final four? Indianapolis. An undefeated team highly favored over everyone else? Check. A Duke team with a terrific point guard and big man combo with enough surrounding pieces to win a ton of games? Check and Check. I think Duke upsets Kentucky in the Final as history repeats itself. Maybe I’m picking with my heart as much or more than my head, but hey, whatever. Duke raises the banner and the quest for 5 is complete. Sorry John Calamari.

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2015 MLB Preview: AL Awards

Hello baseball fans, and welcome to the third annual College Sports Town MLB preview. It’s been quite some time since I last posted, but I’m excited to begin this new season! Let’s jump right into the preview with my preseason predictions for which players will take home the MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year awards for the American League in 2015. Last year, I correctly selected Mike Trout for AL MVP but missed on my picks for AL Cy Young (I picked Felix Hernandez, the runner-up, instead of Corey Kluber) and ROY (which was won by Jose Abreu, not my pick Xander Bogaerts). Let’s see if I can improve this year.

AL MVP: Mike Trout, Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim

Listen, I know it’s a bit of a cop out, but it would be foolish to predict anyone else to outperform Trout and to win this award. He’s been arguably the best position player in baseball for the past three years, and he shows no signs of wanting to relinquish that title. The 23 year old finally got past Miguel Cabrera in his quest for MVP last year, winning his first after finishing second in 2013 and 2012. Trout’s slash line in 2014 was .287/.377/.561, outstanding despite being down from his 2013 numbers, and he led the AL in both runs and RBI. He even managed to lead the Angels to the best record in the MLB before the team faltered against the Royals in the divisional round of the playoffs. Barring injury, I see no reason why Trout would not be able to replicate his performance of the past few years, and that would be more than enough to bring him his second consecutive AL MVP.

Trout, pictured here destroying a baseball's hopes and dreams.

AL Cy Young: Chris Sale, Chicago White Sox

Sale is the most dominant lefty in the MLB today not named Clayton Kershaw. In 2014, he led the league in ERA+ and K/9 while finishing third in the AL Cy Young race to Corey Kluber and Felix Hernandez. The soon-to-be 26 year old figures to once again be one of the most entertaining pitchers in baseball, as soon as he returns from a fractured right foot, and the revamped White Sox lineup and rotation will only make his life easier. Sale and new addition Jeff Samardzija form one of the most dangerous 1-2 punches in baseball, and a lineup consisting of Jose Abreu, Melky Cabrera, and Adam Laroche will help him lock down a few more W’s. If Sale can come back and produce similar numbers to those of the past few years, he could certainly come away from 2015 with the Cy Young.

This image alone gives Sale's candidacy legitimacy.

AL ROY- Rusney Castillo, Boston Red Sox

In 2014, Castillo joined the list of young Cuban players with massive contracts after receiving a $72 million deal from Boston. However, it is yet to be seen whether Castillo can prove the investment wise as compatriots such as Yasiel Puig, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jose Abreu have done in recent years. He looked good in his 10 game stint with the Red Sox at the end of 2014 but has suffered through an injury-stricken spring and may lose the competition for starting CF to another youngster, Mookie Betts. Even if he does not start the year in the majors, Castillo’s intriguing blend of power and speed will be on display in Fenway sooner rather than later, and I expect him to impress enough to take home Cuba’s second straight Rookie of the Year award.

Castillo having a swell time with Big Papi.

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