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2016 MLB predictions: divisions, awards, the whole kit ‘n’ caboodle

March 30, 2016 Leave a comment

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Now that I’ve published what I consider to be the possible high and low points for every team, let’s keep the guessing game going with a look into what will happen by the end of this season.

Because you know how good I am with predictions.

American League East

1. Toronto Blue Jays (No. 1 seed in the AL playoffs)
2. Boston Red Sox (4)
3. New York Yankees
4. Tampa Bay Rays
5. Baltimore Orioles

Toronto’s offense is unmatched. But with Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and a strong bullpen, the Jays are much more than a bunch of bats. The Red Sox so desperately want to make up for last year’s failure, and they will to a point. David Price cures a lot of ails, but how far that team goes really hinges on the well-being of Clay Buchholz and their aged stalwarts.

American League Central

1. Cleveland Indians (3)
2. Detroit Tigers
3. Kansas City Royals
4. Minnesota Twins
5. Chicago White Sox

I’m assuming Michael Brantley has no further problems with his repaired shoulder. That pitching staff should be the best in the division. Detroit should hit a ton, and its new bullpen looks nice. I have them just below Cleveland because I don’t trust Anibal Sanchez to stay healthy, and the starters behind him in the rotation are a mystery. And no, I will never learn my lesson about doubting the Royals. I’m a stubborn person, OK?

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Best-case/worst-case scenarios for every MLB team in 2016

March 28, 2016 Leave a comment

question-marks-300x300You know the adage that is hammered into every team preview column at this time of year: Hope springs eternal. That hope is then extinguished pretty early for some teams. Really, really early for others. But we should all be optimists in March.  So, here’s what I consider to be the best-case scenario for each team on the field this season.

However, I’m also a realist. “Winning the World Series” isn’t a down-to-earth possibility for everyone. Conversely, there is no chance that the Cubs — even the Cubs — will lose 100-plus games. Consider this list a sensible results spectrum for each team. “Sensible results spectrum” just doesn’t sound catchy as a title.

Arizona Diamondbacks

Best Case: All that action in December pays off as Zack Greinke and Shelby Miller head a staff with a good amount of complementary talent. Patrick Corbin more closely resembles his 2013 form. The offense remains potent, and 36-year-old Brad Ziegler follows up a solid 2015 by continuing to make hitters pound the ball into the dirt. A division crown is very possible, and a trip to the NLCS isn’t out of the question.

Worst Case: This is basically a repeat of the 2015 Padres: Winning the offseason doesn’t promise success over the summer. Miller has an understandable regression, turning the rotation into Greinke followed by a bunch of guys. The offense will still be productive, but the likes of David Peralta and Yasmany Tomas don’t do enough to support Paul Goldschmidt and A.J. Pollock. Who knows if this will all mesh? If it doesn’t, third place is where they will land

Atlanta Braves

Best Case: For some teams, winning right now isn’t really what’s best for the club. The Braves are one such team. What’s best for them is seeing some of their young players (Ender Inciarte, Julio Teheran, Matt Wisler, Aaron Blair, etc.) provide hope for the future, a healthy Freddie Freeman, and a lot of losses so they can maximize their draft pool and couple Dansby Swanson with another No. 1 overall pick.

Worst Case: Freeman battles more injuries. Atlanta’s green pitchers get thoroughly battered around the league. Coming out to Turner Field only serves to remind fans how the Braves are technically deserting Atlanta and a relatively young ballpark to get their hands on some more sweet, sweet public money where a lot of rich white folks live. No hope.

Baltimore Orioles

Best Case: Chris Davis, Adam Jones, Manny Machado, Matt Weiters, J.J. Hardy, Jonathan Schoop, Mark Trumbo, Pedro Alvarez. This team should lead the sport in home runs, so that’s cool. If the starting rotation can be league average collectively, the O’s can slide their way into a Wild Card spot.

Worst Case: The starting rotation is as much of a tire fire as many expect. That unit lost Wei-Yin Chen and basically replaced him with a Yovani Gallardo who is becoming more hittable. Weiters still can’t shake the injury bug. In the game’s deepest division and bereft of an arm they can depend on to stop a losing streak when the strikeout-happy bats are slumping, Baltimore could find itself in last place comfortably

Boston Red Sox

Best Case: What was supposed to be in 2015 comes to fruition in 2016. All of the vets are able to stay healthy. Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez endear themselves to Red Sox Nation. David Ortiz gets one more shot at October magic. The duo of David Price and Clay Buchholz dominate, and the back end of the bullpen with Craig Kimbrel is no longer a point of great consternation for the Sawx. This squad has World Series potential

Worst Case: Another huge letdown. Price remains great, but the rotation otherwise is a mess. Buchholz hardly makes it past 100 innings again. Carson Smith’s elbow injury subtracts a critical late-inning weapon. First base becomes Ramirez’s latest comical defensive venture. With Sandoval, people talk more about his fat than his bat. Father Time continues to wear on Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia. Fourth place and another finish behind the Yankees.

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The NCAA Tournament double-crossed me (or: Another reason why I’m an idiot)

March 25, 2016 1 comment

dunce-capThis time last week, there were 32 teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament. Michigan State, of course, was not one of them. I had the Spartans winning the national title, which seemed like an astute (and common) choice before the tourney began.

Then, just like that, Michigan State was gone. After Sparty was plainly beaten by Middle Tennessee State, I wrote a post chastising myself for having such a deep belief in them. I wrote that I should have known better than to trust one of college basketball’s top powers to claim the throne in this of all seasons. In a season without a dominant squad. In a season that saw an Associated Press top-five team lose an NCAA-record 36 times.

I said that I shouldn’t have played it so safe with my picks — No. 4 Kentucky was the lowest-seeded team I had in my Final Four. And I said that those who had made similar choices were also going to see their brackets go up in flames because that Friday marked just the start of what was going to be this tourney’s run on major upsets. Here is my closing graph from that post:

“With three rounds still remaining until the Final Four, which Goliath will fall next? At this point, I think the better question is: By the time we get to Houston, which one, if any, will be left standing?”

 

That seemed like a proper line, if also a bit extreme, at a time when an unprecedented 10 teams with a double-digit seed were getting ready to play in the tournament’s second round. 

Now, one week later, only eight teams are left. What zany matchups await us in this upset-filled tournament?

No. 1 Kansas versus No. 2 Villanova.

No. 1 Oregon versus No. 2 Oregon.

No. 1. North Carolina versus No. 6 Notre Dame.

No. 1 Virginia versus No. 10 Syracuse.

Or, in other words, a lot of chalk.

The lower seeds might have ruled the day early on, but in the last two rounds, the higher seeds went 21-3. And just look at how the Sweet 16 panned out.

Yes, Wisconsin-Notre Dame and Gonzaga-Syracuse were entertaining, down-to-the-wire battles. But in the six other games over the past two nights, those No. 1 and No. 2 seeds not only won, they dominated. They steamrolled their way into the Elite 8. Those top seeds were victorious by an average of 15.8 points. It wasn’t all bad; I’ll concede that the first half of Kansas-Maryland was incredibly fun to watch with its fast pace and hard-nosed play. But the Jayhawks pulled away in the second half after the Terps couldn’t take advantage of some KU turnovers and missed four consecutive free throws at a crucial juncture.

Those five other games? 

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Virginia was never challenged. Oklahoma and North Carolina were in control by halftime and never relented. There was some good basketball, but if you wanted something that would captivate you for 40 minutes leading up to a bite-your-nails finish, you had to search somewhere else.

So, after ranting like that dude who stands on the street corner and screams about how the apocalypse is nigh, those upsets that I said were going to keep on happening never did. Six of the top eight seeds are still vying for a championship, and all of them have shown that they definitely deserve to be here.

This has left us with some matchups that are absolutely must-watch material, especially on Saturday (if you’re not hyped to see Kansas-Villanova or Oregon-Oklahoma, you don’t like college basketball).

This has also left me looking pretty stupid. I’m only 5-foot-10, but I’m big enough to admit when I am wrong. And I got this tournament wrong all over the place.

What is going to happen this weekend? I’m not going to make the same mistake twice. I’ve tapped out to March Madness. I’m done with trying to predict it — until I inevitably present my soon-to-be-shredded 2017 bracket 11 and a half months from now. I am just going to enjoy what’s ahead, whatever that is. I have no idea, obviously.

With perhaps its greatest upset, the NCAA Tournament spits in the face of conventional wisdom once again

March 18, 2016 Leave a comment

We think we know. We should have known better.

In an exceptionally enjoyable game for the eyes but not for everyone’s brackets Friday, Middle Tennessee State became the eighth No. 15 seed to knock off a No. 2 seed in NCAA Tournament history, winning 90-81 over Michigan State.

The Spartans, as head coach Tom Izzo said after the loss, played well. The Blue Raiders were just better. They hit 11 of 19 3-pointers and shot nearly 56 percent overall. Michigan State’s defense was fine for the most part; the likes of Giddy Potts, Robert Upshaw and Jaqawn Raymond just put on a ridiculous display of shot-making. MTSU grabbed more offensive rebounds and committed fewer turnovers. They stormed out to a 15-2 advantage — Izzo even admitted that his Spartans might have underestimated their opponents early on — and they never gave up the lead. Michigan State made it a one-point contest a few times, but Middle Tennessee State wouldn’t let them get over the hump.

In an honest and emotional interview with CBS just minutes after losing, Izzo said that this may be the toughest defeat of his coaching career because of how talented this team was and how many seniors were leading it, especially Player of the Year candidate Denzel Valentine, sharpshooter Bryn Forbes and glass-crasher Matt Costello. When talking about his seniors during the postgame press conference, Izzo understandably struggled to keep it together.

Izzo also said the Blue Raiders hit some shots that he’s never seen on film.

“We knew they could shoot them, but I’m not sure that I thought they could shoot 30-footers falling down getting fouled.”

And that description is not too far from the truth. It was one of those games where certain things needed to go right, and they certainly did for MTSU.

Thus, the bracket public in general was left with this:

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The worst part: We all knew this was coming. A crazy season with an unheard of number of losses from the big boys was most likely going to beget an even crazier NCAA Tournament. If there was any year to stray from the pack, this was it.

That’s not saying anything about Friday’s game. Michigan State should have been the heavy favorite, and everyone should have chosen them to win. It goes beyond today. In a season where no team has looked all that dominant, we shouldn’t trust the top seeds. 

But I didn’t listen even though I knew the facts — I went with Michigan State winning it all. And I was certainly not alone. The Spartans were the favorite or the co-favorite to take home the trophy at many Las Vegas sportsbooks. In ESPN’s Bracket Challenge, 22.3 percent of all brackets placed Sparty in the national final, behind only Kansas at 25 percent. No team was expected to make to make the Sweet 16 more than Michigan State (80.9 percent).

If you combine the picks from the college basketball experts at ESPN, CBS and NBC’s College Basketball Talk, 45 of those 49 people had Michigan State advancing to at least the Final Four, and 29 of them picked Michigan State to win the championship.

It’s that kind of confidence from people supposedly in the know that helps the argument that this is the greatest upset in the history of the Tournament. And remember, this is a Michigan State squad that many believed should have been a No. 1 seed after claiming the Big 10 Conference Tournament. I think this is the closest we have ever come to witnessing a 16 actually take down a 1.

The Spartans had plenty of company in the category of surprising early exits too. Friday saw No. 3 seed West Virginia, a short-handed No. 4 seed California and No. 6 seed Texas vanquished. The Round of 32 will consist of 10 double-digit seeds, a tournament record. Because, of course. Of course this was going to happen. And it will keep happening because that’s the year it has been.

The Final Four in many brackets consisted of Michigan State, Kansas, Oklahoma and then either North Carolina or Kentucky. All pretty safe bets. But of all years, why did so many of us play it safe?

Because we thought that we were smart and went with what made sense. We had watched college basketball this year and believed that we had a pretty good idea of what was going to take place, understanding that some underdogs are always going to rise up.

Not even close. The NCAA Tournament teaches us every time that we don’t know anything. Many games are decided by the vagaries of luck. Based on this year’s regular season, we should have expected a development like the one Friday brought us, with so many higher seeds getting kicked out of the dance. Hardly anyone had Michigan State departing so soon, but we should have expected them to run into trouble at some point since trouble has found the top teams in college basketball more often in 2015-16 than ever before. Most brackets didn’t reflect that, however. Those are now kindling. 

With three rounds still remaining until the Final Four, which Goliath will fall next? At this point, I think the better question is: By the time we get to Houston, which one, if any, will be left standing?

 

Baylor loses composure, time and game to Yale in another first-round flop

March 17, 2016 Leave a comment

The Baylor Bears entered Thursday’s game in Providence looking to make people forget about their loss to 14th-seeded Georgia State in the first round of last year’s NCAA Tourney. And they may have done it, with an even more underwhelming and puzzling display against the 12th-seeded Yale Bulldogs. 

Before I get to Baylor, Yale deserves a lot of credit, obviously. In a matchup between two teams that really know how to rebound, Yale showed more determination than the bigger and longer Big 12 team, winning the overall battle on the glass, 36-32. They also ripped up Baylor’s zone defense and could always get a layup on a back cut whenever they needed an answer.

Yale guard Makai Mason looked like the very early favorite for darling of the tournament as the 6-foot-1 sophomore tallied 17 points in a first half that included a four-minute stretch where he connected on five consecutive shots. He finished with a career-high 31 points and 11-for-11 from the line.

You would think that an attack heavy on 3-pointers would be Yale’s best course of action against the zone, but the Bulldogs hit just 5 of 16 shots from deep. Instead, they won this game inside and at the free throw line. They made 63.6 percent of their two-point attempts and went 22-for-29 from the stripe. That included making five of six attempts in the final 20 seconds that helped salt away the 79-75 triumph.

Baylor deserved to lose this game; they were outplayed in most aspects of it. But it’s how the Bears lost that will be much-discussed on the highlight shows tonight.

First of all, again, they got pushed around inside despite possessing a significant advantage in length and athleticism. It was similar to what happened during the game that preceded Baylor-Yale in Providence. Duke entered the half trailing UNC-Wilmington. But they came out of the break with energy and fed Marshall Plumlee consistently to exploit its interior advantage. They ended up running away with the game.

Conversely, Baylor led for all of 49 seconds in the latter half and appeared disinterested for long spans of time, especially on the defensive side of the ball. They missed at least 20 shots from close range. They trailed by 13 points with less than seven minutes left. And during that second half, this happened between two of Baylor’s senior leaders.

Up until about the six-minute mark, the Bears showed more fight between each other than versus Yale. Then they began their march back into the game, buoyed by Prince’s 16 points in the second half. Trailing by just four with 1:17 left, Baylor guard Ishmail Wainright created a steal off the inbounds pass and assisted guard Jake Lindsey on a layup that cut the margin to two with 1:14 left.

Or 1:13 … 1:12 …. 1:11 … uh oh.

For some reason, the clock didn’t stop after Lindsey’s basket. Even worse, the refs never saw it nor were they alerted to it. Because of that, Baylor ended up losing 15 extremely critical seconds. Get those back, and we may be talking about a different result. 

Still, down by two with about six seconds left, Baylor had a chance to win it or push this game into overtime. But as senior guard Lester Medford drove into the lane, he lost the ball and, for all intents and purposes, Baylor’s spot in the tourney.

The general sentiment on Twitter after the game appeared to be that this is just what Baylor and head coach Scott Drew do. However, those people must not realize that from 2010-2014, Baylor experienced March Madness three times and didn’t fall short of the Sweet 16 in any of them. They appeared in the Elite 8 twice. For what it’s worth, they won the NIT in 2013.

But coming off of what happened in 2015 and coupling it with Thursday’s effort, complete with lazy defense, a lack of toughness and infighting, the narrative that Baylor will find ways to lose in the NCAA Tournament is firmly set.

My 2016 NCAA Tournament Bracket*

March 15, 2016 Leave a comment

*Bracket subject to change because I still have a couple of days to think about it and I’m scared of commitment.

This college basketball season witnessed a tremendous amount of upheaval at the top of the heap. The No. 1 ranking in the Associated Press poll changed hands seven times and there were an unprecedented 36 losses from AP top-5 teams, 21 of which came via unranked opponents.

We saw nearly this much top-shelf turnover during the 2012-13 season (31 top-5 losses). And the NCAA Tournament that year was pretty bonkers. A trio of No. 12 seeds won at least one game. The Sweet 16 was populated by the likes of 15th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast and 13th-seeded La Salle. The Final Four consisted of Wichita State, Michigan, Syracuse and Louisville. By seed number, that’s a nine, two fours and a one making it out of their region, respectively.

With the number of upsets ratcheted up this year, what can we expect during the tournament that makes its name with unfathomable upsets and unpredictable outcomes?

In my opinion, A WHOLE LOT OF CHALK!

Yes, I have thought it through and I have come away what most should consider a pretty mundane bracket. 

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The South

— I still contend that this is the toughest region of the four. I know a lot of these teams have been inconsistent, but if they play up to their talent, Kansas is going to have one hell of a tough road getting out of here. However, they are easily the most trustworthy team in the region.

— Maryland, in my opinion, is the most talented team in the country. They are also extremely frustrating to watch at times as they don’t play up to that talent as much as you would like. But — NEWS FLASH — Cal is sort of in the same boat. They have NBA players in their starting five, but they seem to find ways to lose games. They should overwhelm their first-round opponents, but neither the Terps nor the Golden Bears will play well enough for long enough to get past KU. I favor Cal over Maryland only because hearing Cal guard Tyrone Wallace’s name makes me think of this.

— Villanova will make it to the second weekend for the first time since 2009. I have no doubt about that. But I think Miami has the guards to match up with Villanova’s, assuming that “good Angel Rodriguez” makes it to the game.

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March Madness bracket tip: Preparation won’t help

March 14, 2016 Leave a comment

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Who you got in your bracket? Do you think Kansas can make it out of the Region of Death? Which double-digit seeds will advance to the Sweet 16? Will a No. 1 win it all?

Before you absorb all of the expert’s upset calls, bold predictions and bracket simulators, let me just say this:

Stop it. They won’t help you.

I don’t know about you, but I fool myself every year. I watch college basketball intently not only because I enjoy the game; I watch so that I’m more knowledgeable when it comes time to fill out my bracket. That’s the plan at least. Then the bracket is unveiled — curiously sooner than planned this year — and I dive into the matchups.

Senior leadership. Tourney-tested coaches. Solid guard play. Low turnover rates. Pace. Rebounding margins. 3-point defense.  It’s that and more which I look at when deciding who should advance. 

I read, I watch, I recall, all in the name of preparation. I complete my bracket, but continue to stress over whether I’ve made the right calls in those crucial 4-13, 5-12 and 6-11 pairings. Second-guessing reigns supreme.

Finally, Thursday morning arrives mercifully and everything locks.

Within two hours, I discover that I have wasted my time. That’s what happened last year when 14th-seeded UAB knocked off Big 12 Tournament champion Iowa State, a team many had rolling to the Sweet 16 and beyond, in the day’s first set of games. Who saw that coming? And the number of brackets still intact after that game became microscopically small when Georgia State, another 14 seed, beat Baylor later in the afternoon.

Who had Dayton moving to the Elite 8 in 2014?

What about the emergence of Florida Gulf Coast’s “Dunk City,” and Wichita State getting to the Final Four in 2013?

Two 15 seeds won games in 2012. If you predicted that, you are a liar.

The fact that any team, no matter how much more talented or favored, can be defeated by any other team on any given day is what makes the NCAA Tournament great. That is its calling card, its legacy. The buzzer-beating upsets are often times more memorable than the teams that actually won the entire thing.

And I am no longer such an idiot to believe that I can forecast those upsets through a certain level of stat-gathering and analysis. Because I can’t and neither can you. Results no one expected are certain to occur this week. Something on the level of Lakers over Warriors in 2016 is almost assured. So mark up your brackets, but don’t think too hard about your choices. Flip those coins. Pick one mascot over another. Go squarely with your gut. Odds are you will be just as correct as those people, such as myself, who think they actually have a beat on college basketball. Plus, you will save yourself from the dreadful feeling that you wasted precious time in your life scouring over reams of information with no benefit.