2015 NBA Finals Preview

Tonight, after more than a week of inactivity, the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors will begin the 2015 NBA Finals. I am sure I am not alone when I say that it feels like a lifetime since we have witnessed live action, and this matchup will feature the best player in the world versus a team that has had one of the more successful seasons from an historical perspective in recent memory.

Odds to win Finals: Cleveland +190, Golden State -220

While a good portion the betting public is putting their support (and money) behind King James and the underdog Cavs at the moment, let’s take a quick look at a few keys that will determine who ultimately wins the title:

Battle inside: The Cavs have yet to lose a game in which they held the edge in rebounding at the end, and this is primarily due to the work of Tristan Thompson. While he doesn’t possess the overall skill level of Kevin Love, he does bring a manically approach to rebounding and a heavy dose of energy to the court every minute he out there.  For the playoffs, Thompson is averaging ~10 boards a game and has proven to be a handful for defenders who try to keep him off of the offensive glass. He will look to punish the smaller Golden State frontline in this series and create additional opportunities for his teammates.

Roster depth: As the deeper team, Golden State will look utilize their bench to create separation when its starters leave the floor. Andre Iguodala is the most versatile reserve on either team, and he will be tasked with checking LeBron whenever he is playing. While the Warriors might not have much bulk outside of Andrew Bogut, they do have a slew of “long” players in Shaun Livingston, Festus Ezeli, and Leandro Barbosa coming off the bench that challenge shots and muddy up passing lanes.  The returning Marresse Speights might also be needed this series to bang with Thompson and Timofey Mozgov.

Cleveland has a lot of old, familiar names carving up space on its bench, but the player who has made the biggest impact for them thus far in the postseason has been none other than J.R. Smith. The ever mercurial Smith                has been a pleasant surprise for the Cavs, averaging 13.5 PPG and shooting a blistering 40% from long range. His ability to create his own opportunities and provide another legitimate scoring option has put the Cavs over the edge in some games, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him taking big shots and swinging a contest or two in this series.

LeBron’s impact: Unless you’re Michael Jordan, the team with the best player doesn’t always win in the Finals. LeBron is 2-3 in the Finals and very easily could be 1-4. He has been a workhouse during the postseason (27.6 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 8.3 APG), but he is logging a ton of minutes and his offensive efficiency is lagging because of it (James’ field-goal percentage is a rather alarming .428 in the playoffs, his lowest rate in seven years). This round he is going to be facing an athletic team that has a variety of defenders to throw at him, bet it AI, Draymond Green or Harrison Barnes.  LeBron is a freak of nature, but will he get enough help and therefore have enough energy left in the tank to take over games late? Especially against a team that can throw up points in the blink of eye.

Oracle advantage: Golden State has proven to be extremely difficult to beat at home, losing only two games during the regular season and one in the playoffs. Against Eastern Conference opponents they won 14 of 15 home games, making it a tough ask for Cleveland to overcome.

Trends: Cleveland is 12-2 SU and 8-6 ATS in the postseason compared to Golden State’s 12-3 SU and 7-8 ATS.

Prediction: The Cavs are the more physical team, and if it gets chippy I could easily see Golden State getting thrown off its game and playing a style that Cleveland prefers. Kyrie Irving having eight days to rest up should get him closer to 100%, and his ability and presence makes this more of an even series in my mind.  That being said, the Warriors are the better team and have gone through an infinitely more difficult path to reach the Finals. With a potential Game 7 being played on their home court, I like Golden State to prevail.

WrestleMania 31 Panel Discussion

For a majority of my more than 30 years of watching WWE entertainment, WrestleMania has been the show I have looked forward to seeing more than any other. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Royal Rumble and the occasional SummerSlam PPV, but at the end of the day everything Vince McMahon does throughout the year is geared towards delivering a top-notch Mania card for the masses to take in.

This year feels a little different. I am not sure if it is a byproduct of getting older (I hope not at least) or the lineup of matches, but even with Sting’s debut match in the WWE on the docket, my anticipation for this Sunday’s extravaganza is somewhat tepid. There have been some ‘dud’ Mania’s in the past (see the Miz vs. Cena headliner in Atlanta a few years back), and I am fearful we are headed in that direction. There is little buzz, less energy, and other than Brock Lesnar’s announcement earlier this week that he will remain with the WWE, not much to talk about in terms of big picture scenarios.

With this as the backdrop, I have summoned our panel of experts for their feel on the matches and to see if they share my sentiments.

Tyson Kidd and Cesaro (c) (with Natalya) vs. Los Matadores (Diego and Fernando) (with El Torito) vs. The New Day (Big E and Kofi Kingston) (with Xavier Woods) vs. The Usos (Jimmy Uso and Jey Uso) (with Naomi) Fatal four-way tag team match for the WWE Tag Team Championship

Waymire:  I don’t see any reason to take the titles away from Kidd and Cesaro, so they’re my pick. Usos are good but have had their run. Los Matadores are just plain corny, and The New Day are just plain embarrassing. Please DO NOT give either one of those teams the titles!

JD:  I hate being Debbie Downer here, but just how bad is the Tag Team division currently? Los Matadores, New Day and the Usos are horrible kid friendly tag teams that 99% of actual wrestling fans despise.  I love the idea of Tyson Kidd and Cesaro, but how long are they going to keep them together? Six months? Can’t we have legit tag teams that aren’t forced down people’s throats in a cheesy way? I really hate making a pick here but if I have to I hope the Swiss hunk (yea I said it) and Tyson Kidd retain.

BJR:  No interest.  This was simply thrown together; the champs are not a true tag team as far as I’m concerned.  So much for HHH’s focus on the tag team titles. Oh and where is the mighty Ascension?

Drew:  Gotta go with the champs on this one.  I actually like this team and wish the tag division had more pull (the other teams in this match are garbage and The Ascension has been a massive bust).  Can’t see them dropping the title here.

PAC:  I personally enjoy the team of Kidd and Cesaro. They probably aren’t built for the long-term, but glad that a great worker like Kidd is finally getting a chance to perform again. I see them winning unless the powers that be want to throw one of these other teams as bone.


André the Giant Memorial Battle Royal for the André the Giant Memorial Trophy

Waymire:  This would be a good spot to bring back Sheamus, so he’s my pick. If he’s not even in it, then it’s a toss-up between a bunch of people nobody cares about. So I guess I’ll go with Ryback.

JD:  Who really cares who wins as long as there is a cool spot (Cesaro eliminating Show last year).

BJR:  No interest, couldn’t even really tell you who’s in this match.  All I know is that Goldust is in it and we are not seeing him and Stardust have a match at Mania; instead they quickly throw them together in a PPV match last month and completely miss out on an old school feud with one payoff match on the biggest stage of them all.  Winner: Samoa Joe.

Drew:  Blah.  Ryback I guess.

PAC:  It will come down to Corporate Kane, Big Show, Ryback, and maybe a returning Sheamus. Either way I don’t have any interest in this match and am glad it is on the pre-show now.


Bad News Barrett (c) vs. R-Truth vs. Dean Ambrose vs. Luke Harper vs. Dolph Ziggler vs. Stardust vs. Daniel Bryan Ladder match for the WWE Intercontinental Championship

Waymire:  Maybe it’s time to take the Intercontinental title seriously again? If that’s the case, then I’ll roll with Daniel Bryan, who can make a big deal about following in the footsteps of HBK, Bret Hart, Randy Savage, and Stone Cold, among others.

JD:  This may very well steal the show. The only thing I don’t like is R-Truth being in this match (what purpose does it serve?). The other competitors are clearly the future of the company and keeping them involved in the IC title will only help to elevate it again.

BJR:  Minimal interest. I’m still annoyed that they had Ziggler vs Bryan on this past Monday’s RAW, that match belongs on the Mania card.  This match will be great from a pure wrestling standpoint and will have some amazing spots.  I still think this was thrown together and really has no point to it other than giving these guys a chance to be on the card.  I really need to start seeing long term feuds built up well prior to Mania, not three weeks prior.  Winner, Stardust with help from Sheamus when he takes out Bryan.

Drew:  Best match on the card in my opinion.  Ambrose, Ziggler & Bryan always bring 100% to every match they are in.  Stardust can be really good in big-ticket matches.  If you could bet on this situation, I would put a lot of money on Barrett getting hurt at some point that will put him out of action for six months.  Harper & Truth are throw-ins.  I expect a lot of high-flying action, a lot of big-time bumps and at least two Holy Sh*t moments.  The easy pick is Bryan.  I’m going with Ziggler – he’s been on a roll lately and they can set something up with him & Bryan that can go for a while.

PAC:  This is one of the top matches on the card and should bring down the house. My only regret is that the likes of Ziggler, Bryan, and Ambrose might’ve been better served in other feuds or in other high profile matches way up the card. I think Ziggler and Bryan will cancel each other out leading to a series between them down the line, leaving Ambrose to emerge victorious.


AJ Lee and Paige vs. The Bella Twins (Brie Bella and Nikki Bella) Tag team match

Waymire:  I don’t see many heels winning on this night, so this might be one of the only matches where it could happen. The Bellas get the victory. But I still love Paige. A lot.

JD:  I love AJ, Paige and Nikki. That is all.

BJR:  Piss break.  Winner:  The Bella Twins.

Drew:  Ugh.  Remember when you actually looked forward to Divas matches since it was either (A) halfway decent wrestling or (B) good looking Divas?  Now it’s neither.  I guess I’ll go with AJ & Paige.

PAC:  Do I have to pick someone? Team Paige only because of her accent.


Rusev (c) (with Lana) vs. John Cena Singles match for the WWE United States Championship

Waymire:  Rusev can take the loss here and still be a monster heel, and I can’t see Vince McMahon passing on the sight of Cena winning the U.S. title at WM. I think it would be fun to watch Bryan and Cena with the secondary titles, so let’s go with Cena.

JD:  Don’t know how many times I can say it: I hate this John Cena. I don’t hate the man, I hate the stale character. For all the shit you can say about Hogan, at least he got it at some point and was like “the red and yellow ain’t working anymore”. For all the people that say, “he’s just following Vince’s orders”, I would counter and say that if Cena demanded the turn heel, it would happen. Why do I want this so badly? Because I actually feel John Cena has a lot left in the tank just not with this super cheesy fruity pebble character. With that said, I’m guessing he goes over here (which shouldn’t happen).

BJR:  Already seen this match and I have no interest in a rematch on the Grandest Stage of Them All.  Winner, Cena.

Drew:  Another blah.  SuperCena wins breaking the undefeated streak.  The ONLY good thing to come out of this would be if Cena brings back the spinner US title belt (that thing was awesome).

PAC:  Surprising to see Cena down the card going for a secondary title. Despite all the USA/Russia ramifications and the building of Rusev into a monster heel, I think a lot of people still don’t want to root for Cena. It will be physical match with a lot of power spots, but Cena will win and the big American flag will drop from the sky.

The Undertaker vs. Bray Wyatt Singles match

Waymire:  Can it possibly be two straight WM loses for The Undertaker? I think so, as Wyatt needs to regain much of his lost steam, and this is one opportunity to do so.

JD:  Very intrigued here, I think they did the right thing by keeping Taker off TV. I honestly have no idea where they go with this. It can’t be a clean finish because Bray should go over but I can’t imagine having Taker lose cleanly two years in a row after going 21-0.

BJR:  Finally, somewhat of a good buildup with no altercations between the two.  Plus they’ve never faced each other, so there’s some intrigue here.  I sort of get why Wyatt would call out Taker, but still random to me as to why Taker would be facing Wyatt.  I like Wyatt and think he should be put in a feud with another younger guy to try and steal the show.  My guess this is to help people forget about Taker’s loss last year and maybe position him better for the match vs Sting if that were to happen next year.  Winner, Taker.

Drew:  Not excited at all.  I have never been a Bray Wyatt fan and I continue to not be.  Undertaker looked like garbage last year so I have no idea what to expect this year.  I think I’ll take the Undertaker but I have no idea why.

PAC:  Would’ve liked to have seen this match when Taker could still move. Wyatt is a powerhouse, and him and Old Taker could’ve had a real knock-down/drag out brawl. The build to this one has been decent, and if Taker hadn’t lost to Lesnar last year I would say Wyatt had a shot at winning. I see them appeasing the crowd here with a win by Taker.


Sting vs. Triple H Singles match

Waymire:  As much as I’m glad Sting is finally in WWE, he really blew it by not agreeing a few years ago to face The Undertaker at WM 27. From what I recall, he was also in talks to face Triple H at WM 19, I believe. Give Triple H credit – he’s happily done the J-O-B in big matches, and that doesn’t change here. Sting gets the victory.

JD:  Honestly, couldn’t be more hyped out this. Both men can still go and I can only imagine the how loud that place will get for Stings entrance.

BJR:  I’m beyond disappointed that this is not Sting vs. Taker, that’s what’s best for business.  With that being said, putting my disgust over HHH once again injecting himself in to Mania, I am looking forward to this match.  Watching Sting’s entrance and first ever WWE match is alone going to be great.  Plus HHH is one of the best in ring performers of all time, so between the two of these guys, we’ll definitely see a great and physical match.  Winner, Sting and hopefully there’s something with Taker to set up next year’s Mania.

Drew:  Although Triple H loves to dominate the storylines and insert himself into every event he deems worthy, he can still put together a solid match.  Sting is still in relatively good shape, but his wrestling skills are meager at best at this point.  Trips will make this match worth it but Sting wins at the end setting up a go-forward story of him vs. The Authority.

PAC:  Say what you will about Trips dominating TV time and injecting himself into the hottest storylines, the man can still create interest in a match. Sting has obvious physical limitations at this point, but Triple H is smart enough to develop a contest that plays to his strengths and makes him look representable out there. I am still bummed at Sting for dropping the ball and not coming to WWE sooner to face the Undertaker a few years back. That would’ve been epic. We are left with this though, and while it won’t be as great, I am still jacked to see him in a match at Mania. Sting gets the win.

Randy Orton vs. Seth Rollins (with Jamie Noble and Joey Mercury) Singles match 

Waymire:  Rollins can take a loss and still have a big night if he cashes in. Even if there is no cash in, he still has the briefcase and instant credibility, so Orton is my choice.

JD:  I could see Orton winning but Rollins getting the last laugh with cashing in. I fully expect Rollins to walk out WWE Champ.

BJR:  Will be a good match, Rollins has proven to be a solid performer.  But again, we’ve seen this match in one way, shape or form, so I can’t get overly excited about it.  The saving grace here will be J&J Security, this is one of the best things going right now and they still “got it” in the ring.  Winner, RKO (and obviously Rollin’s could cash in his MITB).

Drew:  Still can’t stand Orton (going on close to 15 years now).  I love Rollins – he’s a perfect chickensh*t heel, great on the mike and really good in the ring.  This will probably be a really good match.  I’ll go with Rollins winning with outside interference.

PAC:  Somewhat interested in this match because both men are really good in the ring and complement each other well. That and anything involving J&J security I am all in on. Orton gets the win and we might see Rollins cashing in later in the night.


Brock Lesnar (c) (with Paul Heyman) vs. Roman Reigns Singles match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship

Waymire:  Boy has this match taken on added significance in the last few days with Brock’s re-signing. So many factors to consider: Reigns being chosen as the “next Cena,” Heyman possibly swerving Lesnar, Lesnar bucking tradition and walking out of WM as a heel champion, and the crowd factor weighing heavily on rejecting Reigns winning. With all that said, I’m still going with Reigns coming away champion, even with Lesnar’s slick new three-year deal. If Reigns was stubbornly given the Royal Rumble victory, why not here as well?

JD:  There are three scenarios that I’m ok with for the outcome of this:  1) Lensar retains and walks out Champ, 2) Rollins cashes in 3) Reigns walks out champ only after a heel turn because let’s face it .. no one gives a shit about him as a baby face. It should be a great match, Lesnar is an absolute spectacle and Reigns can go to ..he just isn’t ready to be the top baby face.

BJR:  Now that Lesnar has resigned with WWE (three year deal WC, are you OK with that now?  Or is he still a part-timer?), this match will be entertaining only because Reigns will get booed out of the building.  Lesnar should carry the match, I’m not impressed with Reigns in the ring whatsoever, not to mention he jacks his own arm off before his finisher.  I won’t be shocked to see Lesnar’s next feud set up during this match.  Winner and still WWE Champion, Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrock.  Lesnar!

Drew:  Before the Rumble I figured it was a lock that Reigns would win and carry the title going forward.  But since the debacle at the Rumble and now that Lesnar has signed his WWE extension, I don’t see that happening.  Now I have not been the biggest Lesnar fan since he “returned” since he’s basically pulling a glorified Rock scenario and showing up whenever the product needs a bump, only working about seven shows per year.  With his extension, maybe he will actually become part of the storyline.  Regardless, I see him retaining.  I also say there is a 50% chance of The Rock showing up at the end to do something (setting up a match at next year’s WM), a 25% chance of Rollins cashing in on a “tired” Lesnar and winning the belt and a 10% chance of a combination of the two (Rock coming out to confront Lesnar after he beats down Reigns, giving him the Rock Bottom and Rollins running in to cash in his briefcase).

PAC:  Prior to Lesnar resigning with the WWE I was certain that Reigns was going to win, but now I am not quite sure. Do they really want to put the title on someone (RR) who very well could get booed right out of the building? If Reigns does go over I could see Rollins coming down to cash in his briefcase, but the more I think about it, the more I see Lesnar getting the W. Why have him beat Taker at last year’s Mania, destroy Cena at SummerSlam, sign him to a large extension, if he isn’t going to remain as champ for the foreseeable future?

‘I Hate Christian Laettner’ and the Genesis of Duke Hate

There is just something about Duke.

I don’t quite know how to explain it, but they are team that elicits the same type of disdain I usually reserve the for New England Patriots. Both teams are well coached, smart, disciplined, and perennial winners…and each  goes about their business in a way that makes me to bash my head against a wall.

Watching their games, it just always feels like they are getting away with something. It is bad enough that you often have to play a flawless game to beat them, but it is even harder when you factor in that they are afforded (in my mind) all of the breaks and seemingly are always getting the benefit of the doubt.

As a Yankee fan, I fully grasp and appreciate why people love-to-hate the organization for I have similar feelings towards Coach K and the Dukies.  It is a natural sentiment that is hard to turn off, one that over time keeps you actively engaged in following their progress with the reaching hope that they will eventually fall flat on their face.

The sad thing is, for awhile I actually really liked Duke. Growing up in the 80’s, they were the team that was constantly on the cusp of winning an NCCA Championship before ultimately falling short. They were an up-and-coming program that was built by Coach K from the ground up, and you couldn’t but help but admire the persistent of a group that kept knocking on the door, desperately trying to reach the pinnacle. I sympathized with Duke to a degree and the underdog aura that surrounded the program during that time period.

The high water mark of feeling sorry for Duke came in the 1990 National Championship game when Larry Johnson and UNLV overwhelmed and embarrassed the Blue Devils  by a score of 103-73. Anyone who watched that game couldn’t help but feel that Christian Laettner and Bobby Hurley didn’t belong on the court against a team of full grown men like the one that Vegas ran out there, and you had to wonder when (if ever) it was going to be Duke’s “time”.

The answer to that question came just a year later when Duke turned the tables on UNLV and upset the undefeated juggernaut in the Final Four. Laettner and Hurley each had  improved by leaps and bounds since previous years’ bloodbath, and they were buoyed by the addition of a spectacular freshman named Grant Hill. Duke captured its first national title two days later by defeating Kansas, solidifying its spot as one of the upper echelon programs in all of college basketball.  They had finally reached the mountaintop.

And this is where it all  began to change.

The shift was subtle, but in relatively short order the Blue Devils were no longer viewed as the plucky upstarts fighting for respectability. Instead, they  were largely seen as a group of entitled rich kids that flopped and connived their way to victories. Laettner was the face and catalyst of much of the ill will directed at Duke, and the fact that he embraced it and was so dam good only made the team (and him) that much more unlikeable.

I personally felt my own feelings towards the Duke basketball program begin to change as a result of the meteoric rise of Michigan’s Fab Five and Laettner’s petty behavior in stomping on the chest of Kentucky Wildcat forward Aminu Timberlake. Both of these areas were covered in depth in ESPN’s latest 30 for 30 film, “I Hate Christian Laettner”. He proved to be the perfect villain, not allowing the young bucks on Michigan dethrone his team and proving that you can get away with such an egregious action (the one against Timberlake) and not only remain in the game, but later hit a shot that will go down as possibly the best ever.

There is much more contained in the documentary, and by the end of it you will have formed perhaps a revised opinion of Laettner. What can’t be discounted is that he was an amazing college player that played some of his best games when the stakes were highest. He also became the model of what a prototypical Duke player looked like for a solid twenty year stretch, or at least how they appeared before Coach K started using his influence and relationship with Team USA to recruit different caliber players.

For better or for worse, Laettner helped changed the tenor of a Duke program that I once admired, becoming the embodiment of everything a lot of us loathe about them even to this day.




Davis Love III Returning as Ryder Cup Captain

In what has to be considered a mild upset, Davis Love III is expected to be named the next U.S. Ryder Cup captain.  Love, though extremely popular amongst his peers, wasn’t anticipated to be in the mix for the gig with big names such as Fred Couples Steve Stricker, and Paul Azinger lurking as potential candidates to lead the host squad when the matches return to American soil in 2016.

Love captained the ill-fated U.S team that lost in heartbreaking fashion to Europe back in 2012 at Medinah. With the exception of the madness that transpired on that fateful Sunday, DL3 did almost everything right that week as his team played loose and inspired golf in front of a raucous home crowd.  He could be accused of making some tactical errors with his pairings in the afternoon session on Saturday and the order of his players in the following days’ single matches, but more than anything his team ran into an opponent that made a remarkable array of shots and putts – most of which they wouldn’t be able to replicate in sequence again if that final day was played over 100 more times.

Personally, I am glad Love is being afforded another opportunity to add a Ryder Cup win to his ledger. His players in 2012 (especially those that played subpar golf that weekend) were devastated that they couldn’t close the deal for him, and you can be sure the U.S. team will have added incentive to win at the matches at Hazeltine after the trouncing they suffered to the Euros this past fall.

While some across the pond have been enjoying a good laugh at the struggles of the U.S. team and the formation of the 11-member “Task force”, I think the committee made a good choice in bringing back DL3; outside of Couples, I can’t think another captain that really moves the meter.  We all love a good redemption story, and Davis and his players have been given the chance to make amends for a lost opportunity.  If they can somehow turn the tide on the Europeans and win the Ryder Cup for the first time since 2008, after all they have endured it will be well worth the wait.

Super Bowl 2015 Prediction

After roughly two weeks of hype, analysis, Marshawn Lynch “interviews”, and discussions surrounding deflated footballs, we are now just a few days away from the Super Bowl.

Led by their omnipresent defense, the Seahawks are looking to win the big game for the second year in a row and cement their standing as a dynasty in the making.  While on the other side of the spectrum, the sly regime of Brady and Belichick are making their six Super Bowl appearance together and are desperately trying to win another one before their time together ends.

Current line:  NE -1, over/under 48

Gronk versus the safeties:  Seeing how Seattle handles Rob Gronkowski will be one of the more intriguing matchups to watch in this game.  Gronk typically gets a free release from the line of scrimmage and overpowers smaller defenders, but he could be in for a battle against the Seahawks all-world safeties Earl Thomas and Cam Chancellor.  Thomas covers as much ground as any safety in the league and will have no qualms about throwing his body into the massive Gronkowski, while Chancellor is one of the few DBs in the NFL with the size and physicality to go toe to toe with New England’s tight end. Limiting Gronk’s effectiveness would essentially remove Tom Brady’s primary explosive outlet and make it easier for Seattle to defend an offense that is known for methodically picking the opposition apart.

Anyone open?:  With stars like Darrelle Revis and Richard Sherman covering ground in the secondary, both offenses will have to get resourceful in order to create some separation for their respective receivers.  The Patriots are masterful at changing formations and mixing in different personnel, but the speed of Seattle’s defense will make it difficult for Brady to continually dink and dunk his way down the field with short passes to Julian Edelman and Danny Amendola.  The Seahawks don’t have any big name receivers on their roster, and will have to rely heavily on Russell Wilson’s innate ability to use his legs to extend plays and generate opportunities for them.

Give and take:  Both New England (+12) and Seattle (+9) are among the league leaders in terms of turnover differential.  The Patriots are a smart team that rarely makes mistakes, and by virtue of their schemes it is usually only a matter of time before the opposition does something egregious to put the Pats in a situation that benefits them.  Seattle is hyper-aggressive, fast, physical, and loves to cause momentum shifting plays on both sides of the ball.  Despite their forcefulness, they are usually good about taking care of the ball on offense (the exception to this being Wilson’s erratic play in the NFC Championship game against the Packers). In a game where the margins are razor slim, it is paramount that each team takes care of the ball and takes advantage of turnover opportunities if and when they present themselves.

Trends:  Underdogs have fared very well in recent Super Bowls – just last year, the Seahawks were 2.5-point underdogs when they hammered the Denver Broncos.  In fact, the favorite has failed to cover the point spread in six of the last seven Super Bowls, with the only outlier coming in 2011 when the Green Bay Packers covered a three-point spread against the Pittsburgh Steelers.  Seattle is a solid pick as an underdog, going 17-3 against the spread in its last 20 games in this position.

Prediction:  With Seattle boasting the NFL’s best defense and New England running out their typical bend-but-don’t-break unit, this could be a ball control, run-heavy, possession type of game.  I can’t imagine Wilson ever playing as poorly as he did in the first three quarters of the Green Bay game, or the Patriots being able to play smash-mouth football against the ‘Hawks like they did against the Colts.  I expect New England to hold a slight lead throughout before being overtaken/worn out by the overall team speed of Seattle, eventually falling by a score somewhere in the range of 23-17.

The Rex Ryan Era Begins in Buffalo

“Is this thing on?  Because it’s getting ready to be on.”

And just like that, the old Rex Ryan was back.

Rex was introduced yesterday as the new coach of the Buffalo Bills, and right off the bat he came out guns blazing.  He had a number of print worthy lines at the introductory press conference, and between his energy and overall swagger, it was clear that the man that created such a buzz during his first few years with the Jets had returned in full force.

There were a few guarantees made, a couple of shots fired at a former coach of the Bills (‘Saint Doug’), and some references to building a team that will play the part of the “bully”.  It was vintage Rex, who over the course of a few of days seemingly managed to fully incorporate himself into the fabric of the Buffalo community.

I’d be lying if I said I haven’t been missing this version of Rexy the past few years.  Whether you find him entertaining or consider him an obnoxious blowhard, the ‘Hard Knocks’ version of the coach is his real persona.  For whatever reason, the Jets decided to put a muzzle on him around the time Woody Johnson hired the great John Idzik to be general manager.  In public Rex did his best to tone down the bombastic rhetoric and walk the company line, but beneath the surface you just knew his true personality was just waiting to pop out.

I realize they are still in the honeymoon phase in Buffalo, but at the moment it seems that Rex is surrounded by people who share his vision and want to build a team in the same manner.  There is definitely some roster talent there, especially on the defensive line and in the receiving corps.  As was the case with the Jets, if the front office can bring in a quarterback (or unearth something out of EJ Manuel) that can provide at least adequate play from the position, Rex will be able to win a lot of games.  Win or lose though, we are can at least be guaranteed that Rex will be Rex for the foreseeable future.

National Championship Pick: Oregon vs. Ohio State

In a contest that will be played under the big screen inside of “JerryWorld”, the highly anticipated inaugural Championship Game of the College Football Playoffs commences tonight with Ohio State taking on Oregon.

After thumping Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide, the Buckeyes will bring a cast of explosive playmakers to the field led by their 3rd-string quarterback Cardale Jones.  Conversely, Heisman Trophy winner Marcus Mariota directs the Ducks absurdly fast up-tempo offense, an attack that must be seen in real time in order to full appreciate.

Current line:  Oregon -7, over/under 74

Speed city:  Mariota navigates a relentless attack that averages a little over 47 points scored per game.  Though they are occasionally thought of as a passing team, Oregon’s first order of business is to establish the run and get the rest of their offensive playbook firing off of that. Once they get a few first downs and create the pace they want to play at, the Ducks are practically impossible to slow down.  Behind Joey Bosa and Michael Bennett, the Buckeyes must be able to hold their own in the trenches and get off of the field on at least a couple of third downs throughout the game.

Depth concerns:  As interchangeable as some of Oregon’s parts are, they will be playing without two of their best receivers tonight.  Darren Carrington (2nd on the team with 704 receiving yards) is out due to a failed NCCA drug test, while Devon Allen (led the Ducks with 7 touchdown receptions this year) injured his knee on the opening kickoff of the Rose Bowl and won’t be suiting up. Mariota is used to playing pitch and catch to wide open receivers, and it will be interesting to see if the backups Oregon rolls out will be able to generate the same level of separation.

Quick study:  Jones has quickly settled into the role of QB 1, displaying decent scrambling ability to go with a big time arm. He is extremely large for the position (think Cam Newton size), and I can easily see him picking up short yardage first downs by putting his down and bullying his way through Oregon’s defensive line.  Jones will also test the Ducks secondary by throwing it deep to Devin Smith, a speedster outside who leads the FBS with an average of 27.7 yards per catch. Oregon has a fast moving defense, but after seeing the Buckeyes manhandle Alabama’s defensive front, they might be susceptible to a pounding on the interior.

The Urban Factor:  Love him or hate him, you have to admit that Urban Meyer is one heck of a college football coach. Ohio State has won 37 of 40 games with Meyer at the helm – his most recent game action represented a complete undressing of Alabama’s Saban, a victory that his stellar record in bowl games to 8-2.  Defeating Oregon with a third-string (albeit talented) quarterback will only cement his reputation as one of the best ever at steering a program. It will also bring him into the elite company of becoming just the eighth coach ever to win three or more national titles.

Trends:  Oregon has been paying off in a big way, winning and covering in nine straight games.  They have also been money in bowl games, winning/covering in their last four. If Ohio State is involved look for a high scoring affair, as the total has gone ‘over’ in 12 of their last 13 games.

Prediction:  Even without Carrington and Allen the Ducks are still going to score a lot of points – Mariota has shown that he can be missing a variety of weapons and still be deadly.  Can Ohio State win a track meet?  They have certainly shown the capability in both games Jones has lined up under center, scoring a combined 101 points against Wisconsin and Alabama.

In what should be a close game, if I were betting straight up I would give Oregon the edge since they have the more experienced, superior QB (Mariota) running Mark Helfrich’s fast-break offense.  However, given Meyer’s track record and the fact that the roster matchups appear closer on paper than the line designates, the play here is the Buckeyes plus the points.

CM Punk Joins the UFC

This past Saturday night at UFC 181, Phi Brooks, aka CM Punk, made an announcement that managed to reverberate through the inner sanctums of both the worlds of mixed martial arts and sports entertainment.  By signing a multi-fight contract with the UFC, Punk will be pursuing his new career for an indefinite amount of time while temporarily putting the kibosh on the hopes of his fans who want to see him perform in a wrestling ring again.

It was an interesting signing by Dana White for a number of reasons.  At 36 with no prior fighting/MMA experience and a checkered injury history, Punk is virtually being allowed six months or so to find a camp, decide on a discipline, train, and see what he can do. His lacks of cage skills are a deal breaker for some who view the transaction as a slap in the face to the legit fighters of the world. People are throwing out comparisons to Brock Lesnar, and though Lesnar was also a lightning rod when he joined the company, the guy was a physical freak with a top-flight amateur wrestling background.  Comparing the pedigrees of the two men is like comparing apples to oranges.

While Punk’s legitimacy as a fighter will remain a question until his first fight, what this has done immediately for White and the UFC is garner interest and get people talking. If there is this much uproar and discussion based upon this initial news, I can only imagine the coverage that will ensue once we get into the New Year and closer to fight time. White acknowledged that Punk can definitely sell some pay-per-views, and though curiosity alone with bring some new eyes to the product, the ability of Punk to promote events will only enhance buy rates.

For those who have followed his career in the WWE, the one thing that Punk could always do as good as anyone was talk on the mic, work up a hearty disdain for his opponents, and make his matches feel ‘big’. These are qualities that will come in handy when has to produce sound bites for his adversaries in the UFC and get in the type of back-and-forths that people love. Lesnar quickly became one of the biggest draws in the UFC, with the buy rates from some of his fights ranking as the most profitable in the entire history of the company.  While Punk might not be on the same fighting level as Lesnar, there is a cross-over interest appeal in him that will lead to successful PPV’s…that combined with the fact that many people want to see him how he handles him in this environment or get the beating that some feel is coming to him.  It could be a win-win for the UFC – either Punk proves himself to be a credible fighter and one of their top draws, or after a few fights it’s apparent that he is out of his element and they cut bait with a few big money making events he appeared lining their pockets.

Though he has his share of detractors, you have to give Punk credit for creating such a loyal following and branding himself in such a way that he has remained relevant despite the fact that he hasn’t been seen in a WWE ring since January of this year.  The timing of everything couldn’t have worked out better for Punk – from his departure from the WWE, using the time away to rest and get healthy, his appearance on Colt Cabana’s Art of Wrestling podcast a few weeks ago (an appearance that shook the wrestling world, cast his WWE bosses in an extremely negative light, and put his name back in the headlines) to his arrival in the UFC.

Personally, I am anxious to see how Punk stacks up in the brutal world of MMA. There are known tough guys, or ‘shooters’, the world of fake wrestling, and while he was never going to be confused with the likes of Kurt Angle, Tonga Fifita (Haku), or Chris Jericho, Punk always wanted to be seen as a legit fighter. He has routinely portrayed himself as a tough guy (noticeable even recently in his podcast with Cabana), and when it becomes fighting for real he will have the opportunity to showcase his abilities and prove he belongs with those he gets in the cage with. It is unknown at this point whether he will fight in the middleweight or welterweight division.  Either way, there will be no shortage of fighters looking to get their hands on Punk and enjoy the coverage and payday it will bring. Whether he makes it in the UFC or embarrasses himself and the company will be one of the more interesting storylines to keep an eye on in 2015.

Mark Sanchez Comes Back to Earth

It’s not Mark Sanchez’s fault really.

The overriding narrative that people seem to enjoy (other than a good tear down story of course) is one of redemption, and the triumphant return of the ‘Sanchize’ last week seemed to fit the bill perfectly.  He was a player seemingly on his way to superstardom before ultimately flaming out in New York, and due to a stroke of injury related luck was suddenly presented with a fresh opportunity in Philadelphia.

He was successful in his initial outing versus the Carolina Panthers – made a few plays downfield, threw a few touchdown passes, and generally avoided mistakes .  All in all a solid performance against a marginal opponent, enough to keep you interested but not enough to erase four years of Mark Sanchez mediocrity from the old memory bank.  Still, that didn’t stop a number of people from pumping up this revitalized version of their guy and alter history to fit their respective agendas.

Over the course of the next few days you heard of a lot of:

“This is how Sanchez can perform when he actually has offensive weapons around him”

“Sanchez will flourish in Chip Kelly’s offense”

“Nick Foles won’t have a job when he returns, Sanchez is more talented”

Some even tried to spin his time in New York.  Though he was the QB of a team that went to back-to-back AFC Championship games, even a casual observer could identify that those Jet squads were built on a superior running game and Rex Ryan’s attacking defense.  Sanchez had a few moments, but mostly he was asked not to lose games.

His third and fourth seasons saw him progress into the turnover creating machine we all came to know, and I sadly can’t think of a single offensive player whose star was elevated by playing with Sanchez.  Certain quarterbacks “make” the players around them better and turn average receivers into great ones, but the Sanchize was never one to do so.  He was a game manager who, at the end of his tenure, couldn’t even do that effectively.

It was this latter version of Sanchez that was back on display this past Sunday at Lambeau  Field.  While Aaron Rogers was busy carving up Philly’s defense and giving Chip Kelly some free lessons on offensive efficiency, Sanchez endured an early beating that left his skittish for the remainder of the game.  He threw a pick-six reminiscent of countless INT’s he threw while he was in New York, and later was unable to corral a high snap that resulted in another easy score for the Packers.  The final score was 53-20, putting Sanchez and his feel good story back on the mat.

Depending on the opponent, there will likely be similar highs and lows for Sanchez and the Eagles in the weeks ahead.  There a couple of layups in there, but stiff divisional contests await them as does a visit from Seattle.  Turnovers have been a serious problem for Sanchez for most of his career, and he must utilize the easy reads of Kelly’s offense to minimize his mistakes going forward.

While it would be a great story to see Sanchez lead his new team to the Super Bowl and author a redemption story, at this point in his career this might just be who he is – good enough to win some games, not good enough to be the franchise guy.

2014-2015 NBA Season Preview

With the NBA’s regular season kicking off next Tuesday, let’s take a quick look at some of the more intriguing storylines that will be settled in the weeks and months ahead.

Eastern Conference

Are the Cavs the team to beat in the East? 

Though LeBron James has been preaching patience and telling those in the media that the Chicago Bulls are the more complete team at the moment, those who set the NBA Champions Odds believe that Cleveland (5/2) has the best shot at getting out of the East and winning the title this year.  Anytime your roster contains the best player in the world, one of the best point guards in the league (Kyrie Irving), and arguable the best power forward in the league (Kevin Love) you have a chance to do something special.

In relatively short order, the Cavs have put together a fairly complete team containing a solid mix of young players on the rise and veterans who have been through the wars.  I expect Cleveland to make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, but if Derek Rose is healthy I would give the Bulls the edge due to their considerable size advantage inside.  With Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson serving as the Cavs primary bigs/rim protectors, it wouldn’t surprise me to see them make a move to bolster their frontline sometime this year.

Can Chicago generate enough offense to win it all? 

The Bulls (11/2) under Tom Thibodeau have been the epitome of a grind-it-out team.  Last year they held opponents to the second lowest effective field percentage in the league, but come playoff time they were once again bounced early due to a combination of injuries and not having enough players who could consistently put the ball in the basket.

Entering this season, there is plenty of optimism in Chicago due to the return of Rose and the offseason acquisitions of Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic, and Doug McDermott.  D-Rose will solve a lot of the offensive woes strictly by being on the court, and having a skilled big like Gasol should enable the Bulls to be able to occasionally dump the ball inside and get a few easy looks each game.  On paper this is a more talented group than the Bulls teams of 2010-2011 and 2011-2012, and a key for Thibs will be to monitor minutes and not put his team in the ground before the playoffs begin.

How will the ‘Triangle’ work in New York?

Under new coach Derek Fisher, the Knicks (60/1) want to employ a more cohesive brand of basketball and get away from the isolation attack that has been their calling card in recent seasons.  The Triangle Offense will limit the workload of Carmelo Anthony (in theory at least) and allow him to have more energy to close out games in the fourth quarter.  This team will be limited defensively however and it’s not encouraging that they are counting on two injury ravaged forwards in Andrea Bargnani and Amar’e Stoudemire to contribute meaningful minutes.

The Knicks should make the playoffs, and there should be better spacing, more ball movement, and more evenly distributed shots on offense.  At the end of the day though, the Triangle can only do so much for a roster that is devoid of talent in key areas.

More upside:  The Wizards or Hornets?

I love what the Hornets (66/1) have been doing lately, and adding Lance Stephenson to the mix is definitely a win.  Head case or not, Lance and his 7.4 win shares from last season are now in Charlotte and he should form a formidable trio with Big Al and Kemba Walker.

While the Hornets give maximum effort and their energy alone will get them a lot of wins, at the moment the Wizards (33/1) are the more ready-made team to do damage in the postseason.  The experiences from last year should help John Wall and Bradley Beal, and bringing in Paul Pierce to play on the frontline with Nene and Marcin Gortat gives them a physical and experienced group down low.  The only thing that could derail this group is injuries, as the Wizards definitely have some age on their roster.

Will the Heat remain competitive sans LeBron?

I might be in the minority here, but I still believe that the Heat (50/1) can be one of the top four teams in the East.  Luol Deng and Josh McRoberts will be counted on to make up for some of the production now missing with LeBron in Cleveland, while Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade seem extremely motivated to prove that they can still be top players in this this league.  Miami also has one of the best coaches in the NBA manning the sidelines, and much like Coach Pop does out West, I think Coach Spo will do a good job of managing the season and getting enough wins out of his team for them to remain in the conversation.

Western Conference

Can the Spurs stay healthy enough to repeat?

This always seems to be the question for the San Antonio (7/2).  Everything broke exactly right for the Spurs last year on the injury front (i.e. no serious setbacks in the playoffs), and with them bringing back the entire band this year they are once again title favorites.

Coach Pop is the master at keeping minutes down and resting his players when he has too, as getting this team to April in one piece is always on the forefront of his mind.  Barring a freak injury, this blueprint should enable the Spurs to have a representative chance at repeating as champs.

Will Golden State regret not trading Klay Thompson for Kevin Love?

The Warriors (25/1) effectively passed on acquiring Kevin Love in order to keep the Splash Brothers together.  Klay Thompson and Steph Curry are the best back court tandem in the league, and last year netted 10.7 more points and 4.8 more assists per 100 possessions than the opposition when they shared the court together.  Golden State likes the defensive ability of Thompson, as they often put him the other team’s premier perimeter player in order to shield Curry.

Passing on a player of Love’s caliber is certainly a gamble, one that could come back to bite them if and when Andrew Bogut breaks down again.  While Thompson is one of the better two guards in the NBA, I believe they would’ve been better off obtaining Love and giving Klay’s minutes to some combination of Shaun Livingston, Leandro Barbosa, and Harrison Barnes.

Can the Clippers or Thunder finally get over the hump?

Perennial contenders, both the Clippers (8/1) and OKC (7/1) have fallen short of the ultimate prize in recent years.

The Clippers have tons of depth, but I think they will only take the next step if Blake Griffin continues to improve and start to routinely dominate and take over series’ in the postseason.  He is young and powerful enough to have that kind of impact, and with Chris Paul consistently breaking down at the end of each season the Clippers need Blake to be the best player on the floor at all times.

OKC will always be dangerous as long as they have Durant, Westbrook, and Ibaka.  Despite the explosive talent of this three, the Spurs proved last year that they could outlast the Thunder with their superior depth and by having five guys on the court capable of hitting shots.  It often felt like OKC was playing only three viable offensive players at a time in that series, and it might be more of the same this season unless someone like Jeremy Lamb, Perry Jones, or Sebastian Telfair starts contributing on a regular basis.

Who will have the better season:  Mavs or Rockets?

Led by Mark Cuban and Darly Morey, the swiping between these two teams this offseason has been very entertaining.  The Rockets missed out on their free agent targets this past offseason, failing to land Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, or Kyle Lowery.  On top of that, one of their own in Chandler Parsons elected to sign a lucrative contract with the Mavs.

While the Rockets (20/1) have the younger star tandem in James Harden and Dwight Howard, I like the composition of the roster in Dallas (20/1).  They have surrounded Dirk Nowitzki with enough playmakers to keep defenses honest, and I expect Tyson Chandler to have a bounce back year after flaming out in New York.  Plus, anytime you have to choose between Rick Carlisle and Kevin McHale, always go with Carlisle.

Finals Prediction

With their ability to control the paint and the returning Derek Rose, I think this is the year the Bulls finally get past a LeBron James led team and make the Finals.  Out West, the Thunder have been besieged by untimely injuries the last two postseasons – Westbrook in 2013 and Ibaka in 2014.  Hopefully they are getting their bad luck out of the way early this year with Durant on the shelf to start the season and, and come playoff time a healthy OKC squad will athletically overwhelm the opposition and navigate their way through what is a brutally tough Western Conference.

In the Finals, I believe the triumvirate of Noah, Gibson, and Gasol will be too much for Ibaka to handle on his own.  Chicago’s defense will do just enough to slow down Durant and Westbrook, and the Bulls will capture their first title since 1998.