Thursday, March 26, 2015

Time For Baseball (AL East)

The wait has been seemingly interminable.  The fact that Winter refuses to go away is probably one of the main reasons why, but it seems like forever since there's been a Major League Baseball game.  And, of course, this year the season starts on the latest possible date, making the wait that much longer.

But the light at the end of the tunnel is in sight.  We're just 10 days away from Opening Day.  And since baseball's my favorite sport and baseball season is one of my favorite times of the year, that means it's also time to finally start my world-famous six-part baseball preview.

I'll work my way west, but this year I'll mix it up a little.  Instead of running through the American League this week and the National League next week, I'll go back-and-forth while still going from East to West.  That gives me a chance to start with the division I know best--the AL East.

Now, I've heard all the "experts" dissect the AL East and explain why all five teams have no chance to make the playoffs.  I've also heard those same "experts" explain why all five teams might win the division.  Basically, no one knows what's going to happen in the AL East this season.  There's no question that the division is nowhere near as intimidating as it used to be.  All five teams are good, but none is considered among the favorites for the American League pennant.  I guess that's why people are saying it's a down year for division.  And that point I agree with.  We're most likely not going to see a 90-game winner in the AL East, and they're probably looking at only the division winner playing in October.  But without Minnesota and Houston and Texas to beat up on, they're all going to end up pretty close to one another.  The AL East will likely be the most competitive division in baseball.  I'm seeing four of the five winning between 80 and 90.

1. Toronto Blue Jays: A couple years ago, the Blue Jays were the chic pick to win the AL East after they made that massive trade with the Marlins.  Well, we all know what happened then.  This year, people are almost as high on the Blue Jays.  And rightfully so.  They've got a lot of weapons and are loaded with pitching.  Except this time, Toronto's offseason moves weren't made to make a splash.  They made smart moves that filled holes and improved the team.  Case in point--the Josh Donaldson trade.  Now they've got a solid No. 5 hitter to put after Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion.  And let's not underestimate the value of Russell Martin.  Two years ago, the Yankees lost him and fell apart.  The Pirates got him and turned into a playoff team.  Now he returns home to Toronto looking to work that same magic with the Blue Jays.  My biggest concern with Toronto is rotation depth, especially since they're going to be without Marcus Stroman.  Their bullpen is very good, though.  That strength could carry the Blue Jays if the rotation struggles even a little.  I've been wrong about this team before.  Two years ago, I bought into the hype.  But this year's Blue Jays team seems different.  With the Royals making it last year, Toronto now has the longest postseason drought in the Majors.  I wouldn't be surprised if that changes and they end up winning the AL East.
Projected Lineup: Jose Reyes-SS, Michael Saunders-LF, Jose Bautista-RF, Edwin Encarnacion-DH, Josh Donaldson-3B, Russell Martin-C, Justin Smoak-1B, Maicer Izturis-2B, Dalton Pompey-CF
Projected Rotation: R.A. Dickey, Mark Buehrle, Drew Hutchison, Aaron Sanchez, Marco Estrada
Closer: Brett Cecil
Projected Record: 89-73

2. Boston Red Sox: In 2012, the Red Sox finished in last place.  Then they won the 2013 World Series before finishing last again last season.  So, in typical Red Sox fashion, they went out and spent a lot of money on free agents this winter.  The resulting moves have made them a popular pick to get back to the top of the AL East.  Except there's one big problem with that theory.  When they traded Jon Lester to Oakland, the expectation was to get him back as a free agent and have both Lester and Yoenis Cespedes on the roster come April.  Well, neither one plays in Boston.  Lester decided he'd rather reunite with Theo Epstein in Chicago than reunite with the Red Sox.  Since they had no backup plan whatsoever, they worked a trade with the Tigers to get Rick Porcello, who's not a No. 1 starter.  The cost?  Yoenis Cespedes.  Meaning that trade served absolutely no long-term purpose for either team.  The pitching's thin, which is why I don't like the Red Sox to win the division.  The lineup is loaded, perhaps a little too loaded.  It's been a couple months, but I'm still trying to make sense of the Hanley Ramirez signing.  Boston doesn't actually have a place for him, so they're sticking a guy who's never played the outfield before in left field in Fenway.  It's a confusing signing.  Basically, they just threw a bunch of money at one of the best hitters available, then thought about it after the fact.  For a team that takes great pride in "not doing things the way the Yankees do them," it was a very George Steinbrenner-like move.  So was getting the Cuban second baseman.  I'm not sure where they plan on playing him, either.  I'm also not sure how good Pablo Sandoval's going to be in the American League or if they'll have enough food for both him and Big Papi.  And Ortiz's inability to play an actual position really hurts them in interleague play, where they have to put him at first base and take Mike Napoli's bat out of the lineup.  Where do the Red Sox start the season?  In Philadelphia.
Projected Lineup: Mookie Betts-CF, Shane Victorino-RF, Dustin Pedroia-2B, David Ortiz-DH, Hanley Ramirez-LF, Mike Napoli-1B, Pablo Sandoval-3B, Xander Bogaerts-SS, Ryan Hanigan-C
Projected Rotation: Clay Buchholz, Rick Porcello, Joe Kelly, Wade Miley, Justin Masterson
Closer: Koji Uehara
Projected Record: 88-74

3. New York Yankees: To everyone who keeps telling me how much the Yankees are going to suck this season, I beg to differ.  Are they entering the season as favorites?  No.  Since people aren't accustomed to that, I guess it means they think the team isn't any good, but some of the projections I've seen are just ridiculous.  There are so many "experts" who think the Yankees are a sub-.500 team.  How?  Because of injuries (first to all the hitters, then to all the pitchers), this team's been just about as bad as anyone can imagine over the past two seasons.  Yet they've still won 84 and 85 games.  And seeing as it's highly unlikely they'll have such a rash of injuries three years in a row, how can anybody in their right mind think the Yankees are any worse?  Sure, a lot of their starters are old, but they didn't simply utilize their old approach of overspending for every available free agent (that's what the Red Sox did).  Instead they made moves that they thought made sense for the team, even though that meant not even going after James Shields, who would've been a perfect fit.  Losing David Robertson hurts, but Dellin Betances and Andrew Miller are plenty capable at the back-end of the bullpen, which remains probably their greatest strength.  Masahiro Tanaka's a Tommy John surgery waiting to happen, but if the top three in the rotation stay healthy and CC returns to form, that's a very dynamic front-end.  As for the offense, which has been the Yankees' Achilles heel over the past couple seasons, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann and Mark Teixeira really need to have bounce-back years.  I've made my peace with re-signing Stephen Drew because, as Brian Cashman explained, it's not possible for him to suck as much as he did last season two years in a row.  And if he does, they'll just cut him.  I was very adamant about wanting Chase Headley at the deadline last year, and to keep him this offseason, so I'm glad he's in Pinstripes for the long run.  Didi Gregorius will never be Derek Jeter, so I hope people don't expect him to be.  He's a much better shortstop, though.  Then there's the elephant in the room.  All of those people projecting 78 wins also didn't have A-Rod involved with this team at all.  Well you know what?  They weren't just going to cut a guy they owe $61 million over the next three years.  I think A-Rod could be the missing piece in this lineup.  Especially since he's the only right-handed-hitting starter.  He's going to be 40.  He doesn't give you anything at third base.  That's why it was important to re-sign Headley.  But I think Rodriguez is going to give the Yankees more than his critics expect.  If everything goes right this season, the Yankees can definitely end their two-year playoff drought
Projected Lineup: Jacoby Ellsbury-CF, Brett Gardner-LF, Carlos Beltran-RF, Mark Teixeira-1B, Alex Rodriguez-DH, Chase Headley-3B, Brian McCann-C, Stephen Drew-2B, Didi Gregorius-SS
Projected Rotation: Masahiro Tanaka, CC Sabathia, Michael Pineda, Nathan Eovaldi, Adam Warren
Closer: Dellin Betances
Projected Record: 86-76

4. Baltimore Orioles: Everything that possibly could've gone right for the Baltimore Orioles last season did.  They won their first division title in 17 years and made it to the ALCS with a roster that, for the most part, was devoid of superstars.  It's impressive that they made this run without two of their best players--Matt Wieters and Manny Machado.  They get those two back at some point in 2015, but they also lost Nelson Cruz and Nick Markakis in free agency.  That'll hurt Baltimore more than people think.  Chris Davis has one more game left on his suspension, but American League pitchers figured him out after that monster first half in 2013.  That leaves Adam Jones as their only legitimate, in-his-prime star.  He's surrounded by a bunch of good bats, but they'll need to make up for Cruz's power somehow.  My biggest concern with Baltimore, though, is the pitching.  The most remarkable thing about the 2014 Orioles is that their pitching staff consisted of a bunch of No. 3 starters.  And they got more out of Chris Tillman and Wei-Yin Chen and Michael Gonzalez than anyone could've ever expected.  But will all those extra innings pitched in the postseason have an effect on them this year?  They really needed to make a run at James Shields or somebody else who could be considered an "ace" and they didn't do it.  Because the Orioles also aren't going to sneak up on anybody anymore, and they aren't as good as they were last season.  Of course, I've said that about the Orioles before, so what do I know?  Like everyone else in this division, everything could go right and they could end up winning 90 games.  I think finishing near .500 is more likely.
Projected Lineup: Alejandro De Aza-LF, Manny Machado-3B, Adam Jones-CF, Chris Davis-1B, Matt Wieters-C, J.J. Hardy-SS, Steve Pearce-DH, Travis Snider-RF, Jonathan Schoop-2B
Projected Rotation: Chris Tillman, Wei-Yin Chen, Bud Norris, Michael Gonzalez, Ubaldo Jimenez
Closer: Zach Britton
Projected Record: 81-81

5. Tampa Bay Rays: The team in the AL East I think is most likely to struggle this season is Tampa Bay.  The Rays had such an incredible run for a few years before injuries caught up to them and they only won 77 games last season.  But one big component of those teams is gone.  Joe Maddon is now the manager of the Cubs.  And his loss will be felt.  Maddon worked wonders with this team, taking them to the World Series in 2008 and making them contenders almost every year.  It'll be a difficult task for new manager Kevin Cash to keep up the magic, though.  For starters, the Rays simply aren't as good a team as they've been.  David Price?  Traded to Detroit.  Ben Zobrist?  Traded to Oakland.  Wil Myers?  Traded to San Diego.  They're left with the Face of the Franchise, Evan Longoria, and not much else.  Of course, the strength of the team is still its fantastic pitching staff, though.  Except they don't have David Price anymore, and most of their starting pitchers are dealing with some sort of injury issues.  I don't think they're going to regress back to the Devil Rays days.  This franchise has come too far for that.  But it's definitely going to be a struggle in 2015.  The Rays simply aren't as good as the rest of the AL East.
Projected Lineup: Desmond Jennings-LF, Asdrubal Cabrera-SS, Evan Longoria-3B, James Loney-1B, John Jaso-DH, Steven Souza-RF, Logan Forsythe-2B, Rene Rivera-C, Kevin Kiermaier-CF
Projected Rotation: Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi, Alex Cobb, Drew Smyly, Matt Moore
Closer: Grant Balfour
Projected Record: 75-87

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Live From London, Only Online

The NFL announced yesterday that, unless you live in Buffalo or Jacksonville, you won't actually be able to watch the Bills-Jaguars game in Week 7 on TV.  If this was a normal Bills-Jaguars game that wouldn't be newsworthy.  That's your typical No. 6 regional 1:00 game on CBS.  But this is different.  It's a 9:30 a.m. game in London.

Last year the NFL began that 9:30 a.m. experiment and it seemed to work out really well.  It was the same week as Bills-Jaguars will be this year, which is the Sunday FOX has the World Series.  So, instead of having a late game that could've run long and into their World Series coverage, FOX used the 9:30 a.m. Falcons-Lions game as its national game.  To great success.  The NFL loved it.  It gave them a new time slot to show games, and they were no longer limited to just 1:00 starts for London.

It worked so well that Bills-Jaguars isn't the only game getting an early start this season.  The Jets-Dolphins London game in Week 4 will also start at 9:30 a.m.  Unlike Bills-Jaguars, though, that one will be televised nationally.  I'm assuming CBS will do the same thing with that game that FOX did last year with Falcons-Lions.  FOX will have the doubleheader, while CBS will treat the 9:30 game as the first part of its doubleheader.

But the Bills-Jaguars game won't be.  Instead, the NFL is making it available only online, except in the two regional markets.  It won't even be available on Sunday Ticket, which has been the only way to watch every NFL game regardless of market for years.  It won't be on Red Zone either.  And I've gotta admit, it's a bold strategy.

I have several theories as to why the NFL is trying this online only approach.  First and foremost, I think CBS had absolutely no interest in wasting a national game on Bills-Jaguars.  If this was a typical London game with the 6:00 (1:00 Eastern) start time, that wouldn't be a problem.  They could simply just make Bills-Jaguars a regional game the way they would any other week.  But with the early start, this was their only option other than making it a national game.  Seeing as the Patriots, Broncos, Steelers, Colts and Ravens (all teams that are going bring in much higher ratings) are all in the AFC, I'm sure CBS was willing to give this game up rather than be forced to make a game such as Denver at Pittsburgh regional so that this one could be national.

And by making it an online exclusive, they kind of are making it a national game.  If it was the typical 6:00/1:00 start time, it would've been regional.  But you know there's plenty of people who are going to make it a point to find the game on NFL.com or wherever so that they can watch it.  And that'll be a whole lot more eyeballs than just those in Western New York and Northeastern Florida.

Next, it gives them a chance to see if people will watch a game that's only available online.  Especially a game between two crappy teams at 9:30 in the morning.  It's a well-known fact that people have taken to watching sports on their phones and iPads and computers and various devices other than their actual televisions.  But TV has always been one of those options.  If that option is taken away, will people still watch?  Or at least enough to make it worthwhile?

Just like last year when they decided to experiment with the 9:30 start time to begin with, the NFL thinks it's something worth trying.  And I'd be willing to bet that by trying it with a mediocre matchup that not many people would've sought out otherwise, they're really going to see how well it can work.  I'm not sure how they're going to figure out the ratings for this game, but I'm pretty sure they'll be satisfied.

You're also giving people who otherwise wouldn't have the opportunity the chance to watch an NFL game.  Yes, most games are available on free, over-the-air TV.  But not everybody has a TV.  I'm not saying everybody has access to the internet, either.  Regardless, this is a new way to watch a game.  And I don't know what the NFL's TV deals in other countries are like, but it's called the worldwide web.  Assuming they don't have any sort of blackout restrictions where you have to be in a certain country to watch it, you'll be able to watch this game wherever you are in the world.  I'm not sure that's ever been possible before.

Nobody's worried about this becoming a trend either.  The NFL makes far too much money from its TV deals to start taking games off TV.  But the idea of watching a game only via a live stream?  The novelty of it alone is going to bring in viewers.

Actually, maybe it will start a trend.  NBC live streams the Sunday night game every week, with alternate camera angles and other enhanced features.  Like all ESPN programming, Monday Night Football is available on ESPN3.  And the NFL Network games are on NFL.com for those that still don't have NFL Network.  If this Bills-Jaguars stream works (which I'm pretty sure it will), maybe CBS and FOX will start streaming their regional games on their websites.  Whether it's just the game that's on TV in your area or some sort of Sunday Ticket-type paid service would have to be decided, but you know people would pay for it if they had to.  And think about how much more the NFL can get from the networks if digital rights are included?

In other NFL TV-related news, they've lifted the blackout rule for the upcoming season.  The blackout rule has had very little effect in the past few years anyway.  There weren't any last season and there were only two the year before.  But by lifting it, they're making the NFL more accessible to the fan that might not be able to afford to go to a game.  It doesn't hurt that they're most likely improving their TV ratings while they're at it.  Just like a webstream-only broadcast, that's really what it's all about.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

MLB News at the Dawn of a New Season

Even though we're in the midst of March Madness and baseball season is still a couple of weeks away, there's still plenty of news being made around the Majors.  The players are in Florida and Arizona, we've already got a couple pitchers headed to Tommy John (Yu Darvish and Zack Wheeler) and people are making their judgments on which teams are going to be good based on meaningless Spring Training games being played by guys who aren't going to make the team.

For his part, new Commissioner Rob Manfred has made some news with decisions he's made during his first two months on the job.  Nothing controversial, mind you, but noteworthy nonetheless.

First, Manfred handed out a couple of All-Star Games.  This year's is in Cincinnati, but they hadn't announced 2016 or any future years yet.  Well, he took care of that by giving the 2016 All-Star Game to San Diego and 2017 to Miami.  He was really just following through on promises Bud Selig made to cities that built new stadiums, but the problem was that all of these new stadiums are in the National League and the All-Star Game traditionally alternates between leagues.

There's no rule that says the All-Star Game alternates.  It's strictly just honoring tradition.  And we have seen the same league host consecutive All-Star Games before (the NL had back-to-back in 2006-07 to set up 2008 at Old Yankee Stadium in its final year).  But this is the first time one league will host three in a row. 

That would be more significant if they hadn't changed the rules a couple years ago to use the DH in the All-Star Game no matter what, but the "home" team designation is the real argument you could've used for preserving the tradition.  Which team is "home" is more important in baseball than any other sport, and batting in the bottom of the ninth is a big deal.  Especially since the league that wins the All-Star Game gets the extra home game in the World Series, it wouldn't have been fair to have the National League bat last three straight times.  Manfred recognized that, so he declared that even though the game will be played in San Diego, the American League will be the "home" team in 2016.  It'll be kinda weird, but I think we'll all get over it pretty quickly.  And it was definitely the fair thing to do.

Another one of Manfred's changes regarding the All-Star Game will take a little more getting used to.  Starting this year, the only place to vote will be online.  MLB cited research that a majority of All-Star votes were being made online anyway, and they had thousands of paper ballots at ballparks that were never filled out last season.  This way, they're eliminating all those wasted paper ballots (and it's probably a lot easier to count online votes, too).

This is not a novel approach.  The NBA, NHL and NFL did away with the paper ballots a long time ago.  But the All-Star voting numbers in those three sports are nowhere near what they are in baseball (Zemgus Girgensons was the leading vote getter in the NHL this year, and I don't even think he broke a million).  I've got to think fans having the ability to vote both at the ballpark and online had a lot to do with that. 

I go to a lot of games, and I would always grab a couple All-Star ballots and drop them in the little box, then go online late in the game and max out my online votes.  And what are they going to do about that maximum number of votes?  Will it go up?  Will it be eliminated completely, letting you vote as many times as you want for whoever you want like the All-Star Final Vote?  Because if they don't change the rule about the vote max, the number of All-Star votes cast will drop significantly.  I'm not saying it was a completely terrible idea to do away with in-stadium paper voting.  I'm definitely curious how much not having it will affect vote totals, though.

With the US and Cuba renewing diplomatic relations after all these years, that obviously helps Major League Baseball tremendously.  Manfred's not an idiot.  He sees the value of playing games in Cuba.  The Orioles played a couple exhibition games against the Cuban National Team like 15 years ago and they were a tremendous success.  Regular season games in Cuba might not be too far off.  It's probably not going to happen in 2016, but the Orioles and Red Sox have both expressed interest in playing Spring Training games there.  I can definitely see that happening, perhaps as a precursor to regular season games (or, at the very least, World Baseball Classic games) in 2017.

But the best announcement Manfred made is also the one that came as the biggest surprise.  That doesn't make it any less great.  This year, all 15 games on the final day of the regular season will start at the same time, 3 p.m. ET.  No staggered start times to give any team an advantage over another that it might be fighting for a division title/playoff spot.  Likewise, no sitting around waiting for the West Coast games to end to figure out whether you're in or out or where you're going.

Let's not kid ourselves.  This is by no means a novel concept.  They've been doing it in the World Cup and all the major European soccer leagues for years.  The NFL does it somewhat, too.  They adjust the start times in Week 17 so that games impacting each other kick off at the same time.  It's refreshing to see Major League Baseball adopt that same mindset.  Sure, it might negatively impact a team that's already in the postseason and won't have the luxury of setting up its pitching, but it's definitely something worth trying.  And the 3:00 start time is genius. 

When they announced it was 3, I thought it was kind of weird.  "Why not 4:00?", I thought.  Then I remembered that the final Sunday of the baseball season is Week 4 of the NFL season.  And starting baseball games at 3 means the 1:00 football games aren't over yet and the 4:00 football games haven't started yet.  You have to make a choice.  You can't put the baseball game on once the football game is over.  Or, you could just go to a bar and watch them both at the same time.

Saturday, March 21, 2015

Proposed NFL Rule Changes: The Good, The Bad and The Strange

There were a whopping 23 rules changes proposed by/to the NFL's competition committee that will be voted on at next week's owners meetings.  I'm not sure if that number's actually high or not, but it certainly seems like a lot.  And they run the gamut.  There are some that are good, some bad ones, and, thanks to the Colts, some that are downright strange.

It should be noted that none of these rule changes are guaranteed to pass.  As of now, they're just proposals.  In order to pass, 24 of the 32 owners have to agree.  But there's going to be plenty of discussion about some of them, which was inevitable after the two high-profile situations involving the Dallas Cowboys in the playoffs.  I'm still not sure how that wasn't a catch by Dez Bryant in the Green Bay game.  I'm not alone, either.  You can bet that one's getting pushed to the forefront, if only to give people some idea what the hell is going on when seemingly obvious plays are overturned.

The catch-or-no-catch thing is obviously what garnered the biggest attention.  Call it the "Calvin Johnson rule" or, more likely now, the "Dez Bryant rule."  Interestingly, though, the owners said they'll discuss it, but there's no specific proposal on the table.  So, it looks like we're stuck with the confusing interpretation that no one understands for at least another season.  But, since they're discussing it, it's pretty obvious the owners know there needs to be a change of some sort.  I'd expect a new rule in place for 2015.

Surprisingly, another thing they're not going to vote on is expanded playoffs.  Roger Goddell has been obsessed with this idea for like a year and a half, and I think everyone just expected the owners to not only vote on adding a seventh playoff team per conference, but for it to pass with flying colors.  Evidently there was some pushback, though (my guess is from the networks), so they're likely going to maintain the 12-team playoff format that's been used since 1990 for at least one more season.

Most of what they're actually going to discuss involves replay.  After what happened on the pass interference that wasn't in the playoffs, the Lions proposed that all penalties can be reviewed.  That would open up a whole can of worms, so it's probably not going to pass, but reviewing personal fouls might, and that's not a bad idea.  Because those 15 yards can be huge and we've seen enough plays that weren't personal fouls draw a flag and vice versa that it's worth a conversation.  Same thing with penalties that lead to an automatic first down, which is also on the table.

I also like the idea of adding the time on the game clock and/or play clock to the list of things that can be reviewed.  Frankly, it seems silly that they can't be.  If you've been watching the NCAA Tournament, you know that 95 percent of replay reviews in college basketball involve checking the clock.  It makes sense that they should be able to do the same thing in football.  Just like it makes sense to place fixed cameras on the goal line, giving officials the same view in every stadium, and allowing them to use stadium video to aid in replays, especially if it gives them an angle they wouldn't have had otherwise.

Likewise, it makes sense to expand defenseless receiver protection to the intended target on interceptions.  So does enforcing the penalty instead of just picking up the flag when the pass would've been incomplete. 

However, I don't think it's necessary to change the challenge system.  One proposal suggested teams can simply call timeout instead of throwing the red flag, and they'll get the timeout back if the challenge is successful.  That's not really any different, so why change it?  Others want teams to get three challenges no matter what.  The whole idea of only getting a third challenge if you're right on the first two is an incentive to not challenge every play.  That's what I think could end up happening.  Also unnecessary: allowing challenges in the last two minutes.  Why?  They already review everything that's close in the last two minutes automatically.

Some of the other rule changes are so inconsequential that nobody will really notice them.  For example, they want to allow linebackers to start wearing numbers in the 40s.  Some teams are apparently running out of numbers in the 50s and 90s, which are currently the only ones linebackers are allowed.  I'm not really sure how that's possible (all 20 numbers in the 50s and 90s are taken?  Really?), but is anyone going to care if some random rookie backup linebacker that only plays special teams is wearing No. 48?  Probably not.

Then there's the ridiculous suggestion from our friends in Indianapolis.  I'm not even sure I can explain this.  It's that stupid.  The Colts proposed that teams have the opportunity to kick a "bonus field goal" from 50 yards out after successful two-point conversions.  If the kick was good, teams would get an extra point, thus making it theoretically possible to get nine points on one possession.  I don't know who's brainchild this was or how the idea came about, but mostly everyone agrees it's pretty dumb.  If anything, why not try the Canadian football rule where you get four points for a field goal of 50 yards or more?  That would have a much better chance of passing.

While everyone seems to be OK with the overtime rule, the Bears would like to see both teams get a possession regardless.  When they changed it a couple years ago to match the playoff rule, that was the right thing to do.  I'm not sure there's a need to revisit it again.  If a team scores a touchdown on their first possession of overtime, they win.  If your defense can't stop them, that's your problem.  And what if both teams score a touchdown?  Then does it become sudden death?  You're running the risk of turning this into the college game if you keep tinkering with the overtime rules.

Bill Belichick was the inspiration for one proposal.  In what can be interpreted as a direct response to the Patriots' tactics in the playoffs, the Ravens proposed a change to the eligible receiver rule.  Currently, linemen (basically, anyone with a number in the 50s, 60s, 70s and 90s) have to report to the official in order to be recognized as an eligible receiver on any offensive play.  Otherwise, it's illegal formation.  There's no such rule on players with legal numbers (1-49, 80-89) reporting as ineligible and lining up as a blocker.  New England exploited that loophole that Baltimore would like to see closed.  I think I'm with the Ravens on this one.  It's not technically illegal, but it's definitely gamesmanship.

Speaking of Belichick, he won't let that extra points from the 15-yard line thing go.  He brought it up again.  No word on whether or not he also made a proposal about changing the minimum amount of air you're required to inflate a football to.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Just the Conference Champs

Way back when, the NCAA Tournament used to consist of only conference champions.  It was probably 1974 when they realized they had to include at-large teams.  That year, NC State won the National Championship and Maryland might've been the second-best team in the nation, but wasn't even in the Tournament because they lost to NC State in the ACC Championship Game.

That whole idea seems odd in this day and age.  Of course two of the best teams can come out of the same conference.  They usually do.  There was that span of like six years in a row where there was two teams from the same conference in the Final Four each season, and the Big East famously had three Final Four teams in 1985, the first year of the 64-team tournament.  There was another intraconference championship game in 1988, when Kansas beat Oklahoma.

We've also seen plenty of teams that came nowhere close to winning their conference title somehow emerge as National Champions.  Take UConn last year.  Or, an even better example, Syracuse's championship team in 2003, which finished fourth in the Big East.  Especially with the supersized leagues we have now, it's not uncommon to see the conference's last team standing not be the champion.  Or even the runner-up.

So what am I getting at here?  Well, I got to thinking today about what it must've been like when the conference tournaments really were make-or-break for everybody, not just the one-bid leagues.  Imagine how much intensity would've been added if that Wisconsin-Michigan State game on Sunday determined which of the two would get to represent the Big Ten in the Tournament?  I'm sure the one-bid leagues would love it if the big boys felt some of that same pressure.

If it was limited to just conference champions, the Tournament would be altered in a big way.  Just going by this year's top 16 seeds alone, we would've lost one 1 (Duke), a pair of 2's (Virginia and Kansas), two 3's (Oklahoma and Baylor) and all four 4's.  That's nine of the top 16 teams in the tournament!  We'd also be without such Tournament mainstays (and championship contenders) as Duke, Kansas, North Carolina, Michigan State and Lousiville, just to name a few.

Since there are 32 conferences, it would be easy for the NCAA to only invite conference champions to participate in the Tournament.  This, of course, will never happen.  But that doesn't stop me from hypothetically pretending it could happen.

I took this year's tournament field, eliminated the at-large qualifiers and re-seeded based on the existing seeds.  There are still four regions, but there's only eight teams in each and teams have to play one fewer game to get to the Final Four.  One big change would happen right off the bat.  With Duke out, Arizona becomes a 1-seed and the regions get moved around.  Kentucky goes from the Midwest to the South, Wisconsin goes from the West to the Midwest and Arizona goes to the West (where they were already going anyway as the No. 2 seed).

With all that in mind, here's what my 32-team, conference champions only 2015 NCAA Tournament bracket would look like (as you can see, it's not very appealing):

  • SOUTH: 1-Kentucky vs. 8-Hampton, 4-Wofford vs. 5-Georgia State, 3-SMU vs. 6-Belmont, 2-Iowa State vs. 7-Coastal Carolina
  • WEST: 1-Arizona vs. 8-Robert Morris, 4-Valparaiso vs. 5-UC Irvine, 3-Wyoming vs. 6-New Mexico State, 2-Gonzaga vs. 7-North Dakota State
  • EAST: 1-Villanova vs. 8-Manhattan, 4-Buffalo vs. 5-UAB, 3-VCU vs. 6-Northeastern, 2-Northern Iowa vs. 7-Lafayette
  • MIDWEST: 1-Wisconsin vs. 8-North Florida, 4-Harvard vs. 5-Eastern Washington, 3-Stephen F. Austin vs. 6-Albany, 2-Notre Dame vs. 7-Texas Southern
Aren't you glad this isn't actually what the Tournament bracket looks like?  It's kinda missing something without those at-large teams, isn't it?

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Bracket Breakdown 2015 (Women's Edition)

Can anybody beat UConn?  That's the annual question heading into the NCAA Women's Tournament.  And this year, like most others, I think the answer is "No."  Since their overtime loss at Stanford in the second game of the season, the Huskies have completely bludgeoned their opponents.  That includes Notre Dame on the road and then-No. 1 South Carolina.  UConn has the best players and the most complete team.  That's why they're the No. 1 overall seed and the clear favorites for a third straight national title.

That doesn't mean UConn's invincible, though.  Remember a couple years ago when Baylor went into the tournament undefeated and got shocked by Louisville in the Sweet 16 in what ended up being Brittany Griner's final collegiate game?  UConn won the title that season and has been the dominant team in women's basketball ever since.  Everybody had Baylor in their bracket that season, just like virtually everyone has UConn this year.  But Baylor didn't win.  And UConn hasn't yet.  They're still six wins away from another title.

So who'll be joining the Huskies in Tampa?  Well, I have to admit, this is a very top-heavy bracket.  Especially since this year the NCAA went back to the old format of having the top 16 overall seeds host the first two rounds.  That was the right move on a number of levels, but one of the likely results will be fewer early upsets.  I'm not sure there would've been many upsets anyway, though.  Because there's quite a separation between the No. 1 and 2 seeds and everybody else.

Since the NCAA's identification of the regions by city instead of actual region is stupid, I'm choosing to identify the regionals the same way they do in the men's tournament.  That means Albany is the "East," Oklahoma City is the "Midwest," Greensboro is the "South" and Spokane is the "West."

Kentucky has to be wondering what it did to the NCAA.  Because once again the Wildcats are the No. 2 seed opposite UConn in the East.  Why do they have them play each other every year?  It's like the year Texas A&M won the championship and played Baylor in the regional final when the two of them were still in the same conference and had already played three times.  I say give Kentucky a break and give us a little variety.

The Wildcats have been good enough to go to the Final Four for the last couple years now, but the fact that they always have to go through UConn is a hurdle that they can't seem to clear.  And this year won't be any different.  Once again, UConn beats Kentucky in the East regional final.  As for the other two teams going to Albany, I see Texas getting the road win over Cal in the second round, while South Florida will take advantage of playing at home and beat Louisville.  The Cardinals are hosting the men's tournament, which means they can't host the women's, despite the fact that they're a top 16 seed.  They're the only top 16 seed that isn't playing at home, and it'll be tough for them to win that second-round road game against a good South Florida team.

While UConn, Notre Dame and South Carolina seemed to have three of the 1-seeds locked up pretty securely, the fourth was a toss-up between Maryland and Tennessee.  The committee opted to put Maryland at No. 1 in the West with Tennessee at No. 2.  Since they're in the same region and will get the chance to determine things on the court, I'm OK with that seeding.  Princeton's seeding, however, I'm not OK with.  Say what you want about the RPI and the strength of schedule and all that other stuff, they're 30-0 and ranked 13th in the coaches poll, which I don't think gets anywhere near as much credence as it should.  I had them pegged as a 5 or, at the lowest, a 6.  There definitely aren't 28 teams in this tournament better than Princeton, and it's wrong that they have to play a No. 1 seed on the road just to get to the Sweet 16.

But that's the hand the committee dealt Princeton.  I think they'll get by Green Bay pretty easily, and they'll give Maryland a game.  But the Terps will pull out the victory and set up a yummy Sweet 16 matchup against their longtime ACC rivals Duke.  It's sad that we've lost that one as a result of conference realignment, so it was nice of the committee to set it up for us.  In the bottom half of the West bracket, Gonzaga's dangerous.  Especially since they're effectively hosting the regional.  I like the Zags against GW, and I can even see them beating Oregon State.  Regardless, whoever wins that game isn't beating Tennessee.  Mainly because I really want to see that Maryland-Tennessee matchup.

During the selection show, they put up a great stat about Notre Dame.  The Fighting Irish have lost three games in the last two years.  But if you take out their two beatdowns by UConn, it's only one loss.  Regardless, Notre Dame is determined to get back to the Final Four for the fifth straight year.  It'll definitely be tough, though.  Because they'll have to get by Minnesota, then Stanford, then Baylor to get there.

Notre Dame is better than each of those teams, so I do see them advancing, and it might end up working out better for them in the long run.  As for the fourth team going to Oklahoma City for the regional, keep an eye on Miami.  That's the other team Notre Dame lost to.  They might be the 11-seed, but I see them beating Washington and I'm not 100 percent sold on Iowa, so I can see the upset there, too.  I'm also pulling for an upset in Waco, however unlikely it might.  Why?  Because I want to see the epic struggle between Northwestern and Northwestern State.

For a good majority of the season, I've thought South Carolina was the overrated team in the nation.  I still do.  The Gamecocks are a chic Final Four pick, but I just don't see it.  Look what happens to them when they play other good teams.  So what's the NCAA do?  Hand South Carolina the easiest bracket of any 1-seed, UConn included.  It's as if they want to see South Carolina in the Final Four and are giftwrapping a trip to Tampa.  And with the first two rounds at home and the regional in Greensboro, South Carolina's fans would be able to drive to every game.  Talk about an advantage!

With the exception of Florida State, which is also looking for its first trip to the Final Four (which is taking place only four hours away from Tallahassee), I don't know who beats South Carolina here.  James Madison will beat Ohio State, but fall to the Tar Hells and set up the matchup between the two schools that both claim to be called "Carolina."  Meanwhile, I think Arizona State falls to Texas A&M, who then loses to Florida State.

My Elite Eight matchups are all 1 vs. 2, and I've got two of each winning.  We'll finally get another UConn-Tennessee meeting, as the Lady Vols make their first Final Four appearance since 2008 (it's remarkable that it's been seven years since Tennessee's been in the Final Four).  My other Final Four game is an all-ACC affair between Notre Dame and Florida State.  Just like the ACC final, Notre Dame will get the win, setting up a National Championship Game rematch against rival UConn.  It'll be Notre Dame's fourth trip to the title game in five years, but this one will end like the other three.  UConn cuts down the nets in Tampa for its third straight National Championship.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Bracket Breakdown 2015 (Men's Edition)

It's good to know that I'm not the only one who doesn't think this has been one of college basketball's better years.  In fact, a lot of people think the game is getting very boring.  That's the NBA's biggest problem and, unfortunately, it's starting to creep into the college game.  We're going to see a shorter shot clock next season, and the fact that the game is becoming completely unwatchable under the current rules is a big reason why.

Perhaps the other reason why I haven't been feeling this college basketball season as much as those in years past is because Kentucky is so head-and-shoulders above everyone else that you can't even come up with a short list of teams you think can compete for the National Championship.  That's why nearly 50 percent of the brackets in ESPN's Tournament Challenge have the Wildcats cutting down the nets in Indianapolis to cap the first-ever 40-0 season.

I'm with them.  Kentucky is such an overwhelming favorite to win the national title that it would seem incredibly silly to go against them.  I've been saying all year that Duke is the only team that comes anywhere close to Kentucky, and I don't think that's any different now.  We'll be seeing a lot of blue and white at the National Championship Game.  Because I don't know who stops either Kentucky or Duke.

In the Midwest, they gave Kentucky a little bit of a challenge with Kansas as the 2-seed, Notre Dame as the 3 and Maryland as the 4.  You've also got Wichita State, who's incredibly underseeded at 7.  Then there's Texas, a bubble team that many thought shouldn't even be in the Tournament, yet doesn't even have to play in the First Four.  And you know what?  I think Texas can beat Butler in the first game.  Just like I'm going with Buffalo over West Virginia as the annual 12-5 upset.  Wichita State's going to give Kansas an awfully hard time, too, but I do think the Jayhawks prevail. 

I generally try to avoid taking the chalk, but that's exactly what I'm going to do in the Midwest.  I see Maryland, Notre Dame and Kansas all getting through to join Kentucky in Cleveland.  Kentucky rolls over Maryland, while Notre Dame-Kansas is a phenomenal Sweet 16 matchup.  When they beat Duke during the regular season, I sat there thinking "Notre Dame is good."  Then they go win the ACC Tournament for their first-ever conference title.  (All those years in the Big East and Notre Dame can't even get to the final, yet they win the ACC in their second season!)  Anyway, that big-game team shows up against Kansas.  Notre Dame vs. Kentucky in the regional final, with Kentucky moving on to another Final Four.

The West is interesting.  Last year in the West Regional Final, second-seeded Wisconsin beat top-seeded Arizona in overtime in one of the best games of the Tournament.  That game was in Anaheim.  This year's regional final could be another rematch, this time in LA with the seeds reversed.  Wisconsin deserved that fourth No. 1 seed, but it really didn't matter which one got the 1-seed.  Because whoever it was knew they were going to have to travel west and face Arizona in a virtual home game in LA.  Arizona and Wisconsin are probably Nos. 4 and 5 overall, which is why they're together.  But, again, it's a huge advantage for the Wildcats that it was the No. 1 seed in the West at stake.

Arizona remembers what happened last year, has that home fan advantage, and is coming off a Pac-12 title.  Wisconsin's coming off a title, too, but I just have a feeling about the Wildcats.  As for the rest of the West, I'm really feeling a Harvard upset over North Carolina, despite the fact the Tar Heels went to the ACC title game.  Either way, I'd be taking Arkansas in the second round.  If BYU beats Ole Miss, I can see them beating Xavier.  Neither one will beat Baylor, though.  Wisconsin-Arkansas and Baylor-Arizona before our Wisconsin-Arizona rematch, with the No. 2 seed winning again.  Except this time, the No. 2 seed is Arizona.

Villanova.  That's a team that has the potential to either cut down the nets or make an early exit.  If they play the way they did in the Big East Tournament, they'll be very tough to beat.  But again, they also seem susceptible to an upset.  In fact, I think the East is the region where more than one top seed is likely to fall.  After all, we can't have three different Wildcats in the Final Four?  Can we?

While I think Villanova won't have any problems with either Lafayette or NC State (who I see getting by LSU), Northern Iowa in the Sweet 16 will be another story.  In fact, that's where I've got my first 1-seed going down.  Northern Iowa beats Villanova in the Sweet 16 (that's assuming, of course, the Panthers knock off Louisville, which is by no means a guarantee).  On the bottom half of this bracket, I have to take a second to talk about Dayton.  I know the rules say that if they're one of the last four teams in, they'll play in the First Four with no considerations taken about the fact they're hosting.  But the NCAA Tournament also doesn't let teams play on their home floors for a reason.  That's something they've got to look into.  Because it's unfair to Boise State to have to play a road game against literally the last team in the Tournament. 

After getting that home win in the First Four, I see Dayton making another long run.  This is, after all, pretty much the same team that reached the Elite Eight last season.  They'll beat Providence, and they can beat Oklahoma, too.  Virginia, meanwhile, is one of the most overrated teams in the nation.  The No. 2 seed is going down.  To who?  Michigan State.  This is their time of year.  I don't care that they're a 7-seed.  Just look at what they did in the Big Ten Tournament.  Sweet 16, Dayton vs. Michigan State.  Michigan State wins, plays Northern Iowa in the Elite Eight, and makes yet another trip to the Final Four (although, amazingly, they haven't been since 2010).

Lastly, we've got the South Region.  Everybody loves to hate on Duke and pick the Blue Devils as their early-round upset victim.  That ain't happening this year.  This region is way too friendly for the Dookies.  The only team that has any chance of challenging them is the Gonzaga-Iowa State winner, which I actually think will be Big 12 champion Iowa State.  Gonzaga will make another Sweet 16, but that first Final Four will have to wait another year.

Duke's opponent in the other Sweet 16 game will be another Cinderella candidate.  Stephen F. Austin might be the 12 seed, but they're going to beat a Utah team that's nowhere near as good as it was two months ago, then knock off Georgetown.  You can bet every team they play will watch tape of those Creighton and Xavier Big East Tournament games that expose every one of Georgetown's weaknesses.  That, combined with a recent history of choking in the Tournament, is bad news for the Hoyas.

So, in the Final Four, we've got two sets of Wildcats facing off, as well as Coach K vs. Coach Izzo.  Arizona will give Kentucky its best game of the season, and this could be Duke-UNLV 1991 all over again.  Except I think the Kentucky Wildcats have enough to get by the Arizona Wildcats and move into the Championship Game at 39-0.  They'll then finish off that historic 40-0 season with a win over Duke.