Super Bowl XLVIII Breakdown

The biggest sporting event on the American calendar is here, as Super Bowl Sunday is upon us.  This year’s matchup is, at least to me, one of the more intriguing ones in recent years, between the Denver Broncos and the Seattle Seahawks.  But the Super Bowl, of course, is more than a game, it’s an entire cultural event, and is even celebrated more than most of our national holidays.  Whether you’re a fan of one of the two teams, a casual football fan hoping for a good game, or someone who is more anxious for the commercials, Bruno Mars’ halftime show featuring the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Renée Fleming’s national anthem (the first opera singer to sing the Super Bowl national anthem), there’s something for everyone.  And I haven’t even mentioned all the Super Bowl food at parties happening just about everywhere, from churches to bars and everywhere in between.

Before we get into looking at this year’s matchup, here’s a little history lesson regarding Super Bowls past:

Last Super Bowl in the New York metro area:  there hasn’t been one.  The NFL chose to bring the Super Bowl to the media capital of the world, even despite the potential for wintry weather.  It appears the NFL has dodged that bullet, with a high temperature in the upper 40s and a very low chance of rain, before a low around 30 (although that overnight low will be well after the conclusion of the game).  This is after the Farmer’s Almanac forecast for a big winter storm to hit the New York metro area this weekend, so I’d say the NFL really got away with one, as I’m sure they didn’t want the game being played in a blizzard.

Seahawks Super Bowls:  Super Bowl XL
The Seahawks took on the Pittsburgh Steelers back in the 2005 season in their only previous Super Bowl appearance in Detroit.  Although they jumped out to a 3-0 lead, and stayed within a 14-10 margin going into the 4th quarter, the reverse pass by Steelers WR Antwaan Randle El to Hines Ward clinched the game for the Steelers, winning 21-10.  Should the Seahawks win Sunday, it would be their first ever NFL title.

Broncos Super Bowls:  Super Bowls XII, XXI, XXII, XXIV, XXXII, XXXIII
While the Broncos haven’t been as recently as the Seahawks, they have made 6 Super Bowl appearances.  And although they are 2-4 all-time in the Super Bowl, they have a 2-game winning streak, which is tied for the longest active streak.  Those 4 losses also tie them for the most.  They lost Super Bowl XII to the Cowboys, 27-10, after being stifled by the Dallas defense.  John Elway, the Hall of Fame QB who is now the team president, led the Broncos to their other 5 Super Bowls, starting with a 39-20 loss to the Giants after Phil Simms’ MVP performance in Super Bowl XXI in Pasadena.  The next year, in San Diego, Denver led the Redskins 10-0 after a quarter, only to fall victim to a 35-point 2nd quarter for Doug Williams and the Redskins offense in one of the game’s great performances of all time.  Two years later, in Super Bowl XXIV, they fell victim to Joe Montana (who didn’t), losing 55-10 in the Superdome.  Back in San Diego, Elway and the Broncos beat Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers in Super Bowl XXXII to finally win their first title, and the following year in Miami, they won Super Bowl XXXIII in Elway’s farewell game, ending an outstanding career with a 34-19 win over the Falcons.

Last Super Bowl Featuring A Team With No Super Bowl Experience:  Super Bowl XXV
The Seahawks have no players on their roster with Super Bowl experience.  The last time that happened was when the 1990 Buffalo Bills played the Giants in Super Bowl XXV.  That game ended with a 20-19 Giants victory after Scott Norwood’s infamous missed field goal for the Bills, and they would go on to lose 4 consecutive Super Bowls, and haven’t been back since.

Now, on to Super Bowl XLVIII.  Before I pick the game, let’s breakdown the individual matchups in this game.

Broncos Pass Offense vs. Seahawks Pass Defense:
It’s tough to pick who will be better in this particular matchup.  The Broncos have undoubtedly the league’s best pass offense, while the Seahawks have undoubtedly the league’s best pass offense.  Peyton Manning has had a career year (and that’s saying something), and has multiple explosive targets in Demaryius Thomas, Julius Thomas, and Wes Welker, among others.  But there’s a reason the Seahawks secondary is known as the “Legion of Boom,” with 4 of the best secondary players in the league at starting positions:  Richard Sherman (who actually is “The best corner in the league!” as he exclaimed after the NFC Championship) and Byron Maxwell at cornerback, and Earl Thomas and Kam Chancellor at safety.  This matchup may decide this Super Bowl, but when the games on the line, I’ll trust the man who may be the greatest QB to ever play the game.
Advantage:  Broncos (barely).

Broncos Run Offense vs. Seahawks Run Defense:
Knowshon Moreno is having an outstanding season for Denver, and is backed up by Montee Ball, who played with the Seahawks’ Russell Wilson at Wisconsin.  Often, a team that leads the league in passing is near the bottom in rushing, but in this case the Broncos are 15th in the NFL in rushing yards per game, averaging 117.1.  The Seahawks rushing defense is 7th in the NFL, and while their defensive line has no superstars, they are a very good all-around unit.  Fortunately for Denver, the run game isn’t generally the biggest chunk of their offense.
Advantage:  Seahawks.

Seahawks Pass Offense vs. Broncos Pass Defense:
Russell Wilson is currently tied with Ben Roethlisberger for the record for most wins by a QB in his first 2 seasons, and can own the record outright with a win Sunday (that includes the playoffs, he already owns the regular season record outright).  Some might say he’s actually been in a bit of a slump over recent weeks, although that’s hard to argue since he’s playing in the Super Bowl.  Wilson, along with targets Golden Tate, Jermaine Kearse, and Doug Baldwin do face an attack in the Broncos secondary that includes future Hall of Famer CB Champ Bailey, playing in his first Super Bowl in 15 years, and CB Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie, who said this week at age 27 that he may retire if the Broncos win, despite a good career he’s starting to build.  This is the weakest two-way matchup in this game, as the Seahawks are 26th in passing offense and the Broncos are 27th in passing defense.  In the end, I don’t think this is the matchup that decides the game, but I’ll give the edge to the Broncos, as that weak stat is mostly without Bailey, who is finally playing significant snaps after battling injuries all year.
Advantage:  Broncos (barely).

Seahawks Run Offense vs. Broncos Run Defense:
There’s a reason Seahawks RB Marshawn Lynch is known as “Beast Mode” in Seattle.  Lynch has great speed, but his signature move is his devastating stiff-arm.  The Broncos are 8th in rushing defense, and like the Seahawks defensive line, they don’t have any superstars but a very solid unit.  LB Nate Irving played with Russell Wilson at NC State, and now may be trying to tackle or intercept him in the biggest game of both of their lives.  However, while the Broncos have a good unit, I expect Lynch to have a huge game, as he seems to play better the bigger the stage.
Advantage:  Seahawks.

Special Teams:
The Seahawks special teams have played well all year, with Steven Hauschka handling the placekicking duties, Doug Baldwin returning kickoffs, and Golden Tate returning punts.  Hauschka went 39-41 this year (including the playoffs), with a long of 53. However, Matt Prater of the Broncos may be the best kicker in the league, going 30-32 (including the playoffs), including an NFL record 64-yard field goal (even if it was downwind in the Denver altitude, that’s quite an accomplishment).  Returner Trindon Holliday has run back 2 kickoffs and 2 punts for touchdowns.
Advantage:  Broncos.

Coaches:
This matchup is between a pair of excellent coaches, Pete Carroll of the Seahawks and John Fox of the Broncos.  Carroll took over the Seahawks in 2010 after leading USC to 2 national championships (although 1 was vacated), and has transformed a struggling franchise into one of the best in the game, winning 2 division titles and appearing in the playoffs 3 times in his 4 seasons.  In a survey of NFL players released this week, the coach players most want to play for in the NFL is Pete Carroll.  In a league that currently includes coaches such as Bill Belichick, the Harbaugh brothers, Chuck Pagano, Mike Tomlin, and Chip Kelly, among others, that is quite an honor for Carroll.  John Fox’s first head coaching job was with the Carolina Panthers from 2002-2010, when he led the Panthers to 3 playoff appearances and an appearance in Super Bowl XXXVIII, which the Panthers lost to the Patriots.  After leaving Charlotte, he took the job in Denver in 2011 and has won the AFC West in all 3 seasons, first with QB Tim Tebow, then the last 2 years with QB Peyton Manning.  The first two years of that stretch the Broncos lost in the Divisional Round, both times to the eventual AFC Champion.  This year, Fox and the Broncos return to the Super Bowl with their record-setting offense.  Fox missed a few games this season after bypass surgery, making this trip to the Super Bowl that much more remarkable.  Interestingly enough, both coaches were assistants at Iowa State at different times early in their careers, with both coaching the defensive backs; Carroll coached the Cyclones in 1978, while Fox’s tenure in Ames was in 1984.
Advantage:  Even.

One interesting thing about this Super Bowl is that one stat or another has to give.  The winner of a Peyton Manning vs. Tom Brady playoff game has won the Super Bowl all 3 previous times.  However, when 2 of the top 3 defenses in the NFL (the Seahawks and 49ers in this case) have met in a conference championship game since 1990, the winner the previous 8 times has won the Super Bowl.  For the first time since the 1990 season, when the Giants beat the Bills 20-19 in Super Bowl XXV, the league’s top ranked offense (Denver) meets its top ranked defense (Seattle).  The last time the 1-seeds in both conferences met in the Super Bowl was after the 2009 season, in Manning’s most recent Super Bowl trip when the Colts lost to the Saints.  The Broncos are a 2-point favorite, although this Super Bowl really could be a flip of a coin, and might come down to a flip of the coin in the event of overtime, which EA Sports predicted in their annual Super Bowl simulation through the Madden video game.  There has never been an overtime Super Bowl.  In the end, I think it is a memorable performance by Peyton Manning that makes the difference.

Broncos 24, Seahawks 20.

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NASCAR Changes Chase Format

NASCAR Chairman and CEO Brian France announced today big changes to the format of the annual “Chase for the Sprint Cup”.  Beginning this year, there will now be 16 drivers instead of 12 to make the Chase, with the 16 drivers entering the “Chase Grid”.  Those 16 will be race winners from the first 26 events of the season, and the highest point-earners without a win, if there aren’t 16 winners.  The 10-race Chase will be broken up into 4 segments, or “rounds”.  The “Challenger Round” will consist of the first 3 races.  Any Chase driver who wins in those 3 races will move on to the “Contender Round”, along with the highest earning drivers in points, totaling 12 drivers in all.  After the points are reset, those 12 will compete in a similar system over the following 3 races, Chase races 4-6, the “Contender Round” to cut the field to 8, with race winners, followed by the highest drivers in points moving on.  After another points reset, those 8 compete in the “Eliminator Round” in Chase races 7-9 to cut the field to 4, with race winners and at least 1 highest points earner advancing to the “Sprint Cup Championship” at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Chase race 10.  That event will be a winner-take-all finale, with the highest finisher among those top 4 drivers taking home the championship.

Let’s start with the first 26 races; the “regular season”, if you will.  Winning a race will, in fact, almost guarantee a spot in the chase, as the 16 spots will go to up to 16 race winners and (if there aren’t 16 race winners) the highest remaining drivers in points.  By the way, drivers do have to attempt to qualify for all 26 events and remain in the top 30 in points to be eligible.  While France said part of the reason for the changes is to somewhat eliminate points racing (and instead make everyone race for wins), there will still be some points racing most years for the final spot or so, depending on how many winners there are.  Only twice has there been more than 15 winners over the first 26 races of a NASCAR season (and only once in the “Modern Era”), so it is very likely there will still be some points racing going on at Richmond in September.  One scenario flatters me, however:  it is theoretically possible for, if there are 16 or more winners, a driver to finish 2nd in every race from Daytona to Richmond and not qualify for the Chase.  Whatever happened to consistency being such a big deal?  Dale Earnhardt Jr., Clint Bowyer, and Kurt Busch all failed to win races last year, and Brad Keselowski, Jeff Gordon, and Jamie McMurray all failed to win in the first 26 events before winning during the Chase, so its possible some very good drivers who have solid consistent seasons will be on the outside of the Chase (although there were only 11 eligible race winners during the first 26 races, so all of those except McMurray would have qualified; I’m just using those names to say “what if”).  Even still, I find it hard to believe that if the 30th place driver has a win at, say, Talladega, that he’s more qualified to compete for a championship than my hypothetical driver who finished 2nd every week?  I sure don’t think so.

One aspect of the regular season I question is the fact that the winner of the Daytona 500 is very likely to qualify for the Chase, having that assurance several months in advance.  If a driver wins 2 races early, they are a mathematical lock into the Chase.  I don’t know that its right for a team to be locked in after, potentially, 2 races.  That’s practically the equivalent of a team leading the division standings at the end of April to be locked in to the MLB playoffs in October, a theory that wouldn’t be reasonable for the game of baseball.

While in the Challenger, Contender, and Eliminator Rounds winning will automatically advance a driver to the next round, there will still be points racing to fill the rest of the spots.  In some ways, I don’t think the racing during those rounds will be much different, from the perspective of the drivers or the fans, other than the fact there are 3 “elimination races”.  And what’s with these names of the rounds?  Just say the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd (or Semifinal) rounds of the Chase (or playoffs, or raceoffs), like every other sport.

One aspect of this system that will certainly create excitement is the winner-take-all finale.   The highest finishing driver out of the 4 still alive for the championship at the Homestead race in November will be crowned the champion.  These will be 4 drivers running well leading up to the finale, so there’s a good chance that highest finisher will be the winner of the race.  France said that simplicity, particularly for the sport’s casual fans, was important, which is why, as he put it, it was important that the last race was not a math contest, but instead was as simple as possible.  It is theoretically possible a driver could finish down in the 30-somethings and still win the title if all 4 drivers have problems, although, as France mentioned, that’s possible now.  Another possible scenario is something unusual deciding the title, such as fuel mileage.  However, I remind you of the last race in 1992, when Alan Kulwicki risked running out of gas with about 20 laps to go to stay out front and lead one more lap than Bill Elliott to get the bonus points for leading the most laps and win the title.  And that happened after a 29-race points battle, much less a one-off championship event.  (They only ran 29 races back then, and had no Chase.)

As I said, France mentioned the importance of simplicity.  And while it will be simpler to understand the championship battle during the last race, I don’t think it will be during the first 35, and particularly during the first 9 races of the Chase.  Multiple points resets, and some drivers being locked in each week while others are points racing in the final race of a given round, will likely lead to some confusion among fans, particularly those casual fans who don’t watch every lap of every race.  Also, having one set of circumstances for the first 26 races, another set for each round of 3 races, and another set for the finale will likely lead to confusion as fans (and possibly even drivers or the media) get mixed up over what rules and criteria apply for each round.  The explanation of the new system on the NASCAR news site jayski.com was nearly a thousand words long, whereas one could explain the old system in a much more efficient way.  And, by the way, I got into NASCAR at a very young age.  At that time, I could understand the points system, even with the mind of a young child, because it was a year-long, cumulative battle.  Even the original Chase format we’ve used for the last 10 years (in several variations) could make sense to a young child, even if it took a little explanation.  Try explaining this system to a 5-year old and see if they understand it.  Odds are they won’t.

This post may sound like I’m totally against this system, but that’s actually not true.  While there’s certainly bits and pieces of the system about which I’m skeptical at best, the overall concept of a “tournament”, if you will, and a winner-take-all final race will certainly bring excitement at the end of the season, and perhaps draw more fans to the racetrack and to their TVs.  I’m all for anything to spread the sport of racing, just as I am with the other sports I follow and write about (baseball, football, golf, college basketball).  While I won’t give the system a 10 out of 10 rating, a 5 is about right, because (as I mentioned) I am intrigued by the concept but have a few reservations about certain aspects of the overall format rules.

Another positive about this system is that races in the spring may be made more exciting by more aggressive racing, as drivers try to punch their ticket to the Chase while they have a chance.  In the past, while each of the first 26 races have been important, the overall importance was on points, or “the big picture” as many drivers and crew chiefs call it.  Finishing 2nd was a “good points day”.  And while that will still be true, there will be so much stock in winning that drivers will surely be more aggressive in going for wins so that “good points days” don’t matter since they’ve won a race or races.  I use races in the spring as an example, because in the past, after a 2nd place finish in a March race, a driver’s mindset may have been “There’s still plenty of time for me to get more good finishes and qualify for the Chase in the top 10 in points or the wild card.”  Now, that may change to “that may have been my best shot to win, and I just lost that chance.”

Many will say it wouldn’t be fair for a driver to be dominant all season, only to have a tire problem, or a mechanical or engine failure at Homestead and lose the title.  But many people probably said the same thing about the original Chase format 10 years ago.  And besides NASCAR’s fan base swings a little conservative (let’s be honest), so change isn’t necessarily popular anyway.  But consider this about that dominant driver scenario I just mentioned:  in the NFL, a team could go 16-0, and lose in the first round of the playoffs.  In MLB, a team could win their division by 30 games and be swept in the first round of the playoffs.  In college basketball, a 31-1 powerhouse 1-seed will eventually lose to a 17-15 small school 16-seed in the Round of 64 in the NCAA Tournament (and if you don’t believe a 16 will ever beat a 1, choose one of the 7 instances of a 15 beating a 2 to make your argument).  Having to win in the playoffs to validate a great regular season and win a championship is part of sports, across the board.  So from that big picture perspective, seeing NASCAR as one of a number of American sports, this isn’t much different than the playoffs we all love in every other sport (there’s even one in college football starting this year, finally).

Regardless, the news of the day, which shifted a little attention to NASCAR and away from the Super Bowl, at least for a few minutes, reminded us that the NASCAR season is just around the corner.  The Daytona 500 is in just 24 days, and there will be cars on the track at Daytona in just 15 days.  And from a purely points perspective, due to the new rules this will be the biggest Daytona 500 ever, as the winner will be almost guaranteed to have punched their ticket to the “Chase Grid”.

For further reading, go to  http://www.nascar.com/en_us/news-media/articles/2014/1/30/nascar-announces-changes-to-chase-for-the-nascar-sprint-cup-format.html

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 1/27

It’s hard to believe, but we’re nearing the midway point of ACC conference play.  That being said, this is the biggest week of conference play yet, as there are some really big games both tonight and over the weekend with 3 matchups between teams among the top 4 in these power rankings.  While the top 4 and bottom 3 in these power rankings remain unchanged, there’s a lot of volatility amongst the teams in the middle.  I expect that to continue as the season progresses.

After some struggles I’ve previously mentioned of the “Big 4”, the ACC members from North Carolina, they all won their game this weekend, and actually posted a 7-1 record on the week, with the only loss being North Carolina’s defeat at Virginia.  Tobacco Road faces a tough week coming up, however, with Duke traveling to Pittsburgh and Syracuse and Wake Forest hosting Syracuse.  Also, somebody has to lose when NC State and North Carolina renew their rivalry.  A different set of 4, the teams south of North Carolina (Clemson, Georgia Tech, Florida State, Miami), did have a tough week, going 2-6, including Clemson’s back-to-back losses after their 4-1 start.

1.  Syracuse (19-0 overall, 6-0 ACC, Last Week: 1st)
As mentioned for the last couple of weeks, there are still 3 undefeated teams left, including 1 in the ACC, the Syracuse Orange.  Syracuse is also still the only undefeated team in ACC conference play, placing them among the 21 Division I teams undefeated in conference play.  Their undefeated record remained intact with their 64-52 win over Miami, although that game was closer than the final score would indicate.  The last time a team who was 2nd in the AP Poll, as Syracuse is, and the last undefeated team in ACC play went to Winston-Salem (Miami, last year), Wake Forest ruined their perfect record, so Syracuse should watch out for a potential “trap game” on Wednesday night.  That potential trap is because a much-anticipated date with #17 Duke is lurking on Saturday at the Carrier Dome.  The Orange leads the conference, and is 7th in the nation, with 9.3 steals per game, which is a steal and a half more than anyone else in the ACC.

2.  Pittsburgh (18-2, 6-1, 2nd)
The Panthers rebounded nicely after last week’s loss to Syracuse, beating Clemson overwhelmingly, 76-43, before avoiding an upset in an 83-79 win at Maryland.  Now Pitt moves into its toughest week of conference play so far, but there’s a silver lining:  both games are at home.  First, #17 Duke comes to the Petersen Events Center tonight, then Virginia comes in on Saturday.  The Panthers are 3rd in the conference in points per game, and lead the league in assists per game and field goal percentage.  All this is led by senior forward Lamar Patterson, who averages 17.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.7 assists per game, although the stats underestimate just how good he is until you’ve seen him play.

3.  Duke (16-4, 5-2, 3rd)
After Duke’s narrow win over Virginia 14 days ago, I said to a friend that if Duke could get their act together they could still be a Final Four caliber of team.  All they’ve done since then is blowout NC State, before winning both their contests this week convincingly, at Miami and at home against Florida State.  Duke has now improved to 5-2 in conference play after their 1-2 start, but they’ll have to do some work to avoid a 3rd or 4th loss this week, with a very difficult pair of road games.  Tonight, they travel to #18 Pittsburgh, before traveling Saturday to #2 Syracuse.  This Duke team is relatively young, but we’ll see exactly how mature they are by the end of this week.

4.  Virginia (15-5, 6-1, 4th)
The Cavaliers move to 6-1 in conference play with a 15-point win over North Carolina and a 20-point win over Virginia Tech.  That 1-loss record has them currently tied for 2nd in the league with Pittsburgh, although they remain behind Duke in these rankings due to Duke’s head-to-head win and better non-conference résumé.  That being said, Tony Bennett’s team is having an excellent season.  Allowing just 56.2 points per game, they are 2nd in the conference, just a tenth of a point behind Clemson, and 3rd in the nation.  Their 6-1 record, and their share of 2nd place in the standings, may be in jeopardy this week, as they travel to Notre Dame on Tuesday and #18 Pittsburgh on Sunday.

5.  Florida State (13-6, 4-3, 6th)
Despite Florida State’s 78-56 loss to Duke on Saturday, they move up a spot in these rankings.  They did also beat Notre Dame, 76-74, back on Tuesday, and other teams around them in last week’s rankings struggled.  Additionally, hardly anyone looks their best on trips to Cameron Indoor Stadium.  The Seminoles rank 2nd in the ACC with a .480 field goal percentage, which may explain why they have played better than expected this season.  Wednesday the Noles travel to NC State, followed by a Saturday home game against Clemson, who they’ve already beaten on the road.

6.  North Carolina (12-7, 2-4, 8th)
How does a team that lost 76-61 on Monday night, even if it was to Virginia, move up 2 spots in these rankings?  First of all, other teams around them struggled and subsequently fell in the rankings.  Second of all, that team, North Carolina, made a decent Clemson team look absolutely awful in an 80-61 game that was worse than the score would indicate.  It took 6 tries, but this team finally played to its potential in a conference game.  This team has been unusual to watch, and not just because of the 3 non-conference wins over top 11 teams in addition to some very bad losses.  Statistically, their 2-4 record doesn’t make sense, because they are among the ACC leaders in almost every stat category on both the offensive and defensive ends.  But, the team with the most points is the one who wins, not the most rebounds, assists, steals, or blocks.  The Tar Heels travel to Georgia Tech on Wednesday before hosting NC State on Saturday, playing with a little momentum for the first time in conference play this year.

7.  Clemson (13-6, 4-3, 5th)
A week ago, Clemson was off to a 4-1 start in conference play, and was the surprise team in the league.  This week, reality caught up with them a bit, with a 76-43 loss at Pittsburgh and a 80-61 loss in Chapel Hill, where they’ve now lost 57 in a row, the longest such streak in NCAA history (sorry Clemson fans, had to say it; I know you’re tired of that one).  Even with a 76- and 80-point defensive effort, they have still allowed just 56.1 points per game, which leads the nation, although what was a comfortable margin is now less than a tenth of a point.  After a few days off to heal the wounds of Pittsburgh and North Carolina, they will travel to Florida State on Saturday, where they hope to avenge their previous 56-41 home loss to the Seminoles.

8.  Wake Forest (14-6, 4-3, 11th)
The Demon Deacons picked up their first road win in ACC play in 2 years on Wednesday, beating Virginia Tech 83-77, before coming home to beat Notre Dame, 65-58.  The road win was just the 2nd in Jeff Bzdelik’s tenure in Winston-Salem (and the first for many of the players on this young team), and Bzdelik also has won 3 out of 4 in conference play for the first time at Wake.  In “Total Offense” (I combined the rank of each team in each major offensive stat), Wake is 5th in the conference, and is also 5th in “Total Defense”.  These last 2 wins were, in large part, due to the re-emergence of senior forward Travis McKie, who had 24 and 14 points, respectively, including going 5-5 on 3-pointers, and he was named ACC Co-Player of the Week (along with Pitt’s Lamar Patterson).  The Deacons also have won 13 straight at home, although that record is in jeopardy when 2nd-ranked Syracuse visits on Wednesday.  Georgia Tech will also visit the Joel Coliseum on Saturday.

9.  Miami (10-9, 2-5, 7th)
Miami falls 2 spots after a pair of losses, although the fall may not be completely fair.  The losses were to Duke (67-46) and Syracuse (64-52), both among the top 20 in the nation and the top 3 in the conference.  The Hurricanes made that game against #2 Syracuse very interesting, leading 47-46 with under 7 minutes remaining, before a long dry spell from the floor, in addition to some timely Orange free throws, blew the Hurricanes’ upset bid.  This week, Jim Larranaga’s team will travel to Maryland on Wednesday before a rare February non-conference game on Saturday when Norfolk State comes to Coral Gables.  The Hurricanes rank either 14th or 15th in the ACC every major offensive category, which means, even with a pretty good defense, the Hurricanes are struggling to win games.

10.  NC State (13-7, 3-4, 12th)
NC State moves up two spots after a pair of gutsy wins over the last week over Maryland and Georgia Tech.  Against Maryland, they were without TJ Warren, and only scored 20 in the first half, trailing by 9, before coming back to win 65-56.  Against Georgia Tech, the Wolfpack came back from down 11 in the second half to win in overtime on a runner by Warren, who returned from his ankle injury.  Warren is averaging 22.1 points per game, which leads the ACC and ranks him 9th nationally (the next highest ACC player is Olivier Hanlan in 50th at 18.9 ppg).  The Pack host Florida State on Wednesday before making the short trip down Tobacco Road to play North Carolina on Saturday.

11.  Maryland (11-9, 3-4, 9th)
The Terrapins went from 3-2 to 3-4 over the last week with a couple of tough losses.  First, the Terps lost at NC State 65-56, blowing an 11-point lead on the road, before hosting Pittsburgh, and coming back from down 12 only to lose 83-79.  I was surprised to see Maryland is 2nd in the conference in rebounding, at 72.4 per game, although they are in the bottom 4 in the conference in assists per game, field goal percentage, and points allowed per game.  If the Terps want to remain a mid-level ACC team, they’ll have to win games this week at home with Miami on Wednesday and at Virginia Tech on Saturday.

12.  Notre Dame (11-9, 2-5, 10th)
The Irish of Notre Dame lost another pair of close games this week, to Florida State (76-74) and Wake Forest (65-58), both on the road.  It’s hard to put the Irish this low, as their 5 conference losses are by a total of 29 points, which is less in 5 losses than Clemson’s margin in one loss to Pittsburgh (in the worst blowout of the year in conference play so far).  After the pair of road losses, this week the Irish have a pair at home in Purcell Pavilion against Virginia on Tuesday and Boston College on Saturday.

13.  Georgia Tech (12-8, 2-5, 13th)
It’s tough to keep Georgia Tech this low, as they are the only team out of the bottom 5 to have won a game over the last week, and their other game was an overtime loss.  However, the win was a 68-60 road triumph over Boston College, who continues to struggle, and has been below the Yellow Jackets all season.  Their loss to NC State was in a game that would have moved them up in these rankings, but when their buzzer beater attempts in regulation and overtime missed, and they lost 80-78, they also lost their shot, at least for now, at a little upward mobility.  Wednesday night the Tar Heels come to town, before Saturday the Yellow Jackets travel to Wake Forest.  This team is better than 2-7, but unless they can pull an upset that’s where they’ll be.

14.  Virginia Tech (8-11, 1-6, 14th)
No one wants to be the team to end a long streak, but it was Virginia Tech that was “that team” when they were the victim of Wake Forest’s first road win in 2 years.  That 83-77 loss put the season in a nutshell:  the Hokies fell behind early before running out of time while attempting a late comeback.  After losing to the Deacs, Tech traveled to play in-state rival Virginia, and lost 65-45 in a clear mismatch.  Interestingly, despite struggling mightily throughout the season, the Hokies lead the conference in defensive rebounds with 27.4 per game, are 3rd in overall rebounds with 38.6 per game, and are 3rd with 5.3 blocks per game.  They are in the bottom 5 in the ACC, however, in every other major stat category.  Wednesday night the Hokies travel to Boston College in a battle for 14th place, where they will try to avenge a 62-60 home loss to the Eagles, before hosting Maryland on Saturday.

15.  Boston College (5-14, 1-5, 15th)
In their only game of the last week, Boston College lost at home to Georgia Tech, 68-60, dropping to 5-14 overall and 1-5 in conference play.  With the Eagles’ struggles throughout the season, they are in danger of posting the worst overall record by an ACC team since the 1980-81 Georgia Tech team (4-23), and the worst win percentage in conference play since the 1986-87 Maryland Terrapins, the last team to go winless in conference play.  While the Eagles win over Virginia Tech earlier in January helped them avoid the winless fate, they need 3 wins the rest of the way to avoid the worst overall record in that span.  They’ll have a good chance for a win at home against Virginia Tech on Wednesday before traveling to Notre Dame on Saturday.

Games of the Week:  Due to the magnitude of a trio of games amongst the top 4 in these rankings, all 3 are featured in this segment.

#17 Duke at #18 Pittsburgh (Tonight, 9:00 PM ET)
Duke has never played in the Petersen Events Center, so this game sold out quick.  Pittsburgh has won 13 straight at home, and Duke has lost 2 out of 3 on the road, with both losses coming to unexpected teams.  This time it wouldn’t be unexpected, as Pitt is a 4-point favorite.  Pitt has a veteran team, while Duke’s relatively young team may struggle in this hostile road environment.  These teams are pretty even, statistically, with one exception:  Pitt is 6th in the ACC in rebounding, with 37.4 per game, while Duke is 12th at 35.4 per game.  And there’s no stat to measure a true home-court advantage.  I believe Pitt is one of the 10 best teams in the country, better than their ranking of 18th in the AP Poll, and it will show tonight.
Pittsburgh 72, Duke 66.

#17 Duke at #2 Syracuse (Saturday, 6:30 PM ET)
After Duke leaves Pittsburgh, they will have a few days to prepare for a Saturday trip to the Carrier Dome.  Syracuse will have less time to prepare after they play Wake Forest on Wednesday night on the road.  This is an interesting matchup, not just because of the prestige of the Kryzewski-Boeheim matchup and the significance in the standings, but because Duke is one of the best offensive teams in the league, while Syracuse’s game is built on their outstanding defense.  It is extremely rare to have 3 undefeated teams in the nation at this stage of the season, and when a team is unbeaten this late, it is often a team you least expect to end the winning streak.  While Duke beating Syracuse certainly wouldn’t be a shocker, it would still be an upset, but I think if Duke loses in Pittsburgh, as I have predicted above, and has a few extra days and a little extra motivation for this mega matchup, they will find a way to win.
Duke 75, Syracuse 73.

Virginia at #18 Pittsburgh (Sunday, 12:30 PM ET)
Pittsburgh could, potentially, be coming into this game on an adrenaline high, if they can beat Duke, and would have 5 days off in between games before hosting Pittsburgh on Super Bowl Sunday.  Virginia will head to Pittsburgh after their trip to Notre Dame.  A pick for this game comes down to simple statistics.  These two teams are pretty even defensively, with Virginia 6th and Pittsburgh 7th in “Total Defense”, and the two teams ranking comparably in each individual category.  However, on offense, Pitt leads the ACC in “Total Offense” while Virginia is 11th, with the Panthers outranking the Cavaliers in each individual category.  That simple fact, along with Pitt’s home court advantage, gives the edge to Pittsburgh in this game that is for 2nd place outright in the conference standings, should both teams win their games earlier in the week.
Pittsburgh 72, Virginia 60.

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 1/20

College basketball is down to 3 undefeated teams left, and one of them is from the ACC in Syracuse.  The Orange are, in fact, the only undefeated team in ACC conference play as well.  So it should come as no surprise that they are still 1st in these power rankings, as they have been for most of the season.  But the ACC is, as usual, a deep league, with a throng of talented and competitive teams chasing down those at the top.  Among these are surprises, both good and bad.  Who would’ve guessed Clemson would be 4-1 and North Carolina would be 1-3 in conference play?  Sometimes it can be tough to rank these teams from top to bottom, evidenced by Notre Dame dropping 3 spots here after winning on Sunday.  But it’s a tough league in the ACC.  And by the way, the ACC has 5 of the top 13 scoring defenses in the country (Clemson, Virginia, Syracuse, Miami, Pittsburgh).

1.  Syracuse (18-0 overall, 5-0 ACC, Last Week: 1st)
The Orange improve to 18-0 on the season and 5-0 in conference play with a 69-59 win over Boston College and a 59-54 win over Pittsburgh, who was previously undefeated in conference play.  The Orange remain ranked 2nd in the AP Poll, behind only Arizona, and could move to #1 if Arizona has any missteps along the way.  After taking a well-deserved few days off this week, the Orange hit the road on Saturday to play at Miami, who gave them a close contest on January 4 in the Carrier Dome.

2.  Pittsburgh (16-2, 4-1, 2nd)
The Panthers began the week with a 81-74 win at Georgia Tech before traveling to the Carrier Dome and being swallowed up by the sea of orange, losing 59-54.  Pitt played well against Syracuse, but failed to convert on their opportunities down the stretch.  That being said, the Panthers have still been impressive in their first 5 conference games as ACC members, most notably including convincing road wins over NC State and Georgia Tech.  This week the Panthers host Clemson on Tuesday in my Game of the Week, before traveling to Maryland on Saturday.  Pitt was impressive enough in the loss to Syracuse they actually moved up 2 spots in the AP Poll, from 22nd to 20th.

3.  Duke (14-4, 3-2, 4th)
Duke passes Virginia and moves from 4th to 3rd based on their 69-65 win over the Cavaliers on Monday, which they followed up with a 95-60 thrashing of NC State on Saturday.  With the pair of victories, the Blue Devils jumped from 23rd to 18th in this week’s AP Poll.  While they have had their struggles, Duke remains one of the most explosive teams in the conference, and freshman forward Jabari Parker remains perhaps the best player in the conference.  This week the Devils face a road test at Miami before hosting Florida State, a program that has played better than most at Cameron Indoor Stadium over the years, including a win over Duke the last time they visited in 2012.

4.  Virginia (13-5, 4-1, 3rd)
The Cavaliers put together an epic comeback in the closing minutes against Duke to lead them briefly before Rasheed Sulaimon’s 3 put Duke ahead for good.  While I naturally moved Duke ahead of the Cavaliers, they remain 4th in these rankings after beating Florida State to sweep their 2-game season series, winning both contests by 12.  Coach Tony Bennett is one of the best in the game at getting the most out of his personnel, even as guard Joe Harris is having somewhat of a down year (his points, rebounds, and assists are all down).  Tonight, Virginia hosts an old rival when North Carolina comes to town, before hosting an in-state rival when Virginia Tech comes to Charlottesville on Saturday.

5.  Clemson (13-4, 4-1, 6th)
Clemson continued its hot streak, beating Virginia Tech on the road and Wake Forest at home in the days following their upset of Duke.  Tigers forward KJ McDaniels is one of the best players no one is talking about, and if the season ended now would be deserving of first-team All-ACC honors, averaging 16.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game.  I watched this team play in person on Saturday, and saw how much potential this team actually has (and that’s after most people, including me, picked them for 13th or 14th in the conference), particularly McDaniels, who had 15 points and 12 rebounds against Wake Forest.  Clemson’s will have to play well this week to remain tied for 2nd in the ACC standings, with road games against Pittsburgh and North Carolina posing a potential threat to their 4-1 conference record, although if they can hold the Panthers and Tar Heels to their 53.5 points per game average, which leads the nation.

6.  Florida State (12-5, 3-2, 5th)
Even though Florida State beat Clemson head-to-head, the Seminoles 2nd loss of the season in conference play drops them just behind the Tigers.  That loss came on the road to Virginia, 78-66, in a game that wasn’t even as close as that score would indicate.  Back on Wednesday, the Noles won the bragging rights battle with Miami, 63-53.  I thought the Seminoles would really struggle after the loss of guard Michael Snaer to graduation after last season, but Ian Miller, Okaro White, and Aaron Thomas have stepped up to lead this team into NCAA contention.  Notre Dame comes to Tallahassee on Tuesday night before the Seminoles travel to Duke for a road game that will be a true test.

7.  Miami (10-7, 2-3, 8th)
Miami went 1-1 for the week, yet they move up a spot in the rankings after a convincing win over Georgia Tech on Saturday, 3 days after their 10-point loss at home to Florida State.  Jim Larranaga has kept this team competitive despite losing almost all scoring from last year’s ACC championship team, despite ranking 335th out of 345 Division I teams in scoring offense.  To offset the offense, they rank 9th in the nation in defense, allowing just 58.5 points per game.  The Hurricanes will have a pair of chances to pull a home upset this week, hosting Duke on Wednesday and Syracuse on Saturday.

8.  North Carolina (11-6, 1-3, 9th)
The Tar Heels had a week to prepare for Boston College, and showed it in an 82-71 win over the Eagles.  While some might argue the Heels should have beaten the Eagles worse, they’ll take the win at this point, as it was their first conference win of the season after losses to Wake Forest, Miami, and Syracuse.  This is certainly a volatile team, with an ability for some big wins, as shown in their non-conference résumé, but also for some tough losses.  They can silence some of the doubters with a pair of games against teams who are currently 4-1 in conference play, at Virginia, and at home against Clemson.

9.  Maryland (11-7, 3-2, 10th)
Coming off last week’s blowout loss to Florida State, the Terrapins beat Notre Dame on Wednesday, 74-66, to stop the bleeding of a 2-game losing streak.  After beating the Irish, the Terrapins had the weekend off to prepare for games this week at NC State and at home against Pitt, who has already beaten Maryland by 20 in Pittsburgh.  The Terrapins stats are fairly pedestrian, except for rebounding, where they rank 47th in the nation with 37.9 rebounds per game and 30th in rebounding margin.

10.  Notre Dame (11-7, 2-3, 7th)
It was extremely difficult to drop Notre Dame 3 spots here, after they went 1-1 for the week.  But that loss was to Maryland, so it’s only right the Irish fall behind the Terrapins in these rankings.  The win was over Virginia Tech, although the Irish nearly blew their large halftime lead before holding on to win by a 70-63 margin.  The dismissal of guard Jerian Grant continues to hurt the Irish as they try to play without their leader.  This could be another tough week for the Irish as they will travel to Florida State with just a day of practice to prepare between games, before traveling into a tough atmosphere at Wake Forest.

11.  Wake Forest (12-6, 2-3, 11th)
Speaking of the Deacons, they were also 1-1 on the week, beating NC State, 70-69, on Codi Miller-McIntyre’s driving layup in the closing seconds, before losing at Clemson, 61-53, in a game that was tight all the way.  Wake still hasn’t won a conference road game in 2 years, but their 3 losses on the road this year are all to teams currently at 4-1 in conference play.  I saw them play in person against Clemson, and they didn’t play all that poorly.  Their best shot to win a conference road game will be Wednesday night when they travel to Virginia Tech, before heading back to Winston-Salem to host Notre Dame on Saturday.

12.  NC State (11-7, 1-4, 12th)
The Wolfpack had a tough week, losing to a pair of in-state rivals, both in painful fashion.  They lost at Wake Forest in the closing seconds before losing at Duke in a horrific blowout.  Mark Gottfried’s Wolfpack team is very young, although they are getting key contributions from freshmen Anthony “Cat” Barber, Desmond Lee, and Lennard Freeman.  Sophomore forward TJ Warren leads the ACC in scoring at 22.2 points per game, good for 7th in the nation.  The Wolfpack haven’t left North Carolina since January 7, and won’t until February 8, as they are about to begin a 3-game home stand, and their road games have been and will be against in-state rivals.  Maryland and Georgia Tech come to PNC Arena this week.

13.  Georgia Tech (10-8, 1-4, 13th)
Brian Gregory’s team has begun to struggle in conference play, with a pair of home losses this week.  While you can’t really blame them for losing to Pitt, a home loss to a young Miami team by 14 shows this team may not be as close to competitive as some of us thought they might be.  The Yellow Jackets rank in the top 100 nationally in both rebounds and assists per game, yet rank 255th in scoring at 69.1 points per game.  That will need to improve as they now take their show on the road against Boston College and NC State on Tuesday and Saturday.  This will be a pair of winnable games, but it’s always tough to win on the road in the ACC.

14.  Virginia Tech (8-9, 1-4, 14th)
The Hokies lost a pair of 7-point games this week, first at home to Clemson, then on the road to Notre Dame.  They rank 34th in the nation with 39.2 rebounds per game, but rank no higher than 222nd in any other major offensive category.  Senior Jarell Eddie leads the team with 14.5 points per game, but its hard to replace last year’s ACC Co-Player of the Year, Erick Green, who averaged 25.0 points per game.  Wednesday, Wake Forest comes to Blacksburg, which is a winnable game for the Hokies given Wake’s road woes, before traveling Saturday to Charlottesville to seek an upset at Virginia.

15.  Boston College (5-13, 1-4, 15th)
To Boston College’s credit, they showed signs of life this week, taking a good shot at both Syracuse and North Carolina.  While they lost the games by 10 and 11, respectively, they were both closer until the end.  The Syracuse game in particular saw the Eagles leading 50-44 with 11:57 left before Syracuse came from behind and eventually pulled away.  Their only game this week is a winnable one on Wednesday when Georgia Tech visits Conte Forum.  After that game they will have 6 days off, and they don’t have to leave Chestnut Hill again until February 1.

Game of the Week:  Clemson at North Carolina (Sunday, 6:00 PM ET)
While there may be a couple of games this week that are a little more high-profile, including games played by any of the 3 ranked ACC teams, this one stands out as maybe the most important game.  Both Clemson and North Carolina are underdogs in their games early in the week, and if they do end up losing, Clemson would fall to 4-2 and North Carolina to 1-4.  If both teams were coming off a loss the game would be very important.  This series has a lot of history, as both teams were part of the original ACC in 1953, although it’s a very one-sided history:  North Carolina has won 56 consecutive meetings in Chapel Hill, with Clemson’s last win coming in 1926 (they’ve never won in the Smith Center; Clemson did beat the Tar Heels at home in 2010).  The Tigers are coming in hotter than the Tar Heels, and have shown an ability to win on the road, winning both of their road conference games to date.  2 of North Carolina’s 3 conference losses are to sub-.500 conference teams (with the exception being 5-0 Syracuse), with one of those at home.  They also struggled at home with Boston College before winning by 11.  Clemson is simply playing better right now, like a team with a chip on their shoulder.  That program, too, has another chip on their shoulder, known as Chapel Hill.  It’s time.
Clemson 64, North Carolina 60.

Was Ollie’s Ejection Too Much?

When I write about college basketball, it’s usually regarding the ACC.  However, something that happened in the Louisville-UConn game last night out of the American Athletic Conference caught my attention.

UConn coach Kevin Ollie was ejected with 13:02 left in the game after an outburst toward the officials after an obviously blown no-call by referee Mike Stewart right in front of the Huskies bench.  The no-call was after a lot of contact between UConn’s Niels Giffey and Louisville’s Wayne Blackshear as Giffey went up for a 3-point shot and was knocked over, albeit inadvertently, by Blackshear.  Ollie threw his arms up and ran in front of the bench in the direction of Stewart to argue, clearly infuriated by the no-call.  Within 8 seconds, he had been assessed 2 technical fouls, which is an automatic ejection.

The pair of technicals gave Louisville 4 free throws and possession, previously leading 47-38.  Blackshear missed both of the free throws he took before Russ Smith took the other 2, making them both, making the lead 49-38.  On the ensuing Louisville possession, Shabazz Napier of the Huskies committed a “frustration foul”, giving Louisville’s Terry Rozier two more free throws, which he made to make the lead 51-38.  Consider if the original foul had been correctly called, and Giffey would have gone to the line for 3.  If he were to make all 3, the lead would have been cut to 6, and UConn would have had momentum, because they had plenty before the technicals.  The game, which eventually saw Louisville win 76-64, might have been very different had the foul been called correctly.

Before I share my opinion on the situation, here’s how Dan Shulman and Dick Vitale called the incident and its aftermath live on ESPN, starting with the couple of seconds before the no-call:

Shulman:  Napier with the ball, and the last 7 Connecticut points–

Vitale:  Oh, you’ve got a foul right there.

Shulman:  Boy–

Both:  No call!

Vitale:  No call!

Shulman:  And Kevin Ollie just got teed up.

Vitale:  And he gets a T!  Oh my!  Don’t compound it!  Don’t compound it!

Shulman:  And he’s out!

Vitale:  He’s definitely compounded!  That is absolutely a no-no.  He missed the call, right in front of them, the kid got fouled, the coach stood up for his player, and you’re gonna nail him twice, and bang him out of the arena?  That is a no-no!

(pause as Ollie begins to walk toward the tunnel to leave the floor)

Vitale:  I think Mike Stewart compounded a scenario.  Sometimes as a guy in a striped shirt, you’ve gotta really eat the whistle and allow a coach to have a beef.  Allow him to have a little beef.  He had a right for a beef there, Dan.

Shulman:  So two technicals, an ejection, four free throws for Louisville.

(replay begins to play)

Vitale:  What’s your feeling?  I mean, right there.  Look at the contact.  You’re gonna tell me you don’t have a right–

Shulman:  I agree.  You bet.

Vitale:  You don’t have a right to fight for your player there?  I mean, come on now.

Shulman:  That’s a foul, yeah.

Vitale:  Come on, come on.

Shulman:  That’s a foul.

Vitale:  And then you’re gonna compound it by nailing him?  He’s fighting for what’s right; his team.  Players respect that out of their leader, their coach.

(Later during Smith’s free throws)

Vitale:  See, I can understand.  Okay, people say well, he got emotional, he got in the ref’s face.  But sometimes, you as an official, the good ones, the great ones, they have a comprehension for that, and they know when they really, and maybe, I mean that’s trimmed down as a coach, “Calm down, or I’m gonna get you; calm down, or I’m gonna get you”, but you don’t bang him twice, like, that quickly, when there’s an error on your part.

Shulman:  The only thing I can think of that Stewart must have thought is that Giffey leaned into Blackshear to create the contact because you’re entitled Rule of Verticality and all that, but I agree with you, I don’t think there’s any question that that was a foul, and Ollie got teed up twice in a hurry, got run from the game, and now, presumably Glen Miller, the associate head coach, he is taking over. He’s kneeling at the end of the bench right now.

(Play resumes with Napier’s foul)

I have a lot of respect for Dick Vitale, but don’t necessarily agree with him 100% of the time.  Here, however, he was absolutely right.  Mike Stewart had to know that, due to the contact, any call not favoring Giffey and UConn would be controversial, particularly on the Huskies home floor.  As an official, he should anticipate the possibility that the Huskies bench, and particularly Ollie, would be upset over the no-call due to the excessive contact, particularly since it happened right in front of the bench, even if Stewart thought it wasn’t a foul.  Instead, he compounded the situation by giving Ollie 2 technicals in 8 seconds, and turning a tense situation into an ugly one, with Ollie’s being ejected and the crowd turning their attention toward the officials.

Stewart needs to acknowledge the fact he is human and will make an occasional mistake as an official.  Bad calls (and no-calls) are, after all, part of the game, and Stewart needs to respect that if one is made, particularly against the home team, there may be an argument on the floor and/or boos in the stands.  I generally don’t criticize officials for close calls that I don’t agree with, because a lot of things that happen in sports are very tough to see in real time and can be seen incorrectly, even from those on the field.  But when there is a blatantly missed call, like this one, I have no sympathy for the criticism the officials face, because they are paid to get the call right.  In this case in particular, being a big time college basketball game, the officials working should be good at what they do, getting 99% of calls right, and simply taking the argument from the coach on the floor when they happen to make the occasional mistake.

To Ollie’s credit, after walking towards Stewart for a moment as Stewart walked toward the scorer’s table, he quickly began walking toward the tunnel, which was in the opposite corner of the floor.  It took a little bit of directing by an assistant coach, but Ollie didn’t resist, and walked off, stopping only once to turn around and glare briefly at Stewart.

That being said, while I’ve criticized the ejection of Ollie, a single technical foul would have probably been the correct call.  Ollie wasn’t able to keep his composure, and ran over toward Stewart immediately after the no-call to argue, even while the ball was still in play (it ended up not mattering that the ball was in play, because the first technical created a dead ball).  Perhaps Ollie “said the magic word”, but once the cameras had zoomed in on him, my novice lip-reading couldn’t detect anything more than “Come on, that’s a foul, etc.”  There are a few words I can’t detect during the tirade, but they don’t seem to be anything considered to be foul language.

Here is a link to video of the foul and the first few seconds afterward:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wTc-uZC_khk

NFL Picks for Championship Sunday

Sunday is one of the biggest sports days of the year.  While it is naturally overshadowed by Super Bowl Sunday, it is nearly as important, as it sets up the matchup for the biggest single game of the year in the American sports world (and probably the 2nd biggest worldwide this year, since it is a World Cup year).  And it would be hard to even Hollywood to generate a better pair of matchups for this year’s conference championships than what we have after last week’s Divisional Round action.  I don’t remember having this many storylines in the AFC and NFC Championships in the years I’ve been watching the NFL.

AFC Championship:  New England Patriots (13-4) at Denver Broncos (14-3)
The Broncos are 5-point home favorites in the 15th all-time matchup between future Hall of Fame quarterbacks Tom Brady (NE) and Peyton Manning (DEN).  Brady has won 10 of the previous 14.  However, in many of those matchups, Brady had better pieces around him than Manning did, back in the days of the Patriots-Colts rivalry (that rivalry still exists, but in a different form).  I think now it is Manning who has the better team around him, although one could beg to differ with the fact that Brady has won both meetings since Manning joined the Broncos.  This is the 4th playoff meeting between the pair, and while Brady is 2-1 in those meetings, the home team has won each matchup.  Brady and Manning split their 2 AFC Championships against each other, with the Patriots winning in 2004 and the Colts winning in 2007 (that’s the 2003 and 2006 seasons, by the way).  In addition to the Manning-Brady matchup is Manning’s rivalry with Patriots coach Bill Belichick, who Manning called this week the “greatest of all time”.  Manning as 6-11 against Belichick’s teams, which is just a .353 winning percentage.  Manning only has a worse win percentage against 1 other coach, Dave Wannstedt (former Bears/Dolphins coach), who he was 2-5 against (.286).  Brady is playing in his first road playoff game since the last AFC Championship against Manning in 2007, which was in Indianapolis.  In his career in the playoffs, Brady is 12-3 at home, and 3-2 on the road.  It is always impressive to have a road playoff record, but this isn’t impressive:  in those 5 games, Brady has thrown 6 touchdowns and 6 interceptions.  The combined age of Brady and Manning is 74 years and 3+ months, making this the oldest quarterback matchup in a conference championship game.  There are a few more big storylines in this game besides the quarterback battle.  Bill Belichick (NE) and John Fox (DEN) coached against each other in Super Bowl XXXVIII, when Fox was coaching the Panthers, and the Patriots won 32-29.  Fox is 1-6 overall against Belichick, which is a cause for concern in Denver.  Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels was the Broncos’ last head coach, going 11-17 in a stint that didn’t even last 2 full seasons.  Broncos WR Wes Welker is in his first year in Denver after leaving the Patriots, who he played for from 2007-2012.  While his stats are down in Denver in receptions and targets, he has scored more touchdowns in a Broncos uniform than he did (in an average season) in a Patriots uniform.  The Patriots are playing in their 3rd straight AFC Championship game, although this is the first of the 3 that isn’t against the Baltimore Ravens (although if the cards fall right, they could still end up playing a coach named Harbaugh in the playoffs).  These two teams met back in Week 12 in an epic, 34-31, overtime win for the Patriots.  The Broncos led 24-0 at halftime before the Patriots came back to send the game into overtime, when a special teams blunder by the Broncos led to a fumble and gave the Patriots and easy field goal to win.  The Broncos can use that big lead as motivation and proof they can win this game, even though that was the worst statistical game of Manning’s historic season.  Broncos TE Julius Thomas, who has 12 TD catches on the year, did not play in that game.  In addition, the Broncos were 7-1 at home in the regular season and beat the Chargers at home last week in the Divisional Round, while the Patriots are just 4-4 on the road.  This should be a great game, but I think the Broncos will find a way to win at home and return to their first Super Bowl in 15 years, back when John Elway was still under center.  9 of the 13 NFL analysts on ESPN.com agree.  This is a very even matchup, but I’ll stick with my original Super Bowl pick since I haven’t been convinced of anything otherwise.  Tom Brady will fall short in his effort to become the first QB to appear in 6 Super Bowls.
Broncos 35, Patriots 31.

NFC Championship:  San Francisco 49ers (14-4) at Seattle Seahawks (14-3)
The Seahawks are 3-point home favorites at home, although I question that spread due to the Seahawks strong home-field advantage.  They are 16-1 since the start of the 2012 season, including a playoff win last week to improve their all-time home playoff record of 8-2, which includes a current 6-game winning streak dating back to 2004.  To the contrary, however, the 49ers come in as maybe the hottest team in the NFL, having won 8 straight, including road playoff games in Green Bay and Carolina, and including those playoff wins they are now 8-2 on the road this year.  This is the 49ers 3rd straight trip to the NFC Championship, and they are 1-1 in the first 2, with the win coming last year on the road in Atlanta.  While the AFC Championship is the oldest combined QB matchup in a conference championship, 26-year-old Colin Kaepernick (SF) meets 25-year-old Russell Wilson (SEA) in the NFC.  While Kaepernick has technically been in the league a year longer than Wilson, both players are in their 2nd season as an NFL starting QB.  Kaepernick has been playing extremely well, while Wilson has hit a small slump, at least statistically, in recent weeks.  However, Wilson continues to lead the Seahawks to wins, which is all that matters in the playoffs.  Another key matchup on the field is between running backs Frank Gore (SF) and Marshawn Lynch (SEA), both league veterans who are more than capable of being game breakers.  The key matchup off the field, as far as a storyline goes, is between coaches Jim Harbaugh (SF) and Pete Carroll (SEA).  The rivalry between the two goes back to their college coaching days, when Harbaugh was at Stanford and Carroll was at USC.  It was, in fact, Harbaugh’s Stanford team, early in his tenure there, that pulled one of the biggest upsets in college football history in 2007 when they beat USC, 24-23, after being a 41-point underdog (it is the biggest upset, according to the spread, but that’s another discussion for another day).  Harbaugh won 2 out of their 3 collegiate meetings, and 4 out of 6 since he came to the 49ers a year after Carroll became the Seahawks coach.  In those 6 meetings, however, while the 49ers are 4-2, the Seahawks have outscored the 49ers by 28.  Then again, the 49ers have more yards and more rushing yards, although they’ve also committed more turnovers.  This is the 5th meeting of divisional opponents in a conference championship game since 1990, and the divisional matchup means we have 2 regular season meetings to look at.  The teams met in Seattle in Week 2, and the Seahawks absolutely dominated, winning 29-3.  However, that game was over 4 months ago, and these teams have changed a lot since then.  The most recent meeting was in Week 14, and saw the 49ers win 19-17.  The 49ers outplayed the Seahawks statistically, but it took a Phil Dawson field goal with :26 left to give the 49ers the slim victory.  That game, although it was in San Francisco, is a much better measuring stick for what to expect in this game on Sunday, and I expect this one to also be close and close to the same scoring range.  The Seahawks will be without WR Percy Harvin, who has a concussion, but he missed a large portion of the regular season, so Seattle is somewhat used to playing without him.  This may be the biggest rivalry in the NFL right now, and if you thought last week’s 49ers game against the Panthers was chippy, just wait to see what happens when these two teams occupy opposite sidelines in a game of this magnitude.  This is a very difficult pick to make, as both teams are playing so well, and both teams are wholly deserving of playing in Super Bowl XLVIII.  But only one team can win in the playoffs, and 8 of the 13 experts on ESPN.com have picked the Seahawks.  With the Seahawks, my Super Bowl pick at Week 8 and at the beginning of the playoffs, playing at home in front of the “12th man”, I pick them to advance to their first Super Bowl in 8 years.
Seahawks 20, 49ers 17.

ACC Basketball Power Rankings, Week of 1/13

The first full week of ACC conference play delivered plenty of drama.  There have been upsets, close games, blowouts, and some amazing plays.  A couple of themes that I found to be common last season have returned.  One is that it is very difficult for anyone to win a league game on the road, no matter who they are (just ask Duke).  The other is that there are no surprises in the ACC, as there have been several blowouts in a game between pretty even teams, and there have been some close games in games that should have been a mismatch.  Last week, I said Duke, North Carolina, and NC State were all 0-1 in conference play for the first time ever.  This week, while both Duke and NC State have won a game, all 3 lost on the same day, on Saturday, for the first time in 6,518 days, as it hadn’t happened since the 1996 ACC Tournament quarterfinals in Greensboro.  (And North Carolina’s 4th ACC school lost on Saturday, too.)

1.  Syracuse (16-0 overall, 3-0 ACC, Last Week: 1st)
Syracuse remains ranked 2nd in the nation, and is one of 4 teams left who are undefeated, remaining without a loss after easy wins over Virginia Tech and North Carolina.  The Orange have one of the nation’s most balanced attacks, getting significant contributions from guards Tyler Ennis and Trevor Cooney, and forwards CJ Fair, Rakeem Christmas, and Jerami Grant.  This team is definitely the ACC’s best shot at another national title this year, and I believe they will be a 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.  I fully expect them to beat Boston College tonight, even in a game on the road, but when the Orange host Pittsburgh on Saturday their undefeated record will be on the line.

2.  Pittsburgh (15-1, 3-0, 3rd)
Speaking of Pitt, they improved to 15-1, and stayed perfect in conference play, with home wins over Maryland and Wake Forest.  The Panthers have proven it will be difficult for anyone to win in the Petersen Events Center.  This week, however, they will have to play in a couple of tough environments away from home.  First they travel to Georgia Tech, and then they go to undefeated Syracuse.  If Virginia loses to Duke or Florida State, the Pitt-Syracuse game could potentially be between the final 2 undefeated teams in conference play (and could very well be for the #1 spot in these power rankings).  The writers who vote in the AP Poll have been hesitant to rank Pitt, despite their record, due to a weak schedule.  But after a 3-0 start to conference play, the Panthers find themselves ranked 22nd in the nation.

3.  Virginia (12-4, 3-0, 5th)
It was no surprise on Wednesday night when Virginia blew out a Wake Forest team who always seems to struggle on the road.  But it was a surprise, at least to me, when the Cavaliers backed it up with a 76-45 win on the road against NC State.  I know State is amongst the bottom half of the conference this year, but anybody winning an ACC road game by 31 points is very impressive.  They will have a chance to really impress a lot of people when they travel to Duke tonight, even if Duke is suddenly unranked, as no one ever seems to win at Cameron Indoor.  Their contest this weekend will be at home against a Florida State team they already beat by 12 in Tallahassee.  And all this from a team that lost by 35 to Tennessee just 2 weeks ago.

4.  Duke (12-4, 1-2, 2nd)
Perhaps the Blue Devils should be lower, as they are under .500 in conference play at this point.  Then again, that still puts them in a big tie for 7th, which is probably a little higher than you might expect out of a 1-2 team (keep reading, there’s several of them).  They fall to 23rd in the AP Poll, although they still have kept intact their streak of being ranked every week since 2007, now at 127 weeks.  This all comes after the shocking loss at Clemson on Saturday, after Duke had won easily over Georgia Tech earlier in the week.  That being said, I still think Duke will be a national title contender at season’s end, they’ve just hit a couple of bumps in the road with their losses to Notre Dame and Clemson, which I remind you were on the road, where just about everybody struggles in the ACC.  This week, Virginia and NC State come to Cameron Indoor Stadium, where the Blue Devils have won 25 in a row, including 10 conference games.  By the way, the last time Duke and North Carolina lost conference games on the same day was January 20, 2010.  That year, Duke went 20-2 from that point on and won the national championship.

5.  Florida State (11-4, 2-1, 6th)
Florida State moves up a spot after a pair of convincing wins.  First, on Thursday, they beat Clemson on the road, something Duke couldn’t accomplish, and then, on Sunday, destroyed a decent Maryland team by 24.  The value of the Clemson win wasn’t really felt until mid-afternoon on Saturday, after the Clemson-Duke result sunk in.  The value of the Maryland win was immediately apparent, as the Seminoles killed the Terrapins in every facet of the game.  This week the Noles have a couple of tough road contests.  First they play at in-state rival Miami, and then they will go to Virginia to play a team that beat them by 12 earlier in Tallahassee.

6.  Clemson (11-4, 2-1, 12th)
While “Death Valley” is technically Clemson’s football stadium, the term applied to Littlejohn Coliseum on Saturday when Duke came to town.  The Tigers pulled off a shocker and beat the Blue Devils, 72-59, including a 13-2 run in the final 6:28 to seal the victory.  Clemson skyrockets in these rankings, even with their loss on Thursday to Florida State, after the win, and is now making a case that they could slip in the NCAA Tournament.  And this is a team I picked to go 9-21, and just 2-16 in conference play.  They’ve matched that projected win total in just 3 games, and I’m sure they probably aren’t done yet, considering this week they’ve got a couple of relatively easy games (by ACC standards, anyway), at Virginia Tech and at home against Wake Forest.

7.  Notre Dame (10-6, 1-2, 4th)
The Irish had a tough week.  First of all, they lost at home to NC State and on the road to Georgia Tech, a pair of games that they should’ve won, at least on paper, and were pretty close as well.  Secondly, their win over Duke was probably devalued a little bit by Duke’s loss to Clemson.  I thought Notre Dame would be struggling in conference play after they lost their best player, Jerian Grant, after he was dismissed from the team in late December.  But after they beat Duke, I thought they had figured out how to compete without Grant.  Their last two losses would tell me otherwise, perhaps even making the Duke win a fluke.  The Irish go to Maryland on Wednesday before hosting Virginia Tech on Sunday night.

8.  Miami (9-6, 1-2, 10th)
The Hurricanes, although they lost their top 6 scorers from a year ago, are still the defending ACC champions, and they played like it on Wednesday night, when they beat North Carolina, 63-57, in Chapel Hill, in their only game of the past week.  While it was a struggling Tar Heel team that they beat, winning that game on the road was still a huge step for a very young Hurricanes team and coach Jim Larranaga.  Wednesday the Hurricanes have a big game, for a couple of reasons.  The opponent is Florida State, and the game is important as the teams battle for the title of the 2nd best program in the state (behind Florida, of course).  It is also important because the Canes have the game at home, against a tough ACC opponent, and can really make a statement with a win.  They also play Georgia Tech this Saturday.

9.  North Carolina (10-6, 0-3, 7th)
You could make a case that the Tar Heels should be lower, as they are currently the only winless team in ACC play after losses this week by 6, at home against Miami, and by 12, at Syracuse.  However, this is an overall evaluation of each team in the ACC based on the entirety of their schedule, although conference play is naturally a little more important, and this team does have wins over Michigan State, Louisville, and Kentucky.  But they are really struggling, and are looking to play better when they host Boston College on Saturday after a much-needed few days off.  By the way, the only other time the Heels started 0-3 in ACC play was 1997, when they went on to win the ACC Tournament and make a run to the Final Four.

10.  Maryland (8-7, 2-2, 8th)
A week ago, Maryland sat at 2-0 and technically led the ACC by a half game (they had won a December conference game, as well as their game on the opening weekend of ACC play on January 4).  Now, after a 20-point loss at Pittsburgh, and a 24-point loss at Florida State, the Terrapins sit at 2-2 in the ACC and just a game over .500 on the season.  A week ago, I said this was probably an NCAA Tournament team.  While I understand both of those losses were against good opponents on the road, the Terrapins showed no signs of being able to play well consistently in the ACC.  Maryland hosts another struggling team on Wednesday when Notre Dame visits College Park, before they get a few days off over the weekend to prepare for their final 13 conference games.

11.  Wake Forest (11-5, 1-2, 9th)
At this time last week, the Wake Forest campus was rejoicing over their win against North Carolina.  But neither team has won a game since, devaluing the win for the Deacons, both in the sense that Wake wasn’t able to validate the victory, and in the sense that North Carolina has continued to struggle, showing it wasn’t necessarily just a great night for Wake when they beat the Heels.  Wake struggles, as they have been for the entire Jeff Bzdelik tenure, have come on the road.  To the Deacs’ credit, however, those losses were to Virginia and Pittsburgh, 2 of the top 3 teams in these rankings.  And perhaps a 9-0 run in the closing moments of the Pitt game will build some momentum going into games against NC State and Clemson this week.

12.  NC State (11-5, 1-2, 11th)
This week was a mixed bag for NC State.  On Tuesday night, they did something Duke had previously failed to do, leaving South Bend with a win over Notre Dame.  But after they came home, Saturday they were completely embarrassed at the hands of Virginia, losing 76-45 on their own floor.  The Wolfpack drop a spot based on that loss, which is unfortunate because they were primed to gain position after the win over the Irish and the struggles of the teams just ahead of them.  I believe this team is capable of competing, but they are a young team.  We should keep in mind that their 2 losses are to Pittsburgh and Virginia, each among the 3 undefeated teams left in conference play.  The Wolfpack face a pair of road tests this week, although they won’t leave North Carolina, playing at Wake Forest and Duke.

13.  Georgia Tech (10-6, 1-2, 13th)
It was a tough decision, but the Yellow Jackets remain at 13th after losing at Duke and beating Notre Dame at home.  I really hated to leave the Jackets here, as they looked as competitive this week as they have all season.  But with a record of 1-1 for the week, and the fact that they beat the same team (Notre Dame) as the team right ahead of them (and did it at home while NC State did it on the road), they are stuck here, at least for now.  They don’t have to leave Atlanta this week, and will have a couple of home games that, with a win, would help their status in the conference.  In particular, if they can find a way to beat Pittsburgh on Tuesday night, they will get the attention of the ACC.  The other contest is this weekend against Miami.

14.  Virginia Tech (8-7, 1-2, 14th)
After beating Miami in their first conference game back in December, the Hokies struggled this week in their next 2, losing to Syracuse and Boston College.  They did stay within single digits of Syracuse in the first half before the Orange pulled away to win by 20, and the loss to the Eagles was by just 3.  I must admit that this team, which I projected in the preseason to go 1-17 in the ACC, is better than expected.  That being said, when they host Clemson on Wednesday night, they will have a chance to win more games in the first 4 games of conference play than I said they would win all year.  They will also travel to Notre Dame on Sunday night.

15.  Boston College (5-11, 1-2, 15th)
Boston College retains the place they’ve been for most of the season in these rankings, but they showed some signs of improvement on Saturday with a 62-59 win over Virginia Tech.  You might wonder why that win didn’t put them over the Hokies in these rankings.  These rankings are written to show who the best teams are, and who’s playing the best right now, but also takes into account the entire body of work.  That being said, based on the Eagles’ 5-11 record, which makes them the only team below the .500 mark (and they are well below it), and the fact that the game against Virginia Tech was a close game that could have gone either way, I will leave them here, at least for now.  This week, they will get a couple of chances for a confidence-boosting win, when they host Syracuse and play at North Carolina.

Game of the Week:  #22 Pittsburgh at #2 Syracuse (Saturday, 4:00 PM ET)
This is a matchup of the top two teams in these rankings, as well as the two highest ranked teams in the ACC according to both the AP Poll and the Coaches Poll.  Both teams are obviously playing very well, with only one loss between them (and if Pitt had scored 45 points on Cincinnati, they would both be undefeated, at least in theory).  These two programs are very familiar after playing some contests during their time in the Big East that were as meaningful as this one, or more.  Three things make me believe Syracuse will win here.  One is that they have been tested more than Pitt, as they have played a tougher schedule, and Pitt lost to the toughest team they’ve played so far.  Another is that this game is at the Carrier Dome, one of the biggest and loudest venues in the country, not just the ACC.  Lastly, Syracuse has a very balanced roster, with great players at each position, and can use one of their many strengths to find any of Pitt’s weaknesses.  I do think the game will be relatively close.
Syracuse 66, Pittsburgh 59.