College Basketball

Final 4 is Set

The 2016 NCAA tournament has been amazing with countless upsets; nail biters, and epic comebacks. This year’s tournament has brought an entirely new meaning to the phrase March Madness! It started in historic fashion as a record 10 lower seeds advanced out of the round of 64.

The parity exhibited in the first two rounds was great for college basketball showing the improved talent across the country. That improvement can be attributed to college coaches recruiting and getting players to believe in their vision. This year’s tournament proved whether you are a mid-major or a perennial power you can compete at the highest level of college basketball.

However, the best usually rise to the top when the lights get the brightest. That is the case once again as North Carolina, Syracuse, Villanova, and Oklahoma are set to battle in the Lone Star State for the right to cut down the nets and celebrate a National Championship.

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 North Carolina

The North Carolina Tar Heels are the loan number one seed remaining and look primed and ready to hang their sixth national championship banner in the Dean Smith Center. After a sluggish first half against Florida Gulf Coast, where they just had a one-point lead at half. They’ve turned up their intensity and have become the national championship favorite with the stellar basketball they’ve played since.

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The team has been led by the dynamic senior duo of Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige are hitting their stride at the perfect time. Johnson has been absolutely dominant averaging 21 points and nearly 10 rebounds creating matchup nightmares for every opponent they’ve faced. His improved midrange jump shot and underrated passing ability have opened up wide-open shots for him and his teammates.

Marcus Paige has struggled throughout the season with his wrist and his shot, but it is coming around at the best time. In the Sweet 16 game versus Indiana, he scored 14 of the teams first 15 points with four three-pointers. Thus forcing defenses to once again respect this shot, allowing him to drive to the basket or set up his teammates. Those two set the tone for the team during this tournament and are both hot at the perfect time.

North Carolina also has great depth with Isaiah Hicks, Nate Britt, Joel Berry, Theo Pinson Kennedy Meeks, Justin Jackson, and Joel James. Amazing that every single one of these players along with Johnson and Paige have contributed big time during this NCAA tournament run. The last huge key for North  Carolina to finish this tournament run is to continue to embarrass their opponents in the paint and rebounding, taking advantage of their size and physical play down low will take over and wear down their opponents.

North Carolina looks the best they’ve looked all season and have so many ways they can beat you. They have really good chance to cut down the nets if they play their brand of basketball.

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 Oklahoma Sooners

The Oklahoma Sooners are advancing to their fifth final four in school history . It’s been a relatively smooth ride for Oklahoma outside of their game against VCU, they have convincingly disposed of each opponent by double digits. There’s one big reason why they are experiencing so much success and that is senior Buddy Hield.

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In sports sometimes a star player puts their team on his/her back and Hield has taken on the responsibility for the Sooners this season. His tournament performances have reached new heights averaging 29 points! Announcers,’ fans, coaches and opponents are running out of adjectives for the basketball Hield is playing at the moment. He has scored 117 points through the first four games which ranks second behind Stephen Curry’s 128 points while he was at Davidson during his elite eight run.

That’s very good company; Oklahoma head coach Lon Kruger has compared his relationship with Hield to Steve Kerr’s relationship with Steph Curry that because each player has the ability to take over a game and lead their team to victory each and every night. The reality is Oklahoma will go as far as Buddy will take them.  His domination opens up things for Isaiah Cousins and others. They also rely heavily on three point shooting they have that live or die mentality.

They also rely heavily on three point shooting they have that live or die mentality. During the regular season they ranked second behind Michigan State shooting 43.2% from behind the arc. That success has carried over during the tournament and they have yet to experience an ice-cold night that could spell their undoing and send them packing. If they’re knocking down their shots and Hield continues to be unstoppable Oklahoma may reach the top of the mountain and cut down the nets in Houston.

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Villanova Wildcats

Villanova will be making their fifth final four appearance in school history. Even though they were ranked number one at a point during the season I didn’t know much about them until I started watching them in the tournament. One thing I’ve learned is they are very scrappy and annoying to play because of their swarming defense and their tendency to double team.

They had the toughest game to get to the final four as they had to beat overall number one seed Kansas. They accomplished the victory by shutting down Perry Ellis one of the greatest college basketball players in recent memory holding him to just four points on one for five shooting. Villanova head coach Jay Wright had a brilliant game plan to stop Kansas and their best player. The sole reason they are playing on just a gut check type of win that should have them very confident going into their showdown against Oklahoma.

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They also have senior leadership that can’t be overlooked in Ryan Arcidiacono and Daniel Ochefu both set the tone and the offense is run through them both. Arcidiacono is the calming force in the Villanova offense getting them in the right play.

His numbers don’t jump off the page, but he is averaging a solid 19 points and three assists exactly what you want your point guard to do. He also is a decent three-point shooter forcing defenders to come out on him allowing their inside out offense to be very effective. The other half that duo Daniel Ochefu is the force in the paint and cleans up the glass he is averaging 10 points and nearly 8 rebounds nothing spectacular, but he’s doing the dirty work allowing shooters to spot up and knock down key buckets.

Villanova is not flashy, but they will battle you and pester you until you make a mistake and they will pounce on it. They’re looking to avenge their 23-point loss to Oklahoma in an early season game. I think if they can slow the game down to their pace and defend the three-point line well it could be a very close game and if somehow they can slow down Hield they will have a very good chance to battle for the National Championship.

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Syracuse Orange

The Syracuse Orange will be making their six and most improbable final four appearance in school history. There’s always that one team in the tournament every year that comes out of nowhere and wears the glass slipper for a while, but this is the most shocking tournament run in recent memory. Many including myself didn’t even think Syracuse deserved to be in the tournament, but it certainly proved everyone wrong and gained a ton of respect.

This run is just unexplainable getting a big assist from Middle Tennessee State when they beat Michigan State, of course, but they can’t control what happens in front of them all they can do is take it advantage and they certainly have. They’ve had two epic comebacks that have fueled this magical run they were down seven with two minutes remaining against Gonzaga and they were able to find a way to get that victory. As if that wasn’t enough, they stormed back against Virginia down 16 early in the second half they ramped up the pressure, speeding Virginia up causing crucial turnovers and offensively they knocked down dagger shots that doomed Virginia.

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It seems to me Syracuse is playing with house money because nobody expected them to win and I don’t believe many think they will so they just want to continue to shock the world. This by far is Jim Boeheim best coaching job coming back from the nine-game suspension and getting his team to play well enough to force the committee to make a decision. People may not agree with it, but it doesn’t matter now and just proves all you want to do is get in because anything can happen.

They will face North Carolina who they took to the wire in the regular-season matchup at the Dean Smith Center. Do they have any magic left in their wand? We will see, but one thing is for sure The Orange will battle for 40 minutes, so North Carolina better not let their foot off the gas until it says 00 on the clock.

This NCAA tournament has been full of surprises and I’m sure this final four won’t disappoint with these quality programs involved. I’m super excited to see how this plays out!

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MLB

Adam Laroche Saga has gone too far

There are just two weeks before opening day and instead of talking about who’s going to make each team, we are talking about what in my opinion is a very stupid controversy involving former White Sox first baseman Adam Laroche. Laroche retired earlier this week because White Sox GM Kenny Williams asked him to cut back on the time his son Drake spent in the clubhouse.

First of all, I commend Laroche for sticking to his beliefs of family first and that is something I completely agree with, but bringing your kid to work 100% of the time is a bit ridiculous nowhere in the world does that happen so I completely agree with the White Sox organization in that aspect it’s not like he said stop bringing him forever just reduce the amount of time he spent around the clubhouse.

Drake is homeschooled allowing him the opportunity to be around his dad every day. All the reports say that Drake is an amazing kid mature beyond his years, however a 14-year-old around the team constantly is a little much considering the guys in the locker room are adults and sometimes want to use certain language and shoot the breeze with their teammates and coaches that can’t happen with the young man always around.

What I don’t understand is why couldn’t one of Laroche’s teammates come to him and say hey could we have one day a week with just you around? I know it was out of respect for Laroche, but bringing in the front office has created even more controversy because starting pitcher Chris sale believes Kenny Williams lied about the situation, putting an even darker cloud around the organization so close to the start of the regular season.

Ultimately this situation has gotten bigger than ever needed to be I understand where Laroche is coming from because there was a clause in his contract when he signed with the team that his son could be part of the team and last year there was no problem.

One thing you have to think about is the Laroche’s job is to help the White Sox win baseball games and last year he only hit .207 in the DH position, which is a spot in the lineup where you need a lot of production. Somehow I think if he hit 250 with 25 homers this issue wouldn’t even have come about I don’t think.

There are some unwritten rules in baseball and I think one of them includes the clubhouse being a sanctuary, allowing the players to be themselves and create that camaraderie and chemistry needed to help win baseball games. I think having kids in the clubhouse are great because baseball is so demanding and players live seven months out of a suitcase, but I think there has to be some sort of line drawn or rules in place so this situation doesn’t ever become problematic.

The only good thing for the White Sox is it clears 13.1 million financially for the team to spend elsewhere. Image wise it’s terrible because it’s going to be a distraction all year answering questions about a difference in opinion.

The White Sox have been very inconsistent the past few seasons and now they will have this cloud over them, when in reality all they wanted to do is focus on winning baseball games. It’s a shame it came to this and they are talking about this but that’s the reality. I hope it will somehow go away and we can focus on the exciting new season on the horizon.

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MLB, Top 5 list

Top 3 Most Improved Teams this MLB Off-Season

Baseball is officially back! Spring training games are well underway  a fun time for all 30 teams. They all get a clean slate and have an equal opportunity to chase a division title and World Series title in the beginning of March. Every team had a different agenda this off-season to put their teams in the best situation possible.

Here are my top three most improved teams based on the off-season. All of them have championship aspirations and the moves they made are going to be a huge part of the chase for a World Series title.

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1. The Chicago Cubs

The Chicago Cubs have quickly become the darlings of baseball with their magical playoff run last year. Theo Epstein is the mastermind of another historical organizational turnaround, he has taken the Cubs from the laughing stock of baseball to on the cusp of a World Series championship.

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How it has happened 

 

Epstein has done it through the draft and keen trades since arriving in the Windy City. They have taken advantage of their high draft picks in recent years getting young sluggers Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, and Javier Baez whom all have quickly become opposing pitcher’s nightmare.

In addition, on July 5, 2014 Epstein was able to swindle Addison Russell from the Oakland A’s, who was the A’s top prospect at the time for pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija. The A’s were pushing for a deep playoff run, so it made sense at the time, but now they’re experiencing buyer’s remorse as Russell has become another key piece to the Cubs roster.

Epstein four-year plan is coming the other rather nicely because he was able to bolster the roster this off-season with veteran quality players to complement these young studs that have proven they can play and at times dominate.

This off-season they added outfielder Jason Heyward, veteran starter John Lackey, utility man, Ben Zobrist, and outfielder Dexter Fowler. These four moves on paper make the Cubs look unstoppable. Let’s take a look at why all four of these players are perfect for the Cubs in their quest for a championship.

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Jason Heyward 8 years 184 Million

Jason Heyward was one of the most coveted free agents on the market this off-season. He cashed in big-time when he signed with the Chicago Cubs for eight years worth $184 million.

This is a great deal for both sides for many reasons. Hayward is just 26 years of age and still in the prime of his career. Hayward’s best asset is the fact that he is one of the elite defenders in the league. He is a three-time Gold Glover and since entering the league in 2010, he has the most defensive runs saved with 122 a pitcher’s best friend.

 

Hayward has been a tad inconsistent on offense throughout his career. However, in Chicago he has experienced great success batting .311 and a .376 on-base percentage. That prior success and being plugged into an already stacked lineup that will feature Dexter Fowler, Kris Bryant, Kyle Schwarber, Anthony Rizzo and Ben Zobrist the skies the limit for Jason Heyward who is comfortable in the friendly confines. He doesn’t have to put too much pressure on himself with the other quality players around him in the Windy City.

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Ben Zobrist 4 years 56 Million

Zobrist was another highly coveted free agent by many because of his versatility chose to take less money to go to Chicago. This is a very comfortable situation for Zobrist as he is reunited with Joe Madden, who was his manager in Tampa. This is a good move for the Cubs because he gives great at-bats forcing the pitch counts up and just taking what teams give him.

That is key for a team that is full of guys that are not afraid to strike out a time or two. He might’ve been overpaid just a little bit because the Cubs will primarily use him at second base. However, he can give guys days off when needed because he can play the infield and the outfield. He is a great veteran presence as well, these young guys can go pick his brain and learn how to be a professional from Zobrist.

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John Lackey 2 years 32 million

John Lackey another quality pickup for the Cubs adding depth to their starting rotation that has the reigning Cy Young award winner Jake Arrieta and John Lester. He’s an innings eater averaging 191 innings pitched per year, preserving the bullpen. The bullpen is the one concern for the Cubs because they are a little bit inexperienced and inconsistent.

He also has a lot of postseason experience, which always helps a young roster with very little outside of last season. His personality will also fit well in the Chicago clubhouse because he is so fiery and intense he will get young guys to focus when needed. The cherry on top is the Cubs were able to take two key players from the St. Louis Cardinals their arch rival.

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This move should have never happened as Dexter Fowler had agreed to a three-year deal with the Baltimore Orioles. The deal fell through because the Orioles were not willing to give Fowler and opt out of his contract. He decided to go where ” his heart is” this move is good for the Cubs because Jason Heyward can go back to his primary position of right-field that is less taxing than center field. It also deepens the lineup, as Fowler will most likely lead off with his great speed setting the table for this ridiculous lineup. This deal is also cheaper than it would’ve been if he accepted the qualifying offer at the beginning of the off-season.

As we all know sports aren’t won on paper, but with these four moves plus the plethora of young studs they have littered throughout their roster,  they will have a great chance to win that long awaited championship.

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2. The Detroit Tigers

The Detroit Tigers have always been known as big spenders chasing their first championship since 1984. This off-season was no different as they added slugger Justin Upton, frontline starter Jordan Zimmerman and experienced closer Francisco Rodriguez. The Tigers in recent years have been ravaged by injuries and bullpen blunders that have cost them dearly. These additions will make the AL Central race very entertaining to watch.

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Justin Upton 6 years 132 million

The Detroit Tigers have always been known as big spenders chasing their first championship since 1984. This off-season was no different as they added slugger Justin Upton, frontline starter Jordan Zimmerman and experienced closer Francisco Rodriguez. The Tigers in recent years have been ravaged by injuries and bullpen blunders that have cost them dearly. These additions will make the AL Central race very entertaining to watch.

The Detroit Tigers struck gold when they were able to land free-agent Justin Upton. This seems to be a perfect fit because Upton is one of the premier hitters in baseball. The former first-overall pick of the Arizona Diamondbacks is entering his ninth year and is looking to make a great impact in the Motor City. Upton has been very consistent, even on bad teams. He has a.271 career average and is averaging 21 home runs in his career some of those seasons in pitcher friendly ballparks to boot.

As I said, this seems to be a perfect fit for Detroit because it lengthens an already potent lineup headlined by future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera. He is also very versatile and can hit anywhere in the lineup, giving pitching staffs different look depending on the starter.

Also his age is a big plus, he is just 28 years old and the contract takes him through what is thought to be the prime years of a career. He also is a solid defender in the outfield being nominated for the Gold glove multiple times. Offense has never been the issue for the Tigers the addition of Upton just makes them even scarier and a big threat in the American League.

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Jordan Zimmerman  5 years 110 Million

The Detroit Tigers bolstered their starting rotation with the pickup of right-hander Jordan Zimmerman. This is a very solid pickup considering the Tigers have a lot of wear and tear in their rotation with Justin Verlander and Anibal Sanchez, whom are not spring chickens anymore and have a history of injuries. Zimmerman provides depth and another veteran. The best asset he provides is he is an innings eater and very durable.

Last season with the Washington Nationals, he started 33 games and posted 13-10 record with a 3.66 ERA and pitched over 200 innings. In his career, he is 70-50 with a 3.22 ERA with over 1000 innings pitched. He is a warrior that you want is a part of your pitching staff. I think getting out of the toxic locker room of the Nationals will benefit Zimmerman and having a better offense behind him will result in a really good season.

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Francisco Rodriguez 2 years 13 Million

The part of the Detroit Tigers that has held them back from championships in recent years has been their bullpen surrendering so many late leads. They addressed their biggest weakness by signing veteran closer Francisco Rodriguez (K-ROD). The Detroit Tigers bullpen was dismal in 2015 they ranked 27th posting a 4.38 and experienced many heartbreaking losses because of that. The addition of Rodriguez will finally give manager Brad Ausmus confidence in save situations and close ballgames.

The 14-year veteran Rodriguez has seen it all and has been one of the most consistent closers in Major League Baseball over that span. He has converted 386 saves with a 2.69 ERA very good numbers and should get some consideration for the Hall of Fame in my opinion, but he’s not done yet. The signing could be the most underrated of the off-season depending on how the team and Rodriguez perform, but I love this move and it could catapult the Tigers to a World Series Championship

The Detroit Tigers did a great job of bolstering every aspect of their roster and I expect them to be a contender throughout the 2016 season thanks to the front office and their wallets.

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3. Boston Red Sox

The Boston Red Sox are looking to rebound from a dismal 2015 season that saw them go from first to last. The Red Sox started this off-season by revamping the front office hiring Dave Dombrowski former head of baseball operations of the Tigers and former general manager of the Atlanta Braves Frank Wren to construct the best 25-man roster possible.

They made two major moves that make them major contenders in the American League East and beyond. They were able to land the best pitcher on the market in David Price and acquired the best closer in baseball over the last several years in Craig Kimbrel.

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David Price 7 years 217 Million

The Boston Red Sox definitely opened their wallets for Price, but I think it’s well worth it because it could possibly be a 10-win improvement with Price leaving the starting rotation. David Price has been one of the most consistent pitchers of his time, even though he has bounced around because of money issues and teams not being in contention.

Price went 18-5 with a 2.45 ERA with the Tigers and Blue Jays last season. In his regular-season career, he is virtually untouchable with a record of 104-56 with a 3.06 ERA. Those numbers show you why the Red Sox were willing to give him that contract.

However, the elephant in the room for Price is when the lights are brightest he tends to falter, his postseason record is 14-8 with a 5.12 ERA. He will get a chance to redeem himself with the Red Sox this season and I feel like he will have a great year and help his new team to a deep postseason run.

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Craig Kimbrel in Trade

The Boston Red Sox not only bolstered the beginning of the game, but also deepened their options at the end in the game as well acquiring Craig Kimbrel from the Padres. Some baseball executives say the Red Sox gave up too much for Kimbrel prospect wise however they are just prospects and you don’t know how they will pan out. Couple that with Kimbrel’s proven track record as one of the most reliable closers in Major League Baseball. With a bad San Diego Padres team Kimbrel still managed 39 saves and a 2.58 ERA. In his career he has 225 saves and a minuscule 1.63 ERA.

This was a great move for the Red Sox because they’ve had some uncertainty with injuries and inconsistency over the last couple seasons. Kimbrel provides durability and certainty in save situations and close ballgames.

These two moves are exactly what the Red Sox need to get back to their winning ways. The new front office made a great first impression on their fans we will see how it plays out on the diamond, but I think they are once again a scary team.

 Conclusion

 These are my three most improved teams this off-season that have greatly improved their chances to win a World Series title this season.  Do you agree?

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